Previously on "When We Meet Again"… Was it all just a dream? No, it was real.

On a lonely day in mid-April, twenty-year-old Hitomi Kanzaki, a young woman once fresh at the pleasant times of her life, had been further immersed into a daunting tale she had once deemed implausible, riveted within a time – a memory – she had thought had never existed. The enraging conflicts between a distant fantasy and a demanding reality had brought her to a point of inconsolability, torn deeply between two paths that were entirely different from one another. There had been no clear answer or direction for the lost soul, as she had remained to sulk in the seclusion of her room for many hours, away from those she wanted to be with, and away from those who didn't want to be with her. A ring was all that was left as a departing gift from her once beloved fiancé who's heart had momentarily hardened towards Hitomi, and a lonely pink pendant from a person she knew but didn't know, and wanted to get to know all the more. She loved both in truth, and that was Hitomi's endless predicament.

With a wedding hanging on the balance, and the sake of many friendships on hand, Hitomi's devoted bridesmaids, Catherine Corain and Yukari Uchida, had camped out in the Kanzaki and Corain residence to find any possible solution to an intricately entwined dilemma that no one could solve. However, after a mild phone skirmish with Hitomi's cousin San Askielowicz, somehow, Hikoro Kanzaki, the much-dreaded mother of Hitomi, had caught ear of the troubles. Hikoro was not slow to visit her daughter, and so, the impending interrogation with a depressed and angry Hitomi had finally begun. The younger Kanzaki, sick of the doubting and quite sick of the lies, in an only desire to resolve the complications that had arisen so abruptly, had vowed to speak the truth. There would be no holding back. She knew well the consequences to be served for claiming such fantasy aspects to have happened or to be happening, for she was well versed in the feeling of being disbelieved, especially from her mother and her once-close companions. Yet, there was no reason to hide anything for any longer. Regardless, she was caged within a life of unwanted limitations, and if there was anything she preferred to depend on, it was the knowledge that the truth would set her free.

Meanwhile, three other persons in that same city of Aimsa were making preparations for a departure of their own, one that was equally dreaded by many. Angela Ferentini, the thirty-two year old woman whom had taken the young mental prodigy Shied Schezar into her fostered care, proclaimed him her son, as she had felt he was all of that and so much more. On their journey to the place of leaving, Merle, ever-devoted companion of King Van Fanel, had incessantly strived to reveal even Van's most inner secrets, proving of comfort to the man who denied his personal loneliness. Still aching from a wound on the outside, the calf of the left leg, the last reigning member of the Fanel family understood that the pain was more prominent within himself, within his heart. Though he denied on the surface just what he honestly felt and needed, there was no such way he could possibly lie to himself. All that was left was for Van, for all of them, was to make some final drastic decisions that could and would change the course of their futures and of their lives. After all, they could only ignore their personal feelings for so long, to only a short extent, but everyone knew that something had to be done – something would be done. All that was left was finding out exactly what that something would be.

Chapter 16: Into the Night Sky

"Eighty-five, eighty-six, eighty-seven…"

"…It should be just around that bend Shied; you two doing okay back there?"

A pair of inquisitive yet friendly green spectacles gaped at him calmly through the darkened reflection of the rearview mirror; once-blonde ringlets now tainted a faint cyan amidst the intense moonlight filtered through the looming forms of densely packed conifers. Asides from somewhat weakened and dim headlights, the natural glow of the hovering moon provided the only light source in the eerily desolate area, overcast by shadows of natural forms. Although not feeling so much assured by that thought, Van still passed the querying Angela a reassuring smile in response, doing his best to come up with one seeing as he couldn't quite testify for having done much smiling lately. He figured that Merle, sitting adjacent to him, must have done the same for he just caught a glimpse of Angela giving a nod before returning her focus to the winding road ahead, nudging the steering wheel only slightly in the past few minutes, as Shied continued to call out numbers systematically in a practically perfunctory fashion. The idle Fanelian had also been keeping count for the first few minutes quite quietly to himself, but like times before, those incoherent thoughts of his journeyed far from what they were supposed to do, and instead left Van pointlessly counting each time the car would roll over a ditch or bump in the road. He wasn't much surprised by his inability to even count numbers straight, for the worn young man didn't feel much sentiment about anything. He had numbed himself, mentally as well as emotionally, to the point that he felt somewhat inane and useless yet decided to remain this way in the belief that it was only to his own benefit. Van wondered at times just where he came up with such forlorn and lonesome ideals, yet with his hesitating limp and sore shoulder blades sprinkled with itchy rashes, Van felt that the evasion of any excess mental pain was all for the better, especially on this night of all nights.

Thump. Van Fanel allowed for his head to rest against the quivering window, fighting off a saddened sigh which wished to escape, his thick black bangs stretching near to his ears protecting the skin of his face from the cold press of the glass. However, every now and then the car would hit some sort of imperfection in the road and his head would be uncomfortably bobbed against the window, yet he could only heave and give it no complaint. With his refusal to activate his mind and think about things – being somewhat isolationist from his own mental self – Van tried not to give any of his pains too much heed. He longed only to swallow them down long enough that no one would notice, and cry about them later in his own private means of regret and heavy remorse.

"One-hundred-ten, one-hundred-eleven…. I think we're just about there, Mum. I definitely recognize this place!"

The young and somewhat eager Shied had his face plastered against the car window ahead of him in the front passenger seat, squinting attentively to try and determine what surrounded the slow-moving travelers in the impenetrable darkness of the vast Aimsa backwoods. There was no hiding Shied's avid and young thirst for adventure, a brilliant mind working for a brilliant cause. He had told them – Van and Merle – that on their last trip to the "base", Shied had picked a certain reference point – being the speed limit sign about a few metres back – and had counted the seconds needed to reach the point where exactly the base was located, and all of their belongings and gathered "Earthly" treasures, which was why the Duchy of Frade happily rolled off the numbers as he did, pinpointing the location to an approximate 120 seconds worth of counting. Van, denying his vow of mental silence, wondered as to how exactly did that young boy feel such exuberance to such a day, or at this point, such a night. Shied just looked so… happy… so innocently energetic about the goings of their final hours on the Mystic Moon that it seemed incomprehensible to Van! Wasn't Shied saddened about it all? Bothered? Perturbed? Hell, Shied had been walking this world as practically a brother to the Earthlings, living in it and breathing in it longer than Van could ever imagine doing so! So then… why was it, or how was it that even he could smile and anticipate so genuinely? How could any of them? Shied, Angela or Merle? Didn't they feel the pains of leaving, the worries, and the dread? Didn't any one of them feel as Van felt?

"Yep, it's right by that large tree with the hole down the center Ms. Ferentini, I believe that's where you parked the last time," Merle quipped from alongside Van, stretching over Shied's passenger seat to see better through the front window, yellow eyes glistening mysteriously as they were nearly overcome with black while her pupils vastly widened. Their less able eyes followed Merle's staring direction only to come across a pit of darkness poorly illuminated by low-beam headlights.

"One-hundred-twenty-two…" Shied's counting inaccurately slowed as he too slouched over to squint at the shadowy forms of passing trees and guardrails, feeling his azure eyes of blue being somewhat subordinate to Merle's for this particular use.

"Wow, Merle, those feline eyes of yours must have better night vision than any one of us," Angela smiled tentatively stating what they all thought as she cautiously followed the road by Merle's direction, unsure as to what to do or where to park as the darkness seemingly swallowed them whole, feeling herself slowing the car to a near crawling stop in her own hesitance, only thankful that she didn't have to venture such a dangerous and mysterious journey all alone.

"Don't worry, Ms. Ferentini," Merle patted Angela's shoulder reassuringly with a furred hand and blackened nails for claws, easily gazing to the scene ahead as if it were broad daylight. She had thought at first that it was merely the bright luminescence of the moonlight that had kept everything so clear and visible although that wasn't so much the case (having stayed in the lighted city for so many weeks had led her to forgetting the powerful nighttime abilities of her own eyes, black as their surroundings with widened pupils). "Just keep on going and slide over to the right a bit. There's a big cleared area here where we stopped the last time."

"Thanks hun, what would we do without you…" Angela nodded appreciatively as she slightly recognized the close-lying forms while the car headlights shone upon them, nudging the now barely moving vehicle to its former parking spot from the many times before. Driving had been, to say the least, absolutely nerve-wrecking for the woman in her early thirties, never having felt much confidence in her driving skills to begin with. She had only recently been convinced to get a car, the somewhat run-down second-hand ten-year-old vehicle that she not-so-proudly claimed as her own, simply to get herself and Shied around the city when times called for it, though she felt no hesitance or shame in quite happily using the incredible public transit system provided all across Aimsa and Japan, the country she considered to be home to the best and fastest train systems in the world. However, where they currently had parked themselves was in the heart of an area cut off by modern transportation routes and practically civilization altogether, left only for the daring to explore and those who needed to be there out of absolute necessity. Angela knew she fell in the latter of those categories, always having dreaded the few trips to the base. They boldly challenged such a rural area with what she knew was a pathetic excuse of a long-distance traveling vehicle with no cell phones or any other means to contact the outer world for assistance if need be. She had merely gone on such a dangerous excursion on the reassurance of having a full gas tank and a friend alongside her, each and every time being the one person she'd want to be with for so long, her dearest and beloved Shied whom she knew was clever enough to find them a way out of any mess they happened to get into. Yet what discomforted the young mother so deeply, and what plagued her and frightened her most at this time were not the worries on driving there and getting back, what bothered and disturbed her was the knowledge that on her way home, there would be no "other" on whom she relied. The three companions on who's impeccable vision, quick wit and good judgment she could stake her life upon would leave those seats vacant in less than a few hours. This was a thought that she left ignored for most of the way over, feeling if she thought of it, it would leave her in canceling the trip altogether, stopping in mid-road if she had to, knowing she would be unable to do such a thing, to see those seats become empty, and to feel so very alone. It wasn't about safety. It wasn't about reassurance. It was about the people that filled those seats, which were of much more importance and value to her. Angela could only be thankful that they had already reached their destination, for now that she had begun thinking of such things; she desired only to turn right around and keep those seats filled for as long as she could possibly do so. She, like Van, would have to struggle against her thoughts, those secret thoughts they all had hidden.

"So we're finally here…" Merle hustled out the words, as she noticed that none of them had made the attempts to be the first to exit the car, as Angela shut off the engine and all had gone quiet, eerily quiet in a place as remote as this. She had no longing desire to be the first either, but she hoped her words would push someone to be. Merle knew the large potential for things to grow hesitated and awkward, but she figured the sooner it was over, the better and less chance for such an uncomfortable phase to take place.

There was a lull for a moment after Van's feline friend's dying attempt to convince any one of them to voluntarily step out of the vehicle, not quite even convincing herself, and yet he could do nothing but merely observe. He had no intention of being the first either, and from what he saw, none of them did. The question really didn't lie on who would happily take on the task to signal the fact that they were here and they were moments away from a dreaded departure, but more so, who would be the first to fake a happiness towards such an ugly sentiment.

Van grimaced – he was thinking again, and a little too deeply at that. He didn't want to mind about the point of this journey, he didn't want to reason about the glumness of it all, he just didn't want to be bothered by the trials he so ardently ignored: all of that had been his mental vow after all. Yet try as he might, he knew well he was a bound slave to his active mind, gouging desperately for his attention and concern with the following thoughts in constant circulation: perhaps reality hadn't hit them yet – it didn't seem like it anyway. Perhaps, in a sense, personally, they had all come to grips with the truthful and prevailing factor of the moment, but not enough to make it known to any other, not enough to prevent them from moving on, not enough to keep them all from taking that last step without spending a fleeting second looking back. Van didn't like to think of it, as he was adverse to the idea of even thinking at all, but yet his mind could not be put at ease otherwise in his wonderings. Was that possible of them? Was it really? They, himself, Shied, Merle and Angela, were not made of stone, or ice, or anything cold and inanimate – these were people, people Van Fanel knew well, warm and affectionate with one bonded to the other indefinitely. Though technically this was not their home or anywhere close to it, though the mystic world was not their own and should have felt foreign and alien to them, still yet, it had become their home for a certain length of time. This Mystic Moon, this "Earth", had become the central focus of a new intrigue and desire, personal aspirations and inspirations, adventures and recollections, memorable moments forever established in this distant and magical land. Each of them, every one of the three who had come a long way to be where they were, had undergone their own personal and emotional metamorphosis in one way or another, touched and forever emblazoned by the rich surroundings and exquisite experiences, influenced eternally in marvel of the scenery, the technology, the culture, the diversity, the lifestyle, the people. Did not such an idyllic place of impact deserve more than a small wave goodbye on an empty, starry night? Where was the sentimentality, the embedded attachment, the passion, the heartache? They couldn't have all numbed themselves to such a stoic extent, could they have? Well, Van had numbed his entire being quite well, had he not? And as in those moments, the young Shied Schezar, with a smile nearly a foot long, opened his front door as the first to break the dreary and muted silence, the first to fake that happiness they all resented, Van realized that they had all done the exact same thing: each of them was forcefully numbed and distanced. Each of them had chosen to ignore the evident, and each was aware that even if they wanted to, there was not one of them who planned on taking that last fleeting second to look back.

* * *

Had a pin dropped at that precise moment, it would have likely deafened them all. There was nothing but an utter silence, the purest of its kind, and instantly heightened tension as eyes were raised hesitantly and anxiously towards the figure at the door, suddenly having appeared unpredicted, enticing palms to sweat, nerves to tremble and knees to buckle as if the three had been caught in their humbled misdeed of dutiful eavesdropping.

Hitomi glared at them.

She swallowed quite anxiously, for lack of courage to formulate any words. Yukari could barely meet such eyes of pure intensity. The bumbling Yukari Uchida noticed then the immensely intimidating power invoked simply by the commanding stare of her best friend's jade eyes, yet barely recognizing Hitomi at all, as her expression was mean and displeased, as if she had seen through burdened anguish and endless sufferings. It wasn't exactly the Hitomi Kanzaki Yukari was familiar with, or wanted to become familiar with. Admittedly, Yukari nearly felt rather impartial to such a situation, and had no idea really as to how to go about it, or offer any comfort. So rather than making any faltered attempts at some sort of meaningless reconciliation towards her, Yukari instead stood there in continuous silence and dim lighting amidst her two companions, as if in a police line-up from tallest to shortest, San Askielowicz standing post at Yukari's right, Catherine Corain keeping guard at the left. They had been that way, standing faithfully in Hitomi and Cathy's kitchen for what had felt like an eternity, in what was actually the currently most momentous forty minutes they had ever experienced. Their legs had tired them with a craving for a chair, but yet they had all stood there soundless, having listened intently to the conversation on the opposite side of the wall, where earlier Hikoro and Hitomi, mother and daughter, had been in heavy discussion trying to clear the dark clouds which hung over them all. It had been… agonizing, to say the least. Yukari had heard such tones before. She, although not ever having bragged to own the best memory, could most certainly recall days of old when such arguments had taken effect, frightening and powerful, two forces battling on such opposite ends, and now… here it was again. What was she to do? What were any of them to do? There had been no answer to such a question, none that they could come up with anyway, and so they had remained, staying only to see what kind of fate chance would bring about.

Hitomi still stood at the kitchen doorway only feet away from where they were; hand against the frame of it for either balance or a pose of demand, strands of brown escaping her loosely tied pony tail and eyes of that influential green still looming and unblinking, gray sweats of clothing sulking in loose folds with the mood. She had not yet said a word, and all wondered as to why she had so suddenly upped and left the table where her "argument" was taking place, having come to confront the three hidden spectators. The three had assumed it to be Hitomi's personal battle, and had left it voluntarily to be Hitomi's personal battle, but now it seemed as if they were receiving a live invitation to become a part of it all, an invitation that had also come uninvited.

"H-Hitomi…" like usually, the bold yet shortest Catherine, a true roommate, was the first to break the insufferable quietness, stammering unsurely as she too felt somewhat unsettled by the challenging appearance of her daily companion. "Are you…" However, Cathy failed to continue her trailing thought, feeling such a statement could end in such ways she knew was rather unproductive. Did it make much sense to ask if Hitomi was 'okay' or 'alright'? It was plain evident that she wasn't. So instead, Catherine pretended as if she had never uttered a word and stared only at those estranged eyes with an expression of deep sympathy.

It was displayed rather obviously that neither the best friend of Hitomi nor her roommate had any ideas as to what to do or what to say in their defense, and so all hope and expectation was left lastly for the woman, other than Hitomi, who had not yet spoken a word.

San thought about what had last been said, before Catherine's attempt at a comment. The newly arrived visitor from Poland, Hitomi's cousin bearing a rather significant resemblance, strived to recall the details of the heated conversation on the opposite side of the kitchen wall before Hitomi had so abruptly decided to pay them visit in the kitchen. Unlike the others, San – who happened to be studying law back at home – thought of the situation analytically, feeling equally imposed by Hitomi's presence, yet she still excelled in the know-how of how to go about it. And so, she thought of what had happened just moments earlier: Hitomi's and Hikoro's conversation had been growing louder, the disagreements having come more frequently, in an ongoing debate and lecture. She last recalled Hikoro demanding the truth from Hitomi, the full truth, asking for an explanation she was likely not prepared for, while Hitomi had done just about everything to avoid giving her one. But, seeing as she had been backed into an inescapable corner, Hitomi had said 'Fine, you want to know, I'll let you know. I'm sick of this stupid conversation. Don't blame me if you don't like what you hear' or other rash statements such as that. They had been rather stinging words, common though for the angered Hitomi, but before anything could be felt towards them, the screeching sound of chair legs against the tile floor had filled the air, followed shortly by the pit-pat of socks and feet, up until the moment they were in now when Hitomi would suddenly stand before them. Surely then, the action had been deliberate, and Hitomi had wanted, or wanted, something from them. San knew well that she was there for a reason, and like it or not, the three huddling in their own seclusion would now be involved in one way or other.

"What would you like, Hitomi?" She spoke it simply and flatly and plainly. There were no 'how-do-you-dos' or pleasing greetings or hugs or compliments, as what would be expected from San Askielowicz to Hitomi Kanzaki. After all, it had been quite a few years since San had laid eyes on her favorite cousin, or shared a word with her in person, and the previous night practically didn't count as a worthy reunion. They had only gotten a few hurried minutes over some tea Catherine had made late last night to do some quick catch-ups and updates. Hitomi had arrived back to her own home rather late, after that mysterious outing (in fact, now that San thought of it, many things were mysterious, and she hadn't even begun to think of Hitomi's two strange visitors the day earlier as well). Hitomi's fiancé, a handsome man of whom San barely remembered meeting back when visiting when they were teens, also had a word to discuss with Hitomi (that having been the source of the problems this night) which also hustled Catherine, Yukari and San out faster than they desired. And again, this night, it seemed that there would be no time left for any light-hearted discussion (that of which San now longed for – normality) and she knew when business was business. Hitomi didn't have the time or care for anything this day. She was tired and defeated and fraught. San would have to put aside her own disappointment that her visit was not as quaint as she had envisioned, and instead assist and contribute in any way she could.

Hitomi Kanzaki turned her attention to her assertive cousin, who had come up with such practical words, a statement that was much like music to her ears. She hadn't expected them to say anything really. Hitomi knew they had been there the whole time, and she wasn't really bothered by it, it was only to her reassurance that she was in company of other human beings aside from whom she now considered to be the wretch that was her mother. Though her exterior image showed only misery and a rather slothful dislike towards all and everything around her, she was yet still very grateful for these silent three that had been like invisible support hiding away, the comfort in knowledge that when she felt that all she cared for most were on the verge of deserting her, three incredible companions stood on guard like readied soldiers on high alert. They had been doing a lot for her, especially Catherine and Yukari, most especially indeed. The two of them had been around Hitomi for two days straight now, putting up with Hitomi's awkward antics of yesterday, and her glum resentment to everything today, always there bright and early to hours late at night. She hoped that now, they would be there for her just this one more time.

"You need us? We're here for you, you know." Catherine picked up quickly on the flow of things; not hesitating to offer her assistance that Hitomi had apparently come to ask of them.

"Same here," Yukari added respectfully, adding in a meek smile of newfound encouragement. "What would you like us to do?

Hitomi stared at them all again, but blinked softly this time, with her quiet nod of thankful appreciation – the most gentle image she had yet projected that day. With slowed and hesitant movements, trying not to show that she was not too keen on what she would now have to do but having to do it anyway, she backed away from the kitchen doorway and motioned down the hall towards the dining room, where all knew her impatient and somewhat infuriated mother awaited them. Their eyes followed her direction, in willing wait of instruction. Hitomi took a breath, and satisfied their apprehension. The instructions that followed were much simpler and less fearful than they had all expected yet equally left them vague and just as apprehensive as before:

"I would just like you three to come into the dining room for a moment. I'd like you all to hear this once and for all. There is something I have to tell you."

* * *

The night air was unpleasantly cold, and the wind was forceful and brisk, quite cold and quick sweeping through the uninhabited lands. Somewhere out there in that impassable dark obscurity of foliage and distant mountains lurked nightly creatures sculpted only by the fearful imagination, with howls and cries and hoots and crickets and crunches beneath padded feet only adding to that chilling illusion. And how that darned wind was so uninviting! Whistling like a wandering pack of hungry wolves! Although Shied Schezar felt he knew the area well enough now as to not have to fear it, even in the late of night, he was quite disappointed that it seemed as unfriendly as it did, the only sympathetic guide to them being the soft light shone from the waning moon and the countless stars of a clear night overhead. He wondered then where all that wind was coming from without a speck of cloud; perhaps that was simply the conditions such a night as this was supposed to have, nippy and gloomy as such. But how so very drab! Honestly, was there not one thing that could just seem somewhat positive for once? Huddling there now, half exposed to that unforgiving night and half reluctantly cowering within the artificial heat of his Mum's vehicle, Shied felt a hint of regret in having chosen to be the first to open his passenger door. Why had he done such a thing? Well, there was plenty of reasoning that had led to his decision; the main one being that he reckoned that it was quite likely he would be the only one who would anyway, otherwise, not one of them would have ever set foot out of that car even after the long travel to do so.

Shied sighed quickly and quite quietly to himself, knowing the others awaited him to step foot outside already, possibly some of them even curious or slighted as to why he would be so eager for something they all so privately dismayed. Shied was far from the mentally slowest of them all, if not the most cunning and fast thinking, even despite his misleading youthful appearance. He had already predicted and known days earlier that this day, or night, would be just the way it was, practically swimming neck-high in this superficial happiness or at least forced neutrality that they all had created to avoid anything sadder of the sort. Shied had been much like that himself, only just a few hours earlier, pressuring himself to think of the good things… and to stray always from the bad and also from the sad. But he had known what this day truly meant and truly destined, and so had everyone, and so had his mother, his Mum, his Angel, his Angela. He had not forgotten yet or forgotten ever that moment from just moments before, those precious seconds alone with her lastly in their apartment, that declaration he had so proudly spoken in the most articulate of manners: "I am your son". It had been strong, eloquent, poignant and ever so powerful. It had inspired and motivated him to also become inspiring and motivating to everyone else. It had built his decision with sheer confidence, with assurance and without doubt. Yes, it was due to that decision that his eyes of bouncing crystal blue were even bluer than normal, and his gentle wisps of blond bangs were light and carried free. Shied, unlike most and unlike the rest, did not feel burdened at this time – he felt secure, gladly secure. That decision was secure. He wasn't sure exactly how much comfort it would be to anyone else other than whom it concerned, but at least he had discovered a way to settle his own young and troubled heart. It was no wonder really that he was so eager to implement that goal, that decision, and finally with that connotation, he entered quickly and quietly into that late night.

"Van! Careful now… here, let me help you." The other three companions of Shied were a tad bit slower to follow his actions, half due to their own disinclination, and for Van and Merle, most due to Van's inability to move as freely and as ably as he would have wanted to due to wounds here and there, as Merle was swift to rush to his aid. Merle, being that watchful feline type, was very cautious about such a thing. She knew her friend, her utmost best friend, was rather reckless as he had always been, denying pain where it was and refusing assistance when it was offered. However, Van should have known Merle enough to understand her stubbornness towards his stoic personality, unbelieving to his claims that he was "absolutely fine" or so as such, when within she knew he was anything but!

Yet oddly this night of nights, he seemed to have strangely accepted his dependence towards her, permitting Merle to sweep an arm under his and around his back, allowing him to lean his weight on her smaller self as Van fought for balance stepping out of the vehicle. Van, though, was nowhere near clumsy, and managed himself quite well – hopefully not by excessive force, Merle still yet worried. And she had every right to worry. She could almost even smell the pain riveting within Van's left leg, which he still, in spite of everything, tried to conceal. Although carefully bandaged and now treated, Merle knew well that it was likely far too early for him to be up and about as he was. She recalled the detective having mentioned something the night before, a word or two about devices called "crutches" that would have helped those in his situation, however, the two of them had not stayed in the Willendorf Hospital long enough to receive them. And so knowing this, without hesitance, Merle knew and completely understood her role to temporarily become those devices, to be that ease and relief towards her afflicted companion, knowing well of her ability to heal and mend the pain on the outside, yet aggravated always with her inability to do that same thing with the pain inside – within – where she knew it mattered most.

"You two okay over there?" Angela lent a watchful eye, peering over at the two over the hood of the car, after she had been preoccupied with trying to empty her vehicle of its contents, mainly the luggage and extensive belongings of her three passengers, which was actually quite the armful. Merle replied to her inquiry with a simple smile and nod, and so Angela continued on with her task, reaching back into the car through her driver door in incessant search for that darned—

"Hey, Mum, what about this thing?" Yet Shied beat her to it, much to her surprise and equal uneasiness. He too had been working on gathering miscellaneous packages from the trunk of the car and setting them on the dried dirt of the cold ground they parked on, but somehow he had found himself near the backseat, eyeing a largish, unlabelled cardboard box, riddled with holes near the sides, that had been where Merle was sitting. He hadn't even noticed it before, and was just about to grab hold of it for inspection, when he felt a quick-thinking furry hand take grasp of his thin wrist.

"Now, now, kid, you take care of the technical stuff, don't be bothered with little things like this," Shied gazed upwards promptly to notice Merle suddenly having appeared by his side, beaming back at him, with a cute little yellow visor half-hiding her happy eyes and whiskers frayed nearly mischievously. She seemed strangely upbeat to Shied's suspicion, yet he didn't question it and gave it a nod as Merle suggested he hunt down the heavy-duty flashlights instead which Angela had packed earlier in the trunk. Giving a subsequent breath of relief, Merle then took hold of that odd box quickly and quite carefully, handing it to the anxiously observing Angela with a mild wink, and a thankful impression. Then they continued about their business normally, as if nothing had ever happened at all.

Meanwhile Van, wobbling unsteadily, was not quick to think it, and yet even slower to accept it, but equally, he was starting to realize that trying to get around entirely on his own was not as easy as he had predicted or even assumed, after Merle had momentarily left him be to go assist Angela and Shied with something or other. Little had Van noticed that his entire day's worth of getting from one place to another had not been a solitary task – she had always been there with him, Merle had been there with him. He understood now that she had served voluntarily as his third arm or third leg, never quite leaving his presence for any longer than a few seconds. He was inwardly happy that she knew him well enough to know exactly when he'd need her most, and yet as if on cue, Merle again arrived by his side steadying him quickly before he just about toppled over.

"You're not trying to get around without me, now are you?" She was quick to quip quite aware of Van's reliance on her, easily retaking her position alongside her friend, walking him over slowly to where Shied was still busy unloading and sorting through dozens of packages that had somehow managed to fit into the tiny expanse of the trunk.

"I doubt I could even if I wanted to," Van replied with a sheepish but thankful grin, not so much forced, as he did feel genuinely compelled to share a brief smile, balancing himself carefully with his arm around her shoulders. His lonesome quietness felt as if it had left him just for now, as he realized his sudden helplessness, quite amused by that thought. Van was not easily the type to be regarded as helpless, surely not. But yet here he was, barely capable to even stand himself straight, truly and indefinitely helpless, as he knew he privately felt inside.

* * *

"You can't be serious, Tomi, you mean you're gonna tell her everything?"

Yukari was unsure about this. Then again, Yukari was rather unsure of many things with her ever-present feeble and flimsy backbone comparable only to an elastic band, but yet still, she was highly unsure of this and not to mention being skeptic, doubtful, unconvinced and entirely cynical – whichever way there was to cut it, she was it and more. She, unlike Hitomi and her ancestors, may not have had or currently have any skill with tarot cards or fortune telling and whatever else, though she did know something for certain: an Uchida can always trust their gut, and at the moment being, this Uchida felt like stomaching a good old jar of antacids.

"I know I can't be of much help," Catherine softly input from alongside Hitomi, hushing the words quietly to keep from the elder Kanzaki's ear. "But I'm afraid I agree with Yukari, Hitomi. You know we've been listening to the argument on the other side of that wall, and I'm sure you have your reasons for wanting to tell your mother about… those things… and we'll support you all the way, but are you sure she can handle it?"

Hitomi Kanzaki watched their eyes carefully, returning their inquiring gaze with an unsatisfying blank expression. She noticed quickly that they looked like her, the three of them: Yukari, Catherine and San, they truly seemed barely any different than Hitomi did. Each was desperately lacking confidence and was uncomfortably apprehensive, eyes agape and uncertainties on tense alert, wishing for the night to end almost as badly as she. Hitomi felt sorry for the girls really, sorry and apologetic, knowing that not one of them deserved to have to carry Hitomi's burdens way into this late night; it should have been Hitomi's problem and hers alone to deal with, confront with and conquer. But yet, they were so damn devoted to her, trudging along that dismaying path quite voluntarily, that Hitomi knew she could not shake them off, hard as she would try.

"Hitomi?" San looked to her cousin questionably, for she hadn't yet answered them or given them any relief to their collective worries. San was probably the one in the group who understood how problematic everything was to the tiniest extent, unfortunately left aloof most of the time. After all, they talked as if her aunt (whom she'd always considered to be quite the pleasant person) were some sort of lingering ogre ready to erupt in a fit of rage at what Hitomi was going to say, whatever it may be. Sure, sure, maybe her Aunt Hikoro did sound quite unpleasing from what they had heard in their eavesdropping scherades, but San still felt that was little reasoning to see her become so upset with her own kin. Then again, perhaps that was why she, and all of them, was so keen yet extremely anxious as to what Hitomi's declaration would be to give way to such intense reasoning.

"Let me ask you guys something this time," finally, the menacing Hitomi satisfied their beckoning for a response, yet hesitantly, with a voice of sheer gravity and demand. . "Do the three of you believe in me… in what I have to say? Well, do you?" She was very quick to ask her statement, just as quick as she was to expect an answer. Hitomi was not fond of hesitance, most especially not at this time.

There was a strange lulling of silence, likely not more than a second's worth, yet still feeling drastically longer. What were these three innocent girls, Hitomi's closest companions, to think of such a hasty and challenging inquiry? First of all, it wasn't like Hitomi was giving them time to even think. She glared at them imposingly with such an expression that suggested the longer that they would take to reply, the more she would consider them to be disagreeing with that she had so quickly asked, which would essentially mean that Hitomi didn't even have the support of her own friends, her own bridesmaids even, leaving the three in tedious guilt. It was true and plainly evident that there was a joint feeling of unknowingness, wariness, and disillusion between the three towards the strange situation with Hitomi, and with other supernatural things they could not explain and barely even understand, that had climaxed to such important magnitudes, life-changing magnitudes to be more precise. But as conscious as those sentiments were, the responsibility and privilege of being a good friend, a best friend, offering unlimited support and unconditional care, trust and respect were much more overwhelming. So naturally, Hitomi had phrased it and placed it so that the three, knowing full well that they would come to choose friendship over doubt (at least she hoped for this to remain so), would leave her with responses of nothing but the affirmative:


"I do."

"Of course, Tomi."

"Well then," Hitomi turned her back on them, facing forwards in appreciation of their words, despite the fact that she had expected it; it was still most assuring to hear someone speak their faith in her for herself… for once.

"Hey guys, don't you worry about my mother. If you believe, then I'm going to make her believe."

* * *

"I think it'll take about four trips," Shied said towards his Gaean companions who now stood alongside him, surveying the mounds of accessories the young boy was motioning towards.

"What's gonna take four trips, hun?" Angela Ferentini was now over to where they were too, having finished gathering all the items that had been within the car, rustling a fatigued hand through a thick set of wavy hair, constantly drifting out of the clips she had pinned it down with that morning. Again that riddled box lay within her arms, tucked protectively alongside her, rather than on the ground amongst the many other belongings.

"The trips to bring all this stuff to the actual base since there's so much of it," Shied replied with a nod. "Approximately four times, with you, me and Merle tugging it all, it shouldn't take more than a few minutes. Fifteen roughly."

"Now wait a minute," Van interjected almost immediately. "Why aren't you accounting for me?"

"Mr. Fanel, don't be silly," Angela replied to his inquiry rather matter-of-factly with a nearly parental stare. "In that condition, we wouldn't permit you to lift a feather, not a feather, Van."

"Oh come on guys, you're exaggerating it," Van forced an enthusiastic smile still in argument, not quick at all to admit that his left leg, after standing on it for so long from three hours of sitting, was beginning to give him some trouble. He cautiously released his grip from Merle to gain an independent balance. "See? I'm quite capable of helping out. Just hand me some stuff here and there and I'll show—"

"Van, must you always be this way?" Merle interrupted plaintively and quite casually, not even staring at him as she slung one of the many gym bags onto her shoulder, grabbing hold of Van's arm before he nearly fell over from his seemingly pathetic show of self-reliance. "You know – we know – that you're barely in any condition to walk, so you can just forget about carrying things for crying out loud! Besides, you heard Shied, didn't you? Fifteen minutes isn't very long. We'll be done in no time, and you can just sit pretty until then."

The indignant Fanelian, quite put out at the thought of simply sitting "pretty", was merely seconds from another quarrelsome debate with Merle about her acting as if his elder; but before even a hint of voice or complaint could escape him, something throbbing and sudden in his left leg gave way.

She turned to glare at him with her triumphant stance. She was wary of Van and his situation, quite well aware that he was never one to let on to as much as he knew, or in this case – felt. Much over that, she was well prepped for any argument that he may try to put up; Merle knew Van was blind to his own miseries, and it was her rightful duty to make sure he didn't go about and overexert himself, as he usually did, acting as if Van's missing "common sense". However, as she finally turned to catch her companion in sight, she realized that what she had been meaning to prevent had already come to pass so quickly she hadn't even sensed it, as she, in a strangled form of terror, watched Van's expression instantly turn ghastly pale.

'What in the hell!' he thought abruptly, feeling the sensation overwhelmingly unexpected and himself entirely unprepared. Van grimaced quickly and bit his lip to prevent a crying yelp. It was hasty, that fleeting yet surging emergence of pain, erupting as if out of nowhere, as if out of the night skies themselves, hitting him like a sharp bullet to the leg. Van didn't know precisely how to describe it or think of it – not that there was even time to do so – just because though it felt as if it were pain, at the same time, he couldn't quite say he felt hurt, as if in a non-sense way, it was some oddly existing form of painless pain. He didn't understand that, and didn't have time to understand it. Beyond the surging impressions, whatever it may have been, Van could barely even hear himself think, or make himself do so. All he managed to notice was his balance ceasing and his vision swiftly impairing, only able to see a complex swishing of nightly colours before him, trees blending in with his friends, moonlight blending with the dirt of the ground, forming a palette of murky and unclear darkness that was as easily disappearing into absolute nothingness. Accompanied with an overpowering sense of light-headedness and an impulse to either gag or pass out, Van last managed to give a fleeting glance to the diamond-studded star sky way overhead, gazing motionless towards his confused figure miles below, a choked breath fighting to escape him, before the ground would rush up coldly and all would turn a dark, pitch black.

* * *

Impact. It was like a colossal wave of water, flooding her, crashing into her at record-surpassing speeds, drowning her, swallowing her into this unknown realm of spontaneously ignited emotion.

She slowed herself to cope with the suddenness.

It was definitely there, that impact – that force. It had come to her; it had manifested, literally from nowhere, it was beckoning to her readily, it was here. She could not define such a sentiment in words, other than to describe it as indescribable or indefinable. To her, it did absolutely everything while showing nothing; it was… sensational. She could feel it well: the fear, the dread, the thrill, the rush, the stamina, the adrenaline, the passion, the grief – everything. It was as if every emotion, every dwelling, every thought, had been condensed to one single moment, a sweet instance in time, to overwhelm her to such an extent that she could no longer move, and barely breathe, nor sense herself doing so or will herself to. How very dangerous, she could not move.

* * *

Merle had watched in horrified alarm. She had watched as her gut began to wrench with sickened worry, as her heart rate increased at a nearly exponential rate, as she raised trembling and slender fingers to cover her agape mouth, like her eyes, wide with fear and complete dread. She was frozen like this, unmoving, unblinking, and for just a single moment even her frenzied thoughts amounted to absolutely nothing as her mind was overcome with that panic-stricken angst. She could see it all directly in front of her yet Merle's inner self was unbelieving, unwilling to believe, as she knew what she felt inside. It was a feeling that she had thought to be retired in their times of peace and stillness: that embedding and tormenting worry for the sake – for the life happiness and health – of her Van.

"VAN!" Finally realizing her own concern to take action in merely split seconds, the cat-woman lunged forward with an eccentric shout, but even in her able feline speed, wasn't in time to catch her fallen friend as he fell flatly upon the dirt ground with an unnerving thud. Still, she rushed quickly by his side in under seconds, declining to her knees and grabbing hold of his shoulders before a thought could even register in her mind, consuming Van into her arms like a mother encompassing a fallen child. She didn't know what happened to him, why it had happened, or what was to become of him, but Merle's priority lay in simply knowing that he was all right, working to maintain such security. The two others who longed to do the same surrounded her almost instantly.

"Merle! Merle! What happened? Is he alright, Merle?" the young Shied, much like he was when knowledge failed him with a problem, was abundant with questions, also dropping hold of the packages he had been carrying to rush over to Merle's side. His widened blue eyes squinted desperately in the dark to make out the limp outline of Van's body, lying where it was with a chest deeply heaving. It had happened much too suddenly, so much so that Shied hadn't even gotten the opportunity to sort through his own worry logically, and now that worry accumulated and jumbled far beyond assurance as he caught glimpse of Merle, eyes wide and bright as headlights, gazing at the current situation hopelessly.

"I don't know!" she replied hastily yet also truthfully, trying to ignore everything around her but what lay before her, isolating Van as the only thing that she could possibly focus on. Her large ears were keen to him, tilted towards him, and slit eyes upon him without movement or blinking or any such thing. She gripped him closely, though he was heavy, keeping his upper half to rest upon her lap as her eyes searched frantically for any indication of a problem, uncomfortably suspicious of his left leg. She did not understand it. It was as if one second he was there… as normally as could be… and the next second, he just fainted so suddenly! There was no reasonable explanation for such behavior, was there? She did not understand it. She did not like not understanding it. She did not like it all. She was frightened.

His eyes were blank.

"Van, do you hear me? What's wrong? VAN?" Merle was incessant, and growing rather frantic. It had been too long now. Perhaps only a few seconds had passed them, but even then she could feel the anxiety clumping in her throat, her fingers picking up on a mild tremble as they held him carefully, stroking through the hair as black as their surroundings, but yet soft and wispy like the chilly breeze that engulfed them. There Van lay in her own grasp, as tangible as could be with his weight upon her, hair tickling her chin, soft coat like a gentle suede against her furred skin, and expressionless visage before her eyes, but even then, Merle knew that Van was not there; Merle knew it – she could sense it. His eyes were blank, an unfriendly blank, unoccupied and soulless. She was frightened for it was a fear-provoking and challenging image, most definitely disconcerting to say the slightest. She could only feel a perturbed distress to look upon her own best friend, gazing at her glazed as if he saw nothing at all, as if conscious and unconscious and apparently not replying. There was no response from Van. Merle was confident that her voice had echoed loudly, her call to his name, yet there hadn't been a sound, or even a somewhat promising flinch of movement from her companion, asides from his rash breathing which even that seemed otherworldly. Merle hated to think it though she knew that it was evident: despite the fact that he so visually and physically lay before her, it was certainly as if Van Fanel was not even there at all.

* * *

There in the middle of the hall Hitomi stood, having been caught in her own motion to be placed in a dead stop, unpredicted and uncalled for. Not a muscle flinched, not a sound was spoken, there was nothing but that sharp halt or brief pause in mid-step, in mid-action, in mid-life. Because of that, it wasn't long before Catherine Corain, having been walking behind Hitomi and too distracted with her own thoughts and concerns to have noticed Hitomi's movements (or lack of them), would come innocently sprawling into her.

"Umph!" Cathy let out a startled grunt as unknowingly she walked right into the square of Hitomi's back, which acted like a slab of cement stone before her, entirely stopping the smaller Catherine in her tracks. They, the four of them, had been making their way to the dining room, in a sulky-dreary fashion lacking anticipation. Each one, each friend, each bridesmaid, were completely absorbed into their own worries and anxieties on how the rest of the story – that of which they were becoming more engrossed into – would finally come to unfold. With all of their minds being that preoccupied, Cathy couldn't blame Hitomi for acting somewhat hesitant, yet stopping so abruptly out of nowhere did quite heighten her concern.

"Hito, are you okay?" Catherine piped up quickly and quietly from behind, prodding the inattentive Hitomi lightly with an index finger, while looking on ahead of the both of them to try and catch anything particular that could have possibly gotten her roommate so fixated. Yet there was nothing, Catherine noticed as she stared ahead, nothing much more peculiar than the usual layout of their shared home, the dim lighting from the dining room that they were moments away from entering, and the soft impression of moonlight seen through the large balcony doors of glass.

Finding herself with not much ideas or a response from her companion, Cathy instead turned her direction to the two figures behind her, with a fleeting hope that she would come to see a more promising picture or hear words of encouragement and the what not. But that hope was equally refused, as she only came to spot what she more so expected: friends Yukari and San exchanging soundless glances just as perplexed and uneasy as hers, as to why Hitomi would stop so unexplainably out of nowhere. Catherine's deep, chocolate eyes glowed with disappointment upon a set, tan skin, and returned themselves to the main person at hand: the conundrum of a girl known as Hitomi Kanzaki.

* * *

Stars. Many stars. Glamorous stars. The night sky was full of them, radiantly glimmering and proudly gleaming, each one brighter than the one preceding it, thousands of crystal diamonds upon a navy-black field of silk, with endless threads to all four corners of the vast universe. Upon that supple silk, alongside with the many sparkling gems, lay an extravagant pearl, the watchful moon, hanging passively near the horizon. Collectively, the night sky was an enchantment of its own, brilliant and mysterious with its infinite depth. It wasn't so long ago when he had spent night after night longingly observing at such yonder spectacles on a clear mid-summer afternoon, in the Fanelian courtyards. It wasn't so long ago when he would dream of passing those stars one by one, stream through them as if magically, soaring into that infinite space to somehow, someway, land upon that distant Mystic Moon, a round destiny of blue and green and white that tickled and amused his desire for an adventure so grand. It also wasn't so long ago when he had deemed such a task impossible, when he was seen more as a boy with far-fetched dreams and long-forgotten longings with no way in which to achieve them. But on the contrary, here was Van now, right where he thought he couldn't be, where no one thought him to go, never mind to be in whilst gazing at the stars he had ventured from. Van Fanel, not even yet in his forties in Gaean years, had accomplished the unfeasible! Truly indeed! Perhaps then, it was destined after all.

But then, didn't that make it that much more significant? If it was destiny… fate… surely, this couldn't be the way that such a miracle would come to end. Surely the laws of physics and the boundaries of sheer luck and pure magic could only be defied for very good reason. Surely, destiny had to be better than this. There had to be purpose – a purpose. Van was missing out on something, and he knew it.

Silently and motionlessly, the King of Fanelia grimaced. He was thinking, philosophizing even, and rather deeply at that. But who was to blame the practically crippled man, for Van was one at the moment who was left with nothing but the activities of his own mind. That was it. He knew where he was. He was lying in the middle-of-nowhere wilds of Aimsa, exactly where he had fallen, safe in the warming clutch of his best friend, Merle, under the concerned and hovering shadows of Shied and Angela Ferentini. But regardless of Van's sensitivity to his own surroundings through sight, he knew it didn't help him much when four out of the five of his senses were now – and hopefully only 'for now' – useless. Useless. Van could not hear, nor could he feel, and he was doubtful on his ability to smell and likely not taste. Therefore it was clever to assume that he could not move, and that he couldn't. In fact, Van wasn't able to do many things, such as responding to the many panic-stricken faces that watched over him, or explaining what on earth it was that had just happened, what could have rendered him to such subjection. But he did have an idea, one he was reluctant to believe, but only because he most wanted to believe it. Just perhaps, all of these sudden difficulties were fate's way, destiny's way, of letting him know that there was no such thing as running away from one's own mind, own inner-being, or even one's own heart, paralyzing him to be left with nothing but the soft glow of enchanting stars and the lingering memories that they invoked. Perhaps that was it after all. There was a message in all this for Van, a simple and clear-cut message that had taken up to these measures for him to come to terms with: maybe it was just about time for wandering-thoughts-Van Fanel to stop denying and to start thinking. There was a purpose that he simply could not ignore for any longer.

* * *

He yawned grudgingly and openly with breath smelling of putrid things, feeling himself vacant of any such charm or civility as was once his norm, victim only to a newfound slothful persona accompanied with a dreary sense of fatigue. It was barely past seven in the eve and already he was part drunk and off yawning, a no more than disgraceful image, pathetic in all it was worth.

Tossing his head back with loose, brown bangs lazily drooping against his face alive with fuzz from a lack of shaving that morning, Amano Nekuchi downed what he hoped would be his last shot of vodka. All such needless alcohol was costing him more than he was willing to pay, and clearly it had little to no effect on his high-spiritedness, or lack of it. He knew well that he was not just wasting time and life and money, but also wasting himself, a man of reputation and dignity, on such stupid things. But regardless on what he did or did not know, Amano felt dead. Dull. Exhausted. At the time being it didn't matter to him how he acted or looked in appearance, or how he consciously polluted his own body, or how he tossed out money like confetti, it was meaningless anyway. Meaningless… wasn't it all? That was Amano's current style of thinking. Everything was meaningless. There was no point to it, and there was no point to him, nor were there any to his actions. The man who had lived and thrived in the high times had finally come to fall to a new low.

"Would you like another glass, Mr. Nekuchi, sir?"

A subtle voice awakened him from his numbness, bringing Amano's eyes to tear away from his hands before him to gaze at his musty, colourless surroundings. He hadn't wanted to look at where he was, still privately ashamed to admit being in the place, almost pretending as if he wasn't there at all. Here Amano sat alone in a grimy table of greasy metal, hidden far back in the smoking area of a neglected billiard hall and bar far off somewhere remote in the more deserted areas of commercial Aimsa, quiet and poorly lit, where a thick cloud of cigarette smoke hung like ever-present fog from the shoulders up. The air smelled of strange things, and the surrounding, somber faces looked no happier than they did sober. There were only a few other lonely souls occupying themselves in such a dim leave, lost to an uninteresting match of pool or, like him, doused into the sullen highs of alcohol for all that their wallet could provide. It was pitiful, yes, but there was still some small reassurance that it could have been worse. At least he wasn't aimlessly losing a fortune in some casino, nor were his morals threatened at some sleazy strip club, yet it bothered him to think that he had even considered such terrible things, not that he could claim for having chosen a much better path anyway. This, for Amano, was definitely the bottom of the barrel.

"Sir? Amano-sempai?" the young cocktail waitress still awaited him, hovering by him pensively. She seemed eager to attend to Amano's order, yet he could barely muster the desire to look at her. It wasn't like he was that inconsiderate, for he knew the efforts she was putting forth to keep customers satisfied, even in a place quite unsatisfying. But moreover, Amano knew young Levalin Dowes well. She was none other than the eighteen-year-old younger sister of Marianne Dowes, whom he was rather familiar with from Mikami's Fine Cuisine. Both lavished exquisitely good looks, accompanied with a newborn's complexion, bouncing curls with a colour quite like his hair, and the most vibrant eyes of honey to win a bee's envy. There surely had to be some sort of waitress gene running amuck within their family as well, he thought as he recalled the two. Although he had been good friends with Marianne back in their high school days at Aimsa Shoreline Public High, it was truly Levalin who had taken the fondest liking of Amano – an attraction even. She was a devoted one, seemingly crushing on him far past his own expectation. That was what disturbed him so – had he really come to such an undesirable place to rest his eyes upon such a desirable woman late in her teens, who could only feel the same wanting passion towards him? It was sickening, and he preferred not to think of it. Amano wasn't like that. In truth, he hadn't thought of it twice that she would be working here, despite her good looks or innocent youth. He had wanted something to drink, and that was all.

"Nah, I'm fine Lev, thanks," Amano Nekuchi waved it off sullenly, still having not raised his eyes, able to hear her hesitation and utter disappointment to have his words, as she apparently tried to come up with something else in which to entertain him with. He didn't understand just what about him kept her so. In all times of times, he figured there hadn't been a time when he didn't look more unattractive than he did now. His clothes were rustled and untidy, likely smelly too from whatever odours they picked up in such a place; his chin littered with tiny hair rubble smooth like pipe-cleaner fuzz, dark hammock bags hung off his eyes, and truly, his expression itself was simply not a happy one, for Amano simply wasn't happy.

"You need a light, Amano? Y'know there's a lighter by the counter. Plenty of them. My sister says 'hi' too. You don't go to Mikami's as often as you used to."

The bumbling senior-high school brunette managed a mouthful of words before taking a breath and reaching a pause. It was quite evident that she was pressing for some sort of form of conversation, and she was impending more guilt upon Amano just by doing so. It was true he hadn't greeted her with his usual gung-ho charisma, or went along with the more common salutations and how-do-you-dos, but it was also true that everything at the moment was everything but common. Still, her words brought his attention to certain things: Mikami's, for instance. He really hadn't been there in a while, not since last with Yukari Uchida, when they had previously gotten together to discuss the ongoing details and background information about his… wedding, or more so, the wedding-that-once-was-that-might-not-be. But he'd rather not think of that, most especially that of all things to not think of. The man bore enough guilt as it was, and more than enough of his own misery. If he thought more of it, he'd end up losing an equal amount of drinking-money to wash it all away a second time.

But then if that thought were to be ignored, then of course, there were the cigarettes (it was inescapable, after all, when the only things one can think of are things one would rather not think of). There they lay, a red and white pack of Matinee slims sitting patiently at his grasp, alluring while disturbing, like a seductress in wait. They lay still in their packaging, barely touched by the human hand, enticing him with a silent beckoning and a sweet yet tangy scent. He had been doing well ignoring them (in spite of the fact that he had just purchased the pack) up until now when Levalin's pestering had brought the cigarettes back to his attention. A twinge of emotion and deliberation overcame Amano once again. And then, soon came the memories.

* * *

She felt… sad. Simply sad, in all of it's many complexities. It was strange – that it may have been – but not unforeseen. As odd as it was to think it in such a way, still, she felt as if that suddenly emerging emotion – sadness – had been within her all along, budding and thriving upon all that she took in, even though she had acted as if without it. Perhaps it was like that strange impact or gust of feeling from earlier had been like the breaking of her water, alerting her to the coming birth of such hidden feelings; a hidden yet ever-present sadness that had impregnated her very being, waiting for it's complete development to reach a final peak before she would experience it all full-force, in her own labor pains. Well, surely the newborn was well on its way and making it known, for the depression had utmost definitely overcome her. Although she had once been caught up with impressions of dread, anger, confusion… such things were parting with her now, leaving her only with that sadness, quickly making her realize all the things she had to be sad about.

"Hitomi, hey, come on. Cut it out; what's wrong?" A concerned and equally edgy San had quickly stolen the scene. She was beginning to become nervous, and who wouldn't really, when one's own cousin almost completely blanks out, unmoving, unresponsive and pokerfaced, while able to hold as fine of a conversation as the common store mannequin. There was surely something eerie about that, rather eerie and unsettling. But who on earth was San kidding – what about all of this wasn't eerie and unsettling, if not worse? At this rate, it wouldn't be long before such oddities could merely be adopted for the norm.

Of course, like the three expected, there was no response from Hitomi Kanzaki, as she stood there in the hallway shadows with eyes agape and wispy bangs crowning her, erect like a flagpole and nearly as lifeless as one too. She figured this must have been annoying the others: her zoning out every couple of seconds, for she had played with such an effect one too many times over the duration of days. Yet Hitomi could only hope for them to understand, or sense, that this time it was definitely beyond her control. She had had determination earlier, a courageous vigour which had took her the full day to develop, confident in her decision to reveal what there was to reveal, to relieve the load off her back to everyone, before it came close to pulverizing her sanity altogether. Although it was an opportunity, an action, that she wasn't so eager for, still she couldn't help but find disappointment in her current inability to move. Yes, she could not move. She didn't find such strangeness strange – not too much, anyway – for Hitomi's cursed sixth sense had been making its presence well known lately, even to the point of rendering her motionless, and most commonly, at the worst possible times. It only fed to her curiousity what more could possibly be demanded of her now…

It could only mean one thing.

"Hito, you gotta stop doing this," Yukari decided to join in on the impending lecture the three anxious – and tired – friends had decided to begin. It was stark clear that Yukari was exhausted, ready to drop into a deep and lasting sleep, far distant from the perils of this world, at any appropriate cue. Normally, in any gathering, most especially one of girlfriends, she was known to be the flamboyant one, energetic, the infamous Ms. Hyper. But her flashy, good looks had retired to the lackluster weariness everyone else unhappily portrayed. Keeping their voices stern and hushed towards Hitomi, they all could only hope to recharge her quickly enough before Hikoro Kanzaki, just around the corner, could catch wind of the situation. They were like but calculating sheep with only need of fleece, gathering their own courage to skim across the vast bridge hanging above troubled water – nearly raging rapids – only to find, after such a journey, a menacing troll waiting impatiently on the other end.

It had to be it. It had to be why she was sad. It had to be… him.

Catherine was amply relieved to see she wasn't the only one braving the front lines when it came to Hitomi. The other girls had come forward to confront her as well, not achieving any more success than she had initially, yet it was still possible that a group effort could win a more feasible chance for victory, assuming such a thing could be accomplished at all. Apparently with Hitomi, assumptions held little value.

Tonight was the night. It would either all end, or all begin. She had to make things right… with everyone. Not just her mother, not just her friends, but also her fiancé, her mystical visitors, herself. And in all, she would have to find where it was she stood amongst all those things.

Sighing, Yukari gave a quick glance to the other girls, finding them all silent in suspenseful wait, with eyebrows narrowed from either concern or aggravation or fatigue, or a combination of all three jumbled together, much like herself. It was apparent that they were all in the means of assembling a phrase, a powerfully dictated phrase or statement of some kind, to awaken Hitomi from this spur-of-the-moment trance or fixation, whatever it happened to be, though each were doubtful as to whether anyone could ever release Hitomi from whatever bound her so.

It was time. He was with her. She would do anything for him.

But as all turned their attention and direction to the main person at hand, not a word could be uttered, even if there were words to utter. Voices were stolen away from all witnesses; thoughts held at a stand still; eyes locked with not a flutter. It was as if the three – Yukari, Catherine and San – had so instantly become even more unmoving and just as engrossed as the puzzling Hitomi was, for all their own reason. For the next seconds passing, there wasn't a motion, or a word spoken, as all eyes remained on Hitomi's ruby pink pendant – a vividly glowing.

She could feel him. Van was with her. Despite all, she had chosen.

To Be Continued...

This is only the beginning of the chapter! ^^ More of Chapter 16 to come soon ^__^