Saotome Art Online
The world was a blinding glare as the girl's eyes fluttered open for the first time in two years. Awareness followed those radiant stabs and she sought to shield her eyes from them with her arm. Even that was a struggle as the very act seemed to sap the redhead of whatever strength she possessed. Still, it was enough and the glare abated even as her confusion grew over the weakness she felt. The girl used her left hand to touch the empty space above her to summon the interface…
She blinked, wondering at the lack of activity until her eyes focused on the hand itself. It was skin and bones, an atrophied parody of the appendage she knew. She turned it over, studying it from a different angle as the reality of situation finally began to dawn upon her. The teen reached up to her head and found not skin or hair, but a helmet. Her fingers caressed the smooth plastic surface for a moment, as if to verify its authenticity.
It was real.
She wallowed in the improbability of the thought for several seconds before slowly pulling the plastic shell away, angling her head to get a better view of wherever it was she had been interned. Her eyes had finally adjusted to the soft lighting and she could focus, finding herself in a room. Wires trailed up from her torso and into a bank of machines, whose digital readouts stood watch over her like sentinels. From her arm a tube wound upward and into a bag of liquid that her intellect recognized as some sort of intravenous feed. She stared at it for a moment before turning her attention to the rest of the largely sterile room that was looking more and more like hospital quarters.
The words came out as a croak, surprising the owner of the voice only marginally as she began to lift herself to a vaguely upright position. The NerveGear helmet rolled away, clattering against the floor to send sharp spikes against her eardrums. The teenage girl cringed with the racket, clenching at the bed rails as she weathered the temporary cacophony. She willed calm through her body and began to concentrate on motor skills. She started at her hands, flexing her fingers with effort before moving onto the joints of her arm. Even as she was absorbing herself in this new task, the door clicked open.
The redheaded teenager turned, watching as a nurse admitted herself, humming softly. The newcomer repositioned a clipboard in her grasp then looked up, making eye contact for the first time. The gentle smile on the woman's face faded, and wonder took hold in the form of staring. The girl was just opening her mouth to attempt a question when the woman became animated, leaning back out the door.
"Doctor! Doctor!" The girl cringed again at the nurses pitched scream. "We've got another one!"
Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts looked herself over critically, staring at her malnourished reflection in the bedside mirror. The face that had once been the envy of many girls her age had wasted away, giving her features a pale, sunken appearance that spoke of haunted beauty rather than overt vitality. The redhead sighed and reached around to gather the red mane that had grown out over the last two years. She began to work it with unconscious ease into a complex braided crown as her mind drifted through the last two years of memories. It had been a dream, and yet it hadn't. The outside world was calling it the Death Game, but it was- or had been -reality for the six thousand survivors from which she could number herself amongst.
The remaining four thousand of that number hadn't been so lucky. If there had been any doubt before, her awakening confirmed that the creator of the game had been true to his word—those that had died in-game had died a very real death, whether they fell in battle or at the hands of a well-meaning family member attempting to extricate them prematurely.
Ranma's fist clenched until her knuckles turned white, then slowly released them with the reality of the here and now in mind. That man had been defeated and was now beyond her reach… Regardless of how much she desired to administer a second or third helping of ass-kicking.
'Or fourth or fifth,' The redhead amended, but let the her anger slip in favor of the victory. The evil genius had certainly planned to bleed the survivors further if not for… Ranma smiled slightly as her thoughts drifted to the victory and better times, where they lingered until a polite knock found her door.
"Are you ready, Miss Saotome?"
The slight smile faded. No. She most certainly wasn't ready. Not for any of it. Ready or not, however, it was time to face the reality she had involuntarily opted out of for the last two years. She put the final touches on the braid and threw a token nod at the door. "Sure, come on in."
A petite nurse admitted herself, rolling a wheelchair into the modest confines of her hospital room. She parked it beside the bed and dipped down to lock the brakes, only to find her charge already struggling to shift her weight into it.
"Miss Saotome, your condition…!" The nurse rushed around to put a stop to the strenuous activity of her patient, who continued regardless.
"My condition can go take a hike," Ranma huffed as she struggled to coordinate her weakened body while the nurse watched with a disapproving look on her face. Still, she didn't interfere. It was concession she would have to live with since the alternative was watching the girl try and walk on her own two feet. While her spirit was willing, than the flesh was weak and those attempts usually ended on the ground in spite of her caretaker's objections.
Instead, they agreed to a truce.
The martial artist flopped gracelessly into the wheelchair and adjusted herself, smoothing out the simple beige dress she had been given for lack of any other clothing besides a hospital gown. Once comfortable, she gave the nurse a nod and the brakes were unlocked, wheeling Ranma to her fate.
The outside world.
The real world.
The hospital hallway was alive with calm activity, busier now that The Awakening had ran its course. She wasn't the only patient in this wing suffering from the game induced coma and some were worse off than her. She was wheeled past a middle aged man, bound to a wheelchair himself. They made eye contact and he favored her with a friendly nod, one which she couldn't help but to return. Their emasculated forms were a mark of their time inside the virtual world, making for easy recognition of a fellow veteran.
Others weren't so lucky, however. They were still confined to their beds. Still on life support. For whatever reason, their spirit had yet to make the transition back to the real world and their bodies remained bed-ridden. Ranma couldn't help but to frown as she was wheeled down the hallway, glimpsing one such scene in one of the hospital rooms. A family was gathered around the still coma player and something told her the Death Game would claim more victims by the time everything had run its course.
"Now remember, if you feel fatigued at any point, simply let one of us know," The nurse advised as they rounded a corner. "We've tried to keep the press to the side, but—"
Ranma turned to the name as a wheel chair bound girl no more than thirteen pointed her out with shaky excitement. At some point, the handle she had played under had become as real to her as her given name and the martial artist turned to it just as naturally.
"In our hospital!"
"The red hair! Gotta be!"
The hallway down which she was being pushed quieted as the eyes of her fellow gamers were drawn to her person. Occasionally one would reach out in reverence to touch her as she passed while the hospital staff looked on, clearly confused. The occasional murmur of gratitude accompanied her transit and the best she could manage was a polite nod and weak smile in the face of the unnerving attention. The hospital staff watched the scene curiously, but lacked the proper context to decipher what was happening while Ranma's own nurse leaned down with concern.
"Is this…okay?" She probed carefully as she continued to push her ward down the hall toward a pair of double doors. "If you want we can—"
"No…" Ranma shook her head hesitantly, then answered with more resolve. "It's… it's fine. We're fine."
The others heard her words and began to smile. It was a victory to be shared and the survivors took her quiet confidence as their own as she passed. The uncertain nurse merely nodded and continued her push for the double doors. She pressed a largish button and they lethargically swung aside to allow access to another room. Another pair of doors waited and active commotion could be discerned through them.
"As I'll ever be." Ranma shrugged and the nurse favored her with a sympathetic look, then began to roll the girl forward.
The nurse smiled regardless. "They'll be thrilled to see you."
"That's what I'm worried about." The redhead chuckled as they approached the automated doors. They slid open and the noise hit her like a wave front. The modest waiting room was packed full of people waiting for their own reunions. Some of those were already taking place as mothers and fathers fawned over their children while reporters snapped pictures from a roped off area to the side. Across the room, scenes of friends and family being reunited were taking place, though a portion of those cameras capturing the moment began to train on the room's newest attendee. Ranma ignored them and continued searching the room as her own nurse made the announcement.
The crushing hug came from out of nowhere; likely already inbound before the words had left the nurses lips. Kimono silk and light jasmine perfume wrapped around the redhead, all but assuring the martial artist of her identity through the half sobbing welcome.
"We thought-! You-! I'm so happy!" Nodoka Saotome cried, all but choking her son-turned-daughter in the process. It took the nurses intervention to save the girl from asphyxiation.
"Good-! To—See-! You-! Too—mom!" Ranma barely managed as the woman's attention continued to smother her while the nurse attending her grew more agitated.
"She's extremely weak right now, Mrs. Saotome," The woman advised, attempting to gently pull the mother back. Something in her words managed to get through and the teary eyed mother contented herself with looking the girl over in concern. Beyond her mother was her father, looking as stoic as ever as he, too, inspected his child.
"How was it, boy?" Genma Saotome asked carefully, to which Ranma could only snort her own sarcastic reply.
"Pretty shitty, Pops," The redhead grinned slightly, shrugging. "But it had its moments."
"Hnn." Was her father's only reply. He crossed his arms, as if to pass judgment. "Getting back to where you were won't be easy."
Her gaze lingered past her father to the various reunions taking place around her. Her smile widened as she turned her attention back upon her parents. "Nothin' worthwhile ever is."
Genma cocked his head curiously at her response and stared for a moment, but patted her on the head regardless. "Good to have you back, son."
"Welcome back, Ranma-kun." Another familiar voice found its way to her ears and Ranma turned to find Kasumi and Soun Tendo waiting expectantly off to the side. Kasumi managed with a slight bow with the greeting, though it was the person behind her that managed to illicit the most surprise out of Ranma. The man stuck out his hand to shake hers. The other remained possessively wrapped around the eldest Tendo sister.
"We were starting to get worried." Doctor Ono Tofu advised as Ranma took his hand, shaking it.
"Yeah, so was I." The martial artist snorted with humor as Soun Tendo came up alongside them with generous smile.
"Good to see you up and about, son," The mustachioed man nodded, jarring the redhead's fragile body with a slap. Ranma smiled for his benefit, but found herself still marveling at the changes a mere two years had brought. Kasumi and Tofu… A couple at last?
"Thanks," Ranma returned graciously as she studied the group and those present. More importantly, she was wondering at those who weren't.
"Can we take him outside?" Nodoka asked the nurse, who blinked in confusion.
"Of course," The attendant advised, but allowed her assent with a nod. "But please keep any excitement to a minimum. We'll have doctors standing by if you should need assistance."
Nodoka nodded and glanced down at her daughter, taking the wheelchair in hand herself. Ranma glanced up and gave her nod. The group started toward the hospital main entrance while Nodoka favored the girl with a motherly smile. "So have you been anywhere since waking up, dear?"
"Nah," Ranma shook her head, her head glancing back and forth at the various reunions taking place. "Mostly tests and stuff. Not like I could just get up and walk around, anyway."
"I'm sure you'll make a full recovery." Her mother assured the girl in order to sooth the slight edge of bitterness in her daughter's statement.
"What was it like?" Kasumi asked from behind. It was an innocent question; one that she all but expected to be asked at some point or another. A wellspring of emotion flowed with the answer she had rehearsed, but the redhead suppressed it with a seemingly easy smile.
"It was like... Let's just say it wasn't fun." Ranma shrugged as they approached a pair of sliding doors where the sun waited to greet their party. "The entire thing was rigged to kill you in some way, shape or form. You either sat in the safety of some town or were part of the push to get out."
"Oh my." Kasumi put her hand to her mouth with the no nonsense explanation.
"A game couldn't be that bad… Could it?" Soun wondered aloud, his tone harboring a sufficient amount of doubt to cause Ranma a frown.
"Please." Genma inserted his own doubts into the conversation, as if personally offended by the question meant for his son. "I trained the boy better than that."
Sunlight washed over the redhead, causing her to blink slightly as her eyes adjusted to the natural sunlight and clear blue sky. It was warm and pleasant. The trees were waving with the breeze, green and alive. She glanced around; scanning the immediate area with suspicion until sighting other groups and their wheelchair bound family and friends.
'What was the day again?' She asked herself absently as she considered the pleasant day around her. 'The 14th? Maybe the 15thof Flamerule?'
She discarded the unimportant minutia and returned to Soun Tendo's missive as her mother rolled them down the sidewalk. Reporters were interspersed across the grounds, snapping pictures. She paid them little mind.
"Training… Training had nothing to do with it." Ranma admitted weightily. She saw the confused faces on her entourage and composed an answer. "The game strips you of all of that. It imposes its own rules on the body that's created for you. If the game says you can't move faster than a walk, you don't move faster than a walk even if you ran marathons out here in real life. Don't matter if you're a badass martial artist or a nine-to-five salaryman. It's all the same to the rules."
Genma's face clearly emoted distaste, while her mother's was wrapped in confusion. She shook her head, trying to grasp the concept. "But why would anybody submit themselves to that?"
"It's a form of escapism, I would imagine," Doctor Tofu supplied, glancing over to Ranma who confirmed his theory with a nod.
"For some of 'em at least." The redhead continued. "Talked with a few friends about it around the hearth. I figure it's because most people aren't marathon runners. Or martial artists. Most people can't even swing a sword without taking an arm off. Games let them do the stuff they can't."
Kasumi giggled demurely, her hand covering her mouth. Ranma blinked her own confusion at the eldest Tendo, who supplied an explanation to the mild outburst. "You seem to have a slight western accent now, Ranma-kun."
"I do?" The neo-girl cocked her head, trying to analyze her own voice unsuccessfully for the variance. "If you say so, I guess."
"What's a hearth, dear?" Nodoka cocked her head with slight puzzlement of her own.
Now things were getting awkward for the redhead. Her cheeks flushed slightly as she realized the verbal anomaly for herself. "Ah, a big fire pit. Sorry about that."
"Don't apologize, Ranma," Doctor Tofu advised. "All the families were briefed to expect behavioral aberrations due to the level of immersion they experienced."
Ranma nodded, though her face showed some doubt. She let the matter lie with a simple nod.
"It wasn't all bad, was it?" Kasumi asked gently, eliciting a half shrug out of the girl.
"I suppose not," Ranma replied, cocking her head up to view the woman next to her with a slight smile. "It was so realistic that it was pretty easy to believe you were really exploring some fantasy world." She raised her hand, turning her thin arm over as an example. "Could have done without all this, but got to meet some good people along the way."
"At least some good came out of it, dear." Nodoka commented as she pushed her daughter along the sidewalk while the reporters and journalists remained cordoned off to interview those willing to stray close enough.
"Speaking of people, this party is short a few," Ranma noted, glancing back to the group. The slight tensing of her father and Soun's posture didn't go unnoticed. She pretended not to notice Doctor Tofu move slightly closer to Kasumi, filing the reaction away for later analysis as her mother took the question.
"Nabiki-chan is working and Akane will probably back by the end of the weekend," Nodoka explained patiently. Nabiki actually working was a foreign concept in and of itself, and Ranma wasn't sure what to make of the explanation for Akane. The body language wasn't promising in either case, however. The martial artist merely nodded though, as if all was right with the world.
"How about the girls?" She asked, trying to get a feel of what she was waking up to.
"There have been… developments." Her mother continued, her slight hesitation earning Ranma's undivided attention. "The Amazons have… how shall I put this…? Moved on."
Ranma blinked, her gaze drifting between the family members present as she dissected the implications for herself before coming to a singular conclusion. "Back to China?"
Nods greeted her query and the girl blinked with uncertainty. "Okay. Not sure if that's a good or bad thing. Probably good, thinkin' about it. How about Uc-chan?"
"Her father has taken ill." Kasumi advised softly. "She moved back to Nagoya to help him with the family business."
The redhead remained silent for a moment and nodded thoughtfully. "Damn. Nothing you can do about that. Will have to pay her a visit. Kinda surprised ol' Tatewake isn't here spouting poetry, though."
"We didn't advertise our visit." Nodoka smiled, patting her arm affectionately. Ranma chuckled.
"In other words, I'll see him in a day or-" She started to rolled her eyes when movement caught her attention. A handful of reporters seemed to bypass the established lines and were making their way directly for her.
"There's another one!"
"Over here, please!"
The call rang out across the courtyard she was being wheeled through. Video equipment was trained upon her before she realized what was happening while microphones were plied to her personal space.
"What was it like inside, Miss?!" One reporter asked frantically, all but pressing against Genma to gain direct access to her. Soun, Kasumi and Nodoka were likewise forced into a ring around the teenager as the reporters began to inundate her with questions.
"Please! A statement!" Another demanded. Cameras snapped in time with bright flashes.
"What level are you?!" Another called out as the flashes gained intensity. Ranma's head whirled around, uncertain which front to engage first through the blinding strobes.
"Did you know Kirigaya Kazuto at all!?" The question came in. Ranma's mouth opened but her vocal chords didn't respond with words. The cameras snapping pictures at her continued to flash and time began to slow for the girl as a new well spring of anxiety began to bubble up from the depths she had been holding such tight control over.
"Did you have to kill anybody in the game?!" The flashes took on a prismatic sparkle in her mind's eye and began to shatter in the same way they did in the game…
…When somebody died.
Faces flashed with each strobe, then shattered. Ranma's breath began to quicken. The teen tried to turn away from the flashes but they seemed to form a solid wall around her. The rapid-fire questions were no longer heard, now drowned out by the gunshot sound of her heart beating faster and faster. Another face shattered in polygonal gore.
"Need… I need…" Ranma forced the words out of her unwilling throat, gasping for breath, though it was Doctor Tofu who recognized the signs first.
"No questions!" He hollered in a manner uncharacteristic to his demeanor, then glanced over his shoulder to the confined parents. "Saotome-san. Tendo-san. We need space. Now."
Genma Saotome's hand came up and enveloped one of the cameras, pushing its owner away while Soun Tendo began to bodily clear a path for Nodoka, Kasumi and the wheel chair bound redhead. Doctor Tofu continued alongside Ranma, trying to keep her focused.
"I need a physician over here!" The doctor called as Ranma was wheeled clear of the crowd, clutching the chair armrests as she fought the sudden surge of panic.
"I got this… I got this… I got this…" The redhead insisted through the panting, as if trying to will belief into her own body. Nodoka hovered over her in concern, never having seen her child look so frail and vulnerable.
"Ranma?" Her panicked mother pressed, trying to get a coherent reaction from her offspring while the doctors began to work. "Dear, please answer? Dear!?"
Two doctors ran over to the group while hospital security corralled the journalists, escorting them back to their corral with threats of legal action. The sound of tearing Velcro was barely noticed by the girl as a pressure cuff was fitted around her arm.
"Hit her with the benzodiazepine."
A needle came out and was deftly pushed into Ranma's arm other without her even noticing. She was squeezing her eyes tightly shut, trying to force the prismatic horror from her mind's eye and was thankful for the real life voices that continued to intrude upon it.
"Breath… Concentrate on my voice," She identified the speaker as Doctor Tofu. "Just in and out. In and out…"
She wasn't sure how long he repeated those instructions, but her body seemed to take them to heart and her breathing began to slow with a slow tide of relaxation. The flashes began to dissolve over time and she hazarded to open her eyes after several minutes.
She was inside, in another room. Her chest was once more wired to a cart of machinery while two nurses and a doctor stood watch over her vitals. Next to her was Ono himself. It took her a moment to actually work the words from her lips.
"This… this sucks…" She drawled, wallowing in the feeling of detachment separating her brain from the rest of her body.
"It will pass." The doctor assured her. "How do you feel otherwise?"
"Tired." The redhead admitted lazily, then tried to look around. "Where's Mom?"
"In the other room," he assured her, patting her hand. "Is it okay if I let them know you're all right?"
"Sure… I'll be here." Ranma managed through the slur and the doctor smiled.
"I'll be right back, then."
Ranma Saotome was asleep before the ER door closed behind him.
Merry (belated) Christmas! I know you've been waiting for something with varying degrees of patience, but Job, Kid and a busted laptop in that order have been killing my writing time. Some of you have already seen this. Most of you probably haven't. Almost all of you wish I would probably have worked on something else ;) Alas. i already have this written and I'm hoping I can us it to build up some steam to push the other stuff. Most of the continuity will be based off the light novel with nods to the rewrite if I get around to it. What? Want to help out? Send me a new laptop :p
Psychological Trauma - One thing that has always annoyed me about SAO is the complete lack of psychological consequences to these players until the Bullet arc of SAO. While I can assure you this won't be an emo-fest, expect me to pay more attention to personal and social consequences more than source material ever did.
Categories - I dumped this fic in the vanilla Ranma category as opposed to the SAO/Xover category. I feel at this stage, the xover option diffuses the genre too much.
And seriously. Thanks for your patience and understanding with my broken release schedule.