What a great day!

Issei Hyoudou couldn't stop grinning.

Not when he woke up after getting little sleep.

Not when he had to sit through the school day bombarded by questions by his classmates about his derpy expression.

Not when his two friends accurately guessed the reason for his great mood and started trying to beat him up.

Issei didn't even notice their attacks, thanks to his Rook durability, too lost in the memory of the night before.

The stupid smile did not even leave Issei's face as school finished, and Buchou gave the club a day off to rest after the battle yesterday.

Sure, Issei was alone at the moment, most of the girls dragging a red-faced Asia away and Kiba aiding Gasper with his powers, but he didn't let that get to him.

Issei simply decided to go for a walk, enjoying what a great day it was with a broad, stupid smile on his face.

"What happened?"

"Senp- Eren!" Issei jumped in surprise at the interruption of his idyllic thoughts.

He hadn't realized that his wanderings had taken him down the well-trod path toward the bench and its occupants. Ackerman-sensei sat up from where she had been leaning against Eren on the bench, looking over the boy.

As always, understanding what the Pawn was thinking was difficult, but the older boy was an almost open book with his emotions.

Eren's lips had thinned at the title Issei had almost called him, but he didn't comment.

Issei appreciated it.

Unlike the others who had gotten used to international standards of names, he had lived his entire life until only a few months ago in the Japanese nomenclature system. (A word Issei had heard Kachou use!)

While the others used suffixes to blend in, and Language translated it for him when they didn't, Issei still found it difficult to unlearn the habits he had grown used to.

"Did something good happen?" Eren asked again.

Issei didn't answer, reminded of last night's events, and his expression returned to that derpy grin.

"Yeah," he sighed in wonder, drawing a deep breath to appreciate what a wonderful day it was. "It was... great."

Eren's brows furrowed, and he looked at Mikasa. The woman was just as in the dark as him, though, and gave a minute shrug.

"That's... good," Eren said doubtfully. "Mikasa was telling me about your Rating Game and what happened. It's good to see you... happy, even after all that."

Issei flinched, reminded of the disaster that was their battle against Diodora Asteroth.

Sure, the devil scion had been getting on his nerves for the last few weeks with his incessant confessions to Asia and request for a trade. Still, Issei had not expected that the man would be in league with the Chaos Brigade until he used those weird snakes of theirs to fight the Gremory on equal footing.

And his Peerage...

Issei felt his good mood vanish as he was reminded of those women.

"Um, Ackerman-sensei?" He hesitantly asked, rubbing his cheek awkwardly, unsure how to do this.

"Yes?" Mikasa asked, face still inscrutable.

"Uh, what's, um, going to happen to them? The Peerage, I mean."

Mikasa's eyes softened, and Issei finally got something he could identify from her. Sadness.

"They're going to be alright," she said softly. "We, Serafall and the others, they have experience with these kinds of problems. There are programs in place to help people like them recover. They'll be safe. They'll heal."

Issei bit his lip, looking away.

Hearing that Diodora's victims had a chance at recovery was a weight off his back, but Issei did not miss the implication.

Devils had systems in place because this had happened before.

He had never really given it much thought about how lucky he was to have Rias as his King.

'Akeno. Do it.'

Sure, not everything was perfect, but Buchou did her best to take care of him. To take care of all of them.

It was one thing to hear about how other devil Kings could treat their Peerages and another thing entirely to see it in action.

Riser Phenex, the Yakitori, might have been a pompous ass, but his Peerage had genuinely cared for him. It was one of the reasons Issei had been jealous; Riser's harem had been, in a way, what Issei had always dreamed of.

What Diodora Asteroth had done, the lying and manipulation of naive women, separating them from all they had ever known and... breaking them...

It was like a punch to the gut.

A direct blow to every ideal Issei ever held.

A cruel mockery of Issei's dream.

A rage Issei had never known had burned in his chest. Never before had he felt such pure anger, such hatred for another being.

Then, even that anger was eclipsed when he believed Asia to have died because of Diodora's spiteful vengeance.

For the first time in his life, Issei understood why people feared the Red Dragon Emperor.

And now, he did too.

[Partner] Ddraig said softly. Consolingly. [Juggernaut Drive is not something you should ever use again. Not under any circumstances. I don't want to lose my favourite wielder.]

Issei wanted to smile. That was the first time Ddraig had ever called him that.

But he was lost in the memories of the rage.

"You told me hating someone is easy," Issei said, leaning against a tree and looking at the sky.

"It is," Eren said sombrely. "Rage is the easiest emotion to feel. Hatred is just rage with a target. We can create any number of reasons to hate."

Issei had lost himself in that rage, willing to burn the world and himself down if it meant satisfying his bloodthirst.

And if he had, if none of his friends had been there to stop him...

If Kiba hadn't fought him tooth and nail.

If Akeno-senpai's holy lightning had been less effective.

If Rias had let her grief consume her like he had and not defended her Peerage from his rampage.

If Koneko had not been there to take his blows.

If Xenovia hadn't hugged him...

Issei would have died.

Issei would have burned up his life force to fuel a rampage against a dead man.

If he didn't kill anyone else, that is.

And he would have never seen Asia again.

It was only dumb luck that Vali's team had been passing through the Dimensional Gap at the exact right time to rescue Asia before she died.

Without that dumb luck, Asia would have died, and so would Issei.

"You were right," Issei said, fists clenching. "I killed him. Killing him was easy because I hated him. I still hate him. I... I killed him, and I don't feel bad. I should feel bad, right? I killed someone. But I don't. Is it because I'm a devil? Because I am a bad person?"

"Being a devil has nothing to do with it," Ackerman-sensei said, and Issei looked around, realizing she was standing beside him while Eren remained on the bench. Watching him. "All it does is change race. The physical body. The resurrection does not change who we are. Who you are."

"Then I'm-"

"No." Mikasa cut Issei off. "You are not a bad person either. You are a boy. Hating someone who hurt you is normal."

Not just hated.


Diodora Asteroth had been the first person Issei had ever killed.

He had defeated plenty of people before. Whether it was the occasional Stray Devil or Yuu-Raynare and her group, Issei had fought plenty of enemies who ended up dead.

But he had never killed anyone.

Was that why Buchou tried to finish all the Strays herself? To spare her Peerage the responsibility?

Was that why Akeno-senpai and Kiba were the ones to kill the fallen angels and stray exorcists?

Had Issei been protected all this time and not realized it?

This Peerage, these friends, this family, he was so lucky to have it.

And that made Diodora's actions so incomprehensible to him.

"I... I..." Issei stuttered, wiping his eyes furiously to look into the older woman's eyes. "I don't understand. Why? Why do something like that? If it's not because of being devils, why are people like this?"

"Race doesn't matter," Eren joined in, staring intently at Issei from the bench. "Devil. Human. Dragon. It doesn't matter. There are animals in every race. Monsters that look like people. But most? Most people who hate, kill, fight, and die? They are like everyone else. They have things they care about. Things they want to protect. Things they will kill for. And they are not bad people. Just people."

"I-" Issei cut himself off, unsure what to say.

It had been easy to ignore these feelings before, to live life pretending that everything was great, that nothing bad had truly happened, and that nothing would.

Last night had been wonderful. Everything he had ever dreamed of.

It was easy to drown worries in joy.

Asia was alive, after all.

Issei had been stopped before he hurt anyone he cared about.

A happy ending, right?

But even losing his virginity could not erase the fear in Issei's heart.

Fear of the future. Of what he might do. Of who he'd become.

"I hated him," Issei eventually said. "I still hate him. I don't feel bad that he's dead. That I killed him. But.."

"But," Eren nodded as if understanding Issei's words before he ever spoke them.

"But I feel bad that I don't feel bad. I don't want to do it again," Issei admitted. "I like my power. I like Ddraig and being a devil and fighting in Rating Games. But I don't like hating people. I don't like killing people. I don't want to live like that."

"You will need to," Eren said softly. "The world is not so kind to give us what we want."

"I know that," Issei said sombrely. "I know I'll have to kill other people. Some I don't hate."

Already, Chaos Brigade was becoming more active. Issei knew that he'd end up fighting them more and more. He'd end up killing some of them. People whom he didn't know and didn't hate.

Would you die for me?

There would come a day when Issei Hyoudou would kill others to defend his way of life.

And he didn't want to become that type of person.

"It gets easier," Mikasa said sadly. "It's not a consolation. The more you kill, the more you fight, the more you lose, the easier each battle and death comes. You become numb. But nobody is the better for it. You become stronger, but strength is not happiness."

There was a long moment of silence in the clearing with the bench. Issei was lost in thought, Mikasa giving him time to think, and Eren...

Eren was biting his teeth in a grimace, fists clenched around the handle of his cane.

He didn't look angry, Issei idly realized. He looked determined. Resolute.

It was like Eren was going to do something he didn't want to do and was gathering his courage to step forward.

But step forward he eventually did.

"I told you how we met," Eren eventually said, nodding at Mikasa but eyes never leaving Issei's. "Do you remember?"

"Yes," Issei nodded, wondering where the older boy was going with this. Mikasa seemed to know. She was touching the red scarf around her neck and looking down. Not in shame, Issei didn't think, but in memory. "You rescued her from slavers, then she rescued you, and you gave her that scarf, right?"

"Right," Eren sighed, leaning forward and resting his chin on his cane as he looked at Issei.

But he wasn't looking at Issei. He was looking beyond the Red Dragon Emperor to another world and another time.

That fierceness never left him, though.

"I was six. There were three of them. To rescue her, I killed two of them with a knife. Do you know what I felt?"

"What?" Issei asked part horrified at the idea of a boy that young killing someone, part admiration for Eren's willingness to save a girl he didn't know, and part fascination at another piece of the puzzle that was 'Eren Yeager.'

"Nothing," Eren said simply. "They were animals. Nothing but beasts that looked and talked like humans. I was angry at what they did, but I felt nothing for killing them."

"I killed the third one," Mikasa said, voice just as plain as Eren's as she retook her seat beside him on the bench. "Stabbed him in the back with the same knife. They killed my mother. My father. They wanted to sell me into slavery. And I... I didn't hate them. I was too numb to feel anything at the time. But I killed him anyway. Because I needed to fight. To live, we must fight."

"Those bandits weren't unique, either," Eren continued, squeezing Mikasa's hands and gazing into the distance. "I've killed so many. Some, I took pleasure in their deaths. I hated them. Others, I was putting down animals. Even more, they were just enemies. No hatred or love. Just a path of corpses toward my goal."

Eren took a deep breath, his gaze returning to Issei even though his eyes had never left him.

"Most... most of the people I've killed didn't deserve it. They weren't enemies, animals, or people I hated. Innocent bystanders. Friends. Loved ones. I've killed them all. Those... Those I feel every day. So no, you are not a monster because you killed someone or will kill again. You are just a boy who gained power. The same as me. There is no one way we are supposed to feel, no 'right' way to live. But we must live."

"Why..." Issei asked, voice cracking. "Why are you telling me this?"

"So you can understand," Eren said, voice grim. "So you don't make the same mistakes I did."

"The mistakes we did," Ackerman-sensei corrected. "I've done the same. I've killed comrades. I've killed bystanders. I've... killed loved ones. I shook. I cried. I grieved. But I did it anyway."

"You need to understand," Eren repeated, eyes boring into Issei. "Killing is something that happens when two sides clash. Ideals. Benefits. Hatreds. It doesn't matter. Even if we think the reasons are stupid, even when it seems so pointless, it is something that happens for a reason."

"I don't want that!"

"Nobody wants that!" Eren growled, physically shaking in rage. At Issei, himself, or the world, the Rook didn't know. "I didn't want that. She didn't want that. Nobody wants to kill others for no reason. Only animals want to live like that. But that is life."

Issei almost stumbled back as Eren rose to his feet, cane in hand and taking a step toward the Red Dragon Emperor.

"As your power grows, your ability to kill will too. It will grow and grow and grow until your every step crushes dozens of lives. And you'll do it. Because you have those you love, those you hate and those you want to protect. All heaven and earth will tremble with your every step. So you need to understand the cost of that step forward!"

"Eren." Mikasa barked, not unkindly but firmly, as she placed a hand on his shoulder.

Eren blinked in surprise, the spell broken, as he looked at Mikasa's hand. Then, to her face, worry and concern shone through a warning expression.

Then at Issei, caught in a back step, Boosted Gear on his arm and raised defensively.

Instinct was a powerful thing.

"Sorry," Eren said softly, eyes not leaving the red gauntlet as he sagged backward back onto the bench. "I got... Sorry."

Mikasa looked at Eren, a question and concern in her gaze, and he just nodded and sighed. Her lips pressed together, but she did not comment.

She retook her position on the bench, sitting even closer to the boy as if her presence could heal him.

It struck Issei then how old the two people on the bench were. Not in age—he didn't know their exact ages—but in experience.

In life.

Issei wasn't a soldier or a war-weary victim. He was a perverted teenage boy who just happened to be born with the soul of a red dragon in him.

Half a year ago, his greatest worries had been getting a date, a harem and whether his grades were good enough to stay at Kuoh Academy.

So much had happened in such a short time that he wondered if his past self would even recognize the 'Issei' of now.

What would he look like after living a life like this?

Would he look like Eren and Mikasa, haunted by their past and their deeds?

Why... didn't that seem so bad?

It wasn't his dream or even his goal. It wasn't what he was working toward. But...

There was something beautiful about those two people on the bench, together and happy for that simple pleasure.

Even if he came to regret the choices he made today, Issei didn't want to be alone if he ever became the boy on the bench.

[He isn't wrong, Partner.] Ddraig said, the green gem in the Boosted Gear flashing with his every word. Both Eren and Mikasa looked on, not having heard the Red Dragon Emperor's voice before now. [My hosts are always powerful. And the actions of the powerful have consequences. Some will challenge you just because of what you are. You will either need to fight and kill or die.]

"I know that!" Issei snapped, helplessness colouring his voice as he sank to the ground, resting his back against the tree. "I know that. I just... I don't want that. I don't want to live like that."

"You're an honest boy, Issei Hyoudou," Mikasa said softly, almost motherly, as she looked at him. "Honest and kind. But you have power. We can help you. We can prepare you. But only you can decide how to use that power. What do you want, Issei Hyoudou?"

"I want a harem," Issei answered instantly.

Mikasa Ackerman blinked in surprise, but Eren didn't even twitch.

[Partner.] Ddraig said, letting out a long-suffering sigh.

It had been almost instinct, an automatic response for him.

Issei wanted a harem. As simple as that.

But it wasn't simple, was it?

Not too long ago, at the Peace Conference, Azazel-sensei had asked Issei for his opinion as the Red Dragon Emperor.

Did he support peace?

Issei had said yes, but only after being told that he wouldn't be able to enjoy time with his girlfriend if they were at war.

Issei was just as a schoolboy thrown into the deep end of wars, hatreds, and goals thousands of years old. He hadn't felt he knew enough to make a decision. Even with all this power and all this 'potential' that people said he had, he simply didn't have the knowledge or experience to understand what 'war' was. What it meant.

Now he knew.

Now Issei had his answer, what he wanted to do with his power.

His goal had never changed, but it was stronger now than it had ever been. More refined. Clearer.

"I want a harem," Issei repeated, more strongly this time, as he looked into Mikasa's eyes. "I want a bunch of women with wonderful Oppai that I love and who love me. I want to live with them, do naughty things with them, go on dates with them, and have a big family with them. I want to be the Harem King!"

"That's..." Ackerman-sensei clearly didn't know how to respond to that, looking to Eren for help.

Eren was just watching Issei intently.

"I'm not smart enough to try and fix the world," Issei continued, standing up. "I don't know anything about wars, killing, hatred, or anything like that. All I know is that I need to be strong to live with my harem in peace. I want to be so strong that nobody will ever be able to hurt those I love!"

"That is just more power," Eren challenged. "Even if you are the strongest person in the world, the world will still attack you."

"Then I'll be tough enough to endure every attack!" Issei responded, pounding a fist against his chest. "Even if Orphis, Great Red, or everyone attacks, I will endure it all! I'm going to be the strongest Rook!"

"Nobody can endure forever," Mikasa warned. "To live, we must fight."

"I know, but I'll fight like a Rook," Issei responded. "If my every step kills, I'll make as few steps as possible. I might have to kill people again, but I will only do it when I need to. I will be so strong that getting me to move will be almost impossible. I'm going to become the strongest wall to ever exist!"

It was like Issei's words punched the two in the gut.

"That is-"

"A Wall," Eren said contemplatively as if tasting the word on his lips as he interrupted Mikasa with a squeeze of her hand. She shot him a worried look, but Eren was still looking at Issei.

"A wall to protect everything I want to protect!" Issei reaffirmed, gauntleted fist clenching.

"Walls are... they are a defence, but they are also a cage," Eren warned. "If you become a wall, all you protect will be confined. Trapped in your shadow."

"Huh," Issei asked in confusion, not understanding what Eren was getting at.

"Walls keep people safe," Mikasa said with a severe look. "But people will come to depend on you. Use you. They will cease doing things for themselves, trusting their Walls to protect them instead of learning to protect themselves."

"Ah," Issei nodded, realizing what the pair were talking about. "I know. People will want me to do stuff like that when I get stronger. Want to use me. Buchou has been teaching me all sorts of stuff. But that's fine."

"That is not fine," Eren growled. "Walls create a different kind of animal. Cattle. Those who sit within their pens waiting to die. You cannot let that happen!"

"Um," Issei scratched his cheek in awkwardness, realizing he had made a mistake in explaining himself. "That's what my harem's for, right? And my friends?"

Both occupants watched Issei, clearly nonplussed at his answer.

"I'm going to defend them," Issei explained. "I'll be the strongest Rook, a wall that will never break. But... I'm not that smart. I know that. But my friends are. So they'll protect me, and I'll protect them, right? Buchou will never let people use me. I'll make sure I don't, um, trap them?"

Issei tried to use the metaphor they were using but wasn't sure he got it right.

"Buchou wants us to be free, so I'll let her worry about that part. I just need to get stronger so I don't have to kill people and can defend better."

Ackerman-sensei looked like she wanted to argue something but couldn't decide what words to use.

Eren just looked like he was considering the younger boy's words.

Eventually, Eren closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and looked back at the Rook.

"Issei," Eren said, and something about his voice made the Red Dragon Emperor sit up straighter. "I will trust you to not become a Wall that stands in the way of freedom so long as you understand one thing."

"What?" Issei's croaked, throat suddenly feeling dry.

"All Walls fall."

Eren words had the weight of a guillotine.

"All Walls must fall."

Eren was trying to tell Issei something important. Issei had never heard that kind of gravity in the older boy's words before.

"For people to grow, to be free, they need to tear down the Walls that surround them. Do you understand what I mean?"

Issei thought he did but couldn't answer Eren's question without knowing for sure. Not when this seemed so important to the boy on the bench.

Thankfully, there was someone there who understood Eren.

"When a wall falls, it happens because of two reasons," Mikasa said, voice just as serious as Eren's but more warning than threat. "Either an enemy has destroyed it, and it has failed. Or, those it protected tear it down themselves, and it has succeeded."

In a moment of clarity, Issei understood.

There would come a day when his existence as a defender was no longer needed. When there was peace or those he protected were strong enough to fight on their own, Issei had to be ready to step down.

No matter how strong he became, Issei couldn't force his protection on others.

He couldn't become someone like Diodora, who just lived without caring how others felt. Otherwise, he'd have lost the entire reason to become the strongest Rook.

His wall needed to fall if his friends and his family ever needed to go beyond his reach.

Issei needed to see that moment when he was not required, not as a threat but as a victory.

"I understand," Issei answered as seriously as he could. Giving his chest a thump with Ddraig as proof, he gave the boy on the bench the promise he needed to hear. "No matter how strong I get, I'll never be a wall blocking those I protect."

The two on the bench must have believed him, as Mikasa's lips quirked upward and her eyes softened. Eren let out another deep breath and slumped back against the bench.

"I'll trust you," Eren said, not looking at Issei but up at the sky. "This time, I'll trust you, Issei."

Issei grinned, chest filling with warmth.

"You can count on me Sen- Eren!"

Eren didn't look at the Red Dragon Emperor as he spoke, but there was... something in it that filled Issei's chest with that same warmth.

"... I suppose you're my junior in this. You can call me Senpai if you want."

For the rest of the day and the day after, Issei's grin never left his face.

The grin was less derpy, less pure than the one he wore when he left school.

But this smile was all the more beautiful for it.

Issei couldn't help but be reminded how great a day it was as he left Ackerman-sensei and his Senpai on the bench.

I won't comment too much on this one. So much happened in such a short time in this chapter—for the characters and for the story. I fear I'll spoil too much if I start talking about it.

I'll just say that Asia's rescue after the whole Diodora fuck up was always a sticking point with me. It is way too far-fetched even for the suspension of disbelief DxD usually asks of its audience. At least in this fic, there is a reason it happened.

I will also note that Diodora is Issei's first confirmed kill in DxD. It's never given much weight because Issei's not that self-reflective as a character, Diodora was an asshole, and it would be a tone shift, but I wanted to at least show another aspect of the change Eren has brought to his friends. Through spending more time with Eren, they are becoming more self-aware. Even Issei.

I know some were expecting a Mikasa chapter after last week's chapter, but Eren is not prepared for that discussion yet. He doesn't even know what he wants to do, so we'll have to be a bit more patient.

Till then, I will meet you all again next Sunday on the bench.