The first thing Lino saw as he opened his eyes was a drooling face looming over him, her eyes closed yet twitching occasionally, lips mumbling indiscernible words. He felt a tight tug at his chest, fingers digging into his skin, yet relentless calm of it all, as though he was standing in the eye of the storm as it was blowing the whole world apart. His lips curled up in an involuntarily smile as he raised his arm and caressed her slightly wet cheek.
He got up gently and slowly, holding back a grunt, sitting down and pulling her into his embrace. Heaving his head up, he realized they were still in the hollowed center of the mountain, with the same throne of bones and skulls stretching into nothingness up above, with the same stench of faint decay assailing his nostrils. Yet, he wanted to be nowhere else in the whole world; there was a pull he couldn’t quite describe, tying him to this very moment.
“Ugh... god, I gotta do something about that drooling...” Hannah mumbled as she opened her eyes, taking a second to realize what was happening. “Oi!! Shit. You saw me drool, haven’t you?!” she shot up on her feet and looked at Lino, wiping away at her mouth.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s adorable you think I didn’t see it a billion times by now.” Lino smiled cheekily, getting up as well. “And, yeah, it’s a little bit disgusting, but, you know, it’s mostly cute.”
“This conversation is not over!” she exclaimed, frowning. “When’d you come back?”
“Right now, actually.” Lino replied.
“... how was it?”
“It was... unexpected,” Lino said. “Met some girl called Eve.”
“... t-the... the Nightmare Eve?” Hannah stuttered out. “T-the most insane... Empyrean ever?”
“... you know her?” Lino asked.
“Of course I know her! Everyone knows her!” she exclaimed. “Every Bearer literally ever is shown at least one Archaic record containing her to teach us how insane you guys are!”
“...” Lino sighed lowly, feeling a sting of bitterness.
“S-so... you know, did... did you fall in love with murder-y stuff... more? ‘Cause, you know, I love you... and I totally support that.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Oh, thank god! I mean, I love you, but I’m totally against that!”
“... ha ha, yeah...”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, seeing Lino’s strange expression.
“... I don’t know,” he mumbled, sighing. “I mean, you saw an insane woman going on a rampage...”
“... and I saw someone so broken I actually managed to convince myself I’m completely sane for a moment there.” he said.
“Well, of course you did,” Hannah said. “I mean, we’re selectively shown specific moments that make the Empyreans look as bad as possible. You, you know, are shown moments that make them seem... less insane.”
“No, no, I get that,” Lino chuckled. “I pretty much discovered it during the first Record. But... this was different Hannah. It was Eshen all over again... but, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, probably even more insane.”
“Eshen? Who’s Eshen?” she asked.
“Oh, I suppose she’s the failed one of sorts,” Lino said as he reached into the pouch and took out Grim, causing the bird to cry out in joy before climbing with Hannah on top of his back and ascending to crawl out of the hole through which they came in. “With both of them... it was the ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ scenario. No matter what they did... they could have never won. Eshen... was simply a normal girl forced into the path of relentless slaughter. And Eve? Eve was a broken girl who was given all the tools she could ever ask for to remedy all the pain she felt in her life. It’s just... bitter, you know?”
“... aren’t you the same, though?” Hannah asked. “However tough their lives were, Lino, I very much doubt yours can’t stand on equal grounds.”
“It’s not about lives, Hannah. It’s about who we are,” he said. “I mean, yeah, I didn’t have the prettiest of childhoods... but, through every period of my life that mattered, there was someone there for me, you know? First it was Ally, then it was you, then there were Eggor and Ella... do you believe even for a second that if it weren’t for you guys... I would have stood any chance at all of making it all the way here on my own?”
“...” though she very much wanted to say yes, Hannah knew she couldn’t; had she not been there to stop Lino, there was no doubt he would have gotten himself killed one way or another.
“But, neither Eve nor Eshen... ever had anyone. They felt abandoned by the world. They merely took two different paths; Eve descended into madness, externalizing her anger... and Eshen made herself into an image of a holy savior to remedy all that she had done. They... never truly, really stood a chance.”
“... no,” Hannah sighed. “I suppose they didn’t. But... you do.” she added, wrapping him in her arms and pulling him into her tight embrace.
“... Valkyria was right.”
“By god you know a lot of girls dude.” Hannah sighed bitterly. “I know I said I’m cool and everything, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting, alright?”
”Oh, don’t worry. I haven’t slept with any of them.” Lino chuckled.
“No, I know. I just wish that one time when we’re having a serious discussion, you’d say ‘Oh damn babe, I used to know this Bob dude and he really had some great ideas that I think we should discuss’. Just, you know, to balance things out.”
“... ha ha ha ha,” Lino burst out into laughter, madly unable to contain it as even Hannah was unable to resist joining in after a few moments. “Sorry, I promise the next time I bring up something serious, it will be definitely that Bob next door who prompted it.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to Bob, you know? What about Felix? He... he seems like a, uh, young lad who’s got things figured out, you know?”
“Felix?” Lino glanced at her oddly. “Yeah...”
“Isn’t he your disciple dude?”
“Well, yeah, but he’s not here, you know? God, that dude’s one indecisive fuck. But, to be fair, he’s also quite brave. I mean, he did follow me all the way here. Couldn’t have been easy.”
“... eh, it was probably the easiest decision he ever made in his life.” Hannah said.
“Right. Because of Lucky.”
“No, idiot. Because of you,” she rolled her eyes at him, slapping back of his head gently. “You both make our lives harder and easier. It’s a paradox I’m afraid we’ll never figure out.”
“... tell me about it.” he mumbled into the void, his eyes dimming for a moment.
It has dawned on him through conversation with Hannah that they had very different perspectives on past, as they had seen two completely different versions of it. He’d seen Empyreans being hunted down like beasts, taking their last stands with pride and dignity, while she saw Empyreans running rampart and sowing chaos wherever they walked and in whatever they did.
He’d also realized it wasn’t merely limited to the Empyreans of the past, but to all the events that lived and died there. They know two entirely different histories, two entirely different realities... as neither is wrong as neither is right. World isn’t made up of events alone, strung together in an order that makes sense; it is made up just as much of interpretations as is of the events themselves. Just like paintings, or plays, or stories... it hardly ever is just as it is.
The blending of the two realities they lived, Lino realized, is the entire magic of it all. When she sees Holy Grounds, she sees her Brothers and Sisters, she sees laughter and joy... her home. He doesn’t. Just the same way that when he sees orphanages, dirty slums and ordinary, old people... he sees a reflection of who he is. The whole world is made up of these differences that link against all odds; Ella and Eggor, two people who by all reason should have never even known one another... wound up together. Lucky and Felix, stark contrasts in who they are... crossed whatever walls stood between them.
Billions of other examples lay scattered, Lino realized, that he’s not privy to. Just like Eve and Eshen, who were never supposed to mantle the title of an Empyrean... yet did. It wasn’t even that their failures were guaranteed, but more that odds were so stacked against them they virtually never stood a chance. He thought of Fate for a moment, wondering of the infinity of choices she has to disregard for each choice an individual makes... and he finally realized why she wished for a world with the pretense of free will. He, too, would very much love it if someone swooped in and gave him all the answers, solved all his problems, and did all the things he doesn’t want to do.
But he knew that wasn’t how the world worked; a huge part of the reason as to why he was currently flying on a mythical bird with a woman he was never supposed to even meet let alone see naked more than once of her own free will is that nobody else figured things out for him, but that he bled and cried through every mistake he ever made, through every wrong turn he’d taken... all to get where he was now. In paradise.