Chapter 9


March 9th, 2023

Leafa stretched as she basked in the sunlight. It was rare for her not to wear her usual emerald-green equipment; instead, she was wearing a comfortable sundress that hung nicely on her. Beside her, Asuna kneeled on a picnic blanket in equally casual clothing, carefully setting out places for three people. They were sitting at the top of a hill on Floor 30, resting in one of the rare Safe Zones on the Floor; a large oak tree spread out over them, shading the very top of the hill. "It's been a while since we've been out together like this, isn't it?" the long-haired girl asked, her hair gently tousled by the light breeze.

Leafa sprawled out bonelessly, raising a hand to block out the sun in her eyes. "Kinda, yeah," she said. "I think the last time we had one like this was... a few years ago, when you graduated and moved on to high school. You made the sandwiches then, too, right?"

Asuna giggled. "I had to make some special spicy ones so Kazuto would be happy."

Together, the two girls looked over at the tree. Kirito looked back at them, arms folded behind his head as he rested comfortably against the trunk of the tree. The sunlight was dappled on his skin as it filtered through the leaves, leaving him mostly in shade except for the occasional beams of light as the leaves shifted in the wind. "And they were delicious," he said. "Thank you very much, Asuna."

"I'm surprised you're the one who wanted to take a break, Asuna," Leafa said, leaning her head back to stare at Asuna through her bangs, upside down. "Not to be mean, but you're always pushing forward. What made you want to relax for a while?"

Asuna smiled. "Something Silica said, actually. The two of us were talking, and she mentioned really wanting to eat watermelon in the summer. I guess it just stuck with me, and I couldn't help but want to go on a picnic."

"But it's not the summer," Kirito noted.

"Shh!" Leafa hissed at him playfully. "Don't tell her! She might not give us food!"

Kirito's eyes widened. No, anything but that, he thought with a grin. "In that case, bring on the heat," he said. "Summer's great."

Asuna shook her head. "You two," she said fondly. "Stop messing around."

The Kirigaya siblings laughed happily at her exasperated smile. It really was nice to just... have a day off from grinding, Kirito thought. He remembered what Lisbeth had told him, back a few months ago when they went shopping for ores; even if it wasn't anything that pushed them closer to clearing the game, it made him and the girls happy, so that was what mattered. For now, that was taking the morning and early afternoon off to go on an outing with his little sister and best friend, but in the future, who knew what he'd be doing? All he knew was that making them happy was a good enough goal as any, when he wasn't in battle.

Of course, those thoughts were idly passing through his head while he leaned back and relaxed, watching the sky and drowsing in and out of sleep. It was a really warm day out, and that was rare coming off of the heels of February, so he figured it'd be best to enjoy it while it lasted. The sky was blue, with only a few clouds in the sky... Yeah, today was a good day, Kirito decided.

One of the girls sat down next to him and leaned over, resting her head on his shoulder; Kirito couldn't tell, with his eyes closed, but with careful listening he was able to make an educated guess that it was his sister leaning on him. He could still hear the faint rustling sound of Asuna getting the picnic ready. He'd been trying to give her some space, ever since she complained about his face being too close - but now she was willingly sitting next to him, leaning against his shoulder? Kirito didn't understand what was going on in her head.

In any event, he didn't mind the closeness. Like that, the two of them rested in the shade together until Asuna finally called them over for lunch. He cracked one eye open and noticed that she was watching the two of them with a soft smile, and grinned faintly before gently nudging Leafa. She let out a small whine and hugged his arm in protest. "C'mon, Leafa, we've gotta go eat," he said, poking her cheek. It squished a little bit under his prodding.

"But I'm comfy here," she complained.

"The food's over there," he repeated. "I'll drag you if I have to."

"...Fine," Leafa grumped, puffing her cheeks out in feigned irritation before letting go and standing up. She brushed her skirt off and followed Kirito over to the picnic blanket.

Kirito sat down and started staring at the amazing spread in front of them. There was a salad, some fresh bread and cream - Kirito smiled as he remembered Asuna's face the first time he'd shown her how to eat bread with cream, and how she insisted on having a supply on hand at all times even if it meant going back down to the first Floor - and a wide variety of sandwiches. When he and Leafa reached for sandwiches, though, Asuna planted her hands on her hips. "Take your gloves off first," she scolded the two of them. "You know better than that."

"Okay," Kirito and Leafa chorused. He opened his menu and tapped, removing the fingerless gloves. Asuna nodded in satisfaction and took a seat, tucking her legs under herself neatly.

Kirito took one of the sandwiches and dug in with gusto, grinning as the first bite hit his taste buds. "Great as always, Asuna," he told her, and the girl blushed prettily.

"Yeah!" Leafa said. "These are amazing!"

Asuna just ducked her head and picked up a small loaf of bread, spreading cream across the top and taking a large bite with a cute omf sound.

The three of them ate, chatting about little inconsequential subjects like who got the Last Attack bonus on the last dungeon boss or what kind of food Asuna should make for dinner. Kirito teased the girls about going out and buying new clothes for no real reason, which they'd done the week before - Leafa's sundress came from that shopping spree, he was pretty sure - and Asuna protested that it was important to have a wide variety of clothes, even for casual wear. Leafa nodded vehemently in agreement, and Kirito just raised his hands in playful surrender. The conversation drifted around aimlessly but naturally, the result of being so close for four, almost five years.

Eventually, after about an hour and long after all the food had been eaten - Leafa accidentally took one of Kirito's sandwiches by mistake, and he felt a little bad about laughing when she started desperately gulping down water - the three of them packed up everything and headed back down. "That was delicious," Leafa said as they walked to town. "Thanks, Asuna!"

"It was no problem," the long-haired girl replied. "I had a lot of fun too."

"Maybe we should have a picnic with all of us sometime," Kirito suggested. Asuna and Leafa glanced at each other for a second, before Leafa shrugged.

"I'll see if Liz can help me in the kitchen," Asuna said. "Making enough food for all of us would take a while. And you definitely wouldn't be any help, Kazuto."

Kirito thought about protesting, but... no, she was probably right, he figured. He didn't have the Cooking Skill, either in SAO or in the real world. There was a reason he relied on Asuna to do the cooking for the guild, after all. And it was only partially because everything she touched was delicious. Though, that was a lot of the reason. "I'll look forward to it," he said with a smile. "It'll be fun to spend time with everyone, and I'm sure whatever you make will be delicious."

When she smiled at him like that, Kirito thought idly, Asuna was really cute... A-and that was a totally unbiased opinion as her best friend, of course! And Argo said that kind of thing out loud, so it was okay!

"What are the others doing today, anyway?" Leafa asked curiously as they walked through town. Fortunately, it was the middle of the afternoon so most of the players were out leveling up, and they were wearing casual clothes as well. Nobody they passed seemed to give them so much as a second look.

Asuna tapped her cheek and tilted her head in thought for a second before replying, "Argo said she had some info broker business to attend to, and Liz and Silica went out to spend the morning together... I'm not sure what they were doing, though."

"Liz mentioned finding a questline that took place in a bathhouse," Leafa said. Kirito grinned as Asuna twitched, blazing desire barely kept off of her face by what he knew to be a super-human exertion of will. He could still see it in her eyes, though. "She and Silica might be there."

"I think she just got a new swimsuit, too," Kirito added. Asuna twitched again.

"And how come you know that, Kazuto?" Leafa grumbled, glaring at him flatly out of the corner of her eyes.

"B-Because I listen to all of you!" he exclaimed, waving his hands. "She mentioned it at dinner a few nights ago! That's it!" He wasn't going to... peep on them or anything! No matter how many times Argo would sidle up to him and offer to sell information on the girls, including their three measurements somehow, he wasn't going to sink to that level. Even if the information was only about the whiskered info broker!

"Mm-hmm..." Leafa hummed dubiously, staring at him suspiciously. Kirito chuckled weakly and scratched at his cheek.

Asuna giggled. "Oh, stop teasing Kazuto, Sugu. You know he wouldn't do that."

"...You're right, he wouldn't," Leafa said after a second, leaning back and clasping her hands behind her back. Kirito shook his head with a rueful smile as both girls laughed cheerfully. He didn't mind them teasing him, of course - he wouldn't be in a guild with Argo if he was worried about something like that.

When they returned to the guild home, Kirito was surprised to see Argo standing outside. What was even more surprising was that she wasn't alone; normally, that wouldn't be a cause for surprise since she always had some of the members of her information network she called her Mice coming and going with information. However, Kirito didn't recognize the two players standing in front of her. They were both dressed entirely in black - a small part of him whispered that he couldn't really judge - and had curved swords hanging off of their hips. Something about them seemed familiar... "...Thankies for lettin' me know," Argo sighed as the three players approached her. "I'll handle it. Oh, hey! Kii-boy, A-chan, Leafa, welcome home."

The two players she was talking turned around. Then, abruptly, they both knelt down, one knee and one fist on the ground. "My lord," they chorused. "Lady Asuna, Lady Leafa. May you continue to be in good health."

"Uh..." Leafa said slowly. "...Thanks?"

The overly-formal address was familiar, and after thinking about it for a second Kirito remembered where he recognized those two players. They were the ninja role players, back from all the way down on the second Floor. They'd harassed Argo about the Martial Arts skills, but retreated once she hid behind him. But why were they here? ...And calling him 'my lord'? What did Argo do? "Alright, go on, get outta here," Argo said, clapping twice. "We got guild stuff ta handle." The ninjas rose and bowed politely to her before dashing off, fading away as they activated their Hiding Skills. Even in broad daylight, Kirito lost track of where they were swiftly. Before too long, they were standing alone in the yard.

Kirito opened his mouth to ask a question, but Argo simply placed a slender finger on his lips to keep him quiet. "Shh," she said. "No questions. Only silence. I'll explain once everyone's here, 'kay?"

"Sure," he said, a little surprised by the feeling of her finger on his mouth. Her hand was cool. "Asuna, would you mind making us something to drink?"

"I'll go put some tea on," his friend said. "Argo, could you come help me?"

The whiskered girl snickered and winked at Kirito before twirling around and following Asuna as she headed for the door. "Comin', A-chan~. Love ta spend time with ya, y'know."

Kirito shook his head. Argo's moods were mercurial, but her wry, teasing grin was omnipresent. "Guess we get to relax, Kazuto," Leafa said as they walked into the house at a more sedate pace, taking a seat on the couch. Kirito expected her to sit on the other couch, so when she immediately snagged the cushion to his right, leaning against his side while hugging one of the colorful pillows to her chest happily, he was a little surprised. In the end, though, it wasn't a big deal, so he didn't mind all that much. If his little sister felt like cuddling, well, he wasn't going to say no. He'd thought she wanted him to give her space, but maybe he'd thought wrong. Who knew.

Leafa coughed, and he glanced at her. She glanced at him, and then her eyes darted upwards before going back to him. This repeated a few times before Kirito hesitantly lifted his hand and placed it on her head. Almost instantly, she sighed happily and leaned against his side. Gently patting her head, Kirito leaned back and let himself relax fully.

Like before, he was drifting in and out of sleep, his hand idly patting Leafa as the two of them dozed on the couch. When someone sat down beside him, though, he blinked, back to full alertness. "Hey, Silica," he said with a smile. The twin-tailed girl smiled back at him. She started to reach over for something, before pulling her hand back and shaking her head rapidly, cheeks red. He wasn't quite sure what was going on, so kindly didn't bring it up. It didn't seem to matter since Silica didn't say a word, she just got comfortable against the arm of the couch, Pina landing in her lap and curling up.

"Great, everyone's here," Lisbeth said as she took a seat on the other couch. "Hey, Argo? Wanna tell us why we had to cut our quest short?"

"Hey, Leafa," Kirito said quietly, shaking his sister a little. "Time to focus."

"Munya..."

"This is important," he told her. His sister wasn't quite an accomplished napper just yet, so she rubbed her eyes blearily before shifting away from him. That was the second time that day... Maybe he should spend some time sleeping with her to teach her proper napping technique?

Asuna and Argo entered, both girls carrying tea trays. Asuna set hers down and started pouring tea from the elegant glass teapot into the cups, while Argo handed out the filled cups to the other members of the Royal Blades. Kirito smiled as he looked at the teapot, with fancy leaf patterns on the glass; Asuna had been over the moon when they purchased it, her eyes sparkling with joy. Once everyone was served, Asuna took a seat next to Lisbeth while Argo cradled a cup of tea in her hands standing up.

"'Kay, so, sorry for th' short notice," Argo said after sipping her tea. "If I could, I woulda tried ta delay things an' make sure everythin' was set up prop'rly, but I couldn't. Anyway, down ta business. Ya know how th' Black Cats got in trouble 'cause 'a bad info? An' how th' 25th Floor was..."

"The 25th Floor's boss fight was a mess?" Asuna finished for her.

Argo shrugged. "I was gonna call it a shitshow, but mess works too. So, I've had my Mice snoopin' around ta see if there was a common thread. Once is an accident, twice is the enemy, y'know?"

Silica frowned. "I thought... Wait, isn't there supposed to be more to that saying?"

"I think it's 'Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action,'" Lisbeth said.

"Whatever," Argo said, dismissively waving her hand. "Either way, I figured there might be some bad info broker tryin' ta make money off 'a wrong info. I wasn' able ta find out anythin' about th' 25th Floor, still empty on that, but I did manage ta discover information 'bout somethin' else related ta bad info."

"You did?!" Asuna exclaimed.

Leafa shook her head. "You'd think people would have learned about trying to sell bad information after what happened to that guy pretending to be Argo back on the first Floor." She shuddered, just from thinking about what Argo had done to the poor bastard.

"At least they're not tryin' ta use my name this time," Argo growled. "Instead... Hey, what do ya know about orange guilds?"

"Orange guilds?" Silica asked blankly.

Kirito smiled and looked over at her. "It's based on the color of the player cursor." Silica tilted her head, totally confused, and he pointed over his head. "See here, where there's a green crystal over my head? Same with the others."

Silica's eyes darted over his head before she nodded. "Oh, so that's what it is. But... what does it mean?"

"It's a mechanic that came up more in the beta," Argo told her. "If a player commits a crime, their cursor turns orange. Hurtin' another green player, stealin', ya get th' picture. The first few times it goes orange, ya can wait out a timer or clear a quest, but after a while it's permanent. Anyone with orange cursors can't enter towns, the guards'll chase 'em out. An' that's -"

"No charging guild members for info, Argo," Kirito said instantly.

Argo pouted in defeat, but cleared her throat. "Yeah, yeah, whatever ya say, Black Prince." This time it was Kirito's turn to stare dully at her, and she smirked. "Anyway, a orange guild is a guild of thieves an' players that steal from other players. Nasty pieces of work. They're not real guilds in th' system, like us, but it's close enough for th' word ta work. So, the issue is that for a few weeks now a buncha newbies have been funneled towards a guild that calls itself Rafflesia. Someone keeps pointin' em to easy dungeons that sound great on paper, so the newbs run through a dungeon an' grind up a lot of money, then the orange guild ambushes 'em at the end and steals the col an' rare items dropped along the way."

"Those jerks!" Leafa exclaimed. Kirito had to lean his head out of the way as she sat forward, her fists clenched with righteous anger. "We're gonna teach them a lesson, right, Kazuto?!"

"Like Leafa's sayin', this's where we come in," Argo said. "As number one info broker in Aincrad, it's kinda my job ta deal wit' the bad apples. So, since this is 'bout info, an' someone workin' with a orange guild, we gotta handle it."

"I'm not saying no," Kirito said. "I think you have a point, and knowing about it means we're responsible about doing something. But... how has no front-liner done anything yet?"

Argo shrugged. "The orange guild's pretty visible, which is how it got passed up the grapevine to me, but Rafflesia's also really good at hidin', funny enough. If a front-line player or even a mid-level player joins the quest, they somehow know not ta attack. Even when the high-level players join up halfway through, or use a newb as decoys, Rafflesia cheeses it. Basically, if we wanna find them, we're gonna have ta go without anyone figurin' out it's us."

Asuna coughed politely, placing her cup back on its saucer with a quiet clink. "That's important," she said, "but how will we do that? We're... not exactly the most unknown players..."

Silica stroked Pina, and the little dragon yawned. Lisbeth twirled a lock of her pink hair, and Leafa stretched her arms over her head. "Maybe ya got a point," Argo said slowly, scratching her whiskered cheeks. "But! I have an idea!"

"Oh yeah?" Kirito asked. "What?"

She grinned. For some reason, Kirito wasn't sure he liked that smile. Maybe because every time he saw it, it caused trouble for him... "You'll see," she said, almost ominously before clapping briskly. "Alright! Kii-boy, gals! We're goin' to the Shoppin' District!"

...

Kirito sighed the long-suffering sigh of boys dragged along to go shopping with their female friends. "It's not like I'm not used to this," he said, "but would you please explain where we're going?"

Argo just laughed. "Nya hah hah! You'll find out when we get there, Kii-boy, stop whinin'!"

Since this was the third time she'd said a repetition of the exact same answer, Kirito shook his head. He wasn't going to get a straight response out of her until they got wherever the girl was leading them, it seemed. The members of the Royal Blades were walking together in their casual clothes; it was the best way they could avoid people noticing them out and about, even if Kirito did notice a few people giving their group second looks. Then again, that was more or less unavoidable when a group of five girls as pretty as his friends were walking around together.

Right then, they were walking down the main street of Floor 20, a good distance from the front lines. However, they were on the Floor for a reason; that being, it was the center of almost every player-run store that specialized in more artisan designs. Things like a blacksmith shop required certain locations near rivers so that it could power waterwheels that in turn powered their huge furnaces - Kirito knew that because Lisbeth had started looking into things for the future and liked telling him about what she learned - but tailor shops and accessory boutiques didn't require hardware like that, so they could set up wherever they wanted.

As a result, Floor 20 became home to most of the shops, and for good reason. Called the Faerie Garden by the players, the main town of the Floor was breathtakingly beautiful, the paths and roads lined with trees and flowers. It was like the town was built around nature, highlighting its beauty wherever possible. The buildings were all made from a white wood with green ivy climbing around the walls in artistic patterns.

"Seriously, why am I here?" Kirito asked.

Argo turned around to walk backwards and face Kirito, somehow still following the twisting and winding path unerringly. "'Cause I'm callin' in that favor ya owe me, Kii-boy~."

Kirito sighed. He could call in his own favor and make her tell him, but on the other hand he would find out soon enough. A favor with Argo was rare currency indeed, so he didn't want to waste it.

Argo led the way before stopping right below a shop. Asuna and the others took one look at the sign hanging over the door, decorated with a thread and needle, and let out short breaths of understanding. "Ashley's, huh?" Kirito mused.

"Yep~," Argo said with a cat-like grin.

"How'd you manage that?"

"Never underestimate a gal's secrets," Argo grinned. Kirito shook his head with a smile. It was probably something silly like asking the tailor to make something interesting. "Now let's go, time's wastin'!"

She pushed at Kirito's back, shoving him forward towards the door. With a sigh, Kirito opened the door, the bell above jingling to announce his arrival, and stepped inside. The girls filed in along with him and, as he expected, immediately went about window shopping.

Ashley, the owner of the store, was the first player in the game to have master the Tailoring and Sewing Skills. As a result, she could make incredibly comfortable clothes; in fact, both the casual clothes and the formal uniforms of the Royal Blades's main members had been purchased from her. Because she was so famous, though, she was able to pick and choose her clients, and rumor had it that she only took orders that caught her interest. Kirito was morbidly curious what project had Ashley so interested that she was willing to help them out.

The door to the back room opened, and Ashley swept out in a flurry. Immediately, and like always, Kirito's first impression of the woman was 'fashion diva'. She was wearing a well-made dress with a jacket on top, a thick fur collar draped around her neck and down her chest. Ashley even had enough money to afford two different hair dyes, so her short, artfully tousled hair was mostly blonde except for a single lock of purple sweeping to frame the left side of her face. With what Kirito assumed to be tasteful eyeshadow, she cut an imposing figure to anyone that didn't know her.

"Ah, the Royal Blades, my favorite VIP customers," she said, grandly sweeping over to them. "Welcome, welcome. Asuna, you're looking lovely. Argo, dear, what did I tell you about that cloak and hood? They hide your best features. And Lisbeth and Silica, you two are cute as can be. I adore the pink hair, and those twin-tails are perfect for you. Leafa, we need to do something with your hair, those clips are adorable but we can do better. Hmm, Kirito, are you eating well? You look thin."

"Asuna's been making plenty of food for breakfast," he said faithfully, even as Ashley swept around the six players like a hurricane, fussing over each of them in turn. He knew she would sit him down and make him eat something if he 'wasn't eating enough' or something like that, no matter how pressed for time they were. Ashley was like that; cold and business-like at first, but once she decided she liked you, she was very warm. He would say she was like Argo, but Ashley was almost motherly, in a way he'd never seen Argo act like.

"He eats jerky for breakfast sometimes," Silica piped up, giggling when Kirito sent her a betrayed look. "...But only when we were out overnight and couldn't sleep in our house."

Ashley looked him over one last time before nodding in satisfaction and cupping one elbow as she waved the other hand. "So, Argo, this project of yours, which one is my model?"

Argo grinned. "It's Kii-boy~." She darted over and pushed Kirito forward. "So, whatcha think?"

"Hmm... Stand still, let me look..." Ashley cupped Kirito's chin and gave him a thorough once-over. "Yes... Yes, I can work with this. And I have the perfect idea."

"Uh, Argo? What's she talking about?"

"Don' worry 'bout it, Kii-boy."

And with Argo's cheerful dismissal, Kirito was almost forcibly dragged into the back room as Ashley turned and headed back, catching him by the hand. It felt like hands of darkness reached out and grabbed onto him, dragging him backwards despite any protest he might have tried to make. The last thing he saw before the door slammed shut was Argo waving, a wide smirk on her face while the other girls watched on in a mix of confusion and slight worry.

...

"Hmm..." Ashley's footsteps circled Kirito for the umpteenth time, and he tried not to sigh. With his eyes closed he couldn't tell what she'd chosen for him to wear, but it had taken a really, really long time. "Hmmm... Mm, yes, this will do nicely. Alright, Kirito, you may open your eyes now."

Finally, he thought to himself, before he opened his eyes. It took them a second to focus on the mirrors in front of him, and then he saw -

And the look... Kirito raised a hand, and watched the figure in the mirror do the same. The chairs in the mirror, as well as everything else in the room, matched, so the reflection was right. "That's... me?" he breathed.

"Some of my finest work, if I say so," Ashley nodded with satisfaction.

"No way..."

With the work Ashley had done, Kirito could safely say that the orange guild, or even the info broker, wouldn't be able to recognize him as Kirito, the Black Prince and leader of the strongest guild, the Royal Blades. On the other hand, he could also safely say that the orange guild, the info broker, and any player in the game wouldn't be able to recognize him as a boy.

The figure in the mirror staring back at him, wide-eyed, was unmistakably a girl. She was wearing a stylish black dress that started at the chest and fell to about mid-thigh, leaving a strip of skin exposed before white stockings started, leading down to rather cute-looking flats with a ribbon on the side of the strap. The ruffles on the top of the dress hid her chest, providing the illusion of something being there, while the waist swept inwards before ending in more frills. In addition to the dress, she was wearing a cute coat with lacy cuffs ending so high up the wrist they were practically on the lower arm; it extended down to below her knees, exactly the way Kirito wore his. A bow hung cutely on the side of the coat where her waist was, along with more frills for decoration.

"Ah, wait..." Ashley stared at Kirito before reaching out and carefully adjusting a single lock of hair, tugging at it until it shifted just a fraction of a centimeter. "There we are, perfect." She tapped at her menu, confirming the style and locking it in. After doing that, no matter how hard Kirito fought his hair would always fall naturally back to its current look. Long straight hair tumbled down his back, all the way down to his waist. There weren't any hair decorations in his hair, but somehow, combined with the cute waves and careful arrangement of locks of hair, that made the femininity even more apparent.

"I..." Kirito's mouth moved silently, and the girl in the mirror did the same. No matter what he did, Kirito had to accept it - the girl in the mirror was, in fact, him. When he raised his hand to his throat, his fingers touched the choker with a pink rose Ashley had used to hide his throat and he watched the girl in the mirror raise her slender, feminine hand to the pink rose around her neck.

Ashley nodded once more before turning to the door. Kirito was so busy staring at his own reflection that he didn't realize what she was doing until she threw the door open and announced, "Alright girls, come take a look at my masterpiece!"

"Wait, no-!"

But Kirito's protests fell on deaf ears as the rest of his guild members spilled in almost instantly. When they saw the transformed and disguised Kirito, perched almost nervously on the chair in front of them, all of the girls froze. For about three heartbeats, the room was entirely quiet - and then the girls squealed in joy, their eyes lighting up as blushes spilled across every girl's cheeks. "Aaaah!" they all exclaimed. "So cuuuute!"

Ashley had added just the right amount of makeup - not too much, but noticeable if one looked closely - to draw attention to Kirito's feminine features while hiding the masculine ones. He hated to admit it, but thanks to Ashley's hard work Kirito knew he would rank up there in the ranks of cutest girls in the game. Naturally, the girls in the Royal Blades were the top five on the list, but the girl sitting in Ashley's chair was a strong contender for number six. And, judging by their reactions, they agreed with his private thoughts about how he looked.

Asuna practically teleported from where she was standing to wrap her arms around Kirito from behind, all but draping herself over him as she rubbed her cheek against him. "Kazuto, you look adorable!" she cooed.

"Hey, stop!" Kirito complained, but Asuna kept a tight grip and he couldn't possibly escape. "Asuna!"

"This... This was way more than I thought was possible," Lisbeth mumbled as she stared at Kirito, a small smirk hiding behind her raised hand. She was blushing a little bit.

Silica smiled at Kirito. "You look really pretty, Kirito! How does it feel?"

"Kinda breezy..." Kirito admitted.

Argo grinned. "Eh, ya get used ta it. Just wait a lil' bit an' it'll feel totally natural."

"I don't want to get used to it!"

"You have to dress like this when we get back to the real world, Kazuto!" Asuna told him, with no room to argue in her voice. "I can't wait to see it in real life!"

Oh no, Kirito thought, he recognized that look in her eyes. One way or another, she was going to get her way. Kirito exclaimed, "I only did this because Argo asked!"

Argo snickered. "Oh, so you'll do it for me, Kii-boy? I'm sure me an' A-chan can work somethin' out, if yer into this sorta thing."

"I'm not! This is for today only!"

A cat-like smirk spread over Argo's face. "Unless ya ever owe me another favor..."

Abruptly and entirely without warning, Leafa crouched down and lifted Kirito's dress up, exposing the underwear he was wearing to all the girls. Immediately, Kirito yelped and twitched in Asuna's arms, face burning from embarrassment, and a buzzer rang out. Leafa froze in place, confusion on her face, and a screen popped up in front of Kirito. "Hey! I can't move!" she said through gritted teeth. She'd managed to trigger the Sexual Harassment code; if Kirito wanted, he could tap the prompt and have his sister sent to the Black Iron Palace, the jail in the game. "K-Kazuto! Do something!"

He reached out and tapped the prompt, and Leafa relaxed as the paralysis left her. "N-Nice choice," Argo said, a drop of blood dripping down from her nose. "Black suits you. R-Really cute. Wish I had my crystal..."

"Awawawa..." Silica mumbled, her eyes spinning. "I just saw Kirito's..."

"Argo, don't tease me!"

"Seriously, what were you thinking?" Lisbeth scolded Leafa lightly. "Sexual harassment is not okay, even if he is your brother!"

"It's not like that," Leafa shrugged helplessly. "I wanted to know! I didn't think a quick peek would get me in trouble!"

Lisbeth's 'anger' disappeared as she grinned smugly. "Speaking of peeking, what does Kirito have under his bed? C'mon, every guy's got a hidden stash, your brother's no different."

"A bunch of-" As soon as the question registered, Leafa hurriedly waved her hands. "N-no! I-I mean, I've never seen anything like that under his bed, haha..." Kirito hung his head as Asuna's arms tightened around him. Thank you for protecting your big brother's secrets, Leafa, he thought.

Ashley cleared her throat, and the girls' lively chatter died off. "I'm glad you're all having fun, but we do have to get things done. Go on, shoo." She ushered the girls - and Kirito, though he might be one of the girls for the time being - out, though Asuna steadfastly refused to remove her arms from around Kirito's waist, her chin resting on his shoulder. "Ah ah ah, not you, Argo," she said, catching the mousy girl by the hood. "It's your turn, now."

Kirito had never seen Argo's expression go from smugly amused at his plight to 'Oh no actually please help' that fast, but some small part of him felt she deserved it. Then, as the door closed, Asuna and the others started fussing over his new appearance again and he couldn't pay attention to anything other than making sure all of his clothes stayed in place.

...

After somehow managing to get Asuna to let him go - and suffering through a few pictures, after the girls promised to never share them, ever - Kirito and Argo headed down to Floor 12 in order to make their way to the meeting place. Argo had used some of her contacts to arrange for 'Alice' and 'Kana' to join the quests, and so the two of them were on their way, walking down the dirt path in the early spring sun.

Kirito watched, almost a little bemused, as Argo hummed happily, arms swinging back and forth as she skipped down the path in front of him. Argo, skipping. He'd seen her do a lot of things, while they were in the guild together - cling to him because she didn't want to walk, sneak around, even run across water in one impressive display of her agility. However, he'd never seen her skip.

Maybe it was because of her own 'disguise', courtesy of Ashley's miracle work; instead of transforming her gender, like she'd done with Kirito, Ashley had simply chosen to hide what made Argo look like Argo in the eyes of most players. Despite Argo's protests, the whiskers had come off, revealing her bare cheeks; her bare face, he realized, really made her look mature... Was she older than he was? Her eyes took on more of a grown-up edge when she didn't have the whiskers painted on her cheeks to distract from them. In addition to removing the makeup, Ashley had strictly forbidden Argo from wearing any equipment that so much as hinted at a hood. Instead, she was wearing a forest green tunic and skirt that left a little bit of her toned stomach bare. After that, Ashley hadn't needed to much more than artfully tousle Argo's hair with a brush and comb, and it was like he was walking with a totally different person.

Would that make her act this different? Kirito wondered. He wasn't acting any different, despite his new look, was he? So why, then...? He didn't realize he was so deep in thought until a slender finger booped him on the nose. "Hiya, Kii- Alice," Argo said with a grin. "Whatcha thinkin' about?"

"You," he replied without thinking.

Argo blushed a little bit, but didn't lose the grin. "Nya hah hah! So, whatcha think? Cute, ain't I?"

Kirito tilted his head, feeling the foreign feeling of long hair shift at the action, and nodded. "Yeah, you look cute in that."

That comment made Argo cough and stumble, nearly tripping as her eyes widened. "I, um..." After a second, she shook her head and smacked her cheeks. "Nya hah hah, yer quite the sweet talker, Alice. A gal might get worried 'bout bein' alone with ya." Kirito just blinked at her, confused. What was she talking about? With another inscrutable smile, Argo turned around and started walking the correct way, sliding over to stand next to Kirito.

The humming he could hear coming from her wasn't quite unexpected, but when he looked over he could see an unfamiliar smile on her lips. "Argo," he said before thinking it through, "is something wrong?"

"Eh? An' it's Kana, while I'm in disguise."

"It's just..." He waved his hand. "You've been acting differently, since we got to this Floor."

Argo raised an eyebrow. "Yeah? Is that bad?"

Kirito shook his head. "Not bad. Just different."

"Different, huh? Hmm..." With a smile, Argo twirled around, her skirt flaring briefly, before she stood in front of him. "Pop quiz, Alice," she said. "Which Argo makes ya the happiest? This one? Or th' original Argo? Or maybe I should wear a maid outfit an' call ya 'Master'?"

Somehow, Kirito could feel that the question was a delicate one, and that just giving a simple answer wouldn't be enough. So, he thought about what she asked, and decided on what exactly his answer should be. "I think the Argo that makes me happiest," he said, and Argo tensed almost imperceptibly, "is whatever version of Argo Argo wants to be. If that's this look, how you normally appear, o-or even a maid... As long as you like it, I will too." He smiled at her. "You're my friend, Argo. I want you to be happy, and I'll do anything to make that happen."

Argo's jaw dropped sometime during Kirito's mini-speech, and her mouth moved as she tried and failed to come up with words to say. Slowly, a bright red flush crept up over her neck, higher and higher until her entire face was as crimson as a cherry. Without any words, Argo crept forward and buried her face in Kirito's chest, hugging him tightly with her arms clutching at his back. "...Not fair," she muttered. "An' I showed ya my face without whiskers, an' then ya say somethin' like that..."

"Argo?"

"Jus'... Lemme stay like this for a bit, 'kay?"

"Alright," he said gently, resting his hand on her head and gently stroking her hair. At first, he felt her hands clutch at his shirt as she nuzzled against his chest, clearly trying desperately to control her blush. Then, after about a minute, her posture shifted slightly, and the hands started drifting south - "Okay, Kana," he said in a hurry. "We should get going, or we won't make it to the town in time!"

Argo's hands froze before she reluctantly stepped away. "Aw," she complained, clicking her tongue in disappointment. "But ya got a point, so... Fiiiiine." She dragged out the last word before starting to walk next to him again. Kirito's eyes widened as a small hand slipped into his, and he glanced down at Argo. "What?" she asked defensively, not looking at him. "We're both gals, Alice, there's nothin' wrong with holdin' hands."

Kirito just smiled and scratched his cheek, not saying anything. His little sister would always say the same thing when he went out with her... The holding hands part! Not that they were both girls! No matter what some of the people at the summer festivals thought.


Okay, so maaaaaybe she was acting a little bubbly. If anyone asked, she was blaming it on the chance to be someone else. Still, Argo could barely keep the huge smile off of her face. She was having a lot of fun, running around with Kirito like this. Maybe it was because she got to be someone else for a while? Or maybe it was because Kirito looked so totally adorable dressed like that. She just wanted to keep hugging 'Alice' forever and never let go. It was like he was trying to hit all of her buttons!

When they reached the town where she'd heard the mole was prowling that day, Kirito coughed. "People are looking," he whispered to her as the two 'girls' walked down the street.

"Let 'em," Argo said with a grin. "All they're seein' is two cute gals holdin' hands. 'Sides, better they remember us for that than wonderin' if we're in disguise or somethin'."

"...You have a point," Kirito admitted grudgingly. Argo just grinned and kept holding his hand. What? Her? Have multiple goals with any action? Nah, never! "But what do we do about my voice? I don't sound like a girl, so people will know immediately..."

"Jus' let me do the talkin', Alice," she said with a wink. "You jus' focus on actin' like a shy, blushin' gal, an' I'll take care 'a ya."

"Argo!" he squeaked, going a little red.

"Yeah, 'xactly like that! See, yer a natural."

"...I'm never dressing like this again."

"Never again's a long time~. An' that's a shame, ya look really cute."

Their little chat ended as they made it to the main street and started walking through the town itself. Argo had teased Kirito about the looks they were getting, but that was pretty much entirely the point; they wanted to be noticed, so that whoever the mole was - unfortunately, her network of informants and spies couldn't get her the identity, or even what they looked like - would choose them as their next mark.

To that end, she'd instructed Lisbeth on making them some new equipment. Kirito had swapped to a single one-handed sword, and Argo was using a dagger. Both of them were wearing light metal breastplates, the sort of thing a dedicated pair might use if they trusted the other player with their life and didn't need to worry too much about defense. More importantly, it looked nice and powerful, but once she'd coupled it with the admittedly simple clothes it gave them the look of two girls that wanted to be safe so much that they'd gone up to the front lines and paid a player blacksmith to make them fancy equipment.

In other words, low level but pretty rich. Hopefully, their mark's ideal prey.

Argo and Kirito both stopped when a player stopped in front of them. "Excuse me, girls," he said. Argo glanced over him, inwardly raising an eyebrow. He was generically forgettable, Argo decided; you could be meeting him for lunch, but until he sat down in front of you, it would be impossible to pick him out of a line-up. His voice even sounded average - not too high, and not too low. "Sorry to bother you, but... you two are partners, right?"

"Yep!" Argo said in a bright chirp, deliberately flattening out her accent. "It's just me and Alice. I think we're doing alright by ourselves, though. So if you're trying to get us to join your party -"

"No, no, nothing like that," he said hurriedly. "I just... Sorry, I screwed this up totally, didn't I?" If Argo wasn't pretty sure he'd intended to talk to them like this from the beginning, she might have actually bought the way he rubbed at the back of his head sheepishly. He wasn't as cute as Kirito when he did that, though, so Argo wasn't affected. "Let me start over. My name's Mystiltainn. I just couldn't help but notice you walking." He chuckled. "Uh, I don't mean that in a creepy way, promise. It's just that two girls like you stick out, you know?"

Argo blinked at him, then looked down to where she was still holding Kirito's hand. "Well, Alice here is pretty cute," she said shamelessly, grinning at him. "Guess I can't blame people for staring at her, right?" She leaned over and wrapped her arms around Kirito's waist.

He grinned. "Of course not."

"But, she's a little shy," Argo continued. "So I'm taking good care of her." Her eyes gleamed, and the man blinked before his eyes widened in surprise. Kirito shifted in Argo's grip, and she cheerfully nuzzled against his side before letting go. "But that's not important. Did you want something?"

Mystiltainn visibly shook himself and coughed. "Right. Um. Yeah, like I was going to say, I couldn't help but notice your equipment." Argo glanced at herself and at Kirito, then back at the man. "Are you looking for places to level?"

"Yeah," Argo said, sighing melodramatically. "Alice and I bought all this equipment from a player blacksmith, so our gear's good, but we need to get our level up a bit. You... You wouldn't happen to know a good dungeon, would you?" She deliberately poured on the charm, batting her eyelashes at him.

When he grinned, she knew he'd taken the bait. "Actually, I might know something," he said.

"Really? That's great!" She smiled happily. "Don't you think, Alice?"

"Yeah it is, Kana," Kirito said. Argo hid a smile at how he managed to get his voice pitched higher. Since he'd half-whispered the few words, it sounded almost exactly like a shy girl. Nya hah hah, she laughed internally, she was so going to tease him about that later!

"Great!" Mystiltainn said with a grin. "We need to help each other out in this game, after all. So, here's how you get to the dungeon..."

After he finished giving them the directions, he waved at them and walked away. Argo waved back, Kirito's hand moving a little bit in the air, before the girl and crossdressed boy headed off, following the directions they'd been given. Argo actually knew what dungeon he'd guided them to, and the instructions actually routed the players around the most dangerous mobs between the town and the entrance to the dungeon, the Golden Field Path.

"Keep up the act until we're in the dungeon proper," Argo whispered to Kirito.

"They're following us?" he whispered back, his hot breath tickling her ear.

Ignoring the sensation that sent a pleasant shiver up her spine - this was work time, young lady, focus! she scolded herself - she replied, "Yeah. Someone is, at least." Their Sneaking Skill was high, but Argo wasn't Argo the Rat for nothing! Her passive Searching Skill had picked something up, and a few careful twirls under the pretense of hugging and facing Kirito on the way had let her pick out a figure, even if she hadn't been able to identify the exact player who'd been following them. She was pretty sure it was Mystiltainn, though. It would make sense; he'd message Rafflesia, who were probably waiting near the entrance to the dungeon, if the players he sent swapped with front-liners.

"Though, Kana," Kirito said softly, and she looked at him curiously, "I'd appreciate some more warning the next time you tell people we're dating."

"Nya hah hah," Argo laughed shamelessly. "What, are you saying you wouldn't want to date me?"

"Just that I'd appreciate not being surprised by the claim," Kirito sighed. Argo shrugged. She didn't really think it mattered all that much. Kirito hadn't really said he was upset, after all, so that meant it was okay. And if she'd asked permission first, it would have looked weird.

They headed into the dungeon, an open, airy place with a clearly defined path to follow. Once they were inside, Argo relaxed. "We should be good now," she said, giving up on suppressing her accent. "I think they're not followin' us anymore."

"That's good," Kirito sighed. "That means you can stop calling me 'Alice', then."

"Aw, it's a cute name for a cute gal," Argo cooed, then rolled her eyes when Kirito gave her a flat look. She was pretty sure he practiced it on his little sister. "Fine, fine, I'll call ya Kii-boy like usual. Yer still cute," she muttered the last sentence so that he wouldn't hear.

"So, we were being followed?"

Argo shrugged, already missing her cloak when she didn't have it ripple with the motion. "Yep," she said, popping the plosive. "An' we're prob'ly gonna be followed here, too, at a distance. Not so much that we can't talk, but ya can't switch to yer regular weapons or anythin'. We'll have ta pretend ta fight th' mobs fer a bit, too. Don't want the peepers ta get suspicious."

"Of course," Kirito sighed. "Well, we went into this expecting to take our time, so it's not like this is a surprise."

Argo shrugged again, not feeling the need to add anything more. On the other hand... Her hand twitched when she glanced at Kirito's, but she forced herself not to grab for his hand. She liked holding hands, yeah, but they were actually in the dungeon proper, so it'd look weird.

Because they were so high-level, fighting the few mobs that filled the plains dungeon was simple. Argo even had to deliberately hold back so that they weren't killing the enemies too quickly; even though they were using the weak equipment, their stats were just plain higher. Argo twirled her dagger after killing the next Golden Forest Wolf and sheathed it again, glancing over at Kirito. His eyes were intense as always, even against enemies like this, and she couldn't help but smile at the look. Humming happily as she walked by his side, she was able to relax for once, and listen to the sound of the various environmental critters, like the birds in the trees and the -

Bark!

"Nyaaaaaah!" Argo squealed, leaping at Kirito. She didn't even care how it looked to any of the players maybe-stalking them, she just clung to his chest and shivered.

"A-Kana?" Kirito exclaimed in surprise, still catching her without hesitation. "What's wrong? Is it an enemy?"

Bark bark!

"Noooo," Argo wailed. "H-H-Hurry up and do something!" Without looking at it, she pointed wildly.

Kirito looked around, still absently patting her back as Argo hid her face, and said, "What, that little puppy? I'm not sure what you want me to do... It's just a small puppy critter, Kana, it's not attacking us."

"I don't care!"

If she had a cat tail, it would be puffed out and standing straight up. Argo turned her head to glare at the small puppy standing by the side of the road. Kirito, once he knew she wasn't in danger, had let his body relax, and Argo took full advantage of the slight acceptance to mold herself against him further, trying desperately to get as far away from that horrible creature as possible.

"Oh... Are you scared of -"

"Sh-shut up! Stop smirking!" Argo complained. "Just get rid of it!"

Kirito laughed and picked up the puppy. It whined in his hands and blinked at him. "He's cute," Kirito told her. "Come on, look. Try holding him for a little bit."

Argo whipped around his body, putting Kirito between her and the dog. "D-don't try to get it on your side! C'mon, I'll do anything, just get it away! You're gonna take years off my life!"

Kirito shook his head and put the puppy back on the ground, shooing it away. As soon as the golden dog was gone, Argo nearly went limp with relief. "I think that's supposed to be a young Golden Forest Wolf," Kirito mentioned idly as he and Argo kept moving to catch up with the rest of the mini-raid group.

Still blushing from the embarrassment, and a few tears in her eyes, Argo gave Kirito a subdued glare. "...I'm gonna dig up blackmail info on you, now," she told him. "I'm sure yer sis has some juicy info to share."

"Wha?"

"It's not fair if ya have info on me," Argo muttered.

Kirito chuckled and patted her head. Despite trying to be irritated with him, Argo leaned into the touch. "I promise I won't say anything, Argo. We're all scared of something, even silly things like that."

"I never asked ta be this way," she grumbled. "...But thanks." She'd have to do something to make it up to him, sooner or later. Even if keeping it quiet didn't seem like a big deal to him, she considered it a business transaction, and Argo hated feeling indebted to anyone.

...

Since the monsters weren't really all that dangerous - except for the occasional break where Argo had to hide against Kirito and shiver until he managed to get rid of the Young Golden Wolf sitting peacefully on the side of the road, panting - the two friends took the chance to chat along the road, something they didn't really do enough in Argo's opinion. Sure, they talked, but it wasn't like back in the beta, when the two of them would spend hours going through dungeons together, talking about whatever the whole way through.

"Hey, Kii-boy," Argo said, grinning up at her friend as they walked. "How's it goin', anyway?"

"Well, we're making good time, we should be at the end of the dungeon before -"

"Nya hah hah," she laughed. "Not that, ya dork, I'm talkin' about yer life in general. C'mon, spill, spill!"

Kirito sighed with a good-natured smile. "You probably know everything anyway, Argo," he said. "Or are those candid photos of all of us in your newspaper from someone else?"

"Neither confirmin' nor denyin' yer accusation, Kii-boy," Argo said happily. "Unless ya pay me the col, of course."

"I think I'll pass," he said. "Things are pretty good, all things considered, I think."

"Oh yeah?"

Kirito shrugged. "I mean, sometimes it's still a little weird to wake up and realize I'm in a guild with you all." Grinning, he scratched the back of his head. "I never really expected to be a guild leader in the first place," he said.

Argo laughed. "Nya hah hah, I would have never thought that. Kii-boy, one of the most famous solo players in th' beta? Of course he's guild leader material," she snickered.

"Hey," he said half-heartedly.

She could tell he didn't really mean it, honestly, but for an instant she worried that she'd actually hit a sore spot. "...Hey, Kii-boy? Um... We don't bug ya too much, do we?"

Kirito looked at her. "Bug me? What do you mean?"

"Well..." Argo fidgeted. She wasn't used to this. She usually didn't worry about whether she was pissing people off, but... Kirito was important to her, so she wanted to make sure she didn't drive him away. Argo knew that if she wasn't careful, that'd happen sooner or later... "I mean, th' way we keep teasin' ya, or askin' ya fer help with grindin', or stuff like that."

"Um..." Kirito looked at her, and then smiled kindly. "Of course not, Argo. I know that it wouldn't be the same without all of you here with me."

Argo looked at him, and then beamed at him happily. "Nya hah hah! Ah, yer too good fer us, Kii-boy. What'd we do in a past life ta get ya?" With another grin, she grabbed ahold of his arm, hugging it tightly.

Kirito glanced at Argo. "Uh, Argo?"

"What?" she pouted. "Ya jus' said -"

"I-It's not that," he said. "But... you're clinging a bit tight."

Argo blinked up at him, then looked down where she was still holding onto his arm. "Oh? What's this? Is Kii-boy weak against me? Do I have type advantage? Does Argo beat Kii-boy on th' weapon triangle?"

"More that I can't use my sword like this," Kirito just sighed, and Argo giggled as she let go of his arm, only a little reluctantly. "Thanks."

"No problem," Argo said with a grin. "Buuut, ya gotta give me a piggy-back ride once we're done here in return."

"How is it that I end up owing you something no matter what?"

"Nya hah hah!"

A little bit later, after a quick break to waste a good amount of time against a small back of Golden Forest Wolves - they had that really annoying habit that all Wolf-type mobs had, where they could howl and summon more of themselves as reinforcements, and Kirito had told Argo to let it go off a few times - they were walking down the path again when Argo smirked. "So, Kii-boy," she said almost casually, knowing that he'd know to feel a little worried, "what's it like bein' th' only guy in a guild full 'a gals?"

"Urk!" Kirito coughed a few times, not looking at her, and Argo's smirk widened. "I, uh... I haven't thought about it at all."

"Oh, c'mon, Kii-boy," she wheedled, poking his side a few times. "Tell me, tell me! Promise I won't tell, swear on the fact I'm an info broker~. I'll even pay ya..."

Kirito just crossed his arms, refusing to engage, so she started poking his cheek instead. Squish squish. Nya hah, that's kinda fun, she thought to herself.

"Is it Liz?" Argo asked out loud. "She's definitely cute, an' the freckles add ta her charm. Plus, she's got spirit, nya hah hah!"

"You sound like a dirty old man, Argo," Kirito sighed.

Argo just grinned. "Silica, maybe? I could see why, somethin' about her makes ya wanna protect her, right? Plus, she's a tank, she'd work well with yer playstyle. Which is probl'y way too aggressive, by the way," she added. When Kirito didn't say anything, she smirked wickedly. "Ooh, maybe it's lil' ol' me," she purred, hugging him and pressing herself to his side. "Naughty Kii-boy, tryin' ta make Big Sis Argo break one 'a th' Info Broker's laws."

"Argo," Kirito sighed, though she could hear a smile in the resignation somewhere. "...How couldn't it be you? You're amazing, resourceful... Even when I'm about to freak out, you're always so calm and collected. I know I can rely on you. So... how couldn't I be interested in you like that? Any man should count himself lucky to be even friends with you, you know."

Uh?! Argo blinked in surprise as he turned and wrapped his arms around her, holding her against his firm chest. Uwah?! Argo felt her eyes widen in surprise as she finally understood what he'd said - and her entire face went crimson, the blush creeping from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. S-So what if that was the most romantic thing a boy had ever said to her! That fluttering feeling in her stomach meant nothing! "N-n-nya hah hah!" She squirmed a little bit and managed to break free before immediately turning around so he couldn't see her face. Jeez, why did the dungeon get so hot all of the sudden?! "Y-you're jus' kiddin' about that, right Kii-boy?"

"...Well, mostly."

Kirito's nonchalant answer made something in Argo's chest relax and she let out a huge sigh. "I knew it, Kii-boy! Ya jerk." It was fun flirting with him, though. He always had the best reactions - and she smirked when she noticed that his neck was a little red. Heh, that fake confession had embarrassed him too! But there was no way she was going to let him get away with getting the last word in. "Ooh, I know, it's A-chan, right? Mmm, gotta say, ya got good taste, Kii-boy. Pretty, smart, a good fighter... A-chan's got the works."

"Let's just stop talking about this!" Kirito yelped, blushing bright red. Argo snickered, but let the subject drop. She'd noticed that they entered a Safe Zone anyway, probably the final one before the boss.

Argo and Kirito exchanged a quick glance before they both popped healing potions, chugging them down. Better safe than sorry, even if there wasn't any chance they would be in any danger, Argo figured. "Better use th' fake names from here on," Argo whispered to Kirito. He nodded in agreement.

Once the two of them had full health, they entered the boss room - a mostly empty glade, aside from thick bushes ringing the area and forming a natural enclave to fight in. At the far end of the clearing, a tall oak tree stood, and Argo knew that the end of the dungeon was in there, a chest holding various rare items that sold for a lot of col. It was why this dungeon run was such a popular one for the players unable to handle the front lines. All they had left to do now was beat the boss.

Argo shivered as the boss finally oozed forward, making itself known. There was just something about slimes, right? She knew Silica had this weird thing about plant monsters, but Lisbeth and Asuna always held that slimes were the worst, and Argo had to agree with them. Something about the way they moved just creeped her out... In her case, though, it was mainly because they were such a pain to kill.

...

"Hah!" Argo exclaimed, slashing with her dagger. The body of the slime she was fighting split evenly down the middle, its attack interrupted, and the two halves of the monster formed into separate, more agile slimes. With a groan, Argo watched the half-sized mobs bounce off to cause more trouble. "This sucks!" she complained, turning to Kirito.

He turned to answer her, but his eyes widened. "Kana, look out!" he exclaimed, voice tight and high-pitched. Argo had just enough time to turn and see a slime jumping for her, body glowing, before she felt herself tugged to the side. Kirito's outstretched hand was extended as she twisted, rolling with the motion. In his other hand he swung his sword, neatly bisecting the leaping slime. "Are you alright?" he asked her as the two mini-slimes bounced away. "Kana?"

Argo rolled to her feet and popped up. "Ah... My hero," she pretended to swoon before giving him a grin. "I'm good. Thanks for the save."

"Be more careful," he told her.

"I will." His answering smile made her heart skip. Or maybe that was just the adrenaline, kicking into high gear. Argo was pretty sure it was both. Either way, she felt re-energized and jumped right back into battle.

The problem with slimes, Argo finally realized, was that even if they were easy to hit at first, they were an extreme pain once they'd been reduced down to the component parts. The smallest blobs died in one hit, yes, but they were tiny and fast. Hitting them was the problem. "Rrrgh!" she snarled after another blob bounced out of the way at the last second. They didn't even do much damage, they were just a pain! She let out an irritated hiss as she glared at the dagger resting innocently in her hand. If she had her claws...!

"Kana, stand back," Kirito ordered as he stepped forward towards the center of the clearing. Argo blinked and then shrugged. When he sounded like that, she really didn't have any choice but to obey the sheer confidence in his voice. He'd come through, she knew. He always did.

Kirito brandished his sword before his entire body glowed red. He'd activated one of the few Hate skills he knew; normally, he left that sort of thing to Leafa or Silica, since aggro management was their job, but he still knew a few of the skills. Instantly, all of the slimes that had been bouncing around turned in his direction. They bounced a few times and then launched themselves in the air. Kirito's blade flashed up and slashed the first, and then the second, and then more and more. As he attacked, they kept dying to his sword in a dance of steel.

"Woo!" Argo called, just for fun. If she was just going to watch, might as well be a cheerleader~. "Go, go, Alice~!"

With a final slash, the last slime shattered into blue polygons and floated away. Breathing out slowly, Kirito sheathed his blade. Instantly, Argo dashed forward and took a flying leap into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist. It was totally just to make it look like they were celebrating beating a tough boss. And also because she got to enjoy some Kii-boy cuddles, that too. "Ar- Kana," Kirito breathed.

"Good job," she said with a giggle, leaning forward to boop his nose with hers. Kirito suffered through the affection well, only leaning away when she went for a second nose boop. Good-naturedly, Argo twisted around and hopped down. She turned around to look for their dungeon reward - this might have been a sting, but it wasn't like she was just going to ignore a rare item she could sell - but when she saw the sight in front of her, that grin twisted into a frown.

At least ten players, maybe more, had emerged from seemingly nowhere, surrounding the two players with their blades drawn. Argo looked up over their heads and wasn't surprised in the least to see that almost all of them had orange crystals. "Over here," one of the players said, gesturing with a spear to the side of the clearing. "You two, get over here and kneel. Make sure you don't try anything funny or we'll make sure you pay for it, got that?"

Argo and Kirito nodded and hesitantly walked over, kneeling down where the man indicated. "Alright, thank you very much for your hard work," another player said. He was wearing impressive armor, especially for a thief. "We'll be taking your drops and any rewards for clearing the dungeon. Just give up the goods, and nobody gets hurt. Simple."

Kirito leaned over to Argo. "You ready, Argo?"

She winked at him. "Whenever's good, Kii-boy."

"Hey, what are you two whispering about?!"

He studied the players surrounding them, and then nodded to her. "Do it."

"Gotcha. Have some fun~," she said before swiping open her menu. To their credit, the members of Rafflesia noticed immediately and started making their way towards her. However, it wasn't anything more than running to their defeat faster, because Argo finished manipulating her menu and pulled out a small grey orb. With a shout, she threw it on the ground, and it shattered on impact.

The smoke bomb exploded, shrouding the entire field in fog. Argo just kicked back and relaxed as the sound of brisk, violent combat filled the air. "What's going on?!" one orange player exclaimed.

Argo briefly considered telling them to relax too, because that'd make things easier, but figured that it'd be over soon enough no matter what they did.

Sure enough, the short-lived smoke faded away after only a few minutes to reveal the orange players all twitching on the ground, stunned by paralysis needles they'd purchased specifically for this task. Argo didn't waste any time scurrying over to each of them and tying them up with rope from her inventory. Once all of the thieves had been secured, she glanced up to Kirito. He had both his swords out, holding them to the throat of what she assumed to be the leader of Rafflesia. The only reason he wasn't knocking the player out was the green cursor over his head. "Hi there," Argo sang cheerfully as she approached him. "Sorry 'bout this, but yer lil' game's up. Gonna go ta jail the easy way, or the hard way?"

"You're..." The man looked at the two swords in Kirito's hands, and then back at Argo. "The Royal Blades... You're Argo, aren't you?"

"Got it in one~," Argo said cheerfully. "We heard ya were doin' some naughty things, so we figured we'd put a stop to it."

The man grimaced at her, and then sighed when Kirito adjusted his grip on the two blades held at his neck. The weapons caught the light ominously, glinting from the sun. "We'll go," he said, totally defeated.

Argo's smirk widened. "That's what I like ta hear," she said before rummaging around in her pockets. "Here we go, this Corridor Crystal is keyed to th' Black Iron Palace. Corridor open!"

Yes, it was expensive, but Argo was all about the spectacle. She watched the defeated orange players with a satisfied smirk, before turning to head out. Now, to handle the player that had been informing the guild...

...

The next day, Argo was relaxing on the couch, kicking her legs idly. Her whiskers were back where they belonged, and she was wearing her comfortable short shorts instead of the cute dress Ashley had stuffed her in. And, most importantly, her cloak was wrapped around her shoulders, her hood pooled around her neck. It was like the warm embrace of an old friend.

"Argo!" Kirito burst into the room. "What is this!"

Argo grinned up at him. "'S my newspaper, Kii-boy, ya know that."

"I'm talking about the article! Where did they get the pictures?"

Argo took a look at the article in question. Naturally, it was a front-page expose on how the Royal Blades had shattered one of the orange guilds that had been plaguing the lower levels. It was a pretty good deterrent against other players trying to get rich quick, Argo figured. Plus, it even had the most adorable picture of Kirito; someone had managed to snap a picture right when Kirito was smiling, still dressed up in his Alice disguise. "What's wrong? Ya look good, Kii-boy."

"What's wrong is that Klein sent me a message asking to be introduced to 'that super-cute new girl of yours'! He keeps calling me Master."

"Nya hah hah, ya gonna tell 'im the truth?"

"Of course not," Kirito grumbled. "Also, Asuna keeps blushing every time she looks at me. I'm worried she's getting weird thoughts."

Argo rolled her eyes. This boy was so dense sometimes, she wondered how he managed to function without picking up on the long-haired girl's incredibly obvious crush. "Don't worry 'bout it, Kii-boy. Besides, didn't yer sis say that the two of ya got confused for twin sisters when you were young?"

Kirito blushed. "Th-that... How do you know that?"

Argo just gave him a V for victory sign with both hands. "Nya hah hah! Never underestimate my abilities as an info broker!"


Success! Argo and Kirito have saved the day. Or, uh, Kana and Alice?

First up, just some cute relaxing with the siblings and Asuna. They hadn't had much time to themselves, and I figured they'd like to goof off together for a while. It was also a good way to get them out of the house so that I could set up some other things for the future. Then suddenly ninjas, and we launch into the main point of the chapter, a cute little sting operation. (Mystletainn was picked as a joke, he's not a character from anything)

Yes, fine, the whole point was basically to have Argo and Kirito interact together, mainly because Argo's a good vector for getting Kirito to think about certain things. In this case, why he would be interested in each of the girls. Except poor Sugu, mainly because Argo still thinks she's his sister and he hasn't corrected that impression. Kirito's 'fake confession' to Argo was mostly a joke, like he said. ...Mostly.

I was trying to come up with a good name for Kirito's disguise, and figured that since this won't touch on anything related to Alicization, I could use it as a nice little nod. Also, because one of the pictures I was thinking about using for 'Alice' was essentially Kirito wearing the traditional Alice in Wonderland blue and white dress. In the end, though, I decided to use a different picture for reference ; it's somewhere on the internet, so go find it yourself. Try googling 'Kirito Minattyon' and it should be the first result.

As much as I adore Argo, being mean to her is also incredibly fun, so we get to take a look at one of her major weaknesses: cute puppers. Really it's any dog at all, but it's funnier to see her freak out over a puppy. You'll notice that the more I like the characters, the meaner I am to them. It's weird that way. Oh well. Everyone's getting a happy ending, at any rate.

(It's hilarious to watch everyone jump to the conclusion that Mysterious Female Point of View at the end of last chapter was Yui...)

Many thanks to everyone that favorited, followed, or left a review.


Canon Omake:

Well, she had said that she should do something nice for him, to make up for teasing Kirito all the time, but still... "Seriously, this'd look better on Liz," Argo protested.

"What? No way," Lisbeth said with a grin. "This is a good look for you."

"Actually, she has a point," Asuna said, studying Lisbeth thoughtfully. "Maybe something in red, to go with the pink hair... Or maybe pink, to up the cute factor?"

Lisbeth blinked and then waved her hands in front of her frantically, as if it would stave off the approaching Asuna. Argo tilted her head, almost surprised by how quickly the gleam of interest had appeared in Asuna's eyes. She really, really liked dressing people up, it seemed. Guess she an' Kii-boy weren't her only toys, she thought with a snicker.

Anyway, she couldn't put this off any longer. With a grin, she stepped out into the living room. "Argo?!" Kirito yelped.

Instead of answering right away, Argo adjusted the cute red ribbon around her neck. She was wearing a cute maid outfit that Ashley had made, complete with frilly headpiece sitting neatly behind the two strands of hair that always stuck up. As an added bonus, there was a little mouse pin sitting on the left side of the skirt. "Nya hah hah!" she laughed, sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth impishly. "How can I serve ya today, Master?"

Because maid Argo is cute too and I mean I'm not going to tease you with that and then not deliver, right?