Rias was surrounded.

In enemy territory, with no allies to call upon, she faced her foes alone, armed with only her wits and will.

It wouldn't be wrong to say Rias was fighting for her very life.

But she would not back down.

She would fight and die on this hill if that was to be her fate, and she would do it with pride.

"Gurren Lagann is the peak of Mecha anime!"

"Rias, Rias, Rias," Seekvaira Agares shook her head as if looking at something pitiful. Her every movement was graceful, as expected of the heir of an archduke.

Backed up by her Peerage, she was the epitome of a young noble devil.

She was also completely wrong.

"The beauty of Mecha comes from the details," Seek-chan pontificated. "From their feasibility. The mechanics of their creation. The stats, the gear, and the possibility of one-day building and piloting one yourself. An absurdist rendition of Mecha cannot properly accentuate the majesty of the genre. You lose the gravity, the majesty, the weight. When something becomes too unbelievable, you lose perspective. That is to say, Gundam is better… Macross is also an acceptable answer."

The Peerage surrounding her nodded in agreement with their King's words.

Rias scowled. After not seeing her for over a year, she had come to talk to her friend, and they had devolved into a familiar argument. She didn't even have Akeno to back her up, as her Queen was talking with Sairaorg's Queen.

She would have to win this battle on her own.

"We are devils!" Rias argued back passionately. "The struggle to survive as a race! The chase for power! Gurren Lagann speaks to us on a level no other Mecha does. Should we not grow until we stand astride the universe, 10.45 trillion light years tall? Our power must become the drill that will pierce Heaven!"

So in awe was everyone around Rias (in her mind) that they could not mount a counterargument without careful thought.

"I always thought Evangelion was the best Mecha anime."

Silence.

Dead silence.

Like broken dolls, all heads slowly turned to look at the speaker.

One of Seek-chan's Peerage, one Rias didn't recognize, flushed under the attention.

"What," he squeaked in a quiet voice, his nerves failing him.

"My apologies, Lady Rias," Alivian, Seekvaira's Queen, said as he bowed regretfully. "He is a newly reincarnated Pawn. He is young and foolish and does not know of what he speaks."

"Hey!"

"I have been remiss in his education," Seekvaira sighed, giving Rias a nod of apology as well. "Trust me, when the gathering is over, I shall spend some time… re-educating him on what constitutes proper Mecha."

"See that you do," Rias nodded imperiously. "Maybe you will finally gain a Peer with true knowledge and appreciation for the genre."

Seek-chan's eyes narrowed, but she didn't argue further. Her Peerage was the one to make such a calamitous blunder.

Really, Evangelion. As peak Mecha? That was like saying Naruto was peak Shonen.

...Ok, that was an exaggeration, but still.

Rias enjoyed both Evangelion and Naruto, more so the former, but some standards needed to be upheld.

They may be devils, but they weren't barbarians.

"We shall continue this conversation at a later date," the Agares Heiress said primly. "It was good to speak with you again, Rias."

"You too, Seek-chan."

Rias walked away with her head held high, her victory accomplished.

Sometimes, an incompetent ally was worse than any competent enemy.

At no point did Rias self-reflect that all her friends, baring those that were part of her family, were those she had somehow cajoled (read: badgered) into engaging with her hobby.

Seeing as she had a few more minutes before they would be called, Rias looked around the waiting room for the Young Devil Gathering. Most of those gathered remained within their Peerages, talking in almost hushed whispers and shooting concerned glances around the room.

Rias received more than a few fearful glances herself, but she bore them with the grace of a lady.

Rias could understand their concerns. Not only were they going to be presented in front of the Lords and Ladies of the remaining 31 Pillar Families and the Four Satans as was standard for these bi-centennial events, but this was a precursor to the first time representatives of foreign factions had also been invited to watch.

The Peace Treaty was only a few months old, and it was already having a significant impact on their lives.

There would be Gods at their debut Rating Games to judge them as they declared their goals for the future.

Being nervous was expected.

So why was Rias... not?

Oh, there was some apprehension. Rias was going to declare her dream in front of her peers and her family, including her brother.

But... that was it.

Maybe it was because, unlike everyone else here, her dream was simple. Small. Selfish.

At the end of the day, whether she received the approval or disdain of the attendees was irrelevant.

Rias would accomplish her dream.

... Man, she sounded like an anime protagonist.

She should totally say that during one of their training sessions when the camera was rolling. It would be a great moment in the montage she'd show her children one day.

Lost in thought of crimson-haired children, all sitting with her as they watched her 'epic journey' together, Rias almost flinched when a voice called her.

"Rias," Sairaorg interrupted her thoughts, his towering form almost bursting from his perfectly tailored outfit with his every move. "I liked what you did earlier."

"Cousin," Rias greeted warmly. Though he had been banished from his family because he lacked the Power of Destruction, a power she had inherited, their relationship had remained strong. "And it was nothing. A trick from a friend."

"I hope you have more tricks. I hope to see all of them when we fight."

"You want to fight everyone," Rias laughed lightly, not taking his bluntness as an insult. "It seems like I am doomed to always be surrounded by battle maniacs. I shall introduce you to the White Dragon Emperor if I have the chance."

"I'll look forward to it," Sairaorg grinned, but his eyes narrowed. "I do want to fight everyone in this room, but only two fights have me excited. The Red Dragon Emperor. And you."

Rias didn't know how to take that.

"You're in luck then," she deflected. "You only need one Rating Game for both of us. If Issei doesn't beat you first, I'll have to fight you."

The Bael didn't say anything for a second; then his eyes widened, as did his grin.

"You haven't realized," he laughed.

"Realized what?" Rias asked, furrowing her brow.

"Let me be the first to congratulate you then." Sairaorg's grin was as amused as it was proud. "The number of devils who made Ultimate class in power, if not in status, at your age can be counted on one's hands. That there are two at this generation's gathering might be a record."

"What?" Rias asked, the words not making sense to her for a long moment. "I'm not Ultimate class."

"You are," Sairaog's smile was definitely one of humour now. "Barely, but you are. It must have been recently, too."

That couldn't be right.

Surely Rias would have noticed an increase in power... no.

She had noticed her power increasing, but it had steadily been growing since she had started training whenever she had the chance.

And hadn't it been increasing faster now that she had more partners to work with?

Whether it was Issei transferring her power so she could work on control with more significant reserves, Akeno's Holy Lightning being a great counter to her Power of Destruction, or even just Asia healing her so she could get back to training faster.

It would make sense that the rate would pick up with all the extra options she had.

And didn't she have more motivation than ever? Yes, the Phenex situation had been handled, but Eren's deadline drew ever closer, and Kokabiel had shown them just how far they needed to go.

Devils were creatures of desire. While those desires lead most of them to squander their potential, they also gave devils one of the most significant growth potentials of all supernatural species when properly channelled.

Rias had been channelling her desire to save her friend for almost a year to grow stronger. She had faced down not only a fully grown devil, one who had outclassed her in every respect, but had also fought for her life against one of the oldest enemies of her race.

Kokabiel had killed some of the original 72 demons, and yet Rias had fought him and lived. Hells, she had wounded him.

Rias had also spent the last few weeks non-stop training with her mother in the finer points of her power. The original Ruin Princess was an Ultimate class devil, stronger than many of her brothers' Peerage and even her father.

With all those factors together, it was possible, if unlikely, that her internal reserves had crossed the bare minimum to be considered Ultimate class.

Unlike other classes of devils, there was no upper limit on Ultimate class, but there was definitely a floor. The basic of basic metrics were internal reserves of power, though combat ability was also a factor when officially acknowledged as one and given the corresponding rank.

It wasn't rare for a devil to have the reserves of an Ultimate class being but be unable to use it in such a way to prove they deserved the promotion.

Theoretically, now that she had crossed the threshold, Rias could go to a specialized facility to be tested to see if she deserved to be called an Ultimate class devil.

She wouldn't, though. At least not yet.

For one, Rias didn't feel confident she could fight well enough to deserve the rank. For another, she had never sought the promotion to Princess, Dutchess, or Archduchess that came with the rank.

No. As always, Rias Gremory's motivation had been purely selfish.

But she had done it.

She now had the bare minimum of qualifications to offer Eren a place within her Peerage.

And she would.

Once she returned to the human world, Rias would make the offer.

She'd explain the supernatural, who she really was, and what she was offering. She'd promise Eren anything, so long as he accepted.

Eren would say no.

Rias knew that.

But it would be out in the open. Rias wouldn't need to hide the truth of what she was from him anymore and could work on changing his mind.

It didn't matter if Eren turned her down a thousand times.

He just had to say yes once.

All the while, Rias would keep training. Just because she had the bare minimum to make the offer didn't mean she was guaranteed to be strong enough to reincarnate him. She'd train every day until Eren was safely her Pawn.

Then...

"That's a good look in your eye, cousin," Sairaorg's rumbling voice tore Rias from her plans. His smile was no longer one of mirth but of hunger. Like a beast spotting its prey. "I am really looking forward to fighting you now."

"I can't say the same," Rias shook her head. Now wasn't the time or place to get lost in thought. "I did not miss that you said there were TWO Ultimate class devils here. And how did you sense my power so clearly when I couldn't even tell?" Sairaorg's smile was all teeth, but Rias didn't need him to answer. "You achieved Touki, didn't you?"

Touki was not Senjutsu, though the latter usually meant the former. Touki was just the complete control, awareness, and ability to use one's Ki. That perfect awareness of 'self' was known to have a multiplicative effect on the physical and magical senses, even if it didn't grant a true Sage's almost omnipresent sensing ability.

To have sensed something that even Rias hadn't, Sairaorg had to have achieved his goal.

The laugh that escaped the older devil drew all the attention in the room to the pair, loud and boisterous as it was.

Rias put her plans for Eren aside for the moment and allowed herself to feel pride in her cousin's almost unheard-of achievement.

Like Sairaorg had said, they weren't unique in achieving their rank at their age, even if it wasn't official yet and was rare.

What might very well be unique was someone achieving that without the bloodline advantages the Pillars enjoyed.

Rias had the Power of Destruction, had been born with prodigious reserves, trained regularly for years, and over the last year, had dedicated almost her entire life to crossing that threshold.

She had barely crossed it.

Sairaorg Bael had none of that.

His magical reserves were decent for a High-class devil, but that was it. He had no bloodline ability. And he had no support from his family after his 'disability' was discovered.

Everything he had achieved was through pure effort, willpower, and training.

And it was all physical.

He didn't have the luxury Rias did. He could not train and enjoy his hobbies at the same time. It was a grind, day in and day out, all on the slim chance to prove the world wrong.

And he had done it.

After experiencing a fraction of the effort her cousin must have gone through, Rias felt her respect for him skyrocket.

The pair might not be the first Young Devils to reach Ultimate class, but Sairaorg might be the very first to do so through physical training. Their race was simply more predisposed to magical training than physical. He was undoubtedly the very first to do so with Touki, an ability only a handful of devils had ever attained.

What a monster.

"Not just stronger," the older devil grinned down at her like a lion, uncaring that the gazels watched them. "You've gotten sharper. Is this what they call 'real experience?' I should try it."

"No," Rias denied. "I just have good friends. Don't go challenging cardinals because you want to experience it."

"Probably for the best," Sairaorg sighed, not even denying that he had been thinking of it. "We are at peace now. I hope the Khaos Brigade attacks me at some point. Maybe the White Dragon Emperor."

"Careful what you wish for," Rias cautioned the man, a shiver of fear running down her back. "Some of their members will wipe the floor with us, Ultimate class or not."

It was only luck that Black Cat Kuroka hadn't actually planned to catnap Koneko, or Rias wasn't sure they could have stopped her.

Grayfia could probably have beaten her, maybe, but stopping the Stray Devil from catnapping Rias' cute Rook would have been almost impossible with Kuroka's use of magic, Youjutsu, and Senjutsu. That was how absurdly dangerous Yokai got as their tails increased in number.

The power wasn't additive; it was multiplicative.

"Then I'll work my way up the ladder," Sairaorg, far from being deterred, looked even more excited. "Sharpen my fangs on the legs until I'm ready to bite the head off."

Before Rias could caution him some more, the door to the waiting hall opened, and a servant let them know they were being called to enter.

The cousins shared a nod as they rejoined their own Peerages for the journey.

It didn't take long for the six young devils, attended by their Peerages, to be standing in front of the gathered Lords and Ladies of the Underworld.

It was a layered seating arrangement in the amphitheatre, with the four Satans sitting at the peak and the dozens of devils and guests in rows below looking down on the stage. It was a placement designed to evoke a feeling of being looked down on and judged.

Like their worth was to be determined.

Already, there were murmurs and whispers around from the gallery that surveyed the groups.

More than a few were about Rias and her Peerage.

Far from feeling intimidated, Rias felt her will firm.

"Welcome," Sirzechs Lucifer, the highest ranking person there, warmly greeted the young men and women. Rias caught his eye for the briefest of moments and saw the pride in them. Would he still be proud in a few minutes? "In order to check the faces of you all, who will carry the burden of the next generation, we have gathered here."

Serafall was much less subtle in her acknowledgement of her sister, waving around a small blue flag that said, 'So-tan is the best!' Aunty Mikasa, the Leviathan's plus one, stood blank-faced behind her King as Sona flushed in embarrassment.

Despite having extended family members among the group, the other two Satans were much less invested.

Lord Beelzebub held a red vial in his hand, magic circles swirling around it as he ignored the world around him in favour of his research.

Lord Asmodeus was asleep.

"I admit," her bother chuckled as he looked over the group. "I expected some of you to come to blows while you were waiting. It is almost a tradition. That you didn't speaks well of this generation's wisdom."

Rias kept her back straight as Akeno giggled beside her, and the other young devils shot her looks.

It wasn't her fault Zephyrdol was making an ass out of himself to Seek-chan. The new Glaysa-Labolas heir should be thankful Rias had been the one to step in instead of Sairaorg.

It also gave Rias a great excuse to put her Eren Voice (TM) to practice.

Rias wondered if everyone in this room had been secretly watching the ante-chamber and knew what she did? If so, then her brother's words were no doubt a subtle way to raise her position in the eyes of those gathered.

... Was Sairaorg right? A year ago, Rias doubted she would have caught on to such a subtle political play. Did spending so much time with Sona and Eren, as well as her focus on minimal details in training, make her sharper?

A part of Rias chafed that, even now, her older brother was not letting her stand on her own.

Another part felt his warm concern and knew she was increadibly lucky to have someone looking out for her. Others lacked such family.

Rias stood, back straight, as she contemplated these questions. Around her, the ceremony continued, and eventually, they got to the part where the young devils were called to proclaim their dreams.

"My dream is to become a Satan."

Sairaorg's proclamation, the first to speak after Sirzechs had asked, had already sent the room into a tizzy. To declare such an ambition so plainly and without reservation was admirable.

There was also a layer of scandal behind the words.

No devil of the Great King family, the Bael, had ever given up the name willingly, even to become a Satan.

Sairaorg's story was well known, from member to exile to heir. To give up the title he had fought to achieve was a slap in the face to the Bael. It was a declaration that they were lesser.

How juicy.

"I shall become a Satan when the Underworld feels there is no choice but for me to become one."

Rias knew Sairaorg's statement alone would fuel the elite's rumour mills and gossip halls for the next few years.

Yet, in this gathering of young devils, his proclamation of grand ambition was destined to come in third place.

"My dream is to build a school."

Sona stood in front of the gathering of the Underworld, back straight and eyes narrowed, as she looked over the hall.

Like she wasn't the one being judged, but they were.

There were some murmurs around the crowd, then one Lord called out.

"What type of school?"

"A school for everything and everyone. Magic. Rating Games. Our race's culture and history. That of other races as well. Math. Science. Language. Every subject that can be taught will be taught."

"So, just a regular school," the same Lord sighed derisively. "There is already an academy for Rating Games and others for magic."

"That admit only High-class devils," Sona rejoined, not deterred in the slightest. "My school shall for everything and everyone. High class and Low class. Devil and Angel. Human or Yokai. Strong or weak. Healthy or crippled. So long as they wish to learn, my school will be there to teach. That is my dream."

There was a beat of silence.

Then laughter.

"""Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!"""

"That's impossible!"

"This is just brilliant!"

"I see! So you're a little girl who dreams big!"

"It's good to be young! However, for the next head of the Sitri family to state such a dream, I have to say thank goodness that it was here at this introduction before your debut."

Sona Sitri bore the laughter and the mockery with a straight back.

The sneers and the jeers. Even as her Peerage shuffled in agitation, prepared to defend their King as they glared back up the gathered devils. Aunty Mikasa held her King back as the Levithan frothed at the mouth to get to the fools laughing at her darling sister.

No matter what, Sona Sitri stood firm.

Then, when there was a lull in the derision heaped on her from the crowd, she spoke.

Her voice was not louder than before, nor was it agitated or hurried. It was the same cool, measured tone as ever.

"I do dream big. I dream a dream so big that the whole world will look at my dream in envy. I take pride in my dream. I am dedicating my entire heart to my dream. If you cannot say the same, if you claim my dream is impossible, that just means your dreams, your ambitions, are too small."

Silence.

Absolute silence.

Sona was not the strongest of the young men and women here.

She wasn't the most well-known or talented. In a society that valued power, she was middling at best among High-class devils in terms of potential.

Yet, in this record-breaking Young Devil Gathering, the Sitri Heiress' dream and her challenge sealed her position as the greatest of the Young Devils to watch.

Rias stared at her friend in wonder, not believing what Sona had just done.

While Sona had a stubborn streak, she was also a cautious individual. Even better than Rias, she knew how much politics would play in achieving her dream.

These were the movers and shakers of the Underworld. Getting them on her side would be paramount to achieving her dream. If she failed, if she made enemies of them, it would become all but impossible.

And Sona had just insulted them all.

"The world has changed," Sona declared into the silence. "We are at peace. No longer will killing our enemies until we are all that is left be possible. We will disappoint our ancestors if we remain chained to old traditions and do not exploit the opportunity before us. We must win through other means. My dream shall be a stepping stone towards something no devil has ever attained. Permanence. An institution that shall outlast everything else. You can laugh. You can fight. You might even kill me. But you cannot kill an idea. My school, my dream, will come true. You can either join us or be left behind."

Sona stepped back, rejoining her Peerage as they beamed around the room in pride.

More silence.

Someone clapped.

It was not Serafall Leviathan.

All eyes landed on Zekram Bael as he slowly brought his hands together.

"Now that is a dream befitting a devil."

Unsurprisingly, Serafall Leviathan was the first to break the silence of the Great King's declaration.

"WHHOOOOOO!" The satan hollered, waving her flag energetically. "Go So-tan, go So-tan, go So-tan."

Behind her, Mikasa beamed down at her honorary niece in pride. Though you could only tell if you knew her since her face barely changed.

The other Satans, even Beelzebub and Asmodeus, who had woken up, also clapped.

With pressure from above, both the New Satan and Great King factions were forced to join in the applause.

Some genuinely, but many didn't look happy.

"Um," Ise whispered behind Rias. "What just happened?"

"I'll explain later," Akeno whispered back.

Rias didn't blame her Rook for not getting it. She wouldn't have either if she didn't know Sona so well.

As it was, Rias barely believed Sona was making such a bold move.

Sairaorg declared that he'd become a Satan when the population of the Underworld decided there was no choice BUT to make him one.

In contrast, Sona had skipped over the process entirely and forced the gathering of Lords and Ladies to support her dream.

She declared peace with the other factions had not stopped the Great War with their historic enemies. Just shifted the type of war fought. Devils were no longer in a hot war but a cold one.

A culture war.

And Sona had put her dream, her school, at the forefront of that supposed conflict.

If her school did become what she wanted it to be, the greatest the world had ever seen, it could influence every other faction through their education, slanting things in favour of devils.

A way to win a war while adhering to a peace treaty many old devils disagreed with. Money, power, and fame would all come flowing into the hands of the side that won.

It also would help answer the problem the Pillars were having with reincarnated devils, as they, too, would be influenced by Sona's propaganda.

Sona had called out everyone who didn't support her dream as unambitious, stupid, and a hindrance to devil society.

Either they supported her, or they would get no benefit from her school. Worse, they would be making enemies of those who stood to benefit and supported her dream.

It was an incredibly deft political movement, turning Sona's dream from a far-fetched goal of a young devil to one that needed to be accomplished by devil kind to win this new war.

If that had indeed been Sona's goal, it would have been a raging success.

It wasn't.

Rias knew her childhood friend, her rival.

Knew her beliefs, abilities, and dreams.

Sona would never turn her school into a center for devil propaganda.

She would undoubtedly teach the devil's history and culture, but she would make things as objective as possible. There would be no slanting, no brainwashing, and no winning a culture war.

Sona's dream was just a school that taught everything to anyone willing to learn.

While her declaration of her dream had garnered her the support she'd need to get started, once those supporters learned she wouldn't be teaching reincarnated devils, angels, fallen angels, or anyone else attending how great they were, those supporters would turn into enemies.

Sona was betting on herself.

She was betting on being successful enough, influential enough, and her school being ingrained enough by the time that realization hit that her dream would not doom her.

If Sona failed, if her dream school never reached the heights she desired, she'd lose it all.

The people who knew her realized this. The Satans knew this. The Great King knew this.

More than that, she had to prove she had the ability to back up such a radical dream. Everyone would be watching her now, looking for even the slightest sign of weakness. If Sona faltered, even once, she'd fail.

Sona had gained support, but she was more alone than ever. It was all up to her now.

Truly, a dream befitting a devil.

For the first time in her life, as she joined in the applause, Rias compared herself to her rival and felt... small.

Selfish.

Petty.

And... Rias was all right with that, she realized.

Rias was all right with her small, selfish, petty, dream.

Rias Gremory was not the type of girl who dreamed of changing the world or reshaping society.

Rias was perfectly happy with her family, Peerage, hobbies, and tiny, selfish wishes.

She was content to support those with big dreams.

Whether it was helping Sona with her school, subtly nudging things to help Issei build his harem, scouting venues for Yuuto's bakery, or any number of other ways to make her life, and theirs, just a teeny-tiny bit better.

So, after the applause died down, and it was time for the other four young devils to declare their dreams, Rias felt none of the nervousness the others felt when she stepped forward.

Rias wasn't worried about being upstaged or being found wanting. She wasn't trying to become a Satan. She wasn't promising to change Underworld culture forever.

'Rias Gremory' was simply Rias, and that was enough.

"I don't have a dream." Rias declared boldly to the room. She didn't shout the words. She stated them. They were fact. "I have a promise."

The room stirred. Already, this gathering had turned out very different than any before it. This generation of Young Devils was one for the history books.

What new surprise was this going to be?

Those expecting some grand proclamation of ambition were disappointed with Rias in the coming weeks.

Those who understood her deeper meaning knew that her promise, her small selfish promise, was only behind Sona's in terms of difficulty.

"We will be free."

'We' not 'I.'

Free to chase their dreams.

Free to be who they wanted to be.

Free from fear, pain, loneliness, and sadness.

Free to live in a world where children were not abused, turned into soldiers, or cursed for being born.

Free to live.

A dream, a promise, not for herself but for her friends and family. For those who supported her, she'd support in turn.

A declaration unbefitting a devil, yet perhaps the most devilish wish of all.

"And we will destroy all who try to take that freedom from us."


I've had this scene in my head since the start of this fic. In my opinion, the Youth Devil Gathering was one of the most significant missed opportunities of DxD. A chance to really cement some characters as more than 'waifu bait.'

Instead of declaring an ambition that would show how much she's grown since the start of the series, Rias declares she's going to be 'Rating game champ,' which she has never even mentioned before now. Sona is both better and worse. Her dream is better, but it also doesn't go anywhere. The school she wanted to build never went about, and far from upending devil society as promised, she went on to become the head of the house, giving up practically everything.

That entire situation was more about setting a tournament arc and introducing rivals to Issei, like Saji and Sairaorg, than it was about any growth in story or characters.

Well, in this story, Eren, and to a lesser extent Mikasa, have had an effect. One that is both obvious and subtle. Rias still wants to win rating games, of course, but that has become tangential. A byproduct of what she sees as her true dream. From the beginning, being free to live as 'Rias' is a central theme of her character, and aiding her friends in having that same freedom, along with herself, I feel is a dream much more befitting her. Everything else will come with that purpose.

Part 3 is all about a turning point, a hinge on which the characters, the story, and the world change. Not necessarily the source but the result. This chapter, plus the next three planned, are some of the most exciting I've been to write.

I will be waiting for you all next week on the bench.