Mystic Knight Online

Chapter 39 - A Light at Dusk

June 30, 2024 Aincrad 61st Floor, Selmburg

Lux woke up to see the dim illumination from the city give a faint light through the window of her room and let out a soft sigh. It was that nightmare again, the one where Red-eyed XaXa stared at her accusingly and called her a murderer. She wondered what brought it about, but figured that it was as Harry said, just one of those things that would periodically come back to haunt her.

He was right about the fact that the nightmares would decrease in frequency, considering that this was the first time she had one in three weeks, but he also said that they would never completely go away. At the same time, the shock of the nightmares had largely faded, though going through them was never a pleasant experience.

It was what it was. Like everything else, she didn't have to like it, she simply had to deal with it.

She glanced at the time that was is the upper-right corner of her vision, and gave a resigned sigh. It was four in the morning, meaning that even if she did go back to sleep, she would find herself waking shortly anyway as the rest of the guild woke for breakfast. Perhaps, if they weren't too busy, she could nap some time during the day.

Though with the rate they were hammering out those quests Kayaba opened due to their discovery of the now quarantined Glitchzone, they were likely to be out all day anyway. When she considered that, she groaned, realizing that it would be another long day, and right now, the idea of taking a day off and just being lazy was very attractive.

Perhaps she could argue for them to stay in today, or maybe tomorrow.

She got up out of the bed and turned on the crystalight lamp on her bedside table. She wasn't going to get any more sleep, so she might as well get ready for the day and take a moment to make some tea in the kitchen and perhaps go to the room that was used both for dining and as a living room to read a book or something until everyone woke up.

As she got dressed, a thought gently made its way into her mind. Tomorrow was her birthday. It took her a moment, but then it sunk in. It was the day before her birthday. She smiled sadly to herself. Only a day to go, and she will turn sixteen.

Two birthdays here, she thought before shaking her head. She didn't have anything for it planned, but she wondered whether or not she had even brought up what date her birthday was to the rest of the guild. She might as well bring it up at breakfast.

##

Harry gave a yawn as he walked into the living room at around six and paused as he saw Lux dozing in a chair, an open book in her lap and an empty teacup on the table in front of her. Must have been woken up by a nightmare, he thought, considering the most likely reason for her to be here, rather than in bed. She wasn't the only one who periodically had trouble getting a full night's sleep due to nightmares, and she wasn't the first he had seen in this room trying to relax after one.

Walking into the kitchen, he saw a kettle on the stove and picked it up. Opening the lid, he saw that there was still plenty of water in it, so he put it back on the stove and turned the burner on. A cup of tea sounded good right about now, and Asuna had picked out several varieties during her last shopping trip in Algade.

Looking through the selection of teas as he waited for the water to boil, he selected one that produced a black brew that served well to wake a player up. He likened it to a cup of the familiar black teas he grew up with, though Kirito had noted that the similarities to coffee in terms of flavor and color could not be dismissed. The two of them had several spirited debates on it while wiling away the time after meals when it was served. Harry insisted it was tea, Kirito insisted it was coffee. The girls just shook their heads in exasperation at the two of them, while Keiko basically combined the two words and called it coftea.

No matter, it served to wake him up in the morning and the fact that they all now had a source of tea, coffee, coftea, whatever, to drink was something they were all glad of.

Once the water reached a boil, he turned off the burner. Adding a small spoonful of the tea to his cup, he then carefully picked up the kettle, added the water and waited until it mixed. Unlike the real world, where he would have needed to use a filter or tea bags, once the water was added, it mixed and created the beverage on its own.

And it didn't require the cooking skill at all to do, which was a plus in his eyes.

Taking a sip of the beverage, he nodded, and walked out into the living room. He sat down in an empty chair and placed his cup on a nearby table before opening his menu. After the events with the dragon and his making that earthen wall, he had been going over some ideas in his head for the purpose of using his other affinities in a similar manner, especially since the conversion of what he did into an Original Sword Skill basically meant that he would be able to use it consistently, so long as he kept in mind its restrictions and limitations.

The Earth Affinity's ability to provide him something to shield himself and others with from all damage, provided they were behind it and no attacks snuck around the edges was too useful for him to simply leave. However, he didn't like using the Earth Affinity in the kinds of battles where it would prove most useful, mostly because, as he had told several others, Newton's Laws of Motion still applied.

Proper footwork and stances could only go so far when you're hit by something that has the impact force of several tons when pitted against his wiry build, stats be damned. There was a reason why tanks tended to be larger and stouter, after all. Perhaps the Earth Affinity could mitigate that, but he had not been willing to test that against the kind of mobs, like bosses, that he might need to rely on it against. Better to use the tried and proven method of not getting hit, or using his shield to deflect attacks or redirect his own movement.

Though, with the quests, he might have to use the opportunity they presented to do so.

He heard Lux shift and turned his attention to the older girl. "Couldn't sleep last night and decided to read a book?" He asked as she came to awareness.

Lux started and looked at him in surprise. "Harry?" She asked. "You're up early."

"I'm an early riser, and Keiko and I went to bed early last night," he replied with a smirk. "She decided to take a bath when my getting out of bed woke her."

"Going to be early," Lux said. "So that's what you two are calling it now?"

Harry snorted. "We didn't have any bedroom games, if that's what you're thinking," Harry said, denying the implied statement behind her words. "Though I'm surprised, it's usually Rain who says something like that."

Lux shrugged as she looked at her teacup. "I have my moments," she replied.

"That you do."

"Harry?"

Harry looked at her. "Hm?"

"You know what's planned for today?" She asked.

Harry shrugged. "No clue, but I think Asuna may have gotten a message from Liz, so the gear she was working on might be done. If not now, then soon."

"Already?" Lux asked, surprised.

"She did say that she might get some help from the smiths in Grandzam." Harry noted. "So, she's either done, or she has a more exact date for us." He shrugged and then gave her a look. "Anyway, I have an idea of what kept you up, or woke you up at least. Nightmares?"

She nodded. "First one in three weeks," she replied. "It didn't hit too hard, but trying to get back to sleep after that? Not easy, and it was four in the morning when it woke me up anyway."

"So you decided to come down here and simply use the time to relax to a book and a cup of tea instead of trying to get a couple of hours more sleep." Harry concluded, nodding. "Been there, not the method of relaxing, but the being woken up by nightmares late enough to make going back to sleep seem pointless. We all have our ways of dealing with it when it hits."

"I would ask how you do, but with your being married to Silica, I can guess." Lux replied drily.

"Nothing like that, Lux," Harry replied hastily. He heard someone approach and turned his attention to the entrance to see Asuna walk in. "Good morning, Asuna."

"Morning Harry," came the yawning reply. "I'm just going to make some tea right now, and I'll start cooking in an hour or so."

##

They all sat around the table, slowly eating breakfast, a simple sweetened porridge with some meats and fruits available on a platter for everyone. It was clear to Kirito that most of them were tired. It wasn't usually something obvious, like trying to stay awake, but more the relative slowness of their movements and the fact that they had all gone for the coftea, rather than their usual blends. All of it pointed to either not getting enough sleep, or the pace simply getting to them.

Probably from us hitting those quests like we have, he thought as he took a bite of some of the meats he put on his plate as soon as breakfast started. Doing them has been profitable in terms of col, mats, and drops, but we've been doing them at a heavy pace, for lack of anything better to do, as any other reason.

He looked at Asuna, who met his eyes and put her spoon down.

"Everyone," she started. "I can see that many of you are tired. Whether it's from the pace we've been setting, something else, or both, is up to debate. We're taking the next couple of days off. First, because we need the rest. Second, because I think Lux's birthday is tomorrow. At least, if I remember correctly."

"I don't want to be a bother…" Lux started.

"It's no bother," Harry said. "We need the break anyway, so this gives us plenty of time to do your birthday party right." He looked at Asuna. "Head out, or do it here?"

"We'll do it here." Asuna replied. "And I'll make arrangements to invite a few others."

"Okay then."

"By the way, any idea when Liz will finish crafting whatever she could for us from the mats we gave her?" Silica asked.

"No idea," Asuna replied. "She's probably almost done, and considering that she has a blacksmith shop to run, and the fact that she admitted that she might need help, it can be tomorrow, or take another week or so."

"True," Silica admitted with a nod. "But she's usually good about estimating how much time she will take, and she said that it would take about a week. We'll find out soon if that's the case, or if she needs a bit more time."

July 1, 2024 - Aincrad 48th Floor, Lindarth

Lisbeth had been surprised at the speed of Steel Phoenix's response to her message. She had sent it after breakfast and found them to be waiting at her shop's door when she opened it up for the day.

Looks like the results of what I made for Kirito had an impact, she thought. A good thing, really, even if what I ended up making with the help those guys up in Grandzam on isn't quite up to the same quality. Others would be concerned, but not her. She knew them, their requirements, and their gear well enough to know that what was made was a marked improvement over what they used.

"I didn't expect you guys to get here this quickly," she quipped as she unlocked the door and set the system to register it as open.

"We have plans for later today," Asuna remarked. "It's Lux's birthday, so we need to make sure we have everything ready for the party at seven. You're invited, by the way."

"I am?" Lisbeth asked. "Nice." She turned to Lux. "And congratulations, Lux. You're what sixteen or seventeen, right?"

"Sixteen," Lux replied with a small smile.

"Well, happy birthday from me." Lisbeth said cheerfully. "Well, come on in. Give me a few minutes to grab the stuff I made for you guys."

She then went to her workshop and looked at the arrayed gear that she had placed there the night before. She was very satisfied with the results, even if none of the items were quite on the level of the Dark Repulsor. Then again, few things she made were of comparable quality to it, but each of the items were still of superior quality compared to her normal work.

True, some of the crafted items required her to leverage the expertise of other smiths, but the blacksmithing community was fairly tight knit, with her own pieces being compared to several of the smiths in Grandzam.

She wasn't the best blacksmith in SAO, but she was well known for quality work.

As she collected the pieces, she placed them on a mobile table she used when she was bringing out several pieces that weren't on display out in the shop proper. Looking it over, she shifted a few of the items to create a more aesthetic look and nodded to herself. Presentation was always important, and it was why she continued to be a successful blacksmith.

She covered the mobile table with a cloth and then wheeled it out into the main shop. She saw the six of them waiting eagerly to see what she, and admittedly others who had the necessary skills, had made.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," she said to them. "I had to go to Grandzam to get the help of a few who are better at certain aspects of blacksmithing for some of the items. As you know, I specialize in making weapons, but not all the mats you provided are good for weaponsmithing. Now, before I bore you with all the technical details, let me show you what was made."

She pulled the cloth off the table.

She heard the gasps and appreciative murmurs from all of them and smiled. She knew they would like them. On the table was a shield, a dagger, two pieces of armor, and a basket hilted schiavona in its sheath. No two items were of the same coloring, as she had looked each of them over and had easily known what would go to who.

She picked up the shield, which had raised scales on it. "Harry," she said. "This is for you. I used a good number of the dragon scales you guys provided to make it over an orichalcum and lightsteel alloy base to reduce the weight. It's called The Queen's Knight and it provides a good boost to defense and strength, but its primary boost is to your agility. I know how you fight by now." She handed it over to him and watched as he pressed an icon and looked at the stats. From the appreciative whistle, she knew that he liked it.

Picking up the dagger, which looked to be made of ivory with metallic veins going through it, she turned to Silica. "Silica, I present to you the Dragonkeeper's Dagger. Using the claws that dropped, I reinforced them with daranite and wrapped the hilt in dragon hide and welded a carnelian ruby to the pommel. Don't ask how I could weld a gemstone to it, this is a game, after all." She shook her head. "It has a high attack power for a dagger while also boosting critical hits and attacks from behind." She handed it and the sheath over and watched as Silica gave it an appreciative look before she backed away and did a short routine with it. Nodding, she sheathed the blade and put it into her inventory.

She then looked at Asuna and Rain before shaking her head. "For you two, I had a bit of difficulty, so I had to make use of my contacts in Grandzam," she admitted. "Neither of you favor heavy armor, so making something light enough for both of you, but still protective enough to be useful, was key. For Asuna, I made this," she picked up one of the breastplates, colored a bluish silver that seemed to be almost prismatic. "The Luminous Breastplate. A breastplate made from an orichalcum and bluesteel alloy, it boosts agility and accuracy." Placing it back on the table, she then picked up a russet breastplate. "For Rain, I made the Crimson Protector, a breastplate that was made by combining mithril and carnelian ore with the dragon's blood you all provided as an alchemical catalyst. It provides boosts to strength and defense and protects against the bleeding debuff. I think you will find this more than adequate." She handed them over and watched as Asuna and Rain personally inspected them before nodding appreciatively and putting them in their respective inventories.

Picking up the schiavona, she turned to Lux. "This one actually turned out better than the others," she proudly declared as she drew the blade from its sheath. The blade looked simple, but a closer look showed a subtle differentiation in coloring. "Maiden's Light, made from an orichalcum and mithril alloy. The basket hilt is made from the same and wrapped in hide with mithril wire to improve grip. It provides a boost to strength, agility, and dexterity. Not a bad piece of work at all." She sheathed the blade and handed it over to Lux.

Lux slowly drew the blade, and Lisbeth could swear that it caught the light in just the right way to almost gleam before she turned to face away. She took some experimental swings of the blade, starting slow to get a feel for it before picking up speed. After about thirty seconds, she stopped and looked at it again before slowly sheathing it and putting it in her inventory.

Lisbeth wasn't offended by their looking over the gear or even testing its feel. Long experience with the six of them had shown her that they took their gear seriously, and they always checked it out. The fact that Kirito only looked at the stats of Dark Repulsor when she made it for him was a surprise, but she didn't doubt that he had practiced with it later in private to get a proper feel for it.

"So, what do you all think?" she asked.

They all looked at each other and nodded. "Liz, they're more than adequate." Asuna said affirmatively. "And give my compliments to those who assisted you as well. All of this is excellent work."

Lisbeth smiled. Understated as it was, Asuna had just given what was made top marks for quality. Her tone was the high class lady worried about rude overstatement Asuna sometimes slipped into when overwhelmed.

Lisbeth then gave them some looks. "Why don't you and Rain equip your new armor?" She asked. "I want to see how it looks on you both."

"Come to the party and we'll do so for you," Rain declared. "This way we also have access to our wardrobes to find the right clothing to complement it."

Aincrad 61st Floor, Selmburg

Keita looked at the people who were invited to the party and nodded to himself. When he received the invitation for his guild to come, he was mildly surprised. Despite the fact that the members of Steel Phoenix, or at least Asuna, Kirito, Harry, and Silica, kept tabs on his guild's activities and progress, actual get-togethers, whether for meetings, or simply checking up on each other and talk about what's been going on, was fairly uncommon. He was smart enough to know that it was more because both guilds moved in completely different circles, and that Steel Phoenix, as an Assault Team guild, was constantly busy with trying to clear the game.

Even with progress currently halted, and he found out from Argo that the quarantined zone was that way for good reason, they were busy knocking out those "challenging" quests that had opened. He had looked a few of them over and was tempted to do a couple of them with his guild, himself. He would wait until more information about them was available, though.

Still, the party was more a simple gathering of friends, to wish one a happy birthday and have a nice meal. At the same time, he also knew that it was also a means for everyone to check up on each other.

He saw Kirito, Klein, and Agil off to the side and talking, drinks in their hands. All the girls were near one of the doors and chatting, Sachi with them. Ducker, Sasamaru, and Tetsuo were seated, and seemed content to simply relax with some drinks in hand. Harry was talking with Argo's associate, Gus. He walked over to the two.

"Anything interesting to talk about?" He asked as he reached them.

Harry turned and shrugged. "More just touching base with him and getting some info on some of the quests that Kayaba released to keep us all busy while he fixes the Glitchzone," he replied. "Which he better do soon."

Gus nodded. "There's a nasty sentiment among the players," he noted. "Many believe that he did this deliberately, but after getting near the quarantine zone, I don't think he did." He shuddered. "Just being near it… it felt wrong in some way."

"You probably noticed because you were already aware of it," Harry noted, an understanding tone in his voice. "We went into it blind, so we didn't notice anything unusual until we were already inside. After we left, Kirito and I could feel it from Barist for a bit." He shook his head and turned to Keita. "Anyway, enough of talking about that place. What's been going on with you and the others?"

Keita took the change of subject in stride. "Not much. Looked over some of the quests that Kayaba opened in the mid-levels and we were looking at taking on the one on the fifty-fifth floor," he replied. "We decided not to when we got word that it usually requires two or three parties to complete."

"The one on West Mountain that has you take on a dragon?" Harry asked.

Keita nodded.

"Yeah, that one takes some work," Harry said drily. "We took it on as a group, and that dragon took a beating. It has a high defense, and while its attack power isn't too much for an Assault Team party, you guys might want to wait until you're over seventy-five. You guys are what? About the upper sixties right now?"

Keita nodded. "We average around sixty-seven," he replied. "Anything good from it?"

Harry nodded. "If you're looking for mats, very good." He opened his menu and went to the inventory, selecting something. A shield materialized and he easily picked it up and held it for them to examine. "Liz made this, though she might have gotten some help in Grandzam. She also made some nice weapons from them, as well as a couple pieces of armor for Asuna and Rain." He looked around. "And speaking of them, they're not here anymore. Neither are the rest of the ladies."

"You including the boss in that?" Gus asked.

"She's female, so it counts in a technical sense." Harry replied drily. "Though I would use the term loosely with her."

Gus laughed.

##

Sachi found herself talking with Argo as they waited for Asuna and Rain to change into their new armor, as well as find appropriate wear to go with their sets. Lisbeth and Silica had gone in with them to help, leaving the two of them outside the room with Lux and Fuuka from the Fuurinkazan guild.

"I tell you, Kayaba better get the Glitchzone taken care of soon, or the Assault Team is likely to get pouty," Argo said, shaking her head.

And Argo, realizing she had an audience, decided to use this time to vent about the Assault Team in general.

"I know everyone else has this image of them as grim fighters struggling against the system, but they don't deal with them all the time. They're worse than children at times."

Sachi just found herself nodding along, giving the occasional sound that could be considered, if someone was being charitable, agreeing. It didn't fool anyone, but it wasn't supposed to.

"I mean, Aa-chan, Kii-bou and the others are better than that, obviously," Argo continued. "Or at least they're good about not doing that in public."

Fuuka snorted. "It helps that they have a place to go to when they feel pouty, or want to throw a tantrum," she commented drily. "But a lot of it, from what I've heard from the boss, is that they usually just take things as they come, and stab them."

"They're not that bad," Sachi disagreed.

Argo chuckled. "No, they're not like that," she admitted. "They do have moments when it's obvious they want to throw a tantrum, though. Aa-chan's upbringing stops her, while Kii-bou has this dark, brooding, anti-hero air that he tries to maintain."

"And the rest?" Sachi asked.

"Harry and Silica don't bother, though the two of them have other ways to handle it if it comes down to it," Argo said. "I've heard that Rain swears like a Russian sailor, and Lux just pouts."

"I don't pout," Lux protested with a pout.

"You're pouting right now," Fuuka observed, amused as she crossed her arms.

Lux shrugged. "It's my birthday, and I'll pout if I want to," she retorted, causing everyone to laugh.

Getting her laughter under control, Argo turned to Lux. "So Lux, any news?" She asked slyly. "Anything about the quests? Antics of those in your guild? Harry and Silica making too much noise at night?" That last comment caused Sachi to blush.

Lux shot Argo a flat look. "The quests are difficult enough to give us a challenge, and Harry's probably talking details with Gus right now," she said. "As for the rest of the guild and their antics, let alone your implications about Harry and Silica, there's nothing to be said. Oh, and they certainly don't make too much noise, the walls don't carry sound all that well and we made sure to have an empty room between theirs and the rest. We're savvy enough to take precautions in case the in-game soundproofing glitches."

"Bah," Argo scoffed. "Boring. Well then, any comments of theirs to add fuel to the rumors?"

"Nothing you haven't already heard," Silica said as she stepped out of the room Asuna and Rain were in. "What Harry and I do in the bedroom, stays in the bedroom, most of the time. Some of the comments we made might be actually true, but only some." She shot Argo an impish look. "I'll let you try and figure out which ones. Anyway, they're done, so why don't you all go in and take a look."

Sachi stepped into the room with Lux and saw Asuna and Rain in their new gear and gave them a careful look.

Asuna's breastplate seemed to catch the light in a way to brighten things around it from the reflection, while also showing prismatic splashes of color along it. Rain's armor was a russet red that was reminiscent of blood, but at the same time, its coloring was highly appropriate, especially since it seemed to have something about it that seemed to absorb some of the light. Not enough to make it seem dark and foreboding, but more as if to declare that it was made for the grim task of battle.

All in all, not bad, and fitting for each of them, especially when their titles of Lightning Flash for Asuna and Blood Rain for Rain were taken into account. She turned to see Lux nod at what she saw.

"It fits you, and not just because things auto size when equipped via the menu," she said as she turned to Lisbeth. "How many sets did you make before getting ones that were appropriate for them?"

Lisbeth shrugged. "Fewer than expected when you consider that armorsmithing isn't my strong suit," she said. "It was six total, and I went to leverage some expertise in Grandzam for help. These two were the best of the lot, and I gave the rest to Reinhardt, the guy who helped me, as compensation. He helped me out when I was getting started as a blacksmith, and working with him again was nice." She then turned to Lux and also glanced at Silica. "Now, we have two others who got something to show off. Silica? Lux? Care to show them?"

"Sure," Silica said as she opened her menu. Fiddling with it for a few moments, she brought out a sheathed dagger. Sachi looked to see Lux do so and bring out a new weapon as well.

"Why don't you show yours off first, Silica?" Lux asked.

"Sure," Silica replied and unsheathed the dagger. Holding it in front of her, she let everyone take a look at it.

Sachi's first impression was that it was unimpressive. Just another dagger, if oddly colored, really. She knew that appearances could be deceiving, but that was her first impression. As she got closer, she could see that it was of two different types of material that were expertly combined. If she were to make any guesses, she suspected that a claw or tooth had been used, with the metal somehow worked in to permeate it. It showed the craftsmanship inherent to it, and she revised her opinion off the dagger upwards.

It was impressive in an understated way, and actually made sense. Sachi knew that Lisbeth designed her weapons for function over looks, though some of her best pieces were impressive to behold, with Asuna's Lambent Light being a prominent example of that.

She turned to Lux, who had stepped away from the group, and once she realized that she had their attention, drew her own weapon from its sheath. As she drew it, the blade of her sword gleamed from how it caught the light.

"So might actually be an inherent part of the weapon," Lisbeth said, nodding to herself.

"What do you mean, Liz?" Lux asked.

"The way it catches the light," Lisbeth said with a shrug. "When you drew it, it seemed to gleam both times, so it might be a cosmetic effect of the weapon. Nothing that's actually useful, but a cool effect. You see them sometimes, but this is the first time I actually made a weapon that had one."

"That's interesting," Lux said and Argo snorted.

"Imagine drawing that at sunset," the information broker said. "With your title, and the meaning of your character name being light, the stories about you are going to grow."

"The Dusk Maiden shining a light into the approaching darkness?" Asuna asked. "That makes the name of the weapon very appropriate then."

"What's the name?" Sachi asked curious.

"Maiden's Light," Lux replied.

Asuna clapped her hands together. "It suits her. I'd like to linger a bit longer, but... I need to get started on the cooking," she said. "How about we rejoin the boys?"

##

Lux sat at the table and looked at everyone who was happily eating the food Asuna prepared. She remembered their initial surprise when they first tasted the food, and the exclamations of shock at tasting teriyaki for the first time in over a year.

She could understand, given how she and the others reacted the first time. When Asuna had told them the recipe, it was surprisingly simple, but given that no one else had the cooking skill, it wasn't like they could make it.

SAO did tend to make the line between having and not having a skill rather... sharp.

"Aa-chan, you have to tell me this recipe," Argo all but demanded. "I'll pay you top col for it, though I will make it back when I sell the info on it."

"Now, now, Argo," Asuna chided with a smile. "Not at the dinner table. Also, the rest of them look ready to stab you for that demand."

Lux looked at the rest of her guild, who, herself included, were shooting Argo some looks that were borderline hostile. It was as if the rest of them were trying to telepathically tell her, Ours! Find your own chef and figure it out!

"But Aa-chan…" Argo whined.

"Boss, enough," Gus said firmly as he idly blocked Pina's attempt to steal from his plate. "Shoo, I'm around two cats too often to fall for you." He told the feathered dragon. "Argo, it's someone's birthday. Maybe you should, just maybe, respect that?"

Argo had the decency to look contrite, though Lux figured that it was more for form's sake. She had enough experience with her to know that Argo had no sense of shame, though she did have some decency. She knew when certain information should be kept off the market, or when not to cross any lines.

Gus looked at his boss, then turned to Asuna. "I'll double whatever she offers to keep it from her."

"I can outbid you," Argo growled.

"You think you can," Gus shot back with a grin.

Lux simply shook her head, the banter between Argo and the man who was her de facto second in command a common enough occurrence that it was expected. At the same time, she knew that the American served as a restraining influence on some of Argo's... wilder antics, was the politest way she could think of it. She had heard rumors of plots that members of Japan's infamously corrupt Diet would have looked at in wonder at the Rat's audacity. Gus had been the sober second thought to prevent that, though Klein occasionally seemed to be a factor too. Some speculated Argo knew one or both from Outside.

Harry coughed to get their attention and shot both the American and the Rat a look, then looked pointedly at Asuna. When the two saw the far too patient smile on her face, they quickly clammed up.

"Thank you," Asuna said with some sarcasm, giving Harry a grateful look before turning her attention to everyone else. "Now, grab your drinks, or refill them as you will. It's time for a toast." After everyone did so, she stood up. "Now… To Lux. Please join me in wishing her a happy sixteenth birthday. To Lux."

"To Lux!" Everyone said and drank.

Lux sipped from her drink, a simple wine from the fortieth floor that she had grown to like, and smiled.

It was nice to have friends.

Aincrad, Unknown Area

Yui, you done with the preparation of it yet? Strea asked impatiently.

Finalizing it right now, Strea. Yui replied.

It's about time! Strea exclaimed, relieved. I do have a question, though. Where will we end up?

I'm aiming for the sixty-first floor, Yui replied. If this works, we have an approximately eighty percent probability of ending up on it, twenty within four floors, and a non-zero, but small, probability of further away, though not above the sixty-fifth floor. If we do arrive on the floor, it's a sixty percent chance of ending up in or near Selmburg, and forty at some random location on the floor further away.

Strea considered that. Outside of the possibility of failure, something she had come to accept, success meant that they would likely arrive at or near where they wanted to go. Though if they didn't arrive in Selmburg, she might want to prepare for that. Either be ready for a swim, or a fight.

If we miss Selmburg, I hope you know how to swim, Yui added.

Just downloaded the protocols, Strea replied. You might want to as well.

Did so long ago, Yui sent back smugly. Beach trips were something families do, after all.

And of course, Yui would prepare for landing in water, even if the reason for it was different than escape, but for after. Why she was so hung up on experiencing a family, was one of the things Strea didn't understand. Then again, the whole concept of family was strange to her.

So when do we carry this out? She asked her fellow AI.

Tomorrow. Came the reply.