CHAPTER FIVE

If Hitomi had been less in the grip of her own fears, she would have been able to see the faint smile with which Van had asked that last question. He hadn't meant to frighten her but, after all she had put him through, he couldn't resist the temptation to tease her just a little. Of course he knew just why she had come and there was no question about whether his invitation (as she chose to put it) was still open to her. The very thought of having her by his side for the rest of his life made him want to throw his head back and laugh in delight. It was hard work to keep his exhilaration off his face.

He was working so hared at controlling his expression that, just as she had not noticed his teasing smile, he did not notice how near to tears she was. In truth, they were both still very young. Even if he had noticed it, he probably would not have appreciated the significance of her distress. Van didn't remember much about what happened to him after he defeated Lord Dilandau's squadron of "Dragon Slayers." He would not have guessed how close to giving up Hitomi was at that instant.

"You hadn't thought about it?" he echoed. "Three years is a long time, Hitomi. What would you have done if you'd come back and found me already married? You didn't think about that?"

Slowly, her eyes very far away now, she shook her head.

"You seem to have taken a great deal for granted," he went on, wondering how long he was going to be able to keep this up when all he wanted to do was drag her into his arms, kiss her senseless and drag her off to the royal bedchamber.

It was no good. He started to chuckle, unable to contain himself another minute. "Hitomi," he began, a wealth of gentle affection in his voice as he closed the distance between them. When he reached her, he took her hands and tried to catch her eye and that was when he finally realized how pale she was and how distant her eyes had become. "Hitomi?"

She was mumbling and he strained to hear what she was saying.

" … no, of course I understand. If I can't stay here … no, it's alright. A lot can happen in three years, I guess … if I have to … " And, even as he stood there trying to make sense of her words, she grew still more pale, more colorless. The rich tones of the dress she was wearing even began to bleed away.

"Hitomi?" Van was beginning to get worried. Somehow, his little foray into teasing her seemed to be heading in a direction he hadn't counted on.

" … If I have to, I'll go … " she muttered.

And suddenly, Van realized that he was beginning to be able to see right through her.

"No!" His heart thumped painfully against his ribs as fear gripped him "Hitomi!" he shouted, inches from her face, gently grasping her shoulders when it looked as if he might pass a hand right through her.

Her eyes turned in his direction but they were blank and lifeless.

The significance of her words began to dawn on him. He didn't know, couldn't know, the details but she had died on the Mystic Moon a few days ago. He had heard her voice, full of pain and despair, crying out for him with all the longing she had felt during the three years since they'd been together. Somehow, the power of her wishes had forestalled her death and brought her back to him – because, Van was beginning to realize, she wanted to be with him that badly. She loved him that much.

But, as she had said, a lot could happen in three years. His teasing had convinced her that he had lost interest in her and, without that, she had no reason not to go ahead and die. By his own hand, Van saw, she was in terrible danger. He had to do something!

Van experienced a moment of stark panic. For a moment, he was aware of nothing except the coldness radiating from Hitomi and the anxious pounding of his own heart. What should he do? What could he do?

Finally, instinct seemed to take over. He had no recollection of making the decision to reach of the pendant he wore around his neck, the pendant she gave him before he returned her to the Mystic Moon. He noticed as he grasped it that it, too, throbbed with the rhythm of his fearful heartbeat.

She had grown still more pale and ghost-like, as if she really was fading away. He was running out of time. Carefully, he took her cold little hand and put the pendant into it, holding her fingers closed with both his own hands. He hadn't noticed that he was trembling.

Van closed his eyes. He didn't know where she was going but he was going to follow her. He was going to bring her back.

I almost lost her once, he thought, ferocious in the silence of his mind. I will not lose her again.