A pre-emptive warning: Spoilers about SAO Season 2 / Volume 5 pretty damn quick. If you haven't seen or read them, stop reading now unless you want to be spoiled.

This is your last chance.

Chapter 1: New Experiences

March 10th, 2022

Maybe this time, things can be different.

That was the main thought running through the mind of Shino Asada as she stood breathlessly in front of the entrance to her new middle school. To her, it seemed majestic, all bright and new; what was more, it represented the opportunity to start over without anyone knowing who she was or what had happened to her. Shino bit her lip. What if things go poorly, she worried. What if they find out what happened? Then the next second, she shook her head and made a silent resolution. No, things will be different this time. I'll be strong.

She entered the school carrying her bag at her side in one hand and looking at a scrap of paper in the other. The beginning of the school year, the entrance ceremony, had gone well enough, she thought; she had stayed mostly anonymous behind the glasses that she always wore and left as soon as the ceremony was finished, so she didn't have any friends. Her class was 2-C, and Shino made her way up the stairs cautiously, still not used to the idea of being unknown. In her previous school... No, Shino thought, and shook her head. I'm not going to dwell on that any more. She made her way to the room marked 2-C and gingerly slid the door open, trying to attract as little attention as possible.

Shino sighed in relief silently when nobody turned around and pointed at her; she looked around and took her seat in the desk with her name on it, putting her bag away and sitting silently. The glass beside her caught her attention and she turned to see her own reflection staring back at her. Shino knew that she wasn't very pretty, and that her glasses didn't do much to help her appearance. But, she wore those glasses for a reason – she didn't need them, since her vision was actually twice as good as regular people – and they made her feel safe. Shino wore her hair shorter than most other girls her age, with the exception of some hair that framed the side of her face; she tied that hair back with two ribbons so that they stayed together. And there's a reason my hair's short, isn't there? she asked her reflection. Her reflection didn't reply to the question, just watching her as if asking 'Why are you so weak? Why do you let them do things like that to you?' It's not my fault, Shino wanted to wail.

The teacher entered the room soon enough, and introductions started quickly after that; when it came to her turn, Shino stood up. "Hello," she said. "My name is Shino Asada, and I hope to have a nice year with all of you." The gazes of everyone made her want to sit back down, to hide and go invisible, but she soldiered through the discomfort. "This is my first year at this school, but I hope I'll make some friends." After that, she sat down and hid her face, staring out into the hall. Introductions continued on, but Shino only paid a slight bit of attention to the names of the others; most of her attention was concentrated on what she had said. I hope I didn't make a fool of myself, she fretted.

Several weeks later, the bell rang to signify the end of classes; unlike the rest of students, who streamed into the halls to talk to their friends and go downtown or go home and study or whatever they did with their lives, Shino sat in class. She remained there in her seat until there wasn't anyone else in sight; only then did she stand up and make her way out of class. It was better that way, she knew, but it did mean she didn't have to be stared at. Besides, she thought bitterly, it's not like I have anybody to go see or anything to do. She slid the door open and slunk out, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible.

The school year hadn't been very kind to Shino so far.

Shino made her way down to the entrance of school, trying her best to stay inconspicuous; for a brief second, she hoped she would be able to make it out without being caught. "Asada~" a voice rang out, and Shino froze. Her fragile hopes were dashed when that voice broke the silence. Shino slowly turned to see three female students dressed in the same uniform that she herself wore; the one that had spoken was watching her with a smile on her face. When Shino didn't reply, remaining silent, one of them made a jerking motion with her chin. "Come over here." It was the one that had spoken.

"...What?" Her voice was sullen.

Another of the girls walked over and grabbed Shino's right wrist. "Whatever, just come." With a tug, Shino was pulled over before she could fight back. Stumbling slightly, she was shoved in the direction of the girl that hadn't said anything yet.

She was the leader of the trio, and her name was Endou; her pointed chin somehow gave Shino the impression of a predatory insect. "Hi, Shino," Endou purred.

Shino didn't know what she had done wrong, but at some point during the first month of school, she had offended Endou and her two friends somehow. Endou responded by looking up everything she could find about the poor girl; unsurprisingly, that led her straight to Shino's past – why she changed schools, why she wore those glasses, and why Shino had been bullied. Naturally, Endou spread the information all over the school, and everything went back to the way they had been in the first school – nobody would talk to Shino, and even the teachers would try to avoid meeting her gaze. Sadly, Shino was used to being treated like that, so she never complained; she would never burden her mother with her own issues.

When Shino didn't respond to her 'greeting', Endou's eyes narrowed. "Is that any way to greet one of your friends?" she said.

Shino knew that what she was about to do was dangerous, but she had told herself that she was going to be strong the next time Endou tried to torment her; she was going to stand up to her enemies. "You..." Shino took a deep breath. "You're not my friends. You're nothing but bullies."

Wrong move. Shino knew that the second she opened her mouth; Endou's face grew dark at the girl's words. "We're not your friends?" Endou snarled. "How mean to say that!" The two girls that made up the rest of her group agreed with Endou mindlessly, as they usually did, and Shino's heart sank. "I think you need to learn a lesson in politeness."

Endou slowly raised her right fist and extended two fingers, her thumb and her index finger. She made a small, silly caricature of a gun; it was just a finger gun that children used to play cops and robbers. Nothing to worry about.

And yet with only that, Shino's whole body froze and started shaking. She started losing strength in both of her legs. Balance seemed like a long-lost dream, and the surroundings started to lose color, becoming a constant grey smear in the background of that terrible gun that Shino couldn't tear her gaze from. Her heartbeat sped up, the pounding throbbing through her whole body. A high pitch whined in her ears, rising in pitch as every terrible second passed.

"Bang!" Endou suddenly called out. Almost simultaneously, Shino let out a blood-curdling scream. She couldn't stop the trembling coming from her body or do anything but sink slowly to the ground, her eyes never leaving that finger gun that seemed to be giving off a smell of gunpowder. The heavy, wet feel of iron in her hands came back to Shino, feeling exactly the way it when she... when she...

"What are you doing?" It was a boy's voice, confident and smooth as silk.

Endou froze, her hand retreating from Shino's face and returning to her side. "Nothing, Kazuto," she said innocently. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing? Really?" the voice – Kazuto – said. "Because it seems like you're bullying this girl." There was the sound of footsteps and someone's hand touched Shino, rubbing her back comfortingly. Shino still couldn't move, couldn't see anything except the face of that man.

"That girl, she's..." Endou said. "She's a murderer! She deserves this!" Shino knew then that this savior would turn on her, just like the rest, and torment her as well.

She whimpered slightly at the thought and the hand froze for a split second before continuing to rub her back. "A murderer?" Kazuto sounded more confused than scared or mean. Shino's heart skipped a few beats – a good thing, since it needed to slow down – at the sound; did that mean that he didn't care? "This girl's a murderer?" The hand didn't slow down.

"She is!" This time, Endou sounded triumphant. "She...she..." Her voice lowered. "She shot a guy."

Shino whimpered again; now that he knew what happened, this Kazuto would leave her. But she still couldn't say anything in her defense, since her tongue refused to move. The image of the man's face was slowly receding, and she was coming out of her panic attack; at the same time, the warmth of the hand on her back was making her feel safe.

"If she's a murderer," Kazuto said slowly, "why hasn't she killed you yet?" Endou didn't have anything to say to that bizarre question, and Shino had no idea what he was saying. "You are going to stay away from her," Kazuto said, and this time his voice was different – like the silk from before had fallen away, revealing the bared steel.

"Why should we do that?" Endou demanded.

The hand on her back moved to squeeze her shoulder gently. "Because she's my friend," Kazuto said.


"Go," Kazuto said, and his voice left no room for opposition. "Now." The sound of feet running away told Shino that his orders had been obeyed. She was still weak, though, and the hand on her back kept rubbing, that feeling of security remaining while the warmth of his hand on her back filled her body, driving away the chills and shivering. After a time, Shino finally lifted her head and opened her eyes, not even bothering to wipe away the tears that spilled out when she screamed, to look at her savior. A young, slightly effeminate boy was crouching beside her, smiling gently and rubbing her back. "Are you all right?"

"Y-yes..." Shino stammered. She was scared of men, but for some reason Kazuto wasn't triggering that reaction. Maybe it's because he's so pretty, she thought, and giggled. Just like a girl. She realized her thoughts were still hysterical, but there wasn't much she could do about that until she calmed down naturally.

At the sound, Kazuto's smile widened. "Well, you're giggling, so that's good." He sat back and sat down on the ground beside her.

"W...w...why?" Shino finally managed to stammer out. She didn't want the boy to think she was ungrateful, but she couldn't understand why he would come save her – or remain by her side after hearing what she did.

"Why what?" Kazuto asked. "Why did I have breakfast? I was hungry." Shino couldn't help but giggle at the absurd question, but she shook her head. Kazuto nodded, understanding what she couldn't say. "Why did I save you?" Shino nodded hesitantly. She wanted to know the answer, but she was scared at the same time. Kazuto smiled at her reassuringly. "Well, I was about to leave when I heard the scream. So I came to see what was happening, and when I saw what was going on, I, well..." He looked away and scratched at his cheek, embarrassed. "I couldn't let them make such a cute girl cry, could I?" Shino stared at him for a second, confused; then, what he said finally registered and she flushed bright red. It felt like her face was burning up. Kazuto noticed the reaction and bit his lip. "There was something else, too..." Shino didn't meet his eyes; she was too embarrassed to do anything but sit there and play with her hands. "You remind me of my little sister."

"Your little sister...?" Shino murmured. She was trying her best to stop blushing from when he called her cute. He thinks I'm cute? she kept thinking, and the heat was radiating from her skin so much that she was surprised Kazuto hadn't said anything yet. "Th-thank you, er..." She didn't want to come off as some kind of stalker that already knew his name.

"Kazuto Kirigaya," he told her. "Call me Kazuto."

Shino smiled up at her savior. "Thank you, Kazuto." He stood up and helped her to her feet; as soon as she realized he was holding her hand, she pulled back, bright red again. "Um, Kazuto..."

The boy looked at her. "What is it, Shino?" At her startled look, he grinned reluctantly. "I've heard the rumors."

"And you don't care?" she couldn't stop herself from asking. Idiot! she berated herself. He said he didn't care earlier.

Kazuto just shook his head. "Hey, Shino?" She looked at him curiously; his voice was almost hesitant. "I hope I didn't overstep my boundaries earlier, when I said you were my friend. If I offended you..."

"No!" Shino exclaimed immediately, before realizing that her haste probably sounded weird. "No," she repeated. "I don't mind at all. Actually..." she looked away shyly. "I'd like it if you were my friend." He'd be my first friend at this school, she thought.

After that, school became – while not fun, since most of the student body still shunned her – tolerable for Shino, thanks to Kazuto. The day after he saved her, he was waiting outside her classroom when school let out; he walked her home, and none of the bullies tried anything while he was there. The next day, he was waiting, and the next, and the next... Naturally, rumors started; anything strange like that would catch the attention of kids. "Have you heard?" one girl had whispered as Shino passed. "The girl that shot someone is going out with Kazuto!" That was one of the nicer rumors; although Shino was deathly embarrassed and couldn't look Kazuto in the eye that day, it was still better than some of the other rumors. Other rumors flying around the school reported that she was blackmailing Kazuto, or that she had threatened his life and he was serving her out of fear. Those rumors, when they eventually got around to Shino, depressed her greatly. But fortunately, Kazuto never listened to any of the rumors and cheered her up when the whispering got to the poor girl.

A week or two after Kazuto started walking her home, giving Shino his implicit protection, a group of girls surrounded Shino's desk during lunch. "You should stop being near Kazuto," one of them warned her. "He's too good for you." Shino's face fell. They aren't wrong, she thought sadly. "He's one of the cutest guys at the school, and he's hanging out with you." The girl leaned in close. "Bang," she whispered. Shino froze, the blood draining from her face, and the girl straightened up again. With a satisfied smirk, the group of girls left Shino shaking in her desk as the memories flooded over her again.

Later that day, when Kazuto was walking her home, he must have noticed something off, because he examined her closely before saying, "Shino?"

Shino looked over at him. "What?"

"Is something wrong?" Shino just looked away quietly, not saying a word, and Kazuto sighed. "We both know I'm going to get to the bottom of this whether you tell me or not, so just save me the trouble, okay?"

"Some girls warned me to stay away from you." Shino's voice was quiet. "They triggered me again."

"I see." Shino looked over at the calm, quiet voice to see a brief moment of absolute fury pass over Kazuto's face. "Well, that won't be happening again." Is he going to stay away from me? Shino wondered. I've been taking up a lot of his time lately, but he hasn't complained... Imagine the poor girl's surprise when Kazuto showed up at her classroom the next day, sitting down calmly and starting to eat his lunch. "Aren't you hungry?" he asked Shino when she was staring at him.

"What are you doing here?" she hissed.

He blinked. "Eating lunch," he said blandly. "You should probably do the same. You tend to get grouchy when you don't eat."

"I don't get -" Shino started, and then shook her head. "Never mind that, why are you in my classroom?"

Kazuto grinned slightly. "I'm making a point." He shot a glare over to the same group of girls that had harassed Shino the day before; they looked away, not wanting to meet his gaze. "They shouldn't bother you after this." He gave Shino a stern glare that was softened by the concern in his eyes. "But if they do, you're going to tell me right away, aren't you?"

Shino couldn't stop the smile that came to her face after that. "Yes, Kazuto. Whatever you say."

The students might have been getting nastier and nastier, but Shino found she didn't mind so much. Spending time with Kazuto made her happy, and she felt safe when she was around him. She started opening up to him; one day, she gathered up her courage right after they arrived at her apartment. "Kazuto?" she asked, and the boy turned around curiously. "Would you..." She swallowed; her throat was curiously dry. "Would you like to come in?"

Kazuto blinked and walked over. "Wouldn't your parents mind?"

Shino looked away. "I live alone." It got lonely at times, which was why she always looked forward to seeing Kazuto. There just wasn't anything to do where she lived; she didn't have a TV, and the only other things she could do in the small apartment were homework, studying, and cooking. Needless to say, she didn't really like talking about it much.

"I'd love to come in," Kazuto said, surprising the shy girl. "I've been curious about where you live." With his agreement, Shino, who was already starting to regret the offer - she hadn't had a chance to clean up, and her breakfast dishes were still soaking - couldn't do anything but open the door and show Kazuto around. There wasn't much to show off, since Shino only had a small allowance to pay for her apartment; a single bed and dresser, a desk for her homework, a small table for breakfast, things like that. The kitchen was in a side room where she could cook, and that was where Shino went to make some tea while Kazuto wandered around the small living quarters. She returned and handed him his cup of tea before sitting down on the bed, and he accepted it with a quiet murmur of thanks. "It's nice," he said finally, sitting down on the bed a careful distance away. Shino just sipped at her tea and didn't reply right away. "If it's not prying, why do you live alone?" Kazuto asked gently.

Shino stared at the surface of her drink for a long time. Should I tell him? Finally, she sighed. "My mother is... fragile," she said finally. "When I was two, my family got into a car accident." The memories were so old that they didn't affect her too much, but she still felt the pain. "I watched while my father bled to death." She didn't look at Kazuto while she spoke. "My mother never recovered fully, so I had to protect her." Her mouth twisted into a grimace. "Then, when I was eleven..." She bit her lip and shook her head, looking away.

"What happened?" Kazuto asked gently.

Shino shook her head again. "It's nothing."

"Alright," he said, not pressing the issue further - something Shino was quietly glad about. Instead, he leaned over and gave her a careful hug; when she tensed slightly after a few seconds, Kazuto drew away slightly, so as to not scare her. "Feel better?" he asked quietly. Shino didn't trust her voice to answer the question, so she just nodded yes to the question. "It helps to tell people your secrets," he said then. "When you hold them in, it feels like they're suffocating and that the burden is too much to bear."

"You say that like you have your own secrets," she said, and her voice was quiet and hoarse from the memories that had welled up inside her.

Kazuto grinned, but it wasn't the happy grin Shino was used to. This was a twisted grimace, a parody of a smile. "We all do, don't we?" And that was the end of the topic for the time being.

Shino got to know Kazuto as well during those two months that they were growing closer; because she was shy, she didn't talk much during lunch. Kazuto did the talking for both of them, though, because he had so much to tell her. Whenever she could manage it, however, she would try to figure out just what kind of secret he was keeping; talking about part of her past had made her feel slightly better, and she wanted Kazuto to feel better, since whatever he was holding back was obviously hurting him. It was when he was talking about a shopping trip his sister had dragged him along that he stumbled and gave it away. "...and my co- sister decided that I needed some new clothes too," Kazuto was saying with a pout. "What's wrong with my wardrobe, anyway?"

Shino grinned slightly; the two of them had gone out occasionally on the weekends, and she knew that his 'wardrobe' consisted mostly of dark blue and black shirts. But then she frowned. Did he start to say something before he switched to sister? "Kazuto, what were you going to say before you called Suguha your sister?" she asked. When he winced slightly, she knew she was on the right track.

"Can we just ignore that slip of the tongue?"

Shino shook her head. "We both know I'm going to get to the bottom of this whether you tell me or not, so just save me the trouble, okay?" That's what you said to me a while back, so hah! It felt good for her to use his own words against him.

Kazuto worried at the choices in front of him before finally sighing. "Okay, fine. I'll tell you everything on the way home." Shino nodded, satisfied with that, and went back to her meal. She was anticipating the conversation for the rest of the day, barely able to focus on the material being covered in class. If I miss anything, I'll ask Kazuto, she decided, since his grades are better than mine. Eventually, the final bell rang and she exited the classroom to find Kazuto waiting for her, as usual. They walked home in silence for a while before Kazuto finally turned to Shino. "My parents died when I was a year old," he said bluntly and quickly, as if saying it faster would make it hurt less. "I was adopted by my aunt and raised like her own son." He shrugged. "She never told me about it, but I managed to find my birth certificate on the Net." Figures, Shino thought. He's always going on about those games of his. I wonder what they're like? "When I asked her about it, she told me everything." He laughed bitterly. "Including the fact that my sister was actually my cousin." He shook his head. "Once I knew that, I just started... growing apart from them."

Shino frowned. "You still love them, don't you?"

"Of course," was his instant reply. "Suguha's a great kendo practitioner. She competes in tournaments, and I'm pretty sure she got second in one of them." Shino looked at him and saw that he was smiling honestly. "But the gap between us is so big now."

"Maybe you should try talking to her?" Shino offered hesitantly.

But Kazuto shook his head. "This isn't something that can be fixed by talking about it. I feel guilty, but I've drifted away from her so far that I can't solve this by talking to her." He sighed and from his face Shino could guess that he didn't really want to talk about it again.

And Shino eventually learned – rather in depth and somewhat against her will – where, exactly, he had drifted to, in order to escape from his family: the virtual world, the world of games. Kazuto would always have a sparkle in his eyes when he talked about his games, a kind of energy that he didn't have when he talked about other subjects. He's always so alive when he talks about his games, Shino thought one day while Kazuto was talking about this new technology called the NerveGear. It's kinda adorable. She flushed, suddenly. What was she thinking?

Kazuto stopped talking when he noticed her red face. "Is everything all right, Shino?" he asked her.

"I'm fine, Kazuto," she reassured him. He's always worried about me, Shino realized. I want to become someone that he doesn't have to worry about.

That night, she went to her computer and looked up the NerveGear. The creator of the technology, it turned out, was also developing the first game for it; the first VRMMORPG, called Sword Art Online. There was a form to sign up for the beta testing of the game that would start in August, and Shino filled out the form without even thinking about what she was doing. She wanted to experience Kazuto's world, for once, and this seemed like the best way. Since it was new technology, she'd be able to learn all about Kazuto's world from the beginning.

The week before the beta started, Kazuto was uncharacteristically quiet. "Shino," he started.

"Yes?" Shino was suddenly worried. Had she done something wrong? She couldn't stand losing her only friend.

He fidgeted slightly. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to be busy during August, so we might not be able to hang out as much..."

Shino almost collapsed as relief flooded through her. "Oh, is that it?" She giggled. "I thought you'd gotten tired of having to take care of me." This way, she thought, I'm not the one saying we can't hang out. A week after she had filled out the form and submitted her application, she received an email informing her she had been chosen as one of the lucky thousand beta testers of the game. She briefly wondered about what Kazuto could be doing that would take up so much of the last month of summer vacation, but she didn't think too much about it; instead, she was just glad she didn't have to bring up the subject herself. Convenient timing, though. Must have to do something with his family.

Kazuto shook his head immediately. "I'll never get tired of that," he declared. Catching her hand, he stared into her eyes. "I care about you, Shino, and I want you to be happy. That means I'll stay with you as long as you need me."

He...I...wha... Shino couldn't think anything coherent. His hands were warm around hers, and the heat was quickly rising to her face. What's wrong with me? "I..."

"Oh!" Kazuto suddenly realized that she was red and flushed, and dropped her hand. "I'm sorry, I forgot you're slightly afraid of men..."

"N-No, no," she stammered. "It's okay." A mischievous gleam flashed in her eyes for a split second. "You don't trigger that at all because you look like a girl."


Shino pretended to pout. "To tell the truth, I'm jealous of your looks. You're just so pretty!" She leaned forward to stare closely at Kazuto. "Hmm, maybe if we put some lip gloss on you... I think I have some with me..." Kazuto backed away quickly, fearing for his masculinity, and Shino giggled. They were close friends, and she hoped they always would be.

August 1st, 2022

The next week, a box arrived at Shino's front door; she immediately brought it upstairs and opened it. Just as she had expected, it was the NerveGear and her copy of the beta version of Sword Art Online. She followed the included instructions, plugging in the NerveGear and going through the requested calibrations. She felt a little weird, patting herself all over while alone in her room, but she got through it by telling itself that the game was waiting for her.

After the calibrations were complete, she put the game cartridge in the NerveGear and, lying on the bed, put on the helmet. "Link start!"

When she could finally see again, she was in a character creation screen. There were so many sliders and options, she didn't even know where to start; she looked around to see something almost like a mirror beside her. However, when she waved, the image didn't do the save, and Shino realized that what she had taken for a mirror image was actually a perfect model of what she really looked like. Not creepy at all, Shino thought. Testing out an option at random, a small window appeared with a color wheel in the center, a cursor hovering over a black color; she moved the cursor and her avatar's hair color changed. After playing with the various sliders and options, Shino's avatar had turquoise hair and blue eyes, and although she kept her basic hairstyle she changed the ribbons out for metal clips; she thought her face was slightly cuter, too. The height was the same, though; there was a 'try it!' button that let her walk around with the current settings, and when Shino tried it with a taller height, she almost fell over after her first step.

Finally, all that was left was choosing her name. A different name, a different person, Shino thought, and typed in 'Sinon'. In here, Sinon can be strong enough for Kazuto.

When she appeared in the game proper, she gasped in awe. The surroundings seemed so real that she could swear she was actually standing in a large clearing, staring up at a clear blue sky. She reached up, feeling her virtual body move just like her real one. She looked at the hand in front of her; it looked like a real hand, and when she pinched her cheek she felt the sensation of something touching her cheek. Amazing. It's... real.

"Amazing, isn't it?" A male voice said behind her, and Sinon jumped; she whirled to find a handsome man with a dark blue shirt and jet-black hair standing a few feet away. "I've always thought games like this were just a fantasy, but..." He waved a hand, and Sinon noticed a longsword strapped to his back when he turned slightly. "Here we are."

Sinon had only been startled for a few moments, but she was on her guard through long experience. "...And you are?"

She was brusque, but the man seemed to accept it. "My name is Kirito, icy lady. May I have your name?"

Sinon's eyes narrowed. Is he flirting with me? "Sinon."

Kirito's eyes crinkled in amusement as he grinned. "You don't talk much, do you?"


Kirito nodded, still smiling, and waved in a direction to Sinon's left. "The exit to the city is that way, Sinon. Would you like to train together for a while?" Sinon just raised an eyebrow, and Kirito continued talking. "Normally, I'm a lone wolf in multiplayer games, and I'm assuming by your...er...reticence, you're the same. However, since we don't have much practice in this game, it might be safer to team up for a while." Kirito gave Sinon a once-over, and nodded slowly. "You've chosen a dagger?" He shrugged his shoulder, rattling the scabbard on his back. "I'm using a longsword, so we might work well together. What do you say?"

Sinon studied the overly-handsome man standing there, waiting for her answer. He looks like a model, she thought. But he's not scaring me. A small smile crept onto her lips. I knew I'd be stronger in this world. "For now," she said finally. For a day or two. And then I'll split away from him.

Kirito nodded with a smile. "Well, then, shall we get to work?" He swiped his right hand downward in a gesture Sinon memorized, opening his menu; after a second, Sinon received an invitation to join his party. She accepted, and the two made their way out to the rest of the world.

Just under a month later, Sinon entered the most recent town – the one on the 10th Floor – in a burst of light caused by a teleport crystal. Brushing her hair out of her eyes, she sighed with exhaustion; it had been a long afternoon of fighting, and she had died twice – once when she made a mistake, and once trying to retrieve her equipment. After she had calmed down and taken her time, though, she was able to kill the forest elves that had been menacing her and retrieve her equipment. She even managed to finish a quest she hadn't really wanted to take – it was just a simple monster killing quest that only rewarded her with Col and experience, but taking quests had become so ingrained in her actions that she had accepted it without even thinking about what she was doing. Teach me to pay attention, she thought ruefully as she rolled her shoulder. She had felt an ache in there from throwing so many knives, even though this world was virtual; she preferred to stay back and use the ranged throwing knives, rather than get in the thick of combat like a muscle-bound idiot. That wasn't to say she couldn't use her dagger – she was quick enough with the blade sheathed on her hip, especially when using a throwing knife would just be a waste of resources – but that she felt more comfortable out of the direct fighting. She had built her character to be a mix of agility and dexterity; the agility let her move around and avoid attacks, while the dexterity increased her throwing speed and accuracy.


She blinked, and looked over to see Kirito waving as he enjoyed a drink at a café. Oh, it's Kirito, she thought. Think of the muscle-bound idiot. A small smile crept onto her lips as she made her way over to him and sat down. "Kirito."

Kirito chuckled and sipped at his tea. "Still refusing to string more than three words together?" The two players had gotten to become fairly close friends over the month of the beta test; while they hadn't fought together all that often, they still partied occasionally for one of the harder quests or boss fights. In fact, they were some of the stronger players in the game, being two of the rare few willing to fight on the 10th Floor.

"No," Sinon replied with a smile. Kirito was one of two people she knew that could actually get under her skin and get her angry; however, most of the time the two friends just bantered back and forth. I haven't seen Kazuto in a while, she thought with a sudden pang of chagrin. She had gotten so into the game and fighting in the world of Sword Art Online that she hadn't seen Kazuto for at least two weeks. I hope he's not angry with me... She noticed Kirito seemed somewhat uneasy. "Something wrong?"

Kirito nodded slowly. "I have this friend in the real world, and we're really close. Thing is, I've been playing this game so much the past month that I haven't gotten the chance to hang out with her much." Lucky girl, Sinon thought enviously. Kirito seemed like a bit of a jerk at first – standoffish and a bit of a flirt, if she was being honest with herself – but she had gotten to know him over the course of the month and recognized the kind heart inside the perfect exterior. Kirito stopped and looked at Sinon speculatively. "Hey, Sinon, you're a girl, right?"

"You noticed. I'm flattered," Sinon replied dryly. But she knew why Kirito asked; it wasn't to be rude, but to make sure the gender of the player was the same as the gender of the avatar. Sinon had been forced to play as a male for an hour or two thanks to some mischievous faeries on the 5th Floor, and she figured it would be inconvenient to play as a male for the entire time she was logged in. Some people might be into that sort of thing, though, so I can't really judge.

Kirito looked away and scratched his cheek in embarrassment. "Sorry, that came out long. What I meant is, since you're a girl, maybe you could give me some advice on how to deal with this? She's a really good friend, and I'd hate it if she got mad at me."

He's asking me? Sinon thought incredulously. I don't even know how to deal with my own situation. "I'd say just say hello the next time you can," she said finally. "If you two are that close, she'll probably just be glad to see you again." I hope Kazuto won't be too mad... Sinon worried. But he did say he was busy this month...

Kirito grinned, unaware of Sinon's private issues. "Thanks, Sinon. That helps a lot." He blinked, then. "Wait, did you actually say two whole sentences?"

"No." Sinon grinned at the exasperated look her friend gave her. This is fun.

Modified: 12/25/14 (modified the middle segment so it was less shitty)

Hi. I was reading some stuff, and I wondered, 'What would happen if Shino and Kazuto were friends?' Not gonna lie, I was inspired to write this by 'The Swordsman and The Archer', by eXSum (which is pretty good, but I thought I could do better. eXSum, if you see this, no offense – I'm just an egotistical prick like that).

Stuff about this story:

1) Third-person limited. As such, we'll be able to hear the thoughts of the person who's shoulder we're riding, but that's it.

2) Point of View will probably change around now and then, but it'll mostly stick with Shino. Because I adore her character arc. As for her characterization, I don't have that much experience with her yet, but hopefully this will fix that issue; she might seem a little broken right now, but remember, by the time we met her in Phantom Menace - er, Phantom Bullet - she had already spent several months perfecting her Sinon persona. Plus, an extra two or three years to deal with the bullying.

3) Italics are the point of view character's thoughts; BOLD (that's not in an author's note) is a system announcement.

4) The main pairing for this is Kirito and Sinon, but there will definitely be some Kirito and his harem. Not gonna say more; you'll have to read on and find out.

5) I figured that Kirito, in the beta test, would be somewhat of a flirt. Just because he's playing a role and he made his avatar that way and all. Feel free to tell me I'm stupid and dumb for this decision.

6) Sinon will be kinda snarky internally – and externally, when it comes to Kirito – as will other characters; this is because I have a crippling affliction (the medical term is wise-ass syndrome) that forces me to write characters with sarcasm dripping from their every word. I will do my best to control myself, but I can't guarantee anything. (I also have an affliction that requires me to give every main character a cool title. This, I will not be controlling)

7) As mentioned above, this story was inspired by 'The Swordsman and the Archer' by eXSum, and I did get their permission to use some of the story details in the beginning. However, in an attempt to avoid having the two stories be too similar, I have most of this story planned out already. Therefore, any similarities between the two stories beyond the first few chapters (few meaning four or five, until the 1st Floor boss fight) are purely coincidental.

Above all please leave a review if you like what's here, or if you think I can fix some things. Please, tell me; that's the only way I can get better as a writer. I'm experimenting a little bit with this one, so tell me what you think!

Thanks to ThisIsTheGreastestUsername for the story cover!