Shugo was one of the first people to notice Aura's absence. But at the time he hoped it was only temporary and she would return on her own. When the fire at CC Corp office happened and most of The World's data was destroyed, Shugo took it pretty hard. The World R:2 was released soon enough, but Shugo decided to try and get over Aura's loss by throwing himself into real life. Two years passed.
When Shugo was seventeen, he heard some classmates talking about R:2 and they mentioned the Twilight Brigade, a guild devoted to finding the Key of the Twilight. By this point, Shugo had long since learned about the events of SIGN and INFECTION through QUARANTINE. He knew that "Key of the Twilight" was another name for Aura, even if most rumormongers didn't. Shugo figured that if there was an entire guild trying to find Aura, maybe it meant she survived the fire after all. But then his classmates told him the guild disbanded months ago.
Shugo made an account for The World R:2. Kicking himself for missing the chance to join the Twilight Brigade, he searched on his own with renewed energy. He opened his own guild called "West Wind," whose slogan was to find "anything unusual or leftover from R:1." Nobody joined. Dejected, he became a part-time member of the rumor-researching guild "Empireo," but made no real progress on his secret goal.
One day, another member of Empireo invited Shugo to watch the title match at the arena. During the match, Emperor Endrance used his strange instant-kill technique to defeat three other players. Shugo didn't see anything strange, but during the instant-kill he had a "suspicious feeling." After that, Shugo tried doing research on Endrance, but of course, he found nothing substantial.
Shugo watched again during the next title match, when Endrance fought Haseo. Endrance repeatedly made references to "her" and "losing her."
"Because, you were my only friend... because you were all I wanted..."
"But it's fine now. 'She' has returned. 'She' has returned from the outside world."
It might have been a leap of faith, but Shugo believed that "she" was an AI, just like Aura was. In which case he and Endrance were in a very similar situation. But Endrance had felt so empty without his "her" that he became obsessed with The World and sacrificed reality. Endrance couldn't stand the thought of losing "her" - couldn't move on without "her." That thought made Shugo very uneasy.
Endrance lost the fight.
Shortly after the title match, Shugo began doing research on Haseo, the person who defeated Endrance and a former member of the Twilight Brigade. From what Shugo could gather, after the Brigade was disbanded Haseo spent most of his energy hunting the PK known as Tri-Edge. Supposedly, Tri-Edge's victims fell into comas, just like during the events of seven years ago. Of course, there was no proof. Even more interesting, Tri-Edge looked similar to the legendary hero Kite, and by extension, Shugo's old PC. However, there was no proof for that either.
As Shugo pondered this, he overheard some players in town panicking. They were mostly illegible, but he made out that they didn't know "where their bodies were." Shugo concentrated, and he quickly realized he couldn't feel his body in the real world. His consciousness was trapped inside the game, along with every other player. They couldn't log out. It was just like what happened to many other players seven years ago.
The problem lasted for a few hours, but after that Shugo was abruptly logged out automatically. Back in reality, he explained everything that happened to Rena. She found him passed out at his computer, but according to her it only lasted a few minutes. Regardless, Shugo was actually excited. If things like this were still happening, that meant R:2 wasn't an ordinary game, and that could mean Aura was still inside. Rena didn't know how to respond to Shugo's enthusiasm.
Intermission - The Twilight Epitaph
Shugo - or rather, the game character that represented him in The World - waits patiently outside of the Beast Temple. He smiles and waves when he sees his friend arrive.
The player is a Shadow Warlock called W. B. Yeats, but in real life it's a woman named Haruka Mizuhara. She knows Shugo and his sister in the real world. Rena has a correspondence with Haruka, but Shugo is more like a friend-of-a-friend. He was afraid she wouldn't bother meeting him.
"Long time, no see," she says.
"I'm glad you came."
"So how come you wanted to meet in a field instead of in town?"
"I figured you might prefer some privacy," Shugo answers. "You're like a celebrity in The World."
Haruka laughs. "This is coming from you? I'm just a sightseeing poet - you're the legendary dot-hacker."
Shugo shakes his head. "Nah. I was just a copycat, and not even that anymore. Besides, you've been famous ever since the beta version. That's a full ten years."
"It's very rude to remind a lady how old she is." They both laugh at this. "How have you been lately? Rena informs me that you're pretty popular on your school's basketball team."
"Kinda, but I haven't been practicing since summer break started. I haven't spoken to any of my classmates either." His voice trails off.
"Rena also tells me that's you've been putting a lot of energy into The World lately." Haruka sounds slightly concerned.
He nods. "That's why I called you today. Miss Mizuhara... Do you know anything about what's going on in The World lately?"
"The World is a big place. You'll need to be more specific."
"Like the incident where nobody could log out. The weird tournament fighters. And the player that's putting people into comas. It feels like the event from seven years ago is starting again."
"They say history repeats itself, but nobody seems to believe it until it happens." The web poet shrugs. "Sorry, Shugo. I'm still learning about things myself."
"I see... Miss Mizuhara-"
"Haruka is fine."
"Right, Haruka... You probably know more about The World than any single person. The dot-hackers and the event seven years ago... Rena and I learned most of that from you. Do you know... Do you know where Aura and Zephie are, right now?"
Harkua is silent for a long time.
"I'm sorry, Shugo. I don't. I've seen a lot, but that doesn't mean I know everything. No individual can ever grasp the system as a whole. The only one who could possibly know everything going on inside The World... is God."
Shugo nods. "Aura..."
"Those were Kazushi's words."
Kazushi Watarai. Albireo. Haruka's former lover. Shugo didn't know all the details, but Kazushi was a debugger for the CC Corp. He met an AI named Lycoris but was forced to delete her, and this caused him to wallow in guilt and shut himself off emotionally. Haruka and Kazushi were living together for a while, but his inability to get over Lycoris eventually caused them to separate. According to Haruka they're now "indifferent" to each other.
Haruka continues. "I'm worried for you, Shugo. Kazushi was a man too obsessed with the past. Because of it, he had no passion for the present. I don't want to see the same happen to you."
"This isn't the same!" Shugo argues. "Kazushi couldn't handle Lycoris' death, but I don't think Aura and Zephie is dead. Aura is the core of The World. If strange things are still happening, Aura probably has something to do with it."
"I suppose this is the fate of mortals who have seen a goddess," she speaks mournfully, falling back into her poetic language. "You left a piece of yourself with her. And like tasting the forbidden fruit, you can't move on until you see her again."
Her words only help to make Shugo angry. "Why should I move on? Aura and Zephie are not just programs in a game, you know. They're alive, so how can I abandon them? Would you give up on Kazushi?"
"...Kazushi isn't with me anymore, is he?"
Shugo is silent. "I... I'm sorry... I shouldn't have said that."
Haruka looks at Shugo. She has a rare, solemn expression. "It doesn't matter if it's in the real world or The World... Nothing lasts forever, not even the past." That is the last thing she says before logging out.
Time passed. And Shugo found no new leads since the trapped-in-game incident. But there were increasing signs of trouble in the game, until finally, the Third Network Crisis. Shugo could feel it. Something important and dangerous was happening all around him in The World, but he was never a direct part of any of it. He was a bystander at best. And still, he was no closer to finding Aura. Rena frequently asked him to quit the game and stay out of danger, but Shugo declined each time. He felt sick at giving up on Aura or Zefie. Especially Aura.
Despite refusing to quit, Shugo did worry about himself. Aura's absence was affecting him worse than ever, much worse than the real life friends and classmates he was neglecting for The World. He was too embarrassed to say it aloud - although he suspected it was obvious to Rena - but he realized... he liked Aura.
Shugo hated to say it, but his first love was a computer program.
Haruka warned him about this. He was becoming just like Endrance and Kazushi.
The Third Network Crisis raged on. It was getting worse than it was seven years ago. Shugo felt that the thing in The World, whatever it was, was reaching its climax. Shugo hated being in the dark like this. He could only hope somebody was aware of it and fighting on the front lines, wherever they might be.
One day, Shugo got an email from the guildmaster of Moon Tree. It was an email addressed to everyone, asking for help fighting bugged monsters that appeared in the areas. Shugo did not need to be asked twice. Even if he wasn't an heir to a legend anymore... even if he was only in the background... he wanted to do something that could help. He logged in and found himself in Net Slum. His first instinct was to ask to the vagrant AIs about Aura and Zefie. But once again his search turned fruitless. He prepared for battle.
However, Shugo only ever played the game to find information. He was still low-level and didn't have any party members. But he couldn't turn away now. He went into the field alone. It was a grassland under a night sky, and it was filled to the brim with Cubia Gomoras. Shugo knew the significance of the name "Cubia." Individually, the Gomoras were weak enough even for Shugo to defeat, but he couldn't fight an army. He ran out of healing items almost instantly. Then his HP was critical again.
The blue light blinded Shugo for a moment. Once he regained his senses, he found someone standing with his back to him. It was a lanky Twin Blade in red-orange clothes. Golden light slipped from an invisible bracelet. It obviously wasn't a normal player. It probably wasn't a player at all. It looked over its shoulder at stared at Shugo through a single eye.
"Aura sent you... didn't she?"
Azure Kite didn't respond. He simply raised his arm and aimed the bracelet. The Gomoras didn't even last five minutes. Once the fight was over, Shugo didn't waste any time.
"I want to see them. Please. Even once is enough. I just-"
Azure Kite aimed the bracelet at Shugo. He panicked. He was scared he provoked the look alike into a fight. But then Shugo realized Azure Kite was using the bracelet's other function. Gate Hacking took affect, and Shugo was sent to another area.
Shugo was in a white room. He didn't see Azure Kite with him. He turned around and saw a young girl with saffron-colored hair.
"Sorry. Mama's busy someplace else."
It was just like last time. There were so many things... so many things he wanted to tell her. But his mouth just wasn't working. He couldn't form the words.
"She integrated into the world."
"Abandoned the individual and became a god. And now abandoned godhood and distanced from fate, returned to null. So I returned to the wind as well."
"Mama said that the fate of the world should be for people to decide."
That didn't answer anything. But he knew that was all he would get.
"I miss her."
"Mama has a message for you... 'Sorry I didn't say goodbye properly'."
"...Tell her... Goodbye... I guess."
Zefie reached up and pecked Shugo on the cheek.
And then she was gone. Shugo didn't feel any better. He felt like he lost. He felt like it was all for nothing. But at least he said goodbye this time.
"What?" Rena exclaims. "So after all you went through, you didn't actually learn anything?"
"Not necessarily," Shugo replies. "I think Aura left because she didn't think the network should be controlled by a goddess's whims. So she'll only get involved when it's really important. At least I know she wasn't deleted. She and Zefie are fine, so everything's okay."
"But are you really okay being cut off from them? I mean, a first crush is-" Rena stops herself, like she said something she shouldn't have.
Shugo smiles, self-depreciating. "I'm long overdue getting over my first crush. I should get a girl who's closer to my own species, anyway."
'Because, you were my only friend... because you were all I wanted...'
'And like tasting the forbidden fruit, you can't move on until you see her again.'
Shugo nods decisively. "I won't become like that."
"Aura and Zefie, even though they're AI, are just as alive as we are. But I don't want to sacrifice anything to chase them. I have an entire world to live in. Not there, but here."
Rena smiles. Shugo finishes packing and closes the box that holds his FMD, controller, and other game accessories. "So you're really quitting The World?"
"Not forever. I still I'll log in now and again. But I wanna return to the real world for a while. You know, enjoy the last bit of summer before school starts. Maybe I should call the guys from the basketball team..."
"Oh! I totally forgot to tell you! Hotaru's going to visit Japan again at the end of summer break."
"Yeah. When I heard that I decided to organize another offline meeting. It'd be great if the whole gang could meet up again."
"Yeah, that would be great." Shugo looks through the open window and feels the breeze on his face.
I don't want to be stuck in the past. But if I can keep just a little piece of it... I think that's enough.
Author's notes: I had this saved on my computer for six months before finally posting it. And even before then, I had the idea for this story for ages. I'm glad it's finally going up, even if I might take it down for editing later.