Chapter 1

January 19th, 2025

I looked around apathetically, taking in my surroundings. The predominant color of the area around me was sand; both the ground and the walls of the empty arena were the same dusty yellow color, though that could have been the result of the coating of sand that covered everything, including me. I was standing at the entrance to an arena; it was strangely reminiscent of the coliseum on the 75th floor of Aincrad. A warm wind blew, ruffling my hair. I swallowed; my throat was dry. I stepped forward, feeling the sand crunch underneath my feet. I strode forward until I stood in the center of the arena, preparing myself for battle. I clenched my fists, feeling my gloves stretch over my knuckles. They gleamed in the light of the midday sun. I felt my heart start to race as I crouched, waiting for the appearance of my opponent.

The sound of something appearing behind me filled the air, and I whipped around. I took in the monster that I could see; it was a tall humanoid lizard with a shield and a broadsword. I flipped through my memories until I matched the appearance to what I remembered - it was a Lizardman Lord, a typical enemy I had destroyed before. I took a few seconds to remember what its routines were; it liked to open with a horizontal slash, followed by two different attacks depending on its target's location. If the target was in close, it would try to bite them; if they were far away, it would lead into a lunge. The bite was surprisingly hard to dodge, with a surprising speed and accuracy. The lunge was far easier to punish, and so I chose to force it into that routine. As the Lizardman Lord swung, I flipped backward, feeling the wind from the blade as it passed under my body. I landed on my feet, prepared to dodge the Lizardman Lord's next attack. True to form, its blade started glowing a pale blue and the monster lunged toward me, faster than it should have been able to move. I was ready, however, and ducked. I brought my left arm up, parrying the sword with my gloves, and brought my right fist back. Once it started glowing, I grinned triumphantly and punched forward, my fist moving just as fast as the Lizardman Lord's blade had. It impacted directly on the center of the monster's chest; a shockwave rippled out due to the force of the blow and the monster was sent flying. Before landing, it shattered into several blue polygons that slowly floated away.

I straightened up and lifted my arms victoriously, enjoying the adulation of the crowd. They cheered wildly, throwing various coins down onto the sand. I started to pick one up, but as I bent over I heard the sound of a new enemy entering the ring. Something told me to throw myself backwards, and I heeded my instincts. They usually were good, and they didn't betray me as a large axe passed through the empty air where my head used to be. It would likely have killed me had I not moved. I pushed off my hand to complete the flip and landed, skidding back slightly from the speed of my maneuver. The large armored figure wasn't giving me any room to breathe, charging me as soon as I could open up the gap between us. I dodged the swipes of its axe, but they were coming too close for comfort. Gritting my teeth, I lunged forward, fists glowing a crimson red. I unleashed a quick combo on its chest, briefly knocking it back. That let me jump away and take a second to close my eyes.

I opened them again, and the world seemed slightly off. Colors had faded slightly, and the bright sun seemed like it was cutting through a grey fog. I grinned tightly, finally forced to use my first trump card. As the armored figure came toward me again, a red curve seemed to extend from the head of its glowing axe. I watched it and made sure it didn't come near my body, and waited. A second later, it swung forward, grunting with the effort of swinging the axe. I had noticed that when it missed with a swing, it was momentarily off balance - that small window of opportunity was not going to be something I passed up.

I closed immediately, bringing my left hand to my right arm. I unsheathed my own weapon from its sheath on my forearm; I had moved it there from its starting position on my hip. It was easier for me to reach it there; with my mix of bare-handed and weapon-work, I needed to be able to shift weapons more or less at will. I sliced outward with my blade; the edge of the dagger bit into the gap between my enemy's helmet and its plate armor. I was rewarded with a spray of red as an angry red gash appeared. Following through with the blow, its head was separated from its body. I watched with a smug grin as the headless body collapsed limply, sending up a spray of sand as the heavy armor crashed to the ground. I couldn't be defeated. I waved to the crowd screaming for blood in the seats of the arena, feeling invincible. I was a winner. I was strong. I was-

I was awake. Blinking blearily, I groaned and rolled onto my side, rubbing at my eyes. "I wonder when these dreams are going to stop," I muttered. "They're starting to get repetitive." That was the third or fourth time I had dreamt about the sandy arena, and I was hoping my subconscious would pick up that I wanted a new setting.

The psychologist had mentioned the possibility of dreams after my two-year stay in the world of Sword Art Online, but I didn't expect them to last two months. Of course, the dreams all had a similar subject; I would find myself in some sort of empty arena area, I would fight, and I would kill. The arenas would vary, sometimes being a secluded grove in the woods, sometimes an area deep within a dungeon, and sometimes an actual arena. Every time, I would fight, eventually being forced to use my dagger and kill. I always killed multiple targets, and I never got hit. My dreams were weird.

My thoughts were interrupted by a loud meow and the sudden arrival of a large weight on my bed. Despite myself, I grinned. "Hey, kitten-cat." My cat, Emmit, purred loudly and made his way over next to me. I reached out and started scratching him under the chin. His face looked like he was in cat heaven. "Good morning." He meowed again and curled up on the bed, right beside my chest. I smiled fondly at him; my cat was one of the few people in the world I actually cared about. I rolled back over, resting my cheek on his fur. He purred louder, and I grinned.

I dozed for a few minutes before glancing at the clock. It was 8:10 in the morning, and I sighed. "Sorry, kiddo. Have to get up." Despite my best attempts, Emmit refused to get up. Cats, and especially mine, didn't follow normal rules of physics. Cats had no inertia - a cat in motion could stop at a moment's notice and change directions as if he had been running that way the entire time - until they fell asleep, at which point no human force on Earth could move them. I managed to somehow extricate myself through some sort of contortionism that I couldn't replicate if I tried; Emmit remained asleep, paws twitching slightly. I stood up, staring at him, before shaking my head. "A herd of wild elephants could storm through this room and you'd sleep through it, wouldn't you." I shrugged and went off to take a shower. My karate class started at noon, and it only took me fifteen minutes to travel there, but I wanted to get something to eat for breakfast. I'd have to raid the refrigerator downstairs. But first a shower.

I munched on the bagel I'd... liberated from the kitchen while I walked back upstairs. I had an hour and a half I had to kill before making my way to the bus stop, and I knew exactly what I was going to spend it on. I pushed my door farther open - thanks to the cat in the household, no door was ever closed. Emmit would sit at the door and meow constantly until it was opened, even if he had no intention of entering the closed room. There was something about an unknown room that was insanely attractive to a cat; I mentally compared it to a locked chest in a game. Even if the prize was worthless, I'd go through hell to find a key just to open it. It had something to do with the lure of the unknown.

I sat at my desk, finishing the bagel and pulling out my notes on the project I had been working on for the two months since I woke up from my coma. I scanned them, trying to remember where I had left off the day before. After finding the end of my notes, I pulled over the laptop I had received from Agent Kikuoka as part of the deal I had struck with him. He had approached me in my hospital room, asking for information on Sword Art Online; I refused to answer until he gave me some information on my friends. That wasn't the only reason for his visit, however; his second and more important reason was to draft me into some sort of information network. In exchange for that, I had demanded a laptop, retention of my NerveGear, and a copy of the SAO source code. Kikuoka had provided, the laptop and source code arriving in a package a few days after I returned to my home.

As for what I needed them for... I grinned to myself as I scanned the progress I had made. I had taken the Cardinal system and ruthlessly stripped it of everything but the basic ability to manage a server; all that was left was the basic systems for supporting life and movement. I had removed the ability for combat or basically anything other than basic movement and object management. I had tested my modifications extensively by developing a separate application for my phone that could connect to the server run by my laptop. So far, everything worked, but I wouldn't know if it worked for sure until the final stress test. In the meantime, however, I was working on an object that could take the input from the microphone and camera on my phone and display it in the virtual world. It was close to complete, though I was running into problems with the microphone. It would take the input, but refused to translate it into output that the Cardinal engine could understand. I stared at the code, but it obstinately refused to form itself into sense.

My cat jumped on my desk, startling me out of my concentration. Out of habit, I started stroking him while I checked the time. My eyes widened and I swore. "Damn. I gotta get going." I patted my cat on the head gently. "See you later, buddy." I grabbed my laptop and shoved it into its travel pack; I was going to take the bus a longer distance after my class and I wanted to work on the issue while I rode the bus. It let me avoid talking to people.

I rushed out of my house, pausing only to shout goodbye to my mother. I lived with her after leaving the hospital; I didn't particularly like my father all that much. He was a little too much like me for us to get along well. I tried to get along with my mother, but I just really couldn't be anything other than nice. I was grateful to her for taking care of me while I was unable to survive alone, i.e. all of my formative years, but that was all. I only really cared about Argo, Kazuto, Asuna, my cat, and myself.

My thoughts entertained me through my entire bus ride. Thanking the driver, I got off and jogged the distance to the dojo where I trained. I had taken up karate after the physical therapist recommended I find some sort of physical activity to get myself fully recovered. After I finished physical therapy, I was technically capable of performing regular activities, but the first day of karate class taught me I was woefully out of shape. Nobody said anything, but I could feel their glances and looks of pity and scorn as I sat against the wall, panting and unable to continue with the exercises. I refused to let myself be humiliated like that again, and started running through the basic fitness exercises we did at the start of class by myself in my room. I quickly managed to gain stamina and strength, and I started putting muscle on. I was actually in the best shape of my life, thanks to Kayaba. Strange how things worked out.

The class started out simply enough, after the warm-ups and stretches. We were running through basic punch and kick exercises; I was able to keep up with the class, though I could feel the burning in my sides. The repetitive and rythmic strikes lulled me into a light trance; I kept just enough attention in what I was doing so as to keep up with the class, but the majority of my focus was inwards. So much had changed since my return from the world of Sword Art Online - I suddenly had friends that I could talk to when I needed to talk to somebody, and I was actually happy at times. Of course, those times only came while I was talking with Kazuto or Argo and my mood quickly shifted the second I was forced to deal with other people. Some things never changed. I had managed to track down Agil as well; his real name was Andrew, and he ran a small shop called The Dicey Café. I had stopped by occasionally, though never all that often.

My thoughts drifted to Asuna, as they usually did when I had the luxury of not being occupied doing something else. She hadn't waken up from the game - along with 300 other players, but I didn't care about them - and was still asleep in her hospital room, hooked up to her NerveGear and the machinery keeping her alive. Kazuto and I visited her almost every day, he more often than I. She was my friend; she was his wife. Although I missed her terribly, Kazuto missed her more. I had a feeling that he still felt trapped, that he wouldn't be free until Asuna was awake and they were reunited.

The instructor called a halt and, suddenly thrown out of my half-trance, I started breathing rapidly as my body realized that it had been abused, forcing myself to breathe as normally as possible. I didn't miss the quick glance he threw my way, but I refused to show weakness. I had my pride. The instructor walked to the front of the class. "The rest of today's class will be sparring," he announced. I felt a grin tug at my lips, drawing them into a lopsided smirk. I was always ready to spar; it reminded me of the training sessions with Kazuto I once had back in Aincrad. The way our instructor ran sparring was similar to a round-robin style tournament - each of us would spar with every other student in order, going until they lost the match. I liked it; it mixed endurance with speed and skill. The last time we had sparred, I had been forced to sit out of the matches; my body was still weak, so even though the spirit was willing it wasn't possible for me to fight.

We sat against the wall of the dojo as he called up the first two students. I had managed to position myself near the end; that would give me plenty of time to study the victors. It was a fairly high probability that I would be fighting someone who had won repeatedly, so I needed to calm down and study their fighting patterns.

The first several sparring matches went by quickly. The students all knew what they were doing, and weren't afraid to close in and attack. It was somewhat enjoyable to watch, actually; I liked seeing their different tactics and skills. Several people in the class were rather good at sparring.

Eventually, it was my turn to fight. I stood up and took my place, sizing up my opponent. He had managed to defeat several people before me, so I had a good idea of how he fought and what his reactions were. We bowed to each other and dropped into our fighting stances; out of reflex, I almost tried to trigger Future Step before shaking my head and grinning ruefully. That wouldn't help me here.

"Begin!" With the instructor's shout, the match began. Immediately, I pivoted on my left foot and moved forward, blocking with my left arm as I did so. As expected, my opponent opened with a snap kick; he had done so at the start of every one of his matches. It was a good opening move; it allowed him to close the distance between him and his opponent if he wanted to. Unfortunately, he did it one too many times and I was able to take advantage of his pattern. I lunged forward with a vicious backhand to the head - he barely blocked it, eyes wide. Head shots were allowed, so long as we pulled our punch and didn't actually come into contact. His panicked block gave me the perfect opening, though, and I twisted at the waist to give my reverse punch more speed and strength. It collided with his gut, knocking the wind out of him briefly and causing the instructor to call the point in my favor. I couldn't hurt him, given that we wore sparring gear, but getting hit in the solar plexus still prevented people from breathing if they weren't prepared for the blow, as my opponent obviously hadn't been. I stood at my position, absently rubbing at my arm. I didn't have the good protection the diamond gloves had given me, and my arm throbbed where I had blocked the kick.

My opponent managed to regain his breath and turned to face me again. I studied his eyes and grinned mentally; he had gotten angry. I had noticed that when he got hit in his previous matches, his eyes grew wilder and angry. It was as if he wanted revenge for being struck. I didn't understand why just getting struck was enough to set him off, but it was fine with me. When he was angry, he more or less gave up on kicks to get in close and personal, and that suited me just fine.

As soon as the match started again, he closed in and started throwing punches. I watched his shoulders for the telltale signs that he was about to attack; no matter how good a person was at fighting, the shoulders always gave away when they were going to attack. The overall goal was to minimize your tell or ensure that the opponent didn't have enough time to react and block. Unfortunately for my opponent, his blows were nowhere near the speeds Kazuto or Asuna could reach. And I could keep up with them, making my opponent's blows a joke to dodge and parry. All I had to do was wait until he made a mistake.

Eventually, he did. One of his strikes had just a little bit too much power and was just a little bit wild; that was my chance. I parried his blow and wrapped my hand around his wrist. I dropped into a horse stance by turning my rear foot away and sinking down; that threw him off balance given that I still held his arm. I let go of his arm and threw a nasty backfist toward his ribs, an attack that I deliberately pulled. He jumped back, reacting exactly how I expected him to; I pivoted on my front foot and snapped out a side kick that struck him in the ribs. The second point of the match went to me, meaning I only had to score one more point before I won the match. I moved back to my starting position, smirking. I was good at fighting; I should expect so, given that I spent two years fighting constantly.

The third point was a complete massacre. I didn't let up the pressure at all, forcing my opponent onto the defensive quickly and preventing him from attacking at all. To his credit, he managed to block or dodge most of my combos; however, my own speed was highly limited from what I had been used to in Aincrad. The entire world had felt slightly heavier when I woke up; due to my speed-based build in Sword Art Online, the world felt as though gravity was reduced slightly. I was doing my best to build my strength and endurance up to the point that I could move that fast in real life, but there would always be the gap between my two speeds. Regardless, I was good enough at fighting to make up for my reduced speed, and my opponent couldn't escape my wrath. Eventually, the instructor called a halt and I stopped, panting slightly.

As the adrenaline from the battle left me, my eyes widened. I was horrified at my actions; I had taken advantage of my skill and power to completely crush my opponent. I was no better than Kayaba, abusing my abilities for my own benefit and gain. I bowed to my opponent out of habit, then turned to the instructor. "I...I'm sorry. May I sit out for the rest of class?" He looked at me, then nodded once. "Thank you." I collected my glasses from the place I had stored them, staggered off to the side of the dojo, and collapsed against the wall. I sank down, shuddering slightly as the aches and pains from the fight caught up to me, and buried my face in my knees. I had thought the dreams were my subconscious's way of dealing with the near-constant fighting for two years, but I had never considered the possibility that it was a sign that I was dangerously addicted to fighting. I had killed in the world of Aincrad, but it was always self-defense; did I actually want to fight and kill? I had thought that my control would keep me informed of my motives behind everything, but this... desire to win was completely new to me. I knew I was unbalanced, but I always had control over my desires; I prided myself on my control. I hadn't realized there was a completely open channel that I didn't even know existed. I knew I had plenty of rage and hatred, but I thought I had controlled it to the point of using it instead of it using me.

I needed to institute more control over myself, and that was obvious. The only problem was that I had no idea how to start. The issue was completely dormant until I found myself in combat; but the problem I ran into was, is my ruthlessness in battle truly a bad thing? An enemy that can't fight no longer poses a threat, and one that still wants to battle can pose danger at the most unexpected times. I had survived in SAO by being more ruthless and striking faster than my enemies, so couldn't the same principle be applied to this world? Shouldn't my priority be my own survival and the survival of my friends over those of the others? In the sparring match, I had only won because I took advantage of my opponent's weaknesses and that was all. If we fought again, he would likely crush me - my mind tricks and surprise attacks usually only worked once in a while, when the opponent wasn't expecting it.

I almost didn't realize that it was 1:30 and the class was ending, and I stood up to end the class with the rest of the students. My mind wasn't on the class at all, and I left immediately after we were all dismissed. I had a bus to catch.

Once I was on the bus, I could try to relax. I had about a thirty or forty-five minute ride before I would arrive at my destination. To pass the time, I pulled out my laptop and plugged in my phone to keep testing the issue with the microphone. I thought I knew where the issue was coming from, and I wanted to try out the fix I had in mind. I plugged in my headphones and turned my music on shuffle, not particularly caring what I listened to. As I programmed, the rhythmic music soothed my frantic mind and I dropped into the single-minded focus that let me see the patterns in the code and find the errors that I needed to eliminate. I scrolled through the code, searching for the segments that I wanted to find. I followed the logic of the input and output, and something made me frown. I focused on it, and grinned as I found where the problem converting the input to acceptable output was located. I studied it for a bit before typing a few lines of code. With a satisfied smile, I picked up my phone and connected to the server on my computer. I watched the display on the screen as a small terminal appeared in the simulated world; that was the representation of the connected phone. It looked remarkably similar to a desktop computer setup, with a monitor, speakers, and a keyboard. The keyboard was included so that text communication was possible during times that speech wasn't available - in other words, situations like this. Regardless, I spoke into the mic of my phone. "Testing the conversion fix between the input from the phone and the output in the game." I waited with bated breath for the information to parse and be sent to the server - I had deliberately included a delay for bug testing so that I would be able to determine if the issue was fixed or not.

"Testing the conversion fix between the input from the phone and the output in the game," I heard my own voice echo through my headphones. Grinning like a fool, I clenched a fist victoriously. I was finished with programming the setup; the only thing left to do was remove the various debug segments I had added and it would be complete. The two months spent on this were well spent; I was thankful I was given the source code, or the project would have spent far, far longer. If I had to build the program from scratch, it was possible I'd never finish. Kayaba had definitely been a genius - if he hadn't also been a psychopath, I would have claimed that he was my hero.

"Hey, whatcha workin' on?" The unexpected voice made me close the laptop automatically; I didn't like people knowing I was working on something. It was simple paranoia at work, but I preferred that people not bother me while I was working. If I decided to scrap a project, anybody who knew about it would inevitably ask about my progress on that same project and I'd have to patiently explain that I gave up on that. I hated admitting that I was giving up on something - it felt far too much like losing. "Aw, c'mon. I just wanted to know." Heaving a large sigh, I looked over at the person who had decided to interrupt me. He seemed friendly enough, with a large cheerful grin on his face; I mentally judged him to be about 20 or so. He was probably older than I was, at any rate.

I knew I probably was glaring, but I didn't care. I hated interacting with other people. "I happen to be attempting to debug a program designed to facilitate communication between myself, my friends, and their kid, alright?" I turned back to my laptop and placed it in the bag. "Now if you don't mind, I'd prefer it if you don't talk to me."

"Jeez, no need to be so hostile..." the guy muttered. Regardless, he turned around and faced away from me. Sighing, I pulled out the book I was currently reading and opened to the page I stopped at the night before. I probably didn't need to immediately go on the defensive, but I really didn't want to talk to him, especially given my...issues just a few hours ago. The rest of the bus ride passed without incident, though I couldn't really focus on the book. The sparring match kept replaying in my head as I examined it closely, trying to see if I had really lost control, if I had enjoyed crushing him, or if I just fought well and won easily. I tried to put it out of my mind, but it wouldn't leave me alone.

I sighed. "Well, at least I'll have something to talk about tonight. I think it's been a while since I was a whiny baby, anyway."

The bus came to a halt, and I realized it was my stop. I stood up and walked out, thanking the bus driver on my way. As the bus pulled away, I looked at my surroundings. My lips pressed into a thin line as the predominant building caught my eye immediately. As much as I hated this location, the hospital did house my best friend. The guard at the entrance waved as I walked past - he knew who I was. He was always on duty when I came to visit Asuna. As I always did, I studied the building as I approached it. The predominant sense was of it being, well, tall. It was a silly and irrelevant observation, but every time I saw the hospital that was the first thing I thought. Forcing myself to look past it, I studied the actual appearance. It was modern, with large windows that reflected the bright sunlight into my eyes rather painfully. I examined the bike rack as I approached the entrance - Kazuto's bike was already locked up by the front door. I grinned; he always did get here before I did. Even though he rode a bike and I rode the bus, I apparently had farther to go, even though we lived relatively near each other.

I entered the hospital and made my way to the lobby. Sure enough, Kazuto was waiting for me in the lobby. When I approached, he looked up and grinned. "Hey, Nick."

"Kiri- er, sorry. Kazuto," I greeted him. "Good to see you."

He smiled, but it was fairly weak. I couldn't blame him; our visits were never happy. Even though he loved her and she was one of my best friends, it hurt to see her lying there motionless. Regardless, we repeatedly visited her; Kazuto almost every day, and I almost as often. No matter the pain that we felt, we still stood by her side. That's what it meant for me to be someone's friend; I would never leave them. With an effort, I forced myself back into the present and shrugged. "Should we get going?" Kazuto nodded and stood up; I followed him into the elevator. He hit the button for the twelfth floor as I pressed myself against the wall of the elevator. I preferred to have a wall to my back, and didn't like people behind me. It had something to do with my inability to trust many people, according to the psychologist that attended my case after I woke up.

As the elevator ascended, I studied my friend. He was staring at the door, deep in thought. I had a feeling I knew what he was thinking about; the same thing that had occupied my thoughts in the lobby. I could tell he missed Asuna terribly, and I sympathized. The only reason we knew the hospital Asuna was in was because of Kikuoka - as I had vaguely expected, he wasn't just a member of the SAO Rescue Squad or whatever he had called it. He was part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with far more power than I had expected. That explained how he had no problem getting me the laptop and the code. In any event, Kazuto had given Kikuoka information in exchange for Asuna's location, as opposed to me who just demanded their contact information. Fat lot of good that did me. I looked at Kazuto again and chuckled. He glanced at me. "What's so funny?"

"Your attire." Kazuto was wearing all dark clothes, just like his other self Kirito. The only color on his clothes was a single red stripe and the fur lining on his coat. "You're still the Black Swordsman, I guess."

He glanced at me. "And you're still wearing blood red. Funny how things never change, right?" We chuckled, but there wasn't much humor in our laughs. He was right, though; as a result of sleeping through puberty, I had grown out of most of my old clothes. During my extensive shopping trip, I preferred clothes in greyscale and blood-red over any other color, to the extent that my wardrobe was almost exclusively those colors. I didn't mind; I liked grey, black, and red. The elevator doors opened and the two of us exited, making our way through the relatively crowded halls. We stopped outside Asuna's room; Kazuto swiped the card and we entered the room.

The first thing that I noticed when we entered was the smell of fresh flowers. After that, the terrible silence in the room was the only thing that I could focus on. Kazuto hesitated on the edge of the curtain, not willing to see her lying there, and I placed my hand on his shoulder. He glanced at me gratefully and moved aside the curtain, revealing her form. I wanted to give them relative privacy, so I walked over to the side and sat in the provided chair. While Kazuto spent his private time with Asuna, I pulled out a book to entertain myself. I didn't know how to express my emotions well, so all I could do was be there for her if she woke up.

We hadn't spent more than a few seconds in the room before it slid open again, and a man in a nice suit walked in carrying a bouquet of flowers. I closed my book and stood up politely. He came around the corner and stopped. "Kazuto, Nick. Sorry, I didn't know you were here." He smiled. "Thank you for coming."

I smiled awkwardly. It was always awkward when he was here at the same time as Kazuto and myself. "Hello, sir."

Kazuto smiled. "Hello, Mr. Yuuki. I hope it's okay we're here..."

Another person stopped by the edge of the curtain. I ignored him to watch Mr. Yuuki. Asuna's father walked over to the vase of flowers. "Please, you two can visit whenever you like. I know it makes her happy." He smiled fondly at his daughter, and I shifted awkwardly.

The other man fully entered the room. "Sir." My focus was entirely on him at that point, and I studied the man. A similar suit, glasses, and dark hair; he probably worked for Asuna's father. His glasses somehow reflected the fluorescent lights; I was slightly jealous. I wished my glasses could do that. My glasses could, however, get darker when exposed to light, hiding my eyes for a few minutes when I walked inside. It was acceptable, but I wanted both.

Mr. Yuuki looked up, startled. "Oh, I don't think you two have ever met my associate. This is Sugou, our company's director of R&D."

Sugou smiled - even though I couldn't see him, I assumed he smiled. "I'm Nobuyuki Sugou. It's a pleasure." I walked over to stand beside Kazuto, making sure that nobody was behind me. If I didn't like having people behind me, the least I could do was to offer others the same courtesy when possible.

Kazuto blinked. "I'm Kazuto Kirigaya."

I was about to introduce myself, but Sugou's eyes widened when he heard Kazuto's name. "You're THE Kirito?" He rushed over and shook Kazuto's hand. "You're a hero, it's an honor!"

"I'm Nick Weyr." I grinned sardonically. "Unlike Mr. Hero here, I'm nobody special."

Sugou decided to shake my hand as well. "And Rythin too? Today must be my lucky day!" He seemed genuinely happy to see the two of us, but I could sense something wrong with him - anyone that friendly had secrets they were trying to hide. He was hiding something, but I wasn't sure what. After he let go, I wandered back to my seat in the corner. I didn't like being social.

Mr. Yuuki grinned apologetically. "I'm sorry... I know we're not supposed to talk about what happened inside the SAO server, but he's my partner's son, so it's fine." Nepotism was such a wonderful thing, wasn't it? "Besides, I've always thought of him as part of my family."

Sugou chuckled. "Actually, sir, speaking of family..." He turned to face Mr. Yuuki. "If I may, I'd like to make it official as soon as possible." I turned back to face him, confused. The only way he would join their family was to either be adopted or marry into it, and Asuna had never mentioned having sisters.

Mr. Yuuki seemed to be taken aback. "Ah... This is sudden. Are you sure this is really what you want? I mean, you're still young, you have your whole life ahead of you..."

Sugou didn't stop smiling. "Thank you for your concern, but my heart's set on it." He adjusted his glasses and I unconsciously mimicked him. "It sounds strange, but even though she's like this she's still beautiful." That was a strange non-sequitur. "I'd like to see her in that wedding dress." My eyes widened as I connected the dots. My jaw dropped as I tried to say three things at once; Kazuto was in no better state.

"You have a point." Mr. Yuuki was oblivious to our reactions. "The sooner we prepare ourselves for the inevitable the better." He sighed and then stiffened as he looked at the clock. "Sorry to cut the conversation short. I have a meeting to get to. We can talk more about this later." He walked around to the foot of the bed. "Kazuto, Nick... take care." I didn't even register that he had spoken to me; I was still trying to wrap my head around the bomb that Sugou had so casually dropped. Was it even legal for a person in a coma to be married? Especially since it was probably against her will, given that she loved Kazuto.

Once Mr. Yuuki left the room, Sugou started pacing the floor. "I heard you and Asuna were lovers in the game, Kazuto. Is that true?" Sugou walked around to Asuna's side opposite Kazuto.

"Uh-huh," Kazuto muttered.

"That is unfortunate. That's going to make for one complicated relationship between you and I." Sugou bent down and gathered a lock of Asuna's hair in his palm, lifting it up. To my shock and horror, he started smelling it. The look on his face was obscene, and I started to walk forward to stop him. The only thing that kept me from harming him then and there was the rigid self-control I had on my emotions and the fact that Kazuto was about to snap himself. Instead of walking over to Sugou, I moved to stand by Kazuto's side and placed a hand on his shoulder, giving support and restraint at the same time. Sugou straightened up. "In case you're curious, her father and I were discussing her marriage... to me." He licked his lips with a smug and self-satisifed grin.

Kazuto's eyes widened and he stepped back, stopped only by my hand. I stood firm and stared at Sugou impassively. I wasn't about to let him know that his words made me want to punch him in the face; that would mean he won. I had better control than that, and I ruthlessly crushed my reaction down. Hold on to that anger, I told myself, and let it be useful later. Even with my attempts at control, my lip curled and my eyes narrowed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kazuto clench his fist. "No way... You can't do that..." he muttered, half to himself.

"You have a point." Sugou sat on the bed beside Asuna. I felt my body shake once with the effort of controlling my rage, but I forced it to become cold. "It's true we can't legally marry, but if the Yuuki family adopts me it will be as if we are." He shrugged. "On paper, that is. Just like we're married. The truth is..." He started playing with Asuna's prone form, moving her lips with his finger. My vision went grey, briefly; I stepped back and removed my hand from Kazuto's shoulder. He had free reign. "She's always hated me, ever since we were kids." Asuna had good taste, at least. "Neither her parents nor mine know that. If I proposed and she could speak, I'm pretty sure her answer would be no." Sugou chuckled darkly. "For me, this situation is... very favorable."

Kazuto couldn't restrain himself any longer. He rushed around the bed and grabbed Sugou's arm. "Stop it." His voice was dangerous, and I was forcibly reminded of his duel with Kayaba. His voice sounded the same at that point as well.

With an effort, Sugou broke his arm free from Kazuto's grasp. "Tch."

"Who do you think you are?" demanded Kazuto. "You can't take advantage of Asuna like this." I would have contributed to the conversation, but I was too focused on controlling my anger and turning it cold to trust my voice.

Sugou smirked. "Take advantage? Oh, please. If anything, I have a right to her." Of course, controlling my anger was very difficult when every word Sugou said made me angrier and angrier. "Perhaps I should explain why. Any idea what happened to Argus? They're the company that developed SAO."

"They were shut down." My voice came out slightly strangled, but there was no sign of the anger I was hiding aside from the freezing cold tone of my voice. "Due to legal sanctions and payments."

"Very good," Sugou said. "The lawsuits and damages they had to pay took their toll. The company was forced into bankruptcy. But the maintenance of the SAO servers was given to another company." He smirked. "An electronics manufacturer, where Asuna's father, Shouzou Yuuki, is the CEO. RECT Progress."

Kazuto gasped, and my mind finally stilled. I had a vague notion of what Sugou was going to say, and my mind scrambled to put two and two together. I kept getting four, but I couldn't believe the answer and as such kept running the calculations, trying to come to a different result.

"And I work for the company's FullDive R&D division," Sugou continued. He stood up. "In other words, and without getting into specifics, you could say I'm the one keeping Asuna alive." The last few words were almost whispered; Sugou smirked as Kazuto started trembling. "Now I ask you, is it wrong of me to expect a little compensation for my trouble?" The anger within me finally froze and I could think clearly. Sugou was obviously playing a game; I could play it just as well. "I don't know what promises you two made to Asuna in the game and I don't really care. But I don't ever want to see you two here again, understood?" Kazuto didn't reply, and I coldly glared at Sugou. I would be damned before I'd give that smug bastard the luxury of knowing that he rattled me. "And from now on, stay away from the Yuuki family." I had never seen Kazuto look so crushed - except for when his first guild was massacred. The parallels I drew from that same look were not good.

Sugou started to walk away. "We're having the ceremony here on January 26th, a week from now. Save the date. Even though you're not welcome here anymore you should come to the wedding. No need to thank me." He paused at the door, but didn't look back. "Well, Mr. Hero, you've got the room all to yourself now. Say goodbye and get out." Finished delivering his venom, Sugou walked out of the room.

I hesitated, torn between my two options. Kazuto looked completely crushed, but I needed to go after Sugou first. I would come back after delivering my message. I walked calmly to the door and exited. "Sugou," I called. My voice was calm and frigid, and he turned to look at me. "You seem to have everything planned so well."

He smirked. "But of course I do."

"You've only made two mistakes."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Please enlighten me."

My voice didn't change at all. "First, you hurt Kazuto." That was completely unforgivable; I would have gone after him for that alone. "And second, you pissed me off." I walked up close to him. "Do you know what happened to the last person that did that? He's ruined, now. And I'll see your life torn to shreds before my eyes before I let you hurt my friends any more." The anger was frozen and crystallized, and I was using it well. "Remember that. Now get out." I felt a certain smug satisfaction at using his own taunt against him.

For a brief second, I thought I saw Sugou's smug façade drop before he smirked. "You can do nothing, boy."

"I could sit here and trade barbs with you, but I have to go take care of my friends." My words were just as venomous as his. "The next time I see you, you will be on the ground before me." Not waiting to see or hear his reaction, I made my way back to Asuna's room. There was time for destroying him later. For now, I had to worry about Kazuto. He was in a bad place, and I needed to make sure he was alright. As I got back to Asuna's room, the door opened again and Kazuto stumbled out. I threw my arm around his shoulder. "Hey, buddy. Let's go." He complied without a word, letting me lead him to the elevators. I deliberately chose the set of elevators away from where Sugou was standing. Getting far away from that creep was a good idea, for both me and Kazuto. As we rode the elevator down to the lobby, he didn't say a word. I was starting to get worried; the last time he shut down this badly was when the Moonlit Black Cats were wiped out and their leader committed suicide. This time, though, I wouldn't withdraw from him. I would stand by him and put my loyalty in him. When I led him to the bike rack, he finally showed some sort of life; only enough to unlock his bike and start pedaling. I watched him start going home, but something told me I should follow him.

I set off on foot, jogging behind him. I fell into a constant lope, forcing myself to ignore the slight pain in my side from my exertions only half an hour ago. I thanked myself again for forcing myself to get in shape during the previous two months; without that I wouldn't have had a chance to keep even a remote pace with Kazuto. It did help that he was biking slowly. I followed him at a gradually increasing distance for about ten minutes before finally having to stop. My body just wouldn't run any more - I found myself missing my virtual body where the only thing stopping me from running constantly was myself. I knew where I was, fortunately, and continued making my way to Kazuto's house.

I stopped outside the front door; the house looked nice enough. There was a small pond to my left, and there appeared to be some frost on it. I didn't feel cold due to my exertions on the way to Kazuto's house, but I knew that once the sweat started to dry I'd be freezing in no time. Mustering up my courage, I knocked on the front door.

The door opened. "Can I help you?" A younger girl with short dark hair answered the door. I estimated her age to be about 14 or 15; she was probably Kazuto's cousin, the one he considered a sister. Her figure - muscular and rather developed - made her seem older, but her face betrayed her youth.

"This is the Kirigaya residence?"

"Y-yeah..." She seemed to be somewhat confused by my questions.

I realized that I had probably come off like a stalker of some sort. "You must be Suguha. Your..." I hesitated slightly. Did she know? " talked about you quite a bit."

"Wait, how do you know Kazuto? Are you friends from school?"

"Not from school." I grinned slightly. "You seem like a bright enough kid. You'll figure it out."

She glared at me, but I was unfazed. "So, what do you want?" She was relatively hostile, but I couldn't blame her. If a random person showed up at my front door claiming to know my mother and knew my name, I'd be dubious of them as well.

"I wanted to warn you. Kazuto got some..." I gauged how much to tell her. "...rather bad news today. If he follows the patterns as before, he'll have locked himself in his room. Go check on him later tonight, okay?"

She stared at me, confused. "What are you talking about?"

I rolled my eyes. "Just trust me, alright? I assume you care about your brother, and so do I. He's one of my best friends." Interestingly, when I mentioned her caring about her brother she flushed slightly. I mentally noted that down for later use if necessary, but kept my attention on her. "He saved my life, after all." Repeatedly, but she didn't need to know that.

"Wait, are you...Nick?"

I shrugged. "Anything you've heard about me from Kazuto was probably exaggerated. Did he tell you my other name?"

"No, he didn't use the SAO names."

"Interesting." I didn't say any more on the subject. "Anyway, go take care of your brother, alright?" I couldn't resist a final parting jab. "Unfortunately for your crush, I don't think he's into that." It was a wild shot in the dark - that previous flush could have meant anything ranging from concern to anger - but the brilliant scarlet she turned told me my jibe hit its mark. "See ya." I turned and walked away, ignoring her stumbled attempts to say something.

On the way to my home, I was deep in thought. It was all well and good to threaten Sugou like that, but what could I really do about him? The only thing I could do would be to go to Asuna's father, but between my word and the word of his partner's son, I'd likely lose. The only person that could likely convince him was his daughter, and Asuna was still asleep. My fist clenched as I thought about that; with an effort, I forced myself to relax. Asuna and the three hundred other SAO players who hadn't woken up were being held in the servers somewhere, and I had a feeling it wasn't Kayaba's doing. He was, for all his faults, utterly fair. He had lost at his game and kept his word, even giving Kazuto and myself another chance at life. I couldn't imagine he'd be someone to trap and hold players that he said he was going to release.

That meant someone else had to be behind the players' extended comas. And no matter who you were, you wanted recognition for your work. Sugou's comment about keeping the players alive had to be that subconscious desire for people to know what he'd done. Unfortunately for him, I was waiting for him to screw up when he said that, and I had pounced on it. If Sugou was holding the players, he was using them for something. I didn't know what, but that was what I needed to find out. I realized I had managed to walk home entirely on autopilot, and entered the door, calling out "I'm home!" I was only met by my cat; I checked the time and realized my mother was still at work. That was fine with me; it let me relax, knowing I was alone except for my cat. Petting my cat as I took off my shoes, I grinned. Might as well start ruining Sugou's life right away.

Unfortunately, that was harder than it looked. Sugou was almost too clean; I couldn't find any real records of him on the Internet. The closest thing that I could find to dirt on him was the fact that he went to the same college as Kayaba, but as far as I could tell the two never really spent excessive time together. They worked on a few projects together but that was it. Something that did catch my interest was the fact that RECT Progress, the company Sugou worked as R&D for, had released a VR game of its own. VR games were still reeling from the blow of SAO, so another game like it was strange. I was about to continue searching for information on the game, Alfheim Online, when someone knocked on my door. It was open, naturally, but I appreciated the gesture. I turned to see my mother holding a plate of food. I automatically minimized the screen I was on; while doing research on someone wasn't necessarily a bad thing, I didn't want to answer any awkward questions. I thanked my mother and turned all of my attention toward my food, playing some music on my computer to pass the time. After I finished eating, I didn't feel like going back to the research right away, so I moved to my bed and started reading my book again.

I managed to read for about thirty minutes before an alarm on my phone went off. Groaning, I put aside the book and got ready to run through the basic exercises I always did once a day - they were annoying, but they kept me in shape. I pulled off my shirt so as to not get it sweaty, and tossed it in the laundry basket in my room. There was something about wearing a shirt soaked in sweat that I didn't like. Sighing, I got to work on my exercises, running through the basic push-ups and sit-ups I forced myself to do every day. After running through the warm-up exercises, I got up and started running the basic punches and kicks that I knew. I wanted to get them so ingrained in my body that I could perform the moves without thinking about it. After that, I ran through the katas that I knew - the pattern of blows that I was to follow. I liked performing kata; it let me follow a pattern while practicing the moves.

When I finished the last kata I knew, my phone buzzed again. I smiled; this was the part of the day I always looked forward to. Wiping the sweat from my forehead and upper body, I sat down at my computer. I made sure my webcam was correctly calibrated and put my headpiece in my ear. It was a convenient earpiece; it let me listen and talk to another person while not actually sitting at my computer thanks to the Bluetooth connection. I knew that if another person watched and listened in on my conversations, I'd sound like a completely insane person, but I didn't care. I enjoyed my chats far too much, and it wasn't as if I care what people thought of me in the first place.

Sure enough, right at 7:00 my instant messaging software lit up with an incoming call. Grinning widely, I accepted the call. "Hey, Argo."

"Hey, Ry." I heard her voice coming through loud and clear in my ear. "Video's connecting, give me a second." I waited patiently, and eventually the screen started displaying her face. "There we go. How was..." She trailed off, staring at her screen and through it, me. I was confused until a light blush started creeping up her cheeks.

I glanced down at what I was wearing - or rather, wasn't. "Oh. Like what you see?" I laughed at her embarrassed grin and stood up to go retrieve my shirt. "Sorry about that. You know I try not to answer the phone shirtless, right?"

"Yeah, right." I grinned at the exasperation in her voice. In my defense, I rarely answered the phone shirtless. It only happened when she called me right after my exercises and before I had a chance to cool off. "Like I was going to say before I was so rudely interrupted..."

"The only thing that interrupted you was your amazement at my magnificent body," I interjected. "That's hardly rude."

"Magnificent. That's the word for it. How could I have been so foolish," Argo muttered. "Anyway, how was your day?"

Argo and I had gotten in touch almost immediately. I had sent an email to the address Kikuoka had given me, just to be sure; the reply email had Argo's instant messaging name and orders to call her as soon as I was released from the hospital. I complied, and she picked up almost right away. From that day, we talked almost every day, telling each other the events of the day and playfully teasing the other one. I tended to favor dry, sarcastic quips about the events she told me about; Argo preferred to mock me whenever I made a mistake. I never held anything back from her, though - that was one of the agreements we had with the other. Another was to not use real names, despite knowing them.

Having successfully retrieved my shirt, I sank back into my chair. Argo muttered something about my camera, and I raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, didn't catch that. Could you repeat yourself?"

"I said, I'm always impressed when your webcam does that tracking thing." I grinned at her response; that was one of the first things I did to get back into the programming mood before starting to work on my big project. It was a simple application development, written in only a few days; the webcam I used came with controlling software that could make it pan and zoom. All I did was write a program that could tap into that software and told it to track my image; that's why I had to calibrate it before I answered the phone. It wasn't really all that big a deal - the hardest part was getting the camera to realize when to zoom or pan - but Argo always seemed impressed. "So anyway, how'd karate go?"

I felt my face fall slightly. "Do you want the glib answer or the whiny baby one?"

"Hm, I don't think you've whined for a few days now. Go ahead and tell me everything," Argo said.

I felt grateful and made sure she knew it. "Thanks, Argo. Well, we sparred today in class." I proceeded to tell her everything that transpired, along with my own doubts about my mental state.

"Hm..." Argo tapped her chin with a slender forefinger. It was a habit she had picked up from me. "I can't say this is a surprise. I mean, you always were a focused fighter in SAO."

"Yeah, but this isn't that," I said. "This was just a practice bout between two karate students, not a fight for life or death."

"But do you really believe that?" Argo asked. I didn't have an answer, and after a few seconds of silence she giggled. "You should see your face. You look like you've been hit with a board."

I rolled my eyes, gathering what was left of my dignity. "Just because I'm not in touch with my emotions like you doesn't mean I don't know what I'm feeling. The weird thing is, there wasn't any sense of urgency or desire to crush him, I think. It was just that I fought to my fullest extent."

"Let's get off this topic. It's depressing," Argo said, and I had no problem following her advice.

"So how'd your day go?" I asked, curious.

"Nothing really all that great. I surfed the net, played with my cat, the usual." Argo owned a cat as well; that was just one more thing I liked about her. Anybody who liked cats was a person I could hate less.

"See any guys you found attractive yet?" That was a recurring question I always asked. Both Argo and I had feelings for the other; I had confessed to her about a week before being freed from SAO. She reciprocated my affections, but I had refused to make any moves. I didn't want to let her make the mistake of getting into a relationship with me - given the fact that I was both asexual and hated almost everything, I believed that I was incapable of handling a relationship and told her as such. Argo apparently disagreed, because she refused to let it die a dignified death.

"I did, actually."

For a moment, I was ecstatic. "Really? That's great! Where'd you see waaaaaaaait a second." I had noticed her small grin. "Let me rephrase my question. Did you see any guys you found attractive that aren't me?"

Argo shrugged. "Nope." I sighed. Of course.

Despite my decision to try to remain out of a relationship, I cared deeply for Argo. I just wanted her to be happy; she claimed that I did that, but I couldn't believe her. I grinned after a few seconds of silence. "Ah well. There's always tomorrow, right?"

"Not gonna happen." I grinned at her response, but remembered that I hadn't finished the story of my day. I frowned, and Argo noticed. "What's wrong, Ry?"

"Something happened today while Kirito and I were visiting Asuna." Despite my intentions, just thinking about the incident caused my anger to rise up again.

I thought I controlled it quickly, but Argo knew me too well to be fooled by my outward appearance. "That bad, huh?"

"Yeah." My voice was terse. "That bad. I think I know what happened to those 300 SAO players that still haven't woken up."

Eyebrows raised, Argo nodded. "That is bad. What's going on?"

"Ever heard of RECT Progress, and more importantly, Alfheim Online?"

She nodded. "Yeah, some things. Aren't they the ones who took over maintenance of the SAO servers?"

"Bingo. Now, the man of the hour is their R&D director, Nobuyuki Sugou. I think this particular bastard is the one behind everything." I pulled up the browser window I had been working on earlier and continued to search for any information on Alfheim Online. "I don't know for certain, and I won't know until someone checks it out, but I think there's something fishy with their game."

"Hm. Anything you can prove?" Argo asked.

I shook my head. "Nothing yet. If anything, I'll have to get the game myself and check it out."

"With what, an AmuSphere?" Argo was referring to the 'second generation' of NerveGear, produced by RECT Progress as well. The AmuSphere was essentially a cheap version of the NerveGear without the ability to murder people. I hadn't purchased one for a very simple reason.

"With my NerveGear." Argo's eyes widened. I had managed to convince Kikuoka to let me keep it after I woke up as part of the deal for me to give him information.

"How'd you manage to get ahold of that?"

"Magic." I could tell my glib answer frustrated her. "Fine, fine, the same way I got ahold of your information. Happy?"

"Speaking of that method, have you talked to Kikuoka yet?"

"Not yet." I clicked on another page. "I want some more information first." I studied the contents of the page and opened a new tab, searching for more information on a certain programmer. I wasn't sure if he was related, but I had to be thorough. "Hopefully something'll pop" I had just noticed the date of a major update to the Alfheim game servers. "Huh. That's interesting."

"What's up?"

"You know how everyone woke up around November 7th or so? Turns out there was a big update that day. I think that's a little too big a coincidence, don't you?"

Argo thought for a moment. "Yeah, that's fishy. You thinking that's when something happened?"

"Probably." I smiled at Argo. "I'm gonna have to hang up now. I'll call you back once everything's taken care of."

She smiled. "See ya, Ry."

I grinned. "Love you." It was the truth, after all.

"Love you too." Her image disappeared and the line went dead.

"Right, let's see. It's 8:15, so the game store's probably open. Might as well get going." I straightened up and headed downstairs. My cat looked up from where he was sleeping on the table, and I patted him on the head. "Hey, kiddo. I'll be back soon." I checked my wallet and nodded; I had my credit card, so even though I had no cash on hand I could still get Alfheim Online. I rushed out the door, breaking into a quick jog. I needed to get there quickly.

On the way, I pulled out my phone and hit speed dial four. One through three were reserved for my friends, but four was Kikuoka. It rang several times before he picked up. "Agent Kikuoka."

"It's me, Kikuoka. Nick."

"Nick, so good to hear from you. What's wrong?" He knew I wouldn't bother to give him the time of day unless it was an emergency or a situation rapidly approaching one.

"Well, I think I've just done your job for you." I grinned, even though he couldn't see it. "Have you ever heard the name Nobuyuki Sugou?"

"Hm... I believe so." Kikuoka sound uncertain. "As far as I can tell, all we had on him was that he was a known associate of Kayaba. We were going to investigate him, but things got somewhat frantic once people started waking up."

"You should have done a better job." I snorted. "I believe that he's the one behind the trapped players. I don't have any solid evidence yet, but I'd suggest checking him out."

"I can't promise anything, but I'll see what I can do."

"I'm going to FullDive into the game, Alfheim Online, itself. I'm actually on my way to the game shop now to buy a copy. If I find anything inside, I'll let you know."

"Thank you, Nick. I hesitate to ask so much of you, but..."

I rolled my eyes. "I wouldn't have to do this if you people could do your jobs properly. Idiot." I hung up the phone. Kikuoka probably didn't deserve so much vitriol, but I was not in a good mood, and I wasn't exactly pleasant to him at the best of times. Either way, I finally managed to reach the game shop. Fortunately, it was still open for an hour. I pushed the door open, panting. The person running the register looked at me strangely, but didn't say anything. "Where do you keep... the VR games... like Alfheim Online?" He pointed at one of the walls. "Thanks." I walked over and picked up a copy. "Just this." He scanned the game and I paid for it, flinching at the price. I was going to demand compensation from Kikuoka for this. As I walked outside, I was very tempted to just walk home. It wasn't as if I had a time limit to meet this time, after all. Unfortunately, it dawned on me that I did; I had promised Argo I'd call her back once I returned. Groaning, I broke back into a jog. If anything, this was going to count as my exercise for the next few days. I didn't intend on leaving Alfheim Online until I found out what was going on.

Sometimes it helped to be me. Once I knew what I wanted, nothing would stop me from getting it.

Fortunately, Argo wasn't too mad at me for having to run out. I didn't like calling a halt to our daily dose of each other's lives, especially since we couldn't meet in person, but this was unavoidable. "You got the game?" I flashed the case to the camera.

I smirked. "I'm totally going to inflate the price when I ask for a refund from Kikuoka. Jerk owes me anyway." Argo snickered. I was going to continue talking, but my cat decided that right then was the perfect moment to jump up on my desk. "Oh hey, kitten-cat. Yes, I know you're a beautiful cat, but I'm in the middle of a conversation right now." I picked him up and put him down on the ground after scratching him behind the ears.

"You love him, don't you," said Argo softly.

"Almost as much as I love myself."

"And how much do you love yourself?" Argo asked with a certain tone of morbid curiosity.

"Almost as much as I love you." I smiled softly.

Argo was speechless for a minute, but smiled softly after a moment. "Aw. That's so sweet."

"Now go get a boyfriend." The time for sweetness was over.

"I would have one, but he keeps saying no. He's an idiot for thinking he could hurt me, but I love him anyway."

"Dude sounds like an asshole." She was obviously talking about me, and so I tried to get her to compliment me. No harm in trying, after all.

"He likes to think he is, anyway. In truth..." No, don't say it. "...he's really..." You wouldn't, I thought. I glared at her through the screen, but Argo only smirked. "...a sociopathic jerk."

That was a relief. "You always know how to sweet talk me, Argo." I grinned. "Well, if I'm going to be in a game motionless all day tomorrow, I should probably get some rest. I'll talk to you tomorrow, Argo."

"Good night, Ry."

"Night." I closed the chat from my end this time. I removed my earpiece and stretched, feeling my spine pop and crack. It felt good. "Well, might as well crash. I've got such a big day tomorrow, after all." I grinned sardonically, seeing my cat curled up on the bed already. "Look at it this way, kiddo. I won't be gone for two years this time, eh?" He yawned in my general direction, as if to say 'shut up and go to bed, human'. I chuckled. "Yes, your highness." I stripped off my shirt and changed to the pants I slept in; after getting into bed, I turned off the lamp on my desk. "Night, kitten. I'll see you in the morning."

January 20th, 2025

I actually enjoyed sleep; it was seven or so hours I didn't have to hate the world. Occasionally, I'd even wake up feeling happy. That was slightly rarer than water on the moon, but it still happened occasionally. Even a stopped clock was right twice a day, assuming that it was an analog clock, and by utilizing tricks like crossing the date line and daylight savings time it could be right more often than that.

My stomach was my alarm clock this time. Groaning, I sat up and shoved back the covers, accidentally startling my cat. "Sorry, kiddo." Emmit glared at me from the floor before stalking off as if he had intended to leave all along. I blinked, curious as to why I had woken up, before realizing I was starving. I stumbled downstairs and made myself an egg sandwich using a bagel as a bread. I could get creative when it came to food. It also helped that I found I liked cooking; just being able to cook food without having to spend time grinding the skill for it brought a smile to my face. I could follow orders well; I'd never be a chef, but I could be a good cook.

As I entered my room, munching on the bagel sandwich, my screen started flashing with an email notification. It was probably just spam, I thought, but walked over to check it out anyway. I took a bite of my sandwich and immediately choked on it when I noticed the sender's email address. Why would Kazuto send me an email? I opened it up frantically and lost my appetite at its contents. Kazuto wanted me to meet him at Agil's cafe as soon as I received the message; that wasn't the problem.

The problem was the attached picture of a figure that resembled Asuna inside a bird cage.

Rythin – or rather, Nick – is back. Sugou shouldn't have pissed him off.

Things to know about this story:

1) It's a sequel, as you may be able to tell by the 2 in the title. Please read Nightblade before you read this story - certain characters and relationships between them will make no sense otherwise.

2) This story is in first person (as you no doubt can tell) and will be based on the Fairy Dance arc of Sword Art Online.

Hope you all enjoy!