Author's Notes: Last part of chapter 28 got moved here as a result of me thinking and overthinking urs-v's advice. And as it turned out, I think it fits better here. Also, thanks to Catsy for correcting me on minor details about Japanese law enforcement. That particular bit went through slight edits.
Thank you, everyone, for staying here this long. Those interested, check my next story in the works. Those who aren't, well, enjoy this chapter. :)
Link to Reality
Kazuto wished that the moment with Asuna could have lasted forever, then, but a voice reached them, a cry of a frantic woman.
Kazuto had just enough time to make a step back and let the woman take his place as she rushed to pull Asuna in a hug.
"You're all right, dear god, you're all right!"
Kazuto looked away, uncomfortable, making several tiny steps to get away, very much doing all in his power to ignore the people still standing beyond the rails. Oh, what he would do for something to hold on to. The crutches were down and now over a meter away and he still didn't feel capable of crouching, though he probably shouldn't have dropped them in the first place. Something then caught his eye in the crowd. He looked again, to see his dad and mom coming his way. What had caught his eye, however, had been Suguha, already close enough to pull him in a hug.
"Onii-chan, you big, big idiot!" she cried. "Don't ever do something so stupid like that! What were you thinking?!"
Kazuto swallowed a lump, noticing the same disapproval in his mother's eyes. He looked away, back to Asuna, where she was crying in the shoulder of the woman he belatedly realized was her mother.
One hand on Suguha's back, he said softly, "It was worth it."
"Eh? Did you say something?" she looked up at him in confusion.
Kazuto shook his head. It wasn't as if he could find the words to explain it. There were no words he could think of to describe what he was feeling.
Suguha finally let him go and he realized exactly how much he'd been leaning on her right now. He wished he hadn't just let those stupid things fall like that, but before he could have pointed it out to anybody, his mom mimicked Suguha, pulling him into a tight hug.
"I should be slapping you right now," she insisted. "I should be thinking of a really, really creative punishment this moment, you foolish, foolish boy. Do you have any idea how worried you've made me? We saw everything!"
Kazuto bit his lip, looking to his dad, but he merely shrugged. "Was that reckless behavior of yours that helped you beat that game?" he asked. There was no judgment in his voice, just a plain question out of curiosity.
"Maybe," Kazuto told him honestly. Then he turned to Asuna again to find that this time, she was looking right back. Then he saw her mother looking his way, too, and he tensed.
She crossed the distance between them in two quick paces. Opening her mouth, she seemed to struggle for words, until finally, she said, "Kikuoka-san has been keeping me updated ever since... ever since…" she shook her head. She looked at Kazuto then, a moment before she looked towards his father. Then she bowed, a deep, courteous bow that had both Kazuto and his dad opening his mouth in protest.
"Thank you," she said, voice quaking. "It is thanks to you that my daughter is now safe. Thank you."
She straightened, turning to walk away, but Kazuto called after her.
"Eh, e-excuse me, Yuuki-san!"
She turned to him and now that he could see better he realized that not even the makeup had succeeded in hiding her swollen eyes. She tensed. "Yes?"
"Can you… Um, how is Kouichirou-san?"
It seemed to take some tension away, or she was merely beginning to break down as well.
"Right, did they find him?" Asuna asked, falling into a brief coughing fit, but she shook it off quickly. "I know he… kept him in ALO—"
"Mild concussion and a case of starvation," her mother said tiredly. "He should be released from the hospital in a few days."
Kazuto nodded and Asuna looked incredibly relieved. Then she breached the subject he feared to thread, "A-and dad?"
Her mother shook her head. "He's… not taking this well." Then she looked away. "It appears the paramedics are here, finally."
Asuna nodded. She glanced at Kazuto and in a small voice, almost begging, "Tomorrow?"
He nodded. Then, he stopping holding onto Midori's shoulder for support, making a hesitant step and then another, moving to do something he never, never would have dared to do under any circumstances, not with so many people around, not with his family there, especially not Asuna's, but now it felt only appropriate.
He leaned down, softly brushing his lips with hers.
He didn't see her smile, he didn't dare to open his eyes, but he felt it. When he did dare to open them, he saw her giving him a tired smile before she turned to the several doctors approaching, complaining about the fact that she shouldn't even be sitting yet and immediately calling for a stretcher or 'anything useful'.
It would feel nice, Kazuto mused as they took her away, if somebody had thought to bring him a chair now, or maybe a bed. He was feeling less steady on his feet with every passing moment.
"Do we have to give a statement?" he heard his father ask. Kazuto turned around, observing with interest.
"It will be necessary, but not immediately," Kikuoka answered. "You can go home to rest."
Minetaka nodded. "And the sentence?"
"Let's see, illegal experiments, attempted murder, kidnapping and associating with the Yakuza. Unfortunately, it also appears that he has some very powerful friends. Seven years of prison sentence in the least, but I assure you, there will be many more asking for worse punishments."
Minetaka nodded. "I see."
Midori sighed. "Well, if there is anything you need—wait. Kazuto, what are you doing?"
He gave her an apologetic grin as he sat down, his muscles finally beginning to relax.
"Well, like I was saying, you know how to find us if you need anything," Midori said. "I believe it is time we go home now."
Kazuto found that he wholeheartedly agreed with that assessment. Home sound like a very good place to be right now.
Compared to the chaos the hospital had been when Asuna had arrived several hours ago, now it was peaceful. The number of visitors had greatly reduced due to the late hours and she was finally finished with many, many different examinations, at least for the day. Now there was one more thing she wanted to do before she allowed her exhaustion to get to her.
"Please," she said to the nurse. "You promised."
"You had a difficult day, Yuuki-chan. You should rest, leave the visits for tomorrow."
"You promised," Asuna repeated, in her most pleading voice.
"I know, but I haven't been expecting they'd let you out so late."
"Please, please, please…" She gave her most pleading expression and that, finally, got the nurse to agree.
"You have fifteen minutes. And not a minute more."
The nurse sighed and made sure the blanket covered her legs well, then asked, "Where to first?"
Asuna gave her an apologetic smile and handed out the paper. It wasn't that she didn't know the room numbers, but this so far proved to be the best way to coerce people into doing things for her. Don't speak and smile a lot. It definitely proved as a better way to convince the nurses, at least, rather than constantly asking them to help her go to one place or another.
"Alright, then," she agreed and moved behind to push the wheelchair.
The first room, as it turned out, was only two rooms down the hall and there was somebody already inside. Asuna thought the nurse might've called him a doctor, but she hadn't been paying attention, not really. Her eyes were on the girl lying on the bed with several machines surrounding her, constantly beeping.
"Ame-chan," she whispered, eyes filling with tears. She moved closer to the bed, taking her hand in hers. Her skin was a shade whiter than Asuna's own and that, in this case, counted for a lot.
One eye cracked open, barely so.
"I'm here," Asuna whispered through tears. "I'm so sorry, Ame-chan, I'm so sorry. This, none of this would have happened… none of this should have happened…"
"You're… okay… I'm… glad…"
"You shouldn't be worried about me, Ame-chan!"
"I won't… be… playing… ALO… for a while…"
Asuna wiped the stray tears running down her face. "Don't worry about it. You just have to get better, okay? Listen to the doctors and the nurses, okay?"
Asuna nodded with a sniff. "Rest, then. I'll come by tomorrow. And after tomorrow. And every day, okay? I'll keep you company, promise."
Ame gave her a tired smile. "Thank you. You… rest… too…"
"I will," Asuna promised. "I will."
She didn't object when the nurse began to push the wheelchair away, giving a tiny, tired wave to Ame as they left. Only once they were out of the room did she dare speak.
"W-why didn't anyone tell me? Why didn't anyone tell me it was Ame-chan?" she sniffed. "She's going to be all right, isn't she?"
"She's on a good way to recovery," the nurse told her softly. "They say the only reason she lived was because she didn't try to take out the knife. But I suppose you don't want to hear that. They won't be letting her out for at least another week, but she will recover completely, yes."
"Ame-chan didn't deserve to get hurt because of me," Asuna sniffed.
"Find comfort in the fact that she is going to be all right. That is what matters in the end."
Asuna found herself nodding in silence.
"Are you sure you want to go to the other room? You really should be resting."
"I have to," Asuna told her as she took a deep breath to compose herself. "It's the least I can do. You don't have to come in with me."
"Alright," the nurse agreed.
The second room was a floor under, at the far side of the hall. It was smaller than Asuna's and even Ame's, but it was a room that wasn't meant for long stays. It only went to confirm that assumption when she saw that the current resident had his phone in his hands, a frown on his face as he twisted it.
"Nii-san?" Asuna asked, tilting her head. "What are you doing?"
"Eh? Asuna?" he blinked, then quickly, almost as if panicking, put his phone away and got up. "Sheesh, what are you doing here?" he asked as he pulled her in a hug, one that she returned. "You should be resting."
"I had to come," she said. "I've been worried sick when they said you were here, too. Mom didn't want to tell me anything and then I heard that dad was here too…"
"Shhh, it's fine, everything's fine. I'm going home tomorrow and mom and dad already left. It'll take a bit longer, but everything is going to be fine."
"I still can't believe… what he did to Ame-chan…"
Kouichirou patted her back. "I asked around a bit, she's going to be fine, too."
"I know, but still—"
"Hush, it's not your fault. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine, for not realizing he was capable of something like this. The last piece of the puzzle had been drinking coffee right before my nose and I still didn't see it in time. If anyone should be feeling miserable, it's me, not you. Okay?"
"It's not your fault, Nii-san—"
"We're not going to have that discussion now," he groaned. "Look, it's important that it's over now and that bastard is going to get what's coming to him. Not even the best lawyers can save him from what's coming. But never mind that now, did they say anything when they were letting you out?"
Asuna shook her head as he moved to sit back on the bed. "They didn't say, but I didn't ask either. It… slipped off my mind with everything else that was going on."
"Relax a bit, all right? So, here's a few subjects to cheer you up. Looks like school for—wait, that's not good news. Schools are tedious and boring, we'll skip that. Mom doesn't seem fond of the idea, either."
"Never mind. Right, what I wanted to talk about, this probably doesn't count as the best time, but I don't really care. I don't approve."
Asuna blinked at the dead serious assessment. "Nii-san, what are you talking about?"
"That boyfriend of yours. I don't approve."
Asuna wasn't quite sure when it had happened, but her mouth were wide open long before any sound actually came out. And even when it did, she really only sounded surprised. "What? Why?"
"Well, for one," Kouichirou said seriously, lifting his index finger, "you met him in a game. Different circumstances than usual, but really makes all the difference."
"Nii-san, that can't possibly be a valid reason," Asuna protested.
"Two," Kouichirou continued stubbornly, "he's a gamer. That alone is enough reason for me not to like him."
"You can't be serious," Asuna found herself saying. "That's hypocrisy, Nii-san, you know that."
"I happen to not care. And three," he said, lifting the third finger, "he looks like a girl."
Asuna's jaw had, at this point, reached her knees. She blinked, entirely unsure whether she should take it as a joke or not, but Kouichirou wasn't smiling. She found herself doing the only thing she could: arguing.
"Kirito-kun does not look like a girl!"
Kouichirou's attempt at arguing back was interrupted with a knock on the door. Both Yuuki siblings turned to see the door open, a hesitant redhead standing there.
"Am I interrupting something?" she asked.
Asuna looked at her familiar face, trying to piece together where she knew her from, when it suddenly occurred to her. "Jun-san?"
"Ah, so you remember me, Asuna-chan. I didn't think you would because we only met once…"
"No, I remember," Asuna smiled and, recognizing the opportunity for what it was, she added, "Nii-san talked about you all the time."
From the corner of her eye, she could see her brother tense. Jun, for her part, seemed to take it in good humor.
"So he doesn't do that anymore?" she asked, quirking her brow.
"Oh, I'm sure he would," Asuna said with a grin. "I just didn't give him a chance yet."
"Well, I do deserve some recognition," Jun grinned. When Kouichirou cleared his throat, she turned to him, "I heard they found your car."
With interest, Asuna looked to her brother as he groaned and rolled his eyes. "Don't even say it. I keep getting this urge to strangle the moron who dared to take the driver's seat. All the forces in the world so help me if I ever find out—"
"Nii-san has a car?" Asuna interrupted his rant.
"Had," Kouichirou corrected her bitterly. "Those assholes destroyed it completely. It was one of the newest Toyotas, black, you would have loved it. Three months old. If I ever find out who it was that destroyed it—"
"Yeah, you'll ruin their reputation in the way only you can," Jun finished for him dryly. "Not that they're going to care much because they're going to prison anyway."
"I could probably take care of their rep there, too."
"Nii-san!" Asuna covered her mouth in horror.
"It was a joke!"
"Oh, I don't doubt you'd find a way," Jun chuckled. Then she crossed her arms. "You look fine, I shouldn't have even bothered coming. I got worried when I heard you have a concussion—"
"Exaggerations," Kouichirou huffed.
"—but it appears you're just fine. I'll leave all the sweets I've brought to Asuna, then, is that all right with you, Asuna-chan?"
"Eh? It's perfect, Jun-san," Asuna smiled innocently.
Kouichirou looked from one to another, frowning. "Hey, that's not very fair of you."
"You'll live," Jun chuckled. "Asuna looks like she needs some chocolate anyway. You'll just go to a store to buy it when you need to."
"You're not fair."
"Life's never fair," Jun winked as she deposited a fair sized bag in Asuna's lap. "Anyway, I really only came for a short while, I'm supposed to be working the night shift. I'm glad I've gotten to see you, too, Asuna-chan. I'll make sure to stop by more often from now on, if you need company."
"Oh, I'm always in the mood for some company," Asuna agreed. "I'm sure Nii-san would also very much like for you to stop by."
She glanced to him and he frowned. "Uh, well… yeah, I guess. But you've gotta bring something sweet next time."
Jun shook her head. "Maybe a candy bar, if I remember. Good night."
"Good night," Asuna chirped while Kouichirou barely did anything more than mouthing the words. For a few moments, there was only silence.
"You don't really think all that about Kirito-kun, do you?" Asuna asked silently.
She looked at him, at his thoughtful expression, only to relax significantly when he cracked a smile.
"Naw, he looks like a good kid."
Asuna released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
"I'm still going to have to put him through a test, though."
"Nothing scary, honest!"
"I can't believe you," Asuna shook her head. "I'm going, and I'm going to enjoy everything Jun-san gave to me, and I'm not going to let you have even a bit."
"Aren't you being cruel a bit?"
"You earned it." Then, in a softer voice, "Are you going to come visit me before you go home?"
Kouichirou observed her for a long moment, a moment during which she bit her lip, fearing that maybe she had gone a bit too far with teasing him. He then pulled her into another hug, kissing her forehead. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll come. Don't blame mom for… not staying with you longer."
"She has a lot on her plate now," Kouichirou interrupted her. "But she missed you, too. We all did."
Asuna nodded, swallowing a lump in her throat, before giving him a tiny smile. "Good night, Nii-san."
15:58, Saturday, December 21st, 2024
"So," Klein asked, lifting two pieces of cloth, one red and the other white, examining them before turning to the group of people currently crashing in his place. "A tie or a bowtie?"
Getting an answer was a bit more difficult than expected, as it turned out, because Dynamm, Issin and Harry One were still fusing over his old video games collection while Kunimittz seemed to find it incredibly amusing to play with his key tag. The only person who seemed genuinely interested in listening to him was Dale, but he looked at both pieces of cloth before shrugging.
"You're kidding, right?" Kunimittz said after a moment, taking a deep breath.
"I'm deadly serious!" Klein insisted. "Now help, a tie or a bowtie?"
"Are you going to a wedding?" Issin asked.
"Or a funeral? Kunimittz added.
Dale tilted his head. "Where'd you see people wear those things to funerals?"
Kunimittz shrugged. "They always do it in those movies."
"Eh? You mean the Hollywood ones?"
"Guys, guys, guys, enough about funerals," Klein groaned. "You're freaking me out."
"The question still stands, why bother with either?" Kunimittz asked dryly.
"He's trying to look nice, that's why!" Harry chirped.
"Hell no! I'm trying to look decent. De-cent!"
"You're aware nobody really cares about the way you dress?"
"Yeah, the hair really ruins anything you'd so happily call decent."
"And you have yet to shave," Kunimittz noted.
Klein groaned. "Some help you guys are. And you're all going like that? Dressed like in uniforms?"
Kunimittz snorted. "We look fine. And nobody cares, anyway."
"It's that Michelle girl, isn't it?" Dynamm concluded. "She's gonna be there, so you wanna look nice."
Klein's face got almost as red as his hair. "That's not—"
"Wait, who's Michelle?" Dale tilted his head. "I don't remember any Michelle."
"Amber," Issin, Kunimittz and Dynamm said at the same time, perplexed.
"No wonder he's trying to look nice," Harry snickered.
Klein groaned, covering his eyes with his palm. There was never an easy way out, was there? He did his best to ignore them when they started joking on his behalf again. Maybe they were right, though. He didn't remember wearing anything for his cousin's wedding a few years back, why bother now?
He glanced towards the clock in the corner of his room. An hour more to go.
He threw the ties on his bed and went to see what had the guys so interested in his video game collection.
"Well, what do you think? It looks cute, doesn't it?" Liz asked, turning around several times to show off her outfit.
Silica, for that matter, wasn't paying that much of attention. She was having trouble making her pigtail stand straight, symmetrically to her other pigtail. Really, this had been so much easier back in SAO. Now fixing her hair was taking her hours.
"Sheesh, girl!" Liz huffed, taking the rubber band and tying it in a few easy motions. "How long is going to take you to get ready when we start attending school again, huh?"
"I'll be just fine!" Silica insisted. "It won't start for another four months, anyway. I'll have time to get used to it again."
Liz sighed. "Oh well. But now that you mention it, I really do wonder how it's going to be, seeing everyone from SAO in school uniforms. Our outfits there really had been more interesting than the usual wear."
"I don't care, so long as the uniforms aren't itchy."
"They have to be cute!" Liz objected. "But we're off the topic. Tell me, how do I look? Does this ribbon work with the rest of the outfit or should I take it off?" She made another turn. Silica could only sigh.
"You look fine."
"Fine? Just fine? Where's your enthusiasm, girl? We're going to a party! A party! Act a bit more cheerfully, why don't you?"
"Just because I'm not obsessed with my looks like Liz-chan—"
"I'm not obsessed! And isn't that cute boy waiting for you there?"
Silica found that her jaw was hanging open, her cheeks heating up. "Who? There's nobody waiting for me there! I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about!"
"But didn't he ask for your e-mail? After the raid? Said you'd saved him several times?" Liz asked with a devious smile "What was his name again?"
Silica shook her head heatedly. "There is nothing going on with Daiki-kun!"
"Ah, so that's his name, isn't it? Hmm, I was pretty sure it was something else… Let's just hope he's as cute in the real world like he's in the virtual!"
"Liz!" Silica protested, face deep red.
"You better take care of your make-up, though. We don't want to be late! And I'll definitely take off the ribbon."
Silica groaned, casting a glance towards the digital clock on the shelf. Forty five minutes to go.
Just who was Liz kidding, there was no way they were going to be late!
"So that's how it is," Michelle concluded, taking a sip of her cappuccino. "Another few months and I'll have more than enough money for university. It was about time, too. I'm sick and tired of writing and rewriting the same numbers. Every day."
Haruka snorted in her coffee. "I get the feeling you're gonna miss it."
"Sincerely doubt it. I've had enough of it for the rest of my life. I'm keeping my fingers crossed I won't have to quit in the middle because I ran out of money."
"Won't Andrew and Kathy help you?"
Michelle sighed, shaking her head. "They will if I ask. But I'm pretty much stressing the point right now that I don't want that. Independence and whatnot. I like having my apartment. I like living on my own terms. And I don't want anyone to buy me things."
"You didn't complain much when Klein bought you that coffee last week."
"He owed me that coffee. The same way you still owe me lunch."
"Yeah, I definitely think you're going to miss messing with money," Haruka concluded.
Michelle sighed, taking another sip of her cappuccino. "Well, maybe a little." She let out another sigh. "So, how's job hunting going? You mentioned an interview of some kind yesterday? When is that?"
"Monday," Haruka said.
Michelle raised an eyebrow. The other girl mirrored the motion. Michelle snorted. "Well?"
"Where? What company? What job? Is it well paid? Days off?" Michelle listed her questions, wondering if maybe she left out one or the other as she mentally went through her check-list of the most important points about a job.
Haruka took a long sip of her coffee, looking anywhere but at Michelle when she answered. "RECTO, or at least what's left of it. That insufferable idiot offered me to work with the Marketing or the PR teams. He said he'd decide after an interview."
Michelle tilted her head. "Who?" When the other girl didn't answer, preferring to just roll her eyes, she gasped. "Wait, Kouichirou? He did?"
"After Asuna put in a good word, unfortunately. I'm going to strangle that girl one of these days."
Michelle laughed. "Isn't that great? It's your expertise, anyway. I mean, from what I know about him, Kouichirou is a bit silly and he's always late, but he does a good job, keeping things in line."
Haruka gave something of a gruff chuckle, before hiding it with another sip of coffee, as if she was laughing to a joke only known to herself. "It's all crap, anyway," she decided. "A job, a pay… there are more important things to worry about."
Michelle gave a solemn nod. "Yeah. One thing the virtual world of all things taught us." She leveled Haruka with a look, tilting her head. "So, are you coming?"
"To the party?" the other girl asked, lifting her head. When Michelle gave an affirmative nod, the other girl shook her head. "Naw, not in a party mood these days. I found that Saturdays and parties don't mix well. It's not a place where I belong."
She lifted her cup, drinking up the last drop of it, before leaving it back on the table. Then she stood up and smiled tiredly. "Besides, I have another place where I have to be. I'll call you tomorrow and we'll see about that lunch, got it?"
Michelle nodded. "Where are you going?"
Haru shook her head as she turned around and started walking away, lifting her hand in the air as a way of greeting. Michelle rolled her eyes. That was Haru all right. When she didn't want to answer a question, best she could do: run away. Elegantly. It was a good thing Michelle knew her as well as she did.
Michelle, also known as Leprechaun Amber in ALO, looked at the clock positioned behind the bar in Dicey Café. Half an hour to go.
She better go get ready.
Tramp nervously drummed his fingers, looking from one side to the other, then ahead and then back in his phone. He read through the e-mail again, checked the clock again, confirming that he was in the right place at the right time. Then where was—ah, there.
He wasn't sure how he recognized her at first. Her hair was brown instead of blue and her face ashen, nothing like the healthy skin color she'd had with her old ALO avatar, but the face looked so uncannily much like her avatar's that it would be impossible to mistake her for somebody else.
She was in company of a lady, perhaps a little over thirty of age, smiling. Man, it'd been so long since he'd seen her smile.
Finally, she appeared to notice him, turning to the lady and saying something, making an absent gesture in his direction. The lady didn't look very pleased, but she nodded nonetheless and whispered something on her ear before walking the other way.
She approached, an ear-to-ear smile gracing her face.
"It's so good to be out!" she said energetically. Where she was getting the energy from while looking so drained, Tramp wasn't sure, but her reaction to seeing him like this, in the real world, didn't show any surprise. He supposed that was a good thing.
"How are you doing, Ame?" he asked.
"Would've been much better if they'd let me out last week like they'd first said, but I guess that now I'm out, I really can't see the bad side." Her smile waned a little. "How about you?"
She nodded and, for a few moments, there was uncomfortable silence. She was the first to break it.
"I guess I understand now what you've meant when you said you understood what being in a hospital means. How long…?" she made a tiny throwaway gesture at his wheelchair.
"Should be four years in a few months," he said, turning his head away from her. "It had been hell getting used to it, but… well…" Even from the side, he saw her nodding slowly. "Anyway, this isn't about me. You look worse than those top models. Are you sure they were feeding you in there?"
Ame grimaced. "Strict diet. Apparently I caught some bacteria or something along the way or during the surgery, I don't know. I know I couldn't do much more than talk for the first few days. Remind me not to let any lunatic stab me ever again, okay?"
Tramp snorted. "Can't promise much about the real world, but I'll have your back in ALO."
She seemed to mellow down at the mention of it, smiling once again. Thinking back, the last time he'd spoken to her face to face, he'd been furious. He might've overreacted a bit, but she'd been driving him crazy with her behavior… It was strange what nearly losing a life did to people, and not just the ones who went through the experience. He'd been angry with her, yes, but the moment he'd heard the news, the anger he'd felt had just evaporated. Seeing her standing on her feet again… It was a nice feeling.
"Just how old are you?" Ame asked suddenly, tilting her head.
"Hey, you never cared before!"
"I do now. You look like an elementary school kid."
"I'll have you know I'm turning fifteen in February!"
She rolled her eyes. "Been there, done that." Then she grinned. "Well, at least I can now call you 'little bro' without fearing you're secretly three years older." She placed a hand on his head, ruffling his hair.
"Stop that! Anyway, let's go. We've wasted enough time as it is. My sis is waiting for us in the car. Don't wanna be late."
"Really," Ame said, with a nod to herself, "you really do look like a kid. You even act all embarrassed like it."
Then she muttered something he didn't quite catch, having been focused on checking his phone again. Fifteen minutes to go.
Tramp sincerely hoped she wasn't going to keep on calling him that way.
File: The Seed
Download: 47.3% complete
Kazuto closed the window, disconnecting his NerveGear from the computer. Ever since Asuna had told him about it, he'd taken to checking the progress of the download every day. It usually didn't improve by much, aided with the fact that the download couldn't proceed when his NerveGear wasn't connected to the Internet, so he'd also taken to keeping it turned on if he wasn't outright using it.
He wasn't sure, not yet, about what he was going to do when the download was complete. Except for Kayaba's cryptic words, he didn't have much to go on. All he knew was that, when it came down to it, it was going to be his decision whether the file was going to be used or not.
Curiosity was biting at him, he wanted to know what it was. He'd tried, futilely to contact Kayaba inside the game to find out what that thing was, why had it been given to him. Did it have something to do with SAO? No, that was silly, it was Kayaba. Of course it had. It wasn't any kind of a reward, of that he was sure, but he was still failing in his attempts to find any hints to its nature.
"Kazuto, are you still there? What are you doing? You're going to be late!"
He looked to Midori, not having noticed when she walked in. "But Asuna—"
"They're already here, something I've told you ten minutes ago. Now get downstairs. I really hope you're ready."
Kazuto did a quick check on his clothes, black shirt, dark jeans, all there. Then he grabbed the jacket hanging on his chair and took the phone from the charger.
"Ready," he said.
A week and a half ago, he had finally managed to ditch the crutches. It was a relief, very much so, to be able to walk on his own again, but he still tired quickly, especially when going up or down the staircase. He was working on it, but the progress was still all too slow for his likings.
Getting downstairs, he found Asuna and Kouichirou sitting at the dining table with Suguha, Asuna giggling while Kouichirou looked very much like he'd rather be anywhere else.
He lifted his hand in greeting. "Hey."
"Kazuto-kun," Asuna grinned.
"Ready?" he asked.
She nodded, leaning on the table to get up.
Unlike Kazuto's, Asuna's recovery was slower because she'd spent more time in the virtual world and her first hours after waking up had been very stressful for her body. But she was regaining strength quickly and, much to Kazuto's chagrin, faster than he had been—still was. He'd attempted to calculate it all personally in a moment of boredom, taking all factors in account. Out of everyone he was still in active contact with from SAO, his recovery time seemed to be the slowest and, not for the first time, he wished he hadn't spent so much time sitting in front of a computer before SAO.
Kazuto let out a long suffering sigh when Asuna held out her hand, helping her stand steady. She had taken to doing that all the time after the doctors had told her the recovery could go faster if she walked with help of others rather than crutches.
Kazuto, Liz and, by extension, Kouichirou, were the most frequent pillars of support. It was becoming a second nature for them to react the moment she held her hand out, lest they got a foul look only Asuna seemed to be able to pull off.
Apparently assured that Kazuto was doing his job instead of him, Kouichirou grabbed his car keys. "Well, let's move it."
Both the girls nodded, putting on their jackets and a muffler, in Sugu's case. Despite the cold, Asuna had refused to even consider wearing something like a cap or even a muffler.
"Okay, I'm dropping you guys off, but you're gonna have to call somebody else to pick you up as I have something else to attend to," Kouichirou informed them.
"You're driving Jun-chan from work, I remember," Asuna said, then she smirked. "That's what you get for losing a bet. I told you the red team would win."
Kouichirou rolled his eyes.
"Oh, right, that reminds me," Asuna said. "Nii-san, did you propose to Jun-chan yet?"
Kouichirou stiffened, looking to her incredulously. "Where'd you get the idea I was—"
"So that wasn't an engagement ring you were hiding from mother yesterday?" Asuna asked, putting her finger to her chin, such an innocent gesture, but one that very much suggested she was trying to make him as uncomfortable as possible entirely on purpose.
Kazuto exchanged a look with Suguha before she looked away, coughing to hide her giggles, apparently informed of what it was about, but neither of the Yuuki siblings were paying attention to her as Kouichirou opened the door for Asuna to get in the car. She did, looking up at him expectantly.
"Nope," Kouichirou said, slamming them shut immediately.
Kazuto sighed as he went to take the front seat and Suguha settled in the back.
"It looked very much like it was," Asuna said the moment Kouichirou himself got inside.
"How do you know that? You weren't even there," he complained.
"So you admit it?"
"I'm not admitting anything. Just tell me who told you that, so I can warn you to stay away from the filthy liars."
"Our maids are not liars!" Asuna said with mock-horror.
Kouichirou blanched as he started the engine. "Tell me all about it."
"It's true! She wouldn't have told even me about it if I hadn't caught her crying!" Asuna shook her head. "You're such a heartbreaker, nii-san."
"Oh and who was it this time? Mimi?"
"Mitsu-san," Asuna clarified.
"Fantastic," Kouichirou drawled. "You, Mitsuki and whoever else you got into your little conspiracy. I almost wish I had gone to Kyoto yesterday, see who you would've asked for a ride then! You're insufferable."
"Well, she did say she might just decide to send the copy of that conversation a few days ago to those girls working in PR. I'm just trying to help you not embarrass yourself, nii-san."
Kazuto didn't understand how she was successfully keeping a straight face while, beside her, Suguha seemed barely able to hold back from cracking up, but he decided he didn't want to know. He was just glad that Asuna's target for that particular mess-with-people project wasn't himself. Not yet, anyway, and he'd rather keep it that way.
Kouichirou, for his part, was taking the whole thing rather well, seeing that, if nothing else, he hadn't taken a wrong turn or knocked down a road sign yet.
"That's it," he suddenly decided when another driver cut in right in front of him. "I'm taking both your NerveGear and your AmuSphere when I head to Kyoto."
Suguha didn't seem to be able to hold it in any longer, she started laughing uncontrollably, even while Asuna protested the new development. Kazuto just shook his head, distancing himself from the insanity. If they were acting this way now, then what would happen if any of them got a drop of alcohol in their system?
He quickly pushed that thought out of his mind. It was not a road he wanted to go down.
Several days after the kidnapping, Yuuki Shuzou had officially resigned from his position as the CEO of RECTO Progress Inc. after the knowledge about Sugou Nobuyuki and his experiments had spread through the media. According to Kouichirou, the company still functioned under the Board of Directors, but a new CEO had yet to be appointed due to various issues that had arisen, delaying the appointment. Kouichirou, however, had no interest into taking over the company, stating that he had no faith in letting anyone else deal with poor publicity, a fact that, according to Asuna, many were still attempting to exploit. He was up to the task and still a step ahead of them, but his job left him with little time to himself and his private life.
It made Kazuto wonder how he found the time drive Asuna almost everywhere, absolutely refusing the mere thought of letting her go anyway by public transportation or taxi, not that he was going to ever ask that sort of thing aloud.
By the time they reached the Dicey Café, the thin ray of sunshine, the only one they'd gotten to see the whole day, had already disappeared behind tall buildings.
Asuna smiled at him, a smile part teasing in nature, part grateful, when he opened the door for her and offered his hand. It had started as a joke, mostly, something to make fun of in the wake of a very stupid video, but she appeared to like the sentiment, so Kazuto stuck to it whenever there was nobody around willing to joke about it.
However, when they got to the door, it turned out that, despite the effort, they still were the last to arrive.
"And here I present, Ladies and Gentlemen, our national hero!"
Liz's words were followed by a short, mocking applause and laughter. After the story and, naturally, some of the pictures had come out in newspaper and appeared on the internet, he'd been dealing with jokes like that, only made worse by the fact that word about him ending SAO had gotten out as well. Everybody, aside from him were even now, almost a month later, still taking it in good humor. He supposed it was like Klein had said. He was never going to live it down. His only saving grace had been the fact that none of the pictures had managed to get a clear shot of his face so he could still walk down the street without fingers being pointed his way.
The Dicey Café was filled to brim with people, ranging from familiar faces he recognized back from SAO, such as Thinker and Yuriel, to those he'd met in ALO, like Amber and Todoh. It had taken some time to go around and give proper greetings to everyone. He understood, however, when Asuna choose to skip the table where Tramp and Ame were sitting in order to greet Liz and Silica first, before going back and hanging her purse on the only free chair at Ame's table.
"I'm so glad you're out!" Asuna squealed when she pulled the younger girl in a hug.
"You're gonna strangle me, Asuna! Aaagh! What do you want from me? You were the first one to find out about release date anyway—stop trying to strangle me!"
Asuna moved back, a big smile still on her lips. "I'm sorry, I'm really just glad you're out. I've been worried sick."
Ame rolled her eyes. "As if you hadn't been visiting me three times per day."
"It's different than that. I should know. I haven't seen you for almost two days now."
Ame shook her head as she sat back down. "Just shut up and get a drink. The star of the night is here, we should probably get started." She grinned.
Kazuto moved out of the way when Asuna joined her immediately, looking to Tramp, no—Touma Daiki. The other boy glanced at Kazuto, keeping his eyes for a brief moment, before glancing back to the two girls, cheerfully engaging in their conversation.
"I'm out of here," he affirmed, lifting his hands away and then leaving, joining the other table where Agil was telling a joke. Kazuto watched the wheelchair, but didn't comment. A moment later, he was cornered by something pink.
"And why aren't you having fun?" Liz demanded.
He blinked. "What makes you think—?"
"Don't give me that!" Liz chided and Kazuto followed her rant with half an ear as he looked out the window and noticed a tiny snowflake on the window before it melted away. He then looked over the bar and realized there was one person missing. He saw Amber, Michelle-san, in the other corner, smirking at the three members of Fuurinkazan keeping her company, apparently assured of her victory in whatever they were betting on again—"And you're not even listening to me!"
"Ah, sorry, Liz, what were you saying?"
"Arrgh! You… you…" but she shook her head without deciding on any word to address him with.
Kazuto took that as an opportunity and gave Liz an apologetic smile. She raised an eyebrow, following his gesture and then sighed when he turned and walked over to Amber.
"Ichigo didn't come?" he asked, interrupting whatever boast she was just having, but she didn't seem to mind much.
"Said she had something else to do," Amber answered. It seemed that was all she had to say, but then she frowned and added, "Honestly, I think it's a pathetic excuse, but to each their own."
"And you don't have—"
"The address? Maybe." Her lip twitched. "Can I take that?" she turned to Klein, taking the piece of paper he'd used to write out the results and flipping it on the other side, then snatching away his pen, too.
"We'll get another one," Amber said dryly. The smile was gone from her face when she handed Kazuto the paper. He frowned after he read it, but she merely shrugged her shoulders, then turned back to the others.
He read over the piece of paper again, then folded it and put it in his back pocket. He then went and picked up his jacket, hastily putting it on.
He turned around to see Asuna and behind her, Liz, looking at him worriedly.
"I'll be back shortly," he said.
"But…" Liz's objections died on her lips when Asuna lifted her hand.
"Don't be late. Kathy-san really went all out with the cake."
A thin smile graced Kazuto's lips. "I won't."
He found Ichigo at one of the more secluded parts of the graveyard, chanting a silent prayer. There was a backpack by her feet, one that she'd either dropped or left there, a part of it having fallen into a small puddle left after the rain the previous day. She didn't notice him right away, or if she did, she didn't do anything to show it.
Several minutes later she made a step back, brushing a stray strand of hair from her eyes.
"You shouldn't be out in dark in a place like this all alone," Kazuto said and, as he half expected, she wasn't surprised.
"I can take care of myself," she replied without looking. "You should worry about yourself more."
"People keep telling me that. It's almost as if you think I can't take care of myself."
She snorted. "When did you last look in the mirror, kid? You're skin and bones, your walking pace is about to same as an old granny's—"
"If I were a mugger, you'd be my number one target for the evening."
Kazuto sighed. "Why is it that everybody keeps treating me as if I'm going to break?"
Ichigo opened her mouth to respond, but he continued on before she could. "They can't let me out of their sight, it's like I'm going to get in trouble just by walking down the street. It's becoming tedious."
At that she did look at him and, after a moment, cracked a smile. "Yeah. I can relate." Her eyebrows quirked. "But we're talking about you here, not me, so they're probably right. Even when there isn't any trouble, you'd probably go out of your way to look for it."
"Liz said that once, too," Kazuto admitted with a sigh. "I'm not that bad."
"Oh yes. Yes, you are," Ichigo pointed out dryly, But then she sobered up. "You don't have any business here, though. Shouldn't you be at the party?"
"I've got other things to attend to—"
"So do I."
He walked close enough to be able to read the name, choosing not to respond when Ichigo huffed.
"Are the others…?"
"They should be here, if that's what you're wondering," she said in low voice. "I don't… know. This is the first time I've been here ever since the funeral…" She shook her head. "They should be somewhere around here, I suppose. They lived in the neighborhood."
Ichigo nodded. She then shuffled through her pocket until she found a paper of some kind and unfolded it, then handed it to Kazuto.
"Taken a day before the game launched," she said. Then with a scoff, she added, "Photoshoped, of course. She wouldn't have had it any other way. Not that I can blame her. The original was awful."
Kazuto took merely a glance, first noting the fact how worn out the picture was, rather than the faces on it.
"Come on," she said suddenly. "It's night already, we shouldn't be sticking around here. It's time… it's time to go."
Kazuto nodded, not really trusting himself to speak.
"I've been holding onto the pain and guilt for too long," she said softly. "Much good did it do… I think… I think it's time for me to move on. So should you."
"Maybe," he agreed softly. There were several long minutes of silence in which neither of them moved. The only sound that could be heard was that of wind and the cars in the distance.
"Are you coming… to the party?" he asked suddenly, eyes still on the photograph she'd given him.
"You won't leave me alone until I agree, will you?" Ichigo asked silently.
She didn't respond immediately and Kazuto looked to her. She bit her lip before looking away.
"Fine. I've always liked cakes, anyway and Amber has been gushing on about them for hours."
"She said there was going to be five of them. And tasty."
"Asuna mentioned something similar."
Ichigo shook her head with a small smile before turning her back to him and walking away. Kazuto cast one last look at the name before turning to follow after her, the picture slipping from his fingers into his pocket. A single light bulb flickered as they walked past it, seemingly shining only a bit brighter after.
Kazuto felt something cold on his nose and he stopped just as they reached the street, looking up at the sky. One after another, tiny snowflakes were beginning to fall from the sky, melting away as soon as they touched his face, his jacket and the pavement.
"Man, I should've brought an umbrella," Ichigo grumbled. "My hair is gonna get all wet."
"We'll just hurry up."
Ichigo grumbled about something again, something he didn't catch, but he supposed it didn't matter. There was no point in wasting time, not when the others were waiting for them. He put some effort in increasing his walking pace to catch up to her. They walked in silence the rest of the way, neither attempting to break it. There was nothing either of them wanted to say, nothing that needed to be said.
It was a little after half an hour after Kirito had left that the door of the Dicey Café opened and two figures came in, dripping wet. Asuna didn't pay it much attention. It really only meant that Kritio's idea had been successful and that he'd convinced Ichigo to come—just like he said he would, even back at the time when he still hadn't been certain that she would not come. She'd been talking to Liz and Ame then, about school that was opening for the SAO survivors and how she was very much intending to go there.
But it was amusing to glance aside and see him sneeze as he shook his head, hair dripping wet. The snowstorm hadn't been expected until much later hours, but Asuna liked the fact that it had started earlier. Something about it was soothing, in a strange way she wasn't sure she could explain. She only hoped Kirito wouldn't get sick now.
Michelle looked delighted to see that her friend had arrived. It went to show how close they really were, something that Asuna had never picked upon in the virtual world. She gave up on that train of thought when Ame spoke again, in a quieter voice than usual. Maybe the lower volume was what had drawn her attention in the first place.
"I just wish I could stay here," she said, looking out the window. "In Tokyo, I mean. I love it here. A big city, where I'm always surrounded with people I actually like. My hometown doesn't have that. I spent an entire school year here once. It was the best year of my life. But my mom won't ever let me now. I might've been able to convince her to start attending high school here in April, but now…"
She shook her head.
"Are you sure she won't agree?" Liz asked.
"One time I came here against her will, I ended up in a hospital for nearly a month. No way she'll agree," Ame replied sadly.
"You can always come here for holidays and stay in my house," Asuna offered. "And there's still ALO. Although I do feel a bit on edge whenever I log in, it's still one place where we can talk, isn't it? You don't have to worry about losing contact."
"I know, it just feels… different, I suppose," Ame sighed. "But hey, our national hero is back. Maybe we should ask Kathy for that cake."
Asuna snorted in amusement as Liz jumped to her feet energetically.
"So…" Ame started, an impish smile appearing on her face. "What do you think about our little Tramp's new love interest?"
Asuna, in the process of drinking her tea, nearly spat it all out. She blinked and turned around, expecting to see something, but other than Gil and Silica constantly teasing Tramp for some reason, she didn't see anything.
"You mean Silica-chan?" she asked reluctantly. "He didn't mention anything."
Ame rolled her eyes. "Does he have to? He's acting like a fanboy. I'd think you'd learn to pick up on the signs."
Asuna sighed. "He's not that bad."
"Okay, maybe not that bad, but close to it."
Asuna was spared from having to answer that when Liz basically skipped back to their table with a grin. "Any minute now."
The girls exchanged a look and Ame giggled. Asuna sighed contently.
The café was filled with familiar faces of people whom she could now call friends without reservations. It was a sign of just how much her life had changed in the past months, years. What had brought them here together had not been pretty, but it was over now. What remained now was going to be tedious and frustrating, demanding and at times difficult, but it would be worth it.
Briefly, Asuna caught Kirito's eyes and the small smile on his face. She smiled, too. She felt strong now, stronger than ever. She felt ready to face whatever life had to throw her way and, she knew, she wasn't the only one.