Disclaimer: If you believe that I own .hack, you are incredibly nice but stupid.

Author's Notes: My muse is in overdrive. A short scene that takes place after Kite and Co. meet Lios for the first time in Mutation, but before he comes to a decision about their place in The World.

Dedication: To Renfro Calhoun, for using the world "emasculating" in a review and forcing me to look up the meaning in a dictionary. And also to Jonathan Priest, whose pen name I'm extremely jealous of. Why can't I think of a good pen name? Maybe it has to do with the fact that I'm a girl? Ah ha! So does this mean I should write under a man's pen name? *ponders*

Anyway, thanks for being so kind you two. ^_^


"What do you want, Lios? I'm not used to be summoned like this."

A harsh intake of air.

"I want to know why you're helping that illegal character. Kite." The name was said with a sneer. "He's a threat to the System."

"You mean, he's a threat to you." An amused laugh. "Really, Lios, you of all people should know that I do not give help freely. I have my own plans and my own powers." Hesitant pause. "But I will agree with you that he is a threat. To who though, is the question above all questions."

"Damn it, woman, do you talk just to hear yourself yap? This Kite is going to be deleted. He's violated his User Agreement, and that accessory of his is causing havoc everywhere he goes."

"Accessory? I take it you mean the Bracelet." A smooth smile. "Would you really destroy it and it's carrier without understanding their purpose, or their strength? That might look rather… cowardly to the Corp. Surely you have a better idea regarding this situation."

Sharply. "Like what?"

"Why not test the boy? See what his intentions are. If he lacks the will, perhaps he could be turned to your purposes, his power leashed. Having the Bracelet on your side might be profitable, with a little direction, of course."

"You seem awfully intent on letting this character stay within the game. Why is that?"

Quiet laughter. "As I said, I have my own plans, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts. It should also be understood that if he passes, he will be allowed to continue to login."

"Whatever. The test will be of my choosing, Helba, and since the boy is logged in, I will implement it immediately."

"Of course. Do as you wish. But I think you'll find he will exceed all expectations."

* * * *

"Are we there yet?"

The words echoed through the dungeon, ringing in Kite's ears as he turned slightly to regard his bedraggled companions, his gaze catching Mistral's as she opened her mouth to complain again. With a sigh, she shut her jaw and plopped down in the center of the corridor, her shoulders drooping. A few feet in front of her, BlackRose came to a stop, unshouldering her huge broadsword and planting the end of it into the dirt floor so she could lean tiredly against the massive blade.

"My eyes are blurry," the Heavy Blade remarked, pinching the bridge of her nose. "I think I've been looking at the computer screen too long." She made a low growling sound in her throat. "How big is this dungeon anyway? Seven floors?"

"We're on the bottom," Kite replied wearily. "The Gott Statue should be close." Unfortunately, he couldn't say how close considering that they had run out of Fairy Orbs somewhere around floor five. The only reason he even knew they were on the bottom was because Elk had warned him about this dungeon when he heard Mistral wanted to go there.

"So, that means we'll get the rare item soon, right?" The Wave Master had perked up a little at the mention of treasure. BlackRose threw her a look.

"I thought you were tired?"

"I am! But I'm going to complete my Items list no matter what!" She gave a crooked smile. "Even if I can't walk."

Kite looked to his partner. "A little further?" In truth, he was just as exhausted as they were and the sooner they reached the Statue, the sooner he could log out and get some real rest.

BlackRose must have been thinking the same thing because she nodded. "Yeah, a little further."

Mistral groaned upon seeing their intent to go forward, but she stood and followed, already planning what she would do with her new item. They had only taken a few steps when static lines stretched into view, a familiar glowing cube expanding before their sight. Kite took a step back, frowning.


The System Admin folded his arms over his chest as his character resolved clearly, his grumpy look encompassing all three of them. BlackRose hefted her sword, her expression anything but welcoming.

"What do you want, old man?" she snarled, crimson eyes flashing. It was obvious she had not forgotten that Lios has been determined to delete them only a little while ago, and that he had had no answers for her concerning the coma victims. Kite's fingers tightened around his daggers, wondering if the System Admin had come to destroy them at last.

Oddly enough, Lios did not speak right away. Instead, he hovered there, watching them, until Kite could feel BlackRose's irritation raising by leaps and bounds. Her eyebrow twitched.

"What?" she snapped, beyond all patience. Lios grunted and, to the Heavy Blade's further annoyance, turned his complete attention to Kite.

"You say you want to help your friends," he said, and at Kite's nod, continued, "But words are just words until they are acted upon." From thin air, the System Admin drew a tarot card and raised it. "If you truly stand behind your convictions, then show me." The card disappeared in a twinkling of glitter. "Show me."

BlackRose lifted her sword and turned with a smooth grace that drew Kite's attention. He turned his head towards her just as her massive blade sailed towards him and only a sudden somersault to the side saved his life.


Her gaze followed him and that's when he saw the faint hearts above her head, disappearing and reappearing, a remnant of the spell Lios had laid on her.

She was Charmed.

He turned to the Administrator angrily, even as he opened his inventory only to find his Items inaccessible. A cry from Mistral proved she was having the same problem.

"Why are you doing this?" From the corner of his eye, he saw BlackRose make for him again. "She's never done anything to you. She doesn't have the Bracelet!"

Lios' stare was emotionless. "If you really want to help your friends, this should be simple. Think of it as a testament of your good will towards The World." His eyes shifted to the advancing Heavy Blade. "The choice is simple."

Kite was forced to raise his twin Crimson Raid in a criss-cross fashion in order to shield himself from a hard direct blow from his partner's Shikisokuzaku, sparks flying as steel met steel. From across their unrelenting blades, Kite caught her gaze, calling out to her. He heard her teeth grind.

And though she was looking straight at him, he knew her words were meant for Lios. "I… hate… you."

The Administrator shook his head. "That won't work, boy. She can't fight it on her own. You know the rules of the game as well as I do."

With a sudden surge of strength, BlackRose sent one of his daggers flying and he took a small hit as he stumbled to the side, using his speed to roll forward and grab his weapon on his way up. His partner's sword crashed into the ground where he had stood, making a huge rent in the dirt.

His hit points dropped by forty, and there was a stricken look on BlackRose's face.

Seeing that, Kite felt determination rise within him and he took a better grip on Crimson Raid, readying himself as she ran for him, raising her sword above her head in preparation to bring it down in a devastating vertical slice. Red afterimages flowed through the air as he moved to intercept her attack again, catching her blade between the two of his and holding it there despite the fact that BlackRose's strength was much higher than his and he felt his feet sliding backwards in the dirt.

There were angry tears in the corner of her eyes.

"Stop this, Lios," he shouted. "It's not right and you know it."

"Quit whining, kid," Lios retorted. "You might as well give in and strike her down. Without a Restorative, your only option is to let her die and then bring her back with a Resurrect. A few moments as a ghost and it will all be over."

Kite could not spare the energy to shake his head, his will locked with BlackRose's. "I won't," he said through clenched teeth. "I won't betray her trust like that. I can't." His eyes found hers. "I trust her."

And he dropped his daggers, his hands falling away as he closed his eyes against he blow to come.

It never came.

A startled gasp from Mistral made him look, his heart aching as his partner stood there, her whole body shaking from the effort it took not to attack, her sword three inches from his body.

The steel edge was wavering.

"Impossible!" Lios barked and he lifted his hand, to do what Kite would never know because with a sudden cry of effort, BlackRose pivoted and threw her weapon as far away from her as she could, Shikisokuzaku flying through the air in a long arc before it clattered against a wall and dropped.

Kite started to breath again.

BlackRose gave something between a cry and a laugh and fell to her knees, her fingers digging into the dirt as she clenched them reflexively. After a moment, she looked up at him and he stepped forward, reading something in her eyes. His hand reached out to touch her shoulder.

"I don't get it," Lios grumbled, walking up behind BlackRose. "She shouldn't have been able to— "

In perfect synchrony, Kite stepped back to make room as BlackRose pulled a Sakabatou from her inventory, swinging it around left-handed as she twisted on her knees to bury the sword in Lios' stomach.

Silence fell within the dungeon and Kite watched dispassionately as Lios' eyes widened fractionally, obviously surprised.

And then the System Admin laughed.

"Well, I guess she was right," he said, and disappeared, BlackRose's sword falling heavily to the ground in his place. Immediately, his partner exhaled loudly and turned her head to look at him as he kneeled beside her, a certain amount of amazement in her expression.

"I wasn't sure you would approve," she said hoarsely, "but I couldn't let him…" She seemed unable to finish and he nodded, smiling gently.

"We're in this together," he said simply, and after a moment she nodded, hearing the things he did not say.

In a whirlwind of wands and bells, Mistral threw herself at BlackRose, hugging the Heavy Blade for all she was worth. "BlackRose, you were amazing! You really showed him!"

"That pighead had it coming," BlackRose answered heatedly. Kite grinned at her choice of words.

"Well, whatever he is, he knows we're serious," Kite said, helping his partner to her feet as Mistral bounced around them. "We didn't chose the way he thought. I hope it makes him think."

"Think about deleting us, you mean," the Heavy Blade said sourly. "I suppose I didn't do you much good." A sort of shameful expression flitted across her face. "Sorry."

He nudged her with an elbow. "Have you forgotten? I knew what you were thinking and I didn't do anything to stop it."

Mistral grinned. "That's because, in the end, all we've got is each other. Right, Kite?"

Kite put out his hand. "That's right."

After a moment, BlackRose smiled and put her hand on top of his, Mistral topping both of them with a small fist as they made a silent pact.

In The World, all you can trust is yourself and those who believe in you.

The Wave Master winked. "Now, whose ready to find that Gott Statue?"