"I think I'm going to grow up." Clef said it in the middle of a conversation, like you might say, 'I think I might get my hair cut', or 'I think I'll go for a walk this afternoon', not like, 'I'm going to dramatically alter my appearance, so I thought I should warn you'.
Umi had to admit that it made sense. Now that Cephiro wasn't so isolated, it would be reasonable for the country's leaders—it was still weird to think of Clef as one of Cephiro’s leaders, even though he always sort of was one—to look like adults to the visiting lands, rather than children. It was still… a strange thought, Clef looking like an adult.
When he said it, Umi thought he meant he'd be doing it soon; that she'd come back after spring break and find a grown man in Clef's office, but that wasn't how it happened. Their next visit was in April, the beginning of their second year of senior high school. Umi walked in braced for a momentous change, but Clef only looked maybe an inch or two taller, and his face was perhaps a little more angular. Really he looked about the same.
“Is that all?” Umi demanded, before she even said hello; then she blushed, but Clef was rolling his eyes at her.
“I’m using power on too many other things to steal it away just to grow up in a rush. No one wants part of the Castle to fall off—it’s easier on everything to take a couple of months and do it slowly.”
“Slowly?” Umi snorted. “Ten years of growing up in a month isn’t exactly doing it slowly. Just… it’s slower than I expected. Isn’t it inconvenient this way too?”
“I keep tripping over my own feet, but that’s about it. But come on, or Ferio will have eaten all the taiya before you make it down to lunch.” And that was the end of the conversation.
By the end of June, he had gone from looking like a ten-year-old to a gangly young teenager, all elbows and knees. His awkwardness with his body was almost magnified by the sweep of his robes - he was now tripping over them and his feet. His facial features were getting sharper, more defined. She wondered what he was going to look like when he stopped. He wasn't particularly handsome at the moment, but his face had the potential to be interesting. Currently, he was cute. Well, he'd always been cute, but Umi kept staring at him more and more, tracking all the changes.
The last visit before her summer holiday, Clef was nearly as tall as she was; she could look him in the eye without even having to bend her neck. She was so used to looking down at him that to be able to look straight at him was a little disconcerting. At least he was still lower than her when he was at his desk.
She spent the whole of her summer vacation abroad with her parents, seeing different parts of Europe and taking lots of photographs. They visited some of the places they had previously lived, even walking by the townhouse they'd stayed in when Papa was working at the embassy in London. When they finally made it home, Umi was immediately back at school. Between coursework and fencing practice, things got so hectic with the class trip and the school culture festival that Umi didn't manage to have a single day free to visit Cephiro until mid-November. But that particular Saturday was special; it was the first time they would be able to attend the new year festival on Festival Day itself.
The new year in Cephiro was marked with a three-day festival celebrating the end of the old year and the start of the new one. The first day was the last day of the old year, where everyone was looking back over what they had accomplished and celebrating making it to the end of the year. More than one person had talked about the ceremonial rewinding of the yearly chronicle, where the scroll was finished off and completely unrolled about the main hall only to be rolled back up so it started from the beginning when it was stored. That sounded like fun, but unfortunately, that fell on a Friday night that year, and with school on Saturday morning, they wouldn't make it to that part of the party. But Saturday—the day between the old year and the new—was the biggest celebration, and the largest party of the three days, or so they’d been told.
All three of them had cleared that Saturday as much as they could. Umi still had fencing practice that she couldn't miss, Fuu had archery, and Hikaru got caught up with Kendo club, so all three of them arrived a bit later than the time Hikaru had told Caldina to expect them. She was waiting for them when they arrived. They had barely set foot on the floor when she came flapping at them down the corridor, various bits of fabrics fluttering about her like wings. “Where have you little missies been? You're late.”
“We’re sorry,” Hikaru started. Umi and Fuu added in their own apologies, but Caldina waved her hands at them.
“No matter.” Caldina shook her head and practically shoved them down the corridor to their room. “We don’t have time for that!” Umi had missed the planning for the event and Caldina was still tutting under her breath about it as she hustled them to their room. Caldina had pulled something together, but she was still annoyed that she hadn't had a chance to play with any of the elements to make it 'perfect'.
For the few parties and things the girls had attended in the past, they had either worn their own nice clothes from home or simple dresses with a lot of ruffles and pretty little metal and gem embellishments. The sort of things that they could put on themselves with little help. This year was different. These were not the little-girl dresses they had last year. Umi could tell that immediately. This was the sort of draping art-nouveau style dresses she'd seen others wearing over the past few years.
Caldina started with Hikaru first. Multiple layers of fabric in light pinks and greens were wrapped around her and clipped together at the shoulders. With a deep pink sash wrapped about her waist, her skirts gathered in and rippled around her legs. She still looked really cute.
Fuu was dressed in shades of green and blue with a light flowing skirt that brushed her knees in front and dropped to her calves in the back, finished with a deep green sash around her waist.
The light, almost gauzy, fabrics that Umi found herself being draped in were all soft blues and pinks. It was caught up simply at the shoulders with jewels, draping across her front, accentuating what little chest she had and making her feel very grown-up.
Except the Council chamber, the whole of the lower floors had been taken over for the Festival, people pouring out into the gardens as well. The dining hall was set up with a feast of food, rather than being laid out in the centre of the long tables, a buffet had been established, curling around the perimeter of half the room. Every dish that had been served the whole of the previous year was out, so everyone was able to have their favourites, or so Ferio told them when he sidled up to Fuu with a grin.
One of the large halls had become a ballroom. There were musicians playing happy tunes while dancers spun about the floor. Other people milled about the edges, conversing and taking advantage of the wide array of drinks available. Umi bounced in time with the music. She turned back to see if she could talk Hikaru into dancing with her, but Eagle had just appeared and whisked Hikaru off before Umi had the chance. Umi waved her off, laughing and looked about the room for someone else she knew.
Her gaze landed on a man with familiar light, scruffy hair who was talking animatedly with Presea, and she stopped. Her eyes grew wide.
Those gestures, that voice, only meant one thing. That was Clef. A taller, older, and prettier Clef.
Why had no one warned her that he looked like that?
His hair was longer, the ends were curling even more where it fell over his eyes and around his face. She didn't just want to comb her fingers through it, she wanted to tangle her hands in it and tug his face toward her, so she could drag that sharp smile off his face.
How did anyone have a right to be so utterly gorgeous?
Umi picked up a glass from a passing tray and moved around the room to get a better look at him. Part of her was annoyed with herself for not just going up to him and making some comment about how he’d grown, the other part was terrified that if she did it would come out in less conversational and more like an ‘I want to touch you’ sort of way.
She really did just want to touch him. Even worse, she wanted him to touch her. She wanted him to wrap those arms around her and hold her close. She wanted to feel those lips on her skin, as she pulled him down and—
Swallowing hard, she circled the room again, ignoring any attempts by friends and acquaintances to get her attention and start conversation. There was nothing in her head except the desire to watch him. Well, stare, really. She was definitely staring.
She just couldn't stop herself. Well, really, she didn't want to stop.
At least not until he turned around and saw her. The flush probably lit up her face, her cheeks were burning so badly. They only grew hotter when his eyes slid down her body, taking her in with almost as much detail as she had him. Everything around her stopped when their eyes met, there was no escaping that piercing blue.
Umi sucked in a breath, unable to turn away. It could only have been a few short seconds but it felt like an eternity before he turned away, breaking the spell, and the next thing she knew he was saying a few last words to Presea then making his way around the edge of the dance floor toward her.
The awkward clumsiness he'd had months ago, when he'd gained so much height, had smoothed away; he moved with a gentle sort of grace.
How was she ever going to concentrate on her magic lessons now?
Instead of 'hi' or 'I haven't seen you in months' the first words out of Umi's mouth when Clef reached her were "You've grown!"
"So have you," he said before hissing in a breath, his cheeks and ears turning a bright shade of pink.
Umi glanced down at herself. She definitely hadn't gotten any taller, but the drape of her dress across her chest and the sash cinching in her waist emphasised what little figure she had developed in the past few years. Looking back up at his flushed face she burst out laughing, because she wasn't the only one who'd been staring.
"Sorry." Clef pinched his eyes shut and let out an embarrassed chuckle. "How are your lessons going?"
"It's the new year festival and you're asking me about school?" Umi rolled her eyes.
"You've been busy!" He waved a hand at her.
"I'm still a little behind, but I'm glad I came," she admitted.
"Me too." His smile was so genuinely happy that Umi blushed, everything inside her suddenly feeling effervescent and weightless.
By the time they'd finished talking, she was almost not staring so much. ...But as soon as Clef turned away, hailed by some member of the council, she was watching him leave with just as much attention as she’d watched him approach.
This… this was going to be a problem. And he might have looked, but she suspected getting Clef to do anything more than that would take one incredible argument.
What she needed was a plan.
A few weeks later, they managed to make it to Cephiro in time to have lunch with everyone, and she realised halfway through arguing with Clef over if the rivers being low was a problem (Yes, it was. Was the need for rain really that hard a concept to grasp?) that she was watching his hands as he gestured—more specifically, his fingers, and wondering what they would feel like if they were touching her as confidently as he was holding his spoon—
She flushed, and lost the thread of the argument. By the time she'd pulled herself together, Clef was already leaving them, heading off to some council meeting, and obviously Umi needed a plan soon because this wasn't going away at all. In fact it seemed to be getting worse.
And to have a plan, she needed to know what she was up against, so she grabbed Caldina as they were finishing dessert. "Hey, Caldina? You know how Cephirans age really randomly whenever they feel like it—how do they decide when someone's old enough to be counted as an adult?"
Caldina propped one hand on her hip, and gave Umi a look. "What kinda 'adult' are we talking about, here?"
"You know," Umi said, spinning a hand in the air, but Caldina refused to follow what she was inferring. "…Adult enough to do adult things, okay? With other adults!"
"…Uh huh." Caldina sighed, pulling a face at her. "Okay, where are the other two? I'm not doing this more than once."
Thus the three of them spent most of the afternoon being sat down and given a very thorough talk about safer-sex and the basic forms of contraception in Cephiro.
While it was probably a lot more information than Umi wanted at that particular moment, she did get an answer to her question. To be considered old enough to be intimate with someone, a person had to have held an adult form for a year and a day, but that started a debate over what counted as an adult form.
"Well, if you're going by physical maturity, we all started having periods over a year ago now, right?" Umi looked at the other two—Fuu blushed, but nodded along with Hikaru. "So we must be adults, then. If we could all have a child if we wanted to—"
"But you aren't allowed to marry back home until you're sixteen." Hikaru said. "Isn't that because having babies earlier than that isn't really safe, even if you can?"
Umi wrinkled her nose up at that. "Well, we're all over sixteen—"
"You're not seventeen-and-a-day yet, though, so if we're talking about Cephiran standards…" Hikaru—who had turned seventeen that summer—grinned at Umi.
Fuu, ever practical, hummed slightly. "But it's still illegal for someone under eighteen in Tokyo to have intercourse with someone over the age of twenty, is it not? And as any Cephiran adult would be over that age—"
"Unless you're married to them," Umi interrupted.
"Oh, are you planning to marry someone from Cephiro before you're eighteen, Umi?" Fuu smiled, a wicked twinkling about her eyes. "You'll need your parent's permission, of course. Which might mean explaining Cephiro, first…"
"I'm not planning anything!" Umi snapped, her cheeks flushing hard. "Anyway, if I was having sex in Cephiro, I wouldn't be having sex in Tokyo, so Tokyo's laws wouldn't apply."
"And if you're planning to have sex—" Caldina looked intently at Umi, "—whoever you’re having it with, you're planning to be safe about it, right?"
Umi nodded, thinking her face couldn't get any hotter.
The conversation continued with lots of giggling and blushing while Caldina explained about the various types of potions Cephiro had, then things that sounded very much like condoms which mostly came from places like Autozam with more technology than magic. It had given her a very solid starting point for when she could make a move on Clef, and more importantly when he would be allowed to respond.
Seventeen would be good. Seventeen-and-a-day, like Hikaru had said; she could explain her reasoning for that age, which meant she could argue it.
She would be going into her last year of high school, and if he was interested, that would just be another reason to add to the list of why she was planning to move to Cephiro after school, after the whole goal of becoming a magic swordsman and all. She still hadn't decided how she was going to tell her parents about her plans to move to another world after school, adding a boyfriend into the explanation wouldn’t be too hard, right?
It happened the weekend after her seventeenth birthday. Which was not what she set out to do that visit, but she definitely wasn't upset with the outcome. She'd planned to wait until April when her last year of high school actually began, but she was spurred on by an argument.
Mostly, she was annoyed with how distant he'd been after the festival. It seemed like ageing had changed him, or at least changed something, because suddenly he was too busy to spend an hour every week or so giving her pointers on how to use her magic more effectively.
That afternoon she'd asked him for help. She'd been struggling with learning how to make a shield, but when she asked, he just waved her off, yet again. It had been weeks, months really, since they'd had any sort of regular lessons. He just kept avoiding the subject and dodging her, so it was no surprise when she finally snapped and shouted at him.
"Why won't you teach me anything, Clef? What happened? Did you decide I'm too annoying to bother with, so you won't help anymore? That I'm a waste of your time—"
"That's not— you know that's not true, Umi!"
"So why?" she demanded.
Clef glared at her. "What, you want to start an apprenticeship—now—with me?"
"I don't want to be your apprentice, I just want to spend time with you!"
Her words hung in the air as she fumed, but Clef didn't argue again, he stood there eyes gone suddenly startled and wide. His gaze darting to her lips before he swallowed.
She moved before she had a chance to think better of it.
Thrusting her hands in his hair, she leaned forward in the rush to kiss him. He met her halfway, arms trembling as they wrapped around her, holding on tightly and kissing her back.
He drew back, panting. "Umi—"
She growled in irritation and shoved him back three paces until his back hit the wall then she crushed her mouth against his. His fingers tangled in her hair, as she swallowed a his startled whimper-turned-moan.
When she finally pulled away, she was giddy and breathless.
His voice came out in a rough whisper. "Umi, I can't."
"I'm old enough, Clef." By Cephiran standards, at least.
"This has nothing to do with your age." His voice was soft and level as he lifted her hands off his shoulders. "I'm not allowed."
Umi stared at him. "What do you mean you're not allowed?"
"I can't—" He waved a hand between them. "The Guru isn't allowed. Not with you. Not with anyone. It's against the law."
She remembered the whole reason she and the other girls had been summoned was because of Emeraude falling in love, which they all agreed was terrible. She had never thought that it could stretch beyond the Pillar. Perhaps that was why he looked like a child for so long. "What kind of stupid law is that?"
"One that I'm trying to change!" He squeezed his eyes shut. "It's not just me, there are three posts which— It's an old law, we hadn't got to it yet." He sighed. "I didn't think… it was going to matter, at least for a while. The other two don’t care, and I didn’t think I… well, I wasn’t planning on this." He waved a hand between them, again.
"So, it's not that you don't like me anymore. You're not allowed to like me."
"I'm allowed to have friends?" He sounded like he was pleading with her.
Umi caught his hands and held tight. "I don't want to be your friend, Clef. At least not just your friend." She sighed. "But I guess it's a starting point, as long as you stop avoiding me? Please?"
"I do want to spend time with you." Clef squeezed her hands. "I'm sorry. It's just—" He shook his head and looked away.
“Then let’s spend time together.” She pulled him forward and put his hands on her hips so she could hold his face in her own, making him look at her. “As friends.”
“Umi…” His eyes flicked down to her lips and he swallowed, his fingers tightening on her waist. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take to change the law. It could be a year, or even longer.”
She wrapped her arms around him and leaned into him. “I think I can wait, if you want me to.”
His hands slid up as he pulled her into a tighter hug. His breath tickled her cheek before he pressed a soft kiss to her cheek, his lips lingering against her skin.
Turning her head, she caught his mouth with hers. He tilted his head to a neater angle, his fingers sliding up her neck, sending an electric shiver through her as they tangled in her hair. Both of them were trembling when they separated again.
“We can keep doing the kissing-thing in the meantime, if you want?” She teased, unable to stop grinning at him.
Clef laughed breathlessly and kissed her one last time - on the forehead - before detangling himself and retreating towards his desk. “You’ll have to learn how to be patient!”
“I can be patient!” Umi called after him, but she had to pull a face at the words. She’d felt patient waiting until now. Another year would be… painful. But he’d kissed her. Slowly, she started to grin again, and flopped into a nearby chair.
Her plan was going to need a little bit of modification.
.*. END .*.