Happy Birthday, Umi!
Ryuuzaki Umi nervously stroked the blue dragon brooch at her neck. She'd received it this morning as a birthday present from her boyfriend Scott. She turned twenty-four today, and had been living in America roughly four years. It wasn't like she was unused to travel. It was ten years previous that she had taken not one but two trips to that foreign world of Cephiro.
She didn't talk about that experience to any others besides Fuu and Hikaru because no one else would believe her if she did. Those lovely girls would always be her dear friends. She knew that in her heart, so the fact that she had not spoken to them in a while, except for the birthday calls this morning, did not truly bother her. She knew they would be there the instant she needed them.
Umi had always done well in school, and since English was her favorite subject, she decided to take a university study in the United States. It was here that she met Scott. They had been dating each other regularly for a year.
Scott Templeton was a kind young man, as were his parents. He had a soft spot for animals and was going to be a veterinarian. His parents liked helping children so much that they had a private school of sorts for troubled youth with special needs. That sense of giving to others really appealed to Umi after having been twice to Cephiro, so it was easy for her to fall for Scott.
Scott was going to take her out to dinner tonight. He said he had a surprise for her that she would never expect. She joked that since it was her birthday, it had to be something related to that, but he wouldn't tell her exactly what his plans were.
In the meantime, it was her coworkers at the Templeton Ranch who were making Umi nervous. They were bringing out a birthday cake to her, and it looked like a disaster in the making. The cake was huge and covered in candles. If they dropped the cake or if any of the candles fell, they might well set the whole place on fire. In Cephiro, she would have easily extinguished the flames with her water-based magic. Back on earth, she could do nothing but watch her friends with a growing sense of trepidation.
When the cake was safely put on the table, she let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding.
"Don't sound like that!" her friend Jessie teased. Jessie worked teaching the children math and a few of the leisure sports. "You have to save your breath to blow out the candles."
"I wasn't sure you'd get the cake in here without dropping it," Umi admitted. "You know cakes are my specialty. Why didn't you let me do it?"
Steve ambled over to her with a snigger on his face. "Well, duh, Umi! It's your birthday, so you can't cook!"
She grimaced but did not reply.
"So," Joan, another coworker, said, clapping her hands together excitedly, "let's get this party started!"
The rest of the people around her gave sounds of agreement. She was surprised at how many of her coworkers got involved, but Scott had told her that morning that it's because everyone loved her. He did have to wink and tell her that he loved her the most, though.
Umi laughed at him then because he was being his incorrigible, charming self. She'd always enjoyed being with Scott, which was why they'd been a couple for a while. He then gave her the dragon she wore at her neck and the promise for an interesting date in the evening because he couldn't attend this afternoon party with their work friends.
"Hey, beautiful dreamer," Steve said with a nudge. "Earth to Umi! Blow out the candles on your cake."
"Make a wish, Umi!" her friends chanted to her.
She looked around at them, smiling at each one. She was about to open her mouth to speak, when Jessie interrupted.
"You can't tell us your wish, silly! If you do, it won't come true. Now blow out the candles!"
Umi tucked a strand of her long hair behind her ear and thought of her heart's greatest wish. She didn't see anything specific but took a moment to feel what that desire might be. After a while, she felt warmth radiating in her heart that was so strong she couldn't tame it. She wasn't sure what the wish was, but the former Water Knight then blew out the candles on the cake.
Applause erupted from those around her. She was then hugged by her friends and handed several gifts.
"Have your family and friends in Japan called you?" Joan inquired politely when she sat down beside Umi.
She gave a short nod once while she held on to her cake plate. "I spoke to my parents and my best friends Hikaru and Fuu this morning."
"That's good, sweetie," the older woman said as she clasped Umi's knee reassuringly. Joan taught the children history and social studies, and she was often asking Umi questions about Japan.
"It's not Japan she's thinking about for this evening, is it?" Jessie asked with a mischievous look in her eyes. "I've heard Scott has something important he wants to ask her."
"What is that?" Steve joked, playing along with Jessie's game. "He has a question to ask her? I wonder what that could be!"
"I wonder, indeed," Joan said playfully as she cast a sidelong glance at Umi.
Umi's blue eyes were filled with pure innocence. "What do you mean? What's this important question he has to ask me?"
"Oh, Umi," Jessie said as if she thought Umi was the sweetest thing in the world. Umi remembered that tone for one she'd used herself with Hikaru on several occasions when she told her how cute she was. "You'll just have to see, and then come back and tell me all the details!"
"So when's lover boy going to pick you up?" Steve asked between bites of cake.
"He said six o'clock. We're driving off to some fancy restaurant in the city," Umi said with a smile on her face. Scott had told her to dress formally, and she enjoyed her few chances to do that.
"You'd better get ready soon, Umi, or else you won't look stunning enough for Scott," teased Joan.
Jessie gaped at the older woman. "That sounds like something I would say! Don't mind her, Umi. You know Scott is head over heels for you."
Umi laughed at her trio of friends. "I have just the outfit to wear, but it's still a few hours away. I think I'll get my work done before I get ready."
Steve nodded at the sense of that. "It leaves you free to enjoy the evening."
"Yes, and it helps me not count the minutes!" she said with a smile.
After that, Umi went to her small office and finished random paperwork she had waiting for her. That was the trouble with paperwork. There was always something to do, even when one had a birthday.
Scott Templeton adjusted the bowtie at his neck. He had put on a black and white tuxedo, and he hoped Umi would find his appearance dashing. His brown hair was cut short, and his green eyes revealed the excitement he was feeling.
He double-checked the contents of his pocket. Yes, the little box was still there. He'd ask her tonight. He had all the romantic moments planned so it would be perfect.
He laughed to himself as he remembered something Steve had teased him about earlier.
"In Japan, she's Ryuuzaki Umi, right?"
"Yes, of course she is. Joan made sure to tell us everything when Umi came to work for us," Scott said with an exaggerated sigh about Joan's enjoyment about everything Japanese, including Umi.
"So if she marries you and she keeps her own name, will she be Ryuuzaki Umi Templeton?" Steve said with a laugh at his own joke.
Scott didn't know about that exactly, but to his mind's ear, Umi Templeton had a fabulous sound to it. It first had to start with the ring he had in his pocket.
Finally pleased with his appearance, he walked the short distance to the garage and picked one of his father's finest vehicles. Richard Templeton had been successful in stocks and bonds before deciding he would rather feel stress in a different way—by giving back to the community.
They all lived and worked on the same compound, so picking Umi up at her door was not that much of a trip. He said he would, though, and he wanted to do it in style. He gingerly walked to her door and knocked three times.
Time ticked ever so slowly. He thought she'd open the door right away and run out to give him a hug and a kiss if he was lucky. Instead she didn't do either of those things. The sound from inside was stark silence.
"Umi?" he called out from her doorstep.
After a moment, he heard the sound of feet moving lightly on the other side of the door. The young woman opened the door, and Scott lost his breath.
Umi's hair was piled elegantly on top of her head. There was a thin scarf around her hair to keep it up, and wavy tendrils were falling down. She wore a form-fitting dark blue sequined turtle neck halter top, black slacks and black high heels. She was fumbling to put on her earrings.
"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I couldn't find the right kind of earrings. I had to get a pair from your mother."
Umi had never pierced her ears. For that matter, neither had Hikaru or Fuu had pierced ears, though it was common for earth girls to do so. She noted that most of the men she'd met in Cephiro had pierced ears, though. Clef had these gold hoops that could barely be seen from under his jeweled headdress, but they were there.
Clef… she thought with an errant sigh, and immediately brought her attention back to the moment.
"Shall we go?" Scott asked, holding his arm out chivalrously.
"Yes!" she smiled brightly as she entwined her arm with his.
The evening had gone splendidly as Scott had planned. The flowers were Umi's favorites; the meal was prepared to perfection. The dessert they'd just finished was delectable. Now was the moment of truth.
His hand shook as he reached over to take hers. "Umi, I have one last thing to give you if you'll accept it."
"But I can't possibly accept another birthday present!" she said with good-natured surprise. "I love my dragon pin, and this date has been… one that Jessie will surely keep me up late asking about all the details over and over gain."
"The pin does look good on you," Scott said, admiring the blue dragon at his girlfriend's neck, "but this isn't technically a birthday present."
"What is it?" she asked as if she couldn't fathom what it could possibly be.
He cleared his throat. "I love you, Umi, more than I love anyone else. I must do this the right way, though," he said with a rueful expression.
Scott slipped out of his own chair to kneel beside Umi. Then he took the ring box out of his pocket and opened it to show her the diamond solitaire inside. "Umi Ryuuzaki, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
Her eyes widened. It finally registered in the back of her brain what the hints from Jessie and the others had meant.
"Thank you," she said in shock as he put the ring on her left hand.
"Does that mean you'll say yes?" he asked with a look of hope and a slight expression of fear that she would refuse him.
Umi mutely nodded and reached for him. Scott hugged her close like she was the most precious thing in the world, and to him she was.
On the drive home, Scott was chattering like mad with all the plans that he had for their life together. Umi could have laughed because she'd usually seen American girls do all the wedding planning, not the men. She had no doubt that Scott truly cared for her, and it made her heart feel light.
At least you know for certain how he feels about you, a voice inside herself said. She frowned, wondering where that remark came from when this was one of the happiest moments in her life.
That's not true, Umi, the inner voice teased. Some of your happiest moments were spent doing nothing. With him.
It doesn't matter. None of it matters, she reasoned with herself. I'll never see Cephiro again.
"Umi!" Scott said with a smile as he reached for her hand. "I've been talking so much, and I haven't even let you tell me what your plans are. I'm so sorry, love!"
"I don't mind," she covered.
He took that small amount of encouragement and continued talking even more about his ideas for a house and children. They'd buy their own horses, too. Umi could even take up fencing again if she wanted.
He continued to talk so much that he wasn't really watching the road. Since they were going back to the ranch, there usually weren't other vehicles to worry about, but Umi thought she saw something ahead of them.
"Stop!" she cried out as she realized what it was.
"What is it?" Scott asked with a laugh, not seeing the man that was standing in front of them as still as a deer caught in the headlights.
"Stop the car!" she shouted desperately as they got closer.
He looked and finally saw the other man near them and immediately slammed on the breaks. It was too late, and they hit him head on.
Umi screamed, defensively putting her arms up in front of her face. Her forehead slammed into the dashboard of the vehicle, and her consciousness turned to black.