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on the line in the sand

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Once Cephiro had opened itself up to the outside world, and that ended up going okay, they started the slow and careful process of reaching out to the other lands rather than waiting to be contacted.

In some worlds, this proved more… complicated than others.

"What do you mean, when you say you won't talk with us until we've proven ourselves before your gods?" Umi asked.

The attendant, who had explained that his people had no spoken names and did not mind being addressed with their title - the whole land seemed to share a low-level empathetic connection, which made names somewhat pointless amongst themselves, as everyone in a conversation would always know who was being talked about, bowed. "Unfortunately, we have been visited by some - unscrupulous people, therefore we have found it best for all involved that any party wishing to trade an offence to our Gods," he said, sounding vastly apologetic but also unmovable. "We do apologise for the inconvenience, but-"

"No, no, I mean - how exactly do we prove ourselves?" Umi said, waving a hand. "It makes perfect sense to protect yourself, but what do we do? If it's too dangerous, we won't all be able to take part-"

Clef stepped forward and lay and hand on Umi's arm, shooting her a stern glance. "If it's too dangerous, none of us will be taking part," he stated flatly. "We are looking to establish friendship her, but there is no need for anyone to put themselves in danger. We can leave with no enmity between us."

He'd aimed it at Umi, but their attendant seemed to think it aimed at him instead. "Oh, no, there's no danger to anyone!" he said, raising his hands. "Nor do all your party need to take part - a person who will be responsible for final agreements and their companion will spend a night, a day, and a night in our temple - there is food, and sleeping space - should your intentions not be honourable, you will become uncomfortable and be compelled to leave. That is all."

"...Huh." Umi blinked. "I don't know why I was expecting an obstacle course to run."

Squeezing her arm again, Clef bowed back to the attendant. "Your request seems reasonable. May we have a few moments to discuss who would undertake this? Does it have to be two people?"

"We would never ask a person to remain alone for so long," the attendant said, absolutely serious. "If you have more than two people who are particularly close, the temple can accommodate perhaps four?"

"But the minimum is two. I see - thank you."

Bowing again, the man retreated from the room, leaving their group alone with the table of refreshments.

Clef turned, taking Umi with him before he remembered to let go of her arm. "Well, then," he said, looking around. "I guess I'm going. But who should come with me? Or I could try persuading our potential friends that they should let me go alone?"

Six faces looked back at him - Lantis, Hikaru, Presea, two young guards Lantis had brought for the experience - and Umi, who was dropping back into her seat by Hikaru. The size of these expeditions was still somewhat changeable, but they'd learnt it was best to have a team of at least six. In this case, there were still two more of them back on their ship - small vessel from Autozam which was being slowly adapted to run on Cephiran power sources instead of its original. Zazu had volunteered himself to the project of developing Cephiro's very own fleet; he was still up on the ship, and he'd kept Ascot with him 'to hold things'.

...The two young men had been a couple quite seriously for at least three years now (probably the other reason Zazu had volunteered himself for the fleet development,) but Ascot still flushed at that innuendo, though he was trying not to smile at the same time. They didn't get much time alone - hadn't had more than an hour or so this entire trip so far, as Zazu was both fiddling around with the ship and acting as second pilot. The only other person there he trusted to do it was Lantis, while the controls were still a mis-match of systems - the Autozamnian controls were still too alien to all the Cephirans, so Presea had come down to land with the rest of them without comment instead of staying to work with Zazu on the ship - the reason she was technically along.

The knights had proven highly useful on these expeditions as evidence that Cephiro, closed off for so long but known of as a somewhat mythical land of magic, was welcoming and indeed valued outsiders. Hikaru and Fuu were excellent ambassadors - Fuu wasn't on this particular trip partially because she was hosting several groups currently making return visits to Cephiro. (The other reason being that her new daughter was very new, and it was a little soon to be leaving her to Ferio's care for a month to go off on a speculative adventure.) But Hikaru was here, and had a way of connecting with people that had been invaluable several times.

Umi was - blatantly honest, which itself worked well to establish credibility on many of the lands they'd visited. And she'd long since proven her worth when a show of strength was called for. (For various reasons, some of the smaller lands would not open relations with those unable to defend themselves. Too many had been called on to defend their neighbours and allies when they desperately needed to look to their own borders.) She was excellent at getting them home safe in a pinch, and she liked talking about fighting styles anytime they came across a land where people shared her interest. But mostly, this time, she was here because she'd persuaded Clef to come out on this tour and take a break from his normal duties. She seemed afraid he'd turn around, summon up a creature, and head back to Cephiro without her there to make sure he stayed.

Clef wasn't going to admit she was right, but he'd certainly ended up relaxing more so far than he'd expected.

Lantis was here because the Master Mage of Cephiro could go wandering around the universe on a diplomatic mission without an official protection duty, which Umi refused to be. Because she was on holiday, and already had a self-imposed duty, namely making sure Clef actually relaxed.

He'd argued at some length that it would be easier to relax if she hadn't sent him off on a trip where he had to keep working, but she kept telling him he'd have given up on a holiday where he had no work to do. As it was what he'd done every time he'd tried taking a holiday for the decade-and-change they'd known each other.

...He'd had very good reasons all those time, but that didn't change the face he was the one with a negotiation mandate on this trip.

Lantis was shaking his head, slowly. "This could be a trap. They have found a way to ensure the most important member of our party is isolated from the rest of us."

"Which would make it a show of trust on our part," Presea pointed out, "Which might be all that's needed to establish our legitimacy."

Lantis still looked significantly unhappy, but Clef raised his hand. "It would be a shame to come here and not try - and it would likely damage our reputation among the friends of the Datsun to turn as though we are guilty. Besides, there is not much they can do I am too worried about." He said that wryly, after the land before last had approached them in a hostile manner - with projectile weapons - and been somewhat… startled by Clef's automatic shielding of their whole group. They'd left in a hurry before anyone could start venerating them - but large amounts of magic seemed relatively unknown in these parts.

These particular people were empathetic, at any rate, which would make it highly unusual for them to be aggressively minded - any harm done to the others would easily harm them as well. So Clef wasn't greatly worried.

"You will have to sleep at some point," Lantis pointed out. "And you can't watch your own back."

"Well, I have to bring a friend, anyway. The only question is who." Clef raised an eyebrow at Lantis, but before he could respond, Umi was stepping in.

"Lantis should stay to keep command of the ship and our defences. Presea's needed for the work on the ship - Zazu and Ascot don't need two whole days together, and there were a couple of things Zazu wanted to get installed for testing before we moved again. You'd scare the baby guards over there if they were trapped with you, and Ascot's busy holding Zazu, and his 'things'. So it's Hikaru or me. We could do rock-paper-scissors for it?"

Hikaru just smiled. "You'll have some fun in the temple, I'm sure. After all, you need to make sure he doesn't get bored and start working, don't you?"

Umi shot Hikaru a dirty look, then glanced at Clef and started snickering. Clef wasn't going to ask what that was about - or how he'd start work on anything stuck inside a building without his papers for more than a day. Unless he could take some with him? But - No. Umi would steal them.

He tried very hard not to think about being trapped with Umi for more than a day. It might be the logical choice, but he'd expected somewhat more… time to prepare? An actual discussion of who would be going in with him, not a straightforward declaration?

But that was it - their attendant explained they were allowed to take clothing and any books or other recreation with them, but no weapons or significant technology; Umi had a couple of Cephiran children's books in her luggage she'd been working on her reading with, and she brought them and a couple of novels from earth, but glared at Clef when he tried to pick up some of his own reading. It wasn't his fault it was all work-related - he didn't have time for novels.

In the end, he grabbed a fairly new notebook and a couple of pens, and Umi reluctantly let him shove them in the bag. They were ready as the sun began to dip, their host beaming at their timing, and set out just the two of them and their host from the hall they'd been welcomed to.

The temple was a small, richly decorated building on the top of a nearby hill, surrounded by flower gardens; the building was entirely carved from what looked like a single piece of rock, with masses of little tessellating shapes carved through the thickness to create latticework windows; the roof came quite a way out from the building on all sides. "So it should not rain on you, inside," the host said, as he led them up the path. "And besides, the weather should be good for the next two, three days. But if there should be a sudden downpour - inside, there are shutters, see? Some people close them when they sleep, but most prefer to wake with the sun, you may do as you wish. This here is the only door."

The door was also stone, a rich golden-yellow with red and green and blue enamels painted into the carved relief on it. It was at least twice Clef's height, and almost as wide as it was tall. There was no locking method visible, but Clef supposed the weight of it did that on its own; there was presumably some technique one needed to know to move it.

"The door will be shut. But should you need to leave - should you be compelled to leave - touch this flower in the centre of it," the host explained, pointing to a crimson flower in the middle of the back of the door. "It will open - but you will not be allowed to stay, nor will you be allowed to negotiate with us. But should you have honesty in your heart, it will be a day of rest and comfort, that is all! And see, here, you can see this is the main room - sleeping quarters are to the left, there is a bathing chamber and water closet on the right, and a kitchen with simple food at the back. So if you are ready…"

"How will we know when the trial is over?" Clef asked, peering inside. The furniture was simple carved wood, a table and a few chairs, but it looked perfectly reasonable, and he could just see through into the room at the back and a little heating chamber similar to ones they'd seen in other worlds nearby.

"At first light, on the day after tomorrow, the test will end." The host beamed at them. "We will come to fetch you with song and with celebration, so you will hear us coming; it will be full light by the time we reach the temple, and then we will take you down to the morning feast. Do you have any other questions?"

"Not that I can think of," Clef said, and glanced at Umi. She shrugged, and grinned at him.

"Shall we?" she asked, and they stepped across the threshold together, the air inside the place a little stiller, a little cooler, than outside even just inside the door.

Beaming still, their host bowed to them, stepped back, and pressed one hand lightly to the door. It swung shut, seemingly of its own accord, and when it fully closed there came a deep chiming that seemed to ring through the whole of the building, a somehow joyful sound.

Clef shook his head as it faded, and set his back down on the table. "Shall we look around our new home?" he said, dryly - there didn't seem that much to look at. Umi grinned back at him.

"If there's a bathing chamber, that should mean a bath. I'm tired of just showers - our ship is nice, but I miss relaxing!"

"I'm glad you're so easily satisfied," Clef told her, shaking his head but amused all the same. He, on the other hand, was looking at the single door on the left, where the sleeping quarters were, and decided he'd look around elsewhere first.

The kitchen was tiny, but well stocked - with a diverse variety of fruits and vegetables, none of which Clef had ever seen before. Nor were there any instructions. "We should have asked for cooking lessons," he called back, to where Umi was making happy noises about her discover that, yes, there was a bath. She came to look over his shoulder, and cracked up.

"Do you think we're meant to cook them, or eat them raw?"

"I've never heard of anything that you can't eat cooked, so lets stick with that," Clef suggested. "Though this seems to be bread of some kind, so we won't starve even if we don't dare the… gourds. Most of these are just - gourds."

"There's a bowl of some berries in this cupboard," Umi pointed out. "Oh, and pots of - spread? Probably? We can put it on the bread. …Or the gourds."

"Well, I'm not hungry yet, but if you want to go ahead and tell me about it…" Clef suggested, and Umi snorted and grabbed his arm.

"No, thanks, we'll go down together. At least the taps make sense, we won't go thirsty. But come look at the bathroom, it's beautiful. I'm taking first bath, by the way. Unless you want to fight me for it."

"I don't think fighting is what we're meant to be doing in here," Clef told her, though as he looked at the inset bath that would be perfectly sized for two people to lounge in together - three if you were very friendly, with a slope to rest on along one side and a bench on the other, the whole room decorated with the same geometry-and-fruit-and-flowers motifs as the outside… he was fairly certain he knew one of the reasons people came here.

So he wasn't surprised when the sleeping quarters was one room with one almost obscenely large bed. Umi glanced at him, and then at the bed again.

"…Why is it round?" she said, after a moment, her lips twitching.

"In case you want to sleep sideways," Clef told her, and shoved her back out of the room. "It's not time for sleep yet. Are you having a bath before we try the food, or afterwards?"

"After," Umi said, decisively. "Then you should. You might relax enough you actually sleep."

"With you kicking me all night? Unlikely."

"I do not kick!" Umi protested. "I don't tickle or sleepwalk, either - oh, hey, good thing you didn't bring Hikaru. She'd probably sleepwalk right out of here in the middle of the night."

Clef shook his head. "Yes, that's why it's a good thing I didn't bring Hikaru," he muttered, then flushed. Umi's ears went bright red, as well, but she gracefully ignored the comment to head back out and have a look around the main room.

"Oh, there's some cards over here! Do you want to play a game before dinner?"

Neither of them recognised the cards, so Umi shuffled through the pack, removed half a dozen cards, then taught him a game from earth which used 'cards which look nothing like this, but we can pretend'. He was losing miserably even before she said 'and now I'll teach you how to cheat.'

…On reflection, cheating might have something to do with why he was losing so badly. But though he clawed back some dignity, Umi still won, and laughingly sent him to invent dinner as a forfeit. A couple of the nameless gourds roasted nicely, it turned out, and the bread was nice, as were the little pots of jam and more savoury spread. He also found a bag of grains which looked like they could become the same porridge they'd had in the morning two lands ago, so that was breakfast sorted. Then Umi went off to take her bath, and he settled on one of the chairs with a sigh. She'd left the children's books out; he looked at his notebook, then set it down and picked up the tale of Acura.

Umi laughed when she came out and found him half way through it. "I should have left the door open, you could have read to me," she said, as she pushed him towards the bathroom.

"Wouldn't it be better if you read to me?" He called back, as she shoved him through the door and then shut it.

"Well, if you want to open the door again-"

"No, thank you!"

He could hear her giggling through the door even as he sighed and paced across the room to the changing area, where there was a stone shelf for clothes with a couple of dry towels, and a tap with basin and cloths for washing off before getting into the water. But as he got ready, and lowered himself carefully into the stingingly hot water, he found himself relaxing in spite of himself, and the night to come.

Honestly, it wasn't as though he wasn't aware of the tension between the two of them. It wasn't new - it had been going on for years. But Umi had always seemed so young.

Well, she was young, compared to him. So were most people.

He just - it seemed like such a bad idea to do anything about it, so he never had. It still seemed a bad idea - or, at least, a terrifying one.

It was exceptionally hard to be terrified when ensconced in a hot bath, with nothing you had to do, and knowing you could sleep in if you wanted to in the morning. He closed his eyes, and let himself drift, as the slightly-scented mineral water constantly washed through the bath, bubbling up from some spring.

The calm stayed with him as he dried off, dressed in his night things, and braved the bedroom. Umi was already there - she'd left one low light on in the main room, but she was curled up under the covers with the book he'd been reading. She waved it at him. "I'm not as far as you'd got, but if you really want me to read it…"

"You'll read me a bedtime story?" He had to grin, and clambered under the covers beside her. The mattress was soft, the sheets smooth and just heavy enough to be right, and when he'd stolen two pillows back from the pile she'd made of them, they were comfortable without being so soft they smothered his face. "Go on, then," he said, and curled on his side facing her, closing his eyes.

She read, hesitantly at first, but her voice growing more confident as the story drew her in - it was the story of a powerful woman and her lover, and the way they'd made it through the fall of a long-ago Pillar together. The story didn't make that explicit, but he was pretty certain Umi knew what it was talking about, and by the time she hit that declaration - 'where you go I'll go, and where you stay I'll stay,' she was reading more to herself than to him.

He fell asleep before she reached the end, and only woke up when the morning light flooding the room reached his face, finding himself alone in the bed.

Clef padded out in bare feet and his night-things and found Umi in the kitchen, having managed to turn on the cooker and find a pot; she was frowning into it at porridge-in-progress. "Morning," he said, with a yawn half-way through the word, leaning on the counter beside her. "Did you sleep well?"

"Nearly as well as you," she said, with a sideways grin that turned into a longer look. He knew his hair was a mess, spilling all over his face; he wasn't awake enough to care. "…You always seem tired, so I thought I'd leave you, while I could. You probably needed it."

"Probably," he agreed easily, reaching past her for a glass so he could get himself a drink. "I have to admit, I thought I was going to spend the whole time worrying about what's happening outside, but…"

"You just feel comfortable?" Umi suggested, and looked unsurprised when he nodded. "Well, remember what our host said - that people who aren't being honest about their intentions feel uncomfortable here? We are being honest, so I think it's making us relax instead."

Clef hummed, leaning a little closer to watch the grains slowly cooking as she stirred them. "It's nice," he admitted, not bothering to censor himself. "Not being worried. Just… being here, with you."

Umi started next to him, and he blinked, coming awake with a rush on the realisation the last two words had probably been more than he should have said - more than he should have admitted. But she stirred the pot, and asked in a slightly strained voice if he thought the berries needed cooking, and if they would go well in the porridge.

They ended up adding jam instead, and it was a good meal, but… as the tension faded back into the easiness of last night, he couldn't help but realise he felt slightly… disappointed, that she'd let the comment slide. That she hadn't…

Something.

Umi picked up the other one of her children's books, and he picked up his notebook and started actually writing down all the ideas he'd had for adding some information about their neighbours and international relations to the schooling system in Cephiro. He could only suggest it to the council - he wasn't in charge of general education, thank the spirits, but he wanted to make a proposal, and he hadn't had time to set his thoughts out before now. It was lunchtime before he knew it, according to the lack of shadows outside. Umi asked him what he'd been writing - that took them through cooking and eating, and another hour beyond that, before she turned to the Japanese books she'd brought and let him get on.

Not long later, she flopped back in her chair with a sigh loud enough he looked up, to see both books abandoned on the table. "…Not to your taste?" he asked, glancing at them.

"Not right now, no. I'm almost regretting not letting you bring more work in. At least stopping you do it would be entertaining."

"Because I'm not working right now?" He grinned, holding up the notebook, but Umi shook her head.

"Not really - well, I guess you are, but you look like you're enjoying yourself. It's not quite the same."

"I enjoy my job!"

"Only some of the time," Umi retorted. "And only one of your jobs. You don't like the admin, or the politics, or the organisation - which is admin but more- or the-"

Clef thumped his notebook down on the table, cutting her off. "Yes, thank you, I get the point you're trying to make," he bit out. "So what? There's nothing to be done about it."

"Nothing to be - Clef, you don't have to keep on being Guru and on the council and ambassador and- you don't have to do all of them! Sure, a few years ago, it was easier just to do it yourself - but you have a whole generation of mages and administrators and even politicians graduating now. Why not let them help?"

"And what would I do with myself? When I'm not busy, when there's nothing to occupy me - what would keep me from panicking then?" he demanded.

Umi glared. "Perhaps you'd have space to have a life, to do something you'd enjoy on occasion!"

"Like what?" he demanded - and felt it the moment his words sank in, tension snapping in the air between them and Umi's eyes were dark, her hands tight on the arms of her chair, and he wanted her to - to storm across the room, and grab him, and demonstrate just what he could be doing in his spare time. He could see it happening so clearly he could almost feel it, her lips on his skin, her fingers in his hair, tugging his head back sharply so she could bite his neck before pushing him into the bedroom and-

Clef took a breath, shuddering, and could see her doing the same, closing her eyes.

"…I'm going to take a bath," Umi said, slowly, and he couldn't help slumping slightly even as he glanced to the window.

"It's a little early for that, isn't it?"

Umi shook her head, and her hands were still tight on the arms of her chair. "I'm going to take a bath," she repeated. "But if you want… you could help me get properly sweaty first. I mean, there's not much point having a bath if you're clean, is there?" Clef stared at her, heart starting to race as she steadily, carefully, got to her feet and made her way over to him. "And if we're both a mess, then it would make sense to have a bath together. Wouldn't it?" she asked, and held her hand out to him.

Clef's fingers were pressed into the arm of the chair so tightly he could barely feel his fingertips; he forced them to let go, now, and raised one shaking hand to take Umi's; he stood, and his legs were trembling, too - in fact, his whole body was. She rested one hand on his chest, looking at him steadily.

"If you don't want this-"

"Please," Clef whispered into the short space between them.

Umi took one deep breath, leaned in, and stole every thought in his head with the press of her lips to his; she kissed him, and kissed him, until he took her hand in his and led her back to the bedroom.

oOo

They didn't make it into the bath until it was very late, leaning against each other in the heat, then drying off and collapsing into a tangle of limbs in the bed. But Clef was awake at first light anyway, blinking his eyes open with confusion at the warm, contented feeling that had settled in his chest through the night. Umi stirred in his arms, and wrapped her hand about the back of his neck, sleepily pulling him in so she could press soft lips to his cheek. "Do we have to get up yet?" she asked, voice blurred with sleep.

"If there's going to be a feast, we probably don't need breakfast?" Clef ducked his head a little further, and kissed her mouth, then her jaw, her neck… she twisted in the bed, kicking the sheets away and pulling him closer.

"Mm. And he said we'd hear them coming… As long as they don't hear us…"

"Hush," Clef told her, shoulders shaking slightly with laughter. "You'll have to be quiet, then. It's not like the windows close."

"I think we can manage."

oOo

When the door opened, nearly an hour and a half later, they were packed to leave, and neatly dressed. Clef jumped half out of his skin when the whole temple rang with that bell-like sound not once, but three times as the door opened, and the cheering redoubled. Their friends were there, looking somewhat confused by all the noise but happy and well; Clef turned to Umi, and smiled. "Shall we?" he asked her, echoing her invitation when they'd stepped into the temple what felt like weeks ago, and no time at all.

She took his hand, and grinned at the cheer that got from the audience. "Yes," she said, and they stepped out together.

If Clef had his suspicions that the feast was for more than just their passing a trial - well, that was fine too.

As for the fact he had a gentle sense of Umi rooted in his chest, where his magic lived - a faint impression of her feelings… well. These people were empaths, and it was at least a lot less strong than the projection of Umi pinning him down to the bed that the two of them had shared the day before. He could already sense Umi plotting how to make use of it to pull pranks on their friends. There would be some way of breaking the connection, if they wanted to at some point.

Until that day came… he was more than content with this.