A/n: Sorry for the long update, all will be explained in time...
"No!" Hikaru shrieked when Eagle approached.
"Anything but this," Fuu whispered; tears entering her eyes as Ferio drew his sword.
Umi could only stare at Clef who raised his staff against her.
Shadow cackled menacingly, "Soon Cephiro will be mine; I've discovered the ultimate weapon."
"Never," Umi mumbled; the first to raise her sword into fighting position.
"Umi-san," Fuu gasped, and Umi looked at her desperately.
"Do we have a choice? It's them or Cephiro, and if Cephiro goes, they go too. Either way we lose."
"But…" Hikaru's eyes clouded, but her love for her country was overwhelming as she too readied herself to fight her Protector.
Fuu looked softly at Ferio; she was about to fight the only man she'd ever loved. With shaking hands, she pulled her sword into attack position and for the first time in her life, she felt its true weight, "Ashiteru Ferio," she choked, as a tear slipped down her cheek.
Eagle was the first to attack; he had been under the spell the longest. He charged forward, but when he met Hikaru's sword, she couldn't bring herself to fight, and her blade slipped from her hands. It was sucked into her ovum before it hit the ground. Eagle raised his sword to finish her off but met Lantis' stroke instead. Eagle's eyes flashed murder as he shifted his weight to better accustom himself to Lantis' strength and size.
"Umi, look out!" Ascot threw her from the blast of magic that exploded from Clef's staff, getting himself hit instead.
"Ascot, no!" Umi screamed and before she thought, "Koori no Yaiba!"
"Umi-san!" Fuu called seconds too late. The whirlwind of snow and ice began to hail down onto the Master Mage, and all their eyes widened in horror.
Clef, shocked, managed a shield toward the end of the attack, panting heavily and using his staff as a crutch to lean on, "Umi-hime?"
"I'm sorry Clef," she closed her eyes as she began to cast once more.
"Umi," Ascot grabbed her leg. "You can't."
Umi knelt down to where Ascot lay, and Clef began to attack her back, but Fuu caught it just in time, "Imashime no Kaze!"
Umi looked up and gave Fuu a grateful smile, "Fu…" but her call never made it to her ears as Ferio lunged and slashed a deep gouge into the Wind Knight's side, "Fuu!"
Hikaru turned from Lantis and Eagle's battle to see the Wind Knight lying in a pool of her own blood, sprawled out on the cold ground, "Fuu-chan!"
Umi jumped from Fuu's shield, leaving Ascot safe behind it as Hikaru joined her to stand in front of the Wind Knight. Umi met Ferio's sword and just barely heard Hikaru's spell, "Akai Inazuma!"
But Clef was ready this time and shielded it, moving forward.
Sweat began to pour from Umi's brow as she parried and attacked, refusing Ferio access to his lover. For a split second, she turned, hearing a sword clatter to the ground. She found it was Eagle's before Ferio cut her across the face and blood began to pour down her cheeks.
"No!" Hikaru summoned her sword to prevent Lantis' killing strike, barely holding Lantis' sword in front of the cowering Eagle. In her absence, Clef gained a vantage and pummeled an already battered Fuu with magic.
Umi, hearing her friend's shriek, jumped in front of the magic as it forced her to her knees. The fire of it seared her flesh.
"Ferio," Fuu moaned as tears slipped down her cheeks, "Why?"
"Fuu-chan?" Ferio's eyes snapped open as he surveyed the scene and ran to his lover's side.
"Damn it!" Shadow hissed, trying to latch onto Ferio once more.
"You've lost your hold," Umi whispered triumphantly as she tried to stand.
Eagle's eyes cleared, and he grabbed Hikaru in a tight embrace, "Gomen nasai, Hikaru-hime."
Shadow's eyes began to flicker – was that fear? "But I still have Clef and his magic," she boasted.
"Not anymore," Umi smiled smugly and nodded to Ascot.
Too late did Shadow recognize the Summoner's presence and the minute his friend attacked, Umi leapt to where Shadow stood behind them and yanked the opal that dangled around her neck free. She laughed triumphantly and though weary, managed the short walk to Clef. She pressed it into his hands and leaned toward him, "Ashiteru," she murmured against his ear, and his eyes cleared. He pulled away and stared at her, then at the opal in his hand, then to Ascot who was still lying injured behind Fuu's barrier of wind. He didn't know who to apologize to first, but an inhuman cry snapped him awake to the reality where they were still in the middle of a battle.
Shadow tossed the small raven that had once been Ascot's friend to the ground, flapping its broken wings uselessly, and hate entered Umi's eyes when she looked at Ascot's torn expression. She raised her hand, her blue ovum flashing, "Selece."
Fuu nodded weakly and managed to stand with Ferio's help, "Windam," her voice was soft, even for her.
"Rayearth!" Hikaru sprang from her position next to Eagle, smiling bitterly.
This time they knew it was fear in Shadow's eyes when the three Rune Gods spiraled out of their resting places and landed in front of her.
"It's over," Hikaru informed as the three raised their swords. She didn't even have a chance to scream.
"How is she?" Hikaru asked anxiously when Clef exited Fuu's room.
"She's fine, Ferio's with her," Clef answered wearily, and everyone was able to let out a sigh of relief.
"That's good to hear," Presea smiled, getting a nod from everyone.
"And Umi-chan?" Hikaru continued.
"She…" he grimaced slightly, "took a little more than a sword scrape. I – never thought – no one should have been able to survive the amount of magic she was hit with, let alone have the energy to keep fighting. She and Ascot are resting, but her internal wounds are plentiful and she's developed quite a fever."
"What does that mean?" Hikaru demanded frantically.
"Umi-hime will be touch and go for awhile is all," Eagle tried to assure her.
"Y-you m-mean she-she- m-might…" Hikaru's lip trembled, unable to contemplate the possibility.
"Don't be ridiculous," Caldina scolded.
"Yeah, if she survived all that magic she'll definitely get better," Presea's words brought light back into Hikaru's eyes, and both Eagle and Lantis smiled at her thankfully. She bowed her head slightly in response.
"Yeah, Umi-chan and Fuu-chan will be just fine," Hikaru grinned, and her smile restored everyone's confidence.
"Speaking of which," Eagle poked Hikaru gently in the ribs. "Don't you have some resting to do yourself?"
She turned to Lantis for help, but he just gazed at her sternly, "Bed," he instructed.
"You guys!" Hikaru groaned, cracking a few smiles before she wished everyone a good night while giving them specific instructions to wake her if there was any news on Umi or Fuu, "And – if –if- "
"We'll tell you," Eagle promised, and Lantis nodded.
She moaned one last protest before she nodded and headed back to bed. Eagle and Lantis exchanged glances, and Eagle chuckled softly while Lantis shook his head. Peace was finally being restored.
"I'm so sorry Fuu-chan," Ferio whispered softly by Fuu's bedside as she stirred. She watched him curiously; his head was in his hands, not looking at her. She saw that he had replaced his own wedding band and smiled at that.
"Why?" she choked, and he looked up at her, smiling through the tears in his eyes.
"I betrayed you; I committed the worst of all sins. I wasn't strong enough – to protect you. Fuu-chan, what didn't I do to apologize for?" he demanded helplessly, holding his hands out to her.
She squirmed painfully to her right and urged him to join her on the bed. He did so, tentatively, waiting to be rebuked, but she only kept on smiling at him, "Ferio, she was fighting with magic you couldn't possibly combat, but you did. You came back to me," now it was her turn for tears to fill her eyes, and before she knew it she had broken down, sobbing into his chest, as he held her close, whispering to her, promising never to let her go.
"Just don't ever make me leave them again Ferio," she begged, and he nodded.
"You'll never have to Fuu-chan, I promise you," and the vow rung true in his mind. He didn't care what it cost him; he would never desert his duties again. Never.
When it seemed she had cried it all out, and Ferio had calmed his nerves, he pulled away and stroked a strand of her hair, smiling softly, "You're beautiful."
"I must look awful," she informed him frankly, and he grinned.
"You never do," he answered and kissed her softly, then, when she insisted with her actions that she wasn't so wounded, deepened the kiss.
She backed away for only a moment, to assure him he wasn't hurting her, but before she could pull him back into the embrace, he had reached under his shirt and pulled a ring from a chain around his neck, her ring. "Fuu-chan, will you marry me?"
She laughed and nodded, allowing him to slip the ring onto her finger once more. Only then would he permit her to pull him down to her, and the rest of the night was spent in a soft embrace and warm memories.
Two days, and Umi had yet to recover, and the residents of Cephiro began to fear the worst.
"She should have at least awoken by now," Ascot paced the room frantically. He had barely left her side except when Clef or Presea had shooed him out, but now it was for a different reason. He needed to know; in battle, everything had seemed so clear, so cut, but now that it was all over, the whole situation was hazy. He loved her still, but what feelings had been there were fading. He didn't know if he was ready to let them go, but he would if she asked him to; he would do almost anything if she asked him to, and for once in his life, he could see himself living it without Umi. He hated himself for thinking it, but it would be a relief to just be her friend, not have to constantly wonder if he was enough, if he pleased her. To pass that burden onto someone else would be…somewhat comforting. That thought stopped him dead in his tracks, I don't love her anymore. I don't know when it happened, or why, but I've fallen out of love with her. Guilt surged onto him, and regret, and a pain so profound he could barely breathe because of it. Yet, there it was, plain and simple; everything spelled out and put into a nice little bundle for him.
"Ascot?" Caldina's concerned voice broke his darkness, and he looked up to see his friend and mentor.
"I…just realized something," he admitted, and saw Clef's eyes narrow slightly. "About Umi and I…it's kinda hard to explain, but…I think that when she wakes up, I'm going to have to ask her to dismiss me."
"What?" everyone in the room demanded angrily, mouths agape.
"I…she…it's not what it used to be. I love her, but…I can't be her Protector. I need to be me for once, just me," he answered, and saying it made another round of guilt wash up onto him. "I feel so selfish, so foolish, but…I don't want to be miserable, and I think it would be easier on everyone," here he sent a heated look at Clef who turned his head away. "If I took some time off, just to find out who I am."
Caldina was the first to respond. She strode forward and put her hands on his shoulders, "I think that would be very wise, and very mature of you Ascot," she told him solemnly, and he smiled weakly and thanked her.
All around the room were faces of surprise and horror, but it was Lantis and Eagle who were most greatly affected. Both of them were asking themselves the same question, which of us should be the one to go?
"I don't care what Ascot's doing!" Hikaru screamed in frustration. "What has gotten into you two? You can't leave me!"
"Lantis should stay," Eagle protested, carefully avoiding Lantis' eyes. "I betrayed you Hikaru; I endangered everything I care for. I don't find myself safe to be around, or fit to be a Protector."
"Eagle, your straying from me is what made you susceptible in the first place!" Hikaru shouted at him. "And Lantis, you want to leave as well? You're both being foolish, what is this all about?"
Surprisingly, Lantis was the first to speak, and Eagle let him have the lead, "It's because we both love you Hikaru-hime."
"Of course you do…" but Hikaru stopped, because she saw the desperateness in their eyes and realized that it was not what she thought. They both loved her. Oh no, she thought to herself, but somewhere deep down she knew this day would have to come, eventually. What do I do? I'm not cut out for this. I love them both! "I love you both," she started, telling herself she might as well start with the truth. "I can't choose one of you; it would be like trying to choose between water and oxygen. I need both of you, in different ways. Eagle, I need you to be silly with, and Lantis, I need you to remind me of who I am. You're like night and day, but you're both so much alike. I don't understand my feelings for you, and I don't want to. I just know that I love you both; why can't that be enough? Eagle, you wouldn't force Lantis to choose between your friendship and ours, and Lantis you wouldn't do that either, why would you make me choose between the two of you?"
Lantis and Eagle looked at each other for the first time in a long time, simply…looked. Their whole lives they had shared everything, training, swords, friends,would it be so hard to share a woman between them? It was…unconventional, yet…did either of them ever run their lives by convention? There would be no more jealousy, because they would both have what they wanted, everyone would win. There would be no more secret glances or hidden meaning; there would just be the three of them…
"We shouldn't," Lantis whispered, understanding the meaning he and Eagle had just stumbled upon.
Hikaru smiled, and she bit her lower lip. Carefully, she approached Eagle, who happened to be the closest and kissed him fiercely, then, not to leave him out, bestowed the same treatment onto Lantis. Unbelieving, she pulled them both into a tight embrace and smiled the warmest smile either of them had ever seen. The infectious action rubbed off on them, and they smiled at one another, truce agreed upon.
This might just work, Hikaru thought to herself and blushed softly, wondering silently about the sleeping arrangements they might have to come to. Well, she thought boldly, I never said I was as innocent as I seem…
Clef slipped into Umi's room on the fourth day of her unconsciousness. Ascot had left that morning; he said he knew that she would recover. He thought that his leaving would quicken that recovery, even though Clef wasn't entirely sure. Still, he knew he had to deliver the news to her, whether she heard him or not. It was his duty to tell her.
Duty, he sighed to himself and sat by her bed, taking her hands in his, "Umi-hime," his heart soared, half expecting a response. When he got none, his expectations crumbled. "Ascot left this morning; he said that he needed to find himself. He says that he knows that you don't love him anymore, and he wants you to know that he understands, and he isn't angry. He says he knew he couldn't hold your spirit forever, that not the best summoner in the world could," he tried a stiff laugh, but she didn't even flinch. "Umi, come on, wake up."
"I know you can hear me, damn it, wake up," he hissed, squeezing her hands tightly between his. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you; I couldn't stop her. She had me under some sort of spell. I didn't want to; Umi, I love you more than anything in this world. If you don't come out of this I won't live. Please," before he knew it, he found he was crying silently, tears streaming down his cheeks. Damn it, he thought to himself, Willing with every fiber of his being to see her beautiful blue eyes looking up at him.
"Clef," she choked, and his eyes flew open to see what he had been wishing for. Elation sprang into hisspirit like a fever; his whole body felt like it was floating. He had no thoughts in that moment; nothing, he was simply falling into her eyes. "Clef," she cried out, and he rushed to make her more comfortable, bringing her water and giving her a potion to heal some of the aches.
"I'm so sorry," he started again, but she silenced him.
"I know, I heard," she told him shortly, panting heavily in pain as she downed the potion. "I do understand, and…for all that I played strong, Clef, I wouldn't have done it. I couldn't have."
His eyes widened in shock, but fortunately for him, she continued, so he didn't have to respond.
"I love you too much," and then he realized that she wasn't talking about killing him; she was talking about leaving him. "It's selfish, and it's wrong, but Ascot didn't deserve a lie, and I'd been living it for so long. That day, in your study, you remember?"
He nodded numbly; he remembered it like it was yesterday. He had thought she was pouring her heart out to him because he was her Protector, the only one that was available for her to turn to, but now he realized it was because he was the one she meant, "Umi, I've always loved you," he admitted, throwing his inhibitions to the wind. Here was his Princess, crying in pain, mental and physical, and he'd be damned if he didn't take some of it away! "I never thought I could compete with Ascot, he was so pure, so talented, there was my age, the position, the stress, I was so closed to you, I thought that you, it could never…"
"Clef?" Umi knew he would go on if she didn't stop him right away
"Yes?" he looked up at her as if just realizing he wasn't making this confession to a brick wall.
"Kiss me," she ordered, and he grinned and did just that, reaching in and kissing her with the tenderness of a longtime lover. She savored the motion, and didn't stop him when he intensified it and came to lie with her.
"Umi-chan!" Hikaru ran to Umi and threw her arms around her, and Umi laughed gleefully, hugging the girl back as Fuu grabbed the both of them in a warm embrace. When all the apologies and greetings were through, they could finally sit down and just be.
Ascot's presence was missed at the table, as Umi knew it would be missed for a long time, yet, she knew that he would be back, and they would be waiting with open arms. Cephiro was his home, and they were his family; he wouldn't run far before he figured that out and came home. She just hoped he came home with a beautiful girl on his arm with a heart that could tame the adorable Summoner. In the meantime, they would all bask in their newly acquired peace and await his return.
"What shall we do today?" Hikaru asked cheerily, and Umi laughed and tossed her hair.
"Well," Fuu grinned and met the eyes of her fellow rulers. "I suppose we should start by announcing to Cephiro that Shadow is gone."
"Oh yeah!" Hikaru yelled, and everyone at the table laughed as she blushed fiercely.
This is peace, Hikaru thought to herself.
This is love, Fuu smiled softly, giggling with the others.
This is reality, Umi nodded firmly and turned back to the table, ready to meet the future with an open heart and the friends by her side.
A/n: Closing notes: Thanks to those of you have stuck with this story in the two years it took me to complete it, I hope I didn't dissappoint you! If I did feel free to flame or email me; I sorta disappointed myself. Thank you especially to all of you who have read and sent me encouraging email and reviews to keep me going even when I thought I'd just abandon it. I couldn't have done it without you, and I probably wouldn't have! The readers are really the ones to thank for the quality of fanfiction, without the support behind the authors we wouldn't strive to write anything of any worth whatsoever, so thank you so much. I don't know what I would do without you! And, finally, now that this story is finally over, I suppose I can let the big secret out...