Sword Art Online:Volume 7 Chapter 10
The next day, January 12, 12.50pm, at the north end of the third level of the second school compound.
At a computer room where the sound of the noon break's buzz could be heard slightly, Asuna straightened her back and sat on a chair.
On the right shoulder of her blazer-type uniform, was a dome-shaped machine about 7cm in diameter that was held together by a harness.
Its base was made by cutting away aluminum, and the dome was made from transparent acrylic. One could see the lens inside. There were two cables that were attached to the socket below. One of them was attached to the mobile phone in Asuna's blazer pocket, while the other was attached to a computer on a table nearby.
Kazuto and two other students, who attended the mechatronics course with him, were exchanging words with each other in front of the computer, chatting away as if they were chanting spells.
"I told you that this gyroscope is too sensitive. If you want to prioritize the traceability of the visuals, you want to adjust the parameters here and here."
"But wouldn't there be a lag if there is a sudden action?"
"We can only wait for the optimizing program learning to take effect then, Kazu."
"Aren't you done yet, Kirito-kun? Lunch break is almost over!"
Asuna, who was forced to maintain that position for 30 minutes, let out an anxious voice. Kazuto let out an 'un' and lifted his head.
"The initial settings are OK for now. Erm, Yuuki-san, can you hear me?"
Kazuto wasn't talking to Asuna, but to the dome-shaped device. In the microphone on the machine, «Absolute Sword» Yuuki's own energetic voice came.
『Haii, I hear you loud and clear!』
"Okay, I'm going to adjust the initial settings around the visuals to see if it's alright. When the visuals are clear enough, make a sound."
『Yes, I got it.』
The dome-shaped device on Asuna's shoulder, commonly called the «Double-sided Visual and Hearing message Probe», was a theme that Kazuto's class had started to experiment with and improve on in this world.
Simply put, this device could be connected through the AmuSphere and the Network, creating a direct visual and audio link between people in the virtual world to the real world. It uses the lens and the microphone of the probe to collect data, passes it through Asuna's handphone onto the network, and then to the Medicuboid in the Yokohama North General Hospital and finally to Yuuki, who dived into the specialized virtual world. The lens could freely rotate in the dome-shaped lens with Yuuki's vision to show any images she wanted to see. Right now, Yuuki should be getting the feeling that she's 1/10 of her own body size and sitting on Asuna's shoulder.
As Asuna heard Kazuto's grumblings regarding this research, she immediately thought that this device could be used once she heard that Yuuki wanted to go to school.
Uiin. The device rang on the right shoulder as the lens was adjusted. Yuuki then said 'I see it' as it stopped.
"Alright. That should do for now. Asuna, we added a stabilizer unit, but try not to do anything too sudden. Don't make voices that are too loud too. She can hear it if it's of audible volume."
"Okay, I got it~."
Asuna stretched her back as she answered Kazuto, who nagged about things to be taken note of before standing up. She saw Kazuto plug on the cable linked to the PC and immediately whispered to the probe on the shoulder,
"Sorry, Yuuki. I wanted to bring you around the school, but lunch break is over."
Yuuki's voice immediately came from the mini-microphone.
『It's alright. I'm even more interested in listening to your lesson!』
"Okay, let's say hello to the teacher for the next period."
After waving at Kazuto and his two buddies who managed to finish setting up everything in such a short time and showed tired looks, Asuna walked out of the computer lab.
She went past the corridor, down the staircase, and through the school's link bridge between the compounds. Yuuki would start to cheer whenever she saw anything, but she immediately went silent once they arrived in front of the door tagged 'Staff Room'.
『Erm…well, I didn't really like coming to the staff room in the past…』
"Fufufu, don't worry. The teachers in this school aren't like that."
Asuna smiled and whispered before opening the door quickly.
『Ex, excuse us!』
Two voices, one loud and one soft rang inside the room at the same time. Asuna then quickly crossed through an entire row of tables.
The fifth period was National Language, and the teacher taking this period was a teacher who was once the head of department in an independent school. He retired, and after which, voluntarily came to this established education facility that was suddenly built. He was almost 70 years old, but was able to successfully operate the network devices throughout this school, and Asuna liked his wise mannerisms.
Because she knew of this teacher's nature, Asuna felt that he probably wouldn't object to Yuuki listening, but still nervously explained the entire situation. The teacher with the nice white hair and beard took a large teacup in his hand as he listened to Asuna's explanation. Once she was done, the teacher nodded and said,
"Un, it's alright. Oh yes, what's your name?"
『Ah, I'm…Yuuki—Konno Yuuki.』
On hearing the immediate answer from inside the probe, the teacher was more or less shocked, but he immediately smiled and said,
"Konno-san, if you want to, please continue coming to class. We're going to start on «Torokko» by Akutagawa. This can only be interesting if you study it till the end."
『Ye…yes, thank you very much!』
As Yuuki and Asuna finished thanking the teacher, the preparatory bell for class rang, and Asuna hurriedly lowered and bowed her head to take her leave. Once they left the staff room, both of them heaved a sigh at the same time.
After looking at each other and smiling, Asuna quickly moved back to the classroom.
Once she got back to her seat, the students around her immediately asked her what the mysterious device on her shoulder was. Asuna explained that Yuuki was hospitalized, and once Yuuki actually spoke up, everyone immediately understood. They started to introduce themselves. Once this ended, the bell for class rang, and the teacher's profile appeared at the door.
As the duty personnel called to greet—the lens of the probe started to move up and down—the teacher who arrived at the podium first stroked his beard on his chin and started with the lesson as usual.
"Eh—and now, we're going to start from page 98 of the textbook, «Torokko» by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. This is a work made when Akutagawa was 30 years old—"
As the teacher explained, Asuna took out her thin tablet-type computer, and then put it in front of Yuuki so that she could see it. However, the next sentence the teacher said nearly caused her to drop the PC from her hands.
"—Then, let's have a student read this from the first paragraph. Konno Yuuki-san, would you please read this passage?"
Asuna and Yuuki let out a shocked voice, and there was an immediately ruckus in the classroom.
"Is there a problem?"
Before Asuna could answer the teacher's question, Yuuki already answered loudly,
『Ok, I got it!』
It seemed that the speaker inside the probe had a device that amplified the volume, as Yuuki's voice clearly filled every corner in the classroom. Asuna hurriedly stood up, raised her tablet PC to the lens, tilted her head to the right, and whispered,
"Yuuki…you, you can read it?"
『Of course. I like to read books!』
Yuuki paused for a while after answering, and then started to recite the content of the textbook in an energetic voice.
『…The simple rail laying works between Odawara and Atami was…』
Asuna, who was holding the computer, closed her eyes as she focused as Yuuki recited the passage in cadence.
The screen in Asuna's heart clearly showed that Yuuki, who was wearing a uniform similar to hers, standing right beside her. Asuna was certain that one of these days, this dream would become real. Medical care would improve every year. In the near future, they would definitely be able to discover a drug to eliminate HIV completely, and Yuuki would be able to return to the real world. At that moment, she definitely had to hold her real hand and introduce the school and neighboring streets to her. After school, they had to head to a fast food restaurant far away, eat hamburgers and chit-chat away.
Asuna quietly wiped her tears to prevent Yuuki from noticing. Yuuki continued to recite this classic passage from the previous century, and the teacher never told her to stop. The school afternoon became abnormally quiet, and it felt like the entire school was listening to her.
Yuuki then continued to attend lessons until after the sixth period, and Asuna introduced her to the school environment as promised. Unexpectedly though, a few classmates followed, and everyone tried to talk to Yuuki.
In the end, both of them were finally alone, and as Asuna sat on the bench in the courtyard, the sky became orange.
『Asuna…thank you very much for today. I'm happy…I definitely won't forget today.』
Yuuki suddenly said in a serious tone, and Asuna instinctively replied in a cheery voice,
"What are you saying? Didn't the teachers say that you can come every day? Japanese is in the third period tomorrow. You can't be late! Speaking of which…well, do you have any other place you want to see? Anywhere is fine, aside from the principal's office."
Yuuki chuckled, and then went silent. After a while, she timidly said,
『Well…I have a place I want to go to…』
『Will somewhere outside the school do?』
Asuna couldn't help but shut up. She pondered for a while, but decided that the battery of the probe would still last, and Yuuki should be able to see it as long as the handheld terminal was connected to the net.
"Un, it's alright. It's fine if the handheld antenna can reach it."
『Really? It's…slightly far…I want you to bring me to Hodogaya in Yokohama, a place called Tsukimidai.』
From where the school was, Asuna and Yuuki took the central line from the Western Tokyo area and went on to Hodogaya, Yokohama.
They weren't exactly whispering to each other on the train, but once they got onto the road, Asuna ignored the surrounding stares and continued to talk to the two-way probe on her shoulder. Yuuki never expected that the streets would have changed so much during the 3 years which she was hospitalized, so Asuna would lean over to explain to her whenever there was something she was interested in.
As they continued to walk and stop, the large clock in the center of the train station showed that it was past 5.30pm when they alighted at their destination, Hoshikawa Station.
They looked up at the sky that turned from crimson red to dark purple, and Asuna took a deep sigh. Perhaps it was because there were a lot of forests nearby that it felt that the cold air here felt different from Tokyo's.
"This street is really pretty, Yuuki. The sky looks wide."
Yuuki said in an energetic yet embarrassed tone,
『Un…sorry, Asuna. My stubborn request made you stay back so late…are you alright, Asuna?』
"It's alright! It's common for me to head back home late!"
She instinctively said that, but in fact, Asuna would pretty much be home before dinner almost all the time. That was because her mother would be unhappy if she did not do so. However, she felt that it didn't matter even if she went home and got thoroughly scolded. As long as Yuuki hoped, and the battery of the probe was enough, it didn't matter how far she would go.
"I'll send a message."
Asuna said in a carefree tone, and then took her mobile phone out. She continued to send a message to her computer at home while being connected to the probe, saying that she would be home late. Her mother would be sending a message to her for ignoring the curfew and would sometimes even personally call her, but if the phone was connected to the net, the call would probably be sent to voicemail.
"All okay now. Then, where do you want to go, Yuuki?"
『Erm…turn left from in front of the station, and then turn right on the second traffic light…』
"Nn, got it."
Asuna nodded, and then started moving forward. With Yuuki leading her, she went through the little shopping street in front of the station.
Yuuki would say a few words as if she was reminiscing when they moved through the bakery, the fish shop, the post office or the front of the shrine. Soon, they arrived at the residential area. Yuuki sighed as she saw a house with a large dog house and large camphor trees.
Thus, even if Yuuki didn't say it, Asuna understood that this street was the one she once lived in. And right in front of both of them was—
『…After making the turn on the right, please stop in front of a white house…』
Asuna noticed it. Yuuki's voice was already trembling when she said that. She went past the park with a row of bare poplar trees, turned right, and immediately saw a white-tiled bungalow on the left side.
After walking a few steps forward, Asuna stopped in front of the bronze gate.
On her shoulder, Yuuki sighed for a long while. Asuna inadvertently reached the finger of her left hand, placed it under the aluminum probe, and whispered to her,
"That's…Yuuki's house, right?"
『Un…I never thought that I would be able to see this house again…』
This house with the white walls and green roof obviously looked smaller than the surrounding residences, but it had a wide garden. The table on the grass patch had a white wooden bench, and there was a large flower bed surrounded by red bricks deep inside the garden.
However, right now, the table's color had faded because of wind erosion, and what was left of the flowerbed was only black soil and dry, wilted grass. The windows on both sides of the house showed a warm and cozy orange of a family's harmony, but the windows in the white house had the rain cover put down. It looked like nobody lived in the house.
However, this was to be expected. Of the parents and two daughters who once lived together in this house, only one was left. Right now, the last one was in an airtight room, lying on a bed surrounded by machines, and unable to leave that place.
The house became a deep purple under the last ray of sunlight. Asuna and Yuuki just stared at it like that. After a while, Yuuki whispered,
『Thank you Asuna. Thank you for bringing me to such a far place…』
"Do you want to take a look inside?"
It would be bad if passers-by saw this, but Asuna still asked this. Yuuki herself merely shook the lens left and right.
『No, this is okay. Here…we have to go back now, or else it'll be quite late, Asuna.』
"It's still early…we can still stay until later."
Asuna instinctively answered this and turned over to look behind her. What was opposite the long and narrow road was a park, and outside the park, there was a wall of trees with stones as the base.
Asuna moved across the street and sat on the stone wall that was knee high. The front of the probe could capture the image of the small house that was in slumber. Over here, Yuuki's eyes should be able to see the entire house and yard.
Both of them stayed silent for a while, and Yuuki finally said calmly,
『We only stayed here for less than a year…but back then, every single day, I remembered them all. We stayed at an apartment before that, so I was happy that we had a garden here. Mama was scared that we would be infected with complications, but nee-chan and me would often run about in the garden. We would roast meat in front of that bench, and would often make bookshelves with Dad. We were really happy back then…』
"That's great. I never did those kind of things before."
Asuna's house had what could be said to be an overly wide garden, but she didn't remember playing there with her parents or her brother. She would always be alone playing house or drawing. Thus, the family memories Yuuki talked about reverberated strongly through her heart.
『Then, we'll have a roast meat party at your house on the 22nd level next time.』
"Un!...then, it's a promise. I'll invite my friends and Shiune and the rest over…"
『Wa, I have to make lots of meat then. Jun and Thatch really can eat.』
"Really? They didn't look like it!"
Both of them laughed, and then, they looked over at Yuuki's house again.
『Right now…my relatives are arguing over this house.』
Yuuki muttered as she sounded a little lonely.
"What do you mean by they're arguing so much…?"
『Like whether they should tear it down and remake it into a convenience store or turn it into empty land and sell it, or rent it out directly…everyone has their own suggestions. Before that, Papa's elder sister would even dive in to meet me. She knew that I was sick, and avoided me in the real world...yet came here…and told me to write a will…』
On hearing that, Asuna couldn't help but gasp.
『Ah, sorry. I shouldn't be grumbling about such things to you randomly.』
"It…it's okay—just say it, let it all out until you feel comfortable."
Asuna finally managed to squeeze out a calm voice. On hearing that, Yuuki used the probe to nod.
『I'll continue then. In the end…I told her this. In the real world, I can't hold a pen or stamp, so how can I write a will? In the end, aunt was gobsmacked and speechless.』
Fufufu, Yuuki chuckled at this point. Asuna smiled back at her.
『And then, I requested her to keep this house back then. As for the maintenance fees, Papa's inheritance should be enough to cover it for about 10 years. But…I don't think it would be enough. I guess it'll most likely be torn down. So, I wanted to look at this house before that happens…』
Yuuki was probably using the lens to zoom in on several parts of the house as Asuna's right ear could hear the servo control device letting out a slight sound. On hearing Yuuki's reminiscing voice, Asuna, who had lots of mixed feelings, finally said what she wanted to say.
"You're 15, right, Yuuki? Once you're 16, get married to someone you like. That person can continue to protect this house for you…"
Once she said that, Asuna realized that she had said something wrong. If Yuuki really liked someone, that person would be one of the males amongst the Sleeping Knights. And these members were fighting diseases that were difficult to cure, and someone had even been told that he only had a few months left to live. In that case, even if Yuuki got married, the situation wouldn't change much, and would even become more complicated. Besides, one had to consider the other party's situation and feelings when it came to marriage…
But after a moment of silence, ahahahahaha, Yuuki started laughing.
『Ahahaha, A, Asuna, you're amazing! I see. I never thought about that. U~n, that may be a good idea. If it's a marriage certificate, I might try writing it—but I don't have any partner~』
Asuna cringed and asked Yuuki who was still laughing,
"Is, is that so…? I noticed that you and Jun have quite a good relationship."
『Ah, no no. he's still a kid! Oh yeah…erm…』
Yuuki suddenly said in a mischievous tone,
『Asuna…do you want to get married with me?』
『Ah, but you have to join my family in that case, Asuna, or else I would become Yuuki Yuuki.』
Fufufu, as Yuuki laughed, Asuna could only roll blank white eyes. Every year, the media would report that Japan was ready to accept homosexual marriages lawfully, like in America, but there wasn't any bill introduced—after hearing that, Asuna immediately wavered, and Yuuki chuckled happily again,
『Sorry sorry, I was just joking. You have someone you like, right? That person who helped adjust the lens for me, right…』
『You have to be careful~』
『That guy also seems to be living in a world different from reality, in a different sense from me.』
Asuna wanted to think carefully about what Yuuki meant, but her confused brain couldn't calm down no matter what. She rubbed her face that was becoming red, and Yuuki used the lens to look at the side of her friend's face before saying in a steady voice,
『Thank you very much, Asuna. I'm already happy that I could see this house again. Even if the house disappears in the future, my memories will remain here. My Papa, Mama, nee-chan, our happy memories together, will always be here…』
Asuna knew that the 'here' Yuuki referred to wasn't the land that the house was on, but her own heart.
This house's gentle and peaceful state finally left a deep impression in Asuna. She then nodded hard, and Yuuki continued,
『…If nee-chan and I cried as we couldn't take the pain with the medication, Mama would talk to us about Lord Jesus. She said that the Lord Jesus wouldn't give us pain which we couldn't endure. I would then pray with Mama and nee-chan. But back then, I was a little angry, because I didn't want to hear about the Bible, but Mama's words…』
In this short time, the sky had become completely deep blue, and there were even a few bright red stars starting to flicker.
『But as I saw this house again, I understood. Mama was actually talking to me all the time. She wasn't saying it with her words…but her heart. She continued to pray for me, allowing me to go on until the end…I finally understand now.』
Asuna's eyes seemed to see the mother and two daughters kneeling near the window at the white house, looking up at the sky and praying. She looked like she was guided by Yuuki's calm voice, and said the words that were jammed deep inside her.
"I've…I've…been unable to hear my mother's voice. Even when we face each other, I can't hear her heart. She never even bothers to understand my words. Yuuki, you said that we have to sometimes use forceful means for the other party to understand our intentions, right? What should I do to be like you, Yuuki…? What should I do to be as strong as you…?"
To Yuuki, whose parents have died, these words may have tugged at her wounds. Normally, Asuna would think about this and wouldn't be able to say it out. But at this moment, what came from Yuuki through the probe on the shoulder was a fortitude and gentleness that melted Asuna's mental wall away completely.
Yuuki answered Asuna's question with a bothered answer,
『I'm…not strong here, you know?』
"That's not right. You won't be scared because of how other people look and back away. You're always…always so natural."
『Un…but, when I used to be in the real world, I often felt that I wasn't acting like myself. I know Papa and Mama were sorry for giving birth to nee-chan and me…so I felt that I had to give them an energetic look and pretend that I wasn't bothered over whether I was sick or not. Maybe it's because of this that I could only show myself like this once I entered Medicuboid. Perhaps, I was naturally a kid who hated everything around me, screaming and shrieking all day long.』
『But then, I thought later. It's alright even if it's an act…even if I pretend to look strong, it's alright. If I can increase the time that a smile remains on my face, it would be enough. You know that I don't have much time…so I felt that when interacting with others, wouldn't it be a waste of time if I try to guess people's feelings all the time? I might as well as present the most realistic side of me. It doesn't matter even if I get hated, it doesn't matter. Besides, I managed to end up in that person's heart.』
"…That's right…it's because of your attitude, Yuuki, that we became such good friends in these few days…"
『No, that's not because of me. It's because even if I tried to run away, you would persist and chase after me, Asuna.—Yesterday, when I saw you in the observation room, when I heard your voice, I understood your intentions completely. Once I knew that this person would still be willing to face me even after knowing that I was ill…I was really…really so happy that I cried out.』
Yuuki choked a little, and she continued,
『So…try using that feeling to talk to your mother. I think that if the will is there, she would definitely understand how you feel. It's alright. You're a lot stronger than me, Asuna. Really. Sometimes, both sides can only understand each other's feelings by ignoring everything else…it's because you came to me, Asuna, and showed your true self, that I felt 'if it's this person, I can definitely hand this over to you'.』
"…Thank you. Thank you very much, Yuuki."
After finally squeezing these words out, Asuna lifted her head to hide the tears in her eyes. She also found that in the sky of this capital that would not become completely dark, there were still some stars flickering hard as they tried not to lose to the artificial light.
Once they returned to the station, the battery alarm of the probe suddenly rang. Asuna and Yuuki agreed to turn up for lessons tomorrow, and Asuna cut off the power to the mobile phone.
It was past 9pm once Asuna took the train back to her house in Setagaya.
The girl heard the sound of the door opening as it echoed loudly through the icy cold air of the corridor hall, and sighed deeply. Her right shoulder still felt the weight of Yuuki sitting there. Asuna used her left hand to lightly grab the warm spot she left behind, took off her shoes and quickly walked to her room.
She changed into her indoor clothes and immediately came over to the corridor. Her destination was the room of her elder brother, Kouichirou, which was also deep inside the 2nd level. Asuna felt that Kouichirou, who was hardly at home, like her father, probably wouldn't be home yet, but she knocked on the door, and as expected, there was no response inside. She then opened the door on her own, similar to the first day the SAO server began operating, and walked in.
There were no furnishings inside. In the center of the plain room, there was a somewhat large office table placed there. The thing Asuna wanted to find was on the left side of the table. It was the AmuSphere Kouichirou used to set up meetings in the virtual world.
Kouichirou's AmuSphere could be said to be a lot newer than his sister's. Asuna grabbed the headgear and returned to her room. She then installed the memory card of ALO Aincrad into the card slot on the side of the machine, laid on the bed, adjusted Kouichirou's AmuSphere till it fit her, and put it on.
Once she turned on the power, the machine started its connecting sequence. She was then brought to the ALO log in space. However, having dived into the kingdom of elves, Asuna didn't use her familiar main account, but a side account she would occasionally use when trying to act as someone else.
She appeared at a living room of the house in the forest on the 22nd level. However, her body wasn't that of the familiar Undine named «Asuna», but another Sylph character called «Erika». She checked her clothing, put the two daggers on her waist into the chest, and summoned her menu to press the temporary log-out command button.
After a few more seconds of diving, Asuna immediately found herself back in her room in reality. She took off the AmuSphere, but the blue connecting indicator continued to flicker on the machine. This showed that the connection to the VR world was on suspension. She could immediately skip the log-in process and return to the game by putting on the headgear and switching on the power.
Asuna held her brother's AmuSphere in her hand and immediately got up. Due to the high powered router and wireless network that had a large range, she could remain connected no matter which part of the house she was in.
She opened the door and arrived on the corridor. This time, she used somewhat heavy footsteps to walk down the stairs.
She looked at the living room and the dining, found the tables were already tidied, and couldn't find her mother anywhere. Asuna continued to walk deeper, and saw a slight ray of light from below the door at the end. It was her mother's study.
She stopped in front of the door, then raised her right hand as she got ready to knock, but just couldn't take the next step.
Since when did coming to my mother's room become such a terrifying thing? Asuna bit her lips as she thought. However, the reason why it became like this was largely because of Asuna herself. As she didn't pass her thoughts seriously, her mother couldn't understand her real feelings. It was Yuuki who made her realize this.
The girl felt a small hand pushing her right shoulder. At the same time, a voice rang,
—It's alright. You can do it, Asuna…
Asuna nodded her head, forcefully took a deep breath, and then knocked the door hard.
Quickly, a slight 'please come in' voice came from behind the door. Asuna turned the handle, turned her body sideways into the room, and grabbed the door handle.
Kyouko was facing the thick teak table as she continued to type on the keyboard of the tabletop PC. She continued to type at the keyboard loudly for a while, and then forcefully pressed the enter button even harder before leaning her back on her chair. The mother pushed the glasses and looked at her daughter's eyes, seemingly harboring an invisible impatience.
"…Why did you come back so late?"
Kyouko said, and Asuna immediately lowered her head to apologize,
"I handled dinner already. If you're hungry, find something to eat inside the fridge. The school transfer application I mentioned to you before will only last until tomorrow. You have to finish it by tomorrow morning."
Once Kyouko finished saying that, her hands returned to the keyboard, and Asuna said the words she wanted to say to her mother first.
"Mom, about this…I want to talk to you."
"Say it here then."
"I can't explain it here."
Asuna didn't answer as she walked to Kyouko. She then reached her left hand out to point at something that was dangling behind her—the AmuSphere that was in suspend mode.
"The VR world…just for a while. I hope that you can come with me to some place."
Kyouko glanced at the silver ring for a moment, and seemed to see something she hated as she frowned. Then, she looked like she had nothing better to say as she waved her right hand.
"I don't want to wear such a thing. If we can't even talk face to face, I'm not going to listen."
"Please Mom. Please look at this, for just 5 minutes…"
Normally, Asuna would apologize and leave the room. However, she continued to take a step forward and closed in on Kyouko, before saying,
"Please, you must come here with me so that I can express my current thoughts and feelings. Just once…I want Mom to see my world."
Kyouko frowned even harder as she merely kept her mouth shut and stared at Asuna. Several seconds later, she sighed hard.
"—Just 5 minutes. Also, no matter what you say, Mom won't allow you to remain in that school. Once you're done, you have to fill in the application form."
Asuna nodded and handed over the AmuSphere in her hand. Kyouko frowned and gave a look like she wasn't willing to touch such a thing, but received the device and put it over her head with a stiff motion.
"How do I operate this?"
Asuna quickly adjusted the belt, and then said,
"Once you switch on the power, it will automatically connect. Please wait for me when you enter."
Kyouko nodded her head slightly and leaned on the chair. Asuna then pressed the power switch on the right side of the AmuSphere. The net connection indicator light continued to flicker irregularly, and Kyouko's body immediately lost its strength.
Asuna hurriedly ran out of the study, sprinted through the corridor and the stairs and returned to her own room. She leapt on the bed and immediately put on the AmuSphere she normally used.
After pressing the power switch, a firing-shaped light appeared in front of Asuna, and her consciousness left the real world.
Asuna landed in the familiar white wooden living room in her Undine main character, and immediately looked around for «Erika». She immediately saw her. The light grass-colored short-haired Sylph was sitting in front of the full-body sized mirror beside the cutlery sideboard and looking at herself.
Asuna went close, and Erika/Kyouko turned behind slightly, frowning in the exact same manner as she would in the real world.
"It's strange to see a different face act according to my own will. And…"
She used her toes to tiptoe up and down.
"My body feels extremely light."
"Of course. This character's weight is about only 40kg. it should be a lot different from your weight in real life, Mom."
Asuna smiled as she said that, and Kyouko again frowned unhappily,
"How rude. I'm not that heavy—speaking of which…your face here really looks like the one in the real world."
"However, your real figure seemed to be a little plumper."
"You're the rude one, Mom. I'm completely the same as I am in the real world."
As both of them talked, Asuna thought. When was the last time she could talk to Kyouko like that? She wanted to keep this conversation going, but Kyouko had her arms folded in front of her chest, indicating an attitude of which no random talk would be entertained.
"There is no time. What do you want to show me?"
"…Come over here"
Asuna sighed lightly as she crossed the living room and opened the small room that was normally used as a storeroom. She waited for Kyouko to move her imaginary feet over, and led her to a window deep inside the room.
In the living room facing south, one could see a painting-like scenery that included a wide hall that was covered with a lawn, a small track, a gradual hill and a small lake behind it. However, there was a small garden full of weeds and a small stream to the window in the north where the utility room was. There was also a coniferous forest that was nearby. Also, in this season, it seemed everything was buried in snow, as only a uniform color could be seen.
But this was what Asuna wanted Kyouko to see.
Asuna opened the window, looked at the deep forest and said,
"How is it? Don't you find it familiar?"
Kyouko frowned again, shook her head slightly and said,
"Like what? It's just an ordinary coniferous forest—"
What she wanted to say next seemed to be taken away. Kyouko's mouth was left half-open as she looked like she was looking at a scenery far away. At this moment, Asuna silently whispered to the side of her face,
"You remembered… Ojii-chan and Obaa-chan's house, right?"
Asuna's grandparents, Kyouko's parents, were farmers in the hills of Miyagi Prefecture. Their house was located in a village past the hills, and the land were all terraces that were carved out from the hillside. They did not have any machines to help with the farming. The main produce they offered was rice, but the amount they could produce was only enough for a family to last through a year.
In such an environment, they were still able to provide Kyouko with a college education because of the coniferous hill her ancestors left behind. Their old wooden house was built at the foot of the hill. Whenever one sat on the edge of the corridor in the house, the little garden and river could be seen along with the deep coniferous hill.
But compared to the Yuukis' main house in Kyoto, Asuna preferred to head over to 'her grandparents house in Miyagi' ever since she was young. During summer or winter break, she would beg the adults to bring her here, and she would then sleep with her grandparents and listen to them talk about many folk stories. During the summer, she would sit on the corridor and eat shaved ice, and during mid-winter, she would dry persimmon stems with her grandmother. There were all sorts of memories there, but Asuna remembered the scene most vividly; she hid under the old kotatsu in the middle of winter, eating oranges and staring at the coniferous forest outside the window.
Her grandparents didn't understand what was so nice about the forest, but Asuna would just look like her soul was sucked in as she continued to look at the black branches in the white snowy scene. She would look like a little mouse hiding in a hole under the pile of snow, waiting for spring to arrive, surrounded by an inexplicable feeling that was of a little fear and warmth as she continued to stare into that coniferous forest.
Her grandparents died when Asuna was in second year. The terrace and the hill were all sold, and the house no one stayed in was also torn down.
Thus, Asuna bought this 22nd level wooden house in Aincrad that was very different from the house in the hills Miyagi, whether it was physically or virtually. After seeing the coniferous forest that was covered under the large pile of snow from the north window, she felt so homesick that she had wanted to cry.
Asuna was clear that Kyouko didn't miss the poor farmer's life at all. However, she wanted to let Kyouko see this scene from the window. She wanted to let her mother see this scene she could see every day and yet tried to forget.
Unwittingly, the promised 5 minutes passed, but Kyouko continued to look at the coniferous forest silently. Asuna went beside her and slowly spoke,
"Do you remember the Obon Festival in my first year in Middle school? Dad, Mom, and Nii-san all went to Kyoto, and I was the only one who insisted on going to Miyagi. Then I really ran there on my own."
"At that time, I apologized to Ojii-chan and Obaa-chan that you wouldn't be able to make it, Mom, that you were really sorry."
"At that time…the Yuuki family had a legal matter we had to attend to no matter what…"
"No, I'm not blaming you, Mom. That's because…when I apologized, Ojii-chan and Obaa-chan immediately took out a thick photo album. I was really shocked when I saw the contents. –everything was about you, Mom, whether it was your thesis in the beginning, or the documents you sent to all sorts of magazines, or the reports of your interviews, they were all archived neatly. Even the documents published on the internet were printed and stuck in. But both of them shouldn't be able to use the computer…"
"Then, Ojii-chan showed me the contents of the photo album and said that you're the most important treasure to him, Mom. He even said that he was really happy that you left the town to study in college, became a scholar and wrote all sorts of theses that were published in magazines and became even more outstanding. You would be so busy with your theses and studies that you couldn't make it back during an Obon festival, and it was to be expected, yet they never showed any displeasure…"
Kyouko merely stared at the forest as she silently watched Asuna. The sides of her face didn't show any emotion, but Asuna still continued to move her mouth,
"After that, Ojii-chan even added this. He said—Mom may end up being tired someday and need to rest or check where she went through. They will protect this home for that moment…when Mom needs assistance, they could still say 'you can come back here'. They will continue to protect this house and hill."
Asuna said as her mind recalled her maternal grandparents' house that didn't exist anymore. She then overlapped it with the white house she saw several hours ago. They were both spiritual homes. Even if it was physically gone, it would continue to exist in some people's hearts forever. To Asuna, this virtual world's 'House of Forest' was such a place.
This house would disappear one day, but in a certain sense, it would not disappear for real. That was because a so-called house wasn't just a building with a form—but something that kept the souls, emotions and way of life, like her grandparents.
"—In the past, I couldn't understand what Ojii-chan said, but recently, I could finally understand it. It's not only about telling me to work hard throughout my life…using someone's happiness as my own happiness is also a way of life."
Asuna's mind immediately thought of the faces of Kirito, Lisbeth and company, Yuuki, Shiune and company.
"…I want to choose a way of life where the people around me can smile and live. I want to live a life where I can support people when they feel tired. Thus—I want to learn more knowledge and other things in this loving school."
Asuna continued to ponder about her words, and finally said these words out.
However, Kyouko kept her mouth shut as she continued to look at the forest in front of her. Her dark green eyes showed a blank glow, and it was hard to read her inner thoughts.
The small room was shrouded in silence for a few minutes after that. Under the snowy field of large woods, two little animals that looked like rabbits were happily jumping about. Asuna's gaze was immediately attracted by that, but once she looked back to see Kyouko's face, she immediately held her breath.
A tear rolled down Kyouko's white crystal-like face and continued to drip onto the floor. Her lips were trembling, but the voice was so inaudible it was impossible to hear what she was saying.
After a while, Kyouko found herself crying and frantically used her hands to wipe her tears.
"Wait…what is this. I, I didn't want to cry out…"
"…Mom, it's impossible to hide your tears in this world. Nobody can stop crying when they feel like it."
"That's really inconvenient."
After letting out such words, Kyouko continued to rub her eyes, and seemed to have finally given up as she used both hands to cover her own face. After a while, a slightly sobbing noises could be heard from deep inside her throat. Asuna hesitated a few times before finally putting her hand lightly on Kyouko's trembling shoulder.
The next morning.
Sitting in front of the table at breakfast, Kyouko went back to how she was before. She was looking at the news on the tablet monitor. Asuna said good morning to her, and both of them silently tucked in. Asuna was mentally prepared for her mother to order her to hand over the transfer application. However, Kyouko merely looked at Asuna with a slightly sterner expression than usual, and suddenly said,
"Are you mentally ready to support someone for the rest of your life?"
Asuna hurriedly nodded her head.
"—However, you have to make yourself strong enough in order to support someone else. That's why you have to finish your university education. You have to get better grades than now in the third semester so that you can get into a good one."
"Didn't I say it? I'll decide according to your grades. Do your best."
Once Kyouko said that, she stood up and hurriedly left the dining room. Asuna heard the sound of the door closing loudly, and then lowered her head slightly, before whispering 'Thanks, mom'.
Asuna changed into her uniform, took her bag, and was about to leave the house, keeping a solemn and gracious attitude. However, once she stepped out of the door, she started running at full throttle on the road as if it were a layer of thin ice, and her face naturally beamed.
She really wanted to immediately tell Kazuto that she could continue to study in the same school as him. She also wanted to immediately tell Yuuki that she had patched up her relationship with her mother.
Asuna passed through the crowd moving towards the station, and couldn't restrain herself from smiling at all.
3 days later, Asuna followed up on the promise she had made with Yuuki and carried out a large barbeque in front of the house of forest.
The ones who took part were her own friends, Kirito, Lisbeth, Klein, Lyfa, Silica, Yuuki, Shiune and the members of the Sleeping Knights. Also, even the leaders of the tribes, Sakuya, Alicia, Eugene and their aides came over. They even formed a small hunting group to fill this large group that had more than 30 people.
Before toasting, Asuna introduced the members of the Sleeping Knights to everyone. She hid the fact that they were asleep, but with Yuuki and company's agreement, she told them that they were an elite squad that wandered through several VRMMO and what memories they hoped to leave in ALO before disbanding.
The rumors that a mysterious Guild of only 7 people defeated the boss on the 27th level and that the «Absolute Sword» managed to beat more than 60 people in duels seemed to be widespread in Alfheim, so Sakuya, Eugene and company immediately tried to invite them to join their sides. Yuuki smiled as she refused them, but if the Sleeping Knights really were to become mercenaries of a certain tribe, the balance of power between the 9 spirit clans would change greatly, and would affect the 2nd edition's grand quest that was under way.
After a loud and rowdy toast, the party that stormed in like the wind started. Asuna and Yuuki started to eat and drink as they continued to talk. There was even a discussion of taking down the 28th level boss. Everyone then used this enthusiasm to take a tour into the 28th level dungeon, and just like that, a large group of people broke into the highest area of the 28th Dungeon to defeat the large crustacean type boss monster, but after that, it was just random talk and gossip.
Unfortunately, only Yuuki and Kirito, the party leader, and a few names were engraved on the Monument of Swordsmen. However, everyone agreed to let the Sleeping Knights challenge the 29th level, and so they disbanded.
Besides her adventures in Alfheim, Yuuki would use the two-way probe in the real world every day to attend Asuna's lessons. They even visited the Kirigayas in Kawagoe, and they went to Agil's café in Okachimachi.
At the beginning, Yuuki felt extremely wary when she faced the overly sensitive Kazuto. However, both of them were one-handed sword users, and after they talked to each other, Yuuki immediately opened her heart and started to talk passionately with Kazuto about the sword skills in ALO and the development of the probe in the real world. The way the two of them continued to chat with each other sometimes even made Asuna feel jealous. The other members of the Sleeping Knights also became friends with Lisbeth and Lyfa, and started planning all sorts of interesting activities.
It was February.
As promised, Asuna and the Sleeping Knights took down the boss of the 29th level as one party, and everyone in Alfheim knew their name. In the middle of the month, there was a united dueling tournament. Kirito, who was on the east block, and Yuuki, who was on the west block, continued to rack up victories and reached the finals, where the net broadcast channel «MMO Stream» showed a live telecast, bringing the entire atmosphere in the activity to its maximum.
As numerous players held their breaths, Yuuki and Kazuto used high level sword skills, including their own OSS, showing an abnormally dazzling and intense battle. This battle lasted more than 10 minutes, and finally, Yuuki used a brilliant god-like skill to defeat Kirito in 11 straight hits, and the crowd immediately roared and cheered in a way where it could shake the entire virtual world.
Having defeated Kirito, who made lots of legends—even though he didn't use his Dual Blades skill—«Absolute Sword» Yuuki was crowned the 4th champion of the tournament, and her name spread through the whole game of ALO, becoming a famed person throughout all users of «The Seed» Nexus.
Soon, it was March.
Asuna, who fulfilled the promise she made with her Mom through her end-of-term exams, was now on a 3 day 2 night trip to Kyoto with the probe on her shoulder, Rika (Liz), Keiko (Silica), Suguha (Lyfa) and Yui in her phone. At this point, the information collected by the probe could be shared to multiple users, so aside from Yuuki, Shiune, Jun and the rest could join them on the trip. Asuna's introduction to each tourist attraction was even more energetic.
They used the Yuukis' spacious rooms fully at night for their accommodation, and the budget they managed to save allowed them to head to the bright Kyoto restaurants to feast in. However, the taste of the food couldn't be passed through the probe to the people, and Yuuki and the rest continued to grumble that Asuna and company were too sly. Asuna could only promise them that she would make a similar tasting dish in the VR world, and Asuna herself ended up working hard in the VR kitchen for a few days.
Everything went by like a dream. Asuna and Yuuki went on a long journey together in both the virtual world and the real world. They had a lot of places they wanted to head to, and Asuna believed that they would have a lot of time.
On a certain day not too far away from April, the cold wind that came from the sea of Okhotsk caused Kanto to have a rare heavy snowfall in this season.
The thick snow that seemed to fully cover the presence of spring was starting to melt under the weak daylight.
At this moment, Asuna's phone received news from Doctor Kurahashi, stating that Yuuki's condition was worsening.
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