Kirito explored through darkness to the music of a consistent beeping. It was an ominous noise, foreshadowing dangerous boss battles ahead. The lack of light in the dungeon was a greater hindrance than he would like to admit, especially because he hadn't felt the need to buy candles or anything of the like before venturing in.

And yet... he couldn't put his mind on when he'd set out for the dungeon. As a solo player he had to prepare more than most before leaving a safe zone. At times it seemed like his checklists had checklists. And yet he'd forgotten to buy a single candle.

Kirito's head snapped to attention. What else had he forgotten? The beeping was increasing in sound and frequency now. Alert for danger he raised his right hand to check his inventory. And raised it a second time. And a third time.

'A new kind of trap?' The thought briefly crossed his mind. With no other option and prepared for an attack he reached to grab his sword.

Only to receive a handful of air. "What the..." A noise, a stuttering of footsteps rang out to his left.

The beeping was almost painfully loud now. Each beat was pounding in his ears, leaving an odd feeling as it rang through his body. Shaking his head to clear it he turned toward the footsteps he'd heard and ran toward them. If he was already in a trap the fastest way out would be to let it play through.

And yet, as he followed the footsteps he didn't feel apprehension. His refined sense of self-preservation did not tell him to turn around.

"And why would it?" A voice called out to him, coming from the direction he was facing. Kirito slowed his jog to a walk before stopping altogether in front of what looked like a person, if their vaguely defined outline was something to go off of.

"In a sense, I could be called a person. A very loose sense. However, I have not called you here to discuss my life. Rather, you are here so that we may discuss yours, and the actions you have chosen."

"My choices? You called me here?" Kirito attempted to squint and get a better look at the being with the androgynous voice, but no details were forthcoming.

"Indeed." The voice echoed around the room like music, almost drowning out the beeping, and certainly making the sound more bearable. "To be honest, I took something of an interest in you a few years ago, for a completely different reason than why I'm interested in you now."

"When you say it like that... it sounds pretty disturbing."

"It should be," the matter of fact tone clear. "However, what I find disturbing is how you managed to 'win' the game you were playing."

"Game?" As the word left his mouth memories flooded back. The Seventy-Fifth floor, his duel with Kayaba, his death. "I died?"

The voice sounded displeased. "Yes and no. And that brings me to why you're here. Let me set things straight to begin with. I am not a benevolent God. I am not a sympathetic Demon. I am not here to make your life wonderful, and you will not be receiving three wishes. With that out of the way, I did not enjoy your victory in the game."

"You didn't enjoy it?" Kirito stated blankly. "You didn't enjoy it?! I died, Asuna died, thousands of people died and you didn't enjoy it?!"

A pressure seemed to weigh upon Kirito. "No. I did not enjoy it in the slightest. You, quite honestly, seemed to do about the worst you could do in the game and still win. Of all the people you met the only ones that survived were the ones you abandoned and your shopkeepers. So I called you here to offer you a chance, so to speak.

"You won your game. That is commendable, and required a great deal of skill. However, as I said earlier, I took notice of you a while before your game began, and when I did I made something of, in your terms, a save point. It has one use." The pressure seemed to lift off of Kirito. "As I said, I'm not going to go out of my way to make your life easier. If you choose to take my offer, don't expect to receive any more help."

"If I choose? It's that or die isn't it?"

"Not quite. You didn't fully die. If you so choose you'll wake up in a hospital bed. Asuna will remain in a coma, and as you are now there a dozen different roads to failure in what you'll do next, and one very narrow path to victory."

Kirito sighed. "I don't like that safety margin. But if I go back, that's like starting a new playthrough in an old game. I know what path the storyline will take, where the traps are."

"For a while," the voice advised. "The Cardinals did adapt the game periodically. The game could end up completely differently."

Kirito shook his head. "Even if it does, I'll still have an advantage. In this game, I was known as a beater. The beater to some. I'll embrace that. And this time, I won't just survive this game. I'll defeat it. I'll make it so the game is desperately trying to survive me."

"If that is your choice," the voice seemed to shrug as it lifted a hand.

Kirito took it and gave it a firm shake. "There's no option of doubting it."

In a hospital room the heart monitor hooked up to the room's resident flatlined.

"Onii-chan! Are you awake yet?" Kirito- no, Kirigaya sat up in his bed at the sound of his sister's voice outside of his door.

"Ha... haha!" The dark haired boy gave a small laugh before jumping out of bed. He stood still for a moment's time, just long enough to take in the(admittedly somewhat putrid) smell of his room. It had been years since he'd had the chance to enjoy the other world.

In the next moment he was running out of his door, grabbing Suguha in a hug on her way towards the stairs. "Imouto! Good morning!" Just as suddenly as he had grabbed her he let go and jumped down the stairs, taking them three or four at a time. His voice echoed back up the stairwell as he shouted a similar greeting to his Mother.

"I wonder what he's so excited about?" Suguha wondered aloud when she heard her brother begin whistling a tune she was unfamiliar with. Her next thought broke the wonder. "Right, the game."

When her brother had been chosen as one of the Betas for Sword Art Online he had been ecstatic. So ecstatic that hardly anyone had seen him for the entire month. With the game coming out in stores the next day it was unlikely anything else would be on his mind.

As Suguha made her way down the stairs at a leisurely pace she couldn't help but lament a bit over the distance her Brother was putting between them. It hadn't taken her long to notice what he was doing. It was only on days like this that he forgot to put her at a distance, and even that was in complete contrast to the closeness they'd once had.

With a sigh her thoughts turned further inward. 'Why does he see so much in those games of his? Maybe...'

It was only once Kirigaya was on his third cup of orange juice that he realized he was really in the past, and after his second helping of eggs he started to think what he could do.

'I'm in the past, before SAO's launch. Could I stop the release? No, it's too late for that, and with all the hype no one's going to listen to a single beta. Call people I know and find some way to stop them from getting the game? No, we never exchanged IRL information. Just not log in? I'm not going to beat the game like that...'

"You're in quite a good mood this morning," his Mother stated from around the table. "Are you looking forward to the game that much?"

"Something like that," he muttered. 'Wait, at the beginning... People died before Kayaba showed up, didn't they? Something about... Removing the equipment! How to get people to not do that... If it were in the game I could just post a public message. How do you do that here? Right, reviews. It's not perfect, but if I can get something out there, saying it's unsafe to remove Nerve Gear while it's in use, that might save a couple of people... Heh, I might be able to actually win this time around.'

"Onii-chan? Why're you so interested in that game?"

And now he needed to not go on a rant that convinced his family he thought he was a time traveler, go on a rant listing all the people he'd seen die, or yell at his cousin for asking a question. Luckily explaining things without terrifying people had been pretty required on the higher levels of SAO, once he started scouting dungeons and sending the information around.

"Well," he started off with, to buy a little time, "the Virtual Reality aspect is pretty intense. I've played other VR games before, but none of them were on the same level. In Sword Art you can feel each blade of grass beneath your toes, you can breath in air fresher than any you'll find around here, when you're fighting you can feel the weight of the blade and there's the people I suppose. See, even during the Beta there were a thousand people playing at once, on top of all the NPCs. People from all walks of life were there, bankers, police officers, even some people who made money through less legitimate means.

"You throw all of those people in one place and you get this sense of community. Sometimes you work together to take down a powerful boss, other times you're running from bandits trying to take your money. You have actual people running stores in game, trying to make a living. It can be a great place for social interaction."

His sister gave him a look that he couldn't quite place. "You really like that game, huh? How long do you think you'll be playing it for?"

He felt a brief stab of guilt at forgetting his family. "It'll probably keep me occupied for a really long time."

A quick interjection from his Mother cut Kirigaya from his thoughts. "Yes, well, we'll still expect you to keep your grades up at school you know. Just because you're off playing hero in anther world doesn't mean you can neglect the real."

Kirigaya sent what he hoped came out as a reassuring smile. "Don't worry Mom. Neglecting the real world is the last thing I plan to do. In fact, I think I might write some product reviews while I play the game, if nothing else than to keep in the practice of writing."

The rest of that day Kirigaya would spend with his family, minus a brief amount of time spent writing a review about the dangers of removing Nerve Gear when the user is still logged in, and setting it to post as soon as the game became active. He'd gone to sleep early that night, unintentionally and barely in bed.

The day of release he tried to calm his nerves. It was a very different kind of nervousness than the one he'd felt previously. Before it had all been about going in and making sure he could find loot and make a name for himself. Now he was steeling his stomach for the moment he'd intentionally log into a game he couldn't log out of.

He savored time with his family more than the food. During his years in SAO he'd come to recognize a few players as a kind of pseudo family, with the time he spent with Asuna and Yui being the closest to an actual home.

At noon, with an hour to go before the server started he found his cousin exiting his grandfather's dojo, and an idea occurred to him. "Imouto!" He called out, "Up for a quick spar?"

She looked at him oddly, something that had happened quite often over the last few days. After a few seconds of confusion she nodded and walked back in.

It was a bit awkward putting the safety gear on, and more awkward to move in. Grabbing a shinai he adjusted to his normal grip, a move that his cousin laughed at.

"Onii-chan, it's hard to take you seriously when you forget everything about kendo!"

"Maybe that's what I'm doing, all to catch you off guard," he said jokingly, and was thus surprised when she tightened up her form.

In a sudden move she was rushing towards him, and his sword was raising to parry even as he slid around her for a better angle. Unfortunately his cousin had the discipline to remain controlled and swung a follow up before he could rebalance himself.

In his favor, however, was his unusually high reaction time. He twisted out of the way of the wooden sword before it could make contact, and in a swift motion brought his blade up in a swipe at his cousin's exposed side. The strike was batted away with ease, but Kirigaya capitalized on the moment by jumping away from his opponent.

"Have you been practicing?" Suguha asked him as he coiled his back.

"In a way," was his response as he jumped forward, swinging his sword and right arm toward his sister. She raised her own blade to catch the strike, only to watch in confusion as he tossed the sword from his right hand to his left. The, mostly showy, move had given him the distraction he needed to bat the katana out of his sister's hand, and then point the shinai at her abdomen.

The girl nodded and he lowered the blade. "Grandfather never taught you to fight like that," she noted.

"No," he agreed easily. "Suguha, do you enjoy kendo?"

She shrugged. "Enough. It's not the only thing in my life, but I like practicing something that I'm good at."

He ruffled her hair. "Do you mind if I clean up first? The game starts in a little bit."

"And you need to be the first one logged in," she said with a smile. "Go ahead. I'm going to figure out how you beat me you know!"

Kirigaya closed the door behind him, a smile on his face as he made his way towards the bathroom. Hopefully that bout would keep his cousin from becoming too upset over his extended absence.

It didn't take long before the boy had dried himself off and was attaching his NerveGear, loading the avatar he had used for his beta test. "This time, Kayaba, I won't let you play with people I care about."

After her shower Suguha went to her room to grab the game and equipment she'd bought the night before. It had been difficult to sneak out, but with her Brother acting as he had been most of the concentration in the house had been on him.

The game itself had been expensive, and she wasn't ashamed to admit she may have temporarily stolen some money from her Brother. She doubted he would mind so long as she payed him back, which she would, and it was really to spend more time with him anyway.

Box in hand she slowly opened the door to her brother's room, laying down next to him on his bed, and in the next moment putting the NerveGear helmet on.

Despite logging on nearly the moment the server connected the streets were already crowded with a medley of adventurers. The buildings and the road were all easy to recognize, but the players threw him off. Everyone was still wearing their avatar, which left a slightly sour taste in Kirito's mouth.

He confidently walked down into an alleyway, and was unsurprised when a man stopped him. "Hey, you! You look like you've been around here before."

Kirito shrugged. "Maybe. Why do you ask?"

"I want you to teach me some things," he said shamelessly.

Kirito smiled. "Sure. Let's start at the weapon shop first, after that we can go hunting for a little bit."

"Hunting huh? Oh, the name's Klein by the way."

"Kirito's mine. Yeah, hunting's the term that spread around during the beta. Grinding just didn't feel right when you're actually running and killing."

Kirito's smile didn't leave his face as he led the older man towards the main market. After a quick evaluation of weapons Klein settled on a curved blade, while Kirito grabbed a straight, one handed sword.

"So, where to next?" Klein asked as the two sheathed their swords.

"Well, there's a monster spawn to the east. We can start there. Do you know how the sword skills work?"

The next four hours passed like deja vu, with Kirito showing Klein how to fight while he picked up as many kills as he could. Throughout the process he kept an eye on Klein's health bar, ready to jump in just in case.

At Klein's discovery of the missing logout button Kirito tried to keep the man calm. "I don't like it either. Maybe they've changed things since the beta? It could be that we can only logout in a safe zone. It's a pain, but we should try heading back to town."

"All the way back there?!" Klein asked in frustration. "There's no way we can do that in time for my pizza. Isn't there a fast travel in this game?"

"Sorry, only teleport crystals and it's going to be a while before buying them is even viable, let alone economical. Look, if we run full tilt back to town the delivery man'll probably still be at the door. And that'll give us a chance to test out our speed-" Before Kirito could finish his sentence Klein was sprinting past him. "I feel bad," he commented to the air, "That must be some pizza."

In the next second he was off, and in a few minutes had caught up to Klein. At Klein's questioning look he explained, "I leveled up once when we were hunting, so I can move a bit faster."

Klein raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Huh. I didn't expect them to program movement speed in with speed stats. Normally that gets ignored."

"Well Kayaba's trying to make this game as realistic as possible," Kirito responded, attempting to keep a note of bitterness from entering his voice. Kirito glanced down at his clock, before a thought occurred to him. If they were moving at this speed when they were teleported, then once they landed in the plaza...

A blue light surrounded the two, and before Kirito could shout a warning the two were crashing into a pair of spectators in front of them, one a stunningly tall blue haired man, the other a blonde woman.

As Klein picked himself off the man, cursing in 'pain,' Kirito rolled off of the woman before offering her a hand up. "Sorry," he said apologetically and embarrassed. "We were on our way back to town to try and logout when that teleport happened. Are you hurt?"

The woman checked her HP while Klein got in a shouting match with the man he'd crashed into. "No. I guess the square is a safe zone too. I'd have thought this was a coliseum at first."

"Right, I forgot about that," Kirito answered. "And even in the coliseums you have to initiate a duel before you can be injured."

"Really? That seems like something that people would take advantage of. I suppose I should have talked to my Brother before I logged in. He was a part of the beta test," she said in way of explanation.

The impromptu conversation was ended by the appearance of Kayaba Akihiko. Kirito watched as people around him shifted throughout his speech, culminating in a scream when the man announced that 213 people were already dead. Kirito closed his eyes. 'Apparently reviews aren't very effective.'

Kirito forced himself to be disconnected from the ten thousand people around him, knowing that this would only be the beginning. A part of him wanted to leave then and there and start hunting. Another wanted to call Kayaba out, but over the sounds of thousands already shouting and screaming he would surely be drowned out.

With Kayaba's announcement of a gift in everyone's inventories Kirito quickly activated the item, intent on watching everyone's reactions at returning to their actual selves. Klein's "Kirito?!" was, to be honest, amusing to Kirito, as was everyone else's reaction. This had been a prank he could have supported, were it independent of the announcement of a death game.

His eyes were torn away from Klein's look of bewilderment when he saw the woman in front of him transforming. Where once a moderately tall, blonde woman stood was now a short, black haired girl.

And as said girl turned around to look at him his breath caught. "Imouto?" He asked in unison with the girl's "Onii-chan?"

Kirito's mind spun with confusion. Had she always been in the game? Had she been one of the thousands that died while he wasn't paying attention? If so, how had she not found him? Didn't she hate games?

As Kayaba continued his speech Kirito grabbed both his sister's arm and Klein. "There's no reason to stick around any longer," he said with forced calm, leading the two outside of the coliseum.

"But, the speech," Klein protested weakly.

"There's nothing more that we need to know. He's keeping us in a game, he's told us it's real, and he's shown off some flashy tricks. Who cares why he did it? Right now we need to worry about surviving. Any minute now the fields around here are going to be teeming with people. You didn't have to worry about hunger in the beta, but I wouldn't be surprised if you can starve to death now. We need resources and with ten thousand people frantic for any kind of kill there aren't going to be many."

Klein nodded slowly. "So we need to get as many as we can, then use that to live off of until things start to spread."

"Wrong," Kirito cut mercilessly, "We need to get away from this town immediately. Even at level one I could get us to a town in the north. People are going to be too afraid to venture that far out for awhile, and over there we'll have open fields."

Suguha watched wide eyed at her brother's decisiveness while Klein looked stricken. "Hey, I have some pals I waited in line with to get this game. I can't just leave them behind."

Kirito waved his hand. "You can bring them along. You've already got them friended right? Send them a message to meet us at the west gate in half an hour. Tell them to bring weapons, food, and potions. All they can buy. I can get us all there."

Klein's eyes lit up. "You're that good at the game?" He asked as he opened his menu.

Kirito exhaled. "During the beta I was the player that got the farthest. I was at every boss fight, and I had the highest one handed sword skill on the game. You said you've led guilds before, right? You take care of the management. If a fight comes up, I can handle it."

"Half an hour?" Klein asked with confidence. "I can make sure we get the best prices for bulk. I better go and spend my own money too. You get yourself a full kit, and take care of your sister too."

Kirito nodded. "Right. And Klein? Don't get in any duels between now and then."

He smiled as he began jogging off, "You too, you cheeky gamer. Oh, and your sister-" The sentence ended after an angry glare from Kirito and the man dashed away.

"Imouto, I'm sorry you're caught up in this, but we'll talk later. Right now we need to move fast," he grabbed her hand and pulled her along. "Your kendo is good, so we'll get you a single straight blade for now. I have some money from my hunting earlier so we should be able to get you some armor for your upper body. No matter what happens, don't get separated from me, unless I tell you to run. If I do, go to the nearest town and learn one of the trade skills. It might be tough but I'm sure you'll be able to make a living off of it."

The girl struggled to keep up with her older brother's steps. "Onii-chan, what's happening?"

Kirito sighed. "That explanation is going to take a long time. Wait until we get to the next town. After that we can rest for a while."

Suguha nodded hesitantly. The shopping that followed was quick and to the point, with Kirito telling her what to buy. Twenty minutes later the two were going to the western gate, ready to meet the other gamers.

"Kirito!" Klein called out as soon the two entered sight. "Everyone's here and ready to go if you are."

"That was fast," Kirito stated in surprise, having expected to wait another twenty minutes.

Klein shrugged. "We're all used to video games, just not VRs. Last time I guild mastered I taught them if I give them five minutes then we're leaving in three."

"Efficient," Kirito praised. "Everyone has a standard kit then?"

Klein nodded. "I went through their inventories before you got here. Health potions, a weapon and some food. Some did a bit of hunting beforehand and have a little bit of extra."

Kirito nodded in return. "Before we set off, we're setting some ground rules. If you kill a monster and get a drop, that's yours to keep. If you don't like that you can reorganize things after we get to town. For now there's no time to be trading around inventories. We're blitzing our way to the town north of here."

"Er," one of Klein's friends spoke up, "If we're going north, why're we at the west gate?"

"It's safer for us to loop around this way," Kirito explained. "On the path directly to the town there are bandit mobs that are lower level than what we'll be fighting. We're not going that way because the AI for the bandits is more advanced, and they have better skills. The path I'll be taking us will give us easier fights and more rewards. Any other questions?"

"Who's the chick?" Another voice chirped up.

Kirito wrapped his arm around her and pulled her closer. "No one you need to concern yourself with," he answered vaguely, ignorant to the blush on her face. He did see Klein give him an odd look, which he answered with a stare. "If that's all let's get going. I take point, Suguha stays behind me, any lancers take the next row, behind that axe users and then Klein watches our backs with any other sword users. Let's get going."

The group only had seven players in total, one axeman, two lancers and the rest sword users. Under Kirito and Klein's guidance the group effectively slaughtered monsters, making use of switches to provide cover and healing when they needed to. Kirito himself only ever took minor hits, using his reaction time to dodge attacks and make quick work of enemies. He and Suguha teamed surprisingly well, as did he and Klein. The trek to town left all players tired and slightly low in health, but with a few levels and enough Col to upgrade their gear completely.

"That was some good work out there, Kirito," Klein said happily as the group walked underneath the archway signifying the entrance to the town. Nighttime had fallen a few hours before and the group was headed straight for the town's inn. "You kept us nice and organized. Have you led a guild before?"

"No," Kirito answered. "Normally I play games solo."

"Solo?" Klein asked incredulously. "You mean you and your sister right?"

"I told you earlier, she doesn't like games."

"But, she was good! And the two of you worked together like you'd been partied for a while."

"She takes kendo," he explained, "And we used to be closer than we are now."

"Well, no going solo this time, right? With you on our side we can beat this game in a few months!" At Kirito's downward gaze he continued with less confidence. "You are going to stick with us right? You can't just go out and fight those monsters on your own."

"I'm sorry Klein," Kirito responded with sadness. "If it was just me, maybe. But I have to look after my Sister now too, and you know as well as I do that we'll level slower with a larger party."

"Well, yeah, but this game isn't like others! If you die, you die, and who's going to take care of your sister then?"

"You will. Or she can take care of herself. Look, a five person party is fine. Six people is optimal. But seven just doesn't work. Klein, I'm not just going to abandon you and your friends. Give me a few hours tomorrow and I'll give you a guide for this level, where the best spots are, what monsters are around, the good quests. Everything you'll need to know to succeed."

Klein looked at him, depressed from his earlier excitement. "There really is no talking you into joining us, is there? Well, do what you have to Kirito. And just you wait, I'll make my guild the strongest in the world! And then you'll have no choice but to join us. And we'll give you a nice desk job too, signing paperwork."

"We'll see," Kirito said as he shook the man's hand. "If you need anything send me a message."

"I'll be sure to. Want me to book you a room?" He asked as he noticed Kirito lagging behind.

"No thanks, I doubt any other players have made it to this town yet. There'll be plenty of room."

"Alright!" Klein called over his shoulder before running to throw an arm around one of his friends.

Kirito watched as the group made their way out of sight before turning to his cousin. "Are you feeling alright Suguha?"

The girl was silent, standing still and looking at her brother. "C'mon," he said, recognizing the look. It wasn't really unexpected, and if he was honest he was proud that she'd held up for so long.

Suguha followed behind him, walking close enough to kick the back of his shoe occasionally as they walked. He led her to a more expensive inn than the one Klein's guild had went to, knowing that his sister wouldn't see the environment as rustic and adventuresome.

He calmly rented a room with two beds from the NPC and grabbed his sister's arm to lead her up the stairs, then pulled her into the first room on the right.

As soon as the door shut Suguha let out a sob and Kirito pulled her into a hug. "It's alright," he comforted, rubbing her back. "I'm not going to let anything hurt you."

"Onii-chan," she managed to work out between sobs. "Are all those people really dead?"

"Yes," his voice holding regret. "They died. But we don't have to die."

The girl collapsed into him, leaving Kirito holding her up. "How're you taking this all in stride?"

"I guess it just hasn't sunk in yet," Kirito lied. "It'll probably hit me a few days from now. But, Suguha, why'd you buy the game?"

She coughed into his shirt. "I wanted to spend more time with Onii-chan," she explained, her voice still muffled. "You've been moving away from me and you spend all that time playing video games. And then you said that they can be social so I thought, 'maybe if I play the game with him we can be close again.' So I snuck out and bought a copy, I snuck into line behind a family and everyone just thought I was with them."

Kirito sighed. "Suguha, I'm sorry that you felt neglected. I just... Look, you wanted to spend more time with me right? Then this is your perfect chance, isn't it? For however long this game takes I won't leave your side unless you want me to. I'll protect you."

"That's silly," she said, turning her head up toward him, most of the tears having dried off onto his shirt. "I'm the one who's taken kendo. If anything, I'll be the one protecting you!"

Kirito patted a few stray hairs down on her head. "That may be true, but remember that I know video games. And don't forget that spar from this morning."

He was glad to see her face turn red from embarrassment, signifying her distraction from the world they were in. "That was a cheap win! You just surprised me is all!"

Kirito gave a short laugh. "Maybe, but in here I'll actually have the speed to use those moves."

Suguha gave a pouting "hmph," before laughing herself, salt stained cheeks momentarily forgotten. After a few moments of relaxing the girl spoke up again. "Onii-chan? Is it alright if I sleep next to you, just for tonight?"

"That's fine. Er, could you turn around so I can change?"

"Eh?" Suguha asked in surprise. "You brought other clothes with you?"

"What? Oh, no, there should be an option in your inventory to change into other clothes. Everyone starts with some default settings. They're not the most comfortable, but they're a lot better than combat gear."

Suguha looked through her menu for a while before finding the proper selection. "Oh. Can you turn around too then?"

"Already have."

Once both were properly attired Kirito slipped into the bed with his back to Suguha. "Goodnight, Imouto."


The next morning saw Kirito typing with a speed Suguha could barely follow, at least when she'd only been awake for a few minutes. "So, it's all real, huh?"

"Sorry," Kirito answered. "Just give me a little bit longer and then we can go to the market for something fresh and get some better gear. I'd like us to gain a few more levels today, farm the monsters before everyone else starts showing up. I'll try and introduce you more to the basics of RPGs, or at least SAO."

To his relief Suguha sat quietly and waited patiently as he finished writing his guide for Klein, making sure to annotate unique terms and describe each monsters default skills.

"Thanks, Suguha, we can go get some food now."

"Good!" She chimed in as she opened the door to go downstairs. "We barely even ate yesterday!"

It was true, and a factor Kirito had needed to account for while planning their journey. It wasn't easy to fight on an empty stomach, but they couldn't afford to stop and make camp yesterday either. Instead the group had to make do with eating whatever they could while still moving, really only bread and cheese.

"Well, I know a restaurant here that sells some good soup if you're interested. That's where we're meeting up with Klein and his party."

"Onii-chan? Are we really separating from them?"

"I know you'd like the company," he said apologetically, "But the more people there are, the slower we get stronger. It'll only be for awhile though, and I imagine we'll be staying at the same town as them for the next week at least."

The two made their way down the street, devoid of any players but teeming with busy NPCs. It wouldn't last long though, by the end of the day a few other betas would have shown up, and probably a few other parties as well.

When the pair arrived at the restaurant he wasn't surprised that everyone from Klein's group was already there and eating. In fact, upon closer inspection, they had all re-outfitted as well, the weapons gleaming in the early sunlight.

Kirito shook his head in amusement. "You really don't waste any time at all, do you? Your leader looks like he could play the part of a bandit, and yet you're all more organized than any army I've seen."

"And that, young Kirito, is why we'll be the top guild. Why, by the end of the month each and every one of these sorry excuses for gamers will be leading their own party, all reporting to their head, me! And Kirito, you'll be given the honor of cleaning our guildhouse!"

"The ever humble Kirito is so proud, master Klein. Here's your guide by the way," he said as he flicked across a few menus to send the book to Klein.

The poorly shaven man turned serious as he skimmed through the data. After a few seconds he gave out a low whistle. "You work quick yourself, Kirito. When you said it would take you a few hours, I thought we'd be eating while you worked on it. And if everything in here is this detailed, you must be quite the investigator."

"I'll send you an update once I've gotten the stuff for the rest of the floor written in instead of just this quarter of the level. I'll try and have one worked up for the second floor as well. Oh, and feel free to distribute it to anyone you come across, unless it's marked otherwise. I figure stuff like monster drops and attack patterns should get out to everyone, try and help out as much as we can. Stuff like once-only treasures and special events however..."

"You want to keep on a tighter leash. Makes sense, just don't expect to be the only one with that kind of information."

"Oh, I know I'm not. But I've also explored this game more fully than anyone else at the moment, minus people who worked on the game."

Klein nodded. "Like that Kayaba person. The-"

"Yes, like Kayaba," Kirito interrupted, giving Klein a straight look while tilting the side of his head toward Suguha. "And don't rely on it too much either. For all that I know about the game, it's been awhile since I was here, things might be a little inaccurate due to poor recall or the programmers may have changed things between the beta and now."

"I'll keep that in mind. And, if you'll excuse us, my men and I are out to hit the fields. We have a head start, but others will be showing eventually and I'd like to capitalize on our advantage. Shall we meet back here for dinner? Say, 1930?"

"Sounds good, but if we're late don't bother wating for us. I plan on making as much of the day as I can too. Good luck out there!"

"Happy hunting to you too!" Klein called back.

Suguha paused before taking another spoonful of the soup she'd ordered while Kirito was talking. "We're not eating until that late?"

"We'll eat while we're out there too," he reassured her. "It'll have gotten dark by then, so there's no reason to stay out in the fields that late. It's an efficiency thing, which is your first lesson. In a game like this, or in real life for that matter, the person who can fit the most work into the least amount of time has the edge."

"If that's the case, shouldn't you be eating breakfast? I ordered you a bowl too."

Kirito smiled and ruffled her hair. "So you did. And for that, I'll buy a sweet roll for while we're out in the field."

The two ate silently before heading to the market to trade in their weapons for the best tier they could afford. It was odd having to ration funds so much again, but he had learned how to haggle prices, with players and NPCs alike, over his years of SAO.

"Now once we leave town we'll be hunting some monsters. There's only the two of us, so we need to work together. If the monsters we're fighting start getting easy for you, tell me."

"What's our goal for today then?"

"Well, let's try and make a profit of more than a hundred Col each for today."

Suguha tilted her head. "Onii-chan, we made about half that on our way here. We'll be done before lunch if we're looking for monsters."

"Except by profit I meant after all of our expenses for the day. It cost us fifteen Col for the room last night, four for breakfast, we spent another five for what'll make up our lunch, our heal items cost about ten each, dinner will probably be six more and then we need to make sure our armor and weapons keep their durability. The expenses add up, more so if we're not careful while we're hunting."

"So if we don't get hit, we make more money."

Kirito grinned. "Exactly. You know, Imouto, you might end up being quite the ace, provided you hang around me and learn at least half of what I know," he boasted in jest.

"Yeah, and if you stick around you might remember how to hold a sword," the girl fired back.

Kirito laughed. "I'm telling you, that's a sword style. My own, but still a viable style!"

Suguha shook her head. "Maybe, but it's missing something. In our fight you were open for most of it, you had to evade where a parry from a traditional stance would be more effective."

Kirito shook his head. "You really are too clever for your own good. Heck, if I'd have known you could analyze like that I may have become like grandfather and forced you to follow my footsteps."

As the two crossed the barrier into the open field Suguha looked at him with curiosity. "What do you mean?"

Kirito grinned. "Oh, there's something missing from my style alright. Let's see how long it takes you to figure it out."

"Onii-chan, that's not fair at all!"

"Hey, it's a video game now. Fairness exists in the weapon system, not in the word puzzles."

The two walked in a companionable silence, something Kirito was rather surprised about. He'd been distancing himself from her for a few years, even before his two and a half years spent in SAO. It was odd that, when given reason to, they still had a better than average relationship.

"Hey, what's that over there?"

Disrupted from his thoughts Kirito looked upwards, along the path his cousin's finger was pointing out. "That, Imouto, is going to be your first solo kill. It's a pack of Frenzy Boar, level one monsters. Each'll be worth about a Col each, maybe a few more if you get some decent drops from them. At your level you can take them on easily. In the meantime..." Kirito scanned the field surrounding them, before settling on a target. "Let's make this a little interesting. There's a pack of wolves over on the other hill. You take out the boars, and if you kill them and get to me before I finish off then I'll make some extra money to give you to shop for clothes. Sound good?"

Evidently not, as Suguha leveled a glare at him. "I'm not going to waste our money on clothes."

Kirito scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. "Ah. I'll buy us some soap then?"

"Some..." Suguha began, before lifting her shirt's arm toward her nose in curiousity. Her face wrinkled slightly as she took a small sniff. "We only get it if I win?"

"That's the deal," he answered to Suguha's retreating form. With a quick shoulder roll to loosen his arm he headed off towards his own target.

The wolves were a higher level group, but within his margin of safety. Digging out a handful of throwing pins he'd purchased that morning he circled around to the back of the group before launching them at the unsuspecting target.

This did enough damage for him to finish it off with his basic sword skill before it could strike back, bringing his enemies down to three. Each growled at him, while trying to make a circle around him. Before they could get into position Kirito launched a quick slash at the leftmost, then without looking brought his sword up to the right to block the inevitable strike.

True to its combat programming the wolf crashed against the flat of his blade, was pushed back by Kirito's superior strength, and caught by a quick slashing counterattack. A crouch left the only uninjured wolf leaping over his head, giving him the opportunity to slice its underbelly open, resulting in a critical hit and a kill.

Kirito rolled away from the last two wolves to give himself some space. The wolves attempted to set up a pincer by attacking him from each side, but a well timed wide slash took both out before they could do any damage.

With a practiced flip of the wrist Kirito accepted the battle's earnings and was about to check on Suguha when a larger, deeper growl interrupted him.

He let out a groan as he recognized an Alpha, a little taller than him and usually only appearing in higher level areas when a pack was killed. He leapt to the side to avoid its first charge, too off balance to hit it on its way by. As both he and his opponent rebalanced themselves he recalled the wolf's stats. He could survive a few slashes from its claws thanks to his armor, but if it caught him with its fangs he could be in a sizable amount of trouble.

The wolf charged again, though this time Kirito managed to leave a shallow slice on its side when he dodged. Before he could follow up a voice shouted switch and he instinctively obeyed.

Suguha, moving at a running pace jumped into the air past him and landed with a heavy, two handed strike to the wolf's head. Kirito watched in approval as she proceeded to slash its legs, restricting its movement while it was still staggered, and then finished with a blow to the neck.

As the nearly decapitated wolf collapsed into particles Suguha gave him an innocent look. "Does this mean we get soap?"

Kirito glanced at the funds added to their Col. "Suguha, with the funds from that kill alone we've already covered the day's expenses, and a little extra if we don't use our potions. By the end of the day we'll probably be able to buy soap that actually cleans things."

Suguha sweatdropped. "There's soap that doesn't clean things?"

Kirito nodded. "Yeah, it's pretty cheap too. That's what I was planning on buying if you won our competition. It's a bit of a shame, I'd planned this speech about how the soap was symbollic of-"

"I don't need the speech."

"Are you sure? It might help you on the way to deism."

As Kirito and Suguha made their way to the restaurant Kirito couldn't help but feel as if they'd done some good that day. Suguha had proven to be a quick learner and he already felt comfortable letting her fight on her own. With the two effectively soloing while in a party their growths weren't hampered too much, and the combined Col would let them grow even faster if used prudently.

"Suguha, we're going to stay in town for three more days, after that we're moving on. There are some pretty easy quests available here that I want us to take over the next few days. The quests will give us some bonus items and a little extra Col, but they will be tougher so if it comes to it don't be afraid to ask for help."

Suguha nodded absently, and Kirito decided he'd let the matter slide for now. He'd remind her in the morning. "What's on your mind?"

Suguha shook herself out of her thoughts. "Not much. I'm just wondering how much time we can spend in game before our actual bodies, you know..."

"Don't worry about it," Kirito reassured her. "They'll have moved our bodies to hospitals by now, and set us up so that machines are taking care of our bodies."

Suguha shuddered. "You mean with tubes hooked up to us all? I don't think I like that."

"I don't think anyone likes it very much," Kirito admitted. "But it's a lot better than not having them."

"I suppose," Suguha agreed unhappily. "So, what are we going to have for dinner?"

"I'm not very hungry to be honest, so I'll probably just buy a sandwich or something. What about you?"

"I saw an NPC with some interesting looking eggs this morning so I think I'll try that."

The two made small talk until they ran into Klein's party, at which point the began swapping stories from the day.

"So," Klein began mischievously as the three sat down at a table, "What was the strongest thing you two took down today?"

"Well, there was something Kirito told me was an Alpha Wolf," Suguha said plainly. "It was the strongest single monster, but Kirito had weakened it for a while before I showed up. On my own, I was fighting a pack of those differently colored boars a little bit before we ended the day."

Kirito nodded in agreement. "Yeah, the Alpha would be the strongest monster we fought today."

Klein hit his head against the table. "You just can't let me get a break, can you? I spend my entire day out there fighting and my entire guild struggles to take down a pack of those Greater Boars, and a little girl does it on her own."

Kirito laughed. "That's Suguha for you. Don't worry Klein, maybe we'll hire you to scrub the floors in our house once we buy one, that should get you enough money to start expanding your guild."

While Klein pouted Suguha turned to Kirito. "Eh? We can buy a house on this game?"

"Eventually. It's going to take us a long time before we can afford one though," Kirito warned.

"Aha!" Klein popped back into the conversation. "That's one thing you won't beat us on. We'll have our guild house long before you have a place to call home!"

Kirito shook his head in amusement before taking a bite of his sandwich. "Klein, one of these days you're going to actually insult one of us, and when that time comes I really do pity you."

"Oho, and why is that?"

"Because I don't like it when people make fun of Oni-chan." Suguha said seriously.

"And I don't like it when I think people are getting overly personal with her either," Kirito added. "Not to threaten you of course. I'm sure you'd never do that."

"Bah, the two of you are too nice to really do much. I mean, what kind of people trying to solo the game bring a party along with them?" Despite the confidence in his statement Kirito noticed that Klein had scooted his chair away from them by a few centimeters.

"On the subject of us being too nice for our own good," Kirito led in, "I have some more information for you. There are some NPC quests that talk about a group called Laughing Coffin. During the Beta some players made a guild by that name, and so I wouldn't be surprised if another shows up."

Klein leaned back towards the table, returning to a business tone. "And what's so special about this guild?"

Kirito opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "Suguha, would you mind ordering us some dessert? I'm feeling a little bit hungrier now."

The girl obliged somewhat begrudgingly and Kirito watched her out of the corner of his eye to make sure she was far enough away. "In the quests and during the Beta Laughing Coffin was a guild of criminals, criminals that weren't above PKing. Now, it might not happen because this is for all intents and purposes real until we beat the game, but just in case..."

"You think they'd still kill players, knowing that they'll be dead for good? That seems a little extreme."

"I know," Kirito said, "And I'm not sure they will. At the same time though, I'm not going to trust anyone unless I have a reason to. People are desperate right now, and when people are desperate..."

"They do things they wouldn't otherwise," Klein finished. "Alright, I'll keep an eye out for this Laughing Coffin. Anything else before your Sister comes back?"

"Two things actually. One, I have some names to give you. I'll message the list to you later, but they're people I want you to keep an eye out for. If you see any of them, I'd appreciate a message telling me where. Secondly, so you don't put your foot in your mouth, Suguha isn't really my Sister, we were just raised that way. I was adopted. She doesn't know."

Klein nodded, a little sheepishly. "Yeah, I probably would have said something awkward. Thanks for the heads up. If things turn as crazy as you think they will though, keep in mind that you won't be able to keep her hands clean forever."

"I know. Still, I'm not much of a brother if I don't at least try. She's having some trouble coping as it is."

"Who isn't? Kami, I can't wait until we have enough money to buy some good alcohol. I take it that stuff works like it should?"

"It does, just don't drink too much. Even if we're in game, there's still only so much you'll be able to handle."

"Bah," Klein mocked, "If I can't handle as much as I can in real life then I'll just have to get a skill or something that lets me."

Kirito snorted, "If you find a skill like that you'll have to add it to the manual."

"I don't know," Klein said mischievously as Suguha returned to the table, "If I find a skill like that, it's going to be something to keep to myself. Then challenge another player to a drinking contest and start reaping some rewards."

Kirito shook his head in mock disgust. "I'm ashamed. Here I thought you were on the path to becoming a respectable player of this game, but it turns out I only helped out a man who plans to fund his guild by drinking."

"There's nothing saying a man can't do both!" The banter would last long into the night, right up until the NPC barmen threw them out.

AN: And so it begins again. It's been a few years since I've posted anything, though I have still been writing. The initial idea for this was, admittedly, the plethora of time travel fics that exist and I figured why not do it for SAO as well. I'm not sure how I feel about this though, it seems like I'm going through things too fast... Well, consider this a demo chapter then, I'll probably come back and rewrite everything prior to returning to SAO, since that seems the most rushed, but I'm posting this to see if I can light the fire under myself to get it all going. Although I need to spend some time looking through the side stories, I've only read a handful of those and I want to be as connected with canon as I can before I get too far into things. Anyway, thanks for reading the fanfiction of someone trying to get back in the swing of things.