A/N: Well, everyone... It's been a long time coming, and it's time to end this chapter of the Red Swordsman's journey. Our heroes have escaped Aincrad, and now it's time for the next adventure to begin. I'll hold off on announcing the details of the next story until the end, but I just wanted to remind you guys that this is not the end of the story as a whole.
I am releasing this on Memorial Day as an homage to all the people that have fought in wars to defend their homes, and paid the ultimate price for it. I am descended from such individuals, and I take pride in the fact that I come from men that fought to keep future generations- our generations- safe. The end of the Aincrad War has come, and now it's time for the survivors to come to grips with the aftermath, and a return to the true reality.
Read, review, and as always, enjoy.
Crossroads at a Graveyard
I breathed in deeply, enjoying the scent of late spring in Japan, and the warm sun that was keeping the chill of the previous week at bay. I closed my eyes as a soft breeze brushed my hair, tickling my brow and raising the fuzz on my bare arms in a way that the wind in Aincrad had never been able to replicate.
Two months later, and it's still hard to believe how much more I appreciate the finer details of the real world as opposed to the virtual one, I thought as I opened my eyes and took in the clear sky above.
I was sitting on the back porch of the house where I had grown up, enjoying the quiet of the afternoon while I waited for Victoria to get home from the school set up for SAO survivors. It had only just started running two weeks ago, and it looked like they were trying to blend the spring and summer courses together, at least for this year, as our release had been in the middle of the former semester. Once autumn rolled around, classes would resume a more normal schedule, provided everything went according to plan.
My sister would be attending the school for the next two years while I played the role of breadwinner for the two of us- not that such a thing was an issue, really. After my sister declared mutually assured destruction against Kikuoka, we spent several hours working on an arrangement that would serve both parties needs without giving one an edge over the other. It was nearly midnight by the time he left, but when he had, we were all more or less on the same page.
Kikuoka claimed that for his line of research, he needed someone highly skilled at navigating and observing unusual events in virtual reality- someone like me, who had played an active part in the destruction of SAO, as well as the alleged murders of many dangerous individuals. I agreed to work for him for a term of two years, during which I would investigate anything that he or his benefactors in the government and private sectors deemed noteworthy or suspicious in the virtual worlds that had come about in the wake of SAO. I would also say nothing of my work to anyone that Kikuoka did not approve of, though I did alert him to the fact that I might call on some of my allies from our guild for support, should I need it, and they be willing to provide it. He accepted this calmly enough, as if he had expected it, and I wondered if he didn't have half a mind to try to recruit some of them, too.
In exchange, my sister and I would be allowed to remain together after our release from the hospital, with me as her acting legal guardian. I also demanded a guaranteed set income for the remainder of my sister and my life- or at least, for as long as we remained in Japan. It wouldn't be enough to live in excess, of course, but we would be comfortable. When coupled with the fact that my parents had left the house to us in the event of their death, it meant that I didn't have to worry about finding a second job, which was a massive relief to me.
Lastly, we were given assurances that our avatar data could be ported over from our NerveGears into an external drive being provided to any SAO survivor that wanted one. Neither Victoria nor I let him know it, but that was a huge load off of our shoulders, knowing that the players that had taken the MHCP's like Strea with them would be able to safely carry them into the next world that they picked. It also meant that all of our hard-won stats could be ported over to whichever avatar we created for ourselves, next.
Once the details had been thrashed out by the three of us, Kikuoka informed me that he would be awaiting the doctor's call to let him know that I had made a full recovery, after which my work would begin. When I had tried to learn where he would be sending me next, I was informed that, 'I would know when I needed to know.'
Well, considering the fact that he was outsmarted by a high-schooler, can't say I blame him for being a little sore, I mused with another chuckle.
We were soon reunited with Reiko and her parents after that, who offered us their condolences on the passing of our parents. They seemed surprised that we already knew about the fact, but I was grateful that they didn't pry too much into the matter. Reiko and I, unfortunately, were not given a moment alone together at that time, but an unspoken message between us made it clear that we would talk about 'us' as soon as we were able.
A few days after we woke up and began basic rehabilitation, we were contacted by Kazuto Kirigaya over the phone, who said that Kikuoka had approached him on the grounds that he was the leader of the most consistent front-line guild in SAO. He had traded his knowledge of events for the locations and current contact information of the other Moonlit Black Cats, as well as Klein and Agil, which he was glad to share with us. Although it took a little while, we were all eventually connected via phone numbers, and a plan to celebrate the end of SAO at Agil's bar was set in motion.
There was one matter that proved of great interest when we managed to get ahold of a computer in order to make a video call with some of our friends. Our first call had Victoria and me talking to Kazuto and Sayuri, previously known to us as Sachi. They had apparently been staying in the same hospital as one another, which saw to their swift reunion, something that had gladdened me greatly to hear. We expected them to be happy to see us when they did, but they both looked grim, and Sayuri looked downright worried.
Naturally, I had inquired to their well-being. "Are you two okay?" I had asked them. "Did something happen while we were in SAO, or is there something wrong with one of your bodies?"
"Something… happened," Sayuri said, causing me and my sister to share a confused look. "Your parents… Did you learn the name of the man that caused the car accident that killed all three of them?"
"No, Kiri- Suguha didn't say," Victoria answered, stopping just short of using the girl's avatar handle. "Why? Did you know him?"
"His name was Kazuma Tsukauchi," Sayuri answered softly as Kazuto gently squeezed her frail shoulders. "He… He was my father."
Victoria and I were both too stunned to speak for a moment, and when I did, my voice sounded almost as bad as it had when we first woke up. "You mean…? The one that ran out on you? And-and your mom? When you were a kid?!"
"Yes," she nodded miserably. "I'm so sorry, Mataras, Saphira… I'm sorry that he took away your-"
"Stop right there," Victoria had told her firmly. "The sins of the father are not passed onto their children. You had nothing to do with our Mom and Dad dying- that's all on Tsukauchi, so don't even try to take the blame for it, got it?"
"Somebody has to apologize on his behalf," she sniffled as she wiped at her eyes. "Somebody should atone for what he did…"
"Even if that was true, you are not that someone," I insisted, wishing that I could reach through the screen and hug her as she started to cry. "Sachi, listen to me, please." In the rush of the moment, we were forgetting to use our real names instead of our game titles.
Once Kazuto had managed to calm her down a little bit, I told her, "This does not change our relationship, okay? In my eyes, you are still my friend; my sister-in-arms. What we built in SAO couldn't be undone by my own dark actions, so what makes you think that something like this would?"
"For the record, you're still my sister, too," Victoria added with that kind smile of hers' that always let the receiver know that somehow, things would all work out okay. "And it sounds like you could do with an extra family member, right?"
Sayuri sniffled a few more times before she said in a trembling voice, "You two… are more family to me… than he ever was. I was so scared that I would lose you… because of him."
"I told you they wouldn't hate you," Kazuto said gently as he kissed her temple. "Even when we were on opposite sides, I don't think that Mataras ever hated any of us."
"Well, maybe Kiriha, but-"
"Mataras, this not the time."
"Sorry," I apologized as I noticed Saphira's warning being accompanied by a raised palm that would sure strike my head if I didn't correct my mistake. "Kir- Kazuto is right, though. I never really hated any of you, even during that time- even if I tried to convince myself otherwise."
Sayuri sniffled again, and it looked like she was trying to smile, but the effort defeated her. Seeing this, Victoria asked, "Is something else troubling you?"
The couple exchanged a glance before Kazuto sighed and said, "Her mom had a complete nervous breakdown while we were in SAO. The government ruled her as unfit to be a legal guardian, so now we're not really sure what'll happen to her once we get out of the hospital."
"Damn," I said softly. "I'm really sorry to hear that. Is there anything that we can do?"
"I tried to get a similar deal like you did with your sister, being her legal custodian, but Kikuoka pointed out a number of reasons why that wouldn't work, first among them being that I'm still underage," Kazuto admitted heavily. "Also…"
"You two want to get married eventually, and that would raise a whole new slough of legal and social issues," I said flatly. "Yeah, not gonna lie, but I think he made the right call with that one."
"That doesn't help them keep her out of an orphanage or foster care system," Victoria said a little archly, causing me to shrink back slightly. A thought seemed to occur to her then, because she added, "Although… Maybe we can make an amendment to your deal with Kikuoka."
So it was that Kazuto was set to work part-time for Kikuoka alongside myself, in exchange for me becoming her legal guardian, and receiving a monthly trust fund until Sayuri came of age. How did I end up being legally responsible for two people nearly my own age, practically overnight? I had often wondered since then.
Still, it was a good life that we were leading, two months later. The girls went to school, and I did research on as many VR games that had come out since we were trapped as I possibly could, trying to get a feel for which one Kikuoka might have an interest in. One that was starting to pick up traction was called Halo: Combat Supremacy Online, a virtual reality based on the old, beloved franchise from Bungie. However, something told me that Kikuoka would be more interested in games with larger populations than not. There were a few fantasy games that had a decent gaming population, such as one called Alfheim Online, which was heavily based in Nordic lore, but one game in particular stood out among all the others, despite its recent arrival on the gaming scene.
Originally intended for the company's fiftieth anniversary, Shounen had decided to release Jump Force Online ahead of schedule, both in order to help the nearly-failed VR genre to recover, and to gain a massive boost in PR, which had proven largely successful thus far. It was the sequel to the original title that had been released for Shounen Jump's fortieth anniversary, and the open world it boasted was vast, indeed. It was an almost globe-sized amalgamation of the various worlds from the manga that housed the company's most popular characters, combined with our own, real-life locations. For example, Planet Vegeta's terrain had merged with the Australian Outback, while a replica of Paris had the floating islands seen in Saint Seiya looming over the Eiffel Tower, among many other bizarre combinations. The game was skill-based, and incredibly competitive among players, to the point where it was almost expected of them to PK anyone that crossed them. Powers were assigned at random upon initial login, but it was rumored that more time you had logged in on other games, the higher chances were that your avatar would receive a unique power from one of the many Jump series' collections.
Low key hoping to try that one out, I thought as I stood up and moved to go back into the house, knowing that there were a few dishes that I should get done before Sayuri and Victoria got home, or else I'd never hear the end of it from my sister. It'd be kind of cool to see D.C. again, although I'm not sure how I feel about Frieza's warship hovering overhead… Sure would explain the hell outta the current government system. Chuckling to myself, I went into the sun room through the back door, surprised when I reached the kitchen to find that I was not alone.
"I let myself in," Reiko said as she held up the spare key I had given her last week. "Hope you don't mind?"
"Not at all," I answered with a smile as I moved toward the stove. "Can I make you some tea?"
"Yes, please," she answered as I set a kettle to boil. "Are you excited for tonight?" As she spoke, she took a seat at the island in the middle of the room.
"You know it," I replied. "I know everyone else has started to hang out on the regular at school, but it's not like you and I can do that. Plus, I heard that Agil and Klein managed to reach out to a few more people from SAO."
"Were you and Kirito able to find Argo?" Reiko inquired while I moved toward my tea drawer.
"Yep," I nodded. "Finding her wasn't the problem- it was convincing her to come to the gathering. Apparently she prefers her anonymity IRL, but Victoria made a pretty convincing case. As long as we don't spill her real name or her contact info to anyone else, she'll come to the party."
"I know that'll mean a lot to Kirito," my oldest friend mused. "She still won't join the Cats, though?"
"Not for all the col in Aincrad. She likes being a free agent." I chuckled at the memory of the conversation we'd had on the matter. "Honestly, though, with how many times her info saved our collective bacon, I think that we'll all be glad to see her again." I finished putting the tea bag in and spooning a small helping of honey in the mug before I turned all the way around to look at Reiko directly.
"There's something else that I've been looking forward to, but I can't seem to get when it's going to happen," she said a little pointedly, causing me to reach up and scratch my head nervously. "We've hung out a lot since we got home, but nothing that you or I could really call a date. Is it ever going to happen?"
"It is," I insisted strongly. "It's just… I've been busy, sorting through the legality of becoming responsible for Victoria and Sachi, you know? I also had to go through a lot of paperwork to get the inheritance that Mom and Dad left behind, which was a whole other mess in it of itself. And…" I hesitated, wondering if what I was about to say was even sane.
"And?" Reiko prompted, looking a little more amicable now.
"Even though we've come home, I still feel like a part of me is back in Aincrad," I said softly, just loud enough to be heard by my friend. "There's something I need to do before I can leave it completely behind me, and really start moving on with my life out here. Once I do, I'll feel right about moving on to the next part of our adventure, too."
Reiko regarded me quietly for a few moments after that. I had a fairly good idea of what was running through her mind in that time, without needing to be told. More than likely, she was thinking about how, despite our reunion, despite our confessions of adoration for one another, and the fact that our friendship had been healed before our release, there were parts of me that remained a mystery to her. Part of this was because of the time that we had spent apart, and another piece of the matter would be that we were very different people. Whatever the case, even if she couldn't understand my reasons for my actions, I hoped that she would accept them, and eventually allow me to explain myself, once I was comfortable doing so.
Fortunately for me, it seemed that this would be the case. "Will it take long to do what you need to do?" she asked me calmly.
"No," I answered with a negative shake of my head, letting out a slight sigh of relief. "This weekend, at the latest. You'll get more of an idea of what I'm talking about tonight- I want to talk about it with everyone present, anyway."
"As long as you do," she murmured before we heard the sound of the front door opening, admitting a babble of overlapping voices that told me that it wasn't just Sayuri and Victoria that had come home.
"Michael, Suguha and Kazuto wanted to come over for-" My sister and our friends paused inside the entrance to the kitchen as they realized that I was not home alone. "Oh, hey, Reiko."
"Good afternoon," she replied with a smile as she moved to give my sister a hug. "I was just stopping by real quick, and I don't want to keep you guys from your studies."
"No, it's okay!" Victoria insisted. "We got a light homework load for the weekend, so we were just planning on hanging out until it's time to go to the bar."
"Sounds good," I said as I greeted Kazuto with a fist bump. "Just make sure you change out of the school uniforms before we head out. I doubt that your teachers will appreciate students with their logos hitting up a bar tonight."
"Oh crap, I totally spaced on that," Suguha groaned.
"Chill out, it's not like you live far away," I chuckled as the kettle began to whistle. "Just grab a change of clothes from your house before we head out."
We wound up making it to the Dicey Café at about six o' clock that afternoon. The place was a little tricky to find, due to it more or less being a hole in the wall, but the maps on our phones finally led us the right way. "Looks cozy," I commented from the outside of the red door. "Kinda gives me the same vibes as his shop back in Algade."
"Which means that whatever we find inside is gonna be overpriced and made of paper mache?" Suguha snickered from behind Reiko and I, leading her to share a hi-five with my sister.
"Don't let him hear you say that, or he might charge us tonight," Kazuto muttered.
"Shall we?" I asked as I reached for the door handle and proceeded to open the entryway. As soon as we entered, I was surprised to see that everyone else was already in attendance, all of them wearing big smiles. "Uh… What?"
"Surprise," Shino snickered as she approached us and jabbed me on the shoulder. "Can't have the hero showing up before his party gets started."
"Did you-?" I paused, turning back around to see everyone behind me wearing grins of their own. "You guys planned this?"
"Doi," Victoria laughed as she and Reiko led me up to a podium, overpowering me as I dug my heels in and tried to resist. Unfortunately, my strength still wasn't quite what it used to be, so I was pretty much manhandled until I was standing on top of the box, some kind of cold drink in my hand, and a slightly sullen expression on my face.
In the room was everyone from the Moonlit Black Cats- minus, Strea, Yui, and Yuuki, though the latter was watching through a laptop on the bar next to Agil- and a few of our allies from other guilds, plus a couple of solo players that we had known. All of them were looking my way with a drink in their hands, and I knew exactly what was coming next.
"Okay, guys, you know what to do!" Suguha called out as she and the others grabbed drinks of their own and turned back to me.
"Congratulations on beating SAO, Mataras!" The cry went up from every throat in the room, causing my face to redden with embarrassment.
"I hate it here," I grumbled.
"Ignore him," Victoria giggled as I was finally allowed off of the box. "Let's get this party started!"
Despite my initial surprise and displeasure, I ended up having a good evening with everyone. I was glad to have the other Cats present, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see Schmitt, Yolko, and Caynz among the people in attendance. "Congratulations on your engagement," I told the last two after learning the happy news. "Glad to see you guys adjusting back to real life."
"We are, too," she said cheerfully as she gripped her fiancé's hand.
"Hey, Mataras," Schmitt said as he shook hands with me, even as the couple moved to talk to Godfrey. "I never got a chance to say it, but thanks for taking on that final boss for the rest of us. We probably wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for you, so… Thanks."
I tried to ignore the sting that his words delivered to my heart, as I knew that he didn't mean to wound me with them. Instead, I answered him, "Thank you for showing up when most everyone else was willing to give up. That took guts to do."
"It was the right thing to do," the taller man insisted. "I only wish that I had done that sooner- if I had, maybe Griselda would still be with us."
"And if I had done the right thing, there might be a lot less grieving families right now," I told him grimly. "We need to leave the mistakes that we made in Aincrad behind us, if we're ever to make something of ourselves out here. We shouldn't forget them, of course, but we should also learn to let it go."
"Oh yeah?" the former lancer asked with a raised brow. "And how's that working out for you, Red Swordsman?"
I shrugged and said, "I'll let you know if I figure it out, myself. For now, though, I suggest we celebrate our accomplishments, hard as that may seem, in light of what we have lost."
"It's one party," he nodded in agreement. "Can't be that hard, right?"
After that, I made my way over to talk to Argo, who was sticking to one corner of the room, and not budging from it, despite Victoria's best efforts. "Not a party animal, huh?" I asked her as I sat across the table that she had occupied.
"I agreed to come, but I didn't say nothin' about takin' shots wit' the rest of ya," she answered dryly. "What'cha up to these day, Red?"
"Getting ready for a new adventure, now that I've finished adjusting to this reality, again," I replied in kind. "At least, as much as I can."
"Work in progress, eh?" she chuckled. "That, I'll drink to. Can't say that I totally feel at home where I can't make something of my info, ya know?"
"You could always trade stocks, once you've got a little money to start," I pointed out.
"Who say I didn't already hop on that train?" she snickered, impressing me once again.
"I should learn to stop to underestimating you," I sighed with a shake of my head. "Any chance you'll be up to your old tricks in the virtual realm, anyway?"
"Bet on it," Argo grinned mischievously. "The only question is, where does yer next misadventure call ya?"
"Why, are you looking to take all my money again?"
"Let's jus' say that I'm willin' ta go where the business is at," the small girl answered. "So, where to, Red?"
"You guys finally got your assignment?" Suguha asked Kazuto and I. We had called the members of our guild over for a private talk, along with Argo, Klein, and Agil, as both men had insisted on tagging along to whatever reality we went to next. All of us had recently gotten our hands on an Amusphere, the newer, non-lethal version of the NerveGear, but we had yet to take them out for a test drive.
"Just got the word on our way over," I answered with a nod. Glancing at Kirito, I asked, "Do you want to, or should I?"
"Moonlit Black Cats and friends, we are headed to the Jump world," he said without further preamble, eliciting an excited collection of murmuring from our friends.
"I can work wit' that," Argo nodded. "When d'ya start?"
"Tomorrow afternoon," I replied quickly. "Do us a favor and keep an ear to the ground for the movements of a player named Seven." This prompted more speaking in lowered tones from our friends, and I could guess why. Before any of them could ask, I added, "Yes, the VR pop star who doubles as a child prodigy scientist in the real world. Don't ask me why I'm being told to investigate her, though. The only thing Kikuoka told us was that her research in virtual reality might be onto something."
"Already askin' fer favors, and we ain't even started," Argo laughed while the others exchanged puzzled glances. "Still, it's a good way ta get movin', so I'll let it slide this time." With that, she turned on her heel and headed for the door.
"Wait, where are you going?" Victoria asked her.
"If yer all startin' tomorrow, I gotta get on the action today," she answered over her shoulder. "Info brokers don' take it easy like the rest of ya slackers. Later, and thanks fer the party, A-dog." With that, she was out the door, a pep in her step.
"I think she's excited to return to VR," Kotone, previously known as Philia, commented.
"I know I'm excited to start questing with you guys, again!" Yuuki said from inside Agil's laptop. "I've made some friends in the hospital that I've been diving with in ALO, but I can't wait to get the guild together, ya know?"
"It feels strange to say it, but I agree," Sayuri murmured. "We spent so long trapped in SAO, and now we're willingly going back into the virtual world."
"I know what you mean," Reiko nodded. "But this time will be different. Michael and Kirito have done all kinds of research on the tech in the Amusphere- there's no way for it to kill anybody, microwaves or otherwise."
"That's a big relief," said Keiko. It was strange to see Silica without Pina on her shoulder or head, but I imagined that would soon change.
"Here's to hoping that we can just enjoy ourselves in JFO, and not have to worry about fighting with people's lives on the line," Shino murmured, almost to herself.
"That won't happen again," Kazuto assured her. "Never again. The death game is over, for everyone."
"So, what's the deal with this game?" Karatachi asked as she set her drink on the bar. Her real-life appearance was strikingly similar to her virtual one- much like the rest of us- save for that her hair was no longer a fiery red, but a plain light brown. However, I could still read her body language, and something suddenly seemed off.
Maybe she's nervous about diving into another game, I thought, even as I prepared a response to her question. "Skill based, random powers assigned on your first login, and very competitive," I then answered in a rapid-fire fashion. "PK's are pretty common between different factions of the franchise." This seemed to satisfy everyone's curiosity for the time being, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Karatachi seemed a little out of sorts.
"Normally I'd worry about trying to catch up to the top dogs, but we've got way more hardcore skills than most of those guys, am I right?" Ryoutarou grinned from beneath his trademark bandana, causing me to file away my suspicions for a later consideration.
Cocking my head at the older guy, I asked, "How is it that you manage to get a headpiece that ugly, no matter where you go?"
"Hey!" he protested while the others laughed. "It's good luck!"
"Sure, for the ladies of the sighted world," Suguha told him, causing his jaw to drop while the rest of us continued to laugh. "Dude, that thing is like a big neon sign that says, 'nerd alert'!"
"So what?" he grumbled. "Not like K-dog and Red aren't any less of a nerd than me, and they managed to score with the ladies."
Kazuto and I exchanged a look and then shrugged, followed by him saying, "He's not wrong."
"Yeah, except that you're going to school to make a living off of being nerdy, and I'm already cashing in on my VR skills," I pointed out.
"Man, you guys suck," Ryoutarou grumbled as he raised his empty glass. "Boss, can I get another one of these?"
"Fine, but you're payin' for the next one," the bartender rumbled. "You're gonna bankrupt my generosity." He was thinner than when we had known him as Agil, but it was clear that he was working hard to regain his muscular stature that had proven quite intimidating to more than one player in SAO.
"Hey, before we all move on to the next world…" I began before anyone could break into smaller discussions among themselves. "There's something I need to do in order to really put SAO behind me, and I'd like you guys to do it with me."
The next morning was as bright and warm as the previous one, but all I could see was the gray stones laid out before us that made me feel cold when I touched them.
"There's so many…" Keiko said in a very small voice.
She was right- there over four thousand gravestones laid out in this cemetery, and every one of them was a victim of Sword Art Online. They each bore the name that the player was born with, and the name that they had died under, so that those who had known them in the virtual realm might be able to recognize them, should they come to pay their respects. Most of the markers were a standard design, but there were a few here and there that were larger, or more elaborately carved, sometimes both. These were the graves of families that could afford to give their fallen a more memorable burial, and it was one such stone that I was seeking, though there were others that I planned to visit, as well.
The members of the Moonlit Black Cats all stood beside me at the entrance, every one of us wearing grim expressions as we stood in the quiet plot of land. Reiko had my hand in hers', and I was grateful for the gesture of support.
I made four hundred and thirty-eight of these happen, I thought as we began to venture into the place. Seeing it laid out in front of me was nearly staggering to comprehend- the fact that my guild and I had put one-tenth of SAO's victims in this plot of dirt, with nothing but a chunk of rock and mourning family members to mark their passing. I could come here every day for a year to lay flowers at a grave, and I still wouldn't be able to pay respect to all the men and women that I slaughtered. We saved a lot of people by doing what we did, but I can't help wondering if more would be alive, had I not become what I did.
We then passed a grave where there was a boy staring blankly at the stone in front of him. I felt a chill run through me as I recognized the game handle carved beneath the victim's birth title, Shinkawa Shouichi. Xaxa, I thought as I wrenched my gaze away from the boy, who was probably the man's brother.
Reiko must have felt my reaction, because she squeezed my hand and asked, "Are you okay?"
"No," I said with a quick shake of my head. "But I won't be until I see this through, either." Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Victoria glancing at the boy and the grave he was standing in front of before she switched her gaze over to me, her expression more somber than before.
It wasn't long before our group was standing in front of the largest and most decorated gravestone in the place. It was carved in the likeness of Aincrad, and it bore a single name at around where the twenty-to-twenty-fifth floors had been. Normally, there would have been two titles, but apparently she had chosen to use her real name as her avatar handle. "Hello, Asuna," I said quietly. "It's been a long time."
As I spoke, Suguha, Reiko, and Kazuto all moved to lay flowers at the base of the marble structure. It made sense that they be the ones to do so- after all, it was Kiriha that Asuna had saved that fateful day, and it was Rivka whose back she had watched ever since she joined our party in the fledgling days of Sword Art Online. As for the other boy in our group, no one was sure of what would have happened between them if she had survived, but Kirito and her had been very close before she passed, so it was only right that he pay her memory a tribute.
The flowers were mostly white, with a few red roses sprinkled in here and there. Seeing them, I gave vent to a wry smile before saying, "She probably would have been in the Knights, if it hadn't been for us."
"She would have been leading that guild," Reiko chuckled sadly as she wiped at her eyes. "I'll bet that she would've even had Kayaba falling in line by the end."
"I could see that," Victoria laughed, though she too looked sad. "Rest in peace, Asuna. We made it count. Mataras beat SAO, and now we're all free, thanks to the efforts that you put in to helping us clear the game."
"Thank you for saving my life," Suguha added as she sniffled. "Thank you for giving me the chance… to get home, even after I was stupid and went in when I didn't have to." She started to cry softly, so her brother wrapped her up in hug while rubbing her back in a soothing manner, despite the tears that I could see building up in his eyes.
The sound of footsteps were almost lost to my ears, but I caught on them just in time to turn around and see a man who looked to be in his early twenties. He looked familiar for some reason, but I couldn't put my finger on why.
"Pardon me," he said politely as he held up a small cluster of white roses. "I was hoping to put these down for Asuna."
I swiftly stepped aside to let him through, as did my friends. As he passed me by, I asked him, "Were you a survivor?"
"No," he answered as he knelt in front of the grave to lay his flowers next to ours'. "But I should have been the victim, not her."
Suddenly, I realized why he looked familiar to me- it was the color of his eyes, and the bridge of his nose that I had subconsciously recognized. "You're Asuna's brother," I said, causing the others to look at the young man with renewed interest.
"I was," he said sadly as he stood up and turned around to look at us. "I'm Kouichirou Yuuki. Were you friends of hers?"
"We were party members, yeah," Kazuto answered while Suguha did her best to get herself under control. "We just wanted to pay our respects."
"Were you there?" the man asked with a sudden interest. "When she died?"
Kazuto, Victoria, Reiko and I exchanged uncomfortable looks before I answered, "Yes, sir."
"How did it happen?" he asked, his eyes brightening a little. "I've been trying to find out how, but nobody's been able to tell us anything. Please- I was at her bedside when she passed, and ever since then, I've needed to know how it happened. I need to know why my sister couldn't be one of the lucky ones to make it back home."
"It was my fault," I said bluntly, startling the others. "I made some enemies in the game early on, and one of them targeted me. She got caught up in the crossfire of what should have been a one-on-one grudge match."
"Hang on, that's not the whole story," Victoria insisted before Kouichirou could say anything. "The truth, Mister Yuuki, is that Asuna died saving our friend here, who had been taken hostage by the guy trying to get at my brother."
"She died… saving someone?" the young man asked as he switched his gaze between me and Suguha, as she had been pointed out by Victoria. "But… What about the guy that killed her? What happened to him?" When none of us gave him an answer, he insisted, "Please, I need to know! Is the guy that murdered Asuna free, living in the real world when she should be inste-?"
"He's dead," I said shortly, cutting him off. "His name was Kibaou, and his body is somewhere in this graveyard."
This quieted the other man for a moment before he asked in a trembling tone, "Are you sure?"
"Yes," I answered, recognizing the look in his eyes as I did. "There's no one left for you to take revenge against, except for me. The only other party to blame is already outside of your reach. So if you need someone to blame, lay it on me, because I took your chance for vengeance away from you."
Kouichirou regarded me with what could be called a neutral expression for some time before he sighed and said in a low voice, "As tempting as I find that, I won't, for two reasons. One, you told me the truth when no one else could or would. Second, if Asuna was friends with you throughout that death trap, then I can't find it in me to raise a hand against you. I can see that the lot of you have been through enough, already."
"Thank you, sir," Victoria said with a small bow toward him.
"Thank you for giving me some closure," he responded. "But if you don't mind, I'd like to be alone with her for a little while."
"Of course," I said with a bow of my own before turning around and walking away. "Come on, guys. We still have a few more to visit."
Our next destination took a little longer to find, but we managed it once we split up to cover more ground. Fortunately for us, the graves that we sought were all next to one another.
"Keiko, Kotone, Karatachi, and Shino, meet the original members of the Moonlit Black Cats," Kazuto said softly as we looked at the four gravestones marked with the names of Sachi's old friends. "These guys are the reason we were ever a proper guild in the first place."
"Hello," Kotone said as we knelt in front of the cold, unresponsive marble.
"Thank you for your guild," Keiko added shyly. "You made a good home for me in SAO, even if you didn't know that you were gonna do it."
Sayuri already had tears sliding down her face as she reached out with a trembling hand to touch Ducker's gravestone. "I hope… wherever you are…" she sniffled, "that you can find all the treasure you want… without worrying about what happened that day."
Kazuto had his arm around her while he nuzzled her hair gently. Even so, his gaze was fixed on Tetsuo's resting place as he whispered, "Thanks for watching my back in there… and for all the misadventures." I remembered that during our early days with the Cats, Kirito and the mace-wielder had been field partners, which had led to a fair amount of hijinks and mishaps.
While the young couple were paying their respects, Reiko was talking to Sasamaru, her temporary partner from the fledgling guild, and I knelt down in front of the grave that I had dreaded most of all.
"Hello, Keita," I said as Victoria and I settled in front of the gray block. "I imagine that I'm probably the last person you would expect- or want- to see here, but I needed to get a few things off of my chest." Despite my declaration, I hesitated, my throat constricting on itself, trying to prevent me from saying what I needed to say.
I tried to speak a couple of times, but was unable to get past the knot in my stomach and throat until Victoria laid a hand on my back and began to pray for my strength of will to overcome this final obstacle in front of me. As I listened to her, my throat began to loosen, and I found that I could work my tongue again.
"I'm sorry that I couldn't save our friends," I began with a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry that I drove you to your death, and that I didn't save you from it. I can't justify what I did to our guild, nor will I try to. All I can do is hope that if you can see what's happened, that you'll be proud of what everyone else accomplished in your names. After all, Kirito fulfilled your dream of making the Cats into a front-line guild; and not just any part of the Assault team, either. He spearheaded the conquest of Sword Art Online itself, and he did a great job in leading the team doing it. He kept Sachi safe when I couldn't, and he never gave up in moving forward, not once. Sachi even became one of the best dagger-users in the game." I gave vent to a little laugh at that. "You heard me right; Sachi, the scaredy-cat that you all used to tease, became one of the strongest people we ever met, but never did she lose her kind spirit."
I reached out to touch the name engraved on the stone before I added, "Your guild is now full of amazing people, and its name couldn't be in better hands, despite the fact that I'm still in it. Someday, I hope, we can meet again, and re-form the guild with all of its members, past, present, maybe even future. And when that day comes, I hope that you and I can meet as the friends we should have been, instead of the enemies that I turned us into."
As I finished speaking, I felt my eyes sting and water, but I did not wipe away my tears. He's worth tears of shame from the man that killed him, however little it might mean to him.
I nearly got up, but I was stopped by Victoria's voice addressing the former guild commander's grave. "Thank you for keeping your promise, Keita," she said. "I'll always be grateful to you."
"Promise?" I asked her as she raised her head. "What are you talking about?
"The day that we were made partners, I asked him for a favor," she answered without looking at me. "I asked him to keep you safe from yourself, if something ever happened to me. I didn't expect him to give up his life in aid of that, but I guess he did."
"Wait, I'm still lost, how-?"
"You were gonna kill him, right?" she asked me softly, rendering me quiet. "You might have changed your mind last-second, but he couldn't have known that. Maybe his hatred of you played a part in his suicide, but I choose to believe that he was honoring my request, and saved you from doing something that even you couldn't come back from."
"As opposed to what I went on to do?" I asked dryly.
"You killed a lot of people, but you were only forced to kill one friend," she murmured, which shut me up very nicely. "And we both know you couldn't have lived through a repeat of that."
"…No," I admitted in a whisper as I thought of Crimson. "No, I could not."
Once we left the graveyard, we had one last place to visit. The Cats stood in assembly in my backyard as I struggled to complete a task that I had been laboring at for some time. My knife was nearly dulled, but I powered through the hindrance until I was able to step back and nod with satisfaction at my craft.
There, in the tree of my backyard, I had inscribed Crimson's name, and the date of Aincrad's destruction, similar to how I had done in the Hollow Area back in SAO.
As I stepped away, everyone took their turns in coming forward to pay homage to the fallen Hollow. "Thank you for letting us go," Silica said first.
"We won't forget your sacrifice," Rain promised.
"Rest in peace," Kiriha murmured.
"Thanks for looking out for Mataras," Sachi said softly.
"You chose to give more than anyone should ever have to, and we'll always be grateful," Kirito added.
"I never liked you, but that didn't matter to you," Philia admitted as she inclined her head. "You never stopped looking out for us, even though it cost your own life. So, thank you."
"I'll always remember your kindness," Sinon vowed. "Rest well, Crimson. You earned it."
"I love you, Brother," Saphira said as she placed her hand on the cool bark. "Never forget that."
I was last to speak, and like my sister, I placed my hand over the memento that I had carved when I did. "It wasn't in vain," I murmured under my breath. "Your sacrifices made all the difference, Crimson. Everyone gets their happy ending, thanks to you. All of this… is thanks to you. When we meet again- and I know that we will- I can't wait to tell you what everyone did with the freedom you gave them." Somehow, I found myself smiling as I finished, "I'm sure that it's going to make an amazing story."
As I took my hand off the bark, I could have sworn that I heard a familiar voice say, I know they will. I looked around, but it was clear that no one else had heard the voice.
Smiling to myself once again, I held out my hand to Reiko, who happily accepted it as I led the way toward my house. "Come on," I said as we headed for our next adventure. "Let's see what JFO has in store for us."
Sword Art Online was, at long last, truly over for Mataras and his friends. A specter watched from beneath the shade of the tree that now bore the name of Aincrad's last defender and conqueror, smiling as he watched the guild mates depart. As the door was shut, he was joined by five others, all of them smiling at the same sight.
"Think he'll be alright without you?" asked one of them, a young boy dressed in gray and brown.
"As long as he remembers to let them help when he needs it," the original ghost answered, his red cloak shimmering in the breeze.
"With his stubborn streak, he might not do that all the time," chuckled one boy clad in yellow.
"Even so, he knows that his own strength can only carry him so far," replied his purple-hued friend.
"They survived the death game together, they can thrive under whatever else comes next," added the last boy, dressed in green like the leaves on the tree.
"I can't wait to see what they all make of their new lives," smiled a girl dressed in white. "He's right, though. It's sure to be an incredible story- no less than it has been, already."
When the red apparition said nothing, the others all patted him on the back as they turned to leave. "You coming?" the one in brown asked as the others faded away.
"Yeah, in a minute." Once he was alone, Crimson smiled once more and said to himself, "Yeah. Time for a new chapter." As he departed, he shed his cloak and allowed it to fade away, apart from himself, just as Michael had left behind his bloodied past.
"Red Swordsman, no more."
Closing Theme: Dead Man (by Wolves at the Gate)
Saphira: Why that song for the finale?
Mataras: It's a pretty good representation of where my character is after all that's happened. Seriously, if my readers aren't listening to it right now, they should be. There's an acoustic version (my preference), or a metalcore version, if that happens to be your cup of tea. Both are good. ...Seriously, open up that song on another tab and listen to it.
Saphira: I think they get it, dude.
Kirito: I can hardly believe that it's actually over.
Asuna: We've been working toward this for so long that it almost feels surreal that we're finally here.
Mataras: You don't have to tell me that. It's funny, you know. I almost considered making this the true ending of the story, because there were times where I wondered if I wasn't burning myself out, or beating a dead horse by making a third iteration of this story. But now that's it's over and done with, I find myself pretty happy with how this part has turned out.
Kirito: Remind me again, how long will this story go on for?
Mataras: Until the game series ends, as I am following the chronology of the alternate canon. The only exception to this will be the SAO vs Accel World game, mostly because the whole time travel thing just felt like a massive stretch to me. Also, there's just too many characters to keep track of and write about in a convincing manner.
Saphira: I remember you had that problem with your Fire Emblem stories.
Asuna: I wanna know why you chose to do a Jump Force game instead of ALO. Won't it be harder to keep the same narrative in a different world setting?
Mataras: That would be true if I were to stick to the exact script of the game, but as I'm sure you can guess, I've already begun to put my own spin on the story. I'm really rather excited about this in particular, because no one else has done an SAO x Jump Force crossover before.
Kirito: Wait, you actually managed to create another unique crossover?
Mataras: For the first time since the Toa of Aincrad, yes. However, because Jump Force does not exist as a category on this website, the next part will appear in the (pure) SAO content. If that changes in the future, I will be sure to let our readers know in advance.
Saphira: And just what is the name of the next story?
Mataras: Coming mid-June, 2020... The Red Swordsman: Lost Wish. The first chapter/prologue for the story will be a summation of the entirety of Shattered Fragment, done mostly for the benefit of people who simply wish to get into the new story without reading through this one first, though it might benefit my veteran followers to read it over for the highlights of important events in this part of the story.
Kirito: We hope to see you all there, as well as welcome new readers into the fold.
Asuna: Thanks for being with us for this part.
Saphira: Until the next one!
Mataras: Farewell, and may you find many more stories that enthrall you, as I hope this one did.
Before we we head off into the next part of this story, it's high time for me to lend my time to thanking the readers that have given their support and made this story possible.
First off, there is my wife, who has long acted as the sound board for this story- before we were even married, actually. She also helped me to explore an artistic side that I did not realize was present within myself. Thank you for all that you've done for me and my chosen path.
Next person I need to thank is TriforceHero, someone who has been following my work since my endeavor to complete the Toa of Aincrad. You've been here since before my writing was any good, so I give you top marks for persevering through some fairly questionable material. You've always been a consistent and thoughtful reader, and I thank you for your years of support. As you were one of the first people to read and review this story over three years ago, I look forward to your thoughts on Lost Wish.
To Marcus Cersy, I extend thanks for lending me your characters to play some supporting roles, and for being one of the people that actually trusted me enough to help construct their own version of the events in SAO.
My thoughts and thanks go out to Naruto Sakura Uzumaki, another one of my most consistent followers on this site. Your reviews have long helped me to understand the reaction that certain writings will elicit from from your fellow readers, so thank you.
Joeclone, your support not only here, but on my YouTube channel also, have always been welcomed and appreciated.
Ethan Kironus, your ability to resonate with the spiritual aspects of my work has gladdened me many times, and given me a positive inclination to continue such implements in the future, so I extend many thanks to you.
KiroZen, thank you for lending your voice to the reviews that have helped me to remain excited to write this story over the years. Without audiences like you, there would be no reason for writers to practice their craft.
Bradley132, Antex, Solemnon, TheGoodGamer99, ObsidianBlade, Wolfenergy17, Warlord Fellhammer, Novamage87, Silver4700, Meijin Lightus, TichePotato, JZuCuadra, Last Robyn, Kidkaboom1, Ace of Spades, TheSib, GoldenCyclone4, and so many more... Thank you for reading my story, and I hope to see you all again soon.