Carlotta cackled wildly, dodging the brush of the spear past her as closely as she could. "Thought you could hide, thought you could run~" Her clear voice rang out in a singsong taunting her target. "Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run!" She spun around manically to the beat of her own words, striking out with twin daggers at seemingly random intervals.

She was wearing him down. Her latest victim, Werrun, was built primarily for strength and could only do so much against her sheer advantage in speed and dexterity. He was a "safe" target, a mid level casual without strong ties to any particular guild or front-liners aside from a few friends of mostly the craftsman variety. His spear should have kept her out of her preferred range, but by this time the long length was a disadvantage against her experience, as she knocked it aside and rushed around the shaft to close in at will.

It wasn't even much of a challenge.

Every attack he tried left an opening, a flaw that should have been corrected months ago, but wasn't as noticeable against the set attack patterns of non-humanoid mobs. This wasn't a fight, a duel, it was a hunt that could only end in slaughter. And he knew it. "C-crazy bitch! You win! What do you want? My col? Here, you can have it! It's yours! T-take my armor, my spear! Whatever you want! Just-just stop!"

Her dagger came up to his neck again as she stood behind him she paused, as if considering the thought. "Hm..." Werrun dropped his spear in relief. "S-see? No need to be hasty! Here- let me just open up my inventory and we can go our separate ways and no one gets hurt." He slowly moved his right hand down in the air in front of him, bringing up his menu. He selected the entirety of his inventory with obvious motions, and then at the last moment grabbed his teleport crystal. It fell to the damp earth of the forest on floor 32 as he shattered into red pixels around it.

With childish glee Carlotta twirled around the sparkling remains before kneeling down to rummage through the items littering the ground at her feet. "One more pretty for the pot, can't let shinies be forgot~"

A sniffle caught her attention, even in her euphoric state. It wasn't quite a gasp or a sob, but the sorrow was of an all too familiar quality. A too wide grin split her face as she kept up her singing. "One down might as well be two, how 'bout now I play with you?" Carlotta turned her head slowly, expecting a terrified quivering bystander.

The saber pierced her skull before she bothered to rise to her feet again. With a startled shudder, she watched helplessly as her health bar fell to the red with the single blow. Her attacker, nay, her executioner, was a girl as she had expected. A rather pretty, delicate thing. Fragile looking. Not so helpless, it seemed. The sheer rage in her eyes as she glared at the older woman was a far cry from the desperation or terror she was accustomed to seeing so close. "Burn... in... hell!" With a twist of her sword, the last few points were lost and Carlotta was no more.

She hadn't expected to wake up. Opening her eyes again felt like a dream, the last delusion of a desperate mind trying to reconcile a calmer reality. Instead it created a much, much crueler one. "Maiko? Maiko! Can you hear me?" Absentmindedly she noted a figure moving in front of her, a dark contrast to the white of the walls of the room. Everything was so... dull. Faded. Pastel. Blurred on the edges. "Mai, it's me! It's Kiyoshi! Your brother? Come on... Maiko, please!" Ah. That was who he was. Her... brother.

With a jolt Maiko sat up straight. That's right. She had a brother. A younger brother. She stared intensely at his face, looking for familiarity and something to tell her this was real. "Ki... yoshi...?" Her voice broke, unused for so long. Even before... before SAO, she hadn't seen him for years. Something about an... argument...? That wasn't important. She felt his arms wrap around her, and the warmth of tears fall, wetting the thin cloth draped on her shoulders.

"Thank... thank God, Maiko. I thought... I thought you'd never come back to us." His gray eyes looked older than she remembered, more tired. "Everything is going to be alright again between us, I won't let anything happen to you! When I heard you had been one of the coma victims, I knew that nothing that happened between us could possibly mean enough to keep us apart! When those first few hundred people died, it just really showed me how much you meant to me. I didn't mean it before, I am so... so sorry that I wasn't there for you. Maybe if I had been you wouldn't have fallen for the trap at all."

Trap...? Coma...? Maiko raised her hand slowly in front of her, forcing herself to focus through the haze. It looked... small. Bony. Like the skin was strained across with tendons poking up near the surface. "Date." She coughed out, wheezing. The answer didn't really mean anything to her at first. Only that the year had changed. She hadn't been the type to keep track of individual days or weeks Inside, but had counted off the landmark, round numbered days lost like everyone else.

Slowly she realized he was still talking. "Don't worry about anything, I've got it all taken care of. You'll be coming home with me within the week and we'll get you started with the physical therapy. There is also a support group that meets every week for the victims, people who were there and will really understand what you are going through, being back in the real world like this. I still can't believe That Bastard would do this to you all. Bad enough to lock you away for so long, but to tell you that you would actually die because of the game? Oh! I-I guess you wouldn't know yet. The first few hundred did die as soon as they were disconnected from the NervGear system, but everyone who "died" within the game was released and woke up here. That Bastard said something about wanting to simulate a reality that would be taken seriously to reveal the true nature of humans, or some such nonsense. R-really, Maiko, maybe I should've... Look, how about you lay back and rest some more, okay? I can fill you in later."

Hell would've been easier to handle.

"That's amazing, Miss Maiko! What progress you've made! You'll be back to normal in no time, for sure." What a joke. They were impressed with that? With running on a worthless, pointless machine in place for a few minutes? Had they no standards to compare it to? What was the challenge in moving a mechanical tool when she had been running wild, free as the wind, farther and faster with every moment for over a year? Everything was so... slow. Dull.

"I can only hope to improve to my old self again." Maiko replied with a shallow smile. Her old self. What a joke. Who would that even be? The pleasant pharmacy worker or the... Well, she supposed her old job wasn't entirely out of the question. She had been fired, of course, though the company had claimed kindness in the act for relieving her of the possible stress after such an ordeal.

"At this rate you'll have no trouble. Now, how about the weights? Remember, take it slowly! We don't want you to push yourself, this is just a way of seeing how much you can handle at the moment." Don't push yourself? With these miniscule blocks? How it galled her that they did. By the end she had raised her strength stat enough times to know exactly how much progress she was making with each one and her current level was just... disappointing. Like an NPC.

Maiko wished she could see her stats.

Home. What a strange concept. Normalcy. Routine. The more Kiyoshi tried to make her comfortable, the more surreal this 'life' seemed. Life was finding something to fight for, or with, or against at every moment- having a thrill that reminded you that you haven't died. Life was knowing exactly how mortal you were and what fragile beings humans are. Life wasn't just... watching the news of other people's stories. Life wasn't laughing about silly rumours around the office or greeting the same person in the same way every single day at the same time for the sake of some social constant when they get home. Life wasn't... boring. Except it was. Maiko stopped expecting the sharpness of vision when she woke up each morning, a long term effect of living with too perfect graphics for so long. She 'got used' to the limits of this new body, though every day she strove to get back some of her former glory. She trained herself to stop trying to open the menu to change clothes or find items. Her brother thought that was cute, a nervous tick of sorts instead of a real necessity in the world she belongs... belonged to.

Kiyoshi had wondered about her sudden interest in cooking. "Oh, just something new to put my energy into!" would've been true at one point in time. Now she just missed the feel of a knife. She'd spin it on her finger tips, one sign of her old reflexes remaining, slice through the flesh of meat in even motions long practiced. It helped a bit, reminded her of her own abilities, that she was someone, a Player.

It was three months before she agreed to join the group sessions. Kiyoshi didn't understand her hesitation, but then, he didn't really know her now, did he? She never talked about what it was like, how it felt, who she... He wouldn't have understood. That's why she had come, to at least see if there were any others like her.

"Yes, go right in. I'm so glad you decided to join us this week." The counsellor smiled cheerily, trying to make her feel welcome in this bright hallway.

"I'm... very glad to be here. It will be so nice to see some of the others from Inside and be able to talk about my experiences." What was this rubbish coming from her mouth? Why was she bothering with the polite feigned interest? Who was she to have to cater to the demure stereotype of a woman in her position?

The room wasn't crowded, not yet. Maybe half the seats were filled, arranged in a few circles around the large area. She vaguely noted refreshments in the corner and the lack of windows. The people lulled about, a few talking in small groups, clearly friends from Inside by the volume and animation of their conversation. A few of them looked familiar, like people she could've walked past a dozen times in different cities but never talked to. Others she could pinpoint by reputation. Dead people. She had a very clear memory for faces. It helped in her line of business.

There was Razamune, the lanky blonde broadswordsman scout, who was almost always among the group who discovered various boss rooms and events. It was odd to see him without his trademark golden locks. He was slain on floor 51, during the first boss battle he participated in himself.

Fidgeting near one of the groups but never quite joining in their laughter was Yumena, a tailor who stayed on the first floor and to anyone's knowledge never even picked up a sword, but was one of the most prized designers for guild uniforms and flashy armor sets. It was striking to see her now with dull black hair and a mousy grey dress rather than the bursts of color and life she was known for. Rumor had it she had been PK'd once she left the city to talk to a delivery quest NPC. Pointless.

Miles was unexpected. A front-line tank with moderate skill with a shield, he was one of the reliable clearers, not one to take chances. He must have been killed recently, however he died. He looked so... small now. He was still a large man, of course, but somewhat emaciated and looked unsure of his steps and the power to put behind them. Compared to his rocksteady confidence, this man looked as if he wasn't sure who he was. Maybe he didn't. Who did?

Kuinshi had been alive as well, but much could change in a few months. He was a smith on the middle levels, a good person to talk to for quest advice or repairs, even for those with less than Green reputation markers. His free attitude towards so called "criminals" made him unofficially off limits for Orange and Reds alike, with the Laughing Coffin going as far as to eliminate an Orange who overstepped his bounds and dared to steal some of his work.

Slowly the room filled, some faces old and long forgotten, others of minor note, and more who made an impact in the world. There were maybe 150 total who arrived for this, though Maiko had been told that other days were more popular and a Tuesday would be "starting small". The circles of chairs were of various sizes, intended to make people to choose which size group they would be most comfortable with. She sat down quietly in a circle of 10 or so and awaited the time to begin.

A gruff man cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "Alright, alright. Welcome back everyone. You know the drill, and if you don't, just find a chair and have the circle leader begin introductions."

A young kid of maybe 15 or so jumped up across the circle. "Okay! Let's start. Hi, I'm MerryJack. Wait- no, I mean I'm Shin Yoshida, and I was also awesome swordsman MerryJack up until a few months ago. It's easy to forget with all these familiar faces around!" He laughed "merrily" at his joke. "Here they are going to try to get me back in school, but I missed a year and it isn't easy! So I'm missing this one as well just to catch up on everything." With that he took a flamboyant bow and gestured to his right.

The man who stood next looked gaunt, serious and solemn in contrast to Shin. "Hello... I am Osawa Hidaka and was NorthWall until a few weeks ago. We had cleared the 73rd boss before I fell." With that he sat with eyes closed again.

"Hiya! I'm Hinamori Kinjo. I was totally Jazzlock way back when. I'm 16 and have been coming to these meetings for over a year now, so I'm practically your senpai! You should learn from my example and stop being so gloo~my all the time. Yeah, we died. Get over it! It's not like we actually did or anything."

"Kentarou Maeda. Damien. And it's nothing to laugh about. Sorry if some of us don't take being murdered so easily." The older teen didn't bother standing, and his crossed arms left no questions as to his definity.

A nervous looking fellow was next. Reminded her of an information broker maybe a year back who was caught selling bad intel. "Ryouta Itou, I was PseudoCube. Of course, nowadays I'm trying to get back into the swing of things with my new job in marketing!" He let out some fake laughter, sitting down awkwardly at this statement.

Maiko rose to her feet calmly. This was it. "Maiko Takagi. Until a few months ago I-"

"Murdering bitch."

"I was Carlotta, the Grey Wind." Funny. She had planned on lying about it. It would be easy enough to fake a sob story about her death and claim a different name with the large number of players. Somehow the epithet had steeled her resolve though. She met her accuser's eyes steadily. "How charming. I wasn't sure I would be recognized, hair back to black and all."

"It's hard to forget the last face you see before you die." The boy's glare sharpened somehow at her unrepentant attitude. In truth, he wasn't one of her more memorable victims. She remembered a mace and something about a cliff's edge...

"Funny. It's quite easy to forget the faces of those you've made see their last. Oh wait! Careful dearie 'round the bend, don't want you to lose your head~ That was the one." An almost crass smile settled on her face as she sung.

He jumped to his feet and lunged. Instinctively she bent her knees and reached around her belt only to come up with nothing but air as she was pushed to the ground suddenly. His hands gripped her throat for one awful, stifling moment before they were wrenched away forcibly. As she gasped for air, feeling the strain, she caught sight of her rescuer. A head taller in height to herself, he was one she wasn't familiar with. His left ear was pierced and he looked rougher than the usual cleancut office crowd by an arena fight or two. He held back Nightwood by the arms, twisting them behind him uncomfortably. "Daichi Ueda. Oathbringer. I brought people to justice and have never stood for cowardly pieces of shit picking fights in front of me." At the last line he twisted Nightwood's arm further, but his eyes never left Carlotta's.

"Okay- Okay, I get it! Lemme go, that hurts!" He was released swiftly and backed away rubbing his wrists.

"Understood." Maiko gathered her composure and seated herself down again in her ladylike posture.

A single high pitched squeak reminded her of the public nature of that confrontation. Looking around, she could see that not only was she the center of attention within her chosen circle, but every group nearby had stopped their own introductions to watch the conflict. Anger burned in their eyes and a familiar murmuring grew from the crowd. "Should've let him at her." "Dares to come here of all places?" "Isn't that the-"

The facilitator noticed the shift in attention and announced again "Back to your groups people, I'm sure whatever it is can wait until later."

Damien shouted back at him over the crowd. "We're supposed to just sit here and make nice with a fucking PK in our midst? This bitch was Red!"

If the previous glares were not enough, now he'd gotten everyone's attention. A few people popped up onto their chairs to get a better look while others crowded around. With such a large group, the murmurs rose to a rumble. "Red? Which one?" "PK scum should pay for their crimes!" "If I had my sword..." "It's the fucking Grey Wind!"

Sneering, Carlotta bowed to the crowd. "What a warm welcome! I'm so glad I stopped by to share in tales of our experiences with people. Just. Like. Me."

"I never killed anybody!" Came an immediate protest from a man she recognised as Chillin.

"And I've never buried a body."

"You'd probably get off on it, you psycho bitch."

"Don't worry, you aren't my type." She practically growled her last quip, feeling confidence fill her to the brim.

"Peace, people! This is neutral ground, a safe zone. The rules apply to everyone." Kuinshi came to her defense.

"Safe zone? This isn't Aincrad, moron! How about a little vengeance, some justice?"

"Screw justice, I just want to see her pay for killing Juna!"

"Leave it to the afterlife, be glad you have a second chance here at all."

"Fuck that! Are we supposed to just let her walk away like that was nothing?"

"No body, no crime. Nothing against her but the memories we hold from a world that doesn't exist. You'd get laughed out of court."

"She didn't know that! None of us did! You didn't see me going around stabbing children!"

"I didn't see any of you stop her either. Though someone did, or she'd be trapped still like the rest of them."

"Better they'd ripped the NervGear from her skull while they could, would save us the trouble now."

"Well isn't that lovely! If you'll excuse me, I think I'm done for today. So very nice to see you all again, so many... wonderful memories, truly. Ta ta!" Carlotta sashayed to the nearest door in record time only to collapse on the other side of it the moment it closed.

"Miss! Miss, are you alright?"

"Yes... yes, I am fine. Just a little too much excitement for my heart, don't trouble yourself over me." Excitement. Yes. Staring down a hall full of enemies who wanted nothing more than to see her shatter. It really was... invigorating. Maiko's hands shook as she rose to her feet.

Her brother had been kind enough to wait outside, a consideration for her "gentle nature" in case she got nervous. Wouldn't want to stress her recovery, after all. Sickening how fragile he thought her.

"How was the meeting?"


She didn't return for the next week.

Hello! I would just like to say that I loved writing this story. It did not go as planned, at all, or even end the way it was intended to. But sometimes things work out better that way. I do plan on writing more for this story, though I will let each chapter stand as a one-shot. I really enjoyed the psychological side of SAO and hope I can explore more of it here through different psyches and characters as they have to reflect on the choices they've made.

Thank you for reading.

If you have any suggestions for characters, conflicts, dilemmas, let me know and I'll see what I can work in.

Until next time,