"How are you progressing?" Sona asked her rival as she put Rias' king in check.

"Well," Rias nodded, placing her rook in the way. Sona accepted the sacrifice with her bishop, replacing the king in check. The bishop was then taken by the black knight. That was fine. "My total output has almost doubled."

Sona frowned. Rias had always been the more powerful of the pair, and it was slightly disheartening to hear that the gap had grown wider. It was for a good cause, but Sona sometimes wished she was as blessed as the redhead.

... In multiple departments.

The Sitri carefully ignored Akeno's bust as the queen refilled the King's tea cups.

She just had yet to hit her growth spurt.

"After only a few months? That is impressive."

Even as they played and talked about the situation and town, Rias hadn't stopped training. A small ball of Destruction was hovering over the chessboard as Rias kept trying to pour more and more power into it without increasing its size.

"Thanks." Rather than be buoyed by Sona's compliment and brag about it and her Peerage, Rias just pursed her lips in a frown.

"What is wrong?" Sona asked as she removed a black pawn with one of her own from the board. "You don't seem satisfied."

"It's just not enough." Rias shook her head in frustration. Her distraction cost her her knight. "Koneko felt his Ki again while she was napping with him yesterday. He's getting worse."

"How much worse?" Sona asked the white-haired girl sitting on the nearby sofa.

"... Ten percent?" It was half asked, as putting numbers on this sort of thing was always finicky. Still, for it to be that noticeable...

"Tomorrow is the year anniversary since I met him," Sona sighed. "Even with all his exercise, Ki, and the healing, he's noticeably skinnier."

A year. A short yet long time.

What had started as taking a student as practice for her dream and curiosity had turned into trying to keep her friend alive.

Some days, Sona resented that she couldn't do more. She didn't regret reincarnating her Peerage, but she did wish she had enough pieces that it would be her, not Rias, who had the best chances to bring Eren back.

As it was, all she could do was provide limited healing and keep the territory under control to give Rias as much time as possible.

"There's only so much I can do with only holding his hand," Rias pouted. "I need more skin contact. Maybe I should visit him in bed sometimes?"

"That's a surefire way to destroy any trust he has with you," Sona said wryly, well aware of how little shame Rias had about nudity taboos. It wouldn't be so bad if the entire Gremory family didn't share that same trait.

There were reasons Sona never went to any more sleepovers at Rias' place.

"I know," Rias pouted, crossing her hands under her bust. "I am just trying to find a way to get more time. I am wasting so much already. And my family has been pushing things again now that I am going to be a senior. I had to spend all of Saturday arguing with my father. An entire day gone! Just to remind him, I want to decide my own partner."

"Any luck on that front?" Just because the redhead had been focusing on growing her power didn't mean Rias had forgotten the marriage that loomed over her head.

"Maybe," Rias sighed. "There are a few promising candidates among the students. But they are unawakened, so I can't know who can help and who can't. I can't waste my Pieces. I can't."

"The longer you wait, the less time you will have to train them," Sona cautioned.

It was a dilemma all High-class devils faced when they gained their Evil Pieces.

Do you invest early, giving time to train at the cost of weaker pieces or fewer total numbers due to needing multiple for one person? Or do you wait till you are stronger and thus can reincarnate stronger people with less cost?

Every devil only got fifteen Pieces, except for rare trades; they were stuck with their choices for life.

Rias had played it fast and loose when she was younger. It had worked out for her so far, but the current situation made the dilemma even more difficult for the redhead due to the Sword of Damocles above her head and Eren's.

Sona didn't have that problem. She had a process for her selection of Peerage members. Potential was one thing she looked for, but so were group cohesion, complementary personality traits, and willingness to support her dream.

She never invited anyone to join without deep thought, investigation, and an interview if possible.

"I know," Rias sighed, and Sona took her king in a checkmate. The Gremory groaned, and Sona smiled slightly. "Enough about that. What's been going on with you?"

"Getting the situation for the new school year." It was Sona's turn to sigh. "I don't know what is worse, the Fallen requesting permission to stay for a few months or the dozen complaints about the perverted trio coming back. At least we can kill the former if they violate the cease-fire. I am seriously considering not letting those three come to Kuoh for their junior year."

"I think they're funny," Rias said with a smile. "It's refreshing to see humans so open about their desires."

"Some of us value our privacy, you exhibitionist," Sona said with a glare. "Between them, paperwork, admissions, complaints, and budgets, I am half tempted to drown the student council room in water."

"Ara? Naughty words like 'exhibitionist.' Threatening destruction of school property. Should the Student Council President be saying all that? You are setting a bad example for us, Kaichou."

Sona sent Akeno a death glare as the Queen giggled. Then her eyes turned back to Rias as the redhead also laughed.

"It's your own fault," Rias laughed unapologetically. "You are the one who volunteered for the extra work."

"I need to learn to do it all for my dream," Sona defended herself. "This will be my last year in high school, and I will be too busy during college to learn these administrative tasks."

"Uhuh," Rias nodded, still chuckling. "And it has nothing to do with your pride."

"Better prideful than a lazy nudist."

"Better a lazy nudist than a control freak."

"Better a control freak than a ginger cow."

"Better a ginger cow than a pancake."

Both teenage girls glared at each other as they devolved into familiar arguments, teasing, and needling.

Koneko watched them, munching on some sugar cookies she shared with Yuuto, while Akeno giggled like the chaos gremlin she was.


"""""Surprise!"""""

Instantly, Eren shot up, hand pulling on the handle of his cane as he drew a sword and swung.

"Woah!" Yuuto muttered as he dodged out of the way in surprise. Thankfully, Eren was human, so even surprised the Knight managed to avoid the blade with his speed.

""Eren!"" Rias and Sona shouted in surprise, and the blind boy froze, blade pulled back for another swing.

"Souna? Rias?" Eren asked as he collapsed back to the bench. He kept his hand on his drawn sword. "What are you doing? What is going on?"

"A surprise party," Akeno chuckled a bit nervously. "Though I think we were the surprised ones."

"What are you doing with a sword on school property?" Sona asked severely, sending him a glare he couldn't see.

"Japan doesn't allow guns," Eren said plainly as if it explained everything before moving on to the more important part. "A surprise party? What for?"

"It's been a year since you came to Kuoh," Rias said cheerfully, entirely moving on from almost getting her head cut off. "Since you never told us your birthday, we decided to celebrate today."

Koneko blew a flat note on her little party kazoo to punctuate Rias' words.

The file didn't have his date of birth, just the day he had been left on the church's stoop. Celebrating that would probably be in bad taste.

"What?" Eren asked, completely baffled.

For the ordinarily unflappable man to be so out of it was a sight that had everyone present smiling.

"We brought cakes," Koneko said, eyeing the deserts hungrily.

There had been a candle on one of them, but that had been sliced by Eren's swing, so Akeno tossed it away.

"What?" Eren sounded like a broken record now, and a few of them chuckled this time at how flat-footed he was acting. Even Sona, who was still glaring at the sword, smiled slightly.

"It is also to celebrate Koneko's first day of high school this week," Rias continued with a note of pride. "Just a little get-together of friends before the new school year."

Koneko pumped a fist slightly as Rias ruffled her hair as she blew another note.

Her growth spurt was coming. She could feel it.

"I... see," Eren said hesitantly, finally lowering his sword. "Congratulations Koneko."

"It's cool," she said simply. "We have vanilla strawberry and chocolate fudge. Which do you want?"

"Uh... vanilla?" Eren half asked, still clearly out of it after suddenly rousing from his nap and the surprise party.

"Can I see your sword," Yuuto asked as Rias took utensils and plates from the basket as she sat on the bench.

"Don't think I will forget that you brought it onto school grounds," Sona cautioned as Eren slid it into the cane and held it out. "You could hurt yourself and those around you with that thing."

"The only ones near me are you guys, and you usually don't pull stuff like this."

There were a few nervous chuckles.

Maybe suddenly waking up the ex-child soldier with shouting hadn't been such a good idea.

"It's a good blade," Yuuto said as he examined the sword. It was a style that tingled his senses, but he couldn't place it.

It was straight to fit in the cane and flat for slashing, not stabbing. Only two fingers wide, it wasn't a weapon designed to clash with others, it would break too quickly, but it was deadly sharp. A weapon for sudden surprise attacks and cutting flesh.

The only ornamentation on the otherwise plain and flat sword was the two stylized wings, one white and the other blue, carved into the handle.

"Thank you," Eren said as the Knight handed it back. "It was a gift."

"Here," Koneko said, placing a saucer with cake in his hand and putting a fork in the other. Then she returned to her own, much larger pieces.

"It's good," he said simply as he took a careful bite. Clearly, he was still processing what was happening as he made slow, almost awkward movements.

"Fufufu, I made it myself," Akeno said with pride, and Eren gave her an acknowledging nod.

"When is your birthday?" Rias asked. "We'll throw a proper party then."

"March 30th," Eren said with a shrug. "But you don-"

"What!" Rias stood in a flurry.

"Are you being serious?" Sona asked with a frown.

"What's wrong?" Eren asked, setting down his cake after only taking a few bites.

"...Are you aware of what day it is today?" Akeno asked.

"Sunday."

"Sunday, March 30th." Akeno corrected.

"Oh," Eren said plainly. Then he picked up his saucer and started eating his cake again.

"'Oh?' That's all you have to say? 'Oh.'" Rias was gesticulating wildly. "It's your birthday! I should have gotten you a gift. Or we could have gone to a park. Or had a proper party at the clubhouse! You only turn nineteen once!"

"Eighteen," Eren corrected her simply.

"You told me you were seventeen on the day we met," Sona accused. "You never said anything about your birthday!"

"It's not important." Eren shrugged again. "It's just another day."

"It is important," Akeno chastised him. "If not for you, then for others who know you. A celebration of the day a loved one came into the world. If you do not wish to have a large party, that is fine." Rias looked like she would protest, but the Queen shot her a look. "But you should spend a birthday with people you love."

"I... suppose," Eren said reluctantly.

"Do you have something against birthdays? Or were they not celebrated in your culture?" Yuuto asked, munching on his own slice of vanilla cake.

"It wasn't unheard of," Eren shrugged. "But either I was too young to remember, food was tight, I was in training, or on a mission of some sort. With everything that happened, we never really took the time to celebrate that kind of thing. Our parties were for victories, for survival, and even then, they were bittersweet. Memorials. Too many dead."

"So you never had a real party? Just have fun and be happy?" Rias asked with a frown. Her and Sona's birthdays were usually extravagant festivals put on by their families. Their Peerage, while not to the same degree, was still doted on, so they were large affairs hosted in the underworld. "One where you can just be happy, play some games, sing and laugh?"

Eren froze, cake halfway to his mouth.

It was like all sound ceased at that moment. Like the very world was holding its breath.

"Eren?" Sona asked as the mood in the clearing shifted.

"There was... one," Eren said, his voice thick with so much entangled emotion that even Koneko paused her eating to look at him. "It wasn't a birthday thing, though. Wasn't even planned."

The group of young devils shared a look. Clearly, they had stumbled, inadvertently, on heavy ground.

Did they let it pass and hope the awkwardness faded, or did they press to learn more about their enigmatic friend?

"Tell us about it," Sona gently coaxed.

For a long moment, there was silence, as if Eren would hold this secret tightly to his chest as he did so many others.

As if he couldn't trust them yet with such a memory.

Then he spoke, words tinged with a deep longing, filled with love, affection, and nostalgia.

And guilt.

There was so much guilt it clogged his throat tight.

"I had rescued a young boy from a beating," he narrated, voice distant as the words came out in halting steps. "Ramzi. A nomad travelling with his family. A thief. He took me back to their camp. My comrades joined me. We laughed. We sang. We drank. We ate. It was so different from everything we had ever known. We were so happy. For a fleeting moment, I thought..." He trailed off as if the next words were too painful to speak.

But someone there had experience with this kind of thing. Who cared enough not to let Eren Yeager wallow in his painful memories alone.

"What did you think, Eren," Rias asked, resting a caring hand on the dying boy's arm.

"That I could run away," he admitted as if confessing a great sin. "Leave it all behind. Far from war. Far from death. Leave all my responsibilities behind. Live out the few years I had left in peace and happiness, even if I knew doing so would doom my friends without me. Four years. That was all I wanted. Four years. I didn't want to die. I didn't want to kill people. That night, all I wanted was four years with the woman I loved."

There was a collective intake of breath.

Eren had never spoken of love before.

Never even hinted at romance or experience in such. To know he once had someone like that and never spoke of it...

Eren was prepared to die alone on a bench on the other side of the world from everything and everyone he had ever known.

It didn't take a genius to know this story didn't have a happy ending.

"What happened?" Sona asked just as gently as her rival, though her hand fell on the boy's shoulder.

"Three words," Eren rasped. "That's all I needed to hear from her. Three words, and I would have left everything behind. All my plans, my revenge, my rage, my freedom, all of it. Three words, and I'd dedicate my last four years to making her as happy as possible in the time I had left. Three words, and I would have hope. She told me three words, but they were not the ones I wanted to, needed to, hear. I was trapped by my own hand and knew I would... We could never..."

Nobody said a word as Eren took a deep breath that could have been mistaken for a sob.

"I left the next day," he continued. His voice was dead. Completely flat once more as if all the emotion of the last few minutes had been an illusion. "Nothing could stop me then. My plan went off without a hitch. Everything was exactly as I wanted. I fought my friends to do it. Sasha died."

Sona gasped lowly, but her hand remained tightly on his shoulder.

"So did Hange. And others. So many others. Captain Levy was handicapped. So many of my other comrades died in the infighting. And I don't even know if most survived after... After. But they weren't the only victims. So many more innocent, guiltless lives were lost. Ramzi. His friend Halil. His grandfather. Everyone who was with us that night. Who had taken us in, laughed and sang with us. Many more whom I never knew. So many. All dead. All at my hand. Trampled under my feet like bugs into the mud. I... I killed them all."

Eren could say no more.

The Sitri report had nothing on this, this attack or plan or whatever it was. Which meant only one thing.

There had been no survivors.

Nobody else said anything, either. They just kept their hands on the blind boy, reassuring him that they were there.

They were good kids. Despite being devils, they were not murderers or soldiers. They wanted to go to school with their friends. They wanted to live their lives, grow up, fall in love and fulfill their dreams.

They had been hurt by the world, and were not normal by any stretch, but they were good kids.

Eren Yeager was a monster.

If what he had just confessed was true, then he was a murderer who had killed not just his enemies but also his allies and an unknown number of innocent lives. A killer who sacrificed countless lives for his goals.

A Devil worse than actual devils.

But feelings don't care about morality.

They stayed. They, with their silent presence, continued to reassure Eren.

That he wasn't alone.

That he, too, despite the terrible deeds done, was cared for.

There is no complete evil. There is no absolute good.

There are only people.

Even the Devil can be loved.

The cakes sat forgotten as white bandages dampened with tears.

A year was such a short yet long time for the boy on the bench.


Thanks to my beta: Old Man of the Mountain/Darklord331

Sometimes, something simple, innocuous and entirely mundane can change your world. It comes out of nowhere and destroys us.

A well-told story. A party with friends. A hand extended in kindness.

Something what means nothing to others can mean everything to us. That human experience unites us.

We are born alone. We die alone.

We must never live alone.

This ends the first part.

I'll be waiting for you all, next time, on the bench.