This is nice, he thought to himself, as he scanned his surroundings. The tranquility of a pristine lake, overlooked by a snowy mountain, could not be easily found in the world. Though such sights and views were rather common in the current world that they called home. Still, it brought comfort to him.

As did the sight of the smaller twin-tailed girl that was leaning against his side. The familiar form of her Feathery Dragon was not there, for it was perched atop of his own head sleeping away much like its owner. He smiled down at the dozing Silica with fondness.

He could hardly blame the girl—or anyone really—for falling asleep while accompanying him on his fishing trips. The hobby did not appeal to most, given how slow and tedious it was. Yet, it was something that brought him serenity. Here, sitting at the end of their dock, with a wooden fishing rod in hand, he was truly content.

It was his place away from the world, away from the duties that had chased away his free time. This was the one hobby that he was stubborn about partaking, much to his girls' chagrin. Though they were already coming around to it.

"Kirito-kun... " Silica yawned and rubbed at her eyes with little energy. "Still fishing?"

He hummed an affirmative. "The fish are uncooperative today."

"Mm... how so?"

"By refusing to bite."

She giggled, leaning her head further against his shoulder. "That's what they're programmed to do, silly."

Kirito frowned. "I'm telling you, Silica, these fish are bugged... they don't like me."

"Well, it looks like they like the others," she said, peering out at the far side of the lake, where several other docks could be seen. Even from their distance, they could see several fishermen making a commotion as one of their own reeled in something big.

Kirito felt his pride wither considerably at the sight.

"There there, Kirito-kun." Silica smiled as she rubbed his back. "You know you could always ask them for tips."

It was obvious that the fishermen of this floor had already mastered the «Fishing» skill, and would likely have several pointers available for him.

Kirito turned his sight away from the celebrating fishermen and back onto his own fishing rod. He was definitely not pouting as he did so. Silica only giggled some more.

They settled into a comfortable silence. His focus was on the fishing attempt in front of him, while Silica opened up her system menu in order to take care of some regular business. Each of the Swords often had to answer messages as well as handle other matters. Argo more than any of them, but that didn't mean that tasks couldn't be delegated.

Silica was surprisingly good at organizing and other miscellaneous tasks. She was definitely better than him at dealing with paperwork. He figured that she would make a terrific office worker someday.

"What was your favorite subject in school, Silica?"

She blinked at the sudden question. "Um... I think it was science... chemistry in particular."

"Should have known, given your family's background." He smiled.

Silica blushed at the reminder. She had told them of how she had come to the name 'Silica', when they touched on the topic of in-game names. Her father was a chemist and had always loved the names of the elements. It was embarrassing.

"Why ask, Kirito-kun?"

He turned back to the lake, but shot her a mischievous grin. "Just a stray thought."

She pouted at the response, wondering if it was another elaborate teasing scheme. While Argo loved to play the occasional prank, Kirito only teased. She couldn't say that she disliked it however.

"What was yours then?"

Kirito was silent for a moment. "Does 'going home' count as a subject?"


He chuckled. "Computer science. I rather liked that class." It was the only class he didn't completely fall asleep in.

She smiled at the answer. "That does suit you, Kirito-kun."

"Mm, it was the only class that I enjoyed..." He thought of the simpler times, where his biggest worries were if he could still procrastinate on his homework with the latest online game at the time.

"Really?" She blinked. "I always thought you were a model student.."

"Model student? Hah, no way, I was pretty bad actually."

"That's no good, Kirito-kun, school is important," she admonished in a very familiar tone.

"You sound like Asuna... and my sister." He narrowed his eyes. "Terrible influences, Silica."

She gave him a deadpan look.

"Well, it wasn't like my grades were bad or anything." If anything, they were much higher than what they should have been. "I just had a habit of forgetting assignments, and sometimes class." Of course, given his athlete status as their star kendo player, he was given more leeway than most.

Silica looked positively affronted. "You skipped classes?" she asked with horror, the very act unimaginable to her.

To Kirito, it only served to add to his amusement. She really was like Asuna when it came to the academics.

"Don't worry, I never got away with it. The teachers always tracked me down, and if they couldn't, they went to my mother." He shivered at the memory. His mother had a cold fury that could freeze your every movement.

"Still though, skipping classes..." Her eyes glinted. "Wait till I tell the others."

"...Please don't." An immediate reply. He was in no hurry to earn another lecture from Asuna. She was already on pose twenty-one, surely she did not have any more lecturing poses to use?

Silica giggled at his slightly panicked look, but didn't say anything in affirmative or negative, instead choosing to finish up her current message to the twins.

He was always surprised by the growth shown by his girls, but Silica was perhaps the most surprising. She had matured so much in such a short amount of time, that it sometimes made him worry. She was the youngest clearer by far, but had little in the way of complaints. Their dragon tamer was as solid as any of them. But that didn't mean he couldn't worry.

"Everything well with Sasha and the kids?"

"Yes, they're doing great, I think they really like having their own rooms compared to the dorms at the orphanage.*

Sasha had finally caved in to their pleading, and allowed them to rent one of the nicer buildings in the Town of Beginnings. It was well within their budget, and none of the guild members had complained about having a small portion of their funds going to them.

"That's good to hear. And how are you doing, Silica?" he asked quietly.

"Um..." Kirito's seriousness caught her off guard, she didn't know quite how to answer the question.

"You know you can always talk to us about anything right?" he asked, placing a hand atop of the girl's head.

She smiled fondly, and leaned into his touch. "Yes. Thank you, Kirito-kun. And I know, I don't really have anything that needs to be said..."

Kirito sensed her hesitation. "Silica?"

"It's just... is it alright for us to be this way, Kirito-kun? So happy and carefree despite..." She swallowed. "Despite the fact that we're still here?"

He knew what she meant. It was a thought that had come to his own mind from time to time. That they shouldn't be so happy to be spending time in this death game. That they shouldn't spend their free time on fun and relaxation. That they should be doing more.

"I know what you mean, Silica," he said quietly. It was easy enough to feel guilt, when thinking about the number of players still stuck in complete misery. "I've had that thought myself you know. And I think I've come to terms with it." There was one ultimate truth that he knew that triumphed over all. "I am just happy knowing that you—and the others—are happy."

She smiled up at him, with a deep fondness. It was in that moment that Silica knew how she had been able to traverse so far in a world so full of adversity and despair. With Kirito and her friends supporting her, she had never been afraid to stumble.

"So it's alright to feel guilty." He knew she was the type to do so, the very opposite of Argo in that regard. "But it's alright to feel happiness as well. Someone told me recently that to smile and laugh in the aftermath of tragedy is the best way to heal."

Silica perked up at that. "Really?" She couldn't really imagine Kirito having such sagely advice. "Who?"

"Someone," he said mysteriously with that grin of his.

"Mou..." Silica pouted with that pout of hers.

"Anyway, Silica, you can talk to me about anything you know. I'm all ears. Although I'm not the best at words so you might have to do all of the talking—but I'm a good listener, I swear."

She giggled at his seriousness near the end. "You're a good listener, Kirito-kun... and really good at words. Don't you remember how we met?"

He smiled at the reminder. "I do. You were the most depressing girl I've ever met—" he thought back to Asuna, Sachi, and Sinon "—at the time."

"I know." Silica smiled, but did not meet his eyes, choosing to look outwards at the lake instead. "I've always wanted to be seen as mature... but in the beginning I really was just another kid, lost in the game." She sighed, leaning against him. "I'm not sure what I would have done if I had never met you, Kirito-kun. I would never have been able to gather my courage to face a floor boss, become a clearer, and meet the others."

"You're selling yourself short, you are—and have always been courageous. That is a fact," Kirito said fondly.

He did not know of any other thirteen year old who came close. Those that willingly became shield-users, placing themselves in the forefront of battle, were a rare minority. It took only one bad boss battle to shatter the resolve of even the most veteran of players. Yet Silica had been in every single battle thus far.

"Do you really think so?" she asked hesitantly.

He nodded firmly. "I know so."

"Thank you." She beamed up at him. "It—it means a lot to me you know." Her glance was shy, and she fidgeted with her hands. It was no secret that she looked up to Kirito a lot. To her, his approval was everything.

He put his hand on top of her head and gently gave her a few pats.

"Kirito-kun," she said, "can we do this again?"

He glanced at her in question. "Hmm?"

"I mean, just talking... like this." She knew now more than ever, how wonderful it was to have someone to talk to who truly enjoyed your presence. She had that with the other girls of course, but there was a very subtle layer of hesitation that she knew was related to her age. She did not blame them for that, as she knew that they just wanted to shield her from anything that would make her uncomfortable or sad.

With Kirito it was different. She knew that she would be able to talk to him about anything and everything. He would not judge her for it or look down on her for any of her thoughts. He was rational—sometimes too rational—but he was kind. He genuinely wanted all of them to be happy.

He was the boy who calmed her heart with every glance.

He was the reason why she could fight without hesitation.

"Of course," he answered with a smile. "Anytime, Silica."

Her smile was wondrous.

"You know you can always come with me on my breaks if you want."

"Really?" Silica blinked. The girls had all believed that Kirito wanted some quiet time on his fishing trips, and had tried to give him a few moments to himself despite disliking the fact that he went unaccompanied.

"Of course," he said immediately. "I don't mind." He liked the silence, the calm and the peace, but more than anything, he enjoyed spending that peace with his closest friends.


He grinned. "Although next time you fall asleep on me, Silica, I can't promise that nothing will happen."

Silica almost jumped at his teasing tone. "Y-you wouldn't dare!"

He raised an eyebrow. They both knew that he would.

"I have some of Argo's face paint you know..." he trailed off at the look she gave him. "Oh? You didn't appreciate the raccoon eyes she painted on you?"

Silica did her best to glare, but to no avail as her favourite boy laughed wholeheartedly. She tried her best to sulk but did not even last more than a few minutes as Kirito poked at her sides causing her to giggle uncontrollably. She lamented the fact that she could never be angry at Kirito.

It was an hour into the afternoon when Kirito finally sighed and pulled up his fishing rod. "The fish are bugged, Silica."

She giggled. "I don't think so, Kirito-kun."

He almost pouted. "Three hours of fishing and only two bites!" Of his two bites, only one could be called an actual fish, while the other one was just a minnow. "Bugged I tell you."

"What's bugged?"

They turned their heads to look up at the girl who had managed to quietly sneak up on them. Her pristine white hair was almost shining in the afternoon sun, and her attire—a white cloak on top of the usual uniform of the Swords—was familiar.


"Sinon," Kirito called out in greeting. "The fish are bugged," he informed her seriously.

The smaller girl beside him giggled behind her hands, his half-hearted glare doing nothing to stop her.

Kirito vanished his fishing rod back into his inventory, standing up before offering a hand to Silica. Pina trilled happily atop his head in greeting to the white-haired spear user.

"Oh?" Sinon was amused as she took in his frustration. "How come I saw a bunch of older players hauling their fish along the way?"


"There there, Kirito-kun," she said with a grin. "We can't all be good at everything."

His eyes narrowed at her. "The. Fish. Are. Bugged."

"Whatever you say, Prince."

"Watcha doing here, Sinon-chan?" Silica asked before Kirito could retort, likely wanting to tease the spear user about her own nickname.

"I wanted to see if Kirito-kun wanted to go hunting," Sinon answered. "Did you want to join, Silica-chan?"

"H-hunting?" Silica looked alarmed as well as intrigued.

Kirito yawned, doing a light stretch. "Replenishing our meat supply hm? I'm always up for that."

"I knew you would be." Sinon gave him a fond smile.

Although quality meat in the game was expensive to buy, it was not as if it was out of their budget. Monster meat however, was different in that its flavour and quality ranged from dangerously bad to outrageously sublime. Certain monsters had meat that would poison you if eaten, but some rare monsters provided meat that was a class above all. The two times they had managed to secure «Ragout Rabbit Meat» had convinced them all of that fact.

"You're drooling, Kirito-kun," Silica said with a giggle. "I guess I'll tag along. What are we hunting?"

Kirito led the way, equipping his equipment as they walked. "Greater Horned Rabbits? There's a nest of them not so far from here actually. They should have spawned back by now."

It was a spot that they had discovered early in the game, and had promptly sworn themselves to secrecy not long after. Not only were the rabbits A-class monsters that dropped extremely tasty meat, their spawning grounds had a chance of spawning the S-class variation of their species. «Ragout Rabbit» was only seen in forested areas, and many had assumed that the rare mob was random in nature. Not true, however, as Kirito himself had seen it spawn into existence in the midst of one of his hunts.

"Unless you have a better idea, Sinon?" he asked, his hands held lazily behind his head. Kirito was still relaxed from the fishing trip, and it showed in his posture.

"Hmm..." Sinon put a finger to her lips in thought. "I did want to hunt down some Red Wyverns..." She trailed off at the look on Silica's face. "But maybe we can do that some other time."

Kirito gave her a sideways glance and a grin. "I wouldn't mind the challenge. Let's do that later this week."

"You guys are insane," Silica muttered underneath her breath.

«Red Wyverns» were mid-leveled mobs that had a high drop-rate for leather-related materials, but they were almost impossible to hunt in bulk. The main reason was the fact that they tended to fly overhead for the vast majority of the time, only stopping to nest during the night. When they nested, they slept amongst hundreds of their kin, and only the most suicidal of players would bother to hunt them in the middle of their nesting grounds.

As the mobs were also neutral, and would not attack players on sight, it meant that trying to grab one's attention was incredibly hard. It was fortunate, however, that Sinon had a means of luring them to the ground. Her powerful spear launched with «Weapon Throw» could hit them in the air and bring them angrily towards them. Kirito, being who he was, was more than happy to tangle with the lesser dragons. Even if it meant having to finish it off in midair.

"So, Kirito-kun," Sinon began with an almost-eager smile. "Did you forget what you said to me the other day?"

Kirito narrowed his eyes. "You mean...?"

"Yep. That you could easily use a spear to hunt like me." The challenge in her eyes was clear.

Silica perked up at that. "Really?" Her eyes jumped between the two of them in amusement.

"I definitely could," Kirito boasted. "I just need—"


"—a spear..." he finished lamely, eyeing the offered spear with a strange look that he quickly covered. "Right. Thanks."

The weapon was nothing to write home about, likely having been a random drop from a mob. It was steel with a blueish metal near the tip. He hefted it, already disliking the weight of the thing in his hands. It felt light and heavy at the same time depending on where he held it. He did his best to emulate Sinon and a few of the spear users he knew from the frontlines.

Sinon smirked. "Well, Kirito-kun, time to show me how easy it is."

Kirito rolled his eyes. How hard could it be? He had experience with ranged weapons; knives and throwing picks were part of his usual repertoire. In the beta, he had experimented with a wide variety of weapons before defaulting back to his favoured long-swords. The spear had always felt awkward in his hands, but he could not deny how effective it was in a battle. In a player vs player situation, he had the most trouble with spear users.

He eyed Sinon's own spear—golden and glittering in the sun—with a careful eye. She had it across her back, and it looked almost regal on her person. As if she was a valkyrie heading into battle. Perhaps that was why her moniker had been established as the «White Valkyrie». The image did fit, especially during battle where Sinon's cool demeanor vanished into a regal fury. He could definitely imagine her as one of the battle maidens of Odin, scouring the battlefield for noble warriors... or at least that was the image that his tiny amount of knowledge regarding Norse mythology conjured up.

"About your spear, Sinon," Kirito began to ask, after they had left the well-worn path and had begun their trek into the dense forest. "It is a unique item, right?"

She nodded beside him. "It has a unique name... Freya's Blessing."

"Did we ever find its item category?" He was referring to the fact that it was not in one of the many categories of items such as player-forged, boss drops, and quest items.

"No, although Lis-chan tried her best," Sinon answered, remembering the eagerness in the pinkette's eyes as she studied her weapon for a good hour or two. "We've agreed that it is a special class, due to the fact that it changes and grows."

A growing weapon was unheard of in the game. Aside from weapon enhancements that could sometimes increase the natural effects of items, there had never been a case of an item 'leveling up'. In Sinon's case, as she had described, the spear had changed over time, going from a wooden spear to a ruby spear, and finally to the golden spear she now wielded.

"How does it work, Sinon-chan? The special ability." Silica asked, her head tilted cutely to the side.

Sinon had a complicated expression on her face as she answered the question. One that Kirito could not quite place. "It returns to my hands... always. Without fail and no matter what I do." She had tried many things in the past, and the inevitable outcome was that the spear would eventually replace whatever weapon she had in her hands.

"It is a bound item," Kirito explained for Silica's sake. "Probably the first of its kind. It can't be traded, nor dropped... perhaps destroyed?"

Sinon shook her head. "I once threw it... off the edge of the world," she said wistfully.

Kirito and Silica shared an alarmed look before turning to stare at her.

"From the moment I finished that quest and I had the reward in my hands... I tossed it away, into the woods. But it went back into my hands before I could take a single step. It couldn't be destroyed either, its durability doesn't go down... so I tried moving it around—into an old storage box. It always appeared back."

She remembered the feeling then, as if it were yesterday. The quest had been all she had known, and the reward was as unfulfilling as she had always known it would be. In completing it, she had ensured that her friends had not sacrificed in vain. But she had always felt that the spear felt too heavy in her hands.

"Then, I threw it off the edge of the world, and watched as it fell into nothingness." She remembered the relief as well as the grief as she watched it soar into the clouds. "Of course, the very next day it appeared back as if nothing had happened."

For Sinon, the weapon was as much of a curse as it was a blessing.

Kirito simply nodded, and gave her shoulder a firm squeeze. She sent him a grateful look. He knew it felt like to have a reward only due to the sacrifice of others. His best sword had been earned through the blood sacrifice of fellow players, and many amongst the clearers had equipment with bloody origins. Yet, they all knew that to not use them was to spit in their memory and sacrifice.

Thankfully the silent mood did not last for long as they soon came upon the breeding grounds for the «Greater Horned Rabbits». Kirito held up a hand and they slowed their pace down considerably. They were all well-accustomed to his commands during battle, and it showed even outside of it. Two quick gestures of his hand and Kirito was crouched beside a tree, covered by a few bushes. To his left, Silica kneeled silently, while Sinon did the same to his right.

Before them, a few stone-throws away, was a single rabbit, grazing happily upon the tall grass. Its tell-tale horn could be seen waving out of the grass and it was that motion that had caught his eye.

He slowly brought the spear given to him, and raised it upwards in a throwing motion that he had seen his white-haired friend do many times before. Briefly, he glanced at Sinon, only to see a smirk forming on her round face.

"Aim carefully, Kirito-kun," she whispered. "Try not to miss."

"Good luck, Kirito-kun," Silica whispered to his left, an excited look on face. Pina, having perched on her head, looked on with curiosity.

He took in a deep breath, eyes focused on his target, already estimating the amount of strength he needed to put into his own «Weapon Throw». He had practiced before, not with spears, but with swords and knives in the rare cases where they needed to rely on ranged damage. It had never happened before, so he had yet to put into practice. But he trusted his coordination, and was confident in his ability to calculate his strength relative to the game. Most players had to be, in order to do the insane acts of physical manipulation that they did during boss battles.

The horned rabbit perked up, as if sensing his ill intent, but it did not bolt, giving Kirito plenty of time to aim. He pulled his arm back, gripping the spear tightly. Already, the red glow of the general «Sword Skill» enveloped his weapon, and he knew he could not delay any longer.

Thus, he fired, throwing the spear like a javelin over his head.

It soared towards its target. For a split second, all spectators held their breath as it flew in a perfect arc, almost as if it would rain down at its target without concern...until it continued to fly, well past its intended target, and past the treelines as well.

All of them, dragon familiar included, watched in awe as the spear disappeared into the canopy of the forest.

Then there was laughter. An uncharacteristically loud and joyful laughter as Sinon rolled on the forest floor, prompting Silica to join her as they laughed and gasped out-of-breath at Kirito's expression.

Kirito could do nothing but scowl as he spotted his target sprinting away rapidly into the woods. Though the slight twitch on his lips betrayed his true feelings... as well as the light blush on his cheeks.


"This is the place, right?"

The two of them stared at the dilapidated building with skepticism. It was run-down, as was many of the buildings in the current district that they were in. The Town of Beginnings had many districts, some more established than others. They were currently in one of the poorer districts, judging by the dirty roads and the behavior of the NPCs.

Not many players bothered to visit the workers district, unless it was for a fetch. They had no reason to, as the accommodations here were almost non-existent, and its inhabitants were unwelcoming. It would have to be an incredibly compelling reason for anyone to want to open up shop in this district.

Or perhaps the person was simply strange.

"It is," Kirito said with a sigh, approaching the wooden door with a frown. "Of course Argo had to send us to him..."

Lisbeth eyed the door warily, hiding just behind his right. "He's competent right? Argo isn't playing a trick on us right?"

He gave her a wry look. "Competent I guess... his information is always accurate."

Not bothering to knock, he pushed open the wooden door and stepped inside with Lisbeth in tow. For a second he saw nothing, and had to blink rapidly to adjust to the utter darkness of the room. It was dimly lit, with nothing but a few candles in key areas to illuminate the room. As the flames flickered and the light swayed, they saw stacks of books, knicknacks, and other assorted goods on shelves and even on the floor.


Lisbeth was right to be wary, as she glanced at a string of skulls tied together hanging from the low ceiling. She let out a girlish noise as she stumbled on something hard, and glanced down to see that it was a skeleton.

Kirito merely rolled his eyes, but allowed Lisbeth to grab his arm in for support. "The decor is as bad as always."

There was movement near the back, and the two players had to squint their eyes to see the outline of a wooden desk. A fresh candle was lit, casting its glow on a new face, hooded and intimidating in the low light. The figure glanced at them before sitting down at the flimsy wooden desk, steepling his fingers together.

"Welcome, weary travelers... to the Shadow's Nest. I am Shadow, a merchant and information broker of some renown... I can acquire goods, information—anything for the right price."

Kirito could tell that Lisbeth was bewildered. He fought the desire to palm his face in exasperation. "Hiro, please drop the act."

The figure gasped and spluttered as his imposing image was shattered. "H-how do you know my mortal name? You—oh it's you."

Kirito dragged Lisbeth right up to the desk, the light illuminating all of them despite its dim glow.

"You really need better lighting, Hiro... or maybe just a better place." He glanced around at the scattered mess surrounding the desk. There were piles of equipment and useless items just sitting in stacks around them.

"It's part of the charm, Kirito-san, you wouldn't understand." The figure—now revealed to be a brown-haired boy around their age—leaned back in his chair and gave Kirito an exasperated look. "Must you always tear me down like Argo-san? I thought you and I were comrades!"

Lisbeth sent him an accusing look.

"Oi, don't lump me in with your delusions." He shot the younger boy a look. "You were much more tolerable in the beginning..."

Hiro crossed his arms. "Hmph, I have only grown stronger since then Kirito-san, beware my powers of—"

"Delusion," he whispered to Lisbeth.

"—shadow and death, many have been driven insane from a mere glance at my entirety..."

He stopped as Lisbeth started to giggle.

"A-anyway, what are you doing here?"

"We're here for information regarding the hidden dwarf quest."

Hiro sat up, his eyes glinting in a familiar way. They had both seen that same look on Argo's face many times.

"Oh? I'm not sure what you're talking about..."

Kirito sighed, crossing his own arms. "Come on, Hiro, this is Argo we're talking about." They all knew who had informed them of the information.

"She found out so fast..." the information broker muttered to himself before coughing into a hand. "Anyway, maybe I do know what you're referring to, or maybe I don't. The question is, what is it worth to you?"

They shared a look, a battle of wills taking place the second that their eyes met.

"How much?"

"I think it is worth at least this much," the broker replied, holding several fingers up.

"Ridiculous. That's almost the cost of a mid-tier weapon."

"The information is good, Kirito-san. How about this much?" Yet again many fingers were up.

Kirito narrowed his eyes. "You're not trying to price gouge us because of our status, right?"

The broker grinned with an open palm. "Of course not, Kirito-san, I'm a professional." His eyes glinted in the dim light. "Though I'm sure someone with your considerable resources can afford my prices."

Lisbeth watched the back and forth, not sure if she should jump in or not. She was not unfamiliar with bartering, and she could already tell that Hiro was a stingy merchant in the worst ways. Yet she knew that Kirito could handle him better than she could. He had managed to tame Argo after all.

As if reading her mind, Kirito suddenly smirked. "How about a trade?"

Hiro sat up straight, his movement betraying his degree of interest despite the aloof look. "Oh? I'm not against it depending on what you have to offer..."

Everyone knew that the top guilds in the game had the best items around. It was simply a fact of life due to the sheer difference in farming speed and the difficulty of the mobs they hunted. The Royal Swords in particular tended to circulate a large amount of rare items through their merchant contacts. There were many items that he would be willing to trade for information.

The item that Kirito soon materialized into his hands however, was not one such item.

"Are you kidding me?"

Kirito merely grinned at the reaction, winking at the stunned Lisbeth before turning back to the affronted information broker. "You don't even know what it is yet."

"It's a sandwich."

Indeed, the item revealed in his hands was a simple sandwich for the most part. Fluffy white bread enveloping some lettuce and meat. It was certainly a regular sandwich for the most part, and it might have been bought from an NPC shop at first glance.

Lisbeth shot Kirito a deadpan look. "Oi, Kirito-kun, I know Asuna-chan's sandwiches are your favourite but trying to barter with it... really?"

Suddenly Hiro slammed his hands on the desk and stood up. "A sandwich made by Asuna-dono?"

The two players from the Swords stared at the boy who was now certainly drooling into his sleeves.

Kirito smirked. "Indeed, Hiro. Guess what the sauce is?"

"I-it can't be..." His eyes latched onto the sandwich, following its movements as Kirito dangled it tantalizingly in the air. "M-mayo?"

"Japanese mayo," Kirito answered smugly.

Asuna had been practicing for many months, experimenting with all sorts of ingredients in order to recreate the sauce. She had finally assembled something that recreated the taste and texture almost exactly, and had now moved on to trying to perfectly recreate soy sauce.

Lisbeth raised an eyebrow, looking between the two of them oddly. Surely that won't work, right? It's just a sandwich. She loved Asuna's sandwiches, but she didn't think that anyone would give up a weapons-worth of col for just one. Perhaps she has been spoiled by the consistently delicious food to realize the dearth of Japanese food that the other players were suffering from.


Kirito was smug while Lisbeth stared blankly. The two of them watched on as the enthusiastic information broker promptly took the sandwich and dived into it. He made guttural noises of content between each bite, and Lisbeth thought she could almost see tears streaming down his face.

Sighing, she fought the urge to palm her face. "Did we really just trade a sandwich for information?"



The light of the sun soon vanished as they walked through the iron-wrought gates of the mountain, replaced by rows upon rows of torches casting their orange glow onto the large stone hall. The air was stuffy the deeper they went into the slouching halls, but there was a slow, almost gentle breeze that rolled throughout the cavernous mountain.

The two of them had a long ways to walk before they could reach the main town of the dwarven level, as the only alternative to the long trek was to pay for a minecart ride. Kirito, being as he was, would have loved to take another ride on the deathtrap of a faux rollercoaster ride. Lisbeth however, being far more sensible and appreciative of her own life, preferred to walk down the sloping caverns.

Kirito didn't mind, as the two spent the time in peaceful company. It was certainly a change of pace from the other floors, but it was nice in its own way. Atmospheric, he would say, and many players would agree with him. The elven level was a favourite to many.

"Been a while since we've come here," Kirito mused aloud.

Lisbeth hummed in agreement, her focus on the chat window before her. She hastily typed out a reply to a player request before going to the next message in her queue. "There were a lot of quests on this level. It's too bad the rewards were rarely worth it."

"Yeah. The dwarves are quite stingy." Many players did not enjoy the attitude of the dwarf NPCs, as they tended to be rude and stern to outsiders. "Though you didn't seem to mind."

Their dedicated blacksmith shrugged. "It's a great place to be for materials, and besides," she poked his shoulder, "who do you think forced me to get so many materials in the first place?"

Kirito grinned, looking innocent. "Thanks for that."

Lisbeth huffed. "You know nothing of my suffering, Kirito-kun! Hours upon hours of moving items around, pressing buttons, and hammering..."

"There there." He reached out with a hand and patted her head, getting a glare in return.

"So underappreciated," she murmured to herself.

"I appreciate you," he suddenly interjected.

"W-what?" She could not help the way she suddenly felt flushed. "Really?"

Kirito smiled, in that boyish way of his. "Of course, Lisbeth. I always appreciate what you do for me. There's no other blacksmith like you."

Lisbeth, for all of her easy-going nature, was still weak to compliments. Especially if it came from Kirito.

"Besides, I remember somebody telling me a long time ago that extra payment was not needed, and that I only needed to promise to—what was it... ah, to think of her every time I used my swords."

"Gah!" Lisbeth brought both of her hands up to shield her blushing cheeks.

"Oh? Are you embarrassed, Lisbeth?" Kirito leaned into her personal space, enjoying the way she was averting her eyes. She was quite cute when she was flustered.

"I was hoping you would forget that..." she muttered, though she couldn't help the feelings within her that was reeling in happiness.

They came upon the end of the long hall, and it opened up to a cavern of unparallelled size. It was as if they were transported to another world, as the dwarven town came into view, surrounded by a lake of glimmering green. It stood as a testament to dwarven ingenuity, and its glowing white walls gleamed in the dim light. Overhead, the impossibly tall cavern ceiling could not be seen with the naked eye, and it was as if they were in a world with an endless night sky.

It was beautiful in its design, and not even the subpar lighting from the torches could dim that fact. Unfortunately, there was no direct path to the town from where they were. There was only a series of circular and winding paths reminiscent of a strip mine that slowly led the players to the stone bridge into the town.

Kirito shared a look with Lisbeth, his eyes suddenly gleaming in the glow of the cavern.

"No, Kirito," Lisbeth immediately said, trying her best to appear stern. She could already tell what his mischievous look entailed.

"It's the fastest way, Lisbeth." He tried to appear serious, but his eyes gave him away, as they were filled with mirth.

"No!" Lisbeth looked down, at the height difference between each path, and shivered.


"Uhg!" She knew that she couldn't fight against Kirito's eyes. "Fine, but at least let me do it—eep!"

Kirito suddenly scooped her up into a bridal carry, and she reflexively reached up with her arms, wrapping them securely around his neck. She felt flushed from the closeness of his body, and she knew that the warm feeling spreading throughout her body was not due to the boy's body heat. Though he did feel unnaturally warm.

"Kirito! You let me down this instant!"

He smirked downwards at her flushed face, bending his knees down slightly, preparing for a jump.

"Y-you wouldn't dare! ...Kirito?!"

Then, he leapt off the edge, gracefully positioning the two of them in preparation for landing onto the next path down. It was a long drop, and the scattering of players and NPCs could only watch with a bewildered expression on their faces as they heard two sets of voices screaming into the deep cavern.

One voice was of a roaring laughter and excitement; its owner was clearly one who enjoyed the thrill of leaping dangerously through the air. The other voice was girly, and though she would hit anyone who said so, it was undoubtedly cute. It was the screaming of a girl who did not enjoy the thrill quite like her captor.

Yet, if you looked closer, you would see that her eyes were closed tightly, her face pressed tightly against the boy's chest, and that her expression was not that of fright. Her mouth was set into a most serene smile, and even her grip was relaxed.

Although Lisbeth would never admit it, she would always feel safe in Kirito's arms.


The town was quiet for the most part, and the two of them were thankful of that fact given that they were usually accompanied by stares and whispers wherever they went. Their policy of always having at least two of them together did give them an excuse to ignore most of the population, but being away from crowds was always their preference.

Sometimes however, it didn't work.

He watched on silently as Lisbeth conversed with two players who had walked up to her under the pretense of advice. Lisbeth was something of a star in the crafting world, and all the blacksmiths and other crafters knew of her. In the beginning of the game, she had led them in terms of innovation and diligence. Though as their party and guild grew, she took on less and less requests. But that did little to dampen her popularity amongst the crafters of the game.

She was informing the two players on how to best approach the next tier of weapons-crafting, and the two males were listening with rapt attention. He could hardly fault them for coming to Lisbeth for advice, as she was typically nice to those who were polite. Too nice at times, however, as he saw the way that they were looking at her.

Lisbeth's short pink hair shimmered in the light, her bangs held back by a simple blue clip that showed its azure luster. Their uniform of white, trimmed in gold and black fitted the blacksmith rather well, and the skirt only enhanced her look. Sometimes he regretted the fact that Ashley always did such an amazing job with their uniforms, as the amount of attention from the male players was quite annoying.

Catching his eyes, she smiled at him, then turned back to the players. She spoke quickly, answering a few of their questions, and then seamlessly backed away, giving them a quick wave before hastily joining him. The two players obviously wanted more time with the famous blacksmith, but could do nothing but walk away after being dismissed.

"Sorry about that, Kirito-kun," she apologized as he straightened up from his leaning posture on the wall.

He shook his head. "No worries, Lisbeth." He handed her an extra meat skewer that he bought from one of the stalls in the area. It was quite good, even though he had no idea what meat it was. «Unidentified Meat Skewer» tended to be tasty depending on the day and your luck, even if most of the players didn't agree.

Lisbeth took the skewer absently, bit into it, and then promptly spat it out. "K-kirito, how can you eat this?"

Kirito shrugged. "What? It's good." He accepted the skewer back and proceeded to eat the rest. It tasted like chicken mixed with beef mixed with cheese.

She eyed him blearily. "Sometimes... I swear..."

He smiled, then proceeded to lead them towards the crafting district. She fell into step with him, their shoulders touching in the compact alleyways that they were passing through. Though there were only crafters and the occasional low-levelled player in the town, their habit of avoiding the main streets was almost ingrained into them at this point.

"You don't have to always talk to them you know."

Lisbeth stared at him quizzically. "Kirito-kun?"

"The other players. You don't always have to answer them if they come up to you," he explained.

She looked sheepish. "I know... " It was something that Asuna and Argo had talked to her about as well. "It's not that I want to, it's just... I feel like I have to, you know?"

She would always remember the early days of the game, when she was as lost and desperate as the most hopeless of players. Doing her best to assist her fellow crafters was her way of contributing to the clearing effort in her own unique way. In the beginning, she knew that she would never have made it without the help of some of the more veteran players. And Kirito. Without Kirito, she would have struggled immensely in the beginning, and she didn't know if she would have kept being a blacksmith, much less a clearer.

"I want to help where I can," she said in explanation. "It's something that I can do, right?"

Kirito nodded slowly. "I know, Lisbeth, you're the best blacksmith in the game by far." She blushed at that once more. "No one has more experience than you in crafting weapons and armour." Lisbeth had experience with almost every crafting material in the game, and knew the optimal upgrading paths for every equipment type. "But don't force yourself to help all the time."

Lisbeth smiled. "Alright," she agreed softly.

Kirito's concern for her was touching in ways that she had never known. For all of her life, she had always been the upbeat, tomboyish girl amongst her peers. She rarely appeared to be sad or unhappy, and was always someone that was available to talk to. It was not as if she was always happy, that was far from the truth. It was her image: to be someone easy-going and approachable. She had been hoping to break away from that image in junior high, but after it did not work out, she hoped that a virtual world would help instead.

And it did. It had helped her grow as a person, despite being trapped in a world filled with danger. There was no time for niceties when being polite could possibly cause someone's death. That was why she was extremely harsh in her advice and policies. She did not want to be responsible for another person's death should they choose to utilize her services. Where other vendors and merchants would happily accept col for subpar weapons and equipment, she would only deal with the best equipment for their respective item levels. It was probably why she had earned her moniker as «Unyielding», much to her chagrin.

They arrived at the crafting district, with the telltale signs being the smoke of the forges and constant sounds of metal being hammered and shaped. The district could be summed up by the gigantic statue in the centre of the square. It was an anvil, almost the size of a small house, made of obsidian, and created as a symbol of dwarven craftsmanship.

Kirito led them towards the end of the district, and chose the unremarkable shop towards the left. A sign on the shop indicated that it was the «First Forge», an unpopular equipment shop in comparison to the others in the area. The reason why the shop was hated amongst crafters and players alike was obvious the moment you stepped into the shop.

"Oi! Get out of the way you brats!" A deep, stern voice called out to them, and the two members of the Swords had to jump out of the way as a dwarf moved past them carrying a pile of ingots in between his arms.

Lisbeth glared at the retreating back of the dwarf, already disliking the shop. It had only taken one visit to the shop for most players to be turned off by the rude NPCs within.

"Are you sure this is the place, Kirito-kun?" she asked with her arms crossed.

Kirito scratched his cheeks awkwardly. "Looks like it... the information better be correct," he muttered.

"Human," a gruff voice called out from behind them, and they turned to see another dwarf with similar physical features as the previous one. The dwarven NPC was stout in his build, with bulging arms and a squarish face. He may have been intimidating if not for the fact that he was shorter than even Silica. Still, his ash-riddled face and grey hair with burnt ends made for a remarkable sight. "What do you want?"

"Greetings, Magnen, son of Magnar," Kirito said, slowly, and making sure to enunciate the name correctly.

The dwarf, Magnen, grunted in reply. "This ain't a place for sightseeing, boy. Out with it, what do you want?"

"We are in search of weaponry," he said in answer, getting straight to the point.

Another dwarf came up from behind Magnen. "We don't take orders from humans. Go take your request to the merchant's district, this ain't a shop for feeble folk."

Lisbeth looked quite angry as she stared between the two rude Dwarves.

Kirito shook his head. "We have been to the merchants. They do not have weapons that are better than what we currently have." He knew that they had to play the conversation carefully. "We were hoping that there would be a dwarven-forged weapon that could compare."

The two dwarves bristled at the implication. "What did you say, human? Are you suggesting that our dwarven-made steel is not good enough?"

There was a dangerous glint in the dwarf's eyes, and suddenly Kirito realized that all motion in the store had stopped. The half-dozen or so dwarves in the building had all halted their motions of crafting and had turned to stare at them. He fought the urge to visibly swallow the lump in his throat, and instead, steeled his emotions.

"We were hoping to be proven wrong," he said slowly knowing that he was only adding fuel to the fire.

Magnen bristled, his expression furious as he snarled out his next words. "And you will be! Brulgrim, bring up our finest swords!" The dwarf to his left immediately bolted towards the back of the shop, while the rest of the shop's occupants crowded around Magnen, their arms crossed and their expressions of anger mirroring their leader's.

"Kirito-kun..." Lisbeth whispered to his right, her tone worried. "Are you sure about this?"

He nodded. "This should go according to the information." Though he had said it with confidence, he was still feeling hesitation.

NPCs in Aincrad were not powerless like in other games. In the beta, it had been amusing to mess around and even provoke fights with the life-like NPCs. Their reactions were realistic and the results had always been humorous even if it resulted in the player being arrested or fined by the impossibly strong guard NPCs.

In their current death game, being jailed or arrested was no longer humorous. You couldn't simply log out of the game and come back the next day to be released. No, once arrested, the player had to serve out the sentence like a true criminal. It meant days or even weeks—depending on the severity of the crime—of sitting in a small jail cell, eating nothing but bread and water. Additionally, the messaging functionality was disabled and there was no appeal process.

It was an experience that Kirito certainly did not want to experience.

They did not have to wait long as the younger dwarf, Brulgrim, brought up four swords and laid them onto the crafting table in the middle of the shop. Immediately, they could all tell that they were of high quality. Two of them were gold long-swords, their handles encrusted with red and blue gems. They were followed by a battle-axe made of a shimmering blue metal, and a dagger of the purest black.

"These are my finest creations—forged using techniques a thousand years old," Magnen intoned, his voice ominous. "They are fit for a king."

Lisbeth peered over them with an experienced eye, already wanting to use her inspection skill on them, but knew better than to provoke their anger further. Still, she could tell that the weapons were of high quality. Yet, given their current location—a place on the 27th floor—she knew that they couldn't compare to the weapons that they currently wielded. The difference in item levels would be incomparable.

Kirito slowly reached out to his back, where his criss-crossed swords were sheathed, and carefully brought out his favoured sword: «Elucidator». This was now the most difficult part of their quest. Technically, a player was not supposed to brandish their weapons towards NPCs without reason. In most cases, NPCs such as blacksmiths, would not care in the slightest, and would assume that you were bringing your weapon in for repair or refinement. Yet, in their current situation, it wouldn't be a stretch for one of the dwarves to call for the guards and point their fingers at him.

In Aincrad, the NPCs were frighteningly smart. It was a fact that Kirito had quickly realized in the beta, and it was only cemented the further they went into the game. The humanoid NPCs in particular, were extraordinarily life-like. They could hold conversation in limited cases, they could invoke emotion, and they could even learn. The most frightening aspect of NPCs however, had to be their individual sense of self.

He remembered an incident on the elven floor, where a player had made a joking remark to an NPC about the legality of the goods that they were selling. In the next moment, his joke was construed for libel, and the guards were called. The player ended up spending the day in a jail cell, and had promptly warned all the players about relaxing their guard around the smart humanoid NPCs.

Thankfully, Magnen and his brood did not call the guards, and merely watched on as he placed the dark blade onto the crafting table, next to the other weapons. Immediately, their reactions changed.

"By the gods..."

"What is this metal?"


"Impossible. Just impossible."

They crowded around the sword, hands touching and inspecting all areas of the sword. One of them even attempted to lift it to no avail, only budging it slightly to the left. It was clear that these dwarves were crafters first, and everything else second, for they quickly forgot any of their previous animosity.

Kirito and Lisbeth were both wide-eyed as they saw the dwarves reduced to veritable children as they fought over a position nearest to the dark sword. Kirito expected that they would have continued on for hours if he did not decide to interrupt them with a cough.

"Well? Magnen?" he asked, calling out the leader of the dwarven blacksmiths.

The stony-faced dwarf gave him a heavy look, and for a second, Kirito was worried that his attempt failed. "You have us at a lost, Human." The admission looked visibly painful on the dwarf's face. "There can be no doubt. There is nothing in our shop—or even this district—that can compare to that sword."

Kirito made sure that his expression was of pure disappoint as he spoke to the somber dwarves. "I see, and here I was hoping that the dwarves might have something that could compare to my blade." He hid a smirk as they bristled at the slight. "Ah well, my apologies for wasting your time, honoured dwarves. My companion and I will try asking the elves."

He turned to leave, and did not even take a single step when the protests began.

"Now wait just a minute!"


"The long-eared wimps?"

"You are joking!"

Kirito shared a knowing look with Lisbeth. "I'm sorry, but we must. There is nothing to be done here if you cannot help me."

Magnen, raised a hand, silencing the rest of his cohort. "There is a way. If only we had access to silver metal. Perhaps..."

"Magnen! You cannot be serious, we must not speak of it to outsiders!"

"Enough. I doubt that they will succeed, and I grow tired of groveling at the feet of the royal treasury for a sliver of silver steel. If we had bars—several bars—ah... the things we could do." Magnen had a wide smile on his face. "Well, lad? How about it? Care to find us some mithril?"

Mithril. The keyword was spoken, and Kirito didn't bother holding back his grin. The quest window soon popped up and he didn't hesitate before accepting it. «Extra Quest: Explore the Ancient Mine» was now in progress. He smiled at Lisbeth and received one back, both of them excited at the prospect of unlocking access to the rare metal.


"Dinner is ready, Kirito-sama, Argo-sama."

He looked up from the newspaper he was reading and smiled at the speaker. "Thank you, Lily."

"Mmm, dinner?" A bleary question was asked from the girl was dozing, using his lap as a pillow.

"Yep," Kirito answered, finishing his section of the paper with a grin before settling it down onto the coffee table. "How long are you going to use me as a pillow for, Argo?"

"You're comfy~" she whined, and made no move to get up.

Her feet was sprawled all along the couch and she looked comfortable despite the way her curly auburn hair was splayed in many directions. She had forgone her usual whiskered makeup today, as she had chosen to stay home and relax. Argo without her whiskers was a rare sight to see, and Kirito couldn't deny the fact that she was a cute girl. If not for the fact that she liked to wear her hood up all the time, coupled with her attitude, she might have had her own fanclub from the male population of Aincrad.

"What were you reading anyway, Kiri-bou?" She yawned lightly as she slowly sat up, rubbing the tiredness from her eyes. Though she had merely dozed off, and not slept—else they would've needed to message her in order to wake her up—she was still feeling the laziness that came with dozing comfortably. She decided that Kirito was a perfect pillow—though she had already known that fact all along.

"Just scanning the updates section," he answered truthfully. He chose not to read the newspaper most of the time as it was filled with rumours for the most part. Argo and the girls filled him in on any relevant news in any case. This time however, an article had actually caught his attention. "I can't believe how popular Yuna is..."

Argo smirked. "I know right? Not even I knew how talented she was. At this rate, she might even overtake Asuna-chi in popularity."

They should have known how the general population might have reacted to Yuna and her makeshift concert. The majority of the players were heavily into idols after all, and the fact that they had one in their midst had not gone unnoticed. Overnight, she had turned into a sensation that was talked about with awe. A crowd of admirers had formed immediately the next day, following her around whenever she was spotted and even trying to get into their rented guild estate.

"She would like that," he said agreeingly. Asuna had never been fond of her popularity amongst the rest of the players. "Is Yuna okay with the attention?" he asked.

"Mmhm. Her squad knows what to do. The other members know as well." Argo smiled, remembering the fierceness that Yuna's squad had shown during the concert and afterwards. "I'll arrange for some more help in the coming days. It wouldn't do for our own idol to feel overwhelmed ya know?"

Kirito nodded. "Right... our idol?" He gave her a look. "Please take it easy on Yuna."

Argo merely shrugged with a mischievous grin as the two of them entered the dining room. A long wooden table had been set near the opened doors leading out into the deck. A cool breeze rolled through the room, and the candles placed along the rectangular table flickered in its wake. Already, he could see that the rest of the girls were sat on the table, chatting amongst one another. Only Asuna was standing up, doing last minute adjustments in the kitchen area.

He joined Asuna by the counters, while Argo joined the rest of the girls. "Need any help?"

"Kirito-kun." She gave him a bright smile. "It's all finished. Help me bring it in."

He nodded and helped her with a couple of platters of food, following her as they brought the food to the table. Of course, player-made food was still considered an item, and could easily be sorted into your inventory and rematerialized later. Asuna however, preferred the ceremony of cooking and bringing out the food just like in reality.

Asuna placed the several plates down in the middle of the table while Kirito did the same, then they sat, with Kirito at the head of the table and Asuna sitting next to Lisbeth on the right. To his left, was Silica, Sinon, and Argo. There were two occupants missing however, and almost as if sensing his thoughts, they came into the room with pitchers of water and iced tea as well as cups. The two self-appointed maids of their house set down their load before proceeding to pour for the rest of the group.

He thanked the two of them, and smiled as they finally sat down on the table, one on each side. It had taken them a month or so in the beginning to convince the twins to join them for their meals. They had protested at first, not wanting to be a bother or wanting to intrude on their personal time. But they had finally caved, and now enjoyed their meals as one of their own.

Dinner was a simple and light-hearted affair. Yet he loved every single moment.

"Itadakimasu!" The shout was taken up by all of them before they dove into their food.

Kirito was already drooling by the time he had popped the first piece of fried chicken into his mouth. "Mmm..."

"That good, huh?" Lisbeth asked with a smirk, as she—and the rest of the girls—looked on in amusement.

"Ish.. sho... good." Kirito was mumbling in happiness between bites. Fried food in the game was certainly a guilty pleasure for everyone, but fried chicken made by Asuna had to be in the same category as heaven.

Asuna giggled, and her eyes seemed to shine in the glow of the candles as she gave him a fond look. "Don't forget your salad, Kirito-kun."

"Yes, ma'am." He had never figured out why Asuna always insisted on a balanced meal despite the fact that they were in a world where nutrients and calories were nonexistent. If a player wanted to eat only chocolate bars for every meal, then it was perfectly fine. He would, of course, never say that to her face.

"This stew is amazing, Asuna-chan."

Silica's statement was echoed by all, as they all took spoonfuls of their stew.

"Not quite like the Ragout rabbit one, but these A-ranked rabbits are still good too," Asuna said with a smile.

"We got quite the haul today," Sinon added with a knowing look at Kirito. "Somebody felt the need to hunt down the entire nest for some reason."

The girls laughed as Kirito looked away in slight embarrassment. He had felt the need to prove himself after his attempt at spear-throwing. Hunting down the rest of the rabbits with his throwing picks had been rather trivial, and even Silica managed to get one in the end with a knife. Though his pride had been wounded, in the end it had made a funny story for the girls.

"Better us than some other players," he said sagely, with a serious expression that none of them could take seriously.

Conversation around the table was quiet and light as they all ate, only picking up as everyone finished. Laughter and giggling as Asuna told them of recent events regarding the guild. Shouts of indignation as Argo began to tease Lisbeth heavily about something, much to the pinkette's chagrin. Questions and answers from the twins regarding future projects and events. Excited murmuring as Asuna brought in the desert: a chocolate cake straight out of Parisian fantasy.

These were everyday scenes, played out almost monotonously. Yet, Kirito would never trade a single second here with anywhere else in the world.

Soon, conversation died off and heads began to nod off. The time was late, marked by the candles approaching the halfway points.

Lisbeth yawned heavily, stretching before looking out at the deck, where the moonlit night sky was reflecting its glow onto the lake before them, shimmering and glistening. She turned a lazy eye towards the rest of the group before speaking. "Bath?"

Asuna nodded. "Bath."

The girls all moved as one towards the stairs, accustomed to the routine already.

"Don't peak now, Kiri-bou~" Argo said in a teasing tone as she passed him. "On second thought, please do?"

He groaned lightly, and sent her a sharp look. She giggled at him, and even the girls all laughed at his affronted expression.

Soon he was left alone at the table, staring out into the night, at the ethereal mountains and the twinkling twilight. Kirito could say that he enjoyed the night quite a bit more than the mornings these days. It was at night, after the often hectic activities of the day, that he could finally relax and put to rest the thoughts that were haunting him.

There were of course, many things that troubled him. Topics of concern, that he was sure many others shared as well, but he would not be the one to say them aloud. Clearing was going tremendously well, and they were setting records at the speed they were going through each floor. They were already at floor fifty-seven, and their pace did not seem to be slowing down at all. Yet for all of their success, he could not help but feel that they were becoming complacent again.

The frontlines were hardened, secured through routines and rules that they all adhered to, but there had been incidents still. A few clearers who had maxed out the «Scan» skill had noticed being followed by mysterious players a few times. The incidents did not prove to be anything in the end, as their stalkers moved out of their radius as soon as they noticed being tracked, but just the mere thought that they were being tracked caused many to be uneasy.

Kirito could already guess as to who the stalkers were. The player killings had been rare enough in the first place, and usually restricted to players who headed out recklessly or unknowingly. With the buzz surrounding the fiftieth floor, many players had already forgotten about the terror of the player killers. Kirito however, was not one of them. He kept an ear to the ground regarding any rumours of them, and so had Argo.

They had heard nothing.

The lack of information was just as frightening. He knew that these were not the type of individuals to stop and turn a new leaf. When all was said and done, killing another person inside of Aincrad was a horrific task. There was no pain, nothing to indicate that your body was being brutalized. But there was fear, and terror, almost enough to put a stop to your heart at the sight of your own health bar dropping into the low reds. To hear the screams, to see the absolute fear inside the eyes of the victims... and to continue. The only way to ignore all of that and still kill... was to be a monster.

Shaking his head, Kirito stood up and made his way up the stairs. Along the way to his bedroom, he heard shrieking, giggling, and noises that he definitely did not want to think upon. Dangerous. The door to their baths was a dangerous area while the girls were in there, and he did not want to remain near it for long. The girls were too relaxed around him, and though he was happy that they felt that way around him, he could not be happy about the incidents that kept happening around him.

Then, as if some mysterious entity above had heard his inner turmoil, the doors to the baths were pushed open with a bang, and something—a person—shot out of it.

"The new shampoo was on the table... dresser..."

Kirito looked like a deer in headlights.

"Lisbeth, what's wrong?"

Lisbeth, her silky smooth pink hair wet with water, and her eyes wide and panicked. Kirito couldn't help but involuntarily trace the neckline, where luscious curves could be seen pressing against the white towel that she had around her.

He looked into her eyes. She looked right back.

"What is going on—Kirito-kun!" Asuna 'eeped' as she stepped slightly outside of the bathroom before retreating, giving him a glimpse of something that was only in his dreams.

He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it along with his eyes. Swiftly, he turned around and all but ran away in a hurried walk. It wouldn't do for them to see just how flushed he was in that moment.


The night was cold, on the verge of being uncomfortably so. Yet he did not mind the temperature, merely laying down on the roof of the house, with his hands held lazily behind his head. His eyes were on the sky; an endless amount of stars could be seen glittering. It was a sight that reminded him of the countryside, where a lot of his youth had been spent. Though it was a virtual sky, it still held beauty that was comparable.

Kirito wanted to see this view again. But not in Aincrad, as one could not fully enjoy their world knowing that they were mere prisoners. He wanted to go to the countryside once more, with his family, and with his dear friends.

He could already imagine their behavior during a road trip. Their reactions, their quips, their laughter and smiles as they spent time together. It would be chaotic as usual until they all eventually settled down. He would not have expected any less—nor did he want it to be any different.

The sounds of the night—of crickets and the soft rustling of wind against the tall trees—was interrupted by the distinct sound of movement slightly below him. Kirito felt her presence before she popped her head up, climbing up onto the roof by jumping onto the balcony railing like he did.

"Asuna," he greeted the chestnut-haired beauty as she stepped onto the slanted roof with him. She was as graceful as ever, lithe like any of the elven NPCs from the earlier levels, as she slowly made her way over to him.

"There you are, Kirito-kun," she said with a wry smile as she spotted his lazing form. Her attire caught his attention, as it tended to do these days, and he could not help but stare at the slim nightgown that she was wearing. White and silky. Asuna was a sight to behold, dressed in her silken nightgown.

He remained silent, though he gave no outward indication as to his nervousness as he patted to the spot next to him. Asuna obliged, smoothing out the ends of her nightgown before sitting down next to him on the slanted roof.

"I'm not sure if I like this new habit of yours, Kirito-kun," Asuna said as she gazed upwards, staring at what he had been looking at for the past half-hour.

"Hmm?" he intoned lazily, forcing his own gaze back out into the sky and not at the tempting sight next to him.

"The roof," she said softly. "You're not sleeping up here are you?"

He chuckled. "No way... I've only been up here a couple of times anyway."

"Three times," she corrected, receiving an odd look in return. Asuna looked away, a light flush on her cheeks. "W-what?"

"You're observant, Asuna," he said with a smile. He was touched, truly, knowing how much Asuna tried to look out for him. It was different from the rest of the girls. They all knew that he could handle himself, but Asuna... even if she knew that fact, still went out of her way to make sure that he was doing well. To some, it might have been annoying, to be doted on by a girl near your own age. But Kirito had always found it endearing.

Asuna did not respond, and Kirito could tell that she was embarrassed. Hiding his own grin, he went back to his stargazing. For a time, the two of them enjoyed each other's silence. It was the shared company of two individuals who knew each other like the back of their hands. They did not need to fill the air with meaningless conversation.

There was a sudden movement as Asuna leisurely stretched out with her hands before leaning backwards, joining him fully by laying on the roof. She was close, their shoulders were touching as she slowly turned herself sideways to stare at him. Kirito did the same, mirroring her actions, catching sight of her beautiful hazel eyes gazing into his own. The stars were immediately forgotten.

Her hair was slightly damp from the bath, and though it was a trivial action to dry your hair in the game, Asuna preferred leaving it as it were, and simply pulled her long hair into a ponytail for the time being. The change in hairstyle made her look different... mature. Though it could have been the fact that her neckline was quite exposed by her nightgown. If one bothered, their eyes could trail down slowly, and see the edges of—

"Kirito-kun..." Asuna peered unblinkingly into his eyes. It was that same gaze again. That look that he knew was special. Vulnerable and filled with such emotion, that he could not help but be lost in it every single time.

"Asuna," he answered back. He made a noise of surprise as she suddenly leaned forward, resting her head into the crook of his neck, and his swift reflexes adjusted their positioning so that his arms were now embracing her.

Soft. The feeling in his arms, the scent of lilacs and strawberries, the weight and feeling of the girl known as Asuna... he could only feel himself falling. And perhaps he already knew, that he would keep falling. For he knew that there was nothing in the world that he wouldn't do for the girl in his arms.

They were silent for a long time. Each of them enjoying the company of the other in a more intimate manner than what they were used to. If one could look onto the face of one rapier user, they would see that it was flushed, a brilliant shade of scarlet, yet the smile that featured on her face threatened to overtake everything else.

And Kirito, for all of his inexperience with the opposite sex, was undoubtedly enjoying himself. He had never known such feelings of warmth that was spreading through him, caused by the lithe girl that he was holding in his arms.

"Asuna...?" he asked in a whisper.

She shifted a bit, but made no move to disentangle herself from his hold. "Yes, Kirito-kun?"

He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. "What... what are we?"

It was a conversation that he had been pushing off, as cowardly as it might be. For the kiss with Asuna had done something to him that few things had ever done. It had unbalanced him. It was something that he did not know how to deal with. It was not reluctance, for he knew that in a way, Asuna was waiting for a reply. And he thought he knew what his reply would be, yet at the same time, he couldn't. Because things were more complicated than simply a girl and a boy.

Asuna shifted so that she could peer up at the boy holding her close. She held a wistful expression as she smiled. "I know what we are, Kirito-kun, and you do too."

He did know. There was no need for a label, and he doubted that there was one that fit them. All he knew was that he loved Asuna, and that she loved him. In another world it would have been simple, and yet...

"Asuna." He averted his gaze from her eyes, and instead chose to look into the distant skyline. "I don't want to hurt you... and the rest of the girls."

Kirito was not dense. Well, he was as dense as any other teenager who had zero romantic interactions with the opposite sex. But he was not ignorant of the fact that some of the girls in the house harboured much deeper feelings for him than simply those of a friend. He would have to be blind not to notice the looks that they gave him, the touches, and the smiles.

"So you did know," Asuna mumbled into his chest, causing him to tense. "We were all wondering if you were being deliberately dense, you know."

"Eh?" He blinked rapidly.

"Of course I know, Kirito-kun," Asuna answered, giggling. "It doesn't take a genius to know how much Argo-chan, Lisbeth-chan, and Sinon-chan love you."

The last name was news to him, and he looked down in confusion. "But then..."

She pressed a finger to his lips. "It's complicated," she admitted, suddenly a bit shy. "You are a complicated subject. We all know what we feel, and how the others feel, but we never say it out loud."

Maintaining the status quo was the easiest path for all of them. There would be no drama, no heartbreak, and nothing that would get in the way of their wonderful life together. Yet, at the same time, there would be no love... not to the level that they all desired. And love in itself was a selfish desire.

"Then why?" Kirito asked in a whisper.

"I couldn't stop myself," Asuna looked up at him shyly. It was the visage of a girl new to love, and wanting. "I feel myself falling for you, Kirito-kun... every single day that we spend together. I find myself thinking of you all the time, no matter where I am, and... and I can't help but want more." She sent him a hesitant look. "Does that make me a bad person?"

"No," he said quietly, but firmly.

"Would you think less of me, knowing this selfish side of me?" Asuna asked in a quiet voice.

Kirito did not have to think. "No, Asuna." His hold around the girl in his arms tightened. "I don't think i would ever think less of you."

"I know you wouldn't," Asuna whispered, and for a few moments their eyes were locked, lost in each other. "You're just not fair, Kirito-kun. Did you think I don't notice what you do for us—for me? You always try to stay up the latest, ensuring that we're all in bed before you do. You're there for us if we're scared or we have nightmares... you keep your door open for us every night."

It had been harder in the beginning with the girls. Nightmares and unsettling thoughts had been common during night times and events such as birthdays and celebrations. But Kirito had always been there for them, a silent listener offering his company and understanding.

"You always help out around the house when you can, with Rosy and Lily in the gardens, with me in the kitchen, with Lisbeth and Argos' work, with supporting Silica and the church... and what you've done for Sinon-chan." She pressed a soft hand to his warm cheeks. "Kirito-kun... you're too much."

"Asuna..." He felt himself lost for words.

"There is no easy solution for how we feel..." She closed her eyes in thought. "Someone told me recently that love is selfish... and that perhaps the best solution for all of us... is to be selfish together."

Selfish... together? Kirito gave her a look of confusion. "But..."

She pressed a finger to his lips. "I know, Kirito-kun. It'll be chaotic for a while, neh?" Asuna gave him a knowing look and a wide smile. "But no matter what... I think everything will be okay. For you, for me... for all of us."

He held her tight, his mind deep in thought. The girl known as Asuna had always been an inch away from the center of his heart, perhaps ever since the moment that she had given him her name. The distance between them had closed faster than what he had thought possible. And though he had tried to keep that distance, to not give in to baser desires, and to not ruin the beauty of their friendship... he could not do a thing against the feelings deep inside of his heart.

"Did you know, Kirito-kun? That I'm the happiest I've ever been... being here with you." She closed her own eyes, and tightened her grip on his chest. "Before you, Kirito-kun, I thought I was happy with my life. My family was better while I was younger, and though we've grown apart, I still believed that we were close. I had many friends at school—though now I see that we were merely acquaintances. My future... I had little ambition and no desire for much of anything. It was easy enough for me to simply follow the steps that my mother and father had planned for me..."

Kirito listened with rapt attention. Asuna was not one to share her past, much like himself, and though he had heard snippets in the past, he had never asked her directly about her life prior to the game.

"But now, Kirito-kun? I think if there was only one thing that I could wish for... it would be to be with you always..." Her eyes opened, vulnerable, deep, and beautiful. "Because I know that only you could make me feel this way... to make me believe, and to make me dream. I want to know all there is to know about you, Kirito-kun. I want to learn. I want to see. I want to experience." She looked shyly upwards, their eyes locked once more. "Is it too much of me? I don't—"

He leaned forward and kissed her. His lips matching against her own in a swift manner, and for a second, Asuna was confused and wide-eyed. Then, she kissed back, and Kirito felt himself falling once more. Falling for the girl that fought by his side. Falling for the girl that supported him every step of the way. Falling for the girl that made him dream of the future.

Falling for Yuuki Asuna.

Her eyes were half-lidded and wanting as they parted. Her cheeks were flushed, and the expression on her face was one that he had always envisioned in daydreams. Lovingly and breathtakingly flustered. Asuna was a sight to behold, and Kirito could not resist as he leaned in and stole her breath away with another kiss. And then another, as they repeatedly pressed their lips against each others, the yearning and desire shared between both of them.

He was falling, but at the same time, he knew that he had never really stopped, and perhaps would never stop.

Asuna smiled radiantly, her flushed expression illuminated in the glow of the moonlight. In that single, perfect moment, they knew only each other. There was nothing else in the world at that short moment, except for the warmth of two individuals who shared that instance.

"I love you, Kirito-kun."

Then, they kissed once more.


Author's Note:

Happy 2019 everyone, hope it has been good to all.

Everyone enjoying the new season of SAO? I know I am. The new arc only reminds me of how strong Kirito is as a swordsman — translating sword fighting in VR into 'reality' should be impossible, but we all know how OP he was in canon. So far it's been a fun, refreshing ride, with Kirito playing the bro role.

The Story:

Apologies for the delay, the chapter has been written for a while except for the last part. I'm satisfied with it now, though i'm sure it could've been much better. Expect to see more fluff/romance as we head into the next part of the story.

We all know how much Asuna loved Kirito in the original storyline, but somehow people forget the fact that she said she would rather die than be without him (was that in the anime? I forget). How much more intense would her feelings be if they had been together from the start? Living together in close proximity, spending every moment together. That goes for all of the girls too. But at the same time, it is harder to move on those feelings when you can see how it would affect those around you.

I've always been interested in the psychology of people stuck in life and death situations.

Thoughts and opinions are always appreciated, please PM me if you think i missed one of your questions.

Thanks for reading and the continued support!