Suguha was nervous.
She shouldn't be nervous. It was only a small party. A small party of strangers, sure, but even still, there really was no reason to feel intimidated.
Or so she tried to convince herself.
She hadn't necessarily wanted to go at first, but Kazuto had looked so happy to have everyone come together, and he had looked so eager when he said he wanted to introduce his friends to his little sister, that she just...agreed to go.
Even knowing she'd be third-wheeling her way through the party if she didn't end up sitting in a corner, she couldn't say no to Kazuto. She could tell these people were important to him, and an undeniable part of her was honored he wanted to introduce her to other SAO survivors—all legends in their own right.
She was awed, and beyond terrified, just thinking about it. The mere scope of what it meant to be invited, of the trust Kazuto and Asuna put in her as an outsider, was unbelievable. And with things as…strange as they were between her and her brother right now, she never would have thought he’d want her there.
But he was trying to mend the chasm between them, the one he created when he found out about his real parents, and if he was trying, then Sugu could do better than try.
Besides, after talking it over with her mother, well out of Kazuto's earshot, Sugu knew this was a huge step. Kazuto had been remarkably tight-lipped about his time in SAO, even when forced into counseling, and Sugu realized how unhealthy that was, though she would be the very last person to blame him for refusing to open up about it. She’d already seen him break down. She'd heard stifled shouts from his room in the middle of the night. She'd seen that frighteningly blank expression on his face and the false smile he'd plaster on when he snapped out of it.
No, she couldn’t blame him. How could she? How could anyone?
Before ALO, she pretended she understood, if only to feel closer to Kazuto and to maybe ease the guilt and pain she felt during his absence. Now, she understood enough to know she'd never understand what it was like to be trapped in that death game, and despite the fact she wanted to help her brother, she didn't press him for anything. She didn't try to manipulate or barter with him either, not like Mom did at first, and maybe that's why she was lucky enough to be on her way to meet Kazuto's friends, people he’d depended on…and people who perhaps had depended on him too.
The stories they could tell…It sent jolts of terrified excitement through her entire core. She craved the truth just as much as she feared it.
In the months since SAO had been cleared, the most Sugu ever got out of Kazuto about his life in SAO was Asuna's name and title, but in revealing even that much, Sugu was able to form a plethora of assumptions. Whether he knew it or not, Kazuto had indirectly admitted Asuna had a high-ranking position in SAO, a position of power. Her nickname implied she was well-known in that world, and if that was all true, then it was safe to assume Kazuto had been right beside her. If he had been a part of Asuna's guild, Sugu couldn't say, but she wasn't dumb: after seeing Kirito fight in ALO, after witnessing some of the insane stunts he pulled, Sugu knew her brother had been one of the most impressive fighters in SAO, guild or no guild.
None of these conclusions, however, explained how Kazuto and Asuna became so close.
Looking up at said couple as they made their way through the cramped streets toward Agil's real-life café, Sugu saw her brother's fingers entwined with Asuna's, and she scowled. They were so sweet it made her want to hurl. They had been like this since Asuna woke up, and though it was sickening and awkward to be around them sometimes, Suguha saw how Kazuto brightened whenever she was around, and she saw a side of her brother he buried far too often outside of her company.
Despite how gross they were, it wasn't all bad, honestly. In the past few weeks, Sugu had gotten to know Asuna quite well, well enough to wonder how the hell her loser of a brother caught the interest of a girl like her, and though Sugu felt as though she and Asuna couldn't be any more different, they did have a few similar interests—namely, teasing Kazuto and playing VRMMORPGs—and were becoming rather fast friends because of it.
As if sensing her eyes on him, Kazuto had turned to look back at her. A chill raced through her as he scanned her with severe gray eyes, and for a moment, Kirito’s avatar superimposed over her brother’s face. She blinked once, and Kirito vanished, leaving her dorky brother behind.
He smiled softly. “I forgot to ask before: did you ever meet Agil?”
“Yeah!” she said. “We went hunting together a couple of times in ALO.” There was a fond amusement in her voice when she added, “His avatar is ginormous.”
“Yeah?” Kazuto asked. “Well, get ready. ‘Cause he’s that big in real life too. Prepare to have your mind blown.”
Sugu grinned, but before she could respond, Kazuto pivoted on his heel to walk backward, a smirk growing on his face. “Now come on! Keep up, Sugu!” he teased.
It was an invitation if she ever heard one, so with a roll of her eyes and a skip in her step, she sped up to walk alongside Asuna, and within a block, the three of them strolled up to Agil’s door. Even from the street, Sugu could hear merry chatter, laughter, and clinking glasses from within.
Hang on. Judging by the noise, that was far more than “a few people.”
A bead of anxiety dripped into her gut, but Kazuto had no such reservations. He opened the door without hesitation, revealing a party of dozens. They shut up immediately, staring at the three of them as they stood in the threshold.
From beside Sugu, Asuna gasped in surprise before grinning and waving at the gathering. Kazuto, however, froze, his hand still gripping the door handle. “Hang on a sec,” he murmured, confusion clear in his tone. “Were we supposed to get here earlier?”
A musical laugh drew Suguha’s attention to a petite brunette, who danced her way up to them, hands on her hips. “We gave you a later time to make sure everyone else got here first!” Lowering her voice almost conspiratorially, she added, “Wouldn't be right for the guests of honor to show up before all the guests.”
Without warning, she grabbed Kazuto’s hand. He did not fight her as she enthusiastically dragged him in, saying, “Don’t just stand there! Come on in!”
Before Suguha and Asuna could so much as exchange a single glance, there was a flurry of activity around them, everyone parting to make way for the bulldozer of a girl and Kazuto.
“What...?” Asuna asked in an undertone. Raising her voice, she called, “Hey! Lisbeth!”
She never got a response. "Asuna!" A tall redhead with a goofy grin called. Asuna turned, and he swept up, launching himself at her and grabbing her hand. Without so much as an introduction, he gave Sugu a quick once-over before grinning even more broadly and taking her hand as well. “Kirito’s sis, too! He told us you’d be coming! Now come on! This is a celebration!”
The two girls were yanked further into the café, and as Suguha steadied herself, fighting a blush, she looked up and saw the pink-clad brunette—Lisbeth—attempting to coax Kazuto onto a wooden box at the front of the room. His entire posture was stiff and defensive, and it was enough to set Suguha on guard, concern for her brother overpowering her discomfort and embarrassment. Even from across the café, Sugu could sense the suspicion and hostility in her brother's tone as he leaned over to hiss at the girl, who very cheerfully ignored him as she grabbed a microphone.
He gesticulated violently, reaching over to snatch the mic, but Lisbeth was quick and pulled it out of reach. With far too much familiarity for Suguha's taste, the girl nose-bopped him, pushing him away from her and the mic. The two glared daggers at each other before Lisbeth said something that caused Kazuto's shoulders to slump in resignation.
He briefly cast his gaze over the group, who shifted and buzzed eagerly, and upon meeting Sugu's eyes, his averted instantly.
"What's going on?" Sugu whispered to Asuna and her friend.
Lisbeth tapped the mic before Asuna could so much as open her mouth to respond, drawing everyone's attention to the front of the room. Kazuto stood on the box, reluctant and nervous. "Okay, let's get this party started!" she exclaimed. "You all know what to do! Ready and...!"
She threw the head of the microphone toward the audience, who all shouted simultaneously, "Congratulations on beating SAO, Kirito!"
Suguha's heart stalled in her chest, and the room tunneled in her vision. Party favors popped, cheers rang out, and confetti rained down around her, a white banner unfurling with a graceful swoosh, but that was happening in another world, a world where things made no sense.
And yet somehow made all the sense in the world.
She remembered those discreet government officials passing through her brother's hospital room, she remembered strangers stopping to stare at him in the street when they thought he wasn't looking...and she remembered the little things from ALO and IRL: the way he held a sword, the speed at which he processed threats and new information, the grace with which he moved, the newfound determination and drive he had never possessed before SAO...
All these little bits and bursts of memory conglomerated into a watercolor of truth, and her chest constricted as she fully accepted the picture painted before her.
Her brother had been the one to clear the game, and she...she hadn't known. She hadn't even guessed.
Kazuto was a hero.
And he was currently covered in confetti and sparkles, looking so uncomfortable with all the attention it was almost laughable, and he numbly accepted the drink Lisbeth shoved into his hand. With a fond smile, she raised her glass and yelled, "Cheers!"
Sugu allowed the cheers to wash over her, the infectious joy and relief emitting from every last one of these survivors pounding into her like a barrage of ocean waves. Shameless tears streamed down the faces of some of them, who turned to their companions to share embraces and hysterical laughs, before turning toward Kazuto again, every single gaze bleeding with appreciation and deep, deep gratitude.
It's finally over for them, Sugu realized. This is incredible. This is...
Asuna caught her gaze, and Sugu noticed the girl was crying too. "You never knew, did you?" Asuna asked her in a whisper.
"No," Suguha breathed.
"That's Kirito for ya," Asuna's ginger friend interrupted. He scratched at his headband and smirked. "The guy can be as sharp as a whip—he'd have to be to have discovered Kayaba's true identity in SAO—but honestly, he's a bit slow when it comes to—"
Sugu froze, the game developer's name registering late. Horrified curiosity erupted from her in a single strangled word: "What?"
The young man blinked. "Kayaba played as an avatar named Heathcliff. He inserted himself into the game for his own perverted reasons, I guess. No one knows. I suspect Kirito does, but what does it matter now? He defeated Kayaba, and we're home."
Wiping her face, Asuna turned to watch Kazuto, who was swarmed by people coming up to talk to him and shake his hand, and in a voice imbued with love, she repeated, "We're home."
Suguha stared. I shouldn't be here. The thought came unbidden, and Suguha suddenly felt as though she were trespassing on something far too private. She felt wrong. This wasn't just a party of Kazuto's closest friends. This was a goodbye to one life and a hello to another, and there was no place for her here. None at all.
Maybe she should feel angry at Kazuto for not foreseeing that his "inner circle" would plan something like this, but if Sugu had gleaned anything from watching these people celebrating and mourning together, Kazuto deserved every bit of praise and closure he experienced today.
All of them did.
She hadn't even noticed when Asuna and her friend were sucked into the mass, other friends finding them and pulling them into conversations and hugs, but she didn't feel slighted that they abandoned her. She barely noticed Kazuto’s voice through the mic, Lisbeth and a little girl in pig-tails encouraging him on. She didn’t even hear Agil call her avatar’s name, his booming voice carrying over everyone else’s. No, instead, Sugu backed away toward the edge of the room, heart hammering and tears gathering in her eyes.
She didn't stop at the door.
She slipped outside, and grateful to find several crates resting up against the side of the building, she slumped onto one, burrowing her face in her hands.
She couldn’t have been sitting alone for longer than a minute or two. The door swung open with a creak and a swell of noise, and Suguha jumped, swiveling around to see Kazuto. His lips twitched into a sheepish smile, and he closed the door before asking quietly, "Can I join you?"
Suguha averted her eyes, sighed, and waved toward the crate beside her, an obvious, if curt, go-ahead. Kazuto stepped around her and sat. For a moment, he was silent, his fingers fisting into the fabric over his knees. "I saw you leave," he began. "I wanted to be sure you were okay."
Suguha jerked her head around to stare incredulously at him. "Me? You're asking if I'm okay?" Before Kazuto could so much as shrug or chuckle or whatever, she complained, "Oh my God, Kazuto."
He obviously didn't understand, and looking down at his lap, he murmured, "I'm sorry."
"Don't..." Suguha slugged him in the arm, causing him to sit bolt upright and mutter an ow. "Don't say sorry, you dork!"
"Mad? How could I be mad? Kazuto, I—I just..." Struggling for moment, she released a strangled groan and jumped to her feet. "Why didn't you say anything?"
Kazuto jostled his legs, a nervous tick. "I didn't want to," he admitted.
His expression hardened. "Is it so hard to believe I might want to forget what happened?"
Suguha scanned his face and said softly, "Do you really? Want to forget?” Kazuto grit his teeth, and when no response seemed forthcoming, Sugu sat back down and pressed, "That's two years of your life, Kazuto. I can't imagine how it was when you were fighting, but looking at you and Asuna and Lisbeth and that ginger guy and everyone else who came today...I can tell you all love each other. And they love you too."
"Of course I wouldn't want to forget them," Kazuto snapped. Suguha blinked at him, and he deflated, losing some of his defensiveness. "And SAO...It's a part of me. I can't deny it. But that doesn't mean there isn't stuff I wish I could forget."
"And avoiding it is supposed to make it go away?" Sugu argued.
"It was supposed to," Kazuto said stubbornly. "I'm home. Asuna's home. All that stuff...it shouldn't bother me anymore, right?"
Suguha opened her mouth, ready to argue further, but she stopped short, catching the desperate note Kazuto's tone had adopted. He seemed to think he said too much, and he scowled, pretending to look unaffected. Instead of setting her at ease, his poor attempt made her heart throb, and she whispered, "I don't think it works like that."
Leaning his head back against the side of Agil’s shop, he stared up at the blue sky. “Fine. Fine. Point to Sugu. I suppose that's why your mom still ships me off to therapy every week, huh?"
The self-deprecation in his voice ignited a protective fire in her chest, much in the same way it did when she discovered Grandfather beating Kazuto all those years ago. She ached to launch into a passionate rebuttal of his attitude, but she bit her tongue, remembering the last time he looked like this.
It was the look of someone who'd been clambering to hold himself together for far too long. It was the look of someone who was beginning to feel caged, trapped, and any negative reaction on her part might force him to withdraw…or lash out.
"What happened, Kazuto?" she asked instead.
He closed his eyes. “Klein told you already, didn't he?"
Suguha filed the name away for future reference and said, "I want to hear it from you."
Kazuto was silent for a long while, and he shifted so much Suguha was afraid he'd stand up and return to the party, leaving her without answers and leaving him without closure. She wasn’t sure what encouraged him to stay, but suddenly, the tension in his shoulders eased away.
"We had twenty-five floors left to clear," Kazuto stated. "I fought at the front lines with Asuna's guild, amongst others, as a solo player. The seventy-fifth floor boss—Skull Reaper—nearly wiped the best of us out. After that battle, I think we all started to think we'd never get to the hundredth floor.”
“Then…how did you clear the game?"
"I noticed something odd about Asuna's guild leader: Heathcliff. I noticed it months before, but when he fought with us against Skull Reaper—well, the details don't matter. I forced him to reveal himself as Akihiko Kayaba. He was so impressed I found him out, he gave me the opportunity to duel him, one-on-one. If I defeated him, he'd consider the game won…and he’d free everyone. No catch.”
She could see where this was going. Feeling sick to her stomach, she dared to ask, “And if you didn’t?”
“I…don’t think I asked,” Kazuto said slowly. “There never was another choice for me. I had to take the chance.”
Despite herself, Suguha covered her mouth with a hand and turned her face away for a moment, squeezing her eyes shut. Kazuto, who hadn’t been able to look at her since beginning his story, did not notice.
“If I failed,” he continued thoughtfully, drawing Suguha’s attention back to him. “I suppose I would have died, and he would have waited for the rest of us on the hundredth floor, like he initially planned.”
“That’s sick!” Sugu blurted angrily.
Kazuto didn’t respond to that, and that he didn’t agree right away frightened her more than she cared to admit. Clearing her throat, she prompted, “So you fought him.” Kazuto nodded, but she had the feeling there was something she was missing. “But there’s more. Isn’t there?”
“I was going to die,” Kazuto admitted. “I was losing. Asuna…she sacrificed herself for me.”
“Wh—what? What do you mean?” Suguha turned unconsciously toward the door of Agil’s shop, as though hoping to see through the wood and check on Asuna herself. “She…She’s…”
“She died,” Kazuto stated numbly. “I watched her avatar shatter into crystal. And I kinda…fell apart. Then I died.”
Suguha’s heartbeat thudded in her ears like a galloping horse. “I…I don’t understand. You…?”
Kazuto hid his face, but he couldn’t hide the stray tears he brushed away. He heaved himself up off the crate, and he shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know how I did it, but I took Heathcliff down with me. Next thing I know, Kayaba, Asuna, and I are watching Aincrad destroy itself, from the sky.” An odd sort of smile graces his lips. “I made peace with death, Sugu,” he sighed. “I didn’t…expect to wake up in the hospital.”
Suguha couldn’t sit still a second longer. She burst from her seat and launched herself at Kazuto, embracing him fiercely. He stiffened in surprise before his wiry arms tightened around her. “I am so proud of you, Kazuto,” Suguha whispered, her voice strained. “I’m so, so proud.”
Kazuto froze and pulled away, a frown on his face. “But I don’t deserve all this. I’m not the only one who contributed,” he said. “That’s why I’m a little pissed Lisbeth pulled this surprise on me. We all cleared the game. Together. I’m one player of thousands who made an impact.”
“You’re so much more than a single player, Kazuto,” Sugu chided. “I see how they look at you. You inspire them.” Flushing, she added, “You inspire me. I’m not only proud of you for your sacrifices in-game, you know. I’m proud of you because you can face your demons IRL, too. Not everyone is as brave as you are.”
The frustrated expression on Kazuto’s face morphed in his confusion, and after staring at her with steely grey eyes, he finally smiled. “Thank you, Suguha.”
“I’m glad you told me, Kazuto,” Sugu said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry I made you come chase after me. I didn’t mean to keep you away from your friends.”
Kazuto waved a hand. “They can deal.”
Indignant, Sugu smacked him. “Is this the attitude you had as a solo-player? God, Kazuto, it’s a wonder they look up to you at all!” Despite the sting of her hit, her tone was playful, and Kazuto rolled his eyes good-naturedly at her. Pushing him toward the door, she said, “Now don’t be rude, Kirito. This is your moment. This is their moment. Go and enjoy it.”
“Hey, wait,” he said, stumbling forward and catching himself at Agil’s door. “What about you?”
Suguha smiled. “Don’t worry about me. I think I’ll head home. I don’t feel right intruding—”
“Whoa, hang on!” Kazuto’s brow furrowed. “What are you talking about? Intruding? Sugu, without you, three hundred SAO survivors would still be trapped in that ALO bastard’s research lab, none of us the wiser. In fact, several of them are here now, and they were looking for you. That’s another reason I chased you down!”
“…what?” Suguha asked dumbly.
“I…can’t remember what I said after Lisbeth and Silica forced the mic in my hands, but I know I mentioned the part you and Asuna played in all this. Some of the people in there want to thank you, for everything you did in ALO.”
Suguha stared, and Kazuto, now looking smug, opened the door. “It didn’t end with me, Suguha. It ended with you. You’re just as much a hero as the rest of us.”
For the second time, Suguha remembered the night Kazuto told Grandfather he was quitting kendo. She remembered the look in her brother’s eyes when Suguha stepped in, putting herself between him and Grandfather, announcing that she would train and perform well enough for the both of them.
You’re my hero, those grey eyes affirmed, then and now.
The moment passed, and a sly, downright Spriggan glint flashed in Kazuto’s eyes. “Now don’t be rude, Leafa,” he mimicked. “It’s a celebration, after all.”
Without waiting to see Suguha’s growing smile, he stepped through the door, and after a heartbeat, she followed.