'A networking breach by a worker? Of all things?'

"Then in light of that development, Sir, I would request tha-"

"Do not concern yourself. The person in question will be handled accordingly by me."

Standing tall as he manned his assigned podium, Heathcliff bowed his head respectfully in acknowledgement of the order.

"Apropos, I know your next actions will be equally decisive."

He did not intend to enquire about the fate of the rulebreaker at all, but let the assumption pass as would be expected. He only needed to prove that the situation was going to be successfully de-escalated by his Knights. Concern was a simple issue from his perspective.

"I will personally ensure that all property of RATH is accounted for, Sir. Within 24 hours."

The shrouded projection of his creator flicked at a crease in his holographic lapel. "Ganbarinasai. As you were, then. Do not fail me."

The meeting space disintegrated, and Heathcliff re-entered his main body, sat in proper position within a Tokyo data farm.

He breathed out, long and powerfully.

Not only were Asuna and Kazuto in danger because of his own failures as an intelligence; now a unassuming employee would be, in all likeliness, 'erased' - not to mention the people who lent their selves to birth the now-escapees. Sheer and unfortunate coincidence or otherwise, could RATH not perform more professionally in regards to security?

As always, he'd fight tooth and nail to protect his subordinates. But...

Akihiko's natural nihilism towards others was a thing that his creation did not fully appreciate inheriting.

—+++++++—

Kazuto had not played dead in a very long time.

Since he had regained consciousness for the second time today roughly two minutes ago, he'd chosen not to open his eyes or move a muscle in his body. His reasoning wasn't to avoid disturbing Asuna as she slept next to him with varying degrees of contact, as had often been the case until recently, or even to account for any broken bones from the experience he'd just... experienced. In spite of what he and everyone else might have assumed following what should logically have been massive trauma to his body, he was fine. No, this time, the feeling that gave him pause was distinctly in the middle of those two emotional opposites, due to what he was listening to.

Two very familiar voices, echoing over the back of his body and ears. He tuned back in again for a moment.

"...ourse he's lost, you fud! Why else would they have run into a firewall like that? Nobody wants to copy your new hairstyle sweetheart. And seeing as he doesn't look like a mangled carrot, he'll actually be in danger if we leave him out in the wild."

"I didn't say 'leave him here', did I? And I just thought they might be tops, why-else-would-they look like that but not avoid it?" The male voice sarcastically imitated some of the female's words and tone to her face, or so Kazuto guessed. "And stop pissing all over my hair, you're just jealous cause you look like you got candyfloss stuck all over your head when the candyman fired it out of his-"

He tuned back out, not understanding what the hell was going on.

More precisely, not wanting to accept what was going on.

Lisbeth and Klein, of all people, stood nearby his crumpled body, which was otherwise unharmed from a high-speed collision that knocked him out, talking in terms he didn't understand the relevance of. The context for 'firewall' and 'tops' flew right over his head; the real issue was who said them.

The more he tried not to think about what that meant, the more the events that had conspired and lead to this moment argued their case, forcing him to confront and connect the dots at sword-point. That land he'd seen in the tunnel was indeed just another part of Aincrad.

Kazuto had come full circle and fallen right back into the trap he and Asuna nearly died to release themselves from. The only hope he had left now was how he could infer from Lisbeth and Klein's slightly unusual discussion that Asuna was not present, maybe having been pushed away further down that strange tunnel, to an actual escape point. Maybe Kayaba had deigned to take Kazuto's offer, and have him remain in exchange for her freedom. But in that case, why were his two friends still here? Had everybody else but them been logged out? Were him, Lisbeth and Klein really left behind by themselves?

What point would there be in continuing if that was the case? He struggled to think of any, for a short few seconds...

No, there was no time to doubt and delay like this. He had to find out where they were and if Asuna was safe.

Then, these three musketeers would need a plan.

Kazuto settled his mind, and seized the motivation to get up-

"Good, you're awake. Are you alright? Can you still move?"

'Can you sti...' He hadn't moved an inch yet! How did she know?

As he rolled and got on his feet without using his hands, clearly busted by Lisbeth (somehow!), his opened eyes caught sight of nothing but grass, the soil underneath, and a multitude of plain green hills. The sky above was equally simplistic, pure blue with sporadic wisps of cloud, and no sun was present. He was unclear as to the floor number, but this was Aincrad for sure.

And for the final scoop of cement, there stood two of his closest castle-bound friends on his right, watching him with what looked like curious faces. They were wearing their symbolic outfits, asides two small details that Kazuto noticed immediately with his reinforced gear-analysing instinct; Lisbeth's blacksmithing white leather apron was absent, and neither of them were armed. That made for all parties present, then; he hadn't even tried opening his inventory yet. His swords had been absent since he and Asuna appeared on the ghostly platform overlooking Aincrad.

The other noticeable thing missing here was his own trenchcoat. Those familiar collar corners were absent from view, and his clothes had felt lighter and looser since he started moving... never mind, he'd look in a minute.

"Liz, Klein." Turning their way, he nodded and smiled to them, putting aside his stress over their predicament for now. "Yeah, I'm okay, just got thrown around a bit on the way here. You must have seen us flying in, right... did you see what happened to Asuna? Did she land too?" He had a whole mass of questions to ask them but for now the most important one would suffice. They could walk and talk soon.

Klein, who had raised an eyebrow as soon as their names were mentioned, stared at Lisbeth from the corner of his eyes the moment Kazuto finished, and when he looked straight to her himself, Kazuto's confusion increased over her apparently sympathetic expression too. She made a 'leave this to me' gesture to Klein with a slight flick of her left hand.

"Oh, 'Ah-soona', so you two are from the East huh? Your friend's got a real pretty name. I'll show you where to go, but I'd like to ask you some questions first too. Do you mind?"

"What?"

'What?' His brain echoed as he gazed at Lisbeth.

"That girl that was travelling with you, before you fell. I have her IP route mapped for fifty-seven thousand points from this location, but it stops at a point that I can't imagine she'll stay in for long. I can't track her once she starts moving again, so I promise I won't take much more of your time... what's your name? And when did you get ours? I didn't feel you scan me."

'...What.'

She all said this with a trustworthy smile.

"Me neither. I'm impressed, buddy." Klein tipped his head at Kazuto and winked.

"Uhhhh... are you two sure you're okay? It's me... my name's still Kirito, I haven't changed it or anything!" Some feeling resembling a cold sweat was coming onto him, maybe a sign that he was dreaming. This might make more sense in that case.

As he watched them, stupefied, Klein and Lisbeth glanced at each other briefly. The blacksmith then cast her gaze down and began patting down randomly on her skirt like she was pretending to be distracted, apparently tagged out of the conversation by Klein.

"Okay, don't worry about names. There's just one more question then we'll let you go. Do you know where you are?" He offered, trying his best to give off a trusting appearance like Lisbeth.

Kazuto, for his part, was struggling to maintain the conversation and not let his baffled mind take over. "...Thank you. We're still in Aincrad, I think." He readied himself for the reply from Klein that would confirm his guess, and let them move back to a realistic and serious conversation.

The madness didn't let up.

"Aincrad? Is that a domain name? Because this isn't-" He was interrupted by Lisbeth, who cleared her throat loudly and obviously, switching places with him again. "Listen, I'll mark the route for you now. I'm sorry we kept you waiting."

Kazuto barely responded. "Mhm." That was all he managed, mentally overclocked trying to throw the puzzle pieces together as Lisbeth raised her arm to the heavens. He missed both that and the way her face had slightly paled for no apparent reason.

'Am I talking to NPC's?' Had they been copied from his comrades and placed here to throw him for a loop? It seemed like the only explanation for the things they had said just now. If that was correct, it followed somewhat logically from his experiences so far; it would explain why they came across so human-like, as Kizmel once did, and why it appeared that they were setting up some kind of quest by so easily giving him Asuna's location, gobble-de-gook included.

In a 'Eureka!' moment of insight, he forged a link.

Everybody in SAO had been logged out for sure. This proved it. Ever since Kayaba had started raving on about Kazuto and Asuna not being able to go home, they had been inside his next game world that encompassed the entirety of the expanse outside Aincrad's walls, just as Kazuto had initially assumed his plan was back then. It looked like he had saved all the techno-babble for this second bout, such as that weird menu which had dumped him in this scenario, with NPC's wearing the bodies of his friends taken from the NerveGear scans long ago.

Lisbeth broke through his reverie. "-rito? Do you need help?"

Kazuto rebooted his brain and followed her pointed finger up to the sky... where a bright and fluctuating purely aqua tunnel, turbulent and chaotic as it would have been if it were in the ocean where it belonged, snaked over their heads from the horizon on his right and their left and swooped upwards endlessly into the clouds above. Momentarily lost in the majesty of it all, he had to admire it from an outsiders point of view. It must be the same kind of tunnel as the one that him and Asuna had fallen into, just with a singular colour this time around... 'But damn, that would've been way cooler than the boring instant teleports in SAO!'

"...Sorry, I was just daydreaming." Shaking his shoulders about, he gave Lisbeth and Klein his signature thumbs up. "Okay, ready!"

They grinned back at him.

Six seconds flew by.

"Are you going to jump then?" Lisbeth forcibly didn't let her expression change.

The boy gave her the impression that he'd been waiting for her and Klein to do something else. She ignored the sensation of Klein's continued invisible prodding.

"I have to jump?" He queried, then continued before Lisbeth could answer, apparently having caught on. "Oh, of course." Bracing himself into a springboard crouch, he started talking again while stretching in and out of the adopted position.

"Thanks for the help you two, I'll come back sooOOOAAHAAHOOOᴼᴼᴼᵒᵒᵒ–"

—+++++++—

"Soooo... do you wanna go after him?"

Klein posited to her, as Lisbeth blankly stared and frowned simultaenuously at the floating data portal where the stranger who called himself Kirito had shot headfirst into the transfer node she opened for him. It seemed he had been unaware of how to use his abilities with any level of control at all, judging by how his simple jump turned into a rather vomit-inducing looking impersonation of 'Superman'. She crossed her arms to solidfy her thought processes.

"No... he'll be fine. He's gotta be brand new, that's all."

"Yeah, that's kind of why I'm worried. But if you say so, Liz."

Lisbeth lightly slapped him around the back of the head. "Did you even bother scanning him, Klein? Didn't you notice how long it was taking me to get a read on him? If you haven't figured it out yet I'm going to be a little disappointed in you, my dearly beloved dullard."

"Why would I need to scan him? You got your own feelers in as soon as he said his name. Maybe you could tell me exactly how he scanned us without a single trigger between us, if you're suddenly such a great detective!" He fired back, also touching his spikes to ensure they were still in top condition.

Klein hadn't assigned much probability to the outcome of a sudden and strongly serious expression on the face of his companion. "What, what's that look for?"

"Klein, he was from RATH."

"...Riiiiiiiiiight. And before that you told me we shouldn't go after him? Your case is a little unarranged here."

"No, not like that... I mean he's from RATH."

Her hidden meaning struck him directly in the forehead.

Klein's entire demeanour dropped just as fast as his eyebrows burrowed into his eyes.

"You... No. You're not serious. That was a Knight? He stood there that whole time and you didn't once think to tell me!?" He waved his hands through the environment exaggeratedly. "He could've wiped us out in a few seconds, Liz! Christ! He was probably a faulty model that escaped, talking about made up domain names and going crazy when he tried to transfer!"

"Oh, so now YOU'RE the detective on the case huh? Seeing as I was the only one who bothered trying to get the facts here, how about you let me do the judging, Chief!" Stomping her foot for extra ooomph, she then recovered her posture from inflicting the verbal headbutt upon Klein. "Think about it. I told you he was clearly lost, and the fact that I even found out he was a Knight in the first place proves it. For one, there's no way in hell I'd have been able to get through his shell if he knew what he was doing."

Klein found himself moving closer instinctively and protectively on hearing how her tone changed, to one of a person who was admitting inferiority. "He didn't even realise that I was on him to do anything in the first place, and yet I only managed to figure out where he came from because I literally got nothing." She gazed up at him and smiled faintly as he rested a hand on her narrow shoulder. "So yes, you're half right for worrying, you lugnut. Thank you."

She then looked down at her feet. "But we both know what else this means."

Unfortunate memories. Ones that they both shared. Klein had to close his eyes, take his time and force them away.

"We have to take care of this." Her voice drifted up towards his ears again. "Don't tell the kids or the Rat... we won't be off the trail for long."

"Aye... So... rescue mission?"

Lisbeth's crown shook as she nodded at an angle.

"Rescue mission."

—+++++++—

ARGO, in the midst of matters of utmost importance, was rudely interrupted by a harsh impact that shook her down to the core.

Somewhere below her impromptu tower, the narrow and solitary fortress that she would only inhabit for a second or two as she sent instructions far and wide to her many eyes and ears, some idiot barreled straight into the foundation which kept her creation upright at subluminal speed. Her irritation got the better of her, and with a single iota of allocation she sent a message to the perpetrator. He'd already careened off on the way to wherever he was headed, but he was nowhere near fast enough to dodge her pinpoint reflexive targeting.

'Bonehead! I'll restart your kernel with my boot!'

Cursing them and the loss of precious time diverted to stopping the resulting breach from collasping her perch, she switched back to the higher priority conversation with two of her scouts. This particular duo were last on her list, for good reason; out of all her contacts that she now had voluminously higher stakes in protecting, Tiese and Ronye happened to be the most... unpredictable.

Strictly speaking, ARGO herself was to blame for that trait. She was the one who raised them, after all. They couldn't not have inherited such quirks.

But that in itself was the real blessing. She could never be prouder.

And so, as expected, fate had it that they were the ones who had just reported a sighting of her to ARGO in this very conversation.

She had to respond. Her two confidants were in no danger of a direct confrontation, but the fleeting nature of the target and the palpable suspense of knowing roughly how small the circle of proximity that Tiese and Ronye shared with said target forced her hand. It may come to blows if things went south, but better on her own head her than on the twins.

ARGO kept no pretense that even her own prowess could challenge Zekken now.

And if she couldn't, who could?

—+++++++—

Yuuki Asuna, a woman of middling age and high flying business exploits, was a little bit tipsy.

She was also a rapacious socialite, like many of her friends. It was their fault she was always getting into trouble like this. "Nothing to do about the alcohol!" Waving her hand around, she decreed... they were bad influences!

"It's all their fa- their fault!" She mumbled to thin air, whilst trying to raise her leg over her neighbours' back garden fence and place it on the child's playframe of a strangers' property. "I told them we should throw our phones in the bath to start with." She succeeded in slamming her platform heel down on the toughened wood, leaving her spread out in a rather undignified manner over the fence, both legs shaking as they tried to keep their balance on the playframe and the roof of her friends' shed.

She slackenly rested her palms on the crest of the fence, with her fingers pointing down the sides to the ground. "Now he's got me out h- doing gymnastics at 2am, I better not tear this dress Kazuto you f-"

"Asuna, psssst!"

She shrieked and jerked due to the sudden whispering nearby, her heel snapped off and pinged around down the slide, her leg with the broken shoe slipped back to her centre of gravity and slammed into the wooden barricade, and she promptly fell sideways into the garden, blacking out immediately upon impact.

...

Kazuto hastily laid his unconscious and heavily inebriated wife's figure down onto the rear seats as gently as he could, eyed both ends of the street for movement as he shut the car door fully, quietly as possible, then jumped into the drivers' seat and pulled away onto the suburban roads.

Eleven minutes ago, at 02:33, he'd recieved a text from an unknown and significantly out of place number.

Henceforth, he had to abduct his wife from her night out in a manner that avoided access via the front of the house, where observers were most likely to position first.

Their employer had a bit of a mishap on their agenda, and the Kirigaya's were subsequently in the firing line. Literally, if some of the scenarios playing out in his head came true. If the sender of the text wasn't lying...

They were on the loose. And if anyone suspected that they had come into contact with himself or Asuna, he and his beloved would disappear.

She gurgled drunkenly in the back as he took his eyes off the road to see if she was still comfortable.

Not that he had to time to stop and do anything about it if she had not been. 'No communications, nobody but us.' They had to go dark before someone else did it for them.

That little shack outside Magome should do it for now. A solid five hours, he'd have to add time on to avoid the monitored toll zones... somehow.

'God, she's gonna kill me when she wakes up.'


poor kirito. he hit his face and body off of a lot of stuff today. and then asuna started copying him, can i get two F's in the chat (author salutes and fires rifle)

oh and ARGO likes name dropping inbetween the daft punk poetry now too. who knew

i have a confession to make... i managed to read the very last part of the alicization arc today (13th of June). oh my god it's awesome and crazy. and oh my god it's way too similar to the story i was planning on telling. i thought i was being original D: so i may take a short break from this and focus on one-shots in the works until i feel creative enough to dodge around the similarities.

it got real awkward - but i'm gonna carry on anyway. eventually (mashes the F button again)

thanks for reading :)