~BREAKING NEWS~ I OWN ZERO PERCENT OF THIS CONTENT. Well, except for the plot and an OC or two, but I don't know if that counts... -v('-')v- In general, though, all of it belongs to the owners of Sword Art Online and any other fandoms I may inadvertently reference. Thanks for creating such a great series for me to mess around with.

General Notes: (re-written 9/7/21)

I've noticed a distinct lack of time-travel stories. Sure, there are some, but they're all abandoned from what I've seen. This makes me sad since it's usually a rather common trope in most fandoms. So, I'm looking to try my hand at it, though I've added my own twist... this isn't your typical time-travel story.

Things to be aware of:

- I don't have a comprehensive outline for this story. This is very much wish-fulfillment for me, and I'm more or less just figuring stuff out as I go along. If you notice any plotholes, shoot me a PM or leave a review, and I'll do my best to delve in and fix it.

- OOCness and other miscellaneous errors, this is my first foray into SAO, and not to mention I'm not exactly a professional writer—Kirito may be particularly OOC, given that he's pretty much a blank slate anyway (at least in the anime, and the anime is my source, not really the LNs) aside from some glaringly obvious characteristics. Also, if Kirito/Asuna bothers you, don't read this, as it's the main ship for this. This shouldn't be overly shippy, but if it's not to your tastes, please kindly refrain from leaving some sort of scathing review.

- Americanizations. I'm not Japanese, and I may horribly butcher some Japanese traditions. Apologies in advance.

- This is a pretty slow-paced story. And by slow-paced, I mean slow-paced, as in Floor 1 isn't over 'till chapter 10. If that's not what you're looking for, there's nothing I can do about that. You'd probably be better off reading something else.

- There is no update schedule. Those can stress me out, a slippery slope that leads to me taking large breaks from writing.

- I may sporadically make revisions to chapters. These revisions vary from large-scale and small-scale. Whenever I revise, I'll post a note on the top of the chapter, so if you're an old reader looking to refresh your memory, take note of those, as you may find it different from what you remember.

- Time skips are usually short. This is more akin to what I've heard about Progressive (floor-by-floor progress) than the anime and other LNs, which have large jumps in time.

Regardless, I hope you enjoy my fic.

Chapter posted on 3/1/21, chapter revised on 4/2/21, rewrite finished/posted on 9/11/21.

Less obvious AU elements introduced in Chapter 1:

- Armament Total Control is simply "System call, enhance armament!" instead of the long command it is in canon.

PM me if you noticed anything that I missed.

Chapter One: Rewind

"You shock me with your bold words and reckless actions," Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty said. "It was clear from the beginning that the two of you would escape the prison, but your triumphs against my comrades are both unwelcome and unexpected."

Eugeo took a nervous step forward, eyes frantically imploring her to listen. "Alice, I—"

Her sword slamming into the ground brutally cut off Eugeo's appeal.

"SILENCE!" yelled the knight, almost vibrating with anger. "I shall speak and you will listen! You may have defeated my fellow Integrity Knights, but you will not win this fight! I stand here, steadfast, as a wall against your repugnant attempt at a coup."

"No." The word was quiet compared to Alice's fury-filled shouts, but it carried easily to the top of the lush hill, caressing her as if a sea breeze; soft, but noticeable enough in the end.

For a moment, the blue and gold-clad knight lost her composure. "What?" She had clearly expected him to say something different. Maybe she had expected a louder response, or perhaps one that was anger-filled. What Kirito could tell had surprised her the most, however, was the smug tint to his tone.

The surprise was not to last, however. He watched as she regained her composure within seconds, and tried not to flinch at the glare that greeted him. "What is it that you know?" came the expected query; fast, and sharp.

As planned as the interaction was, he couldn't help the tension that entered his frame. He struggled with himself for a moment, wrestling control over his fear and pushing it down somewhere deep inside. When he eventually spoke, his voice did not waver. "Your name."

From beside him, Eugeo rolled his eyes. "Stop being so dramatic, Kirito," he said. "Look, Alice. I know you won't believe us, but you weren't always an Integrity Knight. If you're willing to listen, we have a story to tell."

Alice flinched as if struck. "I am finished with your insulting lies! I will not grant you an honor you do not deserve."

Just as she was about to dash at them, sword at the ready, Kirito yelled out what he hoped sounded like a last resort: "Alice Zuberg!"

The blonde-haired knight froze. "I know that name," she said after a moment. "It sounds familiar on my tongue..." She trailed off, staring at the two swordsmen.

"I had hoped it would," he admitted, scratching the back of his head in a nervous gesture. "It is your name, after all."

She stood in silent shock for another moment before seemingly gathering her wits. "Explain further."

Once again, he had to force himself not to flinch. Just as he was about to speak, however, Eugeo seemed to gather his own courage. "You are Alice Zuberg of Rulid Village! W-we grew up together! You were my best friend..." he trailed off at the end, but his eyes hardened and he looked up with determination written on his face. "We were not here to overthrow the Administrator, at least not at first. We came here for you..."

It was silent for a few long, tense moments before Alice opened her mouth to speak, and choked.

Her right eye glowed an angry red as she fell to her knees, mouth open wide in agony.

"Haaah!" she exclaimed as Kirito and Eugeo rushed to her side.

Clearly panicking, Eugeo knelt next to her, extending his hand towards her. "You don't have to do this, Alice!" he said quietly, but with bone-deep worry.

Despite the intent behind his words, things only seemed to get worse. Alice doubled over in pain, gritting her teeth together while struggling to get out a sentence. "No... I have been deceived... we have all been deceived... I will not... I WILL NOT BE CAGED!"

Alice screamed in pain as her eye exploded outwards in a shower of gore, Eugeo jerking his hand back just in time to avoid getting it covered.

It took several minutes for everyone to calm down from the chaos they had rapidly descended into. It was safe to say that Kirito and Eugeo were no longer in charted waters, as their plan had fallen apart the moment Alice began fighting the seal.

Alice had composed herself rather quickly, given the circumstances. She wiped away the remnants of her eye off of her face with a handkerchief she pulled from her pocket before incinerating it with a quickly-summoned fire element.

Wincing, Eugeo reached to tear a strip of his shirt off so that she would be able to use it as a bandage to cover her empty eye socket, but she held up a hand to stop him, moving the other in a quick motion to activate a Sacred Art. "System call, generate luminous element; repair lost organ."

Kirito watched quietly as her new eye gradually grew into place over the course of a minute, apathetic to the gore after all the time he'd spent as a swordsman in Underworld. When it finished, it looked as if it had never been gone in the first place. "So," said Alice after a few moments, "it seems to me that you are not the traitors I was told you were."

Both men nodded rapidly, eager to win her over quickly before the conversation fell even more off-the-rails. "I will help you inform the other Integrity Knights of her betrayal," she said, posture straightening. "Bercouli Synthesis One is the next knight that you would have faced, had you bested me."

The ninetieth floor was decidedly not what Kirito had expected. He took a moment to stare longingly at the luxurious baths before quickly moving to catch up with his two companions, who were nearing their potential ally.

All too quickly, they reached their destination. Kirito felt his heart rate rapidly increase as he took in the sight of the man resting before him.

Though half of Bercouli Synthesis One was obscured by the bath, it was easy to recognize his strength based on his size alone. Simply put, the man was massive. Kirito wasn't one to be concerned about size, though. No, he had a healthy fear and respect for this man because if Eldrie was Synthesis Thirty-One, what did that say about Bercouli, the Synthesis One?

"Ah, I was wondering when you would finally arrive."

Bercouli tilted his head to the side, just enough to look back at them with azure eyes gleaming with resolve.

Looking troubled, Alice took a hesitant step forward. "Uncle... there is something you must know."

Eugeo flinched, and Kirito knew why. Both of them had met Alice's uncles, and neither of the two kind men were resembled by the hulking killing machine of a man who was slowly standing up in front of them.

Standing at his full height, Bercouli stretched languidly before tying his bathrobe shut. "I know what you are going to say, Alice. I couldn't be more proud of you for breaking the seal..." He looked anything but proud, however. Instead, only a look of profound sadness could be found on his face. "...I am only sorry I could not find the will to break it myself."

It was silent for a few moments before the proverbial penny dropped and Alice's eyes filled with tears. "But—"

"I am truly sorry, little one," he said, and Kirito could tell that he meant it.

Alice did not find any solace in his sincerity, however. She began to openly cry; something that Kirito did not expect from the strong, willful Integrity Knight, and something he was sure he would never witness again.

Bercouli tried to take a step forward, but his right eye flashed a dark red; a clear warning. Instead, he reluctantly drew his massive sword—something that looked like it was made more from clock parts than any traditional material. Alarmed, Kirito took a step back and drew his own sword. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Eugeo quickly pull the insensate Alice back. He didn't pay any mind to that as he fell into the starting stance of his Aincrad Style, prepared to fight for his life.

Bercouli hummed in appreciation as he appraised Kirito's stance. "That's not a stance I've seen before. At the very least, you will be an interesting opponent..." Bercouli trailed off as Kirito launched himself towards him.

They fought fiercely for over a minute. Kirito backed his strikes with as much power as he could, knowing that his opponent was extremely formidable. Bercouli, however, looked like he was only humoring Kirito. Upon realizing this, Kirito took a large leap back, furious at being underestimated. Leveling his sword in Bercouli's direction, he began the call to unlock his weapon's true potential. "System call, enhance armament!"

Immediately, his sword erupted into a purple-edged beam of darkness. He was only dimly aware of Eugeo shouting the same command a few feet away. Bercouli only had a second to react before the darkness would have reached him. Despite this, he fluidly hopped to the side, roaring his own command as Kirito angled his sword to refocus on the blue-haired knight. "Time Splitting Sword, release recollection!" Bercouli yelled.

It was all over in a second. Everything was silent, yet piercingly loud at the same time. An unseen force slammed into everyone present, lifting them up off of the ground and sending them flying. The last thing Kirito felt before the darkness claimed him was the whispers of Fate, the touch of Death, and the eternal gleam of Life. It wasn't the end, though. His unconsciousness must have lasted less than a second because before he knew it, the world span into focus once more; dizzying and overwhelming. He screwed his eyes shut immediately.

After a moment, he hesitantly opened his eyes and saw not the ceiling of the ninetieth floor, but the sky.

Was I thrown out of the Cathedral? No. I would be dead if I was.

He sat up quickly, regretting it as the world spun and his head ached. "Aaah..." he groaned quietly, clutching at his throbbing skull.

After a minute or two of his vision swimming, it began to even out some. He got to his feet clumsily, almost falling back down twice before he accomplished even that.

The most noticeable thing about his immediate surroundings was the utter lack of movement. Everything was frozen, and that said something because he was surrounded by people. The second most noticeable thing about his surroundings was the unconscious duo of Eugeo and Alice lying at his feet. He scratched his head, wondering why he'd woken up first.

"Oh, my god... Kirito?"

Startled, Kirito spun around, something he regretted very quickly once more.

The voice panicked as he clutched at his head and groaned. "Hey, hey! You're okay, you're safe! Kirito! Kiri-dude?"

"Please... just shut up," Kirito managed dizzily.

Instantly, the person's mouth snapped shut with an audible clack.

Dimly, Kirito wondered if he had hurt the feelings of whoever had tried talking to him. He wasn't able to vocalize his thought, however. Instead, he fell to the ground, unconscious once more.

"—ito! Kirito! Wake up!"

Kirito groaned and shifted uncomfortably. Why was his bed so hard? "Ugh... five more minutes Eugeo..."

It was Klein's voice he heard next. "Kirito! C'mon, get up buddy!"

Kirito's eyes shot wide open. Klein? How? That didn't make any sense! He was trapped in Underworld! How did Klein end up in there too?

But it wasn't Klein, it was Asuna, kneeling in front of him. "I'll help you up, lazybones," teased his beloved, an easy smile gracing her features. Kirito blinked, and the vision was gone. It had been a hallucination. Instead, it was Eugeo, extending a hand. Oh, Asuna... don't worry. I'll get out of here, and I'll come home to you.

"Don't hurt him, guy-who's-name-I-don't-know," came Klein's voice again from behind him, sounding concerned.

Kirito scrambled to his feet and spun around, feeling grateful that his head wasn't spinning anymore. Surprisingly, it actually was Klein. The katana-wielding samurai-wannabe looked almost exactly as he had in ALfheim a few years ago. Kirito had to blink a few times to make sure it wasn't a trick of his mind again. "Oh my god, Klein!" Without another word, the elated swordsman practically tackled his friend.

"Whoa there," Klein laughed, hugging him back. "Cool it, Kiri-dude! It's only been a week! You're acting like it's been years!"

Kirito backed up suddenly, eyes wide. "A week? It has been years, Klein. Though, speaking of that, how on Earth did you get to Underworld?"

"Kirito..." came Eugeo's quiet voice from behind him, prompting him to turn around again. "Where are we—no, who is this, how do you know him, and where are we?"

Kirito was about to respond, but then he looked away from his two friends and his breath caught in his throat. Now that his head had stopped spinning, he could recognize his surroundings more clearly, and it looked just like the plaza in the Town of Beginnings. Kirito looked around more, hoping to find reassurance in the faces of the players, but it only added to his worries... the players all around him didn't have elvish ears like ALO players, they looked like normal humans—SAO players! They were all wearing SAO starter gear! Everyone except him, Eugeo, and Klein. That was when he noticed how quiet it was, and how all of them looked like they were in a state of shock...

On one hand, this was terrible. He'd jumped from being trapped in one world to being trapped in another. On the other hand... He glanced at Klein. Could it be possible that Asuna had made it back here as well?

"Klein," he said, the name feeling unfamiliar on his lips, "this might sound random... but do you recognize where we are?"

Startled, Klein gave Kirito an odd look. "What do you mean 'do I recognize it'? We're in the Town of Beginnings, aren't we? We're in ALO," he said, eyes worriedly scanning Kirito's face as if looking for a lump on his head that would explain the confusion.

"No, no," Kirito protested, waving his arm around agitatedly, "that's not what I was going for. Take a closer look... This doesn't look like ALO... you can tell, right? Look at the players."

Klein looked like he was about to retort, but shut his mouth upon seeing the deeply worried expression on Kirito's face. Sighing in defeat, he looked around, but all forms of hesitance vanished the more he looked around. His eyes darted back and forth quicker and quicker, his breathing sped up, his pupils dilated...

"Stop, Klein, you're going to drive yourself mad," chided Kirito, but his words sounded hollow even to his own ears. The man's gaze connected with his and Kirito could see the blind panic in his eyes.

"What's going on, Kirito," rasped the normally cheerful man, shoulders shaking. "This looks like... this looks like..."

He wasn't wrong, then; they really were trapped inside SAO again. He shook his head. "I... I'm sorry, Klein. I have no clue."

"No," Klein replied, seeming to gather himself, though Kirito could still see the edges of panic he had tried to push down. "I'm the one who panicked myself into a frenzy. You shouldn't need to apologize for that."

"I'm sorry, what's going on?" said Eugeo, drawing Kirito's attention.

"Um," said Kirito, at a loss for words.

Eugeo sighed. "Fine, fine. I can tell you're a little overwhelmed, so I'll ask again later. Still, we should wake Alice up."

Kirito shrugged. "I can do it." After seeing her break down in front of them, he found that he wasn't as nervous around her anymore. It was a cruel thought, but there was something about seeing a person vulnerable that made them seem less intimidating, at least to him.

He knelt next to the passed-out girl and prodded her shoulder a few times. "What is happening? Where are we?" Alice demanded immediately, sitting up. Kirito winced as he saw her clutch at her head immediately after.

"So you're all awake," came a childish voice Kirito and Eugeo recognized. Cardinal. How is she here? Maybe... maybe whatever pulled us back here pulled her as well? Well, if even Klein, who hadn't been in Underworld at all could be pulled back, what were the limits of what had happened to us?

"Cardinal!" Kirito exclaimed. "Finally, someone who can explain what's going on."

"Who?" Klein said dumbly, shooting an incredulous glance to his black-clad friend, who barely held in a laugh at the ridiculous look on the redhead's face. "Good lord, Kirito, you're gone for a week, and shit like this starts happening again?"

There was a burst of light and suddenly Cardinal was standing before them. "When you and Eugeo activated your armament full control arts, they both collided with Bercouli Synthesis One's own art, from his sword called the Time-Splitting Sword. Can you guess where I'm going with this?"

"Uh, no," said Kirito. "Should I be able to? Sacred Arts involving time aren't very common."

Cardinal pinched her brow, sighing. "The date is November sixth, of the year 2022."

Kirito slumped. This was certainly less than ideal. They were back at the start of SAO. How long would it take to get out this time? They had been extremely lucky last time, what with getting out twenty-five floors early. But then, he realized something else. He glanced down at his legs... they felt sore. Soreness was not a feeling that could be felt in SAO... which meant...

Oh no.

He'd bet any amount of money that they took back a lot of Underworld data with them when they came back, which meant that the players would be feeling pain, which meant they wouldn't want to fight... which meant that it would take even longer to get out because the fighting force would be extremely reduced.

That wasn't even taking into account the number of deaths that would surely result from the shock of real pain.

"Oh, hell," Klein said succinctly, unaware of Kirito's despairing thoughts.

"But... that isn't possible!" Kirito exclaimed, trying to protest even though he was pretty sure she wasn't lying. Klein was here... they were in the Town of Beginnings... it all added up unless this was some strange lucid dream, which was unlikely.

"What isn't possible?" asked Eugeo, who looked completely lost.

Cardinal nodded, ignoring Eugeo completely. "I completely, agree. It shouldn't be possible, yet all of my internal sensors, everything in the system, the contents of the outside internet... even that scruffy man's presence here... it all confirms what we were thinking."

Kirito's eyes narrowed. "How do you know that?" Cardinal had authority over the Underworld, and even then, it had only been partial authority, from what he'd heard from her. She had said that Quinella had bonded with the main Cardinal program, and she had been fused with the error-check program or something like that. She shouldn't know much of anything about things outside of Underworld...

"I know a lot of things," she said mysteriously.

"What an excellent way to dodge a question."

Cardinal sighed. "I suppose I can give you an overview..."

And she did. Cardinal had taken over for the main Cardinal System. Using that authority, she eliminated the Heathcliff account. Everything outside of the Town of Beginnings had been altered in some way after the 'merge' with Underworld. Apparently, entire floors had been changed. That meant that his knowledge of SAO was now useless, and the only leg-up they had now was their knowledge of Underworld.

"Hey, if those two got pulled here by some weird fighting thing they did, what are me and that knight chick doing here?" Klein asked, as subtle as ever. Kirito rolled his eyes.

Cardinal sighed. She spoke again, pointedly ignoring Klein's question, "Anyways, for Eugeo and Alice, who seem confused, the year you were in before this... incident, was 2026, at least in this world."

"Wow," Eugeo said, starry-eyed. "That's a lot of years! Where are we, for the dating system to be that high up?"

Kirito groaned. That was the part he was fixated on? "Eugeo, I'll explain it all to you and Alice later, but right now, it seems important that we know what's going on."

Eugeo shrugged, too confused to care.

"So," Cardinal said, "you're back in time four years. Somehow, though, you aren't the only ones. All throughout this world, the... NPCs, I think they're called, have been overwritten by Underworld residents, and most of the humanoid... mobs, as you call them, have been replaced by Dark Territory inhabitants, such as pugilists, goblins, orcs... you get the idea. Just know, Kirito, they all have fluctlights now."

Kirito let out a puff of air. They were the mobs? "This is bad. None of the players are going to know, they'll mercilessly slaughter them! If we try to say anything, they'll think we're crazy!"

Cardinal appeared to be thinking. "I can make it so that they respawn, so to speak, since they aren't classified as players."

Kirito sighed in relief. Good. At least they didn't have to worry about an admin with a grudge. "So, you're the admin here?"

Cardinal nodded. "Yes, I'm lucky that I arrived after Quinella. It seems that the previous Cardinal System stripped her of her Administrator status and locked her inside the boss room on the 100th floor."

Kirito looked at Cardinal hopefully. If she was the admin, maybe she could... "Does that mean you can let us out of here? At least can you make it so we can respawn?"

"Unfortunately, those seem to be the only things I can't do here."

That's bullshit. Best not to push her, though... Don't want to alienate the GM while she's standing right in front of me.

Klein swore. "Damn it. I bet that means we gotta go through this whole thing again! And this time, we won't get the easy way out like last time with Kayaba's deal."

Kirito slumped his shoulders again. They would be lucky if it took them three years to get out. Three whole years... Wait. "You mentioned others," Kirito said haltingly, all thoughts of Cardinal's possible duplicity instantly leaving his mind, "was that specific to the NPCs and mobs being overwritten? I'm asking because Klein is somehow here with us, and... well... he wasn't exactly in Underworld..."

"There are several other travelers," Cardinal said casually. "They are scattered throughout the plaza. Also, one of the mental health counseling programs was overwritten too. I wonder how it got involved..."

"Wait," Kirito said abruptly. "What's the codename?"

Cardinal eyed him curiously, noting the almost desperate gleam in his eyes. "Yui, Yui-MHCP001," she said, eyebrows lifting when he visibly brightened up.

"Can you bring her here?"

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, of course it knows you. Every element of chaos I've ever seen has been caused either directly or indirectly by you."

That sounded ominous, but... "Please?"

Cardinal shrugged and snapped her fingers. With a pop and a flash, a small pixie clothed in a pink dress appeared in front of them.

"That's not the default appearance!" Cardinal exclaimed, eyes wild and calculating as she took in Yui's appearance.

"Yui!" Kirito yelled. His daughter... Yui... she was here after all this time!

With another flash, the pixie was a ten-year-old girl in a white dress. She jumped into Kirito's arms with such force that he almost fell over. As it was, he stumbled back a few steps. "Papa!"

He swung her around, laughing happily. She's here! She's here! She's here! "I missed you so much!"

"I missed you too! Is Mama here? I know she misses you just as much as me!" Yui said with a smile, enjoying being in her father's arms again.

"Papa?" Eugeo asked incredulously. "Since when do you have a kid? You're the same age as me!"

Kirito froze, startled out of his reunion. "Uh, well... it's not biological. Me and... someone else adopted her."

Cardinal shook her head, looking amused, but that calculating gleam was more present than ever. "You adopted an AI mental health counseling program? She wasn't even programmed to have emotions! But... she has a fluctlight now... It doesn't make sense. Should I even be surprised? You've long since been derailing my expectations."

"Huh, weird," Kirito said, looking down at the girl burrowing herself into his chest. "A fluctlight? I guess I shouldn't be so surprised. She's always been just as emotive as anyone else."

"Okay," Eugeo said, "I'm still confused, but it makes a bit more sense that she's adopted, at least."

Kirito nodded. "Okay, Cardinal. You said there were others here. Does one of them happen to have the handle Asuna?"

Yui extracted herself from the hug and grabbed his hand. "Yes, Papa. Mama is here! I can take you to her!"

Cardinal sounded relieved when she spoke next. "Good. I would appreciate that, Yui. There is much for me to do... this has not been a very clean transfer, and what I have told you barely scratches the surface of what has changed about this world in its merging. If you ever need my assistance, just use your menus to contact the GM, who is me, incidentally. At the very least, I need to ensure that the field and floor bosses stay contained."

"Right," Kirito said, smiling at his daughter as she beamed. "I'll be messaging you later, Cardinal. I still have a few more questions."

Cardinal nodded, before fading away.

There was suddenly an odd sensation of time itself speeding up. Their ears popped as the crowd started whispering before the inevitable screams broke out.

"We need to get out of here," Klein said, looking around anxiously. "I stuck around longer than you did last time, Kirito, and you don't wanna be here for what happens next."

This made Kirito stop in his tracks, swearing loudly. Klein's guild was somewhere in this plaza! He vividly remembered it...

"I'm sorry, Kirito, but my friends are all back there!" Klein had said sadly, the expression even more pronounced because his real face had been showing. "We waited in line all night to buy this game... I can't just leave them back there!"

"Klein, Fuurinkazan!" he exclaimed.

"Aw, man! I totally forgot about them. Wow, this really is a mess."

"You should know vaguely where they were, right?" Kirito asked desperately. They didn't have time for this! He'd heard that the Town of Beginnings had been an unfriendly part of town to stay in for nearly a month after the beginning of the game.

Klein nodded, wondering where he was going with this.

"Take them, and meet us at the north entrance of the town. We need to figure out the lay of the land. Cardinal said it changed, after all."

"You got it," Klein said, giving a hollow grin and a salute before sprinting away.

Shaking his head, he turned back to Alice and Eugeo. "We need to go."

They barely made it ten steps from where they had been standing before they crashed headfirst into who they were looking for.

"Kirito!" Sinon...

"Kazuto!" Sugu...


Kirito launched himself at the woman he didn't dare hope he'd ever see again.

"Oh, Kirito," she said, visibly fighting back tears as she hugged him back.

"It—it may have been around a week for you like Klein said... but it's been two years for me... and oh, I've missed you so much!"

"I love you," Asuna whispered into his ear. "I'm here now. I'm not going away. We're together again, a family again."

"Sorry to break up whatever this is," Sinon said suddenly, gesturing vaguely at the reunion, "but we're kinda confused... one minute we were partying around in ALO, and then, somehow, we're here? Where even is this? I mean, it looks like New Aincrad, but these people are definitely not ALO players."

"Aincrad?" Eugeo asked. "Isn't that..."

Sinon did a double-take as she noticed Eugeo. "Did you always have a twin, Kirito?" she asked doubtfully, cutting Eugeo off.

Kirito coughed. "Um, no."

"What?" said Eugeo, blinking.

"He does look like Onii-chan, doesn't he?" Leafa agreed, eyeing Eugeo appraisingly. Kirito coughed again.

"Screenshots? Does that come from the same place as your other expression, Kirito? Stay cool?" Eugeo asked honestly, turning to his best friend, and definitely not expecting the roaring laughter that erupted from Sinon.

"Oh," the girl wheezed, "priceless! Stay cool?"

"Anyways," said Leafa, rolling her eyes with an expression of fond exasperation. "Screenshots are pictures you take from inside a game. It's slang. Also, I didn't catch your name, Kazuto's twin."

"I'm Eugeo, but how do you go inside a game? And what's a picture?"

Asuna frowned. Kirito could tell what she was thinking. Back when he'd told her about his part-time job at Rath, he'd explained a lot about fluctlights... She probably was guessing that Eugeo was one of the artificial fluctlights he'd mentioned. "Eugeo, do you know where you are?" she asked kindly, confirming his suspicions.

The boy in blue shook his head. "No, Kirito said he'd explain later, once we got to somewhere safe." He shot a confused look at his friend. "I'm rather looking forward to that explanation... I don't understand half of what's going on here, and I bet Alice here is doing no better than me."

"Alice?" chorused the three females.

"Hello, I am Alice." Everyone looked attentively as Alice moved forward to stand next to Eugeo. "Hello, I am Alice Synthe—uh—Alice Zuberg, it's nice to meet you." She gave them a formal bow.

Asuna raised an eyebrow at the stumble, but stepped forward and bowed in return, though in a slightly less formal manner. Then, she smiled. "You don't have to be so formal, Alice. Any friend of Kirito's is a friend of mine."

The introductions were interrupted when the sound of loud running filled the air.

"Asunaaaaaaaaa!" Liz skidded to a halt behind Asuna, Silica a few seconds behind her, looking exhausted. "Was there a bug or something? This is some glitch, I gotta tell ya. I can practically feel the terror coming off these players—oh my god, is that you Kirito? How are you here? We've all missed you and your badass sword skills, but aren't you supposed to be on some sort of high-tech VR treatment like Asuna said? Oh, new people? Hello, I'm Lisbeth, but you can call me Liz, whatever works! Something weird's happening for sure though—"

"Liz, calm down!" said Kirito, laughing. It felt so good to see them!

Eugeo nodded nervously to Liz. "Uh, hi Liz, I'm Eugeo, nice to meet you!"

"Wow, a boy? We've only got two of those! Well, now three! Welcome to the team! I'm sure you'll fit in just great," Liz said quickly, beaming.

"And I'm Silica!" piped up the twin-tailed Cait Sith.

"Nice to meet you," replied Eugeo, a gentle smile replacing the nervous look he'd worn moments ago.

After a few more minutes of introductions, Kirito decided now was as good of a time as any to send the mood crashing down... it had to happen eventually, didn't it? "Sorry to kill the happy mood we've got going, but the situation is a little more serious than you think."

"Oh no," said Silica with a smile. "Guys, this is Kirito. The bad things that happen to him are always really weird. Prepare yourselves."

Kirito sighed, shaking his head sadly. "I've really outdone myself this time."

Eugeo chuckled, undermining the serious nature of the conversation.

"The logout button is missing from the menu," Kirito said without preamble. He might as well have shot the mood three times in the head with the way everyone's postures shifted firmly towards subdued.

"Kirito-kun?" Asuna asked, sounding slightly fearful. He met her eyes, feeling immensely guilty about the gleam of panic that he found there.

They all pulled open their menus and stared blankly at the empty space where the logout button was supposed to be.

"There's a good reason that everyone's panicking," Kirito continued, feeling even worse as he took in their reactions. He hated making them scared or sad, but... there wasn't a way he could explain it that wouldn't end up with that result.

"What is it?" Leafa asked cautiously, visibly hating the way her voice quivered.

"Check the date on your in-game calendar."

A moment later, Liz fell to her knees, all traces of the cheerful, outgoing girl had vanished. "No. No... no! It can't... I—I can't do it again! We already left! Finished it! Why..."

Kirito gripped her shoulder reassuringly. "This time you won't be alone, Liz. We're all here. I'm not going solo... in fact, I think we should make a guild."

Even though he'd always been solo before and only occasionally partied with them for fun, he'd been without them for two years. Plus, being a guild had many benefits. He wasn't planning on being the leader, though. That wasn't something that he could ever see himself doing well.

This time it was Asuna that nearly fell over. "A g-guild? Kirito! You've never liked or felt comfortable with guilds before! Are you sure?"

He nodded firmly, feeling more confident about his decision now that he'd vocalized it. "We're a family. We'll stick together... I mean, if you guys want to?" He looked around at them nervously, suddenly aware that he had been speaking as if it was guaranteed that they would want to make one.

He was startled when Asuna smacked him on the back of the head. "Silly Kirito-kun, of course, we'll join your guild! What did you think?"

"Wait a minute!" Kirito protested. "My guild? When did it become my guild? I thought it would be ours?"

He didn't want to be the leader! He was just proposing the idea of making a guild, not leading it!

"Silly Kirito," scoffed Liz as she stood up. "Who else would be the leader of our guild but the Black Swordsman?"

Seeing that everyone was in agreement, he slumped. While he hadn't wanted this, he would make the best of it. He would do it for them. For them.

"Black Swordsman?" asked Eugeo, who looked thoughtful. "I can see that, with his inclination to dark clothing and his unique fighting style."

Kirito shifted uncomfortably. "It's not unique, Eugeo, it's just not a style used in Underworld by anyone other than me."

"Really?" asked Eugeo, clearly interested. "Who else? Is there anyone here who uses the Aincrad Style?"

There were several groans. "Kirito, you didn't, did you? Did you really name your sword style something so unoriginal?"

Kirito was once again left stammering. "They kept asking me what style I used! I had to give it a name, after all."

It was true. He hadn't really thought about naming the way he fought before Eugeo had asked him what his style was called. He'd made it up on the spot. Luckily, it seemed to catch on, and he found that he didn't regret his choice. It was a good name, after all.

"I think Papa's style is very unique," chirped Yui. Alice shot a curious look at the child.

"What do you mean, Yui?" asked Leafa, who had always been interested in learning something from her very cute niece.

Yui screwed up her face, which made her look even cuter and adopted a thoughtful pose. "Well, everyone here had different ways of fighting. Sure, Papa may have based his "Aincrad Style" off of Sword Skills from SAO, but the way he uses them and the moves that aren't Sword Skills are of his own design, perfected over the two years he spent here and beyond! I told you once, Papa, I liked to watch you and Mama. I got to see you experiment with new things every time you went leveling. Eventually, everything you were doing melted together into your own personal style! It's very original! I doubt that anyone could replicate it without him tutoring them himself!"

Eugeo raised a timid hand. "Yes?" asked Yui.

"Kirito did teach me his Aincrad Style!" Eugeo said, a hint of pride in his voice.

Liz giggled as all eyes swung to Kirito. "Wow~ Kirito teaching? Who would have thought the dark and broody Mr. Black Swordsman would ever be a teacher! Maybe he is suited to leadership after all!"

"Liz!" Kirito complained, drawing laughter from the group. He smiled. If this is what it took to keep away the despair and fear, at least for a time, he would let Liz humiliate him for the rest of his life.


First chapter, done!