Volume 24 Chapter 1

“I think you already know who I am. We finally meet, Chrysheight-san”

 

 

As I heard Argo the «Rat» say those lines with a fearless smile, Kikuoka Seijirou and I hung our mouths open together.

Chrysheight was the name Kikuoka used for his ALFheim Online character. «Chrys» was an abbreviation of the English name for 菊 (chrysanthemum), while «height» referred to rolling hills and 岡 (ridge).

【T/N: His last name, 菊岡 (Kikuoka), is comprised of kanji referring to the chrysanthemum flower and rolling hills.】

He was an Undine mage. He had a lot of spells perfectly memorized, so he was very dependable in boss battles, but not many ALO players knew his name because he didn’t log in often enough.

What was the contact point between Chrysheight and Argo, who was not supposed to be active in ALO? No, no, before that, how did Argo know Chrysheight was Kikuoka? And how did she find out that the person I was meeting at this Ginza coffee shop would be Kikuoka…

Tossed about by waves of doubt, I looked back and forth between the two of them.

“……Is that so, you’re the one from then……”

Kikuoka, who seemed to have finally recovered from his surprise, said in a whisper.

—From when!

I screamed in my mind, but both Argo and Kikuoka, seemingly exchanging blows with their aura, showed no signs of explaining. Fine then, I’ll just eat cake…… Half-sulkily flipping through the menu, I decided on my order ten seconds later.

At this time, as if using telepathy, the waiter appeared at the side of the table and spoke.

“Did you decide on what you would like?”

"A cheesecake à la crème de marrons and a hot cappuccino."

【T/N: Kirito orders a マロンソースのチーズケーキ (literally, a cheesecake of marron sauce). This refers to chestnut cream cheesecake, a French dessert.】

The cake was ¥1900, and the coffee was ¥1200; these prices were shudder-inducing. After finishing my order with difficulty, I passed the menu to Argo next to me.

“This nice Onii-san is very generous, so you can order anything you’d like.”

“What, it isn’t Kii-bou’s treat?”

Although complaining such, Argo flipped through the menu without any fear of the prices and said, “I’ll have the recommended cake of the month and a hot royal milk tea.” As the waiter left with an “understood,” I retrieved the menu back from Argo and, despite knowing it was rude, checked her total order amount. Her cake and black tea combined were ¥3500; adding on my order, the total was ¥6600…… Even though she tagged along of her own accord, since I was the one who let her come with me, even if she ended up causing trouble, I wouldn’t be able to complain; I mentally braced myself—.

“…Well, I needed to contact Argo-kun sooner or later, anyway…”

Muttering something like that, Kikuoka scooped up the pear parfait placed in front of him with a slender spoon and brought it to his mouth. At this point, I finally ran out of patience and, not even knowing to whom I was directing my question, asked.

“So, how do you two know each other?”

"We're クライアント (kuraianto) and ベスティゲーター (inbesutigētā)."

The one to reply was Argo. クライアント meant client, and インベスティゲーター meant investigator… translating this in my mind, I followed up with another question.

“Who’s who?”

“It’s obvious, this Onii-san was the client.”

Hearing that, I turned my gaze to Kikuoka again.

“…You, what the hell did you ask for?”

“About that, you see, civil servants have a duty of confidentiality…”

“What sort of civil servant are you.”

“You’re so mean… Well, it’s nothing I need to hide from Kirito-kun, though.”

After that preamble, Kikuoka lowered his volume as far as he could and whispered.

“Do you know Kamura?”

“Kamura… the maker of the Augma?”

“Yes. I got a tip that that company was doing something shady in some VRMMO world, so I asked her to look into it.”

“It’s suspicious… it could have been something like the Ordinal Scale incident again.”

As if to reassure me as I frowned, Kikuoka held up both hands.

“I wouldn’t ask Argo-kun if it were such a dangerous case, and in the first place, I made the request before the OS incident. They weren’t profitable by any stretch of the imagination… on the contrary, it was a game that was definitely operating at a loss, yet it wasn’t doing any advertising; that’s all.”

“Mm……”

“Argo’s report did not yield any incriminating information, either. You do great work, as they say… I didn’t expect you to deduce my real identity like this.”

“Did you shirk the payment?”

“No way, I paid the fee we agreed upon. It’s just… we haven’t yet been able to provide the bonus that was asked for.”

Argo let out a disgruntled voice toward Kikuoka, who gave a light shrug.

“From my perspective, this bonus you mentioned is really the main part of the compensation. I grew tired of waiting, so I’ve come to collect it like this in real life.”

“I’m sorry about that. But how did you figure out that I was Chrysheight? You and I only met once in ALO half a year ago.”

Half a year ago… in late March of 2026, huh. Kamura released the Augma in April; in other words, right before that. Precisely what kind of VR game was the company, which sold AR devices on such a large scale, secretly running?

As I tried my best to hold back the urge to interject, Argo, who had her hands clasped on the tabletop, opened them to the left and right.

“It’s nothing much; I didn’t even find out your real name. I did a little research in ALO and quickly found out that Chrysheight was one of Kirito’s friends. But today, since Kii-bou said his reason for skipping afternoon class was that he was «summoned by a suspicious old man», I had a clue.”

As soon as I heard that, I said in a stunned voice.

“Oi… hey Argo, your intuition’s a little too good to be true.”

At the same time, Kikuoka also let out a reluctant voice.

“«Suspicious old man» is taking it too far. I thought I was an earnest Onii-san.”

So, Argo looked at me first and said, “I survived SAO because of my instincts, didn’t I?” Then, she turned to Kikuoka and affirmed, “Isn’t the impression you give off exactly that of a suspicious old man?”

The first half of her response was a little too humble, but the second half was truly undeniable. Before I could say these unpleasing thoughts out, the cake that Argo and I ordered was brought to us.

The sight of the light brown marron sauce glistening moistly on the cheesecake that was baked just right forced me to interrupt the conversation even though I didn’t have a sweet tooth. I picked up a fork and inserted a slice of the cake into my mouth. After enjoying the smooth texture and rich taste, I reset my tongue with the cappuccino’s bitterness.

Argo’s recommended cake of the month was an apple mille-feuille, which looked delicious as well… As I was thinking about how I wanted a taste, when we both finished half of our cakes, a plate was pushed toward me from the side.

“Kii-bou, let’s switch.”

“……I have no reason to refuse, huh.”

I hesitated for a moment but still replied such and slid my cheesecake to the left. I paused because Kikuoka was grinning across from me for some reason. Later, I’ll have to remind myself that Argo and I are no more than comrades-in-arms… While thinking that, I savored the mille-feuille. Between the crispy, light, and savory crust, it was filled with fruity apple preserves and mildly sweet custard cream; its taste was also excellent. The price of ¥6600, including drinks, makes sense… whether that could be said or not was another story.

Page 16 illustration.
Page 16 illustration.

 

As soon as the two starving high school students emptied their plates, Kikuoka also finished his parfait.

“Ahh, the sweets from this shop are very satisfying after all. I dreamt about it on many occasions while floating in the Pacific.”

Floating in the Pacific, as Kikuoka said, was the Ocean Turtle, which was anchored off the Izu Islands. True, they probably couldn’t eat fancy sweets, but Asuna noted that the onboard restaurant’s food was really quite good. Unfortunately, I was in a coma the whole time and didn’t get a chance to try it.

I couldn’t tell whether he was aware of my feelings, but Kikuoka continued with a smirk.

“But strangely enough, in my dreams, I was always with Kirito-kun. I’ve only been in this store with you twice.”

“…How am I supposed to comment on that story?”

As I replied like that for now, Kikuoka said mystifyingly, “just that comment is enough,” and finished his coffee. After glancing at the diver’s watch on his left wrist, his expression changed.

“So, yeah. Before we get to the main point, I would like to confirm… is it correct that Argo-kun over there will be joining the Kirito Corps in the future?”

“H-hey, I don’t remember forming a legion like that!”

“If that’s the case, it could be Team Kirito or Kirito and His Happy Friends, but at any rate, she’s going to be fighting with you once something happens, isn’t she?”

“…How should I put it?”

After I relayed the question to the person at my side, Argo casually shrugged her slender shoulders up and down.

“Mm, well, for the time being, I’m going to join up with Kii-bou’s team for Unital Ring. But, for VR worlds other than that, they should be considered on a case-by-case basis…”

“Even though you say ‘other than that,’ they’ve all been unified into UniRing, right?”

“There are also some VR worlds that aren’t part of The Seed Nexus, aren’t there.”

As she said this with a grin, Argo looked at Kikuoka.

“Hey, Chrysheight. Isn’t the reason you called Kii-bou out that you wanted to talk about such a world with no connection to the Nexus?”

“Eh… is that so?”

I also hurriedly looked toward Kikuoka. Until now, I had thought that today’s topic would be the Unital Ring incident—no, wait. Thinking carefully, I realized Alice actually brought the message, “the 29th, 15:00, the expensive cake shop,” before New Aincrad fell. In other words, when Kikuoka tried to contact me, the incident hadn’t happened yet.

Kikuoka, who was staring at Argo and me, whispered as he pushed up the bridge of his black-rimmed glasses with his fingertips, “You’re absolutely right.”

“Today, I wanted to consult with Kirito-kun… or rather, what I want to request is not directly related to the Unital Ring incident. Since we don’t have much time, I’ll just be straightforward and say it… Kirito-kun, will you dive into Underworld again?”

“…………”

Unable to react immediately, I stared at Kikuoka’s face. But the winter sun shining through the south-facing windows reflected off the lenses of his glasses, making it hard to read his expression. Feeling the rising heat in my palms, I asked back in a hoarse voice.

“That’s… that’s what I want, but why did you bother coming to tell me directly? Why didn’t you just tell me through Rinko-san?”

“Actually, Dr. Koujiro is against involving Kirito-kun once more. She told me that if I insisted on telling you, I had to meet with you in person and fully detail the situation.”

“Ah……”

If that were the case, I could understand. In fact, for the past month, Dr. Koujiro Rinko had insisted they were still “assessing the situation” no matter how many times I told her, “I want to go to Underworld again.” She wasn’t intentionally being mean to me, of course, and I’m sure she’s making considerations regarding my safety as her top priority. Still, if I were to dive from the STL at RATH’s Roppongi branch, there would be no danger to my body, and inside Underworld…… it may be arrogant to say so, but I honestly don’t think there’s anything that could threaten me.

“……I see. So, why do you want me to dive in?”

Kikuoka then glanced around. Perhaps because it was a weekday afternoon, there weren’t many customers, and all the nearby tables were unoccupied. It wasn’t as if people were eavesdropping, but Kikuoka whispered in a hushed voice.

“It appears that someone has infiltrated Underworld.”

“…………!”

I opened both eyes wide for a moment, then questioned in the same whisper.

“What do you mean, ‘infiltrated?’ Who!? Since when!?”

“Wait, wait.”

Lifting his hands gently, Kikuoka turned his attention back to Argo.

“…Argo-kun, how much do you know about Underworld?”

“Not enough to be a good informant; I know pretty much what the media is reporting.”

“So you should know that Underworld exists within the Ocean Turtle and that the Ocean Turtle is blockaded off Hachijō-jima.”

“About the blockade… I’m not exactly sure what the situation is.”

“It’s literally as it sounds. A JMSDF escort ship and a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat circle around it, patrolling the water 24/7, so nobody can get near. Didn’t there just happen to be a commotion when a media boat that tried to break through the blockade and force its way aboard came under warning fire from the patrol boat’s machine gun?

“There was indeed news like that. Well, I think I got a pretty good idea of the situation.”

Argo nodded, and Kikuoka glanced back at me.

“I called it an intrusion earlier, but of course, I’m not talking about someone sneaking onto the Ocean Turtle in the real world. There are signs in Underworld’s virtual world that someone unaffiliated with RATH dived in a week ago.”

“Dive…”

I repeated in a small voice.

You couldn’t dive into Underworld, which was constructed with a special data format called «Mnemonic Visuals», without using the Soul Translators installed in RATH’s Roppongi branch and the Ocean Turtle…… When I was working part-time at RATH, I used to think that, but that’s not really the case.

Underworld exists as a superimposition of a mnemonic visual version that is as real as the real world and a polygon version created using The Seed program. The only way to experience the high-definition world is to use the STL, but for the polygon version of the same level as SAO and ALO, you can also dive in with the AmuSphere. In fact, in the final stages of the «War of Underworld» that broke out in Underworld, tens of thousands of VRMMO players from Japan, the United States, Korea, and China dived in and fought fiercely. In other words, to enter Underworld, just an AmuSphere is enough—but.

“…But what about the entry point? The only way to dive into Underworld now is through the Icelandic server’s IP that was sent to me… no, Alice, right?”

“Yeah, because the satellite link that RATH used was cut off at the discretion of the government. That means, normally, the intruder would have used the same route, but…”

“…………”

Glaring at the plate of mille-feuille crumbs, I wracked my brain with all my might.

I suspected that it was Kayaba Akihiko’s digital ghost who sent me the IP address that led to Underworld. Hiding inside the humanoid machine body «Niemom», observing Project Alicization, he recklessly charged into the containment chamber of a runaway nuclear reactor and saved the Ocean Turtle from the danger of a steam explosion. After that, the supposedly destroyed Niemom disappeared as if it had melted, leaving behind only traces of machine oil. If Kayaba installed some kind of communication device in the Ocean Turtle as Niemom’s last task, then was the intruder in question either given the address of the server by Kayaba, as we were—or was it Kayaba himself?

“…Kikuoka-san, how did you guys find out that someone dived into Underworld? Real-time monitoring is impossible from Roppongi, isn’t it?”

When I asked that, Kikuoka nodded with a complicated expression on his face.

“It certainly is. Fortunately, we managed to log in to one of the gateway servers on the Ocean Turtle via that Icelandic server and checked the logs… there was a connection from outside recorded there.”

“……From outside……?”

“A Japanese node of The Seed Nexus. That means that someone converted their character into Underworld.”

 

 

Thirty minutes later.

Kikuoka, who had paid more than ¥10,000 with tax using cash even in this day and age, said, “I’ll call you tonight, then,” and disappeared into the crowds of Ginza.

Even after the back of his suit was out of sight, I still couldn’t move from the corner of the sidewalk. I had so much to think about, if I tilted my head even a little, the information would come flooding out of my head.

The ongoing Unital Ring case.

The Underworld break-in incident that occurred a week ago.

And Kamura’s suspicious activities, which were what brought Kikuoka and Argo into contact—

As I glanced to my side, Argo thrust her hands in her hoodie pockets and was moving her neck around.

“Ahh, the cake was delicious, but shops like these make your shoulders stiff.”

“…I agree with you on that.”

I unintentionally muttered to myself, and then I took a step closer and asked.

“No, what did you come here for in the first place? You didn’t even get that main part of your compensation after all, did you?”

“Well, it’s not something he can have ready right away, and I’m not in a hurry.”

“…What did you ask for?”

“Mm, well, I’ll tell you this for free. A certain SAO Survivor’s real information.”

“SAO Survivor…? Eh, when you were asked to do the job, did you know that Kikuoka… Chrysheight was a person of such a position?”

“He said he was from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Virtual Division.”

“Ah, I see…… So… is that SAO survivor someone I also know…?”

I asked after a moment of uncertainty, and Argo answered with a faint smirk.

“I can’t tell you that much. Well… it’s just a personal matter.”

“I see……”

Of course, many things must have happened to Argo during the two years she was trapped in that world. I didn’t want to pry into that. Exhaling deeply to adjust my mood, I lifted my gaze. Before I knew it, a dark gray cloud had covered half of the evening sky, and literally, my situation was not looking good.

【T/N: Kirito says 怪しい雲行き, literally meaning the way the wind was blowing was not good. “The way the wind is blowing” refers to a “situation” or “turn of events.” 】

Following my gaze, Argo uttered a line like an informant.

“There was a 70% chance of rainfall in the city center since 18:00.”

“Eh, seriously…… what about Kawagoe?”

I asked her reflexively, and she replied in disbelief.

“You should look it up for yourself… I’d like to say that, but this Onee-san is kind enough to do it for free.”

Argo grinned as she pulled her phone from her pocket and tapped it quickly.

“It’s a pity, Kawagoe City is 80% from 18:00.”

“……Thanks.”

I had a small folding umbrella in the side pocket of my messenger bag, but I couldn’t ride my bike with an umbrella, so if it was pouring when I arrived in Kawagoe, I would have to walk two kilometers to my house. Even if it’s possible to force your way through on a bike if you put on rainwear, riding in the rain at night is dangerous, so just don’t! My mother, Suguha, Asuna, and Yui had all told me such. I’ve made them worry about me countless times now, so I had no choice but to accept that much.

If I jumped on the subway right away, I might’ve been able to get to Honkawagoe Station before it started raining, but I had one more important mission left. Resolving to walk the two kilometers, I made such a reconsideration and was about to say it.

“…Well, Argo-san, there is one more thing I’d like to ask you about…”

After I spoke, the info broker pursed her lips into a へ shape.

“It’s about time I really took your money.”

“Go ahead and take it.”

“…What did you want to ask?”

“That… for example, if it were you, what would you give Asuna for her birthday?”

Immediately, Argo opened her mouth wide and let out a long sigh.

“…………Look, Kii-bou, this is not an example at all. Aa-chan’s birthday is tomorrow, isn’t it? You still haven’t gotten her present ready yet?”

“Eh… you knew that Asuna’s birthday is September 30th?”

“I’ve known Aa-chan for a long time, too. Today was the first time we met in real life, though.”

“Ah…… mm, that’s right……”

Even though Asuna and I got married in Aincrad, we rarely talked about anything related to the real world with each other. Whether it was our age or even our real name, we only revealed them when the floating castle collapsed. But I should say, as expected of Argo, she had found Asuna’s birthday from some unknown source.

“……Then, not as an example, what does Asuna like……?”

When I asked again, Argo lifted her right hand and poked me in the arm.

“Kii-bou, whatever you get her should be from thinking long and hard on your own about it; only that can be considered a real gift. Plus, you should know Asuna better than me in the first place.”

“I understand that, and Yui told me off like that too… I know, but…”

I breathed a sigh and again looked up at the sky as more and more of it was covered with clouds. Its color signaled rain could come down any time now.

“…Lately, I sometimes think… I only know the Asuna of the virtual world, and I don’t know much about the Asuna of the real world. No… it’s not just Asuna. It’s the same with Liz, Silica, Sinon, Agil, Klein… Even with my sister, Leafa, it’s like we can only face each other in the virtual world.”

Halfway through talking to myself like that, I smiled to hide my embarrassment.

“It’s been two years since we last met, yet I’m giving you a hard time talking about things like this, aren’t I? I’ll come up with my own gift for Asuna. Sorry for keeping you… are you going back to Kanagawa now?”

“No matter how you look at it, I can’t possibly commute from Kanagawa’s lower-left corner to Nishitōkyō every day. I rented an apartment near the school.”

【T/N: “Lower-left corner” can be interpreted as “southwest corner,” and “Nishitōkyō” (West Tokyo) is a city in Tokyo Metropolis.】

After answering, Argo lightly cleared her throat.

“Well, I’m not the kind of person who likes to comment on socializing, but… in return for that expensive cake, I’ll give you one piece of advice.”

“… It’s free?”

“It’s free. Listen, Kii-bou, you’re overthinking things. Real or virtual, the person inside is the same, right? I don’t see the slightest point in separating them.”

“…………”

“What’s with that expression”

“No… Argo-san, I just think you’re really mature…”

“I’ve always told you I’m an Onee-san!”

She jabbed me on the shoulder again before swiftly taking a step back.

“I’ll give you another one as a bonus. Even if you force yourself to buy an expensive brand-name item in Ginza, I don’t think Aa-chan will be happy.”

After saying that, with a wave of her hand—

“See you tonight!”

Flipping up her khaki yellow hoodie, Argo also disappeared into the crowds.

I, who had indeed planned to «force myself to buy an expensive brand-name item in Ginza», rested my back against the wall of the building and exhaled with a sigh. I closed my eyes, shut out the noise around me, and let images of Asuna from the time we met until today play in my mind.

In the depths of an Aincrad labyrinth on the First Floor, the Asuna who continued to hunt monsters with her beautiful sword skills as fast as a meteor, even as she wore herself out in rags. As the Deputy Commander of the Knights of the Blood Guild, the Asuna who resolutely led a floor boss battle. In a forest house on the 22nd Floor, the Asuna who was leaning on a rocking chair and lightly sleeping. The Asuna who was waiting for me in a hospital bed in Tokorozawa, holding the NerveGear she had just removed.

In the New Aincrad that was added into ALFheim, the Asuna who was dueling against «Absolute Sword» Yuuki. The Asuna who dived into Underworld with a super account and fought until the very end to defend the Human World Army. And then, in the secret garden of the SAO Survivors School, the Asuna who leaned on my shoulder—.

As I was thinking, I realized that, for the almost four years since we met, Asuna had always been right there by my side to support me. There’s no doubt about it; Asuna had given me far more than what I had given her. And yet, how many times had I ever properly expressed my gratitude out loud?

“Geez…”

I sighed again, realizing my own ineptitude. Vowing to fully convey my heartfelt emotions through my words no matter what I gave her as a gift, I started walking toward the subway station.

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