It only took me like a month and a half this time to update :D (I definitely haven't had this chapter like 95% done for the last two weeks. No sir! The key scene of the bonus did not have me completely stumped.)
Some actually semi-important notes this time.
I rewrote some bits of the earlier chapters, though the only things worth nothing:
If you read chapter 1 and 2 before June 25th, 2020:
In chapter 1, I made Asuna slightly less dismissive of the events of floor 25. No need to reread it, but it felt worth noting that the change was made.
In chapter 2, I completely scrapped the last couple lines (y'know, the edgy backstory ones :P). Sinon's implied extra tragic past has been removed as well, and the new version is just Sinon biting back at Kiriko a little. I'd suggest you reread it, since it's significant and literally like 8 lines, but it's not strictly necessary.
Aside from that, no promises for when ch4 comes out, but hopefully not too long. There's a bonus at the end of this chapter because I felt like it and the main part was a little short otherwise.
Finally, you'll notice I've decided to name the chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 are named "Wanna party with me?" and "I'm very hard to kill" respectively.
Chapter 3: You look cute with whiskers
Having naturally woken up almost an hour prior to their planned meeting, Sinon had ended up reading while she waited. After all, an hour was hardly enough time to go out, kill things, and come back. Kiriko, on the other hand…
"Good morn..." the words trailed off into a yawn and the swordswoman took a small bite of the sandwich in her hand. It was… different.
"Good morning," Sinon paused before asking, "Not a morning person?"
"Mornings are evil." The answer lacked Kiriko's normal sarcastic and mocking tone, delivered with sleepy determination. She plopped down on the bench next to Sinon and took another bite.
She's actually kinda cute... Also, how did I notice how short she was before?
Despite her normally domineering presence, Sinon realized, the black-clad girl was actually almost a head shorter than her.
After 30 seconds of Kiriko quietly munching the sandwich, she finally spoke up, "Are you fucking with me?"
"Hmm?" Kiriko quirked her head.
"We've been interacting for nearly a minute and you still haven't made a single innuendo or lewd comment."
"Oh." The noirette shook her head. "Just sleepy."
"Huh. I think I like you a lot more when you're sleepy."
"Well, if we slept together-"
"I retract my previous statement," Sinon deadpanned.
"I couldn't not," Kiriko said with an adorable giggle, "I'm sorry."
Sinon exhaled a deep sigh. "You're not."
"I'm not," she admitted with another giggle, taking a final bite of her sandwich and licking her fingers.
Shaking her head, the archer asked, "Let's go?"
"Mhm," her partner nodded, hopping onto her feet, "Let's go get you the Martial Arts skill."
"Let's." Sinon stood up, following the shorter girl to the gate.
As they stepped onto the ornate stone, the other girl grabbed Sinon's elbow and spoke, "Teleport Urbus."
A flare of blue-edged light shrouded them, erasing the world in a curtain of white. It lasted several seconds before dissipating to reveal the crater city of the second floor.
With a moment of hesitation, she released Sinon's arm.
They walked in silence out of the city. Kiriko paused as they crested the crater's lip, revealing the mountainous savana of the second floor, lit by the sunrise coming between the layers.
"Reminds me of the first day," she commented after a few moments, a wistful note in her voice as she gazed upon the beautiful view.
"Oh?" Sinon questioned, pulling the girl from her brief reverie.
Kiriko started down the hill, "On the first day, as I was heading out of the city, some newbie, observant enough to figure out I knew what I was doing, followed me. He asked me to help him out- I think he's a masochist- and eventually convinced me. After a day of farming, we watched his first sunset in the virtual world."
"What happened to him?" Sinon asked warily.
"I ditched him after the announcement. He had guildmates to look after and I wasn't willing to take 6 people with me," Kiriko said with a hint of remorse.
"Oh… do you know if he's alive?"
"Huh? Oh yeah, he's like my best friend aside from Argo," came the cheeky reply, "You might have seen him, since his guild is on the frontline. A bunch of samurai wannabes?"
"And here I almost thought you actually felt bad for ditching him," Sinon said. Guess she's waking up. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.
"Oh I did. Still do, to some extent. He didn't care very much though. He was more upset by the fact that I kneed him in the balls when he tried to flirt with me."
"That seems… I dunno, reasonable to be upset about, even if somewhat justified?"
"SAO has minimal pain," Kiriko deadpanned, "Though for him, it's apparently 'force of habit.'"
Sinon tilted her head in confusion before letting out an "oh" as she realized what Kiriko was implying. "I can imagine why you would get along."
"Hey!" Kiriko exclaimed, "I take offense to that! I have never been kneed in the balls for unsolicited advances."
Sinon rolled her eyes. After a momentary pause, she replied, "Only punched in the face, yes."
"Technically," Kiriko defended herself, "that was for my wit, not my charm."
"Is that better?"
"Um… I think so?"
The icy-haired girl quirked an eyebrow. "Well, I suppose just being an annoying bitch is better than being a sex offender, so you're probably right."
It didn't take the two players long to reach their destination, the summit of a tall mountain. After all, scaling a mountain isn't that hard when you're strong enough to do a pullup with a single finger, and the 2nd floor's monsters posed even less of a challenge.
A small hut stood on one end of the long plateau, while the other bore the weight of 3 massive, egg-shaped boulders, each a good head taller than the bluenette.
"The quest NPC should be in the house," Kiriko commented.
"What? Really?" her fairer counterpart delivered in a monotone voice.
"I know it's hard to believe, but it's true."
"It really is unbelievable, but I guess I'll trust you. Let's check it out then."
Surprising nobody, the monk-like NPC came out of the house as they approached.
"Greetings." His piercing eyes regarded each of them before settling on Kiriko. "I see you have made good progress in mastering the arts."
I get that it's based on Skill level, but my immersion is completely broken.
His gaze turned back to Sinon, scrutinizing her before asking, "Are you here to learn?"
With a brief moment of hesitation (no doubt from yesterday, where she'd managed to drag out of Kiriko that there was some sort of consequence to accepting), Sinon nodded. "Yes."
Quicker than even their trained reflexes could follow, the monk reached within his robe, pulled out a vial and a brush, closed the distance between them, and painted 6 swift strokes onto the bluenette's cheeks. Better still, he made them match her hair color.
By the time Sinon's jaw dropped in incredulous shock, he was already back in his original place with no sign of his heroic deed.
Glare-chan, you've returned! They look great on her, don't you agree?
The icy archer leveled a glare at Kiriko's beaming grin. After several seconds, she pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath.
"They will not come off until you destroy your boulder. I will show you how. Follow me." After his command, the master turned and swiftly strode towards the boulders positioned on the other end of the plateau.
Shooting another glare at Kiriko, Sinon moved to follow. "It's not like it's my fault. Besides, be more positive! You look really cute with whiskers!"
A faint pink decorated whiskered cheeks before she turned away.
As they approached the boulders, the monk gestured to the farthest. "Your task is to break that. Like this."
He took position in front of the nearest, feet set firmly into a wide, square stance. With shoulders set, he rotated his body while extending his arm in one blistering motion. His fist smashed into the rock with a thunderous crack. Jagged lines flashed across the surface one moment; the next, it exploded into rubble.
Kiriko let out a laugh as Sinon stared in shock. She shook her head a moment later, composing herself. "How the hell am I supposed to do that!?" Mostly composing herself.
"There's a trick to it," Kiriko commented, materializing a picnic blanket from her inventory.
"Something tells me you don't expect me to find it soon."
"Do you want me to tell you the answer?" Kiriko teased in response.
The archer chucked her fist at the rock in a half-hearted blow. Pulling up the info window revealed that it had taken a single point of durability. Out of a million.
"How long did this take you?"
"A couple minutes to solve the puzzle, 15 to finish the quest," came the answer, utterly smug.
"Oh good. You'll make fun of me regardless."
"Let's be real here, that would have been true no matter what."
With yet another sigh, Sinon commented, "I'm not sure if your self-awareness makes you more or less of an annoyance."
"You could sound less proud of that, you know. It's not a good thing."
"Well, it's intentional, so whether it's a 'good' or 'bad' thing, I can still be proud of accomplishing my goals."
"That makes an annoying amount of sense," Sinon admitted, "It also makes you a bitch. I'm going to try to do this quest and get rid of these stupid whiskers, so you can shut up and maybe use the time to rethink your goals."
"I'll have plenty of time~" Kiriko teased. "And don't call the whiskers stupid. They look good."
"Also, I must ask, since the whiskers changed to match your dyed hair…" she gave Sinon a smile, "Does the carpet match the drapes?"
"Hmm?" Sinon let out a confused hum, piecing together the meaning. Blood rushed to her cheeks.
"Why would yo-! Fuck you! And no, don't do that again! It's not funny or clever!"
Blinking a few times in surprise, Kiriko burst out laughing. "Oh- oh my god- that reaction was way better- way better than I hoped!" she managed to get out.
It took a good 15 seconds for her laughter to peter out, during which Sinon's indignance diffused into annoyance. "It wasn't that funny."
"Was that a yes?"
The archer clenched her fist, her eyebrow twitching. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes instead. After several seconds of deep breathing she answered in a level voice, "No comment."
"Oh well," the swordswoman shrugged in response, "I'll find out eventually."
"No," Sinon's statement was absolute, "You won't."
Glare-chan! Glad to have you back!
Having learned her lesson from yesterday's waiting, Kiriko had dedicated a fraction of last night to purchasing some books to pass time, a decision that was paying dividends now. Without any external stimuli, their banter had died down, leaving Kiriko with nothing to do for the past hour and a half.
Well, except read on her picnic blanket and, of course, listen to Sinon's increasingly frustrated comments as the rock failed to yield to her blows.
"Just. Fucking. Break. Already!" each word was punctuated with a sloppy, if forceful, blow thrown against the boulder.
Kiriko glanced up and giggled, "Have you checked the durability recently."
The would-be martial artist sent a glare in return.
A swipe of her hand suggested she did just that. A deep sigh suggested that the progress wasn't promising.
"Alright. What's the answer?"
With a moment of hesitation, Sinon resigned herself to her fate. "Yes. My impatience has overwhelmed my pride."
Kiriko let out a hum and hopped to her feet. "Fair enough."
"What are you reading?"
"This?" Kiriko waved the book in her hand before despelling it into her inventory. "It's a calculus textbook."
Sinon gave her a disbelieving look.
"Hey, I have plans for after I get out. I figured I could use the refresher. It's definitely hard to get into the math thought patterns again."
"Are you… actually serious?"
Kiriko gave Sinon a deadpan look. "Is it that hard to imagine me studying?"
"First, we're in a fucking death game, where our survival depends on martial abilities, so I wouldn't expect anyone to be studying, and second, yes. Yes, it is."
"I'm actually hurt," Kiriko deadpanned.
"It sure doesn't sound like it."
"I have a hard time showing my real emotions. It's why I substitute overly dramatic fake ones."
"Uh-huh." Sinon did not sound impressed.
"You don't believe me."
With a reluctant sigh, the bluenette returned the conversation to its original track. "I want to get out here. What's the trick?"
"The NPC's exact words were to destroy it 'like this' before demonstrating. So follow his demonstration, don't just punch the rock," as she explained, she walked over to the rock and mimicked the stance the monk had taken earlier, miming a blow before returning to her natural posture.
"That's… okay, yeah that makes a lot of sense actually," Sinon acknowledged, "To get the Martial Arts skill, I need to master a martial art motion."
"Yep! Check the durability after every blow to start with to see how close you are and refine your form," Kiriko added, "That's how I did it."
"No teasing? You're just going to give me the answer?"
"As cute as those whiskers are, I don't want to spend all day here. Besides, I was distracted by my studying and forgot," she admitted.
"You should study more." The archer turned back to her rock, this time taking the appropriate stance. Her punch, still imperfect but much closer to the original motion. Checking the rock, she saw it had finally dropped by a substantial amount in one blow. If 80 out of a million could be called substantial.
"This is still… uh…"
Kiriko glanced up from her resummoned book. "It's inversely proportional to the 'distance' between your motion and the perfect one. As you get closer, the damage will increase very quickly."
Then she added, "Fun fact, if nobody is taking the quest, anyone can damage the rocks. If you use the Martial Art which you unlock through this, your motion is exactly right and somewhere in the code, it gets capped from zero distance to min float or something. Since durability damage isn't capped to target durability like health damage, the rock's durability went to minus ten to three hundred or something for a single frame before it broke. I haven't found a use for this yet, but thought it was neat."
"That's interesting, I guess."
Kiriko watched as the other girl went back to punching the rock, following her motions as she settled into a pattern. Her body moved rhythmically as she repeatedly struck the rock and… Damn she's hot.
Someone less shameless may have averted their eyes, but Kiriko felt no such impulse. Or rather, she willfully ignored it, choosing instead to continue observing her… crush? That's what it was, presumably. It was largely unfamiliar. Should I try to be nicer? Would that just be weird at this point? And her reactions are too much fun.
Besides, Sinon seemed to enjoy the riposts, to some extent at least.
It was only a couple more minutes of refinement before cracks started to appear on the rock. Soon, bits started flying off: first small chips, then increasingly large chunks- one of which bounced off Kiriko's head.
A chuckle escaped Sinon's lips before escalating into full blown laughter.
-until eventually a loud crack echoed out as the stone exploded into fragments.
"Holy shit!" Sinon jumped, spinning around to face the quest NPC who had materialized behind her to offer his congratulations. Much like at the start of the quest, his hand whipped out impossible fast, using a cloth to wipe the whiskers from her face- "Aww…"- before bowing to her.
"You have completed the task I set for you. You are ready."
Sinon glanced away from him, no doubt to the window announcing her quest reward.
"Alright, probably won't be much use in the boss fight, but for the future, let's go get you used to fisting things," Kiriko commented, lewd as ever.
After a moment's pause, she added, "Wait. Fuck. I'm starting to regret my choices," her tone as teasing as ever.
"Eh…?" A moment of realization crossed Sinon's features.
"Damn it, Kiriko!"
Meanwhile, the Princess and the Rat
Argo knocked on the door to Asuna's house. Several seconds later, it swung open to reveal the house's owner.
"Heya A-chan!" she greeted cheerfully.
The frazzled girl stood in silence for a couple seconds before her mind finally caught up. "Argo? What are you doing here?"
"Thought I'd drop by! Mind if I come in?"
"Ah, welcome, yeah. I'm just going over the plans for tomorrow again."
She stepped aside and politely gestured her guest inside, closing the door behind her and leading her into the house.
"Decided to check in on you. It's been a while."
Sitting back on the fluffy couch that occupied her living room, Asuna sent the cheerful infobroker a tired smile and nodded. "It has."
"Ready to kick some boss ass tomorrow?"
The raid commander let out a long sigh, slumping forward. "As ready as ever."
"What's up A-chan?" the Rat asked, concerned, as she plopped herself down on the couch next to Asuna.
"It's the other Knights I'm more worried about. One hadn't turned in his gear checklist by last night like he was supposed to and I had to go reprimand him. Turned out he wasn't even prepared. At this point he's bordering on being kicked out and I really don't want to have to do that. Then there's a couple reports of people abusing their positions to bully people in and out of the guild and others of just misbehaving during dungeon runs…"
Argo placed a comforting hand on her back. "The work of royalty never stops, eh?"
"Come on, Argo. I'm not 'royalty,'" the regal girl complained even as she leaned into the touch.
"You're my princess!" the her mousy counterpart declared cheerfully, "Besides, you've definitely got the talent for it. Not to mention the looks."
A blush dusted the Lightning Flash's cheeks at the compliment. "Talent? I feel like everything's falling apart and nobody is taking anything seriously. People are slacking off and goofing around and then there's people like Kiriko..." her words trailed off into a frustrated groan.
"To be fair to the Black Swordswoman, she's definitely pulling her own weight."
Asuna stiffened at the sudden contact as the other girl wrapped her in a sideways hug, relaxing a few moments later. "People- even you- can't work forever," Argo's tone more serious now, "You shouldn't be so harsh on them. After this boss is dead, throw a party or something."
Her seriousness broke with a flash of her trademark smirk. "If nothing else, seeing you in a dress will be a great morale boost."
"Argo!" she protested, face flushing red.
"It's true~ Certainly would be for me, anyway. But I'm serious about having a proper break."
"I know. It's just… every day we spend trapped here is a day lost in the real world."
"What's the difference between a party here and a party outside? Wait until floor 40 or something if you have to, but you can't keep pushing forever without a break."
With a reluctant sigh, Asuna agreed. "I'll bring it up with Heathcliff. Was there a specific reason you came?"
"Do I need a reason?" the Rat teased.
"Because if so, I guess I'll have to go now," she added, releasing the hug and moving to stand.
"W-wait! I wasn't saying that, just…"
"Sorry, sorry, I'm teasing. But this is just a social call. I figured you might be overworking yourself before the boss fight."
"It's my responsibility to be prepared. Anyway, I'm fine."
"You're obviously exhausted and as you said, you're as ready as you'll get. When was the last time you ate?"
"Hunger is just uncomfortable anyway in SAO…"
"That's not an answer," Argo said, eying the girl intently.
"Uh… last night?" Asuna muttered, "I think."
Argo stood, tugging on Asuna's arm. "Come on. Let's eat dinner."
"But… Alright." She allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. "I have some food, though… it's not the best."
"While I'm happy to eat anything you feed me," Argo declared cheerfully, "I brought dinner!"
"Oh. Thanks." Nodding an acknowledgement, Asuna led the way towards the dining room.
"Always, for my lovely Princess!"
Asuna shook her head with a sigh as they entered the small dining room. Gesturing to one of two chairs at the table, she asked, "Should I get you anything?"
"A-chan, I told you: I brought food. No need to play hostess."
With a series of practiced gestures from Argo, a stack of definitely-not-cardboard boxes appeared on the table. "You like curry, right?"
For the first time today, Asuna lit up with a beaming grin. "Yes!"
With a smile at Asuna's approval, Argo served the food on materialized plates. "Enjoy!"
They dug in happily, Argo stealing glances as they ate in silence.
Asuna let out a satisfied sigh as she finished up the meal, all but licking the plate clean.
"Mhm, Argo?" she said pensively.
"Thanks." Asuna gave her a heart-fluttering, blush inducing smile.
"Thanks." Asuna gave her a heart-fluttering, blush inducing smile.
"It's no big deal… Just some food..." The bashful tone stood in sharp contrast to the Rat's normal flirtatious behavior.
Asuna shook her head. "Not just that. You're always looking out for me..."
The Rat shrugged in response, "I look out for a lot of people."
Asuna gave her a skeptical look. "I've seen the way you deal with people, Argo."
"So you already know I like to play favorites then," Argo replied, the words hesitant.
"Really? I overheard that you wouldn't sell info on me. You'd sell your own grandma if the price was right," the Lightning Flash pressed.
"Hey, if you knew what they were asking about, you wouldn't sell it either." Despite the slight resolve in her words, Argo's eyes stayed fixed on her plate. She knew she didn't deny it.
"Yeah, but you would. What color is Kiriko's underwear?"
Before her brain could catch up to her mouth, Argo responded, "5000 col- Uh..."
Asuna gave her a deadpan look. "I'm not even going to ask how you know. But see? You'll sell anything, even on your best friend, and not even for a high price."
Argo looked away bashfully, offering a tentative excuse. "Uh, to be fair, she wouldn't care?"
The Princess was not impressed. "Right... Even if I buy that excuse, which I don't, what about when you brought me sandwiches in a dungeon?"
"I… just brought them along," Argo explained, "To get map info."
"What about the other… dozen or so times you've brought me food?"
"Uh… also coincidence?"
"Argo… you listen to me when I complain, you help me get through whatever I'm going through no matter what time of day it is, you feed me when you know I'm not eating, and tonight you're checking up on me because you know I won't get any sleep with the raid tomorrow."
The informant had all but shrunk into her seat, staring anywhere away from Asuna. "That's what friends do…?"
With a sigh, Asuna stood up, stepping around and putting a hand on the table to lean down and try to catch Argo's gaze, "And lastly… I've seen you under pressure. You can talk your way out of anything, even when you're terrified and backed into a corner. You don't show anything to anyone."
Argo shrunk further into her seat, away from the advance.
"Throughout all that, I've never once seen you tongue-tied… except for right now…"
Asuna watched the girl open her mouth, then close it with a guilty expression on her face. She was blushing.
"I- uh-" Argo's cheeks flushed red.
The closer Asuna got to her face, the more Argo's eyes tried to dart away and avoid locking gazes. By the time Asuna managed to catch the Rat's eyes, their noses were practically touching.
"I-I don't-" Argo opened her mouth again and paused, struggling to find her voice in this kind of proximity. Asuna gave her the time to get it out.
The informant's eyes dropped every few seconds, glancing down at Asuna's lips just shy of her own.
Argo's voice came out in a whisper. "I want to do something… but I'm afraid of what might happen, if I did…"
"Then how about I do it for you?"
Heart hammering in her chest, Asuna closed the remaining gap and gently brought their lips together. Her partner stiffened in her chair, shock and disbelief shooting through her before Asuna felt her relax, Argo's arms draping up around Asuna's neck.
The table rocked and fell under Asuna's supporting hand, Argo's attempt at catching her only succeeding in bringing them down together as the two tumbled to the ground in a mess of limbs- "Oof-" and shattering plates- "Ow."
They lay, facing each other in silence on the ground, for several seconds, still holding hands from Argo's failed attempt at a rescue as matching smiles gradually grew. Soon, a small giggle slipped from Asuna's lips, followed by a snicker from Argo, until they couldn't help but break into laughter.
The two laughed until they ran out of breath, the tension between them erased by the unceremonious interruption and leaving them lying on their backs on the hardwood floor.
Argo turned her head back towards Asuna, mood lightened and a small smirk on her lips. "Let's try again without the table in the way?"
Asuna pulled her into a tight hug, the pair melting in a fiery kiss.
I'll note that, canonically, the Martial Arts quest is significantly different. You just have to keep punching it till it breaks, and the "clever" solution is to ram a monster into it, which is fucking stupid. I'm aware there's a canon way the quest worked and intentionally changed it.
A big thanks to Xera Stark (who is not really actively posting anything on FFN rn, but his writing's great) for his help with the bonus. Argo as she exists in this story is basically his character anyway (not that he's ever actually published a story with her) and he helped a lot with ideas here.
... I wrote the previous line of this author's note prior to getting stuck being unsatisfied with the confession bit for 2 weeks. An even bigger thanks to Xera for writing half of that and helping me finally get this out!
Opinions presented via review are appreciated, or you can join my Discord server via the link on my profile or the "link" in the A/N on chapter 1.
Till however long it takes me to write ch4, hopefully less but who knows!