358 – Link, Start! – II
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Titor cleared his throat and said, "Anyway... Welcome to <World Line>!" He swung out his arm, causing his white lab coat to flutter behind him.

Electric blue lines spread out in a grid pattern before tracing out a medieval-styled village, quickly shifting to a town square.

Aoko took a look around with a nonchalant expression.

Titor gave her a blank stare and said, "...You don't look very impressed."

"Because I'm not." Aoko reached up to rub her neck and said, "Honestly, this seems a bit of a step down from the crazy VR stuff we have in the upstairs studio. Did you sell out? Not that I blame you, but-"

"Hey!" Titor jabbed a finger at Aoko and said, "Not everyone can rake in millions by just showing up and yelling at people on stream, you know!?"

"Yeah, yeah." Aoko looked around at the crowd of people walking around the plaza.

As expected from a fantasy-style game, most people were wearing armor and carrying around weapons. Of course, since they were just people cosplaying as adventurers instead of people who lived and breathed that life, they were carrying weapons around awkwardly.

Like one guy who wore a two-handed sword on his back. Talking to a girl, he tried to draw the blade to show it off, only to get it stuck half-way.

Aoko snorted at the ridiculous sight before looking back at Titor. "So what are you doing here, Titor? Are you an AI that all players see, or are you the real thing?"

Titor instinctively took a step back and said, "You aren't going to beat me up if I'm just an AI, are you?"

Aoko rolled her eyes and said, "Just let me play the game already. I've got a lot of stress to vent since I have to release that calendar... Plus I need to start streaming."

Titor straightened and put on a serious expression. "Right. Then let's get serious. For the record, I'm the real thing. Other players get a copy, but I'm here to make sure you girls all get set up properly to prevent any incidents."

Aoko felt that explanation was exactly what an AI would say, but she decided to let it slide. Instead of focusing on that, she said, "Alright. Then how do I play the game? And how does streaming work? Did you make a custom window for us or something?"

"Something like that. It's going to take a while to explain though, so I'll just show you." Titor walked over and said, "First, you swipe your right hand like this to pull up the menu. Then you tap through like this... Ah, you can just call out <Menu> too, but it can get annoying if you have it keep popping up, so we have that toggled off by default..."

xxx

Back at Asako's office, Garbage sipped on a cup of coffee while staring at the computer screen. And as he saw what was unfolding, he laughed.

Foxy lowered her phone and said, "What's so funny?"

Garbage smirked and spun the monitor around to show off the scene. "Looks like Queen doesn't appreciate tutorials."

*Skip! End Tutorial!*

*H-Hey! I told you I'm not an AI!*

*Then shut up and let me play already, you bastard!*

*I can't! We have to make sure you get the proper training first in case something goes wrong! John's going to beat the crap out of me if something happens!*

*I'M going to beat the crap out of you if I don't get to play soon!*

Orca glanced at the monitor from the corner of his eyes and chuckled. "Queen values her time a great deal. Something like this was inevitable."

Foxy flipped around on her beanbag to look at Orca and said, "Oh yeah? Explain why Queen became the measurement for how late someone is to a stream then?"

Orca went back to looking at his phone and said, "As I said, Queen values her time a great deal. Especially when that time is used to rest."

Foxy looked over at Asako laying on the bed. Contrary to the events on the screen, Asako looked like she was having a perfect night's sleep, compeltely relaxed and unaware.

It was completely out of character. Although they hadn't met Asako in-person for very long, it was clear that she was a woman with a long story behind her and a lot of burdens to carry. Even while Asako was joking around and pretended to be irritated, there wasn't a time where she had compeltely let down her guard.

Foxy looked away and smiled. "I guess we should be happy Queenie trusts us so much, right?"

Garbage turned the monitor back around and said, "If Queen hears you called her Queenie, she's totally going to scold you."

Foxy beamed and threw out a peace sign. "Just as planned!"

Garbage snorted. "And who's calling who a perv now, you shameless kinky woman?"

"It takes one to know one!"

Orca chuckled as he watched the two banter before looking back at his phone. Moving to Aoko's UTube channel, he glanced at the prechat for a bit and said, "Should we begin the stream now, or wait until Queen starts it? Chat is getting impatient."

Foxy waved her hand in the air and said, "Let them suffer. It's not like neglect play is anything new for the Ki-Sama, right?" She held up her phone and went to Aoko's UTube channel. "The real question is how Queen is going to react when she recruits herself as a Party Member- Oh! It's live!"

Garbage leaned back in his chair and pulled up a stream diagnostics screen. "Looks like everything's running smooth here... Queen's finishing up her chat with Titor... And we're in!"

The scene on the computer screen changed, revealing Aoko standing on the outskirts of town holding a wooden club. Like other players, she was dressed up as a proper adventurer, wearing a metal chest plate and leather equipment. Unlike others though...

*Mi? Mi, ri?*

*...YOU SAID I WOULDN'T STAND OUT, TITOR!*

xxx

The Hibana household, Rin's room.

Rin laughed as she watched Aoko shake her fist at the skies. Setting down her phone, she looked over at John and said, "It looks like Aneue is having a fun time playing Titor's game, Mister John."

John adjusted the tie on his suit and said, "Has anyone ever said that you have a strange idea of fun?"

Rin slipped her phone into her pocket and then tilted her head, confused. "...No?"

"...Anyway." John took a look over at Rin and said, "How are you feeling?"

"...To be honest, this is really weird." Rin shifted and then slowly spun around taking a look at her body.

Bright orange hair. A golden star hair clip and ribbon combination. An idol uniform with a white and blue dress shirt paired by a frilly skirt...

Rin paused and then stared at the mirror in front of her and smiled.

Spoiler

 

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After seeing her reflection, Rin frowned and reached up to pull her cheek. "...Is this really me?"

John glanced behind him. Specifically, he glanced at the young girl laying on the bed.

Light brown hair, a comfortable orange pajama set... Except for the thin visor covering her eyes, she looked like she was fast asleep.

And as for who that girl was...

Rin followed John's gaze and then tilted her head, frowning. "This is *really* weird though, Mister John." She nervously tugged on her orange ribbon and said, "I-I'm not a copy or anything, right? A-And I can wake up again, right?"

"Of course you can. Remember, you're just doing a remote control of the IDOL body with a really elaborate interface. And if you're really that worried..." John walked over to Rin's sleeping body and gently tugged off the visor.

Rin flinched and opened her eyes.

At the same time, the Rin- No, the Hana who had been standing beside John. She slumped over and her bright orange eyes suddenly dimmed, losing all light.

Rin glanced over at 'Hana' and then sighed, a complicated expression on her face. After that, she stood up and walked over to Hana, gently patting the orange-haired girl's head.

Hana didn't move, just standing there rigid.

Rin poked Hana's cheek. After seeing how it moved and felt just like real human skin, she looked at John and said, "...These are robot bodies, right? You and Mister Titor didn't secretly perform some black magic or alchemy and make homunculi or anything like that, did you?"

John poked Rin's forehead and said, "You've been reading too much manga."

Rin frowned and then stared at Hana again. After taking a deep breath, she nodded and said, "Okay. Then... I'm going back in." She walked back to her bed and laid down. Just before slipping on her visor again, she looked at John and said, "I'll be safe here while I go out with you as Hana to meet those people, right?"

"Of course. I'll personally handle your safety, both here and when you're moving as Hana."

Rin blinked. "How are you going to do that?"

At that time, the door to Rin's room opened and someone walked in.

A handsome young man with golden hair and clear eyes that shifted from blue to green in the light. One who was wearing the exact same suit as John... and who looked the exact same as John over all.

Rin froze, her eyes darting between John and the other John.

Both Johns looked at each other before smirking.

The first John laughed and said, "Are you ready for action, Mister Smith?"

"Of course, Mister Smith."

The two Johns laughed again before looking at Rin.

The first John smiled and said, "So, what do you-"

"KYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"

Rin screamed and then her eyes rolled up in her head, fainting.

The first John paused and then looked at the second John who walked in the room.

The second John flickered before turning into Titor. He let out a deep sigh and then ran his hand through his hair. "These sisters, I swear. Asako wouldn't let me be Kayaba and now Rin blew all the fun out of pretending to be Agent Smith..."

John rubbed his chin and said, "...I guess I should've expected Rin to be afraid of dopplegangers when she's terrified of ghosts. Guess we'll need to dash the Halloween haunted house special I was thinking about..."

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