*Warning* HUGE spoilers dwell here. It's a continuation, what did
you expect?



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The Vision of Escaflowne: A Return to Gaea
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Part One-- The Boy King



And thou were sad- yet I was not with thee;
And thou wert sick, and yet I was not near;
Methought that joy and health alone could be
Where I was *not*- and pain and sorrow here!

It is not in the storm nor in the strife
We feel benumb'd, and wish to be no more,
But in the after-silence on the shore,
When all is lost, except a little life.
Lord Byron
****


Sometimes on late summer mornings a pale ghost of the
Mystic Moon still hangs visible in the sky, above the sun. Folk
wisdom, whose truth is taken lightly because it is merely practical,
warns that these morning-moons promise a hot sticky day, and the
people of Fanelia spent their mornings slowly and indoors, practicing a
sort of forced leisure to avoid the worst of the heat. On days like this
it was unfortunate to live in the Fanelien Valley where there was no
shelter from the sun and it beat down without distraction. It was
better to live in High Fanelia which used to be a forest and still
kept hints of woodland cool.

In the old days, when the kingdom had fit snugly in the valley
alone, there was no high Fanelia. Now, after the war, after Fanelia had
been rebuilt into a kingdom where-- everyone's neighbor swore --
wheat was gold and vinu ran in the streets, people had poured into
Fanelia until they had overflowed into the neutral territory bordering
the central city. Fanelia was the kingdom of wonders, and people came
for the wealth, for the tranquility and, although many might not have
seen it as their reason, because Fanelia was Van-sama's kingdom.

It was Van-sama, after all, who had streaked across the sky
like a falcon those five years ago, so intent on something outside
himself on a day of inexplicable, controlling greed so gruesome many
of the survivors chose to die rather than live with the memory of it,
those passionate, blinded soldiers looked up as one, knew they
were witnessing something holy and dropped their swords. It was
Van-sama who ended Dornkirk's power although no one knew exactly
how and that secret would follow Van to the grave. Van remained
painstakingly careful to give credit to those he fought beside, claiming
their victories were of far greater significance than his own, but
people, desperately needing a hero, clung to the idea that Van was the
sole bringer of this fledgling peace. Van-sama was the only one they
were willing to listen to.

And so it was Van-sama who told them in simple, reasonable
words about ideas so sweet and hopeful they glowed like honey. He
spoke of his martyred brother and Dornkirk and their ideals of peace
and utter contentment. Peace should be striven for, he said, and
Dornkirk's trying in itself was admirable although the methods he used
were wrong, but this was not a war started by one lone madman. He
described Gaea as a tapestry and people were the threads, and
tapestries, everyone knows, can only be made by weaving. You could
not fight with a neighbor or hang an innocent and then beg your king
for peace. Looking down from the sky, there were no boundaries, only
rivers that flowed through town after town, twining and
interconnecting, providing everyone with the same water. Van told
them true peace was not a result of war or domination or fear
of fighting back but when people let go of their dragons in order to
hold each other. And the tired, hungry crowds-- crowds made of
entire nations-- could see both the work needed and the brilliant result
of that work, and they cheered Van and the new age they would help
him bring.

It was Van-sama who rose Fanelia from its ashes in just a year
and a half, digging foundations and welding plumbing himself as often
as not. It was Van-sama who traveled around Gaea to ask the wise
men about their theories on human nature and industrial improvement
and combined and revised their ideas before making them law.
It was Van-sama who negotiated the peace treaty with Zaibach,
keeping its borders and most of its previous wealth intact, because
he claimed petty grudges did not produce harmony. It was Van-sama
who organized the nine-kingdom alliance, arguing for equal rights for
each with conviction that resembled rage in its urgency.

Van had been an eager and inexperienced boy king of what
was then a small country. He had grown into himself a little since the
war but most of his development had gone toward his eyes and hair
years ago, and he would never be a very tall or physically imposing
presence. They used to say he was short of everything except
delusions. Such a person should never have won the respect and
loyalty of old, settled kings like Aston. Van was such a novelty,
his complete lack of pretense, proper etiquette or self-regard
so astonishing, that the fat, established kings, worn and somber
from the war, allowed him to bully and badger them into compliance
simply to humor the lad before realizing that many of his ideas
worked. Now when there was a dispute over trade or the peasants
seem ready to revolt, kings traveled to Fanelia to ask Van for
guidance.

Van would never be imposing; he had no need to be.
The king of Fanelia was known to be a worrisomely thin, wild-haired
boy with ancient eyes and a tender, infrequent smile; handsome
in the careless, windswept way some people who don't bother with
such things are. Van was quiet upon first acquaintance. Most people
saw it as the unobtrusive, trusting quiet of the inherently kind, but
those who knew such things recognized in him the focused calm of
all good soldiers. Van was both the source and the symbol of this
exciting new era of peace and contentment and he was adored
violently, protectively, reverently.

So if Van-sama chose to spend a few morning hours of this
hot, irritable day lying on the palace roof, staring at the remaining hint
of the Mystic Moon and clutching the pendant he always wore but
never explained, no Fanelian would begrudge him the time.

He saw a page running through the courtyard below out of the
corner of his eye, searching frantically for-- Van could assume-- him.
The page was probably only six months at court and it had been a few
years since he snuck onto the roof regularly. If he could have had his
way Van would have spent those first few excruciating months as an
owlish, brooding gargoyle, eyes raised eternally upwards. Merle--
kind, ever practical Merle-- had reasoned and prodded and
occasionally downright nagged him into activity. Of course, if he ever
had any hope of having his way, Van would have...

He jumped down and landed before the page in a bent kneed
crouch before finishing the thought. The page, unused to falling
monarchs, took a few stuttering paces back before steadying himself,
unrolling a parchment and reading in a clear, rehearsed voice with only
a slight tremor, "Van-sama, Perione-sama requests your presence in
the study to discuss matters of vital importance."

"Which ones?"

The page looked up. "Van-sama?"

"The vitally important matters," Van elaborated, hoping he
sounded patient. "Did he tell you what they were?"

The page scanned the paper desperately. "It... doesn't say,
Van-sama."

Van sighed, making sure the page didn't hear it.
"Thank you. Tell him I'm coming."

The page nodded and sprang off in the opposite direction,
tripping over his legs in his haste. Van darkly suspected that giving
him a message or bringing him a drink for the first time was
considered a right of passage among the pages. The squires
certainly kept yearly tallies of who he complemented the most. Being
respected to the point of idolatry by his future Samurai like this was
dangerous. The loyalty essential between a leader and his soldiers was
not a matter of awe. A man could only wave a name before him like a
flag and crusade out of faith that a person is a cause ephemerally. True
loyalty, loyalty which men died for, was a comfortable thing. It was
when a man saw his superior as a person, but as a person he
understood and trusted and admired.

Van resolved to talk to the pages more, let them see he wasn't a
walking myth themselves. Decision firmly in mind, he wiped the
sweat off his forehead and rang it out of his shirt before he went to
speak with Perione.

Any leader worth his salt had an advisor like Perione, who
could only sleep three hours a night tortured as he was by unceasing
anxiety over the two percent drop in grain production or
a ten-member gang of thieves who had raided three hen-houses
already. Being near someone obsessed with minutiae
was a key element of keeping perspective. Even Van who, out of
deep-seated suspicion of people who would choose a career telling
other people what to think, had only three advisors, three of whom
who had known him since birth, kept Perione around. He had grown
fond of him in a patient, condescending sort of way.

The page was reporting to Perione when Van walked in the door,
then scurried to the corner when he saw him. The study, which Van
vastly preferred to the great hall, was large and brown and full of
comforting nooks where a small boy could hide. Van had
spent countless hours in there playing hide-and-catch-can as a child.

Perione bowed deeply, sagging with relief. "Van-sama, thank
you for coming at once. This really is most urgent."

"Uhuh." Van sat down at the table, his arms behind his head.

"Well-- this is just first, it isn't really the important thing-- this
heat is supposed to last at least three more weeks."

"I'd hate to think what a thunderstorm would be classified as if that
was the important thing."

"Yes, Van-sama," Perione said politely, humoring him. "The king
of Basram's had his first grandchild two weeks ago, and you
still haven't written him a letter of congratulations. It would be very
rude not to take care of this i--"

"Is something wrong with the mail?" Van interrupted as a memory
sparked in his brain. "It's been at least a week since I've gotten a letter
from Merle."

Perione's lips thinned. "That is... unfortunate, Van-sama, but
to get back to the matter at hand--"

"Ano . . . " said the page cautiously, looking up from a pile of
paper across the room.

Van swivelled around in the chair. "Yes?"

"Would... Merle..." The page faltered, withering under Van's
intently serious eyes. "Is Merle... is she--" He stopped again.

"Just spit it out, boy," Perione snapped.

Van looked at him sternly from the corner of his eye, brows
raised, before lacing his fingers under his chin and refocusing on the
page. "I'm sorry that Perione was so rude. Is Merle the sort of person
who would what?"

"Would Merle send a pink letter and use a seal with a paw-print on
it?" the boy got out in a rush, holding up a cheerful piece of
paper retrieved from the drifts of documents floating around the room.

Van reached for the envelope, its bright delicate colors contrasting
with his coarse, faintly scarred hands. "She's exactly that kind of
person. How did you know where to look?"

Uncertain how he was supposed to act, the page safely stared
down at the floor. "I'm just good at finding things, Van-sama."

"That's a very useful talent to have." The page looked up with
an excited little gasp, and Van nodded affirmation. The boy's grin
was a thing of rainbows. "You've done me a great service and I thank
you very much. What's your name?"

"Lewilren," Lewilren said, lost in wonder. He added impetuously.
"Lewilren Yarda. I came from the west end of Fanelian Valley and I've
been at court for four months. Most people call me Ren."

Van bowed on one knee before him with deliberate ceremony.
"Thank you again, Ren de Fanelian Valley. If you have no pressing
duties, you can spend the rest of the day at the water butt. It's the best
place to go on hot days if I remember right."

Ren nodded, mute as some children are in the throes of
excitement, before dashing out of the room.

Van stood up immediately, facing Perione, his face drawn in
fierce, thin calm. "To even put this with the rest of the paper--"

"I'm sorry, Van-sama," Perione said miserably.

"Don't interrupt me," Van nearly growled. "To put this with
the unimportant papers... You obey me unless it means being kind
to beastmen?"

"I don't know who is responsible," Perione said, knowing 'you' was
a collective term for society in general. "But I will find out
quickly..."

"Yes, you will," Van snapped. He sat back down, cradling his
forehead in his palm. "Unimportant..." he said as if to himself,
mournfully tired.

Perione bowed his head, painfully unsure of what to say.
Instinctively, he wanted to offer comfort but he knew it wouldn't be
appreciated if even acknowledged. He couldn't ease the unnatural,
debilitating, vitally necessary responsibilities on this boy-who-wasn't-a-
boy.

And then Van looked up as if startled by a strange, private noise.
He leaned back in the unbending wooden chair and tilted his head
slightly like he was listening to something, smiling a small, alien
smile and staring unfocused at some lovely spot in infinity. Van looked
peaceful, not just trapped in his normal iron-focused calm.

He turned back to Perione and shook his head softly, still far
away. "No, its all right. She'll always understand if I give her an
explanation and you had nothing to do with it anyway. Just if it
happens again have it looked into. If there's nothing else to say, you
can go... I mean, you're dismissed."

Those very close to Van were familiar with his habit of gazing
off at the far walls of the room, usually when he was upset or angry
although sometimes just at random, and losing himself in some
personal, hazy fulfillment. There had been a few small meetings of
which Van would never be made aware about this momentary
disorientation. The spells had started shortly after the war, and it had
been decided that they stemmed from mild post-traumatic syndrome
and that they weren't worth the worry. Van was proving himself to be
a more than competent ruler and it could threaten the entire system of
monarchy in Fanelia if, at that delicate point in history, the king was
thought to be insane or simple or both. Besides, royalty was known
for its eccentricities and Van's was quite innocuous compared to some.

Perione was among the perhaps five people in all of Gaea to
have seen these spells and even he thought they were fairly mundane.
He stood quiet and still until Van focused on him again when he
said. "Van-sama, I haven't gotten to the important news yet."

"What is it? I think that's the sixth time I've asked that and don't
make me do it again."

Perione puffed himself up with the pride of being responsible for
good tidings. "The pending prince of Asturia and his sister will arrive
at Fanelia tomorrow afternoon!"

Van stared hard, opened his mouth, thought better of what he
planned to say and closed it again, then took a long, deep breath.
"Perione. Remember our discussions about telling me _very_
important news as soon as possible after you hear it yourself?"

"Yes, Van-sama. Next time I'll be sure to tell you right away."

They both knew it was a hopeless cause. Perione was a good
advisor, had become an advisor, because he found all knowledge
about the inner mechanics of things infinitely fascinating. He
collected it like a magpie collects trash, not for its inherent worth but
for the shine and could not conceive how Van differentiated between
important and trivial information.

"They're coming tomorrow," Van thought aloud. "When did
you find out about this?"

"Just a few hours ago, Van-sama."

Van sank back in his chair and folded his arms, thinking out loud.
"They must be taking the Crusade then. Whatever they're coming
about must be fairly urgent if they need to get here this soon."

"But it will still be nice to see Alan-san and Celena-san, in any
case, right?" Perione asked hopefully.

"Yeah," Van blinked, counting back the months. "I haven't
seen them in a while. Have a banquet prepared for dinner tomorrow.
No, banquet's not the right word, is it? Just make sure there's lots of
food."

"Of course, Van-sama."

"Oh," Van sat up slightly. "And make sure there are lots of
vegetables. As many vegetables as possible."

Perione looked confused. "I was led to understand that Celena-
san is allergic to most vegetables."

Van smirked. "She is. She turns bright red and her face puffs
up. Especially green ones. Make sure there are lots of those."

Perione looked down the length of his nose, disapproving but
hesitant to show it in front of authority.

"It's only teasing," Van said defensively when he noticed. "Celena'll
think it's funny and if she doesn't she'll get revenge somehow and then
we'll both forget about it."

Perione paused, debating something internally for a moment before
he next spoke. "You... enjoy Celena-san's company, do you not?"

Van, who had considered the morning report over and moved
on to a little paperwork, trying to savor a little indoor-cool before the
day really began, didn't bother looking up. "You would know if
I didn't."

"That's true," Perione conceded. "She is an attractive woman, isn't
she?"

"She's a Shezar," Van pointed out as if it was a full explanation,
which in many ways it was.

"Yes. They are quite an influential family in Asturia, especially with
the upcoming marriage. Your... friendship is quite... symbolic, don't
you agree?"

Van flicked his gaze upwards and said, not unkindly, "Do you
plan to get to the point anytime soon?"

"Well, Van-sama," Perione steeled himself, as if expecting to
get kicked. "It's only that you _will_ need an heir eventually and
Fanelia would like a queen, especially someone as genteel and
attractive as Celena-san..."

Van looked at him in with complete incomprehension as if he didn't
understand the language. Then, his eyes widening almost
imperceptibly in understanding, he put down his quill carefully, blinked
and acted genuinely amused for the first time in at least six months.

"Marry _Celena_!" he crowed, shoulders shaking with silent
laughter. It was always silent laughter and no tears of any kind.

"I'm sorry, Perione," he said with a little closure sigh. "But the
day Celena and I agree to marry each other will be the day... well,
there won't be one. We're not... like that."

Perione, personally wounded by most laughter, drew himself up
with full dignity and said with more candor than he originally intended,
"Still, Van-sama, Fanelia needs an heir and you are in the... full bloom
of your youth, so to speak, and the kingdom is under control and
prospering. It is a good time to start thinking of marriage."

"I have at least twenty years to produce an heir," Van said, clear
and cold. His shoulders were knotted and his hand crept up to hold his
pendant tightly, to keep it secure.

"Ye-es," Perione agreed cautiously. "But, it's always best to plan
ahead and if something were to happen to you--"

"I don't want to discuss it." Van was angry; a red irrational anger,
which after developing the emotionlessness of good negotiating with
the reluctant but dogged determination he showed as a child learning
how to improve his fighting by channeling his anger, surprised them
both. "If you have nothing left to say, you should leave."

Perione, strangely and perhaps showing the depth of his
convictions, stayed. "It is unlike you to be this selfish, Van-sama."

Van stood halfway out of his seat, slamming down a hand on
the table and clutching his pendent so tightly the other had turned
white and now was slowly turning red. "I'm not being selfish! How
can you dare accuse me of being selfish!" His face was contorted,
almost snarling. Perione had known the king only after Fanelia
had been mostly repaired. This was the first time he could believe
Van was as capable of destroying as he was of creating; that
Van was someone deserving of fear.

Van put his hands on the table, resting his weight on it and
bowing his head until its only visible feature was the all-defining
blackness of his hair. "I'm not being selfish," he repeated, calmer now,
but thick with sorrow. "You just don't understand. You can't
understand how selfish I'm not being. If you don't leave this room
now without another word, I'll exile you."

They both knew Perione was incapable of calling a bluff, but
he stayed for a fraction of a second to watch his king with the
horrified fascination usually reserved airship accidents.

"I'll cut off your legs," Van added, voice dead. "Myself."

Perione left. Van focused on breathing deliberately and deeply for
over a minute before he felt in control of himself. He had forgotten
how easy it was to be cruel, how exacting it was to show kindness to
the undeserving. The memory was too painful to keep. Did Dornkirk
begin with an honest wish to help everyone before his sympathy
dwindled to those he thought appreciated it and then only to those he
could control? He hadn't meant to yell. He didn't quite understand
what he had been yelling about but there was a small hard core of
resentment at things denied in his speech. It embarrassed him.

Hitomi thought they were making sacrifices and that Van was
making acute ones, by the measure of his exhaustion and his
loneliness. He sat back down, fingering the pendant lightly, accepting
solace and offering the same to a person he always felt but never
touched.

*****

If spring sings of rebirth, summer is a melody bright with
second chances. The next day Van had written a formal letter of
apology to Perione, who had accepted, before waiting in an empty
field just outside of Fanelia, scanning the sky for an airship. He
brought a few retainers and his sword to maintain the degree of
ceremony needed to keep Allen from being insulted but he
was relaxed, expecting friends and not diplomats.

The airship, nimble and elegant as Van remembered, skimmed
over the mountain range and landed delicately in the airfield shortly
after midday. The hatch opened with a small hiss of steam, and Allen
appeared in full, formal uniform, hair gleaming with sun and floating
behind him like a separate being as he knelt at Van's feet before rising
and taking the king's hand in both of his own.

Allen's smile was as potent as always, the rest of the world faded
into a background of its warmth, and his voice was still rich and
gentle. "It's a pleasure to see you again, Van."

Van tried to smile back as they shook hands, knowing how flat it
was in comparison. Since the war-- since the last day of the war, really
--Allen had been nothing if not kind and understanding and eager to
help with any task he could, and there was no greater proof he hadn't
forgiven Van yet. Allen still respected him, even liked him, but the
knowledge of what they could do to each other when their inhibitions
melted was always strung taunt between them. Still this was Allen, a
man who had accepted him immediately, fought by his side, saved his
life, even betrayed his country for Van's cause. Van trusted him
implicitly.

"It's been a long time," he said.

"Too long, but you're always so busy..."

"Still, you can always consider yourself welcome in Fanelia.
How's the wedding coming?"

Before Allen could go into an extended account of guests and
choosing priests and caterers with the enthusiasm of most engaged
couples and newborn parents, who believed the world found the
newness in their lives as fascinating as they did, a lyrical whine
threaded its way out of the airship. "Gade-eth, they're not even doing
anything formal I would get it in the way of, which is a very insulting
suggestion in itself, I'll have you know, and Allen's going to regale
him with _wedding_ stories. You can't dislike Van enough to do
something like that to him."

"Well, Celena..."

"Please? Don't force me to stomp on your feet, Gadeth, neither of
us would enjoy it."

Allen rubbed his temples lightly, his strain only evident to those
who knew him well.

The hatch opened again, suddenly and with a pop, and a blur of
white and blue and grey bolted out before Gadeth had time to close
it. Celena, in small white slippers and a grey and white lace-trimmed
dress, her hair tied back with a dawn-blue ribbon, yanked up her skirt
as much as was seemly, nearly tripped over herself on the small steps
and dashed across the field to give Van a quick, tight hug.

"Thank goodness," she said with composure, releasing him. "I
thought Gadeth was never going to let me off that thing. Sorry about
that, Gadeth," she called over her shoulder, to be answered by a
vague, amused snort from the airship.

"Hi, Celena. You missed me?" Van asked dryly.

"Did I miss you?" She clasped her hands over her heart, swooning
a few steps backwards. "Oh, my darling Van, since we last spoke I
could only think of your sweet face, your eyes, your voice, your, um,
unkempt, silly-looking spiky hair."

Van took her hand in his own, staring deeply into her blue-glass
eyes. "And I could only think of your smile and your loud, obnoxious
mouth."

Celena sighed, turning away suddenly. "Roses had lost their
sweetness for me, the sky had no luster, the stars had no sheen..."

"The moon was just a big flat white circular... thing... in the sky.
Yes, I know that despair," Van finished. Celena collapsed into laughter
while her brother sighed laboriously behind her.

"I win," Van said, placid but smug.

She turned around with a little stomp of her foot, trying to raise
some indignation. "One of these days I _will_ outlast you, Van Fanel."
She smiled her brother's sweet smile but without his awareness of its
charm, straightening Van's shirt with absentminded concern."How
have you been?"

Van shrugged. "All right."

Celena looked up at him skeptically but didn't dispute the claim,
although Van knew she would probably bully him into details when
they were alone. He couldn't remember when they had settled into
an uncomfortable truce in favor of completely ignoring each other's
existence, or when that truce had bloomed into a genuine and valued
friendship. He was only supremely grateful that it had. Celena was the
one person who treated him playfully, one of the few who had ever
tried. Hitomi would have if he had let her, if he could have recognized
whimsy as a form of kindness back then.

Celena must have seen him looking lost and firmly pinched his arm.
"Oi, Van, snap out of it. You've got diplomatic visitors and we might
declare war if you ignore us."

"Are you two quite finished yet?" Allen asked testily. "If I must
remind you, Celena-chan, we came for an actual diplomatic visit, not
just to make inane conversation."

Celena rolled her delicate eyes, privately mouthing, 'hair troubles.'
For someone who looked like a porcelain model of herself, she had a
very odd mind. She didn't have Dilandau's twisted, uncontrolled
malice, nothing like that. Celena was just intelligent and not afraid to
point out when other people were not. She approved of Van's direct
bite and focus and he of hers.

"Did anyone say anything amusing?" Allen asked, correctly
suspicious of their snickering.

Celena waved her hand in a broad, vaguely reassuring gesture
before linking her arms in each of theirs as they started walking
toward Fanelia. "Oh, nothing at all, Allen darling, nothing at all."

"So this is a diplomatic mission then, Allen?" Van asked over her
head.

Allen only shook his head. "There's a time and a place for
everything, Van. We'll talk after dinner." Van was strangely torn
between relief and annoyance that Allen refused to take his request as
unquestionable command.

"Is there a carriage or something coming to pick us up?" Celena
asked abruptly.

"No." Van squinted at her. "We walked up here. I expected you
two wouldn't mind walking down."

"Van," Allen said, gently reproving as if to a small child. "You
must remember that Celena is not as strong as we are. She is too frail
to make such a hike comfortably."

"Yes," Celena agreed solemnly. "Very frail. Unable to take a good
twenty paces without fainting. Weak as something very, very weak."

"You're overdoing it," Van told her under his breath.

She shrugged, whispering, "Oniisama... sometimes he's, well...
purposefully dense. I think he believes that I really need that kind of
coddling"

"In case I must remind you, Celena-chan," Allen said, admirably
unruffled. "You did fall down the stairs three weeks ago and stayed
unconscious for a good hour and a half. That's not a sign of physical
prowess."

"You fell down the stairs?" Van asked, concerned.

Celena, cursed with honest, pale skin, blushed crimson but didn't
say anything.

"Maybe we should call a carriage," Van decided, calling over an
attendant. While he was so occupied, Celena stamped her foot and
glared at her brother.

"I asked you to keep that a secret!"

Allen fingered a section of her hair, his face a mask of tender worry.
"I won't hide it if you need help. I promised you, Celena--"

"That you would take care of me," she finished for him. "And
you have and I love you dearly, but I'm not a child, Oniisama."

"Then stop crying to me every time Van teases you," Allen said
mildly, walking toward the carriage.

*****

Allen and Celena had been shown to their rooms without incident
and Allen currently was supervising the unpacking of their things.
From the brief glimpse he had, they didn't bring much clothing, which
concerned Van on several levels.

Morally exempt from real work by the obligation to entertain
guests, he took Celena on a tour of the garden which she could
navigate perfectly well herself, by now. She sat on a swing, talking to
Van, who leaned against the tree it was attached to.

"So, how are you really? I warn you, if you tell me you're alright
again I'll blackmail you in someway. You've never just been alright in
your life." That felt true although, like many things Celena said, it was
a muddy, niggling piece of honesty.

"Tired," Van admitted, hiding his eyes under his bangs. "Really
tired."

Celena knew the rivers of Van's mind and she heard the shame
deep in that answer. "Of course you're tired. You work harder than
anyone I've ever met."

Van shrugged. "Not really. You get used to what you always have
to do and that's alright, but then new things are always coming."

"What new things?"

"You Shezars, for one thing," Van sat down, crossing his legs.
"Do you know what Allen's worried about enough to come to me?"

She shook her head. "No. He asked if I wanted to come see you,
but he wouldn't tell me why he wanted to go in the first place, no
matter how much I asked. I couldn't even get it out of Eries. He must
have told her not to say anything." She scowled. "The dork."

"He looks tired."

"He is. The wedding preparations are pretty stressful. Marrying a
princess takes work."

Van looked at her. "That's right. You'll be the king's sister. Will
they make you a duchess or something?"

Celena laughed. "Can you imagine? It would be hilarious. I think
they actually might since Oniisama's been hinting about my marriage
offers getting a boost."

"They _need_ a boost?" Van asked incredulously. "Haven't you
have six or something?"

"Eleven," she corrected. "Since the last time we've met." Celena
kicked the loose dirt off the ground. "They were all gits. I know
Allen's a little annoyed that I'm not happily settled yet, but I _won't_
marry any man who would wear tights."

"You know, Perione actually suggested _we_ should get married,"
Van said, not really minding that a source of rage had trickled into an
anecdote.

Celena stopped swinging. "Me marry... you?"

"Yup."

"That's... that's...," she wrinkled her nose, trying to think of an apt
description. "I really want to say sickeningly wrong, but I don't want
to offend you."

"It's okay. That was pretty much what I said."

"I mean, you're a prime catch and everything but you're... Van."

"I know what you mean."

"Besides," she added, starting the swing again. "You're too skinny
for me."

Van leaned his head back, face to the sun. "He does have a point,
though."

She stopped again. "Oh?"

Van toyed with his pendant absently. "Fanelia needs an heir who's
old enough to rule when I die. I don't want him to go through... It
would be better if he was ready to take the throne when the time
came."

Celena looked down at him, the loose stands of hair which had
escaped her ponytail framing her face. "Well..." she said finally,
cautiously. "You could get married if you really needed to."

He didn't answer, just stared at the ground, a portrait in repose.
Allen had told her that Van used to... shut down like this often when
they first met. He wouldn't move, wouldn't speak for sometimes hours,
face dark and struggling to keep itself blank. Allen had said it was
understandable, considering how his high sense of duty must have
scorned anguish, that Van would only allow himself to mourn silently
and efficiently. But he shouldn't need to do this now, long after
everything had been set right. He had won. Van had won so much
more than anyone thought he was capable of and he had kept winning
long after everyone else forgot there were things left to be achieved.
He should be happy now. But a great gain is not necessarily the whole
gain or even the gain truly desired.

Van's eyes were screwed up tightly, his fists clenched. His position
could be mistaken for one of prayer. Celena couldn't bear this
stoicism.

"I'm sorry," she tried gently. "I'm... so sorry she was taken away
from you."

"She wasn't taken," Van said. His position hadn't changed so
Celena could not see his mouth and his voice sounded disembodied. A
graveyard voice. "She... We decided she should leave. I _helped_ her
leave. She had too much influence on Gaea and I think... she was
worried that I wanted to protect her too much. I didn't just know any
other way to show... I was so _stupid_."

Celena sat beside him, putting a gentle hand on his arm. "You were
a kid. You only did what you had to do."

Van looked up at her then and his face was terrible because it was
not crying. He stared down at his knees drawn to his chest. Van
looked so tired. It wasn't exhaustion or anything physical. Van had
won and he knew he had won and now he wanted an end.

"We thought it would be alright," he said, although he wasn't
talking to Celena or to even whatever part of Hitomi he communicated
with. "We knew it would be hard to be apart after we had just really
found each other but we thought we would be able to... I guess we
thought we would be able to actually talk or see each other, but I
didn't know what it would feel like to be constantly reminded of her
and not able to be near her, really. I can feel her. I know if she's sad or
happy or lonely but I don't know why. I can't... see."

"I thought you said she... comforted you or gave you advice...
or something." Celena felt horrible for asking, for even wanting to
know.

But it seemed to help in some small way, as Van collected himself
to think of an answer. "She's better at it that me. She knows more."

"Is... is she... helping you now?"

Van shook his head. "She wants to, but I made her sad. I shouldn't
make her sad. She doesn't know what to do either about an heir and
she doesn't really want to think about... the details involved. It's
stuck."

"You could always adopt."

Van stared at her. She stared back, expression smoothed blank.
Van smiled, a weak, wry little thing, but Celena could count the times
she had seen Van smile with real joy on one hand. Resting his forehead
on his knee, he said, "I think Hitomi's a little jealous now. She's
denying it. Yes, she's definitely jealous. But she hopes I'll tell you it's
not in a romantic way, she just wishes she could be in your place to
cheer me instead."

"It seems to me you guys can communicate pretty well."

Van stared off, fixated on something in the nothingness. "It's
not that clear, usually." They stayed like that, side by side and
unmoving, until Van finally sat up poker straight. "I'm... Celena, you
shouldn't have to listen to me..."

"Yes, I should. I'm your friend. And I know about two people in
one body as much as anyone can." She trailed off in a bare whisper.
Van's expression turned stony.

"You're not who he was," he insisted obstinately.

"I still dream about him sometimes," she confessed. They never
talked about this. Dilandau's was a death never mourned. Still, it
seemed to be a day of revelations, and the little hot white bubbles of
someone else's memory threatened to drive her mad. "About what he
did and how horrifying it was and how he felt... he was miserable. He
craved perfection and the only true perfection was in that
destruction... but sometimes it felt so awful too... and he despised
what he was, really, deep down."

Van's eyes were flat. "You can't expect me to forgive him."

Celena shook her head. "I'm not asking you to forgive him, but
I can't help knowing who he was. It's dinner."

"What?"

She gestured with her head. "Dinner. Last meal of the day. It's
almost time for it to start. We should probably be there or Allen will
think dirty things and try to kill you in defense of my honor." She
stood up, reaching out for him. "Come on."

And he took her hand.

*****

After they ate Van went to Allen's room to get him because
diplomacy should not be conducted anonymously. He knocked lightly
on Celena's door on the way back. "Goodnight, Celena, sweet dreams
and I'll see you in the morning."

There was a muffled screech of, "I'll _kill_ you in the morning,
you bastard!"

"Now, Celena-chan," Allen said gently. "Be rational for a
minute."

"Rational? He had greens put even in the _bread_! He could have
killed me! Now I'm starving because I would have been _violently ill _
for _weeks_ if I ate dinner!"

"Well, we can have always have the kitchen bring you something
on a tray," Allen suggested, trying to smooth thing out.

Van added, "We've got plenty of leftovers."

"I'll take Sherezarde and crush him like an ant!"

"Van didn't mean that," Allen said hastily, shooting him a silent
warning. "And please don't joke about Sherezarde that way."

Celena sulkily said a string of rude words about her brother's
apparent familial and sexual preference. Allen blushed a bit in her
stead. "Celena!"

"Sleep well, Celena." Van turned and continued down the corridor.
Allen blurted out a formality of his own and hastened to keep pace.

Van loathed closed little rooms where kings bargained with their
stench of smoke and vinu and their constant, purposeful darkness.
Mostly, he hated what they symbolized; that decisions that affecting
entire countries could be made by two old men in tiny rooms. Van
tried not to have private meetings as a principle, but if he had no
choice he conducted them on his balcony. Outdoors where there were
no shadows things were harder to distort.

Allen made a trivial complement about the view and sat down on
one of the solidly cushioned outdoor chairs. Van walked to the edge,
resting his elbows on the railing and staring at the jagged line of
mountains, which were not darker than the sky so much as they lacked
its shading.

"I don't understand how you do it," Allen was saying.

"Do what?"

"Tease Celena without out a hint of tact, yet manage to finesse
entire countries. How you can finesse in the first place, when you
sometimes have trouble stringing three cordial words together."

"They're not all that different," Van told him, mildly surprised that
he didn't already understand. "You just need to know people and how
they'll react to things and then work with what they react to the most
strongly. You're trying to do that now by appealing to my vanity
although its probably just force of habit. You should know that I don't
care about that by now. Just tell me what you want."

Allen nodded, lacing his gloved fingers together. "Van, I... Asturia
has a request for you."

"Yeah?"

Allen wished he would turn around, display readable body
language. Van had always talked with his face and arms more readily
and more truthfully than he could with words. Allen was on unsteady
footing if he could not see Van's reactions, which he conceded was
probably the point. "Daedalian bandits have been raiding Asturian
villages near the border for month. We have reasonable suspicion that
these are government ordered attacks, and they are moving further
inland by the week."

"Okay."

Allen waited, then tried to explain further to cover the continuing
silence. "We have sent delegates, of course, to talk to the king. I have
even gone myself. He claims he has sent his soldiers, but he cannot
control the bandits in his country..." Allen shook his head. "But the
last delegate sent has not returned in three months, and I can feel it in
my bones that these are intentional provocations."

Van rested his chin on his folded arms. "Do you know what
they could be trying to do?"

"That's the frustrating part. Daedalus is as wealthy if not wealthier
than Asturia and our two countries have always stood on friendly
terms. I can't understand this sudden aggression."

"If you can't understand it, maybe it _is_ just bandit attacks," Van
suggested.

"No, Van. I've spoken to most of the heads of their state and they
barely tried to hide their knowledge on matters about this situation
that they should not know. Besides, I trust my instincts."

Van again said nothing. The moons had drifted further behind the
castle since when they first came out, and his outline was
ever-blending into the night.

"Anything you have to say at this point would be helpful," Allen
said, his tone deliberately light.

Van straightened slowly, cracking his spine. "If I have to say
something... you have my sympathies, I guess."

"Although I appreciate the sentiment, I didn't come here for your
sympathies, Van."

"What do you expect me to do about it?" Van said, a little
petulantly. "It's an Asturian affair. You know how to fight off a few
thieves, no matter who sent them. Fanelia doesn't even border
Daedalus."

Allen stood, trying to at least physically balance the power here.
"Van, you couldn't have possibly fooled yourself into thinking you're
the king of Fanelia alone."

Van snapped his head around, surprised. Allen pressed on. "Fifteen
people have died so far and more than forty houses have been
destroyed. This is probably the worst conflict on Gaea since we settled
into the alliance. Do you want all that work to go to waste? Do you
want people to suffer because you couldn't be bothered?"

Van bowed his head, mouth twitching. "You're a fast learner,
Allen."

"So will you go to Daedalus for an official conference with
me?"

Van raked his fingers through his hair with a nearly inaudible sigh.
"I wo... I can't spend the rest of my life hopping from country to
country to smooth every little skirmish. It'd be harmful in the long-run,
and my priorities will always be in Fanelia."

"I know. I wouldn't even approach you about it, except, this peace
is still new and... unusual. I think this violence is simply an expression
of disapproval of the terms of the alliance. Most of the nobility still,
well..."

"Think the whole thing's a stupid idea and having to be on the same
economic level as the rest of the _aristocrats_ even is a direct affront
to their sensibilities," Van finished for him. "That's an easy one. Just a
few vague threats of a peasant uprising or another war and hint that
bleeding to death from a pitchfork or dissolving in a ball of light is
probably a worse fate than having to wear the same dress twice in a
month, and they shut up."

"Not impressed by your opposition, I gather."

"Not most of it." Van's eyes glimmered faintly for an instant,
reflecting the cool trembling light of the stars. The solid, gentle
assurance of his voice coupled with his thin, hard, beautifully
disturbing body was helplessly fascinating. Allen understood how the
thousands dirtied and stained by the war would willingly follow this
beacon through his uncharted worlds.

" I've heard every single reason why this system won't work," Van
continued. "And I only agree with one of them."

"Hm?"

Van picked at some of the dirt eternally ground into the lines of his
palm. "People are selfish. Selfish, greedy and cruel. They think
I'm too young to know that."

Van must be in some strange introspective mood. Allen had never
heard him talk about his philosophy-- Van barely acknowledged he
had a philosophy when he wasn't fighting for it like a blood-crazed
wolf. It was similar to his pretensions of ignorance whenever the
extent of his influence and power was discussed.

"So what do you propose to do about that? You can't just cut the
selfishness out of people." Allen wanted to grab his words and scrub
the oily slyness on their corners clean. He wasn't trying to manipulate
Van or pervert his trust, only wanted to learn what this bruised,
sad-eyed man, whose friendship he had won only grudgingly when he
was a angry, fatally gentle boy, thought about the true nature of
human kindness.

"No, it doesn't go away," Van agreed, sourly regretful, as if
the real point was to change that. "And you can't ignore it. A dam
lasts only so long before it bursts and it takes years for the river to
calm again." He picked a leaf off one of the trees framing the balcony
and shredded it absently.

"But if you dig runoffs for the excess water, channel it out, the
river won't change depth and it can flow on course for much, much
longer. And sometimes, if you're lucky or if you're careful, the runoff
can even nurture the land."

"So you're attempting to control negative emotions," Allen
surmised, faintly wondering when Van had started speaking in
metaphors.

He nodded. "In a few months you won't have many excuse if
you can't make things better either and being not quite sure of what
you're doing isn't an acceptable one. Which is why I'm going with
you on your damn diplomatic mission."

He dropped the pieces of leaf over the railing, and they both
watched the thick summer wind stir them into a long chaotic flight
before finally letting them rest on the ground.

*****

it worked.

yes, so far. the true challenge is still to come.

worried?

it would be insane not too. don't have the brunt
of the load though.

it will go according to plan, assuredly.

probably right. so much at stake though.

been waiting too long to fail now.

yes. just don't forget about the girl. don't
be overconfident.

of course.

placating.

only a human. what can she do?

human behavior has resulted into the reason we're doing this. never
forget what they can do.

*****

Van woke on a bed he did not know in a room he could not see,
drops of sweat stinging his eyes as he sat up, gasping for air. For a
time he was simply panicked until a reasonable worm of thought
reminded him that although this was the expected and diagnostic
behavior of a person waking from a nightmare he had not had one in
over six years and that had been only a purposeless and vivid dream.
Besides, Van had never cried out or bolted upright out of terror, even
when he was young enough to be truly afraid of dreams. Sudden
movement and noise could give you away, and Balgus had always
been a firm believer of saving fear for loftier purposes.

So he closed his eyes and focused on his breath and heartbeat until
it stopped pounding in his ears. Calm again, he crawled out from
underneath the blanket to sit at the foot of the bed and make sense of
all this.

The room was black, although Van couldn't tell if that was simply
due to an absence of light or if this was dream blackness filled with
inky depths and nameless demons. He crossed his legs beneath him
and waited to see if his eyes adjusted to the light, if there was any light
to adjust to. He leaned back against the footboard, frowning slightly at
the overstuffed mattress on the bed.

The word bed hung in white before his eyes, where he was tempted
to touch it, then winked out. The bed, the fact a bed existed here,
seemed to be a vital hint of something. Fanelia did not have beds, or at
least these obsequious, overdone beds, which were considered a sign
of wealth used unwisely. Van had slept on pallets, on futons, on the
ground, all his life as was only sensible. These mattress-and-pillow
beds were only popular in Asturia, where the gild was considered
more precious than the gold. Spending eight dark hours attempting to
sleep on one was one of the little sacrifices Van was always forced to
make while traveling in other countries. This must be a dream because
there were no beds in the palace, but he was not in complete control of
the dream as mattresses did not take up an important section of his
subconscious. Of course, that he was rationally debating whether this
was a dream at all probably meant it wasn't.

There was a sweet, haunting whistle of a folk-song long forgotten
except by the impatient hum in the chest, which resonates with the
passion and longing of all songs that don't need words.

And perhaps this was not a dream but Van knew that it could not
be real. Folken's thoughts and dreams and songs only quivered
something deep in his soul because Folken had been responsible for
them, and Folken's death had physically pierced into a deeper place
than any of the guymelefs he had been fighting at the time.

The song still played, each note precise and clean. Van could
imagine them floating towards him in a single line, sparkling like gems,
their colors infinitely varied. It was a slow song, a sad song that might
have been cheerful once, somehow.

He put his feet down on what surprisingly, considering the
off-tilted design of the rest of this place, turned out to be a simple,
plank hardwood floor, and padded out of the room.

The next room was too bright compared to the room with the bed,
all smooth white surfaces and sunlight slanting through the windows.
There was furniture of varying sizes and textures scattered all over but
all if it
was rectangular and strange. Van was only able to recognize a table
and two chairs tucked into the corner of the room. The room radiated
ease in its uniformity, as if this was the only way such things could be
done, and the soft earthiness of Folken's clothes and skin felt
unwelcome in this impossible white.

Folken stood, propping his elbows on a counter and whittling
something Van couldn't see. His grey-green hair perpetually flopped in
front of his eyes which must have been irritating when doing precision
work with a knife, but the song never faltered and the knife never
slipped.

"A... Anuae," Van's voice cracked, and he suddenly felt very small,
unsafe and in need of comfort.

Folken looked up from his work and stopped whistling long
enough to smile his old gently innocent smile. Then he started his
work again, his forehead slightly wrinkled in concentration, still
whistling their mother's song with unconscious ease. Van rubbed his
arms, more for reassurance that something could change in the
monochrome of this world than out of cold.

"Anuae?" he tried again.

Folken put his knife down and gestured to the table. "Sit down,
Van."

Van realized how tightly he was hugging himself and murmurs
from the strict things inside him thought he should stop. "But..."

"Van, you should sit down," Folken's tone was even, sensible and,
to Van's annoyance, slightly chiding.

Very little else left for him, Van sat in a chair directly perpendicular
to his brother. He crossed his elbows on the table and tried to look,
not stern, that would be dressing up in his father's clothes, but
skeptical and expectant, like a man and a king.

Folken smiled again and shook his head with affectionate but
pronounced amusement. Van blew out a sigh and leaned back in the
chair. Folken once again picked up his knife but remained silent. Van
toyed with the idea of out-waiting this apparition of his brother, teach
Folken a thing or two, before he saw the futility of it. Folken had
always been a creature of silence, blending into the edges of quiet no
matter where he was. Van's signatures were his brashness and his
ability to storm through old established ways without a damn for
tradition in his desire to set things right. Van would always regret the
naive vindictiveness of his boyhood judgements but right now he
would feel a great deal better if he yelled.

But he didn't and he wouldn't. Somehow, perhaps it was Folken's
calming presence or the serene whiteness or the sunlight without a
visible sun, he knew this was not a place for such things.

"Is this a dream?" he asked finally. "I mean... I know it's a dream,
but is it a normal dream or one of those... vision dreams?"

Folken shook his head. "I don't know. Do you normally dream
about things like this?"

"I don't dream a lot," he looked around him. "But when I do, its
usually about things I know. I've never seen this place in my life."

Folken put down the knife and picked up a polishing cloth "But do
you recognize it?"

"What?"

"You heard me," Folken sat down across from Van, but his hands
never stopped moving. His two-- Van noticed for the first time--
graceful, human hands. He thought he might cry, he thought he might
start laughing, and he desperately wanted to avoid the weakness
associated with both. He looked up at Folken's face through his bangs,
childlike and sheepish. Folken reached over to hold Van's hand in both
of his own, waiting for his brother to collect himself before he
continued.

"So, do you recognize this place?" he asked again, after a time.

"No," said Van. "And its not like I haven't been exposed to a lot of
visions and disembodied voices and just don't know what they're like. I
don't know this house."

"You knew it was a house," Folken pointed out. "No one ever told
you what kind of building you're in."

"Can I wake up now?" Van asked brusquely. "This has been a long
dream and I have a lot to do."

"Why?"

"What do you mean why? I'm the king of Fanelia now. It's a lot of
responsibility. A lot of work."

Folken returned to whatever he was doing. "But you're making a
lot of that work yourself, aren't you?"

Again Van wanted to yell and hurt and feel better and again he
didn't because that sort of thing was not done here. "I... but... I'm
doing my best to carry out your ultimate vision! You don't know
that?"

Folken shook his head again. "You know I'm not really
Folken. I'm just a representation of some of the things he meant to
you."

Van blinked hard. "I... guessed."

Folken stood up and walked over to stroke his hair. Van let him.
He wished he was surprised at his display of passivity but it had been
too long a day to pretend. "You'll wake up soon, Van. Take this
before you do." He held out his carving. It was a land dragon,
thrusting out his chest just before the flame. Van took it gingerly,
turning it over in his hands.

"You're a dragon, Van," Folken said gently, so very gently. "Yet
you slay them."

"No one else knows how to do it better." Van's voice was hoarse.

"But you kill them because you can understand them, ne?" Van
started to protest, but Folken interrupted him before he could find a
line of thought. "Because you remember when you were nothing a
shell for your rage, how the bloodlust rang through you and death was
the only gift you thought you could give. And now you are ashamed
of those feelings and want to make amends for them, but you suspect
nothing you can do will ever be enough. You have saved the soul of
an entire world, Van. That isn't of equal value to the actions of a
scared, lonely child with too great a responsibility and too many
enemies and who was confused about every single aspect of his life?
You had been taught to respond to anything negative with violence.
How should you have reacted to the destruction of your country less
than five minutes after you were given responsibility for it?"

Van said nothing.

"And the person who burned your kingdom to ashes is now one of
your closest friends--"

"Celena wasn't responsible for what Dilandau did," Van protested,
grasping for a response he knew how to give.

Folken smiled again, sadly now, as if the point was not one he
wanted to prove. "And you know that because you let yourself forgive
her and what she represented. I know you suspect its only because you
wanted to show you could make peace, but you saw her when she was
lost and sad and your immediate reaction was to offer comfort. Do
you think many people are that generous?"

"Well, they should be," Van said, almost sulking.

"Well, they aren't," Folken's voice rose a degree, before he calmed
again. "I claimed loyalty to Zaibach because I could see what an
unusual, beautiful soul you had and I wanted to protect you from the
devastations of war. But I was foolish, and I ending up causing you as
much pain as was in my power to cause you. It's a pattern in your life,
isn't it? Those that love you most and want the best for you come the
closest to destroying you."

Van... hurt. Trying to organize this anguish would only amplify it
so he simply hurt.

"Why are you telling me this?" he said, taunt as a wire. "Do you
think you're helping me?"

"For whatever reason, you claimed personal responsibility for Gaea
and you must stand by that claim. If you resent this obligation, as you
are beginning to, you can only create harm. If you must be a dragon
slayer, please be a merciful one." Folken closed Van's hand firmly
around the carving before stepping back. "Hitomi is a dragon tamer."

"Hitomi isn't here anymore." Van answered icily.

"Recognize this place, Van," Folken said again, and Van was
awake and breathing hard in his dark, hot room. Tiny wooden scales
cut into his palm.

End Part 1