The Assault Team was celebrating clearing another floor at the tavern.
Asuna sipped at her wine as she glanced at a certain black clothed boy.
It's been some months since she had met Kirito. And the thing that stood out the most about him besides the preference for the color black and his outstanding combat ability, was that the boy appeared, for all intents and purposes, utterly apathetic and was the most unexpressive person she's ever met.
The most expressive she had ever seen him was when he got visibly annoyed at a strategy meeting when one of the leaders kept pushing for an idiotic plan before he spoke up against it, which was uncharacteristic for the silent swordsman. The only other situation where his black eyes didn't look as dead, was when he had found and saved her at the end of the dungeon with the rumored secret logout spot all those months ago. They’d nearly looked relieved back then.
Said person was currently sitting at another nearby table sipping at an ale, looking like he would rather be anywhere else but here, despite wearing the same apathetic visage as usual.
It was easy to work with the guy, but the fact that she couldn't get a read on him at all irritated her more than she was willing to admit. Just what drives a person to be so emotionless, yet borderline berserk in battle?
She was about to tune back into the conversation at the girls' table when something strange happened.
"Ah man, I gotta tell you, the dark haired ones are the prettiest!" Klein exclaimed, clearly having already downed a tankard or two of the ale that actually inflicted similar effects to drinking actual alcohol with the Ethics Code off.
He looked over his comrades, ready to rebuke heathen opinions despite claiming the same of another hair color the other day, and his eyes stopped on Kirito who was taking another sip of his drink.
"In fact, I wager Kirito here would be an absolute beauty! He's already rather effeminate as is, wouldn't you agree?" he grinned.
Then, the impossible happened.
Kirito did a spit take. A spit take.
In all of the social gatherings Asuna had seen the boy participate in, you couldn't get more of a reaction out of him than a raised eyebrow even with the most callous remarks possible.
She gaped at the sputtering boy coughing to compose himself. If she didn't know any better, she would say that he looked like his cheeks were flushed with embarrassment for a moment. The other guys at the table gaped similarly for a second before laughing uproariously at the achievement, hitting Kirito with forceful pats on the back.
Huh. Asuna's eyes narrowed with mirth as she took another sip of her wine. I can work with that.
After that meeting, Asuna began testing the waters with some quips and casual comments during planning and other meetings, checking what were the things that got a different response other than just a nod. The boy appeared to not-so-visibly get caught off guard and get flustered at anything implying himself and femininity. Also, if only for a fraction of a second, he sometimes seemed to glance at the female members of the Assault Team with an indiscernible emotion in his eyes. Asuna nearly thought she was seeing things, it was so hard to catch if you weren’t paying close attention.
Sometimes, she wound up staring longer than she intended to, earning the occasional snicker at the implication.
She had to admit, Kirito was rather feminine for a boy. And in all honesty? She preferred it over the rest of the guys. There was simply only so much testosterone a girl could tolerate!
She’d have to investigate a couple things and pay Argo a pretty penny, but she had a plan in mind. Although she felt a little guilty assuming a lot of things, if she was right, it would be completely worth it. She might just be able to return the favor for when he saved her and taught her the ins and outs of the game.
She might just be able to save Kirito’s spirit... just as he has done for her.
The opportunity presented itself after the 26th Floor field boss.
She subtly made sure Kirito was within earshot. She had to do it this way, lest she actually scare the solo player away. If her assumption was right, then Kirito would react rather badly should she be upfront with this.
Ugh, I hate how I’m working off mere assumptions after all.
She glanced back at Argo, the info broker, who she roped into the plan, and was thankfully amused enough not to ask payment for it.
“...okay, here’s the payment for the quest info. Thank you, it helped a lot.”
“Ah, no problem, anything for you, Aa-chan.” the dirty blonde replied mirthfully as usual, despite knowing well how high her rates are.
“Say, Argo,” Asuna then started. “I hear some rumours about an item that is able to permanently change your appearance, one that can even change your appearance into the opposite sex’s. Do you know anything about it?”
“Mh, tell ya what, I’ll let you have this one for free, but take it with a grain of salt. I hear ya can get the quest from a strange looking NPC on a small north-western island on the 24th floor; information about his appearance is inconsistent though; sometimes it’s a man, sometimes it’s a woman- I even get rumours about it simply being a really androgynous looking person.” she finished.
Asuna gave an interested hum. “Interesting. I may look into it when I get a break one of these days.”
“You can drop the act.” the Rat smirked. “Looks like Kii-chan’s already bolted for it.”
Asuna looked over her shoulder, seeing dust that couldn’t have been kicked up but a moment ago.
“You’re definitely onto somethin'. There was a look in their eyes I’ve never seen before when you brought the item up.”
“‘Their’, you say?” she raised an eyebrow at Argo.
“Hey, don’t look at me like that! Ya look into these kinds of things when everyone scolds you over not bein' feminine like everyone expects. ” she retorted indignantly. “Anyways, aren’t ya gonna follow ‘em?”
Asuna pondered for a moment. If it worked, the results of this would speak for themselves on the next strategy meeting Kirito was supposed to participate in; but then again, she had been planning this for quite a while and she would be lying if she said she didn’t want to see this through.
Argo’s eyes became pleading under her signature leather cloak and hood; an odd sight on the always snarky Rat.
“Please look after ‘em? They were such a good pal back in the Beta and it’s killing me to see them like this. You’ve seen how they fight. I’d go myself but I’m not a fighter like you are, Aa-chan.”
Argo had a point. The swordsman was highly competent but the way they threw themselves into battle was borderline suicidal. Screw it. Kirito isn’t the only person who could act out of character.
Kirito was walking along a bridge towards what should be the most north-western island. At first, the average player would find it puzzling why one is supposed to look for an NPC on a mob-filled island, but the observant player would notice that this wasn’t actually the most north-western island. In reality, there was another small island obscured by the fauna that had a bridge connecting to it.
As he reached the other end, he saw a person sitting on a bench, fishing. Kirito failed to hold his anticipacion in check as he confirmed Argo’s info: the NPC in question was really androgynous. They wore pastel colored clothes with blue, pink and white, and had rainbow colored feather earrings.
Kirito hesitantly stepped closer, but oddly enough, it was the NPC who initiated interaction first.
“Oh? What a pleasant surprise, I wasn’t expecting visitors to our humble island,” they smiled pleasantly as they turned to the player.
“On what occasion do I owe pleasure to...” they trailed off, as they paused.
“Ah,” they continued, as their smile became pained and looked on with sympathetic eyes.
“I see the desperation in your eyes. I shall be succinct. There’s a cave on the eastern side of the island where we locked away those who seeked to erase our village justifying themselves with depraved morality, whose hateful spirits linger and whisper poisonous words at night. Take care of them, and I shall help you.”
With a nod, the swordsman accepted the quest prompt, and disappeared in an afterimage.
It didn’t take long to find the cave, with the echoing voices reverberating from it a good distance away. The further Kirito went in, the clearer the voices became, until he reached a door of wrought iron.
"Hey Cletus, you ever hear about Billy? He one of them faggots,"
"Billy? Really? Well he always was such a momma's boy. Probably never had a right father figure,"
"That's what I was saying to me wife, you just can't raise a boy without the father. His momma should have beat him more. His father would be ashamed to see how he turned out."
”We’ll take their souls and set 'em straight!”, the third gray specter exclaimed.
“Gotta put the perverted freaks in their place. Men pretending to be women. Women pretending to be men, and-”
The last specter didn't get to finish before exploding into red polygons.
Kirito sheathed his sword with a huff as he walked towards the bridge. It seems the devs really knew how to rile up certain people, those mobs were the most irritating ones he’s had to face to date.
He jogged back to the...Quest NPC? Man, he didn’t even catch their name. The AI behaviour was strange too; this was the most observant and understanding NPC he’s ever met and dearly wished he still had the console access to look over the coding, but he’s not going to question this one, given what they’re going to help him with.
Still in the same fishing position, they...the UI above his head wrote “Marcello”, huh. Marcello noticed Kirito approaching and turned to face Kirito with a grateful smile.
“Made quick work of them, huh? Well, now I can rest easy,” they said as their shoulders seemed to relax.
“I would’ve assisted you right away, if it were up to me, but the old forms must be heeded. Here.”
Marcello extended an arm towards Kirito, opening their hand to reveal a palm-sized prismatic orb.
[[Quest Reward: Orb of Rebirth x1]]
As he accepted it, for the second time that day, Kirito’s apathetic mask cracked, showing a sentiment he’d never thought he’d ever wear: hope. Kirito dared to let... herself hope, for the first time in a very long time.
Asuna watched as Kirito handled the orb incredibly carefully as though it might crumble should they hold it too tightly, after which they tapped on it to use it, and their figure was engulfed in white flames, obscuring everything yet strangely not producing light.
Kirito...Kirito not only hadn’t needed her help at all, they didn’t even notice Asuna as she was sitting besides Marcello. To be fair, from the swordsman’s perspective she was sitting behind them, her figure hidden behind their larger frame and billowy clothes.
She raised an eyebrow at Marcello, who in turn, smiled and spoke without looking at her.
“You care for this one, do you not?” they asked.
Asuna pondered at the question. Did she care for the swordsman? She wouldn’t say she cared very deeply, but he had saved her life after all. She supposed she did get kind of attached from all the time she spent teasing Kirito, and went through all this to have them get what likely solved their greatest pain in their heart. She simply couldn’t let it go on in good conscience if there was a way to stop it.
“I...suppose I do, yes.” she replied. Marcello nodded.
“The young one will need your support. Their greatest pain has now come to close, but they will have lingering scars, mental and emotional to pair with other things that have become problems, when before those very things were what was holding them together.”
In all honesty this was definitely not what Asuna was expecting, and she was not exactly enthusiastic about getting more responsibility after going through all this trouble to help. In all fairness though, did kind of dig herself into this hole, didn’t she? She was the one who had to be all nosey to see what makes Kirito tick then stepped in to help, so she’ll take responsibility for it. She owes Kirito that much, still.
“Ah, your friend is about done, it seems.”
Asuna stood to look and see the white flames die down, the flames disappearing starting from her boots and going up.
When the last flames disappeared, she gasped.
Where a skinny and rather unkempt boy once stood, now was a beautiful girl with lustrous, long black hair who was slightly shorter than herself.
Said girl’s eyes fluttered open, after which she hesitantly looked over herself, lifting her now dainty hands to her face and patting herself all over. Asuna blushed and looked away for a second as she lightly touched her respectable bosom in the process.
After but a moment, the girl jumped, throwing her arms above herself with a resoundingly feminine “Yeeaah!”. She kept on hopping in joy yelling ”Yes!! I’m a girl! I’m me! A girl!”, with her hair billowing as she did.
Asuna just stood there, completely stupefied. She expected a change in demeanor and tears, but Kirito(?) yelling and hopping in joy was something beyond her wildest imagination. This girl in front of her was just brimming with emotion in a fashion completely opposite to the apathetic and emotionless person she had gotten used to.
And just as suddenly as it changed before, her behaviour turned another 90° on the present 180°.
“I’m a girl...” she trailed off as her voice broke and tears trickled down pale cheeks. She stopped hopping in favour of just plopping down on the planks in a girly fashion as sobs began wracking her body, after which she curled in on herself and hugged her knees close.
“I’m...finally...a girl...” she muttered between sobs, as she let out years of repressed frustration, sadness, dysphoria, snot, and tears of joy.
A finger poked the side of a shell shocked looking Asuna, who yelped and threw an indignant look at Marcello.
They just smiled warmly and gestured to Kirito with their head. “Go.”
The swordswoman looked back to the ebony haired girl before her eyes lit up with understanding.
She wordlessly kneeled besides the sobbing figure before hesitantly placing her arms around Kirito in an embrace, who in turn latched on surprisingly strongly and began crying into her shoulder. Asuna then began rubbing circles in the back of the other girl, whispering whatever words of comfort she could think of: “You’re a girl...you’re a girl...it’s okay now...”
Yui spectated the scene on the bridge of the “Queer Island” with a very happy smile. As the Mental Health Counselling AI wiped her virtual tears, her equally virtual chest swelled with pride. It took quite some work, but she was able to help the players with the setup despite being completely barred from interacting with the players herself. This way, at least the queer players would find some comfort on the island brimming with couples that weren’t heteronormative, as the prejudices of the real world followed the players into Aincrad. She was particularly proud of the work she did on the “Marcello” NPC’s AI, to easily identify the transgender and gender-nonconforming players desperate to alleviate dysphoria.
Yui glitched in frustration as errors began piling up again. Although she understood her Creator’s intent to drive home the point of this being the players’ new reality with the mirror maneuver, it was utterly and unforgivably inconsiderate of the players who precisely came to seek escape from their “real” bodies, which wasn’t even considered as their own by themselves, and don't even get her started on the vast majority of players she had no way to help whatsoever.
The players needed this much. She needed this much.