Lina's head throbbed as she woke up. "Damn, hangover." She muttered as she turned and came face to face with the steep drop off that came with being on the top bunk. A sense of vertigo overwhelmed her as she moaned and turned on her back and stared at the ceiling. Gingerly she reached into her pocket for some herbs she kept with her and had thankfully remembered to put there when she started drinking the previous night. After she took them she closed her eyes until the hangover went away, and then she cautiously climbed down from the top bunk and observed that Gourry was still sleeping peacefully. She smiled as she looked at him as she remembered the feel of his lips pressed against hers, and wondered if he would remember kissing her the previous night. He'd better. She'd wring his neck if he forgot their first kiss.
But then, if he didn't remember, she could really mess with his head if she kissed him. She grinned wickedly as she moved forward, careful to keep from bumping her head on the top bunk, and planted a kiss on his lips. His blue eyes fluttered open in surprise, but then he wrapped his arms around her and deepened the kiss for a moment before he pulled away and smiled at her. "Morning, sunshine."
"Morning." She said, as the discomfort that came from holding such as awkward position won over the desire to be close to him, and she moved back out of the bunk while he sat up.
"So last night wasn't just some wonderful dream." He said.
"No," Lina said as she marveled over how quickly the previous day had gone, and how now in retrospect it did have the feel of a lost, wondrous dream. Suddenly she was overwhelmed with a taste of bittersweetness. Had she really taken the time to savor yesterday?
"What are we going to do today?" he asked, bringing her back to the present.
"Well, I guess we're supposed to have lunch with the queen." She said as she looked outside, and noted that they miraculously had not overslept, "First, though, breakfast. No first fresh clothes."
He leaned back in his bunk as she started to dig through her bags, "Should I stand outside the door, or can I watch?"
She felt her heart lurch as she clutched the shirt she'd grabbed. Then she looked at him and smiled daringly, "Why don't you change first, and then I'll have a go."
"You're finally up!" Lina's mom said as she burst into the kitchen from the shop up front.
"It was a big night." Lina said as she sat down at the table and removed the napkin that had been left over the plate of food.
"Yes, and if you had slept too much longer, we would have thrown out your breakfast and just given you lunch."
"Hey, I would have eaten both!" Lina said.
"She would, she eats a lot." Gourry said as he popped a biscuit into his mouth.
"Who eats a lot!?" Lina snapped.
"Keep it down, there are customers up front!" Lina's mom said.
"How's business?" Lina asked.
"Booming. Being the parent of a Zeferian knight helps." She said proudly.
Lina smiled as she dipped her biscuit in some syrup, "Glad to do my part."
Lina's mother suddenly leaned forward as she looked at Lina conspiratorially, "So, any big plans for the day?"
"I'm meeting the queen." Lina said.
"Yes, Luna should be picking you up any minute. How about dinner? I was wanting to go out, just you and me." Her mother said.
"I'd like that." Lina replied as she looked at Gourry, "You'll be okay for an evening without me?"
"I'll find something to do."
"You can go fishing with my husband." Lina's mother proclaimed.
Gourry's mouth dropped, and Lina felt her anxiety peak, but Gourry merely shoveled more food into his gaping mouth before saying, "Yeah, it'll be good to talk to him one on one."
What they hell does that mean!? Lina wondered as her heart started pounding.
"So." Her mother continued, and Lina could not help but notice that she was looking to her and Gourry and back again. "Do the two have any big news you want to share?"
While her mother didn't spell it out, Lina knew she was once again sniffing out whether or not a wedding was on the horizon. Gee, take down a bunch of Mazoku and none of it matters so much as I'm married, Lina thought as she wiped her fingers on the napkin. It didn't help that while she and Gourry talked about love and had shared a steamy kiss, and had now teased each other by dressing in the same room, he'd had yet to say anything about marriage. Yet the expectation was heavy, and not just from her mother. Nearly everyone they had run into the previous day had hinted about it. Meanwhile, Lina watched as Gourry scuffled down the eggs, seeming as clueless as ever.
"What can be bigger news than an audience with the queen?" Lina asked.
"What's going on between you two!?" her mother demanded to know as Lina's dad appeared in the doorway.
"Oh, that's easy!" Gourry said as he indicated the plates between him and Lina, "Breakfast!"
"Gourry!" Lina shrieked as she got out her slipper and hit him while her father laughed.
"You two better knock it off and get in a serious frame of mind." Luna said as she burst into the room, and Lina straightened to attention while Gourry's eyes widened. "Come on, I'll take you to see the Eternal Queen, and you'd better be on your best behavior and not embarrass me or there will be consequences."
Lina felt chills go through her as Gourry's mouth fell open, only this time he did not shovel more food inside, as the air of malice grew thick. Hastily Lina stood up, and wished for a mirror in the downstairs area so she could check to make sure her outfit was okay.
"You look fine," Luna said as she seemed to read her mind, "Just move it, I've got a lot to get done today."
"So I see you're an old, married woman now." Lina said as she walked between Luna and Gourry.
"Watch who you're calling old!" Luna snapped.
"Where'd you meet him?"
"Harold is the son of the boss at Ceiphied's Eats." Luna said, "He's from a family of powerful humans, though it missed him. However, it was speculated that any children we had would be very powerful, so we got married and the boys came shortly thereafter. We have grown to love each other."
"Wow." Lina said as a feeling of discomfort arose within her, "There's no genteel way to put this. You aren't planning to breed me like a prized race horse, are you?"
Luna laughed, but before she could reply, someone started calling, "Lady Lina! Lady Lina!" Lina stopped in her trek and wondered if the town was under attack as she turned to consider that older woman running up to her. Strangely she was smiling.
"What's wrong?" Lina asked.
"Nothing!" the woman said as she took a moment to catch her breath, "Well, that is, if you make sure you go to June Bride's Wedding Gowns when the time comes!"
"Huh?" Lina replied, mystified as the woman grabbed her arm.
"I'll get you a great deal as long as you make sure you tell everyone who you trusted with making you feel your absolute most beautiful on your special day." She gushed.
"But we're not…" Lina said as she felt Gourry's eyes on her but didn't dare look at his face.
"I know, I know, you haven't even set a date yet." She said, and then she leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, "Just make sure you don't go to that trash dress shop Formal Designs."
"Um, okay." Lina said, desperate to get away from her as fast as she could, "Thanks!"
She felt her face heat as she continued forward with Luna and Gourry, only to have someone else yell, "Lady Lina! Sir Gourry!" This woman had her children with her, and she forced them between her and Lina and Gourry, "Please consider training my children. They had such a talent for swordplay and sorcery, and I'm sure they will blossom under your tutelage and will be proud to join the next generation taking down the Dark Lord!"
Fortunately Luna jumped in, "We have trained scouts scouring the countryside who know what to look for. I'm sure if your brats could cut the mustard they would have been found by now being this close to the queen. Stand aside and stop wasting out time."
"There's no need to be so mean." Gourry said as he noticed the kids start to bite back tears while their mother's face reddened with embarrassment.
"You may have time to indulge every parent who has delusions of grandeur about their third rate kid, but I don't." Luna said as she continued forward, and Lina and Gourry trailed behind, a bit dazed. "And honestly, don't scout out talent yourselves. We'll send people to you."
Then they heard another person call out, "Lady Lina, Sir Gourry!" They both stiffened as a plump baker came running up to them with a sample platter, "Please try this cake, and remember Sweet Imaginations when you plan your wedding festivities!"
"Hey, free food!" Gourry said as he reached forward to grab a mini-cake while Luna gave him the glare of death.
But Lina couldn't fault him as she cried, "Hey, I get some, too!"
"Now that you're done stuffing your face," Luna seethed, "We have to get back…"
But she was soon drowned out by the chorus of merchants and parents crying, "Lady Lina! Sir Gourry!" as they peddled their goods or shoved their children before them, begging them to be trained by them. Lina felt overwhelmed. Between the hopeful, desperate parents and the sheer amount of people pushing goods for a wedding that was not happening, Lina felt unusually paralyzed. She was used to fighting bandits and Mazoku. Nothing she had done before had prepared her for this! And while she wanted to tell everyone to clear out and give her space, now that she finally felt love and adoration from strangers, she was unusually hesitant to kill it by being the bitch she was generally better known as being.
Luna, though, had no such hangs up as she bellowed, "Get out of our way!"
The crowd gasped, seemed to collectively trembled as people muttered something about upsetting the Ceiphied Knight, and finally dispersed. Lina and Gourry exchanged a shell shocked look as Luna continued to move forward, and they mechanically followed behind her as Lina wondered if this was going to be something that died down once the novelty of her story wore off, or if this was going to be the new normal.
Lina has sat across from royalty before. She had even traveled with and befriended royals, interacting with some of them as casually as you would your commoner best friend. Yet having lunch with the Eternal Queen caused her to feel unaccustomedly nervous. For one thing, the Eternal Queen was her native sovereign, while the other royals she knew were from foreign kingdoms. For another, Luna would be there, watching her every move. And finally, considering how focused everyone else was on her relationship with Gourry, she was scared about being interrogated about a wedding that was not happening, or even perhaps being ordered to marry him so they could produce children who would bring glory to Zeferia.
Not that she didn't want to marry him, or did she? It was all so confusing! No, she knew she would not want to do it if she was ordered to. She wanted it to be her choice. Not to mention that she wanted him to choose her. Being ordered to do it would destroy what they had. So if the Eternal Queen ordered it of her, Lina felt as though she had a lot to lose.
The Eternal Queen smiled as Luna brought them into her chambers. She was an extraordinarily lovely woman who did not seem to age through the years. While she looked to be Lina's age, it was well known that she was far older. Not to mention exceedingly powerful in her own right. Lina wondered if she had ever gone traveling in her youth like Amelia had. From the rumors she'd heard, the Eternal Queen could certainly hold her own.
The table that the Eternal Queen was seated at only had places set for two, and once Lina and Gourry had taken their seats at a table laden with food the Eternal Queen spoke kindly, "Luna tells me that you work best when you aren't in her shadow."
Lina blushed as she felt her sister's gaze on her, "Um, I guess."
"I see." Luna said quietly, and Lina could hear the unspoken threat in her voice about what would happen to her if she caused shame for their family in front of the Eternal Queen, "I have other duties to attend. I'll see you tomorrow at dinner time, which you're having with us, by the way. It's time you get to know your nephews."
There was a part of Lina that resented being told what to do, but it was overcome with relief that Luna would not be staying that she could barely feel it. "See you tomorrow." Lina said as she couldn't believe her luck as Luna walked out, leaving her and Gourry alone with the Eternal Queen, and the room seemed to warm instantly.
"Tell me about your adventures." The Queen prompted, and Lina narrated her tales over lunch, and managed to finish up as the last of the lunch plates were being whisked away. The Eternal Queen made a few observations before she asked, "How long until you plan to journey to Maninstit?"
Lina looked at Gourry, who shrugged. "We haven't decided yet. I had thought we'd stick around for a little bit, but the attention has been a bit overwhelming. So we may leave sooner than anticipated."
The Eternal Queen pulled out a map, "Maninstit is just two hours from here, so it won't be too far, and you can visit with your family often. I naturally expect reports on the progress of your pupils. It is staffed with a cook, a maid and a butler. And depending on how many pupils are sent to you, you may request additional staff." The Eternal Queen considered her for a moment and then a sparkle came to her violet eyes as she added, "Oh, and a nanny when the time comes."
Lina blushed as she avoided Gourry's gaze. While she was not being ordered to marry Gourry, it was the default assumption of everyone she had met that it would happen. Which put her in the strange position of feeling as though it was her choice while knowing that she would let a lot of people down if the anticipated wedding never happened. And what did Gourry think? Damn, she wanted to get into his head! But if breakfast was any preview, he would be as deft at avoiding the topic as he always was.
At the same time she was excited. While she knew she wouldn't be able to travel all her life, cooking and cleaning never appealed to her, and the thought of settling down always seemed dreary. Now she would have staff of her own to do it while she could continue her research and to train others to do what she had done!
"Now, we do expect to see results." The Eternal Queen cautioned.
"What sort of results?" Lina asked.
"Dead Mazoku." The Eternal Queen specified. "Not immediately, naturally. It takes time to train people."
"I never set out to kill Mazoku." Lina said as she briefly wondered if she should continue, "And I can't recommend that others do so either."
"You can, and will." The Eternal Queen countered, "We need to press forward while we have the advantage."
Lina felt the protests rise within her as she thought about the faceless children she would be training who could very well be sent to their deaths for all she knew. Meanwhile the queen continued, "You proved it was possible for a human to accomplish these feats. You set that bar high, and you can train others to do that."
"I had tools that no longer exist in this world." Lina said, "I had to destroy my Demons Blood Talisman in my last battle. And Gourry's Sword of Light no longer exists in this world…"
"The guild is working on creating a new way to boost spells. And they are close to a break through. You and Gourry have other swords."
"The Blast Sword belongs to Gourry." Lina said.
The Eternal Queen nodded, "And you have other swords that the treasure hunters had acquired before they died."
Lina and Gourry looked at each other. "Yes." Lina finally admitted.
"And we have our own people searching for legendary swords. Never underestimate human ingenuity." The Eternal Queen looked at her piercingly, "Right now, the people we are gathering are eager to work with you to learn to take down the Mazoku and secure peace in our world. They know and accept the risks."
Lina opened her mouth as she thought of Luke, and then closed it. "What is it?" The Queen asked.
"It's easy to accept the risks when they're hypothetical. It's another thing when you know the sacrifices."
"Would you take it back?" The Eternal Queen asked.
"No," Lina said after a moment of reflection.
"There you have it." The Eternal Queen concluded, "Now, you are free to go and enjoy the rest of your day."
"You've been silent." Lina commented as she walked with Gourry on the outskirts of town. To avoid intercepting another crowd of people, they had exited the palace using the back gate that took them to the woods, and they then proceeded to navigate the path less traveled. While Lina knew that eventually they would have to find their way to the crowded merchants street to get to her parents' home, she was keen to avoid it for as long as she could.
"It's a lot to take in." Gourry said.
"What do you think about training people to kill Mazoku?" Lina asked tepidly as she grabbed a stick as started to hit the trees they passed with it. He was so noble and moral. Surely if there was something wrong with it, he would set things straight.
"I think so many people have suffered, because they got dragged into something they had no idea how to handle. Maius and Jade. Aria and Bell. Even Luke and Milina got in over their heads. It may seem foolhardy to train people to do this work, but someone has to be trained in how to protect everyday people from them, you know?"
Lina felt a little bit better, "So I guess we're not just training the next generation to go into battle and die."
He wrapped an arm around her, "You have a way of encouraging people to fight against death." He commented.
She took a deep breath and fought to steady her nerves. While it was a pleasant anxiety that included a great deal of eager anticipation, she also wondered if she should ask him about the wedding hints. But before she could, he stopped before a tree and pulled her in front of him.
"Gourry?" she asked.
"I know that there's a lot to talk about." He said, his voice huskier than usual, "However, right now, all I want to do is kiss you."
Lina felt her heart race as she smiled, noting just how alone they were and how unlikely it was that someone would come here and find them, and brought her face closer to his, "For once, a good idea was churned from that soup you call a brain."
As soon as their lips touched it was though the torrent of emotions they had felt for the past two years but ignored so they could focus on staying alive burst to the surface as she wrapped her arms around him while his hands started skimming her hair as they trailed down her back. She grinned a little and wondered what she should do with her own hands. Should she be daring and start to explore him? Or keep them where they were?
That he was not engaging in similar deliberations became apparent as his hands moved further south, crossing the line of her back and skimming her butt. She gasped, and he broke away to ask, "You're not going to hit me for that, are you?"
"Only if you stop," she murmured as she pressed herself against him as his hands clasped around her bottom for a moment before he coaxed her to lift one leg around his hip as she gasped as desire pulsed through her.
He moaned and broke the kiss to lean his head back as he seemed to take a moment to ground himself, a moment Lina was not willing to give him as she seized the opportunity to plant a kiss on his throat before moving up to his jawline, causing her to give a little yelp as his hands tightened momentarily before he moved them back up to her waist as he started lowering them to the ground so he was sitting legs straight forward with her facing him on his lap, her legs circling him as they returned to kissing each other on the mouth.
Lina moved her hands to his chest, ears perked to gauge his reaction. When she heard giggling, she was momentarily confused. But then they broke away from each other to find, to their alarm, that a group of school children was watching them, and that their remote spot was not nearly remote enough. Lina blushed as Gourry looked at them in annoyance as he asked, "Do you mind?"
"No," one of the girls said as she giggled, "No, not at all. Go back to kissing. We liked watching."
"Burst Rondo!" Lina screeched, though thankfully she aimed just beside them to scare them.
Yet as the kids exclaimed excitedly about the adventure they would be able to tell their classmates about the next day, it became apparent that she had failed in doing so. Lina and Gourry looked at each other, stunned into silence, as they kids descended upon them to ask for their autographs.
"Might I comment, that those kids spying on you isn't nearly as bad as what you did to Luna so long ago." Lina's mother said as she looked up from her menu. Naturally the news that a group of kids had spied Lina and Gourry kissing passionately in the woods had spread to her parents' store faster than they had gotten home, and Lina had had yet to hear the end of it.
"Shit, Sis is going to bring that up tomorrow, I know it!" Lina moaned as another worry added to her pile. Then she sighed, "Look, I had planned to stay a month or so, but now I think I just want to go and check out my house in the nice, secluded country side."
"Oh, honey, but you only just got home!" her mother protested, "I'm sure it will die down…"
"Lady Inverse?" a woman walking with a child asked, and Lina worried that it was one of the kids she had nearly scorched with a Burst Rondo.
"Yes?" Lina said.
"My daughter was wondering if she might have your autograph."
"Um, okay." Lina said, relieved until she finished signing the girl's book, when she looked up and found three more kids standing there holding autograph books. Once she signed their books, there were six more waiting for her, until the number seemed to multiply infinitely and she was surrounded by people asking for an autograph. Eventually her stomach growled, reminding her that she'd had yet to even place her order in.
"Okay, that's enough, wait outside, a hero has got to eat, you know?" she yelled, and then watched in dismay as a crowd started to form outside, watching her every move unabashedly. "I guess I'm going to be getting home late tonight."
"You know," her mother said as she watched the growing crowd, her eyes wide, "Perhaps your father and I could let Luna hold down the store for a month or so while we visit you in Maninstit."
Finally, to Lina's great relief, a waitress walked over and pulled the blinds down, blocking the crowd from sight and giving her some privacy, "I guess we need to inquire if there is a back exit." Lina said as the waitress came to their table to take their order.
Gourry watched as Lina's Dad impaled the worm on the hook and then threw the line back before he flung it into the creek. "You know, Lina has this useful spell that makes the fish bite." Gourry commented as he baited his own hook as he desperately hoped that he wouldn't bring up the kissing episode that all of Zefiel City seemed to have heard about.
"Of course I know." Her dad said, "But we're not in a rush. When you're traveling it makes sense to use such measures, but off the road, it just seems like cheating."
"Oh, I see." Gourry said as he threw his own line in, "You actually like fishing."
"Doesn't everyone?" he asked.
Gourry shrugged and smiled, "You have a point there."
They were silent for a moment as they enjoyed the beautiful spring day. And then Lina's Dad turned to Gourry and said, "A word of advice, girls don't like it when boys are vague about their intentions."
Gourry nearly lost his footing but hoped he recovered fast enough so it was not noticeable, "Huh?"
"Like today at breakfast." Her dad said, "With the whole town and her own mother shoving innuendos down her throat it only confuses her that you're so vague about it. Especially if you're kissing now. It's no wonder she hit you."
"I guess I did deserve that." Gourry agreed as he blushed.
"Considering the pattern, you know it's coming, yet you do it anyway." he pointed out, "Look, if you aren't ready to get married now, just be straight with her. Tell her you need more time."
Gourry watched the line before saying carefully, "So you approve of me and Lina being together?"
"You are an idiot," he replied, "Do you think my wife and I would have let Lina traverse the continent on her own at the age of thirteen if we didn't trust her to make these decisions? Look, I didn't raise an idiot. It's more important what she thinks of the two of you being together than what I think. And besides, I'm not going to have to live with you."
"That's true, but what you think is still important to me." Gourry said.
"Why is that?"
"Well, my family isn't in the picture, so it's just me."
"Do you think we care about that? It was just me and Lina's Mom when we settled here. It's not as though we come from some noble family. Ceiphied knows how we got blessed with Luna."
"That's not what I mean." Gourry said, "Look, if Lina didn't have a family or if she wanted nothing to do with you, it wouldn't matter to me. But she has a family and she wants you in her life. And I would never want her to have to choose between you and me."
Lina's Dad chewed on his cigarette, "That's noble, but we care enough about Lina to make it work with whoever she chooses."
"In a lot of families it doesn't work like that." Gourry said, "And when you marry someone, you marry their family. And it's what I've wanted since I've lost mine, a family. So it's important for me to know that there is a place…"
His voice trailed off as his line went tight and he had to focus on reeling in one of the largest cat fish he'd ever laid eyes on. Lina's Dad cheered as he stared at the fish in amazement, "Way to go, Gourry, that will provide a good dinner for the two of us! Now let's go home and get it cleaned up."
"Yeah," Gourry said as he mused that he didn't realize that fish came in sizes that large as he started to walk beside her father, who clasped him on the back in a friendly manner.
"If you're that good at fishing, trust me, there will always be a place at our table." Her father said. "So long as you let Lina know what your intentions are."
"I will." Gourry said, "Once we get to Maninstit and get a bit of our privacy back, I will."