“If it can’t be distinguished from reality, perhaps one could live a happier life within the illusion.”
Celica gives birth to an adorable baby boy.
Velvet is bouncing on her heels when at last, the blanket-wrapped bundle is shifted from Celica’s arms into Arthur’s, and he bends down to let Velvet and Laphi get their first good look at their new nephew. His eyes are closed in peaceful slumber and he looks so small, so fragile, that Velvet is almost afraid to touch him. But then Laphi reaches out to poke at one of the chubby cheeks and Velvet follows his example, reveling at how soft and squishy the baby feels beneath her finger.
In that instant, she falls in love.
“He still needs a name,” Arthur murmurs, gently rocking his arms, and the way his eyes crease at the corners tells Velvet that he’s fallen in love too. “What do you two think?”
Laphi glances up at Arthur with stars in his eyes. “We get to name?!”
Arthur chuckles and exchanges an amused look with Celica, who’s slumped against the bed headboard. “Well, I won’t make promises, but we’re open to suggestions, at least.”
Velvet promptly begins wracking her brain as she stares back down at the sweet face, at the tiny half-open mouth, at the tuft of very light hair sprouting from the top of his head. She vaguely remembers being five years old, standing in this very room with Mom and Dad and Celica when Laphi was born, and she thinks that Laphi back then looked just like this baby does now.
“Phi!” Velvet cries.
“Phi?” Arthur furrows his brow. “Isn’t that a tad similar to Laphicet?”
Velvet rigorously nods. “Yeah! It’s a spin-off, but not too similar.”
Her four-year-old brother promptly grins in comprehension, and points fervently to the baby. “Phi!” he confirms, apparently pleased by Velvet’s decision.
“Naming him in honor of his uncle,” Celica chimes in. “I think that’s lovely.”
Arthur shakes his head lightly but smiles all the same, then bends down to gently kiss his son on the forehead.
“Alright then,” Arthur agrees. “Phi it is.”
Velvet is eighteen when she and Laphi pack up and leave home.
Oh, they’ll be back, they plan to return to Aball before they pass a full cycle of the seasons, but Laphi’s always wanted to go adventuring and now that he’s thirteen, he’s old enough and healthy enough that Celica will let him. Her one condition is that Laphi has to let Velvet come along to look after him, and even after they’ve all agreed to that, Celica still seems somewhat worried as she sees them off. But Velvet is already as much of an adult as this tiny little village could ever make of her, so she’s ready to leave the nest—and Laphi’s been ready to leave the nest ever since he was fully cured of his illness when he was eleven.
“I’ll take good care of him, Celica, I promise,” Velvet assures, as she hugs her sister one last time. At Celica’s side, Arthur puts a hand on his wife’s shoulder, and the simple action does wonders to iron out the concerned wrinkles in Celica’s face. “We’ll write you guys every week, so please don’t worry. You just focus on continuing to raise Phi as well as you raised us.”
With that, Velvet bends down to kiss her little nephew on the forehead, then runs back to join Laphi, who’s already yanked out his map to start charting a course. From the front porch, Phi waves and Velvet returns the gesture, and they continue waving goodbye at each other all the way down the road, until Velvet can’t see their family anymore.
“Onward, ho!” Laphi cries once they’ve passed through the fence that marks the edge of town, and shoots her a blinding grin as he points dramatically down the path ahead.
Velvet laughs and ruffles his hair, and together, they set off to see the world.
They run into their first daemon on Cadnix Island.
It was a foolish oversight on Velvet’s part. Laphi may have been the one to suggest exploring the island, but it was Velvet’s fault that with the exorcists on patrol at the port, she didn’t even stop to think that the land beyond the harbor would be so unsafe. She hadn’t expected to come face to face with a daemon, but now here she is, staring down a werewolf that stands on the other end of this suspension bridge with its claws drawn.
Shoving Laphi behind her so that her body shields his, Velvet readies herself for battle. If she gives it her all, she might be able to buy Laphi enough time to safely escape, but Velvet can’t hope to win. No ordinary human could ever hope to win against a daemon.
So clearly, the person who dives down from the sky on what looks to be a humongous flying piece of paper and then whacks the daemon across the face with that very same piece of paper is no ordinary human.
Laphi curiously starts to nudge his way forward and Velvet lets him, though not without protectively embracing his shoulders as Laphi, in turn, clutches Velvet’s waist. He fixes his eyes on the standoff before them, and Velvet can’t blame him for wanting to watch because she’s just as intrigued. Their savior is certainly odd, to say the least—Velvet needs only see the ostentatious hat atop her head and the apparent book-skirt around her waist to realize that much. But the point is driven home even harder when a small creature wearing a top hat suddenly appears at the girl’s side, seemingly having popped out from inside her body, and screeches out in a grating voice, “Go get ‘em, Mistress!”
The ensuing fight is stunningly short. A quick series of elemental artes followed by a couple more super-charged attacks from that strange, shapeshifting paper weapon, and the daemon is down for the count within the minute. When it’s all over, the girl puts one hand on her hip, casually flicks her other hand in the air, and declares, “Welp. That about does it.”
“Wow!” Laphi gasps, and the force with which he disentangles himself from Velvet’s grasp in order to run up to the stranger snaps Velvet out of her flabbergasted daze. “Miss, are you an exorcist?”
“Oh, good heavens, no!” The girl whirls around to face them, clapping her hands together and rolling her head to strike an overly theatrical pose. “I am an enchanting sorceress, a master of merriment, the world’s most crafty conjurer! I, dear boy, am the mighty witch, Magilou!”
“Um, okay,” she finally manages, approaching to place a hand firmly on Laphi’s shoulder. “Well, thank you Magilou. For saving us.”
“No problem! But my services don’t come without a price, you know. I’d say you two owe me, mmm, about ten thousand gald.”
“What?!” Velvet balks. “We don’t have that kind of money.”
“You don’t, huh? Then how about a wager? You win, your debt is reneged. You lose, you have to become my assistants for life.” Magilou taps her chin with her finger and glances around. “Let’s see, what could we bet on…?”
“Nothing!” Velvet cuts in sternly, backing away and tugging Laphi back with her. “This is ridiculous. You know, we didn’t actually ask you to save us, you did that all on your own. We’re under no obligation here.”
Magilou scoffs, putting both hands behind her head. “Fine, fine, forget the ten thousand. Just let me tag along with you two for however long you’ll be here.”
Velvet eyes her cautiously, her protective grip on Laphi never wavering. “Why?”
“Eh, I’m just looking to kill time. You two seem like you’ll be entertaining enough.”
That answer is no less baffling than anything else about this woman, but Velvet sees the clear advantage in having Magilou around in the event that they run into any more daemons, so she agrees. They trek along the path towards the Vester Tunnels with two more in tow, Magilou and her tiny talking pet-thing—Bienfu, apparently—constantly chattering away.
Magilou’s weird, and honestly kind of annoying, but she cracks constant jokes that make Laphi giggle, so Velvet can’t hate her. Once, the self-proclaimed witch even conjures doves out of thin air, and while Velvet doesn’t particularly like the trick, she’s pleased to see Laphi clap his hands and go wide-eyed with wonder.
“Ooh, hey,” Magilou chimes when they’re good ways into the system of caves, and points to a large, slightly cracked wall that appears to block the way into a branching tunnel. Smiling wickedly at Velvet, she proclaims, “I finally found what we can wager on. Bet you 100 gald that you can’t break that down by yourself.”
Velvet huffs and places her hands on her hips, miffed to have the whole bet business brought up again…but on the other hand, those aren’t especially outlandish stakes. Besides, Velvet’s positive she can do it.
“Fine. You’re on.”
If nothing else, Velvet’s always been good with her legs. She may not be able to defeat a daemon but her kicks are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to anything else, so after a quick scan of the rock to determine its weakpoint, she unleashes a spin kick that hits her mark perfectly and sends the wall crumbling to pieces on the first try.
“Oh, poo!” Magilou grumbles, sighing with her entire body. Nonetheless, she brings her own hand up to her face, then closes it into a fist that she shakes a couple times in the air before reopening. There’s a coin in her palm now, where it was empty before, and as she grudgingly presses Velvet’s earnings into her outstretched hand, Velvet allows herself an astonished laugh.
Now there’s a magic trick she can get behind.
Honestly, Velvet turns her back for just five minutes to haggle with the shopkeeper, and apparently, that’s all the time Laphi needs to slip away from her and go off exploring Port Zekson on his own.
Oh, he’d better be prepared for an earful when she finds him again.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take her long to spot the slippery little scamp. One of the nearby docked ships is far more eye-catching than the rest, what with its visibly unconventional structure, and it takes only a second for her eyes to zero in on the boy who’s hanging out in the crow’s nest alongside a man in a black jacket, the two of them fiddling with the lines that control the sails.
“Laphi!” Velvet screeches, instantly rushing towards the ship and leaping on board, shoving her way past the couple of crew members who try to stop her. Storming up to the base of the main mast, she hollers, “Laphi, get down here right now! What were you thinking, wandering off without telling me?! I have to look after you, you know that!”
“Ack!” His cry trails down to her ears from above. “V-Velvet!”
There’s fear in his voice. Good.
“Ah, apologies for the trouble, Miss.”
This voice comes from behind her, so Velvet whirls around to face the source, and the man that greets her vision definitely leaves an impression. There’s a crisscross of scars over his left eye and forehead, and beneath his self-assured grin is a noticeably pointy beard. He tips his tricorner at her and drawls, “The lad just looked so interested in watching us work, I offered to let him help out.”
Velvet crosses her arms, her anger undeterred. “He should know better than to go off with random strangers.”
The man’s only response is a halfhearted shrug of his shoulders.
“I’m sorry, Velvet,” Laphi says, as he and the man who was with him finish their descent from the crow’s nest. “It just looked so cool, I wanted to try it.” He bows his head in contrition and fidgets his feet, and that’s so damn adorable it’s suddenly hard to stay mad at him.
Velvet sighs. “Next time you want to do something, just tell me first, alright?”
“Okay.” Laphi nods before hazarding a glance back up at her, his eyes twinkling. “Then…can I check out their compass? The captain said he’d let me see it.”
“Aye,” Mr. Pointy-Beard, also apparently the captain, chimes in and pulls the device out from behind his back. “She’s all yours. That is, if it’s alright with the missus.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Velvet rolls her eyes. “Alright, knock yourself out, Laphi.”
The speed with which Laphi darts over to the captain, you’d have thought he was a firework, and as soon as he has hold of the compass, he rushes back over to Velvet to give it to her. He tries again to explain how it works—“See, you hold it like this, and the direction stays steady no matter how much it shakes!”—but she didn’t really understand what he was talking about when he showed her the diagrams, and even with the real thing in her hands, it still kind of goes over her head. Laphi must be able to tell she’s not getting it, because he pouts and puts his hand on his hips.
“Hmph. I could properly show you how cool it is if we were actually on the waves.”
From the across the deck, the captain laughs and calls over to them, “You guys wanna stick around when we set sail? I’m sure the crew can make room for two more.”
He sounds entirely like he’s joking, but Laphi furrows his brows in a way that tells her he’s seriously considering it, so Velvet shuts that down before it can start with a firm “Absolutely not.” Laphi looks put out, but a stern, unrelenting glare is enough to make him back down.
They can’t afford to go hitchhiking when they have a schedule of their own to follow. Besides, Velvet hasn’t missed that this ship is clearly no regular merchant vessel. The design is too slick to be a simple freighter, and there are more cannons on board than any officially regulated craft ought have right to. Sure, these guys are flying a merchant flag, but Velvet gets the feeling they’ll be switching that out once they’re safely out of port.
Not that she particularly minds. Regardless of who they are, the crew has shown Laphi a good time, so that’s all that matters to her.
“Hey, kid.” The man in the black jacket speaks up, pointing his thumb over his shoulder. “You should head for the upper deck. If you go now, Benwick will let you man the steering wheel.”
Just like that, Laphi’s face instantly lights back up. “Oh, okay! Thanks, Eizen. And thanks for teaching me how to rig earlier, too.”
With that, Laphi cheerfully runs off and up the stairs, and Velvet shoots Eizen a grateful look as she returns the compass to him.
“Thanks for humoring him.”
Eizen nods. “No problem. Kid’s got heart, and a knack for knots. Wouldn’t take too much training for him to fit right in with all the rest of us.”
Velvet hums. “Mmm, yeah, I’m not so sure he’d really fit in amongst a bunch of pirates.” When Eizen visibly stiffens, she quickly adds, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell on you. It’s none of my business.”
Perhaps Velvet should be scared, directly confronting a crook like this, but somehow, she can’t find it in herself to fear this man. Eizen stares at her suspiciously but she gazes back unperturbed, until eventually, his whole body goes slack, a slight curl coming to his lips.
“Something tells me you’d be a fine addition to our crew, yourself,” he chuckles.
Velvet shrugs, smiling in turn. “Heh. If you say so.”
There’s a tavern in Loegres that also doubles as a cheap place to stay the night in lieu of the inn, and it’s made even cheaper if Velvet helps out with cleaning up after the drunks. Velvet only discovered this through sheer dumb luck, but she’s more than happy she did. She and Laphi have stayed here for three nights now with only minimal strain on their wallets—not to mention, easy access to some of the best food the capital has to offer.
Not that any food from Midgand could ever hope to beat the flavorful dishes of Eastgand, mind you, but Empyreans be damned if the old woman who runs this place isn’t a phenomenal cook. Tabatha’s wonderfully creamy and perfectly spiced mabo curry stole Velvet’s heart at the very first bite, and it has laid claim to Laphi’s heart as well, if the way he now fervently stuffs himself is any indication.
As Velvet digs into her own dinner, she notes that the tavern seems pretty calm tonight. It’s not very populated, aside from some lone customers who Velvet knows to be generally agreeable regulars, and a couple of unfamiliar men drinking together at the corner table. Those two don’t seem like average people, what with their clearly foreign garb, their large swords leaned up against the wall, and the odd tension hanging over them that puts Velvet slightly ill at ease. But they’ve been drinking quietly, nondisruptively, this entire time, so Velvet figures there’s no need to worry about them, either.
That is, until after Laphi’s finished his second helping of curry and the two of them are about to head upstairs to sleep for the night. That’s when the shouting starts.
“Whadjya say to me?!” the man with the scruffy ponytail suddenly bursts out, his words garbled and only barely comprehensible, his cheeks flushed red.
The man with swept-back hair laughs. “I said get better at holdin’ yer liquor, little bro. You want a rematch, you come find me when yer good enough.” His voice is distinctly less slurred, and his entire demeanor is smug—not even victorious so much as just plain belittling.
Oh, so they were having a drinking contest. That explains what all the tension was about.
“Thassit! C’mon, lessgo!” The younger brother tries to get up from his seat, moves as to pounce at the elder, but he stumbles on his feet, and next thing Velvet knows, he’s collapsed in a pile on the floor. He tries to push himself back up, but it becomes clear after a full minute of flailing around that he can’t even stand on his own two feet.
“Oh please, I couldn’t fightcha like this. It’d just be too damn sad.” The older brother grabs one of the large swords from off the wall and mockingly salutes his drinking partner before heading for the front door. As he exits, he tosses over his shoulder, “See ya when I see ya, Rokurou.”
From his downed position, Rokurou can only hiccup.
Yeah, time to clean up.
“Hey.” Velvet ventures closer until she’s bending down next to him. “Your brother seems like a bit of an ass, leaving you behind like this.”
“Yer tellin’ me,” Rokurou grumbles. “I swear, I’ma slice him up one o’ these days.”
“Well, until then, I think you’re going to need to sleep this off, okay?” Velvet grabs him under the arm and helps him to his feet, letting him lean on her to steady himself. “C’mon, I’ll take you upstairs.”
“No!” Rokurou’s hand makes a wobbly grabbing motion towards the sword that’s still leaned up against the wall. “No, I ain’t goin’ nowhere without Stormhowl!”
Velvet sighs. “Laphi, get the sword.”
Laphi does, only barely managing to handle the sheer weight by sliding the sheathed end along the floor. Not exactly the most graceful way to handle a weapon, but Rokurou doesn’t seem to care, pacified enough that he lets Velvet drag him up the stairs without further complaint.
Once they reach the nearest empty room, Rokurou doesn’t even bother with the bed. With unprecedented accuracy, he abruptly launches forward to snatch the sword out of Laphi’s grasp, then sags against the floor like a ragdoll to instantly doze away. He cuddles the sword to his chest in his sleep, as if it’s a security blanket.
Good grief. Velvet’s not old enough to drink, but she’s not sure she ever wants to drink if this is how it makes you act.
Velvet grabs Laphi’s hand and tugs him out of the room so they can go sleep in their own, and when they descend back down to the tavern the next morning, Rokurou’s already sitting at the bar counter, chatting with Tabatha. Velvet approaches to order some breakfast for her and Laphi before they head out to spend their last day in the jewel of the empire, but Rokurou greets them first.
“Hey, you guys!” His voice is coherent now, and the unclouded sparkle in his eye tells Velvet he’s feeling just fine, if not potentially hungover. “My bad for not introducing myself properly yesterday. I’m Rokurou Rangetsu.” He bows lightly to them both. “Now, I’ve got a debt to settle with you two.”
“Debt?” Velvet echoes confusedly. “For escorting a drunk guy up the stairs?”
“Of course! You took care of me, and most importantly, you took care of Stormhowl when I couldn’t.” Grinning, Rokurou gestures his head towards the sword that’s now strapped to his back. “So I gotta pay you back. If you want breakfast, it’s on me.”
Velvet blinks. “That’s nice, but you know you really don’t have to—”
“No, no, I do have to,” Rokurou insists, and his face goes so deathly serious there that Velvet decides it’s not worth arguing about. “As a Rangetsu, I have to pay what I owe.”
Oh well, Velvet figures, as Laphi eagerly starts making his order. She’d be a fool to turn down free food, anyway.
As magnificent a feat of architecture as the Empyrean’s Throne is, Velvet would be able to appreciate its grandeur a lot more if it didn’t include this stairway from hell.
From the looks of it, they’re only halfway to the top at best, but Velvet’s legs are burning with protest from the hundreds of steps already climbed. Laphi isn’t doing any better himself, trailing slowly behind her, his chest heaving from exertion as sweat lines his brow. In fact, he kind of looks like he might actually collapse if he keeps this up much longer.
The exorcist who agreed to escort them up to the throne room—Eleanor Hume, as she introduced herself—apparently notices too, because she stops twenty steps ahead of them and turns back around.
“Hey, do you two maybe need a break?”
“Please,” Velvet gasps, bending over with her hands on her knees, and Laphi instantly flops his butt down onto the stairs with a soft thud.
“Eleanor!” a stern female voice calls down from a good ways further up the steps. Velvet glances that direction to see the two senior-ranked exorcists that Eleanor also introduced earlier; Teresa is tapping her staff impatiently against the ground, while her brother Oscar simply stands stock-still beside her.
“They need a rest!” Eleanor yells back. “We’ll meet you up there later, Teresa!”
Teresa’s disdainful scoff is loud enough for Velvet to hear all the way down here, and she’d be offended if she wasn’t so busy being utterly worn out. She settles for just rolling her eyes as Teresa promptly turns on her heel to continue the climb, Oscar trailing dutifully along beside her.
“H-how are those guys…still going?” Laphi pants out, still short of breath.
“We’ve traversed these stairs many times before. You’re not the first people to come here asking to see the throne room,” Eleanor says, smiling. “It was difficult for me initially, too. But when you’ve done this about ten, twenty times, you learn how to handle it.”
“You’ve climbed this that many times?” Laphi gasps. “If I were you, I’d probably never want to even look at a staircase ever again.”
“Well, I am an exorcist. It’s just how we’re trained, I suppose.” Eleanor clenches her gloved hand into a fist, pride lighting up her face. “No matter how agonizingly hard something is, if we want to do it, we have to go all the way. There’s no point in being halfhearted about our duties or our goals. We have to be willing to put even our lives on the line!”
Such sheer determination is an admirable trait, but Velvet can’t really relate to it and honestly, Eleanor’s taking this all way too seriously.
“So you’re saying you could die from climbing up these stairs?” Velvet asks pointedly, playfully.
“Oh, n-no!” Eleanor corrects herself instantly, her cheeks going pink. “That’s not…I-I didn’t mean it like that.”
Velvet chuckles. Seems like Eleanor is easy to tease.
They allow themselves another several minutes to recover their energy before setting off again, and by some miracle, they manage to surpass the entire climb. Velvet and Laphi are both practically breathless when they reach the top, and when the reward for their efforts comes in the form of a magnificent throne room, what little breath they’ve regained whooshes right back out. The inside is astonishingly humongous, the walls are all carved with beautifully intricate designs, and the throne itself towers at an awe-inspiring height.
In the center of the room, Teresa and Oscar are both kneeling silently before the throne. Eleanor nods at the stunned siblings before joining her fellow exorcists in prayer, so Laphi and Velvet quickly follow suit.
Velvet can’t say she’s ever been much of a praying girl. Nobody in Aball practiced any of the faiths, and she didn’t read books to learn all about the Empyreans like Laphi did. She can’t even think of anything that she particularly wants to pray for, because as far as she’s concerned, she’s already plenty happy with everything she has.
…Though, perhaps that’s exactly what she needs to pray for.
Please, Velvet thinks. Let me keep this happiness, always.
Finally, the five of them rise from their prayers and exit the throne room, and as they stand atop the enormous flight of stairs and gaze out over the land, Laphi asks, “Are there any more rooms to the temple?”
“There are,” Teresa says, “but I’m afraid the other areas are closed off to the general public. The throne room is the main attraction, and the most we can allow any visitors to see.”
“Oh. Okay.” Laphi sounds distinctly disappointed.
“But hey,” Eleanor chimes encouragingly, “it was exciting, wasn’t it? You made it all the way here, and now the trek down the stairs will be a lot easier than it was going up.”
“Plus, there’s still other things you can see in this area,” Oscar voices, pointing out at something over the field, a strange eagerness in his tone that Velvet hadn’t previously thought him capable of. “For example, I know for a fact that that tree over there just recently became the nesting grounds for a whole flock of cicadas. Would you like to see that?”
And of course, Laphi just lights up at the thought of bugs. “Would I?!”
In that moment, despite their actual ages, the boys both look like five-year-olds, and in their childish excitement, the two go tearing down the stairs in a hurry. Velvet automatically cries, “Laphi, don’t run!” at the same time that Teresa screams, “Oscar, slow down!”, and after both of their orders have been sheepishly heeded, the older sisters sigh in unison, then exchange an amused glance with one another.
“Little brothers, right?” Teresa murmurs, shaking her head even as her lips curl into a fond smile.
“Yeah,” Velvet laughs, because she understands that sentiment all too well. “Little brothers.”
Westgand is home to a magnificent tower, as well as long piers and winding forests that make for refreshing places to hike. Southgand is nothing less than a tropical paradise, every town rich with its own unique culture and the ripened fruits second to none. Endgand is out of the way and largely unexplored, but Laphi enjoys it because the fields are filled with insect life, many of which he’s all too eager to collect.
Northgand is an unforgiving frozen hellscape and honestly the very last place Velvet would have ever wanted to go in her lifetime, but a journey around the world with Laphi means they can’t not see every part of the world, and that includes even the areas with the most bitter cold. Still, she kind of wishes Laphi wasn’t so insistent on finishing off their journey with the legendary Mount Killaraus—Hellawes was already hard to take, but the further north they go, the more bitingly frigid it gets.
At least, until they start approaching the heart of the volcano, where boiling hot steam periodically breaks through patches of glacier. That’s when it somehow manages to become both freezing and scorching at the same time. Positively freeching, really.
Even so, Velvet soldiers on, making sure to watch her step while maintaining her vice grip on Laphi’s hand. When at last they duck into the cave that marks the entrance to the volcano, hot air slams into them, as if shoving against the icy breeze, and Velvet gasps at the abrupt shift in scenery. Glowing red lava actually comes streaming down the walls here, and as sweat begins to line the skin beneath her winter coat, Velvet can’t tell if that’s a result of the heat, or of the sense of dangerous thrill this sight instills in her.
Velvet squeezes Laphi’s hand even tighter. She’s not willing to risk letting him go any further into the volcano than this, but thankfully, Laphi seems plenty satisfied as it is, eyes wide with fascination as he murmurs under his breath, “Awwwesome.” Velvet smiles; she imagines when they get back home, he’ll probably hold bragging rights over all the other kids forever. After all, who else in their village could say they’d actually been inside a volcano?
All things considered, that’s a fine last note on which to end their world tour.
By the time they make it back to Meirchio, the sun is already past the horizon, the snow-covered paths lit up only by the ethereal, brightly colored ribbons that spread out across the sky. A few minutes from now, they’ll go book an inn room for tonight, and tomorrow morning, they’ll make the trek back to Hellawes and board the first ship to Eastgand. But for now, Velvet and Laphi find a section of wall overlooking the rest of the village and sit atop it together, staring up at the beautiful northern lights.
“Hey, Velvet?” Laphi chimes. “You know, this whole journey? It…It was perfect. Everything I’d ever dreamed it would be.” He scoots closer and leans into her, his chin pressing against her shoulder as he meets her gaze. “Thank you for coming with me, Sis.”
Velvet grins, swiftly tucking her arm around his waist to yank him in even closer. “I’m just happy I was here with you for all of it. Thank you for letting me come along, Laphi.”
With that, she kisses his cheek, making sure to smack her lips as loudly and embarrassingly as possible—and for once, Laphi doesn’t even protest.
After nearly a year of adventuring, Velvet and Laphi return home.
Their journey was incredible, and Velvet will never forget it for the rest of her life, but Aball is where she really belongs and oh, did she miss the rest of their family. So much so that merely catching her first glimpse of them as she hikes back up the path to their house is enough to make her heart soar in her chest. Celica and Arthur wave in greeting, beautiful smiles on both their faces, but neither of them is a match for their son, who instantly leaps into Velvet’s waiting arms with a blindingly bright grin and a cheerful “Welcome back!”
Velvet replies, “Great to be back,” and peppers Phi’s face with kisses until he’s squealing with giggles.
Her cute little Phi isn’t quite so little anymore. He hit his ninth birthday while his aunt and uncle were gone, and he looks a good couple inches taller than Velvet remembers. When they head inside, Velvet sees tomes stretched out over the table and discovers that Phi has also started digging into Arthur’s collection of complicated books written in the ancient tongue, the same ones that Laphi was reading when he was Phi’s age but that Velvet doubts she’ll ever be able to understand in her lifetime.
Kids these days, always turning out so damn smart.
Laphi is all too eager to join Phi in his efforts to peruse and translate, and over the next several weeks, the two of them spend hours on end pouring through the books. They recite strange poems and discuss the histories of civilizations long past, both so full of zeal and so utterly in sync with each other that Velvet’s almost jealous.
They’re both going to get out of shape if they’re always sitting on their butts reading, though, so Velvet makes sure to periodically drag them away from their tomes to help her wash the dishes or accompany her as she buys groceries. If she can get Arthur to agree to supervise them, she even drags everyone off to the Tranquil Woods so they can all punch some prickleboars in the face. But afterwards, those two boys always end up stretched out over that table again, with more books, more maps, more pages filled with scribbled notes.
Even after he’s already traveled the world, Laphi still has wanderlust burning strong in his soul, and the more time he spends with his nephew, the more Velvet can see that same fire growing in Phi’s own heart. He shares that same fascination for the world, and the more Velvet and Laphi tell him stories about their own journey, about turbulent seas and terrifyingly freeching volcanoes and tropical paradises where the people actually eat adorable creatures called pengyons, the more restless Phi becomes.
“Mom,” Phi finally pipes up one day over supper, “can I go on a journey like Laphi and Velvet?”
Celica, to her credit, only blinks a couple times before smiling pleasantly. “Not until you’re a little bit older, honey.”
Phi huffs, his brow furrowing. “How much older? Why can’t I go now?”
“Phi,” Arthur cuts in, sternly. “Your mother’s right. You won’t be allowed to go adventuring for a few years at least, and we are not discussing this further.”
Classic Arthur—always looking out for them, but doing so while firm and strict, stopping any discord before it can even really start.
Phi shuts up after that, but Velvet doesn’t miss the way he stabs his fork into his steak a bit too aggressively, nor how after dinner, he declines on Laphi’s offer to continue translating the books in favor of just heading straight to his room. Velvet bites her lip then, because Phi is usually rather good about letting things roll off his back; it’s rare that he ever acts this grumpy, this bratty. So after giving him a few minutes to hopefully cool down, Velvet trails after him, slightly nudging his door open as she knocks.
“Hey, Phi. You okay?”
Phi is lying on his bed with his face buried in his pillow, and he gives a muffled groan into the plush before he lifts his head and sulkily glances back her. “It’s not fair. You and Laphi had each other all to yourselves for nearly a year, and you got to see so many amazing things together. You both traveled the whole world! Meanwhile, I’ve never even been beyond Taliesin.”
Velvet smiles softly and fully lets herself in, sitting down beside him on the bed. “Yes, the world out there is amazing. But it’s also dangerous, Phi. You need to be ready before going out there.”
“I’m plenty ready!”
“Maybe so,” Velvet allows, “but your parents aren’t ready to see you go.”
That makes Phi visibly pause.
“They worry, you know that. I’m sure they were fretting over me and Laphi all while we were gone, weren’t they?” Phi hesitates a moment but then nods sheepishly, so Velvet continues. “And remember how Laphi was sick for a long time? He couldn’t go on our journey in the first place until we were absolutely certain he had fully recovered.”
Phi pouts, but she can see him losing his ground. “I’m not sick,” he protests.
“No, but you’re young, and you’re still learning how to take care of yourself.” She grabs one of his hands to squeeze it tight. “And you’re so smart, Phi. Smart enough that you should be able to understand why they won’t let you go yet.”
Phi flushes and averts his gaze down to the bedsheets, his lips pursed in contemplation. After silently thinking over it for a few minutes, he finally sags over, sighing. “Yeah, okay. I…I understand.”
He still seems put out about it, though, so Velvet pulls out her usual secret weapon for when kids gets cranky. She tugs at his hand until he’s close enough that she can pull him into an embrace, one arm cuddling him to her chest while the other strokes his head. Phi freezes up for a second but reciprocates soon enough, his hands reaching for the small of her back and squeezing tight in search of comfort.
“In the meantime,” Velvet drawls, “you’ve still got a lot to learn about all those old dead people, right? After all, they wrote all those books using that shifty language that makes everything so difficult.” Phi giggles, indicating that Velvet has successfully managed to cheer him up, so she pull back from the hug to gaze into his bright eyes. “So work hard on studying. And when the time comes, you can show off everything you know as we all go on a journey together.”
“You promise?” Phi asks.
Velvet nods. “I promise.”
“…Alright then.” Smiling now, Phi throws his arms around her for another hug, mumbling into her shirt, “Velvet, I love you.”
Velvet chuckles lightly before kissing the top of his head.
“Thank you,” she says. “I love you too, Phi.”
Even after Niko had been dating that apprentice animal doctor from Taliesin for two years, Velvet was never quite able dispel the strange agitation that crept up inside her whenever her best friend talked about her boyfriend. Hell, if anything, the longer it went on, the worse it got. Darkness hollowed out the pit of Velvet’s stomach, and something like sick butterflies of jealousy fluttered inside, but Velvet always pushed it all aside because it was ridiculous, it was awful for Velvet to feel so bad about Niko being so happy.
Maybe it was just insecurity, because Velvet herself hadn’t been able to land a man yet? Ugh. Well, whatever it was, Velvet bottled those feelings up and let them simmer for years, and she wasn’t able to fully figure them all out before she left on her journey with Laphi.
Then, Velvet came back from her journey to find that the two had broken up.
Apparently, it happened only a couple months after Velvet left. Niko doesn’t shy away from the topic, explaining that it was some disagreements here and there, which resulted in them taking a break, which resulted in them mutually agreeing that the break should be permanent. Niko insists that it doesn’t bother her anymore, that she’s still friends with the guy and it’s been forever since she last even thought about the breakup, and Velvet believes her but that doesn’t stop her stomach from churning.
Worst of all, as much as Velvet feels sorry that she wasn’t there to comfort her best friend when she needed it, there’s also something separate from all that. Some small, terrible part of her that actually feels relieved.
Velvet doesn’t understand it until after she and Niko have fallen back into the familiar patterns of their friendship. Out shopping, they catch up with each other on the latest local gossip. At Niko’s house, they sit on Niko’s bed and knit together, Velvet fumbling her fingers the whole way until Niko laughs at her and grabs her hands to help guide them. At Velvet’s house, they experiment with new quiche recipes together, all while constructing grand dreams about maybe opening their own quiche shop one day.
A couple months after Velvet’s return, during one of those baking sessions, Niko teases her by wiping some stray batter from the corner of Velvet’s lip with her finger, then bringing that same finger to her lips to lick it clean. Velvet flushes with her entire body, and that’s the moment she first realizes just what it is she’s been feeling this entire time.
For all her family’s ribbing about how she’ll never land a husband, Velvet herself has never truly cared about attracting a man in the first place.
Because her one and only crush is on a girl she’s known since childhood.
Velvet isn’t sure how to deal with that epiphany at first, and she leaves it to fester within herself for another few months until finally, she can’t stand keeping quiet any longer. One day, she packs up a picnic basket full of dishes she cooked herself and invites Niko out to the cape for dinner, just the two of them. And as they sit in the grass together, watching the sun begin its descent behind the line of the sea, Velvet finishes off her last bite of quiche, takes a deep breath, and confesses.
Her feelings spill out of her like she’s a glass that’s been filled to the brim and someone finally bumped into the table. She rambles on and on about how she loves Niko, she’s always loved Niko, but only recently has Velvet realized that the way she loves Niko is different than she’d ever allowed herself to think. She explains that she’d always felt weird about Niko dating that guy, and only recently has Velvet realized that it was because all along, she secretly wanted that guy Niko was dating to instead be her.
Afterwards, Niko goes very, very silent. Velvet bites her lip and shuts her eyes and for a single, terrifying moment, she thinks that this is it, she’s gone and ruined everything, she’s just lost her best friend forever. But then a hand is closing over hers, and when Velvet opens her eyes to glance up, Niko is smiling at her.
“Y’know,” Niko says, “at least half the reason I broke up with him was because after you left, I realized I missed you bad. So, so bad that nothing with him felt right anymore.”
With that, Niko leans in, and Velvet is all too eager to let her.
Velvet’s first kiss tastes like spinach and cheese, and she fumbles her entire way through it just as badly as she always fumbles through her yarn stitches.
But as far as she’s concerned, it couldn’t possibly have been any more perfect.
“Happy birthday, Velvet!”
Velvet startles awake with a gasp as synchronized shouts ring loudly in both her ears and a foreign weight firmly plops itself down on her stomach. Slightly winded, wiping the sleep out of her eyes, Velvet glances up to see Phi sitting on her, giggling as he bounces his legs at her sides, and when she rolls her head to the side, Laphi is standing at the head of her bed, bent over cackling.
So, this is how they treat her first thing on her twentieth birthday.
Velvet unleashes a predatory smirk.
“Augh, you little brats!” she roars, launching up like a woken beast, hands grasping Phi around the ribs to ruthlessly tickle him. He quickly rolls off of her to escape her fingers, shrieking with laughter and begging for her to stop, and as soon as he’s down for the count, she sets her sights on Laphi. Her brother’s eyes go wide and he immediately makes as if to bolt for it, but he’s just a second too slow, Velvet leaping out of bed entirely to wrestle her arm around his neck and subject him to a vigorous, well-deserved noogie.
Once justice has been delivered, Velvet preens victoriously and shoos both boys out of her room so she can get dressed. She comes out some minutes later to see the dining table being spread with what equates to a breakfast feast—prickleboar sausages, fried eggs, quiche, cake, and even a platter of appleboo. Helping Arthur and Celica set the table is Niko, apparently invited over by her family, who greets Velvet with a cheery call of “Morning, sleepyhead!” and then runs over to peck her on the lips right there in front of everyone.
Velvet flushes, and when she sees all her family exchange mischievous looks with each other, she knows she’s doomed.
Before she can even try to protest, Laphi and Phi are on her, both of them grabbing her hands, a set of boyish lips pressed to the back of each one. Still holding onto her, they drag her over to the table, where Arthur chuckles and brushes his lips over her forehead while Celica sneaks in a smooch to her cheek. Velvet’s face is red hot when they’re done with her, and it only continues burning as she gets forced into her seat at the table and then has gifts immediately shoved into her arms.
Arthur carved her a wooden charm that he made into a necklace, and Celica bought her a new blade for her gauntlet sword because her old one had gotten chipped. Laphi got her a makeup kit so that she could “try to be more ladylike” as he puts it, and even as she appreciates it, she yanks the cheeky scamp in for another noogie. Phi happily presents her with a couple bars of fancy fragrant soap, saying “I thought they’d smell really nice on you.”
Niko knitted her a scarf that she helps wrap around Velvet’s neck, then shoots a playful grin before tugging on the fabric to yank Velvet in for another kiss. Velvet is sure she must be red as a tomato by the time Niko pulls away, so she removes the scarf and pouts.
“If you guys are done embarrassing me, can we eat already?”
They laugh at her, but even as Velvet moans at all of them, she’s unable to keep from smiling. After all, she turns twenty years old today, and she gets to celebrate it while surrounded by her brothers, her sister, her nephew, her girlfriend.
They’re all here, they’re all with her.
And she loves them all so very much.
Velvet lives happily ever after.