Mystic Knight Online

Outside - The Fifth Lap

March 18, 2024 - From Yomiuri Shimbun

Yesterday, in SAO, two groups of players moved on and attacked members of the group called Laughing Coffin, killing thirty of them, while capturing twenty-five others. The purpose of this coordinated attack was to put an end to a group of up to fifty players which was responsible for more than two hundred murders in SAO.

Both the leaders of the groups, Asuna (Real Name: Asuna Yuuki, sixteen) and Hadrian (Real Name: Harry Potter, fourteen) had made the decision to authorize the use of lethal force. During the briefings to the groups, called raids in SAO, they had explained this, and gave players the opportunity to not participate with no repercussions.

The decision to authorize the use of lethal force has been condemned by many circles. However, given that Laughing Coffin would be trying to kill them, and that all those going in knew this, other opinions see the authorization as a regrettable necessity in light of the threat Laughing Coffin posed to players.

Judicial decisions on the part of those acting against Laughing Coffin has been consistent in not pressing charges, citing exceptional circumstances. These decisions are made in the light of the fact that, while the identified Laughing Coffin members had been remanded to law enforcement custody, the circumstances of their being in SAO meant that their own actions could not be halted without disconnecting them from SAO. Legal experts have been mixed in opinions as to whether doing so unilaterally and without going through proper judicial channels was legal, so what had been done was considered an acceptable compromise while a legal decision was investigated.

Sources within the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Internal Affairs have said that the compromise solution was made with the knowledge that the players within SAO may take matters into their own hands out of a legitimate fear for their safety or the safety of others, According to sources within the Ministry of Justice, the chances of any of the players who participated in ending the threat of Laughing Coffin facing prosecution are low.

However, all participants are to be expected to be interviewed and given thorough psychological evaluations after they are freed from SAO. For the survival Laughing Coffin members, this is to determine their mental competence to stand trial. If found so, they will stand trial; if not, they will be remanded to psychiatric confinement.

For the participants in the raid, the evaluations are to see what degree of counseling they will need so that they may safely reintegrate back into society.

March 21, 2024 - Chiyoda, SAO Task Force HQ

Seijiro Kikuoka looked over the report that had been compiled by the team that had been monitoring the efforts of the players inside SAO to deal with the threat that Laughing Coffin posed to them. He hadn't been surprised when they had taken matters into their own hands, as nothing short of their pulling the plug on them outside SAO would have stopped that group, an issue he had raised, and so when they started patrolling and containing while preparations were being made and spies were being rooted out, he had sent a note to the interested departments.

Their response, that a wait and see approach was being taken, was just as unsurprising. Disappointing, but unsurprising. It was as if they were simply acting as if nothing would come of it, despite the analyses repeatedly showing otherwise. It was as if they expected them to remain model Japanese civilians and let the authorities handle it all when it was their lives on the line.

He had over a dozen psychologists working as part of the taskforce specifically to get a handle on the current and potential psychological issues at hand, and even a few sociologists who could provide insights into the distinct culture emerging amongst the victims. All of the psychological and sociological reports pointed to a simple fact: the players wouldn't wait for the government to make a decision, and would take matters into their own hands.

And four days ago, they acted, decisively so.

Of the Laughing Coffin members, both attacks combined killed a total of thirty, with twenty-five survivors. Many who had tuned in to the streams and watched it had flooded, were still flooding, various forums with their shock at the brutality and savagery of the fighting, that those attacking them had gone in and used lethal force, and not as a last resort, but one of the means that was seen as probably necessary.

It should have been a clear warning to them all when those in charge had spelled it out that using lethal force wasn't a last resort, merely one that was likely to be necessary far more than they liked. They were then given the option for players to back out with no repercussions, another warning sign right there.

And to make it even worse, at least for those looking in from outside, it was a sixteen year old and fourteen year old who lead the groups, gave the briefing, and then allowed those who could not see themselves killing in good conscience to walk away. Not adults, but children.

It resulted in, as the Americans would put it, a shitstorm of unprecedented proportions. He knew of several people either aggressively engaged in damage control, or simply acting as restraining influences on some of the more… crusading members of the government.

He looked back at the report, in particular the psychological assessments of several key players. They made for grim reading in many respects, as they indicated that when they got out, a large number of them were likely to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to varying degrees. Though, Seijiro was with the American philosopher and comedian Carlin in thinking Shell Shock was more honest a term.

And that didn't even account for any final judgments that the Diet and the Judiciary made in light of this incident.

He doubted that they would face any legal repercussions for this, not after legal decisions made beforehand had declined to prosecute what was clearly self-defense and defense of others. As was noted in his last conversation with the Ministry of Justice, their actions still technically qualified as such, even if it was a bit preemptive.

Laughing Coffin had proven itself to be a danger to everyone in SAO.

Setagaya. Yuuki Residence

Kyouko seethed as she walked into the room she used as an office in her own home. They had just gotten back from Kyoto after visiting the rest of the Yuuki family and their comments on Asuna's actions a few days ago. While it hadn't outright been threatened, the level of disapproval by her in-laws and her husband's cousins and such had implied that disowning Asuna was being considered for the apparent shame she brought to the family name.

Damn them! She thought angrily. She did what was necessary. To ensure her own survival, and to ensure as many would make it out alive as practicable. And what do they say? That she is an embarrassment to the family!

What was there to bring shame to the family name? The fact that she killed? The fact that she led people in a battle against players who posed a significant threat to those simply trying to free themselves?

Neither Shouzou, herself, nor Kouichirou would have it, and they had all simply packed their bags and returned to Tokyo, with Shouzou coldly informing the rest of the family that such comments and considerations were disgraceful in the extreme. He added that if they were serious, and carried out what they were implying, then he would not help with the damage control. He had been looking directly at his older brother, the current family head, Ryo, who had been silent in his own judgments, when he made that statement.

The implied ultimatum was clear, and Ryo nodded in understanding.

As much as she, herself, didn't approve of many of Asuna's choices and actions inside SAO, she hadn't found anything that would be disgraceful or that would bring shame to the family name. Perhaps be a minor scandal in their own right, at worst, but that was at worst. If anything…

She thought back to her brother-in-law's reaction, or lack of reaction through it all and realized something. He hadn't reacted, save only to nod and accept Shouzou's words, despite the implied meaning behind them. That was unlike him, as he would have tried to talk his brother around from that. That meant… That meant that both of them had discussed this earlier and had planned it all. It meant that Ryo was fully aware of what was going on, and was making further plans.

Part of her anger dissipated with the revelation, and she turned her thoughts more specifically to Asuna.

Kyouko could see a lot of her younger self in her daughter, despite the differences between their personalities. She hadn't been content with her situation after getting trapped in SAO, and was actively working to change it. She showed a drive and commitment to succeed that reminded Kyouko of how she had be equally driven in her own youth. And the differences were no less striking. Asuna wore her heart on her sleeve, while Kyouko was impassive. Passionate, where her mother was cold. Asuna had a quiet dignity and natural elegance about her, whereas her mother's was forceful and artificial.

Similar, yet different indeed. Kyouko did see one simple fact, though. SAO had brought out the best in the girl.

Yes, there was quite a bit that she didn't necessarily approve of with regards to her daughter's actions in SAO. Both what was done, and what was likely to happen in the future. All she had to do was consider the partnership and friendship with that one boy, Kirito. He was growing close to Asuna, and she didn't approve of how close.

She didn't dislike the boy, she simply doubted that he would amount to anything much after SAO, and she wanted Asuna's future to be secure. She doubted that the boy would be able to properly take care of her daughter in a way befitting the girl. He would try, Kyouko could see that, but she seriously doubted that he would succeed in doing so.

Then again, she thought. The boy's ability to instinctively understand SAO's system means that he might show promise as a software or hardware developer. Might want to talk it over with Shouzou and see what he thinks.

If the boy really does show promise, then perhaps it could be nurtured. After all, if what she saw happening carried over into the real world, and there was no indication that it wouldn't, then perhaps he could be groomed to be worthy of Asuna.

As she started considering potential plans for the future, the last of her anger slowly dissipated. It was far too early for anything to be set in stone, and the entire situation might not happen anyway, but Kyouko would rather have a plan in place and not need it, than be surprised by something, and not have a plan to deal with it.

March 22, 2024 - Hogwarts, Headmaster's Office.

"Isn't that one of Albert's books?"

Albus didn't look up from his reading. "Yes. One he wrote with Chip."

Minerva's voice was lightly teasing. "How to Control Your Anger Before It Controls You?"

"Minerva," Albus said as quietly as he could manage, "I have not even seen what Harry has had to do this time. Only heard second hand. Already today, Fawkes has had to calm me twice- once to stop me from going after certain contributors to the Prophet's Editorial Pages, and once to stop me from violently violating the rules of order for the Wizengamot."

Albus knew his voice was far rougher than he preferred. He was more the old soldier than the seasoned diplomat right now, and he hated that part of him. He used it when he had to, but he hated how he gained it.

He focused a moment and forced his grip on the book to relax. The binding was creaking. He had no doubt his knuckles had been white. Those who knew him, knew it as a warning sign of just how barely controlled his fury was.

"I would ask what the Prophet printed this time to get you furious enough to need a guide to restraining your anger," Minerva said. "But I read what you did. Skeeter wasn't as… vitriolic as she sometimes is, but others?"

"Rita's restraining herself," Albus allowed. "It was the op-ed by Terry Skudge and some of the letters to the editor..."

Minerva sighed. "I sometimes wonder if he's even aware of how dangerous poking some dragons can be," she said. "Rita knows when she can, and cannot, go that far, and she sticks to the facts. Distorted, twisted, and poisoned by her quill, as they may sometimes end up, true, but she sticks to the facts. She also pays attention to public sentiment, which Skudge seems to forget to do so on a regular basis."

"Skudge has never even met Harry, and he judges him, and says who 'the supposed hero' is. Admittedly, Harry would hardly call what he had to do heroic, and more like an unpleasant action done out of grim necessity, but the fact remains that he did it for the sake of others. Skudge doesn't recognize that, and this was a man who was on our side." Albus sighed, working his rage into a more controllable annoyance tinged with regret. "What makes it worse for me, is that I am partially responsible for Harry likely seeing it that way. After what happened with the Stone, and Quirinus' death... I didn't deny the grave nature of what he did. I told him that, while tragic that it was him who was forced by circumstance to kill a man, Quirinus had brought it upon himself. I told him that we may end up doing things that would seem as a betrayal to our dream of a better world than what we currently have. And I told him that his feelings on it, his guilt, his disgust with himself, and his hatred of what he did... that those were good things. That they meant that he wasn't becoming a monster like Tom.

"He confronted him that night, you know. He came face-to-face with the man who murdered his parents. And I wonder, was it the fact that he had a chance for revenge that led him into killing a man, albeit one who was a dead man walking? Perhaps it was, and understandable if so. Or, as I think more likely, that he acted out of pure self-preservation and used the tools available. I don't know, and I never asked." He sighed again.

"I constantly get reminded about how flawed our world is. That everything I have worked for, to leave the world even a little better off than it was for me in my youth, may never be enough. It makes me sometimes wonder if I will even succeed."

"You can't do it all on your own, Albus." Minerva said gently. "People have a tendency to act on their own and in a way they see fit, and you can't control that. Sometimes, it works out, and sometimes it doesn't."

"And sometimes, they diffindo their own feet off," Albus admitted. "Most of the letters in response to Skudge's Op-Ed were supportive, and I don't doubt that more than a few were accompanied by their own added surprises. The supposed sheep turn into capable hounds when pushed too far."

There was silence a moment, and then he heard Minerva removing some parchment from his desk. "Let me just clear your docket a bit, there, seeing as how I've got the free time to bug you."

It was then Albus was able to look up at her. He knew his smile was weak. "Thank you, old friend."

She arched her eyebrows at him.

"I was referring-" he began to explain with a rueful chuckle.

"I'm ninety-eight years young, Albus," Minerva quipped. "I'm the one who should be calling you an old friend."

"My long-time friend, then," Albus amended. Then he smirked at her. "Fillius' turn to check on me next?"

"Severus. If only for that old quip," Minerva shot back.

He gave a put upon sigh. "You all care for me far too much."

"Deal with it," Minerva said, exiting. Before the door closed, she added, "Mad old coot."

March 24, 2024 - Toshima, Ikebukuro General Hospital

Motoko Kashiwazaka looked at her daughter, Hiyori, as she pondered the last few days. She hadn't watched what had happened last week, and didn't want to, but she had heard about it, and seen the effects it had on the girl. She had gotten her daughter to try SAO, with the hopes that the virtual reality would help break her out of her chronic shyness and give the girl some confidence in herself.

Well, it had worked, to a degree. While Hiyori wasn't going to become a social butterfly any time soon, she was able to be more social now. Where there was once a girl who constantly doubted herself due to her perceived failure to meet expectations, she was more confident and self-assured in herself. It all showed in how the girl carried herself, and it was one consequence of SAO that she sincerely hoped would transfer over.

How the self-doubt came about was still a mystery to Motoko, but she would admit in the privacy of her own mind that it might have stemmed from a lack of stated expectations. It could have been perceived by Hiyori as her mother having given up any hope for her daughter's success.

So, seeing Hiyori in SAO, going under the name of Lux there, break out of that shell had been considered one of the few good things that had come out of the entire incident so far, regardless of the dangers her daughter routinely courted due to it. However, what had happened a few days ago could easily undo it.

Had she been a different woman, Motoko might have blamed those her daughter associated with, one of whom had a notorious reputation in SAO as someone who was fully willing to use lethal force if he saw it necessary. As it was, she saw how the boy had talked to her daughter, how he hadn't hidden how serious it was to kill someone. She heard him talk, and say that it never got any easier afterward, and that he hoped it never did. And she heard him apologize for not encouraging her to either sit it out, or be a part of the prisoner teams.

Her daughter had been a bit miffed with that, informing him rather sharply that she had made her choice to join them in this, and that both he and Silica were her friends. She would be there to back them up, and pointed out that is exactly what she did. She admitted that she was disgusted with herself for killing a man, but if she hadn't, then what would have happened to Silica?

He nodded, acknowledging her point, and said that if it ever became too much for her to deal with, she had friends who would help. Not in getting over it, he admitted that he hadn't gotten over it after that incident back in June, and hoped he never did. But they would help her cope with it and keep it from dragging her down. In time, he assured her, it would become less of a burden and easier to bear, but it would never disappear.

That was a few days ago, and Motoko saw that Hiyori was beginning to recover, or at least cope with what had happened. That young man, Hadrian seemed to be right about it. It would take time, but she had people who would be there for her.

If only she could be there for her daughter, instead of out here.

Though, it did help that her mood had begun to improve. Trust an impending wedding she was invited to be a bridesmaid at to do so. That it involved the same friends who had been there for her was a bonus, and the fact that they were close enough friends to have her be one of the bridesmaids, was even better.

That the two getting married were awfully young didn't matter to her. It made her daughter happy, and that was enough for her.

March 26, 2024 - Smeltings

"I would have thought you smarter than this, Piers, but that was probably hoping for too much." Dudley said in a surprisingly calm voice. "Yeah, I can say anything in response to what you say about Harry and have you call me out on my hypocrisy, but I don't care. I treated him like shit back then, I know it, you know it, and he knows it. But it's not about him, is it? It never was.

"This is because I don't do the shit I did before coming here anymore, isn't it?" He sneered. "I'm no longer… fun to be around."

"That's right Dursley." Piers said. "You're no fun. I mean, look at you! You used to be the big shit back in primary, but now you're as boring as the rest. What happened to ya?"

"It's called wanting to be more than a chav," Dudley replied. "It's called realizing that my cousin is a better person than I can hope to be. It's called taking a look at myself, and not liking what I saw. It's called, Piers Polkiss, growing up. You might want to try it."

"Wait, Harry? Better than you?" Piers asked incredulously. "Dud, Harry killed three people! He's a murderer!"

"He killed more than that, actually," Dudley replied calmly, and almost smirked at Piers' shock. "I think the number is ten or so now." He shrugged. "But you're ignoring something. All those people he killed? They were trying to kill him, or one of his friends first. I think it means that he had some good reasons for what he did, don't you? Also, it sounds like you've been getting your information from the Daily Mail, and if you believe what comes out of that rag..." He shook his head.

"But I thought-"

"Piers, my parents were lying about all that shit, but let's not change the bloody subject," Dudley said. "All of this? It's about how I refuse to get in on your games now, to be the big man that a wannabe chav like you can hide behind. It's because I refuse to be a bully, and you don't like it because you can't simply follow in and get your kicks in as well once I start it since you don't have the stones to do it yourself without someone else beating them down for you."

He then shrugged. "What can I say? The teachers remember my dad, and didn't want a Vernon Junior on campus. They kept us in separate classes and dorms, as they actually talked to our teachers from before we came here. You know, the same ones who knew what was going on, but were scared to do anything about it because your dad would get them fired?

"Let me make it clear to you, Piers, if it hadn't dawned on you already. This. Isn't. There. The teachers and the headmaster? They remember my dad, kept me from the rest of you, and they rode my ass hard to break whatever bullshit my dad filled my head with. Hell, I think the only reason he didn't get expelled is because grandpa was one of the school governors at the time."

"What the hell you saying?"

Dudley sighed. "What I am saying, is that I changed, and you haven't. Now go away, Piers. You're wasting my time."

April 2, 2024 - Chiyoda, Nihon University Hospital

Airi Karatachi shot the man who entered the hospital room a cold look. "Pyotr, now you come to see our eldest daughter," she said in Russian. "No phone calls, no letters, you just come by, and over a year after Nijika was trapped in SAO. Why now?"

"Airi, can we at least not have this discussion in front of Nanairo?" He asked in Japanese, stepping aside and gently moving the thirteen year old girl who had come with him to the fore. "You have good reasons for being angry at me, but this is a conversation that should be had privately."

Shooting her ex-husband a chilly look for a moment longer, she relented and turned a much warmer gaze to the girl she hadn't seen in almost a decade.

Nanairo, her youngest daughter. Her little Rainbow was here, in Japan.

She could tell that she wasn't recognized by those painfully familiar brown eyes, which met her own, shining with curiosity. That she wasn't recognized, while painful, was unsurprising. Nanairo had been four when she and Pyotr divorced, and it had been nine years since then, more than long enough for her to forget both her mother and older sister. She could see that her daughter was dressed in simple slacks and a blouse, and that she was carrying a small satchel, the contents of which she didn't know. It didn't matter to her, either way.

"You're… my mother?" She asked in halting Japanese. Taking a look at Nijika, she turned back to Airi. "And she… is my sister?"

Airi nodded, tears in her eyes.

"Nanairo," Pyotr said gently in English. "Why don't you spend some time here and introduce yourself to your sister. Your mother and I have a long overdue talk that we need to have. We'll be right outside."

Airi was about to protest, as she wanted to spend time with her youngest, but she saw her ex-husband shake his head.

"Airi," he said in Russian. "You'll have time for this later, and I think you have some rather pointed things you want to say to me anyway." He looked at Nijika's form. "As will she when she gets out of there, though I may have to correct her on her swearing when she does." He shook his head. "It's like she learned them from Google Translate."

Airi blinked, and then grudgingly nodded. Looking at her youngest daughter, she gave Nanairo a gentle smile. "Nanairo," she said in heavily accented English. "It will only take a moment." She looked at Pyotr and switched to Russian. "And you are right, Pyotr, this talk is long overdue."

##

Nanairo Arshavin looked at the young woman who was her older sister lying on the bed, her thin frame seeming far smaller than it probably was. She had read up on the means being used to minimize the effects of prolonged physical inactivity for the SAO victims. It couldn't prevent the atrophy or the wasting effects, the lack of food and sufficient calories ensured that, but it would keep them alive and reasonably healthy for the duration.

However, it wasn't her sister's physical state that was a concern of hers, or at least not entirely. She knew that medical technology could do a great number of things, so there were no worries there. Nijika would likely require a long recovery period after all this was done, not only to return to a healthy weight, but simply to be able to do day to day tasks, but the success it was basically guaranteed.

Reaching into her satchel, she pulled out a tablet. Turning it on, checked the Wi-Fi signal and found it sufficient for what she wanted. Opening the tablet's browser, she quickly brought up Nijika's feed. Putting the tablet to the side, she carefully took her sister's thin hand into her own.

"Hello… sister," she said. "I guess it's been awhile. Dad tells me that the little Russian I remember, like privyet and dosvidaniya, were taught to me by you. He… explained the reasons for the divorce to me, and splitting us up.

"If I had known, no, if I remembered you, if I hadn't been so caught up in my research to finish my thesis, and had known about all this sooner… well, as one of my professors at MIT who mentored me would say, 'fuck the research, family's more important.'"

She looked over to where Nijika's activities inside SAO were playing. Her sister seemed to be with several girls and they were simply walking through a town.

She turned her attention back to her sister on the hospital bed. "I'd heard about what happened a couple of weeks ago." She added. "I won't ask you why you were there, I know I don't know enough about it all, but… you seem to be managing fairly well, all things considered. I saw what happened, and it sucks that you had to… do what you did, but… I can't condemn you for it."

A brief sound of voices, clearly raised, came from outside the hospital room. "And it sounds as if dad is getting torn a new one," she said. "From the sounds of it, both are probably glad that the only Russian I know is what dad says you taught me."

She looked back at the tablet and saw that her sister had entered some sort of clothing store. From the looks of it, they were… trying on dresses? And, oh wow! Did all of them just put on something that fancy? All of them looked beautiful! Like so many noblewomen from one of those fantasy novels or period dramas that her associates talked about. And that one girl, the youngest… Silica, if she remembered correctly, was wearing something fit for a princess. Not a Disney Princess, or something more historically accurate, but with how ornate it was… wow.

She would admit to feeling a bit jealous right then and there.

Something interesting seemed to be happening. She turned the volume up on the tablet, she wanted to see if they were going to discuss what it might be. Whatever it is, it must be important.

They were discussing a wedding, and… wait, what?! The youngest of them was the one getting married? She couldn't be much older than herself! If that girl was older than fourteen, she would eat her thesis, all one hundred and fifty pages of it.

So she paid attention to what was going on, and she idly brought out a notepad and pen to take notes. She would normally use her tablet, but it was being used for her to see what was going on. She started writing down her observations and idly wondered what the sociologists back at MIT would think of this.

##

As he reentered the hospital room, Pyotr Mikhailovich Arshavin was almost tempted to take stock of his body and ensure that his ex-wife hadn't flayed off any skin during her diatribe at him. The language she used, the tone, all of it was fit to draw blood, and it reminded him that while she looked like a demure little flower, even now, there was a fire in her fit to cause a Moscow winter to turn into summer.

The only restraint she showed was to keep her voice down, and that was largely out of consideration for the rest of the hospital's patients and those visiting them. If anything, it made her fury at him all the more striking, as he could tell that she was restraining herself from either flaying him alive verbally, or making him a patient at the hospital after she was done ripping his skin off with her bare hands.

Her spirit certainly hadn't dimmed in the nine years since their divorce.

He would be honest with himself, he had more than deserved it. He wouldn't apologize for his decisions, but he was fully aware that he had done more harm than good in the long run with them. However, aside from ensuring that Nanairo's gifted intelligence was nurtured, he also wanted to keep her off the Russian government's radar.

He had seen the writing on the wall, how Putin was taking Russia in a direction that was far too similar to the Soviet Union he remembered, and not fondly, from his youth. While he could have been wrong at the time, he wanted to get his daughter out of there and to a place that would properly nurture her gifts, not exploit them, or let those gifts wither on the vine.

Japan… likely wouldn't have nurtured them, or at least not nurtured her gifted intelligence properly. The Americans, however, had a well-established system in place for prodigies. He had tried to talk Airi into coming along and bringing Nijika, but she could be every bit as stubborn as him, and she wanted nothing to do with it, and instead wanted Nanairo to have a normal childhood.

She would never have had one, not with her intelligence, and not in Japan. She would have been isolated, ostracized... and given her mixed heritage, she would likely be a victim of prejudice. He never asked if that was the case with Nijika, Airi hadn't said anything, and wouldn't have anyway. He wouldn't be surprised, though, if that was so. No nation or culture was completely free of prejudice or xenophobia, no matter how they pretended otherwise.

He listened to Nanairo connect with her mother, the girl's insistence on using Japanese so very much like her, and then turned his attention to Nijika.

He knew what she had gone through in SAO, had watched some of it even, and he knew that she had risen to the challenge. Not all of her actions were necessarily praiseworthy, not in this day and age, but at the same time, they did fill him with pride. Pride in that she was strong enough to take what had been thrown at her and respond to it with steely determination. Pride in the fact that she didn't cower in the face of threats, but faced them head on. And pride in the fact that she did not deny her own heritage.

At the same time, he also worried for her. Would she be able to remain strong in the face of it all? Would the weight of her actions be a burden on her? And would her own story end in tragedy, like so many of the fairy tales she loved as a child did? He had read her the older, harsher, versions of many, the ones that made what those two German brothers collected and curated seem gentle. Did she draw strength or pessimism from them?

He sighed to himself. The Curse of the Parent: Never knowing whether you influenced your child for good or ill- or as a friend had put it: "When they do bad, you ask what you did wrong. When they do well, you wonder if it had anything to do with you."

He turned to Nanairo's tablet and saw his eldest in it. She seemed happy, and from what she was wearing as she walked out of a clothing store with her companions, she seemed to have found a well to draw strength from. If not from the stories she was told, or her own heritage, then from her friends. He noted the way red armor and clothing fit her, and how the sword she carried across her back seemed a part of her and nodded.

Yes, she was indeed strong. Where Nanairo was strong in mind, Nijika was strong in heart. He just hoped that strength would carry her through this.

April 10, 2024 - Shiba Mansion

"Romantic as what they're planning is, those two are too young to get married," Raye said.

Looking up from watching the computer monitor, Ami quirked an eyebrow. "You've said that before Raye," she commented. "When Gus and I got married, if I recall."

The Hispanic girl shrugged. "You weren't even twenty when you two did," she replied. "I'll admit, the whole situation with Kaguya kind of forced things a bit between you two, but I still think you both should have waited a couple of years."

"Too late to change it now, Raye," Ami said. "We'll have to deal with things as they come."

"I still stand by what I said back then, though."

"Naturally."

"Still, those two are fourteen," Raye added, turning to the screen to see August and several others having a few drinks at a tavern somewhere in SAO. "You and August were adults, if only barely, when you two married. Those two aren't, I don't care how mature they are. If they were a couple of years older, then sure, I wouldn't make a fuss. Well, not much of one at any rate."

"I notice that you don't deny that you would still raise a fuss," Ami said drily.

Raye shrugged. "I just have reservations as to the wisdom of those two getting married." She said. "I mean, are they doing this because they really love each other? Or are they simply being hormonal teenagers?"

Ami considered those two questions and could admit that she didn't know. For her and her husband, it was a bit of both, since they were eighteen when they married. Adults, at least by American standards, but still teenagers. For Harry Potter and… Keiko Ayano, if she recalled, this marriage was more a recognition of their relationship, and she wouldn't be surprised if their being, as Raye put it, hormonal teenagers, had something to do with it.

She knew that both were aware that even if they got married in game, it wouldn't apply in the real world anyway. She didn't know how both the Japanese and British governments would see it, only that they wouldn't recognize it as valid. How any of the more directly concerned parties would react to it, however, was in the air.

It was too early to make any guesses on the matter, anyway.

"We don't have a say in what they do in there, Raye," she said. "We're here, they're there. The Saotomes and whoever speaks for Potter, may have a say in it, but not us. It's not like we would have a say in the matter, and I could remind you of what Gus said the fifth or sixth time you raised the issue with us."

Raye met her friend's smirk. "Fair enough. I do have to be careful not to be talking just to be heard."

April 15, 2024 - Setagaya, RECT HQ

Shiro Kunikida kept an eye on the monitor, checking the input and output of information to see if his idea would work. Having heard about the event, which was kind of difficult not to, considering that it was the talk of those trapped in SAO for weeks, he had an idea that he had brought to one of the men he knew was spying on Sugou for the CEO.

He'd worked for RECT for over a decade, so he knew how things worked here, and any major project always had at least one man who reported directly to Mr. Yuuki to ensure he wasn't being lied to. Considering the tendency for project leads to want to avoid telling those in charge things they didn't want to hear, that wasn't always a bad decision. So long as he wasn't, then nothing needed to be worried about. However, it seemed that Sugou apparently didn't get the memo that he was being watched.

And that didn't count the fact that some of those hired on were probably from the government to provide their own quiet oversight. Institutionally corrupt it might seem to some, Japan's government was not comprised of fools and incompetents.

True, it said that the man didn't always trust his subordinates, but it also showed that he was smart enough to have a finger on the pulse of things going on. And considering what Sugou was up to, that kind of natural suspicion was very warranted. Nothing illegal, yet, but he had seen some of the data, and it had raised several red flags for him.

Shaking those thoughts out of his mind, he looked back at the information on the screen. He was trying to tap directly into the feeds that streamed information of what was going on in SAO, and was hoping that he could combine the perspectives just enough to give a fuller picture of what was going on.

More as an exercise on his part, since Kayaba had managed to have the feeds come from a separate partition within the servers that had firewalls surrounding the source point, forming a DMZ. He wanted to see if it was possible to take the multiple perspectives from several players, and combine them.

He would then see if he could create a temporary connection to the ALO servers, using a virtual network that could be terminated easily, and see if information could pass through that way. ALO's security was based off of data gained from mining the SAO beta servers, so if it could be done, then perhaps what went one way, could go the other.

It might not get the players out, but it might just allow them to open up lines of communication with them, given time. Perhaps only via ALO, but even so, it would be a step in the right direction. The idea looked good on paper, but he still had to test it, and with such a major event, this was the perfect time to do so.

Alfheim, Swilvane

Leafa stared in shock at what she saw what was being shown. She had no idea that it was possible to broadcast something into ALO, but apparently it was.

If so, why wait until now? She thought to herself. She took a more careful look at what was being broadcast in, and realized that it wasn't something inside ALO, or even something from some random part of the web. No, it was something she recognized. How could she not? She did regularly watch it.

They were being shown an event from SAO, and if she were to place a bet, she knew what event it was. An event which had been the talk of the school for weeks from those who actively watched what was going on in SAO, the wedding between Hadrian and Silica. She had known about it, of course, how could she not? Kazuto was a part of the same guild and he was actively involved in helping set it up.

"Interesting, is it not?" A woman asked from behind.

Turning, Leafa saw the faction leader, Sakuya watching what was being shown. The woman who was in charge of the Sylph faction in Alfheim Online, or ALO for short, was fairly tall, taller than average for the sylphs, and extremely well endowed, not that Leafa could complain about that with how her own avatar's figure turned out.

If I had breasts this big in the real world, I'd be hitting them all the time during kendo practice, and not even a sarashi would be able to bind them well enough, she thought idly. Not to mention Lady Sakuya's endowments. How she swings that katana of hers without knocking them around or spilling out of her kimono is beyond me.

"It is interesting Lady Sakuya," she agreed, keeping her thoughts on how they looked in virtual reality to herself. "I knew that the wedding was today, but I didn't expect to log on and see it playing for everyone to see. Any idea how that was pulled off?"

"I honestly have no clue," the woman admitted. "But it's likely that someone approached RECT and they thought that it might be an interesting idea. Considering that they're working to free those trapped in SAO, they might be seeing if this could potentially be used as a means of doing so. Or maybe just to communicate with them. It could also just as easily be someone at RECT thinking it was a good idea. Who knows?"

"I see," Leafa said quietly. "Still, seeing my brother while in here was unexpected."

"Ah, I had heard, but it would have been rude to ask." Sakuya said politely. "Which one is he? One in the bridal party?"

Leafa nodded. "You see the one all in black?" She asked, pointing to the person. "That's him. He goes by Kirito in SAO, if that means anything to you."

"Oh?" Sakuya asked. "The Black Swordsman is your brother? It seems as if skills with a blade run in the family then."

"So, he's known even in here," Leafa murmured.

"I'm sorry?"

Leafa shook her head. "I'm just surprised that his SAO moniker is known even in here." She said. "I mean, I know that there are forums dedicated to what goes on in SAO, and it does occasionally reach the news when something big happens, but to actually hear it?"

Sakuya raised her hand and laughed into it. "It would come as a surprise, wouldn't it?" She asked drily. She looked at the wedding being shown and shook her head. "Why, I've checked the forums myself out of curiosity, and some of what gets posted…" She shook her head. "I dare say, by now there are a probably hundreds, if not thousands, of posts that simply say 'called it', and many others promising pain and retribution on Hadrian for stealing their waifu. That's otaku for you." She shook her head. "Still, it is not as if those two have not been subtle about how they've felt for each other, from what I've heard."

Leafa nodded at that. "Not been subtle is an understatement," she said drily. "Everyone could see it, even a year ago. If anything, the only questions here are… why now, and why go to these lengths?"

Sakuya raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" She asked.

Leafa shrugged. "Even discounting the rumors, it was obvious that those had something a year ago, so why go through the effort of a wedding? Everyone saw those two as a married couple, even without them being, you know, actually married. So the question about now still stands. Why did they wait until now, when getting married sooner would have surprised nobody?

"As for the lengths they're going to, well, SAO has a marriage system in place done through the menu." She pointed to the transmitted wedding. "Even with this, they still had to open their menus so the system would recognize it. So, why all the pomp and ceremony?"

Sakuya nodded. "Makes sense," she admitted. "But you have to consider this, Leafa. The two of them may have not simply thought about it. They spent the vast majority of time with each other, at most, separated for only a few hours. The latest… unpleasantness in SAO, forced them to spend a few weeks apart, which probably spurred them into actually thinking about it for a change. After their little campaign against Laughing Coffin was done, the two probably talked it out and decided on making what everyone saw as an unofficial marriage, an official one."

"And all this?" Leafa asked, gesturing to the stream again.

Sakuya laughed. "Tell me Leafa, when you get married, wouldn't you want your wedding to be special?" She asked in amusement. "This is more like something out of one of those Western fairy tales, just minus the magic. But then, some things have a magic of their own."

Looking at it in light of what Sakuya said, Leafa had to admit, she was right. Silica looked absolutely beautiful, and the rest of the girls certainly weren't slouches in in the looks department, either. Just looking at what the four of them wore, she could tell that no expense had been spared. True, it was all digital data, but she could understand what Sakuya meant.

April 16, 2024 - Hogwarts, Slytherin Dorms

Draco stared into the fire in thought, paying no attention to the quiet conversations happening throughout the dorm. What he had watched had certainly been unexpected, to say the least. Potter, getting married? To a muggle?

It would have been completely absurd to him only a few months ago, and it still didn't sit well with him. The two worlds should remain separate, or as separate as is practicable. Cornelius Fudge's dismissal from the post of Minister of Magic made it clear that the Ministry, despite being an autonomous governing body, was still subordinate to the muggle government, especially the Queen.

That revelation had been a bit surprising. Not the subordination to Her Majesty, his father had taught him that, despite the separation of the worlds, the magical world still owed fealty to its sovereign, and had since the time of King Arthur. It was the fact that the Minister of Magic was still accountable to the rest of the muggle government, or at least the Prime Minister.

He idly considered the idea of a wizard or witch taking the time to get the right education and government experience in the muggle world, and rising to that position. Hmm, given how mud- muggleborns are a part of both worlds, I'm surprised one hasn't done that yet, he thought. It was something to consider, and he decided that he might want to let his father know. It was unlikely that there were those in the magical world who hadn't thought of that possibility, but he wondered what steps, if any, had been taken in case that does eventually happen. Or to prevent it, given the attitudes toward those of muggle lineage.

He turned his thoughts back to Potter's marriage, and thought about it. He seriously doubted that the marriage would be considered legitimate. First, it didn't happen in the real world, but in that… what was it called again? Ah, right, the virtual world, interesting phrase, that. Thus, it didn't have any government documentation legitimizing it. Second, their ages alone would be a disqualifier. Even in the magical world, marriages couldn't happen unless both were at least seventeen, the age of majority. True, magic could influence things, such as two being magically tied to each other, but that was more like a betrothal in the legal sense.

Draco snorted at that thought. Depending on how Silica's family saw it, the only difference between that and an actual legal marriage would only be the marriage license. He wasn't stupid, and knew well enough that more than one betrothal resulted in perfectly legitimate children before the wedding, or being "blessed" to have the first child within six months or less. In the past, that was almost expected, even if all of it was moderately clandestine, albeit often abetted, or at least tolerated, by the bride's family.

Or they'd find some other way, he noted.

He had heard some of the muggleborn students talking about how the SAO Incident, as the entire thing was called, hasn't stopped the development of the technology and the development of a similar game that was set to be released internationally over the summer months. If need be, he didn't doubt that both would simply spend as much time as possible there, if only to maintain their relationship that way after all of this was over.

Still, legal status of the marriage aside, the fact that Potter married a muggle, let alone even considered it, would set the kneazle loose in the henhouse amongst some elements of magical society. It would scandalize many, infuriate some, and despite his father's influence among certain circles, there wasn't much that could be done. It wouldn't matter that the marriage wasn't even valid to them, either.

"You look deep in thought," came the voice of Daphne Greengrass from behind him.

Turning, he fixed her a wry look. "If you're expecting the thinking to have contributed to the heat provided by the fireplace, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed," he said drily.

"You weren't speaking, so that just means the hot air is coming from elsewhere," she retorted.

Draco snorted. "Not bad," he complimented. "Just thinking about how Potter getting married like that's going to change things back here."

She raised an eyebrow. "And how would it?" She asked.

"As if you didn't already know the answer," Draco said. "But I'll enlighten you anyway. This whole wedding? I don't approve of it, and I doubt some elements of proper society will, either. They might not be able to do anything about it, but this is bound to cause a scandal, regardless of the legitimacy of it. Not that Potter would care either way."

Daphne shrugged. "Were he aware of some things, he would understand why it might not be taken well." She said. "But you're right, I doubt he would care. Still, odd that you're considering that, and not saying in front of everyone how you would use it against him."

Draco snorted. "After he killed the Dark Lord?" He asked drily. "Greengrass, I know better than that. Besides, how many in the school would be ready to burn me at the stake with fiendfyre if I did that?"

"Good point," Daphne said, noting the euphemism common in the wizarding world. She had to explain it to Granger once, and the girl got the point, likening it to the muggle saying of crucifying someone for something they did.

London, Daily Prophet

Rita looked over her article with a careful eye, making sure that it was all in order. She had been present to watch the wedding that Harry Potter had in that muggle thing, SAO, mostly out of coincidence. She regularly went to Hogwarts to observe the activities of the Tri-Wizard Champions and visiting students to see if there was any opportunity for a story there that day.

It had been a slow week anyway.

So, she had been a beetle on the wall and had a prime opportunity to observe and watch. And she was glad she had picked that day to do so. After all, watching The-Boy-Who-Lived go through a wedding as the groom? And to a muggle?

That was a story worth printing.

So, she made note of everything that went on, from the setting, to how everyone was dressed, and so on. She wanted to make sure she was as accurate as practicable with it before she decided if adding any embellishments was necessary.

Making things up whole cloth was beneath her anyway. Better to use that which could be confirmed as completely true, and then word and embellish it the appropriate way.

Besides, something like this didn't need embellishments, and doing so could backfire on her like a damaged wand, anyway. Harry Potter had killed You-Know-Who, and all that. Now, if she managed to get anything on him related to him doing something that could be taken as completely insane, like get drunk and think flying a dragon is a good idea, well, that was a different story.

Hmm, she might use that one under a pseudonym for the gossip column. No one but the most gullible would believe it, but they would be entertained by it. Besides, for all she knew, he did do that. However, without proof, it wasn't fit for anything more than gossip.

Anyway, she wrote about the wedding, the possible implications of it, and how it wasn't worth a wooden knut in the real world. She even kept her embellishments to a minimum, only saying that it could be taken as a statement of intent to marry the girl.

That it might cause a minor scandal might have something to do with it, but she hadn't managed to stay with the Daily Prophet as long as she did without knowing how far she could push things. That, and how the readers had turned on Skudge last month.

She heard he would be out of St. Mungo's later this month, but she doubted he would return to writing Op-Eds for the Daily Prophet any time soon. The readers could get rather vindictive in their creative responses to a piece that angers them.

Just one of the hazards of the job, in her mind. After all, the audience was the wizarding world, they would respond as wizards and witches. Spells were just something you faced, like nasty letters and howlers. Though she did keep the one that was laced with a very nasty contact poison in a sealed jar on her desk as a reminder to not push things too far when she wrote something, and to make sure it was the truth.

Augusta Longbottom could be very vicious when her family's good name was maligned. One reason she was very surely not married to Mad-Eye Moody.

He sent explosive letters disguised as howlers, which were almost quaint in comparison.

April 21, 2024 - Nerima, Saotome-Tendo Dojo

Nabiki sipped her tea as she looked at her sisters sitting at the table. It was one of their usual get-togethers so that they could remain in contact. With her business work, Kasumi's duties as Nakano General Hospital, and Akane being a martial arts instructor, having a day when all three of them were available for it was less common than any of them liked.

Still, they managed to find time at least once a month to do so.

"So, Nabiki," Akane said. "You've been keeping track of things in SAO from a wider perspective than just what's going on with Keiko. How have perceptions of the wedding been?"

Nabiki put her tea down. "Fairly positive, actually," she said. "While no one with any sense expects it to be valid in the outside world, the general perception is that a positive event like that was completely necessary. Also, many of those who pay attention to what's going on in SAO, which is a lot more than you think, are crowing about how they called it."

Kasumi giggled. "Those two haven't exactly been subtle about their relationship, have they?" She asked. "I take it that the general consensus is that it's about time, then?"

Nabiki nodded. "Indeed."

Akane picked her cup up and took a sip. "On that topic, what's your general opinion on how we're playing this off as, considering what did happen?" She asked. "With the rings, that is."

"Lady Shiba's idea of seeing it as a semi-official engagement is practical," Nabiki said. "Both are too young to be legally married and recognized as such, so this is an effective compromise until they are old enough." She shrugged. "It doesn't really change that they're effectively married, but it recognizes that their marriage is not one recognized by law until they are old enough to file the paperwork themselves."

"And by then, they'll have had a few years to think about it," Akane noted. "The man Mr. Black contacted managed to correspond with Lady Shiba, and she passed along his own conclusions. He really doesn't know about how the wedding and the magic ties into it, but he did have an idea about the rings. In short, it was a safeguard done by his family centuries ago. Because of his intent, and Keiko's own matching intent on her part, they're recognized as married in that respect."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "They have magic for that?" She asked. "Almost sounds like some of the things you and Ranma had to deal with back during your own engagement."

Akane shrugged. "The magics on the rings are from a time when marriage wasn't a purely civil thing," she said. "The comparison to what we had to deal with back in our teens is fairly apt, though. Not the same as what happened, but close enough that our reactions to that event when it happened, something Mr. Black recognizes. I have a copy of the letter if you want to look it over. You might have some insights."

"Not just taking Lady Shiba's word for it?" Nabiki asked.

Akane shook her head. "She has no issues with it," she admitted. "In fact, she thinks it might be a good idea to get an outside perspective since there are a lot of things about magic that those who can use it tend to take for granted." She stood up. "I'll go get it."

Nabiki nodded and waited as her younger sister left and returned a minute later, holding a sheaf of papers. "Lady Shiba had it copied to paper, rather than the original parchment after she showed it to us." Akane explained. "It's an exact copy, Ranma checked it."

Nodding, Nabiki took the papers and blinked at the fact that it was handwritten before reaching down into her handbag and pulling out a pair of reading glasses. Putting them on, she read it over. A few minutes later, she finished perusing it and put it down.

"So," she said. "All of it boils down to the fact that while the specifics of how it came about aren't really understood, he thinks that it was a reflection of their mutual intentions at that moment. Fair enough. It's similar to what Cologne said, and having a second opinion saying the same thing is reassuring in that regard. For all that she's knowledgeable about such things, she isn't an expert on magic.

"Lady Shiba's compromise on seeing it as a semi-formal engagement isn't entirely correct, though. From what the letter implied, it's more a betrothal, than an engagement. They're basically married in all but name, but the marriage will have to wait until they're of age. So, a little over three years now, if Sumire and Tetsuhiko consent, or they can simply go to the UK and do so legally without consent in a little over two on the magical side there, three on the non-magical."

Akane sighed. "That about sums up the conclusions she reached with us when she discussed it with us, and I include Sumire and Tetsuhiko in that." She said. "At least we can put it off by making it so they have to wait a bit. Not a bad thing, really. This way they can at least finish their schooling." She chuckled. "And at least they're not going to be forced into it, as it will be discussed with them as soon as they make it out." The possibility of them not surviving was not even hinted at, as if their survival was a foregone conclusion.

Nabiki knew better than to assume such a thing, especially since Keiko was actively involved in the most dangerous part of getting out of SAO. That being, clearing the game. She knew full well that nothing was guaranteed, but she had high hopes that Keiko would be fine. She had survived so far, and she knew that survival rates amongst experienced players were far higher than their less experienced peers.

Harry Potter's survival was a distant second to that, and it was tied to Keiko's survival. She didn't have any ill will toward the boy, but if she had to choose which one of them would survive, and only one of them, then she already knew the answer. Keiko would hate her for it if that were the case, but she would be alive to do so.

Nabiki found that she could live with that. Family came first, everything else second.

April 23, 2024 - Smeltings

Sirius looked at Albus as the two of them entered the school Harry's cousin attended. With how things with Vernon and Petunia were going, and the fact that Dudley's status was still in limbo, there really wasn't any other place to meet the boy. Of course, with Smeltings being a boarding school, it meant that arranging a place for the boy to stay at outside of school wasn't an immediate priority.

It would be by the summer, but for now, letting him remain at the school was the least disruptive option for everyone involved.

"So, he wants to talk with me?" Sirius asked as they walked to the school headmaster's office.

"Indeed he does, Sirius," Albus replied. "He's aware of the reasons why Harry was sent to live with his parents, and his time here has shown him that many things he took for granted were not only incorrect, but very wrong."

"And he admitted that his own actions in light of all that were wrong, yes." Sirius acknowledged. "You told me as much. It still doesn't explain why he wants to talk with me."

"In good time, Sirius, in good time."

##

Dudley gave the man who accompanied Dumbledore a curious look. He knew who he was, of course, Sirius Black, Harry's godfather.

"So, you're Dudley," Sirius said, looking him over.

"I'm him," Dudley said. "And you're Sirius Black, Harry's godfather."

The two looked at each other, slightly awkwardly. Dudley would be honest, he was slightly intimidated by the man. The fact that he was innocent of the crime he was thrown in prison for meant little when coming face to face with a man who still bore the signs of how his time in prison affected him. Pale skin, a frame that was painfully thin, and the haunted look in the man's eyes said a lot about him.

This was a man who had lived a hard life, and it had taken its toll on him.

"It's funny, you know," Sirius said, breaking the awkward silence. "Harry has said that he has hope for you, that someone will set you straight before it's too late. It was in SAO, and he was talking to Keiko, and you would probably know her better as Silica, but he seems to think there's some hope for you. And with how you came forward about how your parents treated him, and even pointed out that your own behaviors toward him were encouraged, it looks like he's right. He doesn't hate you, you know. Resent you a bit? Yeah, he does, and I think you know why. But he doesn't hate you, since you didn't know any better."

Dudley sighed, slightly relieved. "That's… good, I guess." He said. "Still doesn't make up for what I did to him, but the fact that he doesn't hate me is good. Did Dumbledore tell you why I wanted to talk with you?"

Sirius shook his head. "No, the barmy old coot didn't," he said, a note of frustration in his voice. "I guess he wanted to surprise me."

Dudley nodded. "For some reason, that doesn't surprise me," he said. "Anyway, I might as well tell you, then." He took a breath. "With everything going on, my parents are going to jail. I'm surprised they haven't been convicted yet, but it looks like a lot of my dad's activities at work have come to light, and they're investigating that as well. My only other family, my aunt, well… she's wouldn't be a good choice either. With the protections on Harry, he still needs a blood relation nearby, and…"

"And you're wondering if I can take you in," Sirius concluded before sighing. "Right now, no. I'm too focused on Harry to give you the attention you would need, and I'm probably not fit to watch over you anyway. At the same time, your point about the protections means that having you visit Japan might not be a bad idea, an added safety measure at least. Despite that wanker being dead, there are those who would still wish Harry harm that supported the bastard. I'll see what can be done. And I take it that you're wondering about whether you'll keep attending here, I bet."

Dudley nodded. "This school has been good for me," he admitted.

"I can take care of that, though your grades will have to be good enough to stay in." Sirius said.

"My boxing coach insisted that I bring my grades up," Dudley said. "They're not the best, but good enough that I'm in no danger of failing."

Sirius nodded. "I'll see what I can do about this summer then, as well as making sure you can still attend this school." He said finally.

Dudley nodded. It wasn't what he really hoped, but it was better than he feared. With the whole situation with his parents, and his father's own actions at Grunnings coming home to roost, he was lucky enough that the Smeltings' Board of Governors hadn't tossed him out on his ear, yet. If it all worked out, then he would remain at Smeltings next year. If it didn't, well, he would face that if it came.

Harry faced his problems head on, he could at least do the same. Perhaps he should start really trying to learn Japanese, just in case.

April 30, 2024 - Setagaya, RECT HQ

Noboyuki Sugou allowed a smile on his face as the injected worm was not immediately rejected by the system. One of the technicians had noted that many ports had remained open, sending out signals that went nowhere, and he had jumped on the opportunity that was presented.

The purpose of the worm was twofold for him. First, it would allow him to put together a backdoor into the system. Added to that, the worm would replicate and spread itself over the network of servers that was SAO, meaning that he would now have the access to them that he desired, no needed to accomplish what he wanted.

He had been careful to ensure that the worm was on a specific replication limit, he didn't want to create a an accidental Morris Worm that so clogged the SAO network that it risked crashing the system due to tying up far too many resources. Not, that he expected that to be a problem. He had to, grudgingly, hand it to Kayaba, the man knew how to create a robust system.

Too bad he had made a classic mistake in how he did the port scheme. True, it wasn't as if it was that vulnerable at the start. Kayaba had closed all the unused ports, but the man had each Nerve Gear assigned an individual port, and the system left them open after the connection was terminated due to a player's death.

Sloppy, Kayaba, very sloppy, he thought to himself.

True, it had taken them this long to discover it, but now that the vulnerability was known, they could make use of it. Having direct physical access to the network, and knowing about the open ports, it was only a matter of finding a way to inject it on the inside and bypassing the firewalls and web server that made up SAO's DMZ. With him basically being inside the gates, it also allowed him to bypass the Intrusion Detection System, meaning that he was like a virus that the immune system didn't recognize.

He was fully aware that a worm was different than a virus, but the analogy served his purposes.

All in all, a perfect opportunity for him to exploit. And all because Kayaba made a simple and classic mistake.

May 1, 2024 - Hogwarts, Viewing Room

Hermione looked towards the headmaster as the recording ended, wondering what he would say. Wondering what he could say, in light of what they had just watched.

They had known that things were coming to a head with Laughing Coffin, well before this, and Sirius Black had told them quite clearly that what had happened would not be pleasant to watch. Not that she expected otherwise.

Thus, they had all watched as he laid out in stark terms to other players that if they didn't stop them, then that group of psychopaths would continue to kill others for their own twisted enjoyment. They had watched him come to Sil- Keiko's aid, as well as the aid of friends he made, showing just how quickly he could turn into a deadly fighter.

And they had just seen him lead others in battle against other people. They had just seen violence, on a level they never have before. The violence of an actual battle, one of two that was going on at the same time.

And as she looked at the headmaster, she saw little of the genial, slightly batty, old man they often saw and were fondly exasperated at. She saw instead a man who had earned his reputation as a powerful wizard on the battlefield. Who carried the scars of it, physical and spiritual, not with pride, but with calm dignity.

She could tell that everyone else was looking toward him, including a few who had invited themselves, like Draco Malfoy. While his presence was certainly undesirable, she had no real reason to refuse his presence, and he stated his reasons for being there anyway.

"I learned that what happened in what you're about to watch is what led him to making the decision that is currently causing a minor scandal among some," he said simply. "I simply wish to see it and see if I can determine his reasoning behind it, no more."

She idly wondered what he thought of Harry now.

##

It took all of his deportment training for Draco to keep his face neutral. What he had seen, it wasn't Potter being a hero of some kind. No, it was Potter being a soldier and fighting a war. He might not have understood a word of what was being said by him, aside from his occasional swears in English, but that didn't really matter to him.

He had come to see if he could determine what would have made Potter stop twirling his wand and act on his feelings for that muggle girl, and he got more than expected.

He thought he knew how dangerous his rival could be, watching him kill the Dark Lord back on New Year's Day, but watching this? This showed a side of Potter that he didn't expect. There was none of the Gryffindor here, none of the stereotypical heroics that even he had started to believe.

This was violence at its most basic, and Potter showed that he was at home on a battlefield. He might have not killed every opponent that crossed his path, and captured those who surrendered, but he also didn't go out of his way to spare them, either.

My God, was that there under the surface this entire time? He thought in shock. If so, then I wasn't poking a lion with my wand for two years, but a bloody dragon!

Potter had shocked him with the brutal pragmatism that he used in fighting those other people. There was no sign of fighting fair. Not a trace of trying to take the moral high ground on his part. He simply fought, maimed, and killed. Yes, Potter spared more than he killed, but that was because they were out of the fight, or had thrown their weapons down and surrendered the second they realized that they were up against him.

As for ones out of the fight, it was kind of difficult to fight when your arms, hands, and legs were separated from your body, and the way that one girl got two of her attackers to decide to fight someone easier… he shuddered. Taking a man's arm off, beating his friend upside the head with it, and then tossing it right back to the person the arm belonged to?

Just what the hell had they all been through before this to turn out the way they did?

And then he looked at the headmaster, and a sudden, shocking insight came.

Potter and the supposed "daft old coot" were more alike than anyone, regardless of house, had thought. That meant that the headmaster was, as his head of house had often suggested, being merciful when forestalling full punishment when a student had stepped out of line.

How often had he, himself, nearly pushed the headmaster too far? If Potter was a dragon, he didn't know what in Merlin's name to call Dumbledore!

##

Albus had felt that part of him, the old soldier, come to the fore as he watched Harry lead over forty people in battle, noting what he did right, and what mistakes he made. Generally, the opinion of that side of him was that it wasn't bad for a young and inexperienced commander. He had anticipated an ambush, organized his forces accordingly, and reacted to it quickly.

True, the disciplined ranks of those he was with quickly broke down, and it had become a confusing melee, but at the same time, few of those under him fought alone and as individuals, and none of them for long. They had beat off the initial attack, got into small teams, and then proceeded to defeat their attackers in detail.

They had lost a few, but far fewer than it could have been. The loss of only a few for a decisive victory while ambushed was quite good, in all actuality.

And as the old soldier broke down the battle, seeing what went right and what went wrong in that clinically detached fashion that had been a coping mechanism through far too many battles, the rest of him was pained at the fact that Harry had been required by circumstances to kill again, and worse, to lead those he counted as friends into such a battle.

Still, he had watched the entire thing through, from when Harry briefed those who accompanied him, allowing those who were uncomfortable with what might be required to simply walk out with no repercussions, to his planning alongside his friend Asuna (and the old soldier saw it was like how Minerva and Fillius had played off each other, strategy vs tactics), his organizing his group, to the battle itself. All in all, it showed Harry at his best, and at his worst. From the shocked looks on several of the students' faces, he could easily tell those who hadn't really seen the more battle hardened side of Harry before.

After all, they were the ones who hadn't seen cases of it before. Miss Granger and those who had worked with her from the start had, and they saw those occasions as regrettable. They had long since learned that Harry wasn't the knight in shining armor that many of the stories made him out to be, but had also seen that he was still Harry Potter.

As he looked at the students, he nodded. He could see how they were looking to him for advice on how to look at this. He wouldn't tell them how to see it. But from the way some looked from the screen to him...

"Those of you who know my personal history may wonder- how does the slayer of Gellert Grindelwald see this?" He asked as he met every student's gaze, even those of the visiting students. "I hate it. Hate that Harry Potter had to see even a sliver of the horrors I have. Part of me is calmly evaluating it as another soldier. Part of me is mourning it. What I am saying, ladies and gentlemen, is you can't boil this down to one right feeling. This is a complex thing. You will feel complicated emotions about it. Let yourself. That is how you can elevate yourself above petty ideologues and simplistic moralizers. Be as complex as your world."

He looked around again. "Two... no, three years ago, I had to talk to him about this," he said. "He is not the first or only student who has needed my council in such matters- some leave Hogwarts to become Aurors, Combat Mages, Hit Wizards. But it was his turn at the end of his first year. Probably the youngest I have ever had to counsel on this.

"I had to talk to him, because he was forced to kill a man in self-defense. I am sure some of you remember Professor Quirrell? The man had been willingly possessed by Tom Riddle, Voldemort, and Harry had been forced by circumstances to confront him.

"You might think I may have had some shallow platitudes to give him, but I had none. I did not hide just how grave a thing taking another life is. I made sure to make it clear on that part. I did not damn him for it, either. I told him that it was a regrettable event, and Quirinus had brought it on himself. Harry was fully justified in killing him. It was self-defense. But, that doesn't mean that it is an act that he should take pride in.

"And in SAO, circumstances have forced him to kill again, and again, and again. But he has never taken pride in it. He has also talked to friends who have been forced by circumstances to kill. He encouraged them to be disgusted by the act, to take no pride in it. He did so, because there is no pride to be had in killing another person. There is only our chosen duties and what we do with them.

"He gave those with him the opportunity to walk away before the battle, to walk away with no repercussions, for a reason. He knew that some wouldn't be able to do what was necessary, or that they simply could not do so in good conscience. Some did so, and he complimented them on having the courage to do so. For having the courage to know and understand that they could not bring themselves to knowingly go into battle where killing may be a necessity.

"Even among those who still went with him, few actually did any killing. They fought, and they fought hard, but more than a few realized, in that moment, that they simply couldn't bring themselves to kill. Even Harry didn't simply just kill. Those who were no longer able or willing to fight were captured. He let his feelings and thoughts guide him to as little death as possible. That's the best any soldier, in command or not, can hope for.

"When he comes out, I will offer him the same wisdom he gave them. That older wizards and soldiers, like my dear friend from the Americas, Earnest Becker, gave me. He'll likely need it again. I have, several times, needed it over my entire life. So have many of the teachers here who fought alongside me.

"What makes me sick, however, is that some biographer who wasn't there is probably going to put those simplistic platitudes into my mouth. I had none to give, because there were none. There weren't any then. There aren't any now. And if there ever are in my lifetime, I think I shall mourn humanity, let alone wizards and witches."

He saw disappointment in some eyes... but many. Many understood. For that he was glad.

May 8, 2024 - Chiyoda, Dicey Cafe

Kathy Mills looked up as she saw Sirius walk in, with some of those people he occasionally had with him, or who were sometimes sent to retrieve him, as if they were his minders. She didn't know the deal there, and she knew better than to ask questions. She didn't even need to have lived in Japan for that, just growing up in Detroit had more than taught her about minding her business.

She didn't know where they stood, just that they were high enough up the social food chain to not be anyone she wanted to get on the bad side of. The Yakuza were positively terrified of them, that she knew. They had stopped with their protection racket the second Sirius' companions showed up, and when they were in the area, the Yaks were even more polite than normal.

Though seeing gangsters be that polite, so long as you were polite and paid the protection money, was new for her. Then again, she would rather deal with them than the gangs and mafia organizations back home.

She wasn't fooled one bit, but Andrew had pointed out that they were seen as something of a necessary evil in Japan. She doubted that, but the implied meaning behind what he said was clear. They weren't going away, and they had something of an understanding with the Japanese government and law enforcement. So long as they kept to their side of things, and didn't cause too many disruptions, then they were, barely, tolerated.

She could live with that.

She shook those thoughts out of her head as Sirius took a seat at the bar.

"Welcome back, Mr. Black." She said. "I take it your business back in England was successful?"

Sirius nodded. "It was, Kathy," he said. "My godson's cousin might be coming to Japan for the summer, but with how things are back home for his family, that might be better for him. Besides, he's been worried about Harry."

Kathy nodded. "Good to hear," she replied. "Though things have been going well inside SAO. Quiet even, ever since the wedding."

Sirius nodded. "That's always good to know." He said. "Your husband still doing good business there?"

"Ever since he was part of Harry's party as one of the groomsmen, his business has been booming," she replied. "For all that the kid's reputation is a mixed bag, it shows that he trusts Andrew, and that says a lot right there. It's also bled over out here, with the word out that he's my husband and ran this place until he got caught up in that mess." She shook her head. "Anyway, you want your usual two fingers of scotch, neat?"

Sirius nodded. "You got it," he said cheerfully. He then turned to his companions. "Chiaki, Ryunosuke, what do you guys want?"

Chiaki shrugged. "I'll take a Koppori Nama Beer, if you have it." He said. "And knowing Ryunosuke, he'll want Cuvie Sake, cold."

"You wound me, sir," Kathy shot back playfully.

"Ah, we should have known, Chiaki," Ryunosuke chided his friend.

"Right," Chiaki agreed, smirking. "She wouldn't heat fine sake any more than Jii-san and his staff back at the estate do. My apologies, dear lady!"

Estate? Kathy thought briefly before shoving that thought aside. It was none of her business, but it did indicate that her suspicions of them being fairly high in Japan's social pecking order were probably correct. Though she couldn't help thinking that Tani and Ikegami were not the ones with the money, but allied to it. Maybe that Takeru fellow they sometimes mentioned...

Not. My. Business, she reminded herself. She set about serving her customers to occupy her mind. Running a bar was about knowing when to listen and when to recognize the times when she should pretend that she was wearing earmuffs when someone said something.

"Bartenders tend to know a lot more secrets than many suspect," her husband told her. "But it has always been an unspoken rule that what they hear is not to be divulged. I don't know how it is back in the States, but here in Japan, having a reputation for talking in the wrong circumstance is having a bad reputation. If the police are breathing down your neck, that's one thing. If the local boss is trying to straighten out one of his before the cops need to breathe down your neck, that's another. But if it's not to save everyone harsher troubles, we keep our mouths shut. No matter the confession, unless that customer asks, we don't consider it."

It was a bit of an adjustment, but not much of one. It was very much like that in the States, though not completely. However, a bartender with a reputation for blabbing what he or she has overheard or been told tended to get fired, and blackballed from working at another bar in the same city, sometimes in the whole state. It harkened back to the Prohibition days, and that unspoken rule had remained even afterward.

As she served the drinks, she looked at the three and was struck by how odd a trio they made. Sirius had an air of mischief around him, though the way he looked showed that his life hadn't been kind to him. Still, it hadn't broken him, though there were cracks. Chiaki was similar, but lacked the air of a hard life. There was discipline there, but it was more an air of an irrepressible youth having grown up without losing the enthusiasm that being perpetually young had. Ryunosuke struck her as a man who was disciplined, but also a bit of a drama queen. Considering that she had heard that he was a kabuki actor, it made sense.

She idly wondered what her husband would think of them.

May 16, 2024 - Suginami, Nakano General Hospital

"I swear, SAO has been a bad influence on her," Sumire said, shaking her head at what she just heard her daughter say. "I mean, I know that she isn't being serious, but how she plays off the rumors whenever they get brought up…" She shook her head again.

"To be fair, she and Mr. Potter are responsible for spreading a few of them," her aunt Kasumi said. "And both of them know that everyone is in on that particular game."

"You mean that they enjoy seeing how much they can get players to believe from them adding to the rumors?" Sumire asked. "I know that, auntie, but does she have to occasionally imply that the two of them are going at it worse than rabbits every few days?" She threw her hands up, her irritation clearly apparent. "I know better than to pretend that their relationship is entirely platonic, as much as I would like to. It's been clear that both of them were attracted to each other in that way for over a year. I should probably be thankful that they waited until they were married, legal out her or no, legal out here or not. That doesn't mean I need to hear my daughter discussing her rumored sex life! She's fourteen, damn it!"

"Sumire, take a deep breath and calm down." Kasumi said firmly. "It's… not something even I like to think about, and if you think what she sometimes says is bad, you have to keep in mind that I have to listen to the gossips that are the nurses in this hospital." She shook her head. "You'd think they have better things to gossip about, but most of those girls are hopeless romantics who've read too much erotica and eromanga."

Sumire blinked. "And now my faith in our medical professionals is irrevocably damaged," she said.

"Of course it is," Kasumi said. "Just like you said when I've told you about our sense of humor. Or perhaps I can bring up some of the more absurd things I've seen patients get brought in for just to destroy your faith in humanity again."

"Auntie!" Sumire exclaimed. "I really, really don't want to hear you tell me of something that might top that one story about the iguana, three meters of string, and a PVC pipe. That was disgusting! Why would someone do that to themselves?"

"And that's one of the milder ones," Kasumi said with a smirk. "I wouldn't be surprised if Ayane already has a few of her own to tell."

"That is not reassuring, auntie," Sumire said.

"It wasn't supposed to be," Kasumi said, apparently deciding the time had come to be blunt. "It's a reminder. This is always part of humanity, dear. Your nose will occasionally get stuck in it. Denying it? It never helps."

"So you're saying that whatever Keiko is doing is…"

"She's being herself, Sumire." Kasumi interrupted gently. "She may be fourteen, but she is no longer a child. What she has been through in SAO has made sure of that. And if you can't accept that now, when she comes out... you're setting yourself up to be a stranger to her. We can't give it, her childhood, back to her. We can't give her the months, and maybe years, she will have spent in SAO back. Everything she has been through and done, it's all a part of her."

"I know, auntie," Sumire said sadly. "It's just… I remember how it wasn't that long ago when she loved to play Ride the Panda with Gramps, or how P-oyaji's stories of where he managed to end up since his last visit always entertained her, and we can't forget the one time she managed to get a hold of some instant Jusenkyo powder and spent several hours as an adorable little kitten." She laughed. "Auntie Shampoo was tickled pink at that, especially as Keiko was eager to do it again, or simply go to Jusenkyo and jump into the Maoniichuan. She always liked cats, so spending some time as one? She enjoyed it."

"That's all part of her too," Kasumi assured her. "As was her sneaking onto Gordon's spaceship that one time- remember how panicked he and Skip were to contact us when they found her?"

"They made it to orbit before she spoke up," Sumire said with a weak smile.

Kasumi smiled back and nodded. "Then there was her meeting Lady Yasaka, the Kyuubi no Kitsune, one of the main authorities among the youkai, during that trip to Kyoto. Eating the mochi Yasaka gave her is still there too... all of it. But. So is what's happening now. And running from one or to the other will only make any imagined divide worse."

Sumire met her aunt's gaze, took in her sad smile, and gave in to the frustration a bit.

Kasumi rather kindly let her cry on her shoulder.

"She and her young man seem alike that way," Kasumi mused.

Sumire looked up at her. "How do you mean?"

"To them, all these wild things- their lives make them think of it as just part of an ordinary day. Week. Month. Year. We on the, ahem, 'Wrecking Crew' as we came to be called were like that too. Adventures? They just happen. And sometimes you get into a cooking battle, and sometimes you face down a phoenix king."

"And SAO?" Sumire asked.

"Well, we heard she didn't take it well initially, but that was… unexpected." Kasumi replied. "Her adventures beforehand? That was her being curious and adventurous. This? More like Phoenix Mountain was for your mother. Far higher stakes, and she was dragged into it against her will. After the shock of it wore off, and she realized, no, remembered that she wasn't helpless…"

"... Something I need to remember too, I guess," Sumire admitted.

"You're a good mother." Kasumi assured. "You raised her well. She'll come back to us. She'll tell us all the new stories she's lived. She's a Saotome and a Tendo. What else would we do?"

May 30, 2024 - Setagaya, RECT HQ

Noboyuki Sugou kept the irritation he felt at being called up to the CEO's office off his face as he entered it. He had been tracking the worm's progress and it had been working admirably before the system seemed to notice it. That surprised him, and it made him wonder what Kayaba did when he designed it. The thing was almost intelligent, and not in the way a computer could simply calculate anything with the right programming and inputs.

No, that wasn't it. The system learned.

Did he actually make an AI? He wondered. He's smart enough to be capable of it, I'll give him that, but what would the point be? There is simply too much risk of it going rogue, one of the few things that people are willing to believe that fiction just might be right in, which is why research and development into them is so carefully controlled. If he had managed to create an AI to manage the system, it would explain a few things, such as SAO's continued evolution and ability to generate a nearly infinite variety of quests.

Still, he had what he wanted, a backdoor into the system that he could use at any time now. He just needed to make sure that he had everything set to gain superuser access so that he was fully in control.

So that he would become SAO's god.

But even so, it wasn't yet time for him to give Mr. Yuuki a progress report, carefully edited of course. So he wondered why he was being called up at this time.

Perhaps it's for a promotion, he thought. That fool is far too trusting for his own good.

Everything was going well, and before long, they would be even better.

##

Shouzou kept his expression neutral as Noboyuki entered his office. He had seen the reports, and the last few had been the final push he needed.

Injecting a worm, of all things, into the SAO servers, a worm! Worse, one of his techs managed to get a hold of and take a look at the source code and had admitted that he was tempted to go over to where the SAO servers were being monitored and strangle the man. The man was not one who was inclined to anger, which demonstrated just how furious he was at what Sugou had done.

Malware to create a backdoor? He could understand that, but there were safer methods than a worm. His IT staff constantly warred with hacker groups, some of which were hard to counter because they didn't do any damage. They would find a vulnerability, maybe inject a trojan onto an attachment or something, and work from there. To use a worm put them firmly in the "cracker" category.

True, it wasn't like the old days, where computer resources were at a premium, but anyone who doubted that a worm could do a lot of damage only needed to look up some of the more notorious ones to know better. As he was told by the technician, it was designed to propagate too many times, and on a network as small as SAO's server farm, that meant that it would replicate itself and "spread" until it had infected and tied up over twenty percent of the processes within it. At that point, depending on how robust the system was, it could fail gracefully, or not.

If not, then it could cause a cascading failure and crash the system, cutting the connection and seven thousand people, his daughter among them, would then be killed, murdered. Kayaba had been explicit in his warnings, don't tamper with the system. After forcibly removing the Nerve Gear killed two hundred and thirteen people, no one was willing see if he was serious.

Nobody in their right mind, anyway.

SAO's systems were admittedly robust, but something like this was far, far too risky. Fortunately, the system itself seemed to notice something was wrong, and had contained the worm before it infected more than ten percent of its processes.

That raised some other questions, questions on just how the system could do so autonomously like that, and just what was in the black box of its central core, but those could wait.

Noboyuki Sugou had risked seven thousand lives, and for what? So he could beat Kayaba at his own game? So he could be that cartoonish villain that had all of SAO's victims at his mercy? Or was it as insurance, so he could think he could act with carte blanche and no one could do anything to stop him?

All signs pointed, in defiance to all sanity, to yes. To all of the above. Which was madness. And not even brilliant madness. Arrogant madness. Foolishness born from delusions of grandeur.

He had already notified law enforcement, and made arrangements for them to be waiting outside his office when he formally terminated Noboyuki's employment. He wasn't taking any chances with that madman.

"Tell me, Noboyuki," he said coldly after a moment. "Did you think me naive? Did you think that I wouldn't do my research, or that those who had a grasp of your character wouldn't let me know?"

Noboyuki blinked. "Sir?"

"Nabiki Tendo warned me about you," Shouzou said. "She said something about you seemed off to her, and given that it's coming from her, a self-admitted borderline sociopath, that says something. It says maybe you're on the wrong side of that line, Noboyuki. However, that would not have been an issue for me. I've worked with, under, and supervised sociopaths before.

"You were hired because you were a colleague, even a rival, of Kayaba's at the Shigemura Labs when you both were at Touto. All of the others were already committed to other projects and unavailable, but of them all, only Rinko Koujiro would have had more insight into how he thought. I was counting on that rivalry you had with him, in fact.

"But it didn't take very long before you started looking at things other than what I hired you for. Understandable, and it would have been useful data regardless. I know all about your looking into how the mind interfaced with the system, Noboyuki. I always have people who are put in specifically by me to ensure that my project leads are being honest. And that doesn't count the ones the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Public Security Intelligence Agency inserted as well."

"Sir-" Noboyuki began.

"Silence." Shouzou said coldly. "You started focusing more on how the minds were interfacing, and how it might be possible to manipulate them. Again, potentially useful, I can think of several benign applications for it, but that's not the point.

"The point is, Noboyuki, you hid it from me. You lied to me when I asked you if you found anything else and you said that you hadn't. Worse, you left records of what you were doing, not even bothering to encrypt them. That was very sloppy of you, and that is not even the worst part."

Noboyuki swallowed rather loudly. "Oh?" He managed to strangle out.

"The worst part is, I found out that you inserted a worm into SAO's network. Something that could have brought SAO down, and in a way that would kill seven thousand people. One of whom, I remind you, is my own daughter. Have you forgotten that? Or... was she one of your targets?" His voice had gotten progressively colder and furious as he spoke.

When Noboyuki looked ready to say something, he held up a hand. "I. Don't. Want. To. Hear. It." He growled out. "You had plenty of chances, Noboyuki. Chances to come clean, and then have access to more resources. Chances to ensure that I would have been fully on board with what you were doing. With some modifications, granted, but you would have been hailed. Not only for being an important part of freeing the victims of SAO, but for your groundbreaking research as well.

"Wealth, prestige, anything within mortal means, all waiting for you. But that wouldn't have been enough for you, would it? You wanted to be the star villain in an anime or light novel, but winning. I have sad news, Noboyuki. It will not happen. Effective immediately, your employment with RECT is hereby terminated with cause. I am not sending you to a punishment room to waste time and leave on your own cognizance. You. Are. Fired." He pushed a button on his desk's intercom. "Momoka, please send in our guests to escort Mr. Sugou off the premises."

"At once, Mr. Yuuki." His receptionist replied.

"You... called the cops," Noboyuki realized. He tittered. "The police."

"That, Noboyuki," Shouzou said with some relish, "is what hopefully waits for people like you here in real life."