'Thought / Scott Speaking'
Lord Zeoticus Gremory of the Seventy-Two Pillars was helping set up the hall in his Underworld home, in preparation for his daughter's impending nuptials, when his daughter-in-law arrived.
Neither Zeoticus nor Venelana, his wife, were particularly happy that their son Sirzechs had chosen to marry a former supporter of the Old-Satan Faction; they had, after all, just emerged from a long and bloody war with that same faction, and Grayfia had reaped her fair share of souls on both sides of the conflict.
For anyone else, it would have been political suicide. For the Crimson Satan who took up the mantle of Lucifer, it lead to a lot of people muttering to one another in bars – very quietly.
But it wasn't as if either the Lord or Lady Gremory were capable of stopping him. He outmatched both of them combined on the battlefield, his political resources and acumen outstripped their own, and what was more taking up the name 'Lucifer' had effectively removed him from the Gremory Family tree, meaning he could not inherit the leadership of the clan...or be controlled by it.
So, the two Devils had merely grumbled a bit and tried to make the best of it. It had worked, too; Grayfia was respectful of their stance and situation, and never once caused trouble. By now, the Gremory Clan Head was effectively over it, and greeted the woman with a wide smile. "Ah, Grayfia! It's good to see you. What brings you here today?"
Sirzechs' Queen inclined her head in greeting, before looking back up to her father in law. With the distinctive Gremory red hair and the same blue eyes as both Sirzechs and Rias, the resemblance was obvious. Zeoticus, unlike his son however, preferred to keep his hair long and held back in a loose ponytail, while his chin was framed by a short beard.
"I bring news of a change in Rias-ojou-sama's marriage arrangements, Gremory-sama."
The man blinked, expressions ranging from apprehension to hope flitting across his face. "A change, you say?"
"Yes, Gremory-sama," Grayfia continued. "The Phenex scion challenged her to a Rating Game with acceptance of the engagement as the prize."
An almost inaudible groan echoed from the man's throat, as he tilted his face downward. "So that's it then? There's nothing more that can be done?"
"Indeed, Gremory-sama," Grayfia agreed. "The contract has been voided absolutely; I checked the registry myself. The magic on the document has dispelled."
Teal eyes snapped up in a micro second, locking on to silver. "Voided? The contract was voided?"
When the woman nodded, the Devil made his slightly unsteady way over to a nearby chair and almost collapsed into it. "She won..." He whispered, leaning back and looking to the ceiling. "She's free..."
Grayfia nodded once more, and a smile began to spread over Zeoticus' face once more. "She's free...she's free!" Springing from the chair as if he hadn't just sat down on it, the Clan Head threw back his head and laughed to the ceiling. "She's free!" He took off running from the hall, calling as she went. "She's free! She's free! Venelana, she's free!"
As the Devil ran away calling for his wife, the silver haired woman he had left behind shook her head ever so slightly. Whenever she wondered just how a Devil as powerful as her husband could be so childish much of the time, she had only to remember who raised him.
She left the hall at a far more sedate pace, wondering if the Lord Gremory would still be wearing that smile when his daughter came calling.
"I," mused Issei as he bustled around his kitchen, "am going to seriously need a bigger house if I'm going to be running an inn."
Scott laughed. 'We could always have a go at another space expansion, lad. Shouldn't be too difficult; you've come a long way since the garden.'
Ddraig just grunted. 'It is true, Partner, that your territory will soon become insufficient for containing yourself and all your vassals. It is a Dragon's prerogative to expand their influence; you have been negligent on this front.'
Before Issei could protest, the emotional equivalent of a dismissive wave came through the link. 'I am aware that this was largely to avoid conflict; however, with your status known, you need no longer restrain yourself.'
The brunet sighed, turning down the heat on the oven to make sure nothing burned. "We've had this discussion before Ddraig. I'll keep Kuoh safe if I can manage it, but I'm not going to conquer the city. For one thing, I think Rias-senpai would be rather miffed."
'They do say Hell hath no fury...'
The Dragon grunted again. 'It is your decision, Partner. But one way or another, you must work under the assumption that more will follow these three. Power attracts, and you represent a great deal of power.'
Another sigh from Issei. "I know, Ddraig. I know."
He glanced toward the ceiling, where he knew that his latest house guest was currently making herself at home. "I just wonder how we went from being a relative unknown, to having representatives of all three Factions living under our roof, in less than a month."
A mental shrug from Scott. 'Just your luck, laddie.'
Finally beginning the task of plating dishes, Issei shook his head. "Well, luck – or our roguish charms." Both men chuckled to themselves, while Ddraig rolled emerald eyes the size of TV monitors.
"Dinner's ready!" The brunet called up the stairs, prompting the sound of running feet.
A few seconds later, Raynare touched down softly in the hallway – apparently having vaulted over the balcony railings above to cut a few seconds off her travel time. Asia was hot on the older woman's heels, paying careful attention to where she placed her feet; though the training was helping, the former nun was still a bit clumsy at times.
Finally, the latest addition to Issei's household followed, moving at a pace just a bit too fast to be sedate. "How goes the unpacking, Rias?" The brunet asked, hanging up his apron on the iron bar which protruded from the oven door and moving to his seat as the redhead joined the other girls in taking their places at the table.
"It's just about done, Issei-kun," the girl told him with a smile. "Thank you, again, for putting up with me."
Issei waved off the thanks. "It's perfectly fine; living in an empty house simply can't have been good for you."
Following the conversation Issei and the Gremory Peerage had had with Riser's Peerage, Rias had asked if it would be too much to ask that she be allowed to stay with him for a while longer. He had been hesitant at first, but the look in her eye gave him pause.
It wasn't greed, or lust. It wasn't calculating. It was dead serious, and it had taken Issei only a few seconds to start joining dots until he arrived at the obvious conclusion for her sudden wish to live with him.
So he'd accepted. And now he was living with two of his school's most popular girls, and a much older woman who could compete with either of them in the looks department.
'Matsuda and Motohama must never know.' He thought to himself, a slight shiver going up his spine. The fallout from such a revelation would be...apocalyptic. For whom, he wasn't sure – he just knew that someone's world would be ending.
He shook off the fear, burying it in his own cooking as all four of them dug in.
Fifteen minutes later, when everyone was satisfied, he caught the anxiety on Rias' face. "Rias, you know we'll all be right behind you, don't you?"
The girl flinched, a micro-expression flaring for an instant before fading away behind a thin smile. "I know, Issei-kun. But..."
"It's your parents." The brunet finished for her, and the girl nodded – a tiny hint of relief in her eyes that Issei chose not to comment on.
The Rating Game had only been that afternoon, but Grayfia had already informed them that the Lord and Lady Gremory expected to speak with their daughter the next afternoon, seeing as it was a Saturday and she had no school to deal with.
Of course, her Peerage had told her, unequivocally, that they were coming with her. As had Issei.
She didn't manage to tell them no.
So now, she was facing the prospect of standing in front of her parents the next day, with someone who amounted to basically a backpack nuke standing right next to her with a finger on its own trigger, and confronting the people who raised her.
It was a testament to her character that she was willing to go through with it; but that didn't stop her having doubts.
"...Yes," she agreed, "that's it. All my life I've loved them, respected them and followed what they taught me, but...that contract..."
The expression on her face was a mix of sorrow and confusion that greatly resembled pain. "How can I love people who would have consigned me to Hell? How can I respect those people?"
She was shaking slightly now, and it was Asia who put an arm on her shoulder. Raynare had never had parents; just a Father, and he hardly counted considering the circumstances. Issei had never had the slightest issue with his parents.
As an orphan, Asia didn't really have that experience either; but the Church had been her family, and it had turned on her in the worst way. She had come the closest to experiencing what Rias was now, and she tried to show her support.
"Rias-senpai..." She murmured, "I can't really answer your questions, because I don't think I can respect the people who hurt me anymore." The former nun frowned, her hand tightening just a feather's weight on Rias' shoulder. "Those people...so many of them were acting in their own interests, thinking of themselves rather than God or their fellow man...they weren't worth respecting in the first place."
The calming touch and voice of the Twilight Healing user had apparently pulled Rias from the worst of her slump, as she stopped shaking. "But Rias-senpai, if your parents could raise someone like you, then they must have some good points, right? So maybe, just try to think of those, and try to find where they made a mistake."
The redhead stared up at the younger girl for a few long moments, then chuckled a bit and patted the hand on her shoulder. "Thank you, Asia-chan. I feel a lot better now."
The smile on the former nun's face seemed to brighten the whole kitchen. "Not a problem, senpai. So long as you're better!"
Across the table, Issei hid his smile behind a raised hand and a faked yawn.
He'd had more than one reason for taking Rias into his home, after all.
"Rias and I should be going to sleep," he informed the others. "We'll need to be rested before the visit to the Underworld tomorrow, and we're going to have to set out early so we can get through all the red tape."
As it turned out, there was protocol to bringing humans into the Underworld. Sure, Issei's status as a Pact Magician made things easier, but there were still some standard checks.
Or, they would be standard, if he didn't have a Longinus.
The fact that he was the wielder of the Boosted Gear didn't help things, seeing as one of its Devil wielders had gone Stray a few centuries back and activated the Juggernaut Drive in the middle of a city.
The death toll didn't bear thinking about.
Needless to say, getting Issei down there, even as a Pact Magician, accompanied by a Clan Heir, and with the unseen backing of the Crimson Satan, was going to be a bitch – and a waste of quite a few hours. Hence, going to bed early to set out in time.
Rias nodded in agreement. As she rose, heading for the stairs, Raynare caught the brunet's attention. "Issei, Asia and I are going to practice for a while before we head to bed."
Though he hid it well, Issei frowned a bit. Ever since he had managed to guilt-and-logic trip his way into facing Riser and his Peerage alone, Raynare had been...antsy. She had upped her training regime even further than it had been already, and Asia had pushed herself hard to match. They weren't building injuries, not with Twilight Healing, but all the same he worried they might burn out.
He wasn't entirely sure why the Fallen was taking his choice so hard; he had taken her in to try and protect her, and because she had valuable information that lead to him rescuing Asia. She didn't have to do anything to earn her keep or her friendship with him, and he would certainly never ask for anything.
And yet, when he didn't call on her to back him up – completely ignoring the fact that there was no way in Hell he could get a Fallen Angel into a Rating Game of any kind without her being Reincarnated...and maybe not even then, with her Light Spears – she launched herself into growing stronger with a vengeance.
Still, that was an issue for later, when he could sit down with her and talk without some overshadowing necessity.
Like meeting Rias' parents, and possibly picking a fight with her dad.
Oh how he sometimes missed the days when it was just him, Irina and that voice with the weird accent in his head...
"Alright then, Raynare." He smiled at her, laying a hand on her shoulder as he walked past while pulling Asia into a side-hug with his other arm. It turned out that the girl was a very touch-feely kind of person, and he didn't want to seem aloof by trying to avoid contact with her. Hence, the occasional indulgence. "Just don't push yourselves too hard, okay?"
He waved over his shoulder while following Rias' footsteps upstairs, missing the flickers of expression that ran across the Fallen Angel's face as he disappeared.
This was it.
Issei stood alongside Akeno, shadowing Rias' right shoulder while the dark-haired girl took the left, Koneko and Kiba following behind them. They were facing a pair of ornate wooden double-doors, carved reliefs of what the brunet assumed were historical events winding their way around the frame and across the panels.
It was all very fancy – much like the manor house which contained it, which Issei estimated probably used as much timber as the average small country in its construction. Truly, the Gremory home was a thing of magnificent extravagance; nothing quite screamed 'old money' like a house that had more cubic metres to its name than a football stadium.
These were the doors that lead into the reception area for the Lord and Lady Gremory; apparently it was protocol for a returning Heir to meet her parents in a formal setting before they shifted to something more familiar. The dress style going on among the visitors certainly supported the atmosphere.
Akeno, Rias and Koneko were all wearing dresses; done in black, scarlet and light blue respectively. Frills aplenty, none of the girls would have looked out of place on a ballroom somewhere. Truthfully, Issei had very nearly let his jaw drop upon seeing them in the club room that morning, as they prepared to teleport to the Underworld's version of an airport terminal.
He and Kiba, of course, were not to be outdone.
The Knight had chosen a white dress shirt and black slacks, with an equally dark waistcoat – much as might be found on a dealer at a casino – and had one of his Demon Swords buckled to his hip. As someone who had...dabbled in anime from time to time, Issei found the teen's 'Sword Birth' Sacred Gear to be downright awesome. To conjure Demon Swords in any shape with just about any magical property from thin air...
He could almost hear the Aria in the back of his head as he watched the weapons form.
The brunet himself had donned the only thing that would ever have been suitable for this situation, in his mind at least. An outfit which he had updated over the years, as his body and his magecraft both grew, but which had remained the same at heart.
A crisp, almost sharp black and white tuxedo.
With a bow-tie for the Hell of it.
It had brought him no small amount of pleasure to see how Raynare's, and even Asia's, eyes had remained locked on him from the moment he came down that morning – to say nothing of Rias.
Akeno had openly ogled him, giggling all the while, and if he wasn't mistaken Koneko was sparing him more glances than normal that day. It didn't surprise him. This was, after all, his Ultimate Form – a Gentleman's power knew no greater heights than when he donned his battle outfit.
Which, in all honesty, this was. This was his latest iteration of the clothing, somewhat younger than the Tenohira; and it had, in a word, everything.
Every enchantment that Scott could teach him, and a few others he'd puzzled out himself, had been oh-so-carefully traced onto the fabric in a mix of magically charged blood and ink, the various twisting designs channelling his power at the barest hint of willpower.
In this outfit, he was about as close to fireproof, bulletproof, lightning-proof, waterproof and magically resistant as he could possibly make himself.
And it never needed to be washed or ironed, nor was it ever at anything but the perfect temperature.
Still, for all of its powers, the effect it had on women was the only non-magical one – and yet, in Issei's mind, it was the most powerful.
He hadn't even cared about the paperwork and queues they'd dealt with on the way here; one recollection of the looks he'd been getting all morning and he was walking on air.
Now though, it was time for his feet to be planted firmly on the ground.
Rias knocked thrice on the portals, and a booming voice called from beyond. "Enter!"
Five pairs of lungs took deep breaths as one, and then the doors were pushed open as the teens entered.
The room was, just like the rest of the house, extravagant. Paintings that could have been in the Louvre hung everywhere, a fire burned merrily in a fireplace that could have been someone's parking space, the carpet was at least three inches thick, and Issei was fairly sure the various luxurious arm chairs and sofas had actual golden trim on them.
Devils. Ostentatious didn't even begin to cover it.
The little party advanced over a floor that felt more like sponge than anything else, approaching the massive desk set below a wall-sized window. Seated behind it were two figures, and Issei broke them down as he approached, much as he had done Riser.
The man was tall, even sitting down; probably topped out at a few inches over six feet at full extension. His hair and eyes were the same shades as Rias, while his facial structure was quite long and thin, almost feminine but for its rugged edge. There was laughter in his eyes, the brunet noted.
He'd see how long that lasted.
Beside him was a woman whose expression had been carefully schooled into strictness, but was twitching at the seams. She looked a lot like Rias; though her hair was chestnut brown, and her eyes a bright violet, their facial structure and builds were very nearly identical.
Yes, these were definitely her parents.
The group came to a halt about two feet from the desk, and Rias curtsied. "Lord Gremory. Lady Gremory."
Behind her, both Akeno and Koneko followed suit, Kiba bowing instead.
Issei inclined his head...but nothing more.
Both the Devils behind the desk immediately trained their eyes on him, moreso than they had done from the moment he entered the room, and Venelana turned to Rias while her husband kept fixing Issei with a look.
"Daughter, your Peerage are known to us. However, your companion is not – nor is he a Devil." The command there was implied, and delivered with the expectation of instant obedience.
Issei took a step forward before the girl could do a thing.
"My name is Issei Hyoudou, Lady Gremory." He told her, only glancing away from her husband's gaze for a moment before he returned to his staring contest with the man, both of them slowly ramping up the pressure as their wills clashed. "You may know me better as the person who saved your daughter from effective slavery."
Both Venelana and Zeoticus looked like they had been slapped before they managed to re-set their expressions, but the damage was done. Issei had the upper hand, and he pushed it. "I begged Rias to be brought along on this expedition, because I wanted to see the kind of people who would confine their daughter to a very long life of suffering."
Only certain people could look down their nose at someone without ever shifting their neck. Issei had practiced until he was one of them.
"Certainly, if this is how you treat family, the prospect doesn't seem quite so impossible any more."
There was a sudden explosion of pressure, which drew gasps from the Gremory Peerage, as Zeoticus rose to his feet with a thunderous expression on his face. "You DARE-"
"Yes I dare!" Issei growled right back, opening the floodgates and pushing off the blanket of the Devil's presence as he stepped in front of Rias and the others. They immediately began breathing normally, the brunet acting as a barrier between them and the enraged man. "I have taken up position as Rias' Pact Magician, and that makes her safety my responsibility as much as it is her Peerage's. Already I have dealt with one threat – now, I'm dealing with the cause, as is my job – a job which should not have been mine."
The Lord Gremory recoiled again, as Issei's eyes burned cold. "You are her father – not just that, you are a Lord of the Seventy-Two Pillars. Rias tells me that you are friends with the Lord Phenex, that you see him on a regular basis along with others of your class. You have had years to solve this issue, and you have not. It fell to me, a seventeen year old boy who has known your daughter as more than a face in a crowd for no more than a month, to handle it."
Zeoticus sat down, posture slumped as Issei reeled in his own presence, the Dragon coiling itself around his soul with a growl as it stared out through his eyes, just waiting for a chance to rise again. "I understand perfectly how the Lord Gremory could have done such a thing; after all, politics is what it is." He resisted the urge to spit sideways at the word. "What I don't understand, is how the man who raised the Rias I know could possibly have done such a thing."
There was a very tense silence. Rias had been subtly pulled behind her Peerage, the three Devils forming a wall between her and the elder Devils – an attempt to buy her time for an escape, should the worst happen. Issei stood before even them, primed and ready for combat but hoping that it wouldn't come to that.
Finally, weary blue eyes lifted from the surface of the desk, meeting brown as their owner sighed, ageing beyond his physical appearance. "How much do you know of Devils, Issei Hyoudou?"
Well, it wasn't combat. And he could have patience with the man, if he was willing to offer an explanation. "Not much," he admitted. "You're naturally magical, incredibly long-lived but not immortal, and operate under a system of hierarchy which goes from the Four Devil Kings down to the Low Class Devils reincarnated by the Evil Pieces. Each echelon has its own rights and responsibilities, but that's about the extent of my knowledge."
The man nodded. "That's rather general, but it gets the major points. Yes, we are an ancient race – just as old as the Angels, in many respects. We are magical in a way few other beings can match, excepting the reincarnated as they are not true Devils in the sense of we Purebloods.
"It is because of that, that they do not share the curse that our blood carries with it."
One brown eyebrow went up. "Curse?"
Zeoticus nodded. "Indeed. When a Pureblood Devil is born, it immediately attaches itself to them – and it binds that Devil's soul to a Sin."
He paused, and Issei assumed he was awaiting some input. "A Sin? You mean like Wrath, Pride, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth, Lust and Greed?"
Another nod. "Precisely. They run in our blood, those Sins – it is the price of our nature, I suppose. But each of us is bound to one such Sin, and without careful child rearing it can come to define us.
"I, myself, am afflicted with Greed." He gestured to Rias. "As is my daughter, and as are my son and my grandson." He shrugged. "It is the Gremory in them, I must assume; our fame may come from our treatment of our Peerages and other servants, but in honesty that began with our Sin."
Issei frowned. "I don't quite understand how Greed translates into caring for those beneath you."
A wan smile spread across the Lord's face. "You aren't thinking esoterically enough, then. For we Gremory, our Greed revolves around people." A light came on in Issei's eyes, and Zeoticus' smile widened. "You understand, then? Yes, we are Greedy for servants, friends, lovers and rivals; as such, we go to great lengths to find and keep them. It only makes sense to treat them well; that way, they will remain with us out of loyalty, respect, a sense of duty and good health."
He leaned back in his seat. "This is what it means to be a Pureblood Devil; our lives are defined at birth, and we have little to no choice in the matter." The weariness returned, casting shadows on his bright eyes. "Little choice at all.
"It was my Greed, that consigned Rias to her fate. Mr Hyoudou, how old do you think I am?"
The brunet frowned. "You are the father of the Crimson Satan, who was known to be at least an adult during the Great War two thousand years ago...knowing that Devils have a low birth rate, then I'd put you somewhere around three thousand?"
The man nodded, a hint of respect in his eyes. "A logical deduction. I am, in fact, currently in the latter half of my third millennium. And do you know how many children I have sired?"
Issei shook his head.
"Two." A hollow laugh from the man. "Three and a half thousand years, and I have only one son and one daughter. True, they have been the greatest joy of this life save for my wife, but it is my Greed. I want more, more children to spoil, more little feet running through the house, more heads of bright red hair looking up at me and smiling."
He shook his head. "Rias was only about five years old when my first grandchild, Millicas, was born. When Sirzechs brought the boy to me, I could think of nothing else. My rational thought was consumed by the image, and in my delirium, I tried to ensure that I would have more grandchildren in the future."
The man brought his hands to his face, rubbing at his eyes. "I was, and still am, good friends with Atticus Phenex, the current Lord Phenex. I saw his eldest, Ruval, and his second eldest, Revive, and I saw how well he had raised them. I knew he had a third son, one around Rias' age, and I acted."
A slight pressure built again, though this time the rage seemed directed inwards. "And then he grew up. He grew up and, despite being betrothed, built himself a harem." One fist clenched, beginning to shake slightly. "As if my daughter wasn't enough for him. As if the idea of being with her meant nothing to him."
Zeoticus let out a long sigh, anger transitioning to fatigue once more as he regained his self-control. "For the past two years, I have been attempting to get around the contract. Sirzechs had the same idea, and I can only assume that he succeeded where I failed."
It was a shrewd expression on the ancient demon's face as he glanced once more at the brunet, who grunted. He'd figured as much; a lot of the circumstances surrounding Rias, her Peerage, and his meeting with them felt too smooth.
He didn't like the idea of being manipulated...but for Rias' sake, he was willing to let it slide.
"I believe I'm beginning to understand where you're going with this," Issei told Zeoticus. "The Sins. Your lack of overt action." His eyes took on a dangerous look once more, and he made his accusation. "If I am understanding correctly, Lord Gremory, then you are trying to tell me that you very nearly cast Rias into Hell for the sake of your Pride and Greed."
Gods, the man looked old when he sat like that; for all his boyish good looks, every year of his true age burned in his eyes like a candle adrift on the ocean. "Your understanding is correct, Mr Hyoudou."
It was easier than he'd expected to hold himself in check. To not reach across the desk, grab the man by his lapels, and break his nose on the polished wood. To not flip the furniture aside and throw him through the massive window. To not cram him into his own fireplace.
It was easier, because he understood now, what this ancient and remorseful man was telling him. He'd known it all along, but he hadn't really applied it to this situation before now.
Because he, like Rias, like Venelana, like Raynare and like Sirzechs, was Not Human.
He was thousands of years old, and had enough power in his being to level cities. There was no way to feed his actions through a Human filter, because he simply didn't act like a Human.
Even when he, perhaps, should have.
Still, the bones in his left hand creaked as his fist clenched, his jaw following suit as his eyes screwed shut, reeling in the instinctive response. When brown orbs were visible once more, his features were carefully blank. "My main reason..." He began, tone so utterly neutral it may as well have been artificial, "for this confrontation, was to be sure that you would never again endanger Rias as you did in this situation."
He looked deep into the ancient eyes before him, and even though he knew Zeoticus was Not Human, he could find nothing to say that he did not truly feel the remorse that shone there. "I suppose I will simply have to put my trust in you, as the man that raised my friend, that you are not fool enough to make the same mistake twice."
Zeoticus bowed his head, just a little, but in doing so he likely made history.
The first time a Clan Head acknowledged a Human, one who offered him insult in his own home, genuine respect.
Beside him, Venelana, who had been observing the brunet for the entirety of the conversation, echoed the motion. She had known it was a bad idea; but she also knew her husband, and at the time, she had been willing to hope.
That hope had become despair in recent years, but this man had saved her daughter. That was worth her respect.
With one final, stiff nod, Issei backed away from the desk, taking up his position beside Rias once more, who had been staring at him for the past several minutes with a range of expressions on her face. Her eyes, the same shade as Zeoticus' but so very different, managed to soften his own as she placed a gentle hand on the back of his. "Thank you," she whispered, before taking a deep breath and stepping forward.
Zeoticus looked up at his daughter, a tiny smile all he could conjure amid the guilt and the regret he felt. Her expression was almost identical. "Father..." she began, and the man nearly winced at the formality. "You've always been good to me. Better than I deserved, in all likelihood." She shook her head. "No, definitely better than I deserved.
"I need to talk with Sirzechs about it too, but until you sold away my future for your own sake, and refused to take it back for the same reason, you were the best father I could have asked for." Another wince from the man before her.
"I understand, Father." She told him, eyes slightly damp as her smile went a little wider. "I understand, because it wasn't until I actually thought I might be better ending it all instead of living that I turned to someone for help – and I didn't even got to my family. I went to someone completely unaffiliated with them, because my Pride wouldn't allow me anything else."
She bowed, a far cry from the earlier curtsy. "I really do understand, Father. But, I think I need some time to think, before I come back home again." She rose, and there were definitely tears in her eyes now.
Issei fancied they were mirrored in her father.
"So please, can you give me that?"
As the well-dressed group walked away from the Gremory Manor, heading to the designated spot for teleportation circles, Akeno kept on hand on her King's shoulder, while Koneko and Kiba flanked her. Issei stayed close, but detached enough to give them privacy.
That had been hard for the girl, he knew. She had lived under her family's umbrella for a very long time, and she had just taken the first major step out from beneath that canopy.
She was a teenager finally beginning to break away from her parents, and he knew that she needed her friends right now.
So, he kept quiet, until they reached the small building with its intricate designs, and a hand gently pulled at his sleeve.
Turning around, he found Rias, who had dried her eyes and recovered enough to offer him a small smile. "Issei-kun..." She gave up on the light touch, dragging him bodily into a hug as she rested her chin on his shoulder. "Thank you. Thank you, for giving me the confidence to do that."
The brunet chuckled, patting the girl on the back before gently disengaging her before about five seconds had passed. "It was my pleasure, Rias. Now, shall we carry on? We have one more stop this afternoon."
The redhead smiled at him once again, before steeling her expression and nodding. "Yes. Alright everyone, gather in the circle. We're still about twenty minutes early, so we should have plenty of time to get there."
The group followed her command, and they left in a flash of red light.
Fifteen minutes later, they found themselves standing in front of another intricate door – this one, however, was carved with images of flames, painted in shades from white to red, with gold inlay in place of yellow. This was a family that took pride in its abilities.
Rias knocked once more, and another strong voice called. "Come in!"
They did so, taking up the same formation as they had during the Gremory visit, and beheld a room that could have been the reception in Gremory Manor with a palette swap, emphasis on the white-to-crimson range.
Issei supposed there were only so many ways to show you were rich, after all.
In a repeat of earlier, they stopped roughly two feet from an ornate desk, though it was only a man behind it this time.
He was similar enough to Zeoticus for them to be brothers; a youthful face, aristocratic and without blemish, belied his millennia of life. His eyes were a deeper blue than the Gremory patriarch, closer to indigo. His hair was a dirty blond, less outspoken than Asia's spun gold – more like dusty gold, if Issei had to put a name to it.
This was the other man they had an appointment to meet that day – Atticus Phenex. Riser's father, and the other affected party in the dissolved contract.
His eyes were sharp, but there was a twinkle of humour and positivity in them as he glanced between Rias and Issei. "Ah, Heiress Gremory. It's good to see you again; it's been a few years."
The redhead curtsied, her Peerage following suit as Issei just inclined his head again, almost feeling like he was experiencing deja vu. "That it has, Lord Phenex. I believe we last met when you were celebrating my betrothal with my father."
The blond winced. "Ah, yes. The betrothal. Shall I take it that your requested audience is in relation to it?"
Rias hummed, glancing over at Issei. "Yes and no, sir. Before we continue, may I request that some others join us? They are known to you, but our business concerns them, and they expressed a wish to be present."
An eyebrow rose, and the Lord nodded. "By all means, Heiress."
Rias inclined her head, then headed out the doors quickly to make a call – as it turned out, Devils were entirely capable of mimicking cell phones with magic.
Honestly, the ease with which they did these things was enough to make a man jealous...
"So, you're the one."
The brunet turned his attention back on the Phenex, as they were currently the only two people in the room – Rias' Peerage were sticking to her like glue today. "The one who defeated Riser?" He asked in return. "If it is to that which you refer, then yes, I am the culprit."
The man nodded, standing and moving around his desk.
Issei didn't even blink; there was no malice in his movements, no hostility in his aura, and his lack of alert was proven correct when the Lord extended a hand to shake, which the brunet did immediately. His grip was solid, but not crushing – a refined technique through years of politics.
"In that case, thank you...?"
"Issei Hyoudou," the teen replied, as Phenex released his hand.
"Thank you, Issei Hyoudou, for finally giving my son the taste of defeat he so sorely needed." A frown creased the father's brow. "I honestly don't know where I went wrong. He showed such promise early on, like his brothers, but as time went by..." A weary sigh. "I can only hope that losing so utterly as I have heard was the case will change him for the better."
Brown eyes narrowed. "Well, I suppose we will see. Despite my personal feelings on the matter, you are his father; you know him better than I."
Atticus nodded, sighing as he did so. "I suppose that is the response I expected. In truth, I sometime wonder..." He shook his head, then returned to his seat, lacing his fingers together before him and settling in to wait.
The two waited a minute longer, before Rias and her Peerage re-entered. Hot on their heels was Ravel, being flanked by Yubelluna much as Akeno did for Rias. The rest of Riser's Peerage followed them, showing various degrees of determination, fear, resignation and hope on their faces.
The look on the Lord Phenex's face aged rapidly as each member of the Peerage entered, the same phenomenon Issei had witnessed with Zeoticus.
'He reached a conclusion very quickly...' Issei thought to himself. 'Either his ability to read people and think logically are on par with a computer, or he's been expecting something like this.' It could be either, really – three thousand years of politics would do wonders for a Devil's powers of observation and logical thinking.
"Sir," Rias addressed the man, "this meeting is because I wanted to put my support behind a petition for your son Riser's Peerage to be released from their servitude."
The blond nodded tiredly, eyes running across the girls' expressions. "I see..." He stood, moving around the desk once more. From the way his red-haired friend blinked rapidly, Issei assumed this was a major breach of protocol, or something equally surprising.
The man moved right up to Ravel, who was trembling but managed to hold herself in place when Yubelluna rested one hand on her shoulder. "Ravel..." The man began, sinking to one knee to better put himself on her level, and taking her free hand in both of his. "Please, tell me. Are you sure? You know your own mind and heart, and I dare say you know these others'. Has it reached this point?"
The girl shuddered a bit, before replying in a low whisper that Issei couldn't quite make out. Whatever she said, it prompted Atticus to go almost entirely slack for a moment, before letting out a massive sigh. "I see..." He muttered quietly, wrapping his arms around his youngest child in what Issei assumed was a move about as far removed from being a Lord as was possible. "Then, a clean slate it is."
He rose from the girl, who was shedding tears now, and raised one hand to the ceiling. "By the power invested in me as the Lord Phenex of the Seventy-Two Pillars, in the name of the Satans and the blood of my ancestors, I declare that my scion, Riser Phenex, is unfit to rule. I revoke his right as King, as is my right! So mote it be!"
There was a howling of wind, and what sounded like a cry of pain from somewhere, before a glowing red chess piece seemingly manifested from thin air in the man's outstretched palm. He grasped it, and a red glow began to exude from the chest of each Peerage member.
"By the power of this Piece, I declare these Devils to be their own rulers, released from their bonds. So mote it be!"
The red light grew brighter, before a full set of pieces formed in the air in front of Lord Phenex, the glow vanishing from each girl at the same time.
There was dead silence for a moment, before the sound of cheering voices, quiet cries and laughter filled the room as the girls grabbed onto one another for support or in celebration.
As they did so, the Lord retrieved a thin wooden box from a cabinet, opening it to reveal a felt interior with indentations for each of the Evil Pieces. The floating objects descended into their proper slots, and the man lowered the lid, closing it with a click.
Then, he moved back over to the scrum of women, and by some arcane magic managed to pluck his daughter from the centre and pass the case gently into her hands, her eyes widening as he did so. "Your brother may not be ready for this duty," he informed her, sombre but smiling. "However, I have seen your skill in the Rating Games, and I have seen how these girls turned to you as their leader. As far as I am concerned, you have earned this right."
As he stepped back from his awestruck daughter, Yubelluna broke free of the dog-pile, saw the case in the girl's hands, let out a squeal that probably shattered windows somewhere, then dragged her into an embrace and began spinning the youngest Phenex around like a ballerina with a stuffed toy.
As the mess of people started growing even louder, this time with almost entirely joy, the Gremory Peerage, Issei and Lord Phenex just stood back and watched, all bearing soft smiles – even Koneko, for all she hid it.
"Heiress Gremory," the blond finally spoke, drawing their attention. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Thinking about what this may have become..." There was both anger and disappointment in his voice, and he shook his head. "It seems I was remiss to entrust Riser with this responsibility. You can be assured, if he ever regains his rights as a King, he will be worthy of it."
Rias curtsied once more, a genuine smile on her face. "You are a kind and just Lord, sir. I can only hope I will lead my Clan so well some day."
The man smiled again, and inclined his head to her. "I have faith that you shall find a way to exceed this old man, Heiress. Now, I do believe that the doorway will be occupied for some time, so you have my permission to exit from here."
A ripple of magic around the group informed them that the verbal permission from the Lord Phenex had been received by the wards around the house, allowing them passage.
Another round of bows and curtsies from the group, and they gathered around Rias to teleport.
Issei and the Lord's eyes met for a moment, and both offered one another respectful nods, each acknowledging the part the other had played.
And as the brunet vanished in a swirl of red light, a pair of deep blue eyes watched from the spacious haven of Yubelluna's chest as he disappeared, having seen the respect her father offered, and remembered the feeling of absolute safety and unending hope that she had found in a strong hand and a kind smile.
And she hoped once more.
Issei and Rias arrived home after dropping off the other Peerage members at their various abodes. They were all in good spirits, and Kiba had practically touched the floor with his forehead bowing to his 'senpai'. Issei had taken it in stride, and promised to help the boy in assembling his own tuxedo, since while the bartender look worked well in many situations, sometimes the whole nine yards were a necessity.
"We're home!" The brunet called, removing his shoes and unfastening his bowtie as he entered the hallway, Rias parting ways with the high-heels she had been wearing. Since they'd been mostly teleporting everywhere, she had felt it was worth the discomfort.
"Welcome back!" Came Asia's reply, from the kitchen Issei noted. He headed down the hall, turning into the room and taking in the sight.
Asia...was in an apron. His apron. And she was also covered in flour and what might have been sugar or salt.
On the counter in front of her were various ingredients that, if assembled properly, could theoretically make a cake.
Unfortunately, that hadn't happened.
The blonde looked at his face, which was rapidly losing all expression, then to the mess she had made of the normally pristine workplace. "Um...I thought you might like something sweet after dinner tonight..." She murmured, poking her fingers together and blushing.
That snapped the brunet out of his stupor, and he took a deep breath. "Right." He vanished upstairs, leaving Rias to try and comfort Asia, who had gone utterly despondent with his disappearance.
Then, he turned up two minutes later, dressed in a simply t-shirt and sweatpants, rubbing his hands together. "All right, Asia." He told her, gently placing his hands on the girl's shoulders as Rias backed away. "I really appreciate the thought, and you've obviously done your best." She nodded, and he smiled encouragingly. "So, how about I walk you through it, so you can make a cake on your own if you ever want to?"
The blonde looked up at him, and once again her smile radiated light like the sun. "Please, Issei-kun!"
So the brunet set about salvaging the various ingredients strewn about, pointing out to his student how to tell whether or not something could still be used, and generally cleaning the place up. That done, he lined up the required ingredients, explaining what each did in terms of structure and taste.
Following that was a good hour's work as they set about combining everything, largely with Issei starting a task and then letting Asia finish it, the girl gathering confidence as they went.
Finally, the magically-assisted oven came open, revealing a textbook Victoria Sponge – or something approximating it, in any case.
A bit of jam and cream later, the whole thing was put in a plastic tub to keep for later. One of the spells Issei had developed was a circle to create a vacuum in a container, basically by teleporting all the air inside outside. Vacuum-packing all his crisps, baked goods and basically everything had been saving him and his unknowing parents on spoiled goods for years, and it was just another example of how magic had become...routine to him.
Until the incident with Raynare, he hadn't fought for real, so to speak. There had been one or two Stray Devils, and he'd matched fists with Scott in the Boosted Gear on occasion – he even had lessons with Ddraig once in a blue moon.
His first training partner, too...
But he was long past the point where he got all wide-eyed about magic and its many wonders. He appreciated it, loved to use it, had fun with it even – but he was experienced, now. Not some bumpkin in a world of veterans; he had the knowledge and the memories to accompany it.
Just as a Gentleman should.
Asia seemed to be passively radiating good cheer at this point, after spending a good part of the afternoon in close proximity to one of her heroes, learning something she'd always wanted to have a go at. The Church had never let her cook, or bake, or do much of anything really – but here, she was free to learn what she wanted, to do what she wanted...
To be with who she wanted.
Her eyes flashed to Issei at that thought, where he was cleaning off the various dishes and tools they'd used by using magic to create a self-contained twister of hot water in the sink and floating the objects in place until the motion of the liquid scoured them clean.
Then, the emerald green orbs turned to the kitchen door, their owner's thoughts going down the corridor and into the green expanse of the back garden, and the woman who had been there all day.
Raynare panted, hands on her knees, as she tried to regain her breath. It had been three hours since she had last been forced to take a break, drinking water like it was going out of style while her little ward had fussed over her. It was a wonderful feeling, to be cared for again – and it was why she was out here.
She had latched onto Issei, had dragged Asia to him, because he was powerful – powerful like she wasn't, because he could protect them like she couldn't. Because she was too weak.
But she worried, found herself terrified, because she knew what was coming – who was coming – and she didn't know if he could stand up to it alone.
So she was here, in this space filled with identical blades of grass that had been watered with the blood, sweat and tears of the man she owed her life. She was here...tearing the place to shreds.
Her limit was climbing, higher and faster. Twenty four spears had become twenty eight in the last four days, and she had been getting more and more accurate, until she was fairly sure she had the radius of her impacts down to about a half metre. Their speed had increased too; the air barely had time to whine as her weapons passed, now.
But it wasn't enough. Wasn't anywhere near enough.
She glanced up at the sky, where she knew the coming velvet would be strewn with glowing lights. Those pinpricks of light. The Domain Father had given to him. To the monster she hated more than anything else in the universe.
As she summoned her power once more, feeling the burn of effort in her soul as she did so, she growled his name to get through the pain with pure rage.
Well. That happened.
Ohaiyo, mina-san! I'm back, and it's another chapter with very little action, but hopefully a lot of things being set up for the future.
A couple of people didn't really like the idea of having Rias in Issei's harem. They made good points; such as her being something of a spoiled brat, used to getting her way in all things.
I agreed with them – in terms of canon, that is.
And this ain't canon.
My Rias will learn the lessons early that she should have come to terms with in canon to keep her character growing. A large part of it has happened here, but there's still the conversation with Sirzechs to keep in mind, so bear with it. I hope I've set those readers' qualms with her at rest, but if I haven't, feel free to let me know.
So yes, one person in particular – lookin' at you, Aesir19 – managed to predict what I had planned for Riser's Peerage. Did it make sense? It did in my head, and I think this is what's best for the characters and the story both. Congrats to him, for managing to predict me; give yourself a cookie!
Reviews weren't functioning properly for a while, but I believe that's been fixed now, so I'm pleased to say I can respond to reviews again, and have done so a few times already. So, I can happily ask that anyone with an opinion or a suggestion drops by for a few words or maybe a chat, and I can get right on it.
So, Issei makes his way onto the Underworld's radar in the most Bond style possible without a martini and an aston martin, while Rias struggles with deciding how she wants to live her life. Raynare is desperately trying to find some self worth, while Asia sees more than anyone suspects.
That's five down. Only one left to go.
Until next time,