Whew! I really enjoyed the one day rest I had from Mankin ficcating, and I'm now ready to deliver a detached chapter of the Anna and the King story dedicated to Hao/Anna fans. I also built a mini-site for Hao/Anna fans located in the extra section of my Yona site. If you care to drop by, the URL is in my profile.

With that, on to the chapter!

The indigo sky finally gave way to the velvety darkness of the sky. Asakura Hao, sitting by the Izumo cliff, looked at the awe striking return of the busy bustle of nature into its primal state – silence.

Save for the random sounds of some creatures and places that resist the beckoning of the dark – the doves urgently seeking for shelter, the river currents forever running, the rustle of autumn leaves -, the vast forest of Izumo is retreating into dormancy.

The chilly evening breeze breathed on his hair, playing with its long strands.

The sun finally disappeared behind the mountains.

He smiled. Everything was in its perfect beauty, and he was thankful for that. He wanted to engrave every part of this lifetime he existed in into his mind, for he would love to remember everything when he passes away.

"Master Hao…" Opacho drew towards, looking worried.

"Is dinner ready?" he asked cheerfully.

"You look paler than usual."

"Must be from the chill." He shrugged carelessly. "Oh yes, I hope you prepared the vegetable soup."

"Yes, Master Hao."

There was something strange about this night. This was what the itako quickly noticed while she was sipping tea in the garden. There was something about the melancholic howls of the wind, the forlorn dancing leaves in the cold breeze, and the obvious absence of the moon tonight.

She looked back into the house. Everyone was enjoying a particularly intense round of cards.

"You're hiding the four clubs!" accused Horo Horo, standing up and pointing towards the steaming Ren. "Why do you say that you pass?"

"I don't have the four of clubs!" yelled the Chinese back. "But I do know for a fact that you're hiding the two diamond in your jacket!"

Horo turned red. "Y-You're keeping the Queen of Hearts!"

Ren's eyes widened. He looked at the leg that was subtly covering the card. "I-I didn't notice…" he mumbled.

"Cheater! Cheater!"

"I didn't do that on purpose!"

"Tell that to the marines!"

Anna decided that paying attention to two people with limited mental capability would be a waste of her time, so she got up and walked towards the garden.

She couldn't help but remember one tree she passed by – it was where she first met Asakura Hao up close.

Upon remembering him, she suddenly felt confused again. She recalled their last meeting when he nearly kissed her. Deep in her bones, she could feel that he wanted to tell her something. What was it? She couldn't erase from her mind the restlessness until she learns what he wanted to tell her that time.

"Ms. Anna?"

She blinked when she saw Opacho standing behind her, looking at her.

"Please come with me."

"Are you going to kidnap me?" she asked testily.

"No…I want to beg you to see Hao-sama tonight."

"Why?"

"Ms. Anna…he's dying."

Hao was eating his vegetable soup with much gusto when Anna arrived, face blank.

He blinked when he saw her. He then looked down at his soup and raised it towards her. "Want some?"

"No, thank you," she said coolly.

"If you didn't come for the vegetable soup…why are you here then?" he asked, frowning.

"I didn't know that your logic was affected greatly with your match with Yoh." She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "I came here for you."

He laughed quietly. "For me? Do I owe you something?"

"Opacho told me that…you're…"

He smiled. "Bad Opacho! My servant shouldn't have told you that."

"And when will you entertain me then, when you're enclosed in a coffin already?" she snapped.

"You shouldn't have bothered to come here at all…" he said, smiling coyly. He placed his bowl down.

She started to become nervous again. "M-Maybe I shouldn't have…" She started to turn around when his hand grabbed her shoulder firmly.

She winced. "Y-You're pretty strong…for someone who just lost half his life…"

"You beat all the energy boosters in the world, sweet Anna." Hao pulled her gently towards the boulders so she could sit down with him. "Stay awhile and keep this lonely soul company, will you?"

"No one bosses me around," she hissed.

"It's a request," he whispered huskily.

With that, she felt like she lost all her power to refuse him.

Soon, a soothing music coming from Anna's leaf was filling the entire forest. Hao listened contentedly as he enjoyed the warmth of her skin next to him. His head was on her lap, and as he observed her – the flickering of undecipherable emotions in her eyes, the sure and nimble movement of her fingers, the tilts of her head to the rhythm, the dancing of her hair with the wind -, his heart ached.

He worshipped every inch of her tough gentleness, her beauty, and her strength. He loved them so with the silent touch of his eyes clouding with overwhelming feeling of blissful satisfaction.

How she could bring him these kinds of feelings with her mere presence was still a puzzle to him. He dared not to answer the puzzle, for it is not proper anymore to do so. There was his brother… and there was her devotion for his brother…

Lucky fellow, he thought enviously.

For a second, she glanced down at him, and their gazes met. For one breathless moment, his eyes held hers. He saw her eyes shake, then look away.

Suddenly, the thin lines of right and wrong vanished in his mind. The moon was not there, and it was dark enough for him to not think straight. He suddenly felt like he could do anything amidst the forbidding darkness.

He just wanted to spare one moment to give his heart the freedom to speak. It was silenced long enough, and he didn't want to take his most important feeling into his grave, unspoken.

He got up. "Anna…"

Anna stiffened, and her music hastened. She pretended to not hear him.

"Anna…" he repeated softly, sending shivers up and down her spine.

She finally put the leaf down. "Y-You don't like the music?"

"No," he said, smiling, as he reached out and cupped her face with his gloved hands. "I want your lips to do something else for me." He then stretched his arms at either side of her, cornering her against the tree.

She gulped. "Y-You're not going to kiss me…are you?" she whispered in fear when his face drew closer to her.

"Guess," he murmured huskily. His face stopped teasingly when their lips were just inches apart.

"Hao…please," she whispered, panicking.

"Please what, hmm?" he asked, smiling sexily.

"This is absurd!"

"I am taking the liberty to enjoy insanity, because you drive me crazy, Kyouyama Anna," he replied, caressing her skin with his fingertips lightly. "No one has ever made me suffer like this in my past lifetime."

She was about to raise her hands to slap him when something in his eyes made her pause. There was great determination in his eyes, along with sincerity and intensity that shook something within her.

"You already took my heart away the first time I saw you," he murmured. "Now you hold my everything. I hate you for that, Anna, but at the same time…I love you so much…" The rest of his words trailed off when he felt his chest constrict.

Something dropped on Anna's cheek. He wiped it away shamefully. "I-I'm sorry…I didn't mean to…"

Another tear streaked down his cheek.

"H-Hao…" Now she understood why she was so restless. Her heart was telling her something – that Hao is knocking on its door.

She let his face fall against her chest. She didn't mind the tears soaking her black dress. Trembling, she smoothed his hair soothingly, as if she was a mother comforting her son.

For a few moments, she let the weary shaman weep. She didn't know what to say. Coherent words evaded her mind.

"Now…I can die," he said, smiling.

Her heart stopped.

"Thank you, Anna. You made me so happy…" He hugged her tight, memorizing her every scent and touch. He wanted to keep them when his soul journeys beyond infinity.

"Yoh better take care of you, or I'll come back from the graves and haunt him."

"Hao…"

He was about to let her go when she held on him. She tiptoed and brushed her lips against his lightly, warmly.

Hao was stunned. It was the most poignant touch he ever received in his two lifetimes. She just didn't touch his lips – she touched his heart and soul too.

"You are here too," she said, smiling tearfully as she placed his hand on her heart. "With Yoh." Her eyes glistened with tears. "Always."

"Because always is longer than forever," he agreed. He closed his eyes and laid himself in her arms. "Thank you, Anna. Thank you for everything."

Forever is not theirs to keep, but a promise of always will remain throughout the eternity.

Beyond infinity.

Beyond the hands of time.

A star streaked across the sky.

Pirika smiled. "That's beautiful!"

Ren and the others looked down silently.

"A spirit left this world," said Yohmei.

Yoh looked up at the night sky thoughtfully. "But…I can feel that…the spirit left happily."

"Then that's what makes it more beautiful," said Tamao, nodding.

owaru