Beginnings and Endings

AN: Well, here it is. The final chapter. What started out to be just a short little nothing ended up being 26 chapters long! Thanks to everyone who has stuck this story out to it's ending, and especially thanks to everyone who has reviewed- It really means a lot to me, and I deeply appreciate it. So, this last chapter is dedicated to all of you! Uh... sorry for the horrifically long delay... computer issues, and then just plain bad writing issues. I just can't get this chapter right. Sorry if it's a really disappointing ending! Please leave me a review telling me what to fix... Thanks, and I hope you enjoy!!

"Van, I can't go back with you tomorrow."

The words hung in the air between them as heavy as death. Van didn't move, the taunt muscles under his tanned skin as cold and rigid as the blade of the royal sword he gripped in his hand. Hitomi took a hesitant step towards him, hand outstretched, wishing he'd turn and look at her so she could see his eyes.

"You have to understand. There are so many things, so many people to say goodbye to. I can't just walk away from everything- from my life- tomorrow and go back to Gaea with you. No matter how much I want to stay with you."

Still, he wouldn't turn to face her, standing there like frozen stone, and suddenly Hitomi couldn't stand it any longer. Slowly, her outstretched hand brushed against the skin of his back, and she could feel the already tense muscles tighten under the touch of her hesitant, shaking fingers. Her other hand joined the first, and she slid her arms around his waist to press herself flush against his back, resting her cheek between his shoulderblades. And still, he never moved.

"I don't want to live without you," she whispered brokenly. "I don't want to watch you leave tomorrow knowing that I'll never be with you again. I'm scared, Van. I'm scared of leaving everything behind, I'm scared that I won't be able to be what you need. And more than anything, I'm scared of losing you. But I know, deep down, that when I'm ready to go back to Gaea, you'll be with me, and somehow everything will be okay."

Van felt like he was drowning and had just been thrown a lifeline. He held himself as rigid as a granite slab, every muscle tight to keep from shaking. He wouldn't, couldn't, allow himself to hope.

"Hitomi... " he finally rasped out through an achingly dry throat.

"I'm asking you to wait for me, Van. I want to go back to Gaea, I want you to bring me home to Fanelia, but I can't go tomorrow. I just need some time. Please," she begged.

Van wanted to turn around. He needed to know if he'd heard her right, if she really meant what she'd just said. Gods, it couldn't be... and yet-

"How long?" he breathed, unconsciously holding his breath for her answer. How many years would they be apart this time? Her arms tightened around his stiff waist, her body pressed tightly to his back.

"A month- maybe two," she whispered hesitantly. "Just long enough for me to say goodbye..."

Under her cheek, she could feel Van's shoulders begin to shake with silent laughter. Confused, she loosened her grip enough to pull away and stare uncertainly at the back of his head.


He shook his head, overwhelmed by such an incredible wave of pure joy and relief that he couldn't stop his helpless, silent laughter. A month? That was all?

"If that's too long..." Hitomi began slowly, but she stopped in surprise as Van wheeled around abruptly to take her face in his hands.

"Too long?" he gasped incredulously. "Hitomi, you know I'll wait as long as you need, if you say you'll come to Fanelia."

She gazed steadily into his deep mahogany eyes. "Well, I am saying I'll come to Fanelia. And I only need a month-"

Van cut her off mid-sentence with a deep, lingering kiss. He hadn't really done it on purpose, but when his brain had finally grasped her words, her meaning, he couldn't stop himself. It had only been a day since he'd last tasted her sweet gentleness, but gods, it felt like he'd lived a lifetime of pain between then and now.

Hitomi sagged against him. her bones doing that melting thing they did so often around him.

"I can definitely be ready in a month. Maybe less," she sighed as their lips parted slightly. Van rested his forehead against hers and she leaned into the warmth and security of his embrace.

"Hitomi," he breathed. "Are you sure? You'll really-"

She smiled up at him. "Yeah. I'm sure. Are you? Will your people be okay with this?"

"Fanelia will be deeply honored," he stated seriously, and Hitomi swallowed a giggle at his intensity by giving him a quick kiss.

"And waiting a month or so...?"

"Hm. I think my council's hoping you'll show up with me tomorrow morning, but as long as they know Fanelia will have a queen within the year, they'll be fine," he answered distractedly, thinking more about how much he wanted to kiss her than answering her questions. A disturbing thought floated through his preoccupied mind and he grimaced.

"Gods, they're going to use the extra time to plan some huge elaborate ceremony," he groaned before he could stop himself and Hitomi gave him a quizzical look. He cleared his throat. "Not that a big ceremony's bad, if that's what you want..."

Hitomi had to laugh at his worried face. "That's not really my style."

She laughed again at the obvious relief flooding his face, and the sobering thought that she knew absolutely nothing about marriage ceremonies in Fanelia hit her with full force. She'd never been big on traditions before, but the thought that she probably wouldn't even get to plan her own wedding was suddenly a little depressing. She rested her head on Van's shoulder and buried her face in his neck so she could breath in his scent of wind and fields and freedom. Everything was going to be alright.

"Van... what would you have done if I wouldn't come back to Gaea?" she asked quietly, the words out before she stopped to think about them.

"I don't know," he answered simply. "I couldn't stand to think about it."

Her mouth twisted into a wry grimace. "Me neither. I probably would've ended up as one of those crazy old cat ladies."

"Cat ladies?" Van asked, obviously trying to picture Hitomi covered with fur and a tail. Hitomi laughed out loud and pulled away enough to look at his confused face.

"Not like Merle, Van! I meant just a normal, crazy old lady with fourteen cats that she treats like her kids!"

"Ah," he replied slowly, still trying to wipe a disturbingly fur-covered Hitomi from his mind's eye. Some things were just too weird to imagine. And besides, he kind of had a thing for her soft, smooth skin. Her soft, bare-naked skin. Lots and lots of it.... What were they wasting time talking about again?

His lips brushed hers, and she responded eagerly, her slim hands fluttering through his wild black hair to deepen the kiss. There was no tension anymore, no unanswered questions lingering in the back of their thoughts, no misunderstandings to separate them. There was no longer any sense of urgency, only pure, loving need.

And tomorrow no longer bothered them, because it would be the first day of the rest of their lives together.

Driving through the long night
Trying to figure who's right, and who's wrong...

"Where exactly are we going?" Allen asked over the music with an edge of exasperation coloring his voice. They'd barely been home for a half an hour before Annie had loaded up the car, pushed him out the door, and sped off down the road again. Not that he really minded getting out of the tense atmosphere in the house or spending a little more time alone with her, but it was damn cold outside, and besides, she was paying even less attention to her driving than usual.

"We're going to an ice-fishing house of my uncle's. Eventually. Right now, I'm just gonna drive for a bit," she replied absently as she turned up the music and stared out of the windshield at the forlorn road passing by under the orange glow of the street lamps. Allen frowned as he covertly studied her face in the half-light. Her dark eyes held no trace of their usual laughing sparkle, and the brightness he'd become so familiar with was dimmed. They were empty. Sad. Lonely. And he realized she wasn't getting out of that house for Hitomi and Van's sake, but for her own.

And I might be more a man if I stopped this in it's tracks
And said, Come on. Let's go home.
But she's got the wheel-
And I've got nothing except what I've got on

"Annie, you know you can talk to me if something's bothering you," Allen said gently after he'd watched her tug on a strand of hair distractedly for a few minutes. She blinked and turned her head to look at him, dropping her hand back down to the steering wheel.

"Nothing's bothering me," she stated cheerfully, but he knew immediately that it was a lie. Sure, the smile she gave him flashed her dimples, but it didn't make her shine the way she usually did, like life itself was one big joke to her. Allen narrowed his eyes at her, silently challenging her to stop hiding behind her fake grin and forced cheerfulness. The smile slipped off her face as his blue eyes pierced hers, and she turned her gaze back to the road with a sigh.

"Really, it's nothing. Nothing that I didn't already know for years now," she finally said quietly. Allen waited, but she didn't say anything more. Why wouldn't she talk to him? He wanted her to confide in him, let him know what was hurting her so he could stop it. He shook his head at the absurdity of his own thoughts.

When you're driving with the brakes on
When you're swimming with your boots on
It's hard to say you love someone...
And it's hard to say you don't

"Tomi's going to go to Gaea, you know," Annie said quietly, surprising him. Allen turned to look at her, at the unconvicingly blank mask on her face, the way her mittened hands gripped the wheel tightly.

"Wasn't that your whole plan? The reason you asked Van to come here?"

Her face contorted into a helpless grimace. "Yes. And I knew it would work if the two of them got enough pokes in the right direction. Seriously, they're so clueless it's almost painful."

"But now you think it wasn't such a good idea to play matchmaker?" Allen asked, confused.

"No! It's just- " she sighed again and bit her lip. "I have a big family, but I've got no one. No brothers or sisters, like everyone else. It was just me and Grandma, and a mom I met once in my entire life. Jason was sort of like a brother, but..." she trailed off, and Allen could sense that she was forcing herself not to think about the middle-of-the-night fight. She took a deep breath.

"When I met Tomi, I just knew that she was someone special, the sister I'd always wanted. And then I knew, the first time I heard her say Van's name, that I'd have to give her up. Because she didn't belong to me, or my family, or even her own family anymore. I knew it would be hard to let go. I've known it forever. But I guess I'm more selfish than I thought, because sometimes it gets really hard to keep smiling and telling her to choose Van."

Allen felt sick. This entire time, every single moment that Van had been on the Mystic Moon and for countless days before, Annie had planned and hoped and schemed to get Hitomi realize what was in her heart, all the while hiding her own hurt so well that no one would even suspect it.

"Annie, nobody could think you're selfish," he finally choked out huskily. She gave a humorless laugh and forced a smile.

"Well, I guess it really doesn't matter anyway. Pretty soon she'll be gone, and that'll be that," she glanced over at him and frowned. "Stop looking at me like that, Al!"

He blinked, genuinely startled. "Like what?"

"Like I'm some poor, helpless thing to be pitied. I told you I knew this was coming a long time ago. And I'll deal with it just fine, so you can stop feeling sorry for me."

Irrationally, Allen wanted to snap back at her for being stupid, and at the same time hug her and tell her everything would be okay. In the end, he couldn't make up his mind, so he stared out the window and said nothing.

"You know what? We need some happy music. And we need to find a parking lot," Annie suddenly declared. She grabbed her iPod and fiddled with it while Allen gave her a confused look.

"A parking lot? What for?" he asked warily as she pulled off the main freeway and the little car reverberated with a techno beat.

"For this," Annie answered as she shot into a deserted lot and slammed the gas pedal to the floor. Allen pressed his back into his seat hard with a surprised gasp as the car sped across the icy pavement. Suddenly, she jerked the wheel to the side, sending them careening wildly out of control. He hung on to the dashboard with all his strength as they spun madly, narrowly missing a light post by mere inches as they past.

"That," Annie declared, breathless from laughter, " was awesome! Wanna go again?"

Allen gaped at her. "Are you insane? You could have killed us both."

"So... that's a no, then?"

"Of course it's a no!" he shouted. "I don't share your apparent wish for death!"

Annie laughed, long and hard and sincerely at his fuming face. "I don't have a death wish! But, you know what? When I die, I wanna go sliding into my coffin sideways with a big-ass grin, shrieking 'Whoa, baby! What a ride!'"

There was a long, heavy, silent pause as Allen stared blankly at her grinning face.

"You," he finally stated solemnly, "are by far the strangest person I have ever met."

"Well, maybe you won't forget me then, so I guess that's something," she murmured without looking at him, and Allen wasn't sure if she was talking to him or herself. She glanced back at him with a brilliant smile. "Wanna learn how to drive?"

Allen, momentarily dizzied by her quick conversation change, pursed his mouth apprehensively. "Uh, no thanks. I'm not really interested..." he trailed off lamely as Annie gave him a mocking look.

"Oh. Well, okay, if you're too nervous to try it," she said flippantly, her brown eyes laughing at him. "It's probably more complicated than your giant robot thingies-"

"Guymelefs," he ground out between clenched teeth. "And I'd love to try driving."

He ignored Annie's triumphant grin and the nagging voice in his head asking him just when he'd become so easy to manipulate as they switched seats.

Ten minutes later, the two of them stood in the frigid air of the parking lot, surveying the damage a light post had done to the side of the car. Allen was too embarrassed to say anything as he picked up the mangled chunk of metal that was once the passanger side mirror and looked it over helplessly.

"It's okay. Really," Annie reassured him, patting him on the back. "I hardly ever use the side mirrors anyway."

"I'm sorry, Annie. I don't know how I could've-"

She grabbed the mirror out of his hands and chucked it into the backseat with a casual shrug. "I said it's no big deal. I'll get Jason... uh, I'll find someone to fix it later. Let's just get to the ice house." She wrinkled her nose and grinned broadly at him. "But I'm driving."

Allen felt too sheepish to do more than grunt one-word replies to her lighthearted conversation for the entire drive. He wondered ruefully how she could go from quietly depressed to nearly giddy in the space of an hour. At least she was smiling again.

Annie parked the car, and the two of them trudged through the almost knee deep snow, loaded down with all their gear for the night. Allen looked around curiously a the large, flat expanse of land, dotted here and there with tiny shacks.

"These are ice houses? What are they used for?" he asked incredulously. Most of them looked hardly big enough to hold more than two people.

"Ice fishing," Annie replied. She pointed up ahead to a somewhat larger one. "That's ours. Some of my uncles and cousins stay there over a weekend to fish."

Allen thought hard, completely confused but not wanting to sound stupid to her. Growing up near the ocean, fishing was definitely something he knew about, and any complete idiot knew that you can't fish without water. And all he could see was vast, empty, snow-covered ground.

"Uh, where exactly do they fish?" he finally asked after straining his eyes searching through the black night air.

Annie frowned at him. "What do you mean, where? They just drill a hole in the ice and fish."

Allen suddenly stopped and swallowed hard. "Drill a hole?..."

"Well, yeah. They set up the house in the middle of the lake, so there's good fishing... Hey, something wrong, Al?" she asked, turning around and noticing his pale face.

Something wrong? They were only standing on top of a lake, with nothing more than a little ice between them and freezing, deep water. He suppressed a violent shudder. He'd heard, somewhere, that it was possible for entire lakes to freeze over in the coldest regions of Gaea, but he'd never seen it for himself.

"It's perfectly safe, you know," Annie told him reassuringly, once again making him wonder if she could read his thoughts. She readjusted her armload of stuff to grab his hand and start leading him toward the ice house. "People drive trucks out over this stuff. Haven't you ever ice-skated?"

"No. Asturia doesn't get cold enough to freeze anything. And I'm not worried," Allen replied defensively. Annie gave him a laughing, unconvinced smile, and he frowned heavily. "I'm not! I was just... surprised. That's all!"

"If you say so," she chirped lightly. She didn't let go of his hand, though, and Allen was secretly glad about that.

They crunched their way through the frozen snow to the door, and Annie let go to dig through her pockets for a key. Allen stepped gingerly into the house, trying to ignore the nervous worry that their added wieght would send the whole thing crashing through the ice as Annie fiddled with a large grey box.

"Close the door, Al," she commanded distractedly. "Once I get the heater started, this place'll warm up fast."

The heater kicked in suddenly, and she stood up with a satisfied grin. She eyed Allen as he stood with one hand on the door knob, looking ready to bolt at the first creak of the ice beneath them, and laughed.

"What? I'm just being... cautious!" he said defensively as she doubled over and wiped the tears off her face with her mittened hands.

"You look like a scared little rabbit!" she giggled. "It's perfectly safe. See?"

Allen gasped in horror as she started to jump up and down, grinning maniacally at him. He dove across the room and grabbed her shoulders, forcing her to stand still.

"I can't believe you're so freaked out about this!" she laughed.

"It's a lot more reasonable to be worried about falling through the ice than to be scared of some non-existent, murderous elves," he growled, still not taking his hands off her shoulders. Annie rolled her eyes, still smiling.

"Yeah, yeah. Okay, I won't jump around anymore. But seriously, we're not going to fall through the ice. I promise."

Allen eyed her skeptically for a long moment before slowly lifting his hands and taking a step backwords. When she didn't start jumping again, he let himself relax slightly. Annie rummaged through a bundle and pulled out a bottle of wine triumphantly.

"I thought you said you were never going to drink again," Allen said questioningly as she opened it and took a sip.

"That was the hang-over talking," she replied cheerfully. "Besides, I only brought one bottle and no beer. Want some?"

Allen eyed the bottle she held out to him for several long moments. It was hard enough to keep his hands off her when he was sober. It wouldn't be the smartest thing to do while the two of them were miles from anything. But then again, if anything did happen, there wouldn't be any Jason to come in and start a fight. And it was his last night here...

He grabbed the bottle and took a huge swig.

Four hours later, Allen was nearly asleep with his head on Annie's lap as she put little braids in his hair. The empty bottle lay discarded next to him, and he smiled a little to himself. As much as the firmly ignored part of him had wanted to do other things with their mouths, they'd spent the night talking, and it felt good. For once in over five years, he'd been able to really pour out all his worries and his pain about his sister without holding anything back. And the best part was that now he was here, supremely comfortable with her fingers sliding through his hair, drifting to sleep as he listened to her singing quietly to herself.

He'd never met anyone like her before. She laughed at him, she argued with him, and most importantly, she listened to him. How had he ever thought he didn't like her? He couldn't remember any more. The sudden thought that it would be difficult to leave her in the morning floated through his sleepy brain, but he was too lethargic to say anything to her about it at the moment. Besides, he'd rather listen to her singing.

You have my heart
And we'll never be worlds apart...

For the first time in his life, Allen fell asleep with a smile on his face.

Morning came far to soon for Hitomi. She rested her head on Van's shoulder as they watched the dawn creeping slowly through her bedroom window together. They hadn't wasted any time sleeping. There had been too much to say to each other, and there was a whole lost day of intimacy to make up for, too. But the clock ticked slowly, enevitably forward, and their time together was nearly over. Hitomi fought the occasional urge to throw her alarm clock across the wall and beg Van to stay just a little bit longer because she knew it wouldn't really do any good anyway. For now, it was enough that he had his arms around her, and his cheek on her hair, and he loved her.

The front door slammed, and the low murmur of voices told them that Annie and Allen were back from wherever they'd spent the night. Van shifted, but was reluctant to let Hitomi go just yet.

"I suppose they'll want to know what our plans are," he sighed against her silky, honey colored hair.

Hitomi pressed herself deeper into his arms. "They can wait a little bit longer. I don't want to move yet."

Van didn't reply, but the way his arms tightened around her was as effective as saying "me neither". She closed her eyes with a small, gentle smile. She was getting better at understanding him, though she supposed it would still take some time. But that was something they would have, right?

"Van, you're absolutely sure about this?" she suddenly questioned, anxious for him to kill any lingering doubts she had left.

"About what? You coming to Gaea?" he replied, and she nodded slightly against his shoulder. "Hitomi, I've wanted you back since the moment you left. There's nothing I'm more sure about."

Hitomi smiled and turned to kiss him- and was stopped by the knock on her door.

"Hello? You guys decent?" Annie whispered from the other side, and Hitomi couldn't help but laugh.

"You can come in," she called, and laughed again at the look of bursting curiousity on Annie's face when she poked it through the doorway. "Just couldn't wait to find out what happened, could you?"

Annie grinned sheepishly. "Hey, if curiousity can kill a cat, what do you think it could do to me? So..." her eyes twinkled merrily. "Do I need to help you pack and write a long letter explaining things to your family or what?"

"Nope. I'm not going back to Gaea," Hitomi stood up and stretched before grabbing her clothes and heading towards the shower.

"You forgot to add 'today'," Annie said with a smirk. "Nice try, though."

Hitomi heaved an exaggerated sigh, trying to surpress a smile. "Yeah, well... You're no fun."

"You can always try it later on Allen," she replied soothingly as Hitomi shut the bathroom door. She whirled around and gave Van the most ridiculously huge smirk he'd ever seen. He scowled ferociously and stood up.

"Don't even say it."

"Oh, no way, buddy! I reserved the right, remember? I TOLD YOU SO!!" she gloated, poking him in the chest a few times for good measure before she turned to leave.

"Yeah, yeah. You're very smart," he muttered, rubbing his bruise with a grimace. "And Annie-" she looked back at him and he smiled. "Thanks. For everything."

"My pleasure, Van Fanel."

Hitomi laughed silently at her surprise that the open, frozen field looked exactly the same as it did when Van had first arrived. It was only natural, she supposed, that she'd think everything would be different somehow, since her entire life had changed in less than two weeks. In a strange way, it was sort of comforting. In a few weeks, she could leave Earth behind and nothing here would change.

She clung tightly to Van's hand as they walked a short distance away from the beat-up, little, blue car. Annie and Allen followed a few steps behind, but they might not have been there at all for all Hitomi noticed. She only saw Van, walking silently beside her, looking lost in deep thought. Suddenly, he stopped and turned towards her, his deep, mahogany eyes searching her bright, sparkling green ones.

"Hitomi-" he began, and she could sense that it was her turn to destroy his doubts.

"Van, I told you I'll be coming back to Fanelia to be with you," she reassured him gently. "I'm not going to change my mind. Spending the rest of my life here without you would be like hell. The next few weeks will be hard enough to get through as it is."

Van nodded, silently agreeing with her. The two of them just stood there, staring at each other for long, long minutes, reluctant to say even this temporary goodbye. Suddenly, Van tugged on her hand and pulled her into a tight hug.

"We'll still be able to see each other, just like before," he murmured into her hair, and she fought tears as she nodded.

"I know. I wish I could just go back with you now," she mumbled, her words muffled against his chest. "But I can't leave without saying goodbye to my family..."

"Hitomi, I understand. There are things you need to do, and I'll wait until you're ready."

She leaned back to look into his dark eyes through her tears. "So, I guess I'll be seeing you in my dreams."

"I'll be there," Van assured her with that gentle, private smile he gave only to her. They leaned in for one last bone-melting kiss until they met again on Gaea.

"Good Lord. You'd think they were planning to go another 6 years without seeing each other or something," Annie grumbled under her breath to Allen, rolling her eyes with a grin. He just gave a vague nod in reply, distracted by his thoughts as he stared unseeingly across the empty fields. For whatever unknown reason, it seemed incredibly important that he cement all his memories firmly in his brain. Watching the sunrise over the frozen lake that morning wrapped up in a blanket with Annie- for warmth, of course- the goodnatured squabbling, the crazy victory dance she'd done when Van and Hitomi weren't looking, the way her brown eyes smiled at him...

Allen looked down in surprise as she thrust a big, wrapped present, complete with a ridiculously huge, floppy bow, into his hands.

"It's a Christmas present for your sister," she said casually when Allen frowned and looked it over cautiously.

"Should I make sure she points it away from herself when she opens it?"

"If it were that type of 'present', don't you think I'd be giving it to you?" she asked cheerfully. "This one's a real present. I'm hoping it'll get a smile out of her, anyway."

"Oh," he replied after a long moment. Suddenly, he didn't know what to say to her anymore. He was aware of something, some feeling that wanted to be shared, floating around his heart, but he just couldn't pull it forward and figure out what he wanted to say.

Annie gave him a light punch on the arm and a small grin. "You know, I'm really glad I met you, Allen Shezar. I had my doubts the first time I saw you in that poofy-sleeved blue horror you call a uniform, but you turned out to be a really great guy. Maybe we'll meet again in our next lives. If you don't come back as a cockroach, that is."

"Next life?" Allen echoed, jolted out of his silent thoughts. "But- aren't you going to come to Gaea with Hitomi for her wedding?"

Annie watched Hitomi and Van, lost in each other, for a brief moment. "No, I don't think so. That'd just complicate things for her. And make it harder to say goodbye for both of us. No, it'll be better if she just says goodbye to everything here when she leaves."

Allen felt like he'd just been drop-kicked in the stomach. He opened and shut his mouth like a gasping fish a few times, totally at a loss. Great gods, he hadn't considered the possibility of never seeing her again. And now, he was about to leave, and she was just standing there smiling at him, and there was something really important he needed to say to her, only he didn't know what it was.

"Annie-" he began, and his hand started to reach out for her. Next to them, Hitomi and Van finally broke apart. Annie glanced at Hitomi and nodded.

"Take care of yourself, Al," she said, slowly backing up with Hitomi as Van moved a little closer to Allen. The air suddenly felt alive with electricity.

"Wait" Allen whispered, but Van was too intent on memorizing Hitomi's face to hear him. The blue light exploded around them, momentarily blinding them as their feet were slowly, irresistably lifted off the snowy, frozen ground. Allen caught a brief glimpse of Annie, one arm around Hitomi's shoulder as she waved solemnly at him, before he was swept up into the clouds and disappeared.

Hitomi stared up into the sky for long minutes after the blinding pillar had vanished, fighting tears. It didn't matter how much she reminded herself that she was the one who didn't want to go back with him today, that it would only be a month or so before she was with Van again. She wanted him back now. Why couldn't he have just stayed here for a few more weeks?

"Well, that's that," Annie murmured, and Hitomi took a deep breath and nodded. Annie gave her shoulders a squeeze and grinned, wrinkling up her nose. "If you're ready, I'm freezing. Plus, I brought a bunch of junk food, so we can do some serious mope-eating on the way home. And I rented one of those really sappy, tear-jerker romances, too, so we can veg out in our pajamas, eat ice cream right out of the carton, and generally feel sorry for ourselves all day."

Hitomi laughed, finally pulling her eyes away from the sky and climbing into the car with her best friend. "Oh, Annie. You always know how to cheer me up."

"Chocolate cures everything," Annie declared as she revved her beat-up blue car to life and headed back home.

The two men were immediately enveloped in the warm, spicy air of Fanelia as the pillar dissapated around them. Neither spoke for long, silent moments, both lost in their private thoughts. Van stared up at the Mystic Moon, reminding himself that the emptiness flooding through him was only temporary, that he had an entire life with Hitomi to look forward to after this last, brief separation was over.

Allen stared blankly into the lush greenery around them, floored by the sudden feeling that he'd lost the chance at something precious, something he was only vaguely aware of wanting. Annie's gift for his sister weighed heavily in his hands.

"Lord Vaaaaaaan!"

The familiar ring of Merle's devoted, somewhat anxious voice pierced the peaceful air around them, and both men turned to give each other a rueful look.

"Back to real life," Van muttered as the crew of the Crusade, Merle and Gaddes in the lead, charged into view. Allen forced a smile as Merle glomped the helpless king with a loud, happy, shriek.

"It's about damn time you two showed up," Gaddes growled. "That cat's been downright scary for the last hour, and I've got some scratches to prove it. Have a nice vacation, Boss?"

"Nice? Yes, I suppose it was nice," Allen said. He rolled the word around his thoughts, pondering it. Nice seemed much too bland a word to describe it, but he really didn't want to think about it. Van's wrestling match with Merle suddenly seemed much more interesting to watch.

"Of course I smell weird, Merle! I've been on the Mystic Moon for almost two weeks!" Van exclaimed in irritation as he tried unsuccessfully to pry the cat-girl off of him.

"Where's Hitomi?" she asked, apparently finally able to notice something other than just her precious Lord Van. She and the rest of the crew of the Crusade peered around as if they expected Hitomi to pop out from behind a tree and shout 'boo'!

"Why would Hitomi be here?" Van asked calmly, laughing secretly to himself as Merle and the crew gave each other sheepish looks.

"Oh! No reason. We just thought, ah, that maybe, um..." Merle stuttered, her cheeks turning as pink as her hair under her fur. Van hid a smirk and swung his small bag over his shoulder as he strode towards Fanelia's castle.

"It'll take her at least a month to get things in order before she returns to Fanelia."

Van figured that he only had himself to blame when Merle tackled him from behind in a hug so ferocious that it knocked him flat onto his face.

"See what I mean? Scary," Gaddes muttered under his breath.

Van's personal rooms felt familiarily comforting when he finally made his way through the heavy wooden doors. He sighed wearily, but with a faint smile, as he dumped the few contents of his bag onto his bed. His council had certainly been pleased with the news of the impending royal marriage. Van smirked to himself at the memory of their contradicting disappointment that the wedding couldn't take place for at least a month and their complete panic about planning the celebration in only a few weeks. 'Simple' was not something that penetrated their thoughts. He was going to have to warn Hitomi about that.

Van frowned as he found a small, brightly wrapped gift tangled up in his small pile of clothes. He unfolded the piece of paper attached to it and was surprised to see it was written in Annie's handwriting.

Dear Van, it said, Here's a little wedding present for you to enjoy. I know it's a bit early, but I thought you might want to look through it before the actual day. Enjoy!

Love, Annie.

PS: Check out page 65! How is that even possible?

Curious now, Van ripped off the wrapping paper to reveal a thick, leather bound book.

"The Complete Kama Sutra?" he muttered with a frown, and flipped open the cover. "What the-?!"

The book fell out of his numb fingers onto the bed, and Van could feel his face turning a glowing red. He glanced around his empty room quickly and thanked every known god that he'd opened the 'gift' in private. What in the deepest level of hell had Annie been thinking? Although...

He picked it up and quickly thumbed through it to page 65.

"Whoa. How would you do that?"

Allen breathed in the fresh sea air of Asturia as he patiently answered all of the questions being flung at him, Millerna's enthusiatic and Eries' typically properly polite. As long as he didn't think too deeply about things, it felt good to be home. Although, if he was honest with himself, his uniform did seem a bit constraining and a little ridiculously pretentious after the comfortable, simple Mystic Moon clothes.

Celena seemed happy to see him, the little upturn at the corners of her mouth as close as she ever came to a real smile as she sat silently by his side. Allen searched her face surreptitiously, looking for any sign of improvement, and stifled as deep sigh when he found none.

"Celena, this is for you. It's a Christmas present from Hitomi's friend Annie," He said, gently drawing his sister's attention to the brightly wrapped present with it's ridiculous, floppy bow.

"Oooh, something from the Mystic Moon? Open it so we can all see it, Celena!" Millerna prodded excitedly. Celena was already pulling at the wrapping paper, gently tugging it to cause the least amount of ripping. Allen's mouth twitched, remembering Annie's family tearing into the presents, paper and bows flying everywhere. For an instant, he was back in that crowded, loud room with Annie's brown eyes laughing at him as he opened her 'present'.

"What is it?" Celena asked, bringing Allen's thoughts back to Gaea as she stared down at the large, strange looking book in her hands. The princesses leaned over her shoulders to get a better look.

"Look, here's a letter. Maybe this'll explain it," Millerna said, smoothing the piece of paper open.

"Dear Celena-

Thanks for letting Hitomi and I borrow your brother for the holidays. He generally takes himself way too seriously, so I thought you might like to see some pictures of him having some fun- or at least some pictures of him looking funny. Enjoy!


"Celena, we should be getting home," Allen said desperately, making a shrewd guess about what kind of pictures might be in that book. Naturally, the three girls ignored him and opened it eagerly to the first page. Allen found himself cursing the rules of etiquette and chivalry that forbade him from grabbing it out of their hands.

There were pictures from almost everything he'd done on the Mystic Moon, all with captions like "Rides at the Mall of America! (Allen got sick!)" and "Snow Football! Me tackling Allen- again!" Oh, what he wouldn't give to take that book and shove it down Annie's throat! An entire world apart and she was still laughing at him! Millerna pressed a hand against her mouth, desperately trying to stifle her giggles, and even Eries seemed to be biting her lips in an effort to keep them straight. Allen could feel his ears turning hot, and he imagined every sort of horrific torture possible to do to Annie- if he ever got the chance to see her again. Chivalry and etiquette or not, his hands twitched to reach out and grab the book away from Celena, preferably to burn it so no one could ever see it again, when he noticed the miracle.

Celena was smiling.

A real, genuine, laughing smile. She stared at the pictures intently, her smile growing with every page she turned, and suddenly Allen couldn't care less how ridiculous Annie's pictures made him look. He watched his sister's face, memorizing her smile through the sudden mist of tears that he hastily blinked away. Gods, how he wished Annie could've been there to see her Christmas Wish coming true.

"And last but not least, the highlight of the whole trip and my personal favorite..." Millerna read out loud, jerking Allen out of his thoughts as she flipped the last page. Great Jichia, Annie wouldn't have-

"Princess Alice?!" shrieked Millerna and Eries together. Allen flamed red from his collarbone to the roots of his impressive hair as the two of them dissolved into gales of laughter that even the stoic Eries couldn't stop. He glared up at the Mystic Moon, grinding his teeth together silently while the two princesses fought to compose themselves, only to fall into another fit of giggles every time they looked at the picture of Allen in all his ribbon-bedecked, eye shadowed glory. Good gods, Annie was damn lucky she lived on another planet.

Celena shut the book finally, a huge grin still stretching her mouth from ear to ear. Ignoring the still giggling princesses, she hugged her brother tightly.

"This is the best present I've ever gotten," she said quietly, her voice muffled by his uniform. Allen hugged her back, all his embarrassment and irritation melting away underneath her happy smile.

Maybe he could forgive Annie for that last page after all...

Hitomi drifted in a gentle dream world somewhere between waking and dreaming, searching through the mist for a familiar face. Van hadn't even been gone a whole day yet, but already there was a painful ache of longing growing in her soul.

And suddenly, there he was. The lines and edges were blurred, but she cuold still see his beautiful, sweet smile as his eyes met hers.

"I miss you," she blurted out, and his smile got even bigger.

"So... does that mean you'll be here in less than a month?"

AN: Weak ending, I know. Please forgive me! Or... at least let me know if you're interested in me trying to redeem myself. Yep, I'm thinking about writing a sequel- but ONLY if there's interest. Personally, I think it'd be great fun to see Hitomi and Van trying to figure out marriage- although I won't lie. I'm thinking Annie and Allen have a lot of unfinished, barely started business to work out. And Allen's gotta get a chance at some sweet, sweet revenge for everything he had to put up with on the Mystic Moon. OH! And let's not forget everyone's favorite Esca character (no, not Dilly, sorry!)-- DRYDEN! Yep, I'd love to stick some good ol' Dryden wooing in there- because, even though Millerna's kind of a ditz, he's totally crazy for her, and I want to see him win her over!! So... any takers? Please let me know! If I can figure out how to make a poll, it will be on my profile. Otherwise, just send me a message or a review with a big fat YES or NO. Please? THANKS FOR READING MMV!!!

Oh, yes. The two song quotes are: "Driving with the Brakes on" Del Amitri and "Umbrella" Rihanna.