IN THE BELLY OF THE FOE
It was all too unfamiliar to her, all too alien to truly comprehend. There was no nature to behold, no vast streams and gardens decorating the earth beneath the heavens. There were no roaring instructors repeatedly beating kids back into the line. No winding roads were bounding high cliffs and deep gorges. There was absolutely nothing around she was familiar with.
There was stone, black, terrible. Smoke, ashen, clotted above. Songs, voices, chatter, things she had never heard of in her Sect were all over here. At any given time, she could observe dozens of young and old strung about the crossings and intersections, drinking, eating, chatting, relaxing. Nobody hollered at them, nobody hurt them for it. Envy surged from within her heart as she gazed at the tepid freedom she had never known. Nobody even paid attention to her, merely greeting her as she passed them by. She would greet back, awkwardly, still unaccustomed.
They must have figured she was new here which was why no one bothered her, merely allowing her to see it all and take it in. She had somehow found herself inside a stretch of a winding road stacked with stores which sold anything and everything; things ranging from sweet bread to glowing jewelry were all stacked together. Pubs and taverns could be found at any corner, as could Martial Centers. Young and old repeatedly flooded in and out of them, but she knew, in her heart, there was no rigid system to it. She knew that they merely went when they felt like it and left when they grew tired. It was the sort of absolution she had never experienced, not since her distant, blurry childhood.
She sat down gently onto a side-street bench, crossing one leg over the other, and silently observed. Life roared like a massive beast all around her, free, unabated, unchained. It was a breathtaking sight, the like which takes a bound heart on a freeing journey. Envy, jealousy, self-pity... all the emotions she had come to loathe burned deep inside of her. After came guilt and self-hate, winding into a terrible, vicious cycle of regret.
Just opposite of her, a crowd was gathered around an old man who was using his toes to paint on a canvas. He did it for free, merely because he loved it. Some would offer him a drink, some a snack, some a small, cheap token, yet whatever was offered was also taken with a smile. Some didn't offer anything but a word of praise and applause and had gotten a genuine, warm smile in return. He had painted the clouds, the fortress, the rainbow, and a portrait of a faceless, masked, winged man standing superimposed over the sun. She knew all too well who it was, yearning to walk over and rip the painting... yet also yearning to stare at it and admire.
She couldn’t help but feel a surge of tears come after her eyes, barely managing to hold them back and steel her will. Inside, time and again, she told herself it was all a lie, a mask, a play put on to deceive her. But, her conviction wavered as minutes ticked away. It couldn’t all be a lie, she knew. Those smiles, laughter, chortling, chatter, the sense of liberty... it was impossible to fake them all. She could tell. She could feel.
"You havin' fun?" a familiar voice bolted her back to reality as she snapped out of it, glancing sideways where Lucky slowly sat down, handing her over a strange food of sorts; a conical, dull-colored shape beneath, and a spherical, white mass of some sort of cream. "It's an ice-cream," Lucky explained, smiling faintly. "At least that's what the old man who gave it to me told me."
“... gave it to you?” Alison quizzed, inspecting the food only to find nothing wrong with it.
"Yeah," Lucky nodded. "Apparently, in here, most of the food, drinks, and entertainment is free. I'd even heard that you can order hand-crafted engagement rings and pay nothing for them if the girl says yes. Quite a queer place."
“... quite queer indeed...” Alison mumbled, taking the bite out of it. It was tasty, she mused, and cold. Refreshing. Freeing. “It’s... good...”
“What?” Alison frowned, glancing at Lucky.
“You’re supposed to lick it, not bite it.” she replied, chuckling faintly.
“... you bite it...” Alison mumbled meekly as Lucky burst out into laughter.
“Oh my, looks like I’ve finally begun to rub off on you.”
“... do... do you think all of this... is real?” Alison asked.
“... do you?”
“I asked first.”
“... I do,” Lucky replied, taking a deep breath and glancing around. “For me, perhaps, it’s a bit easier. I don’t have any grudges against the Empyrean, so it might be easier to accept all of this as their reality.”
“... you really were fearless,” Alison said, her lips curling up into a warm smile, startling Lucky momentarily. “Standing up to him like that. How were you able to endure that Will of his?” Because he never pointed the damn thing at me... Lucky thought, smiling awkwardly.
“It’s just Will, right?” she mumbled. “That prick can take that will of his and shove it where the sun don’t shine for all I care.”
"... ha ha ha," Alison laughed freely for the first time since she came here, quickly drawing the attention of all those who were around the two of them. Lucky's lips curled up into a faint smile as her gaze sifted through the surrounding ones, quickly sending hundreds of souls into the spiral of chillness as they quickly looked away. "I... I'm sorry for dragging you into this. I don't know what I was thinking... putting you in danger like this."
“... I would have come either way,” Lucky chuckled, taking her hand and holding it tightly. “I would never trust that beast with a beautiful maiden like you.”
“... heh,” Alison chuckled strangely for a moment, glancing at the topmost point of the fortress for a moment. “That’s one thing... I never worried about.”
“Hm?” Lucky mumbled.
"... for whatever he may or may not be," Alison said. "He truly... deeply... cares for Hannah, and would never do anything to harm her."
“... how do you know?” Lucky asked, taking a lick.
“I... I just do,” Alison said, lowering her head. “His eyes... whenever he looked at Hannah... they... heh, I must have gone insane. I’d swear they shone.”
“... oh my, are you jealous?” Lucky asked as Alison glanced at her strangely, lips curling up into a bitter smile.
“... I am,” she said, sighing lowly. “That she’d found someone who’d look at her like that. Perhaps... for the first time... I realize why she would stand on his side instead of ours.”
“... I don’t think he’s the reason she left, Ally.” Lucky suddenly said, surprising Alison. “No matter how much she loves him,” she added. “She loves you almost just as much.”
“... you’re mistaken.”
“If she’d loved me just as much, she wouldn’t have left.” Lucky’s brows scrounged into a frown as she examined Alison’s expression of pain. It wasn’t the like one makes where a friend betrays them, no matter how close they may be. Ah, Lucky thought, biting her lower lip. So that’s it...
“... I’m sorry,” Lucky said, pulling Alison gently toward her and placing her head against her shoulder. “I didn’t realize.”
“You’re too good for her anyway.”
“I’m serious,” Lucky said, caressing Alison’s hair gently. “She’s one vile-tongued bitch. You? You are a heart-soul-and-mind-soother. Why would you ever want to be with someone who would curse you out for the smallest things?”
“... isn’t that exactly what you’re doing as well?” Alison smiled wryly, glancing at Lucky who coughed a few times in a row.
“N-no, of course not!” she quickly exclaimed. “When did I ever curse you out, you little brat? Humph, are you saying I’m also vile-tongued? Don’t make me hurt you, little punk.”
“... he he he,” Alison snuggled further in, closing her eyes. “I don’t mind it. It’s just who you are.”
"..." Lucky sighed lowly as she looked up, gazing toward the top of the tower where she just returned from. A festive atmosphere was about to descend upon the fortress, and the rest of the people would soon become aware of it. She always found herself amazed at Lino's timing, just like this time around. Sometimes, she felt, it was as though the entire world was dancing to his tune, unaware. They worried if he were a bloodhound, a crazed madman who would cut open their hearts... but, she'd never seen him as one. Even when he'd gone temporarily mad due to anger or pain, he never lost himself over entirely. He did it all for reason, when proper, when necessary.
It was terrifying, even for her. In her heart, however, she knew he would never do it to her. If anything, he would go out of his way to avoid entangling her. Yet... for one reason or another... she felt as though he had purposefully thrown her at Ally. No matter how she played out the events that led up to her meeting with Alison, however, she couldn't quite understand how would he pull it off. Yet, nonetheless, she was almost certain he did it. Perhaps, she mused as Alison began snoring lowly, it was, at last, the time to ask.