Chapter 10


January 22nd, 2025

I tilted the edge of the knife against his next and pressed slightly, breaking the skin. I watched as a small drop of blood dripped off of the blade. My voice grew cold, calm, and very, very deadly. "But you forgot one crucial fact. You hurt my friends. And for that, you have to pay the price."

I leaned in close to his ear. "I want you to suffer," I hissed quietly. I could almost taste the venom dripping from my words. Sugou screamed, the sound ringing out in the night. I sighed and shifted my free hand from his neck to his mouth, clamping down on the sound. A chilling silence fell over the snow-covered parking lot. "Oh, be quiet," I told him absently. "Not yet." I removed the knife from his neck, holding it by my side. It put less stress on my chest that way.

Sugou slumped forward, entirely broken. He would be unable to fight back no matter what I did or said. That was all to the better; I didn't really want to get a matching cut that mirrored the first. If I got another one, I'd be far too weak to do anything except lay down and die. And I would be damned before I let Sugou kill me. I could hear him sobbing from where I was crouched.

I stood up and grinned sadistically, eyes gleaming behind my glasses. "Oh, no. I'm not going to kill you, Sugou. I want you to suffer." An eye for an eye; he had hurt my friends, and so I was going to hurt him. Death was too quick and painless for him. I chuckled darkly. "And what better way for you to suffer than to realize that every single breath you take is owed to me?" I laughed. "So remember, Sugou. Every time your heart beats, remember that I let you live." I dropped the knife; it fell to the ground, landing in the snow with a clatter. "And I'll be wanting that knife as a souvenir. So don't go doing anything funny with it, hm?" I turned my back on him and walked over to where I had left my laptop.

I was never going to kill him; I only said those things to completely break the bastard. I would have enjoyed the kill, and that meant I couldn't kill him, to avoid jumping off of the slippery slope. It was a strange contradiction, but it made sense to me at least. Each time I enjoyed the kill, it would be easier to enjoy the next. I didn't want to fall victim to that; I would end up no better than Red-Eyed XaXa, Johnny Black, or any other of the Laughing Coffin members. And anyway, he hadn't killed Asuna or Kazuto. If things had gone another way, a worse way, Sugou would be lying on the ground with a slit throat.

I picked up my laptop bag, and stared at the strap for a second. I had an idea. I glanced at my shirt; it was drenched in crimson, the blood from the slash on my chest staining it. My mother was going to have a heart attack if she saw it. So make sure she wouldn't see it, I told myself. I closed my coat around the wound, my breath hissing out between clenched teeth when the injury got nudged. I was going to be in quite a bit of pain for a bit, so I needed to accept it and move on. I gingerly placed the shoulder strap around my body so that it angled the cut and tightened it ruthlessly, placing pressure on the wound. It hurt like a bitch, but it would slow the bleeding. Out of any immediate danger, I straightened up and walked forward toward the hospital. I had some friends to go see.

I entered the hospital through the emergency room; I was briefly dizzy from the shift between chill and heat, and I swayed before swallowing and walking forward. I could go check in to the emergency room later; I needed to give Kazuto and Asuna the laptop before I did anything of the sort. I staggered toward the elevators, ignoring the pain and weakness I was feeling. I shoved those aside; I accepted the pain, so what good would it do to continue feeling it? I was glad that the adrenaline from my fight had lasted as long as it had; if I had been hit by the pain while holding the knife, it was entirely possible that I would have killed Sugou completely by accident. But it didn't and I didn't so here I was, slouching against a wall, waiting for an elevator to take me to the twelfth floor while Sugou was slumped on the ground, unable to move. Eventually, the elevator showed up, and I entered, hitting the button for my destination.

I had lost quite a bit of blood, and I was getting dizzy, though I had a feeling that was a combination between the shock, exhaustion, and blood loss. I might have briefly passed out on the elevator, because I couldn't remember what happened between entering the elevator and exiting it. I walked forward, making my way to Asuna's room - was it my imagination, or was the walk longer? - and knocked on the door. Not waiting for anybody to open the door, I slid it open and walked through. "Knock knock, children. Hope you're decent." I walked around the dividing curtain with a small grin on my face. The grin widened into a smile as I took in Kazuto's luminescent blush. "Oh, you are?" I affected disappointment. "Do you want me to leave and try again?" I did my best to ignore the gash on Kazuto's cheek.

"Shut it, Nick," he growled. Despite his apparent anger, I could hear the smile lurking. "If you're only here to tease us, get out."

"Oh, did I interrupt something?" I drawled. "But I came here for a reason. I wanted to see my favorite person." I grinned at Asuna, who was looking somewhat confused.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but I can't hear very well right now." Ah, because of the extended coma. I just grinned and waved away her apology. An expected scenario similar to this one was the reason I had added the text display in Yui's little world.

"I also thought the entire family should be together," I mentioned off-handedly. I reached carefully into my laptop bag, trying not to nudge the strap, and drew out my laptop and charger. I handed both to Kazuto. "You can give these back to me later. Have fun," I said. With that, I walked back around the curtain and out the door. I glanced out the window just before I left, and I could have sworn I saw the image of my old Sword Art Online avatar in the reflection, standing next to the Kirito and Asuna of that world. I blinked; I didn't think hallucinations were a symptom of extreme blood loss. Maybe Sugou had smeared his knife with something. All the more reason to get myself checked out as soon as possible.

I waited carefully for the door to click shut behind me. The second I heard that small sound, I sagged against the wall and groaned in pain. I didn't want Kazuto or Asuna to be worried, after all. I was in a hospital; I could take care of myself. I slid to the floor; in hindsight, that was a bit of a mistake. I tried to get up again, but my legs were weak and refused to support my body weight. I groaned again and dug out my phone. I might as well do something useful while I was waiting for my energy to recover. I flipped it open and hit speed dial four. My head spun while the phone was ringing, and I started to get concerned. I didn't want to pass out in front of Asuna's room; when Kazuto left, he'd find me.

"Agent Kikuoka."

"Well, Kikuoka, I've done your job for you again." I tried to put as much steel in my voice as possible; I wanted to appear strong. Especially because I was going to be bargaining with him. "Sugou's ruined, and he's yours." I gave him the address of the hospital. "But, I do have a few requests for doing your job for you."

Kikuoka sighed. "Again?" He evidently remembered the bargaining the two of us had gone through before. "What are your terms?"

"Two things." I cracked a grin. "First off, another NerveGear from your storage."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Kikuoka murmured. Oh please. Don't try me.

I snorted. "You're with the government. You wouldn't throw anything away until you've dissected it and determined how it could help benefit you. So, a simple task to get one, right?"

He sighed. "Fine, fine. I'll see what I can do. And the second thing?"

"Sugou had a knife," I said. Automatically, I raised a hand to my chest, but didn't press thanks to the pain. "I want it."

There was a brief second of silence. "You want what." What I had said was so bizarre and out of left field that Kikuoka couldn't put inflection into his voice. That or my ears were playing tricks on me; it was getting hard to hear past the ringing. "Why would you want that?"

"A bad habit of picking up souvenirs of things that almost killed me, I guess," I replied. "Oh, that reminds me. You're paying for my hospital bills. You'll get them when you visit." Ignoring his stuttered complaints, I shut the phone. Once more, I tried to stand, and this time I managed to get my feet under me. I forced myself almost through sheer force of will, and my head whirled. I glanced at my coat; the blood hadn't soaked through yet, but I could tell I was still losing blood. I staggered toward the elevators; fortunately, the one I had taken up was still on the floor. I made it inside and hit the first floor button. The next thing I knew, I was on the first floor with a ringing in my ears. I snarled silently; I had lost too much blood. I needed to get medical attention soon. I managed to get out of the elevator safely, but I was too weak to do more than just rest against the wall, using it as a crutch to support myself. I walked slowly down the hall toward the emergency room. My eyes felt heavy, but I refused to let them shut. I would not pass out until I had checked in.

Eventually, I made it back to the emergency room and staggered to the desk. "Hi, where do I sign in for emergency medical attention?" I managed to croak. I dug out my wallet and handed them my personal information; it was a little card I had created that fit in my wallet. It held my full name, my blood type, and a list of emergency numbers to contact. I had created it after waking up from SAO. I had figured that, if I was ever in a situation where I couldn't answer questions, they'd be able to get the pertinent information from that card. I knew it would come in handy eventually. "My permission for any medical procedures necessary to save my life is granted."

The receptionist - I couldn't tell if they were male or female, thanks to my vision being remarkably blurry for no apparent reason - looked at me. "What are you talking about?" I adjusted my glasses, trying to tell if that was the problem. Their face was still blurry, though, and I gave up.

"I got a small scratch. No big deal, really." I loosened the strap with a hiss of pain and opened my coat to show them my injury. They swore and told me to take a seat, that the doctor would be with me immediately.

"How come he gets seen immediately?" An angry voice demanded. The receptionist sighed.

I glanced at them. "Are you allowed to say anything to them?" They shook their head. "Allow me, then." Feigning energy I didn't feel, I strode over to the complainer. "So, what're you here for?" I asked him nonchalantly.

He glared up at me sullenly. "A broken arm."

"Oh? How terrible," I drawled. "Now, let me tell you why I'm here." I opened my coat again, showing off the terrible wound. "There's some idiot outside who had a knife. He managed to cut me, pretty badly. I disarmed him and broke his arm, too. Maybe we should get him in here." I snorted. "Since broken arms are terribly important, it seems." My voice grew hard. "I've lost a not unsubstantial percentage of my blood, you moron." Something about that sentence seemed off, something that violated the rules of grammar, but I didn't care. I knew my vocabulary was reverting back to the more advanced phrasing I had picked up from the copious amount of books I had read, but that was more because I was almost entirely spent. "I've been fading in and out of consciousness, and you have the unmitigated gall to complain about a broken arm?" I spat. "It didn't even break the skin. You'll get an X-ray and a cast and then be on your way. So shut up, sit down, and wait your gods-damned turn. I'm in an incredible amount of pain right now you don't even know how much this hurts holy shit." I had a feeling my eyes were wide and staring. "And yet you're bitching about a cracked arm. Pathetic creature." I stalked away from the idiot and returned to the receptionist. "Sorry about that."

They stared up at me. "I'm so telling this story to the day shift."

I grinned at them. "I'd offer to give you a quote, but I think I'm about spent. I'm just gonna sit down and pass out, okay?" I staggered over to a chair, my head spinning. I sank into the soft cushion, but the spinning didn't stop. My vision blurred even more, and the last thing I remembered was the strange way it almost resembled Future Step; the colors washed out and everything seemed to be in shades of grey. I was confused, and I blinked, trying to turn off Future Step. I didn't want to disturb the others with my red eyes. It was strange, though; after I closed my eyes, I couldn't open them again.


January 24th, 2025

I opened my eyes blearily. I glanced around me - I was in a hospital bed. "Oh, good. I'm alive." I took a closer look around me; it was a room similar to the one I had visited Asuna in. I must have been placed in a room in the same hospital. I sat up, propping myself up with my elbow. Well, tried to, at any rate - my chest gave a warning twinge and I sank back down on the bed. I pulled back the covers and glanced at my chest; a neat row of stitches traced a line down my chest. I grimaced at it; that was an interesting souvenir in its own right, but I still wanted that knife. I glanced to the left and right; nobody was near me, and I relaxed. I still preferred peace and quiet to company, though there were a few people I wouldn't mind seeing. I heard the door slide open, and I sighed. Given the amount of people that could walk into my room, the probability of that being one of those three people was next to nil. I saw a figure start to walk around the curtain, and I covered my eyes with a hand with a sigh, assuming it was one of the doctors.

"Rythin!"

My eyes snapped open, and I blinked in confusion. "Argo? What?" Apparently, it was my lucky day. I briefly considered purchasing a lottery ticket.

Argo rushed over to my side and grabbed my arm - the only safe place she could grab without causing me pain. She buried her face in the bedsheets. "You idiot. I told you not to get yourself in trouble, and what's the first thing you do?"

I grinned weakly. "To be fair, the first thing I did was taunt and insult a crazy person. The second thing I did was get myself in trouble." I took a closer look at her. "Hey, don't cry. I'm okay."

Argo looked up, tears in her eyes. "But you could have been killed! I got that call, and I didn't know what to think!" Argo was one of my emergency contacts on that card I had filled out. The others were Kazuto and my mother – they were the people I knew cared about me and would want to know if I had been injured. I knew that it would only be a matter of time before they arrived; Argo had to have been waiting for me to wake up. "Just after you stopped being an idiot, you went and did something like this!"

"I'll do my best to not get myself in a knife fight with a psychotic idiot again," I murmured. I shifted my arm out of her grasp and around her shoulders. "I only want one war wound, thank you very much." I grinned at her. "Unfortunately, I think we'll have to cancel Saturday." I winced, suddenly reminded of the passage of time. "By the way, where am I and how long was I out?"

Argo sniffed and looked up, composing herself. "It's Friday." My eyes widened and she giggled. "You missed Thursday. You're actually only a few rooms down from Asuna - I popped in to say hi a few times while I was waiting for you to wake up." That would explain why she wasn't in my room when I woke up.

"When'd you get here?"

She hummed in thought for a second. "Around two or three yesterday afternoon? I met your mom."

I winced. "Oh, great." I had intended to tell my mother about Argo myself at a later date. Probably at the same time that I told her about my asexuality. "How was it?"

Argo grinned weakly. "She seemed surprised. She said you never talked about me. I'm hurt, Ry." She was feeling better, if the slight tone of sarcasm was any indication.

"I don't talk to her about anything," I retorted. "My interactions with her are largely limited to 'Morning', 'Night', and 'Thanks for the food'." Argo slapped me lightly on the shoulder, and I winced. "Ouch. Watch it."

Immediately, contrition was plain on her face. "Sorry, Rythin. I didn't mean to hurt you."

I grinned at her. "Don't worry about it, Argo. For you, any amount of pain is worth it." I thought for a moment. "Except getting a giant slash across my chest. That hurts like a bitch." I glanced at the stitches again. "I kinda hope it scars. It would look badass."

"And you need all the help you can get in that department."

"Oh, hush, you," I scolded her gently. "I killed several hundred monsters without dying." A second time, but I didn't mention that - it wouldn't have helped my case much. "Speaking of death, what happened to Sugou?" An evil grin crept onto my face. "Something nasty, I hope. Bastard deserves it."

A matching grin was on Argo's face. "They took him in for questioning on charges of kidnapping, assault, and sexual assault of a minor. He's trying to plead innocence, but it doesn't look good."

I snickered. "I'd hope not. Not after the effort I went through to get him between a rock and a hard place." I pondered for a moment. "Though, after the scare I threw into him I'm surprised he's not trying to get into a nice, safe jail cell."

"What did you do?" Argo asked me. An information broker at heart.

"Sit on the bed and I'll tell all," I said with a grin. I shifted over slightly as Argo sat down and curled up next to me. "Well, where should I start?"

"The beginning." Argo laid her head on my shoulder. "I want to hear everything."

"Everything?" I chuckled. "All right, then. Last Sunday, I went to visit Asuna with Kirito, as is my usual..."

Eventually, I finished telling her the story. Argo had laughed, groaned, and gasped in all of the right places; I had to hand it to her, she was a magnificent actress. I knew I wasn't very good at telling stories, so she was reading minuscule cues from my expression to know what to do. Phenomenal. "...and then I woke up, having missed all of Thursday." A shame, that; Thursday could have been used for something useful. Of course, it would probably have been sleep, but still.

"Wow," Argo murmured. She seemed to be comfortable, resting her head on my shoulder and drifting off to sleep.

"How much sleep did you get while you were watching me?" I asked her quietly.

"Not much," Argo said, yawning. "Only a little bit..." The last part was almost inaudible. She was fast asleep, curled up next to me on the bed - a combination of exhaustion and relief had knocked her out cold. Of course, listening to my boring voice for at least an hour would knock anybody out. I grinned at her and put my arm around her, hugging her close. Her body was warm, and I welcomed the heat. The room was somewhat cool, what with it being January and everything. Those large windows looked impressive, yes, but for heating they left much to be desired.

The door slid open again, and another person stepped around the curtain. "Hello, Nick," he said.

Argo twitched and I glared at Kikuoka. "Shh!" He mouthed that he was sorry, and I gestured to the chair next to the bed. I was glad I didn't have to deal with a heart rate monitor this time; I assumed that once they stitched up the wound and got me a blood transfusion I was good to go. I had just been asleep for a bit - not surprising, given that I had just been in a fight and had been exhausted before that. "And what brings you here, Agent?" I knew exactly what brought him to the hospital, but I wanted to hear him say it to me.

"I came to thank you for your work, Nick," Kikuoka replied. Ah, there it was. Music to my ears. "Thanks to you, we have Sugou in custody."

Hm. I could use this to my advantage. "Instead of thanking me with your mouth, how about you thank me with your wallet?" I grinned. "I figure they'll be wanting the hospital bills paid at some point, so you should probably get ready." For that matter, I'd probably be released once the doctors did a final check on my condition.

Kikuoka sighed. "I managed to write it off as a contractor expense. The NerveGear too." Ah, excellent. He pulled a bag out of his coat and handed it to me. I peered inside; it was a NerveGear. "There you are. Now Argo can join you." Bastard knew what I wanted it for the entire time. He smiled. "Of course, that does require that Alfheim Online stays active."

"Oh?" This was the first I'd heard of anything related to that. "I suppose that having three hundred players trapped inside your game would be bad for business." The lawsuits would probably start rolling in when the trapped players told their stories. RECT Progress would go the same way as Argus; a shame, really - I hadn't meant to get Asuna's father in trouble. "Have you spoken to Asuna and Kazuto about what happened already?"

Kikuoka nodded. "You were the only one left. I've already spoken to Kazuto and Asuna." He grinned. "As well as their child through your laptop."

I winced. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about." Admit nothing, deny everything.

"Don't play dumb, Nick," Kikuoka said with a chuckle. "Yui told me everything."

I sighed. "And so what? Gonna slap my hands for being a programmer?"

"Not at all," Kikuoka replied. That was a bit of a shock. "In fact, I'm fairly certain that even if RECT Progress folds, someone else will recreate Alfheim Online. I'd be willing to refer you in the event that some such company does appear and requires outside help."

I stared off into space, absently gnawing on my left thumb while deep in thought. "And what's the catch?" Nothing was ever free in this world. Everything had a price associated with it.

"I'm offended, Nick." Kikuoka unsuccessfully hid a smile. "You think so poorly of me that you'd suspect me to have an ulterior motive?" I simply stared at him. I was no fool, as he well knew. "Very well, then," he said finally. "Do you recall how you agreed to be a part of my information network, answering any questions I had about Sword Art Online?" I nodded; that had been the deal. I answered questions and I got the laptop and source code. It seemed that I would be modifying that deal slightly. "I'll be needing you to be taking a more... hands-on approach to collecting information."

I studied his figure for a bit, reading between the lines with practiced ease. "So you want me to be your hands for issues inside the games, is that it?"

He chuckled. "That is correct. Kazuto has already agreed to the deal." What did Kazuto bargain for? To be fair, knowing my friend, all Kikuoka had to do was talk about how he'd be helping others and Kazuto would be hooked. Maybe he hadn't asked for anything in return.

"Well, I can't let my friend deal with you by himself, now can I?" I asked with a sardonic grin. Kikuoka knew us too well, pushing the buttons to get his way easily. All he had to do was mention Kazuto and I'd do anything. Being emotionally tied to others could get to be a problem; I looked at Argo, fast asleep on my shoulder, and I knew I wouldn't give it up for anything. "You have yourself a deal, Agent. I'll help out with any VR-related incidents you need me to look into, so long as I'm compensated." Mercenary work, yes, but it was still better than nothing.

"Thank you, Nick." Kikuoka stood up. "I do regret that you got injured." But it was my fault, so I had to pay the consequences.

"I do regret that I had to do your job," I shot back. An eye for an eye, after all. "By the way, where's my knife?"

Kikuoka turned back to me. "It's evidence in the assault case, Nick. I'm afraid you'll have to content yourself with that scar as a souvenir."

I sighed. "Worth a shot, I guess." Kikuoka chuckled and left the room. I sighed and shifted on the bed, careful to not wake Argo. I wasn't tired - sleeping for over twenty four hours would do that to a person, even if most of that time was either due to blood loss or sleep deprivation. I had been pushing my body hard the previous few days and nights, staying up late in the game, so it was only fair my body pushed back when it got the chance. Of course, since I was conscious I wasn't tired; therefore, I had nothing to do until Argo woke up. It was times like these that made my fingers twitch restlessly, when my mind had nothing to do. I wouldn't be able to stand sensory deprivation.

That was when the door slid open for the third time that day. I bit my lip and counted to ten silently, then counted again. I didn't want to snap at whoever just walked in and disturb Argo. Then a familiar face showed up and I grinned. I wouldn't have to snap at Asuna. She opened her mouth to say something, but closed it with a knowing grin when she saw Argo asleep on my bed. "I don't remember who wins the bet," she teased gently. She wheeled forward, the nurse pushing her wheelchair moving her closer to the bedside. "But I'd say you win hands down." The nurse politely withdrew behind the curtain to give us the illusion of privacy, at least.

"Good to see you're up and moving," I said. "Well, for a given definition of 'up and moving'."

"Thanks to you," Asuna said with a smile. There was that smile that Kazuto fell in love with, that I found I could trust. I had missed that smile. "Kazuto and Yui told me everything the two of you did for me."

I grinned. "I just wanted my friend back. Call me selfish or whatever."

Asuna smiled, but her smile was marred slightly by the memories. "Kazuto said Sugou was behind everything." She shuddered slightly, and I realized she was reliving whatever she had gone through at his hands. I reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder, and she flinched away automatically. Hurt and comprehension flicked through my mind so quickly that when Asuna asked me later I could truthfully say that I never realized I had been hurt by her withdrawal.

I hadn't missed that the nurse was female; something that, given what I had just seen, was probably on purpose. "Asuna, it'll get better. You'll heal."

She looked down. "It's just... the things he did..." She was close to tears.

I couldn't let her cry; it was unacceptable. "It's okay, Asuna. I'll be here for you, and so will Kazuto." I smirked. "Look at it this way. Meaning no offense to you, but I've got no interest in you that way, so I'm safe." I reached out my hand again, careful to keep it slow and within her sight. After a second, she reached out and took my hand gratefully. I squeezed gently. "You're my friend, so I won't leave you. Not when you need my help." She had done the same for me, after all.

"Thank you," Asuna whispered. I let go, satisfied. Asuna would be okay; she was one of the strongest people I knew. "I'm glad you're okay, Nick."

"Me too, Asuna," I said with a genuine smile. "Take that both ways, I guess." Both that I was glad I was okay and that Asuna was okay.

"You should smile more," Asuna told me.

I frowned, confused. "I contort my facial muscles often enough. I don't follow."

She shook her head. "Not like that. When there's no pain or hate behind it." I must have looked just as confused as I felt, because she giggled and shook her head. "Never mind. I'll leave you two alone," Asuna said with a smile. I glanced to my right automatically - Argo was fast asleep, her shoulders rising and falling with her rhythmic breathing. When I looked back, Asuna was being wheeled away. "It was good to see you again, Nick."

"I look forward to school starting," I replied. I snickered at Asuna's groan and waved. "Bye, Asuna. Come back any time." After she left the room, I wriggled around until I got comfortable again. Argo was snuggled up next to me, fast asleep, and I rested my head next to hers, intending only to close my eyes for a bit.

Kazuto told me later that when he and Suguha dropped by to visit a few minutes later on their way to see Asuna, they found me and Argo asleep in each other's arms.


May 16th, 2025

I flipped the page in my book, occasionally shifting my glasses absently so that they sat more comfortably. I was resting in a window well in the sunlight, enjoying the late spring sun. My music was playing in my ears, drowning out the sound of chatter in the background; I was glad I had my music, or this lunch period would have been intolerable. I turned my attention back to the page I was reading, enjoying myself - I had found an interesting book, and I was only about halfway through. A collection of short stories published in a magazine almost a century previously, it contained the most interesting stories of people going mad and the most amazing descriptions of fantastic and horrifying creatures. The author did his work well, evoking the horror of what the oft-nameless protagonists had to be feeling when they saw the eldritch abominations. I had taken to reading the book before going to bed, although as I remarked to Argo, 'Horror stories about things that go bump in the night and my active imagination do not mix well before bed'.

Despite myself, I glanced out the window again at the figure waiting on the bench below. I was glad Asuna managed to get through her recovery enough to attend. As I watched, she looked to her left and smiled. I followed her gaze out of the window and saw another figure in dark blue approaching. Of course, I was wearing that same shade as well; the school's uniform was that color, so I didn't exactly have a choice, even though I would have preferred to wear red or grey. The two figures sat down next to each other; they started talking, the male leaning back to relax in the shade. My friend put his hand over Asuna's, and I grinned; Kazuto had probably forgotten that we could all see him. Asuna said something and looked away, and Kazuto pulled his hand away with a jerk. My grin only widened - I contemplated sending him an insulting text message but decided against it. It was far too much effort for a short laugh. It was also good to see that Asuna no longer flinched from Kazuto's touch; I had comforted her when Sugou's venom grew too much for her to bear and she had started sobbing when Kazuto wasn't around. I was one of the few 'safe' males; it turned out that being asexual was a good thing. Fortunately, though, she was strong and managed to recover fully. For that matter, I was surprised she wasn't still on crutches. She had probably been rushing her physical therapy to get back to normal as quickly as possible; although Kazuto and I got through our recovery in two months, Asuna's muscles had atrophied for those two months, prompting the increase of the physical therapy. It was a shame, but Asuna seemed to be alright again.

I watched the two eating lunch for a while - Asuna had made special sandwiches, as this particular day was important - and leaned back, resting. It was a shame that Asuna's father had been forced to resign, but from what I had heard from her he took an early retirement. After all, he hadn't known about Sugou's experiments. For that matter, most of the company hadn't, although there were two members of the R&D team that had been Sugou's accomplices. They were the two slug creatures Asuna had mentioned, most likely. It was funny; even with the bloody knife sitting right next to him, Sugou still tried to plead innocence, like Argo had told me. After they questioned his accomplices and they confessed, Sugou finally broke and confessed to everything. I gave testimony at his trial. It was a lot of fun, telling everybody just what kind of scum Sugou was.

None of the players that Sugou had experimented on had remembered a thing. To them, they had been logged out of SAO and woken up two months later, safe albeit confused. After all, most people don't remember their dreams. A small smirk twisted my lips as I remembered what Kikuoka had told me after the trial; Sugou's research into mind control was only applicable to the first-generation NerveGear devices. In other words, Sugou went to jail and would suffer for a pipe dream. His research was useless, and he had no power. A fitting end for the Fairy King Oberon. What a fool that mortal be.

Of course, with the revelation of the trapped players came the heavy damage to VRMMOs. They were standing on shaky ground to begin with, thanks to the events of Sword Art Online, and this newest disaster only rocked the boat even further. RECT Progress had been torn apart by the lawsuits, and even their parent company had been damaged. ALO was suspended once the players were safely out - it was hardly a surprise. I had expected that particular outcome, which was why I told Alicia Rue to say goodbye to her friends. As for the five or six other, smaller MMOs, their days became numbered once the news of the trapped players spread across the internet like wildfire. The press and public outcry saw to that.

I had talked to Kazuto about what happened in the World Tree, while I was slaughtering the Guardian Knights left and right. It turned out that the magic Yui told me about was some sort of strange new Gravity Magic that was going to be added in the next patch. Of course, that never happened. He mentioned something about Kayaba appearing before him and giving him the Heathcliff login information, as well as a chat the two of them had after logging Asuna and the other players out of the game. I had done my research and found out that Kayaba had killed himself with a high-frequency brain scan; he essentially microwaved his brain to copy it online. I did appreciate the parallels to the method of execution from Aincrad. Apparently, it was a one in a thousand chance for it to work, but that bastard seemed to have pulled it off. According to Kazuto, Kayaba handed him something called The Seed and told him it was his to do with as he wished.

Asuna rested her head on Kazuto's shoulder, and I was forcibly reminded of Argo that day when I woke up in the hospital; I leaned back, relishing the memory. I heard someone saying something, and I paused the music, removing my headphones to hear them. The first thing I heard was the slurping of someone sucking on a nearly empty juice box, and I almost put my headphones back in.

"Seriously, Li...Rika, you're driving me crazy with all that slurping." Surprisingly, I wasn't the first person to say something. No, the irritated voice came from the lunch table by my window. Silica was sitting there, trying to eat her soup in peace. I looked behind me; Lisbeth was pressed up against the window, slurping while angrily glaring at Kazuto and Asuna.

Lisbeth stopped and turned to Silica. "Leave me alone..." Oh, the perils of unrequited love. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about that. "He's all over her and it's driving me nuts."

"And you're driving us nuts," I said in a dry tone of voice.

Lisbeth turned to glare at me, but when it had no effect she made a small moue of anger and turned back to the window. "Acting like that at school, it's so tacky."

"Spying on them's kinda tacky too, you know," Silica pointed out. I glanced at her - she had given up on her soup and was sitting there, chin resting on folded hands.

With a groan, Lisbeth slouched back into her chair. "If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn't have let you talk me into a month-long truce." This was the first I was hearing of any such truce, even with my connections to the school grapevine. They must have kept it a secret.

Silica leaned forward and glared at Lisbeth. "I didn't talk you into it, it was your idea! You said we should let them have their little romance for a month, remember?" She folded her arms. "I mean, god, talk about naive." Lisbeth sighed, unwilling or unable to dignify that with a response.

A bird passed by the window and the two of them stopped arguing. That gave me a chance to enter the conversation. "If you two are calling off your truce now, then by all means go ahead. That means you're opening yourself up to me, after all." I smirked without looking at them. "I've given you a free pass up until now because you haven't done anything to interfere, but if you try to break those two up I'll have to act. Keiko. Rika." I turned my head to see the two of them blanch briefly – they knew I preferred not to use first names, or real names at all for that matter. When I finally dropped the pretense of anonymity, they knew I meant business. "Besides, you're putting me off of my lunch, so do the world a favor and be quiet." I took a bite of the sandwich that had been sitting beside me.

Lisbeth glanced at it. "Isn't that one of the sandwiches Asuna made?" I nodded, my mouth full. "She said those were for Kazuto. Did you steal one?"

I swallowed my bite and studied the sandwich, trying to decide how I wanted to eat it. "Yes." I could eat left to right, or I could just go for whatever bits were protruding. Decisions, decisions...

"That's mean!" Silica cried.

"But it's mine," I said. I held up the cloth wrapping Asuna had used. Sure enough, my name was on a sticker.

"What?" Silica and Lisbeth asked at the same time.

I snickered. "It's a joke. I asked her to make me a sandwich a few months back and now here we are. She figured I'd steal it from her lunchbox, so she saved me the trouble and marked the one I was supposed to take." I glared at them. "And you two are making me not want to eat it, what with your bitching and moaning about Kazuto." I finally decided on just taking another bite. Delicious.

Immediately, Lisbeth rallied. "Yeah, but you already have Argo, so what's it to you?"

My backrest stirred. "You know how loyal he is to those two," Argo said. I leaned my head against her shoulder in thanks for the support. "And I'm a fan of them too, so Rythin's got my support when it comes to his actions. I'm sure you know what that means." That sentence gave them a longer pause, the silence stretching on. Argo was pretty much the center of the school grapevine - I wasn't exaggerating about my close connections. Anything Argo knew, I knew, and vice versa. With her help, I'd be able to dig up all kinds of dirt on Silica and Lisbeth, as well as start and spread rumors with no basis in fact. That was probably not something they wanted happening.

Evidently, our combined threats were enough to dissuade them from breaking the truce. Another bird flew across the window, casting a shadow on Silica's face. She looked out the window. Lisbeth leaned forward, resting her chin on one hand. "It's gonna be cool meeting everyone today, isn't it?"

Silica smiled. "Yeah, I can't wait!"

I put my headphones in again and returned to my book. I had no more reason to pay attention to the outside world, and I found my thoughts and music more attractive than the words of other people. I wanted to know what would happen when the stars aligned, hoping for some other eldritch being to appear.

After school let out, Argo and I quickly made our way to Agil's café. The whole group of Kazuto's friends and allies that attended the school was heading toward that location, albeit in small, unnoticeable groups. Everyone was there - except Kazuto and Asuna. We entered the café and everyone started getting things ready. I, naturally, took a seat at the bar and rested my head on my arms. I didn't bother helping with the preparations, not that anybody expected me to. I was only here because Argo wanted me to come.

A thunk told me my regular order was ready. I looked up and grabbed the glass of water, draining half of it in a single gulp. I sighed and grinned. "Thanks, Agil."

He grinned in response. "No problem, man. It's the least I can do for one of the heroes."

I groaned. "Oh god, you too? Everyone's calling me a hero these days. All I did was the selfish thing. I'm a sociopath, not a hero." Maybe if I started insulting people that called me a hero, they'd stop it. I didn't want to be recognized or praised, I just wanted people to leave me alone.

Agil chuckled at my response. "Not from how I hear it. Way I've heard it, you took on the World Tree, all to save Asuna. If that isn't hero material, I don't know what is."

"To set the record straight, it was also to get back at Sugou. I hate gossip." I let my head fall back down into my arms. "I might need a stronger drink if this keeps up," I mumbled. Agil chuckled and went back to cleaning off the bar.

Eventually, the noise of people hurriedly preparing decorations died down, to be replaced by the bated silence that preceded a surprise. I sighed and nursed my glass of water.

Suddenly, the door creaked open to reveal Asuna, Kazuto, and Suguha standing there. I was a little surprised to see Suguha - she hadn't been one of the trapped SAO players, but I assumed Kazuto dragged her along. After all, she helped rescue Asuna. At the sight of everyone waiting for them, Asuna giggled and started waving, a huge smile on her face. Kazuto frowned in confusion. "Hold on a sec. Were we supposed to get here earlier?"

Lisbeth rushed up to him and planted her hands on her hips. "We gave you a later time to make sure everyone else got here first. It wouldn't be right for the guest of honor to show up before all the guests." She grabbed his hand and pulled him inside. "Don't just stand there, come on in." She dragged him over to the box they had set up. Grabbing a microphone, she started talking. "Okay, let's get this party started. You all know what to do!" She pointed her microphone at the assembled people. "Ready, and...!"

"Congratulations on beating SAO, Kirito!" everyone cried out in unison. Well, mostly unison; my voice was duller and lagged a bit, but that was to be expected. Klein and Silica pulled on their party poppers, sending streamers and confetti flying everywhere - mostly onto Kazuto's head. A banner with the word 'Congratulations!' written on it unfurled behind him; they had done their best to make it resemble the screen on a successful boss kill.

I started laughing at Kazuto's befuddled look, and he glared at me. He grabbed the microphone from Lisbeth. "I couldn't have done it without you, Rythin," he said, sending me a smug look. Everyone started laughing at my grimace.

I turned to Agil. "Do you have anything I can throw at him?" Wordlessly, he handed me a cork. "Thanks." I whipped the cork at Kazuto's head and he ducked, laughing. "Keep me out of this, you prick."

Lisbeth handed Kazuto his drink and lifted her own. "Cheers!" I raised my glass of water in a silent salute as everyone else echoed the toast.

The small party started rolling after that, with everyone going around and talking to the friends they hadn't seen for a while. Yulier and Thinker were together, coming to thank Kazuto for his help in rescuing him. I saw a few other familiar faces, like Caynz, Yoruko, and the members of Klein's guild. For that matter, Klein was around the room somewhere, probably hitting on every girl he could find. I saw a glimpse of Argo chatting animatedly with Asuna, Silica, and Lisbeth; she caught my eye and grinned. I waved to her slightly - she had agreed that I didn't have to socialize, only be there.

Kazuto sat down beside me with a sigh. "Bartender, bourbon on the rocks." I snickered at his exhausted sigh. Being a popular hero apparently left much to be desired – one of my main reasons for trying to avoid that fate.

Agil sent a glass filled with a dark brown liquid and a few chunks of ice down toward Kazuto. He glanced at Agil, who grinned at him. Kazuto lifted the glass and took a cautious sip. His eyes widened. "Whoa, dude, this is oolong tea."

"Agil, slide me a big boy drink," said a familiar voice. I looked over to see Klein taking a seat next to Kazuto. I grinned.

"Klein, seriously?" Kazuto asked, exasperation in his voice. "Aren't you supposed to go back to work?"

I grinned into my glass of water. "Klein, were you actually stupid enough to forget to take the afternoon off?"

"You know it, Rythin." Klein took a sip of the drink Agil gave him - by his satisfied grin, it was the real deal. "Alcohol makes the overtime go by faster." Flawless logic if I'd ever heard it. He glanced over his shoulder. "Uh oh, chick alert." I followed his gaze to see essentially every female on one side of the room in a small knot. I felt a momentary stirring of fear, even with my iron control; that type of gathering was something to be feared.

I snickered. "The only one you'll have a shot with is Sasha, Klein, and even then she's probably going to reject you." He feigned being stabbed in the heart.

"Long time no see." I heard someone sit down to my left and I turned to see Thinker.

"Hi, Thinker," Kazuto replied. "How've you been? I heard you and Yulier are married now." From me, courtesy of Argo, naturally. She kept up on all of our acquaintances' actions. It came with her being a information broker - I could get used to having information at my fingertips like that. "I know it's late, but congrats."

Thinker rubbed the back of his head. "Thank you. But ever since we got back, it's been taking everything we have just to get used to life here. The good news is, I'm settling into work mode again."

Klein stood up. "Congratulations on gettin' that far." He leaned on the counter. "Hey, I've been reading the new MMO Today. Nice job." Thinker either ran or wrote for a magazine called the MMO Today; I could never remember which. He had something to do with it, at any rate. The MMO Today was a magazine that held tips, tricks, and guides to the major MMO games, including Alfheim Online.

Thinker grinned. "Yeah, I wish it were better. It could have used a bit more content. Oh well," he said. "With the way MMOs are now, who needs walkthroughs and news? Those things are going to be irrelevant soon, anyway."

Kazuto looked down at his drink. "You know what they say about how the universe was born. First there was chaos."

I glanced at Agil. "Are you sure you didn't put anything extra in that tea? He's making less sense than usual with his metaphors and poetic language and all that nonsense."

Kazuto glared at me briefly, though the lurking smile twitching at his lips softened the blow. "By the way, Agil. Has the Seed been doing okay?"

I snapped my fingers. "That's right. How is our baby doing?"

"It's doing amazing." Agil walked over to a laptop he had sitting on the counter. "We got fifty mirrors already set up." My eyebrows raised; that was quite impressive. "It's been downloaded a hundred thousand times." I had contributed one of those downloads, using the Seed as a new base for Yui's home in our world. It was simpler and easier for her to get around that way - she didn't have to have a hard connection to the game. "And check this out - it has three hundred big-ass servers actually running it."

I grinned. After Kazuto had seen that I was okay and handed me my laptop back, he took the Seed over to Agil and asked him to check it out. Agil had taken one look at it and called me over, figuring I'd like to take a look at it. I did; it turned out to be the framework of a FullDive MMO that Kayaba had developed. It came in a program package called The World Seed, a stripped-down version of the Cardinal System that could run on small servers. I was a little irritated; all of my hard work had just been shown to be redundant, but I didn't care too much. Kayaba had modified the engine so that anyone with access to their own server could download it and easily make their own online worlds. After Agil and I determined it was safe - I gave the code itself the okay and Agil figured the package it came in was safe - Kazuto had us upload to servers across the globe as a free download. It turned out, that was exactly what virtual MMOs needed to keep the genre going. As for Alfheim Online, the data had been shifted to another company that decided to keep it online and running. True to his word, Kikuoka had recommended me to them and I was hired on as a consultant. I got to help develop the Sword Skills again, testing them and the game to make sure the feeling of Alfheim Online was the same. It helped that the company, Ymir, was using the Seed. In a way, I had become a Beta Tester.

But Alfheim Online wasn't the only world created with the Seed. With the aid of the Seed, everyone from the individual gamers with big dreams to small companies were creating brand-new worlds. The best part of it was that thanks to the Seed, they were all connected to each other. You could create a character in one game and transfer it to a completely different genre when you got bored - something similar to what Kazuto and I pulled off, albeit without the loss of item data. I had recreated Yui's playground, for a lack of a better term, using the Seed, though I restricted access to her and our friends. I had managed to develop a mobile-based method of logging in; that way, Yui could talk to us through our phones. It was all very complicated and I was glad it was done.

I came out of my thoughts to see Kazuto grinning at the screen, Klein's hand resting on his shoulder. He looked up and smiled. "Hey, has anything changed for tonight's afterparty?"

"Nope. We're still on for eleven," Agil replied. He glanced at me, and I nodded. The patch was going through, as far as I was aware. "We're meeting up in Yggdrasil City." Yggdrasil City was something Ymir had created to replace the non-existent Floating City, where the Alfs had been rumored to live. Naturally, there was no such city, so Ymir created something from scratch to fill the void. In addition, they added in the Sword Skills and unlimited flight as an apology to the players of Alfheim that had been fooled for all that time. The higher-ups had made the executive decision to eliminate the Unique Skills; after all, the only ones we knew about were Dual Blades, Holy Sword, and Future Step. I had managed to convince the programmers to sneak Future Step into the coding by marking it as Extra - it had to be unlocked by using the crystal found in that ruin on the 37th Floor. Of course, using it meant losing the 50,000 Yrd it would sell for; I was content knowing that people were greedy bastards that would sooner die than lose extra money. Most people would probably avoid unlocking the Future Step skill. The immediate superior had seen what I was trying, but let it go once I explained my plan. It was balanced; I did my best to faithfully recreate it from my memories in Sword Art Online, although I did convince them to throw in the sight for spells as well.

I stood up to wander the outside of the room a bit, doing the bare minimum of socializing possible. I saw Asuna rubbing her forehead at something Lisbeth had said, and Yoruko was speaking happily to Caynz and one of Klein's guild members. My gaze drifted until I found someone else equally as antisocial as myself - it happened to be Suguha, sitting on a barrel and looking lonely while nursing her drink. I made my way over to her, adopting a stagger and a blissful smile. Stumbling to a halt beside her, I slumped against the wall, feigning drunkenness. "Hey, Suguha," I slurred. "What's up?"

She sighed. "I know you're not drunk."

I straightened up with a sigh, dropping the smile. "Worth a shot. If anybody asks, I was drunk off my ass. I do have a reputation to maintain, and that gives me a good enough excuse." Better they thought I got caught up in the party atmosphere than I was doing something nice. I had worked so hard to get their expectations of me where I wanted them, it would be a shame to just waste it.

"What do you want?" My point exactly. The default assumption was that I wanted something from whomever I approached. That was good; it let me keep people off guard when I did something actually nice.

"To talk, obviously," I replied. It should have been obvious, but Suguha seemed to be deep in depression about something. Probably the fact that she was the only one here not to have experienced SAO – and as such Kazuto was farther from her than ever.

"I don't feel like talking."

I shrugged. "Fair enough. I know how that feels." I glanced at her. "I want you to be happy, Suguha. Mainly because if you're upset, then Kazuto's upset, but the end result is that you're happy. Don't feel so alone - you're surrounded by friends. Try, oh, I don't know, talking to them?" Not that I had any room to make judgment calls when it came to interpersonal relationships. I turned to stagger away again, making my way back to the bar. Thinker had left to go talk with his wife, and I had no idea where Klein went.

I sat down next to Kazuto, and he looked at me. "Where'd you go?"

"To do my one good deed for the month," I replied. "And I think I'm gonna slip out pretty soon. See you later, Kazuto." I drained the glass of water and stood up, scanning the room for Argo. I caught her eye and tapped my wrist; she checked the time and nodded. I had done my duty, and she was letting me go home. I opened the door and slipped out quietly. I didn't want to bother any of the others, but I hated parties. They were loud, noisy, and I never knew what to say.

Besides, by leaving early I never had to help with the clean-up.

Eventually, 10:30 rolled around and I logged in to ALO using my brand new AmuSphere. After my mother finished reading me the riot act for getting myself cut open, she started in on the NerveGear. To make her stop, I promised to only use the NerveGear one last time; that was the first time I logged back into Alfheim. After that, I used the AmuSphere; it didn't offer as deep a link, but it had extra safety mechanisms built in to automatically log out a player if they were about to fall asleep. The reason I had used the NerveGear the first time? I needed it to recalibrate on my body for the new data.

Every ex-SAO player in ALO had been given three items the first time they logged in with their old account; an Item Restoration crystal, a Skill Restoration crystal, and an Appearance Restoration crystal. The first two items did exactly what they sounded like; restored the old items and skills to the character respectively. However, the Appearance Restoration crystal was programmed slightly differently, something I had requested of the Ymir programmers. That particular crystal would change the appearance of the player's avatar using the data stored in the NerveGear, or in the system if they hadn't logged in using a NerveGear. Naturally, I wanted to look like the old Rythin, so I recalibrated the NerveGear and logged in. Every other SAO player looked like their original avatar with the exception of myself and Argo, the only two with NerveGears. We looked like our eighteen-year-old selves, something that brought a bit of anger from Lisbeth and Silica. I just told them to get their own NerveGear, and they subsided. After that point, I started using the AmuSphere – it was less immersive than the NerveGear was, although that was a small price to pay for my head to not be held hostage. The nerve signals weren't entirely blocked out, so I could feel heat and cold, and if something happened to my real body the AmuSphere would automatically log me out.

The first thing I did after using the three crystals was make sure all of my skills were copied correctly. They were all safe, including Future Step. My items had been copied over as well, with the addition of the items I had purchased in the original Alfheim Online. I checked my avatar's body; the calibration had even picked up on the scar on my chest. I was glad it got that part.

A new feature added in was something similar to crafting items - when a blacksmith was given two items of the same class, whether it was dagger, gloves, or armor, they could be combined using the data of one and the appearance of another. I ended up with Diamond Dragontalon gloves, a Moonblade, and a Bloodwyrm Coat – although the Bloodwyrm Coat resembled a jacket more than anything else. The dark red blade on the poisonous Moonblade matched the scales of the Bloodwyrm Coat perfectly; overall, I was pretty pleased with myself.

Kazuto had, strangely, refused to use any of the crystals, wanting to start over from scratch. Asuna had used hers, although she dyed her hair back to the blue color it had been originally - she had chosen to play Undine, a strange choice in my opinion. The others were all about what I had expected; Silica was a Cait Sith and had already retamed Pina, Lisbeth was a Leprechaun to facilitate forging, Agil was a Gnome, and Klein had become a Salamander 'for the amazing hair', as he claimed. Argo was also a surprise, choosing to play as an Imp. She said it was so that she could fly around in the caves, and I didn't care much either way, same as the others - but for different reasons.

Argo logged in a bit after I did, her avatar appearing on the bed we shared. She stretched and yawned. "Evening, Ry."

I looked at her with amusement. "Good evening, Miss Rat." I had taken to calling her that in revenge for the amount of times she called me Ry. It had become another battle between us; who would stop first? I had a feeling neither of us would stop. We found too much fun in the game.

Of course, everyone else around us said we were sickeningly perfect for each other. I supposed it was revenge for the times I taunted Kazuto and Asuna about that same subject, so I bore it with relatively good humor.

"We've got a bit of time to kill before meeting up with the others," Argo murmured. I checked the time; it was only quarter to eleven. "We could find something interesting to do..." She draped herself over my body. "Or someone..."

I chuckled. "You know me better than that, Argo." I shoved her off and pinned her to the bed, leaning over her. "You know I like to play with my food first."

She giggled. "The Cat eating the Rat, huh?"

"Get your mind out of the gutter, Imp." I released her and moved back to my original seat on the edge of the bed. After a bit, Argo joined me. "I figured I'd just go out and sit on the roof again. Care to join me?" I paused as a thought struck me. "I'm assuming your classwork for the day is done, after all." She was just as intelligent as I was, and we both finished whatever homework assignments we had been given that day almost immediately. "I figured I'd just play some music, nothing important."

She laughed. "You know how to make a girl feel special." Despite her joking words, she followed me up to the roof of the apartment we shared. It wasn't very big, but it did suit our need for a base of operations - Argo and I had a large room devoted solely to her collection of information and the state of affairs between the races. Though we were both Neutral Players, not associated with any specific race, Argo had fallen back into the role of information broker with ease, while I became a mercenary for the highest bidder. We worked well together; I'd use Argo's information to manipulate whatever side had hired me into raising the price, and in turn I'd feed her information about their inner workings. I was surprised nobody had caught on yet, but we had been playing the game cautiously.

I had been thinking of branching out slightly, maybe talk to Kirito and Asuna, get them interested in a small mercenary group. I knew they were Neutral as well. It would actually be pretty useful to have Kirito and Asuna as part of a group with me; I specialized in infiltration, assassination, and tactics, but I was relatively useless on the straight battlefield. Kirito and Asuna were far more martial than I was, and that could open up the contracts we could take. Maybe Argo would want in; who knew. It was just something floating around in my head, a possibility for the future. Of course, we would require something better for a headquarters than this tiny apartment.

Thinking about the apartment, I had been meaning to track down Ashley and get her to remake my rug - according to Argo and her sources, Ashley had set up a tailor shop in Yggdrasil City - but I just could never find the time. It was no matter, though I did miss that rug. Unfortunately, my old suit of Crawlerpede armor had disappeared; it wasn't technically in my inventory while it was on the wall, so I was unable to retrieve it.

I played the harp on the roof, Argo leaning against my back and listening, until midnight rolled around. Sure we were supposed to meet up with the others, but Argo clearly didn't care and neither did I. The second the bells started ringing, I put away the harp. "You ready, Argo?"

She sat up, breaking out of the half daze she had been in. "Ready, but for what I'm not exactly sure." I had deliberately kept it a surprise from her, asking the others not to tell her anything. The actual content in the patch hadn't been released to the public, only that it was world-changing. My close group of acquaintances knew, but that was about it.

I turned and pointed to the moon. "Just watch the moon."

She looked at it, frowning. "What's so interesting about the moon?" I just waited for the reaction. Soon, a shadow started floating in front of the moon, and her eyes widened. "Oh, no way in hell! How'd you pull that off?"

I chuckled. "Practice." I offered her my hand. "Shall we go?"

"Let's."

Hand in hand, we flew off toward the Floating Castle, the world of Aincrad. I was determined to clear all hundred floors, for real this time; the rest of my friends were determined to do the same. Even though only the first ten floors had been released, I knew Ymir was hard at work rebuilding the others. I had brought Argo to the company at one point to show her where I had acted as consultant, and I had mentioned off-handedly to our guide that she had written a guide on the world itself. Immediately, Argo had been asked about everything she could remember on the floors - quests, landmarks, enemies, everything. I watched with a small grin as she answered everything, wide-eyed at first and then later in her element. During a break, she told me she wanted to know why they were so interested. I pretended to not know, and told her that the higher-ups were being very hush-hush about the whole thing. I was lying out my ass, but Argo didn't need to know that.

As we flew, the rest of our friends started to join us, one by one until everyone that had been at the party was flying in formation. I saw the other races as well; the Salamanders, the Cait Sith, and the Sylphs. I had told Sakuya and Alicia Rue about Aincrad as a reward for helping us clear the World Tree. Somehow, Mortimer had found out as well; Klein probably told him. Either way, there didn't seem to be any hard feelings between the Salamanders and the Sylphs and Cait Sith beyond the usual racial pride.

As we approached, I saw Kirito and Leafa hovering in the air. "You're late, Kirito!" Klein called out.

I snickered. "Hurry up! I'm gonna leave you behind!" Argo smacked my shoulder. "I won't actually leave him behind."

A blue blur passed me and hovered in front of Kirito. "C'mon, let's go, Kirito. Leafa." Asuna extended her hand out to both of them. I slowed down to hover beside Kirito. Leafa accepted Asuna's hand with a smile, happy to be a part of the group.

"Hurry, Daddy!" Yui appeared from behind Asuna and landed on Kirito's shoulder. "Everybody's waiting!"

"Okay, let's go!" Kirito said.

I looked beside me. "Ready, Argo?"

She nodded. "Let's get to it! I can't wait to see what changes they made." The five of us took off toward the flying castle.

Silhouetted by the moonlight and illuminated by the yellow glow of hundreds of lights, Aincrad beckoned us to challenge it. Who were we to ignore that challenge?


And so we come to the close of this story. 'Twas fun!

The song Rythin plays at the end of the story is something with a good melody. Substitute your favorite (lyric-less) melody for a personalized experience, I guess.


Important information that I should probably discuss:

Nick's life story and breakdown: I'll go over it again without the filter of Nick's perspective on it, using just the bare facts. Nick makes a few close friends, and then they move away for various reasons. At the start of middle school, he withdraws into himself to avoid getting hurt like that again. He also creates a persona of sorts that doesn't care about other people to avoid the cruel taunts of his classmates, kids being the little shits that they are. By high school, he's become fully autonomous and refuses to rely on others as a matter of wanting to be strong. His sociopathic nature is starting to show – the true Nick, really; depressed, repressed, and isolated. He dislikes other people and sees them merely as nuisances, although he pretends to care about others to minimize conflict. At this point, he's trapped in SAO and all those fun events happen; he gets two close friends who accept him for who he is and falls in love with Argo – while in SAO, he pretty much becomes the mask he wore (witty and sarcastic, devoted to his friends, willing to kill to keep them from harm, etc etc) and starts identifying as Rythin. Once he wakes up from the coma, he's forced to go back to being Nick. In summary, he's wearing a mask that used to be who he was before he became the mask he wore in the first place to hide who he really was.

Confused yet?

Basically, the dual nature of his psyche was putting so much strain on him that he started to exhibit it through those fighting dreams and a feeling of not belonging in the real world. It's also why he beat down Gilvs in the karate sparring so mercilessly; he was acting on instinct as Rythin, not Nick. Once he started going into Alfheim Online to help Asuna, the Nick persona could take a backseat again and Rythin took full control, just like in SAO. But something was slightly different; because he had spent two months living as Nick, the persona started getting blended together. That was when his judgment started to become distorted (brutally destroying Gilvs in Freelia for threatening Yui) and his control started slipping (that whole rage and hatred thing in Alne). Once he died and started looking at his actions from a detached viewpoint, he realized just how crazy he had been acting. I always like the idea of first person for pretty much that reason; while inside someone's head, you get their rationalizations and reasons and everything seems more or less sensible. Then you take a step back and holy crap they're batshit insane.

He talked to Argo, fully opened up to her, and she helped him. Basically, she knew Nick well enough to know who he was. Part of the problem was that Nick was enforcing a split that didn't need to exist; he was splitting himself in half and then becoming confused when the halves wanted to rejoin. After he let them become one again, he's a lot sturdier emotionally. Not to mention nicer – he can be kind when he wants to be, though he'll do his damnedest to make it look like it's a selfish thing. Like when he talked to Suguha at the party, whether or not it did any good. Of course, he can still be a nasty little son-of-a-bitch, what with the whole lack of a moral compass or care for others or all that nonsense. His treatment of Sugou was evident of that – what crueler way to treat someone than to force them to live knowing that you're letting them go? Sure, he's not dead, but for Sugou to be that humiliated and powerless he might as well be.


Asuna and the cage: I've done my best to give Asuna and Yui as much drive as I could, given the source I had to work with. I wasn't pleased with the way the Fairy Dance arc handled Asuna – she was too much of a 'damsel in distress', relying on Kirito to save her. While she did manage to get out of her cage, that was only after knowing that Kirito was still alive. Basically, I thought the writers dropped the ball on that one.

In this story, unfortunately, the same events did happen – Nick had no way of changing them, after all – but I did my best to make it seem like Asuna was more active toward working toward a goal. Like when Nick had Yui go visit Asuna – I had her deliver as much information as she could. I also did my best to have Nick confident in her ability to escape even if he and Kirito did nothing. It was hard, and I'm not entirely sure I managed to pull it off (hence this little segment).


Gilvs (and that random guy on the bus in chapter 1): Gilvs is an original character that I originally threw in just to give Rythin a person to fight – basically, his only scene would have been the fight in chapter 3 and then he would be gone. For some reason, though, he stuck around and turned into Nick's sparring opponent. That was kinda weird. But Gilvs was meant to somewhat be a foil to Rythin – both were confident in their own abilities, although Gilvs was more of a showboater than Rythin, and they both used similar techniques when fighting (unsettling the opponent, forcing them to attack, that sort of stuff).

Oh, right, that random nosy guy on the bus? He was just a throwaway character so Nick could show off how surly he was – one of the first signs of his later issues. Nick did his best to remain polite at all times (it was easier to manipulate people through politeness and if they were inclined to do as you said) but the Rythin in SAO had no problem being a jerk straight off the bat.


Argo: Finally, we come to the big one.

Yes, they're together. Yes, it's official. No, I'm not screwing with you. Yes, it's probably going to stick this time. Maybe, it might end in kids in the very far future.

Or maybe I'm just lying for three-fifths of the above sentences. Which parts are true, I leave to you.

Either way, I didn't actually intend for Nick to relent and get into a relationship with Argo. In fact, the original story plan had him continue to refuse Argo's advances, thanks to his belief that he didn't deserve that kind of affection (in case you hadn't noticed, Nick didn't have that great an ego, regardless of how he acted). Then I started fleshing out what would happen when he finally had the breakdown and realized he'd need to ask for help, and the only person he could get that help from was Argo. I started feeling sorry for Nick, so I figured I'd give him a break this once and let him get the girl. I figured that they'd play off each other well (the colder, analytical, and sharp-tongued Snake and the warmer, determined, and no less adept with words Rat). Of course, this did screw up future plotlines slightly, but no matter.

This type of story is, after all, essentially wish fulfillment, isn't it?

And no, Argo didn't add that in when she 'rebooted' him. That was his own decision.


I've kinda tried to give Nick two separate characterizations, especially in chapters 9 and 10. The first is when he's using the Nick side of him – his actions are warmer, happier, and the characterization is almost like a cat. He's aloof and self-contained, but still capable of love and affection. (Yes I own a cat. Actually three – Emmit from the story happens to be one of them). When he's using the more sociopathic, Rythin side, he's using the second set of characterizations, the snake. He's cold, has no problem with watching people suffer, and I think he hisses at Sugou a few times. Basically, his ruthless nature becomes more evident when he's the snake, and his kind nature more when he's the cat, and he can switch between them at will. To be perfectly honest, when he's the Snake, Nick's not exactly a nice guy. If anything, he's evil, to use the word lightly. He has no respect for morality or extenuating circumstances; all he cares about is getting what he wants. Everything is weighed on the risks and rewards; if murder has the lowest risk and highest reward, that's the action he will choose. I'm not making excuses or attempting to condone his actions. That's just how he is.

At least, that's how I've pictured him in my mind. If you picture him differently, that's wrong and you're stupid I mean that's entirely your interpretation; I've just failed to develop my character correctly.

Overall, this one was a blast to write as well, especially the last two chapters. Rythin planning the whole suicidal charge was a hell of a lot of fun, and I had a blast writing the back-and-forth between Argo and Nick during the walk to the hospital. Of course, I also had fun writing Nick as a murderous, cold-hearted bastard who wanted nothing more than to see Sugou suffer. The dual nature of Nick/Rythin makes for a lot of fun; it's like writing two different characters only they're the same person and somehow it works.


Anyways, time for the special thanks!

A huge thanks to everyone who followed the story: 017Bluefield, Abyssbreaker, Alexandr11, Angelmon64, AnoaNona, Antex- The Legendary Zoroark, B123, BLuebALL268, BunnyStaf, Caspermoose, Cavalyn, Coren24, Corronite, Cosain, CryingDemonicAngles, Daku no Kage, DarkReaver724, Dennis Chen, DoctorWhoXX, Dragonology, Elgrin, EnderJelly, EwaNightmare, Eyes of Truth, Fran156, Glacilius Caelum, Gunlessbayonet, Heart0fSt33l, Iluminated Darkness, JKrlin, JdkLeBleau728, Lobsterdude611, LordErkin, Magery, MinorBandit, Mitsukii1701, MoonlightDragon777, MuJhAkO, Nukem, October Autumn, Of the Flame, Opacare, QRayne, RASENGAN-BLAST, Reverb117, Rogue15, RomanceDagger, RyuichiRukae, SilenceKing, Silent13691, Skeeper4g, Sofita Jaehww, StarTrail, The Dark Dragon Emperor, The Gleameyes808, The King of Ghosts, Tolotos, TykkiMikk, Wing101, Zenog, bored kid 48, coolmon16, dartheli, dch448, demigodrk, echoing song, fairytactician, gyrumm, jaiveer0, onigiri-sakura, orba, o realisticFantasy o, shadowmacer66, skyrumen818, turtlepig, voljin2, wyatt1616, xaero. All of you are terrific people.

A huge thanks to everyone who favorited the story: Abyssbreaker, Angelmon64, AnoaNona, Antex- The Legendary Zoroark, BLuebALL268, Bartogromeo, BunnyStaf, Cavalyn, Corronite, Cosain, Daku no Kage, Dennis Chen, Dragonology, Elgrin, EnderJelly, EwaNightmare, Fran156, Gunlessbayonet, Iluminted Darkness, InvisableTarget, JKrlin, JPVE, JdkLeBleau728, Jwangcap, KennHyrulian, Lord Halcyon, Midnightsn0w, Mitsukii1701, MoonlightDragon777, MuJhAkO, October Autumn, Of the Flame, Opacare, QRayne, Reverb117, RyuichiRukae, SilenceKing, Silent13691, SilverFlameHaze, Skeeper4g, Sofita Jaehww, StarTrail, The Dark Dragon Emperor, The Gleameyes808, The King of Ghosts, TheOverlord2, TykkiMikk, Weaver Chance, Wing101, YAMInoKYUKETSUKI, bored kid 48, coolmon16, dartheli, fairytactician, foxsadist712, gyrumm, jaiveer0, littleman10, miezi10, orba, o realisticFantasy o, reakil, setsuna1415, shadowmacer66, voljin2, wyatt1616. All of you are terrific people. If you followed and favorited, that goes double.

A huge thanks to everyone who left a review: jaiveer0, skyrumen818, Antex- The Legendary Zoroark, Heart0fSt33l, silverhawk88, JPVE, Opacare, o realisticFantasy o, Kanade, SilverFlameHaze, Magery, The Gleameyes808, Guest, Weaver Chance, Zenog, JdkLeBleau728, NievaNeko, DoctorWhoXX, dch448, TheQueen'sknight, Elgrin, RomanceDagger, StarTrail, Qrayne, Urter, ChaoticSwordOfCrimson, The King of Ghosts. You are all amazing people. For everyone who left multiple reviews, you're even cooler.


Once again, I want to thank everyone who read and enjoyed the story (but only if you enjoyed it. If you've made it this far without liking it, what the hell is wrong with your life? Get a hobby and stop wasting time reading things you don't like). To you, the viewers – or would it be readers? - you have my thanks.

You'd have more thanks if people actually edited Nightblade's TVTropes page, but hey, who's counting? (Me. I'm counting.)