Haha... it's been a while... I dunno how long I'll stick around before I go take another break, but I'll try and get out as much as I can. It's fun. I hope you enjoy this regardless.

Before you start the chapter, though, I'd like to let you know that I completely overhauled chapter one. The same sort of stuff happens plot-wise, but it's been told in a different way (for the most part). I personally think it's a lot better. I've also been working on getting rid of the head-hopping in the early chapters.

Chapter 11: Transition

Kikuoka stared at the tablet he was holding in front of him, watching as the Timeless Knights left the First Floor-Boss Chamber.

"Jeez, Kirigaya, you don't do anything by halves," Higa muttered worriedly, peering over Kikuoka's shoulder.

Kikuoka shook his head. "He'll be fine. What I'm more worried about, though, is the world's response to this. We need to beef up security for every player you could see in that crowd—particularly that Kibaou guy. I might not agree with his actions, but I don't want to see him hurt by Kirito's more diehard fans..."

The situation with the stream was spinning wildly out of control. After that day when Aki had reported to the JSDF about its existence, the military organization had surprisingly decided that the whole world deserved to know. Since then, it had been one media frenzy after another.

Higa exhaled loudly. "It's ridiculous that we have to deal with stuff like this," he said as he went back to his seat. "Who would have thought that hostile fans would be an issue we'd have to deal with when talking about Kirigaya?"

"Yes, he was always quite low-key," agreed Kikuoka. "He never took credit for much of anything. I don't think the world even knew who it was who cleared SAO in the first place... back before."

"And now, they know too much."

Kikuoka nodded. "Exactly." While all mentions of time travel were carefully muted and blurred, there was more than enough sensitive information mentioned that wasn't filtered. For example, it was now a widely known fact that Ronye and Tiese were NPCs who were apparently fully sentient. Kikuoka was sure that any day now, his superiors were going to start breathing down his neck to throw a research team together in order to figure out how to copy the feat. That wasn't even mentioning the media storm the appearance of Konno Yuuki and Sortiliena Serlut was bound to cause.

Kikuoka massaged the bridge of his nose, attempting to stave off a headache.

Given that it was such a huge catastrophe, anything new about the SAO incident was nationally televised. Not to mention, the stream following Kirito had at least a hundred thousand viewers at any particular moment. As much as Kikuoka wished it wasn't, it was a national sensation. It was even beginning to pick up traction internationally as well, though that was much more slow-going.

Kirito cursed as a particularly unstable plank of wood creaked alarmingly under his boot as he stepped on it.

"Language~!" chided Asuna, her voice floating up the rickety stairs from where she was standing at the bottom, hands on her hips.

"Oh, can it, Asuna," Sinon retorted as she walked past the brown-haired girl and began climbing the steps herself, carrying a box of supplies. "I bet you would be swearing if it happened to you."

"Hmph!" Asuna pressed her lips together into a thin line and walked away, likely to go back to the kitchen area.

Kirito let out a breathy laugh. "How do we have so much stuff!" he exclaimed, adjusting his grip on the unwieldy box in his arms.

Sinon rolled her eyes, not that Kirito could see it. "Hell if I know. What I do know is that there's so much shit that it doesn't even fit in all of our inventories."

"I really need to shell out the Shear to buy a bigger Guild Storage."

"Yeah, you do."

They were moving into an old, rickety manor on the edge of Marshtown. While Kirito would have preferred to live closer to the center, their guild was simply too large for an apartment and inns were getting too expensive for such a large group of people. It wasn't just that, though. After the first day, they discovered that there were no other towns on the second floor.

It wasn't ideal, but it was necessary. Besides, it was only for a few weeks. After that, they'd be able to move up to the third floor, which was hopefully less swampy.

He really hoped it was less swampy. It had only been a week, and Kirito was done with the swamp.

Oh, he'd played in in-game swamps before, but he had never really understood what it meant to be living in a swamp until now. Perhaps the swamp in-game was exaggerated compared to a real-world swamp—Kirito wouldn't know—but it was hot, muggy, wet, and utterly full of mosquitoes.

He was well-aware he was whining, though, and if anyone heard him saying this out loud, he'd never hear the end of it, but his feelings about swamps were strong—strongly negative, that is.

He sighed, coming to a stop just off of the top of the stairs. "Hey," huffed Sinon, stopping just behind him. "You're in the way, dummy."

Kirito rolled his eyes. "I'm going, I'm going."

It continued like this for a while. Kirito and Sinon carried boxes, cases, and other miscellaneous items around the manor, taking them to their designated rooms—Agil had done the labeling earlier with the assistance of an enthusiastic Suguha.

Kirito and Sinon weren't the only ones currently working, however. Asuna and Yuuki were working together to take stock of their food supplies and map out a rough meal plan. Yui was cataloging and putting together the mapping information they had obtained while scouting. Sortiliena and Eugeo were leading Ronye and Tiese in some training exercises. Alice was repairing the manor as well as she could with her strong skill at the Sacred Arts. Liz, Silica, and Argo were out on a recruitment drive (while the guild was originally purposed solely for their group of friends, everyone had collectively decided it was time to begin expansion). Additionally, Klein and the rest of what had once been Fuurinkazan were walking around, assisting anyone who needed extra help.

Kirito stopped suddenly as he entered the living area, drinking in the bittersweet familiarity of his surroundings.

The Dicey Café was the last place he remembered being in before he had ended up in Underworld. Seeing such a lifelike recreation of the space was nothing less than startling, especially compared to the rest of the manor, which had light gray walls and dark, bland flooring that sucked the color out of its surroundings. Usually, Kirito was one to like the dark appeal of grays and blacks... but after years of exposure to nature and the beauty of color, he tended to limit his dark colors to clothes.

"Wow, Agil," Kirito muttered, "you must've spent all day on this."

The walls, tables, chairs, and counter were a deep, rich brown that gave the room a comfortable, inviting feel. The bar was just as Kirito remembered it too: fully stocked with drinks of all kinds—both alcoholic and not. He stared openly at the fridges, wondering if they were just for display or if they worked as well as ones in the real world. Even the bulletin board looked to be in exactly the same place, albeit with different notices pinned up.

"Long day, huh?" asked Argo, sitting on one of the stools which had been carefully placed around the counter of their bar—another example of Agil's attention to detail. Kirito couldn't find any differences between the stools here and what he remembered of the ones from the real world.

He shrugged, forcing himself to tear his attention away from his nostalgia. "I bet it was better than yours. Recruitment isn't fun."

"Heh, not too bad. No one new today, but if that's anythin' out of the ordinary, I'll eat my hat—er, wait. I don't wear a hat... I'll eat my claws."

She was right. After the fiasco at the first-floor boss, few people would have anything to do with them. While not everyone believed the rumors, they were few and far between. It made it hard for them to expand.

Just then, Liz trudged into the room, making a beeline for the drink cabinet. "I'm not that tired," she said, waving away Kirito's obvious concern, "the town's just kinda... depressing."

"I getcha," agreed Argo, swiveling around mindlessly on her stool. "I snuck up on Klein a week or so ago, an' it was only 'cause of how this town's so rickety that he didn't notice little ol' me! The sound of all that creakin' was mufflin' my footsteps."

"It is pretty underwhelming, right?" Kirito said, shaking his head. "I don't know what I expected when I got here, but it wasn't this strange... oppressive feeling. Did I describe that right?"

Liz nodded as she took her seat; the one in between Kirito and Argo. "Yeah, you got it for sure. Yui said they specialize in blacksmithing here, so I was pretty disappointed. I guess Lyndhurst has good enough facilities, but I was hoping for something special."

"That's jus' for the start, right?" asked Argo, leaning forward. "By the way everyone's talkin' about yer skills an' what I've personally seen ya do, I get the feelin' you can open up yer own shop anytime you want."

Liz shrugged and took a swig of her drink. "I wasn't really talking about a shop; that's definitely more of a later thing. I need a lot more raw materials than the crap we all have now. We haven't been in the game for all that long, all things considered."

"Hmm..." Argo frowned slightly, bringing her hand up to stroke her chin. "If raw materials are yer problem, I know a few guys."

Liz shook her head. "With how much I'll have to pay for the materials, there won't be much in the way of profits. It's better for me to stockpile them myself."

Argo grudgingly conceded the point, but Kirito could see that she still had more to say.

"Honestly, I agree with Liz," Kirito interjected before Argo could put words to whatever scheme she'd just cooked up. "While I think she should definitely make a shop sooner or later, the second floor is a little early to set one up."

Liz gave Kirito a grateful look. "Yeah, plus I doubt I'll get many customers here either. This isn't really the most active place we've been."

Their conversation ground to a halt, however, as Yuuki bounced through the door, her long purple sundress flopping up and down as she skipped to some imagined beat. Kirito couldn't help but grin as he took in her energy and enthusiasm; it was something so classically her that it was difficult not to smile when he saw it. She made her way over to the fridge on the left quickly, the characteristic smile never wavering. When she reached it, she stuck her right arm out and lightly rapped her fist twice against the side.

All previous thoughts forgotten, Kirito stared openly as, with a happy little chime, the fridge lit up and smoke filled the interior.

"Yuuki?" Kirito asked, alarmed, as he quickly got to his feet.

The girl only smiled brighter, her purple hair seemingly luminescent from the sheer brilliance of the light shining on her. "Don't worry, Kirito. According to Alice, this is supposed to happen!"

Suddenly, the light and smoke were both gone. Yuuki yanked open the fridge and tugged out a platter that had a fully-cooked boar on top that Kirito was one-hundred-percent sure had not been in there before.

What? Kirito was sure he looked absolutely baffled, but—"How'd you do that?!" Argo demanded, leaning forward eagerly; a calculating gleam in her eyes. Something about her posture just screamed 'We can sell this!'

"Asuna got Alice to help with some super cool Sacred Arts!" Yuuki chirped. "I dunno the specifics, but they linked the fridge to the kitchen with some kinda teleportation spell."

Kirito sat down heavily, eyes wide. They invent teleportation technology with just the Sacred Arts and they use it to link a fridge to the kitchen?

Yuuki almost read his mind. "Don't worry, Kirito, I'm sure Alice'll help develop other cool stuff too!" she commented as she slid the platter onto the countertop.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Kirito said, shaking his head. "That's not really what I was thinking, though. It's more like... this feels akin to using a max-level twenty-seven hit skill to finish off an enemy with one HP left."

"Interestin' analogy," Argo observed, one eyebrow quirking upward. "I'm with Kii-bou, though. This is sure seemin' like a helluva lot of overkill for somethin' that'd take anyone pretty much no time to do."

Yuuki could only shrug. "Don't ask me! I'm no expert."

Kirito hummed. "I never really thought about doing anything with Sacred Arts outside of what they taught us back in Centoria..." He trailed off, possibilities whirling around endlessly in his brain.

"Oh no," said Liz, grinning, "Kirito's thinking. We're all doomed!"

Kirito rolled his eyes as Argo cackled and Yuuki began to giggle. "You sure said it," agreed Eugeo as he entered the room. "I always run away as fast as I can the moment he gets that look on his face."

"What's this? Pick-On-Kirito-Day?" Kirito demanded good-naturedly as his friend hung his blue overcoat on one of the hooks next to the door.

There was a wicked gleam in Eugeo's blue eyes. "Oh, of course," he said, snagging a stool. "It's scheduled for every other week."

"Ooh, ya better give me a list, Euji-kun," said Argo, the look in her eyes not dissimilar to Eugeo's as she winked. "We gotta co-ordinate somethin'."

Kirito shook his head in exasperation, but it was belied by the smile he couldn't quite manage to hide. "Anyways," he began after everyone had quieted down, "how did your training with Ronye and Tiese go today?"

At that, Eugeo grinned. "Oh man, Kirito! You should've seen them! It's honestly kind of hard to imagine that they used to have no experience in the Aincrad Style until just a year ago."

"Uh-huh?" Kirito said, his eyebrows rising up to his hairline. "Who won the most matches today?"

"Tiese," Eugeo said, immediately.


"Baseless accusations!"

"We all know that I have the best page."

"You keep telling yourself that, Kirito."

"You know what? Thank you, Eugeo. I will keep telling myself that. It's true!"

As the two men continued to bicker, Argo, Yuuki, and Liz exchanged amused glances. "They really do this every day, huh?" Yuuki commented, giggling.

"Yup," agreed Argo. "Every day."

Asuna frowned as she carried a platter into the dining room.

It was just like the kitchen with bland gray walls and dark floors. Even the chandelier that hung down from above the long, wooden table did a better job of casting a shadow than sufficiently illuminating the room. Not for the first time, she silently wished that Kirito-kun had picked a more homely place for them to stay in, even if she knew that their options were quite limited.

"Yeah, I know what you're thinking," said Yuuki, interrupting her train of thought. "This place needs some serious work, huh?"

Asuna huffed, setting down the platter. "This place is so..."

"Depressing?" Yuuki finished, eyebrows raised. "How about me and you do some painting tomorrow—fix it up a bit?"

Asuna brightened at the prospect. "I would love to!" she said, enthusiastic. Ever since Yuuki had... returned, they hadn't had much time to spend together aside from the occasion when Yuuki would come in and help Asuna with her cooking.

Each day was packed. Asuna was always occupied with one thing or the other. Sometimes it was grinding to level up, sometimes it was the planning for their move to the second floor, sometimes it was a small mission where they went out and rescued players in bad situations, and more. Out of those, though, it had been the planning that had taken the most time. She'd barely had enough time to spend with Kirito-kun and her own daughter, much less her friends. Now that they had finished the transition, however, she would have more freedom with her time.

Besides, it wasn't like the activity they'd be doing was unproductive.

"This house sure needs the work," she muttered, eyeing the walls with distaste.

"Hm?" said Yuuki, turning. "Did you say something, Asuna?"

Asuna smiled. "No, Yuuki. Everything is fine."

When Yuuki smiled back, Asuna was only reaffirmed of the veracity of her words. As long the purple-haired bundle of sunshine stuck around, she had a feeling everything would turn out okay.

Breathing heavily, Ronye dodged a particularly fierce slash from her red-haired sparring partner, taking advantage of the gap in her guard to deliver a sharp counter.

"Good one, Ronye!" Eugeo yelled from a couple dozen feet away as Tiese stumbled back.

They circled each other for a few moments, each keeping far enough away from the other to remove the possibility of surprise attacks from the equation. Ronye watched Tiese carefully, trying to spot any openings or weak points in her guard. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, there were none.

Oh, well. I'll just have to make one.

Ronye lunged forward, a determined expression written on her face. Tiese moved to parry the attack they both knew was coming, but Ronye shifted her stance at the last moment.

It worked!

Taking guilty pleasure at the surprise on Tiese's face, Ronye slashed her sword at the opening her feint had created. Unable to react fast enough, Tiese took the hit, stumbling backward again.

"Time!" Eugeo called suddenly. Both girls immediately stopped, turning to face Tiese's mentor.

Tiese was the first to speak. "I... I'm incapable! I haven't beaten her once—not since before..."

Eugeo was by her side in a fraction of a second, arms wrapping around the despondent girl in a comforting hug. Ronye could only stare, both guilt and concern warring for dominance inside her. "You did incredibly well today Tiese," Eugeo said, his voice pride-filled but still soothing at the same time. "I can only commend you for the work you have put into this."

"But what point is effort without any of the results we've been trying for?" Tiese countered softly.

Eugeo didn't have a ready answer for that, and it showed on his face. The silence had lasted a second too long when Ronye decided to interfere: "Tiese... can I talk to you? Alone?" she asked quietly.

Tiese turned, still buried in Eugeo's chest, and stared into Ronye's eyes for a long, tense moment. "Okay," she said eventually.

Reluctantly, Eugeo let go. "I'll, uh, see you guys later then..." He trailed off, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. "If there's anything you need, just send me an 'instant message'."

"Of course," Tiese said immediately. "And... Eugeo. Thank you."

Caught off-guard by the heartfelt proclamation, the blue-clad boy blushed. "O-of course, Tiese. Anything you need."

After that, he left, and Ronye giggled as she watched him grab a startled Sortiliena from where she'd been walking back into the room and drag her out after him.

"Ronye?" called Tiese, quietly. "What was it that you wanted to talk about?"

"Ithinkyou'redoingreallywellaftersuchatraumaticexperience!" Ronye blurted.

Tiese blinked. "Um—"

"Sorry..." Ronye paused for a second, recovering her composure. "I think that you're doing amazing, Tiese."

"You're just saying that!" Tiese protested. "You beat me in every fight we had today!"

Ronye shook her head. "No, I'm not, Tiese. The only reason I'm ahead is because of all the extra training I got before we... found you."

"I'm still behind," she said, shaking her head. "I've been working extra hard to try and catch up, but... nothing works. You're always one step ahead..."

Ronye frowned. Tiese was missing the point. "I'm saying that what I do doesn't matter! You're incredible just the way you are, and everyone can see that!"

Tears welled up in Tiese's eyes—but not the kind that Ronye would have hoped for. "I know what you're saying," she spat, and everything came pouring out, "but I'm telling you that it's important to me! We were always equals before, Ronye—best friends. But it hasn't been like that lately, and it's not just about the sparring. You've been spending less and less time with me, and more and more and more and more with Kirito-senpai. This may sound selfish, but you left me alone when I needed you the most!"

Ronye reared back as if slapped. Have I... have I really been obsessing over him so much that I've neglected my best friend?

Her mind provided her with an answer immediately: Yes.

She bowed her head in sorrow. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I never meant for this to happen... I'll make it better. I'll never make that mistake again, Tiese, because—"

"But it did," Tiese whispered, and Ronye's heart shattered. "I can't understand... we knew each other for longer than you knew him. You know how much I like Eugeo-senpai, but I'd never ignore you for him..."

Suddenly, Ronye looked up, the fire of intense determination in her eyes. "You didn't let me finish! Tiese, I'll never make that mistake again, because you're like a sister to me! I'll do whatever I can to make up for what I've done!"

Tiese blinked in shock. "You... you see me as a sister?"

"I do, and I have since we first shared a room in the academy!" Ronye yelled, her eyes squeezed shut, not able to bear the thought of Tiese rejecting her feelings. "You are the most important person to me, and I'm sorry!"

"...I've always seen you as a sister too," Tiese admitted softly. "I don't think I can forgive you right away, but maybe... maybe soon. You're the most important person to me too."

Ronye hesitantly opened her eyes and looked deeply into Tiese's. "Okay... I'll be the best friend I can be!"

Tiese smiled softly. "I-I'd like that," she whispered.

After a few moments where they just stared into each other's eyes, both girls broke down into sobs and rushed to tackle each other in a hug.

The hug was warm, soft, full of broken promises, but also agreements to patch them back together. It was an expression of guilt, an expression of regret, but it was also an expression of hope for the future.

"I can't promise that I won't spend time with Kirito-senpai, but I will never leave you alone like this again," Ronye promised.

"I never expected you to abandon him, Ronye. It's how you feel, and I'd never deny you that. I just want to be a part of your life too. Just keep in mind, Kirito is already with someone..."

They were silent for a few more minutes, soaking up as much comfort from each other as they could.

"Tiese," Ronye said hesitantly, out of the blue, "if you're having a hard time with confidence while fighting... I think I have an idea..."

"What the hell were the two of you thinking?!" Kirito demanded, staring at the two gore-covered girls, who were sheepishly grinning at each other. "I'm fine with the two of you going out to fight some goblins, but at least tell someone first!"

As per some kind of unspoken agreement, Ronye spoke up first. "We're sorry, Kirito-senpai!" she exclaimed, bowing deeply. "It was only to help Tiese! We thought going out and seeing how she did against some other opponents would show her how good she is!"

Kirito pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache begin to well up. "You're lucky that we're not at the academy anymore, you know," he said ominously. "I'll let it slide just this once, and only because of how much it's clearly benefitted Tiese, but next time just... tell someone, goddamnit. If you had just sent me a message, I'd have sent you a list of good places to hit and told you to go on ahead. Eugeo would have probably done the same. Well... maybe Eugeo would have insisted to come along, but still."

They nodded, but the traces of good cheer had not quite left their eyes—even after the lecture. Kirito couldn't really blame them. "Go take a shower," he said, struggling to hide his smile.

He let his smile show once he watched them turn around to scamper out of the room. I'm glad Tiese's doing so much better.

The door didn't close behind them, however. Eugeo caught it with his hand and pulled it back open.

"How much of that did you hear?" Kirito asked as his best friend sat down on the tan couch that was neatly situated against the wall.

Eugeo shrugged noncommittally. "I heard you give them a lecture, which is good—what they did, however well-intentioned, was extremely reckless."

Kirito rolled his eyes. "You're starting to sound like Azurica," he said with a grin.

Eugeo grinned back, clearly remembering their misadventures back at the academy and the subsequent punishment issued by the Novice Trainee Dormitory's supervisor. "No way!" he protested half-heartedly. "She was way worse than I am!"

Kirito chuckled, amused, but steered the conversation back on topic. "I think that with whatever's been going on with them, they needed that bonding experience. Don't tell me you haven't noticed the distance that had been building between them...?"

"You're right," admitted Eugeo. "I should've tried to do something and help, but... you know how hopeless I am at this kind of thing! I'm really glad it seems to be taking a turn for the better, though."

"Yeah..." Kirito said, trailing off as he remembered the conversation he'd had with Ronye as they'd first entered Marshtown.

Those sad, hopeless eyes... That hollow smile...

After a moment, he was startled out of his recollection as Eugeo prodded his shoulder. "Kirito? Are you alright?" he asked, voice full of concern.

Kirito shook his head, waving the concern away halfheartedly. "It's fine, Eugeo..." he trailed off again. "It's not like I can do much about it anyway."

"But you're worried about it," Eugeo said, frowning. "I can tell."

"Okay, I'll... I'll tell you. Just don't go spreading this around, okay?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Do you really think that I would do that?"

"No," Kirito said, turning away, "I just thought that I would... make sure, I guess."

They both fell silent for a minute, both staring at the ground in front of them, almost afraid to look up.

Eventually, Kirito sighed. "I'm sorry. I... I think something's wrong with Ronye. She seems a bit better today, but she still lacks that spark she had at the academy. You know what I mean... right?"

Eugeo frowned again. "Oh, so it wasn't just Tiese thinking that, then."

"Huh?" Kirito said, startled. "Did she say something to you?"

"I..." Eugeo started, shifting uncomfortably.

Kirito hastened to reassure him: "You don't have to say anything, I'm just worried about Ronye. I had thought that her sadness was related to Tiese, but now that she's better, and Ronye's still the same..."

Eugeo shook his head. "Tiese was sad because she thought Ronye was avoiding her... so she paid attention, and realized Ronye wasn't doing it consciously. I can't say much more; she swore me to silence. I'll just say that as much as you want to help, Kirito, I'd really suggest just... staying far, far away from this one. It's not really something you can help her with."

Kirito recoiled as if punched in the gut. "It... it has to do with me? It's my fault?" he said, horror-struck.

"No, no," Eugeo denied, frantic. "It's not your fault. You'd never do anything that you knew would hurt her. Both you and I know that!"

Yeah, I'd never do anything that I knew would hurt her... that doesn't mean it can't be something unintentional.

As much as Eugeo tried to reassure him, the damage had been done. Kirito remained pale-faced for the rest of the evening.

Asuna knew something was wrong the moment that Kirito walked into the kitchen.

His paler-than-usual face and deeply guilty eyes set all her internal alarms off, warning of imminent danger.

"Yuuki..." Asuna said softly, "would you mind leaving me and Kirito-kun alone for a few minutes?"

Yuuki nodded with an uncharacteristic solemnity, eyes glued to Asuna's worried face as she quickly backed out of the room.

As Asuna quickly lessened the distance between them, Kirito took a second to lean against the wall. He looked so tired, so guilty, so regretful, but most of all, so confused.

"Why?" he said, quietly, as Asuna sidled up next to him. "Everyone... they all get hurt around me..."

Asuna's heart plummeted. This was much worse than she had expected. Luckily, she had an idea of how to help. "Kirito-kun... come with me." Obediently, he followed her as they walked out of the kitchen, down the hall, and until they stopped just in front of another door. "Look inside. What do you see?"

It was the living area. The warm visage of the Dicey Café replica was further brightened by their friends, who were laughing, talking, playing games, and just casually lounging around inside.

"They're... relaxing?" said Kirito, eyes flitting back and forth between the inside and Asuna. "Why did you show me this? It's something we see every day."

Asuna nodded, eyes sparkling. "Mhm, exactly."

"...What about it?"

"All of this, it's all because of you, Kirito-kun."


Heedless of his shock, she continued: "Look at them; they're happy. Everyone inside there is happy and enjoying the time we have here, together, in this wonderful world." She stopped for a moment, smiling as she watched Yui fly rapidly around Liz's head, the blacksmith looking both indulgent and amused. The rest of the people present inside were chanting a cheer, but Asuna couldn't quite make out the words through the closed door. "You brought them here, Kirito-kun. You brought them together, see? See how happy they are?"

Kirito could only blink, as if the thought hadn't, in fact, occurred to him. If it wasn't for the seriousness of the conversation, Asuna might have laughed.

Instead, she talked. "I bet it never occurred to you, hm?" she asked, her lips twitching as she struggled to hold back the bone-deep, genuine happiness that threatened to break out in the form of a blinding smile. "Silly Kirito, silly... you don't hurt people, you make them happy. You make me happy."

Kirito, it seemed, could only offer a small smile, and Asuna could tell that it was genuine. It wasn't much compared to the norm, but that was okay.

"You're so amazing, Asuna," he said after a long minute of comfortable silence. "I... I think you're right. I hadn't really thought about it that way. But you, you always think about it like that. Like I'm the most perfect person in the world. I love you, and I'm glad you love me too, but... I'm not perfect. How could I have brought together all of this? I'm just a VR otaku who likes to have fun with his friends."

Asuna just gave him an incredulous look. "You, the clearer of Sword Art Online, one of the winners of the BoB, and my own, personal hero, are saying that you're just a VR otaku?"

"Well," he mumbled, looking away, "when you put it like that..."

Asuna sighed, deciding to be honest with herself for once. "You're not perfect." His eyes snapped up to hers. "I'm not, you're not, no one is. But... you're better than almost anyone that I know." She paused for a second, thinking, before nodding to herself. "Yes, that's what it is: you may not be perfect, but you're amazing in your own right, and I love you... Kazuto."

Wordlessly, he pulled her into a warm embrace, emotion flowing through his whole frame. "I love you too, Asuna," he whispered into her ear as she put her arms around him as well.

When he pulled back, his smile was brighter. It wasn't all better—Asuna wasn't sure it would ever be—but he was okay for now. She would be there for him, though.

Whatever happens... I'll be there, right next to you.


And... that's a wrap! After months of inactivity, chapter 11 has finally made an appearance. (Sorry about that)

It's been a while, so some actions/lines might be a bit out of character, but I tried my best. Also, I hope I did a good job with the angst and temporary resolutions. Let me know what you think!

Anyways, before I wave goodbye for now, there are a few things left.

Review Responses:

Ikell: Thanks for the review. Good. I had hoped Kibaou would be a surprise. My thought process was that he'd been staying on the down-low for the beginning, given that there wasn't anyone he could blame for anything, but once an opportunity appeared, he was all over it. Anyways, yeah, Fanatio's perception of them is most likely not positive at the moment (but I suppose that's obvious from the events in the last chapter). She didn't appear in here, but she'll be making more appearances sooner rather than later—at least, that's what I have planned. Also, congratulations on your success with Unyielding—I'm planning on checking that out soon!

Kurei Scale: Thanks. To be honest, I have no idea what most of the canon floors were. I haven't read the Progressive, and I likely won't in the near future. One of the things that are so nice about how this new world is structured is that I can make each floor whatever I want.

Bearer: Thanks for the suggestion. Yui can't die here, though, so making her a swordswoman would be way too overpowered.

M1stymix: Thanks! That had been the goal. While I do love a good time travel story, I was hoping for something with more conflict than the main cast utterly dominating the villains.

DaManWOFear: Wow, thanks for the mass of reviews. I agree, the Fanatio and Kirito fight is my favorite fight of the whole series. Having her in a duel with Asuna is actually a pretty great idea, and something I'll certainly keep in mind.

Requested by Falchion1984.

Idea credit goes to Falchion1984 and PinkHimeLacus.

(This is not canon for To Begin Again: Aincrad's Underworld, and, as should be obvious, complete crack)

Omake — Part 1: The Boss Fight

Ronye watched, horrified, as the terrible monster that Kirito-senpai had called the 'boss' lopped off another player's head.

The battle wasn't anything like they'd faced before. The first-floor boss was a very organized ordeal; even when Kirito-senpai himself had been temporarily taken out of commission, Asuna had been able to wrestle control of the raid and eventually prevail. It was different here, at the twenty-fifth-floor boss battle. Things had gone well at first, but Kibaou, the spiky-haired leader of the clearing group, lost control of the raid quickly when the boss's movements began to randomize.

It had only gone down from there. By now, there were only a couple dozen players left alive, a stark contrast to the massive number of players who had entered with them.

"DODGE!" screamed Kirito-senpai as the massive beast swung his fucking huge blade, somehow only managing to nick a player on the arm.

Terrified and worried, Ronye quickly made her way to her teacher's side. "Are we going to survive this?!" Ronye yelled as they leaped out of the way of another heavy strike.

"Of course!" Kirito retorted loudly, not at all reassuring. Internally, Ronye was wondering why she had even asked—it was obvious what was going to happen.

They were going to d-d-die... and she was going to d-d-d-die without ever telling Kirito-senpai... without ever telling him how she f-f-f-felt...! Struck with a terrible idea and fiery determination originating from the knowledge that they'd likely be dead in a few minutes, Ronye reached forward, and yanked Kirito-senpai back away from the battle.

"Senpai... notice me~!" she said, loudly.

"What?" Kirito-senpai said with an utterly baffled expression on his face.

Without further ado, she kissed him, and twenty feet in front of them, Asuna groaned out a "Not again!" as she flipped over another clumsy swing from the boss.

Sadly, it wasn't a very good kiss, Ronye reflected after they pulled apart. Kirito-senpai clearly hadn't been receptive and combined with her own inexperience, it wasn't anything very special.

As she sprinted back towards the boss fight, ready to die, Kirito still stood back where she'd dragged him to, frozen.

"Wh... what just happened?" he muttered, incredulous, as he touched his lips with his hand.

(Meanwhile, back in the real world, the internet was exploding.)

To be continued... next chapter.


See you guys next time!