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Sword Art Online: Identity Shift

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“Kirito?”

Asuna spoke as sweetly as she possibly could, which is exactly how everyone knew she was ticked off.

“Y-yeah?”

“Did you know she’d look like this?” 

“Not at all! Argo didn’t mention anything like this, right, Leafa?”

Kirito rushed to try and clear the air, certain his sister would come to his aid.

“Well, she did say she had a feeling you’d like her design…”

“So you did know? Ah, how interesting! Thank you so much for the information, Leafa.”

“I didn’t! You know what Argo’s like.”

Lisbeth grinned to herself, then let out a loud whistle before joining the conversation.

“Ahaha, you don’t see outfits like that these days! Got some real old-school tastes, Kirito?”

“Look, she said her information was spotty. There’s no way she could’ve known exactly what they’d be wearing!”

“It sure sounded like she knew it’d be sexy, at least.”

“Really not helping, Leafa!

Anyway, we’re wasting time here. If they keep going, we’ll lose sight of them, and then we’ll have to start our whole search over.”

“You think so? I’d say their pace is quite relaxed, myself. Maybe you’re just eager to get up close and personal with them, hmm? Haaah, poor Yui’s going to be so sad, wondering where her papa went. Don’t worry though, we’ll all take good care of her.”

Asuna smiled with everything but her eyes and gripped her boyfriend’s shoulder tightly, giggling as Kirito shuddered in response.

“A-anyway, I just think we should strike while the iron is hot, y’know?” he asked, trying to steer things back on track.

“Bet you do, stud!” Lisbeth chuckled. “But let’s ease up on the poor boy for a sec, huh, girls?”

“Mm, I really don’t think Kirito knew it’d go this way,” Leafa agreed. “Besides, I think we’ve all gone through enough quests to know that, no matter how things look now, it could all go south in an instant. I really don’t wanna have to spend another three days searching for her because she decided to up and teleport away.”

“That’s fair, I suppose,” Asuna admitted, easing up on Kirito’s shoulder, though the borderline-murderous look in her eyes had only faded slightly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter what they look like; we’d all be desperate to get to the bottom of this regardless.”

“That’s right!” Kirito stammered, carefully wriggling his shoulder from his girlfriend’s grip. “So, let’s get moving. At the very least, I don’t want to get grilled over nothing.”

“Right, right. But, Kirito?”

“Y-yes, Asuna?”

“The café by the station has a new seasonal parfait. You’ll be a dear and take me out for one soon, yes?”

Kirito sighed, then smiled.

“Sure. If this quest goes as well as I think it will, I’ll take all three of you.”

With that, they were off, moving at a brisk pace toward the NPC they’d been tracking for what felt like an eternity, each one of them endlessly excited at the promise of what lay ahead. Sure, nobody else had managed to get much out of the NPC, but if the four of them really put their heads together, they just knew there was no quest that could stand in their way.

“Heeeey! Mind waiting up for us?!” Leafa called out to the NPC, hoping it would get her to stop moving, though she just kept walking, apparently oblivious to her voice.

“‘Scuuuse me! You, the woman with the white hair and the bikini armor!” Liz called, hoping that a little more specificity would do the trick.

Still, she kept walking. It was clear that shouting for her wasn’t working, so the party quickened their pace. Asuna was the first one to catch up to them, only slowing down once she was by the NPC’s side.

“Pardon us, Ma’am? We were hoping we could talk with you for a moment.”

Going by how she quickly turned to face her, it seemed that entering her radius was the key to starting this particular questline.

“Well met, traveler.” 

Despite her particularly showy appearance, the NPC wore a strikingly serious expression, and tapped her hand on her chest in a form of salute.

“I assume you all to be potential recruits, then? Though I am currently out on patrol, assessing applicants is always of the utmost importance.”

“Assessing applicants?” Leafa asked.

“Huh, guess this quest is about joining some sorta patrol or group of warriors? Ooh, you think they’ve got any exclusive gear?”

Liz had an excited glint in her eye as she spoke, the idea of new, rare equipment and items exciting the blacksmith to no end.

“Hmm, maybe, but if it all looks like that, well…” Leafa pondered, letting her thoughts hang in the air as they all considered the NPC in front of them.

“Ahaha, that’s even better! I wanna see what they’ll have for Kirito!” Liz laughed, grinning while she watched the other three all turned bright red in response.

“Yes, we’re potential recruits!” Kirito blurted out, pushing things as far away from the image he was sure they all had burned into their minds as possible. “We’ve been trying to join...whatever it is we’re joining for quite some time now. So, if you’d be willing to assess us, we’re all ready and willing.”

“Excellent.”

The NPC nodded, and folded her arms under her chest.

“As you may know, our standards are exceedingly high, and only the most capable applicants are accepted into our fold. Though your enthusiasm is noted, that alone will only get you so far. Still, if you feel you are up to the task, I shall ascertain your suitability myself.”

“Cool!” Leafa beamed. “This one’s going pretty well so far!”

“It is,” Asuna agreed, smiling warmly. “We’re all good to move ahead with this now, right?” she asked the rest of the party, who nodded in agreement. 

“Then, yes, we’re up to the task,” she told the NPC, who simply stared right back at Asuna, her expression unchanging.

“Maybe she needs all four of us to agree?” Liz offered. “NPCs can be kinda finicky that way. And, yeah, I’m ready to go as well.”

“Yeah, me too!”

“There’s no way I couldn’t be ready.”

Kirito grinned cockily.

Despite all four of them giving her an affirmation, the NPC remained silent.

“Hey, Kirito?” Leafa asked, tugging at her brother’s sleeve. “You think this is what Argo told us about?”

“The lockout everyone’s been stuck on?” Asuna asked.

Kirito grumbled in frustration, then nodded.

“Yeah, I admit, I hoped we’d somehow bypassed that already, but I guess this is how it goes for everyone.”

“Bleh, this sucks. Guess we shouldn’t have expected it to be that easy, huh?” Leafa offered with a smile, though it was clear she was just as frustrated as the rest of her party.

“Oh? You’re all acting like you’re giving up. We’ve come this far, right? We’ve just got to keep pushing, that’s all,” Asuna piped up, too excited by what lay ahead to even think about worrying.

“Right! We’ll solve this in no time, I know it!” Kirito declared. “World-first clears, here we come!”

~~~

A few days earlier, Kirito and Leafa sat in a quiet little café, listening intently to what their highly trusted information broker (and occasionally trusted friend) Argo insisted they’d want to hear.

“You’ve known me long enough to know how good my info is, right Kii-boy?” Argo asked, wearing her usual confident, teasing smirk, which somehow made her whiskers looked even longer and sharper to match.

“Right.”

“So, when I tell ya that this is one of the hottest tips I’ve ever had, you’ll tell me…”

She held out a hand, waiting for a response.

“That I’ll ‘pay any price you could ask to hear it.’”

“Nyahaha! You got it, Kii-boy!” Argo cackled, clapping her hands together happily. “That’s what I love about your brother, Leafa. He’s always so easy to reel in, hook, line, and sinker!” 

“Honestly, I’d probably respond the same way,” Leafa chuckled. “I wouldn’t have some of my best gear if it weren’t for you, Argo. You’re so amazing at this.”

“Whoa! Yer gonna make me blush, ya know that? Hear that Kii-boy? Wanna start butterin’ me up the way she just did? I might be inclined to start slashing my prices if ya do.”

“Er, you’re a terrific friend and a-”

“‘F’ for effort, Kii-boy. But it’s too late now. You agreed to pay any price already, yeah?”

“Yeah, I suppose I did,” he admitted, endlessly amused by her attitude even as she fleeced him.

“Awww, ain’t that sweet, Leafa? Big bro here’s gonna cover all the costs for the both of ya!”

“I heard he’s paying for all of our food today, too,” Leafa teased, all-too-happy to go along with Argo.

“Ohhh, that so? Might hafta order one of everything, then!”

“Yeah yeah,” Kirito said, smiling. “So, what’s the big scoop?”

“Nyahaha! Straight to the point, I respect it!” Argo laughed, flashing them a toothy grin. She gave the room around her a quick look, saw that there were no other players around, and leaned in close, dropping her voice to something just above a whisper.

Nobody else around, and she still gets like this. Ahaha, Argo loves the theatricality, I guess, Kirito thought, smiling to himself.

“Now, I won’t say where, but for the last couple of days, reports have been poppin’ up in my circles about a weird NPC walkin’ around a buncha combat zones, no real rhyme or reason to where she’s going. Woulda talked to you all about it sooner, but it seemed kinda fake at first, so I waited and waited, but those sightings kept comin’ in, and from people I trust, too. Most people think it’s a bug, but well…”

“That’s not possible, right?” Leafa asked. “The game is self-maintaining, so if a bug or error is detected, it gets ironed out almost instantly.”

“Right!” Argo beamed, glad to see they were following along so intently. “Not a ton of players think that’s possible, so you get people complaining about bugs all the time, but we all know Seven: if she says it’s the case, there’s no way it’s not true.”

Kirito and Leafa just nodded. They’d had a first-hand crash course in all this before.

“Now, an NPC goin’ for a walk is hardly worth talking about on its own, even if it’s through dangerous areas. Lotta NPCs have some wild schedules, y’know? But a couple of players started talking to her, got drawn in by her...well, unique style.”

“Unique style?”

“You bet! I’m not gonna go into details there—don’t wanna give you anything that might be spotty—but, if what I hear is correct, I get the feeling you’ll just love her design, Kii-boy!”

Kirito just shrugged, unsure of how to really respond.

“Only thing I can verify is that she’s got this crazy looking tattoo on her shoulder. Real fancy, y’know? Looks like she’s part of some kinda NPC guild, maybe. That’s been brought up in just about every report I’ve heard.

But anyway, those players start talking to her, she tells ‘em she’s on patrol. Won’t go into details, won’t say who she works with, nothing. Some folks just left it at that, assuming it was just a really wild look on a pretty nothing character, but a few other people talk to her a little more deeply, and she starts goin’ on about something that sounds like it’s part of a big quest.”

“Oh? What kind of quest?” Leafa asked.

“Couldn’t say!”

Argo shrugged, putting her hands behind her head and leaning back into her chair.

“Everyone who’s found out about this is real cagey, don’t wanna give away anything that might lead to someone clearing this content before them, so all I know is that she starts something that sounds like a quest, then just sorta...stops.”

“Stops?”

“Stops! Just sits there, like she’s frozen in the middle of her dialogue or somethin’. If her questline goes past that, nobody really knows how to make it happen, and eventually the NPC just...walks away without a word. So, yeah, everyone’s writing it off as a bug. But, y’know what I think?” she asked, her grin seeming more and more catlike by the second.

“The NPCs just waiting for the right response?” Kirito asked, the excited glint in his eyes clear for all of them to see.

“Right! Lotta the quests are pretty cut and dry, y’know? Sit through some exposition, and you instantly get something put down in your questlog. But I reckon this is tied to some kinda puzzle. Something you’ve gotta say or do to even get to the game acknowledging you’ve started a quest at all. Would maybe be a little mean, the game doesn’t usually pull that kinda thing, but it’d hardly be unprecedented, right?”

“Mm,” Leafa agreed. “I’ve done quests that wouldn’t even start unless I spoke to the right NPC at the right time of day, and some that only acknowledged me if I was carrying specific items. There’s so many message boards filled with people sharing info on that kind of thing.”

“Yep! And world-first clears give out muuuuch better rewards than they do once a quest has already been figured out, so if you can manage this…”

“There’s bound to be something incredible waiting for us.”

Kirito could barely contain his excitement now. He was determined to get this done.

“Ohhh, Kii-boy’s gamer spirit’s really fired up today, huh?” Argo teased.

“Ahaha, we’d better get a party together, huh, Kirito?” Leafa asked, looking just as determined as her brother. “No way we can let anyone beat us to this.”

“Oh-ho! Guess it must run in the family! You two look like you’ve just won the lottery!”

“We sure feel like it!” Leafa said, smiling. “Wanna join us, Argo? I bet you’d do great at something like this.”

“Real sweet of ya!” she chuckled. “But, nah, I’m gonna sit this one out. Got a busy couple of days coming up, and I get the feeling you’re in for a loooong search.”

“Gah, yeah. You said there was no real logic to the areas she appeared in, huh?” Kirito grumbled.

“All I know is that she’s always out in combat zones, that’s it. So, yeah, get a full party for this one; you’re gonna need it.”

“Mm, we plan on it,” he said, nodding. “Asuna’ll want in on this for sure. She said she’d be logging on pretty soon, too, so we won’t have to wait long. Who else is around…?”

Kirito and Leafa both opened up their friends list, checking through for anyone they could trust would have enough time and energy to go through the quest with them. 

As if on cue, a message arrived for Leafa.

“Oh, huh, Liz messaged me.”

“Oh? What’s she up to?”

Leafa opened up the message and read it aloud.

“Look...outside?”

She paused, furrowing her brow for a moment before turning toward the nearest window.

“Bwaah!”

The poor girl practically fell out of her chair in fright as she was greeted by the sight of the pink-haired blacksmith Lisbeth pressing herself against the glass, wearing a giddy grin.

“Nyahaha! She tryin’ ta eavesdrop?” Argo laughed, waving at Liz and gesturing for her to come inside. “Ah well, not like she’d’ve been able to hear anything.”

She had no real reason to feel concerned: the game blocked out all audio from closed rooms that players weren’t currently in, so there was no way any sound would have slipped out.

“Haha, guess we found our fourth party member, huh?” Kirito chuckled, patting Leafa on the shoulder. “And, huh, talk about wild timing: Asuna just logged on. I’ll tell her to come here, too.”

“Heya! You three having all kinds of fun without me?” Lisbeth greeted them, smiling and waving at the three of them as she moved to their table. “Saw you through the window, thought I’d say ‘hi.’ Telling them something juicy, Argo?”

“Jeez, don’t scare me like that, Liz!” Leafa pouted.

“The juiciest!” Argo piped up, speaking right over Leafa’s complaint. “Guess what, Liz? You’re gonna join them on a world-first quest clear.”

“Oooh, you bet I am!” Lisbeth agreed, without a second thought.

“But before all that…” Argo started, smiling at Kirito, “you weren’t planning on running off without paying, were ya?”

“Of course not,” Kirito chuckled. “So, what’s it cost?”

“Well, like Leafa said, you’re buying lunch.”

“And?”

“And nothing. Just get lunch for all of us, ‘k? Big Sis Argo’s gonna cut you a special deal for being such a loyal customer.”

“I suppose I can swing that, sure.”

“Buying lunch, Kirito?” Lisbeth grinned, before turning and calling out to a waitress NPC. “One carbonara pasta, please! Large!”

At that moment, they heard the front door swing closed, and noticed that Asuna had made her way to the table, a warm smile on her face.

“Ah, Kirito’s buying us all food? What a sweetheart! I’ll have a slice of cheesecake, please!”

“But y’know the drill, right?” Argo asked Kirito, her confident grin showing in full force. “I get first dibs on any and all info you can give me about the quest when you’re done, free of charge.”

“Sure, you got it,” Kirito agreed, smiling.

For all their teasing, he truly couldn’t have had better people to play with than all of them.

~~~

Kirito pored over the NPC in front of him, desperate to figure out this particular puzzle.

“That into the outfit, huh, Kirito?” Liz teased.

“N-no, it’s not that!”

“Then what is it? You’re looking awfully closely, Kirito...” Asuna asked.

“You two weren’t around to hear it, but the only thing about her design that Argo really could verify…” he started to say as he moved around moved behind the NPC, getting a look at her shoulder.

“Ah! The tattoo, right?”

Leafa perked up, rushing to her brother’s side and looking at the tattoo on her left shoulder. It was just as ornate as Argo had told them it would be. 

“Right? You two might wanna see this.”

Their curiosity piqued, they joined the siblings, a little surprised by how out of place the tattoo seemed alongside the rest of the NPC’s ensemble.

“Argo suspected she was part of an NPC guild. I’m guessing the solution ties into that.”

“NPC guild, huh?” Asuna froze, pondering how to proceed.

“What would an NPC guild even do? Kinda figured guilds were just a way to get players to group up and have fun together,: Lisbeth offered with a  shrug, equally confused by the idea.

“Well, if we go by what a guild in fantasy terms would be…” Leafa trailed off, still not sure where this was going.

“They’ve gotta have some kind of cause, right? There’s no way they exist without fighting for...something, right?”

“What we fight for,” the NPC spoke up, turning around to face the group, “is of the utmost importance. Yet, our cause cannot be made clear to anyone who has not proven their worth to us.”

“D-did we solve it?”

Kirito froze, too taken aback by the nature of her response to get excited just yet.

“If you refer to my first trial, then yes. You alone have solved it.”

For the first time since they’d first interacted with her, the NPC seemed to smile, looking straight at Kirito.

“Speak your name, traveler.”

“Kirito,” he answered, still surprised by how easily they’d gotten things moving once more.

“Wait, him alone? Why not the rest of us?!” Liz shouted.

“Though you, like many before you, all attempted to pass my first trial, Kirito alone showed the wisdom to inquire about the nature of the guild I belong to.”

“Hey, that sucks! He was just repeating something Argo told him! I’d heard about that too! ‘Wisdom’ my butt...” Leafa grumbled.

“So, we get nothing for this? Only he can take the quest?” Asuna asked, just as frustrated as the other girls.

“Rest easy, fair travelers. Though Kirito alone shall pass to the next trial, you may work at their side, and be made privy to information only the most trusted of travelers are ever allowed to learn.”

“See? That’s not so bad,” Kirito tried to reassure them, his guilt over being the only one selected for the quest outweighed by his excitement at what lay ahead. “It sounds like you’ll all get...something, at the very least.”

“I guess,” Leafa grumbled. “Still sucks, though.”

“Well, look, if I can share the reward, I’m gonna split it equally between the four of us, OK? I don’t want you to leave empty handed.”

“Fiiine,” Liz sighed. “Whatever, at least we’ll still be the first players to really see all this.”

Two parfaits each, Kirito,” Asuna said, smiling widely as Kirito’s faded.

“Y-yeah, that too. Two parfaits.”

“If you are ready,” the NPC spoke up, cutting through their chatter, “the next trial is at hand.”

“Yeah,” Kirito spoke, all-too-excited to get moving again. “I’m more than ready.”

“Ever confident, I see.”

The NPC smiled softly.

“Good, you’ll need it, for the beast you are to face for the next trial is one few have ever managed to best.”

Despite the strange, somewhat frustrating turn the quest had taken, all four of them grinned in anticipation. They couldn’t wait to see how this fight would go.

~~~

“That’s...that’s it?! ” Liz shouted, already holstering her mace barely a handful of seconds after she’d readied it. “I didn’t even get to hit the jerk!”

“I did, and, believe me, it didn’t make things even the slightest bit more satisfying,” Asuna sighed, sheathing her rapier alongside the blacksmith.

“Did one of you cast a ton of buffs before we started?” Leafa asked. “Like, reeeeally quickly and discreetly? Because that barely even counted as a fight. Jeez, starter enemies take longer than that! And those at least drop materials!”

“Not that I noticed…” Kirito grumbled. “Maybe we killed the wrong thing?”

They had their doubts the moment they’d laid eyes on the apparently ferocious beast they were tasked with defeating. They couldn’t see its stats or anything, but the descriptor that popped into all of their heads, and that Leafa gave voice to when she looked at it, was that it was, undeniably, “super cute!”

They all felt a little bad for fighting it, really. 

Still, as much as they wanted to tell themselves they’d somehow done something wrong, it quickly became apparent that, yes, this was actually the monster they needed to fight.

“You’ve done well!” the NPC called out, showing far more warmth than she usually expressed, as if she was sincerely impressed by them defeating what could only very generously be called fodder. “In truth, I was at the ready throughout your fight, certain you would all need me to come to your aid.”

“You were?!

Liz was utterly incredulous, as was everyone else.

“Indeed,” The NPC confirmed, nodding and giving no indication that she wasn’t being honest. “It seems I was wrong to doubt you. Though I truly wish I could induct all four of you into our guild, I am still deeply honored to say that we have found one potential new member on this day.”

“Wait, are you...serious?”

There have to be more trials than just that, right? Kirito thought. I’m seriously starting to doubt Seven’s claims that the game is bug-free…

Not that she’ll ever hear me say that, of course.

“Hold your head high, noble traveler Kirito, for you have exceeded even my wildest expectations.”

“That’s really all there is to it? I’m just...done?”

There was a brief silence, and then the NPC sighed.

“My apologies. My excitement must have gotten the better of me and convinced you that this was the final trial. Sadly, there is more I must ask of you.”

“Oh yeah?” Kirito asked, perking up. “Another monster? A tougher one than that, right?”

“You have more than proven your combat prowess to me.”

“Oh…”

“But whether the goddess we serve shall recognize you as worthy of following her is another story entirely.”

“Well this is definitely a little closer to what I was expecting,” Asuna said, smiling. “Impressing a goddess! Now that should be interesting.”

“Oooh yeah! If things are going that far, I bet the next step’s gonna be ultra-tough!” Leafa cheered, readying herself for a real fight.

“So,” Kirito started, excited to hear more, “what do I need to do?”

“The four of you shall be transported to a private chamber, one that very few have ever seen.”

“An exclusive quest area!” Liz beamed. “I bet it’ll be loaded with rare upgrade materials!”

“While you are there, you will be unable to send any missives to the outside world. I shall guard the entrance, so you need not worry about anyone intruding on you.

You will see a pool in the chamber—sacred waters blessed by the goddess herself in years past. You alone, Kirito, shall submerge yourself in these waters, where your very soul shall be judged. If you are deemed worthy, you shall be inducted into our guild. If you are not…”

“Yeah?!” Kirito asked, the element of danger excited him beyond belief.

“Perhaps it is best that I do not say.”

The NPC averted her gaze for a moment, before looking right back into Kirito’s eyes.

“May the goddess bless your path.”

Before any of them could say another word, the five of them were bathed in a warm, white light.

~~~

“Whoa! This place is fancy!” Leafa marveled, peering over every inch of the chamber they’d been transported to, a wide, cavernous space that looked unlike anything else they had seen in the game.

“Mmm. Considering how...formal this all is, you’d think they’d dress a little differently,” Asuna agreed.

“Ahaha, maybe the goddess is a bit of a perv, huh?” Liz chuckled. “Oooh, Kirito’s gonna be judged by a thirsty goddess! Damn, I’m kinda jealous I won’t get to see.”

“I’d show you a recording, but…”

Kirito opened his menu, noting that all contact, mapping, and recording functions had been completely disabled.

“...Guess they really wanna keep all this a secret.”

“Ah, that’s OK. I’m a teensy bit jealous,” Asuna giggled, “but just getting to be here feels special enough, really.”

“I dunno how long I’ll be in there, but I think I’m gonna go ahead and get started on this,” Kirito said, smiling at his friends. “Besides, the sooner we finish this, the sooner we can all go get those parfaits, yeah?”

“Ahaha, you don’t have to rush!” Asuna said, in a voice that said she’d still very much prefer that. “Even if we’re waiting around a while, the three of us’ll keep ourselves busy.”

“We sure will!” Liz added, looking very intently at a piece of wall and contemplating how much of it she could chip off and use in her forge. “So have fun, Kirito!”

“See you when you’re done!” Leafa called out, as her brother started descending into the supposedly divine waters.

With a smile, he waved to the three of them, before submerging himself completely.

~~~

“20 minutes, huh?” Asuna sighed, checking the system clock from her resting place by the water’s edge, which hadn’t so much as rippled in all the time they’d been waiting. She was hardly worried—some quests just took a while—but with no way to check her friends list or send any messages, she couldn’t check in with Kirito and find out how things were going.

“Yeah, I hope the quest’s going well…” Leafa mumbled.

“Guess Kirito kicked the bucket!” Liz joked, plopping herself down next to the both of them. “My condolences, Asuna.”

“The game doesn’t have a breath meter,” Asuna replied, matter-of-factly. “And, thankfully, there’s no underwater combat, either. He’s as safe as can be.”

“Ahaha, sorry! Didn’t mean anything crappy by it, just wanted to...I dunno, keep the mood light? So, I joked about that. Good call, Liz,” she chided herself.

“Oh, you’re fine!” Asuna smiled, putting a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I’m not worried, just a little restless. It’s a good thing we started playing so early today…”

“No kidding. Big bro’s making dinner tonight, y’know?” Leafa piped up, wearing a somewhat teasing grin. “So we’ve gotta make sure he finishes soon, or he’ll be buying enough parfaits to last the three of us a lifetime.”

“Ohhh, really? I’ve never had his home cooking before! Well, outside of in-game, and he’s uhh...not great here. Too focused on sword skills, I guess.”

“Oh? Wanna come over, Liz? Asuna’s actually playing from our house today.”

“Well now I’m just feeling left out!” she chuckled. “So, yeah, if you’ve got a seat open, I’d love to!”

“You’re close by, right? We could meet you at the station,” Asuna offered, warmly.

“Yeah, that sounds good, thanks Asuna!! Ahaha, c’mon, Kirito! You stay in there any longer and-”

As if on cue, the waters in front of them suddenly started to stir.

“Finally!” Asuna cried, letting out a heavy, endlessly relieved sigh.

“So you were worried!”

“We’re married, it’s only natural!” Asuna responded, watching eagerly as Kirito slowly emerged from the water’s depths.

“Eh?”

At least, that was how things should’ve gone.

They were certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that nobody had gone in after Kirito, and with how the NPC had spoken about things, nobody should’ve gone in before him, either.

So why then, where they should’ve seen the head of a boy with a black, somewhat messy mop of hair, was what looked to be the very sweet face of a girl with adorable pink eyes and hair neatly styled in a cute, sunny-orange braid?

“Haaah…

Sorry to keep you all waiting!”

And why, exactly, was she greeting them exactly like…

“...Kirito?” Asuna asked, certain that her confusion was plainly visible on her face.

“Yo, Asuna!” the girl replied, her voice peppy and upbeat in a way that was immediately familiar to all of them, yet cute and gentle in a way that decidedly was not. Apparently, the girl was a little confused by that, too, and cleared her throat in a way that, much like every other sound she’d made, was nothing short of adorable.

“How long was I in there, any...way? Guh, guess my ears are all waterlogged.”

The girl continued to make her way up and out of the water, while the other three very, very confused girls shifted out of the way to make room for her, standing to their feet in the process.

That, of course, only led to more confusion, as the unfamiliar girl’s outfit was steadily revealed to them.

“Oh y’know...n-not long at all...”

“Yeah, don’t worry about that, big...bro?”

“You three OK? You look like something’s…”

As the girl shook off what surprisingly little moisture clung to her soft, fair skin, she looked down at herself, and froze at what she saw.

“...bothering you...”

The end of her sentence was barely a whisper.

Sword Art: Origin was no stranger to risque outfit designs, but even so, this had to be one of the most ridiculous, revealing armor sets any one of them had ever seen.

The outfit was surprisingly ornate and oddly regal, its rich black trimmed with a vibrant gold. And, yet, it was a simple enough base that, with a few modifications, it would be perfect for a day at the beach. Even with the embellishments to it, “bikini armor” was really the most apt description anyone could give it. There was no getting around the fact that, at its core, the armor was little more than a thong and a chestpiece that, despite having no straps, covered and supported her large breasts like a bikini top, all while exposing plenty of flesh and, of course, cleavage.

Somehow, that skimpy core was made all the more erotic by the additions to it. Tight boots climbed up just to the middle of her soft, full thighs, and a surprisingly elegant brooch, adorned with a deep, shimmering ruby wrapped around her neck, combining with the frilly, flowy sleevelets that stretched from her wrists to her forearms to give off a strange, gothic-lolita air. 

Or, at least, that might have been the impression, were it not for some of the more noticeable pieces. Impossible as it was, floating above the girl’s elbows were two long strips of cloth, colored the same, showy black and gold and laced with the same white frills, connected to absolutely nothing at all, yet moving in tandem with them all the same. A similar piece was wrapped around their hips, hoisting up a simple side-skirt that, all things considered, didn’t really cover anything at all. And, though it took awhile to get there—on account of just how much more noticable everything else was—the look shifted more towards “demon” than anything else when they considered the gold, crescent-shaped horns that were (maybe) connected to her head.

What stuck out the most, of course, was that they’d seen this outfit before, on the strange, serious NPC who’d brought them here in the first place. While she’d carried it with a surprising amount of regality, on the shorter, cuddlier, and far bustier figure of the adorable girl before them, it looked...cute, like someone sweet and playful doing their very best to look sexy and powerful.

They all stood there, each one taking it in for a moment, the silence in the chamber almost palpable.

“Pfft…”

It was Asuna who finally broke the silence, with a brief, sharp snort, which caused her to quickly bring a hand up in front of her mouth.

Then the dam burst.

“Bwahahaha, you’re kiddin’ me, right?!” Liz howled, holding her sides as she laughed uproariously.

“Come on,” Leafa chuckled, forcing out her words, “h-he’s still my...my big br-broth-hahahaha!”

The only one who wasn’t joining in the festivities, of course, was Kirito.

“What the heck is this?!” she cried out, her face bright red as she tried in vain to cover herself up a little more. All this really did, of course, was get her more embarrassed, as her arms pressed up against her soft, voluminous chest.

“Kirito, you became such a cutie!” Asuna giggled, petting her girlfriend’s head gently.

The sweet little flustered squeak that escaped her lips at Asuna’s touch only set off another round of laughter.

“H-hey!” Kirito shouted, wriggling herself out of Asuna’s grasp and stepping away from the others. She shot them what was meant to be an intimidating glare, but, when combined with her arms thrusting out the side, her hands balled into tiny fists, it looked like little more than an adorable pout. “Give it a rest, you three! This isn’t a joke!”

“O-of course not, Kiri-Kiri-Kirika!” Leafa wheezed, her joke sending the other girls, who had just started to recover, into another fit of laughter.

The bikini warrior could only pout harder, folding her arms against her chest and trying not to accentuate her cleavage any further, until, once more, the giggling subsided.

“Are you just about done?” she squeaked.

“Y-yes,” Asuna panted, obviously nursing a stitch in her side. “We’re done now, dear.”

“N-not that I want too many details,” Liz started, wiping a tear from her eye, “but what the hell happened in there?”

“Nothing that told me I’d end up like this, that’s for sure! Everything got all warm and bright, I couldn’t really see or feel anything. I just felt like I was floating for what felt like forever. Then I guess I-I dunno, I just knew I could go back out, so I did!”

“That’s all? No meeting with a goddess who told you she’d rebuild you in her—pfft—divine image?”

“No! I didn’t see any of this until now! It’s just as new to me as it is to you!” she grumbled, her gaze turning toward the floppy orange braid hanging over her shoulder. “Does any part of me still look the same?”

“Hmm, if I had to say…”

Asuna paused, then smiled.

“Apart from the hair, you look a lot closer to Leafa now. I think you’re adorable!”

“Ahaha, yeah! It’s like you’re my younger sister now, Kirika!” Leafa teased, unable to hold back another laugh. “If I had to guess, you’re just a little shorter than me in the real world!”

“At least stop calling me that! C’mon, no matter how different I look, I’m still…”

The orange-haired girl pulled up her status screen, clearly trying to prove a point that was thrown right back in her face when all four of them got a look at the name listed on her profile.

“Oh gosh, that really is your character name now?! I’m so sorry, b-big…” 

Leafa couldn’t even finish that sentence, bursting into yet another fit of giggles as she learned just how dead on her joke really was.

“Ahahaha! Kirika! This is too damn rich!” Liz cackled, walking right up to the new girl, who shyly recoiled a little. “But jeez, even though you’re kinda short...”

She circled around Kirika’s back, then giddily wrapped her arms around her, playfully squeezing at her chest.

“H-hey!” Kirika shouted, trying and failing to escape the grip of the, much to her dismay, taller and bigger girl.

“...You’re definitely not losing out to little sis in the chest department, huh?! They’re so huge!”

“It’s a compliment!” Liz added, as Kirika tried to squirm away, still happily groping her. “Haaah, they feel just like Leafa’s, too!”

“L-Liz! I thought we agreed to keep that a secr-”

“Man, I’m feeling all nostalgic now! Those things were so much fun to carry around!” Liz continued, while Asuna looked on in confusion, and Kirika, try as she might, couldn’t focus on anything at all outside of how incredible Liz’s hands felt on her. “Hey Leafa, wanna log into my acc-”

“Not another word!” Leafa cried, dashing over to the pink haired blacksmith and clamping her hands over her mouth, giving Kirika just enough leeway to wriggle free.

“Jeez, Liz. The poor girl’s frightened enough already, no need to go that far,” Asuna gently chided her, standing behind Kirika and gently resting her hands on her girlfriend’s shoulders.

“Yeah!” Kirika shouted, glad to have someone on her side. “Just give it a rest. I’ve gotta figure out how this happened so we can undo it.”

“Don’t worry, dear. I’ll keep you warm and safe,” Asuna cooed, petting the smaller girl’s head and talking to Kirika in much the same tone as she’d use when addressing their daughter, Yui.

“Hey, Asuna…” Kirika murmured, her relief rapidly fading away. “I’m...I’m your husband, you know that, right?”

“Ufufu, I think ‘wife’ feels more appropriate right now.”

“E-even so…”

“Is something the matter, sweetie?”

“You’re, umm…

Kinda treating me like a kid.”

“I just can’t help it!”

Asuna let out a long, loving sigh as she wrapped her wife up in a gentle hug, and a sweet, soapy smell filled Kirika’s nose. “You’re still a lot bigger than Silica or little Yui, but you just got so… so cuddly and sweet! Even with that outfit and those strange horns, you’re nothing short of adorable! Even that tattoo looks so charming on you!”

“Tattoo?!”

“Mm-hmm! Just like the one we saw on that NPC, riiight here,” Asuna giggled, gently poking at a spot by her left shoulder.

“Gah!” Kirika cried, slipping free of her wife once more.

“Forget figuring out how it happened for now,” she sulked. “I’m just going to figure out how to leave, then log out.”

“Ooh, right, you’re cooking tonight, aren’t you?” Leafa asked, her voice full of amusement.

“Not that I’m not desperate to join you all, but, if you ask me, I think Kirika’s just desperate to get off and see if she’s changed in the real world, too!”

“That’s not possible!” Kirika cried, tossing her hands adorably off to her sides again.

“It’s not, it’s not,” Asuna reassured her. “We’re just teasing. We’ll all log out, have dinner together, then figure out what to do about your character.”

“Good! I don’t want to have my avatar like this any longer than I have to…”

~~~

Kazuto slowly felt their senses returning to their body as the ambient noise of that strange chamber was replaced by the relative silence of their bedroom.

“Mmm.” 

Next to them, they heard what sounded like Asuna stretching out her tired limbs before shifting into a seated position and starting to take off her Amusphere.

“Ahaha, sorry for all the teasing in their, Kazuto, it’s...just…”

As Kazuto went to take off their own headset, they heard their girlfriend trail off, her voice dropping to barely a whisper.

“A-Asuna, what’s the matter?”

Kazuto’s eyes widened at the sound of the high, peppy voice that escaped their lips.

“There’s no way, right?!”

Kazuto practically ripped off the headset and tossed it to the side as they picked themselves up off the bed, turning to face their girlfriend who stared back at them with a shyly amused grin.

“H-hi there, Kirika…” she teased, clearly holding back a laugh as she gently waved.

As much as they wanted to convince themselves they were just hearing things wrong, Asuna’s greeting really hammered in the reality of the situation.

Looking down, Kazuto (or rather Kirika, it seemed) was greeted not by the sight of the body they’d always had, but by two large, heavy breasts struggling valiantly against a shirt that was far too loose and far too tight all at once, while long, dark hair fell over their shoulders.

“You’re kidding!!!! ” the girl cried out, unaware that she’d taken up the same adorably frustrated pose she had in SA:O barely a minute earlier.

“Kirika?!” Asuna and Kirika froze, their eyes darting toward the direction of the door, right before Suguha burst through it. “Ohmygosh! That’s really you! But how?!”

“That’s what I wanna know...” Kirika whined, slumping straight back onto their bed while their girlfriend hugged them warmly.

“There, there, dear. It’s not like you look exactly like your avatar. Your hair and eyes aren’t the same color, and your hair isn’t braided. It’s about the right length for it, though…”

“Th-that’s barely a difference at all!” 

“Oh, mind if I do it up, big...sis?”

Kirika winced at the wording, though she couldn’t really offer any objection.

“It looked so pretty that way, after all.”

“I don’t really think that’s important right now, Sugu!”

Kirika shook her head, and was immediately dismayed by the feeling of her long hair whipping against her face.

“...Fine, you can do it…” she squeaked, sulking as her sister pulled up a chair in front of her, then worked with Asuna to get things neatened up.

She’s still taller than me here… Kirika thought, looking up into her sister’s pretty blue eyes.

“This shouldn’t be possible, right?” Kirika asked. “VR games can’t affect the real world, surely…”

“Normally, I’d agree, but I think that might be a little pointless right now,” Asuna sighed. “I won’t get as handsy as Rika did to prove it, but there’s no way all this isn’t real.”

“Oh, jeez, and she’s coming here, isn’t she?” Kirika groaned, shielding her chest instinctively.

“Ahaha! I know she’s excitable,” Sugu explained, smiling, “but it’ll be good for all four of us to be together today. Might help us adjust to all this a little faster.”

“Ah, on that note, can you take care of Kirika’s hair on your own, Suguha?” Asuna asked, smiling pleasantly. “I just want to call Rika. It might be for the best if she hears about things beforehand. Assuming you’re OK with that, Kirika?”

“Mm, yeah, that’s fine,” Kirika agreed.

“And, yep, I can take care of big sis’s hair!”

“Thanks so much! We’ll have a lovely night, I’m sure of it.”

Gently petting Kirika’s hair, Asuna stood up and walked toward the door, giggling softly at the sound of Suguha insisting that her big sister use some of her clothing for the time being, before she shut the door behind her and dug her phone out of her pocket.

“Hang in there, Kirika…” Asuna whispered, as she dialed Rika’s number.

She picked up the call almost instantly.

“Hey Asuna!” Rika greeted her warmly. “Doing OK? I just left my house, so I shouldn’t be too much longer. Bringing my Amusphere with me, so we can play all night if you’re up for it!”

“Hi! Glad to hear it, I think it’ll do us all some good to have you around.”

“Do you some good? Asuna, is everything…?

Ohhhhh…

I think I know where this is going.”

Asuna could hear the grin on Rika’s voice.

“Mmm, you probably do.”

“There’s no way, right?!”

“That’s...exactly what Kirika said when she first saw herself, actually.”

“How’s that even possible?! Sword Art: Origin’s just a game and-”

Rika sighed.

“Y’know, actually, I think we’re all past the point of brushing stuff off as ‘just a game’. Not even gonna try and pretend this is somehow a stretch.”

“Right, that’s probably best for all of us,” Asuna agreed. “But I just wanted to call ahead and give you a heads up, and to let you know to come straight to the house instead of meeting up at the station. Kirika’s pretty startled, and I thought things would be easier if you knew about all this up front. Oh, and I’m going to ask you to, umm...not do the things you did to her in the game...”

“Ahaha, of course not!” Rika chuckled. “Look, VR’s one thing, but there’s no way I’d go all out like that in person,

...At least not right now…”

“Rika…” Asuna sighed.

“Kidding, I promise! 

But I bet you’re having a hard time not cuddling up a storm with the cutie, huh?”

“I...really am, yes,” Asuna admitted, giggling to herself.

“Ahhh, the sacrifices we make! Well, if our Kirika’s having a rough day, then I guess it falls to all of us to bring her mood back up, huh?

On that note, is she still planning on making dinner?”

“We haven’t really talked about it, but I imagine she might be a bit too distracted as things stand.”

“Right, I figured as much! No worries, just leave it all to me, got it? I’ll bring you all something really tasty!”

“Are you sure, Rika? Suguha and I can-”

“Absolutely! It’s no trouble at all! In fact, I’m passing by a good place now, so we can eat as soon as I’m there. See you soon!”

Asuna could barely even get out a goodbye before Rika hung up the call.

“Well, at least she’s still in high spirits...”

~~~

Though she was sure Kirika had adjusted to things at least a little in the time since she’d logged out, Rika was still endlessly surprised to find the new girl opening up the front door for her, dressed in a tracksuit that was very clearly not made for boys.

“Hiya,” Rika said, smiling and holding back the urge to tease her. “Borrowing Sugu’s clothes?”

“Hey.” 

Kirika shyly waved.

“Sure am. Mine...didn’t exactly fit. Too loose, too tight, too...wrong.”

“I getcha, yeah. Still, looks good on you!”

Kirika just nodded, not really sure how to take the compliment.

“And hey, guess what? I bought dinner!”

Rika held up a big bag of fast food, and put on an even bigger grin.

“Ohhh, thanks so much, Rika!” Suguha called out as she headed through to the entryway and stood next to her sister before ushering their guest inside. “Asuna’s just taking care of something on the phone. We can at least get all the food laid out in the meanwhile.”

“Thanks, Rika, really, but I can still coo-”

Though Kirika tried to protest, Rika quickly put a finger on her lips, cutting her off.

“I’m sure you could, and to be honest, I’m a liiiittle sad I’m missing out on a chance to try your cooking, but look, when you’re down, there isn’t a thing on earth that hits the spot quite like something really trashy and greasy. So that’s what we’re eating tonight!”

“Ahaha! Yeah, you got me! That sounds too good to pass up.”

Kirika smiled a little, then shut the door behind her.

Despite the somewhat awkward atmosphere, the three quickly set about unpacking the bag in the living room, laying out the frankly absurd amount of food Rika had picked up for everyone. By the time Asuna joined them, smiling warmly and insisting she’d tell them what she’d been up to when the time was right, it was hard for the group not to feel at least a little more upbeat, ready and eager to dig into everything.

“So, big sis…” Suguha started, munching on a french fry, “first off, is it OK if I keep calling you that? I get if you don’t want me to.”

“Mm…” Kirika nodded, biting into her burger with a goofy grin on her face, the food going to great lengths to buoy her spirits. “I don’t mind at all. Besides, ‘big bro’ would feel weird for all of us, I’m sure.”

“Ah, cool! If you ever want me to lay off, just say the word! But is there anything you wanna do tonight? I know things are tricky, but all of us just want to make sure you feel OK.”

“Jeez, I...I’m not sure, honestly…”

“Y’know what I think, Kirika?” Rika asked.

“What’s up?”

“I think it’ll do you a ton of good if we just...y’know, treat this like any other night. If anything’s worrying you, we’ll all be here to lend an ear, but outside of that, we just need you to know that things are OK, and that means being able to have fun and enjoy yourself the way you always do.

Games, movies, anything you’d like is on the table. Got it?”

“Right!” Asuna agreed. “No matter what you look like, or what we call you, or any of that, you’ll always still be you, darling.”

“Thank you all, really.”

Kirika smiled, glad to be surrounded by friends.

“It might take a little while to really get used to things, and I’m gonna need a lot of help explaining this to everyone if I’m stuck like this for a while, but…

Well, look: I’m in good company. It’s hard not to feel OK with all of you at my side.”

Asuna kept on smiling, while Rika and Suguha did their absolute best to hide their reddening faces behind their food.

“Well said!” Asuna giggled, petting her girlfriend despite herself. “Is it OK if I tell you all what I was up to when Rika arrived?”

“Sure!”

“I’m sure you know I don’t like using my family name if I don’t absolutely have to, but I made some calls.”

“Oh?” Kirika raised an eyebrow.

“Apparently, if need be, I can have a new ID arranged for you in a matter of hours. I won’t do that now, of course, but we can get any and all paperwork taken care of with no trouble at all, and you’ll be able to just...slot right back into everything without any issue.”

“Wait, really?”

“Mm-hmm!” Asuna nodded, wrapping her girlfriend up in a loving hug “So don’t ever fret about any of that, OK sweetheart?”

How connected is her family?! Kirika thought, keeping the question strictly to herself. 

Ah well, she’s working hard for my sake. I don’t wanna turn my nose up at that, even if it is…

It’s impressive, let’s leave it at that.

“Thank you so much, Asuna,” Kirika settled on, happily returning the hug before pulling back to address all three of them. 

“Thank you for working so hard, all of you!”

All three girls froze at that, a little bit stunned by the endlessly sweet smile Kirika had given them.

“Oh? Did I say something wrong?” Kirika asked, furrowing her brow in a way that somehow, didn’t put a dent in her innate sweetness.

It was Rika, who couldn’t stop grinning back at the smaller girl, who managed to finally break the silence.

“Kirika, you wanna know something?”

“Y-yeah?”

“You might just be the cutest girl any one of us has ever met.”

As Kirika’s cheeks reddened and she pushed her fists out at her side, ready to greatly protest the assessment, all of the other three knew that Rika had said nothing but the truth.

~~~

“Big Sis and I slept in the same bed all the time when we were younger, so it only makes sense that she should sleep with me tonight!”

“Suguha, don’t you think Kirika’s had quite the eventful day already? Why, I’m sure she’d like nothing more than to lie in the arms of her warm, soft, reliable girlfriend and just have all that stress melt away!”

“A-Asuna, you’re still treating me like a kid.”

“Technically, you haven’t slept with Kirika at all, Sugu!” Rika joined in. “Heck, it’s the first night either of us are gonna get to sleep in this house, so I think we should share a bed!”

“Rika! We all said Sis was the same person she’s always been!”

“Right, look, I’m with you, but hear me out.

You’ve got that family bond, and Asuna’s her girlfriend, so what’s a poor girl to do if she wants to have a fighting chance, y’know?”

“That’s...quite the way of looking at things, Rika…” Kirika muttered, slumping her shoulders as she realized that none of her words would reach any of them right now.

“Completely disqualified,” Asuna spoke up. “Rika’s lost this match.”

“That quick, huh? Haaaah, this sucks. Still, guess I was already running out of ammo here.”

Rika shrugged, resigning herself to her defeat.

“Yeah, well Asuna always shares a bed with Sis when she comes to stay here, so it should be my turn, right?”

“It’s been so long since I spent the night, Suguha!”

“Two weeks!”

“And yet, with everything that’s happened lately, it feels like a lifetime ago,” Asuna teased, confident she’d win this battle.

“Can I speak up for a sec?!” Kirika shouted, determined to bring this to as pleasant of a close as she possibly could.

That, it seemed, finally got everyone else’s attention.

“Everything OK, Big Sis?”

“Other than the fact that you’re all fighting over me like I’m a rare drop or something, yeah, I’m fine…” Kirika sighed, thoroughly tuckered out after the day she’d had. 

Though everything had settled into a fun, comfortable groove once dinner was finished, the second the idea of sleeping got brought up, Kirika’s home had suddenly turned into a warzone, and she just wanted to lie down.

“I mean...that whole body might’ve been one,” Rika teased.

“...Not the point right now. Anyway, I don’t want anyone to fight, so maybe we could all just…I dunno, sleep together?

We’ve got more than enough futons. We can clear out space in the living room and make things nice and comfy. That way, nobody has to feel left out, right?”

“Big Sis, you...sounded just like Yui right there. It was kinda scary how sweet that was.”

“Right?” Asuna giggled. “Want to try calling me ‘mommy,’ Kirika?”

“Haaah, we really are treating the poor girl like a doll,” Rika chuckled. “But yeah, I’m for it, Kirika. Sounds kinda fun, honestly!”

“Ahaha, sorry, Dear. I’ll try to keep myself in check. But that sounds really lovely, yeah.”

“Mmm, we were kinda being silly, huh?” Suguha laughed. “I’ll go lay out the futons. It’ll be ready in just a few!”

And that was how, with no small degree of embarrassment, Kirika had defused the situation as best as she possibly could.

Once everything was set up, though, as she lay in bed wearing a cutesy set of pastel green pajamas, surrounded by three happily sleeping girls who all seemed intent on huddling as close to her as humanly possible, Kirika couldn’t help but wonder if it was actually worth solving the argument in the first place.

Awkward as it is, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t ultra comfy laying like this. Maybe it’s the PJs…?

Shyly, Kirika looked down at herself, her eyes meeting the deep, luscious valley of her cleavage, and quickly went back to staring straight at the roof. As it stood, she was far, far too shy to confront the fact that, for as strange as it was to have it, she really liked the way her body looked and felt, to say nothing of the fact that she’d been comfortably referring to herself as a girl for quite some time now.

Kirika knew, of course, that she likely had the most running through her head right now, but even if it didn’t affect the others in quite the same way, the day had undoubtedly impacted all four of them deeply.

Not that anyone could tell from just how quickly the other three had fallen asleep, leaving Kirika alone with a mountain of thoughts she couldn’t even begin to figure out.

Ah crap, I promised Argo I’d update her if anything happened. I...should probably at least get in touch with her.

Leaning over and reaching out as far as she could through the cuddle pile she’d found herself in, Kirika just barely managed to grab a hold of her phone.

It’ll be OK, she told herself. I don’t have to tell her everything right away. Just...I dunno, I guess I should tell her to not give out any more info about the quest?

“Or maybe I just need someone to talk to…” she whispered, sighing softly to herself as she typed out a text.

「Yo, you awake?」>

<「u know it」

<「whats up? not like ya to get in touch this late」

「Oh? That unhappy to see your best friend in the whole world?」>

<「nyahaha! oh im the happiest girl in the world, believe me」

<「just figure that if ur texting me when your girlfriends over, theres something big on ur mind」

「Asuna tell you she was staying over?」>

<「sure did! told me that you were all pretty wiped, so itd b a coupla days before u gave me any new info」

Kirika smiled. Asuna really had been working hard for her sake.

「Well, look, I don’t wanna go against her wishes, so I’m not gonna say much right now, but...」>

「I dunno, I feel like I should at least tell you not to give out any more info on that quest to anyone. And if you do know anyone going for it, you should probably advise against it.」>

<「whoa, what kinda gal do u take me for???」

「A rat.」>

<「nyahahaha!!!」

<「sure sure, but im a cute rat who really values ur trust. and ur wallet, of course. but anyway, I wasnt gonna tell anyone a thing until you cleared it first, wanted to make sure you had a big chance of getting a world first clear」

<「but hey, if that backfired on ya, my bad. so, u gonna tell big sis argo what happened?」

Kirika yawned, as fun as it was chatting to Argo, it seemed like sleep was finally coming for her.

「Next time we log in, I promise. Don’t wanna do this without running it by Asuna, Leafa, and Liz first, and I’m way too tired to go into details now anyway.」>

「Jeez, kinda dozing off, actually. Couldn’t sleep at all a minute ago.」>

<「thats just cuz im a super comforting presence, yknow? but theres no rush, just tell me when ur ready」

「Thanks, Argo. I appreciate it.」>

Kirika’s eyes were beginning to droop, she could barely focus on the screen, but still, more messages came in.

<「no problem! for now, just rest ur head on big sis argos lap, ill keep ya nice and comfy」

<「sleep well, kii-gal!」

Kii...gal?

Kirika couldn’t really give much thought as to why Argo had called her that before she completely drifted off, finally getting some much-needed rest.

~~~

Kirika sat at a table in the corner of the café, drumming her fingers against the tabletop anxiously as she waited for Argo to arrive.

Getting here without being seen had been more than stressful enough as it was, so she was grateful that the café, as always, was completely devoid of any other players.

As the bell over the entrance rang out, accompanied by a waitress happily greeting a customer, Kirika froze up, still not sure how she’d explain herself to anyone else, let alone the rat that had walked through the door.

The rat grinned cockily when she looked over in Kirika’s direction.

Oh shit, she knows it’s me, doesn’t she?

“Hey there, cutie, come here often? I love this place! It’s always so quiet and cozy, don’tcha think?” Argo asked, slowly approaching her table.

“Y-yeah, I like it too,” Kirika shyly replied.

“Perfect place to unwind with some friends, dig into the tastiest food the game has to offer—you’ll love the parfaits, by the way—and even try out a new look for the first time, away from prying eyes…”

Argo smirked, pulled up a chair, and took a seat across from Kirika, leaning in as close as she could to the endlessly nervous girl.

“Ain’t that right, Kii-gal?”

Kirika instantly turned beet red.

“Who the heck told you?!”

“Nyahaha! This is too damn rich! You became such a hottie, y’know that, Kii-gal?”

“Was it Liz? did she tell you?”

“Now, now, Liz is a good girl. She wouldn’t do that sorta thing. I figured this one all out on my own, actually!”

“So...you knew the quest would do this?”

“Doubtin’ my info, Kii-gal? Everything I told you was everything I knew. You’re the first person to, uhh...clear that quest? I’m guessing you cleared it, anyway.”

“I’m...not honestly sure if I did. I can’t find it in my quest log. Hell, I can’t find records of my conversation with the NPC at all. But if you didn’t hear it from them, how’d you know...about me?”

“I’m an attentive gal, y’know! Thought it was weird that I hadn’t heard a peep from ya, so I tried to send you a message, only to find that there was someone on my friend list I’d never seen before: a girl named ‘Kirika,’ and wouldn’t you know it, she’d replaced one of my other friends! Wanna guess who?”

“I get it!” Kirika cried out, puffing out her cheeks without even noticing.

“Jeez, you’re so cute, it’s crazy. So, why don’tcha tell Big Sis Argo exactly what happened?”

Kirika sighed, then launched into the explanation, breathlessly and exhaustively telling the rat everything she could think of that might have been at all relevant, and watching as her grin grew with every word that passed.

“Nyahahaha! That’s amazing, Kii-gal! I can’t believe it hit ya in the real world, too! Damn, I might hafta drop by and visit sometime! I really dig the armor, too! Looks just like something Strea’d rock.”

“It does!” Kirika whined. “And the worst part is, they’re pretty much stuck on me! The stats are really high and they scale with my level, so it’s not like gear’s a problem, but...but look at it!”

She gestured wildly, all-too-aware of how much her chest bounced with the movement.

“Nyahaha! Might need to figure out how ta make a copy of it; I think it’s really sexy. But what do you mean it’s ‘pretty much’ stuck? It’s either stuck or it isn’t, yeah?”

“I-I mean…”

Kirika blushed, not sure if she was ready to tell her this part.

“C’mon, you can trust Big Sis Argo.”

“I-I can change out of it, but…”

“But?”

“Only into sexy things!” Kirika yelled through her embarrassment. “Swimsuits, lingerie, nightgowns…

Everything else just says it’s incompatible!”

“Nyahahahaha! Kii-gal, you’re amazing! You’re gonna steal the hearts of every player in the world at this rate! Hell, I know you’ve stolen mine!”

As much as Kirika wanted to protest, the sound of the bell above the café’s entrance ringing quickly silenced her.

They turned to see two girls, accompanied by a baby dragon, making their way into the building.

“I know it looks a little dingy, Sinon, but I promise everything here is really tasty! Pina and I really love sharing the desserts here!” the light, chirpy voice of their friend Silica exclaimed.

“I trust you, don’t worry. But if Pina likes it too, then it must really be special.”

Sinon smiled, gently ruffling the smaller girl’s hair.

Oh no…

Anyone would’ve been tough enough, but why’d it have to be people we know?!

Kirika looked over at Argo, a lump forming in her throat at the sight of the rat grinning broadly, clearly loving the situation.

“Things just got really fun, huh Kii-gal?” she whispered.

“Ah, it’s Argo!” Silica beamed, waving over at their table. “Hi, Argo!”

“Oh, what a coincidence!” Sinon spoke up, as they walked toward them. “Silica assured me this café almost never had customers. I’m assuming it’s a closely-guarded secret of yours?”

“Nyahaha! Just a good place to talk to payin’ customers without worrying about any info leaking. Nice to see ya both!” she said, grinning ear-to-ear.

“Oh, dealing with a client now?” Silica asked, smiling softly at the unfamiliar girl.

“Nah, not at all! Just relaxing with my dear friend Kirika. You two wanna join us? The poor girl’s new to the game and I bet she’d love ta make some new friends.”

Argo, you jerk!

“Really? It’s so nice to meet you!”

Silica waved, and pulled up a chair.

“I’m Silica, and this is Pina!” she said, gesturing at the dragon on her shoulder.

“H-hi there… Nice to meet you all,” Kirika shyly replied, “I-I’m Kirika.”

“Ah, a pleasure. You can call me Sinon.”

Sinon also smiled as she took a seat, though the way she sized up Kirika’s outfit did nothing to ease her nerves.

I get it, Sinon. I know how it looks. Believe me, I do.

“Something buggin’ ya, Sinon?” Argo knew exactly what was on Sinon’s mind, and she was determined to get Kirika to hear it.

“Oh, not at all!” she said, smiling warmly. “You just look...familiar, somehow.”

“Ahahaha, I...I get that a lot, you know? I just have really common features, I guess!”

Sinon smiled, and rested a hand on Kirika’s to try and reassure her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. You do actually look a fair bit like a friend of mine, and she’s beautiful, so I promise that’s a compliment. But, no, it’s your armor that caught my eye. I’ve just never seen anything like that in this game before.”

“Th-that so?”

“Neither have I! But I don’t know if I have the figure for it…” Silica pouted, her hands drifting to her chest. “I-I’m still growing! So, maybe one day!”

“You’ll get there, Silica!” Argo reassured her, grinning. “I bet Kirika here knows all sorts of tricks that helped her get so big and bouncy! Bet she’d love to share ‘em, too, that way you can rock ultra-sexy outfits just like hers!”

“It’s certainly an interesting design...”

Sinon, it’s almost painful how hard you’re trying to be polite.

“It actually reminds me of another friend of mine. She likes dressing just like that.”

“Nyahaha! Strea, yeah? I was just telling her that! We’ll have to introduce ‘em to each other! Strea’ll be happy to have a friend who really gets her tastes.”

“Mm, definitely!” Silica nodded, smiling happily. “I hope we’re not being too pushy or anything, but we’ve got so many friends who I’m sure would just love to meet you! Origin’s super fun, but it’s hard to get used to playing a new game when you don’t really know anyone else, so we’ll be there every step of the way if you ever need a helping hand!”

“S-Silica…”

You’re so damn sweet it’s killing me!

That, it seems, was Argo’s limit.

“Pffft-!” 

She burst out laughing, throwing a hand over her mouth.

“A-Argo, is everything-”

“Nyahahahaha! Silica, you’re such a good girl, y’know that! Y’hear that, Kii-gal? Everyone’s gonna take real good care of ya!”

“Kii-gal?” Sinon asked, furrowing her brow.

“Yep! Kii-gal! She looks a little different, but she’s gotta be my favorite customer! Ahh, we’ve been through so much together, y’know, right from the start of SAO!”

“You mean…”

Sinon’s gaze pressed into a steely glare, aimed right at Kirika.

“Oh, what happened now?! Couldn’t find enough girls to surround yourself with so you thought you’d turn into one yourself and dress in the sexiest clothes you could find?” she scolded.

“It’s not my fault!” Kirika yelled. “We chased down a rare quest and...and this just happened! I didn’t pick the outfit, either!””

“S-Sinon? What’s wrong?”

“This adorable newbie is Kirito, Silica. I’m not sure how, but she’s turned herself into a girl. Check your friends list, you’ll find her there.”

“K-Kirito?! Oh gosh, how did that even happen? I didn’t think the game let you do anything like that! A-are you OK?”

“Thank you, Silica, for not immediately yelling at me…”

Kirika slumped her shoulders, too shy to look any of the girls in the eyes.

Sinon sighed, realizing from Kirika’s exhaustion that she’d gone too far.

“Sorry, I got a little heated. Just...could you catch us up?”

Kirika let out a long, heavy sigh of her own, and quickly shared her story yet again, just a little less exhaustively than she had with Argo.

“A-are you going to be OK? What will you do about school and stuff, Kirika?” Silica asked, adjusting very quickly to the new name as shyly gripped on the end of Kirika’s sleeve.

“Mm, I’ll be fine. Asuna’s made arrangements to sort out any red tape that could come out of this, at the least.”

“Even if there wasn’t red tape, this has to be quite an adjustment, though,” Sinon said. “How are you just...taking it in stride?”

“That’s generous,” Kirika chuckled. “Everyone’s teased me so much, I feel like I’ve barely had a second to calm down since it happened.”

“Nyaha! My bad, Kii-gal! I bet I’m not helping,” Argo apologized, putting a hand on Kirika’s shoulder.

Kirika shook her head, and smiled softly at the group.

“It’s OK. I don’t want any of you acting like you can’t be yourselves around me. Honestly, it’s kind of reassuring, as strange as that might sound.”

“We’re all here to help, OK, Kirika?” Silica asked, hugging her tightly.

At least you’re still smaller than me, Silica… Kirika thought, ruffling her hair playfully.

“Thank you so much, Silica.”

“Ohh, with how short ya got, it must be reassuring getting hugged by someone who’s still smaller than you, huh Kii-gal?” Argo smirked, knowing she’d touched a nerve.

“Y-you’re the same height as me!”

“Nyahaha, guess so! Ah well, in my heart I’m head and shoulders above ya!”

Kirika sighed, and turned her attention back to Sinon.

“So, to answer your question: I dunno. I’ve just...been through a lot. All of us have, really. You’re both handling things well, too, after all. I think we’ve all gotten pretty used to rolling with everything that comes at us.”

Sinon smiled, apparently satisfied with the answer.

“Well said. I know I reacted a bit harshly, but what Silica told you is true. If you need us for anything, we’re here to help you out. I promise.”

“And you’ll probably need it., Argo spoke up, her expression softening a little. “I hate to tell ya this, but I haven’t heard a thing about that NPC since you four found her. All my info’s totally dried up.”

Kirika sighed for a moment, then forced a weary smile to her face.

“I guess I’m not too surprised. It was weird that she wasn’t around at the end of the quest, but I’m sure she’s out there, somewhere.”

“Really? That’s all you have to say?!” Sinon cried.

“You’re not worried at all?” Silica fretted.

“A little, but...I’m mostly kind of tired from everything. Even if I don’t change things back right away, I’m just looking forward to things calming down.

Besides, I’m sure the NPC will show up again somewhere. This game isn’t the type to just have an NPC disappear and never be heard from again, especially now that we know her quest didn’t look like it was a bug.”

“Nyahaha! That’s a hell of a sense of faith you have in the game’s systems, Kii-gal!”

“B-But, if Seven told us it-

Kirika! That’s right! What about Seven?”

“Asuna’s already tried to get in touch with her about things,” Kirika shrugged.

“You know her...we’ll be lucky to get a response before the end of the month…”

“Yeah,” Kirika nodded. “Most I can do now is tough it out and hope something comes up, I suppose.”

“And...and if it doesn’t?” Sinon asked, giving a voice to the question on everyone’s lips.

Kirika was silently for a moment.

“If it doesn’t...I think I can be fine with that. Maybe it’s repetitive to say, but we’ve all been through a lot. Getting out of Sword Art Online was luckier than most people ever are, and there are some days where that feels like a small and distant worry compared to everything else. I got through that, though, and I’ve made so many friends, like all of you, who have all had their own troubles they’ve had to get through…and, after all of it, we’re all still here at the end of it, you know?

And all those people...while they’ve definitely been having fun with things,” Kirika said, glaring at Argo, “they’ve also gone out of their way to make me feel like things aren’t really too different. And I guess they aren’t, really. Yeah...a lot is new, but...I’m still me, more or less…”

Kirika smiled, choosing to leave out the small detail that, on some level, she felt remarkably at-ease with her body as it was now.

Silica hugged her even tighter.

“Yeah! You’re always you, Kirika!”

“Absolutely, no matter what.”

“That’s the spirit, Kii-gal!” Argo agreed, with a grin. “Gosh, I’m kinda touched! Lunch is on me today, all of you. Kii-gal’s doin’ her best and being so damn sweet about it, so I guess it’s my way of spreading the love.”

“Ahaha, you’re paying for us? Now that’s the most shocking part of all of this,” Kirika laughed. 

She was certain that, for all she’d been through, everything would be just fine.

~~~

“So, be honest with us,” Phillia started, taking a long sip of the tea Asuna had served all of them, “how is Kirika really adjusting to everything? She was pretty optimistic when I heard about what happened a couple of weeks ago, but...what’s the real scoop?”

Asuna, for her part, looked a little taken aback by the question, while the rest of the girls in her private room—Philia, Liz, Strea, and Sinon—stared at her with eager anticipation.

“The...real scoop?” 

“C’mon, don’t act all coy, we all know exactly what I mean, right girls?”

“Yeah!” Strea chirped. “Sex, right?”

“Right!” Philia confirmed, smiling back at her. “See, Strea’s curious too!”

“S-Strea, you know we consider Yui our daughter, and you’re her younger sister, so to speak, so this sort of conversation with me is a little…”

“Awww, it’s fine, isn’t it? You know how happy Yui and I are to have two moms now, but I’m all kinds of curious about what things are like when we can’t be around.”

Asuna sighed, smiling softly at the absurdity of the whole situation.

“Fine, fine. But no sharing any of this with Yui, OK?”

“Got it!” Strea agreed, giving a mock salute.

“What about you two?” Asuna asked, looking over at Sinon and Liz, though their curious stares told her everything she needed to know.

“I honestly think it’ll be pretty fun to hear. Kirika’s brash, so I’m interested in finding out if she’s the same way in bed,” Sinon giggled.

Liz, for her part, seemed a little troubled.

“Ahhh, I totally shouldn’t want to be so desperate to hear about my rival’s sex life at all, but…

Who am I kidding? I wanna hear every detail.”

“Right! We all do!” Philia nodded sagely. “So, it’s settled: give us the real scoop!”

Asuna giggled to herself, surprisingly at ease with the turn the conversation had taken.

Besides, she thought, there’s something I’ve really wanted to share…

“Just a couple of days after everything happened, I went to stay over with Kazusa and Suguha-”

“Oooh, using her real name?” Strea asked.

“Mmm. I mean, I’ve had sex with her in-game, too, but you said you wanted to know about things offline, so I assumed not using her character name was for the best.”

“Mhmm! Yeah, I do! I don’t mind, her new name is so pretty!”

Asuna giggled at that. She was pretty proud of the name she and Kazusa had picked out together.

“Wait, how many times have you two done it since then?” Philia asked, her cheeks painted a soft pink.

“So, I went to stay with them for the weekend since Suguha and I wanted to take her clothes shopping,” Asuna continued, ignoring the question.

“You picked out very pretty clothes. I was a little surprised by how feminine her wardrobe’s become,” Sinon added, smiling.

“Well, Kazusa insists she wants to keep things simple for a while, but she’s started wearing skirts and things more often around the house, so I think she’s enjoying it all more than she lets on."

Sinon took a sip of her tea, keeping her voice low.

“Frankly, I think her in-game outfits might have given her a more adventurous streak than any of us realize…” 

“Her new school uniform probably helps, too!” Philia nodded.

“Yeah, she’s adorable! But anyway, let’s talk about the dirty stuff!” Liz pressed, clearly desperate to hear more.

“Right. So, after we got home from shopping, Suguha said she needed to practice her kendo. She’d fallen behind a little, so she told us that she’d be a few hours.”

“Jeez, Suguha! It’s like you were asking them to go for it!”

“Right?!” Liz agreed, looking almost exasperated. “Ahhh, Sugu’s so thirsty, but she’s still such an innocent girl…”

“Once we were alone, I thought Kazusa looked a little glum, so I thought cuddling for a while might do her some good, just to really give her as much warmth and love as she could possibly want. 

At some point, she started getting really emotional from it all. She leaned in close and started kissing me, squirming a little and telling me in the tiniest voice that her being shorter than me made me look even sexier to her.”

“Kazusa, you dork!” Liz cried. “So, what’d you say?”

“That I thought she looked adorable in all the clothes she’d tried on that day, and that I could hardly get the sight of her in some of the dresses we’d bought for her that she’d tried on that day out of my mind. She got so bashful! It was incredible!”

“Wow, I bet!”

Asuna chuckled a little at Strea’s boundless enthusiasm.

“But what got her really excited was when I whispered that if a dress made her look so sexy, I couldn’t wait to see what she’d look like wearing nothing at all. I thought the poor girl would explode!”

“She’s definitely gotten easier to tease. I bet that must have been quite a sight,” Sinon smiled, clearly delighted by the idea of Kazusa squirming.

“That’s when things started getting really hot and heavy. We couldn’t keep our hands off of each other! She’s become so much softer, so her body alone completely captivated me. Haaah, I could’ve spent all day just caressing her! It was so much fun seeing her try to take charge, to try and push me back down onto the bed with a cocky little smirk. She might have gotten the upper hand, actually, were it not for what came next.”

“Oh god, what happened?!”

Liz was practically falling off her seat.

“Well...I’m not sure what really came over me, but I just thought about her saying how much bigger I was than her and I ended up pushing her down onto the bed instead. She looked so tiny; it was no trouble at all. She was so surprised by what had happened, the poor girl, and I don’t think she’s very used to lying down on boobs that big, so I had plenty of time to take her pants and underwear off.”

“Sh-she just let you do all that?!” Philia asked.

“She didn’t realize how far things had gotten, I don’t think, until she felt my hands on her. Then she really started squirming, but by that point I was so into things that my face was already down there.”

“W-wait, you said that she was on her stomach, right? So that means…” Sinon said, her words hanging in the air, while Strea let out a soft chuckle in admiration.

“No way!” Liz cried.

“Kazusa’s got so much, and it’s so soft,” Asuna confirmed, blushing. 

“Must run in the family…” Liz muttered under her breath.

“I hardly even realized I was spreading her bottom until she was squirming and squeaking, wanting to know what was going on. By the time my tongue went in…”

The whole group let out a collective gasp.

“...She’d kind of expected it. She fussed a little, said she needed to at least take off her blouse because a button was digging in, so she went to take it off while I held onto her hips, keeping her pinned down. But, then, when it was finally off, I looked up at her and totally lost the mood!”

“Wait, what?” Strea asked, confused.

“Y-you had your tongue in a girl’s butt! What kills that mood?!” Sinon pressed, her disbelief overriding any delicacy she still had.

“I just wanted to get a look at her accepting things, but all I could see was a tattoo on her left shoulder!”

“No friggin’ way!” Liz cackled. “You mean just like that NPC that gave her the quest?”

“Exactly!” Asuna grinned, unable to hold back a giggle. “It caught me completely off-guard! I couldn’t stop laughing! Poor Kazusa was so worried, she got terribly flustered and kept asking me to tell her what was wrong, but I could barely get the words out at all.”

“Oh no, poor Kazusa!”

Though Philia seemed to sympathize, her expression was nothing short of giddy.

“She wriggled out of my grip at that point, but by the time I said the word ‘shoulder’ she just froze, her eyes went wide, and she realized exactly what was getting me worked up. The way she darted off the bed to check a mirror was just too cute. I couldn’t help but hug her so, so tightly while she pouted about everything.

It admittedly turned into me treating her like a child again afterwards, so I was worried I wouldn’t be too terribly reassuring, but she was so surprised that there was still more to discover about her body that she didn’t seem to mind at all, and just hugged me back softly and asked if I really promised that it looked good on her and if it wasn’t too noticeable. I did promise, of course. I still do think it’s really charming, honestly.”

“It’s kinda big though, you really think it’s not noticeable?” Liz asked, wiping away a tear as her laughter died down.

“Oh, it’s definitely big! Thankfully, it’s covered up quite easily, so she hasn’t had to worry about it showing through the clothes she wears outside of the game. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t dying to get her into a swimsuit, though. She’d look just precious!”

“Ahaha, it seems Kirika’s not the only one who changed, hmm?” Sinon teased, smiling.

“Oh? How so?”

“You’ve totally settled into a whole ‘dommy mommy’ thing, Asuna!” Philia blurted, earning another round of laughter from the others. “It’s amazing, you go from babying her one second to pushing her down on the bed and eating her ass!”

“Ahaha, maybe so!” Asuna laughed, more than amused by the title Philia had given her. “Kirika’s just too fun not to tease, and too adorable to not, well, adore. I’d back off if she wasn’t enjoying it, though.”

“Ohhh, so she’s having fun too?” Strea asked.

“Mm, definitely. Even after that whole ordeal, she told me she had a really nice time with what the two of us were able to do, and promised that we’d get to try again once she felt more up to things. Which, as it happened, was the very next day.”

“Jeez, who’da thought that was the way to Kirika’s heart? Maybe I should start forging some toys… Would the game even let me do that? A whip would work, but that’s too hardcore, and-” 

Liz pondered, thoughtfully before realizing what a wild tangent she was going on. 

“A-anyway! How’d things go the next day? “ she asked, quickly changing the subject.

“Oh, wonderfully! Kirika’s such a-”

Though Asuna was fully prepared to launch into another, much dirtier story, their talk was swiftly interrupted by the sound of the private room’s door opening, followed by Kirika stepping inside, blissfully unaware of the conversation she’d just missed.

“Oh, hi everyone!” 

She smiled and waved at the group, who were, apart from Asuna, all holding back a laugh.

“I didn’t realize you’d be having guests over. Sorry if I’m interrupting!”

“Not at all, darling! We’re so happy to have you over! Care to join us for tea?”

“Oooh, yeah, that sounds great!” she agreed, turning back to shut the door behind her.

As she did, however, she gave the entire table a full view of her tattoo, and the dam on their laughter completely burst.

“I-is something wrong? Oh god, did I change again or something?” Kirika asked, nervously checking over her body.  

“Ahaha, no, it’s nothing like that, dear! We were just talking about how charming you are. It’s just a fun coincidence.” 

Asuna was ostensibly reassuring her, but her smile was too sweet, too perfect to be anything other than more teasing.

“Mhmm!” Philia nodded, practically doubled over with laughter. “You’re just so charming and...that tattoo looks so good on you, and...and...ahahahaha!”

Kirika suddenly knew exactly what they were laughing about, and quickly clamped her hands over her shoulder protectively as her cheeks blushed a deep, hot crimson, which only made the laughter even louder.

“Asuna, you didn’t!”

Asuna’s response of getting up out of her chair to hug Kirika and pet her head as she told her what a good girl she was did far, far more to smooth things over than Kirika was willing to admit.

~~~

Though everyone else on the bus was practically buzzing with excitement, Kazusa could do little more than bury her head in her hands, too embarrassed about the weekend ahead to so much as look anyone else she was travelling with in the eyes.

Of course Asuna made me wear something sleeveless. Of course she did…

She wished, more than anything, that she could just be in her room and wile away the summer doing nothing but playing games. Unfortunately, she was on a bus to the beach, being taken on a trip with just about every girl she knew, without an Amusphere in sight.

“Are you OK, Kazusa? You’re not carsick, are you?” Keiko asked, resting a hand on her leg.

“N-no, it’s nothing like that. I’ll be OK, Keiko, thanks,” Kazusa smiled, grateful for the smaller girl’s support.

“Mm, I bet this weekend’ll be so fun! I haven’t been to the beach in ages!” Keiko beamed, her childlike enthusiasm on full blast.

“Y-yeah, me neither…”

Kazusa knew, of course, that sitting inside all summer would’ve felt like a waste, but things had been so embarrassing for her as of late that nothing sounded better than holing up in her room. Her friends, of course, had other ideas.

“You’re coming with, big sis! We’re all gonna have so much fun!” Sugu argued, practically dragging her sister out of her room. “It wouldn’t be the same without you!”

“Yep, Kii-gal’s gotta make tons of precious summer memories with all of us!” Argo grinned, clearly delighting in forcing her favorite client into everything. “You only get one shot at being a high-schooler, Kii-gal, spend it wisely!” 

“That might not even be true! If the game changed me the way it already did, there’s no reason it couldn’t make me younger, too!” Kazusa argued, not even sure what her point was, beyond a desire to not be forced along on this trip.

“Huh, yeah, good point! I’ll hafta look into that…” Argo teased. “You’re still coming to the beach, though.”

“We’re doing this for your sake, Kazusa!” Rika reassured her, smiling. “We’re making sure that you can get back on your feet and stop acting like a total hermit! It’ll be teasing-free, promise! We want you to have the best time you can have.”

All of Kazusa’s protests, of course, did nothing to help her out, and only gave everyone more reason to call her adorable.

And so, with little additional effort on anyone else’s part, there she was, oh-so-close to arriving on a beautiful, sunny beach where Kazusa was certain she’d be teased relentlessly, despite the promises that she wouldn’t be.

“Kazusa, you got a sec?” Rika asked, already taking a seat near her with Argo following closely behind. Kazusa couldn’t have liked the looks on their faces any less than she did right now.

“If you’re too busy moping, we can save it for later, Kii-gal.”

“We’re not playing a game, y’know,” she said, grinning back at Argo and trying her best to keep the mood up. “Probably shouldn’t call me that here.”

“Nyahaha! I getcha, but Kii-gal’s always gonna be Kii-gal ta me. Besides, when’s the last time you used my real name?”

“Well, that’s…”

“Anyway, Rika and I thought we’d get ya a little gift. Something special to make the trip more fun.”

Oh no…

“Yep!”

Rika beamed as she handed Kazusa a shopping bag. 

“It was Argo’s idea, based on an original design of mine that I came up with in Origin. I just know you’ll love it!”

If I had to guess…

Kazusa closed her eyes tightly as she grabbed onto the soft material of whatever it was they’d gotten for her, before pulling it out of the bag, knowing that everyone else would see it.

I’m the only one who won’t end up loving it, huh?

Kazusa opened her eyes, freezing as she scanned over the gift.

“It’s a swimsuit! Pretty cute, huh?”

It...actually is...

Despite herself, Kazusa couldn’t help but admire the simple, if somewhat showy swimsuit. The left cup was a soft, pretty blue, while the right cup was a deep black. The colors meshed surprisingly well, and while Kazusa was sure she’d still be more comfortable in a one piece (if she wore a swimsuit at all), she didn’t mind it half as much as she thought she would.

“Ahaha, I was nervous, but...yeah, it’s not bad. Thanks, you two.”

“Nyahaha, you got it, Kii-gal!”

“A little homage to the black swordswoman herself, even if that was a long time ago!”

Huh?

“Ah, how sweet!” Asuna joined in with a smile, clearly taken with the swimsuit. “Hearkening back to our little Kazusa’s SAO days, I see.”

“Ooh, yeah, I remember that!” Kotone chuckled.

Wait...what? I never wore anything like this back…

Kazusa scanned over the swimsuit once more, suddenly realizing exactly why she was so taken with the coloring.

That, of all things, was what got her reeling with embarrassment: the sudden realization of exactly how deep their teasing ran.

“Ohhh, it’s like your old swords, Kazusa!” Keiko chimed in, her sweetness doing Kazusa precisely no favors, while Shino looked on with a teasing smirk.

“Ahaha, so it is! Lucky you, Kazusa! All the way out here and you’re still battle ready.”

“Ohhh, I like it, sis! I kinda like wearing green on the beach because of Leafa, so it’s like we match!”

“I...I…”

The girls could all swear they saw smoke rising from Kazusa’s ears at that, as the combination of complete sincerity and extreme teasing proved too much for the poor girl, who almost immediately collapsed.

She slumped down against her girlfriend’s lap, still clutching the swimsuit that caused all of it.

“There there, Kazusa, I’ve got you.”

Though Kazusa was too dazed to think much of it, Asuna petted her softly for the remainder of the drive, calming her down just enough to get her conscious by the time they arrived at their destination.

~~~

“Listen, I get that you probably don’t want to hear this right now,” Sugu started, smiling softly and putting a hand on her sister’s shoulder as the two of them, accompanied by Asuna, sat under the shade of their umbrella, while the majority of their group raced off to the water, “but that swimsuit really is adorable on you. I’m pretty glad you were brave enough to wear it.”

“Thanks, Sugu. I’ve already gotten a lot of compliments, so...look, it’s OK. Besides, I’ve gotta get used to all this eventually, right? No going back to how things were, not according to Seven, anyway,” Kazusa said, smiling.

“Mm, yeah, but…”

Sugu leaned over and hugged her older sister, squeezing her so tightly that Kazusa almost worried she’d pass out a second time today.

“You’re OK with all this, right sis? It’s...it’s not sad for you, is it?”

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t an adjustment. I was about to spend all summer holed up in my bedroom, but...well…

I think I’m starting to really enjoy myself like this, too.” Kazusa admitted, flashing a small grin. “Besides, all of you are pretty happy with things, aren’t you?”

“We are, but you’re really important to all of us, sis. We love you no matter what you look like.”

“Of course! Though it’s not hard to love someone as adorable as you, darling,” Asuna added, gently petting her girlfriend’s head.

“Ahaha! Then, yeah, I’m happy too. I don’t even mind the teasing that much, honestly,” she admitted, glancing briefly at Asuna. “I guess it’s just a sign that you’re all that much more comfortable around me. And I dunno, in a way, I think I’ve felt closer to all of you, too.

And that’s not even mentioning how happy it’s made Yui and Strea…”

“Strea’s always happy, but I was a little surprised by Yui’s reaction, I’ll admit,” Sugu giggled, “I thought she’d be worried, or start really hunting around for a way to change you back. But, gosh, the way her eyes lit up when she said, ‘I get to have two mommies now?!’ was just too cute!”

“Yui’s such a good girl,” Asuna agreed, smiling. “We’ve all spent so much more time together lately, too.”

“And she keeps insisting on crawling into bed with us,” Kazusa chuckled. “We actually promised we’d take a bunch of photos this weekend. It’ll be so fun to show her everything when we get back.”

“Well then, you know what you need to do then, sis!”

“Do I?”

“Yeah! You’ve gotta have a ton of fun with every single one of us, got that?!” Sugu grinned. “No girl left behind!”

“Mm, yeah! Let’s all have a ton of fun!”

Kazusa grinned right back.

“Ohhh, lookin’ for something to do, Kii-gal?” Argo asked, walking over with Kotone and Shino in tow.

Despite herself, Kazusa couldn’t help but chuckle at the imprint of what looked to be a mouse on Argo’s swimsuit.

“We were about to set off on a little adventure of our own,” Kotone chimed in. “I bet it’ll be extra fun with a full party, though.”

“Mmm, it’d be nice to have you around,” Shino agreed with a nod, her words completely devoid of the bite they so often possessed.

“Well, I can’t turn that down, can I? You two’ll be OK without me?”

Kazusa turned towards her sister and her girlfriend, who both nodded in approval.

“Of course! Just as long as you spend time with us later, dear.”

“You got it!”

Kazusa picked herself up, lightly stretched out her tired limbs, and brushed off the sand clinging to her bottom, unaware of just how much the gesture captivated everyone around her.

“No girl left behind, right?”

~~~

“So, what are we doing, exactly?” Kazusa asked, as the four of them came to rest near a somewhat rocky part of the shore fairly separated from the rest of their group.

“Kotone’s treasure hunting instincts flared up. She said she just knew there was something fun off in this direction.”

“They did! And I do!”

“So that excited Argo, of course. She told Kotone she had valuable intel on the area.”

“Nyahaha! What can I say? Phi-Phi and me are birds of a feather!”

“Jeez, don’t use that nickname here,” Kotone pouted, earning nothing but a cackle in response.

“And you, Shino? I wouldn’t expect you to go along with this sort of thing.”

“I must’ve gotten swept up in their excitement. I haven’t been to the beach in quite some time, so the thought of getting to see something seemed fun.” she smiled, brushing a stray hair behind her ear.

“You’re in luck, Shino! I detect something fun…” Kotone smiled, before shutting her eyes and pressing her fingers to her temples, acting as if she was activating some sort of special power.

“Right over there!” she declared, opening her eyes and pointing out to the sea. “Gotta walk out a little bit, but we won’t go in deep enough to have to swim, not while the tide’s as low as it is.”

“So, this line up with your intel, Argo?” Kazusa asked, smiling teasingly at the rat.

“Doubting me, Kii-gal? No matter where in the world we go, my info’ll always be perfect. Worst case, I’ll lead ya to something that’ll make you even cuter,” she giggled, flashing Kazusa a toothy grin.

“Impossible!” Kotone shouted back. “Kazusa’s too cute already. If she gets any cuter, it might be too much for us all to bear!”

“Asuna’d certainly have fun, though. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get so small that you’ll be calling Yui big sis.”

“Yeah yeah,” Kazusa chuckled.

“Aaaand here!” Kotone stopped, calling for the rest of the group to do the same.

“You...sure did guide us into the water.”

“No, dummy,” Kotone stuck out her tongue at Kazusa. “Argo, wanna take a look with me?”

“Right!” Argo grinned, as the two of them slipped on the goggles and snorkels they’d been carrying and dived just below the surface of the water.

“Fun vanishing act,” Shino joked. “I’m guessing we’ll get to see something after them.”

“Ahaha, I guess so, yeah.”

A little while later, the two came back up to the surface, apparently satisfied with whatever they’d seen.

“It’s so pretty!” Kotone cried.

“Take a look!” Argo grinned, tossing Kazusa her gear. “Don’t get too excited about the indirect kiss, Kii-gal.”

Argo’d finished her sentence with a wink just as Kazusa was slipping on her snorkel, and she wasted no time diving below the surface of the water to cover her blushing face, while Shino did much the same, sans blush.

For the first time that day, Kazusa was asked to look at something that didn’t get her embarrassed beyond belief, as she gazed upon a big, beautiful coral reef, teeming with life.

As beautiful as it was to stare at the myriad of colors and admire the way the sunlight shifted off of each one under the clear, crisp water, Kazusa couldn’t help but look over at Shino and watch the way she smiled down at it all unreservedly, knowing that she was wearing the same kind of expression.

Though her mind had been racing with ideas and worries over whatever it was that they’d ultimately find, Kazusa could only agree that it really had been a treasure in every sense of the word. A fun, happy memory that she’d eagerly share with Asuna and Yui as soon as possible.

After a couple of minutes, she reluctantly surfaced again, and she smiled happily at the rest of the group, so endlessly glad that they’d taken her to see this.

“Got a photo for ya, too!” Argo grinned, holding up a camera before handing it over to Kazusa.

“It’s waterproof. Take it with ya after this, got that Kii-gal? Make sure you get tons for all of us to tell Yui when we get home!”

“Thanks, Argo, and thank you all for showing me this,” Kazusa smiled. “I’m gonna get a couple more of my own, real quick. Is that OK?”

“Got it, have fun!”

Kazusa tried not to take too long with everything as she went back down for more photos, but still insisted upon capturing as much of the reef as she could, certain that Yui would love seeing it all, and surfaced only when she was sure she had enough.

“Thanks again, you three! Gosh, it really is beautiful down there.”

“Want any other photos, Kazusa?” Kotone asked. “We don’t mind! Take all the time you need.”

“I appreciate it, but this should be enough for now.”

“Maybe of the reef, sure, but Kazusa?” Shino asked, doing a terrible job of hiding her growing smirk.

“Yeah?”

“Make sure you get a good shot of this, too!” Shino chuckled, splashing water right in her face.

“H-hey!” Kazusa tried to protest, only for everything to be drowned out by the other two joining in.

“Nyahaha, we’re not losin’ to ya, Shino!” Argo cackled.

“Not ever! Treasure hunting’s not my only talent, y’know!”

“Jeez, you three…” Kazusa pouted for a moment, before grinning a little herself. 

“Did you think I was just gonna sit here and take it?!” she called out, before splashing them back in turn, making sure that, in the midst of it all, she snapped one more photo of the group, certain that it would be another wonderful story to tell.

~~~

On the way back to everyone’s spot on the beach, Kotone’s treasure hunting party was stopped by Rika calling out to them in her loud voice while jogging towards them excitedly.

“Heeey! You four busy? We’re looking for an impartial set of eyes!”

She was followed closely by Keiko, who was very shyly tugging at the fabric of her adorable, pink one-piece. Though she wouldn’t say a word about it to anyone else, she wondered if she should’ve worn something a bit more mature that day, confident she looked too childish around everyone else.

“Just need the one set?” Shino asked.

“Oh no, you’re all welcome to join in!” Keiko sweetly spoke up. “We just need a bit of help with something, that’s all.”

“Ohhhh, hear that, Kii-gal? I think we found ya a new quest!”

“Yeah, Kazusa’s free!” Kotone grinned, taking Kazusa’s hand in her own and raising it straight up.

“Ahaha, yeah, apparently I am,” Kazusa chuckled. “You three aren’t going to join in?”

“Go on ahead,” Shino smiled. “It’d be best to give everyone an equal spotlight when we talk to Yui.”

“Sounds good to me,” Kazusa agreed. “See you all later!”

With a wave, the rest of the treasure hunting party bid Kazusa, Rika, and Keiko goodbye.

“So what’s uUUUP?!” Kazusa turned to ask, barely getting through her sentence before Rika hastily took her by the hand and just about dragged her along as she walked towards a busy section of the beach, dotted with food stalls and cafés.

“Thanks for volunteering, Kazusa! This’ll be a ton of help!” Rika grinned, as Kazusa finally found her footing.

“Mmm, it’s really nice to have you with us!” Keiko agreed, taking Kazusa’s free hand in her own, albeit with a far gentler grip than Rika.

“Of course! But...what’s actually happening?”

It looked for a moment as though Rika were about to answer, but, as the group walked up to a food stall, she instead happily placed an order for three servings of yakisoba, while Keiko, in a much smaller voice, asked for some ramune to go along with it.

“You,” Rika finally started to answer as she took the orders the instant they arrived and shoved the ramune right into Kazusa’s arms, “are gonna help us build a menu! Wanna take a seat here, Keiko?” she asked, pointing at an empty section of the beach.

“Sure!” Keiko nodded, smiling as she laid out a towel for the three of them to sit on.

The two of them quickly plopped down, with Rika happily patting the spot between them both, gesturing for Kazusa to join them.

“Uhhh, won’t that be a little cramped?”

“Nonsense! A little skinship’s always worthwhile, don’tcha think? It’s a bonding experience!”

Though Rika tried to present this with the utmost confidence, her cheeks were painted a shy, soft pink.

“I don’t mind huddling next to you, Kazusa. I-if that’s OK with you, of course!”

“See? It’s all good!” Rika nodded, pulling Kazusa down between them and handing her a portion of yakisoba before she could reply, and before Rika’s own growing embarrassment could get the better of them. 

“Haaah…” Kazusa let out a happy little sigh, grateful for Rika’s seemingly endless enthusiasm, to say nothing of Keiko’s earnest warmth. “So, what’d you mean by building a menu?”

“You know about Sword Art: Origin’s upcoming summer event, right, Kazusa?”

“Mhmm, yeah. Where you can get the limited kimonos and all that.”

Kazusa blushed a little as she answered, realizing that Asuna would have way too much fun dressing Kirika up when the event hit.

“Yeah!”

Keiko smiled, while Rika and Kazusa slurped their noodles, both of them quickly falling in love with the summery, cheap, wonderfully oily food.

“Well, there’s actually a set of quests limited to merchants and vendors, with a contest to sell as many summer-themed goods as you can in a limited window. We’ve got pretty stiff competition, but…”

“Last time we ran a food stand, we did so well before that we’re confident we can take the top spot!” Rika cut in, beaming. “Just need to switch out our menu to something a little more seasonal! So Keiko and I decided that while we were here, we’d hit up every spot we could for food, snacks, and drinks, and we’d decide our menu based on what we liked best!”

“Sounds like a good plan!” Kazusa smiled. “So you want me to tell you what I’d want to buy from you two if I was a customer of yours?”

“No ifs about it! You’re gonna come by our stall no matter what! And you’re gonna tell all your friends to do the same, right?”

“R-right...”

“So please tell us what you like best while we’re here, OK? We’ll tally up our opinions on everything at the end of the weekend and work out a menu from there. Does that sound OK, Kazusa?”

“Sure, Keiko,” Kazusa agreed, smiling. “Sounds great.”

“But, hey, last time you ran the food stand, didn’t you two wear bunny-”

“-Not another word, Kazusa, or we’re putting you in one of those all weekend!” Rika cried, hastily covering up the smaller girl’s mouth.

The rest of the time seemed to pass by in a blur, with the three of them darting between food stands so quickly it was a miracle their stomachs held out. Noodles, shaved ice, and snacks of all kinds, all so delicious that it was almost impossible for the three girls to even think about ranking them, with Kazusa taking a photo of each and every one. Still, they pushed through, steadily assembling a collection of meals that they just knew would draw in big crowds when the event rolled around.

As the three girls sat down for their last treat, each one of them holding a different flavor of shaved ice, they knew it had been more than worthwhile.

“Haah, lemon really hits the spot!” Rika beamed, leaning against Kazusa happily.

“This strawberry’s so yummy, too!” Keiko chirped, doing the same thing as Rika.

“I’m really happy with the matcha!” Kazusa smiled, all her worries about huddling in close having completely evaporated. “You two want some?”

She’d barely even finished asking the question before the two of them had stuck their spoons into her dessert, happily trying a small piece each.

“Ohhh, that one’s really yummy!”

“Ahaha, I didn’t want to make our menu too big, but...no way we can leave out any of these flavors, huh, Keiko?”

“Ehehe, I guess so!” she nodded. “Thank you so much, Kazusa! It’s been really fun getting to do this with you.”

“Plus, I bet your stomach’s pretty happy, huh?” Rika asked, gently patting Kazusa’s bare tummy. By the time she realized what she was doing, her hands froze, firmly pressed against the girl’s belly.

Both her and Kazusa just stared down, each growing redder with each second that passed, before completely averting their eyes from one another and silently agreeing not to say another word about it to anyone.

“Umm, Kazusa? I know you’ve taken photos of all the food, but…” Keiko spoke in the tiniest possible voice, “so you mind taking one more? Of all three of us, I mean. T-together.”

“Oooh, good call, Keiko!” 

“Ahaha, I was about to ask, actually,” Kazusa nodded, holding up the camera and pointing it towards them.

The two of them huddled in close, both wrapping an arm around Kazusa. Though all three of them were a little embarrassed, their cheeks all blushing softly, they still smiled happily as Kazusa took a photo, creating another incredible memory to share with her daughter. She couldn’t wait to show all this to Yui.

“Now, why don’t we go pick up a little more for everyone else, huh?” Rika asked with a grin, picking herself up and holding out a hand for the other two.

“Mmm, definitely!”

Neither Rika nor Keiko would say it, but in those moments, they were so glad Kazusa was a girl, knowing that, as strange as it had been, it had brought all of them so much closer in ways they never would have imagined.

~~~

“We brought snacks!” Rika called out as they reached the others, all three of them holding armfuls of food for the rest of their group.

“Enough to feed a small army, apparently!” Asuna called back with a smile. “Thank you so much, you three!”

“Ohhh, thanks a ton!” Sugu smiled, rushing to their side and helping Keiko with her haul.

“Had a nice time, dear?”

“Mmm, thanks, Asuna,” Kazusa smiled, gently placing down everything she’d been carrying.

“That’s great! But don’t get comfy yet, sis! We’ve got even more fun lined up for you!”

“Oh yeah? What’s happening?”

“While you were out, Suguha and I picked up a watermelon for everyone. We thought it might be fun to try splitting it all together. We’ll all take a blindfolded swing at it, and whoever manages to break it gets the biggest piece.”

“Yep! We’ve got an advantage, sis! All our kendo practice should really come in handy!”

“I’d say you have the advantage, Sugu,” Kazusa chuckled. “But, sure, that sounds like a good time! Who’s up first?”

“It’s definitely not you or Suguha…” Kotone grumbled. “One of you’ll definitely end up winning if that happens.”

“Ahaha, fine, fine, guess we’ll go last!” Sugu conceded.

“I’ll have you all know, I’m particularly accurate with my rapier!” Asuna added.

“Good point, you can’t go first either,” Rika chimed in.

“Not...sure what you were trying to achieve there, Asuna,” Kazusa sighed.

“More time with you while I wait, darling.,” Asuna teased, wrapping her girlfriend up in a warm, gentle hug and petting her softly while giggling at the way she squirmed within her grasp, letting out an adorably flustered squeak of, “Asuna, I’m not a kid!”

While Asuna and Suguha took a seat on an empty towel, fussing over Kazusa the entire time, the other girls all went up to take a swing at the watermelon, earning distinctly...mixed results.

Keiko went up first, and try as she might to give the watermelon the hardest whack she possibly could, her hit was so weak that she barely even gave it a scratch. Then came Rika, Argo, and Kotone, who each made a slight dent, but couldn’t claim much more than that. Shino had easily the most success of them all, giving the watermelon a small crack, but not really coming close enough to split it, a result that Rika jokingly dismissed as the product of everyone else softening things up first.

Then came Asuna, who seemed entirely unperturbed by the blindfold. She easily approached the watermelon, nodded confidently to herself, and gave it a sharp strike, lengthening the crack enough to the point where it was clearly on the verge of breaking.

“Oh wow, nice hit, Asuna!” Sugu cheered her on.

“Yeah, but now it’s basically Kii-gal’s win. No way it won’t break after a whack like that.”

“Jeez, going early’s a sham!” Rika huffed, with Keiko eagerly nodding along with her.

“Nah, it’s still anyone’s game!” Kazusa smiled. “Mind blindfolding me, Asuna?” she asked, immediately shuddering when she saw just how much the question excited her girlfriend.

“Not at all!” Asuna smiled.

She stood behind Kazusa as she tied the blindfold, leaned in close to her ear, and whispered, “I’ll have to remember that question later. Who knew you were so forward~?”

Kazusa really hoped the blindfold made her blush less apparent as Asuna and Sugu gently spun her around before setting her off to try and find the watermelon.

Poor Kazusa, however, was so distracted by what Asuna had just said to her that she could barely focus on the watermelon splitting at all, and by the time she finally went to strike, she felt her stick colliding with nothing but sand.

“B-Big Sis…”

“Kii-gal, I thought you could do a better job than that!”

“Ahahaha, not used to your center of gravity yet, Kazusa?”

“Ufufu, you did your best, dear,” Asuna assured her, though the click of a photo being taken did nothing to set her mind at ease.

There was no hiding her blush now as Kazusa ripped off the blindfold, seeing that she’d missed her target by about well over a foot.

“L-look, I was just distracted, that’s all!” she grumbled, watching as Asuna took yet another photo of her, followed by a sly wink.

“Don’t worry, Kazusa,” Shino smiled, though her expression brought with it no warmth whatsoever. “I bet you’d have got it if you had a stick in each hand, right?”

“Jeez, don’t tease Big Sis!” Sugu pouted, wrapping Kazusa up in a large hug. “You did your best, right, Sis?”

As her sister unintentionally babied her just as much as Asuna did almost each and every day, Kazusa’s voice grew so flustered that it was almost impossible for the rest of the group to even hear her protests.

It should be obvious, of course, but Suguha effortlessly split the watermelon at that point, and she insisted on dividing it equally between the group. She was glad to see her sister soften up as she dug into the delicious fruit.

As much as she insisted she wasn’t one, Kazusa really did have a childish streak in her, and Sugu adored her for it.

~~~

This again…

Kazusa grumbled as she looked up at the roof of the inn room they were staying in, surrounded not just by three girls who were desperate to snuggle up as close as they could, but seven.

On the one hand, with this many people everyone had to give each other at least a little space if they didn’t want to all be totally stifled.

On the other, just a few minutes after everyone else had fallen asleep, Asuna saw fit to capitalize on that opening, snuggling in right up against her girlfriend and hugging her tight, resting the shorter girl’s head against her bosom.

“There there… This feels so lovely, doesn’t it Kazusa?” she whispered, gently petting her head all the while.

As much as Kazusa wanted to protest, yes, she had to admit, it felt nothing short of incredible.

“Y-yeah, I guess,” she replied, making sure to keep her voice soft, determined not to wake anyone else.

She was more than accustomed to Asuna’s scent, but there was something about it now that was nothing short of intoxicating, lulling her into a feeling of warmth and comfort. Before she even realized what she was doing, Kazusa turned to return the hug, looking up into Asuna’s big, beautiful eyes.

“Ufufu, I was worried I’d made you all grumpy, but you’re wearing such a sweet little smile.”

Oh gosh, was I?

“If you were worried about that, why’d you keep hugging me so tight?”

“Because I know my adorable girlfriend well enough to know that if she’s all sullen, a hug and some petting is all it takes to get her feeling wonderful again. That, and the fact that I was running painfully short on Kazusa energy.”

Kazusa...energy…

She would’ve frowned at the term were she not so in love with the way it felt whenever Asuna hugged and petted her, not that she’d tell her that anytime soon.

“I...I bet, yeah.”

“I love you, Kazusa. So very, very much,” Asuna said with a smile.

“I love you too, Asuna, and I always will.”

Kazusa smiled right back.

“Thank you for coming along on this trip, darling. I want to get back to Yui as soon as we can, but...well, I think we all needed a few days like this. A few days where we could really show you that, no matter what, every one of us will always love and care about you deeply.”

“No...thank you for forcing me, honestly,” Kazusa smiled, before kissing her girlfriend softly. “I wouldn’t have ever done this without being pushed and...I’d have lost out on the chance to make a lot of really happy memories. You wanna know something, Asuna?”

“Hmm?”

“I think…”

Kazusa took a deep breath.

I’m really gonna say it, aren’t I?

She smiled and willed up a burst of confidence.

“I think I’m happier this way. As a girl, I mean.”

There was a moment’s silence, followed by the sound of Asuna sweetly giggling.

“Wh-what is it? Did I say something strange.”

“No, not at all, dear. I’m just happy you finally realized it, too.”

“T-too?”

“Me, Yui, Sugu, Rika, and everyone else...we’ve all known it for a little while. We’ve seen how much more you’ve smiled, how much closer you’ve gotten to everyone. Even though you’ve been scared and tried to hole up in your bedroom at times,” she paused, giggling again, “you’ve been so much more open and warm. We’ve always loved you, even before all of this, but it really feels like you’ve started to love yourself now, too.

“Jeez, you should’ve...should’ve said…” Kazusa tried to protest but just...couldn’t, the words catching in her throat as she realized just how silly they’d be. 

“I love all of you, too. I’m so happy to have you.”

Asuna leaned forward once more, gently kissing Kazusa on the forehead and steadily working her way down to her lips.

“Ahaha, you’re so forward tonight…” Kazusa blushed, as Asuna leaned in for yet another kiss. “Something on your mind?”

“Ufufu, I just thought…” 

Asuna smiled, slowly but surely sliding a hand along Kazusa’s waist, before slowly slipping it under the waistband of her pajamas.

“Asuna?”

“...That you might want to make another wonderful memory. Just for the two of us.”

Her hand moved a little further, and gently—so gently—slid down her girlfriend’s panties, before rubbing at her lips with her fingertips.

“Nnn~ That’s...that’s good,” Kazusa breathed, knowing how dangerous what was happening was, but knowing, from the heat welling up inside of her, that she wanted it all the same.

“Now now, dear, let’s keep our voices down, hmm?” Asuna smiled, prompting Kazusa to bite her lip to try and stifle her voice, nodding slowly in agreement.

“No need to share this one with aaaanyone else, wouldn’t you agree? And of course, that means no pictures for Yui, either…”

Asuna winked as her finger slid up inside the other girl, and all Kazusa could manage to do was nuzzle her head against her girlfriend’s shoulder, her warm, soft moans condensing against her soft skin, as Asuna embraced a new side of herself, too.