Preparation Chapter 37

Author's Note: Slow release this time, because I was working on something. (You'll know when you see it.)

With the sun now in full view in the gap up to the second floor, the whole sky had bright orange and a strong red glow covered the many people who had returned from the day's hunting. Some would still be out, trying to hunt longer to gain a level advantage on the others. I actually sort of understood that now. It seemed to be a gamer thing, that they were always competitive. Even if this had become a Death Game and we were all just trying to survive, this was still a game world. That meant that if they tried hard enough, they could be the best. While I didn't feel this way myself, since I wasn't really a gamer, nor very competitive, I could see how this had a draw.

Even in the real world, everyone tried their hardest to get the best job, fighting for promotions so they could make it as high as they could. In here, 'being the best' was much more simple. Be the highest level. Ok, maybe not quite that simple. Like that black-haired boy— it was also part skill as well. I sighed, even trying to distract myself with idle thought, I could still feel the stares of every player within sight boring into me. It was actually kind of amazing, they managed to carry on with whatever they were doing— talking, eating, whatever. It didn't matter what. But, they somehow managed to crane their head around to stare at Keiko and I in the process.

We hurried to the equipment store, since the highest quality store was on the side of town opposite of the inn where we were staying, all the way in the southwest corner. (I had found out a while back that they actually did use the cardinal directions the same way as the real world) The area was packed, since that was where most of the high grade shops were in this town. We picked our way through the crowd and made it to the store. I pulled the door open and we slipped into the shop together.

Unlike the red evening, the interior of the store was very gray, with slight shades of brown. Probably to make the clothing stand out better, I guess. Glancing around, there wasn't anyone else inside at the moment. We approached the NPC shopkeeper and asked to see their stock. From there, we got to discussing our equipment. We leaned drastically toward AGI, so we would need light armor. No full-plate for us. I mentioned that we still had three skill points to spend from leveling up that morning, in case the armor was just a bit too heavy.

Keiko operated the shop menu to filter out the heavier armors and narrow her search to just the things light enough for us to use. Of course, there was mostly leather armor listed. Leather hardly weighed anything in here, but the protection was about the same. Iron armor and some special pieces of bronze armor I'd seen were the second lightest, but still too heavy for someone using the type of build we had. That just left us with leather. So, no defense for us, it seemed.

Keiko messed with the filters again this time switching the shop to sort from most expensive to cheapest. While it wasn't fool-proof, it made sense that the most expensive equipment would be the strongest. We were picking through the best stuff they had when I noticed the nighttime bells tolling, telling all players within a few kilometers that it was now 6:30 pm.

It was a reminder to come back to the city before full night fell, since it was much more dangerous to hunt at night. This wasn't Japan, where you could always see lights on the horizon, no matter which direction you looked; in Aincrad, nights were dark. The diffuse lighting from the moon was the only light at that time. Lucky, the light wasn't entirely blocked by the rest of the floating castle above us, although I couldn't see how such a thing was possible. Probably so we could at least see a few meters in front of us at night, I guess.

Well, it wasn't actually a thought, but a memory. I'd been thinking about the dark nights a week or two ago. That memory flitted across my conscious for an instant before disappearing again.

In the next moment, a few more items appeared at the top of the list. Naturally, they really stood out stood out from the rest. They even would have without having appeared in a strange way. That was because they were several times more expensive than anything else the shop sold. They were called «Reinforced Leather», and when we pulled up the stats, they were quite high compared to the other equipment, about halfway between leather and iron armor. So, that was the obvious decision.

Keiko hit 『Buy』 on the shop menu, but nothing happened. There wasn't even the sound of bells like what accompanied everything else. We looked at each other for a moment with confused looks. Suddenly, the shop door, now on our left, swung open, banging against the outside of the building with a loud sound. Our heads snapped to the sound to find a little boy, panting. From the looks of him, he wasn't a player. I focused on him to bring up his cursor and confirmed it. The NPC behind the counter who seemed more like furniture than a person suddenly sprung to life, along with a big golden question mark which floated above her head.

"Moco! What's wrong?"

"It's Ferin, she started forging some swords, but forgot that she doesn't have the leather she needed from you," the little boy explained quickly, "she can't stop in the middle or the swords will be ruined, but she needs the leather right now."

"Oh my, how could I get it there in time?" At that moment, a ping went off in my head. I'd done a number of quests, so I had gotten the hang of 'things Quest NPCs say that you're supposed to answer.' Of course, as usual, Keiko beat me to it.

"We can help," she said simply. I pulled open my quest window to watch for it to update.

"Oh, would you?" the NPC responded immediately. "The forge is at the far north end of town. It's the last building before the outer wall and has smoke coming from the chimney, you can't miss it." She turned around, picking up a stack of big leather... things. They were definitely made of leather, but pressed very flat, so they gave the impression of ceramics, of all things. She staggered over and heaved them up onto the counter, breathing heavily after several seconds. "Take these to the forge. Hurry, she'll be done forging in just a few minutes.

As soon as she finished that last sentence, my quest window updated, and my eyes immediately locked onto the numbers in the middle. It was a timed quest, and we had three minutes. "We gotta go fast." I said urgently, turning the window for Keiko to see. Her eyes widened at the sight. It took close to ten minutes to get through the town when it was crowded like this. This was probably the worst time of day to attempt such a thing—

But that was the point. If my guess was right, we wouldn't be able to buy that equipment unless we completed this quest. It seemed logical enough, though I had never heard of such a thing. Why else would there be items much better than everything else in the same category, which we couldn't actually buy. And in a few moments after appearing—right after the nighttime bell— a quest starts. That had to be what this was about, a quest to get strong armor. However, that still left us with one problem.

How the hell do we actually get there in time?! Keiko grabbed the pile of leather in the middle to split it in half, but it didn't budge when she pushed on it. She pushed harder, her jaw clenching with the effort, and the top half slid off. I held my arms out to catch them, intending to carry them like a stack of textbooks. They came down flat on my forearms and crushed my arms against the counter.

"Owowowowowo," I gasped. They were incredibly heavy. How was I supposed to carry this across town? I couldn't even lift half of it! "Keiko, let's use the rest of our points," I advised. "She nodded, quickly using hers. With my arms pinned, I managed to twist my fingers correctly to open my menu and she added the points for me. That did the trick. I immediately felt the crushing weight on my arms lessen, and I wrapped my hands around the bottom to keep my grip. I leaned back and picked up the short stack, only about ten centimeters tall. It was still heavy, but I could totally carry it like this. Getting to the other side of town in the two and a half minutes we had left though...

As we moved to the door, the little boy nowhere to be seen anymore, I asked Keiko "any ideas on how we do this?"

Her response was immediate. "Just like Argo, rooftops all the way." I nodded seriously.

As soon as we left the shop, a guy who was leaning against the side of a nearby building said to us. "Oh, you're doing 'that' quest?" Then, he snickered. "Good luck, I'm surprised you can even lift those things, little girls." My eye twitched.

"Thank you for just volunteering as my stepping stool." I shot back. I only got a 'huh?' back before I began to move. With a great effort, I bent my knees, then kicked against the ground as hard as I could. I had some practice in this now, and used the «Link» to get Keiko in position to follow, letting her pick up the follow-through as she always did. With no verbal communication whatsoever, we jumped up, planting our feet again on his shoulders one after the other, then jumping again, just skimming over the ledge onto the roof behind him. Angry shouts shot up from below, followed by the laughter of the ever-present crowd who had been watching.

We quickly regained our feet. We probably had about two minutes left, though I had my hands full and couldn't check. We kicked off hard and ran as fast as we could along the roofs. Luckily, this town was designed similarly to the «Starting City», with a circular shape, centered around the colosseum-like town center from earlier. That meant that from we were, in the southwest corner, we just had to run along the rooftops counter-clockwise around the town to reach the Northern section. There were a number of gaps between the buildings with player-lined roads below, but we already had our speed up, and vaulted over each one.

Compared to our usual speed, this wasn't much. We were probably only moving about half of our normal sprinting speed, but it was still many times faster than walking through the crowd. Quickly, though I'm not sure just how quickly, we reached the Northern area. From up here, I could see the house, just as the NPC had described. We made our way to the road heading directly North, the road we used every day when we went out to hunt. In fact, the blacksmith's forge was right next to the gate, the first house off to the right side. Although, I had no time to muse about how we walked past there all the time, (I'd actually never even noticed that it was a blacksmith's shop before) because we were coming up on the road.

Together, we swung right, running right to the edge of the building before making a giant leap. Air rushed past for a few seconds as we descended toward the hard, stone street below. At the edges of my vision, could see the stunned faces of all the boys and men below, a small part of me realizing that in this position they probably all had a perfect view up my skirt. I shook the thought off. I wanted that new armor.

As the ground moved to meet me, my mind spun through my next action. Unfortunately, I wouldn't be able to make use my momentum to roll out of the jump, since I was holding the stack of leather. I would have to land flat on my feet, a thought that made me glad this was an Inner Area. My feet hit the smooth brick surface with a loud crash and pain surged up from the bottom of my feet, all the way up my legs and back, across my shoulders, and all the way back down again. I could grit my teeth as the wave of pain passed.

"Come on, get moving!" I growled to myself, pushing up with enough force to unfreeze Keiko's legs as well. With gasps of surprise still ringing out behind us, we shot out of the small plaza where the two roads met, taking the larger one due North as fast as we could. Between the main Northern road being a good deal wider than the inner streets of the town and most of the players being elsewhere at this time of day, the road was much less crowded than everywhere else.

"Lucky!" I said, just loud enough for Keiko to hear on my left. We shot down the road, hooked slightly to the right, and burst into the blacksmith's as fast as we possibly could.

"We brought the leather!" we shouted together.

There was no response from the woman sitting next to the forge. She tapped a metal bench with a *ta ta* sound. We set down the leather where she tapped and I stood back to get a good look at this strange girl. As I'd halfheartedly expected, she was the blacksmith we were looking for. As the boy had said, the name under her health bar read 『Ferin』. She pulled a sword out from the big furnace and laid it on the anvil next to her. Then, she grabbed one of the pieces of leather off the top of the pile with one hand and our jaws dropped. I knew that things here ran off numbers, so you couldn't judge people by their looks, but really? Who was the brilliant designer that thought 'how about we make this blacksmith look like she couldn't even pick up one of the swords she makes, and make her super strong?' Because that's basically what it looked like.

This NPC, Ferin, was short, skinny, and frail looking. I just had to sigh at that. Then, out of curiosity, I asked, "What do you have for sale?" She looked up at me for a moment, but unlike every other shop NPC I'd seen, didn't say anything. Instead, she just nodded.

The shop window appeared and I immediately set it to only show one-handed swords. There were a few, and I brought up their stats to compare with my current «Wolf-Tooth Sword +7». The stats on the shop weapons were really good, but just, just lower than my current sword by a tiny margin.

"Wow, these weapons are on par with the «Anneal Blade» everyone wants," I noted to Keiko. Supposedly it was strong enough to use for a number of floors above here, but wouldn't there still be better swords on those floors? Well, I'd have to wait and see. While the blacksmith worked, Keiko and I looked at each other for a minute. Did we finish the quest? We brought up our quest windows and they said to return to the other shop. So, we had finished?

We both said thanks to the smith and she nodded again. We left the shop, and again, she said nothing where the other NPCs would say 'thanks for your business,' or something like that. "Weird NPC," Keiko noted as we walked down the road, heading back to the armor shop.

After taking a while to pass through the crowds again, we returned to the still-empty shop and the shopkeeper thanked us for delivering the leather. She went on to explain that as thanks, she would let us buy a new kind of armor she had come up with, Reinforced Leather. "Haha, just as I expected," I muttered to Keiko as the NPC spoke. She finished and the quest window said we had completed the quest, noting that we received a decent amount of exp for it.

We bought the expensive armor. The full price of the two sets came out at sixty-five thousand Col— probably enough to make most players faint. Oh well, we'd probably be using it for a while anyway. It was just a one-time price. Besides, selling materials like we were brought in a little more than that in a week.

With the new armor sitting in our inventory, Keiko turned to me and after a little hesitation, asked, "Now... how about new clothes?" with a small twinkle of hope in her eyes. I immediately wanted to say 'no,' but stopped myself. While I wasn't overly concerned with my appearance, (attractiveness-wise) I would look really weird in such nice armor with just my starter clothes on.

That's to say, I would look like I didn't know what I was doing. Now that, that was important to me. After fighting here for a month, I finally knew what I was doing, and I didn't want to give anyone the impression otherwise. How to say it... kind of like, I didn't want anyone to look down on me anymore. I wasn't the newbie player who had started with no clue what was going on anymore.

Maybe the way I was feeling could be coming from the same place that had me carrying so many swords right now. A strong sword in my hand was one thing. Then, what about sturdy armor and clothing which made me look competent? Why else did businessmen in the real world all wear nice suits? It gave both their clients and themselves that they knew what they were doing.

As I had noticed with many other things in this world, it was the same with this aspect as well; the concept was the same, only the form had changed. Just like how 'work' had changed from 'get a job', to 'fight monsters.'

In one sense, this was just like the real world. The longer I stayed here, the more the thought really sunk in. Even if this was all inside a game world stored on a server in some dark room, this was still its own reality. When I thought about it, what was the point in fighting to get out of here?

Well, even now, the answer was obvious. I could simply continue to live in this reality, in this world «Aincrad», instead of the other world «Earth». However, the difference was that I didn't really want to live here. I preferred Earth to Aincrad, that's all there was to it. While there was certainly more excitement in this world, I only had my sister with me. After this long, I really wanted to see my parents again. However, that was just a small reason. At my very core, I knew without a doubt, I wanted Keiko to return to the real world again.

For that reason alone, I would cut down everything that stood in my path until I broke all the way through this world and made it back home. Dying to get Keiko home wouldn't cut it anymore. I was determined to make it there with her, because I wouldn't be able to see it through otherwise.

As my roundabout reasoning was about finished laying itself out in my mind, Keiko coughed to get my attention. It seemed that I had been staring off, deep in thought for a little too long. It actually took me a moment to figure out what conclusion I had come to from the thoughts that all jumbled up on top of each other now that they were no longer neatly ordered at the forefront of my mind.

I nodded, and after a very brief discussion on color, we realized we didn't know if the color of our clothes would affect the bonus buff we got (for being identically equipped) from our «Stat Boost» passive skill. So, to quickly test it, we bought two cheap shirts, black and white, and swapped them around, checking repeatedly to figure out that wearing different colors definitely did cancel the effect.

So, we wouldn't even be able to wear different colors if we wanted to keep the buff.

Then, something else occurred to me. After telling her my plan, I bought another black shirt while Keiko went outside and grabbed the first person she saw. She hauled in some scared looking man, probably in his twenties.

"Hi, I'm Rei," I stated clearly.

"I'm Rai," Keiko said as well. What we wanted to figure out was if wearing different clothes would also affect the «Outside of System» skill, which I think Argo had called, what was it... «System Misidentification». That was it. She'd come up with that about two weeks ago when she payed us a nice sum of five thousand Col to recount our whole story since we started playing SAO. More specifically, when we had told her about Heathcliff's advice to wear the same outfits, to help with the boss fight. Funny, his advice had useful in many more ways than the simple reason he had given...

Anyway, we wanted to test if that was affected the same way, though we were already pretty sure how the outcome would be.

"Umm, hi, I'm Kojiro..." he answered hesitantly.

"So, tell me, under my hp bar, can you see my name?" Having given it to him, he would be able to see it right now, as long as wearing different colored shirts negated the effect of the strange «OOS». He focused on me, then nodded slowly. "Ok, black now." Standing behind him, out of his field of view, Keiko switched from the white shirt to the black one, to match mine.

The effect was immediate, the man, Kojiro, blinked a few times, then, "It's gone now."

"Ooh, wow, he doesn't even have to see both of us, it works even if he only sees just one of us, we only need to be dressed the same," I noted. Keiko quickly pushed the flustered boy out of the shop and when she returned, we checked to make sure weapons were also a factor in the special buff. As it turned out, as long as it was the same weapon, it was fine. They could be reinforced differently without canceling our buff. However, we did both need to have the same sword equipped.

Having thoroughly tested to make sure before we moved on, we got to discussing colors and styles for the new clothes we would buy. Of course, Keiko insisted that we continue to wear skirts, and I didn't fight her on it because really, I'd been wearing a skirt for a full month now, I was used to it. However, I used it as an opportunity to refuse stockings. Of course, colors were obvious. Since the leather armor was various shades of brown, we would be getting green. Nothing else really matched quite right with brown. However, I didn't want to be all green and brown, it would look strange. So, Keiko suggested we change the skirts to blue. I shrugged and said 'sure' to that.

Having gone through the main stuff, we moved on to accessories. The main point here was pouches for our throwing needles. After thinking for a little while, we decided to buy five pouches for the needles, the kind which would leave them exposed so we could grab them quickly. We also bought quite a few of an item called «Straps». While they were mostly for looks, the did provide a marginal boost to the durability of armor they were used with. However, that wasn't our point in buying them. They also enabled us to fit and adjust our armor and various accessories.(like our needle pouches) From there, we bought two belts each. One for our sword, one for another needle pouch. After a bit more thought, we bought a three more pouches each, for holding potions and whatnot for quick access.

Finally, I asked Keiko if she wanted to get dark cloaks, so we could avoid the stares of the crowds, since they were really getting to me. She thought about it, but answered that she didn't want to hide under a cloak just after buying brand new clothes.

Having finished our shopping, the total bill added up to thirty-four thousand five hundred Col. Just for clothing? Probably would have given Klein and his crew a heart attacks had they been here. Finally done spending our hard-earned Col, we had just a little less than one hundred forty thousand remaining.

With a nod, we both moved into the changing rooms. This town was big enough that the shop actually had rooms. As I had found out, when changing clothes, even if changing directly from piece to another, it would take a few moments to switch, during which time you would only be wearing your underwear.

So, we each went into separate rooms. Somehow, we were still not comfortable seeing each other naked,(half-naked anyway) even after sleeping in the same cramped bed at the inn for a month. We'd actually turn off the lights before getting undressed to avoid it. Seriously.

Anyway, I pulled open my menu and hit 『Remove All Equipment』then 『Remove All Clothes』, leaving me standing there in nothing but a set of white bra and panties.(As far as I'd seen, there weren't any stores that sold different underwear yet. But who knows? We still had ninety-nine floors to go) I switched back over to the equipment menu and started putting on the new clothes on after another. Shirt, skirt, knee-high boots... After the clothing came the armor: a breastplate, pauldrons, forearm guards, like before. This time however, I also had armor to cover the top of my arm above the elbow and on my knees. Finally, there were the greaves which automatically embedded themselves in my boots.

I strapped on the two belts, crossing over one another to stagger the placement of the regular pouches on the back of the belts, then hung my sword on my right hip, a needle pouch on the other. I ran a strap between my breastplate and pauldrons to link the two, the same way I'd seen Diabel do. I did the same with my elbow guards and forearm guards, and knee guards and greaves. Using the small parts coming off of the breastplate, I attached a number of straps to hold two more needle pouches on my sides. The last two needle pouches were strapped on the outside of my thighs. Once I filled the pouches with twenty needles each, giving me enough that I didn't think I would run out unless I landed myself in another Boss fight.

Finally finished with my entire outfit, walked out of the changing room, back into the main area of the shop. There was a mirror against the wall, which I stared into deeply. (( tigersight dot deviantart dot com /art/Rei-Original-Character-Colored-331844583 )) The girl in the reflection was out of this world. She was like a warrior, elf, princess, or something else super fantasy-like. I just wanted to beat my head into the wall over how terrible it was that I was the one stuck in this body. I frowned slightly at my reflection.

The breastplate was brown, made of hardened leather so that it held its rigid shape. It had shiny silver trim made of what I had to guess was steel around the neck and running along the sides, down under my arms and up my back. The leather wrapped all the way around, both over my shoulders and around the center of my back, holding it steadily in place. From the looks of it, it somehow made my stupidly large breasts look even bigger than they already were. Connected with a pair of thin strips of dark leather, (front and back) were my pauldrons, made much the same way. Again, hard, reinforced leather with a trim of bright steel running around the outer rim.

The elbow guards were more simple, forgoing the steel rim and using slightly softer leather, so it could bend slightly as I moved my arm. This piece had numerous straps holding it to my forearm guard, which I still wasn't sure how it actually stayed on. I guess they had skipped over that when designing armor, since it just appeared on my wrist as it was when I equipped it. The knee guards were even softer still, allowing me to bend any way without trouble. They probably wouldn't offer much protection from attacks, but would protect my knees from other sorts damage, like if I slid on my knees for whatever reason. Although, I don't think you can skin your knee in SAO...

Whatever that case, one strap ran behind my knee, securing the pad in place, while two more anchored it to my boots. They were just below knee height, coming right up to where the join separated. They were darker brown than the rest of my armor, with a red indent running up the front, the place where the inlaid greaves sat, forever waiting to take a hit.

Overall, my appearance was very good. I certainly looked better than before, and the sturdy armor, which could even be considered heavy for someone like me, gave off a very sturdy feeling.

*Whooooo* a small whistle drew my attention away from the mirror, to a man waving me over.

He said, hey come here," in a light tone. Seeing no reason not to, I took a few steps closer.

Unlike the many other players I had seen, this man was clearly older, probably mid-thirties. His greasy-looking hair was mostly black, a bit light though, as if it was starting to gray. However, he seemed rather ghost-like. His cheeks were hollow, and he had lines deeply drawn in his skin as if he wore a permanent scowl. Except, he wasn't scowling right now, he had a friendly expression as he continued speaking.

"Have you heard of a thing called, «Ethics Code Off»?

"No, what's that?" I asked immediately. There were still things I didn't know about? Seriously? I had just built up my confidence, seeing how competent I looked in my new gear, and now this?

"It's in the options menu," a jingle of bells ringing as I opened my menu and quickly switched to options. He continued speaking after a moment, my motions following along as he went.

"It's all the way at the bottom of the list, the last option." I tapped it, and it toggled off.

I stood there for a few moments, but nothing happened. What was an ethics code? I looked back to that man to explain, but he suddenly changed topics—

Wait, did he just use a little known, non-important option to start a conversation with me? I felt like smacking myself in the head for being so dull there. What was this again, getting 'picked up?' I'd never tried myself, since most of the girls in my class were either really smart, really pretty, or already had boyfriends. I figured I would at least listen to what he had to say before I told him I wasn't interested.

"So, do you need any help with anything? Maybe you need some new equipment?"

"No, I just bought a full set of armor and new clothes," I answered flatly.

He switched topics again. "Then, what about a new weapon? You can never get a weapon too strong, or maybe you would like me to help you reinforce yours?"

"I already have Seventeen «Wolf-Tooth Swords» at +7 reinforcement.

"I,is that so... and what kind of sword is that?"

"A super rare monster drop. The only other person with the same sword got it from me," in informed him. Did he actually not know who I was? Maybe it was the new outfit, or maybe he was just new around here, but it was kind of funny. He was trying to act like I was a poor little girl who needed free help from a stranger, while I was definitely far above him in terms of experience, equipment, and Col.

After a brief pause, he switched again, this time changing his approach entirely. "Ah, so you're pretty strong. Sounds like you have a few levels under your belt too."

More than you do, I thought.

"So, how about we get out of here, and, maybe get to know each other? If you want, we can go back to my room and get to know each other really well..." he waggled his eyebrows at that last part.

Hmm, what was that about? I thought for a second, before the answer kicked me in stomach. Did he really just imply what I thought he did? Was that even possible in this game? Suddenly, my thoughts took a ninety degree turn and rage welled up from deep inside me. This guy was really trying to seduce me! Right now! My hand, held up in front of my chest until now, balled into a tight fist.

"You..." I squeezed my fingers together, pouring all my outrage and anger into my small hand.

"You... You..." I couldn't think of any word to follow that, as I just repeated it louder and louder.

"You...!" Finally, my hand shot out. I was actually surprised that my fist wasn't glowing with the lighting effect of a sword skill as it shot straight forward, straight toward the center of this man's forehead.

About a millimeter from colliding with his face, a flash of purple exploded between his skin and my hand, stopping my hand dead. The «Criminal Prevention Code» It stopped me from actually hitting him, but the force of my punch still transferred to the man. Of course, with my level so much higher than his, he was instantly thrown off his feet. My punch sent him flying through the air, and just happened to aim right to throw him right through the door and out into the street.

Even after the door swung closed again, I clenched my fist in front of me. What was wrong with that guy? He was obviously more than thirty years old, and no matter how you looked at it, I looked fourteen.(which was funny since that's actually how old I was) And since everyone(except us) looked like they did in real life, he would definitely know that I really was fourteen. What kind of man tries to seduce a just-barely teenage girl? Worse yet, after getting this new, more attractive clothing, the first man I met tried to seduce me? Really? As I stood there fuming, Keiko walked out of the other changing room, stopping and asking what was wrong.

"I'm getting a cloak. A big, dark cloak." I answered in a low voice.

Author's Note: Longest chapter so far. (exactly 6000 words as of 'exactly')

Edit: Shiraitsuki, who is clearly a better artist than me, drew an amazing picture of Rei. Here it is: i. imgur. com \ yM6mwCC. jpg

Thank you Shiraitsuki, you just made my week.