Chapter 1 - The First Day
Issac muttered something after them, but his words were drowned by the machine hum of the green light pouring from the ruined Atlantis Machine. Hitomi felt rough linen, cool light, dust, and hot wind, tempered by the soft, warm slickness of Van's skin as they flew over the mechanized city of Zaibach.
She held her eyes tightly shut, wanting to lose herself in Van, his scent, the feel of his skin, the sensation that he came for her when she called. Her mind's eye sometimes caught glimpses of the earth Van saw beneath them, which grew bloodier as they left the capital for the battlefield. Here, a group of soldiers in various uniforms stood dumbfounded, gazing up at the sky. There, a young man crouched with his bloodstained knees to his chest. There, two men stood crying, embracing one another as their comrades milled about aimlessly. There, a group of soldiers still fought, unaffected by the dissipation of the Zone of Absolute Fortune. And the ground, riddled with gouges of molten slag from the energist bomb dropped by Basram, grew warm under the rising light.
"We're almost there," Van said. "I think I can see Escaflowne."
She didn't respond. Instead, she pushed her nose into Van's chest and inhaled, preferring his scent far above the whifs of lead, sulfur, metal, and blood carried upwards on the wind.
"Hitomi?" he repeated. There was a long silence as she shook her head, never looking up, never opening her eyes.
"We're almost there," he repeated, and pushed on. They rose and fell with the beats of his wings.
At the green fringe of Zaibach, two beastmen stood perched in a tree, giving a paean to the rising sun.
Allen was thinking about his mother. The air of quietness about her as she arranged flowers, the graceful folds of her fingers as they worked. He had strained much of his life to attain that grace in his swordplay, as a tribute to her memory. If nothing else, he was at least blessed with her hair.
His sister, it appeared, lacked that grace completely.
After the white dragon flew away, the first thing Celena did was to take a few unsteady steps, as if to follow it. Allen thanked Jichia that he was there to catch her when she caught her boot on an unsteady rock, which attracted more than a few jeers from the crew of the Crusade.
"Damn it," she said softly. "I'll never get used to this."
Allen was shocked. "Celena, what--"
"Boss! What do you have this time?" shouted Pyle.
"Looks like a lady soldier," leered Gio.
"I hope she'll punish me!"
Amidst the laughter, Gaddes crossed his arms, leaned back on his heels, and regarded the situation.
"Quiet!" said Allen. The men, however, eager to blow off all the anxiety bottled up during the final hours of war, either didn't hear their captain or chose to ignore him.
"Looks like the boss has made another conquest."
"He said to shut up!" yelled Celena, pushing herself away from Allen to stand and face the crew.
Gio and Pyle looked at each other in frank puzzlement as the rest of the Crusade guffawed or slapped them on their backs. Gaddes smiled.
"Right you are, ma'am."
The men then began clamoring toward Allen, begging for details on his duel with the King as Celena loosened some of the tighter holds on her leather armor. There was a set line to her mouth that Allen found very familar, but had trouble placing as the men joked with him about coming to blows over a woman with a king. As he answered the questions with as little aplomb as possible, his second-in-command keeping an eye on Celena as she adjusted her armor, he was certain he knew who it was that told his crew to ignore her obviously Zaibach uniform.
The wind whipped past Van's face as he piloted Escaflowne over Zaibach's Western mountains. Gradually, the landscape was beginning to change to the red-soiled, rocky terrain of Cesario, Zaibach's western neighbor. Cypress groves and olive orchards dotted the horizon, and the Cebak Mountains were doing their best to crowd out the sky.
"It's going to be tough to make it through the mountains," Van said over his shoulder to Hitomi.
"One of the only passable gaps is a holding ground for Zaibach's flying fortresses. It's why we had to use Asturia as a launching ground."
"Oh," said Hitomi. She pressed her face into Van's back and let some of the weight off her legs. "But the war's over."
When Van didn't answer right away, Hitomi paled. "It's over. Right?"
"I don't know."
Hitomi bit her lower lip and looked up at the daytime silhouette of the Mystic Moon as it crept further below the horizon. The sun was high in the sky, and Hitomi could feel it in her skin. Her clothes clung damply to her in some places, and whipped freely about in others, leaving her with an uncomfortable sensation of being too hot and too cold at the same time. At the edges of her vision, she could see swimming silver sparkles, the kind that she usually got if she stood up a little too fast after sitting down for a long time.
Slowly, she said, "Hey, Van?"
"Are we going to take a break soon?"
"I was hoping to push on to Asturia, but I suppose we should- are you okay?" he said, looking over his shoulder at her. She had placed her forehead against his bare back a little too heavily for comfort.
"Yes. Just tired." She looked away from him, toward the growing clusters of trees that blurred into each other, mixing with the brown of the earth. She leaned against Van. Her cheek was cold on his back.
Van turned his head back toward the front and began angling Escaflowne downward. As they dropped altitude, Hitomi saw they were headed toward a hollow in the mountains, shaded by overhanging olive trees. The area was protected by an overhanging cliff, with sheer rock faces on nearly all sides. They swooped close, and Van landed Escaflowne as deep within the area as possible.
"You've been up all night, haven't you?" Van accused.
Hitomi laughed as she climbed down from Escaflowne. "So have you!"
"That's not the point. Wait, don't do that on your own. Let me help you down."
Hitomi waved her hand at him dismissively. "I told you, I'm fine. Just tired. Whoa."
As she took the final leap down from Escaflowne, her dizziness reached a peak and she swayed on her feet as soon as she hit the ground. She caught herself before she lost her balance entirely, and stood there for a moment, leaning against the machine until she was able to catch her breath. When her vision cleared, she saw Van standing before her, looking so concerned Hitomi had to smile.
"Don't look so worried. I just can't go without eating and sleeping as long as you can, apparently."
"I had rations just before Basram dropped their weapon," Van said dismissively, and tried to walk Hitomi to the base of one of the shadier olive trees. After a brief argument about the strength of her constitution, she let herself be led, Van's arm on her shoulder. And after settling down in between the roots of the tree, she found that she really didn't mind being taken care of too much.
Van brought her a flask of water that he filled in a nearby spring, and was able to procure the last of his military rations of Cesarian hard-bread for the two of them to eat. Hitomi was fascinated at the process of eating the bread. It was hard enough that a desperate soldier could use it to knock out an approaching enemy, but once it spent ten miets soaking in water, it became just soft enough to chew. Sadly, the resulting softness did little to improve the bread's wood-like flavor.
"How long did you have to live on this stuff?" Hitomi demanded, making a disgusted face after her final bite of waterlogged hard-bread. Van, who had removed his gloves for their meal, had just licked the last bit of the bread off his thumb.
"Ever since I brought you back from the Mystic Moon. The Cesarian soldiers we met made sure I had enough to eat before I joined up with the Crusade."
Hitomi noticed the careful omission of Allen's name and felt her cheeks redden slightly.
"It isn't so bad, once you get used to it," Van went on, avoiding her eyes as he pushed the cork back into his flask and set it aside. "Fills you up, at least."
Hitomi felt the passage of time very keenly for a few seconds. The easy repartee they'd fallen into since landing at the border of Zaibach and Cesario turned into something difficult and clumsy. She looked at the shafts of sunlight filtering down through the overhanging leaves and tried to will herself to say something, anything, but Van was the one who ended up breaking that silence.
"Hitomi, I heard your voice when I was fighting Allen."
Why doesn't he understand?
"You did?" she said uneasily.
"Of course I did," he said. "You told me not to fight him. That there wasn't any point. But I wanted to fight him and I didn't want you, especially you, to tell me that I couldn't."
Van paused for a second before continuing, his voice taking on an excited timbre. "He was great in battle, he really didn't hold back. I don't think I've ever felt so, so exhilarated before, but I-"
He stopped again and tore some grass out of the ground, then dropped it. "If it weren't for you, I would have killed him. It was your voice that did it. You told me I didn't understand. And you were right."
"Don't say that, Van. I was the one who didn't understand. You were just responding to my feelings. I hadn't quite... worked them out yet."
I worry about him so much.
"No, I've always wanted to best him in battle, ever since we fought in that old fort when he stopped us from escaping. When he started protecting that Dilandau, it was the perfect excuse. Even though he was really protecting his sister," Van shook his head. "I still don't understand that."
"It wasn't your fault! It was the Zone of Absolute Fortune, I turned it on when Folken killed Dornkirk!"
Hitomi stopped talking, horrorstruck at what she'd let slip. She recalled the last time she mentioned Folken to Van, at the shelter in the Asturian countryside, the way Van stormed off and didn't speak to her again until he was back from the battle at Rampant. She didn't like to think what his reaction would be to learning that his brother had killed the Emperor of Zaibach and that she had turned on the Atlantis Machine.
"I'm sorry!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands over her mouth.
"It's fine," Van said, a little harshly. "No, wait," he said, seeing the stricken look on Hitomi's face.
This time his voice was gentler, but there was still that old bitter undertone present whenever he mentioned his brother. "I mean it's okay to say that. I wanted to know what happened. You have nothing to apologize for."
Hitomi lowered her hands to her lap and continued, "I still didn't mean-"
"It's okay. Really."
"As long as you're sure," Hitomi said uncertainly. True to his word, Van didn't appear likely to storm off and sulk. He merely pressed his lips together and seemed to be concentrating very hard. After mentally reminding herself to be more careful about what she said, she continued. "When Folken- when he and Dornkirk died, there was this light. The Atlantis Machine, the one Zaibach has been working on all this time, turned on. I still don't know how, exactly, but..."
I care about him so much.
She bit her lip, and then and plunged on. "I think I did it. I said I was sick of this kind of fate and then the machine just started up, and then Issac appeared and said that fate had finally been set in motion and then we could see what was happening outside. Basram started the battle, then Cesario, then Deadalus, everyone was fighting. It wasn't just you, Van," she said, unconsciously leaning toward him as she emphasized her words.
"We were confused at first," he said, looking at the ground. "I don't think Allen really wanted to fight me. He was just defending his sister."
"That can't be all," said Hitomi. Van looked up at her again, very seriously.
"No, it isn't," he agreed. "I think I wanted to fight him because of you."
"Don't say that. Please. It's not right to fight like that. You... you really didn't have a reason to..."
"But I stopped because I heard you."
Because I love Van. Because I really love Van.
In her throat and in her stomach, Hitomi felt as if she were falling through the air. The sensation reminded her of falling down the mineshaft at the dragon burial grounds, of the moment when she saw Van's wings for the first time and forgot to keep screaming. There was very little doubt in her mind as to what he heard in that long split second when Escaflowne's sword struck the pilot cage of Scheherazade.
The scent of a field... Van's scent. Because I really love Van.
Hitomi watched as a faint blush spread over his cheeks. She tried very hard not to laugh. Van's difficulty in finding ways to talk openly about his feelings was one of the things she found most endearing and frustrating about him.
"I meant it," she said, feeling her face mirror his. "I'm sorry it took me so long to figure out."
"Oh," he said. "That's... that's okay. It took me a long time, too."
"Van!" she said, and threw her arms around his neck. Surprised by her sudden display, it took Van a moment to gently rest his arms around her waist. Gradually, his grip tightened as Hitomi's hands moved to his hair, and his back. She wanted to deepen the hug even further, but his sword in its scabbard stuck up awkwardly against her thighs. She sighed.
Pulling back for a moment, Van asked, "What is it?"
"Your sword is in the way."
"Oh. Hold on."
Van unbuckled the belt holding his sword in place and laid it aside. Then, before she could say anything, he put his hands on her shoulders and looked at her very seriously. "I want you to stay with me from now on."
Hitomi could suddenly smell the old barn in Asturia where Van used to keep Escaflowne, a mixture of old hay, metal, and wood, and the taste of piscus was strong on her tongue. "What did you say?"
"That I want you to stay with me from now on," he said. His grip on her shoulders tightened. "I don't want your power. I never meant to say that. I just want you."
She choose not to answer him. Instead, she placed her palm on the back of his neck and parted her lips, her breath coming quickly as she looked at his face, his dark hair parting across his forehead, his eyes. Then quickly, as if in agreement, they tilted their heads and kissed.
Hitomi was accustomed to worrying about what she was doing when in the presence of someone she had feelings for. Yukari had always enjoyed teasing her friend about Amano for just that reason, to the point that Hitomi was distracted enough about herself that she didn't have time to notice the focus of her best friend's gaze. After Allen replaced Amano, she was always acting as a barometer to his moods. Was he feeling okay? Did he think she was acting like a groupie? Did he think she was acting childish? What should she change about herself in order to become attractive to him?
But this was different. There were no worries, no nettlesome thoughts of changing or becoming less like herself. There was just Van.
There were no barriers.
The first thing General Adelphos of the ruined Zaibach army did when he returned to the capital was thank his Asturian mother's god that the city remained intact.
The second thing he did was sleep. He did not dream of the singing white light that had engulfed and devoured his army, though it would visit him in his dreams for the rest of his life. That morning, after he returned to the capital, grim and bloody, he slept as if dead.
Upon waking, Adelphos was met with a formal summons to appear before Zaibach's high military tribunal, once made up of himself and his fellow generals, and now made up of their immediate subordinates. It was there that he learned the immortal emperor Dornkirk had been killed under unknown circumstances, and that his replica of the Atlantis Machine had been destroyed beyond repair.
Adelphos did not betray his relief. He had always had qualms with Emperor Dornkirk's obsession with Atlantis and desire to control the fate of the world, and he was glad to let that part of Zaibach's past remain buried. Under the nervous gaze of the tribunal, he merely bowed his head in grief.
Because Zaibach had functioned for so long under the solitary rule of Dornkirk and the influence of his Sorcerers, the tribunal was unsure what direction to take, and had summoned Adelphos in order to appoint him as the Emperor's official successor.
"I will accept on two conditions," the general said to the tribunal. "First, I refuse to be named Emperor. I will only serve under the title of Emperor Regent. Second, I would like to continue to reside in my own offices."
Though the tribunal was puzzled by Adelphos' second request, they were moved by the first. They passed their first motion under his rule that all leaders of Zaibach would thereafter be known as Emperor Regent in memory of the man who had first rescued Zaibach from her past as a marginalized and oft invaded country.
"The people of Zaibach will appreciate this gesture, General," said General Oroboros, who once served as second in command of the army of Bronze. "We need our pride now, more than ever."
"No, General," replied Adelphos. "Right now, we need hope."