“OK then, what’s on today’s menu?”
“Ox hamburg steak, soup, and salad. There’s bread and rice too, but which do you want, huh?”
“Ah, I’ll have rice, I guess.”
Maybe because Shin had “bothered” her while she was cooking, Marino was now slightly cold towards him. He had offered to help, but was turned down sharply.
Still, she was continuing to cook for him, so she was probably not really angry.
Now they only had to wait for the steak to finish cooking, so Shin waited quietly.
Marino’s cooking skills were still low, but Tsuki no Hokora’s kitchen had cooking skill bonuses and also shortened cooking times. Because of that, even Marino could make sufficiently delicious food.
“Here you go.”
Marino came out of the kitchen, carrying a tray with the hamburg steak still sizzling on its iron plate. The rice and soup were steaming too.
After Marino had removed her apron and sat down, Shin took fork and knife in hand and set to eating.
Shin cut the steak, revealing its juicy insides and spreading its delicious aroma further in the room. It was a rather high degree of realism for a game. It could be said that the level of realism had increased even more after the start of the death game.
“It’s really great that they implemented the sense of taste too. It would be pretty sad if this just refilled the stomach bar.”
Good food gives energy needed for tomorrow. Eating tasteless food items day after day would get one’s spirits down soon.
“Hm? What’s wrong, Marino? Is there sauce on my face or something?”
Marino was contemplating Shin’s face as he happily ate his meal. Shin felt his nerves calm down thanks to the peacefulness of that atmosphere.
“No, I was just thinking that you really look happy when you eat…that’s all.”
Marino’s expression also showed how Shin eating her handmade food made her happy.
“Eating good stuff would make anyone look like that, no?”
“I wouldn’t feel this happy if it was anyone else.”
Marino directly conveyed her feelings to Shin.
For Shin, eating while she was looking so intently was a little awkward, but saying that would turn Marino’s mood sour again, so he refrained.
It wasn’t too much of an annoyance since Marino was the one looking, actually.
After a while, Marino started eating her part too. Shin asked for seconds of rice and soup, then after the meal they sat together on the sofa.
“You’re finally back to the usual Shin.”
Marino talked while leaning on Shin’s shoulder.
“….did I look that horrible?”
Shin felt the same as always, so his reply contained some surprise.
“When you think too much or hit a dead end…your face gets gradually tenser and tenser. Your eyes get so sharp too. That’s how you were until just now.”
Marino herself was concerned that mentioning this too much would have ended up burdening him.
“Don’t worry so much on your own…I end up getting down too just by looking at you.”
“You can say it anytime, you know? I can’t notice it myself, well in fact I didn’t, so…”
“Choosing the right timing is not easy…a long time ago, I messed up while trying to do that.”
Marino replied while wrapping her right arm around Shin’s left. Normally Shin’s attention would focus on the softness of her feminine parts, but this time he was more concerned about her looking down.
“In real life, you mean?”
“Yeah. I was yelled at, like “what the hell do you know about that!?”…”
Marino rarely talked about real life, but evidently she felt like she could now.
“OK, I’ll take a slower pace with the dungeon crawling. That will help in the long run, and I won’t worry you either.”
Frustrated at his inability of saying something better to ease her mind, Shin tried to sound as cheerful as he could.
Even without physical fatigue, mental strain could cause failures at important times. Shin would hate to make Marino worry because of things that normally would never happen.
“This could delay our return to the real world though, sorry.”
“Your safety is a lot more important than that, Shin.”
Marino smiled faintly.
“Hey, Marino, the dungeon clearing has reached a good point now, so can I go with you tomorrow?”
Because of her relatively low stats, Marino worked in a church in the first hometown, Kalkia. The city also housed an orphanage, used to give shelter to very young players. Since Marino worked in the orphanage, Shin had helped modifying it, so now it was a structure different from the average.
“That’s fine by me, but it’ll probably be boring, you know?”
“That’s OK. After all, I just want to look at you working.”
Shin grinned and looked at Marino. His tone was a teasing one, but his expression was very serene.
“Aah, if you make a face like that I can’t even stay angry, can I?”
Marino seemed unsure whether to get angry or to calm down because of Shin’s conflicting words and expression, especially because lately Shin always seemed down.
“Hm? Did I make a weird face?”
“Aah, if you don’t know then never mind. Rather than that, if you’re coming too you’re going to help me with the kids, ok? They love games too, so it’ll be easy for you, I bet.”
“It’ll probably be OK with the boys, but the girls are all yours. Our philosophy towards playing games is totally different after all.”
Shin knew out of experience that most female players, like Marino, preferred to focus on cooking skills, communicating with tamed monsters, and knitting, all skills he had barely touched.
Because of that, he wasn’t able to keep a conversation with them at times. Not even Shin was knowledgeable about all sorts of skills and items.
“Well, you’ll have to talk to them first. OK, let’s get to bed soon to be ready for tomorrow. I’ll clean up here, so why don’t you get a bath first, Shin?”
“I will, thanks. Oh, I got some cookies and madeleines from Catnip’s shop, should we bring them to the orphanage?”
“Oh, that’s a good idea. The kids will be really happy.”
Shin left the rest to Marino and went to the bath.
Dipping in the hot water-filled bathtub filled him with an inexplicable feeling of liberation.
“The high level of realism can give a lot of trouble, but I really am thankful that they replicated this feeling too…”
It might be strange to say, but even if one’s body was dirty or smelled the game gave no penalties, nor did bathing increase the avatar’s specs. Even so players, especially female ones, wanted to bathe regularly.
In real life, only particular hot springs gave considerable effects, but in this world bathing after a battle seemed to give an even greater feeling of relief.
“Life itself feels cleaner after a bath” was a very apt way of putting it.
Shin got out of the bath, gulped down a bottle of milk from the fridge, said goodnight to Marino, and proceeded to his bedroom.
He had to be more exhausted than he thought, as his consciousness slipped away as soon as he lied on the mattress.
Some time later, Shin woke up and felt something strange on his right arm.
He looked at it and found Marino, wearing pajamas, snugly gripping his arm, sleeping peacefully.
The option of carrying her back to her room did not emerge in Shin’s half-asleep brain.
They were lovers since before the death game and now, at least according to the system, they were husband and wife. Was there anything wrong with sleeping in the same bed? It was easy to accept the situation.
Shin thought that he might as well go all the way, removed the right arm that Marino was grabbing and hugged her with both of his arms.
Relishing in the happiness blooming in his chest, Shin fell again into slumber.
The following morning, Shin woke up after feeling something tremble. Something was moving in his arms.
Like the day before, he looked in the direction of the noise and found Marino, blushing fiercely. Shin had apparently woken up because of her attempts to slip out of his embrace.
“Ah, ah, er…”
Words wouldn’t come out of the embarrassed Marino’s mouth, so Shin thought he should say good morning, for the moment.
“G-Good morning…sho…so, why are you hugging me?”
Shin smiled gently because of Marino’s cute stuttering and replied.
“You slipped under the covers yesterday, so I used you as pillow.”
“I-I-I guess I was half asleep and g-got the wrong room…”
“We’re husband and wife, at least according to the system, so isn’t it fine?”
“It’s embarrassing!! Aaah, I bet you looked at my dumb sleeping face too…”
Marino must have been really embarrassed, as she covered her face with her hands and squirmed after Shin freed her from his hug. Her bellybutton was in plain sight because of her wriggling.
“Sleeping face? Haven’t we both seen each other’s a lot already?”
“Today was not OK! Not after the dream I had…I bet I looked so dumb…”
Shin only remembered seeing her smiling peacefully. Marino would probably not believe him, though.
“I see, I see, a dream…what kind of dream was it?”
Shin decided to press further.
“I CAN’T SAY IT!!!”
After firmly planting an uppercut on the grinning Shin’s chin, Marino rushed out of the room.
Left alone, Shin reflected that he might have gone too far, while massaging his unhurt chin.
“My deepest apologies. I teased too much.”
“You think that if you apologize like that I’ll forgive you, right.”
Shin lowered his head at the breakfast table, but Marino’s reply was just jaded. Shin knew from experience that honestly apologizing was the quickest way to obtain Marino’s forgiveness.
Marino, of course, had already seen through Shin’s attempt.
“OK, OK. In exchange, you’ll have to work plenty today.”
“Yes, I shall work my hardest, ma’am!”
“Enough already! Eat your breakfast, come on!”
Spurred by Marino, Shin rushed through his morning meal.
He would ask what to do at the orphanage on the way there. There was nothing in particular they had to bring with them.
“Have a nice day.”
“I’ll leave the rest to you.”
After greeting Schnee, Shin and Marino teleported to Kalkia.
Walking through the crowd, Shin felt several pairs of eyes on him. His equipment was different, but evidently his face was recognized by many. He did not mind anymore, but when going into town this happened often.
“Ah! It’s big sis Marino!”
They heard a boy’s voice when they arrived at the orphanage. Two boys came running towards them from the square next to the orphanage. Both wielded sponge blades, equipment that did not cause damage.
Both kids were around 150 cemels tall and looked like elementary or junior high school students.
Their faces still looked childish, probably because they hadn’t edited their avatars. Setting avatars to automatic mode would make their appearances change according to one’s age.
“Who’s this person?”
“His name is Shin, he will help me today.”
Marino introduced Shin to the boys, ignoring the boyfriend suspicion.
Shin had already visited the orphanage several times, but had not met the two boys before.
“I know you can see it with 【Analyze】, but I’ll introduce you just in case. The boy with black hair is Ryohei, the one with brown hair is Teppei.”
“Nice to meet you”
“Nice to meetcha!”
Ryohei greeted Shin a bit timidly, while Teppei sounded more energetic.
According to Marino, sometimes they hunt low level monsters in the forest, accompanied by an advanced player. Because of their natural “vigor”, they are a bit infamous as the orphanage’s troublesome duo.
“Inside! Luca is crying again, you know.”
Marino asked about the player that managed the orphanage and said she would go greet them as she went inside the orphanage.
“Hey, hey, mister! Have you ever been to the frontlines of conquered areas? Big sis Emil says it’s dangerous and won’t let us go!”
“If you want to go, you have to raise your levels some more. Or you’re going to die even if you get grazed by a punch, kids.”
“Teppei, you can’t go. You’d run off and get killed right away.”
After Shin’s answer, Ryohei added a snarky comment, while shrugging his shoulders.
“If you can’t beat me even once, you have no chance!”
Apparently Ryohei was higher than Teppei in the orphanage’s hierarchy.
As the kids forgot about him and started play fighting, Shin looked around, thinking about what he could do.
He then found a small shadow at the edge of his line of sight. Looking towards it. Shin noticed the face of a very young girl subtly peeking from behind a tree.
The moment her eyes met Shin‘s, the little girl quickly retreated behind the tree. But, poor thing, she couldn’t hide her animal ears and the Type Cat-like tail. Both seemed to be monitoring Shin’s presence.
Shin held his chin with one hand, acting deep in thought. And slowly moved closer to the tree. He would stop when the girl peeked, then move again when she hid.
(She’s not afraid of me, is she.)
The girl should have noticed Shin’s approach, but did not try to run away. He thought that she was wary of him because they had never met before, but that did not seem to be the case.
Her slightly spacing out expression kept poking out and hiding again. Soon enough, Shin reached the tree behind which the girl was hiding.
Shin tried a greeting, which was returned by a whisper. It wasn’t clear if the girl really wanted to hide or not, as only her face came out of the shade when she looked at Shin.
She was leaning forward, so her shoulder-length hair hung in the air.
“Er, I think this is the first time we meet. My name is Shin, I came to help Marino. What about you?”
“Luca, I see. Well, nice to meet you.”
Luca nodded slightly and stepped out of the shade. Her height was about 110 cemels. Her animal ears, the same color as her hair, sometimes flicked and moved.
Because of the game’s systems, the avatar’s height was based on real life height. Shin thought that she was a bit too small, as in a bit too young, to play a game like that.
“Ah! Luca! Teach was looking for you!”
Shin looked back and found Teppei and Ryohei, along with Marino and another person, a woman wearing sister-like clothing.
After hearing Teppei’s voice, Luca flinched and hid behind Shin. Her hands, gripping her sleeves, were trembling.
“Teppei, you’re too loud. You’ll scare Luca away.”
“Ah, I’m s-sorry.”
Teppei apologized right away: he had no intention of scaring Luca.
“So you were here, Luca. I was looking for you.”
Luca replied while looking at Marino, who had caught up to them.
“Come on, let’s go back to the orphanage first. Ryohei, Teppei, you two especially!! You haven’t prepared to leave with Garozzo, right!? Quit standing around and go get ready!! Move it, brats!”
After getting yelled at, the boys sprinted back to the orphanage, as ordered by Emil, the orphanage’s supervisor. A very beautiful woman, she had waist-length light blue hair and emerald-like eyes.
Her nun-like attire made her look like a devout believer at first glance. Her personality and speech, however, were quite far apart from the common idea of a nun.
Emil’s speech was coarse and she was rather quick with her hands. On the other hand she was very reliable and caring towards the people around her.
Looking at her taking care of the orphanage kids, Shin thought she looked more like a tough mother than a nun.
He never said it to Emil herself, of course; it would only make Emil’s basic equipment, a nail bat, cry for blood. It was not a weapon feared not for the damage it caused, but for its horrifying look.
“Marino, you and Luca take care of the usual work.”
“OK, leave it to me.”
“Luca, you better do what Marino says, got it?”
“Ok, got it.”
The “work” was handling requests given by NPCs. It was a precious source of income for the orphanage, since many of its players could not go out in the field and hunt monsters.
Marino had already done them many times, so it was unlikely that she needed help.
Luca also firmly nodded to Emil’s words.
“Guess I should go over there?”
Shin looked towards the square where Teppei and Ryohei were play fighting before. A group of boys with sponge blades were waiting.
“Yeah, you’ve got our spunky brats to take care of. They have energy to spare after all. Let’em go wild enough to make them stop thinking of sneaking outside. I’ll be the coach.”
Shin visited the orphanage irregularly, so Emil decided what task to give him each time. Naturally, most of the time it was taking care of the kids.
The only rule was for Shin to not go hunting or to use skills to gather items or Geyl.
—-If you have to go hunting for the sake of the orphanage, take a rest instead.
—-Rather than that, make sure the kids can go back to the real world as soon as possible.
That was the opinion of Emil and all other orphanage collaborators.
They had accepted that Shin would sometimes give them a hand, for a change of pace.
“OK, today your opponent is me. Don’t hold anything back!”
It was not the first mock battle for Shin and the boys: they charged at him without hesitation.
Ryohei and Teppei, who were supposed to prepare to leave, mingled among the other boys at first, but Shin quickly flicked them back towards Emil, who grabbed them by the neck and took them away.
“Well, that’s about it.”
About 2 hours after the battle between Shin and the spunky army started, the little valiant warriors clearly showed signs of exhaustion, some lying down on the ground.
This exhaustion had no visible gauge, like HP or MP. Players with high HP or VIT would not get tired as easily, so it was said to be a hidden stat.
Exhaustion caused several demerits; attack power and movement speed decreased, while received damage increased. It could be healed via recovery magic, so it wasn’t a big problem, but the only user present at the moment -Emil- did not do anything, so the square looked like a battlefield of fallen soldiers.
“Crap, you’re too strong…!”
“Adults can’t fight seriously against…kids…!”
The unperturbed Shin was met with praise and complaints from the kids, but they were all too tired to complete their sentences.
“Got it, brats? Out there it’s packed with dangerous monsters that would send even battle maniacs like him flying. Don’t you ever dare go out on your own!!”
“We’d die for sure…”
The kids’ answers were really exhausted too, to the point that one would wonder how much they had really understood of what Emil said.
“OK then, Shin, your next job is….hm?”
“Is something wrong?”
Emil stopped halfway through her sentence and looked towards the door leading to the garden; Luca was peeking from behind it. Next to her, Marino was laughing, a bit awkwardly.
“She did that this morning too…is Luca always like that?”
“Nope, not really? She’s always scared shitless of people she sees for the first time, especially guys like you. She came here only a while ago though, so there’s still plenty we don’t know about her.”
Emil then added “Never seen her like that” and motioned at Marino and Luca to come closer.
“See, Luca, let’s go?”
Thanks to Emil’s gesture and Marino’s encouragement, Luca finally came out of her hiding spot behind the door. While walking, though, she skillfully hid behind Marino and stared at Shin at the same time.
“Er, we meet again.”
Shin spoke to Luca, a bit awkwardly, and for some reason she stopped hiding behind Marino and grabbed Shin’s trousers.
“Ah…er, what is this…?”
“Hmm, seems she took a liking to you. Pretty rare.”
Shin was even more confused because of Luca’s behavior, while Emil commented with a grin.
“What’s the matter with Shin, Luca?”
“….looks like my brother.”
“Is that so.”
Marino’s answer to Luca’s words was somewhat dry.
Shin wondered why, when he received a voice chat message from Emil.
“(Luca’s brother is already dead.)”
Luca, originally, was only logged in because her brother needed a certain number of players to create a guild.
Learning that she was only 5 years old, Shin understood the circumstances. Even elementary school students played VR games now, but he couldn’t imagine that a girl of pre-school age would want to play a game where PKs existed.
In the small time until she logged out, however, the world had changed.
Her brother and his comrades had departed, leaving Luca in a field for beginners, to never come back, as Emil explained.
“(How old was her brother, by the way?)”
“(He had just entered junior high, it seems)”
“(…I don’t know if I should be happy or not.)”
You look like my junior high school brother —-having similar height or facial features would be one thing, but if their mentalities were similar it would be pretty shocking for Shin.
“We might as well have Shin take care of Luca today.”
“That’s a nice idea. Here!”
Emil apparently came up with the idea on the spot, but Marino caught on immediately and put Shin and Luca’s hands together.
Luca’s hands were soft and very small, even more so when compared to Shin’s.
Rather than holding hands, it looked like Shin’s hands were wrapped around Luca’s. Shin realized again how young she was.
“OK! Today you can count on me!”
Luca’s hands gripped Shin’s tightly.
Shin, Marino, and Emil smiled at her reaction.