“Hey, who was that person?”
“Hmm? He’s from a party that’s currently clearing another location. It’s a bit of a nasty place, you see. He came to request some recovery items. I know the leader, so I’ll ask him for details.”
“What’s wrong? You’re making a weird face.”
Marino’s expression had drastically changed; she now looked concerned as she stared in the direction Vlad had gone.
“Something wrong with that man?”
Assessing Marino’s gaze, Shin guessed that Vlad was the reason of her worry.
“I’m not too sure, but, he was glaring at me with a really cold look.”
“He glared at you?”
Shin frowned. He could not think of a reason why anyone would resent Marino.
Despite it being widely known that she worked in the orphanage everyday, there were whispers that she received preferential treatment as Shin’s lover. Such groundless resentment was already a thing of the past.
“I guess we should be careful.”
“I don’t think they’d do anything in these parts though.”
In the city, a Player’s HP could not reach zero under normal circumstances. No matter how high another player’s stats or what skills they used, it would be impossible for them to kill a player within a city.
In the game, some burglar players targeted stores, but it was only stores set up outside of the protected city limits by players such as Shin. The town was a safe location for all players.
“Normally, yeah. There haven’t been any monster invasion events lately, so I’m a bit worried. During such events, even in the city…”
It’s possible to kill.
He didn’t say it outright, but that was what Shin feared the most. Monster invasion events were the reason why towns were not absolute safe havens for players.
During an invasion event, if the town defenses were breached and the monsters penetrated inside, the rule preventing players’ HP from being reduced below a certain threshold value was removed. In other words, during such events, it was possible to PK even in town.
It was a fact that became largely known after the invasion event that happened two weeks after the start of the death game. This event had generated several casualties.
“It’s going to be okay, don’t worry. Even if an invasion event starts, we just need to make sure the town’s defenses hold up.”
“Well, yes, that’s true…”
After the first invasion event, many players and guilds invested heavily in protecting the towns. Clearing dungeons was, of course, important, but without a place to return to, it was ultimately meaningless.
Thanks to the upgraded town defenses, monsters had successfully invaded towns only during that first event. It was not strange for Marino to say that there was nothing to worry about.
“I’m more worried about you, Shin. You’re clearing dungeons by yourself, so no one would be there to help in case it was necessary.”
“Hey, I’m always making sure it’s safe enough to go on. I didn’t max my stats for nothing, ya know?”
Not even Shin would go face bosses without scouting first. Based on the strength of the Gigantes Moss, the last boss he fought, he answered rather optimistically that there were no problems yet.
“Even if you say so, I’m still worried! Listen well now, in the next dungeon, and the one after that, and the one after that too, you absolutely must come back safe and sound, okay!? If you die I’m joining you as soon as I can, got it!?”
On the other hand, Marino was dead serious. She grabbed his lapel and looked straight into his eyes, while hers brimmed with tears.
“O-okay, I’m sorry. I don’t want to die either. I’ll always come back!”
Struck by Marino’s seriousness, Shin made his promise. Hearing her say that she would join him in death, he couldn’t ignore her plea.
After Shin confirmed the promise, Marino slowly backed away from him, albeit still pouting and angrily glaring at him.
“You mustn’t die, okay? We’re all going back together, all right?”
“Yes, I know. I keep my promises.”
“…no matter what, okay?”
“Yes, we made some good friends after all. It’ll be nice to meet in real life too.”
Apparently satisfied with Shin’s answer, Marino affectionately squeezed his hands tightly.
“…let’s go home.”
Relieved to see Marino smile, Shin started walking again. With fairly bad timing, though, the silhouette of a person appeared before them.
“Found you at last. I am truly sorry, but could you spare some time for me?”
Protecting Marino behind his back, Shin confronted the man.
“My name is Robin. I came with a request for you, Sir Shin.”
The player who introduced himself as Robin bowed his head to Shin.
“A request? What is it?”
“I know this will be really rude of me to say, and I apologize in advance. But could it be possible for you to increase the speed of your dungeon clearing?”
“My dungeon clearing?”
Robin raised his head, showing his distressed expression. Seeing this, Shin sensed something different from this man compared to other players who had irresponsibly urged him to hurry up in clearing the dungeons.
“Wait a minute!! Shin is doing his best, you know!”
“Wait, Marino. He seems different from the others so far.”
Marino had witnessed such scenes many times in the past and was ready to fly off the handle at the man, but Shin talked her down, continuing to talk with Robin.
“Believe me, I am going as fast as I can…did something happens?”
“My…superior in real life told me to make you hurry up. I’m truly sorry, I know very well that the dungeon clearing parties are staking their lives, but if I oppose him my real life will be in jeopardy…to be honest, I can’t stop worrying when I think about how my family might be doing right now. My superior told me to urge you, and won’t listen to reason…”
There were other players with situations like Robin. Shin was still a student and did not have a family to nurture.
Even so, thinking about his life after returning to reality worried him. While trapped in this world, there was no way of knowing how the real one was changing.
Because of this, Shin could understand Robin’s feelings, at least to an extent.
“I’m sorry. As I already said to others, there are new traps and unknown monsters in the dungeons that weren’t there before. Boss fight patterns are changing too. I’m trying to clear them as fast as I can, but it’s just not possible to proceed as quickly as I could with beginner or intermediate level dungeons.”
“….yes, of course. I’m sorry for approaching you out of the blue like this.”
Uttering these final words, Robin left. His distressed expression persisted until the end.
“Will that person be okay?”
“I don’t know. It’s been four months since we were trapped in this world… There are a plenty of people like him who are worried sick about the real world.”
There were no counselors or similar professions in this world. Some people stood back up on their feet, supported by others, while others fell into despair.
“There are many like him who want nothing more than to return to the real world and then there are people like PKs, who want to stay here forever.”
Marino commented with a difficult expression as they went back.
“That’s true…well, everyone’s different. What else can we say.”
“Yes…you’re right. Everyone has different circumstances…”
Marino’s expression was still clouded, but a bit clearer than before.
After returning to Tsuki no Hokora, Shin took a bath, as per Marino’s suggestion.
Dipping in the hot bath gave him some relief. He felt that it wasn’t an illusion and closed his eyes.
While Shin was in the bath, Marino prepared dinner. The menu was white stew and salad.
She deftly cut the ingredients and brought them to a boil, displaying the skill of someone used to cooking.
“Going back to reality…huh…”
Focused on cooking, Marino spoke her thoughts out loud. In reaction to hearing her own words, her movements came to a halt.
“Huh…? What was I…thinking about?”
What she had heard were her own words, but she felt like they had come from somewhere else.
When she realized the truth, she also fully noticed her real feelings. When she heard about the PKs, she was supposed to be angry. But at the same time, she thought “Yes, I can see that”.
“This is weird. Why do I….”
Marino knew that, like the PKs, she also harbored a certain dislike towards the idea of returning to reality. In fact, Robin’s desire of returning had not moved her heart in the slightest.
“This is just strange. I wanted to go back too, didn’t I?”
Too weird. This couldn’t be.
The emotions swelling in her own chest confused Marino.
That very moment, something disrupted her field of sight.
She thought she heard a thud-like sound, from far away.
Her body wouldn’t move.
Just like a sudden scene change, she saw the floor, the racks, then her own arms dropping down.
Then, she finally understood what was happening to her.
She had forgotten a long time ago and tried not to think about it since.
She thought that things would continue like this forever.
“So… Time’s almost up.”
The end was drawing near. The time limit drew closer.
“A little more. Just a little more…”
She tried to move her arms.
They moved, as if it was a dream that they didn’t just moments ago. She could now stand by herself. It was another attack, probably.
“…I have to tell him. I can’t cause any more problems for Shin.”
Words which didn’t come from her heart. The words of a good girl who always did what she was told.
Disappointing the person who loved her was terrifying.
But all she could leave him with were items and equipment; she felt that she had no right to be with him, that Shin would probably leave her. A girl with just a little time left to live…was nothing more than dead weight.
“But I don’t want to leave him…”
Even if her mind understood, she couldn’t accept it.
Marino’s reason and emotions completely opposed each other.
“I finished bathing!”
Shin’s voice reached her.
Hearing the voice of her beloved, Marino made her decision.
After bathing and eating dinner, there was not much to do.
For entertainment and ways to kill time, THE NEW GATE only offered some minigames, the chance of listening to the in-game local news, which consisted of an indistinguishable mess of lies and truth, or just checking the information exchange bulletin board.
Just as Shin finished browsing the bulletin board he always checked, Marino entered his room.
There were many other rooms and plenty of beds available. Despite that, the two would sometimes sleep together, so it was not strange for Marino to come in.
However, Shin noticed that there was something unusual about her.
Marino, now in pajamas, hesitatingly sat down on the bed. She took Shin’s big pillow and hugged it tightly.
“What’s wrong? Are you feeling sick?”
“No, I’m okay now.”
I’m okay now. Shin felt something off with those words. He imagined that what had happened on their way back from the orphanage still occupied her thoughts.
“I’m going to bed soon, what will you do?”
“I will too. We have to work hard…tomorrow too, right?”
With a slightly forced smile, Marino slipped under the covers. When Shin lay next to her, she timidly gripped his arm.
It was not strange for her to cuddle like this. But this time she seemed tense, unnatural.
“Can we…talk a little?”
Marino spoke while pressing her face against Shin’s arm.
She was going to talk about something very important. Shin quietly consented.
“…Shin, do you think you want to go back to reality soon?”
“Well, yeah…I think that I want to go back. But, though I know it feels wrong to say, I also think that my current lifestyle is pretty fun. We don’t know who we are in the real world, and…I mean, I’m not asking for you to tell me. But in the real world I couldn’t sleep with you. So while deep down, I feel that I want to go back, a part of me also enjoys this life.”
Shin could feel like this because his level and stats weren’t reset, and because of the items and equipment he had retained.
Marino trembled a little to Shin’s answer.
“Life for me feels really fulfilling now. I wake up in the morning, work, prepare dinner. You return and I welcome you back home…I sleep feeling your warmth close to me. Such a life makes my heart beat faster…gives me happiness…everyday.”
Marino’s grip tightened. It felt like she would not let go anymore.
“Listen to me, Shin.”
Marino stopped Shin mid-sentence and raised her head.
She had probably been crying as there were traces of tears. It silenced Shin.
“My real name…is Masaki Rino. I’ll turn 19 this year.”
During their whole time together, Marino had rarely talked about her real life circumstances.
She didn’t have to say that she didn’t want to talk about it for Shin to understand. He knew her well enough to.
That is why he felt he had to ask, after Marino suddenly revealed such information.
“…is it okay for me to know?”
“Yes. I want Shin to remember.”
“I see. Then I’d also like you to remember my real name. I’m Kiritani Shinya, a 21-year-old university student…”
Shin also revealed his real name. He hadn’t said it in a long time.
“I said it at the orphanage too, but when the death game ends, why don’t we all meet up and go out drinking or something? We could book Holly and Shadow’s place or something.”
“…yes, I’d love to.”
Marino was now smiling next to him, but there was something strange with her today.
Shin had made her laugh many times before, that’s why he knew.
Her words suggested that they would never meet in real life, that their relationship was limited to this world.
“Marino…no, Rino. Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“The real me…is sick. The doctor said that it’s a disease with no known cause or treatment.”
Marino explained that the reason why her time within the game was limited and she never spoke about real life was because of this. She did not know when her condition would worsen, so she thought it would not be good to get too close to other people.
“Why did you get closer to me, then? I know this is just a virtual world, but you did tell me a lot about yourself.”
“Yeah…I wonder why?”
Her voice felt calm now. Even if her words were in question form, she seemed to know the answer already.
“I can say this now, but…at first, I had no intention of getting too involved. There was no way I could get a boyfriend in real life, so I wanted to try what it felt like being in a relationship, even if virtually. You’re the first one that approached me in this world, so I chose you. That was the only reason, really.”
There was no real reason. So said Marino, but her sighs made it also feel like she was just trying to convince herself.
“Yes, that was the only reason, and yet…”
The words expressed her feelings of surrender towards what had happened against her will.
“Talking, adventuring, winning and losing with you…before I realized it, I was always thinking about you. I didn’t realize that I was falling in love, until a nurse pointed it out. I have never even met you in the real world, and yet…”
Marino said that she really didn’t understand.
“The me in the real world could die at any moment. I sometimes wondered what would happen to the me here if the real me died. Then once, I wondered…how good would it be if time just continued on like this?”
“It won’t. If I die in the real world, the me here will just disappear. I know it. Despite that…I can’t help hoping. My attachment to the real world, my desire to go back, is very weak.”
Shin did not say anything. He had plenty of reasons to want to return to the real world.
But he could understand Marino’s feelings. Shin also found the current world pleasant to be in after all.
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to tell you that I’m sick, but I ended up blabbing about stuff I didn’t even…I guess I’ll go sleep in the next room tonight.”
Maybe she felt bad towards the now silent Shin. Marino got out of the bed and headed towards the door.
But he would not let her go.
Shin firmly grabbed her thin arms and pulled her towards him. He pulled her rather abruptly, so Marino’s body fell towards him, putting her in his arms.
Marino was confused by the sudden development. She didn’t understand what Shin’s actions meant.
“I’ll come to you.”
“Even in the real world, I’ll stay with you, Rino.”
In the original world, Shin was just a university student. He couldn’t cure Marino’s disease.
There was but one thing he could do: to be by her side.
Not out of compassion. Not out of pity.
He wanted to be with her. Even if there was little time left for her, he wanted to spend it together.
Nothing more, nothing less.
“I’ll be with you, until the end.”
Shin didn’t know how Marino would react to his words.
Logical or not, those were Shin’s real feelings.
“But I’m…a real burden of a woman, you know? I’m spoiled, Shin…Shinya, if you talk with other girls I get jealous right away. I also don’t have much time left to live. Don’t you understand that I’m going to die, leaving nothing but my selfish feelings? You’ll just waste time with me, Shinya…”
Responding to Shin’s declaration, Marino nervously listed off all of her faults.
Despite her words, however, her arms were now around Shin, her forehead pressing against his chest. Movements that expressed her intention of never letting him go. Shin responded by gently patting her head.
“Hey, should I believe your words or your actions?”
“…You know it already. Dummy.”
Marino raised her head a little and replied while glaring at Shin. The room was barely lit, but Shin did not fail to notice Marino’s flushed cheeks.
“If you don’t say it, I can’t be sure though, hmm…”
“You…tease. And I was so decided and all.”
Still glaring, Marino went silent for a few seconds, then whispered.
“I don’t want to be separated from you. Not in this virtual world, nor in the real one.”
“Yes, I promise. Even if this world ends, I will come meet you, Rino.”
The two then slept together in the same bed.
Wrapped in a peaceful sense of happiness.