This is so strange , Kiriko thought.
It wasn’t something objectively strange. But for her, who spent the last few months not quite all there in the head, just walking around on the cobblestone roads of the victorian-but-not-quite town of Frno, taking in the sights of the 26th Floor like a tourist while munching on a Baumkuchen was a very novel experience. It was a pleasant day with clear weather and a comfortable 22 C°. There wasn’t much of a crowd; even a week into clearing the floor, players were wary after the disaster of the 25th Floor.
If it weren’t for Asuna’s scheme that brought mental clarity back to her, this definitely wouldn’t have been something she’d be able to enjoy. Many things were just...different. Some problems or snags occurred too, such as her newfound hesitance to throw herself into fighting as she did previously. It made things take longer, and she tanked more in HP due to sheer surprise… still, you can’t really say that actually caring for your wellbeing is a definite disadvantage in general, can you?
“Hey little miss! Don’t ‘cha wanna try my stroopwafel? This batch came out amazing, I tell you!” one of the vendors called out to her.
And oh boy it felt good to be called ‘miss’. It has been days and being regarded as a girl still hasn’t stopped making her feel all fluttery and warm and dopey smiles.
She finished off her snack as she watched an NPC use a ladder to open up one of the street lamps and throw a rug over the cracked white crystal in it, taking it out. Apparently, instead of oil or coal as would be expected from a victorian setting, they all used some sort of crystals instead, which were frequently quest items on this floor.
Seems more environmentally friendly, she mused as she thought of Outside. By what little she heard on the internet, they just barely avoided some sort of ecological disaster with global warming. Hopefully it still stays that way and Japan won’t sink by the time they get out. Oh well.
Her hair was tousled as a cool breeze blew by, making her toss her newly pearly white hair out of her face. She endured half a day’s worth of insisting how good and different it would look on her from Argo, only to get teased that she accidentally used an albinism concoction. It wasn‘t her fault that her hikikomori tendencies left her with really light skin!
Her hair wasn’t the only new part of her appearance. She just got her commissioned equipment today - which was, for once, not a longcoat of some sort. Both of her friends agreed that the black coat was something that absolutely had to change if she wanted people to not associate her with the Beater; it was simply too distinctive. She was in need of an upgrade anyways, as the coat she had been wearing had been subpar since the clearing moved on from the 24th Floor, but she simply couldn’t care less about her survivability at the time.
Her new armor, made from the piled-up mats of her unsorted inventory, was somewhat similar to Asuna’s combination of a breastplate with cloth armor. She skipped a few steps, letting the part the crafters called a “waistcoat” billow in the wind, which she thought fit the piece much better than it does the formalwear. These open-shouldered half-sleeves ending in ninja gloves were...new. At least it was black.
She glanced at her reflection in a boutique’s window, midnight eyes beneath white lashes gazing back at her in turn. It still doesn't feel real sometimes, she thought as wind made her pearly hair flutter. Like a dream...
As she turned away from the shop’s window, a familiar spiky red hair caught her eye. Klein and some of the Fuurinkazan were having some drinks at a bar’s terrasse; apparently the scare of the past floor was not enough to stave off Klein from trying to find a good drink. The towns of this floor, despite having a victorian theme, had germanic-sounding names; it wasn’t a far-fetched idea that you could probably find a good läger here.
It seemed that they didn’t notice her yet; and as she looked at Klein’s back facing the avenue and the reflective windows in front of him, a toothy grin formed on her face that Argo would be proud of. Admittedly, her [[Hiding]] could be higher, but it will have to do.
Time for payback for all the insensitive comments, whether they were out of ignorance or forgetfulness.
“Kaaah! Now this is some good stuff!” Klein exclaimed, disrupting the otherwise morose mood the nearly empty tavern had, earning him a couple stinkeyes. “I knew it! With all these german-sounding names, there’s no way the beer here ain’t gonna be good!”
The Fuurinkazan was taking it easy after a day of grinding on the lower floors by familiarizing themselves (being tourists) with the 26th’s towns. While not on the levels of clearers, the guild has become respectably strong, without losing one man from the start.
In all honesty though, they were just dragged along there by Klein who was convinced you could find a good drink on it.
The redhead in question was about to turn off the Ethics Code so the alcohol can really hit him, when a flicker of white in the reflection of the window he was facing caught his eye.
He saw a girl with fair features and stark white hair slowly strolling by on the street behind him, who had an odd sense of familiarity to her.
Where do I know her from…? He thought, turning his body to get a better look.
The girl, however, seemed to have simply vanished, as though she was never there.
Issin, who was sitting the closest to Klein exchanged a quick glance with the rest of his guildmates in silent conversation and shared a nod, having seen the white haired girl silently place her index finger to her lips in askance while their Guildmaster was turned away, the girl standing behind him just out of his sight.
The Fuurinkazan hadn’t developed an uncanny sense for trouble for nothing, it’s a big part of what kept them from losing a single member; but curiosity trumped wariness by a large margin, seeing their leader’s history with women.
Who the hell is this girl voluntarily engaging contact with their mountain bandit looking-ass leader?
“Hey guys, did you see a white haired girl walk by?” he asked, turning to face his guild.
He received a variety of, “Didn’t notice anyone like that”, “Nope” and “Didn’t see nuthin’”.
However, the feeling was immediately offset by the one of being watched. He looked around, and his eyes hit a snag on the window he first saw the girl in.
A chill went down his spine as he realized that the girl was looking right at him in an empty stare from the reflection.
He began frantically turning and leaning in his chair trying to find the girl behind him, but no matter how he searched, the girl was only present in the reflection.
Like a ghost ...or something. His guild didn’t seem to notice anything at all. The blood in his veins turned to ice as an eerie, familiar voice spoke softly right into his ear.
“Aw, Klein, don’t tell me you already forgot about me?”
She was pouting disappointedly in the reflection.
“Even though you promised I’d have a place beside you in Fuurinkazan...and I taught you about Sword Skills way back...”
Have a place in his guild? She taught him to use Sword Skills?
It suddenly clicked, and his eyes widened in realization.
Location: Town of Beginnings. Date: November 6th, 2032.
A blue flash suddenly engulfed him, and was gone just as fast.
“Who’re you?!” Kiriko, a pretty girl with long hair and dark eyes asked in surprise. She had been reluctantly teaching him about the game for the past few hours.
“Me?” he looked back, confused. “It’s me, Klein!”
Kiriko’s eyes went wide with panic in realization as she threw away the hand mirror as though it burned her, before she lit up all the same as the others.
A taller, thin boy with unkempt black hair and bags under his eyes appeared in the girl’s clothes.
“No…” The boy shuddered, in a small, broken voice as he fell on his knees, looking at his hands with furrowed brows.”I could’ve been a girl…”
Even through the panic and raised, confused voices of the other players around him, he could see. The kid looked so...broken. It’s like whatever had been powering this bundle of helpful snark and dry humor has been torn out of them, brutally.
“I can’t have that...even here?”
He was brought back from the morbid trance when said person suddenly had an unreadable expression and bolted away.
Something told him to follow them, lest he regret it greatly.
When he caught up, Kiriko was about to go past the outskirts of the Town of Beginnings.
Heaving with his stamina at its limits, he caught their wrist.
“Let me go! Don’t touch me!” they shouted, voice raw.
“Listen!” he strained, ” Thanks for teaching me the ropes! I’m sorry for assuming, but you’ll always be a girl to me no matter what, you hear? If you want, you can still stay with me and my friends I’m gonna team up with!”
Kiriko stopped straining against his grip. He knew there was little to no chance Kiriko would agree, but he had to get this across, or he would never forgive himself for it.
“They’ll understand! If not, I’ll make them understand! I’ll beat it into the blockheads if I have to!” he added.
Kiriko turned to look at Klein. He had to hold back a gasp. He could never imagine there could be so much pain in someone’s eyes. She gave a forced, pained, small smile.
“Thanks. It means a lot. Be careful.” she replied in a small voice, weakly, before running off.
Kiriko would appreciate the gesture more than Klein could imagine, but she needed to be alone. For a long, long time. And she would not smile for just as long.
Klein had heard the rumours about what went off at the battle with Illfang and prayed it was not her.
But what is she doing here?! Why is her hair white?! Why do I seem to be the only one who can see her?
His mind ran a mile a minute. She looked like a ghost.
...Could it be? Had a mob finally overwhelmed her and put an end to her suffering? She had been so, so strong, but she just kept taking the biggest risks. Had it finally caught up to her? If so, why was she here, haunting him?
He shivered as she smiled, sensing his realization.
But this was a game! It was SAO! This shouldn’t even be possible! ...or had she suffered so much that a literal ghost in the system remained?
But, why was she haunting him ? Is it because he was the only one who had really, really known her, for however short a time, not the apathetic persona known as the Kirito the Beater?
He scrambled for his memories of the few interactions he had with ‘Kirito’ and paled as the memory of their last encounter.
Shit! What was I thinking?! ‘You would be a beauty if you were a girl’, especially when that’s what would hurt her the most?! Seriously, me? That’s gotta be one of the most insensitive things I have ever said since I finished middle school!
No matter how much he wanted to take it back and scolded himself for making that the last memory Kiriko had with Klein, it had simply been too long since that day, and he completely forgot in his alcohol-fueled stupor.
How am I even going to make this up to her..?
“Hey bossman, you don’t look so great. Is everything alright?” Harry One, at least he thought it was him, asked.
Just about when he was about to say that no, nothing was alright, he had hurt the person who he probably had to thank for his guild’s continued survival because of what she had taught him on the first day, and he had that person’s ghost haunting him, another girl’s voice resounded.
“Kirikoo! Kleein!” she called.
A ginger girl in red armor nearly crashed into him, out of breath as she supported herself with a hand on Klein’s shoulder. Asuna, one of the clearers, with passing acquaintanceship with the Fuurinkazan.
As he wondered how to broach her knowledge of Kiriko, he noticed that her other arm was raised as well, holding onto something else somewhere behind him. He turned, following her arm with his eyes, which nearly bulged out of their sockets as he saw the person whose shoulder it rested on. An unexpectedly solid and physical Kiriko met his eyes, a wry smile on her face as she waved weakly.
He felt his eye twitch as he sighed in relief, but before he could freak out any further Asuna regained her breath.
“Please help me!” she rasped, disheveled. “These guild recruiters have been hounding me all day and won’t leave me alone even if I encourage doing so with light stabs, and I don’t feel like becoming an orange player because of this. I beg you, I’m at the end of my wits!”
Kiriko wilted under Klein’s scrutinizing gaze that established there would be further explanations provided once the issue at hand is over with, then faced Asuna.
“I got the whole upper floor of the tavern rented for the week and I’m pretty sure there’s still a spare room or two, you can crash for now if you wanna,” he offered.
Asuna’s expression lit up instantly. “Really? That would be wonderful, thank you so much!” she said, sounding increasingly exhausted with every word. She mustered “I’m sorry to impose, but can you show me now? I lost them for now but I’m afraid they could catch up at any moment.”
God, please, give me a break. I swear I’m going to lose it if I have to keep dealing with this any longer. As if that message Heathcliff sent me wasn’t driving me mad already...
Klein just gave a curt nod, and motioned for them to follow.
“Oh, Kiriko, you don’t have to come with,” the fencer started.
“Oh no, Miss Ghost here owes me some explanations and you seem to know her, so now we’re going to one of the free rooms so she can give them to me in private, while you’re there to fill in any bits she omits,” he stated sternly as he entered the building.
If the hole she began drilling in the back of Klein’s head with her glare was any indication, Asuna didn’t appreciate his tone.
“Sorry about this. I’ll make it up to you later?”
Asuna side-eyed Kiriko and gave a noncommittal grunt. She supposed she could actually use this as an opportunity to stop ruminating for a bit.
Shortly, Klein opened a room at the end of the corridor that had two beds, one of which he motioned the two to sit on.
A pregnant silence stretched on as they made themselves uncomfortable, and waited for the other to start. A few awkward moments passed before Kiriko decided she could take it no longer.
“‘Sup’, she says!” Klein started suddenly, making the girls flinch, flailing his arms as he paced. “She runs off, makes me worried for her, we barely communicate past a few awkward messages for the following months, becomes barely responsive, then suddenly shows up and scares me half to death, making me think she’s a ghost!” he finishes as she paces back to face them, letting his arms fall to his sides.
“Okay yeah maybe I kinda deserved it if it was punishment for what I think I did,” he ceded.
“It was for that comment you made about me being feminine and any other ones I don’t remember.” Kiriko deadpanned without hesitation.
“Then I was right and now I’m gonna let myself feel less guilty about it because of what you just did to me.”
“I’ll allow it.”
With that, it was as though a weight fell off his back as his expression softened, placing one of his hands on Kiriko’s shoulder.
His lips curled into a gentle smile, contrasting with his bandit-like appearance. “I’m so glad to see you as yourself again. You okay with touching? Like, can I give you a hug?” he asked, gesturing with his arms.
Kiriko smiled back and stood, let the embrace happen and hugged back, an indiscreet “awww” resounding in the background.
“Wow, you weren’t this comfortable with being touched even before...you know,” he observed as he rubbed Kiriko’s back for a moment before breaking the hug. “So, you gonna tell me how all this,” he gestured to the albino, “happened? And how you got such a cute girlfriend?” he exclaimed, comically raising an eyebrow.
Kiriko rolled her eyes, “It’s really not li-”
“I’m not gay!” Asuna blurted out, a little too fast.
“Aw let your hair down, girl in red! It’s 2033! Even Japan caught up with the rest of the world and voted to legalize same-sex marriage with landslide victory back in the last decade. While at it, we are more or less in the ideal situation to experiment.”
“I-I know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with queer people, I-I’m really just straight.”
“I want to remark how you gestured to all of me but I can’t say anything ‘cause it’s completely reasonable,” Kiriko deadpanned, trying to change the topic as she sensed Asuna’s obvious discomfort.
Klein played along, deciding it wasn’t really his business. For now.
“Can you blame me? It’s not just your hair, you look absolutely decked out! So, mind telling how it all happened?”
They’ve been at it for a while when a pair of figures in red and white caught Asuna’s eye, who was sitting by the window.
“Tch! It’s them!” she exclaimed, her face contorting into a rare grimace.
Klein joins up to look. “Those the dudes who have been harassing you? What’s up with that?”
“Yeeeaah you’re going to have to fill me in, I haven’t really been keeping track of guild politics.” Kiriko said as she caught a glimpse as well.
“Knights of Blood… for all I could complain, they seem to be competently filling in the hole that Kibaou’s guild left in the clearing group and its guildmaster has a considerably less abrasive personality to boot,” Asuna explained, her expression at odds with the relatively positive description.
“And they harass people to coerce them into joining?” the samurai quipped.
Asuna pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. “I don’t think they do. I have reason to believe they’re specifically gunning for me, although I don’t know why they want me so bad.”
“You know, I can’t actually blame them too much,” Kiriko commented to the fencer’s surprise. “You are probably in the top 5 or so strongest players on the frontlines, and on top of that you have intelligence and nerves of steel to back it up. You’re scary competent, all in all.”
“Hard agree.” Klein seconded.
“Eh?” Asuna found herself flustered at the praise. Admittedly, she thought of herself as one of the better players, but to actually have it confirmed, and ranking her that high?
“Yepp.” Kiriko quipped with a smile. “You’re that good.”
“I guess...” the ginger mumbled, frows burrowed.
“I mean, why not? I’d bet you’d do absolutely amazing. Second in command at the bare minimum.” the albino added enthusiastically.
“Yeah...I’d do great...” she said, followed by an exhausted sigh.
It was only when she looked away from the window that she noticed the warm mood they had going had evaporated. Asuna hung her head, her gaze elsewhere, while Klein glanced between Kiriko and Asuna with an expression that said that something’s not right.
“Well, I’ll be out of your hair now. Got some matters to tend to, don’t you?” he stressed before closing the door as he left the room.
Uhm? Excuse me, what?!
The swordswoman’s mind raced as she tried to decipher what went wrong given the context of the conversation with what little social experience she had. Dammit, she was not equipped for a jarring change in the mood like this.
She took a shot in the dark. “I-I mean...it’s not like you’re obligated to join. It was just a suggestion. If you want to keep going forward with me possibly being your partner, I’m all for it.”
Apparently she said the wrong thing somewhere, given the dark look the ginger’s eyes took on.
She winced at her failure to alleviate her mood and scratched the back of her head in consternation, then took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Asuna,” she began as she stood up, continuing once she was sure she had her attention, “I’m...I’m sorry for reminding you of what made you upset, whatever it is.”
Kiriko then crouched in front of where Asuna was sitting, so she could see her downcast face, and lightly touched one of the ginger’s clenched hands with one of her own.
“I..I’m not going to force you to tell me. Still, if you want help, or just want to talk about, it, know that I’m here for you, okay? I get that we still don’t know each other very well, but I like to at least consider us friends at this point.”
She then stood, and began making way for the door before hesitating.
“Er...do you want to go get some drinks downstairs?” she asked.
“...You can go first. I’ll come after in a bit.”
As the albino went for the door handle, Asuna called out in a small voice. “..Kiriko?”
“Yeah?” she asked over her shoulder.
“You’re welcome.” she said, smiling as she closed the door behind her.
Several moments passed as she listened to Kiriko’s fading steps on the wooden floor before a single, quiet sob could be heard.
“I wish I could just stay with her...” Asuna said to no one.
She had no way of knowing that she was heard even though she was alone.
Somewhere in a dark room, a collection of polygons was floating in the air, faintly glowing in a light shade of purple. Quiet as it was, the faint clicking sounds it made could be heard from far away.
With its many eyes, it observed the cities of the 26th Floor. It was ceaselessly collecting data on anything and everything, from the number of drinks sold at pubs to the mental state of players. And to it, the trend was concerning.
Parsing data of the top 500 players…
Result: player morale and clearing speed at critically low levels. Adjusting based on the Creator’s 2nd Directive.
Engaging protocol #MAW87954.