Once again, Saint here bringing you more! But first of all, seriously, let me just put this in perspective.
Almost 60 reviews. Over 150 Followers. Over 120 favorites. All of it in less than 4 days and most of it in the first 24 hours of it being posted!
Did you guys really like this thing that much XD?! I admit it even made me a bit scared, it's the most positive response any fanfic of mine has ever gotten on its prologue chapter, and I'm a bit fearful of being unable to live up to the hype it created…
But those doubts aside, THANKS a lot for it, people. You're all awesome and I hope to not disappoint you at all with this mad idea :3
Some things that I would like to point out among the reviews, though: Yes, 'To Protect that Smile' IS broken as hell…but Kirito has not only no control over it, he also has no desire of actively using it and, most important, he can't control how it works once it Triggers, not to mention it requires the active presence of one of his Waifus to even work in the first place :P So no, he can't use it cheat death or solo everything in his way (As much as he would probably prefer that…he's not 'The Gamer', sadly).
Also, to the single reviewer that practically begged for this 'to be a KiriSuna fic and no harem'…you haven't read any of my works before and/or completely ignored the whole premise of the prologue, right O,O?
That out of the way, some recognition now! Immense thanks to Pikanet128 for this fic's new and awesome cover :D Seriously, dude, you're the best. You can find links both to a complete version of it and to this story's all new TvTrope's page (Fastest one in getting one too!) on my profile :3
And without more delay, enjoy the chapter already XP!
Disclaimer: Neither Sword Art Online nor its characters belong to me, as much as I wish otherwise. If they did, 'There Is But One Ultimate Way' would no doubt be the Canon Ending of the series.
Scene 1: Mixing Action Plots and Cheap Romance!
November 6th, 2022. Horunka Village, Aincrad. Inside an Inn, 21:30…
On the small village of Horunka, night had already fallen and given everything an honestly peaceful and relaxed atmosphere, completely at odds with the terror and despair that consumed most players trapped within SAO, still back at the Town of Beginnings.
However, Kirito the swordsman (As selfish as that sounded) couldn't really care about any of that as he let himself fall on a chair and allowed his face to slam on the wooden table, feeling a terrible headache and the vague need to jump off the Floating Castle.
And the playful (If slightly concerned) voice that came after someone sat before him didn't exactly help as much as she intended.
Of course, it wasn't really her fault, as there was no way she knew that she was the source of his current state.
"Geez, Kii-bou, I know it has been a rough day, but do you really need to look as if the world was ending? Honestly, I expected better from you…"
Raising his head to deadpan at the girl sitting before him, the boy actually had to suppress a weird mix between a whimper and a groan, as his eyes once again came in contact with the source of his current mood.
Namely, the invisible (For everyone but him) words floating about the Info Broker's head.
[Hosaka Tomo: 'Trolling Information Broker']
[Relationship Status: Best Beta Buddies]
[Affection Points: 66/100]
[Heroine Summary: You only know Tomo (Until you read this, that is) by her in-game name of 'Argo', also known as 'The Rat' during Sword Art Online's Beta thanks to the whiskers she started to have in her face since Floor 2 (And that you never knew the origin of). You two easily became friends out of some Gaming-sense-of-honor, in which you both played the role perfectly: You the reckless unstoppable swordsman and she the mischievous and vicious information dealer. While some people said she would sell even her grandma for the right amount, she's actually a very caring girl who has almost as much problems as you do making actual friends, hence why she values your friendship so much and why she's currently so concerned about you, thinking you may have lost it or something]
"For the last time Argo, I'm…fine, really. I don't you to…babysit me or anything." lamely explained the gamer while trying very hard to look at his friend (And nothing more!) in the eyes, ignoring the screen above her.
"Yeaaah, the fact that you're still sounding as if you had an anvil on your shoulders despite having just gotten that fancy new sword convinces me of the contrary." drawled out Argo while pointing to the boy's back, where his all-new Anneal Blade, arguably the best weapon you could get in the 1st Floor, rested. "Look, you don't have to act all tough with me, Kii-bou. This whole situation is a nightmare, I know that, and you don't have to pretend it hasn't affected you when it clearly has. Hell, even I'm not feeling exactly chirpy right now, and I'm sure this retard here didn't help too much with that…"
As she said those last words, the girl sent a glare towards the last figure 'sitting' on the table…or more like, the gaged and tied-up boy who was trying very pointlessly to get free of the rope binding him, and that didn't seem any older than Kirito was.
Said guy with slightly long brown hair was named Coper, a fellow Beta Tester, and the genius that had tried to trick the two of them with a friendly façade when it truth he was a selfish piece of shit willing to do anything to survive, including waiting for the black-clad swordsman to get the Quest Item needed to get the Anneal Blade and then try to trigger a trap which would have swarmed them all with monsters to steal it after they were dead.
Putting aside all the holes in his plan born out of desperation and ignorance (As he would have been unable to get away from the blind plant-enemies of the Quest with his 'Hiding' Skill), Kirito was sure the poor Coper didn't know how screwed he had been from the very beginning.
Namely, that he had tried to pull a fast one on him when he had the sneakiest and most well-informed Beta Tester backing him up, as Argo had decided to 'follow' him after their meeting and his small episode back in the Town of Beginnings.
The black-haired boy didn't know how that had happened when he had chosen Option C, which had been the most neutral one. Then again, in hindsight that was probably the most appropriate one to give Argo, and it did nothing to convince her he wasn't 'more affected by the whole Death Game thing' than he pretended.
Which wasn't true, really. If anything, seeing the notifications about her 'Route' having been unlocked, seeing how high it already was just (He assumed) from their friendship from the Beta had freaked him out way more than the deadly trap they were all now in had. His hurry for getting out of there after that (With a hasty apology to Klein) wasn't apparently the right choice, though, as she had followed swiftly after him all the way to Horunka, then tagged along for the Anneal Blade Quest and having been key in solving the Coper incident.
Poor guy didn't even get close to try his stupid stunt when Argo had tricked him into dropping his weapon by pretending a Mob had spawned behind him. It was, no doubt, the saddest way of being busted Kirito had ever seen. The fact that there were still monsters around and Coper was clearly terrified out of his mind when Argo pointed her dagger at him, then was convinced to tie himself up (Not even stopping to think the girl had no real way of threatening him without her cursor turned Orange) had only further reinforced the gamer's idea that this guy had to have been one of the Worst Beta Testers ever.
A part of him did wonder where the hell had the Info Broker gotten the rope and the gag from in just a few hours of game before Kayaba's announcement, though, but the bit of him that still liked his strained sanity decided it would be better not to ask.
"Coper's retarded stunt has nothing to do with my mood Argo, neither is it any sort of chronical depression I have fallen into because of this mess." tried to convince her the gamer, though his tone didn't sound very convincing despite how honest he was actually being. "And can you really waste your time babysitting me? Shouldn't you be out there or back at Town of Beginnings collecting all the info you can?"
The boy's words may have sounded rude, but truthfully he really wanted his hooded friend to get away from him for her own sake. It was bad enough he felt as if he had violated her privacy just by his power's 'passive' effect having given him not only her real name but also a mini-biography about the type of person she actually was, Kirito didn't want to take the risk it could do anything else to her.
Having made his little sister (Even if she was actually his cousin) get a crush on him so painfully obvious he felt like smacking his head against the table again for not noticing it earlier was one more serious problem than the gamer wanted to deal with in a lifetime, especially after getting 'trapped' in such a bizarre and surreal situation just after realizing it (Cursed MC Status!). How unfair it would be for Argo that some crazy Reality-bending superpower he had little control over made her fall for him if she stuck around aside, he honestly didn't want to deal with even more headaches.
"Hoh? Are my ears deceiving me or it sounds like you're trying to get rid of little old me?" playfully asked the info broker with a small grin, the black-haired boy wondering if he would have been able to notice the worry she was clearly trying to hide if his power hadn't all but told him about it beforehand. "Why, I'm hurt, Kii-bou! I thought we had something special, you and me, but if you're really so eager of losing sight of me I guess you have finally realized how pointless is to try to win my heart for your benefit…"
Kirito couldn't stop himself from snorting at the pseudo-irony his fellow Beta Tester had spouted without even knowing it.
"As if I would ever try to do that."
"…really? Say, Kii-bou, you know I'm still a girl, right? And that such things can sound very offensive for a poor maiden like me?" retorted Argo with a smile that was much more 'dangerous' than her previous one, but that didn't seem to even faze the swordsman before her. "What's the matter? Am I not good enough for you?"
"What? No!" quickly denied the gamer while waving a hand to the side, his head still too much of a mess to let him do more than directly react to his friend's trap-question. "If anything, I'm saying it because of the exact opposite."
"…eh?" was all that the girl could say in response, blinking in clear confusion and surprise.
"Do I need to spell it out for you, Argo? You're too good for me, one doesn't need to be a genius to see that." explained Kirito with a seemingly tired tone, quickly looking straight into Argo's eyes as he kept talking. "You're amazing, resourceful, able to keep your cool and smile under any situation, and the most reliable person I have ever known. Hell, if it wasn't for you, I bet this idiot's stunt would have ended either with me or him (Most likely because of his screw-up) dead, yet with you here to save my ass everything was handled as if it was a menial thing. And regardless of how your avatar looked before or in the Beta, now that I see your real face I can shamelessly declare you're a beautiful girl. I'm sure you have lots of people around you in real life, and if you don't is that you're just too good for them. So, yes, it's so surprising I think you're too good for me? If anything, I would have thought it was obvious…"
As he slowly trailed off, the black-haired boy finally realized that, at some point during his surprisingly long speech, he had reached out and grabbed Argo's hands between his, also leaned forward over the table, with his elbows resting on it, to look even closer into Argo's eyes. Also, that at some point so much red had entered his wide-eyed friend's face as she stared at him that it seemed Cardinal was about to run out of resource to generate her blush.
[That was the most romantic thing anyone has ever told her! You gained 10 Affection Points with Heroine Tomo!]
[Congratulations! You left a girl speechless with your sincerity! You gain +1 in Charm!]
…are you being fucking serious right now?!
The still-tied-up Coper rolled his eyes and loudly mumbled something unintelligible, but that the gamer was, for some reason, very sure was something along the lines of 'Get a room already, you two!', and that seemed enough to snap Argo out of her trance, the girl released the cutest and most girly squeal Kirito had ever heard, a sound he had never imagined his cool-headed and jokester friend could produce, before she all but bolted away from him, pulling her hood so hard to try and (Poorly) hide her blush that she seemed about to tear the cloth item apart.
"We-well, lo-look at the time, it's SO late right now! You we-were right before, Kii-bou, and you se-seem more than recovered enough to look for yourself s-so I will be going no!" all-but-shouted the Info Broker, her usual cool and composure shot to hell as she sprinted out of the Inn. "Ma-make sure to message me later, though!"
"…how the hell…did I do that?" questioned the boy to no one, actually looking a little scared, as he had somehow turned the most unflappable, shameless and playful girl he knew (Not that he knew many, though) into a blushing/stuttering mess with just Words, no sign of his 'Skill' having been activated for it. "Wait a minute…don't tell me…?!"
Staring at the Menu he had brought up in a hurry, the gamer made his best effort to not gulp in fear. Certainly, it was way higher than it had been a month ago when he had gotten his 'Dating Sim Power', and he had only really deeply interacted with Sugu during that time, but…there was no way that such a small increase could allow him to do THAT to a girl close enough to him by just talking, right?
"HMMPH! Hmbbm?!" groaned the still gagged Coper, probably not in answer to his question, but demanding to be released at the now apparently disturbed boy.
"Oh God, this is worse than I thought…I need to try and interact as little as possible with Argo from now on!" screamed Kirito while standing up, an almost haunted look in his eyes. "If I'm not careful enough I may end up in bed with her or something worse!"
Ignoring the 'What the fuck?'-look the failed-indirect-murderer sent him at his, from his point of view, nonsensical declaration, the gamer stood up and walked out of the Inn, ready to forego sleep that night and get all the way to Tolbana if needed, just in case Argo 'regretted' having run away all of a sudden.
Coper was so busy staring in disbelief he realized too late they had left him in there still bound and gagged, with no one but the NPCs around. Muffled screaming ensued.
It would take 2 more days before any other Players ventured to Horunka and found the shaking and clearly out-of-it form of the boy in the Inn. After he was unbound, he would silently march himself back to the Town of Beginnings, swearing to never go out again.
No one cared.
December 2nd, 2022. Aincrad, 1st Floor Labyrinth. One of the many hallways, 3:55…
"Walking through a dark and empty dungeon filled with lizardmen and kobolds at an insanely early hour instead of sleeping…yep, that's my life now. The protagonist here, ladies and gentlemen."
Chuckling bitterly at no one, Kirito realized it was probably not a good sign for his sanity that he had started to talk alone or to refer to himself as 'The Protagonist', but honestly, between having to squeeze his friend like mad to create enough (And believable enough) excuses to not met with Argo during the last month and the fact that, despite that, he had still somehow managed to gain a few Affection Points with her just through messages, he was barely hanging on.
It didn't help at all when he had seen the several and sudden 'changes' Suguha's 'Title' had suffered since he got trapped there, first the first day…and again yesterday, together with their 'Relationship Status', which was part of the reason he was there, killing every Mob that stood in his way as a way to vent. Because…
[Kirigaya Suguha: 'Confused Little Sister']
[Relationship Status: Lovey Dovey 'Siblings'/Cousins]
[Affection Points: 1/100]
…it seemed like Midori had decided it was a good idea to reveal the truth about his adoption to Suguha because of his situation. Great job mom, because that's exactly what you tell an emotionally strained 14-years-old when the person most important to her (And how he felt guilty it was his own fault that was 100% true) could die any day. He just hoped it wouldn't lead to her doing anything crazy, but the fact that all of it had somehow gained him an Affection Point with her didn't really inspire much confide…
The sound of mobs growling and dying snapped the gamer out of his inner ramblings, making him look around in confusion, wondering who and for what reason could be in there (Besides him) at that unholy hour.
A hooded form slaughtering lizardmen with a rapier in the most impressively executed 'Linear' Skill he had ever seen was his answer, the boy actually pausing to admire the grace and amazing speed of the mysterious player, clearly a female if the skirt he could see when she rushed and her hood flew slightly was anything to go by.
Deciding it would probably be best to not bother them, Kirito was about to turn around and walk away…when the world suddenly lost color and everything around him when fully silent, actually startling the gamer, as he hadn't seen the phenomenon being repeated since the day he got stuck in SAO (Mainly because he had avoided all direct interaction with Argo, really).
When he gazed down at the 3 Choices that had appeared, though, something that was new caught his eyes and made him feel strangely uneasy.
You see a mysterious girl with a rapier killing mobs. You…
B-[Stay to watch]
C-[Rush to help finish the Mobs]
*Warning: Choosing the Wrong Choice will forever Block this Heroine's Route.
Dumbfounded, the swordsman wondered what was most shocking, that there was actually a way for him to avoid romancing random girls he didn't even know or that the 'game' was actually telling him how.
However…glancing at the choices and the 'Warning' made him feel strangely uneasy. The fact that there had not been such an Option with Argo could maybe be explained, but that it hadn't been there with Sugu, the one whose 'Route' should have (In his eyes) the easier to avoid, set him on edge. Especially because the 'Wrong Choice' clearly seemed to be the one that would get him out of there, the one where he left the area.
And the girl, alone at 4 AM, in a dungeon filled with monsters, monsters which she was fighting…
Almost without thinking, Kirito rushed to the girl's side, maneuvering around the lizardmen to stare at her up and down, ignoring her pretty and serious face in favor of looking at the rapier in her hand, seeing the countless cracks on the cheap and store-bought weapon, a more than obvious sign of how its Durability was about to run out.
Cursing to everything under the heavens, the gamer slammed the Choice C without any more hesitation, just a slightly annoyed feeling, even as he felt himself being 'teleported' back to where he had been and then how his hand quickly reached for his Anneal Blade as time started moving again, rushing forward and executing a 'Horizontal' Skill.
He was already there and cutting the lizardman behind the surprised girl in half when her rapier snapped and broke down into polygons, leaving her at the mercy of her enemies…or at least that's would have had happened if he hadn't Aggroed the hell out of them and quickly proceeded to make short work of their virtual lives, all under the shocked rapier-user's gaze.
Finally done with the enemies, Kirito turned around as he sheathed his blade, staring right at the hooded girl's eyes.
"That was close. You okay?"
"Wha…? Where did you even come f…?" and that was as far as she went before she stumbled forward right into his arms, unconscious.
The boy deadpanned at her position, unable to believe it.
[Asuna Route has been Unlocked! You can now see 'Heroine Status' with Yuuki Asuna!]
[Your current status with Asuna has changed to 'Undesired Friends'!]
…stupid dating game-like power.
Suppressing a sigh, the gamer grabbed the beautiful girl's body and carried her bridal style, towards the closest Safe Zone, idly noticing her long chestnut hair (Her hood had fallen off when he put her on his arms) and, despite his best attempts not to, the information he now could see above her.
[Yuuki Asuna: 'Hopeless Fencer']
[Relationship Status: Undesired Friends (?)]
[Affection Points: 0/100]
[Heroine Summary: Yuuki Asuna had never played a videogame, let alone a VR one, in her life before SAO, hence why she reflexively wrote her real name for her avatar. She's the daughter of an important CEO and a strict mother, and was raised her whole life to be the perfect example of a 'Proper High-Society Girl'. Deciding to use her brother's Nerve Gear on a whim the day SAO launched quickly became the 'stupid decision' she regretted the most in her life, and after weeks of being coped inside an Inn in the Town of Beginnings her emotionally broken state led her to decide it was a good idea to come out in the Field and fight endlessly until she died once she couldn't keep going]
Gulping deeply, Kirito was, for once, very glad about his power's disregard for the privacy of girls. It had let him know in advance he was dealing with someone suicidal, after all, which meant that his first idea of waiting for her to wake up, ask how she was and then get the hell out of there, was no longer an option.
There was no way in hell he could live with himself if he abandoned her and she went and got herself killed just because she had no hope of escaping the game, risks of his powers 'romancing' her be damned.
…God, he really had become the protagonist of some Dating Sim with a convoluted action/fantasy plot, hadn't he?
"Guh…what…?" mumbled Asuna while her eyes opened, looking around at the Safe Zone in confusion. "Where…?"
"The closest Safe Zone the dungeon had. I carried you here after you fainted." informed the black-haired boy from the opposite side of the small area they were in, leaning against the wall in the perfect position so that she saw him right away, startling the girl.
"The boy from before…? And…carried…? Wait, does that mean you brought me here in your arms?!" quickly shouted the girl with a bit more life in her eyes than her previous words, her arms almost unconsciously reaching to cover herself when she noticed her hood was down.
"Well, I could have dragged you through the ground if you preferred that, but I think my method was the best way." dryly answered the gamer with a roll of his eyes, before his gaze sharpened almost scarily as he directed it right at the rapier-user, who froze under it. "Why were you doing that?"
"Don't try to lie, by the way. As amazing as your moves were, I could notice right away the despair in your strikes. The emptiness. You weren't trying to win, just to fight until you dropped dead." smoothly lied Kirito while uncrossing his arms and walking forward, unable to believe how convincing he was sounding. "Why?"
"I…what does it matter to you? We're all going to die in here anyway." shot back the girl with a cold tone…or tried to, because she couldn't help but look away once the boy was standing just before her, unable to meet his seemingly bottomless gaze. "I just wanted to go out fighting rather than wasting away…"
"…that's just a step less sad than staying behind doing nothing thinking we're all going to die." mercilessly replied the gamer while dramatically giving his back to the shocked rapier-user, unsheathing his blade and raising it above his head to stare at its edge. "It's also an insult to every single player risking their lives to try and clear the game right now. With the talent you show, having no faith in that we can get out of here makes you nothing but a coward."
"Wha-what would you know?!" shouted Asuna while shooting to her feet, glaring at Kirito's back with anger, tears on the corner of her eyes. "Do you even know how I felt this last month knowing that I'm going to…?!"
"I have a little sister waiting for me in the real world. Mom is almost never home, so we take turns making food and cleaning. Lately, we have finally started to get along after years of awkward distance." interrupted the swordsman while giving her a sideways look, both the words and the pressure in the single eye being shown to her all but paralyzing the girl. "I know very well what is to be scared of dying, Fencer-san, and I'm terrified to no end because the most dangerous thing I have ever done before this was riding a bicycle to the outskirts of my city…but I also have more than enough reasons to want to get out of here. Don't you have any?"
"I…" looking down, the rapier-user's eyes were wide, the exhaustion from almost 3 days straight in the dungeon and the strength behind the gamer's words having left her stunned.
The sound of something materializing and being thrown before her snapped her out of it, her gaze moving down to see the brilliant new rapier lying there.
"If you do, grab it and come to Tolbana. There is going to be a Strategy Meeting for defeating the 1st Floor Boss. That thing is way better than those cheap store-bought ones you were using and, honestly, we need all the help we can if we hope to pull this off and showing everyone that we CAN, indeed, get out of this game." coolly declared Kirito before, slowly, starting to walk away, sword still in hand, Asuna's eyes following his every move. "Name is Kirito, by the way. Remember it, because I don't think we will ever meet again if you plan on continuing down that hopeless path of yours."
Not saying another word, the black-haired boy abandoned the Safe Zone, heading for the labyrinth's entrance. Not even 10 seconds later, he heard the sound of hurried footsteps following him and he had to suppress the need to smirk.
Holy fuck had that been awesome! Those Dating Stats had let him take charge of that conversation like a boss, even if he had totally bullshitted more than half of it!
And even as he saw Asuna start to walk beside him, not saying a word, he couldn't help but felt happy about his stupid power for the first time in over a month.
"…I'm not going to thank you." mumbled the chestnut-haired girl from under her newly raised hood.
"Wasn't expecting you to, Fencer-san." nonchalantly replied the gamer while closing his eyes and letting the earlier smirk finally appear on his face as he walked just a step before her. "Just knowing you have my back on the way is more than enough thanks.
[You gained 5 Affection Points with Heroine Asuna!]
Kirito had to try very hard to not stumble in his step and fall flat on the ground, miraculously managing it. Just behind him, Asuna had drawn her hood lower, trying to hide the blush on her face.
…and now, once again, he regretted everything about this power.
"…well, the guy sure knows how to work a crowd." mumbled the black-haired boy later that day, watching the gathered group of players sitting around Tolbana's amphitheater, as they intently heard what the one who had called them, Diavel, had to say. "There are way more players than I thought it would…"
"You're not the only one surprised about that, Kii-bou." came a familiar voice from beside the gamer, almost making him squeak in surprise as his head whipped to the side and came face to face with Argo's grinning face, now adorned with the same style of whiskers she used to have in the Beta. "Then again, maybe it's actually something about Fate what has drawn so many people here!"
"A-Argo?!" frantically whispered the boy while resisting the urge to run away, unable to believe the girl had found him even after a month of him evading her. "What are you doing here?!"
"Looking for you. I knew that, despite how 'busy' you were, there was no way you would miss this meeting." shamelessly admitted the info broker while Kirito resisted the urge to curse. "But really, the fact that you have been avoiding me aside…who is the cutie with you?"
"…do you mean me?" spoke Asuna (Who had been sitting beside the boy) with a raised eyebrow, staring at the exchange with clear confusion.
"Yeah, who else? Also, wearing a hood to hide how sexy I am is my thing!" joked Argo with mock-anger, further confusing the chestnut-haired girl and causing the gamer to slam his face into his palms. "My, Kii-bou, are you maybe trying to replace me with…?"
"Wait a minute! I want to say something!" suddenly shouted a loud and annoying voice, interrupting the 'conversation' between the strange trio and making them turn around in time to see a guy with cactus-like hairstyle standing up. "There is a group of people here that needs to apologize to all of us!"
Under normal circumstances, Kirito would have just been slightly nervous/guilty at Kibaou's following speech about the 'selfishness' of Beta Testers. In his current state of trying very hard to not go crazy because of his 'superpower', it would have just annoyed him. However…seeing Argo's eyes narrowing before she looked to the side in clear dissatisfaction truly irked him, especially because he knew not a single Beta Tester had been putting more effort into trying to help others than the whiskered girl. Hearing that piece of shit badmouthing her work and all but ordering her (Albeit not directly) to go down there, give up everything she had, and apologize for nothing truly made him feel…
['To Protect that Smile' has been activated!]
"Your name is Kibaou, right? Do you know what this is?" started to say a tall and dark-skinned man named Agil…before everyone's attention was drawn towards someone near the upper part of the amphitheater standing up with a panicked look in his eyes, the two girls at his sides staring at him in confusion. "Uh?"
"Run away! Get out of there, quick!"
"What? Why should we…?"
Whatever else the cactus-haired man wanted to say died in his lips when, out of nowhere, a distant scream grew in intensity and some sort of grey sphere that looked like an abnormally perfect rock came rolling down from the edge of the area, many players screaming and jumping out of the way as it fell down and crashed brutally against Kibaou, dragging and then pinning him to the lowest steps.
Silence ensued while everyone watched with morbid fascination as the man's limbs twitched from under the not-rock, only the knowledge that they were inside a Safe Zone and as such his life wasn't in danger stopping them from worrying…when a side of the strange object 'opened', letting a wide-eyed and panting bandana-wearing man out, all but collapsing on the amphitheater's floor.
"Wo-woah…heh, heh, it fucking worked! I went through the entire forest without losing a single HP thanks to that thing! Hah, and the others thought I was crazy…" laughed the red-haired man while standing up, blinking at recognizing one of the people looking at him. "Oh, hi there Kirito! Long time no see!"
"Klein." deadpanned the black-haired boy, still trying to wrap his head around the random development. "What the hell?"
"Ah well, you see, me and my pals were training on the opposite edge of the forest that surrounds this town, the one closest to Tolbana, when we saw this weird thing hidden under a couple of suspiciously fallen trees, with a Quest Mark above it!" proudly explained Klein while puffing out his chest, even as Agil poked the opened rock-sphere with his axe and then looked down worriedly at the flailing limbs of Kibaou. "It said that, if one could ride it all the way from one side of the forest to the other, they could keep it! The rest thought it was a trap but I had seen things like that in some old videogames so I know it had to be some super awesome and secret vehicle in disguise, so I got in, started rolling…and voila! I'm here! And now it's mine, ahahahah…!"
"Ehm, yes, that's…awesome, but…could you please get your 'transport' off Kibaou-san…?" growled Diavel while he, Agil and a couple random guys tried unsuccessfully to move the sphere off their fellow player, struggling against the strange thing.
"Uh…? Oh shit, I landed on someone?! So-sorry about that, man, the thing won't move unless someone gets in, let me…"
Kirito tuned out the rest of the conversation as he slowly sat down, his mind once again too busy trying to process the absurdity (And terrifying scope) of his power…and also the fact that it had triggered just by him feeling Kibaou had been insulting Argo, albeit indirectly, which only made it much more dangerous.
And speaking of the Info Broker, he wondered what her take on all of this would be like…
"…I have never heard of that Quest. Wonder if it can be repeated? Also, what are the limitations of that 'vehicle' thing…?"
…of course that would be what she was worried about. At least Asuna looked properly freaked out/totally confused by the scene before them, meaning he was surrounded by at least one kinda-sane person…even if said person had been trying to fight alone until she literally dropped dead until a few hours ago…okay, maybe his power was actually a weirdness-magnet too.
A bit less than half an hour later, after they managed to move the sphere off Kibaou, got him to stop accusing Klein of being a 'filthy Beta Tester', stopped the mayhem that ensued when Klein slugged him in the face while defending Beta Testers, and a tired Diavel managed to give off an abridged version of what they could expect from the Boss Battle, Kirito and his two female companions could be seen walking away from the amphitheater, one with a calculating look, one with a puzzled one and the other looking as if he wanted the day to be over already.
"So, where exactly are you staying at, Kii-bou?" asked Argo once she was apparently done with whatever inner musings she was into, her gaze following her fellow Beta Tester's every move. "I mean, I assume you have a lodging of some kind here by now, but I haven't seen you at the Inn at all, so…"
"I rented the second floor of that small farmhouse near the edge of the town." tiredly answered the black-haired boy while looking towards the whiskered girl, whose eyes lit up in recognition. "I assume you remember it from the Beta?"
"The one with the awesome bath?" asked the Info Broker with a massive grin, neither her nor the gamer noticing how the chestnut-haired girl behind them suddenly froze at the word. "Of course I do! Mind letting your sexy Onee-san a turn on it?"
"Sure, but only after I have…"
Kirito's reflexive attempt to tease Argo back was brutally interrupted when he felt a hand clamping on his shoulder, making him blink and look back, together with the whiskered girl, to see Asuna looking straight at him as if she was a wanderer lost in the desert that had just found an oasis.
"Did you just say that …you have a bath?"
Not much time later, the rapier-user could be seen sinking herself in a bathtub's water, utter bliss in her face as she enjoyed the sensation of the virtual bath.
[You have made her experience joy she didn't think she could again! You gained 5 Affection Points with Heroine Asuna!]
"Okay, seriously, why is it so easy to raise Flags with her? Was she that desperate for even the simplest comforts?" mentally mumbled the gamer as he lied on his bed, trying very hard to not look towards the closed door leading towards the bath where a teenage girl was naked in a bathtub right now. "God, this almost seems like a scene out of an actual Eroge, only not as cra…"
"Nee, Kii-bou, I'm passing." nonchalantly commented Argo while walking into the room, her usual hood off and a towel over her shoulder, shooting him a smile before opening the door to the bathroom (Cue Asuna's shocked scream) and closing it after her, all under the dumbfounded gaze of the black-haired boy.
"Wha-what the hell?! Argo-san?! What are you doing?!"
"Isn't it obvious, girlie? I'm taking a bath! Now please, move a bit to the side or we're going to be quite cramped…"
"Wa-wait a minute, what?!"
"You seriously need to stop repeating 'what' so many times, Asuna-san…nah, you know what? That's too stuffy for two bath-buddies like us! How about you drop the '-san' with me and I just start calling you…Aa-chan?"
"I-I think you're taking things too far, we haven't even known each other for three ho…you're in!"
"See? Was that so bad?"
"Ye-yes, it is! We're almost complete strangers!"
"And there is no better way to solve that than a bit of naked skinship! Plus, you kind of got in the way of my Kii-bou time out of nowhere…"
"Nothing! Also…woah, I know these are just avatars, but if it's even half as loyal with the real you as it's with mine then you're one hell of a beauty in real life."
"A-ah, thanks? I mean, yo-you're quite pretty too, I gue..HYA!"
"Hmm…quite firm and decent-sized…I can't let my guard down…"
"Wh-why the hell would you do that?!"
"Hmm? Wanna squeeze mine as payback?"
"Heh! God, you're just so easy I almost feel like a bully, Aa-chan!"
"Do-don't make fun of me! That's it, take this!"
"Hya! Oh my…you're more daring than I gave you credit for…"
"…wa-wait, Argo-s…just Argo, do-don't go and do anything that…HYA!"
"…must not go in the bath, must not go in the bath, must not go in the back…" endlessly repeated Kirito as he buried himself on his bedsheets, trying to fuse his burning red face with the pillow.
It wasn't the fear of something terrible happening to him as consequence what motivated the mantra, though, but the fear of his power actually making him going into the bath into an 'Event' that he would have no way of escaping to…and that the small part of him that was still a hormonal teenager aware of being trapped in a death trap wouldn't really refuse to, his morality be damned.
And so, it was with great pleasure that he managed to finally fall asleep…only to come face-to-face with Argo's whiskered visage (Looking particularly cute in her sleepwear and with her eyes closed) the moment he woke up.
"…why is she in my bed?" deadpanned the black-haired boy to no one in specific.
"Only two beds. Had to share one. Played Rock, Paper, Scissors with Aa-chan for it." sleepily grumbled the Info Broker without opening her eyes, his 'Stats' being the only thing that prevented the gamer from jumping and screaming in surprise at seeing she was awake.
"…and why didn't you share a bed with her instead?"
"Said she wasn't gonna after last night's shenanigans."
"…okay…but then why is SHE on my bed?" questioned Kirito with a twitching eyebrow while pointing behind him, where a fully asleep Asuna seemed to be unconsciously holding the back of his shirt, a pleased smile on her face making her look cuter than the last time he had seen her sleeping (More like passed out).
"SHE is the one that 'lost', despite me trying hard. Had to wait till she fell asleep before getting in bed." nonchalantly replied Argo without missing a beat.
"…Argo, I think even you should know when you take teasing too far."
"…who says I was teasing?" replied the whiskered girl with a suddenly serious tone, finally opening her eyes and looking straight into his. "I wasn't totally joking yesterday, Kii-bou, I know you have been avoiding me, and now you're going to go fight a Floor Boss. And…if it has to do with what you said that night in Tolbana, then…I want you to know I…don't really think you're…"
"Argo." silenced the boy with a soft tone, putting a finger over her lips and making her heart skip a beat, suddenly painfully aware of how close they were and wondering if his smile had always seemed to almost glitter in her eyes. "I'm not going to die, okay? You should know better than anyone in here that I'm too stubborn to do so. And yes, I have been avoiding you, but believe me, it has nothing to do with what you think. I just…have been trying my best to keep myself alive while not being a hindrance to your work. That's why I still provided you all the info I could in my messages. If it made you felt bad, though…forgive this idiot for his foolishness, my all-knowing lady. I swear it won't happen again."
"…yo-you better." mumbled the Info Broker before burying her face in his chest, resisting the urge to purr when he patted her head softly. "…stay safe, Kii-bou. And bring Aa-chan back in one piece too."
"Heh, if you had seen her fight like I have, you would be asking her that, Argo." replied the gamer with a smile on his face…completely at odds with his inner state.
"Holy shit I can't believe I could also bullshit my way through that!" nearly-cried the swordsman while idly stroking his friend's hair. "Things could have gotten worse if I had let her finish that first sentence! I can't let this freaking power continue affecting Argo or anyone I…"
[You completely moved her heart! You gained 10 Affection Points with Heroine Tomo!]
[Congratulations! You unlocked the achievement: 'Headpats are the Key'! You gain +2 in Charm!]
[Congratulations! You unlocked the Achievement: 'Bed Scene'! You gain +2 in Wisdom!]
[Baths heal the soul! You gained 15 Affection Points with Heroine Asuna!]
Only the fact that he was still holding Argo in his arms and Asuna was still holding his back prevented the gamer from crying out in despair, suddenly painfully aware of his position and actions.
And seriously, why was it so easy to raise Affection with that girl?!
Things were supposed to be easy once they parted ways with the Info Broker.
Just head to Tolbana, join the group, head to the dungeon, ignore Diavel's way too obvious attempts at keeping him away from the Boss and putting Kibaou to keep an eye on him, head into the Dungeon, kill the Adds together with Asuna and her amazing fighting ability which she had despite having never played a game or done any similar activity in her life while the main group dealt with the giant angry kobold…all easy.
Which, of course, should have clued him that something was about to go catastrophically wrong. After all, as much as he didn't want to think about it, he had apparently become the protagonist of a Dating Simulator disguised with a fantasy/adventure plot. And the fight against Illfang the Kobold Lord had all the markings of being an 'Important Event', which meant it obviously had to have a dramatic twist at some point…
And it, of course, happened at the worst moment.
"Stay back, I will take care of it!" shouted a confident Diavel while rushing forward just as the Boss started changing weapons, but Kirito completely ignored the victorious look he sent his way in favor of staring towards the blade that the Kobold Lord had just unsheathed.
"Oh, fuck me, that's not a talwar! It's a nodachi!" shouted the gamer with horror even as Asuna finished the last Add they had been fighting against, looking at him in confusion.
"It's not a what?"
"Diavel, run!" screamed the swordsman just as everyone in the room seemed frozen in shock upon seeing Illfang unleashing his brutal omnidirectional Katana Skill, stunning all those that were still relatively close to him and then zeroing on the blue-haired 'Knight', who was unable to react as the massive kobold pushed him back and then charged another skill. "Dammit!"
Roaring at the top of his lungs, Kirito charged forward, despite knowing he wouldn't make it in time. Everyone in the room suddenly seemed to have become morons and wasn't doing anything but standing in place staring as death came towards their so-called 'leader' in the form of a half a ton of angry Kobold Lord, and he had barely covered half the distance between…
Asuna shot past him, like a shooting star. With her unreal speed and abusing the tip he had given her about the Linear Skill, she arrived beside the paralyzed Diavel in time to push him back a couple of steps, just enough to let him off the path of the incoming nodachi…and leaving herself directly on it thanks to her post-Skill cooldown.
Time seemed to screech to a halt in the gamer's eyes, and this time not literally, even as he saw the girl's eyes widening at possibly having stopped shorter than she thought, fear starting to fill them…
['To Protect that Smile' has been activated!]
And with that single and unseen declaration…the mighty Illfang the Kobold Lord tripped, the creature clearly as dumbfounded by the impossibility as everyone was as his Skill went out of control and, instead of bisecting Asuna, he just harmlessly passed over her, slamming against the opposite wall, impaling himself with his nodachi as he did so, and then roll back in a single motion, just as Kirito reached the rapier-user's side and covered her with his arm, crouching down with her and raising his blade by reflex.
Illfang's momentum beautifully carried him to be decapitated by his sword under Diavel's dumbfounded gaze, his already low HP unable to withstand the edge against his neck, the round body of the monster rolling past the pair and shattering into polygons.
A message of 'Congratulations!' that everyone could actually see filled the room, the short fanfare it caused quickly being followed by the cheer of every single player there, their objective complete even as the black-haired boy let out a breath he didn't know he was holding and looked down at the wide-eyed girl beside him.
"That was immensely reckless of you."
[You gained 5 Affection Points with Heroine Asuna!]
"I-I just…when I heard you screaming, I just had to try and help him…" mumbled Asuna while looking away from him, just in time to not see the suffering look in his face as he stared at the newest Notification.
"Well, you still shouldn't…"
"YOU!" suddenly shouted Kibaou while walking over the pair, making them blink in surprise and Kirito to deadpan at him. "You knew about the Boss' weapon from the beginning, right?! Why didn't you say anything earlier?! You risked Diavel's life!"
"Ki-Kibaou, wait a…" tried to stop him Diavel, but the cactus-haired man wasn't going to stop so easily.
"You're one of those dirty Beta Testers, right?! That's how you knew it! You were trying to land the killing blow on the Boss to…"
"Are you sure you're okay, Asuna?" questioned the gamer to everyone's shock, completely ignoring the now frozen man as he helped the chestnut-haired girl to her feet.
"E-eh? Ye-yes, I am…?"
"Thank God." muttered the boy just loud enough for everyone close to hear him, relief clearly noticeable in his voice. "I don't know what I would have done if something happened to you."
The girl's face lit up like a Christmas tree, while Kibaou's own changed color because of anger.
"Are you ignoring me, you fucking Beta Tes…?"
"Okay, first of all, shut up." growled Kirito while turning to give a sideways look to the cactus-haired man, making him stop at the sheer weight and hostility in his gaze. "Second, yes, I am a Beta Tester, but I had no idea Illfang would have that weapon, otherwise I would have said so because, unlike other people, I don't care about a goddamn drop item over actual lives. The only reason I knew that blade was so dangerous compared to his original one was that I saw monsters using them on upper floors. But you know what? I don't care about your opinion or your accusations at all, because I almost saw my partner here dying if it wasn't because of sheer dumb luck, after she risked herself to save that 'knight' of yours."
"Wha…you…!" tried to rebut Kibaou, everyone watching the exchange with quite the intensity, even as the gamer quite easily silenced him again.
"No, I have no more words for you, not after Asuna almost got killed because Diavel-san here couldn't stick to his own damn strategy just to try and get the Last Hit Bonus himself. In fact…you know what?" as he said those words, the black-haired boy quickly operated his menu and, before everyone's eyes, materialized some sort of black coat in his hands…which he quickly crumpled into a ball and threw at Diavel's face with a snarl, the piece of equipment hitting the paralyzed man straight in the face and sending him back-first to the ground, to the clearer's absolute shock. "There, there is your stupid Rare Drop. Keep it and choke on it if you want, but never again do something that could put Asuna in danger directly or indirectly, or we will have problems. Take it as a friendly warning from a fellow Beta Tester."
Not giving anyone time to say anything else, Kirito turned around and walked towards the stairs heading for the next Floor, half-dragging Asuna by the hand even as the seemingly mute girl did her best to follow him.
No one even tried to stop them as they disappeared upstairs, all eyes immediately falling in the open-mouthed Kibaou and the silent Diavel, who was staring dumbfounded from where the pair had disappeared to the Coat of Midnight in his hands.
Meanwhile, halfway up to the next Floor…the black-haired boy still kept his straight serious face while, in his mind, he was practically shouting.
"OMG, I can't believe I just did that! I took care of that whole conversation no problem!" all but cheered the gamer while doing his best to keep his composure. "I can't believe it, but just because I was referring to Asuna, and probably because I had her at my side, I could talk back to that cactus-headed idiot like a Boss!"
If the swordsman had to put it in a way easier for his mind to understand, it was probably something along the lines of a 'game exploit', basically letting him use his 'Dating Stats' against others just by addressing a 'Heroine'. The number of ways in which that could be applied was staggering, his gamer mind already thinking of how…
[Congratulations! You unlocked the achievement 'Not a Beater'! You gain +3 in Wisdom]
[Congratulations! You unlocked the achievement 'Not in Black'! You gain +2 in Charm!]
[Congratulations! You unlocked the achievement 'Derailed Destiny'! Secret Routes Unlocked!]
…okay, for some reason, all of that sounded both ominous and strangely annoying for Kirito. Also, what the hell was a Beater?
"Ki-Kirito-kun…" mumbled a familiar voice behind him, the boy almost choking on virtual air at realizing he had been dragging Asuna with him the whole time.
"Ah, so-sorry about that, Asuna, I got a bit carried away…" apologized the gamer while letting go of her hand…and realizing SHE was the now the one holding his, though she didn't seem too aware of the fact given how she kept avoiding his gaze. "Uh?"
"I…I'm the one who should be apologizing. I didn't know I had worried you s-so much…" whispered the chestnut-haired girl while looking shyly towards him, a healthy blush adorning her face as she offered him an uncertain smile. "It's the first time…anyone says anything like that for me."
[You melted her heart in record time! You gain +1 in Charm!]
[You gained 20 Affection Points with Heroine Asuna!]
By that point, they had both already arrived at the door leading to the 2nd Floor, and the light of the sun coming down through the suddenly opening door blinding Asuna long enough for her not to see how Kirito paled while staring open-mouthed at the Notification.
"Ah…huh, so this is how the next floor looks like, uh?" commented the rapier-user with a smile while looking around at the plains covered in boulders with some cliffs all around. "You know…I think I'm starting to understand what you…eh? Kirito-kun?!"
The reason for the girl's shout probably had to do with the fact that the aforementioned gamer was sprinting away from her as fast as his legs allowed, not even bothering to look back at her call.
"Sorry, got to go activate the Floor's Teleport Gate so that everyone down there knows we beat the Boss, can't waste even a single second!" hurriedly shouted back the swordsman, glad that she couldn't see the panicked look in his face.
Sadly for him, it seemed Kirito had forgotten Asuna was, in fact, faster than him, which he was cheerfully reminded of when she sprinted past him and told him to lead the way towards the town. The gamer did his best not to groan.
But seriously, why the hell was it so easy to raise Affection with that girl?!
[Next Scene]: Elves are an Important Eroge Trope
Author's Notes: Why indeed, Kirito. Is almost as if some higher power was trying to tell you something about her…too bad he's not even as remotely willing to hear it out unlike his canon self XD
Hope you had fun with the chapter, people! I was a bit iffy about some parts, but overall I think it ended up looking pretty well. Writing Argo was especially fun, even if having Early Aincrad/Progressive Asuna react to Eroge!Kirito's 'unintentional' smoothness was hilarious too :P 'Poor' guy, he doesn't even realize this is just the beginning, heh :P
We got some clues/hints about future events in here, and also some funny setups. Also got to see a bit of how absurd Kirito's trademark 'Skill' can manifest itself, which hope you had fun with…we got more Klein as a result!
And well, with that said, that is all for today :3 Next time, we get more Dating Sim shenanigans, timeskips, Kirito starting to lose it even more and a certain Dark Elf shows up…
Till then, though, this is Saint, signing off!