Halkegenia Online v2.0 - Part One
Going to try a new naming convention and smaller installments for this arc.
Halkegenia Online v2.0 - Chapter 1 - Part 1
"Sakura, hurry up Sakura or you'll be late!"
Eight years old, Yamada Sakura pulled on her rain boots and ran out the front door, jumping past her fourth eldest brother to stomp down hard on the first puddle on the sidewalk.
"Hey, don't do that Sakura!" Her brother shouted, a year older than her, he was always so annoying, telling her not to do things that were fun.
"Hurry up or you'll be late!" Sakura parroted back as she ran down the sidewalk.
"Ah, Sakura, you mustn't run on the wet sidewalk, Sakura!"
"Ah, Sakura-chan, Sakura-chan. You mustn't do that Sakura-chan!"
Ten year old Yamada Sakura huffed irritably as her third eldest brother retrieved the Kimono she'd allowed to fall to the ground. "Grandmother and Grandfather are expecting us to look our best."
"I'm not going to wear something like that!" She grumbled. She and her third eldest brother had never gotten along. He was always teasing her and nothing she said ever seemed to have any effect. It wasn't fair!
"But we're all going to the festival Sakura-chan."
"Not dressed like this!" She complained, sticking out her tongue.
Sakura immediately regretted it, her brother had seen his opening. "But it's so pretty Sakura-chan. I'm sure Ojii-san would love to see you wearing it. You'll be the family's Chisai-hime!"
"Don't say that! I don't want to be all girly!"
"Ah, but you are a girl Chisai-hime, or would your prefer we call you our Sakuya-hime?!"
"Stop! That's even worse!"
"Y-yes!" Fourteen years old, Sakura tried not to stutter a she faced off against her second eldest brother. It was hard.
Her second eldest brother had always been her favorite, warm and constantly encouraging her to pursue her interests. But as soon as he entered the dojo he became a completely different person, stern, and only interested in pushing her as hard as he could, only to change back into his kind self when practice was finished.
"Remember Sakura-chan, you can't hesitate because you're afraid of being hit. Hesitation is less than useless, if you hesitate, then you will definitely be hit. Do you understand?"
He had always been the athlete of the family, an accomplished Kendo Practitioner, it had only been natural that she had gone to him when she had first started practicing four years ago. Of course, from his perspective, she had started late and needed lots of extra work.
Her father had been mortified. The only daughter among five children, to have her devote herself to Kendo had not seemed terribly feminine. But her brothers had come to her aid and father had eventually relented. It meant taking etiquette lessons, and not complaining about dressing up for festival when they went to see their grandparents, but she would be allowed to attend a high school that was renowned for its Kendo team. If she wanted to make the cut, she needed to give it her all now.
"Very well then." Her second eldest brother said solemnly as he lowered his helmet. "Then begin by showing me what you learned last time . . ."
"Sakura! Hey Sakura! Hold on!"
'Nii-chan?' She wondered, she felt like she was floating, drifting. Her eldest brother was leaning over her, phone clutched tightly in his hand.
She'd been running home to get her bag for practice, and then, there had been a car. The driver had tried to stop, but the road was slick.
What had happened after that? She didn't know. Why was he yelling at her?
Then she'd felt herself being lifted, carried, placed down on an ambulance stretcher to be taken to the hospital. When she'd finally regained her senses, she almost wished she hadn't.
Concussion, broken collar bone, broken hip, shattered ulna, three broken ribs on her right side. The doctors said she was lucky it hadn't been worse, with therapy, she'd be able to walk again, eventually.
Her father had thanked her attending physician fervently as he sat at her bedside along with her four elder brothers.
Lucky? She wasn't lucky! If she was lucky, she would have been killed! This couldn't be happening, not now, she'd made it this far, all the way to nationals!
Even if she managed to recover, her chance would have long since passed her by, and she'd probably never be able to get back to where she had been. She'd wept bitterly for days afterwords. She couldn't face her team mates who were relying on her, she couldn't face her brothers who had dedicated so much of their time to helping her . . . She just wanted to disappear.
"Sakura-chan, are you sure you don't need my help?"
"I'm . . . fine." Nineteen years old, Yamada Sakura limped down the front steps of her family's home. Nine months and she could almost walk like she used to, although her hip was constantly stiff and she wasn't supposed to run while the bone was still healing.
Her eldest brother offered her his hand as he held the door to the Taxi.
She stopped before getting in.
"Come on Sakura-chan! We're going to be late." Her youngest brother urged.
"Just a minute." She said, turning to her eldest brother. In the last nine months, Sakura had learned more about her eldest brother then she had in the previous nineteen years."Thank you, for everything." She hugged him tightly.
Quiet, serious, and even more stoic than their father, she'd thought he had hated her. Instead she'd learned how wrong she'd been In the end, it had been him who had convinced her that her life wasn't over.
He'd gotten her to stand up, to work through her physical therapy, to walk again. She'd discovered that her brother possessed a wonderful, dry sense of humor and that they shared a great love of history and literature. They'd talk whenever they could while she was recovering, either late at night when he got off work, or video chatting over his lunch hour.
She let go, smiling as he shifted awkwardly.
"Everything's packed." Her second eldest brother said. "Uncle said he'll help you move everything in when when you get there."
"You haven't forgotten anything, have you." Her third eldest brother asked. "Phone, keys, wallet, all your clothes, books, map of the campus . . ." He kept listing things off until she slugged him in the shoulder when he started to mention being sure she'd packed clean underwear.
"Why do you have to be such an insufferable jerk?" She asked.
He grew serious. "I thought I was a perfectly sufferable jerk." He said as he rubbed at his arm.
"Sakura-chan!" Her youngest brother said again impatiently.
They would both be attending the same university, it was her brother's second year and her first. Their uncle had already agreed to room them, but that meant arriving early and getting settled.
Sakura threaded past her youngest brother and slipped into the back seat. "Hurry up, or you'll be late." She teased, waiting as her brother ran around to the other side of the taxi and got in.
"And now we're off, eh Sakura-chan?" He brother noted. "Well, first years tough, but you'll have fun, I think."
Twisting around in her seat, Sakura had watched her her brothers, her house, and her street vanish away behind her . . .
The hammering came again and Sakuya wasn't sure at first whether it was in her room, or in her head. The third round of knocking finally convinced her that it was coming from the door and she groaned as she groped around in the dark.
The ledger she had been reading before bed fell to the floor with a heavy -thunk- and was followed by the another as her comb followed it the ground. She didn't find what she was looking for, but her hand brushed against the control for the bedside lamp. She was left briefly dazzled by the warm light before her eyes began to adjust.
Squinting, she blinked a few times, feeling at her face before finally realizing that she was looking for a pair of glasses that didn't exist in this world. Yamada Sakura the human might have had an acute case of myopia, but Lady Sakuya the Sylph had perfect twenty ten vision. Just another reminder of this insane world.
She looked around the room, the master bedroom of the mansion that she and her volunteer staff had commandeered as their headquarters. It was suitably impressive, she thought. This one room was bigger than her whole apartment in Japan, the antique furniture alone would have been worth more than everything she owned.
The knocking at the door came again. The hands of the tall grandfather clock in the corner were presently at fifteen minutes past three, presumably AM given the inky blackness beyond the open balcony doors. She briefly entertained the idea of ignoring the noise and going back to sleep, but if she was being disturbed this early, it had to be important. Reluctantly Sakuya pulled the heavy blankets back and swung her legs over the side of the bed, padding barefoot to the door. She stopped to check herself in the mirror.
Dressed in green and white pinstripe pajamas and with her long, dark green hair gathered up to keep it out of the way while she slept. It wasn't an appearance that anyone would associate with Sakuya, Lady of the Sylphs. It wasn't an appearance that anyone would have associated with Yamada Sakura either. Sakura was pretty, but Sakuya was gorgeous in the sort of casual way that very few real women could be.
Pale, impossibly perfect skin, high forehead, delicate Japanese features accentuated by Sylph racial traits. To be honest, since finding herself trapped in this skin, she'd grown to hate it. It felt like a lie to which she couldn't tell the truth. But it had turned out to be a convenient lie for dealing with the Nobility of Tristain. With the right clothes, the right posture, right voice, this form practically exuded Confident Young Noblewoman, an impression that she sought to cultivate now more than ever.
And there was no point in stopping now. Straightening her shirt and rubbing the sleep from her eyes quickly, she unlocked the door and cracked it open to look out into the hallway. "Yes . . ." She blinked. "Alicia?"
Flanked by a Sylph and Cait Syth guard, Alicia Rue, Leader of the Cait Syth, nodded quickly as she glanced up and down the hall. More than the unnatural hour, the tenseness in Alicia's posture alarmed Sakuya. The Cait Syth looked . . . well she looked skittish, like a cat with its hackles up.
"What's wrong?" She asked, feeling suddenly even more tired. As twisted as it was, Sakuya was starting to operate under the assumption that something bad was always about to happen, it seemed to be a safe bet these days.
Alicia finally stopped glancing around and focused on Sakuya. The normal smile was missing, and even while she forced herself to relax, her tail continued to lash from side to side, betraying her inner turmoil. "Sakuya-chan." Alicia greeted. "Uhm, I think you should get dressed quickly. We need you to come to the Arrun outskirts with us. There's been well . . . " She trailed off. "You need to see it for yourself."
Sakuya nodded slowly, not sure what had happened but knowing Alicia well enough. If something had given her pause, it had to be bad.
"Can you wait here for just a minute?" Sakuya asked, there wasn't any time to get properly prepared, but she could at least put on something more formal than her night clothes. Then again, Alicia wasn't wearing much more than a night shirt and shorts, a sure sign that she'd been pulled from bed similarly unprepared.
"I'd really rather not." Alicia said and then chuckled weakly. "Don't worry, the only people who are dressed are the guards who were on watch. I think even Rute just showed up in his boxers. Ugh, too much information huh?!" She tried to joke but that only made it seem all the more urgent.
Sakuya gestured for the guards to stand off before leaning in closely to one sensitive ear. "Alicia-chan . . . no Arisa . . . what's happened?"
Alicia paled a little, eyes widening. She looked like she was trapped. "Sakuya-chan . . . the night watch patrol found a body at the roadside around half a kilometer outside of Arrun. It's Novair."
Standing among a gathering crowd of investigators, guards, and onlookers, Argo was not a happy kitty, and it wasn't just because she'd been dragged out of bed before dawn to wade around in the mud outside of Arrun. Though that might have had a little bit to do with it.
She pulled her coat a little tighter around herself as she sipped a mug of hot tea in an effort to wake herself up. If that didn't work, all she needed to do was look in front of her. One hundred percent guaranteed to wake her up, with a fifty percent chance of causing her to lose what was left of her dinner.
Being an information broker was a dangerous job, especially in the death game of Sword Art Online. Even optimizing her build for scouting and survivability and keeping a careful ear to the ground, Argo had seen more than her fair share of close calls and people dying. But it hadn't been like this. People dissolving into polygons and light effects lacked the visceral impact of a dead body.
The corpse had been left where it had been found by the watch squadron that had discovered it. Most had watched or read enough murder mysteries to know that they shouldn't tamper with the crime scene.
Argo snorted as she stroked the head of her Nav Pixie Suisen, of course, it wasn't like they had a fully equipped forensics lab or a squad of well qualified crime scene investigators, that particular profession had come through the transition underrepresented. Not that they needed any sort of specialist to tell them the cause of death.
Body slowly going stiff, the Sylph stared sightlessly up into the sky, the collar of his shirt stained red where blood from his slit throat had spilled down. Argo used the term slit, but it was more accurate to say ripped open, or maybe sawed all the way back to the bone. Not a pleasant picture in any case. That was why she was trying hard not to look.
"Time of death estimated to be three hours ago judging by ambient temperature and commencement of rigor mortis." A black clad Spriggan girl reported.
They might not have had many forensics specialists, but the transition had brought through several morticians, morgue workers, and doctors who were more than able to identify the stages of decay in a cadaver. They could only hope that it would be enough when coupled with the expertise of their few police officers and detectives.
"Are you sure, Abigail-san?" The question came from a distraught looking Yulier.
The silver haired Undine had arrived just after Argo, no doubt taking flight as soon as she had been alerted, wearing little more than a white jacket over a pale blue nightgown. Her co-leader, Thinker was just as lightly garbed in gray slacks and a t-shirt.
The Spriggan girl grimaced. "I'm reasonably sure, assuming that our musculature is anything like a humans, he's only just starting to go stiff."
"I see." Yulier replied queasily.
"What the devil was he doing out here so late at night is what I want to know." Lord Rute grunted as he paced nearby. The Lord of the Leprechauns had arrived a little late, taking the time to put on his red buttoned coat, although not enough time to ensure a proper fit.
"Who said he was out here?" Argo asked rhetorically.
"That's right." Abigail said as she straightened out her black, gothic lolita skirt. "There's a good chance that the body was moved here after death. The . . . well, the killer probably thought it would be a good way to get rid of the corpse. Leave it out here and hope a mob would eat it."
Argo nodded thoughtfully. "Too bad the mob patrols have been so successful."
"Argo-chan!" Abigail said in surprise. "That wouldn't be good! If that happened, we wouldn't have found the body, and then we wouldn't know that someone had killed him, and that would be terrible! Unless . . . you're being sarcastic . . . " The Spriggan trailed off.
"Bingo." Argo sighed before a light to the north drew her attention. A quartet of green and yellow stars were descending from the direction of Arrun, wings taking shape into the familiar forms of Sylphs and Cait Syth. "Well then, that's everyone but Mortimer." Argo thought out loud.
The Gnomes still hadn't selected a permanent leader and their representative was currently busy up north negotiating with the Valliere family. Likewise, Zia had been officially elected as the official representative of the Puca and was busily organizing her home city. The same went for Zolf and Morgiana who had business in their respective faction capitals at the moment and thus wouldn't be back for a few days.
That left only five of the nine leaders in Arrun available to respond immediately. Argo stuffed her hands into the pockets of her cloak, feeling her ears fold down of their own volition. Five people to be informed as soon as possible that they had a murder on their hands.
The first to touch down was Lady Sakuya followed by Alicia Rue. The Lady of the Sylphs and the Leader of the Cait Syth had both arrived in their night clothes, followed closely by a pair of guards.
"Argo-san, I came as soon as I heard!" Sakuya said as she jogged down from the elevated shoulder of the roadway. As soon as she caught sight of the body, she raised her hands to her mouth and went pale. Argo gave her a few moments to let it sink in. "I . . . I'm sorry." Sakuya whispered softly. "I'd heard, but I didn't really believe it. I'm . . . I . . . Novair."
"Tis alright, you're not the only one." Argo breathed softly.
Sakuya came slowly to stand over the body, hand held close over her mouth. "H-how could this have happened?" It was like she didn't believe what she was seeing.
Argo couldn't blame her. When the first reports of deliberate PKs had started cropping up in SAO, nobody had quite grasped what it meant. The idea of ordinary people, players, turning on each other in such desperate circumstances had seemed unbelievable.
"Tis what we're going to find out." Argo assured her. "But we'll need your cooperation Sakuya-san."
The Sylph woman nodded her head weakly. "O-of course. Anything."
"Then . . ." Argo began, but before she could continue, she was brushed aside by an Undine and Salamander that had been standing off, examining the scene, and taking careful notes of Abigail's observations.
"We'll take it from here Miss." The Undine man, dark blue haired and goateed, said briskly. "Lady Sakuya, I'm Jensen and this is Vakarian-san." He gestured to serious looked Salamander at his side complete with Salamander battle markings on each cheek. "We're members of the city watch. We've already been given permission to head the murder investigation."
Argo rolled her eyes. She'd done a little digging into these two, and while there was not guarantee they were telling the truth, a few of their IRL friends had cropped up among the other factions. Apparently it wasn't entirely an act, they really were police officers, although it didn't sound like they were actually detectives, not that they had many of those anyways. That they'd been put in charge of the investigation was news to her.
"By who, might I ask?" Lord Rute grunted. "I don't remember agreeing to that."
"You did agree to and sign the City Watch charter however." The Salamander, Vakarian, said casually. "That's all we need in order to be empowered by the City Council or one of the Faerie Lords. "Now then, Lady Sakuya, can you confirm the identity of this man."
"Yes." Sakuya nodded slowly. "He's Novair, one of my assistants. My secretary." She frowned. "Which Lord authorized this, Alicia?"
The Cait Syth looked confused. "Don't look at me."
"We just learned about it as well." Thinker said on behalf of himself and Yulier.
"Is nobody going to ask me if I know anything about this?" Rute muttered.
"Actually, the thought never crossed my mind." Alicia admitted chidingly. "I guess that's because you project a strong impression of being useless."
The Leprechaun Lord Spluttered ineffectually as Jensen turned to the other Leaders. "If you want to know, you can just ask him yourself." He said, pointing again to the sky over Arrun where a trio of red lights were coming to set down.
Argo wouldn't have been a very good information broker if she didn't pick up on Sakuya's sudden look of discomfort. The slight tensing of her shoulders, and the narrowing of her eyes. It was very clear that the Sylph Lord wasn't happy to see the latest arrival.
"Good morning." Lord Mortimer said as he approached in the company of his guard commander, a Salamander Swordswoman named Lydia, and one of his heavily armored knights. The Salamander Lord, like Rute, was fully dressed in black and red robes over dark formal clothing. Mortimer had obviously decided his appearance was worth delaying his arrival. "Lady Sakuya, Lady Alicia." He nodded to the two senior Fae Lords.
"You've something to do with this?" Sakuya asked suspiciously.
"If you mean the death of this man? Of course not. If you mean the investigation." He nodded to the two watchmen. "I was the first person that was informed after the watch captain. It seemed prudent to begin immediately." The Salamander Lord came to stand over the body, observing clinically. "This is unfortunate, Novair-san was an exceptional asset."
"An asset?" Sakuya bristled.
"Yes." Mortimer offered coldly. "His organizational expertise was invaluable to the running of Arrun. Make no mistake, there is a murderer in our midst." Mortimer looked up, red eyes meeting Sakuya's own green gaze. "What I want to know is whether this was some tragic coincidence or foul play."
"Lady Sakuya." Vakarian asked quietly. "You were the last person to see Novair alive, correct?"
Sakuya shook her head distractedly, raising a hand to her forehead. "Yes, something like that. At the Governor's mansion. He keeps his own apartment off site so he departed around eleven-o-clock."
"That matches with my estimate!" Abigail noted with a hint of satisfaction that was entirely out of place given the circumstances.
"Can you tell us what you were discussing beforehand." Jensen added quickly. "It may be pertinent to the investigation."
"Just the usual paperwork, budget reports, ration tickets, the new TRIST charter, nothing out of the ordinary." Sakuya rubbed at her eyes. "What could that possible have to do with anything?"
"We can't say." Jensen replied as he jotted down some notes on his pad. "Can you tell us what your relationship with the deceased was? He was your secretary correct."
"Yes." Sakuya nodded. "What does . . ."
"And this was a purely professional relationship?" Vakarian added.
"Of course! We . . ."
"Then, one last question." Jensen cut in. "Are there any witnesses that can corroborate your location after the deceased departed."
'Oh boy.' Argo thought. She guessed it was inevitable, after all, they had to start narrowing down witness somewhere. The response was equally as inevitable.
Sakuya's mouth went agape and then shut tightly. One thing could be said for pale skin, even in the moonlight, the red stood out dangerously. "Are you implying . . ."
"Ah, Sakuya-chan!" Alicia tried to cut in, but was silenced by a sharp wave of the Sylph Lord's hand.
"Are you implying," Sakuya hissed, "that I had something to do with this?!"
"Nothing of the sort, Lady Sakuya." Vakarian said quickly. "We just don't have a lot to go on right now. All we know is that there's a murderer loose somewhere in Arrun. It's our job to check every lead, and you're one of the easiest to check off our list."
"We want to find who did this as badly as you do." Jensen agreed. "Help us, help you, so that we can catch the perp before someone else ends up like your man."
Sakuya stopped in her tracks, regarding both men coldly. Her expression softened as she turned back to the lifeless body of her subordinate. Novair's eyes had been left open, nobody but Abigail had touched the body, and even she had done so as little as possible.
"Yes, I understand." Sakuya breathed softly. "I apologize for my conduct. I stayed up for about an hour after Novair left. I had some reports to finish and have forwarded to the Palace and I gave them to another one of my assistants, Recon, right before bed. Theresa also came and laid out my clothes for today, that was around eleven thirty. And of course, there were the guards on duty."
"Thank you, Lady Sakuya." Vakarian closed his notebook. "You don't mind if we check these out, do you?"
Sakuya waved her hand tiredly. "Do as you like." She said. "Just . . . just find who did this."
"And be quick about it." Mortimer said. "This is going to be a problem. A murder is going to rile people up just when they're finally settling in."
Argo didn't know if she'd call six weeks enough time to settle in, but the Salamander Lord was right. They didn't need people panicking just as they were starting to feel safe. They needed to nip this in the bud now, and preferably with overwhelming force, make it clear early that there was a still a rule of law and that it would be enforced.
"We'll make it our highest priority." Jensen assured.
'Yeah', Argo thought, 'I'm sure you will.'
Discussion went on between the Faerie Lords. Arrangements were made, a story was agreed upon. Trying to hide a murder would only make things worse, so it would be reported tomorrow morning like any other news, along with mention that an investigation was already under way. That would hopefully buy them a little bit of time.
"We can only hope that this was a crime of passion." Mortimer said. "Otherwise it has the potential to become much worse. I'd like to suggest upping the nighttime patrols."
"It'd mean withdrawing the long range patrols." Thinker warned. "We're short on manpower for the watch units as it is."
"Do it." Mortimer sighed. "We can deal with the consequences of that later. The consequences if there's another murder will be a good deal more immediate."
Thinker exchanged a nod with his Lieutenant. "We agree. I'll have the changes made by daybreak."
"Then that just leaves who's going to announce it." Alicia looked unhappy at the thought. This wasn't the sort of news that someone wanted to be remembered for delivering.
"I'll do it." Sakuya said suddenly. "I'll announce this to the people."
"Are you sure, Sakuya-chan?" Alicia looked worried for her friend.
The Sylph Lord looked away. She couldn't be happy that she had to tally up another dead players. None of them would be. "Novair was one of mine. I'll take responsibility."
"R-right." Alicia said.
Argo had tried not to think too hard about it while she focused on the investigation. It wasn't healthy to think about it too much. You thought too much about it and you started to let your feelings color your perceptions, that was death for an information broker. Objectivity was essential. But it was hard, damn hard.
"Argo-chan." Alicia tapped her on the shoulder.
"I said, will you take this job for your normal rate?" Alicia asked again.
The information broker frowned. "I thought you just gave the job to the dynamic duo?" She pointed back to the Undine and Salamander who were currently speaking with abigail about the cadaver. They'd called for a few more watchmen to come and help move the body. Abigail was already requesting permission to put together an ice box in the basement of Arrun tower to serve as a makeshift morgue.
"Did I?" Alicia asked curiously. "I thought that was Mortimer. It must have slipped my mind."
"Okay, okay, I get it. Twas not unexpected. But I'll need some help."
Alicia shrugged. "Just give me a list of names and I'll see what I can do. And I'll assign you a few extra useful people too."
"No need." Argo said. "I can ask him myself."
"Oh?" Alicia said. "That's good. Just remember to stay on guard." She shrugged. "Well, I probably don't need to tell you that."
"Right." Argo nodded as she watched the watchmen.
Just like Mortimer had said, this was either a freak tragedy, or a deliberate act, and one was worse than the other. In one, they just had a murderer on their hands. In the other, they had a murderer with an objective. And in that case, her eyes were drawn to Lord Mortimer who watched clinically as Novair's body was carefully lifted onto a stretcher, who could they trust?
Kirigaya Kazuto, the Black Swordsman Kirito, now a Faerie of the Spriggan race in the world of Halkegenia, yawned as he made his way down the last flight of steps and into the kitchen of the home he shared with Asuna, Yui, and his sister Suguha.
His arrival was met by a pleasant sizzling and a tantalizing scent that was almost, but not quite, enough to fully rouse him.
Asuna looked up brightly as she heard him enter the room. "Good morning Kirito-kun."
"Jeez Nii-chan," Suguha said from the breakfast table where she was nibbling on a piece of toast, "So slow."
"Un, Papa needs to stop staying up so late." Yui agreed as she sat beside her aunt with a tall glass of orange juice.
Kirito squinted at the two of them and then decided to let it slide, it was too early in the morning to take offense. Besides, he'd been up going over the Tristanian language primers all night, the sooner he learned the written language the better.
Taking his own seat at the table, he perked up as a plate was put down in front of him. Today's breakfast involved fried eggs, bacon, and lentils, though the smell included a hint of something he couldn't quite place.
An herb? Something native to Halkegenia probably. Asuna had been experimenting in the kitchen almost every day, sometimes with Yui's help, sometimes on her own. The results were almost always amazing, even if Asuna kept insisting that 'the mayonnaise was a little too thick, and the Chinese wheat noodles were too soggy'. Then again, she always looked pleased while criticizing her own work
Kirito was grateful. Watching Asuna work thoughtfully at a new recipe or contemplate how to substitute some missing ingredient, those were the times when she looked most at peace.
Kirito wasn't under any illusions, two weeks wasn't even enough time for Asuna to begin the slow process of recovery. She had to put the trauma of SAO, her imprisonment by Sugou, and her month in Albion behind her. Each on its own would have been the work of months or years with a dedicated therapist. Instead, Asuna had him, Yui, Suguha, their friends, and her cooking.
It wasn't everything that she should have been getting, but it seemed to be helping, even if it wasn't perfect. Every day, she seemed healthier and more at ease. Asuna had regained some of the weight she had lost fighting across Albion, the faint gauntness had begun to fade from her features, and the times when she tensed up at the slightest noise were coming less and less often.
That was why Kirito was able to genuinely smile as he looked up from his plate. "It looks delicious."
"It tastes even better." Yui said with a small look of pleasure as she finished with her own plate and returned it to the sink.
"Good enough that Agil-san wants me to talk to his chef about recipes." Asuna agreed.
"What!" Kirito asked around a bite of bacon. Yui had been right, it tasted wonderful.
Asuna's smile only widened at his surprise. "Un, I was visiting with Agil and Eda-san a couple of days ago and they let me use their kitchen. You remember in Aincraid how you said I could probably have auctioned off what I made . . ." She trailed off.
Kirito crossed his arms, feeling suddenly very unhappy. "I don't like it."
"Eh?" Suguha looked confused. "Why?"
"Because if Asuna's cooking gets out," Kirito explained, "It means we'll have to share."
Their was silence at the breakfast table.
"So greedy, Onii-chan." Suguha said in disbelief. "I think its wonderful that Agil-san wants to use Asuna's cooking."
"It's not like he's asking me to come work at the cafe." Asuna added as she started on her own plate. "He just wants me to help come up with recipes with the chef he hired."
That was right, Kirito remembered. The Dicey Cafe, Agil's latest business venture named in honor of his real world shop in Japan, was proving wildly successful beyond even its proprietor's expectations, although Kirito suspected that was partly due to false modesty on the part of Agil.
Serving hot meals during the day and early evening hours and alcoholic beverages later in the night, the Cafe had rapidly become the favored watering hole of the mob patrols and victorious Fae volunteers returning home from their first successful mission.
Now that other entrepreneurs were beginning to crop up and offer competition, it wasn't surprising that Agil would be trying to maintain his edge.
"Well, I can probably accept that." Kirito decided reluctantly. "As long as we get to keep the secret ingredient to ourselves."
"The secret ingredient?" Suguha asked.
Kirito nodded gravely before pointing to Asuna. "Believe me, it's for the best. Agil is even greedier than me. If Asuna starts working for him, he'd have us paying for every morsel."
His sister rolled her eyes like she didn't believe it, but he and Asuna knew the truth about the monstrously ruthless merchant of Aincrad's 50th floor. For all his altruistic tendencies, Agil was still a businessman and could smell a fattened purse at a hundred meters. And it wasn't like they were short on spending money either.
Not long after their odd little family had settled into their new home, they had become the recipients to a small treasury chest delivered by Royal couriers on the behalf of one Prince Wales Tudor, exile Prince of Albion, and one Emily Florence Windsor, exile Countess of Windsor.
The small chest, filled with nested rows of silver and gold coins, was by all accounts a considerable sum, easily more than a well to do petty mage would make in a lifetime. The accompanying letter had begged them to accept it as the least token of thanks for their services that either of the young Nobles could think of.
It made Kirito wonder just what Wales would have given them for saving his life if he'd still had a Kingdom. In either case, the Prince and Countess' gift had left the Kirigaya household financially secure for the foreseeable future, a situation that Kirito was once again thankful for as it gave him more time to spend with Asuna and Yui rather than taking extra jobs from the Faerie Lords.
"Besides." Asuna added thoughtfully. "I need to start making myself useful again. Sugu has her work with the Arrun City Watch, and you've been taking jobs for the Faerie Lords, even Yui-chan is helping at Arrun Home." She looked on dissatisfied. "Really, I'm going to go crazy if I don't find something to do soon. Something other than . . ." She paused as if to make an unspoken correction.
A week ago, Asuna and Kirito had received an offer from Lord Mortimer to take posts in a new Faerie military unit, an elite branch of the militia that was being formed to serve as the Fae's official contribution to the defense of Tristain. The Salamander Lord seemed to believe that their experience could be put to good use training, leading, and fighting alongside the other volunteers.
They had discussed it before concluding that they would likely have to pass. After Asuna had officially disbanded the Knights of Blood she'd had no interest in leading others into battle again, and Kirito wasn't in any hurry to put her back in any danger either.
While this was good for the security of their little family, it did have its own problems. Namely, finding a productive outlet for Asuna to channel her energy. Kirito felt a little bad for speaking so abruptly, anything that let Asuna find meaning in what she loved to do was something he wanted to encourage without hesitation.
Shaking her head, Asuna's smile returned. "Well, it's just a thought. Besides, Agil says if I come up with something good enough he'll give us a cut of the profits."
"Was that why you were experimenting with ramen yesterday?" Suguha asked.
"Un." Asuna nodded. "Ramen noodles were one of those things that weren't included in ALO's food roster so there's no simple recipe or preexisting ingredients for them." She explained knowledgeably. "Really, the noodles are the easy part, but I'm at a loss for where to start for a soy sauce substitute. I think I'm going to have to hunt around the market and try with some of the ingredients native to ALfheim.
"I'm sure you'll figure it out." Suguha said confidently. "Though, that reminds me, when we were taste testing, did Caramella ever explain why she was making Kino wear that ugly orange jumpsuit?"
Asuna shook her head. "No, but it was pretty bad, wasn't it?"
"Mama." Yui tugged at Asuna's sleeve. "Mama, it's almost time to go."
"What?" Asuna glanced over to the clock on the wall and her eyes immediately widened. She got up quickly. "I'm sorry Yui-chan, I completely forgot the time!"
Yui pouted, unlike her Aunt and Parents, the former SAO mental health AI was already fully dressed in skirt, sweater, and stockings, impatiently waiting to start her day. "Mama!"
"Don't worry." Suguha said. "I'll take care of the dishes, you go get dressed and go with Yui."
"Thanks Sugu." Asuna called as she hurried back upstairs.
The past two weeks had seen a routine begin to develop within the Kirigaya residence. After making breakfast every morning, Asuna would depart along with Yui to Arrun Home, a Guild Hall in Arrun's western district that had been re-purposed as an orphanage and care facility for young Fae separated from their families and those who had been left badly disoriented by the transition.
Once again Yui had displayed her origins as a mental care AI, gravitating to a sight of emotional distress and doing whatever she could to put people at ease. While dubious at first, the volunteers that managed Arrun Home had quickly grown to appreciate Yui's help and more often than not her arrival at the orphanage would be met with many smiles both from the staff and the children.
Suguha would leave next to report to Arrun Tower. Her job as a flight instructor having been supplemented by permanent assignment to the highway patrols that now operated in place of the mob elimination units to ensure that the roadways remained clear and that mobs did not move back into previously cleared areas.
At first Kirito had been worried, but after hearing from Klein how his sister had handled herself in Tarbes, he'd withdrawn his objections. Sugu could look after herself, mostly, besides his own jobs tended to ensure that she would be safe.
Kirito would usually leave last, heading down to the Governor's Mansion to see what odd jobs Lady Sakuya or Alicia Rue wanted him for, mostly problem solving and the occasional dangerous mob elimination.
In a way, it wasn't too different from what he had done for almost two years in Aincrad, albeit with a much stronger overtone of real work. The only jobs he was reluctant to take for the time being were those that had to do with the war. He'd just gotten Asuna back, and worrying about the conflict on the horizon was just too much for right now.
As Suguha began to clear the plates, Kirito got up and began to help, two sets of hands making the work go quickly. By the time that Asuna came back downstairs fully dressed, the pans and dishes had already been rinsed and put in the rack to dry.
"Come on Mama!" Yui called, pulling Asuna towards the front door, Kirito following to see them off. "Come on, or we're going to be la . . ." Yui stopped in her tracks as she swung the door open and was immediately face to face with a hooded Cait Syth who had just raised her hand to knock at the front door. " . . . ate . . . Oh." Yui tilted her head, her energy from a moment before briefly forgotten, "Good morning Argo-san."
Removing her hood, Argo the Rat smiled down at the girl, "Good morning to you Yui-chan, off to work with your Mama?"
"Uhuh." Yui nodded seriously. "But its more like Mama is off to work with me."
"So tis bring your mother to work day sa?" The Rat who had become Cat mused. "Well, I won't keep you two."
"Argo-san?" Asuna asked curiously.
"Tis nothing." Argo said with a slightly mischievous smile. "I just have proposition for Kii-bou is all. I might need to borrow him for a few days for a job."
Asuna perked up at the same time as Kirito. "Is this something for the Faeire Lords?"
"Tis exactly so." Argo nodded. "Though in this case tis a task that I was entrusted with and I'd like to outsource to Kii-bou."
Kirito was sure that Asuna was about to probe further when Yui suddenly started tugging on her wrist again. Looking between her daughter and Argo, Asuna gave a small nod. "Kirito-kun can tell me about it later." She smiled. "Just bring him back in one piece."
"No promises." Argo said humorously before watching Asuna and Yui depart, mother and daughter making their way down the street at a leisurely pace among the scant early morning foot traffic. Yui stopped at the end of the street to wave and then she and Asuna disappeared from view.
Almost as soon as they were out of sight, Argo's posture became immediately more tense, like she had been forcing herself to relax up until now.
Kirito sighed, usually he couldn't get a read on his old acquaintance, but now it was almost too easy. "That bad?"
"Tis the understatement of the century." Argo muttered before accepting Kirito's invitation to come in off of the front porch. "I'm just glad Aa-chan didn't catch on, but she's going to hear about it pretty soon, the Fae Lords are planning to announce it within the hour so that they can manage public response." Argo waited for Kirito to finish closing the door. "There's been a murder." She gave the words time to sink in.
Kirito didn't respond immediately, and when he did, it was with resignation. He'd known something like this would happen eventually. Placing a hand over his face Kirito blew out a breath before answering. "Who, how, when, and where? I'm guessing you don't have a why."
Argo nodded. "Novair, Lady Sakuya's secrertary, his throat was slashed around midnight last night, someplace between the Governor's Mansion and his apartment." Argo's ears twitched dejectedly. "And you're right, we don't have a why just yet. That's what you and me are supposed to figure out."
"So you want me to help with the investigation." Kirito concluded. Of course she did. The universe seemed to have decided his life wasn't supposed to be easy.
"Lord Mortimer already has a couple of self styled detectives from the city watch going over the usual suspects. But Alicia wants us to work our own investigation in parallel to catch anything they miss. This is big Kii-bou, really big. If the Faerie Lords don't get the lid down on this, and fast, we could be looking at a full blown panic." Golden eyes narrowed dangerously. "Think how bad things could have gotten back in Aincrad when it looked like someone had found a way to bypass the Safe Zones. Only there aren't any safe zones to bypass anymore, just whatever protection the city watch can provide, nobody is safe."
"This is why you wanted to wait for Asuna to leave." Kirito observed.
Argo looked hesitant. "We don't have many real investigators, or really very many good ones. Kii-bou at least has some experience, but Aa-chan . . . needs a lot more rest." Argo looked strangely troubled. "I don't think we should involve her if we can help it. But it's up to you Kii-bou."
"In other words," Kirito answered, "I'll be the one she blames when she finds out." The universe really didn't like him at all.
The Cait Syth gave a small shrug. "There's not a strategy guide for dealing with a woman scorned, Kii-bou." Argo advised. "But if I could take the blame, I would. You could sleep on my roof tonight if you're that scared." It was almost said as a joke, and it almost managed to inject some levity into the atmosphere, but it was too little, too late.
"Well then." Kirito decided flatly. "I guess its easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission . . . I'll go get dressed."