Kazuto woke to sunlight lazily filtering its way through his window, the warm rays caressing his face and bidding him to go outside and face the day. He gave a disgruntled moan as he rolled onto his side and stretched, covering his eyes with his forearms to shield them from the sun. As he finished stretching, he slowly removed his forearm from his vision and blinked sleepily as he looked over at the clock. Nine AM, early for him on summer break. He was in the middle of pondering why he'd woken before noon when the small box on his nightstand jogged his memory so hard he shot to his feet like a ballistic missile.

That's right! He thought, all traces of sleep vanishing from his system. Today is the day. Finally! He snatched the small box off the nightstand and quickly opened it up; just to make sure he wasn't still dreaming. Sure enough, a simple silver band sat in the box, an otherwise plain ring except for the one, small, shining, bright diamond that was embedded in the center of the band. Kazuto's pulse quickened as he gazed at the object he'd worked so hard to obtain. He and Asuna were in university now, and had very little time outside of studying and work to see each other. That's why every single moment he could not be with her, he was scraping up odd jobs, working tirelessly into the late night to get enough money together so that they could start their lives as a couple, just as they had in the game. Kazuto's hands shook as he slowly closed the box again. Ever since he and Asuna had become a couple in real life, he knew they'd get married, for real. He'd just had to wait. But now the waiting was over, evidenced by the small box clutched in his ever so slightly trembling hand. He'd told Agil and Klein about the ring, and his friends had been pillars of support for him, for which he was grateful. What he hadn't told anyone, though, was the fact he'd also found an apartment for them to live in. He'd managed to get the place when one of the wealthier clients he'd worked for asked him why he worked so hard for so long on such undesirable jobs.

~~~oOoOo~~~

He'd been scraping out the Mr. Yotoshi's gutters at about 11 PM when he'd fallen off the ladder he was using and into the shrub outside of Mr. Yotoshi's window and twisted his shoulder. Instead of calling it quits, he got back on the ladder and continued to clean the gutters until the job was done, despite the throbbing pain that wracked his upper body. When he returned the ladder to the tool shed and went to pick up his payment from the front porch where his money was usually left under the cheerful gnome by the door, he was surprised to find Mr. Yotoshi sitting on the porch with a hot pot of tea, a small jar of something that smelled faintly of menthol, and his payment envelope in his lap.
"Ah, Yotoshi-sama, you are awake." he'd said, humbly bowing to the older man. "I hope I did not disturb your sleep." Mr. Yotoshi waved his formality off good-naturedly.
"Come now, Kirigaya, you needn't be so formal with me. Won't you join me for some tea? I believe I've made far too much just for myself and would sure appreciate some help with finishing it." Yotoshi said, his voice full of disarming humor and general contentedness. Kazuto was slightly taken aback by his friendly manner; after all, he'd only made passing greetings to him when he'd see him while he was doing his work. After a slight pause, Kazuto realized that Mr. Yotoshi had extended him an invitation.
"O-of course, sir." He stammered out, taking a seat across the small table that Mr. Yotoshi had set up for the tea. For a long while, the two men were silent as they drank their tea, listening to the sounds of a summer evening; crickets chirping, bats fluttering their way through the dark skies, the wind whispering through the trees, carrying the day's humidity away and replacing it with a cool breeze that refreshed and relaxed. Kazuto was wondering exactly what Mr. Yotoshi was up to when the older man suddenly spoke.
"Tell me, Kirigaya. What drives you?" Mr. Yotoshi asked slowly, looking at Kazuto out of the corner of his eye, his glasses catching the faint moonlight and glinting mysteriously. Kazuto paused a moment before responding.
"I'm not sure what you mean, sir." Mr. Yotoshi gave a small snort as he rolled his eyes.
"Come on now boy, surely you don't go and clean an old man's gutters late at night just for sheer amusement! Why do you work so many jobs? I know you do work for almost everyone in town who needs an extra set of hands, and a young man of your age is almost always busy with school and hardly requires such funds to get by. Why do you work so hard? What is it you seek?" Kazuto was dumbfounded. No one he worked for had ever bothered asking him why.
"I-I'm working to get a wedding ring for my girlfriend. I want to marry her and spend my life with her." he answered quickly, his face flushing at the words. Yotoshi let a chuckle rumble out from his chest, a knowing smile growing on his face. He turned and locked eyes with Kazuto, his eyebrows raised.
"Ahhh, must be quite the woman." he said approvingly, nodding at Kazuto as if he'd answered his question correctly.
"Yeah, yeah, she really is." Kazuto sighed happily, picturing Asuna in his mind, smiling as he thought of her.
"Say, Kirigaya," Yotoshi interrupted his reverie "This ring...is it...ah, extravagant?" Kazuto was confused by his question. Why was he asking? However, he couldn't help but feel compelled to tell Yotoshi for some odd reason.
"Not particularly," he answered slowly "You see, it's actually fairly simple. A simple silver band with...well, a small diamond in the center. Nothing too crazy. I already have the funds for the ring, actually." Now it was Mr. Yotoshi's turn to be confused. He gave a sidelong look at Kazuto.
"But if you have enough money for the ring, then why do you continue to work?" Kazuto's face flushed again as he tried to think of a way to explain his plan.
"Well, you see, the girl and I were sort of already married..." He glanced over at Mr. Yotoshi to find his expression to be one of extreme concern. "I-it wasn't anything nefarious I can assure you!" He quickly burst out. "You see, we had met in SAO..." Kazuto felt a wave of relief sweep over him as understanding dawned on Mr. Yotoshi's face.
"Ah, I see. You formed a bond while trapped in the death game, and now you wish to carry it out in real life." Mr. Yotoshi supplied. Kazuto's shoulders slumped as he exhaled.
"Yes." he sighed, glad that Mr. Yotoshi was able to put in words where he could not.
"However," the older man interjected, breaking the short silence that had formed between them "You have not answered my question. If you have the money for the ring, then why continue to work?" Kazuto scratched at his jaw for a moment, considering the best way to explain the situation.
"Well," he began "After we had gotten married, we moved away from the more dangerous areas. We purchased a small house in the woods that we lived in together. It was our special place, I suppose. And now that we're out and we are beginning our own lives now... I want us to have our own special place again. It won't be anything as nice as our virtual home, but it will be ours." Kazuto set his teacup down and held his head in his hands. "It's been exhausting; working, studying, searching for a place to live, all without being able to let her know." he picked his head up and stared down at his hands, which were calloused and scarred from all the work he had been doing lately. "Sometimes," he continued quietly "I think about just giving up on the house, you know. I'm tempted to just get married to her and just take on the world with whatever comes." He gave a small snort. "Not that it'd be wise. Hell, we didn't even do that in the virtual world, but sometimes I am tempted to." Mr. Yotoshi sat in silence as he paused his explanation, seeming to know he had more to say. "But whenever I feel that way, I look over at her... and I'm reminded of those days when we were fighting to survive. When we protected each other with everything we had, and our lives were far from perfect, but were more than worth living because we had each other. I miss that weight on my left hand, where the ring sat, a testament to our love. I'm reminded of the time we spent in that home, and I want it all over again. That's what drives me, I suppose. A life with her in it, every day." Kazuto let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. He looked over at Mr. Yotoshi as he heard a rustle of movement. Mr. Yotoshi stood and dashed the back of his hand against his eye and gave a small laugh.
"Thank you for sharing your story with me, Kirigaya. You've put my curiosity at ease. It seems I forgot something inside. Would you please wait here a moment while I go and grab it, and then I can give you your payment and send you on your way?" Kazuto nodded his assent and stood as Mr. Yotoshi entered his house to get whatever it was he'd forgotten. He groaned as he looked down at his watch and saw it was already past midnight. While he didn't have class over summer, he did still have assignments that needed doing and more odd jobs scheduled for the morning. As he was mentally bemoaning his situation, Mr. Yotoshi stepped back out onto the porch and offered the envelope to Kazuto with a smile. "Here you go, Kirigaya. Thank you for everything." Kazuto bowed to him as he took the envelope.
"Of course, Yotoshi-sama. It was...eh?" Kazuto stopped talking as he noticed the envelope was unusually bulky. When he went to open it, his jaw dropped like an anchor. In the envelope was three times his usual pay. But what shocked him the most was a pair of keys that glinted dully in the moonlight. "Y-Y-Yotoshi-sama! What is this?! Surely, this is the wrong envelope!" he exclaimed, holding the envelope away from his body as he would a venomous snake. Mr. Yotoshi smiled at his reaction and looked out to the street in front of his house.
"About three blocks west from the university," Mr. Yotoshi said after a moment of silence "Is an apartment building that overlooks the park. It's no cabin in the woods, but I hope it will suffice." Kazuto stood stock still, jaw still agape, eyes wide with shock. "It's not completely free, of course." Mr. Yotoshi went on "I will still expect rent. However..." he chuckled and turned back to face Kazuto. "I can perhaps allow a discounted rate for my favorite newlywed couple." Kazuto opened and closed his mouth, trying to form a sentence, but all he could manage was one word.
"W-why?" Mr. Yotoshi gave a faint smile and cocked his head slightly at him.
"Kirigaya, I am an old man. I've seen many couples fall in love. I've seen just as many fall out of love. But rarely have I ever seen someone work so hard for their other half. I am wealthy, successful, and I could have whatever I want on a whim. And yet, I am still not truly happy. I do not have someone to come home to at night and cherish. I have accepted this as the cost for my success. But you, Kirigaya, have the chance to be truly happy and successful. I want to help you do just that." Kazuto's hand clenched around the keys as his eyes watered and he tried to keep his composure.
"T-thank you Yotoshi-sama. You are too kind." he managed to choke out while bowing deeply to the man who had given him so much. As he straightened back up, Mr. Yotoshi grinned at him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"You are welcome, Kirigaya. However, I expect an invitation to this wedding. I simply must see the woman who drives you, for she has to be amazing indeed!" he laughed as he gestured towards the small jar he had placed on the table earlier. "Also, place that balm on your shoulder before you go to sleep. It will have you right as rain by tomorrow morning." Kazuto accepted the jar and bowed again to Mr. Yotoshi, grateful for all he had done for him.
"You can expect your invitation in the mail soon." He replied with a smile. Giving Mr. Yotoshi one final nod, he set off to walk home, one step away from accomplishing his dream.

Kazuto had gone to the apartment later that week and found it to be pre-furnished, ready to move in to whenever he was ready. A couch sat in the living room, facing a small TV. The living room was combined with a small dining area that was composed of an elegant wooden dining table and two chairs which looked out a large bay window that overlooked the park Mr. Yotoshi had mentioned. Kazuto smiled as he pictured Asuna curled up next to him on the wide windowsill dozing contentedly as the sun set behind the trees, the last rays of light receding from the ever-darkening night sky, leaving them just enough light to see each other by the few candles strewn around their new home, giving off a warm glow and the scent of vanilla that hung in the air like a warm blanket. Kazuto stopped his tour for a moment to consider that thought. Vanilla candles? Cuddling on the windowsill? He laughed and shook his head. He'd been listening to Klein too much. Since he and Asuna had become a couple, Klein had named himself Kazuto's unofficial wingman and guru on all things romantic. Although, he thought with a begrudging grin, His advice is pretty sound most of the time. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to go get a couple of candles. Next to the dining/living area was a small kitchenette, complete with a refrigerator, oven, microwave, and dishwasher. He exited the kitchen and returned to the living room and noticed a hallway leading further into the apartment. As he went down the hall, he found the bathroom behind a door on the left, complete with a shower that could also double as a bath if someone wanted to soak away the day's troubles. At the end of the hall was the door to the master bedroom. As he opened the door, the first thing he noticed was the balcony. Sliding glass doors lead out to a small balcony that offered a much grander view than the bay window. The entire city skyline was visible over the park. Kazuto grinned as the sun warmed his skin while he admired the view before returning to the bedroom. In the center of the room was a large mattress, obviously meant for two people. Kazuto's grin got even bigger as he thought of waking up to Asuna every day once they had moved in. The prospect delighted him. After he finished his inspection of his soon-to-be home, he exited the apartment, keys jangling pleasantly in his pocket as his sense of excitement steadily grew.

~~~oOoOo~~~

Kazuto sat on his bed in his aunt's house, the ring in one hand and the keys in the other, just savoring the momentousness of what he was about to do. He thought about Asuna, how they were going to actually be married, actually live together. For a quick moment, he had a brief flash of anxiety. What if them being married wasn't going to be all he had hoped? He then shoved the thought out of his mind with a scoff. Of course it would be everything he'd hoped for! They'd already been married before, after all, and that had never been anything short of amazing and memorable. Thinking back to those days, he glanced at the photos he kept on his desk, reliving the memories that each picture held within it.
One showed him with a rather dejected look on his face as he sat on the pier of their house in SAO, fishing rod in hand in the background of the photo. In the foreground, Asuna's slightly blurred face was visible as she was clearly laughing at his less than stellar fishing skills. Lovingly written in the bottom corner of the picture in Asuna's flowing script were the words "Kirito-kun: Fisherman Extraordinaire!" He gave a small chuckle at her teasing words. He could still clearly hear her laughter at his disbelief at another empty hook.
Kazuto took a moment and thought about just how long ago that picture was taken. It was about a week after they'd gotten married in the game and moved to Floor 22. Just a few weeks before they had cleared the game and he'd woken up to find Asuna still trapped in her NerveGear. Before he'd gone back in to save her. Before they'd finally- God- finally both made it out. Kazuto gave a start when he realized all of that had ended five years ago. Five years. Had it already been that long? He dismissed the thought from his mind as he continued to look over the pictures on his desk with a faint smile on his lips.
The next photo was one he'd taken of Asuna as she'd been recovering from a battle with a dragon on Floor 47. Her flowing chestnut hair was disheveled, and perspiration had matted her hair down along her braid, which had come slightly undone in combat. Her Knights of the Blood Oath uniform was battered and singed from combat, patches of soot darkening the white cloth like thunderclouds on a sunny sky. Her amber eyes caught the setting sun and glowed a dull bronze in the fading light. She looked exhausted as she leaned on her rapier, a weary grin gracing her lips as she regarded Kirito out of the corner of her eye. She told him to delete that silly picture because she was in no way shape or form presentable, but he'd adamantly refused, stating that she'd never looked more beautiful. He was rewarded with a punch on the shoulder and a reprimand for saying something like that in public.

"I-idiot! What if someone had heard you say that?" Asuna had exclaimed, a pink tinge blossoming into her cheeks as she quickly cast her gaze around, checking to see if anyone had such a brash declaration of love. Kirito tipped his head back and gave a short bark of laughter.

"Well, I suppose they'd just have to agree with me since it's obviously the truth!" he teased her, snatching her up into his arms and spinning her around in a tight circle.

"Gah! Come on, put me down! Kirito!" Asuna pummeled her delicate hands against his chest from where she was pinned, but Kirito knew full and well that she would've been hitting a lot harder if she actually wanted to be let down. Relenting, he slowly came to a stop and let her down, but kept his arms around her waist, enjoying the contact and the general closeness of her proximity to him.
"If you insist…" Kirito sighed dramatically, rolling his eyes for maximum effect. Asuna snorted derisively and returned with an eye roll of her own.
"Tsk, tsk such a drama queen Kirito-kun!" Kirito looked at her in disbelief, genuine shock plain on his face at Asuna's glaring smirk and smug tone.
"Me?! A drama queen? That's ridiculous! You have no proof." He retorted huffily, averting his gaze from hers, pouting slightly. Asuna giggled and placed a finger on the tip of his nose.
"Oh? Not a drama queen?" she asked mockingly, tone full of ill-concealed mirth. Suddenly, she dropped her tone into a husky imitation of his voice. "A beater…..yeah. I like that. I am a beater. Just don't get me confused with those beta-tester newbies again." Kirito whipped his head back around to look at her, his expression stricken.
"Oh come on! I was way better than those guys, and you know it. I had to make sure everyone understood I wasn't someone to be messed with!" Asuna gave him another smirk.
"Hah! Classic drama queen!"
"Hmph! I don't need this abuse!" Kirito released his hold of her waist and stepped out of her arms that she'd loosely wrapped around his neck and turned his back to her, arms folded against his chest and chin stuck into the air indignantly. Asuna rolled her eyes one last time, smiling fondly at her love's antics. Tossing her hair over shoulder and turning on her heel, she began the long walk back to the warp gate.
"Well, if you don't need me," she called back to him "Then I guess you don't need the sandwiches I've packed for dinner!" She could almost hear the whiplash in Kirito's neck as he spun to look at her retreating figure.
"H-hey! Let's not be too hasty now!"

~~~oOoOo~~~

Kazuto smiled as he replayed the memory in his mind. They'd eventually reached a truce and had eaten their dinner on a small knoll that overlooked most of the floor as the sun set on the horizon.
His eyes fell onto the next picture on his desk. It depicted himself, Asuna, and Yui in front of their house. The weather was gorgeous, he recalled. He remembered commenting that he'd never seen the weather be so beautiful except for when he and Asuna had taken a nap under the tree together, oh so long ago. He remembered Asuna's blush and shy smile and Yui's crystalline laughter when the picture had been taken by Liz and Silica when they came over to visit the happy couple during their leave from the front lines.
As Kazuto reminisced over their visit, he gave a start when he remembered that he had a visit of own to make. Placing the items on his nightstand, he dashed off to the shower to prepare for his big day. Once he had cleaned up, he ran a comb through his damp hair and wrapped a towel around his waist as he walked back to his room. Closing the door, he saw his phone's display light up as a text message came in, jittering slightly as it vibrated from its place on his desk. Scooping it up, he saw the message was from Asuna. He opened it and smiled at the words on the screen.
Good morning, Kirito-kun~ 3. You sleep well? Kazuto tapped at the screen, trying to move his fingers as fast as he could to reply, but ended up misspelling several words and had to go back and fix his errors.
Hey! Morning! Yeah, slept like a baby. Kazuto bit his lip and felt a little guilty for lying, but it was for a good cause. Are you free today? I got a surprise for you. His hands drummed on the desktop as he waited for her reply, foot measuring a frantic beat on the floor in response to his anxious energy. Luckily, he didn't have to wait long.
You know I always have time for you, dummy. A surprise? Any chance at a clue? :o Kazuto smirked as he sent her his answer.
Hahaha not a chance. :p
Ah, I should've expected as much. Usual place, then?
Kazuto paused as he considered his options. He could propose at the place they always met, the small cafe was one of their favorite locations in town. Lots of familiar sights and sounds, many fond memories. Ultimately, though, he decided against it. He wanted this moment to stand out; to be unique. He debated for a moment over several other areas but decided against all of them for the same reason he had excluded the cafe. Suddenly, a location popped into his mind. An area that he'd always thought would be the perfect place for a date, but had never acted upon the thought.
Actually, I had a different place in mind today. He quickly typed out the directions for her and sent them. Meet you there around one?
Absolutely! See you soon. ^_^ Kazuto smiled and went to go get dressed when his phone buzzed again. Puzzled, he looked at the display. Yuuki Asuna. He opened the message. Hey, Kirito-kun. I love you. He blushed as he read the message; glad Sugu wasn't around to see his rosy face. She almost certainly would have teased him to no end about how the big bad Black Swordsman could be thrown off balance by three simple words from a certain chestnut-haired warrior. Just thinking about being able to hear her say that every day invigorated Kazuto like someone attaching his heart to a car battery. He texted her back that he loved her too and quickly shut his phone to go dash to his closet to get dressed. He selected a black button down shirt, thinking that he could afford to look a little nicer on today of all days, gray slacks, and black loafers. He stood in front of the mirror, making sure his appearance was flawless before grabbing his phone, keys and the ring before heading out the door. He ran into Sugu in the hallway, almost knocking her down the stairs in his haste.
"Wah! Onii-chan!" Sugu cried out as she grabbed Kazuto by the shoulders, righting herself before letting him go and giving him a critical once over. "Hey, where are you going all dressed up like that? Are you and Asuna-san going out to a fancy restaurant this early? That would be a better dinner plan than lunch." Kazuto rolled his eyes as he descended the stairs, Sugu following behind him.
"No, we are not going to lunch," he replied exasperatedly "although..." he paused, eyes far away as he considered the idea. "Dinner afterwards might not be such a terrible idea..." Sugu immediately perked up and turned around to look at Kazuto from her place in the kitchen.
"Dinner after what?" she asked suspiciously. "Are you two gonna..." Kazuto's neck almost snapped as he whirled around to face her.
"S-Sugu! Why on earth would you say something like that!?" he exclaimed. Sugu merely shrugged and smiled coyly as she turned back to the refrigerator.
"Well, one does hear the most interesting things in Aincrad if they only open their ears. I've just happened to hear little whispers as I've gone about my travels. Little things like perhaps dual wielding isn't your only unique skill..." Kazuto's face turned red as a beet, both embarrassed and outraged at such words.
"D-don't ever say anything like that ever again!" he cried "Asuna would kill us both in an instant if she ever heard you say something like that!" Kazuto stormed over to the living room and threw himself down on the couch, holding his head in his hands. "I'm going to pretend I didn't ever hear you say that." Sugu laughed as she sat down at the table with her lunch, placing her hands in the air, deciding to relent in her teasing, for the moment at least.
"Hey," she said, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth "that rumor had to come from somewhere!" Kazuto lifted his head and squinted at her.
"What do you mean?" Sugu innocently averted her gaze from his and looked at the ceiling.
"Well..." she began "all rumors start somewhere, with one person, right?" She didn't think Kazuto's gaze could get any sharper when she looked back down at him, but he somehow managed it.
"Keep talking." Sugu swallowed the bite of food she'd been chewing hard. Perhaps teasing him so hard on such a subject would not be good for her future health.
"If there's only one person who could possibly know anything about that kind of thing," she explained slowly "then maybe that one person told one of their close friends, who told one of their close friends and it kind of spread around..." Kazuto's face went blank. She could almost see the gears turning in his head as he worked out what she'd said, bless him. Suddenly, he jolted upright on the couch and regarded her with something that looked akin to fear, then his face went back to being the emotionless slate that it had been a few moments ago.
"I have no idea what you are talking about." he said haughtily, standing up from his place on the couch. "And I certainly don't have time to worry about it. I have a meeting to make in a half hour and I do not need you making me late with your silly conspiracy theories!" He stormed to the door but stopped short of grabbing the door handle when Sugu called to him over her shoulder.
"Jacket's on the coat tree!"
He grumbled to himself as he returned to the entryway of the living room and picked his jacket up off of the coat tree and slipped it on. His irritation was soothed a little by the familiar weight of the jacket, which Asuna had lovingly altered to look like his SAO gear. Kazuto took another breath to steel himself and rolled his shoulders trying to relieve some of the anxious tension coiling around his stomach like a cold snake.
"Right, I'm off to see Asuna!" he called out to no one in particular. "Be back later!" Sugu watched him walk out the door, curious as to what exactly had him so antsy about seeing Asuna after everything they had gone through. She rolled her eyes and muttered into her meal.
"Ah, just marry her already, you big galoot. We've all been waiting long enough."

~~~oOoOo~~~

Kazuto sped along the streets, weaving through the traffic on his motorcycle on his way to the spot he and Asuna had agreed to meet at. The dark chopper and its rider flitted through the hordes of colorful cars and buses like a shadow. Kazuto reveled in raw power of the engine beneath him as he slowed to a stop at a red light, glancing around him through the black tinted glass on his helmet. Off to his left, he could see Agil sweeping the area around the tables of his bar, joking and interacting with the customers seated outside that were enjoying the clear weather. Kazuto revved the engine to catch his attention. Agil looked up and saw him and shouted something that he couldn't quite make out over the roar of the engine, but he stuck his fist into the air, and Kazuto assumed it to be words of encouragement for carrying out his mission. Kazuto returned the gesture, pumping his fist in the air before tearing off down the street, popping a wheelie as the light turned green and he thundered down the road in a cloud of exhaust towards his destination.

Kazuto pulled up to the weeping willow tree on the small knoll that he had designated for the meeting about fifteen minutes before one. Placing his helmet on his bike, Kazuto walked up to the base of the tree, looking up to bright blue sky through the long, rope-like leaves of the willow, taking in the sun and breathing in the scent of summer and hunkered down between two roots that extruded out of the ground, settling in for quick nap. He'd figured he'd be woken up by an exasperated Asuna in a few minutes when she arrived and probably give him an earful for not sleeping as well as he'd said. However, when he woke up, Kazuto was puzzled to find the sun much lower in the sky than he'd anticipated. Checking his watch, he saw that it was two 'o'clock on the afternoon. He stood and began pacing a beat in front of the tree wondering where Asuna was. She was almost always exactly on time to all of their dates. Telling himself that something must have come up and she was simply a little late, he continued pacing his route, back and forth and back and forth. Yet, no matter how much he moved, he couldn't quite shake the feeling something wasn't right. His stomach churned as the skies darkened with clouds, removing all traces of sun from the sky. His mood mirrored the weather as the heavens rumbled with thunder from far-off lightning flashes, waves of anxiety settling on his shoulders like a lead coat. Suddenly, rain came crashing down onto the earth in a torrential downpour. Kazuto stopped his route and looked up into the sky, stunned by the sudden change in weather. He glanced at his watch.

3:30

Unable to take it any longer, Kazuto sprinted to his bike and jumped on, kicking the ignition, bringing his steel steed to life with an angry roar, not even bothering to put on his helmet as he cut through waves of traffic that clogged the streets. He didn't care who or what was in the way of his destination; if it didn't move, it was getting flattened. He rode like a madman through the rain, not caring what the signs read. He had to find her. He clenched his jaw as he went even faster through the streets, blowing through a red light without any hesitation, causing the intersection behind him to turn into a cacophony of steel grinding against steel, tires screaming as they braked along the slippery road in order to not hit the black rider. Kazuto flew along the slick streets until he pulled up in a cloud of mist outside of Asuna's house. Leaping off the bike, Kazuto charged to the front door and knocked it open, head swiveling back and forth in the dim light, looking for any trace of his love in the house. Pausing his frantic search, he stopped and cocked his head. Mutterings from the living room. Not trying to be discreet, more like...anguished? With slow, deliberate footsteps, Kazuto walked into the living room to find Klein and Agil sitting across the room from each other, speaking in low tones. Agil had his back turned to Kazuto, but spoke to him from where he sat.
"Figured it wasn't gonna be long before you showed up here. The others at the hospital wanted us to stay, but we told them that we knew you'd come here first. Ain't that right, Klein?" Klein's eyes were glued to the carpet, but his knee jumped up and down restlessly. After a long moment, he spoke.
"Told you we could count on him like clockwork. Good old Kirito." Klein looked up at Kazuto and tried to smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. "Hey, man. How you doing?" Kazuto's fists clenched as he took a menacing step towards Klein.
"Where. Is. Asuna?" he asked through clenched teeth. Klein and Agil both edged back from their younger friend. Though they were older and larger, they had seen exactly what Kazuto was capable of when he was angry. Klein slowly got up from his seat and took Kazuto by the shoulder, gently guiding him to the door.
"Well, man, I'm not sure how to tell you this... but there's been an accident."

~~~oOoOo~~

Kazuto sat in the hospital room, head in his hands and his heart in the soles of his feet. She was laying there on the bed before him. Motionless, save for her shallow breath that came in ever so slight whispers through the oxygen mask attached to her face. The EKG monitor played in harmony with the tapping sounds of the tears that fell from Kazuto's eyes, the electronic measure weak at best.
When Kazuto had first come in, everyone was there waiting for him. Rika, Keiko, Sugu, even Asuna's parents. When he'd stepped in the room, the group went dead silent and cleared the space around Asuna's bed respectfully as he'd entered. Five pairs of eyes watched as he stood at the foot of the bed, not breathing, not moving, dead as a statue, save for his slow, dreary heartbeat that thrummed in his ears. He stood there like that for an hour before finally being able to speak. He'd asked them what had happened. They told him that Asuna was on her way to meet him when a car had run a red light and hit her in the crosswalk. The driver didn't even check to see if she was alive, but just sped off before anyone could do anything about it. Kazuto gripped the bed frame so hard that when he moved his hands away, the steel piping had grooves in it from where his fingers had been holding it. They told Kazuto that Asuna had been catatonic since being stabilized at the hospital and had yet to wake up. He'd stood there, head down, hair covering his expression, dressed in his dark clothes looking like a mourner. He asked everyone to leave, except for Asuna's parents. When protests were made, he lifted his gaze to meet theirs, and their arguments died in their throats. His usually bright, shining obsidian eyes had tears forming along the edges. Those normally glittering onyx irises had faded to a dark, dull coal. They looked into his eyes and knew he was broken, irreparably so. The one he loved most now lay motionless before him once more in the same hospital bed that she had been lying in while she still trapped in her NerveGear, in ALO. Only there was a far worse suitor seeking her hand this time. This time, death wanted her, and he was powerless to do anything to stop it. Everyone filed out, leaving Kazuto and Asuna's parents alone in the room. When the door closed, Kazuto drew in a long, shaky breath before telling them what his intentions were that day. The older couple sat in stunned silence, unsure of what to say. He continued by asking for their blessing on this marriage. Asuna's father nodded solemnly, stating that he'd be honored to have Kazuto as his son-in-law, and that he could think of no better match for his daughter. Asuna's mother closed the distance between herself and Kazuto and embraced him, apologizing for all the turmoil he was going through. He'd simply nodded, then stood and gently placed the ring on Asuna's third finger, softly caressing her hand before returning to its resting place on her chest. Asuna's parents had left after that, telling him that they deserved some alone time together.
Kazuto picked his head up and faded out of his reverie. It'd been three days since all of that had happened. He'd been sitting in this exact spot for three days, watching over her. He'd only eaten when the nurses came by to change Asuna's bandages, as they brought him food and water. He hadn't slept the entire time, either. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair disheveled, his clothes unkempt. He planned on staying there until she woke up, but the hospital staff removed him from the grounds, claiming that if he didn't move soon, that he'd have to become a patient as well. So, he went to his aunt's house and secluded himself in his room, locking the door and shutting the blinds. He lay on his bed, restless, yet unable to find the energy to move. Sugu would leave meals at his door, but would always find them untouched, exactly where she'd put them.
A week passed and Asuna still hadn't woken up. Her physical injuries from the accident had all but healed, but the doctors said that they couldn't be sure when her mind would recover enough to regain consciousness. Or if it would recover at all. Now at least every other day, one of Kazuto's friends would try and rouse him out of his stupor, pounding on his bedroom door, begging him to come out, to eat a decent meal, or to at least say something, anything! And yet he would not. Could not.
More weeks passed, and every day someone would go up to Kazuto's door and try to coax him out. They would always get an icy silence. Kazuto only grew more and more irritated by their attempts. Would they not let him mourn in peace? A brief flame of anger flared in his mind. If they would not leave him alone here, then he would go somewhere else! His flash of energy soon left him though, as he realized he could not go anywhere else. Or, at least, that's what he was thinking until his eyes landed on the apartment keys that sat on his desk. No one would find him there, and he could finally be alone. Kazuto waited until he heard his aunt and Sugu go to sleep that night, then started getting ready. He packed lightly, knowing he wouldn't need much. His jacket, the picture of Asuna from his desk, his wallet, keys, and last but not least, his dual swords that Rika had forged for him for his twentieth birthday. Feeling the weight of his trusted weapons in his hands again provided a little comfort from the hurt, but only for a moment. He left a note on his pillow that said he had to get better on his own, and that no one, under any circumstances, was to come looking for him. He unlocked his bedroom door so that his friends and family would find the note, then quietly stole out the window and got onto his bike and rode off into the night.
When Kazuto arrived at the apartment complex, he took his bike and parked it in the back alley where no one could see it from the street. After making sure that the bike wouldn't wander off, Kazuto quickly ran up to his floor and entered the apartment, locking the door behind him. Placing his jacket on the sofa, he went and lay down on the windowsill, looking out to the dark trees that stood like guardians, watching him impassively. He rolled over and tried to get some sleep, but could not. He tried moving to the sofa, the floor, even the bed. Yet no matter where lay down, he was always surrounded by the place that was almost theirs. Everywhere he looked in the apartment, he could see himself and Asuna living together, and living their daily lives in their home. By him being there without her, it almost felt like he'd given up on her ever waking up.
Kazuto fell to his knees in front of the door as hot tears began streaming down his face. He felt worse than awful. He felt worse than words could describe. He'd failed her. He didn't protect her. He began sobbing uncontrollably as months of repressed emotion caught up to him in full force as sobs wracked his body, utter agony tore at his very soul, and yet he could not stop. His sleep deprived state only made him more hysterical as he called out for Asuna to come back to him, please God, don't leave him here all by his self. He wanted more than anything to forget about this hellish nightmare, to just be at peace for a few hours. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he recalled there being a liquor store about a half a block away from the apartment complex. A small part of his brain tried to tell him that he didn't drink, but the rest of him was broken and was screaming for something to fix it, if only temporarily. Dashing the tears from his eyes as best he could, Kazuto staggered to his feet and shambled out the door to the shop, where he bought a six-pack of beer and carried them to the apartment where he drank the pain away until he finally collapsed into a shallow sleep.

It was a day later when Kazuto was woken up by a knock at the door. Standing up as quickly as he could, he grabbed his swords off the table where he had set them and faced the door as another pounding knock shook it on its frame. Kazuto hazily thought about who could be on the other side when a voice rang out, answering his question.
"Kirito! Open the door, dammit! It's Klein!" Kazuto exhaled slowly through his nose and turned his back to the door, studiously ignoring his friend as he looked out the bay window. "Kirito, I know you're in there, man. Please! Talk to me! You've had us all worried sick. Disappearing like that on all of us like that! How could you?" Kazuto ground his teeth, determined not to answer. He heard the knob rattle as Klein tried to turn it, only to find it locked. "Kirito, listen to me. I know you're destroyed about what's happening with Asuna, but you don't have to face it alone! You've got friends out here you can talk to, man!" Kazuto still made no sound, but gripped his swords tighter in his hands. Suddenly, he heard Klein pound the door one more time. "F-fine! If you won't answer me, then you can handle this whole thing like you did Sachi! On your own!"

Klein had turned his back to the door when he thought he heard a rustle of movement come from the other side of the door. Turning back around, he placed an ear to the door to see if he could hear anything else. He could just barely make out a faint wooshing nois-

THUNK

Klein fell back with a cry, eyes glued to the sword blade that had penetrated the door mere inches from where his head had been just a few moments ago. He crashed onto his back as the door swung open and another sword was pointed at his face. His eyes traveled up the length of the blade and found Kazuto standing there, a wild look in his dark eyes. Klein was terrified of how Kazuto looked. His eyes held no light in them, they were as dark and cold as space. His skin was sickly pale, color leeched out of it by sitting in shadows for so long. His hair was a rat's nest, his clothes were wrinkled and stained and his face was dark with mangy looking stubble. Even from where he was, Klein could smell the alcohol on his breath.
"K-Kirito? Holy hell, man. What's happened to you?" Kazuto squinted down at Klein, his eyes still full of that wild, hungry light.
"You dare to mention Sachi?" Kazuto said, his tone as smooth and sharp as a razor blade. "You would mock my pain by bringing up another one that I failed? Someone else I couldn't save?" Klein tried to reply that wasn't what he'd meant, but Kazuto cut him off with a roar. "YOU OF ALL PEOPLE?! DO YOU EVEN UNDERSTAND MY PAIN?! LIFE HAS NO MEANING WITHOUT HER YOU ABSOLUTE-"
"It's not your fault, Kirito." Kazuto's eyes widened at Klein's soft words. He let the blade fall and rested it by his side. "None of this was." A tear fell from Kazuto's eye as he swallowed hard.
"I'm supposed to protect her." he whispered. Klein slowly clambered to his feet as Kazuto kept his eyes on the floor. "And I wasn't there...and now..." Klein stepped forward to comfort his friend, but Kazuto raised his sword and kept him at a distance. "No. You're right. I have to sort this out myself. But thank you for coming by." Klein nodded.
"You...eh...gonna be okay now?" he asked cautiously, watching Kazuto's face carefully. Kazuto looked up at him and gave him a half smile.
"Not until she's back, no. But I'm gonna be a bit better now. I'm still gonna be here, not really talk to anyone, but I'll eat a little more and definitely won't be drinking ever again." Kazuto rubbed his temples. "You would not believe the headache I got going on right now."
"Oh believe me, I could." Klein chuckled. "Well, as long as you're alive and aren't a raving madman, I'll be off." Klein turned to go and walk down the hall to the elevator when Kazuto called after him.
"Hey Klein?" He stopped with his back still turned to him.
"Yeah?"
"Thanks." Klein smiled.
"Don't mention it."

~~~oOoOo~~~

Kazuto sat on the couch, his eyes closed as he meditated. It'd been a week since Klein's visit, and he'd been doing better since then. He'd tossed the rest of the beer in the trash, vowing never again to consume any alcohol of any kind. He'd cleaned the apartment, patched the hole in the door that was left by his sword, and started getting bits of sleep here and there. He'd gotten a few things for the apartment to make it more of a home. Pillows and wall hangings now brightened up the living space considerably. He'd also gone to the grocery store down the block and stocked the fridge and started practicing his culinary skills. He'd made a stew that was simmering on the oven as he sat and relaxed the evening away.
Three months and five days he thought to himself. Three months and five days she's been in a coma. Three months and five days since we've been engaged, too. Kazuto sighed and turned to look at the picture of Asuna that he kept on the end table. I miss you terribly, you know. He sighed again and was about turn on the TV when he heard a sound out in the hallway that made him pause.
Footsteps. Not that footsteps were uncommon in an apartment building, but Kazuto would recognize that gait anywhere. No way... The footsteps continued to approach down the hallway. Kazuto held his breath. The footsteps stopped at his door. He heard another sound.

Keys.

Kazuto floated to his feet and ghosted over to the door, standing before it, uncertain of what to do. His hand inched toward the door handle, but he paused halfway. Could it really be? Just as he was about to throw the door open and find out, the handle twisted and the door swung open.

Kazuto's eyes brimmed with tears as he saw her standing there, a surprised expression on her face as she was caught off guard by the figure standing directly in front of her when she'd opened the door. His eyes took as much of her as they could in the short span of time that they stood there, regarding each other. Her chestnut hair was back in her usual braid, cascading over her shoulders and gleaming dully in the light. She was dressed in the same attire that she'd worn in SAO when they had first bought their virtual home. Her yellow sweater was rolled up along the sleeves, as was the white blouse beneath it, exposing her bare forearms that he had only seen in casts just a few weeks ago. Her hands clenched the keys she held in her grip, her ring glittering as it caught the light. Her russet skirt whispered as she slowly took a tentative step towards him, her back hunched over as she tried to look up into his eyes, which were still fixated on the ring on her hand that was pressed against her side. His gaze followed the ring as the hand placed the keys on a side table and slowly came to rest on his face. Kazuto smiled as her warm hand brushed against his face and closed his eyes, placing his hand over hers. He stood there for a moment, savoring the sensation before opening his eyes and looking into hers. Her amber irises caught the sun from the window behind him, causing them to glow with an almost luminescent light, giving them the appearance of pools of melted caramel. He brought his free hand up to her cheek, holding her face gingerly as his thumb gently ran along her cheekbone. He placed his forehead against hers and let out a shaky breath as he reveled in her scent; cherry blossoms and honeysuckle, it never failed to intoxicate him. After holding each other for a long moment, Kazuto finally spoke.
"I missed you." he said, giving a small smile. Asuna pulled back from his embrace a little to look into his obsidian eyes again.
"I missed you too, Kirito-kun." she replied, tears running freely down her face as she smiled back. Kazuto pulled her into a tender kiss, months of stress, anger, and anxiety melting away with the heat of the moment. They finally pulled away when the need for air became too great and stood in each other's embrace, not wanting the moment they had waited so long for to end. Ultimately, they had to separate when Kazuto's stew began to boil over on the stove and they had to rush to prevent dinner from being consumed by flames. They ate in silence at the table, gazes locked into their food, tension in the air as thick as the stew. After they finished eating, they sat together on the couch, Asuna's head resting on Kazuto's shoulder as he explained all of what had happened.
"And I practically flew to your house." he was saying "I don't think I've ever gone so fast before. I ran a red light and nearly had a crash." he added as an afterthought. Asuna hit him in the chest with the back of her hand from where she lay on his shoulder.
"Typical Kirito-kun, so reckless." she murmured softly. "What are we going to do with you?" Kazuto chuckled as he pulled her into a tighter embrace and placed his chin in her head.
"Well it was for a good cause. I had to get to the hospital as soon as possible!" he defended. Asuna snorted gently and rolled on her side a bit as she positioned herself in a more comfortable arrangement against Kazuto.
"Wouldn't matter if you had to show up in an ambulance, dummy." She paused her teasing for a moment as a question popped up in her mind. "Neh, Kirito- kun?"
"Hmm?"
"What exactly happened when you got to the hospital?" Kazuto looked down at her from where he sat.
"You mean they didn't tell you?" he asked incredulously. Asuna shook her head against his chest.
"Uh-uh. I woke up and found this on my hand," Asuna held up up her left hand for him to see the ring that still sat on her third finger. "And I knew you had visited me and why you had asked me to a new place for our date." She smiled as she quickly scrubbed a hand across her eyes to dash away the tears that were forming there. "I remember being so happy I couldn't stop crying. That's how the nurses found out I was awake, you know. They thought I was in pain or was sad because of the accident, but I told them it wasn't any of that. The day I'd been waiting so long for had finally arrived." Kazuto's embrace tightened around her as he pictured her sitting in her hospital bed again. "My parents came soon after that. I don't think I've ever seen them so emotional. And they didn't even mention the ring!" she continued. Kazuto swallowed thickly and cleared his throat, rubbing his neck as he looked up at the ceiling.
"Well I would hope not. I did ask for their blessing, after all." he said quietly. Asuna remained silent for a moment, processing his words, blinking several times.
"You what?" He laughed weakly, looking back on everything that seemed like a bad dream now that she was in his arms.
"When I got to the hospital, your parents were there," he explained "And I didn't know if..you'd..." he swallowed again, trying to clear the lump in his throat. Asuna placed a hand on his arm and looked up at him, reassurance flowing through her serene eyes.
"It's okay.' she told him "I understand." Kazuto nodded and smiled weakly at her before taking a deep breath and continuing.
"I told them why we were going to meet that day. Their faces were pretty funny." He recalled with a chuckle. His expression became faraway as he resumed his account. "I asked them if they would bless our marriage. Your father was the first to answer. He said he'd be proud to call me his son-in-law. I thought I was surprised then, but then your mother actually hugged me." Asuna let out a cry of disbelief and abruptly pushed away from Kazuto, sitting up on the couch and regarding him with shock.
"My mother hugged you?! And gave you her blessing?" She screwed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Ah, hell. I knew it. I'm still in a coma, aren't I?" Kazuto laughed and took her hand in his and pulled her into his chest, wrapping his arms around her slender frame.
"I dunno..." he crooned as he slowly worked his hands down to her waist. "If you were in a coma could you feel...this!" His fingers found the nerve clusters just above her hips at the base of her spine and pressed against them, causing her to jolt upright and shriek.
"AHHHH!" Asuna swung at him, aiming for his head, but he ducked under the attack and tickled at her exposed belly, darting away before she could bring her elbows down on him. He stood across the room from Asuna now, whose face was flushed with red and was trembling as she glared at him murderously. "Y-you... will die for that." she sputtered, gasping for breath. Kazuto grinned wickedly at her.
"Maybe, but you'll have to catch me first, Lightning Flash!" He turned tail and bolted down the hallway, making a beeline for the bedroom and closing the door behind himself.
"Coward! Fight me with some honor, you pervert!" she shouted as she rushed after him, her long hair streaming behind her as she hurtled through the house in pursuit of her fiancée. As she opened the bedroom door, a pillow caught her in the face with a solid WHUMP. As she removed the offending decor, she found Kazuto standing across the room from her with a pillow in each hand and a smug smirk on his face. She raised her hand and pointed at him, clutching the pillow in a death grip. "Your death shall be slow and painful." she intoned menacingly. Kazuto's smirk widened into a grin as he crouched, tensing his in preparation for a strike.
"Prove it." he almost purred. Letting out a battle cry, Asuna leaped at him, brandishing her single pillow as Kazuto drew his arms back and jumped, ready to do battle. After a furious duel, Asuna stood victorious over an exhausted Kazuto, who flopped onto the bed with a defeated groan.
"Ah, not fair." he muttered into the sheets, voice muffled by the downy covers. "You're used to a light weapon. What was I supposed to do, use weighted pillows?" Asuna smirked as she sat down next to Kazuto on the bed and gently stroked his hair.
"Well, I'm not the one who trains every day with actual swords, so you have no one to blame but yourself, Mr. Dual Wield." Kazuto harrumphed into the sheets and chose to remain in an indignant silence. Asuna smiled and rolled her eyes as she regarded him with a sly smile. "You know, for someone who trains so much with his swords, you'd think that you could find a more formidable opponent than a door." She felt his shoulders tense up and he let out another muffled groan.
"Klein told you?" She couldn't help the laugh from creeping into her tone as she replied.
"While you might have skill with a blade, carpentry is not your strong suit, Kirito-kun. Our door looks like someone decided to play a drum solo on it with a baseball bat." Kazuto sighed as he rolled over onto his back to look at the ceiling.
"Liz always makes it look so easy to use a hammer..." he muttered as he moved his arm, pantomiming a hammer swing. Asuna gave a soft laugh as she curled up next to him on the bed, resting her head on his chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart.
"Hehe, I'll ask her if she can swing by later this week to see what she can do." she said sleepily, letting out a soft yawn.
"Ah, you know she's gonna give me lip about it." Kazuto whined, nuzzling the top of Asuna's head as he held her while drawing the blankets up around them. "She'll be all like 'Oh! So not only do you break people's swords, but now you do doors as well?' and she'll have that stupid grin on her face and you know I hate it when she does that!" Asuna giggled as she wriggled around under the covers, searching for a perfect sleeping position.
"Well, next time you should consider the consequences before being so reckless. Again. For the hundredth time." She teased him as her eyelids grew heavy and a content smile graced her lips. Kazuto snorted softly as he closed his eyes as well.
"Ah, it wouldn't be the same then, would it?" he asked, his tone dripping with sarcasm.
"Just shut up and hold me." The couple lay silent for a few minutes, perfectly at ease with the world and being reunited at last. Suddenly, Asuna opened her eyes as an urge came over her. She felt around until she found Kazuto's left hand and grasped it tightly in her own, staring at their intertwined fingers in the dim light of the moon that was coming from the sliding glass doors. Their rings caught the faint light and glowed with a pale radiance that seemed almost magical. "Kirito-kun?"
"Mmm?"
"It's nothing...I love you. Always." She felt his hand give hers a gentle squeeze and the warm brush of his lips against her own.
"And I love you Asuna. Always."

~~~Fin~~~