Umi wasn't even sure there was actually a concept of 'dating' in Cephiro, and marriage as she knew it didn't exist here. As far as she could tell, people who liked one another just seemed to be together, and then they stayed together until - well, until they didn't.
She and Clef weren't actually together, and this definitely wasn't a date, but somehow it still felt a little like one. It was still a special occasion, and she was dressed in the nicest Cephiran dress she had - the one Caldina had picked out for the New Year Festival ball six months before.
The Mid-Year Festival was supposed to be a celebration of arts and culture. This year, there was a visiting Chizetan storyteller, and Clef had asked if Umi wanted to attend the performance with him - as friends. The thing was, Hikaru was attending with Lantis; Fuu was going with Ferio; and Umi was rather certain that they were going together as actual couples, not just as a couple of friends.
Caldina had invited her to see the show with her, Ascot, and Lafarga. Thankfully, she was already promised to attend with Clef, so she didn't have to explain the other reason why she was turning them down; She wasn't in the mood for Caldina's continued - not so subtle - attempt at matchmaking between her and Ascot. Despite the two of them having already having decided it wouldn't work out between them right now, Ascot still hadn't convinced Caldina to stop trying.
Umi stood outside Clef's office, her hand poised to knock. He had better not be too busy to go with her after he was the one who asked. Otherwise, she would have to deal with an 'I told you so' from Caldina, who had already called Clef a 'workaholic with too many jobs' last week.The door opened after her first knock. Clef was sitting at his desk, glaring hard at the document not in the hand he'd waved to open the door. When he looked up, his expression softened.
"Oh, is it dinner time already?" He glanced at the clock.
"I can let you finish, if you need to."
"All this is doing is giving me a headache. I can't make heads or tails of this report Murano sent from Arnage." Clef set the papers down and shook his head. "Maybe I can read it to you later, and you can find some sense in it."
"I'm not doing your work for you."
"Pity. You'd probably do a better job of it today." Clef grinned at her, his eyes twinkling.
"Yeah, right. I can't even read this nonsense." Umi picked up some of the pages off the top of the nearest stack of papers and shook them at him. "I doubt I'd ever be better at being Guru than you. I mean, I know you're all grumpy and short-tempered, but can you imagine me teaching magic? That would be a disaster. No."
"You're not bad at teaching, you know," Clef said, with a soft laugh. "Your approach might need a little work, though."
Umi pulled a face at him. It was partially his fault that she had ended up shouting at half the Council in that blasted meeting. "It's not my fault something as simple as the water cycle was so hard a concept for a bunch of well educated Councillors to grasp. I'm sure you've all seen a kettle boil. What did you think steam was?"
"You know that things are never quite that simple, and steam and clouds aren't necessarily the same thing."
"Yes, they are." Umi dropped the papers she was holding onto the wrong stack, which had Clef shaking his head at her as he picked them up and put them where they belonged before stood up.
Clef walked round the desk and toward the door. "Shall we?" he asked, holding the door open for her.
Umi stepped out into the corridor, while Clef paused behind to pull a ward shield through the door to lock it. "You really need to teach me how to do that," she said.
Huffing out a soft laugh, Clef shook his head. "No, I really don't."
They walked together through the corridor and down the spiral toward the dining hall, closer than they probably should. Clef's fingers brushed softly over the back of Umi's hand. The touch startling in a way beyond just being unexpected, but Umi wasn't sure how to explain it. Rather than try to understand it, she just reached out and took his hand in hers. They walked down the next few levels hand in hand until new voices and footsteps echoed through the spiral, and they let go, Clef clasping his hands behind his back, and Umi in front.
The dining hall was set up as always, long communal tables with food in the middle. Umi wasn't sure why she was disappointed by this. It wasn't like she actually expected to be able to keep Clef to herself at some secluded table in the gardens or at least in a quiet corner, but she had been hoping for the chance to try talking him into something like that. There had been small tables during the New Year Festival, scattered through the dining hall and out into the garden courtyard off the dining hall. But there had also been more of a proper festival atmosphere than this. This just seemed like a simple holiday than a festival. Maybe they were just missing the actual festival bit, as usual, because of their own school schedules not lining up with the Cephiran week - which currently started on Sunday.
Anyway, it wasn't like they were on a date, so it didn't matter that they might not be eating alone together.
Clef chose a seat at the end of one of the tables, closest to the windows. Umi sat down across from him.
"What's the story going to be?" Umi asked. She'd seen the notices up around the castle - not that she could read them, but the pictures were interesting - and she'd heard talk of the title more than once in the past few weeks as everyone made plans to go, but she had no idea what it was supposed to be about, and it felt silly to ask anyone - it felt like it would be like asking someone what Cinderella was about.
"Love, betrayal, maybe some attempted assassinations, depending upon the version told tonight," Clef said, reaching down the table for a meat and sauce dish. He offered it to Umi - she shook her head - before putting a serving on his plate.
Umi chose the grilled fish. "You're not going to tell me, are you?"
"I don't want to spoil the surprise." His eyes were bright and sparkling with amusement as his lips curled into a mischievous smile that made her breath catch. Umi bit her lip and turned away from him, focusing on pouring a drink for both of them, which was more difficult than she expected when all she could think about was how much she wanted to kiss him again, right now.
At least on this side of the table, she couldn't causally touch him. There was no way to brush her fingers across his hand without being blatantly obvious in her desire to reach out for him.
No one did sit with them. The closest people at their table was a family of five - who she saw often enough to feel like she sort of knew them - but they were several seats away and didn't offer any conversation, leaving Umi entirely alone with Clef with little to no distraction from staring at him. The sharp lines of his face and the curling sweep of his hair over his face were distracting enough, but then he was wearing a set of robes that managed to bring out the beautiful blue of his eyes, and she could barely take her eyes off him. Every time he caught her, she still flushed and looked away, despite him knowing perfectly well that she found him attractive.
Clef laughed the second time it happened.
"Oh, shut up," Umi said. "I'm sure I can think of some way to get you to tell me." She contemplated trying to run her foot up the side of his leg, but thought she'd probably just end up kicking him in the shin by accident.
"Or you can just wait an hour," Clef said. "You could stand to learn some patience."
"I'm not impatient!"
Clef raised an eyebrow at her and she flushed terribly. Not two months ago she'd said she could wait for him to get the stupid laws changed, but that hadn't stopped her trying to hold his hand at any opportunity, and stealing kisses when she could. Then, he never really seemed to mind, as it wasn't always her idea that one kiss turned into two or three before he'd pull away saying it wasn't a good idea.
The great hall had been completely reconfigured into a theatre for the performance. There were long curved benches in a large half circle rising up from around the round stage. Perhaps it was only to keep from losing Umi in the crowd of people, but Clef reached out and took Umi's hand as he led her toward a bench toward the centre of the back row. They started out sat at arms-length from one another, but as the rest of the seats filled, they found themselves being inched closer and closer until they were barely a hand's breadth apart, and Umi could feel the warmth of Clef sat beside her.
When the woman to the side of her had slid over further to let someone else sit down, Umi almost gave into the temptation to lean into Clef's side, but she bit down the impulse.
When Clef had explained that a storyteller was also an illusionist, Umi had found herself thinking they were going to see someone like Caldina, a young and beautiful woman who would dance to create the magic for the images, so she was a little surprised when the Storyteller stepped up onto the stage was anything but. The man was older, with a neatly trimmed steel-grey beard and hair, wearing a long dark-red shirt that hung loosely over trousers so dark blue they were nearly black.
Umi stifled a giggle with a hand pressed to her mouth.
"What?" Clef asked, voice quiet.
"I was just imagining him dancing like Caldina," Umi said, with a wave of her hand like she was holding a fan.
Clef snorted, cutting his own laughter at the idea short with a short cough. "That's not the only way to do that sort of magic."
But no matter Clef's comments, Umi was still too amused with her own imaginings that she missed almost the entire introduction of the storyteller. Only when he started to move his hands did she actually pay attention. It wasn't a dance exactly, but he did move his arms and step with his feet in a smooth rhythm as he began to speak, with a loud clear voice.
The story started with a princess who slipped out of the palace for a night. As he introduced the princess, he flicked his wrist and there was a smooth flow of light from the air around it, stretching out like a ribbon before turning into the image of a beautiful woman.
"Oh, cool!" Umi breathed, excitedly taking hold of Clef's hand and leaning hard against his shoulder.
The princess went one far too many exploits in one night to be believable, and yet, Umi was riveted by the story and the way it was being portrayed. It was like a movie, but not at the same time. As the story unfolded, bits of the scenes were shown in the spell. The dialogue spoken by each character was in the various voices of the storyteller. All of the images had the same golden glow of magic around them.
She squeezed Clef's hand hard when anyone was in danger and leaned closer during the love scenes before catching herself and pulling back. But by the time they got to the end, she realised that not only had she leaned back into Clef's side, but that he had wrapped his arm around her and was holding her close. When the spell light faded, she blinked at the warmth around her waist and pulled back. It felt silly to apologise for snuggling against him when he'd been holding her, so she just decided to pretend that it hadn't happened, and slid away from him, putting the space back between them.
Clef seemed perfectly willing to take the same approach as his arm dropped from around her when she moved.
"Did you enjoy it?" he asked, while they waited for the hall to clear out a bit more before trying to work their way out.
Umi nodded enthusiastically. "That was - I didn't know that you could do that with magic."
"I'm glad." Clef smiled and stood.
And they were back to being at arms-length as they walked slowly back toward Clef's office. It was still technically his free-day, but he said he still needed to get through the papers sent to him for the mid-year report. Work had to come first. She might take him up on reading out the reports to her, so she had an excuse to be spending more time with him.