Disclaimer: I don't own Sword Art Online.

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6:23 p.m., August 17, 2024, Floor 50: Algade

Even a solo player needed a little human contact now and then.

For Kirito, who didn't often seek out much in the way of actual interaction, just taking a few minutes to watch other players mill about and chat in the marketplace was enough to take the edge off a Beater's isolation. So, for the past couple of weeks, he'd been stopping at a little café on Algade's main thoroughfare at the end of his day of grinding and clearing on higher floors. Once seated at a small outdoor table, he'd order a cool drink from the polite, yet bland NPC waitress. Kirito would then spend the next fifteen or twenty minutes nursing his glass while contentedly watching his fellow SAO swordsmen return to the city in the golden light of the setting sun.

Although Kirito's mood at the time would tint these short breaks with a range of emotions from peaceful curiosity to some mild longing for company, the one constant in his observations was an enduring wonder at the way that people could continue to adapt and build lives in this death game. Everywhere he looked, he saw young players talking, laughing, bartering for goods, and unwinding from a day of activity—be it grinding, crafting, or even just exploring the rich detail of this beautiful, perilous world. In some ways, it wasn't so far removed from a Tokyo district at the end of a workday…if you set aside the fantasy aesthetic and medieval weapons at everyone's sides.

Kirito wondered, more often than not, if this was something that Akihiko Kayaba, in his godhood complex and world-building power-trip, had intended to cultivate, or if it was just an irrepressible trait of human nature: to set down roots, build a community, and flourish even in the face of adversity.

Or, perhaps, especially in those circumstances.

Musing thus, Kirito sipped at his drink, smacking his lips slightly at the minty tang. Letting his eyelids fall half-shut, the young swordsman leaned back in his chair and let the hustle and bustle wash over him, mingled with the fading daylight.

"Potions and salves for sale! It's dangerous to go unprepared!" hawked an NPC just across the street. It was a canned, oft repeated script which the boy had nearly tuned out at this point; it was like the steady, reliable foundation of an audial castle, upon which the voices and exclamations of human players built and covered the city like a shifting fog.

Elsewhere, Kirito could hear the clanking of heavy armor, the clod-clod of leather boots on the cobblestone road, and a symphony of voices hitting a score of varying notes and pitches. All in all, a typical evening in Aincrad.

It was so strange that all of this had somehow grown out of a setting where, at a similar place and time fifty floors below, a mad genius had given 10,000 players the scare of their lives nearly two years ago.

"…so strange," Kirito repeated aloud to himself before sighing under his breath.

"Potions and salves for sale! It's dangerous to…"

A moment passed. Then Kirito's brow burrowed lightly on instinct, as though the music of the city had missed a beat and his mind had tripped on that blank space.

When players interrupted an NPC mid-speech, the computer-generated character would stop abruptly and give its full attention to the human in its field of focus. After giving or receiving some expected prompt, the program would run through a set dialogue tree with the player.

Kirito had never heard a stock character's speech trail off that way before, outside of a quest.

The swordsman opened his eyes and looked across the street.

The NPC shopkeeper, which looked as nondescript as expected beyond "male, youngish, short hair, expressionless," was now standing quietly and looking to its right, towards Algade's south entrance gate. Blinking, Kirito followed its line of sight.

In these periods of people-watching, Kirito had come to recognize a few regulars on the street. There was the mid-level KoB contingent, heading to an Irish-themed pub down the way, right on time; a little further down, a gangly info broker, staking his usual corner, was negotiating with a stolid looking pair dressed in brown and forest green cloaks; across from them, a human craftsman was showing off her elegant and expensive goods to a small crowd of interested players. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

Glancing back at the NPC to see if the system had somehow hit a bit of lag—there was a first time for everything—Kirito stilled before he slowly leaned forward, setting all four chair legs down with a muted thunk.

…perhaps "expressionless" wasn't so accurate a description after all?

It was a small thing, really, which the young swordsman wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't been looking for something out of the ordinary. But the NPC's head was slightly tilted, eyes widened and lips parted ever so minutely.

Setting down his glass, Kirito once again turned his head, searching for the NPC's focus.

"…hm."

Another party, somewhat familiar now after these last few weeks, was making its way down the street, aimed at the city's heart.

It was a party of five, apparently well-balanced among weapon classes; there was a hulking man dressed in chain mail with a great sword on his back, two younger players (who might have been twins) armed with shields and short swords, a taller man carrying a spear in the crook of one arm, and a girl with a sheathed dagger at her waist. The group was talking energetically, which fit with Kirito's vague recollections of their end-of-the-day trek into town. He seemed to recall overhearing frequent jokes from the twins, and that the girl had a pretty laugh…

"…huh."

Swinging his gaze back and forth several times just to be sure, the young swordsman found himself at the most likely conclusion: the NPC was watching the approaching party.

Intrigued, Kirito leaned forward and placed his chin on his fist, eyes flicking down and across the street.

As the player party drew level with the café and the shop, the NPC abruptly picked up a potion and held it out in front of him.

"For you, miss. It's dangerous to go unprepared!"

The group came to a scattered stop after several more steps, leaving Kirito with a clear view. At the party's rear, the female player stared at the shopkeeper in surprise for a moment before accepting the potion on autopilot.

"Um…thanks?" the girl said, half-questioningly as Kirito strained his ears to catch her response. The player glanced above the NPC's head, as though looking for the gold exclamation mark which identified a quest-giver. When several seconds passed without the appearance of such a mark, or further dialogue from the shopkeeper, the girl placed the potion in her inventory and hesitantly turned away. "Ah…thanks again!"

The NPC gave its typical, shallow smile and waved goodbye.

The party continued on its way. Kirito could just catch one player remarking, "Weird. Must have been a one-off event…?" The girl scratched her cheek in confusion and glanced over her shoulder once before they passed by another cluster of players and were soon lost to view.

Kirito's attention shifted back to the shopkeeper, who was only just now lowering its hand. As its smile faded into the faintly placid look which most NPCs shared when they weren't interacting with human players, Kirito thought he caught a trace of…something else around its eyes.

Was that…admiration? Or even…?

The young swordsman tapped his finger repeatedly, and continued to watch the NPC even as the evening's routine reasserted itself.

"Potions and salves for sale! It's dangerous to go unprepared!"

"…huh."

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A/N: Because a world like Aincrad is full of mystery and imagination…and untapped possibilities.