At this point, the wide sky would make people think of the vast galaxy behind it.
This «wideness of the sky» was a feeling that a virtual reality would never be able to duplicate. The autumn season that passed seemed to be all forgotten, and the blue sky looks like herds of sheeps as they gathered high in the air together with the thick clouds. The fine cables had two sparrows standing there, and the military airplane that was flying in the air reflected the sunlight back.
Shino stared at this vast and endless scenery, and she looked like she wouldn't be irritated by it.
The wind now would be considered warm for mid-December, and the after school noise from students wouldn't reach the back of the school. Normally, the sky in the capital of Tokyo would be covered with a thin grey, but today, it looked like a town in the north. Shino sat beside the flowerbed with black soil and placed her bag on her knees. And then, she let her soul move through the unlimited space for about 10 minutes.
However, a moment later, several footsteps accompanied by laughter were heard as they got near to Shino and pulled her back from space to earth.
She turned her neck that was trying its best to look up, pulled her white shawl and waited for those intruders to walk near.
Endou and her two companions came in from the northwest area of the school building and the large incinerator. They smirked upon seeing Shino and showed cruel smiles.
Shino's left hand took up the bag and said,
"Since you took the initiative to invite me, don't be late."
After hearing Shino say that, a lackey of Endou blinked her thick eyelids, kept her smile and shouted,
"Asada, you're really mischievous nowadays, aren't you!"
The other lackey said with a similar tone,
"Yeah~ isn't this too much to treat your friends like that?"
The 3 people, who were about 2m away from Shino, each thought that they could give threatening looks which they thought would be most effective. Shino stared hard at the predatory insect-like narrow eyes belonging to Endou who was standing in the center.
Both of them remained silent for a few seconds. Endou then smiled and lifted her chin.
"Oh well, we're friends anyway. Oh yeah, if we have troubles, you should help us. We're a little tight here..."
On hearing her say that, the other two started laughing.
"So just lend us 20,000 yen first."
Endou said that in a tone like she was borrowing a rubber eraser.
Shino took off her NXT optical glasses that didn't even have a prescription on the lens, and put it in her skirt pocket. She gave the sternest of looks at Endou's trio, and said each word out clearly.
"I said it before. I don't have money to lend you."
At this moment, Endou's eyes narrowed like cables. She gave a stubborn look from her face and said with a deeper voice,
"...Don't think you can continue to be so arrogant. Speaking of which, I really brought that thing with me from nii-san, so don't go crying, Asada."
Shino thought that these people wouldn't be so daring as to take out a gun near school, but Endou actually smirked and reached her hand into her school bag.
A black automatic pistol was whipped out from that bag which had lots of dolls hanging on it. This scene really gave a little sense of black comedy. Endou gingerly pulled out the large model gun and then pointed it at Shino with her right hand.
"I heard that this can blow a hole in a thick cardboard. Nii-san told me not to use it to shoot someone, but you won't listen to that right, Asada? You're used to it."
Shino's eyes were naturally taken in by the black handgun.
Her heartbeat hastened. The ringing in her ears caused all other sounds to leave. She started breathing hard, and an icy feeling started to move up her fingertips.
However, Shino gritted her teeth and motivated all her mental strength to look away from the the gun's profile. Her eyes moved from Endou's right hand that was holding the gun, then started moving to the arm, and then to the shoulder, the dyed hair and finally Endou's face.
Endou's eyes were pulsating with her blood vessels showing due to over excitement, and the irises were turning to an ugly black. The owner of the handgun was just a pitiful worm who's drunk in violence.
The real terror wasn't the gun itself, but the person holding it.
Perhaps because Shino didn't give the expected response, Endou anxiously smirked and said these words.
"Cry, Asada. Kneel down and beg for forgiveness. Or else I'll really shoot."
Then, she aimed the model gun at Shino's left shoulder before smiling. Her shoulders and arms jerked slightly, and Shino immediately knew that she was going to squeeze the trigger. However, the bullet didn't fire.
"Damn it, what's going on!?"
Though she squeezed the trigger a few more times, she could only hear the sound of plastic rubbing against each other.
Shino took a deep breath, gained strength all over her body, threw the bag onto the floor and reached her arms out.
She used her left thumb to press down hard on Endou's right wrist, and got the gun while her grip weakened. She then slid the index finger into the trigger guard, and the grip easily landed in her hands. The gun felt like plastic, but it was heavy.
"A 1911 Government? Your brother really likes such traditional designs. Just doesn't fit my tastes, though."
Shino said that and showed the left side of the gun at Endou.
"The Government has a thumb safety and a grip safety, and you can't shoot it without disengaging these two safeties."
Clak, clak. With these two sounds, both safeties were removed.
"Also, it's a single-action gun, so you have to cock the hammer right from the beginning."
Shino flicked the hammer up with her thumb, and the trigger lifted up slightly with a little hard sound.
She turned her eyes from the stunned Endou and company and looked around, found a row of blue plastic bins about 6m away beside the incinerator, and there happened to be a can on it.
Shino then placed her left hand on the grip and got into a basic sidearms shooting stance. She lined her right eye with the sights, aimed it at the empty can, considered for a while, lifted the gun up a little, held her breath, and squeezed the trigger.
'PA'. With a soft sound, a little recoil was sent to Shino's hand. This Government did really show recoil, and the orange bullet flew out.
As Shino wasn't familiar with the trajectory of this gun, she thought that the first bullet would miss. However, the bullet luckily grazed the top of the empty can, which shocked Shino herself. The aluminum can let out a 'Klang', spun like a spinning top and finally fell and dropped from the bin.
Fuu, Shino sighed and placed the gun down. Endou's arrogance was already long gone as she could only stand there in shock. As Shino looked at her eyes, she timidly closed her mouth and took half a step back.
After hearing her terrified sound, Shino relaxed her stern glance.
"...It's true that it's better not to use this to shoot others."
She said that as she lowered the hammer before engaging the 2 safeties. As Shino handed over the gun, Endou's body jerked, but still reached out for the model gun timidly.
Shino grabbed her school bag and again tugged at her shawl. She said goodbye to the 3 people behind her and started walking forward. However, Endou and company didn't respond at all. The trio could only stand there blankly until Shino went around the corner and disappeared.
The moment she couldn't see Endou, Shino's legs immediately lost their strength as she nearly collapsed onto the floor. She finally managed to stand up by supporting herself on the school building.
A thunderclap rang inside Shino's ears, and the blood was flowing quickly through her temples. The reverse flow of acid made her throat hurt slightly. If anyone was to tell her to do what she did just now, she would say that she wouldn't be able to do that again.
Even so—this can be considered a first step.
Shino forced herself to move her weak legs and made herself move away. The icy weight of the model gun was still stuck on her hands and couldn't be shaken off, but after putting her hand under the dry cold wind, her touch finally began to recover. She took out her glasses with her numb fingers and put it on.
She crossed the corridor that linked the west staircase of the school compound and the sports hall, reached the side of the field after walking for a while, passed the sports clubs members who were running and cheering themselves on, through the little woods on the south of the track, and the main gate appeared in front of her.
Students were going back in groups, and just when Shino was about to pass through these people and head through the gate, she felt that something was amiss.
Some female students were standing on the school side of the wall, looking through the school gate, and exchanging words which she did not know.
Shino noticed that there were 2 girls from her class who she had a somewhat good relationship with, and she walked to them.
A girl with long hair and black framed spectacles noticed Shino, smiled and raised her hand.
"Asada-san, are you going home now?"
"Yeah—what are you people doing?"
As she asked that, another girl with chestnut-colored hair that were tied into two braids shrugged, smiled and answered,
"Listen to me. There's a guy at the school gate with a uniform that's not from a nearby school. He parked his bike there and even had two helmets. It seems like he is waiting for a student from our school. It's a little like gossip, but we want to know who was so daring to invite her boyfriend over to the gate to fetch her, right?"
The moment she heard this answer, Shino immediately realized that her face was all white. She checked her watch and was screaming in her heart 'no way'.
He did agree to meet her at the school gate at this time, and that person even said that 'don't waste your bus fare, I'll come over to fetch you'. However, he shouldn't be so aloof so as to park his vehicle in front of the school gate—
...No, that guy would definitely do that.
Shino timidly leaned her body on the fence and peered outside from the school gate. Immediately after that, she felt completely weak. That male student who was wearing a uniform she had never seen before was leaning on a bright little motorbike that had it's tripod down. He was holding two helmets and looking up at the sky in a dazed manner—undoubtedly, he was the boy she had got to know two days ago.
Thinking that she would have to say hello to him and take the back seat of the bike with dozens of people looking at her, Shino couldn't help but blush. She muttered inside her heart 'I really want to log out from here', and squeezed out her last ounce of courage before turning to face her classmates beside her.
"Eh...well...he...he's my friend..."
She said in a soft voice that almost couldn't be heard. The eyes of the bespectacled girl widened.
"Wha, what kind of friend?"
The other girl shouted out like this too. Noticing the stares that gathered over because of these sounds, Shino could only hug her bag and shrink back...
Then, she started apologizing and ran away for some reason.
Shino had already went through the green bronze school gate and arrived at the back lane as she heard a voice from behind yell out to her.
"Explain everything clearly to me tomorrow!~"
Even though she arrived beside him, this daring visitor still looked dazed as he looked up at the blue sky.
After talking to him, he blinked and turned his eyes over before showing a lazy smile on his face.
"Ah, good afternoon, Sinon."
Meeting under the bright sun like this again, it felt like Kirito in the real world had a transparency that seemed to have left the ground. His slightly long black hair made his skin look more bright, and the slender body that looked shockingly like a girl's looked similar to his avatar in the virtual world.
This weak feeling, or rather, this feeble presence made Shino remember that he once spent two years in captivity, and caused her to keep her scathing words.
"...Good afternoon...sorry to keep you waiting."
"It's nothing. I just arrived too—speaking of which...why does it feel like..."
At this moment, Kirito finally noticed the students that were watching from near the school gate. He looked around and said,
"...Everyone's looking at us..."
Shino's voice had some reluctance.
"Wouldn't other people notice if you park your bike at someone else's school gate!?"
"I...is that so? Then..."
The boy suddenly gave off a teasing smile. Shino had seen that smile a few times in the virtual world.
"If we continue to stay here, would the disciplinary teacher run over here to make a ruckus? That seems interesting."
"Do...don't kid around!"
In fact, the teachers may really come over. Shino instinctively turned back to look at the school gate and then said softly,
"Hu, hurry up and go!"
Kirito handed the light green helmet that was hanging onto the handle to Shino as he continued to smile.
This guy's inner world messes me up like a mischievous imp, just like how it was like in GGO. I can't be fooled by his appearance—Shino told herself deep inside her heart as she received the safety helmet. She tilted her bag sideways and put on the half helmet. She then stopped as she didn't know how she was to buckle it. At this moment...
"Excuse me a for bit."
Kirito reached his arm over and quickly hooked her helmet up. Shino's face again felt hot as she hurriedly pulled the mask down. She was already starting to wonder how she was going to explain things to everyone the next day.
"...Sinon, well...is your skirt alright?"
"I have sports shorts underneath."
"No, that's not the problem."
"You can't see it from the front seat anyway."
After taking a potshot of revenge, Shino quickly sat down on the back seat of the bike. As she would often take the back seat of her grandpa's Coyote Honda 90, she was used to it.
"Then...you better hold on tight."
Kirito twisted the key, and the rare internal combustion engine let out a loud roar. Shino again shrank her neck back. However, the vibration that reached her waist and the smell of the exhaust gases were truly memorable as she couldn't help but smile. She then wrapped her arms around Kirito's slender body.
It would be a little troublesome for her to head from the Bunkyo area of Yushima to their destination, the central area of Ginza, if she had to take the subway. It would be easier to move around above ground.
They drove from Ochinomizu, to Chiyoda highway before reaching Koukyo. The bike moved slowly around the moat for safety reasons, but luckily, the weather today was fine, and the wind that blew past her face felt rather comfortable. After moving through the major gate, they went through the Uchibori highway then Harumi Avenue, turned left, went through the JR bridge, and then arrived at Ginza Yonchome.
Even though the speed they drove at could be considered a huge difference from riding on the three-wheeler buggy and getting away from Death Gun, they still spent less than 15 minutes to reach the destination. Kirito immediately parked the bike.
Shino was holding the helmet in her hand as she was led by Kirito to a high-class cafe she had never been to before. The moment she pushed the door aside, the waiters in white shirts and black ties bowed deeply to them. Shino couldn't help but panic and looked somewhat embarrassed.
On hearing the waiter ask if it was for two, she felt whether it was like... and panicked even more. However, a voice without restraint was suddenly heard, breaking the entire high-class atmosphere.
"Oi~ Kirito-kun, over here!"
"Ah...we have an appointment with that guy."
As Kirito said that, the waiter indicated that he understood without changing his expression, bowing as he walked forward. The shop was full of rich housewives who were going shopping, and their high school uniforms looked very obvious. Shino could only curl back and gingerly walk on the floor that was polished to an abnormal shine.
A tall and skinny man, who was wearing a high class deep blue western suit, a patterned tie and black-framed spectacles, got up from the table where both of them were headed. Shino heard that he was a civil servant, but besides giving off that white-collar presence, he did look like a scholar too.
As they sat at the table where the man indicated, warm towels and the leather menu appeared in front of them.
"Here, help yourselves."
Shino flipped the menu open as if she was prompted by the guy's voice, and immediately couldn't say anything. Let alone sandwiches and pasta, even the desserts had 4 digit numbers behind them.
Just as Shino was so shocked that she didn't know what to do, beside her, Kirito snorted coldly and said,
"It's better not to be nice with him. We're spending money from our hardworking citizens."
The girl glanced over and found that the bespectacled guy was smiling and nodding too.
"The, then...I'll order this rare cheese cake with cranberry sauce to go along...and also Earl Grey."
Shino ordered these as her heart was going green 'Wow, 2200 yen!'. Unexpectedly, Kirito, who was beside her, said—
"I want baked apple pudding, mont blanc and espresso."
Those unbelievable things were said. Shino couldn't even imagine how much money that would cost.
The attendant bowed and walked away.The bespectacled man reached into his pocket and took out a black business card holder. He took a business card from the holder and then handed the business card to Shino.
"Hello. I'm Kikuoka from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Technology."
He said his name with a steady voice. Shino hurriedly took the business card and bowed back.
"He, hello...I'm Asada...Shino."
The moment she said that, this man called Kikuoka gave an ominous look and said,
"It's because of our carelessness that we caused Asada-san to be in such a dangerous situation. I'm really sorry."
"No...no worries. You're too kind."
As Shino hurriedly lowered her head again, Kirito interrupted from beside her.
"It's better for him to apologize. If Kikuoka-san was able to investigate more thoroughly, we wouldn't have to meet such danger."
"...I'm really sweating now that you mention that."
Kikuoka lowered his head like a kid being lectured, but then lifted his eyes and continued.
"But Kirito-kun, you never expected «Death Gun» to be a group of people, right?"
After saying that, Kirito leaned on the chair which looked like an antique, which then let out a creaking sound.
"Anyway...tell us what you know up till now first, Kikuoka-san."
"Of course...but it's only been 2 days since we knew of their crimes. It would take some time to explain everything..."
Kikuoka took the coffee cup that was right in front of him, took a sip, and then continued.
"While I said that there was a group, there were actually only 3 members. At least from what the leader Shinkawa Shoichi said, they had three people."
"That guy called Shoichi was the mantle guy who attacked Sinon and me in BoB, right?"
Kikuoka gently nodded his head at Kirito's question.
"I guess that should be right. From the confiscated AmuSphere records we got from his house, we were able to check that he did log into Gun Gale Online at that time."
"House...that guy called Shinkawa Shoichi, what kind of person was he? Was he the mastermind?"
"...To explain all that, we have to start from the SAO incident in year 2022. But before that..."
The waiter just so happened to arrive at this moment as he pushed the trolley with lots of plates of food on it. After waiting for the waiter to arrange these plates onto the table and leave, Kikuoka then gestured Shino not to hold back.
She didn't really have much appetite, but she should still be able to eat it. After saying 'itadakimasu' with Kirito, Shino took the gold fork.
She sliced a bit off the milky white block that was dyed in bright red sauce and placed it inside her mouth. Besides the heavy taste of thick cheese spreading in her mouth, the cake itself melted inside. Surprised, Shino immediately had the thought to ask for the recipe, but thinking about it, she knew that even if she asked the shop, they wouldn't reveal it.
Unknowingly, she ate about half of the cake before putting her fork down and picked up the red teacup. She took a sip of the warm liquid that had a little orange tang in it, and the tense feeling deep inside her was eased.
"It's really nice..."
Shino muttered. On hearing that, Kikuoka happily said,
"Normally, food should accompany happy topics. But it's alright. We can come over another time."
"I, I see..."
Kirito continued to eat the golden brown mont blanc in front of him, and at this point, laughed and dampened Kikuoka's mood.
"I'll advise you not to. This guy's «topics of interest» are either dirty or disgusting."
"That, that's too much. I'm rather confident in my travel experiences in southeast Asia...oh well, let's talk about this first."
Kikuoka took out a tablet PC from his office bag, and then touched the screen with his long fingers.
Shino's body tensed up slightly as she got ready to hear what this person, who looked like a teacher, had to say.
Of course, she wanted to know all about this «Death Gun» incident. However, at the bottom of her heart, there was a slight voice muttering that she didn't want anything more to do with this.
Perhaps a certain part deep within her still trusted Shinkawa Kyouji. Even when that terrifying syringe was placed at her neck, Shino still couldn't hate Kyouji completely, and neither could she give up on all her feelings for him. That person wasn't the real him, something that hacked into his mind caused him to do this—Shino still believed in this saying.
It's been about 40 hours since what happened on Sunday night.
That night—as Shino was prompted by Kirito to go to the bathroom to wash her face and change clothes, the police arrived at her house.
Shinkawa Kyouji, whose head suffered heavy trauma and was vaguely conscious, was immediately arrested and then sent to the hospital by ambulance.
For safety reasons, Shino and Kirito were sent to another hospital and made to take a mandatory checkup. The doctor on duty told Shino that she didn't have anything other than a few bruises. Soon after, the police started their investigations in the hospital, and she tried to clear her mind that was still blurred by a layer of confusion, and told the police exactly what happened inside the room.
She herself didn't notice it, but the doctor diagnosed that her emotional stress level was at its limit, so the police's investigation stopped at about 2am in the morning. Shino then spent the night in the hospital room, and after waking up at 6am, she refused to accept the doctor's proposal to return to her apartment and instead went to school.
Just like that, she groggily went through Monday, which was yesterday. Even though Kyouji continued to skip school, he should still be registered to the school, so Shino thought that the school would know about it. In the end, nobody was talking about it at school.
As Shino ignored Endou and the rest completely and went back to her apartment, the police were already waiting for her at the door. After changing, Shino and the police went to that hospital yesterday, and Shino took a second diagnosis from the doctor. This time, Shino asked a lot of questions about Kyouji, but the police told her that Kyouji was alright, but he kept quiet while being interrogated.
Because of «security reasons», the police wanted Shino to remain in the hospital. After eating her dinner and bathing, she made a short call to her grandparents and mother at her old home before sleeping in the hospital room the hospital had prepared for her. The moment she laid on the bed, Shino immediately sank into a deep sleep, and her memory was cut off from there. It felt like she had a long dream, but she couldn't remember anything about it at all.
On Tuesday, which was this morning, the policemen again escorted her to her apartment. As she was dropped off, the police told her that her questioning would be over. Even though it was a good thing, how would she know about developments from now on...Shino thought as she got ready for school. Just when she was cutting a tomato for breakfast, her phone suddenly rang. It was from Kirito. The first thing he asked was whether Shino was free after school, and Shino instinctively answered yes.
Just like that, Shino sat beside Kirito and waited for his «associate»—the man who was a civil servant to speak.
Kikuoka turned to look up from the tablet PC and then lowered his volume, probably scared that other people may hear it.
"The General Hospital Director's elder son Shinkawa Shoichi was frail and sick when he was young, and often moved between his house and the hospital ever since he graduated from middle school. He even enrolled in high school a year late...thus, his father had already given up on letting Shoichi take over the family business and pushed this burden onto Kyouji, who was 3 years younger than him. The director then started getting at home tutors for Kyouji and would sometimes even teach him himself, and would leave Shoichi alone. Shoichi wasn't filled with expectations, but his younger brother was forced into despair because of the huge expectations...that's what their father said when he was questioned."
Kikuoka paused at this moment and wet his lips with coffee.
Shino looked at the table surface and tried to imagine how the «parents' expectations» would be like. But no matter what, she just couldn't imagine that happening.
Even though both of them were so close, she had never noticed that Kyouji was under so much pressure. I just kept caring about my own stuff and never actually thought of interacting with others truthfully—as Shino realized this again, her chest felt a sharp pain.
"—But even in this situation, the brothers were rather close. Once Shoichi dropped out of high school, he turned to the internet as his heaven and started playing MMORPG, and this interest of his affected his brother. After that, the elder brother ended up being a captive of «Sword Art Online» and was in a coma in his father's hospital for 2 years. Once he survived and returned, Kyouji viewed him as some sort of idol...or even treated him like a hero."
At this moment, Shino noticed that Kirito beside her sounded somewhat tense as he breathed. However, Kikuoka's deep and calm voice then continued.
"Once Shoichi survived, he did not mention about what happened in SAO for a while, but after he ended his recuperation and returned home, he started bragging about how he killed many players in that world, how many people were scared of him, this real killer...to Kyouji who wasn't doing well at school and threatened by the upperclassmen, what Shoichi said didn't irritate him, but even made him feel relieved and satisfied."
Shino spoke softly. Kikuoka lifted his head and tilted his neck as if to prompt her to continue.
"These things...were said by Shinkawa-kun, no, Kyouji, right?"
"No, these were based on conclusions made from the older brother's testimony. Shoichi continued to talk during the police investigations, and even had guesses about his younger brother's heart. However, Kyouji was completely different from his brother and remained silent even till now."
Shino really couldn't imagine what kind of plane Kyouji's soul was floating on. She even felt that if she logged into GGO, she could see Spiegel waiting there at the bar where they meet up...even though it's not possible.
"Ah, please continue..."
Kikuoka nodded his head after hearing Shino's words and then again glanced at the tablet PC.
"We have no idea what was the key factor that made the two brothers head down the «road of no return», so we can only guess...but Shoichi should have started playing Gun Gale Online on Kyouji's suggestion. Shoichi didn't have any phobia about the VR world that many survivors of SAO would have, but he wasn't that enthusiastic when he started playing. He noted that instead of practising his skills by fighting against monsters, he might as well wait on the streets to observe other players and imagine ways of killing them. However, ever since he got the «Invisible mantle» from the RMT system, everything changed."
Shino couldn't help but say it out. The mantle which Death Gun had, the «Metamaterial Optical Camouflage» ability, should be a really rare item that boss-like monsters would drop at a really low percentage. The price should be much more expensive than the Hecate II.
"Well...I guess that must be really expensive..."
After she said that, Kikuoka nodded his head, and then shook his head with a look of disbelief.
"It's said to be an estimated value of more than 300,000 yen. However, Shoichi would get 500,000 yen in allowance from his father every month."
"That means...that large sniper rifle and the Estoc that was made from the rare material were bought through money...good thing that SAO didn't have a trading area or an RMT..."
As Kirito muttered this, he didn't look like he was joking at all. Also, Kikuoka nodded his head seriously and continued.
"That's true—ever since Shoichi could make himself disappear with that mantle, he had been practising ways to obscure himself from others. At this moment, he merely felt that it was interesting to tail someone from behind...however, on a certain day, he found that the person he was tailing went into the presidential estate to operate a game terminal. Shoichi had an idea and took out his binoculars to try and look at the screen from behind a pillar. And then, he immediately found that person's real name and address and other personal particulars in the real world..."
"In other words...he didn't buy that invisible mantle to obtain information, but the opposite...he had that mantle first before doing such a thing..."
Kirito sighed and then leaned his back on the chair.
"...In the past, any MMO would have some sort of «Hiding» skill, and it's rare to see those who don't have it. But...I feel that the invisibility in VRMMO can be used to do a lot of bad things. At least it should be banned from being used on the streets...you need to feedback this to Zasker, Sinon."
As the topic was suddenly shifted to her, Shino could only hurriedly answer.
"Y, you go submit it...but, that means that the mantle was the reason that gave birth to «Death Gun»."
The last part of those words were obviously said to Kikuoka. The bespectacled civil servant nodded his head and then turned his eyes to look at the tablet PC again. After seeing his kind smile, Shino suddenly had a strange feeling, but that didn't matter now, so Shino didn't say her next thought. Kikuoka continued talking as the sunset shone on the table surface.
"...I guess you can put it like that. Shoichi immediately memorized the personal information on instinct and wrote it down after he logged out. At this moment, he didn't really have some detailed plan to go about with this crime, but being able to get real information on players made him happy. After that, he would spend many hours in the presidential estate and wait for players to appear and write their real addresses down. Finally, he got a total of 16 real player names and addresses. Among them...Asada Shino-san, yours was included."
Shino nodded. Since it started before September, that would be before the 2nd BoB tournament. There were about 500 players who registered. Even if only half of them inputed their real names and addresses so as to get the model gun, it wouldn't be impossible to steal 16 players' real life information.
Kikuoka continued to explain.
"On a certain day in October, the younger Kyouji indicated to Shoichi that he had a problem with his character development. At that time, he seemed to have said angrily that 'it was because of the fake information «Zekushiido» spread', and Shoichi remembered that he had Zekushiido's real name and address and told it to Kyouji."
That's right. It was likely at that moment that the wall between Kyouji's imagination and the real world started to break apart.
"Shoichi indicated that it wasn't a plan one person came up with."
Kikuoka's calm voice slid into Shino's ears.
"It's said that as the two of them were discussing about how to handle Zekushiido's personal information, the plan to create «Death Gun» started to take shape. However, Shoichi mentioned that they were just joking around in the beginning. Shooting in the game and killing a player in real life...this sounded easy, but there were a few difficulties in reality. After days of discussion, they slowly started to overcome one obstacle after another. And the biggest obstacle they faced was the master key that could break electronic locks and the way to inject drugs..."
"A General Hospital should have a legal master key to open a patient's house when there's an emergency. I guess their father's hospital..."
After hearing it from Kirito, Kikuoka looked like he was blowing a silent whistle as he curled his lips.
"As expected of Kirito. Actually, the government was promoting keyless sensor door locks to add control to personal residences that may not be easy to get broken in...but that's classified information. Anyway, the two of them worked hard to steal the unlock mechanism, the high pressure syringe and Succinylcholine from their father's hospital. According to Shoichi, carrying out this plan itself was like a game. He said that this was completely the same as gathering intel on targets in SAO, preparing their equipment and launching raids. It's said that he even told the police who was taking his statement 'aren't you the same?'. It seemed that he meant that the game was about going about and talking to NPCs everywhere, collecting information, catching the bountied criminal and handing him over to collect money, and that what the police was doing wasn't any different."
"I think that you better not trust his words fully."
The moment Kirito suddenly said these words, Kikuoka frowned and asked,
"Yeah. Maybe that Shoichi may have some part of him which really felt that way, but as «Red-Eyed XaXa», even though he kept telling people around him that this was just a game, he knew that players will really die and had such an addiction to killing. To him, whether it's the virtual world or the real world, only things that were beneficial to him were real. The sense of reality was wearing thin on him...this may be the dark side of VRMMOs."
"I see. Then...how about your reality?"
Shino thought that Kirito would give a mischievous smile that he would normally give the moment he heard Kikuoka's question. However, he gave an abnormally serious look as he stared up at a certain spot in the air.
"...It's true that I left a part of myself in that world. Right now, my personal worth has decreased."
"Don't you want it back?"
"Please don't ask that, will you? That's my personal privacy."
This time, Kirito really gave a wry laugh, and then glanced at Shino.
"—As for that, what do you think, Sinon?"
Having being asked that all of a sudden, Shino couldn't help but feel somewhat troubled. She turned her thoughts into words, which she wasn't really familiar with, but she still finally tried to express her own thoughts.
"Well...Kirito, what you said just now was different from what you said before."
"You once said that 'there wasn't any virtual world'. And said that wherever the person was in was reality. Even though there're many VRMMO games, a gamer won't be divided after going to every world, right? Right now, I'm..."
Shino stretched her right hand out and touched Kirito's left wrist with her fingertip.
"This world is the real world. Even if this is a virtual world that's created from AmuSphere, it's still a real world to me...that's how I think it should be."
Kirito widened his eyes and stared at Shino for a while, which made Shino embarrassed. Then, he showed a smile that didn't have any mischief in it.
"...I see. You're right."
After saying that, Kirito turned to look at Kikuoka and said,
"You better take down what Sinon just said. That may be the one truth in this entire incident."
"—Don't kid around with me."
Shino's right fist tapped Kirito's shoulder gently before turning forward. At this moment, Kikuoka was staring at Shino for some reason, and may have felt awkward as he moved his eyes to his empty cake plate.
"Yes, you're right. And Shoichi's condition—was completely different from Asada-san. It ended up as the place he wasn't at being his reality altogether..."
"That guy continued to repeat the words 'it's not over yet'. Maybe that guy still hasn't completely returned from Aincrad...the aim of this 'created new world' that Akihiko Kayaba created—maybe it can be realized once that floating city completely collapses..."
"Don't say such scary things. His death still has lots of mysteries behind it...but it has nothing to do with this. Let's summarize this...Shoichi had no psychological barrier at the planning stage when he wanted to get into the target's house and inject the drug. At that time, the first victim was «Zekushiido»...Shigemura Tamotsu, and the one who killed him was Shoichi. At around 11pm on the 9th of November, he used the unlocking mechanism to open the target's room and entered it. About 11:30pm, he used the high pressure syringe on Shigemura who wore the AmuSphere as he was taking part in the «MMO Stream» interview, and got injected in the lower jaw. The drug he used was called Suxamethonium Chloride, also known as Succinylcholine, a muscle relaxant, and the victim Shigemura's breathing and heartbeat stopped and died. In other words, the one who shot Zekushiido in GGO was the younger brother Kyouji..."
On hearing Kyouji's name, Shino's shoulders shuddered. On the night two days ago, as Kyouji was all over her, he did mention Zekushiido, and that vengeful voice rang in her ears.
Because of the false information Zekushiido spreaded around that caused a mistake in Kyouji's stat allocation, he wasn't able to get the title of «the strongest»—even though «Yamikaze» was a super AGI-type who was really strong, which would have denied Kyouji's thoughts—but his hatred for Zekushiido was far stronger than the upperclassmen in the real world who tormented and bullied him.
No—I was wrong...at that time, to Kyouji, the real world was already...
"The second victim was Usujio Tarako, and Shoichi was the one who killed him in the real world. The method was almost completely the same. They chose 7 people as targets, and the common condition amongst these targets were that they all lived in Tokyo and have the old-model lock that wouldn't leave any records of being opened, or where there were spare keys near the door..."
"It would have taken quite some time to gather this much information."
After hearing Kirito say that in amazement, Kikuoka's face tensed up and nodded his head.
"It should have taken a lot of time and effort. But—after taking the lives of two, it seemed that nobody believed the legend of «Death Gun»."
"Yeah...everyone just felt that it was just a stupid report—I was one of them."
Shino muttered, and Kikuoka agreed with her view completely.
"Yeah. Kirito-kun and I considered all sorts of possibilities, but in the end, all we could conclude was that 'this was just a rumor'. However, our guess was already wrong..."
"If...if we could have noticed the truth a day earlier, we could have protected the lives of those two players who entered the finals..."
After hearing the anguished words from Kirito, Shino lowered her head and said to him,
"—But you saved me."
"No, I didn't help at all. That was all about your own strength."
Shino glanced at Kirito, and had the thought that she hadn't thanked him properly yet, but at this moment, Kikuoka said again,
"If it wasn't for you two's hard work, the 7 people on the namelist would have been killed by them before the situation got attention, so you two don't have to be so hard on yourselves."
"It's not that...it's just that I'm very unhappy that the ratings of VRMMOs will become worse again."
"These sprouts that were grown by «The Seed» aren't so weak that they'll wilt because of this. Right now, these countless sprouts are gathering to become a towering giant tree that can match the World Tree. Really, I don't know which guy did this!"
"...You know. You better continue talking."
Kirito coughed dryly and prompted Kikuoka to continue.
"Yes...however, I guess you should know what happened next. Both of them found that the threat of Death Gun didn't spread much and felt really angry, and so decided to come up with an even scarier plot. The brothers decided to come up with a killer plot of 3 people in the 3rd tournament to decide the strongest, commonly called the Bullet of Bullets finals. And the players that became their targets were...«Pale Rider», «Garret» and «Sinon»...which is you, Asada-san."
On hearing that, Shino nodded her head. Shino knew of the 4th casualty, Garret. He was a trendy guy who wielded an old fashioned Winchester rifle. Shino remembered the cowboy cap that could be considered his trademark and prayed for him silently deep inside. At that moment, she suddenly noticed something and said,
"Ah...speaking of which, this may just be a coincidence..."
"What is it?"
"The 7 targets may have a common point. Including me, everyone of them weren't of the AGI-type."
"Oh...? What does that mean...?"
"Shinkawa-kun...no, Kyouji only added his AGI stat, so he was stuck in the game. I guess...he should have some complicated feelings towards other types...like those who stack up on STR."
Kikuoka immediately couldn't say anything and could only look at the screen of the tablet PC.
"What you meant is that...his motive was always from the game...now the prosecutors will have some difficulties cross-checking him...but will it really become like this..."
Kikuoka seemed to be in disbelief as he continued to shake his head. At this moment, Kirito lamented,
"No...I feel that it's really possible. To MMO players, the character stats are absolute values. I know of some people who were in a joking mood as they nudged their friends hands while they were adjusting their stats, causing their friends to accidentally add an extra point, and then both of them would quarrel and start killing each other in the game over it for months...of course, these were all in games."
Shino could also understand why such a thing happened. However, Kikuoka merely widened his eyes and then shook his head.
"Looks like the prosecutors, lawyers, judges and attorneys need to have some experience of diving into VRMMOs. No—it's about time we set some laws related to them...hmm, but that's not what we have to worry about. Err...where were we?"
He glanced at the tablet PC and then nodded his head.
"That's right, we talked about how they chose 3 people as targets. However—unlike the last two killings, there was a huge problem with the execution of the plan in the BoB finals. As «Death Gun» in the game and the person outside the game couldn't contact each other, it would be difficult for both parties to shoot at the same time. Finally, this problem was barely solved with the live telecast from outside the game, but..."
"It's still difficult to execute it, right? And there's movement."
Kirito interrupted with a scowl on his face and continued,
"I missed this and thought that there were only 2 Death Guns..."
"I, I see. They seemed to have chosen a trio nearest to their house...like how Pale Rider lived in Omori, Ota, and Garret was living in Kawasaki, Musashi Kosugi, which weren't too far away. But the Bunkyo, Yushima area Asada-san lived in was rather far. Also, Kyouji, who always wanted to be Death Gun, was insistent on being the one killing in the real world. Shoichi had a bike, but Kyouji didn't have a license—so Shoichi invited a new partner into the plan. Yes...that person's name is called Kanemoto Atsushi, 19 years old now, an old acquaintance of Shoichi—or rather..."
Kikuoka glanced at Kirito.
"His guild partner during SAO. His character name was...«Johnny Black» Have you heard of..."
Kirito looked down and nodded his head.
"He was XaXa's partner in «Laughing Coffin», a player who used a poison dagger. At that time, both of them attacked a few players and killed them...damn it...if I had known...I should have..."
Before he could say it, Shino quickly reached her right hand out to grab Kirito's left hand. At the same time, she looked into Kirito's eyes and slowly shook her head.
Kirito immediately knew what she meant.
Kirito immediately looked like a baby who was crying and smiling, showing that he knew, but that expression immediately disappeared and became that usual poker face. At this moment, Shino moved her fingers away from his icy hand and turned forward. Kikuoka, who had been staring at them from the opposite side, continued with his explanation.
"...There was no mention of whether this Johnny Black—also known as Kanemoto—was involved in this plan in Shoichi's testimony. To Shoichi, Kanemoto seemed to be a person who's really hard to understand at times..."
"Why don't you just ask that Kanemoto?"
Kirito's reply was as simple as ever, but Kikuoka shook his head.
"We haven't caught him yet."
"Shinkawa Kyouji was arrested in Asada-san's apartment, and 40 minutes later, his brother Shoichi was arrested in his own house. Then, the police followed Shoichi's testimony and arrived at the apartment in Ota where Kanemoto was at, but there was no one inside the room. That apartment is still under surveillance, but there's still no news that we caught Kanemoto yet."
"...Can we confirm that he was the one who killed «Pale Rider» and «Garret» in the finals?"
"I guess it should be him. Shoichi did mention that he handed the same drug syringes to him and Kyouji. We didn't find those weapons, but we found hair that matched Kanemoto's DNA in the victims houses."
Shino couldn't help but feel a chill after thinking of the name that made her remember about this term that would remind her of the drug name. Kyouji's voice 'this is the real Death Gun' when he placed the syringe at her neck continued to echo in her mind.
Kirito seemed to have the same thoughts as Shino as he looked and said,
"Were the drug's use finished after killing the other two targets?"
But Kikuoka shook his head to deny this.
"No...a small syringe of Succinylcholine would be fatal enough, but for added security, Shoichi gave him three drug syringes, so he may still have one left. That was why the police insisted on protecting you people until morning from Monday on, especially Asada-san who may still be in danger."
"...You're saying that Johnny Black may continue to hurt Sinon...?"
"No, that's just for added precaution. The police felt that it wasn't necessary too. As their Death Gun plot collapsed, there wouldn't be any benefit to attack Asada-san. Besides, Kanemoto and Asada-san had no reasons to harm each other or personal grudge. Right now, the automatic identification camera network in the center of Tokyo had started its trial, so I guess he won't be able to run away for long."
"It's commonly called the S2 system. The computer will automatically analyze the faces of all the people the camera sees and then look for the fugitive...well, the details are classified."
"That's really amazing."
Kirito frowned as he took a sip of coffee.
"I have the same feeling too. Anyway, I think it's just a matter of time before Kanemoto's arrested. Let's get back to the incident and summarize this..."
Kikuoka's fingers moved on the tablet PC, and then shrugged, lifted his head and said,
"You should be more familiar with the rest than I do. Shinkawa Kyouji immediately came to Asada-san's house to attack after the tournament was over, but luckily, he was arrested without achieving his goal. Shinkawa Shoichi was then arrested next, and the remaining Kanamoto Atsushi is being wanted. The brothers are still being interrogated in the Fuji branch. Sorry for taking such a long time...but my report ends here. That's all the information I have now...do you have any questions?"
She felt that this may be a question that couldn't be answered, but Shino couldn't help but ask,
"Shinkawa-kun...Kyouji, what will happen to him from now on...?"
Kikuoka pushed his spectacles up with his fingers and bemused.
"Shoichi's currently 19, and Kyouji's 16, so they will be tried under the juvenile laws....but this case is a huge one that involves 4 lives, so the juvenile court would probably send the case back to the prosecutor. Also, they probably need a psychiatric evaluation. Even though we have to wait for it to end...but looking at their actions, I think there should be a high chance that they would be sent into a juvenile jail. That's because those two have lost their sense of reality..."
"No...I don't think they lost their sense of reality yet."
After hearing Shino mutter this, Kikuoka blinked and indicated with his eyes for her to continue on.
"I don't really understand the older brother...but Kyouji...to Kyouji, Gun Gale Online's the real world to him, which was why he decided—"
She raised her right hand, pointed her finger straight, and then placed it down again.
"To abandon everything in this world and head to that real world called GGO. Maybe people in this world...would feel that he was just running away, but..."
Shinkawa Kyouji was the one who wanted to take Shino's life away. The fear and despair he gave Shino was unmeasurable. But even so, Shino still couldn't begrudge him and felt reluctant. This painful feeling caused Shino to continue to say,
"But I guess this online gaming wouldn't just be a game of entertainment to us once our minds and time were spent to a certain level. Earning experience and money to become stronger is really a troublesome and difficult thing. Of course, it's nice to play with friends occasionally...but there's a lot of pressure to continue playing like they're working just to be the strongest, like what Kyouji did."
"Stress...caused by playing games? But...wouldn't that be the complete opposite of its purpose..."
Kikuoka said in surprise, and Shino nodded at him and continued.
"Yes. Kyouji...reversed this world with that world."
"But...why? Why was he so willing to sacrifice so much to get this so-called title of being the strongest...?"
"I'm not too sure about that...I just said it before, to me, this world and the game are all connected...Kirito, do you know why....?"
Shino looked right, and found that Kirito was leaning his back on the chair, closing his eyes and thinking. Soon, he opened his mouth and muttered.
"Because you wanted to be strong."
Shino closed her lips, thought about this short sentence, and then nodded her head slowly.
"...That's right. I was the same the last time. Maybe every VRMMO player is the same...just trying to be stronger..."
Shino turned her body around and faced Kikuoka from the front.
"Then...when are visitors allowed to meet Kyouji?"
"Well...he'll probably be kept in custody after we cross-examine him. We have to wait until he's sent to a juvenile observation center."
"I see—I'll go see him. Once I see him, I want to tell him what I was thinking before...and what I'm thinking now."
No matter how late, no matter how much he didn't want to listen to her, Shino felt that she had to do this. This time, Kikuoka finally showed what looked like a whole-hearted smile.
"You're really a strong person. Yes, please do. I'll make arrangements to his management plan in the future and send an email to you."
He then looked at the watch on his left wrist and said,
"Sorry—it's about time for me to leave. I can be said to lack leisure, but there're really lots of things to handle."
"Sure. Sorry for troubling you."
Shino also thanked him after Kirito.
"No need to be so kind. It was my negligence that caused both of you to be in danger, so this should be what I should do. I'll notify you if I get some new information."
Kikuoka placed the tablet PC into the office bag beside him and stood up from the chair. Just when he was about to reach for the bill on the table—he suddenly stopped.
"Oh yes, Kirito-kun..."
"...What is it?"
"This is what you wanted me to get."
He took a small piece of paper from the inside pocket of his western suit and handed it to Kirito.
"Death Gun...no, Red-eyed XaXa—Shinkawa Shoichi, once he heard that this was the question you raised, he answered it without hesitation. However, he asked us to send a message back to you. Of course, you don't have to care about him at all, and any messages from a suspect can't be revealed in an investigation, so the police appeared to have refused his request...so, do you want to hear it?"
Kirito's face looked like he just drank some really bitter coffee, but he still nodded his head in the end.
"Since you brought it here, I'll listen."
Kikuoka took out the second piece of paper, saw the contents, and read,
"...'This isn't over. You don't have the power to end everything. You'll soon notice. It's showtime.' just like that—"
"...Such a slippery guy."
It's been about 10 minutes after Kikuoka smiled as he waved his hand and left.
As both of them left the cafe and headed for where the bike was parked, Kirito suddenly grumbled.
"...Who is that guy? He called himself an officer of Internal Affairs Ministry...but somehow..."
Shino thought that he was really an enigmatic person and said this to Kirito. However, Kirito merely shrugged his shoulders and answered,
"Well, I can be certain that he's under the VR world Management sector. At least for now."
"Think about it. Things just happened less than 2 days ago. Don't you feel that he knew too much about what's going on inside the police force? The Japanese jurisdiction departments would never get involved in each other's department, so that shouldn't be common."
"...What do you mean?"
"He originally said that he wasn't really in a single unit, like the police or something...it's not really possible, but he..."
"I once met him here before and followed him when he went back."
Shino gave a look of disbelief as she watched Kirito walk beside her. However, the boy just looked like nothing happened and continued.
"In the end, there were 3 large sedans waiting at a nearby underground car park, and the driver sure didn't look like someone you want to mess with when he has short hair and a black suit. I tried my best to follow them with my bike, but maybe I was discovered...Kikuoka was dropped off in front of Ichigaya station, and he disappeared while I was looking for a parking spot."
"Ichigaya? Not Kasumigaseki?"
"Yeah. The Internal Affairs Ministry's in Kasumigaseki...but what's in Ichigaya should be...the Ministry of Defense."
Shino immediately couldn't say anything and could only continue blinking.
"This means that...he's from the self defence force?"
"So I said it wasn't really possible. The police's relationship with the defence ministry should be worse than that of the internal affairs department."
Kirito shrugged slightly. At this moment, Shino finally thought of something.
"Ah...speaking of which, Kikuoka-san was wearing...I guess, spectacles with very small degree or no degree, because the lens didn't really reflect much."
"Is that so...I see."
Shino looked at the boy who seemed to understand and then said,
"But...even if that person has some relationship with the defence ministry, why must he investigate VRMMOs? They shouldn't have any relationship with each other right?"
"Well...I heard that someone intended to use FullDive technology to train soldiers, even though that's the situation with the US Army."
This time, it was Shino who was shocked and stopped. Kirito then stopped and shook his right hand.
"Like for example...hm...can we talk about guns?"
"Y, yeah...it's alright if it's just listening."
"Good. For example, if I give you a real sniper rifle, can you successfully finish the loading until the firing?"
Shino recalled how she shot the can with the Government model gun a few hours ago and nodded her head.
"I guess so...if it's just firing. But in the real world, I don't know how to lower the recoil, so I may not be able to hit the target."
"But I don't even know how to load bullets. If we can train weapon and basic operations in the virtual world, we may be able to save a lot of ammunition and fuel."
Shino couldn't help but look at her right hand. The scale Kirito was talking about was way too big, and it was really hard to imagine such a situation.
"Of course, this is just a possibility. Just this year alone, we have no idea for how many purposes FullDive technology can be used for, so it won't be strange to see whatever new thing that happens in the future. Anyway—better be more careful about that guy."
After saying that casually, Kirito walked over to the bike and took off the clamp on its back wheel. As he handed a helmet over to Shino, he said with a rare hesitating attitude to her,
"...? What is it?"
"...Sinon, do you have some time after this...?"
"I don't really have anything to do. Maybe I won't want to log into GGO for a while."
"I see—sorry, I have something I want to ask you to help out with..."
"What is it?"
"The image of that cave during the BoB finals were seen by...those SAO-era friends of mine. And they knew that I was that «Kirito»...well...if you can help me explain to my friends that we weren't flirting, I'll be really happy."
Shino started feeling that it was interesting and gave a smile. Even though she felt very embarrassed about that, after hearing this boy who would do things at his own whims say that he's bothered about being suspected of having an affair with her, she had a 'now what are you going to do' thought.
"But even if they're your old friends, it's amazing that they could recognize you from your name."
"Yeah...they recognized my sword skills."
"I, I see—it's alright to help you out, but you owe me one. You're treating me to cake next time."
After hearing her say that, Kirito gave a sheepish look and said,
"Are...are we going back to that earlier shop again...?"
"I won't do such a cruel thing."
"That's great. Then...please follow me to Ochinomizu for a while. It won't take you much time."
"What, isn't that just beside Yushima? That's on the way home."
She received the helmet and put it on her head. After Kirito buckled it for her, Shino couldn't help but think 'I should have learnt how to put on a helmet in GGO to save myself trouble'.
After moving up Ginza highway to Showa highway and moving north for a while, they arrived at the redevelopment around the east side of Akihabara station. They went past the silver skyscrapers that looked like the streets of Gurokken and entered near Okachimachi. The surroundings had a heavy old town like atmosphere.
The motorbike turned around the alleys like an old bull dragging a cart, and they finally stopped at a small shop.
Shino got off her seat, took off her helmet and looked up. This black glowing wooden building gave a chilly feeling, and only the metal signboards that were formed by two dices on the door incidated to her that it was a cafe. Looking down, the words «Dicey Cafe» was carved in, which should be the shop's name. The sign hanging on the icy cold door was flipped to the «closed» side.
Kirito nodded and took out his bike keys before pushing the door without hesitation. The slow-tempo music of jazz accompanied a quick 'Clink' as the door was opened.
Shino entered the shop like she was attracted by the fragrance of coffee. Under the orange light, the wooden boards were glowing too. The entire space was small, but it had an unspeakable warmth. This made Shino's tense shoulders relax.
Upon entering the shop, a clear baritone came immediately. Looking around, Shino spotted a large man with chocolate-colored skin standing behind the bar. That face of an old war veteran looked intimidating, but that white shirt and little butterfly knot bow tie on the collar gave an amusing feeling to that.
There were already two customers who were in the shop. On the round chairs in front of the bar counter, there were two girls wearing school uniforms. Shino noticed that their uniforms were the same color as Kirito's.
"You're too slow!"
One of them, a girl with shoulder-length hair curling inwards jumped up from the round seat and exclaimed that to Kirito.
"Sorry, sorry, Chrysheight spoke too much."
"I ate 2 apple pies while waiting for you. Kirito! It'll be your fault if I grow fat!"
"Why, why is it my fault now...?"
The other girl with slight brown straight hair, down to the middle of her back, merely laughed as she heard their conversation at the beginning, but soon after, she got off the bench and interrupted with a tone that seemed to show that she was rather used to this situation.
"Hurry up and introduce us, Kirito-kun."
After Kirito nudged her on the back, Shino arrived at the center of the shop. She tried her best to suppress the fear she would have when meeting someone for the first time and nodded at them.
"This is the 3rd winner of Gun Gale Online, Sinon, real name, Asada Shino."
"Do, don't say that."
Shino protested slightly after hearing this unexpected introduction from Kirito, but Kirito merely chuckled and continued. He pointed at the energetic girl he was quarreling with and said,
"This is the cheating blacksmith Lisbeth, real name is Shinozaki Rika."
The girl called Rika immediately gave a bad look and attacked Kirito. He dodged and raised his left hand towards the other girl.
"And this is the berserk healer Asuna, real name Yuuki Asuna."
"Tha, that's too much!"
Asuna protested, but her face was still smiling. She then stared at Shino with clear beautiful eyes and then nodded at her.
Kirito finally pointed his jaw at the shopkeeper inside the bar.
"That's Iron Wall Agil."
"Oi oi, am I an Iron Wall now? My mom gave me a nice name, okay?"
What's shocking was that it seemed that even the shopkeeper here was a VRMMO player. The giant laughed and placed his right hand on his sturdy chest and said,
"Hello. I'm called Andrew Gilbert Mills. I hope we can get along."
As what he said was all in fluent Japanese except for his name which was in English, Shino couldn't help but blink a few times and hurriedly lowered her head to greet him.
"Let's sit down and talk first."
There were two 4-seater tables in the shop. Kirito walked towards one and pulled the chair out. After waiting for Shino, Asuna and Rika to sit down, he flicked a finger at the shopkeeper.
"Agil, I want ginger ale. What do you want, Sinon?"
"Ah...the same then."
"The ginger ale here's really spicy."
Kirito chuckled and said 'two glasses' towards the counter, and then cupped his hands on the table.
"Then, I'm going to explain to Lisbeth and Asuna what happened last weekend."
Even though Kirito and Shino had already collated what happened during the BoB finals with what Kikuoka said, it took them more than 10 minutes to explain everything to others.
"So—as things aren't revealed on the media yet, the real names and detailed information couldn't be revealed, but that's basically it."
After concluding things, Kirito looked somewhat tired as he laid his tired body on the chair and finished the second cup of ginger ale.
"...You, for some reason...you really get into lots of trouble."
Rika shook her head and sighed as she commented. However, Kirito looked down and shook his head.
"No...Well, I can't really say this. This incident did involve me after all."
"...Is that so—ahhh, I knew I should have been there. I have a whole lot of things I want to say to that Death Gun."
"That guy's not that only one who got his soul twisted by SAO. There's likely lots of them."
At this moment, Asuna smiled to chase away the current moody atmosphere.
"But I feel that a lot of souls were saved, like mine. Of course, I don't mean that I agree with SAO...the guild leader's actions...because of that a lot of people died...but even so, I won't deny these two years I lived, and I won't regret about them at all."
"...Ahh, you're right. During the last battle with Death Gun, if it wasn't for Asuna holding my hand, I wouldn't be able to use that move. I guess...it's because of those two years in SAO...that your warmth reached me..."
Of course, Shino couldn't understand what Kirito meant by that. The boy found that she seemed to be puzzled and smiled in an embarrassed manner before explaining.
"Didn't I say that I dived in from the hospital in Ochinomizu during the night of the finals? I never told anyone about that place, and Asuna tortured and interrogated Kikuoka before he spilled it out."
"Y, you don't have to say it like that!"
After Asuna said that, she puffed her cheeks angrily. Then, Kirito gave a mischievous smile and said,
"And then, she dived in from this shop, but after knowing the location, came rushing over to that hospital I was at. At that moment...I was fighting with Death Gun, and she grabbed my hand tightly. And unbelievably...I did feel Asuna's warmth at that moment. It's thanks to her that I drew that FiveSeven handgun I had forgotten about."
Shino nodded her head silently. Though she was thinking whether the two of them were dating, she immediately threw that imagination aside. Luckily, Kirito didn't notice this abnormal situation and slowly continued.
"But that wasn't all. After the tournament ended, I logged out, and Asuna told me...that the log in name «Sterben» Death Gun used was actually German, and it should be read as that. It meant «Death». But this was a name that only doctors and nurses would use in Japan, and so...I remembered that you told me that you have a friend who's a doctor's kid, and you were about to call him to your house, so I had a bad feeling. Once I found out that it would be too late once the police arrived, I rode my bike to Yushima...but I didn't really help out much..."
These words shook Shino in a certain silent way.
"...Sterben. Not Steven..."
She muttered, closed her eyes, thought and said,
"...Hospital's term, it means death...why did he choose such a name...?"
"Maybe he wanted to rebel against his dad who was a doctor. Anyway—it's not a reason we can easily think of."
Kirito sighed. Sitting diagonally opposite him, right in front of Shino was Asuna, who said with an optimistic tone,
"It's better not to think too much into the meaning of a VRMMO character name. Once you find out certain truths, you'll lose even more."
Beside her, Rika immediately chuckled and answered,
"Oh~, as expected of someone who used her real name as the character name, it's really convincing!"
Asuna immediately attacked with her right elbow, and Rika pretended to look in pain. Shino inadvertently smiled as she watched their interactions with each other, and at this moment, Asuna suddenly looked at her. The shiny tea-colored eyes were glowing with brightness, and Shino felt strength in that humbleness.
"Wha, what is it?"
"These words may not be suited for me to say this, but...I'm sorry, for letting you see such a terrifying thing."
"No...don't say that..."
Shino hurriedly shook her head and said each word out one by one.
"This incident may be caused by me. Because of my personality, play style...my past and other things. Anyway, during the tournament, I panicked...luckily, Kirito made me calm down. Well, what was telecasted was that he was comforting Sinon..."
And then, Kirito jumped up immediately and spilled out words in rapid fire.
"Tha, that's right. I almost forgot about the most important thing. It was an emergency, we were being chased down by that killer in that situation. Don't think too much into it!"
"...Alright then, we'll trust you for now. But we don't know what will happen in the future...."
Rika continued to mutter as she stared at Kirito, but still clapped and showed her lively smile.
"But I'm happy to know a female VRMMO player in the real world."
"That's right. I still have a lot of things I want to ask about GGO. Please be friends with me, Asada-san."
Asuna gave a steady smile before stretching her right hand out on the table. After seeing that white and tender hand—
Shino couldn't help but feel somewhat intimidated.
Friends. As the word entered her heart, she felt a burning sense of yearning, but also a sharp pain and anxiety.
Friends. Ever since that incident, she had yearned for them many times, but got betrayed just as many times, until she finally told her heart that she should not wish for such luxury.
I want to be friends with her. To hold the loving hands of this girl called Asuna, to embrace her warmth. I want to go out and play with her, to talk with her, to do what normal girls would do.
But in that situation, it would be a matter of time before she knew that Shino killed before, that her hands were stained with blood.
She was scared that Asuna would give her an irritated expression. To touch humans—such a simple act would likely be something that would be eternally denied to her.
She thought that she should just head back like that, that the mere words of 'being friends with her' would be enough to warm her heart for a while. As she got ready to apologize—
This little muttering made Shino waver because of her shrinking consciousness. Her body jerked, and she then looked at Kirito beside her.
As they exchanged looks, Kirito nodded his head slightly but firmly. His eyes were telling Shino that it was alright. Thus, Shino turned her eyes back to Asuna as if she was hypnotized.
The girl was still smiling, and her right hand was still shown in front for Shino.
Shino's arm felt as heavy as a lead block. However, she was starting to fight against this shackle as she slowly, slowly lifted her arm. Compared to isolating herself because she didn't want to doubt others or was scared of being betrayed, she would rather trust others and be hurt by them. That was the first time Shino had this thought ever since that incident.
It felt like Asuna's hand was far away. As the distance was closed in, the density of the air increased, feeling like there was a wall to bounce Shino's hand back.
However, her fingers finally touched the other party's.
The next moment, Shino's right hand was tightly cupped by Asuna's hand.
That warmth really couldn't be described with words. The warmth that was passed over started moving from the fingertips and up the arms, shoulders and the entire body before finally melting Shino's frozen blood.
Shino subconsciously exhaled. To think that it would be that warm. She had long forgotten about something—a human hand's touch can move the soul. At this moment, Shino felt that this was reality. She realized heavily that all the fear she used to have, how she continued to run away from this world, she was finally tied to this real reality now.
Just like that, a few seconds passed, no, numerous seconds...
At this moment, Shino noticed that the smiling Asuna showed some hesitation on her lips. As she instinctively tried to draw her hand back, Asuna held on with even more force. At this moment, Asuna seemed like she was choosing her words wisely as she slowly said to the bewildered Shino.
"...Well, Asada-san...Shino-san. There's another reason why we invited you here today. This may not make you comfortable...and it may make you angry. But, we, we have to...tell you no matter what..."
"Reason...? Me, angry...?"
She was losing grasp of the situation. But at this moment, Kirito, who was sitting on the left, said with a nervous voice,
"Sinon, well, I have to apologize to you first."
After that, the boy bowed his head down in apology. Then he used the pitch black eyes that were in the midst of that slightly long bangs and that girlish-avatar look to stare at Shino.
"...I told Asuna and Lisbeth what happened to you before. That's because I needed their help."
As Shino heard that Kirito told the truth to them, she couldn't hear what happened next.
—They knew what happened at the post office? Asuna and Rika knew what the 11-year-old Shino did?
This time, Shino did use all her strength to try and pull her hand away from Asuna.
But she didn't succeed. This delicate girl called Asuna was holding Shino' right hand with an unknown strength. The girl's eyes, expression and the warmth she was passing through to her seemed like she wanted to say something to Shino. But—what? What did she want to say? Was there anything to say to me even after knowing that my hands were dyed in blood?
"Shino...actually, I, Lisbeth and Kirito all took leave on Monday from school, and went to the ...city."
At this moment, shock wouldn't be enough to describe Shino's emotion. During these few seconds, she could not understand what Asuna meant.
The girl's ample and glossy looking lips said a location. And that was the city where Shino stayed in until she graduated from middle school, the place where that incident happened, the place where she really wanted to forget and didn't want to go back.
Why, why, why?
Shino could only feel this question spin in her head. Finally, she asked,
"Why...must you do such a thing...?"
She continued to shake her head and moved to stand up as she hurriedly tried to get away from here.
But just before Shino stood up, Kirito's hand was pressing down on her left shoulder. At this moment, his nervous voice entered Shino's ears.
"That's because you never met the people you should have met, Sinon...and you didn't hear the words you needed to hear. I thought that you would be hurt...but I, I just couldn't sit by and let this go. So I used the database of the press to investigate that incident...I thought that it wouldn't be clear to say it on the phone, so I went to the post office where that incident happened, and asked them to tell me how to contact that person."
"People...I should meet...? Words I should hear...?"
Shino could only repeat the words blankly, and sitting beside her, Rika shot Kirito a look, got up and went deep into the shop. As the door with the plate PRIVATE was opened, a person appeared.
It was a woman in her thirties. She had shoulder-length hair with slight make-up on. She was also dressed in a rather mature manner. She was more like a housewife than an office lady.
And then, a set of footsteps proved that Shino's impression was correct. A little girl who looked like she hadn't entered primary school yet came running out. They looked really similar, and they're most likely mother and daughter.
But even after seeing these two people, Shino merely felt puzzled. She did not know who this mother and daughter pair was. She had never met them in her hometown before, let alone Tokyo.
As the woman saw Shino standing there in a dazed manner, she looked sad yet happy for some reason, and then bowed deeply at Shino. The girl beside her bowed too.
After maintaining that for a while, Rika prompted them to move to the table in front of Shino. Asuna got up to let the lady sit in front of Shino, and the little girl sat beside her mother. At this moment, the shopkeeper who continued to remain silent walked out silently from the bar, served a cup of café au lait in front of the mother and milk in front of the girl before heading back.
Even at such a close distance, Shino still didn't know who they were. Why did Kirito say that this woman should be someone 'I should meet'? Was he mistaken or something...?
No, it felt like...deep in a certain part of her memory, a spark was suddenly created. She didn't know them, so why—
At this moment, the woman again bowed deeply at Shino and said her name with a slightly trembling voice.
"Nice to meet you. You should be Asada...Shino-san, right? My name is Oosawa Sachie. This girl is called Mizue, and she's four years old."
As expected, she had no impression of those two names at all. Speaking of which, Shino herself wouldn't have any relation with a mother and daughter of this age, but her memory continued to hurt.
Shino couldn't even greet them as she widened her eyes while sitting on the chair. The mother called Sachie took a deep breath and said with a clear voice,
"...I moved to Tokyo after giving birth to this child. In the past, I used to work in the ...city, and the location where I worked was..."
The moment she heard the next few words, Shino understood everything.
"...The Post Office at Third Street."
Shino let out a soft voice from her mouth. That small and ordinary post office—was where that incident took place. Five years ago, Shino and her mother went there, and she had the incident that caused the biggest change in her life.
The criminal with the gun killed the man at the window, and then looked like he did not know whether to shoot the two female workers at the counter or Shino's mother. However, Shino lost control of herself and rushed at the man, snatched the gun—and squeezed the trigger.
That's right...this mother called Sachie was undoubtedly one of the female workers she met at the post office.
In other words...Kirito deliberately went with Asuna and Rika to that post office, got the address of the female worker who resigned and moved to Tokyo, and after establishing contact with her, invited her to come over to meet Shino today.
Shino could roughly get the gist of things, but there was still a greatest question within her.
Why? Why did Kirito do such a thing even if he had to take leave?
"...I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, Shino-san."
Sachie, who was sitting in front of Shino, teared up as she said that.
Shino didn't understand why she apologized at all and could only remain in her seat blankly. And the other party continued with a trembling voice.
"I'm really sorry. I...should have met you earlier...but I really wanted to forget about that incident...so I came to Tokyo while using the fact that my husband was posted out...I could have thought it through and understand that you felt really hurt...but I didn't even thank you or even apologize to you..."
The tears in her eyes flowed out cascading down her face. That braided-hair girl beside her called Mizue seemed to be worried for her own mother as she looked up. Sachie silently patted the girl's head.
"...During that incident. Th, this girl was still in my stomach. So Shino-san, you didn't just save me back then...you saved this child too. Really...really, thank you very much, thank you very much..."
"...I saved...your lives?"
Shino merely repeated those words.
In that post office, Shino, who was only 11 years old, squeezed the trigger 3 times and took a person's life. That was what Shino did, and what she always thought. However—this woman in front of her clearly said.
That she was saved by Shino.
Beside her, Kirito said with a trembling voice,
"Sinon, you had been blaming yourself all this while, punishing yourself. I can't say that what you did is wrong, but—you also have the right to think of those you saved. In that case, you'll find that you have the right, to forgive yourself. That's what...I wanted to tell you..."
Then, Kirito seemed like he didn't know what else to say anymore and could only bite his lower lip.
Looking away from the boy, Shino looked at Sachie again. She knew that she had to say something, but she just couldn't say anything. She couldn't even talk, or even think of anything for that matter...
At this moment, a sound of light footsteps could be heard.
That 4-year-old girl called Mizue jumped off her chair and ran around the table to Shino in small steps. Sachie should be the one who tied her hair which looked so silky and smooth. Her round face was showing a cute pink, and her large eyes were showing the purest and most innocent glow in this world.
Mizue should be wearing a kindergarten uniform as she had a little bag on her back. She reached her hands into her bag and took out something.
It was a drawing paper that was folded into a rectangular shape. She opened the paper clumsily and passed it to Shino.
The picture that was drawn with crayons immediately entered Shino's eyes. At the center of the picture was a woman's face with long hair. That smiling face should belong to her mother—Sachie. And the braided girl on the right side should be herself. The bespectacled person on the left was her father.
At the top of the picture, there were the words «Shi-no-o-ne-e-san-he» (To Shino onee-san) that were written in hiragana, probably just learnt in school.
Mizue handed over the picture with both hands, and Shino received it with both hands as well. Mizue smiled and took a deep breath.
It seemed that the girl practiced it many times before as she said each word one by one with an innocent and tender voice.
"Shino onee-san, thank you for saving mama and Mizue."
At this moment, Shino's eyes were covered—with the colors of the rainbow, and then, it was all jumbled up.
After a while, she found herself crying. Before today, she did not know that such warmth, clarity and tears that could wash any stain away existed.
Shino continued to cry as her hands continued to hold that piece of large picture.
A small hand that was so tender felt somewhat timid right from the beginning, but then grabbed her right hand tightly.
And what was held was the black spot, where the firepowder remained on her right hand—
To accept all my past would likely take some time. Even so, I like this current world now.
My life will have many pains from today onwards, and the path in front of me will have lots of thorns.
But I believe that I can continue to walk on.
Because my right hand that's being held and the tears on my face are so warm.