Chapter 1: Rescue from one's darkness
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.
Chapter 2: Bedroom Talk
As she was trudging along the road to the nearest tavern, the fencer was at once both regretting and very grateful for her previous actions.
She wound up observing and teasing Kirito for a few weeks, after the apathetic black swordsman broke composure due to a comment about them being effeminate.
Fast forward to present, she was carrying Kirito, who was in fact a girl, on her back to an inn after completely emotionally exhausting herself as a reaction to finally having the right body.
Many conflicting emotions passed the ginger girl’s face as she cursed herself for not having enough strength for a princess carry, thus now she had to carry Kirito on her back. Who still had her ill-fitting men’s clothes on her. Who didn’t have a bra . Who had their chest pressed against Asuna’s back. Who, in turn, was seriously doubting whether or not she was going to reach the inn before she passed out from having so much virtual blood rush to her head.
Seriously, what the hell was wrong with her? She had a sneaking suspicion in the back of her head that she was trying to ignore before the game that she liked girls instead of boys, but this was ridiculous. She was nearly getting a nosebleed from this much ? Okay, to be fair, she didn’t really much have interaction with other female players after joining the Assault Team, which mostly consisted of men, so if she really swung the other way, she simply didn’t have the tolerance or desensitization to other girls who she found attractive and had their nipples poking through their shir- no, no, bad Asuna, we’re absolutely not continuing that train of thought.
Much to her relief, she finally reached an inn. As she walked up to the counter, she was about to open her mouth to speak when a dilemma dawned on her. Should she ask for two separate rooms, or one room with two beds? The part of her that was scared of how attractive she found Kirito wanted two rooms, but another part of her simply felt uneasy about leaving her alone in a state like this. Sure, it was probably looking up for Kirito emotionally from this point on, but still, it must be still so raw for her…
In the end, she got a room with two beds. Not that there was actually a choice anyways, as all the rest appeared to be taken. As much as she could in her exhausted state, she laid Kirito down on a bed. Now…
Well, shit. Should I…? Asuna scrunched her face in indecision as she pondered whether she should undress Kirito, or how much. She definitely wasn’t about to undress her and change her clothes out, but at the very least, she could take off the boots and the overcoat, which are definitely uncomfortable to sleep in and no longer fit.
As she did, she paused for a moment as now Kirito’s girly feet stuck out of the baggy pants and her figure wasn’t completely obscured by the coat anymore. Damn, Kirito is really a girl now, huh. I suppose she always was one, but could only live as one now. I wonder if she’s going to change her name. Kirika? She immediately admonished the low effort feminization method. Kiri..ko? That’s a lot better. Kirie? Sounds good, but doesen’t have the same vibe. She thought, as she tidied the long, black hair that now framed the girl’s face. She looks so peaceful...she deserves that much, from what I’m gathering.
Asuna let out a tired sigh as she turned away. Normally, I would take a bath after a day like this, but I’m completely beat…
When she fell asleep, she dreamed of bunnies and rain.
Kirito stirred. Ugh...I feel like I got ran over by a truck… And then stilled, filled with joy that was more bitter than sweet as flashes of an elf dressed in the colors of the trans flag and brief, yet intense gender euphoria resurged. A sad smile formed as a lone tear slid down pale cheeks.
A dream so vivid...and about me getting what I want, for once, instead of nightmares or nothingness. When was the last time it happened? I can’t even remember... Today will be a lot harder but I’ll take what I can get.
More flashes resurged, of a ginger girl in white and red, whispering words of comfort in an embrace. Kirito’s brows furrowed. ... Asuna? But why? She’s been pestering me a lot, but that shouldn’t be enough reason to…
Opening her eyes, she looked up to the ceiling, pondering, then froze.
I don’t remember going to bed...where the hell am I?
Kirito sat up abruptly and began to scan the room. Strangely enough, nothing was actually strange; for all intents and purposes, this looked like a completely normal inn room from...the 24th or so floor? That is, until her eyes fell on the other bed and the girl on it.
Asuna?! Just what in the hell… I have no idea what happened last night, but I’m absolutely not going to stay here to wait for her to wake up. God knows I won’t get off scot free for whatever happened.
The noirette looked in confusion when she noticed her missing clothes on the nightstand. What the...I should really stop forgetting to turn my Ethics Code off after I finish drinking, lest someone have their way with me.
She couldn’t care less if she had to get dressed in the hallway, so she just quickly and quietly nabbed her boots and coat by the nightstand and made a beeline for the door. But as she passed the full-length mirror, she froze. It can’t be. I must be seeing things after that dream.
She mentally readied herself for disappointment, and took a step back to look.
And then promptly dropped everything in her hands, her boots falling with a thud.
She was there.
Lustrous, raven black hair, a pale, pretty face, midnight eyes with long lashes looked back on the mirror. The girl with a slim figure had a black shirt one size too big and her baggy pants had folds gathering on the floor. Better yet; she was matching every single movement Kirito made.
Asuna awoke with a start at the sound of something thudding on the floor. She was about to switch into full alert mode before a muffled squeal reached her ears.
Quickly sitting up and looking, she found Kirito in front of the mirror with her hands on her mouth and the boots and coat on the floor.
….What’s she…?Kirito?...right, girl.This must be the first time she saw herself like this isn’t it? She thought, yawning as she rubbed sleep out of her eyes. Let’s let her have her moment…
She watched on quietly as Kirito proceeded to go through a series of poses and movements, gradually becoming less meek and more smiles with each one. After going through modelling pose #3, she then went into a pirouette when her foot got caught on the too-long pants and she went down with a squeak.
Asuna, try as she might to stifle her laugh, was still heard.
Kirito whipped her head around, her cheeks burning up, to which the redhead couldn’t stifle her giggle anymore.
“Aha hahahah….I’m sorry...hahah...that was just too cute…” she tried to apologize, still fighting down giggles as the raven haired girl’s cheeks became an even deeper shade of red.
Before the uncomfortable silence set in, it occurred to Kirito to ask something.
“S-say, I remember you hugging me before I passed out yesterday. What happened? Was it you who brought me here? Do you know who I am?” she spoke uneasily, trying to not let the euphoria she felt due to hearing her own voice leak too much into it.
“Ah, right, you kind of passed out crying after you used that item you got from that NPC called Marcello. Then I carried you here. And yes, I know it’s you, Kirito. ...Or do you want to be called something else now?” she replied with some unease towards the end.
The other girl seemed thoughtful for a moment before lighting up. “You’d do that for me?...you don’t think I’m gross or a freak or anything?” she asked hesitantly.
She looks so vulnerable right now…never would I have ever thought... Asuna thought in amazement before composing herself.
“Of course I’ll do that. I don’t know the details, but you deserve as much after suffering so much to be yourself. You’re no freak, but a girl, as much as any other one.”
Kirito blinked, completely stunned by this. “Even though this is just an avatar?”
“Especially because you had such a reaction despite this only being an avatar when you got it. You know, tears of joy and breaking down and all.” she retorted.
The other girl’s cheeks burned at the reminder, but she pushed on. “Then…could you call me Kiriko? And she/her please?” she pleaded.
“Of course. Nice to meet you, Kiriko.” she said with a smile.
“Nice to m-meet you too…” Kiriko sniffled.
“I-did I do something wrong?”
“No! No, it’s just...first Marcello’s quest wasn’t actually a dream, I wake up as a girl the next day, and then I actually get acknowledged as a girl despite knowing who I am? It’s so amazing and I finally fit in my skin and I still have trouble believing it, and it’s just kind of overwhelming because I feel so much, so strongly after not feeling anything and being apathetic all the time! I can’t help it!”
Asuna raised an eyebrow. “Is that how dysphoria works?”
Kiriko calmed down a little at the inquiry. “I mean, yes and no. I was kind of aware that this was some sort of coping mechanism. I just felt so horrible all the time that my subconscious decided it was better to not feel anything at all.”
“Don’t be.” she reassured.“I’m okay”- for, she left unsaid-”now. And you’re being very kind to me.”
The black haired girl’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“Speaking of, why are you being kind to me? You still haven’t explained why you were there on the bridge.” she crossed her arms, still sitting on the spot she initially fell.
There’s no slipping past you, is there? The ginger thought wryly.
“Well uh, I’m kiiind of the one who orchestrated the entire thing, frankly?” she admitted sheepishly, not quite meeting the other girl’s eyes.
“You...what?” Kiriko blinked in confusion.
This is embarrassing, but it's definitely for the better… Asua thought with a pained expression as she pieced together an explanation.
“It took a while, but I started noticing how you reacted every time someone made a comment about you being feminine, implied or not. And how apathetic and inexpressive you were, it reminded me of one of my nieces and...anyways, it seemed like something was wrong. So...I acted on a hunch, honestly. “ she fidgeted. “I wanted to do something for you ever since you saved me back on the first level. Went to Argo about some rumours I heard and what I was planning to do, checked out that island then we made sure you overheard that conversation of ours. It paid off, it looks like. So I’m kind of responsible for you.” she finished.
Kiriko’s face seemed to go from flushed and embarrassed, outraged and then resigned.
“Okay, fine. I feel a little manipulated and I’m a little mad for being prodded at, but that’s a small price to pay for this because your hunch was right, so I’m still thankful for your intervention.” she conceded.
“Still, you’ve already done so much for me so I’m indebted to you, so you don’t have to feel responsible or anything. I’m much better now, so you need not bother.” she said, crossing her arms.
“Hold it right there! Don’t you dare pull the lone wolf act on me, missy!” Asuna said with a pointed finger.” I’m the one who poked my nose into your business so it’s my job to support you afterwards! Besides, if you push me away, who’s gonna teach you the girl stuff? Don’t tell me you were planning to just go off, dressed like that. You don’t even have a bra! Were you going to just let everyone see your girls through your shirt?” she gestured to Kiriko’s chest, to which the girl paled in realization and protectively covered herself with an arm.
And I get to tease a cute girl too.
Asuna held back a blush, quickly pushed out the feeling of yesterday’s piggyback out of her mind and continued on. “How to dress yourself, which shops are good, which crafters aren’t going to rip you off? How to get rid of guys who simply can’t get the message to leave you alone? And that’s only the start of the list!”
“Tch.” Kiriko spat stubbornly, reluctant to let go of the freedom that came with being a solo player.
To this, Asuna gave a saccharine smile that could kill. “I’m sorry, I think I misheard you. What did you want to say?”
The other girl stiffened into a seiza. “I understand ma’am. Thank you ma’am.”
This is going to be fun.
Chapter 3: Shoppin'
Kiriko goes through a rollercoaster of emotions.
Asuna held back a blush, quickly pushed out the feeling of yesterday’s piggyback out of her mind and continued on. “How to dress yourself, which shops are good, which crafters aren’t going to rip you off? How to get rid of guys who simply can’t get the message to leave you alone? And that’s only the start of the list!”
“Tch.” Kiriko spat stubbornly, reluctant to let go of the freedom that came with being a solo player.
To this, Asuna gave a saccharine smile that could kill. “I’m sorry, I think I misheard you. What did you want to say?”
The other girl stiffened into a seiza. “I understand ma’am. Thank you ma’am.”
This is going to be fun.
This isn’t the kind of fun I wanted!
Asuna screamed internally into the void as she tried her damndest to keep the redness in her cheeks from becoming any more obvious.
Her ass looks perfect in those black pants!
“Asuna, isn’t this kind of tight? Are you sure this is how it’s supposed to fit?”
They were shopping for some basic clothes for now, as modifying armor would take some time and so would farming some materials for armor.
“It’s only tight compared to all those baggy pants you used to wear. It’s fine because the material is stretchy anyways.” she explained, desperately pretending to look at anything else other than how good form-fitting clothes looked on the black haired girl.
“Mh, true. At least I don’t have to dress to forget how my body looks like anymore.” she replied, admiring how it fit her now.
“You say that like you just lost some weight!”
“I guess it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m still half-wondering if this is a dream. Heck, this is precisely the kind of stuff I dreamed of doing before Kayaba erased all my hopes with that stupid mirror in the beginning. Convincing me that this is my reality now my ass.” she huffed.
“The mirror? You mean how players were returned to their IRL appearance…? Goodness, that must’ve been hard on you.” Asuna gasped in realization.
“Yeah. The fact that you could play as whichever gender you wanted was the biggest selling point of this game for me, and then you suddenly took my only chance of looking like and people regarding me as a girl. Why else do you think I pulled that Beater shtick, let myself be a scapegoat so people are angry at one person instead of all of the beta testers? I fell into the deep end and my self-destructiveness and recklessness got cranked up to 11.”
“Yeah, that explains a lot. Is that why you kept going solo no matter what?” Asuna said thoughtfully.
“Roughly half of the reason, besides being heckled and blacklisted from the majority of the guilds. If there’s no one around me, there’s no one to treat me like I’m a guy. I wonder if I can get away with people not recognizing me because I look different now, although I don’t think it would take much to connect the dots.” she pondered.
“You know, you’re already plenty different as is aside from appearance.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’re participating in an actual conversation which is already incredibly uncharacteristic of your established persona.”
Kiriko raised a finger and opened her mouth in retort, but was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a figure cloaked in brown leather.
“Kii-chan?! Izzat you? Asuna, you freakin’ owe me one, you didn’t even message me about how things went down! And now you’re shopping ? I want in on the fun!” Argo exclaimed in indignation.
“I’m sorry Argo, I was just so exhausted yesterday that it slipped my mind, and then I guess I just got swept up in the idea of shopping and picking out an outfit.” she ceded. It’s been quite literally forever since she got to go shopping together with someone!
“Get me a few of those A-class katsu sandwiches ya made last week and I’ll consider forgiveness,” the info broker replied in mock haughtiness.
“You know that the spawn rate for the mobs that drop the ingredients for it spawn slowly, like monthly, right? And those sandwiches were made last week!” she said, indignant over having to share quality meals again.
“I can be patient,” the whiskered girl replied with a smirk, to which Asuna could only groan.
Then she turned to Kiriko, who was watching the exchange with a raised eyebrow.
“Damn, Kii-chan, ya really are a girl, huh? A cute one too.” she said, blatantly checking out the girl in question, making her blush.
Argo gaped at the reaction, turning to Asuna as she pointed to the noirette with a thumb. “Are you really sure it’s the same person? She...she’s blushing. Like, you know, being expressive.”
“I know right?” the ginger chirped. “It’s like she’s a completely different person. You should have seen her when she just changed and she was hopping in joy.”
“Helloooo? I’m right here !” Kiriko chided, waving her arms as her cheeks burned.
Argo chuckled,“Sorry, sorry, it’s just...you’re so entirely different from the person I got used used to thinking of as ‘Kirito’. Even compared to how you were in the Beta, you’re just giving off an entirely different vibe.” she explained.
“Well honestly that’s because I never honestly felt like I was myself the entire time until now. Also, could you..” she tried, hesitant. “Could you call me Kiri ko now? Since I heard you helped Asuna with this, I’m assuming you’re in the know about this stuff..” she trailed off.
At this, the noirette bore witness to Argo’s rare honest smile. “Of course, Kiriko.” she answered, simply.
“Thank you...and I’d like to also thank you for helping Asuna with her plan. You have honestly no idea how grateful I am for, well, this,” she gestured to her entire self. “Seriously, thank you. So much .” she stressed.
The smile from before faded. “No.” Argo muttered, her eyes downcast under her hood.
“Your thanks is misplaced. If you have to say it, say it to Asuna, not me.” she continued, her voice monotone.
“I didn’t do anything compared to her.”
Asuna bristled. “Argo, come on. Let her thank you at least, it’s not much.” She looked at the broker, confused at the sight of her clenched jaw. “You know how much this means to Kiriko.”
“Uh..” the latter began.
“I’m sorry, okay? ! I feel guilty!” the Rat blurted out.
The fencer and the swordswoman were taken aback by the sudden outburst.
“But...what for?” Kiriko asked, also wanting an explanation.
“I’m sorry I didn’t notice earlier! I should’ve known! Instead I just let you suffer for so long...” she said, pained. “Just look at her! She’s an entirely different person when she’s fine! That’s how bad it was!”
“Argo, it’s not your fault. It was all luck that I guessed the problem right,” Asuna tried to placate.
“I don’t care! I’m the one who’s known Kii-chan the longest! I should’ve noticed something !” she caught her breath between sobs. “I can’t help but feel like I’ve let you down. I-I told myself that there could be so many possible problems that trying to figure it out was next to impossible. Like...like I’ve given up. What kinda excuse of a big sis am I even?”
Kiriko blinked owlishly as she found herself hugging and rubbing Argo’s back in an attempt to calm her down.
She had absolutely no idea the informant cared about her to this extent. They had a budding friendship back in the beta, and from an objective standpoint, she had been more or less the person Kiriko had interacted with the most as she frequently came across map data and other information the other players weren’t reckless enough to acquire. Otherwise, her memories of the past months were blurred together due to her very poor mental state she was in, which was probably also the reason she failed to notice Argo’s growing concern for her.
Man, things were an absolute rollercoaster of experiences since she woke up and felt so...lucid again. First she realized that her lifelong yearning of being a girl has been fulfilled, and then she found out she had two whole people who cared this much about her? Okay, there’s probably Klein too, who’d be hurt to hear that he wasn’t included at first (but screw him, Kiriko still remembers that insensitive comment about her being effeminate as a guy). And there was probably Suguha and her parents too... probably?
Hey, it’s been months since she was mentally stable enough to even think about them, cut her some slack!
Kiriko was broken out from her musings as she realized she still had an information broker to placate. Guilt bloomed in her breast, realizing how much pain she must have caused this person as she hunted for a monster strong enough to put her out of her misery every single day.
“Hey,” she said softly, trying to get the whiskered girl’s attention. “It’s alright. I’m okay now.” She pushed away the sardonic part of her mind that added ‘As okay as I can be, anyways’.
Other people may have been put off by suddenly having a person they previously thought distant show this much concern for them, but Kiriko has suffered a distinct lack of people in her life who not only were concerned for her, but actually understood her without an enormous amount of effort on her part in trying to explain just for an inch of understanding. Because of this, it never felt safe to confide in anyone in her family.
But Argo? Tearful Argo who cares enough to be wracked by guilt for not noticing that she was a trans girl, who seems to implicitly get what all it entails?
Hell if she’s not going to fight tooth and nail to keep this self proclaimed ‘Big sis’ in her life.
“You don’t have to be so worried anymore. And it’s not like you just stood by with your hands in your pockets. You helped Asuna make that plan of hers to help me work.” she said, softly as the shudders subsided under her hand.
She broke the hug, but kept her hands on the other girl’s shoulders as she wanted them face to face.
“Also, to be honest it’s all really blurry for me so I can’t really specify anything, but from what I’m guessing you looked out for me best you could when I was suicidally reckless, didn’t you?”
She took the silence and the sniff as a yes.
“So, now that we got cleared up...” she began as the cloaked girl looked up at her with a raised eyebrow.
“You wanna help me shop for some leisure clothes and help me figure out a plan for my debut on the frontlines without people figuring out I’m the Beater?” she asked with a smile.
And at long last, the info broker broke out in a devious grin.
“ Are you really sure that a skirt has the same stats as other legwear that counts as armor?” Kiriko asked as she tried to delay the inevitable fact that she was going to have to try on a skirt.
Together with Asuna and Argo, after finishing up with shopping for basic clothes they decided that the first step and the most convenient one at the moment, was to get Kiriko a new outfit to differentiate herself from her Beater persona, much to Argo’s dismay who wanted to make a beeline for the lingerie store. Not as her actual outfit, mind you, but just to get an idea of what to ask the crafter to make.
It’s not like she didn’t like skirts. She dreamed of twirling in them, but the concept of wearing something that may expose so much skin was uncomfortable, and there was a pit of dread forming in her gut for some reason when she thought about it.
“For the Nth time, yes, I am sure,” huffed Asuna. “I might have been a complete newbie when we first met but even I know that even a pair of shorts is capable of offering more protection than greaves due to MMO logic.”
Kiriko winced. This wasn’t the direction she wanted the conversation to go.
“I didn’t mean to imply-”
“I know you didn’t mean it that way, dummy. Sooner or later you’re going to be in a skirt, like me. Because what better way to drive in that you’re not a scruffy Beater swordsman than showing a bit of skin?” she sang the last bit.
The noirette groaned as Argo snickered.
“Come on, it can’t be that bad! I would have thought this was something you’d be excited for!”
“Eeeh, you’re not exactly wrong...I just have a bad feeling about it.” Kiriko said, sheepish.
“Just try it! It’s not like we don’t have a bunch of other options if you really don’t like it.”
With a sigh, Kiriko tapped the skirt in the shop interface, opened options and with great apprehension, tapped the “Try Out” option.
She looked down uneasily at the charcoal gray, knee-length skirt.
It looked okay, she supposed. It looked just like-
Just like that skirt she had with the starter outfit on day one.
Suddenly, she was back in the plaza in the Town of Beginnings.
She was running, running away as fast as she could from the panicked crowd’s prying eyes as columns of lights still engulfed players left and right, revealing uncomfortable truths as cute girl avatars became overweight, unkempt and older guys looking ridiculous in the female outfits. Away where they couldn’t point and jeer, away from all the people who would tell on her mother and force her to cut her hair and-
“-riko!” a voice snapped her out of the flashback.
Her gaze snapped up to see the concerned gazes of Argo and Asuna, as the latter hovered a hand over her shoulder, unsure of whether the contact was welcome.
“Are you alright? You looked like you were hyperventilating, and your eyes seemed glazed over.” the blonde stated.
“No...” her voice barely a whisper, “No I’m not.”
With that, she cancelled the skirt tryout and hurried out of the shop. The pair left behind shared a concerned glance before following the noirette.
After a brief moment of panic, they tracked her and found her sitting on a secluded shore of the island, away from the bustle of the town.
“Kiriko?” Asuna tried.
Getting a grunt and a nudge of the head, she supposed that was good enough.
Taking a seat beside her, she asked “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No skirts.” Kiriko stated, voice monotone.
“Huh?” “It was because of the skirt?” the other two asked, confused.
“It’s just...I spent my life being afraid of being seen in a skirt ever since I figured out I wanted to look good wearing one. Then back in the Town of Beginning when everyone brought out the mirrors, my worst fears were realized. It just reminds me too much of how...humiliated and disgusting I felt when other people saw my male appearance in a skirt.” she explained.
She let the quiet linger as understanding dawned on her companions.
“Okay. No skirts…yet.”
Kiriko looked at Argo with furrowed brows, silently asking for an explanation.
“I mean, you don’t want to not wear skirts forever right? You’re going to want to get over this in some way down the road.”
The noirette pursed her lips and gave a deliberate nod, ceding the point.
“But until then, it’s not like we don’t have a lot more options. If fact, you might even pull off the shorts and thigh-highs better off than a skirt.” Argo continued.
“Hey Argo, since when are you an Aincrad fashion expert?” the noirette suddenly asked.
“Nevermind that! Asuna, how do you fight in a skirt without flashing your panties to everyone?” Argo tried.
“Hey! You don’t get to deflect it like that!”
“That is for me to know and for you to find out. Preferably never.” the Rat answered(not), cryptic.
Kiriko groaned. “Fiiiine. Moving on, I would also like to know what Argo asked.” she looked to Asuna.
The girl in question looked at the two for a moment as though puzzled, before sighing and placing her forehead against her lifted knees.
“For some reason, if anyone sees a glimpse under my skirt or it gets lifted, all people see is a pitch black shadow covering everything.” she answered, monotone.
“Oh, that’s gotta be the Ethics Code at work. At least it’s not a bright light that covers it like in anime.”
“Yeah, that would really be a ‘flashing’.” Kiriko added mirthily.
Asuna sputtered before schooling her expression. “Ethics Code?” she asked, all prim and proper as if they weren’t talking about flashing people just a moment ago.
“It’s the part of the system responsible for flagging people for harassment if you stare at them for too long or touch you. It also enables and disables inebriation from alcohol and whether you can do lewd things or not.” the info broker explained sagely.
Asuna failed to suppress the burning in her cheeks while Kiriko looked aside with a thoughtful look in her eyes.
Argo’s smirk was enough of a tell that she found the reactions adequately entertaining. Suddenly, her eyebrows shot up and she leaned down to whisper something into Asuna’s ear that even Kiriko’s enhanced [Hearing] couldn’t make out.
Then both of them stood and pulled the noirette to stand. “Huh?” she asked.
“Come on, Kiriko, we’re going to do something fun. Trust us.” she said, smiling.
“I’m not sure if I feel like doing anything after the skirt...” she looked aside, hesitant.
“It’ll be different! We know what we’re doing!” Argo reassured.
The reclusive introvert in Kiriko wanted to do nothing but hole up in an inn room and take a nap, but she gave in to the pair’s expectant gazes.
“I’m probably going to regret this, but fine.” she sighed.
She did not feel reassured by the shared grin she saw on her...friends, she supposed?
Given Kiriko’s expression of complete and unadulterated panic, you’d think she’d be in a life threatening situation.
She’d been told to close her eyes after a few streets into the city, only to find out she’s been dragged into a damn lingerie store .
She just stated ”Nope,” and made a motion to strut outside, only to futilely find herself walking in place because the traitors held her by the belt.
“I don’t have nearly enough mental, nor emotional energy to deal with this.” she spoke without stopping movement.
“Come on Kiriko! Please! I promise it’ll be good!” Asuna chided.
With another sigh, she stopped and her shoulders slumped.
“Fiiiiine,” she moaned.
She figured her friends did have her best interests in mind, and most of all, it would be more efficient if she just got over with it instead of expending more energy by fighting it.
“Okay so I’m guessing you’re going to want black and-” Argo began, thoughtfully checking the material on the items on display.
“Just give me the thing already so I can try it on and get this over with.” the noirette cut in, exhaustion and annoyance seeping into her voice as she held a hand out.
Instead of just slapping whatever she had into her hand, Kiriko swore she heard the sound of hardware being overclocked as the broker seemed to just accelerate the judging of underwear that could have taken hours into seconds, eyes flicking all over the display and her hands a blur of picking up and discarding undergarments before she finally placed a set into her extended hand.
The swordswoman blinked at the peculiar performance before she wordlessly walked towards one of the changing stalls.
And when she finally draped the curtains, she just let her forehead thunk against the mirror in front of her. It had been a really long day, draining her in a completely different way. Her nerves were frayed. She’d nearly missed just grinding away at mobs on autopilot.
Better get this over with...
She inhaled, lifting her head as she looked down the garments with a pained look, as though she was going to stick her arm into a fire.
I could just stay in here for a bit, then pretend I tried it out...ugh.
A tiny, traitorous voice in the back off her head really, really wanted to try it though.
With great apprehension, she unequipped her clothes before she mentally braced herself and tapped the lingerie to use the item.
The sound effect of the action rang as she shut her eyes as a reaction to it, and what she might see.
The noirette struggled with her anxiety for a moment before she forced her eyes open and looked herself over. The first thing she saw was-
“I have boobs?”
Wait, why am I surprised about this? Of course I...I...I expected to see my gross guy body wearing the girl’s underwear, didn’t I. That’s what I was bracing myself for.
For once, the girl’s expectations were defied; her body actually had all the right shapes to fit the garments.
There was some awkward touching around the body involved and some happiness noises before she looked to the mirror.
She had to admit, Argo had good taste. It was the most comfortable thing she had ever worn in her life, and although she had zero experience with this, she did think that the lace looked incredible with the silver highlights. It even brought out the silver motes in her eyes.
She blushed as she found herself overcome with even more euphoria posing and looking at it from different angles.
Aaaaaah! I-I look so...so good! This is amazing! It fits on me like it should on a girl! I’m a girl!
She completely failed to hold back a squeal.
After an indiscernible amount of time passed, she realized she spent a lot more time than was usually appropriate in the stall and quickly equipped her clothes, hurrying out.
She was met by Argo’s smirk that just oozed smugness, and a blushing Asuna (who was definitely not having an inner conflict about imagining Kiriko in lingerie).
“Don’t you think for one second that I didn’t hear that squeal.” the blonde stated, her expression becoming even more smug, should it be possible.
Kiriko blushed furiously and crossed her arms in a huff. “It’s great.” she admitted.
“But how’d you know that I would...like this?”
“Ah, I figured that if the bad vibes come from ya imaginin’ having a guy body under the clothes, then the answer to cheering ya up would be getting ya out of them so ya see what a cute bod ya got now. Although the lingerie helped a lot I see.” she winked. “Few things bring such joy such as a pair of flattering and comfortable underwear. It even has a minuscule armor stat!”
Heck, she was right. It did have a tiny +3 armor stat!
“So, feelin’ better?” Argo asked as they left the shop.
“Much. Now can we please go to an inn and let me sleep for the next 12 hours?”
“No can d-”
“Don’t you think we should give her a little space after this to process all this?” Asuna interrupted before the blonde could finish. “I would say she could use some time off. Even being a girl itself is still fresh, without today’s ordeal.”
Argo wanted to visibly protest but was coerced into agreement by a pleading look from the fencer.
“Fine, we’ll stop here for today. Tomorrow...we’re going to discuss your armor and the actual plan. Meet tomorrow at 10 AM at the Golden Palm Inn. Deal?”
The plan was sealed by nods from the others.
Then they stood awkwardly for a few moments. Thankfully, Argo decided to make the first move by giving Kiriko a tight hug. “Shoot me a message if ya need anything, ya hear? Take care of yourself,” to which the noirette gave a sincere smile and a nod.
Asuna as well gave a hug, albeit a much more hesitant and brief one. “Do remember that you really are a girl, alright?”
Kiriko’s smile grew warmer at the reminder. “I will.”
As they bade goodbye for now and she took off, that smile remained.
Chapter 4: Make A Wish
AN: I bumped the timeline by a decade, seeing how the canon year of 2023 is 3 years away from losing its charm of "futuristic near-future" at the time of posting.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
https://imgur.com/a/JYroquy uploaded Kiriko's design here.