My dear readers, Nain Tarlow is checking in.
So...it's been a while right? Like five months. Sorry, this chapter took a lot, or rather I worked on everything else but this one, and then stuff happened. Better late than never right?
Still no smut, but don't worry it will definitely happen..probably. This chapter had a bit more of a comedic theme going and I had way too much fun writing it. Hope you guys enjoy it and leave reviews so I can know.
I want to thank all of you who reviewed, followed, or favorited, your support meant a lot, and hope I can count on you from now on. Hopefully, the next chapter will not take this long.
This chapter was beta'd by the awesome TwistedFilms, so give him a round of thanks too, for taking on the massive battle that was my grammar.
If you enjoyed the story feel free to leave a review or if you want similar craziness, you are welcome to join our dicord server: z9Pz3Jzc7y
Chapter 2: Photo Shoot
"Welcome to Ashley's!" Argo cheerfully explained, opening her arms in a grand gesture to further accentuate her point as the group trailing behind her followed her into the not-so-humble establishment.
Ashley's was a lavish little shop, home to the frontliners and maybe even the whole game's most well-known tailor, the aforementioned Ashley. It was quite popular among those players who wore less armor, wanted to look stylish, or just wanted a cool costume or cosplay to use during their downtime.
The first room they entered was large and had a lot of space, at least originally. Now, though, it was filled to the brim with shelves and lots of mannequins that were made to show off the various clothes available for purchase. From light, comfortable clothing one would wear in their home, to aprons and other skill-specific clothes, to more stylish attire that was made entirely to show off, nothing more, nothing less.
There were even what looked like guild uniforms, the KOB's red and white color-themed capes being one of the most glaring examples. There were even clothes that could belong to no other category but cosplay. Or some of them, the less innocent variation of cosplay.
Inside, there was naught but a trace of any customers, which was perhaps not entirely surprising. It was the middle of the day, after all, when most frontliners and middle-level players were fighting on their respective floors, raiding and exploring dungeons, hunting after rare or useful items.
The rest of the playerbase that was not occupied out in the fields were either down on the 1st Floor, hiding in the starter town, honing their non-combat skills, or simply touring one of the newer Floors. And while Lindarth, the Floor that both housed this shop and Liz's smithy, was very beautiful and peaceful, the frontline had long since passed it, meaning there were newer, more exotic floors available to the public now.
Still, although that explained why Aincrad's number one tailor shop was not full of people, either wanting to buy something or simply window-shopping, it didn't answer why there was nobody at all in the shop.
Recognizing the looks on her companions' faces, Argo grinned slyly, thoroughly enjoying their apparent confusion.
"I had it reserved for us, so we can work in peace. Don't want Aa-chan to get flustered by random people walking in or having her cover blown because someone connected the dots," she answered casually, though her smile clearly said there was more to it than that.
"You still haven't answered why we are here. I have plenty of clothes, why do we need to find some more?" the fencer in question asked with a slight frown as she crossed her arms in front of her chest.
Instead of the maid outfit that she wore while working at Liz's front desk, she used the first opportunity to change, especially after Argo told her they were going out. She wore a dark red leather tunic with a lightweight copper breastplate and leather pants with boots up to the knees. It was eerily reminiscent of the outfit she wore at the start of the game, quite different from her KOB uniform, and so it lowered the chance of someone recognizing her at a glance.
Or so she thought.
In truth, her rich chestnut-brown hair made it easy for people to make her out, even if she wore rags and looked more like a beggar than the proud warrior that she was. The only reason she hadn't ascended to stardom immediately in the early days of the game was because she had worn a cape to hide her face and hair most of the time, and was constantly in the companion of the hated beater Kirito.
"I have a better question." Kirito raised his hand timidly next to Asuna, looking increasingly uncomfortable the more time they spent in the rather empty store. "What am I doing here?"
"Why, Kiri-bou, it's the duty of any man to carry a lady's shopping bags! After all, we have many items to go through, and we will probably buy most of them," The Rat replied cheekily, grinning to herself in a manner that caused the hair to stand on the back of both frontliners' necks. It was never good when Argo of all people was that giddy.
"No, wait a second here, that doesn't make sense. With the inventory function, you don't need-"
The Black Swordsman tried to object, but his complaints did not reach far.
Suddenly, Klein, who was standing next to him, stepped on his left foot with all of his strength, causing Kirito to let out a yelp. He then grabbed his head and put him in a headlock that the young boy somehow wasn't able to break, despite his (probably) superior strength stat.
"Shut up, Kirito! For once, listen to your hormones that have been so ruthlessly suppressed by all that nonstop fighting you've been doing, and enjoy this heavenly situation!" the red samurai whisper-yelled, probably unaware that the others could still hear him, or of the increasingly growing grin on Argo's face. Turning to the girls, he tried to give a charming smile, but it came off more like a grimace than anything. "Don't worry girls, you can count on us!"
"Damn it, Klein! I get it, I get it! Let go of me already," Kirito hissed under his breath as he continued to struggle, looking more like a kid his age should, rather than the mysterious Black Swordsman most people saw.
No one noticed a certain information broker quickly snapping a pic or two of the comic spectacle before her with a satisfied smile. Hey, it wasn't her fault that there existed a minor fan club for both Klein and Kirito, both of which believed there was a hidden romance between the two men, and were willing to pay a lot of money for any evidence of that. Or anything that belonged to or had been touched by either of them, for that matter.
It's not like she did anything wrong, like encouraging these rabid fanboys and girls with a few saucy rumors. It was just good business.
"Do they always act this strange, or is it just whenever I am with you?" Liz, who had so far remained on the sidelines, couldn't help but question as she pointed at Kirito and Klein, where the former's struggles to get free had lead to an all-out brawl between them on the floor, prompting Argo to abandon all subtlety and circle around them, snapping picture after picture.
The smith had found herself going with the flow when Argo had rather enthusiastically grabbed both Asuna and Kirito by the hand and dragged them out of her shop. Of course, she had made sure to close up, but it was rather easy to track them down, what with the constant protest from the two frontliners.
She honestly found the whole situation both funny and weird, like something straight out of a comedy show, and it's not like she had much else to do. Most of her custom orders were ready to ship, and it's not like she had many customers to miss out on, save for the pervs who wanted to see Asuna in a maid outfit. In the end, the decision had been between her need to work and her need for entertainment.
It had not been a hard decision to make. Sue her, but Aincrad, while amazing in its own ways, had no TV, and even the more dramatic quests could get repetitive and boring after a while.
"Just a regular Thursday," the info broker replied with a straight face, before bursting into giggles.
The playful atmosphere was broken mere seconds later, however, as a dark aura manifested around the impatient fencer that brought a shiver of fear into all of their hearts, even the more experienced frontliners. They felt as if a blade was held at their throats, their life a moment away from ending. If Kirito's eyes weren't deceiving him, it seemed like a silhouette of some kind of demon was forming behind Asuna, its mouth twisting into a cruel, mocking grin.
It got so bad that Klein straight-up fainted, Liz looked like she was reliving her worst nightmares and even Argo's ever-present grin was nowhere to be seen, as the lithe girl tried to hide behind her cloak.
As for himself, Kirito's hand stopped halfway up to a sword hilt that wasn't there, because he had unequipped it earlier. His whole body was tense, caught in a strange mix of fight or flight, unable to commit fully to either course of action.
The primal part of him wanted to challenge that demon-like entity, while the emotional side was utterly terrified and wanted nothing but to run away from its cursed presence. Even disregarding the fact that they were in a Safe Zone where, theoretically, there was no way to lose even a single point of health (outside of duels), there was a promise of certain death lingering in the stare of that being.
"Argo!" the otherworldly wraith and Asuna hissed as one, their voices, one feminine but filled with anger, the other filled with a sense of wrongness, of death, of terror and wicked joy mixed together, creating even more frightening sound effects.
"No fighting in my store!"
A quiet, commanding voice spoke up behind the terrified Rat and, as if it was one of the nonexistent magic spells in this world, everyone and everything suddenly stopped.
That included the strange wraith behind Asuna that, just as suddenly as it had appeared, faded away into nothingness, not even a hint of its presence remaining. A tense, yet relieved breath went up from the group. Even the light outside seemed to regain its intensity, and, if one listened carefully, they would be able to hear the birds chirping outside, as if joy was slowly let back into this world.
"Honestly, people these days… If you want to fight so badly, do it outside! If you cause even a little ruckus in my shop, then I will take it out of your hide. And your tab, Argo," the voice that spoke before continued, as if utterly oblivious to the fact that their mere presence had dispelled an otherworldly demon.
The Rat in question let out a sound halfway between a terrified shriek and an awkward giggle, its sheer contrast impressing Kirito, who had only remained standing because his legs had decided to freeze in place completely. Argo turned around, sheepishly scratching her head. Asuna shook her own as if she was in a daze, while all the conscious members of the group looked to the new arrival. Klein simply mumbled under his breath, out cold on the ground.
An older-looking woman stood in front of them, hands crossed over modest breasts, with a glare that, despite the earlier scare, still managed to make them shiver with pure, unadulterated fear.
She looked to be around her early twenties, standing there with a self-assured, confident pose. Her hair was a curious mix of blonde and black, with blank bangs framing the sides of her face, her hair held up in a strangely charming, chaotic mess. Her clothes were similar to what one might see on a runway. She even had some sort of pelt around her neck, looking as stylish and elegant as a model straight from one of the centers of fashion.
Honestly, even to someone who was a complete idiot when it came to fashion, Kirito could tell that back in the real world, the clothes she wore might have cost more than what his family could earn in a whole year. It had a sense of… unreachability to it, which only absurdly expensive things had.
Despite her clothes, however, the wearer herself was much less eye-catching or extraordinary. Though she was clearly a woman, her shoulders were rather broad, her whole physique toned and trained rather well, as was evident even through her clothes. Her eyes were a stern grey that for some reason reminded him of a particularly scary primary school teacher of his. All in all, she cut a rather intimidating and masculine figure.
Kirito knew it would be hypocritical of him to comment on that particular aspect out loud, however. He was often mistaken for a girl himself, and had even been pulled into embarrassing situations because of it. Most young women tended to make that mistake at first, in fact.
After the fifth girl-talk about cute boys he had had to sit through because of his feminine appearance, he had begun to subconsciously repress memories like that.
He shook his head, trying to break out of the cursed loop of memories that were attempting to drown him in despair. I'm a boy, not a girl, he chanted in his head. It was his sole defense against the power of his feminine face and Suguha's constant request to do his hair.
By the time he returned to reality, he blinked stupidly as he noticed that he had missed a large part of the conversation, since the expressions and body language of the people in front of him had become marginally different.
Asuna, instead of enraged or impatient, had gone red in the face, but more out of shyness than anger. It looked like she was moments away from erupting into an explosion of embarrassment as she tried to hide her head behind her hands. Argo, on the other hand, had regained her confident stance and grin, chatting amicably with the person he guessed was Ashley, the owner of the clothes store.
The woman in question also looked calm, but there was a professional curiosity present on her face as she eyed Asuna the way some would examine a very expensive item before convincing themselves to buy it.
"There is no time to waste then," she exclaimed suddenly, grabbing the fencer's wrist and dragging her into a back-room, excitement clear in her eyes despite the stoic face she put on. "I must create the perfect expression of your beauty."
"Wait, what do you mean by that?!"
The frightened screams of the vice-leader of the KoB echoed across the room as a laughing Argo followed in their wake, gesturing with her hand for the others to do the same.
That left a dumb-founded Kirito, Liz who was shaking her head in astonishment, and Klein who was slowly waking from his slumber, alone in the suddenly tense and silent main room of the shop.
"So... What did I miss?" the samurai, now standing on his feet again, asked as he scratched the back of his head with an embarrassed grin.
"Honestly? I have no idea."
There was no hesitation in the Black Swordsman's reply as he stared in the direction the three girls had disappeared off to. Next to him, Liz scoffed at them, crossing her arms to highlight her disappointment.
It's highlighting something else as well, a voice in the back of Kirito's head said, oddly reminiscent of Klein for some reason, as his eyes trailed slightly lower.
"Boys," was all she said as she left them behind as well, going after Argo.
They could only look at each other, both equally as lost, and shrug helplessly.
Switching outfits in Aincrad was not a very difficult thing to do. Rather, it was so simple that many found it strange compared to the game's other elements that mirrored real life much more closely.
It was a simple process, you just had to open your menu, and change your equipped gear. A single flash of light and ta-da, you were in your new outfit for the world to see. Just like in a regular MMO.
This simplicity negated the need for things like changing rooms, at least in theory.
While there was no proven way to see beyond the animated light that enveloped a person's body while changing, even after almost two years and the sacrifices of many perverted young men, it didn't change the fact that for a moment, no matter how short of a moment, the players were basically naked as they changed outfits. And that had led many a woman and even some men to be self-conscious of changing their gear in public. For that reason, it had become a basic need for a clothing shop like Ashley's to have many available changing rooms for players to use.
That was a fact that didn't need any further explanation. Nonetheless, Asuna found herself frowning as she was pushed into one of the more cushier-looking rooms by a grinning Argo and an enthusiastic Ashley.
The explanation she got, if it could be called that, just made things harder to understand properly.
"We are here for clothes, A-chan," the Rat explained with a mischievous smile as Asuna was dragged by Ashley, not moving to help her despite the pleading look on Asuna's face. "I doubt you want to flaunt your identity with those photos we are going to make, so we need something that lets you keep Asuna, Vice-commander of the KoB separate from the girl that hundreds of poor, repressed teens will jack off to."
Asuna made a disgusted face in response, and even Ashley quieted down slightly. It was one thing to know what the photos could potentially be used for, but to have it stated so openly... It didn't feel good.
She felt herself wavering, questioning if this was really worth it. But then she remembered that with the frontline slowing down, the flow of Cor would also slow down, and she was realistic enough to realize that she needed a secondary source of income if she wanted to live comfortably.
Sure, she could tighten her budget and go a month or two with less variety of food and less weapon maintenance. At the start of the game, that would not have been a problem. She had already done it once before, actually; only buying the bare minimum, not caring about pleasantries or anything the world around her could offer.
But these days, she was honest enough with herself to know that if she could avoid it, she wouldn't want to go back to such a state of living.
That's why in the end she only nodded to Argo to continue, not offering up any argument, causing the information broker's grin to widen considerably.
"So, what do we need? Revealing clothes that would highlight that beautiful body of yours…"
The fencer would forever deny the heat rushing to her cheeks as her friend slowly and deliberately checked her out.
"… While also serving to make you look different enough to the point where no one will be able to connect the dots. And the answer to this little question is incredibly simple; cosplay," she explained with an exaggerated swing of her arms.
Asuna could only blink as she heard that. Of course, when she was little, she had wanted to dress up as her favorite anime character many a times. She had never actually gone through with it, since it was not "befitting a young girl of her age and station", as her mother had put it, but the desire had definitely been there.
As she had gotten older, that childish desire had naturally begun to dwindle. She knew that many others her age, and even older girls, would dress up in cosplay for anime conventions and the like, but Asuna had never felt like that was something she would be comfortable doing. Even if it would have been possible to go through with without her mother knowing.
And now, out of the blue, she would suddenly be able to fulfill that childish wish of hers? Asuna would be lying if she said the thought didn't hold some appeal.
"What kind of cosplay?" she asked with a blush, sending the Rat a dubious stare. "And doesn't custom orders like that take a lot of time?"
"Don't worry about it." The tailor waved her off without hesitation, regaining her earlier enthusiasm quite easily. "With the talents of someone like me, it would be child's play to make cosplays within such a timespan. And this one, Argo asked me to make a whole day in advance."
Asuna was dumbfounded for various reasons. One was that the tailor had expertly managed to omit just what kind of cosplay they were talking about, but the larger one was that Argo had ordered this cosplay the day before. It boggled her mind, since her partnership with Argo was only a few hours old. So how had the infamous Rat had the incredible foresight to order various cosplays in advance?
She desperately wanted to pose that very question, but one look at Argo's grinning face told Asuna that it would be impossible to pry any answers out of her. So with a sigh, she could only agree, and stop trying to think logically.
And that's how she found herself pushed into a changing room, her inventory home to a bunch of new outfits that had such bizarre names that reading them revealed precious little about their nature.
After a brief moment of contemplation, Asuna gave in and opened her menu, quickly scrolling down to her Equipment Mannequin. She selected the first of the outfits, and before long, a bright light washed over her. After all, how bad could these clothes possibly be?
On a technical level, the change in equipment should be instant, but as she and many other female players had found, that momentary state of being bathed in light was just a tad bit too similar to being naked, hence their hesitation to change in front of anyone.
As her eyes cleared up, all the blood from her face decided to disappear for a second, before rushing back just as quickly, making her feel oddly lightheaded. The reason for it? Well… It was the outfit she had just changed into.
"I jinxed myself, didn't I?" she muttered sullenly, meeting the eyes of her reflection, simply because she couldn't muster up the courage to look lower without feeling horribly embarrassed.
She was broken out of her despairing thoughts when a knock sounded on the door, and a voice (which managed to frighten her quite a bit) spoke up.
"Alright, time to come out, Aa-chan! We can't tell how you look in it without you actually showing it to us, so hurry up already!"
The smug grin was practically audible in the tone of her voice, much to Asuna's annoyance.
The thought of showing this to Kirito of all people was enough to push her to the brink of a catatonic state. She wanted to dig a hole and hide in it until the eventual heat-death of the universe, but in her heart, she knew it would be useless. She knew Argo well enough to know that the lithe girl would simply barge in and drag her out if she spent too much time in here. And unlike inn rooms, changing rooms could not be locked, nor were they soundproofed.
And so, left with no other option, and with a face so red that steam might as well have been coming out of it, Asuna stepped out of the changing room, doing her best to prepare for what came next.
"So… what kind of cosplay is this supposed to be?" Klein asked curiously as they all waited in a large, circular room, seated in lavish chairs, for Argo to come back with Asuna who was hopefully finished 'changing.' "Something you'd expect to see at an anime expo or…?"
Kirito grunted noncommittally, as he forced himself to keep a bored face. He had never been to an anime convention or anything like it himself, as he had never felt the need to. In truth, he was a simple gamer; comfortable with playing games from the safety of his room, and maybe tinkering with computer parts here and there if he got properly bored. But to voluntarily go out into a sea of people, and watch as they made a fool of themselves? Well, that was simply not something he believed he would enjoy.
Because of this, however, he had no idea what to expect when Argo declared that Asuna would try on and show them a couple cosplays that they would use in the future.
It didn't need to be said that Klein was all for it, though. And, as much as Kirito wanted to deny it, a traitorous part of his hormonal brain was quite curious after the maid-slash-shopkeeper uniform he had seen Asuna in just hours before.
Ashley scoffed at Klein's question from her chair, seemingly insulted at the nature of it.
"Oh, please… With the shortcuts offered by the game system, coupled with my high-level Sewing skill and, of course, talent, something like this is child's play. It is as close to the real deal as you can get, and not some cheap look-alike that any random kid could put together on a whim."
She explained all this in a haughty tone, and Klein hurriedly held up his hands, silently asking for forgiveness.
The swordsman clad in black only hummed in response as he rested his head on one of his hands, clearly bored.
He had no idea why Argo had decided to drag him into this whole thing. He would much rather prefer to be out exploring a new dungeon, fighting for his life, where everything was nice and simp-
Whatever he had been thinking just moments earlier was quickly forgotten as Argo made her grand return with Asuna. Or, at least with a person Kirito assumed was Asuna, since he barely even recognized the girl in the rather daring outfit.
Instead of long, chestnut-colored locks, Asuna's hair was now entirely black, and set up into two pigtails that ran down her front. A compass-like, golden earring adorned her left ear. The ends of her pigtails carried similar decorations, making it much harder to associate the girl standing here now with the usually much more reserved-looking Asuna.
Instead of the uniform that was almost synonymous with her, Asuna wore a purple and black leotard with gold lining. On top of this, she had purple sleeves and black gloves, along with a short, purple cloak with red lining, buttoned with a compass ornament hanging above her chest. On her head rested a purple witch hat, decorated with gold decals, black ribbons and yet another compass ornament. A similar one could be seen wrapped around her right thigh. And yes, there were just a few too many compass or compass-like ornaments in her outfit to be able to miss.
It was a wildly different look than anything Kirito had ever seen her in before, and he harbored no doubt that he would have had great trouble recognizing her if he hadn't already known it was her under the outfit. Still, his contemplation came to a grinding halt as his eyes slowly (and almost entirely against his will, mind you) began to travel lower.
First, they arrived at her thighs. Her long, slender, shapely thighs.
Intellectually, he had always been aware that Asuna was a rather beautiful specimen of the female species, rather blessed when it came to certain assets, but it had never been made totally obvious before, thanks to the clothes she wore. While practical, her KoB uniform didn't exactly highlight those parts of her. But now, dressed in an outfit that was especially designed to emphasize, it was downright impossible to ignore.
Still, instead of looking anywhere else, like her ass or chest, Kirito's eyes remained firmly on those long legs, clad in tight, black pants. It was as if he was hypnotized, unable to look away, or even blink, out of fear that this godly apparition in front of him would somehow disappear.
Idly, he remembered some of his classmates laughing over some meme what seemed like a lifetime ago, and that, at the time, he hadn't fully understood it. Back then, it had served to further motivate him to keep his distance from everyone else.
But now, in this moment, he felt like he finally understood a fundamental part of the universe.
Thick thighs save lives indeed.
He forcibly shook his head, trying to pull himself out of the daze he was in, all the while fighting against the urge to drool. What was going on with him? Was he developing a fetish? Was that it?
His thoughts were broken by a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw Klein standing next to him, his eyes trained forwards, an unusually serious look on his face.
"Kirito…" he started solemnly, a tear gathering in his eye, held back by sheer force of will. "We have been through so many trials and deadly obstacles in our path to freedom. It is a thankless life with naught but danger, yet I have never once regretted it."
His face slowly broke out into a large, lecherous grin, even as Kirito shifted uncomfortably under his grip, not quite knowing where this was going.
"Yet, it is only now that I find myself capable of appreciating the path that has led me here, to witness this glorious sight, to see a goddess descend among mortals-"
He would have rambled on further, had it not been for the sudden knife that came flying at him from the front. Letting out a yelp, Klein jumped to the side, almost bringing Kirito with him, as the weapon sailed right past the place his head had been in just moments earlier.
Klein knew, of course, that the knife couldn't hurt him, since he was in a Safe Zone. But the pure killing intent behind the flying object had made him dodge out of the way regardless.
And, what's more, Kirito knew for certain that Asuna didn't have any skill in throwing knives or other projectiles, yet somehow, that throw had been executed with precision the likes of which even a true master of the craft would find impressive.
Almost mechanically, he turned his gaze back to the girl in question, only to see her standing there with a bright red face, fuming with anger as she was held back by both Liz and Argo, the latter of which muttered something about having to wait with fan meetings. However, because looking in their direction meant once again seeing Asuna in her new outfit, all of Kirito's higher brain functions came to a grinding halt once more.
"Woah, easy there, Asuna," Liz tried to calm her down, though she quickly looked a bit more nervous when the enraged fencer's attention turned to her. "Don't mind Klein. You know how he is."
Said red-haired samurai opened his mouth to defend his character, but quickly thought the better of it. He didn't want Asuna to continue using him as target practice, after all.
Eventually though, Asuna calmed down slightly, still remaining red in the face as she used her arms to cover her chest and glare at Argo, who shrugged without any shame.
"Don't be shocked, Aa-chan. You are a beautiful girl, and a rare find in this world. And if we want to maximize the effect you'll have on the sexually-starved players of Aincrad, we have to be daring."
"But, uhh… Isn't that outfit maybe a bit too revealing?" Liz asked from her friend's side, deciding to be the voice of reason. Asuna quickly nodded her head in agreement.
"Oh? I would think it's still kind of on the restrained side, as far as possible outfits go," the Rat commented with a mischievous smirk, before turning to Kirito who was watching the scene warily, trying his hardest not to outright ogle the now black-haired girl. "What do you think, Kii-bou? Doesn't Aa-chan look wonderful?"
Her smirk widened as said girl turned an entirely new shade of red, much deeper in color than anyone had thought possible. Clearly, the system was trying its best to recreate the massive amount of embarrassment the fencer was currently facing, but even the mighty Cardinal seemed to be having trouble coping with the load.
Finding the attention of a certain leopard-clad girl on him, Kirito attempted to say something, but quickly lost his train of thought, giving only an indiscernible sound from his throat as his eyes once again found themselves stuck on the lower half of the girl's body.
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"See? He likes it," Argo said, barely able to withhold her laughter as the mighty Black Swordsman was reduced to a zombie-like state. Though, instead of brains, he seemed to hunger for something else.
"C-C-Cut it out!" Steam had started pouring out of Asuna's head now, despite the fact that something deep inside of her was flattered by the hungry stare her old partner was shooting at her. "You too, Kirito!" she shouted at him, using anger to try and mask her embarrassment.
The statement only caused Argo to snicker, though. Seeing Asuna's tsundere side was just too amusing, especially when it was aimed at the dense and shy Black Swordsman.
A soft laugh interrupted the scene, as Ashley finally lost the battle against her amusement, holding up a hand to muffle the sounds she was making, to no avail.
"This is the best entertainment I have had in weeks," she explained with a grin as she swiped away a lone tear from the corner of her eye. "I knew it would be a pretty interesting job as soon as you told me what outfits you wanted, but this is even better than I hoped."
With a chuckle, she rose from her seat, newfound energy radiating from her every move as her body seemed ready to burst into motion. There were even what appeared to be sparks shooting from her eyes, but Kirito casually blocked its existence out of his mind.
"This is what I live for! The excitement, the drama, all those feelings whenever a new dress is tried on. The reactions of those who see it for the first time, the looks and smiles traded. This is my theatre, and it is always wonderful to see a beautiful story played out in front of me and an adoring audience. Give me more!" she beamed, her cheeks turning pink, her arms coming around to cling about her body. Squirming slightly, she started wiggling in place, much to the confusion of the others, save for Argo and Asuna who were more used to her antics.
"Is… Is she alright?" Liz asked, a wary undertone to her voice as she watched the strange woman rock back and forth.
In the time since Liz had opened her smithy, she had met many, uhh… interesting people, but it was not something she had grown accustomed to yet. And this woman might not the weirdest one, but she definitely ranked in the top ten.
Asuna simply shrugged, used to Ashley's antics. Before either of them could say a word, though, Argo grabbed both their hands and began to drag the two girls toward the changing rooms, much to their protest.
"Come on, girls! We still have a few outfits to try on, so get your embarrassment under control!" she said cheekily, showing much more strength than either of them expected her to possess, since neither the blacksmith nor the frontliner could break out of her grip, no matter how hard they tried.
"I refuse! This is already way too embarrassing! I won't get into another one of these bare imitations of clothing!" Asuna protested, her eyes flicking toward Kirito, who could only give the three of them a confused stare, his mind greatly distracted by certain movements.
"Why am I being dragged into this as well?!" Liz asked, finding herself unable to hold her ground as the Rat began to overpower her, little by little.
"Well, not to stroke your ego or anythin', but… you are also a very fine young lady, Liz. Wouldn't you want to strike out big instead of slaving away in that smithy of yours all day?" the information broker asked with a large grin, causing the blacksmith to pause momentarily.
Don't do it! Kirito wanted to yell out as he watched the scene unfold. But he knew that his words would be in vain. The battle was already lost.
No one was really sure how, since skills like Persuasion and similar things did not exist in SAO, but in that moment, the infamous Rat possessed abilities that indicated a master of Charisma. If you were to stop for even the briefest of moments… If your conviction faltered even slightly, shaken by her sweet words… then you had already lost.
And before you even had a chance to register what was happening, you would find yourself standing in a hot, dry wasteland, trying to find a quest item related to some obscure, confusing and not at all profitable quest, while dressed in a maid outfit! And with a group of rather repulsive and tenacious players who have a thing for traps surrounding you!
"Kirito, buddy? You alright?" Klein asked softly, hand raised as he hesitated on whether or not to pat the shoulder of the young teen, who had an air of depression about him, mumbling faint words about short skirts and maneuverability.
"Argo," was all he said in response, shivering as another one of his hidden traumas decided to emerge out of nowhere.
"Fair enough," the samurai nodded, patting his shoulder as a show of support and camaraderie.
There was not a player in all of Aincrad that didn't know that dealing with Argo was even more dangerous than striking a deal with the Devil. Necessary, but sometimes the price didn't seem to be worth it.
The two of them fell into a subdued silence as they waited for the girls to come back, Ashley still lost in her own dreamworld and oblivious to what was happening around her. Both men sported massive blushes, urged on by the various shouts coming from the direction Argo had dragged the two girls off in.
"Oh my, Aa-chan! Have yours become bigger since the last time I measured you?"
"Argo! Where are you touching?! You don't need to take it off, just let me change my gear!"
"But taking it off is half the fun! Don't be shy now, it's just us girls here!"
"No-… Not… Not there…."
Someone (probably Asuna, judging by the sound) let out a moan so loud that Kirito suddenly had to grab his nose, less he end up on the floor with a nosebleed like Klein had earlier.
"Liz, don't just stand there! Come here and help me! This is an assault!"
"How? How?! Our bodies are just digital data, they aren't supposed to grow or change at all! So how have you grown a whole cup since last I saw you? How is that even possible? And why didn't you tell me about it?!"
"Yes, Liz… Let the anger of those born with small breasts fuel you! Join me! With you at my side, we can conquer these mighty hills," Argo shouted with glee, her cackling the envy of any evil mastermind.
Their entire dialogue could be heard with perfect clarity. Every small yelp of surprise, every throaty moan, every whimper that conjured up images in his head. Kirito tried his best, but unbidden to his thoughts, a scene slowly started to form in his head.
He imagined Asuna clad in nothing but her underwear, desperately hiding her breasts while Argo's hands were around her, probing and caressing every part of her body. To the side stood Liz, in a similar state of dress, blushing and trying her best not to look, but falling all the same. He even imagined that the usually cloaked information broker would similarly be in nothing but her panties, to make things fair, or, as she would probably say, to further embarrass the other girls.
This is definitely not good, he thought to himself as he felt blood slowly start to leak from his nose. He shook his head, trying to dispel the image, to concentrate on something, anything, that might help him retain his sanity.
He took a deep breath, and focused on that one certainty in this world, the one thing that made the difference between life and death. He knew it so well that even now, in his darkest hour, he could picture it in his mind, down to the last detail. His faithful partner, Elucidator.
Even though the black sword currently rested in his inventory, along with another sword that he had slowly started to prefer, the Dark Repulser, he could recall its every detail, its stats, even the smallest of scratches on its blade. It was in his hands every day from dawn to dusk. He must have unleashed a thousand… no, a million Sword Skills with it.
Unlike girls, and hormones, and whatever else was currently going on, a sword was such a simple thing. It had a purpose, it had stats and characteristics. Sure, it could wear and tear, perhaps even shatter, but… if you took care of it, it took care of you. There was a surprising simplicity and straightforwardness to it, yet it was also very complex, requiring years of training, or the assistance of a built-in system to achieve real mastery with.
The swords calmed him, helped him stay his course, and were infinitely easier to manage than people. Not for the first time, he desperately wished that his soul housed a whole reality made of swords, like a certain aspiring Hero of Justice.
Just the thought of summoning hundreds of swords and sending them at his enemy like projectiles made him drool, and, for a brief moment, allowed him to forget about the girls and his rather distracting feelings when it came to certain parts of the female anatomy.
Of course, as his luck would have it, just when he located this ideal Zen-state, his thoughts and heart finally calming down, the door to the changing room opened and the girls stepped out.
His sense of harmony immediately shattered into a million tiny pieces.
The first to step out was Asuna, and though her hair was now blonde and braided into a long ponytail, she was still easy to recognize. Thankfully for his heart, the outfit, while still the kind that accounted for her various curves, was a tad bit more reserved this time.
She was wearing some sort of purple battle dress, with armored gauntlets and other pieces decorating it. Most notable was her bare thighs, paired with purple, knee-high socks, which immediately caused Kirito's mouth to open as he found himself face to face with what appeared to be his greatest challenge yet. She also had a headpiece adorning her head, but the Black Swordsman barely even noticed it.
Just as before, she looked embarrassed by the getup, crossing her arms under her breasts, unknowingly emphasizing them a lot more in the process. As she turned her head toward him, a strange, conflicted expression on her face, he quickly tried to get his raging hormones under control, lest he wanted to find a rapier thrust between his legs with deadly accuracy.
He must not have been completely successful, because she quickly averted her gaze, her blush becoming even more furious than before.
Thankfully, one could always count on Klein to break up an awkward silence.
"Jeanne d'Arc!" he cried out, standing up, his eyes shining suspiciously as he tried to hold back his tears. A massive smile was present on his face. "The Standard Bearer of the Holy Grail War! Truly, I am blessed to see such a perfect cosplay of her," he explained as he started sobbing, overcome with emotion.
Ashley looked flattered by the praise, sitting up straight in her seat, basking in the beauty of her work, while Asuna got even more flustered, to the point where steam seemed to leak from her ears.
"Oh? That was rather quick. What gave it away so soon?" Argo asked, her head popping out from behind Asuna's shoulders, her body obscured by the fencer. She also had a mischievous smile on her face.
"I would recognize that holy bust out of a thousand," the samurai replied without hesitation or the slightest hint of shame. Kirito could only grab his head in despair at Klein's usual antics.
Asuna, if at all possible, turned even redder, spinning around on her heels to send Klein a glare so cold it could have frozen a hot spring in place, while Argo laughed as if she had just heard some great joke.
"Honestly, sometimes, I wonder why you are still friends with a guy like that, Kirito," Liz commented softly as she used the distraction to walk out from behind Argo and Asuna, stopping not far from where he was sitting.
Looking at her as she stood half-turned toward him, one hand under her chest while the other played with the tip of her hair, the Black Swordsman was reminded that, unlike the rest of Aincrad, he knew plenty of girls, and most of them were on the beautiful side. It was just another thing the playerbase could curse the lowly beater for, and for once, he wouldn't have anything to say in defense.
She was wearing a beautiful white dress that looked straight out of a wedding, but afforded slightly more mobility with a lower skirt. She had strange, gold globes covering her ears, and a golden horn on her forehead. A veil covered the top of her head, trailing down behind her. Her hair was slightly let down, which caused it to partially obscure her eyes. Lastly, she was holding a large warhammer with an orb-like ending that was almost taller than her.
It resulted in a very interesting contrast. Her dress and the blush on her face created the image of an embarrassed young maiden, yet the hammer, which (thanks to her strength stat) he knew she had no trouble wielding, she became just as scary, with the promise of pain at any mischief on his part.
As had become the norm, his treacherous mind and eyes seemed determined to work against him, as he felt his gaze trail slightly lower before he forced himself to look up and give Liz the most sincere smile he could muster.
"It looks really good on you! Strangely enough, it also seems to be in keeping with your style," he conveyed honestly, trying not to come off too perverted, while also trying to keep his beating heart and another part of his body calm. It was not as easy a task as it used to be.
Liz immediately turned an even darker shade of red, tilting away and holding her hammer in front of her chest, as if it could hide or otherwise defend her from his gaze.
"T-Thank you," she murmured softly.
With the wedding dress and her whole demeanor, she really did look like a bride about to be wed, and Kirito couldn't help but stare at her, his usual aloofness nowhere to be seen, until Argo walked into the picture with her lack of care for others' privacy.
"I do have a good eye, don't I?" the Rat asked with a Cheshire grin as she wrapped her arms around Liz's shoulders and forced her to face Kirito fully. "Despite how humble she is trying to be, Liz here is another beauty who could do incredibly well if only she was a bit more daring. But, luckily enough for her, I can help with that."
"What are you talking about?" The girl in question tried to wrestle herself out of Argo's grip, to no avail. "I didn't agree to any of this! Whatever deal you and Asuna cooked up, I don't want to be used as some sort of fap material for boys."
Despite her protests, her voice and expressions were both weak. It sounded more like a token effort than anything else.
In the privacy of his mind, Kirito lamented the loss of Liz and her innocence, vowing to remember her as she had been, and not as she would be under Argo's influence. When it came to the information broker, no quarter could be afforded. Once you allowed her words to gain a foothold within you, there would be no escape.
"Goodbye, Liz… Your sacrifice will not be forgotten," he murmured under his breath, giving a solemn bow in remembrance to the great girl that the blacksmith had been.
With that moment done, he raised his head and looked at Argo, only now noticing that she was without her usual full-body cloak and hood, having changed into a different outfit herself.
And by different, he meant something he had never thought he would see the agility-focused Rat in, no matter how little practicality was needed for these outfits.
She wore something that looked like a form-fitting black shirt, an ornate-looking small chest piece over it and a very short, armored skirt of all things. She had knee-high black socks on, along with heeled boots. Around her shoulders was a pure white cape, and her hair was a bright pink, with a pair of ribbons in it.
All in all, she looked like an aspiring female knight from some fantasy, that managed to not lose too much conventional defense for the sake of sex appeal. More than that, with her signature grin, Kirito had to admit that Argo looked quite good in that getup, even if it didn't do much to emphasize her figure, leaving it as something mysterious.
Before he could make any sort of comment, though, he felt someone grab his shoulders, and was met with Klein's wary expression as he stared at Argo with a mix of horror and alertness present in his features.
"Don't! It's a trap!" the samurai said, and Kirito had the sudden feeling that some sort of reference was flying over his head, especially when Argo simply snorted in response, and Liz donned an annoyed look.
"Klein…" Asuna said softly. Apparently, her patience didn't have much room left for the man's antics at the moment. In a display of rare wisdom, the person in question chose to hold his tongue, whilst adopting a chagrined look.
"I feel like I just missed something," the Black Swordsman spoke up, feeling a little hesitant.
Argo only grinned in response as she grabbed both Asuna and Liz by the arm and pulled them closer to her, to form a complete picture.
"Now don't you worry that pretty little head of yours, Kii-bou. The point here is that Aa-chan and Liz-chan look good in these outfits, right?" she asked, enjoying the embarrassment of the other girls, even as Kirito's eyes unconsciously roamed over their bodies once more.
"Argo… You can't say things like that," Asuna protested, trying and failing to hide behind the shorter information broker, refusing to meet Kirito's eyes.
"Why not?" she asked back, looking genuinely confused. "Don't tell me it doesn't feel good to have Kirito's appreciative gaze on you. Moreover, we need to know if he thinks these outfits and the others are good enough. Y'know, so he has something to work with! He is going to be taking your pictures, after all," she explained, tilting her head to the side when she saw the incredulous looks that evoked.
There was a brief moment of silence, where all occupants of the room tried to make sense of the words Argo had just said, desperately trying to convince themselves that what they had just heard didn't mean what they thought it meant.
Of course, they were entirely unsuccessful.
"He is going to do what?!" Klein, Asuna and Lisbeth shouted in unison from the top of their lungs; outrage, surprise and horror etched onto their faces.
"I'm going to do what?" Kirito similarly exclaimed; shock coloring his every feature. He didn't remember ever agreeing to something like that.
In the background, Ashley remained silent, produced a bowl of popcorn (or something similar, at least) and, with a smile, continued to enjoy the drama unfolding before her eyes.
"Surprise…?" Argo asked, her normal, cheeky grin being used to mask the slight apprehension she felt at having revealed a part of her grand plan a little bit earlier than intended.
"Kirito, you lucky bastard!" Klein suddenly cried out toward the heavens, falling to his knees, tears leaking from his eyes.