Sword Art Online:Volume 1 Chapter 16
Asuna told me that she had been monitoring the map while waiting for me in Grandum.
The moment Godfree's signal disappeared, she ran out of the city and had crossed the five kilometers that took us an hour to cover in just five minutes. When I pointed out that it was a figure which exceeded the dexterity stat limits, she answered with a slight smile:
“It's the power of love.”
After we returned to the guild HQ, we told Heathcliff what happened and asked him if we could temporarily leave the guild. When Asuna explained her reason as "distrust of the guild," Heathcliff thought in silence for a while, but gave us permission nevertheless. Then, he said one last thing with a mysterious smile on his face:
“But you'll return to the battlefield soon enough.”
By the time we left the HQ, it was already evening. We held each others' hands and walked together to the teleport gate plaza.
Neither of us said a word.
As we walked amongst the black shadows of the iron towers and the orange light that came from outside the floating castle, I wondered just where Kuradeel's hate had come from.
There were quite a number of people who enjoyed committing crimes in this world. From thieves and robbers to the cold-blooded murderers of «Laughing Coffin» like Kuradeel; rumors claim that the number of criminal players already exceeded a thousand. People thought of them as natural occurrences like monsters now.
But when I thought about it, I still felt that they were a very strange group. It should be obvious to everyone that harming other players was an act that would undoubtedly hurt the chances of clearing the game. In other words, it meant that they didn't want to leave this game.
Yet after meeting Kuradeel, I didn't think this applied to him. He didn't help or obstruct the clearing of the game; he had merely stopped thinking. Neither reminiscing the past nor looking forward to the future, he simply tried to fulfill his endless desires, which resulted in the growth of his vile intentions—
Then what about me? I couldn't confidently say that I was seriously focused on clearing the game. It would be more accurate to claim that I habitually explored labyrinths only for experience points. If I fought only to strengthen myself, to feel the pleasure of superiority, then somewhere deep down within myself, did I also not want this world to end—?
Suddenly, it felt as if the iron plate beneath my feet had begun to sink. I stopped walking and tightened my grip on Asuna's right hand, which I had been hanging onto.
Asuna tilted her head and looked at me. I lowered my head and spoke as if I was talking to myself:
“...No matter what happens... I'll make sure that you... return to that world...”
This time Asuna tightened her grip.
“When the time comes, we'll go back together.”
She revealed a smile as she finished.
We had arrived at the teleport gate plaza without realizing it. Only a few players were walking about in the area, huddling against the cold wind that foretold the coming of winter.
I turned to look directly at Asuna.
I thought that the warmth which radiated from her strong will was the only light that guided me towards the right direction.
"Asuna... Tonight... I want to be with you..."
I said this without thinking.
I didn't want to be away from her. The close encounter had induced a terrifying fear of death that I had never felt before, one that couldn't be shaken off even now.
I would definitely have nightmares if I slept alone tonight. I would dream of that person's insanity, his sword digging into me, and the feeling of stabbing my right hand into him; I was sure of it.
Asuna stared at me with wide eyes, as if she understood the reason behind my request—
Then, with her cheeks blushing red, she nodded slightly.
Asuna's house in Salemburg, which I was visiting for the second time, was still luxuriously decorated; yet this time it greeted me with a comfortable warmness. The objects that were distributed around the place displayed the owner's outstanding taste. But despite this, Asuna said:
“U-Uwa— it's so messy here. I haven't been back here much these days and...”
With a "hehe" laugh, she smiled sheepishly and quickly cleaned up the scattered items.
“I'll make dinner quickly. Just read the paper or something and wait.”
I sank into the sofa after watching Asuna remove her battle gear, put on an apron, and disappear into the kitchen. Then I picked up the large newspaper that was on the table. Although we call it a newspaper, it's merely a collection of rumors from those players who traded information. But since this world lacked forms of entertainment, the newspaper became a precious source of media with many subscribers. The paper only had four pages, and I only glanced casually at the first page before tossing it aside out of irritation. This was because the title page headline was the duel between Heathcliff and me.
[New skill Dual Blades user crushed by Holy Sword]
Beneath the headline was a picture of me sprawled out on the ground before Heathcliff, taken through the use of Record Crystals. One could say that I had only added another page to the undefeated legend of Heathcliff.
Well, maybe they would stop bothering me as much if their expectations of my skill drops... I helped myself find an easily acceptable excuse. Then, as I started to look through my inventory list, an enticing aroma wafted out of the kitchen.
The dinner entrée was a steak made out of a cow-like monster's meat and served with Asuna's special soy sauce. Although the ingredients' rank wasn't that high, the flavoring was simply perfect. Asuna watched me with a wide smile as I stuffed the meat into my mouth.
As we sat across from each other on the sofa and drank tea after finishing dinner, Asuna became quite talkative for some reason. She spoke endlessly about topics like which brand of weapons she liked and which floors had famous sightseeing locations.
At first I listened to her with surprise, but then Asuna suddenly fell silent, which caused me to get worried. She sat absolutely still and stared at her teacup as if she was trying to find something. Her expression was extremely serious, almost as if she was preparing for a fight.
“...Hey, what's wrong...”
But before I could finish speaking, Asuna clanked her teacup loudly onto the table, then shot up from her seat and announced:
She walked over to the window sill, touched the wall to open the Room Control Menu, and suddenly turned off all the lights. Darkness covered the room immediately; my scan skill's support ability automatically kicked in and replaced my normal sight with night-vision mode.
The room was dyed in a dim blue light, and Asuna was shining white from the lampposts' light which came in from the windows. Although I was confused by her behavior, her beauty still caused me to hold my breath.
Her long hair that seemed dark blue, her slender, white arms and legs that stretched out from under her tunic, they all reflected the weak light and looked like they were glowing.
Asuna silently stood by the window sill for a while. I couldn't see her expression very well because she had lowered her head. She also held her right hand against her chest and seemed to be hesitating about something.
Just as I was about to ask what was going on, Asuna began to move her left hand. Her thumb and forefinger moved through the air, and a menu window appeared with an accompanying sound effect.
In the blue-tinted darkness, Asuna's fingers moved across the glowing purple menu window. It appeared that she was manipulating the left menu, which controlled the player's equipment.
As soon as I thought that, the knee-high stockings that Asuna was wearing disappeared, and the elegant curves of her legs were laid bare before my eyes. Her fingers moved again, and this time her short, one-piece robe was taken off. I couldn't help but open my mouth wide and bulged my eyes until they were round; my mind had fallen into a complete stop.
Asuna was now wearing only her underwear. Small white cloths which barely managed to cover her chest and waist.
“D-Don't look... this way....”
She said, her small voice trembling. But even though she said this, I still couldn't shift my eyes away.
Asuna tried to cover her chest with her hands as she wavered; but after she raised her head and looked straight at me, she lowered her arms gracefully.
I received a shock that felt as if my soul had left my body and could only watch her with a blank expression.
The word "Beautiful" didn't even begin to describe her. Her skin that was tinged with blue light particles was soft and sleek. Her hair seemed as if it was made from the finest silk. Her breasts curved so perfectly that it appeared, ironically, as if no graphic engine in existence could generate it. The curvature of her legs that started at her slim waist made one think of the gracefulness of a wild animal.
It was impossible to believe that her appearance was only a 3D rendered image. If I were to describe it, it was like a sculpture made by God with life blown into it.
The data collected by the Nerve Gear from the calibration step of player registration determined the body tone of the players' avatars. With that in mind, one would call the existence of such a perfect body a miracle.
I kept staring at her almost bare body as if my soul had left my body. If Asuna hadn't covered herself with both arms and opened her mouth to speak, I would have kept standing like that even an hour later.
Asuna's face was so red that I could tell even in the blue-tinted darkness of the room. She lowered her head and spoke:
“K-Kirito-kun, take your clothes off too.... It's em-embarrassing for me to be like this by myself.”
After hearing that, I finally realized the meaning behind Asuna's actions.
In other words, she took what I said— that I wanted to spend the night with her, in a deeper sense than what I meant.
As soon as I understood that, I also fell into an endlessly deep panic. As a result, I committed the worst mistake in my whole life up until now.
“Err... No, you see, I just thought...that it would be good, if we stayed to— together in a room tonight...”
As I responded stupidly with my honest thoughts, it was Asuna who froze with her mouth wide open this time. Then, an expression of intense anger and embarrassment spread across her face.
Her clenched right fist revealed an almost visible killing intent.
Asuna's fist, which had accelerated to a speed that utilized all of her dexterity stats, was stopped just barely before striking my face by the Crime Prevention Code and released a loud noise and a spray of purple sparks instead.
“A-Ahh—! Wait!! I'm sorry, I'm sorry! Forget what I said!”
I tried to explain while frantically waving my hands about to Asuna, who was about to throw her second punch without paying any attention to me.
“I'm sorry, I was wrong!! Bu...But, anyway, can you... like... actually d-do it...? In SAO...?”
Asuna dropped her attacking stance and was a bit taken aback, although still furious. Then she asked:
“You, you mean you don't know...?”
“No, I don't...”
Then, Asuna's expression changed suddenly from one of anger to one of embarrassment, before she explained in a small voice:
“...That is... In the options menu, all the way on the bottom... there's an option called «Ethic Code Off».”
It was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing. I'm sure this wasn't available during the beta test, nor was it mentioned in the manual. To think that this was another price that I had to pay for playing as a solo player and not having any interest except fighting.
But this information raised a new question that I couldn't help but think about. Since I still hadn't fully recovered my ability to think straight, I unintentionally said it out loud:
“...Have... Have you ever done it before...?”
Once again, Asuna's iron fist erupted in sparks right before my face.
"O-Of course not, you idiot—!! I just heard about it from the other girls in the guild!!"
I hurried to kneel down on the ground before her and apologized endlessly. It took several minutes before I finally managed to calm her down.
A single candle atop the table stayed burning; its thin rays of light made Asuna's skin glow faintly as she slept in my arms. I ran a finger gently down her white back; the warm and smooth feeling that traveled up from my fingertips was absolutely intoxicating.
Asuna slowly opened her eyes and looked towards me. She blinked twice and then smiled.
“Sorry. Did I wake you?”
“Yeah. I had a strange dream. One about the real world...”
She continued to smile as she rubbed her face against my chest.
“In the dream, I wondered if entering Aincrad and meeting you had all been a dream, and I was really afraid. It's a relief... that it wasn't all a dream."
“You're a real strange one. Don't you want to go back?”
“Of course I want to. I want to go back, but I don't want everything that has happened here to disappear. Although... it took us a while... but these two years are precious to me. I'm sure of that now.”
Asuna suddenly switched to a serious expression and grabbed my right hand, which I had placed on her shoulder, then brought it to her chest and hugged it tightly.
“...I'm really sorry, Kirito-kun. I should... I should have resolved it myself...”
I breathed in and then exhaled deeply.
“No... Kuradeel's target, the person who made him that way, was me. It was my fight.”
I nodded slowly while looking into Asuna's eyes.
Tears formed in her hazelnut eyes as Asuna silently pressed her lips against the hand she was holding. I could feel their soft movement.
“I'll also... bear it with you. Every burden that you have, I'll carry them with you. I promise. I'll definitely protect you from now on...”
The line that I couldn't say even once up until now. Yet in this moment, my lips trembled, and I could hear the sounds unveiling themselves from my throat, from my very soul.
A very thin voice reverberated across the air.
“I'll protect you too.”
Although these were simple words, I had said them in such a pathetically quiet and unreliable manner. I smiled bitterly as I held up Asuna's hand and said:
“Asuna... You really are strong. You're far stronger than me..."
After hearing that, Asuna blinked several times and then smiled.
"No, I'm not. I usually hide behind other people in the real world. Even this game wasn't something that I bought."
She laughed as if she had just thought of something.
“It was something that my older brother bought, but he had to suddenly leave for business; so I got to play with it on the game's opening day. He was really disappointed about that. He must be really angry now that I've occupied it for two years.”
I thought that Asuna was even unluckier to have come here in his stead, but I just nodded.
“...You'd better get back quickly and apologize.”
“Yeah... I'll have to try harder...”
But Asuna trailed off weakly as she said this, casting her eyes downward as if she was afraid of something and then moving her entire body closer to me.
“Umm... Kirito-kun, I know this is contradicting what I just said... but can we leave the front-lines for a bit?”
“I'm scared somehow... We finally managed to convey our feelings, so I feel like something bad will happen again if we go to the front-lines straight away... Maybe I'm just a little tired.”
I brushed Asuna's hair back silently and nodded so meekly that I surprised even myself.
“Yeah, you're right... I'm, a bit tired too...”
Even if the numbers didn't change, the battles that we fought day after day accumulated plenty of fatigue that couldn't be seen. That's especially the case for situations as extreme as today's. Even a strong bow will break if one pulled on it excessively. We definitely needed a break.
I felt the impulse that drove me to fight relentlessly drift further away. Right now, I only wanted to deepen the bond between the two of us.
I wrapped my arms around Asuna, then buried my face in her silky hair and spoke:
"On the northwestern part of the 22nd floor, amongst the forests and lakes... there's a small village. It's a good place with no monsters. They sell a few cottages there. The two of us can move there together... and then... "
Asuna looked at me as I stopped talking.
I managed to move my frozen tongue and kept talking.
"...Let's, let's get married."
The perfect smile that Asuna showed me that moment, I would never forget it for the rest of my life.
She nodded slightly as a large teardrop ran down her red cheeks.
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