Chapter 13: Steamy Situations; or, Hot Springs Are Dangerous Too

October 27th, 2025


"Kazuto Kirigaya! Your forfeit comes now! As the victor, I demand my compensation!"

Everyone looked up at the sudden intruder at the back of our class. The light from the hallway window outside blinded me and the only thing that I could see was a shadow posing in the doorway. After a second, she took a single step forward and posed again; this time, one arm crossed across her waist while her other hand brushed hair behind an ear, and her front foot was bent just slightly enough. I bet she practiced those poses in the mirror!

Fortunately, after a second Nijika hopped up to slide the door shut again.

Saori, what are you doing?

"Perhaps you weren't able to comprehend my words, steeped in magic and sorcery as they are!" Saori exclaimed, before she dramatically leveled a finger at me. "Will you honor your bargain? Or attempt to renege, throwing dirt on your word?"

"What'd you say?" Kotone snapped as she shot to her feet. "Anyone who says I don't have honor will answer to me!" Her glare fell on me. "Well, what are you waiting for? Go."


Even knowing that she was a nice person, Kotone was still scary! She was scary enough that the rest of the class didn't so much as murmur in complaint as I stood up and walked over to stand next to Saori. The eyepatch-wearing girl grinned widely and folded her arms. "An excellent decision. Truly, you are a worthy opponent! Until we meet again on the field of battle!"

Our class representative looked at me as the eccentric girl swept out of the room. "Kirigaya," she said finally, "you're excused. The rest of you, let's focus on planning what we're going to do for the festival, okay?"

It didn't look like I had a choice. I followed Saori down the hall until she opened the door to the computer room. "Saori, you're back!" Takuya said. Then, he saw me enter behind her and leaned back in his chair, tugging at his beanie. "Oh, hey, Kazuto. You managed to get permission, Saori?"

"Ku ku ku! Naturally! I didn't even need to unleash the smallest shred of my power, the gang leader is an honorable foe!" Saori smiled. She looked so proud of herself for that, too. "Perhaps not everyone is totally lost to the Dark Generals yet!"

Toshiyuki sighed. "Sorry about this," he said to me. I waved away the leader's apology.

Saori didn't explain much when she kidnapped me. Maybe you could tell me what's going on, since you're the president of the Computer Club?

"As I'm sure you've guessed by now, Saori had another idea," Toshiyuki sighed. "We should be working with our class, but since the clubs can put together a separate booth if they want..."

"The Computer Club is going to be presenting a game that we've made together," Kenji said. The eternally-smiling boy seemed a little bit frazzled while he and Yonaga typed away. "It's slow going, though..."

And I guess you want me to help somehow?

It's not like I'd ever made a game before. Sure, I'd dabbled with some hardware design, but that wouldn't be useful for playing a game. (I'd been playing around with some shoulder-mounted camera stuff, but - Oh okay I can already tell none of you care.) "Exactly!" Saori exclaimed, pointing at me. "You and I, as bitter rivals, will be locked in naval combat!"

"Basically, we need you to help test the game," Takuya said. 'Lucky guy gets to play with Saori while I'm stuck making assets for spaceships!'

I sighed. Sure enough, the rest of the Black Cats were hiding it well, but they were all quietly jealous that I was the one who got to challenge Saori. These gamer guys! If they'd just confess to her already, then I wouldn't have to ignore their thoughts all the time!

Alright, let me just sit down. Who's got the latest build for me?


"I'm surprised they're letting you work with the Computer Club alone," Asuna said. "I thought you had to balance your time between your class and your clubs."

"Huh? Who told you that?" Kana asked.

"Rika," Asuna said. "The last few years, that's why she's been running around like crazy every time the school festival starts." After a second, she blinked and then sighed. "Or, I've just been making an assumption and Rika wants to be part of everything."

The rest of us looked at each other. "That sounds about right," Yuuna giggled. "Too bad Rika isn't here, or she could clear things up!"

"Ah - um, I saw her with the Theater Club earlier, helping them make some stuff for a play," Nijika said. "She said she'd be eating lunch there, so..."

"I already delivered her lunch, don't worry," Asuna said with a sweet smile. "She works so hard, so I had to make extra food for her today."

'Yeeeees! Extra sandwiches! Best day ever!'

No fair! I want extra sandwiches! Grr... This sucks!

"Oh! Kazuto!" Nijika chirped. "Our class decided that we were going to do a maid cafe!"

"Of course," Yuuna giggled. "Bet you're excited about that, honey!"

"Yeah!" Nijika smiled. "I'm definitely going to do my best to live up to what a maid should be!"

Her eyes were practically sparkling as she sighed. Her thoughts were filled of herself, dressed in a fancy maid outfit, sweeping around with a duster; anywhere she touched became sparkling clean in an instant, effortlessly. In just a few moments, the dirty classroom that she'd pictured herself in was back to a picture-perfect room where you could eat off of the floor (if Nijika the Super-Maid let you eat something that had touched the ground instead of cleaning it up instantly). The imaginary classroom was literally gleaming in the light from the sun.

"Speakin' of doin' yer best," Kana added, "have ya heard? Th' turn-out of club presentations was kinda weak last year, so th' staff is givin' out a prize fer Best Club now."

Asuna nodded. "I remember Rika complaining about the other clubs last year... Though, I didn't know there was going to be a prize this year. What is it?"

"Nya hah hah!" Kana snickered. "Can't give away th' surprise, so if ya wanna know what it is, buy our newspaper! Nya hah hah!" We all sighed as the money-obsessed girl laughed. I'd expected that response, but there were very, very rare times when she'd surprise us. 'If we win the hot springs trip, I'm definitely inviting A-chan and Kazu-boy!'

Oh. So it's a hot springs trip. Just great. And I can already tell that the Computer Club is going to win despite my best efforts, because of the title of this chapter!


November 1st, 2025

We worked hard (or, well, the other members of the Computer club worked hard and I did my best to keep Saori occupied, which - okay, no, everyone worked hard) until the day of the school festival. "And once more we greet the morn!" Saori exclaimed as she opened the door to the Computer club. "How about it! Will our weapon be effective against the wiles of our opponents?"

"It's fine," Toshiyuki reassured her. "You and Kazuto tested the latest build yesterday, remember?"

"Yeah," Takuya grinned. "You were even talking about how cool it was."

Saori sat down at the table and propped her arms up on the desk, lacing her fingers in front of her. After a second of posing, she reached into her bag and pulled out a pair of glasses that she put on (it looked silly on top of her eyepatch, but I wasn't going to say anything) and angled her head so the lenses caught the light. "Excellent. Exactly as planned." That's not even the right reference! The author is a hack!

"We're done setting up the signs and everything," Kenji said as he and Yonaga walked back in. "Hopefully we get some visitors. I want to show this off."

"Ku ku ku..." Saori chuckled. "Fear not! Because I planned for this! Behold!"

She thrust a newspaper in our faces. One copy for each of us. I scanned the article highlighted, and then stared up at Saori.

Saori, what is this?!

"I can tell you're shocked! But fear not, faithful Black Cats!" She spread her arms wide. "For I, the wielder of the Mystic Eye, have already blessed your abilities this day with my Cat's Eye Blessing!"

Toshiyuki laughed. "Eheheh... Yeah... Thanks, Saori..."

Forget about that! Why do I have to go up one on one against everyone else?!

"Huh? You're the best gamer here, Kazuto," Takuya said. "Everyone knows that." He looked around and all the other Black Cats nodded. "This might not be ALO, but none of us forget how you saved us back then. So this is totally your show, man!"

"Indeed!" Saori slammed a hand on the table. "You are the best choice possible in this, our most dangerous fight yet! And here! To enhance your powers, use these powerful Titan's Gloves! They've been stitched from the softest wool, with special magical circles woven in to ensure victory." Saori these are literally just another pair of the fingerless gloves you always wear!

Still, they were surprisingly nice gloves; I couldn't see any loose threads or anything like that, and when I slipped them on - just to try! Besides, she'd pout if I didn't - they fit snugly and were surprisingly warm.

Saori smiled. "Excellent. I'm glad they fit, Kazuto. My skills were hard-won creating equipment for myself, after all!" Wait, so she's saying she makes them herself?! "Now onwards! We must fight and emerge victorious, as the Darkened swell in number even as we speak here!"

The computer club was lucky, so to speak. Since we were one of the closest clubs to the classroom, we were one of the first setups that visitors would see. That meant that we were able to capture the most people who were just browsing around - and the lure of trying out a game with colorful lights, sounds, and an unbeatable opponent meant that our line started stretching out.

And I was unbeatable. The reason for that? I was cheating with my telepathy.

Don't give me that look! My psychic powers cause me enough grief as it is, and it wasn't like I could stop cheating! I didn't even want to in the first place, but I had no choice!

As for how I was cheating, well, it was simple. The game that the Black Cats had made was a simple tactical wargame, dressed up to look fancy. Neither player knew where the other's space fleet was until they got close enough to see each other - but with my psychic powers, I was able to read my opponent's mind whether I wanted to or not, and they always pictured their next move. So, I knew where their ships were at all times, which made pincer attacks and sneak attacks the order of the day.

"No way!" one guy from a different school wailed. "How could I - You're cheating! You have to be!"

"Yeah!" his friend said. They made an interesting pair: one short and round, the other tall and thin. "There's no way you could be that good at the game!"

Kenji stepped forward, his smile still steady. "E-Easy, there... The game is fair, and we're not cheating at all." As expected of the Black Cat's tank! He'll distract them, and then one of the damage dealers will finish the job!

"You dare?" Saori exclaimed? "Our honor is spotless! Black Cat's Crossing!"

The two guys looked at her as she did weird poses at them, and then they turned away. "Whatever," the chubby one said. "Forget it." 'That game was pretty good, though...' They walked away back through the crowd -

- and bumped straight into a maid. The chubby guy lost his balanced and fell back on the floor, and I winced when I saw who they'd run into. Wow, that was seriously some S-rank bad timing! Kotone glared daggers at the first guy as he rubbed his nose. 'Ah, I wonder if he got hurt from that fall...' She was wearing a really nice maid's dress, even though it was pretty simple.

It was some extra-bad timing for those two guys too, because a few older men in rumpled suits that flanked Kotone on either side stared down at them. If they had names like in SAO, they'd be Yakuza Thug One through Yakuza Thug Five. All of them stared at the kids who'd dared to run into their boss like that.

"S-S-S-S... Sorry!" the two boys shrieked, and ran off down the hall so fast I could almost see dust coming from them.

'I guess he's fine...'

"Boss, should I go after 'em?" One guy smacked a fist into his palm. "Make 'em apologize proper?"

"Don't do that," Kotone snapped. "They already apologized."

'The boss is so generous!' 'She's the best ever!' 'We should all strive to be like her!' I sighed. Great. Today was off to a great start already...

Kotone looked me up and down, and then sat down in the challenger's chair without asking permission. "Hey!" one of the guys that had been waiting in line complained, but Kotone just glared at him. "O-Oh, um... Never mind."

'I guess they really weren't waiting in line...' Kotone looked back at me. "Let's go."

I sighed and started up the next game. There wasn't much I could do in the face of someone like that. It didn't take long for both of us to get focused on the moves, and... "There!" Kotone snapped, shoving her forces forward as soon as I shot down one of her scout ships. I pulled my ships back quickly, but there were still a few losses. Tch... She kept a healthy fleet of scouts flying around that kept me from safely hiding my forces in meaningful chunks, and every time I shot one down her massed forces would swarm me.

"Yeah! That's the way, Boss!"

"You show that kid!"

It didn't help that her cheering squad was loud and noisy! It was really hard to concentrate, but Kotone didn't seem to have a problem at all -

"Excuse me. If you're here to watch, please stay quiet. You're disturbing the others."

The polite voice carried the weight of an order. I glanced over in surprise to see Nijika standing there, hands on her hips. Her maid outfit was neat and tidy, with a red color; it was way frillier than Kotone's, though, with a black ribbon tied neatly around the neck and an extra ribbon perched cutely on her head.

The thugs all looked at each other, then mumbled under their breaths and quieted down. The fury of an angry maid is terrifying!

"Thank you very much." Nijika nodded briskly, then stepped up right next to me and stood there. The worst part is, I couldn't even complain, because there was something about her that just screamed 'I belong right here'. Seriously, her maid abilities are insane! She glanced at the messy and disorganized line, then back at me. 'Hmmmm...! It's so... messy!' I ignored her; I needed to focus on the game, and after a second my tactics played out with efficiency as I blindsided Kotone's fleet and split it into two. 'Grrr! I can't stand it any more!' "Alright everyone, please stand in a straight line. You'll get in everyone's way if you stand like that!" With Nijika's help, the messy line was soon straightened out and stretching down the hall.

Thank you, Nijika. So, are you on your break?

"Uwaah..." Nijika let out a huge sigh. "It's been so much fun today! I'm doing my best to live up to the maids I admire!" She giggled. "I just wish you could be there with us, Kazuto... It's lonely without you."

"Isn't your class doing a maid cafe?" Takuya asked me. 'Huh, I wonder what Saori would look like in a maid dress...'

"Yep!" Nijika chirped. "Everyone is doing a great job. How about you? Is everything going well?"

Kotone glared at the screen when I was able to finish mopping up her units, and stood up. "...Good." 'Wow, he's really good at this game! I wish I could show off my skill, but I'm better at fighting games anyway. Plus, my break's over so I have to go anyway.'

"Ah! Boss!"

"Wait up!"

The thugs followed after her in a hurry after Kotone stormed away. Nijika let out a sigh of relief as they left. "Scary," she mumbled. I wondered how Kotone was doing in the cafe, but it couldn't be that bad. After all, I wasn't really hearing any negative things in people's thoughts. "Ah! I should go, Kazuto. Good luck!"


November 3rd, 2025

"And congratulations to the Computer club for their amazing game!" Asuna said. 'I knew Kazuto would do it!' "For your outstanding performance in the festival, please, take these tickets to the nearby hot spring!" Toshiyuki blushed as one of the Princesses of the school smiled at him and complimented his work, and accepted the tickets. We were lucky; the trip was 'admit one group' and so everyone got to use it.

"Yes!" Saori clenched her fist. "We did it!"

"I'm really looking forward to the trip," Yonaga said. "It'll be great to relax after working that hard." 'Plus we'll get to be in the hot springs with Saori!'

Takuya grinned. "Look at Leader, he's blushing bright red!" 'We get to see Saori in the hot springs!'

"Don't tease him, Takuya," Kenji said. 'I'm looking forward to this!'

All of you...!

Once the assembly was finished, Rika and the other girls approached me. "Congrats on winning!" Rika said. "I knew you'd do it!"

"Ahhh," Nijika sighed, "I hoped we'd manage to win too, but... we just couldn't beat the competition." It wasn't like it was their fault, after all. She may be a popular maid idol, but she was up against the two Princesses, as well as Rika - the freckled girl may not be on the level of Asuna or Yuuna -

"Achoo!" Rika sneezed. "Huh?"

"Is something wrong?" Asuna asked.

The girl rubbed her nose. "No, just felt like someone was thinking mean things, that's all."

"You sneeze for that?" Nijika mumbled.

- but she's still an incredibly popular person among all the clubs. Of course they'd go visit those people.

"So, Kazuto," Asuna said. "When are you leaving for the springs?"

I don't think Saori picked out a date yet, why?

"Nya hah hah! They're goin' on next week!" Nijika stifled a shriek of surprise as Kana popped out of the crowd. "The 9th is the date~."

Eh?! How could she possibly know that!?

November 9th, 2025

I'm only slightly mad that Kana was exactly correct in her timing. Saori had demanded that we go as soon as possible, so naturally the trip was scheduled for the next Sunday. And, as expected, the other girls had decided that there was no way I was leaving them out of a trip to the hot springs. I knew this was going to happen as soon as I heard the word 'hot spring'. There was no way Asuna would miss out on a chance to soak in a new bath!

The Black Cats and I took the bus up to the hot spring, but the girls all took a separate car thanks to Yuuna and Nijika's earnings. Their fan count had skyrocketed with every concert they put on, and that meant they were making money hand over fist; which meant that Yuuna had no problem sharing her good fortune with everyone else.

'Waah, this is such a nice car! I'm glad Miss Yuuna let us ride in it!'

'That little shrine maiden friend of Kazuto's little sister is adorable! As expected of my rival! ...'s little sister!'

'I hope Yuuna doesn't expect me to think of this as bribery to stay away from Kazuto at the hot springs today...'

'Asuna probably won't let me spend extra time with Darling, will she? Darn! Oh well, I'll just have to enjoy the sights elsewhere~!'

'I wish Master were riding with me. It'd be more fun if he were here... Maybe we'd get to talk about GGO for once.'

'Hmm... How can I convince Kazuto to try out the mixed bathing, and then 'accidentally' walk in...? But if I'm too obvious, then they'll figure it out!'

I sighed. Even on the bus, I couldn't get away from their thoughts! At least Nijika seemed more interested in watching the scenery than thinking about me, for once.

'Why do we have ta go theeeeeere... This sucks. Stupid Kanamoto family! Stupid ninja clan.' Eh? What was Kana complaining about? For that matter, I was surprised she was willing to tag along with everyone in the first place. She'd seemed kinda irritated and a little depressed when Asuna had told everyone where they would be going. But for an instant, she'd been super excited. Come to think of it, she got super depressed as soon as Asuna told them who owned the hot spring...

Wait, is this going to be a ninja battle?! I refuse! It would get in the way of my relaxation time!

"These hot springs supposedly bubble up from deep within the earth! And so if I bathe in it, I will unlock hidden powers as they spring forth from deep within my soul!" Great, what was Saori babbling about now? At least the other passengers didn't seem to mind that much, even while the Black Cats exchanged long-suffering glances. "Ku ku ku... Soon! Soon, I will be able to break the chains restraining the sacred spear Longinus, and take up my true role as -" The bus abruptly hit a pothole and everyone rocked. Saori had been making some weird hand signs at the moment and the pothole sent her lurching to the right. Straight onto my lap.

Instantly I had the ire of every guy in the Black Cats. 'She's on his lap!' 'That's so not cool, dude!'


"Oops! Sorry, Kazuto!" Saori seemed perfectly calm and composed once she sat next to me properly, and I did my best to focus on anyone else's thoughts, because I knew how things always went! If I listened to what was going through her mind, she'd be all embarrassed and awkward and crushing on me again! "Ahem. ...The sacred spear Gungnir must be rebelling against its chains, buried deep within the earth as it is!" Hang on, wasn't it the Longinus just a few seconds ago?!


"Whoa..." everyone breathed as we stared up at the entrance to the hot springs. It was a really amazing building, made with thick wooden planks. Ivy plants climbed the sides of the walls, but the entrance itself was kept perfectly neat.

"Well, don't just stand there!" Saori said. "Let's go! I can't wait to jump in the hot springs!"

'Hee hee! Kazuto is going to be so surprised when he sees us!'

I'm very sorry, Asuna, but I already know the surprise. In fact, I'm fully aware that all of the girls that were in Yuuna's car were casually waiting right inside the door - and when we walked through that door to enter the building, there they all were. "Ah! Hello, Darling~!" Yuuna called out. "We decided to take a trip of our own. Hot springs are just the thing for chilly days in November, right?"

"And I've heard it's wonderful for the skin, too," Asuna added. Like she needs any treatment to make her skin nicer or anything like that...

Sugu waved. "Hi, Kazuto." 'Darn it! I still haven't figured out how I'm supposed to get him to take a bath with me!' "Asuna asked us to come along too."

"Miss Asuna is very nice!" Keiko added.

Asuna giggled. "Asuna is fine," she reminded Keiko. "And why are we just standing around? It's cold, so let's hit the springs."

"Yeah!" Saori cheered. 'Soaks are more fun with friends!'

"Ah... We'll go ahead," Toshiyuki said.

I started to follow them, but Rika folded her arms. "And don't even think about trying to sneak a peek, Kazuto!" she told me.

What?! Why are you saying that to me! I wouldn't do something like that.

"Kazuto wouldn't peek," Sugu said. 'I wish he would, though~!'

"He definitely won't, if he knows what's good for him," Shino said. Then, she adjusted her glasses very conspicuously. As powerful as my psychic powers are, I might not be able to defend myself against her eyes!

Kana just sighed. 'This sucks... Stupid assassination ninja clan. Though they're supposed to be backing off of that stuff lately... Still feel guilty about giving them money to spend some time here, even if Yuuna insisted on footing the bill.' Ah, I see. More ninja stuff.

I really needed to get going before I spent too much time with the girls. I wouldn't put it past Yuuna or Nijika to try... something. I didn't know what, exactly, but those idols were always up to no good! I ducked out while the girls were busy gushing about how amazing the baths were going to be and headed down towards the entrance. I very deliberately passed by the mixed bathing. Not today, Sugu!

'Heheheh! Kazuto hasn't come in yet. I bet he fell for the switched curtains!'

I froze just as I was about to brush past the blue curtain marked 'Mens' at Takuya's laughing thought. Oh? He switched the curtains, huh? Well, too bad for him! I wasn't about to just walk into the girl's bath like that. It was just asking for trouble. I didn't even need to check down the hallway to see if anyone was coming before ducking through the red curtain instead. My telepathy is on a roll for being strangely useful!

...In hindsight, I really should have seen it coming. I was just tempting Fate with that last line, so honestly I was literally asking for it.

I hadn't even thought twice when I got in the steamy hot springs after washing off. So what if I didn't see any of the Black Cats after getting undressed or entering the bath proper? I was tired after the long bus ride and it hadn't even registered in my mind. Until, of course, I let out a long sigh and Toshiyuki's thoughts entered my relaxed mind. 'Kazuto still hasn't come in. I definitely switched the curtains back after Takuya tried to mess with things, but maybe he's still talking to the girls?'

That thought immediately made my blood run cold. I'd screwed up! I'd let my guard down and the story had pounced on my moment of weakness! To make things worse, as soon as I tried to focus, the door to the changing room slid open. "Woo hoo!" Rika shouted as she ran out - followed by the rest of the girls. I immediately choked and ducked behind a rock.

If they knew I was in here, then that meant I was going to be in so much trouble! Shino might even try to follow through with her threat!

"Oh, is someone else in here?" Asuna!? Why is she so perceptive?!

Since I was hidden behind the rock, I could teleport away, so I closed my eyes and - no way! Where did all of these people come from?! There was nowhere to teleport to in the boy's side at all! It made sense with the hot springs, the Black Cats were in there! But why was the changing room so full all of the sudden!? Stupid psychic powers and their nonsensical restrictions!

"Keiko," Shino said, "don't forget we have to wash off first."

"Ehehe... I forgot."

'I wonder who's here?' Footsteps started to approach me, and I panicked at Yuuna's thoughts. "Hee hee! This kinda feels like when we met Himiko, right?"

"Nya hah hah! We wouldn't run inta Hicchan here, Yuuna," Kana snickered. The problem is, if I couldn't teleport away, they just might!

The footsteps got closer and closer, and I tried desperately to teleport. It was now or never, because if Yuuna caught me, there was no way I would be able to stay a guy for the rest of the trip! "Hi there!" Yuuna sang, as she peered around the rock -

- My butt hit the wooden floor of the guy's changing room, and I sighed with relief. 'Huh? I could have sworn there was someone there for a second... Did I imagine it?'

'Th-There wasn't anyone there? I-Is it a ghost?'

'Great, Asuna's freaking out again... This is just like that time I told a single ghost story when I slept over last year...'

I let out another sigh. Asuna was scared of ghosts, so I felt a little bit bad about frightening the beautiful Princess... But on the other hand, I didn't have to transform into my Himiko form and then deal with all the fussing. Plus, I wouldn't have to worry about Sugu hearing about her 'cousin' that she didn't know about. The other girls had promised not to mention it to Sugu after Yuuna asked them (I wasn't sure about the details, but she'd assured me they wouldn't mention it at all) but I still didn't want to risk it.

"Ah... Hey, you okay man?" The man that was staring at me in surprise looked like he was a few years older than me, with tangled long hair and a few patches of stubble. 'I thought I was the only one in here...'

Uh... Yeah, I'm good.

He straightened up and ran his fingers through his hair. The silver rings on his left hand glinted. "Okay, sure. Just shout if you need something. I'm working here." 'At least I'm getting paid by Auntie for this shitty job... Gah, I wanna go PK on SAO some more, it's way more fun than this. Not like we're gonna be able to beat the Izawa family doing this anyway. If we don't change soon, our branch is gonna die out.'

The shabby-looking kid wandered out of the changing room, and I stood up. That was really, really, really close. I took a seat on the bench in the changing room and let out one more sigh that stretched out as long as I had breath. After that, I didn't really feel like soaking in the hot springs any more, but it was still a little early for me to get dressed.

'This isn't fair... I'm only a year younger than Suguha, but still...'

'Oh no, Keiko's depressed again! I wonder why?'

'I can't believe Rika does so many sports and still has... that!'

'Nya hah hah! A-chan's so shy, when she's got more to work with than I do! Someone's gotta - Oh wow, Yuuna looks like she's having so much fun!'

'Rika is so selfish, keeping these to herself like that!'

'Nooooo! That feels weeeeird! Asuna is the only one who should get to do that!'

'Wh-wh-what is Rika saying?!'

'Well if Yuuna's gonna help herself, than I'll dig in too~! Nya hah hah, A-chan's squeals are the best!'


'Keiko... I can kill anything, but I can't kill what doesn't exist.'

Great. I really didn't need to know those things were happening over there. Even if all the guys in the other bath were probably suffering from nosebleeds, I didn't really need to have those images shoved in my head. To do anything other than sit there and be forced to listen to the girls grope each other, I focused my telekinesis for a quick blast. One twist later and I was perfectly dry. All I needed to do now was get my clothes. To do that, I'd need the girls to take a long time in the bath... Knowing Asuna, I was in the clear.

It took a minute to turn invisible, but nobody interrupted me and I snuck into the girl's changing room without a problem -

"Don't mind me, you girls have fun!" Asuna called out. I froze as she walked out of the bath, clad in nothing but a towel around her body with her hair tied up. I immediately whirled around the corner to hide from her, just to make sure she didn't walk into me. 'I wish I could keep soaking, but I couldn't stop thinking about that... No, I'm not going to think about it! Don't think about the gh- no! No no no! Think about nice things instead, like ice cream and Rika and Yuuna and Kazuto!'

Fortunately, Asuna was worrying about her ghost problems while staring at the wall away from where I had put my clothes, so I snuck over and grabbed everything. "Eh? Is someone there?" Asuna turned around at the noise I'd made, but I'd already run away and there wasn't anything for her to see. "S-Someone? Are you there? Please answer me!" 'Hee hee... I'm just imagining things... I'm sure I didn't hear anything... It's definitely not a ghost...!'

When she ran back into the hot springs wailing for Rika, I realized that maybe I'd just traumatized my friend. Well, she was a strong girl. She'd be fine. More importantly, I needed to get dressed -

Huh? What's this note in my pocket? 'Don't worry Darling, I won't say anything if you don't get caught. Enjoy the show! PS: If you got caught, hi Himiko!'



"My skin is so smooth now~!" Yuuna exclaimed. "Darling, feel!" I sighed and obligingly ran my hand on her arm. It really was smoother... A place like this would definitely be a huge hit with idols if it left them looking this refreshed. 'So how was your day in the hot springs, Darling~?'

Don't you dare, Yuuna.

The cute idol even had the gall to giggle at me! 'You're adorable when you pout, Darling! Even if Himiko would have been cuter!'

"Th-This was lovely," Asuna said. "We should... come back some time..."

"Asuna, you're not really believable when you're burying your face in my chest," Rika said. 'Not that I'm complaining!'

Nijika giggled. "I can't believe the Princess has a weakness like that! My little sister is going to love hearing about this. I have to tell her about everything!"

"Ku ku ku!" Saori laughed. "Having bathed in the springs blessed by Pirene, I'm feeling re-energized and inspired once more!"

"Man, that was a good soak," Takuya said.

Kenji nodded. "I'm glad we won that pass. There's no way I would have known it was here, otherwise."

"Yeah, yeah, time ta go," Kana said.

"Mm-hm!" Yuuna nodded. "We're going to log on to SAO once we get home, right?"

That was the plan, at least.

"SAO, huh..." Nijika hummed to herself. 'I wonder if Nanairo has an extra copy somewhere?'

'Heheh!' Sugu looked so proud of herself. 'Kazuto's gonna be so surprised!' Somehow I'm pretty sure I won't be surprised at all by the fact that you went out to buy a copy of Sword Art Online without me going with you, and then hid it in your closet so that I wouldn't find it if for some reason you were able to convince me to go into your room with you. Or the fact that you'd already created your character and leveled up a bit so that you could party with me as soon as possible.

"Alright! Let's go, girls. The car won't wait forever," Asuna said with a sharp clap. "We do have class tomorrow, so if we want to play tonight and still get a good night's rest then we need to get home as soon as possible." 'And maybe I can get away from that haunted bath! It's almost like the ghost is here, watching me!'

Time to get back on the bus. With a very energetic Saori, who was currently rambling about the locks made of magma and the coldest ice. ...Next time, I'm riding with Yuuna and screw the close quarters with the girls.

"Ahhh~..." Argo stretched luxuriously and indolently, her virtual avatar moving in ways that were hard to ignore. I sat down on the bench in the town square and watched her. "Feels good ta be back in here. Been so busy with school stuff, ya know?"

Yeah. I was super stressed out the last few weeks. Though, Argo... How come you were so twitchy earlier, at the hot springs?

Argo curled up on the bench next to me. "The family that owned that place was like..." 'How do I talk about a different clan?' "Kinda like a branch 'a our family? We're the main branch, an' they're an offshoot, kinda. But where we have a bunch 'a different shops an' stuff, the Kanamoto branch does, uh..." 'Well I can't say they're thieves!' "They do a lot of acquisitions an' stuff. Guess I just have some family loyalty in me, nya hah hah!"

So it's a ninja thing, got it.

"Ninjas don't exist, Kii-boy~," Argo reminded me, playfully poking my nose. "Ya know that by now, right?"

Instead of replying to Argo, I stood up and twisted out of the way. Strea landed on the bench right where I'd been sitting and wrapped her arms around the empty air instead of me. "Awww!" she complained. "It's not fair that you always dodge my hugs! Just because you can -"

"Strea, I told you, you need to be more careful!" Yui said. I looked over at Argo and her nose twitched. "Hello, Papa! It's been a while. Have you been enjoying a fulfilling school life? That's a very important theme I've noticed in my research! I hope you're having a lot of exciting days!"

There's been plenty of excitement, all right.

"Hooray!" Yui cheered.

It's... not really a good thing...

Kizmel was right behind Yui. "Ah, Kirito," she said. "It's good to see you once more." I smiled at her. Finally, someone big sister-like and responsible!

It didn't take much longer for the rest of the girls to log in and join us. Asuna and Liz were the first to arrive, followed shortly by Yuna and Argo. "I'm so sorry!" the singer apologized, bowing deeply. "But Argo said that she'd heard something about the Chant Extra Skill, and I absolutely had to look into it!"

"Nya hah hah!" Argo snickered. "But it was worth it, right~?"

"Of course!" Yuna smiled happily and threw up a peace sign. "Guess who unlocked Chant!"

"Ah! Congratulations!" Asuna exclaimed.

"Hooray!" Strea threw her arms around Yuna. The poor idol made a noise I'd never heard before as the Strea Hug took its toll. "I know you were working really hard for that!"

"Th-thank you... Urk... Strea..." Yuna somehow managed to return the hug. Out of all of us, I think Liz is the only one who can manage to even temporarily survive a hug from Strea... 'Are you proud of me, Darling?' Of course I nodded.

You worked really hard, Yuna. Good job.

"Asuna," Kizmel said, "I have some good news for you."

Asuna immediately whirled around and stared up at Kizmel, her eyes all but literally sparkling. "Really?! Then, what I asked you to look into -"

"Yes, yes," Kizmel said with a fond smile as she patted Asuna's head. 'She gets so excited about the simplest things. Still, I find much of Tilnel in Asuna, and I don't mind indulging her.' "On the 6th Floor, the Dark Elf castle has graciously allowed us to visit."

"Thank you thank you thank you!" Asuna squealed. 'Another elven bath! This is amazing news!' I guess our plans for the day had changed from trying to clear that cool dungeon I'd found on the 16th Floor were put off for tomorrow. "Alright everyone, let's go-"

"Excuse me! Wait for me!"

All the girls turned - and then their jaws all dropped. 'Whoa! I'm not drooling, right?' Argo surreptitiously wiped at her mouth.

The blonde girl running towards us while waving wore an emerald green tunic and a matching skirt that left her legs revealed; her long hair was pulled back in a ponytail that was held in place by a silky ribbon. But her admittedly nice equipment wasn't what was making the girls stare so hard at her. No, that honor went to, uh...

Let's just say that Strea had a lot of competition now.

Wha- Of course I'm not going to talk about my little sister's chest or how she'd decided to play with the avatar to make it even bigger than reality! You perverts! I almost want to tell you to stop reading now!

Fortunately Keiko wasn't playing this game with us, or she'd probably be curled up in a ball right now. Apologize, Sugu! Apologize to all the unfortunate girls out there!

'Th-that's insane... B-But there's no back pain in this game, so...' "I, um... Hello?" Asuna stammered.

The blonde came to a halt in front of us. Now that she wasn't running, I could take a closer look; sure enough, Sugu had put plenty of work into making her avatar gorgeous. "Hi there... My name's Leafa, and-"

"'Scuse me..." Argo folded her arms over her chest. "Hang on a sec, there. I remember hearin' somethin' 'bout that username before... Ah ha! Yer Kii-boy's sister, aren't ya?"

"Ghk!" Leafa blushed. "K-Kazuto!"

Hi Sugu.

Yuna blinked rapidly. 'So big...' "Ah! Hi there, Leafa! I didn't know you had the game, honey!"

"W-Well, I just got it recently." Leafa kicked at the ground with her boot. "And I kinda wanted it to be a surprise." 'If I kept it a secret, then I'd get to spend extra time with Kazuto and he wouldn't know! And then I'd get to keep getting closer and closer, and maybe even get to spend the night with him in the same bed! Kyaaa~! Maybe...' I can hear your thoughts, Sugu! I'm never going to let that happen if I can help it!

"It was definitely a surprise!" Asuna said. "So, um... You look..."

'Great!' Argo thought. "Different," Argo said.

"Eheheh!" Leafa twirled around and lifted the hem of her skirt. She did that exact same pose when we played in ALO! I knew she practiced that! "This is the avatar I used when I was playing ALO with Kazuto, so I wanted to remake it."

"You remade yours, huh?" We all looked over at the girl that approached us confidently. Shino looked a little different without her glasses, but the green vest and leggings reminded me of her GGO avatar. "I figured I'd go with something a little different. ...If only to match you better, Master."

'That reminds me, I have to see Darling in his GGO avatar! I bet he'd look adorable!' "If you're calling Darling 'Master', then that means you're Shino!" Yuuna waved happily.

"Sinon in here. I kept my GGO name, at least."

"I'm not late, am I?" The twintails bouncing towards us were a dead giveaway. Poor Keiko immediately stared directly at Leafa, and her jaw dropped. Then her eyes drifted to Strea and I swear I could hear a cracking sound as the light died in her eyes. 'This is so unfair... Stupid avatar restrictions!' "Please, call me Silica."

"Hi there!" Yui smiled up at everyone. "I'm so glad Papa has so many friends! You're all very beautiful!"

"Papa?" Sinon stared at me. Somehow I felt like I'd been demoted in her frosty gaze! "Care to explain, Kirito?"

Yui's an AI, and for some reason she calls me Papa. It's out of my control.

"...Sure. At least you're not pretending to be a girl here, Ki-ri-ko-chan."

I already apologized for that!

"And I'm Strea!" Strea bounced. Silica's head bobbed up and down along with her. "Yui's my big sister! It's nice to meet Kirito's friends!" 'After all, he Winged me! So it's important that I meet everyone!'

"Is this everyone?" Asuna asked.

"Almost!" Yuna said. "Nijika said she wanted to play too! She messaged me earlier saying she got a copy, so she should be almost done with her avatar creation!" Her eyes darted to the side of the screen. "She's got great timing! Nijika just messaged me. It looks like her avatar name is... Rain. Aww, that's really cute!"

Rain, as it turned out, had chosen to keep it simple; the only real difference between her real life appearance and her avatar was the red hair that she'd chosen. She also wore equipment that... well, she looked like a maid. "That totally suits ya," Argo said with a wide grin.

"Th-thank you," Rain said with a cute blush.

After everyone was introduced to each other, Asuna took charge again and we all trooped off to the 6th Floor. With so many high-level players and even a dark elf to escort us there, we didn't have any problems despite a bunch of us being totally new to the game. I did give the middle school girls and Rain the short explanation about Sword Skills and how they worked, though.

The castle on the 6th Floor was pretty close, though, and so we made it after a short walk. Kizmel greeted several of the dark elves by name and they always showed plenty of respect in turn. The beautiful elf really was popular, even in the game! We could all tell Asuna was impatient to try out the bath, though, so Kizmel didn't waste any time leading us through the castle halls. "In here," Kizmel said. "Once we pass through these two rooms, we will be in the hot baths." She smiled. "I've been told that they are very relaxing, though I've never had the reason to test that rumor for myself."

Asuna was through the door as soon as Kizmel finished talking. The rest of the girls filed in, and I sighed before going through the second door. There wasn't any sense tempting fate, of course. Unequipping my items was just a few menu swipes, and I was soaking in the baths just a few seconds later. The spring was huge, with a tree growing roughly in the middle.

Ahhh... This was bliss. Finally, I got to relax.

Though... The room was very large to have all to myself -

I realized what was happening as soon as the other door opened up. "Ah, Kirito has already entered," Kizmel said. "Excellent. Let us join him -"

"What?!" Asuna shrieked. I've never been so thankful for steam blocking the view in my life. If I had seen anything, the rapier-wielding girl would probably find a way to PK in a Safe Zone. "K-Kizmel! You can't be serious! You're not wearing anything!"

"Why would I?" Kizmel sounded confused. "We are entering the baths, after all."

'Kirito had better not look!' "Just... give me a second to make swimsuits for everyone."

Hadn't they taken a bath in the castle on the 3rd Floor? Oh right, I hadn't joined them that time.

'Asuna always seems so worked up when it comes to that boy... They must be very close.' "Very well, Asuna," Kizmel said in the tone of every big sister humoring their little sister.


"Boys stay on that side of the tree root," Liz said very firmly. "Got it?"

I got it, I got it. I'm not even looking, relax.

"Good," she said. 'It's not like I mind, but this is still so embarrassing!'

"Aww, but I wanted to take a bath with Papa!" Yui complained.

"Well, I suppose it's not that big a deal, with Yui," Asuna mused.

Strea splashed around. "So if family can take baths together, then that means -"

"Denied," Sinon said flatly.

"Awww!" 'I wanted to see if he'd give me a Norito!' I still don't even know what that is, and I probably don't want to know if Strea wants one so badly! It's probably some super-strong hug or something like that!

Argo let out a low whistle. "Sheesh, it's one thing in yer regular equipment, but seein' th' two 'a ya in a bikini like that..." 'It's almost enough to make a gal blush! Little Silica seems depressed more'n anything, though.'

'Hooray! I'm taking a bath with Kazuto! This is the best day ever!' At least someone was having fun, though Leafa couldn't possibly manage to do anything with this many witnesses around. "Eh? What are you talking about, Argo?"

"...Nothin', Leafa. Nothin' at all."

"Hmmm..." This time, Yui's youthful hum was the signal that she was about to do something I'd eventually regret. 'I know! This sort of thing happens all the time in my research!' "When in doubt, confirm suspicions experimentally!"

"Kya!" Leafa squealed.

"Eh? Yui, why are you squeezing my boobs?" Strea asked.

"I wanted to know which of you is bigger!"

"...Well, which one?" Liz asked.

"Strea is, by just a little bit!" Yui chirped.

I sighed. I really didn't need to know that at all, Yui... "L-Let's just enjoy the bath!" Asuna said. The Princess sounded a little strained, which was really something. She always seemed so unflappable. "It's - Kizmel? Where are you going?"

"Hmm? Where else?" Kizmel replied. "I'm joining Kirito in the bath." Eh?! WHAT?!

"What?!" Liz yelped. Stop copying me!

I risked a quick glance over to see Kizmel wading towards me. Her dusky skin glistened with a few water droplets from the bath, highlighting the royal purple bikini that Asuna had made for her; it matched the color of her hair nearly perfectly, and -

Nope! I didn't want to go there at all! "Is there something wrong with my appearance?" Kizmel asked me. "Kirito, why will you not look at me?" Ghk! "I suppose I don't understand your human customs. Isn't this about as much as I wear when we sleep together?"

"You sleep together!?" Yuna exclaimed. "Darling! Have you been taking advantage of our wonderful Kizmel?"

No no no! It's not like that at all! Strea, tell them!

"Don't worry!" Strea chirped. "I sleep with him too, so I can tell you for certain that nothing is happening!" 'Not even my Norito! Boo! Stingy!'

'No fair! He'll sleep with these two... two... two hussies, but he won't let me cuddle with him at all!' "Um, Kazuto," Leafa said, "what is she talking about?"

"Master, I thought you were better than this," Sinon said.

It's not like thaaaaat!

Why do baths have it out for me today?! I'd take ninja thieves or ninja assassins or whatever over this!

Don't worry, Kazuto, sooner or later you'll probably have to fight ninja thieves and ninja assassins IN the bath.

Saori is a dork but fun to write, since I basically just get to be as ridiculous as I want. This chapter is, naturally, the school festival chapter! And then, because I can, it's the hot spring visit chapter as well. Gotta get those tropes checked off the list as fast as possible.

Aside from moving the timeline forward, this chapter was setting up a few more interactions for the future. Plus a bunch of cute girls taking baths. (Though we don't get to see Himiko again. I miss Himiko.)

Many thanks to everyone that favorited, followed, or reviewed.