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Six hours.

That's was how long it took Dojima to hear back from his informants. They had yet to see a glimpse of Kotomine Kirei, of course, but because he had set up his network of lookouts before he went into hiding, he already knew of several places worth checking out.

Dojima himself should have been a non-entity in the eyes of the priest, so even if they somehow came face to face, the latter shouldn't suspect anything. Granted, there was always a factor of risk. Logic was sketchy at best where Magecraft was involved, in Dojima's opinion.

Nonetheless, he had a task to carry out. The city would not protect itself and he just couldn't leave everything to Shirou and his friends. He had done so for far too long because there was nothing he could help with.

Now that he finally had the opportunity to make a difference, he wouldn't let it slip past by him. His only concern was that Nanako could get somehow become involved, therefore he had her temporarily move in with her cousin, back in the country town they first came from.

She would be safe there.

With that knowledge Dojima could wholeheartedly pursue this matter, regardless of where it would take him and the risks involved.

For starters, there was a Chinese restaurant he had to check out.

[br]

Dawn, the next day, found Shirou already in the Dojo going through his routine physical training. With Satsuki gone, he had a bit more time on his hands, as well as more blood in his veins and energy in his body, which he could invest in his own training.

Sparring with Satsuki was not bad per se, but she could push him ply up to a certain point with her innate physical superiority, which he could partially match through Magecraft and completely overcome through martial skills. In short, she wasn't his opponent and he wouldn't benefit much from training with her.

With the war now officially afoot, Saber would not leave Rin's side and the Second Owner wasn't an early riser, therefore she would no longer visit in the mornings. Similarly, his lessons with Kuzuki had ceased, since Shirou didn't want to involve the retired assassin in the Moonlit World and the Grail War more than he already was.

The end result was that he was entirely on his own when it came down to physical training.

Or at least he thought so, until Rider silently entered the Dojo, standing quietly not to far from where Shirou was shadow boxing.

"Is there something I can help you with?" he asked, taking this chance for a break.

Rider was dressed in her civilian clothing, which consisted of a loose sweater and form-fitting trousers. It was rare to see her like that. In fact, Shirou didn't think she had ever used those clothes ever since he had given her the biker suit. She would either wear that or her Servant attire.

That is, when she bothered to be in physical form at all.

Shirou doubted that there were clothes that Rider wouldn't look gorgeous wearing, but he found that those in particular suited her best. With those, she didn't have her usual aura of a femme fatale, but rather the calm presence of a cool onee-san.

"I was just curious what you were up to all on your own this early in the morning," she replied.

"Training as usual, as you can see."

"It's a strange style you were using," she told him.

Now that he thought about it, Shirou had never used the Snake in front of anyone except Medea. Even Satsuki wasn't around to see it when he employed it against Ciel. It wasn't a technique good for sparring, as it was an assassination method that lost its effectiveness with each subsequent blow that failed to kill its prey.

"It doesn't suit you," she continued.

Shirou blinked in surprise.

"The man who taught it to me said something to the same extent," he replied. "But it is very effective. Just ask Lancer. I'm sure he'll agree."

"I believe you. Nonetheless, I wouldn't mind pitching myself against it, at least once."

"... are you asking for a spar?"

"If you wish for me to strike back, then I suppose we should call it that," she replied, stepping into the fighting area of the dojo.

Shirou was genuinely surprised. Not by her request for a spar, but for the conversation they just had. Right until recently, Rider appeared utterly uninterested about anything and everything. She usually didn't speak until spoken to and even then her sentences were all too succinct.

The only time she had spoken more than usual was when he had made her angry with him.

Therefore, considering his experience with Rider to this point, the only logical conclusion he could come to was that he had done something to piss her off. He would have considered other possibilities for her change in demeanor, but since there was no hint to other motives and considering that she had all but asked for a fight, he came to the inevitable conclusion that she wanted to kick his ass.

'Ah, well. I doubt she's going to kill or maim me,' he thought. 'A serious fight is better for my progress anyway.'

Shirou assumed the guarding stance of his martial art of choice, with both arms over his chest. Rider assumed her own, that is to say, on all four with her legs spread wide and her arms right below her chest.

It was the crouch of a beast ready to pounce.

Perhaps it was because he knew he wasn't in mortal danger, or maybe it was the combined effect of her clothes, glasses and braided hair but Shirou didn't feel like it was a threatening posture as much as it was supremely sensual.

The difference in length between arms and legs dictated that her butt stood a little higher than her head, and because she was bending over at the waist, her already snug trousers tightened even more firmly around her curves, giving Shirou a detailed look of how her derriere was shaped.

He caught himself having that thought and immediately squashed it down. However something had to have shown on his face, because Rider tilted her head curiously.

"Is something wrong?" she asked.

"What? Oh, no, no, no," he denied all too quickly and far too vehemently. Fortunately Rider didn't seem to catch on what was going through his teenage brain. "Are you ready?"

"Of course. Come at me."

And so he did.

Discarding all foreign and impure thoughts, Shirou charged at Rider and attacked. Because the Snake was more effective the less one expected it, Shirou went for a axe-kick aimed at her head as a starting diversion.

The Servant of the Mount wasn't caught unprepared and simple dodged to the side, removing her head from the trajectory of his kick and simultaneously sweeping at his leg.

Shirou too, was expecting that kind of move and jumped over Rider's sweep, turning the missed axe-kick in a cartwheel. The combined motion caused them to suddenly swap places with each other, standing where the other had stood a moment prior.

But the ball was afoot, so to speak, and Rider spurred into motion.

As this was a barehanded spar, she had not summoned her chain, but that didn't diminish her ability by much. Her weapons weren't anything remarkable in the first place. They became threatening because she wielded them with superhuman strength.

When she spun and kicked at Shirou, the displacement of air alone was almost enough to push him away, and if he had done something as stupid as trying to parry it, they would have had to retrieve him in the neighbor's home.

Instead he stepped aside and allowed it to brush against his chest. It tore his shirt open, but caused him no harm. At the same time he wrapped an arm around her overstretched leg to block her, and threw a punch at her lower back.

It had been a naive move, all things considered. In the first place, Shirou didn't have the strength to hold a Servant anywhere, and Rider didn't have the same sense of fair play as Saber.

Overwhelming him with absolute power was perfectly fine with her.

Using Shirou as a support, she pivoted on the leg he was holding, dodging his punch and simultaneously shooting a knee strike at the back of his head. Shirou was forced to let go and duck, but seeing how Rider was still airborne he had a small window of opportunity left ot him.

He did not intend to waste it, but that didn't mean Rider would let him do as he pleased either. With the same leg which she had tried to knee his head, she kicked back at him and forced him to move his skull out of the way once more. However, that didn't stop him from advancing on her and into her guard.

He knew he had made a grave mistake the moment he caught a glimpse of her grin.

He suddenly found himself propelled forward when Rider flexed her leg which he had just dodged, hitting him squarely on his back.

In a moment of painful irony he understood that he had fallen for his own tricks.

Although the impact had thrown him off balance and caused him to fall forward, Shirou applied his keen agility to roll and spin, rather than fall flat on his face, and immediately got back to his feet and facing Rider once more.

She was already in his face and quite literally at that. Their noses were almost touching when her knee impacted with his stomach, driving all air out of his lungs.

It was only because he jumped at the last moment and lowered his forearms to intercept her blow that it didn't flat out knock his lights out.

There was a world of difference between the current Rider and the one he had fought back then. She wasn't necessarily the strongest Servant he had fought, but in a barehanded clash in which he couldn't read her moves in advance he was even at great disadvantage.

Caster was precisely right when she said that his ability was a cheat. It was the only thing that allowed him to punch well above his weight class, but the moment that ability was somehow denied, the gap between human and Servant became all the more apparent.

Then again, Emiya Shirou hadn't made this far by being a quitter, so when she kneed him in the stomach he used the force of her own strike to headbutt her across the face

Thud!

It was like hitting his head against a brick wall, but Rider had not expected that and took a step back in surprise. Shirou was still out of breath, and his vision swam from his haphazard attack, but an opening was an opening and one didn't go very far in the Moonlit World by letting those slip past them.

He lashed out with his hand and caught her slender neck, and with a whip-like motion he threw her at a wall.

Or at least he tried to, because she grabbed him as well, causing both of them to fall and roll to the ground. Shirou might have considered it a tie, but that was far from the truth. He did not have any experience in fighting on the floor, whereas Rider…

It was hard to say how it happened. All that Shirou knew was that at one point he found himself pinned on the ground, face on the floor and with Rider's weight on his spine to keep him there.

His arms were firmly locked behind his back and he could not gain any traction with his legs.

"I yield," he said, when he accepted that he couldn't free himself.

After a brief moment, Rider got off him and allowed him to roll on his back. She was looking intently down at him with an expression he didn't know how to define.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I guess I was expecting a similar performance as you put up with Saber," she said casually.

"I'm afraid that I'm much better with and against weapons than I am with my bare fists," he agreed as he picked himself up from the floor. "Also, my sparring with Saber doesn't include tackling me into submission."

"Yes, I don't really see her rolling on the floor to pin down an opponent."

"I'm sure she would if the situation called for it, but it's not why I spar against her."

"Which is why you are not prepared to ward against it," she criticized

"True. Then I guess I have to ask you to teach me."

"Excuse me?" Rider asked.

"Would you, please?"

"I… You want me to teach you how to fight?"

"Your combat style is different from any other I've seen so far," he explained. "And you are extremely strong. I'd like to learn how to face an opponent that's physically my superior without being able to resort to my usual bag of tricks. If you are willing, of course."

Rider seemed genuinely surprised by his request.

"If that's what you want, Master."

"No," he said, holding up his hand. "That's not how it works. This isn't a Master demanding things of his Servant. This is Emiya Shirou asking Medusa if she wants to help this useless human become a little stronger. Nothing more than that."

"Medusa, eh?"

"Ah, I'm sorry. Was I too forward?"

"It's nothing like that," she replied, shaking her head. "Sure. I'll train with you. It isn't like I have anything better to do with my time while I'm here."

"That's great! Thanks!"

"Also, forcing you into submission is quite enjoyable."

"Err.. what? What did you say just now?"

"Shirou! Breakfast is almost ready!" called Medea from across the yard. "Go get cleaned up, now."

By the time he turned his attention back to Rider, she was already walking out of the dojo.

"Well? Are you not coming?" she asked.

"Uh. Yes, I'll be right there," he replied, following after her and wondering if he had just imagined the last thing she said. Mostly because he wasn't sure how to feel about it, if he hadn't.

Should he be scared or…?

[br]

Stepping out of his office, Dojima slipped a cigarette in his mouth and lit it up, taking a few seconds to appreciate the nicotine flooding his system.

The lead to the Chinese restaurant the previous evening was a bust. Yes, Kotomine came around rather frequently, but no one had seen him in the past few days.

Well, Dojima didn't think he would be so lucky to find him in the first place he looked. He wasn't that lucky. Plus there was still plenty of other locations to check out and leads to follow.

For instance, there was a report that a mansion on the outskirts of the city, which had long been thought abandoned, had suddenly seen some activity.

There was nothing to suggest that anything was wrong with that, or that it related to Kotomine, but when Dojima tried to figure who the building belonged to, he got bounced around and came up with nothing conclusive.

Three categories of people went to such lengths to hide a piece of property like that. Tax dodgers, Yakuza groups and, more recently, organizations from Moonlit World.

A thirty percent possibility and the timing were sufficient reason to figure out what was going on with the place, at least from afar. It could be nothing or it could be something. Either way it warranted checking out.

Briefly, he considered warning Shirou but ultimately decided not to bother him until he had something worth reporting.

In hindsight, it might have not been his smartest decision.

[br]

When the last bell rang, Shirou didn't bother waiting around for something school related to demand his attention. He grabbed his bag and quickly went out of the door, throwing a nod to Issei, who nodded back.

As he left the building, the other students got out of his way rather quickly. A bunch of rumors had started to spread about him, some with a nugget of truth to them, but most completely unfounded.

It appeared that his popularity among his schoolmates had soared, for better or worse. Some hailed him as a hero, while others decried him as a scumbag. Ironically, the former were mostly girls while the latter were mostly guys.

Despite this, no one dared to make trouble for him. Although he was considered generally harmless, he was still a member of the student council, and one of the teachers was his legal guardian.

Anyone who messed with him would have their school life become more complicated than it already was and for no tangible benefit whatsoever.

Homurahara counted few troublemakers among its student body, and those few knew of Shirou's connection with the Fujimura group through Taiga. They were even less inclined to get on his bad side than the ordinary students.

Truth was that with his background, if Shirou had wanted to start a gang he would have been the unchallenged leader simply because he was the unofficial ward of the Fujimura Group.

Of course, Shirou himself was not aware of the intricacies of this situation.

Then, of course, there was Tohsaka and Saber.

More often than not, the two prettiest girls on campus walked home with the redhead, chatting amiably, whereas the other students were hard pressed to have a conversation even when school activities warranted it.

In short, Emiya Shirou was the object of much ogling and envy, which in turn meant that he was the target of intense scrutiny.

That was inconvenient. For him who was adept at telling when he was being observed, it was like being under a constant pressure. Worse yet, it made it impossible to tell if an actual enemy was currently spying on him, which forced him to be on his guard all the time. Or he would have, if Rider had not been there, watching over him in spiritual form.

Recently, his second Servant's behavior had shifted, becoming less standoffish and more approachable. Shirou had no clue what had spurred that change. Not that he wasn't grateful for it, because he certainly was, but he couldn't help being curious.

However, extensively thinking of Rider wasn't precisely a calming endeavor.

Shirou loved Medea. He genuinely did. But whereas love might blind a man to the faults of the object of his affection, it did not blind him to the virtues of others. Rider had plenty of virtues that a teenager like him was inclined to appreciate.

It did not help that his own woman suggested he'd pursue other lovers if he was so inclined.

He had no intention of doing that, of course, but did that mean he had also no desire to? His blossoming relationship with Medea had breached his fortress of mental fortitude and the hot-bloodedness of a teenager was coursing unbidden through his veins and his mind.

The only remedy was focusing even harder on the task at hand, but while he was at school his concentration was constantly disrupted by the staring and his thoughts ran rampant.

He would have slammed his head on the desk if that could solve his problems, but chances were that it would make people stare at him even harder. Therefore, when the last bell rang, he didn't quite bolt out of the door, but he surely left with long, purposeful strides.

His restlessness must have been more evident than he thought, because Rider seemed to have noticed.

"Is something wrong, Shirou?" she asked telepathically.

'No, nothing,' he lied. 'I'm just in a hurry to get back home. Medea said she wanted to teach me something.'

The last part, at least, was true. Medea didn't say what, but Shirou had long since learned that the Witch was not to be kept waiting when she set herself to impart her wisdom upon him.

Whether Rider believed him or not, she did not say, and they returned home without exchanging another word.

[br]

The Witch of Betrayal, clad in her ritual garments, stood inside the Workshop which she shared with her Master.

The War had finally come.

After so much time, it was finally at their doorstep. They had done all the preparations they could possibly have. The failsafes were in place and their three way alliance was solid. More solid than Medea would have thought possible.

Despite her identity being revealed by Herakles, neither Rin or Saber said a word about it. One would think that someone labelled as Witch of Betrayal would make her allies quite wary, but that wasn't the case.

She could not take any credit for that. It was not her actions who had won them over, but rather her Master's. Shirou's bravely honest heart, the very reason why she loved him, was precisely what had brought this otherwise impossible coalition into reality.

Five of the seven Heroic Spirits had agreed to a ceasefire. It wasn't a victory according to their own parameters for it, but it was pretty damn close.

That was precisely what worried Medea.

The problem with Heroic Spirit was that they were all dead people. Their own fortune, their luck, their fate, had become crystalized alongside them.

Only the living could affect the future, while the dead where stuck in the past. Thus, the woman known with the epithet of Witch of Betrayal could only betray or be betrayed. Knowing Shirou, the latter would never come to pass, but she feared she would somehow have commit the former, whether she intended to or not.

She did not want that.

No matter what price she would have to pay, she would not betray the one man that knew all of her sins and loved her all the same. Preemptive measures needed to be taken to protect him from her own misfortune.

From the folds of her robes, she took out Rule Breaker.

Her Noble Phantasm, like for most other Heroic Spirit, was the embodiment of her history, a sublimation of all that she was.

She had lied a bit when she told Shirou that it wouldn't really upset her if anyone other than her used it. He was an exception because she had already given him all of her, but she would have felt extremely violated if anyone besides him had done the same.

With that knowledge, one should easily understand the significance of her following actions.

She held it in front of her face, the flat of the thin blade pinned between the fingers of both hands. Slowly she applied increasing pressure upon it.

Crack!

She snapped it in two.

For a moment, the two halves seem to reverberate with from the shock, and then they begun dissolving back into spiritual particles.

Before they could vanish, Medea summoned a glass ampoule and with a flourish of her hand she directed the remnants of her Noble Phantasm inside of it, where it coalesced in a blue-purple liquid.

She then sealed it with a glass cork and watched it swirl for a moment, feeling unsurprisingly hollow. Once more she had sacrificed all that she was and her one true possession for the man she loved.

If that wasn't history repeating itself, she didn't know what was, but there was one crucial difference that made it all worthwhile.

It had been her choice, this time.

"Medea?" Shirou called out as he descended the stairs. "Are you down there?"

She dismissed the ampoule and it vanished into thin air.

"Welcome home Shirou," she greeted. "How was school?"

"The usual," he said with a shrug.

"Where's Rider?" she asked.

"She said she wanted to take a look around town, so she left after I got here."

"I see. It would seem that she's warming up to you as of late, isn't it?"

"I guess," he agreed without sounding too convinced.

Medea giggled.

"What is it?" he asked looking suspicious of her playful mood.

"I was just wondering how much longer until she starts pining for you like all the others."

"D-Don't joke around please," he sputtered, red faced.

Medea frowned. That kind of reaction wasn't unusual for Shirou, but it was a bit over the top.

"Hm?" She inclined her head. "Perhaps I was mistaken and it's the other way around? Ah, I see."

"W-What are you talking about?"

"I suppose it's only fitting for you to have a weakness for broken women in need of comfort."

"Excuse me?"

"Well, it's either because of that or it's because she has such big breasts. Is that it, Shirou? Do you like them bigger?"

"It's not! I do not!"

"Then again, it could very well be both," she conceded. "Tch. I didn't think I would have this kind of competition in my own house."

"Enough!"

His commanding voice echoed through the room, making Medea shut up and causing a shiver to run along her spine.

"Yes, darling~," she sing sang, making him deflate and sigh.

"Must you really push my buttons like that? My life is already difficult enough as it is."

"So, you are saying that you do like her," she prodded.

"Of course I like Rider," he snapped. "I'd have to be dead, cold and six feet under not to like a woman like her."

"Good." said Medea.

"Good? What's so good about it? It's not like I'm going to do anything about it."

"I know," Medea agreed. "Which means you'll get increasingly frustrated the more you are around her, and I'll be the one to take care of that. I'll reap all the benefits without doing any of the work."

"That… you…," he sputtered. "You are impossible."

"Of course, it won't be any hair off my back if you end up taking it out on her as well every once in a while."

"Medea," he sighed, "why are you trying so hard to push me into another woman's arms?"

"I'm really not doing anything of the sort. I just-"

"Don't lie to me, please," he interrupted with a tired voice.

That gave Medea pause. Why was she pushing Shirou towards the other women in his life? What compelled her to do so?

It wasn't like she wanted to share him. Though she came from an age in which a man that could afford to take more than a woman would do so and none would bat an eye, herself included.

No, the reason was a much simpler one.

"I'm afraid, I guess."

"Afraid of what? That I'd leave your for someone else, then you give me free reign so that I won't leave you behind?"

"No. Yes. A little, maybe," she admitted. "It's not like you couldn't have your pick among many fine women."

"Medea…"

"But it's not that. That's not really why. I'm afraid I'll ruin everything. I always do. Maybe it will be years from now, but I know it's only a matter of time and when that happens, I don't want you to be alone."

"I won't be alone," he told her, stepping a closer and taking her hands into his own. "You are going to be there with me, and even if you somehow screw up something we'll fix it together. My promise has not changed Medea. I am your ally, against the entire world if I must."

He kissed her forehead, and that was enough to dispel her fears, even though she knew they would return in no he pulled back, she leaned her head into his chest and let him hold her into his arms.

She wanted to protect the happiness of this man, who made her feel whole and at peace. She wanted it even if it meant pushing him into the arms of another woman. Or several.

Besides it wasn't like she didn't have an interest in them herself. Saber in particular. The countless things she could do with her doll-like body made her salivate a bit.

Her beloved Shirou had no idea what was going through her mind, though, and it was better it stayed that way.

"Now, wasn't there something you wanted to teach me?" he asked after a while.

"Oh. Right, I almost forgot," she said as she pulled away from him. "Would you mind Tracing Rule Breaker for me?"

"Uh? Sure," he agreed and immediately created a replica of her Noble Phantasm.

"Perfect. Now I'm going to show you how to bind a Servant to yourself after you severed its connection to its Master."

"Can I even learn something like that?" he asked.

"Sure. It's not quite a spell as much as it is a form of energy manipulation. Of course, timing is key and you need to know what you are doing, but the sooner you learn, the better it is. I should have taught you this after Rider came by. That way you could have bound Lancer to you the other night."

"It worked out just fine in the end, didn't it?"

"It's worked out fine for now, you mean," she corrected. "Sure, they have agreed to stop fighting for a while, but there is no guarantee that it will stay that way. If you had taken Lancer, four Servants might have been enough to give trouble even to the likes of Herakles."

"They might?"

"You have really no idea what that man is capable of. Even seven Servants might not be enough to put him down. Trust me, I have known him for a long time. Maybe if he had lost all reason to Mad Enhancement we could have outsmarted him somehow, but that Master of his knows better than doing that."

"Then, more than Lancer we should try to get Berserker instead?"

Medea snorted. "Good luck with that. First, if you could land even just one blow on him, that would make you worthy of being a Heroic Spirit. It is that much of a feat. Second, you couldn't control him, even if you wanted to. You'd burn out of Command Seals in less than an hour if he didn't want to obey of his own volition. Lastly, having him as your Servant would be so much of a strain that it would rip your Circuits right out of your body and soul, leaving you either brain dead or just plain dead."

"Whelp," Shirou gulped. "No Rule Breaking Berserker then."

"No Rule Breaking Berserker," Medea agreed with a sage nod. "But Lancer and Archer should be fair game."

"Could we keep up that many Servants on our own?"

"Sure, if we force them to stay in spirit for at all time. Which incidentally is the perfectly method to keep them from fighting among themselves."

"Alright. Yeah, it sounds like a good idea to know how to do it, if we ever get the chance."

"My thought, exactly. Now, let's start from the basics…"

She spent the rest of the day teaching intricate theories about energy manipulation and forced mystical bindings.

Shirou was an attentive student, but not a particularly gifted one. Still, she wasn't a Magus from the Age of Gods for nothing.

If she set herself to it, she could teach something even to a rock. Although, it was to be said, it would require some cracking on her part. Fortunately, she wasn't above doing precisely that as her poor, unfortunate lover would soon find out.

[XXX]

AN: Hi everyone. It's been a while since I last posted here, isn't it? I feel like I owe you an explanation as to why I've been reluctant to update my stories on this site. The reason is not, as many have assumed, greed. The problem is my anxiety. I've been under a lot of stress in my personal life and some people on this site have been straight-up cunts. Strictly speaking, I've lost the incentive to engage with this community. However, I loathe to let the trolls win. For this reason, I've returned.

From here onward I'm going to post more frequently. However, I've decided to renew my old blog page and all my stories are update there first and foremost. You can find it at "neostales [dotCOM]" just by searching "neostales". Right now the site layout sucks a little bit (I'm working on it) but you can read Path of the King up to Chapter 60 over there. The other stories will come up soon as well as new ones you can only read there.

If you want to chat directly with me, I have now a Discord server. If you want an invite PM me here. I will not invite anyone whose account is less than a month old to screen out trolls that normally use anonymous accounts.

I haven't been reading the comments here and I don't plan to do so ever again.