It takes two months for them to release Asuna from the hospital when she wakes up. It's weeks on end of testing, and physical therapy, and an endless stream of nurses and doctors and government agents and therapists specialists and every other conceivable type of -ists. Within the first five days, she's ready to snap and attack everyone around her. It feels like she's just exchanged one prison for another, and this time her cage isn't even pretty.
The one saving grace is
Kirito Kazuto. He's there seconds after she wakes up, hugging her tight to his chest despite the blood dripping down his arm and off his face, and it feels like he just--stays there. He doesn't, she knows. He goes home to talk to his sister, and he gets his own treatment from government agents and nurses (again, he'd said, scowling, when they came for him, really? You guys didn't get enough of me thee months ago?) so he can't possibly be there all the time. But he's there almost always when she wakes, and he stays until she falls asleep, and when they try to run too many tests in a day he calmly, politely reminds everyone that they've both survived two years in a death game and unless the whole hospital staff would like to see up close how good their fighting is, they should really back off.
When they finally let her go, Asuna nearly cries with relief. Kazuto--not Kirito here, not her husband, she has to remember that--squeezes her hand and gives her a soft smile. For a minute, the relief palpable in her mouth, she thinks it will all be alright.
But it only takes a day of being home to realize how wrong that is. Her father is out of the country, her mother sits in stony silence at the table, unsure how to approach her own child; the staff scurry away from her like they've just seen a ghost and she can't fall asleep at night, it feel too wrong without the wood planks of her house above her head and Kirito's warmth wrapped around her. The first time she hears a sudden loud noise, instead of jumping and running like she would've before, her hand flies to her waist, reaching for a rapier that isn't there. She locks herself in the bathroom and cries for half an hour, and she's still not sure if they're tears of anger or grief or relief.
I don't know how to live in this world anymore, Kazuto tells her one day. They're sitting on a park bench, feeling the non-virtual sun and breeze and warmth, but the melancholy still hasn't lifted. I just… We lived there, Asuna. We had lives and everyone seems to think we should just pretend it didn't happen, and I don't know how to do that. I don't know if I even can.
And Asuna, a little overwhelmed with homesickness, leans her head on his shoulder and squeezes his fingers a little tighter. Me neither. I can't go back to who I was before SAO, but I can't be Asuna Lightning-Flash, either, and I don't know what that leaves me with.
She isn't been able to stop thinking about that--about what she had been and what she was, about who is left now. She wonders, late at night with nothing to hear but her own thoughts buzzing in her head, if it makes her a bad daughter, a bad person, that she liked being Asuna Lightning-Flash more than being Asuna Yuuki.
Except, when she goes to school and finally meets Lisbeth in real life, when she's sitting in Agil's shop and they both jump at loud noises, when she goes over to Kazuto's house and watches him stare wistfully as his sister practices kendo--she thinks she's not the only one. She thinks they're all missing Sword Art Online, because yes, it was deadly and twisted and cruel, but it was also home. It was laughter and simple goals and everything made sense, even if it wasn't the kind of sense you wanted; it was fair. And life… isn't.
Asuna tosses and turns and wonders if that's what separates her from being Lightning-Flash. If it's the circumstances rather than the people themselves who are different. Staring around at her dark room, she hates this world, hates reality, for standing between who she is and who she wants to be.
It's not until her birthday, when Kazuto pulls her to the side of the party and quietly hands over an exact replica of her rapier with no explanation other than a kiss that lingered with grief and love and something powerful and unnamed, that she finally thinks fuck it. Maybe the world is different, maybe there are different expectations now, but that's never stopped her before. In SAO, in the beginning, everyone expected her to stay in the Town of Beginnings; she had joined the Assault Teams and battled on the front lines instead. Right now, everyone expects her to behave a certain way, sure, but she's the only one really standing in her way. If she wants to be Asuna Lightning-Flash, wants to be powerful and respected, wants to get her family and her home back, then she's the one who will have to fight for it.
Rapier in hand and partner at her side, Asuna finally feels like she can.
When she goes home that night, she tries to practice her forms with her new sword, but the blade is long and heavy and her wrist is shaking after just a few swings. She sits down with a huff and closes her eyes, breathing in and out and trying to let go of her frustration. It took her months to learn to walk again; she knew she wouldn't be able to wield her rapier right away.
Still. She glances at the weapon where it's propped up against her bed, unassuming and gleaming in the artificial light, and hates this body for setting her so far back.
It takes her a long time to fall asleep.
When she tells her mother she wants to do strength conditioning and, eventually, fencing, she watches a thousand responses rise up to shut her down in the tight line of her mother's mouth.
"And," Asuna continues, feeling a kind of icy determination creep along her spine, "if you say no, I will not hesitate to move out and get myself declared an emancipated minor. They have a streamlined process already in place for SAO kids."
Her mother stares at her like she's someone else entirely, and says nothing, just gives the barest of nods, and Asuna wonders if she still has a place in this big, fancy house with all its advanced technology either way. She won this fight, but she hasn't felt home in months.
She hasn't felt home, she admits to herself with a pang, since she and Kirito left their cabin for the front lines for the last time.
It takes a few hours to wander the house--hours she could spend doing something important, like studying her English or writing that history paper that's due tomorrow or literally anything else--but she does it. She goes from room to room, running her hands over polished wood and soft fabric, feeling a little like she's floating.
Eventually, she finds herself in the kitchen. The staff are halfway through preparing tonight's dinner, the chef and his two sous chefs bustling around each other in patterns too seamless to not be practiced, and they don't even notice her lurking in the doorway at first. When they do, one of the sous chefs--a short woman named Rio--jumps slightly and goes pale.
"Ma'am," she says after a beat, "is something wrong?"
"No," Asuna says, flushing, "I just… I wanted to watch. Is that alright?"
"Of course. But are you sure you'd like to do that? I'm afraid we're just cooking; surely there's something more interesting you would prefer to do…"
Asuna bit her lip. "Actually, as long as it's alright with you, I'd like to stay here for a bit. Cooking is--soothing. For me."
The chef nods his assent, and she settles in to watch.
It takes her another two weeks of watching to gather her nerve. The kitchen staff is more or less used to her by now, and they've relaxed, joking around and grinning at each other more and more often as they swirl around work spaces and ovens and cupboards.
"Excuse me, Mr. Sota? Do you think you'd ever be willing to teach me?" Asuna finally asks. The chef blinks at her, clearly startled, but smiles after a moment.
"Of course, Ms. Asuna. May I ask why, though?"
She considers lying. She could say something like it's just something I've always wanted to know or Mother asked that I learn; they'd probably accept it without question. But Sota and Rio and Haruki have let her sit in this corner for two weeks, have answered all her questions and put up with her presence, and answering truthfully feels like the least she can do.
"When I was in the game, it was something I prided myself on. I don't want that to be one more thing Kayaba took away from me," she admits, and Sota's face softens.
"Of course, Miss," he says. "Let's start with the basics, then. Do you know how to chop?"
Asuna takes the knife and cutting board he offers her and feels something in her chest loosen. These aren't her supplies, but the weight of them feels good in her hands. Familiar.
"I think so," she says, "but could you show me again?"
Asuna learns to walk through life like it's hers, because it is. She tackles cooking and fencing with equal ferocity, picks up some arts and crafts for the hell of it, because she likes feeling her hands move and watching something new be created, something more tangible than code and light. She buys Kazuto a ring for their one year anniversary and doesn't hold back her tears when he pulls out a matching one from his own pocket. She wakes up every morning and opens the curtains, breaths with the knowledge that this is real, that she is real.
She learns to love herself, both parts and the growing grey area in between. She'll never quite be Asuna Yuuki again, and that's okay. But she'll never not be Asuna Yuuki, either, and she works to remember that, to honor the girl who wandered into her brother's room because she was bored. Most days, she aspires to be Asuna Lightning-Flash, but she learns to temper that--she is driven but doesn't skip sleep and meals, aggressive without bordering on bullying. She doesn't give up an inch of the motivation that got her leadership positions, but at the end of the day she comes home and curls up with some paper/beads/yarn/wire in her hands and Kazuto on speaker. Some days it feels like healing and some days it feels like learning and some days it feels like a waste of time, like seeing a boy napping in the sun when there are boss rooms to raid, but every morning, she gets up and faces the day. Asuna lifts her chin with the rising sun and goes through her stretches, through her fencing stances, through the memories of her old home and her old life. Then, when she's done, she puts it all down and moves out of the room and into the world, bustling with noise and life and non-generated traffic.
She takes a deep breath outside, every morning. The smog sits heavy in her lungs and she smiles because it's imperfections like that that assure her this isn't another one of Kayaba's games.
It takes Kazuto a total of two and a half years to find a way to fully merge Yui with their technology, so she can always be with them. Asuna didn't doubt for a second that he could do it--she was sitting right there, working with him, for almost all of it.
The months keep spinning on, and Asuna keeps waking, stretching, walking out into the world.
She remembers waking in a hospital bed and not being sure what was real. These days, she grabs life with both hands and doesn't let go for a second; she runs and laughs and dreams and cries and refuses to let anyone take another choice from her ever again.
This is her body. This is her life. She alone controls herself, and she's going to keep it that way.