Endrance stood at the pier's end, gazing towards Hy Brasail with unparalleled joy; he sought inner calm to match that, a cease to his heart's pounding. Haseo waited on the deck of the ship, but it seemed right to pause for a moment before setting sail, to cherish the moment and imprint it to memory…
Mia would give her blessing for this, he was sure. He tried to imagine what she'd say.
A marriage? Well that's good, isn't it, Elk? You certainly look happy. I hope he's a nice person.
Yes, she'd approve. If she could meet Haseo herself, and hear about his wonderful deeds, she'd like his strength and straightforwardness. And not want Endrance to be sad, if she couldn't make it to the ceremony for some reason. He turned away from the water, and looked towards Haseo with a smile. It was returned, with a beckoning tilt of the head.
Sailing towards a brighter future, Endrance thought, no matter how clichéd it might sound. Just so long as it was their cliché.
"Endrance? What the hell happened to your PC?"
Endrance blinked, not seeming the least bit shocked. "You…don't like it?"
"You do?" Haseo asked, incredulous. The palette swap on its own would have been okay - cooling from purple, red and gold down to white, blue and silver - but what was up with that veil? It had to be a mistake, some kind of glitch in the marriage system. "Uh, you can't de-equip that, can you?"
"Ah, since it's a special occasion…" Endrance crossed his hands over his chest, looking more subdued. Haseo wasn't sure if that meant 'I can't' or 'I don't want to'.
And no matter how crazy it looked, this wasn't the time to complain, he realised. If Endrance didn't want the veil, there was no point going on about something unfixable, and if he did want it then...that was fine. It was fine.
"Well, so long as it's not a dress," Haseo said, with a nervous laugh. "C'mon, let's get on with this."
"Yes… I'll declare my love to all of The World, Haseo."
Trust Endrance to throw new drama into an already dramatic event. It didn't change anything, though. How could it, at this stage? Haseo kept his eyes on Endrance, ignoring the guests gathered below the podium (both his crowning parties had involved a few people he'd never met; he'd be damned if he knew where they came from, and twice damned if he was going to let some stranger screw this up).
Hazy lights brightened - making the veil shimmer, embroidery curling over translucent fabric, and Haseo was glad beyond words that it hadn't been his PC stuck with that thing - and a Vital Vista began ascending the steps to solemn fanfare. It was dressed up like a wizard, with a long beard and pointed hat. Well, probably a priest rather than a wizard. When it halted in front of Haseo and Endrance, all the lights faded save those encircling them.
"An auspicious day! A delightful day!" the priest declared, waving its staff. "On this day, two fine citizens have chosen to bless each other with love, and so we in turn lay our blessings upon them!" And so it carried on. Haseo stopped paying attention, since it was only a scripted NPC; he just caught its instruction for the couple to join hands.
The word 'couple' was a new idea, and made it sound too formal, but he didn't think he minded.
So he took Endrance's hand, and managed a brief smile. He'd faced the AIDA-infected mobs in Sage Palace, he'd helped rally The World to end the Third Network Crisis, and no way would he look hesitant about anything less. And Endrance's expression was so warm, his grip on Haseo's hand so tight, he was so clearly happy – which was the entire point of this – that nothing else mattered. Nothing else was allowed to.
The Vital Vista made its final proclamation, then vanished in a flash of smoke. Confetti clouded the air with flurries of white rose petals (man, could the event designers have made this any more sugary?), bells pealed out, and that, Haseo supposed, was the easiest part over with.
In defiance of his own self-consciousness, he didn't let go of Endrance's hand just yet. A reminder that under this was something real, something that kept him going along with it - and did, after all, make him glad he'd finally sent that stupid Promise Card.
Of course, Endrance hadn't wanted to leave Haseo's side after the ceremony's end. But now came the stage of mingling and talking with guests, and he wasn't in the mood to work through that, to be dragged out of this blissful haze yet, to gaze at anyone who didn't make his heart soar. Perhaps that was immature, but this was a day of indulgence, wasn't it?
Haseo fared better in a social environment; he was blunt and serious-minded, but could co-exist with many kinds of people. It reminded Endrance of his fortune, to be chosen above all of them. So he left Haseo to talk with his friends, and wandered off to a secluded corner of the island, to wait and put dazzled thoughts in order.
Endrance looked down and recognised the PC, but this wasn't the sibling who usually approached him. "…Bo?"
"Yeah. I hope you don't mind that it's me here and not Saku, but I was worried she might get mad. Is that okay?"
"That was considerate," Endrance replied. Bo seemed a good-hearted child, from the limited amount they'd spoken in the past, and Saku's reaction had been a concern, if she'd shown up.
"Um, can I ask you a question?"
"Well, you know how Haseo is like my big brother? So…does that mean you're my brother too now? I don't know how it works." He stared at the floor, shuffling his feet.
"You'd like me to be?" Endrance asked, with a mote of caution. He was either going to be welcomed or warned away.
"Y-yeah, I think so." Bo looked up, nodding brightly. "You're kind of shy sometimes like me, and I like the flowers on your hat. And if Haseo thinks you're super nice then it must be true!"
"I'm flattered, then."
"So it's okay? Thank you!" Bo said, flustered. Endrance smiled (though inwardly, he winced at imagining the next encounter between Saku and Haseo).
"Congratulations, Haseo!" chorused Silabus and Gaspard, their usual cheery selves. They hadn't batted an eye when Haseo had explained about the marriage - in fact, they'd been so unsurprised it was almost suspicious.
"Thanks, guys. Any excuse for a party, huh?"
"You think so? You're been crowned Emperor so many times, we're virtually sick of this place!" Gaspard said, laughing.
"Heh, I guess we have been here pretty often."
"But this is a special occasion! :)" Silabus replied. "It's only once in a lifetime that somebody gets married – well, unless it doesn't work out. But let's not dwell on that!"
"Haseo!" cried a new voice, high and excitable. Tabby launched into an unexpected hug - though this time she let go before Haseo could shove her off. She skipped back, clapping her hands. "Con-gra-tu-la-tions!"
"Hey, what? What was that for?" he grumbled.
"To congratulate you on a happy marriage!" She glanced to Silabus and Gaspard for support; they beamed and nodded. "I'm glad that even a person like Haseo can find romance deep in his heart. Even if he's spoiling it with that look on his face right now."
"Haha, yeah," Silabus said, folding his arms behind his head. "That's Haseo for you. Sometimes he acts stern even when he's smiling inside. Though sometimes he really is stern, so…"
Tabby tilted her head quizzically. "Oh, but then how can you tell what he really thinks?"
"Good friends can always tell!" Gaspard chimed in.
"Right!" Her sudden shout startled Haseo, making him take a half-step back. Tabby pointed her finger at him, declaring, "Haseo, we've seen through this cool outer shell! There's no need to act so reserved on your wedding day. …Oh, but maybe it's different for two guys? But I don't see why it would be! We won't show prejudice!"
"I wasn't worried about-"
"That's right! Haseo is our friend, and all that matters is his happiness!" Silabus cried, and punched the air.
"It's not-" Haseo tried again to correct them, but they weren't paying attention, caught up in their own version of reality.
"People like that should be ashamed!" Tabby gave what was probably meant to be a militant glare, stamping her feet. "Nobody should make you feel stifled or ganged up on for expressing your true love!"
"Why does it feel like I'm being ganged up on now?" Haseo muttered, folding his arms as he looked from one grin to another. But hey, at least they meant well…
Endrance hadn't minded the brief interruption from Bo, in the end. Still, after that he'd moved to somewhere even further out of the way, and continued to wait for Haseo. It wouldn't be fair to show impatience. Even though this day was focused on the two of them, even if nobody else's presence was needed here, it wouldn't be right to demand yet more attention. So Endrance could wait. He was good at that.
He was not, apparently, good at finding places to hide on Hy Brasail.
"Um, Endrance? Congratulations on the ceremony and everything. It's lovely," Atoli said, hands clasped as she took a polite little bow.
"Thank you, Atoli."
"Do you think we could talk for a moment?" she asked. When Endrance nodded she took a deep breath, then spoke rapidly, apparently rushing the words out before she lost nerve: "It's about Haseo. And you. I – I don't want to ruin your big day, I really don't, if you're really in love. But is that it, is this not just a strange joke or something?"
A joke? How could anyone think it was a joke? "I love Haseo with all my heart. The sun rises when we meet, and sets when we part ways… He's truly everything to me."
"T-truly? And he…? Oh! Well then, well – that's lovely! I hope you're very happy together." She paused, then said more quietly, "I do hope you make him happy, Endrance."
"Of course... I hope that you, too, find happiness," Endrance replied, and again thought of how fortunate he was. He suspected that Atoli didn't feel this was a lovely situation at all.
Come to think of it, when he'd met Haseo in front of the Chaos Gate he recalled hearing a wail that sounded like Atoli's voice. But he'd been so caught up in euphoria, and the rest of the world had seemed so distant, washed out and paper thin compared to the glowing colours Haseo brought…
"Pi, Kuhn. Hey guys."
"Hello, Haseo. I suppose congratulations are in order?"
"Haseo! Man, you've really surprised me…"
"Come on, like I don't know what you're going to say. Think of it this way, Kuhn: all the more girls left for you."
"Naturally! But why have none of the girls I know sent me that card?"
"Well, the Promise Card is rare - or perhaps they just had more sense. Choose whichever option makes you feel better," Pi said dryly, then fixed her gaze on Haseo. "Putting that aside - I hope you don't mind my asking, but it this-"
"Really serious? You're the third person to ask me that. It's getting old."
She frowned and adjusted her glasses. "That's not answering the question."
Haseo deliberately broke eye contact, folding his arms. "Is it anyone else's business if I am or not?"
"I only ask out of concern. You must know that Endrance's player isn't the most emotionally sturdy person. I doubt your intentions are unkind, but you shouldn't start anything you won't see through. Does that make sense?" She glanced to Kuhn, who had begun sidling off towards another group of players. "Where are you going?"
"The famous Haseo had a lot of female fans, you know. I can't stand by and watch all those beautiful eyes fill with despair!"
Pi sighed. "And people wonder why I'm not interested in relationships myself."
Haseo said nothing. If Pi was looking out for Endrance's welfare, fair enough, but he couldn't help resenting her scepticism. Weren't his feelings laid out plainly now, his barriers eased down, wasn't it obvious? Wasn't it?
This was how he'd spent his first coronation as Emperor, Endrance recalled. Standing at the end of a secluded pier (truly secluded, hard to reach without a spot of climbing), gazing at the silk-grey clouds and slate-blue ocean, the setting sun and distant torchlight of Mac Anu's harbour. This wasn't how he had felt back then, nothing remotely like it.
"You like watching the water, don't you?"
"I do." Endrance smiled, without turning around. At last, Haseo appeared by his side.
"They're trying to get everyone dancing now," Haseo complained, with a gesture back towards the main courtyard. "Heh, but since you'd already sneaked off, I got an excuse to go look for you."
"Was that okay for me to do?"
Haseo shrugged. "It didn't bother me. I mean, I know it would've been nice to have the place to ourselves. I'm not sure how so many people ended up here, actually."
"…Why did you send me the Promise Card?"
The question seemed to puzzle Haseo. "Why do you think?"
"To make me happy," Endrance replied. "And naturally you've succeeded. But Haseo, a marriage's purpose isn't to make one person happy. If we don't benefit in equal measure, then it's no marriage at all… Don't you think that's true?"
"Huh? Who said I'm not happy too?"
"You seemed unsure earlier on…"
"Well, I guess I was surprised to see your PC." There was humour in Haseo's voice, as he raised a hand to his forehead. "Stuff like that makes people think we're playing some big joke, you know."
"Ah… I simply wished to show my sincerity."
"Then don't dress up like a bride. Geez," Haseo replied, but the humour was still there rather than annoyance. "Anyway, I wanted to apologise."
"Apologise?" Confused, Endrance studied his face, and found an unexpected smile when their eyes met.
"Yeah. You promised me your heart ages ago, right? So, sorry it took this long to give mine."
Endrance feared that elation might melt him before he could act. He stepped forward, wrapped his arms around Haseo and drew him close, pressed the space between them to nothing. And oh, Haseo didn't just tolerate the embrace but returned it, in the stop-start manner of one who clearly wasn't used to this – but was going to try.
"Haseo…" he whispered, and there was no need for words beyond that. No more declarations, no more ritual, just the two of them together at the conclusion. He stroked his fingers through Haseo's hair, kissed his temple – just once, not abandoning restraint completely, not yet – felt such a serene rush of warmth, an awareness of each place Haseo's body touched his, that it was hard to separate the virtual world from reality. So long as the emotion was real, what did anything else matter?
Then came the moment when it changed, shifting from an embrace to something else: when Haseo's hands tightened, when his face tilted up, and time slowed as his mouth met Endrance's.
Endrance's love had been accepted…and now, it seemed that it could even be returned.
Author's Notes: Well, that was the final chapter! Thank you to everyone who has reviewed; you've made me very glad I decided to post this story. Now I'm thinking of writing a sequel, where – amongst other events – Ryou and Kaoru eventually meet up in real life. Maybe?