Zero Online: Chapter 1
Disclaimer: I don't own anything.
Louise took a deep breath and began her chant.
She didn't care if it was a mouse or a dragon or whatever, just that it would be something, something to prove that she wasn't a magic-less noble. Something to prove that she wasn't a Zero.
Finishing her words, she swung her wand-...!
The magic circle glowed.
The world was inverted and agony was everything. A horribly buzzing noise was painfully building inside of her head, but even that couldn't compare to the feeling of her bones being turned inside-out and her lungs catching on fire.
A voice-, no, an intent broke through her agony. Demanding her name.
She didn't know. It hurt too much. How was she supposed to remember? She was in pain. Pain pain painpainpain.
State your name. The unyielding intent demanded.
Louise! She finally cried back at it.
That name is unavailable, state a different name. The voice countered mercilessly.
She was in pain. Painpainpainpain! Her name wasn't allowed. She wasn't allowed to have her name. She needed a name. Her name. What was she?
Zero! She cried out, anything to stop the agony. I'm just a Zero!
Then it was over, and Louise collapsed onto the cobblestones.
She was crying, she noted blearily in the aftermath of what was probably her biggest failure to date. She'd never accidentally tortured herself before, this was definitely on a new low.
There was a loud murmur, as if an immense crowd surrounded her, which was relieving only in that even if it was likely that she'd accidentally exploded the entire courtyard there had possibly not been any casualties. She wasn't really feeling up to being declared a murderer right now.
Grimacing, Louise crawled to her knees to see what was happening. What kind of damage her most painful failure yet had caused.
Where was the school?
Who were all the people in strange clothing?
Where was her wand?
And, perhaps most importantly, why had the sky just turned red and begun to display writing?
Eyes impossibly wide at the sight of some manner of crimson liquid oozing out of the cracks in between the red plates that the sky consisted of, Louise wondered if she'd gone to hell. It wasn't an impossibility, she noted absently, too confused and terrified to feel any spectacular emotion at the idea of 'eternal torment'.
Then the crimson goo transformed into a cloaked humanoid, and a voice boomed down at them. "Attention players. Welcome to my world." There were some scattered murmuring from the crowd. "My name is Kayaba Akihiko. As of now, I am the sole person in control of this world."
Louise blinked, a sudden fire sparking through her eyes. She might have become a noble in name only due to her lack of magic, but she was a devout follower of the Founder Brimir's teachings. And the humanoid in the cloak obviously wasn't Brimir, and as such what he was speaking was heresy!
Then again, her sudden – and admittedly conditioned – rage faltered, they were in hell. Brimir probably didn't care overly much about what happened to people in hell.
The man continued, speaking something about 'logs' and 'games' and 'nerve gear' and some manner of punishment being 'death'.
Louise was feeling rather lost, not able to grasp what he was speaking of, nor the slowly dawning horror on the faces of the rest of the crowd. What was so terrifying about 'death' being a punishment in hell? It obviously made no sense, since they were already dead, but if they died it wasn't as if it'd be possible to end up in place worse than hell, was there?
Then he told them that he'd left them a 'gift', and suddenly people started drawing their fingers in the air, making patches of light appear in thin air. Before mirrors suddenly came into existence in people's hands.
She'd never seen magic like that before.
Blue light washed over the crowd, and there were screams. Louise felt the briefest of twitches of the horrible agony that she'd felt originally, but then it was gone, and they were back in the giant square. Only... the people looked different. There were even – in some extreme cases – some men who were dressed up as women.
Louise was horribly confused.
A week. Seven days. That was how long it took until Louise began to grasp what her 'hell' really was.
It was a game. An illusion originally created to entertain the masses, that had been hijacked by a genius madman who was now forcing them to fight an army of nearly endless monsters with their very lives hanging in the balance.
They weren't even given magic, only swords. And the people who knew enough about the 'game' from some manner of previous experience had selfishly rushed ahead, leaving the rest behind to fend for themselves.
Louise didn't know how to use a sword, but there was a small book that explained some of it, and she was still a Valliere. She refused to sit around and play a damsel in distress when it was so clear what she needed to do.
Once the game was cleared, the Boss of the 100th Floor defeated, they could all go home. Or, at the very least, those among them still alive would be allowed to go home.
So, Louise got to her feet and began learning how to kill monsters with a sword.
She might not like it, she might hate every moment of it, but she hadn't been raised to simply lay down and allow others to save her. And so she would fight, even if it meant her death.
Louise glared at the wall, her teeth grinding together in furious frustration.
Her name wasn't 'Louise'. Her name was 'Zero'.
The indignity of it all was nearly enough to make her kill someone.
She hadn't really been thinking clearly when the 'intent', that was most likely the AI of Sword Art Online, had demanded a name from her. And if she ever encountered it again, she would not be held liable for her actions of extreme violence towards its person. But until such a time came, she could blame nobody but herself for stating that most hated of nicknames as her name.
Thankfully, nobody seemed to be taking her name as something pathetic, but rather as a name much like any other. Then again, perhaps that was to be expected when some of the names amongst the players that she'd encountered were downright bizarre.
It was also quite obvious that most players spoke a different language than she did. It wasn't a problem in that there was an auto-translate incorporated into the game itself, meaning that it was barely noticeable, but it helped explain some of the more confounding names that she'd encountered.
She was in a place far, far away from home, and everyone she'd encountered so far were in agreement that there truly was only one moon in the sky back home, and that she was strange for asking about it. They'd also sometimes commented on people having traveled there, which was insane, but something that apparently also was considered as 'common knowledge'.
Still, despite the madness of how different their home worlds were supposed to be, Louise couldn't help but come to an absolute conclusion. They all wanted to go home, and they were all trapped against their will.
She was just grateful that the madness of the first few days had mostly blown over, and that people were no longer walking off cliffs in order to 'return home' at random intervals. That had been horrifying to watch.
Louise took a deep breath as she made her way to the meeting place.
They'd been here for a month, and it seemed like someone had decided that they ought to be ready to defeat the Boss of the 1st Floor by now. Louise wasn't feeling overly optimistic on the subject, though she was starting to run out of things that were easily capable of 'killing her dead' on this Floor.
Honestly, Louise didn't enjoy risking her life at every turn, and didn't feel especially inclined to continue on in order to find enemies that were more capable than the ones that she'd only recently become able to feel reasonably safe whilst fighting.
Then again, the sooner they made it to the 100th Floor, the sooner they could go home. And Louise really wanted to go back home.
She might be bullied, she might be mocked, she might be nothing but a useless Zero, but she missed it. She missed the familiarity of having two moons rising during the night, of wearing the clothes of a noble, of having a room of her own, of writing letters home to Cattleya... hell, she even missed the mocking words of her classmates, because at least they weren't going to kill her, unlike the monsters roaming the world of Aincrad.
Louise tilted her head thoughtfully as she considered what she knew of the Beta-testers.
They'd known about a lot of stuff in SAO, and instead of helping those who didn't know, they'd used that knowledge to secure their own skins.
It was... dishonorable, but it was also human. Louise wasn't sure that she wouldn't have done the exact same thing had she been in their place. Who could she trust? Who could she be certain wouldn't betray her? How many could she even help if she'd tried?
The answer was that had she been in the Beta-testers position, she would've probably acted just like them. She didn't want to die, after all.
So, whilst the brute shouted for vengeance against them, instead of joining him, Louise merely shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Nobody would be stupid enough to come straight out and tell a potential mob-in-the-making that they were one of those that they were searching for, and yet Louise was pretty sure that the spiky-haired brute wouldn't allow discussions to continue until they did reveal themselves.
"What would you have done?" Louise finally asked the man, briefly surprised at her own daring. "Had you been in their position, would you have waited for others to maybe get their acts together? Taught everyone on a ten-to-one ratio?" She felt a sneer of contempt building on her face that – whilst impressive – was most likely nothing but a shadow to that of her mother. "Do you really think you have any ground on which to condemn them?"
The man blinked, stunned at being interrupted by the small girl, and clearly uncomfortable at the expression on her face.
"Now now, let's all calm down." The man who'd called the meeting begged, hands in a placating gesture. "Psychologically, it's perhaps understandable, but that doesn't mean that resentment won't appear."
"Shut up!" The spiky-haired brute snapped at the man. "And you! I bet you're one of them betas!" He yelled at her.
Louise blinked. "I didn't have any knowledge of this game before my arrival – which was just around the time that Kayaba held his speech. I spent a week wandering around the starting city and trying to figure out if I'd somehow died and gone to hell." She confessed, frowning, both at the man, and at the memory of her own ineptitude to dealing with the change.
The crowd murmured, quite a few shifting guiltily at the confession of a small girl wandering the city in such a way. But that didn't matter to Louise, what mattered was the fact that the idiot brute was still pointing a finger at her.
"Then why are you on their side, huh?!" He yelled at her.
"Because they wrote the book that kept me alive for the other three weeks." She held up the small book that she'd gotten for free, and that a large dark-skinned man with an ax had later explained to her as having been composed by the beta-testers.
And that was it. The spiky-haired brute had lost the crowd utterly, and so he had no choice but to grudgingly concede victory.
Louise allowed herself to feel a little bit smug at that. She didn't normally win in fights like these, usually being either up against classmates more talented in magic than her, or her own genius sisters, so to her winning was still a rare and pleasant change from the norm.
Of course, her satisfaction was somewhat dampened when the blue-haired man again spoke up in the silence that followed, this time beginning the strategy meeting in earnest.
A monster that needed more than 40 people fighting it in order to bring it down? That... that would be... bad. Really really bad.
Steeling herself from the flash of fear as she remembered all of her close-calls with regular monsters when she'd started out, Louise began to glance around for a party to join.
She wasn't going to join the spiky-haired brute if she could help it, because the Rule of Steel did not allow its practitioners to blame others, and though Louise was useless at magic and not a good person and a 'Zero', she was still the daughter of Karin of the Heavy Wind, and the Rule of Steel had been drilled into her spine from an early age.
Thus, she searched the crowd for someone that would definitely not be on that man's party. Which proved rather complicated since everyone were bunching up into a cluster that made distinguishing between the forming parties significantly more difficult than it ought to be.
Feeling a headache forming, Louise finally spotted two people that were remaining removed from the crowd, a vaguely nervous-looking boy and a girl wearing a hooded cloak.
Chancing a brief glance backwards to the others, Louise decided to take her chances with the two 'outcasts'.
"Umm... not to be rude or anything, but why did you defend the betas?" The boy finally asked her, looking guiltily nervous about something.
Louise blinked, looking up from the delicious wonder that was actually tasty food. "Their actions might've been dishonorable, but it wasn't their fault that we were trapped here, and we can hardly blame them for looking out for themselves in a life-or-death struggle that might be on a time-limit." She frowned. "It's not as if these 'betas' will have experience with... well, 'war' is probably the closest approximation to our current predicament. And if you can't trust a soldier not to break and run in the face of their own mortality, then how can you expect untrained civilians not to do the same?"
It was a solid argument, based around the experience gained from a childhood spent in the proximity of a woman who was a legend in the military world, even to this day.
The boy hadn't expected it, staring at her dumbly with his mouth agape for a long moment.
"How old are you exactly?" He finally asked, his voice sounding more disoriented than confused.
Louise felt her face twitch dangerously. "I'm sixteen." She stated in a deadly calm voice, just daring him to argue that she looked prepubescent.
The boy opened his mouth to do just that, regardless of her silent warning, when something in her voice finally registered to his dense awareness of the danger that he was in and he hurriedly shut his mouth again.
There was a silence for a long moment as all three of them returned their attentions to more important matters, such as the delicious bread and cream that the boy had provided for food.
Louise blinked, turning towards the boy who was looking at her with such... open eyes. There was guilt, relief, awe, shame, embarrassment, resolution, and kindness, all mixed up until it was hard to tell just what the boy was thanking her for.
Even so, Louise heard her heart suddenly hammering in her ears, and felt her face heat up at the sincerity of the attractive boy sitting across from her.
"You were in the beta." The cloaked girl stated in understanding, interrupting Louise's blushing and causing the boy to flinch quite obviously.
"I-I-..." Finally, giving up on his stuttering speech, the boy nodded with a defeated sigh. "I was."
Louise stared at him for a moment, weighing him and his actions as she knew of them so far, before nodding. "You're not a bad person." She declared simply, making the girl wearing a hood nod in agreement.
And, much to the more experienced boy's confusion, that was it. The rest of their meal was spent in a peculiar state of silent camaraderie.
Louise took a deep shuddering breath as her knees finally gave in. It'd been terrifying, and people had died, but in the end they'd won.
Then, as the exhaustion from the adrenaline rush slowly erased itself, the group began cheering.
Louise felt a smile twitch its way onto her lips. They'd done it. They'd taken the first step up the ladder, they were beating the game. It was a wonderful feeling.
"Why?!" A broken voice called out, interrupting the surrounding joy. "Why did you let Diabel die?!"
Louise blinked, her good cheer slipping off of her face as she turned to face the spiky-haired brute from before. The brute that was now glaring at Kirito.
"Let him die?" Kirito asked, sounding confused.
"Of course! You knew the technique that monster used! If you'd told us up front, then he would still be alive!" The brute shouted back angrily.
Whispers broke out amongst the players, everyone unsure of what to make of this new development, because the man did have a point... if you squinted.
Louise didn't feel like squinting, she was tired, and annoyed, and had been enjoying a good mood, and she just really wanted to pull out her wand and use one of her famous explosions to explode the man until he shut up. Of course, she couldn't do that.
"Diabel broke formation." She instead intoned, her voice easily breaking through the silent conversations that were developing. "Previous knowledge or not. That was nobody's fault but his own."
The spiky-haired brute turned towards her, glaring. "How can you brush it off like that?!" He demanded. "Diabel is dead!"
"And if we fight amongst ourselves, how long until we join him?" Louise felt her spine straighten, her face falling back into a cold mask. "We all came here knowing that we could die, Diabel discarded his own strategy and died for it. It was his choice, and regardless of guilt, Kirito at least tried to warn him." She turned to the beta-tester. "How did you know?" She asked gently.
Kirito opened and closed his mouth a few times, before answering. "I fought monsters with katana skills several Floors up."
Louise looked at him for a moment, before nodding. "And you only noticed that the Boss would use it when you saw its sword?"
Kirito swallowed, looking guilty. "Yeah."
Louise turned back to the brute. "So he had barely a moment to register the change from the beta, before suddenly Diabel broke formation and got himself killed." She paused to let this sink in to her audience. "A moment during which he yelled to 'get back', and when his warning failed he then tried to use a Healing Potion to save Diabel's life." She sighed. "We're human, this game is changing, and pointing fingers to find someone to blame is going to get us nowhere." She glared at the brute. "And I'm getting sick and tired of you trying to blame others for things that were out of their control."
"Y-You!" The brute exclaimed, his eyes wide.
"I am a failure, a Zero, a hopeless person." She continued, her glare growing in potency as she recalled the hardships that she'd endured since entering the academy. "But at least I never blamed anyone else for my failures. Grow up, idiot. This isn't school, where you can point fingers and bully others. This is war, where you'll fight with your life on the line in order to survive."
There was a stunned silence as everyone stared at the seemingly-prepubescent girl who was wearing a rather scary face.
"So that's why you're 'Zero'." Asuna completely shattered the serious mood, sounding like she'd finally understood something that she'd been trying to figure out, and smiling happily at having the secret revealed to her.
Louise felt her eyebrow twitch, and she sent a half-hearted glare in the girl's direction. "I was on a time-clock." She admitted, pouting lightly.
She could hear a few of the other players beginning to snicker at her excuse, but she was trying not to pay attention to them, no matter how hard she began to blush.
It was a good day to be alive.
Zero took a deep breath, enjoying the feel of the endless summer of the 59th Floor.
It'd been over two years since the game had begun.
Kirito was currently ignoring the wonderful weather for more important things; namely, emptying Asuna's picnic-basket. Zero had over the years spent almost a total of five minutes at actively being jealous of the girl's ability to turn even the simplest of ingredients into something amazing, but usually got distracted by remembering that Asuna was perfectly willing to share the masterpieces that she called food with the rest of her guild.
Perhaps that had played a large part in how they'd almost ended up calling themselves «The Food Protection Squadron», before Asuna managed to glare them down into a more... socially acceptable kind of name.
Of course, there weren't a lot of people outside of their guild who knew of this rather closely guarded secret from an embarrassed Asuna. There was Klein – who Kirito had threatened into keeping silent in an attempt to monopolize Asuna's cooking – there was Agil – who'd caught Zero drooling over a sandwich – and there was Argo – who couldn't be kept out of a secret no matter what.
So, the world continued to see «The Swords of Unity» as a collection of extremely skilled individuals, and not as a bunch of food-obsessed crazies. Which was good, really, since it helped Zero keep the meetings for the Clearing Group from spinning out of control.
She wasn't sure how she'd become the guild's leader, originally thinking that Kirito would've done a better job at it, with his previous experience in the game and immense skill with a sword. But Kirito was too easy-going, Asuna was too important – they couldn't allow their prime chef to become a target – and Zero had already displayed quite a few leadership qualities.
In hindsight, it was obvious that shouting down the 'idiots' for being idiots and making sure that no arguments came to blows, would've put Zero in a position fairly high on the charismatic food-chain. But it still surprised her a little.
Zero had after all, spent most of her life being regarded as a failure, and now here she was being admired as one of the best sword-users of Aincrad and possibly the single most diplomatic individual of the Clearing Group. It was a startling change from what had once been the norm.
The fact that Zero's diplomatic skills tended to revolve around glaring idiots down, pointing out obvious flaws in their strategy, and continuously reminding everyone that you never know information for certain and that she'd beat them up if they got themselves killed, really only proved that the players of SAO weren't a military so much as they were a bunch of people in a life-or-death crisis who didn't always get along.
The spiky-haired brute from the 1st Floor had abandoned the Clearing Group early on after attempting to butt heads with her a few too many times. Apparently, Zero had a much harder head than the man had anticipated.
Glancing over at her two guild-members, Zero found herself wondering how long it would take before they ended up as a couple. She was kind of really hoping that their confessions would at the very least not coincide with the time on which Klein had placed his money. That was a lot of col, after all.
They were an almost ridiculously small guild. In the beginning there'd only been Kirito, Asuna, and Zero, though they'd grown enough to accommodate a few girls that seemed to gravitate towards their guild's only male member – much to Asuna's silent frustration. Silica was a nice kid, and her «Feathery Dragon» Pina was amazing, and Lisbeth was one of the highest-level blacksmiths in the game – even if Kirito had destroyed more than one or two of her blades over the years, much to the girl's horrified despair.
Zero could honestly say that she wasn't entirely sure how they'd ended up recruiting Silica, as the little girl didn't really have an interest in becoming part of the Clearing Group, and had generally only been on their friend-lists until Lisbeth dragged her into their guild-house one day.
She really wanted to hear the story behind that, Zero mused to herself, fighting down a smile at the memory.
Out of five members, three fought on the front lines, one worked in her store, and the final one had declared herself as their collective little sister and could usually be found trying to keep an eye on things.
Zero had a hard time imagining their guild either losing or gaining another person. They were a family.
Yes, Kirito and Asuna had a tendency to flirt obliviously even if they weren't a couple, Lisbeth would sometimes threaten people with her hammer because they'd gotten her wonderful equipment scratched, Silica's idea of cleaning up around the house was at times to sweep things under the rug, and Zero had on multiple occasions beaten the crap out of people for commenting on what age she looked like. But that was part of what made them fit together so well.
Kirito and Asuna became the newlyweds that hadn't technically gotten around to marrying yet, Lisbeth was the crazy in-law who had been administered a room of her own in order to keep the couch she kept crashing on semi-unoccupied, Silica was the adorably innocent youngest sister, and Zero herself had somehow become the usually-responsible eldest sister.
This was peculiar in that Zero barely looked any older than Silica, and that she'd grown up as the youngest in a family of three daughters. It also didn't help that her 'younger brother' could still make her blush with his sincerity at times.
All in all, Zero was confused as to how leadership fell on her shoulders, but she refused to let the position down, and so she marched on.
Of course, a summer day like this one ought to be properly enjoyed with tasty food rather than battle-strategy, she shamelessly pointed out to herself as she waved at the missing members of her guild as they appeared.
"My name is Klein, and I'm 24 and single." Klein introduced himself with a wide smile towards the girl.
Zero sighed at his regular antics. "Shut up, Klein."
"Hmm? What was that Zero-chan? Are you jealous?" The redhead turned his attention away from the girl who was by now halfway hidden behind Kirito.
"Who'd be jealous over someone like you?" Zero dismissed the question with a single raised criticizing eyebrow.
"Uwaah! Zero-chan, that's so cold!" Klein dramatically clutched at his heart. "After all that I've done for you!"
Zero stared at him for a brief moment before her lips twitched upwards, revealing an amused sparkle in her eye that shattered her usual apathetic mask. "To be fair, you've tried to steal my sandwiches." She reminded him.
Klein blinked, startled. "You can't hold that against me! It was Asuna-sama's cooking!" He defended himself.
"And it should've been mine!" Zero yelled back, clutching at her sword in a way that made it quite obvious that she was very close to pummeling the man into submission with excessive force.
"Does this happen often?" The girl who'd accidentally started the argument wondered quietly.
Kirito turned towards her, looking confused. "Does what happen often?"
There was a brief moment of awkward silence, before Lisbeth finally spoke up. "Don't worry about it too much, you get used to it after a while, but only Kirito and Asuna are insane enough to actually take it to the point where they don't notice that it's happening at all."
"I-I see..." The girl fidgeted.
"Really, they're harmless. I've got a bet going that they're totally getting together within the year." Lisbeth grinned cheerfully.
"Liz-chan, making money off of people's love life isn't nice." Asuna scolded her friend with a vaguely disapproving frown.
The blacksmith shrugged. "It's not like they don't know about it, heck they betted against me. Klein said he would only fall for her after one year and at least another day, and Zero kept insisting that she was already in a steady relationship with your cooking, and that nothing could sway her from its side."
Asuna turned an embarrassed red, but was spared from commenting as Kirito snapped his head around, looking like he was about to cry. "You mean I can't eat Asuna's food?!" He sounded absolutely horrified at the prospect.
Silica grinned at the older girl who was currently being ignored by the rest of «The Swords of Unity» as a random crisis developed on behalf of Asuna's cooking supposedly dating one of their members. "It's great fun, really. Even if they're idiots." She assured her.
The girl turned towards her, looking awkwardly nervous. "Y-You all seem so close..." She trailed off, throwing a glance at Kirito who was currently begging on his knees in front of the guild's chef, trying to convince her that she should stop providing food to their selfishly food-dating guild leader.
Silica followed her glance, and allowed herself a sigh. "Kirito-nii, you're so dense..." She shot the girl a sympathetic grin. "I think everyone here has had a crush on Kirito-nii at some point." She paused, glancing over at Klein, who had also gotten dragged into the argument. She fought down a decidedly un-angelic smirk. "Possibly even Klein-san. You can never know for sure with that guy."
The girl turned red. "E-Everyone?"
Silica blushed a little herself at the reminder. "He saved me and he gave me back Pina. It was... nice." She shook her head a little in order to clear it. "But yeah, even Zero-neechan had a bit of a crush on him once. She got over it though... not sure how." Silica frowned, wondering briefly if she could somehow blackmail the girl into telling her how she'd managed to get over the boy so easily. It was unfair, it'd taken Silica almost three months of exposure to the 'newlywed aura' to quell her own crush.
"I see..." The girl nodded silently, obviously recalling her own encounter with the gentlemanly handsome «Black Knight».
"Zero-neechan is the official leader, because she's good at commanding. But it's Kirito-niisan who brought all of us together..." She felt a smirk reappear on her face as she watched Asuna finally explode at the idiots who were trying to worship the ground she walked on. "Though I think it was Asuna-san that turned us into a family."
The girl followed her gaze, and there was a slightly pained expression on her face as she saw the boy she was obviously developing a crush on, beg another girl for food that he 'wanted to eat everyday'.
Finally she shook her head and smiled at the younger girl. "Thank you Silica-chan, for explaining."
"I-It was nothing." Silica blushed lightly, trying to dismiss it.
"Thank you nonetheless." The girl easily countered her dismissal, before stretching slightly. "But I think it's about time that I find the others, before they begin to get worried." And with a departing wave, Sachi disappeared in the direction of the rest of her guild.
"Do you think we should make them pay rent?" Zero asked her 'little brother' curiously, as she considered how much time Silica had been spending with «The Black Cats of the Full Moon» as of late.
"You want to make money off of her?" Kirito spluttered indignantly.
Zero seemed to think about that for a moment, before shaking her head. "No, if we need funding we'll just blackmail Klein like always." She assured the boy. "I'm just not entirely comfortable with Silica possibly being in danger."
Kirito frowned thoughtfully. "We could simply lay down a few ground rules over where they're allowed to go, and explain to them our reasoning." He tried.
"Maybe." Zero shrugged. "But we'll need to convince Silica not to find technical loopholes or actively ignore the rules."
"She wouldn't do that." Kirito argued.
Zero raised an eyebrow at him. "Kirito, I would do that, and I'm pretty sure you would too. It has to do with being stubborn, and wanting to be relied upon." She shook her head. "Therefore, we need to make it seem as if her best way of being useful and relied upon is to actually follow the rules."
There was a few moments of silence in between them as they both pondered this problem.
"We should probably just tell her." Kirito finally pointed out with a tired sigh. "It'll be easier for all of us in the long run."
Zero nodded hesitantly. "Fine. I'm not going to argue against that. Just know that I'm totally blaming you if this blow up in our faces."
"You always blame me." Kirito argued with a frown.
Zero looked affronted. "No, I don't. Usually I blame Klein."
Silica shook her head in amusement as her elder siblings began listing the rules that they'd finally settled on being enforced to the leader of the friendly guild.
It annoyed her a little that they didn't think that they'd be capable of not getting into trouble, but at the same times she knew just how overprotective Kirito could be. Hell, if Asuna hadn't already been fighting next to him, he'd probably have tried to argue that the girl ought to be on the sidelines where she wouldn't be in danger.
Her big brother could be kind of stupid like that.
Then again, she understood the danger. If they'd gotten caught in a trap above their level and been unable to leave, it wouldn't be strange for them to all die. Silica didn't want to die, and even if Sachi had become more confident in her battle against the fear of her own mortality, they all knew just how very valid that fear was to have in Sword Art Online.
Still, having the two overprotective idiots begin listing things like "Don't let her near perverted old people." Silica could feel a rather intense blush rising to her cheeks.
Zero nodded to herself as Asuna began to outline the plan for this particular Boss. The idea of luring it into the town where it would kill off NPCs instead of the players was sensible. Ruthless and morally in the gray zone, but it held merit.
Kirito spoke up, interrupting her. "You're just going to sentence them to death?" He demanded, frowning.
Asuna flinched a little, not wanting the boy she loved – even if she still hadn't admitted to it, meaning that her and Klein's bet was still in motion – to be angry at her.
"Kirito." Zero broke through before the other girl could do anything more. "It's not a kind tactic, but I'd rather have the Boss kill things that will get better, than for it to kill players."
Kirito opened his mouth to reply, but closed it again, frowning in a mixture of frustration and guilt. He nodded.
Asuna's expression was one of sympathy as the planning continued, and it didn't take the two of them long before they found themselves standing next to each other, visibly finding some manner of comfort within the other's presence.
Zero gritted her teeth. If those two ended up as a couple this weekend, she'd owe Klein 6 000 col. She really didn't want that kind of money to be thrown at the idiot just because the newlyweds couldn't wait with getting together until the weekend after that.
Klein noticed her expression, glanced over at the oblivious semi-couple, and then met her eyes, smirking evilly with a gleeful look of anticipation on his face.
Zero forced herself to pay attention to the strategy-meeting, lest she draw her sword and attack the annoying idiot. Some days were hardly worth getting up in the morning.
Zero stared at her two 'subordinates' for a long moment.
"So, let me get this straight. There was an incident where people were being PK-ed in Safe Areas?" The two of them nodded, so she continued. "And when you investigated it fully, it turned out that it was all a ruse to bring out the killer of a member of the victims' former guild?" Another nod caused Zero to sigh. "I'm not sure if I should applaud your investigation skills, berate you for not informing others of the potential dangers, or ignore this entire incident completely and hope that nobody complains to me about how the two of you handled it."
Both members of the idiot-couple at least had the grace to look sheepishly guilty about it.
"Zero-neechan, you're going to ignore anyone who does complain just so that you won't risk being able to eat Asuna-san's cooking, aren't you?" Silica stared at her leader with a suspicious expression on her face that didn't speak highly of Zero's perceived integrity in the matter at all.
Zero tried to keep her face straight, but had some issues with meeting her adoptive little sister's eyes. "O-Of course not! I would never do such a-... such a dishonorable thing!" She stuttered out, lying rather obviously.
Kirito suppressed a snicker as Asuna scratched her cheek, embarrassed but kind of a little happy too at the endless amount of praise her cooking received.
Silica grinned at her snickering big brother, and decided to poke a little bit of fun at him. "Well, at least Kirito-niisan didn't seduce anyone this time."
Kirito's snickering broke off into a choking cough, and Asuna sent a brief glare over at the boy at the reminder of his – fully accidental – way with women.
Zero glared at the older man.
"I'm sorry? Did you say something to my subordinates, Heathcliff?" She asked in a voice that was painstakingly polite.
The man didn't look cowed. "I'm curious in regards to Kirito's ability to dual wield. So I challenged him to a duel. Is there a problem, Zero-san?"
Zero took a deep breath, not wanting to show just how angry she was at the man's challenge. Yes, it sounded rather benign when the man put it like that, but Zero knew better than to look at the surface of such things.
Firstly, a battle between two of the supposed 'strongest players' could cause horrible friction between their guilds, as the guild of the winner looked down upon the guild of the loser, as well as the loser feeling resentful to the winner. That by itself would've been enough to make Zero oppose the duel. They really couldn't afford to cause any more friction than there already was amongst the Clearing Group.
Secondly, this would become a spectacle. There was no denying that whoever won, it would be spread all across Aincrad, weakening the fame of the loser, and turning the winner into a target for those jealous of their skill.
Thirdly, Kirito and Heathcliff were both prideful. Both refusing to back down from a challenge, both seemingly incapable of not going all out. And Kirito, even now, years after the betas had lost their advantage of foreknowledge, wasn't regarded entirely peacefully due to his status as one of them. What kind of new problems would him using his dual wielding in view of the general public cause?
Fourthly, Zero didn't like the idea of seeing Kirito get hurt, no matter if it was barely noticeable, or if it could be healed with a single potion. He was her little brother, and she worried a little over him.
The four reasons were all easy to understand, though the politics of the first three of them would most likely fly over a lot of people's heads.
The worst part of it all however, was that if she tried to dismiss the duel by acting as Kirito's guild leader, he would be upset. Because Kirito was probably looking forward to fighting something that wasn't monsters.
Zero continued to glare at the man who was the reason for her giant headache. "Heathcliff, if I find that your intention with this duel is anything but what you say, I will destroy both you and «The Knights of the Blood»." She ignored the nervous shuffling of the witnesses. "Are we clear?"
One of his eyebrows rose slowly. "I thought you were opposed to the idea?"
"I am. But if Kirito has already committed himself to fighting you, then anything I might do to stop it will only serve to cause friction within my guild. And that is something that I refuse to do without a very good cause." Zero explained herself.
"And so instead, you threaten my guild?" He sounded more curious than disapproving.
"I threaten the integrity of your guild, yes. Because if it's a choice between turning a famous organization on its head, or letting my family get hurt without repercussions. Then my choice is easy." Zero answered, meeting the man's stare head on.
The man smiled, looking strangely approving. "If that were to happen, I will not blame you, Zero-san. After all, family is important."
Zero gritted her teeth and forced a smile onto her face. She really really really wanted to beat the crap out of him until he gave up on the idea of fighting her little brother, but she couldn't do so without endangering her own reputation pointlessly. And with more than 25 Floors still left to Clear, they couldn't afford it.
She hated politics.
"Kirito, sit down." She motioned at the couch.
The members of their guild glanced between each other as they entered their home, trying to figure out why their leader looked so upset. Sure, Kirito had lost, but that shouldn't make her this serious, should it?
Kirito hesitantly seated himself on the couch.
"How did you lose?" Zero asked him bluntly.
There were some indignant noises coming from the rest of the girls at her confrontation of the boy for something like losing, but she ignored them, focusing instead on the boy in front of her.
Kirito hesitated. "I-... I don't know." He admitted with a distracted frown. "It was... weird."
Zero nodded, as if she'd expected as much. "How was it weird?"
"Right there at the end, he moved fast. Faster than I think should be possible." He shook his head, trying to shake off the unsettling image of that one moment.
The rest of «The Swords of Unity» stared at the two of them, looking suddenly unsure of their original defense against their guild leader's bluntness.
Zero groaned, burying her face in her hands. "Dammit, that's what I thought too. That moment was creepy." She sighed. "But at least that meant that you won't be getting any crap from the regular players over being too strong 'just because you're a beta'." She tried to look at it from the bright side.
Liz made a choking noise. "W-Wha-? What do you mean?"
Zero glanced up, startled. "It's obvious, isn't it? If Kirito would've won, he would've been declared as 'the strongest player', and since he's one of the betas, that would've caused a lot of potential friction between those who still blame them foolishly." She explained. "It's part of the reason that I disliked the idea of the duel in the first place."
Her 'subordinates' stared at her, jaws dropping.
"Y-You-... You actually thought that far ahead?" Silica finally spoke up, looking a little bit awed.
Zero frowned. "Is that supposed to be a dig at my leadership skills?" She demanded in the voice of a big sister moments away from administering punishment for younger siblings who didn't believe in them.
"N-No! Not at all!" Silica hurriedly excused herself, not wanting to get her cheeks pinched. "It's just..."
"We hadn't been considering the political ramifications." Asuna explained.
Zero let her frown drop, slumping backwards in her own chair. "Sorry." She sighed, throwing a tired smile at their youngest member. "I keep forgetting that you guys usually just let me deal with these things."
Kirito shook his head, still looking a bit surprised at her admission to political prowess. "So, what'll happen now that I've lost?"
"Heathcliff will be stealing ground on my reputation as «The Diplomat», which means that there'll probably be a bit more friction in the Clearing Group than what we've gotten used to. And there's a high likelihood that our guild as a whole will be looked down upon, since our strongest player has lost to the strongest player of «The Knights of the Blood»." Zero shrugged. "There might be more, but those are probably the most obvious reactions."
Asuna plopped down next to the boy, looking exhausted. "Well, at least the whole thing is over now."
The rest of the members grinned at her, knowing exactly what was going to happen in mere moments.
Kirito's stomach growled.
Asuna hung her head with an exasperated sigh, whilst the rest of them tried to keep themselves from laughing at her. After all, it wouldn't do to anger their chef.
Zero sighed resignedly. Apparently the recruiters to «The Knights of the Blood» didn't look for brains when they went recruiting.
"I don't care what your subordinate seems to believe, but if he challenges a member of one of the single most high-level guilds that exists, he shouldn't be trying to blame them for breaking his sword." Zero tried to point out reasonably. "I mean, once-defeated or not, Kirito was still in the running for the title as the strongest player of Sword Art Online."
"We can't allow something like this to happen without reprimands!" The man in white argued.
Zero carefully raised a single eyebrow at his words, staring at him critically. "Really? And what punishment is this 'Kuradeel' facing for his challenge?"
"His punishment is none of your concern." The man easily dismissed her question.
Zero allowed herself a smile. It was a cold one, the kind of smile a shark would wear at the smell of blood. "I see? Indeed, it should be the leader of a guild that punishes their subordinates, should it not?" Her eyes narrowed, the smile not wavering. "So why in the world are you arguing with my judgment?"
The man frowned, seemingly finally realizing his own hypocrisy. "Then why aren't you punishing him?!" But pushed on regardless.
"Because I frankly don't care about the shoddy weaponry of arrogant idiots." She admitted bluntly, startling those witnessing it.
Zero was called «The Diplomat» for a reason, the idea of provoking her to where she seriously began to act rudely to people meant that she'd classified the man as 'an idiot'. A classification that only a handful had gained since the spiky-haired brute from the First Boss had finally slunk off to lick his wounds in peace. To have her classify a high-level member of «The Knights of the Blood» as one was... potentially grounds of what might actually be turning into a feud between the two guilds.
A feud between one of the most traditionally influential guilds, and one of the largest. In the middle of the Clearing Group. It would not end well.
Apparently, the man in question was beginning to realize that not only was he provoking a very influential person, he was doing it in a manner that made him appear as nothing but an idiotic hypocrite.
And so he hurriedly withdrew his demands for punishment against Kirito for defending himself in a duel that he hadn't started.
Zero kept the cold smile fixed on her face for the entire next hour. She might have won this round of impossible demands, but there would be more. Kirito had been defeated, and even if it was against the strongest player in the game, the sharks of Aincrad were smelling blood in the water.
The fact that the other members of «The Swords of Unity» were still admired by everyone didn't actually help matters much, as it became a case of 'removing the taint' as it were, or 'taking his place' in the guild of admirable individuals.
No, this was all far from over. And the thought of what it could cause further down the road held her stomach in an icy grip.
A/n: In my usual way of doing things, this story is already completed, and following chapters will be published after having their contents polished a bit further.
This Crossover is partially inspired by: Halkeginia Online and Making Magick.