A/N: This story focuses solely on the Aincrad arc. Due to the existence of OCs, certain events and backstories may deviate from canon.

The entire story has been rewritten as of 2/10/2020

And so it begins

"Players, I wish you the best of luck."

Everyone was far too shocked to feel any irritation towards (the self-proclaimed) Kayaba Akihiko's mockery. Eyes wide and mouths agape, we watched with stupefied expressions as the giant hooded avatar faded away. Each of us remained paralysed, petrified, frozen in place. Confusion was a powerful monster: its many slender hands gripped our tongues and held down our bodies so that we could do nothing but quietly stare at the empty spot where the red GM avatar had been.

(Silence is a fragile thing)

"No… NO!"

"Don't screw with me!"

"I want out! Fucking log me out already!"

Utter pandemonium.

Angry yelling, desperate begging. Demands, denials, equally futile. Crying, screaming, cursing, laughter (?) all mixed together. Bombardments of noises, explosions of voices. Many people kept screaming, others were wallowing in their grief, their misery, far too busy to be part of this discordant chorus of negativity.

My ears hurt. My head hurt.

"I can't stay here. I have other things to do soon!"

"Are you trying to kill us!?"

"Somebody, anybody, HELP ME!"

For now let's get out of here.

I struggled through the aggravated crowd, bumping into other people left and right in the process. At one point I tripped over some idiot's foot and hit the ground face-first. Cursing internally, I got back up and kept moving. Thankfully our ability to feel pain was dampened in the virtual world. When I finally made it out of the area I was gasping for air and thoroughly exhausted.

How do you open the main menu again? Was it the left hand or the right… ah, that worked. Is there a map function – found it.

Okay, so this place is called the Town of Beginnings. I'm the blinking blue dot, and the exit is all the way over there.

I glanced back at the raging mob which I emerged from.

Better get moving. There's not much I can do for them anyway.

Sword Art Online was supposed to be just another harmless means of entertainment (emphasis on 'harmless'). Instead, we all found ourselves trapped inside a death game. A clear-cut case of false advertising if there ever was one. This whole situation wasn't helped by the fact that I really had no idea how to play the game.

I have a [Bronze Sword], a [Fur Chestplate] and five [Health Potions]. Will that be enough? It doesn't seem like much. This 100 [Cor] is probably my money but how much is it actually worth? Should I spend it? Save it? Then there's this list of [Sword Skills]. I don't quite understand how they work. I can figure things as I go but I'll need an ally. Somebody who knows what they're doing. If I'm lucky someone might let an amateur like me join them.

I was too caught up in my thoughts to hear the footsteps behind me.

(Uncharacteristically, Fate decided to toss me a bone)

"Hello there."

What the!?

Startled, I spun around so quickly I lost my balance. Thankfully I didn't embarrass myself by falling onto my rear end. The voice belonged to a short, adolescent girl with curly auburn hair and brown eyes. Was she smirking at my surprised reaction or was it force of habit? Either way, her smile was the first one I saw ever since the death game begin.

"Chill, I ain't gon' bite! I come in peace, I swear," she spoke with a nasal inflection. "My name's Argo, what's yours?"

"I'm Ka – wait, we're using in-game names right? Then call me LOL."

"Nice to meet ya. So, you got any friends in the game or …"

"Nope. This is literally the first conversation I've had since logging in."

"I see. You're headin' for the town exit, aren't ya? You gonna to give this death game a shot?" I nodded in reply. "Well, I hope you ain't plannin' to do this all on your own."

"Of course not. That'd be suicide for a beginner like me." The cynic in me was half-expecting Argo to drop our conversation right there and then. If she was searching for allies, there were literally thousands of players who were more skilled than me.

"Seems like ya could use some help. If only there were a charmin' young lady nearby lookin' for allies! I bet she'd be happy to form a [party] with ya," Argo said with a playful wink. Her cheerfulness was most likely a façade but the girl's ability to put up a jolly front in such trying circumstances spoke volumes about her character.

"Yeah, that'd be nice. Unfortunately, charming young ladies don't normally appear out of thin air." Then again, nothing about our situation was normal. That must've been why I met her.

"Ya say that but there's one standin' right in front of you." Argo grinned as she shamelessly jabbed a thumb at herself.

"Really? I don't see her."

"Ouch. That hurts." Her half-hearted response made me smirk. "Jokes aside, what d'ya say to teamin' up? We'll beat this fucked up death game and get back to the real world!"

As nine thousand people despaired and struggled to accept their new grim reality, this teenager declared with a smile that she would achieve the impossible. It was a little premature to decide whether she was an overconfident idiot or if she had bigger balls than the rest of us combined.

"You don't think the people outside will rescue us?" I couldn't help but ask.

"Who knows?" she answered with a nonchalant shrug. "I wanna be optimistic but I'd rather prepare for the worst case scenario instead of twiddlin' my thumbs here. If we're saved, we're saved. If not, at least we'll have a head start."

That's a sensible approach.

"So, ya in or ya out?" Argo extended an open hand towards me. It was an invitation which I was all too happy to accept.

"Like I said, I'm a complete amateur so I won't be able to do much for now. If you're willing to put up with that, I promise I'll do my best to learn and help you," I said as I shook her hand.

"Deal! Don't worry 'bout bein' a beginner, I'll teach ya everythin' ya need to know. I happen to be a beta tester so I'm pret-ty familiar with how stuff works in this game."

"Brilliant. Should I start calling you Argo sensei? Or maybe senpai?" That got a chuckle out of her.

Moments later I followed Argo to a beautiful stone church with ornate glass windows. Judging by its size, the large building could easily house a lot of people. Behind the church was an impenetrable green wall of trees and shrubs. The vegetation created a sense of seclusion which made the holy structure seem a little more special. Argo had messaged her friends to meet up in this place.

So religion exists in SAO. Oh no, I hope we don't end up fighting some kind of evil god…

"On second thought, it's fine if ya wanna wait outside," Argo suddenly told me.

"Huh? What?"

"We may be partners but we were also complete strangers until just now. I won't hold it against you for feelin' uncomfortable 'bout followin' me into some random buildin'."

Ah. She must've mistaken my curiosity for apprehension.

"Nah, it's fine. As you said, we are partners; a little trust can't hurt." Argo flashed me her trademark grin and knocked loudly on the wooden door.

"There you are. I see you've brought a friend." A black-haired, bespectacled teenager who seemed to be a couple years away from adulthood answered the door. Short-sightedness didn't exist in SAO so his glasses were either for appearance's sake or functioned as some kind of stat-boosting item. Perhaps both. The young man wore a mask of calmness; if he had been feeling restless about the current state of affairs, he hid his emotions well.

"I found this stray cat and thought I'd keep it," Argo said as we entered. "Claws, this is LOL. L, meet Clausewitz."

Certainly an unusual name for a video game avatar but hey, to each their own.

"Hello. It's a shame that we're meeting under such dreadful circumstances," Claws greeted as we shook hands. His husky, low voice made him sound older than he appeared.

"Well, things can only get better the next time I see you. That's something to look forward to."

"Yes, I suppose you're right."

"Where's everyone else?" Argo questioned. The three of us were the only ones inside the spacious church.

"Diavel insisted on staying with his friends. Sasha's worried about some children she saw earlier, she's gone to look for them. Rhythm's with her." Claws raised a finger each time a new name was mentioned.

"I really hope Sasha ain't thinkin' 'bout bringin' those kids with us," Argo commented with a frown. "I don't know how well we can protect them, and I sure as hell don't wanna force them to fight. I hate to say this but everyone might be better off if the kiddos stay here."

The thought of a crying child torn apart by some monster made me sick to my stomach.

"I agree. However, Sasha's not one to abandon those in need – especially if the people in question are helpless children. I don't know her as well as you do but even I know that much."

"Yeah. She's too kind for her own good," Argo groaned. Claws adjusted his glasses before speaking again.

"I believe Sasha should remain here. That way, everyone wins."

"She only started playin' today. Do ya really think she can take care of herself and a bunch of kids all on her own?"

"I could help her."

Wait. He's not coming with us?

"You're stayin' as well?" Argo asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Perhaps I may be of more value in the Town of Beginnings. Sasha aside, I'd like to do something for the other players as well. Would you be fine with this arrangement?"

"… Alright, that's fine. I know ya can do good here. But be careful, some people might give into their despair and do stupid stuff."

"I'll keep that in mind.

Give me a moment, I'll message Rhythm and tell him to join you two – "

"Actually, tell Riffy to help Diavel with his newbie friends," Argo interrupted. "L and I can manage without him."

"Are you sure?" Claws eyed her hesitantly.

"Yup. Diavel's gonna have a rough time lookin' after six newbies day in day out. Havin' Riffy around will make life much easier for that guy."

Well, if Argo thinks that the two of us can handle things then I guess it'll be alright. Probably. Hopefully.

"That's very kind of you. Please let me know when you reach Horunka Village. Be careful out there."

"We'll be fine, I promise. Take care of Sasha." Argo and Claws shared a quick embrace. Both seemed reluctant to let go. The bespectacled young man turned to face me.

"I assure you that you are in very capable hands. Nevertheless, best of luck."

"Thanks. You too."

"Hey, Argo. Why did you reach out to me back then? Don't get me wrong, I'm extremely grateful that you did but you already had a bunch of friends so there was no need to rely on a total stranger like me, right?" I couldn't help but ask.

"Ya were all alone and I thought you could've used some help. Well, invitin' ya worked out pretty well for me so it was a win-win decision."

Argo gave me a quick rundown of the basic game mechanics as we walked. Upon reaching the city gates we found a lone girl standing before the boundaries of the [safe zone]. The brown-haired player wore a leather breastplate over a red tunic and a dress that went past her knees. A sheathed sword hung from the female's waist. Her hands gripped the sides of her dress tightly as she silently stared at the vast plains beyond the Town of Beginnings. The poor girl was clearly very afraid.

She's definitely not alright. I want to help her, but what if she asks to join us? Would Argo be fine with that? I don't want to offer that girl a glimpse hope just to reject –

Argo nudged me in the side.

"Ya thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" she whispered.

"I won't know until you tell me," I whispered back.

"Let's go talk with that girl. If she wants to join us, we'll bring her along. Ya cool with that?"

I couldn't help but grin. "Actually, I was hoping you'd say something like that."

Argo casually strolled up to the frightened girl. "Yo! Hesitatin' to step outside? I don't blame ya, it's a sca~ry place."

"It's not like we have a choice. We can't leave until we beat this game," the girl answered sombrely. She looked like she was on the verge of an emotional breakdown.

"You're obviously scared so why force yourself to fight? We'll probably get rescued by the government or somebody soon enough," I asked in attempt to play devil's advocate (Argo is devious, and I was technically her advocate).

"What if help never comes? You saw how all those people acted earlier. There's no telling what they'll do if they become even more desperate. I don't want to be here when that happens." The girl's voice rose slightly as she spoke. "I tried convincing my friends to leave with me but they wouldn't listen."

Forced to choose between monsters outside the walls and a volatile mob on the inside. Truly a fine example of being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"Yeah, that makes sense. If you're so determined to leave this place, do ya wanna come with us?" Once more, Argo extended a helping hand to someone who sorely needed it.

"… Do you really mean that?" A ray of hope shone before her, yet the girl was cautious of basking in that warm light.

"Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye!" There it was, that unique smirk of Argo's which was at times annoying, at times comforting.

"Thank you. Thank you so much!" The girl went teary-eyed from joy. The emotional whiplash she experienced must've been exhausting.

"What's your name? I'm Argo. You can ignore this guy, he's irrelevant." The shorter girl shot me a teasing look.

"Hush, midget.

"Midget!? You so ugly, countries use yer face as nuclear deterrent! And it actually works!"

"You know what? We'll continue this later," I declared before facing our newest teammate. "Name. Yours. Gimme."

"It's Lisbeth. I'll be in your care from now on."

The lush grassland stretched out endlessly. If we weren't in a death game, I would've lay down in the shin-high grass and watch the clouds pass by.

"Okay, so fightin' in SAO is all 'bout usin' Sword Skills. These are special system-assisted attacks that do way more damage than just hitting stuff with your weapon normally," Argo explained. Liz had some combat experience since she started playing the game a couple hours ago, but I only logged into SAO moments before the forced teleportations happened so I desperately needed a tutorial.

"See that monster over there?" My mentor pointed at one of the many [Frenzy Boars] roaming around the area. The porcine monster had bluish fur, glowing red eyes and a pair of sharp tusks. As a [passive monster] it wouldn't attack us until provoked. "Unless you go for its weak spot, it'll take two or three hits to kill it. However, even the weakest Sword Skill will insta-kill that thing."

"I didn't realise that the monsters have weak spots," Liz commented.

"Now ya know. Sometimes the weaknesses are obvious, like a shinin' red orb that screams 'hit me', other times it takes a bit of luck and guesswork," Argo answered. She unsheathed the dagger strapped to her waist and expertly twirled it with her fingers. "Now where was I? Right, sword skills. I could spend the next few minutes talkin' your ears off, but – "

Liz and I flinched when she tossed her dagger into the air. "It'll be easier to just show ya."

Argo caught the descending weapon by its handle and sprinted towards the nearest Frenzy Boar. Once she got within striking distance, she drew her arm back –

What the hell!?

Her blade was suddenly coated in a brilliant blue light! Argo cleaved through the monster with inhuman speed. It let out an agonising screech before shattering into tiny fragments.

Holy shit. So this is SAO …

"And that," Argo said with a bow, "is what a Sword Skill looks like. Now it's yer turn L. Don't worry, we'll guide ya through the motions. Liz, help me out."

Activating Sword Skills was fairly straightforward: one simply had to assume the appropriate stance for the desired skill – this was known as the [Pre-Motion] – and the system would automatically take over and execute the attack. All players started off with the skills [Horizontal] and [Vertical]. As the names implied, these attacks involved a singular sideways and downwards slash respectively.

"To activate [Vertical], all you have to do is hold your sword up like you're letting it rest on your shoulder – stop stop stop! Don't go into the Pre-Motion while I'm still standing in front of you!" Liz yelped panickily.

"Oh! Sorry about that," I apologised. She hastily moved to the side.

"It's fine, no harm done. Okay, now give it a try."

There was a slight hum, as if the sword was singing. The dull blade shone a mesmerising blue.

Then the space before me was torn asunder.

My body froze for a split second, but I regained control as quickly as I'd lost it.

"How was it?" Liz asked me.

As if the expression on my face wasn't a loud enough answer.

"I like it. I like it a lot." For a brief moment, the euphoria from that power high pushed all thoughts of the death game out of my head.

"Glad to see you're enjoyin' it. Now, what I'm about to say is really important so listen closely. L, ya couldn't move for a moment after usin' [Vertical] just now right?" Seeing me nod, Argo continued. "That's what we call the [Post-Motion] penalty. The specific length depends on the sword skill, but it basically means that you can't mindlessly spam yer attacks; ya gotta be smart 'bout it."

"Alright, I understand."

"Good, good. Ya know, some people say that SAO doesn't really start until you get your first kill. Go ahead, it's time for your induction."

A rite of passage huh? Sounds cool.

I drove my sword into a Frenzy Boar, obliterating it with a single strike. Interestingly, the sensation of hacking through the creature felt like a mix between cutting a thick slab of jelly with a knife, and dragging a stick through somewhat viscous liquid. For a creature made of flesh and bones, its body offered less resistance than I expected. Thankfully Kayaba Akihiko didn't deem it necessary to make this aspect of the game realistic.

Getting to the next safe zone wasn't too difficult: we simply had to stick to the dirt path leading into Horunka Village. Oh, and we also had to fend off any monsters we ran into. How could I forget that tiny detail?

Liz jumped to the side, barely avoiding the stinger of a [Gigant Wasp] that dove at her. Argo slashed its wings, causing the oversized bug to crash onto the ground. It squirmed pathetically as I brought my blade down on it.

I think I'm starting to get the hang of this.

"Well done! That makes seven. You two holdin' up fine?" My response to Argo was a thumbs up and a wide grin. Things were going smoothly thanks to her. The shorter girl was knowledgable about the monsters' weaknesses and had the skill to exploit them. Argo was fully capable of dispatching the enemies we encountered on her own, yet she held back so that Liz and I could get some practice. Really, I couldn't have asked for a better mentor and teammate.

"I'm alright, thanks. At least all this fighting isn't as bad as I thought it'd be," Liz answered. She clearly gained confidence from our successful skirmishes; it reflected in her posture.

"Nice, nice. Hey, why don't ya try fightin' the next mob we come across without my help? It'll be good practice. Don't worry, I'll step in if necessary," Argo suggested. Liz and I looked at each other.

"I'm fine with that if you are," I told her.

"Sure, let's do it."

It was barely a minute before a [Kobold Scout] spawned before us. The pointy-eared humanoid had distinctly canine features and wielded a rusty scimitar. With a "good luck" Argo withdrew a couple paces as Liz and I prepared to engage.

Here it comes!

I met the snarling creature's rush head-on, barely catching its blade with my own. The monster disengaged and slashed at my torso –


Failing to react, the kobold's second strike left a nasty cut on my stomach. Liz circled behind the Kobold Scout and smashed her glowing blade into its side, swatting the monster away from me with a well-timed hit. The downed creature appeared dazed for a moment but recovered to its feet with a roar.

Of course, I was too inexperienced to realise that I missed the chance to follow up Liz's attack.

"I'm going in."

"Gotcha. I'll be ready."

The brown-haired novice who was afraid of leaving the safe zone now took the lead. With a cry she slammed her shining sword into the monster's dull blade, the powerful impact causing the creature to stumble backwards. Seeing its guard broken I leapt forward. The Kobold Scout reacted but I was faster; it shrieked in agony as my blade tore through its skull, its neck, its body. With a loud crack! our adversary shattered into miniscule fragments.

Liz and I exchanged triumphant high-fives while a grinning Argo applauded. Though the road ahead was long, perilous and full of hardships, it was encouraging to have a good start.

After a couple more painless skirmishes we arrived at Horunka Village. The decently-sized settlement had two inns, a weapon shop and a general store but none of the other buildings looked important. Thus, we were a little curious when Argo led us to one of the village houses. She kicked the door open and barged in as if she owned the place. Inside was a white-haired old lady who didn't seem bothered by the sudden appearance of three armed intruders in her home. There was a floating question mark over the elderly NPC's head: this indicated that we could initiate a [Quest] by speaking with her. Like countless other RPGs, completing these quests yielded us rewards in the form of Exp points, items and, occasionally, information.

Long story short, the old woman's granddaughter was seriously ill. A rare [Healing Ovule], infrequently found within a certain type of plant in the forest west of Horunka, would cure the child of her sickness. However, the plant in question was actually a species of man-eating monsters known as the [Little Nepenthes], and defeating them was necessary to extract the ovule that we needed.

As expected of a hack-and-slash RPG, even the flora could kill us ten different ways.

The old lady was explaining her predicament when the sounds of violent coughing came from the room next door. She tensed visibly. Her jaw tightened, her lips thinned into a line. A flicker of vulnerability showed in her weary eyes. I reminded myself that the elderly villager was no real person. Her defeated expression was just an imitation of human emotion; nothing more, nothing less. The NPC's uncanny realism made me strangely uneasy. I sucked in a deep breath and turned my mind to other matters. Argo began briefing us on the quest; her words were a welcome distraction.

"… Anyways, there are two types of Little Nepenthes. The ones with a flower bloomin' on their heads are the ones we need to kill. Each flower-bearin' Nepenthes has a low chance of droppin' the quest item so get ready to kill lots and lots and lots of 'em. Then there are those with a big round fruit on top of 'em. Do NOT even think 'bout fightin' those because they are friggin' traps. Well, it's a good thin' that they're pretty rare."

For a plant, those things sure packed a mean punch.

The Little Nepenthes was essentially a pitcher plant with limbs. It had multiple thick, mobile roots for legs and two arm-like vines protruding from its sides. A sharp leaf the size of a shovel head was at the end of each vine. At the centre of its bloated body was a mouth that stretched across the length of its bulbous body. These ugly creatures were as large as a pony and could also spit acid.

Grunting, I parried the blade-like leaf with my sword. Argo slipped behind the (not so) Little Nepenthes and chopped off its vines, literally disarming it. Lisbeth rushed forward to deal the finishing blow –

"Agh!" The Nepenthes' acid hit her square on the chest, knocking her to the ground. I killed the creature by plunging my sword into its body.

"Sorry, I got careless. I thought I was quick enough," Liz apologised as Argo helped her up.

"Happens to the best of us. You two alright? Not too tired?"

"I'm almost out of potions. Also my sword's durability is getting low," I answered. We had actually completed the old lady's quest by that point but decided to stay and grind some more.

"Same. And my armour's only good for a couple more hits," Liz added.

"Then let's start headin' back, we've done more than enough for today. Good job guys!" Argo told us cheerfully. Although the sun had already set, visibility wasn't an issue since most of Aincrad's floors were designed in such a way that some form of light source was readily available at night.

Hmm? Suddenly there's this strong fruity scent …

"What's that smell – "

"Ssh! Be quiet. Stay still." The urgency in Argo's voice was unmistakable. Liz and I froze in place despite the lack of explanation.

What's going on!?

We heard the crunching of twigs and dry leaves. Something was moving through the forest.

Many somethings were moving through the forest.

Part of me didn't dare to look. Fearfully, I followed Argo's gaze and turned my head to find an enormous swarm of Nepenthes crawling in unison towards the same direction. The ravenous man-eaters moved with surprising speed; the smell of fruit must've invigorated them. I tried counting the cluster of plant monsters but gave up at sixteen. Whatever the actual number was, it was enough to make anyone lose the will to fight.

With a finger to her lips, Argo eyed the monster horde warily. Liz clamped a hand over her mouth. The blind creatures were sensitive to smell, sound and motion. Sudden movements risked alerting them to our presence; our best option was to wait it out and hope for the best. It was a stroke of luck that we weren't directly on the monsters' path.

A bead of sweat slid down my face. The grip on my blade tightened.

(What good would my rusty sword do?)

Would the Nepenthes suddenly turn our way and rush us?

What if some random monster spawn behind us and blow our cover?

We didn't dare make a sound, make a move. When the last Nepenthes was finally out of sight, the three of us collectively exhaled in relief.

"Was that – "

"Yup. Someone must've attacked a fruit-bearin' Nepenthes," Argo answered me gravely.

And that someone was likely no longer with us.

"Let's go. It's dangerous here," Argo said as she beckoned us to follow.

Was there something we could've done?

Admittedly it was arrogant for a dependent beginner like me to think of saving others. Yet, not intervening as a pack of monsters moved to kill a fellow human just felt plain wrong.

"… Not doin' anythin' was the right decision. We can't save everybody. Yeah, we were lucky to have gotten outta that alive." Those words belonged to the kind, compassionate girl who happily aided two strangers. Were they directed at us, or at herself?

"Maybe whoever set off that trap managed to escape," Liz suggested.

"Maybe. I hope so." Argo didn't sound convinced.

We returned to Horunka safely. The 'thankful' old woman showered us with praise and rewarded us handsomely: the [Anneal Blade] I received was a significant upgrade over my starting weapon. Argo mentioned that this new weapon could last us all the way until Floor 3, though this meant that my Bronze Sword was no longer needed.

Going once, going twice… sold to the bald NPC merchant for 15 Cor!

Walking out of the weapon store with a little more cash in my pockets, I locked eyes with Liz who happened to be sitting on a nearby bench. She scooted over to make space for me.

"How're you holding up? It's been a crazy day," I asked her.

"I'm fine, thanks. I think I'm getting used to the idea of living in this world. What about you? Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm good. When the death game started I didn't know a single person in SAO but now I've got two friends with me. I'm already in a better place than most people."

"Glad to hear that. Originally I was in a party with three other players but they all decided to wait things out in the Town of Beginnings so we split up."

"Do you resent them for not coming with you? Well, resent might be too strong a word. You know what I mean."

"They did what they thought was best for them. I won't hold a grudge over a difference in opinion."

"Were they people you knew back in the real world or … "

"No, I only met them today. I wish them the best but their well-being isn't my business anymore."

"I see." I leaned back and gazed at the marvellous star-filled sky. Once, I'd longed to share the grandeur of a moonlit Aincrad with my loved ones.

"How did you meet Argo?" Liz asked.

"It was a coincidence. She found me after the death game started and invited me to join her, pretty much the same way she invited you."

"Speak of the devil and she shall appear!" All of a sudden the girl in question was behind us talking loudly into our ears. Her mischievous little ambush made Liz and I jump.

"Goddamn – can you not pop out of nowhere like a frigging jack-in-the-box!?" I protested exasperatedly.

"But your surprised reactions are so fun ~ " Argo said a victorious smirk. The impish girl was clearly a fan of such antics. "What're ya two doin' here? Ya flirtin'?"

"No." "Yup."

The brown-haired girl stared at me with a raised brow.

"C'mon Liz, work with me here."

"I can't lie to Argo. She saved my life." Hearing this, the shorter girl affectionately hugged her from behind.

"I was part of that too you know. Doesn't that merit a lie for me?" I asked jokingly.

"Hey, I've got somethin' for ya two. Consider it a gift," Argo told us as she produced two booklets titled [SAO Strategy Guide] from her inventory. The words 'by Argo' could be seen on the bottom corner of the cover pages. "This should cover all of the game's basics. Give it a good long read."

"This is great! The descriptions are clear and concise, and there are even diagrams showing how to use Sword Skills correctly! Did you make all of this by yourself?" I asked Argo excitedly. The more I interacted with the girl, the more my opinion of her went up.

"It was a two-man job. I'm quite happy with how it turned out."

"Yeah, you should be! This is impressive," Liz remarked. "Thanks Argo, this'll be really useful."

"Ahaha, praise me more ~ "

There are thousands of people in this game and I have the insane luck of running into Argo. I must've done something really good in my past life because I should not be this lucky.

"I'm blessed to have met you two. I wasn't sure if I'd even make it past today; now I can go to sleep confident about my chances tomorrow," Liz spoke with a sincere smile. "Seriously, thank you so much."

"Happy to be of service," Argo said with a grin.

"It's been a long day, I'm going to turn in." Liz stood up and stretched. "Good night! It'd be amazing if we're back in the real world when we wake up."

"Good night, sleep tight! Hope the bed bugs don't bite ~" Argo sang cheerfully.

"But if they do then take your shoe and beat them till they're black and blue!" I added.

While being rescued was a 'possibility', that particular outcome was far too unlikely to be anything but wishful thinking. Then again, what was the harm in dreaming a little while lying in bed and drifting off to sleep?

Omake: Argo's strategy guide

Sakamoto Shuichi was in a good mood. His tutoring session went exceedingly well; rarely did his tutees – a pair of elementary school students – display such commendable focus during their lessons. This was not to imply that they were particularly lazy or inattentive individuals but eleven year olds typically displayed limited patience when it came to studying.

Now that he finally had some free time, Shuichi was keen to engross himself in the new book he received for his birthday. Upon returning home he practically bolted to his room, removed Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings from his shelf, sat on the side of his bed and opened the renowned treatise –

A hand grasped his ankle. The young man sprang up screaming, accidentally dropping his book in the process.

"What the fuck!?"

His answer came in the form of annoyingly familiar laughter.

"For fuck's sake Tomo! Was that necessary!?" Shuichi yelled exasperatedly as he bent to pick his book. Fortunately none of the pages were creased. His childhood friend cackled underneath his bed. "How did you even get in here? Nobody was in the house."

"Your mom let me in. I got here just as she was about to leave – I think that was about half an hour ago? It was pretty good timin'."

"Were you down there the whole time?" Shuichi asked in disbelief. As far as he remembered, Hosaka Tomo always been a prankster. He would've admired the lengths she went for her mischief if he weren't so often the target of her pranks.

"Yup! Would've been a borin' wait if I didn't have my phone. Ya know, in anime male characters typically hide their stash under their beds. Too bad you've got nothin' down here," Tomo said as she crawled out from underneath the bed and dusted herself. "Oh hey! That's the book I got ya for your birthday."

"You're lucky I cleaned under there yesterday. Can I get you a drink?"

"Oolong tea please, thanks!" When Shuichi returned to his room with the requested drink, as well as a bottle of soda for himself and a packet of crisps, he noticed that Tomo had placed a stack of papers on his desk.

"Aren't these the notes you made during the beta test?" Shuichi asked as he examined the pieces of paper.

"Yup. It's a waste to just leave all of this lyin' around so why don't we do somethin' useful with them? I was thinkin', we could make some kind of in-game strategy guide usin' the information I gathered. Since there's no official SAO tutorial, I'm sure new players like Sasha would appreciate havin' a guidebook to teach them the basics," Tomo suggested.

"It's not a bad idea. With that said, how many copies of this strategy guide are you planning to produce? It'll take a lot of time to make multiple copies, especially because these guidebooks will have to be done by hand."

"Actually, major cities like the Town of Beginnin's have [publishin' houses] so all we really need to do is create one copy ourselves and then pay the NPCs to mass-produce for us. And it's dirt cheap. Hurray for bulk-buyin'."

"Oh. That's interesting, I wasn't aware of that. Then there's no problem. Let's start by figuring out the contents of this strategy guide."

On the official launch day of SAO Tomo and Shuichi logged into the game together. Unlike everyone else who rushed out of the Town of Beginnings to slay monsters and search for quests, the two locked themselves in an inn room to work on their strategy guide.

"Dude, what was your in-game name again?" Tomo questioned her friend. With crisp, skilful strokes she drew a miniature figure wielding a spear. Underneath the figure were the words '[Sonic Jab] pre-motion'.

"Did you forget? What happened to that excellent memory you were so proud of?"

"No, no, I do remember it. Heck, I can even spell it out in English if ya want. I just don't know how to pronounce it."

"It's 'Clausewitz'."

"Ugh, that's such a mouthful. Imma just call ya 'Claws' instead."

"That's not even the right pronunciation – fine, whatever."

"Couldn't ya have chosen somethin' more simple like my name? Ain't nobody's gonna mispronounce 'Argo'."

"Individuality is important."

"If ya say so. There, I'm done with the illustrations. Go ahead and double-check everythin'," Argo said as she handed him the original copy of the strategy guide. "Once you're done we'll take that to the publishin' house and then we can finally start killin' stuff."

Initially the duo planned to produce only a few copies of the guidebooks to share among their friends. However, after the death game began, they recognised that the information they compiled could save lives. And so they resolved to produce and distribute as many copies of the strategy guide as feasible, an endeavour greatly aided by low printing costs and the existence of equally inexpensive NPC courier services.

Their hard work ended up helping many people, even if those players did not always appreciate their efforts. Or their existence.

A/N: Thanks for reading and I hope you had fun.

This story is basically an excuse to give the SAO supporting cast more screen time. With that said, I don't intend to neglect Kirito and Asuna at all.

Shipping is fun but for now I'm more interested in exploring platonic relationships. I'll consider inserting romantic elements later on, though I'd like to get to know my characters a little better first.

On a side note, this isn't a self-insert fic. At least I'm not trying to write one.

Have a good day! Or whatever's left of it