Chapter version: 2.0 [big thanks to my beta, Lera/Blue Funk!]

Chapter 2

His eyes widened in recognition as the bright stream of blue light pierced the cool air like a thrown spear. Everyone in the combat zone near him paused for a moment, not knowing what to expect from this foreign phenomenon. Some decided to use this fleeting moment to try and catch their opponent unaware. Others were inching cautiously towards the spot it hit the ground on, not too far a distance from the main cluster of the fighting units.

The revered knight of the Asturian Order of Heaven knew he needed to be the first one there if he wanted to secure the safety of the interplanetary traveler, who he could only hope was her. The heavy steps of his Scherazade echoed in his head as he made haste to the point of landing.

He tried to wrap his head around it. It looked like someone came again, from that far-away place. He knew of two such instances and both meant trouble for the men of his family.

At this moment, even more than the loss of his father, the wordless departure of the young woman Allen Schezar had once thought he loved resonated in his mind. She was, laughably enough, the one he got the closest to marrying.

Not that he ever lacked the attention of interesting women—or failed to return it. But she had been something else. A child of innocent eyes and enigmatic powers. Her form graceful already, yet somewhat clumsy. Like her attempts to woo him.

After her disappearance, he questioned it a lot; why her out of the many beautiful, noble and mature women. It was not easy to recollect the feeling he had when he was with her, now that he hadn't had the pleasure for such a long time. It was the tired and bloodstained days on the battlefield like this when he did, though. He remembered how she awoke a strange calm within him, but also a need. To protect her. To settle down and live a peaceful life. To be her everything on this planet, which must have felt foreign and dangerous to her. After Marlene, he hadn't been sure he would ever feel like that. He never wanted that feeling to leave his grasp again.

And then she left. After an argument, but not even with him. He could still see her confused look as her wish to return home finally fulfilled right before his eyes. He did not know whether to blame her, Van, or himself for it. At the time, the fact that the young king still had such a power over her left him with a sour feeling that would be too simple to call jealousy. He felt it cheapened the love he had felt for the girl, which at the time he had been sure was genuine and requited.

He was not so certain anymore. He knew he had missed her all the years she was gone, even though his feelings subsided somehow with her absence. His mind settled on the explanation of her being some kind of replacement for his sister. Not in his heart, for he was sure the love he felt for Hitomi wasn't all brotherly. But in his empty house. His empty life. Strangely, her loss didn't hit him as hard as he would have thought. He knew she was safer back home, happier maybe, even. That was all he had wanted for her, after all. The whole matter was quickly overshadowed by the sudden appearance of his long-missing sister, and even more abrupt and strange vanishing of her. And that loss, and what followed, haunted him much more than that of the foreign girl.

Even if he had ever held any grudges towards Hitomi, they would now be pushed back by the need to see her safe. If it truly is her who arrived.

He finally got within visible distance of the landing spot and could see the lone figure on the ground. Then his eyes caught a movement on the horizon. He cursed under his breath as he spotted an Alseides nearing the scene. Allen's heart filled with alarm. No! He screamed her name in his mind as he lurched forward, but knew he would not be in time if the pilot decided to harm or kidnap the person without hesitation.

Luckily, that seemed not to be the case. The Zaibach soldier carefully closed in on, yes, definitely a woman. The knight wasn't sure yet if it was Hitomi, but the chances were solid. She took a few steps back as the guymelef loomed over her. He could already see the pilot opening the cockpit to get a better look at her.

Then the Zaibach soldier spotted Scherazade nearing them with the sword poised to strike and his posture turned defensive. He pointed the crima claw at the girl, who ducked, shielding her body poorly with her bare arms…

"Dammit!" Allen hissed, alarmed, and stopped right in his tracks. Within a split of a second, something hit the Zaibach guymelef from behind and the unit staggered from the blow. A torrent of crimson fluid started pouring from the cockpit down at the girl's feet. She paid it no heed as her gaze was still transfixed by the pilot's face, frozen in a painful grimace. Allen finally reached the scene and opened his visor as well. She slowly turned to look at him, still wide-eyed, still long-limbed, more of a woman now, but undoubtedly...



The Alseides half-folded, half-melted to the ground, revealing the golden double-crossed sword handle buried deep in its back. The knight and the girl both watched the white Yspano guymelef draw near them with slow, determined steps, then pull out the short sword out of the steaming pile and return it to its storing place on the back without extending it to its usual long, greatsword form.

Allen got his guymelef down on one knee at Hitomi's side. "Escaflowne…" he caught her whisper in awe as she gazed up at the white giant. As usual, Allen thought. Van managed not only to put her at risk but also mentally scar her with one blow. Saving the situation was optional. The angry rashness of the king was something that would never gain him Allen's respect. But this was not the same kid he had met years ago in the forests surrounding Fort Castello. Lecturing, no matter how well-intentioned, was something the king barely tolerated and heeded even less so. The knight had long ago come to the conclusion it was a waste of time.

"How considerate of you, Your Majesty," he still could not help but utter, his voice not completely without sarcasm. "You are safe now, Hitomi. May I ask to what do we owe the honor?"

She finally looked at him, eyes so wide she almost appeared unseeing.

"There is no time for that. Just get her out of here!" hissed the pilot of the white guymelef, without even opening the visor. He turned away from them, facing the three Zaibach guymelefs which appeared on the horizon in the direction he had come from. They seemed hesitant to approach, but the numbers were playing in their favor. Allen frowned, not happy to be ordered around by the younger man, yet realizing it would be most sensible to comply.

He lay Scherazade's palm flat on the ground before the girl. She paused, but then climbed onto it, her face still bearing a look of disbelief. As they started moving, she looked back at the scene few times, until it disappeared from view. Allen did too. Escaflowne's long cape flowed in the wind; otherwise, nobody made a move. The Zaibach soldiers seemed to be calculating, maybe waiting to collect more strength. He knew he didn't have to worry about Van; a few Alseides units in an open field would not get the best of him. More importantly, none of the Zaibach pilots decided to equip the stealth cloak and fly after them. Good boys, the knight thought as he hurried to take them to the Alliance camp by way of the safest route.

Hitomi gripped the guymelef fingers so hard her arms were already getting tired. She looked down to see a poor wasteland sweep under her bit by bit with the guymelef's heavy steps. Or rather, its jumps. Her head was hurting. Well, the sick part usually does hurt. I officially went crazy. How on Earth had she landed in this escapist fantasy again? The dream she had never forgotten but thought it was just that: a dream. Yet she did not need to pinch herself to know this was not one she could wake up from. It did not even matter if this was real or if the inside of her head had become her reality, while her empty body lingered on some hospital bed.

Or had she… had she, in fact, died in that accident? The last thing she recalled… was… she was... She squeezed her eyes shut forcibly, shaking her head. Calm down, Kanzaki. It doesn't matter. Can you feel that hammering in your chest? You are definitely alive here and now. She had no other option but to accept it. Yes, she was on Gaea. And the very foundations of what she had thought true and possible were shaken.

Allen must have noticed her unease as he opened the visor again. "Don't worry, Hitomi. I am sorry you had such an unpleasant welcome back, but you are safe now. We will be at the Alliance camp soon."

"Thank you, Allen," she said, her voice still far from firm. They continued in silence for a while. She remembered the final days of her last visit and felt many old feelings resurface without invitation. She had felt such a strong wish to leave the war-ridden planet. It had overshadowed the will to help her friends, made her forget… even her feelings for the knight. Who said he loved her… who offered to marry her, for goodness' sake.

Suddenly, she felt embarrassed. She wasn't familiar with dealing with an ex. Could Allen even be considered that? The awkwardness definitely felt real. I just hope you forgot me quickly and easily. I hope you found happiness. But seeing the war-torn landscape made her heart drop with a strong suspicion that her old friends had been fighting all these years that she had spent safely back on Earth. "Allen?" she started, fearing the answer to her question. But she had to know. "What happened after I left? How long has it been?"

For a while, the knight just looked at her. She concentrated all her energy on not avoiding his eyes. They were so blue… and kind. She knew people could fake kindness. And she wasn't sure she could see through an act like that anymore. Could he have forgiven me? Maybe… it was not as important to him. Or is he just playing nice out of politeness? She looked back down shyly under his gaze.

"Sorry, I just wondered where to start," Allen said finally, with a hint of a smile. "Your departure was… four or five rotations ago, I think… unbelievable, how the time flies. The fight had continued, but after a few weeks reached a stalemate. With the help of her allies, Asturia defended herself successfully and Zaibach retreated for the time being. "

She watched him as he reminisced, failing to figure his feelings out from his handsome face. He looks a bit older, she realized. Nothing she could name betrayed it, but some of the youthfulness she remembered had left silently. Perhaps from his eyes, she mused.

"A big offensive against Zaibach had been out of the question at the time," he continued. "Not with their thousands of guymelefs and advanced technology. It was our time to wait and see when and how Dornkirk would attack. It seemed as though he was expecting something, delaying his decision. It wasn't like he couldn't try and overpower us any time he wanted. The Empire closed into itself instead. We had nothing to do but sit still. I gradually returned to my duties as the Knight Caeli. And Van returned to Fanelia. Or tried to. Zaibach had defeated his kingdom but hadn't captured the land. Dragons roamed through what remained of the city instead. We contemplated if that was the reason Zaibach had not made any moves to at least form a base there, but it was improbable. They had more than enough resources to deal with a few land dragons."

"I see. That's really strange indeed. But what happened to the Fanelians?" Hitomi asked.

"Van found his people scattered in the villages of Fanelia's hold," Allen explained. "It was as we had suspected and his brother confirmed it. The attack on Fanelia was only about luring out Escaflowne; Dornkirk had no interest in his land or resources. There was a single, medium-sized floating fortress hiding in the mountains, which, we found out, was responsible for securing a very broad strip of land. Van, being the reckless fool he is, attacked and defeated the crew almost singlehandedly. When we arrived with the Crusade, there was not much left to do. We disposed of the bodies and Folken secretly assisted us in maneuvering the fortress right above the destroyed Fanelia. We swung rope ladders down from it and that's where the first returners to the city stayed to remain safe. But as we discovered later, by that time, the dragons had already disappeared from the city."

Her eyes went wide. "Van managed to regain Fanelia! That's amazing!"

"Not all people would say that. Let me be honest, I was afraid of what this thoughtless provocation would cause. We all knew Zaibach could smite Fanelia, and possibly Asturia, if they really wanted to…"

Oh. She hadn't thought of that.

"King Aston was livid. If he hadn't known of my uses on the battlefield, I'm sure he would have punished me severely… maybe capitally…" —he grimaced— "for putting my country in such danger. I would have understood. Still, I felt the need to help Van recover at least some of his country's honor. I felt I owed it to Balgus, as well. My crew and I helped as we could."

"I'm sure Balgus would have liked that." She saw Allen's expression soften at that shortly before he continued and the serious look returned to his face again.

"Little was missing, though, and it could have been for naught. We expected an all-out attack but it never came. Instead, Dornkirk sent a single unit led by Dilandau to deal with this... little insurgency. It was a memorable battle. Dilandau…" he paused shortly, his frown deepening. "…was defeated and Van rose from it as one of the war's heroes. After that, silence. Van started rebuilding his country, even though I know he must have been well aware of the axe poised over them. If Zaibach decided to attack, they would sweep their few years' efforts down with one finger. Dornkirk either doesn't care or amuses himself with it."

"Why is Van here, then, and not in Fanelia?" she wondered out loud. "His country needs a king and a protector."

Allen sighed. "It's not that simple. This is still the age of war, not recovery. Somewhere in-between, the combined Alliance army started to form. Secret meetings, training camps, strengthening of defenses. I was a part of it on Asturia's side. Everyone was doing their best. It was a matter of time before Dornkirk's spies would inform the other side. Then started the skirmishes. The four Zaibach armies started independent operations and several fronts opened shortly one after another. We have been fighting with some breaks ever since. "

She gasped, trying to imagine it. From what she understood, this was a large-scale war. Coming with it was the death on the battlefield, the suffering, and shortcomings of the civilians. She was sure her younger self would have been seeing some of it right now with her mind's eye. The current Hitomi was thankfully free of visions.

But for how long, when I'm here?

"Van decided to help on his own. I would not have requested him to. Not one of the other monarchs is present in the field. Chid, whose country, together with Fanelia, suffered the most, stays out of it and concentrates on getting his country back on its feet. But Van still feels like this is his war..."

"He always did," Hitomi said.

"He is not entirely wrong, though," Allen admitted. "For the troops, Escaflowne is an important symbol of hope that heightens their morale. Once, the enemy's numbers alone had been enough to put us in misery. But we picked up. We coordinate our advances better. It is one Alliance army now instead of Asturians, Basramians, or Chezarians. No small thanks to Folken Fanel, our technological advancement has been remarkable. We have a chance of winning this war now. And I swore to myself I won't stop either until we do." Hitomi felt an uneasy feeling settle in her stomach as he said that.

It persisted even after their conversation trailed off as they came into the visible distance of the Alliance camp. It was a large structure, composed of numerous tents of various sizes, with an occasional cart or melef visible. Wooden watchtowers were built on the neighboring hills and she even spotted a leviship stationed on the side of the mountain. Seeing the camp filled her with cautious curiosity. She never really was in one on her previous visit. The nature of war must have changed. And she was sure it meant nothing good.

Allen took Scherazade in, bringing it to a wooden structure designated for the purpose of housing guymelefs. The giant armors alone, the mere sight of which always gripped her heart with fear based on her previous experiences, pressed a single thought into her mind. I'm back for real.

The guymelef shelter looked to be heavily guarded. But so had been Fanelia, Allen's fort, and Freid. Is it enough against the invisible giants? She voiced the question to Allen.

"The stealth cloaks are not that much trouble anymore," he replied. "Folken constructed a lens which lets you see them. We use them for our binoculars and telescopes. "

"Folken did?"

"Right. He was the one who had designed the cloaks after all. I told you, without him, we would still be years behind Zaibach in technology. He still stays in Asturia and our king provides his research with all the support he can muster." That was interesting news, but most of all, she was glad Folken found his place on their side. She prayed it also meant that Van abandoned his cold vengefulness against his brother he had been showing right before she left.

After putting the guymelef to rest, Allen took her to his own tent. It was sparsely furnished but had everything he would need. He even produced a bottle of wine with two glasses, but she politely declined and opted for water instead. She curiously asked about the fates of her old acquaintances: Merle, Princess Millerna, Dryden, little Chid and the rest. She didn't have to ask much about Allen's own story, as it was being revealed alongside little by little. He still had his companions, even though some of them had been lost to the war, one to marriage, even. She was sincerely looking forward to seeing Gaddes, who was still Allen's right hand and a loyal friend. The sergeant had acted as her guardian on several occasions and she remembered his simple but honest kindness fondly.

The Crusade was currently acting as one of the supply lines from Asturia, Allen explained. It often also transported cargo of important information or people between various locations. Allen said it worried him some, as it could easily be recognized and become a target for an attack one day. Maybe he would have to replace the ship and act more undercover. Crusade would be back from Asturia soon, he told her. And afterward, she could take it on their way back to Palas to visit Millerna.

She suddenly felt shy remembering the judging and dangerous environment of the Asturian court. She was also not sure Millerna would be willing to see her. Allen reassured her with a smile. She wondered briefly about his relationship with the crown princess, now that the engagement with Dryden was, apparently, out of the picture.

It was shocking to hear the Merchant had given his promise ring back to Millerna, causing much uproar in the Asturian high-society circles. Dryden had returned to his merchant business, even though now it was all about war. Asturia was not left unmarked by it, Allen warned. Still, the battlefield was pushed far away from Palas, and that was fortunate for the seaside country.

At this point, they were talking like old friends and she could not have been more thankful for Allen's easy-going nature. At least an hour must have gone by. Allen asked if she wanted to eat. She nodded, seeing it was him who probably was hungry. Not that she wasn't herself, but her stomach still felt wobbly.

In a few minutes, they made their way across the mostly empty camp to the field kitchen. It was located next to a guarded cave, which must have held the food supply. There were several fires and open tents, a water pump, and a crowd of seasoned looking cooks with very young assistants from among soldiers. Just as they approached the head cook, a terrifying woman of unspecifiable age and firm build, the horns marked the return of the troops to the camp. Allen joked about them having barely avoided the soup line.

Huge cauldrons of the steaming liquid and piles of bread were already awaiting the soldiers, along with empty rows of simple wooden tables and benches. Soon, they had a bowl of hot soup each and Allen shamelessly flirted his way into an extra portion of smoked ham. He shed his gloves, cut the meat, and put it on a slice of bread topped with a bit of a sauce. She tried the soup and understood why Allen didn't start with it. The broth could have been good once, before it was watered down a bit too much. She bit into the simple sandwich he had prepared for her next and she was immediately reminded of wasabi. They apparently had some kind of radish on Gaea. But the ham was very good. And she realized she had indeed been hungry as she wolfed the rustic but delicious meal down.

After a while, the camp started to fill with men, some hastily approaching the kitchen tent already. Allen turned to her, "They are early today… Let's go find Van, what do you say?"

Hitomi nodded, feeling a bit apprehensive. Honestly, she could not say if she was looking forward to that meeting. From what she saw and heard, his unsociable ways had not changed much and he was as war-obsessed as ever.

The walk back was very different. They had to avoid the influx of returning soldiers of random Alliance countries' origin and various states of health and dress. Some were carried on stretchers to the hospital tent at the far end of the camp. The dead were apparently left or burned right on the battlefield. She felt her stomach, now full, turn at the thought.

"This is the officers' tent," Allen announced, breaking her thoughts. Right, she already noticed the structure towering above the rest of them. It was decorated in Gaean fashions, the colorful geometric patterns discerning it from the rest of them. "Here is where they meet every evening to talk results and battle plans," he explained.

"Is Van an official now?" she asked.

"No. He has no rank in the Alliance army; he is not a simple soldier after all. The men respect him even without that. He fulfills various tasks in the battle, but in the chain of command, he has the position of… a captain, perhaps. The royalty is always welcome to the highest strategy meetings, though."

She didn't have the time to put a second thought to that as the guards stationed at the entrance made way for them and they walked into the tent. The short corridor made of linen walls led them to the main part of the makeshift building. It was huge, she noted. And richly decorated, from what she could see. She spotted padded chairs and polished furniture, animal furs and flags made from expensive-looking fabrics lined with gold, wherever her view wasn't effectively obstructed by the soldiers in their full gear. There were more people (including a few beastmen) inside than she expected– many of them looking like guards or warriors. The main cluster was concentrated in the center of the area, around what was shaped like a giant table.

Inspired by movies and such, she imagined it held a map, along with the miniatures of strategic units on it, even though her view was fully blocked by the mass of bodies. Nobody noticed their arrival yet, with the heated discussions several groups led. She could not see the king anywhere. Although, it definitely looked like she was the only woman in the company of older, war-steeled men inside, and the realization made her uneasy. Allen must have sensed her discomfort and put his hand on her back, leading her deeper into the room.

That's when a few people started noticing them, and she heard acknowledgments of Allen's presence from several directions. Finally, even some heads from the main table turned in their direction. The eyes were drawn from Allen to her and she felt like an intruder again. She was quickly reminded of the glares she had received in the palace of Asturia, several years prior. She even caught murmurs of 'light pillar' and 'Mystic Moon', if that wasn't her overactive imagination. The sound level dropped significantly, though, she was sure.

Allen temporarily let go of her to shake hands with a foreign-looking young man, exchanging a few polite phrases. Suddenly, he turned to her, announcing with a strong voice: "Gentlemen, may I present to you the Lady Hitomi, the seeress who helped us greatly at the beginning of this Great War." What the…? She didn't expect Allen to be so open about her identity. The statement instantly drew unwanted attention to her. Plus, she could no longer be called a seeress, anyway.

Panicked, and having lost the comfort of Allen's hand, she was searching for help, for one kind pair among the judging eyes of the officials. A soldier of pudgy build turned back from the table to get a better look at her, revealing a figure still leaning over the table. She felt a sense of déjà vu, as the man straightened his shoulders and finally turned to look at her. The jump in her pulse revealed his identity immediately. Their eyes met for a fleeting moment and she could have cried, courtesy of the strange feeling of pity that filled her heart. It was totally unreasonable, because she could see he grew up well—like she had always known he would. But the burgundy irises she remembered were devoid not only of the kindness she was hoping for, but of any emotion at all.

Is this what the war had done to him? Or was it simply a result of growing up? She realized the lifeless eyes reminded her of his brother quite a bit. He was starting to move in their direction and she had to rip her gaze away uncomfortably. Compared to how she had known him, it felt like this was a stranger.

Trying to distract herself from her previous line of thought, she focused on other parts of his appearance. He was wearing a uniform, she noted, and while simple of cut and decoration, it fit him rather well. The garb wasn't any of those she has seen during her previous visit, but she realized she saw plainer and more disarrayed versions of it through the camp. The Alliance uniform.

It was predominantly black, which in itself gave him a gave different air than what he used to wear before. The stiff, dark fabric was cut in straight, stern lines. The coat was long but lacked the separate bottom piece that was the part of the Caeli or Zaibach uniform. It still retained a similar shape, though, flaring a bit under the tightly fitted part around the king's chest and abdomen. The upper part had a stand-up, metal ornamented collar often present in Gaean fashion, and there were some buttoned epaulets on the shoulders and sides fastening it together. Van wore a leather belt on it, which held the familiar royal sword of Fanelia. That was all its sparse decoration. No showy ruffles of the Asturian shirts or shoulder pads, just simple straight sleeves, similarly colored pants and caramel-colored boots that currently stopped in front of her and Allen. Yes, that was where she wanted to keep her eyes, but she forced herself to look up.

And she really had to look up, that was also new.

Ahh, so he was capable of showing a bit of emotion. Namely, it looked like mild irritation, but he wasn't looking at her. "Did you have to bring her here?!" he uttered through his clenched teeth. Ah... And hello to you, too. She felt some of her own exasperation bubble up inside. He said that with a voice only loud enough for her and Allen. The knight responded in a similar subdued tone.

"Do you mind, Your Majesty? It's quite a precious visitor we have right here." Was she imagining the mocking undertone? Well, she certainly didn't remember him ever using titles with Van. Allen's small smile directed at the king remained unrequited.

This time, Van turned to her. "It's good to see you, Hitomi."

"Y-yeah, you too…" She felt like she should say more, but she felt really uncomfortable around him. She knew they would have to talk at some point, but she couldn't imagine a worse moment. Most of the eyes in the room were still directed at them.

At last, someone, an older man, expressed some interest in her verbally.

"Isn't she the one Zaibach wanted? They jeopardized the wedding of Princess Millerna to kidnap her." The question hung in the air uncomfortably for a few seconds.

"Maybe Zaibach desperately needed to recruit some more little girls for their army."

She couldn't believe her own ears. That was a joke. Out of Van's mouth. Even though the gruff laugh of the men was on her account, she felt most of the attention leave her and was unexpectedly relieved. Strangely, the only ones who didn't seem amused at all were the king and the knight. Allen actually looked somewhat peeved and it wasn't easy to bring something like that out of his usually pleasant countenance.

"Gentlemen, if you'll excuse us," he muttered as Van had already stepped towards the entrance. She followed him gratefully, with the knight on her heels. Concerned murmurs followed them outside, until they were replaced with the calm chirping of the insects, interrupted only by some calls and laughs in the distance. The sun had always set within minutes here, she remembered. She knew soon the Mystic Moon and its smaller brother would fill the night sky.

"Parading Hitomi right under their noses? Brilliant, Allen," Van uttered grumpily when they were out of the earshot of the commander tent.

"Many saw the pillar of light. There would have been questions anyway. And it's not a good idea to keep secrets from your allies. They might get suspicious."

"So, now they know the girl Zaibach wanted is here. And maybe some others will want her, too. To see what all the fuss is about."

"They definitely would, if we tried to keep her hidden. Now they know it's just a young girl. You don't need to worry, either way. I will protect her," Allen said earnestly.

"Umm…," Hitomi interrupted uncertainly. I am right here, she wanted to say but chose a less confronting option. "I… I didn't want to cause any trouble…" They both looked at her. Her heart fluttered, but she said, firmer than before, "Anyway, there's nothing to 'fuss about'. Since I've left Gaea, I don't have any strange powers anymore."

Van contested her claim immediately. "Then how come you've returned?"

"She does not know," Allen replied in her stead.

"Is that so?" The king watched her with those strangely hollow eyes.

She met them unfailingly. She was not to be intimidated by the likes of him. She had never been, and she was not planning to now. "I had an accident. But I certainly didn't wish myself here. That's why it feels so strange. I really don't know why."

"What kind of accident?" he pried further.

Hitomi furrowed her brow. What was this, an interrogation? I may have been hit by a train a little. Let's see what you make of that, she thought. It felt almost funny.

"I… fell down." Her lightly scraped knees suggested as much. "And was almost run over…"

Remembering that was not the best idea. The fear, the spike of adrenaline was returning to her. She had to take her face in her hands to stop the horrifying memory of the locomotive approaching her head-on before it overwhelmed her. She was sure nobody possessed the same memory and lived to tell about it. She shook her head and the face of the dying Alseides pilot appeared instead, his eyes begging for another minute of life… suddenly, she felt like she was going to be sick.

"Hitomi, are you alright?" Allen's concerned question thankfully made the picture dissolve. She always liked the smooth quality of his voice. It was Amano's voice, just speaking in a different, practiced manner. She didn't mind it. Van just frowned suspiciously.

"Yes. I just… I need rest."

"She cannot stay here," Van said.

"I know," Allen echoed and turned to her. "The Crusade should arrive shortly. Hitomi, if you agree, we will take you to Asturia. You can visit Princess Millerna for a while."

"Will you stay in Asturia as well, Allen? To protect her?" the king asked.

"She should be safe in the palace," the knight reassured but the younger man did not seem convinced.

"The same palace she was kidnapped from? Twice?"

"They doubled the guard recently. If the princesses are safe there, so is she."

"She would be if nobody knew she was on Gaea," Van said.

Allen scowled back at him. "I'd be more than happy to protect Hitomi. But I have to see what my orders are. Unless you want to take on the task?"

"I can't leave here, you know that."

"Very well. It looks like my plan is the only one we have, after all. Come to Asturia after the battle is over. We can discuss this further, then."

"How… how is the battle going?" Hitomi asked, sensing the conversation was almost over. And she wanted to know before it was. An irrational fear had wound itself into her heart. Someone could be in danger, most probably Van. It could be the reason why she was here… Wait, she didn't have any vision yet, so what was she basing it on? Well… probably the past experiences, she thought sarcastically. The king's behind used to get in trouble constantly.

"Many have fallen. But we are winning this." There was not even a trace of doubt in his voice.

"Hitomi… the battles are none of your concern. I hope you are not considering staying here in the camp after all," Allen schooled.

She knew he was right; this was no place for her. It was a battlefield. And a camp of foreign soldiers. Asturia would definitely feel friendlier.

As if on cue, a group of laughing drunks appeared next to them, passing them by unhurriedly. She knew the exact moment they spotted her, for they started to make unmistakable noises. It wasn't usual to see a female exposed like that on Gaea, she was aware of that. And she wanted to disappear into the ground. But they apparently recognized her company, because they seemed to sober up immediately, saluting and greeting 'His Majesty' and 'Lord Knight'. One was lagging behind the group though, and he halted wobblingly as he passed, eyeing her deliriously.

"Nice legs," he concluded his observations.

"Thanks," Allen said and kicked the soldier's own legs out from under him. The drunk tripped and sprawled on the ground, out of it.

"Allen's right. You should go to Palas," Van said, his hand dropping from his sword handle.

She would. After all, she didn't have much of a choice but do as they pleased. She didn't kid herself; she would be in a very difficult situation here in this place without their help.

Seeing the two men still waiting for her response, Hitomi finally nodded in agreement.

Hi there! I don't have that much to say this time, no worries. Before all, I would like to thank all the people who reviewed, followed or simply liked the first chapter.

Anyway, big and special thanks to my first couple of reviewers (you know who you are), who took their time to comment (even though I totally forgot to insert a lowly plea for reviews in the first chapter, haha… which would not happen now… because I finally know first-hand how much they mean to a writer and their motivation). There are a lot of new and ongoing tempting stories coming up, and wow, do I love to see it in this fandom. I will put my best effort to review when I find the time to read them!

Chapter notes:

Yes, unfortunately, the Great War continues, as great wars usually do, for years. In the last couple of episodes of the series, you see glimpses of all the armies of the other countries with their own distinct designs and technologies, from medieval-looking knights, through Napoleonic era-like soldiers to submarines. And this all took about two episodes, because well, the show was inevitably ending. I think this is the most obvious pointer in the direction that the series had once, in the very early phases, been planned to be longer. I thought it was a waste of good worldbuilding, so here we are.

'Knights Caeli', 'Heavenly Knights' and 'Knights of the Order of Heaven' will be used interchangeably throughout the story. 'Knights of Heaven' is the literal translation from Japanese, for which the fancier, Latin-sounding term 'Caeli' has been coined for the English releases. The order thing is something I made up because the Knights Caeli (in the artbooks defined as something like a "title bestowed upon 12 excellent Asturian knights together with a guymelef") reminds me of the famous medieval knight orders, such as the 'Order of the Garter', 'Order of Saint XY' etc. I think it's okay to have several names and nicknames for the same thing; it often works like that, right?

I hope Allen's voice was not too 'fancy' or 'snobbish' sounding. I enjoyed writing him, even though it was hard.

I think my light fetish for things such as uniforms, medieval warfare, knights and their tents and stuff really shows in this chapter. Not that I know too much about it (my ideas of it stem from fiction, TV, medieval fairs and such), but I love the setting. To be fair, a military camp (or at least a couple of tents) is shown in the series, for example right after Van retrieves Hitomi back from Earth and the soldiers from Cesario ask him for help. But that, as we know, did not happen in this fic, and I imagined the camp here bigger, more permanent and organized.

I have sketched the Alliance uniform several times, I get stuck on things like that. But I cannot really disregard it, since, as you see, I made it a part of one of the main characters' design. I will definitely post the sketches on my Tumblr (visarcana) at some point. Just having some technical issues with that right now.

I would be really happy to know what you think about this chapter, the characters and so on. I cramped a lot of exposition in because I have many greater events planned and I'm getting impatient. I hope it was not too much… but hey, the main trio is already assembled, and soon, other characters will follow.

Hope to see you then!