World beneath blurred, blending together under the speed at which Grim was flying. Clouds split in the bird’s wake, the latter surrounded by peculiar and mysterious crimson sheen. On top of the bird’s back, Hannah and Seya were fast asleep, the latter neatly cradled in the former’s arms like a small babe despite nearly being eighteen years old herself.
Watching the two with a calm and warm smile, Lino sat opposite of them, slowly sipping away the ale inside the brown, leather gourd. These short moments, stuck in-between the peril and hell that was his life, were the ones he truly lived for. In them he could find otherwise unobtainable solace and peace, moments within which he could gather his bearings and press onwards. Though he’d fallen into a two-year long lull which wound up with him fighting a Dragon, Lino still considered these past two years a vacation of sorts. And now that vacation was coming to an end, signaling the beginning of a new epoch in his life.
He was very much honest when he told Edryss that he didn’t quite know what he was going to do; it was not due to the lack of things he ought to be doing, but due to the fact that it was difficult to prioritize. Even still, he didn’t let it all get to him; whatever may come, he was more than prepared to welcome it. More so than ever before in his life he felt confident in achieving his dreams and making his vision of the future, at least partly, become a reality.
He mused inwardly how he somehow managed to preserve his childish dream through everything that had happened to him and those around him. He had to, however, as if he couldn’t believe the world had a chance of becoming a better place, then what worth was his fight? Somewhere in his heart, he still believed everyone merely wished to live in unity, in perpetual peace void of bloodshed that the world is currently ravaged by.
Hannah grumbled lowly as her eyelashes fluttered, a pair of green eyes beckoning open. She yawned freely, hardly paying attention to her appearance. Stilling her movements somewhat as to not wake up Seya, she signaled Lino to hand her over a gourd as well, emptying half its contents in one go, seemingly finally satisfied.
“... I really fuckin’ salted the shit out of that boar meat,” she lamented with a sigh, putting the gourd down. “It’s going to haunt me for years. How long was I out?”
“Four-five hours,” Lino replied, taking a gulp. “Your ‘naps’ are getting longer and longer. Should I be worried?”
“What? You tired of creepily watching me in my sleep already?” Hannah fired back, grinning.
“How could I ever get tired of that? I could creepily stare at you sleep till the world burns to ash.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know, I used to find you far more romantic in the past,” she said, yawning again. “You used to floor me almost every day with the things you’d say. Nowadays it sounds more and more like an empty drivel.”
“... oof. Careful lady; take light of my feelings one-time-too-many and I just might lose it.” Lino chuckled, handing her another gourd.
“How far out are we?” she asked.
“About two hours away from the Fortress,” he replied. “We should land just in time for supper. Hopefully saltless one.”
“Oh, bite me. If you’re so dissatisfied with my culinary skill, learn them yourself.”
“And deprive my stomach of your food? Hardly seems worth it. I can still remember how awkwardly you used to make meals when you first started learning. It was rather adorable.”
“And what? Now it’s not?” she asked.
“Nah. Now it’s simply beautiful.”
“He tries and he tries, but alas... it seems she bears no more love for him in her rotted heart...”
“Your heart’s rotted, bastard,” she growled back. “Oh, right, I’ve been meaning to ask you -- why aren’t we flying on Vy? Wouldn’t the ‘cool factor’ of your entrance be amplified quite a lot?”
“... while I’ve got nothing against a cool entrance,” Lino said, smiling oddly. “I’m very much against announcing my arrival to the entire freaking world, you know? It’s not as though I can hide a twenty-mile long fucking Dragon, you dumbass.”
“Ah, how I wish your ‘dragon’ was twenty-mile long...” Hannah smiled wryly, winking.
“Your sinkhole never complains, though.” Lino replied in kind, mimicking her expression.
“... sinkhole? Really? What the fuck dude. You’re talking about my vagina as though it’s a swallower of the world or some shit.”
“Could I wake up once without you two talking about the stupidest shit in the world?” Seya growled lowly as she tore herself away from Hannah’s embrace, staring daggers at the two. “Sometimes -- and by sometimes I mean most of the time -- I think I’m literally the only adult here.”
“I thought I was an adult when I was seventeen too,” Lino said. “I really wasn’t, though.”
“You aren’t one now either, though.” Seya said.
“... hey, just ‘cause we’ve left the North doesn’t mean you can suddenly be so disrespectful to your Father,” Hannah chimed in. “He’s head of the house; our superficial recognition of his fragile ego is the only thing keeping him alive! Think of the Father, Seya!”
“Yes, listen to your Mother, Seya!” Lino quickly fired back. “Her dream of turning you into the version she could never become is the sole reason she hasn’t leapt off this bird to her doom! Think of the Mother, Seya!”
“...--” Seya remained silent, corners of her lips twitching.
“Oh my, she’s growing more and more immune to our horseshit,” Hannah said with a faint surprise. “A year or two and I think we’ll finally stop being funny to her.”
“And on that day you’ll watch a grown man weep like a babe.” Lino lamented.
“... pfft... fuck,” Seya finally cracked, stifling her laughter the best she could. “I really thought I could... ha ha, khm... really thought I could endure through that one...”
“So, have you made a choice?” Lino asked, taking another sip of ale.
“Aye, I think I’m gonna leave.” Seya replied without hesitation.
“Urgh--” Lino choked on the ale momentarily, looking at Seya with a hurtful gaze. “You have officially broken your first heart. Congratulations.”
“... why would I go back, you moron?” she rolled her eyes at him, trying to take away Hannah’s gourd with latter skillfully -- and seemingly ignorantly -- making it impossible. “Nothing awaits me back there. Here, at the very least, I’ll get the best seats watching you two suffer.”
“... oi, what have I done?” Hannah cried out. “I’ve been nothing short of a perfect, loving mother to you since I met you!”
“Oh, please, like she doesn’t know I wasn’t the one who stole her underwear that time by the lake,” Lino said, rolling his eyes. “Even for me that crossed a damn line.”
“W-w-what?!!” Seya cried out in shock, her cheeks flushing red as she shot up on her feet, pointing a finger at Hannah. “I-it was y-y-you?!! You?!!”
“... I’m so sorry.” Lino didn’t dare meet Hannah’s gaze, whistling under his breath and gazing forward, doing his best to ignore Hannah’s repeated apologies that lasted for the remainder of their journey.
The Fortress may have been invisible to the rest of the world, but not to Lino. Perhaps even without factoring the fact that he was the Fortress’ owner and could always see where it was, he might have been able to gaze past the sheen of array-bound defenses and look inside. But, it was an irrelevant conjecture.
He guided Grim through a small opening during a phaseout as they landed squarely at the foot of the Fortress, in front of the Southern Gate.
“WE’VE BEEN ATTACKED!!” the moment Lino, Hannah and Seya landed, a cry from the wall shook the entire fortress as the trio sighed, their shoulders slumping.
“Oh well. At least they’re quite quick... if not, you know, quick.” Lino mumbled.
“What if they fire away without confirming our identities?!” Seya quickly asked, a trace of panic flashing through her eyes.
“Then it was beyond lovely knowing you two,” Lino said, smiling faintly. “In another life, we could have had it all -- and lived on. Not in this one, though.”
“Who goes--eh?” a calm voice transformed into a surprised one as Lino looked up at the jetted walls, meeting a familiar pair of eyes, yet eerily strange face that left him gobsmacked. “Oh my. I did not know our invaders were you three. How lucky.”
“... I demand you transform back!!” Lino shouted immediately and angrily at that. “Your current appearance is corrupting!! Look at those poor lads next to you -- all they can see is you stripping for them!! How could they possibly guard this place like that?!!”
“... eh? You know her?” Hannah questioned from the side with faint jealousy, figuring the woman on top of the wall was one of Lino’s past lovers.
“What? How in the fuck don’t you recognize her? Didn’t you know her prior to her housewife days?” Lino shot back with a curious gaze.
“Housewife days?” Hannah quizzed, taking another look at the golden-haired, blue-eyed woman of beauty beyond description, shortly after exclaiming in surprise. “Ah! Ella! Oh my. I guess I blocked her appearance out of my head due to shame.”
“What for?” Lino asked. “You’re plenty more beautiful than her.”
“... yeah, keep patronizing me. That’s what I need right now.” she replied, corners of her eyes twitching in anger.
“Yeah, I don’t think he is,” Seya said, stepping up front. “I think his mind is so far gone he genuinely believes you’re the sole beautiful woman in the world. I think you’ve turned him into an idiot.”
“Well, come on up you three!” Ella cried out as she realized the trio down below entered a strange sort of silence; Seya stood up front with angry and broken expression, Hannah to her left with flushed cheeks and eyes stealthily glancing over Lino who was staring at Seya’s back with a pride -- like a father looking at a daughter who figured out something very important. Ella shuddered, pondering and wondering inwardly just how much the peace, order and stability of the Fortress is about to change in the coming days...