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Cracked Skies

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Umi stood by the window, head tilted back, watching the rain pelting down against the glass. It was late, but the sky seemed to glow eerily with the lights from the cities that crawled across the surface of this place. Storm clouds whirled in unnatural shades of grey, too blue in places, too brown or green in others. The low, solid, rolling thunderheads were being driven into each other by fretful winds. Lightning slashed the sky open, the bright white of it hurting her eyes and the crash of the thunder too close on its heels for her to brace against it, and she flinched.

She hadn’t expected to feel how unsettled Autozam was.

The cold creeping in through the glass and the force fields had hair standing up on the back of her arms where they crossed over her waist, goosebumps on her skin under the loose tunic and trousers she wore. If she was outside, the raindrops would be striking down into her face at this angle. She watched them from below, smashing themselves open against the glass and running down just a little too slow to be usual, too full of chemicals and other dirt. It made her itch, below her skin, this rain – even though it wasn’t touching her. It was just wrong, in ways she couldn’t explain.

She’d gone to bed hours before, but the storm had broken before she fell asleep. She’d tossed and turned for another hour until the fractious energy was too much for her and she’d come out to the parlour the Cephiran party was sharing to watch the storm.

(Seven years after their first visit to Cephiro, a year since she’d moved across permanently, she still got a happy thrill from classing herself as ‘one of the Cephirans’.)

They’d come to Autozam to help - all three knights, with their mashin agreeing to support them, were stubborn and elemental enough they might be able to start restoring balance to Autozam’s damaged ecology. But to safely navigate about outside, not even one of Clef’s shield-spells would keep them safe - it would have to be made so strong that they wouldn’t be able to cast any magic through it. He’d spent three days testing his shielding against the sampled before reluctantly agreeing with the scientists they needed another solution.

The alternative was casting from inside one of Autozam’s hardy little vehicles, with tank-like carapaces and as few joints as possible. But that in turn meant using magic in proximity to - and preferably through - Autozam’s technology, without harming it. Their first attempts had had unfortunately explosive results, and now none of them - not even Clef, who was here to help with their task if he could and to do some politics in between - were allowed to try again until they’d gone through the equivalent of a primary school class on how to use Autozam’s technology at all, before they started adding magic to the mix.

Beyond the four of them, Lantis was there because he knew Autozam, but mostly because it was a chance to visit Eagle. He’d stopped pretending to come back to the guest rooms at night by the second evening, to everyone’s amusement. LaFarga had also come with them, officially for some liaising over security concerns and information sharing. Unofficially, Umi was pretty certain he was really here to keep guard over Clef. (And maybe the three of them, as well.)

There was more suspicion towards the interfering foreigners than she’d been expecting, but Autozam’s history was full of one terrible failure of an intervention after another, everything just making the situation worse. So it was pretty understandable that having a bunch of powerful mages from a land you’d tried to invade less than a decade ago turn up and say they were going to help your broken world… well, Umi wouldn’t have trusted them, either. It wasn’t like they’d worked out how they could help, so they couldn’t even explain themselves.

Caldina had declared if LaFarga was going on holiday, she was coming too. (Umi also rather thought Caldina was doing her own bit of information-gathering, but she wasn’t going to ask who for.) And Ferio had accompanied them, but he was the last of the group. Umi wasn’t sure he’d given an official reason, either - though he was scheduled to go back home before the rest of them, so maybe he really was on holiday.

He and Fuu were enjoying the time together, at least, though Fuu was still sleeping in the same room as Umi and Hikaru, and refused to confirm or deny whether she and Ferio had done anything more than ‘advanced kissing’. Whatever that entailed.

The Knights were finding it easier to understand the technology than Clef was, but he could actually read the writing system without struggling, so in the end it evened out into everyone making slow progress - and slow was the only word for it. They’d been here almost a week of the six planned, and it was a good thing they’d all finished up with university and moved over to Cephiro properly because this was rapidly turning into a months-long mission.

The skies cracked open again, a great jagged fork of straight up energy darting down through cracks in the air itself to drain out into the ground, painting a root system of light across her retinas. A strange orange-red glow grew behind the nearest dome, like a halo, as something caught fire.

Strange that this bitter rain had left anything behind that could still burn, she thought, shivering a little and trying not to bounce on her feet. The urge to do something – anything – was the other half of the itch the rain built in her, useless power building in the air with her yearning to reach out and fix it, smelling like a decent, clean rain on Cephiro, like the salt and fish and cold of the sea back home.

Umi was so focused on the storm, its brightness and loud crashes, that she didn’t notice the footsteps across the soft carpet behind her. When Clef spoke, she flinched and span around so fast her hair struck the inside of the window.

“It’s late for you to be still out here, Umi.”

Clef stood next to her, in the gloom of the lounge, but his eyes were drawn out to the storm as much as hers had been. A new flash of light flooded over them for a moment, painted his skin white apart from the bruising under his eyes, then vanished to leave her with an impression of him burning brightly over the shadowed figure in front of her.

She was almost used to looking up at him by now. It wasn’t very far up, just an inch or so, but this elder form seemed to fit him better than the child’s ever had. His voice hadn’t changed, but that too seemed more in place now.

“I couldn’t sleep. The rain feels all wrong.” She said, looking back at the window. Yet another crack tore the world outside, painting the world bright before it faded again into the thrumming, waiting gloom.

Clef hummed something wordless, his voice low, sandpaper-rough. “The lightning, too.” That made sense. She’d seen him use spells of several elements, but it was always electricity crackling about his hands when he was reacting to a threat.

Umi stood staring out at the storm, trying to not tap her fingers too frantically against her arms. Then Clef said ‘oh!’ softly, and she turned just soon enough to see him staring at her in the next flash of light.

“…’Oh’ what, Clef?”

The expression on his face, as he watched her, stilled her fidgeting completely. “Water. Of course. I hadn’t realised – it must be driving you to distraction, having no way to drain the power off.”

“Well, yes, but – wait, you mean you do? After all the agreements we had to stamp and sign vowing we’d not perform any unsupervised magic at all?”

Clef glanced outside at the moment the next bolt came down, reaching one hand out to the cold glass. “Lightning’s not particularly subtle. Let it build up and we’d be filling in more than a few forms after the explosion which I’d doubtless cause. I can ground it, a little at a time, too low for the sensors they have watching to pick it up and sound an alarm. It’s good practise for control, at least. And it’s not exactly casting a spell, I’m not breaking the agreement.”

“How do you do it? Can I – how do I – this itches like fire, Clef, why didn’t you tell me there was a way to bleed it off?”

“Like I said, I didn’t realise you would be having a problem! And you can’t. Water’s awkward. The power doesn’t like to just be grounded or drift out of you, it wants to drain, all in a rush. Teaching you how to control that would take time, and more than enough magic to be noticed.” His voice dropped further still. “…I’m sorry I didn’t think of it sooner-“

“You mean I’m stuck with this?” She said, half a moan, voice rising until she remembered the people asleep in the rooms about them. Though if they could sleep through the drum solo outside…

Clef shook his head, and stepped closer. “There’s no way for you to bleed it off, but I can do it.”

“…What?”

“ Lightning and water, Umi. They mix well. Rather too well at times. You can transfer the charge to me, I can bleed it off with my own.”

The relief at hearing that was strong enough to be a physical sensation, a cool rush from the base of her neck out across the rest of her. “Really? How?”

“Just hold your hand out. Skin contact, that’s all. Here-“

She reached for his offered hand. As soon as their fingers were within an inch of each other a jab of light darted between them, sheer blue-white visible for a second in the dark room then gone with a sharp crack and a wavering after-image to go with the stinging in her fingers. They both snatched their hands away.

“That hurt!” Umi clutched her now-tingling fingers to her chest, watching as Clef shook his hand, rueful expression just visible. “I thought you were draining the extra off yourself! Not keeping it about to snap at me!”

“I am,” he insisted. “That was from you.”

“…I, but. That wasn’t water!”

“No, it was magic. Raw. It saw the chance you wanted it to take and leapt for it.” He held out his hand again. Umi kept her own where it was.

“Will it be like that the whole time? Only I’m not sure it’s worth it. Especially not if it’s that loud, I don’t want to wake everyone up.”

“No, it shouldn’t be. Once we’re actually in contact the power won’t need to jump.” He stepped a little closer again, leaning towards her in the gloom. “Come on, Umi. Trust me?”

She hesitated, then reached out. Another sharp spark leapt, loud, from her skin to his. It was like pins and needles jabbing her fingers, and she flinched – but this time Clef’s fingers were wrapped about her wrist before she could move, and he followed when she pulled back.

The pain faded after a few moments, morphing into a strange and tingling sensation everywhere his skin was on hers. A cool, pulling feeling, like the cold glass window drawing the heat from her fingers. The rest of her hand felt itchy; at first just a little, then more, spreading down her arm and out through her whole body.

Clef was staring thoughtfully at their clasped hands. She tried not to fidget, face heating, making a fist of her other hand so she didn’t start scratching, but couldn’t help squirming a little. His attention snapped back onto her face.

“It’s a lot, isn’t it. I really should have thought about the build up earlier – are you alright? Is this…?”

Umi shrugged, then shifted again as another burst of heavier rain slammed into the windows. “I’m fine, fine. It just – itches a bit.”

“What, your hand?”

“…The rest of me.” Umi muttered, looking out at the storm. A flash of lightning split the night again. She shivered a little – until Clef stepped forward and wrapped his arm around her back, pulling her closer to his chest. “C-Clef! What are – oh.” She exhaled the last word on a gasp at the rush of that same soothing coolness spreading out from everywhere they now pressed together: across the chest and down through the body, even their legs tangled as he stood with one foot between hers. Not as strong as where they were skin-to-skin, but enough to relieve the irritation.

The release was strong enough to be a pleasure of itself and startled her out of any reserve; she relaxed against him. “Any better?” Clef asked, voice soft in Umi’s ear. She nodded, and dropped her head so her cheek pressed against his neck. A gentle laugh in her ear was enough to make her blush, but not enough to stop cuddling up to him when it felt so good.

Clef slipped his arms further about her, resting his head against hers, and she could feel it when he took a carefully controlled deep breath in releasing it just as slowly.

“…Are you okay?” She asked, tentatively. “Do you need to stop?” Her hands tightened on his robes the moment she’d said it, labelling it the lie it was. She didn’t want him to move anywhere unless he could find some way of getting closer still.

“I’m fine,” Clef promised. His voice was a fraction rougher than usual. Umi shivered a little - the room was cold now that she had the warmth of another person pressed up against her to contrast it with.

“…Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Umi. It’s just… it’s been a long time since I’ve held anyone.” He shrugged, his shoulders moving under her hands. “That’s all.”

Umi bit her lip, suppressing her first reaction to that admission - and how lonely was that thought, that Clef had gone so long without a close friend he’d forgotten what a hug felt like? It certainly explained how tense he was. Though part of that was probably the overspill of her magic - the prickling had certainly made her feel tense.

That thought led her down a different path, and she frowned in the dark, peering at the windows where the rain was beginning to slacken off. “Fun and Hikaru haven’t said anything. Are they-”

“They’re not going to be building up anything like this,” Clef promised. “Fire isn’t exactly a weather condition - whatever’s catching light out there won’t be enough to affect Hikaru. Fuu might feel a little uncomfortable when the wind is up, but air doesn’t build in the same way - She’s touching air the whole time, so it’s leaving at the same rate as it’s coming.”

“So if I stayed in the shower for the rest of the trip, I’d feel fine?”

Clef took a sharp breath, and huffed out a startled laugh. “Essentially, yes, probably. It would take a lot of water to even you out. …But are you feeling better now?”

It was plainly a request she let go, Umi sighed this time. “…Yeah,” she admitted, reluctantly. “Given it’s still raining, anyway.”

“This front has just about passed us, I promise,” Clef said. “I’m not sure how much more I can keep a handle on right now, though.”

“Sorry,” She said, and he untangled himself from her carefully. Which was of course the moment Umi began to feel awkward about it - when she could see Clef’s face again. But he held onto her hand until Umi looked at him, and then his lips twitched up irrepressibly. She started to giggle at him, tried to stop, failed miserably. Clef tightened his grip on her hand one last time then let it go.

“That’s better. It won’t get so bad again, not if you’re happy to hold my hands a few times a day.”

“I think I can stand a few hugs,” Umi agreed. She squashed the impulse that wanted to say she’d take the hugs happily without the magic transfer, anytime.

(She’d been pushing aside similar thoughts since he grew. But mentioning that - particularly in the circumstances - seemed rude.)

Clef snorted, and made his way through the living area and into the kitchenette. Umi followed, figuring he was headed for the kettle and a cup of tea sounded pretty good about then, but instead he turned the tap on and stuck his hand under it. He closed his eyes and sighed, leaning into the counter.

Blinking, Umi pressed the symbol on the wall which would bring the lights up a fraction. Clef still didn’t move. “…Okay, want to stop whatever you’re doing a moment so I can fill the kettle, if you’re not going to?”

“Mm. A drink would be nice, if you’re making one?” He got himself out of the way so she could get the squat green kettle-thing under the flow of water. “I was grounding some of the charge you just gave me. There’s less shielding on the waste-pipes than the rest of this place, so I can get rid of it a bit faster without setting the alarms blazing. The air is already het-up with this many magic users anyway.”

She took the kettle out from the water and he stuck his hands under again while she found mugs, a teapot, and one of the boxes of tea. She held it up for Clef to see. “Will this one keep us awake? I don’t recognise the smell.”

“Oh, that one’s fine - it’s rather sweet, though. You might like the purple box a little better?”

“Thanks.”

She made the tea, and he drank his one-handed, while Umi perched on the counter next to him. “You don’t have to stay, you can go back to bed now. It’s fine,” Clef told her, as the last of the rain blew over.

“I still have some left!” She tilted her mug so he could see the centimetre left in the bottom of it.

He raised an eyebrow at her. “And how long does it take to drink a mouthful of tea?”

She swung her legs, and looked down into the cup. “It’s my fault you’re out here. …And I was still fidgety. I guess it’s getting better now, though.” She raised the mug, gulped down the last of the cold tea, and set it in the cleaning rack to be washed with the breakfast things next morning. “Sorry, I’m still being a bother, aren’t I. I’ll just go and-”

Umi,” Clef’s voice arrested her. He was holding out his hand again- the dry one.

She looked from him to his hand still under the water. “But-”

“Helping is what friends are for, aren’t they?” He said, voice soft. “It’s no imposition. Better to get rid of it now when I’m ready to do something with it than let it build up until you or I explode something.”

“You’re sure?”

He nodded, and Umi reached out slowly trying not to let her hand shake at the memory of that sharp crack of power. They both flinched when their fingers touched, but it was easier than before, and relief eased through her.

It was barely a minute before the very last of the edginess fell away, leaving her actually feeling the lateness of the hour as Clef let go.

“Go to bed,” he told her. “Sleep well, and maybe the weather will behave itself for a few days.”

“Maybe.” She yawned wide enough her jaw ached. “You won’t be up much longer, will you?”

“Not long at all. I’ll go even quicker if you stop distracting me!” He said it with a grin, and Umi gave in and left him there to find her bed and fell headlong into the first truly restful sleep she’d had since they arrived.

oOo

Morning came, and rain was already pattering down on the windows again, fretting at the edge of Umi’s mind - but at least there was a promise of relief now. It also wasn’t anything like the downpour of last night, just a light drizzling.

“That looks like it’s settling in for a while,” Fuu murmured, peering out of their bedroom window as the three of them got ready for breakfast. “But did you sleep alright, Umi? You were up late last night.”

“The storm kept me awake. I went and watched it for a while. Clef was awake too, so we had a cup of tea and watched the lightning for a while. I slept fine after the weather stopped banging about so much,” Umi said. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t mention the power-transfer thing. It just felt… personal. Maybe because Clef didn’t go around hugging people at all? The fact she’d spent half an hour snuggling up to him felt disproportionately intimate, this morning, and that was the kind of awkward conversation she’d rather avoid if she could.

“Clef couldn’t sleep either?” Fuu asked, tilting her head at Umi, who did her level best not to blush. “The storms here are a little… disconcerting.”

“He said it’s because of our magic- you’ve got wind magic, so it probably bugs you a little, and me with water, and his lightning - Hikaru shouldn’t be affected at all though, he thought?” She turned that into a question and the focus onto Hikaru, before she could turn red.

Hikaru nodded, fingers busy rebraiding the long spill of her hair. “The weather is a bit weird, but it doesn’t make me feel weird. It makes Lantis restless, though - I heard him telling Eagle he could manage without setting the shields off as long as he got somewhere he could let the energy bleed off a couple of times a day, but he was out of the habit, so could the alarm threshold be put up a little.” She grinned at them. “I guess he got the hang of it, given he’s staying at Eagle’s without setting anything off even though they’re sleeping together, which must be distracting...”

“Hikaru!” Umi and Fuu chorused, both with their best shocked faces as she giggled.

“I haven’t needed to do anything like that, though, and the alarms haven’t gone since we broke the training rooms. How about you, Umi?”

Umi shook her head. “I guess lightning is a bit more explosive than air or water?” she offered, nonchalantly.

“That’s true.” Fuu smiled, and then they were all ready and heading out for breakfast, subject dropped.

oOo

Clef appeared not long after they did and sat opposite Umi, behaving precisely as usual- that was, he stole an entire pot of tea and glared at anyone who looked like they might take it back, not quite growling.

Umi was relieved everything was normal, but… She was a little fidgety again. Nothing like yesterday, but now she knew she didn’t have to put up with it, it was somehow harder to ignore.

She lingered slightly over her food, until everyone else was getting up and heading off to brush teeth and finish getting ready for another exciting day of first school lessons. But Clef was watching her, as he stood up. “I’ll clear this morning,” he announced. “I haven’t done it yet. Umi, could you bring your things through when you’re done?”

“S-sure?” She said, and glanced about - but no one was paying attention to this exciting proposal of cleaning the breakfast dishes. She crammed the last bite of her roll into her mouth and gathered up a bunch of the plates Clef hadn’t managed to get in one trip, then followed him to the kitchenette, around the corner from the bedrooms. As no one was hanging out in the living area, they were safely out of sight for at least a few moments.

Clef waved at the counter, and she set her stack of dishes down carefully, eyeing his hand as he held it out to her. If it was going to be as painful as last night…

“Hey,” Clef said, quiet enough no one would overhear unless they were right there. “It’s okay. Unless you’re not uncomfortable…?”

Pulling a face, Umi reached out and took his hands again. Power cracked between them, but nothing like as vigorously as the night before. She wrapped her fingers tighter about Clef’s. The itch crept out from her arm, tingling up her elbow, but she made herself stay where she was. “…How are you, this morning?” She asked, and winced at the banality.

The corner of Clef’s mouth twitched up into a smile. “I’m fine. The thunder stopped before the rain, last night; this little extra is no trouble.” Umi must have looked uncertain; he tightened his hold on her hand. “I promise.”

“Because I managed nearly a week with it, so-”

“Umi-”

“I don’t want to be a bother!” she squeaked, as the tingle-itch spread across her chest before easing off.

Clef pulled his hand away and waved it at her. “Such an inconvenience, yes.” He rolled his eyes. “If you wish to make amends for all ten seconds of hand-holding, you could get the last of the plates off the table?”

“Sure?”

And that was that.

oOo

Umi assumed, given the way he’d waited until they were out of sight, that Clef wasn’t about to advertise this new hand-holding regimen either. People might get the wrong idea. But he managed to catch her alone for a minute at their lunchtime lesson break, and that evening she just waited until everyone else had wandered off to get ready for bed. Clef was always last up, and it wasn’t like they hadn’t spent a good portion of the years they’d known each other happily bickering about inconsequential things, so no one looked at them twice when they started a vigorous discussion of which card games were easiest to cheat at. When they were gone, they continued arguing - just Umi leaned in against Clef’s side as they talked, and he wrapped an arm about her shoulders, held both her hands with the other.

A few moment’s awkward hand-holding was again all she needed the second morning too, and she was starting to feel quite cheerful about the whole thing. She even thought she was getting a handle on their lessons - she managed to turn her datapad on and off and pull the menu up without rebooting or setting it on fire, finally.

Then a new weather front slammed in.

A fidget began to run down her spine maybe an hour before lunch. Ten minutes later, the rain began to splatter against the windows, and her concentration was shot. Lightning traced bright cracks across the sky out of the window and the rain hammered down harder by the second.

She tapped her feet at first, then tucked them back under the chair she was on in an attempt to keep still. Their instructor could have been talking about anything; not a word managed to sink in. She started to wriggle her pen in her hand instead, as if she could channel all that energy into one small-but-frantic movement - until the pen flipped out of her hands and sideways across the table.

It dropped onto the floor right beside Clef, who leaned down to pick it up, and rolled it back over the table to her without a word. But he looked at her, and she wrinkled up her nose at him. She picked the pen up and then set it straight back down before she tossed it at someone else.

The instructor paused, raising one eyebrow at her. “If we are all ready to proceed?”

“Yeah, I’ll just - I’m just going to the bathroom a moment, I’ll be back in a minute, excuse me…” Sidling out between the tables she shot into the hallway and headed for the nearest toilet without a clear idea what she was planning to do, but needing to be out of that room, away from everyone watching her fidgets. Maybe if she just stuck her hands under the water it would help? Though she didn’t know what would trigger those monitoring spells Clef had mentioned. If she set them off it would be embarrassing as anything.

Not that she knew how to do whatever Clef had been doing with the water.

Maybe she could stick her head under the taps.

She locked herself in, and turned the water on. Sticking her hands under it didn’t do much but get her hands wet. A shower might help, but this just wasn’t enough volume of water to bleed anything off without Clef’s help. She stood there, trying to breathe slowly, mostly fighting the urge to bang her head into the wall and burst into tears.

It wasn’t that long before there was a tentative knock at the door. “Umi? Are you in here?”

“Clef?” She spun about and yanked the door open, leaving trails of water running on the door where she touched it. He blinked at her. She stuttered another step towards him, then stopped just before she actually touched him, her voice caught up in a sob. It wasn’t right for her to just grab him. So she stepped back, instead, wrapping her arms about herself.

Stepping into the little room, Clef slid the door shut behind him and flicked the lock back on before reaching out. A sharp crack of static jolted between them before their hands touched, but as soon as they were skin to skin the terrible inescapable pressure started to ease. Umi closed her eyes and reached out unseeing to grab hold of Clef’s shoulder, wrapping her arms about him and holding on.

Clef took a slow and shuddering breath of his own. Distantly, there was a crack of thunder. “I’d ask if you were alright, but I suspect I know the answer.”

Umi’s laugh was muffled against his shoulder. “Sorry, it was just - the storm broke so suddenly, I couldn’t-”

“It’s okay, Umi. It’s okay.” He wrapped his arms about her back and lay his head against hers. “Just breathe.”

oOo

They walked back into the classroom ten minutes later, Umi feeling more settled in her skin and arguing amiably with Clef over how possible it was going to be to remove the pollution from the whole of Autozam’s water cycle, given that the soil and to some extent even the rock were currently poisoned, which would add chemicals back into the water table even if they got the rain clean.

The instructor blinked at them, then at the rest of the room - who were ignoring them. Hikaru and Fuu did look about, but then relaxed when they saw Umi bickering; it was so normal that no one thought anything of it.

“Yes, but cleaning the soil somehow has to be the eventual goal if the ecology is going to be stimulated back into growth, and ‘washing’ it clean seems the best option at the moment,” Clef said, waving Umi into her seat at the same time as he was frowning at her. They’d started the conversation as a cover for the length of Umi’s absence, but it had turned real in about three seconds. “We need to remove those particles somehow. If the rain could wash them through-”

“Are you planning on me staying here for the next thousand years, then?” Umi retorted. “Do you even know how long it takes water to move that far? If you’re talking rock, it’ll be centuries!”

“But-” he stopped, and frowned. “…I still don’t see another viable option. Surely there’s some way to speed it up. Or perhaps we could alter the rain, if there’s some way of binding the worst of the chemicals into it…”

“Wasn’t the worst of the problem caused by depletion of the living energy of the planet, anyway?” Umi asked, looking up at the instructor - who blinked again, but nodded agreement. “The pollution came later, when people were relying on mechanical solutions to live, because nature had been mostly flattened. So getting rid of the pollution isn’t going to bring the plants back.”

“Not directly, but mages like us can put energy back into a system - only until the pollution is gone, all the encouragement in the world won’t get anything to take.” Clef flopped back in his chair. The problem had been growing clearer and clearer since they first got to Autozam, and Umi didn’t know what the solution was going to be. From his look, neither did Clef - and she wanted to help, she really did, but the thought of spending years living with this horrible rain was too much.

Hikaru hummed quietly, on Umi’s other side. “…Are there any plants left which do grow on the soil as it is now?” she asked, and they all blinked at her. “If they do - if there’s something which could be encouraged to take up those chemicals as it grows, bind them into itself… and then the plants were taken up and not allowed to decompose back into the system…”

“Clean the soil with the plant-life?” Clef tapped his fingers on the desk, then started scribbling notes on the paper he was meant to be using for their lesson - he wasn’t being allowed a datapad yet. “I think there were a couple of species who can manage with slightly lower levels of the pollution. If they were being given cleaned water, and the atmosphere was cleared out some…”

Umi nodded, and reached down for the bag she was carrying her own notes about in. “I remember the scientists mentioned a few more resilient species. They hadn’t managed to get them to reproduce, though, so every time they planted a crop, they grew a little, died early, and that was it. But if we don’t want them to reproduce anyway… you’d need some way of putting the other things back into the soil, though, if you’re taking the plant matter away. Otherwise you’ll strip it of nutrients as well.”

Somewhere over to the side, Fuu was apologising to the instructor as the lesson turned more into a brainstorming session, but after a few shocked minutes the instructor pulled another chair over to them. It turned out he - Talon - was actually one of the lower-level scientists on the regeneration project. That was why he’d been drafted to teach them, only watching them fail basic lessons hadn’t given him much faith. He was a lot more helpful once they started sounding like they had some useful ideas. So the next few hours were a lot livelier, which helped immensely as the rain kept on coming.

Clef also bumped his leg briefly against hers under the table, a couple of times. It wasn’t a proper transfer, but it took the edge off. And when they got back to their suite, he managed to distract Umi into a discussion on which accessible part of the water system would be easiest to try cleaning until everyone else had wandered off after dinner, and then he pulled her into a swift hug for a few moments in the kitchen.

They kept arguing all the way through it, which made it easier for Umi to stand steady and not try getting closer still.

oOo

They got better at it, or perhaps just less subtle. Clef was now making sure to find Umi a few times a day, more when it rained; that meant each transfer took less time. It was easier to drop to the back of the group as they walked through the corridors and press their hands together, or overlap going to the facilities and take a few moments to lean into each other as they crossed paths. One time, when they were in a real rush, Clef pulled her into the kitchen and stuck both their hands under the tap. The feeling of that charge being washed away had Umi gasping for air, the sensation rippling through her as her magic responded to it, but it did the job; the transfer was twice as fast as usual.

Umi felt better than she had since she’d got to Autozam, but evenings were slowly becoming her favourite part of the day. In the evenings, they were the last people in the lounge, and that meant it wasn’t so rushed an affair. She got to wrap her arms about Clef and stay there. Though they broke apart sharply enough if they heard anyone else approaching.

Ferio had nearly walked in on them once, as had LaFarga; the more they did this, the more Umi didn’t want anyone else to know. They would get the wrong impression, and then she’d have to talk about it. And probably stop clinging onto Clef as often as she could get away with it. But it just… it felt good. Touching him.

It was something she’d wanted to do for quite some time, and this had handed her the perfect excuse; she’d tried to behave herself, not ask too much, but it was Clef who kept reaching out for her. If she happened to enjoy it, well, wasn’t that just good luck?

The guilt kept niggling at the back of her mind anyway. Clef had never shown any sign he wanted to touch her, after all. And he felt more tense the longer they were in contact, muscles tight under Umi’s hands.

Or maybe she was imagining things and that was always how he’d reacted to the influx of irritated power, she just hadn’t noticed; too busy being bewildered at being allowed so close to him.

oOo

Another week in, and once more, Umi couldn’t sleep. The thunderstorm had started late, and woken her up. She tried to stay in bed, tried to tell herself that she’d been fine an hour ago when she said goodnight to Clef, things couldn’t build up that quickly, she should just go to sleep and find him in the morning. It took ten minutes for her to argue herself in just going to get a cup of tea. If Clef just happened to be in the lounge, well, then she could talk to him; it was a public room, and if he was awake the lightning was probably disturbing him, too. Maybe some company would be a good distraction.

(Hopefully she’d actually stick to that and wouldn’t try to go find him. Just in case he was actually awake and miserable and also wanted a cup of tea, or - well, she could think of a dozen excuses, which probably meant she shouldn’t use any of them. It wasn’t like she could lie to anyone anyway, she went bright red if she even thought about it, which usually gave the game away.)

In the end, she didn’t have to worry - he was already in the kitchen with the kettle on, and he fetched a second mug down just as she came in far enough to see it was him. “I thought it might wake you, too,” he said, holding out his hands.

Umi went to him eagerly, and he wrapped his arms about her, one hand stroking up and down her back.

The fizzing discomfort settled into relief. She wormed closer, pressing her face to his neck - and she was so close she felt the way he flinched at her breath on his neck, the small noise that caught in his throat.

Umi froze, actually registering that she wasn’t just holding onto Clef, she was plastered against him, her hips pressed to his, and-

Oh!

She tried to pull back, but his hands stayed steady on her back, keeping her in place.

“Umi, don’t-”

But!

“Just- ignore it? Please?” His voice had gone hoarse, and she was suddenly putting together all the ways he’d acted that first evening, the tension since, and coming up with a lot of wordless exclamation marks. “It’s just a- side effect of the transfer, it doesn’t-” He swallowed, and it sounded like he was pleading with her. “It doesn’t have to mean anything. You don’t have to think about it.”

Umi pulled back far enough she could see his face, and he was blushing. Her hands flexed in the cloth of his robes. “You said this wasn’t an imposition! It seems pretty imposing to me, Clef-”

He pulled a face. “It’s really not that big a, uh, deal.”

Umi stared at him, holding herself so still she shook with it, trying to work out if that was meant to be a joke or if she just had a wildly inappropriate sense of humour-

Clef’s lips twitched, the tiniest give-away, and she pulled a hand free to thump him on the shoulder. Static cracked between them as she hit, but she was giggling, and Clef was laughing too. He pulled her gently back in - leaving some space between their hips, this time, and resting his forehead against hers.

“Sorry, Umi. It’s just a physical reaction. It’s harder to hide things with this anatomy than with yours.”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t notice anything?” Umi muttered, and Clef took a long breath.

“If you would, I’d be grateful?”

So they stood there not talking about it, as the excess magic passed between them. Unfortunately, however, the realisation let Umi put a clearer name to the fidgeting impulse to worm closer that kept hitting her while they did this. In hindsight… she must have been working really hard at not thinking about it to miss that. She found herself flushing, and hid her face against his shoulder, closing her eyes so she wouldn’t be tempted to look down. As soon as the prickling of the transfer settled down, she pulled away, not looking at him.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, quieter. “I’ll try to deal with it more, not bother you as much.”

Sighing, Clef stepped in, and took her hands back in his. “Umi, stop it. I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable, but please don’t let that stop me helping you.”

“I’m not uncomfortable! I’m just-” she flapped her hands, taking his along with them when he didn’t let go. “I don’t know! It’s hard to ignore!” She didn’t mean just his reaction, but hers as well. But she wasn’t going to say that aloud.

Clef just shook his head. “It’s not like I’m in pain or anything, Or like it happens every time.” (Though he wouldn’t meet her eyes as he said that, and Clef was about as good a liar as she was.) “Umi, please. I don’t want things to be awkward, I just-” he ran out of words, and just looked at her, gripping her hands tightly.

Umi stared at him, and slowly the strangeness of the situation overtook everything else, and her lips twitched up. She started giggling again. “I’m sorry! I wasn’t expecting- uh-”

Clef blinked at her a moment before it hit him too, and then they were both laughing, helplessly, until Umi had literal tears on her cheeks and her chest hurt.

“I’ll finish making the tea,” Clef said. By the time they’d drunk it, Umi was almost able to look at him without her face heating up again.

oOo

The brief moment of composure failed by the time they were alone in the kitchen the next morning, staring at each other. Umi had been tired enough to sleep without really thinking about it the previous night, but now she was trying not to wonder if he was going to react the same way this time. How it would feel if instead of pulling away, she leaned in instead.

Clef looked at her sideways, then shrugged the long-sleeved overrobe he wore off before he pulled her over to the sink, putting the water on as fast as it would go. “Here,” he said, softly, and she held her hands and as much of her arms as she could in the flow, fingers tangled with his, and tried to keep her breathing even. The sensation had her almost whimpering, heat coiling down through her chest, lower, as she wondered what it felt like to Clef. But it was over before she could disgrace herself by asking, and the weather wasn’t bad; the rest of the day went easier.

At least, it did until dinnertime, when another sudden squall hit just as she was eating. Umi was mid-sentence; she stopped talking and shuddered, turning to look at the rain slamming against the windows. But she’d only just started eating, and people would notice if she left without them…

And all she could think about was how this much charge building up meant she would be stood in Clef’s arms again, leaning against him.

By the time she had finished her food, her hands were trembling.

Most of their group was going out that evening, to some entertainment Eagle had arranged. Umi had been looking forward to it, but like this? Only the wind and the rain kept going, and Hikaru and Fuu were with her the whole way to their rooms, changing into slightly warmer clothes as the heating dipped for the evening, chattering happily about the play they were going to watch, about their progress in using Autozam’s technology so far. She didn’t have a chance to get near Clef without people noticing; she certainly couldn’t have touched him without drawing attention. The crack of static between them was going to be loud, and obvious.

The first half of the play could have been about almost anything; she paid somewhat forced attention while the first three characters were introduced (one of which seemed to be a robot like the FTO) but then overheard Fuu asking Ferio where Clef was.

“Oh, he decided to stay in this evening, reading through some stuff I think,” Ferio replied.

Umi twitched, trying not to think about going to find him, all alone in his room. She’d noticed he wasn’t there, but thought he was back with the scientists again, trying to contain his magic to a level which let it interact with their machines.

The music and the story went on, and she sat on her hands, taking in none of it. Then came the interval, and she tried to move slowly as she got up. “I’m just going to go find another top, I’m feeling a bit cold in this one,” she murmured, and nobody paid much attention to her slipping out.

It was all she could do not to run through the public corridors. And when she got to the area they were using, she sped up; she was breathless by the time she reached Clef’s bedroom door and knocked.

“Who is it?” Clef called, sounding grouchy at being disturbed.

So he hadn’t been expecting her. Her heart sank slightly, and Umi swallowed. “It’s me?”

“Umi?” He opened the door to her and stepped out into the corridor. “I thought you were at the play, with the others.”

“I was, but-” the rain gusted against the dome, and she shuddered. “Uh-”

Clef blinked out at the windows. “Ah. I didn’t notice. No lightning, and I had some reports from home to- never mind.”

He held out his hands, and Umi held out hers, only to startle backwards when static cracked between them from nearly six inches away. She winced, fingers tingling, but stepped in again before Clef could change his mind about helping her, and wrapped her arms about his waist. Clef didn’t push her away; he held on, hands sliding over her back, and she started to shiver.

She didn’t want this to end. At the same time, she wanted so much more.

But if he didn’t…

Well. There was one way to find out.

Umi tilted her head close, pressed her nose to his neck - and then her mouth, instead. Clef drew a sharp breath in, hands clenching on her top.

“U-Umi,” he stuttered.

“What if I don’t want to ignore it?” Her throat was dry, voice scratchy, but at least she was audible.

Shaking his head, Clef yanked away from her. “This was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have let myself –“

“Let yourself what?” Umi followed Clef as he retreated back into his room, getting in the way before he could close the door, and when he went further, back around his bed, she went too.

“Keep doing this – keep holding you, in secret, when it’s already – I have a hard enough time keeping from just reaching out to you on a normal day, let alone when I have an excuse, and this is a situation guaranteed to compromise you. I’m sorry. I should have insisted on a witness, or-”

“But it’s not just you,“ Umi tried, reaching out a shaking hand. Clef was telling her what she’d wanted to hear for months now in one breath, and stealing it away with the next. She couldn’t let him–

He slipped away from her, and the desperate hope she felt took that moment as fuel and boiled over into anger, sharp on her tongue. “Stop running away from me! I want this! Clef, if you do too, then what’s the problem?”

“You might well think that now, but when we get away from Autozam and these poisoned storms, when you don’t need to touch me-“

Clef was staring at the floor, at the walls, at anything but her, with his face so open and hurting that it made Umi ache too. And it was all pointless, because he was being ridiculous.

So she slammed him back into the wall, giving him no time to recover before she was there, in his space, getting her hands onto his shoulders to hold him still. She gave him time to look at her again, eyes wide, focused on her and on what she was actually saying. “For months, you twit!”

Then she kissed him. Just to get the point across, really, and only a little bit because the longing was getting to be more than she could live with.

…And if she wanted anyone to believe that, she should be letting go and back off again now, itch scratched, so they could calm down and talk this out. Instead she was twisting to get a better angle as Clef’s moment of shock melted away with a moan she could taste; his mouth opened against hers and she licked her way inside. The tingling rush of static between them had flared up the moment she took hold, but it was sharper and brighter in the kiss; there were sparks cascading through her which were only enhanced by the power jumping through them. Their source was the heat of Clef pressing into her, the soft noise he made as he gave way, gave in, and kissed back.

By the time she pulled back her lips tingled and her breath was catching in her throat, the whole of her body taut with want. Clef’s hands were at her waist, his thumbs brushing back and forth over her hips.

“You, for months? Really?” He asked, his voice husky. Umi nodded, not trusting her own, and he didn’t let go. Instead he swallowed, hard, and tightened his hands a little. Lightning crashed outside the window for the first time, and both of them flinched. The storm was raging harder than ever, clouds dense and black as thunder started to rumble. “…We should really get rid of the power build-up first. Before we talk. Because we should talk.” Clef said, his eyes flicking down to her lips then back up again, and Umi shivered at the thought she had him so distracted, just from a kiss–

He was right, they really should talk, because not talking about it before had ended up with Clef trying to run away from her and she was strongly invested in not having that happen again, but it was hard to concentrate like this. So Umi nodded, and stepped back a little to let Clef up from the wall, drawing her arms back. Clef caught one hand with his own, and smiled at her, a little breathlessly.

“The storm might not last too much longer. The wind is moving it pretty fast, you can see the clouds being blown about. Even if it goes on, getting rid of what the day’s left you should leave us both clearer headed…” and he tugged her into the bathroom, leaving the door open. Once there, though, he paused, hesitating between the shower controls and the sink. His smile was wryer when he looked at her this time. “Quick or better controlled, which do you think?”

“Quick.” Umi said, not having to think about it. “If I have to hold you for too long, I’m not going to want to talk at all.”

“…Quick it is.” Reaching out, Clef turned yanked the shower control to start the water falling. He didn’t bother with the temperature controls: the chill coming off the water was tangible even a half metre back. Umi wondered why he’d gone for cold – then she glanced at the hot blush across his face, the way his body was turned just a bit away from hers, and understood. She shuddered another breath in. Clef misread it; he let go and began to tug his outer robe off, hurrying to bare his arms, like the previous time they’d done this. Umi found herself staring at his collarbone as it was exposed, and swallowed.

“I, uh. I think it might be best if you kept that on. For now.” Her face was burning with the embarrassment of having to admit that out loud, but Clef only glanced at her, bit his lip, and nodded.

“Let’s try this, then.” He said, and stepped to Umi’s back. She twisted to see what he was doing – getting the door? She thought he’d left that on purpose (and blushed at the thought of it), but no, he was wrapping his arms about her from behind, tangling their fingers together and raising their arms out in front of Umi so the cold spray hit their skin.

Distracted by the heat of his chest against her back, she wasn’t expecting it. She hissed a startled breath in, pressing back against him – against all of him, closing the gap, and that was something of a mistake. Clef gripped her hands tighter, but didn’t move away. He took one long deep breath, and she could feel his chest move, then felt the warmth of it as he let it go. “Move closer to the water.” He whispered against her neck, head bowed a little so his forehead was resting on her hair. “More water means I can do this quicker.”

She stepped closer, and the bite of the water as it ran over her arms now made her gasp again. Her chest was tight, almost aching, and lower down - she fought the urge to just give in and turn around. Instead she moved again and watched the water darken their sleeves, felt it begin to strike her feet, trickle down her legs. The itching pressure of the storm was still fluttering at her skin, not draining away as fast as her breath quickened. One more step, and the spray hit her chest, and that was a mistake entirely, the shock of it striking through clothes to sensitised skin doing the direct opposite of calming her. She dragged Clef forwards again immediately so at least it was beating at her head first…

It was the contrast, she realised distantly – the cold in front made the heat of Clef’s body more immediate. But also, she liked water – clean water, like this, running over her. It was a pleasant sensation, heightened by circumstance into something far less innocent than it used to be.

“Clef,” she whispered, shaking in his arms. She let her head fall back against his shoulder, twisting so her lips could brush, just, against his jaw. Her eyes were shut against the spray. “Please.”

His hands tightened on hers for a moment, then he let go, and stepped back, away from her. “What about talking?” His voice was low and rough, half eaten by the sound of the shower.

Umi spun about to face him. “We can talk later,” she promised, and held out her hands, hoping the water hid the way they shook. She’d never felt like this, mind so out-of-control and her body demanding. Never even imagined it, and she knew part of it was driven by the need to release all this gathered energy but that didn’t matter, didn’t change the fact that she wanted him, here, now. And when she knew this was something he wanted too, how could it be wrong to have it?

Clef drew in one long shuddering breath, and the next moment Umi found herself shoved right up against the wall, frigid water pounding down on both of them as Clef kissed her like he was trying to drink her down, meld them together. She shook, and moaned into his mouth. The tiles were cold against her back through her sodden clothes: Clef’s mouth was burning against her and his chest was hot through the clinging layer of his robes and she had to tear her head away to breath, tilting her face into the spray.

Water spilled down her neck, and Clef chased it with his mouth, licked it up, hands on her hips urging her higher between him and the wall so he could drag his teeth over her collarbone. Umi hitched one leg up about his waist for balance, and every touch made her shiver harder. Her hands squeezed his shoulders fitfully until she’d gathered fistfuls of his robe. His mouth was on the side of her neck again, tongue burnishing her. “Clef-“ She gasped, helplessly. “Clef-

His mouth slid from her skin, and she moaned a protest, looking down at him. “Fuck.” He muttered, then laughed raggedly and looked up to watch her with wide, dark eyes, his hair curling wild about his face, beads of water running through it and dropping onto his cheeks, his lips, chest shuddering against her with every breath he took.

Umi took a moment to brand that sight into her memory, then she was tangling one hand in his hair to get it out of the way and pull his head to hers so she could kiss him, the other hand frantically shoving at his clothing, trying to push it from his shoulders. It was a solid, stubborn mass with all the water, but she was more stubborn than it was, and managed to get one shoulder bare and slide her hand under it, ran her hand down his damp side. Clef’s hands were heavy on her hips, then he set one on her leg where it wrapped about his side, and stroked up over her thigh, pushing her skirt out of the way.

After that she lost track, as they both set about undoing and pushing aside each other’s clothes as fast as possible, not stopping the kissing long enough to look and getting in each other’s way half the time, arms tangling in increasing frustration until Clef hissed against her mouth and pulled abruptly away, dropping her back to her feet. He yanked his robe off, and it dropped to the floor about his feet while he tugged his top over his head.

With a few steps between them, Umi could see behind him even while she was fascinated by the skin being revealed – she could see all the way through into his room, and through the open door at the end into the corridor. “Clef– the door– it’s not shut! Neither of them-“

Clef balled up his top even as he pulled it off his arms, and flung it at the bathroom door without looking back. It splattered against the wood, and the door swung shut, latch clicking the moment before Clef stepped in and kissed her again. His hands pushed hers out of the way and started working down the buttons of her shirt. Umi didn’t protest. She licked into his mouth and began exploring all that skin with her hands. It seemed to distract Clef, but eventually between them they managed to shove enough clothing out of the way.

Clef pulled back then, enough to look her in the eyes. He tangled their fingers together, then guided her hands up the wall, up above her head. There was a railing there, the one for the shower curtain they’d ignored. “Hold on.” He told her – but it was a question too, and she answered it by grabbing on and getting one leg about his hip even before his hands were there, on her thighs, lifting her just a few inches– just enough–

Time slowed, everything grinding down to focus on the slow slide in, until Clef was gasping against her shoulder, and Umi needed him to move now but if he did she was going to shatter already, and it was so good, so good. His hands held her still against him, warm on her sides, and still the water splashed cold down over them.

Eventually Umi shifted her grip on the bar overhead, and rocked against him, then they were both moving and the water wasn’t loud enough to swallow the embarrassing, broken noises Umi was making– but then he was gasping too, mouth pressing words into her skin, body working against hers until it was– was–

oOo

Some time later they were knelt on the floor, water pounding on their heads. Umi was sat astride Clef’s lap, and beginning to be a little self-conscious about it, but currently she still felt too good to care that much. Her entire body was tingling faintly, a feeling like the taste of joy spreading slowly out from her core. When Clef lifted his head from her shoulder, she leant back to see him, and accepted the gentle kiss he offered without hesitation.

But both of them were beginning to shiver, and after a moment he coaxed her back onto her feet, and stepped away to turn the water off.

They were wrecked. His trousers were undone, but still clinging to his hips. Umi’s underwear was gone, but she was still in her skirt and her unbuttoned top, both of them creased and plastered to her with water. Umi hesitated, but really, embarrassment was pointless at this stage – she peeled the shirt off and dropped it by Clef’s robe while he fetched the towels which had fortunately stayed dry, over the other side of the bathroom.

When he came back, he handed over the larger one and watched through the curling strands of his fringe as she wrapped it about her body, then remembered to wriggle out of her skirt. Umi was shivering harder now, the air leeching heat from her damp skin.

“Need to warm you up.” Clef murmured, stepping forwards and taking the towel from his shoulders to wrap it about hers, rubbing her arms dry. She held onto his waist on instinct, and his trousers were even colder than the bare skin above. She looked up at him shyly, slyly, and ran her fingers under that material.

“You too.” She told him, leaning in so her lips were almost brushing his. “You shouldn’t stand around in those damp things.” He laughed against her mouth, quietly, and kissed her again as they worked the clinging material off.

The kiss grew steadily deeper again until Umi had her hands in Clef’s hair, drying off forgotten while his arms pulled her close.

…And that was when they heard Lantis outside, knocking on the far– still open– door to Clef’s suite. “Guru? Clef, are you here?”

Clef swore quietly and pulled back, making a face at Umi when she burst into giggles and had to smother them with both hands pressed to her mouth. He pulled the towel from her arms and wrapped it about his waist in one quick motion as he called back. “In the bathroom, I needed a shower, the weather was getting to me. Can it wait?”

“…Not really. Umi has gone missing, Hikaru thought you might be able to find her without tripping the sensors?”

“Right. I’ll be there in a moment.” Umi was trying desperately to stifle her giggling and help drag all the clothing out of sight behind the door. Clef scrubbed a hand through his hair, looked about one last time and kicked his robe closer to her feet, then opened the door and walked out. He tugged the door to as he went out, but didn’t shut it all the way; Umi, trying not to giggle, could listen to the conversation as she tried to dry herself off with the one towel.

(Her hair kept dripping and getting her wet again, but there was nothing in here to wrap it up with, and she was too cold to unwrap the towel about her body and dry her hair first. Just moving a corner far enough to rub down her arms was enough to let the chill in.)

“She was at the play, but came back at intermission to change clothes, only she’s not in the bedroom the girls are sharing. Hikaru checked, before I persuaded her to go back to the play and let me ask you.”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Clef said, and Umi stifled another burst of laughter. “If you let me concentrate…” There was a pause, in which presumably he pretended to cast a searching spell. Or perhaps he really did cast one, with Lantis standing there. “She is fine. In fact - I think she’s snuck back into the training rooms? Maybe she persuaded someone to let her have some extra practise? She’s determined to be the first of us to crack this thing.”

Half of that was even true.

“You’re certain she is well?”

“Absolutely,” Clef said, conviction ringing through his words. “You can tell Hikaru and Fuu not to worry; I’m sure she’ll be back in their rooms by the time they return after the play.”

“Very well. I’m sorry to have disturbed you-”

“It’s fine, Lantis.”

There was a resounding ‘click’ as Clef shut the door, and then shot the bolt across. Umi met him in the door of the bathroom; she was mostly dry, but he was still damp, and the cool air had goosebumps raised on his arms. He shivered a little, and Umi frowned, stepped forwards to rubbed at his arms. “Hey, we can’t have you catching a cold.” She scolded him, softly. He shivered again and she stepped in closer.

“Umi…”

“Standing out here talking without drying off first…” she muttered, and began to realise how very still he was, how quiet.

Looking up, she found Clef watching her, eyes dark, biting his bottom lip. He was staring at her chest, she realised, at the towel beginning to loosen where it wrapped about her – he scanned lower, and she was the one who shivered now.

They moved at the same moment, meeting in the middle, Umi running her hands over his shoulders, his back, all that bare skin. He tangled one hand in her hair, pulling with just the right amount of pressure to make her tingle, and the other ran down her side until his fingers brushed her bare leg just below the edge of the towel.

“This still isn’t talking.” He pointed out, between kisses, his voice rough again.

Umi reached out and untucked the towel from his waist, let her own drop to the floor. “We can still talk later.” She said, and her own voice was huskier than she had ever heard it.

The bed was right there. And a lot more comfortable than tiles.

oOo

Umi drifted almost asleep after that, until a stray thought jolted her awake. “…This really isn’t the right time to be thinking of this, I know, but, uh.” Umi looked at Clef without moving, her head resting on her arms, which were crossed over his chest. Her voice was trying desperately to squeak, she was just as determined that it wouldn’t. “What, exactly, do people do about contraception about here?”

Clef stared at her for one long moment, then dropped his head back on the pillow and flung an arm over his eyes, a startled huff of laughter escaping his lips.

It wasn’t the most reassuring reaction in the world, and she poked his side. “Hey!”

“I know, it’s not funny, but it’s kind of ridiculous all the same. We managed all that without even talking enough to-“ Clef waved an arm in the arm to express something obscure, then let it drop back over his face.

Umi flushed, sharing the embarrassment for a moment, but the question was weighing more on her every moment. She didn’t want to have to flee back to Cephiro and then to Earth just to get the morning after pill. “I still need an answer, Clef!”

“I know– wait here a second. I think I saw–“ With which vague words Clef sat up and dislodged her, grabbing a fairly dry towel from the end of the bed as he passed and wrapping it about his waist as he wandered into the bathroom. “It was around here somewhere…” She heard him mutter. “Ah, good.” And he came back carrying a medicine box, and stuck it on the table.

Umi wrapped the covers about herself and sat up to watch him rummage, and even now the play of muscle over the curve of his back was almost as interesting as what he was doing. He dug a small packet out from under the bandages, and brought it across to Umi, leaving plasters and ointments scattered across the table top. “Here.” He said, and dropped it into her hands.

Unwrapping the paper packaging, Umi found herself looking at a necklace; a fine silver chain hung with a clear stone wrapped in a complex wire filigree. She considered it, then looked up at Clef as he settled beside her. “…It’s for me to wear?”

He nodded, and reached across to tug her hair out of the way as she lifted the chain, and went to fasten it. His fingers brushed over the nape of her neck, and she fumbled the clasp twice before it hung properly. “Keep it next to your skin for a week afterwards, and nothing will happen.” He traced the chain, watching his fingers intently as they just brushed Umi’s skin. “There are less noticeable methods, of course, but they require some amount of forethought… or the ability to cast a spell without triggering an evacuation of this whole building.” Umi shivered under his touch, and he blinked then pulled back, his cheeks flushing lightly. “If anyone from here or Cephiro sees the pendant, they’ll know what it is.”

“It hangs low enough it should stay under my clothes.” Umi said, amused at the way that made Clef blush more, his eyes drawn to where the thing lay against her chest, just over her breastbone. “Sleeping with it on will be a little harder, but neither Hikaru nor Fuu should know what it is at least.”

“I’m sorry, Umi. That I didn’t manage to stop and ask you– well, anything, really.”

Umi took Clef’s hand where it lay on the sheets beside her, and raised it to her lips. She kissed his knuckles softly, watching his face. “But you’re not sorry it happened?”

“No.” His voice was low, and growing a little huskier, a little breathless. Umi liked the sound.

“Would you be sorry if it happened again?”

“…Not at all.”

“Good.” She reached out with her other hand and tangled her fingers in his hair again, tugging him closer. “Because I’d really like it if it did.” Pulling him the last few inches, she tilted her head back and kissed his mouth open again, with care this time instead of urgency.

oOo

The thing was. The thing was, once they’d crossed that line – smudged right over it in haste and regretted not one moment, even when Umi woke up with the chain of her new necklace trying to strangle her in bed (though Clef assured her it would break before it choked her) – it was all she could think about, and every time she looked at him, she could see it in his eyes too.

The days were filled- meant to be filled– with their ‘schoolwork’ and then lectures about different aspects of the Autozam weather and technology, trying to cram a lifetime’s customary knowledge into their minds so they could find some way to help. Instead she found herself measuring out time by the moments together snatched between meetings and meals and evening ‘outings’ when Eagle took them all to see cultural things like the play she’d missed, a mix of opera and kyougen with a side order of robots. Geo took them largely to bars where there was music and card games and something like a marble run crossed with billiards which Umi remained completely confused by, because that was where he always wanted to go after a day of meetings (even though he didn’t, apparently, drink at them), and there were a whole lot of bars to explore.

One night Zazu was deputised to take them out, and declared they were going to go ’sight-seeing’; which meant he was going to sneak them into the backs of the garages and out across the uncharted mass of the scrap yards and through the indoor gardens to see the tending machines which built a nature more stable than the mess that those same machines had caused above the clear faceted dome ceiling. Zazu’s unplanned and mildly illegal ramble was the most fun of the lot, but her memories of it were broken up with the moments she stroked her fingertip down Clef’s hip as he walked past her, or he tangled their fingers together for a second behind the shield of their clothing, then walked on ahead. They got better and better at sneaking touches when they were in public, and every time they snatched some privacy…

She had a bruise in the small of her back where they fell into a sink, and there was a worse mark on Clef’s side, darkening the bruise over his hip all the way to his waist, and when she ran her fingers over it lightly he shuddered beneath her touch. Together they raced to loosen clothes, wriggle their way inside without looking because looking down would mean tearing their mouths apart, and neither one seemed capable of doing so.

Umi had taken to wearing skirts and tops without buttons, things which could be pulled off and on in a hurry. Clef’s robes were more complicated to get rid of, but she swiftly became an expert at finding the catches on three different versions – he wore a fourth once, and never again since the five minutes they lost getting tangled in it which ate up all their time before they had to get back to the others. Getting tangled, and laughing at themselves, because that was the other thing she was learning to coax from Clef – laughter, free and easy, and often at himself, at how he could be thrilled so easily that near two weeks had gone by now – they had only one left before they were due to return to Cephiro, but it seemed so impossible that this was even happening that thinking of what would happen next was almost impossible.

Which had led also to the fact that, at nearly two weeks from that first time, she was still wearing the necklace close to her heart. A rushed enthusiasm two days after the first had led to the second incident without anything more proactive on hand. And then four days later they had found themselves surprisingly left alone on the other side of the main city block to make their own way to the apartment – and she’d talked him into a private room and a locked door and from there it had been easy to convince him that another seven days was no hardship. Despite the fact that afterwards he’d lain his head against her shoulder and laughed for how ridiculous he’d become, and so late in life.

“You look young to me.” Umi whispered, still breathless, and kissed him again.

oOo

Going on like this, it was never going to be more than a matter of time before someone found them out.

oOo

Some days later, Umi managed to separate herself off from Hikaru and Fuu at lunchtime; Clef had made a sideways comment about dropping in to get some of his notes before the afternoon lectures started, with a glance at Umi. She was grinning, as she pushed the door open - only to hear Eagle’s voice saying “If you wouldn’t mind giving me some kind of explanation, Guru Clef, of quite how much magic has been detected in these quarters-”

Shooting forwards, Umi burst into the suite, startling both men as they sat at the dinner table. “It’s not Clef’s fault!” she blurted.

Eagle raised an eyebrow and looked from her to Clef, who was sighing slightly, ears pink. “Indeed?” Eagle asked, politely. “Because I was just explaining that the average power readings from here have been high enough that, though they haven’t triggered any alarms, I will need to explain it in my progress reports to the Scientific Committee who are funding this project. It would be easier to do so if I knew the reason that the alarms have been on the verge of triggering several times a day, even though no magic is to be cast in this suite.”

Umi opened her mouth, though what she was going to say, she didn’t know; Clef held up a hand to stop her, and faced Eagle dead on. “You know that Cephiran magic is tied in with the natural world. It’s the entire reason we are here, after all. Your disturbed weather has an effect on people whose power is aligned with it - which you should know, as Lantis is one of them. So am I, though I know how to let the charge of excess magic bleed off slowly. But… it has an effect on water mages, too.” Here Eagle looked over at Umi, who fidgeted, and made herself walk over to join them.

“I can’t do what Clef can, the whole ‘grounding myself’ thing. It was driving me mad; so I’ve been transferring the extra I get from being irritated by your nonsense weather over to him. He’s been dealing with it for both of us.”

“I have not broken any of the agreements I signed by doing so, either,” Clef continued, with a brief smile for Umi. “It’s no spell, and there’s no casting going on, but the power detection systems will probably be picking it up as the transfer happens.”

Eagle considered them for an uncomfortably long moment, before nodding slowly. “I know about having to bleed some of the magic off - Lantis does have to do so, though perhaps not to the same level as either of you. It’s never been enough to cause this much flux. But… I am also brought the other reports about your stay here,” Eagle said, quietly. “Expense reports, mostly. Food and drink consumed, laundry bills… replacement items needed for first aid kits…”

Umi couldn’t help it, she flushed crimson; she just barely kept her hands from going to her neck, and she felt Clef flinch beside her.

“There’s another set of reports which has made interesting reading lately,” Eagle continued, and actually pulled a datapad out to show them this one. Umi and Clef both leaned in, confused, staring at the long list of figures - readings monitoring something? Most of them stayed fairly level, but some of them had started dropping - slowly, at first, but as Eagle scrolled across the difference grew more and more stark.

“What-” Clef started, and went quiet suddenly. Umi stared at him, and then Eagle, wanting to know what they were both seeing in the figures that had made Clef make that face.

“This,” Eagle said, looking at Umi, “is the monitoring of the harmful chemicals in the water of this Dome, and the surrounding area. No one looks at them very often, because there’s not usually much change; there are a couple of alerts which run if there’s a dangerous rise, normally that’s down to someone putting waste down into the system without putting it through the right decontamination processes. We don’t have any alerts for the level dropping. But if you chart out the waste systems connected to these rooms - all the way out into the last monitors we have, which are actually in the river down the way, beyond the treatment plant - and you can add in the facilities by the classrooms you’ve been in, too… well.”

The display showed them a chart, with the level of decontamination at various points in the system - it had been dropping since Clef started helping her bleed off the magic, but the process accelerated sharply a little way in - on the date when they’d first had sex. Umi flushed bright red, but Clef actually seemed less embarrassed than startled, and he reached out to scroll the figures along. “How - are these verified?” He asked, looking at Eagle. “The figures from the river system. Do you have any data from further along?”

“No, but with your permission I’ll send someone discrete out to take samples,” Eagle said, and he was smiling, brightly. “So far as I can see, the effect is spreading further the more contamination it comes in contact with. Whatever the two of you are doing…”

Clef did flush then, bright red, all the way from his ears to his throat. “It’s apparently resulting in some energetic, er, purification.” He stared at the figures again. “…How in the world are we going to test that?

Eagle hid a laugh behind his hand, shutting the datapad down. “I will leave that up to you. I can explain away the higher magic levels than expected for you, at least; Lantis has told me enough of the consequences of letting it build up that I can excuse this ‘transfer’ as essential. The rest… well, it will be another week or so before we move into practical experimentation. I’m sure you can think of something before then.”

oOo

Morning after next, Umi stirred reluctantly as Caldina crashed into the Knight’s room and exhorted them to wake up. Geo had dragged them to another bar the night before, and there had been dancing, and a few drinks, and everyone stayed out way later than was sensible – and she and Clef had managed to find a back room for just long enough to enjoy themselves quite thoroughly without anyone noticing their absence in the crush. Her legs and her feet ached from the dancing. Her back was a little sore from an accident with a shelf, and the bed was warm and soft about her.

“Come on, Umi!” Caldina said, her shadow falling across Umi as she stepped up. “We’re all going to be late for breakfast already!”

“Who needs breakfast.” Umi muttered, and turned away, pressing her face closer to the pillow.

You do, Umi, or don’t you remem… ber… Umi. Is that-“

Umi’s eyes opened in a hurry as she remembered the necklace, realised it was hanging loose from her pyjamas after she’d twisted about in her sleep. She reached for it, trying to hide the pendant, but Caldina got there first and poked it with one finger, frowning.

“Hey, girl, that’s not just a necklace. You don’t want to be wearing that, or people are gonna think – Umi?”

She’d snatched the pendant away from Caldina and shoved it inside her top again, flushing hard and looking away, wordless. Fuu and Hikaru were both paying attention now, coming across. “Haven’t you been wearing that for a couple of weeks now, Umi?” Fuu said, quietly, and drat her for being so observant anyway. “What’s wrong with it, Caldina? What does it do?”

Caldina’s swift intake of breath came shortly before the woman sat on the bed, nearly landing on Umi’s legs in her hurry.

“You know what that is, don’t you.”

“…Yes.”

“Umi, listen to me. Whoever got you… to wear that thing, they can’t be thinking of what’s best for you. It’s an emergency measure, you’re only supposed to wear it for a week when you have to. You can take it off now, unless…” Umi raised an eyebrow at her, and now Caldina flushed. “Well. Well! There are other ways, and you should be using them! Wearing something like that makes people think that you’re, well… looking. And not looking to take good care of yourself in the process. Even if you’ve decided to… to experiment, and, okay, I can see why this might seem a safe place for that, away from anyone you’re likely to meet again, but-“

“I’m not experimenting!” She said, hotly. “We just… got carried away!”

“For two weeks? Umi, seriously, you shouldn’t be relying on this! Whoever this guy is you’ve found! With someone you trusted, sure, fine, sometimes accidents happen, and you know they don’t mean anything by it, but you can’t-“

“I trust him absolutely! This is my fault as much as his– more than! So what if we got carried away a few times? I’m not wearing it outside my clothes for everyone to see! He told me about that, and I still chose this!” Umi snapped, glaring up at Caldina. Some mischievous impulse to be honest made her add “Well. When it was the only option. We’re both better prepared now.”

“…Who can you possibly…” Caldina whispered, eyes wide as she searched Umi’s face. Fuu said ‘oh, my.’ in the background, as she and Hikaru caught the shape of the conversation. “You know him. But-“

Umi refused to give anything away, stubbornly holding back, but there was nothing but an inch of pride to be saved because there weren’t too many options, and Caldina’s eyes narrowed as she sorted through them.

He should be old enough to know better.” She hissed, and nodded with a kind of grim satisfaction when Umi couldn’t keep from flinching. “Right. I’ve a mind to tell him so, too.” She got up. Umi grabbed her arm in a hurry, her other hand still on the chain.

“Please don’t, Caldina. This, between us. It’s… not a game, or something. We know what we’re doing. I know what I’m doing.” A little. Probably. “I can take it off tomorrow, anyway. We haven’t just kept to it, I just… It was nice, to know I could distract him that much. Once or twice.” Cheeks flaming, she managed, just barely, to keep looking at Caldina.

Who sighed, heavily. “You don’t do anything halfway, do you?”

Any answer Umi might have given was cut off by a knock on the door, which was still slightly open, and Clef, of all people, leant through. “I’ve been sent to check on you. Is everything alright? You’ve taken a while, Caldina-“ He faltered as he took in the tableau, Umi holding the necklace in one hand, Caldina’s arm in another, while Fuu and Hikaru watched. And Caldina’s unimpressed expression made it plain she knew. “Ah.” He came inside and shut the door, one hand staying warily on the handle. “Right. Um.”

“You have a lot to make up for. The sex talk I’m going to have to give these two now for a start, as apparently no one’s got around to discussing basic contraception with them yet!” Caldina said, waving her free arm at Fuu and Hikaru. Umi dropped hold of Caldina and the pendant to hide her face in her hands and moan slightly, so far beyond embarrassed that she thought her face was going to catch on fire. “And I suppose you aren’t wanting me to talk to anyone about this?”

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Clef said, voice strangled.

“You’d rather tell lies to all of us rather than admit you’re sleeping with her?” Caldina asked, sharply, and Umi’s head snapped up to stare at her. Clef was glaring, too, and crossed half the room to stand right in front of Caldina and stare her down.

“I do not give a shit what anyone else thinks about how I feel for Umi. I love her! It isn’t some- dirty little secret, or whatever you’re imagining. We just wanted some privacy while it’s this new!”

For a long moment Caldina didn’t move, but studied him as intently as she had Umi – then she grinned, and patted him on the shoulder. “Good. Just so long as you’re clear on that.”

Bewildered, Clef blinked at her. “I. What?”

Clef…” Umi whispered, halfway to laughing at his expression, and more than that from the giddy happiness welling up– he’d said it!– and he started to blush as he looked down at her.

“Sorry, Umi. I should probably have said that to you, first.” He stepped closer, expression sheepish, and she knelt up on the bed so they were nearly of a height, about to tell him she didn’t care when she thought better of it, and pouted instead.

“Yes. You should. You’re going to have to apologise very nicely.”

“I am?” He reached out one hand and she took it in her own without thought, the crackle of static between them not so loud this morning, and drowned out entirely by the way his pupils widened just a little, his voice grew just a little husky– at her words, not the sting of power. “How am I going to do that, then?”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Umi said, and tugged on his hand. She stayed still while he leant in, oblivious to anything but Clef, and made him come to her.

He reached out with his other hand and cupped her face, fingers curling back about her neck so gently, and so warm. Leaning in close enough their lips were almost touching, that she was tingling in anticipation, he paused, and whispered “I love you, Umi.” Then he kissed her.

She hadn’t really meant this to go any further than a single kiss, a decent ‘good morning’ to make up for having started the day with quite such a bang, but it was hard to remember that (the root of all their problems) when he was here and kissing her. They both of them leant closer, mouths opening, before Fuu’s second astonished ‘oh, my’ of the morning broke through. And they remembered their audience.

Clef dropped his head forwards to hide against her neck for a moment. “So bad for me.” He muttered, and Umi tried not to laugh, flushed bright red and not looking her friends in the eyes because she was going to start laughing if she did, at how ridiculous Clef made her, they made each other.

“Right.” Caldina announced, still slightly flushed, but also still grinning at them. “They’ll be sending another search party in a moment, so we’d best get out of here, Guru. Before you and Umi make us all exceptionally late.”

“I wouldn’t – we – I – Caldina!” Clef flailed, staring round at her. Umi, laughing, shoved him away.

“Well, if we can’t find a better way of testing it, we might be scandalising the scientists soon,” she pointed out.

“I am not having sex with you in public to try and fix Autozam’s pollution issues!”

“Well, if it works…”

Clef grinned, shook his head, and kissed her on the temple before he walked away.

There wasn’t time to do anything but get changed once both visitors were gone, so Umi got away with only answering a few of the embarrassing questions Hikaru and Fuu now had for her before she escaped to breakfast, Where she sat next to Clef, who was still grinning, trying not to, and failing.

“What are you so happy about?” Ferio asked, as Clef passed along the plate of rolls.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Clef said, and his knee pressed against Umi’s below the table. “It’s a surprisingly good morning.”

oOo