Final Countdown

AN: Hello! Welcome to "Oil and Water" (yeah, I know, lame title- I suck at titles!). This is a sequel to "Mystic Moon Vacation" (again, yeesh- LAME title), and it's going to be written in the same style as that story. Easy going, hopefully funny at times, normal relationship stuff. Nope, no wars, no kidnappings, no evil schemers hiding in the wings to destroy everything. Just straightforward "how does this marriage thing work?" fun with Van and Hitomi, awkward figuring out each other's emotions for other couples... which does imply that there will probably be a bit more lime to this story than MMV. I mean, they ARE going to be married, after all.

So, to start off- Hitomi is about to leave for Gaea to marry Van. Of course, the high-ups in Fanelia have had a month to plan things... and you can imagine how it's gotten out of hand (at least in Van's perspective). So... the first thing Hitomi has to do is survive that- and without Annie, who stubbornly insists it would be bad news all around if she were to go to Gaea.

Let's start the fun, shall we?

Hitomi pulled awake with a slow, heart-wrenching sigh. Every single time she had to leave Van behind in that misty, blurry dream-world, where they could see but never touch, it just got so much harder. It didn't matter that the only things they really talked about were frantic, last minute details, or the newest addition to the frighteningly out of control marriage ceremony itself. Hitomi could sense that Van ached as badly as she did to be able to wrap their arms around each other for reassurance that they would actually survive the ridiculous wedding being forced on them by the entire country of Fanelia. In fact, by the entire population of Gaea. From what Hitomi could decipher from Van's cryptic mutterings, it seemed like the entire world had gone into spasms of celebration as soon as word had leaked out that she was coming back to Fanelia. "Biggest Wedding in Gaea's History" didn't even begin to describe it. Another sigh dredged straight from her toes escaped her lips as she scowled up at the ceiling of her childhood bedroom.

Only one day left. One day to spend with her family. Had it already been two weeks since she and Annie had gotten to Japan?

"That didn't sound like a good sigh," came a muffled voice from the floor next to her bed. Hitomi rolled over to lean her head over the edge.

"Morning, Annie," she unenthusiastically greeted the lump of blankets balled up on the futon mattress. The blankets shifted a little, but the tousled brown hair stayed tucked out of sight.

"What now? Did they add another day to the ceremony?"

"Not yet, although Van's still trying to talk them down to three days instead of five," Hitomi answered morosely.

"Maybe Van should tell them that the stress is going to put a strain on your childbearing capacity. I bet that would get them to tone things down a bit," Annie said thoughtfully, her face finally emerging from her cocoon.

Hitomi laughed suddenly, the sound ringing out happily in her childhood room. "Oh, man! Can you just imagine Van trying to say 'childbearing capacity' to anyone?"

"Yep. He'd be glowing like a stoplight," Annie chirped with a grin. "That'd be half the fun of it."

"Oh, Annie," Hitomi giggled. "Why can't you come with me to Gaea? At least just to get me through this wedding?"

Annie stared hard at the ceiling. "Tomi, we've been over this way too many times. You and I both know that'd just be a disaster waiting to happen. And you're going to be so busy, you won't have time to wish I was there. Besides, what if that light-thingie doesn't work right? You and Van can work it, sure. But what if you're just trying to send someone else? And anyway, I've already bought my ticket, and the flight's right after you leave."

"Yeah, I know. It'd just be easier if you were there," Hitomi muttered, punching her pillow with a scowl. Annie ignored that, studying the flat white ceiling like it was the Mona Lisa.

"So," she finally piped up cheerfully. "It's your last day here. What are your plans?"

"I don't know."

"Ooh-kaaaay. How about starting with a long, hot bath?" Annie suggested carefully. The bed creaked slightly as Hitomi dragged herself to her feet with a sigh.

"Yeah, a bath sounds good," she said half-heartedly. She paused at the door, her eyes scanning the room. "It's all just so wierd, Annie. I mean, I'm sad, and scared, and there's a part of me that doesn't want to leave. But really, deep down, I feel like I'll die if I never see him again. And I just can't help but feel really happy that after tomorrow we'll finally be together. It's really confusing."

Annie sat up and smiled at her. "It's okay to be happy, you know. It's not going to hurt anyone if you're excited. Nobody wants to see you sad, Tomi. Just go with whatever you feel, alright?"

"You make everything sound so easy," Hitomi replied, rolling her eyes but grinning as she walked out of the room and shut the door quietly behind her.

Easy? Annie flopped onto her back in a jumble of blankets, her smile turning into a grimace. None of this was easy. All the planning, the organizing, the endless preparations- all with a smile and a laugh and quick encouragement whenever Hitomi started to get overwhelmed- not a single bit of that was easy. Tomorrow, she would send her off with a big smile, and no one would ever know how much she was dreading the long, lonely flight back to her empty, silent house.

Although, she couldn't silence the irritating thought that Allen Schezar would have known it. The man had an annoying habit of seeing right through her fake smiles.

Annie squeezed her eyes shut hard, the glow of the white ceiling imprinted behind her truth was, she had thought about going to Gaea with Hitomi. But leaving after the wedding would be even harder, and staying there with her was just not an option. Hitomi had Van, and once she settled in, she wouldn't really need anyone else. But she, Annie, didn't have a knight in shining armor waiting in the wings to give her enough of a reason to leave everything behind. She giggled to herself over her ridiculous thoughts. She did know one Knight, but Allen- Allen of all people- was the last person she could imagine professing his undying love for her. The very thought of it made her stuff her face into her pillow to muffle the laughter.

Honestly, the man was so full of himself and his stupid chivalrous ideas that Annie really couldn't figure out why she missed him at all. And if the alarming frequency of him marching through her thoughts was any indication, she actually missed him a lot. It was vaguely disturbing.

Annie shook her head to clear it of any self-pity as she swiftly made both of their beds and went downstairs to meet Hitomi's family. Tomorrow she could wallow in as much misery as she wanted to, but not today. Today, the last day she'd be with the closest friend she'd ever known, was going to be happy.

Hitomi let the hot water relax away the tension in her shoulders, taking her time shampooing her hair. This might be the second to last shower she ever got to take, since they apparently didn't exist on Gaea. Although, considering how much Van had liked them, maybe Fanelia would be the first to install them. She giggled to herself, remembering how he'd sheepishly admitted that showers were one of the things he missed the most from the Mystic Moon- besides herself, of course.

Eventually, she had to get out of the water or risk turning into a raisin. Wrapping herself in a towel, she wiped the fog off the mirror and stared at herself critically.

"You look more like a drowned cat than a queen," she griped at her reflection. She pulled a face and toweled off with more energy than necessary, refusing to let her thoughts wander down that dangerous direction again. Every time she started to wonder why Van, perfect, beautiful, royal, mature Van, would want someone like her, she started to hyperventilate. He ran a country, for God's sake. She could barely keep her homework organized.

Oh, well. As long as he wanted her, she was his. Just the thought of feeling his hands on her skin again made her tingle, and tomorrow morning felt too many hours away. And yet, the realization that she had less than a day left on Earth set off a flutter of panic in her stomach.

Her plans for the day were simple. Nothing. She didn't want to do anything out of the ordinary, except for spending the whole day with her family and Annie. Maybe they'd go wander some shops for a while- she knew how different the markets on Gaea were- maybe watch a movie or play some video games with her brother, cook a fancy supper, anything as long as they all did it together. Everything she was taking with her was already packed and waiting: her small bag of treasures, a few photo albums, the kimono her mother had worn at her parent's wedding- altered and ready for her to wear. Hitomi brushed away the two tears that leaked from under her eyelids when she remembered how her mother had smiled through her tears when she saw her in it. And then she laughed remembering Annie's obi-tying lesson.

She bounced down the stairs and into the kitchen where her entire family was gathered with a grin on her face.

"Morning, everyone!" she called, and smiled even wider at their happy greetings.

Van made his way carefully through the crowded hallways of his usually serene castle, deftly dodging frantic maids, over-worked servants, and the occasional council member as he headed towards his private study. Fanelia had always had a more relaxed approach to it's royalty than most countries, but today he hardly got a deferential nod at all. Maybe it was simply because there were too many people crawling all over the palace. Maybe they were all just too busy to notice anything but their own tasks. Whatever the reason, he enjoyed it, since he knew it was hardly going to last.

Final preparations were in full swing, and the entire city was cleaning itself up to be presentable to it's future queen. Van could almost taste the excitement permeating the air, it was so strong.

He flopped himself down in the chair behind his desk, running his calloused hands through his wild, black hair as he let out his pent-up breath. There was still so much to be done, but since everything was being planned and organized by his council and countless others, he had an unfortunate amount of free time on his hands and no idea what to do with it. Every place he'd went to try to lend a hand, he'd been very politely and formally shooed away. Van muttered angrily under his breath and cracked his knuckles. Did they want to drive him crazy by making this final, everlasting day seem even longer?

Not even Merle was around to distract him. No, she was too busy scampering around the castle making sure everything was getting done. Van growled in frustration just thinking about the cat. Half of this was her fault. If she hadn't gone crazy finding out every little bit about traditional Fanelian marriage ceremonies and dropping hints to the council behind his back, things wouldn't be quite as wild as they were now.

A knock on the door made him straighten his spine and yank a pile of documents in front of himself in an attempt to look busy.

"Enter," he snapped in a suitably disinterested voice. He had to surpress a groan when a council member, one of the men mainly responsible for how monsterously over the top this marriage ceremony was getting, walked in and made a formal bow.

"My Lord King," he began, "I know that you've requested no special recognition of your Lady's arrival tomorrow, but the council members feel something is in order. It would be very simple to arrange a formal escort through the city, a parade of sorts-"

"No!" Van interupted swiftly, barely managing to keep his voice pleasantly normal instead of a panicked shout. He may not have been able to stop the council from planning a ridiculous wedding, but he could at least protect Hitomi from this. "Lady Hitomi isn't used to that kind of thing. She'll need some time to adjust. No parades. No formal escort. I will be meeting her alone, as planned."

"But, my Lord! Surely something... a banquet for the evening meal, perhaps?" the councilman stuttered, and Van could sense that he wasn't going to take 'nothing' for an acceptable answer.

"Alright. A banquet, then. But keep it small."

"Of course, my King," the man replied with a smile, bowing again before quickly exiting the room. Van allowed himself to groan loudly now, resting his elbows on his desk and pressing his fists into his temples. Small, ha. Words like that apparently had no meaning whatsoever to anyone in Fanelia at the moment.

At least he'd managed to cancel the parade.

The sun had long since set when Allen finally walked through the door of his family home. He was tired, bone-weary from the past week of preparations for the trip to Fanelia. Somehow, being a Knight Caeli, he supposed, he'd ended up in charge of overseeing the princesses' safety during the grand wedding, which also included making their travel plans for security's sake. Allen knew he was probably going a bit overboard with all his precautions, but with the last two heirs to the Aston bloodline traveling together, it would be downright stupid to take any risks.

He heaved a giant sigh and moved his tired feet towards the sitting room where Celena spent most of her time. There really wasn't much more planning to do. Hitomi would be arriving sometime tomorrow, and he would be escorting the Austurian princesses to Fanelia in a week. It would be good to see Hitomi again.

Allen firmly stamped down the little, niggling hope that perhaps he'd see a certain brown-haired someone again, too, as Celena looked up and greeted him quietly. It was a stupid thought, a useless hope, and it really shouldn't matter to him if he saw Annie again, anyway.

But it did matter, even though he couldn't figure out why. And he couldn't quite kill the tiny, whispering wish that somehow she'd be there to laugh at him in Fanelia.

"Did you have a good day, Celena?" Allen asked gently as he sat down next to her on the small sofa. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the nursemaid he'd put in charge of his sister's wellbeing steal silently out of the room. Celena watched her go with a stony face, and Allen sighed again. He knew Celena didn't like the woman, and he really couldn't blame her. As soon as possible, he would have to look for a better replacement. Someone who wouldn't treat his sister with such condescending pity.

"Tell me a story about the Mystic Moon," Celena pleaded suddenly, bringing Allen's thoughts back to the present. He groaned silently, eyeing the dreaded picture book lying innocently across his sister's lap. If it wasn't the only thing that made Celena smile, he would've burned the damn thing. It was still a source of daily jokes among the crew of the Crusade.

"What do you want to hear?" he asked with forced cheerfulness through the clenched teeth of his strained smile. Celena seemed oblivious to his irritation as she flipped through the familiar pictures.

"This one," she declared, pointing at the picture of him glaring murderously at Annie's back as they decorated the Christmas tree. Allen heaved a sigh. Great. That one again. Dredging up all these stories day after day was grating on him. And it wasn't helping him forget about Annie, either. At least she wasn't asking any more questions about mistletoe.

Celena turned to him with wide, begging eyes. "Please?"

Wonderful. Attacked by the secret weapon.

"Of course, Celena. Anything you want."

Hitomi woke groggily to the sensation that someone was forcefully trying to pry her out of her blankets and dump her onto the floor.

"Wake up. C'mon, Tomi! You're gonna be late, and then Van's gonna think you changed your mind and go back to Fanelia broken-hearted!"

Hitomi sat bolt upright in terror at Annie's frustrated exclaimation, scrambling for her alarm clock.

"What time is it?" she shrieked frantically. "He won't leave without me, will he, Annie?"

The brown haired girl laughed. "Relax. It's only 8 o'clock."

"It's... only eight..." Hitomi spluttered, frantically staring at the numbers on the small white clock in her hand. For an instant, pure relief flooded her face before she scowled fiercely and chucked the clock at Annie. "Jeez, did you have to give me a heart attack? I'm meeting Van at noon, remember?"

"Yeah, I knew that. But you'd hate yourself for sleeping through your last morning on Earth, and you were pretty dead out. Guess I used a bit too much..." Annie trailed off, mumbling to herself under her breath as Hitomi strained to catch her last sentence.

"Used a bit too much what?" she asked, confused. Annie's smile was a little too innocent, and suddenly her grogginess and the heavy, sound sleep she'd gotten last night made perfect sense.

"You drugged me!"

Annie shrugged lightly, completely unapologetic. "You slept great, didn't you? You couldn't leave for Gaea today looking like a zombie, you know."

Hitomi glared at her. Okay, so she'd admit that Annie had a point. Things were going to be difficult enough today without the added complication of exhaustion. The corners of her mouth hiked up into a tiny smile.

The smile Annie gave her in return was like a beam of sunshine. "Okay, your mom's making this huge breakfast that smells crazy delicious, but no one gets to eat anything until you get downstairs. So..."

"You woke me up just so you can eat breakfast?" Hitomi demanded, but the irritation she meant to exude was completely ruined by her laughter.

"You have no idea how good it smells. And I'm so hungry," Annie groaned. "Please, please, get your butt moving so we can eat, Tomi!"

Hitomi flopped back onto the bed, weak with laughter. Only Annie could take a morning like this, the morning, and turn it into something completely normal and commonplace. As if breakfast was the most important thing on the schedule for the day. She was eternally grateful for that.

"Alright, alright. Let's go eat," she finally chuckled, grinning as she let Annie drag her out of bed with a whoop of victory.

The morning past by quickly, lighthearted and happy mostly thanks to Annie's influence. Hitomi immersed herself in the warmth of her family, the brief hugs from her father, the way her mother smoothed her hair, the teasing jabs from her brother, and Annie's playful jokes, wanting to hang on to her last brief moments with them as long as she could. Time has a way of moving too quickly when it should be standing still, though, and it felt like mere seconds until she was standing near the shrine where she'd first met Van, waiting for him to appear.

"Now you're sure you've got everything you need?" her mother said gently, her voice barely above a whisper in the still, quiet February air. Her hand fluttered over Hitomi's honey-colored hair again, smoothing it for the millionth time.

"I think so," Hitomi breathed. Her chest felt constricted, like someone had wrapped iron bands around it. She was so torn between anxious exhilaration and desperate sorrow that it was impossible for her to stand still. Her eyes flickered from the cloudless, brillant sky to the faces of her family and back to the sky again. Next to her, Annie silently took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, quietly reassuring her.

"He'll come, Tomi," she whispered. "It's not quite noon yet. He'll come."

Hitomi glanced at her, lips pursed, before looking back up to the sky. She took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded, relaxing just a miniscule amount. Her mother wrapped an arm snugly around her shoulders as her father came to stand behind them, one hand resting gently on her head. Her brother kept his hands shoved deeply into his pockets, but he stood as close to the little group as was comfortable for a teenager to get.

They all waited, watching the sky silently.

Van watched the sun creep it's slow way towards noon anxiously. It took a lot of effort not to pace around the small glade where his family and Escaflowne rested, but somehow he managed it. His thoughts were a completely different matter. They veered in multiple directions so chaotically that he was having a hard time keeping up with himself.

What if Hitomi wasn't there, waiting for him? What if he'd gotten the time and day wrong? What if her parents decided they didn't like him when they saw him and refused to let her leave with him? What if he tried to call the pillar of light and it didn't work?

Or, worst of all, what if Hitomi was there, but she'd changed her mind? What if she refused to come back with him?

But what if she did come back with him, and changed her mind later? What if he was really terrible at the whole marriage thing? He grimaced, the memories of just how bad he truly was at being romantic very clear in his memory. Hitomi was some sort of saint for putting up with his inept bumbling.

The sun finally reached it's peak, and Van took a deep breath to steady himself. With an effort, he thrust aside his worries and focused, gripping the pendant tightly. The electric charge in the air felt almost familiar as the light gathered around him. His feet lifted slowly off the ground, rising faster and faster until he disappeared from the Gaean sky.

Only a scant few seconds passed before he stood on solid ground again, blinking at the sudden dimness and momentary disorientation. The first thing he saw was Hitomi, surrounded by her family as they clung to her. His heart stopped for a brief second, wondering if his worst fear was about to come true. Then her eyes met his, and her face lit up into a brilliant smile, and suddenly everything was perfect.

"Hitomi..." he breathed, overwhelmed by an unexpected wave of profound relief.

"Van! You came!" Hitomi blurted out as she broke free from her family to run into his waiting arms. Annie rolled her eyes.

"You two are seriously hopeless," she sighed, shaking her head in exasperation.

Ignoring the sheepish blush spreading across both their faces, Hitomi took Van's hand and led him over to her family. For a brief moment, Van had the childish desire to dig his heels into the frozen ground and refuse to move forward, but Hitomi's parents smiled so warmly at him that all his worries vanished.

"Mom, Dad, this is Van Fanel," she introduced them with an anxious smile.

"Obviously," her brother snorted with a roll of his eyes. He grinned as Hitomi punched him on the arm. Their parents ignored them and greeted Van politely.

Annie stood slightly off to one side, doing her best to be quietly unobtrusive. Once the introductions were over and Hitomi and her family started to say their goodbyes, Van moved to stand next to her.

"Hello, Annie," he greeted quietly, both of them still watching the little family.

"'Sup, Van?" she returned cheerfully. "How'd you like my wedding present?"

Abruptly, he flamed scarlet and cleared his throat. "It was... very educational," he mumbled. Annie laughed and he searched desperately for something to distract her.

"Are you absolutely certain you don't want to come to Gaea with Hitomi? At least for the ceremony?"

Annie sighed. "Yep, I'm sure. Besides, don't you think things'll go a lot smoother if I'm not around to mess stuff up?"

"Well..." Van hesitated, mentally scrambling to figure out just how badly things could go.

"You see? I've worked too hard to get the two of you married to wreck things now."

As they watched, Hitomi finally pulled away from her family's embraces, wiping her eyes on the back of her sleeves. Van sensed Annie stiffening next to him as Hitomi came towards them, and he briefly wondered how difficult it was for her to keep that cheerful grin on her face.

"Annie, I'm going to miss you so much," Hitomi whispered as the two girls hugged tightly. Fat tears rolled down her cheeks as she struggled to keep a wobbly smile on her face. After a few seconds, Annie wormed her way out of the hug and wrinkled her nose playfully.

Hitomi gave a watery laugh. "Sorry. I know you hate sappy goodbyes."

"I'm just worried you're going to drip snot on me," she replied, still smiling easily, like Hitomi was just leaving on a short trip instead of possibly disappearing from Earth forever. Hitomi rolled her eyes and hugged her again.

"Thank you, Annie. So much. For everthing," she said earnestly.

"You're welcome, Tomi. Although I should be thanking you. Promise me you'll be happy, no matter what, okay?" Annie replied, her voice muffled by Hitomi's shoulder.

"I promise. You be happy, too," Hitomi whispered, tears once again rolling down her cheeks. There was a brief pause before Annie broke free once more.

"That better just be tears on my coat. I don't want to fly all the way back to the States with boogey-crusties on my shoulder."

Hitomi laughed for real this time, and her family moved to join them, handing over the few belongings she was taking with her to Gaea. Hitomi was once again enveloped in her mother's tender embrace as both of them cried together.

"Take care of my daughter," her father said gruffly as he shook Van's hand with a firm grip.

"I'll do my best to make her happy, sir. I swear it," Van returned solemnly. Annie's quick hug squeezed the air out of his lungs.

"Just remember to relax and have fun sometimes," she told him seriously. He nodded slightly, and she winked at him. "If you ever manage to figure out page 65, you'd better find a way to tell me!"

"Page 65?" Hitomi asked, wiping away her tears as she took Van's hand and studied the red blush creeping over the tips of his ears.

"Don't worry about it. Van'll show you later. Right, Van?" Annie laughed, grinning her big shark grin at him. He glared at her before turning to look down at Hitomi.

"Ready?" he asked quietly, his voice gentle. He didn't want to rush her through her painful goodbyes, but every second they spent here was one more second that she could change her mind.

Hitomi bit her lip and nodded, trying to give him a wobbly smile. "Yeah, I'm ready. Let's go."

Van's warm hand firmly gripping her own steadied her as her family backed away several paces. She knew she'd never forget the way her mother leaned into her father for support, the way her brother tried to smile at her, how Annie stood just a little bit away from the small group, all alone. It tore at her heart, but a gentle squeeze from Van's hand kept her together.

"I love you!" she called out to them as the electric, blue light exploded around them. She clung tightly to Van as they drifted up and away from her past life towards their future.

Annie stared up at the forms of Van and Hitomi, rapidly getting smaller and smaller as the pillar of light pulled them higher into the sky. She caught her breath at the stabbing sensation in her chest, biting her lips together hard to keep from whimpering. It was harder than she expected, watching Hitomi leave. A little part of her screamed in the back of her mind that she wished things could have been different.

She was concentrating too hard in that brief moment before Hitomi disappeared from Earth to notice the tingling currents of electricity running up and down her skin like feathers. She was so focused that the blinding, pulsing blue light suddenly flashing around her caught her completely off guard. She staggered, shielding her eyes, and that brief moment of panic cost her everything. Her feet scrambled for solid ground, and her hands reached uselessly for something to grab onto as she was pulled irresistably up towards the sky.

"Shit! Not me! Not me!" she shrieked, struggling futilely to break free. By the time Hitomi's family registered her strangled cry, it was already far too late. Her brother's hand missed by more than a meter when he lunged after her. Absurdly, Annie kicked her legs and swung her arms like she was trying to swim back down the light towards Earth.

"Put me back! I don't wanna go to Gaea!" she demanded with an angry shout, and she could almost hear Fate chuckling darkly at her. She could have screamed in frustration as Hitomi's family dwindled swiftly, helplessly, beneath her. Their shocked, confused faces were the last thing she saw before the light swept her away into the endless blue of the sky.

AN: Yeah, I know. Not a very interesting start. Sorry. Next chapter will be less boring, I promise. Hang in there, please!! Thanks for reading!