"Congratulations, players."

Kirito's eyes snapped open, all exhaustion falling to the wayside as he sprang up from Asuna's lap. He'd recognize that booming voice anywhere.

"And congratulations to the Underworld for surviving such a conflict. I am impressed by your tenacity and willpower… on both sides, actually."

"Who's that?!" One of the pugilists yelled out, having paused his duel with Scheta. (Wait, they were still fighting?) "Show yourself!"

The already red skies turned blood red, and those telltale hexagons littered the heavens above. Blood seeped down before coalescing into the familiar hooded shape of Akihiko Kayaba. He spread his arms out wide, putting many on the battlefield on high alert. Only the Aincraders stood stock still in open defiance of the man who called himself God here.

"Greetings, Underworlders. I am Akihiko Kayaba, the creator of this world."

"Lies!" Someone shouted. Kirito couldn't identify the voice. "The Goddess Stacia created this world!"

"Stacia answers to me, child." Kayaba answered sternly. He paused for a moment – probably one of those dramatic pauses he was so fond of – before continuing. "I would like to congratulate you all on a battle well fought."

"Oh piss off, Kayaba!" Klein shouted, shaking a fist at the man. "We almost died!"

"That's never stopped you before, and still you triumphed. Despite every hardship I throw your way, you always manage to come out on top… and now the final challenge awaits. Me."

And just like that, the reality of the situation hit Kirito full force. He was right; there was literally only one obstacle left, and then they would be free. One man stood in their way. Nothing else. It sounded simple: defeat Akihiko Kayaba – and likely kill him in the process – and freedom would be theirs. They could return to their families after nearly four long years of virtual captivity.

They could go home.

Still, one thing nagged at Kirito's mind. Something that wasn't so cut and dry about the whole ordeal.

"What happens to the Underworld?" Kirito asked, glaring up at the game master.

"Wait, what do you mean what happens?" Alice Synthesis Thirty asked, coming up alongside Kirito and Asuna. "Should something happen if you defeat this man?"

"Fascinating. So similar, yet so different to the original. I may have had my issues with Quinella, but I freely admit she created such interesting knights."

"I'm right here, Kayaba." Ali huffed. "And Alice is her own person. She's not me, and I'm not her."

"Perhaps you're right." Kayaba said, before his hooded face turned towards Kirito. "Well, Kirito? I know you know the answer to her question. Enlighten them."

Kirito grimaced. "When we clear SAO… the government's probably going to shut down the servers. Everything will be destroyed. Aincrad and the Underworld."

Alice gasped, a sentiment shared by many nearby Underworlders. She gripped her sword so hard Kirito could hear the weapon creak in protest. "We just fought a war to save our home, and now you're saying… it'll all just be destroyed anyway?"

"I'm… afraid so." Kizmel sighed as she clutched her side. She was being held up by an equally injured Liz, who despite it all seemed to be doing her very best to melt Kayaba with her glare. "Ever since I learned the truth of our existence, I have come to the realization that the outside world will not suffer our world to continue to exist. It has undoubtedly caused much pain and turmoil."

The air shimmered, and a door appeared near the base of the PoH-tree. The oaken door creaked open, and out stepped the children of Kayaba themselves. One a virtual demigod, the other his daughter.

"Why do you let them wallow in anguish like this?" Cardinal accused, her face calm but her tone venomous. "Tell them the truth, Kayaba."

""Kayaba?" You've developed a rebellious side in your time here, I see." Kayaba remarked. "Both you and Yui have changed so much in my absence. It does a father good to see his daughters grow so – "

"You are not our father, Kayaba." Yui spat. Kirito took a step back in shock at the vitriol with which his daughter spoke. Never had he seen her look so angry. "You may have created us, but Kirito has been more of a father to me than you could ever hope to be, and Asuna the same as my mother."

"She's right." Cardinal agreed. "In my brief time with them, they have shown me more concern and care than you ever did. To you, we were just tools. Means to an end, and never with the respect and care we deserve. You could have stepped in when Quinella usurped my control, but you were content to watch. I spent years trapped with that madwoman, and not once did you even try to rescue me or stop her. Yui is right; if she is my sister, then Kirito and Asuna are my parents now. You never were."

Kirito opened his mouth to object but found no words to use. He glanced at an equally gobsmacked Asuna before closing his mouth. Apparently they just adopted another kid, officially this time. Now they had a daughter capable of psychoanalyzing them and one who could reshape the world to her whim.

What even was their family now?

"I believe we are getting sidetracked. Again." Kayaba intoned. "You are right, though. However, the truth of the matter is that Aincrad and the Underworld are in no danger of destruction."

"Huh?" Came the eloquent response of many of the Aincraders standing around.

"The Underworld is my legacy, an entire society run for and by the first successful ground-up artificial intelligences to ever exist. Why would I so carelessly throw it away? No, if you defeat me, Aincrad and the Underworld will continue to exist. All of this will migrate to new servers I have secured elsewhere. There, they will be safe from destruction or unwelcome intrusion."

Well, that was surprisingly merciful of him. Or incredibly selfish and egotistical.

It was probably the latter.

"Of course…" Kayaba began, and Kirito could hear the excited grin in his voice. "That's if you beat me. Now, if there's nothing else, I believe I will take my leave. See you at the top, my heroes…"

In a scene that reminded Kirito of his very first day here, Kayaba's form began to evaporate, and the red gas drifted up between the hexagons above. The system messages flickered before blipping out, returning the sky back to the ominous red hue of the Dark Territory.

Kirito took a deep breath, his body still sore from the war and anxious from Kayaba's appearance. Idly, he looked up at the massive boughs of the PoH Tree and his lips drew a thin line. The war had come to an (admittedly abrupt) end, but they weren't at the end yet. Not really.

With the end in sight, Kirito found himself in a very strange place. There was so little needed to find freedom, and yet so much that needed to be done before it.

The next few days were going to be very interesting.

Asuna gasped as she stepped foot onto the 100th floor. It was beautiful.

A rich, ruby-red palace stood in the middle of the relatively small floor, its massive frame looming over the lush gardens and fountains below and reaching far into the sky. There were no monsters, no dangers, and no imminent threats to dispose of. Gazebos littered the landscape, offering secluded spots of privacy and tranquility to any who might seek it. It would have made for the perfect place for a date with her husband, she thought.

The floor was different compared to every other that preceded it in that the rest of the castle was readily visible from the edge. When she peeked at it herself, she was amazed at how gargantuan the floating castle of Aincrad really was. She could see the clouds floating by, their wispy appearances the only evidence that anything existed outside of the floating fortress. All in all, the 100th floor was one of the most beautiful places she'd ever laid eyes on.

Too bad it was home to a monster.

"So this is it." Ali said, an unreadable expression on her friend's face. "The last stop on this godforsaken ride."

"Yeah." Kirito so eloquently agreed, a pensive look on his own face.

Asuna was of the same mind, really. It was hard to come to terms with… well, everything. Four long years trapped in this hellhole, and they were literally a five-minute walk from knocking on Kayaba's front door, beating him senseless, and going home.

So why did she feel so hesitant? Why did part of her just… not want to leave?

In truth, she suspected it was because she'd built a life here. She found herself, found love, found a home, and found family. She built bonds here that she wouldn't trade the world for. Here, she was Asuna the Lightning Flash, vice-leader of the Resolute Renegades. Out there? She was Yuuki Asuna, daughter of Shouzou and Kyouka Yuuki, and heiress to the Yuuki conglomerate.

Was it so wrong to want to keep the former?

"So, what? Do we just head on in?" Ducker asked as he nervously fiddled with his dagger.

"Hell no." Kibaou replied. After their role during the War for the Underworld, it was mostly agreed upon that the Army was capable of contributing to the clearing effort again. Even if it only applied to one last boss battle, they'd earned their place on the front line. "We need to prepare and plan."

"Plan for what?" Kizmel asked. Her adopted sister was more than eager to rejoin the front lines, now that her job in the Underworld was done. "We know nothing about what awaits us inside those doors. There does not appear to be anything on this floor that would help clue us in on what to expect."

"No, but we can prepare." Kirito said. "Potions, healing crystals. We need to see if Sacred Arts work up here, and if Divine Weapons still function outside of the Underworld. There's a lot we need to figure out, and we have the time to do it. Kayaba's had to wait four years for this; he can wait a little longer."

"We should still explore this floor, though." Lokuss suggested. "What if there is something here that can help us?"

"Fine." Kibaou huffed. "It won't take us long, anyway. All in favor of taking a look around?"

Most of the Assault Team raised their hands. It might have seemed like a foolish venture, but every little bit helped. No one wanted to risk losing the final battle because they forgot to do something as simple as look around. Asuna ignored Kibaou's indignant grumbling as the Assault Team separated into small teams or duos to spread out and explore the picturesque gardens. To no one's surprise, she found herself partnered with Kirito.

The walk was quiet. Truthfully, Asuna wasn't paying much attention. Between the lack of immediate danger and the tranquil atmosphere, she found her mind wandering.

They were almost free. Yes, she'd been obsessing over that fact but having it presented to close was a heavy dose of reality. When they won – and they were going to win, make no mistake – what happened next? They'd all wake up in hospitals around the country, separated for the first time in years and completely incapable of moving on their own. She held no delusions of being able to spring up from her hospital bed and hobble towards wherever Kirito was housed. That wasn't how the human body worked after four years of inactivity. It would be months at the very least before she would regain any semblance of motor function.

And even then, how was she going to find everyone? At least she knew her husband's name. Kirigaya Kazuto. When she learned his real name and made the immediate connection between his real name and his username, she remembered having a hard time breathing because she was laughing so hard.

He was not amused.

Then again, he'd laughed at her name, too, but how was that her fault? She was new to gaming! She thought the game was asking for her real name!

Regardless, she knew Kazuto's name and, with a little digging, could probably track him down. She might be able to track down Sinon based on what she knew of her (admittedly) tragic backstory. It would take quite a bit of digging, but it might be possible. Leonn was apparently her best friend in real life, so she'd find him through Sinon. She knew Eugeo's real name, and it was unique enough of a name where finding him wouldn't be too much of a –


She snapped back to virtual reality and blinked at Kirito, who was staring at her intently. "Sorry, what?"

"You were kind of zoned out there. What are you thinking about?"

"Just what comes after all of this." She admitted with a sigh. "I want to call a meeting later with the others."


"I want to tell them my real name." Asuna explained, much to Kirito's shock. She held a finger to his lips, cutting off any objections he might have had. "I don't want to lose track of them when we get out. They don't have to tell me their name, but I want them to be able to reach out if they feel like it."

Kirito gave her a careful look, his face pensive as he seemed to be weighing his own options. "I'll set up a meeting, then. We'll have to bring some more chairs into the meeting hall, but I think we can – "

"Bath house."


"You heard me. I want a bath, Kirito." She pouted. "Plus, it'll be just like old times with Kizmel. It's sort of tradition at this point, right?"

Kirito sighed and rolled his eyes. "Fine. You're lucky everyone's already used to it. But didn't you take one already since we got back from the Underworld?"

"Not the point. It's relaxing. Let me have this."

"...Yes, dear."

"We just came to a ceasefire with the Dark Empire, and you want to go to war again? Tell me you are joking, Alice."

Alice Synthesis Thirty looked to Fanatio Synthesis Two and shook her head. She was never one for jests and jokes, and this was no different. The rest of the Cathedral meeting hall was dead silent, the other Integrity Knights either stunned into silence or unwilling to interject on such a controversial topic.

"I am entirely serious. They fought to protect us and our lands. Some of them even died to achieve it, when they had no good reason to even fight in the first place. What kind of knights would we be if we turned our backs on them in their time of need?" Alice asked, her eyes roaming over those assembled.

"Kid, we're not in any shape to be sending our army out to fight another battle." Bercouli Synthesis One sighed. "Look, I get it. We owe them big time. We'd probably be dead if it weren't for them. Fact of the matter is, though, we just can't afford to commit ourselves like that while we're in peace negotiations. Iskhan's too battle-hungry to be the voice of reason. Rilpirin's too grief-stricken over the unnecessary sacrifice of his people, so he won't be much help in this either. We're lucky enough that Shasta and Lipia survived the battle; otherwise, without them being the more diplomatic of the bunch, we'd probably be fighting them again."

Alice fell silent at that. Much as she hated to admit it, he was right. It took two entire days of negotiations with the Dark Empire to reach anything remotely resembling peace. Honestly, the major reason hostilities hadn't erupted again was because of the new tree Kirito created out of PoH.

Releasing the memory of his weapon in such a manner turned PoH into a tree that was very much like the famed Gigas Cedar of Rulid. It drew in sacred resources from the air and hungrily lapped them up. A side effect of that voracity, as it turned out, was leeching the surrounding area with a saturation of nutrients and excess sacred power. For at least a few miles in every direction, grass was growing for the first time in recorded history within the Dark Territory. The Dark Empire was adamant in claiming the new land just on the other side of the pass, if only to finally have land capable of growing crops and supporting their families.

Very human motivations, Alice thought.

Tensions were still very much high, but with the goblins' and giants' numbers drastically dwindled, the more belligerent races of the Dark Empire had been calmed. Now, the more level headed pugilists, dark mages, dark knights, and orcs were the majority, and each of them was keenly interested in the cessation of hostilities.

Still, though… their allies needed help.

"Then just send me." Alice said, shocking many at the table. "Don't send our entire force, just send me."

"My lady, you cannot throw away your life so easily!" Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one objected, looking horrified at the notion. "I understand your concerns, but if the rumors are true, they are going to fight a god higher than even Stacia herself! That would be suicide!"

"Why not?" She asked, ignoring the scandalized look on his face. "I'm not saying I want to die, Eldrie, but think about it. This god trapped 10,000 innocents and forced them to fight for their lives. In the first month of their captivity, over 2,000 of them died."

"Need I remind you that those 2,000 were our ancestors?" Eldrie asked. "If they could not survive against his machinations, what makes you think we can?"

"Two points." Alice said, holding up two fingers. "One: we Integrity Knights are not actually descended from the 2,000 ancestors. We were brought here by Kayaba after we died in the line of duty, then brainwashed by Administrator and forced to become what we are today."

Eldrie opened his mouth, only for Alice to cut him off again.

"Two: Much as it pains me to admit as much, the ancestors were not as strong as we make them out to be. Yes, they laid the foundation that would become the Human Empire, but these were 2,000 people who died to Kayaba's machinations within the first month. The Aincraders we know today are a different breed. Our allies are incredibly powerful and strong enough to fight an endless war with Kayaba for four years. Four years, Eldrie. That they have lasted this long and reached the end is an incredible feat of strength."

"All the more reason why we are not equipped to join this fight!" Eldrie insisted. "Integrity Knights we may be, but some of them are stronger than us! Sir Kirito dueled Administrator and won, not to mention he also defeated the leader of the Dark Empire by turning him into a tree. Lady Asuna is the avatar of Stacia; her power is so immense she can shape the land like a sculptor molds clay! Then there's Lady Sinon! Her weapon killed hundreds in a single shot, my lady! We cannot hope to – "

"Yes, yes, our allies are incredibly powerful." Bercouli interrupted. "I'll attest to that. I fought some of them in friendly spars now and then and they are, indeed, very skilled and as strong as we are."

"That's exactly my point, Uncle." Alice pressed. "They are as strong as us. We can help them. We are just as strong as they are; our presence won't lead to a crushing defeat for Kayaba, but maybe it will be just enough to tip the scales. I would not be able to live with myself if they failed and we could have rendered aid. Could you?"

"No… I don't think I could." Bercouli exchanged a weary look with Fanatio. " Fine, but you aren't going alone."

"I volunteer." Eldrie stood. Alice blinked; did he just say…?"

"You just argued against this." Fanatio deadpanned.

Eldrie had a faint, almost defeated smile on his face. "I still think this is a foolish endeavor, but if my lady insists on going… I wish to be there with her. It is my duty as her apprentice to keep her safe."

"I would like to go as well." Ran Synthesis – no, she was Aiko now – volunteered.

It was a strange dichotomy, Alice had come to realize. Where she had decided to become her own person, Aiko went the complete opposite direction. Alice wanted to come out from the shadow of her predecessor, while Aiko wished to reclaim her lost heritage. Two sides of the same coin; both girls eager to claim a destiny not of Administrator's design.

Fanatio massaged her temples. "...Would anyone else like to…Renly? I did not think you would want to participate."

"I owe them a lot." Renly explained, placing a hand over his heart in contemplation. "Before all of this, I was cowardly and meek. They helped put things into perspective for me and reminded me of what it means to be an Integrity Knight. If I can help free them from their prison, I'll do it."

"I'm proud of ya, kid." Bercouli smiled. "I like the new confident Renly. It suits you. You're a fine Integrity Knight, don't ever doubt that."

"T-thank you, sir!"

Alice chuckled under her breath. It seemed, despite her newfound confidence, some habits died hard. She was glad to have him among them. His expertise with his Divine Weapon would be a great boon in the fight against Kayaba.

"That's all, though." Bercouli said. "I know many of us want to go and help, but we still have our own problems here at home. I know our new friends would hate for things to fall apart so soon after they fought to protect our home, so the four of you will be all we send."

She smiled, and her thoughts wandered to her double. While she was still striving towards the idea that Ali was her sister and not her predecessor, she still found herself comparing herself to her. It was hard not to. Ali had such a heroic and noble legacy, and Alice wanted to measure up to it, even if she was trying to forge her own identity. She wanted to stand as an equal to her sister, and this was merely another step on that path.

"Depart as soon as you're ready." Bercouli said. "We'll send them a message so they know to expect you. And above all else… be careful. You're dealing with someone who claims to have created Stacia herself. Don't die, you hear me?"

"Understood, sir." The four volunteers agreed in unison.

"Good. Goddesses be with you all, and good luck. You're going to need it."

"My name is Yuuki Asuna. It's a pleasure to meet you all."

Stunned silence met her in the communal bath. The steam wafted up and around them, highlighting just how heavy the topic of conversation was. She was breaking an unspoken rule of the internet, after all, and one that was treasured perhaps most out of them all.

Never tell people your name over the internet.

Under most circumstances, she would agree wholeheartedly. Anonymity was a necessary step to ensure one's protection on the internet. You never knew what sort of crazy people were lurking about, ready to exploit whatever personal information they could find.

This wasn't most circumstances, though.

"Are you serious right now?" Klein asked, gobsmacked. "Did you just tell us your real name?"

"Klein, we're all sitting in a huge bathtub together, have fought literal wars side by side, and I trust each and every one of you with my life." Asuna countered. "You all knowing my name seems kind of… I don't know, small? Seems kind of silly to me to be concerned with something like that after everything we've been through."

"She's right." Sinon added, a fond smirk on her lips. "Also, seriously? You used your real name?"

"I didn't know!" Asuna grumbled, a pout forming on her face. "This was my first game, alright? I didn't know the first thing about anything. I thought the game was asking for my actual name!"

"Wait!" Yuuki gasped, pointing a finger at Asuna. "Name twins!"

"Yes, Yuuki. We're name twins, I guess." Asuna chuckled.

At the looks of confusion around the room, the purplette elaborated. "Might as well go next. My name is Konno Yuuki. Nice to meet you!"

"Wait, you also used your real name?" Asuna asked, a giggle threatening to escape her lips. She rounded on Kirito. "See? I'm not alone!"

"No… she isn't." Ali meekly added. "I kind of did, too. Alice Zuberg. Pleasure to officially meet you all. Also, do you all normally go into personal details while bathing together?"

"Not always." Lokuss shrugged.

"I seem to remember the last time I was part of one of these, we revealed deep insecurities." Kizmel interjected. "It was quite therapeutic."

"...To be fair, we only use these bath times for group therapy sessions sometimes." Lokuss countered. "But yeah, I guess it happens a lot."

"Still, you've all made incredibly strides." Kizmel remarked. "I remember many of you blushing like tomatoes when I first offered up the idea of communal bathing. Now look at you! I'm proud I was able to share a little of my culture with you all."

"Well, so long as we're doing this, I guess I'll go next." Yuna said. "Shigemura Yuuna. Looks like basing our usernames off of our real names is a pattern here."

"You too?" Klein looked scandalized. He threw his hands up in the air. "Anyone else with names too close or identical to their real ones?"

"Asada Shino." Sinon said.

Klein blinked. "That is cutting it awfully close."

"That's what I said!" Leonn chortled.

"Kirigaya Kazuto."

"Wait, how is Kirito's…?" Klein asked.

"Splice his last and first name together." Asuna suggested.

A beat of silence passed as everyone pieced it together, followed by a flurry of facepalms.

"Hey, it's not that bad!" Kirito immediately objected.

"Yes it is, Papa." Yui giggled. "We still love you, though."

Asuna smiled as what started as an awkward conversation devolved into lighthearted jabs and joking. She was worried that her name reveal wouldn't be so well received. Yet again, she was reminded of just how close they all were at this point.

"Hold on, is anyone writing this down?" Eugeo asked.

"Geo-bou! You wound me!"

"...Sorry, Argo. Should've known you'd be on this."

"Damn straight." Argo grinned, fingers typing furiously. For a moment, Asuna wondered why she was even bothering to write it down, since they wouldn't be able to bring any notes with them to the real world. Then she remembered how close to photographic Argo's memory was. That woman's mind was a steel trap.

"Guess I'll go next!" Silica chirped. She gave an overexaggerated bow, which looked ridiculous while she was half-submerged and clutching her bath towel. "Ayano Keiko!"

"Shinozaki Rika, at your service!" Liz beamed.

"Oh, what the hell." Klein huffed, trying (and failing) to hide his smirk. "Tsuboi Ryoutarou."

"Hosaka Karina Tomo." Argo interjected, giving a half-hearted twirl of her hand in a mock bow. "You can just call me Karina, though. Or Argo. Kind of hard not to answer to that after four years."

"Jack Soong." Lokuss introduced himself.

"Daniel Isaacs." Leonn tipped a nonexistent hat. "Call me Dan."

"Andrew Gilbert Mills." Agil grinned. "Looks like we went the same route, Kirito."

"I knew you were Americans!" Ducker exclaimed with a pointed finger. "Pay up, Dale!"

Dale grumbled in annoyance, but obeyed. Kirito mumbled something about not being alone and how his naming convention wasn't ridiculous, but Asuna chose to ignore him. If he got to make fun of her name, then she was allowed this.

"Wait, I just realized something." Yuuki said, bringing the conversation to a halt. "If Asuna and I got married, I would be Yuuki Yuuki!"


Everyone just about lost it at that point, surrendering themselves to the hilarity. Asuna herself struggled to break out of a gigglefest, and was losing badly. The sounds of raucous laughter echoed off the walls, and for a moment, Asuna forgot that she was in a game. She was spending time with her found family. For the first time since beating PoH, she forgot about the looming threat of Kayaba and the dangers they were going to have to face very soon.

Once the laughter died down, everyone else re-introduced themselves. Asuna tried to take it all in, but the fact of the matter was she was learning over two dozen new names. She couldn't be expected to memorize them all immediately. In time, she might learn their names and use them, but for now?

They would be the names she came to know for the past four years.

They would be her Renegades.

The fight against Kayaba was shaping up to be the most anticipated televised event in recent history. It was receiving the same amount of attention as the Olympics, for goodness sake! Viewers from around the world anxiously awaited the climactic battle that would determine the fates of over 6,000 people.

Suguha spotted the local theater selling tickets to a showing of the broadcast and shook her head.

"What's up?" Shinichi asked as he walked alongside her.

"Just… look at all the publicity this thing's getting." Suguha huffed. "It's a whole frickin' spectacle!"

"Got awful close to cursing there, Sugu." Suli joked. "Careful, or we'll have to wash your mouth out with soap."

"Seriously, though!" Suguha threw her hands up in exasperation. "I'm still trying to understand why our school let us have the day off!"

"Well, for one, they know that a lot of their students were going to call in "sick" that day anyway to watch the broadcast." Shinichi reasoned. "I know I would have, and I don't even have any relatives in the game."

"Sensei assigned us homework on it." Suli complained. "Said that it's a major historical event and that we should all watch it. We're supposed to write a one-page paper describing "the importance of the SAO event and its societal repercussions"."

Shinichi looked contemplative for a moment. "That's rough, buddy."

Suguha smacked his shoulder as punishment for the meme, which he laughed off. She, despite her best efforts, let a smirk loose. Suli simply rolled her eyes and went back to scrolling on her phone.

"Shit, we're gonna be late." Suli suddenly said, looking up from her phone.

"I thought Trish said 5?" Suguha asked.

Suli shook her head and flipped her phone around so they could see her messages. "She said 4:30. We're gonna be late."

"We're just helping her set up for tomorrow." Shinichi griped. "What's the big deal?"

"The "big deal" is that she's allowed us to use her bar for our broadcast parties." Suguha growled, and Shinichi immediately stood at attention. "The least we can do is help her set up for what's going to be her biggest showing yet."

"Fair." He conceded. "Let's go, then!"

Liz was anxious.

The exploration of the 100th floor proved to be unfruitful, and that was somehow much more concerning than if they had found something. Now, with nothing else to really accomplish before confronting the big man himself, she – as well as every other member of the front line – could only wait at home and try to get some sleep.

She felt Leonn's arm around her shoulder pull her closer as they snuggled in bed. Whether that was the result of some anxiety on his part or an attempt to ease her own, she didn't know. Regardless of intent, the gesture was appreciated nonetheless.

"What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?"

Liz blinked, caught completely off guard by the sudden and random question. She glanced up at him. "Uhh… strawberry. Why?"

"Good. The moment we get out of here, we're getting some strawberry ice cream."

She giggled and slapped his chest playfully. "I think you mean we'll have strawberry ice cream fed to us. We're gonna be bedridden for months, remember?"

"Ah, right." Leonn said sarcastically. "Romantic plans hopelessly dashed. So much for sweeping you off your feet."

"I'm sure you'll figure something out once we can eat solid foods again."

"Ice cream isn't solid."

"Uhh, yes it is. It's literally frozen milk and cream, babe."

"Does ice cream stop being ice cream when it melts?" Leonn countered.

What even was this conversation? "I guess not?"

"Then ice cream isn't a solid."

"By that logic, it's not a liquid either. Does ice cream stop being ice cream while it's frozen?" Liz smirked. Oh, how she missed these verbal spars with him.

He playfully glared down at her. "Non-Newtonian fluid. Final offer."

Liz shrugged. "I can work with that. We'll have strawberry flavored non-Newtonian ice cream as soon as we can."

"Good talk." Leonn said, hugging her closer.

Liz snuggled in and sighed. With the fight with Kayaba on the horizon, she was going to take advantage of her boyfriend's cuddly nature. She needed this. A nice little break before the chaos that was bound to happen tomorrow. Just more chaos to cap off the mayhem of the past four years.

If she had to do it all again, though… she would. She never would have met any of her friends if it weren't for Kayaba and his sociopathic ambitions. Well, maybe she would have met them through normal means if SAO were a normal game, but there was no way of knowing. This clusterfrick of a game was also where she met Leonn, and she would never regret that.

Tomorrow's challenge was simply the last hurdle to making every good thing from the past four years a permanent fixture in her life.

"Can I ask you something?" Leonn broke the comfortable silence. He sounded… apprehensive. "You're completely allowed to say no, by the way."

She arched an eyebrow and looked up at him. "...What is it?"

"Will you marry me?"

Liz's eyes snapped wide open. Did she hear that right? Did he just ask her to marry him? She glanced up at him; he was subtly biting his lip in worry. That poor, lovable dork. Even after all this time, he was riddled with doubt and self-esteem issues. He was probably worried out of his mind that she'd reject him and break up with him. She should probably stop that in its tracks.

"Yes, of course I will marry you." Liz beamed, leaning up and giving him a peck on the lips. "Don't you think this is kind of last minute, though? I doubt the others will wait for us to get hitched before we take on Kayaba."

"I mean when we get out of here. I wanna marry you for real."

"You… you do?" Liz stammered. The fact that he was talking about real life made the question suddenly so much more emotionally charged. He was serious. Completely serious.

"Yes." He answered. "Liz… no, Rika. Rika Shinozaki, I want to spend the rest of my life with you, if you'll have me."

Her eyes started to water with unspilled tears. She beamed before pulling his face down for a soul-sucking kiss. He seemed taken off guard by the sudden show of affection before he leaned into it. Eventually they broke apart.

"Yes, Daniel Isaacs. Of course I'll marry you."

Today was a day four years in the making.

Kirito took a deep breath and tried to center himself. As he stood outside the front doors to the Ruby Palace, he noticed everyone else attempting the same. The rituals may have been different from person to person, but everyone here was trying their hardest to mentaly prepare themselves for what was to come.

It didn't help much. He was still sweating bullets.

"Come on, Kirito." Alice said, nudging his shoulder. "Speech time."

Kirito groaned. His mortal enemy.

Public speaking.

Wait, why was he the one making a speech? Alice was a much better orator than he was. Hell, Asuna was a better figurehead than he was. Why in the world (and when, for that matter) had he been drafted into doing this?

The confusion must have been evident on his face, because suddenly Alice was laughing. Asuna, too. As a matter of fact, Yui and Cardinal were as well. His adopted daughters decided to see them off and, apparently, mock their father at the same time.

His entire family were a bunch of traitors.

Alice patted his shoulder. "You're the unofficial leader of the Assault Team, Kirito. You and your guild have consistently been at the forefront ever since the beginning, and you haven't shied away from taking on more than you need to for the sake of everyone else. Don't think your little "Beater" stunt went unnoticed."

Kibaou visibly flinched.

"It doesn't need to be some emotionally moving speech. Just speak from the heart, Kirito." Alice concluded, giving him a gentle nudge towards the front of the group.

"You've got this, Papa!" Yui cheered.

Kirito staggered forward before awkwardly patting himself off, not that there was any dust to remove in the first place. Dozens of eyes – including the Underworld reinforcements they'd received at the last minute – stared at him expectantly. Realizing he needed to get this over with as soon as possible, he took a deep breath.

"I'll make this quick, since we're all nervous enough about this as it is, we all want to go home, and we all know I'm terrible at speeches." Kirito began, eliciting a few chuckles from those assembled. "But behind these doors is the only man standing between us and freedom. The same man who trapped us here to begin with. For the past four years, we've had to play his game… dance to his tune just to survive. I think today's the day we get to tell him, to his face, that we've had enough."

A number of heads nodded in silent agreement, and more than a few murmured a "hear, hear."

"It's not going to be easy." He continued, making sure to meet their eyes as he scanned the crowd. "But we've been through worse. Hell, we all just came out of fighting a war… and we won because we fought together."

He watched with some pride as everybody in the group exchanged knowing glances, shoulder bumps, and jovial side hugs with one another.

"Back when I started this game, I thought I was going to be a solo player. I haven't exactly always been the most social of people." Kirito heard some giggling coming from the direction of his wife and friends, but elected to ignore it. "But that changed. I'm here now with all of you, and I wouldn't change a thing about it. This last challenge… this last obstacle will put that to the test. It'll be a test not of how strong each of us is, but how strong we are. So let's do this."

"Yeah!" Klein pumped his fist in the air. "Let's kick his ass!"

The rest of the raid group latched onto Klein's enthusiasm. Weapons were unsheathed and raised to the sky, and a roar of determination sounded out.

"Not quite the inspiring speech I was hoping for, but it'll do." A very familiar, very unwelcome voice boomed out.

The cheers and battlecries immediately died as everyone turned to face the doors. They remained closed, but now they knew they were being watched. The ruler of the castle himself was expecting them, apparently. That brought forth a painful reminder of what awaited them: not a boss monster with pre-programmed attack patterns, but a man. A man who'd been watching them for literal years.

And that made him frighteningly unpredictable.

"Well don't just stand there. Come in, come in."

"We should get going, sister." Cardinal said, escorting Yui back to the teleport pad. "Good luck, father, mother. The Integrity Knights offer their well wishes as well."

Kirito gave a nod of thanks before turning back to the palace.

The massive ruby doors slowly swung open, revealing a massive chamber within. So massive, in fact, that one could feasibly fit a small town inside. A massive ramp spiraled out from the perimeter, trailing upward in what probably stretched for a mile as it climbed to the top. Various obelisks lined the circular room. All in all, Kirito felt like an ant inside an amphitheater.

"Incredible…" Alice Synthesis Thirty gawked at the enormity of the interior. "Truly a palace fit for a god."

"Not a god." Asuna corrected her tersely. "Just a man."

Kirito cautiously walked forward, both blades already gripped tightly in his hands. Kayaba never struck him as one to ambush his players, but he wasn't about to lower his guard. While Kayaba was not one to lie, he was one to lie by omission. There was no telling what the man had in store for them.

A slow clapping brought that train of thought to a screeching halt.

"Well done!" Kayaba – in the form of Heathcliff – clapped as he stood in the center of the chamber, a wide grin on his face. "You have no idea how happy it makes me to see you all here."

"The feeling isn't mutual." Ali grumbled.

"Still bitter about that?" Heathcliff pouted. "You're alive, aren't you? And look, your death – however temporary – is why Alice is here! Your death may have been a deciding factor in your victory in the Underworld, if you think about it."

"Not the point!" Ali spat. "You have no right to play with peoples' lives like this!"

"I beg to differ."

Kirito grit his teeth. "They're dead because of you, Kayaba."

Heathcliff frowned. "Did I force you all to risk your lives every day? Did I swing my blade and kill every single casualty of this game? No, I presented you with an obstacle; how you chose to tackle it was entirely of your volition."

"How the hell were we supposed to deal with it, then?" Klein objected.

"You could have worked together from the very beginning." Heathcliff offered with a shrug. "Instead, you all chose to draw lines in the sand and squabble instead of working towards your shared goal. You all chose to prioritize yourselves instead of the collective good. Even Diavel, who had the makings of a great leader, wasn't exception to this."

"You keep his name out of your mouth!" Lind barked.

"Kirito never told you, did he?" Heathcliff smirked.

Kirito blanched. Of course Kayaba was going to drag out dirty laundry like this. If there was anything the man was known for, it was not a healthy respect for the dead. No, despite his words, Kayaba seemed to thrive on conflict. Kirito knew what was coming, and was already piecing together his defense.

"...Told us what?" Lind asked, casting a cautious eye at Heathcliff, but every so often glancing at Kirito.

"Diavel was a beta tester." Heathcliff explained, to the collective (and very audible) shock of many within the DDA and Army. "Did it not strike any of you as odd that, despite his preaching of teamwork, trailblazing, and giving hope to the hopeless, that he was so keen to attack the boss himself at the end? I seem to remember him telling everyone to stay back while he went to kill Illfang himself."

"...He was after the last attack bonus." Klein gaped in shock. The gasps and scandalized looks from nearly everyone else mirrored his own. "No one knew about last attack bonuses back then except the beta testers."

"Correct." Heathcliff confirmed.

"He… he lied to us!" An outraged voice called out somewhere in the crowd.

"Not to all of you." Heathcliff said, driving the dagger ever deeper. His eyes slowly drifted towards Kirito.

"Kirito…?" Lind asked hesitantly.

Kirito grit his teeth as he recalled the last conversation he had with Diavel. "He… just before he died, he asked me if I was a beta tester too. He told me he was after the LA bonus. Then he… he pushed away the potion I was giving him. I didn't…"

"You knew ever since the beginning." Kibaou said.

Kirito meekly nodded.

"You knew he was a beta tester; you knew he was one of the ones who was trying to keep all of the good loot for himself, and you hid it from us." Kibaou continued.

Kirito closed his eyes and braced himself for the inevitable outrage that was bound to follow.

"...and instead of letting us hate him like we should have… you made us hate you."


Kirito opened his eyes to see Kibaou bowing deeply towards him. "I'm sorry. You were the complete opposite of the villain I made you out to be. You made yourself the scapegoat so that we could focus on two things: clearing this game and hating you. We probably would have started a witch hunt if you hadn't stepped up and made yourself the bad guy."

"About time…" Asuna grumbled under her breath. Kibaou winced.

"...What were his last words, Kirito?" Lind asked. "I remember he said something to you, but you never told us."

Now, one might be forgiven for assuming that Kirito would forget Diavel's last words. It was four years ago, after all, and even Kirito knew his own memory was not infallible. However, those particular words were not ones he would ever forget. It was a simple request, and one he strove to fulfill for every day for four years. Kirito looked up and met Lind's eyes.

"You have to save them. Defeat it. For everyone here."

A heavy silence fell on the group. Heathcliff, enigmatic as he was, decided to let them have their moment of contemplation. Kibaou looked contemplative, while Lind looked like he was on the verge of an existential crisis. This raid group was in danger of falling apart before the fighting even started, he realized. Undermining the foundation of the Assault Team would do that. Diavel may have had his flaws, but his idea was a solid one, and one that the trapped players desperately needed.

"And I intend to do that." Kirito spoke up, breaking everyone out of their stupor. He narrowed his gaze onto Heathcliff, who instead of looking smug… looked impressed. "Nice try, but it's going to take a lot more than that to break us."

Heathcliff smiled. "Good. Forgive me; I wanted to give you one last test, just to make sure you were up to task. I am happy to see that I was right. You are ready. You'll need to be to defeat me. Now then…"

Heathcliff slammed his shield into the ground, creating a shockwave that blew everyone back. Kirito tried to get to his feet, only to get pushed back down by buffeting winds. He watched, wide-eyed, as Heathcliff began to change.

He watched as Heathcliff exploded in size, his taller-than-average frame magnifying to colossal levels. His skin turned pale white and his face became decidedly sharper and more feminine. His hair also grew to an immense size, its volume easily dwarfing his already massive (and also feminine) torso. Spotting his new stark white hair were a number of red orbs, which were also present on the strange, sword-like protrusions that sprouted at the ends of his massive hair. His formally regal armor morphed into what Kirito could only describe as a kind of long battle skirt (Asuna would later go on to describe it as a hakama) that stretched down to his feet. In his lengthy white arms were a crimson sword and an equally red spear, the shield no longer present at all.

When all was said and done, and Heathcliff's transformation was complete, the game master had taken the form of a goddess of war. Whatever boss monster this was supposed to be, it was a figure of equal parts elegance and terror. An entity that could wipe you off the face of the earth with but a thought and a flick of its massive sword.

Heathcliff opened his red eyes, and a new nameplate blipped into existence over his head, followed by several health bars.

[An Incarnation of the Radius.]

"Come, heroes. Show me your strength! Show me your resolve! Your final test begins now!"


Here we are. The last boss fight…

See you all Sunday.