Umi's bond-mark had come in the day she turned fourteen, though she didn't recognise the itching by her elbow as that until she got home from school, and went to change, only to find a small raised patch of skin starting to darken. No more short sleeves for her. She hadn't really expected to get a mark at all, let alone unspeakably fast.
"My uncle got his two weeks after his birthday," one of her friends whispered, as their little group clustered in the corner of the room and stared at the still-fuzzy marking. "It means your partner's older than you - they've had it for a while, so the pull of the mark is stronger. His partner's twelve years older than he is."
"Umi's going to hook an oldie?" There were hushed giggles. "Go you, girl! I bet he's got money and a good job, and he'll be handsome-"
Umi pulled a horrified face. "If two weeks mean twelve years, I don't think I want to meet them - they'll be ancient! Gross!"
Still, as they all fled back to their seats on the teacher's arrival, Umi kept her fingers pressed to it, trying to feel out the shape through her shirt. She didn't want to meet anyone, but if it was someone older - well, maybe they'd be rich, or something, meet her once then leave her a mansion or a company. Because anything else - ugh, no, thank you.
Or maybe all that was just nonsense, the 'older' thing, knowing anything at all about your soulmate from the mark apart from who they were when you compared them.
In fact, as the week went on, she started to think maybe she'd injured herself in the wrong spot, and it just looked like a mark coming in. It kept getting darker, then fading out again, and the shape wouldn't come clear. Most people's marks in Japan were flowers - which caused it's own confusion, nearly a third of the people with marks had some form of cherry blossom, which made finding a match - an exact match - even harder.
Hers didn't really look like anything. Just a - a squiggly mess, and it completely refused to stay on her skin. It kept fading in and out, changing slightly - it was like a radio station that you couldn't quite tune to. Even weeks later, it wasn't clear.
A defective mark was even more irritating than having one at all. What as the point? Beyond forcing her to wear sleeves which covered the inch or so below the elbow.
Maybe her partner was dead or dying, or not a real match or-
Asking would have meant admitting she cared. Umi wasn't about to do that. So she snuck looks in her friends' magazines and books when she could, and found no answers.
Then they were summoned to Cephiro.
The possible existence of a soulmate seemed such a trite concern, after that. She stopped worrying about it, and got on with life.
Umi did notice after a year or so that the mark was at least properly dark now, even though it still seemed to - change. Probably it would sort itself out at some point, then, and stop looking so random.
The process of rebuilding Cephiro took up all her attention that wasn't on school and her family. It wasn't simple, and it wasn't fast. They went as often as they could to give what help they were capable of, but neither she nor Fuu could work the transportation spell on their own - and Hikaru wouldn't, whether she could or not. So all three of them needed to be free for the day, and when they got there, between spending time with friends and the very real work of building a new system of support and governance for the land, there wasn't that much chance to go out and see it. Well into their fifth year of abstract 'helping', Umi still hadn't explored the whole palace complex, let alone the land beyond it.
Sometimes this was more of a problem than others. "When you say Clef's somewhere in the meadow gardens - where are they?" Umi asked, folding her arms at Ferio.
Ferio grinned back at her, unperturbed. He looked almost exactly the same as when they'd all met for the first time; Umi at nineteen had nearly an inch of height on him, which was all the more amusing because she would never have thought of him as short when they met.
Well, after they'd met Hikaru and then Clef, no one else really seemed short in comparison.
Not that either of them was quite as short anymore. Which should have made it easier to find Clef, even when Ferio's instructions were 'Go out through the west gardens - the kitchen gardens? The ones behind the kitchens - and keep walking away from the castle. It's the third or fourth garden out - the kitchen ones go on for a while.'
But as it turned out, the meadow garden was - pretty much just a meadow. A huge one, with rolling lumps and bumps in the ground and plants growing up to five foot tall, which made it impossible to actually look across it and spot anyone.
There were a couple of winding paths mown into the grasses and wildflowers. Umi sighed, hands on her hips, and picked left, heading off down the wandering path. She started off going at a good pace, but the day was on the hotter side of pleasantly warm, and the sun was high in a perfectly blue sky; she found her pace slowing to a meander. The wildflowers among the grasses seemed to go in swathes of mostly blue, then red, then purple, with golden yellow twined through all of them, and tiny starry white flowers that were so fine and filmy they looked like little puffs of fluff on top of tangled strands of green. The scent rising off the mass was incredible, but not overwhelming; complex layers of sweet and spice and fruitiness that changed subtly with each different flower dominating in turn.
By the time she found Clef, she nearly walked into him - he'd taken the outer layers of his robes off and lain them on the ground, in a small hollow where a circle had been mown into the tall grasses, and was sprawled on the fabric with a book.
Umi stumbled to a halt, and stared. "No wonder I couldn't see you, I almost tripped over you!" she said, and Clef startled, flailing over to look up at her.
"I - Umi?"
"Last time I checked that was my name," she said, automatically, and he blinked up at her a moment longer before rolling his eyes and pushing himself upright. "Hey, no need to get up on my account," she protested, moving around to drop down on the grass beside him. It was slightly sad she'd never seen him quite so informal before, his sleeves pushed all the way up over his elbows, boots discarded at the edge of his robes, coronet beside them.
"It's impolite to lie down in company," he muttered, shaking his arms so his sleeves fell back in place and crossing his legs to sit upright.
"Depends what kind of company you're keeping," Umi told him, just barely keeping a straight face when he huffed at her. "Wait, is that why you wouldn't stay in bed back when the Castle was under attack and you were exhausted?"
He shrugged. "I felt less giddy in the main hall than anywhere else. It was literally the centre of Cephiro at that point, so it felt - stable?" He grinned at her suddenly. "And every time I was in bed, I fell asleep."
Grinning back, Umi stretched her legs out. "That was rather the goal of going to bed, what with the exhaustion you were suffering from."
"I had far too much to do to sleep! I'll put a month aside and catch up one of these days."
"Clef, it's been years. I don't think it works like that."
"Is that where I'm going wrong, then?"
Umi snorted, and flopped back on the lawn. It was a little stubbly, but not that uncomfortable "I came to say thanks for the help on my last project. Got my marks back yesterday - best in class. Not that everyone's trying, now we're actually in university, but…"
"You don't like doing things by halves," he agreed. "But I'm glad - it was a good project, well done."
"Thanks. And I'm actually glad I had to come find you, I've never been out here before." Umi looked around; they were tucked down into the flowers, nothing visible but the plants and the sky, and it was incredibly peaceful. The white flowers predominated here, and their scent was thick and full with so many close - a spicy kind of smell, a little like old-fashioned roses. "I can see why you'd like it here. Did the gardeners come up with it?"
"This one's my fault, actually," he admitted. It was Umi's turn to blink. "Someone mentioned not knowing what to do with space behind the kitchen gardens - the cooks won't let the actual gardeners get close, they insisted on a barrier so no experiments can get in with their crops until they're tested and accepted and won't run rampage through the taabo. The fields behind my family's house looked like this, when I was a child. I used to sneak off with a book and lie in a secret 'den' I flattened in the grass."
For a moment, as she watched, Clef's smile grew - softer, but wistful. As if he were seeing that meadow again, not the one around him.
Before she could think of an appropriate response - this talking about his childhood probably warranted something more than her normal blurting - he shook his head slightly and turned a sharper grin back on her. "I do get to have the gardeners do the flattening, these days."
"Do you tell them they're making a den for you to come hide in?" She grinned back at him.
It was his turn to laugh. "Oh, I think I called them 'informal meeting areas' on the plans. People come out in groups, sometimes, so it's even true - this one's my favourite, though there are a dozen others hidden around the pathways. This is the only one with so much nabi. It's always been my favourite flower."
"That's the fluffy white thing, right? I don't think I've seen it before." Umi leaned back to the edge of the space, and pulled one of the flowers closer. "Or maybe I have the shape is a little - familiar…"
"Probably not, it hates being gardened, only really grows out in a meadow where it can wrap around the grass," Clef said, completely oblivious to stillness rising through Umi as she stared up close at the plant.
"Clef -" She hesitated. She'd never asked, because it wasn't something you talked about, and she'd been busily disregarding hers since she turned fourteen and it landed. It clearly wasn't something that happened much in Chizeta or Autozam, if at all - nearly everyone she'd met from those lands had no issue at all with wearing sleeveless clothes. But in Cephiro, arms were generally covered - not legs, but arms. All apart from Emeraude's when she'd been Pillar - and the Pillar could hardly have had a soulmate. But everyone else, in their everyday clothes…
And there was the practised way Clef had dropped his sleeves back down as soon as he'd realised he wasn't alone.
She turned to look at him, and found herself staring at his arm, instead.
"What is it?" he asked, humour gone from his voice as he picked up on the waver of hers. "Are you alright?"
"Does Cephiro - do people here have soul-marks?" she asked, and her voice wobbled a fraction as she said it, despite her strongest intentions.
"Yes? It's not particularly common - and it's possible to never meet your match, which admittedly can make life simpler. Does Tokyo also -" he stopped, and she looked up in time to see the way his gaze went straight to her inner arm, where the shifting mark of a nabi flower bloomed on her skin. "…You recognised these flowers. But you've never seen them before?"
"…Not in real life," she whispered, and the way he said it, the fixated strength of his stare… "Clef, Clef - do you -"
He looked up at her, a flush high on his cheeks and the rest of his face too pale, and she could see him arguing with himself over how to respond, pausing too long before responding. But in the end, he just held out his left arm, and slowly pulled his sleeve up.
It was years since she'd really looked at hers, but she knew even before she yanked her sleeve out of the way that it would match.
"Mine last changed - three days ago, I think. I haven't kept a tally for centuries, so I might be mistaken, if yours -" he said, so quietly, and Umi just stared at him.
"What, is that normal here?"
He blinked. "It isn't in Tokyo?"
Clef stared down at his own arm. "Huh. Is this where yours normally are, then? In Cephiro, they're on the upper arm, usually - I always wondered why mine had appeared so far away from the usual spot. I guess if you were Chizetan it would be on my ankle, then."
"On your - oh. Is that why they were all the anklets?"
"That and the link to the cultural importance of dance-" he broke off, staring at her again, and she could feel the same shocked expression on her own face. "What do we do now?" he asked, and his filters were obviously short-circuiting as hard as her own.
"I don't know," she said, looking at his arm again. On his skin, the mark was a deeper colour, nearly purple. She nearly suggested 'Ignore it?' It was what she'd always been planning to do, if she ever found the person whose arm matched hers. (Unless they were about to leave her a mansion in exchange for five minutes conversation, of course.) But this was Clef. The person she came to argue out her political science projects even when her father was himself a politician, because she enjoyed spending time with him.
It would be a lie to say she'd never wondered about doing more than just talking, too. But anything else had seemed a distant impossibility.
"Well, you could try kissing me?" she said, and immediately flushed painfully hot.
Clef swallowed, staring at her, but the warmth was creeping back into his voice when he responded. "That would be moving a bit fast, don't you think?"
"What, after five years?" She started giggling, helpless to stop herself, hiding her face in her hands. "Do you move as quickly with relationships as you do with catching up on your sleep?"
"Isn't it the right approach to that, either?" He dropped onto his back, sleeve falling back over his arm and hiding the mark as he started laughing too. "All this time - no wonder I'd never found a match."
Umi's mind flashed back to a school classroom, years ago, and she groaned. "No wonder it appeared so fast! You're so much older than me I'm surprised it waited for the right birthday!"
"Another reason kissing might not be the best idea," he told her, voice still shaking with laughter. "You know, I looked everywhere for a story about a land where marks were lower on the arm, on a slightly desperate hope, and I couldn't find a single record of one."
"Hey," she said, softly, looking over at him. He turned to meet her gaze, the two of them lying in the grass with the sun radiating warmth down at them. "…I'm glad it's you."
"Me, too." He reached out, and she laced her fingers with his, the touch settling something deep in her chest that she'd never known needed it.
They lay like that for probably quarter of an hour, at least, it was quite something to take in. Her mark wasn't defective; it was half Cephiran. Part Clef.
But the longer she lay there, the heavier the thought rested on her mind.
"Hey," she said, again, gripping his hand tighter for a moment. "Clef?"
"So, you know how I'm really not good at being patient?"
There was a pause. "…Yes?"
"…Would you mind if I tried kissing you? Just - so we know what it's like, or I know what it's like. You've probably kissed a few people, I guess. Though not someone who matched - does that really make it different? Mama's romance novels say it does, but they say an awful lot of things which aren't physically possible, so -"
"Umi." Clef smiled at her, and tugged gently on her hand.
Scrambling upright, Umi shuffled across to close the gap between them, her heart suddenly beating a little faster. She felt like she was about to start a fencing match - excited, nervous, not convinced she was prepared. Clef didn't move, just watched her get closer. "Aren't you going to sit up?"
"Didn't you say that lying down is appropriate in, uh, particular company?" He offered, making a joke of it even though she could hear the tension in his voice, see it in the way he was holding himself just a little too still.
She thumped him on the shoulder. But the teasing helped - as did Clef not moving, strangely enough. It left her in control of when she took a breath, leaned down, and brushed her lips over his.
It was… strange. His lips were a little dry, and soft under hers for the moment they touched. It should have been weird - well, it was weird, but it was also… something. Taking another breath, she dipped her head to his again, catching one of his lips gently between hers. He tilted his head into the touch, still no longer, his breath warm on her lips as she did it again, and then for a little longer. A shiver ran from her chest all the way down, and Clef's hand - the left one, the one with the mark - slipped carefully into her hair, fingers carding through it as they lay in the warm grass, surrounded by flowers and kissed, and kissed.
"Okay," Umi murmured, when she finally pulled back enough to see him. Her heart was thundering and her hands were shaking like she'd run a marathon. "I think I like the kissing thing."
"It is rather nice," Clef agreed, his voice rough enough to translate his words into something stronger. "If you wanted to do that some more, sometime… I think I'd be good with that."
"I hear there's more possibilities than just kissing," Umi said, and watched him flush below her with a great sense of achievement. "I mean, if you wanted-"
"Now you really are moving too fast." He pushed up enough to press fleeting kiss to her mouth, lips quirking into a grin against hers, before rolling away.
"Guess I'll ask about that in another five years, then?" Umi asked, watching him pick up his robes and shake them out. Five years of kissing him? She could handle that.
Clef pulled his clothes straight, and set his coronet back onto his head, but even though he looked like he'd reverted to formal normality he turned and reached out his hand to her. Umi took it in hers, fingers tangling together, and they started walking back to the castle together. "I doubt your patience will last five years," he said, not looking at her, "But I do need a little more than five minutes to accustom myself to the idea. If nothing else, if I panic enough I stop sleeping again, you're going to yell at me about it."
Pulling a face, she reached out to run her free hand through the tops of the grasses, not looking at him. "I'm that scary?"
"Umi, you're terrifying," he told her, stopping and tugging on her hand until she turned to face him - and his smile. "That shouldn't be a surprise, you know perfectly well it's deliberate most of the time. But in this particular context - I resigned myself to never finding someone whose mark matched mine more than three centuries ago, and few people would take the chance of starting a relationship with me when I had someone else's heart on my arm. I would need a little time to adjust to anyone appearing and wanting… wanting those kinds of things from me."
"So it's not because it's me and I'm - too young and too loud and-"
"Oh, it makes perfect sense that it's you, that's part of why it's terrifying." He cupped her face and leaned in to press a kiss to her forehead, then hesitated, before shifting a fraction closer and catching her lips with his once more. "But as I said, this is rather nice. And I'm glad it's you."
Hands clasped tightly, they started walking again, neither saying a word until they'd almost reached the gate out of the meadows. Umi hummed, and tilted her head. "So, would five days be long enough? If not I can probably manage five weeks, but you know how little patience I've got, I'm not sure there's five months worth."
Clef started laughing, the sound warm as the air around them, and pulled her into the kitchen gardens without answering.