Sinon was startled and looked around her to find the source of the voice she heard. She was fighting some monsters on floor 59 for materials while Kirito was still on break. Sinon had Sachi and Lisbeth with her. Lisbeth was acting as their tank, while Sinon was the primary damage dealer and Sachi was holding most of their healing items.
"Did either of you call me oneechan?"
Sinon faced where Lisbeth and Sachi were standing and they shook their heads, looking around because they had also heard the voice. Sinon recognized the voice. It was a little deeper than she was used to, but that voice was too familiar to not recognize.
"Is Shiro there?"
Sinon's words were met with stares from Sachi and Lisbeth. A few seconds after her question, tapping footsteps came around the corner of the ruins they were exploring in the field. The tapping turned into shuffling as what emerged in their sight around the corner was a large bloated lizard that infested the ruins. They hadn't gotten far in yet for their material gathering for the day and it had been a bit since they last encountered monsters, so they were bound for another encounter soon.
Sinon and Sachi instinctively raised their bows and aimed at the monster, loosing their arrows as Lisbeth gave the signal before charging in. The monster went down very easily. With coordination, even if the monsters were much smarter than in earlier floors, good strategy would usually win against an understood foe.
Sinon couldn't get that voice out of her head though. She insisted to look around for the source of the voice, but after five minutes of checking around for trap doors and rooms in the floor walls and ceilings, she was resigned. The three continued on into the ruins and easily dispatched the monsters they encountered. When they reached the boss room of the ruins, the boss they had previously defeated had spawned back in. It was on a daily timer. After 24 hours, it would return as if nothing had happened. It was a mid boss, so it wasn't as significant as defeating a floor boss.
Sinon was about to check her equipment to make sure everything was ready for the fight, when she could swear she heard someone whisper into her ear. Lisbeth and Sachi weren't close enough to whisper that closely to her, and they were preoccupied with ensuring they were also ready. Sinon shook her head and focused her sight on the boss they were about to fight. Lisbeth gave them both the signal to open up the fight with shots from their bows, and then charged in while the arrows were loosed. The pull from the arrows piercing into the boss as it stood up and began stomping toward them with the arrows sticking out of its belly was remarkable. The boss had made it ten steps, ending up around the middle of the arena they had, before Lisbeth intercepted it, dodging the first strike it made with its giant tail. With the monster set into a spin in place, Lisbeth brought her battle hammer above her head, and began executing the skill avalanche, which sent her into a spin before striking at the ground. This intercepted the tail of the boss and pinned the tail to the ground. The momentum of the boss spinning and the sudden stopping of the tail resulted in the tail ripping off the body. The monster squirmed on the ground, screeching a terrible ear drum bursting screech which they had prepared for with ear protectors.
The fight continued for only a minute longer before Lisbeth's hammer brought an end to the creature, crashing through its skull while it was too beat up to move anything else. It was gruesome and mortifying to others who accompanied the guild into the latest dungeons. The only thing that the Alt members could think of as a good response was that they had gotten so used to Kirito's brutality of monsters. They're just data either way and they shatter in death animations, so it doesn't feel as real as it could.
It was still probably going to leave them with scars when they would get out of Aincrad. It would be difficult to adjust back to their less combat driven lives after being on edge and fighting for so long. They brutalize so many monsters with what feels like their own hands. Kirito was an example of the extent to which they could reach. Kirito didn't even have the system within Aincrad guide his hands anymore. He did kill monsters with his own hands. The visceral feeling of such combat would stay with them their whole lives. It was something they were afraid of. On top of that, they were isolated from the world outside for so long. School would take time to adjust to again, communicating with other people, not having the system available. Life was going to be incredibly different for them from those who didn't experience being trapped in a virtual environment.
Sinon wondered if virtual reality would continue to be a thing after such a thing that they were experiencing. Would virtual reality be considered too dangerous after thousands of people were trapped in sword art online? Her mind wandered as Lisbeth and Sachi organized the drops from their ruin run, and eventually her eyes rested at the far end of the arena where the boss normally rests. There was nothing special there, just a raised platform which the monster had been standing on. Sinon made her way over at a slow pace, as if drawn there by her subconscious.
Again, there was nothing special about the platform, but there was something that Sinon sensed from it. She stepped up onto the platform, and suddenly the ground beneath her feet disappeared with an item breaking animation. Below her was a significant drop which had a small gathering of non distinguishable figures on a bright floor of glowing crystal. Sinon opened a parachute item Kirito had prepared for everyone so that she wouldn't fall uncontrolled too far. As she drifted closer to the gathering below, she noticed that the crowd was moving a lot in the motions of a battle. One person versus twenty monsters. The crowd wasn't so small as she first thought. But it was truly a lot.
The person fighting below was a tall boy wielding a spear having blades at both ends, but a moment of spacing himself from surrounding enemies and he would throw small weapons at them before switching back. He was a phenomenal fighter who really suited fighting solo at the later floors they were in. Sinon was close enough to the ground to release the parachute and return it to her inventory, so she did and equipped her bow, focusing her best on aiming a spread shot to cover for the other person fighting. The monsters he was fighting were more armoured versions of the ones she had been fighting above with Sachi and Lisbeth. With the spread shot of arrows she unleashed, three of the monsters were stunned and rolled back. The person fighting took the opening and hacked through the necks of the fallen monsters, defeating them. He fought like Kirito, the system didn't guide his movements. The attack which cleaved the heads off of the monsters wasn't a system guided skill, but a brutally skilled motion from the attacker.
Sinon landed where the other person had leapt at the monsters from, and he leapt back to meet back with her.
"You made it in time, thanks for the back up. Can you provide another couple of those spread shots so we can get rid of the rest?"
Sinon nodded her head in response to the person. Hearing his voice, she recognized it immediately, but he didn't look like Shiro at all. She was confused. She readied her bow with another spread shot attack and let loose the arrows. Following the arrows, he leapt at the enemies and as soon as the enemies received the arrows, those who did had their heads hacked off. The enemies didn't even have much of a dying animation, just bursting to shards immediately upon death.
Sinon loosed another spread shot just as he cleared the path in front of her, and the last of the enemies were stunned. He ended those enemies in seconds, and sheathed the spear on his back before resting his hands on his knees and breathing heavily.
"Dang, this trap was lethal. It's a good thing you made it in time to save me, oneechan. I don't think I could have held on any longer."
Sinon stared at the person in front of her right in the eyes, but there was no recognition for the face or the figure. He appeared like some fantasy protagonist with medium length blue hair and...then she remembered. Character creation. She remembered that Kirito had mentioned something about Shiro being in contact with the other person keeping in touch with them from outside. Had he really found a safe way in?
"Are you really Shiro?"
He grinned wide and nodded. Sinon only got annoyed at the big grin and took that mirror she had from the first day trapped in Aincrad and pointed it at him. The tall heroic figure shrank into a smaller but still interestingly still lean and a bit heroic. The equipment helped probably, but he wasn't lacking for muscle appearance and he was a little taller than her already.
"Awww! Why'd you do that?!"
Sinon bopped Shiro on the head lightly before hugging him.
"Nobody else in here is hidden behind an avatar, have some dignity to present yourself the same way. It's good to see you Shiro. You've grown...a lot. I suppose you take your fighting habits from Kirito..."
He rubbed his nose as he snickered happily at the praise.
"Kiri-nee is super popular here. I figured I had to study from the best in order to be strong enough to help progression when I finally caught up. And now I'm caught up in levels with my smithing, spearmanship, archery and thief skills. I've really been lagging behind on the passive skills though because of how much I sprinted through everything."
Sinon shook her head with a baffled expression on her face.
"Too much like Kirito...hopefully you didn't also take after the gender confusion?"
Shiro shook his head rapidly and panicked.
"Nononono! I always thought Kiri-nee was too feminine and this feels right for her, but I only admire the strength and that Kiri-nee was always looking out for us back then. Kiri-nee is...special to me."
The blush on his face was a deep crimson as he said it and it stayed there for a while. Sinon sighed and opened up her menu interface to check if she could teleport out. She used her peeking passive skill to check Shiro's stats and smiled as she noticed his stats. They were impressive. He didn't have a guild yet. She shot him an invite to the guild as she got a trap breaking crystal from her inventory.
"Oh, thanks for the guild invite! I guess the secret is out."
Sinon sent a party message to Sachi and Lisbeth to let them know she was porting to the cottage.
"Let's go to the main guild cottage so we can meet up with the party I was in."
"Ah- this is a trapped space. I think we need to clear the whole dungeon we fell into."
Sinon shook her head and threw the trap breaking crystal against the floor. The crystal shattered and the glow of the crystal beneath them died down to a very dim light.
"Teleport to guild cottage."
The voice activated teleport was copied by Shiro and they both ended up just outside of the cottage a moment later. Sinon sat down at the steps and looked up at Shiro as he looked at the cottage with an appreciative gaze.
"Such a comfy looking place. Nothing like the big place on floor 37."
"I guess you do know about that house. We do have another couple rooms in this place, so you might as well pick a room here when everyone else gets back. I'm just going to catch my breath for another minute, so sit down."
As Shiro sat down on the steps beside her, the sound for incoming teleport shook the air around them and Sachi and Lisbeth's concerned voices first muffled, then clearly filled their ears.
"-please be okay."
"We're okay. I said to come back instead of proceeding because we don't know how long that trapped dungeon was going to be. Anyway...this is my younger brother, Shiro."
Sachi and Lisbeth greeted him in their typical ways. Sachi shyly bowed lightly and introduced herself, while Lisbeth smiled widely and greeted him with confidence before introducing herself as the main smithy of the guild.
"It's nice to meet you. Had Kiri-nee told everyone that I'm another of the secret weapons?"
Silence fell on them and more teleport sounds shook the air around them. Another ten minutes passed of people teleporting in, and eventually Kirito also arrived from inside the cottage behind them with Yui beside him.
"Hi everyone. Did something happen...?"
Kirito looked over everyone. The geared and battle ready appearance of most of them was a little worrying. Normally everyone would swap to their casual appearance when they were back at the cottage. His eyes stopped on the new head which wasn't facing him. Another blue haired head with a similar tone to Sinon's.
"Sinon fell into a trap at the end of the ruin run we were doing for our usual route, and came across this person-"
Lisbeth's quick explanation was interrupted by Shiro as he stood up and faced Kirito.
"It's good to see you again after so long, Kiri-nee."
He had tears at the corners of his eyes when Shiro faced Kirito.
"You've obviously seen him from a distance. That fighting in the trapped area was way too much."
Shiro scrambled at Sinon spoiling his secret but scratched his head with both hands before stepping up to fully introduce himself to the whole of the guild present. Agil and Silica weren't there, likely because they were tending the restaurant.
"Sorry about the late introduction. It's nice to meet everyone. I'm Shiro, Sinon's younger brother. I hope we all get along. I am not trapped within this place due to a certain person's involvement outside, so I will be logging out to live a normal life on the outside, but I have been studying and learning from the main part of the guild for the better part of the last two months. My fighting style is heavily based on using this spear on my back, and not using the system guidance like Kiri-nee. I hope to contribute a lot and help everyone get out of here as soon as possible!"
Shiro's enthusiasm as he introduced himself with renewed confidence almost made everyone's spirits increase.
"If they could send someone in, why couldn't they get people out?"
Shiro sighed as he heard the question.
"Unfortunately it's easier to get people in than out. It would take years to get everyone out safely, but it only took a couple of days for her to get me in here. It took me a while to level up and develop the skills I do have so I would be useful in the most recent battles. I would like to hope I have finally reached the point where I'm ready to join everyone in progressing out of here."
Kirito chimed in after letting Shiro give his explanation.
"On top of that, I'm impressed with Shiro's commitment. He must have been working very hard to get so much progress on his character while also going to school, kendo and archery. Have you been sleeping, Shiro?"
Shiro rubbed the back of his head yet again, this time in embarrassment.
"If you count the actual hours I've been getting, barely. Thankfully Ela-san's AR device is able to put me into an accelerated virtual environment so I can sleep eight hours in there in the real time of a single hour."
Kirito sighed and put a hand on Shiro's head, rustling his hair a bit before giving him a smile.
"I have another thing to thank Ela-san for when we next talk. I really need to start learning from that prodigy when we get out of here..."
Kirito turned to face everyone else.
"The time right now is just short of noon. I made a bunch of lunch, so let's all eat. After lunch, I request since you're all forcing me into a vacation for now, escort me through the floor 59 dungeon to the boss room so I can observe the boss and come up with strategy for everyone. This way we're not slowing down too long."
Kirito finished saying it and hopped over the railing of the deck to the lawn beside the cottage and summoned a few large picnic blankets, and a dozen baskets full of food, distributing them to each of the blankets and motioned for everyone to sit down as he took his seat beside the basket on the blanket he sat on. Yuuna and Nautilus sat on the same blanket, Yui, Asuna, Leafa, Sachi, Sinon, Shiro and Lisbeth also joined in on the same blanket. Kiin sat on Kirito's lap and mewled like a cat. The other blankets were filled with the other groups, and exclamations filled the air over how delicious the food was.
"Kiri-nee's cooking is as amazing as always~ think you'll become a chef when you get out?"
Kirito shook his head and sighed.
"Cooking is a hobby, Shiro."
"Then what do you want to do as a career when you get out?"
Kirito only gave it a moment of thought.
"I want to prevent something like this happening again. I want to follow Ela-san's example and help with her AR device invention, and to also give Yui a physical body so she can experience the world outside too. I have her information saved to my Nervgear, so when we're out, that's one of my priorities. Of course that means graduating from school first, then taking whatever courses Ela-san requires me to take to work under her."
Shiro smiled and took another bite from the sandwich in his hand before speaking up about developments outside as far as Ela's involvement.
"I think Ela-san would want to take you on as an apprentice right away when you get out. You might not like it right away but she was checking in a lot on your personal history and your grades in school...everything. She's interested in making you as smart as you can possibly be so that you can provide another perspective with equivalent knowledge so that you can both invent new creations to advance technology in a positive way."
Kirito stared at Shiro with a shocked expression.
"I...had a feeling she was a little too knowledgeable about me, but it makes sense. I don't really mind all the privacy she went through of mine, but it feels a bit too much. I think I should finish school normally, work on the method for Yui to function outside, and then after graduating from high school join Ela-san in her work if she'll still have me. She's some kind of next level genius, and she could change the world. I had been keeping my eyes on the geniuses who were advancing technology a lot before I got stuck in here. Akihiko-san who got everyone stuck in here, Ela-san, colleagues of Akihiko-san. There are plenty of virtual reality scientists and augmented reality scientists doing work on the outside, arguing which is better. I think it's more of a taste and mindset difference. Ela-san wasn't arguing with anyone, just picking other's minds for ideas and making progress on her own. I had no idea just how much because all I ever found of her was the level of questions she was asking in the scientific community."
Shiro gave a wry smile and nodded his head.
"I think you'll be okay adapting to being outside again. She was a little concerned that you would take a long time adjusting from the mindset of always being in danger being trapped in here to living a comparatively normal life outside. It's really nice to talk to you again like this though."
Shiro finished the sandwich he was eating and took one of the small cups which had pudding in it.
"So, how are you progressing on the decision to transition?"
Kirito choked on his sandwich in response at first to the question. All eyes were on him. Both because the question was loud enough for everyone to hear, and because of Kirito's initial reaction to it. He coughed and gulped down some iced sweet tea before taking a refreshing breath and answering.
"Ela-san put you up to it, or genuine curiosity? Either way...I decided a week ago that I would go through with transition. I hadn't told anyone until now that I was for sure going to do it, but when everyone was gathered, it was never the right time. Thanks for so bluntly opening up the chance to say it properly. Now please everyone go back to eating."
Everyone stared for a few seconds longer before getting back to eating their meals. Kirito's face was a magnificent deep shade of red that slowly returned to the normal shade. Kiin rubbed up against Kirito's belly and Yui reached to put the last bite of her sandwich in Kirito's barely open mouth during a breath.
"Now it feels right calling you Kiri-nee. It's going to be interesting seeing others stumble on it for a while."
Shiro chuckled and finished the pudding in his hands before laying back. Sinon bopped him on the forehead with her open palm then rustled his hair.
"Same old Shiro..."
He smiled and closed his eyes.
"It's so nice here. You really landed the jackpot on this place. It must be a good way of relaxing between clearing floors to just come here and experience the natural settings, unwind a bit from the fighting."
Everyone present who was involved with starting out in the cottage nodded their heads. Yuuna and Nautilus took in their surroundings once again and nodded in agreement.
"I feel so light after getting that out. Thanks Shiro. Anyway...how long do you have today?"
Shiro opened his menu and checked what time it was.
"It's sunday afternoon. I have another six hours I can do in here."
Kirito smiled and poked Shiro's forehead. She sighed and stood up. Yui and Kiin joined her, sitting on the deck of the cottage, enjoying the shade from the overhang of the roof.
"I'm going to sort out my inventory so I'm at least wearing armour when we all go into the dungeon again. Please continue enjoying the lunch, and eat up everything. Everything has an expiration timer today from this picnic."
The pace picked up a bit as the conversations slowed down since the sense of urgency to consume all the food was instilled in everyone. Kirito felt like the family was finally all together. And she felt refreshed to an extent she hadn't felt possible. Admitting to her gender inclination to everyone at once, that she was going to eventually be officially female outside of the game as well at some point in the future was like an indescribably heavy weight off of her very soul. Kiin was more cuddly with her, and Yui was more close than recent, hugging from the side, playing with her hair. Kirito was Yui's mother. And Kiin's. She wouldn't admit it yet, but her feelings had also been decided, on who she was attracted to most out of everyone in the guild. Of course she wasn't going to reveal who it was until either dire circumstance require her reveal it, or the right time to reveal it would come.
Sinon joined Kirito on the deck soon after and moved her chair right next to her before resting her head on her lap.
"Please...just let me do this."
Kirito didn't say anything, just letting Sinon rest her head on her. Sinon's breathing was a little heavy, her mood transferring a little through the connection. She was a little frustrated, still a little flustered from everything. Otherwise, she was refreshed. Not tired.
"Why didn't you tell me about this transition thing? Why now in front of everyone?"
Kirito brushed hair from Sinon's face as it had fallen over her eyes a little and continued working on arranging her equipment in the menus.
"I wanted to surprise you...is what I wish were the answer. Unfortunately, I just forgot. Whenever I did remember, it wasn't the right time. Whenever I was questioning, thinking of you being masculine in your glasses and everything, I would question more about myself. I figured out how I feel about myself by letting myself feel everything. I know what kind of future I want after everything we've gone through in here. It's only been a year and a half, but that's a long time of being stuck confronting life and death situations which made me internalize everything going on. I finally recognize the feminine parts of myself. The parts that fully accept everything my mom taught me. Everything that my father made me reach for. Everything that I've experienced. I can't do everything I want while being male. I could try, but it wouldn't be enough. One little thing could distract me. And my mind has been so clear in here at the right times because it wasn't a distraction. I thought for a while that I was being distracted, or that my thoughts were going out of control, but it was because I just had so much more I was able to think about. Certainly part of it was being stuck in here and thinking about how to best protect everyone and get everyone out without anyone getting seriously hurt, but being clear of mind helped me keep the focus."
Sinon sighed. She hadn't listened to Kirito's voice from so close in a long while, and the low volume she was producing, the rumble in her as her voice travelled through her was soothing. The little movements as she continued working on her inventory. Sinon felt safest when she could be so close. Kirito was calm as well, which made it all the more soothing. As children, Kirito was much more self conscious of every little close encounter. The stillness and control, the stability of Kirito now was more reliable than she had ever imagined she would be. Kirito was becoming more and more the ideal Sinon imagined she would be. More attractive than ever. Gender didn't matter to Sinon, she just wanted to be significant enough to Kirito that there could be something special between them. She wanted to keep the connection they had, or for it to be a little more. Kirito to her was a strong hand to hold onto, to pull her up from the ground after something that defeated her. The pair of arms to comfort her and give her strength. A calm fortifying expression. The confidence to face any challenge and be able to know what was within reason. A reason to give her all and return home.
"I knew you were going to end up choosing to transition. Being feminine and girly was always more your pace. Denying your feminine charms was always cute, and never felt like you had your heart in denying your feminine instincts. You were always a girl to me. Whether it was a family figure, someone I was attracted to, or my best friend while growing up, you were important to me. I'm just happy that you're in my life no matter what happens. I feel sometimes that I need that strength of yours around to remind me how strong I can be. Whether the person you love is me or not, I'm going to be happy for you that you were able to confess your feelings. If they aren't returned, which would honestly be baffling...I would be here for you to support you."
Kirito closed her menus and gave Sinon a hug.
"Thank you Sinon. I really needed that. I was really nervous just coming clean about my desire to transition. I was worried that everyone who knew me outside would be worried or would protest. It means everything to me that you support it. Now hopefully Leafa also supports it..."
Leafa barged into the conversation right then even though she had already made her way close to join in when her turn would come up, anticipating the conversation's direction. And Kirito was aware. Sinon was unaware and startled.
"As much as part of me is upset, if you aren't happy with who you are outside but are happy with yourself in here, you should take what you like and apply it to yourself outside if you can. That's why you keep telling us you support us working without the guidance of the system, right? So that we can take the skills we can develop in here outside by working on the mental muscle memory. I have been able to keep going with kendo training with you, I've been able to practice with practical enemies who have even been getting stronger. Following the guidance of the system makes it easier to stick to the stances for kendo, but turning off the system guidance lets me do better. It lets me break from the stances the little bit that's required for me to adjust to enemy attacks. There's a stance for just about every situation, but for the situations that the stances aren't meant for, I need to build my ability to be able to react and know naturally how to do so on my own. Because of your insistence and training with me, I've been system guidance free for a week, and it feels amazing. I might not be as good as you at kendo anymore, but at least I haven't been getting worse. Thank you oneechan, because regardless any negative feelings I have about your desire to transition, you've given me more than I deserve in terms of stability in here. Even if it's hard to return to outside after being in here so long, I know I have a life to return to, a set of skills I've held on to."
"Thank you Leafa. Now, I hope everyone enjoyed lunch. Stow away the blankets and baskets in the guild storage and break everything else so we don't leave a mess out here, and either return to what you chose to do this morning, or join me so I can observe the floor 59 boss in peace."
After everything was sorted out and the group of Sinon, Leafa, Asuna, Sachi and Shiro went to accompany Kirito, Lisbeth returned to the shop to craft with the additional materials they obtained for a commission craft. Everyone else went to collect further supplies and store them in the guild storage.
Floor 59's boss was no more challenging than previous floor bosses, and was cleared the next day without Kirito involved in the fight.