Halkegenia Online - Epilogue Part 3

"Like this Mama?" Yui asked as she showed Asuna her handiwork, a half dozen green onions neatly sliced width wise into hundred of little pieces, starting from the white bulbs and then continuing on up to the greens.

Asuna smiled and nodded. "Un, just like that Yui-chan."

She had been worried at first letting Yui use the knife. But after Yui's heartfelt promise to be careful, and thorough instruction, Asuna had relented. Now, she stood back watching as Yui leaned over the piece of paper containing Asuna's handwritten recipe.

"Next we put the green onions in, and start on the lemon sauce, right?"

"That's right." Asuna agreed. "That way we'll be done with the sauce by the time the soup and rabbit are ready."

Asuna had missed this. Cooking, real cooking, had been one of her hobbies even before her imprisonment within SAO. Leveling her cooking skill had become her refuge in the death game, something that didn't involve the endless fighting to reach the one hundredth floor and freedom. Now it had become something even more, part of her healing process.

Of course, in SAO, it had always been a little unsatisfying. For one thing, full dive games simplified the experience far too much for her tastes. Cooking became less of a hobby and more of a mini game where the main challenge was in devising ways to trick the taste engine into providing new and unique flavors from a finite list of ingredients.

Here, the problem was almost the reverse, without modern appliances, cooking had become a much more labor intensive process. Thankfully, ALO had equipped houses with indoor running water, so the kitchen sink and drain worked correctly. But the stove and oven were of a wood burning type that required tending, and labor saving disposable cooking supplies like metal foil simply didn't exist.

Thankfully, she had a few extra pairs of hands to help out.

"Asuna-chan, is this alright?" The question came from the Sylph girl standing opposite her at the kitchen counter, holding a small bowl and a wooden spoon.

She'd been a little nervous to meet Suguha when Kirito had first introduced them. After all, Suguha was Kirito's blood relative and someone who was very important to him, especially now that she was the only blood family he had in this world. Asuna had worried about making a good first impression.

Strangely, Suguha had seemed the same way, greeting Asuna shyly before retreating to observe from a distance. Asuna hadn't know what to make of it at first. But despite her initial skittishness, Sugu had been nothing but helpful since they had met, watching after Yui, helping Asuna to get settled in Arrun. Maybe she just needed time.

Taking a small spoon, Asuna ladled the contents to her lips and sampled it thoughtfully. "Hmm, it needs a little more of the pepper. Half a teaspoon should be right."

"Right." Suguha said. "Uhm . . . Where did the pepper get to?"

"I put it back in the spice rack." Yui answered helpfully.

"I'll get it." Asuna said, squeezing past Suguha to get to the cupboard.

She paused at the window for a moment, glancing out into the Garden where Kirito and Klein were seated on the patio overlooking the garden, each sipping from a glass of barley tea. Both Kirito and Klein had taken the brunt of the treacherous Viscount's electrical attack and had only recently completed their recovery.

Arriving in Arrun after their brief stay in the Capital of Tristania, Asuna and Kirito had found themselves with their next challenge, albeit one that was a good deal less stressful than the one they had narrowly survived. Searching for a more permanent place to settle down than the cramped inn room that Kirito, Yui, and Sugha had shared.

It had turned out that the problem had already been solved for them. Arrun was easily able to accommodate twenty thousand people at any one time and to allow most of these people to own some sort of residence within the city limits. Thus, Arrun contained thousands of apartments and townhouses, hundreds of separate homes, and dozens of Guild Halls and mansions.

Even with the migration of former players from the smaller towns and villages to Arrun, there were still a large number of homes that were abandoned or vacant, and in the interest of public welfare, the Arrun City Planning Commission had taken to maintaining a list of available residence. The only requirements to move in were to register their names to the house number and agree to the building's upkeep.

Asuna, Kirito, and Yui had spent their first day in Arrun traveling the city and looking over the available homes. Of course, the most desirable homes had long since been snatched up, leaving mostly apartments and smaller houses on the outskirts.

Or at least, that was how it had seemed until a Sylph named Novair, one of Lady Sakuya's staff, had found them during the second day of their house hunt and handed over a small card with a handwritten house number that corresponded to a medium sized townhouse located just off of Arrun's main street.

At some point in her busy schedule, Lady Sakuya had learned about their predicament and called in a few favors.

After looking the house over thoroughly, Kirito and Asuna had decided to graciously accept. It wasn't their old cabin on Aincrad's 22nd floor, but it did have a private garden, pleasant surroundings, and a cozy interior design that left Asuna well at ease after her long ordeal. Kirito thought it would be the perfect place for them, and Asuna had to agree.

Returning to the present, Asuna remembered the pepper she had bought from one of the local Halkegenian merchants who had set up shop near the city gates. Now that some of the Faeries were beginning to collect incomes from various sources of employment, a small but growing market for imported goods was developing, and some of the more industrious Tristanian merchants were all too happy to meet that demand.

"Here." She handed the jar to Suguha before going to check on the oven. It wouldn't be much longer now, she thought. Turning back to her adopted daughter, "Oh, Yui-chan that's too much!"

Despite the inexperience of her assistants, at last, lunch was ready and the boys were called in. Kirito sitting down at the dining room table with a look of open anticipation while Klein was nearly salivating.

Of course, it wouldn't be complete without proper presentation. "Ahem." Asuna coughed softly. "May I present . . ." Lifting the top off the pot with a puff of steam. " . . . Today's lunch!"

The expression on Kirito's face and Yui's look of delight were worth the extra effort she thought as she and Suguha served everyone. Roasted rabbit covered in a lemon sauce and served with soup and a light salad. It had seemed like the perfect meal for the warm spring weather.

Taking her own seat opposite Kirito and beside Yui and Suguha, Asuna smiled as thanks was given for the meal and they began to eat. Yui's eyes widened as she took her first bight and then another in quick succession.

"Do you like it?" Asuna asked, waiting with bated breath.

"It's yummy!" Yui nodded.

"A lot better than all that spicy stuff your Pappa like to eat, huh?" Asuna teased, smiling in amusement at the way Kirito grouched.

Yui tilted her head. "Mama's spicy food is good too." She said diplomatically.

"Well, your Mama is a really good cook no matter what world she's in." Kirito observed warmly.

Processing this comment, Yui suddenly raised her hand. "I helped too!"

"Then I'm sure Yui will be as good a cook as Asuna some day." Klein complimented. "Seriously, Asuna-chan, how did you manage to do this? It's almost as good as some of the stuff you made back in Aincrad."

"Almost?" Asuna asked dangerously, holding an imperious expression while Klein spluttered.

Though he was right. There were, after all, limitations to what she could recreate here. Many ingredients were missing or impractical for her to make from the ground up, and a steady heat was hard to come by. Maybe with fire magic? She thought. She'd have to talk to Klein about it later, or maybe a proper fire mage like that girl in his squad.

"I just mean that . . . well . . . You've only had a week to figure it all out." Klein tried to explain. "And haven't you had to work from the ground up all over again?"

Asuna held her stare for a moment longer, just long enough for Klein to start to fear that he wouldn't be invited back before smiling. "Actually, it has been a little tricky. You're right that I've only had a week, but it seems that a lot of Aincrad ingredients were reused in ALO and even Halkegenia has some spices and herbs that I'm familiar with. So really, I didn't have to start from scratch this time."

"Well, however you do it, it's amazing." Kirito decided. If the nearly spotless state of his plate at the end of the meal was any indication, he hadn't been exaggerating.

After lunch, Kirito volunteered to clean the dishes while Klein begged other responsibilities. He had to get ready for tonight's special event and then he had night watch after that.

With nothing else to do until evening, Asuna had taken the light throw blanket from the sofa and gone out onto the patio to read, sitting in the shade offered by the awning. She'd been joined a few minutes later by an expectant Yui who waited for her approval before crawling up in the rocking chair beside her and snuggling close.

It wasn't long before the warm body at Asuna's side fell still, and when next she looked up from her book, she found Yui, eyes closed, with a blissful smile on her sleeping face. Setting her book down, Asuna carefully wrapped the blanket closer around the sleeping girl and kissed her forehead. If there was anything in this world that Asuna was grateful for, it was the opportunity it had given for her to meet Yui in the flesh. And it seemed that the former AI, now a very real young girl, thought the same way.

Listening to the birds and the rustling of the leaves, Asuna closed her eyes, weariness overtaking her. Even after a week's rest, she found herself tiring early, and sleeping late. At times she'd found herself waking from nightmares, feeling like she was still trapped in Sugou's cage, recalling the sensation of warm blood seeping down over her hands, or the indistinct shouts and flickering lights of the Skiesedge ambush.

Yui, drawing on her own expertise, had coaxed Asuna into talking about these things, not just with Kirito, Yui said it was important not to rely on him alone, but with Klein and Lisbeth as well. Klein and Liz could understand a little of what had happened and their acknowledgment and acceptance meant a lot.

Thanks to all of them, she was able to face the bad memories and slowly accept that they had happened, that they were over, that she had survived, and that good things were happening now.

So many good . . . wonderful things. She thought as she held onto Yui. She didn't even realize that she'd fallen asleep again until a hand gently shook her shoulder.

"Mmm?" Blinking the sleep from her eyes, Asuna realized that the sky had gone from blue to pale violet and that the warmth from earlier in the day had been replaced by a pleasant coolness.

"Is it time?" Asuna asked.

Kirito nodded. "Un. I'll wake Yui while you go get ready, okay?"

"Thanks." She whispered, taking Kirito's hand to rise and slipping back inside quickly.

Goodness, she must have slept full five or six hours! But, there hadn't been any bad dreams this time. That was right. Everything was going to be okay.

They'd chosen this house in part because of its size. Homes like this would have been owned by small guilds, so there were multiple bedrooms. Asuna and Kirito shared the largest room on the third floor, overlooking the main street on two sides.

There hadn't really been any time to do much decorating just yet, but the house had come equipped with basic furniture, including a dresser that Asuna and Kirito used to store their meager wardrobes.

Some of the Faeries now starting their own small businesses had taken advantage of their aptitude with the less frequently leveled skills. The craftsmen setting up shop every morning in the square had been joined in the past weeks by tailors and seamstresses providing both ALfheim styled garb as well as more traditional or casual clothing. Such was the case with Asuna's own white blouse, loose knit sweater, and knee length skirt.

Straightening out her clothes in the mirror and grabbing a pair of socks she hurried downstairs to find Yui, still sleepy, being helped into her coat by Suguha who was likewise dressed in a white jacket, light green dress, and khaki shorts.

Kirito was the last to arrive, putting out the ore lamps in the living room, he paused as he received stares from Asuna, Suguha, and Yui.

"What? I-Is something wrong?"

"Onii-chan, you're really going to wear that?" Suguha asked, looking over her brothers dark pants and button up shirt.

Kirito frowned. "What's wrong with it, you said I had to wear something that wasn't black, this is dark blue."

"I'm pretty sure that's black." Asuna said.

"It's black." Suguha agreed.

Squinting hard, Yui shook her head. "It's 151B54." Asuna and Suguha turned and stared in confusion. "It's not black." Yui elaborated. "It just looks that way because of the light."

"See." Kirito said. "Not black."

Suguha and Asuna exchanged glances. "You know, you shouldn't be so proud of winning on a technicality Onii-chan."

"Next time we're looking for clothes, I'm going with you." Asuna decided.

"What?" Kirito looked a little offended. "I just think black is an easy color is all."

"Exactly." Asuna said as she slipped out the door and onto the slowly lighting streets of Arrun.

On a narrow side street in Arrun's central district, nestled between a pair of defunct, formerly NPC run shops, there existed a small, recently opened hole in the wall establishment marked by a hand painted sign describing a pair of playing dice.

The Proprietors, a Gnome couple recently arrived from Tau Tona, had former experience as entrepreneurs and small business owners back in Japan, and had cleverly timed their grand opening to coincide with the first trickles of income that were beginning to flow into Arrun as business dealings were finalized with the local Nobility and contracts were payed out by the Crown and Faerie Lords.

The growing number of Faeries with coin in their purses had found themselves confronted by something that they had not seen on the streets of Arrun in over a month. A cafe, a real restaurant, and it was serving food and drink a good couple of cuts above what was being rationed at the inns and barracks.

The Dicey Cafe had become an almost immediate success among the Fae, particularly the former and current members of the mob patrols and the victorious volunteers of Operation Dunkirk who had come to adopt the Cafe as their new watering hole.

This was in part due to the excellent food and drink, the product of an Imp employee who had been hired on after demonstrating his exceptionally high cooking skill and the Proprietor's excellent negotiating skills, as well as a number of Secret Recipes that had begun to crop up on the menu, carrying with them the nostalgic flavors of home.

It had thus been a great shock and disappointment for most of the instant regulars when they discovered that the Cafe would be reserved on the evening of the next Day of Void for a long awaited reunion between the Proprietor and some old friends . . .

"Wait, are we late?" Kirito asked as he stepped over the threshold and into the warm, wooden interior of the Cafe. Reminiscent of one part bar and one part bistro.

The small dining area was already half filled with their friends and acquaintances as Kirito held the door for Asuna, Suguha, and Yui.

Liz grinned as she looked up from her decorating. "Nah, you're right on time. We wanted to get set up before you got here, so we told you to come later."

"Is that so," Kirito said as he looked around the room. Silica and Pina were already seated at the nearest table, the blue feathered dragon wrapped greedily around a bowl of peanuts while Silica sipped at her own ice tea. The Cait Syth girl brightened up immediately, rising from her chair to greet them.

"Kirito-kun!" Silica greeted with a smile and then turned to Asuna. "And Asuna-san. I'm so happy to finally meet you in person."

Silica's job as a courier for important dispatches and parcels had really taken off after the adventure she had shared with Suguha and Yui in Northern Tristain, and she'd had hardly any time off since as she crisscrossed the country delivering dispatches and retrieving written reports.

The same was also true of many of tonight's guests, who were being kept busy either by the Faerie Lords or their own self found occupations. Just finding time for everyone to meet up had been tough enough.

"And I'm happy to meet you too. Silica-chan." Asuna smiled back. "Kirito-kun has told me lots about you and Pina. I'm grateful that you helped out." Asuna allowed herself to be lead back to a table by Silica and Liz, Yui trailing close behind.

Kirito meanwhile sidled up to the bar, taking a seat beside Argo who for once had chosen to forego her hood and even appeared to have properly combed her hair into some semblance of order rather than the golden brown mop that it usually resembled.

"How's it going, Kii-bou?" The Rat that had become a Cat asked as she stroked the head of her Nav Pixie partner. The tiny girl had seated herself atop the bar and was in the midst of nibbling away at a nut and slice of apple.

"I feel like I've aged twenty years over the last month." Kirito answered tiredly, looking over his shoulder to where Asuna was laughing softly about something Liz had just said. "And I'm the happiest guy in the world."

Argo chuckled. "So, Kii-bou and Aa-chan are back together. Congratulations."

"Thanks." Kirito said. and then added slyly. "That almost sounded genuine."

"Tis the truth sa!" She protested with another chuckle before leaning in cautiously. "Really, I'm glad for you and Aa-chan. You two deserve to be happy, especially with what's happening."

Kirito nodded, before raising a hand. "Barkeep, whiskey on the rocks." Kirito said half seriously, accepting a dark, ice filled glass. Taking his first sip, he blinked. "Wait as second, is this . . . Oolong tea? Hey, Agil, where did you get this?" He was almost certain that this wasn't one of ALfheim's food stuffs.

"You like it?" The burly Gnome behind the bar counter asked. "It's something I picked up from a trade Caravan. Apparently it comes from someplace beyond the Rub'al Khali desert. I guess maybe this world's version of China is out there somewhere. Who knows, maybe there's even an little island Kingdom where we can get our hands some soybeans."

"Don't joke about that." Kirito grumbled as he took another sip of the surprisingly nostalgic tea. He didn't want to get his hopes up in case Asuna couldn't repeat her miracle from Aincrad with the ingredients available in Halkegenia. "By the way, congratulations on your grand opening. I hear business has been doing good."

Agil gave a wide smile that could have made little children cry. "Funny, it seems I have good luck with business in any world except the one I was born in."

"And how does your wife feel about that?" Kirito asked.

"She feels like her husband should have spent a little bit less time playing full dive games and devoted some of that enthusiasm to real life." The reply came not from Agil, but another Gnome, a woman with warm, earthen skin and long black hair who had just appeared from the kitchen area. "You must be Kirito-kun." She bowed slightly.

"Ah, Kathy-san, or is it Eda-san?" Kirito bowed his head in her direction. "Yes, Agil's told me plenty about you."

"Whichever you like." The attractive Gnome woman tilted her head, smiling mischievously. "And I hope I don't have to set the record straight."

"He said that you were his beautiful and virtuous wife and that it's only thanks to you that he had a business to return to in the real world." Kirito said with complete sincerity before eyeing Agle with a silent stare that he hoped said this was his apology for denying him a taste of Asuna's Ragout Rabbit Stew all of those months ago.

"Well, well." The Gnome woman eyed her husband. "That sounds about right. Though," she sighed, "I'm afraid it was a wasted effort now. Though I suppose it's not all bad, flying is an amazing experience, and now I don't have stand on my tiptoes to kiss my husband." She demonstrated by giving Agil a small peck on the cheek.

Kirito's own smile widened as Argo snickered beside him. It seemed Kathy really was exactly the sort of faithful wife Agil had described. Agil was lucky to have her, and she was lucky to have him.

"Oy, Barkeep, give me a you know what!" A familiar, brash voice came from his back as Klein, dressed in full gear, took a seat at the bar, followed by two more of the former members of Furinkanzen and Schmidt, formerly of the Divine Dragon Alliance.

"It it really okay for you to be drinking if you have to go back on patrol?" Kirito asked.

"Eh? You can't pull double shifts without a drink." Klein defended, knocking back a round with a small cough. "Besides, it burns off pretty fast. Unless I really hit the heavy stuff, I won't even get buzzed." A hand fell heavily on Kirito's back. "And thanks again for lunch today. Man you must have used up all of your Luck Stat getting Asuna."

"Some days it feels that way." Kirito agreed. By now, more people were trickling in. Yolko and Caynz, two of the former members of the Aincrad Guild Golden Apple and then a rather happy looking Old Man, the fisherman Nishida setting down his tackle box by the door and taking the last available seat at the bar.

"Hey, it looks like the heroes are all here!" Caramella said as she came through the door, followed by her ever present partner, Kino. "Hey, Asuna, thanks for the invite!" The former army player found a spot to stand beside the bar while Kino took Argo's seat when she slipped away to join the rest of the girls.

"If it isn't Caramel." Klein said as he took another sip of his drink.

"Bite me you redheaded ronin wannabe." Caramella replied cheerfully. "If I known you were in this world I might have just stayed in Albion."

The banter between the two went on, leaving Kirito quite at a loss. He guessed they must have known each other from SAO, which made sense. Klein had probably interacted with a lot more people as a guild leader than Kirito ever had as a solo player.

"Um, excuse me." A small voice at Kirito's elbow drew his attention." Kino glanced about anxiously and then leaned closer. "That girl with the ears . . . "

Kirito glanced over his shoulder. Currently, Asuna and others were doting on Yui, his adopted daughter beaming with delight at all of the attention.

"Which one?" Kirito asked.

"Th-the one with the dragon." Kino mumbled face turning faintly red. "T-that's wouldn't be any chance be . . . be Dragon Tamer Silica . . . would it?"

It suddenly clicked, Kirito grinning as he leaned in conspiratorially. "Why? Are you one of her fans?"

Kino swallowed and nodded slowly. "Everyone in the middle levels thought that only the clearers could rise really fast in level and that nobody else could ever catch up, but then she started leveling up really fast, almost as fast as the clearers. A lot of her fans couldn't keep up with her and had to give up following her around once she got up to the fifty fifth floor."

Kirito listened carefully as Kino continued to gush. It wasn't the usual fan boy stuff either. He didn't seem to care at all about Pina's status as a mascot. Instead he did nothing but recite how she'd started leveling up and going on out of her way to train her dagger skills.

Well, it didn't sound like he was a bad kid. And Asuna trusted him. "You know." Kirito said casually. "You could always go over and talk to her."

"W-what?!" Kino looked about in terror. "Who said anything about that? I . . ."

Kirito's smile widened. "Come on, he who dare's wins, right?" He nudged Kino gently on the shoulder and for a second he was worried that he'd broken him.

The Faerie boy had frozen up completely, barely even breathing. Then, in one quick motion, he snatched up his glass of tea and downed the contents in one gulp. Yanking off his hat, he tried to comb his straw colored hair back with mixed success and then, taking a breath, hopped down from the seat began to make his way towards Silica who was busily showing Yui how to hold out her arm so that Pina would know that she could land.

"Heh, poor little guy looks like he's going to faint." Caramella said as she stole the seat and watched with an amused look. "Hey, Klein, looks like you could learn a few things from Kino!"

Well, he'd managed to get Silica to notice him. Kirito wished him luck as Agil suddenly drew his attention and began to discuss a joint venture he was looking for a competent swordsman to help him with. A little bit of low risk mob culling in support of the Cait Syth domestication efforts. The pay was supposed to be good, and if they managed to retrieve the eggs without damage, the omelettes promised to be fantastic.

Kirito was so absorbed in the conversation that he barely noticed the way that Suguha had quietly taken a step back, observing, but not participating in the festivities around her.

'I'm happy for them.' Suguha thought as she sat atop her bed, legs pulled up to her chin. 'I really am happy for them. Then why does it hurt so much?'

It was just past midnight. The reunion party had long since ended, people saying their goodbyes before setting out onto the orelit streets. At some point during the party, Yui had fallen asleep in Asuna's arms. Kirito had carried her home rather than waking her.

Suguha looked out her bedroom window, watching the moons hanging low in the sky. When Kirito and Asuna had accepted residence in this house, she and Yui had been given free reign to pick their own rooms. Suguha had found that she rather like the bedroom on the second floor which overlooked the garden, while Yui had quickly snapped up the remaining third story bedroom to stay close to her 'Mama' and 'Papa.'

Suguha smiled to herself. The more she watched them together, the more they seemed like a real family. They were a real family in every way that mattered. And that was what made it so painful. Yui and Asuna shared a bond with her brother that she lacked. And without that link, how could she ever stay at his side?

'What am I doing here?'

She'd thought that she could help, but her brother had people he relied on far more than her, Asuna and Klein, Silica and Lizbeth. Tonight at the party, it had been driven home once again. What connection did she share with him now?

They were siblings, above all else they had been raised as brother and sister. That should have counted for a lot, but Suguha didn't want that to be all. She didn't want to be a burden to him. She wanted . . . she wanted to be there for him, to be relied upon and trusted. More than anything, she didn't want to feel like they were strangers anymore.

She'd tried to do that. She'd tried hard, and she still felt like she'd failed.

After Asuna and Kirito had returned, Suguha had told them about the events in Tarbes and what had nearly happened to Yui. Klein had been right, her brother hadn't been angry at all. Instead, he and Asuna had listened and grown worried, not just for Yui, but for her as well. Somehow, that only made it worse, like they didn't expect her to be able to take care of herself.

A soft knock at the door startled Suguha from her thoughts. "Yes?"

The door creaked open, revealing a head of chestnut hair peaking in from the hallway.

"Oh, Asuna-san!" Suguha took a breath and tried to compose herself. What hope did she have if she couldn't even do this much?

"Can't sleep?" Asuna asked as she slipped into the room, dressed in a nightshirt and shorts, her permanently extended wings glowing softly in the reflected moonlight, giving the other girl an ethereal quality as she stepped out of the shadows.

"Un, just thinking." Suguha said, offering her a place at the edge of the bed. "A lot's happened."

She watched Asuna as she carefully took a seat. Her brother was lucky. After a week spent living with her, Suguha was sure that Asuna was everything her brother claimed she was. Kind, and warm, and gentle, and so very much stronger than her. She'd taken a liking to the older girl almost as soon as they had met.

Suguha wasn't jealous, she'd accepted her feelings for her brother, even if they were painful at first. No, Suguha had been thankful that Kazuto had found someone that could mean so much to him and who felt the same way back. So long as her brother had Asuna at his side, he could handle anything.

But at the same time, seeing them together just reminded her of how far apart she and her brother really were. Even now, Kirito lived in a different world from her, not because he couldn't come back, but because she couldn't keep up.

"Sugu." Asuna placed a hand on her shoulder. "Sugu, are you alright?"

"Ah!" She felt the heat around her eyes but thankfully was able to hold back the tears. "I . . . I'm sorry it's nothing . . ." She tried to say, tried to lie.

Asuna didn't believe her, but that was okay, she was kind enough not to push for an answer. "Sugu, I've been meaning to talk to you." She said, leaning back, she stretched her arms and wings across the bed.

Suguha listened curiously. What was this about? Well, she had some things to say as well. "Un, it's the same for me."

Asuna nodded. "I want to thank you again for all of your help. I'm glad that Kirito-kun had such a reliable person with him this whole time. And I'm especially glad that person was someone he cares deeply for. And I'm also glad for getting to meet you, Suguha."

Asuna's smile softened. "From what Kirito had told me about you, you're exactly the sort of person I imagined. I'm grateful."

Suguha was left speechless, she shook her head, it was just a polite compliment. "It wasn't anything special. Actually, Onii-chan helped me much more than I helped him."

That was right, without him, she'd probably still be curled up alone in an inn room somewhere in Arrun, crying her eyes out.

Asuna shook her head insistently. "That's not true at all Suguha-chan. You were there for him when all of this started. Even before that, back in that other world. You helped Kirito-kun . . . Kazuto-kun a lot, right?"

She felt embarrassed, she really hadn't done anything special. "I didn't do anything really . . . I . . ." Suguha took a breath, the sooner she said it, the sooner it would be over."Asuna-san, please continue to protect Onii-chan."

"Sugu?" Asuna breathed.

"It's just that. I feel like I can't really do anything for him." Her voice quavered, she swallowed, feeling a lump growing in her throat. "And, it hurts, because I'm not strong enough. But you are. So please stay at Onii-chan's side."

Suguha fell silent and waited for the reply. It was a long time in coming, but when it did, she hadn't expected the soft note of amusement in Asuna's voice.

"Is that what this is all about?" Asuna asked. "You know, Suguha-chan, you're much stronger than you think."

Suguha wanted to believe it, she wanted to believe it so badly, but she didn't, she couldn't, and she didn't even try to hide it.

"You know." Asuna continued. "Lots of different people are strong in lots of different ways. Klein, and Liz, and Agil all have different ways of being strong. And nobody is strong all of the time."

"But you and Onii-chan are always strong when it matters . . ."

"No." Asuna breathed softly. "No, we're not. There are lots of times when we've both been very weak, that's why it's so important to protect each other. And that's why if I'm going to keep your Brother safe, I'm going to need as much help as I can get."

Suguha frowned, not really comprehending what Asuna was saying. "Asuna-san?"

"You think I'm a strong person?" Asuna asked thoughtfully. "I'm really not. In Aincrad, I spent my first week doing nothing but crying, and when I finally stopped, I nearly killed myself by fighting recklessly."

Asuna looked into the distance, into her own past. "I was really very foolish, and very weak, I didn't even have the strength to live on. I probably would have died without ever getting past the first floor if someone hadn't helped me." Her voice warmed as she continued to recal. "He was a little awkward, and a little . . . no, very suspicious," she giggled, "But he went out of his way to help without expecting anything in return, and most of all, he chose to continue living even in that world."

"Onii-chan?" Suguha asked.

"Un." Asuna agreed. "Kirito-kun is strong in lots of ways, but he's weak in lots of ways too. That's why we both have to help him as much as we can. He relies on you much more than you think."

Was that true? Suguha wondered. It couldn't be, could it?

"Suguha-chan." Asuna squeezed her hand. "You are Kirito-kun's precious little sister, and now that you finally have him back, I would never want to take him away from you. That's why, I want to ask for your blessing."

"M-my blessing?" Suguha was left confused.

"Un." Asuna nodded he head. "Suguha-chan, I want your blessing to become part of your family."

Suguha felt the burning around her eyes again, this time, she couldn't stop the tears as she met Asuna's gaze.

"You mean . . ."

"Mmm hmm." Asuna smiled as she stood and extended her hand in the light of the blue moon. "Oh please say you will."

"I . . . my family . . ." Wiping angrily at her eyes, she took Asuna's offered hand. "Of course!"

In the predawn light, on a hill top not far from the outskirts of Arrun, two Faeries had set down short of the summit, making it to the top just as the sun crested the horizon. Both were casually dressed with only a knife and sword to protect themselves. Thanks to the mob patrols, this area was relatively devoid of dangerous creatures and anything they couldn't fight, they could easily run away from using their wings.

The feeling of relative safety was kind of strange and not entirely welcome after their weeks of sneaking, running, and fighting for their lives across the isle of Albion. But they were getting use to it, slowly.

"Hurry up, Caramella." Kino called as he reached the top of the hill and carefully lowered the canvas wrapped pack that he'd been carrying.

Further down the hill, his partner trudged, eyes bleary. Dawn was too damn early to be awake. The combination of constantly traveling at night, and then spending several days awake and wired to fight, had completely wrecked her internal clock. That was why she'd spent the last week sleeping in until noon or Kino kicked her our of bed, whichever came first.

"I'll get there when I get there!" Caramella shouted back. It wasn't like she'd fallen that far behind. Besides, the guys they were here for wouldn't mind waiting a few more minutes.

Reaching the top, Caramella found that Kino had already gotten to work opening his pack and carefully setting the stone into place on the spot they had leveled the day before.

There had been an official announcement a few days ago that a sort of memorial was in planning to pay respects to those who had died or fallen since their arrival in Tristain, but it hadn't seemed right to wait. That was why, after getting permission, she and the others had settled on this.

Kino finished setting the stone marker in place before stepping back to let Caramella lay out the flowers and incense. Once she was finished, she too took a step back and bowed her head.

As the sun continued to rise, the engravings in the stone surface began to stand out. Small, carefully engraved rows of names. Twenty lines comprising the players handle, their real name if it was known, their occupation, and their guild status.

"Hey everyone. Aki-chan, Guile-kun." Caramella said softly. "I hope this is okay."

Asuna had officially disbanded the Knights of Blood in a small ceremony at the beginning of the week, but it had only really been symbolic. People couldn't go through what they had been through and then just walk away.

Caramella still saw Baku and Nishida everyday, and she still gave Ivan a hard time, although not as much as she'd used to, he'd taken Shio's death pretty hard . . .

The point was, that they still helped each other, and they still felt connected to one another. They might not call Asuna their leader anymore, but that was just semantics. Most importantly, they didn't forget their friends.

She took a breath, looking up into the sky. The Spherical crest of the World Tree filled half of her view, even this far from the trunk. "It's kind of funny you know. We're only a couple of kilometers from where we started from." She shook her head. "Hell of a detour wasn't it? I mean if I'd known, I would have just bought the damn map and . . ." She began to babble.

Kino put a hand on her shoulder. There was more than a little guilt. It had all come down to luck in the end. Who was where and when. Who was alive and who wasn't.

"I'm sorry you guys didn't make it." Caramella whispered. "I'm sorry we couldn't all go home. But I promise we're going to try to keep everyone else safe. We . . . we won't . . . won't let anyone else die without a fight. And I promise we won't forget you."

That was right, their deaths weren't meaningless as long as they gave Caramella and the others the resolve to keep fighting. A lot of the former players that had made up the KoB defense squads in Albion had already volunteered for mob patrol duty or even to serve in the Faerie volunteers forwarded to the Royal Army. The sacrifices had lit something in them that must hadn't even known they had.

Caramella had intended to jump on the opportunity to join the Army volunteers, but before she'd had the chance, something else had reared its head. The Faerie Lords, fancy name for the Players who'd ended up in charge, were head hunting to fill out some new group of fighters, and she and Kino's names had come up.

She hadn't been interested at first, that was, until she'd seen who the Undine Representative was. Caramella didn't believe in fate, or have a whole lot of faith in divine intervention, but when the Universe was shouting that loudly in her face, she figured it was probably a good idea to listen.

She owed Thinker a lot, not the least of which was an apology for being a huge ass right up to until Kibao had shown just how much a prick he could really be. She couldn't think of any better way to show her sincerity.

The only thing causing her to hesitate was, well, Kino. Her partner stood with his own head bowed solemnly, paying his respects. Cap off, eyes closed, he really looked like a kid. How old was he really? He looked twelve or thirteen, so really, he was probably fourteen or fifteen.

She didn't know when it had really happened, but at some point they'd started to lean on one another, and now they didn't know how to stop. So she knew without a doubt, that if she accepted the offer, Kino would be right behind her.

Arguile's words from all those weeks ago rang in her head. Adults couldn't just let kids fight for them. But she didn't know if she could stop him. Did they even have that luxury?

The Faerie Lords were putting a lot of effort into trying to screen out the youngest players, but there were only sixty thousand Fae, they needed every person who was able and willing to fight. And Kino had a knack for fighting IRL that bellied his skills from SAO. He was good, really good, scary good.

"Aki-chan. I'm sorry, I'm sorry that I didn't protect you, and I'm so sorry we didn't get to know each other better." Caramella said. "And I know you were only joking, but you were right . . . I did think that . . ."

"And Guile-kun . . . don't worry, I'm going to keep a good eye on Asuna. She has plenty of reliable people watching her now, so you can rest easy."

Kino nodded in agreement. "Thank you, for everything Arguile-san. You and Asuna gave me a chance, I just wish I could have done more."

"You will, Kino." Caramella said softly.

Both fell silent for a time, alone with their thoughts and prayers. There was nothing more to say except what they and the dead already knew. At last, the distant bells began to ring in Arrun tower, signaling the beginning of the day.

"We're going to head out now." Caramella said. "But don't worry, everyone else is going to come pay their respects later." A more formal meeting had already been arranged for everyone to say their farewells, but Caramella had wanted to be the first.

Turning slowly to leave, Caramella took in her surroundings and paused. Golden light shown off the pale bulk of the World Tree's trunk, and spilled down across the the roof tops and streets of Arrun.

The root created hills surrounding the World Tree gave way wide open fields spreading out in every direction, alternating with thick patches of forest that stretched towards mountains so far off that it made Aincrad's ten kilometer wide floors seem cramped in comparison.

The grass and trees rustled softly in the morning breeze, and for the first time, Caramella felt, really felt, that they were free. She blinked away the tears as something inside of her began to move once more, something that had been frozen still for a very long time.

"This is a good place." Kino said. "I think Guile-san would have like it here."

She nodded. "I think you're right."

"Come on let's get going, Caramella." Kino said. "You said you wanted to try the fried eggs at that new place by the gates."


Kino stopped and looked back. "Did you say something?"

Caramella smiled as she reached out to mess her partners hair. "I said, you can call me Naomi."

The young knife users eyes went wide before smiling back. "Un. Then you can call my Hayato, if you want."

And then, Caramella did something she hadn't done intentionally in almost two years. She giggled. "I think I'll stick to Kino in public, Hayato sounds a little dorky to me."

"Hey!" Kino said indignantly. "Well then, maybe I'll just have to call you Caramel-chan from now on!"

"Ah." She smiled. "It's Ca-ra-mel-la!"

They were still bickering as they extended their pale white wings, Kino taking off a little more shakily than his partner, and head back towards Arrun.

The hilltop fell silent, the gentle breeze plucking loose a few flower petals and playing them across the smooth surface of the stone marker and the names engraved there, etched in stone and guarded by a spell of permanence.

Aki- Ozu Akari - Swordswoman of Aincrad - Guild Leader of the Violet Hearts.

Mizuki - Sanaya Hoshino - Ninja of Aincrad - Guild Member of the Hundred Shinobi Alliance.

Arguile - Hiraga Saito - Knight of Aincrad - Guild Member Knights of Blood