New story! As the summary stated, this will focus on the journey Kazuto and Asuna take as their relationship grows and evolves into something truly worth noting. I hope you enjoy.
Chapter 1: The Return
"Just breathe in slowly, miss. Yes, just like that. Very good."
Kirigaya Kazuto eyed the doctor examining his significant other with a passive eye as a small clock ticked away on the wall above his head. He was currently sitting in a hospital room which carried the faint scent of antiseptic that usually plagued such establishments. The folding chair he sat in creaked every time he let any weight get on the right side, and so he was forced to transfer all his gravity towards his left, causing some rather intense soreness in his rear areas. Across the room, a nurse was examining her patient in order to monitor her recovery speed, murmuring quietly under her breath as she performed more tests on her patient and tapped away with lightning speed at her tablet.
"Very good, miss," the nurse continued, taking more medical tools out of her belt. "Now please hang your legs off the side of the bed so that I can test your reflexes. This won't hurt a bit."
Kazuto rolled his eyes in exasperation at the words of comfort, if it could be called that (although redundant and debase seemed to fit better). Although it was true that her patient was still a minor, the girl was just over seventeen years old. It wasn't like she was still afraid of things like shots or anything.
Though I wouldn't be surprised if she still was, considering her quirks, Kazuto thought as he continued to stare out the window, through which the sun was shining vibrantly. Behind him, he could hear the delicate tapping of a weight on his girlfriend's nerve endings. Really, where was the necessity of such procedures anymore? There was plenty of technology readily available for the populace to test things like reflexes and ear or throat health, or even hearing and eyesight and taste capacity, if you so wished. For gosh sakes, this wasn't 2013 or anything.
I supposed the older generation finds comfort in using old, proven methods. Kazuto began to rub slowly at the arm of his chair, lost in thought. I guess I could understand that. Before, I always knew I could respawn in a game. Now I'm not so sure.
"Now please come with me, miss," the nurse spoke, gesturing for her patient to step off of the medical bench. Kazuto shifted his gaze to watch Asuna come delicately down from the bed, her honey-colored hair floating slightly to the side as she moved. There had always been something quite captivating about Asuna's hair, Kazuto decided, not bothering to avert his glance. It was obviously healthy and well cared for, but there was more than that; its color was unique, it wrapped wonderfully around one's finger when necessary, and it carried the faint scent of ripe strawberries, a smell that sent goosebumps running down his neck every time as if he'd actually consumed the scarlet berry.
Asuna met his gaze and smiled slightly. "Is something wrong?" She asked, a teasing lilt to her voice as she narrowed her eyes playfully at him.
"Hm? Oh, nothing," Kazuto said breezily. Meanwhile, the nurse left the room, trusting her patient and Kazuto to follow. "I was just admiring you."
He'd always loved how easy it was to make her blush, despite her independent personality. "I-I see," The girl said, going red in the cheeks despite her best efforts. Kazuto just laughed at her discomfort and rose to throw an arm around his girlfriend's shoulders, gently guiding the blushing girl out of the examination room.
"You shouldn't blush so much," He said seriously. "All that blood in your brain is going to keep you from passing the tests."
"Shut up," Asuna said firmly, but there was a mirthful giggle behind her words. She turned and buried her nose into the soft cotton of his shirt as they made their slow commute through the halls of the hospital. Their nurse had by now absolutely disappeared, but they knew where she had gone and how to find her. Kazuto sighed in appreciation and buried his own nose into the smooth surface of his girlfriend's hair, instantly inhaling that bewitching scent of strawberries. Pulling back before he could lose himself completely, Kazuto laughed and said,
"I was only kidding. I'm sure you'll pass the tests; they're quite easy to begin with."
For the past few months, Asuna had been undergoing treatment along with thousands of other victims of the SAO incident to recover from her time spent under the full dive conditions. Understandably, her body had deteriorated somewhat during her time in Aincrad, despite the best efforts of the latest technology and a million volunteer nurses working beside professionals. Kazuto had always been confused when he heard about the visual repercussions the victims had sustained over two years. After all, Asuna had been as beautiful as he had remembered when they'd first met in reality that one starry night.
They finally reached the door that was marked Testing Room. Asuna stared apprehensively at the sign and Kazuto retracted his arm from her, giving the girl an encouraging smile when she look back at him.
"It's only three minutes," Kazuto said softly. "You can do it. I believe in you." He punctuated the last point with a lingering kiss on her forehead, and Asuna sighed into his neck.
"Alright. Be right back," she said, and then she was in the testing room and Kazuto was forced to wait outside.
Walking to the waiting bench opposite the door, he took a seat and began reading a random magazine. In order to pass the physical fitness test required of all the SAO victims, certain people had to be able to run for certain periods of time without stopping. People with different body compositions and initial physical ability before the incident were divided in varying categories. It had been decided that for Asuna to be considered "mentally and bodily sound," she would have to be able to survive three minutes on a treadmill without stopping.
Although Kazuto had no other expectation than for her to pass easily, Asuna herself had reserved some insecurities about her body after waking up. Upon discovering how weak and fragile her normally toned body had become, the seed of doubt had sprouted within her soul. It often came to the point that Asuna doubted her ability to perform simple everyday tasks, such as cleaning the dishes or picking up a pencil she'd dropped. Of course, over time she had improved, and her physical condition had gone with it. Asuna's mental health hadn't been as scarred as certain other individuals from the game, so that was never really an issue.
The real challenge for Asuna had come when she was allowed to go home. She had permission to do or go whatever or wherever she liked as long as she didn't strain herself and reported regularly to the hospital in order to have checkups and take tests. It had been, essentially, Asuna's first foray into the bustling social world in more than two and a half years. It caused the seed of uncertainty to sprout into fear, and Asuna began to obsess over every little thing that had changed during her absence from reality. Her apprehension at losing things that would never come back was embodied in every restaurant that had gone out of business, or the room in her house that had changed its layout, or the new baseball stadium built across town. Her fear of change in the people she loved, however, was even greater. Luckily enough, her immediate family members had not changed much, not counting their emotional breakdowns when Asuna had first awoken.
Well, for better or worse, anyone's pick, Kazuto thought irritably.
Asuna's mother, Yuuki Kyouko, had stayed just the way she was. Kazuto had heard very little about the woman during his talks with Asuna as Kirito, but it had been rather simple to garner the impression that she was a cold, calculating woman who cared very much for her daughter and would go to extreme ends to achieve her happiness. This, unfortunately, meant that she strongly disapproved of her daughter's relationship with an "average Joe" like Kazuto. Asuna had tried time and time again to explain to her that Kazuto wasn't mundane, that he was special, that he was strong. Kyouko, however, had done what most parents do and dismissed all her arguments as the ramblings of a child. And of course, Kazuto never found out about those arguments.
"She grew up in a middle class family," Asuna had told him one day when he was combing her hair. It had been early in the days of her recovery, and she'd felt tired that day, so he'd offered to comb it for her. What Kazuto hadn't realized, however, was how much precision hair brushing required from a girl's perspective. It had taken him quite a while to settle in the proper rhythm of brush, pull. Brush, pull.
"Sounds like a descent life," Kazuto had said back.
"That's the thing. She wanted more than that. She wanted to be high class, rich, self dependent, all that. The high life was something she couldn't achieve on her own, and even after marrying Papa she wasn't satisfied. My mother is a very difficult woman to satiate. So I suppose she sees me as some sort of redemption token, although I know most of it comes from the heart. She wants me to marry into a rich family. Mother was the one who arranged the engagement between me and Sugou, even though she claims that it was Papa's fault. I know the truth, though."
"So she doesn't approve of our relationship because I'm not filthy rich, eh?" Kazuto had sighed, taking a short respite from his brushing to gently run his fingers through his girlfriend's smooth hair, twirling it about his wrist.
"Pretty much," Asuna sighed back. "I don't want to marry some rich guy I barely know."
"Well, financially speaking, you would be happy," Kazuto had pointed out, the logician in him coming into play.
"That isn't important to me, dummy," she'd scolded him. "I want to be happy with the person I end up with, not how much money he has. Rather than someone like Sugou, I'd rather have a person like you."
In order to lighten the mood, Kazuto had smirked and asked, "Proposing to me already, are you? Shame, I was hoping to take it slow."
And she had, of course, blushed up a storm.
Yet I wonder what Asuna's mother would do about my relationship with her daughter, Kazuto thought as he checked the time, noting that four minutes had passed. The entire process took about five minutes. Will she forcibly end our relationship because of what she believes is best for Asuna? Her daughter certainly won't take it well...or at least I hope she won't. I definitely won't. I wonder if she would be willing to upset so many people to get what she thinks is best.
Kazuto supposed he would have to meet the woman to find out. They'd spoken curtly to each other before, but never had they sustained a conversation worth noting.
Closing his eyes, Kazuto tried his best to conjure up a clear image of the woman who had helped sire his significant other. She'd been rather short, he remembered. Even on high heels, she'd barely come up to his nose when they'd met. Chin-length hair that circled a drawn and focused face, and eyes that seemed the see through everything there was to see. And apparently, a rather sharp dressing style. She'd worn a suit for her visit to the hospital that day. And to see her own daughter, too. All in all, Yuuki Kouko seemed to Kazuto like a tense, tight person; just the kind he disliked.
But I suppose I'll have to get along with her if I want to keep being with Asuna, Kazuto mused, disgruntled by the idea. He was under the impression that her mother would see through any attempts to appeal to her, so he couldn't see much gain in even trying to convince the woman that he wasn't some sort of monster. That he could take care of Asuna and make her happy. That was the most important thing, really, in the end. That Asuna was happy.
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted when the door to the testing room was thrown open with such force that it struck the wall and rattled in its hinges.
Asuna stood on the other side, her face lit with happiness and joy.
"Kazuto," She breathed.
"I told you so," Kazuto laughed as she launched herself into his embrace, squealing in delight. It seemed like any lingering doubts about her physical ability had been banished by the results of the test. Thank goodness. Kazuto tightened his grip around his significant other and smiled, all ready to settle in for a long hug, when Asuna forced some space between them so she could grab his face and kiss him full on the lips.
Kazuto couldn't help himself from smiling against her kiss.
If she's happy, I'll be fine.
Outside, the sun was shining as Kazuto and Asuna walked hand in hand down the street of their neighborhood. Despite the numerous life endangering and tear jerking moments they had survived together, it still felt ridiculously awkward to hold hands with each other; both members of the couple refused to make eye contact and were blushing profusely. Before, during the events of SAO and Alfheim Online, the currents of pain caused by their struggles within the game had brought them close to each other. Now that they were in reality, though, where there weren't level fifty bulls coming at you left and right, it felt surreal to just hold hands and walk down a road.
They hadn't had much time to learn how to act like an "ordinary" couple.
In the distance, the Yuuki residence came into view. Thanks to the hard work of Asuna's father, the family resided in a rather large home with an expansive backyard and probably a lavishly decorated interior. Asuna's father was retired now, he'd been told. Probably for the best, since he had to make up for lost time with his daughter.
I don't see how Mrs. Yuuki could possibly be dissatisfied with this, Kazuto thought as he observed the home as it drew closer. Kazuto knew that he himself fit snugly into the middle class category, and his own home was quite comfortable in its own right. This house to be at least twice as large and three times more expensive. Some women really were crazy.
Although Asuna is too...it must run in the family.
Reaching the front gate of the home at last, Asuna keyed in an access code and allowed the wrought iron door to slide itself open with the help of electric motors embedded underneath it. She stepped through the newly created opening, motioning for Kazuto to follow. He followed, albeit reluctantly. The closer he got to that front door, the closer he got to meeting the parents.
The concept of it terrified him.
Asuna led him all the way up to her front porch before knocking lightly on the smoothly painted wood of the door. Kazuto noted that the house's front entrance lacked a doorbell, and instead had an old fashioned knocker. How old fashioned.
The door was pulled open soon enough, and Kazuto stood at attention, expecting to see Asuna's mother. Instead it was Yuuki Shouzou, the father. The man was dressed in surprisingly casual clothing; just simple jeans with a white polo shirt. In the few times they had met over Asuna's comatose body, he'd been in crisp suits and carried authoritative air around himself. Now, though, he seemed relaxed and at home, which he was, really.
"Asuna!" The aged man exclaimed in delight upon seeing his daughter. He reached out to embrace his daughter into a tight hug while Kazuto tried his best not to make any noises. Once the older man had let go of her, Asuna immediately pointed out Kazuto and said, "Is it alright if Kazuto comes inside?"
"Of course it is," Shouzou said, smiling reassuringly at the younger boy. "I'll be blunt and say that I'm well aware that my wife does not approve of you, but she's not here at the moment, so you have my permission to come inside." The last syllable was punctuated by a small wink, getting across the fact that while he wouldn't cause any open conflict with his wife about Kazuto's relationship, they had his secret support.
Nodding levelly, Kazuto said, "Thank you," and followed the two members of the Yuuki household into their home.
The interior of the house, while pretty, was actually quite simply decorated. The occasional flower here, an ornate vase there. One or two family photos hung on the walls. One thing Kazuto noticed about the house was the apparent excess of windows. Sunlight streamed in from every which direction, illuminating nearly the entire interior and negating the need for electric lights until the sun was completely set. It made the entire house seem very warm and inviting, two traits that Asuna's father did well in exhibiting. For the first time ever, Kazuto felt himself relaxing around a member of the Yuuki family other than Asuna.
Among his many skills as a businessman, Asuna's father was also capable of making tea; he set three cups of the stuff at the coffee table before they all took their seats in a ragged circle. After taking a few sips of the tea, he initiated the conversation.
"So, Asuna," the older man began, "I'm going to assume you passed your tests."
"All of them," his daughter beamed happily. "I was so worried that I wouldn't be able to pass, but I'm glad I did! That means I can do things with everyone else like sports and running. I'm that much closer to being the Asuna I was before."
"I'm very glad to hear that," Shouzou chuckled, obviously amused by his daughter's enthusiasm. Downing the rest of his tea, he seemed to take note that Kazuto was also halfway through his and said, "My, Asuna, it seems we're running low on tea. I should have made more. Could you please be helpful and make another pot for us?"
"Of course!" Asuna chirruped, eager to do anything to contribute to the general populace once more.
Apparently, her enthusiasm prevented her from seeing her father's true motives.
Kazuto, on the other hand, was not so blind, and he began to visibly sweat as his girlfriend stood up and waltzed into the kitchen. The moment the girl was out of earshot, her father got right down to business.
"So, Kazuto," he said, forcing eye contact. "It is Kazuto, right? I must apologize, I'm becoming forgetful in my old age."
"Yes, I'm Kazuto Kirigaya," Kazuto said.
Shouzou nodded in affirmation and continued. "I think you're a very smart young man, Kazuto, so I'm not going to act like we really needed any more tea. Would I be correct to assume this?"
"Splendid. Then it should be obvious to you what I wish to speak to you about, in an undisturbed setting: my daughter. What do you think of her?"
Mentally, Kazuto cursed himself and his slow brain. First question and he couldn't immediately find an answer for the old man. In the back of his mind, he understood very well that this was the dreaded "meet the parents" phase; the one where every guy became the super version of himself for a few hours. Kazuto had always planned to act like himself if he'd ever have to speak to his girlfriend's parents, but now that he was experiencing it for himself he felt the desperate need to make a good impression.
"She...ah...she's a very nice girl," Kazuto began.
"Hm?" The older man smiled. "Is that all you can say about her?"
"No, there's more," Kazuto said firmly. "She's very special, and special to me. Intelligent, tactful, kind, mature and responsible..."
Shouzou just laughed. "Now you're just throwing random adjectives out there," he said jokingly. "I'm only playing with you, Kazuto. I know that you care very much for Asuna. I can tell just from looking at the two of you. After all, I've been married for a few decades now. And Asuna cares very much for you. I personally feel that your relationship will at the very least be a very healthy growing process for my daughter and you as well, but obviously my wife has different ideas. Please understand that we both want the best for our daughter, but on the subject of significant others we tend to disagree."
That's the understatement of the year, Kazuto thought as he calmly sipped away at the rest of his tea. Putting it down, he replied, "Of course I understand. I want the best for her, too. If it means anything, Mr. Yuuki, I will try my best. I'd like to dissolve any doubts that I really will care for your daughter."
"Oh please, enough with the mister this, mister that. It makes me feel like an old man. Just call me Shouzou. And I'm sure you will try, Kazuto. You'd better, if you want even a remote chance of persuading my wife of your ability. That's the thing, really. Neither of us have any doubt that you are dedicated to our daughter; no, the worry comes when we think about your ability to do so, although as you know this is more in my wife's case. All the promises in the world won't amount to one single, actual result. This is my wife's, and my, fear. This doesn't even have to necessarily extent into the context of marriage. This is entirely about Asuna's well being. So tell me, Kazuto...will you be able to make my daughter happy?"
He found it amusing that Asuna's father used the word happing while her mother would have used a word like finance.
"It's what I live for," Kazuto replied as seriously as possible.
For one heart stopping moment, Shouzou studied him with an intense scrutiny. Then he chuckled softly. "Young love," He said wistfully.
Meanwhile, Asuna returned with the tea.
"Here you go!" The girl announced cheerfully, handing out the freshly brewed tea.
Kirito accepted the tea with a brief thanks and hid his face behind the cup.
I'm not going to survive this family.
The very next day beheld weather as exceptional as the one before, if not better. It was a Sunday, and that meant church for Asuna. Christianity was subject to being the religious minority in Japan, and it was often difficult to find a respectable church within good commuting distance, but luckily a new one had been built ten miles from her house during her absence. Asuna was eager to resume her religious activities; she had never really been a hardcore, devoted Christian, but she had faith in the good lord above. That, at least, would always be constant.
Kazuto, unfortunately, was an atheist. The differences in their religious views often led to bickering and arguing, so they both tried their best to avoid the topic altogether, but there were still times when Asuna wished her boyfriend would at least give religion a try. According to him, Kazuto had never been a very devoted person when it came to attending church or immersing oneself within the principles of his or her religion. Ever since he'd discovered Suguha's true standing within his family and chosen to take up gaming in virtual reality, his conviction towards any religious belief had started to wither away. In one of their first discussions on the topic, Asuna had tried to point out that having a faith was freeing; Kazuto, on the other hand, replied that having no obligations to ultimate beings was true freedom. Asuna supposed that, after being under the thumb of Kayaba Akihiko for two years, one would doubt the purity of any omnipotent entity. Yet Asuna knew that her God wasn't like that, but Kazuto was a stubborn person when he needed to be.
It would be nice if I could go to church with Kazuto and his family, though, Asuna thought as she slipped into her church clothing, which consisted of a simple black skirt and a bright sweater. Adjusting her hair in the mirror, she continued her train of thought.
Kazuto, she thought slowly, rolling the name around in her brain. The sound of it still felt a tad unnatural to her; for two years, her boyfriend had been Kirito, not Kazuto. She was well aware that the two names belonged to the same man she loved, but it was also impossible to miss the fact that they played different roles.Even now, when she laid eyes on her partner, the name that popped into her mind would sometimes be Kirito. She would have to remind herself that he was Kazuto, the same person with a different name. That, in the end, was one of the greatest things she had discovered about him. The Kazuto in reality was no different in personality than his avatar in Sword Art Online. There were people who were timid and cowardly in the real world, yet rose to the peaks of leader boards in virtual reality. Asuna herself, she knew, was one of those people. Throughout her two years in Aincrad, there had always been the little teenage girl who just wanted to give up from exhaustion and cry all her worries away. But she'd had to cover that up with a cold, determined front, keeping it locked away, curled up somewhere.
Kazuto had been her savior angel, really. He'd opened up her frigid shell and allowed her to see the beauty in the world around her, yet not lose faith. The world around her had brightened a little bit when she'd let Kazuto into her heart.
But he's still too stubborn, Asuna thought as she slipped into her shoes and ran out of the house, ducking into the car in which her parents were already waiting. Her father started the vehicle and then they were off, on the road to church. Asuna languidly pressed her face against the warm glass of the car window. Opening her eyes, she stared up at the vibrantly shining sun. It was unusually summer-like lately, considering that it was at the height of winter, but it wasn't like she was going to complain.
"Asuna?" Her father called over his shoulder as he drew the car.
"We got a notice in the mail today, about an event that's going to be held soon. The doctors and nurses who cared for the SAO victims as well as family members and friends have staged a memorial for the thousands who didn't make it out alive. It will be held this Saturday, and I just wanted to let you know about it. I knew you would want to go."
"A memorial, huh?" Asuna murmured, her tone dropping a bit as she was reminded of all the deaths. Three thousand eight hundred fifty three deaths, if she remembered correctly from the official announcement she'd seen on the holo-television that day. She thought about all the people, good and bad, who had lost their lives in the death came called Sword Art Online.
"A memorial sounds like a good idea," Asuna said at last. "Will you and Mama go as well?"
"That's the thing. Only surviving victims of the incident will be allowed to directly attend. Parents and friends will have to watch from their homes or from the outskirts, if they so wish. They want people who understand the pain of being trapped to be present, rather than people who harbor only a simple sympathy."
Asuna looked and her father in surprise. "That's an interesting idea...I like it. I'll go with Kazuto and Rika and Keiko, then. We might even see Klein and Agil there, so I'll be safe."
"Good to hear."
Once the conversation ended, Asuna returned to staring out of the car window. The street lamps all flashed by with such speed that she didn't have the time to appreciate the sight of them. It was alright though, because she'd get to see them again on the way back. The deceased wouldn't though, and Asuna's heart throbbed whenever she thought about it. A memorial was a perfect idea, she decided. A way to honor the dead, surely, but also a way to wrap up the scarring event known as Sword Art Online once and for all.
We'll let it all stay in the past, she thought.
But I'll never forget them.
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