“WHERE THE FUCK IS HE?!!” a roar shook the fortress, causing many-a-soul to falter to their knees as they glanced fearfully toward the topmost tower.
Lino’s heart and soul quaked at that moment as he dropped the just-finished scythe and rapidly opened up the vortex in front of him, jumping through and quickly arriving on the other end. He was immediately squared against four, fiery pairs of eyes – Ella, Alison, Lucky and Val all stared at him with seething anger, while Hannah’s distorted expression danced anywhere between unbridled rage and soul-deep hatred.
“—h-hello…” he mumbled meekly, like a little boy, as he skittled over to the bed and grasped Hannah’s hand. “Hello… hello sweetie…”
“SWEETIE?!!” Hannah screamed right into his face, gnashing her teeth. Sweat dripped like a waterfall down her forehead, causing strands of her hair to glue themselves to her glistening face. She heaved her legs open and up, grasping Lino’s hand back, nearly breaking his fingers. “WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU?!!”
“… uh, uh… I—” Lino stumbled over the countless words in his mind, unable to find the appropriate one, quickly trying to switch the topic. “H-how’s it going?”
“Tsk, what a terrible husband…” Lucky clicked her tongue, shaking her head.
“I’m severely disappointed, Lino…” Alison added, sighing lowly.
“I’ve raised a terrible son… ah, woe is me…” Ella jumped in right after.
“I expected more, my Lord.” Val stoked the flames.
“…” Lino stared with gaping mouth at them, feeling his heart bleed. “I’m here now, aren’t I?!! Give me a straw to hang onto, for heaven’s sake!!”
“SHUT IT!!” Hannah cried out once more, veins on her neck wiggling like worms. “SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET THIS DEVIL OUT OF ME!!”
“OI, THAT’S OUR DAUGHTER!!” Lino cried back.
“GET THAT DEVIL OUT OF HER!!” Lino turned toward Ella and yelled out, causing the latter to chuckle faintly.
“Alright Hannah,” she said. “Just a couple more times. Give me a strong one.” Hannah cried out once more, causing Lino to wince as he didn’t remember her voice ever quite reaching such a high decibel. He, however, didn’t dare say anything. Alison and Val stood by Ella’s side and assisted her while Lucky stood by Lino’s, grinning at him.
“Tsk, tsk, to think a brat like you is about to become a dad…” she chuckled. “What has the world come to, huh?”
“… really, really not the time.” he fired back, sweating as he was forced to push Qi into his hand due to pain.
“Oh, come on. Be proud.” Lucky slapped him in the back, causing him to groan. “And pray the kid takes after Hannah.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing since she told me?” Lino fired back, grinning.
“Good boy, good boy indeed.”
“Alright, almost there!” Ella’s voice echoed out once more. “Just one more, Hannah, alright? Just one more push and it’ll be over! Come on!”
“YOU—HAVE-BEEN SAYING ONE MORE FOR MINUTES, AARRGGHH!!”
After another roar that shook the fortress, the world around grew quiet, still, until a breath later when a young, sweet and melodic cry burst out into it. Lino’s eyes shifted away from Lucky onto a small clump of meat Ella was holding that was flaying its arms about, crying ceaselessly. His heart stopped; air stuck in his throat. There were no words to describe the levels of joy and happiness he was experiencing.
Ella smiled widely, getting up and taking the towel Val gave her, wrapping the young baby girl in it before walking over and handing it to the exhausted Hannah. Yet, that exhaustion and tiredness seemed to have evaporated the moment she took the baby into her arms, sitting up and cradling it against her chest.
“Alright, let’s give them some privacy,” Ella chimed in after a few moments of silence. “Congratulations, you two. Just so you know, we’re having a feast tonight and the entire fortress is invited. Otherwise, there’d be some riots.”
“Congratulations. You give the other idiots hope.”
“My, my, our little Empyrean went ahead and became a father. How queer, how queer indeed.”
“Congratulations you two! Don’t listen to them. You’ll make great parents!”
Lino and Hannah soon found themselves alone inside the warm, well-lit room. He sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the young girl and Hannah, stuck in a strange delirium. She had ethereally blue eyes, piercing to behold. He unconsciously reached over and put his finger into her hand as she grasped it. Tender. Soft. Fragile. Warm.
“… we really did it…” he mumbled softly, his lips swirling up into a wide, content smile.
“… we really did,” Hannah said, smiling as well. “She’s a big girl, ain’t she? Yes you are, yes you are. Aah, you’ll have to pay for giving me so much grief…”
“… she’s beautiful.” Lino said.
“… she really is.” Hannah nodded, chuckling. “The moment has come.”
“… ugh, don’t remind me.”
“Come on, mister. We promised we’d each come up with three names and then choose one together. Spit it out!”
“Why do I have to go first?!” Lino protested.
“… because I literally just gave birth to her?” he quickly drew quiet, however, as Hannah gave him a stink eye.
“I’ll let you use that one for a month,” he elaborated. “I’m taking the privilege away after it.”
“… deal. So, what did you choose? Fess up the names.”
“… ugh, I only thought of one…”
“Hey!! This is the first decision that I could fuck up and end up scarring her!! I have to be super careful!” Lino fought back.
“… true. So… which one did you choose?”
“… uh, A… Aaria…” he mumbled meekly.
“… uh… what’s wrong?” he asked after nearly thirty seconds of silence.
“Aaria…” Hannah mumbled, her lips curling up into a smile. “Yeah… Aaria. She does look like Aaria, doesn’t she?”
“Hello Aaria,” Hannah ignored him and stared at the young baby pressed into her chest. “Oh, someone’s hungry, aren’t you? Ha ha, you really do look like your dad… ha ha ha ha…”
“…” Lino didn’t comment, merely slumping further as he lied down next to the two, his expression mellowing out.
Though he had tried to bury the worries over the past half a year and then some through crafting, the thousands of ideas that something could go wrong never quite left him. Yet, it was all fine. Just at that moment, he forgot it all – he forgot the fortress, he forgot that he was the Empyrean, he forgot the world outside, the Descent, the Dragons, the Holy Grounds, the cosmos itself… his whole reality was made up of two souls lying right next to him. It was a different kind of happiness that swelled in his soul, the kind that he never experienced before. In addition, it gave birth to even a greater need and desire to protect them. To keep them safe no matter what.
Both Hannah and Aaria soon fell asleep, causing the room to fall into perpetual silence. He remained awake, unable to gaze away from them, a million thoughts barraging his mind. The world the little girl would grow up into… must be different than the one she was born into. He knew that much, at the very least. The sheer apathy, the frigid indifference, the corruption… if anything, his beliefs and steadfast ideals were reinforced. He didn't want her becoming a soldier in his army or becoming a target because of who he was. He wanted her to have an ordinary childhood, to play with other children, to laugh and to cry, and to experience both love and heartbreak, and to find a calling and become a master at it, and to grow old naturally.
He gently reached over and touched her tiny head, smaller than his own hand. For her, he’d do it all, he realized at that moment. Eventually, the perpetual cycle of chaos has to cease. The wars, the endless graveyards and tombs raised out of thin air, the ceaseless cries and weeps of anguish… life itself can’t be sustained in the ideals of separation and conflict. He thought it through countless times, the best way to unite the world, or at least vanish the overt chaos.
Though he still didn't have the perfect answer, the absolute solution for it, it hardly discouraged him. In a way, these solutions would eventually appear naturally. One way or another, the world will calm and soothe, even without him. His role isn't to enable it, but to speed it up whichever way he can.
He closed his eyes slowly and fell into a lull, his thoughts drifting empty as sleep took hold. Distant dreams surged, images of his childhood, of his entire life, flashing by. He never once considered himself unlucky, not even at his worst. Rather, he felt the opposite; being able to lay so still, in silence, surrounded by crowds of people who look up to him, and scores of those who love him, is beyond lucky. How many, after all, can claim to be so content as he?
A smile hung on his face, his arm wrapped around Hannah, his thumb held onto tightly by Aaria’s hand. Hannah's head slipped down the pillow and pressed against his chest, strands of her hair wrapping around and about, riled like fire. The two lay in perfect stillness, embraced in a moment the rest of the world was wholly blind to. A moment that belonged to the wholesome dreams and churning hearts of the two. Though the road ahead was long, winding and heavy, everyone's was. All they could do was what the rest were doing – make the best of everything they were given and have earned.