Attending a Western-style wedding in the middle of the Japanese summer, Fuu Hououji absent-mindedly twirled the gold band on her right-hand ring finger. She realised what she was doing and stopped to study it, biting her lip slightly and blushing.
"Fuu-chan, Fuu-chan, they're exchanging rings!" Hikaru hissed excitedly, leaning into the aisle to watch.
Fuu smiled to herself and adjusted her position to see the new couple too. Umi was stood behind the bride with two other pretty girls, all in baby blue dresses. Her normally sleek, long blue hair was pinned up and curled. She made quite the picture; Fuu was often jealous of her natural beauty.
"Fuu-chan, what are you doing with that?" Hikaru whispered, mesmerised now by Fuu's continued fiddling with her jewellery. Cogs audibly turned in Hikaru's head; "Ahh, ahh, I get it; Fuu-chan is engaged! Who are you engaged to, Fuu-chan? Does Prince Ferio know?"
Fuu flushed a formerly uncharted shade of red.
"I mean, it would be cruel to lead him on if you have someone here in our world," Hikaru added, nodding sagely with her mature advice.
"Hikaru-san, this ring is from Fer- I mean, Prince Ferio," Fuu stuttered, hiding her face in her dark blonde curls.
Hikaru's expression indicated that she had not even begun to consider this as a possibility for a logical answer.
A quiet moment passed as the new married couple signed their names on an official register.
"Can I be a bridesmaid?" asked Hikaru.
Fuu smiled. In fact, she laughed quietly at her friend's concept of prioritisation, "Hikaru-san, we're not engaged. But this is the only finger the ring fits on, and I didn't want to put it on my left hand..."
Fuu recalled receiving the ring, the first and second time. The first time, on their first and most tragic visit to Cephiro, a very audacious and flirty Ferio had given the ring to her in the Forest of Silence. Flustered, she had kept it safely in the pocket of her school blazer until she returned home.
Although she had spent barely hours with Ferio as they travelled through the Forest of Silence, she was dismayed beyond belief when she discovered the ring was nowhere to be found back in Tōkyō. In the months they spent away from Cephiro, she had spent many evenings mourning the fate of Princess Emeraude, and wondering what had become of the boy she met in the Forest of Silence.
Their second meeting was a bittersweet surprise; Fuu had thought she was done with her crying by the time she and her two friends had resolved to return to Cephiro. However, upon being reunited with her suitor, he had shared the secret of his identity as Prince of Cephiro, and younger brother of the Princess she had assisted in killing...
And later that night, he had given her the ring again; placed it on her ring finger, telling her that she made him happier than anything, and asking her to smile for him.
Fuu Hououji had never even been in a relationship before, let alone pretty much proposed to - despite what she'd told Hikaru.
The days they visited New Cephiro since then had largely involved being with the others - Hikaru, Umi, Clef, Ascot, Lantis - she never found time to be alone with Ferio in order to ask him anything about how far their relationship went or what expectations he might have of her since this whole ordeal with the ring.
"But do you want to get married, Fuu-chan?"
Flustered, Fuu patted down her skirt as a distraction, "Well, Hikaru-san, I'm sure the time will come when I find the right man and decide to settle down with him...not for quite some time yet. I mean, I do have a lot of plans for education."
Hikaru sighed, amused, "Fuu-chan, you purposely misunderstood me...do you think Ferio will want you to marry him? Would you marry him?"
"I'm afraid I don't know right now, Hikaru-san," Fuu said quite firmly, but polite as always, "He does live in an entirely different universe..."
Hikaru smoothed out the creases in her own skirt. She had taken on a slightly cyberpunk style since her capture by Autozam, and this dress featured close resemblance of the sharp lines and modern jewellery of her costume from back on the NSX. She now looked Fuu square in the eyes, "Well, Fuu-chan; I hope you decide sooner rather than later."
Fuu was slightly astounded by the seriousness in the normally bubbly girl's voice. Hikaru was known for her moments of profound clarity, however. It was amazing, just looking at her, that this petite schoolgirl had once been judged the best leader for an entire country. It was especially hard to believe later, once Hikaru had started playing with the guests' children at the after-wedding party.
"You looked very beautiful today, Umi-san," Fuu smiled brightly to her friend, sitting down next to her with a drink.
Umi beamed in response, "Thank you, Fuu. You and Hikaru look very nice, too. But what were you both being so serious about during the ceremony? I could see your faces from the front of the venue..."
Fuu stared at her glass for a moment, then at her ring, then looked intently at Umi, "I think I would like to marry Prince Ferio."
"What...whoa whoa whoa, Fuu! What are you saying? I thought you were totally intent on going to university and all, getting a really good education, not being a teenage bride! Though I am jealous; he is quite the catch."
A giggle escaped Fuu's lips, "Well, he is. And I know, but we're not exactly taking the relationship very quickly, and-"
"So you haven't gone all the way?"
Fuu felt the heat rising in her face. She stared, like a deer caught in headlights, at her drink, "No, no! In fact, we really haven't even kissed...not on the lips...oh my, what am I saying?"
Her friend laughed, patting her on the shoulders, "That's amazing, Fuu! You haven't even kissed? Ferio must have the patience of a million saints!"
"Prince Ferio is not like those sorts of boys here," Fuu insisted quite instantly.
"No, but...he is a man. They do have needs, Fuu! I say man, is he a man or a boy? Do we even know how old he is?"
How bizarre, Fuu thought; "No, I don't really."
"And why are you calling him Prince Ferio all the time? You're lovers, Fuu." Umi gave Fuu a gentle, playful shove. "You should be able to comfortably call him by his given name..." Umi watched Fuu's face with amusement, "Fuu, don't take me seriously. You know I don't mean any harm."
Fuu nodded with a nervous smile, and she and Umi stopped in silence to watch Hikaru still wowing the children. Apparently she had obtained some sort of stick from the evening venue - some table was likely to collapse without it, knowing her - and was showing off her kendo training.
Umi sighed, "Hikaru will get into the CLAMP School with no problem, with those sorts of skills."
"What's wrong, Umi-san?" Fuu asked, noticing that Umi was slightly forlorn.
Umi now toyed with a bracelet on her left hand, and absent-mindedly twirled some hair around her finger. "My parents want to take me to some prestigious private academy in Kanazawa for senior high. I've been worrying, but I worked out that I could stay behind if I manage to pass the entrance exams...and maybe I could live with you or Hikaru? Well, perhaps not Hikaru since she has so many older brothers, but-"
She was cut off from her distressed monologue; "Umi-san! You can't keep this sort of thing to yourself," Fuu put a sympathetic hand on her friend's shoulder. "Have you explained that you want to go to school with Hikaru-san and myself?"
Umi nodded, "But they don't really understand how I'm such good friends with you guys...have you had problems explaining it to your parents too?"
Fuu shrugged. "I don't really have to explain why I want to go to CLAMP School, because my older sister goes there. But you're right, they do wonder how we share such a strong friendship after only, from most peoples' perception, being away for a few minutes."
"I wish I could tell them," Umi lamented, "It would make everything so much easier. At least we're not really worrying about much any more though, right?" She smiled at an uneasy Fuu, "Oh okay, aside from our love lives."
"Lives, plural, Umi-san?"
Umi shook her head hastily and stood up, "Come on, Fuu! Let's get Hikaru and go and have a dance. It's a celebration, after all!"
Hikaru woke up one morning in her school holiday to the sound of her dog Hikari barking quite madly at some new visitors to the dojo. Wondering how soon her brothers would shut him up, she rolled over in her futon blankets and pulled a pillow over her head, looking accusingly at the tatami mats covering the floor of her room.
"Hikaru-chan!" She heard one of her brothers calling, "Hikaru-chan, you have friends here to see you!"
Friends? It could only be Umi and Fuu; "Okay, thank you, Masaru-oniisan!"
"You're not dressed, are you, Hikaru-chan?"
Hikaru made a quick check of her appearance; sleeping in something resembling short Japanese robes with hakama pants from her kendo clothes, and her long red hair was untied and messy. She shrugged, "No, Kakeru-oniisan! But Fuu-chan and Umi-chan can come in!"
"It's not..." Kakeru started, opening the door to Hikaru's room for three girls who were definitely not Umi and Fuu. "They said they're from your school?"
There stood Naoyo, Masae and Hideme, Hikaru's closest three friends from her class. The three friends who had been present at the fabled Tōkyō Tower trip. The friends she had not seen outside school more than a few times since that day last March; and it was almost September now.
"Hikaru, we need to talk to you," Hideme said quite firmly after Kakeru had shut the door.
Masae nodded, "You're pushing yourself too hard, aren't you? You're planning to get into another school with those other friends of yours," she brushed some short auburn hair away from her face, "Hikaru, you don't have to try so hard, you can just come to the partner senior high with us."
Naoyo stood with her hands on her hips, her expression forbidding; "They're too good for you, Hikaru. They're both too rich or too clever. They'll get tired of you and leave you behind."
Not quite believing what she was hearing, and becoming aware of Hikari's agitated whining and scratching at her bedroom door, Hikaru balled her hands into fists and rose from her futon. "You're wrong! Umi-chan and Fuu-chan, they won't do that to me!"
"Hikaru, we've been your friends since you moved here from Hokkaidō! What can you possibly share with them that means you'd choose going to senior high with them over us?" Masae questioned indignantly.
Her furious question made Hikaru relax her hands - besides, her nails were digging into her palms - and she looked at the floor between them, "I've already told you, we're childhood friends. I can't tell you any more; you'd never begin to believe me," she looked back at them with steely resolve, "But I won't let you bully me into any other decision. I still like you very much, and there's plenty of time to meet up after school or at week-"
"You've had barely any time since the end of the last school year; how are we meant to believe that?" Naoyo asked, looking just as irritated as Masae.
"I'm sorry, Hideme-chan, Masae-chan, Naoyo-chan," said Hikaru, at length, "But I have to do this, and I don't mean to be short of time. I have lots of kendo tournaments coming up for my scholarship into CLAMP School, and I have to dedicate all my spare time-"
She was interrupted again, this time by Hideme, "To meeting up with 'Fuu-chan' and 'Umi-chan', right?"
"You don't understand," repeated Hikaru, "So please, if you don't have anything else to say, I would like to begin my day's training."
Hikari let out a loud whine outside the door and barked sharply, making the other girls jump. They were surprised about Hikaru standing up to them, and they left with barely a word. As the last girl, Hideme, left the room, Hikari took his chance to race in and check up on his beloved mistress.
Hikaru dropped to her knees, hugging the huge dog, "Thank you Hikari, for looking after me. You believe me, don't you?" Hikari gave her a doggy smile and licked her face. She laughed and nestled her face in his fur, "You're the best, Hikari!"
Umi was struggling. She disliked the more 'technical' subjects, as she called them, like mathematics and the sciences. Fuu was wonderful at them, and Hikaru excelled at Biology. Umi excelled at English and culinary skills, but this just left her confused. Maybe she should invite them over sometime for a study session.
Looking to take a break from study in her frustration, Umi looked around her room. Decorated as if it were fit for a Princess, her spacious bedroom was covered in paper, textbooks, exercise books, pens, and somewhere underneath all of this was her laptop. It was probably overheating somewhere by now. She sighed and started to organise her study materials into messy piles by subject.
She looked up when alerted to a noise; her mobile phone was ringing. Hikaru. What a relief!
"What's up, Hikaru? I was just trying to cram some studying in for maths and science."
There was a brief pause on the other end of the phone, "Oh, it's nothing, Umi-chan. I was just wondering how you're doing today. I got up kind of late, I'm practicing kendo today for my scholarship."
Umi wondered about Hikaru's hesitation at the beginning of the call, but discarded it. Hikaru rarely worried about anything, "That's good, Hikaru! You'll be amazing. I left it too late to register for a sports scholarship - I didn't even think about it - so, unfortunately, I'll have to get in via the entrance exams like Fuu," she laughed somewhat sadly, "It's not going very well though. Do you think I can pay Fuu to tutor me?"
"Umi-chan, won't your parents pay to get you into CLAMP School?" Hikaru asked, sounding bewildered; Umi had been in a private junior high for almost three years now.
Umi bit her lip; she hadn't spoken to Hikaru about this, and obviously Fuu hadn't shared it with her either, "Hikaru, my parents actually want to move to Kanazawa for my senior high, so I am trying my hardest to get into CLAMP in other ways. I have to work hard to prove it, because I don't think they'll agree to pay it when I'm going against their plans."
"My friends from junior high don't want me to go to CLAMP School, either, Umi-chan," Hikaru laughed as if she were about to cry, "Don't you think it would sometimes be easier and make us a lot happier to just go and permanently live in New Cephiro?"
Umi released a similar laugh, "I often think that, Hikaru. But the three of us promised that we'd stay here until we're done with senior high before we decide anything drastic like that," Her phone made a beeping noise, "Hold up, I have a mail. Can we talk later, Hikaru?"
"Sure thing, Umi-chan. It was good to talk."
"I think so too; thank you. Bye bye, then!"
The mail was from Fuu, asking if she was on the line because she'd been trying to get through as well. She was suggesting that they meet up for study: great!
"Fuu, I was just considering this before Hikaru called!"
"Oh, good! I was really thinking that we could go study outside at Hikaru-san's dojo while the weather is nice. Then she can do her studying, and we can do ours. And Umi-san, did you tell her why you're having to study so hard?"
"Because I'm totally lame at these subjects?" Umi proposed.
Fuu laughed in her good-natured way, "No, no. About the moving."
"Ah, yes. She also said her friends had come and challenged her about why she's trying to get into CLAMP School with us, and that she sometimes thinks it would be easier to move to New Cephiro instead."
Fuu was quiet for a few moments, and then said to Umi, "I have to agree with Hikaru-san, though. And it's true, Yorino-san and Norie-san in my class have been telling me I shouldn't expect you two to go to CLAMP School with me. Also, they want me to go to another school with them, but I have explained that Kuu-oneesama attends that academy."
"I guess it's easier to explain, for you. Do you think I should be worried that my school friends will have that conversation with me, too?"
"I'm afraid so, Umi-san. Nobody really understands us."
Umi nodded, unaware for the moment that Fuu couldn't see her doing it. A sly smile crept across her face, "Say, Fuu. If you marry Ferio, will you stay in New Cephiro?"
"Ummm...Umi-san...we haven't really-"
"And I don't think there's any real contraceptives in Cephiro, so if you have to consummate the marriage, there's always the chance you might get pregnant."
There was a resounding silence from Fuu's end of the line, and Umi almost thought she could feel heat from Fuu's face radiating from her own mobile phone, "...so Umi-san, shall I organise this with Hikaru-san and let you know what the arrangements are?"
Umi stifled a laugh - she had to hang up now, "That's great, Fuu. Let me know. Bye bye!" And with that, she fell back onto her bed and laughed, throwing her mobile phone down beside her - teasing Fuu about her relationship with Ferio never failed to be entertaining.
Umi sighed with a smile on her face as her laughter subsided. There was her own love life to consider. She must have someone on her mind; she'd been turning down every boy that confessed to her recently, without a second thought. Who could be occupying her thoughts so fully? She very much enjoyed the company of New Cephiro's Master Mage - Guru Clef - but she didn't really see this going anywhere any more. Clef seemed to care for all three of the Magic Knights quite equally, but there was that one person that frequently asked Umi if she had a boyfriend, and he was starting to become less and less subtle towards the blue-haired Knight.
It must be so much easier, Umi considered, to be the ingenuous and clueless Hikaru, or indeed Fuu, who was officially in a relationship, "With the Prince, no less," Umi added to herself, wondering how the quiet, shy Fuu had ended up with such a catch.
The catch himself was sat rather dejectedly in his room at New Cephiro Castle. Because of their studying, and this wedding the Magic Knights had been attending, they hadn't managed to find time to visit New Cephiro this weekend. Ferio disliked being away from Fuu for this long, even though he knew it was quite an inconvenience to keep lying to her parents about why she and her two dearest friends went to the exact same location every weekend, and how she'd become so close to them during one short school trip.
He had been in the Castle's large library over the course of the morning, looking to find any information about "marriage". It intrigued him; there was no concept of marriage in Cephiro. Long-term partnerships, yes, but no official ceremonies or statuses.
Through Caldina, Ferio had learned some of Umi's knowledge; in a large part of their world, the culture was for the suitor to offer rings for "engagement" and "marriage". He had been slightly unnerved by this information, as he had already placed one of his late sister's gold rings on Fuu's finger.
Ferio decided to go looking for Lantis. He was sure Lantis had spoken to Hikaru about marriage before.
He first tried the indoor courtyard where the evacuated people of former Cephiro had spent many of their waking hours. Lantis often relaxed here, along with some familiar children from the newly constructed New Cephiro Castle Town. No sign of the magic swordsman here.
"Prince, are you looking for me?"
Ferio looked up. Of course. Lantis was sat in the tallest tree in the room. Lantis had a habit of sitting in trees, Ferio found. Long ago when he had been young and (still) disinterested in being in line for the throne, spending his time sword fighting, Lantis had always been found in the Castle grounds sat in a tree somewhere. It was very strange for the Captain of the Royal Guards to be doing this, though Cephiro had always been an extremely quiet place; and in the end, danger to the Princess's life had only come from inside her own heart.
"Prince Ferio. Do you even recall your title?"
Ferio grinned up at the magic swordsman. "It does take some getting used to, having been just 'Ferio' for so long."
Lantis watched with mild amusement as Ferio climbed the tree to join him. He wasn't as agile as he had been when trapped in the Forest of Silence – good meals and months moping around the Castle while Fuu wasn't there had ensured that.
"What's on your mind, Prince?"
Ferio sighed, "Lantis, just 'Ferio' is fine," he smiled up at the taller swordsman, "Now, Hikaru has been talking to you about 'marriage', right? Because I was thinking, I've pretty much 'proposed' to Fuu by accident."
Lantis looked out across the large courtyard for a few moments, trying to hold in a smirk, "She hasn't actually told me a lot. Hikaru is a very sweet but simple girl, and she probably over-simplifies or romanticises things."
The two of them looked over as a third person entered the artificial garden; Ascot.
"I just think it sounds like an interesting way to bond. And I have to produce heirs eventually, right? I can't imagine a better woman to 'marry'."
Ascot looked up at them, "What are you talking about up there?"
Lantis leaned forward a little, "Ferio is talking about 'marrying' Fuu; do you have any ideas?"
Ascot appeared bemused, "What do you mean? To produce heirs, you said?"
At this, Ferio nudged Lantis gently in the ribs, "Yeah, on Earth it's done publicly for people to express their love to each other."
The young summoner looked startled. Ferio and Lantis withheld grins.
"Babies are born out of partnerships in New Cephiro, aren't they? I guess it's not so different..." Lantis continued. Ferio was finding it very hard not to laugh at this, as Ascot's eyes grew wider and wider. He abruptly turned and walked out of the room, allowing Ferio and Lantis to unrestrictedly laugh at his naivety. Despite not really helping Ferio's research on marriage, it had provided them with a very elaborate joke to continue to play on Ascot.
"Do you think he's a virgin?"
"He must be," Lantis affirmed, "He's only recently grown into an adult, and he's only been chasing Umi's tail since then," he narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Ferio, "So you...are not?"
The Prince looked slightly shameful, "No, I'm not. You know how it is. I was very young and attractive, and so were the girls in Aueria by the Sea."
"And so modest," Lantis added, "They didn't know you were the Prince?"
"No, I was just a commoner as far as they knew," Ferio shrugged, "Well, what's done is done. I wish I could have saved it for Fuu, though. I'm doing this properly."
Lantis raised a dark eyebrow, "So, you haven't..."
"We haven't even kissed, Lantis."