The human temperature is a strange thing.
Yuuki Asuna suddenly had such a thought.
The rain had already stopped, and under that dark blue sky, with a part of the clouds dyed in orange, the two of them walked slowly while holding hands. Beside her, Kirigaya Kazuto, who had a sullen expression ever since he had started thinking about something several minutes ago, dropped his gaze to the brick tile footpath without saying anything.
Asuna who lived in Setagaya and Kazuto who was going back to Kawagoe, usually separated at the Shinjuku station as they had to take different trains, however today, for some reason, Kazuto said “I’ll drop you near your house.” Even though he would have to take an hour longer to get back to his home from Shibuya, as Kazuto had an unusual look in his eyes, Asuna nodded obediently.
As they got off the train at the Miyanosaka station on the Setagaya line, which was the station nearest to Asuna’s house, they were still holding hands.
While doing this, Asuna vaguely recalled a scene. It wasn’t just sweet, but also horribly painful at the same time, so it was a memory which normally didn’t appear in her consciousness, however, it came back occasionally whenever she held Kazuto’s hands.
It wasn’t a memory of the real world, but of the town of iron towers «Grandum» on Aincrad’s 55th floor, which no longer existed.
At that time, Asuna had served as the sub-leader of the guild Knights of the Blood. Her escort was a great sword user named Kuradeel, who accompanied her all the time. Kuradeel, who had an abnormal burning obsession with Asuna, had used a paralysis poison on Kazuto/Kirito, which compelled Asuna to withdraw from the guild.
Kuradeel had killed two guild members in the process; Asuna, who got there just in time before Kirito’s life was lost, drew her rapier with fury and mercilessly, Kuradeel’s HP gauge was reduced to a level where it could have been depleted with just a final strike, but she had hesitated. Kuradeel took that chance to retaliate however Kirito had recovered from the paralysis by then, and he finished Kuradeel off with his bare hands.
The two then went back to the headquarters of the Knights of the Blood on the 55th floor. After informing them about her withdrawal from the guild, they held each other’s hands while walking aimlessly in Grandum.
While she remained calm on the surface at that time, inside Asuna’s chest, she had felt disappointed in herself because she didn’t kill Kuradeel. The guilt from having Kirito carry that heavy burden swirled around her. She felt that she wasn’t qualified to call herself a part of the clearing group, that she had no right to stand beside Kirito. But, as she was suffering from these feelings, she heard a voice. Just you, I want to send you back to the real world no matter what.
At that moment, a strong feeling welled up within Asuna. Next time I’ll protect this person with my own hands. No, not just the next time, but every time. No matter in which world.
Asuna could vividly remember that her hand, which had felt nothing but the coldness of the air even though they were still grasping Kirito’s, at that moment, became warm as if they were sitting by a fireplace. After the floating castle collapsed, going through the world of fairies, and returning to the real world, when she held his hand, she could still recall the warmth felt in her palm from that time.
Really, the human temperature is a strange thing. Even though she knew that heat was generated from energy consumption to maintain bodily functions, the exchange of warmth from the contact of their palms felt like it contained some information as well. Because, Asuna could understand what Kazuto, who had been walking in silence until now, had been hesitating to say.
‘A human’s soul is light quanta contained within the microscopic structures of their brain cells’ was what Kazuto had said. But, that light might exist not just in the brain cells, but also in every cell in the body. The quantum field, which was composed of those particles of fluctuating lights and produced the human form, had connected through their palms. Perhaps that was how the warmness could be felt.
Asuna closed her eyelids gently, before whispering in her mind,
——Look, it’s alright, Kirito-kun. I will always guard your back. That’s because we’re the world’s greatest forward and backup.
Kazuto then suddenly stopped, prompting Asuna to also halt her moving feet. Her eyes widened, Is it already seven? as the antique cast iron street lamp radiated an orange light overhead.
In this evening after the rain, no one was to be seen on the walkway aside from the two of them. Kazuto slowly turned his head, his dark pupils fixed on Asuna.
As if he finally shook off his hesitation, he took a step forward——
“……I still think about going.”
Asuna, who understood the reason for his concern, smiled as she asked,
“Yeah. I spent a year researching, and I think the «Brain Implant Chip» research at Santa Clara University is the real successor of the FullDive technology. The Brain Machine Interface is probably heading toward that direction. I really want to see it, where the next world is born.”
Asuna looked straight into Kazuto’s pupils before giving a deep nod.
“There were not only fun memories, but a lot of sad and painful memories too. Its purpose, that castle’s destination, you want to know about those, right?”
“……I don’t think even several hundreds of years would be enough time to understand it.”
Kazuto made a little smile and became silent once again.
It’s certainly difficult to speak about separation. was what Asuna guessed. Without erasing her smile, she tried to voice the answer that had always been kept warm inside of her chest —— however before she could do so, Kazuto made the exact same expression he once did in Aincrad - the same one from when he proposed marriage to her - as he said while stuttering,
“That’s why…… I-I want you to go with me, Asuna. I really don’t want to live without you. I know I’m saying something unreasonable. I know that Asuna has a path Asuna wants to go. But, even so, I……”
At that point, he cut off his words as if he was confused. Asuna’s eyes widened, and she let out a light laugh.
“S……Sorry that I laughed. But…… could it be, that was what made Kirito-kun troubled until now?”
“Whaaat. If it’s about my answer, I had already decided upon it long ago.”
Her left hand grasped her right, which was still holding Kazuto’s hand. After nodding deeply again, she told him,
“Of course, I’ll go… we’ll go together. If it’s with you, I can go anywhere.”
Kazuto’s eyes opened wide as he blinked many times, and then a rare bright smile floated onto his face. At the same time, he placed his right hand on Asuna’s shoulder.
Asuna responded by tightly embracing Kazuto with both hands.
As their lips touched, the coldness immediately left their lips, replaced by a loving warmth; Asuna, once again, sensed the exchange of information through the infinite amount of radiance that comprised each other’s souls. Even in the future, no matter in which world, no matter how long we travel, our hearts won’t be separated, about that I’m certain.
No, our hearts were actually bound a long time ago. On the sky above the collapsing Aincrad, when it disappeared wrapped in that rainbow aurora —— or perhaps even far before that, the moment we met deep within the dark labyrinth, as fellow lonely solo players.
Several minutes later, as they were walking along the walkway holding hands, Asuna asked a question that suddenly popped into her head,
“So you think that the Soul Translator you’re experimenting with isn’t the successor of the FullDive technology? The Brain Chip interfaces with brain cells at the same level as the Nerve Gear, but STL is ahead of that, and interfaces at the quantum level, doesn’t it?”
Kazuto was diligently poking the brick using the metallic ferrule of the umbrella in his other hand as he answered,
“……Its design concept is certainly more advanced than the Brain Chip. But, how to say it…… maybe it’s too advanced. In order to downsize that machine for practical use, it wouldn’t just take a few years, but it would require decades to do so. I have a feeling that the current STL isn’t a machine made for humans to FullDive into the virtual world with……”
“Ehh? Then what is it for?”
“Maybe it’s a machine for understanding the human consciousness…… the Fluctlight.”
So you mean the STL isn’t the goal, but the method? As Asuna was wondering what the understanding of the human soul could lead to, Kazuto continued speaking,
“Besides. I think STL is his…… the extension of Heathcliff’s idea. That man, for whatever reason he created Nerve Gear, he sacrificed thousands of people, fried his own brain, and on top of that, he even spread «The Seed» out into the world…… I don’t know if he even had a goal in the first place, but I feel that his presence is floating somewhere in STL. Even though I want to know what he was aiming for, I don’t want it to affect my own direction. I don’t want to feel like I’m dancing on his palm.”
The face of that person appeared in the back of Asuna’s brain in that instant, and she nodded.
“……I see…… ……Hey, the consciousness of Guild Leader, the thought emulation program still exists somewhere on a server, right? Like Kirito-kun mentioned before.”
“Yeah, but it was just once. The machine that the guy used for suicide was the original prototype of STL. In order to read the Fluctlight, it required a high-powered beam that was enough to fry the brain cells. Perhaps, he had to suffer a much more intense and long continuous pain than when only the brain stem is destroyed by the Nerve Gear…… For the purpose of making a copy of himself, I don’t think it’s unrelated to what RATH is doing with STL now. Maybe somewhere in my heart I’m still thinking…… that I want to see some kind of resolution, which is why I accepted Kikuoka’s offer……”
As he said that, Kazuto’s gaze turned toward the sky fading into a reddish orange. As she looked at his face for a while, Asuna put more strength into her hand that was holding his, before whispering,
“……Promise me, just one thing. Don’t do something dangerous.”
Kazuto, who turned to her, gave a smile as he nodded deeply.
“Of course, I promise. As I’m going to America with Asuna next summer anyways.”
“Before that, shouldn’t you worry about studying to get a good score on the Scholastic Assessment Test?”
Kazuto was at a loss for words momentarily, before he lightly coughed and changed the topic,
“Anyway, I need to properly greet Asuna’s parents first. I have exchanged emails with Shouzou-shi from time to time, but your mother’s memory of me is quite bad……”
“No problem, no problem, recently she has become very understanding. Ah, yes…… why not just go now?”
“Ehh!? N-No…… maybe it’s better to go after the final exam, yeah.”
They had arrived in front of a small park near Asuna’s house as they talked. This was where Kazuto usually said farewell before sending her off. Asuna stopped as she felt reluctant before turning around. She looked at Kazuto’s face, and his gaze was also fixed on her.
The gap between them then lessened to fifteen centimeters. Suddenly, heavy footsteps could be heard from behind, and Asuna reflexively stepped back.
As she turned her head, a human figure appeared jogging from the T-shaped road. It was a short man dressed in black. His gaze stopped at Asuna and Kirito before saying “Excuse me,” with a high-pitched voice.
“Erm, do you know where the station is?”
The young man lowered his head as he asked, Asuna then pointed to the east with her left hand.
“Follow this road for a while, and turn right at the first traffic light…… then…”
Suddenly, Kazuto, who was behind, forcefully pulled back Asuna’s shoulder. Then he stepped forward while shielding Asuna behind his back.
“You…… were following us from Dicey Café weren’t you? Who are you?”
With a sharp tone, Kazuto said something that Asuna didn’t even notice. She held her breath as she looked at the man’s face again.
He had an uneven tangle of long hair. The outline of his thin cheeks were densely covered by a stubbly beard. There were silver earrings on his ears, and on his neck was also a thick silver necklace. He was wearing a discolored black T-shirt with the same colored leather pants. A metal chain hanging on his waist made a jingling sound. His feet were wrapped in high laced boots which looked heavy in this season, and he gave off a shabby overall impression.
The narrowed eyes gleamed from the parting in his untidy forelock, as if he was smiling. The guy frowned and tilted his head as if he didn’t understand what Kazuto was talking about —— then suddenly, his small pupils shone with an unpleasant light.
“……So surprise attacks don’t work, huh.”
With the edge of his lips tightly bent, Asuna didn’t know if he was smiling or irritated.
“Just who are you?”
Kazuto repeated his question. The man shrugged, shook his head two, three times, before he deliberately heaved a big sigh.
“Hey, hey, that won’t do, Kirito-san. Did you already forget my face…… oh, over there I wore a mask, didn’t I? But… I never forget about you for even a single day.”
Tension built up on Kazuto’s back. He pulled back his right hand as he lowered his waist slightly.
With his low shout, Kazuto’s right hand flashed like lightning and grabbed the air over his shoulder. It was once where the «Black Swordsman»’s beloved sword, «Elucidator» was.
“Bu… Ku… Kuhahahahahaha! Nope, no sword!!”
The man who was called Johnny Black twisted the upper part of his body as he spewed out a high-pitched laugh. Kazuto lowered his right hand as his entire body remained tense.
Asuna knew that name. It was the name of an active murderer in the old Aincrad, a well-known name even among the red players. Belonging to the PK guild «Laughing Coffin» and forming a duo with «Red-eyed XaXa», who required more than ten players to capture.
…………XaXa. She heard that name just half a year ago. The mastermind behind that terrible «Death Gun Incident».
She heard right after the incident that XaXa himself, Shinkawa Shouichi was arrested along with his younger brother, but the remaining comrade was on the run. The third person, whom she thought was caught long ago, his name was probably Kanemoto…… in other words, the man standing in front of her was————
“You…… still keep running away?”
Kazuto said in a hoarse voice. Johnny Black, Kanemoto grinned as he protruded both his index fingers.
“Of cour——se. Did you think I’d give up after XaXa was caught? I am the last of the Laughing Coffin. I discovered that coffee shop five months ago, and I was on the lookout nearby for a month…… every day was filled with hatred—“
As he spoke, Kanemoto inclined his head to the left and right.
“But, Kirito-san, without the sword…… you’re merely a weak brat, aren’t you? Even though the face is the same, it’s hard to think you’re the same Swordsman-sama who beat me up so badly.”
“It’s the same for you…… What can you do without your proud poisoned weapons?”
“Hey, that’s so unprofessional to judge an armament by its appearance.”
Kanemoto moved his right hand behind his back with a snake-like speed, and pulled something off his shirt.
It was a strange object. From the cylinder made of smooth plastic, there was a toy-like grip protruding out. Asuna thought it was a water gun for a moment, but she held her breath as she saw Kazuto’s back became intensely stiff. Her confusion turned into fear once she heard Kazuto’s voice.
“That’s…… the «Death Gun»……!”
His right hand projected to the back, encouraging Asuna to withdraw. At the same time, he pointed the tip of the folded umbrella in his left hand at Kanemoto.
One step, two steps, as she unconsciously moved backward, Asuna eyes were still fixed on the plastic «Gun». That was not a mere water gun, but a syringe utilizing a high-pressure gas, inside of which was with the frightening chemical which could stop the heart.
“I have—, I have the poisoned weapon— I’m sorry it’s not a knife though—“
As he was shaking the tip of the syringe, which was its only metal part, Kanemoto made a creaking-like laugh. Kazuto grabbed the umbrella with both his hands while directing it cautiously towards Kanemoto, then called out in a low voice.
“Asuna, run away! Call someone for help!”
After a moment of hesitation, Asuna nodded, then turned around and started running. From behind, the voice of Kanemoto could be heard,
“Oi, «The Flash»! Make sure to let everyone know….. that the one who took the «Black Swordsman»’s neck, is this Johnny Black!”
The doorbell of the nearest house was about thirty meters away.
As she ran and called with her utmost voice. Isn’t this a mistake to leave Kazuto and run away? ……If we both jumped on him at the same time, shouldn’t we able to suppress that weapon? She passed the halfway point as she thought so, at that time, a sound reached her ears.
Like when the cap of a carbonated drink was opened, or a can of hair spray was used; a short, sharp compression sound. Yet, she understood its meaning right away; Asuna, overwhelmed with fear, twisted her foot, staggered, and leaned her hand against the damp brick.
Asuna slowly turned and looked over her shoulder.
A gruesome scene entered her vision.
The shaft of the umbrella in Kazuto’s hand had stabbed into the base of Kanemoto’s right thigh.
And the syringe in Kanemoto hand was pushed against Kazuto’s left shoulder.
Together, their bodies separated from each other, before collapsing violently onto the road.
The several minutes after that was unreal, like she was watching a black and white movie.
She ran up to the side of the unmoving body of Kazuto. She pulled Kazuto off Kanemoto, who was holding his right leg in agony, “Hang in there,” she was calling as she pulled out the mobile terminal from her pocket and opened it.
She couldn’t feel anything from her fingers, as if they were frozen. Her stiff fingertips desperately operated the touch panel, and she reported the current location and situation to the operator of the emergency center, panting and out of breath.
Curious spectators gathered. Then, a policeman appeared from a crack in the crowd. Asuna just briefly answered his questions as she kept on tightly hugging Kazuto.
Kazuto’s breath was short, and shallow. Under his pained breath, he whispered two short words. “Asuna, sorry.”
The next several minutes felt like an eternity. Kazuto was brought into one of the two ambulances which had arrived, and Asuna also boarded the same car.
As Kazuto lay unconscious on the stretcher, a paramedic put his face close to Kazuto’s mouth to check his airway, then immediately called the other rescue member,
“Respiratory failure! Give me the Ambu bag!”
To hastily support his breathing, Kazuto’s mouth and nose were covered with a transparent mask.
Asuna somehow managed to suppress her urge to scream within her throat, as she informed the paramedic about the name of the chemical she miraculously recalled,
“Erm, s-succinylcholine…… he was injected with that drug. In the left shoulder.”
The paramedic looked at her in amazement for a moment, then he gave new instructions in rapid succession.
“IV inject epinephrine…… no, use atropine! Make sure it’s IV!”
A transfusion needle was put into the left arm of Kazuto, who had his shirt taken off, the electrodes of the ECG monitor were placed on his chest. In addition to the voices fluttering about, a siren ripped the air apart.
“Heart rate is dropping!”
“Start chest compressions!”
The face of Kazuto, with his eyelids shut, looked terribly pale under the car’s internal LED light. “No… no… Kirito-kun… not something like this…” the small voice continued to spill out of Asuna’s mouth without her noticing for a while.
Kirito-kun, it’s a lie, right? You aren’t going to leave me, right? You said we’ll be together forever…… didn’t you say that?
Asuna dropped her gaze to the mobile terminal held firmly in her hand.
The pink heart displayed on the monitor throbbed slightly once, before it stopped pulsing.
The digital figure cruelly changed and stayed at zero, as everything became silent.