— 2 —
Dissemination of rewards came after the award ceremony. However, the organizers explained to us that it would be difficult for them to pay us what we were owed for our first place result, given the amount involved. They wanted us to head over to the Bounty Hunters’ Guild headquarters instead.
I was slightly alarmed at this development, since it wasn’t in the game…
“I’m sure they have to prepare for you at the headquarters, so please take your time!”
So they said, and from their courteous attitude, it didn’t seem like the Guild was trying to shirk the bill.
As suggested, we took our time and wandered around the city for a bit before heading over to the Guild to receive our payment.
We leisurely strolled through the streets while thinking about what we’d buy after getting our hands on all that reward money,
Various wants and needs wandered through my mind, one after another, quickly lifting my mood.
“Hey Ringo, is there anything you want? Once we cash out we can buy anything.”
I asked cheerfully, and Ringo pointed to a nearby stall with zero hesitation.
For sale there were familiar red fruits from which Ringo had gotten her name. Apples.
A wry smile formed on my face. We didn’t even need the reward to buy something like this.
I went and bought an apple from the shop and handed it to her.
“That’s not what I’m talking about. Don’t you have anything more expensive that you want? I mean, we’re going to be splitting the reward 50-50.”
I wasn’t really expecting much of a reaction from Ringo of all people, but contrary to my expectations, Ringo shook her head.
“…I don’t need it. Souma, you can have it all.”
For a moment, I couldn’t understand what she had just said.
“H-Hey! It’s 80 million, a whole 80 million! Even if we split it evenly that’s 40 million! With that much money, it doesn’t matter if you want to adventure or just live out your life, you…”
I frantically tried to explain, but Ringo, with her usual thousand-yard stare, calmly replied.
“…It’s okay. You seem to know more about these things, Souma.”
“What do you even mean by that!? And don’t you have things you want to buy too, like weapons or armor…”
However, Ringo adamantly insisted.
“I’ll have you buy everything.”
She boldly announced her plan to extort me.
But, that would mean…
“Which means you’ll continue sticking with me?”
Hearing my question, Ringo finally looked me in the eyes.
Ringo wore her familiar expressionless look, but I thought I saw her eyes wavering slightly.
—I wonder just how it is.
I thought seriously about this question, which I had turned a blind eye to until now.
Reflecting back on all the time I spent with Ringo and what I had felt then, I reached a surprising conclusion.
“—No, you’re not a bother.”
Thinking back, I didn’t feel uncomfortable having Ringo by my side, and I’m a loner to the core.
That was probably because of Ringo’s extreme lack of initiative. It’s strange how scant her existence is for such a unique person. But seriously, when she has nothing to do, when there’s no need for her to do anything, she does just absolutely nothing. She just stands there, spaced out, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular.
This behavior would be particularly abnormal— or even scary—if she were on Earth, it perfectly suited me. It’s difficult to explain, but even though fundamentally I prefer being by myself, being with her isn’t a pain.
Not to mention—
“You really saved me in that fight with the Butcher, Ringo. If you hadn’t been there, I definitely would’ve been killed just like that.”
That time, Ringo had saved me.
On the surface, Ringo bought me time to recover my strength. But in the end, I was only able to face the Butcher because Ringo’s actions became the stimulus I needed to muster my strength.
Now that I think about it, I had similar experiences when I played this game in a party. It was often the case that I was about to reset the game when the sight of Eddie, Merlin, and Tieru valiantly struggling gave me the courage that was needed to turn the fight around.
“It might not be so bad to try forming a party again.”
The moment I muttered that, for some reason, Ina’s face — Train Girl, whom I had left behind in Ramlich — flashed through my mind.
I couldn’t imagine Train Girl being able to survive the adventures that lay ahead, so I more or less tricked her into staying behind in Ramlich.
I don’t regret that decision. Even if I reconsidered it, that was the only possible conclusion. It might be selfish of me, but even now I truly believe that she’ll be happier this way.
So I wasn’t able to stop myself from superimposing Train Girl’s silhouette on top of Ringo after seeing her wholeheartedly trying to stay with me. I ask her a question impulsively..
“Are you sure about this, Ringo? Going forward, I’ll probably be dragged into a lot of dangerous situations. If you take the 40 million today, you can probably live safely in this city for the rest…”
But, Ringo immediately shook her head.
And this is what she replied.
“Without me, you’ll probably get yourself killed right away…”
I couldn’t help but burst out laughing after being blindsided by her words.
(Jeez. If she’s gonna put it that way, then what can I say?)
In that moment, I made up my mind.
I forcefully yelled out her name, and extended my right hand towards her.
For a while, Ringo stared at me, trying to grasp my intent, but finally a bulb seemed to have gone off in her head.
Could she be… nervous?
Ringo behaved almost like a frightened child as she timidly reached her hand toward mine.
And then I felt a soft and moist sensation in my right hand.
In that instant, I lost my words.
We just looked at each other.
Our gaze met.
“No, sorry, Ringo—”
Very slowly, I dropped my gaze towards the right hand that Ringo had touched.
“—that’s not what I meant.”
Still outstretched, in my hand was a single polished apple core lying on its side.
Ringo is really quite an awkward name, I thought to myself.