I let Shino off at her apartment before driving home myself. I heard an ambulance's sirens and looked around, but fortunately it was on the other side of the road so I didn't have to do anything special. Probably just somebody getting a little too worked up about the fact that it was Friday. Once I was home, I made myself a big second dinner - there really should be a term for that. Dark dinner? - to refuel from the fight. My body was a little sore now, but I knew I'd heal with a good night's sleep. Probably have a few aches tomorrow, but hey, that's life.

After finishing that off, I pulled off the Augma and put on the AmuSphere and logged into ALO. When I opened my eyes again, I was in the house I shared with Argo, just a simple apartment in Yggdrasil City. I yawned and stretched, trying to get the satisfying crack sound that came when my joints popped, but alas this was Alfheim and as such I couldn't really get it to crack. A few seconds later Din poked his head out of my jacket pocket and took flight. "You were great out there, Dad," he said with a grin as he landed on my shoulder.

I chuckled. "You're my kid, I think you're a little biased."

"Maybe, but from what he's shown me you did a good job."

My smile brightened as I turned to see Argo leaning against the doorframe, a grin on her whiskered face. "You were already on?"

She accepted my hug easily, nuzzling into my chest. "Not for long. I checked out some of Din's recording. Klein did a pretty good job, though Kirito was..."

"...Not great," I sighed. "Guy really needs to get in shape." Argo snickered before pulling away, and I gently cupped a hand around her cheek. My thumb brushed along her whiskers, and she leaned into the touch. "Sorry I couldn't take you."

"I understand," she said, "and I'm not mad. I wish I could have been there with you, but I'm glad you had fun."

We stood there, just basking in each other's company. I was about to open my mouth when Din spoke up. "Ah! Yui just let me know that Uncle Kirito got home and is gonna log on soon, so we should hurry to the log cabin." He blinked when both Argo and I chuckled. "What? Did I interrupt something? You two were just standing there, so..."

"He really is your kid, Ry," Argo snickered. I frowned at her. "Hey, hey, you know you agree with me."

"That's why I'm frowning," I sighed. "C'mon, let's get moving, I don't want to keep everyone waiting."

Argo's eyes brightened as we headed out onto the veranda and summoned our wings, launching into the air. "Ooh, tell me about what happened after Kirito fell on his face, I didn't get past that part."

"Well, after he got to his feet he ran towards us..."


"...and Yuna kissed Asuna on the cheek as a reward," I said as the two of us plus Din landed lightly in front of Asuna and Kirito's house. The house was already lit up, light spilling into the night from the windows. "You should have seen Kirito's face."

"I recorded it," Din announced proudly.

"Thatta boy," Argo and I said simultaneously before grinning at each other. We did that on occasion, and it never failed to get weird looks from Kirito or the girls. Whenever someone asked how we did that, I just shrugged. Argo, on the other hand, always said it was because we loved each other so much.

I mean, she's not wrong, but I'm not certain that's the cause of our synchronicity. Maybe.

We walked up to the front door and let ourselves in before making our way to the living room. Argo and I were the last ones to arrive, which was kinda my fault. "Hey, guys," I said, waving. A chorus of voices came back in response; Leafa, Silica, and Liz were sitting on one couch, and Klein and Sinon were on opposite ends of the other, the center spot open. Agil stood with his arms folded beside Sinon, so the spot was open for me and Argo. Kirito was in his typical rocking chair at the head of the table, and Asuna was standing beside her. Everyone was wearing their casual clothing, me and Argo included. Comfortable gowns for the ladies, and simple tunics for me and Agil. Klein wore a yukata, fitting with his samurai image, and Kirito wore the simple black clothes that Asuna had made for him.

I sank down into the open spot between Sinon and Klein, and Argo happily hopped on my lap. It was a good thing her stat build was entirely designed around lowering weight as much as possible, or this might start to get uncomfortable. "Comfortable?" I asked her drily.

"Yep," she chirped, not at all apologetic. I just sighed and shook my head with a smile as the girls on the other couch giggled. The cake in the center of the table had been sliced up and Argo snagged a piece for herself. I declined - I don't like cake - but I did accept a cup of tea from our wonderful Undine hostess and take a sip.

Placing the cup on the table before wrapping my arms around my girlfriend's waist and holding her against me, I asked the group at large, "What were you talking about when Argo and I arrived?"

"How the boss moved the same as from SAO," Silica replied. One of her hands was stroking Pina, who was asleep on her lap.

Klein grinned. "Yeah, wish I could say the same. After all that runnin' around, my whole body's sore," he said, rolling his shoulder. I shifted to the side to give him a little more room, brushing against Sinon's bare shoulder for a second.

"Can't believe you guys took it down so quick," Agil said. His tunic and vest were brown and grey, as expected from the Gnome race.

"For one thing, Asuna, Rythin and I fought it before," Kirito said. "...Ehh, but still, it wasn't easy. You could tell the other players weren't used to working together as a team."

I rolled my eyes. "You didn't do anything except fall on your face. The only teamwork here was me, Asuna, and Sinon with Klein and his guild."

Asuna giggled. "By the end of it, Kirito here was exhausted."

"That's only because I'm not used to fighting in AR," Kirito grumbled. Asuna tilted her head innocently. "Oh, and you'll never guess who showed up to cheer us on. You know that girl Yuna?" he asked Agil. "She gave us a -"

"HUH?!" Silica and Leafa exclaimed simultaneously. I flinched in surprise.

"Yuna was at the boss fight with you?!" Leafa asked, jumping to her feet.

Silica jumped up as well, carefully setting Pina down on the couch cushion. The poor dragon let out a cry of confusion. "For real?!"

The two of them ran around the table and started shaking Kirito, one on each shoulder. Their eyes were wide and their cheeks were a little flushed, and I think they might have been breathing heavily. "What's she like?" they both asked.

"Girl crush," Argo snickered. I felt her tail tip twitch in amusement and glanced down to see it tangled up in mine, the two twining around each other. One dark brown, the other closer to a warm honey.

I tapped her on the head, making her cat ears twitch. "Be nice, Argo. Even if they do have the world's most obvious girl crush."


"Well, it was pretty cool seein' her live," Klein said, folding his arms. "But like a dumbass, I forgot to put my name down for one of those tickets..." The samurai Salamander hung his head, sighing.

"Yeah, Argo snagged us a pair, but it was hard to get," I said. "They sold out almost immediately."

"Too bad you missed out, man," Agil rumbled. His large, muscular appearance was at odds with the gentle way he held the teacup in his hands. "When they were doing those Ordinal Scale signups, I scored myself a pair."

"Yeah, I got a pair too," Sinon offered absently.

A beat.

"You got two?!" Klein and Leafa exclaimed, both of them staring at Agil and Sinon respectively.

Klein immediately abandoned all pretense of honor or self-esteem and started tugging on Agil's arm, begging and whimpering pitifully. "Alright, alright," the Gnome said, "get off! Stop begging, I'll let you have one."

While Klein celebrated, Leafa was staring daggers at Sinon, murmuring staaaaaaare under her breath. "Yes, Leafa, I'll give you a ticket," the blue-haired Cait Sith said with a smile. Leafa squealed in excitement.

"Yay!" "Thanks, man!" Leafa and Klein shouted respectively, giving their wonderful ticket donors a huge hug. Sinon took the hug a bit better than Agil did, but I think that might be because Klein was actually sobbing into Agil's chest.

Leafa's face dropped and the excitement melted away. "Aw..." she muttered. "I just remembered I have kendo boot camp next week..."

She grumbled in disappointment and Sinon patted the Sylph's shoulder sympathetically while the rest of us grinned. Meanwhile, Agil was still trying to get Klein to let go of him.

It took a little bit of time for everyone to calm down and get back to their seat, but Klein finally got pried off of Agil, and Silica and Leafa calmed down from the news that their newest idol had visited the battlefield. "Is anyone else as weirded out by this as I am?" Silica asked as she fed Pina a small peanut. The little dragon ate it and -

"Oh my god Pina purrs," I breathed in amazement. Argo glanced back at me, and then snickered. "That is adorable." I deny categorically that I squealed that last statement, no matter how much Sinon's ears flicked in my direction. The small smiles on both Cait Sith's faces were also lies.

"I mean," Silica continued, unaware of the massive revelation that just rocked the foundation of my entire worldview, "what's up with an old SAO boss showing up in an Ordinal Scale battle?"

"If it were a tie-in between games, wouldn't we have heard?" Liz asked us.

I hadn't heard anything, and neither had Din, despite my son's info-gathering abilities and my incessant checking for any updates related to Alfheim. "Mm-hmm," Asuna nodded. "But I don't think that's what's going on. Argus, the company that used to run SAO, was shut down a while ago."

"Kinda hard to stay afloat when your biggest game turns out to be a trap for ten thousand players," I noted drily.

"Well, what about the other players at the event?" Leafa asked. "Did they know the boss was from SAO too?"

Asuna hummed. "...No, I don't think so," she said, tapping her chin thoughtfully with a slender finger. "Nobody knew the boss patterns except for us, and maybe one or two others."

I leaned forward. "I can confirm that a lot of rookie mistakes were made," I said. "Anyone that had fought the boss before would have expected the snake whip, but it still wiped out almost everybody fighting from afar. They had no idea it was coming." Leafa mouthed the words 'snake whip' under her breath, blinking in surprise.

"Yeah," Kirito agreed. "Most of them never saw it before. Thing is, if old bosses from SAO keep showing up, it's only a matter of time before folks start catching on. And thing is, those fights are where all the points are."

I grinned. "Hey, we could look at it this way. Now all of us are the beaters." I chuckled, even though Kirito and Asuna just sighed. Argo squirmed and swatted my ribs, frowning at me in good humor. "What's wrong, catling, disappointed your advantage is dwindling?"

"Bleh," she stuck her cute tongue out at me.

"Sounds like someone's trying to bring old Aincrad to the real world," Agil rumbled, arms folded. "Damn."

"So what?" Sinon asked airily. "The Augma's nothing like the NerveGear, so no one's gonna die. It's safe."

That's a good point. "Anyway," Kirito said, "Yui? See if anything's fishy."

"Okay, Daddy!" Yui pumped her fist. "Din, will you help me?" My son shrugged lethargically. "Thanks, I knew I could count on you." These two children are adorable and they tug at my heart every time they interact.

Silica raised her hand cheerfully. "Heck, if I can hang out with Yuna, I'll totally go to a battle!"

"Me too!" Leafa raised her hand to volunteer as well.

Pina let out a cry of agreement, wings flapping for a second. "And next time he'll give me a ride on his bike," Silica muttered lowly. Beside me, Sinon's ears twitched as she glanced at the younger Cait Sith. Aw, what, my bike's a deathtrap but it's fine if you get to ride with your crush? I'm almost a little hurt.

"I wish these events would happen at better times," Liz said as Leafa and Silica lowered their hands. "And at places that are easier to get to."

"That's what us guys in Fuurinkaazan are for," Klein bragged, gesturing at himself with his thumb. "Any of you ladies need a ride, just pick up a phone and we'll pick you up."

Liz grinned weakly. "Yeah, that's what worries us, Klein." Klein's face drooped, and Silica nodded in agreement. Beside me, Sinon let out a quiet giggle.

Argo snickered. "Better work on your pick-up lines, Klein. I don't think they're working on anything female with a pulse."

"He did get Skuld's number," I pointed out mildly.

"I said with a pulse."

"Eh, true."

"Wha... You all suck," Klein muttered as the others laughed. The light-hearted teasing wasn't anything new, and if he ever gave the sign it bothered him I knew we'd all stop immediately. "Ugh..." He hung his head - and as if to add insult to injury, Pina flew over and settled on his head with a cry.

The conversation topics drifted to different things over the course of the evening. It was just the general conversations, honestly. As we talked, I realized abruptly that Sinon hadn't stopped touching my shoulder and was actually gently resting against me. I didn't mind, but I wondered if she'd prefer to be resting against Kirito or something... Argo shifted in my lap and slid to the side, curling up on the couch against me. Cait Sith cuddle pile?

I glanced over my shoulder when I felt something twitch against my tail. A pale blue tail had joined the tangle, lightly resting on top of mine. Yeah, Cait Sith cuddle pile.

Eventually, people started logging off, citing school, exhaustion, or just something else that they needed to do. I actually squawked a little bit when Sinon disappeared, throwing off my center of balance; I hadn't heard her say she was leaving. Trying to maintain what was left of my dignity - not that I had much left, after going along with the girls' little dress-up schemes - I coughed once. "It's getting late, Asuna, Kirito," I said to them. "I think I'm gonna head out. Mind if I just..."

Asuna smiled. "Of course. We'll watch your body until it disappears."

"Thanks, you're the best." Swiping open my menu, I tapped the log-out button...

...and pulled the AmuSphere off of my head. Hmm, it's almost midnight... Yeah, I'm probably just going to go to sleep. I sent Kana a quick message saying good night; my phone chimed with the reply while I was going through my nightly routine like brushing my teeth. After reading over her reply - just a simple 'Night :3' - I made sure all of my electronics were charging before heading to bed. My cat jumped up and I spent a few minutes fawning over him until he curled up against me, his purring a comforting rumble at my side.

Ugh... Extra-hard exercise, combined with the boss fight in Ordinal Scale... Yeah, I'm gonna be sore tomorrow.

I grunted as I killed the bike's engine and slowly swung my left leg over the bike. Yep. Definitely sore.

As I approached the Kirigaya household, the front door opened abruptly and Sugu stepped out, dressed in her school uniform. A red coat and skirt, with a white shirt and blue neck ribbon. "Nick!" she said, smiling after closing the door. "Hi! Sorry I can't stay, the bus for the camp is leaving soon." She was carrying a large duffel bag on her shoulder.

I gestured at my bike, parked on the road by their house. "I can give you a ride, if you want," I offered, but Sugu shook her head. "Unless you want to run there."

"Yeah. Thanks for the offer, though." She dropped the bag by her side and gave me a quick hug. "I'll see you in a week, okay?"

"Later," I said, trying not to wince when her tight hug nudged at a few of the sore spots. "Have fun at camp, Sugu."

"I will!" With a cheery wave, Sugu started jogging, running down the path and to the right. I was tempted to follow her but shook my head.

She'd been kind enough to allow me to have access to the dojo for training purposes, even when she wasn't there. In exchange, then, I was going to see if I couldn't whip that brother of ours into shape. Or, a reasonable facsimile thereof. Rolling my shoulders, I pushed open the door and made my way inside, taking my shoes off by the door. A quick glance in the living room showed me that Kazuto wasn't watching TV on the couch, which meant that by process of elimination he was upstairs in his room, either on the computer or in FullDive.

I mean, I only checked one place, but that still counts as process of elimination.

Sure enough, when I poked my head into his room, I saw him sitting at his desk. A mug of coffee was sitting next to his keyboard, in perfect picking up and sipping absently position. His monitors were lit up, and he was staring intently at the screens; he was wearing his silver headphones, so he didn't hear me coming. "Toto Institute of Technology," I said absently, reading over his shoulder.

Kazuto jerked in surprise, nearly toppling from his chair. "Wha- Oh, it's you, Nick," he said, tapping the side of his headphones. "I didn't hear you come in. When did you get here?"

"A few minutes ago," I said. "Just in time to say goodbye to Sugu before she left. Looking up colleges? I thought you were interested in that one overseas... What was it, again?"

"WIT, in Cambridge," he said, wiggling his mouse. I realized he had another tab open, sitting on the visitor page.

"So what were you doing looking up Toto?"

He shrugged. "Just looking. Since everyone's into the Augma these days... Turns out the guy who invented it is a professor at the institute and is giving lectures on it."

I nodded. "Huh. Neat." Taking a seat on his bed, I kicked back and relaxed, studying Kazuto. He wasn't even dressed, really. I mean, he was wearing clothes - fortunately, since despite how close we are I don't think we're that close - but they were sloppy, lay-around-the-house kind of clothes. Shorts and a baggy hoodie, kinda. "Gonna get dressed sometime today?"

"Now you sound like Sugu," he muttered.

"Girl knows what she's talking about. Better fashion sense than the two of us put together," I shrugged. "Anyway, c'mon, you can do your research later. We're heading to the dojo."

He blinked, turning to look at me. "We? What are you talking about?"

I grinned. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe the way you were wheezing for breath after a minute of exercise yesterday. You haven't been keeping up with your fitness, have you?" The question was light and innocent, but we both knew I already knew the answer. "So as a favor to Sugu, for letting me use the dojo to practice, I'm gonna at least try to get you to get some exercise."

Kazuto complained, but I just raised an eyebrow and stood up, tapping my heel on the floor. We both knew that I wasn't going to give up until I got him into the dojo, and eventually Kazuto sighed. "Alright, fine, you win..."

When we got down to the dojo, I placed a few bottles of water and towels off to the side. "Start stretching," I ordered Kazuto. "Then, after you're warmed up, go grab a shinai."

"Sure, sure," Kazuto said as he started to go through the motions. At least he remembered them - though I think I have Sugu and Asuna to thank for that, since the latter always insisted that we stretch before any physical exertion, even in Alfheim. I was almost worried I'd have to run him through everything. Meanwhile, I dropped and went through my usual warm-up exercises.

By the time I was finished, sweating a little from the exertion, Kazuto had finished stretching and was holding his shinai. I grinned, rolling my shoulders. "Alright, then," I said. "Your job is pretty simple. Hit me. Your targets are my head and torso, no back. Arms and legs don't count if I'm blocking."

Kazuto hesitated. "Wait, but you don't -"

"I spar with Sugu bare-handed all the time," I said easily. "You won't hit me. Besides, I need to work on mobility and blocking, so what better way?"

"If you say so," Kazuto said dubiously. I pulled on my Augma and set up a quick ten-minute timer, before starting up another of Yuna's songs to play along. I turned back to Kazuto with a grin, and gestured for him to start.


By the time the ten-minute alarm went off, I was frowning. "That was pathetic," I said bluntly. Kazuto had all but collapsed after a few minutes, and even before that his swings were slow, easy to predict, and worst of all, weak. "No wonder you can't fight the boss in Ordinal Scale."

Kazuto just mumbled something from where he was sitting against the wall. After a second, he gulped some water and tried again. "It's been a while since I've held a sword," he said.

I rolled my eyes. "It shows," I said. All things considered, his form wasn't bad. It was just that he needed to get back into shape, which probably wouldn't take too long. His body still remembered the moves. "Well, I've done what I can for today, you're exhausted and anything after this just won't help. Just... go eat something, okay?"

"Sure," Kazuto said, grinning at me weakly before making his way out of the dojo. Seriously, I was taking it easy and he still didn't get a hit... This wasn't enough of a workout, so I figure I'll just get some more exercise in.

I turned up the music and started up the first phase of Target Practice, immediately falling into the pleasant half-daze while fighting. The first few stages weren't all that challenging, so I didn't have to focus too hard. I honestly wish I didn't have to do my exercising early, since it tends to eat up daylight and leave me tired for an hour or two after I finish. Unfortunately, because Ordinal Scale's boss fights started right on the dot at nine, it fell squarely on the time frame I normally used to exercise. And, since I had free time thanks to graduating, I might as well put it to good use.

After fifteen more minutes of fighting practice, my muscles were finally burning too much for me to keep my hands up. I sighed in irritation; I could go all-out for about five minutes in a row, but after that I was just burned out entirely. I was trying my best to work on my stamina, but it was still slow going. Taking a gulp of water from the water bottle, I wiped off the sweat from the last fifteen minutes and headed inside. I went to see if Kazuto was still playing on the computer so I could say goodbye, but when I poked my head in the door he was lying on the bed, his AmuSphere over his eyes. Well, I could disturb him, but I didn't really want to.

I went home and took a quick shower before getting dressed again, heading out on foot this time. The other reason I was getting my exercise in early was pretty simple; Kana and I were heading out again today, to just wander town.

When I reached the meeting spot, Kana was already waiting, idly inspecting her nails as she leaned against a nearby wall. I stopped a little bit away to just stop and appreciate my girlfriend; she was wearing the hoodie I'd purchased for her Christmas gift, and I realized without noticing that I'd started smiling at the sight. Like usual, she eschewed skirts or a dress in favor of simple jeans that looked really good on her - Kana always wore pants or shorts when dressed casually, claiming that they actually had pockets. The hoodie was unzipped to display her top, a simple brown blouse that showed off a little of her shoulders.

After a second of me totally not staring at her, I shook myself and pushed through the crowd. "Hey, catling," I said as I approached.

Kana looked over, tapping the Augma on the side of her head, and grinned. "Hey," she said with a grin. "About time you got here, I was getting tired of waiting."

"Sorry, sorry," I laughed. "I kinda lost track of time while I was training."

"How was the kid?" Kana asked, lacing her fingers with mine as we started walking. There wasn't any general plan, we were just wandering around town today to see if anything caught our interest.

I sighed, waving my free hand expressively. "I've seen him at worse, but that was when we all just woke up from a two-year coma."

Kana winced. "Yikes."

"Yeah, it... wasn't great." I sighed. Knowing Kazuto, he probably wouldn't take it seriously unless he had a pressing reason to get in shape, and there just wasn't anything I could see that would cause it. Maybe if Asuna asked? I'll have to give my sister a call later, see if she's willing to light a fire under Kazuto's ass.

Our conversation topics drifted idly, just the two of us talking to each other. The important part wasn't what we talked about, after all; it was who we were talking to. We'd both graduated, so these little walks around town had become a nice routine for us. We didn't go out every day - there was virtue to spending some time apart, of course - but more often than not we set two or three hours aside for three or four days a week to be together.

We stopped by that used bookstore that we stumbled on yesterday; Kana mentioned that she wanted to pick up something that she'd seen but didn't purchase. While I watched her browse through the shelves, running her fingers along the spines and occasionally pulling one out, I realized just how lucky I was, to have her. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me."

"Eh?" Kana glanced at me in surprise. "I'm what now?"

I blinked. "Did I say that out loud?" Kana nodded, cheeks a little red. "Oh, sorry. I was just watching you, and it kinda just came out."

For some reason, Kana blushed even harder, her entire face going red as she ducked her head. "...Thanks," she muttered. "I feel the same."

Why is she so embarrassed all of a sudden? I just said something normal.

After purchasing the book, Kana tucked it away in her purse and the two of us resumed our stroll through town. "Alfheim's getting kinda empty," my girlfriend said after glancing at her phone. "Din just let me know, the event got canceled just now because there weren't enough players online."

I sighed. "First delayed, and now canceled? Well... I hope the slump is temporary, I like Alfheim."

What I didn't say was simple. Alfheim was where Kana and I were married, not just boyfriend and girlfriend. It was where we had a house, and a family with Din. The Augma might be able to display Din, but we couldn't hug him like we could in virtual reality. Alfheim - and its predecessor, Aincrad - was where I'd met Kana, where I'd met all of my family bar Shino, and even then I'd met Shino through virtual reality. Even if I had everyone in the real world, it felt like I would lose part of my life if Alfheim shut down. It was one of my worlds. We spent two years in Aincrad, after all, and we all played Alfheim together every day...

Well, I suppose we'll find out eventually what will happen. Meanwhile, I'm kinda just glad that I'm able to walk around in public today without Kana deciding it was time for me to crossdress again.

At 20:30, my phone chimed with an incoming message notification. Reaching over, I grabbed it and tapped the screen. A pair of messages, actually; one from Din, and one from Klein. Humming a tuneless song, I opened the message from Klein on top. 'Hey, Rythin! The boss raid is near Asuna's house. You coming? Here's the details.'

Well, now I'm pretty sure I know what the message from Din says. Pushing my chair back, I checked out the message Din sent me. Sure enough, he was letting me know that the location of Ordinal Scale's next boss fight had been released. Both of them had included location coordinates with the message, and I clicked on Din's, since it was already open on screen. The location popped up - oh hey, that really is close to Asuna's house - along with the directions for how to walk, drive, or take a bus to get there, and the estimated times for each.

As soon as I saw the duration of driving, I grimaced. Setting my phone on my desk, I called Kana and turned on speakerphone while getting dressed. It rang a few times, before connecting with a click. "Hey, Nick," Kana said. "I got the message too."

"What're we gonna do?" I asked her, changing out of my sweatpants and into real jeans. "There's no way I can drive and pick you up in time, and it's too far away for you to get there if you walk." Unfortunately, Kana lived in almost the opposite direction; even if she walked towards me while I drove and I picked her up along the way before turning around, and even if I broke the speed limit there and back, there was no way we'd make it to the boss fight before 21:30 at the latest.

If Kana asked, I'd still try, of course. I'd do anything she asked without question. But doing the math, it was all but literally pointless to try to get both of us to the fight.

Judging by the silence on Kana's end, she was doing the math in her head too. Eventually, I heard a sigh through the speakers. "Go ahead," she said. "I can tell you want to fight, and I'm not going to be the one to stop you from having some fun. Just be careful, okay?"

I guess I was feeling a little antsy ever since the total letdown of a fight with Kazuto. I hadn't even realized it, but Kana did. Amazing. "If you're sure," I said slowly.

I heard her giggle. "Of course I'm sure, silly," Kana said, and I smiled even though she couldn't see it. "Tell me how the fight goes tomorrow?"

"Sure thing," I said. "Double date with Asuna and Kazuto, right?"

"It's been a while since we've been on one of those," my girlfriend said. "It should be fun."

I laughed, doing my routine pocket check to make sure I had everything. Wallet, keys, pho- I had a momentary heart attack when my hand didn't feel my phone in my pocket before I remembered that I was talking to Kana through the phone. "Okay, beautiful," I said. "If I want to make it in time, I gotta go. Love you."

"Love you too," Kana replied as I picked up the phone. Ending the call, I tucked it away safely in my pocket and grabbed my jacket.

The drive was quick enough, but I had the beginning of an idea that I focused on while driving. Turning it over in my head, I parked my bike and made a decision. "Hey, Din," I said, tapping the side of my Augma.

Din appeared in a brief flicker of light, landing lightly on my shoulder. "Yeah, Dad?"

"Sorry, did I drag you away from playing with Yui?" I smirked lightly at Din's tiny wail of complaint. They were cute together, I wouldn't mind~. "It's nothing major, but I wanted to see if you could look into any sort of pattern in the appearance of the SAO bosses. Maybe if you can find a pattern, we can predict where the next one will show up and get there ahead of time."

Din blinked and grinned. "So Mom can join in on the boss fights!" he said.

See, I knew he was my son. He got what I was going for almost immediately. "Yep," I said. "Thanks, kid." With a jaunty salute, Din lifted off and flew around my head a few times before disappearing. With a quiet chuckle I shook my head. That was one of his favorite tricks...

"Ah, Nick! You're coming too?" I smiled and turned to see Asuna approaching me at a quick jog, a purse slung over her shoulder. I adjusted my step to let her catch up, and then fell in line with her, abusing my longer legs to keep pace with her at a fast walk in my usual position.

I glanced her way. She was wearing something casual but still cute; her long hair brushed against my arm briefly as we walked side by side, and I realized it was damp for some reason. Weird. The two of us made our way to the entrance to Yoyogi Park, where I saw five men waiting - Klein and Fuurinkaazan. Klein turned around and waved as the two of us approached them. "Hey, Asuna, Rythin," he called out. "Right on time. Thanks for comin' out tonight," he said. "Hope that text didn't wake you up."

I shrugged. "I normally don't crash until midnight. This is like... dark dinner time, normally." Everyone blinked at me, and I stared back, stone-faced. Okay, note to self: dark dinner is a no-go. Maybe something else, combining dinner and lunch? Since it's kinda like a second meal... Dinner's lunch? A little too long, I think.

Asuna giggled. "Oh no, I wasn't in bed yet. You caught me taking a bath."

She said that so casually, and yet every single one of the guys in front of me blushed, letting out a little sigh as they shifted. Uh huh. Yeah. I know exactly what they're thinking about. I cleared my throat as Asuna laughed uneasily, stepping back. "You're missing someone," I said to them. I think his name... Uh, he was the two-handed guy.

"Oh yeah," Klein said. "We sent him a message, but he hasn't called back yet. How about you two go on ahead, and we'll jump in once he gets here?"

"Okay," Asuna said, before folding her arms behind her back impishly. "But you better hurry," she teased the men. "Otherwise, Nick and I are gonna scoop up all your points for ourselves. Isn't that right?"

I just grinned smugly at Klein and Fuurinkaazan, baring my teeth a little bit. So I get competitive about rank, so sue me. It's not like I'm trying to be number one or anything. "H-Hey," Klein protested. "Let's not get greedy."

The rest of his guild laughed while Asuna giggled sweetly. "See you in there," she said with a wave. I nodded politely to them and followed her inside, keeping close to my sister.

"Okay..." Klein said as we left. Maybe he was worried we'd actually steal all the points, like Asuna suggested.

Well, he'd better get in here fast, or I will.


"Ordinal Scale, activate."

Clad in our Ordinal Scale outfits, Asuna and I walked up into the clearing. Players had already arrived, gathering in small groups to talk amongst each other. I saw a few people standing alone, but by and large the boss fights in this game required some small amount of coordination, so even us unsociable nerds were making an effort to put ourselves out there. ...Though it probably helped that Ordinal Scale was an AR game and thus even the non-nerd population was playing. Kinda like a phone game in that aspect, I guess.

The stylized statue that held an old-fashioned analog clock was sitting in the center of the park, and I looked up at it. The minute hand clicked to pointing straight at the 12, and the world underwent a transformation again.

Time to rock and roll. Let's be about it.

As the ripple of alternate reality washed over us, Asuna raised her fist, and I knocked mine against it. The battlefield this time was different from the one earlier, even knowing that alternate reality was based on the real world. It was like we'd been transported to a complete separate world from the one we'd fought in yesterday. This one was more like the ruins of a great Victorian-era city; stone pillars that had crumbled, a fence that was shattered and bent, and rubble on the ground. The clock statue had been replaced with a shattered statue of... something that didn't look quite human.

With a crackle of lighting a red circle appeared on the nearby bridge, and we all turned to face it. A creature emerged from the circle; a large, four-legged beast with two large wings. My eyes narrowed as I took in the wicked-looking beak on the eagle-like head and the matching claws. I recognized this one, too. The Storm Gryphon, boss of Floor 11. "It wasn't a fluke, huh..." Asuna murmured.

"Doesn't look that way," I said. "Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence." And I don't believe in coincidences.

Another of the drones flew off to the side, hovering over a crumbled building that coincidentally had a segment free and clear of any stone fragments. "Is everyone ready?" The excited voice echoed out as purple light streamed down, Yuna appearing in a crouch. She smiled at the crowd of players to their adoring cries of happiness. Her little flying helper friend sprinkled more pixie dust on us, giving us a buff to - ooh, defense up, nice. That'll help, actually. "It's time to battle, so... start the music!"

Ten minutes. As the music started, the timer hovering in the air started counting down, and the boss moved. It screeched, spreading open its wings and flapping then once. The strong winds buffeted us as it swooped off of the bridge and charged the players that were rushing to fight it.

They let out a roar as the boss dipped low, swinging their weapons in the air. The idiots, of course, had no idea that was one of the biggest mistakes to make while fighting this boss. See, the wings of the boss were considered one of its major weapons - even if the feathers themselves were soft and vulnerable, the bony edge was as hard as steel. With a screech, The Storm Gryphon smashed through players, knocking the back and outright killing a few of the unluckier ones.

I stepped to the side, just enough to let it pass by me. My arm twitched, but I didn't strike just yet. I wanted to take the time to remember the boss's movement before I got its attention. I miss Future Step - I had to guess how close to stand, instead of just knowing. This sucks.

Asuna stepped back, feet dancing across the smooth stone ground, and I grinned at her. The Lightning Flash is here and ready to fight, I see. Asuna grinned back fiercely before adjusting the tilt of her rapier. "Three swoops," I said. The memories were starting to come back. "Then it lands briefly for a little bit. Rinse and repeat."

There was something else, but I couldn't remember right away. It'd been four years since we fought it, after all, and there had been sixty-five other bosses along the way. Either way, I put the matter on the backburner and clenched my fist around my dagger.

For the remainder of the first set of attacks, I kept my distance, watching the boss. It felt like seeing something that I only barely remembered, like I was groping in the dark for a light switch that I knew was there. The movements felt familiar, and little by little the memories felt more natural, my mind chaining them together. After the gryphon ran around on the ground, I gripped my dagger and spun it, grinning fiercely. "Ready to fight," I said. Beside me, Asuna nodded and shifted her rapier, the metal clinking. The Storm Gryphon swooped again, and Asuna and I moved in.

The second swoop was a little bit more expected than the first round. As it wheeled in the sky for its second pass, a few players remembered to dodge out of the way of its wings. Unfortunately, they made the mistake of running towards it. I guess they were aiming for its soft underbelly or something? Which wasn't a bad idea in a vacuum. The only problem with that...

The boss's talons flashed as it descended on top of the fighters, cleaving huge slashes through their chest and back. As they reeled, the Storm Gryphon crashed lower than before, startling me and Asuna. She lunged out of the way, sliding to a halt safely. My heart pounded and it felt like time slowed down as the boss rushed towards me. Too close to dodge to the side...

I gritted my teeth and hit the ground, falling backwards carefully. As my back struck the stone I thrust my arm up, dagger stabbing into the boss's chest, before ripping it to the side.

It screeched and flapped its massive wings, blasting me with wind, before pulling out of the dive and flying higher again. Grr... I rolled my right shoulder, the one I'd landed most heavily on, as I pushed myself to my feet. "This sucks," I grunted. "I miss Acrobatics." Used to be, I could just jump over the stupid boss and avoid all of its danger areas. At least its claw attack had a period of time before it could strike again, which was the only reason I risked going directly under it. Rrr, I miss Future Step even more!

...Hey, looks like the moves are coming back to me without even recognizing it. I'd just known it was safe to rush under it then. Neat.

Moving over to Asuna, I grinned at her. "I see it's coming back," she said. "Do you remember anything else?"

"Uh, there's one more thing, I think..." It was still hazy, but I knew there was something else. And it was bad, too... "Warn me when it's coming around again, okay?" After Asuna nodded, I closed my eyes and focused, fingers twitching.

Flicking through the memories of the eleventh Floor was harder than I expected. It'd been four years, and even though I had a good memory, pulling these things up under pressure was a bit... "Rythin, it's coming," Asuna said, resting a hand on my upper arm. I opened my eyes and nodded, refocusing on the fight. "Did you..."

"I think - shit shit shit move!" I yelped, grabbing Asuna's hand and spinning with her. The momentum twisted her out of the way just in time as The Storm Gryphon whipped by. Asuna was uninjured, but the trailing wingtip snagged my cheek. The impact wasn't much but it still drained a quarter of my health away, stinging like mad. Beast, I am going to kill you for that!

This time, the boss didn't immediately pull out of its dive. Instead, it flapped its wings a few times to brake in midair and settled down on the ground. Letting out a screech, its scaled tail lashed and its red eyes gleamed. "Stance two," I murmured, already moving in. Asuna was right beside me, carrying her rapier and laughing cheerfully. Our blades carved lines through The Storm Gryphon's sides, scoring the beast in red. I took particularly cruel pleasure from a nasty slash downwards that severed one of the gryphon's hind talons.

"Get clear!" someone shouted, and I jumped back out of habit. As soon as all of the melee fighters were out of range of the boss, gunfire erupted and pelted the boss with bullets. None of them had the sheer knockback power of Sinon's awesome sniper rifle, but with eleven or twelve fighters laying into it, even the weak concentrated fire of the machineguns riddled the boss with bullet holes. Screeching, The Storm Gryphon rushed towards them, claws - minus the talon I chopped off - gouging into the stone.

I glanced over to the side when I realized that the background music had ended. Yuna's song was finished? ...And there were players just standing there listening to her. Help us fight you morons! They weren't even dead, they just ignored the fight entirely to listen to Yuna's singing.

Bluh. I let out a quiet huff and checked the remaining time. Out of the ten minutes, we'd already been fighting... for six? Huh. Felt like longer.

The hail of bullets continued as The Storm Gryphon rushed around, large bounding leaps crossing huge chunks of ground with every movement. After a few seconds had passed - the attackers keeping a careful distance from the gryphon, naturally - the boss's pattern shifted again and its last leap carried it up in a glide, to the top of a nearby pillar. It let out a clicking, moaning sound of some sort - birds. Why do they have to sound so weird - and a yellow spark snapped from the boss's neck to its wing, currents of blue electricity wrapping around the boss's body.

Immediately I flinched, memories rushing back to me. "Lightning attack," I rattled off to Asuna. "Midair, large AoE. Can't dodge, have to cancel." The immediate danger with lightning AoE attacks, especially ones with a field-wide effect like The Storm Gryphon's attack, was that the lightning crossed the entire distance immediately. In other words, even if I had Future Step, if any part of me was touching the red zone, I'd be hit the instant the boss unleashed the attack. "Wings are flared and vulnerable during the preparation."

"Right!" Asuna said with a sharp nod. The Lightning Flash had taken charge again, and I could hear it in her voice and the way her eyes flashed. She took off running, approaching different groups. A few players with shields she ordered to draw the boss's aggro with a commanding shout. Before they even agreed, she was off again, running to the next group.

The gunfire chattered and made the boss leap from the pillar it was standing on, only to be chased away by another brief burst the second it landed again. Aiming up, a poor angle meant that they could only irritate the boss, not deal any decisive blows. "Its killer move is coming!" Asuna shouted. "When you see it hover, aim for the wings!" Again she was off, leaving mumbles of confused agreement behind her. I kept one eye on the boss and one eye on her, shadowing my sister from a safe distance just to help her in case she needed me.

Naturally, she didn't. "Everyone moves in once it hits the ground!" Asuna said to the group of melee fighters waiting on standby. They agreed as Asuna turned and jogged away.

She stopped near me, and I smirked. "I'd complain about leaving me out of your little plan, but -"

"But you already know where you need to be," Asuna completed my sentence for me, giving me a dazzling smile. I grinned back and spun my dagger, slicing to the side as if I was flicking blood from the blade.

Right by her side, naturally. In this fight, I wouldn't be anywhere else.

Letting out a gravelly screech, The Storm Gryphon gave up on hopping from pillar to pillar and started swooping in the air. Here we go... The tanks Asuna had rallied grouped together, their weapons glowing with blue effects as they shouted and banged. Braking in midair, the boss shrieked in rage, the blue lightning effects wrapping around the boss's body.

Its massive wings flapped down, sending the lightning crashing to the ground. Naturally, the lightning bolts struck the ground instantly - but what made this particular attack difficult to dodge was that the lightning bolts started moving erratically on the ground. They rushed out, smashing through the stone floor and slamming into the defender's wall of shields. Fortunately, none of them broke.

"Fire!" Asuna barked. The line of gunners she was standing with opened fire immediately, not even hesitating an instant at Asuna's youth. Granted, that might be because she was the only one to take command and people are always willing to follow orders if they're shouted loud enough, but still.

The hail of bullets ripped through the boss's wings, leaving gaping holes in the vulnerable feathers. The Storm Gryphon lost control and spiraled down, crashing to the ground hard. "Go!" Asuna snapped, and her attackers roared as they rushed in. The three men charged the grounded boss and slashed as one, just as the smoke cleared. The power behind their blows blew the rest of the dust away to reveal the boss rearing in pain, its left wing limply folded. Their blows must have done enough to trigger the Break status effect on that wing.

I smirked as the gryphon fell back. Perfect. Now it can't escape.

Before the rest of the melee fighters could pile on, though, The Storm Gryphon thrashed on the ground, forcing them to keep back. With deep guttural sounds of panic it bolted, the left wing dragging along the ground. I tensed, recognizing this pattern. It was almost dead -

- One, two, three, the boss smashed defenders aside like they were nothing. It'd gone berserk, ramming its head and remaining good wing through any player in its path. The beast tried to break left, aiming for the clump of players with guns -

"No you don't."

- but I got there first. With a precise thrust I ducked under the wing and slammed my dagger's edge against the wing. With a crash, sparks flew, and the impact felt like it was going to tear my arm from its socket, but I didn't mind. I just carried the slash through, forcing my knife to break the wing. As it crumpled, one other thing had changed.

Its direction.

My goal had been met perfectly. Because the gryphon was moving forward so quickly, introducing a pivot point would force it to curve right, straight towards Asuna. I knelt and looked over my shoulder, as Asuna rammed her rapier point-first down the boss's throat, completely ignoring the danger she put herself in. The beast's charge carried it straight down her blade, doing the damage to itself as Asuna executed a picture-perfect thrust. The blade passed through its body and emerged out the other side.

The Storm Gryphon froze, mid-stride, and exploded in a spray of brilliant rainbow lights. Then, like Kagachi before it, the burst reversed itself and imploded with a bass rumble before letting out one final spray of confetti.

The victory fanfare sounded as the players celebrated and cheered. Asuna sheathed her rapier with a flourish before coming to my side and offering me her hand. "Is your arm okay?" she asked, staring me down.

Naturally, I chuckled. She's far too used to me playing off injuries, huh? "I'm fine, I'm fine," I said, rolling my shoulder. "There's no real damage done, even if I'd have probably dislocated my shoulder if this was an actual fight."

Her eyes studied my shoulder again, and I just grinned. Eventually, she sighed, giving me another smile. "You're far too reckless," she scolded me. "I'm not going to be the one to explain to Argo why her boyfriend got hurt."

The augmented world faded away like before, turning back into the Yoyogi Park we'd been fighting in the whole time. Someone approached the two of us - an older man, wearing glasses. I didn't recognize him. He tapped Asuna on the shoulder and said, "Yo, you were amazing out there."

"Nice strategy!" some doofus with spiked hair said.

"Yeah, you were awesome. You play any other games?"

There were eight people total, all guys. Naturally. A few of them were sizing me up, trying to figure out if I was Asuna's boyfriend or something. I stared at them all levelly. They broke the gaze first.

Still got it.

"Huh?" Asuna asked awkwardly. "Oh, uh..." She rubbed the back of her head with a nervous giggle. "The strategy came from -"

"Hello again!" The cheerful voice came from above as the silver-haired girl who'd been acting as our background music descended. Yuna landed lightly in front of Asuna. "Congratulations!"

Instantly, Asuna gasped in shock and all but disappeared, dashing behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, but didn't try to move; she was clutching my shirt and using me as a human shield. "Seriously?" I asked her as she poked her head out over my shoulder, watching Yuna.

"Aww," Yuna pouted. There was a similar, quieter murmur of disappointment from the men nearby, though they all shut up when my eyes narrowed. With a chime, ten-thousand points were added to Asuna's score. Guess the kiss was just a bonus, then. "Oh well," she said with a wave. "See ya later... Asuna."

"Someone's popular," I said to Asuna drily, even while my eyes tracked Yuna's figure as she disappeared into the violet light a drone emitted.

"Oh, shut up," she muttered, letting go of me now that her new friend had disappeared. The men that had been chatting with her earlier started to approach again, and I stepped back to get out of the way, though I still hovered somewhat menacingly over her shoulder. My deadpan, flat-eyed stare made a few of them think twice before saying anything funny - not that Asuna needed my help. I knew she was devoted to Kazuto, and that she'd never think of abandoning him like that.

Still, it never hurts to have backup.

On the way out, I mentioned, "I can give you a ride, if you'd like."

Asuna shook her head. We were both back in regular clothes, having removed our Augmas once the fight was done. "No, it's fine, I can make it home on my own."

"If you're sure," I said. We exited the gates and turned right, heading to where I'd parked my bike. "Ah. Klein must have headed home. Guess their friend didn't show after all."


I glanced at Asuna, surprised to see her staring thoughtfully at the empty park. "Something wrong?"

"No, it's nothing," she said with a smile, turning to look at me. Her words were almost drowned out by the approaching wail of a siren, and we both turned to watch the ambulance drive by.

Shaking my head, I poked Asuna's cheek. "Anyway, you should get going before the last bus leaves," I said. "Text me when you get home?"

Asuna giggled. "You're worse than Kirito."

"I try," I said, puffing my chest up with fake pride. Asuna laughed one more time before waving goodbye, heading off past my bike on her way home. I grinned at her retreating back before idly running my fingers along the metal fence beside me. I worry. I always worry, even if I know she and the others can take care of themselves. There's just this nagging feeling of 'what if they need me and I'm not there?'

Still, I had contingencies in place for almost everything I could think of. Forewarned is forearmed, and I was going to make sure I had as many arms as possible.

Glancing back at the empty park, I hesitated. "Wait..." I focused, squinting at the pavement through the slats. I hate having terrible night vision... "Is that..." There was something lying in the middle of the empty park. It was limp and boneless, but in the dark I couldn't tell if it was trash or something else. "Oh, fucking hell," I sighed under my breath, turning and jogging for the entrance. It might be an injured animal or something.

And, since this was the real world, I couldn't just effortlessly jump over the fence. This sucks. Going out of my way for...

"...A headband," I muttered flatly. "Fuck my eyesight." The shape I'd seen was just a discarded headband lying in the park. Someone had lost it, probably in the chaotic fight against the boss. Crouching down over it, I fully intended to just leave it there and tough for the - "Oh hey, this is Klein's," I said out loud. I'd never seen him not wearing the thing. He must have lost it.

I grabbed the bandana and headed over to my bike. After stashing it safely in my jacket pocket, I put on my helmet and headed for home, glad I was moving in the opposite direction of the sirens. I'll deal with all this in the morning.

Just another day in the life of Nick. Dealing with Argo, dealing with Kirito, dealing with fights.

I'll be honest – the scenes in ALO were an excuse for me to play around with the characters a beat. Argo claims Rythin's lap as her seat, Sinon and Rythin have little to no sense of personal distance… Pina purrs (and that was my reaction in real life, too) and everyone's favorite pastime is dunking on Klein.

Then comes the afternoon. Nick is trying his best to get Kazuto to get in shape, but the idiot boy's having none of that. Still, it's a good start…? Kinda. Nick and Kana go on another date – by themselves this time, without Shino there because it's still a school day for her.

Finally, The Storm Gryphon fight. I was tempted to have Nick arrive late and see everything that goes down there, helping out where he can, but in the end I decided against it. I have other plans… Nick's still a good fighter in AR – probably the second best of the group, behind Sugu – and that means he's really really good in Ordinal Scale. The only reasons he's not higher ranked are laziness and a late start.

(Also he's very protective of Asuna and his family.)

Many thanks to everyone that favorited, followed, or reviewed.