Tuesday, June 6th, 2023

The Twenty-Sixth Floor was as close to a literal breath of fresh air as Kirito was going to find in Aincrad's digital environment, he thought. The Twenty-Fifth had largely consisted of cave systems, from the side dungeons to the towns; even the labyrinth had been a very rocky, rough-hewn place. All in all, it had been one of the more oppressive floors the clearing group had fought through so far.

By contrast, the Twenty-Sixth was a mountainous floor, and even with the maximum height of one hundred meters, that was still a fair distance to fall from at the peaks. Most of what Kirito had seen so far was up near those peaks, too; as far as he could tell, very little of import on this floor lay in the narrow, treacherous valleys. The town closest to the entrance from the floor below, for certain, was built on the slope of one of those mountains.

Now, just a day after the floor was first opened, Kirito was perched in a guard tower at the outskirts of the town, Skirloft. Situated near the mountain's peak, about seventy-five meters up by his estimate, it seemed built for a pair of guards; he imagined, in the lore, it was probably to guard against attacks by the wyverns that were said to live in the northern part of the floor. There was even a large torch that looked like it could be lit as a warning signal.

For two, it would've been a little snug. For one tired swordsman, it was more than enough space. He sat on the windowsill, uncaring of the long drop below, and tried to let the spectacular view distract him from everything that had happened the previous day.

It wasn't working as well as Kirito would've liked. The giant spider that had served as the boss of the previous floor had been a surprisingly difficult foe; the increase in difficulty over the one immediately before had been greater than the clearers had expected from prior experience. Kirito had fought in every Floor Boss Raid up to now, but The Adamantine Arachnid had been by far the worst.

Eight dead in the reinforcements, and most of the rest halfway there by the end, he thought wearily, watching as the sun sank into view below the disc of the next floor. And that was after what happened to the Army. No wonder they retreated after that.

Kirito didn't like the cactus-haired leader of the Army, Kibaou. There was too much bad blood between them, dating back to the first Floor Boss and the origin of the term "Beater". Even still, he had some small measure of respect for the man's courage, and they did tend to work well enough together when it came time for boss raids. With the losses the former Aincrad Liberation Squad had taken, he didn't blame Kibaou at all for pulling back to the lower floors.

Even if it was partly his own fault, none of them deserved that.

That didn't make him any happier about what came after. He had nothing respect for Heathcliff, the powerful, unflappable knight who had joined him in holding the line against The Adamantine Arachnid, and that respect extended to the man's efforts in the wake of the battle. Respect didn't fill the void left after the formation of the Knights of Blood, though. It didn't change the fact that, for the first time in six months, he could only see one HP bar in the corner of his vision.

I should be happy, Kirito thought. It's what I've been saying she should do for months now. I am proud of what she's accomplished. But still…

Other players were out exploring the new floor still, checking every nook and cranny, satisfying themselves that despite the latest boss' difficulty spike, this floor's enemies followed the normal curve. Argo, he was sure, was already hard at work dealing in information for her next guide. Normally, he'd even be one of her sources, hurling himself right into the exploration.

Today, he'd decided to give himself the day off. His heart just wasn't in it.

Kirito wasn't sure how long he spent brooding on that windowsill, looking out over the moments. He vaguely noticed it was nearing dark, but he was too lost in his own thoughts to pay much attention; he didn't particularly expect to be disturbed, anyway. Even if someone else stumbled on this guard post, no one was likely to want to talk to the original Beater, of all—

"I knew you did not like crowds, Kirito, but isn't this a little out of the way, even for you?"

Startled, he nearly tumbled right out the window, doubtless to have his name on the Monument of Life crossed out and underwritten with "Death by Falling"; truly, an ignominious end for the most infamous beta tester. Only his visitor's quick reflexes, catching the collar of his ubiquitous black longcoat in one armored hand and hauling him back, saved his life.

Breathing fast, heart rate high enough he was sure alarms were going off on the medical equipment monitoring his real body, Kirito fell onto the stone bench that ran along the interior walls of the guard post. Then, and only then, did he get a look at who had saved—and nearly ended—his life, and the sight was enough make him start in surprise a second time.

Chuckling, his visitor shook her head. "Honestly, Kirito," she said, sitting down across from him and resting her elbows on the table in between, "you can find me when I'm invisible, but when I come up in full view, making enough noise to attract every monster on this floor, you don't notice me coming? I thought your senses were sharper than that."

Kirito stared openly. The dark skin, lilac hair, and pointed ears were features he wasn't likely to forget any time soon; she was even still wearing her distinctive dark metal armor, and the Mistmoon Cloak he knew could hide her completely from view at certain hours.


He knew that face well enough, certainly. He just hadn't expected to see her here, seventeen floors above her kingdom's capital.

Kizmel smiled. "It's been a while, Kirito. I am glad to see you are doing well."

The Dark Elven Royal Guard, Kizmel. Member of the Pagoda Knights of the Kingdom of Lyusula, she had been a steadfast companion for Kirito and Asuna both, when they were clearing the Elf War quest chain, supporting them with her incredible skill with a sword in battle, and sound advice and moral support outside it.

She was also an NPC, and by far the most confusing one Kirito had ever encountered. Based on his experiences in the beta test, Kizmel shouldn't have even survived the opening event of the quest; not only had she lived this time, but she'd proven to have a stunning degree of intelligence and autonomy for an NPC, to the point where Kirito had once doubted she was truly AI at all.

Subsequent events had reassured him that she wasn't secretly an ally of Kayaba Akihiko controlling an NPC avatar to toy with players, but even now Kirito was no closer to understanding Kizmel's nature than he had been back when he first met her, six months before.

Eventually, he'd decided it didn't really matter. AI or no, she'd become his friend, and he'd be lying if he claimed he wasn't glad to see her, however strange the circumstances. Besides, by now I should be used to her doing the unexpected, he thought wryly. Right back to the time she followed me clear into a strategy meeting in town…

"It's good to see you, too, Kizmel," Kirito said honestly, relaxing into the bench as his heart rate finally began to slow. "But, um—I didn't expect to see you this far up. I don't remember seeing any spirit trees for a few floors now." Actually, what he was really wondering was how she'd gotten into town at all. He'd have expected the NPC guards to attack her on sight; it wasn't yet dark enough for her to have hidden under her cloak.

There was a quiet clank of armor as Kizmel shrugged. "The trees may be an easier route, Kirito, but it is not as if we elves cannot use the Pillars of the Heavens. It took me a couple of extra days, that's all. And before you ask, the local guards have no reason to take issue now. They were only ever on guard against my people because of the War, and with that over…"

That made a certain amount of sense, Kirito supposed. It was a little odd, since the Elf War technically began again any time a player attempted the quest, but he realized it was possible Kizmel, as an apparently unique NPC, might have received a unique status when the players involved in her particular instance of the quest completed it. It was certainly no less plausible than several of the other things that had occurred around her.

"So," Kizmel went on, "I made my way to the current front line, on the assumption that you and Asuna would still be in the lead." Pausing, she glanced around the guard post's meager interior, looking mildly puzzled. "Speaking of, where is Asuna? Is she off getting supplies?"

Kirito winced, feeling the depression that had led him to that isolated spot come rushing back. "…No, she's… she's not with me now."

Her brow furrowed in a worried frown. "She isn't? Is she alright?"

"She's fine," he assured her quickly. "It's just… we're not a party anymore. Not since yesterday's clearing battle. Um… it's kind of a long story…"

Reaching under her cloak, Kizmel pulled out a leather skin that Kirito thought looked familiar. Impulse led him to bring up his menu, skim through the inventory, and materialize a pair of cups, which she then filled from the skin. "Moontear wine," she said, pushing one of the cups over to him. "I'm sure you remember it. I was hoping to share a drink with you and Asuna… So, what happened?"

Kirito took a long sip of the wine, not surprised this time by the bite of alcohol that accompanied the sweet and sour taste. "Have you heard anything about yesterday's boss fight?" he began, gazing down into his cup.

"Only what I could overhear from some of the Swordmasters I passed on my way here," Kizmel replied, nursing her own drink. "Most humans still are not very comfortable around me, though I suppose my people are something of an unusual sight in human towns… I did hear that it was a difficult battle."

He nodded. "We lost eight people," he said quietly. "Almost lost a lot more. For awhile, it was down to Asuna, a knight called Heathcliff, and me, while the rest healed up and tried to regroup. And that wasn't even the worst. You remember Kibaou and his group, right?"

She nodded, her small, rueful smile showing she remembered the cactus-haired clearer's abrasive personality well enough. "Guildmaster Kibaou is a difficult person to forget, yes. A very headstrong man, as I recall."

"You can say that again." Kirito sipped at the wine, using it to try and hold back the cold memories of the previous day's battle. "This time, it just about got him killed. He got some advance information on the boss, and he launched a raid without the rest of the clearing group."

Kizmel grimaced. "That strikes me as… ill-advised. It's been some time since I was last among your people, Kirito, but I do not recall Kibaou's group being large enough to mount such an operation by themselves."

"They were actually close to it, by then." His gaze turned to the window, looking out at the setting sun. "Not anymore, though. They went in with forty people, against what they thought was going to be a two-headed giant with simple attacks. What they got was a giant, armored spider, stronger than anything we'd ever run into." Kirito shivered. "By the time the rest of the clearing group found out Kibaou had even gone, and went after… Well. There weren't even twenty of them left. We lost eight more just finishing the job."

She listened silently, with a patient stillness that wasn't quite like a normal NPC. "I cannot say I ever had any particular fondness for Guildmaster Kibaou," the elf said finally, voice soft. "But I would not wish such losses on him, either. Do you know why his information was so flawed?"

"I wish we did, but no." Kirito sighed, turning his attention back to his drink and companion. "It might've been a rumor from a local that didn't pan out… or it might've been outright false info. All Kibaou said after was that the guild member who got the tip in the first place was one of the casualties in the battle. We may never know for sure." He took a sip, lifting his free hand palm-up. "They've gone back down to the lower floors, now, to regroup; honestly, I don't know if they'll ever come back up."

"Heavy losses can do that to a unit," Kizmel mused. "But that leaves a large hole in your clearing group, right? I don't imagine that Lind's Dragon Knights can carry the load by themselves."

Kirito snorted at that. Lind and his guild were skilled, no doubt, and he'd never try to downplay their contributions to clearing Aincrad. Even so, he couldn't deny that Lind's attempts at taking Diavel's place as "leader" of the clearing group as a whole had never worked out very well.

"No," he said now, putting aside memories of Lind and his attempts at dictating to Kirito on the matter of guild membership. "From how that battle turned out, I think Heathcliff is going to be as close to a true leader as we're going to get, and he's forming a new guild to do it with." He hesitated, and downed the rest of his glass to buy himself a few moments; Kizmel immediately refilled it without comment. "Asuna ended up calling the shots for most of the others in the last part of the battle, and she did it pretty well. So… Heathcliff asked her to be his second-in-command in the Knights of Blood."

Kizmel nodded, very slowly. "She accepted."


It wasn't a betrayal, by any means. Kirito couldn't even say she was abandoning him. After all, he'd advised her to do exactly that, just after their first boss battle together. He wasn't exactly in a position to complain that she'd finally taken that advice—especially when it was obvious she really would do a great job helping to lead the KoB. It wasn't like they wouldn't see each other now, either; she might be busy right now with forming the new guild, but at the least he knew she'd be up to her neck in the next boss fight.

It still wasn't the same.

When the silence seemed to drag on too long, Kirito coughed into his hand. "Well," he said, trying to force some cheer into his voice, "it's not like I've never been solo before. Actually, I never was part of any long-term party before I teamed up with Asuna, so this is pretty normal for me." From the frown that returned to Kizmel's face, he could tell she wasn't buying it, so he hurried on, "So, er, what brings you up here, Kizmel? I thought your Queen said…" He thought back to the last time he'd talked with Kizmel, at the conclusion of the Elf War. "…I thought she said she had other duties for you…?"

"That was four months ago, Kirito," Kizmel pointed out. She leaned back against the bench, her expression suggesting the previous topic wasn't over yet. "Lyusula's borders have been quiet since the War. It appears that this peace really is going to last—which leaves the Pagoda Knights with little to do. Honestly?" She smiled, looking just a little sheepish. "I was bored, Kirito. Fending off the occasional attack by weak monsters simply wasn't enough for me to keep my edge."

Can an AI even get bored? Kirito managed to choke off the question before he actually said it aloud. In the first place, it wasn't like she'd understand it, and in the second, it would be downright rude.

Instead, he said, "So you came to check on how the clearing was going?"

"I came to check on you," she corrected, pausing to take a small drink of her wine. Unlike him, she was still on her first glass. "You and Asuna, I mean. More precisely, I asked if the Queen might be able to spare me for a time, given how placid the Kingdom's borders have become, and she granted me leave to pursue my own goals, until and unless I'm needed at home."

"What goals?" Kirito asked, honestly curious. As strangely lifelike as Kizmel had been, for as long as he'd known her, her actions had still generally been in relation to the quest line he knew from the beta. At the end of it, she'd even stayed in her people's capital, as might be expected of a quest NPC whose role had ended. He'd never once heard her talk of any goals outside that quest.

Except, he remembered suddenly, when she talked about those dreams she had, the ones that sounded like they were from my experiences in the beta…

"I had intended to join you and Asuna again," Kizmel said, with a shrug and a smile. "I thought we made a good team, back then, and there's still much I want to talk with you about. As it is… I suppose Asuna has all the support she needs, now. But you, Kirito, look like someone in need of a partner. Will I do?"

Kirito stared blankly at her. "Um… You do know I'm involved in clearing the, er, Pillars, right? I'm not going to be going near Dark Elf territory much anytime soon…" Stupid question! But she can't actually mean—I know she suggested it before, when I was trying to keep the ALS and DKB from killing each other, but I always thought that was just a bluff she and Asuna were running—and that bit on the Fourth Floor was Viscount Yofilis' way of paying us back for helping his castle, not something they'd do normally—

"Of course," she said casually. "I know the risks, Kirito, but it is not as if I have not done anything dangerous before. You do remember how we met, don't you?"

Vividly. Given his experiences in the beta, he'd fully expected her to die there, and still didn't fully understand why she hadn't.

"So," she continued, "unless you think your human comrades will object, I'd like to offer my help in unifying the Pillars of Heaven." Kizmel met his gaze, dark eyes serious. "I want to travel with you again, Kirito. Especially now, if you do not even have Asuna's support any longer. You helped my people; it is my turn to help yours."

Kirito swallowed, thought for a moment, then swallowed again, this time moontear wine. He'd just been psyching himself up to return to being the solo he'd been before Asuna collided with his life. He was used to being alone; he'd never understood other people well, especially girls. Especially NPC girls who didn't act like NPCs.

He'd also never been good with words. The combination, as the various parts of his body that had encountered Asuna's fists, feet, and elbows could attest, could be a very painful one.

Yet… Kirito couldn't deny, on one level, sheer curiosity, having never yet figured out what made Kizmel so different from other NPCs. He couldn't deny, either, that there were a lot of advantages to having even one person to watch his back, from the use of Switching to simply having someone who could heal him. He did still have the fear that had led him to abandon Klein at the very beginning, that had led him to try and push Asuna away, but after months of working together, in which the worst hadn't happened…

More than that, he thought, I… He could hardly bring himself to complete the thought; he couldn't quite force words out, choking up as he all too often did when it really counted.

"If there's something you want to say, now's the time to do it, while you can…"

That voice out of memory jolted Kirito out of his paralysis, and he finally mustered a hesitant but real smile. "I'd like that, Kizmel," he forced out, past the lump in his throat. "I'd like that a lot." On reflex, before he could stop himself, he manipulated his menu to send a party invite.

Belatedly, Kirito remembered that as an NPC, it wouldn't work quite that way for Kizmel. To his surprise, though, she smiled, lifted one finger, and pressed an immaterial button in the air; as if it really had been another player, her lifebar promptly appeared beneath his in one corner of his vision.

Smiling wider at the look on his face, she said, "Did you think I have done nothing but guard gates for months, Kirito? I've learned a little of your Mystic Scribing while you were away; I hope to learn more as we journey together."

Kirito would've really liked to know how she managed to "learn" part of a player's user interface. Right then, right there, though, he decided it wasn't really important. "Let's see what we can do, then," he said, feeling more cheerful than he had since before people started dying against the The Adamantine Arachnid. "A pleasure working with you again, Kizmel."

"Likewise, my friend." Kizmel lifted her glass toward him, still smiling. "Although—what if someone does object? Kibaou may have left the front line, but I seem to remember Lind was not exactly your greatest supporter, either."

He grinned. "Honestly? I'm kind of looking forward to seeing how people react. I'd like to see them try to complain about this one!"

Two plain glasses clinked together as if they were flagons of ale, and suddenly the deepening twilight didn't feel so unfriendly. Kirito had forgotten—he'd been acquainted with the night before, and he'd never felt better, or safer, than during that time.

Night had truly fallen, by the time Kirito and Kizmel left that guard tower behind, returning to Skirloft proper. Most players had turned in for the night, getting some rest before heading back out again in the morning to map the mountain trails; only a handful wandered Skirloft's sloped streets, taking care of last-minute preparations for the next day.

Kirito had done most of that the previous night, and hadn't expended any items today, so he ignored the NPC vendors entirely. Instead he led Kizmel toward the other edge of town, where he'd found a cheap, out of the way inn some distance from where most of the clearers were staying.

Away from the large inn that the KoB was currently organizing itself in, in particular.

Along the way, they did get some odd looks from other players, and Kirito heard more than one mutter about "Beaters" as they passed, but he was long since used to that. The hysteria had mostly died down months before, but being trailed by an obvious NPC—and a strong one, as anyone could tell just by looking at her cursor—was bound to stir up some of the old resentment.

It didn't matter. Even if anyone had been insane enough to try anything—which Kibaou at his absolute worst wouldn't have, he was fairly sure, given Kizmel's elite status—they were still inside the town. Words were the only weapon they had, here.

Kirito was pleasantly surprised when a couple of passing Dragon Knights did a collective double-take, then just waved a cheerful greeting. They had never gotten to know Kirito or his party very well, none of them had, but they remembered Kizmel from the lower floors, and things had turned out reasonably amicable then.

I wonder what they'll think when we turn up for the boss strategy meeting, though? Kirito thought, giving a polite nod in return. We did once threaten to take on a Floor Boss all by ourselves, after all.

Maybe it would at least keep Lind from making any snide remarks about joining a guild. The DKB leader hadn't bothered him about that in some time, but with Asuna having joined the KoB, Kirito had suspected Lind would bring it up again…

"So, Lind is still leading his Dragon Knights?" Kizmel asked, about halfway to the inn.

Kirito nodded. "They've gotten bigger lately, though. They call themselves the Divine Dragons Alliance, now." He shrugged. "Kinda pretentious, if you ask me, but they're still good fighters. Though Lind had as much trouble as anyone keeping it together when yesterday's battle went bad…"

"Thus Asuna taking charge." Kizmel nodded to herself. "I suppose I am not surprised. I always thought he did well enough holding his own guild together, but he didn't seem up to commanding a coalition. I remember when his Dragon Knights and Kibaou's ALS almost came to blows, back on the Third Floor."

"Yeah. I don't know much about this Heathcliff guy yet, but he's definitely better at keeping people calm than Lind or Kibaou ever managed." Admittedly, the situation in question had been deliberately set up by the mysterious Morte, but Lind's self-righteousness clashing with Kibaou's over-active sense of fair play had already been a problem. The manipulative player had only taken advantage of problems there were already there.

Kirito was about to say more on the subject, but now they'd reached the inn—and he abruptly realized he hadn't thought of one little complication. With his depression mostly cleared up by Kizmel's arrival, fatigue had hit him like a truck, and getting a good night's sleep had been uppermost in his mind. With Asuna, there had been a simple routine, worked out over the course of several floors and a few mild cases of domestic violence.

With Kizmel…

"Uh, Kizmel?" he began nervously. "Can you even get a room at a human inn?"

The elf shrugged. "I don't know that they'd accept my currency," Kizmel admitted. "My people have free travel through human towns again, but our Queen was still working out some of the details, when I left the capital. It shouldn't be a problem, though; it is not as if this would be the first time we shared lodgings, Kirito."

Erk. Well, yes, he and Asuna had shared Kizmel's tent for most of the time they'd spent on the Third Floor, but Asuna had been there as a buffer. Or chaperone, from the way she acted! The one time she wasn't there to make sure nothing happened, Kizmel actually

Kirito forced the memory of a case of culture clash away from his mind's eye, but not in time to prevent a blush. Probably complete with steam coming out of his ears, if he knew Aincrad's emotional expression system. Even with the conditions Kayaba had placed on the players, he dearly loved Aincrad, but the utter inability to conceal emotions could be a real pain sometimes.

Whether there was literal steam or not, Kizmel clearly caught his reaction, even with his face carefully turned away. "It's all right, Kirito. I know you will be a perfect gentleman. I trust you."

It's not my behavior I'm worried about here!

"Oh, relax," she said, chuckling. "I have learned some things about human culture, Kirito, even if I do still find many of them strange. I won't do anything… indiscreet."

Why, exactly, didn't he find that reassuring? Not that there was anything he could do about it at this stage; they were at the inn, and it was just too late in the day—night, now—for it to be practical to work out any alternative. All he could do was trust that Kizmel really had come to understand human standards of decorum.

And that she cares, Kirito added to himself, leading the way into the unprepossessing stone building. I still think that first bath incident wasn't just an "accident". She's a quick enough study, she knew how Asuna would've taken it even then…

He really didn't understand girls. Human or AI, they strained his already limited social skills to the breaking point. Kizmel's assurances aside, he had a distinct feeling of impending doom, and he was sure it was connected somehow. There was some critical detail he was forgetting, and it was going to come back and bite him, he was sure of it.

So far, so good. …Why does that make me more nervous?

A lot of the inns Kirito had stayed in over the months he'd been in SAO had only had one bed to a room, which had occasionally caused some awkwardness. This one, to his relief, followed a standard he remembered from old-style offline RPGs, with two beds in an ostensibly single room. When he'd rented the room the previous day, he hadn't thought anything of it; now, he was grateful. At least he wouldn't have to worry about working out which of them got to sleep comfortably.

So far, Kizmel had also been true to her word, having only removed her cloak and armor, leaving her—relatively—modest tights and tunic. He still hadn't been able to keep himself from glancing curiously in her direction, but at least there hadn't been enough exposed to make things too awkward.

From the small smile on her face, though, he could tell she knew exactly what he was thinking about. Kirito only hoped she wouldn't tease him over it. For a supposed NPC, Kizmel's sense of humor could be dangerously mischievous.

For now, though, she seemed willing to let him off the hook. Stretching out on one of the beds, she rested her head on her hands, looking utterly relaxed. Far more so than Kirito was, certainly. "This town seems a bit rough," she mused aloud. "At least the buildings. It feels like it was carved, not built."

"It's not as nice as the Forest of Wavering Mists," Kirito agreed, flopping gracelessly onto the other bed. He'd removed his longcoat and boots, but otherwise was no more inclined than Kizmel to go further, under the circumstances. At least, he hoped she wasn't inclined to. "I think it's better than the last floor, though."

"Too much of it was underground, from what I saw on my way through," she said, nodding. "I wasn't there for very long, but it did have a very oppressive feeling after a while. Still… This is not the worst place we have ever spent the night. Remember Torania?"

Kirito grimaced. "That was… the Seventh Floor, wasn't it? Yeah. I remember Asuna complaining we'd drown just trying to find the labyrinth." Their avatars couldn't feel pain, exactly, though strong enough blows could be disorienting enough he thought their minds filled in what they expected to feel. Climate extremes were another matter, and the jungles of the Seventh Floor had been way too humid.

Not to mention the mosquitoes. I think Kayaba was feeling extra-sadistic when he set up that floor. Giant, swarming, hyper-aggressive mosquitoes, they'd been, and they'd made the one night their party had to sleep in the field miserable. It had been in a Safe Haven, so the oversized bugs hadn't actually been able to reach them, but the noise… Kirito had spent the entire night wishing for bug spray and mosquito netting.

It was also probably the only floor so far that had made him regret his policy of sticking to dark leather armor. Fighting the giant, land-dwelling piranha that had been the Floor Boss had been a relief after the journey just to reach it; even the swarm of dog-sized piranha that had accompanied it had seemed a small price to pay for just getting it over with.

"I have tried to stay away from jungles since, myself," Kizmel said ruefully. "I enjoy a good bath, but not while wearing armor. I suspect these mountains will be more agreeable for both of us. The air up here is refreshing. Although," she added, turning head toward him, "the wyverns probably feel the same, and will not take kindly to interlopers."

Kirito shrugged. "So everything will be trying to eat us. What else is new?"

She chuckled. "There is truth in that. If we can avoid too much conflict with our fellow warriors, I can face dragons well enough. I assume you've kept up your training as well as I have?"

"Of course." Level-grinding was life for any gamer, much less one in SAO. The only reason Kirito had been willing to risk taking this one day off, gloomy mood or not, was that he was a little ahead of the curve even among clearers. Even without Kizmel's unexpected reappearance, he'd have gone right back to it the next day.

"In that case, we should both get some rest now. Tomorrow will be a busy day, Kirito."

Watching out of the corner of his eye as Kizmel shifted to get under her blankets, Kirito heaved a discreet sigh of relief. For all his sense of having forgotten something important, it looked like he'd at least get through the night without anything hideously embarrassing happening. Tomorrow he'd see what could be done about getting more suitable lodgings for the two of them—

A knock at the door interrupted his own efforts at getting ready for sleep, and he froze. How many people would even know I'm here? Asuna must still be busy, Kibaou never came up to this floor at all, I can't imagine Lind coming to find me, and I barely even talk to anybody else, so who—? Wait. …Uh-oh.

The knock repeated, this time in a specific pattern Kirito remembered from arrangements on the very first floor. "Oi, Kii-bou! You still awake? I know you're here!"

That was what he'd forgotten. No wonder he'd felt like doom was coming ever closer all evening. I must have been out of it if I didn't think this would happen… What the hell do I do now?!

Another, more emphatic repetition of the knock, and Kizmel looked over at him, one eyebrow lifted. "Are you going to let her in, Kirito? She seems… insistent."

He considered, very briefly, leaping out the window and taking his chances that way. He'd almost done exactly that once before, and thought in retrospect it would've been a safer choice all around. But no; when he hurried over to check, he realized that to try it here would be suicide. The inn was situated right at the edge of town, and by extension at the edge of a cliff. He could no more survive that drop than the one he'd almost suffered at the guard post.

I could just ignore it—no, no, if I do, she'll just track me down tomorrow and wonder why I was hiding. Hiding anything from her just doesn't work.

Swallowing, Kirito went to the door, mentally prepared himself for humiliation—or tried to—and opened it. "Hi, Argo," he said, trying not to sound too nervous. "What brings you here tonight?"

Face mostly concealed by her trademark hood, he could still make out the ever-present grin and equally-trademark whisker markings of Argo the Rat. "Looking for you, of course, Kii-bou! What, you thought I wouldn't hear about what happened yesterday? I thought you might be lonely, so I—"

Kirito didn't like the way she broke off, but he couldn't claim to be surprised by it. No matter what, Argo was going to realize he wasn't actually alone, so he wasn't even really irritated that Kizmel had slipped out of bed to join him by the door. "Good evening, Argo," she said, inclining her head. "It has been some time."

Argo's eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. "Kizmel-chan? Well, well, Kii-bou! Gotta admit, ya surprised me this time. I figured you'd be alone, with Aa-chan off helping start the KoB, but here you've got Kizmel-chan back, sharing your room? How'd you pull that off?"

He thought he was going to spontaneously combust, as Argo pushed past him to sit casually on his bed. "Hey, Argo, it's not—"

Kizmel raised a hand, cutting him off. "I do not mind explaining, Argo," she said, returning to her own bed. "Although if you're hoping to make money off the information, you may be disappointed. I doubt the tale is of much interest to other Swordmasters."

"Maybe not," Argo conceded, looking not at all subdued. "But you know me, I can't resist a good story. So c'mon, give! What brings you this far up, Kizmel-chan?" She grinned, an expression Kirito found not at all reassuring. "And more importantly, what brings you to Kii-bou's bedroom?"

In that instant, he knew what the value of the information was. Kizmel's unique nature meant her status was unlikely to be worthwhile to other players—but her presence here was excellent blackmail material, in certain circles.

Yep. I'm dead. Especially if she sells the story to Asuna. I should have just jumped out the window. It'd hurt less…

After Kizmel had finished her story, she stood, stretched, and headed for a door set in the wall a couple of meters offset from the one leading out into the hall. This far above the First Floor of Aincrad, amenities such as bathrooms were becoming more common even for regular inns—if you knew which ones to look for. Kirito had selected one such out of habit, despite Asuna no longer traveling with him.

"Argo's questions reminded me I should wash up before bed," Kizmel said over her shoulder. "The journey through the labyrinth did work up a sweat. You two can catch up while I'm gone—unless you would rather join me, Kirito? It would be more efficient…"

Kirito was still sputtering, red-faced, when she chuckled and disappeared through the door.

When coherent speech did return to return to him, he covered his face with one hand. "She promised she wouldn't do anything like that this time…"

Argo's eyebrows went up. "Oho? You mean this isn't the first time, Kii-bou?" She grinned; not a pleasant sight, from his point of view. "Ya ever take her up on it?"

"Not on purpose," he said without thinking. Then, realizing what he'd just implied, he buried his face in both hands. "Please, Argo. Don't tell Asuna I said that? I escaped with my life at the time, and it was a near thing then. What she doesn't know, she won't hurt me over."

"Can't make that promise, Kii-bou. You know me: any information that's worth selling, I'll sell. But," Argo added, raising one finger, "I only sell if somebody's buying. If she doesn't ask, you're safe." Before he could feel any relief at that, her grin returned. "'Course, Aa-chan is bound to be curious when you turn up with Kizmel-chan for the boss meeting. Who knows what she might ask then?"

Kirito groaned, sliding down the wall he'd been leaning against to sit on the floor, suddenly weary and once again feeling a sense of impending doom. I don't get it. I didn't even really know any girls except Sugu before SAO; now I've got three hanging around, and all of them trying to complicate my life. What did I do to deserve this?

Times like this, it wasn't just guilt that made him regret leaving Klein in the City of Beginnings. He was sure life would be easier if he had more guys to hang around with; as it was, Agil was about the only one among the clearers who wasn't either hostile or condescending, barring the aloof Heathcliff. Among actual players, it seemed people like Asuna and Argo were the only ones crazy enough to want to chat with the infamous "Beater".

Seeming to take pity on him—not that he trusted the change in attitude for a second—Argo flopped back on Kirito's bed, resting her head on her hands. "Jokes aside, Kii-bou," she said more seriously, "how are you doing? I was worried when I heard about how that last boss went, y'know. And then when word got around about the Knights of Blood and their fast-as-lightning sub-commander, well… You'd been together for a long time, after all."

"If you'd asked me a couple hours ago, I'd have said I was fine. And you'd have known I was lying," he admitted, lifting his head. "I'm still not happy about it, I'll admit, but… I was the one who told her she should join a guild in the first place, back when we defeated Illfang. How could I complain about her taking my advice, especially after she showed the whole clearing group just how good she'd be at it?"

Argo rolled her eyes. "Like it'd be the first time you did something 'cause it was right, not 'cause you were happy about it? I know you didn't want to be 'the' Beater, Kii-bou, but you did it anyway." Her mouth twitched in a warmer, less teasing smile. "Probably saved a lot of lives, y'know."

"I hope so." By the time the First Floor had been cleared, their best estimate was that nearly half of the eight hundred or so beta testers that had entered the full game had died. Kirito's desperate gamble to draw the ire of the likes of Kibaou on himself and away from the other testers had prevented the overt witch hunts he'd been afraid of, but there was no way to be sure there hadn't been more subtle efforts afterward.

So far, he'd only heard of MPKs, with no direct player-killing reported. Those were just as bad, though, and what Morte had once attempted on him proved there were those willing to dirty their hands personally.

"You did, Kii-bou. I know you saved mine. So," Argo went on, shifting gears, "let me tell you what I think happened: seeing as you didn't bother to ask me for info about the new floor yet—don't think I didn't notice, Kii-bou—I think you found someplace to hide and lick your wounds for a couple days, right? Maybe that guard tower on the other end of town? Thought so. That was the first place I checked, but you were gone by the time I got there."

Kirito didn't bother to ask how she'd tracked him to this inn after that. If she'd figured out he'd been at the guard tower, it was less than surprising she'd predicted his choice of inn. Not like she didn't know exactly where he'd stayed in every previous town, after all; she probably knew his preferences better than he did.

He had a sudden, chilling thought that she might sell that information. He couldn't imagine who would care, or why, but it was always a risk of knowing the Rat.

"Yeah, I had you figured out pretty well, Kii-bou," Argo said sagely. "Gotta admit, though, I didn't expect this one. So…" She sat up, and cocked an eyebrow at him. "Gimme the real story, Kii-bou. How the heck did you get Kizmel-chan up here? Don't worry, I probably won't sell the info; unless somebody else figures out how to do your version of the Elf War quest in the first place, it ain't worth selling."

Probably wouldn't. Kirito found that so reassuring. Still… "I really don't know," he said, shrugging helplessly. "I don't see any reason to think she couldn't have climbed the labyrinth towers, like she said, and I guess it makes sense that she'd be allowed through by the NPC guards, with the quest line finished… But I don't have any better idea than you do why she did. I haven't seen her in months. Honestly, I didn't even realize she'd still be 'active' without Asuna or me around."

"She did stuff like that before," Argo pointed out. "You weren't in the Dark Elf Camp instance when she followed you guys into town that one time, right? But yeah, at least then the quest was still going… Argh, I hate it when there's no info to get!"

"You're the one who said it probably wasn't worth selling anyway," he pointed out.

"Well, sure, but it's the principle of the thing, Kii-bou! …Eh, whatever. You'll keep me updated, right?" When he nodded ruefully, knowing it was futile to try and hide anything from the Rat anyway, she grinned again, then sobered once more. "So. You gonna be okay without Aa-chan, Kii-bou?"

"I think so," Kirito said quietly. "It's going to be… kind of weird, I guess, without her around all the time. You know, I've actually kind of gotten used to not being a solo all the time? I was wondering what it was going to be like, not being in a party again. Then Kizmel turned up, and, well, I guess I'm not going to have to worry about that just yet."

"Good," Argo said seriously, sitting up. "I worry about you sometimes, Kii-bou. You need somebody to watch your back. And Kizmel-chan's about the best backup you're gonna get without joining the KoB yourself, right? She's good with that saber of hers."

"I do try, Argo." Slipping out of the washroom, hair still damp but—to Kirito's considerable relief—her tights and tunic once again in place, Kizmel nodded at the information broker. "And I will certainly watch Kirito's back to the best of my ability, I promise you that. On my honor as a Pagoda Knight—and as a friend."

"Good," Argo said again, and jumped to her feet. "You guys'll be going to start exploring tomorrow, right? Want the latest Argo Guide before I go?"

Of course she wouldn't leave without trying to make a little Cor off me, Kirito mused. This is Argo we're talking about. Even with friends, she never forgets the bottom line. Even so, shaking his head, he handed over a hundred Cor in exchange for information Argo had already gotten from the players who had started exploring the new floor ahead of him. She might always be looking to make money, but her information was always good.

Chuckling, Argo headed for the door. "Y'know, I really can't wait to see what happens when you guys turn up for the boss strategy meeting in a couple weeks. I gotta be there, with a recording crystal; those will be some priceless jaw-drops, I bet… Anyway, there's your bed back, Kii-bou. I figure you need your beauty sleep." Hand on the doorknob, she paused, grinned evilly, and looked back. "Well, unless you're gonna be sharing Kizmel-chan's bed?"

Kirito choked. "H-hey, it's not—"

"That would require Her Majesty's permission, Argo," Kizmel said calmly—with just a hint of a smile, if Kirito wasn't imagining it.

Argo's grin widened. "Oi, Kii-bou—that didn't sound like an 'I'm not interested' to me. Maybe I should take a trip to the Ninth Floor and make a petition to the Queen…?"


Author's Note:

I've actually been planning to a much larger SAO fic for some time, and recently picked up the second volume of Progressive in order to research Kizmel, whom I'd already planned on including in the story. On reading it, however, I swiftly came to the conclusion that there really needs to be a fic where she's much more central, and so Duet was born.

This first chapter is a bit rougher than I'd like, but as it's my first foray into writing SAO, that was unavoidable. As I get more comfortable with the characters, I expect it to smooth out considerably. (And part of the purpose of the fic, besides Kizmel being too awesome to not give a bigger role, is to get that roughness out of the way before I write the big story.)

A couple of things I should explain, before anyone wonders. First, I'm aware that much of this fic will be invalidated as further volumes of Progressive are released; Volume 3 may, in fact, have already done so. I've ordered it, but haven't actually read that one yet, so I may end up editing this chapter when I have.

Second, I'm filling in various details the novels don't give with my own extrapolations—unavoidable, with the large number of floors the novels so far have not covered—but I'm otherwise sticking with canon details where possible, at least where the setting, characters, and gameplay mechanics are concerned. Note that some details are from the novels, which may not have made it into the anime; for example, the Monument of Life has much of its detail removed from the anime, which unfortunately ripped out most of the plot of the murder case. If you're only familiar with the anime, bear that in mind.

Hm… About the only other thing I think needs to be mentioned is minor: I have Kizmel using the term "Swordmasters", borrowing a term from my aforementioned larger fic plan, to avoid awkward circumlocutions. Log Horizon has the convenient title of "Adventurer"; SAO has no such catch-all, in-game term for players, so I felt I needed something to distinguish when she's talking about players specifically, considering the number of human NPCs.

So. All that said, apologies for the overly-verbose initial notes. I can't promise a truly regular update schedule, since Persona: Defiance of Fate is still my main project, but as this is a one-shot series rather than an in-depth novelization, it shouldn't be too bad. In the meantime, let me know if this was good, bad, or should be used for target practice. -Solid