The words appeared shortly after the summer holiday of her second year of junior high school. Small cramped scribbles just below the fold of the elbow of her right arm.
She spoke six languages passingly—thanks to her father's job moving them so many times in the last decade—but this was nothing she had ever seen before. It looked like some sort of gibberish, really. How was she supposed to know what they were going to say to her, if she couldn't even read the words written on her skin? Would she even be able to understand them when they spoke to her, if it was a language she'd never even heard before?
The next few weeks were a blur of school, homework, and fencing practice. Any free time she'd had she spent researching languages and looking up writing systems, but never found an exact match.
It probably didn't help that some of the shapes of the characters were nearly indecipherable. Was that one line or two on the top of the second. Did the tenth curve or was that just the drag of a pen? Whoever it was, she planned to grump at them for their terrible handwriting.
By Autumn, her classmate Minako was showing off the words on her arm. It was something ridiculously boring, like 'Nice to meet you' or something equally bland. Umi didn't pay that much attention, she just turned the page of her book and kept reading. It wasn't like she was jealous or anything, she just didn't want to explain she had no idea what she'd had on her arm for the past two months, and it was starting to get to her. The other girls were giggling and making up all the sorts of scenarios that Minako could meet her person.
"With all the parties we attend with our parents, how would you know?" Umi pulled a face. "It's always 'Nice to meet you' and 'How do you do' and all that. It could be anyone!"
"We all know Umi will know hers when she meets them," Rika laughed. "She'll probably insult them."
"I would not!" Umi didn't rub her arm and turned back to her book. Someone shouting at her in a foreign language would probably make sense if she had offended them in some way.
Autumn gave way to winter, and classroom gossip turned to hoping to meet that special someone by Christmas. Half the girls were giggling and hoping, but only two more in their year had sentences on their arms. One was in English.
Umi been more distracted with studying than translating her mark, or at least that was what she had told herself. Really, she'd gone through every language book in her school library, and nearly all of the ones in the public library, but she still couldn't find anything that looked like the words written across her skin.
Not knowing still didn't stop her sitting up straighter and turning to look whenever she heard someone speaking a language she didn't know, but they never looked at her, nor did any of them speak to her, except perhaps to ask her where something was, and that was always in Japanese, even if not grammatically correct.
Minako met Miss Have-a-good-day at a party over winter break. She'd said something ridiculous to her in response. Umi couldn't remember the exact words, but she hoped she wouldn't say something so silly because she'd have to look at those words for the rest of her life.
March put any worry about soulmates and first words out of Umi's head entirely. When what had started as a boring class trip to Tokyo Tower ended in a battle of life and death with no clear winner, there was little else she could think of but the blood she still felt on her hands.
And April saw her third year of junior high start in a thick haze of guilt. Umi absorbed herself in her studies, at least trying to keep her grades up, hoping her parents wouldn't worry more than they already did. Thankfully, she didn't have to stress about any sort of entrance exams to get into the high school attached to her junior high. She merely had to keep her grades up, and that she could do, despite everything.
The school year thankfully ended on a much better note, and the beginning of a new routine. Not every Sunday, but many of them were spent in Cephiro. They were still trying to find ways to help with the rebuilding process. Some days were busy with work to do, others were spent enjoying the company of friends.
On quiet days, they would occasionally have picnics or go for walks. Other days they would all three go their separate ways.
At some point, it became a habit for Umi to spend a few hours of each visit in Clef's study. At first, even she wondered why she gravitated toward him. Usually, she did have questions about Cephiro or magic that she wanted him to answer. If he didn't have too much work, he'd sit and talk with her. If he did, she would lurk until he sent her away, but he was less likely to do so if she arrived with something else to keep herself occupied until he was free to talk. Homework or a book, usually. In the end, she spent more and more of her visits curled up in the comfortable armchair that now lived near the window, than not.
Caldina already poked fun at her about it by the second time she'd missed a picnic because she'd lost track of time while she was with him. The teasing only got worse as the years went on.
It was some time into her first year of senior high school that Clef changed. It hadn't exactly been a surprise. He'd given them ample warning, especially Umi. He'd bounced the idea off of her more than once. They'd come to the agreement that ambassador visits and trade negotiations and all matter of international politics would be better conducted by someone who actually looked like an adult, rather than a prepubescent child.
Expecting it didn't make the difference any less startling.
No amount of homework or interesting book could hold her attention well enough that she wouldn't occasionally stop halfway through a sentence on the impulse to look at him.
He wasn't exactly handsome. At least not conventionally. His features were far too sharp—testament of one too many meals skipped by a mage of his power level, usually—but she'd catch herself staring at the shape of his cheekbones or the shape of his lips before blushing furiously and trying to bury herself back into what she'd been doing before she was distracted.
One particularly pleasant afternoon during her second year of high school, Umi was sitting in her chair by the window, flicking through a science textbook to work out what they might be missing as far as the current issues Cephiro seemed to be having with it's weather patterns again. Last time, it had been something to do with the water cycle.
Armed with an idea, Umi jumped up and strode over to Clef's desk. "Hey, Clef?"
"Yes?" He looked up, pen pausing on the paper.
Umi opened her mouth to explain, but the word flew straight out of her head when she took a good look at what he was writing.
No idea what she'd been about to say, she just stared at the shapes of the word on the page, feeling like she was seeing them for the first time.
The past few years, she'd mostly ignored Cephiran text. At first, she'd poked the printed books with their neat even lines with curiosity, but once they'd worked out that there wasn't an easy way around the translation spell to even begin learning the letters, let alone how to read them, she'd given up. There were more important things for her to be studying anyway. If she moved to Cephiro at any point in the future, she could try then.
But the words on the paper weren't the print letters she was used to seeing. Nor was it the ornate script of legal documents she'd seen Clef write. This was a scribbled mess, tight and cramped with smudged streaks of ink where the pen hadn't been properly lifted between characters.
She'd see that writing before.
"Umi?" Clef asked. "What is it?"
Snapping her gaping mouth shut, Umi shook her head. "I've forgotten, now." She laughed, blushing a little, and went back to her chair.
Umi set her book down on the window ledge and push up her sleeve as far up her forearm as it would go. It had been years since she'd given the words any thought. She traced the words, feeling the flowing shape of them out for the first time in a long time. Why had she never thought it could have been Cephiran? The timeline was right. Not quite six months before that fateful class trip.
She stared back up at Clef. His eyebrows narrowed as he stared at one of the books in front of him, scrawling more and more words on the paper beside it.
Moments later, Umi was back on her feet and standing in front of his desk, bending over to get a good look at what he was writing. It was the quick scrawl of someone who is writing for their own notes, not anyone else's understanding. She admittedly had her own version of that, but it looked more like the words it was meant to, rather than… whatever that was.
"Your handwriting is terrible," she said.
Clef's pen stopped and he looked back up at her. "Is there something I can help you with, or are you just going to insult me now?"
"Hey! I insulted your writing, not you in particular."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Um, Clef…" Umi started undoing buttons. It would be easier if she showed him her entire arm, rather than half the sentence she could see with her sleeve pushed up.
"Umi!" Clef sat up, startled, as she shrugged the cardigan off.
The blush creeping across his cheeks and the catch of his breath made Umi grin. Seemed she might not have been the only one liking who they were looking at lately.
"Don't get excited," she laughed and held out her arm. "I just want to know what this says."
The expression that crossed Clef's face in that moment was indescribable, but the smile of affection that finally settled on his lips sent her heart racing. In that moment, without him saying a word, she knew.
"So it is Cephiran, then?" she asked, after a beat.
He laughed, and leaned back in his chair, grinning at her. "Yes, it is."
She looked down at the words and then back at him, her curiosity still burning brightly. What counted as his first words to her? What had he even said? Their meeting was so utterly startling, she couldn't ever quite remember exactly what was said, so much as the general feeling of confusion and fear.
"But what does it say?"
Again, he didn't answer, but he did shake back the sleeve of his outer robe and undid the fastenings at his wrist before rolling back his own sleeve. Holding out his arm, he said, "Probably something similar to this, I imagine."
From the moment he'd smiled at her, she'd known, but that didn't keep her from being startled by the look of her own slightly messy handwriting scrawled across his skin. The words made her laugh, though, even as she read them out loud. "Who's the child? You look like you're ten!"
"Me a child? I'm 745 years old," Clef laughed, never taking his eyes off of her.
"I don't feel so bad about staring at you, now," Umi blurted out as she dropped into a nearby chair.
She almost immediately blushed and looked down at the floor, embarrassed the words had come out as she'd thought them, even if they were true. When she looked up again, he was fastening his sleeve again.
"You're still a child, Umi," he said, matter-of-factly.
"I said I like to look!" she snapped. "I don't have to touch!"
He smirked and picked up his pen.
"Hey! Aren't we going to talk about this?" Umi asked, more startled by the fact he was going back to work than paying attention to her.
All the books and movies and everything else she knew made it out that finding your soulmate was supposed to be one of the biggest distractions in your life. Everyone always stopped what they were doing to talk and get to know one another. Yes, she and Clef had known each other for years. They were friends. But that didn't mean that he could just go and ignore her.
His expression softened as he smiled again. "If you're free to stay for dinner, we can start discussing things then, but at this moment, I still need to get this blasted report finished."
Umi tried not to pout, really she did, but she still sat there clutching her cardigan, twisting the soft cotton in her hands trying her hardest not to be upset by how much of a non-event this was slowly becoming. Maybe it wasn't such a big deal in Cephiro. And Clef was so old, maybe she wasn't his first? Or maybe he was just disappointed to be stuck with her.
She knew she was being silly. Real life was never like the movies. You didn't necessarily meet your soulmate and fall instantly in love with them. She definitely wasn't in love with Clef. He was her friend, and she thought he was pretty. True, she liked spending time with him, even when they argued. Sometimes especially because they argued. She liked arguing with him. It was kind of fun, not that any sensible person should be calling picking fights with the most powerful mage in Cephiro fun.
But she couldn't really be in love with him… could she?
With a sigh, Clef pushed his chair back and walked around his desk. He bent down in front of her and cupped her cheek, tilting her head up so he could press a kiss to her forehead. Crouching down in front of her chair, so their faces were almost level, he smiled. "Please don't get me wrong. I know we have a lot of things to discuss, but there is no rush. You're only sixteen. Even by Earth standards, that's young, isn't it?"
Chewing on her bottom lip, Umi nodded.
He was right, she was still young. It wasn't like there was much that needed to be decided immediately. She had more than another year of school left. Then there was the matter of whether or not she was going to attend university on Earth, or there was also the Cephiro Academy to consider. Clef had said she was qualified to attend, should she want to.
No matter what, she would need be telling her parents about Cephiro at some point. Then she would need to introduce them to Clef. Somehow.
"Umi, It's okay. We'll work it out." Clef took her hand in his. "Are you staying for dinner, or did you need to go soon?"
Umi looked at the clock and grimaced, all ability to read the Cephiran time escaping her. She turned her wrist over and glanced at her watch, she didn't have to be home for hours yet. "I think I can stay for dinner?"
"Good." Clef kissed her forehead again as he stood.
He returned to his chair, and Umi looked back over at her textbook in the window. She bounced to her feet and went for the book, remembering what she was going to suggest they could do about the weather.
°♡° END °♡°