ALWAYS AND FOREVER
“... I’ll come with you.” a meek voice jolted Lino from a brief lull he had fallen into as silence fell over the two. He looked up slowly and met Alison’s trembling eyes as she quickly looked away. “Anyone stupid enough to invite their enemy into their home... needs to be taught a lesson...”
“...” Lino’s lips curled up into a wide smile as he suddenly chuckled, his arm extending outward, ruffling Alison’s hair. She froze in the spot, expecting pain; yet, it was strangely, horribly comforting. Calm and peace overwhelmed her, the likes of which she hadn’t experienced in years. “Whatever helps you sleep at night. Let’s go. You’ve spent long enough in this depressing world.”
She followed him meekly as he climbed out onto the ragged and cracked rock and stone, where Hannah and Lucky seemed to have finally finished talking with the surviving bunch who were all corralled in a small corner, seated on their knees, their heads lowered.
Both of them had rather unpleasant expressions as Lino and Alison walked up; the latter quickly scurried around him and went behind Lucky, hiding once more, causing Lino to bitterly smile and ponder whether he was truly that scary.
“C-can... can Lucky come? Please?” Alison suddenly asked, surprising Lino who looked up and met Lucky’s terrifying gaze.
“... aye, sure. I guess your guard dog can tag along.” he said, cracking a grin at her.
“S-she’s not a dog!! She’s a friend!!” Alison quickly corrected as Lino and Hannah laughed, while Lucky merely sighed deeply and shook her head. “W-why are you laughing?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Lino quickly said, coughing lowly. “Alison, Hannah tells me that your Sect is guarded by an Origin Dragon, no?”
“Y-you!! How could you divulge something like that to him?!” Alison quickly scowled at Hannah whose eyes shifted over to Lino, murderous in their make.
“Have you ever ridden one of them?”
“O-of course not!! Who would ever dare ride a majestic Dragon?!”
“... you fucking shit,” Lucky mumbled under her breath. “If a day could pass by without you manipulating someone...”
“... he he,” Lino cracked a smile as he struck a heroic pose. “And that’s why my side is better than yours! I summon thee, Vy!”
“Suck a dick, you spoiled brat.” a low growl roared throughout the world, stiffening blood in the veins of those who suddenly beheld a massive, fiery creature appear behind Lino, eclipsing the entire island and more. Vy floated just above, his sun-like eyes focused on Lino. “I regret that bet more than anything in my life.”
“Oh, my dear friend,” Lino shifted on his heel and met Vy’s gaze, smiling strangely. “Trust me... you haven’t even begun to regret it just yet. Anyway, Alison, I’d like you to meet Vy. My pet Dragon.”
“... b-bullshit!!” Hannah and Lucky nearly slipped over the rock beneath them as they turned toward Alison, their eyes wide. The latter, having realized what she just said, blushed deeply and lowered her head in shame.
"What bullshit?!" Lino growled, somewhat angry. "Bullshit are your Origin Dragons. Fuck ‘em. When I meet one of the fuckers, they better bless my sword or I'll shove it right up their massive assholes. Ain't that right Vy?"
“Pray they don’t use you as a toothpick, you prick.”
“Heh, I like that.” Lino chuckled.
"You like it? I've thought it up just now." Vy chuckled back.
“Yeah, yeah, a double entree. I’ll use it.”
“Just credit me first, lil’ bastard.”
“Humph, as if. What am I going to say? Oh, yeah, you know who came up with it? My pet Dragon.”
“Damn right I will, ha ha ha ha.”
“... goddammit. I fell right into that one.” Vy sighed.
"Damn right you did, you stupid lil' bitch." Lino grinned as he shifted toward three girls and almost inconspicuous Primul; Hannah had a proud grin on her face, Lucky a bitter smile, Alison an expression of utter confusion, while Primul had a rather dubious expression plastered, halfway between wonder, terror and pride. "Anyway, let's go. Climb up. I'll show you what it's like to fly a Dragon."
Hannah was the first to leap over without seemingly holding back, as she’d ridden Vy before. Primul followed right after, also seemingly unaffected by the fact. It was only Lucky, who was yet to ride Vy despite knowing Lino had him, and Alison, who couldn’t even begin to fathom that the Empyrean had a Dragon pet -- let alone the one of such similar ilk -- to say nothing of the fact that she would ride him.
It was only when Lucky dragged her over that she came to, perpetually hiding behind the former. Lino and Hannah sat up front, in-between two massive horns; Primul was a bit further back, meditating, while Lucky and Alison sat just at the beginning of the sprouting wings, both halfway between excited and terrified.
“... why’d you call me for this?” Lino asked Hannah as he handed her over a gourd, and as Vy took to the vast skies. “You could have handled it easily.”
“... it was time you met Ally again.” she replied, taking the gourd.
“... it’s too dangerous now.” Lino sighed, leaning against the horn. “I’ve got eyes on my back, Hannah. I can’t go kidnapping Bearers.”
“Whose eyes?” she asked. “Was your cover blown?”
“... remember that girl you riled me on about? The one I met at the fountain?”
“The Princess?” Hannah quizzed.
“... my gut is screaming at me... that it’s her.”
“Her. The mother, daddy, whatever you people call her.”
“Wh---” Hannah’s words got stuck in her throat as she trembled, causing Lino to suddenly grab her hand and hold it tightly. “T-thanks...” she mumbled meekly, sweat pouring down her forehead. “W-what... makes you say that?”
“It gets worse,” he added, taking a sip. “She was a part of my original group, with Lucky.”
"I'm worried," he added, sighing and glancing at her with a sheepish smile. "She's known who I am for so long... yet, she did nothing. Can you make heads or tails of that shit?"
“... no.” Hannah replied honestly, dragging herself over and leaning against his side. “What will you do?”
"It's just an Avatar, so it's pointless to do anything. Just a waste of energy and resources," he said. "I've mulled over whether I should tell you or not. What about it?"
"Definitely not." she chuckled bitterly. "Old are always right. Ignorance truly is bliss. You still decided to take Ally with us, though. Why?"
“... I can’t explain it,” he looked sideways and into her eyes for a moment. “But, it feels like I’m running out of time. Too many variables keep popping up left and right. I’ll have to meet with that old bastard once more. Ataxia, shield us.” he added toward the end as Hannah suddenly felt being ripped away from reality and thrown into an entirely different one.
“What is it?” she asked.
"Ally was being protected by two Descenders," he said. "If I had made a move on her, they would have most likely come out to defend her."
“... I suspected they might do that.”
“Regardless of their veiled support for you,” she said, chuckling faintly. “They are still all about balance, Lino. The one you disrupted when you killed Eos. If you simply go around killing Bearers and Writs, you will disrupt the world too much.”
“... in the end,” he sighed lowly. “That’s still who the world sees me as...”
“... who gives a crap about the world?” Hannah asked, snuggling closer in. “Let them think whatever they want. They think I whored myself out to you ‘cause I couldn’t resist your devilish charms.”
“And they are right on!”
“... you really think I fell in love with your devilish charms?” she suddenly looked up, surprising him faintly as he began rubbing her hair.
“... devilish charms, perfect body, brains... I’m just a whole package, girl.”
"... courage," she said, her lips curling up into a wonderful smile. "Honesty. Compassion. Kindness. Warmth. Naivety. Gentleness." she raised her arm slowly and caressed his cheek gently. "I fell in love with a man who would throw himself in the inferno to save a single life. I fell in love with someone who could look at the most corrupt world, and still see the beauty in it. I fell in love with someone who has enough heart to welcome anyone and everyone in his home. With someone who forgives. The world has no right to judge you, Lino. It's far filthier, far more terrible, far eviler than you have ever been."
“... ‘s that so?” he smiled back, lowering his head and planting his lips onto hers for a moment, closing his eyes as their foreheads touched. “I, on the other hand, fell in love with your tits, with your ass, with your--”
“Oh, you fucking dipshit, ha ha ha... I’m opening my heart here to you!!”
“Ha ha ha, so am I! What? Can’t a man love his girl’s perfect set of tits? Is that suddenly a terrible thing to do?”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk... what man? You’re still just a fifteen-year-old horny boy.”
“... your smile.” he suddenly said. “The first time I saw your smile... by that lake. I knew it. It’s the same smile that disarmed me time and again...”
“... eh, you’re getting there.” she flashed him another, causing him to chuckle.
“The way your hair flutters in the wind,” his hand washed slowly over her head. “Like fire. Untamed, unbound. Your heart,” he looked back into her eyes. “The way you pour it into everything you do. Your voice,” his lips slumped down and over hers, touching them gently. “How it can go from highest of highs to lowest of lows within a single breath. Your expressions... the way you keep surprising me, even today, with all of them. The fact that, no matter what I do, no matter how stupid it may be... you are always right there, by my side, supporting me.”
“... hm,” she smiled warmly and closed her eyes, pulling onto his chest. “Once sly-tongued... always sly-tongued...”
“... marry me Hannah.”
“Hm?” she looked up, her eyelashes fluttering.
“When we get home,” he said, smiling. “Marry me.”
“... can I wear a pretty, white dress?”
“You can wear anything.”
“Can I have a cake?”
“You can have anything.”
“Then I want you to give Vy to me, to become my pet.” she said.
“...” slowly lifting herself up, she leveled her head with his and met his gaze squarely. It was then that she noticed his left arm, lying stretched out in front of her, a shining ring resting on it. “You’re serious.” she said with a slightly quivering tone.
“I am.” he replied. “You can have everything... all I ask is that you be mine.”
“... I was always yours,” she replied, seemingly smiling and tearing up at the same time. “And I don’t need anything, Lino. All I ask is that you be mine.”
“And forever.” she stretched out her left arm in front of him. “It’s a promise.”
“...” he took the ring and slowly put it on her finger, grasping her hand and pulling her into his arms. “I will give you everything.”
“... you already have, idiot,” she said, kissing him. “That day in the pond, when you showed far more courage than I had. Wait, why did you lock the ring’s stats?”
“I didn’t.” Lino grinned strangely.
“But... I can’t see any.”
“... that’s ‘cause it doesn’t have them.”
“The ring,” he explained. “It doesn’t have any stats.”
“But... that’s... that’s impossible.” she stuttered.
“It’s from another world,” he added. “For years I wondered what kind of ring to craft you... but nothing I came up with came even close to matching what I wanted to express. Then, just before I left, Tim gave it to me. I mean, it was kind of awkward, you know, rejecting the guy’s proposal but still keeping the ring...”
“... pfft, ha ha ha ha ha...”
“But,” their fingers interlocked as he brought their hands up. “It... I don’t know... seemed perfect. What I feel... can never be put into stats. Do you like it?”
“... I love it,” Hannah replied, wiping the corners of her eyes. “It’s perfect, heh.”
“A perfect ring for a perfect woman.”
“Well, now I know you’re just lying.”
“Yeah, I made it a bit too obvious.”
“Ha ha ha ha, what, you said it! Ha ha...”
“Yeah, but you’re supposed to deny it. Ugh, I have to train you to become a proper husband.”
“Everything I do is perfect, so no need to worry about that.” Lino said, stroking his chin.
“Yeah, alright.” Hannah chuckled, her expression mellowing as their eyes met. She found herself an inch away from bursting out into a giggle, barely holding back. “I love you, Lyonel. I can’t wait to spend the rest of forever with you.”
“... I love you more,” he replied, brushing her hair behind the ear. “Today... you’ve made me the happiest man alive, you know?”
“Did you really think I would ever say no?” she asked, snuggling back into his arms. “What would you have done if I did?”
“I would have died. Without a question.”
“Then I guess I never had a choice, huh?”
“You always talk about mauling and scarring me. Today was your best chance and you missed it. Tsk, tsk, you’re terrible at this whole crippling business.”
“Look up.” following her voice, Lino glanced up and, instead of a field of ashen clouds, he saw a starlit sky, one brushed with breathtaking colors. A disc-like spread of glittering dots shone, surrounded by nebulous clouds of bizarre shapes and colors.
“...” he only glanced at it once, however, before lowering his gaze. Hannah had an innocent, curious smile on her face, her eyes widened as she stared up. Lino’s heart stopped, every inch of his being desiring to freeze that moment in eternity. He pulled her up suddenly as she cried out and kissed her, as though for the first time.
They lay in each other's hands beneath the stars, cruising through the vast sky on top of Vy's head, hidden away from the world. It was their moment, and theirs alone, forever to remember and behold. One that can never be blemished by anything or anyone. Always the same. Always perfect. Always and forever.