Zero Online: Chapter 3
Disclaimer: I don't own anything.
The smoke burned her lungs, and her coughs came out a lot wetter than what was probably healthy, but she could glimpse blue sky through the smoke.
She wasn't sure how she knew it, she wasn't sure how she'd done it, but she was back. She was back in Halkeginia, in Tristain, the land of her birth.
Everything hurt, and she couldn't really move, so she simply stayed put and watched as the sky was slowly reveled as the smoke dispersed.
She was at the Academy, everything looking just the same as when she'd left. Kirche was standing with that fire salamander of hers, and that big dragon that the Tabitha girl had summoned was watching her curiously. Even the professor was there, his eyes wide in shock.
"... Professor?" She blinked slowly, feeling strangely tired for some reason. "You're really really tall..." Her lips twitched upwards in amusement, before another cough wracked her body, making her gasp for air through the sudden pain.
"Miss Valliere...!" Colbert hurried to her side, looking distraught. "Hold on! Someone, get a water mage!"
Zero curiously raised an eyebrow at the man, not really registering what he was saying through the blur of her vision and the heavy pounding of her heart. A mage? Why would he want a mage? There wasn't even anyone injured, was there?
Then her blurring vision began to turn dark, allowing her to slip free from the pain and into blissful unconsciousness.
The setting sun was shining in through the window as Zero finally wrestled her eyes into opening.
"Mhmph... it's bright..." She promptly closed her eyes again, confident that if there was anything important that needed to be done then Liz would know well enough to close the curtains before trying to wake her once more.
There was some rustling as someone moved the curtains, and the light lessened marginally.
"Louise." A voice spoke, making Zero's head a little fuzzy.
She didn't know anyone named 'Louise', did she? No, wait, that was her name. Right, silly of her. She shouldn't forget her own name, even if she was Zero. It was a simple name, much easier to remember than 'Louise', and it was hard to remember that she had once carried another one.
"Mhmph?" So maybe she wasn't awake enough to form truly coherent sentences, but she had a headache and she felt like a giant walking bruise.
"Louise." This time with a little bit more force, a tiny touch of iron discipline.
Something in Zero's mind screamed at her that waking up was suddenly of dire importance, so she once again began to wrestle with her far too heavy eyelids.
Her mother sat in front of her, staring down at her with attentive eyes.
Zero felt her hand twitch for her sword, subconsciously wanting to be armed in front of the woman who was capable of being so utterly terrifying. Of course, her sword wasn't there. And neither was her armor, or her usual clothes.
Eyes widening in paranoid panic, Zero glanced around the room that she'd woken up in, desperately searching for the items that she'd so painstakingly gathered over the course of two years of endless battles. There was a pile of clothes on a chair, a broken sword lying on top of it.
Zero gave a small sigh of relief, even as she winced at the state of her loyal partner. It'd been a good sword, a sword that had belonged to her for quite some time now. And it'd broken, whether it be through the transit or if she'd banged it up somehow when she'd been struggling against Heathcliff's paralysis, she couldn't tell. But it would never be used in battle again, and the thought saddened her.
Then, adrenaline fading at the realization that her equipment was safe, Zero was forcefully reminded of the pain that had made her reluctant to wake up in the first place. Suppressing the urge to curl into a ball and cry as the pain shot through her abdomen, Zero returned her gaze towards her mother.
The woman observed her with coolly appraising eyes, analyzing her every action.
Zero felt her lips twitch in amusement, suddenly remembering how she'd turned a similar gaze on the players of Sword Art Online, and how it had caused them to fidget nervously. Liz had so painstakingly tried to sit up straight that she'd nearly fallen off her chair.
Her mother raised an eyebrow, clearly noticing her amusement. It was hard to tell if she was surprised, approving, or annoyed. It was quite likely a mixture of both.
She felt her amusement turn into a warm smile. "I've missed you." She confessed.
The second eyebrow joined the first one, reaching for the fierce woman's hairline. Now she was definitely surprised.
"I see." Came the calmly collected response, showing no hint of surprise, her face – with the exception of her eyebrows – still remaining perfectly blank.
Zero found herself considering how her mother might've dealt with the dangers of Aincrad, a world without magic. And was suddenly forced to fight down a grin at the thought of her meeting Klein and his charming idiocy. "You would've hated him." She mused silently, shaking her head in exasperated wonder, still fighting down a smile.
Her mother's eyes narrowed, clearly catching her words somehow, and obviously interested in the idea of her youngest daughter interacting with someone that she would've hated. Zero would've cursed herself for saying it out loud, but she really had missed her mother. They weren't close, Zero had spent most of her school years endlessly disappointing her, and she'd on numerous occasions believed herself moments away from being disinherited. But she was her mother, and she'd always been able to at least seek indirect advice from her by going through Cattleya.
So, instead of trying to find excuses and cowering at her mother's pointed interest, Zero merely sighed.
"It doesn't matter." And it really didn't, because he was in a different world, a world with only a single moon, and in which magic was the stuff of fiction. Her smile fell from her face as she returned her gaze towards the pile of clothing that was apparently everything that she'd brought back with her.
A sudden thought occurred to her. "Asuna-sama won't cook for us anymore." She felt a little bit stunned at that. "Liz won't be able to collect on that bet I lost..." She continued, not really paying attention to the her mother's quiet form. "Silica won't complain about us being overprotective... the «Fuurinkazan» won't act silly... Kirito won't get into fights with people over stupid things..." She felt something burning in her eyes as her voice began to waver. "Yui won't c-call me aunty... K-Klein won't-... h-he won't smile-..." And suddenly she was sobbing, unable to keep the tears from flowing, unable to finish her final goodbyes to the people that had been her family for over two years.
She wasn't sure when her mother had put her arms around her, hugging her tightly, but she hugged her back desperately.
She wanted them back. She wanted her family back. She wanted her niece back to spoil. She wanted her little brother back to make fun of. She wanted her little sister back to show off in front of. She wanted her in-law back to butt heads with. She wanted Klein back. She wanted him to be there, to smile at her, to hold her, to tell her that everything was going to be alright, to tell her that he loved her back.
But he wasn't there, all that she had was a mother that had always been far-removed from her life, an icy mother that was now in a hospital room holding her in her strong arms as she cried.
"How is she?"
Karin turned to her daughter, feeling the heaviness of the situation and confusion mixed together weighing down on her. "I don't know." She answered,, admitting her own inability to assess the mental and emotional state of her youngest.
Cattleya's brows furrowed. "I heard crying." She fished for information.
Karin frowned as she remembered Louise's tears. "She acts... oddly." She finally stated, not sure how to explain how the girl was speaking of people she'd never meet again, that Karin was fairly certain that she hadn't met in the first place.
An 'Asuna' who cooked? It was possible that she'd befriended the help somewhat, but surely she would've spoken about it in her letters to her elder sister – letters whose content that Karin had at least managed to get a vague idea of by questioning their receiver. A 'Yui' who called her 'aunty'? What kind of breech in protocol was that? Who would be allowed to do such a thing? Not to mention, why would she call her 'aunt' when Louise was still so young?
It was all a jumbled mess of confusion. Who were these people that her daughter spoke so fondly of? Why had Karin never heard of them before? Where did they come from? Why was Louise so convinced that she would never see them again?
Alright, so her daughter was probably intelligent enough to realize that if she failed her Summoning she would be dropped out of the Academy, meaning that any bonds she'd made there would be swiftly severed. But it wasn't as if she wouldn't be able to search her friends out later, to properly say goodbye, or to befriend them anew.
"'Oddly'?" The girl worried.
Karin shook her head, trying to clear it from the numerous questions. "Did she ever speak of friends, in her letters?"
Cattleya flinched, suddenly uncomfortable. "N-No. No, she didn't." She shook her head, looking sympathetically pained at the thought of her sister spending her school years alone.
She wanted to sigh, she really did. Of course she'd known that her daughter hadn't been quick to make friends, she'd in fact been slightly worried at her inability to socialize with her peers, but had comforted herself with how hard the girl must instead be working on figuring out her dysfunctional magic.
And now, it looked as if all of her daughter's hard work would be for naught. She would be expelled, and if tradition was to be followed, she would be hurriedly married off to the highest bidder.
Because what use does a family have for a magic-less noble, other than as a political pawn?
The thought made her grit her teeth.
She might not be the kindest of mothers, and she knew that she wasn't the warmest. But she had always wanted her children to carve out their own lives, without interference, without family-politics. And now Louise would be dragged into it all, despite her wishes.
Gesturing to her daughter that she was free to enter the door from which she'd just left, to see her little sister if she so wished, Karin swept out of the room.
She needed some air, and possibly a good target for venting her angry frustration at how the will of the Founder had touched her daughter's life.
Zero was aware of her entering, but the red sky left behind by the setting sun was hard to look away from.
She'd been held in her mother's arms as she cried. She'd been comforted, and she'd perhaps given some manner of comfort back to the woman she so admired.
Really, when had she turned into a crybaby? Crying was such a useless thing to do, and now it felt like she couldn't help doing it.
But at least her chest felt lighter, even if her eyes felt rough and her nose felt clotted. It was strange, how she was thankful that her mother had been the one to see her break down so utterly.
Her mother who sometimes seemed more akin to a statue wearing human flesh, than a person in her own right. Zero thought she could understand the woman a little, having lived through the front-lines of Aincrad, and having played the political game so that the rest of her guild could do whatever they wanted to.
It was better to cry on the shoulder of a woman who'd seen cruelty in life before, to find comfort from someone who could understand and who could still stand back up after she'd shared with her the weight of her mourning a little.
Which was why she was glad that she felt too worn out to mourn when her older sister carefully entered the room.
Cattleya was just as womanly beautiful as always, and perhaps there was the tiniest sting of jealousy in that, but it was muted from both the tiredness and the peculiar knowledge that Klein wouldn't suit her at all.
They might've been able to get along, and Klein might flirt with her – like he did with everything that was female – but she was certain that the spark wouldn't be there. That Klein would remain hers, Zero's.
That thought drew a small smile to her lips, even through the pain of remembering the man that she would never meet again.
"Louise? Are you alright?" Cattleya asked cautiously.
Zero felt herself shake off the heaviness of depression that was beginning to get to her. Klein would've wanted her to do something stupid, something silly, something that brought smiles to the faces of both herself and everyone around her. So Zero did the only sensible thing; she decided to stir up some chaos.
"I just miss my little brother." She sighed a little theatrically, hiding a smirk as she saw her sister get appropriately confused.
Zero nodded. "I mean, sure he can be kind of annoying, and he has a tendency of getting into fights, and he's got this thing where he accidentally wins the hearts of everyone female within ten miles, but he's a good guy." She suddenly made a face. "He's also a little bit overprotective, and super-stingy when sharing Asuna-sama's food." She huffed at that, remembering how often Asuna had ended up stopping them from fighting over her cooking by threatening both of their food-supplies.
"Umm? 'Asuna-sama'?" Cattleya was starting to look extremely confused.
Zero blinked. "Oh, my sister-in-law." She explained. "Her cooking is amazing." She paused for a moment, recalling their latest meal, and nearly starting to drool, her eyes filling with an odd zeal.
"What?" Cattleya sat down on a chair, too confused to remain standing.
Zero grinned at her, slightly gleeful at her ability to mess with her sister's head.
"Yeah, he got married a few months back, their daughter is really adorable." Zero nodded. "Totally takes after her dad."
"Heeh?" Cattleya was now unable to form coherent sentences, so Zero decided that she should probably cut her some slack.
"Don't worry about it." She waved off the girl's panicking confusion. "It doesn't matter anyway."
"B-But...!" Cattleya met her eyes, looking distraught.
Zero took a deep breath, realizing that she'd probably gone a bit too far with her teasing, and decided that she should probably explain the whole thing from the beginning. "It might sound crazy, but... when the Summon Familiar spell went wrong, I got dragged somewhere else. I spent two years in a world without magic. A world created by a madman who wanted to play god." She shook her head, not really bitter about it in hindsight. "We were all trapped there, but I was the only one from a world that had two moons. I found a family there, of sorts. A bunch of noble idiots who refused to let the madman win. A little brother, a little sister, a sister-in-law, an in-law with a gambling addiction, an adorable niece-..." She trailed off. "And when the madman lay defeated, I woke up back here."
Cattleya's mouth was hanging open, and maybe she should've tried to explain it to her mother, if only so that she could've gotten the chance to see the normally so composed woman look so utterly shocked. But she'd needed comfort more than humor, and it wasn't as if she was planning on keeping it a secret from their mother, so she might still be able to catch a glance of it at a later date.
"I'm not-... 'alright'." Zero shook her head slowly in answer to the first question her sister had asked upon entering. "I'll never see my second family again. And that hurts... it hurts a lot." She paused thoughtfully. "Other than that, I'm probably going to be expelled from the Academy since I didn't manage to Summon anything, so mother and father will be forced into marrying me off to whoever will have me." She grimaced. "Really not looking forward to that." She confessed.
"Mother and father wouldn't do that!" Her sister argued feebly.
Zero sighed tiredly. "We are the Valliere family, Cattleya. It's what nobles do. And even if our parents will try to make my husband a good one, he won't be-..." She felt her throat catch, her eyes beginning to burn again.
Cattleya blinked, staring at her for a long moment before moving to sit on the side of Zero's bed. "You fell in love?" She asked with a gentle smile.
Zero nodded as her fists clenched, and was suddenly pulled into a hug.
"It's alright. We'll just have to convince them that your lover will come for you, someday soon." She assured her.
Zero wasn't sure it was going to be quite so simple, since there wasn't any magic in Klein's world, and that with them being stuck in separate worlds there was a high chance that the two of them would end up discarding the love that had grown over those two years, and simply move on with their lives.
Still, it was nice to listen to her big sister whispering soothing hopes for love into her ear.
Zero made a heavy noise, mumbling something unflattering to the sun and all of its family-members and choice of company. She didn't want to wake up, she'd been having a nice dream, filled with cute nieces, stupidly noble siblings, and a smiling man wearing a ridiculous apron.
There was a knock on the door.
Zero groaned in betrayed agony. Truly, she lived in a cruel world, where she wasn't allowed to sleep-in even when there shouldn't be any need for her to get up and glare at idiots and tell them to stop picking on her little brother.
"Valliere?" Came the muffled voice from the other side of the door, sounding peculiarly familiar for some reason.
"G' 'way! L't m' sleep!" She protested pathetically.
There was a pause on the other side of the door, as if they weren't sure what to make of that.
Which meant that it wasn't any of her family from Aincrad, because they would've totally known how to react to their guild leader trying to sleep in. Even if Zero thought that the bucket of ice-water was a bit over the top.
The door opened, proving that whoever wanted to speak to her was at the very least willing to brave her sleepy fury. That gained her some points.
"Louise?" The girl asked again, her voice sounding even more familiar now that the door wasn't muffling it.
Zero frowned, trying to remember where she'd heard that voice before.
"Z'rbst?" She finally realized groggily.
"Umm, good morning." The girl belatedly settled on a greeting.
Zero fought her way up into a sitting position, ignoring the vague, lingering pain in her chest, wanting to see what the other girl had come here for.
Kirche was still just as busty as always, but she didn't seem like she was trying to flaunt it consciously, judging from the conflicted expression on her face.
"Morning?" Zero narrowed her eyes at the girl. "You call this ungodly hour 'morning'? What is wrong with you?"
Kirche opened her mouth, but then closed it again, looking a little bit stunned at the turn that the conversation was taking. "Classes would normally start within a few minutes from now." She argued.
Zero snorted. "That just means that the world is filled with crazy people who want to torture the unsuspecting!" She waved her fist a little, trying to demonstrate just what she thought of that.
A small smile made it onto Kirche's lips. "Oh? I never thought I'd hear such a thing from you, Valliere." And her voice had fallen back into the teasing tone that she usually reserved for their confrontations.
Zero immediately felt better. She'd actually missed the girl's slightly cruel teasing, especially in the early days of Aincrad, before her family became annoying enough that she didn't feel like she was missing out on their fights.
Giving up on suppressing her small smirk, Zero shook her head in mock sadness. "And that's why you will never be as amazing as me."
Kirche blinked, looking shocked, before her smile turned enthusiastically happy. "Ah, so the Zero believes herself above me?" She challenged.
Zero started to laugh.
It was just too funny, to have someone use her name as an insulting title.
"Of course not, Zerbst." She giggled. "That would be undiplomatic."
Kirche blinked, confused at the girl's sudden amusement.
There was a moment where Kirche was too unsure to speak, and Zero to hopelessly amused to do anything but laugh. Then Kirche finally sat down in a chair, and turned uncharacteristically serious eyes at her.
"You failed your Summoning, Louise."
Zero fought herself out of her laughter to meet the girl's gaze. "I know."
"You will be expelled." Kirche continued, slightly hesitant.
She nodded. "I know."
Kirche frowned. "What will you do?"
Zero paused at that. She hadn't really thought that far.
She wanted to spend time with her blood-family, she wanted to tell them of her adventures and experiences in Aincrad, she wanted to dodge marriage until she was absolutely convinced that Klein would never come for her, and then continue dodging it until she fell in love once more. But what was she going to do? Be a burden on her family for the rest of her life? Join the military? Try to find a job that she could actually do?
What could she actually do? Could she still wield a sword like she'd used to? Was her cooking still capable of being used as an improvised poison? Had she learnt anything from her years within Sword Art Online other than politics and swordsmanship?
She wasn't sure.
Zero opened her mouth anyway. "I will wander, I will search, I will wait." She told the girl with all of the sudden confidence of «The Diplomat» of Aincrad.
"Wait for what?" Kirche asked after being silent for a long moment.
Zero smiled absently, wearing a slightly sad expression on her face. "For an idiot." She turned towards the window, seeing the two moons still lingering in the sky. "There has to be a way to see him again."
For a moment, the hospital was silent, as Kirche stared at her with wide eyes, mouth opening and closing.
Zero blinked at the sight of it from the corner of her eyes, turning back to the girl who'd teased her so endlessly.
"Louise." There was a certain level of awe in her voice as the silence was shattered. "Your eyes are burning."
Raising an eyebrow at the odd behavior, Zero wondered if perhaps the girl had hit her head on something.
Then Kirche was hugging her, laughing happily, and ignoring Zero's startled squeak at her sudden action.
"I will support you no matter what." Kirche assured her with strange determination. "I'm the Ardent after all! And such wonderful passion will always have my approval!"
The rest of Kirche's visit was an insane jumble of passionate speeches, leering insinuations, and happy approval. And afterwards, Zero was startled to realize that she honestly couldn't see the girl as an enemy. It was all very strange.
"What do you mean 'she doesn't exist'?!" Klein demanded of the man in front of him, somehow managing to look and sound threatening even from his hospital bed.
"There's nobody who has registered under the name 'Zero'." The man explained, clearly uncomfortable. "Everyone is accounted for, but there simply isn't any player who went by the name of 'Zero'."
Klein opened his mouth to argue against that, because he knew Zero, and calling her a hallucination was insane, but then his cellphone rang.
Blinking dumbly at the interruption, Klein grabbed the offending item and checked the caller ID.
"Kirito? What's going on?" He asked the moment he answered the call.
"They're telling me that Yui doesn't exist. Neither does Zero." Came the deadly calm voice from the other side of the line.
Klein was suddenly immensely happy that he had not been the one to tell Kirito that his daughter wasn't real. He was also pretty sure that if they hadn't all atrophied to the point where walking was like running the marathon, then the person who'd ended up telling him would've ended up in a hospital bed of his own.
"I just heard about Zero." He confessed. "Is there anyone else you've heard that are missing?"
"No. It's only those two as far as I can tell."
Klein took a long moment to try to think up an explanation for that, before a thought occurred to him. "What about Argo? Do you think there might be something that she'd know about it?"
Kirito considered it for a moment. "I'll have to check. I-..." He paused, sounding uncertain. "There's actually... one other..."
Klein frowned, not liking the boy's sudden hesitance. "Who?"
"Heathcliff... Kayaba committed suicide long before Heathcliff died within SAO."
Gulping heavily as his mouth turned dry at the possibility that something similar might've happened to Yui and Zero, Klein closed his eyes. "Ask Argo, ask her to look for anything that might be strange about them, you hear me?"
There was a grunt of agreement from the other side of the line. "I will."
Zero stared at the tasteless blob that the chef apparently thought was food.
Perhaps it really was time to experiment with how badly her Cooking Skill carried over into this world? Her stomach certainly agreed with the idea, even if her legs felt shaky, and the pain in her chest still lingered... it wasn't as if she couldn't cook a meal just because she was injured, was it?
Then again, considering that her cooking had forced her to Master her Poison Resistance, perhaps she ought to wait until she was healthy before risking her health and hoping that her Poison Resistance Skill carried over as well.
But that meant that she ought to actually eat this stuff. Zero fought down a sudden shiver of despair. She'd fought monsters, she'd fought Bosses, she'd fought players once or twice, and she'd fearlessly butted heads with Heathcliff, the mad god of Aincrad himself. Yet, the idea of eating this 'food' filled her with an inescapable sense of dread.
"Umm, miss?" She turned towards the maid that had delivered it, looking uncertain. "Is this stuff really edible?"
The maid blinked, first surprised at being addressed, then surprised by the question. "Of course it is!" She sounded a little bit upset at the notion that it wasn't. "The chef worked really hard to make a healthy and tasteful meal." She assured her.
Zero glanced back to the tasteless blob that she'd barely managed to eat a single bite out of. "And the chef is really competent, yes?"
"Of course! He's the greatest chef in all of Tristain, barring only the chef of the royal palace." The maid answered, frowning suspiciously at her.
Zero made a sad noise of crushed dreams. "I was afraid of that." She admitted with a silent whimper.
The maid's frown wavered a little at the girl's obvious distress. "Why do you ask?"
"Because it tastes like something I would've made." Zero admitted. "And the last time I was in a kitchen, the fumes alone was enough to kill all of the plants in the house." She'd gotten into trouble for that, actually. Liz apparently enjoyed having the plant-life alive and healthy.
The maid was looking a little taken aback about something. "You've tried to cook? But miss, you're a... a noble."
Zero paused at that. It'd been a long while since she'd actually considered herself a noble. Over two years of war, surrounded by only commoners, befriending only commoners, sharing family with only commoners, falling in love with only commoners... She'd lived her life as a human. Titles such as nobles or commoners were of no importance, because in the end they all fought and died the same.
"I was trying to be independent." She admitted with a shrug. "I'm just lucky that tasting the result of it didn't actually kill me outright."
"You-... your cooking was that bad?" The maid was starting to look vaguely amused by the notion.
"Yes. Which is why I'm hesitant of eating something that looks like my own cooking." Zero reminded her, sighing heavily. "I'd hoped that I'd be able to find a chef on at least Dynamm's level. But this is... probably on Klein's." She felt her face fall a little at the reminder of him.
"Dynamm? Klein?" The maid asked, sounding confused.
"Friends." Was the short answer that she was provided. "Their cooking at least wouldn't poison the eater... though Klein's usually got burnt... as if it'd been exposed to fire-dragons." She giggled a little as she remembered one particular fight the two of them had had over just what she was calling his cooking.
"I assure you, the chef is a lot better than that." The frown was back on the maid's face.
Zero sighed, her mirth slipping away. "At least tell me that the chef either dislikes me, or makes really tasteless food for sick people." She begged the other girl.
Upon receiving a negative answer to both possible reasons for her food being horrible, Zero disappointedly settled down to eat.
The fact that she ate the rest of her meal whilst crying with defeated softness for Asuna-sama's cooking just further proved to the maid that nobles were a very strange and rude breed of people.
"There was a rumor, back in the beginning, of a girl with long pink hair that would ask why there was only a single moon in the sky." Kirito relayed his findings from Argo.
"Zero-chan? Why would she ask around about that?" Klein frowned in confusion.
There was a sigh on the other end. "There weren't any evidence for any of the theories that sprung up, but the two most popular ones were that either the girl expected something more 'out there' than something so similar to Earth when entering the game, or the girl was actually an NPC with a quest."
"Zero-chan wasn't an NPC. No way. She was human." Klein bit out, feeling affronted, even when he knew that Kirito was agreeing with him.
"I know, but those were the two most popular... however, back when we met up for the First Boss, she said something. Not sure if it relates, but it might." He took a deep breath. "She said that she spent her first week in SAO believing that she'd died and gone to hell."
Klein flinched, startled at the idea of the cheerful girl he'd come to love, believing that the world that she would sometimes regard with such fondness had originally been something so horrible to her.
Then again, he remembered her reaction to spending a single day back in the Starting City. How small she'd looked curled up with Yui in her arms on that couch, still fighting down shudders and only barely reacting to the outside world.
"So she didn't take being trapped by Kayaba very well, that's kind of understandable." Klein prodded his friend to elaborate.
"Yeah, but the way she said it... Even people who broke down back then... they were trapped in the game. She was in hell. From the sound of it, it was like she wasn't even aware of having entered the game to start with."
Klein opened his mouth to argue that that was crazy, but paused. There were no players that had gone by the name of 'Zero'. Zero had definitely been there, and she'd definitely been more than a simple NPC.
"Is it possible that she was somehow 'scanned' into the game even without really entering the game? Like Kayaba must've been?" Klein finally asked.
Kirito made a thoughtful noise. "It's possible, but there doesn't seem to have been any other coma patients that have woken up since we cleared the game. And I asked them to look around for a girl with pink hair, which gave me a few strange looks, but..."
"Nothing." Klein agreed.
"Yeah..." Kirito sighed. "Other than that, the only thing I know is that someone saw her react really strangely to the idea of the moon-landing."
"Strangely?" Klein asked.
"Extreme denial." Kirito elaborated thoughtfully. "Like she couldn't imagine the idea of people making it to the moon, and that everyone was insane for believing it."
"So what? She's been in a coma since the 1960s?" Klein made a face at that, he was pretty sure she was eighteen, by the time the game ended, and that just wasn't possible with that kind of time.
There was some muffled laughter from the other side of the phone, as if Kirito had imagined what kind of face he would pull at the idea of Zero being way older than him, and had found it amusing. "Doubtful. She was sixteen during the First Boss, and very defensive about looking younger than she was."
"Ah, right. Her chest-complex." Klein snorted a laugh at the memory. She'd damn near cut his head off for that.
There was a pause as both of them fondly remembered the fierce girl and her sometimes peculiar behavior.
"She always acted like she'd grown up close to the military." Kirito finally mused.
Klein groaned at that. "I'm not sure if that narrows it down, or just widens the possibilities."
Kirito paused on the other line. "What if... what if she really never did know anything about the moon-landing? What if she somehow got pulled into the game from... somewhere else?"
That didn't sound like Kirito was considering the idea of her being a coma victim. "You mean, like a different world, or time or whatever?" It was a stupid idea, but Klein was too worried about her for him to ignore any possible explanation for why he couldn't find her.
"It sounds stupid." Kirito sounded annoyed. "But-... if she got pulled into SAO, could she have... gotten stuck somewhere else?"
Klein felt a chill go through him at the idea of the girl being launched into a different game, a game where the people within it might not care if she lived or died, because they believed it to be just a game.
"We need to find her." He declared with determination. "We need to find her fast."
Fiddling absently with the hilt of her broken sword, Zero wondered about what else the day would throw at her before it was through.
She'd returned back to this world at noon, slept until sunset, cried on her icy mother's shoulder over friends and family that nobody would believe that she'd had, told her loving sister of the world where she'd spent over two years fighting for her life, fallen asleep, been woken up by Kirche and accidentally made a friend in her, and realized that amazing food in her world was on par with Klein's cooking.
She'd barely made it through the first twenty-four hours, and she was certain that the food-related part of those hours would continue to haunt her, if only for the reason that it was highly doubtful that she'd be able to find any way to remedy the horrible situation in which she'd found herself.
Perhaps, this was a world in which her own Cooking Skill was classified as Average? What a terrifying thought.
Suppressing a shudder, Zero went back to rummaging through the small pile of personal effects that had been left on a nearby chair.
The sword was the most obvious one, though it was clear that it would forever remain broken as only the dagger-long shard that was directly attached to the hilt of the sword had followed her back, and her armor was the object that she worried over the most, as she wasn't sure how the stats from the game would translate into protecting her in reality. But the thing that she found the most precious was a single slip of paper.
Yui, Kirito, Asuna, Liz, Silica, «The Black Cats of the Full Moon», the «Fuurinkazan», herself, and Klein, all staring back up at her, grinning widely as they cheered.
They all looked so happy, surrounded by friends and their own makeshift family. Proof, if there ever was any, that there had been good times to be found even in the midst of the war against Kayaba's creations.
It was her greatest treasure, her absolutely irreplaceable possession, the smiling faces of her precious people.
She was really glad that whatever damage had caused her injury upon reentry into her world, it'd been concussive rather than edged. Because if someone had cleaned her armor of blood and accidentally destroyed that picture as a result, she might've tried to kill them for it.
Getting to her feet wasn't really an issue any longer, there was barely any pain in her chest at all when she moved, even if she easily got winded. So Zero moved over to the open space her secluded room left her with, and began to wield the sword as if it was unbroken, silently fighting an imaginary enemy in an attempt to see how much of her movement from Sword Art Online had carried over into the world of her birth.
The stances felt off-balance without an actual sword to steady her, but it was enough to ascertain that she did indeed remain in possession of some of her ability with a blade. The thought was comforting, though it did make her worry a little over her possible luck in cooking anything potentially edible in the near future.
Asuna suppressed the urge to growl as she remembered what had happened.
"Stupid-, idiotic-, men!" She huffed, her fists clenching and unclenching as she wished to grab them by their necks and shake them until they stopped being stupid.
Klein had somehow managed to acquire ALfheim Online, without even leaving the hospital, and had caused some serious complications for the staff when he'd simply reattached his Nerve Gear straight from his hospital bed. Firstly, because nobody was sure if he would somehow end up trapped again, and secondly, because Kirito had been his usually idiotically noble self and gone in after him.
Thankfully, Asuna's father owned the company, so getting herself one of the modified Nerve Gears that had been designed to keep the SAO-incident from ever reoccurring was fairly easy.
Still grumbling at their recklessness, Asuna put it on, and started ALfheim Online.
She'd be damned if she'd let her husband risk his neck without her being there to watch his back for him. Stupid idiot though he was.
Klein stared at the small girl that had hidden herself within her papa's Nerve Gear in order to keep from being erased along with the rest of Sword Art Online.
He was happy that she was there, happy for his friend who'd found his daughter, even if she was a little more peculiar in origin than they'd originally anticipated. But there was still no signs of Zero.
"So, was Zero-chan an AI too?" Klein finally asked.
Yui shook her head. "No. Aunty was... a player, definitely." She paused, looking a bit uncertain. "But she was different, somehow."
"Yui, where is she?" Kirito asked.
Yui's face contorted into a pained expression of confusion. "I-... I don't know. When the logging out happened... There was a barrier, a trap, I don't know, it was capturing players, and then aunty got angry. Really angry." She shivered. "And then it was-... it was gone. And she was separating from everyone, going away somewhere." She sniffled at the memory. "And she told me to tell-... to tell Klein that she loves him."
Asuna pulled her into a hug, allowing the girl to cling to her as she cried.
Klein swallowed heavily, trying not to think of that confession as a 'goodbye', before a thought occurred to him. "Wait, didn't the ALO servers crash when the logging out happened?"
Kirito nodded. "They said that it must've caused some backlash across the net, overloading the servers and crashing the game. But it didn't happen to any other game or site, so people are guessing it's because of it relying on a similar source code."
"What if it was Zero-chan?" Klein asked the boy.
"That's-..." Kirito paused, turning to Asuna with a slightly worried frown. "If someone was trying to catch players that were being logged out and transfer them into ALO, and their capturing-programs were suddenly destroyed, it could've easily caused their servers to crash."
"My father would never allow something like that." Asuna argued.
"Are you sure that he would've known if it'd happened?" Klein countered.
They all shared speculative glances.
"I'll look into it." Asuna finally declared with the fierce determination born of two years of life-or-death situations.
Sighing, Kirito pulled her into a comforting hug, patting Yui on the head at the same time. They were family, and family was family, regardless of what they were of where they came from.
Klein felt his first real smile since before the fight against Boss of the 75th Floor sneak onto his face at the sight of them. He wondered if Liz would take a bet on how fast the married couple would get themselves engaged in the real world as well. Then again, Zero would probably be annoyed with him if he did... and he kind of already owed the girl money for accidentally falling in love with Zero within the year. Bummer.
Zero glared at the female water mage who was trying to convince her that she wasn't up to walking.
She'd been walking around her room just fine before the woman had suddenly burst in and started telling her what she could and could not do. And whilst Zero could understand following orders, it wasn't as if there was any great hurry in the orders being relayed, so the woman ought to explain herself.
Unless of course she wanted Zero to place her into the 'potentially an idiot'-folder of her personality classification. Not a lot of people were ever salvaged from that folder, and only those who occupied it but only very rarely interacted with her was reasonably safe from falling into the legendarily dreaded 'idiot folder' of Zero «The Diplomat».
The water mage wasn't making a good case for herself.
"Explain to me how remaining still, when I feel fine, will improve my health." Zero finally cut the woman off, her voice slipping into the brisk commanding tone that had once been used in order to keep the Clearing Group from bickering needlessly.
The woman blinked, having straightened imperceptibly at the sound of her voice. "It's possible that your body has healed itself well enough for you to move about. However, there's a bigger likelihood that your injury has merely superficially healed, and that any strain you put on it will only serve to lengthen the time that you spend here."
Zero gave her an assessing stare, considering the words, as well as the professionalism with which they'd been explained to her.
She nodded. "Very well then, I shall rest." And promptly returned to the bed.
The water mage stared at her for a long moment, looking confused and vaguely suspicious, no doubt already believing her patient to be plotting to continue her escapades if she left her alone.
Zero sighed at the woman, but relented. "I give you my word, that as long as your demands for bed-rest remains reasonable, that I shall not move from this bed without another's aid." She raised an eyebrow at the woman. "Does this satisfy you?"
The woman looked about ready to argue, but instead disappeared from the room, grumbling something unintelligible about crazy patients.
Zero wrote that down as a win.
Klein groaned. It'd been nearly two days since they'd gotten their first lead from Yui, and despite the arrest of some guy in charge of ALfheim Online, that Asuna really disliked for some past reason, they hadn't gotten any closer to finding the girl.
Kirito was tinkering with stuff almost obsessively whenever he got a free moment from his rehabilitation, Asuna was trying to convince her father to somehow get her and Kirito moved to the same hospital so that she could spend more time with him, and Klein had been getting in touch with Silica, Liz, Agil, and the «Fuurinkazan» to tell them of what they knew about Zero's and Yui's situations so far.
Silica had been understandably distraught to hear that her big sister hadn't been found, Agil had been awed at the thought of an AI becoming as alive as Yui truly was, Liz was ribbing him for owing her money whilst trying to keep her good cheer at the thought of Zero disappearing, and the «Fuurinkazan»... Well, Klein honestly wasn't sure what his guild-members were up to, but he was pretty sure that they were betting money on something.
Frowning down on the list that he'd composed of all the known facts in regards to Zero, Klein wondered if the girl had known that this would happen.
She hadn't originally believed herself to be stuck in a game. She'd been confused over why there was only a a single moon in the sky. She hadn't believed people were capable of traveling to the moon. She was considered a failure back home, and was likely bullied for it considering her 'nickname'. She had been raised in a strict family. She was good with politics. She was awful at cooking. She had a developed sense of fair play, but was perfectly willing to be ruthless when the situation called for it. She likely had some connection to the military life. She was sixteen years old when the game started, and eighteen when it ended. And she had naturally pink hair.
Alright, so that last one was reason enough to make a biologist cry, but it was something that she'd always been rather insistent on. And Zero never lied. At least not really, she was horrible at lying.
It was really all a jumbled mess that made no sense... except that Zero was definitely the person that had been described, and she'd always seemed to love Aincrad, perhaps even more so than Kirito.
And what if that love didn't stem from experiencing the world, as much as it stemmed from Zero meeting the people inside of it?
Klein had seen her, sometimes, watching him and the others with bittersweet eyes, as if knowing that it would all come to an end. And maybe the upcoming end that she'd been bitter over hadn't been the risks they were taking by being part of the Clearing Group, but her own separation from them once the game was over.
It made an awful amount of sense. But the only way for her to know that was if she somehow knew that they'd never find her in the real world, and how was that even possible? Was she already dead? But no, for some reason, Klein was absolutely convinced that Zero wasn't dead, not yet.
There was really only one thing that he could think of to explain it.
Zero's world had more than one moon hanging in its sky, and she knew that theirs didn't.
Zero blinked stupidly at the cloaked form who'd knocked on her private room in the middle of the night. Why in the world was anyone visiting a hospitalized person in the middle of the night? Wasn't that contradictory to their needs for rest somehow?
Apparently taking her stupefied silence as an invitation, the cloaked figure darted inside of her room.
Zero turned around, allowing the door to close in order to observe the intruder carefully.
"It's been a while, Louise Francoise." A soft voice emerged from within the figure's hood.
Frowning in thought, Zero twitched in sudden recollection. There was only really one person who ever called her that. "Princess?"
"Ah, there's no need to be so formal, Louise Francoise." The girl lowered her hood, looking exasperatedly amused, before her face was contorted by sudden worry. "I heard that you'd been injured. I wanted to come sooner, but-..." She trailed off glancing away guiltily.
Zero slowly raised an eyebrow at the girl. "I've been confined to the bed for the last two days on the healer's orders alone. There's really no need to worry, princess."
Princess Henrietta of Tristain stared at her suspiciously. "You've always been too stubborn, Louise Francoise. And I told you not to be so formal."
Zero snorted a laugh, shoulders shaking in sudden mirth. "Oh, but you've certainly learned the noble art of hypocrisy, my dear princess." She grinned cheekily at the girl she'd grown up with. "If I can't call you 'princess' then you'll have to shorten my name."
Henrietta's mouth dropped open, eyes widening in shock at the casual friendliness her old friend was displaying. Yes, certainly, the two of them had been playmates in their youth, and Henrietta honestly trusted the girl with her life, but Louise had always been painfully polite once she'd become old enough to realize what her playmate being royalty actually meant.
Thus, seeing Louise act so... openly, in her presence was as shocking as it was pleasant.
"Then... Louise?" The princess tried, looking a little bit unsure.
Nodding happily, Zero gesture towards a chair. "Take a seat, Henrietta. If you'll excuse me, I'll have to return to the bed in an effort to keep the healer from being too upset with me." And with a mocking curtsy, she unceremoniously dropped herself into the hospital bed.
Henrietta blinked, and couldn't quite catch the giggle that escaped at her friend's peculiar antics.
She was glad that she was alright, that there was no danger, and that the girl could act so cheerfully in her presence once more. She'd missed the girl, truth be told, when faced with the endless boredom and the annoying old men that came with her position.
There was a long moment of silence as neither girl knew exactly how to start a conversation with the other, as it'd been a very long time since they'd truly talked.
Finally, Zero sighed heavily, staring up at the ceiling. "Henrietta, in a few days time, we might never meet again." She glanced over at the girl who was now sporting a horrified look. "I failed my Summoning after all, and I will most likely be sold off into marriage before the end of the month."
"B-But, your parents surely wouldn't-!" She tried.
Zero shook her head. "The Valliere family is a noble family. And tradition dictates what shall be. They'll make sure that I will end up with as pleasant a husband as is possible in the circumstances, but I will be married off." She paused, taking in the sympathy in the girl's eyes, before shrugging. "Which is why I'm going to fake my own death before the end of the week."
Henrietta spluttered. "What?!"
Laughing silently at her expression, Zero grinned enthusiastically at her old friend. "I'm not going to marry anyone I don't want to, and if that means that I'll never be able to hold the name of 'Valliere' ever again, then so be it."
"But-... but you'll become a commoner!" Henrietta gasped.
Zero sighed contently. "Yeah, that'll be great." She shivered in suppressed pleasure. "No more politics... no more stupid bickering idiots... ah, heaven..." She hugged herself, giggling happily at the thought.
"But how will you live?" Henrietta fretted desperately.
There was a pause as Zero took a bit of time to come down from her emotional nirvana at the thought of escaping from the idiots that had so plagued her political career. "Trial and error, I guess. I'm pretty good at surviving things." She finally admitted with a sheepish shrug.
Henrietta opened her mouth to protest that course of action, before closing it again, sighing heavily. "I suppose it is good that one of us can escape duty in order to follow our hearts." She mumbled, slumping in her chair.
Zero flinched, suddenly recalling the political move of marrying the princess off with the Emperor of Germania.
There was an awkward silence that stretched out between the two old friends for a long moment.
"Henrietta, I will never see him again." She finally admitted, staring out through the window and towards the twin moons that hung in the sky. "I will fight for him and I will search for a way to return to his arms, but I already know it to be hopeless."
"Then, why? Why abandon your family like that?" Henrietta asked slowly, sounding a little scared to hear the answer.
Zero hummed thoughtfully. "Because... he said he'd always be there. And despite his faults, he's a man of his word. So I believe in him, even when I know that it's useless, hopeless. I believe that he'll be there, that he'll find me again."
Henrietta stared at the girl-... no, young woman in front of her, and wondered when it was that her childhood friend had suddenly grown up. Louise was wearing a conflicted expression, a mixture of longing, devotion, sadness, amusement, annoyance, and a warm feeling that shone like fire in her eyes that was quite possibly 'love'.
"Louise..." She breathed the name, rising from her chair to join the girl on her bed, hugging the smaller girl to her chest.
Leaning into her friend, grateful for the comfort as she'd once again managed to poke at the wound that was Klein's not-presence, Zero returned to their original topic. "I have a pair of legs to travel on, some money hidden away, a cute face, and a vicious right hook. I'll be fine."
Henrietta wasn't sure if her shaking was a laugh or a sob. "What if they're armed?" She tried to persuade the girl.
Zero chuckled a little. "I can handle a sword, I'll just need to find one that won't break the first time it has to take a hit." She very nearly winced as she suddenly remembered Kirito's shattering sword, and Asuna's falling body.
If she had to use up all of her saved up money in order to buy a sword that was that durable, then she would do so. She never wanted to see something like that ever again.
Henrietta nodded reluctantly, because in the end it wasn't her choice to make. It was Louise's, and she'd made her decision long before Henrietta walked through that door.
The rest of the visit was spent in remembrance of all the days gone by, and of the bonds that they'd shared from an early age. Zero knew that Henrietta would most likely send her an invitation to join her musketeer guards if she ever proved herself even remotely capable of reaching such a level, and Henrietta knew that if she did, that Louise would most likely turn her down.
Because she was not the determined girl who wanted acknowledgment, not the noble girl endlessly loyal to the crown, and not the devout girl of the Church of the Founder. She was the girl who'd fallen in love, and was perfectly willing to abandon her everything in order to – maybe, perhaps, possibly – find the man that she loved. And why in the world would someone like that wish to tie themselves down to the very people who might hinder their reunion with that loved one?
When Henrietta walked out that door, she understood perfectly what her old friend had told her in the beginning of their talk.
In a few days, they might never meet again.
It was a bittersweet feeling, and though she was determined to keep tabs on the girl and track her down for some proper conversation every now and again, life goes on, and she hoped that one day that the only thing she would find of her old friend was a note saying that her hopeless hope had paid off, and that she was happy in the arms of the man that she loved.
"Mother." Zero greeted the woman as she entered the hospital room.
"Daughter." The woman nodded in return, a pensive gleam in her eyes, even as her face remained as blank as ever.
Sighing tiredly, Zero cut straight to the point. "A Valliere without magic is only good as a bargaining method."
Her mother's face twitched, obviously not wanting to agree with her, even as she knew that she spoke the truth. It made Zero smile a little.
"I cannot live as a Valliere, mother."
"Louise...!" The woman protested.
Zero held up a hand, wanting to finish her explanation before she was interrupted. "I will either be married off to whoever will have me, or I will be locked inside of the estate in an attempt to protect me. That is not a life I can stomach." She met her mother's eyes. "Thus, despite how I love my family, I cannot live as a Valliere."
Her mother stared at her for a long moment, trying to judge her sincerity, before speaking again. "Then, what will you do?"
"I will fake my death, and take up a new name. I will become a commoner, and I will travel where my feet will take me." Zero stated honestly.
There was another moment of silence in between them as her mother judged her words.
"How can you live as a commoner, daughter? You've lived your entire life as a noble, there is much you don't know about the way commoners live." She finally argued, though she already seemed somewhat resigned to her daughter's decision.
Zero decided to be perfectly honest. "I've lived as a commoner and as a soldier for over two years." She smiled as her mother's eyes widened when she couldn't detect any lies. "I know how to handle a sword, and I know how to beg for scraps." Her smile became nostalgic at the memory of doing just that for Asuna's food. "I've camped without shelter in the middle of a blizzard, and I know enough about politics to be able to keep myself out of the nobles' line of sight." She had really hated the weekend that she and Liz had ended up stranded on the 55th Floor, trying to mine dragon poop.
It was one of those moments that when the rest of the guild had asked them where they'd been, they'd told them to shut up. Some things were not meant to be explained.
Her mother frowned, remaining silent, before finally sighing heavily.
"We'll have to inform your sisters, and then we'll have to review this plan of yours to fake your death." She narrowed her eyes at her daughter, daring her to defy her.
Zero just smiled. This had gone a lot better than she'd originally hoped that it would.
Klein shook his head in awe as he watched the result of a little over a week of Kirito's careful tinkering.
He'd managed to transfer Yui to a computer that allowed her to speak to them, even outside of ALO. And it was obvious from the way that Kirito's tinkering hadn't slowed down, that the clever brat wasn't planning on stopping until his daughter was able to run around like a regular girl.
Asuna was looking warm and happy through her tears, speaking to her daughter through a microphone, and watching the girl's face changing effortlessly inside of the graphical thingamajig. It looked just like a regular video-call, even though it really wasn't.
If Kirito could do this, in just a few days... if he could bring Yui into their world so easily... then what the hell was Klein doing just standing around?
He still had to find Zero-chan. After all, he'd given her his word that he'd be there with her, always.
First, he was going to need a way to monitor alternate dimensions. Or perhaps track energy signatures? She had to have gotten inside SAO somehow, and that'd probably be a good place to start.
Damn, he was totally going to have to go back to school, wasn't he?
"Where did you learn how to use a sword anyway, partner?" The clanky voice asked her curiously.
Zero hummed thoughtfully, not sure how to explain it best. "I suppose you could say that I learned it from a man, a madman who created a world over which he himself would rule supreme, before trapping ten thousand innocents within its confines."
There was a pause as the sword digested that information, during which Zero continued walking down the winding country road.
"So, he made the world, and you just picked it up trying to survive?" The sword guessed.
"Pretty much." Zero admitted unhesitatingly.
"How did you escape?" The sword asked, sounding vaguely intrigued. "Was it the same way you escaped from that noble-name of yours?"
Zero snorted. "I didn't escape at all." She shook her head. "No, I watched my little brother fight against god, and walk away victorious." She smiled faintly at the memory of realizing that the two newlyweds both still lived. "He always was better than me in a fight."
Derflinger made a strange noise. "He was better than you?" It asked in disbelief. "That's-... that's pretty amazing."
Zero's smile turned into a grin. "Well, he was a really amazing little brother." She admitted with fond nostalgia.
It was a good decision to pick Derflinger over any of the other swords in that shop. She would've probably gotten mindlessly bored from all this walking before the end of the week otherwise. Not to mention its apparent ability of eating magic, and how it'd been a fairly amazing sword even before any of those factors had been considered.
Zero took a deep breath, relishing in the smell of summer. She would probably drop by the Valliere estates at some point, dutifully insisting on her name being simply 'Zero', just like she would drop by the capital and talk with Henrietta at some point in the future. Hell, she'd probably even visit Zerbst one of these days.
It didn't really matter if people didn't believe that she'd died, as long as everyone was officially aware that Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere was dead and buried. Nobody really cared about what was in effect a disinherited noble wandering Halkeginia, regardless of her skill with a sword.
It was a good life.
XXX (The Epilogue) XXX
It wasn't a bad assignment by any stretch of the word. There was of course a lot of travel involved, but that just really meant that you got to see the world. Not to mention that by the time you found her, you'd be able to talk to Zero herself.
In fact, many of Henrietta's knights considered the reoccurring assignment as a pilgrimage of sorts. A chance to meet with the legend of Albion. Because what kind of commoner would not be in awe of a single swordsman changing the tide of a war?
There was of course rumors that Zero had been born as a noble, and the fact that she was a personal friend of the Queen of Tristain was somewhat supportive of that idea, but the woman used no magic beyond her skills with a sword. She was a commoner, and as such she was adored by the common soldiers and the people.
There was even a rumor that she'd sparred with Karin of the Heavy Wind and won, though perhaps that was to be expected as the retired legend of a mage was surely getting on in her years by now.
Regardless, the chance to meet with Zero personally was enough to make the knights assigned to tracking her down quite content with their lot.
Of course, rumors from other knights usually spoke of the many great deeds that they happened across in her trail, so they weren't all that surprised when they encountered a town saved from bandits, or a nest of goblins that had been wiped out.
But things took a turn for the strange when they found Zero's talking sword, Derflinger, stabbed into the ground on an unassuming hill, where a single set of footprints suddenly disappeared into nothingness.
When they asked the sword for an explanation, it answered simply. "He truly was a man of his word."
Uncertain of what to make of his words, the knights decided to carry the famous sword to the Queen in the hopes that she'd be able to make more sense of it. Though, Derflinger didn't spend the journey silent, they didn't manage to get anything else out it other than its repeated attempts at gambling.
But when they arrived in the palace, and Queen Henrietta heard their tale, she called for the finest wine in the cellar, before raising her glass.
"A toast; to family, to old friends, and to the eternal hope of True Love."
A/n: And so ends the tale of Zero «The Diplomat», and her lover Klein «The Man of His Word».
Thank you everyone who reviewed, thank you everyone who put this among your Favorites, I'm happy that this was as well received as it has been.
Other than that, there's been some complaints about this story being too short. I understand that perfectly. However, in comparison to what I normally write, this thing is about three times as long as a "reasonably long" fic, and I honestly don't think I would've been able to finish it if I'd tried to expand on it any more. A case of "a little is better than nothing at all", if you will.