Author's note: Again, there are lots of deviations from canon here. The Sugou in this story isn't a total asshole and he didn't make ALO, for a start (so no, no Fairy Dance arc in this story). This also happily means that Asuna got to wake up straight away. I also scrapped that whole backstory about Kirito's original parents dying – he and Suguha are now blood siblings and their relationship has changed accordingly. It's important for the Kirito in this story not to have suffered quite as much personal tragedy, I think.
As for the other changes, they'll come up with the story.
Edit: This epilogue is different from the original version I posted.
Epilogue: Yume Sekai
It doesn't matter if this world that opened in front of me is just a dream
Even if I continue to wander, it will echo strongly and deep in my heart, forever and ever…
"Onii-chan… onii-chan…! Stop daydreaming, onii-chan!"
It was his sister's voice that shook him from his reverie, just like the day he had first woken up. Kirigaya Kazuto blinked and sighed and looked up at a sky that was no longer a product of pixels and vapid dreams.
That day, it was raining as if the heavens had yawned wide open. The downpour was the heavy, sticky kind of rain, and to be under it would be like standing in the way of a washerwoman emptying out a bathtub of dirty soap water. It was just as well that he and his sister Suguha were sitting under the verandah, though Suguha was frowning, as if she did not understand the appeal of the kind of rain that made you look like a drowned rat.
It was the first time he had ever seen rain like this in two-and-a-half years. There had been rain in SAO, yes, but it was uncommon and restricted to only certain floors and even then, it never made you feel wet. No one got colds in SAO or even sneezed and, as he watched this thoroughly unromantic rain, he shivered and craved the warmth of a thick rug.
"Geez, onii-chan, you're freezing!" Suguha said exasperatedly beside him. She laid one of her warmer hands on his colder, thinner arm. "Come on, sit inside under the kotatsu, won't you?"
"I'm fine, Sugu."
"No, you are not fine. I haven't met anyone who is less fine than you."
He just laughed, leaning back and stretching his arm forward, watching his fingers flex without any coordination. His mouth twitched into a small, introspective smile.
There were some things in this real world that he wondered if he would ever get used to.
It was all in the little things, like how he still tried to bring up a menu when he was changing his clothes or how he never knew what to do with wrappers or crumbs. Even the desire to go to the toilet or waking in the morning with a stuffy feeling between his legs was mildly disorientating. Not that he had ever missed that.
But the hardest thing to get used to was his sheer weakness. In the beginning it had been especially awful: unable to even move his arms and legs, it was Suguha who had to push him around everywhere he needed to go in a wheelchair. The physiotherapy sessions were both painful and frustratingly slow at healing him. He had never been particularly sporty in the first place, and his level of fitness had only deteriorated further in his years of inactivity. Even after gradually regaining the use of his limbs, he could not run to the end of the street without stopping to pause for breath, and he was shocked by his inability to lift heavy things or even do the simple menial tasks that Suguha accomplished with ease.
He watched her kendo matches whenever he had the opportunity. She had always, he remembered, been a strong and fit young girl, and now in the span of two years she had become a national quarter-finalist.
"It's weird with you watching me," Suguha remarked the first time he had been a spectator. "Eek, I made so many mistakes, didn't I?"
If Suguha had made mistakes, she had covered them skilfully. She moved with a natural agility and grace that perhaps surpassed the speed-enhanced combo-moves in SAO. "You would've given Heathcliff a run for his money," he told her, unable to stop the erratic twinge in his chest as he said that. Suguha blushed; she had never really known how to take compliments, even when they were children.
So she just said, "Are you going to play kendo again, onii-chan?"
And he said, "I don't know."
Suguha looked down at her bamboo blade in her hand and then at him, as if comparing the two. Was it wistfulness that crossed her features or just sheer disappointment in him? He didn't know. As he gazed at her, her eyebrows scrunched together and, for a moment, she looked as helpless as he felt.
Then she smiled and said, "Come on, onii-chan. Let's do something together. Shopping, all right?"
The him of two years ago would never have consented to such a thing, but time brought as many reliefs as it did barriers.
As she started pushing his wheelchair, he clenched the sides of the arms and said, "I love you, Sugu."
She stopped pushing then, so that she could put her arms around him and squeeze.
"I love you too."
They really had changed. Closing his eyes, he tentatively leaned back and entrusted himself to her.
He hadn't played a single game in those six months. The physiotherapy took up all of his spare hours, and then there was studying. He had technically lost just two years, but he had forgotten so much that his level of education was below even that of the average fourteen-year-old. He had to go to reform school and relearn basic trigonometry and kanji and everything else in-between. Actually, it was a little embarrassing, especially when Suguha remarked on how easy his homework was.
But when he thought about it, perhaps he was just afraid. If he had to explain this feeling to someone, he probably wouldn't be able to describe it at all. If he didn't have games, who was he? What if he tried logging onto one of his games and everything felt different and nothing was fun anymore? What then?
It was Suguha who reminded him of the offline meeting. "Aren't you going to see all your friends from that game next week, onii-chan?"
"What's wrong? You don't look too happy…"
"No, I just wonder how everyone's doing…"
He knew that Suguha hated online games because of the anonymity. Perhaps she thought the friends he made there didn't mean as much as friends made in the real world. But she was wrong, he knew. The friends he made there were anonymous only in name; he certainly couldn't have fallen in love with someone who was just a shadow.
He had no idea how to explain that to her, so he just said, "Why don't you come along?"
"Huh? Me?" As he expected, she was more than a little startled. "Is that okay?"
"Of course it is."
"That's good." She smiled, eyes skirting to the side. "I've always wanted to understand this part of my brother…"
She went on to tell him that one year ago during his comatose period a girl in her school had commit suicide after being a victim of cyber-bullying.
"I didn't know that girl personally, but that's when I realised, you know? That it's not just SAO that's a death game. The online world is just like the real world… I think the friends you made there must have made a real impression on you."
"They did," he said, so relieved she understood. "They really did."
His friends took a shine to Suguha, just as he thought they would.
"Wow, Kirito!" Klein exclaimed, grinning as he noticed Kazuto walk in. He was sitting at the bar next to Agil, who appeared to still be using his wheelchair. "Been a while, hasn't it?"
The Dicey Café, Agil's café in real life, was an absolute hive of activity. It was filled with all sorts of players from their area, some of them whom Kazuto knew by face and name from the game, though he was close to none of them. He drifted towards Klein and Agil, smiling as he sat down beside them.
"That your sister, Kirito? Oh, wait, I should call you Kazuto now." Klein was unable to shake the grin off his face. "Nice to meet you, Kirito's little sis!"
And so Klein kept using Kazuto's online name anyway. Ah well, some habits were hard to shake. It was certainly difficult for him to think of Klein as Tsuboi Ryotaro or Agil as Andrew Gilbert Mills.
"So what's been up, you two?" Kazuto asked his two friends, though it was hard to hear them in the noisy and jubilant atmosphere. Not everyone had even finished arriving yet – he hadn't spotted the girls yet.
"Oh, nothing much," said Agil with a chuckle. "Physio was a real bitch, but otherwise I can't complain."
"So it was easy for you to settle back in, huh?" This surprised Kazuto somewhat. Maybe his two friends were being those eternally optimistic types as usual. Or perhaps, more realistically, adults just found that kind of change easier to cope with.
"Yeah, for me it was a bit surprising, actually. But the others have different stories to tell." Klein made a sweeping gesture with his hands. "For me, well, I guessed it was time for a change."
"Ah, well, I haven't really told you about my life, have I? Me and my old man never really got along, but after SAO we patched things up and now I've re-enrolled in my uni classes. You know, I picked arts subjects just to piss him off but whatever, that's old news. What's up on your end? Oh and sit down too, Kirito's little sis!"
"I'm Suguha," she said pleasantly, ever the cheerful social butterfly. "So what was my brother like in the game?"
"A loner," said Agil with a snort.
Kazuto rolled his eyes.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around.
"Hahaha! I knew it'd be you, Kirito-kun! You even wear black in the real world! You owe me five hundred yen, Silica!"
"Oh, Liz!" said Kazuto, smiling. He had recognised her instantly from her voice, but without her customised pink hair from the game, she looked almost totally different. Her hair was brown and rather straight and her face, though still freckled in a homely, girl-next-door kind of way, was somewhat thinner than he remembered.
Of course, everyone seemed to have lost weight since SAO.
"What are you looking at me like that for, Kirito-kun? Er, something wrong with my face?" Lizbeth touched her cheeks a little nervously.
"I was just thinking you look very cute today, Liz."
Lizbeth opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and then closed it again. She was, for the very first time in her life, utterly speechless. Her cheeks coloured.
"And you too, Silica," Kazuto went on, patting the smaller girl standing next to Lizbeth on the head.
"Hee hee! It's so nice to see you again, Kirito-san!"
It seemed to him that the two girls were healthy and spirited enough. "So where's Asuna?" he asked. He had been missing her; though he had chatted with her online quite often since being released from hospital, he still hadn't met her in the flesh. He was actually a little confused. Since they had kissed, did this mean they were boyfriend and girlfriend now? He had never found the right occasion to ask her, thinking maybe it would be best to discuss things like relationships in person…? There were a lot of things he could feel went unsaid between them and it was all kind of awkward to him. Then again, when had he ever done social interactions correctly?
Lizbeth waved her hand apologetically. "She can't come. Family issues to sort out first, she said."
It was the same thing she had told him via email. He sighed.
Just when would he be able to see her?
At the offline meeting, they talked all day, catching up with all sorts of things, from exchanging SAO stories to discussing their physiotherapy experiences. At one point, Silica and Lizbeth unveiled an enormous chocolate cake with 'Congratulations on clearing the game!' written on the top in icing. That was shared around with everyone at the gathering, along with free drinks from Agil's bar. "I'm not doing this every day!" he laughingly insisted when everyone raised their drinks to say cheers for him.
It was surprising to Kazuto how many relative strangers approached him to congratulate him for his involvement in clearing the game. His being a Beater was well and truly water under the bridge now that everyone was more or less safe and well.
Then there were the people who didn't seem to have cared about that at all to begin with.
An elderly couple shook his hand. The old man's grip was surprisingly firm and his smile was equally friendly.
"So you're the young lad who cleared the game? My gosh, you're very young!"
Kazuto smiled sheepishly. He had always had something of a baby face.
"My wife's been dying to meet you," the old man went on, his eyes twinkling. "Mind you, she didn't play the game, so she has no idea what it's like in there."
"Very dangerous, wasn't it?" said the old lady, who seemed to be a jittery type. "Your parents must have been worried!"
The old man chuckled. "It wasn't very dangerous for me! I just did fishing all day."
Kazuto wasn't used to talking to elderly people, but there was something so irresistibly laid-back about this old man that he found himself being pulled into conversation. The man's name was Nishida and he worked at a company that was responsible for linking up the SAO servers. This was probably why he had ended up in the game in the first place, but he seemed to have no regrets.
"Ah, that game, it was a very good game, wasn't it? Bit more elaborate than the old Space Invaders!" He let out a hearty laugh.
Beside him, his wife merely sighed. "That game, it forced him into early retirement."
"Well, yes," Nishida admitted. "I could have kept up in the IT industry when I was younger, but now that I'm old and those two years…" He shrugged. "It was a very enjoyable time, probably because I was never in danger. I can see why you young ones are so keen on these MMO things."
"I guess… there's something in it for everyone, huh?"
Nishida looked at him and nodded.
"A terrible, terrible game it was too, so many lives lost. But sometimes you have to make the best of it and it was an easy thing to do there."
He shook Kazuto's hand once again.
"Well, it was a pleasure talking to you."
When the old couple was gone, Kazuto sat alone for a moment, sipping reflectively on his soda. The next person who approached him was far from one of the older players of the game – it was Silica, one of the very youngest.
"Kirito-san, is it okay if I sit next to you?"
Silica had grown since the last time he had seen her. Though she was still short, puberty had well and truly started for her and she moved with less of the blitheness she had as a girl. Like Suguha, she had started to develop curves, seemingly overnight.
"Kirito-san, I've always wanted to thank you," Silica said as she pulled up a seat next to him. "You saved me three times. I'll never forget that."
"Yeah." Silica started counting off with her fingers. "First with that monster, then against that PKing guild and then because you got that revival item you gave Klein-san."
The truth was that he had never done any of those rescues specifically for Silica's sake, but when she smiled, he felt happy too, so he didn't mention it.
"When you were my big brother for a day, it made me very happy too," Silica continued. "I miss Pina, but it's so nice to see you again."
Then she hugged him. Not being very used to that kind of physical contact, he was somewhat startled.
But also, admittedly, rather touched.
"Thanks, Silica. It was… fun partying with you too."
"And I was right, too!" Silica said triumphantly. "About your little sister!"
"What about my little sister?"
"She doesn't hate you at all. I can see it, Kirito-san."
Yes, Silica had mentioned that, hadn't she? When he had told her that she reminded him of Suguha, that was what she had assured him: "I'm sure your sister doesn't hate you."
He glanced towards Suguha across the room, her eyes lit up and her manner vivacious. Even though they lived under the same roof, they couldn't have lived in two more thoroughly different worlds. But here Suguha was, tentatively reaching into her world and he into hers.
"Maybe you're right, Silica."
After a couple of hours, people began to leave, one by one. When it was Lizbeth's time to go, she gestured towards Kazuto, beckoning him towards her. "Listen, there's something I want to talk to you about in private," she said to him. She wasn't looking him in the eyes, so this made him feel a little apprehensive.
"What is it, Liz?" he asked as they stepped out of the café together.
For a moment, Lizbeth didn't say anything. She merely fiddled with her clothing and sighed. Though in SAO she had worn her blacksmith uniform (which resembled a maid outfit more than anything), out in the real world she seemed far more comfortable in pants and a loose-fitting T-shirt. Lizbeth had always felt like such a genuine person to him, but seeing her like this only convinced him of that further.
She also happened to be blushing bright red.
"You know, Kirito-kun, I always really liked you."
"I always liked you too."
"… As more than a friend."
Actually, he had always sort of known that. He just… didn't know how to respond.
"You don't have to say anything, Kirito-kun!" Lizbeth insisted quickly, spotting the uneasiness on his face. "I know it's not me you like – it's Asuna, right? I mean – I mean I could tell just from the way you looked at her…"
He blinked. He hadn't realised that kind of thing was so easy for the outward observer to tell. He could feel his cheeks start to burn with embarrassment at the thought.
"Well, I can understand," Lizbeth went on, averting her gaze. "Asuna's really pretty and strong and I'm not really either of those things, haha…"
"I think you're pretty and strong." He spoke as if this was all very obvious to him because, quite frankly, it was. "I noticed that right from the beginning about you, Liz."
"St-Stop it! You'll make me fall harder for you!"
"Oh, right." He scratched the back of his head; they had come to an impasse. "It's not," he began, a little falteringly. He had never articulated his softer feelings into words before. "It's not any particular thing like that which I like about Asuna, so…"
"You like her because it's her, right?" She smiled. "Don't worry, Kirito-kun! People don't need a reason to fall in love! It just… is, you know?"
Lizbeth turned away, directing her gaze up towards the sky. "These feelings I had… to me, it didn't matter that it was a game. No matter what, it was real. And that's why… that's why I don't regret being in SAO, even despite everything… Because if I didn't go there, I would never have met you, Kirito-kun. You were my first love, you hear that?"
"Loud and clear, Liz," he said, because Lizbeth was actually talking rather loudly. Passersby glanced at them as they walked past.
"Heh heh, you and Asuna'll make a good couple." Lizbeth turned back to him and grinned. She was back to her old self. "Tomorrow, I think I'll cut my hair…"
When everyone else had finally gone home, he stayed behind and helped Agil clean up the café. Suguha had gone to her club activities and Kazuto started wiping the dishes. Klein had stayed behind too, also offering to help.
"Hey Kirito, you gonna bring your little sis around again?" Klein asked, nudging him.
"Only if she wants to…"
"How about you make it so me and her go out alone toge-"
Klein whined. "I thought we were pals, man! We're, like, old war buddies! Friends forever and all that."
"Not if you hit on my sister," said Kazuto, looking distinctly unamused.
Klein sighed and took the defeat heroically.
Agil wheeled into the back kitchen where the two of them were wiping dishes. He snorted. "You guys take ages!"
"Didn't wash a dish for two years," Klein muttered.
"Didn't wash a dish ever, more like it," Agil retorted.
Watching this familiar banter play out, Kazuto smiled. Vaguely, he wondered why Agil was still wheelchair-bound, especially since everyone else had managed to finish their physiotherapy by now. Considering his strength and mental endurance, Agil should have been among the first…
(Weeks later, Kazuto found out the answer from Agil's wife. When he raised the question to her, she told him, looking a little surprised that he did not know: "My husband's been like that since he was a child. Ah, you see, that's why I bought the SAO game for him, just so he could walk again…")
At night, when he was finished with his studying, he always made time to talk to Asuna. She seemed forever busy studying, so she preferred to email him instead of chat over IM. Her parents, she told him, were extremely interested in her education and, well, she had missed two years, after all. He could understand that, though his catch-up classes were far less intensive than hers were.
Her full name was Yuuki Asuna. He was shocked to find out that she was actually the daughter of a CEO of an electronics company; no wonder her father had such high expectations of her. Asuna wrote cheerfully about her studies, but, unable to see her face, Kazuto was unable to tell how she really felt about it all. He couldn't help but think that there was something dull about their conversations, as if Asuna was seeking comfort through the blandness. Neither of them said what they were really thinking.
Or maybe he was just reading too much into it.
"Listen, Asuna," he wrote to her one day. "Don't you think it's better if we meet up, even if it's just for a little while? We could go out somewhere and eat, maybe watch a movie. How about it?"
It didn't matter what they did together – he just wanted to see her.
Asuna's reply was a long time coming. She kept him waiting much longer than usual. About an hour later she replied with: "What's your phone number?"
As soon as he told her, the phone in his house rang. "Kazuto, it's for you!" his mother called out.
His heart thumping in anticipation, he took the phone and retreated back to his bedroom. "Yes?"
It was the first time he had heard her voice since the game had ended. And just like back then, it sounded very beautiful to his ears.
In the six months since he had emerged from the death game with his life intact, he had had time to think deeply about Asuna. The circumstances of them constantly being in danger had prevented this kind of introspection earlier. Now he had come to the conclusion that he was in love with her. And why not? Even something like playing some stupid trivia game with her had ended up meaning a lot to him.
"Asuna, does this mean we're going to see each other finally? This weekend, are we-?"
"Kirito-kun," she broke in. "I'm sorry, but I can't be seeing you. I wish I could have told this to your face, but I can't."
His heart sank. "What, you're not-?"
"It's not that I don't like you or anything like that! Please don't think that! I just… don't really have the time to go out. And my parents don't really want me having a boyfriend right now. I really, really like you, Kirito-kun. I'll definitely see you when I've passed my exams again. So…"
"I'll wait for you," he said firmly. "I'll definitely wait for you."
"I guess… this is how reality is, huh? It's not like the game… I'm so sorry for this, Kirito-kun."
They talked a little longer, but Asuna soon had to get back to studying. "Don't worry about me," he told her. "Do your best for your exam."
They exchanged cheerful goodbyes. As soon as she was gone, his lips slid downwards.
The truth was this: by the time she hung up, he had already resigned himself to the fact that his first - and probably only - girlfriend was one who he would never see.
Slowly, the magic faded.
People adapted. He had learned that from the game. No matter what crazy situation you were placed in, people could be remarkably resilient creatures. If he could learn to adapt to SAO, he could learn to adapt to real life.
As for Asuna, she immersed herself so thoroughly in reality, she clocked the hard mode easy. When he told that to her over the phone as a joke, she laughed, harder than he had ever heard her laugh. Come to think of it, she had never been so happy inside the game.
"This is what you've always wanted, isn't it?" he said.
"Yeah," she said quietly. "It is."
Slowly but surely, they stopped talking about SAO in their conversations. They could only talk about the mundane things, but perhaps there was a kind of magic in that too. Whatever it was, it was a magic she probably felt more than he did. Her happiness made him wistful somehow.
"Hey, Kirito-kun, have you been reading the newspapers?" she asked him one day.
"I've been checking the news feed on the Internet... why?"
"Then you'd know about the legal stuff going on with the PKers."
Kazuto did know. In fact, it was a very messy situation, probably because it was so unprecedented. The Japanese courts had trouble deciding whether the PKers in the game were liable for murder. On one hand, killing someone in a game held no consequences, but SAO was far different from that kind of game. The conditions of death were known to every player, so no one could claim ignorance. On the other hand, no player in the game had any concrete proof that the death penalty was actually true, so at worst, players could only be charged for manslaughter. To make matters even more complicated, since all the game data was deleted, there was no way of knowing who had been a killer and who had not been. In the end, the courts decided not to persecute anyone for in-game crimes. Still, to be on the safe side, every player had been interviewed extensively by the police and subsidised counselling sessions from the country's leading psychiatrists were offered to anyone who wanted it.
Personally, Kazuto had not felt he had needed the counselling. That was the popular opinion, since a certain amount of mental fortitude was needed to survive in the game. But he did know of some people who suffered clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and who still required psychiatric help to this day. He had come to realise that for a lot of the players, the bigger underlying mental issue was not dealing with their actual experiences within the game but learning to adapt into normal society again. The real stress came from those who had lost jobs and stability in life, or who had lost family or friends during the two-year gap. This was all just compounded by a distinct feeling of physical ineptitude.
Kazuto understood that all too well.
He wondered how Asuna was faring in that respect. "Do you really think you're a murderer, Asuna?" he wanted to ask, but that felt too pointed a question for him to bring up. So instead, he said: "You shouldn't worry about that kind of stuff."
As soon as he sent that message, he felt it was rather insensitive of him, like he was telling her he didn't understand what she was going through.
After all, people changed after they came out of SAO.
"It's weird, you know," she remarked. "I had this big leadership position in the game, but now I don't feel like I did an awful lot."
"Without you, the game would never have been cleared," he told her. "Don't forget that."
"I'm not forgetting it. It's just..." She sighed. "I don't think you understand, Kirito-kun."
He wanted to tell her that he did understand, he did, but these words were somehow difficult to shape and express. When he was Kirito, he thought he had forgotten the meek fourteen-year-old boy who had first put on the Nerve Gear, but after returning, it turned out that that Kirigaya Kazuto was not as far away from memory as he had once assumed.
The strength he had obtained in SAO was nothing but an illusion. Asuna, of course, had realised that too.
"Hey, Asuna. Have you ever thought of playing another video game when you're done with your studies?"
"Of course not. Why, have you, Kirito-kun?"
But to that, he had no answer.
Kayaba Akihiko was dead. Days after the end of the SAO incident, Kayaba's body was discovered in a mountain cottage hidden in an inconspicuous forest in the Nagano prefecture. It appeared he had died on the same day the game ended; his brain fried in much the same way the unfortunate players who got game over. It was a curious thing, because he had specifically mentioned how the Nerve Gear did not kill him. Perhaps he had wired up his brain to the entire server of Aincrad and when it fell, so did his consciousness. He had died alongside the beloved tower of his dreams.
Kazuto had to admit to feeling little remorse over this hated man's death, but at the same time, a brief thought had flashed through his brain:
What a shame. That man was brilliant.
Incidentally, at around the same time, the VRMMORPG industry collapsed, or to be more precise, it never took off to begin with since no one had the knowledge or skills to make a game anything like Sword Art Online.
Moreover, the public outcry against the SAO incident was enormous. In fact, it was so huge it affected the video game industry in general. An uncertainty of death hung over the entire industry like a cloud and as a result, many companies went out of business. By the time Kazuto had regained consciousness, the slump had recovered somewhat as it became clear that the SAO incident was the doing of a single madman. Even so, it was no longer quite a prolific industry to work in and for Kazuto, who had always fancied himself working in that area when he was older, the future cast a pale and uncertain light.
Eight months after the end of SAO, a woman came knocking on his door, introducing herself as Koujirou Rinko. She had travelled all the way from the Miyagi prefecture to Saitama, just to visit the Kirigaya residence. At first, Kazuto assumed she was after his parents, but she stopped him when she touched his arm and said, "I knew Kayaba Akihiko."
After that, he had to listen to her.
"We were colleagues in university, he and I," she explained, at first calmly and then more falteringly as her grim tale progressed. "I was the one who took care of his body during those two years. I know now I should have stopped him, but you could say I was charmed by his vision, and so I helped him. When the death game started, I should have killed him. I went into his room while he was unconscious but… I couldn't do it. And then, not long after that, he told me that if I had killed him, everyone inside the game would have died too because he had linked his mind directly to the game server… It turns out that he… he was working on this."
"What's this?" Kazuto asked as he looked down at the item the woman showed him.
"It's called a World Seed. Before he died, he asked me to entrust it to a player named 'Kirito'. It took me a long while before I could bring myself to track you down, but here I am today."
Kazuto took the World Seed and turned it over once in his hand.
"It's a powerful tool," Koujiro Rinko explained gingerly. "It contains the entire server of SAO and the program can make any kind of VRMMORPG imaginable. Limitless quests, limitless customisation. I hope you understand what this means."
This might not be the end of Sword Art Online.
"The future of the VRMMORPG itself lies in that seed," said Koujiro Rinko. "Whether you use the World Seed to confront reality or escape it, just know this – that thing is a double-edged sword."
Kazuto closed his eyes. He thought of the world he had spent two years of his life fighting in, he thought of despair and weakness, of a man who threw himself off the tower of Aincrad and embraced death. He thought of Sachi and the last words he never got to hear her say. He thought of his friends, he thought of Suguha.
He thought of Asuna.
"Did Kayaba say anything else?" he asked, frowning.
"No," said the woman who had once been Kayaba's colleague. "He didn't. By the looks of it, you know everything you need to make your decision already. Whether you use the World Seed or discard it, that's not my dilemma. I'm sorry I can't be of more help to you, but he told me you had to make the decision on your own."
She stood up and said farewell, and long after she was gone, Kazuto was still sitting where he was, turning the World Seed over in his hand and watching the glimmering light inside it shine without abating.
Forever, forever echoing...
Softly, softly shining...
Sometimes, it's surprising what a nostalgia trip can reveal to you. The other day, I happened to come across a short novel dated from 2002 – the author was none other than my eight-year-old self. It appeared even in those days I was a fanfiction writer. The plot was what I suppose you would get if you sloppily mixed elements of Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z and The Legend of Zelda into one story and it was written with quite possibly the most abysmal handwriting that has ever seen the light of day. While my mastery of the English grammar has undoubtedly improved, I could not help but note my younger self's curious fixation with writing battles out with excruciating detail. Some people just don't change their stripes!
In a lot of ways, Double-edged Sword was most definitely a retreading of familiar ground. While I consider myself a pure experimentalist as a writer, I don't think I could have completed NaNoWriMo as one. The last two chapters are a different matter. I had the time, so I took risks again and while some turned out well, others didn't, and I've had to reevaluate this epilogue a number of times. I will be frank here: I don't think this is my best effort at storytelling. I made some pretty embarrassing errors while writing this, but let's not go over all of that here.
About the ending: in canon, we're told straight out what Kirito did with the World Seed (being vague here for non-LN readers), but here, it's deliberately ambiguous, though one of two things happened. Does Kirito make a new VRMMORPG and become Kayaba's spiritual successor or does he throw away the World Seed and embrace reality entirely? That's something for you the reader to decide. I can see some people decrying what I wrote as a corruption of the fundamental theme of the canon, and I accept that criticism, though I will not change anything.
Still, in general I was very surprised by the positive reception this story got. Thank you so much to everyone who read, favorited, alerted or reviewed this – I really valued every piece of feedback I got, even if I didn't always respond. While I probably won't write another SAO fic, it was honestly a lot of fun living in Aincrad for a month. I sincerely hope you enjoyed this story. Thank you again and goodbye!
Edit: After some careful thinking, I've decided to cut out the final scene from the original ending. I think the message in the epilogue comes across just fine without it.