A/N: Sorry this took so long, people! It's been a crazy few months, but it's all been worth it because my family and I finally own a house! Once we've gotten all settled in, I should be able to resume a more rapid writing schedule (provided the cursed writer's block doesn't strike me again). For now, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and I hope that you enjoy the next instalment of this story!

Let's get to fighting!


Round One

"Did she come through?"

"It's Argo, what do you think?" I sat down at my dining room table, where Reiko and Shino were had joined me for a pre-tournament strategy meeting, the event itself set to take place later in the evening. Strea was also present via the speaker on my phone, since she of course couldn't make a physical appearance. "Granted she couldn't get a complete profile on each of them, but it's enough to give us a fighting chance, even though we're outnumbered nearly two-to-one."

"We've beat worse odds," Shino smirked.

"Back in SAO, we had the advantage of consistently higher levels than the people we fought," I reminded her. "In a skill-based game, that's not a factor."

"No, but experience is," Reiko pointed out. "We've all got the advantage of having lived in VR for over two years with our lives constantly on the line. These guys won't have the same instincts that we've developed."

"True, but these guys are all veteran JFO players," I told them as I put a folder down on the table. "The leader, Karuto? He's been a player since day one, and he got really lucky with his login power. He's a sensory-type ninja with the Byakugan."

"Like Sachi?" Strea mused. "That's gonna be a problem for me, since I can only do close-range fighting."

"And he'll be aware of any energy attacks that I throw at him almost before I can fire them," I muttered as the girls started to sift through the information that Argo had been able to collect. "I'm thinking Sinon will be best for handling him. He'll be able to sense your requip magic, but you'll be firing too fast for him to dodge, even if he's at a distance."

"You'll have to make an opening for me, cos I seriously doubt that he's just gonna let me blast him," Shino pointed out.

"I should be able to do something, sure."

"Let's see here…" Reiko murmured as she peered at one paper in particular. "They have a sand mage, a pirate-style swordsman-"

"Dibs on that one," Strea interrupted.

"Why?"

"Long story," I said before our AI friend could elaborate. "They've also got a girl with a morphing quirk on their team, plus a martial artist like me, though he's just a human avatar."

"Does he have any transformations that we should be worried about?" Shino asked with a frown.

"Kaioken, but mine is more developed," I said with a dismissive wave of my hand. "He won't be much of a problem."

"There's also a spirit detective…" Reiko paused and looked up at me before asking, "What's a spirit detective?"

"A type of fighter from that old Yu Yu Hakusho anime," I answered. "The really strong ones have a demon form, but Argo couldn't find out if this guy has one or not, so be on your guard with him."

"This girl is the one I'm really worried about, maybe more than the Byakugan," Shino said as she tapped her finger on the photo of a young woman with blue-and-red hair. "Dragon Slayer?"

"Yeah, crystals specifically," I answered. "You're right, I think she's going to be the biggest headache of the bunch." Dragon slayers, as we all knew because of Kirito, were ridiculously strong in both magic and body, and their enhanced five senses made it difficult to get the drop on them. Kirito in particular was difficult to trap because of his ability to become a shadow on command, but solid-types like this Akaku girl were usually hard to move due to a physical resistance and high health points.

"Does she have dragon force?" Strea asked from within my phone.

When I realized that she couldn't see me shrugging, I answered her, "Not as far as Argo could tell, but this girl has been playing this game for a long time. It's not out of the question."

"Okay, so let's divide and conquer," Shino said as she put the papers back down on the table, her sharp eyes already done collecting the information that she needed. "Our quota is essentially two people, each, and that's if none of us get knocked out of the ring."

"Somehow, I don't see that happening to us," Reiko said with a slight grin. "There hasn't been a squad that's been able to take us down, yet."

I winced before replying, "Yeah, key phrase there being 'yet'. We're up against literally the best VR fighters on the planet- there's bound to be at least a few of them that can more than hold their own against us."

My girlfriend gave me a slight frown when no one else moved to contradict my words, leading her to say, "I don't remember you guys second-guessing yourselves this much in SAO."

"SAO was different," Shino sighed. "There were only so many different sword skills and party formations that one could use in there."

"Having an AI capable of psychoanalysis sure didn't hurt," Strea chirped.

"True," I nodded.

"In JFO, there are hundreds of thousands of possible skills, transformations, group patterns, et cetera," Shino continued. "We can't profile these people as thoroughly as we used to, so we don't know how they'll react to us. We also can't use the fear factor associated with Mataras' name anymore, not without his words being used as a testimony against himself for mass murder."

"Thanks, partner."

"Anytime."

"Actually, you know that might not be the case for much longer," Reiko said, cutting off any further exchange between me and the others. "Didn't you guys hear?"

Shino and I exchanged a confused look before I asked, "Hear about what?"

"There's been a lot of lawsuits filed since people got out about grievances that happened in-game," my girlfriend reminded us. "Thanks to Michael and Kazuto cutting a deal, we don't have to worry about those, but apparently there's enough that the justice system is getting slowed down due to the sheer number of cases. There's theft, intimidation, blackmail, and more."

"Manslaughter?" I prompted dryly.

"Dad hasn't mentioned that one," Reiko answered. "The only time it's come up is the strangeness of the fact that there haven't been any of those."

"Seems like Kikuoka is holding up his end of the deal nicely, then," Strea commented. "I still don't think we can trust him, though."

"Yeah, if he's interested in employing someone like me, that's a big red flag," I said, followed by narrowly evading a smack from Shino due to my pun. "Oh come on, you gotta give me that."

"Well, he may not have to run interference for much longer," Reiko was saying now. "The government is moving to pass a law that would essentially invalidate every crime committed in SAO. They're being careful, of course, because they don't want it set up in way that it sets precedents for future crimes committed in VR, but if it goes through…" She gave me a pointed look.

I felt my mouth go dry and my head swim a little. "Wait, you're saying that if this law goes into effect… we would be properly absolved of everything we did in Aincrad?"

"Yep," Reiko nodded with brief smile. "The downside is, so would everyone else that was branded a yellow player by the Cardinal System."

"That's not our problem," Shino shrugged. "Even if we shouldn't have been taking out red players, we did what we could to put yellow criminals behind bars for as long as we could according to the rules of the game. Now that those people are back under the authority of Japanese law, it's out of our hands."

"You would be okay with all of that?" Reiko asked us suspiciously.

"Not really, but then we'd be holding a double-standard," I sighed. "If people can be jailed in the real world for crimes committed in the virtual one- which had its own set of consequences- then I would also have to be held responsible for what I did according to both realms."

"Even if we were all pardoned, it probably wouldn't be the best idea to go around admitting that you were the Red Swordsman," Shino pointed out. "There are plenty of people who would borrow a leaf out of our book and take matters into their own hands."

"They'd have to find you guys IRL, and between me and Yui, that'll never happen," Strea chuckled.

"How's that?"

"Oh, every time you guys log in, she and I scramble your IP addresses so that you never appear on the web in the same place more than once," our friend answered. "Even if someone tried to figure out where you were logging in from, they'd have to break through some heavy-duty firewalls, and we'd know about it so we could warn you in advance."

"Oh," I said, a little nonplussed that I hadn't thought to ask her to do that beforehand. "Well, thanks for doing that, Strea."

"Just doing my job."

"What job?" Reiko asked her.

"Mataras is still my patient, and it's important for him to keep the strong support group that he has around him," Strea giggled, causing me to roll my eyes, even though she couldn't see me. They came back down when we heard her say, "Just kidding. You guys are my friends, and I don't want anything to happen to you."

To that, the three of us could only smile and thank her for.


The sounds of a crowd that spanned the entirety of the world rumbled through the arena where the first round of the Jump Force Online tournament would take place, even in our private spectator's box. One was afforded to each guild/team that was participating, and there were twenty keys for our room to go around, which meant that everyone in the Black Cats- in addition to a few friends- were invited to join the active members in our viewing of the battles. We had a big window that made for an excellent viewpoint across the whole battleground, but we also each had a comfortable recliner chair with a smaller screen in front of them that would allow to select a player and follow the action more closely with an omnidirectional camera.

"Hey man, thanks for letting us join the fun from the good seats," Klein said with a grin as he clinked his glass against mine. "I was about to spend my next four paychecks on the nosebleed seats." The tickets to attend the game 'in-person' were exorbitant, and the frugal part of my mind couldn't believe that anyone would spend so much cash on getting seats to an event that they would just as easily be able to watch on TV at home. The 250,000 tickets had sold within seconds of going live, beating even Disney's fastest sales records. Then again, this is the world premiere of a new type of sport, I thought to myself. Any gaming enthusiast would leap at the chance to be as close to the action as possible.

Our match was going to be the fifth of eight, but of course, we planned to stay and watch all of the battles. Any piece of intelligence that we could glean of our opponents would be invaluable to advancing our team through the tournament. I still didn't care as much about winning as the others seemed to, but I would give it my best for their sake.

With that in mind, I said to Klein, "It won't be free, pal. I need your eyes sharp on our competitors."

"Oh, I'm sure his eyes'll be sharp as long as there's a lady on the team," Agil chuckled as he moved to stand among us, a slender woman at his side. "Thanks for letting me and Trish use some of those spares you had." Klein just rolled his eyes and moved toward Kirito, who was talking to Philia and his sister.

"Yes, thank you," his wife said as she bowed her head toward me. "I don't believe that we've been properly introduced, though." Her in-game avatar was some kind of mage while Agil towered over most players as a powerful brown Namekian, a look that everyone in our friend group agreed worked for the former axe-wielder.

I returned the slight bow before reaching my hand out to shake with hers' as I said, "It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Mils. Agil always speaks very highly of you, so I'm glad you're able to attend the event tonight."

"Me too," she grinned, her dark eyes twinkling with delight. "This one usually ditches me to do the work while he plays around with the kids half his age."

Agil looked a little offended while he protested, "Hey, I got someone to watch the bar tonight, didn't I? Klein's guildmate has been assistant manager at a bar across town for ages, he knows what he's doing."

"I know, dear," Trish giggled as she laid a hand on her husband's bulky shoulder. "It's just been a while since we've been able to get out together."

"And you're spending that time with people half your age?" I asked with a raised eyebrow.

Agil chuckled at that, as did his wife, who said, "Andrew told me that you were particularly quick with your words."

"Comes from being on the defensive most of his time in SAO," Saphira said as she walked up to greet the couple. "Agil, nice to see you. I take it you're the missus?"

"That's right."

"This is Saphira, Mataras' kid sister," Agil told Trish, who nodded in understanding. "She was SAO's strongest player, if you can believe it."

"Oh, I believe it," the woman nodded as she looked my sister up and down. "If someone like her walked in our bar and asked for drinks on the house, my answer would likely go something along the lines of, 'Yes ma'am, thank you for visiting our establishment, ma'am.' I'll be very interested to see how well she fights going into this."

I gave my sister a sideways looking, feigning offense as I said, "I thought I was the scary one. Quit stealing my spotlight!"

"If you want it so bad, steal it back."

"Please no," Agil said with a rapid shake of his head. "We do not need a scary competition between the two of you."

"I second that," a familiar voice said as a man in his twenties walked in through the door with four others behind him. "The last time I saw the Red Swordsman getting worked up, I probably pissed myself in the real world."

"Thank you for that lovely imagery, Schmitt," I said with a roll of my eyes as I moved to greet our other guests. "Good to see you. Yolko, Kains, you're looking well."

"We've been looking forward to seeing this for ages, and now we get the best seats in the house," the former member of Golden Apple said as he shook hands with me. "Thanks for reaching out to us with this."

"Yes, thank you," said another of the newcomers, a slim boy about Kirito's age. He was dressed in a white kimono with red trim, the colors being reminiscent of his old guild. Nautilus moved closer with Yuna's hand in his to say, "I do have to wonder why your guild reached out to us, though." The musician waved hello to Kiriha and Philia before she released Nautilus' hand and moved to join them.

"Consider it an inadequate 'thank-you'," I answered. "You guys showed up for the final fight when almost nobody else would. Even if you couldn't partake in the battle at the end, your show of support meant a great deal to us." As I moved to shake hands with the younger boy, I cast my eyes around to see if Yuuki had come in yet, but she had not. Out of everyone officially in the Moonlit Black Cats, she was the only one missing at the current gathering, and it was starting to become a little concerning.

I hope she's okay, I thought with a slight frown.

"Hey, speaking of supporters, where's Godfrey?" Saphira inquired of the newcomers, which snapped me out of my musing.

"He had to work, so he couldn't make it," Schmitt answered. "He did send his thanks for the offer, though."

"Bummer."

Saphira looked like she was about to say more, but just then, the giant screen that overlooked the arena flashed to life to show the three hosts of the event, Adriana, Mako, and Thomas, all of them sitting at the same table as before. "Ladies and gentlemen!" Thomas began. "It is my immense pleasure to say that the games shall soon begin!"

The cheers of the crowd would have been deafening if not for the sound-absorbent glass between us and them. The hosts smiled at their enthusiasm before Adriana said, "In just a few minutes, we will commence the first battle- Team Shamrock versus Team 3-Star!" Somehow, the crowds got even louder as they anticipated the arrival of the new pop idol's guild, many of them chanting Seven's name as the screen began to slide through images of each participating fighter, showing them in action poses with some intense background or other behind them.

"I'm sure that the other team feels super appreciated right about now," Sinon muttered from next to me, her, Rivka, and Strea having come closer to watch the match with me by the window.

"Do you think 3-Star has a chance?" Rivka asked.

"Nope."

"Shamrock outnumbers them too much, right?"

"That and the fact that very few people in the crowd are cheering for them will certainly have an adverse psychological effect on them," Strea added. "I would be very surprised if they can even manage to knock a Shamrock member out of bounds."

"Then again, it looks like the guild is made up of a bunch of fanboys," I mused as an afterthought. "Maybe some of them will be pushovers."

"You really think so?"

"Nope."


Team 3-Star actually had a respectable ensemble- it was easy to see how the other North American players had earned their dragon ball entry fee. Their leader, a man named Oliver King, was a Sweeper who used firearms to fight, though it was a different skillset than the one that Sinon used as a gun mage. His two teammates were also strong in their own rights, with one of the guys being a Grim Reaper from the Bleach series, and the other being a Frost Demon.

The last man, Alan West, had mastered his avatar's third form, an impressive feat considering the amount that it enhanced one's speed and strength. Since Sumeragi of Shamrock was also a Frost Demon, theirs' was a battle that many onlookers were looking forward to as the highlight of the match.

However, as my teammates and I had predicted, Shamrock made short work of their competition. Their teamwork was flawless, and their skills were no joke, either. They had obviously rehearsed their maneuvers plenty of times beforehand, because the second that the match began, they all broke into groups of two or three to engage a fighter apiece. Team 3-Star had to know that their only chance against the number of opponents they had been given was to band together and try to outlast whatever Shamrock threw at them. Problem was, Seven's guild knew it, too, and they worked fast to separate the three fighters.

It took them a minute or so, but once they had manage to spilt the smaller team up, it wasn't much of a fight, though I had to admit that the Americans held out well in spite of the odds stacked against them. There was even a point where it looked like a Poison Dragon Slayer from Shamrock was about to be knocked off the stage by Alan's superior speed, but that's when Sumeragi chose to step in, having only been keeping an eye on things from the sidelines with Seven, who was cheering for her subordinates as if she weren't even in the battle, herself. Her apparent right-hand swept into the conflict with a speed that startled even Saphira's keen eyes and flattened the other Frost Demon with three quick blows, followed by a ki blast that disintegrated his avatar.

His comrades seemed to lose heart after that, because it didn't take long for them to be knocked out of the ring, too. While the crowd cheered its delight for the guild's victory, I leaned back in my chair and muttered, "What are they so excited for? Seven didn't even lift a finger to help them."

"It's probably like cheering for your favorite sport's team," Sachi said as the hosts congratulated the guild on their win. Apparently the TV's across the world would now go to commercial until the next battle was set up, which would be in about fifteen minutes.

"How so?" Sinon asked before I could form the words myself.

"A lot of people wish that they could be in her club, much less get to fight on her side," Sachi shrugged in response. "Since they can't, they'll cheer for the people who do get to show their devotion to her."

"That's creepy," I said as I stood up and went to the vending machine that would deposit any virtual drink that I wanted, free of charge since it all came with the room. "Do people really think that way?"

"How is that any different from cheering for your favorite baseball team?" Kiriha asked me from above her folded arms.

"Because my favorite players are all grown men that have worked hard at their profession, not underage girls that just got a little lucky with a bit of talent in regards to music," I replied as I selected a hot chocolate. "Really now, Rain sings better than she does."

"Eh?"

Everyone turned to look at Rain, whose face had turned nearly as red as her hair as she tried to hide her embarrassment behind a turned back. "That's not true," she stammered ineffectually. "I-If it was, then I'd be up on stage in front of cheering crowds, too."

"No, you got stuck in a death trap for two-plus years, which robbed you of any number of chances to be discovered," I said as I stepped away from the machine with a hot mug of my requested beverage. "Give it time- you'll have your own chanting crowds, provided that's what you want to pursue."

"If I do, it'll just be because people find out that I'm Seven's sister," the girl said a little miserably as her shoulders slumped.

"When have you heard her singing?" Sachi asked me curiously. "I don't think that any of us have heard her yet."

Even without looking, I was aware of Rivka's gaze on my back, so I quickly answered, "I heard her singing a couple of ballads over Crimson's grave a few times. It was really pretty, so I didn't interrupt her." Every now and again, my friends would come and pay their respects to my fallen AI counterpart at the 'grave' I had made for him in my backyard, so now my accidental eavesdropping made more sense.

"You heard those?!" Rain squawked, turning even redder than before.

"Yeah, but I couldn't figure out the language you were using," I admitted as I sat back down and used my chair's monitor to pull up the stats on the fighters that had been revealed during the first battle. "Wasn't Japanese, and it didn't sound like a Romance Language derivative."

"…It's Cyrillic," she said in a small voice. "My sister and I were born in Russia, so a lot of the lullabies I remember are from when Mom and I would sing to her. After the divorce, Mom and I ended up in Japan with her relatives while Dad took Nanairo to the States, where she could get a better education. Those songs make up most of my memories with her, so I keep them to myself…"

I paused in my data search before I said, "Thank you, then."

"What for?"

"Sharing them with Crimson." I looked over at the surprised girl before favoring her with a smile and the words, "I know he appreciates them."


The next few matches took longer to settle each, but they were entertaining, so we didn't really mind. The second bout had a team put together with six players from the Oceania part of the world pitted against a five-person team from Africa. Both sides had very interesting fighters, with the star from Africa being the one and only Three-Tails' Jinchuriki in all of Jump Force. Like in the 'Naruto' series, there was only one of each of the Tailed Beasts, though by this point all but the Two and Nine Tails had a human host, which meant that the seven people who did have them were mighty forces to be reckoned with.

Team Variety of the world's islands suffered heavy losses during the course of their fight, even to the point where their team captain was blasted out of the arena with a Tailed Beast Bomb. In fact, the six-man team only just managed to pull through to victory with two fighters left in the ring, a Namekian named Derrick, and a Heavenly Body Mage named Adamas. Their captain would return for the next round, but they would still have to replenish half of their team with new fighters from their guild.

That could be either really bad for them, or really good, I thought as the battered duo made their way off the field amid the applause of the crowds. If those were their strongest fighters, then they're totally screwed when they fight Shamrock in a few days. If those were their war-up members, though, then Seven's guild might be in for a nasty surprise…

"Now that was a good match," Kirito said with a grin as he plopped down into a chair next to mine. "Way less one-sided, don't you think?"

"Yeah, they should've opened with that one," I agreed.

"I disagree," Saphira said as she approached with a bowl of popcorn under her arm.

"Of course you do."

"I'm just saying, if you open with a lukewarm act, it keeps the hype going up instead of just flattening out, or worse, going downhill afterward," she shrugged. "From a business standpoint, this was a good series of events. They open up with the pop star, which guarentees a load of viewers tuning in, and then they send in a more even fight to keep their interest piqued."

Kirito and I shared a look before I shrugged my own shoulders and admitted, "Yeah, okay. But the next round is two versus six, so I'm sure we can all predict who's going to win that one."

"If you wanna talk about bad matchups, check out round six, right after you guys," Agil said as he pulled open his menu and swiped it over so that we could look at it. Apparently he had the tournament lineup as an item that would change to reflect the results of each match after the battle had been finished. As we moved our gazes to look at the match that he was talking about, the big Namekian said, "There ain't worse odds than five-to-one in this tournament."

Kirito cringed a little bit as he realized that the bartender was right; bracket six had a single player from Oceania named Eugene going up against five fighters from Australia. No matter which way you spun it, there was no way that was going to be a fair fight.

"I guess even events like this need a throwaway match," I shrugged. "They're clearly setting up for the quarterfinals, because those guys from Down Under are gonna be squaring off against either us or a team of seven, which will be a much more exciting battle than the first round. The guy that they're fighting looked pretty hardcore to me, but I doubt that he'll be able to work his way out of a match like that."

"Yeah, you probably right," Agil nodded as he let his display drop. "Still can't help but feel bad for the sucker that got stuck with that lineup."

"Well, if we're lucky, he'll put up enough of a fight for us to see just what kind of tricks the other guys have up their sleeves," I shrugged nonchalantly. "Tell you what, though. If that guy can make it past five fighters, then I'll be worried about fighting him."

"And if you're worried about something, it means we're probably screwed," Kirito chuckled, causing me to roll my eyes.


The third match went pretty much how we expected it to, with a duo of brothers who used water alchemy and a lightning quirk losing to the team of six from Europe. The latter group had some players that caught my eye, getting me to think that they could pose a problem for their next competitors, whoever they were. Their captain was a Saiyan fighter named 'Mooli', and his comrades had a diverse set of powers that made them well-balanced as a whole. There was a red-colored Majin girl who went by the handle 'Ekou', and she was responsible for taking out the alchemist on the opposing team, so she would bear watching. They also had a member with a transmutation-type quirk, a speedy kunoichi that was adept at healing her friends and evading enemy fire simultaneously. If we had to face off against them in the finals, I knew that she would have to be one of the first people we took out, provided that she made it that far.

They had also had a skilled earth mage on their side, but he was knocked out of bounds by a combined effort from the Brazilian brothers. Even though the guy with the lightning quirk held out for a while without his partner, he was eventually overwhelmed and had the last of his health points depleted by Hau, a user of Nen on the opposing team.

I took careful note of the Saiyan on their team, seeing how he seemed to favor close combat over long-distance attacks, which was the opposite of my strategy. I preferred to blast people away from me, or at least wear them down before they got close, but Mooli seemed to enjoy fisticuffs more than a tactical approach. While I didn't exactly see him as the smartest of the fighters on the field, I did have to admit that his strength was real enough that the seemingly reckless strategy appeared to work for him.

However, it wasn't too long before the first upset of the night came about when Team Goofy from Europe, which had four members, took out a team of seven players from Australia, all of them with strong abilities and a long history of online gaming, virtual and otherwise. The Europeans also only lost one of their members to the battle, a speed-type mage named Dobengal. The crowd was uproarious, though not in what could be called a bad way.

To the contrary, they seemed to be echoing the feelings that my friends and I shared in that moment, which was something akin to satisfaction. "Okay, so things are starting to get more interesting," I admitted as we reviewed some of the players' statistics. "Glad to see that numbers don't mean everything in this."

"We'd better hope not," Strea said with a grin. "We're going up against the same odds."

"I like those odds," Sinon said as she gave a little smirk. "If the numbers were even, it wouldn't be a challenge."

"I thought that the Fifth Commandment avoided taking on unnecessary challenges?" Rivka asked as she and I moved to stand with our teammates. "You guys never got involved in a fight that you weren't absolutely certain you could win."

"Good thing we don't have to hold up to the standard of that name anymore," I said as the announcers gave way to commercial in the background. "Fortunately for us, the Moonlit Black Cats have a lousy winning streak, so if we lose, it's no big deal, right?"

"Boo!" Kiriha shouted as she hit my head with an empty soda can, which got me to chuckling. "I vote for a new team captain! This one has a lousy attitude!"

"I second that!" Klein said as he raised his hand like a grade schooler with a silly smile on his face.

"People with ugly bandanas don't get a vote, and we can't change captains, even if we wanted to," I replied with a smile that I knew would get under Kiriha's skin. "You guys are stuck with this sour mug as your mascot until this whole thing is over and done with."

"Then get out there and finish off the competition quickly," Philia said with a slight eye roll. "We know this won't take two seconds if you go all-out."

"Now where's the fun in that?"

"Good luck, all of you," Kirito said as he and Sachi moved to stand in front of me with Yui at their side. "I know you'll do our guild proud."

"Do your best, everyone!" Yui chirped, causing us all to smile back at her. "We'll be cheering for you extra-loud!"

"You go, guys." I turned, surprised to see Yuuki walking in the doors with a grin on her face.

"Hey," I said as Sachi moved to hug the other girl. "Where have you been? I was starting to worry you weren't going to make it." The girl's absence had begun to worry even me- after all, it wasn't like our friend to miss out on an event like this one.

"Yeah, you didn't say anything yesterday," Silica added. "I sent you a message an hour ago, but you didn't respond."

"Sorry about that," the purple-haired girl said sheepishly. "I meant to take a quick nap after a raid in ALO, but I wound up crashing super hard until five minutes ago. I won't be late again, promise."

"Good thing you weren't on the active roster," Kiriha chuckled. "We'd have been freaking out a lot more if you were missing, then."

"We're just glad that you aren't missing our match," Sinon told her as she mussed up the blond girl's hair, much to her irritation. "Sorry to cut out so soon after you came, but we'll see you after the match."

"Nah," Yuuki said with a bright smile. "You'll see me after you win the match, got it?"

"Yes, ma'am!" Strea giggled while we made to take our leave. "We totally got this!"


"All right, ladies and gentlemen across the world!" Thomas said as the girls and I stepped out onto the massive tournament stage amid the cheering crowds and lights above us with grim determination in our faces and the set to our shoulders. "Please welcome Captain Mataras, Sinon, Rivka, and Strea of the Moonlit Black Cats to the fight! They will be representing the continent of Asia in this tournament, so let's hear it from their neighbors!"

There were more cheers than I expected there to be, but it was clear that my name- as well as that of our guild- had sparked more intrigue than anything else, though I was willing to bet that there would be a few hundred spectators who outright hated us. This crowd was a lot bigger than the one that had attended the preliminary event, so not everyone had been present to witness the drama that had unfolded there, but rumors had certainly gotten around. Nothing to do but ignore the nay-sayers, I thought as I looked up to see the slideshow of my teammates and myself.

A picture of Strea went up first, along with Mako saying, "Miss Strea is rumored to be a strong heroine-type, though no one can seem to figure out where she's originally from. I'm sure we can all agree that she seems like a delightful young lady, though!" As he said this, Strea smiled and waved cheerily to the crowds, which seemed to get a more positive reaction from the onlookers. Like the rest of us, she was wearing a new outfit that Yui had made us special for the tournament, which in her case turned out to be a purple-and-black bodysuit with dark red armored greaves and bracers. The gauntlets each had a silver moon on them, which had been trademarked as our guild's crest in the game.

The next slide shown was Sinon, who tucked her face into her white scarf in order to try and hide her embarrassment while Adriana spoke up. "Here's another cutie in the crew, Miss Sinon of Japan, who has been seen using firearm magics to great effect while in JFO! With those cool looks and demeanor, I get the feeling that she's gonna be a crowd favorite today!"

"Why does everyone who meets me in here think that I'm some kind of spy movie cliché?" the bluenette muttered just loud enough for us to hear, leading me to grin slightly.

"You're not helping your case by hiding your face to mask your reactions," I told her, which led to her elbowing me in the side, and none too gently. "What? You asked."

"I wasn't really looking for an answer," she grumbled. "It just bothers me that people automatically assume that I'm strong when I'm the furthest thing from it." She was wearing an outfit with lacquered black shoulder plates, the left one bearing our guild's crest on it. Her chest piece was white to match her scarf and the trim of her green combat skirt. A black cape hung from the small of her back and brushed her ankles when she stood still, same as the undershirt of the outfit. There was red trim on every piece of armor and fabric that matched the deep color of Strea's gauntlets, as well as the hairclips that kept her bangs out of her face.

"You are strong," Strea said as she patted the other girl on the back. "Mataras wouldn't have picked you to be on the team if he didn't think you weren't ready for it. And I'm not just talking about this tournament."

Sinon hesitated, so I decided to add, "She's right. Remember how you told me that you fought your way into that church in the Hollow Area with just Strea to help you? Normally, even Crimson and I wouldn't have gone in there without you two at our sides, but you braved it because you thought that it would help me. You were ready to take on the whole Assault Team by yourself if you had to when you learned that I was still alive. Even before all of that, you had the guts to talk back to me and tell me that I was wrong, something that nobody in months had managed to do to me. Those are not the actions of a weak person. If you come across as strong, it's because at this point, you are. The only one who doesn't believe it is you."

"Mataras chose you to stand by his side during one of the most challenging times of his life," Rivka said, almost begrudgingly. "He wouldn't pick someone with weak resolve to do that. That alone should tell you enough." She was dressed in light armor of varying shades of forest greens, though she had white combat boots, plus a dark red cape that had our trademark silver moon on the back. The sleeves were completely separate from the undershirt beneath her armor, which allowed for easier movement while wielding her spears in combat.

As she was speaking, the announcer named Thomas introduced her as a spear mage whose vast arsenal of weapons had yet to be fully unveiled to the public. "It seems as though the team captain has a talent for gathering talent both strong and attractive," the man chuckled, which made my left eye twitch with irritation. "I wonder what the story is there, eh?"

My face went deadpan as I muttered, "Okay, here's the story, mister inappropriate." Without warning, I put my left arm around Rivka's back and pulled her in close, her eyes going wide in surprise as our faces came closer together.

"Michael, what are you-?"

"Roll with it," I grinned slightly. "I don't feel like listening to these idiots turning our lives into a soap opera while we're trying to win this thing. And it's not every day that I get to confess my love for my favorite person in front of the whole world." With that, I closed my eyes and leaned forward into a kiss that Rivka reciprocated as soon as she got over the shock of the fact that I had just kissed her in front of millions of watchers.

I made it last for a good ten seconds or so before we disconnected, both of us breathing a little heavily as we felt adrenaline rushing through our bodies as our actions caught up with us, making us break into silly smiles while we listened to Strea laugh and Sinon try not to burst into giggles herself as the announcers were left a little nonplussed for a moment. To put the nail in the coffin, I kept my arm around my girlfriend and pointed up at the screen with the announcers before I shouted, "There's your story, beginning to end! Can we fight now?!"

"How romantic," Rivka giggled, though she still had a goofy smile plastered on her face.

"Would you have me any other way?" I responded in a lowered tone.

"Hmm, I guess not."

"Hehe."

Thomas tried to recover from his lapse, but Adriana overrode him with a burst of laughter as she said, "I guess we all know where Mataras stands with his friends! And he's right- this is a battle tournament, so let's treat it like one!"

"Mataras is an interesting addition to this lineup," Mako said while Thomas continued to sort himself out. "Judging by that tail behind him, he's a Saiyan, and from rumors circulating the forums leading up to this event, it should be apparent that his combat skills are something to be feared. Some even speculate that he is an SAO survivor, though he uses no weapons in this game but his bare fists! How well can he lead his team against our next challengers, I wonder?!"

My brow darkened as they all but confirmed the suspicions of several thousand viewers, unable to control my facial expressions as well in the game. That was one downside to VR- it took a great deal of practice to maintain a poker face due to the fact that the Amusphere had access to all of one's vitals and brainwaves, which was the biggest part of why it could replicate humanity's expressions so flawlessly. Because it could basically read my emotions and convert it into data for my avatar, it was difficult to maintain an aloof attitude when something actually took me by surprise, like the announcer had just done.

"If they were trying to get the crowds worked up, they're succeeding," Sinon muttered, her words reflecting my own thoughts.

"Well, it is kinda their job to do that…"

"Not helping, Strea."

After Team Discord's seven members had been introduced, Karuto and I shook hands in the middle of the ring. "Sorry this whole thing had to be overshadowed by people being nosy," the leader of the American team said with a wry grin while we released each other. "If you ever wanna have a rematch without people getting up in our business, let me know. I'd like to see what the rest of your friends are capable of, too."

"Sounds good to me," I said with a smirk of my own. "But for now, I say we make the most of what we've been given."

"Let's see if you're still saying that after my team has kicked your guys' collective ass," Karuto replied with a challenging tone before he turned around and started walking toward his team, who was on the other side of the stone field.

"We'll see who's kicking whom when this is over," I replied as I jogged over to my friends, my heartrate beginning to accelerate in anticipation. I tugged on my dark red bracers to make sure that they were securely in place out of habit while I walked, even though there was no real need to do so, seeing as they couldn't be removed unless they were destroyed or I took them off with the menu. Out of the four of us, my tournament outfit was the simplest, consisting of gray pants, deep red boots and a belt that matched my arm guards, which were accompanied by black, fingerless gloves. My short-sleeved shirt was also black, though it had the silver moon over my left pectoral muscles to complete our team's uniform design.

"Remember, don't look at the moon for more than ten seconds within any given minute if you can help it," Sinon reminded me. "Two giants will be a little bit much for Rivka and I to avoid."

"I know," I nodded as the screen above us began to count down from 'ten'. Once the buzzer sounded, the fight would be under way, and there would be no respite until one of our two teams had claimed total victory over the other. I was careful not to look at the simulated moon above the screen, as I wanted to avoid transforming into an Oozaru if I could help it.

Unlike in the manga and anime series, becoming the Great Ape would not regress my mental faculties in any capacity. To the contrary, my speed would remain constant, my strength would multiply ten times over, and under a lot of other circumstances, I might have considered using the form. The issue with the transformation in this case, however was that Strea needed as much space to move as she could after she used her Gigantification quirk, so it was up to her teammates to give her that room. There was also the fact that the bigger I got, the more easily the opposing team could hit me- in a match where we would be outnumbered almost two to one, I figured one big target was more than enough.

"Good luck, guys," I muttered as I felt the air swell with electric potential.

The buzzer went off, the crowd roared its encouragement, and the battle began with Karuto and I leading our teams into the fray with ringing war cries. As we ran, I powered up my body with the first level of the Kaioken, letting the red aura swell and infuse the air around me- a tactic that I knew for a fact would disrupt the view of a Byakugan user, even if it was only for a second.

The second that we were in range, I dove to the side to make room for a powerful ice bullet fired from one of Sinon's rifles, which clipped Karuto in the shoulder and sent him rolling backward from the recoil with icicles sprouting from his shoulder as he let out a shout of surprise. Rivka moved in to follow up as she cast a spear that exploded with fire, engulfing Karuto and Kofku, the girl with the ability to transform into animals of all kinds. It wouldn't be a finishing move, not by a long shot, but we were off to a good start.

Next came Strea, who suddenly towered over the rest of us as she brought her armored heel down on the flames in an effort to crush the two players who had been engulfed by the magic. Shadows flitted out of the firelight, so I knew that she had missed, but I quickly found myself too busy to pay any more attention to them, having been confronted by Goju and Paku, Team Discord's martial artist and spirit detective. Both of them were armed with nothing more than their fists, but I knew well how that could change with a moment's thought, so I decided to beat them to the punch.

"Double Sunday!" I roared, sending forth scarlet lasers, one from each palm, aimed to strike them in the chest from less than ten meters away. To their credit, not only did they manage to dodge, they returned fire without hesitation, forcing me to counter with a handful of ki blasts so that I would avoid being the first to take damage. No doubt that these guys have earned their place here, I thought as I took flight amid the dust in the air, aiming to get an advantage in height over our opponents.

As long as I didn't hit the ground or stadium seats outside of the tournament stage, I was free to fly however I wished for the duration of the battle. Of course, this made it easier for people to knock me out of bounds if they could get the jump on me, but I doubted it would come to that, given how fast my reflexes were, both in-game and real life.

As I predicted, once the two fighters realized that I wasn't in front of them anymore, the martial artist took flight after me while his comrade aimed his fingers at me in the likeness of pistol, blue energy gathering at the tip of his pointer. In what I'm sure was an attempt to distract me, Goju unleashed his maximum Kaioken, a times five that would make most opponents give up on sight.

Of course, I wasn't most opponents- whether I would admit to it or not, I was the man who had ended SAO and had only ever been bested by two people in nearly three years of constant martial contests. I wasn't about to be scared or taken aback by a power-up, especially when I had yet to use even one-tenth of my own amplification ability- not that I was sure I would even need it.

With a nasty grin on my face, I put two fingers to my forehead and aimed my gaze at a spot behind Goju, who suddenly realized that he might have made a mistake. Even as his friend let his attack fly, I felt a slight jerking sensation in my gut, followed by the world shifting ever so slightly around me, placing me right behind my opponent as I lashed out with a brutal reverse kick that put him in the spot where I had been a second ago- and right in the line of fire of his own teammate's Ray Gun. The blue energy ball exploded on contact, disorienting Goju and draining him of a solid chunk of health points.

I decided to take this as an opportunity to let loose with a Big Bang Attack, which connected solidly with the other fighter just as he was starting to get his bearings. The blast actually put him dangerously close to the edge of the stadium, but his teammate wasn't about to let me eliminate him so easily. Another missed Ray Gun wound up being close enough to discourage me from pursuing and finishing the job, so I turned back to look at the ground support responsible for the distraction.

"I gotta say, if what those announcers are saying is true, you've got quite a pair on you," Paku called up, the taunt confusing me slightly. Seeing it, the guy grinned a little more and added, "If I'd been through SAO, I'd probably never have the guts to put on another VR headset. You must really wanna win this thing, huh? Almost makes me feel bad that you're gonna lose!"

He looked as though he were about to say more, but I teleported behind him and put him in a full nelson before he could even blink, causing him to let out a strangled cry of surprise. "You wanna know why I survived SAO?" I growled as I tightened my hold while he struggled to escape. "It's because I knew not to stand around running my mouth until I knew that I'd won."

"You haven't- whoa!"

His protestation was turned into a grunt of surprise as I redistributed my weight, heaving him up, over, and back behind me to send his face crashing into the stonework hard enough to break the floor and leave his head buried up to the neck in rocks like some kind of mutated plant. Following that, I drew my foot back as far as it would go before shouting, "Heads up, Strea!" I delivered a thunderous kick to Paku's backside, sending him flying toward my ten-story-tall teammate, who was smiling as if she were being handed an early Christmas present.

"Fore!" she shouted as her giant fist connected with the spirit detective and sent him flying way out of bounds, eliminating him from the contest.

"Not even a minute into the match, and we already have a knockout!" Mako said excitedly. "Excellent teamwork from the Black Cats, but can they keep it up?!"

Goju was back on me in the following instant, forcing me to block his Kaioken-enhanced barrage of punches and kicks while initially giving ground as I formulated a counterattack strategy. Once I had it, I applied a one-handed wristlock in tandem with my tail on the punch aimed at my midsection and used them to hold my opponent in place while I aimed my right palm at the other fighter, who quickly paled as he realized that fighting me one-on-one was likely the biggest mistake he could have made. I fired a rapid barrage of ki at point-blank range, having decided that I would be better served to drain his HP down to zero, as not to give him a chance to recover mid-flight when I tried to blast him out of bounds again.

The rapid flashes and noises were incredibly disorienting to the other guy, and as his health gauge dropped into the red zone, I willed more power into what would be the last attack, eager to have this skirmish over with so that I could go and help the others with their battles. Even as I fired the ki ball, I heard Strea shout, "Mataras, look out!"

"Wha-?"

My attack landed and took Goju out of the equation, but as it did, Strea dove in behind me and was instantly skewered in multiple places by large crystals, taking a sizeable chunk out of her health bar while also making it difficult for her to move. "Strea!" I shouted worriedly as I zoomed toward the closest spike, preparing another energy blast in order to break it, but I was suddenly struck out of the sky by what felt like a concussive burst of wind. "The hell?!"

"Eight Trigrams- Air Palm!" As I managed to reorient myself in the air, I looked down to see that the dragon slayer had tried to take a pot shot at me, but Strea's intervention had kept me from taking the brunt of the attack, even though Karuto had moved to take me out of the fight when his teammate could not. It was his Byakugan-powered Gentle Fist technique that was now coming at me again, and I knew that another hit would be anything but good for my chances of winning the fight.

I engaged Instant Transmission and fired a quick Kamehameha at the newcomer's back, even as Strea managed to shatter the crystals holding her, and moved to advance on the dragon slayer that had wounded her. Karuto evaded my laser and dashed closer, readying another palm strike while his deathly white eyes were no doubt analyzing which pressure points to strike me.

Fortunately, I'd practiced fighting another person with the Byakugan, so I had a general idea of which vital spots to guard when it came to close-quarters, even if it wasn't my first choice in engaging the ninja-style player. Still, if I try to hit him from long-range, he'll just use Air Palms to either keep me from charging up a big attack, or just cancel out my usual ki blasts. I'll have to play along partway if I want to break his rhythm. The second that he came close enough to hit, I knocked his hand aside and kicked him in the abdomen with my shin, sending him reeling, which in turn gave me an opening to aim at his face with an energy burst.

He blocked it with a Gentle Fist and took a moment to leap further back while asking, "Went for the eyes, huh?"

"It's your best play," I admitted as my fingertips glowed scarlet. "Makes sense to take it out, right?"

"I can see how you survived SAO, if that's true," he grinned as he settled into a slight crouch. "Your reflexes are insane."

"If you think mine are good, be glad I didn't bring along my friend with the Sharingan," I smirked back. Then I unleashed a Banshee Blast aimed to skewer my opponent's optical nerve, even as I charged another attack in my left hand. When Karuto predictably dodged the piercing beams, I sent forth a Kienzan to intercept his path, hoping to cut off his head.

Unfortunately, I missed my target, but it wasn't a total loss on my part. The whirling energy disk sheared off his right arm, robbing him of the ability to fully utilize the Gentle Fists that Byakugan-wielders were so infamous for. Karuto's face twisted into a frown as he recognized the development, but he still appeared ready to fight, if need be. "Not bad," he muttered. "This is the first time since I've played that I've been so effectively cornered."

I was about to respond with a ki blast instead of words when I felt a chill run down the back of my spine, an inexplicable sense for danger that I had developed in SAO alerting me to some impending disaster that required my attention. Slinging a trio of red bolts in Karuto's general direction to get me some space, I whirled around in time to see Strea reeling from the force of another massive crystal attack, courtesy of the enemy dragon slayer. She was teetering on the edge of the arena, and from the sounds of the crowd around us, it seemed as though it wouldn't take much for her to topple over.

"No!" I roared as I shot forward, fingers flying up to touch my brow so that I could use instant transmission to get to her attacker. Memories of every time I had been forced to watch a friend be struck down seared my mind as I moved. The rational part of me knew that even if she lost now, she would be okay, but my heart was still raw from all the torment that I had both endured and inflicted upon others.

Just as I was about to teleport, an air burst hit me from the side, robbing me of my concentration and sending me crashing to the ground just in time to see Strea let out a cry of frustration as a breath attack hit her in the chest and sent her toppling off the edge of the arena, which forced her to teleport out. My friend and counselor had been eliminated from the contest, all because I got too wrapped up in my own fight.

What happened?! I thought as I staggered to my feet. It was so unlike me to be unable to keep track of the bigger picture- to be unable to account for every contingency and possible failure that might throw our battle plan awry. With the exception of Crimson's death in the battle against Laughing Coffin, I had always been able to predict how a fight would unfold and plan accordingly. Was it the confidence of the Red Swordsman that gave birth to an arrogance that continues to live inside of me? I wondered as I looked over at a grinning Karuto, who seemed glad that he had been able to stop me from interfering with his teammate's kill. Do I still believe inside that my victory will come simply because I will it to be?

"One down, three to go," my opponent said as he strode closer with confidence. "You guy are tougher than I gave you credit for, but we're not done yet."

I flicked my eyes over to the screen, which showed the participants that had been eliminated and those who were still active on each team, and I narrowed my eyes as they returned to Karuto. "I wouldn't be bragging about that, pal," I said as I clenched my fists and prepared my mind for what needed to come next. "You're down by nearly half of your original lineup."

"Huh?" he frowned. Strea may have been eliminated, but she had managed to take out the enemy pirate before she went down, which left only four of the American players to go. Meanwhile, my team still had three people going strong, and as Karuto involuntarily shifted his gaze to confirm this fact for himself, I made my own move.

"Kaioken- Rebellion Spear!" I shouted as I rushed forward and body-tackled the ninja before he could use his Gentle Fist on me. At such close range, even if he could see what was coming, I would be moving too fast for him to do anything about it, especially with the enhancing technique that I had utilized. He went flying several dozen meters, putting him close to the edge of the arena before he managed to right himself, regarding me with a look of nervousness as I floated forward at an unhurried pace, scarlet energy gathering in each hand amid an aura of crimson fire.

"You mad, bro?" he grinned shakily.

"Nope," I deadpanned. "This is irritated. Pray you never see what I look like when I'm furious."

"Is this the part where I get intimidated?" he asked as he readied himself for a trigram attack.

"No," I replied as I raised my hands over my head. "This is."

Before either of us could make a move, however, a gunshot rang out, and Karuto's head was encased in a massive slab of ice. This threw him off-balance, and before he could recover his equilibrium, he fell over backwards, and off the edge of the arena, eliminating him from the competition.

"And down goes the captain of Team Discord!" Mako called from the commentator's box. "If his team can pull through and get to the next round, he'll be back, but with the way that the Moonlit Black Cats are playing, I just don't see that happening!"

"Yes, what started out as a nearly two-to-one advantage has now become a fairly even fight in terms of numbers," Adriana added. "But let's not count our friends from the States out just yet- Kofku, Akaku, and Shoji are more than holding their own against Rivka, who has been showcasing a masterful use of her requip magic in order to give her teammate the time she needs to land such beautifully accurate shots."

As this was happening, I looked over to see Sinon crouched by Rivka, who was using a ground-type spear to conjure barriers in order to keep their enemies at bay. They weren't close to the edge, but it was clear that they were having a hard time getting an angle on the other players, though it seemed that Sinon had no issue getting off a shot at Karuto in order to save me the trouble of finishing him off myself.

I teleported in next to them and threw up an energy shield around the three of us as I said, "I had that under control."

"This isn't Aincrad," my partner replied coolly, causing me to frown slightly. Seeing this while dragon crystals and sand blasts assaulted the new barrier, she added, "Back then, we had the luxury of being able to know that we were the strongest people in the dungeon. We could brag because we worked harder than anyone else in the game to achieve our level of strength. You said it yourself, there are too many unknowns here for us to act like we used to. I've always got your back, but do me a favor and try to make it at least a little bit easier on me? I've gotta protect more than just you, now."

"Hey, don't forget who kept that sand magic off you while you were trying to save his hide," Rivka said, looking a little winded.

"We all protect each other," I said to head off any potential arguing. "You're right, I am lucky to have you two looking after me. I'm sorry I made the call to split up. I realize now that made us more vulnerable than I should have allowed for."

"It's okay," Rivka said as she placed a hand on my shoulder, even as a large crystal tried to shatter my focus, but only succeeded in crumbling against the barrier. "Like you two keep saying, this isn't SAO. You're not responsible for our lives here. It really is just a game."

I hesitated, listening to the sounds of the shouting crowd, encouraging the enemy team to break us down and put us out of the competition. Almost none of them were rooting for my friends, and that angered me for reasons I can't really put into words. "No," I said firmly. "We may not be playing for the same stakes as last time, but this is not just a game."

Sinon raised an eyebrow, having recognized something familiar. "I know that look," she said as the player with the morphing quirk transformed into a polar bear and slammed a massive paw against the shield that I had conjured, still to no effect. "What's the plan, leader?"

"You're probably not gonna like it."

"…Arlebast Demon Wing, then?"

"Arlebast Demon Wing."

Sinon's face deadpanned as Rivka looked on with some confusion before the sniper said, "You're right. I don't like this, nor do I approve of it. But seeing as I trust you, I will accept it."

"What's the Arlebast Demon Wing?" Rivka asked as the attacks from outside began to intensify, shaking the ground beneath our feet. My power was starting to run low, so I knew that I would need to rely on hand-to-hand for a bit in order to let it recharge once I dropped the shield in a moment.

"Did we ever tell you the story of that time that Crimson and I got separated from the others in that underworld zone of the Hollow Area? The one crawling with gargoyles and other nasties?" I asked her, to which she shook her head in the negative.

"I don't think so."

"Well, we were pinned down pretty bad, which to us inventing a maneuver that Sinon here never really liked."

"Why, what does it entail?"

"Well…"


Interviewer: Cutting it a little close on the Christmas release, aren't you?

Mataras: Sue me, I've been busy with adulting.

Yuuki: Yeah, you have! Good job, bro!

Mataras: Thanks!

Philia: I'm just glad that we're getting to celebrate the holidays with our readers- especially after leaving them hanging for so long.

Mataras: I said I was sorry!

Interviewer: Well, regardless of how long it took, we're here, so let's give people what they came for. Let's start with Yuuki and Philia, our guest stars for today's episode.

Philia: Hello.

Yuuki: T'sup?

Interviewer: You two have been working together as a set pretty much since you arrived in Shattered Fragment, and you were both featured quite prominently. How does it feel to be taking a back seat, as it were?

Philia: Honestly, I can't complain. It's nice to get to relax a little more behind the scenes.

Yuuki: Not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed when I found out that I wasn't on the team for the tournament, but like Philia said, we still get to be a part of what's happening, so that's cool.

Interviewer: Well, we already had Strea eliminated from the competition-

Mataras: Yeah, she was not happy about that.

Interviewer: -so maybe you'll get to fill in that slot for the next round?

Yuuki: Here's hoping! I'd like to get the chance to show off my Sharingan again.

Interviewer: Speaking of which, some have been curious as to why your visual jutsu is more developed than Saphira's, despite her being arguably stronger than you. Can you shed any insight on why that might be?

Philia: *clamps hand over Yuuki's mouth* She has no comment.

Yuuki: Mph!

Mataras: Yeah, she's kinda like the Tom Holland of the crew... It's in her contract that she can't do any interviews alone, and since Philia here has worked with her the most, she got volunteered for baby sitting duty.

Yuuki: Mmph!

Philia: Licking my hand does nothing, Yuuki, you know this.

Interviewer: Well, we had to try. I suppose we should move on to the review responses now?

Mataras: I think that would be best, yes.

Interviewer: All right... First off, we have Joeclone, who says...

About my last review, thank you for the clarifications! I completely forgot about Rain's weather quirk!
This chapter was so intense! SUMERAGI IS A FROST DEMON!? I can already imagine that he looks a lot like Cooler, but without a faceplate or red eyes. The people who recognize Mataras are very interesting. I'm curious how the gang will go about making a new reputation for the guild. I like that Karuto guy, he seems very friendly.
I'm in the process of building my character for this story's universe, as a personal venture. I worked out that he'd recognize Mataras and Kirito from SAO, so far not much else.

Mataras: Well, I might have to do a sketch of Sumeragi as a Frost Demon to lend a little clarity on his design, but that's not a bad guess! Glad to hear that the chapter lived up to your expectations.

Philia: By the way, Karuto, the captain of the enemy team? He really is a nice guy.

Yuuki: Oh yeah, he brought all of us hot chocolate every day when we had to get early starts on set. It was so cool, cos he would do little patterns with the whipped cream and froth for each of us!

Philia: I wonder how he found the time to do that?

Mataras: Yeah, I never could figure that out, myself. But back to Joe's review, regarding building your own story based off of this universe, I have to say, I'm curious to see how that will work out. Is it a little side story that you're working on, or a full novelization like I did?

Interviewer: I'd be interested to see that, myself, but we do have to move on to other reviews.

Yuuki: Thanks for your review, Joe! We hope to see you again, soon!

Interviewer: Next up is Naruto Sakura Uzumaki, who writes...

Even with no action, this chapter was great! Sumeragi and Seven finally make an appearance for the first time (in the same chapter)! Also, I'm just happy to know that you WILL be putting at least one or maybe two Yu-Gi-Oh! duelists in the tournament! Can't wait to see how you will write those battles!

Philia: Well, we hope that the fights held up as well as you hoped they would! The crew worked really hard on them.

Mataras: I'm glad to see that people still appreciate the slower chapters. I always feel unsure while writing them, seeing as I usually put out a lot more intense stuff, but the encouragement really helps, guys! So thank you.

Yuuki: Thanks for reading, Naruto! We hope to see you in 2021, dettebayo!

Mataras: what'd I say about using those catchphrases?!

Yuuki: *blows raspberry*

Philia: Who's next?

Interviewer: This next one is from Triforce Hero, who says...

This chapter was intense in its own way Mataras. Despite what people think, not every chapter needs action to have an intense atmosphere. From the previous Red Swordsman stories I have read, I am not surprised that Mataras has someone after his head already. Hopefully within time, the Moonlit Black Cats Guild will be turned into one people don't just associate with the Death Game. Can't wait for the tournament matches to begin!

Mataras: And begun, the games have!

Philia: Okay, Yoda. Now who's stealing catchphrases?

Mataras: That's not a catchphrase!

Yuuki: People are really digging the slower pacing, it seems like. But they're right, it wouldn't take long for people to catch on to he is/was, and for more problems to come out of it.

Philia: Something tells me that we'll eventually end up fighting that team that has such a problem with him...

Yuuki: Now that'll be a match.

Interviewer: Last on the reviews, we have Ethan Kironus, who has this to say...

Happy to see you back! The chapter's really well executed, albeit with a few spelling errors {they're all small enough that it would be pretty difficult to find them again, except for one: At the first mention of the Moonlit Black Cats' name, it was written as "MoonliGHt Black Cats"}. And thank you for answering my review agreeing to put "You activated my trap card!" in there.

Yuuki: Well, we haven't seen the trap card bit yet...

Mataras: It's on its way!

Philia: So long as it is. Also, you're slipping on your spelling, it seems.

Mataras: Work in progress! Also, thank you, Ethan, for being such a longtime supporter and reader. It does me good to see so many of you returning, even in spite of my lengthy pauses.

Yuuki: Yeah, seriously! Thank you all for coming to read about us even after so long!

Philia: Since that was all the reviews, is that all we have to say?

Interviewer: Not quite. It seems that the results for the poll concerning the small comic strip are in. Mataras, care to make the big reveal?

Mataras: You guys have spoken, and I have listened! The winner of the poll is none other than Saphira's Lost Days! You guys are getting a mini-chapter of new content set within the time period of Shattered Fragment! It'll be a while before I can finish it, but it will happen, and I will let you guys know when it does!

Philia: In the meantime, you guys should check out Mataras' Instagram account the_red_swordsman so you can see the tournament uniforms that the team is using.

Yuuki: Yeah, and you should also check the new poll that he's put up on his home page!

Mataras: Yeah, I'm working on two new drawings, one of Sachi, and one of Saphira, both in the world of JFO. Both images will eventually be put up on my Instagram, but it's up to you guys to say which one of them will be the cover art for next chapter. Now, with all of that said, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Yuuki: Merry Christmas, everyone!

Philia: Happy Holidays to all!

Interviewer: Wasn't that an abrupt exit?

Mataras: This is the way.


Bloopers

(Miss-ltetoe)

Mataras: Saphira!

Saphira: Yes...?

Sinon: You must think you're pretty cute, don't you? *looks up to see mistletoe above her and Mataras*

Saphira: Wait, I thought Rivka was supposed to be the next one to come out of the props room...?

Rivka: Someone say my... name?

Mataras/Sinon: Saphira did it.

Saphira: Wait, it was an honest mistake!

Rivka: Saphira, you have failed Aincrad!

Saphira: No, not Deathcalibur! Not Deathcalibur!

Mataras: Not really feeling the 'goodwill toward men' around here...

Sinon: Don't you start that again.