A swirl of memories barraged Lino’s mind, tracing all the way back to the Umbra Kingdom, to where he took the very first, baby steps of his journey. He remembered the quaint night, the lonely and silent streets, and the silver-haired maiden he’d accidentally ran across on his stroll. He remembered the solemn and mysterious black eyes that peered through his soul and left him chilled for a moment, and he remembered the tranquility her mere presence brought.
He remembered saving her, remembered her faint blushes and innocent prying, and he remembered her jovial, youthful voice. An encore of moments the two shared blasted away at him, stunning him momentarily. All of them were distant memories, ones he buried deep in his heart as seeds of his motivation. He’d let go of her a long time ago, put her in a safe corner of his heart to forever be remembered, and moved on. Yet, in front of his eyes, she appeared like a specter, endowed in white sheen of ghastly origin. She still had same, black eyes, yet they lacked the luster and shine of youth and innocence; they appeared sagacious, aged and slightly conflicted.
Lines of her face spoke of her age, yet hardly diminished her beauty. Her posture, more so than everything else, had changed; she sat upright, one of her legs crossed over the other, confidence, indifference and faint bashfulness present in nearly every one of her movements. She had lost her innocent quiver, he mused, yet obtained something far more valuable: wisdom.
A faint smile hanging off her lips proved spectacularly enchanting, as though she were casting a magic spell on all those who beheld it. Everything about her has changed, yet he still managed to recognize her in a heartbeat. He suddenly reached with his arm and grasped at her head, confirming she wasn’t just an overdue demon projected from his heart. She was very much real and alive, sitting there, next to him, beneath the full moon and a sky full of stars, in a distant land neither of the two in their youthful days even knew existed. The moment seemed beyond ethereal and impossible, yet Lino accepted it quickly all the same.
“... you’ve changed too,” he said, smiling lightly. “Though, considering I thought you were dead, any state but that one would have marked your change, well, remarkable.”
“Ha ha ha, no, no, I was wrong,” Freya laughed bewitchingly. “You still have a way with words.”
“I better,” Lino said. “If you took that away from me, what would I have left? Just my handsome looks, impeccable intellect and ability to set all women who look at me on fire? Psh, practically nothing.”
“Ha ha ha, yeah, you are still same old Lino,” she said, her lips suddenly stretching out into a smile Lino recognized, one he’d seen many times many moons ago. “Indomitable. I’m happy to see the world hasn’t brought you down to your knees.”
“... not for the lack of trying.”
“Certainly not.” she nodded.
“... what happened?” Lino quizzed, the tone of his voice turning serious. “I thought... you died. But, well, clearly you didn’t.”
“... I was close to it,” she said, sighing as a flash of pain appeared in her gaze. “After Yox captured me, he locked me inside a tower... where I truly thought my end would come. In a way, actually, you saved me.”
“... eh? I did?” Lino asked with curiosity.
“Yeah, heh. As I stood inside that room, looking out the window into the blackened mist... I thought of you, you know? I knew inside my heart I could never let him do the things he wanted to do... so I was merely readying myself for that leap. But, after I thought of you... I thought of a plan to escape. With a bit of trickery and luck, I made it seem as though I’ve leapt out of the window to my doom. Then I just waited with abashed breath in the darkness... until you showed up and blew it all away with a single spear. I saw you, you know?”
“Standing so far up in the sky, you appeared almost like the sun,” she continued, lowering her head. “And you banished the dark.”
“... why didn’t you call out, then?” Lino asked. “I would have heard.”
“I know you would have... but I couldn’t.” she chuckled, glancing at him. “You needed the fire... and I needed to learn not to depend on others to survive.”
“... well, seeing as you’re here,” Lino said. “I’d say that was a resounding success.”
“Ha ha ha, you could say so. I’m actually married to the Third Prince here. Can you believe it?”
“... tsk, you really can’t live without the royal title, can you?” he teased.
“No, I really can’t. Ha ha...”
“... how’d you find me?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ve been tracking you for almost five years now,” she said. “Ever since I got access to the resources of a massive Empire. I knew where you were before even you did.”
“... oookay... that’s a bit creepy.”
“Aww, what? A cute girl is stalking you and it’s creepy?”
“... no, you’re right. It’s actually kind of empowering. Though, I do have to inform you that I’m a happily taken man.”
“I know,” she said, smiling lightly. “To an Elysian, no less. I’d say I whored myself out for a better life, but boy, compared to you I’m a neat little housewife.”
“Oh? So you admit to having whored yourself out for a royal title?” Lino grinned, taking a sip of ale.
“... a little bit, yeah.” she replied with a coy smile, taking away the bottle from Lino and taking a sip herself. “Ugh, I still can’t get used to alcohol... how can you drink it so much?”
“Oh, it’s actually fairly simple,” Lino said. “Just realize that you have too many issues to deal with, so instead you use booze to lock ‘em up inside, neatly. Works wonders for your enjoyment of terribly bitter or sugary booze.”
“You’re a grown man now,” she said. “I’d have thought you’d have dealt with your issues by now.”
“Oh, I did. The problem was that just more and more issues kept appearing that I was previously unaware of. Did you know I for some reason have fear of the edges of the forests? Like, anytime I stop at the forest’s edge, I get chills all over and a desperate desire to run away.”
“I know! You’d think they’d at least make sense, but sheesh... how can I fix something when I don’t even know where it came from in the first place?”
“... pfft, ha ha ha ha... yeah, you’re still a bundle of weird and bizarre I remember you as. I’m glad.”
“... so... you’ve stalked me all these years. Did it ever cross your mind I might enjoy finding out you were alive?” he asked.
“It has,” she nodded. “But, the timing always felt... lacking. If anything, I was closer to approaching Lucky several times before. She’s had it way worse than you anyway.”
“... oh, yeah. That’s true. She’s here as well.”
“... of course you do. So, why now?” he asked.
“... it was time.” she said, taking a deep breath and glancing at the sky. “After all, you’ve made it all the way here. In my heart I knew it was time to meet you.”
“... are you happy?” he suddenly asked, surprising her.
“Are you happy?” he asked again.
“... yeah.” she replied with a warm smile. “I know I joked before, but I really do love Titus. We have two kids, you know?”
“Yeah, twins. Samuel and... Aeala.”
“Why’d you ask?”
“... because that’s all that matters,” he said, suddenly patting her head. “And, that glee in your eyes says you’re even holding back slightly.”
“... heh.” she chuckled meekly, lowering her head. “Thanks. But... the reason I wanted to see you wasn’t simply to let you know I’m alive.”
“It was to offer you my help.”
“Your help? With what?” he asked.
“Whatever you want,” she said, smiling. “One of the reasons why Titus and I fell in love was our mutual adoration of a single person. You.”
“... yeah, I don’t get it.” Lino said.
“Well, for me it was you,” she explained. “For him it was the Empyrean.”
“I never told him, don’t worry,” she quickly added. “But, it was one thing that brought us closer together. Him talking about your adventures for hours on end, and me listening, desperately trying to imagine you in those scenarios and repeatedly failing. I never had heart to tell him that his favorite hero was a cheeky, sly-tongued pervert more broken than that rose garden I’m supposed to be tending to.”
“... aww, how sweet of you,” Lino chuckled. “You kept a fan happy, that’s what really matters. But, since you’ve offered a helping hand, I’m not going to say no.”
“I’m planning on opening up a smithy here,” he said, glancing at the city. “And I hear paperwork’s a bitch.”
“... it really is.” Freya grinned.
“I bet knowing a Prince or a Princess might magically speed up the process, huh?”
“You bet correctly!”
“Oh, goody me. Can you believe how lucky I am? To accidentally run into a Princess in the middle of the street -- for the second time in my life, no less! Someone must be up there looking out for me!”
“Ha ha ha ha, perhaps, perhaps...”
“Now, I do need to bid you farewell,” Lino said, suddenly shuddering. “Because you are very beautiful, and there is a very jealous bride-to-be currently murdering me with her eyes.”
“... you two are perfect for each other,” Freya said, glancing back and meeting a pair of beautiful, emerald-green eyes; she smiled warmly, much to Hannah’s surprise as she didn’t recognize the girl. “Though they say two burning flames will merely clash till the time ends, they fail to realize they stay together till the time ends. I’m happy you found someone so perfect for you.”
“As am I,” Lino said, getting up and glancing back, chuckling wryly as he met Hannah’s fiery and questioning gaze. “Though she can truly be a pain in the ass from time to time...”
“Yeah, like you’re perfect,” Freya rolled her eyes. “Just be happy there’s someone out there willing to abandon her very own blood for you, Lino.”
“...” Lino watched Freya for a moment as she departed, her steps even and graceful, before turning and facing Hannah. His expression mellowed out, lips curling up into a gentle smile; though he appeared calm on the surface, his mind was a storm of turmoil and questions. An unexpected union provided far more question than it had answers... though in his heart he knew now was not the time to get to the bottom of everything. Now was the time to treasure what he already had.