Bonds

Aerika S.

Hitomi hated the finality of packing. Of arranging the pieces of her life into a cardboard box and sealing the lid. Of knowing when the box was opened again, everything would be new and different and the comfortable routines of her life would have to be rewritten in accordance to rules she hadn't yet learned. She knew it was childish. She was holding on to the home she had been raised in, clinging to the friends she had made. She certainly had adapted to change greater than her father's transfer to an overseas division of his company. This would be a move across an ocean, to a new country. Hitomi had been to a whole other world.

Instinctively, her hand touched her neck at the spot where a pendant of pale ruby and gold no longer hung. She had given it away over a year ago, given it away freely despite the immense sentimental value it held for her. It had been an easy choice to let that piece of herself go. She had entrusted it to the one person who occupied her thoughts and her heart more than anyone she had ever known.

Other girls around her had crushes, boys that came and went and were forgotten with the arrival of the newest infatuation. Sixteen was not supposed to be an age at which one found abiding love. But Hitomi had found it. It had taken her long enough to reach the realization, but once an admission of those feelings had passed through her lips, she had lived with those feelings always bubbling to the surface from a place deep within. Though at times she would catch herself imitating the actions of her giddy schoolmates -- scribbling variations of the name 'Van' in the margins of her homework alongside a sketch of a boy with unruly black hair and mahogany eyes -- she knew what she had was true. After all, the months had passed by with only the occasional 'visit' between them and the emotions were as tangible as they had been when she first discovered them.

Weeks had gone since the last time they had spoken. Even that meeting had been brief. Van was busy, always busy. The king of a country in the midst of the laborious process of rebuilding, he couldn't afford much time to find the solace required to make the connection from Gaea to Earth. Somehow, he did. And somehow, he always made her feel like the problems and demands of his position were the things stuck in the distance, not her. Never her. She could only see his phantom, could only make out his voice in her mind, but for those precious moments, he was as real and as solid as the walls around her.

Walls that she would be leaving soon. Hitomi ran a hand though her short hair in a futile attempt to tame the twin strands of brown in back that always managed to pop up. Her musings were just a form of procrastination and with only two days left before the move and a house full of belongings still sitting where they had been since the day the Kanzakis had moved in, she didn't have time to daydream.

She decided to tackle the big things first. The largest thing in her room was an old chest in her closet. It had belonged to her grandmother, Yuri. Hauling it out into the room was a back-straining effort. Hitomi didn't remember it being so heavy. She had inherited it after her grandmother's passing and had gone through the trinkets and memorabilia it contained once after she had received it. At the time, her grandmother's death had been too new to go through her things without awakening grief so Hitomi had shut it away, planning to look at it more when the loss wasn't so fresh. Time had passed and the trunk had slipped from her memory. But now it was in the middle of her bedroom and Hitomi had an overwhelming desire to give the objects inside a careful review. Hitomi had always been close to Yuri; her grandmother was the one who had given her the missing pendant. But after Hitomi's experiences the previous year, she felt even closer to the woman. She felt a bond that could only be forged through mutual experience.

Yuri had been to Gaea too.

Hitomi had to work on the latches of the trunk but finally they gave and the lid flew open with a rush of stale air. Books were piled on top. Albums full over photographs and newspaper clippings. Hitomi was scanning the pictures and words when a glint of silver caught the corner of her eye. She reached deeper into the chest. After so many years, it should have been brittle and faded or at the very least crushed beneath the weight of the other things in the trunk. Instead, its colors remained bright and the heavy paper showed but one tear.

Hitomi exhaled and sent the pinwheel spinning. Colors blurred. Light was reflected and sent dancing across the room.

0-0-0

"Really, Yuri! Will you quit wasting time on such childish things! It's getting late and we should be going home."

The girl in the blue kimono sighed. Her sister, Noriko, was right. It was close to the hour their parents had set for the two to return home. Unlike Noriko though, Yuri wasn't in a hurry to comply with their curfew. Nor did she wish to leave the stall selling the toys the oldest Mitsuda sibling scoffed at so readily.

Noriko wouldn't want to associate with such things. She was a woman now - eighteen - and engaged to be married. Her fiancée was the reason why she wanted to be home so soon. Why linger at a fair with her baby sister when she could be with her handsome Tarou planning her wedding? It was going to be a lavish affair. Tarou's father owned a large store that sold fancy clothing for too much money. He, and therefore Tarou as well, was an important man.

Yuri did not care for either one of them.

She kept her dislike to herself. The rest of her family and all their friends couldn't believe in Noriko's luck at getting such a man. He was wealthy. He was respectable. He would be a good provider. Yuri thought he was boring and would grow even more so as the years of being a businessman dulled whatever spirit the man might have. Her sister and brother-in-law would have the biggest house with the finest things, but Yuri saw no point in having mere possessions that were bought because it was expected of them or because they wanted to prove they had the money to buy them.

Defiantly, Yuri picked out a pinwheel from a bright cluster of the toys and handed over her yen to the stall's keeper. Noriko could have her finery; Yuri wanted only simple things that brought simple joys. Noriko would roll her eyes and mock her for buying a toy meant for only the youngest of children, but Yuri would simply spin the wheel and ignore her. She wasn't in the hurry to be grown-up and mature that Noriko was in.

Her sister wasn't the only one, though. With one daughter engaged, Yuri's mother was beginning to search for prospects for her other girl. Every night, dinner conversation turned to the sons of local businessmen and what nice, stable futures those boys had. Yuri took in these discussions between her parents in silence. She didn't think a sixteen-year old was old enough to be thinking of marriage but she knew a sixteen-year old wasn't old enough to contradict her elders. Outwardly, at least.

"Yuri!" Noriko was growing impatient. She stood with her hands on her hips and a stern look in her eye that meant they should leave and leave now. Yuri reluctantly began following her sister, going fast enough so that she could claim to be listening to her sister, but just slow enough so that Noriko might give up and go on ahead without her. After a few minutes, Noriko had pulled far ahead, apparently falling for Yuri's plan. The younger girl walked even slower.

She took her time walking the path home. The road wasn't traveled that much, so Yuri was left alone with her thoughts. Naturally, they drifted back to her sister. Noriko was only eighteen and yet she was gladly resigning herself to the 'adult' life of a housewife. Waiting for your husband to come home, cooking his meals and listening as he complained about his work. Such an existence struck Yuri as sterile, too much like everyone else and nothing at all like her. She wanted to travel. To see as many people and things as she could. She wanted to seize the unknown and learn the secrets of the world. Her father called her 'a free spirit' and half laughed every time he said it. Yuri hadn't decided if the laughter meant disapproval or agreement.

Maybe it was the latter. Maybe he too wanted more of life than the standard. Maybe the only disapproval was from his fear of the inevitable disappointment his daughter would feel upon discovering that reality wasn't going to change to accommodate the daydreams of a teenaged girl.

Idealism versus realism. Or as her mother put it, frittering your life away wishing instead of doing. Yuri refused to believe it was as clear-cut as that. Wishes were your dreams and without dreams, you would stagnate. With nothing to compel you forward, you would be stuck forever.

Yuri spun the pinwheel in her hand. You could wish on anything, her paternal grandmother once told her. The trick was to follow through and make the wish real.

So what should I wish for? Another day at the fair? No, even better - another day at the fair without sour Noriko spoiling her fun. Another daysomeplace far away. Someplace where, even for a little bit, she didn't have to think of the tedium of everyday life and there was the chance, the possibility that her restless spirit could find what it sought.

She watched the turning of the wheel. How could she make that wish real? Traveling was romantic; running away was foolish. But what harm would there be in just thinking about it for a while?

Yuri closed her eyes. She expected a darkness that would be filled with her fantasies. She received light. Alarmed, her emerald eyes flew open. The light surrounded her, giving the world a glow of silvery fire. She felt a pull succeeded by weightlessness. She was rising.

Then she was gone.

0-0-0

The pinwheel fell to the ground followed quickly by Hitomi. She hadn't had a vision of such clarity since her time on Gaea.

I guess I should be grateful that no one died violently or set anything on fire, she thought sardonically.

Still, it was unnerving to have one come on so suddenly and so completely. Even on Gaea, when her physic abilities had been amplified, she caught mostly fragments. And she had been an observer. She watched the visions pass like frames of a movie. She had not been so utterly absorbed by them. Hitomi hadn't just seen her grandmother; she had been her grandmother.

She shook her head trying to gather her thoughts. She was going through her grandmother's things. She was holding the pinwheel that had come to symbolize her grandmother's spirit. She looked like her. She had always felt a bond with her. The connection to her grandmother's past would be more potent.

"Hitomi?" her mother called through the door. She must have heard her falling.

Hitomi let her in, still woozy from her experience but wanting the reassurance her mother's presence provided. Instantly, her mother saw the trunk and went about sorting through its contents.

"This is why you've been so quiet?" she asked.

Hitomi nodded and kneeled down beside her. "I figured I better go through it now rather than risk losing it in the move and never seeing it."

"It's important to keep reminders of the ones we love," her mother said. "I can imagine how upset you were when you lost her pendant. I still see you touching where it would be every now and then."

Hitomi nodded again. She hadn't been able to tell her mother what really happened to the necklace or what the true meaning of that gesture was. She didn't miss the pendant. She missed the pendant's new owner.

Hitomi?

It must be a day for nostalgia. First the vision and now a voice. His voice. She had just been thinking of him

Hitomi!

She almost jumped. Sitting on her dresser, oddly juxtaposed between her stuffed animals and her stereo, was Van. Hitomi mouthed his name from behind her mother's back.

0-0-0

Yuri was too afraid to look. She was back on solid ground and grasping the earth with her fists for proof. A wave of nausea washed through her and dissipated, leaving her in good physical condition even as her mind reeled. After minutes of steeling herself, she finally stood and took in her surroundings.

She wasn't in Kamakura anymore.

She looked around in confusion, trying to figure out where this mountain had come from and what she was doing on it. Yuri knew enough astronomy to get her bearings so she looked to the stars for help. That was a mistake. More troubling than the mountain, an extra moon hung in the sky.

To make matters worse, she heard sounds coming from beneath the ledge she was standing on. The scraping of rock and the skittering of loosened stones indicated someone was climbing towards her. The low grunts caused by the person's exertion indicated it was a man.

Yuri was trapped. If she had been near her home, she would have known the places to hide in. She would have known people to run to. Here, it was just her and a sheer rock face above. The only thing left to her was to hope that this man was friendly.

She saw his eyes first. Warm and endlessly blue, she was locked in his gaze as her approached her. A slight crease of his eyebrow suggested he was as curious as she was as to what she was doing there. He asked her no questions, though. He kneeled before and told her his name.

"Leon," Yuri repeated.

0-0-0

"Are you all right, Hitomi?" The question was heard audibly and psychically. The vision had been brief, but both her mother and Van had been worried about her blackout.

"I'm fine," she answered. Hitomi searched for an excuse. Van would understand the momentary lapses caused by her visions. Her mother would likely take that explanation as evidence that something was seriously wrong with her. "Lugging that thing out the closet took more out of me than I thought. And I haven't eaten anything this morning. Mom, could you get me some lunch?"

Two birds with one stone. Her mother's concern was assuaged and she would be out of the room. Hitomi would be free to talk with Van.

"You weren't answering me, Hitomi. What's really going on?"

She hesitated. She didn't want him worrying. "My mother was in the room. I wasn't free to talk."

"Hitomi" He knew her well enough not to buy into that.

She knew him well enough not to bother lying anymore. "Before you appeared, I was going through my grandmother's things and II had a vision. And then another one after I noticed you were here."

Van's reaction was what she expected. He was confused, concerned and more than a little bit frightened. He had seen what her visions did to Hitomi. He had heard her describe the things she saw. He didn't want to believe she was being plagued by them again. "But you haven't had any since going back to the Mystic Moon"

Hitomi smiled. "None except you. Relax, Van. These aren't the same as the ones I had before. They're peaceful - more realistic than ever - but still peaceful. They're of my grandmother and Allen's father."

Confusion won out over the rest of Van's emotions. "Didn't you already have one of them when we were searching for Atlantis? Why would you have it again?"

"It's different. I just saw pieces of their meeting before. The first vision was only of my grandmother, right before she was transported to Gaea. Leon Schezar only showed up at the end of the second one. It's like I'm watching the whole show now instead of the highlight reel."

Van didn't catch the exact meaning of her words but he understood her tone. Hitomi wasn't overly worried about these new visions. That did not mean that he felt the same. "I'm going to break contact long enough to cancel all my meetings for the rest of the day. Then I'll be back and stay with you until we figure this out."

"Van," Hitomi sighed. "I said I was fine. You don't have to protect me anymore."

"But I want to." The thought of doing anything else would never occur to him.

0-0-0

The man now known as 'Leon' rose. Yuri pretended to look towards the edge of the cliff from which he had emerged while really keeping one eye on him. At first, she thought him a large man, but that was an illusion created by the heavy coat and pack he wore on his back. A full, if not flattering mustache, added years that closer inspection determined weren't truly there. He looked harmless, but so did the men in all the terrible stories her mother had told her to warn her about the dangers of strange men. Tales of innocent village girls with torn clothing and stolen virtue told her to run. Those blues eyes told her to stay.

She probably just made those stories up anyway, she argued to herself. Her decision made, she returned the courtesy Leon had given to her.

"Yuri." He rolled her name off his tongue with more delicacy than she had ever heard. "Where are you from, Yuri? I've never seen a dress like that and I've been over almost half of Gaea."

He wasn't Japanese like her, and nothing in his accent gave any indication that he spoke Japanese, but oddly, there seemed to be no barrier to their communication. She understood every word he said and the last one troubled her. Yuri had heard of a 'Gaia' in myths and folktales. As far as she knew, there wasn't any such physical location. But then, her reality dictated that there was only one moon. She lifted her head again to the sky. One of the twin moons looked just like the moon she was used to. The other There was something familiar about it, not really in appearance but in a feeling it gave her.

"It's the Earth" she slowly concluded.

Leon joined her in her stargazing. He pointed at her newly identified home. "The Mystic Moon? You're saying you're from the Mystic Moon?"

Yuri took a faltering step backward. She needed to sit down. Quickly. Leon guided her to a set of two large stones and she gladly took a place on the left stone's flat surface. Her companion was sensitive to her unease. Between reassurances that she was safe here, he dug through his back and produced pieces of dried meat and hard bread on the rationale that it would settle her.

She nibbled at the bread. It had a thick taste, not altogether pleasant, which seemed to say this bread was meant purely for sustenance, not enjoyment. "Do you always eat such" Yuri did not want to offend his hospitality. "Such distinct food?"

Leon gave a small laugh. His trick had worked. "It leaves something to be desired, doesn't it? But it keeps well and that's all I can ask for when I'm traveling and the towns are few and far between."

"You are a traveler?" Yuri asked, unable to contain her sudden excitement. "Where are you going?"

"Anywhere I can," he answered cryptically.

Yuri motioned for him to continue. It was but a few minutes ago that she had been dreaming of visiting exotic lands herself. Now, she had literally gone to a land beyond anything she had imagined and was sitting beside a person who apparently shared her sense of wanderlust.

"I've never been to the Mystic Moon though. Or met one of its inhabitants. How did you get here, Yuri?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "I was thinking about how much I wanted to get away, to escape the dullness of my life and travel to new places and see new things. The next thing I knew, I was here."

"Hmm," Leon responded thoughtfully. "That sounds awfully familiar."

0-0-0

Once again, Hitomi came out of a trance to the calling of her name. Van was back, more concerned than ever. Not even Hitomi's exact description of the most recent vision allayed his concerns.

"Actually, Van, I'm just wandering what the point of it is. All the other visions were either warnings of things to come or the revelation of past events that had a direct bearing on what was happening. I know I've got this trunk of grandmother's things and that could have been the trigger, but I feel like there's more to it than that."

"You think your grandmother's trying to warn you?"

"No, maybe she's just trying to tell me something."

"But what?" Van hadn't meant it as a rhetorical question but it went unanswered by the both of them. Frustrated, he asked Hitomi to recount the visions again. "We'll go over it detail by detail if we have to. I guess it's a good thing that I put Merle on guard duty outside the door. This could take all night."

"Merle?" Hitomi questioned. Really though, it wasn't that odd of notion to use the catgirl as a guard. This was the same person who had, unarmed and completely defenseless, put herself between Van and two enemy guymelefs. And calling Merle fiercely loyal was an insult to her level of dedication to her lord. No one would be disturbing Van without accumulating a hefty number of cat scratches. "Tell her I said hello."

"She'd like to see you again. She wants you to see how good Fanelia looks now." Quietly, he added, "So do I."

"Van" This was always the one sore point between the two. He was there. She was here. Both had obligations to remain where they were. "My family"

0-0-0

"Would you believe that right now, I'm supposed to be with my family rotting away at a party in a stuffy banquet hall swaddled in a frilly shirt and overcoat, sipping vino and making snippy conversation with noblemen about the last party we had to endure?"

Yuri smiled. She could not picture this Leon at such an affair. Noriko and Tarou on the other hand The thought of her sister brought a momentary pang of homesickness. She did not dwell on it. She had yet to figure out how she had gotten here. A way to return was a complete mystery. And for now, she was curious about her company and moreover, why he felt so comfortable and familiar to her.

Searching for more common ground, she asked leadingly, "You have run away from your family then?"

He considered the question. "I wouldn't consider it running away. I've always made it clear to my parents that the life of a high-class Asturian holds no appeal to me. There's so much out there. I'd rather experience those things first hand than read about them in some dull text while taking tea in my sitting room."

"I know, I know," Yuri said enthusiastically. "When I'm supposed to be baking or tending the house, sometimes I'll sneak outside with my father's book that shows pictures of different countries. I'll imagine myself in the pictures and think about what life must be like for the people there."

"The artist that drew those landscapes must be quite talented for you to find them so evocative. Or are you just a very adept dreamer?"

"My mother would call me a dreamer," Yuri giggled. "Bit it is not something she would want me to be adept at. The pictures are mostly photographs anyway. Very pretty ones that capture every last detail even if they are in black and white."

The utter look of confusion on Leon's face had Yuri thinking she had been mistaken about the language barrier. It turned out to be just one of her words. "Photograph? I've never heard the term. I have heard things about something called a shadowgraph, but it only shows blurry shapes. You have something on the Mystic Moon that can show things with clarity?"

"Not my family personally, but cameras are not that unusual in Japan. I mean, the Mystic Moon."

"Cameras. Japan." He tested the words out carefully, to get the taste of them like he had with Yuri's name. "This is why I'm out here, you know. I like the pursuit enough, but the actual discovery of something that was previously unknown It's good that I met you."

Yuri had to agree.

0-0-0

"I'm sorry, Hitomi. I shouldn't have brought it up. We have enough problems without getting into a disagreement. UmmHitomi?"

Eyes of the same green as her ancestor refocused. "Huh? Oh. Sorry about that, Van. I had another one. Just a pleasant conversation this time."

"As long as you're enjoying yourself," he said. A hint of irony caused Hitomi to chuckle.

"Hey, it's about time I had some happy visions. There should be some fringe benefits to seeing images of death and destruction all the time. Kind of like how you enjoyed flying Escaflowne."

"Sometimes, though, I thought it was for the wrong reasons. That's why I decommissioned Escaflowne. How did you know that, anyway?"

"I was hanging on to you for dear life half the time. I could tell if you were tense or relaxed."

"Oh," he muttered with disappointment.

"What did you expect me to say?" Hitomi teased. "We're soulmates, bonded across time and space. Every shift of emotion in your heart registers in mine with the intensity of an earthquake. Every moment of joy you feel -- "

"Uh"

She felt a tiny twinge of guilt for picking on him - and taking pleasure in it, but it was hard to resist. Delivering sweeping romantic speeches wasn't Van Slanzer de Fanel's specialty. Listening to them brought out a high blush on his cheeks that Hitomi knew well and that never failed to spread a rush of warm contentment through her. Van wasn't the most emotive person she knew, but the purity of his feelings compensated for the inability to vocalize them.

Hitomi made a peace offering. "I didn't mean to make fun of you. And, to be honest, I really do know how you feel most of the time even if you don't always tell me."

"It's all right, Hitomi." Taking his turn to tease, he added, "Besides, I know you prefer a taciturn, subtle man over one with conspicuous charms."

"Oh, whoever could you be referring to?" she said, bringing up a memory of blond hair and blue eyes as she did so.

0-0-0

Another one of Yuri's mother's admonitions -- it's impolite to stare -- fell prey to the same disobedience as the one about strange men did. She didn't mean to stare, but Leon was so different from the young men her mother gave approval to. His words, his manner and - with his rugged clothing and rumpled hair - his appearance. Perhaps if she had been more discreet, she would not have received a mischievous wink from one of the blue eyes she had been studying with extra care. Even so, she did not find the flush rising across her face entirely objectionable.

"I gather that you've found your stay on Gaea to your liking so far."

"It's been a lovely night," Yuri admitted.

Leon looked away to avoid discussing what the morning might bring and made a minor change to the subject. "We're lucky the weather's cooperated with us. Normally, it's much cooler here this time of year."

"You've been here before?"

"No," he said sadly. "No. I've just been talking to the locals and reading up on the area. This is my first trip anywhere on my own. I've been on a few with my family but my father isn't very keen on me traveling by myself. The more I asked, the more adamant he got."

"So you did run away!"

"I'm going back" His sheepish answer to her accusation was a signal of how little he wished to follow through on his oath.

"You don't want to," Yuri stated. "Why would you go back if you didn't want to?"

"It's not that simple. My family has madearrangements."

"Arrangements?"

"Marriage arrangements. My father agreed to it on my behalf before I even knew what was going on. Very kind of him, don't you think?"

Yuri was unaccustomed to hearing such bitterness in a person's tone when speaking of his parents. Arranged marriages did not sound fair but the concept was not so out of date in her culture. The idea of going so strongly against parental wishes was.

So says the girl who has been chafing under her mother's matchmaking efforts and at this very moment, is far from home with hardly any concern for going back. Her conscience was even sourer than Leon's voice. As for listening to itshe hardly thought feeling guilty about not being home would send her there. She was here, with Leon, and she would make the best of it.

"What about the girl you are to marry? What does she think?"

"I wouldn't know. I've only seen her three or four times and each time was at a formal party when we were so busy circulating and exchanging pleasantries, there was no time to actually get to know each other. The only things I can tell you are that she's very beautiful, very pleasant and she comes from an old, well-established family. It's that third one that has me a leery."

Yuri thought of Tarou and his family and immediately understood the source of Leon's apprehension. Still, she wanted to be of reassurance to him. "But it sounds like you are from an old family too. It would be unfair to judge, wouldn't it?"

"True. True. And her mother, from what I hear, is quite unconventional. Perhaps marrying a Denault won't be so bad. There are worse fates than having a beautiful wife."

But there are better ones as well. Yuri kept silent. This was not a matter for her to speak on. She could lend empathy, more than he likely realized, but nothing more. "Yes, that is true," she offered. "I'm sure your parents would not have chosen her if she wasn't suitable for you."

"My mother? Yes. My father? The only thing he would check the suitability of is the dowry."

"Oh," Yuri said quietly. "You don't like -- "

"What about your family?" Leon interrupted. "We've spoken of mine, but nothing of yours."

"My family. Well, there's my mother"

0-0-0

The aroma of soup and light tapping on her bedroom door announced the arrival of Hitomi's mother with the promised lunch. She frowned at the lack of progress her daughter had made in going through the trunk's contents.

"Not daydreaming again, are you?"

"No, mother. I was just…" Hitomi could hear Van listing every conceivable item that could be in a trunk. He hit upon the most feasible item for time consuming study. "Going through that book on the floor."

Kazuko gave a quick, maternal 'hmmm' that conveyed a mixture of disbelief and worry. Her trust for her oldest child won out over suspicion though and with a hug, she left the room.

"Thanks for the save, Van."

"That's what we do. You help me, I help you."

"But I think it's my turn to bail you out," Hitomi joked.

"You'll get the next two. For now though…"

"I still don't think there's any reason to worry. I really am fine, Van. These visions might be unexpected, but they're not exactly unwelcome."

"Right, you're getting the 'movie'," Van stumbled over the odd word, "of your grandmother. And this is a good thing?"

Hitomi smiled. She didn't know what was more endearing: Van's attempt at using modern Japanese words or his look of concerned bafflement. "It's…it's a great thing. I've never gotten a chance to see my grandmother this way. I'm learning things about her, things a proper Japanese girl never gets to learn about her proper Japanese grandmother."

Much to Hitomi's amusement, Van's bafflement deepened. "Um, so you're learning, um…improper things?"

Her smile blossomed into a full laugh. "It's not like that, Van!"

"Well, you did say she was with Allen's father." He knew it was a cheap shot at his friend's reputation but it was better that Hitomi laugh at that then the blush he felt rising on his cheeks. Allen wouldn't mind taking the blow for the cause of aiding a friend in need anyway. "What are you learning then?" he asked when her mirth subsided.

Hitomi smiled again, this time over the thoughts she had felt from her grandmother. "Her dreams. The hopes she had for her life. I only knew her as my mother's mother, not a young girl with her whole future ahead of her."

"Must be quite a shock, seeing her in such a different light."

It should have been. Hitomi's memories of her mother were of an older woman with graying hair and a slight limp in her walk from an accident she'd been in long before Hitomi was ever born. But instead of dissonance, she felt familiarity. The young girl in the visions didn't so much contrast with that older woman as they complimented Hitomi herself.

She'd always been told how much she physically resembled her grandmother. Hitomi was beginning to feel the spiritual resemblance was even stronger.

Her grandmother was trying to tell her something, she was sure of that now. More than anything, Hitomi wanted to listen, to hear everything she had to say.

And with that wish, Hitomi felt her world slip away.

0-0-0

"Daydreaming?"

Yuri startled. She had been daydreaming. She hadn't meant to, but as Leon had been describing the various places he had been and all the people he had seen, she'd eaten up his words, immersed herself into the world they were recreating and found a longing to explore.

"I'm sorry," she apologized quickly. "It's just that your world sounds so beautiful and the passion with which you describe it…"

"I know the feeling," Leon said. "From when I was a boy, I would listen to the stories my father's friends would tell. And while I was boy, it was enough to hear the tales, but as I got older…I couldn't just sit and listen anymore. I had to see it all for myself. I had to make my own stories."

"I imagine you could produce a most intriguing collection of stories," Yuri teased. It was new to her, to assume such a familiarity with a man, let alone a man she had just met, but her boldness felt right.

As proof, Leon responded in kind. "Well, there was this one time when I was hiking in the mountains and I came across a girl from the Mystic Moon!"

"Such a shocking tale you tell! I doubt anyone would ever believe you."

"Hmm, it does seem crazy. If only I had some evidence I could produce, such as the girl herself. Everybody would have to believe me then."

Yuri was shocked out of the jocular exchange. Leon had to be joking. He must be. He couldn't be serious about bringing her back to his family.

But there was a glimmer in those blue eyes, a yearning that Yuri could feel in her heart. He wasn't serious but he wished he was.

Yuri knew this about him because she had realized the same desire in herself as the words had left his lips and become an impossible possibility before them.

But was it so impossible? What if she couldn't return home? What if this was her life now?

It's not. Yuri had no idea how she knew this but she did.

She said nothing of her feeling to Leon. Instead, she tried to recapture the old moment to keep this new one from weighing too heavily upon them. "They'd probably just think me some odd girl in unusual clothing. Nothing special."

Her voice faltered; the joke fell empty and flat.

And even if she had spoken in the strongest, most confident of voices, there was nothing she could have said that would ever convince Leon that her final two words were true.

"Nothing special? Yuri, this has been the single most special night of my entire life. I don't think it's because I like to hear myself talk either. You–"

"Leon, please," she begged him to be quiet. If he spoke anymore, she would hear what she was longing to hear and that would make knowing how this had to end more than she could bear.

0-0-0

"Grandmother?" Hitomi gasped and sank to the floor.

Van's image ran to her side, helpless physically to aid her but determined to help her to her feet in the way that counted most. "Are you all right? What did you see? Did something happen to your grandmother?"

"No, nothing happened," Hitomi lied. She needed Van to believe it, to stop worrying about her because the emotion she felt coming from him was making the emotion she felt from her grandmother worse.

After Allen had told her about his father, Hitomi had wondered what could cause a man to leave behind his wife and children to go on a fool's quest. She hadn't been able to understand how a chance meeting with her grandmother had managed to take a hold of his soul so strongly that he could call her to him with his dying breath.

But now she knew. She knew about her grandmother and Leon Schezar. She knew about herself and Van.

She knew the moment Van truly called for her, she would appear by his side too.

And she knew that the choice that she had always denied was there would no longer be avoidable.

0-0-0

"You want to go back home?" Leon asked, a hint of desperate anger threading through his confusion. "But what about what you told me? How you wanted to escape?"

"Who doesn't want to escape the confines of their life every now and then? It was just a frivolous wish…"

Leon didn't believe it anymore than she did. "A frivolous wish that carried you all the way here…What do you think you could do if you really set your heart on something?"

Yuri didn't like his mocking tone. It struck too true and she didn't want Leon to be angry with her. But maybe it was for the best if he was.

"I need to go home. I don't belong here."

"But you believe you belong there – at the place you wanted to leave."

"My family is there. My whole life is there."

"And there's nothing here for you?" The anger drained from Leon. He didn't want to argue, didn't want to hear Yuri say things he refused to believe even as the basic truth behind them couldn't be denied. Just because he had been able to walk away from his family didn't mean she would be able to do the same. It didn't mean she had a family that was worth walking away from. He'd heard a few scraps of complaints from Yuri but they were mostly echoes of his own grievances. When Yuri had told him of her mother, of the hopes she had for her daughters, it wasn't with any bitterness. Yuri understood – disagreed with, but understood – why her mother felt that way. She understood that she was loved.

Leon wished he could learn more about Yuri's family, more about Yuri herself, but could feel the time for that had already passed. Though neither of them knew how Yuri had gotten here, Leon joined her in understanding that she would soon go back.

Yuri hadn't wanted to answer Leon. What she felt was both too much and not enough. All that was left to be said was her sincerest wish. "I do want to stay for a little longer, but I'm afraid it will only make it harder for me to leave. I need to go, Leon. I hope you can forgive me."

She didn't hear any response. The white light had returned to claim her, wrapping her in its glow while the outside world faded into an ever brightening blur.

Her eyes were blinded, but in her soul, she saw very clearly Leon reaching a hand towards her. He made no other motion save for the movement of his lips.

"There's nothing to forgive."

0-0-0

Time and light shifted. Hitomi was not back in her room, but still with her grandmother. She saw a brief glimpse of Kamekura as it had been decades ago and then she was rising once more.

When the light receded, they were still enveloped in white.

"Snow," Hitomi concluded silently in the back of her grandmother's mind.

Yuri made no such observations. Her focus was on a shape on the ground before her and the red that spread out from beneath it, staining the pristine blanket of white created by the storm.

Hitomi didn't know what she was seeing. Yuri, unfortunately, did.

"Leon," she whispered and Hitomi felt her grandmother's heart drop.

He was older than he been just seconds ago. There were strands of grey throughout his hair and wrinkles around the blue eyes Yuri had found so enchanting. But as Yuri looked into those eyes, she could see that neither time nor the approach of death had dimmed their light.

He struggled to lift his arm. He was trying to tell Yuri something. He was too weak to speak in more than halting fragments and Hitomi found it difficult to understand. Yuri had no difficulties at all.

The actual words were irrelevant anyway. What mattered was the presence of the two people who spoke them. In the last moments of his life, Yuri was there for Leon to receive his final wish.

Hitomi realized what this moment was – it was when her grandmother had received the pendant that had played such a crucial part of Hitomi's own destiny.

She shivered from the welcome familiarity of the pendant as it passed from Leon's hands into Yuri's. Her grandmother felt a chill too – not from the cold but from what was passed along with the pendant.

Yuri gained knowledge. She learned how Leon had spent the years between their first meeting and their last. She saw a woman, beautiful and understanding, endlessly patient with a gentle smile made even more tender by the sadness hidden beneath it. She saw children, a boy and girl with the same eyes as their father – the girl all innocence and joy and the boy slowly losing those qualities as resentment came to settle in his heart.

More than his wounds, it hurt Leon to know that he was the cause of his wife's sadness. That his daughter could never hold on to her innocence and his absence might force it from her grasp before her time. That his son was justified in his resentment and that it could only grow.

But the aching regret Leon felt was overpowered by one thing: the love he held for his family.

Yuri understood. Leon had wanted to see her one final time – to say goodbye and to let her know what his life had held so she would know the limitless potential of her own.

It was a gift Yuri would always treasure, that was the true value of the pendant.

For the last time in her life, the light came for her, took her back home. She heard words during her travel though she could not say if they were Leon's or her own.

"Do not live your life in regret."

0-0-0

When Hitomi opened her eyes, she was no longer seeing things from her grandmother's perspective. That would have been somewhat difficult to do as the only thing she could see was her grandmother. Gone was the mountain and night sky of Gaea. There was no blizzard here.

There was nothing here, only a black void with but Hitomi and Yuri to fill it.

That made it full enough.

"So you wanted to speak to me, grandmother," Hitomi laughed lightly.

"I wanted you to listen," Yuri clarified. "I wanted you to understand what I had and what I lost and how I went on."

"I think I do." Hitomi's hesitation said otherwise. She wasn't quite ready to speak openly of the decision that awaited her, the decision of what she would have and what she would lose. Deep down, she was afraid of how she would go on.

So Hitomi balked and turned things back on her grandmother. "I appreciate letting me see you so closely, getting the chance to be able to know and understand you so much better than when you were…" Hitomi was going to say alive, but with Yuri in front of her, looking like one of her classmates instead of an elderly woman, the last thing she would call her grandmother was 'dead'. "I mean, when I was little and we'd come over to visit."

Her granddaughter's awkwardness amused Yuri. She had the youthful visage, but all the memories and wisdom of her older self. She knew what Hitomi meant. She knew also that Hitomi was stalling.

Time might be a relative concept in this non-place, but Yuri saw no reason to waste it. "I'm not doing this so you can learn more about me," she said bluntly.

"I see. This is about me then," Hitomi reluctantly admitted. "You must have sensed how uneasy I am about moving."

"Hmm, is that the only reason why you would leave this place behind? To follow your family?"

"I…" Hitomi stopped. What other reason was there? Surely her grandmother knew a girl her age would have to go wherever her parents went.

And any other girl would have no other option. But Hitomi was hardly any other girl. She had one option, fanciful and unlikely but tempting ever the same.

She remained silent, letting Yuri make all of the arguments for her. "Your life is changing, isn't it? You'll be in an entirely new country. Everything, from the house you live in to the way everyone speaks will be different. You're a strong young woman though. You'll adapt. You'll find new friends. In no time at all, you'll finish your schooling and go out into the world to find your future."

"After all that's happened, I've been trying to live in the present," Hitomi laughed. It was fitful, as laughter often is when someone uses it to hide what they really feel.

There was no hiding anything from Yuri though. Not in this place where souls spoke directly. "That's all you've been doing, Hitomi, thinking about your future."

"Well, yes. It's only natural with such a big change coming. Will I like my new home? What sort of people will I meet there?" Hitomi was full of rhetorical questions and she asked them all while Yuri nodded along, that knowing smile nagging at Hitomi until she broke down and asked the most important, most honest question.

"Will I be happy there?" she whispered. "As happy as I am here, as happy as I was there…"

"I can't answer that for you," Yuri replied. "You and you alone can decide what's in your heart."

Hitomi was never one to contradict her elders, but Yuri neither looked nor felt the part to her. And there were times to be respectful and quiet. Then there were times when it could cost you everything.

"But you're trying to nudge me into a decision, aren't you?" Hitomi argued. "Why else would you show me those visions? You wanted to stay, I felt that, but you told Allen's father that you couldn't. Are you trying to tell me to let go of Gaea or are you saying that you regretted that you did?"

Yuri sighed. Even the best intentioned advice was difficult to follow and Yuri had not been able to live her life without wondering 'what if?' from time to time. What she wanted to teach to Hitomi though, was to never let from 'time to time' become 'always'. "Part of me did want to stay. I was a young girl in an exotic land, a handsome man by my side who I felt connected to in a way I thought I would never share with anyone else, but…"

"Did you love him?" Hitomi asked abruptly.

"I only knew him for one night, Hitomi, for a few hours." It was a statement of fact that utterly failed to convey the truth and both grandmother and granddaughter knew it.

"I love Van," Hitomi said. "Even if I can't truly be with him, he'll always be with me."

"You could live with that?"

"I…if I had to…"

"So a life without him would be an obligation?"

"No!" Hitomi exclaimed. "I do have a good life here. My family, my friends. I might be moving away, but I'll still keep in touch with Yukari. Both of our fathers will want to kill us when they see the phone bills we're going to generate. And I still want do track and go to college…"

"You sound as if you have many plans for a girl who doesn't like to think about the future."

Hitomi wanted to be back in her bedroom now, if only so she could crawl into bed and draw the bedspread around her. There would be no retreat here though. There was no denying a persistent spirit, no running from the inevitable.

"You understand how torn I am," Hitomi whimpered in frustration. "I can't decide this now."

"But you have to, Hitomi, because you'll always be torn unless you make your decision."

"Grandmother…" Hitomi had been hoping for soothing compassion, not a stern lecture.

But Yuri did not want to soften this. "Do you not understand what Leon gave me? The last time I saw him, I saw a man who had never made his decision, a man who could only give half his life to his family because the other half was lost in his dreams. Those dreams led him away from his family and when he found what he thought he had desired, all he really wanted was his family."

"So what are you saying? I should give up on Van? Forget about him? I can't do that!"

"I'm not saying that at all, Hitomi. You need to decide what you truly want and then let yourself have it. You have to embrace your happiness with your whole heart or doubt will chase it away."

The long silence that followed was only barely broken by Hitomi asking the last question she would ever ask her grandmother. "You had a good life with grandfather, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did. A wonderful life. Because I loved him. Because I knew being with him, raising a family with him, was what I wanted most."

"I understand," Hitomi said. And she meant it.

"Goodbye, Hitomi. Whichever path you take, I know that you will find happiness."

Hitomi told Yuri that she loved her. As her grandmother's image faded into the black, the words echoed back to her, then Hitomi was left alone in the void, the choice she had made occupying all of her thoughts.

0-0-0

After the darkness, the light in Hitomi's bedroom was disorienting. She might have stumbled but Van's mere presence was enough to steady her.

"You were out a long time, Hitomi," Van told her. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine, Van." She was more than fine. She was at peace. At last, Hitomi knew what she had to do. It was only a matter of doing it.

Hitomi looked at the boxes all around her and the trunk of her grandmother's thing. She wondered why she had packed so much, why she had thought she needed so much. They were material things and Hitomi knew that from now on, she would carry all that mattered within her.

"I don't think I'll have any more visions today," she announced. "I don't need them anymore."

Relief flooded through Van. He would have gladly stayed by her side, even though on the other side of reality, there were advisors banging on the door of his room and a catgirl screaming at them to leave Van-sama alone.

"I guess I better go," he said after the noise started to break into his concentration.

Hitomi turned to him, the most beatific smile he had ever seen upon her face. Her hand reached out to caress the curve of his cheek.

"Yeah, Van. It's time to go."

0-0-0

Author's Note: I left the ending deliberately vague as to what Hitomi's decision was. I'm sure most everyone reading this will conclude she went back with Van to Gaea, but I've always thought the idea of them living out their lives separated by time and space yet still connected in their hearts to be ridiculously romantic. But then Allen's my favorite character, so I've always been an oddball as far as Esca fandom is concerned. :P