Kazuma woke up to the sound of a door creaking open.
"Megumin," he murmured without opening his eyes. "Do you remember what I said would happen to you if I caught you drawing on me while I was unconscious again?" Silence reigned. Furrowing his brow, he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "Megumin?" Kazuma opened his eyes and found the room empty, the dying embers of the fireplace in his bedroom the only light aside from the pale silvery moon that filtered through his bedroom window.
I know I heard a door open... he thought to himself through the fogginess that follows waking up in the dead of night. Maybe one of the girls just got up to use the bathroom. Yeah, that's probably it. Kazuma yawned and went to roll back over in bed when another sound reached his ears. He sat bolt upright and listened intently.
A floorboard creaked, and the front door swung open, then shut. Quiet, muffled footsteps trailed away into the dark night, and nothing else could be heard. Kazuma quickly rose out of bed, donned his clothes and strapped his quiver onto his back before taking his bow off of its hook by the door.
Something is definitely wrong here, I better be careful. He took a deep breath and with a minor amount of focus, activated one of his skills. "Lurk," he whispered.
A tremor ran up and down his spine and his vision began to change. His surroundings' colors washed away muted to tones of green, brown, and purple. When he looked at his hands, all that he could see were two ghostly outlines where his limbs should have been. A wicked little thrill ran through him.
Kazuma slowly reached out and opened the door, making sure to take his time so as to not make any noise. Once the door stood open, he crept into the hallway and peered in either direction. The corridor stood empty. Padding down the hall, he approached the door to Megumin's bedroom.
Upon cracking the door open and peeking in, he could see Megumin contentedly snoring away, the fire in her fireplace waxing and waning and she breathed in and out. Chomosuke rested on her head, her tail wrapped tightly around herself. The cat yawned and blinked awake, sweeping its eyes around the room. Despite the fact that he was invisible, the feline fixated its gaze on Kazuma as if he were standing in the doorway holding a large neon sign. A low growl rumbled out of the cat's small form. Kazuma shivered involuntarily and raised a hand in apology before backing out into the hallway again. He made his way down to Aqua's door and repeated his Peeping Tom act.
Aqua lay dead asleep in her bed, cuddling a gigantic bottle of booze while drooling profusely, giggling quietly and murmuring about offerings.
"What a disgusting, useless excuse for a goddess," he whispered, closing the door. Finally, he approached Darkness' door. Kazuma hesitated a moment, trying to overcome the sudden rise of apprehension that flooded into his chest.
It'd been two years since the two of them had taken on Vanir and learned of their feelings for each other. They had never really addressed them as other matters had become more pressing; however, he had never forgotten the encounter and had often found himself wondering what could develop if he brought the topic up. For all that he could tell, Darkness felt much the same way, which often led to flushed faces, stilted conversations, and awkward silences when they encountered each other in private.
Her catching me peeping into her room in the middle of the night would definitely not be a step in the right direction. On the other hand, I could see something so beautiful it could bring tears to my eyes… Kazuma ultimately decided the reward was worth the risk. However, as he went to reach for the handle, he noticed the door was slightly ajar. Pushing the door open on its hinges, he peered into the room and saw….
Nothing. Darkness' bed lay vacant, and none of her armor or weapons adorned the storage racks on her walls.
"What the hell?" Kazuma mumbled. "What are you up to, Darkness?" Drawing on his focus again, he readied another skill. "Foresight," he whispered, and his environment suddenly stood out in blaring color as opposed to the ruddy darkness of night. After allowing his eyes to adjust, he squinted at the floor of the room, finding Darkness' footprints leading out the door. He quickly followed the trail through the house to the front door and slipped out into the night and closed the door behind him, making as little noise as possible.
Once outside, his vision was augmented so that objects on the horizon were as big as if they were standing in front of him. As Kazuma looked through the darkness to the border of the forest that stood near the house, he could make out a flash of blonde hair and the glint of heavy armor passing among the trunks of trees.
"Found you, you sneaky knight. Now to tail you to wherever you're headed." He stole quickly across the yard and out to the forest, making sure to not step over any twigs or brush that might alert Darkness to his presence. He caught up to her fairly quick, as he was not encumbered by armor like she was.
She marched through the trees, pale blue eyes locked ahead of her in nothing short of ironclad determination, seeming perfectly confident in where she was going. Her sword rattled in its scabbard and her armor clanked with every footstep, her advance through the forest sounding as if an entire garrison of the lord's knights was moving through, making him wonder how on earth she managed to slip out of the house without waking everybody up.
Abruptly she came to a halt at the edge of what looked like a clearing. Kazuma scrambled up into a tree behind her to see what she was looking at.
In the clearing sat roughly two dozen ogres squatted around several fires that were being used to cook animals of various kinds. Each of the monsters was large and grotesque, their sickly green skin slick with perspiration from the heat of the summer night and the fires before them. The pelts they wore reeked with odor, a palpable mishmash of sweat, dirt, and other, more vile things. Several crude clubs and axes lay within easy reach of the creatures, and while they looked simple in make, Kazuma knew from experience that their appearance did not make the weapons any less effective. Based off of the tents that dotted the clearing, it looked as if the ogres had been there a couple weeks.
This is bad, he thought sourly. A horde this big would take several of the top members of the Guild Lodge to take out and would be given at least an epic difficulty rating. We need to get out of here before they notice either of us. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind when Darkness drew her sword and rushed into the clearing headfirst.
"Beware you foul monsters!" she trumpeted aloud. "You have entered this forest that is under my protection! It is my sworn oath to protect this place as its crusader! Leave now or prepare to fight me until you either perish or beat me into submission and then decide to do what you will with me!" Darkness finished her sentence with obvious relish in her voice. Kazuma slapped a hand over his eyes and dragged it down over his face.
"You filthy, perverted, idiot," he hissed. "You are going to get yourself killed!"
The ogres, taken aback by the sudden appearance of his unabashed party member, blinked at her, then looked at each other, then blinked again before taking up their weapons and roaring a challenge at Darkness, charging her in a murderous frenzy. Darkness trembled in excitement as she ran to meet them, leaving her guard down.
The first ogre she met batted her into a tree so hard it would've put a major league baseball player to shame. The trunk splintered under the impact of her body with explosive force before toppling over with groan. Darkness staggered to her feet, apparently battered and loving every second of it with a disconcerting glee.
"To be struck in such a manner by a mere beast! The thrill of it all!" she exclaimed, her face flushed as she charged back at the ogres, who stood in shock at the fact the interloper had survived such a blow.
"You need professional help," Kazuma muttered as he nocked an arrow and readied his bow. Darkness raised her sword and swung at the first ogre she got near, missing in a spectacular fashion. However, just before she would have made contact with the ogre, Kazuma drew in a breath and released it in one fluid motion, hissing as he let the arrow fly. "Snipe!"
The arrow struck the ogre at the same moment Darkness' sword sliced the air two feet in front of it. The ogre fell like a log, slowly crashing to the ground before fading into vapors, making it seem as though Darkness had dealt a death blow to the monster. Darkness blinked in surprise at the fallen enemy, looking at her sword in amazement.
"I hit it?" she said incredulously. "I mean, of course I hit it!" she corrected herself, filling her voice with bravado. "Seeing one of your brethren slain in such a manner surely makes you want to torture his murderer in the most painful and base ways possible, right?" Kazuma raised his eyes to the heavens.
"This girl knows no shame."
The ogres apparently felt her question dignified a response, albeit one mainly composed of screaming and brandishing weapons. The remaining ogres charged her en masse, and Kazuma quickly nocked multiple arrows onto his bowstring. As each of the ogres went to strike at Darkness, he loosed an arrow into it as she made wild, ineffective swings. In a short matter of moments, Darkness stood panting over a large pile of dropped weapons and loot. Even from his perch in the tree behind her, Kazuma could hear the disappointment in her voice as she spoke.
"I suppose I'll head back home then…" she muttered morosely, using her sword to poke at a crude ogre helmet that lay in the dirt. Kazuma sagged in relief against the tree he rested in, heaving a sigh.
Thank goodness, he thought as he watched Darkness begin to turn towards the path pack home. I'm out of arrows. If another one had shown up…
Suddenly, he saw a shadow loom out of the night off to Darkness' side. His hand flew to his quiver on instinct but found nothing but air. Crap!
"Darkness!" he shouted. "Look out!"
Darkness flinched at the sound of his voice and turned to face him while whirling into a defensive crouch. As she moved, by sheer luck, her naked sword caught the ogre that was standing behind her in the throat. The monster gurgled, the toppled over backwards, the club that he had been preparing to cave Darkness' head in falling uselessly from his hands. Unfortunately, Darkness managed to be standing directly in the path of the falling weapon, and it thunked her solidly on the head. She tottered forwards for a few steps, eyes glazing out of focus.
"Kazu...ma…?" she uttered weakly, then fell to the ground without a sound.
Kazuma scrambled to get out of the tree, but ended up slipping and falling, breaking several branches on his way down.
"Ow, shit!" he sucked in a breath as he shambled over to her. "Darkness? Darkness, are you okay?"
He finally reached her and rolled her over to face the sky, terror and guilt gripping his heart until he saw her ample chest delicately rising and falling in a steady rhythm.
"Thank God, you scared the living hell out of me," he told her. With her being unconscious and all, she didn't reply.
Kazuma gathered her up into a bridal style carry and stood, grunting as the weight of her armor made him stumble the first couple of steps that he took. Once he got his feet under him, he carried her to a nearby fire and propped her up on a felled log. He took a step back to admire his chivalrous work.
Darkness lay sprawled awkwardly out on the ground, her arms and legs splayed out at odd angles, her head and neck resting on a rather pointy knob that protruded from the tree trunk.
"That," he said, grimacing, "Does not look comfortable." He looked around for anything that might provide a better surface for her to rest on, but apparently ogres didn't believe in luxury; even the inside of the tents lay bare, only providing shelter from the light of the moon and any foul weather that may have appeared. He grumbled in frustration and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Come on, think. There's got to be something I can do to help make her comfortable."
Suddenly, an idea popped into his head that immediately made his face flush red. He glanced back at Darkness, who still lay unconscious by the fire. He turned away and rubbed at his face with both hands.
"This is easily both the best and worst night of my life," he muttered darkly, marching back over to the fire.
He lifted Darkness again, taking care to make sure that she was laying comfortably before folding his legs under himself and resting her head on his lap. Kazuma fidgeted restlessly as he looked down upon her serene face, nervous energy and sheer contentedness raging war in his gut.
Darkness stirred, her face contorting in pain as she shifted her arms to rest over her stomach.
"Woah, easy there," he said softly, gently taking her hand into his. He guided it to rest on her stomach next to her other hand when her fingers squeezed his, making him shiver. Kazuma tried to pry his fingers free, but to no avail. "Ah, just as well," he sighed. "Gotta make contact somewhere for this one to work." He closed his eyes and envisioned a hose running down his arm and out from his hand into Darkness. "Drain Stamina," he whispered.
Purple light began trickling down from his shoulder, down along his arm and out through his hand, where it was soaked up by Darkness like a sponge. He began to feel the effects of the spell almost immediately, fatigue washing over him in waves. Conversely, Darkness seemed to perk up almost instantly, her breathing returning to a deep, even measure while her color visibly improved. After a few more moments, her ice-blue eyes fluttered open and their gazes locked. She blinked in surprise.
"Kazuma?" she whispered, her voice hoarse.
"Yeah, it's me," he told her. "Hold on." He took his canteen off of his belt and lifted her head with his free hand. "Here, little sips." Darkness drank the water gratefully.
"Thank you," she said after she'd had her fill.
"Wait, you'll need this too," he said, holding his hand in a closed fist over her head. Her eyes locked onto his hand curiously, then he proceeded rap his knuckles on her forehead. She winced at the sharp contact. "That's for running off by yourself in the middle of the night to get captured or killed by ogres, you dumb perv."
Darkness blushed and averted her gaze in embarrassment, although he could feel her squirm slightly in pleasure at being verbally berated. Kazuna rolled his eyes and yawned, glancing at the spell still giving Darkness his energy.
"Is my head in your lap?"
"And are we holding hands?"
"Yeah, I guess we are."
"Wow…" Darkness made a noise as she turned her head away from him, although he could still see her face was as red as the embers of the fire in front of them. "To be taken advantage of in my sleep… how scandalous."
"Stop phrasing things like that!" he snapped. He took a deep breath and a moment to calm himself and looked back at Darkness' eyes. "You actually had me worried, you know," he said solemnly. "That horde was huge. It could've given the top members in the Guild a run for their money." Darkness raised her chin defiantly, a fierce pride entering her eyes.
"But I took them all on and came out on top," she said. "I fought like a true knight."
"Not exactly." he grimaced, hating to ruin her self-confidence. "I helped." The words made her wince.
"How much?" Kazuma shrugged his cape out of the way so she would have a clear view of his empty quiver. "Oh," she said, crestfallen. "That much."
"You really did give it your best," he told her, offering an apologetic smile. "For future reference, though, you may want to keep your eyes open when you swing your sword. Helps to make sure you're actually hitting something." Darkness sighed through her nose dejectedly and closed her eyes, resting her head fully on his lap once more.
"Duly noted," she mumbled hollowly. Silence filled the air between us. Kazuma yawned and glanced at his hand again, which was still intertwined with Darkness', the purple motes of light trickling more slowly now, meaning that she was close to being near her full strength.
"Shouldn't be long before you are back on your fe-"
"That's twice now." He blinked slowly, registering the fact she'd spoken.
"What are you talking about?" he asked her, his eyes looking back to her face. Kazuma was taken aback to find her staring at him intently, her cool eyes regarding him with an air of seriousness he rarely saw in her.
"That's twice you've come to my aid and I have not been able to repay you," she repeated. He scrunched his eyebrows together.
"When was the other time, then?" She broke eye contact, looking away as she blushed slightly.
"You saved me from that arranged marriage two years ago, remember?" It was Kazuma's turn to blush as he snorted and ran his free hand through his hair.
"You did most of that one yourself, really," he said, trying to find a graceful way to turn down the accolade. Darkness shook her head slowly, seemingly adamant.
"If you hadn't been there for me, I wouldn't have been able to continue my dream of adventuring. I'd be married off to some too-nice noble who wouldn't treat me like an equal." She looked back at me, her eyes bright. "I know I can come off a little carefree at times, to the point where it can even cause trouble, and I know you, Megumin, and Aqua don't think there's a lot I'm really passionate about-" Kazuma cut her off with an abrupt hand gesture.
"That's not true," he said quietly. "I know how much you love adventuring. I also know how much being a crusader means to you." Darkness' eyes welled with tears around the edges.
"Then you should know how much it means for me to be in debt to someone!" she cried out, her voice thick with emotion. "Especially to someone who hasn't just saved my life not once, but twice!" She closed her eyes and shook her head slowly in an effort to calm herself down. After what seemed an eternity, she spoke again.
"I want to repay you more than anything, to give you the wonderful gift you have given me and more." She opened her eyes partway and looked over at the fire again. "More than anything I've ever wanted before," she murmured before falling silent once more.
Guilt immediately came over Kazuma. It was plain to see that the debt she owed to him had been chafing at her since the day he'd saved her the first time, but due to his lack of nerve and fear of his own feelings, he'd never taken the chance to see what might have happened if he took her offer. Now that he'd saved her again, it was just salt in the wound. Resolve turned his spine into steel and quelled the wavering voice of fear that was nagging in the back of his mind. Kazuma sat upright and cleared his throat.
"Lalatina Dustiness Ford," he addressed her using her full, real name. She snapped to attention from where she lay on his lap and looked him in the eyes, her cheeks pink with blush.
"Wh-what's that about, huh?" she demanded. He ignored her and continued speaking, adding a dramatic flair into his voice for effect.
"I, Kazuma Sato, hereby invoke one of the two debts that you owe to me!" Darkness' eyes widened, and her mouth fell open, then closed, then opened again.
"What-" she managed to say after she got her voice working- "What is your request?" He gave her a smile that was ragged with exhaustion from his spell.
"Dinner." Darkness blinked.
"Yeah, just you and me. Dinner. Tomorrow night at seven. Wear something pretty, because we are going somewhere nice." Darkness laid her head back down in his lap and looked up at the stars for a while before looking back up at him with a questioning eyebrow raised.
"Yep. Just dinner."
"You know it can be anything, right? Like, anything," she said, putting extra emphasis on the last word. Kazuma waved his free hand in a dismissive gesture.
"I'm pretty sure dinner falls under the 'anything' category, so to answer your question, yes, I'm sure." Darkness looked unconvinced, but nodded reluctantly.
"Alright, dinner tomorrow at seven. Wearing something pretty."
"Glad you understand, then," he told her as he released his grip on her hand, ending the spell. "I expect nothing less than the best. It is a matter of honor, after all." Darkness' eyes flashed as she stood up and tested her weight on her legs.
"I assure you, Kazuma Satou, I will treat this debt with the utmost seriousness." Kazuma shivered at the note of seriousness in her voice as he went to stand.
"That is…. reassuring, I guess. Now come on, give me your shoulder. I pretty much ran himself dry just now saving your ass so you can at least help me back to the house."