A/N: Okay, this is something a little different than I usually do, not a one-shot, not a short story! Also not a full-length story, which is my forte. No, it's somewhat of an in-between chapter. If you are familiar with my Red Swordsman stories, then you'll know what I mean when I say that this takes place after Mataras' sacrifice, but before his reawakening.
If you have not read the Red Swordsman: Toa of Aincrad or the Slayer of Aincrad, then this story is not for you. If you have, however, well... Thank Northern Warrior for having me come up with this little piece. (Or curse him, I don't know how many people will actually like this).
Now then: Geronimoooooo!
In Between the Seconds
Mataras was dead. Kayaba's sword had depleted the last of his health points and caused him to dissolve into a cloud of shattered fragments that drifted apart and scattered into nothingness. He knew that meant he had roughly ten seconds before his brain would boiled by microwaves from the Nervegear resting atop his real-life body.
It was all over. All around him was darkness, and his final battle was over.
The ending I've wanted, for all this time… he thought with slight smile. I'm finally going home…
Then a strange, whirring, groaning, wheezing sound echoed in his mind, and his eyes snapped open. Out of the darkness, he saw something approaching at a high speed. It looked like a…
"Okay, that can't be right," the Red Swordsman muttered. "When I died, I never imagined that my chariot to heaven would be a floating blue police box." But indeed, if his eyes were not deceiving him, there was a big blue police telephone box hurtling right towards him, spinning and weaving erratically.
As it drew closer, Mataras wondered if he should try to avoid it, but then he shrugged and said, "I'm dead anyways. What could this hurt?" So he waited for the box to either slam into him or pass him by.
However, neither of those things happened. To his shock, one the doors on the box opened up just as it was about to hit him, throwing him inside of… a very large, very sci-fi looking room. He landed on his back, so he was looking up at a silver roof illuminated by a majority of bluish lights, but others of many colors as well. There were round disk structures on the walls that glowed orange, though they didn't really seem to be for illumination.
The room itself was octagonal, Mataras noticed as he stood up off of a cold metal floor. Turning around, he saw that there was some kind of control array set up around a column with all kinds of strange runes engraved near the top, where there were three clicking rings that spun around one another.
"What. The hell. Is this?" He managed to say.
"It's called the TARDIS," a man's voice said from behind the column, causing Mataras to whip out his sword and point at the owner, a tall man with a broad chin and bright, fun-filled eyes. He was dressed rather smart in blazer and a bow tie, all topped off by a fez. "I know what you're probably thinking," he continued, not seeming to be bothered by the fact that the teenaged warrior had a sword pointed at him. "My brain's gone and I'm seeing a man in a fez because of those bothersome microwaves', right?" He grinned even brighter and spun around the console with a twirl as he exclaimed, "Well good news for you, because the Doctor is in!"
Mataras blinked once without moving his sword before he asked, "Doctor of what?"
The man opened and closed his mouth a few times before he seemed to sink with disappointment as he answered, "Just… Just the Doctor."
"What?" Mataras snapped, his patience already nearly gone.
"Well, people usually ask, 'Doctor Who?" the strange man said as he reached into his jacket pocket.
"Because it's cool," the Doctor said with a grin as he smoothed out his blue bow tie with his left hand while he pulled out a long metal device with his right. "Like my bow tie. Bow ties are cool."
"I can't believe I killed Kayaba for this," Mataras rolled his eyes. He whipped the sword to point it directly at the Doctor when he began to point his metal device at him. "I'll drop you faster than you can use that, I promise," the Red Swordsman growled.
"Doctor!" a young woman's voice called down from a hallway that was at the top of a staircase. "Think a bit of explaining is order, don't you think?" The accents were both British, Mataras noticed, which was unusual. In all of his time in Aincrad, not one of the NPC's or people had ever spoken with an accent.
I suppose I'm not in Sword Art Online anymore, he thought grimly.
His thoughts were interrupted as a young woman that looked to be in her early twenties came out of the hallway, dressed in a black sweatshirt and a red skirt with black leggings and shoes. She was smiling disarmingly at him, at least up until she saw the sword, whereupon she froze in place. "Doctor," she said through gritted teeth. "That boy has a sword."
"And I know very well how to use it," he growled.
"Please, it's hardly surprising, considering where he's been for the last two years," the Doctor chuckled. "Also, no need to worry Clara, weapons don't work in the TARDIS. That sword of his is no more harmful than a butter knife."
Mataras' smoldering gaze grew darker as he whipped his sword up and over to slice clean through a rail that was next to the door, sending a small shower of sparks in every direction. The Doctor recoiled and Clara let out a small yelp of surprise. "I've killed someone with a butter knife," Mataras snapped. "And you are not the most convincing of liars, 'Doctor'. So let me ask one more time- who are you, and why am I in this thing instead of dead?"
"I told you, I'm the Doctor!" the man protested as he held up his hands to indicate that he meant no harm. "And I just saved your life, so please…! Stop it with the… sword!" He pointed a lanky finger at Guilty Thorn, which was resting at Mataras' side, still in his hand.
"I want a name," Mataras snapped. "Not a title."
"No, really, that is his name," Clara said, still eyeing Mataras warily. "The Doctor."
"Doctor of what?" Mataras growled again.
"Just the Doctor!" Clara insisted.
"Clara, I think that there's something wrong with him, he keeps asking that instead of 'Doctor Who'!" the Doctor said as he eyed Mataras carefully. "Not to mention, he hasn't talked about how the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than on the outside!"
"I just got out of Sword Art Online," Mataras shot back. "I've seen a number of things in my day, so a magic room that doesn't fit in its box like it's supposed really isn't on top of my list right now."
"Why did we want to save him again?" Clara asked.
"Because that's what I do, I save people!" the Doctor said in reply.
"Wait, you came here to save me?" Mataras asked with narrowed eyes, suspicious. "Why me?"
"Because you're special," the Doctor said as he pointed his wand at Mataras again. Before the Red Swordsman could do anything violent, though, the Doctor said, "This is not a weapon, it's just going to scan your biometrics, okay? Okay." Without waiting for an answer from Mataras, the end of his stick lit up green and made a loud buzzing sound that changed in frequency as the Doctor wove it from side to side, up and down, until his scan was done. He flicked a hidden switch on it and four prongs shot up as he stared at it for a moment.
The whole while, Mataras waited, tense as a cornered wolf, eyes flicking between the Doctor and Clara, waiting for one of them to make a wrong move. Once the Doctor had finished reading his device, he pocketed it and clasped his hands together in a dramatic fashion. "Well, like I said, it's your lucky day," he smiled. "Managed to get you shielded just in the nick of time! Another score for the Doctor!"
"Shield me?" Mataras asked. "What did you do?!"
"Ah, yes, explanations!" the Doctor grinned as he moved to throw a few switches on the controls of his machine. "Well, I had just been having a lovely round of drinks with young Clara here up on the moon when the TARDIS alerted me to a certain space-time anomaly. She's very good at that, you know."
"Clara?" Mataras asked.
"No, the TARDIS!" the Doctor frowned at the boy. "Don't you listen to him, he doesn't know what he's talking about," he added as if to console the machine.
"I'm stuck in a box with a madman," Mataras said flatly.
"Story of my life," Clara chuckled.
"Anywho!" the Doctor said as he spun around to throw more switches and hit more buttons. "The TARDIS showed me this fascinating- yet nasty- game called Sword Art Online. Bloke that made it has no idea that he nearly ripped Tokyo in half when he made it. Honestly, placing people's minds and souls in a virtual reality while keeping their bodies trapped in their home dimension? That's just asking for a crack in time to re-open." He made a moue of distaste as he hit one last switch, and Mataras felt the direction of the ship begin to change.
"So why save me?" Mataras demanded.
"Like I said, you're special," the Doctor replied. "I like special people, they make life interesting. You, the sole user of a unique skill, shouldering the task of conquering all one hundred floors of a death trap? If that's not special, I dunno what is."
"But I wasn't alone," Mataras said as his mind wandered back to the people he had left behind when Kayaba destroyed him. Wait… "Hold on, you said you saved me. How did you do that?"
"The TARDIS is a time machine," Clara answered this time. "Anywhere this madman in a box wants to go in space and time, he can go."
"Right, yes," the Doctor clicked his fingers and grinned at Clara excitedly. "What she said. So I popped into Aincrad to catch up your virtual body and save your life. Now all I have to do is get you to your real body, and you will be all set to go!"
"How will you do that?" Mataras demanded. "What am I, a ghost now? I just have to visit myself in a hospital bed and then I'll be whole again?"
"Don't be ridiculous, that's not how it works," the Doctor shook his head. "Honestly, haven't you been paying attention?"
"Doctor…" Clara said nervously as Mataras' eye began to twitch.
"Right, right, okay…" the Doctor sighed. "You might be interesting, but you're no fun, I'll tell you that."
"Just tell me how this is going to work," Mataras snapped.
"I'm going to drop you back in Aincrad, just in a different place, basically a safe zone," the Doctor explained. "I'll even arrange for you to meet up with your old crew so you can all say your goodbyes before you go your separate ways if you want. After that, once the mass logout begins, your virtual body will be uploaded back into your real one, and you will be set to live a long, happy life!"
"No," Mataras shook his head.
"Okay then, we'll- Wait, what?" the Doctor looked at Mataras, confused.
"Don't drop me off in a safe zone," Mataras said firmly. "Put me back where I was, and the microwaves kill me, like I was meant to die."
"I'm sorry, it sounds like you're not wanting to live, umm…?" the Doctor looked up at Clara, who shrugged in confusion. Turning back to Mataras, the Doctor asked, "Why don't you want to live, Mataras?"
"Because my work is done," the Red Swordsman answered. "I don't want to go back. I want to go be with my family, where I belong."
"Your family?" Clara asked. "Where are they?"
"Dead, Clara," the Doctor said grimly, with a tinge of sadness in his voice. "I looked up his history- his parents were killed in a motor wreck, and his sister was-"
"One more word about that, and no time machine in existence will be able to find what I leave of you!" Mataras roared, his sword coming back up. "No one talks about her unless I want it discussed!"
Strangely, the Doctor did not seem to be intimidated this time. He simply looked Mataras in the eyes, and nodded once. "All right," he said calmly. "I'm sorry for your loss. Truly, I am. But you can't just… throw your life away."
"Why not?" Mataras demanded. "I've earned my death! I've earned the right to go be with my family!"
"And what about the people you'll leave behind?" the Doctor asked. "What about them? Won't they miss you?"
"They've already made peace with my passing," Mataras snarled. "As have I. Now release me!"
"You think that they'll be fine without you?" the Doctor inquired.
"They'll be fine," Mataras snapped.
"I don't think so," the Doctor disagreed. "In fact, I can prove it." He flicked a lever up, and the TARDIS suddenly stopped moving. He looked up at Clara and said, "Would you mind giving us a moment…?" The young woman nodded eagerly and made a hasty retreat into the hallway she had come from.
The Doctor waved Mataras over, indicating a video screen. The Red Swordsman walked over reluctantly, still wary of the Doctor, who simply said, "This is what will happen if you choose to die now, Mataras." On the screen was a live stream of the remaining Moonlit Black Cats minus Yui and Litrosh, accompanied by Silica, Lisbeth- who had brown hair and eyes now- and a younger girl that stood next to Kirito that Mataras did not recognize, but he could guess at being Kirito's younger sister. Even Klein and Agil were there. They were all standing in front of a gravestone, and the Red Swordsman felt a chill go through him.
And not one eye was dry in the gathering. It was a bit hard to make out, but Mataras could hear Kirito saying, "He was the best… best swordsman and friend I ever had…" His voice broke and he sank to his knees. "He deserved to live… It should have been me… It should have been me!" He began to scream and punch the stone, bloodying his knuckles before Agil and Klein dragged him away, but he kept shouting, "No! Kayaba was supposed to kill me! Not him, not him, DAMMIT!"
"Kirito, he did it so we could live!" Asuna screamed at him. "He wanted us to live s we could be happy together!"
"It shouldn't have cost his life!" the Black Swordsman cried. "That price is too high!"
"Kirito man, stop it!" Klein shouted as he struggled to restrain his young friend even tears streaked his own face. "He wouldn't want this!"
"He can't be gone!" Kirito shouted, even as the girls all began to cry even harder. "He can't!"
"He is!" Sachi screamed as she rounded on him. "My Big Brother is gone, and he's not coming back! Stop making this so hard on us! On me!" Asuna seized Sachi around the shoulders and held her tight, even as the younger girl all but collapsed as she cried all the harder. "I want my brother back…" she sobbed. "It's not fair…"
Mataras looked away from the console, his face hard. "They'll learn to move on," he said stiffly. "Everyone dies. They'll grow from this, just as I did."
"Hardly," the Doctor said as he hit a red button. The monitor blinked once, and a new image appeared, this time, one of a house. There were police cars in front of it, and an ambulance.
"What is this?" Mataras asked, though in secret, he dreaded the answer.
"This is four years after you died," the Doctor answered. "Kirito was supposed to be well on his way to university, but…" He went quiet as the scene played out.
"We got a body," one of the policemen said to the ambulance crew. "Did it himself."
"The usual?" the other man asked sadly.
"Not quite," the policeman shook his head. "He left a note next to a NerveGear, but he didn't shoot himself- he ran himself through with a sword from the looks of it."
"Oh man…" the medic grimaced.
The screen flickered with static, and the Doctor said, "He was so ridden with the guilt of your death-"
"Stop," Mataras said tightly. "Just… stop."
"Not quite," the Doctor said as another scene began to play. "Lisbeth and Silica, was it? They did learn to move on, as you predicted. Asuna was due to marry young Kirito, poor girl…" His face became incredibly sad as he added in a soft tone, "I always did love weddings, you know… And theirs' would have been grand, indeed…"
"Stop it," Mataras said, though his voice seemed weaker.
"One more," the Doctor said as he pointed at the screen. "One, last time…"
Mataras already felt sick, but he forced himself to look at the screen, dreading what awaited his eyes. Klein was sitting alone at bar with Agil tending drinks. Both men looked at least ten years older than when Mataras had known them.
"Bourbon on the rocks, boss," he the bandana-clad man said blearily. He was obviously already wasted, judging by his expression and the number of glasses by his elbows.
"Sorry man, but as your friend, I don't think that's a good idea," the big merchant shook his head.
"Yeah…" Klein said glumly. "Sorry, pal."
"Hey, why don't I join you?" Agil said after moment. "It's closin' time anyway."
"Hey, thanks," Klein grinned a bit. Agil poured two glasses before moving around the counter to sit with his friend. They clinked glasses and drank a bit before chuckling softly.
"Hard to believe that it's just us left, huh?" Agil said after a moment. "Liz and Silica gone to study overseas… Kirigaya's kid sister's a kendo competitor in the Olympics…"
"Asuna took over her dad's company…" Klein murmured. "Heh. She actually hired me to work as her bodyguard at work…"
"That was mighty nice of her, yeah," Agil chuckled. "Just wish she'd smile…"
"What can we expect?" Klein mumbled. "I mean, Kirito was bad enough, but when Yui deleted her own memories of him…? I still can't believe it."
"And poor Sachi…" Agil grimaced. "She never did get over Mataras' passing, did she?"
"I don't think any of us did," Klein shook his head. "He was… one-of-a-kind, ya know?"
"The Red Swordsman," Agil nodded. "The Conqueror of Aincrad… Yeah, he was just as unique as his skill." The image froze in place.
"What happened to Sachi?" Mataras asked quietly.
"I don't think you should-"
Mataras' hand shot out and grabbed the Doctor's collar as he roared, "Where is my sister now?!"
The Doctor looked into the dark, blazing eyes, and felt no fear. Only a deep, deep sorrow and the knowledge that what he had to say would break the young warrior. "She killed herself to follow you," he said quietly. "She put on a NerveGear, made sure that the microwaves would be in full effect, and went into the dungeon of floor twenty-two. She did not come back out."
Mataras froze in place. The Doctor fully expected him to fly into a blind rage and start using his sword to cause terrible havoc. Having seen footage of the young man's life before going in to rescue him, it was only natural that he expect some damage to be caused.
But apparently, some things are never truly predictable. Mataras took a deep breath and released the Doctor while lowering his sword arm again. The gangly man raised an eyebrow at the young warrior, who sheathed his blade and lowered his gaze. "So… that would be the fate of those I knew and cared about?" he asked.
"Yes, but unlike certain events like the trapping of ten thousand people, your death is not a fixed point in time," the Doctor said. "It can be changed."
"What do you mean, a fixed point?" Mataras asked in a dull tone.
"Tricky thing about time travel," the Doctor said as he began to throw switches again. "You want to learn to avoid fixed points in time- you know, things that always need to happen in order for time to move on as it should. Cos if you don't, then time begins to die and unravel, and then the entire universe just falls apart. Not as fun as I thought it might be, tried it once. Had to get married to avoid the destruction of the universe- that was actually fun."
Mataras could only look at the man incredulously and say, "You really are a madman in a box, aren't you?"
"Yap!" the Doctor said cheerily as he threw one final switch. "Now, let's see what's in store for you- that is, if you decide to drop the selfish bit and go back to your friends." Mataras' eyes tightened slightly, but he said nothing.
The Doctor moved back to the screen in front of Mataras, which was still filled with static. He frowned a bit before smacking the console, and the screen came to life with color and sound. And despite himself, Mataras could not help but look on, and hope that whatever he saw, it would be better than what awaited his friends now.
It was a bar being run by Agil again, but this time, the scene was drastically different. The décor was for that of a party, and there enough people to match it. Everyone from the Black Cats was present, save for Yui and Litrosh, as well as all of their old allies and comrades. Everyone was smiling and laughing, seemingly swapping old adventures with one another and enjoying the food and drink.
There was only one person that Mataras did not recognize- a petite girl with short brown hair and glasses that seemed to be a little nervous about her surroundings. What was the strangest thing to him, though, was that he seemed to be the one standing closest to her, and the only one that she could somewhat relax around.
"Who is she?" he asked.
"That…" the Doctor said with a slight smile, "is something you should try to discover on your own, I think."
Mataras looked at him, then back at the screen, which had frozen on an image of the Black Cats taking a picture together. All of them were smiling. All of them were happy, at peace. The family was unbroken.
"All right," he said grimly. "Do as you will, Doctor."
"Righty-oh!" the Doctor grinned as he straightened his bow tie and began his routine of throwing levers and switches while semi-dancing around the room. "Back to Aincrad it is! Ooh, how would you feel about some fish sticks and custard before we send you off, eh? Love me some fish stick and custard." The TARDIS began to whir and wheeze as Mataras felt it begin to move again.
"I'll pass," the boy shook his head. "Just get me back before I change my mind."
"Clara!" the Doctor called out. "This chap doesn't like fish sticks and custard! Why did you ask me to save him?!"
"You're the one who wanted to save him," Clara said as she reappeared in the hallway. "And honestly, Doctor- you're the only one here who likes fish sticks with custard."
"What do I keep you people around for?" the Doctor frowned. "You don't like fish sticks and custard…"
"Perhaps for the same reason that I allowed myself to be surrounded by people I grew to love," Mataras said with his arms folded. "You need them to remind you of who you really are." The Doctor looked over at the Red Swordsman with a raised eyebrow as he added, "But maybe you've truly forgotten yourself. And if that were true, I can understand why you so like that phrase: 'Doctor, who?"
"Oh really?" the Doctor asked. "And why is that?"
"Because you're hoping that whoever asks that question might be able to provide you with at least a part of the answer, right?" Mataras asked.
The Doctor looked over at Clara, who shrugged. Then he looked back at Mataras, who was still standing with his arms crossed. "You'd better get going," he said as he pointed at the door. "Off you pop." The door opened to a sunset-filled sky, but no place to step out onto.
"What is this place?" Mataras asked as he stepped up to the door.
"A viewing point that Kayaba set up so that he could watch Aincrad be deleted," the Doctor answered. "He should be along any moment now, so you'd best get out there if you don't want him to start asking questions you can't answer. Don't worry about watching your step- there's a bit of glass under you there."
"What was that about questions I can't answer?" Mataras said as he looked back at the Doctor.
"Oh, did I forget to say?" the Doctor lifted his fez up and scratched his head. "Your memories of Clara, me, and the TARDIS will probably be lost after you step back into Aincrad. Tricky things, astral forms. Memories don't seem to stay where they should."
"So I won't remember my future, either," Mataras said tilting his head a bit. "Very well- that's how it should be, no matter who you are. No one should know everything in advance- after all, what adventure would there be in such a journey?"
"You're taking this rather well," the Doctor said. "Most people hate losing memories."
"After what I've seen today…" Mataras shuddered. "I can't say I'm entirely disappointed by the news." He almost stepped off of the TARDIS, then he turned back around while grasping at his sheath on his back. Before the Doctor could ask what he was doing, the Red Swordsman had taken off his blade and laid it at the entrance to the time machine. "Keep this, Doctor," he said. "As a memento of a life you helped to save."
"A sword?" the Doctor asked.
"A lifeline," Mataras replied. "Much like a doctor fights to save the life of his patient, this sword has fought to save my life countless times. Take it with you, Doctor." And he stepped off the machine, and onto a clear pane of glass that offered him an unobstructed view of the castle that held him prisoner for nearly two years.
There was a booming thud, then a whirring, wheezing sound that echoed across the clouds, but Mataras did not turn around. He swayed, as if dizzy for a moment before he righted himself and looked right down at Castle Aincrad, which was crumbling from the bottom up.
"Well…" he murmured. "Looks like a lot of doctors are going to be busy back home." As he stood there, he shook his head as if trying to rid himself of something in his head- or maybe recover it? He wasn't sure.
"Doctors…" he muttered. Doctor… Doctor Who?
Be sure to be on the lookout for the Red Swordsman: Shattered Fragment, coming late this fall!