That's What Friends Are For!
Keep smiling, keep shining
Knowing you can always count on me, for sure
That's what friends are for
In good times, in bad times
I'll be on your side forever more
Oh, that's what friends are for
(That's What Friends Are For: Dionne Warwick)[/i
Annie wrinkled up her nose glumly and gave a half-hearted wave at Van and Hitomi's frozen figures.
“Hey. Uh, surprise?” she said into the dead silence surrounding their little group. Her eyes widened as Hitomi suddenly darted forward and nearly knocked them both to the ground as she flung her arms around the smaller girl.
“Oh, Annie!” Hitomi sobbed as she hugged her tightly. The lonliness she'd felt when she'd caught sight of Allen was nothing to the crashing waves of homesickness that were now dragging her under unexpectedly. Until that moment, she hadn't even realized just how much she was beginning to miss everything she'd left behind on Earth. Now, she couldn't stop the tears from streaming down her face as she held on to her best friend even if it would cost her her life.
“Whoa. Hey, Tomi. I know you weren't expecting me and all, but is it really that bad to see me?” Annie asked lightheartedly, even as she flashed Van a look that clearly shouted, 'what the hell did you do to her??'.
“That's not... how could you even think that?” Hitomi choked out between sobs, oblivious to Van shrugging helplessly at Annie's dark glare.
Annie patted her soothingly on the back. “Oh, I see. They're strapping you into a corset, too, huh? Damn things'll kill ya.”
Allen and Eries exchanged a lightening quick, sheepish look at that, both secretly glad the tips of their burning red ears weren't visible.
“A corset?” asked Hitomi with confusion as she pushed herself away and wiped her cheeks. “No, that's not- I'm just so happy to see you... You're here! You're really- Wait. How'd you get here?”
“In a leviship. And I even got to fly it for a little bit! Until Captain Crankypants made me stop.” Annie shot Allen an evil glare, which he returned with a stony one of his own. Van had to bite back an uncharacteristic grin at how very little their relationship seemed to have changed.
“No, no. I meant how you got here. On Gaea,” Hitomi clarified, even though she knew that Annie understood perfectly well what she'd meant.
“Oh, that,” Annie replied with a grin. “Actually, I was kind of hoping you could tell me.”
Hitomi paled. “What? This wasn't planned... you didn't... Oh, my god! How long have you been on Gaea?”
“Uh... about thirty seconds less than you?”
“You've... been on Gaea... this whole time?” Hitomi squeaked. “I'm so sorry, I didn't know-” she turned to look helplessly at Van, “How did this happen?”
He looked as dumbfounded as her, but she whipped back around to face Annie before he could come up with any kind of plausible answer.
“My god, where did you land? Did anything happen- how did you find Allen?”
“Jeez! Breathe, Tomi,” replied Annie with a laughing grin. “I didn't have to find Allen at all. He was right there where I ended up. And I've been having a great time, actually. Everyone in Asturia was really nice. A little uptight and all, but after dealing with Allen over Christmas, it wasn't too bad. Well, except that almost getting killed by my dress thing.”
“The what thing?” Van asked, looking at Allen and Eries' slightly red faces with confusion. Annie wrinkled up her nose and grimaced.
“I'll tell you a story sometime. But right now, isn't the more important question something like how the hell I'm getting home?”
Hitomi felt a bit of herself curl up and die at the very thought, now that she had Annie here with her. She forced a shaky smile onto her face, though, for her friend's benefit.
“Home. Of course. How soon do you want to go back?” she asked in a voice she was happy only shook a very little.
“Now would be good,” Annie replied with a shrug and a hopeful smile. She ignored the twanging pain under her ribcage and forced herself, yet again, to remember all the reasons that gave her no real choice in the matter. She'd just have to pretend she didn't see the disappointed confusion on Celena's face, making it look like the girl somehow hadn't realized that she wouldn't be staying on Gaea forever. And that fleeting spasm on Allen's face must've been a product of her overactive, hopeful imagination.
The crestfallen disappointment on Hitomi's was not, however. Neither was the sheen of tears in her eyes that she was attempting to hide. Combined with Celena's puppy-dog eyes, there was nothing for it but to stay. But only a tiny bit longer... Annie sighed inwardly and gave her best friend a half-hearted smile.
“Well, tonight would work just as good, too,” she amended, and sighed again when Hitomi blinked rapidly to keep the teardrops from falling. “Or tomorrow morning, I guess. What's one more day, huh?”
Hitomi nodded quickly and swallowed against the lump in her throat. “Tomorrow morning. I promise. Right, Van?”
“Absolutely,” he agreed, giving Annie a tiny, grateful smile.
Annie contemplated both of them hard for a few minutes. “And you're sure it'll work? You can send me back? No problem?”
“It should. It's always worked for us before,” Van answered confidently.
“But why are you leaving? Don't you like us?” Celena suddenly burst out, startling everyone who'd come to know the rather silent, child-like woman. Annie squirmed guiltily and gave Allen a swift glare of death. Obviously somebody's older brother hadn't filled her in on that crucial little detail.
“'Course I like you, Celena. But I like a lot of people back on Earth, too, you know,” Annie told her cheerfully, linking their arms. “My groszmama would be really sad if I just up and disappeared.”
“Oh. Right. Because you're her favorite,” Celena replied with a knowledgeable nod. Hitomi stared at the two of them for a moment before bursting into gales of laughter.
“Annie! What in god's name have you been telling her? Celena, don't believe a word she says.”
Celena looked crestfallen. “So... my brother didn't throw a snowman's head at you? Or get sick on the swing ride?”
“No. No, that all happened,” Van couldn't resist throwing in, an amused sparkle in his mahogany eyes at the annoyed look on Allen's face. Celena looked immensely relieved, Millerna stifled a giggle behind her hand, and the glare Allen directed at Annie turned slightly murderous. Van bit back a laugh as he turned in relief at the rumble of hooves and wheels on the cobblestones behind them.
“Ah, the carriages... I thought you all might enjoy seeing the city, especially the marketplace, after being couped up in your leviships,” he said politely, gesturing towards the two waiting carriages. The princesses murmured their agreement just as politely, and Allen hid his horror behind a bland, stoic mask. Good gods, he was somehow going to have to keep track of not only Millerna and Eries, but Celena and Annie as well! He doubted Van was planning to stick to a carriage-only tour...
Naturally, Hitomi wanted to ride with Annie, and Celena was stuck to her like glue. Van hid any disappointment at no chance of repeating his earlier carriage ride with Hitomi, and followed them dutifully into the dim interior. That gave Allen little choice but to accompany the princesses.
At least, Van thought ruefully, Annie had the exact opposite idea about what was proper between an almost-married couple than Merle did. He thought she might be contemplating physical harm if he didn't at least take Hitomi's hand. He did better than that; he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and tucked her tightly against his side. Annie beamed at him.
The marketplace was large and bustling, and right now filled with foriegners who had come to the city for the wedding. Celebratory decorations were already in place all over the shops, and the general air of the place was cheerful and festive. Van was recognized immediately as he stepped out of the carriage, and a resounding cheer from everyone in the vacinity who realized what was happening went up as Hitomi took his hand and jumped lightly to the ground. Her face burned crimson, and she held Van's fingers in a fierce death-grip, completely panicked by all the excited stares directed at her. Still, she held her head high and did her best to smile cheerfully back at them. After all, they were happy to see her, right?
Besides, people were staring nearly as much as Millerna and Eries- particularily all the men- and they didn't seem fazed in the slightest. They both acknowledged the attention with politely friendly nods and followed nonchalantly after Van as he led them off through the shops. Celena cowered and clung to Annie's arm like a lifeline, which Allen considered a good thing. At least it hampered the wild brunette from disappearing into the crowds willy-nilly. He still wished he had a leash on her, though.
From all sides, they could all catch snatches of what people were saying about them as they moved down the crowded street. Hitomi turned even redder when she heard people shout things like “heroes of the Great War” and even, more ridiculously, calling her the “Wing Goddess”. Whatever that was.
Van stopped them at a little stand that sold the best something-or-others in all of Gaea. Neither Hitomi nor Annie could seem to pronounce the name right; the closest they got was la-pan-a-cucko. The jumbled mess in the paper-coated cone was sticky and sweet and melted wonderfully on the tongue, and Hitomi thought it might make up for the lack of chocolate on Gaea.
“So, what do you think?” Van asked Hitomi with a quietly proud smile, nodding at the passing crowds to indicate he meant the marketplace as a whole.
“I think it's wonderful, Van. Better than anything I'd imagined,” Hitomi answered seriously, and her eyes shone beautifully. The pride in his chest swelled at the honesty in her answer. She smiled at him, and the noisy, crowded marketplace suddenly dimmed into a colorful buzzing in the background. She loved his country! He could see it in her eyes as she looked around them at the bustling streets. But then why, why, had she burst into tears and clung to Annie like her life had depended on it? His euphoria faded away as he remembered how she'd looked, hugging her best friend desperately...
“So...Van,” Annie suddenly said, and Van turned his head slightly to look down at her. She stared out at the Fanelian men's shirtless, toned abs gleaming in the sun as they went through their daily activities with wide eyes and a growing smile.
“These men. They're all yours, right?”
His brow furrowed in confusion. “Well, they're all Fanelians.”
“Right. And you're the Fanelian king, which would make them all your men.”
“Uh... I guess so. Why?” he returned, completely confused at where she was headed with this line of reasoning. She turned towards him with a positively frightening shark grin stretching across her face.
“Can I have one?” she asked enthusiastically.
“Annie!” Allen and Hitomi chastised in unison as Van merely blinked at her in astonishment. She pouted dramatically.
“Please? I'll be really nice to him!”
Van fought hard against a laugh, whether from the absurdness of Annie's request, or the befuddled looks of shock on Millerna and Eries' faces, he wasn't quite sure. Allen pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb, looking pained, as Hitomi struggled to hide her giggles and failed miserably. Celena looked a little confused, and she puckered up her mouth in thought.
“You can have Allen, Annie,” she suddenly said, shocking everyone. Allen felt his face begin to glow an alarming shade of red as everyone's eyes flickered between he and Annie, sparkling with mirth. Van felt near to exploding with pent-up laughter over the combined hilarity of Allen's reaction and Eries' obvious attempt to maintain her icy composure. Celena's mouth turned down into a slight frown as she watched everyone with wary eyes.
“Aw, that's so nice, Celena! But, you know, I don't think your brother'd be too thrilled about that,” Annie said cheerfully, patting her on the shoulder reassuringly. Her eyes positively twinkled with surpressed amusement as her gaze met Allen's glare.
“Yes, he would. He likes you,” Celena replied stubbornly. A weird sort of snorting cough broke free from Van, and it took him a minute before he could compose himself enough to force his face back into a nuetral mask. Hitomi elbowed him sharply in the ribs, but she was biting her lips together so hard they'd disappeared into a thin, white line.
Annie's eyebrows twitched and wiggled as she looked over at Allen. He was suddenly very, very interested in the fruitstand across the dusty road. Good gods, his sister was going to kill him. If Annie didn't first.
A sudden commotion in the marketplace distracted all of them, and Allen silently blessed whoever was responsible for causing it. Somebody- a small group of somebodies, actually- was striding up the dusty road towards them. The tall, dark haired man in loosely flowing brown robes at the front of the little procession called out to them loudly.
“Ah, there you are! The famous lovebirds! Jichia above, it only took you six years to figure things out. Although with the way you two are, I guess it's a miracle you figured it out at all,” he boomed as he reached them and gave Van a hearty slap on the back.
Allen surpressed a groan and quickly retracted his previous blessing. Why in the name of all the gods was Dryden here, in the market place, today? Even Eries' icy composure cracked slightly with surprise at his sudden appearance, but Allen was more worried about Millerna.
Asturia's third princess had paled to a frightening shade of white as soon as the man had gotten close enough to be recognized, and now she stood rigid, seemingly incapable of even moving her lips to form a word. Her pansy-colored eyes were locked on to Dryden's form with an intensity that Allen had never witnessed from the princess before as her husband-in-name bent and kissed Hitomi's hand with an exaggerated flourish. He never once glanced in the princess's direction.
“I always knew you'd be coming back, my dear,” he announced, winking at her. “Are you sure you came back for Van and not me?”
Hitomi grinned at him, a pink-tinged blush on her cheeks, but Dryden straightened and clapped his hands gleefully before she could answer him.
“So, where is your wonderful little friend, Hitomi?” His eyes scanned their group quickly, without touching on Millerna, and landed on Annie's shark grin. “Ah, there she is! The lovely lady who scandalized the entire Asturian court in just under two days!”
“You what?” Van and Hitomi gasped together as Annie literally beamed from ear to ear.
“I didn't do it all by myself, you know. Al helped out a bit.”
Dryden smirked hugely and shot a mocking look at Allen. “Oh, yes. I heard all about how much he 'helped'.”
Allen took a deep, calming breath, and willed himself not to turn a spectacular shade of maroon under Dryden and Annie's laughing gazes. It was vaguely frightening how their expressions of gleeful mockery were so identical, especially given the fact that the two of them had just met moments ago.
“Annie, what did you do?” asked Van with trepidation coloring his voice. In all honesty, he really didn't want to know what kind of scandal she'd caused in Asturia, in particular any bits that involved the blond playboy knight, but if it was something of a political nature...
“Stop stressing, Van. I didn't start a war or anything,” Annie replied cheerfully. “Honestly, man. You better watch your blood pressure if you wanna live to see your grandbabies.”
“Blood pressure?” Van repeated, all of the Gaeans looking at each other in confusion.
“Stress, dude. It's a killer,” she replied seriously. “Take Al here, for example. The man's so uptight he's going to die by the time he's forty.”
Celena gasped and clutched at Allen's arm in panic. Annie's wide, laughing grin shrank a little at the girl's reaction.
“Joking, Celena, joking! Your brother's going to live to be a crotchety old man. Honest!”
“Crotchety? What a spectacular word! Crotchety! I must remember to call my old man that next time I see him!” Dryden exclaimed gleefully. He held out his hand to Annie. “Dryden Fassa, by the way. Very pleased to meet you.”
“Annie Goettenberg, and man am I glad to meet someone with a half-decent sense of humor on this rock.”
The two of them beamed at each other like a pair of cheshire cats. Allen and Van exchanged a nervous look, a sick feeling settling into their stomachs.
“Lord Dryden, I apologize that I was not there to meet you when you arrived. I guess we all lost track of time...” Van began in a weak attempt to separate the two of them. He could practically smell the trouble brewing in the air around them as it was.
“Nevermind, nevermind,” Dryden replied with a casual flap of his hand. “And just Dryden, if you please. Never did like that “Lord” crap.” He turned back to Annie with an eager twinkle in his eye. “So! I'm dying to hear what really happened in the palace gardens!”
“Me, too, actually,” said Hitomi, arching an eyebrow. “Vino doesn't play a part in the scandalizing, does it?”
Annie sighed tragically. “Sadly, no. Somebody cut me off at two glasses.”
Eries looked grimly smug at that, and Van silently congratulated her for her foresight. Although, after Hitomi's incident all those years ago, it wasn't all that surprising. One less drunken maiden to be carried to bed by an overly chivalrious Allen.
“Let's finish this conversation in the carriages. Merle is expecting us soon,” he commented casually, and once again led the small procession through the crowds.
Dryden's presence had shifted the dramatic of the group enormously. He walked along jovially, one arm linked through Annie's as they laughed loudly at each other's remarks. Celena clung to Annie's other arm, as if she was afraid the brown-haired girl was going to disappear any moment. Walking side by side like that, it was hard to believe that the three of them hadn't been friends for their entire lives.
Merle rushed out to the courtyard to meet them as their carriages pulled to a stop. Amazingly, she managed to restrain herself from her usual pounce the moment Van came into view, but she still squealed out “Lord Van!” in her typical fashion. She greeted the princesses with the proper respect their positions commanded, but Millerna ignored protocol and hugged the now much taller cat girl.
“And you are...?” Merle asked with an questioning look when she finally noticed Annie.
“Oh! Sorry, Merle. This is Annie,” Hitomi broke in. “Annie, this is Merle.”
“Obviously,” replied Annie with a smile. She held out her hand to the cat-girl, looking her up and down with a smirk. “Wow. I know a few fan-boys who'd kill to met you.”
Merle took her hand limply with a confused expression blooming across her face. “Annie? As in, the Annie from the Mystic Moon?”
“Seriously, call it Earth, please. 'Mystic Moon' sounds like something a seriously geeked-out gamer boy came up with,” Annie insisted with a grimace.
“I kind of like 'Mystic Moon',” Hitomi said thoughtfully. “I think it sounds more... more mysterious or something.”
“Please. I'd much rather be an Earthling than a Mystic Mooner.”
Merle broke into their conversation with a wild expression. “But- what's she doing here?”
“Merle...” Van began warningly, but Annie cut him off.
“Hey, no worries. I'm leaving tomorrow morning, so I won't be here long enough to mess anything up. How's the wedding planning coming, by the way?”
“Miserably. I've got the most uncooperative bride and groom known to man,” Merle stated, giving the sheepish couple a deadly glare. “Honestly, they're always trying to sneak off together when they should be preparing for the ceremonies!”
“Awesome. That's what I like to hear!” Annie replied enthusiastically, beaming at Van. He turned scarlet and cleared his throat.
“Perhaps our guests would like to be shown to their rooms, Merle?” he said pointedly. She caught on quickly.
“Of course. Right this way, please,” she said, bowing slightly before hurriedly escorting the small group into the castle where a retinue of servants were waiting to assist them.
Van snatched Hitomi's hand and pulled her back from the others, tugging her into a convieneintly shadowed alcove in the wall. She turned to look at him, and he wished to all the gods that he could think of an excuse to take another private carriage ride with her. At least the hall was quiet and semi-private now that the hordes of maids and servants waiting to help their guests had dispersed.
“What's up, Van?” Hitomi asked him quietly, surprise in her brilliant, green eyes at his odd behavior. He had to tear his eyes away from her lips so he could remember what he wanted to ask her.
“I, uh- Are you alright?” he managed to get out, and mentally smacked himself for sounding so stupid when she frowned in confusion.
“What do you mean? I'm fine, Van.”
“You were upset when you first saw Annie, and I know you aren't happy she's leaving so soon...” he trailed off as her eyes slid away from him and her shoulders drooped. His stomach twisted up anxiously; was she having second thoughts about staying here with him? He couldn't blame her if she was, but the very thought sent a shot of pure, terrified dread pouring through him.
“Hitomi... if you-”
She cut him off, still without looking at him. “Annie was right for refusing to come here with me for the wedding. Now that I've got her here, I don't want to let her go. I feel like... like I need her here, so I'm not so alone,” she whispered. “It hurts to know I've got to send her away.”
She sighed and leaned her forehead against Van's chest, and he instinctively wrapped his arms around her. What was he supposed to say to that? They'd both known it was going to be hard, having her give up everything to be together, and it killed him to know there was nothing he could do or say to make it easier on her. The fact that he was terrified she might demand to be sent back with Annie tomorrow morning certainly wasn't helping him, either.
“I'm sorry, Hitomi. I'm so sorry,” he murmured into her hair as he stroked her back in what he hoped was a comforting manner. Comforting someone really wasn't his forte.
Her hands came up to grip the front of his shirt, and she sighed heavily. “It's not your fault, Van. I'm being a baby about it. I know I should just try to enjoy the little time that Annie'll be here...”
“Would it help if you spent the rest of the day with her, just the two of you?” Van asked her quietly, desperately trying to think of anything that would make things easier for her. She pulled back to look up at him with shining eyes and a tentative smile, and his heart leapt to think he might have actually said something right for once.
“That would be awesome, Van! But...” her face fell and she chewed on her bottom lip. “Merle'll never allow it. And wouldn't it be breaking some kind of protocol or something?”
“Damn the protocol. Besides, everyone will understand,” he assured her confidently, determined to let her have her day with her best friend no matter what. “And don't worry about Merle. I'll talk to her; she won't give you any trouble about it.”
Hitomi wrapped her arms around him and abruptly pressed her lips against his in a searing kiss. Van returned it eagerly, and a little smugly, thinking that he really was getting better at this sort of thing. Knowing that they'd only have a few minutes at best, he deepened the kiss and pressed her as close to his body as possible. Who knew when someone would-
“There you two are!” Merle hissed suddenly, causing the skin to nearly jump off of their bones. “Every time I turn my back... Hitomi! You've got those dance lessons right now, and-”
“No dance lessons,” Van interupted firmly in the authoritative voice even Merle knew better than to question. “No anything at all, Merle. Hitomi and Annie will be having supper in her rooms, privately. And they're not to be disturbed, understand?”
“But... but, Lord Van!” Merle protested, surprised despair in her voice.
“Merle, honestly, we appreciate everything you're doing for us. Really, we do,” he told her in a much gentler tone. “But Annie's only here until tomorrow, and she and Hitomi need some time together.”
“Please, Merle,” Hitomi put in earnestly. The cat-girl stared at the two of them, her face the picture of frustration, before pinching her mouth shut and turning away.
“Alright. I'll see that Annie's sent directly to your rooms, Hitomi,” she announced as she hurried off down the hallway.
“Thank you, Merle! I promise I'll do anything you ask me to do tomorrow!” Hitomi called after her. The cat just waved over her shoulder and disappeared around a corner. Hitomi turned back to Van, grinning, and wished she could push him back into the alcove and show him just how grateful she was. Instead, she took his hand and let him escort her to her rooms to wait for Annie.
Once in front of her doors, Hitomi turned to look at him, her fingers still entwined with his. The look of pure gratitude on her face made him wish he could wrap his arms around her and bury her under kisses so badly that he had a hard time restraining himself.
“Thank you so much, Van. For doing this for me,” she murmured quietly to him, and he gave her the small, sweet smile that he reserved especially for her.
“I'd do anything for you,” he told her seriously, and he meant it. Even sending her back to the Mystic Moon, if that's what she wanted, though it would destroy him.
He could see Annie being led up the hallway by a maid, and he gave Hitomi's hand one last squeeze before letting go. It wrenched at his worried heart to turn and walk away, but he did it for her sake. Now he just had to pray she didn't change her mind about staying with him while she spent her last few hours with her best friend.
That, and survive a formal supper with the Austurian princesses and Dryden. Yeah, that was going to be a barrel of laughs.
Good gods, why couldn't things just be simple for once??
.....sometimes you have to lose your mind to find it......