Also, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate our editor ZeHaffen on his birthday today and dedicate this release to him!
P.S. Our next release will be a Comic Anthology story next week. It's already done and ready for release, but we figured we'd space our release to create a buffer zone that would allow us to work on getting other material ready for release while still having something to release every 1-2 weeks. Gun Gale Wars chapter 2 will be released one week after the Comic Anthology story.
Any feedback is appreciated. No, seriously, if you spot some errors, please let me know. I didn't have anyone to edit this story, so I could have easily overlooked some mistakes. Last time I released an unedited chapter, nobody told me that I forgot to actually format my furigana properly :
Hearing this strange sound behind me, I quickly turned around.
At that point, I saw that the fencer and my temporary partner was holding her hands on her smalish nose. Several seconds later, leaning backward, she once again——
"……Is that a sneeze? Or a declaration of your desire for some phakchi in your morning grub tomorrow?"
When I asked this question without much of a thought, the fencer, still pressing down her nose, cast a sharp glare at me.
"I dislike phakchi."
"Then how about some coriander?"
"Then how about some xiangcai?"
"Dislike it…… wait, all of those are the exact same thing!"
Having diligently carried out her duties as a nori-tsukkomi(1), Asuna the level-17 fencer continued with a sigh.
"It was a sneeze…… I think. Though I'm not certain."
"Heh? W-what do you mean? Shouldn't you of all people know whether or not that's a sneeze……"
Having honest doubts about it, I stopped at the middle of the road.
Greatly crowded just one or two hours ago, the main street in Karluin, the principal town of the Fifth Floor of Aincrad, was now unbelievably quiet. With the countdown party for celebrating the arrival of the year 2023 with fireworks now over, players headed back to their inns―— or their farming spots.
Having watched the fireworks from an old castle ruins at the edge of town, Asuna and I waited for the bustle to cool down before leaving the castle. The reason for that was… because I had an unforeseen and dangerous encounter at the castle. In a crowd, even someone who's leveled up his Searching skill as high as myself would have trouble noticing a stalker.
As I waited for an answer while repeatedly and indirectly glancing behind us, Asuna replied unexpectedly seriously.
"Isn't a sneeze the kind of involuntary action you make to help your body warm up when its cold, or to expel some foreign object that got in through your nose? Neither of them is necessary for an avatar."
"Aha, well, you've got a point……"
"That is to say, if the SAO system went out of its way to reproduce a fake sneezing feature, can it really be called an actual sneeze…… that's what I'm concerned about."
The moment I nodded in admiration, my nose suddenly became very itchy. It was unclear whether it was because of the cold, or because of hearing the word 'sneeze' over and over again, but unable to endure it any longer―—
I ended up letting it all out in one violent burst, causing Asuna to smile complacently at that very moment.
"Oh, you want some bruschetta for tomorrow's breakfast?"
"……What's a bruschetta?"
"An Italian dish similar to canapé."
"That sure sounds tasty……"
While building up an image of what that bruschetta thing would look like, I subconsciously adjusted the collar of my long coat when I finally noticed.
"……Hold on, isn't it kinda cold right now?"
"……True, it is cold……"
The nodding fencer was wearing a wool cape with a hood on her upper body, but her bottom half only had a mini-skirt on, so it didn't look all that effective against the cold. At times like this, a capable man would have probably put his own coat on the girl without a word, but as if a second-year-at-middle-school and addict gamer boy would be equipped with such a non-system skill.
Luckily, before I could do or say anything, Asuna opened her menu and nimbly manipulated her equipment figure. The part of her legs exposed by the leather skirt were enveloped in a light effect, which morphed into white tights.
There shouldn't be any synthetic fibres in this world, yet the faint lustre of her tight-fitting tights caused me to stare at them subconsciously. Just awhile ago, I would have been instantly met with a peevish glare and words, perhaps even physical attacks depending on the situation, but, luckily, Asuna only gave a slight cough before looking up at the bottom of the upper floor, drowned in darkness.
"……Well, it's the New Year, after all, so it's probably only natural that it's cold, but…… on the other hand, it's surprising that we've had such warm weather all the way up to the Fourth Floor. What's up with Aincrad's seasons?"
"Uh, uhm…… The beta test took place in August, yet despite my worries that it would definitely be hot out in the sun during the day, it actually wasn't that discomforting. It felt entirely different from the midsummer heat and humidity in the real world."
"Hmm…… Well, if it were actually hot, you wouldn't be able to wear something like full-plate armour, after all."
"Indeed. I wonder how the knights in the old days of Europe coped with the summer……"
"The Knights Templar of the Kingdom of Jerusalem once lost against Saladin's army because they ended up being unable to move in the heat."
Witnessing Asuna's usual extensive knowledge on display and harbouring a premonition that she'd one day outclass me even in Aincrad knowledge, I returned to the main topic.
"……Anyway, while Aincrad's climate does reflect the current season per se, it never actually reaches the severe levels of heat or cold… I believe. Heck, even at this moment, it's far better than midwinter would be in the real world, isn't it?"
"Well, it does, at worst, only go so far as to make me sneeze, despite my current outfit."
"Though, even that has some exceptions, as there are some floors that are set to be constantly in midwinter or midsummer mode all year round…… or at least I recall reading something like that in a magazine or something……"
After gazing upwards once more, Asuna suddenly seemed to be struck with an idea as she asked me this.
"So, during the beta test, you never found that floor of eternal summer?"
"Well, it was in fact summer outside at the time, after all…… Though, if I recall correctly, there was a beach on the southern side of the Seventh Floor. With all those palm trees and pure white sand on the beach, there sure were quite a lot of guys having their summer vacation in swimsuits there."
"Based on how you're talking about it, you completely ignored it, didn't you, Kirito-kun."
As she hit right at the bullseye, I had no choice but to nod.
"Hey, after all, one guy having a vacation all by himself feels quite hollow…… It's okay, I was focusing entirely on making progress anyway."
Hearing my all-out bluff, Asuna, seemingly having forgotten all about the cold, smiled as she gave me a pat on the back for some reason.
"The Seventh Floor, huh, I'll keep that in mind. If there really is an area of eternal summer there……"
"Hmm, I'll keep it a secret till then. Now, let's hurry up to the next town. Starting tomorrow…… I mean, this morning, we have to begin clearing the Sixth Floor."
Still puzzled, I had to chase after the fencer, as she began walking briskly upon saying that. It's already been practically a month since she became my temporary partner, yet I still couldn't read what she was thinking.
——Well, that's exactly this person's charm, I guess.
When I shook my head as such unusual thoughts passed through my mind, my nose once again became itchy. Sneezing wasn't much of a problem in town, but it could cause a horrible disaster if it were to happen in the middle of a Hiding attempt within a dungeon, thus I have to do some research on a way to endure it.
My attempts to stop it by holding my nose and breath proved fruitless, thus, eventually, the energy of the itchiness surpassed my limits——
When such a strange sound bursted out from my mouth, Asuna, walking in front of me, turned around andm with a sixty percent astonished, forty percent enigmatic smile, said the following.
"Are you really looking forward to your summer vacation that much?"
"I-it's not what……"
"In that case, we have to get through the Sixth Floor quickly."
"I said, you've got it wrong!"
As the fencer's smirk wouldn't disappear no matter how much I protested, I began to feel that I both wanted and didn't want the Seventh Floor to be a floor of eternal summer.
1. ^ A term for a Japanese comedy role where a person initially goes along with the joker's joke/comment or silly antics but then switches to being serious mid-way and chews out the joker/points out the ridiculousness of their comment/action. TL;DR: when the same person plays both the roles of the boke and tsukkomi one after the other.