Midday found Hitomi walking alone in the palace gardens. Merle had tried to stay with her, but Hitomi had insisted on being alone. The gardens were lush this time of year, and Hitomi found herself relaxed in the sweet-smelling air. Mockingbirds twittered in the trees and colorful butterflies sucked the nectar from freshly opened buds. Alone with her thoughts, Hitomi found peace.

Since the accident, she had found nothing but heartache. She had truly believed that coming back to Gaea would bring happiness back into her life, but it appeared as though things would not be so cut-and-paste. Still, life on Earth seemed to be little more than a dream. Or perhaps, she thought, being back on Gaea felt like a dream. She wasn't sure. Seventeen years had been spent repressing memories of this place, yet the moment she returned it felt like she had never left. True, Ruka and Kei still hung clearly in her mind and heart, but true also that an air of calm had possessed her upon her return. Grief wasn't as painful; hope wasn't lost. Fanelia always seemed to have that effect on her, she remembered with a smile. So lost in thought was she that she nearly jumped when a feathery voice spoke to her.

"Walking always clears my mind too." Hitomi turned to face the speaker. It was a woman slightly younger than herself, perhaps 28 or so. Her blonde hair fell in delicate waves around her hips and was pulled away from her petite face and held by a cap of pearls. Brown eyes smiled up at Hitomi, and the woman held out a dainty hand adorned with bejeweled rings. "Welcome to Fanelia, Lady Hitomi."

"Your Majesty." She recognized the elegance of nobility as she greeted Van's wife. Hitomi took the woman's hand and bent to kiss it, but the lady grasped her firmly and shook.

"Please, you must call me Josine." Her beautifully painted lips smiled warmly, coaxing Hitomi to smile back. "Come, walk with me. I would enjoy your company." The elder woman nodded and followed the queen through the gardens. Silence accompanied the two for some time as Hitomi searched her mind for an appropriate thing to say.

"Fanelia seems peaceful." She finally ventured. Josine smiled.

"Yes, Van works hard to keep it that way. I suppose he's seen enough fighting for one lifetime. It's a pity he isn't here, I think it would have warmed his heart to see an old friend." The walk came to a halt, and the queen turned to her guest. Josine pushed a blonde wisp of hair from her face shyly. Her chocolate eyes filled with worry and she gave Hitomi a pleading look. "Forgive me, I forget to whom I speak. I had hoped not to speak of Van before you, but if it is your wish to talk of him I will not hesitate further."

"That's very considerate of you." Hitomi smiled and the women began to walk again.

"It is the least I can do. He did so much for this country. Captain Merle said that you might be able to help bring him home. Is there truth in that, Lady Hitomi?" Queen Josine's eyes filled with hope.

"Majesty, I'm not sure what Merle has told you about me, but there is little I can do except pray for his safe return." Hitomi protested. A look of despair reached into her eyes.

"Merle seemed so confident, but I suppose you're right. Forgive me for pressuring you." Hitomi smiled at the gentle woman.

"It's all right. I can tell you love him very much." Josine remained silent and did not look at Hitomi. At last she spoke, softly.

"I suppose you're right." Hitomi glanced at her suspiciously, but the queen brushed past her own strange comments and continued to speak. "I was intending on taking a ride later today, I would be pleased if you joined me."

Hitomi thought a moment. She had intended to spend the rest of the day alone in her room, thinking over the troubles in her life. At Queen Josine's suggestion, however, this idea suddenly seemed far more depressing than it had. Granted, it was depressing, but she felt the need to mourn and be alone for a while. Still…one can't mourn forever. She was facing a new aspect of her life, and it was clear in her mind that she needed to stay strong and keep all her pain hidden away. There would be time for grief later…

"I would be honored to join you." She replied. The queen smiled warmly up at the older woman.

"I heard that, and I won't allow you to leave without protection." Another voice demanded from behind the two. They turned and there stood Merle, her hair taken down from their braids and left swinging halfway down her back. She was no longer dressed in her formal captain wear, but instead she wore a pair of loose breeches and a green midriff top.

"Captain Merle! I didn't hear you arrive." The queen said in shock.

"I'm as silent as a cat." Merle replied seriously, drawing a slight chuckle from Hitomi. The cat-woman smiled to see her old friend's good nature slowly begin to return to her in this time of troubles. The queen smiled hesitantly, unsure how to take the joke.

"Yes…well, I do appreciate your concern, Captain, as always, but I'm sure the Lady Hitomi and myself will be fine on a simple ride around the city." She spoke tensely. Merle frowned, her tail swishing in agitation.

"Forgive me, your majesty, but I am afraid I cannot allow that." Merle replied. "We can't be too careful with Lord Van missing, and we mustn't run the risk of losing both nobles. What would Margaretta do? Besides, I wished to speak to Hitomi some more, and a ride would be the perfect opportunity." Hitomi saw the queen about to protest, but she interrupted any objections Josine might have had.

"I would be grateful for your company as well, Merle." Hitomi said quickly, breaking the slight tension between the captain and queen. ~I wonder what happened between them, ~ Hitomi thought. ~ The queen spoke as if they were friends, so why is there this tension? ~

"If you don't mind, then it would be kind of you to join us, Captain." Josine replied warmly, all tension in her voice gone. "Forgive me, but there are other duties I must see to before our ride. I shall meet you ladies at the stables, yes?" The others quickly agreed, and with a smile, Josine walked gracefully back to the palace. Merle sighed as she and Hitomi watched Josine's exit. Then, she turned back to Hitomi with a smile.

"Have you finished your tour of the gardens, Hitomi? I know that last time you weren't here long enough to enjoy them, and there is a place that I think you'd really like." Merle took her hand and began to lead her through the gardens. Hitomi watched her carefully, but the cat-woman gave no other signs of discomfort. With kittenish excitement, Merle paused beside a wall of hedges. Without a word, the cat grabbed Hitomi and pulled her through a hole that didn't really seem to be there. Hitomi was about to protest but the words stopped in her throat as she took in the sight before her.

Merle had led her into an enclosed paradise, the green bushes through which they had passed circling the whole area. A wooden swing was hung from a branch of a grand willow tree across the way. Near the tree was a miniature waterfall, the water rippling in chorus to the sweet singing of the colorful birds that flew around. The water trickled in little rivers around a small island of flowers of various shades of blue and white. The entire area was fragrant with the scents of the flowers, and it radiated with the love and tenderness of the caretaker.

"Come up into the tree." Merle said softly, and climbed into the tree branches with Hitomi hoisting herself up after her. When she finally sat beside Merle on a thick branch, she smiled thinly.

"I guess having a child made me more out of shape then I used to be…" Merle didn't appear to hear her, instead she pointed back to the waterfall fountain.

"Look closely at the island, Hitomi. Does it look familiar to you?" Hitomi followed her friend's instructions and gazed down upon the arrangement of blue and white flowers. It was then that she noticed that they made a pattern of two circles, the smaller of the two circles in whites and greys that overlaid the larger blue and white sphere. Hitomi thought her heart would stop beating completely. She quickly glanced to the sky to confirm her suspicions, and her voice caught in her throat.

"It's…it's a mural of the Mystic Moon…" she murmured in awe, gazing at the flowered mural.

"He did it a few years after you left." Merle said softly, pulling her knees to her chest and letting her tail swing in gentle affection. "It was his way of keeping you close, even when you were so far away. He knew that if he tended to it and it flourished, then you must be well and happy. I'll never forget how determined he would be, sitting in the dirt, tending to each flower specially, afraid to let any one wilt. He would come back to the palace covered in dirt and sweat, with a smile shining brightly on his face." Hitomi felt her eyes film over, but she hurriedly blinked back tears. She wouldn't cry…she wouldn't.

"Van…" She whispered, all her love pouring through her body.

"I thought you should see it. " Merle gazed at Hitomi's heartbroken face and gently wiped the tears from her friend's eyes with the back of her hand.

"He shouldn't have. He shouldn't have…." Hitomi whispered. He shouldn't have kept her close. Betrayal rang heavily in her heart. She had abandoned most all thoughts of him upon arriving back on Earth, and still he managed to keep her near to him. She had married. He had married. Why didn't he give her up, when he had found a new woman to love? In her heart, she was relieved that he hadn't, but another part of her chastised his betrayal to his wife. It was clear by how well kept the garden was that he tended to it often. She voiced her thoughts. "Doesn't Queen Josine mind?"

"Queen Josine could care less." Merle scoffed, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "That's what irritates me about her." Hitomi looked at her, shocked.

"I thought you two were friends! From the way she praised you and talked of you, it seemed as though you were on good terms."

"Generally, yes. She's a dear woman, very close to me. It's just on the topic of Van that I get frustrated with her."

"I'm afraid I don't understand." Hitomi replied, silently urging her friend to tell-all. It kept her mind from thinking of the garden in which they sat, it kept her from thinking of her all-too familiar what-if's and might-have-been's. Merle opened her mouth as if she would say something more on the subject, but she quickly shut it and shook her head with a chuckle.

"Don't' worry about it. Come, the Queen is probably ready for her ride, and I need to go fetch my second in command to make the journey as well." She glanced at Hitomi sheepishly. "That is, if you don't mind. It would make more sense to have two guards protecting two civilians that me trying to do it all."

"Of course." Hitomi laughed. She glanced at the sky, and saw the sun midway to the horizon. "I hadn't realized so much time had passed." Merle leapt from the tree with feline grace and grinned up at Hitomi.

"Come on Hitomi! I'll race you back to the stables!" She crouched on all fours and quickly bounded across the paradise, disappearing through the bushes as Hitomi desperately scrambled down the tree.

"Merle! Come back here! Wait!" Hitomi raced after her, crying desperately. "Where the heck are the stables? Merle!"

~~~

Well, there you go everyone. Chapter four has been completed, after a slight hiatus. You know I love reviews, so keep them coming ^.~ Truly, I appreciate your comments, and be honest. ^_^ I'll do the next chapter shortly, but I have a few other stories demanding my attention as well, and of course the traumas of everyday life…but hey, you demand, I write, that the way it works. ^_^ I'm not the best "authors note" person out there, am I? Oh well. 3 always,

Willow Mae