CHAPTER SIX

There was no sense of arriving, of coming to himself, or even of opening his eyes. All at once, Van found himself running alone in a misty nothingness that tickled his memory. He knew that he had to find her and that he didn't have much time.

"Hitomi!" he called as loudly as he could.

As soon has he said her name, he saw her. She was alone and her appearance gave him hope. She had not yet caught up with the others, the misty figures he could see in the distance whose spirits were all making their final journey. She still had a little, faint color left to her that stood out effortlessly in this colorless place. "Hitomi, wait!" he called again, unable to keep the relief out of his voice.

But she kept walking, her gait as slow and shambling as the walking dead.

The scene had a dreamlike quality to it, including the fact that he seemed to be running as hard and as fast as he could but it seemed he was barely moving. He was catching up to her but, at the rate he was going, would he reach her in time? Fear gripped him as he ran.

"Hitomi, no! Don't leave me! Not again … "

Those words almost embarrassed him, seeming as they did to come from the heart of a much younger Van, a boy who had lost everyone he had cared about: his father, his brother, his mother, his mentor. It was very rare that he even acknowledged the crushing loneliness he had lived with almost for as long as he could remember. He had found temporary comrades when he had embarked on the adventure that began with the destruction of Fanalia but companionship had eluded him. Eventually, even Merle had left him to launch a life of her own.

The words could not be unsaid. Van could only hope his whining would not disgust her. Instead, that heartfelt cry seemed to reach her and she stopped walking.

He slowed down to a walk, drawing nearer but sensing that he could not approach her too closely. Not yet. "Don't go," he implored.

"I have to go," she told him, her voice and her eyes conveying the impression that she was already gone.

Her answer wounded him. "Why?" he shouted painfully.

"I can't stay if nobody wants me. It's not allowed … ," she explained patiently.

"I want you!"

"But … ." She was shaking her head.

"I do! Hitomi," and Van circled around until he was beside her. Somehow, he could not seem to position himself between her and those others who had faded into the distance. "Hitomi, look at me."

Physical movement seemed to be difficult but she slowly began to shuffle around in his direction. He was visited with a sudden vision of her, five years ago, wearing her school girl uniform and holding her grandmother's pendant aloft. He had noticed then that, whenever she evoked that strange power she'd possessed "to see the unseen and to know the past and the future," she always took her time. It had never seemed to matter what was happening around her, she would not allow herself to be rushed. He had sometimes thought that might have been the secret of her success. On the few times he had tried it himself, he had only be able to wield that same power when he had given himself that same permission to take as long as it takes.

This was at least as important as any of those situations had been. He could not fail. He would not rush her.

The two of them seemed to be quite alone now and the farther away from her they got, the more the healthy color seemed to come back to her. It seemed to take an eternity but she was finally facing him. He could see that she seemed confused but he could also see that she was still distant and lifeless.

"Look at me, Hitomi," he said again. "See for yourself whether or not I want you to stay."

"No, I – I can't … I … no!" she was slowly shaking her head, her eyes downcast.

"Yes, you can," he insisted gently.

Hitomi was still shaking her head. "No!" her voice grew stronger and her substance seemed to grow more solid. "I can't. You ... you don't care. I know. I know! I already saw it."

"What? But I was only … "

"I already saw it," she continued tenaciously as if he had not spoken. "I don't want to look again." Her voice dwindled to a pained whimper. "I don't want to see it again. It … it hurts."

At that moment, Van had to resist a strong urge to shake her. He recognized that his frustration was born of fear and he managed to control himself. "Don't care? Hitomi, I … ," and suddenly he realized what he was about to say. Would it be enough? Was it even possible to pour everything he had carried in his heart for five years into three little words? Once they had been able to share each other's feelings, they'd been bound to each other that closely. He knew the pendant had been key to that sharing back then; perhaps that was why he'd instinctively put it into her hand. And then he realized something else. If he didn't want her to feel his fear instead of his love, he'd better pull himself together and refocus his thoughts.

He took a deep breath and let Hitomi fill his being as if he had breathed her in. He let go of every barrier he'd erected between these most tender emotions and the people in his day to day world. Deliberately, he let himself feel everything he felt. He did not need to protect himself now.

"Hitomi, I … I love you."

He wanted very badly to touch her hair, her face, to pull her into his arms. Once again, he reminded himself not to rush. When he had brought her back, they would have all the time in the world.

"Don't go," he whispered, still in that vulnerable place in his heart that had housed her since she had been gone. Can she feel it? Am I reaching her?

Maybe he was. She had turned her face toward him and, although her glance was still unfocused, her eyes still held the yearning that had brought her back to Gaia. "Don't leave me, Hitomi," he breathed into the few feet that now separated them, emotion trying to close his throat once more. "Not again."

Suddenly, she gave a gasping hiccup and her eyes, awash with tears, finally focused on his. "Van," she said on a quavering thread of sound, as her image before him faded in and out, growing strong one minute and fading away until she was almost gone in the next. But then a solitary tear stole down her cheek and hope, so far held sternly in check, exploded in his chest.

"Hitomi! Come back with me!" he pleaded around his raw throat. "Please!"

She said nothing now, just stared silently into his eyes. He wished he knew what she was looking for. Slowly, he held out a hand that he hadn't noticed was visibly trembling. Please, don't go, he begged in his heart. "Hitomi … come," he said.

How long they stood like that, she staring up into his face and he reaching out for her, he could not have said. It probably was not as long as it seemed to him but time had no real meaning in that place. Van knew that all he could do was to wait and to reach out to her with everything he had for her in his heart. He could only hope it would be enough.

"You're sure?" she asked finally. "Van, if you're not … if you … I don't think I could turn back from here a second time if you change your mind again."

He was shaking his head long before she was finished speaking, unable for the moment to put everything in his heart into words. It was as if his feelings were a tsunami held in check only by his will. As soon as he relaxed that will, he was overwhelmed. He could not think. He could barely speak. At that moment, he could only feel.

And then, two things happened almost simultaneously. Hitomi slowly reached out and, almost timidly, she put her hand into the hand he still held out to her. And, as soon as his fingers closed around hers, he could feel her again. She was still very unsure of him and he sensed now that his teasing had hurt her badly. But she was there! As he drew her unresistingly toward him, the gray mist around them seemed to melt away and they were back in his mother's garden.

Van pulled her toward him, until he could fold her into his arms. He buried his face in her hair and, eyes closed, inhaled the scent of her. He wanted to cry with relief but instead he simply held her. He had come so close to losing her so many times over the last few days that, in that moment, he never, ever wanted to let her go.

"Hitomi," he breathed into her hair. He had come home.