January 17th, 2024

After four days in swimwear, adventuring in a tropical archipelago, it felt just a bit strange to Rain to be back in standard clearing gear, walking Algade's streets amid weather more appropriate to the calendar. It was a jarring transition, really; despite her ordinary armor, she was shivering from the drop in temperature.

She figured Philia probably had it worse, though. For their brief return to the Fiftieth Floor, the treasure hunter was back in her midriff-baring armor—the only set of its kind Rain had actually seen in Aincrad. Which, now that she thought about it, might actually have been the reason her friend used it. Rare treasure was the blonde's pride, after all.

The duo they'd formed a temporary party with, on the other hand, were dressed both for the weather and to avoid attention. Kirito had equipped a gray, fur-collared parka—the farthest he was comfortable going from black, Rain figured—instead of his trademark longcoat; Kizmel's distinctive pointed ears were hidden beneath a red hooded cloak she'd gotten from somewhere.

Rain couldn't really blame them. After recent events, neither of them would've wanted to draw attention, and with their most memorable traits out of sight, they slipped through Algade's crowds without a second glance.

Lots of people here, the redhead reflected, as the foursome made their way from the Teleport Plaza to the town's merchant district. Even more than last time. Looks like a lot of the mid-levels are setting up shop here.

She supposed that was fair enough. After the price the clearing group had paid in blood to fully open the floor, it was nice to see players appreciating it. Though she wondered how long it would be before some enterprising merchants took advantage of the Fifty-First Floor's potential as a vacation destination. It seemed to her that that might be even more profitable than Algade's enviable merchant accommodations.

Vacation destination, Rain thought with a sudden moment of disorientation. Wow, I really have gotten used to this world. Who'd think about taking a vacation in the middle of a death game?

Eyes sliding toward their party leader, though, she knew the truth. Everyone had their own ways of coping with the trap they'd all been caught within, and some players had adjusted better than others. Some had "adjusted" by having complete mental breakdowns; others she could name had somehow begun to make a transition toward "resident" without quite losing sight of reality.

As though feeling her gaze on him, Kirito slid a glance her way as they turned off Algade's main street toward the merchant district. "You two didn't have to come with, you know," he said quietly, apparently misunderstanding Rain's scrutiny. "It's just a brief stop to upgrade a weapon before the field boss. You guys could've waited for us on the boat."

Rain shared an eye roll with Philia at that, both of them noticing he didn't suggest the elf might've stayed behind, even though there wasn't really any need for Kizmel to be along for their little delivery either. Of course, anyone with half a brain knew after spending as much as a day with them that they went as a matched set as a matter of course.

Though I wonder if something happened last night, the redhead thought, favoring Kirito with a very shrewd look. Kizmel never did come back to the hot spring—and Kirito looked awfully red after we all got changed this morning. Very suspicious…

In a way, she regretted her suspicions. The so-called Black Swordsman really was cuter than he seemed to realize, not to mention nicer than most guys in Aincrad. But, eh. Kizmel's got first claim by a long shot. It's crazy, but… kinda sweet, really.

Aloud, after letting the boy sweat for just a little bit, Rain smiled and shrugged. "Sure we could've, but do you really think we're going to pass up seeing the end of the quest? I know those old stories too, y'know. I want to see what happens when you temper the Baneblade."

"Yeah!" Philia agreed cheerfully. "We've earned that, don't you think? That was quite a quest—especially at the end there!"

"They have been through a great deal with us, Kirito," Kizmel said, nodding beneath her hood. "I agree that it's best we all saw it through to the end."

Kirito raised his hands defensively, a rueful smile spreading on his face. "Okay, okay," he said, shaking his head in defeat. "I didn't say I had a problem with it. I just thought you guys might be bored seeing me get a new upgrade when you don't."

Philia rolled her eyes again, tapping the hilt of her new Swordbreaker as if to remind him he hadn't been the only one to get a reward from the Hyrus Fortress quest. Not at all, Rain agreed silently, thinking of the book carefully stowed in her inventory. Even if I'm not quite sure what to do with my share just yet.

She didn't have much time to think about the enigma she carried, though. Turning one last corner down a side street, Lisbeth's Weapon Shop came into plain view. Busier than the last time Rain had seen it, judging from the customers coming and going from the modest smithy's front door.

The four of them passed a white-armored member of the Knights of Blood on his way out on their way in, and found the blacksmith herself finishing a transaction with a man with short-cropped brown hair, wearing heavy gray armor. "…That should be everything," the pink-haired girl said, handing over a Guard Lance. "All sharpened and polished."

A member of the Divine Dragons' Alliance, Rain realized with a wince. Not one she recognized, but…

Lisbeth noticed them before the Dragon Knight did, and nodded past his shoulder. "Okay, then! If everything's in order, please excuse me. I've got a prior appointment to take care of now."

Settling the heavy lance against his shoulder, the Dragon Knight frowned. "An appointment?" He turned to face the newcomers. "These guys?" he added, giving them a closer look than Rain was really comfortable with. "I never heard of you doing appointments, Lisbeth…"

"Even I have VIP customers, Schmitt," she said, voice hardening. "Besides, no player really likes anybody else knowing what exactly their gear loadout is, right? Some of my customers like a bit more discretion than usual, just to be safe."

"Hmph." The Dragon Knight's frown deepened. "Still. Haven't I seen that guy…? Oh, whatever." Shaking his head, he stalked past the treasure hunting party, not quite slamming the door on his way out.

Lisbeth was quick to follow behind him. Before even taking the time to greet her new customers, she hurriedly went out the door, hung up a "Closed" sign, and dashed back in to close it almost as firmly as the DDA player had.

Kirito blinked. "Uh… What was that about, Liz?"

"The DDA's cranky lately, that's all," the blacksmith said, lifting her hands with a roll of her eyes. "Crankier than usual, I mean. I almost had to kick one of 'em out of the shop earlier for picking a fight with a KoB guy. But never mind that, now. Your message said you got the Forge? C'mon, let's go to the backroom."

Joining her teammates in dutifully following Lisbeth into her workshop, Rain privately wondered if it was really that simple. Schmitt had just seemed a bit gruff, but she'd heard from Argo that some members of the DDA had gotten a lot more belligerent than that in the last couple of months. It would be insane to take it out on one of the best blacksmiths, yet if there was one thing Rain had learned since the death game began, it was that some players really were crazy.

The workshop was a bit cramped with five people, plus the furnace, anvil, various smithing tools, and a chair for the blacksmith to rest. It was also uncomfortably warm, making Rain long for her swimwear. Lisbeth didn't seem to notice, though, despite her blacksmith's apron.

"Honestly, Schmitt's not that bad, really," Lisbeth said then, heading over to the forge. "The guy's just kinda high-strung. Quetzalcoatl, now, he's a real jerk… And let me tell you later what I've heard about the Army lately. But right now, gimme! We've got a sword to temper!"

Rain could tell Kirito wasn't exactly satisfied with that—neither was she, for that matter—and if anything, Kizmel's expression was even darker. They both left it at that, though, and Kirito silently opened his menu and produced the torch they'd retrieved from Hyrus Fortress.

Hefting the brand, with its blue-black flames, he smiled ruefully at Lisbeth's expression. "Yeah, I know," he said. "We thought the treasure was the Forge itself. Turns out it was the 'Flames' we were supposed to get; apparently lighting a regular forge with this torch causes an additional effect."

Giving a low whistle, Liz took the torch and brought up its status window. "Huh… Okay, I guess that makes sense. Come to think of it, I have heard some rumors from other blacksmiths about special items to improve smithing—though I'd only heard about rare hammers before now… Okay, let's try it."

Moving with the exaggerated care Rain would've thought more appropriate for someone working with actual fire without benefit of a Safe Zone, the blacksmith girl slipped the tip of the torch into her furnace. At once, the orange glow inside flared bright white, then settled into a deep, ethereal blue.


Sounds about right, Rain thought, silently sharing Philia's interest in the sight. But, uh… What does it actually mean? Over the year she'd been stuck in SAO, her focus had been purely on survival skills; while she generally knew what she wanted when she took her weapons to a blacksmith, she didn't really know anything about the mechanics.

Lisbeth did, though, and that was the important thing. After peering into the furnace for several moments, she tapped the side of it to bring up its status, studied the result, and gave a thoughtful nod. "Okay, looks good," she announced. "I still dunno if this'll work, Kirito, but let's give it a try."

"Right." With a few more strokes in his own menu, Kirito materialized the Baneblade, drew it from its scabbard, and handed the tarnished sword over to the blacksmith.

Rain had very seldom seen the Baneblade—only once in combat, now that she thought of it, when Kirito had used it in the final charge against Vemacitrin. Either because of its outdated stats or its rumored effects in PvP, he almost never actually equipped it; given its decrepit looks, the former seemed as likely as the latter. Still, she knew the games it had obviously been drawn from as well as any player. It would, she suspected, be interesting to see what happened next.

After checking over the rust, tarnish, and nicked edges one more time, Lisbeth thrust the Baneblade into the Flames of Hyrus' Forge.

The actual process of tempering a sword, Rain quickly realized, was kind of boring to watch. Liz left the sword in the fire for exactly two minutes, then pulled it out with a pair of tongs and laid it on the anvil. With the blade still glowing with heat—and, if Rain wasn't seeing things, covered in a faint sheen of blue-black flames—the blacksmith took out her hammer and went to work with a loud clang.

Fifty times, the smith's hammer struck. The redhead knew, because she counted, having absolutely nothing better to do. A long, monotonous process, during which the party of clearers watched with what could've been mistaken for rapt attention.

Then, with the fiftieth blow of the hammer—

The Baneblade glowed, much as an ingot being forged into a new sword might've. Not quite a blinding glow, though; squinting against the light, Rain could see the notches in the Baneblade's edges smooth out and fill in, while rust and tarnish seemed to just melt away, leaving unmarred metal behind.

When it faded, the sword shone with a silvery gleam, as if it had never been damaged at all. The wing-like hand guard remained folded up, but even so, Rain could feel the tempered strength of the weapon just by looking at it.

For just a second, she could remember the wonder she'd felt when she first understood the meaning of Sword Art Online. The Baneblade, she thought, was the purest representation she'd seen of the concept of the World of Swords.

Picking it up again, Lisbeth tapped it to check its status. "Hm… Well, the stats have definitely gone up. I'd have to check it to be sure, but I'd guess it's better than that sword you're carrying right now, Kirito."

The black-haired swordsman sighed. "Yeah… I was almost afraid of that." He slumped for a moment—probably thinking of all the different ways other players might react to it—but quickly rallied. "I don't suppose the description says anything new? It looks like there's still another upgrade for it."

Liz huffed. "Dunno if it means anything, but yeah. 'Mythril cleansed, restore ancient power in battle with true Evil.'" Shrugging, she offered it back. "That mean anything to you?"

"Not really," Kirito said with a sigh. Shaking his head, he tucked it back into his inventory. "I'll try it out when we get back to the clearing, I guess… So, how much do I owe you, Liz? For a special order and all."

The girl bit her lip, frowning. "Mm… Well, none of you guys are blacksmiths, right?"

Rain exchanged a look with Philia, before both of them shook their heads. Kizmel did likewise, adding, "I fear, my friend, that my own talents with a hammer are limited to not actually dropping one on my own foot. I've never had much skill with arts other than war."

"Okay, then," Lisbeth said, seeming to come to a decision. Without, Rain noticed, waiting for Kirito to reply; which she supposed made sense, everybody knew the Black Swordsman was all about frontline clearing. "In that case, my fee is the Flames. An edge over the competition is worth more than any Cor that bit of tempering might be."

"Are you sure that's a good idea, Liz?" Kirito asked her, frowning. "I mean, sure, we don't have any use for the Flames, but if word got out you were using a unique item…"

Ouch. Didn't think of that. There weren't that many items in SAO that could really be called "unique" from a functional standpoint—there were, Rain knew, some apparently unique swords among the thousands possible, but they tended to be no better or worse than any of dozens of others—but the ones that were, tended to be the center of attention.

And if anybody knows why, it'd be Kirito. Even Argo hadn't been willing to sell the full details, but everyone in the clearing group knew the Black Swordsman carried more than one such item himself, the Baneblade being only a single example. It was half the reason he was still sometimes cursed as a "Beater", after all.

Lisbeth, though, waved aside his concern. "I told you, there's been talk lately of other special items. The Flames might be one-of-a-kind, but this'll just keep me a little bit ahead of the game. You worry about that sword of yours, Kirito." She sobered then, eyes taking on a shadow on concern. "You're gonna use that in today's field boss raid?"

"I can't afford to hold back in a boss fight, Liz. Well, not too much, anyway." Before Rain could begin to wonder about that qualifier, he flashed a reassuring smile. "Hey, it'll be fine. So far the Fifty-First Floor's been a breeze, really."

"I suppose," Liz said dubiously. She looked at him through narrowed eyes for a long moment, before finally huffing again. "Fine, then, get going. You don't want to be late for Asuna's briefing, right?"

Even Kizmel flinched at that, while Kirito went pale. Only Philia seemed unaffected; Rain herself shivered, remembering the last time she'd seen Asuna the Flash in a bad mood.

The blacksmith girl grinned. "Okay, so you are more afraid of her than the boss! I guess I'll take your word for it. But bring your gear right back here for maintenance after. I don't want you breaking that sword before we find out how to max it out!"

For once, Kirito was glad a boss fight was only a couple of hours away. It provided a very welcome distraction from, well, everything. Like the girls gathered around him as he walked away from Ousetta Island's most isolated inn, all of whom were back in attire better suited for the Fifty-First Floor's tropical environment.

It's a good thing nobody else knows what goes on with us in private, he thought, doing his best to avoid the jealous glares he was getting from some passing players. Kizmel sure wasn't kidding last night. His elven partner had abandoned any pretense of humoring human standards of modesty, and had made it silently clear she was going to hold him to their new agreement on the subject.

Kirito was trying to decide if that was more or less disturbing than the blade currently riding his shoulder. The players they passed on the way to the building serving as a briefing amphitheater for the field boss raid didn't even seem to notice it, but he felt its weight with every step.

He'd never been comfortable with the Baneblade. So far, he'd only really used it in a couple of boss raids, where its special buff against "evil" had come in handy, but he knew the weapon's true purpose. In a "game" where death had become real, a sword with mods that came into play in PvP could only be meant to kill.

Kirito didn't like to think about what that said about Kayaba's mindset. He really didn't like to think about the fact that the Baneblade had seemingly been meant for him, specifically, in a quest only he and his partner had even been eligible for.

The implications of being noticed by SAO's gamemaster had kept him awake some nights.

I need to be at my best for a boss fight, though, even on a breather level. This wouldn't exactly be the first time I did something I didn't want to for the sake of everyone else—

"Oi, there you are, Kirito! Just the man I was hoping to see!"

Startled out of his dark reflections, Kirito came back to the present to see a group of seven players waiting just outside the temporary raid headquarters. All of them wore shades of red, and at the forefront was a rough-looking man with a goatee and a rakish bandana, grinning. "Klein?!" he blurted. "Wh—what are you doing here?"

"Heh! Don't be so surprised, 'Black Swordsman'! Didn't I tell ya we were getting close to ready for the frontlines?" Fuurinkazan's leader struck a pose, hand resting on the scabbard of his katana with thumb pressing against the hand guard. "Just got in this morning, right on time for the—"

Klein broke off with such suddenness, freezing completely still, that Kirito was more than a little alarmed. He started toward the ruffian-samurai, reaching out a hand—then noticed none of Fuurinkazan looked at all worried. Actually, they looked exasperated; and after a moment, Kirito realized why.

It wasn't him that Klein was looking at anymore, but rather Kizmel, Philia, and Rain. Dressed for the floor, and all grouped around Kirito himself; one of them standing very close to his side.

Three girls in swimsuits, two of them Klein hasn't met yet, he thought, covering his face with one hand. Standard Klein introduction in three, two, one…

"Oof!" An elbow to his gut left Klein staggering, clutching his stomach as he tried to catch his virtual breath. "Oi, what was that for?!"

"Do you have to do this every time, Klein?" The blue-haired girl who'd hit him sighed, shaking her head. "Honestly. By now you've met almost every girl in Aincrad, and you still keep up that routine. Give it a rest while you still have a little dignity."

Kirito could only stare for a long moment, and it wasn't because of the red one-piece swimsuit the girl was wearing. On top of the swimsuit, she was carrying a sword on her left hip of much higher quality than he'd last seen, matched with a gleaming shield slung over her back. More than the shinier equipment, he was surprised by her attitude, sniping so casually at her guildmaster.


Sachi turned away from her aggrieved leader and smiled warmly. "Kirito, Kizmel! It's good to see you both again!" Stepping away from her guild, the former Black Cat startled Kirito by pulling both him and Kizmel into a tight hug. "How have you been?"

Kirito couldn't manage a reply, brain glitching up at the way he was squished; the part of his mind that was still functioning reflected that only the previous night's experience kept him from a BSOD. Kizmel, though, only chuckled, returning the hug with full strength. "We should be asking you that, my friend. We've been quite well. Yourself?"

"I'm a lot better, now," Sachi replied, too close to their ears for Kirito's comfort. "I've still got a long way to go, but Christmas helped a lot. Now… I think I'm finally ready. If I can make it on the frontlines, then it won't all have been for nothing."

She pulled back a little then, just far enough for him to see her face. She wore a determined look, and if there were still shadows deep in her eyes, well, he couldn't claim that made her unfit for clearing. He saw the same darkness often enough when he looked in a mirror, and he was pretty sure a lot of her nightmares weren't so different from his.

It's better than how she was before Nicholas, that's for sure. Even so, Kirito couldn't fight back a shiver, knowing that someone else he felt some responsibility for was joining the clearing group. "Are you sure about this, Sachi?" he murmured, just loud enough for her and his partner to hear. "You must've heard about the last boss raid…"

"That's why we're here, Kirito. Someone has to fill in for the ones who died—and I've come all this way for the sake of the people I've lost." Sachi met his gaze steadily; there was no trace left of the terrified, uncertain girl he'd met six months before. "You, and Kizmel—and the bandit behind me—you taught me I can be strong enough. I have to put that strength to use."

Well. No matter how much he wanted to, Kirito couldn't argue with that. He'd thrown himself into trouble enough times for that same reason; and Sachi, even more than most clearers, shared the same trauma he did. A beta tester who hadn't known quite enough.

A loudly-cleared throat reminded him there were others around. "Hey," Rain said pointedly. "Is someone going to introduce us? I kinda feel like we're missing something, here."

Kirito pulled back so hastily he tripped, earning smiles from Sachi and Kizmel and a guffaw from Klein. "Right! Ahem." Gathering the scraps of his dignity, he coughed into his hand and began, "Rain, Philia, this is Klein, Sachi, and the rest of Fuurinkazan—"

"'The rest'?" Dynamm muttered, stroking his piratical mustache. "What are we, extras?"

"Not all of us look like hero material," Dale said mournfully, looking down at his own—not exactly flattered by swimwear—avatar. "I swear, I hate Kayaba for not letting us change body type more than anything…"

"—They may look a little rough," Kirito continued doggedly. "But there's nobody I'd trust more to have my back. I'd rather have them with me in a fight than all of the KoB."

I'd trust Asuna more, sure, but not the rest of 'em. Some of those guys give me the creeps.

His praise of the group seemed to mollify them, and Klein sketched a perfect formal bow, briefly looking every bit the noble samurai despite his attire. The others followed suit, reminding Kirito once again that even if they'd taken their name from the coda of Takeda Shingen for fun, they'd long since made it their own.

Stepping to one side now, Kirito gestured grandly at the temporary members of his party. "Klein, everyone, this is Philia, greatest treasure hunter in Aincrad, and Rain, our ninja."

"Hiya!" Philia said with a grin and a cheerful wave. "Welcome to the front, guys. Just don't get between me and rare items!"

"…Ninja?" Rain muttered doubtfully, a deep frown on her face. "Scout, maybe… Well, like Blackie over there said, I'm Rain. I'm new to the clearing, too, so I guess we're in the same boat."

"Klein, Guildmaster of Fuurinkazan," the self-styled samurai said formally. "This will be our first raid boss fight, so we'll be in your care, Philia-san, Rain-san." Straightening, the formality vanished, replaced with a rakish grin. "And if you're looking for a guild when you're done hanging out with the troll over there, Fuurinkazan is always recruit—Ow! Will you give it a rest already?!"

"If you'll remember we can't even feel pain in here," Sachi told him, withdrawing her elbow with a long-suffering look. "Rain and Philia, right?" She bowed deeply. "I'm Sachi, newest member of Fuurinkazan. I hope Kirito's taking as good care of you two as he did me."

Kirito felt a stab of guilt at that, and fought hard to push it away. Kizmel's light touch on his shoulder helped, silently reminding him that whatever else had happened back then, he hadn't failed completely. He'd saved his partner, and Sachi had not only survived, but pulled herself up to a level he'd never hoped to see.

More importantly, he thought, deliberately turning to more cheerful thoughts as the others finished introductions, I have got to bribe Argo to tell me what's been going on with them. Just what has Klein done that's got her treating him like she did Keita?

"We'd best be getting inside," Kizmel said at length, politely interrupting with a nod at the building ahead of them. "I don't think any of us want to be late for the briefing, do we?" Her lips quirked in a shadowed smile. "I'd not care to see Asuna's reaction—or give Lind more reason to be irritated."

On the one hand, that name made Kirito bristle. On the other, he had to admit it was nice to see the same teeth-gnashing look on just about every face around: even if they hadn't all met before, at least they were all united in thinking the DDA were jerks.

There was, Kizmel decided, something sillier than the idea of wearing a swimsuit in the bath. Once she wouldn't have believed that possible, but now she had indeed found such an improbable thing.

An entire raid's worth of Swordmasters laying out a plan of attack in swimsuits.

As she and her party took their places at the unofficial "unaligned" section of the meeting room, Fuurinkazan taking a place not far away, the elf girl found herself distracted by the sheer incongruity of it all. There were, certainly, a few Swordmasters who seemed perfectly calm to be so dressed, their bodies leaving them no reason to be embarrassed. Many of the others, however, had reactions more akin to Dale's, whether their physiques actually merited the concern or not.

Lind, Kizmel was particularly amused to notice, appeared to be having a bit of trouble maintaining his usual air of a dignified knight and leader. Almost as amusing was the KoB's Heathcliff, who genuinely was maintaining a stoic aplomb despite the way his enormous shield and cross-hilted sword clashed with his "armor".

Somehow, the girl at the head of the KoB table carried the same air of unconcern as her commander—though her demeanor was marred by a blush, suggesting she wasn't quite as comfortable presiding over such a meeting in a white bikini as she appeared.

"Is everyone here?" Vice-Commander Asuna asked, sweeping her gaze over the Swordmasters assembled at the tables as she rose from her seat. "Then I'll begin with a brief report on the clearing status as a whole. As you all know, we suffered significant casualties in the last Floor Boss raid."

Winces, grimaces, and other expressions of dismay suddenly became the norm in the meeting room, chasing away embarrassment; Kizmel and her partner among them. Eight players, a full sixth of the raid, had died against Vemacitrin, more than had been lost in any such battle in which Kizmel had fought. Five days of relative relaxation in the warmth of the Fifty-First Floor had soothed the wounds that had left, but by no means healed them.

Asuna saw the wave of gloom that crossed the room, and nodded slowly. "Eight dead," she said quietly. "And more lost from the raid group, as some of the survivors have chosen to retreat. That being said," she continued, raising her chin, "we haven't lost all of them for good. I got word from Orlando this morning that the Legend Braves are going to be returning, once they've had a chance to recover."

There was no small relief from the gathered Swordmasters at that, Kizmel noticed. A feeling she shared. Though she only knew of the guild's tumultuous history in the early days of clearing secondhand, they'd returned to the frontline at the same time she had. Where once they'd held a position among the clearers by strong equipment gained through deceit, they'd returned by sheer effort and training.

If they can push forward despite losing Beowulf, they may well be a beacon to us all, she thought, sharing a quick glance with Kirito. Their determination is exactly what the clearing group needs, now more than ever.

"That does still leave us with a hole right now, of course," Asuna said then, when the raid group had had time to digest the news. "And Beowulf-san was only one of the losses we suffered that day. However, the nature of the current floor has drawn a number of new higher-level players to the frontline, some of whom are here today. In particular, I'd like to welcome Fuurinkazan to the front."

She gestured to the table of red-clad players, and as attention turned there Klein came to his feet. "Klein, guildmaster of Fuurinkazan," he said, with a bow. "There's only seven of us, but I haven't lost one yet. The gloomy guy over there taught me pretty well, back when all this started; we won't hold you back."

Kirito groaned, burying his face in his hands. Kizmel found herself smiling, though, as the looks Klein's declaration brought to them weren't nearly so hostile as they might've been. Well, the Dragon Knights are glowering, but that is nothing new. Even they, I think, can understand the implications of Kirito having taught Klein—after all, they wouldn't hate him so much otherwise.

"We're grateful for your help, Klein-san," Asuna told the samurai, a smile breaking through her raid-leader stoicism. "This does still leave us a bit understrength for today's raid, of course," she continued, returning her attention to the group as a whole. "But if things hold true to the difficulty curve of the floor so far, and the information we've gathered is correct, we shouldn't have too much trouble."

"And where does this 'information' come from, Vice-Commander Asuna?" Lind asked, expression inscrutable. "The DDA hasn't found much about the field boss since we began exploring this floor."

Kizmel wondered what lay behind that expression. The other Dragon Knights in attendance, Quetzalcoatl in particular, were shifting in their seats, faces displaying various degrees of discontent; that was normal enough, given the events of recent months. She even expected it out of them, after the clashes she and her partner in particular had had with them.

Lind, she wasn't so sure about. He'd been oddly wary of her ever since their duel on Christmas Eve, and as sharp as he'd been after Vemacitrin's defeat, he still had been much calmer than his subordinates. What his thoughts were now, she couldn't guess.

"Some of it has been gathered by the Knights of Blood," Asuna told him, meeting his gaze levelly. "More, by sources trusted by Argo. Speaking of whom… Argo, if you would?"

Heads turned to one of the far corners of the room, where the Rat had indeed been lurking. Emerging from shadow with a grin, Argo moved to a spot where everyone could easily see her, a small book in hand. "Well, briefin' ain't normally part of my gig, but I guess I'll make an exception fer today. And don't worry about your wallets, guys, the KoB's already paid for all this.

"I did think of charging the rest o' you for it," she added thoughtfully, "but I figured that'd be bad for business. Going above and beyond once in a while builds goodwill, right?"

The frightening thing was, there was no way to tell if she was joking. As Kizmel had had cause to learn, there was a reason even Argo's friends called her "The Rat". She thought the info broker was just having a little fun, though… this time.

The expressions—and no little amount of grumbling—among the other members of the raid group said hers might not be the majority opinion. Argo clearly noticed, but if she was concerned, it didn't really show.

"Tough crowd," was the Rat's only comment. She shrugged, flipped open her book, and continued, "Well, here's what I got. Like we've all known since day one on this floor, the field boss is 'Medrizzel The Sea-Lord', an' he lurks in the middle of the Ship Graveyard. Right where everything's foggiest, naturally."

"Naturally," Lind repeated, expression turning sour. "Which, in the middle of all those shipwrecks, makes it all the more likely that we'll crash our own boats before the boss even has a chance to hit them. I don't suppose one of your sources came up with any kind of trick to the battle?"

"Hold yer horses, Blue Boy, I'm gettin' there." Argo's own sour look suggested she hadn't exactly forgotten their past grievances, and was less interested in hiding it than the DDA guildmaster. "First off, one tidbit we dug up says it's best to leave player boats at the edge o' the Graveyard, an' hop the wrecks to get to the center."

"Oh, that's gonna be fun," Rain muttered in Kizmel's ear. The elf girl nodded fractionally in agreement; she remembered from their own party's foray into the Ship Graveyard that many of the wrecks were none too stable. The better part of a full raid of players traversing them, in the middle of a boss fight?

We'll all need to be light on our feet, I suppose. So long as we can coordinate enough not to put too much weight in any one place…

"Second point," Argo said, flipping to the next page in the book. "Accordin' to the ghost of a cabin boy, Medrizzel's responsible for the fog in the first place. Hidin' out, as well as a sea serpent can. When the fight starts, it's prolly gonna clear that fog by itself, while it tries to fry everybody."

"Fry?" The question came from a Dragon Knight Kizmel couldn't recall having seen on the frontline before—though, she realized with a start, she had seen him before, that very morning. The ill-tempered man with a large shield, whose expression looked no happier now. "Are we dealing with a fire-breather?"

"That would be kind of bad," Kirito murmured with a wince. "Fire and wooden boats really don't mix."

Kizmel winced, remembering the final moments of the pirate ship Kobayashi. Her fiery demise would've been bad enough even without the explosion that had nearly sunk their own boat along with.

"Nope, not fire," Argo answered Schmitt, to the elf girl's relief. "Medrizzel's a two-headed sea dragon, but lucky you, both heads have the same attacks: lotsa different ways to eat ya, and lightning."

Philia eeped, and this time the sentiment was clearly shared by most of the Swordmasters in the room. Lightning was a less indiscriminate attack than fire, and could be evaded with only minimal cover, but in some ways it was more immediately dangerous. As bad as fire would've been for that particular battlefield, its direct effects could have been avoided simply by dropped into the water.

Lightning had the potential to paralyze. Bad enough on land, where it would merely have left the victim helpless to avoid further attacks. At sea, falling into the water and drowning was an all too real possibility.

"So!" Argo said brightly, turning pages in her guide with a fangy grin. "Happens there's a few tricks to dealin' with the lightning. Some of the wrecks should have enough metal to be lightning rods, if ya can lure Medrizzel into firin' just the right way. And then there's this little gem a little birdie sold me last night: there's one or two swords out there that're s'posed to be able to tank Lightning Breath…"

At least he had some experience navigating around other boats, Kirito reflected as he guided Black Cat toward the Ship Graveyard. It had been over a year, but he remembered the battle against Biceps Archelon, back on the Fourth Floor; maintaining formation with a few other boats outside of combat wasn't too hard, compared to that.

Of course, back then he'd been helming a mere gondola, with only Asuna as a passenger. Today, he was at the wheel of a twelve-meter sailboat, with no fewer than four girls riding with him.

"Thanks for taking me on for the boss fight," Sachi said from near Philia's position at the mast. "It's always tricky, deciding the party; we knew we'd have to split up for a boss fight, but we weren't sure who to put where, so…"

"Of course we'd be happy to have you in our party, Sachi," Kizmel assured her, lazily leaning against the railing entirely too close to the wheel. "You're our friend." She shot an amused look at Kirito. "And even were you not, I'm sure our leader would be glad to do Klein a favor regardless."

Kirito would have liked to grumble at that, but he knew it wouldn't do any good. While Kizmel shared his lingering guilt over what had happened to the Black Cats, she tended to needle him over his regret where Klein and Fuurinkazan were concerned.

So did Klein, for that matter. Fuurinkazan's twenty-four-meter sailboat Kusanagi was riding the waves close by; more than close enough for Kirito to see the samurai's rakish grin. With seven members, the boat looked more than a little cramped—and it was one too many to have the entire guild in a single party, which was why Sachi had joined the treasure hunting team for the field boss.

"I'm still grateful," Sachi said, just loud enough to be heard over the sound of wind and wave. "For that, and for… remembering."

Rain glanced back from the bow, where she was keeping watch with sword in hand. "Oh, that's right. You were… Um. Never mind."

"It's okay," the last of the Black Cats told her, shaking her head with a sad smile. "It still hurts, but it would be worse if nobody remembered. I owe it to Tetsuo, Sasamaru, and Ducker not to forget."

She did not, Kirito noticed, mention Keita. He still didn't know how much of her old Guildmaster's recent behavior she knew, but she clearly suspected something. Not that she was likely to miss it, after how the two of them had parted. Keita's final words before retreating to the First Floor hadn't really been kind to any of the other survivors of the battle that day.

"We're coming up on the Graveyard, guys!" Philia called out; she was already reducing sail without prompting. "Rain, get ready with that anchor!"

"I thought I was supposed to be 'captain'?" Kirito muttered under his breath. Kizmel caught it, though, and laughed; and truth be told, he wasn't really bothered. It wasn't like he was really any kind of leader, after all.

A dozen player-commanded boats of various sizes, dominated by the DDA's enormous Kraken but truly led by the KoB's sleek Blood Oath, came about and slowed to a halt on the edges of the Ship Graveyard. Anchors dropped, and forty-three players gathered by the rails of their boats, peering into the fog.

"You all know the plan!" came a shout from Blood Oath, Asuna's voice carrying easily through the stillness. "Keep your parties together as well as you can, and keep in sight of the parties on your flanks as we advance toward the center! The fog should clear when we engage Medrizzel; in the meantime, just watch your footing on the wrecks, and we'll be fine!"

That was going to be the tricky part. From his own party's exploration of the Graveyard several days before, Kirito knew some of the wrecks were about ready to sink—and even if the Graveyard wasn't an instanced map, he wasn't convinced they wouldn't go down at least briefly. He'd known some pretty large trees to be destructible, on lower floors.

Asuna seemed to take a moment to make sure everyone understood, and then her voice was ringing out again. "All right, then! Raid group, move out!"

There was a cheer—or maybe just a general roar; Kirito was pretty sure the DDA didn't sound too happy anyway—and then Swordmasters were leaping off their boats and onto the wrecks.

His own party started off trying to be cautious, mindful of the tricky footing. That lasted all of about ten seconds, before they discovered that with that many people many of the half-flooded ships started to sink alarmingly quickly. Which was also when the Pirate Ghosts started coming out to join the fun, of course.

From there, it became a race, players trying to rush from one wreck to another before the sea could claim them, all the while having to dodge, parry, or bodily assault ghosts. One moment Kirito was trying to keep his footing on a slippery deck as he prepared to jump to the next hulk; the next he was stabbing a Pirate Ghost Bosun at the same time he pushed off in a clumsy leap.

Kizmel caught his arm when he landed, saving him from a nasty fall. Together they ducked under a flailing Philia, who in turn was caught by Rain and Sachi, and then the five of them were off and running again. Along the way, a Pirate Ghost Cannoneer tried to clothesline the lot of them, only to be hurled off by their sheer combined momentum.

Two wrecks later, as the fog began to thin just a little, Kirito caught a glimpse of Asuna furiously stabbing a Pirate Ghost in the throat, a murderous expression on her face. He couldn't help laughing at the sight, even as he leapt from a railing to a pilothouse, then onto an algae-slicked deck. It looked like his old partner still had problems with noncorporeal mobs, just like in the old days.

Five minutes later, there was a chorus of yelps, screams, and a couple of truly vile curses a little ways to the left. That was followed by a heavy enough series of thuds that Kirito was grateful his party was currently racing across one of the larger boats, and then a wild laugh. "Oh, man, what a rush!" Klein declared, leading the rest of Fuurinkazan in a mad dash to catch up. "Oi, Kirito! Is it always like this on the frontline?!"

"Thankfully, no!" he called back, unable to help a grin of his own. "Remind me to tell you later about the mess we had on Kobayashi the other day; we really had a blast then!"

"I'll hold ya to that, buddy!"

The fog gradually thinned as they went; at the same time, it seemed the wrecks they crossed grew more and more broken, yet paradoxically more stable. Kirito had a sneaking suspicion that was a mercy the system was granting the players—one which he was pretty sure wouldn't have been given on any other floor. It made him just a little nervous, especially since there hadn't been any scouting for this particular boss, due to the low visibility.

"We should be almost to the boss now!" Asuna called out. "If the information we got is right—look out!"

With shocking suddenness, the fog surrounding them was blown away in a blinding flash of blue static; players were thrown around right along with, scattering away from the lightning in a confused rush that jumbled some entire parties around.

Somehow, Kirito's party and Fuurinkazan managed to maintain something resembling order, though he noticed they'd somehow ended up three ships east of their last position without him noticing. Crowded together on a splintered stern jutting into the air, it gave them all an excellent view of what had fired off the lightning.

As the briefing had said, Medrizzel The Sea-Lord had two heads. A huge, sapphire sea-dragon with two heads splitting off from a single serpentine body, its eyes crackling with blue sparks as it glared down at the raid party, lightning flickering in both its mouths.

He knew it was only flavor text, but right then Kirito believed the ghost of a cabin boy Rain had met, who had claimed Medrizzel had gone mad. Mad, and vengeful.

Clinging to a broken plank to his left, Klein shot him a dirty look. "You have got to be kidding me."

The giant sea-serpent was Sachi's third boss battle, since the death game had begun, and the first for which she'd been—supposedly—prepared. The Commandant had come out of absolutely nowhere, while Nicholas the Renegade had been a thing of rumors before he had actually appeared in the flesh. Medrizzel The Sea-Lord she'd known was coming, and roughly what its attacks were likely to be.

It wasn't her previous experience with bosses, though, or the pre-battle intelligence that Sachi found of most use when the battle actually began. No, when Medrizzel opened the fighting with lightning, it was the long hours she'd put in against Venom Mantises that had her leaping away in time. The reflexes from those long-lost training days were what reminded her when to dodge away from ranged attacks—even if lightning was a completely different threat from corrosive venom.

"We planned for this!" the KoB's Vice-Commander Asuna called out after that first blast of lightning had faded. Perched atop a broken mast, she pointed her rapier toward the sea-dragon. "Keep formation as best you can, rotate in and out, and stay on the move! Team C, Team D, you're up first; move in to the flanks, but watch out for its tail!"

A team each of the KoB and DDA, two of the five full-strength parties in the raid, leapt ahead to obey. It was a clumsy advance, hampered by the only footing being barely-floating chunks of boat, but they were experienced raid veterans. They made do, jumping from wreck to wreck to reach Medrizzel's flanks.

The dragon's heads tried to turn to follow, one mouth already filling with lightning again. Asuna wasn't done, though, and she slashed her blade through the air in a forceful gesture. "Team E, Team F, keep those heads busy! Draw aggro until the other teams are ready!"

That was the cue for both the bulk of Fuurinkazan, and the temporary party Sachi was with. With a loud cry of "Banzai!" Klein led her guildmates in toward the lighter pieces of wreckage near the base of Medrizzel's heads; Kirito wasn't far behind in taking point for their team, bright sword in hand.

The battle went against the normal rules of SAO boss raids. With the footing so treacherous, true tanking was difficult at best; the normal tanks of the raid group were thus gathered into Teams G and H, four-player parties formed as part of the juggling to compensate for the smaller raid. For now, they were clustered toward the rear of the group, on more secure perches, waiting for the right moment to rotate in.

Accompanying Kirito and his current band in after Fuurinkazan, Sachi found herself wishing it was a more normal raid for other reasons. The fighting style she'd developed for herself over the past months made her more of an ambush predator, which ordinarily would've been very good against even a boss like Medrizzel. Unfortunately, it relied heavily on her Nightcloak, which just wasn't practical on the tropical Fifty-First Floor.

At least I still have Foe-Hammer, she thought, holding her gleaming sword tight as she jumped from a shattered bow to a section of broken planks that might've come from anywhere. I can still—there!

Medrizzel was still focused on the parties moving to flank it when Fuurinkazan first struck. Klein was the first to land a blow, his katana biting deep into the sea-dragon's belly. Not wasting any time, he pushed off and away, leaving the half-shattered skiff he'd been standing on free for Dynamm.

Kirito and Kizmel hit it simultaneously from a couple of meters to the right just after that, one blade cutting a numeral four into deep blue scales, the other stabbing a cross. With a yell, Rain came down over them, landing a Sonic Leap; then the three of them were scattering, giving Philia room to score a Horizontal Arc.

There wasn't quite room for Sachi to get in that close, but she didn't need to. From over two meters away, her sword stabbed forward, a Vorpal Strike lancing from the tip of the blade into Medrizzel's body with practiced force.

I can do this, Sachi told herself, landing in a crouch on a bit of flotsam as she waited out the post-motion. Above her, the Sea-Lord bellowed in pain, distracted from the flankers. If I can just make it through this, then I know I'll be able to keep going. I can make it all mean something!

Medrizzel's heads swung back around and down, trying to catch the ants that had dared to bite it. Most of them were already out of reach, though, and Sachi took the chance to launch a Sonic Leap at the left head just as it came close. It was a light blow, off the cuff, but enough to get her in range to try and use the boss' own head to push off—

Her plan worked a little too well, Medrizzel swinging its left head right into her feet. The impact knocked a good five percent off her HP and sent her flying; on the other hand, that was more or less what she'd intended, and she refused to panic as she hurtled back.

Heading for a landing she hoped wouldn't take too much more HP away, Sachi's vision was suddenly obscured by dusky skin. At the same time, her trajectory changed, ending up in a much more controlled arc toward one of the more intact wrecks at the edge of the battlefield.

"I've got you, my friend," Kizmel told her, after a bone-bruising landing. Setting her back on her feet, the elf girl smiled reassuringly. "A good start, Sachi."

"Thanks, Kizmel." Only two blows, and it had gotten her knocked around for her troubles, but Sachi figured that wasn't too bad for her first time against a regular field boss. But next time, I'll be faster!

Out in the water, the flanking teams had taken full advantage of the opening the skirmishers had given them, and Medrizzel bellowed again. Its mouths filled with flickering blue arcs, while its heads whipped around toward Teams C and D—

"C, D, retreat and evade!" Asuna shouted. "A and B will engage! All teams, lightning incoming; get moving!"

The leading teams from the KoB and DDA darted in, unleashing a hail of Sword Skills the moment they were close enough; but it wasn't enough to stop the Lightning Blast Medrizzel's heads had been charging up. The furious attack only deflected their aim, resulting in bolts of blue hurling out in random directions.

Jumping away with Kizmel just a moment too late, spared the full shock but not a startling numbness in her right arm, Sachi's heart hammered in her chest like the old days. Even so, she refused to heed the old terror; she knew now that she could fight, whatever her nightmares still whispered to her at night.

I can keep going, she told herself, racing to join the rest of Kirito's party by the southern edge of the battlefield. I won't die. Not before I reach the end.

"G, H, draw aggro off the DPSers!" Asuna snapped, leading her team in a blur to the west. Her chestnut hair was frizzed out in all directions, static crackling, and her HP had taken a definite hit; if she was concerned, though, her voice didn't show it. "Everyone else, heal if you need to and get ready to move in again!"

The two tank teams, lead by the KoB's own Heathcliff and a dour Dragon Knight, moved in with as much speed as they could with their heavier equipment. It wasn't quite fast enough, though, and when Medrizzel recovered from the backlash of its own attack and started charging up another before the tanks were in position, Kirito and Klein exchanged a long-suffering look.

"Up to us, eh, buddy? This, uh, happen a lot?"

"More than I'd like, yeah…"

Going right back in, without a chance to catch her breath. Sachi shook her head, but didn't argue; she'd known this was what the frontline was going to be like, after all.

I'll do it. However long it takes. Until I can face Keita and tell him—


Running away from walking, air-breathing piranha by jumping from one bit of floating junk to another was not what Klein had been expecting when he finally brought Fuurinkazan up to the frontlines. Especially not wearing just a pair of swim trunks and sandals, while simultaneously fending off flying squids.

"Oi, Kirito!" he called to his nearest ally, catching a Flying Ignition Squid with an Ukifune's upward-launching stroke mid-leap. The fire-flinging cephalopod was sent high into the air and out of the way, giving him time to catch his balance on a floating mast. "Tell me something: is this normal?! You told me on the way in it wasn't!"

"Platforming isn't, no," Kirito said, impaling a Land Barracanha and using it as a jumping-off point to reach a bowsprit sticking up out of the water. "But you'd better get used to weird bosses. Kayaba got creative with some of them!"

The cocky bastard made it look easy, Klein thought with a carefully-concealed, most unmanly pout. He was having a hard enough time just keeping his balance while fighting; he wasn't even going to try Goomba-stomping mobs anytime soon.

Or leapfrogging with anyone, for that matter. The rest of Fuurinkazan was actually keeping up pretty well—even Dale, whose body wasn't exactly the best-balanced—but none of them were up to jumping clear over each other. Not like Kirito's partner promptly did, spinning high over his head to slash an Ignition Squid's head in two with a Helmsplitter. She came out of the midair somersault in a perfect swan dive, slipping into the sea with barely a ripple.

"I'm highly tempted to get 'creative' with that sorcerer myself, if I ever meet him!" Kizmel growled, hauling herself up onto a chunk of planking one-handed. "If he is to blame for all the tentacles… Kayaba's crimes grow legion!"

Klein had a sneaking suspicion there was quite a story behind that. Maybe more than one. Not that he had any intention of asking; if there was one thing he'd learned from Sachi over the past few months, it was that there were some questions best left unsaid. Women could be scary.

Speaking of…

He took a flying leap onto an almost-intact shipwreck, only to find a Barracanha waiting for him. Apparently as surprised to see him as he was to see it, its opening attack was "only" to take a bite out of Klein's gut, knocking off five percent of his HP. Yowling at the pain he didn't actually feel, he slipped his katana close to its scabbard, then whipped it back out again in a Zekkuu slash.

The samurai wasn't quite sure if the blow actually killed the walking fish, despite opening up its belly in a spray of polygons. He didn't really care, either, since it did send the mob sailing off the wreck and into the water, giving him a chance to take stock of the situation.

The raid as a whole was going pretty well, from what Klein could see. They'd already taken down Medrizzel's first lifebar—which, he noticed now, had triggered another wave of adds—and so far it seemed like no one had gotten too far into the yellow. The rotation between tank and DPS was as smooth as anything he'd ever seen in an MMO, despite the crazy conditions.

I guess that "Asuna" girl didn't get her position from her looks, eh? But then, word is she used to be Kirito's partner. He's good at teaching noobs.

Most of the rest of Fuurinkazan had fallen a bit behind, but so far they were still in the blue; Klein noted approvingly that rather than try and keep up with the last couple of jumps, they'd settled in a fairly stable area to whittle down the adds. Sachi he could only catch glimpses of, though she seemed to be doing pretty well with the rest of Kirito's party on the other side of Medrizzel.

That was about all he was able to work out before the Sea-Lord's tail suddenly swept toward his current perch. Yelping, Klein hurled himself out of the way at the last second, avoiding the dragon's direct attack.

The debris sent flying when the tail smashed the wreck to pieces, not so much. A two-meter-long splinter went right through his back and out his stomach, turning his leap into a fall right into the water.

For a few seconds, Klein thought that might really have been the end of him. He'd practiced the art of swimming in Full-Dive well before getting to the frontlines, of course—Sachi had demanded Fuurinkazan get the hang of that, for reasons she refused to explain and he didn't dare ask. All the same, swimming under controlled conditions was one thing; "swimming" when the impact was unexpected and he had a giant chunk of wood through his gut?

Choking, Klein flailed helplessly at first, completely disoriented. HP steadily dropping, he finally got a grip on the splinter, gritted his teeth, and yanked it out. By then, though, he was completely turned around, and had sunk a good two or three meters below the surface. And now I'm starting to hit Drowning status, c'mon, which way is up, I'm gonna kill that psycho programmer if it kills me dammit which way—

Hands seized his arms, and he was hauled bodily to the surface to be dropped heavily on the wreck of a dingy. "You okay there, Klein?" Kirito asked him, crouching to look the samurai in the face.

"That was a rough strike," Kizmel agreed, bending to set Klein's beloved katana close to hand. "Can you continue?"

"I'll… be fine… in a sec," Klein gasped out. Ignoring his sword for just a second, he dug into his menu as quickly as he could to pull out a healing potion, all the while cursing the floor's conditions for not allowing pockets.

Not to mention cursing a certain lucky bastard, he thought with a grumble as he downed the potion. Damn fine catch he's got there. Even if she is AI.

Tossing aside the used potion, Klein levered himself into an upright sprawl while he waited for his HP to recover. "Since we've got a second to breathe, Kirito," he said, eyes narrow, "can you tell me something?"

"Sure," Kirito replied slowly, a wary look in his eyes. "What is it?"

"Just something I gotta know. How the hell did the antisocial guy I met back on the first day wind up with an entire team of girls? On a floor where the best 'armor' is swimsuits?" The angry look faded from Klein's face, replaced by pleading. "C'mon, buddy, tell a poor, lonely guy your secret!"

"Secret?" The younger swordsman's expression went from nervous to bewildered. "I don't—Look, Klein, Rain and Philia just happened to know something about a quest I was looking for! It's just a coincidence that they're—"

"E, F, get moving! Lightning blast heading your way!"

"Aw, hell!" Klein scrambled back to his feet, snatching up his katana. "Why us?!" he yelled plaintively, pushing off in a flying leap to the next piece of wreckage. "This boss is just—!"

"Don't worry about it, Klein!" Kirito shouted back, leaping after him in tandem with Kizmel. Improbably, he was grinning—like being about to be zapped half to death wasn't as scary as being asked about girls. "Breather level, remember? This won't be too bad!"

"Oh, yeah, sure it won't be—!"

Blue lightning struck just behind them, sweeping inexorably forward. Centimeters from Klein's back, it came, and he had just a second to unleash a sulfurous barrage of curses before it caught up.

Apart from watching her new friend and party leader get struck by lightning, Rain thought the battle wasn't actually that bad. Admittedly, it was only her second boss fight ever, but next to Vemacitrin it was practically a cakewalk.

Not that she really had time to pay attention to the battle as a whole just then. Other than a quick glance at the HP bars on her HUD to make sure Kirito was all right—which, well, twenty-five percent from one hit wasn't nice, but it could've been worse—her attention was focused on more immediate things. Like the Barracanha trying to bite her arm off at the shoulder.

At least it was her left shoulder that the walking fish had latched onto. That left Rain's right arm free to drive her sword into the Barracanha's flank; not a Sword Skill, but it was what she could do from that position, unable to properly start any pre-motion. It was enough to make the fish pause in its attack, at least.

Then its jaws abruptly went slack, a ridge-backed sword having sawed its tail off. Shattering into blue fragments, its disappearance revealed Philia, just lowering her weapon. "You okay, Rain?"

"Think so, yeah. Except we're sinking." Flicking her gaze up to her own HP, Rain winced, but had no time to deal with it. Together with the treasure hunter, she quickly pushed off from the wrecked pilothouse the Barracanha had caught her on. Like with most wreckage in the battle area, it wasn't stable enough for two, and neither of them wanted to deal with swimming combat in the middle of a boss fight.

The barge they landed on seemed to be a deliberate resting place; a concession to regular boss tactics, the redhead figured. Sachi and the rest of Fuurinkazan were already there, several of them downing healing potions.

"Stop and catch your breath," Kunimittz advised. His spear was laid on the deck next to him, while he tried to straighten his never-neat hair. "Your guys and our boss should be over here in a sec anyway. 'Sides, the Vice-Commander will let us know when it's time to dive in again."

Following his advice and downing a potion, Rain looked at him sidelong. Pretty confident for somebody I know hasn't been on the frontlines before, she thought. Still, she could see Kirito and Klein being hauled out of their shocked Paralysis by Kizmel, who then gestured toward them. And as for Asuna-san…

"G, H, nice work blocking the lightning! Pull back for POT rotation; C and D, engage now! Everyone else, regroup!"

The girl in white was on a different perch from where Rain had last seen, but her hair had settled down and she'd found time to heal. Now her rapier jabbed here and there, directing the battle with the same ease the redhead remembered from the Vemacitrin fight.

Nobody dead so far, and we're almost down to the third lifebar, she thought, watching as one of Medrizzel's heads lunged for the retreating members of the DDA tank party. That's better than—ooh, that's gotta hurt!

The Sea-Lord managed to get one of the tanks by the foot, yanked him into the air, and started shaking him like a terrier with a rat. Rain found herself having to smother the urge to rush in and help—she was too far away to get there in time, but she wanted to try anyway. She remembered all too well what had happened against the Fiftieth Floor Boss.

Come on, somebody get in there… That's Schmitt next to him, isn't it? That lance of his has to be good for something! Why doesn't he—?!

Her breath came out in an explosive sigh when one of the incoming members of Team C smashed Medrizzel's head with a mace's Hammerblow. The tank fell into the water from there, floundering but safe, and the rest of Team C took the chance to batter at the head while it was still stunned.

"D, watch out!" Asuna snapped out, breaking into Rain's relief. "The other head is preparing another lightning attack!"

It was. Blue sparks were spilling from its mouth and crackling around its eyes, and Team D was heading straight into it. Even if they broke off right then, Rain could see, there was nowhere they could jump to in time. Not large enough for all them, anyway.

"They'll be fine." Startled, she looked up to find Kirito, Kizmel, and Klein had finally caught up. They all looked as if they'd had fun with light sockets, but they were safe; the black-haired swordsman was even smiling. "It's a bit of a, well, shock, but the head has an attack delay after that'll let them get out of range and heal. Or get in a few hits, if they've got the guts."

"Easy for you to say, Mister Over-leveled." Klein grumbled, popping the cap on a potion. "That's twice I've nearly drowned today… But yeah, I guess you're right."

"I would not have wanted to deal with it before I became a Swordmaster myself, I must admit," Kizmel said with a rueful smile. Settling into a sitting position on the rotting deck, she set aside her shield to run her fingers through her hair, trying to comb out the frizzing. "I suspect that would be a painful—"

She was interrupted by the loud crackle of Medrizzel unleashing its shocking breath on Team D. One of them somehow managed to escape it entirely, taking a flying, flailing leap onto what looked like the shell of a long-dead giant turtle. The others weren't so lucky, collapsing and convulsing where they were.

Still, like Kirito in the last blast, none of them looked to have taken life-threatening damage. More, as he'd said, the head that had started it was drawing back instead of pressing the attack, while the other was still occupied by Team C. If none of them had been unlucky enough to suffer a full Paralysis—

One of the shipwrecks suddenly erupting in a violent explosion was enough to startle both resting parties half out of their skins. Kirito almost tumbled right off the barge, only caught by Kizmel's quick reflexes. For the players directly involved, it was worse.

This time Rain did jump to her feet, unable to restrain herself. "Powder magazine?" she asked Philia, already drawing her sword. "Like Kobayashi?"

"Looks that way." Philia wrinkled her nose as she stood. "Smells like it, too, even from here."

"We're going in?" Kirito looked resigned, though he picked up the Baneblade again readily enough. "I barely even had time to heal properly…"

Klein grinned, thumping him on the shoulder. "Hey, you're the one always playing the hero, Kirito! Gotta live up to that!"

Yeah, Rain agreed silently, glancing at the Baneblade's newly-polished edge as she made for the edge of the barge's deck. Hero… That's what we're here for, isn't it? To be heroes for the all the rest of the players? Someone has to make the stand.

"E, F, take the heat off them!" Asuna snapped, even as Medrizzel's heads began to recover from C's attacks and its own. "The tanks aren't ready yet. Teams A and B will be right behind you!"

Grinning despite herself, Rain took a flying leap off the barge, ramming her sword into an Ignition Squid as she went.

Swimsuit armor, sunblock, ghost pirates, exploding ships, Philia counted off to herself, bounding from one piece of flotsam to another with her party in their haste to rescue Team D. Doors with timezones, mirror bosses, and now a lightning-breathing dragon.

Oh, and fish with way too many teeth! She fell behind the others for a few paces when a Barracanha lunged out of the water at her; only quick reflexes with her sword arm kept its jaws off her throat. Its teeth caught on the spine of her new Ridgeback Sword, locking blade and fish in place. Virtual muscles strained against each other, metal struggling with tooth—

With a hideous noise Philia hoped she'd never hear again, the Barracanha's jaws lost the battle, teeth snapping against the Ridgeback. That alone took a nice chunk out of the fish's HP; the simultaneous thrust of another sword into the back of its head, neatly pithing it, finished it off.

The blonde treasure hunter flashed a quick grin and thumbs-up at Sachi, and the two of them rushed ahead to catch up with their teammates.

Most fun I've had since I've been here, Philia admitted to herself. I never would've gotten this sword on my own. Never would've seen the extended Elf War quest, let alone gotten far enough for the Hyrus stuff.

The "normal" Elf War, she had gone through. She still wondered how in the world Kirito had managed to trigger a variation where the first Dark Elf survived, let alone the extended questline that had gotten him the Baneblade and a permanent companion. She did know one thing, though: seeing more of it firsthand had been awesome.

Not to mention the awesome treasure, of course.

No time to think about loot right now, though. Dragon! Casting a quick glance up at Medrizzel, Philia blanched and put on a burst of speed, just barely carrying her out of the way of a tail swipe by the sea-dragon. The Fuurinkazan members trailing her made it pay for it, though, ripping into the tail with a barrage of Sword Skills before it could recover from the post-motion.

"Keep moving!" Dynamm called out, waving his cutlass. "We'll keep the big guy busy, just get those guys out of the water!"

She spared a brief moment to wave back. Then she was reaching the scattered members of Team D, whom the rest of her team were already helping. Kirito and Kizmel were dragging a bedraggled lancer onto a half-smashed dingy, while Rain and Klein held off a pair of Ignition Squids that were making a determined effort to set the whole area on fire. With Sachi's help, Philia hauled a dazed axeman onto a relatively stable chunks of blanks; the poor guy wasn't just bleary, she noticed, but covered in soot.

"You okay? That was quite a blast." As soon as the DDA player was upright, Philia pressed a healing potion into his hand. "Watch out for bombs; this floor's got some nasty surprises."

"Tell me about it," the axeman choked out after he'd emptied the potion. Shaking his head in an effort to clear it, he continued sourly, "I wish I'd paid more attention to the news about the Dread Pirate Quests. Knew they'd said something about the damn ship blowing up…"

"Yeah. It kinda does that." Her party hadn't gone back to try any other quests in that area, but she sure remembered the one visit they had made to Kobayashi. "We should've figured other wrecks might have black powder—"

"The boss is down to its last lifebar!" Asuna's voice cut across the battle. "Watch out for a state change—D, E, F, get out of there!"

Philia's head whipped around, just in time to see both of Medrizzel's heads turning directly toward her group. Both of their mouths were filled with lightning, crackling with what looked suspiciously like even greater intensity than before—and if she was right, they all had about two seconds to get out of the way.

Three members of Team D were still the water. None of them were fully healed yet, and if their current footing was destroyed, they'd have to swim quite a distance to find more. And Philia's party and Fuurinkazan were still in the middle of rescuing the DDA team, not really in a position to start moving—

Lightning flared, just as a figure blurred into motion and raised a shining sword with a roar of defiance.

The most frightening thing Rain had seen during the year she'd been trapped in SAO was without a doubt Vemacitrin's berserk charge when it hit its final state change. The most awe-inspiring experience would probably have been watching Heathcliff hold off that nightmarish boss by himself for a full ten minutes.

A close second, though, would easily have been Medrizzel The Sea-Lord trying to fry her entire party to a crisp, only to be short-stopped by Kirito holding up the Baneblade like a lightning rod. A third she'd openly admit was Heathcliff appearing out of absolutely nowhere to help hold the line with his massive tower shield.

Medrizzel's latest lightning breath attack lasted much longer than any before, and if Rain was any judge it was far more intense. For thirty seconds, though, the sword of the most infamous beta tester and shield of the leader of the Knights of Blood held off the crackling storm, protecting the players cowering behind them.

Not without cost. Rain could see on her HUD that even with the Baneblade, Kirito's HP was being slowly ground away, and in the flickering glare of lightning she could see his face tightening in a harsh grimace—but as with Vemacitrin, they held.

The rest of Heathcliff's tank group arrived somewhere near the end of the lightning assault, their shields adding to the defense. Forty seconds, then fifty; the DDA tanks slammed into position where they could amid the treacherous footing, holding tight against the last of the blast.

The moment the storm ended, Kirito and Heathcliff both dropped to their knees. In that same moment, Kizmel took a flying leap over her partner's head, aiming a Reaver at Medrizzel's left head. Rain took off in a Sonic Leap only an instant behind, determined to take advantage of the opening their defenders had given them.

Somehow, Rain wasn't surprised to notice Sachi jumping right in after her. Klein's war cry did catch her a bit off-guard, though, as the samurai flung himself without hesitation into Medrizzel's teeth.

In a blaze of shining swords and spray of red polygons, four blades tore into the sea-dragon's heads. Still recovering from their own massive lightning storm, neither of them could do more than shriek in agony as the players exacted revenge for the attempted zapping. The shrieks only grew louder a second later, when other players ripped into Medrizzel's tail from behind.

Rain only caught a glimpse of the latter attack, though. Her Sonic Leap did exactly what she wanted it to, scoring deep into Medrizzel's right head just below its left eye; what came after wasn't quite so simple. The latest breath attack had destroyed even more of the footing in that section of the battlefield, leaving Rain with few good choices for a landing.

Rebounding from the Sonic Leap, she awkwardly bounced toward the other head, stabbed her blade into it with a normal thrust, and tried letting gravity do the work.

Which it did, kind of. Anchored by her sword, Rain slid down Medrizzel's neck, her descent turning into a spiral as it recoiled again in simulated pain. Toward the base of the necks, where they merged into one body, she braced her feet on its scaly hide and shoved off again, praying for something solid to land on.

That prayer went unanswered, her feet finding nothing but water at the end of her fall. With a spluttered curse, she sank like a rock.

Before she even had a chance to panic, though, Rain found her arms gripped tight. With a yank, she was hauled up and out of the water, dropped onto a deck just barely above the surface, and found herself looking up at Klein and Sachi.

"You okay there, Rain-san?" the scruffy samurai asked. "Nice attack, by the way. Gutsy."

"Ah, it was nothing," she said, waving it off; as she spoke, she realized she even meant it. "You think that was nuts, you should've been there for the last floor boss."

"Yeah, heard about that. That's rough… Oi, Kirito!" Klein called. "Think you lost something, buddy!"

The deck shook, bobbing in a way Rain was not comfortable with, and the rest of her party was suddenly there. "Thanks a lot, Klein," Kirito said, nodding to the samurai. "Do you need to heal, Rain," he continued, turning to her, "or are you ready to go back in?"

To her own surprise, Rain found herself grinning. "And miss out on the end of this? Not a chance, Kirito!"

"All teams, get ready! It's about time for the final push!"

Kirito grinned back. "Well, then, you heard Asuna. Kizmel, Klein, everybody! Let's do this!"

It wasn't anything like the final assault on Vemacitrin, when they charged in on Medrizzel. To the very end, the Asura had been a terrifying threat, taking players down even in its death throes; Rain had been honestly stunned to realize she was still alive when it finally shattered into polygons.

The Sea-Lord was something else entirely. It kept on biting and swiping at players as they tore into its final lifebar, and even managed to fire off a few small bolts of lightning. Here and there, players were knocked back, had to retreat to heal, or simply missed a jump and fell into the water by their own mistake—but there was no desperation.

This was what Sword Art Online could've been, Rain realized as she slashed a Horizontal Square into Medrizzel's belly, before ducking away to let Philia drag the saw-toothed back of her sword through scales in a Horizontal Arc. This was a battle that was fun, even with the ever-present risk of death in the back of her mind.

And, maybe… this is what it means now. Klein thrust a Tsujikaze into the sea-dragon, stumbled as a remaining Ignition Squid grabbed at his ankles; recovered, with Sachi's blade chopping the squid's tentacles clean off. What Kirito and Heathcliff did—it wasn't about the weapons they used.

Medrizzel's health dwindled, and a cheer went up from the raid party. Rain's grin, which hadn't faded since the final assault began, widened. Feeling bold, she leapt in close enough to slam a flying Side Kick into the sea-dragon's guts.

She almost fell into the water just in time for another miniature lightning blast, and her heel did hit the surface long enough for her to discover that aside from the lack of pain, SAO simulated electric shock pretty well. Philia caught her before she could take a full plunge, though, and Rain took out her frustration on the last Barracanha.

"Just a little more!" Asuna shouted, burying her rapier in Medrizzel's left head in a startlingly powerful Linear. The Sea-Lord shrieked, and that head shattered into azure pieces with shocking suddenness, spraying red polygons. "One last push! Charge!"

We can't get too cocky. This is only a breather boss, after all. With a howl, Fuurinkazan launched a surprisingly coordinated flurry of attacks; swords of at least three kinds and several polearms carved a crisscross of red into sapphire scales. Medrizzel's tail slapped them away right after, but the damage was plain to see in the steady drain of red from its lifebar.

But this is what we're all here for, on the frontline. Right now, and what Kirito and Heathcliff did back there. Shouting together, Rain and Philia hit Medrizzel with paired Vorpal Strikes. The dragon's thrashing in reaction sent waves through the sea, capsizing the floating wreckage they'd been standing on—before they could slip too far under, Heathcliff and the DDA's Schmitt hauled them back to safety.

Taking a second to catch her breath, Rain saw that Medrizzel's HP was down to just a sliver now. Playing a hunch, she glanced over to her teammates, and saw that Kirito and Kizmel both were preparing for a final leap. Trying to maintain their record, she thought wryly.

So what, though? That's just part of the job. You gotta be larger than life, when you're supposed to be heroes leading everyone back to the real world.

They crouched, swords glowing with charging Sword Skills, waiting for just the right moment to begin the last attack—

A flash of blue flickered by, just before they could leap. A shield batted aside a last, desperate lightning bolt, as a curved sword drove a Fell Crescent into Medrizzel's eye. The Sea-Lord shrieked loud enough to make Rain wince; shook its head violently, trying to throw off its tormenter.

The swordsman somehow maintained his balance. Drew his sword out, and rammed it deep into Medrizzel's other eye.

One last wailing shriek, and a flash of lightning that cast the swordsman away in blue arcs. There was one final crackle of static after, and Medrizzel The Sea-Lord exploded into thousands of glittering shards—leaving Lind of the Divine Dragons Alliance to land heavily on a shipwreck, scorched but victorious.

January 22nd, 2024

Kirito groaned, flopping down on one of the inn room's pair of beds. "Ugh, what a crazy floor that was… Kizmel, have you ever thought you need a vacation from a vacation?"

Sitting on the edge of the other bed, Kizmel smiled. "I don't believe I've ever experienced a 'vacation' as a human would know it, Kirito-kun. I admit, however, that the past nine days have not quite been what I would have expected from the expression 'breather level'." She raised one curious eyebrow. "Was it really so bad, though?"

"…No. No, I guess it wasn't."

Only an hour before, the clearing group had defeated the Fifty-First Floor's Pillar Guardian, Agreus The Wind Fish. A rather anticlimactic battle, Kizmel thought, after the chaos that had been Medrizzel. Lacking any exotic attacks save for a strong Wind Breath, it had been a straightforward and relatively brief engagement.

Now, in an inn on the outskirts of the first town on the Fifty-Second Floor, Kizmel and her partner were preparing to sleep for the night. In the morning, they would begin the conquest of the new floor; for now, they had one night to unwind from everything that had occurred on the tropical Fifty-First.

"It was fun, mostly," Kirito said at length, resting his head on one arm as he stared up at the ceiling. "I'd kind of forgotten how fun it could be, running quests without being too scared. Though I could've done without the explosions, weird doors, and mirror-bosses."

Kizmel hummed in agreement, but didn't lose her smile. Letting her gaze slide over his still-bare chest—he really was in better shape than he gave himself credit for—she said idly, "In hindsight, I think I rather enjoyed our exploration of Kobayashi, actually. Philia and I had a… fruitful conversation. And you can't deny the end of the trip was exhilarating."

"If you call almost being blown to bits 'exhilarating', yeah." He couldn't help a smile of his own, though. "Though speaking of Philia, I wonder what she and Rain will do now?"

"Likely they'll tell us in the meeting with Argo tomorrow morning. I expect they'll remain with the clearing group, though. We'll see them often enough, Kirito-kun." Chuckling, the elf girl brought up her menu, checking her share of the "drops" from the latest battle. "After all, they're as apt as we are to search out the obscure."

Certainly there was a great deal of treasure to be found on that floor, she mused, scrolling through her inventory. I suppose I didn't receive as much material gain as the others, yet I believe I am content with the progress I did make. Not as much as I might have hoped, but one step at a time. Nothing will be gained by pushing too hard.

At least now she knew what stood in her way. With what Kirito had told her of his issues, she supposed the best approach was to simply prove to him that whatever issues he might have with others, she would always be there for him to lean on.

"Well," her partner said then, swinging himself upright, "I guess it's about time to switch back to regular gear, huh? I don't know about you, but I was pretty cold on the way to the inn. Looks like this floor has a more normal climate."

Kizmel nodded. She'd greatly enjoyed the attire, the Fifty-First Floor's tropical conditions imposed, for a number of reasons, but the new floor left her exposed skin quite cold. Most of the Swordmasters who'd been involved in the raid on the Pillar Guardian had gone straight for the nearest inns on arrival.

As Kirito stood and opened his menu to change to something more appropriate, though, a thought struck her. Feeling a smile blossom on her face, she came to her feet. "Actually, Kirito-kun, I think perhaps a bath might be in order before bed. A little time in hot water would do much to soothe our weariness, don't you think?"

Pausing with his finger just above his menu, her partner gave her a wary look. "…I suppose that wouldn't be a bad idea," he said slowly. "We didn't get much of a chance for that, the last week or so."

From the red on his face, Kizmel knew he was thinking of the one occasion they had made time for it. Which was fair enough, she acknowledged privately, given the circumstances. I'll give him space, of course; such concerns are hardly overcome at will.

With a casual swipe of her hand, she brought up her menu again, switched to the [Equipment] page, and tapped a single command. A soft swish followed, accompanied by a brief flash of light, as her swimsuit vanished into the Swordmasters' miraculous storage.

To Kizmel's great satisfaction, Kirito didn't look away. He didn't exactly stare—which she found almost disappointing, really—but neither did he flee from the sight of her naked body, as he once would have. Her partner did swallow nervously, and his blush brightened, yet he didn't turn, even when she began to walk toward the bathroom door behind him.

Of course, I also have no intention of letting him forget. And turnabout, as they say, is fair play, is it not?

On her way by, Kizmel edged just close enough to brush her hand against Kirito's—and then, before he could react, leaned in closer and nipped lightly at his ear.

Yelping, her partner jumped high enough his head nearly hit the ceiling. She caught a brief glimpse of steam literally coming out of his ears when he landed, but simply continued on as if nothing had happened—though there may have been a deliberate sway in her stride.

"Could I ask you to wash my back, Kirito-kun?" Kizmel said over her shoulder, hiding a grin. "Of course, I'll be happy to return the favor."

Kirito's response, as she opened the bathroom door and slipped inside, wasn't terribly coherent. She hadn't really expected it to be, though, nor did she really mind. Her reminder had been delivered, after all, and most effectively.

Even better, he did follow her, in the end. And even half-coherent, his back-washing technique was as wonderful as ever.

January 23rd, 2024

There was something undeniably satisfying about being back in his standard black longcoat, Kirito thought as he descended the stairs to the inn's first floor. He wasn't going to say he'd hated the conditions of the Fifty-First Floor, exactly, but darn it, he liked the solid, heavy feeling of his coat. Not to mention proper boots, after all that time barefoot.

But especially the coat. I didn't know how attached I was until I realized I was still wearing it in my dreams.

He supposed that said something about his state of mind. If it did, though, tough luck; normal Japanese social conventions just didn't work in the death game.

Argo was, as Kirito had expected, waiting for him in a dark corner of the inn's dining room. The only player there, in fact, though a dozen or so NPCs were scattered around. Like him, she was back to normal, with her usual hooded cloak—not that her whiskers, or her grin, had been away at all. "Oi, Kii-bou!" she called, waving him over to her table. "Kii-chan's running late?"

"Philia came up just as I was leaving; I guess they wanted to talk about something." Kirito slid into a chair across from the Rat, noticing idly how unusual it was for her to have chosen a table for six, with another large one right next to it. Though he supposed it made sense, given how many people they were going to be meeting. "Though actually," he continued, sobering, "it's just as well. There's something I want to ask you, Argo."

"Aw, that sounds kinda ominous, Kii-bou." Argo leaned back in her chair, propped her feet on the table, and popped what looked suspiciously like a potato chip in her mouth. "C'mon, tell Argo-nee-chan what's on yer mind! Standard rate fer any info ya need, o' course."

"Actually," he said, lowering his voice, "I'll be paying a retainer for this one, Argo." Glancing around for any prying ears, and finding none—not too surprising; they'd chosen that inn for a reason—he leaned over the table. "I've got a long-term job for you."

As Kirito detailed his request, Argo's eyes first went wide, then narrowed intently. Briefly, he thought he caught a flash of a grin; then, he could have sworn he saw a hint of tears. Of course, that made no sense. This was Argo the Rat, after all. She had her favorites, but she was mercenary to the core.

"That's a heck of a job you've got for me, Kii-bou," she said when he was done, munching on her snack between words. "Awful lot o' Cor you're gonna be paying me, and maybe for nothin'. You really think it's possible?"

"I think I've seen a lot of things in this world in the last year that I would have sworn weren't, Argo," he said seriously. "I think I'm starting to understand some of it, though. If I'm right, then yeah. There's a way. And if I'm wrong?" Kirito shook his head. "I've still got to try. She deserves that much, Argo."

For a long moment, the Rat simply stared at him searchingly. He wasn't sure what she was looking for, exactly—he never did with Argo—but finally, a slow, genuine smile spread across her face.

It actually kind of scared him. He wasn't used to Argo smiling when it didn't mean fun for her.

"Kii-chan's a lucky girl, y'know that, Kii-bou?" she said whimsically. "Not too long ago, I'd have called ya crazy. Now… I'm just gonna say you're a hopeless romantic."

"Now just a second," he protested instantly, face heating up; he wasn't quite fluent in English, but he recognized the last word she'd stuck in well enough. "I didn't say it was anything like—"

"Shush, Kii-bou. I used th' English 'cause it's got two meanings, and I ain't tellin' ya which I meant. Maybe a little bit o' both. An' I didn't say it was a bad thing, did I?" Argo chuckled to herself; a friendlier sound than he was used to out of her. Then she sobered, but kept that smile as she reached a hand across the table. "Got yerself a deal, Kii-bou. An' don't worry, I won't tell anybody. Not even fer a million Cor."

Reassuring, in her own odd way. Kirito decided he'd take what he could get.

They'd only just finalized the deal when light footsteps announced they were no longer the only players around. "Good morning, Argo," Kizmel said, slipping into the chair to Kirito's right. To his relief, she was back in her familiar light armor and cloak, as opposed to the entirely too thin nightgown she'd still been wearing when he left their room. "Have I missed anything?"

"Nothin' big, Kii-chan," Argo told her, impressing Kirito with her ability to lie through her teeth without a quiver. "Just shootin' the breeze while we waited for you an' the girls to get here."

"Just us? I thought Fuurinkazan was supposed to be here, too."

All three of them turned to see the new arrivals. Philia was first, once again wearing the most revealing armor Kirito had yet seen in SAO. The only differences were a new half-cape, and the Ridgeback Sword she'd gotten from Hyrus Fortress. Despite the Fifty-Second Floor's chill, she seemed perfectly comfortable.

Rain looked a little different from before, though. When Kirito had first met her, she'd worn unremarkable leather armor; not that different, really, from what he'd favored before the Coat of Midnight had changed his image forever. Joining them at the table now, she was decked out in a light purple, double-breasted coat. Only knee-length, shorter than Kirito's usual calf-length coats, it had a distinctly piratical feel to it.

Right, she got that when we were looting the Ship Graveyard, Kirito remembered. Looks good. I wonder how the stats are, compared to mine…?

"They'll be along any minute," Argo said, as the two girls settled in at the table. "But there was somethin' I wanted to give you guys, before the other guys showed up."

"Now why I do find that ominous?" Kizmel murmured. Kirito noticed a small smile was playing at her lips, though; unlike Rain, who bore a wary expression he thought was much more sensible.

"Aw, like it's my fault you guys don't get my jokes?" Grinning, the Rat slipped a hand under her cloak, pulled out a few slim sheets of paper held between her fingers, and spread them on the table. Four sheets, Kirito realized, one for each of them. "No charge, I got my 'payment' when these were made."

Looking more closely at the one Argo slid in front of him, he choked. It was actually a photo, taken right after Agreus was defeated: the moment his party had celebrated the Wind Fish's defeat. It hadn't been that tough a boss, but after how desperate the battle with Vemacitrin had been, everyone had been jubilant at a victory with no casualties.

Some of them more so than others. Philia was hanging onto Kirito's back in her enthusiasm, grinning and throwing a victory sign at what he now knew to be Argo's recording crystal (however she'd managed to be in a position for it). A blushing Rain had grabbed onto his right arm, and an utterly unabashed Kizmel had taken the excuse to press herself quite tight against his left side.

Embarrassing enough at the time, with Klein and more than a few other players glaring daggers at him. Memorialized this way, Kirito wanted to sink into the floor and never come out again.

"Though ya guys might want copies," Argo said, blithely ignoring his discomfort. "'Specially for that scrapbook o' yours, Kii-chan."

Scrapbook? Kirito wondered. What scrapbook?

While he was debating whether or not to risk asking, Kizmel smiled softly, a faint blush visible on her dusky skin. "Thank you, Argo," she said softly, tucking the photo into her inventory. "I appreciate it. Rather more than I did last time, certainly—though in hindsight, I'm grateful for that, as well."

"Yeah," Rain murmured, looking over her copy with a wistful look. "Thanks, Argo."

"Hehe, nice!" Philia lifted hers, grinning. "Perfect way to remember our first floor clearing as a team, don't you think, guys?"

"'First'?" Kirito parroted, distracted from his petty exasperation at being the only one put out by Argo's antics. "Wait, what do you mean by 'first'—"

"Hey, there you guys are! Are we late?"

Before he could even finish asking the question, he was interrupted by the arrival of Fuurinkazan. Most of them parked themselves at the next table over, Klein straddling a chair backwards to see the treasure hunting team better, with Sachi ending up at the independents' table.

"Not really, no," Kizmel said, neatly distracting the new arrivals while her companions hurriedly hid their copies of Argo's photo. "We were merely chatting while we waited. I trust you're all doing well?"

"Better than I expected after our first floor boss," Issin admitted. "I mean, can you say bad timing? We get to the frontlines just after that crazy Asura fight? Gotta say, that wasn't good for my piece of—"

"Speaking of pieces," Klein cut him off suddenly, "dunno about you guys, but I'd say we should be talking about this over breakfast. Whaddya say?"

On that point, they were unanimous. An NPC waitress was promptly flagged down, and soon it wasn't just Argo chowing down. If there was one thing common to the thousands of players still surviving in Aincrad, it was an appreciation for good food.

"Anyway," Klein said a few minutes later, between bites of grilled eel, "what Issin said. We were just about ready to finally come on up to join the clearing when we got the news about Vemacitrin. Gotta tell ya, that didn't make our day."

"Eight dead, and some pretty hair-raising stories about the boss' behavior," Dale agreed. He took a bite of natto, swallowed, and continued, "Honestly, I was starting to have second thoughts. Even with the word about that Heathcliff guy holding off the boss by himself for ten minutes—which, by the way, I'm still not sure I believe."

"Oh, he did it," Kirito said, sharing a quick glance with Kizmel. Remembering those harrowing minutes after Hafner died, he shivered; he could see from the shadows in her eyes that she was thinking of the same thing. "I don't know how, but he did. They don't call him the Paladin these days for nothing." Deliberately pushing that away, he picked up his simple sandwich and raised an eyebrow. "So? What made you come up anyway?"

It was almost eerie, seeing Klein perfectly serious. Though now that he thought about it, Kirito wasn't sure why; he'd seen the samurai dead serious as early as the beginning of the death game, when they'd parted in the City of Beginnings. That same sobriety was on display now—though if the flagon he'd ordered was any indication, Klein was kind of wishing he could change the "sober" part.

"Two things, Kirito," he said, a distant look in his eyes. "Somebody had to come up and fill the gaps—and all of us have lost somebody. Almost three thousand people dead now, there's nobody in Aincrad who's been that lucky." He nodded to the newest member of his guild. "Sachi made that pretty damn clear to me, when we started getting cold feet."

Sachi blushed, hiding her face behind her glass of orange juice. "I didn't do that much. …Um, did I?"

"I dunno, there might still have been an intact window or two in the Guildhall after you shouted us down," Harry-One said teasingly. "But seriously, it's not like you were wrong. And you did make us take a few more days to level up before we went to the Fifty-First Floor."

Kirito nodded slowly. Aside, maybe, from the shouting—though he did vividly remember one time she'd lost her temper—that sounded like the Sachi he knew. As anxious as she'd been when they first met, the former Black Cat had always been very cautious, yet also deeply determined. If the loss of her friends to The Commandant hadn't stopped her, he'd have been surprised if Vemacitrin had.

"Somebody had to do it, huh?" Rain said thoughtfully, leaning back in her chair. "Yeah… I know what you mean. There's thousands of people down on the lower floors who're too scared to do anything. Anybody who's got even a little guts has to do their part, right?"

"That's what I figured, Rain-san," Klein agreed. "Not to mention, Sachi's been telling us about how the clearers need more than just strength. Especially with—oh, there's the arrogant son of a bitch now."

Kirito followed his gaze out the window, and felt his face tighten. A contingent of the DDA was walking—strutting, he thought unkindly—down the street past the inn. Leading them was Lind himself, in his usual blue armor. Dressing in imitation of the late Diavel, still trying after so long to publicly inherit the original raid leader's legacy.

Now, though, he'd made an addition: a billowing cape made of sapphire scales. The Last Attack Bonus from Medrizzel, Lind had said absolutely nothing about it, but his behavior had made it perfectly plain he was making a statement by wearing it as much as he was taking advantage of its stats.

Whether that statement was to the raid group as a whole, to Kirito specifically, or both, the swordsman wasn't prepared to say. Though the fact that Lind had broken formation to make that last attack had raised more than a few eyebrows. One way or another, he could feel a shift, and worried about how the climate among the clearers would change from there.

"He's part of why I think we should be here," Sachi said quietly, watching with narrowed eyes as Lind strode out of sight. "Keita once thought you were exaggerating about the attitudes in the clearers, Kirito, but I remember how that guy acted on Christmas Eve. That wasn't right."

"Yeah, he's always like that," Philia said sourly, setting down her plate of egg rolls. "He's been getting worse lately, though… But enough about that! We're supposed to be celebrating clearing another floor! And it's great to have another girl in raids, there's only like four of us right now…"

"Yeah—and I wanna know how you get away with bossin' Klein around, Sacchin," Argo put in, a gleam in her eye and fang visible in her grin. "C'mon, spill!"

Klein made a sound that Kirito was pretty sure he'd deny ever having made if pressed, choked on his ale, and started frantically gesturing with the flagon. The other original members of Fuurinkazan collectively guffawed; and Sachi was left to clear her throat uncomfortably as she turned away. "That'll cost you fifty thousand Cor, Argo."

"Ha! The girl's learning! But be careful, Sacchin—someday I might just have that to spare!"

After breakfast, numerous stories, and quite a bit of Cor somehow finding its way into Argo the Rat's pockets, Fuurinkazan headed off. It being their first day clearing a brand-new floor, they wanted to get an early start. Or, as Klein put it, they wanted to make sure "that smug bastard" Lind didn't have too much reason to brag.

That left the treasure hunters of the Fifty-First Floor to finish their own business more sedately, to Kirito's considerable relief. He liked Klein and his guild, really he did, but sometimes they got a tad overwhelming for a former solo.

Then, to his even greater relief, Argo took off, pleading a need to get to work on her next guide. Though her cackle as she left didn't leave him with much confidence on that point…

Finally, it was just the four of them again. "Well," Philia said, standing up to stretch, "I guess that's one way to start the day. Don't know that I'll ever get used to the Rat, though… So, where to, guys?"

It took Kirito a second to process that statement, and what it implied. "Uh? Wait—we finished the quest, right? You guys got your share of the loot, so we're all even. Aren't we?"

"For the quest, yeah." Rain also stood, her gaze seeming to linger for a second on the Baneblade's hilt as she faced him. "But Philia and I have been talking, and… Well, we saw a lot of things I don't think we would have, if we'd just been going our own way on that floor."

"Sure wouldn't have gotten some of this loot!" Philia agreed, tapping the Ridgeback with a smile. "And y'know what? I think I want to see more of this questline you guys have got yourselves into. I think… it's important, somehow."

"So do I." There was something somber in the redhead's eyes; but also a bright determination that reminded Kirito of Sachi. "Kirito, Kizmel—I think I'll find what I'm looking for, if I stick with you."

In that moment, for reasons he couldn't explain even to himself, Kirito felt a kinship with the swordswoman. It wasn't like what he had with Kizmel—whether he was ready to admit it to anyone else or not, he had a pretty good idea of exactly how his feelings there had changed—but he still felt some kind of connection.

Actually… somehow, she reminds me of Sugu. Of how she looked, when she won her first regional competition. I wonder…

The memory of his sister, though, reminded him of why he'd stubbornly stayed apart from other players for so long, only partying with Asuna for a few short months. Why Kizmel had been his only companion since. The same thing that had led him to leave Klein behind that first day, reinforced by what had happened to Sachi's Black Cats. The fear—

A hand on his shoulder made Kirito jump. "This is not like the day you were betrayed, Kirito-kun," Kizmel whispered, so softly he was sure only he could hear it. "Nor the day the Black Cats fell. Rain and Philia have both proven their strength, haven't they? They fought Vemacitrin, and survived. There has been no greater challenge in the Steel Castle than that."

Kirito swallowed, feeling for the moment like the two of them were the only ones there. "You… think this is a good idea, Kizmel?"

"I think our mirror-selves in Hyrus Fortress would've been much harder, with only two of us," she said. "I think finding the way to Kobayashi would have been a sterner task without Rain, and finding our way to the heart of Zaro without Philia's talents would've been a nightmare.

"More than that, Kirito-kun… I think it was fun. Don't you?"

Shipwrecks. An exploding ghost ship full of undead pirates. An undersea dungeon that had shown him visions that he both was terrified of, and longed for.

Evenings spent on the deck of a boat at sea, idly chatting with people who didn't merely tolerate him, the way so many of the clearers still did even then.

"…Yeah. Yeah, it really was." It had been strange, working with more players so closely for more than just a raid—but he couldn't say that it had been bad.

And Kizmel's right. They're stronger than Klein was when this started, stronger and smarter than the Black Cats were. And I… know where I stand with them. Don't I?

"Of course," Kizmel murmured, lips close enough he could feel her breath on his ear, "I'll insist on having you to myself now and again, Kirito-kun. And I certainly don't intend to invite them to share our room."

Flushing, Kirito turned his attention back to the other two girls, who were waiting with surprising patience. "You two are really sure about this? I mean, you've got to know I don't exactly have the best reputation with the clearers, especially after…"

"Oh, you mean like with Lind?" Philia turned to stick her tongue out at the window through which they'd seen the DDA guildmaster earlier. "Who cares what Blue Boy thinks!"

"Thinks he's some kind of hero," Rain muttered, casting a glare in the same direction. "If that's what the big guilds are like, I don't want anything to do with them anyway." She turned back to Kirito and gave a decisive nod. "If you'll have us, Kirito, Kizmel, we're with you. I think that's where I can do the most good."

Do the most good, huh? Well… I just hope neither of you have to be around the next time I have to play the bad guy, then. Being alone isn't as cool as it sounds.

Not that Kirito had been alone for a long time now, as the light squeeze on his arm reminded him. He was, he thought, just barely ready to contemplate that he could trust where he stood with some people. If he ever wanted to fix the damage he'd done with his sister, he was going to have to take that leap of faith.

"…Okay," he said at last. "If you guys really want to stick around, I don't mind. But if you are along for the long haul," he added, standing to bring his menu up in open view, "there's a couple of things you need to know. About what Kizmel and I can really do—and about what we learned in the Elf War. There's something about that quest that even Argo won't sell, and for good reason…"

Author's Note:

Well, this was actually intended to be up for the fic's anniversary, since ill health prevented me from doing so last year. But, I did at least manage within the month of it, and barely more than a month since my last update. It also, if I have my math right, marks the 255th chapter I've posted on this website—though I would prefer to remember only a tiny fraction of that. And, of course, it marks my fifteenth anniversary on the site, albeit like the fic anniversary about two weeks late.

Two points to mention now: first, this is still not a harem fic. I had reasons for adding Rain and Philia to the long-term party dynamic, but romance was not among them. Second, they won't be creating a guild, as might be the case in other fics. By and large, I just don't see "Kirito" and "guilds" being compatible subjects. They'll just be a long-term party.

On another note, personally, I think I botched the boss fight. I had an interesting concept, but when I actually got to writing it, I realized I didn't really know what to do with it. Which is why I ended up turning it into something more about the characters involved than the actual battle, since I did at least need to explore some motivations in there. How successful that was, I'll let you guys be the judge.

The next chapter, I'm sorry to say, probably won't be up as fast. I really do need to work on Defiance, so I can finally get that fic over and done with and off my brain. That being said, I've no intention of letting it languish for months on end, either. Duet is coming up on some really good stuff, and I'm as anxious as anyone to get there.

On a lesser note, since quite a few people have asked and some of them I can't reply to directly, the other fic I mentioned last time is SAO: The Eroge, by SaintInfernalNeos. It's a parody/harem fic, so YMMV, but despite its title it doesn't get terribly explicit, and it does have some very nice Kizmel moments. Think Duet Kizmel, if she were under the impression a harem situation was already extent the moment she met Kirito and company.

Last thing: to all my readers, I am deeply grateful. Forty-four reviews since my last update, thirty of them in little more than a week? I'm actually a bit in awe of that. I regret I couldn't make this chapter live up to the previous, but I hope you guys enjoy it anyway. Next up will be Silica's arc—two chapters, max, and I hope to limit it to one; this being me, we'll see—which, whatever anyone's opinion of Silica herself may be, will delve more deeply into some of the more serious themes of the fic. But don't worry! I've got some good Kirito/Kizmel fluff planned, too, so stay tuned. -Solid