*Singing* I'm not doing my hooooo~me work, no I'm not doing my Hooooo~me work...
I'm not doing my hooooo~wooooork...
'Cause I'm writing fan fiction.
When I wake, I find that everyone is still sleeping. Asuna's head lies on my left shoulder, Henrietta's on my right. Even without moving my head, I can see that Klein and Lizbeth snuggling up to each other. Hisashi and his two-family members are off to the side, and it takes me a moment to find them. Silica is tightly gripping Peyton's arm, which seems to be giving him pain even in his sleep judging by his expression. Chris is by himself against a far wall.
A human form enters my field of view and I tense up for a moment before I recognize her.
"Hi, Yui." I mouth, so as not to wake anyone else.
She crouches down and smiles at me. "Hi!" she mouths back.
"How long have I been asleep?"
She holds up seven fingers, then puts up a three with one hand and a zero with the other. seven and a half hours.
I nod slightly. "Are you okay?"
She smiles, then stands back up. I'll... just assume that's a yes then.
I look back to Hisashi's family. If I had known that the outside world had been less safe than their home I wouldn't have let them come. From the sound of it, there's going to be a lot of fighting on the station. Everyone else is a fighter, so they should all be okay. Even Silica.
Of course, I suppose I don't have to fight. There's a chance that the entire incident is over and I'm worrying over nothing. Everyone made up and they just haven't gotten around to cleaning up the corpses.
My face contorts into a smirk. It's also possible that everyone is currently sitting in a circle and singing, but that's likely, is it?
Asuna stirs slightly. I freeze in place and move only my eyes. I can see her orange hair, but nothing else from this angle. my eyes drift to the right and Henrietta's blond hair fills my view.
I knew a few guys from back in school that would have killed to be in this position, with a girl literally on each arm. Klein was one of them, but he seems happy with only one nowadays.
Asuna stirs again and sits up. "Fuuuaaahh." Her eyes are a bit glazed over as she looks around the room.
"Good morning." I whisper.
She blinks back at me. "Gyood- good morning." She looks around again. "What are we doing?"
"Sleeping?" I shrug. The shrug was a bad idea, as it woke up Henrietta. Henrietta does not wake up gracefully.
"Whaa! I'm not eating the mushro-" Her cries set the rest of the room's inhabitants stirring. "Oh, sorry." She mumbles.
"What mushrooms aren't you eating?" Asuna asks.
"It's... none of your business."
Klein's eye slide open as the two girls continue to talk around me. My arms are still trapped, so I can't move. As soon as he takes in the situation, he starts grinning and making some weird gesture with his hand. I can't see it in the gloom. I settle for sticking my tongue at him. Lizbeth chose that moment to grab at his blanket-robe and yank him back down, so I don't even think he saw it.
As strange as it might seem, it feels just like a normal day. We all get up, check our surroundings, greet each other with gestures.
Yui comes back from her patrol. "Ah, you're all awake?"
Everyone but the two youngest confirm. Silica is still clinging to Peyton's arm despite being fully awake and Kozue is still asleep in her mother's arms.
"Good. While everyone was sleeping, I found some food." The robot dumps a dozen or so white pouches on the floor. "I also found a bathroom, and a possible exit. I figured I'd ask before exploring."
"Good." Klein says. "We'll check it out once we've eaten."
At first, the food seems pretty unappetizing, but Klein, Silica, and Lizbeth all grab at the packets and start gobbling the contents.
Asuna grabs three from the pile and hands one to Henrietta and one to me before ripping hers open. I follow her example, and find what looks like oatmeal. I reach in and grab a bit of the dry food and take a bite.
Holy crap, it's delicious! It's better than anything I've ever had before! It tastes like apple pie, but times a hundred!
I barely pry myself away from the food to hear Peyton speak. "So, what's the game plan?" His words are slightly muffled, as he says them with a mouth full of food.
Klein chews for a moment, swallows, and reluctantly sets his bag aside for the moment. "We need to contact the Survivors. I don't know how bad a state it is out there, and I don't feel comfortable being in the dark."
"Me neither." Chris says. "I don't want to hang around here for much longer either. This building gives me the creeps." He looks straight up as he says this.
I follow his gaze. At first, I don't understand what he's looking at.
"Wait, how are there sleep pods upside down? Wouldn't that cause the user to fall on their heads?" Silica asks, having seen the array of pods stretching overhead.
"Actually, gravity is maintained through rotational motion, so gravity is always 'outwards' compared with the ship. You can actually walk all the way up and around without problem." Yui points out a path leading up and over just as she had described.
"That doesn't make any sense." Peyton folds his arms.
"It's simple physics." Yui turns to Peyton. "See, gravity is an acceleration. The centripetal force-"
I turn from Yui to the others. "Ready to go?"
I toss the empty food pouch, and to my surprise, it doesn't disappear. Asuna grabs it and throws it into a hole in the wall. Another oddity of... reality, I guess.
The others all toss their food wrappers. There's nothing for us to pack up, so it's a quick clean up.
Out of everyone else's sight, I check the pistol again. It's still loaded. The grip feels comforting in my hand.
"...which is why you can stand on the ceiling." Yui finishes.
Peyton sighs. "Remind me never to make snarky comments around the robot."
"Hey! I have a name!"
I lead the way, gun tucked under the blanket robe. Past the corpse in the control room, to the exit door.
I wave for everyone to stay back and approach the door myself. There's a glass window into the next chamber, a tube of some kind. The walls are blackened, and there's some charred remains on the ground. It looks like nobody decided to clean up after the explosion I heard on the recording.
Nothing in there is alive, and the next door in is locked. I grab the handle and twist, the machinery turning smoothly.
I gesture for the others to follow.
I reach the next door in a matter of seconds, and repeat the procedure.
This time though instead of an empty hallway I am greeted by a face.
We stare at each other for a second before his eyes go wide and he scrambles away from the window.
"Get back!" I hiss, drawing the pistol and pointing towards the door. "There's someone on the other side."
"It could be the Survivors." Klein puts forth.
"Or it could be the ALF." I keep my eyes pointed towards the door. There doesn't seem to be any movement right now, so I risk moving a bit closer.
The room on the other side is spacious like the one our pods were in. Instead of rows and rows of pods curling around to the ceiling, this room has what was probably nice furniture at one point. Now, bullet holes riddle the fabric. Plants have been tipped over, tables overturned, and several black screens are cracked.
A door of to the left opens and three people come out of it. Two of them, a man and a woman, have white lab coats. The last has body armor and a rifle of some sort at the ready.
I grip the latch and slowly turn it, only opening the door wide enough to poke the gun out.
"Ah, there's no need for that." Calls the woman. "We're here to help."
"Who are you with?" I call through the crack.
"My name is Martha. Jim's the guy to my right, and the guy with the gun is Adrian. What's your name?"
What's the harm in telling them? "...Kirito."
Martha claps her hands together, "Oh good, Seiji manager to get you out then? Is he with you?"
Well, she seems to know Seijirō. I open the door a bit further, but don't lower the pistol. "He's dead."
The color drains from both Martha's and Jim's faces. "What?"
"He's dead. It looks like the ALF pinned him down in here."
Jim's shoulders slump. "If we had been able to hold onto the rec areas longer-"
Adrian shakes his head. "More people than him would have died."
"I take it you're all with the Survivors." I open the door a little more, and lower the barrel of the pistol to not be pointing directly at any of them.
"Oh! yes, we are." Martha pulls herself together and plasters a smile back on her face, but it looks weary. "Would you like to talk? If so, we can go back to the living quarters."
I feel a hand on my shoulder. Klein nods to me.
I open the door fully and conceal the pistol underneath the blanket cloak. Martha, Jim and Adrian all act surprised as the others follow behind me.
They lead us through several hallways, none of them particularly noteworthy. Kozue and Silica pester Jim and Martha for information, but I tune it out in favor of scanning my surroundings.
When we get to our destination, however, I forget to be wary.
Martha leads us through one final door and into a room filled with people running about. Unlike the rest of the hallways, this area looks nice and pristine. Several people stop whatever they're doing to look at us, no wonder with our odd attire. All of this is overshadowed by the far wall.
Almost as one, our entire group runs up to the edge of the ship and peers out the wide, tall view out the window into space.
The stars move past quickly, too quickly to get a good look at them. Still, the view is stunning. I think I could have stood there for hours if Jim hadn't stood next to me and coughed.
"Er, you guys might want to change into real clothes before you go sightseeing."
I look down at myself. Oh. Right.
After a few more minutes, I get back to the main room.
We have all been provided with white jumpsuits with a green stripe over the shoulder. They haven't taken away my pistol, which fits nicely in an interior pocket. The rest of the group slowly files out of the rooms we had been given to change in.
Martha and Jim lead us all into a small room dominated by a table and surrounded by chairs. "Please take a seat."
I pull out one of the chairs and sit down in it. It's surprisingly comfortable.
"Thank you all for being so cooperative." Jim begins. "Let me reintroduce myself. My name is Jim Cogis. I am the de-facto leader of the Survivors. At least, I am until someone finally takes the position from me. I know that the transition to reality is probably harsh for you, but I would like to ask you all for a status report. We don't know the status of the Gunstorm server."
Lizbeth leans back in her seat. "Well, those of us from the Aincrad server are already accustomed to reality. We've been here before."
Jim smiles slightly. "Of course."
Hisashi clears his throat. "If I may, right now Gunstorm is pretty stable aside from our disturbance. The five factions did join in a group venture to hunt us down, but I doubt they're going to come after us."
"That's good to hear." Jim turns to Martha. "What was the second thing we needed to talk about?"
"It was-" Martha doesn't get to finish her sentence.
The double doors burst open and two figures burst in. "Kirito?"
I look over my shoulder to find two familiar figures standing behind me. "Mom? Dad?"
Mom lifts me straight out of my chair and wraps me in a bear hug before I can blink. When she releases me, before I can even take a breath, Dad wraps his arms around me and gives me a great big hug as well.
"And who is this?" Henrietta asks. I can't see her expression, but I can hear the steel in her voice.
Mom looks over. "I'm his mother. Who are you? His girlfriend?"
Henrietta and Asuna shoot each other a glare. I just sigh.
"Young man, you have a lot to tell us." Dad says.
"Yeah, Yeah I do."
My parents at least waited for the impromptu meeting to end before badgering me with questions. In the end, I had to recount my entire journey up to this point.
I told them of my solo trip clearing floors. I told them of riding dragons. I told them of the vistas I had seen, the monsters I had fought, of Yui. I told them of Gunstorm, the world of metal and the new people I had met there.
All along, I had to stop and answer question after question as they wanted more details.
When I finished the tale, my voice was on the verge of giving out.
"So, who was the pretty girl?" Mom asks.
I take a sip of water to cool my throat. "The one who, uh, spoke to you?"
"Yes. I've already met Asuna, while you were busy with the other thing."
"Ah. She's Henrietta. Remember how Klein and the others were sent after me? She's part of that group."
"She seems to think she's your girlfriend." Dad crosses his arms. "What did I tell you about leading girls on?"
"Look. She decided that on her own. And when did you tell me that? You've never told me that."
"And here I thought you were going after Asuna." Mom says.
"She didn't seem to like Henrietta saying she was your girlfriend." Dad says.
"Also, not my fault. I tried to dissuade both of them, but neither of them would budge." I grumble.
"They both seem like smart girls. Why would they go after our son?" Mom ponders.
"I don't know. Maybe it's because our son has something of a hero complex." Dad muses.
I sigh. "Can I go now?"
"Nope. We're not done teasing you." Dad says with a straight face.
Mom grins and wraps her arms around me again. "I'm so glad to have you back."
I let myself relax. "Me too, mom. Me too."
Later, Klein and I are sitting down on one of the many couches facing the stars.
"Your parents grilled you too?" I ask the red-haired guy.
"Yeah, they wanted to know what I've been doing, fussing over my appearance, yadda yadda yadda."
"You're lucky. Mine wanted to know what I was doing, leading two girls on at once."
"Not really. Lizbeth's like four years my junior. My mom had a lot to say about me robbing the cradle." He smirks. "At least, until Lizbeth came to find me and drag me away from them. Her parents aren't too thrilled either, but Lizbeth didn't leave much choice in the matter."
"Yeah, that seems about right."
Now that I've watched for a while, I can actually make out a few patterns in the stars, so I can count rotations. It's very peaceful.
"This place is so quiet." Klein whispers.
"It is. It's kind of unnerving, to be honest."
"I know what you mean. People here don't carry weapons."
"Nobody's specifically out for my blood either."
"Ha! That's right." We fall silent for a while. "So, what are you gonna do?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know, about the conflict. The ALF. You gonna fight?"
I blink. "Of course. Why wouldn't I?"
"Well, Hisashi and his family are going to stay behind, Silica's parents are considering placing her under house arrest. Hell, even Lizbeth wants me to stop fighting and just settle in."
"Ah. I haven't actually discussed it with my parents."
Klein smirks. "You know full well what they'll tell you."
"Yeah, yeah. 'You're gonna poke you're eye out with that sword.' I remember." Another full rotation passes. "I started all of this. I need to see it through."
"No, you really don't. You can just stop."
"It doesn't feel that way, though."
"What do you think Asuna thinks of all this?"
I shake my head. "I don't know. I haven't seen her since her dad whisked her away."
"How about Henrietta? Yui?"
"Henrietta said she's follow me through hell if I asked her to, so there's that. I don't get why she's so devoted to me though."
Klein splays his arms out. "Chicks dig the hero type, man."
"She was supposed to kill me."
"Doesn't matter. Haven't you read any rom-coms?"
"Can I rescind my concern?" I ask wryly.
"Not if you want to keep your head. She's got good aim." Klein chuckles.
"As for Yui, I haven't seen her since we met Jim, Martha and Adrian. Did she even follow us back here?"
Klein nods. "I saw her a few times. She's pretending to be a normal human right now since it's less confusing for people."
"Let's see, she would probably..." I trail off. "I actually don't know anymore. Back when she was just a mental diagnoses bot, I suspect she would tell me to relax here. Now, she might tell me to pursue my goals and finish the job. I really don't know."
"I guess you'll have to ask her later. Peyton said he's staying with Hisashi as well, so it looks like it's gonna be a small party for you from now on."
"What about Chris?"
"Jim already has him fixing stuff around the Survivor's portion of the ship. He's not going to the front lines anytime soon if they can avoid it."
"Hey, I'll have your back. You know that."
"What's the current situation with the ALF?" I ask.
There's only a few people in the room. Martha, Jim, Henrietta, Asuna, Yui and I.
Jim clears his throat. "Right now, they're holed up in the main engineering bay. We can only thank god that they haven't learned to tinker with the settings, or we'd all be dead by now."
Martha chimes in. "They haven't been doing too well health-wise, since they're not well versed in how real bodies function. They don't have anyone who lived outside the Aincrad server on their side like we do."
"How many people are with the ALF?" Asuna asks.
"Approximately twelve hundred, if more haven't died of disease or malnutrition."
"Real bodies are so hard to maintain." Henrietta complains.
Everyone else ignores her.
Martha continues. "We have some sealed suits we give you, but a single bullet will puncture them. You'll have to be careful."
I nod. "It's too bad the stealth suits we had in Gunstorm don't exist out here. They would come in real hand right about now."
"No kidding." Jim straightens up. "What we need you four to do is be the vanguard for our medical unit. We've gotten a few defectors recently, and they say the conditions in there are terrible, and we want to save as many people from that kind of fate as we can. You four will be protecting them."
I look at my three female companions. They all nod.
"Let's get on with it them. The sooner, the better, right?"
Martha smiles. "Thank you, all of you. Most of us aren't trained in combat, and the one on our side from Aincrad tended to be the non-combatants."
"When are we starting?" Asuna asks.
"Now, actually." Jim looks at the watch on his wrist. "Like you said, the sooner, the better."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Henrietta asks.
They weren't kidding.
The place looks like a disaster zone. Worse than Gunstorm, that's for sure.
For one thing, there's corpses lying around, still clutching weapons. Rot, bile and other bodily fluids cover the ground. On the way over, one of the medics had told me about something called the black death. A disease of some sort from ancient times. It killed a massive amount of people.
Apparently, humans born in a vat don't have resistances to most diseases. The medics stabbed me with forty different needles to immunize me, which wasn't something any of these poor people had.
Yes, that fits the situation. Poor people. Poor, misguided people.
So far, we haven't encountered any resistance. We've recovered a few people, but we've encountered a lot more corpses.
Some of the medics we brought with us had to turn back, taking the first survivors we had found back to the healthy portion of the ship.
I turn a corner and find the first change in scenery since I started this job.
Instead of the standard stray corpse littered around, there's a pile of bodies.
I move up and gesture for the others to follow. The bravest medic, a woman by the name of Sakikio, moves to the pile to start examining them. When she shakes her head, we move on.
Before us lies a door. As I approach it, it opens and a sickly man steps out, pointing a gun at us.
"Get back." I say calmly to those following me. "Sir, it's okay. Put down the gun."
His breathing is ragged, and I can barely hear his words. "You. You ruined my life. I'll kill you for that!" He aims at me and pulls the trigger.
At least, I assume that's what he tried to do. Instead, he fires off to the side. Asuna quickly moves forward and swings the butt of her rifle into the side of his head to knock him out.
The medics move up. I look through the door. There's considerably less bile and corpses on that side of the door. In fact, it might even pass Gunstorm slum cleanliness standards.
I slowly approach the door. This is where we, the vanguard, earn our keep.
Yui stops me and gestures to let her go ahead. I reluctantly agree. She pokes her head around the corner and immediately draws back as bullets start coming at her. "Looks like ten people, heavily armed."
"Okay, we'll burst through the door. I'll lead, Yui, then Asuna. Henrietta, peek around the corner once they're all focused on us and pick them off."
The girls behind me nod.
I give myself a mental countdown a rush through the door.
The ALF members guarding the door all open fire on me, but their aim is terrible. Even from this distance I can see some of them are clearly sick.
I return fire. Two of them go down in the initial burst, and once Yui steps out another three fall.
Asuna and Henrietta quickly clean up the rest, and we secure the room.
The medics move in to see if there are any survivors from our fight, and I move up to the next door leading to the engineering sector. Before my team can stack up on the door, it burst open and a wild-eyed boy about my age runs out. "Help! you gotta help! He's going to kill me!"
The boy leaps out of the way as gunfire follows at his heels.
"Come back here, you fuckin' brat!" An older man snarls as he runs past us, gun raised to his shoulder. He barely had the time to register my presence before I raised my own weapon and fired one through his skull.
The corpse collapses on the ground.
Asuna squats down next to the boy. "Why was he trying to shoot you?"
"The guys in charge went crazy! They rounded us all up and threatened to shoot us it we tried to escape. They're trying to decide who to kill so the rations last longer."
My jaw clenches. "That's crazy."
"We've got to get in there." Henrietta states.
"They're holding everyone hostage." The kid pleads. "Please don't let them kill my mom."
"We'll do our best." Yui says.
We peek through the door.
As the boy had said, hundreds of people are sitting down in the center of a large chamber. Surrounding them are about twenty people with guns, all of them looking worse for wear.
"Game plan?" Asuna asks.
"I... First objective is the hostages. Take out the steadier looking ones, then go for the ones that look like they're about to drop."
Henrietta checks the magazine of her rifle. "Same order as last time?"
I nod. "On three."
We all press against the door frame in the order we'll be entering: Me, Yui, Asuna and Henrietta.
"One, two, three!"
We burst in, guns already in firing position.
The sick man didn't have the slightest chance. Half of them didn't even react in time to move their rifles to us.
In a matter of seconds, it's over. The medics come in and start yelling to the confused, hungry, and sick remnants of the ALF.
"Good job." I say.
One of the hostages looks up and points. "Hey! It's that Kirito guy!"
Suddenly, the hostages are a lot more threatening. I move back, Asuna and Henrietta falling back at the same pace and Yui quickly moving towards the medics, who now are being surrounded by an angry mob.
"You took away our home!"
"You ruined my life!"
"What gives you the right-"
Asuna fires a shot upwards, silencing the crowd.
"We're here to get you all medical treatment." Henrietta puts on her imperious voice. "If you would rather go without food and medicine, feel free to leave. Touch a hair on his head, though..." She aims her rifle at the hostages. "Well, you say how we handled your captors."
"That wasn't the right way to handle that situation!" Jim yells.
The four of us in the vanguard unit are kneeling on the cold floor. We've been here for fifteen minutes now.
"Now it's going to be next to impossible to convince the former ALF member to join us!" He runs his hand through his hair. "Look, I know you're all under a lot of pressure, but did you have to resort to threats?"
Henrietta speaks. "It was. They were getting out of control."
Jim rubs his face. "Okay. I can't really deny your words, but I want you all to figure out how to get their trust. We need one unified community here, or things go to hell in a hand-basket."
He opens the door and slams in shut behind him.
"That could have gone better." Yui comments.
"Why is it every time Kirito saves someone, they yell at him?" Asuna wonders.
"I wish I knew." I reply glumly. My legs hurt from siting in this dogeza thing, and I want to take four or five showers. I almost fall over when my legs don't respond properly.
"I'm going to head to my parent's room. I need about fifteen showers." Asuna says.
"Hey, did you ever get their permission to actually participate in the vanguard?" Henrietta asks.
Asuna winces in response.
I didn't either, come to think of it.
It must have shown on my face, because Henrietta smiles. "Then, let's all head to my room. I have plenty of space."
"Thanks, Henrietta." Asuna says.
"Yeah, thanks." I echo.
As we walk back, an idea strikes me. A way to apologize. it wouldn't be easy, but...
I whisper my plan to the AI.
"I think that would do wonders for this community! I'm going to go get my outer layer sterilized, so you three have fun!"
"So!" Henrietta claps her hands together. "I checked earlier, and my shower can fit two people at once-"
I sit back in my chair, admiring my hard work. All the lights are green, and there's no errors in my code. Took me long enough.
I turn in my chair to catch the charging three-year-old girl, my little Airi.
"How are you doing, Sweety?" I ask her.
"Mommy made cookies!"
She presents me with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. I take one and bite into it. Delicious.
"How're you doing?" She asks in return.
"Daddy's almost done. I just have one more test to run to make sure it's safe."
"That sounds promising."
I look up to see Henrietta standing in the doorway.
"Yes, Soon, we'll be able to show-"
"Auntie Henri!" Airi squeals, jumping off my lap to go cling to Henrietta's legs.
"Hey, Snowflake. What are you up to?"
"Mommy made Daddy cookies! Do you want one?"
I hold up the plate. "They're really good."
"Asuna's cooking always is." Henrietta sighs, then continues in a teasing tone. "It's why you choose her over me, right?"
I can feel my cheeks color. "Stop that. You'll give Airi strange ideas."
"No, I think Yui's got that covered."
"You've never seen a conversation as bad as the ones I have with her. It's impossible to equate anything to monogamy in robot terms before the analogy breaks down. She still says the most misleading things, and only around Asuna. Sometimes I get the impression that Yui does understand and is doing it to spite me."
"She made a few new tweaks to her teasing script recently, so maybe."
"Do you think Yui loves you?" Henrietta muses aloud.
I glance at Airi, who is busy with a cookie. "Don't even go there. She's a robot."
"Doesn't mean she can't fall in love."
Airi looks back and forth between us, having finished her cookie. I assumed she didn't understand our conversation, but then she opened her mouth.
"Aunty Henri loves Daddy?"
Uh-oh. "In a way, Sweety." I answer. "Not the same way as you, mommy and I."
"Actually, I do."
I glare up at the blond. She sticks out her tongue.
"Then why don't you live with us?" Airi asks of Henrietta.
"Because mommy wouldn't like it." Henrietta boops Airi's nose.
"I don't believe you. I'm gonna go ask mommy." With surprising speed, Airi bolts out the door. She gets it from her mother.
We both stare after her for a second.
"Can we get to your hiding place before Airi tells her?"
"No, she found it a few days ago."
"We're not screwed, we're fucked."
Klein glances at me. "Dude, are you okay? You have bruises all over your face."
"'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.'"
"Oh, so Asuna found out about you and Henrietta's little trysts?"
I glare at him. "I keep telling you, that's not what's happening. She and are just good friends."
"Hey, I think my face wouldn't look so odd if you have a matching one, what say?"
"Nah, I gotta look pretty for Lizbeth's party."
"You finally going to actually propose to her?"
"I'll get around to it."
"Maybe when you're forty. Oh wait, that's how old you are. Maybe fifty then?"
"Dude, not funny. I'm still in my twenties."
"Twenty-nine isn't twenties anymore."
Martha pokes her head through the dressing room door. "You two are on in five- Holy cow, Kirito, what happened to your face?"
"Asuna." Klein and I reply in unison.
"Well, get her to put some makeup over those. You can't go on stage like that."
Klein smirks. "Alright, go find your wife and I'll head to the stage. I'll stall for time if I need to."
"It wasn't my fault! Henrietta keeps saying this kind of stuff around Airi!" I complain.
Asuna touches the makeup sponge to my face again. "And if you'd stop hanging out with her, Airi wouldn't ever hear that kind of talk, would she?"
I let the tension out of my shoulders. It's better to just give in. "Of course."
"But that wouldn't be fair to her, now would it?"
"Who's side are you on?" I ask dryly.
"My own, of course. I say you should stop consorting with harlots."
Asuna sets down the makeup tools and hugs my head, resting her head on mine. I get an excellent view of her cleavage, but decide not to mention it. "You know I'm kidding around. I wouldn't force her to give up talking to her one true love, unobtainable though it may be."
"You know, even after five years I can't tell if you two get along well or if you both hate each other's guts."
"Time to break a leg, Kirito." she gives me a kiss on the head and lets go.
I head for the stage at a fast clip, and hear Klein's voice on the microphone.
"...And without further ado, let's welcome the star of the hour, Kazuto Kirigaya!"
...Did he have to use my real name?
I stride on stage with a smile. The gathered crowd cheers.
I accept the microphone from Klein and stand in the center stage and Klein bows and walks off the stage.
"Thank you all for that." I begin. "I'm sure you're all aware, but let me remind you why we're here. Five years ago, the Aincrad server was shut down when I triggered the end condition. Two years ago, I figured out how to allow us unlimited access between Gunstorm and reality. Today, I've made another turning point in the history of this ship."
The screen behind me turns on, showing a towering structure, one hundred floors in all. Each floor has a different theme: Ice, lava, swamp... dragons. To access each floor, you must clear the one below it by defeating the final boss.
In the crowd, I see Yui smiling. I see Asuna holding Airi up. I see Henrietta grinning. The rest of the those from my old world are on the edge of their seats.
"Today, I give back what was taken." I smile. "Welcome to Aincrad V2."
Thank you so much for reading. I honestly can't believe I managed to finish this story.
To everyone that's been with this story since the early days, thanks for sticking with it.
To anyone reading this after discovering it, thank you for giving my story a chance.
It's been a learning experience, in more ways than one. This story has shown me where my own failings as a writer are, and how to fix those failings. This story has been the one constant in my life since I started writing it. It's been with me through the good times and the bad, keeping me sane when all I wanted to do was end it all. Now, I'm in a much better frame of mind and am looking forward to maybe working on my own book again.
Again, thank you. Y'all are wonderful people. Now go read/write some more fanfiction!