Taylor walked over towards the guest house that Lord Gremory had provided Riser and his entourage for the Ratings Game. She needed to fulfill her promise to Riser as soon as possible.
As she walked she focused on her insects back in the main house, making sure she knew where everyone was. Rias was speaking with their allies. She felt bad for the girl, needing to jump from a fight she had been anticipating for years straight to playing politics. Still it was the nature of the beast, winning a battle could lose you a war if you failed to control the message the victory created. It was probably just a formality for their current goals but it was still important for Rias to get used to following through. PR was a battle never truly won after all.
Through the rest of the mansion her insects could sense the other members of her peerage grouped together, talking and laughing as relaxed and basked in their victory. Taylor was proud of all of their performances during the game, she had a few notes for each of them but nothing that she would risk dampening their excitement at their victory with. She had no intention of repeating the mistakes she made leading the Wards and destroying the peerage in the same way she had that team.
The only exception to the good mood was Gasper who seemed tense, pacing back and forth in his room muttering something to himself. She briefly considered moving her insects closer so she could hear what he was saying but she decided against it, she did not need to risk scaring the poor boy. She made a mental note to talk with Rias about it after the party.
She slowed as she passed a small garden, Asia was inspecting the flowers inside. Taylor considered passing by silently but thought better of it, the Underworld was unfamiliar to the former nun and she might not remember how to get back to the main house.
As Taylor stepped into the garden Asia turned to her and flinched at the sight of her. Taylor felt a chill run down her spine and the familiar feeling of regret set in, of course the gentle girl wouldn't want to see Taylor after what she had just watched her do.
It hurt Taylor to see one of her students being terrified of her, it especially hurt for it to be someone as kind as Asia. And as the small trifle of pain from that thought wormed its way into her head it tore down the walls she had built as she had ignored what she had just done, what she had just let herself become again.
She felt her stomach churn. It had been years since the last time she had consciously chosen to imitate one of the Slaughterhouse Nine, which said terrible things about her given how many of Jack's mannerisms she copied unconsciously at this point, and this time it was Bonesaw's personal threat to her. She felt her breath catch, she could feel the scalpel as Bonesaw picked and prodded around her brain. She could see Brian's still living body pulled apart and spread across that damn freezer as if it were an art piece.
She could feel bile starting to rise in her throat. Once again she had chosen to imitate the kind of person that could do that to someone and smile as she did so. Once again she looked to some of the worst monsters who ever lived and saw their behavior as a tool she could use instead of something to be reviled.
She forced her reactions into the swarm and got her mind under control. Regardless of her personal issues she did not regret her choices. It bothered her how easily she had slipped into the role, but doing so had kept Rias safe and she would not allow herself to regret saving someone who had given her a second chance at life.
She wanted to back away from the girl but it was too late. Making sure to keep her conflicted feelings off her face she spoke to Asia, "I was wondering if you were lost. I can show you where Issei and the other's are if you need help."
Asia's eyes grew wide, then a look of understanding dawned on her face. She stood up from her crouch and rushed forward hugging Taylor tightly, and then she spoke, "I'm sorry."
Taylor stood stunned, not sure what had caused the girl to suddenly behave in such a way. She awkwardly returned the hug with one arm and replied, "What for?"
Asia pulled away before answering, "Watching you and Rias during the game scared me. The others were brutal but they were also simple and direct, but it was different with you two. When Yubeluna appeared in the room there was nothing for me to heal, she just sat there and cried completely unharmed. They wouldn't even let me go near Riser, but I could hear him whimpering as they led him away. I don't know what it was you whispered to him that got him to surrender in the end but it left him broken and you smiled as you did it."
Taylor took Asia's hand and led her to a bench so she could sit down. "I'm sorry we scared you, we should have considered how you would feel before we asked you to do this. But why are you apologizing to me?"
"Because my fear hurt you." Asia looked at her with a sad expression on her face.
Taylor attempted a gentle smile, "You don't need to apologize for that. I am quite used to people being afraid of me, and to be quite frank, I have done much to deserve it."
Asia's forehead wrinkled in thought, "Why?"
"If it hurts when people are scared of you, why do things you know will scare them?"
Taylor paused, unsure of how to explain this to the sheltered girl. Finally she sat down next to the nun and looked up at the sky, "The sky is blue."
She glanced to her side and smiled at Asia's bewildered expression. After a moment the girl looked up at the sky and replied, confusion thick in her voice, "It is..."
As Asia looked back Taylor schooled her expression into one she gave while tutoring a student, "Don't you think that is odd? This is another world, what do you think the odds are that its sky is identical to Earth's?"
Asia's confused expression faded into a curious one, "I don't know."
"The sky is blue because the Satans made it that way. The natural color of the sky here is a dark purple and the day was never brighter than twilight on earth, but with the advent of the Evil Piece system as former humans migrated here they were uncomfortable with the sky. So the decision was made to change the sky into an imitation of Earth's in order to help the new devils adapt to this world. Every day devils that have lived under a purple sky for millenia look up and see an alien sky, but they chose to live with that discomfort so others do not have to."
Asia went quiet, her expression thoughtful, "So you choose to hurt yourself in order to help others? I understand what you are saying, but I don't know if that comparison works. The Satans' act was one of charity…" The former nun paused for a second and blinked as she realized exactly what it was that she had just said, then shook her head and continued, " But yours was an act of cruelty. Can an act of cruelty truly be a kindness?"
An image of Aster's corpse flashed through Taylor's mind and she focused to keep any reaction off her face. Asia was apparently better at reading her than Alexandria had been, and that was a part of her past she had no intention of discussing with anyone. "That is a question I have struggled with for many years and one I cannot just give you an answer for." Taylor leaned back on the bench and sighed, "To be honest I do not have a good answer for it myself. In this case I don't regret my choice, Rias' freedom was well worth what I did. I am just glad that doing it hurt me."
Concern returned to Asia's face and Taylor answered the girl's question before she could ask, "When I was human I often did cruel things for good reasons, and I rarely gave myself time to feel the pain it caused me. In the end it left me a shell of a person who could only look back on her life with regret, even after having achieved her goals. I am happy that I am still willing to do what is necessary to protect those I care for and that I am not so numb to the pain of doing so that I may become so again."
"What kinds of cruel things did you do?"
A memory came to Taylor's mind unbidden. Watching through the eyes of a boy whose name she would never know as his intestines spill out from the void where the lower half of his body used to be. Feeling his pain disappear from her mind after closing the portal that connected him to her. Hearing his dying whimpers through the ears of another person she would sacrifice for the greater good.
This time she was unable to stop herself from shuddering even with all her self control. Hopefully Asia would not read too far into it, "Let's just say Riser is not the first person who I have cut the eyes out of, and some of the others didn't have a way to grow theirs back."
Asia looked shocked for a moment then puffed out her cheeks and let out an annoyed huff, "When I was at the church things were so simple. I just healed everyone who was hurt, and I never felt conflicted on what was right or wrong."
Taylor raised an eyebrow, "Even healing that devil who got you excommunicated?"
Asia answered immediately, "Even him. Regardless of what he did after or what happened to me as a result, I refuse to regret healing someone who was hurting."
Asia looked like she had an epiphany, "Thank you for talking with me Taylor. I'm still not sure how I feel about what you did but I think I understand it better now. Just be careful, don't hurt yourself unless it is really important."
Taylor smiled back, "I'm glad I could help. Now do you need any help finding the others?"
Asia glanced down sheepishly, "If it wouldn't be too much trouble."
Taylor opened a small portal and let out a tiny swarm of fireflies. "Just follow the fireflies and they will take you to Issei." Taylor suppressed a chuckle at the girl's faint blush, "I still need to speak with Riser before I can return."
"Thank you." Asia quickly stood from the bench and followed the fireflies out of the garden.
Taylor tracked the girl as she made her way towards the guest house. Asia was far too kind for her own good. She sincerely hoped the girl would never learn the true secret of morality. That it was a rigged game and sometimes every option would leave you damned.
Taylor let out a breath and dismissed the thought as she approached the front door of the guest house. This was not the time for her to relive her nightmares, she needed to focus on her meeting with Phenex. She found court politics less tiring than she had cape politics, probably because there were less people actively trying to kill or imprison her, but they still held their own dangers. She could not go into them with her mind stuck in the past.
She knocked twice and waited for the door to open. She did not know exactly what was going on inside the guest house as she had been avoiding moving too much of her swarm inside. They had to know that she could sense through her bugs and she did not want to risk offense if they happened upon her swarm, plus there were more subtle ways available to spy on them while they were here, though far less immediate for her. Still she moved some insects into the vents as she waited, even if the Phenex's were ostensibly allies she did not want to go in unprepared.
A couple of moments later the door opened. Standing in the doorway was a tall man who appeared to be in his early fifties with slightly wrinkled skin and dark hair with a scattering of silver peppered throughout. She recognized him as Abraham Baxter, one of Lady Phenex's bishops and the head butler of their manor. As well as being both Lord and Lady Phenex's favorite concubine.
Baxter gave her a short bow, "Dame Hebert, I must commend you on your performance during the Ratings Game, it was quite the impressive feat."
"Thank you Mr. Baxter. I have come to assist in fixing Riser's infestation, it could be quite difficult to remove without my assistance."
Baxter nodded and stepped aside so that she could enter, "If you do not mind I will take you to a waiting room while I inform Master Riser of your offer. I am concerned that he and his peerage would not be properly courteous to you under the present circumstances."
Taylor entered the building and followed Baxter to a spacious sitting room, "Please make yourself comfortable. I will go speak to Master Riser and return shortly."
As Taylor walked to one of the sofas in the center of the room she idly mused on one of her more consistent questions she had about the Gremories. What was their deal with sitting rooms? Rias had three in their manor in Kuoh on top of the club room which acted as a fourth at the school, the main estate had five, and the guest houses all had between one and three depending on the size. A moment later she remembered that her own personal estate had three and she wondered if she was becoming infected.
She smiled with amusement at the thought. She supposed she shouldn't complain about being infected by Rias, she was a far better person than herself after all.
She was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of the door opening. She turned around and saw Lord Phenex entering the room. He looked like an older version of Riser with his sharp features and blonde hair. Of course it was in the subtle details that you could see how they differed, where Riser always gave off the feelings of brash arrogance Lord Phenex carried himself with discipline and control. Taylor felt that he was a man who understood power, both the ways to use it efficiently and the cost of doing so.
This could be dangerous, she had not expected Lord Phenex to approach her directly while she was here. She had thought he would keep his council with Lord Gremory or maybe speak with Rias personally at the party. Sirzechs had said that Lord Phenex wanted his son to taste defeat but she did not know how he would feel about the methods she had used to accomplish the task. She doubted that he would attack her here given that it would be his execution and the death of his house if did but he could still make his displeasure known in other ways. Still she used her bugs in the vents to open a portal and pull out some of her more dangerous options in case she needed to make a quick retreat.
She gave a short bow as he approached, "Lord Phenex, I was not expecting to see you here."
He gave her a polite smile, "Well I could not miss the chance to speak with the star of that game, Dame Hebert. And please call me Reavan, I see no reason for us to be formal here."
She nodded, "Thank you Reavan, then please call me Taylor."
His smile grew, "Taylor it is. I must say I am surprised to see you here. I would have expected you to be celebrating with Rias. Your victory was quite the accomplishment, no matter how easy you made it look."
She considered her response for a moment before answering, "We were well prepared, your son was not an opponent we could take lightly. As for my presence here, I must fulfill my end of the deal I made with Riser."
The door to the sitting room flung open and Ravel Phenex walked in, "Abraham said tha-'' Her voice cut off suddenly. "Father what are you doing here?"
Reavan answered, "I was speaking with Taylor, but please continue. I believe your business takes precedence."
Ravel turned back toward Taylor and curtseyed, "Dame Hebert, Abraham said you can help Riser."
Taylor turned to the young girl, "Yes I can clear his body of the Muspelidae and their eggs. I can start doing so immediately from here but if you have a way to render him unconscious for a while I would suggest you use it. I expect the experience will be quite traumatic if he is awake for it."
"I can arrange that." She glanced to Taylor's side, "Shall I make the preparations, Father?"
Lord Phenex paused a moment before answering, "What are you intending to do with the Muspelidae after you remove them."
Taylor turned her attention back to the man, "I was going to bring them back into my swarm."
"Is there any way we can make a deal so that we may keep some? House Phenex has a vested interest in studying them now."
Taylor considered a moment before answering, the Muspelidae were a useful weapon if she ever needed to fight them again but she had no real way of preventing the wealthy house from acquiring more for study through other means. She might as well be the one to benefit from the deal, "I would be willing to leave you two breeding pairs and some eggs in exchange for a vial of Phoenix Tears."
Lord Phenex nodded and reached out his hand, "I shall have one delivered to your estate." Taylor reached out and shook the offered hand sealing the deal. Lord Phenex turned back to his daughter, "Please make the arrangements and inform us when he is ready."
Ravel gave another curtsy then turned to leave the room. As she opened the door she paused and then looked back at Taylor, "Please tell Rias I am sorry. I did not think about the pain I would have assisted in causing her had we won that game."
"I will pass on your apology." Ravel responded with a curt nod and then quickly left, the door swinging shut behind her.
Taylor turned back to Lord Phenex, he smiled at her brightly, "I am glad she took the chance to apologize. I saw how much Akeno's words bothered her."
Taylor considered letting the statement lie but this gave her an opportunity to get a better feel for what Lord Phenex wanted given that he had chosen to stay behind and keep talking with her, "Despite the fact that she was apologizing for a deal you made?"
Lord Phenex snorted, "I am glad because she was willing to apologize for a deal I made in front of me. It shows that she still trusts me enough to let me know what she thinks to my face, and it is a good reminder that I must be more careful with the decisions I make in the future."
He sighed, "Making that deal was a mistake. When I did so I forgot to account for how much has changed. It has been a scant six hundred years since the death of the Old Satans and yet our culture has changed more in that time than it had in the preceding millenia. Not considering that when I agreed to the deal was a failure on my part. Please convey my apologies to Rias as well. I would do so myself but I believe none of us want the political consequences of such an action."
"Of course." Lord Phenex apologizing to Rias for a deal he made with Lord Gremory would essentially be him acknowledging her as the true head of House Gremory. Something that could potentially split the house, though that was an unlikely outcome. "Rias will be happy to hear it, and will understand why you were unable to personally apologize."
Taylor began to relax slightly, the tiny odds that Reavan tried to use this opportunity to kill her had all but disappeared given the way the conversation had gone. Apparently he was willing to speak with her politely and reflect on how his own mistakes had resulted in this situation, even after watching her torture his son. She wasn't sure whether or not she thought that reflected badly on him.
"I am glad to hear that." Reavan let out an audible breath, "Now I have a request I wish to discuss with you personally, if you are interested."
Taylor was surprised. She had known that this would be the end to her relative anonymity, that after demonstrating what she had planned on showing during the Ratings Game she would gain a reputation beyond just being Rias' enigmatic Queen. Still she was not expecting a personal request from Lord Phenex immediately upon completion of the game. "I can't make any promises but I will be happy to at least hear what you are asking."
Reavan's smile returned, "Wonderful, though before I can make the offer I do need to ask you a few questions to make sure you would be able to fulfill it."
Taylor nodded and Reavan continued, "What are your plans for the next few years?"
"I will be staying in Kuoh until Rias and the rest of the peerage have finished their schooling. The only change for myself personally is that I have been hired as an English Literature professor starting next year. I intend to hold that post until they have all finished with their schooling."
"Then I believe this will work out well. After the game Ravel came to me and asked that I allow her to attend school at Kuoh. I wish for you to protect and assist her while she is there."
"That seems like a sudden request, it has only been hours since the end of the game after all. Are you certain she has thought this through?"
Reavan's smile widened, "As I am certain you are aware, Ravel has expressed interest in leaving her brother's peerage and attending school on earth a couple of times in the past as she wishes to experience life outside of the Underworld, this is the first time she has provided a school she is actually interested in attending though."
Taylor had been aware of Ravel's interest in moving to Earth. Akeno had suggested that they use that knowledge to try to bribe her so that she would not participate in the game and weaken Riser's team but they had decided that it was unlikely to work and that she was more useful to them in the game than out. "I am just surprised that she wishes to go to Rias' territory, we did just chain her up and electrocute her."
'Not to mention that I was moments away from torturing her if Riser refused to surrender.' Taylor dismissed the thought, she really should have done this later, she needed to focus on the situation she was in and not how she had been ready to torture a captured and helpless teenage girl just hours ago.
Noting that she had entirely failed to dismiss the thought Taylor pushed her reactions out to her swarm and focused on the conversation.
Reavan shook his head slightly, "I think she fears that unless a member of our family forms a positive relationship with Rias that the alliance between our houses might break down once she takes over as head of house Gremory."
Taylor knew that Rias had been considering it in the past but had cooled off since. The girl was a natural leader, she understood that the benefits of the alliance were more important for the people she was charged with protecting and leading than her personal feelings about Riser. House Phenex provided Phoenix Tears to the hospitals in Gremory territory to take care of the worst injuries and illnesses that their subjects might suffer, Rias would not be willing to compromise the Gremory's healthcare system for such a petty reason.
"I can assure you that is not something Rias is interested in doing. She values the relationship between your houses even if she is unwilling to seal it with a marriage."
Reavan nodded, "I am glad to hear that. I will inform her of your words but I doubt it will change her mind."
"Then my next question would be why talk to me and not Rias? Kuoh is her territory."
"I will be talking to Rias and Sona later, but as long as she is up there I want you to be protecting and teaching her."
Taylor considered for a moment. She did not have a problem with the arrangement but she needed to know why. "Why me? What is it that you want me to teach her?"
Reavan paused for a moment before answering, "I have just witnessed how you will fight to protect those close to you and Ravel has no interest in creating a Peerage of her own to protect her. If you were a high class devil I would ask that you take her on as a Bishop for the duration. If you obtain your pieces before she leaves I would ask that you offer her the option to join anyway."
Taylor snorted, the process of a reincarnated devil being elevated to a high class devil took centuries, "That seems unlikely, but I would have no problem protecting her. I will protect all of my students regardless of circumstance."
Reavan chuckled, "I would not be so sure in your case. I expect many of the houses that would normally resist a reincarnated devil becoming high class would be willing to make an exception for you. I don't doubt that after your display today gets out many will be attempting to discover if you are a lost descendant of the original Beelzebub that House Gremory found. After all you were able to recreate a form of the Phenex bloodline ability using insects, that is a mastery of that ability that not even Beelzebub could boast. Not to mention your brutality during the game, I expect many of the more traditional houses may feel that you embody some of the aspects of devil kind that they wish to bring back to the forefront."
Taylor was unsure how to feel about that. The more power she had the better she could protect people. Still, the worst aspects of her might be what got her support to get that power was problematic. She needed to be careful to not become what she had before, to not become the worst version of herself again.
"Which brings us to your second question. The reason I want Ravel to learn from you is because I believe that you are the intersection between old and new."
Taylor didn't bother to keep her confusion off of her face. "What do you mean by that?"
Reavan's eyes grew distant, "Under the Old Satans we were monsters the likes of which I hope to never see again. We were not the source of all evil as the church likes to claim but we reveled in it and were happy to drag humanity down with us. We like to pretend that is all behind us but it can never fully be so. We.." He paused and took a deep breath before continuing, "I have committed sins that I will never be truly clean of no matter how much time passes, no matter what good I try to do to atone."
Reavan looked her square in the eyes, "I see that in you as well. I do not know or care what sins your past holds but I can see that you carry them with you, you refuse to allow yourself to forget. That a part of you would give anything to go back and fix all of your mistakes, and that even if you somehow could, that same part of you would hate yourself for needing a second chance in the first place."
Taylor broke his gaze and looked down, but he continued regardless, "But I also see the compassion of the new generation of devils. I see how much you care for Rias. That even with how much you regret the sins of the past, knowing how much it will hurt you to do so, you are willing to add to the list to protect them. And that you would do it again for anyone you decided was worth protecting. I do not know what the future holds, whether or not the sins of our past will come back to haunt the next generation but if they do I want my daughter to be able to carry them like you. To be willing to sin only as an act of compassion, I believe that will be the best I can do to prepare her for the future."
Taylor felt a surge of anger and looked up to meet Reavan's gaze, "You want her to learn to be like me? I'm not sure if you know what it is you are asking. I have enslaved thousands and forced hundreds to march to their deaths against their will. I have betrayed those closest to me to achieve my own goals. I have shot-" Taylor cut off her words immediately. What the fuck was she doing, why would she tell him any part of her history even without the specifics. She really needed to isolate herself and pull herself together. "I am no one to aspire to."
"As I said I do not care about the sins of your past, I care about who you are now." He smiled at her kindly, "And I do not want you to teach her to be like you, I want you to teach her to be better than you. Just as I hope that she will take what I taught and be better than me. That is the goal of all teachers, is it not?"
Taylor let out a breath and the anger with it. Teach Ravel to be better than her, that was what she had been trying to do with all her students. She supposed that was what she was already trying to do with Rias and her peerage. What harm could one more student be?
"Fine I don't know if this is actually a good idea but I am willing to accept, at least if she wants to enter my care."
"Of course, you have just done a wonderful job of illustrating the consequences of making deals about our children without their consent. I will bring this up with her after the party and if she accepts, talk to Rias and Sona about making arrangements."
A knock on the door interrupted him before he could continue. Taylor spoke, "That is most likely someone telling me that Riser is ready. Please send a contract to my estate with the Pheonix Tears, we can negotiate pay then."
Reavan nodded, "I will do so. Now please go and fix my son. As much as I respect you, a small part of me still wants to incinerate you for what you did to him."
Taylor nodded and walked to the door, noticing that the temperature subtly dropped the further away she got from Lord Phenex. She wondered if he was just as much at war with his own emotions during that conversation as she was with hers.
Gasper rocked back and forth on his chair. Around him people danced and talked and laughed and moved and… existed. It was just so uncomfortable, a constant dull panic about what they could do to him and he to them.
He wanted to run back to his room and bury himself in his bed, or at least go grab his box, but he needed to talk to Rias. He needed to apologize for being a waste. He had done nothing to help her. While the others had been training he had been hiding in his room and avoiding Taylor.
And when she needed their support the most she called on everyone but him.
He looked up again and scanned the room. Hoping to find Rias so he could apologize, but she was still nowhere to be seen. He felt his breaths begin to shorten and his rocking increase in speed, 'Where was she? Had Pheenex tried to jump her and get revenge for their defeat? Was he sitting here being useless again when she needed help?'
"Are you okay?" The sudden voice started him and he turned to the source of the question. As he did he felt his Sacred Gear start to activate unbidden. He tried to stop it to force it down but he couldn't get it under control and a tiny blip of power escape through his eyes. "Do you nee-"
The music suddenly stopped. In front of him was the frozen form of the nice nun that made a contract with Rias. Her face was a picture of concern and compassion. Behind her he could see party goers frozen mid dance or conversation. The band was frozen completely and he could see the strings on their instruments bent in odd ways as they ceased movement mid vibration.
From his periphery he could see the guests he had not caught begin to react to the frozen crowd. Many falling into defensive stances, eyes scanning the perimeter for the source of the attack. Others stepped toward the frozen devils inspecting them trying to figure out what happened. Gasper sat just as frozen as his victims, terrified of what he had just done.
"-d any help?" The frozen crowd resumed movement as the effects of his Sacred Gear waned. There was a commotion as the dancers tripped over the devils who had stepped into their formations while they were frozen.
Gasper curled into a ball and closed his eyes. If he ran they would see him and know that he was the one who hurt them, he just tried to be as small as possible. Of course it didn't matter. Taylor could see everything. She had to know what Gasper had just done. He could feel the steel blade she had held to her neck the night he had become a devil. Would she finally decide that he was too much of a burden for Rias? Would she finish the job his father had started all those years ago?
He heard his voice let out a low sob. A warm hand settled on his back and begin to rub lightly. A low whisper spoke in his ear. "Shh, it's alright. Stay calm. Whatever you need, I will help."
A loud laugh rang out through the room and the music slowed to a stop. Then he heard Akeno's voice speak out, still bubbly from the laugh. "Well that didn't go how I expected. I must apologize to you all. I had been studying time magic and was attempting to demonstrate a trick I had learned to Lord Lucifer but it seems that I had underestimated the effect of my spell." Gasper felt himself relax, Akeno had taken the blame. He wasn't going to be the center of attention.
A man's voice spoke next, "It was quite an impressive display. Albeit one that needs a some more refinement. As an apology for not considering the possible side effects of my request I will have the bar refilled with some spirits from my private reserve." A cheer rose up from the guests as the music resumed and he could hear the room erupt into conversation.
Slowly Gasper opened his eyes and looked up. To his side he saw Asia, her face concerned and her hand still lightly rubbing his back. Next to her stood Issei and Koneko. Koneko reached out and grabbed his hand. "Come. We will go somewhere quiet."
Gasper closed his eyes and let Koneko lead him through the party. After a moment he heard the sounds begin to fade. Then he heard a door close and the sounds of the party disappeared almost completely. He opened his eyes and found himself in one of Rias' lounges. He took a seat on the sofa and smoothed his skirt as he tried to calm himself. Finally he looked up.
Koneko stood in front of him with a cookie in her hand, "Take this. The chocolate will help."
He reached out his hand and took the treat. He took a nibble of it and savored the taste for a moment. Once he swallowed and took another nibble Koneko smiled at him. Then she concentrated for a second and a small portal that looked like the one he had seen Taylor pull her knives out of during the Rating Game opened up next to her. She reached in and pulled out a second cookie. The portal closed and she sat across from him and started eating her own cookie with a content expression on her face.
He felt himself stop shaking and then took a full bite of the cookie. The sugar and chocolate did help him feel better if nothing else. He let out a sigh and felt tension slide from his shoulders.
Asia and Issei walked into view, apparently having followed him and Koneko to the sitting room. The nun gave him a nervous smile, "Are you okay? I can heal you if something is hurting."
He shook his head. "No. I am not hurt, I just was scared."
Asia smiled comfortingly, then closed her eyes and put her hands together. "Oh lord…"
A panicked expression crossed Issei's face and he quickly grabbed her hands, "Asia, asking him to bless us would not be helpful right now."
Asia looked up at Issei then blushed crimson. "I'm sorry. That was stupid."
"Just be more considerate of who you are praying for, it really is quite painful for devils." Issei turned and looked at him, "So why did you come out to the party, Gasper? Rias told me that crowds bother you. Is there something I can help my kouhai with?"
Gasper smiled at Issei. Even though he had only met the boy a couple of times he felt Issei was the member of the peerage that he had the easiest time getting along with, Rias aside. Koneko was good company but they were both so quiet they barely talked, he always felt Akeno and Kiba were hiding something which made him nervous, and the less said about his relationship with Taylor the better. But Issei was earnest and upfront in a way that cut through Gasper's nervousness and made him feel relaxed.
"I just needed to talk to Rias. I need to apologize for not helping out with Riser. And to all of you as well. I saw how hard you worked and I was just a waste of space."
Issei looked shocked, "Um… Thank you, but you don't have to apologize to me." His smile returned, "We just didn't need our badass time-stopping vampire devil to beat up that fried chicken bastard. No reason to show off our secret weapon." Gasper smiled back, he knew the praise was false but it still made him feel better.
Issei gave him a thumbs up, "Do you want me to go grab Rias so you can talk to her?"
Gasper thought for a second, he still needed to talk to Rias, and now he needed to apologize for what he had done to her guests. "Thank you, Issei. I would be very grateful if you would do that for me." Issei nodded and left the room, Asia trailing behind him.
Gasper sat back on the sofa and took another bite of his cookie. He savored the chocolate. He would get to apologize to Rias soon, he knew she would forgive him but he hoped that she would work with him and find a way for him to help.
Gasper looked up at Koneko, surprised at her sudden comment and the way it trailed off. "What?'
She looked back at him with a serious expression and took a deep breath before starting over, "Are you afraid of your power? I saw your face after you accidentally froze the party, you looked like you were terrified, and I wondered if it was your power that scared you so bad."
Gasper felt his hands twitch nervously but answered, "I am. I just… Every day I wish I didn't have this stupid sacred gear."
Koneko closed her eyes and her cat ears came out, "I understand. My species has the power of Senjutsu and Yonjutsu. Before my sister abandoned me she used those powers to kill her King. I'm…" She took another deep breath before continuing, "I'm terrified that if I dive into those powers I will become like her, more like the person I hate most in this world. And that, in doing so, I might end up hurting Rias with them."
She reached up and touched one of her cat ears and blushed. They disappeared a moment later, "Sorry, I get emotional when I think about my sister. I know it isn't exactly what you are dealing with but I just want to let you know that you aren't alone and that if you want to talk about it I can listen."
Gasper felt surprised, he hadn't known that Koneko was dealing with anything like that. She always seemed so calm and in control. It gave him some hope, maybe he could learn to be more like her, learn to be more useful even with his issues. "Thank you. I think I would like that."
Koneko smiled brightly, "I hope it will be helpful. I know I feel better after I talk to Taylor about my worries."
Gasper felt a chill go down his spine just at the mention of the Queen, "Taylor?"
Koneko nodded and glanced at a corner behind Gasper before returning her attention to him and continuing, "It is not my place to share the specifics but she understands what it is like to be afraid of your own power."
Surprise at the statement overwhelmed Gasper's fear. "Taylor is afraid of her own power? I can't believe it, she is always so confident and in control."
"Like I said I won't go into the specifics, but if you want you can ask her yourself."
Gasper felt his fear return at the suggestion. Taylor being scared of anything seemed like an impossibility. Though he supposed it made sense that if there was anything that Taylor would be afraid of it would be herself. She was the scariest devil he had ever met after all.
A knock on the door pulled him out of his thoughts. He and Koneko stood from the couches as the door opened and Rias stepped in. She smiled brightly at him before turning her attention to Koneko, "Koneko, are you comfortable returning to the party?" Koneko nodded and Rias continued, "Thank you. I need someone watching over Lady Haagenti before she empties the bar my brother just resupplied."
"I'll take care of it." Then Koneko walked out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Now alone with Rias she turned to him. "Issei said you wanted to talk with me."
Gasper took a moment to settle himself before answering and then bowed to his King, "I'm sorry."
Rias put her hand on his shoulder and he looked up to see her smiling, "For freezing the party? Well I won't pretend that wasn't a bit of a problem, but don't worry about it. No one got hurt and I can imagine how overwhelming it was for you to be there. Honestly I'm just glad you wanted to try and join, though in the future please talk to me before trying something like that. I would have made arrangements if I knew you wanted to come."
"That's not what…" Gasper hesitated a second before starting again, "That is not the only thing I wanted to apologize for."
Rias looked confused. She grabbed his hand and led him back to the sofa, sitting next to him on the plush cushions. "Then tell me whatever you need to get off your chest."
"I'm sorry I couldn't help with defeating Riser. I saw how much you all worked for it but I just hid away in my room. You saved me from that mob, being part of your peerage protects me from my Father. But when it was time to protect you I just stood on the sidelines and did nothing. I was worthless to you."
Gasper felt Rias' hand rest on his back. "Gasper, that is nothing to apologize for. You don't need to fight for me to have worth. I consider you my family, you are never worthless to me."
"But what if you lost, if you had a useful bishop instead of me you would have had a whole nother piece on the field helping you." The world went blurry and Gasper felt tears start to flow down his cheeks.
Rias pulled him into a hug and shushed him quietly as he cried. After crying for a few minutes he felt his tears begin to fade and Rias released him from the hug. Gasper went to stand so he could return to his room but Rias stopped him by putting her hand on his shoulder.
Gasper turned his head to her and saw a sad expression on her face, "Gasper the truth is I need to apologize to you."
A jolt shot through Gasper at the words, that didn't make any sense. "What?"
"I've been wanting to talk to you for a while now but I have been putting it off making excuses about how I was too busy with my own issues. But the truth is I have been failing you as your King. I have done nothing to help you control your powers, I have allowed you to isolate yourself from the rest of the peerage and the world at large, and I have not considered how my neglect was affecting you emotionally."
Gasper didn't understand, Rias was always so nice to him. Always willing to give him some of her time. She never pushed him too hard. She had saved him. How was she being neglectful?
"You are sad you couldn't help in the Ratings Game?" Gasper nodded and Rias continued, "Then we need to start working together on this. I will start working with you to help you control your Sacred Gear, so that the next time something like this happens you will be able to fight."
Gasper let out a breath, that was exactly what he needed. With that he would not be useless in the future, "Thank you that is exactly what I need."
Rias smiled slyly, "Let's see if you are thanking me in a few weeks it is going to be hard work. I also may need to bring in an expert on Sacred Gears to help you control yours, I have done some research on this but I don't know enough. Would that be alright?"
Gasper hesitated a moment, he didn't like the thought of working with a stranger. But still if that was what was necessary, "Ok."
"Good. I'll start reaching out tomorrow. Now I also am going to need you to start attending club meetings."
That made Gasper stop short, "With Taylor?"
"Yes. I know how much she scares you but if you are going to fight with us you need to get used to working with her."
Gasper flinched, for some reason that had never crossed his mind when he had thought of fighting with them. It had always been a picture of him working with Rias or Issei. "Can I at least be in my box?"
Gasper felt that was an ominous statement but if it was necessary he was willing to try, "Ok."
Rias nodded and then continued again, "Then the last thing is that once your power is under control you will start attending school in person. No more online courses."
"But.. How is that supposed to help me fight with you?"
Rias grinned, "It's not. It is to help you get more comfortable with people. You can't hide away in your room forever and it was irresponsible of me to let you. I don't expect you to do it all at once. We will start you with half-days and I will make sure that Issei or Koneko accompany you, but if you isolate yourself forever you will never have a chance to improve. Are you okay with this?"
Gasper paused, he really did not want to go to school. But he also did not want to feel useless again and if Rias thought this would help then he would do it. "I'll try."
"That is all I can ask. If it doesn't work out then we can try something else. Now that we have decided what to do next, are you feeling better? Do you want to talk about something lighter? I do want to know what happened next in that game you were telling me about before this Ratings Game was called."
Gasper thought how lucky he was for a moment. Rias was willing to skip a party for her to talk about something that interested him. "Thank you, I am feeling better. You should go back to your party."
"Are you sure? You'll be okay back here by yourself?"
Gasper thought he heard a strain in Rias' voice that he did not understand. "I am sure. Have fun at the party, I can talk with you later."
Rias' shoulders slumped a bit but she smiled at him "All right. I am planning on having a meeting with the peerage after the party or tomorrow if it is too late. I'll see you there."
"Ok." Gasper watched as Rias walked out of the room to go back to the party. Once the door shut he slumped back in his seat. He knew that improving was going to be hard but he had to do it. He needed to not feel useless again.
As Rias finally left the Lucifer damned party for the last time she let out a breath. She was exhausted, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
It was over, the looming threat that had dominated her thoughts for the last few years was gone and now she was free to do whatever it was she wanted now that she was free of it. She was ecstatic, she wanted to sing, she wanted to cry, she wanted to buy her face in her pillow and scream.
She did not know how this would affect her relationship with her parents. During the party they had focused their conversation on how proud they were of her performance rather than any disappointment at the deal falling through, so at the very least they were publicly acknowledging her as being deserving of their respect. Of course that did not tell her how they actually felt about her victory, doing anything else at the party would have been stupid.
She would find out soon enough, Mother had pulled her aside and asked that she join them for brunch this weekend. She hoped that this had made them understand that they could not choose her future for her. That they needed to respect her enough to involve her in decisions about her future, that if she was going to inherit House Gremory she could not be a bystander in her own life. That she needed to be in control.
Despite everything, she loved her family, she desperately wanted to forgive them. But before she could do so they needed to acknowledge her as a devil in her own right, and not just their daughter. If they could do that then this victory would be truly perfect.
As she approached the door to her room she hoped that Taylor would be there already. That the woman who had become her sister and mentor would give her a hug and tell her that this was not a dream. That she would still be free when she awoke tomorrow.
She opened the door to a dark room, and flicked the lights on.
She jumped slightly at the noise and glanced around the room. In the center of the room was a cake and her peerage, her true family, stood around it smiling at her.
Rias bowed low to them, "Thank you. You saved me."
She felt a hand grab her own and pull her up, Akeno gave her a radiant smile. "This isn't the time for that. Now that all of that political posturing is over we need to actually celebrate your freedom!"
Rias felt her exhaustion flee as sheer happiness replaced it. She glanced around the room. Taylor started cutting the cake with Koneko standing attentively next to her. Yuuto burst out laughing at some joke Issei made. Gasper had retreated to his box in the corner but he was still there and gave her a smile when he saw her looking at him. They were all her heroes.
Hero, the thought of the word caused her eyes to drift back to Taylor. To the woman who saved Earth trillions of times over, and she thought about how selfish she was. She had the greatest hero who had ever lived on her peerage and she had used her to save herself from a marriage she did not want.
She felt a moment of clarity, tonight she would celebrate her freedom. But tomorrow and every day after she would work on accomplishing something that would allow her to deserve to call herself Taylor's King.
A/N: Well that took forever to write. I hope it came out okay. I'm a bit worried that Taylor's section feels a bit samey given how long it is. I wanted to capture the way that her thoughts keep spiraling in on themselves and repeating the same ideas to her over and over, so I hope it worked out. It is also the portion that had by far the most revisions so that can leave it feeling jumbled.
Anyway the next chapter is partially written and will be much shorter. It is going to be the end of the epilogue for the Riser arc going over the reactions of some characters who were more removed from the events of this arc, so hopefully nothing close to another years long break.
I hope everyone enjoyed this. Thank you for reading and all of your support, it has helped me through some difficult times.