Saotome Art Online
Chapter Four


The Present

Doctor Kawasake produced an internal sigh as he glanced down at his notes once more. The digital document he had dedicated toward transcribing the session and any insight noted during the hour allotted was remarkably bare, consisting little more than a roster of names and the player handles associated with them. Of course, this was only the third such meeting, but he would have expected some headway beyond the random surface trivia one could obtain through small talk with any random stranger.

The physician surreptitious look down at his watch. Ten minutes remained in this particular group therapy session and it was looking to end much like the last. What is your favorite food? Kimchi. What are your hobbies? Airsoft. Did you suffer any traumatic experiences within the game you might like to share with the rest of the group?

Silence.

Such non-disclosure seemed to be the rule, not the exception according to many of his colleagues working out of other hospitals. Physically, most of the SAO survivors were showing improvement. Mentally, they just weren't opening up. This time an audible sigh escaped the doctor's lips as his study swept across the circle of twelve participants. Short of interrogating them, an understanding smile was his only recourse.

"Alright, that was another good session," He nodded politely, closing out the note document on his PDA as he stood. Calling it a 'good session' was perhaps overly generous, but they had all returned from the last one and… talked. Doctor Kawasake managed a humorless mental chuckle, realizing that he would have to take what was given. "If there is nothing else, our next session is scheduled for—"

"I got somethin'."

The doctor blinked, his head swiveling almost mechanically to his right, three chairs down from his own. A petite redheaded girl held up her hand somewhat tepidly and suddenly all eyes were fixed on her. Her body language seemed to grow more reluctant with the increased attention but she held her ground, and her hand up.

'Ranma Saotome. Ranko. Age nineteen,' The physician recalled the basics in that moment. He knew all the attendees' names, of course, but hers stood out if only because of her- his –unusual condition. With that recollection came another; the fact that he never seen the male aspect that she supposedly harbored.

'Another psychological can of worms in itself,' The doctor suspected. As interesting as it sounded professionally, it wasn't exactly a topic for discussion… or rather this discussion. Regardless, her raised hand represented the potential for voluntary interaction and he was more than happy to allow her the opportunity. Doctor Kawasake gestured for her to stand up. "Go ahead, Ranma."

"I, well…" The martial artist hesitantly stood up, glancing around the circle as eleven other players and the doctor himself watch. She offered a half-hearted wave as she continued. "Um, some of you know me, some of you don't. Went by 'Ranko' in-game."

Three out of the eleven players present produced nods of recognition, giving Doctor Kawasake some metric as to the redhead's notoriety. She didn't look so happy to be the center of attention, but endured it, continuing.

"This ain't exactly something I'm comfortable with sharing. Kinda causes a lot of trouble." Ranma admitted as she addressed the group. "But I figure if we're going to be sharing stuff in here, you all have a right to know."

Puzzled looks intermingled with interest as her audience watched. She glanced over to the doctor with a question. "Don't suppose you have any hot water, do you?"

"I can get some easily enough." Kawasake nodded and rose from his own chair, exiting the conference room while trying not to appear too eager. She was sharing. Not only was she sharing, she was sharing something he suspected was deeply personal. Her audience, however… There was risk involved if the girl was about to do what he thought she was about to do. He returned with a simple paper cup in hand and leaned closer to her with a whisper. "You don't have to do this."

"Yeah, I kinda do." Ranma countered, taking the hot water in hand before returning to the circle. "I got a condition. Call it a curse."

She didn't bother explaining any further and instead started to pour the warm water across her arm. The physician watched with the rest, acutely aware of what was going to happen. The girl stretched and grew, almost melting away before their very eyes into a more masculine form even as the former players around the black haired boy gasped their disbelief.

The martial artist loosened the drawstrings around his waist to accommodate the new girth while adjusting his tee to fit more comfortably before continuing. "I was born a guy. Lived most of my life a guy. Got stuck with the curse around fifteen. Cold water changes me into her, warm water changes me back. Guess what I got stuck in the game as?"

Silence greeted the rhetorical question and the moment stretched into an excruciating eternity for Ranma as the members of her therapy group stared, relatively speechless.

'Damn,' Doctor Kawasake admonished mentally as the silence stretch uncomfortably long. It didn't look like the boy's admission was going to result in the psychological fulcrum that would open the rest of the group up. 'It had such potential, too…'

He was about to open his mouth to help extricate the teen when one of the groups older members, a man with black hair in his forties spoke up, cocking his head. "You mean to tell me you have a real life character reset?"

Ranma blinked, obviously not having considered the curse in such a manner. The comment seemed to break the dam of silence as a younger man produced a slight chuckle. "I guess that explains some of her preferences in companionship."

The martials artist's eyes widened and the doctor watched the boy's cheeks take on a healthy pink hue, but the observations kept coming.

"For two years?" Another asked, seeming to comprehend the potential problems such a condition would create.

"Now we know why you're such a Tsundere." A woman in her twenties giggled slightly, causing her black curls to sway. The martial artist only managed to blush harder through his embarrassment.

"I am not a tsundere!" Ranma all but squeaked indignantly, bunching his fists at his sides stiffly… In a manner very reminiscent of a cute girl if the doctor watching him wasn't mistaken.

"I… that's just too weird." Another admitted and it was there Doctor Kawasake decided to step in.

"I would like to remind everybody that everything we share in this room stays in this room," he advised, nodding to Ranma. However inadvertently, the boy had done his part. Now it was his job to carry the meeting home. The teen was more than happy to withdraw back to his chair as the physician continued. "Is there anything else anybody would like to share?"

Silence dominated the room once more, but with the addition of furtive looks being sent in Ranma's direction. The doctor chewed on the matter mentally, noting the body language of the various participants. It was still guarded, as if… Kawasake glanced at the black haired teen and received a quick glance back, surprising him. The embarrassment was gone from those eyes and in its place…

"I'll be right back." Ranma stated and the doctor nodded, allowing the boy took his leave. The rest watched as well and he returned less than a minute later. Or rather, she returned less than a minute later, retaking her seat and sending a contemptuous, if overly acted sniff across the circle and toward the twenty something woman. "Tsundere. Hmmf. Don't think I won't air some of your dirty laundry, Mika."

"Oh, and what could you have that I could possibly be ashamed of, dear Ranko-chan?" The woman challenged back with a smirk, leaning forward to her wither her chin resting on her hands.

Ranma answered the challenge in pantomime. "'OH. MY. GAWD. YOUR DRAGON IS SOOOOO CUTE! WHERE CAN I GET ONE! I HAVE TO HAVE ONE! DOES HE COME IN PINK I REALLY WANT A PINK DRAGON!'"

Mika's frown slowly turned into a pout. "I'm an IT specialist. Professionals don't fawn over pixel animals like that."

"Except for when they do." Ranma quipped back with a knowing smile.

"Did anybody else ever manage to tame an animal NPC?" A fifteen year old to the doctor's right wondered aloud and the eldest player of the group replied.

"Somebody tamed a Dire Saber Cat, I heard." The forty something offered and Mika seemed to pick up on the point immediately with a sweet smile directed at Ranma.

"I hear Ranko absolutely loves cats." The woman's eyes glittered, now absolutely pleased with herself. "Especially Dire Saber Cats."

Ranma's cheek twitched. "Don't make me hate you again, Mika-chan."

"It only makes the heart grow fonder, Imouto." Her sweet smile persisted…

…as did the conversation. Doctor Kawasake watched in wonder, unwilling to insert himself lest he shatter the illusion of actual progress. He glanced back over at the now animated redhead, slightly in awe of the girl herself. He was still debating how much of that had been accidental and how much of it she had engineered, but there was no doubt; without her personal admission they wouldn't be here, over time, sharing experiences. They physician looked down at his watch. Technically, the session was supposed to have ended twenty minutes ago. In reality, there was no way he was about to stop it short of World War Three.

'She?' Kawasake paused, noting the mental discrepancy between taking notes. His transcripts were using the pronoun almost exclusively and if he didn't know better, the group seemed to identify with it as well. There was no mistaking the fact that they seemed more comfortable with him as a her.

"You think that's bad? I was in a dress when I touched that damn mirror." One of the men of their group produced a humorless chuckle, only to receive clipped laughter from another.

"Yeah, I remember. I would have laughed if I weren't so terrified." A sandy blond male in his twenties admitted, shaking his head in reminiscence.

"Why in the world would you choose a female character, anyway?" a younger woman asked, rolling her eyes in a manner as to question the maturity of their actions through looks alone.

"Because I didn't want to stare at a guy's ass all day." The man in question huffed, earning more laughter.

"At least the damn mirror changed you." Ranma groused in an exaggerated tone of voice. She gestured vaguely to the facility around them. "They were all too worried about disrupting the neural interface and crap to even touch me."

"Speaking of which, where is your better half?" The black haired IT professional wondered suggestively, eyeing Ranma as if something were missing from her person. The redhead looked as if she was about ready to protest the insinuation, but her mouth snapped shut instead. The expression on her face dulled.

"Haven't been able to track her down yet."

Mika's playful teasing faded into a knowing nod that acknowledged the girl's hesitation, leaving Doctor Kawasake to fill in the blanks. Fortunately, this was something he could contribute positively towards and offered it to the group as a whole.

"Amongst its services, the SAO Incident Victims Rescue Force maintains a faculty dedicated to reuniting former players with their family and friends," He explained, capturing the group's undivided attention. "Disclosure is completely voluntary, of course, though the more information you are able to provide them, the greater the chances of a successful reunification."

Accepting nods met his offer; more than he had expected or even hoped for going into the session. It almost seemed impossible, but for the first time, he was willing to apply the word "success" to their reoccurring meetings. Of course, it was only a single step in a longer journey for the former players arrayed in the circle around him, but it was perhaps the most important. The doctor stole a quick glance back over to the red head, not doubting for a moment that she- he -had been the cornerstone of that success…

'…And will probably need extensive therapy after this,' He supposed from the privacy of his own thoughts even as he imagined just how the Death Game had probably aggravated her… condition. That, however, wasn't his job. His was to get the ball rolling and refer the more traumatic cases to the SAO Incident Victims Rescue for further psychological evaluation.

Hopefully, she wouldn't become one of them.


Aincrad.

"This is a really bad idea."

"Nah, it's fine." Ranko brushed off Rose's concern as they watched her mark from a stone bridge. Below them a causeway flowed with crystal water that reflected ghost imagery of the two girls even as fish flicked through its currents. Beyond was a walkway; the focus of the redhead's attention. She glanced over to her partner. "Besides, what could go wrong?"

"Everything!" Crescent all but hissed back, looking from the neo-girl while gesturing back the player they had been stalking. "That person you're looking for is quite literally god in this game! If you make him angry he can erase you from existence! And if he's spiteful, he might even erase me before moving on to your friends list!"

The player under observation was currently in negotiation with an NPC vendor whose shop faced the waterway. Along his back was half-moon scimitar that gleamed golden in the sunlight. The flat of blade was likewise etched with hieroglyphics, further differentiating it from being just a simple blade. When taken altogether, the weapon wasn't even in the same class as its contemporaries.

Ranko's fingers tapped on the stone railing of the bridge as she shook her head. "You never met him. This game is his baby… His work of art. He ain't going to dirty it by taking players out himself."

"And just how can you be so sure?" Crescent favored the redhead with a doubtful frown and Ranko shrugged.

"He's like me." She commented off hand as she watched the player, not noticing Sayuri arch her eyebrow in skepticism while elaborating on Doctor Kayaba's character. "He's a perfectionist. It has to be flawless. If he's gotta reach in and do something his art couldn't, he's failed."

Both girls watched as the player disengaged from the NPC and began walking down the edge of the canal in their direction. Crescent_Rose's frown deepened as she held the martial artist with a dissatisfied look. "Did I mention this is super bad idea?"

"All the way here." Ranko smirked. The annoyingly overconfidence disappeared within seconds as her mark stepped onto the bridge itself and awed hero-worship took its place. Her mouth dropped open in astonishment. The redhead whirled around, sighting the long, white haired player ever-so-obviously. "OH. MY. GOD. Is that what I think it is, Rose?!"

The painfully overacted question wanted to make her partner cringe just for having heard it, let alone watch as the girl next to her all but descend into slavish worship.

"IT IS!" Ranko pointed emphatically, not waiting for a response. She practically bounced over to the player who was now staring at her without a clue. He looked around his immediate vicinity to verify that he was, indeed the one being spoken to before realizing the fact for himself. The moment passed, allowing the white haired player to recover from the lapse before clearing his throat.

"AHEM! Ahem. Yes, it is I." He bowed majestically for the redhead as he fell into character, suddenly adopting an officious tone. "What can I do for thee, fair maiden?"

"Oh God…" Crescent mumbled to himself even as Ranko fought to keep the awe struck amazement on her face.

"Heh… Heheh… Ehhh…" The redhead's smile now looked plastered across her face as opposed to being a natural artifact, but she fought through the Kuno induced flashback by pointing emphatically to the weapon on the man's back. "Uh, um, OH! Is that THE Velocitor I've heard so much about?!"

She made a show of being suitably awed by the blade, and watched her mark retrieved it from his back even as she stared at him with wide eyed amazement. "I thought it was talk, but… How did you get it?!"

The man smirked confidently and stepped back, slicing the scimitar through the air as if he were a blade master himself. He threw its curved edge through several loops, stabbing into open space while Ranko's eyes widened with suitable awe that embarrassed Rose to watch. His exhibition came to a halt with a striking pose designed to impress the girl, who took the obvious cue and clapped with delight.

"The West Warrens on level twelve, m'lady," He began, stepping into the girl's personal space with a knowing look. He gestured for her to walk with him and Ranko favored him with a demure smile. Crescent trailed behind them with a bland expression, watching as her counterpart simultaneously flirted with her target and courted their potential doom. The player replaced the sword, seemingly more than happy to flirt back. "T'was a fierce battle. It started with the pull of a Spiny Beetle, but I quickly found myself inundated by a phalanx of their brethren that had been aggroed by proximity."

"OOOOooooh…" Ranma nodded slowly, watching as if enraptured by the tale. "Did you survive?"

Behind her, Crescent's cheek twitched even while the man nodded obliviously, continuing his story. "It was touch and go, I admit. Their sheer numbers forced me into a retreat whereupon I stumbled upon 'Shiny Spiny Beetle,' the controller mob. It was my only chance, so I focused on it."

While he talked, the redhead to his right busied herself with the clasps of her tunic, working the first three free to allow a more substantial glimpse at the cleavage hidden beneath. The player next to her began to notice by the second clasp, causing unnatural pauses to infiltrate his retelling.

"I, ah, deployed every SKILL I could to, um, burst it down," The man stumbled through the story as he stole quick glances down the valley of her bosom while they walked. Ranko smiled sweetly at his attention, as if completely oblivious to the glances or the subtle jiggle created by the purposeful bounce in her steps. He cleared his throat, forcing himself to continue through the distraction. "I killed it with under a hundred… ahem, under a hundred HP remaining."

"Amazing…" the girl nodded thoughtfully, her pace slowly drawing to a stop. Ranko turned fully toward him and stepped into his personal space with a warm smile that suggested infatuation. His gaze was inevitably drawn from her sapphire eyes to the busom of her chest now mere centimeters from his own before yanking it back to the beautiful girl's eyes. She looked away as if somewhat shy. "I… I know this is forward of me, but… what are you doing for dinner?"

"Dinner?" Crescent blinked with widened eyes even as the player they were stalking processed the question for himself.

"Dinner?" The player parroted, now dumbfounded over the fortuitous turn of events. While girls in Sword Art Online weren't exactly rare, they were certainly a minority and moreso the good looking ones. The impossibility that that this one seemed to be asking him on a date created a mental log jam of epic proportions. "I… that's… we could… ah…"

His tongue-tied state lasted only as long as the redhead had patience for and her besot persona evaporated on the spot.

"Guess not." She shrugged, leaving the man to suddenly gibber with the sudden one-hundred and eighty degree shift in her demeanor. Ranko threw a cheeky smile back to him as she turned to walk away. "Maybe next time!"

The man stared after the girl as she walked away, leaving him and her equally stunned friend gaping in her wake. Crescent_Rose took another moment to process the mental reboot as she watched, then turned to the stunned, crestfallen man next to her.

"She's, ah, flighty like that." Crescent offered weakly before offering their victim an apologetic half bow that turned into a sprint after the girl before the act was even complete. The black haired girl had barely caught up to her counterpart just in time to hear the redhead's comment.

"Well, that was a bust." Ranko glanced over to Crescent, who was favoring her with an incredulous expression that boiled over into a physical outburst seconds later.

"DINNER?!" Crescent_Rose all but screeched in disbelief, watching Ranma shrug without concern over the fact that she, a boy, had just asked another boy out on what was effectively a date.

"The Doc is a married man." The redhead elaborated, breaking down the encounter for the girl next to her. Crescent cocked her head, still staring at the girl as if she had grown a second head. Morbid curiosity kept her temper in check however, as the redhead continued to explain. "Happily married, I might add."

"And what does that have to do with him?" Her partner wondered, eyeing the redhead doubtfully.

"The dummy back there was ooglin' all over me the moment I popped my shirt," Ranko gestured back behind her with a nod. "I've come out of animation sessions with my clothes a sweaty, clingy mess and Akihiko never batted an eye. That guy ain't him."

Crescent_Rose nearly tripped as her pace faltered with the realization. "Your plan was to flirt with the creator of Sword Art Online?"

The pigtailed girl's brow crinkled with visible disdain. "Jeez, when you put it like that…"

"And what if it was him?!" Ranko's partner hissed as her temper spiraled out of control. "What if he decided to just delete you?!"

"Told ya, he wouldn't do it." The martial artist shook her head, imminently confident in her logic.

"Oh, right," Crescent rolled her eyes while her tone dripped with sarcasm. "The game is supposedly his baby."

"Exactly." Ranko nodded with a smirk, confirming the hypothesis as the pair turned a corner. The open architecture of the town square greeted them and at its center, the transit gate occasionally flaring with power as players were teleported to and from the village. The girl cocked her head introspectively, elaborating on the thought. "Now maybe if I challenged him directly, he'd do it."

The displaced schoolgirl arched an eyebrow. "And why is that?"

"It's a legitimate use of the his art." Ranko nodded, certain of her assumption. "If it came to a fight, all bets are off, but the one thing he wouldn't do is simply delete me from a menu."

"So you're banking everything on the mad scientist having a moral code of ethics." The girl's frown deepened.

Ranko stopped just short of the town square's cobblestone, sizing up her partner as if realizing her worry for the first time. "It's kinda hard to explain. Take Akane's kidnappers, for instance."

"Okaaaay…?"

If she noticed the bland drawl of Rose's voice, Ranko continued without acknowledging it. "Some of 'em got standards. Some of 'em don't. After a few, you get really good at knowing which ones will burn everything down just to get what they want. The Doc ain't one of 'em. Besides, he's already got most of what he wants."

"But there has to be some other way!" Crescent all but pleaded, only to watch the girl shake her head with some emotion other than brash cockiness.

"There ain't. It's either confront him now or wait while his game picks us off." The redhead explained her point of view with uncharacteristic direness before her mood lightened with a smirk. Ranko turned it on Akane's friend, hoping to cheer her up. "Don't worry, though. It'll be fine."

Sayuri stared at the blue eyed martial artist for several long moments before pushing an artificial smile of her own across her lips.

It wasn't fine.

None of it was.

Not at all.


The Present.

"And how about on the job?"

The spoon laden with ice cream paused on its way to her lips as the redhead considered the question. A dab of deep brown syrup dripped back into the dish from whence it came while she mentally composed her response. After a moment, Ranma shrugged with little emotional investment.

"He was pretty normal," The martial artist replied easily as the unassuming man across the table from her listened. Whereas she was dressed in a simple blue tee and shorts, Kikuoka Seijirou in his black suit and tie seemed wholly out of place in the hospital cafeteria. The government agent adjusted his glasses, taking notes of their conversation with his smart phone as she continued. "Well, as normal as an egghead usually is. He didn't exactly show up on my radar of crazies, at least. Not then."

Ranma finished her bite even as the agent latched on to the particulars of her response. "That implies some form of peculiarity that you did notice, however."

"I guess." The girl across from him shrugged, tepidly dipping the spoon into her bowl for another helping. "He was reserved. Didn't socialize. If it didn't have anything to do with the project, it had nothing to do with him. Kind of why I was surprised he was interested in my art."

"It was another system to him." Kikuoka assumed, filling in the blanks for himself.

"Exactly." The martial artist nodded, though her attitude was no longer one of simple ambivalence. The government agent took silent note of the whiting of her fingertips that bore the spoon, while the gaze of her blue eyes darkened into a thousand-yard stare.

"Ahem," He coughed uncomfortably, regaining her attention. The girl glanced back up with a blink, as if nothing was amiss. "And how did that change once you were in-game."

"Full on psychopath." Ranma answered tersely. "The moment he dropped his little speech, I knew he would kill every last one of us."

"How?" The man asked, absently checking his phone to ensure it was still recording their conversation. Instead of an immediate response, he received a lidded, humorousness look. He shelved the pretext of the question with a nod, silently acknowledging that yes, his department already had a detailed dossier of the girl before him. He offered her an apologetic smile, instead gesturing to the phone on the table. "For the record, then. As an expert witness."

"I get… got more challengers in martial arts than you can shake a stick at." Ranma explained, correcting herself with a frown as she responded. "You get really good at weeding out the ones that are just there for the challenge and the ones that are a noodle or two short a bowl of ramen."

"Of course," Kikuoka acknowledged evenly. "And what did you do upon realizing this?"

"I went after him." Ranma stated evenly, causing the man's attention to transition from passive listening to active attention.

"You… went after him?" The government agent arched his eyebrow doubtfully, as if not quite understanding the meaning behind her words. The girl merely nodded, causing Seijirou to clarify the question, this time with a note of incredulity in his voice. "You went after Doctor Akihiko…" The redhead nodded again. "The creator of Sword Art Online…?" Another nod. "The person who controlled every parameter of Aincrad itself?"

Ranma took the opportunity to spoon another scoop of her melting ice-cream dessert in lieu of yet another nod.

Kikuoka Seijiro stared, occasionally glancing back down to the notes on his phone. He looked back up, eyeing the girl with skepticism. "I was under the impression you weren't involved in the incident on the 75th floor…?"

"I wasn't."

"Then I would assume that your attempts to track him were largely unsuccessful." The agent posed, only to watch her shake her head.

"Nah. They were plenty successful." The girl shrugged, earning a confused look from the man.

"How so?" The man across the adjusted his glasses, as if hoping to derive meaning from her words through their focus. The largely indifferent attitude she had maintained through the majority of their interview faded and suddenly Kikuoka realized she was quite serious with her next words.

Ranma shook her head. "What, you thought 'Heathcliff' was his only avatar?"

"I… that's…"

"Got friends that say 'alts' are pretty common place in games," The redhead used her spoon to gesture back at the gobsmacked man. "Not to mention playin' God's a pretty big job for just one character."

"And… you met Doctor Akihiko during these encounters?" The government agent was now furiously typing notes into a tablet regardless of the fact that the audio device was still recording the entire conversation. The girl simply nodded. He looked up, watching her carefully through his glasses. "What was the content of these conversations?"

Ranma leaned back into her seat with ambivalence, crossing her arms as the slightest of smiles played at the edge of her lips. Kikuoka's patience mask faded into a frown as he wondered why she was withholding her testimony. He opened his mouth to query her further, then paused with realization.

"I see." He offered with an overly cordial smile and the martial artist allowed him a single nod for his perceptiveness. He retrieved the phone from the table and began to type into it. A polite chime responded and the agent set the phone back down on the table as Ranma watched. The man across from offered his hands in apology. "Far be it for me not to uphold my end of the bargain."

"No worries." Ranma acknowledged patiently and leaned back to the table as if her interest in the conversation had been renewed.

"So, you spoke to Doctor Akihiko and these… alts?" The man pressed and the redhead nodded sedately.

"The first time was all about the miracle of his creation while we tried to kill each other." Ranma advised, then shrugged. "The second time we mostly just tried to kill each other."

"Kill?" the government agent leaned forward with rapt interest watching as younger woman sip the tea she had neglected through the meeting. He shook his head, not entirely understanding. "How do you kill somebody who controlled every aspect of the experience?"

"We kinda came to an agreement," The redhead shrugged. "If I managed to find and take out all of his avatars, he'd quit. My guess is Kirito got to the last one before—"

A presence stepped up next to her as she spoke, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder. Ranma glanced up with a placid expression, noting Doctor Tofu's arrival. He acknowledged the agent across from her with a nod before returning his attention to the redhead, offering her the reason for his interruption. "Physical therapy."

"Arms?" The martial artist questions with a half grin, to which her physician nodded.

"And breathing exercises," Tofu added. The girl nodded amicably, reaching for her arm braces.

"We'll continue this another time, then," Kikuoka Seijiro also nodded, smoothing his tie as he stood up from the table. He paused for a moment, as if remembering something. "If you're willing, of course."

"As long as you uphold your end," Ranma returned easily as she balanced herself, glancing over to the government representative to ensure they had an understanding.

"Expect delivery within the hour," The man adjusted his glasses with something Ranma imagined was an attempt at a reassuring smile. The end result just ended up making him look all the more suspicious, but she offered him a polite smile in turn.

"You know where to find me," Ranma gestured to the hospital around her with a chuckle as she carefully extricated herself from the meeting. The steps were slow but steady while the doctor himself maintained a steady pace next to her. She turned a lazy smirk up to him as they neared the cafeteria exit. "And don't worry. I haven't forgotten about ours."

"So, I can cancel the C-T appointment I had lined up later?" Tofu cocked his head, as if completely oblivious to her meaning.

"Probably. Maybe." The redhead merely nodded, as if not perceiving the not so subtle reminder before nodding in the direction of the elevator. "On that note, lets go see what Seijiro-san's got for us."


Aincrad.

Some days it was harder to tell than others.

Not that Ranko would ever forget that she was in a game that was actively trying to kill her, but the near slash of a gigantic cleaver buffeting her pigtail certainly felt realistic enough to where she wasn't about to question it. Instead, she dodged under the massive flat of carving steel, noting her distorted reflection rolling across its warped warped metallic surface. Its sight only served to reinforced the feeling of immersion, though she had little time to analyze it—The next cleaver was already driving down to cut her in two.

The redhead pivoted with the initial evasion to sweep her own over-sized tonfa up to intercept the next weapon already inbound. The bite of steel on steel was just as real to her senses, as was the shower of sparks that pressed down upon her with the weight of its impact. Ranko watched the durability crumble away from the offhand weapon as the pig boss ground the second cleaver into the inert object. The beast wound back with the first cleaver, once again intending to strike the martial artist down now that she was pinned.

"Switch!"

Ranko had intercepted two attacks. The third would never make it as her partner's shield suddenly loomed over her like an eclipsing moon, slamming into the gigantic humanoid pig's torso with a body blow that knocked it back a step.

"On it!" Crescent_Rose called out as her skill processed. The brunette's shield shimmered brightly and suddenly the stumble backward turned into a stagger that seemed to outright stun the beast. Its balance wavered even as a new voice sought to capitalize on its ineffectual state.

"DPS three and four! GO!" A new team of fighters rushed past Ranko and Crescent. They were lightly armored and bore weapons more suited toward inflicted large amounts of damage quickly. Knives. Katana. Sabers. Steel flashed again, but this time it was their turn to do the damage. Blue eyes traced the glow of weapons- the only telltale sign that this reality wasn't, in fact, real. The attack was catastrophic in nature regardless. Team Four shared the flanks of beast, slashing it into pixelated gore while Team Five tore into its backside. Numeric damage melted from its health bar with each lunge until the brunette that had induced its stupor hollered back at the team lead.

"Five seconds! Four, three…"

"Hit and fade!" The armored man hollered and the two teams he had ordered to the forefront began to retreat past the organized line of armor that Ranko herself was a part of. "Tank Two, relieve three! One, stand by for the skill!"

Dungeon boss Swineulous recovered, flexing its stubby limbs with a bestial roar that actually pushed the raid back several meters. Ranko dug into the ground, her fingers gouging the loose soil as the air pressure of its putrid breath violently buffeted her. The martial artist winced. It may not have been real but damned if it wasn't making every attempt to empty her stomach in disgust. It wasn't enough to distract her from the two gleaming cleavers, however.

«BISECTOR»

"Get ready!" The lead called from the back ranks, knowing what was about to happen just as well as she did.

BISECTOR» activated within the last fifteen percent of its HP,' Ranko silently recounted as she glanced over to her partner. Crescent nodded, hefting her shield while bringing her spear to bear on the pig. Her blue-eyed gaze flicked back as the massive pinkish creature took an aggressive stance. 'High speed charge, AOE cone. Anything that gets caught will...'

Her thoughts trailed off as she watched the enormous swine reel one of the axes back. The teen girl stared without comprehension, knowing she was missing something without realizing what it was. She cocked her head even as the ranks of armor formed up around them.

'...Something about the movement,' She wondered, still not placing the uncertainty. The animation wasn't right for a high speed-

Her eyes widened abruptly.

"THE ANIMATION'S WRONG!" She blurted, spinning around to yell out the new threat to the rest of the raid group. It took a precious second for the meaning to sink in, then another for a reaction to take place. It was already too late.

«CALLED SHOT»

"Spread out! SPREAD OUT!" The commander screamed, but they were already a second short as Swineulous whipped its arm forward, freeing the cleaver into the open air like a whirling buzzsaw. The group of players designated DPS Three abruptly disappeared in an exploding cloud of dust and stone, sending players sprawling. Every last one of them took critical damage, but two of them simply shattered outright, flaking away into prismatic sparkles.

As horrifying as the event was, every player present was a survivor. At six months in, most of them had seen the game take a life, and on the front lines of the push upward, every last one of them knew that it was rare to clear a dungeon without at least one casualty, if not several. The raid's attention snapped back to their target even as the potbellied boss roared again.

"Shit! He's got another!" One of the raiders hastily warned as Swineulous's right arm drew back, and with it, the second cleaver. The enormous weapon glimmered menacingly, advising every player present what was about to happen—another person was about to die.

For her part, Ranko was certain she could dodge the next cleaver if it came her way. She was an evasion-parry tank for the most part, but it was the others she wasn't so sure about as her mind raced to work through the angles in that last moment. The skill had an AoE that would heavily damage anything inside ten meters. Anything within two might as well have been considered a direct hit, making it a probable kill for anybody unlucky to be at anything less than nominal health. The redhead offered the stricken DPS team a quick look. Every last one had been disarmed.

'Another proc,' Ranko guessed, watching as the Pig's wind-up finalized. The skill was a three part combination, though only the disarm and follow-up crit were the killers. The Area of Effect damage was just for shock value.

The redhead grimaced, not even sure a full plate tank would be able to take the hit. She tightened her grip on the tonfa in her main hand. Some days it sucked to be the best.

"Crescent! Hate and Switch!" She hollered even as the rest of their ranks drew back. The brunette's eyes widened in shock for a split second before complying, smacking her spear against the shield she bore to produce a loud resounding gong. Swineulous's attention immediately turned to the armored girl even as Ranko raced in from behind, skidding to a stop to take her partner's place.

"You better not get us killed!" Crescent rebuked testily to the smaller girl as she hunkered down behind her shield. Ranko herself brought her two tonfa up in a cross guard. The martial artist turned a smirk back at her and was just opening her mouth when the pig boss roared again. Its arm snapped forward and the shining cleaver that promised to cut through a house was airborne, bearing straight down into them. There was no time for a skill and her stance left no room for an evasion. Ranko took the cleaver head-on.

The impact was deafening, jarring her bones as it bit into the steel shaft of her main-hand tonfa. Disarm. The force of the strike yanked Ranma's left arm wildly out of position and the weapon went flying, skidding across the dungeon floor even as she stared down the cleaver only centimeters from splitting her in half.

But first it would have to go through her off-hand.

Strictly speaking, the remaining tonfa wasn't a weapon in the way she was using it. It was an object whose stats had been zeroed out since nobody playing Sword Art Online had found a way to actually dual wield weapons. Regardless, even the inert object in her hand still counted as physical mass, mass the cleaver would need to breach in order to inflict damage upon its—

BOOOM!

Ranko's world was suddenly filled with vertigo as she tumbled wildly, violently skidding across the dungeon's floor as stars flashed through her vision. Her lungs spasmed as she sucked in a desperate breath, breathing in dust and coughing up blood while the world swam around her. Something flashed at the periphery of her vision. The sounds of steel on steel pitched against her eardrums and finally—

CONGRATULATIONS!

Ranko stared upward with incredulity, flat on her back as the gigantic digital banner proclaimed their victory overhead. Her eyes flicked to her HP bar.

Eighteen percent.

"Idiot." A shadow loomed above her, blocking out the congratulatory sign. Though the details were still blurry, the hair and voice all but sealed the identity of the new presence for the redhead. In spite of the tone, her face was one of concern, one the martial artist couldn't help but to smile back at.

"Yeah, wasn't one of my better ideas," Ranko agreed, rotating her neck in order to get the cricks out as she pushed herself up to a sitting position. She eyed Crescent's HP bar critically, noting the much higher value with some humor. "Besides, not all of us are wearing plate."

"Now I know why Akane smacks you around all the time." The girl known as Sayuri eyed the redhead direly, then offered the redhead a hand up. This time, Ranma wasn't feeling macho enough to decline the help as she took the pull upward with gratitude. The armored girl handed her a tonfa next. "Couldn't find the other one. Uno says he thought he saw it shatter right before the AoE."

"Probably maxed out the durability," The martial artist nodded in absent agreement, staring at the heavy notch inflicted on her main hand weapon. Sensing her focus, its stat window faded into existence in the air next to the weapon. The number in red immenditely drew her attention. Three percent left. That was all the durability left on her off-hand tonfa, likewise representing how close she had come to death. She frowned as the full weight of her actions were summarized in two words.

"Well, shit."

"Duh." Sayuki glared, as if trying to force the lethal reality down upon the smaller girl. "We just can't just be taking risks like—"

"HUZZAH!" The cheer broke out, drawing both girl's attention to the victorious group all congregating around the last strike dealer and his loot, a wicked looking kriss that seemed to reflect the light as a prismatic rainbow. Then somebody pointed in their direction and suddenly the crowd was flowing around them. Another cheer went up. "Our guardian angels!"

The black-haired girl's cheek flushed bright pink against the crush of bodies. The redhead's eyes widened as she was lifted up into the sky by multiple hands.

Neither had a clue how to handle their new fame.


Celebration.
Noun.

The action of marking one's pleasure at an important event or occasion by engaging in enjoyable, typically social, activity.

By definition, celebrations were a foreign concept to Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. Instead, they were usually on his short list of things to avoid because the celebrations that typically found him usually involved challenges, martial arts, property damage, and of course, fiancées. It wasn't that he minded the martial arts or challenges. Even the fiancees he could manage, to a degree. The celebrations themselves invariably melted down around him like a nuclear power plant that had failed its last safety inspection, however. And the one before that. And like every natural disaster involving fire and devastation, blame was invariably assigned…

…Which was why she was glad she wasn't Ranma Saotome at the moment. Here, she was Ranko and Sayuri was Crescent_Rose. Tonight, both girls were the heroes of the hour as another toast was raised to them, all but obligating another them to take another long swallow of the honey mead that populated the tables in frothy, beaten tankards. The alcohol wasn't any more real than the inn containing the celebration, but the game would ensure their brains wouldn't notice the difference. Like real alcohol, Sword Art would inflict status effects, slowing down reaction times, dulling senses… Even replicating the pleasant buzz as the AI increased the levels of endogenous opioids in the brain's nucleus accumbens.

"TO THE ANGELS!"

Ranko rolled her eyes while Crescent's cheeks flushed pink with the attention. The redhead was just about to take a drink when a loud request interrupted the attempt.

"MARRY ME, RANKO-CHAN!"

The girl immediately choked on the small quantity of mead she had accidentally inhaled instead of consumed, violently spraying the beverage all over the table in a coughing fit. It wasn't the first marriage proposal she had received since the lock down and it more than likely wouldn't be the last. Whether it was simply the last straw on that particular topic or her watered down inhibitions, Ranma shot a irritable look back to the petitioner, pointing him out with her sloshing mug.

"I AIN'T INTA GUYS, JACKASS!" She shouted back, causing not just the man to reel with the revelation, but half the establishment's male patronage.

"No! My redheaded angel!"
"Life is too cruel!"
"Say it ain't so!"

Even Crescent looked at her with wide eyes before choked snickering spilled out into full blown laughter, whereupon Ranko's irritable look faded as fits of laughter overtook her as well. Watching both girls' mirth, the joke was suddenly obvious to the rest even if their interpretation missed the mark. Laughter and cheer exploded throughout the bar once more. One of the braver men, a thirty something with sandy blond hair and skeletal face, sidled up next to Crescent_Rose with a wan smile. He had to be in his thirties and looked like he had missed too many meals by Ranko's estimation, but that didn't stop him from making a pass at the schoolgirl.

"So, Crescent," He began smoothly, leaning in to take her hand gently. "Are you into guys?"

"I… ah…" Sayuri mouth opened and shut as a traffic jam of neurons tried to the parse the man's attention into something she could make sense of. Like the redhead next to her, it wasn't the first pass a guy had made at her— the population of males to females trapped in Sword Art Online was disproportionately in her favor. Unlike the redhead, she wasn't quite so ready to shake the attention off, and her cheeks pinkened. "Um, yes. I usually am. Into guys, that is."

Crescent swallowed the thud of her heart down with a shy smile. It wasn't like Furikan where a handful of girls- like the one next to her -gathered all the attention. It was in such plentiful supply, in fact, that it was almost overwhelming. All she had to do was look a a guy wrong and he would follow them around for half the day like a lost puppy, offering to buy them gear and food.

Suddenly she knew exactly how the redhead felt.

"Th-Thanks, but—" She stammered, only to watch jealousy read its ugly head amongst the other patrons.

"HEY!"
"You can't just cut like that!"
"I was going to ask her first!"

And then the Cinderella moment collapsed for Sayuri. She favored the men with a bland look before simply rolling her eyes. "Morons."

She pushed away from the table and the argument that continued in spite of her presence, searching for her partner… And found the familiar redhead in the corner of the establishment, speaking to a cloaked individual. Icy dread immediately found Sayuri's gut as she immediately realized who Ranko was meeting with and what was being discussed. Crescent's cheek twitched.

As if on cue, the redhead nodded and the cloaked girl- undoubtedly The Rat -disappeared back into the crowd of revelers. Ranko picked Sayuri out of the crowd herself and smiled with a half wave before setting a course, explaining the details as she joined her. "Another lead. Lots of unique gear and a skill nobody has ever seen before."

"You just can't keep going after him like this," Sayuri shook her head in newfound frustration, pinching her forhead with the stress of the situation. "He'll kill you. He'll kill us. And I don't know about you, but I want to get out of this damn game. Alive."

"And that's why we gotta find him." Ranma stated as they argued the well-worn topic. "He's changing the variables. Monsters are getting' different weapons and using different tactics. There's a goddamn computer watching every battle that takes place in this game. If you think this is gonna get any better, you got another thing coming."

"I hate you." Crescent_Rose frowned, only to watch the redhead smirk back. If the gravity of the situation registered for the redhead, it certainly wasn't evident in her expression

"Everybody does." The martial artist stated with amusement and began to set a course for the tavern door. Her partner followed. "His names Kirito."

"The Beater?!" Sayuri squeaked. It had just gotten worse. Most of the active players in Sword Art knew the name. He was ruthless beta tester with a reputation for using others to his selfish advantage and progression. Technically, the redhead next to her was a Beater as well, but there was a world of difference between the two. Chills crawled down the girl's spine with the thought. She glanced to the seemingly eager redhead with foreboding, making one last attempt. "Ranma, please..."

"We're meetin' him tommorow." Ranma nodded as they stepped out into the night. Sayuri's hands clenched in mute frustration.

This had to stop.


Author's Notes: There we go. An actual Chapter. It's a bit shorter than I would like, but this was a natural plot break, so it is what it is. I'll try to push more out, but that all depends on he covids living in my house. See my front page for details on that. In any case, I'm on forced vacation so I'll try to use that time wisely. I don't have much in the way for notes, to be honest, save to thank everybody at fanfictionfederation. I'm sure there are spalling and ghrammar mistakes you would like to point out and that's fine. If you want to talk about the plot, fics or life in general, you can hit me up on my discord at mulletproof#6729 or steam (less used) as Panzercat.

See you soon.