CHAPTER XII

[RECOLLECTION OF THE PAST]


It was night time, but the quiet forest was interrupted by the sound of two running horses.

"Eugeo, you take Alice and Asuna. Inform Diavel of the situation. Make sure everyone is safe," Kazuto said as their pace slowed down. The village lights were already visible from where they were.

Suddenly, he felt the small hands around his waist tighten the grip on his clothes.

"Is everything okay, Asuna?" he asked, turning to see the person behind him.

"You're about to do something reckless again, aren't you?" came her firm reply. Asuna wasn't looking back at him but had tilted her head downwards, balling her hands.

"No, I'm not," he said with an unconvincing chuckle. "It's gonna be fine, I promise."

"What if it won't? What if something happens to you again? Kazuto, you're injured. You should take Eugeo, or Alice, or me, anyone with you!"

"Asuna," Kazuto let out a sigh before adjusting his position to face her, bringing his hand to touch her cheek and lifting her face to lock her eyes with his own. "Listen, you have to trust me."

Though the bad feeling still lingered inside her, Asuna reluctantly nodded. Kazuto then helped Asuna get down before he shared a look with Eugeo and watched the three of them head closer towards the village.

Kazuto had to divert the guards' attention while remaining hidden so that the three could use the commotion to sneak into the village.

Now successfully in, Asuna led them straight to the hall where they found Diavel, the village chief.

Asuna took off the hood covering her face before approaching Diavel. Frankly speaking, the chief himself was surprised to see her again.

"Y-You're…a-alive?!" he exclaimed.

Asuna smiled at him and nodded. "I am safe, as well as Kazuto. But there's no need to fill in the details regarding that. There's something more important we need to tell you."

Diavel was perplexed, then he turned his attention to Eugeo who stepped closer to him.

"Chief Diavel, I am Eugeo, the Knight of Aincrad's crown prince, Kazuto. We are in a state of emergency. We need to evacuate everyone to a safe place." Eugeo said in a serious, calm voice.

"K-Kazuto?! The prince?!" Diavel cried.

Eugeo didn't waste time on Kazuto's real identity. "We're running out of time."

"Before I came here, Lord Raios reassured us that we are definitely safe. What is going on now?" Asked the dumbfounded chief.

"Unfortunately, things have gotten out of hand. He unknowingly led Illfang towards the village. Everyone is endangered."

The chief gritted his teeth in irritation. "W-what?! It can't be, we have to fight!"

Alice, who was standing quietly behind Eugeo the whole time, lost her patience and decided to step in.

"It's not just a beast." Alice was looking down, her bangs covering her eyes as she grabbed onto the chief's arm. Then, she looked up to him, and her narrowed sapphire eyes glared sharply at Diavel. "Evacuate everyone, or expect them to be dead by sunrise."

Taken by surprise by the forward yet factual words, Diavel stepped backward. Realizing the risk, he decided to remain silent, still hesitant whether to believe these strangers. He took a glimpse at Asuna who was behind them, expecting her to make a statement, only to receive a strong, authoritative glare from her that made him feel like he was looking at someone who was to be revered like royalty.

"Save them, or kill them. It's your call."

While Kazuto's wound was temporarily numbed by the herbs Eugeo used, he carefully walked closer to the village. As his presence was known, the guards immediately surrounded him, inquiring of his motive.

"I'd like to speak to Raios," he declared.

These guards didn't wear the same uniforms as the one's in the kingdom. Clearly, Raios had brought his personal army, and there was no way they'd heed Kazuto right now, even if he was the Prince. They pointed their weapons at him.

"Oh, what a surprise. Turns out something like that wasn't enough to kill a savage like you." Raios appeared. The men surrounding Kazuto made a small entrance for the blond.

"I'm not here for any of your games, Raios. We're running out of time. We have to work together."

Apparently, Raios could only reply with a mocking chuckle. "What…what is this…" he tried saying. "My games, you say?" He slicked his blonde hair, then faced Kazuto, giving him a snide, smug look. "Oh I see, you have nowhere to go, don't you? Work together? Shut your nonsense! Why would I listen to you anyway? You should be dead!"

Suddenly, a soldier came, anxiously running towards Raios.

"My Lord!" he called, "Someone ordered to evacuate everyone, and right now, they're moving underground."

"What did you do, you bastard?!" he glared at Kazuto with rage.

"Raios, you have to listen. Illfang isn't the only opponent, with him is an army of Kobold Sentinels. If anything happens to this village, It'll be your fault and yours alone."

From Kazuto's eyes, Raios lowered his gaze until it landed on Kazuto's injured leg.

Kazuto was sure that he caught a glimpse of Raios smirking, as it seemed like he wasn't listening to anything Kazuto told him. The Prince knew that Raios was still planning something that was at odds with him, but he had to control his emotions and focus on the more important matter.

Raios opened his mouth, but before he could say something, the clamorous sound of the crowd arguing interrupted him.

"What's going on?"

Alarmed, the two royal-blooded ran towards the source of the sound, which led them towards the village's great hall. As they entered, the whole place was flooded with people, mostly adults who were in a chaotic state, complaining, yelling, and confused. Right at the platform beside the village chief Diavel was a flaxen-haired knight who was wearing an emotionless face, his eyes were surfing across the sea of people as if he was enjoying the commotion. However, only a single command from Raios caused the hall to fall silent.

"People, calm down!" he said before rushing towards the platform and turning towards the blue-haired villager. "Chief, what is going on here?"

"Lord Raios, I received an order from the royal prince to evacuate everyone as soon as possible, as well as the urgent news, but the people didn't seem to believe it unless it was you, whom we believe in, will tell them." Fear and uneasiness were clearly written on the poor chieftain's eyes.

"I see…" Raios mumbled, hiding a grin at how he had already gotten the people's favor.

"Gracious Lord Raios, is this even true? Who is this prince?!" said a man from the crowd.

"Why would he say such things when he didn't show up and scout the place as you did? That's nothing but a lie!" Another one said.

"We're all safe here! A single beast like that can't attack us; the whole place is surrounded by your royal guards in every corner!"

"What's gonna happen after we hide? He'll laugh at us for being such foolish idiots, hiding from a stupid, obvious prank!"

"That prince must be trying to get rid of us!"

"That useless prince did nothing but play jokes and scare us. We're not going anywhere!"

Each insult that came out of their mouths were like spears, piercing straight to the raven-haired boy standing behind. If only they knew of the efforts and sacrifices he went through, all the pain he had to endure, the fear and suffering. Tilting his head downwards, he balled his fist in anger. He was hurt. He didn't have the intention of competing against Raios over this matter but it definitely felt as if they were pinning him down.

Suddenly, a soothing, gentle voice rang inside his head.

"...but just like a child, it seeks warmth."

That's right, Kazuto's motive was to truly protect them from harm. The small, simple words gave him courage. His numb body began moving on its own as he started walking towards the platform to confront the people himself. He began to ascend the few stairs, walking straight to reveal himself.

Everyone recognized him, and it struck them as his presence alone caused the commotion to subside. Now everyone can see the bruises and exhaustion his body went through; they saw how banged up he was. But one question remained in their heads: Why is this person standing here? Hoping for their question to be answered, every single person remained silent, locking their gazes at the boy dressed in black.

"For a full day, I studied Illfang's every move while at his blind spot. He stays in his cave, only comes out when he hunts or when something is lurking outside its pit. Those were probably his 'normal' things to do daily, not until a certain group of men tried setting a trap outside its cave." The people continued to listen while Kazuto took a glimpse at Raios before continuing, "As soon as Raios and his men left, the beast found me but it didn't heed to my presence and brought out more than fifty smaller Kobold's. And the last time I checked, their slow movements heading towards the direction of the village."

Everyone felt silent. Everything he said seemed believable. However, a hysterical laugh coming from a blond resounded.

"And what's next Kazuto? Everyone here will be eaten alive?" he mocked.

Despite being insulted, the prince maintained a straight face as he looked at Raios.

"What are you trying to do, my prince? Make me look like the bad guy so you can be the hero?" The crowd was stunned upon Raios statement as he confirmed Kazuto's identity.

Smiling, Kazuto replied. "I only have the same intention as you, Lord Raios. Unless you have something up your sleeve. By the way, it was very kind of you to help me with my search."

"Tch," Raios gritted his teeth in annoyance before facing the murmuring crowd.

"Lord Raios, does this mean that what he said is true?"

"Are we all going to die?!"

"No! It's not true! I still don't believe it!"

"Listen, everyone," said Raios calmly. "You don't have anything to worry about, we'll protect all of you, no matter what. We'll solve this issue immediately, but for now, you must return to your homes. Sorry for bothering you at such a late hour."

Return? Kazuto furrowed his brows and worriedly stepped forward but before he could say anything, Raios stood in front of him. Kazuto looked behind to see the people make their way out of the hall.

A smirk escaped from Raios' lips before he whispered into Kazuto's ear. "Watch your mouth, prince."

Silently watching from the corner, the chestnut girl restrained herself from stepping in. However, she was very much disgusted by the way Raios treated Kazuto. Before Eugeo could stop her, Asuna was already walking towards the two nobles.

She was going to pull Raios by his collar and tell him how stupid he was being, or she could directly point her rapier to his throat. Asuna gritted her teeth. How could Raios shame and belittle Kazuto like that as if he was some incompetent, selfish nobleman? Her right hand reached for the handle of her sword. She gripped on it, ready to unsheath the blade.

"Are you going to repeat the same thing before, Kazuto? Let me remind you…" Raios said.

What he said completely puzzled Asuna. Was it about Kazuto's past? She then looked up to the prince only to find his head tilted downwards, eyes covered by his forelocks. Asuna's eyes trailed down to Kazuto's hand who started loosening the grip on his sword.

"...that you can't protect anyone...no matter how much you want to prove it, in the end, it'll always be the same, you'll fail."

"Y-you!" Kazuto lost his cool. His face was wrinkled in anger, teeth-gritting, and eyes brutally glaring at Raios as he unsheathed his sword and pointed it towards the blondie. "I already warned you the next time you'd speak of her, I'm going to kill you!"

But instantly, Raios' guards didn't let even the tip of the Night Sky touch their master. Kazuto was surrounded by weapons aiming towards him.

"Oh, are you going to prove me right?"

Defenseless, Kazuto looked sideways as his eyes met Asuna's anxious ones. He had no choice, the rest of his allies were also threatened by weapons against their bodies. Eugeo was held down by two soldiers, while Asuna and Alice had swords pointed at their throats.

Left with no choice, Kazuto dropped his sword on the floor. Raios laughed at Kazuto's humiliation and tapped his shoulder before whispering in his ears, "Be careful, you might get your friends killed."

Raios continued chuckling and left along with his guards until all there was left in the huge now empty hall was Kazuto and his allies.

Since then, everything in Kazuto's past went back to him. It pierced him like a two-edged sword, sinking slowly in his chest.

Raios knew Kazuto's weakness, all he had to do was trigger his past.

Without saying a word, the prince picked up his sword and dashed out of the hall.

"K-Kirito!" Asuna was about to run after him when Eugeo held her.

"Give him some time," he said.

Asuna worriedly looked in the direction Kazuto had run off, she wanted to go after him, but she also knew Eugeo was right.

Running without any destination in mind, Kazuto continued until he was out of breath. He finally stopped at a small spring found within the village, unaware of the tears streaming down his face.

'...be strong...don't be afraid...I love you…'

His body was numb, and his chest, for some reason, felt heavier. He fell on the ground, sobbing, as his clothes began to moisten with his sweat.

"...it was all my fault...I can...I can never do it...please...please mother, forgive me…"

"Mama, what's gonna happen to him?" the raven-haired young prince asked. His saddened, big onyx orbs gazed up at his mothers, and cuddled close to her, seeking more of her warmth in the cold, rainy evening. "He must be really lonely, and scared." he mumbled.

His mother wore a bright smile on her face and closed the story book in hand. She then brought her hand to her child's face and caressed it gently, moving a few of his forelocks away.

"It is, but little did he know that someone back home was waiting for him to return…" she replied and gently guided the young boy to lie on the bed before she tucked him under a thick, soft blanket. "She waited, and waited, and waited, hoping for him to return…"

"And did he return, mama?" asked the Prince.

"Mhm, he did." His mother nodded.

"And when he returned, was she still there?" the young boy kept throwing so many questions that his mother chuckled at his eagerness.

"I guess...we'll have to wait until tomorrow night for the continuation."

"Aww, mama, come on!" complained the young boy. "He was captured because he saved his family. I wanna know if there was someone to meet him when he comes home! Mama, it's scary to be alone…" he pulled the blanket closer to his chest as his voice trailed off. Lightning flashed and thunder roared, lighting up the room in quick bursts, before everything went dark once more.

"Oh Kazuto, you're not gonna be alone," his mother chuckled before placing a soft kiss on his forehead and continued to brush his hair with her fingers. "Someday, when you grow up, you're going to be a great King. You may have enemies, but you're a great child Kazuto, you can be a lot of things, you can be more…"

She smiled at him while he continued to look at his mothers loving eyes. "You will have a lot of friends, and you might be doubtful of who to trust, but always remember that I will always be here for you. No matter what," she placed her hand on his chest as a seal of her promise. "Mama will never leave you, so you will never be alone, and there will be nothing to be scared of. I love you, Kazuto."

A smile crept on his face, and his eyes lit up in a different way. Yes, his mother loved him, and at this moment, it was all that mattered.

"Mmh! I love you too, mama! So I'm not going anywhere too! I'll always be with you!" he suddenly moved from where he was just to tackle his mother with a surprise embrace.

She giggled and hugged him back. "Oh, Kazuto, you're such a sweet boy…"

They stayed like that for a few moments in silence before the young Kazuto broke the hug and looked at his mother with a worried look.

"Mama, can you stay with me until I sleep? It's really cold without you…" he was looking away, afraid of rejection, but his mother lifted his face to reassure him.

"Of course I will."

And just like that, the cold emptiness was replaced with warmth. As royalty, he had everything, but he was already content with what little he had at this moment; just this warmth, this warmth that he could never find in anyone else.

But suddenly, just like in the blink of an eye, it disappeared. In the middle of the dark night, the pouring rain, and the frightening thunderstorm, the young prince woke up.

"Mama?" The boy slowly awakened from his sleep and groggily sat up while rubbing his eyes. He looked around, but all that the candlelight allowed him to see was that he was alone.

The rain continued to pour heavily and despite the warm coat over his body, the boy shivered.

"Mama, it's so cold...Where are you…?" he mumbled again, but this time, he attempted to get off his bed, to search for his beloved mother.

He walked directly towards the door and tiptoed to reach the knob before twisting it open. Now outside of his chamber, it became colder. He shivered and rubbed his arms, "Brrr, mama, when will this rain stop…"

He walked further in the wide hallway and surprisingly, he found it empty. There were no guards, unlike every other time he'd seen it.

"...ma~ma…" he called again in a sing-song voice. He continued walking, naively following the guidance of the hallway, and eventually, his surroundings became unfamiliar to him.

He was lost.

He heard a rapid sound of running footsteps. He wasn't scared though, for some reason. He turned around, but with relief and excitement instead of fear.

"Mama!" his face brightened and a wide smile appeared in his face when he ran to meet her with arms wide open.

"Kazuto, where have you been?" she asked worriedly as she embraced him with relief and the heavy sweat falling from her forehead was unnoticed. "Oh, thank goodness! I thought they already got you!"

"You were gone...I was...I was looking for you…" came the muffled answer from the boy.

The Queen, his mother, constantly kept looking behind her and her breathing intensified.

"Were you scared, mama? I'm...sorry..." Kazuto asked and placed his tiny hands to cup his mothers cheeks. But before she could answer, the sound of heavy footsteps and accompanying clanging metal caused her to panic, and she immediately hid in the closest room she could find.

She sat her son down and crouched to level with him. "Listen, Kazuto," she whispered while holding his hand. "We need to leave. You're not safe here, anymore," she cupped his cheeks and tucked his long forelocks behind his ear. She stared into his eyes and the young prince was able to see the fear in her eyes.

"Why..?" he asked curiously.

"Kazuto, I promise to tell you, but for now, you need to listen and do as I say. Okay?"

Kazuto nodded and his mother could see the worry in his face. She smiled, and that single smile of hers made him feel secure once more. "Don't worry, mama will protect you." She looked around and when her eyes landed on a woven basket, large enough to hide an eight-year-old child, she immediately picked him up and hid him there. Before covering it with the lid, she took a deep breath and hugged Kazuto for the last time.

"You stay here, okay? No matter what happens, don't come out. I'll be right back, Kazuto. Just wait for me. Don't come after me, mama will be fine." She placed a kiss on his forehead and her eyes tearfully focused on his face, burning every inch of his features in her memory, praying that this wouldn't be the last time her eyes would ever look into his. "Promise me Kazuto, don't come after me, don't go anywhere. Promise me.."

The boy was hesitant, and for an eight year old, he was smart enough to understand his mothers movements. "Just come back, mama. Don't take too long...I don't wanna be alone."

"You're not going to be alone, I promised you that." She smiled and caressed his cheeks. "Now, it's your turn to promise me that you're not going to follow me."

"I...I promise…"

"Be strong, don't be afraid. I love you."

He started crying, pouring his heart out, but no matter how much he wailed, bawled and lamented, the dagger in his heart continued to twist. For all these years, he kept it hidden; concealed, as if it hadn't existed. And countless times did he convince himself that he had accepted it, that he had moved past it, but it was all a lie. He really chose to forget because the pain was too much for him to take. Right now, it was like his wounds had been reopened, and that the shattered pieces of his broken heart drove him insane as they scraped away at his insides, reminding him that he would make that mistake again, and that it was only a matter of time before it happened.

"It was all my fault...my fault...my…"

He clutched his hair and fell on the ground with his knees.

"K-Kirito!" a feminine voice called onto him only to let it pass.

His breathing became heavier and tears falling from his face became uncontrollable.

"Stop...please stop...stop it…" he mumbled.

Just then, he was pulled into an embrace. There were no words in that moment but the warmth he long sought finally touched his skin again.

"It's okay...Just let it out...I'm here…" she said softly, bringing him closer to her chest and listened as he cried in her hold.

"If only...if only…I…"

A few hours had passed, and nothing had ever come inside the room. The young prince could have fallen asleep but he fought that drowsiness away as he still hoped to wait for his mama to come back.

He reached out his hand to push the basket lid.

"What's taking you so long mama…" he mumbled to himself as he peeked his head out of the basket. Just then, he heard a high-pitched scream of agony from a woman. But not any ordinary woman, it was a very familiar voice.

Confused, the boy's heart rate increased and without a second thought, he got out from his hiding place and dashed out of the door.

"Where...where are you…" he looked back and forth but the hallways left no hints of where that voice came from. He continued walking, and the promise he made just a few hours ago had faded in his memory.

"No!" There was another scream, and he could tell that it was vividly the Queen's voice.

The scream went on and Kazuto followed the voice until it got louder and louder, and he eventually found himself standing in front of a big, wooden door. It wasn't fully closed and the boy peeked into the small gap. His eyes widened at the scene before him.

A very peculiar man slapped the Queen's face, making her fall to the floor.

"No matter what you do, I'm not letting you take him!"

"Oh, that is very heroic, your majesty." He replied before taking her by the hair and drew his face closer to hers. "It's okay, don't worry, you can always have another prince whom we approved."

"I'm not letting you touch him, Vassago!" the Queen retorted by slapping him by the face and her long nails caused a scratch on his face.

"Argh!" Vassago touched his face and out of anger, kicked the Queen on her abdomen, sending her rolling on the floor.

Kazuto couldn't watch any longer. He pushed the door with all his strength and dashed towards his mother, hugging her tightly as tears started falling from his eyes.

"M-mama, get up…" Kazuto begged.

His sudden appearance stunned her, but it also scared her even more.

"K-Kazuto! What are you doing here?! I told you to wait for me!"

Vassago started laughing. "I knew it, I knew it. Boy, I was waiting for you!" He grabbed Kazuto by the neck and the poor boy choked when Vassago lifted him off the ground. "Oh...what an unfortunate Prince you are."

The Queen hopelessly looked up to her child, then looked around. There were three people dressed in the royal guards' armor but there is no doubt that they are Vassago's people, infiltrating the castle. She didn't know what trick he pulled off this time but she was certain that there was no escape.

'I will protect you Kazuto,' she said inwardly before pushing Vassago to let him release Kazuto from his hold.

The Queen then embraced her son protectively, using her body as a shield to protect her son from any danger.

"You damn woman!" Vassago used his foot to hit the queen, leaving Kazuto defenseless as she fell onto the ground and in the worst case, a large broken glass pierced through the side of her abdomen, earning a loud scream of pain from her.

"Mama!" Kazuto tried to embrace her but Vassago slapped him away.

"You're such a bad kid. Didn't your mama tell you to stay where you are? Now, look at her," Vassago kicked her once more. She rolled from the force until her head hit the wall. The poor prince widened his eyes at the horrific scene. His body turned numb and he can't even control his body to move. Vassago went closer to his ear and whispered, "She's all hurt, and it's all your fault."

Vassago started laughing maniacally. And watching his mother in such a state forced Kazuto to gather all the courage to run towards her. He protectively embraced her and glared to Vassago.

"K-Kazuto...run...go…" his mother weakingly said, looking up to him. "...run...away…"

"No mama. I'm not going to leave you!" Kazuto insisted.

But Vassago grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him away, separating him from his mother. Kazuto tried to fight back, kicking his legs, and screaming, though his hands were trying to reach for his mother, but Vassago was so strong that Kazuto's resistance didn't budge.

The said strange man mercilessly dropped Kazuto down but the boy could only look at his mother and tried to reach for her again. Vassago immediately held his chopper and raised it with his hand with a big grin on his face but before he could swing it downwards, they heard a few running footsteps that were presumably heading towards their directions, and at this moment, the Queen started losing her consciousness.

"Sir, I think they got in. We gotta hurry. It won't take long before they get through the diversion." One of his men said.

"Tch!" Vassago could only grit his teeth in dismay. "Too bad, I wanted to play longer." He gazed down at Kazuto who is sweating heavily, and is now at his mother's side.

"Go away!" the boy yelled as his tears continued falling.

"K-ka..zu..to...just...run...go…" his mother forced herself to utter those words while her right hand pressed her abdomen where she was bleeding heavily from the impact.

"I said no mama! No! I don't want to leave you! I want to stay with you! I don't want you to go!" Kazuto cried, gently holding his mothers face with his trembling hands.

Just then, Vassago stepped closer to them. The Queen had no strength left in her so Kazuto stood in front and courageously spread his arms apart as if protecting her.

"Don't touch her!" he yelled.

"Oh, don't worry kid. I'm not here for her, I'm here for you!" Vassago announced excitedly, raising his chopper once more, and all Kazuto could do was close his eyes, waiting for the blade to slice through his body, but it never did. When he opened his eyes, he saw the familiar figure standing in front of him, giving everything to protect him. It was true, those killers were there for him, but the one who fell in their hands was his protector, his mother.

"No!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. His voice was probably too loud that the next second, five royal guards broke in the room they were in. But unfortunately, their lives were also ended right there by those mysterious killers.

They could have gone after Kazuto, but it was too late as the sun already started to rise.

As quick as that, Kazuto was left there to be the only one alive. He had blood all over his body, but he laid next to his mother. He knew she would never open her eyes again and yet embraced her.

"Mama...you're so cold…" he sobbed.

Several minutes passed and the guards, as well as the King himself found them. Kazuto was crying endlessly, begging not to let go of his mother, and repetitively muttering "I'm sorry," as he did.

And ever since then, everything changed.

As Kazuto grew up, he was pronounced a 'cursed child'. Everyone feared him, and with the greedy council's work, a rumor about how the boy was evil and insane spread, blaming all the deaths on him. With no other knowledge about the murder, the people of Aincrad believed the only story they were told.

And it was the moment where Kazuto shut himself down. He barely made any appearances, and he never participated in the running of the country. It was as if Aincrad didn't have a prince.

Because it was all his fault…

A mountain of guilt was placed on his shoulders, and he felt it crush him just a bit more in every waking moment. He found it impossible to stop blaming himself for the disaster that happened that day. It was all because of him, and if he listened, no one would have died that day.

Ever since then, he stopped believing in promises.

"A-Asuna...a-are you...going to leave me?" he asked in between sobs as his cries finally started to subside.

Asuna's soft fingertips carefully brushed his damp raven-hair as he leaned in her chest.

"No, I'm not. I'll stay here in Aincrad with you," came her bold reply.

"Liar."

Kazuto pulled away from her while tilting his head downwards, bangs covering his eyes.

"You're the same as her. Why are you saying that?...Eugeo said he'll soon go back to the Underworld, and he'll take Alice with him. You'll have to go too, right?! So why did you say that you'd stay with me when you'll have to leave anyway?!" Kazuto covered his eyes with his forearm and continued sobbing. "Why do people I love always leave?! I'm really...selfish…"

Asuna was taken by surprise. Kazuto hadn't told her a single thing about the truth behind his tears but why is she feeling the pain he is in right now?

"K-Kirito! I—"

"No. It's true. I couldn't protect anyone. I'm a failure...and if this village falls, it's also going to be my fault."

"You really are an idiot, aren't you?" Asuna tried to slap some sense into him. "The reason why I'm here right now is because of you! I'm alive because of you! I'm alive because you saved me! You protected me! So stop listening to them...You also saved Eugeo, and I'm truly thankful for that! Back in Dicey Cafe, Agil and the rest always looked forward to seeing you, wondering when you'd come back..."

Kazuto was taken by surprise. He knew of those things but he probably didn't realize it, not until she told him. He then felt his hand wrapped by her soft, warm hands.

"This Village won't lose. I believe in you. And more importantly, I'll be there with you when you, as well as Eugeo, and Alice. So don't ever think about giving up, Kazuto."

Asuna pulled him closer into an embrace, gave him a soft stroke through his hair and whispered in his ear. "You must've been carrying this burden by yourself, haven't you? Remember, we're all here for you, and we want to help."

Kazuto wanted to embrace her back. He reached out his hand but the next moment, he hesitated and retracted his hand. He hated how he couldn't reciprocate such a small gesture. They were in the middle of a crisis and needed to act as fast as possible, but a small part of him wanted to make this moment last forever. He just didn't want her to let go.

After a moment of silence, Kazuto's tears dried. He took Asuna's hand and unwrapped himself before pulling away from her, and suddenly, a smile appeared in his face.

"Yeah...you're right...I'm such an idiot for not seeing that." He stood up from where he was and Asuna could only look up to him in astonishment. "I'm sorry if you had to see me like that," he chuckled slightly. "But it was all thanks to you, Asuna, that I could stand again." He extended his hand for Asuna to reach and said with a determined look. "I'm going to fight again, but I can't do it alone, so will you please help me, Asuna?"

The guilt in his past still lingered in him but the pain he felt didn't hurt as much as before now.

Asuna gladly took his hand and Kazuto pulled her upwards to help her stand up. "Yes, let's fight together, Kirito!"


A/N:

Thank you for your patience, everyone! Please let me know your thoughts about this chapter if you enjoyed it. Thank you and I hope to see you again on the next update.