Chapter 022-02 The Day After Alfheim June 2025
“Have you gotten used to that avatar yet?”
The sudden question caused Asuna to look up from the window with her English homework on it.
She twirled the long blue undine hair resting on her right shoulder and replied, “Ummm…I think I need more time. It’s strange…My face and figure are still the same as they were in Aincrad, with only the hair and eyes different. But there are moments when it just feels weird. Like my body isn’t entirely connected to my mind…”
Looking concerned was a spriggan boy with his black hair standing on end. She thought of him as a boy, but the player inside of him was just one year younger than Asuna, who was going to be eighteen this year. But the avatar looked so much more youthful and mischievous than the real person that she couldn’t help but think of him as a boy.
The spriggan, who was sitting next to her on the sofa, pushed his own holo-keyboard back, then rested his elbows on the table and stared at her.
“That might be a different problem than just getting accustomed…You said there was no problem with the AmuSphere’s BSIS level and response, right?”
“Yes. I checked the log, and both were above average.”
He reached out with his left hand and squeezed her right.
“Uh, wh-what is this?” she asked, her heart skipping a beat at the surprise attack. But he looked entirely serious as he spread her palm open and drew his index finger down it, touch just barely there.
A tiny tickling in the center of her palm ran all the way up her back, and Asuna couldn’t help but yelp a little bit. The spriggan still looked perfectly solemn, however, and stared at her palm.
“I’m getting a sensation of making contact. You can feel that, too, right?”
“Yes…I can,” Asuna admitted.
The boy scowled. “Then I’m going to move my finger and slowly pull it away from your skin. Tell me when you feel the sensation vanish. So…do you still feel it?”
He slowly, slowly slid his finger across her palm, and the fainter sensation stimulated her virtual nerves. Her avatar twitched, and she whispered, “Yes…I’m still…feeling it.”
“All right…Then how about this?”
“Haaah…Then it seems like your BSIS level really is normal…”
At last, Asuna recognized that what she was saying might potentially be misconstrued.
Immediately, a fiery heat covered her face. She yanked back her hand, clenched it into a fist, and bellowed at the stunned spriggan:
“What were you making me say?! Kirito, you…you jerk!!”
The right hook that smashed into his face did no numerical damage, because they were in a room of an inn in the central city—but it did succeed at blasting the little spriggan over the back of the sofa to the far wall.
* * *
It was eight thirty PM on Saturday, June 21st, 2025.
Asuna Yuuki was in a room on the outer edge of Yggdrasil City inside the VRMMORPG ALfheim Online (ALO), doing her school homework with Kazuto Kirigaya—Kirito.
A venture capital company called Ymir had taken over running ALO from the now-dissolved RCT Progress. This change had brought a number of revolutionary tweaks to the game, one of which was more (if still limited) connection to the Net from within ALO. If you opened a browser tab in your menu, you could search the Net just like on a computer or smartphone and access your homework files from their online server. Even if a malicious player attempted to run some kind of nasty program, the Cardinal System could instantly detect it and stop any hacking attempts. So the fairy city enjoyed peace and security.
Asuna’s mother did not look kindly on her decision to resume using full-dive machines, and she often said, “At least do your homework with your own two hands,” but Asuna felt that her physical body and her virtual avatar were both herself. Plus, it was more efficient to do homework in a full dive, because she could open as many windows as she wanted (up to a limit), and she didn’t have to worry about tired eyes or stiff shoulders. And most important of all, online she could study side by side with Kirito, whereas in real life, they were located far apart, in Miyasaka in Setagaya Ward and Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture…although that might count as an impure motive.
At any rate, she had been typing away at her holo-keyboard as a fairy, lost in her homework, when Kirito suddenly started testing her senses.
The spriggan sat up from the floor, groaning. Asuna, no longer on the couch, loomed over him, hands on her hips in the scolding position.
“Look, if you want to test my sensitivity to stimuli, there are better ways to do it!”
“…But that was the simplest way to do it…Besides, you were the one who started making eroti—er, funny sounds…,” Kirito mumbled in his defense. She fixed him with an even sharper glare.
“Oh…? What was that? What were you going to say? You can tell me; I won’t be angry.”
“Th-that’s a lie! Besides, you’re already angry…”
“I am not! But if Yui wasn’t out at the time, I really would have let you have it,” she threatened. Kirito straightened up and trembled.
Yui was a sophisticated top-down AI playing the role of a navigation pixie within ALO—and was their daughter. At the moment, she was out attending a monster hunt with their friends Klein and Lisbeth. The thought of her beloved daughter witnessing that embarrassing scene brought another wave of heat to Asuna’s cheeks.
Kirito started smiling for some reason, and he remarked, “Asuna, your face is red.”
His smile turned to panic when he saw her clench an iron fist again. She strode in his direction with disciplinary intent, when—
She came to an abrupt stop.
It was that sensation again. A strange feeling, like her soul had momentarily slipped out of her virtual avatar. Like she didn’t know where her arms and legs were or how they were moving…Like the present was no longer present.
Kirito sensed the change in her and instantly leaped to her side to help hold her up. He looked her in the eyes, concern clear on his features.
“Are you okay?”
“Y…yes, I’m fine. I’m better now,” she replied, still allowing him to support her weight. “It’s just…just the tiniest bit of an odd feeling. It’s not like I can’t move my avatar, so I could probably ignore it…In fact, maybe it’s all in my head…”
“No…we ought to look into this. It’s not a sensation you felt in Aincrad, right?”
“Right. I never felt it once…At least I don’t think so…?”
Kirito easily lifted Asuna into his arms and took her to the bedroom next door. Their room was a penthouse suite, so the view from the wide windows showed them the dazzling night profile of Ygg City and the landscape of Alfheim far below. The young man ignored the sight, however, laying Asuna on the large bed and sitting next to her. He caressed her pale-blue hair.
“Asuna…I’m sure it’s not something you want to remember, but…”
She could tell just from the tone of his voice what he wanted to say. She smiled at him and shook her head. “I’m fine…I never felt this way when I was Titania. It’s not because of the server changing.”
Kirito turned his head and looked out the window at last.
He’d defeated the deadly Sword Art Online and freed 6,149 players from Aincrad on November 7th, 2024. But roughly three hundred players, including Asuna, were not freed from their virtual prison. A man in a principal position at the electronics manufacturer RCT Progress, Nobuyuki Sugou, had held their minds prisoner in his virtual lab in ALO as subjects in his illegal experiments.
Asuna had not been treated as a test subject, however; instead, he’d locked her inside a giant birdcage hung from the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. He’d given her the name Titania and called himself Oberon, king of the fairies.
That torment had lasted until Kirito had succeeded in rescuing her on January 22nd, 2025. It was two months of time that felt just as long as the two years in Aincrad, but at no point in that time had she felt something wrong with her bodily sensations.
“…I think…the first I felt this…well, dissociative sensation…was about a month ago…,” she murmured.
Kirito’s eyes flared a bit. “You remember the first time it happened?”
“Yes. Because it was when we were fighting the boss on the first floor of New Aincrad.”
His black eyes blinked a few times.
“Back then, huh…? That’s right—you fumbled on your magic spell once. Was that it…?”
“I’m amazed you remember that,” she remarked. Her partner had a strangely accurate sense of recall.
“While I was chanting the spell words, I felt like my bodily sensations were growing distant, and I stopped talking. Then it came right back, and it only happened the one time in that battle, so I assumed it was just a fluke of my mind…but ever since, it happens from time to time…”
“Which would mean it’s not just something you’re getting used to. I mean, that boss fight was at least three weeks after you first dived into ALO with that avatar, right? If the avatar being unfamiliar was the cause, it would have been frequent right after you started.”
“Yeah…exactly. But then what could it be…?” she wondered, thinking as she lay on the bed.
Kirito considered this for a while before asking, “This never happens in VR spaces aside from ALO?”
“Um…that’s right. I don’t often dive into places other than here, but I don’t remember feeling the separation anywhere else.”
“Then it’s not just because of a difference between NerveGear and the AmuSphere, either. And…hmm…I assume you don’t feel this in the real world, either…?”
“No, I told you. That would be an actual out-of-body experience.”
After she said it, she was hit by a wave of dread, and she reassessed her memories, but still there was nothing that resembled that feeling in real life. But now that they’d run through the options, the cause was a true mystery. She had tried looking for information online, but she didn’t see any AmuSphere users complaining of similar problems, and her symptoms were too vague and mild for her to seek specific help from RCT Progress or Ymir.
When it happened, it lasted for only a moment. As long as she didn’t let it bother her, it wasn’t a big enough problem to ruin her fun—but after spending this much time thinking about it, there was no way she could just forget about the whole thing.
Kirito sat on the edge of the bed, offering her a profile view of his face as he grumbled and hummed. Eventually, he seemed to reach a conclusion.
“The only thing we can do at this point is talk to Yui, I think.”
That was an option Asuna had considered after the fourth or fifth instance of dissociation but had hesitated to do yet. Yui would be terribly worried if she learned about Asuna’s problem, and if Yui’s abilities weren’t enough to find a solution, she might only be left with the mental burden of failure.
Yui was an artificial intelligence created to offer mental counseling to SAO players. But when the game was locked down and turned deadly, all her abilities were frozen, leaving her helpless to do anything but monitor the negative emotions of thousands of players. That incredible burden had built up until it shattered her core program. By the time she’d met Asuna and Kirito, she was barely capable of speech.
That was why Asuna felt so desperate not to burden Yui with this news, to keep her little heart safe from pain.
But Kirito just nodded, seeing right through his partner, and reached out again. He caressed her hair with gentle but firm strokes—few players could perform such delicate motions—and said, “I know how you feel, Asuna. But…if Yui learns that we chose not to ask her for help and advice, that would make her just as sad.”
“But it really isn’t that bad. I’m sure I’ll get over this thing and stop thinking about it altogether.”
“…I’m not sure…You’re very sensitive, Asuna…,” he said, trailing off. Then he clamped his mouth shut and shook his head in a panic. “Uh, I mean, not in a weird way.”
“Oh, I know that’s not what you meant. So…?”
“So…erm, the more sensitive a player is, the more you can’t afford to ignore little anomalies with what you can feel. Especially in the midst of battle. I want you to be able to enjoy this VRMMO for what it is, not being some high-stakes death roulette. And that means eliminating any kind of impediment to your experience, no matter how small. Maybe that’s just a stubborn desire of mine…,” he finished in a whisper, causing Asuna to reach for him.
Her hand landed on the shoulder of his tight-fitting black shirt, and she pulled him close. The high Strength stat she’d inherited from her time in SAO made him lose his balance, and the skinny spriggan yelped and fell onto Asuna’s chest.
She held him tight with both arms, squeezing for all she was worth.
“Thank you, Kirito,” she whispered. “I’m having so much fun right now. It’s so wonderful being here with you and Yui and everyone else, traveling all over Alfheim and New Aincrad to the different towns and places, shopping together, going on adventures…I just want to travel all over this world with you forever.”
As she talked, Kirito eventually stopped struggling. In time, his hands snuck their way around her back.
In a sense, they hadn’t held each other like this since the SAO days. From January to late April, she’d been busy rehabilitating after being freed from the virtual birdcage. After that, she’d been trying her best to get accustomed to the real world again, new school included, after two years stuck inside a virtual experience. There had barely been any time for them to be alone in either place. The only reason they were like this today was because they both had more homework than the others. The usual study sessions were much more crowded.
But right now, Asuna was working on a little project deep in her heart—a promise to herself, one could say.
At some point in the future, New Aincrad would be opened beyond the tenth floor, which was the current limit. When that happened, she wanted to be the first to reach the twenty-second floor and buy that little log cabin deep in the woods. The log cabin where she had shared a brief but brilliant period of bliss with Kirito.
Of course, there were subtle differences in monsters, items, and even landscapes between Aincrad and New Aincrad, so there was no guarantee the same house would be in the same place. But Asuna felt certain the cabin would be there, waiting for them. She was less sure if they would need to finish the flying-house quest again before they’d be allowed to buy it.
“…Maybe…,” she murmured.
In her arms, Kirito craned his head a tiny bit in response, but she changed course and said, “Nothing. Never mind,” keeping her thoughts to herself.
Maybe the strange dissociative sensation was happening because her heart longed for that cabin too strongly. Because for just a moment, her mind was leaving her avatar behind and leaping to those woods on the twenty-second floor…
Her train of thought was interrupted by Kirito’s voice. “Let’s talk with Yui tomorrow. I’m sure she’ll find some kind of issue we wouldn’t have known about.”
“Yeah…I’m sure she will,” Asuna agreed, releasing her hold on him.
Their cheeks separated, and they pulled back until they were gazing into each other’s eyes. Asuna felt something beginning to rise within her, but after a moment, Kirito broke contact and sat up, returning to his previous position on the side of the bed.
“So…what should we do now? Go meet up with the others?” he asked.
She grimaced and shook her head. “No. We’re not nearly done with our homework.”
“And it’ll be nearly ten by the time we’re done with it all, so playing will have to wait for tomorrow. Agil and Leafa said they’d be available then, so we’d have more fun with everybody there.”
“Fiiine,” he said like a sulking child and dropped his chin to his chest. “Man…Ten o’clock was just when the hunting got good in SAO…”
“Don’t reminisce about the bad old days! Besides, you were known for not joining in the night activities. And yet you kept popping off level-ups—they treated you like one of the Seven Great Mysteries of the frontline group,” Asuna said, sitting upright.
Kirito gave her a funny look and said, “Uh…what were the other six mysteries?”
“Let’s see…There was the legend of the Black Swordsman fighting with a one-handed sword and no shield…The legend of how the Black Swordsman took way too many Last Attack bonuses…”
“H-hang on, hang on. Are these all about me?”
“Don’t worry—the seventh one is the legend of how the KoB commander is too uptight…But that one wasn’t a real mystery…”
She was thinking of eight months ago, when the black-haired swordsman saw through the “mystery” of Commander Heathcliff, better known as Akihiko Kayaba. Kirito patted Asuna on the head.
“I didn’t have any mysterious powers, either. I only kept my level up because of the encouragement and help of others…including you, of course.”
He rubbed her head a few times, then stood and stretched.
“Well, let’s get back to that homework…and if you could see your way to helping me here, too…”
“Oh, fine,” she said, rising to her feet and flashing him a smile. “But when we’re done, you owe me dinner at the restaurant on the ground floor!”
Upon returning from the virtual world to the real one, the first thing she felt was the weight of her physical body.
Or to put it another way, the presence of true gravity. In SAO, she played a speed-first fencer, so the overall feel of gravity on her avatar was light. She raced through Aincrad as a gust of wind, leaping over obstacles like a young, powerful filly. Since she had inherited that character data for ALO, the feeling was still light. In fact, she probably felt even lighter because of the fairy wings.
So when she opened her eyes in the darkened bedroom, the feeling of weight that covered her body was stifling. When she was trapped inside that deadly game, she’d wanted a log-out button for so long, but now the sensation of that transition was very unpleasant. She’d probably get used to it over time, she decided.
After another ten seconds of letting herself get accustomed to the new sensations, Asuna slowly rose. She took the AmuSphere off her head—the full-dive machine felt stunningly fragile compared to the NerveGear. The sensors on the ceiling detected her movement and upped the indirect lighting to provide enough to see by.
Her feet hit the floor, and she carefully got to a standing position, but she felt woozy. It was similar to the mysterious dissociative sensation she felt in her virtual body, but unlike the feeling of her mind slipping out into the sky, the real-world sensation was like being dragged to the ground. This one was much more unpleasant.
She shook her head, driving off the dizziness, and stuck her toes into her slippers before heading to the window on the south side of her room.
Through the crack in the curtains, she could see the neighborhood at night, shrouded in the heavy, damp air of June. There were white halos around the streetlamps, perhaps because of some light rain. It reminded her of the light effects from the virtual world.
Suddenly, a part of her memory was stimulated, knotting her brows.
A city at night. Lights shrouded in mist. Flowing water nearby. She was squatting near it, holding her knees to her chest. Lonely, terrified, but with nowhere to escape…
For the life of her, she could not remember where and when she’d experienced this. She tried to capture and clarify that vague mental image, but it slipped out of her mind as abruptly as it appeared.
But the strange note of loneliness remained, deep in her chest.
For a while after that, Asuna found herself staring out the window at the dark vista of the real world.