Epilogue: Shared Strength
November 6th, 2035
"Asuna!" Kazuto called, glancing at the time. "We're going to be late!"
Shino sighed and rolled her eyes fondly. "That's what she said ten minutes ago," Kazuto muttered to her.
"It's a girl thing, you know that," she replied, relaxing on the couch and opening her book to the page marked by the bookmark. "But as you also know, it's always worth it."
Kazuto smiled. "How long has it been, now?" he murmured, rubbing at the plain metal band adorning his left ring finger. Shino knew that upstairs, Asuna had the matching band. "Two years?"
"Three, now," she replied, turning the page. "This is the ten-year anniversary of our escape from SAO, so three years ago."
It hadn't seemed that way at first to the weakened Shino and Kazuto, but life had moved on after waking up from the death game. They'd recovered their strength gradually, fighting their own bodies bit by bit - because they'd been in a coma for years, after all - until they were finally back to normal.
Things hadn't been perfect, though; 300 players hadn't woken up once the game was cleared, and their beloved Asuna had been one of the trapped players. During their attempt to save her, they'd learned that the culprit was Nobuyuki Sugou, a researcher at Asuna's father's company RECT - and that he'd managed to trick Asuna's family into promising him Asuna's hand in marriage.
Once Shino and Kazuto had revealed Sugou's true nature and Asuna's family saw just how happy their daughter was with Kazuto, it wasn't that much of a surprise for the others in the Shining Blades to learn that Kazuto and Asuna were getting married. The two had been hesitant at first, worried about moving to a new step in their relationship without Shino, but it needed to happen; Asuna's high rank in RECT, earned by several years of hard work after graduating college, meant that she was in a very visible position. If reporters got wind of a potential scandal... Marriage truly was the only option, to avoid any issues.
Of course, once they were married Kazuto and Asuna moved into their own house. Something, though, was rather strange; this new house had three bedrooms, while they'd only need two at most, given the size of their family. Coincidentally, they happened to know someone who needed a place to stay - a certain black-haired detective working her way up the rungs of the police force.
Quite a coincidence.
The sounds of footsteps on the stairs brought Shino from her thoughts, and she closed her book and set it back down on the table as Asuna descended. "Sorry I took so long," the brown-haired woman said. "But I'm ready."
Kazuto was ready and greeted her with a light kiss on the cheek. "You look beautiful," he told her, and she smiled at him.
Shino rose from the couch, straightening out her turquoise blue top and tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Let's get going, then," she said. "I don't want to be the last ones there again."
"You heard the lady," Kazuto said to Asuna with a smile, teasing her for her insistence on arriving fifteen minutes early like they always did.
Shino didn't want it any other way.
The Dicey Cafe looked exactly like it always did, and the familiar sight swept a wave of nostalgia over Shino. She'd had a lot of fun in that cafe, going on dates with Kazuto, or Asuna, or both Kazuto and Asuna. Sometimes it wasn't even a date at all, just them and the rest of the Shining Blades and their friends, meeting up to chat and drink until late. Klein always could hold his alcohol the best, she thought with a little cat smile. She'd gotten blackout drunk exactly once, and then the next morning convinced her very swiftly not to do it again.
That, and the embarrassing pictures she knew Kazuto still had saved somewhere on his hard drive. Oh, sure, he insisted that she was just very affectionate, but Shino knew that she'd done something horrifyingly embarrassing, even if none of her traitorous friends had ever admitted exactly what. There had to be a reason she felt the back of her neck get warm whenever she looked at a pair of cat ears... Shino had even considered going to Kana and asking the mousy info broker, but had decided against it for several reasons, chief among them being dread at what the infamous Rat would reveal.
The sign on the door said 'closed', but Shino pushed the door open without hesitation. The little familiar jingle of the bell overhead made her smile as she stepped to the side to clear the entrance and let Kazuto and Asuna enter.
No sooner had Kazuto stepped over the threshold than a brown-haired missile attacked him. "Oof," Kazuto grunted, staggering backwards and staying upright with the help of Asuna's gentle hand. "Kana, can't you say hello like a normal person?"
"Yeah, but what'd be the fun in that?" Kana grinned up at him. "It's been ages, and you never call... A lady's gonna feel neglected, Kazuto."
"Good to see you too, Kana," Asuna said, pushing at Kazuto's shoulder until he stepped to the side and let her inside. "How are you doing?"
"Great!" she cheered, finally letting go of Kazuto and giving Asuna a hug. "The publishers whined, but they're gonna let me finish my series with the next book. Then it's off ta a new setting with all new characters."
Shino smiled as she accepted a hug from their friend and sometimes confidant. "You'll have to let us know when it comes out, so we can buy a copy."
"I'd get ya a discount if I could," Kana said, "but I can't. Maybe if ya let me... borrow Kazuto, then-"
"No," Asuna and Shino simultaneously denied the short woman flatly.
She snickered. "Just teasin', just teasin'. We all know he wouldn't do that to ya. Ain't that right, Kazuto?"
Kazuto just shook his head, like he always did whenever Kana started acting like that. Everyone in the bar had known Kana long enough to ignore the semi-frequent teasing.
Their friend hadn't changed much in the years since SAO, really. She was just as flirtatious, mischievous, and intelligent as always, and those traits served her well in her chosen career as a fiction writer. Shino, Asuna, and Kazuto had a shelf dedicated solely to the books she put out regularly, and Shino at the very least had read each and every one of them. Their mousy friend's writing style was amazing, her wit lacing the pages and her characters feeling as though each and every one was alive. Shino wasn't surprised in the slightest that her publishers were bending over backwards to accomadate her.
"Hey, you guys! Come on and take a seat!" The Dicey Cafe was closed to the general public, but that didn't mean it was empty. Aside from Kana, who was animatedly gossiping with Asuna, the large giant of a man behind the bar was busy cleaning glasses; Agil, the proprietor of The Dicey Cafe, was a good friend to all of them. But he wasn't the one that had called out.
Shino smiled and walked over to the large table, Kazuto a few steps behind her, and eagerly greeted the young brown-haired woman. "It's been a while, Keiko," she said, giving the younger woman a casual hug.
"Too long," Keiko replied.
The youngest member of their guild, Keiko had only recently graduated college and had been busy settling in to her new job - some office somewhere, Shino knew, even though she couldn't remember the exact name of the company. The last few years, she'd more or less dropped off the grid to focus on keeping her own affairs in order, and Shino had missed talking to the energetic woman. Keiko always had some words of encouragement or a cute video of her cat to share, and she never failed to cheer up Shino when being a detective was weighing heavily on her shoulders.
Keiko continued, "But I'm used to everything now. So I should be online a lot more!" she said brightly.
"And how's Pina?" Shino asked.
Keiko beamed. "She's still doing fine," she said. "She's getting old now, but she still loves to curl up on my lap and sleep when I'm on the computer."
"Aww... That's adorable."
Shino took a seat, smiling at Agil as he placed a glass of water in front of her. "Where's Saori and Rika? Are they not here yet?"
Keiko shook her head. "Not yet. I think Saori is still working on her lesson plans. And Rika was complaining to me earlier about the paperwork Asuna was making her do."
Rika, while like Kana not one of the Shining Blades herself, was still one of the group's closest friends. So much so that Asuna, in need of a personal assistant, had offered the job to her, knowing that she'd do a good job. And Rika had proven herself, always careful to keep an eye on Asuna's condition and force the woman to take a break when needed. Of course, the job did mean that Rika worked long and somewhat awkward hours to keep up with Asuna's drive, but Rika was more than up for the task.
As for Saori, her experience in wrangling four unruly guildmates had proven itself invaluable when it came to corralling the kids that comprised her fourth grade computer classes. As she'd put it a few times, 'I managed to keep you all safe and relatively under control, I can handle a few kids.' The kids loved her, from what the stories Shino had heard Saori tell, and Shino couldn't blame them. She had a lot of fond memories of playing with Sachi, even if some were a little tainted by the death game.
The two stragglers in question eventually made it in - Rika grumbling good-naturedly under her breath when Asuna playfully poked fun at her for being late - and the anniversary celebration got underway. It was a time for Shino to catch up with the others and for everyone to spend a nice, quiet evening among family.
The conversations drifted aimlessly, ranging from how Shino was doing in her job - very well, thank you, especially since with Kazuto and Asuna's unwavering support she'd managed to heal from a lot of the trauma from the incident - to how proud Kazuto had to be of his little sister Suguha, who'd just won another kendo championship. He was extremely proud, enough so that Kana made a sly comment about brotherly love maybe going a bit too far.
The night just... went downhill from there.
Shino knew she wouldn't have had it any other way.
"Ugh," Shino sighed, flopping on the couch. As soon as they'd gotten home, she'd changed out of her nice clothes and into her pajamas. "I love them all, but I'm exhausted."
Kazuto sat down beside her, and she automatically lifted her head long enough for him to shift over, then laid back down, his lap providing a nice pillow. "It was nice seeing everyone again," he mused. "We're just so busy these days it's hard to get everyone online and play together."
"That's what you get for accepting that job offer from Mr. Kikuoka," Asuna said, carrying a small tray in from the kitchen holding three mugs on top. Shino sat up and gratefully accepted the steaming cup of tea, wrapping both hands around the warmth and sipping.
"You're one to talk," Kazuto said with a small grin. "How late do you work again?"
"Only as late as I need to," Asuna replied. "I'm not that bad."
Shino hummed. "Only because we made you get better."
"Shino!" Asuna protested, laughing. "You're supposed to be on my side!"
She just smiled and wriggled around, cuddling up next to Kazuto. "Perils of married life," she said smugly. Asuna just rolled her eyes and left, heading upstairs. Shino figured she was probably going to get changed. "Did you ever think it was going to work out this way?" she asked Kazuto, her slender fingers lightly toying with the marriage ring on his finger.
"It wasn't in my original plans for the future, no," he replied softly. "Do you... wish things were different?"
Shino just smiled and placed a light kiss on his cheek. "I have you and Asuna, Kazuto," she said. "Even if we're not officially married, I know you love me. And besides," she added, a glint of mischief in her eyes, "with a library like this, I wouldn't change a thing."
He smiled, chuckling. "So that's what makes all this worth it? Not me or Asuna, but books?"
"I knew you loved us," Asuna said with a smile as she returned. "That just proves it."
Shino rolled her eyes and sat up so that Asuna would have room on the couch. Once the older woman sat down, she handed Shino a hairbrush and turned, beginning their nightly routine. Shino got comfortable and started brushing Asuna's long hair, humming softly to herself. Of course she loved them.
And Shino knew she wouldn't have it any other way.
Shino woke up suddenly, her heart racing. It wasn't a nightmare, so what...
Hearing another one of the sounds that had pierced her dreams made her sit up and grope for her glasses. She recognized it all too well.
Sure enough, when she cracked open the door to the master bedroom - it was Asuna's night to sleep with Kazuto - she saw Kazuto shifting in bed uneasily, moaning under his breath. Asuna was already awake and trying to soothe him, her sleep-disheveled hair pushed back out of her eyes. She knew what was happening, and it made sense - they'd just spent the evening talking about Sword Art Online, so the memories were closer to the surface.
Kazuto jolted once with a sudden gasp as his eyes snapped open before all the tension in his wire-taut body relaxed, and Shino smiled as she slipped inside. Now that he was awake, the two women could help him. "Mm..." he mumbled, rolling over. "Sorry," he whispered. "Did I wake you?"
"It's okay," Asuna murmured before smoothing his sweat-soaked hair back. "It's not a problem."
Shino sat down on the side of the bed, resting a hand on his shoulder. "Another nightmare, Kazuto?"
"Yeah," he groaned, shaking his head and sitting up. "About... about them."
Asuna and Shino shared a quick glance before the older woman excused herself, heading downstairs to make something warm to drink. "It's okay," Shino whispered as she leaned against her lover, twining her fingers with his and squeezing gently. "It's okay. It'll be okay."
The nightmares from Sword Art Online were frequent at first, both Shino and Kazuto waking up several times a night from them. Asuna had suffered just as much, though her dreams prominently featured ALfheim Online and Sugou. After time had passed and they'd found ways to cope, the dreams gradually became less violent and occurred less often until the three only woke up once a month or so.
Shino's nightmares tended to feature that horrible moment at the very end of the game, when she was forced to watch as her best friend and boyfriend both died at the hands of a madman. That awful feeling in the pit of her stomach when she'd woken up, totally alone, was something that refused to leave her subconscious.
The nightmare Kazuto had just woken up from, however, was the same one that had plagued him ever since that ill-fated attack on Laughing Coffin, where he'd been forced to kill several of the red players to survive. Whenever possible - which, after they moved in together, was every time - Shino would make sure she was there to comfort him when he woke up from the nightmare. Asuna always excused herself to make something to drink while Kazuto calmed down.
Shino had asked her why, once. "Because you can help him more than I can," Asuna had replied. "I don't... I wouldn't know what to say." Shino had just hugged her. She was glad Asuna didn't know how to comfort someone about having killed.
Shino and Kazuto sat there for a while, the woman rubbing soothing circles on his back while he took deep breaths. After a few minutes, Asuna returned with some cups and Kazuto drank eagerly. The three of them took care of each other, giving without question and asking without hesitation.
Shino prayed it wouldn't ever be any other way.
Several weeks later...
"Gonna..." Asuna started to say before she paused to retch. "...KILL Kazuto."
Shino just sighed, rubbing the woman's back. "To be fair, this is partially your fault as well. And it's not like we weren't expecting this sooner or later."
Asuna glared at the short-haired woman before taking a few deep breaths. "I think I'm okay now..."
This was a routine morning ritual for the two of them these days. Shino was happy for Asuna, and maybe a little envious too. She hadn't been as fortunate, though not for a lack of trying. It was just luck of the draw that Asuna was the first, anyway. "Where is Kazuto, anyway?" she asked idly while Asuna was rinsing bile out of her mouth.
"I don't think he came home last night," she replied. "Should we give Klein or Agil a call and find out?"
She shook her head. "I'm sure he'll be home soon." She knew that he probably just celebrated a little bit too much with Klein and Kana and was sleeping it off in Agil's extra room.
"Shino?" Asuna asked. "You're... okay with this, right?"
Shino was about to reassure Asuna for the umpteenth time that she was still fine with their arrangement, the same she always answered every time Asuna and Kazuto asked her, and the same answer she always got when she asked them, but she noticed the faint worry in Asuna's eyes and knew that she wouldn't be satisfied with the usual answer.
"Asuna," she said instead, embracing the woman she loved carefully. "This is a big step for all of us, I know that. And nothing's going to change how I feel about you, or Kazuto. Nothing has before, and nothing ever will."
They'd all been through so much together. Kazuto and Asuna had shared their strength with her, and she'd done the same for them. The bonds they'd formed, the love they shared? It was going to last.
Asuna's shoulders relaxed just a tiny little bit, and Shino's eyes glimmered with humor. "And besides," she added, "I just have to make Kazuto make it up to me."
...Okay, fine, so maybe she was a little jealous Asuna had gotten pregnant first.
There was going to be another way, damn it. She'd been trying long enough, after all.
Surprise! It's a sudden epilogue!
Basically, this is epilogue is of dubious canonicity; if I ever write a sequel to Shared Strength, that story will override whatever happened in this one. Just throwing that out there so as to not screw anything up for me later!
So, you all might be wondering, "Wait, didn't Knight say this story was finished? What's up with the epilogue?"
Well, curious reader, I'm very easily bribed. And some reader decided that they really wanted an epilogue, so they donated real people money (I'm as surprised as you!) to convince me to write an epilogue. Being the ethics-bound person you all know I am, I said "Hahaha sure I'll write an epilogue."
Anyway, a few things about this:
1. Don't expect anything else from this story. I mean it this time, no matter how much is donated!
2. The name I chose for Sachi, Saori, is the given name of her Japanese voice actor. It was a quick one to pick.
3. This takes place in an AU where nothing bad ever happened in GGO and Yuuki and Ran are perfectly healthy and they didn't die and shut up I didn't cry during the ending of Season 2 I swear.
4. Yui and Alice, they, uh, totally exist. Yeah. (I didn't even think about that.)
5. Asuna totes got pregnant first even though Shino is first wife.
6. Speaking of wives, Kazuto is legally married to Asuna for reasons, but the relationship between Shino, Kazuto, and Asuna is unchanged.
Thanks for everything, people. I know this story didn't turn out as well as I'd wanted, and that there are many flaws with it, but I definitely had fun writing it (most of the time) and I hope most of you had fun reading it.