Highschool SAO

Author's Notes: And as is my custom after long bouts of inactivity, I once more found myself stroking my chin, considering how best to get back in the writing mood not so long ago. And, as is the usual when that kind of thing happens, wouldn't you happen to know it? A whole new story got wrote.

Whoops. I should really see someone about that attention deficit disorder someday.

I honestly wasn't sure if this one was ever going to be published to profile rather than just left to the forum like a lot of my other ventures. If you follow my Anti-Writer's Block thread you'll know of my two recent obsessions with SAO and Highschool DxD. You'll also know my opinion on the state of the fandom as well. This one shot was mostly my attempt at showing that you could write a fic about either series without randomly creating an OC who is most definitely obviously completely not a self insert, and no, they're not OPed, and no, it obviously isn't a gratuitous attempt by the writer to vicariously hook up with whichever female lead they harbor perverse sexual lust for...

Yeah, maybe that last sentence got away from me a bit. Anyway.

This story reads a lot to me as more a premise, a 'what if' then anything else, but I figured, eh, it was done, might as well post it.

Anyway, enjoy, and if you don't know either of the fandoms in question go out and give em a shot.

Story Start

Part One

When Rias found herself being summoned from the clubroom for the Occult Research Club, that alone was enough for her to suspect that something important was about to happen. It wasn't often that she got summoned, after all. As a high class devil, she wasn't the kind of person that was called for things like helping around the house or listening to someone's complaints. The times she got called were limited, mostly to times when someone one needed protection from some monster or other, or when a cursed item needed to be dealt with.

After all, the last time she had been summoned was when she had found Ise dying on the ground before her.

It had cost her six of her pawns to do so, but she still considered it a worthwhile trade. In return she had gotten an adorable albeit perverted little brother for her peerage. And considering how many pawns it took, there was little doubt that someday he would grow quite strong too. A perfect addition to her family both in peace time, and someday in the Rating Games too.

Still, she braced herself for her arrival, and when she took her first glance around her once she finished the teleport she could already tell that whatever task was waiting for her would probably be a heartbreaking one.

They usually were, when she was summoned to a hospital.

"What are-?" the boy in front of her had already stood up, the chair he had been in a second ago scraping loudly across the floor. Rias could tell that this was the one who summoned her. She could feel the contract crest calling out to her in his pocket. As clients go, her first impression of this one was that he was skinny. Well, skinny might not be the right word for it. He had a leanness that bespoke of not eating nearly enough, but what flesh she could see beneath his all black clothes looked to be well muscled.

He had the look of someone who had just recovered from a long illness. When Rias glanced to the hospital bed that the boy had been sitting beside, she found a girl with long chestnut hair pouring out of some odd looking head piece that was even thinner than her summoner.

'An illness, maybe?' Rias mused to herself as she took the two in. 'One that the boy recovered from, but the girl didn't? That would explain why I was summoned…'

"Who are you?" the boy sputtered, sounding unnerved, but unafraid. Rias raised an eyebrow as the boy moved to put himself between her and the girl on the bed, and despite herself she smiled a bit. He obviously cared deeply for her, to move to protect her when something unexpected happened. If she was right about why she was summoned, than he must care for her immensely.

It takes strong feelings, to be able to summon a high class devil like her.

"Good evening," she spoke politely, smiling as she began to calm the boy down. "My name is Rias Gremory. And I am a devil."

*Scene Break*

It didn't take nearly as long as she thought it would to explain her situation to the boy. It was usually the hardest part of a deal when handling new clients convincing them that she was indeed a devil, and that it wasn't their souls she was after.

Most of the time, anyway. There had been deals in the past where their wish was strong enough to justify taking even the client's life, but most of the time it was something much simpler.

"So you're a devil then," the boy whispered, breathing softly in understanding as he watched the black flames that were the power of destruction that flowed through her veins. Rias nodded, smiling gently as she let the ball of annihilation disappear. She'd generally found that doing something flash like that was a good way to help convince people. It was always easier on the second contract, and most people who summon a devil once generally found reasons to summon them again. "And you can grant," he trailed off, glancing at the girl on the bed, "you can grant wishes, is that right?"

"Yes," Rias nodded encouragingly.

"For a price?" the boy continued, giving her an unusual look. Normally, this was the point where the client would look nervous, expecting her to try to claim their soul or something. Instead, he looked hopeful, as though even if that was the price he was too overjoyed to have the chance to pay it to care.

"Yes," Rias nodded, though inside she relaxed. It reflected badly on a devil if they couldn't close a contract, though she still wasn't sure how to feel about the fact that even if Ise couldn't seem to seal the deal for the life of him all his clients kept giving him glowing reviews and becoming repeat customers. "The price varies according to the wish, but if it's within my power to make it happen, than I will do so."

One more time, the boy looked at the girl on the bed, and Rias felt her heart reaching out to the boy at the desperate longing in his features. It only lasted for a moment, and when he looked back at her she felt her breath hitch slightly.

There was nothing but determination in his gaze, a resolution so solid and unshakable that Rias had no doubt that no matter what the price, he would pay it gladly.

"Save her," he ordered Rias, "and I'll give anything you ask."

Rias smiled at him, a gentle and encouraging expression. "Can you tell me exactly what the situation is? If it is within my power, and if you can pay the price, than I will do so."

The boy tensed, and then sagged in relief, falling back onto the chair that he had been sitting on when she first came. His eyes turned to the girl, no, to the helmet on the girl's head.

"I guess since you're a devil, you don't know much about the human world, right?" the boy asked, and despite the fact that Rias in fact loved the human world, adoring Japan in particular, she let the boy explain at his own pace. "That thing, on her head," he pointed at the helmet, "it's called a NerveGear. And if we try to take it off, it will kill her."

"What do you mean?" Rias asked, surprised at his declaration. Sure, humans made all kinds of strange things. But a helmet that kills the wearer when it's taken off? Why would anyone make such a thing? Had some enemy of the family forced it on her? And how long had it been on? The girl was so thin, it must have been a long time.

"It's supposed to be used for virtual reality gaming," the boy explained, before grimacing. "I mean, er, you know what that means, right?" he asked awkwardly, and rather than be offended at having him assume that she didn't know something as simple as that, she just nodded. "Well, two years ago, someone, er, sabotaged a game, and made it so that it would kill anyone who would take off the helmet. A lot of people were trapped for a long time, but recently they were finally able to free most of them. However, about three hundred of the trapped people haven't woken up. No one knows what's happened to them, or what went wrong. Asu-" he stopped mid word, giving Rias a cautious look.

Rias was curious for a moment, but then recognized the hesitation. There were a lot of rumors about devils being able to control people if they know their names and such, so it also wasn't uncommon for those who summoned them to be hesitant to say their real names around devils.

"She is one of them," the boy finally finished. He gave her a desperate look as he finished. "So," he continued. "Can you do it? Can you take the NerveGear of her head without killing her?"

"Hmm," Rias hummed, considering the request. She needed a bit more information to be sure, but probably… "How does it kill them?"

"The battery," he explained pointing to the back of the bulky helmet. "It has a large power reserve. When they were sabotaged, it was made so that they would release a focused EMP into the brain, destroying it."

"I see," Rias nodded, already considering the request. For a moment, she thought of using her first bishop, Gasper, but she suppressed a grimace and realized that wouldn't work. Sure, Forbidden Balor View could stop the machine in time and let them remove it, but since he still couldn't control it if he lost control at the wrong moment than just what the boy might fear could come to pass. "Can the machine be tampered with?"

"No," the boy instantly shook his head. "When it first happened, some of the authorities tried. It, it didn't end well."

"Hmmm," Rias hummed, deciding that simply vaporizing the headpiece with her power of destruction was out as well. The power destroyed everything it touched, but there was no guarantee she would be able to destroy it completely before it went off if it was like the boy said.

'Maybe I'm doing this all the wrong way,' Rias realized, her mind turning to the newest member of her peerage.

"What are you doing?" the boy asked as a red circle started to glow in front of Rias. She gave him a reassuring smile.

"I'm consulting a fellow devil," she reassured him, focusing on her own summoning. With a flash, it was no longer just the three of them in the room.

"R-Rias-sama?" Asia Argento gasped, the new devil looking around in confusion and nervousness. "W-what's going on? Where am I?"

"It's fine, Asia," Rias smiled at the former nun, current devil. "I just needed to ask you a question about your Sacred Gear…"

*Scene Break*

"Are you sure it will work?" the boy asked tightly, obvious concern warring with just as obvious hope.

"Yes," Asia declared, nodding emphatically at the boy. "I've used my Sacred Gear like this before, back when," she trailed off, no doubt recalling her time as a holy maiden before the church had shunned her. "Back before."

"There you have it," Rias nodded, smiling to reassure the boy. He was tense a moment longer, before he again sagged, letting out a breath as he shook in relief. She almost felt bad when she continued. "But before we save her, we have to discuss the price."

She had been summoned here as a devil to do a devil's job. Even if she felt for the boy, even if it's something she wouldn't mind doing, it was still necessary for her to take her payment.

"Name it," the boy told her directly, looking up with intense eyes. Rias nodded, glad to see that determination.

"Just a moment," she told him, pulling out her cellphone. The boy twitched when he saw her, a devil, with such a normal looking device. "I just have to load my app…"

"They have an app for that kind of thing?" the boy muttered, staring as Rias fiddled with her phone.

"I was startled too," Asia told the boy, smiling bashfully. "I'm still a new devil, so it's really surprising when I first saw it."

"The underworld tries to be progressive for this kind of thing," Rias informed the both of them, off hand as she input the wish. She had to smother a giggle as she remembered the way Ise had gaped at her when she had shown him the price calculation app on her phone before she had sent him off on his bike for his first night doing a devil's work. "Using this, we can always ensure that we devils are charging an appropriate price."

"This is so surreal," the boy muttered, still staring. Rias finished inputting the boy's wish into the app, and hit the submit button.

The answer she got back made her blink, her eyebrows lifting in surprise.

"This is…" she muttered, before shaking her head in surprise. "Just one more moment." The boy watched, starting to get nervous as she retyped the wish. When the same answer came up, she pursed her lips.

"What is it?" the boy asked, leaning forward as he watched her closely. "What's the price? No matter what it is, I'll pay it…"

"The price," Rias began, lowering her phone to give the boy a serious look. "The price is that you reincarnate as a devil, and join my peerage."

"Peerage?" the boy repeated, head cocked to the side in confusion, obviously not understanding what she was saying.

"Ah," Asia was the one who spoke up nervously. "It means…"

As the newest devil in the room spoke to the boy, Rias pursed her lips, considering him as well. She had heard of prices like this. It wasn't uncommon at all, actually. Not all people had the same worth, and the price for some could be different from others, even if they had the same wish. Sometimes, to serve under the devil who was granting it was the best price to be had. It usually happened to someone of great skill, or who had a specific talent, or Sacred Gear. If someone like that, who had an ability, made a wish of some magnitude, then to serve the devil who granted it was the best price for them.

The thing was, she couldn't sense anything from the boy. Even as she studied him, no Sacred Gear presence revealed itself, no secret or special trait became clear. He was just a skinny boy, one who had probably been through the same circumstances as the girl on the bed if his state meant anything. It was unlikely that he had done anything heroic, or had any great hidden talent.

And yet still, the price remained the same. It wasn't impossible for her. She had the necessary Evil Pieces left. Even if reincarnating Ise had taken six pawns she had two left. She still had a rook and a knight as well.

Despite the fact that she could see no reason for it, she found herself curious. What made the boy special enough that the only price for helping the girl was that he serve her?

"Well?" she finally asked as Asia finished explaining just what a peerage was to the boy. "You know the price. Are you still willing?"

"Ah," Asia chimed in, putting her hands in front of her earnestly. "It's not that bad, mister client! Rias-sama is very kind, and she has taken good care of me since I turned too!"

The boy looked at her, conflict obvious in his eyes. And then, he looked at the girl in the bed one more time. The conflict disappeared.

"Do it," he told her, turning back with resolute eyes. "I don't care if you're the kindest person in the world or the cruelest. I'll do it. Even if I have to serve you forever, that's a cheap price to pay to save her."

"What fine resolution," Rias beamed at him. Even if he didn't have any outstanding features that she could see, she found herself approving of his attitude. He was a man who was willing to follow through with his ideals, who cared enough about others to even put himself at risk. Someone with an attitude like that, who cared so strongly, someone like that would be a fine addition to her peerage! She could always find someone to train him later, or help him develop the skills he needed to fight in the Rating Games. "What's your name, you who are soon to serve me?"

"Ki-," he began, before glancing down again. He seemed to come to some kind of conclusion. "Kirito."

"Well then, Kirito," she greeted him kindly, despite the fact that she was sure it wasn't his real name. "Let's set about granting your wish."

After such long negotiations and confusion, and after the dramatic revelation of the price, the task itself was over almost before it began. With Asia's Twilight Healing, even the damage of an EMP was gone in a matter of moments. Rias set the helmet on the table, giving it no more than a glance. She was busy watching Kirito as he hovered next to the girl.

"Ki…ri…to…kun?" the girl's lips moved, and even with devil hearing Rias was barely able to make it out. Kirito, who was right next to her, shook, and Rias could see splashes as tears fell onto the blanket beneath him.

"Asuna," he whispered. As though prompted by his words, the girl, Asuna, opened her eyes.

"Kirito-kun. Is it really you?" she whispered, and she blinked as her own eyes started to water. "I'm not dreaming… am I?"

"It's over, Asuna," Kirito told her, and when one of her thin arms trembled, reaching up to him, he took it in both of his. "It's over. You're finally free…"

"Let's just go get a doctor, Asia," Rias said to the blonde. The former nun's eyes were starting to water as she watched the touching scene, and even Rias was starting to get misty eyed as she watched the touching reunion. Ushering out the other girl, Rias left the two to their reunion.

*Scene Break*

"Are you ready then, Kirito?" Rias asked the boy in black. It had taken nearly an hour before she had the chance to catch him alone. She had sent Asia back a while ago, and had since then waited patiently as excited doctors and nurses, and then several men and women in expensive clothes gathered as well. She had looked on in bemused curiosity as even a few police officers appeared, and one of those men in expensive clothes had been dragged out of the hospital, screaming obscenities the whole time. Her soon to be servant Kirito had seemed particularly satisfied at that scene too for some reason.

"Yeah," the boy in black said, smiling contentedly. He seemed so at peace that Rias couldn't help but be happy for her soon to be servant. It was the Gremory way to treasure their peerage as family, and her soon to be new little brother's happiness only made her happy as well. "Thank you, Gremory-san. For this, I'll gladly serve you forever."

"I'm glad," she told him, drawing one of her remaining pawns before he. Deliberately, she put it to his chest. "Well then, Kirito-kun. Welcome to my peerage."

*Scene Break*

"Ara, ara," Akeno had a hand to her mouth as she poured tea. Rias gave her Queen a curious look, glancing up from the paperwork in front of her. "So just when are we going to get to meet the newest member of our club, Buchou?"

It had been two days since Rias had welcomed her newest pawn, and so far it had been a bit more trouble than she had expected. She had requested that Kirito, or Kirigaya Kazuto as his full name turned out to be, transfer to Kuoh High so he could be with the rest of her peerage, and while he had agreed, it was turning out a little harder to arrange the transfer than she had anticipated.

For some reason, the people who ran his current high school were reluctant to let him transfer. The initial paperwork had been turned down out of hand, and Rias had had to personally go, and use a bit of her devil magic to make the paperwork go through. It was highly unusual, and Rias frowned at the delay.

"Soon, Akeno," Rias answered her Queen. "Kirito-kun should be transferring sometime next week."

"I can't wait to meet the young man," Akeno smiled. "It's so romantic, to use your wish for your girlfriend. I'd like to see such a gentleman up close…"

"I'm also interested in meeting our new friend," Kiba smiled, sipping his own tea as he did so. "From what you've said of him, he seems like a splendid gentleman."

"…better than the pervert," Koneko added, the tiny girl snacking like she normally did so.

"Who's better than who know?" Issei chimed in, just coming in through the door as he caught the tail end of the conversation. Since he still didn't have the demonic power to use the summoning circle in the room, so out of all of Rias peerage he was the one who was away from the club the most.

"Ara?" Akeno put a hand to her cheek in surprise. "Didn't anyone tell you, Ise-kun?"

"Tell me what?" the boy asked, scratching his cheek in confusion.

"It seems," Rias began, smiling at the boy as she began to explain, only to pause in surprise as a summoning circle formed under her.

"Again?" Akeno clucked her tongue, and Rias shared her Queen's surprise. To receive two summons so close together? Who else could possibly have a wish that would require a high class devil?

Despite her confusion, Rias stood and allowed the summons to take her. Her confusion only doubled when she found herself once more in a hospital. No, not just a hospital: the exact same hospital as the last time she was summoned! And the same room at that!

"You," a raspy female voice cut through her thoughts, so much accusation and hostility in it that Rias found herself belated pointing at herself as though to confirm that yes, it was she who was being spoken to. "You're the devil, aren't you? The one that made a deal with my Kirito-kun?"

"Me?" Rias found herself honestly out of sorts by the blunt accusation, before she recognized who she was talking to. "Ah, Asuna wasn't it?"

"Yes," Asuna nodded weakly. Rias took in the sight of the girl. She was propped so she could be seated in the bed, and her thin arms were folded in front of her. Despite the fact that they shook from the effort, one hand clutched tightly to a copy of the summoning crest. "I think I recognize you from that night, but you are her, right? The devil he made a contract with?"

"Yes," Rias admitted, still uncertain of the situation. "I, Gremory Rias, am the devil who made a contract with Kirito-kun." She hesitated as Asuna's eyes narrowed when she used her servant's nickname. "But how did you know? You shouldn't know about things like devils…"

"He told me," Asuna interrupted, before coughing. The girl's feeble hands starting grasping for a cup of water at her bedside, and despite her hostility Rias quickly made her way over to help. Rias couldn't help herself, seeing how weak the poor girl looked. It would probably take her a while to regain her strength, and even then she would probably have the same gauntness as her new servant did for a while before she properly regained all her weight. "Last night. When I asked how he saved me, he told me everything." Asuna paused, and despite her obvious dislike for Rias she mumbled out a quick, "thank you," after she finished a sip of her water.

"Devils aren't supposed to talk about that kind of thing with those who aren't involved," Rias sighed to herself. "I'll have to scold him for this afterwards."

"Not involved?" Asuna scowled again, glaring at Rias. The devil watched as the girl's eyes slipped down, before she glanced at herself and the scowl doubled. Rias wondered why for a moment, before the girl started glaring at her again.

Wait, not at her specifically, but at…

Ah. That would explain it. Ise would often stare at her breasts too, but Rias was pretty sure the reason Asuna was glaring at hers was for a completely different reason.

"Asuna-san," Rias began soothingly, smiling at the girl. "There is nothing for you to worry about. Even if he is my servant, it doesn't mean that Kirito has any obligation to me in that way." Still, even as she explained herself, Rias found herself smiling at the girl. Those two, her servant and the girl he had saved, they were so touching together! "I promise, that I will not interfere in your relationship." Asuna's face flushed red at the word 'relationship'. "It's not uncommon for devils and humans to be together, so there will be no reason the two of you can't…"

"That's not what I'm worried about!" Asuna interrupted, sounding as embarrassed as she was angry. "Kirito-kun is my husband, and I know he'll never betray me."

"Husband?" Rias blinked, surprised at the title. Those two were already married? They must love each other deeply to be married so young! Rias resolved to do everything she could to support her newest pawns relationship! It was so romantic! "Congratulations!"

"Thanks," Asuna muttered sullenly again, blushing at the obvious encouragement. She clenched her lips tightly for a moment, and gave the contract in her hand one more look. "You grant wishes, right?"

"Oh," Rias straightened, understanding. So the other girl hadn't just called her here to confront her on behalf of her boyfriend, no, her husband. "So you wish to make a contract?"

Rias could think of a dozen things the girl might wish for. Maybe to regain her health, so she could be with her husband faster?

"Yes," Asuna nodded to herself, before meeting Rias' eyes directly. "I wish to be with Kirito-kun forever."

"That…" Rias was surprised at the wish. It was so straightforward that she couldn't help but blink. It wasn't uncommon for devils to get that kind of wish from young girls. Unfortunately, something so broad and unspecific typically had a price that couldn't be paid. After all, people weren't worth the same, and if everyone who summoned a devil and wished for a harem, or to be rich, could have that wish granted than it would just be ridiculous. "Well, one moment please…"

"So devils really use phone apps," Asuna muttered, looking as incredulous as Kirito had the time before. Rias still couldn't help a smile at the expression. It really was one of her secret joys when people got so worked up over the price app.

"The price of your wish is…" Rias cut herself off, eyes narrowing as she stared at the answer before her.

Again. Again, the answer was service in her peerage.

Not just once, but twice now. This girl, she had no special powers, no Sacred Gear, no noteworthy accomplishments that Rias could tell, except for perhaps living through something unpleasant. And yet again, despite that, she had been deemed worthy of reincarnation.

'Once could be an accident,' Rias thought to herself. 'But twice? And from people so obviously connected? What's going on here?'

"The price?" Asuna prompted, narrowing her eyes in suspicion.

"The price," Rias began, before deciding that something like this couldn't just be coincidence. There must be a reason that she had met the two. There must be a reason that the exact same number of remaining pawn pieces could cover this situation. "The price is that you join Kirito in my peerage."

The look in Asuna's eyes wasn't surprise, or confusion. Rias could only classify it as 'triumphant'.

"Perfect," the bedridden girl declared fiercely.

Part 2

Kiba's first impression of the first of his peerage's new pawn was that he seemed rather lazy.

The day had gone on much like it normally did for the knight, and just like he usually did when the final bell of the day rang he headed straight to the Occult Research Clubroom. Most of the time, he would have to take a minute or two to greet one of the many girls that would inevitably greet him, but for the most part he would use club activities as a way to keep those meetings brief.

It wasn't that he particularly minded the way so many girls always tried to get his attention or invite him on outings. Kiba knew, objectively, that he was a good looking guy. It wasn't that he was vain, or that he took pride in his appearance, but not even acknowledging the fact that he had an above average appearance was just lacking in self-awareness, bordering on denial.

Kiba was attractive. He knew that if he wanted to, he could probably use that attractiveness to launch himself well on the way of fulfilling Ise's dream of a harem. However, Ise's dream was a lot different from Kiba's dream.

Someday, he would have his revenge on the organization and the weapons which had betrayed and killed him. Having a girlfriend had nothing to do with that revenge, and so having a girlfriend wasn't something that he was interested in.

It's because of this, that Kiba often found himself the first person to arrive in the club room. Rias and Akeno were often held up either by their classmates or with their own personal errands. Ise and Asia were both relatively new, but they also had social obligations and friends outside of the club, so they frequently took a little longer to make their way in.

The only person who ever beat him to the classroom, even if it was only occasionally, was Koneko. The tiny rook was so reticent about socializing outside of the club that she rarely had any reason to linger after class ended too.

This particular day ended up being one of the days where Koneko managed to beat him, but it was with some surprise that he realized that she wasn't the only person in the room.

"And who is this?" Kiba asked as he paused, taking in the sight that waited him when he entered.

"…intruder?" Koneko offered, though her tone sounded hesitant.

"An intruder that would break into our clubroom just to have a nap?" Kiba offered dubiously.

The person that the two of them were watching was a boy, who had apparently made himself right at home on one of the couches that circled the coffee table at the center of the room. He looked young, and was really just a little too thin. Wearing casual clothing all in the shade of black, the young man had both hands tucked under his head, his eyes closed and his expression peaceful as he breathed softly.

"…apprehend?" Koneko offered after a moment, and Kiba shook his head slowly as he finished making his way into the room.

"Maybe," he offered slowly, moving so that he could stand next to Koneko as he did so. "But maybe we should wake him first. Maybe he has a reason for being here?"

"…suspicious," Koneko disagreed, and Kiba found himself agreeing with her slightly.

After all, Kiba could feel the demonic power in the boy, the pulse of it prickling at his sixth sense gently but noticeably. Just what reason could some random devil have to do with…

'Ah,' Kiba realized. 'Maybe he's…'

"Kirigaya Kazuto," the boy spoke up, causing Kiba to jump slightly as he realized that the other boy wasn't as asleep as he looked. Kiba glanced at him, but found that even if he was speaking, his eyes were still closed and his expression still peaceful. "We haven't been introduced yet, but if I understand how this works, I suppose I'm one of the new pawns in Gremory-san's peerage." He finally opened his eyes to look at the two other devils directly. "Please call me Kirito."

"Ah," Kiba nodded, relaxing slightly as he smiled at the newcomer. With the introduction out of the way, he took a moment to study his new fellow devil more carefully. Thin, with messy dark hair and eyes so dark they looked black in the light; Kiba took in the boy's delicate features as well. It looked like Ise was going to have another 'damn handsome' to curse soon enough. "Buchou had mentioned you before, but she said she was having trouble arranging your transfer…"

"I'm not surprised," Kirito said with a sigh, eyes already drifting close as though keeping them open longer than he had to was a task too difficult to bother with. "Considering my school, I'm surprised she managed to arrange a transfer at all."

"Why's that?" Kiba prompted him, but the other boy just shook his head with a grimace, before he finally pushed himself upright, swinging his feet so he could take a normal sitting position.

"Never mind," he sighed, before studying the other two carefully. "Gremory-san finally managed to arrange it, so I should be starting here at Kuoh tomorrow. She wanted me to come in the day before so she could introduce me, and I ended up arriving a bit earlier than I thought I would. When I saw no one else here, I decided to take a nap while I was waiting. I hope you don't mind."

"No, not at all," Kiba answered, feeling bemused. Maybe it was too early to tell, but the first impression that he was getting towards the new pawn was of a somewhat carefree and straightforward person. "We still have some time before the others gather, but allow me to make my introduction now. I'm Kiba Yuuto."

Kirito nodded at the knight, and gave awkward half smile at the introduction. He turned his attention to the other person present expectantly. Dark eyes met hazel, but when Koneko didn't speak immediately, Kirito just waited patiently. Finally, the girl spoke up.

"…Toujou Koneko." With her piece said, the smaller girl turned to make her way to the small kitchen off from the main room so she could gather her customary snacks.

"She doesn't talk much, does she?" Kirito noted, not sounding upset about being spoken to so shortly.

"Not really," Kiba admitted, rubbing his head in embarrassment for his junior. "The other's aren't here yet, and can sometimes take a bit of time to arrive. Can I get you anything while we wait?"

"No thank you," Kirito told him, before he yawned briefly. "You don't mind if…?" he asked drowsily, nodding his head towards the couch again, and Kiba blinked.

"Uh," he began, honestly out of his depth by the request. "No, I don't mind at all?"

"Thanks," Kirito gave him a brief grin, before resuming his prone position.

'What an odd person,' Kiba thought to himself as he took a seat, pulling out his homework as he did so. He always preferred to get it out of the way before he started the devil's work at night.

*Scene Break*

Normally Kiba had no problem at all getting his homework done. He was always sure to study diligently, and he was an intelligent person naturally, so usually it didn't take him long at all to finish. However, today he was discovering something unusual, and was having trouble finishing as quickly as he did so.

At first he wasn't certain if he was just imagining it, but when Koneko finally spoke up to confirm it, he realized it wasn't just him.


"What was that?" Kiba blinked rapidly, jerking as he did so as he realized that he had been starting to nod off.

"…contagious," Koneko repeated, and when Kiba glanced at her he found that she too was blinking. Her eyelids were drooping, and even though she continued to snack like she normally did, her pace was slow, even for her usual deliberate eating speed.

"What's contagious?" Kiba prompted, shaking himself as he realized that his hand had actually slipped at one point while he was nodding off and left a long line across his otherwise neat homework.

"…sleeping," Koneko explained finally. "Look."

Kiba obediently turned to follow her finger.

If he was a lesser man, the sight that greeted him might have caused him to gape.

"All of you…" he shook his head, not quite sure what the proper response to the scene before him was. At some point in time in the last half hour, Kirito had company join him on the couch. He didn't seem inclined to wake despite the fact that just about every familiar for the devils of the Gremory peerage had both appeared, and apparently claimed a position somewhere on his body as they joined him in his nap. Koneko's cat had curled up on his lap while Kiba's own bird had claimed his chest. Akeno's onis had lined up on his legs, three for each side, and despite the fact that it looked uncomfortable they seemed deep asleep as well. Kiba was astonished to realize that even Rias' bat had joined in, though she was hanging off the sleeve of Kirito's shirtsleeve from the arm that was sticking out from over the edge of the couch.

"What on earth is going on here?" Kiba muttered, staring at the sleeping devil adorned with a variety of small animals. "Isn't it unusual for the familiars of others to be comfortable with strange devils?" Despite himself, he suppressed a yawn as he waited for Koneko to reply. When none came he turned to see what she was doing. "Koneko?"

"…nya," was the only response he got from the girl who had apparently succumb as well, having curled up on her own couch and looking much like her familiar did with her sleep position.

"Even you, Koneko?" he muttered, staring at the now sleeping girl with a loss of composure that would have shocked many of the girls who harbored a crush on him. He turned with narrowed eyes back to the sleeping Kirito. "Some kind of soporific effect?" he muttered, wondering if perhaps the newly changed devil was somehow unconsciously using his demonic power to cause this scene. "Is that even possible?"

When Kiba realized that he was starting to blink drowsily again, he decided that maybe it was time for him to brew some coffee.

He was sipping his second cup of it fifteen minutes later when noise from the corridor alerted him to the approach of what was presumably the rest of the club. Hastily, he stored the cup of coffee back in the kitchen and sat himself back with his homework.

"Yuuto-kun," Rias greeted him boldly as she strode into the clubroom without a pause. "I see you're here already. Good, I'm sorry I'm late, but I'm expecting…" she trailed off, blinking in surprise as she took in the sight of the sleeping familiars and the dozing nekomata.

"My goodness," Akeno blinked as she followed the redhead in, one hand coming up to cover her mouth in surprise as she also took witness of the scene. "What on earth happened here?"

"It seems that Kirito-kun came a bit early," Kiba explained, deciding that for now he would keep his suspicions about his new club mate's infectious dozing to himself.

Part Three

Akeno couldn't quite hold back the tension she was feeling, but she could certainly look like that wasn't the case.

The 'Priestess of Thunder' was by no means a weak girl. Though she cursed the blood in her veins for the taint it carried, she was still half fallen angel, and had been reincarnated as a devil as well. She was a queen class servant, and her powers were nothing to scoff at…

At least, that was what she told herself, as she tried her best not to sweat at the sheer, overwhelming, chilling, and downright horrifying power that the silver haired maid sitting near her King, Rias Gremory, was emitting.

'Grayfia-san is as amazing as always,' the queen of Rias Gremory thought to herself, adding in the customary 'Ofufufu' in her head even as she struggled to maintain her usual calm Japanese beauty persona. It was hard to maintain a sense of superiority or pride when you were standing next to one of the women of the underworld that could have seriously competed for the title 'strongest female devil' until they decided to throw it all away in the name of love.

Akeno had at one point or another thought that even maintaining a sense of relaxation was hard in the presence of Grayfia Lucifuge. That belief was being challenged quite thoroughly by her two kohai's that were currently resting on a nearby couch.

"Ojou-sama," aforementioned maid of the apocalypse began, disapproval obvious in her tone. "Are you sure that it is appropriate…"

"Its fine," Rias declared, some of the tension easing out of her body as she turned a look in the direction that Grayfia's own disapproving one went.

"My apologies," the chestnut haired girl sitting on the couch began, though she didn't look at all apologetic. Instead, she seemed content to spend her time smiling gently at the dark haired head resting in her lap. "Though we are servants of house Gremory, we are still inexperienced in the ways of devils. Gremory-sama has been most generous in allowing us time to adapt."

"I've said it before," Rias sighed good naturedly besides Akeno. "Asuna, won't you please simply call me 'Buchou'?"

"If Gremory-sama asks, then I suppose there is nothing else I can do for Gremory-sama other than to comply," Asuna replied politely, smiling innocently. "After all, Gremory-sama's wishes must be fulfilled, and whatever it is Gremory-sama requests, than it is my duty to fulfill that request for Gremory-sama."

Normally, Akeno would have something to say about such blatant insubordination. That was normally, however. This, this was a special case.

This newcomer, the single pawn known as 'Asuna' had only shown up recently in the Occult Research Club. Akeno was aware, passingly, of her history: a girl who had recently recovered from a long time illness, aided by her devoted boyfriend at the cost of him joining the peerage. Afterwards, after learning the price her boyfriend, no, 'husband' according to both Asuna and Rias, had paid, she had thrown herself into the same pact so she could be with him forever.

It was just so romantic! Even now, with the 'Ultimate Queen' standing nearby, with everything else afflicting her King, Akeno still couldn't suppress a delicious shiver at the thought of it.

The boy, no, the man, willing to give it all to be able to save his lover! The lover, on learning what her man did, throwing it all aside to be with him as well! It was almost as romantic as Grayfia-san's own love story!

Akeno had to physically suppress the urge to lick her lips as she eyed the dozing Kirito, blissfully unconscious on the lap pillow that his woman, Yuuki Asuna, was providing for him. Even with the tension of Grayfia's disapproving look on him, he somehow managed to sleep peacefully on the thighs of his lover.

It was almost enough to get her 'affair point' up and running. There were only two things that kept Akeno, the 'Ultimate S', from trying to make a move on the romantic young boy.

The first, was, quite frankly, the fact that Asuna, despite being a pawn, unnerved Akeno greatly. Akeno knew, both because her Queen Rias had confirmed it and because she herself had checked, that the girl, Asuna, was no threat. She had no Sacred Gear, no hidden ability. Asuna was just a girl, unlucky with her circumstances and just recovering from a long and ravaging illness. Even now, even with her devil heritage, even with regular treatment from Asia-chan's Twilight Healing, the poor girl was only now starting to reach the point where her original appearance was starting to show. The gauntness of long illness was starting to fade, and the curves of a beautiful young girl were starting to reemerge.

Despite that, Akeno couldn't shrug off a faint feeling of uneasiness when the younger girl was around. Asuna…

Asuna had eyes like daggers, quick and easy to pierce. She had the air of a blade in the moonlight, right before it cut.

They were good eyes, in Akeno's humble opinion. They showed a good chance that whatever the reason serving in a peerage had been the proscribed price that at least she would serve well.

The other reason that Akeno's 'affair point' never quite was reached was… well….

They were just so cute together!

Akeno had been around many a couple in her time. She had seen dozens upon dozens of ways that people could interact with their loved ones. The two of them were rapidly reaching the top of her chart of absolute favorite to watch, and that was even including soap operas and other fictional couples!

The way Kirito absolutely devoted himself to her in the first few days after she started attending, attending her as though she was a princess. The way Asuna shyly tried to handle hardships on her own, only for him to just as gently step in whenever she was weak. The way when the two of them were alone she shamelessly spoiled him. The way when even when others were watching, they sometimes drifted off into their own world, a world where apparently it was always spring because sometimes Akeno would SWEAR she saw flowers and sunlight glistening around them…

Even if Asuna would sometimes push the bounds of propriety, she still did so politely and in an appropriate manner. Akeno had heard that the other girl came from a well to do family, for a human anyway. And Rias never seemed to take offense, always just playfully bantering with the younger girl. Akeno supposed it was just another sign of the Gremory's well-known love of their peerages. Spoiling a kohai was right along with her king's modus operandus.

Still, considering the circumstances of the two newest pawns aside, there were other matters to worry about. Akeno had to suppress a yawn. She had been up for most of the night, supporting her King as she fiercely negotiated with her family. So far, prospects didn't look good.

When the door finally opened and the last three members of the peerage arrived, Akeno felt like sighing in relief.

"Looks like you all finally arrived," Rias greeted them calmly. "Before club can begin, there's something I need to tell you all."

"Would you like me to explain, Ojou-sama?" Grayfia offered politely, but Rias just waived her off.

"The truth is-" Rias began, but before she could finish, Akeno's eyes narrowed as a teleportation ring developed in the classroom.

'He would even come here?' Akeno suppressed a scowl. 'That man! He just won't give up, will he?'

"It's been a while since I came to the human world," the newcomer who appeared in a blaze of fire. Akeno glared at him, casually dressed in a red suit and slouching insolently.

Raiser Phoenix. Rias' fiancé. And an insufferable playboy that seemed to embody everything Akeno detested about men in general.

'Kirito-kun, Ise-kun, never turn out like him,' Akeno thought to herself as the meeting started degenerating almost immediately.

*Scene Break*

"Mira, do it," Raiser ordered, glaring at Ise as the boy valiantly defended his king. It would have made Akeno smile to see him so energetic, if it wasn't for the fact that a moment later one of the phoenix's pawns moved as well, striking down her kohai right in front of her.

It burned Akeno, more than she would ever admit out loud, to see one of her precious family being attacked like that. And when Raiser began to laugh and insult her foolish surrogate little brother, it was all she could do to keep from sparking, literally, as her power of thunder raged to be released.

"Sacred Gear or not, it's pearls before swine if only a weakling like you can use it!" Raiser straightened, leering down at the shame faced young man. Akeno was already seething, but when Raiser turned to the two newest members of the peerage with the same leer, her rage only doubled. "But I hear you aren't the weakest one, at least."

Asuna realized that it looked like it was her turn to be targeted, but she didn't seem overly concerned. Akeno watched as she simply picked up a butter knife, and began to casually spread butter on a scone that had been prepared. She looked so casual, that it helped Akeno get her own concern under control.

That and the fact that despite everything that had happened in the room, and it had gotten quite noisy over the last few minutes, Kirito-kun was, astonishingly, still sleeping as though he didn't have a concern in the world!

"A single pawn each, no Sacred Gear," Riser sneered as he approached the two. Asuna's eyes narrowed, and a complicate flash sparked in her hand. Akeno only caught sight of it from the corner of her eye, too busy preparing to interfere, propriety be damned, if Riser tried anything with her littlest siblings. She had only seen it briefly, a flash… had that been the butter knife?

"A pair of weaklings, barely out of the sick bed." Riser laughed through his nose, giving a contemptuous look at the still sleeping Kirito. "Still, at least one of them has potential," he gave Asuna a lecherous look, and in response her eyes narrowed. "Given a little more care, maybe a flower will bloom…"

It happened fast, so fast that Akeno barely even realized something was happening before it was over. Raiser had been reaching forward to cup Asuna's chin provocatively, and then he had frozen, unable to understand just how a butter knife had ended up less than a centimeter away from penetrating his right eye. Akeno could barely understand it either, even as she watched the knife tremble as the girl who had only a moment ago been spreading cream on a treat stopped just short of striking what would normally be a lethal blow.

No. Not stopped: was stopped.

"Asuna," Kirito mumbled, sounding sleepy despite the fact that his own arm was up, holding firmly but gently to the brunette's wrist and keeping her from finishing the strike. "You can't kill Buchou's guest."

"He's a phoenix," Asuna protested, tone less calm then the boy in her lap, her tone laced with disgust and contempt. "He'd recover. And some people just can't be reached with words. It's better to take a firm hand with them from the start."

"I can think of a number of people from the Army who would probably disagree with you," Kirito murmured, sounding nostalgic, "though they were just that sort of people too, weren't they?"

Despite the inanity of their conversation, Akeno couldn't suppress a reflective intake of breath, the shock forcing it out of her. What had just happened? She hadn't seen any preparation, any hesitation. She hadn't even seen Asuna move! One moment the knife was simply being held near a plate, the next there was a streak, and by the time her brain had caught up there was this outrageous scene in front of her! Beside her, Akeno could make out Rias as she too straightened, a similar expression of shock on her features.

How… How could someone like Asuna move like that? She was a girl with no special characteristics, who had just recovered from a long illness. She still had trouble moving around too much during the day, and she underwent special rehabilitation during the night when her devil's strength let her move around well enough for her to properly exercise!

No, more than that…

Akeno hadn't even been able to see the move; if that was so, then how did Kirito, dark and lazy, who rarely missed an opportunity to nap, how had he managed to stop that insane speed?

Just like it had thrown of her and Rias, Akeno could see the shock hit Raiser as well. A bead of sweat and widened eyes locked on the blade so close to his were obvious. For a moment, Akeno could see the pure surprise there, and wondered just how the shock of the blow would have affected his ability to resurrect. A phoenix's immortality depended on their state of mind, and a blow like that might just have hampered his ability to recover.

Then Raiser himself seemed to realize how he looked, and his expression darkened. Angry, probably at both the attack and his display of weakness, he straightened, slapping the hand holding the knife away.

"You dare…!" he began, working himself into a proper rage, as his peerage also began to make angry sounds of shock and surprise.

"Sorry about that," Kirito interrupted again, his voice calm and reasonable, and still just a little sleepy. "She's recently had an issue with unwanted male attention and she's still a little touchy about it. Let's just leave things like this, and let bygones be bygones, okay?"

"You think I'll just let an attack on the noble House of the Phoenix go unpunished?" Raiser demanded, outrage obvious in his tone at the thought of a low class devil talking to him so casually. No, Akeno realized, outrage at the fact that he had shown weakness, had been brought up short by someone who was supposed to be the weakest in the room.

"Yeah, I do," Kirito said bluntly and opened his eyes to give a frank look at the outraged devil. Akeno started again when she realized it was the first time he had opened his eyes the entire meeting. How had he caught Asuna's attack then? "After all, didn't you just have an unwarranted attack on a pawn of House Gremory?" Kirito reminded the other demon, nodding towards where an unusually quiet Ise was still recovering, watching the scene with obvious confusion. "Let's just call it even. Besides," Kirito gave a crooked smile. "If things go much further, I think that scary maid-san might get involved."

"Indeed," Grayfia spoke up, and Akeno started again when she realized she hadn't even seen the Ultimate Queen move, but that the silver haired woman was indeed standing off to the side but positioned between both the pawns on the couch and the King standing near them. Her tone was icy, calm, but obviously serious. "As an observer of House Lucifer, I will not allow this meeting to degenerate any further."

"Tch," Raiser ground his teeth, but the threat at least managed to calm him down enough for him to back away. "As though I would be bothered to lower myself to dealing with trash!" Despite his words, Akeno could see just how agitated Raiser was. After having been shaken like that, it seemed his need to bluster only increased. "Still, it wouldn't be much of a match if three obvious weakling baby devils were involved. How about it, Rias? Let's have the match in ten days. We could do it now, but that just wouldn't be interesting."

"Are you giving me a handicap." Rias said it flatly, but she didn't outright refuse. Akeno could already see the way her King's mind was racing, her eyes darting between her foe, and towards the two on the couch. With the trouble gone, Akeno was unable to really be surprised at how Kirito had already settled himself back down, though Asuna was still holding the knife. This time Akeno was able to catch it when she flicked it again, spinning it around her thumb with the ease of long practice the way an officer worker might flick a pen. The move was fast, the blade just a blur, and she caught it easily and without so much as nicking herself. "Very well then, Raiser Phoenix! In ten days I will blow you away!"

Even as the Phoenix continued to posture, Akeno was grateful for the ten days being offered. It would give them a chance to help train up Ise, who still needed to get used to his Sacred Gear. It would also give them a chance to try and figure out the increasingly mysterious duo that had joined the peerage so short a time ago.

Part Four

Kiba emerged from the woods along the steps up to the Gremory cabin feeling vaguely satisfied. He had noticed several wild vegetables and herbs, and even though he never considered himself much of a woodsman he still knew enough to harvest them safely.

They'd add a little spice to the evening's cooking, that much was sure!

As he brushed a few stray leaves off his sleeve, he glanced around to see the state of his companions.

"…find anything?" Koneko's question drew a glance, and he realized that the nekomata had held back to keep even with him. The two of them were trailing behind the rest, so it gave Kiba a chance to glance up and take in the scene.

"Hurry Ise, quick!" Rias was at the front of the group, skipping idly in an airy sundress, looking all the world as though she was just a rich princess on a day trip. She didn't seem affected at all by the truly strenuous climb that had consumed the better part of a quarter of the day so far.

"…Should I help?" Asia nearly whimpered, looking back down the trail hesitantly as though she was uncertain that she should be walking so freely and unencumbered.

"It's okay," Rias assured her easily. "Ise won't be able to get stronger if he can't do this much." Akeno laughed gently, her hand up to cover her face in classic Japanese beauty style at the strict words of their Buchou.

"But what about Asuna-chan?" Asia countered, looking very much like a whipped puppy as she glanced behind her. At this, Rias also hesitated, before she nodded firmly.

"Asuna has made her decision, and for the sake of her therapy I agree with it. However, if it looks like it'll be too much…"

Kiba had begun his survey at the top of the group, and deeming those words as a good enough cue to move on to the next stage, he let his eyes lower until he found the next three.

"Haa, heee, hooo," Ise panted audibly as he made his way up the steps. He was probably the most prominent of the group, seeing as he seemed to have been voted 'best suited to carrying the packs of the women of the group deemed too gentle to have to shoulder their own weight'. "This is… ridiculous…" the overburdened young man complained. "Just how… much further…"

"Fight on, Ise-sempai," beside him, Kirito also seemed in dire straits. Kiba paused, taking in the young man carefully as he studied him.

It wasn't that the pack Kirito was carrying was heavier than Issei's. If anything, it looked to be significantly smaller. But the way the young man was struggling with it was similar to how Issei was also carrying on.

'He hides it better,' Kiba noted, feeling a touch of concern, 'but his condition…"

It was easy to forget sometimes, considering how laid back Kirito tended to be, but at times like this the gauntness of his fellow piece started to shine through. Everyone in the peerage new the circumstances, how the two single pawns were recovering from a long ordeal, but never was it more obvious than here on the mountain. The packs the two of them were carrying were large, for humans, but between the two only Issei's pack would have been large for a devil. Kirito's would have been the kind of thing any average devil could handle easily.

And compared to his…

"Asuna," Kirito began, his tone gentle but cautious. He didn't get any further.

"I'm fine!" the brunette snapped, though it came out more of a gasp. She looked much better, was much fuller than she had been the first time Kiba had seen her, her muscles and flesh starting to return, but she was still a far cry from whole, and it made Kiba bite his lips to see the slender girl struggling so desperately to maintain a pack which would have been average sized for even a normal human.

"…hard to watch," Koneko muttered, and Kiba had to grimace as he nodded.

"She's trying hard," he offered, "and she's making good progress. But…"

Even as he said the words, he caught sight of the girl's legs starting to tremble. Tensing, he moved to help, but he froze when even before Asuna's legs gave out, Kirito already had an arm around her.

"Enough," Kirito said gently, so gently you almost missed the firmness behind it. "If this keeps up I'm going to have to drag you out of another dungeon, and this time you don't have any map data."

Kiba didn't understand what the other boy was saying, but Asuna seemed to at least. She gave a sudden snort, and Kiba realized that she had tried and failed in an embarrassing way to suppress a giggle. The stern look she turned on the boy holding her was enough to make Kiba pretend as though a bird in the nearby tree was infinitely interesting just so he could avoid receiving it himself.

"You still haven't said how you managed to do it," she declared flatly. Kirito sighed, and began to tug at the small pack the girl was carrying. She resisted, narrowing her eyes at him, before he sighed.

"If you'll let me carry your pack, milady, then I could tell you?" Kirito offered, and despite his usually easy going nature he seemed very nervous. As though Asuna could sense that nervousness, she finally surrendered.

"I've wondered for years, so I suppose that will do," she muttered, still flushing red with shame and embarrassment as she let her boyfriend spoil her. Kirito gave her a small half smile as he swung her pack up onto his.

And then, to both Kirito's and Kiba's surprise, that pack was promptly lifted from his shoulder as well.

"What… are… you… looking at?" Ise panted at them, trying his best to look nonchalant even as his legs shook. "As though I'd let my kohai pick up something I couldn't!"

It was bluster, and it was obvious, but despite that Kiba couldn't quite hold back a smile.

It had actually been pretty shocking when Kiba first learned that the dark Kirito was actually only sixteen, a first year. It had only added to the shock when it was revealed that Asuna was in fact a second year. Kiba had been fairly certain that Akeno at least had been thoroughly and delightfully scandalized at the older female/younger male pairing.

Ise, on the other hand, had been overjoyed at the chance to be the senpai in both the school and devil aspects. He didn't always succeed, but Kiba had to admit that in this aspect, Ise was most definitely giving a splendid effort at being a proper senpai.

Asuna and Kirito at least both seemed surprised by the gesture. They both stared wordlessly at the puffing young man, long enough for Ise to begin to blush.

"What?" he finally demanded sourly, shifting as he tried to balance Asuna's pack high on his while fumbling for a way to tie it there securely. His gruff tone seemed to break the mood, and suddenly Asuna began to giggle, trying her best to cover her laughter with both hands. While Ise scowled, Kirito just smiled widely, from both sides instead of just his usual half one.

"I told you," Kirito sounded like he had just won an argument with his girlfriend, one that he felt proud of. "Just like Klein."

"Okay! You win, Kirito-kun! He really is!" Asuna had trouble making the words, so hard was she giggling. Ise scowled harder.

"And just who is this Klein guy?" he demanded, grumbling as he struggled to take his next step.

"Oh, a guy we know," Kirito offered easily, well, as easily as he could while still panting under the weight of his pack. "He has a face like a thug…"

"Rude too. No manners whatsoever," Asuna added, still giggling.

"And that bandana of his?" Kirito offered, and Asuna's giggling redoubled.

"Who does he think he's fooling?" Asuna offered jerkily as she struggled to speak between her laughter.

"Oii…!" Ise had been growing redder and redder as the two went on, but he was cut off as they continued.

"Still one of the most reliable guys I know," Kirito concluded, his smile something gentle, but touched with regret.

"A wonderful person who can be depended on," Asuna agreed, nodding sagely as she recovered her breath.

"The kind of guy you can count on to make sure that everyone else gets through," Kirito finally summarized. Kiba felt, and he didn't know why, but when Kirito said that he meant it from the bottom of his heart.

"Ah?" Ise had cut himself off, obviously not sure how to handle the sudden change in mood. His blush was almost luminescent. Hesitantly, he held a finger up to point at himself. "And I remind you of him?"

"Definitely," the response came in stereo, and the blush went up in tone and radiance. Skipping ahead of him, now much more able to move since she had lost her weight and recovered a bit of her stamina, Asuna managed to make it a few steps above and she smiled at him, a bright and innocent expression that caused Ise to blush in embarrassment.

"Fight on, Ise-kun," she told him, before turning to Kirito and giving a pseudo stern glare over a smile. "And you too, Kirito-kun! No slacking!"

"Yeah, yeah, ojou-sama," Kirito groaned, and Asuna's eyes narrowed.

"One 'yeah' is enough!" she scolded him, before turning and managing to increase her pace now that she wasn't being weighted down until she could catch up with the other girls.

"….unexpectedly reliable," Koneko commented, and Kiba was sure he could hear a note of surprise as she took in the normally perverted Ise's attempt to look after his kohai.

"It's a bit shocking," Kiba admitted as well, though he said it with a playful tone that would have lowered the cutting edge of his comment if Ise had been able to hear it. Even if Ise was somewhat odd, he was proving to be a fun and hardworking member of the peerage. Feeling a bit mischievous, he quickened his pace until he drew even with the still struggling duo of pawns. "Buchou," he called, making sure to heft his much larger pack where Ise and Kirito could see him. "I found some wild herbs. We can use them for cooking tonight."

Kiba suppressed a smile when he saw Ise twitch. It was harder to suppress a few moments later when Koneko also drew even, flaunting an even larger pack. Despite her earlier words of praise she gave Ise a flat look like she normally did.

"…see you later," she told the two, and then marched on ahead.

Kiba watched from the corner of his eye as Ise, and surprisingly Kirito as well, both glanced at each other and caught each other's eyes. They both narrowed suddenly, before Kirito gave a crooked smile and they both started increasing their pace, Ise giving a challenging shout of, "Oruyaaa!" as the two started to race up the stairs.

Once they were out of sight Kiba stopped suppressing the smile.

*Scene Break*

Once they had arrived, Kiba was unsurprised when they immediately started training. He knew his Buchou, and there was no doubt that the upcoming match with her fiancée was firing her up with her usual overabundance of enthusiasm.

He was fine with that, actually. There was something he wanted to test for himself among the pawns as well.

It didn't surprise him that Rias started him out with Ise as his partner. He didn't have to suspect that the Sacred Gear user would most likely be the focus of her attention on this trip. With the biggest weakness to his Boosted Gear being the user, the best way to get the most increase in the peerage's fighting power was to get him to the level where he could be useful in combat.

Kiba took it light in the match. Just one look at Ise swinging his sword around so wildly was enough for him to know that the boy had next to no experience in a fight. It wasn't surprising, considering that before he was targeted by a fallen angel he was just an ordinary, albeit perverted, boy.

Lack of technique aside, he could already see the progress Ise had made from when he first turned as a devil. It looked like Buchou's relentless training had started to show the beginnings of bearing fruit. Still, he made sure to focus on trying to pass on technique and general experience to his sparring partner.

"That's not it," Kiba corrected the other boy. "Don't just look at the sword, widen your line of sight so you're looking at both the opponent and the surroundings as well." It was the most basic of situational awareness lessons, and despite a shout of frustration and renewed wild swinging Kiba was pleased to see Ise attempt to do just as instructed. Even if he was talentless, he seemed willing to work hard to make up for it.

Kiba thought that was a good attitude, and looked forward to seeing his fellow club member grow.

"Enough for now," Rias finally ordered, and Ise stopped trying to fight and focused on panting for breath. Kiba tried to give him an encouraging smile, and couldn't stop the smile when Ise snorted and turned away with a huff that sounded like, 'Damn handsome!'

"So am I up next?" Asuna spoke up, and Kiba glanced at her, watching as she started tying her hair up with a determined expression. Just like everyone else, she had changed into a jersey, and she looked unexpectedly frail as it hung off her thin body.

"Asuna-chan," Asia began, sounding worried. "Are you sure you want to…"

"It's fine, Asia-chan," Asuna smiled at her classmate. Her expression was gentle, but a bit stern. "Even if I'm not at my best, I'm still a swordswoman."

Just hearing her use the term for herself was enough to refocus Kiba. He hadn't missed that strike of hers, when she had turned a knife on Raiser. He didn't think he was the only one who was curious at just how she had managed to move like that. And even more, his curiosity had redoubled just at hearing the way she addressed herself:

A swordswoman.

Kiba was knight, more than that, he had the Sacred Gear 'Sword Birth'. He had always considered himself competent, a decent fighter. But he was surprised at hearing his fellow classmate referring to herself with so distinct a title. He realized unexpectedly that he had always considered himself a fighter, never once having thought of himself as a 'swordsman'.

Why was it that this recovering girl had made that distinction when he himself never had?

"Well then, Asuna," Rias also seemed surprised by her choice of words. Kiba could see the uncertainty in his Buchou, and was unsurprised by it. It seemed wrong, to try and force the recovering girl to engage in a sword fight. No matter how Kiba looked at her, he couldn't really see her as a fighter. Despite their misgivings, Rias no doubt fighting with her urges to protect and shelter her peerage, Rias finally nodded. "Let's see what you can do."

"Right," Asuna nodded firmly, and even Ise hesitated before handing over the bokuto. Despite her words, Asuna took it gingerly, giving it a grimace as she did so, but she strode onto the field confidently.

Kiba waited until Asuna could take a stance, but he blinked, eyebrows shooting up when she did so. Instead of settling into a traditional stance of holding the sword with both hands in front of her and squaring off, the girl instead turned her side to the boy, and held the bokuto in one hand.

"This stance…" he muttered. It was so wrong it was almost laughable, but something made him hesitate. Something about that stance…

"Ready," Rias didn't seem as put off as he was, probably not knowing enough about swords to be as unnerved as he was. "Begin!"

Kiba thought at first that he would start slowly, testing Asuna's defense, but that thought only lasted the amount of time it took him to blink. After that, it was only the natural speed granted to him as a knight that kept him from taking a blunt tip straight to the throat.

"Fast!" he heard Ise gasp, obviously shocked, and if Kiba wasn't in the middle of a fight he would have been surprised too. There was no special benefit besides a general increase in strength for a pawn, unless they fulfilled the condition to 'promote', so Asuna's speed wasn't as overwhelming as his own could be. But it was still shocking how fast the girl who could barely handle a normal pack could move. Kiba found himself trying to fend off a series of thrusts with his sword, but only managing to use his sword half the time. The rest, he had to rely on physically dodging.

So that's what the stance meant!

"I'm shocked!" he admitted plainly, obvious astonishment in his voice as he freely said what he was thinking. "I didn't realize that you were a fencer, Asuna-san!"

"A fencer?" Asia repeated from the sidelines, sounding confused and a bit awed as she watched the two exchange blows.

"A style of swordsmanship that originated in Western Europe," Kirito provided for the former nun. The rest of the group seemed too focused on watching the match, obvious surprise on Akeno's face and a grin of satisfaction on Rias. Ise was gaping as he watched his fellow pawn attack so adroitly, though Koneko had managed to limit her change in expression to just a raised eyebrow. "It focuses on using a rapier, a thin sharp blade specializing in thrusts, and is a much quicker style than traditional kendo."

"How?" Ise gaped, still staring as he watched his fellow pawn and knight exchange blows. "How is she so fast? Even if she's a pawn, Kiba's still a knight! What's going on here?"

"It's due to the difference in their style," Kirito explained, sounding nonchalant even as he watched with an intensity that actually surprised Kiba. He was so used to the other boy lazing around that seeing him unexpectedly serious was a little shocking. "Kendo and most sword styles rely on swinging their blade. That kind of movement takes a lot longer, and has higher recovery time." As though to illustrate his point, Kirito pantomimed swinging a blade sideways while Ise watched. "Fencing though focuses on thrusts. Because of that the movement is much quicker, and the recovery is faster too." Again, Kirito imitated the movement and Ise's eyes lit up in understanding as he saw the difference.

"So that means Asuna has the speed of a knight?" Ise asked, turning to stare at the match. Kirito shook his head immediately.

"Even if she's fast conventionally, so far Kiba's been holding back on his speed," the dark boy critiqued easily. "He could easily choose to back off and circle around. Right now, if he used the terrain to his advantage he could easily flank her, and then overwhelm her with pure speed. As it is, he's taking it easy so that Asuna can get the most out of this exercise."

"So then Kiba is winning?" Ise demanded, confusion in his voice as he watched.

"Not exactly," Kirito again corrected. "Remember, Asuna is still recovering, so like she said she's not in her best condition. Besides that, fencing is supposed to use a rapier. Using a bokuto is a disadvantage for her: its weight is different, and the way it's held is awkward in her stance."

"So he's cheating then!" Ise frowned, and again Kirito shook his head.

"Don't forget, this isn't really a match," he reminded his sempai. "This is training. Actually, this is more like an exhibition. Asuna needs to see how far she has to go to recover, so she's deliberately using a heavier sword to help. And Kiba and Buchou and the rest need to see just what Asuna can do, so that they can know how she fights."

"Ara, ara," Akeno spoke up, giving the unusually talkative boy a contemplative look. "That's a very accurate analysis, Kirito-kun."

Kirito seemed to realize how thorough his explanation was, and suddenly seemed embarrassed by it. He flushed slightly, shrugging awkwardly.

"Er, how do I put it…" he offered, before trailing off and glancing away. Since he did so he missed the contemplative look that Rias had also turned on him.

All that aside, Kiba had the majority of his focus on the opponent before him. It was just like Kirito had said, and despite the unexpected skill that Asuna was displaying, the fight didn't look like it would last much longer. The brunette was flushed, and even though she maintained that fantastic speed of hers she looked like she was tiring. Unexpectedly, Kiba felt a little disappointed that their first match had to be in these conditions.

"Sorry," he apologized, giving a sympathetic look to his opponent. "If I had known in advance, I'd have prepared a foil."

"It's fine, Kiba-kun," she panted back as she continued the fight. "I already knew I have a long way to go."

"Don't worry though," he reassured her hastily. "You're skill is fantastic! Once you're recovered, I look forward to having another match with you! If we can get Buchou to promote you to knight as well…"

Just the thought of someone this quick at their full strength and with the enhancement of a knight was enough to make Kiba shiver. Actually, from his perspective, it looked like her technical skills were even superior to his! Secretly, he resolved to start training harder so when that match came he wouldn't end up embarrassing himself.

"Okay, enough," Rias finally judged, calling an end to the match. Even if it had been a short time, Asuna was already starting to show her exhaustion. "Well done, Asuna-chan!" the president beamed at the panting girl.

"I'm somewhat disappointed in myself," Asuna disagreed, grimacing as she did so. It was obvious to Kiba that the girl took a great deal of pride in her skill, and even if the rest of the group was impressed she herself was upset at her showing.

"It's fine, Asuna," Kirito offered, smiling at her as he rubbed her back to help her breathing. "It looks like we just need to do some grinding, right? Just like always before a boss."

"Oh my," Akeno giggled. "Grinding? So that's what the two of you get up to alone?"

Both Asuna and Kirito looked confused at the older girl's words, and then they suddenly both blushed, Kirito flinching away from the girl and Asuna straightening up as she grabbed the edge of her jersey and stared at the ground red faced.

While Kiba was aware of the type of grinding that Akeno was referring to, he got the impression that the word had an entirely different meaning to the two. Just what on earth could it be? And what did they mean 'like always before a boss'?

"Whatever the two get up to in the bedroom is their business," Rias scolded Akeno, probably attempting to reassure the two and instead only increasing the blushes. "Now, we have one last match before we move on."

"Er, yeah," Kirito hastily agreed, coughing into his hand and jerkily moving to the field. He shook his head quickly, as though to clear his thoughts, and then continued on, a little less flushed. "I guess it's my turn then…"

"Well," Kiba began smiling as he handed over the bokuto. "Let's see what surprises you're hiding then, Kirito-kun!"

Kiba had meant the words as a joke. Even Asuna's skill had been a surprising revelation, it's not like Kirito also had some sort of secret skill, right?

That train of thought stopped when he caught sight of the look on his opponents face. The usually lazy boy had a complicated expression, hesitant and confused, but strangely resigned as well as he looked down at the bokuto he was holding loosely. Even as Kiba watched, Kirito seemed to come to some kind of resolution.

"Kiba-senpai," he began, looking up with a serious expression. "You don't happen to have another one, do you?"

"Why do you ask?" Kiba frowned, glancing at the bokuto. "That one is still in fine condition…"

"I'm just more used to using two is all," Kirito declared solemnly, and Kiba's eyes narrowed.

He had a premonition at that second. Without anything to justify it, without any possible evidence, Kiba suddenly knew that Asuna wouldn't be the only surprise on the field today.

"Oh, two sword style?" Rias muttered to herself, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "Yuuto-kun, do you have…"

"Yes," Kiba interrupted her, before pausing and forcing himself to relax from the sudden tension. "Yes, it's in my bag. Would you…?"

The moment Kirito had a second sword in his hand, his posture changed. Kiba eyed him, pulling his own bokuto into a ready position. He was determined to be ready for anything at this point.

"Ready?" Rias declared. When they both gave terse nods, she brought her hand down as though she was signaling the start of a race. "Begin!"

Kiba was determined to be ready for anything, or that was what he thought. But what it turned out he wasn't ready for was for Kirito to seemingly disappear from his line of sight.

"Wha-!" he got out, before catching sight of the dark boy who even wore his jersey black as he shot forward, low to the ground and both swords trailing behind him. "From below!"

Kiba swung down at his opponent, and felt the shock of the impact as a sword met his own. He had time to realize that he had lost track of the other blade beneath the boy's body, and then he managed to catch sight of it, right before it slammed into his cheek, sending him tumbling to the side.

"Yuuto-kun!" Rias gasped, the pure unexpected shock of what she had just witnessed causing her to gasp his name. A similar gasp went from Akeno and Asia, and even Ise gaped at it.

"…impossible!" even Koneko couldn't keep her voice down.

Kiba could only stare, wide eyes from the ground, at the pawn who had just managed to catch a knight completely and utterly by surprise with what looked like pure speed.

The only one who didn't seem surprised in the least was Asuna.

"Are you alright, senpai?" Kirito asked, and though he remained tense he sounded genuinely concerned.

"Yes," Kiba finally got out, before pushing himself back to his feet. "That was amazing," he finally decided. "Do you mind if we continue?"

"Not at all," Kirito nodded, a quick smile flashing. "Let's have fun a little longer!"

This time, Kiba didn't hold any thought about holding himself back. With the speed of a knight, he charged.

It only took two exchanges of blows before Kiba had made up his mind about Kirito's style: efficient. It was the only word for it. No movement was wasted, no flourishes or poses. Wherever he had learned, Kirito's style was one that was based around absolute utility. Kiba realized that it wasn't speed that let him get struck earlier, but simply because the combo that had been used was so well put together that he hadn't even had a chance to realize it was a combo in the first place until it was too late.

It was a praiseworthy style, and even if Kiba had seen better swordsmen, he didn't know if he had ever come across someone who was so thoroughly grounded in practicality. But that shouldn't have been enough. Even if he was efficient, at the speed Kiba was moving at he should be a blur to the pawn. So how was…

Kiba realized a second later as he tried to flank Kirito, and found a sword already waiting for him.

"Amazing," Kiba praised, locking blades for a moment so he could beam a smile at his sparring partner. "How are you reading my blows?"

"You angle with your feet, and tend to lead with your shoulders," Kirito gasped back, and Kiba realized that even if he was holding up fantastically he was still tiring. It seemed stamina was the weak point for the two unexpected swordspersons. "And it's impossible not to telegraph from the shoulders even a little when attacking."

"But even if you can read it, you shouldn't have the speed to match it," Kiba argued back, glad that despite the intensity of the match they were both remaining calm. It only reinforced his image of Kirito as an efficient and technical swordsman. "It's as though…" Kiba trailed off, realizing the secret behind Kirito keeping up with him. "You're letting your body react on instinct without judging the attacks! You're moving before I even start my attacks!"

"My reaction speed," Kirito grunted, blocking another attack that should have just been too fast, "has been said to be a little unusual in the past!"

"It's amazing!" Kiba praised him, though internally his own mind was racing. This was beyond amazing! However…

Kiba could praise another earnestly, but that didn't mean he couldn't feel a little put off at being shown up so unexpectedly. More than that, his pride as a swordsman demanded that he try to find a counter to the technique being used against him, not just so that could have victory in this match but so that in the future if he met this technique being wielded by a foe he would have a way around it.

It was surprisingly easy to overcome, actually. Moving, Kiba prepared an attack even as he used his speed to flank and then take a spot behind Kirito. The moment he was out of sight, Kiba forced his blade to change trajectories. It made the attack sloppy, and inefficient, but altered the path significantly.

"Oof!" Kirito grunted as his sword made it to the spot he thought the blade would go only to take the sword much higher, striking the small of his back. It was enough to send the younger boy sprawling, and Kiba belatedly worried that he had put too much strength into it and might have actually hurt his sparring partner.

"Kirito-kun," he began, only for the tension to disappear when the boy pushed himself to a sitting position.

"Looks like it's no good if the enemy changes attack patterns," Kirito gave a half grin, and Kiba found himself smiling back. Rather than hold a grudge or be upset at the defeat, Kirito just seemed entertained. "Good match."

"You too," Kiba praised back, offering a hand that the other boy took willingly.

"Boys," Asuna sighed, shaking her head as she watched the two grin at their roughhousing.

"This is…" Rias trailed off, her eyes narrowed as she grasped her chin. Kiba could already guess the nature of her thoughts as she tried to dissect the unexpected match in her head. As a king, his Buchou had marvelous knowledge of tactics and strategies, and she was most likely reevaluating everything she had been considering since the match with Raiser first began.

"Aren't those two supposed to be recovering from a long illness?" Ise asked, obvious confusion and frustration in his tone. "What did they have before? Ninja-citis or something? Samurai-poxs?"

"Ah," Asia had reached over to try and calm down the other boy. "I think it had something to do with something called a 'NerveGear'?" she offered, trying to sooth him with what she could recall.

"NerveGear? You mean that thing for gaming?" Ise gave her an incredulous look. "But how could that-"

Mid-sentence, Ise cut himself off with a strangled gasp. Swallowing, he turned and looked at both Asuna and Kirito. Kiba found himself surprised by how serious the normally lecherous boy looked.

"You two," he began, tone suddenly grim. "Are you two… SAO survivors?"

"SAO?" Akeno repeated, cocking her head to the side. Kiba gave her a cursory look, but most of his attention was on Asuna and Kirito. At Ise's words a change settled over both of them. Asuna's face tightened, and fists clenched so hard they shook. Kirito on the other hand had folded his arms, and his head lowered as his eyes looked distant.

Ise caught sight of the change as well, and instantly shook his head. "No, you know what, never mind," he hurriedly declared loudly. With overly exaggerated movements, he turned to face Rias. "Okay, Buchou! Now that we're all fired up, what's next!"

"Hm?" Rias perked, and Kiba realized that she had missed the exchange entirely, so lost in her thoughts. Not realizing the mood, she instead nodded, smiling at Ise's forced cheerfulness. "Eager to start? Good spirit, Ise! Next is demonic power training with Akeno!"

Kiba made no effort to bring the subject back up, watching in concern as Ise did his best to lighten the mood. It seemed to work, and soon Kirito and Asuna were both busily working on gathering their demonic powers, making a respectable show of it even as Asia shined in the subject and Ise cried over the grain sized ball he was barely able to make.

Somehow, he couldn't help but not break the mood that Ise had tried so hard to set up for his kohai. It looked like he really was good at looking after his underclassmen.

It didn't mean he didn't think it wouldn't come up later, but for now Kiba went with the flow of it.

*Scene Break*

"Oh!" Ise was crying tears of joy as he ate quickly, stuffing his face so thoroughly that Kiba had to suppress a smile at his lack of manners. Out of all of them, he had probably been worked the hardest thoughout the day, so Kiba didn't begrudge him the chance to regain his energy. "Akeno-san! This is the best! Be my wife!"

"Fufu," Akeno smiled demurely, "you're going to embarrass me."

"I made the soup," Asia pouted, and Ise quickly made sure to have some as well.

"Oh! It's good, Asia-chan! Give me some more!" Ise smiled and Asia flushed red at the request.

"So with this, I can become…" the former nun trailed off, and Kiba had to shake his head as Ise gave her a confused look. For someone who confessed to wanting to start a harem, Ise was surprisingly unaware of the other gender sometimes.

"So, Ise, Asuna, Kirito," Rias finally spoke up as a lull on the meal started. The three looked up, and Rias smiled at them as they turned their attention to her. "What have you learned from today's training?"

"That if you ever annoy Koneko-chan she'll throw a tree at you?" Kirito offered with a grin, only to double over as aforementioned girl rabbit punched him.

"…unnecessary," the girl muttered, though Asuna giggled at the exchange. Kiba had been away during the time the three newcomers had been training with the rook, so he gave Akeno a confused look, only to be greeted by giggling. Kiba resolved to get that story as soon as possible.

"I learned that I have a long way to go before I'm back to full health," Asuna admitted, though she seemed a little resigned about it. It was the truth from what Kiba could tell. She would make a fine swordswoman and addition to the peerage once they managed to get her a proper weapon and back to full health.

"It's not so much what I learned, but what I thought up a while ago," Kirito recovered from the ministrations of his fellow first year, and his voice was thoughtful as he stroked his chin.

"What do you mean, Kirito-kun?" Rias asked him with a frown, but he just shook his head.

"It's nothing," he offered her, "just an idea I had. I don't want to get anyone's expectations up if it doesn't work out like I think it might."

"Hmm, well if you need any help, feel free to ask," Rias finally offered, and though she still looked curious she at least seemed willing to let her pawn go at his own pace.

"I learned that I'm the weakest one here," Ise offered his own lesson with a sigh, looking depressed as he made his confession.

"That's for sure," Rias agreed wholeheartedly, and Kiba suppressed a wince as Ise shrank down at the thoughtless blow. "Kiba, Yuuto, and Akeno all have experience. But it is surprising to see Asuna and Kirito's skill. Just how is it you two have such abilities?"

Rias asked it innocently, and since she had missed their earlier reaction she seemed surprised when the two of them tensed. As though having a conversation with only their eyes, the two gave each other looks.

"Ano," Asia began, giving hesitant looks at the two. "Does it have something to do with the 'Es Eh Oh' thing?"

"Well!" Ise chimed in, exaggeratedly, standing up and flexing a bicep in a pose. "Even if I'm weak now, there's nothing to it but to work hard! Buchou, let's get started…"

"Ise-kun," Akeno cut him off gently. When he glanced at her, she gave a small smile. "It's good to look after your kohai, but whatever it is you're protecting, if it affects the peerage, and Buchou, shouldn't we have a right to know?"

"That is…" Ise began, and Kiba seriously wondered just what it was that he was trying so hard to hide for the two other pawns.

"Ise-kun," Asuna cut him off, and he gave the brunette a guilty look. She smiled at him, despite looking worn out by something. "It's alright. Thank you, but we can talk about it."

"Sorry," Ise muttered, flopping back down to sit at the table. He sighed, a dejected sound. "It's my fault…"

"It's fine," Kirito interrupted, also smiling at the forlorn boy. "Thank you, senpai, but it really is something that we should talk about."

"So?" Rias prompted them, but not unkindly. "If you prefer, you can discuss it with just me…" Even if she needed to know, Kiba also knew that Rias could also respect another's right to privacy. Considering that just about everybody in her peerage had their own troubles, Rias was always careful to respect other's boundaries.

"Sword Art Online," Kirito merely stated. "It's the game that Asuna and I survived."

"I'm going to start cleaning the dishes," Asuna declared, and Kiba watched as she left the room to the kitchen. Kirito sighed as she made her way out.

"Sorry," he apologized for his girlfriend. "I've had longer to deal with it, but she still doesn't like to talk about it."

"That's fine," Rias offered doubtfully, though she looked curious. "So what was this swords arts thing? Some kind of training class?"

"It was a death game," Kirito corrected her bluntly. Kiba heard Ise let loose a resigned breath.

"What do you mean?" Rias prompted, her eyes narrowing instantly at the thought of her precious peerage being threatened.

"When I first summoned you, I told you that someone had sabotaged a game, and that if anyone tried to remove Asuna's Nervegear it would kill her, remember?" Kirito reminded his Buchou, and Rias nodded slowly at that. "Well, Sword Art Online was that game. It was supposed to be the first VRMMORPG…"

"Vrmorgp?" Asia repeated, trying to pronounce the letters and blinking in confusion.

"Er, it stands for 'virtual reality massive multiplayer online role playing game'," Kirito explained, before obviously coming to the conclusion that he would have to be a little more specific if Asia was to follow the conversation. She had been raised reclusively as a holy woman before her fall from grace, so she didn't know much about a lot of modern things. Secretly, Kiba was pleased because he had no idea what the abbreviations stood for either. "It's a chance for a lot of people to play a very detailed game with other lots of other people who might live far away."

"Oh!" Asia nodded happily at that.

"Anyway, the designer of the game, Kayaba Akihiko, was also the one who designed the NerveGear, the system used to play it. It was designed to intercept all the signals of the brain before they made it to the body and use the signals for the player to control their virtual body like it was their own. The system is actually…" Kirito had begun to speed up, obvious excitement on his face as he started to get carried away, before he caught himself. "Er," he seemed sheepish. "I was really excited about it when it first came out, and even after what happened it still was an amazing system."

"I see," Rias smiled, making no judgment about her pawn's hobbies, though internally Kiba wondered what could possibly be so fun about just playing around in a game. Kirito definitely seemed to see something in them, judging from the way he worked himself up so easily…

"Anyway, Kayaba had altered SAO without anyone knowing so that it would automatically use the battery to emit an EMP," Kirito paused as he gave Asia a measuring look, "an electromagnetic pulse, like what happens when an atomic bomb goes off, that would cause the brain of the player to be destroyed if the helmet was removed. Then he removed the ability for the player to turn off the game from the inside, and forced everyone who had signed on to keep playing until they beat the game."

"That's it?" Akeno seemed dubious, and Kiba also felt doubtful about the explanation. "But how hard could a game like that be?"

"SAO was designed so that it could handle tens of thousands of players," Kirito explained with a sigh. "If it was easy to beat, than nobody would play it for long. It took us two months before we even beat the first level, and Aincrad, the name of the world in SAO, had a hundred floors."

"Okay," Akeno pursed her lips, starting to comprehend the situation. "But even then…"

"Oh, I forgot to mention earlier," Kirito interrupted, rubbing his head. "I'm so used to people already knowing… he also made it so that if the player died in the game, the NerveGear would automatically kill them in real life too. There were ten thousand players who originally signed on to SAO. Over two thousand of them died in the first two months."

That made Kiba draw in a breath as he started to understand the situation. He didn't know much about games like that, but he knew enough to know that normally dying just meant that they had to restart, or had a minor penalty or something. If that penalty was suddenly them dying in the real world as well, than that changed the situation.

A death game indeed.

"That's terrible!" Asia protested, and Kirito nodded with a dry smile.

"But even so," Kiba decided to speak up at that point. "It looks like you managed to make it," he noted, folding his arms as he cocked his head slightly. "But how does something like that lead to you and Asuna-san…" He trailed off, but Kirito seemed to get his intentions.

"The game was called 'Sword Art' because that was all it had," the other boy explained. "For something like an RPG, a role playing game, having some kind of magic is pretty typical. Everyone likes magic, since it doesn't exist in real life…" he trailed off, remembering that yes, apparently it really did exist in real life. "Er, most people don't know it exists, anyway. But the whole concept of having an entire game dedicated to just sword and weapon arts was revolutionary. It would have changed the entire nature of the industry if…"

"Kirito-kun really does get passionate about his games," Akeno giggled as the boy once again began to work himself up as he talked about his passion. He blinked, and then flushed at being called on his enthusiasm.

"Well, anyway," he coughed as he continued. "The game had special moves and techniques that could only be pulled off due to it being a game, but for the most part using a sword there is the same as using a sword in the real world. Because of that, Asuna and I got a lot of practice. Even when I got out, my family actually runs a dojo. My little sister is a nationally ranked kendoist, and after I managed to recover my body a bit, I asked her for a match. I almost won, even though I haven't touched a real bokuto in years. It wasn't quite the same as in SAO, but it's not really that different either. SAO was very realistic with its game physics, so after swinging a sword there for so long, it's natural that I would have some skill here too."

Kiba nodded slowly, seeing some of what Kirito was trying to explain. It made sense, in a way. If the NerveGear really worked the way the other boy said so, than all the time he spent in SAO could be seen as training in how to use a sword.

"I see," Rias simply nodded, accepting the explanation. She pursed her lips as she continued. "Well, it does explain a bit. It still seems odd that a game would end up leaving someone with so much skill." She turned her attention to the other boy in the room. "Ise, why was it that you were trying so hard to help Kirito keep it a secret?"

"It's not something that you can just brush off," Ise defended himself, looking uncomfortable. "It's, you shouldn't really talk about something like that…"

"It's because we're all 'ruined' now," Kirito explained with a sigh, and Ise winced at the blunt explanation. The other boy just smiled, shrugging as he did so as though to soften his words to the rest of the group.

"Ruined?" Rias sounded vaguely outraged at the idea that one of her peerage would be looked down on so thoroughly. Kirito just smiled and shrugged again.

"I'm not sure how long you've been in Japan, Buchou," he began, glancing around, "or how much the rest of you besides Ise-sempai have spent here, but Japan has some pretty strict standards. We Japanese people like things to stay in order, and for everything to go according to society. It's pretty common for when something to happen to someone that puts them outside the normal for things not to go to well for them. I mean, no one really goes out of their way to be mean or cruel, but people have a way of trying to ignore things that don't conform."

Kiba frowned, but found himself understanding the other boy's gentle explanation. He'd been born in Japan, even though he had been taken from it at a young age for the experiments into holy sword using. He sometimes felt like an outsider to his own country, and maybe that let him see it more clearly, but Kirito was right in a way. When the atomic bomb had gone off, the survivors of the bombs had always been treated well and given help, but they were also avoided, the children of the bomb, as though something about them were unclean and the rest of society didn't want to get that dirt on them as well. The same with the subway gas attack that had happened before his time, and with a dozen other instances as well.

"We SAO survivors just don't fit like we used to," Kirito continued, though by now Rias was scowling fiercely. "Adults who had once had jobs were all replaced and left unemployed, people who needed to stay even with their industries all got left behind. The kids have it even worse. We missed two years of school, and are so far behind our peers that it's nearly impossible for us to catch up to where we're supposed to be. Not to mention the other things." Kirito sighed, giving Rias a half smile. "I'm actually surprised that you managed to get Asuna and I to transfer at all. That school that we were in…"

"What about your former school?" Akeno asked, a concerned frown on her lips.

"It's more an asylum than an education facility," Kirito admitted. When Rias scowl grew even fiercer, he hastened to explain. "Try to remember, that all the children in it were SAO survivors. I mean, it took two years before SAO was beaten. When it started I was fourteen, and now I'm sixteen. If you look at it, I spent over an eighth of my life in Aincrad, in SAO. It was a place with no police or laws, none of the standards of normal Japan. It was a place you had to fight for your life every day. And now all those kids who have probably almost forgotten what normal life is like are suddenly back in regular Japan, trying to remember how things used to be, to remember what it was like when they didn't have the absolute freedom to do whatever they want whenever they want, and spent years building up instincts meant for fighting for their lives."

"I see," Rias was still frowning, but now she at least seemed to be thinking about it. Kiba also couldn't help but feel the truth in Kirito's words. Two years… It didn't sound like much, but if Kirito had been fourteen when he started, that meant that he had spent most of his middle school years, a not insignificant portion of his relatively short life at this point, completely separated from normal society.

Kiba found himself nodding. Yes, he supposed having someone to keep an eye on those wild children afterwards only made sense, from the perspective of society.

"Was," Asia began, the poor girl looking confused and sympathetic. "Was it really that bad?"

"Nobody who wasn't in Aincrad could ever understand Aincrad," Kirito declared firmly with a grimace.

"What do you mean?" Akeno broke in, looking sympathetic as she leaned over to put a hand on Kirito's. He hesitated, and one of the 'Great Onee-samas' of Kuoh High gave a smile that instantly made even Kiba think of comforting big sisters. "Can you tell us?"

Kirito hesitated again, before he sighed, scrunching up his face in thought as he leaned back. He pulled his hand free, but it was so he could push his hair back rather than to escape Akeno's ministrations.

"You devils…" he began slowly. "You devils like chess a lot, right?"

"Yes," Rias admitted easily. Kiba couldn't help but want to point out that a significant portion of all of devil society from their reincarnation program to their rating system was based around the sport.

"Imagine you're playing a game then," Kirito went on. "And your opponent is really good. Now, say that you reach a point where fully half of your pieces are gone."

"Alright," Rias nodded earnestly, closing her eyes as she gave the scene her full thought. It was just like her to try her hardest when it came to understanding a game or a puzzle.

"Now," Kirito continued seriously. "Imagine looking at your pieces and realizing that it wasn't the fact that half of your pieces are gone: instead, it was that your body is half dead. Imagine that there was someone standing behind you, and they had a knife to your throat, and the moment that your king was taken, they would kill you."

Kiba saw a shudder go through Rias as she fully conceptualized that feeling. Even though he wasn't trying nearly as hard as his Buchou to put himself in that situation, he felt a chill of his own.

"Most of the people who logged on to SAO weren't serious gamers. They were just people trying to have a little fun, or to relax after a hard day's work," Kirito continued softly. "A lot of them were just kids, even younger than I was back then. And suddenly, without any chance to stop it, that fun was turned serious. What was supposed to be just a way to relax every once in a while suddenly became life or death, and there was nothing you could do about it.

"Most of the people who were stuck, they were too scared to even leave the first city, a place which was safe and where nobody could get hurt. But some people were so scared that they wouldn't believe the truth, or just didn't want to deal with it. Most of the deaths in the first two months were suicides," Kirito continued, his eyes drifting shut as he recalled the times. "Many people just gave up, and started living their lives as though they were doomed to be in the game forever. Others tried to fight, to clear the game, but it was different then. You couldn't be sure if some new monster with a special attack you've never seen before would be too much, if the healing items and equipment you had was really strong enough for you to survive, so even fighting was harder than it ever was.

"And even though you were fighting, even though you were trying your best, it didn't change the fact that every day in SAO was a day lost from the real world. Things like, 'Today is my daughter's birthday, and I'll never get to see it,' or, 'Is my wife still waiting for me, or has she moved on?' or, 'Today is the day I was supposed to take the college exam!'. Every day was a day your real body got weaker and weaker," he held up his own skinny fist and clenched it in front of him as though to affirm that it was still there. "All the time, that constant pressure pushing against the fear that you might push too hard and end up killed…"

"Stop," Rias declared suddenly, and Kirito's eyes snapped open as though he only just realized what he had been saying. "Enough!"

"Buch-OOO!" Kirito began, only to cut himself off with a high pitched yelp as he suddenly found Rias sweeping him head first into a hug that buried his face deep in her rather impressive cleavage.

"My poor, precious Kirito!" Rias declared passionately as she started to pet his head like he was a child needing comfort. "How could one of my family have suffered like that! Akeno!"

"Y-yes!" even Akeno seemed surprised, jerking as though she was pulled from her own thoughts unexpectedly.

"Prepare yourself! As soon as we finish blowing Raiser away, we're going to find the one who made my dear pawn suffer and destroy them!" Rias was in rare form, Kiba noted distractedly. When she was talking to or about Kirito, her tone was like a girl speaking to an injured puppy or young child, but when she turned the topic to the programmer, Kayaba if he remembered correctly, it was a snarl of a spurned devil preparing to wreak havoc on her enemy.

"Yes, Buchou," Akeno managed to recover enough to nod at the order.

"What do you think you're doing!" a new voice cut in, and Kiba turned to make out Asuna, face red and fists clenched as she stocked over to where her boyfriend was being smothered by the bosoms of another woman. "Let go of Kirito-kun right- eek!"

"There, there," Rias interrupted the angry girlfriend by simply grabbing her and having her join her boyfriend in her embrace. Asuna began to flail as rapidly as Kirito did as she found herself rubbing cheeks with him as they were petted. "It's all over now! I'll make sure nothing happens to either of you again!"

Kiba had to suppress both a sigh and a smile as he watched Rias get overwhelmed with the typical Gremory love for their subordinates. It was well known that the Gremory had a near excessive amount of love for their subordinates. Nearby, he could make out Ise crying slightly as he clenched one fist in front of him. If even he was overwhelmed with emotion at the thought of what happened to his fellow pawn…

"Tcheee!" a noise like steam escaped from Ise's mouth as Kiba watched him. "It is enviable! Buchou's breasts! Her oppai! But today those oppai should be used for helping those two! Endure, Ise! Endure!"

…Or overwhelmed with jealousy of being pressed into their king's breasts. Kiba sighed, somehow not finding that surprising in the least.

"…lecher," Koneko said to the other boy, and Ise flinched as though struck by an arrow.

*Scene Break*

"You better not have enjoyed that, Kirito-kun," Asuna fumed as she pinched her boyfriend's cheek. They had finally managed to get Rias to release the two of them, and it was hard to tell who was redder in the cheeks at this point.

"There, there," Akeno smiled at the two as she put a set of teacups in front of them. "Buchou was just showing her affection to both of you is all." She gave her gentle 'Onee-sama' smile to the both of them, and they squirmed in their seats at it.

"…here," Koneko offered the two a plate of manju, and the two hesitantly accepted it.

Kiba wasn't surprised by the atmosphere. Maybe it was just Rias' attitude rubbing off on them after all the time they spent together, but it seemed that all of her peerage had started to adopt the notion that their fellow pieces were their family, and even the reticent Koneko was going out of her way to try and act comforting to the two pawns.

Even Kiba was feeling tempted to try to find some way to spoil the two.

"Well, this explains a lot," he cleared his throat when he couldn't find any specific way at the moment. "So then, the two of you met in SAO," he nearly tripped over the word but managed to get it right in the end, "or did you two know each other before?"

"In SAO," Kirito had finally freed his face from his girlfriend's clutches, and was rubbing his cheeks gingerly.

"Well, at least something good came of it!" Rias declared, arms folded as she continued to scowl. She managed to clear up her expression as she smiled at the two of them briefly. "So then the two of you met, and even if you had to fight every once in a while you had the other to protect you. What a fine way of life!"

"Er," Kirito began awkwardly, and Asuna also cleared her throat reluctantly. "We met early on, but we weren't really together until near the end. We just saw each other at boss fights for the most part."

"Boss fights," Ise repeated, frowning at the words. Kiba wondered what had set the other boy to thinking so seriously. "Er, you mentioned that some people stayed in the safe places and didn't leave unless you have to," he began slowly, "and that others were trying to beat the game?"

"Yes?" Asuna nodded, looking confused at the train of thought. Kiba didn't quite know what to make of it either until Ise finally seemed to summon enough courage to continue.

"Which one were you two?" he asked bluntly. Kiba blinked, suddenly realizing that the idea had never really occurred to him. He was so used to seeing the two of them and thinking of the peaceful scenes they were always acting that he had honestly just assumed the two had spent most of their time in SAO doing the same.

"We were clearers," Kirito admitted easily.

"Like a maid?" Asia asked, clutching her head as her eyes went unfocused. It looked like she was still having trouble understanding the terms that were associated with gaming.

"It meant we were the ones on the front line," Asuna responded gently, smiling in encouragement at the other girl. Her answer, on the other hand, made Kiba tense up. "We were the first ones on every new floor, and when someone found the boss room, ah, the place where the final and strongest enemy of the floor was that you had to beat to make it to the next floor," she elaborated for the former nun, "and then we were part of the teams that killed them."

"So then the two of you were really strong then?" Ise asked, and it looked like he relaxed a little at something.

"Well," Kirito began uneasily, looking to the side as he took a sip of his tea. Kiba instantly identified the motion as suspicious and narrowed his eyes as well. "Strong is such a relative term…"

"Kirito-kun was the strongest player in all of SAO," Asuna cut him off, giving him dry look as she cut off his dissembling immediately. "He was a solo player who never partied with anyone except for boss fights until near the end when he partnered with me. He was called 'The Black Swordsman' and 'The Twin Blade Swordsman', and was the only player in the game who had a reaction speed high enough to qualify for the skill 'dual wield'. In the end, he was the one who beat the final boss, and freed everyone from SAO."

"Almost everyone," Kirito muttered, before shrinking in on himself as he felt the combined attention of everyone in the room focusing on him. Kiba couldn't help but narrow his eyes.

So. It explained a lot.

Even Kiba had been wondering why someone who had no Sacred Gear or special ability had been elected for a peerage. They had all thought that the lazy boy had no legend or special accomplishments. They had all been wrong. If what Asuna said was true, than this boy was already an experienced fighter, a person who had done something noteworthy and astonishing. Even more, that last bit about him having the fastest reaction time struck true with Kiba. The way Kirito had been able to react, to move to block blows he couldn't have seen, or the way he had managed to stop Asuna when she had struck at Raiser despite her speed: it all fit in.

Though Kiba would admit that he had a hard time placing the image of some 'Black Swordsman' with the same boy who could lure familiars to sleep on him through sheer laziness.

"Ah!" Asia began to clap excitedly at the proclamation. "Amazing, Kirito-kun!"

"Ohhh!" Ise also began to clap heatedly. "Good job! Way to go!"

"It's not like I was the only one who was amazing!" Kirito began to protest as even Akeno and Rias started to clap along. "Asuna was in the top five players too! She was called 'Asuna the Flash', the fastest rapier user in the game, and was the sub commander of the strongest guild in the game, the Knights of the Blood! They even called her 'The Meteorite' because of the way she smashed down anything she attacked!"

"Oh!" Rias only started to clap harder, now addressing an equally embarrassed Asuna. "'The Meteorite'! What an auspicious title!"

"I can definitely see why they'd call her 'The Flash'," Kiba also joined in with the clapping, beaming at the now thoroughly embarrassed girl. "With speed like that…"

"I'll just get back to those dishes…" Asuna was beat red by the time she made her escape, a sight which made Kiba chuckle.

"And if you don't mind," Kirito also stood, though he seemed to have regained his composure. He turned to Rias, as he did so. "If you don't mind, Buchou, there's something I'd like to try out. Is it alright if I borrow a bokuto and go out into the woods for a bit?"

"Hmm," Rias just nodded. "I was planning on having night training as well, but if you have something specific in mind, by all means."

"Thanks," Kirito told her, smiling briefly before he made his way out of the room.

"All this time, those two were really that amazing," Ise declared several moments after the two of them were gone. He sighed. "I really am the weakest…"

Kiba gave the other boy a brief glance, frowning slightly at the defeated tone.

"It's fine," Rias declared instantly. "After all, that's why we're here. Don't worry, Ise! By the time I'm done, you'll be able to hold your head up high!" She nodded firmly. "To begin, with, I think some sprints with a couple hundred kilograms should be enough for a warm up."

"Erk!" Ise gulped, and Kiba suppressed a smile.

It only lasted for a moment though.

"Buchou," he began, tone serious. "Did you catch that?"

"Catch what?" the redhead turned to her knight, frowning slightly at his tone. Kiba shook his head, realizing that the disconnect between a former human and a pure blood devil had been enough for her to miss the implications of that conversation.

"The two of them," he nodded towards the departed SAO survivors. "They said they were clearers; that they were at the front line. Do you realize what that means?"

"Yuuto-kun?" Rias prompted him, her confusion growing.

"I don't know much about games, but if I remember correctly, most of the time you have to fight until you have enough experience to level up, or gain a new skill?" Kiba gave a confirming look to Ise, the one who arguably knew the most about that kind of thing among the peerage. At his confused nod, Kiba continued. "And in SAO, if the player died, than they died for real. Despite that, the two were on the front lines."

"Kiba-kun," Akeno also seemed confused as she spoke, but Ise had widened his eyes in realization. "What are you referring to?"

"It means that those two were fighting battles with their lives at stake, every day and all day for two years. They even said they fought the bosses, and aren't bosses supposed to be ridiculously strong?" Kiba declared the first part, and gave a questioning look at Ise for the second and was greeted with a nod of confirmation, and Rias drew a quick breath as she realized what that meant. "Even though we've fought against stray devils, they were never that powerful, and the fights never last more than a few minutes. When you compare our experiences to theirs, it doesn't even begin to add up."

"Those two then…" Akeno put a hand to her mouth as she realized it too.

"Even if they're weak as devils, and lack the power of the higher pieces, the nature of their experience far exceeds any of our own," Kiba confirmed seriously. It was a welcome, if sobering thought.

When those two finally reached their full strength, then there was no doubt that they would be powerful pieces both in the rating game and in real battle as well.

"Ha," Rias smiled, though she had a somewhat complicated expression on her face. "I feel embarrassed now, worrying about how the two of them would keep up."

"Don't worry," Kirito's voice came from the doorway, and Kiba was fairly certain that the only one who didn't jump in surprise at his reemergence was Koneko. "It wasn't bad," he continued, smiling a bit awkwardly at the room in general. "Having someone worry about you. It isn't bad at all."

"Good," Rias seemed relieved that her feelings had reached her pawn, regardless of their necessity. "If you ever need someone to worry, than approach me without regret! I'll be sure to spoil you plenty!"

Kiba nodded, wordlessly seconding the notion. His mind flew back to Kirito's explanation about the nature of his previous school. If the other boy needed someone to help him get used to how the world went outside of the death game, than while Rias might not actually be the best choice she at least would be a willing one.

Kirito nodded, and then hesitated. He only had one bokuto at the moment, and he tapped it against his leg slowly as he seemed to consider something.

"Buchou," he began slowly. "About what you said earlier, about hunting down Kayaba…"

"Don't worry," Rias nodded, scowling again. "He won't escape justice for long. With the might of the Gremory family…"

"Thank you, but you don't need to," Kirito interrupted her softly. His eyes were far away for a moment, and then he refocused them and he gave her a serious look.

"But the thought of the man escaping justice is…" Rias began only to be cut off.

"You don't need to," Kirito interrupted once more his tone one of a man confessing to a priest, "because Kayaba Akihito was the final boss of SAO." Kirito gave a jerky shrug. "And I already killed him myself."

A tiny chill went down Kiba's back at that, but only a small one. It didn't seem to affect Rias on the other hand.

"Good," she smiled fiercely. Kirito nodded, relieved at his confession being accepted, and turned to disappear into the night, his dark clothes and hair letting him be swallowed almost immediately.

'Maybe she really wasn't the best one to try and help a wild child reacclimatize to society,' Kiba thought to himself belatedly.

*Scene Break*

It was a day later, after another round of Rias' enthusiastic and overbearing training that Kiba groaned as he made his way back up to his bed after taking a late night bath.

It wasn't the training, per say, that made Kiba yearn for a welcoming bed. If anything, Kiba had redoubled his own efforts, though he was focused in a different area than just strengthening his body.

Kiba was happy that he had two skilled swordspersons on his team, but even he had his pride. It wouldn't do to let himself be left behind by his two devil kohai!

Even so, despite his desire to sleep, when he made it to his room and found it empty he couldn't help but pause. He was supposed to be sharing a room with the other two males of the Gremory peerage, but despite the lateness of the night he found the room empty.

Just where were the other two at this time of the day?

His curiosity enough for him to ignore his urge to sleep, he found himself wandering through the spacious cabin they were staying in. It didn't take him long to identify two voices, and cautiously so as not to interrupt he made his way towards them.

"I'm happy to see you putting your best effort forth, Asuna," the one speaking was definitely Buchou, he decided, as he crept forward, trying to remain unnoticed before he decided whether or not he would be interrupting if he joined. "But you should be careful not to put too much effort into it. If you collapse, then nothing good will come of it."

"Sorry, Rias-senpai," the brunette apologized, though her tone sounded more frustrated than regretful. "It's just that the quicker I regain my strength, the quicker I can walk beside him again." Kiba managed to peak from behind the corner, taking in the sight of the two. Rias was lounging in some of her sleepwear surrounded by books and scrolls, while Asuna was still dressed in her sweat stained jersey. The swordswoman had pulled the leg of her pants up to display some of her still thin leg, while Buchou was rubbing some sort of ointment into it with a professional air.

"Ah, how affectionate you two are!" Rias sighed happily, sounding very much like a girl admiring a romantic story they had heard. "Don't worry, Asuna. With your current regime and devil's medicine, it won't be long before you'll be fully recovered. Though it doesn't seem to stop you from spoiling Kirito-kun as it is."

"That is," Asuna began, starting to blush as Rias gave an 'onee-sama laugh' every bit as sisterly as the one Akeno wielded.

"Still," Rias continued, letting the other girl get over the teasing. "It's surprising to see the sleepy Kirito training so diligently. Who would have thought such a lazy boy could work so hard?"

"It was like this back then too," Asuna declared, smiling sadly. Both Kiba and Rias realized that her thoughts had gone back to SAO at that moment. "There were times when he would go days without sleeping, and even longer without eating so he could grind a few levels or prepare for a boss." Asuna suddenly flushed as though realizing something. "Grinding means killing mobs, er, low level monsters, for experience so you could gain a level, or to find a rare item, or to improve a skill enough to unlock another one."

"Days?" Rias repeated, frowning at the length of time Asuna was indicating they could go without basic necessities of life like sleep and food.

"SAO was a virtual world," Asuna closed her eyes with a sigh. "Your body didn't have the same limitations back then. Even if you didn't eat, your real body would still be taken care of by nurses and doctors. If you could ignore the hunger, than you could go a long time without having to stop for food."

"I see," Rias nodded, still frowning at the thought of being able to ignore your body to that extent. Kiba could sympathize with his Buchou. Even if he was trying to get stronger, in the real world ignoring your body just made you weaker in the end. "It seems I'll have to make sure you and Kirito don't fall into bad habits. No more exercise for you tonight, Asuna. It's time for you to sleep to get ready for the morning."

"Yes, Buchou," Asuna gave in, recognizing the need to see to her body. "Still," she continued with a sigh, "sometimes I think that the reason Kirito-kun sleeps so much these days is to make up for all the times he missed it back in SAO."

"You two really do have something special," Rias sighed, sounding very much like a girl and maybe just a bit jealous as well. "To think that something so wonderful could have come from something so awful…"

"Hmmm," Asuna gave a half smile as she stood up, fixing the legs of her jersey as she did so. "Maybe it was awful, but there were some parts of it that weren't so bad. These days I think that the reason I joined SAO in the first place was so that fate could let the two of us meet."

Kiba found himself shaking his head slightly at Rias happy sigh, though he was smiling as he did so. 'I guess all girls are romantics,' he thought to himself. 'And even if she is my king, Buchou is still a girl.'

"You shouldn't stay up too late either, Rias-senpai," Asuna added as she made her way out of the room. She paused at the door, looking back at her king. No, Kiba realized, she was looking back at the mass of documents and books that surrounded Rias. "I can understand studying about the game ahead of time, but there's only so much preparation that you can get from books."

"I know," Rias sighed, tugging at a pair of glasses she had kept clipped to the top of her nightdress. "But in the end, it does help me calm down a bit."

"You should try talking to Kirito-kun," Asuna offered, surprising both Kiba and Rias. Asuna smiled at Rias expression. "I love Kirito-kun, but that doesn't mean I don't know how he is about games. He loves them so much, even after SAO. He's one of the few survivors that has even started doing VR games almost immediately after he got out. If we weren't so busy training he'd probably be playing that one game he started recently. He'd probably love to discuss strategy with you sometime."

"Hmmm," Rias frowned slightly, sounding intrigued by the idea. "That may be, but the Rating Games are an entirely different thing compared to normal games…"

"You're pride as a devil is showing," Asuna giggled. "And you'd be surprised. So far, I haven't seen that much of a difference."

Rias scowled slightly, and even Kiba had to suppress a twinge of pricked pride. The Rating Games were a sacred and longstanding tradition of the devils. It's not as if something so deep and full of strategy and complexity could ever rate to some human game, right?

'Then again,' Kiba realized that even he was starting to show a bit of speciesism at the thought of the supposedly 'lower beings' humans having made something that could challenge the supremacy of the Rating Games, 'she might be on to something too…'

"Buchou?" a new voice cut into Kiba's musings, and he glanced up to find one of his missing roommates taking the place of the departed Asuna. Ise had a cup of water in his hand, and had appeared from the kitchen, solving the mystery of half of the missing roommates at least.

"Ah, Ise-kun," Rias perked up, smiling at the boy. "Good timing. Let's talk for a bit."

"Is your eyesight bad?" Ise asked, taking in the glasses on the other girl. At least, that was where he started, Kiba noted with a resigned sigh. It only lasted a moment before he swept down to take in the daring sleepwear of their Buchou and a lecherous look almost instantly flashed across his face.

"I just like the image," Rias shrugged, both at the comment and the look. It didn't seem to bother her to be looked at like that, though Kiba was sure that most women were supposed to be a little more guarded. He supposed it was just part of the things that made Buchou Buchou. "Though to be honest at this point just reading won't do much more than give me peace of mind."

"Why's that," Ise asked, looking confused, and Kiba was reminded at just how knew he really was to the devil thing. He had been one for less than a month at this point, and he still didn't know about things as basic as the seventy two pillars. He half listened as Rias set about explaining just what the nature of the Phoenix really was.

It wasn't that they had intended to keep the pawn ignorant, or to ignore him, Kiba thought to himself. It was just that it was normal to take your time when educating new devils. It was a dramatic change, and if you poured too much information on at once it could be disheartening or confusing to new devils. Kiba himself had gradually picked up much of what Rias was explaining right now over the course of a year, though it had been easier for him since he had once been affiliated with the church…

Kiba cut that line of thought off as though he was wielding one of his blades at his mind.

He did not want to go there right now. He needed to focus on the upcoming Rating Game that would define the future of his peerage and his king instead.

And poor Ise, who hadn't even known about the other things in the world, who had just been a normal human, a boy who was happy just watching porn and perving out over his classmates, was suddenly in very deep water, Kiba concluded.

"It's not like we can't defeat Raiser," Rias stated, pulling Kiba from his thoughts. He was still hidden from the two, and momentarily debated whether he should reveal himself.

"Really?" Ise had looked disheartened before she spoken, most likely realizing just how hard a foe they were about to fight.

"There are two ways," Rias continued, holding up her fingers for emphasis. "The first is to crush him with an incredible power, and the other is to beat him until his mind crushes. The first would take a godlike power, and the second would involve killing him over and over. Even he can resurrect, it would take stamina and his mind isn't immortal. If we just keep beating him until he breaks, then he won't be able to resurrect anymore." She sighed at the prospect of defeating a high leveled devil over and over again. "An overwhelming strike that would crush him both body and mind would be the easiest method."

Ise seemed to be digesting all that info, judging from the look on his face. Kiba thought it looked a lot like someone who had just been knocked upside the head by a club, and he had to suppress a laugh at watching the average-when-it-came-to-intelligence-at-best boy try to ponder over all the information he had received. Finally, he shook his head like a dog shedding water and focused on Rias instead.

"Buchou," he began, before trailing off.

"What is it?" Rias asked patiently, waiting to answer any question her pawn might have. When he finally spoke his mind, he surprised both Rias and Kiba.

"Why do you hate Raiser so much… No," he seemed to struggle to find the right words. "Why is it that you're so against this marriage?"

"I'm a Gremory," Rias finally responded, confusing both Ise and Kiba as well. "I'm not reintroducing myself. Everyone thinks of me as Rias from the Gremory, no one ever looks at me as just Rias. That's why I enjoy the human world so much. Everyone here doesn't think of me as 'Gremory the devil', but as who I am, they look at me as me. That's something I don't think I can ever have in the devil world. The only way I can enjoy my life as myself is in the human world."

Kiba frowned, feeling pensive at the confession. Was that how Buchou really felt?

"I want to be with someone who will love me as 'Rias', without the fact that I'm of the Gremory," Rias sighed, before scowling. "That may be my dream, but unfortunately Raiser only looks at me as 'Rias of the Gremory'. He only loves me as 'Rias of the Gremory', and I hate it. But the pride of the Gremory is very important too. My feelings may be complicated, but I want to cherish this small dream I have…"

Kiba frowned, wondering just how long Rias had been holding these feelings, when the other boy spoke up.

"I like Buchou as Buchou."

Kiba started, glancing at the pawn. Rias too seemed surprised. Kiba looked, and could see no trace of dishonesty or attempt at flattery or comfort.

Ise was just saying exactly what Ise felt, a blunt honesty so straightforward it was shocking to the two devils.

"I don't know much about the Gremory or devils," he continued, scratching his head and his face screwed up in concentration again, "but to me Buchou is Buchou. I don't know much about complicated stuff, but to me the usual Buchou is best!"

'Oh my, Ise-kun,' Kiba thought to himself in surprise. 'When the time comes for it, don't you say some killing words!'

Kiba didn't think that anyone else saying those words would have the effect it did on Rias. If they had come from another devil, Rias would just shrug them off as flattery. If they came from a human, Rias would have been able to set them aside as ignorance of her true nature.

But they had come from someone who was still somewhere right between the two: Ise, who might be a devil but truly didn't know much about devil culture, but who wasn't a human and knew enough to know about Rias' true character.

Rias herself seemed stunned, and Kiba watched as his Buchou flushed innocently, caught completely off guard.

"Did I say something weird?" Ise asked nervously, and Kiba shook his head as yet again the boy showed off just how direct he was. He really did have an open face. Rias seemed to realize her own expression, and hastily started shaking her head.

"N-No!" she instantly refuted, and Kiba could see her swallow as she forced herself to calm down. Ise looked relived at the return of her usual self composure, but that seemed to be the cue for his own to slip.

"Buchou," he began, his face scrunched up in shame. "I'm so worthless. I've been useless since I got here…"

"Ise?" Rias seemed honestly shocked by the change in the usually upbeat pawn, and even Kiba couldn't stop a surprised inhale at the confession.

"When I do demonic power training with Akeno-san, I realize how superior she is and Asia is improving her power easily. And when I do sword training I realize how amazing Kiba is. And that's not even as bad as when I see Kirito and Asuna… But there's nothing I can do," Ise confessed, actually crying he was so depressed and ashamed. "I thought I'd be fine if I have my Boosted Gear! I could act tough thinking that…"

Kiba felt embarrassed, hearing the heartfelt words of his fellow piece. More than that, he felt ashamed at having spied on this moment.

Also, he felt more than a little annoyed that he rated behind the other two swordspersons when it came to how Ise saw him!

"I found out I'm the weakest," Ise continued, full of self-loathing. "When Kirito-kun and Asuna-san joined, I actually thought that since I had six pawns and they only had one, that at least I'd be stronger than them and… and I'm ashamed that I felt so relieved that I wouldn't be the worst! And when they ended up having their own talents, I… I was jealous, and I'm ashamed of that too!" He sniffed hard, rubbing his face with his arm. "It's just like Raiser said: 'Pearls before swine'. Someone like those two should have something so amazing…"

Kiba could only grit his teeth, wishing that he had Raiser in front of him right now so he could impale him with prejudice for having hurt his fellow piece so casually when he was still so young as a devil, but before he could do more than think that, Rias had already moved to embrace the crying boy.

"You want confidence?" Rias told him, pulling him down into a motherly hug much like the one Kirito and Asuna had found themselves in earlier. For once, Kiba noted, Ise didn't seem to be overwhelmed with lust at being near his Buchou's 'Oppai'. Rias seemed to notice that little fact too, and just hugged harder, speaking softly as she soothed him. "Alright. I'll give you confidence. But for now, just rest. I'll stay with you until you feel like sleeping."

With that, Kiba felt incredibly awkward at having witnessed the personal scene, and decided that going to bed and pretending he'd been asleep the whole time might be the best course of action.

When he woke up the next day, it was to find that at some point Ise had come back to the room.

However, it was also to find that Kirito hadn't.

*Scene Break*

Kiba had to suppress a swallow as he watched a mountain get reshaped.

'This is the boy who thought he was weak and useless?' he complained to himself, trying his best not to break out into a sweat as he watched the tiny bit of demonic power that Ise had used, boosted twelve times by his Sacred Gear, as it continued to explode on a nearby mountain, devastating it with a thunderous noise he could hear from miles away, and altering the scenery so thoroughly that it would probably half to be remapped.

'I hope there wasn't anyone on that mountain,' he added a second later, as even Ise stared in shock at what he had done.

Kiba felt a little dazed as Rias ran them through the debriefing, explaining how Ise's sacred gear worked and having Kiba give his impression of the fight. It made a frightful sort of sense to Kiba, his Buchou's plan to raise Ise's basic strength so that each boost he went through would have an exponential growth.

"I see," Kirito added, rubbing his chin tiredly as he yawned. The dark boy had been there with all the others, watching the match, and he seemed to have gone into some sort of analytical mode rather than shock when Ise's potential had been revealed. "If he starts at the power level of 'one', than after twelve boosts he would have effectively been 'one times two to the power of eleventh', which comes out to be two thousand and forty eight."

"Two thousand and forty eight?" Ise repeated, gaping at the number. "No, wait, how did you have that number so quickly?!"

"I study a lot of programming, and you have to have a fairly good head for numbers for that," Kirito admitted sheepishly, rubbing his head as though his confession was something embarrassing. He struggled against a yawn briefly, before losing the battle and cracking his jaw audibly. He continued, talking as though he hadn't just been interrupted by his own tiredness. "Still, it makes sense in a way. You're still a noob, so a lot of thought has to go into your early game character development. But I still can't figure out if you'd be better off as a tank or a DPS."

"Noob?" Asia repeated hesitantly, scrunching up her face as she repeated the unfamiliar word. "Dee pee ess?"

"Ah, Asia-chan," Asuna began, leaning over as she started to explain the terms to the sheltered girl. Rias on the other hand just pursed her lips, giving Kirito a contemplative look.

"DPS means damage per second," Kirito offered, rubbing his head though he looked like was explaining only as an afterthought. He still had his eyes narrowed as though lost in thought. "They're the ones who are the primary damage dealers, the ones who have the offensive skills. A tank is responsible for initiating, handling agro, and focusing hate. They're primarily crowd control. Still, the biggest issue with a tank is maintaining power and health over time, so a tank which actually gets stronger the longer its engaged is kind of terrifying…"

"Wait, wait, wait," Ise protested, holding up his hands and getting a similar look of confusion. "I, I don't know all those terms. What do you mean, 'crowd control' and 'aggro' and stuff?"

"Well, basically aggro is an enemy mob, er, enemy characters, willingness to engage. Creatures with high aggro are more likely to attack. The 'Hate' is what you call the factor that determines the target of their attacks. Usually they focus on the one who is doing the most persistent damage, so a tank has to constantly engage, while setting up the DPS, and then be able to reengage to keep the focus on them after the DPS has their turn…"

Kirito trailed off, blinking rapidly as he yawned again. He seemed momentarily confused, before flushing slightly. "Er, sorry. Was I getting too worked up again?"

"Not at all," Rias said slowly, giving Kirito a contemplative look. "Kirito, it seems you know a lot about different types of games. Could you tell me more?"

Kiba blinked, before rubbing his chin contemplatively. Maybe Asuna was on to something about how other games might have something to offer strategy wise for Rating Games.

After all, if you had to learn a whole new language just to understand their tactics, someone must have been putting a lot of careful thought into it, right?

*Scene Break*

It had been another long day for Kiba. If he had to guess, he would say it had been a long day for his Buchou as well.

Who would have thought that there were so many strange tactics already in circulation in the human world?

The fact that Kirito had been able to spend most of the day bringing up concept after concept and idea after idea also made Kiba wonder just how much time the other boy actually spent on games. Was this the fabled 'knowledge of the otaku' that he had heard about whispered in school at times?

Still, even with the unexpected wealth of tactics that Kirito had brought to view, it didn't change the fact that they had still spent a full day exercising again. Asuna was making almost visible progress as the days went on, though on the other hand despite the fact that Kiba knew that Kirito was eating healthily the boy still looked unexpectedly skinny.

Maybe the other boy was like Kiba, and just had that kind of body type?

Well, regardless of that, what was catching Kiba's attention now was despite how late it was, despite the fact that Ise and he had already retired to the room to sleep, the dark swordsman was still not here as well.

Come to think of it, had Kirito spent a single night in the room since they came out here? Kiba found himself hard pressed to answer that question for sure.

A little worried for the pawn, but mostly curious if he had to admit it to himself, Kiba found himself wondering the woods outside the cabin, trying to find the other boy so he could see just what kind of training was keeping him up so late.

It was because of that curiosity that he found himself unexpectedly spying on someone for the second night in a row.

Kiba watched as Kirito stood still, sword up in a strange position with his eyes closed, breathing hard. The other boy had found a small clearing with a group of rocks in the center for his practice ground, and judging from the beat down look of the grass around him he had been quite active at some point.

Now though, he was just standing there, sword up and back, eyes closed, sweat dripping off his chin.

"Gather the demonic aura over the body," Kiba heard Kirito muttering to himself, the words sounding like a mantra. It came as a shock to Kiba that despite the fact that Kirito was holding a sword, he apparently was actually working on using demonic arts instead.

"Next, extend the aura to the sword," Kirito continued, and Kiba blinked, suddenly again unsure about what was going on. Was he working on strengthening a weapon? That was a moderately complicated process for a new devil who was probably only just coming into awareness of their demonic power. It was much easier after a devil had gotten used to their new nature.

"Change the power with intent, and focus on the desired results," Kirito continued, and Kiba leaned forward, intent on seeing just what the other swordsman was attempting.


Kirito shouted his last line, and Kiba's eyes shot open in shock as he witnessed the technique that Kirito had been creating, something that shook him to his very core.

'This…' Kiba realized, staring with something between shock and awe in his heart, 'this changes everything.'

Part Five

Rias wouldn't admit it out loud, not in front of anyone no matter what, but the day the Rating Game was scheduled for she was nervous. No, nervous wasn't enough to describe how she was feeling: a deep, gnawing worry, an apprehension that she could feel all the way down in her stomach.

This game, this day, it would decide her future. If she won, she would be able to continue her dream, to live her life how she chose to, to continue to be just 'Rias' and not 'Rias of the Gramory' like she disliked. But, but if she lost, than that lifestyle would end. She would have to marry Raiser, and for someone who vocally decried the human world, there would be no way that she would be able to spend as much time there as she wanted. More than that, she would have to… with that arrogant pig Raiser…

'Why did I let myself get provoked into this?' she wailed very much like a normal girl her age would in her head. 'If I had just let it go, I could have had until I finished college to deal with him! I could have had plenty of time to find another way out!'

Which was probably why the Phoenix had been so insistent, Rias could bitterly admit to herself, though she had only figured that out after she had fallen into the trap. Not just Raiser, but even her family was worried about the future, after all. Over half of the seventy two pillars were gone now, and the need to keep the remaining lines secure was a pressing matter for those that remained. It would only be natural that both families would be anxious when one of the partners in a match meant to preserve the lines would start looking for ways out.

This match… this match was meant to crush her will to fight. There was no way she should be able to win. It wasn't just that their opponent was an immortal Phoenix, but he was also a king who had been active for nearly a dozen Rating Games, had a full team besides that had plenty of time to get used to their new status as devils.

Compared to her, Rias, who hadn't even debuted yet, who still had a knight and a rook piece left, who couldn't even use one of her bishops, and nearly half of whose team couldn't claim to be a devil for even a full month yet, it was obvious that she was intended to fail.

Worse in her eyes, it was her own family that was hoping for it as well. Why else wouldn't her father have taken steps to ensure that Raiser wouldn't be able to trouble her until the agreed on graduation? Why else would Grayfia have been so quick to propose a match where her loss would result in her immediate marriage?

Well, most of her family was wishing for that, no doubt. Rias had doubts about her Onii-sama's intentions. He had always been a bit of a siscon, and she was sure if he had the option he would spoil her…

Rias was brought back from her thoughts by the gentle 'clink' of a cup being placed in front of her. Glancing up, she caught Akeno's eyes as her queen smiled gently at her.

Rias was pretty sure that Akeno, her oldest and most trusted friend, understood her king's heart. And she was grateful that the other girl chose not to voice her concern.

It only took three sips before Rias' hands stopped shaking. It was still an hour before the rest of her peerage was to gather, so she had to compose herself before then.

*Scene Break*

"Is everyone here yet?" Ise glanced around the room as he and Asia entered, and Rias made sure to shift slightly so her breasts would bounce as he glanced at her. When the lecherous grin split his face, it was enough to nearly make her giggle. He really was just like a perverted and silly little brother.

Even if he had said those things to her before at camp…

Deliberately putting those thoughts aside, Rias answered boldly. "Almost. We're still missing Kirito and Asuna."

"It's not like Kirito-kun to be late," Kiba noted, the knight pensive as he adjusted the gauntlet and leg armor he had attached to the Kaoh school uniform he was wearing. "I half expected to find him here first, sleeping away!"

"Ofufu," Akeno put a hand to her mouth as she giggled. "Now, now. Kirito-kun might be very relaxed normally, but when it comes time, he can be quite diligent!"

"Yes," Kiba agreed, before trailing off, a troubled look on his face. "Diligent…"

Rias felt an eyebrow rise at that answer. She wasn't sure what had happened, but something had changed in Kiba during the training camp. While before, he had seemed confident and relaxed, at some point nearly halfway through, his training had changed. He seemed to be more driven, more intent as he sharpened his skill. Come to think of it, that was around the time Kirito and Asuna had started spending long hours at night disappearing into the woods…

Rias had complicated feelings about that particular happening. While yes, she could admit that it was fine to be young and in love, but was it really appropriate to spend so much time like that when they should be preparing for a Rating Game? She had even brought it up with Kiba himself once, hoping that the knight would be able to help motivate the other two sword users, and he had just given her a complicated smile before assuring her he would take care of it and that everything was fine.

"Well where are the two?" Ise grumbled, looking tense as he glanced around. He had also shown up wearing the Kuoh academy uniform, something Rias observed only the former nun Asia hadn't followed suit with. She had come in her old nun uniform, though all the symbols of the faith such as crosses had been removed. It suited the girl, Rias decided. "You don't think they got scared or anything?"

"…unlikely," Koneko supplied, nibbling at some snacks. She paused, and her head cocked to the side. Rias wondered what the nekomata was doing, before the girl nodded. "They're here."

"Really?" Ise began, before the door to the Occult Research Clubroom opened, and two new figures appeared.

"Sorry we're late," Asuna apologized with a small smile. "It took us a little longer to get prepared than we thought…"

"I still don't know how you managed to convince Lizbeth and Silica to go along with this," Kirito grumbled, rubbing his hair with a sigh. "I mean, what did you tell them? That we were going to cosplay or something?"

"That's a secret, Kirito-kun," Asuna stuck her tongue out playfully, though she blushed slightly at whatever she was keeping from her boyfriend.

"Ara, ara," Akeno hummed, eyebrows high on her forehead as she took the two of them in. "What is this?"

Rias could understand her queen's confusion. It turned out that Asia wasn't the only one who had decided not to use the school uniform.

It was Asuna that she studied first. She was clad mostly in white, but with a red skirt and highlights. A white bodice that wrapped around her throat but left her shoulder bare was attached to two red cloths which held up her gloves at mid bicep. Her skirt was red, and came down to just above white leggings laced with red, with white boots on the bottom. To finish it off, the girl had some sort of half skirt, something that looked vaguely medieval as it covered the back of her legs as though to protect them while leaving the front open for easier movement.

Rias was so busy studying the girl, that it wasn't until Kiba murmured, "So this is the 'Black Swordsman'?'

'Is this…!" Rias realized, turning to look at Kirito in kind. She was used to seeing the other boy in black, so the pants and shirt weren't surprising. It was the coat, just as black but wrapped occasionally with black belts and buckles that were edged with white.

It wasn't that the outfit was unsettling to behold, but something about it, or maybe it was something about the way Kirito stood while wearing it, something about his stance, which made Rias feel on edge. It was as though she was standing next to something dangerous, something that should be left alone, and as long as it wasn't provoked, something that would leave her alone as well.

"It looks like everyone else just used the uniform after all, Asuna," Kirito muttered, glancing around the room to see that only Asia had followed their lead in dressing up.

"Rias-senpai said we should wear what we're comfortable in," the girl ignored her boyfriend's discomfort, instead aggravating it by reaching up to start adjusting his collar for him. He gave a halfhearted protest at the motion, but she shushed him easily. "I know that if it comes to fighting both you and I are more comfortable like this."

"Well, yeah," Kirito grumbled, shifting awkwardly as he rolled his shoulder. "But it just feels awkward like this. I mean, we don't even have swords." He shifted again, and Rias realized that the move was meant to settle a weight on his shoulder, and without anything there he kept trying to shift something which was absent.

"Well," Kiba spoke up, smiling gently at the two. "Don't worry about that." Holding out a hand in front of him, both Kirito and Asuna looked surprised as a sword appeared seemingly from nowhere. "I haven't told you what my Sacred Gear is yet, have I? It's called 'Sword Birth', and with it I can make any kind of sword you like."

"Oh!" Ise cheered, throwing a hand up in the air. "So you were keeping something like that hidden, you damn handsome!" Despite his words, the wielder of Boosted Gear seemed impressed and in high spirits.

"Any kind at all?" Asuna was the one who perked first at the claim, narrowing her eyes and studying the knight. Rias suddenly had the impression that Kiba looked rather nervous for some reason. The nervousness only increased as Kirito perked as well, and began studying him just as intently as his girlfriend.

"Do you take requests?" the Black Swordsman asked slowly.

*Scene Break*

"Ara, ara," Akeno looked like she was smothering a giggle at the put out look on Kiba's face as Asuna intently studied the sword he had made for her. It was the ninth try for this weapon alone, when Asuna finally nodded firmly Kiba sighed. "You two are so picky about your weapons!"

"It only took five tries for mine," Kirito defended himself, shifting guiltily as he did so. "Though it was five per sword, so I guess since I had two of them…"

"Perfect," Asuna nearly hummed, and Rias couldn't help but smile at just how pleased the other girl seemed. "It's just like it…"

"You always did like the Wind Fleuret," Kirito smiled, shaking his head as he teased her. He quickly coughed and glanced away as she gave him a pointed look.

"Stat bonuses don't matter anymore, so there's no reason not to use it. And like you're one to talk," she corrected him primly. He shrugged, but it didn't look nearly as awkward as it had earlier now that he had two blades, one black and the other pale blue.

"It just doesn't feel right without Elucidator and Dark Repulser," he defended himself, scratching the back of his head awkwardly.

"You two are so carefree," Asia noted, sounding like their byplay was relaxing her own tension. Rias had to nod at that. Just watching the two carry on like it was any other day was helping her own apprehensions fade.

"It's just like planning for any other boss fight," Kirito shrugged again. "Only this time, it's just a normal group of devils, the rules are carefully monitored, and even if we get defeated we won't die."

"So in other words, nothing like a boss fight at all," Asuna giggled lightly at the correction.

"Just what were the bosses in SAO like?" Rias couldn't stop herself from asking, feeling somewhat complicated about their response. On one hand, she couldn't help but feel that they were taking Rating Games a little too lightly. On the other hand…

"You ever seen a hundred meter long centipede like monster made out of bones, with an enormous skull holding fire for eyes, and with six meter long scythes for arms that can kill anyone they hit with just a scratch?" Asuna asked, shuddering despite her dry tone.

Rias suppressed a swallow as she imagined it. On the other hand, compared to going into battle knowing your life was on the line against things like had just been described, she could understand their lighthearted response.

"Skull Reaper," Kirito nodded briefly as he named that particular monster. Then he shivered. "But I still think the Gleam Eyes was scarier."

As he named his own choice, both his and Asuna's eyes met, and for some reason they both started to laugh. Rias got the feeling that there was story that she would have to ask for at a later time.

"Still," Asuna shook her head as though to chase away the earlier mirth and put on a stern look. "Now's a good time to discuss strategy."

"And there's the sub-commander of the KOB," Kirito shook his head with a sigh, and Asuna fixed him with a prim glare. Immediately he held his hands up in surrender, his expression turned serious. "Still, it's a good time to cover some basics. So how do Rating Games handle POTs? And how are we planning the support team? Somebody is definitely going to have to be body guarding Asia as the cleric, so her party will be pretty important."

When no one had an immediate answer, it apparently fell to Asia to ask the first question. "Um, Kirito-kun," she began, holding up her hand as though she was in class. "What are POTs?"

*Scene Break*

The Rating Game was underway, and despite the situation Rias was starting to allow herself to feel something approaching but not quite optimism.

"Raiser Phoenix-sama's three pawns, and one rook are defeated," the cool voice of the overseer, Grayfia, came through the stadium, which had ended up being a copy of their school. Maybe even the ones responsible for the farce were starting to feel that they stacked things a little too obviously and decided to let her at least have one advantage, Rias wondered to herself.

It had been an audacious plan in her opinion, the idea to simply destroy the gym completely once it had been confirmed that there were enemy pieces there. Rias had been rather proud of that idea, though she had to admit that Kirito had indeed made some good points against it. When Asuna had first brought up the idea of consulting the Black Swordsman for ideas, Rias had been hesitant at first. As the king, it was supposed to be her responsibility to come up with tactics and plans.

The idea of simply ignoring the potential advice had lingered until the point where Kirito had brought up the disposition of healing items. Even he had admitted that having Asia on the front lines at this point was foolish, but he had made a valid point about having the king keep both the healer and the Phoenix Tears at the same time was overkill.

Rias decided in the future about exploring the idea of leaving Kirito and Asuna as permanent bodyguards for Asia so they could keep her more towards the front lines. Still, when she had decided for now to play conservatively rather than experiment with new tactics Asuna had nodded along with her, and the boy had shrugged and let the idea go.

After she saw their performance today, the two swordspersons of Aincrad, she would have a better idea of just how those two could perform in a Rating Game rather than a net game.

"Any luck with the field?" Rias inquired, focusing her receiver on Kiba's channel. The response took a moment to come back, but he would answer when he was able to.

"So far they're playing defensive," he responded, "but I think the might commit their pawns soon. Kirito-kun and Asuna-san are both maintaining their positions."

"Good," Rias nodded, "let me know if anything happens." With a tap, she changed the frequency to her next target. "Akeno," she began addressing her queen. "Any luck with finding their queen?"

"Nothing yet, Buchou," her friend admitted, sounding cautious. "No, wait-!"

Akeno's voice changed abruptly, and as though to punctuate her sudden change in tone a distant rumble came, followed shortly by Grayfia's announcement. "Rias Gremory-sama's rook defeated."

Koneko! Rias grit her teeth, knowing that the nekomata would be fine but still upset at the thought of one of her precious peerage being hurt.

It was an anger that was undermined by the knowledge that they were now outnumbered just that much more. Raiser had a nine person advantage on his team, and even if he had sacrificed four for one of hers, he could afford that kind of sacrifice early game, especially if he was just loosing pawns.

"Akeno," Rias began, before trailing off.

"Don't worry, Buchou," her friend reassured her seriously. "I shall deal with their queen now."

Rias wanted to say 'good luck', but didn't want to sound as though she doubted her friend's ability.

And still, that tension in her stomach remained, tightening as every minute passed.

"Rias," she suppressed a start at an unwelcome voice. Snapping her head to the side, she saw the magic crest as it formed on the wall of the clubroom. Asia made a frightened noise, but Rias just narrowed her eyes. It was simply a communication sigil. While most demonic spells weren't able to penetrate the other team's bases so easily, the communication spell was meant as a way for enemy kings to negotiate in the midst of battle. Some of the time they were used to arrange an exchange of prisoners, or to agree to a battlefield.

Most of the time they were used to arrange a surrender and Rias felt her temper raising even more at the arrogance and condescension the other king was showing her.

"Rias," Raiser continued, confidence dripping from his tone. "We both know how this is going to end. Why don't you end this farce, and at least allow yourself to lose with dignity?"

"Be quiet, Phoenix," she snapped back, sitting upright and slipping into a more abrupt form of Japanese as she responded. "Do not use my name so familiarly. Nothing is decided yet."

"Hahaha," Raiser just laughed at her, laughed at her! Rias felt her temper rising, and had to grit her teeth to keep it from showing in her voice. "Now, now, Rias. Soon we will be married. Why wouldn't a husband address his wife by name?"

"You are not now, nor ever will be, my husband," Rias made her bold claim. "If it wasn't for the arrangement between our families, then you never would have even begun to think such delusional things! I told you before, Raiser Phoenix, that I will blow you away!"

Her opponent was quite for a moment, but when he spoke up his voice still sounded amused. 'Just how much will he look down on me!' Rias raged in her head.

"Well then. If you're going to blow me away, Rias, then why don't you do so?"

"What?" she demanded, and he continued, still mockingly.

"A duel," he declared idly. "Your chance, once and for all, to try and defeat me. And my chance, once and for all, to show you where you stand."

"I accept!" Rias was so outraged, so desperate, and still so tense, that she didn't even stop to think that just like before, this offer could also be a trap.

*Scene Break*

She arrived at the roof of Raiser's base still fuming at the indignity and still desperately clinging to the hope that if she won this duel, the enemy king would be defeated and the game would be over and she would be free. Just like Raiser had promised, even though she caught sight of some of his peerage, no one made any move to get in her way.

'Probably so that Raiser can later claim he defeated me fairly himself,' Rias realized, suppressing a grimace. Just like it had before, she had realized the double edge behind the offer, but she still decided to follow through with it.

Not just because she had already agreed, but because this was a chance for her to take her own fate into her own hand. The odds were stacked so heavily against her and her group that even if it was a trap the chance to change the seemingly inevitable outcome was too much for her to pass up.

Even if he was a phoenix, it didn't change who she was, after all:

The Crimson Haired Ruin Princess. Her own power was nothing to scoff at, and she wielded 'The Power of Destruction' as well.

'Two ways to beat a phoenix,' Rias reminded herself. 'The first, an overwhelming attack. I doubt I can manage anything that would crush him body and mind with one hit, but I can still hurt him. If I can just beat him enough times, just force him to resign…'

"Welcome, Rias," Raiser grinned cockily, still dressed like a host. "It looks like you've arrived just in time."

"Time for what?" Rias demanded, on edge for any potential ambush.

"Why, to watch as your peerage is defeated," Raiser grinned. Rias' eyes shot open, and she started to scowl, the power of destruction building in her as she started to open her mouth to call him on his treachery when he held a hand up to placate her. "Now, now. Nothing like that. But if swine decides to get in a fight, than it's only natural for it to end a slaughter, right?"

Rias eyes widened at the 'swine' comment. The only one he could be talking about like that would be Ise, judging from his 'pearls before swine' dig before. Despite herself, she found herself rushing to the edge of the roof, glancing down at the courtyard below. She caught sight of Kiba already engaged in a fight, and Ise and two other girls standing off to the side. She recognized one of them as his sister, Ravel Phoenix, who he had join his peerage for some unfathomable reason, and the other to be a rook.

Rias' eyes found Ise, and when she saw that he was still unhurt, she sighed in relief, before pausing, wondering why she was so happy he was still well.

"Well then," the rook below began, smirking as she cracked her knuckles. "Rias Gremory's pa-!"

Even as the rook started to move, the Ravel jerked, shouting, "No, Isabella, dodge!"

The rook, Isabella, flinched, obediently flinging herself to the side in front of a surprised Ise, right before a black blur shot out of the building, a fearsome clash as concrete shattered where she had been standing moments ago.

"A sneak attack!" the knight fighting Kiba scowled, sounding outraged. "How low!"

"Sorry," Kirito grinned cockily, straightening as he pulled his second sword out to hold them both already. "But I'm the kind of guy who doesn't hesitate to attack from behind if it'll get him the last attack bonus."

"Is that kind of thing you should be proud of?" Ise demanded, scowling at his kohai, but Kirito just shrugged.

"Ise-senpai," the Black Swordsman instead began, still watching the recovering rook. "I'll hold these two off. You need to get inside quickly and get promoted."

"Hold us off?" Isabella demanded, scowling as she righted herself. "I don't know where you got those swords, but do you honestly think that just one pawn is enough to match a rook? At least the dumb looking boy has a Sacred Gear! What do you have?"

"A tendency to try and look cool when I should be focusing," Kirito told her seriously, causing her to pause, surprised at the forthright answer. Taking advantage of the lull, Kirito addressed Ise one more time. "Go, quickly. Get promoted and then get to the roof, as fast as you can. Our Buchou decided to do something stupid."

Rias started to frown at the words of her pawn, only to pause as she caught Kirito giving a quick glance upwards at her, meeting her eyes before resuming his look at the rook. She realized that he had figured out about the duel she had agreed to somehow, though she couldn't figure out how at the moment, and was arranging to get her some backup without giving away her position.

Ise scowled, arms folded, before he finally gave a brief nod. "Kirito! As your senpai, I'm telling you this! First! Don't lose! And second! Don't get hurt!" Kirito blinked at the two orders, before smiling slightly.

"You and Klein must never meet. Ever. I'm sure something in the world would be horribly broken if you two did," Kirito sighed, before nodding. "Rodger that, senpai."

"As if I'd let you!" Isabella began lunging forward as Ise turned and sprinted into the building, heading towards the enemy territory so he could use his ability as a pawn to promote. When she drew even with Kirito, she tried to swipe him out of the way, no doubt disregarding him as a threat as she focused on the escaping Sacred Gear user.

Because of that, she lost an arm as Kirito dodged with that supernatural way he had, reacting as though he was moving even before his opponent did, his light sword stabbing quickly and forcing the rook to stumble.

The other sword was being held above and behind him, the blade unusually still. For a moment, Rias wondered why he wasn't attacking with it. Then, in front of her startled eyes, the blade shimmered, and then broke into a vibrant red light.

"Slant!" the boy shouted, and in front of Rias disbelieving eyes, the blade launched, moving fast, so fast that it looked like an attack that belonged to a knight rather than a pawn. Even as it moved, it trailed light behind it, a crimson tracer that marked his movements as his entire body was nearly dragged behind the technique as it took Isabella's arm off at the elbow.

For a moment, absolute stillness settled on the battlefield. Rias found herself staring, mouth half open as she watched the boy dart backwards, dodging the spray of blood as Isabella stayed frozen, staring at the stump. It wasn't a fatal blow. The infirmary afterwards would be able to reattach it easily enough, so it wasn't even a permanent maiming. It wasn't even anywhere near the worst wound Rias had seen in a Rating Game before.

However, it didn't change the fact that it was a technique the likes of which she had never seen before: it wasn't proper demonic arts, not an explosion or some kind of element. It wasn't a Sacred Gear either, or some special weapon. The sword had just been an ordinary sword, one that Kiba had made up on the spot, and didn't even have any special abilities.

"What the hell sort of technique is that?" the knight Kiba had been fighting demanded, before jerking back to awareness just in time to dart back from a halfhearted swing by Kiba.

"It was shocking the first time I saw it too," the good looking boy admitted easily, smiling at his opponent. "Honestly, it's enough to make me a little jealous too. But don't forget who your opponent is, alright?"

"Gah!" the rook finally screamed, clenching her arm tightly as she grit her teeth, before she glared up at the boy who had disarmed her. "You! How dare you!"

"You don't need a Sacred Gear to be dangerous," Kirito told her calmly, holding his weapons at the ready. No, in front of Rias' eyes, she saw as the blades began to gleam again, the light picking up until it reached that same dangerous vibrant red sheen coming back on both blades. "All you need is a little creativity and a bit of inspiration. I guess they were right: videogames really do promote violence."

"Isabella!" Ravel snapped out, the other Phoenix narrowing her eyes. "Don't block! Dodge!"

"Double Circular!" Kirito shouted, and this time the rook was prepared as he dashed at her. She managed to dodge the first attack completely, but the second sword nicked her cheek.

"I underestimated you!" she declared, now serious as she brought her good arm up in front of her in a boxing stance. "I think anything less than four gears won't be enough!"

Rias watched as metal started appearing on the rook, wrapping around her fists and legs as it started forming around her. She realized it must have been some sort of Sacred Gear. When it appeared, Isabella's movements became faster, and it was her turn to counter attack.

Kirito quickly found himself being pushed back, as even with one hand the rook was still a force to be reckoned with. Rias realized that before she had changed to a devil, Isabella must have been some sort of speed type. With the offense and defense of a rook complimented by her agility, she made for a dangerous all-rounder. It looked as though Kirito wasn't having enough time to activate another one of those strange sword skills, but despite that the pawn also didn't look like he was in any danger. Every time his sword struck it was blocked by either what looked like a brass knuckle that had formed in Isabella's hand, or by the guards that had appeared on her shins.

Finally, it looked as though Kirito managed to maneuver himself into position. One of his swords started to glimmer, but this time it appeared as though Isabella managed to notice it.

"Uppercut!" Kirito shouted, the sword launching upwards towards the rook. In response, Isabella let out a wordless shout, her leg coming down in a ferocious roundhouse that intercepted the sword with the shin guard, causing the skill to flutter and vanish, while simultaneously throwing the leg back as well.

It was at that moment that Kirito shouted, "Switch!" while taking advantage of the change in momentum to throw himself backwards. Rias had a moment to wonder what he was doing.

Then a meteorite struck.

It hit with a flash, a blur of red light and white highlights, trailed by a flash of lingering crimson tracers. She couldn't make out any details of whatever it was until it had already struck, slamming into the off balance rook with such force that the impact was audible even on the roof, and there was only time for a strangled sound before the woman was gone, sparkling away as she was transported to the infirmary after taking too much damage to continue.

It was only then that Rias was able to identify the streak as Asuna, who was casually flourishing her rapier, sheathing it as, standing back to back with her, Kirito also spun his swords to sheathe them back on his shoulders.

'Did those two practice that pose?' Rias found herself wondering blearily, before shaking her head quickly to focus her thoughts.

"What the hell!" Raiser growled, eyes narrowed and no longer sounding quite so overwhelmingly confident in his supposedly inevitable victory. "Those two! Did they have some kind of Gear after all?"

"Not at all," Rias answered, regaining her composure faster than her opponent. She was going to have a long talk with Kirito, Asuna, and Kiba as well, seeing as it looked as though the knight had been aware that those two had been developing such potent techniques. "Allow me to introduce my cute little subordinates properly: Kirito, the 'Black Swordsman', and Asuna, the 'Flash'."

"Buchou!" Ise shouted, the door to the roof slamming open as he knocked it aside, rushing out before pausing as he took in the strange expression on hers, Asia's, and even Raiser's face. "Uh, did something happen?"

"And this is Issei, the Red Dragon Emperor," Rias felt it. For the first time since the Rating Game started, she honestly felt it.


She still had a chance!

*Scene Break*

The battle from there turned chaotic. Rias felt as though she was trying to play three different games of chess simultaneously, and that they were all timed, and that if she looked away from even one of them for a second than the opponent would cheat and switch a piece without her realizing it.

The first game was the one between Kiba and the enemy knight. So far, the two had been left alone, the enemy knight apparently preferring to have a one on one battle with her opponent, and the rest of the team seemed to be willing to let her have her way. That was the one that she paid only the briefest attention too.

The second battle was actually happening no more than a few meters away from her. This was the one she had originally came here to fight, but it seemed that Ise had wanted to get his own chance to avenge his pride, and so she let her pawn take the field in her stead.

It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't hopeless. Rias suppressed a wince as a fist crashed into Ise's face, but felt a thrill of exhilaration as his retaliation knocked that stupid arrogance right out of his opponent. The difference in experience was obvious, with Raiser taking only one hit for every three or four that he landed on Ise, but this wasn't the Ise from ten days ago in the classroom where the Phoenix had mocked him. This was the Ise who had spent ten days raising his stamina, training with his peerage, gaining experience and confidence, promoted to queen and with a charged Boosted Gear.

It was actually rather compelling to watch, Rias admitted, not quite sure why her heart seemed to be fluttering every time she watched her pawn get right back up to knock down his opponent no matter how many times it took him to do so. She wasn't sure how many times he had boosted his gear before he had arrived, but it looked like that combined with his promotion was more than enough to make him at least a match for his opponent.

The third game though, that was the one where Rias found her real focus on, the one where she could feel the fate of the very Game itself resting.

"Sieris! Don't give him time to charge an attack! Despite how he looks, he's a technique type!"

"How is he keeping up with me, a knight!"

"Ni! Li! Don't let up on the girl! If you give her a chance, the two…"




"Sieris! Can you still fight? How did she disengage!"

"She's just so fast! Nya!"

"Did she get promoted to knight or something? Nya-nya!"

Rias felt a little dizzy, just watching the two of her pawns as they fought. Those sword skills, whatever they were, were nothing to scoff at! But more than that, it wasn't the way the two fought…

It was the way the two fought TOGETHER.

No matter where they were on the field, Kirito and Asuna seemed to instinctively know the other's position. While Kirito was able to react fast enough to block a knight's speed, Asuna was also just plain fast enough to match the same feat. More than that, the way the two changed opponents…

No matter what either fighter was doing, the moment either one shouted their keyword 'Switch!' the other would instantly disengage; rushing forward to take advantage of whatever opening the other had created. Kirito would use wide sweeping skills, brushing aside weapons even as they were blocked only for Asuna to appear, launching attacks with pinpoint accuracy. Whenever Asuna parried, drawing a weapon out of line or into an overextended position, that was when Kirito would arrive, broad slicing blows taking advantage of the weakness.

This was the results of all their experience, Rias realized. This was the culmination of two years of life or death battles, tactics tailor made to ensure both their survival and the defeat of their enemy. Even their techniques, they must have been the very same special techniques that Kirito had mentioned before, somehow engineered to make use of their devil powers to be used in the real world.

And she could only hope that it would be enough.

Even if they were successfully managing to engage superior numbers that included a superior piece, it didn't mean that they were doing so easily. It was subtle, but after the first few times Rias had noticed it: the way Kirito would flinch whenever his opponent managed to land a glancing blow on him. The first few times it had affected his swordsmanship, before he finally started to correct the mistakes, and Rias realized that for all that he was used to combat, pain was something that was unfamiliar with him. The sting of actual steel on flesh was new to him, compared to whatever he went through when he got injured back in SAO.

Besides that, even if she was holding up well Asuna was visibly tiring. Stamina was important in battle. Any idiot could fight, but it took someone who was well trained to endure the stress on the body for long. Stamina had been the number one thing she had worked on with Ise, deeming getting the six pieced pawn up to a level where he could use more of his pieces as well as his Sacred Gear for longer periods of time the option that would most increase her peerage's fighting potential. She hadn't given nearly as much attention to the other two, though it appeared Kirito was still holding up well. Asuna on the other hand had been working just to return to a healthy body, not to prepare herself for prolonged combat.

"She's tiring!" Ravel caught the pants that the swordswoman was trying to conceal, the way she stumbled briefly after using another of her techniques. "Don't let up on her- No! Sieris!"

Letting out a rather clichéd yell, the first knight of the Phoenix group fell. It had been a brilliant combo, the very move that revealed Asuna's fatigue thrusting open the knights guard so her unprotected flesh could be met with the dark blade that Kirito favored. However, it looked like the technique proved to be the end of Asuna's ability to go on. She stumbled, falling to her knees as her rapier fell from her hand, her gasping for breath audible even above the noise of combat.

"Buchou," a new voice in her ear made Rias jump, dragging her attention away from the fights around her, and reminding her of something she had forgotten.

There were four battles going on right now. And judging from the pained tone of Akeno's voice, the one going on out of sight was drawing to a close.

"Akeno," Rias began, only for her queen to cut her off.

"Sorry, Buchou," Rias could hear the pain in her longest friend's voice. "I managed to make her use her Phoenix Tears, but I had to use mine as well. She should be on her last leg… but… so… am…"

"Akeno!" Rias had to keep herself from shouting, but her words were cut off as the cool voice of Grayfia once more echoed through the school.

"Gremory's queen has retired. Phoenix's knight has retired."

"Quickly," Ravel ordered, her voice tight with concentration as Rias clenched her hands so tight they trembled. "Finish her off before she recovers! Without her help, he'll be alone!"

"It's not that easy! Nya!"

"Ni! No! Nya-nya!"

"Phoenix pawn has retired."

"Just because we can fight together doesn't mean we can't fight alone," Kirito declared, voice tight with pain and resolve. "I was a solo player long before I was anything else!"

"He has to be cheating somehow! Argh!"

"Phoenix pawn has retired."

This was their chance, Rias realized, staring down at her two pawns as they caught their breath after taking out three opponents on their own. Asuna might be down for now, but if given enough time to catch her breath she could probably fight again. And even if Kirito was sagging on his swords, panting a bit himself while bleeding from a half dozen minor cuts, once Asia had the chance to heal him, and the two promoted…!

Rias' plans were cut off as Asuna suddenly stiffened. "Kirito-kun!" she shouted, somehow gathering the strength to throw herself at the Black Swordsman, knocking him to the side just before…

An explosion rocked the plaza in front of the building. It was centered on where Kirito had been standing only moments ago, the place that Asuna had taken from him as she pushed him out of its grasp.

"Gremory pawn, defeated."

"Tsk!" the Phoenix's queen, Yubelluna the 'Bomb Queen' if Rias remembered her right, looked annoyed. No, more than that, she looked positively haggard Rias realized as she caught sight of the queen floating high above the battlefield. She was clutching her arm fiercely as though it hurt, and the finger she was pointing down towards where the smoke was clearing off of Asuna's haggard form was shaking. Her uniform was ripped, and she was leaking blood from one of her booted feet from wounds on her body. "That damn 'Priestess of Lightning'. If I only had that much left…"

It looked as though even if Akeno had lost this time, she had not gone down without a fight. The battle had cost both sides their Phoenix Tears, and the Gremory side their queen, but it looked like it had also worn away the Phoenix side's queen as well.

All wasn't lost, Rias frantically tapped the ear piece, setting it to Kirito's frequency. "Kirito! Get to the enemy territory so you can get promoted…"

"You bitch!" Kirito's voice came back to her with such vicious hatred that Rias flinched away from it, frantically wondering what had caused such animosity in the normally easygoing boy towards her. When she looked down at him, she realized that it wasn't her that was the focus of the swordsman's hate. "Not again, Asuna! Not again!"

The expression on Kirito's face as he glared up at Yubelluna made her skin crawl. It was full of such hatred, such pain, such pure blood curling animosity that Rias couldn't help but feel that there was something far more than just this game behind it. There was something deeper, something harder, something more wretched and hateful, some experience she could never understand until she stumbled upon it herself there. It was then that Rias realized that even if in her own mind she was still thinking that this was just a Rating Game, that didn't mean her pawn was.

He had just watched his lover fall in front of his eyes, watched as she had used her own body as a sacrifice to save him. Rias suddenly had a better understanding of what Kirito meant when he called the other survivors of SAO 'wild children'. Right now he looked more like a savage, rabid animal that had just caught sight of prey.

"Just stay still boy, and you can join her soon enough," Yubelluna called down to the kneeling swordsman. She had the same voice of arrogance and dismissal that her king did. Rias couldn't help but feel the two were well matched for each other.

Even as she watched the 'Bomb Queen' try to line up another shot, two black wings erupted from Kirito's back.

"Imagine. Virtual bones. Virtual muscles," Rias could hear Kirito's gritted words through the activated earpiece, but they didn't make sense to her at first. Then, in front of her startled eyes, she watched as his wings twitched once, then twice, and then suddenly erupted into full motion.

'That… so soon?' Rias found her thoughts racing as she watched her pawn flick his wings once, and then launch himself into the air. It was natural for devils to be able to fly, but it was another one of those things which was delayed before teaching to new devils. Most reincarnated devils were humans, or species which didn't naturally have wings, and using two new limbs was often hard for the reincarnated devils to get familiar with. More than that, flying was often difficult and unnerving to those who hadn't had the ability all their lives.

It had been five months before Koneko had been able to fly properly, and seven before Kiba had. Akeno had been flying in a week, but then again, she had been a half fallen and was a lot more used to her wings. Even then, she had spent most of her life hiding them, and so she had needed instructions too for when she actually started flying. The fact that Kirito had started doing so in a matter of weeks, and without any instruction at all was quite frankly ludicrous!

"How do you know how to fly so soon!?" Yubelluna shouted, panic lacing her voice as she took in the closing pawn whose girlfriend she had just attacked.

"A fairy taught me!" Kirito snapped back, swords already glowing as he closed the distance, snarling all the way. "Now die!"

"No! I will not let my king be shamed by being beaten by a lowly reincarnated devil!" the queen shrieked, finally getting her hand up. Her demonic power shot from her finger, and Rias held her breath, hoping that the shaking hand's aim would be off.

It wasn't, but even as it streaked towards the charging Kirito, one of his skills activated. A red streak launched out, intercepting the ball of power that had been shot at him. Midair, the two met, and an explosion rocked the courtyard once more. Rias felt her hands clench again as she watched another of her precious subordinates get taken down right in front of her. Yubelluna began to open her mouth, a sneer present on her face, before her eyes shot open in shock.

"Impo-!" was as far as she got before the black shape erupted from the smoke and haze of the explosion. Rias had an impossible moment to wonder what was going on, before she realize rather than being canceled out, the technique had instead forced its user up and through the explosion, dragging him behind despite the force that should have pushed him back. Kirito was haggard, more blood and wounds covering him, but he had closed within striking distance of the flying queen.

And he still had one sword glowing.

"Snake Bite!" the Black Swordsman shouted, and Yubelluna screamed as the second move of the combo carved her open from shoulder to hip. Instantly, she began to glitter as she was recalled for medical treatment.

"Kirito!" the shout from behind her told her that Ise had also seen what had happened, and his voice was high with worry and panic as he watched his fellow pawn stagger, and then fall, his wings no longer working as he succumbed to the damage he had taken. Even as he started to fall, he also shimmered and was gone.

"Phoenix queen, defeated. Gremory pawn, defeated." Rias let out a shaky breath as Grayfia continued to tally the casualties. Then she stiffened as the maid continued. "Phoenix knight, defeated."

Her eyes shot back to the courtyard, and she caught sight of Kiba standing against Ravel, the two of them watching each other carefully.

"And what do you plan on doing now?" Ravel demanded, arms folded as she glared down her nose, as best she could while looking up at the taller boy. "Do you think you can take a Phoenix on by yourself?"

"Hmm," Kiba shrugged, still smiling politely. "Well, maybe if I was at full power. But as it stands right now, I think I can content myself with just making sure you don't interfere. How about it? Should the two of us be content to check the other, and leave the rest to our kings?"

"It was never my intention to fight," Ravel declared, before nodding stiffly. "But as things are now keeping you from interfering further is an acceptable task."

'As things are now.' The words echoed through Rias head as the full enormity of the situation settled on her.

'As things are now.' As things are now, she, Rias Gremory, who had been set up to fail in this game, was actually winning! The thought went through her like a lightning bolt, the tension in her stomach responding to it by fluttering wildly. The only one left in Raiser's group was him, the king, and his sister, the bishop. Rias still had herself, Kiba, Ise, and Asia. Even if Kiba was checking himself to keep the other Phoenix from interfering, that still left it three on one! Ise hadn't been tired or injured before he had promoted to queen and could still have full use of his Boosted Gear! She, Rias, hadn't even started to fight yet and was completely fresh! And with Asia on hand, even if one of them got injured they could still recover while the other protected them during the healing!

"Do you really think you stand a chance?" Raiser's voice cut through her thoughts, and she realized that her opponent had read her expression. Some of the condescension and arrogance was gone from it, but it still held the tone of supreme confidence. She glanced at him, and he smirked at her. He and Ise had separated, her pawn standing near the edge of the roof and looking out at where Kirito and Asuna had been taken out of the game.

"You still don't get it, do you, Rias?" Raiser continued, sounding like an adult lecturing a child. "What it means to fight an immortal? Even now, with my pieces gone, it doesn't change the fact that there is nothing you can do to win. Your team, I admit it, is strong. You've gathered names like 'Lightning Priestess', and 'Crimson Haired Ruin Princess'. Even the 'Crimson Emperor Dragon' has come a long way. If he had another month or two, he might actually have managed to be a threat. But that all pales in comparison to the 'Immortal Phoenix'. I'll offer you again, the chance to surrender. It wouldn't do to have shamed my wife before marriage."

Rias grit her teeth, outraged at the tone of her opponent, but hesitating nonetheless. Despite his arrogance, despite how much it burned her to hear him dare talk about her peerage like that or his unbelievable arrogance at assuming his defeat and her having to marry him, the truth was that immortality wasn't anything to scoff at. It was true. Even if they outnumbered him, and were fresh, they still had to force him down first. The question now was 'could they wear him down until he couldn't resurrect before they themselves were too warn down to continue fighting?'

"You've done well, for your first game," Raiser continued soothingly, as though praising a pet or a small child. "Nobody will be able to look down on your efforts, and this was decided a long time ago, anyway. Why, even those two useless nobodies have proven that under your tutelage they could at least achieve something. In the future, you'll be able to claim that under your care even someone who had absolutely nothing to their name can…"

"Shut up, you grilled chicken bastard."

"Ise-san?" Asia spoke up, surprise and worry in her voice, as Rias and Raiser also started, glancing over to the one who had interrupted them. Raiser was scowling, angry at having been spoken to in such a tone by some lowly reincarnated devil, but he paused when he caught sight of the tennis ball sized lump of demonic power floating in front of the scaled gauntlet that was pointed at him.

Rias eyes opened in shock and she drew back instinctively. Normally, the most demonic power Ise could gather was enough to manifest as the size of a grain of rice. After his promotion to queen, his demonic power should have increased, and even if the amount being shown here was rather modest for most medium strengthen devils it was an impressive increase for the normally lacking pawn.

Rias, on the other hand, remembered all too well what just a grain of power could do under the influence of Boosted Gear, and she hastily grabbed Asia's arm and started to drag her away even as Raiser scowled and began to speak.

"You, you pathetic reincarnated swine! How dare you speak to me, a high class devil so…"

"Explosion," Ise snapped, glaring at the Phoenix, and anything that Raiser might have said in response was lost as the small ball of power erupted, however many boosts Ise had been harboring flooding into it as the ball transformed into a wall of pure demonic power sweeping over and through the Phoenix, and a good portion of the rooftop, and after that a significant portion of the simulated school campus.

Rias had a moment to wonder if the edges of the created dimension would be able to handle the unexpected stress, but whoever had crafted the battlefield had proven their worth as eventually the stream of destructive power ended amidst a cacophony of explosions and crumbling buildings.

"What in the world!" Rias could hear Ravel scream, utter shock in the other phoenix's voice.

"Oh dear," Kiba responded, sounding smugly amused. "It seems that someone has upset Ise-kun."

"Now listen here, you grilled chicken bastard," Ise began, his voice low as he spoke to the spot Raiser had been standing. Rias felt a brief moment of hope that the overwhelming blow that had just happened would prove enough to finish the match, but that hope died as Raiser started to reform, a flash of flame that was tracing his body and clothes back into being.

But not unaffected. Rias could make out the heavy breathing that the phoenix was trying to conceal, and see the faint sheen of sweat on his forehead. He had survived, but it had cost him. The question was, how much more did he have left in him? And could Ise make another shot like that? Even with a promotion, that must have been most if not all of his demonic power.

"I'm not as good with swords as Kiba," Ise began, growling as Sacred Gear on his arm started to shimmer, changing somehow. "And I'm not as skilled with demonic arts as Akeno-san…"

"Boost!" the Gear started charging, announcing the first level.

"And I'm not as strong as Koneko-chan, or as gentle as Asia…"


"I don't even have crazy skills like Kirito or Asuna-san…"


"But even so, I swear I will be the strongest pawn!"


"More than that, I can't stand anything about you! How dare you look down on my friends!"


"And how dare you look down on my kohai, Koneko-chan and Kirito! You must be fucking stupid if I think I'm going to stand here quietly after you treated them so 'kindly'!"


Rias could hear the absolute rage at what his underclassman had been put through, hear how completely infuriated her pawn was at what his youngers in the peerage had been forced to endure, and at that moment couldn't think of Ise as just a perverted little brother.

"And more than that, how dare you look down on Buchou's dream like that! You don't know the first thing about Buchou! You don't deserve to even look at her with those filthy eyes!"


Rias felt herself start to blush as her pawn so savagely defended her dream of living as just 'Rias' and not 'Rias of the Gremory'.

"More than anything else, I want to defend Buchou's dream! For her, I don't care how many times I get knocked down, I'll get back up however many times it takes!"


Rias blush ratcheted up several shades, and she felt as though her heart had just been switched into overdrive.

'So… so this is what the manga mean by 'doki-doki,' Rias found herself thinking, one hand up to her chest as she could literally hear the blood pounding through her ears with every pulse as she listened to her pawn swear to defend her and her dreams.

"A man like you doesn't get to take the Buchou's virginity! It belongs to me!"


'Eh?' Rias felt the blush get even brighter, and began to sputter out loud. 'Just what are you saying?! Our families are watching this! Even my brother, the Lucifer! Why are you talking about my virginity?!'

"And I can't believe a shitty guy like you managed to get a harem before me either!"


'And now you're talking about harems too!?' Rias was unsure just how she should feel about her pawn's continued rant, though embarrassment was rating pretty high up there at the moment.

"Just what is a guy like you saying?!" Raiser shot back, looking just as outraged as Rias felt at that moment. She could understand how a high class devil would feel outrage at such a base topic as her… "That virginity is the one I want the most!"

"Shut up!" Ise shot back.


'I'm never going to be able to show my face in public again!' Rias moaned in her head.

"Ise-san!" Asia shouted, interrupting the debate for Rias virginity. "Your body! If you go any further…!"

Asia's words managed to reach Rias even though the overwhelming humiliation she was currently enduring, and when they did the embarrassment was erased for sudden unease.

There was a limit to the amount of times that Ise could use Boosted Gear. His body was a vessel, like a truck that was meant to convey the power of the Sacred Gear. The more he boosted, the harder the strain on him. The most he had managed to handle in training had been twelve, but that had been with while fresh.

"Its fine, Asia-chan!" Ise shouted back, though he was trembling, sweat pouring off of him as he shook.


Rias hastily tried to recall how many times she had heard that voice from Boosted Gear. She wasn't sure, but she thought it was twelve, an amount that Ise should barely be able to move at.

"Ise!" she shouted, rushing towards him as one of his legs buckled, but he just gave her a savage grin back as she supported him.

"You idiot!" Raiser mocked him, though the Phoenix looked like he was fighting not to show relief as Ise apparently succumbed to his own power. "All that power is useless if you can't use it!"

"But I'm not the one who's going to use it!" Ise snapped back, still grinning as he put grabbed Rias arm as she supported him. "Let me show you the new skill my Boosted Gear unlocked! Gift!"

"Transfer!" the jewel on the Sacred Gear declared.

"New skill?" Rias had time to repeat, the vague thought that Boosted Gear responded to the emotions of their user, and the fight had definitely been enough to affect her pawn, right before both the meaning of his words and the effect of his new skill flooded through her.

"Using my boosted gear, I can transfer the power I managed to accumulate to someone else!" Ise explained, even as Rias shot upright, her spin going rigid as the pure power flowing into her made her gasp. "One times two to the eleventh power is two thousand and forty eight, right? Well what do you get when you're starting with something a whole lot bigger than a one like me?"

"Ise-kun," Rias gasped, finally getting the new strength in her under control, unable to help herself as she stared at her hands, stunned by what it felt to have received a fully charged boost from her pawn.

"How about it, Buchou?" Ise cheered for her. "Why whittle away at the fried chicken bastard when you can just crush him like a god? Go on and blow him away!"

For a moment Rias could only stare at her pawn, unable to believe the audacity of his plan, the way he had unflinchingly latched onto the option that she herself had thought unattainable. She could only struggle with the fact that her pawn, Hyoudou Issei, had had so much faith in her, had been so willing to do everything to give her the chance to take back her future herself.

Then she smiled at him, a fierce, proud grin.

"Right, Ise!" she declared, turning to face the now pale Raiser. "Just like I promised, Raiser! Are you ready?!"

She unleashed the power of destruction within her, and was secretly gratified at the raw fear the condescending jerk was showing as he watched his end coming.

*Scene Break*

"Phoenix's king has been defeated."

*Scene Break*

Afterwards, sitting on a bench in the infirmary while giving Ise the precious lap pillow that he had so rightfully earned in her opinion, Rias watched her pawn's face carefully as she petted his head gently.

"Man," Ise grumbled, fidgeting slightly. "I got so worked up and everything, but in the end I just ended up collapsing. I must have looked so uncool…"

"No," Rias told him, smiling down at her precious pawn as she reveled at the feel of his hair on her thighs. She could feel something inside of her, something she had never felt for anyone before, and though she didn't want to put it into words, didn't want to even think about it until she was alone and could consider everything completely, she couldn't stop that feeling. "No, you were really cool, Ise."

"Really?" he asked, looking up at her hopefully, and she beamed a smile down at him. The rest of the peerage was scattered about the infirmary, receiving whatever treatments they needed. The only problem that had arisen so far was when Asuna had woken up first to find herself without her boyfriend and threatened a few nurses at sword point. Since most of those nurses had been watching the match and knew just what she could do with the sword, she was quickly allowed to go to the room where her boyfriend was resting.

They made a cute picture, her sitting by the bed and cradling his hand as she watched him sleep. It reminded Rias of how she had first met the two.

"Really," Rias told Ise. His injuries were slight, only a matter of exhaustion and the bruises that came from being hit rapidly while hitting back the same, but she still didn't want to leave his side quite yet. Instead, she hesitated, coloring slightly before finally leaning forward. It was a bit awkward to bend herself enough, but she managed to put her lips to his, pulling his head gently but firmly so that he was pressing back as she kissed him.

She kept it up for nearly a minute, before pulling back, her hair a curtain around the two. She was happy to see that his face was red too.

"That was my first kiss," she admitted softly, stroking his cheek again. "It's something girls treasure in Japan, right?"

"Y-yes!" Ise admitted, stammering in embarrassment. Rias had to suppress a giggle at the way someone normally so perverted could be so embarrassed and innocent at times. "But are you okay with it being with someone like me?"

"You did something worth having a kiss with me," Rias told him softly, still stroking his cheek. Just the feel of his skin was enough to make her have to resist squirming. "It's a reward."

She smiled at him, and had to suppress a squeal as he smiled back shyly. Still, there was something she wanted to know, no matter how embarrassing it was to ask. "Do you really want my virginity that much?"

"Yes, absolutely!" he immediately answered, looking absolutely serious for a moment before realizing what he had shamelessly admitted and blushing harder.

"Geez," she sighed, but couldn't suppress her happy smile. "You really are honest about these kinds of things!"

'Now,' Rias thought to herself seriously. 'How soon can I move in with him?'

*Scene Break*


It was the next day, and Rias was still making arrangements to have her important items shipped from the moderate sized mansion that she had been staying in to the Hyoudou residence when she had to stop by the clubroom in order to make sure her shipping order was finished, when Rias came across Kirito again.

"And now he's back to this," she said out loud, shaking her head ruefully at the pile of familiars resting on the lazing boy. Rias had gotten used to seeing the swordsman in his serious mode, so the quick return to his lazy mode took a moment to really work its way through her thoughts.

Despite herself, knowing that she shouldn't be encouraging the regression but instead encouraging him to continue his training with his strange techniques, she felt that change wasn't a bad thing.

"It's only for a day or two," when Kirito spoke up at her soft words Rias jumped slightly. Apparently not as asleep as she had thought, he opened his eyes to give her a drowsy look. "Once everyone else has recovered, I think I'll get back to work."

"That's good to hear, Kirito-kun," Rias nodded proudly at her pawn's dedication to training. "Those techniques of yours are quite something. I'm looking forward to seeing what else you can come up with."

"Actually, I was thinking of focusing on my flying first," Kirito admitted, pursing his lips in contemplation. "If I can get better at that first than I might be able to start working three dimensions into my tactics, maybe work on using it in confined spaces…"

"Intriguing," Rias pursed her lips as well, considering his plans. Devils could fly, true, but it wasn't often that they really used the skill in anything but the broadest sense: a way to move from point 'A' to point 'B' in the most efficient way possible; much in the same way that humans could walk or run but rarely trained in such a way as to be able to do so creatively. Rias thought that the act of dodging and maneuvering while walking had some kind of name. She thought it was something like 'parkor', or 'perquor' or something.

She had seen videos of that kind of thing in the past, and wondered just how well that kind of thing could be adapted for flight.

"It seems that your experience reaches far more than just swords," she finally acknowledged the scope of his insight. It seemed that his experience with games really did reach out to the Rating Games.

Speaking of which…

"So what did you think of your first Rating Game?" she asked, willing to put off her change of residents for a bit. While she was excited to start living with Ise, Kirito was also her pawn, and a member of her peerage. While she didn't have the same feelings for him as she did for Ise, she did care about his wellbeing with the typical Gremory zeal.

"It was…" Kirito began, one hand reaching up to hover in his line of sight, his fist clenching and opening absently as he looked at it with narrowed eyes. "It was painful, and scary," he began slowly, but even as Rias began to prepare herself to comfort her pawn, he continued, "but despite that it was intense, and surprisingly fun. It was almost like what SAO should have been, if it hadn't been for Kayaba…"

"Hmm," Rias nodded her agreement, studying the pawn closely. He had a small smile, though his eyes were distant as well. He had the look of someone who was contemplating something he hadn't expected to enjoy but had anyway. Rias hesitated for a moment, before continuing in a probing tone. "It sounds as though you might want to have another game soon." She waited until he nodded before she added diffidently. "Maybe even someday participating as a king yourself."

It was what they used to help motivate reincarnated devils to grow strong, after all. The potential for advancement, to become a high level devil, respected and accepted by devil society. So far, out of all her pieces, the only one who had shown any interest in that kind of advancement at all had been Ise, even if it was for his 'Harem King' dream.

While it was common for peerages to grow so close that most never seek to advance on their own, preferring to stay with those they know, Rias had no problem encouraging her peerage to pursue their own goals.

Devils were those who had desire, respond to desire, who seek desire.

Kirito's eyes narrowed, and he gave her a brief look as though weighing her words. Then he smiled slightly.

"Maybe," he admitted slowly. "But when I play a game, I always wonder how I match up to everyone around me. I always want to be one of the top players, one of the ones on the leaderboard. If I can't measure up with the best, I always have to play until I can. If I were to start the Rating Game, I wouldn't stop until I was number one."

Rias knew then and there that desire wasn't something Kirito lacked. He would make a fine devil someday. One day he might even be a rival in the game for her, too.

Rias would look forward to that day, but for now, he was her family, and she would treasure him as she did all her family.

"Good spirit, Kirito-kun!" she smiled fiercely at him, and was pleased when his own smile grew a little sharp too. Then she her smile turned playful. "Until then, enjoy your nap. You've earned it."

"Thanks, Buchou," he responded, yawning as he let his earlier mood disappear back to a lethargic one. Then he added in a teasing sort of tone. "Enjoy your Ise."

Rias most certainly did not blush at his dig. She also most certainly did not order her familiar to hit him in the ear with a wing.

The familiar did that all on its own. Really.

Now. Rias focused on more important things. How best to move to present herself to Ise's family? Asia was already there, and she couldn't order her out seeing as Rias had been the one to move her in the first place. But still, how much competition could the blonde be? And also, how should she handle her lustful pawns perversity? It probably wouldn't be an issue at first, but he did have his own goals which stood somewhat at contrast with her own one's concerning him. She probably had plenty of time to work on him, though.

It wasn't like Ise's dream of being the Harem King would start happening anytime soon, right?