“Drinking on your own now, Guru? That’s sociable of you.”
Clef jumped half out of his skin as Caldina flopped into the chair next to him and pilfered his bottle. They were in the far corner of the dining hall, which was more than half empty by now, so no one was close enough to overhear her. Nor was anyone following her - Ascot must already have left to go spend his evening elsewhere.
If he tried hard, Clef could pretend that he didn’t care about that.
Caldina tipped a generous splash into the glass she’d obviously just drained, and tossed it back. As soon as she’d done so, she pulled a face. “What are you drinking? That stuff’s bitter as fuck. Aren’t you meant to cut it with something?”
“Puragu juice, usually,” he agreed. “As I’m not really meant to drink at all, I figured it would at least stop me having too much.”
“What, to stop you doing things you shouldn’t? She shot him an unimpressed glance. “Well, anything else you shouldn’t have.”
“I haven’t done anything.” he hissed. Caldina rolled her eyes at him. “I haven’t! Ask Ascot, if you don’t believe me!”
“So I’m imagining the way he’s moping about?” Caldina splashed more of the thick alcoholic liquid in her glass. “Well? Summon up some of this juice for us. If I’m stealing your drink, it should at least be drinkable.”
“I don’t want you stealing it.” Clef snapped - but his conscience twinged hard, and he waved a hand. A bottle of puragu appeared on the table, called from the cellar under the kitchens, condensation appearing on the pottery flask as soon as it hit the air.
Cackling, Caldina popped the cork and splashed a good amount into her glass and filled Clef’s, too, following it with a healthy splash of liquor. He glanced at her, warily, as she started her drink.
“What? I don’t drink alone. Not in public, anyway.”
Clef sighed, but took a sip. The mild sweetness of the juice cut the bitterness of the alcohol down to a sharp tang that actually complemented the flavour. “If I get drunk and redesign the castle, I’m blaming you.”
Caldina never stopped smiling at him, the expression full of knives. “Oh, were you drunk when you put Ascot through an apprenticeship without telling him?”
“I didn’t meant to!” Clef closed his eyes, and tossed back a large mouthful, trying not to think about the way Ascot’s eyes had gone wide and startled when Clef finally confessed.
It wasn’t just the lessons he hadn’t intended. If it was, he wouldn’t have started drinking somewhere public enough Lantis would come along and silently remove the bottle before he got too drunk. However tempting it was.
He just wanted his brain to shut up. Was that too much to ask?
“If you hurt him,” Caldina said, cheerily, “I’m going to murder you and get away with it.”
“Because no one will suspect you after you pretend we’re drinking friends tonight?”
“No, everyone will know it was me,” she said, and bared her teeth at him in parody of a smile. “I’ll get away with it anyway. I’m that good.”
Clef stared at her, then poured himself another drink. He was going too fast, and he didn’t care. “I’m not going to hurt him. Nothing’s going to happen.”
“And you aren’t moping in a corner, I see that.”
“No-nothing can happen, Caldina! He’s my apprentice.” Clef laughed bitterly into his drink. “You can stop worrying. I don’t have relationships with my apprentices, and as we never formally entered any agreement and Ascot shows no desire to take the tests and claim iru status, he’s going to keep on being my apprentice.” He took another, longer, drink. “We can’t end an agreement we never made. so Ascot’s safe from me. You can stop hissing and leave me alone with my drink, alright?”
Caldina tilted her head back and laughed. Clef tried to ignore her, shoulders hunched about his ears, until she composed herself enough to stop whooping loudly enough the whole room was staring their way and sidling towards the doors.
Eventually she downed the end of her glass, still snickering, and poured herself yet another drink. “If you think that’s gonna stop Ascot when he makes his mind up, you’re more of a fool than I thought,” she told him, and Clef stared at her. “Seriously, is that why you’ve been avoiding him and making him slink around hardly talking to anyone again? He’s not interested in taking the test because he doesn’t see he’s got any reason to! But as soon as someone points that out…” She waved a hand in the air, and Clef blinked.
“…You think he’d take the test for me?” he said, trying to sound flat, but his voice coming out more bewildered than anything.
“I have no idea why he likes you, but he does, so, yeah.” Caldina flapped a hand at him. “It’s not like he’d find it hard. I looked up the rules.”
“…You did, did you?”
“We both knew he’s capable of far more than they’d require. But you know what the best bit about this is?”
Leaning back, Clef eyed her smile with incredible distrust. “…I don’t believe I want to know, when you say it like that.”
“Too bad for you, then - because you’re not going to tell Ascot that’s the reason you’re being prickly now you’ve actually noticed you like him. And you’re definitely not going to tell him what would fix it - far too much like abusing your position as his teacher, right? Ascot’s not going to work it out - poor kid doesn’t have the context for it. And that-” she leaned in, smirking, “-gives me the perfect window to help him get over you.”
Clef stared at her, while Caldina refilled his drink and pressed it on him - and why shouldn’t she be pleased? She was right - he was too old and too grouchy and too - him - for Ascot.
Maybe it would be better like this. Just let Caldina take care of it, until Ascot moved on and Clef could safely stay his friend.
Maybe if he drank enough, the thought wouldn’t hurt so much.
Clef took up his glass, and put the theory to the test.
The theory was shit. He woke up the next morning with his head trying to fall off and his stomach trying to explode, in a room which had been his bedroom before last night - when he’d obviously decided it needed more bookshelves, and had just about filled the entire floor with case after case of them.
Worse, he had a wavering memory of Ascot being the one to find him and Caldina in the dining room after most of the second bottle, ushering him back to his rooms with a look on his face Clef couldn’t interpret even now he was more hungover than drunk.
He looked up at the book cases, then rolled over in his mattress-and-covers nest on the floor and closed his eyes again. The day could wait until he was capable of facing it. Until then, he was going back to sleep.