December 3rd, 2022
Aincrad Floor 1, Town of Tolbana

Camilla and I watched from just outside the amphitheater as the raid strategy meeting wrapped up. Players milled about in groups of five or six, sometimes in smaller knots as parties divided up into disparate groups of friends who went off their separate ways. Once we were certain that no more actual planning was taking place, we weaved our way through the rows of ancient stone benches until we found Diabel standing in the midst of a large crowd that was just starting to disperse.

We could see Agil's massive frame above everyone else, and were not the least bit surprised that he'd been here—we'd heard him speak up earlier when Kibaou had begun stirring up discontent against the beta testers, and had just begun to ask each other why Diabel let that go on so long when Agil had shut down the abrasive swordsman's shit-stirring with his characteristic good sense. The only thing that had been surprising was the bluntness of the language Agil had used to do so. Our first friend in this game smiled when he saw us, waved, and then went back to the conversation he was having. We'd have to look him up after this—we hadn't reached out to him since we took our hiatus from adventuring, and we both missed him—it was something we'd have to correct.

Kibaou and Diabel were just wrapping up some kind of conversation when we approached. The former scowled at us, but in a perfunctory sort of way—as if he felt obligated to be an asshole but didn't quite have a solid reason at the moment. We ignored it when we saw Diabel's face light up at the sight of us, and had the pleasure of seeing Kibaou look stunned as the raid leader turned away and jogged up to us. "Kadyn! Camilla!"

Our appearances had to be surprising to him. Neither of us were armored, or for that matter even armed. We had our equipment in our inventory, of course, but with no current need for it we were wearing the same kind of "civilian" clothes that we'd been using in the days since he'd last seen us. Camilla was wearing a deep blue dress in the same style as the local NPCs—which had, on more than one occasion, actually caused players who weren't paying close enough attention to mistake us for NPCs—and I had on a pair of brown overalls worn over a gray tunic and trousers. We did look like NPCs, if you managed to overlook the cursors and HPs bars hanging around our heads. Every now and then players would give us dirty looks, as if we offended them by simply living our lives rather than fighting on.

"You just missed the raid meeting," Diabel said excitedly, a hand on each of our shoulders. "We found the boss room! And we're going to go clear it tomorrow morning!"

"We heard," Camilla said happily. "We knew you could do it, Diabel. We always believed in you."

Diabel's smile was wan. "Even when few others did. But now look around us." He gestured at the dozens of players that still gathered in the amphitheater, all of them partied up. "It's not a full raid group, but if we all do our best, it should be enough."

"It's all thanks to you," I said, smiling.

But Diabel shook his head. "No," he said with a momentary tinge of sorrow. "It's all due to those who died to get us this far."

A player on the other side of Diabel made a slightly choked-off sound. When we looked, we saw the back of Torik's head as he walked away from the group. "He's been like that ever since," Diabel said sadly. "He handles it well when we're in combat, and usually he's fine company… but anything that reminds him of Niara or how she died breaks him a little bit."

I couldn't blame him—anytime I thought about something similar happening to my wife, I had to shut off the train of thought before it drove me into a dysfunctional state. Sometimes, having an overactive imagination and a wandering mind could be a true curse.

I felt Camilla's hand tighten in mine to the point where I was glad we were in a town where my HP wouldn't drop. She, too, bore the scars of that day, and still blamed herself to some degree for Niara and Reznor's deaths.

"You know," Diabel said suddenly, his face lighting up with hope. "It's not too late to join us. We have one incomplete party that's nothing but a pair of solo players, and if you're quick about it you might be able to catch up with them. Or you can meet up with us tomorrow before we leave, and I'll be happy to introduce you."

Camilla and I took a long look at each other. The idea was tempting—beyond tempting, really. Both of us had been starting to feel restless from our days of downtime and leisure, and a little guilty for not contributing somehow to the clearing of the game. We needed to get back out there, as a duo if nothing else. A raid to clear the first floor boss… it would be history in the making. It would be a chance to help strike a blow that could inspire those still waiting in the Starting City to come out and join the fight to liberate all of us from this Death Game. It would be the fulfillment of Diabel's vision for this game, a vision in which we both still believed.

But I could see the counterargument forming in my wife's mind, even thought she might never say it out loud: Another chance to be betrayed. Another chance for someone to die because of us.

Both of us, as one, bowed in deep respect to Diabel. "I'm sorry, my friend," I said with genuine and lasting regret. "I don't think we can do that yet."

"But you can," Camilla said emphatically.

Diabel looked between the two of us, a variety of emotions flickering across his face. "I don't deserve your faith," he said. I couldn't even begin to think of what he meant by that.

Camilla released my hand, and stepped forward. She grabbed Diabel and hugged him fiercely; I could see him awkwardly poke at the air behind her and guessed that he'd had to dismiss an anti-harassment pop-up window when she violated his personal space. A few of the players surrounding us snickered; one or two whistled. The whistles doubled and even gained a few uncouth hoots as she drew back and kissed him on the cheek. "Yes you do," she said. "You built this. You brought all of us here. Now go and defeat the boss… for everyone."

"And after you do," I said, reaching out and clasping his hand with both of mine, "look us up. We'll party up again and go out together to explore the new floor that you've opened up for all of us."

"Together," Camilla echoed as she stepped back to my side.

For the first time, I saw something that might have almost been the beginning of tears in Diabel's eyes. "It's a deal," he said.

"It's a promise," I replied.

But despite our promises, despite our faith, it would be the last time we ever saw Diabel. We learned the next day that he'd perished in the raid—the only death to come of the successful clearing of the first floor boss.

Reports of what had happened were conflicting, but they all agreed on a few things: that Diabel had led a valiant charge against the boss when it was down to a sliver of life, and died when the mob's attack pattern changed in an unexpected way that hadn't been in the beta. That his death had been entirely preventable if another beta tester hadn't withheld his knowledge of those attack patterns, and that the only redeeming quality of this beater—a silly portmanteau of beta tester and cheater that drove Camilla, as a translator, straight up the wall—was that he and a brown-haired rapier user had stepped in and saved the raid from a wipe after Diabel died, taking command and cutting down the boss almost by themselves.

But the floor was cleared. And a few days later, when we felt we had mourned Diabel sufficiently, we gathered our equipment and supplies and set out to explore the second floor of Aincrad without him—but in the memory of what he'd sought to accomplish.


Together, and alone in our party of two.


Character Name: Kadyn (ケイディン)
Real Name: Seiji Midorikawa (緑川誓地)
Birthplace: Chiba City, Chiba Prefecture (Japan)
Age: 28

At age 16, Seiji was accepted as an overseas exchange student in a Los Angeles high school. While studying there he met a young girl named Rebecca Riley, who was in need of a Japanese conversation partner for the class she was taking. The two quickly discovered that they shared a mutual enjoyment of the same kinds of video games, and long before they graduated they had become an inseparable couple. After high school they moved to Seiji's native Japan together and married, spending their free time immersed in online games together and always playing as a team—to the point where they called each other by their longtime character names as much as or more than their real names. When Sword Art Online was announced, they tried and failed to enter the closed beta, but succeeded in becoming two of the unlucky ten thousand who were trapped in the Death Game on launch day.

Seiji prefers to play stealthy DPS classes, using tactical positioning and Rebecca's skill at tanking to flank the enemy and deliver critical blows at the right moment. In SAO, he found himself more dependent than ever on his wife's tanking abilities due to the defensive limitations of a pure dagger build, but in a party with a good tank keeping the mob's attention his damage potential is considerable.

Character Name: Camilla (カミーラ)
Real Name: Rebecca Midorikawa (緑川レベカ)
Birthplace: San Francisco, California (USA)
Age: 27

Rebecca had been an obsessive online gamer since she was old enough to go on the Internet by herself, and when she met Seiji in high school she was serving as the main tank of a weekend raiding guild. She recruited her future husband to play an assassin class, and as the two spent more and more time playing as guildmates in the game and as conversation partners in real life, they knew that they were meant to be together. Sword Art Online was to be like a dream come true for her; she had always yearned for the day when technology would allow gamers to live in the worlds they played instead of just watching them on a screen. Instead it became a nightmare in which she and her husband were trapped.

With her aggressive nature and nobility of spirit, as well as years of experience playing tank classes, Rebecca found her calling in SAO as Seiji's sword and shield. She relishes her role, bearing the brunt of enemy attacks and hate while her partner cuts them down from behind.

Author's afterword: Thank you very much to everyone who's read the story, left feedback and reviews, or sent me PMs! It's been extremely helpful in motivating me to finish this story.

It also helped that I was uncommonly inspired-I think this may be the first time I've turned out 60,000 words in a single week, ever. When I began the story I wasn't quite sure how far I wanted to take it—I just knew I wanted to tell the story of Seiji and Rebecca's first day or two in the game, wanted to try to create a rich, human, and psychologically intense perspective on that time. But as the chapters with Agil, Kibaou and Reznor started coming together, I was struck with exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to fill in the timeskip that exists in canon between the first day and Aria in the Starless Night. I've always found something compelling about Diabel's character, and I wanted to try exploring the path that took him on his tragic quest to beat the first floor boss from the perspective of those who traveled with him for a time. When did he realize who Kirito was? When did he start plotting to thwart Kirito in LAing the boss? Those who've only seen the anime might have missed some of the subtle references to that side plot, which were glossed over in the anime adaptation—but I hope they were enjoyed by those who've read the LNs.

I also hope all of you enjoyed the OCs of Kadyn and Camilla. I wanted them to be real people—flawed, human people—so in keeping with the mantra of "writing what you know", I drew aspects of their personalities from the many, many gamers and guildies I've known or partied with over the years. The concept of Camilla's unusual (for a foreigner) accent, as just one example, is based on an American man I knew on a Japanese-language list many years ago who spoke fluently in Osaka dialect because that's what his wife spoke. They're not based on any one person in particular—least of all myself—but I hope their humanity and authenticity came through.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge that there are a handful of minor continuity errors or ambiguities that don't affect the story in any meaningful way, some of which I'll be going back and cleaning up as time allows.
* The Monument of Life is in what used to be the respawn area in Black Iron Castle in the Starting City, not the courtyard plaza where everyone first spawns. The obelisk in the center of the plaza is the bell tower. I'll have to do a fair amount of rewriting on a couple of early chapters to correct that, but it doesn't materially affect the story.
* Healing and teleport crystals typically don't start dropping until a few floors higher, but since Kirito is an Unreliable Narrator and the LNs are prone to contradicting themselves all over the place about things like this, I reasoned it was plausible they could be still found as rare named drops and sold for exorbitant prices in those first few days, when no one really knew what the drop rates and economy were going to be like anyway. Anyone who's ever seen what happens to the price of new Collectibles and such when a new EQ2 expansion comes out will know what I mean.
* It's never explicitly defined in the LNs exactly what the skill slot progression is by level, although some fans have extrapolated their own interpretation from the character bios in the Material Edition supplements. Some allowance should be made for this ambiguity.
* The SAO launch day was a week after the product was released in stores, not the same day. Oops. An easy fix that has no effect on the story.

Thank you all for reading!