I just wanted to give everybody a fair warning before you go into this chapter. Sinon might have become a little more tsundere than I initially planned for her to be, a likely consequence of me marathoning "Horimiya" recently, so hopefully you guys don't mind her accidental personality tweak too much. It seems the story always wants to shape itself when I'm writing it T.T
10 Month of the Human World Calendar, 380
A number of hills dotted the barren wasteland.
They were small, nearly indistinguishable from common piles of dirt, only noticeable due to the swords that were lodged in each and every one of them. They were monuments of warriors whose bodies had long since disappeared. The graves were empty, but the gravestones would live on until they too would inevitably disappear; each and every byte of it's data erased from memory.
A single pair of footprints led away from the graveyard.
A lone swordsman headed south. Both sword and short-sword were strapped to either side of his hip to accommodate the woman he carried on his back.
"I told you, neither of us could have prepared for that surprise attack. Actually I should be the one thanking you for saving me from that attack. If I had payed more attention…", eying the bandage wrapped around Sinon's right leg, Kirito held himself back from clenching his fist.
Kirito didn't get very far before the combined weight of Sinon's palms and chin weighed down on the top of his head. Was she simply tired or was she chiding him?
"Don't beat yourself up over this. I told you it was my fault already, so there's nothing left for you to do but to forgive me."
"… I forgive you?"
The weight on his on his head lessened slightly.
His companion apparently deemed his response acceptable, yet remained in her relaxed posture regardless. Both her hands had cupped his head to form a pillow, allowing Sinon to regard the passing mountains to her right by resting on her left cheek. Other than the occasional howling breeze and shifting sands, only the rhythm of Kirito's steady pace filled the space around them. It was an almost hypnotic tempo, and Sinon barely caught herself purring (humming) along.
"What do you think the people 'here' are like?"
"… you … never mind."
Kirito had voiced the concern neither of them had yet been willing to discuss. What had changed his mind? Was it the weight strapped to his hips? The scavenged supplies sitting in his pouches?
Sinon didn't shift her body as she noted the change in atmosphere. The mountains … they looked so different from the other side.
"They're not that different from ourselves I think."
Sinon felt the brief tension in his back, but decided to wait for Kirito to speak his mind first.
"I never really thought much about it when I was killing mobs because they were just data. And even … in Aincrad. I killed people. The worst thing was that while I did, I felt relieved. I was relieved that they were stopped, that they could no longer continue their atrocities. I killed people … and I did so without regret. They probably had friends and families, but-"
"Then don't you already have your answer?"
"We don't have the luxury at this point to think about what is right or wrong. We've already chosen a side, so it would be an insult to Garitta and Barbossa if we were going to doubt ourself now."
"Aren't you worried at all?"
"Of course I am."
Sinon's warm breath brushed against the tips of Kirito's strands as she exhaled a sigh.
"It wasn't too hard of a guess before, but now that we are actually here it's even more obvious. Anyone would want to escape this land if they had the chance, and the Human Realm is practically begging to be invaded. If I had grown up in the Dark Territory I doubt I would even hold any sympathy at all for the spoiled Humans on the other side, much like anyone else we've met so far. We've killed Goblins, Orcs, and Ogres over and over again, but in the end, didn't they just want to live somewhere other than this wasteland? Even now I wish we could just turn back, head to the church and log out, but along with everyone else I killed, it was also me who killed that knight."
"He asked us to keep his people safe. Garitta is a part of that."
Kirito continued to remain silent. Sighing once more, Sinon removed her hands from underneath her cheek and wrapped her arms loosely around Kirito's neck, resting her chin directly on his unruly hair.
"Remember when you first introduced me to Asu-… when I met Agil-san for the first time?"
"… I do."
"You knew about my secret back then already. I killed a robber with his own gun. He might have had a family, and friends. Maybe he needed that money for his mother, or maybe he could have straightened up his life and helped other people in the future. I know it's unlikely, but it's still possible. Despite that, I killed him. Back then it was the only thing that I could do, the only thing that I could think of. In that café … do you remember what you told me?"
"… that you had the right to think of those you've saved … that you had the right to forgive yourself."
"You also said that what I did wasn't particularly the right thing to do."
Despite the dark content of her message, Sinon wore a melancholic smile.
"I never really thanked you directly … but back then, you saved me with those words."
Kirito's back, previously cold to the touch, now seemed to regain it's warmth.
"… you are making me feel stupid for getting depressed over something like this…", and sure enough, even the hint of a smile carried over in tone.
"Serves you right you hypocrite."
Snuggling up against his nape, Sinon indulged in the newfound clarity of her mind.
"I'm not saying that we are necessarily doing 'the' right thing, but as long as we do it of the sake of other people, isn't it fine if it's just 'a' right thing? To an extent I still think that what we are doing is wrong, but I feel that we would be losing something important if that weren't the case."
"You've stopped making sense now…"
The march continued uninterrupted. This time however, the weight on his hips seemed much lighter than before.
"By the way Sinon?"
They had walked for an amount of time barely discernible due to the sky's permanent dirty dye. Sinon had continued to shift her position until finally settling on one she deemed the most comfortable, an act unreserved enough to make Kirito consider letting her walk by herself after all. To dispel his thoughts and to distract himself from the uneventful hike, he had called out to Sinon with no avail.
"Are you asleep?"
"…no I was just … yeah. Anyway, what's up?", the startled drowsiness in her voice was blatantly obvious.
Assaulted by the shifting strands of hair tickling his exposed skin, he instantly regretted disrupting her rest, but continued on regardless.
"I was just wondering what that Asuna girl was like. You said that she is my girlfriend in the real world, but I know next to nothing about her."
"Hmmm… well, she is a pretty balanced beauty. She is thin with just a little bit of muscle, but doesn't look unhealthy or too athletic. She had long brown hair and … right, she came from a rather wealthy family. She was gentle, kind, and constantly concerned about her friends. She excelled in school and somehow managed to balance her academics with her social life perfectly. From what she told me she didn't really play a lot of games until SAO, so she was pretty helpless until she met you. I guess that's when she fell for you."
"She sounds like someone from a romantic drama… Why date someone like me?"
"Her and I probably fell for you for a similar reason…"
Sinon immediately regretted carelessly voicing her thoughts without paying attention to what she was actually saying, and rashly continued the conversation.
"Anyway, the two of you were pretty inseparable from the moment I met you guys, so you must have done something to impress her at least."
"… right", Kirito muttered, deciding to ignore her earlier statement for sake of his personal well-being.
"I just wondered why I would have fallen for someone like her."
"Huh, what do you mean?"
"Well, so far all I can picture her as is your typical 'unattainable and perfect girlfriend', but I don't think I would have ever been comfortable being around someone like that? Maybe it's because of the time I've spent here, but I think I would have preferred someone I can relate with more…"
"It's always been a mystery to all of us how you two ended up in the first place. She's way above your reach."
"… is it just me, or was that resentment I just heard?"
"That's just you."
Maybe it was just Kirito's imagination, but Sinon's tongue had gotten a great deal sharper than before.
"Then once we leave this place, get out of here I mean, what then?"
"Eh? We … go back to our normal lives … I think?"
"Do you really think we can do that? What if I don't want to return to my old life…"
"What do you mean?"
"I… You promised that once we return to the real world … if I met this Asuna and still feel the same way I do about you … that …"
Sinon's entire body tensed up instantly, her brain unable to process a rational response despite the excessive quantity of blood that had rushed to her head in a mere second. It wasn't only Sinon whose vividly reddened ears poked out from underneath her contrasting blue hair, but Kirito himself failed to hide the embarrassment evident on his expression.
"I- I … mean we …"
"What I am saying is, if I meet with Asuna again and explain the situation … and if I still want to be with you at that point … what would you do…?"
Sinon grasped Kirito's wide shoulders and buried her face deeply into his clothes. Even though it was impossible for him to see her right now, Sinon hid her face regardless.
"… you idiot, how can you ask something like that so shamelessly?!", the shivering feline mumbled into the "idiot's" clothes.
"… the answer is obvious …"
The sun had set in the Land of Darkness, and the two companions enjoyed the warmth brought to them by a small campfire, as well as the last of their salted meat. They had found a small crevice that led into a large piece of land previously inaccessible through normal means. The wide uneven space was definitely large enough to fit an entire village, maybe even a city, but Kirito and Sinon didn't have the time to actually explore the newfound area by themselves. The sun had started the set and their stomachs had grown impatient. The crevice itself was adequately hidden from plain sight, they had found it purely by accident, and it was too narrow for heavy infantry to pass through in the first place. Regardless of the fact, Kirito and Sinon still looked for a place with sufficient cover near the entrance to set up camp, making it a point to prepare for the worst. It wouldn't have been the first time that their fire had attracted unwelcome attention. However, the nights in the Land of Darkness were harsh and cold, so the warmth their fire provided was essential.
However, despite their best efforts, they failed to
notice the hushed voices
in the dark.
chasing the flicker of flame.
Polishing their weapons after dinner, Kirito and Sinon passed the time by talking about random topics, ranging from the first meal they wanted to eat once they returned home to a heated discussion regarding who would take the first watch. Kirito insisted that Sinon should rest due to her injury, while Sinon stated that it was precisely because of her injury that Kirito, the one who would have to protect her until she got better, would benefit more from resting than her.
they have food and clothes
it smells good!"
"It's so cold,
must feel nice."
Sinon eventually gave in. While she was usually able to win most arguments with her thickheaded peer, she had never succeeded doing so when it concerned her own health. Setting aside her weapon, she raised her arms above her head, and arched her back with a drawn-out satisfied stretch, fatigue nestling itself in her heavy eyelids as she did so.
"Let's go back
Ishta would get angry
if we don't leave soon."
her hair is blue like Lipia's
she must be nice!"
"Maybe they are
would be happy
if we did."
we should say
A single step.
The sole of a shoe grinding against the dust.
Once that single foot stepped into the light of the campfire …
"I got him!"
She retrieved her bow and faced her assailant in a single swift motion. Due to her eyes having gotten accustomed to the light of the campfire, Sinon's vision outside the campfire's reach was limited, but she was still able to estimate the shape of the assailant's body by glancing at the limb's proportions nonetheless. Shooting into uncertainty was risky, so she centered her aim to where she calculated the center of her opponent's body to be. Judging by the height it must have been a goblin, and a small one at that.
Kirito likewise unsheathed his blades with foreboding efficiency, taking Sinon's side to shield her of any incoming attacks. She was currently balanced on her left leg to keep the pressure on her injury to a minimum, and while that might have had adverse effects on her archery, she should have been able to take out a single ambusher at least.
Sinon's bowstring groaned and Kirito's Dark Repulser shone in the light of a long-ranged sword skill.
The arrow was set loose and pierced soft unprotect flesh.
The sheer force blew the body backwards, hiding the corpse in the shadows of the dark.
The orphaned child died before the body hit the ground.
… damn. My heart is pounding right now. Just writing that scene was … brutal. I don't think there is anything else I can say.