A/N: Hello, readers all! This is the Red Swordsman, returning for my second one-shot, this time featuring Kirito x Lisbeth. To be honest, she's not my favorite, but I try to treat my main characters with respect and caring, so for this one short story, out of deep respect to my friend TriforceHero, I have arranged this little piece of literature. I hope that this story is enjoyable for all of those that read it, and I look forward to hearing what you all have to say via reviews and PM's!

Now, get to reading!

Forged in Fire and Ice

Lisbeth sighed as she splashed cold water on her face. Looking in the mirror, she reflected that water actually did nothing for one's personal hygiene in the world of SAO, but it still felt refreshing compared to all of the hot tears she had been shedding for the last week. Today she was reopening her shop, and she wanted to try and both look and feel presentable to any potential customers.

Asuna, the Lighting Flash, Vice Commander of the Knights of the Blood-Oath, and Lisbeth's best friend was dead. She had perished in the battle against Laughing Coffin, according to the tabloid that served as newspaper in Aincrad. Lisbeth had gone to the Wall of Names, hoping against hope that she was wrong, but the wall only served to confirm the worst.

She had broken down then and there, crying and curled in a little ball on the floor. Only one other person had been there that day when she stumbled out, exhausted. She didn't really remember any details about the person, just that they were slim of build, and dressed all in black.

Shaking away the thoughts, she applied her work attire and started her usual routine. First she got the forge going with a good-sized fire. Then she took stock of her inventory, both prepped weapons and ores for crafting weapons. Once the forge was ready and she was done recording numbers, she got to work with her hammer, pounding on the ore she had set in the fire with a methodical precision that came from more than a year of practice. After about a minute of hammering on a standard ore, the metal began to glow and reshape itself into the shape of a one-handed sword. She set her hammer aside and waited for the glowing to stop before she picked up the blade and examined it with her appraisal skill.

She frowned slightly and shook her head in disappointment. "I guess it's good enough," she sighed quietly. Putting the weapon away, she went to get another ore, but then she was stopped by the sound of the shop's bell, which indicated that someone had entered the store part of the building.

Moving quickly, she put the ore back in her inventory and took off her smelting gloves. She quickly examined herself in the mirror and when she decided that she would be presentable, she went up the short flight of stairs that led from the back room to the front, where her weapons that were for sale were displayed. As soon as she went through the door, she called out, "Welcome to Lisbeth's Blacksmith Shop!"

She was surprised to see a boy in his early teens, dressed all in black with silver trim on his coat. Even the sword handle protruding from his back sheath was black as night. His looks were a little on the effeminate side, but the way he carried himself as his distinct lack off assets definitely marked him as a male.

When he turned to look at her, she wasn't exactly surprised to see dark gray eyes that were nearly black like his attire of choice. "Oh, hey," he said by way of greeting. "I'm looking for the shopkeeper."

"You're looking at her," Lisbeth replied with her right hand on her hip, slightly perturbed by his lack of foresight.

"Oh, sorry," he said quietly. Something about him seemed familiar, she thought as she looked him up and down. "Well, I was looking for a one-handed sword, and a… friend recommended this place to me." She thought she saw a flash of pain in his otherwise blank expression, and wondered at it.

"Okay, would you like to take look at the stuff on display?" she offered as she swept her arm around to indicate her collection. "Everything you see is for sale."

"Actually, I was looking to do a custom order," he said with a shake of his head.

"Well…" she frowned as she spoke. "The thing is, metal prices are pretty high right now." And he doesn't look like someone with a whole lot of money.

His next words dashed that thought. "Money's not a problem," he said. "I just want the best sword you can make."

"Well…" she hesitated. "Maybe if you give me an idea of what kind of quality you want, then we can get in business."

"Okay," he said as he slipped off his back scabbard and handed her a sword that made her yelp in surprise at its weight. Despite its skinny appearance, she could tell even before she appraised the weapon that it was a special sword indeed.

"An elucidator?!" she gasped. "This is the knarliest sword you can get from a monster drop! It's not even on any info broker lists!"

"Think you got something that can fit the bill?" he prompted.

"Hmm…" she said as she turned her back to him and grabbed a sword from the wall. The day was turning out a little more interesting than she had anticipated. When she presented him with rapier she had forged, she said, "Here. This is the best sword I ever made- it's my masterpiece."

"Huh…" he muttered as he swung it back and forth experimentally. "It's a little on the light side."

"Should be," Lisbeth said, allowing a note of pride to creep into her voice, despite her melancholy mood. "I used a speed-type metal to forge it."

"Mind if I test it?" he said as he placed his sword halfway off of the table while still holding Lisbeth's sword in his right hand.

As he raised it into a striking position, Lisbeth got what he was about to do, and tried to stop him. "Wait!" she cried, alarm in her eyes. "If you do that, it'll snap your sword in half!"

"Then then sword's as good as you say," the boy shrugged. "And if mine breaks, then that's too bad!" The last words were delivered simultaneously with a sword skill-driven swipe that brought the rapier down on the elucidator- and snapped the thinner sword in two on contact.

A scream was torn from Lisbeth's lips as the blade went sliding across the floor. She swiped the handle from the boy, who looked mildly surprised. Before she could even think about trying to repair it, the remainder of the sword shattered into blue-and-green polygons. She collapsed on the ground with a pitiful sound.

Then she clenched her fists and shot to her feet, rage in her eyes. "What the hell was that for?!" she shouted at the boy while she grabbed him by the collar.

"Sorry!" he said hurriedly. "I didn't think yours was gonna break so easy."

"Are you saying that my sword, my masterpiece was even lamer than you thought it was gonna be?!" she demanded.

"Something like that…" he admitted.

In response, she drew back her hand and tried to slap him across the face, only to be prevented by the system's anti-harassment protocols that were in effect in a safe zone. "Get out!" she snapped. "I've had rotten enough week already, and now this?! Just get out and don't come back."

He picked up his sword and put it on his back as he said, "This week hasn't been the best for me, either. I only came here because my friend said you were dependable."

"Yeah, well go have fun with your friend!" Lisbeth replied pithily. "I don't want your business here!"

"I can't," he said hollowly as he reached the door. "She died a week ago." The words froze Lisbeth's temper immediately.

Before she could stop herself, she asked, "Wait- what was your friend's name?"

He stopped at the door and said, "Asuna. She said you two were pretty tight, which is why I came here. I figured you could use a visitor- and getting a sword was also on my to-do list. But since I'm not welcome here…" He pushed the door open to leave.

"Wait!" Lisbeth said. He paused and looked a question at her. "Umm…" she hesitated. Then she came to a decision and said, "Close the door and lock it up. And turn that open sign so that it says 'closed."

"Huh?" he said, not understanding.

"We'll talk in the back room," she said as she moved to get the sign herself. "Now lock up so we can go in the back." Bewildered but compliant, the boy did as he was told, locking the door and following her into the back room.

"What's your name, by the way?" Lisbeth asked once they were in the back.

"I'm Kirito," he said as he offered his hand, which she shook readily enough.

"Well, Kirito, do you mind if I make us some tea while we talk?" she offered.

"That's be nice," he nodded. "Thanks, but if you don't mind my asking, why the sudden change in mood?"

"Asuna was my best- and pretty much my only- friend in this game," Lisbeth said quietly, just loud enough to be hard over the sound of the flames in the forge. "Somehow it seems disrespectful to her if I'm rude to her friends now."

"Oh," was all he could manage.

"And…" Lisbeth hesitated as she dropped the tea leaves in her kettle. She kept the equipment back there so that she could relieve the headaches that sometimes came with working long hours in the heat. "I know this is gonna sound kinda morbid, but… I was wondering if you could tell me what happened to her."

Kirito was silent for several moment as he shifted uncomfortably on the wooden box he was sitting on. But eventually, he said, "It was near the end of the raid… We'd pretty much subdued or killed everyone in Laughing Coffin, but two guys held out longer than anyone else. Red-Eyed Xaxa and Johnny Black, PoH two lieutenants.

"I fought Xaxa, and Asuna went to tangle with Black. While I was distracted, Johnny paralyzed her… By the time I had beaten down Xaxa, I was only just in time to see him kick her off the edge of the platform were on…" He shuddered and fell silent.

Lisbeth choked back her tears and said in a wavering voice, "What… Ah… What happened to Johhny Black?"

Kirito's gaze hardened as he stared down at his gloves said, "I stabbed him in the back and then kicked him off the edge. He was laughing the whole way down… He really was insane…"

Lisbeth knelt in front of Kirito and put her hands on his on impulse. "Thank you," she said, despite the tears leaking down her face.

"Huh?" he asked, looking confused. "What're you thanking me for?"

"For getting back at the bastard that killed my best friend," she said. Before anything else could be said, the teapot began to whistle, and Lisbeth moved to tend to it. Over her shoulder, she added, "Once we've had a drink, let's see about getting you a new sword."

"Huh?" the boy said in surprise. It seemed to be his favorite word, Lisbeth thought. "How are you gonna get me a new sword when I broke you best one?"

"I'm gonna ignore that last part," Lisbeth said as she wiped at her eyes. "As for the 'how' part, I'm gonna need your help to get ahold of a rare ore so that I can make a sword as good as your elucidator."

For the first time since he'd walked in the shop, Lisbeth noticed a spark of interest in his eyes. "I'm listening," he said.

"According to a rumor, there's a dragon on floor fifty-five, up in the ice mountain range," Lisbeth said as she poured the tea. "It supposedly guards an ore not found anywhere else in the game. Problem is, no one can seem to find it, but the info brokers seem to think that you need a master blacksmith to find the ore."

"So you want us to go up and find the ore together?" Kirito guessed.

Lisbeth nodded and handed him his cup before sitting on a crate adjacent from his own. "It only makes sense," she said. "I mean, most people would suggest going in a full-sized party, but if you're on the assault team, I think we'll be okay. Unless you want to bring in some other members from your guild?"

Kirito stopped just before he started to drink the tea. He lowered the cup slowly, that dead look back in his eyes. "I don't do guilds," he said dully. "I'm the only solo player on the front lines- a lot of people don't like me because of that, but I don't really care."

Lisbeth thought that there was more to that story, but she decided that the look in his eyes was not inviting her to ask questions. Instead, she said, "Well, if you're used to being solo, then this shouldn't be a big problem, I guess. I'm actually a decent mace-user, so I can provide you backup if you need it."

"Hmm…" he mused as he drank his tea. When he put the cup down, he said, "This is good, Lisbeth. Thanks."

"You're welcome," she said, a slight smile cracking her own bleak expression. "And uh, Kirito?"


"Call me Liz."

About an hour later, they were up in the mountains of floor fifty-five, where it was much colder than Lisbeth had anticipated. She shivered and sneezed at the frigid temperatures. "Cold…" she mumbled.

"Don't you have any snow gear?" Kirito asked as he opened up his menu.

"No," she sniffed. "I usually get my stuff from NPC's or other players that go on expeditions, ever since I opened shop. I don't get out in the field very much these days." Before she could add more, she felt something warm and soft land on her head.

Pulling it off, she was confused when she saw that she was holding a long black cloak. "Put that on," Kirito said as he resumed walking. "It's designed for colder weather."

"But don't you need it?" she asked even though she put it on.

"Nah, I've got enough discipline that it doesn't bother me," he said over his shoulder.

"Show-off," she muttered. Gathering the cloak around her, she said under her breath, "This is warm, though…"

Soon enough, they reached the area where the dragon was supposed to appear, a field of ice crystals that formed a beautiful display atop the mountain. Lisbeth was immediately enthralled by their beauty, dashing around from formation to formation, admiring the detail that went into each one. Kirito took a reserved approach as they wandered the field.

Eventually, he tugged sharply on her hood, forcing her to turn around. "Hey!" she snapped.

"Listen to me," he said, deadly serious. "I'm handling this next part on my own. Stay hidden under one of the crystal formations."

"No way!" Lisbeth protested. "I can fight, too!"

"I wasn't asking," he said firmly, a hard light in his obsidian eyes. "Get a teleport crystal ready and don't come out until the dragon's finished. If I die, warp out. Don't risk your life out here- it's not worth it." Something in his eyes told her again that it would be a very bad idea to disagree with him.

"Okay…" she mumbled as she pulled the blue crystal out of her inventory. No sooner than she had than did a roar emanate from an especially large cluster of crystals several hundred yards away. She squawked and hid herself as well as she could while Kirito turned to face the erupting dragon, with his sword already in hand.

The dragon that arose was silver-gray in color, its back and arms lined with countless spikes that looked similar to the crystals decorating the mountaintop. Red eyes blazed to life and looked hungrily at Kirito, who seemed unperturbed by the appearance of the ferocious beast. Its mouth glowed with a blue light as it breathed in deeply.

"Look out, breath attack!" Lisbeth shouted when Kirito didn't move.

He ignored her and the breath attack blasted right at him. He only moved at the last possible second, his sword lighting up blue with a skill that Lisbeth recognized as Sweep, a one-hit sword skill meant for attack multiple enemies at once. He slapped the breath attack aside as though it were no more than a moment's annoyance, sending a shockwave across the mountain that ripped off chunks from countless crystals. All the while, Kirito himself took no damage from the exchange of blows.

"Whoa…" Lisbeth gaped. He avoided taking damage without a shield… I didn't think that was even possible!

Now Kirito moved, charging straight at the ice dragon, leaping high in the air and unleashing multiple sword strikes before kicking the dragon in the jaws before they could snap around him and leaping away. When he leaped back at it, he used a sword skill called Vertical Square to deal severe damage. The last blow even severed one of the dragon's forelegs, causing it to roar angrily.

Lisbeth could hardly believe her eyes. Kirito's speed and reflexes were off the charts, and his strength must have been considerable to be dealing such decisive blows this early in a boss fight, even if it was just a field boss. Even as she was thinking this, the dragon tried to swipe at him with its remaining foreleg, but he nimbly leaped over the blow and used a sword skill to cut off the limb at the wrist.

"Come on!" she shouted as she stepped out impulsively. "Stop playing around and finish it already!"

"Dammit!" she heard him shout. "Don't come out yet!"

"Huh?" she wondered aloud before the dragon swung its head to look at her and let loose another roar. Suddenly realizing her brash mistake, she gulped, "Uh oh…" she turned to run just before the dragon unleashed a wing attack that sent a blizzard right at her.

She was thrown through the air, and when the snow cleared, she looked down and noticed that there was no ground beneath her- just a gaping, seemingly bottomless hole. She began to descend rapidly, letting out a loud scream as she realized she was probably going to die from fall damage. She shut her eyes against the end.

But then there motion and an impact- but different that the crushing impact she would have expected. Something- or rather someone- slammed into her from above, accompanied by a familiar voice. "Hang on to me, Liz!" Kirito shouted to be heard above the rushing wind. She felt his arms wrap around her tightly as he whirled them in midair so that he was underneath her even as she gripped onto him from reflex.

And together they fell down… down… down… BLAM!

Lisbeth came to slowly, opening her eyes, but for some reason all she saw was black at first. Confused, she raised her head and tried to clear the darkness, only to realize that it had been Kirito's black shirt and coat that she had been seeing. Even as she raised herself up slightly, she heard him groan as he too, began to wake up.

"Are we… alive?" he grunted.

"I think so," she said as she pushed herself off of the boy and sat back heavily. Kirito sat up slowly and pulled two items from his inventory.

He handed her a vial with red-colored liquid in it, a high-grade health potion. "Drink one of these, just in case," he said just before he downed his own drink.

Lisbeth noticed that while he was alive, his health was dangerously low in the red zone, though it was climbing its way back to the yellow as he drank the potion. Raising the glass to her lips, she sucked out the liquid before she said in a quiet voice, "Thanks, Kirito." What he had done would have killed most people, and she knew that he had willingly taken that risk for her sake, a girl he barely knew.

"Don't thank me yet," he said as he looked up at the mouth of the pit. "We still gotta find a way out of here." Looking up, Lisbeth estimated that the entrance was easily three hundred feet up, if not more.

"Well, there always teleport crystals," she said as she pulled out the blue crystal. "Teleport, Lindas!" Nothing happened, and she got a sinking feeling in her stomach. "Uh…"

"An anti-crystal zone," Kirito said grimly. "We can't get out the usual way, then."

"So we're trapped?" Lisbeth asked, close to a panic.

"Looks like," Kirito shrugged as he stood up.

"Aw…" Lisbeth groaned as she rose with him. "Would it kill you to at least try to cheer me up?"

"Well…" he said as he eyed the walls around them. "We could try running up the walls."

Lisbeth blinked once at the boy. "You're insane," she stated flatly.

"Maybe," he said as he backed up a few paces. "But that's all I got right now." Before she could stop him, Kirito shot forward with the same speed he had used while fighting the dragon and actually began making headway up the wall in a slightly circular pattern.

"Whoa, he's actually doing it," Lisbeth said aloud, wondering why she was even surprised at this point. Kirito had pulled off some pretty incredible things already, so maybe he actually-

The boy hit a slippery ice patch and lost his footing. He let out a strangled shout as he crashed back to the ground next to her, leaving a human-shaped hole in the ground. "Ow…" he grumbled as he climbed out. "I would've made it if I'd had a better running start," he muttered.

"Yeah, somehow I don't think so," Lisbeth said as she sat down in the snow.

Kirito decided that they should rest up and try to figure out how to get out of the trap in the morning. The area that they were in didn't seem to be a spawn point for mobs, and he reassured Lisbeth that he had spent many nights out in the wild like this. For dinner, he used some high-grade ingredients to make a stew. "I can't promise that it'll taste any good," he warned. "My cooking skill is next to non-existent."

Despite his claims, the meal actually came out pretty good, at least in Lisbeth's opinion. More importantly, the meal was hot, and it helped to ward off the chill of the night. Once they were both full, Kirito pulled out a pair of sleeping bags that he explained were designed specifically to warm up inside once you got in.

When she asked him why he carried two, he replied, "Sometimes I run into other people on the front lines. Just cos I'm a solo player doesn't mean I don't talk to other people."

"Sorry, I didn't mean it like that," she said, wincing at how he must have interpreted her words. Being on the front line as a solo player all the time must have been lonely.

"Don't worry about it," he sighed as he slid into his sleeping bag. "I know you didn't mean harm. I'm just used to being on the defensive all the time."

"Why is that?" Lisbeth asked. "Does it have to do with why you won't join a guild?"

He was quiet for a long moment, as if wrestling with whether or not to tell her something. Eventually, he relented and said, "Partly. Liz… Are you familiar with the beaters in this game?"

"I know the term, can't say I've ever met one," she said as she slid into the warm interior of the sleeping equipment.

"Yeah, you have," he said while he continued to stare up at the night sky through the entrance of the cave.

"Who-?"Her eyes grew wide as she bolted upright and looked at Kirito again, who maintained his blank look. "You?!"

"Yeah," he nodded slightly. "I was the first beater, actually. At first it was just a name that stuck with me wherever I went, but eventually…" He paused and took a deep breath. "You might say that it became a curse. Someone I used to call a friend walked away from me after slandering me with the name."

"Was he in a guild with you?" Lisbeth guessed, her curiosity fully aroused.

"Yeah," Kirito nodded slightly again. "I lost all of my friends because I was a beater…"

"That's horrible," Lisbeth said sadly. On impulse, she reached out across the snow and said, "Here- take my hand." He hesitated, but did as she requested. She grasped his hand firmly and said, "Sounds to me like that guy was jerk… I know you put yourself in the position of most danger to make sure that I survived when we fell… Nobody that's willing to do that should have to suffer being lonely like you."

"Keita wasn't a jerk, though," Kirito said sadly, pain reflected in his eyes from the firelight. "The worst part is that he was right."

"How?" Lisbeth pressed, but Kirito refused to answer. Seeing that he was done talking about that subject, she squeezed his hand and said, "Hey. Would you mind telling about your adventures on the front lines? I've never been on the frontier myself, so I kinda want to hear about what it's like up there."

Kirito eyed her warily, as if wondering if she was going to press him for more personal information about his past. But after another stretch of silence, he began to speak. He talked about the milestone bosses on floors twenty-five and fifty, the latter of which took two full days to beat. He spoke of his adventures in the field, working to map out entire floors as well as the dangers and wonders he encountered within the upper floors of Aincrad.

As she listened to him, her respect and admiration for him only grew. If even half of what he was saying was true- and she had the feeling that he was downplaying his role in things on the front lines- he was easily one of the greatest players in the game. But with every story he told, she also noticed the pain that was ever-present in his eyes sharpen whenever he mentioned his time with Asuna, both as a friend and fellow front-liner.

When he paused to think about what story to tell next, she finally spoke what had been on her mind for a little while now. "Hey, Kirito?" she asked. "Why do you think we were put in here? Was it just because Kayaba wanted us to stay in here, or do you think that there was another reason for it?"

The boy gave a tired shrug in response. "I haven't really ever thought about it," he admitted. "Most of my time is spent on trying to clear the game, and not much else."

"Huh," she mused. "I always thought that it was just for Kayaba's entertainment, but now…" She grinned at Kirito. "Maybe there is more to all of this than what Kayaba wanted. Mean, stuff like this would never happen in the real world, you know? Fighting a dragon, camping out under the stars with a virtual stranger, and hunting for rare treasure… It's all so cool when you think about it."

"Yeah…" Kirito's gaze became a thoughtful one as he said, "I guess that's a way of looking at it."

"I mean, even though in the real world, we're just a bunch of ones and zeroes right now, all of this is real, right?" she said as she looked directly at the boy beside her. "The memories we're making… This adventure… It's all real, right?"

"Yeah…" he said, cracking a slight smile. "You're right, Liz."

"Heh," she grinned a little brighter before she closed her eyes and fell deep into slumber before she could even ask Kirito if it was okay if she kept holding his hand.

The girl woke up when the sun was already well up in the sky to see Kirito digging through the snow quietly, a look of intense concentration on his face. As she rose up silently, her sleep-addled mind reflected on their conversation the previous night, which brought a surge of heat to her face that she felt the urge to slap away. Smacking both of her cheeks to wake herself up, she moved to stand behind Kirito with the words, "Hey there."

"Good morning," he said. His tone was lighter than it had been yesterday, but he kept his eyes on the ground as he kept digging through the snow.

"What're you up to?" she asked curiously.

"Here, check this out," he said as he finally turned around to hand her an object she had never seen before. It looked sort of like the crystals up above, only more opaque in color and sturdier-looking. She used her appraisal skill to examine it, and was surprised when it read, 'Crystalline Ingot'.

"Wait, so this is what we came for?" she asked with wide eyes as she held it up for further inspection.

"Looks like," Kirito replied as he stood up. Looking around at their icy prison, he said, "This place isn't a trap like we'd originally thought. It's the dragon's nest."

"Its nest?" Lisbeth repeated, confused.

"Yeah," the boy nodded as he looked back at her. "The dragon eats crystals up there, right? Well, it turns those crystals into that ingot in its stomach and then the waste product winds up here, which makes that stuff excrement." When she failed to understand him, he added, "You know? Poop?"

"Huh…?" she said, looking back and forth between him and the ingot a couple of times before it sunk in. "Gah!" she shrieked as she flung the item back at him.

"Well, looks like we got what we came here for," Kirito said as he deftly caught the item, apparently unperturbed by its origins. "But we still need a way out of here…"

"Hey, wait a sec," Lisbeth said as a thought occurred to her. "You said this was the dragon's nest, right?" When he nodded in affirmation, she asked, "Aren't dragons nocturnal…?" As if driven by the same instinct, they both looked upwards, just in time to see a dark shape that was rapidly growing in size and roaring angrily.

"Time to go!" Kirito shouted as he suddenly darted forward and scooped up Lisbeth with great speed to throw her over his shoulder. She barely had time to scream as he swiped his sword at the snow to create a cover as he ran at the wall at top speed. Lisbeth's voice caught in her throat as she realized Kirito was running up the wall again, this time with her as a passenger.

But there's no way he can make it while carrying me! She thought, even as his momentum began to lose its power to gravity. Then her world suddenly spun rapidly as Kirito backflipped off the wall to aim right at the dragon as he shouted, "Hold on! We're getting out of here!" She heard the sound of his sword striking something solid, followed by a deafening roar from the dragon.

Suddenly, they rocketing towards the exit at high speed, and Lisbeth let out an involuntary scream as she realized that they were taking ride out of the pit on the dragon's back. Kirito ignored her shout and concentrated on maintaining his grip on his sword while the dragon took them out of their prison and into the sky. A few seconds- or several hundred feet above the mountaintop later, the dragon flexed its back muscles and threw them off.

Lisbeth let out another scream that quickly died out as they began to fall back towards the earth. The cause was the sight of the rising sun, which illuminated the entire mountain range in a warm, golden light. The crystals down below seemed to glitter with delight at the touch of the golden rays, creating a beautiful display for as far as the eye could see.

Then she turned to see Kirito smiling at her even as they fell at high speed. Reaching out his hand, he raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. She smiled back without really knowing why and grasped his hand, which he gripped firmly. Suddenly, she felt that holding his hand was not enough to fit the moment, so she grabbed his hand with both of her own and pulled him closer so that she could put her arms around his body and laugh happily.

"Uh, Liz?" he shouted to be heard above the wind. "Can we use a teleport crystal and then hug once we're safe?!"

True to his word, once they had been teleported to Lindas, he grinned and returned the hug without a word. Lisbeth said in his ear in a quiet voice, "Thanks, Kirito."

"Huh?" he asked. "What for?"

"The adventure, the stories, saving my life, and just being there…" She pulled back and grinned brightly. "It feels like ages since I had a reason to smile, you know?"

"Yeah…" he nodded ruefully. "I do know what you mean."

They stood there in the morning light for a few minutes, simply looking at one another. Then the sound of the morning bells reminded them that the town would be getting up soon. "C'mon," Lisbeth said as she pulled on his hand to lead him back to the shop. "We still got a sword to make." And it was not lost on her that Kirito kept holding her hand the whole way.

"Okay," she said as she pulled the glowing ingot from the forge with a pair of tongs. "A one-handed sword, right?"

"Yup," Kirito nodded as he leaned against the wall with his arms folded. "Make it a good one."

"You got it," she said as she hefted her hammer into position. With a mighty swing, she began the methodical pounding process of turning the lump of metal into a weapon worthy of the Black Swordsman.

As she worked, thoughts flooded her mind. Everything that happened last night, she thought. All of it was real. The memories he shared with me… The thoughts I shared with him… All of it has to go into this sword. And once it's in his hand, I'll tell him how much that experience means to me.

About two hundred-odd strokes into the process, the ingot began to shine with a brilliant red light, signaling that it was ready. Lisbeth stopped swinging her hammer and set it off to the side as Kirito took a few steps closer to the anvil, unfolding his arms while he did. His eyes were wide with anticipation, and Lisbeth could understand why- such a sword had never been made before, after all.

Once the glowing and reshaping of the sword had stopped, an elegant, powerful light blue longsword lay on the table. Lisbeth appraised it and announced, "The 'Dark Repulsor'. It's the first of its kind." She picked it up and handed it to Kirito, who took the blade in his hand, weighing it for a second before he swung it and activated a sword skill to test it out.

When his face remained neutral, Lisbeth asked him, "Is it good?"

"It's real heavy," he grinned slightly. "It's a good sword."

"Great!" Lisbeth said happily, relieved that he was pleased with her work.

"Thanks, Liz," he said as he lowered the blade. "Mind throwing a scabbard in with the package?"

"Sure," she nodded as she went to fetch a scabbard that would fit the sword snuggly.

Kirito slid the blade in the sheath, but did not add it to his inventory. Instead he held out the blade for Lisbeth to take as he asked, "Can you do me one more favor?" he asked.

"Yeah, name it," she said.

"Can you give the sword a name?" he inquired. "I know the item name is fixed, but you can add your own personal name to it if you have a high enough crafting skill, right?"

"Yeah," Lisbeth nodded. "I've had people bring in their weapons just for me to do that. What name did you have in mind?"

"I want to call it Asuna's Light," he said with utter sincerity in his eyes. Lisbeth felt her breath catch as she looked over at him. Seeing the look, he said, "Her sword's name was the Lambent Light… I wanted this sword to remind me- to remind us- of her."

"Us?" she squeaked.

"Yeah," he nodded. "She was our friend. She kind of brought us together on our adventure last night. I wanted to make a memento of that."

"S-Sure," Lisbeth sniffled as she wiped at her eyes. Manipulating the sword's options for upgrades, she typed in the requested name and handed the sword back to Kirito. "That's really sweet of you," she said as she smiled at him slightly.

"Was it?" he replied as he put the sword away. "I just thought it seemed appropriate."

"Nah, it was more than that, it was… really cool," she shook her head. "You're pretty amazing, Kirito."

"Thanks…" he said sheepishly as he scratched his head.

"I was wondering something, though…" she said.

"What's that?"

"How come we through all that trouble to get that sword, and you didn't even equip it?" She wasn't insulted or angry with Kirito- she figured that there was a reason for why he didn't want to equip it. She just wanted to know why.

"Uh, well…" he looked around as if afraid of eavesdroppers before he lowered his voice and said. "Can you keep this one a secret? I haven't told anyone about this before, so I'd appreciate it if you keep it on DL."

"Of course," she nodded immediately. "What's up?"

In response, he made some adjustments on his menu, and suddenly, there was the Dark Repulsor on his back- right next to the elucidator?! She blinked to make sure she wasn't just seeing things, but it was true- he somehow had swords equipped simultaneously. Before she could say anything, he drew both of them with practiced speed and unleashed a quick combo that made the air around the blades ripple with power.

It was a sword skill, recognized by the very system of SAO that normally only allowed a single sword to be equipped on a person. But… "What?" she asked dumbly. It didn't make any sense!

"I picked up an extra skill a while back," he said as he put away the blue sword. "It's called dual-wielding. Reason I didn't show it to other people is cos I have no idea how I got it in the first place."

"Then why show me?" Lisbeth asked.

"Well…" Kirito said as he rubbed his neck again. "Because, I guess in a way, this is my way of saying thanks."

"Thanks for what?"

"Well, for a long time, I wondered if there was any point to everything we were all going through," he said as he looked her in the eye. "But then… we got stuck in that hole, and I was really happy. I got to save someone special, and I realized that all of it's real. So thank you for that, Liz."

"You're welcome," she said with a slight smile. "But the truth is, I've got a secret of my own. And since you showed me something that you've never shown anyone else before, I figure it's only fair that I tell you, too."

"Okay," he said as he waited for her to speak. "What is it?"

"Close your eyes first," she said as she felt her heartrate skyrocket. There was no taking back what she was about to do, but she decided that just like Kirito threw caution to the winds in combat, she could set aside her reservations to get this done. Once Kirito had closed his eyes obediently, Lisbeth took two steps forward and planted a kiss right on his cheek, then stepped back, face burning as she waited for his reaction.

Kirito's eyes shot open, wide as his face also reddened, though not as much as Lisbeth's. "Um…" he said. "Wow…"

"S-Sorry," she stammered. "I know we only j-just met and all, but there's something about you… I really like you a lot, Kirito." Her face stayed downcast, and she swore she could feel steam rising out of her head from how hot her face felt. "I just wanted you to know…"

"Well…" he stuttered nervously. "I mean…" He hesitated, and Lisbeth felt her spirits sink. Her gamble hadn't paid off.

"Well, I mean, I'm glad you told me," he said with a nervous grin. "Cos I like you a lot too, Liz. I mean, yeah we just met, but I think you learn a lot about a person when you go through a tough spot like that. At least, that's what I think…" He shrugged ruefully. "To be honest, I was kind of an introvert in the real world… Still am."

"Wait, so…" Lisbeth said as she looked back at Kirito's gentle gaze. "You don't think I'm weird or anything? For deciding something like that so fast?"

"I think that what's in our hearts is real," he answered simply. "Maybe the heart's not always right, but I also think that there are some things that just click, you know?"

"Yeah…" she smiled at him.

He smiled back at her, and there was new warmth in their gazes. Kirito held out his hand, which she grasped eagerly. "Come on," he said as he began to lead her out of the store. "Lock up so we can go eat. I'm starving. Dinner's on me!"

As the months went by, the two got to know each other better and better. Kirito made a point of stopping by the forge every day after he'd been out in the field to tell Lisbeth about his daily adventures. As time went on, he eventually went to tell her more about himself and why he'd ended up being the solo player that he was. He told her about his family life in the real world, the way that he'd taken on the title of SAO's first beater, and finally, the tragic tale of the Moonlit Black Cats.

When he finally disclosed that final, terrible secret, she had gathered the boy in her arms and rocked him gently while the tears fell from his eyes and splashed on her smock. She didn't say anything for a long time, because she knew that he needed to let out all the long, lonely months of grief as quickly and painlessly as possible. He cried for what felt like more than an hour before he finally stopped.

She went to ask him a question, but then she realized that he had passed out from the sheer mental exhaustion of the revelation of his grief. Smiling sadly at the poor boy, she put her high strength stat to use to carry him to an area in the back of the shop that served as her sleeping area. There was a small cabinet that she used for storing the few objects she kept for personal use and a twin-sized bed. She laid him on the bed as gently as she could without waking him up.

He muttered something in his sleep as she put him down and used his finger to manipulate his menu so that he could take off his coat, gloves, shoes, and sword. Normally this was considered a gross breach of privacy, but they had pretty much moved past that point by now, she thought. Once he was dressed more lightly, she pulled up a stool and gazed at his sleeping face.

Now that he was out like a light, she could see that looked a lot younger than she had originally thought him to be. While he was awake, hard lines were etched into his expression, a result of the burdens he carried, giving him an older, more wary appearance. She knew that the deaths of the Black Cats and Asuna weighed heavily on him, but it was almost shocking how different he looked while he was sleeping.

On instinct, she went to brush a stray strand of hair off of his face, but as soon as her hand made contact with his scalp, he shifted in his sleep and muttered, "Sachi… My fault…"

"No, it wasn't," she murmured softly, not knowing if he could really hear her right now. "You did everything you could."

"Beater…" he mumbled. "Don't belong…"

"Yes you do," she said as she bent over and kissed his brow. "You belong right here, Kirito. With someone who loves you."

"Do you?" he asked with sudden clarity.

Lisbeth gave out a small squawk of alarm and nearly feel out of her chair while heat rose in her face. "Wh-Wha-?! When did you wake up?!"

"When you kissed my head," he said as he opened his dark eyes and looked straight at her, though he remained unmoving. "But you didn't answer my question. Did you mean what you said?"

"I, uh…" she stammered, embarrassed that she had been caught with her feelings out in the open. Forcing her tongue to work, she said, "Um… Well, yeah… I, uh…" She gulped before she managed to squeak out, "I love you, Kirito."

He sat up without a word so that his eyes were level with hers. Once he was sure he had her undivided attention, he said simply, "Then, my life belongs to you, Liz. I'll be here to protect you until the end, when we go home together."

"K-Kirito…" she stammered.

"Liz… I love you too," he said sincerely. Then he opened his menu as he added, "I've never told anyone as much as I've told you… And you've been here this whole time. So…" He sent her a request that caused her jaw to drop. "Will you marry me?"

Her finger moved faster than her brain could process the question properly to hit the 'yes' button. A ring appeared on her left ring finger as it did on Kirito's, affirming the sacred pact. A notification appeared in her menu that alerted her to status of her storage being altered so that it was shared with Kirito's. Another notification allowed her to see Kirito's status at any time she wanted.

She looked at the boy with wide eyes, who simply gazed at her with sincerity and… love. Yes, that was it, she knew. She loved him, and he loved her, plain and simple.

With that knowledge, and their newfound status, a new thought sparked in her mind, one too alluring to ignore. "Um, Kirito?" she asked shyly. "Are you planning on staying the night?"

He cocked his head and replied, "Well… Yeah. I don't see why not."

"Umm… Okay then," she said as she sat on the bed. "Do you mind if… I… You know?"

"Huh?" he asked. Then understanding lit up in his eyes, and he scooted over to make as much room as he could on the small mattress. "Oh, sorry," he said. "I was taking up all the room here, huh?"

"Well, yeah, but that's not…" she blushed heavily, and he wondered at it. "What I meant is… You know…? Consummation and all that?"

He sat up very straight as he realized exactly what she was driving at, his eyes wide with shock. "Huh?!" he gasped. "Well, that's not what I- I mean… How…? Can you even do that in SAO?" He looked at her dumbly, completely taken aback.

She looked back at him blankly. "Y-You didn't know?" she stammered.

"No…" he shook his head.

Her first instinct was to start laughing, but then another instinct kicked in, and a wicked grin crawled across her face as she slid under the duvet with Kirito, who eyed her nervously. "Relax," she grinned. "I promise I won't bite… Actually, scratch that, I might."

"What're you- mph!" His question was cut off as Lisbeth sealed his lips with her own.

Neither of them woke up until late the next morning, when the town was already abuzz with activity. Lisbeth yawned and tried to stretch, but something was wrapped around her torso that prevented her from doing so. Confused at first, she looked over her shoulder, then smiled happily.

Kirito was still sleeping soundly, evidently exhausted from the previous night. She snuggled back under the covers with him, content to stay where she was. As she listened to his even, rhythmic breathing, she reflected that this fire between them, so hot and bright, had somehow started on the coldest of nights under the darkest of circumstances, yet somehow had grown to blaze with the strength of her forge.

Then again, she realized, the light is always brightest when the night is the darkest.

Mataras: Well, aren't you two cute together?

Kirito: Okay, got a couple of questions!

Mataras: Eh?

Kirito: One, I thought you disapproved of... steamier content. What's up with that last bit, then? And two, why'd you kill off Asuna?!

Mataras: Actually, I don't really consider that material to be inappropriate, really. I didn't go into details, and it was within an appropriate context. You two were married according to the laws of Aincrad, and I say if you've tied the knot, knock yourself out!

Kirito: Okay, and Asuna?

Mataras: I can't really see you with any other girl unless she's out of the picture. Also, the hurt that both of you suffered from her death helped bring you together in a way, so I thought it was good.

Kirito: Well, I guess we'll just have to wait and see what our readers have to say about this.

Mataras: Agreed. If you are new to my work, please be sure to check out my other works, as I have more than a half-dozen Sword Art Online stories already finished or well on their way. I update about once or twice a week when I can, but since I'm writing multiple stories simultaneously, this means that my updates are spread out.

Kirito: Special thanks once again to our friend, TriforceHero, for providing the inspiration for this story, and many other things besides.

Mataras: Until the next time, this is the Red Swordsman, Mataras, signing off. God bless you all.