Author's note: This is an alternate version of the SAO arc set after episode 9. All the essential details of the story, like Kirito being a beater and his meeting with Asuna, remain intact. But anything that actually happens in this story will be original content.

To recap: Kirito and gang have just defeated The Gleam Eyes, the boss on the 74th floor.

Chapter 1

Asuna was tired.

For every single day in the last two years, she had been working for more than twelve hours with little to no breaks. Yet her exhaustion was not a physical one – it was almost purely mental, a kind of heavy, sinking feeling in her chest she could do little to shake. It was not a feeling she could readily explain to others, but when she mentioned it to Kirito, he nodded as if he understood.

It was like she had taken the jumbled thoughts in her brain, distilled it into a usable item and traded it to Kirito. He was a quiet but thoughtful type – kind of a dreamer, she would have described him had this been real life. But in Sword Art Online, a virtual world where death felt more real than reality, Kirito's pondering seemed like aloofness, and the faraway look he had in his eyes held a purpose neither of them could put their finger on.

"I just want to take a break, you know," she said to him with a sigh. "I'm just… sick of all of this, I guess."

"What are you going to do when you're alone?" He glanced at her once, meaningfully, and then looked back down, the corners of his mouth twitching distinctly downwards.

Asuna wondered if he was upset. "I haven't thought yet," she replied. Her hand hovered over her rapier. Even though they were travelling through a safe zone, her survival habits were difficult to shake. "I'm trying to rediscover something, I guess."

"Like the taste of mayonnaise?"

Kirito's oblique reference to her cooking caused Asuna to smile. She had experimented so much with all the various ingredients in the SAO world she had maxed out her cooking stat. Really, it was such a joke. You couldn't master things in real life to the extent that further improvement was impossible. It was what made the whole thing so futile.

"Yeah, a little bit like that," she admitted.

"I hope your guild gives you the time off."

He meant it. She could see it in his face.

It made her feel a little light-headed, actually. "I hope so too," she said. It didn't seem like such an impossibility at that moment. "And what about you, Kirito-kun? What are you going to do?"

"Stay at Agil's," he muttered.

He didn't want to attract attention after he had revealed his Unique Skill. Asuna nodded at that. For now, it meant goodbye for them.

"It was nice to party with you, Kirito-kun. Let's do it again sometime."

He paused. It wasn't hesitation that crossed his features but rather a quick flash of something inscrutable. If Asuna had to make a guess, it was almost vulnerability.

Or maybe something else…?

"Okay," he said finally. "That'd be fun."

Their conversation trickled into silence, and together they kept on walking in wordless content. Soon it was time for them to part ways.

They stopped outside the looming steel tower of Knights of the Blood HQ. Kirito had agreed to walk her back to where she belonged before heading off in his own direction.

"Thanks for saving us all back in the dungeon," Asuna said, as she raised her hand in a farewell gesture. "You were a real hero out there."

He hesitated, as if about to refute her statement, but then he stopped and smiled, both sheepishly and with quiet pride. Neither of them could forget what had happened in that dungeon. "I'll see you later, Asuna," he said. With that, he activated his teleport crystal and promptly vanished with a light blue flash of light.

Asuna stood there at the gate for a moment, staring at the spot where Kirito had once been. Now that he was gone, an inexplicable sense of unease came over her, as if she would never see him again.

It was a silly thought. After his performance against The Gleam Eyes, Kirito was indisputably the strongest player in SAO.

Well, after Heathcliff, that was.

The Paladin gazed at Asuna with level eyes, resting his chin over his folded hands. He was not a terribly imposing figure to look at, but his presence made you want to sit very still as his eyes looked over you. After he did that, he smiled. He was not that cold of a man.

"I heard about your hard work in the dungeon. You did well, Asuna."

Asuna was well aware that she had really done the exact sum of zero plus zero, thank you very much. But she didn't mention that because Heathcliff was not the sort of person one cracked jokes with.

She coughed and cleared her throat. It was best to cut to the chase. "I'd like to apply for leave," she said. To her dismay, her voice did not come out as strongly as she would have liked. She had worked for Heathcliff for over a year and she still could not help but feel a little nervous around him.

Though, she added to herself, if it wasn't for him, she would probably never have risen as high as she did in the guild. After Kirito, Heathcliff was her first real ally in Aincrad – first real ally anywhere, Asuna could not help but think.

So it filled her with profound disappointment when Heathcliff shook his head gravely at her.

"Asuna," he uttered seriously, leaning forward in his chair. The other four senior members of the guild sat silently at the table, their faces blank with stony disapproval. Asuna's heart sank. "You're one of the strongest members of our guild," Heathcliff went on. "Without you, we wouldn't be able to advance as far as we have and you know it."

She did. Kirito may have been the star of the show this time, but Asuna's speed and skill with a rapier was a constant support, and no one noticed these things better than Heathcliff.

Or was it, Asuna wondered to herself, because she was a girl? Though it discomforted her, she was aware that as one of the game's few female players (and the only one on the front lines), she was something of an idol in the SAO world. More than a few men had entered the guild in an attempt to court her. Not for the first time, Asuna wondered if the Knights of Blood used her as a poster girl of sorts. Yes, she was strong, but the search for validity in the eyes of others was a perennial exercise in futility.

But she was not yet ready to give up. "It won't be a long break. I just need time to myself."

"Was it Kirito who planted this idea in your head?"

Asuna let out a small gasp at the unexpected question. Heathcliff looked at her searchingly, not betraying an ounce of emotion on his face. Then he closed his eyes, sighed and leaned back.

"I heard about his Dual Blades ability," he said quietly. "He is the second Unique Skill user in this world."

Asuna nodded, not sure where this was going.

"That man must surely be dangerous, Asuna."

Asuna gasped again, this time with indignation. "He is not! You would know that! You've fought with him before, Commander Heathcliff!"

"I cannot help but wonder," Heathcliff mused aloud, "what other things he may be hiding."

Asuna could hardly believe her ears. She was not sure if Heathcliff was really earnest about what he was saying. He was certainly not joking, but his tone was light, even whimsical.

Like he was curious.

Asuna dropped her arms by her side and said nothing. Truth be told, she knew nothing about Kirito, not his likes, his dislikes or even his hobbies (though she would take a wild guess from the circumstances and say he was into video games). He was a solo player through and through, and he mostly kept to himself. They were friends, but she couldn't really say she knew him.

"Kirito-kun has nothing to do with thi-" Asuna began feebly, but Heathcliff cut her off.

"There are rumours," he said, "that Kirito may have received that skill from Kayaba Akihito himself."

That threw her off. It was more than just jealousy Kirito had to deal with now. It was outright sabotage. Asuna simply gaped.

"It's something to look into, isn't it?" Heathcliff said ponderously. Looking at Asuna, there was a question in his eyes: just how much do you know? And then, more importantly: how much do you think I know? "The other players have generally agreed that I got my Unique Skill for being the leader of the game's most powerful guild. But what has Kirito done to deserve his skill?"

"I… I don't know. But Commander Heathcliff, you don't seriously believe-"

Heathcliff opened his eyes. His steely grey eyes were almost unnerving in their calmness. "I never said what I thought. I'd like to see what the other players think of this. That's why I've called an inquisition together."

"An inquisition?" Asuna repeated, now morbidly curious.

"A trial. Something like this must be discussed openly. Asuna, I'd like you to go and collect Kirito. I can't let you take your leave until you do this for me."

A trial. Such a thing was unprecedented in the virtual world. The game's internal criminal code changed players' cursors to orange whenever a cardinal sin was committed, but there was no centralised system of justice. The Army was supposedly in charge of maintaining order, but they mostly did their own thing.

Asuna was not sure what to think. No matter how she looked at it, it was a precarious situation for Kirito. Yet she would not attain that freedom she desired if she did not turn him in.

Besides, she reminded herself, it wasn't as if Kirito could hide away in Agil's shop forever. If he knew about these rumours, he would probably step out and address them himself. She might as well be the one to let him know. As a Beater, Kirito had never been a popular player among the frontliners. Someone clearly had a grudge against him to claim he had a relation to Kayaba. What was next, that he had actually been responsible for trapping everyone inside this death game for two years?

She made sure to look her superior in the eyes as she responded to him. "Yes, Commander Heathcliff. I'll bring Kirito-kun here."

She was unable to shake the feeling that she was being used. Inwardly, she groaned; she was just so tired.

Agil was pleased to see her, just like he was pleased to see anyone – until he found out Asuna was not interested in buying or selling anything, at which point he was only half-joking when he said the door was that way and by the way, son, I am disappoint.

Asuna quite liked Agil. He carried about him an air of nonchalant good humour that never ceased to feel refreshing. As a merchant, Agil knew a lot of things, not just about the items in the game but about all sorts of topics.

Once, when Asuna was trying to barter with him about the price of her Wind Fleuret, they had somehow unintentionally ended up talking about economics in Aincrad in general.

"I can tell you, Kayaba is a lot of things," Agil had said dryly, "but an economist he is not. The inflation in this world is something awful, as I'm sure you've noticed."

"And why's that?" Asuna had asked, her curiosity piqued.

"Because there's an endless inflow of col in this world. And unlike most MMOs, the rare but useless items don't push the market growth as much as they should. Instead, things like healing crystals become very expensive. It's just a sustenance-driven market. What's worse is that col is so easily obtainable from killing monsters, but a lot of players who stay on Level 1 can't get that kind of money. So the rich like you get richer and the poor get poorer. The Gini Coefficient in Aincrad would be a very scary number."

"Oh," Asuna had said, and from that day on, she had always paid the price Agil asked of her, no matter how inflated it was. He didn't talk about it, but Asuna had heard Kirito mention that Agil donated most of his profits to lower-level players.

Today, she wasn't interested in talking about virtual economics. "Where's Kirito-kun?" she asked Agil as she watched him turn on the kettle. "There's something I need to talk to him about."

"Kirito? He's already left."

Asuna was startled. "What?"

"Said he had something to do," Agil said casually. "You want your tea with milk?"

"None, thanks."

"Any sugar?"

Asuna was starting to get fidgety. She opened up her main menu and scrolled down to her friend list until she could see Kirito's name displayed. According to her menu, he was on the newly opened Level 75 – just what was he doing there?

"Asuna, are you all right?" She could hear Agil calling out to her from beyond the distorted little box of her anxiety.

"Yes, I'm fine," Asuna said, a little shakily. "And no sugars either, thanks."

Her eyes were still trained on the menu, her brows furrowed in concentration. She had no idea what Kirito was actually doing. In her mind, she pictured several scenarios – maybe he was out level grinding? Or maybe trying to clear the next dungeon? Perhaps he had heard of a unique quest on Level 75?

In the end, none of these guesses were correct.

Before Asuna's eyes, the green icon above Kirito's name flickered, and then it turned to a sickening shade of orange.

Author's note: This is my NaNoWriMo novel, so it was written within a month. Be warned of typos and other writing/pacing errors that plague these sorts of projects.

This is my second (and probably last) SAO fic. You can check out 'Game Over' if you like – it's a completely different kind of story from this, though.