When Umi moved to Cephiro after university, she dove headfirst into life in her new country, trying to learn all the things that short visits could never teach her.
For the first time, she was able to attend all the various festivals and cultural events that had always been out of reach due to school and university schedules, and she was relishing in the adventure of it.
Somewhere in that first year, she'd taken Clef on as a tutor of sorts. Having over seven and a half centuries behind him, he proved a respectable teacher of this world's history. They'd spend an afternoon or two a week going for long walks and talking about magic and history, or visiting cafes and shops. He'd helped her find simple books as she began her struggle to figure out a way to learn Cephiro's language. She helped him decide on new fabrics and accessories for robes when he'd decided to return to an adult form.
It was nice, and comfortable, and ordinary.
Umi didn't really give it much thought that she sought Clef's company out more than anyone else. He was usually more than willing to let her sit with him whenever he was working in his office, and she just wanted company because she was feeling homesick - but not homesick enough to go back for a visit.
It wasn't unusual that they ate together every evening. There was a whole group of them who would go to the dining hall about the same time every night, so why wouldn't they?
And if he was the first person she wanted to tell when she did well in her lessons, or managed to do something cool while sparring with the trainee guards - well, he was her friend, and that was normal, right?
What they were and what they could be, just never came up, or it just wasn't important.
But all of that distance from any consideration of a possible love-life came crashing down her second mid-year festival in Cephiro.
It was an art exhibit. Some sort of traveling one, Clef had said when he invited her along. Something to do with book illustrations.
Umi distinctly remembered him explaining the illustrations part. Art from romance novels, or romance stories? There was definitely a romance element, and there was just enough of a lingering emphasis on the romance bit that Umi had stared at him, slightly bewildered.
"Are you asking me out on a date?" she'd asked, more confused than anything.
"I just wasn't sure if you would be interested in that sort of thing, is all," Clef said, rubbing the back of his neck. A light flush crept into his cheeks. "If you aren't, I can go on my own. You don't have to keep me company."
"No. I'll go," Umi insisted.
He never did say whether or not it was a date, and Umi wasn't sure if she hoped it was.
Did she want to date Clef? She'd never thought about it.
In the end, she decided to dress up for the occasion, on the off chance it was some sort of a date. And if it wasn't - well, it seemed perfectly ordinary to wear your best clothes to most of the cultural festival events, so it wasn't like she'd stand out.
She met up with Clef outside of one of the usual cafes and had a meal together, while he told her a little bit about the books and the illustrators that were supposed to be part of the exhibit. His eyes were bright and his voice animated while he related the stories to her.
"You'll have to read them to me sometime," she told him. "I don't think I'm up to adult books yet."
"I don't know which ones I still have copies of, but I would be happy to."
Umi wasn't sure what she'd expected when he'd told her this was an illustration exhibit, but she wasn't sure this was it. She's expected romantic images, since it was novel illustrations, but by 'romantic' she'd expected hand holding and kissing and generally bright and beautiful art of characters who were in love.
There had been plenty of those types of image, to be sure. The whole of the ground floor was full of them. Sweet, innocent, and some even adorable expressions of love. She'd found the ones of the older couples - the ones who'd been together for centuries - the most endearing. Her parents had a love like that.
She'd been in the middle of contemplating if she'd ever meet someone she wanted to spend the rest - or even the next big chunk - of her life with, that she hadn't heard what Clef said, when they'd made it upstairs, about this part of the exhibit when he read out the sign, so she hadn't expected to turn a corner and find a whole selection of beautiful paintings of people having sex.
Umi stared at the wall.
The whole long gallery wall was filled with them - filled with pictures of people in a variety of combinations and positions. Every one of them delicately painted in the finest detail, even down the freckles on someone's backside and hair caught in another's mouth.
There were people casually wandering about them, talking about the art as if it were nothing unusual. A group of school children wandered past giggling, but no one as nearly as startled as she was.
Actually, no one else was startled at all.
"You okay?" Clef asked.
Umi huffed out an embarrassed laugh. "I'm fine."
He gave her a wary look and then walked carefully on, talking about the artists again like the pictures hadn't changed tone at all.
"Enzo did always have a flair for the more… creative positioning," he said as they passed a painting of two people using a chair in a not so ordinary way. It looked not only uncomfortable but slightly dangerous.
Falling a few steps behind Clef, Umi found herself just sort of staring at him, unsure even what she was thinking. He stopped in front of the next painting and she couldn't take her eyes off of him.
It was like she was only just noticing that he was attractive. Sure he was a bit pointy and not necessarily handsome, but he was eye-catching in a way that - in the way that she liked.
Why hadn't she noticed that before?
Or had she, and she'd just been ignoring it? Had she set him so firmly in the friend category a decade ago that she hadn't been paying attention to him.
"Here, I want to show you this one," Clef said, appearing at her side suddenly. His hand slipped into hers and it was like someone dowsed her with a bucket of cold water.
The touch of his fingers against her skin made her nearly shriek in startled confusion at the sensations that rattled through her.
Umi yanked her hand away and bolted for the nearest door for some fresh air and a little distance.
There wasn't much distance to be had. She'd fled out onto a balcony the stretched around the side of the garden folly that housed the exhibit.
She was trembling and her heart was racing and the way her body had reacted to the mere brush of his skin against her's was embarrassing.
It wasn't even like she was some sort of blushing virgin who hadn't even seen another person naked. She'd slept with a couple of people while she was still a student in Tokyo. Someone in the fencing club at university and an old school friend a little while later.
Both had been more out of curiosity than actual interest. She'd just wanted to know what it was like, and she hadn't been particularly impressed by either of them so she just decided it wasn't an aspect of her life worth bothering with, and once she'd moved to Cephiro, she had magic to entertain her, and Clef to keep her company.
Umi rubbed her hands over her burning face and glanced back at the door, freezing as it opened and Clef walked out.
She slipped sideways around the wall into a corner that was overgrown with large vines, in the hope that he wouldn't find her yet. Which was silly, because where else could she be? There weren't any other ways to get to this balcony except by that door.
"Umi?" Clef's voice was soft, worried even. "Are you alright?"
"I don't even know," she whispered, honestly.
"Is it something I did or said?" he asked, stopping before he blocked her into the corner.
There was something captivating about the way his eyes caught the gold of the sunset, she couldn't tear herself away for that blue.
It was Clef who turned, looking back at the doors and then back at her, dawning realisation. "The art?"
"Clef, you brought me to an exhibit of - of pornography." She waved her hand toward the building. "You said, book illustrations, I didn't think…" She rubbed a hand over her face, trying to keep some semblance of her composure. "Cephiro is so weird."
Clef breathed a quiet "Oh" before taking a step back.
Umi swallowed and forced herself to ask something she'd only just started to wonder. "Clef, do you like me?"
"What?" He turned to face her, those eyes so bright she had to take a step back. "Do I- Of course. We're friends, aren't we?"
"I know we're friends. That's not what I mean." Umi shook her head, feeling ridiculous and muddled, like a junior high school student with a crush, not an adult. "Do you like me, like as more than a friend? Because I think I like you." She had to bite her tongue to keep from adding 'And I'm kind of freaking out about it'.
Her heart thundered in her chest in the long agonising seconds before he replied, a strange sort of terror settling around her as her mind tried to convince her that no matter what his answer, she'd just changed their friendship forever.
Clef stood there quietly, looking at her like he was seeing her for the first time. "Yes. Yes, I do."
Fear turned to relief which faded in the wake of confusion and irritation. "Then was this supposed to be some sort of hint?" Umi demanded.
"This." Umi gestured with a trembling hand, her voice shaking. "Was this some sort of suggestion of what you want us to be doing? Was magic study not enough? Is what we have not enough."
Clef just stared at her, and Umi knew she was being ridiculous, but she was nervous and confused and so many things all at once, but being angry made sense. Arguing with Clef was ordinary and normal, and why wasn't he snapping back?
"I -" He glanced at the doors and then back at her. "I like what we have, what we are. More could be - nice?" He shook his head. "But I have no expectations. I just - I wanted to share this with you."
"A bunch of pictures of people having sex?" Umi crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the wall.
"Illustrations of loves stories I -" Clef stopped. He ran a hand through his hair and took a step back. "I'm a fool, an absolute fool."
Umi stood up straighter as he paced a few steps and then turned back to her with a look of sudden awareness.
"I wanted to show you what love looks like to me," he said, voice tremblingly quiet.
"Clef, that's sex. Sex isn't anything awe-inspiring or special, and I really wouldn't say it's what I think of when I think of some sort of great love."
That gained her the exasperated sigh she knew so well. Shaking his head, Clef closed the gap between them and grabbed hold of her hand, tugging her back toward the doors. "It has absolutely nothing to do with the sex," he said. "Or, rather, the sex is not the important thing."
Umi stumbled after him as he pulled her hastily back through the doors and around a corner away from the wall of sex into a different gallery. This one was all soft colours and light, and when he pulled her to a stop in front of one of the paintings, she just stared.
It was a couple, older than some of the people pictured in the other room, but still younger than the picture Umi had been captivated by downstairs. They where in a field of tall grass and wildflowers, laying on some sort of mage robes that matched the ones vaguely draped over them.
But it wasn't the amount of skin that drew the eye, it was the soft touch of a hand brushing a stray hair out of their lover's face and the look of complete adoration in their eyes.
Umi stood still a long time just staring.
What love looked like?
She looked over at Clef to find him watching her. The look in his eyes made her breath catch. Biting her lip, she turned to the picture and then back to him. His hair was the usual sort of disheveled, looking like he just ran his finger through it to get out the worst of the tangles before shoving his coronet up to keep his fringe out of his eyes, but, somehow, that suited him. But the wild tangles of his hair sweeping over his pale face and bright blue eyes just made her want to brush them back so she could see his face more clearly.
No, that wasn't right.
What she wanted to do, in that brief, startling moment, was tangle her fingers into that hair and kiss him.
Face flushing hot, Umi took another step back. Since when did she want to kiss him? It was this room. This art. It gave a person ideas. That had to be it. Because she certainly couldn't have been ignoring the desire to kiss Clef for however many years it had been since he looked like this.
Looking down in confusion at her hand still holding his, Umi let go and turned to flee back out the balcony door. "I need some air."
Clef didn't follow, leaving Umi to safely hide back in her little corner to confront this terrifying new awareness.
What was she supposed to do with this feeling? It was like waking up after being asleep for years, and the world was suddenly too bright and loud and she didn't know what anything was anymore, or what she should even do with herself.
She leaned against the low wall and stared out over the gardens.
What was she so afraid of, though?
This was Clef, one of her best friends. Why was it so scary that he loved her? Or that she was in love with him?
In love with him.
Umi sank down to the floor, burying her face in her hands. She was in love with him, and she hadn't even realised. How long had she been? How long hadn't she noticed?
Shaking her head, she pulled herself upright. It didn't matter how long it had been. It didn't matter that she hadn't realised until now. She knew he was the first person she wanted to see in the morning, and the last one she wanted to talk to at night, and that wasn't so scary a thought.
Bravely stepping back into the building, she turned into the last section of the gallery, but Clef was nowhere to be seen.
He wasn't in the long gallery, or in any of the downstairs display rooms. She couldn't find him anywhere in the building, and ended up running out the main door in the hope of catching him on the path, but she couldn't see him or even any hint of his robes out in the manicured gardens. In fact, Umi had nearly given him us as gone before she turned the corner and found him sitting on a bench, head in his hands, looking about how she felt.
With careful steps, she made her way over to him, debating the whole distance if she should just leave him alone, but she sat down beside him instead.
"Hey," Umi said, carefully.
Clef lifted his head, eyes slightly wide in surprise. "Hi."
"So, um, I came to this exhibition with my best friend, and I was afraid he left without me."
"I'm sorry, I just -"
"Needed to think?"
Umi scrubbed at a patch of moss with the toe of her shoe. "Does this mean we've basically been dating for the past however-long-it's-been and didn't even know it?"
"I don't think it counts as courting, if it's unintentional," Clef said, the corner of his mouth twitching up a little.
That little shy smile somehow made everything seem okay.
"We could try doing it intentionally?" Umi offered, swinging her feet a little as she turned to grin at him, and poke him in the arm with her finger. "As long as you warn me about the sex pictures first."
Clef huffed out a little laugh. "Sorry. I didn't even think about-" he waved a hand "-your world being less open about that sort of thing."
Umi stared out at the gardens and chewed on her lip, thinking. "Where do we go from here, then?"
"Dinner?" He shrugged.
Dinner was so completely and utterly normal - complete with a debate over the finer points of summoning, that she wasn't doing properly - that Umi had forgotten about being worried about feelings and other intangible things as she followed Clef back to his suite for him to show her a diagram to prove his point.
He disappeared into his study and she'd gotten so far as putting the kettle on and reaching down the tin of tea she preferred when she stopped - nearly dropping the tin on her head - and snapped her head round to stare into Clef's study.
It seemed that she wasn't the only one.
Clef was standing in the doorway looking at her with the same edge of startled apprehension to his expression that Umi was feeling.
Their eyes met for a brief moment before they both hastily went back to what they were doing.
"This tea is alright?" Umi asked, without looking up from the tin.
"Whatever you want is fine," came the reply from closer to the settee.
When Umi picked up the tray and dared to look at Clef, he was sitting in the chair - not his usual space on the left side of the settee - with the book open on the low table poring over a chart.
"I still don't know how you manage to even get anything to work that way," he said, automatically holding out a hand when she passed him a cup.
Umi shrugged and flopped onto the settee. "Magic?"
Clef lifted his head to give her a look. "Obviously. It's all magic. But I don't understand how you've managed to do it that way."
"Magic Knight, then?" She shook her head then sipped her tea, wincing when she scalded her tongue. "Koeru says it's fine, and that it should count in the exams."
"Strictly speaking, I do think it would be fine, but I won't be the one making that ruling."
Head shooting up, Umi stared at him. "But I thought-"
Clef shook his head. "I'm going to have to recuse myself from any debate on this."
"But why?" Umi asked. "I mean, you gave us our magic, and you're my friend, but why would you… want…" The words tapered off as what he was saying finally clicked into place. "Oh."
"I'm sure Livina and Catera will come to the same conclusion as Koeru has. It's not as if there aren't frequently students who have learnt a skill differently than is the usual path - I just don't know how you are getting the call to work like that."
"Well it's better than not managing it at all and - I don't know - accidentally summoning Selece in the middle of the training rooms."
Snorting out a laugh, Clef leaned back in his chair and took a drink of his tea. "No, I think you should totally do that one day, especially when certain instructors are being annoyances in Academy meetings."
"You know, you'll have to tell me they're being annoyances, because I'm not on the committee."
That wicked curl of his lips and the bright glint of mischief in his eyes woke a sudden and inescapable desire to know what that smirk of his tasted like.
"What would you say if I said I think I want to kiss you?" she blurted out a moment later, unable to stop herself.
Clef blinked at her, looking ridiculously like a started rabbit or something, his knuckles going slightly white as he gripped his cup a bit more tightly. He swallowed and took a very slow breath. "Okay?"
"That doesn't sound very enthusiastic," Umi said, setting down her cup. Shaking her head, she moved to stand up. "I'll just go. We probably need a little more space to process all of this, anyway."
Catching her hand to stop her, Clef set down his own cup and held on to her hand with both of his. "It's fine. I'm just - It's been a long time, a very long time, since I've had any sort of relationship."
"So, we should take things slower than dating for years without knowing it?"
"We were not-" He shook his head, a bright flush colouring his cheeks. "Yes."
The sudden rush of disappointment was even more startling than the realisation she wanted to kiss him - possibly more, but she hadn't let herself explore that feeling just yet.
"Not taking things slow," Clef said with a soft laugh. "Yes, I'll kiss you."
Pulling his hands, Umi drew Clef over beside her on the settee. She reached out with a trembling hand to brush a hair from his face, feeling so many kinds of confused and awkward, and it was like she'd suddenly forgotten everything about what to do and how kissing even worked - the impulse nearly dying out under the weight of the reality of it.
A shy smile on his lips, Clef assured her, "You don't have to, if you don't want to."
"But I do want to." Umi leaned forward and brushed her lips against his with all the timidness of a first innocent kiss, barely even feeling the warmth of his skin.
Clef's hand slid up her arm, and his fingers cupped the back of her head as he returned the kiss, gentle and lingering.
Not one to be outdone, Umi caught his lips again, startling a quiet 'oh' from him. When his lips parted, she deepened the kiss without a thought, curling closer and tangling a hand in Clef's hair, half expecting him to stop them a moment later and say they should slow down, this was too fast, or any number of things her rational mind was trying to scream over the irrepressible urge to be even closer.
But Clef didn't break the kiss, if anything he was just as inclined to continue as she.
Umi wasn't sure how much time passed between that first kiss and finally peeling herself off him, but they were both incredibly ruffled and breathless by the time she pushed herself vaguely upright, using his shoulders for leverage. She was trembling, and her legs felt a little weak, as she'd found a very nice angle against his thigh at some point in there.
The touch of Clef's hands across her back only made it more difficult for her to breathe.
"We should probably stop," he murmured, voice gone rough in a way that made Umi shiver.
"And what if I don't want to?" Umi brazenly challenged. She knew she was far too worked up to think rationally, but she also knew that she wasn't going to easily get to sleep without doing something about it with or without Clef's help.
"I will do the responsible thing and point out that neither one of us is taking a contraceptive, and I certainly don't have any sort of sheath or other barrier in here - as I haven't had occasion to use one in several centuries - should we wish to get too carried away." Clef pushed up on his elbows slightly, his breath still slightly uneven.
"But if I found us a condom, you'd have sex with me?"
"There are plenty of things we could do without one," was his only response before leaning up to kiss her again.
A short while later, Umi was rushing barefoot around the corridors to Hikaru's room. As it had turned out, Clef's bedroom was more than a bit of a mess - books creeping into the bed and robes strew about the floor, so they agreed that Umi would go on the quest for some sort of contraception, while Clef made his space a bit more welcoming for guests.
Umi knocked briskly on Hikaru's door, waiting for her to answer felt like forever. It was late, but it couldn't be late enough she was sleeping. And Lantis was on a night shift, so she shouldn't be entertaining anyone.
Hikaru opened the door wearing the loose tunic and leggings that made up her current loungewear. "What's happened? Are you alright?" she asked.
Umi pushed in and pulled the door closed behind her; no one else needed to hear this conversation. "Do you have any condoms?"
"Well, I was - with Clef, and we were-" Umi stopped and took a breath. "Do you have some condoms, so I can sleep with Clef tonight?"
"Did you run out, or something?"
"No. I never brought any with me." Umi blinked at her. "I haven't been with anyone since Nao."
"But I thought - we all thought - you and Clef were together. I mean, the two of you have basically been inseparable since, well, since before we even finished high school. And now that you've moved over…" Hikaru stared at her. "You mean, you two have never - not once?"
"Condoms?" Umi insisted. They could have this conversation tomorrow, not when she was wanting to rush back to Clef before he changed his mind.
Hikaru stifled a giggle and disappeared back into her bedroom, returning with a surprisingly new box of Japanese condoms.
"Thank you! You're wonderful!"
"Get out and go have fun," Hikaru said, shoving her back to through the door. "The box is yours. It took you two long enough to get somewhere, you should enjoy it."
Clef was standing in the doorway looking a bit bewildered when Umi returned holding the little box like a prize. Without his coronet, his hair was a wild tangle hanging over the side of his face, and when he turned to look at her Umi felt that rush of wanted to kiss him all over again.
"Got them," she said. "Now we're prepared for anything."
"Are you sure you want to?" Clef asked. "Because now would be a good time to forget this ever happened, if you've changed your mind."
Umi stayed put in the entry space, staring at him. "Have you changed your mind?"
Clef swallowed and shook his head. "No."
"Good. Neither have I." She strode across the room and shoved a hand into the wild tangle of his hair and kissed him hard.
She stumbled through the bedroom door with Clef, pushing him back until his legs hit the bed and he more fell than sat down on the edge of the mattress. Hiking her skirt up, Umi climbed into his lap as she kissed him again. Her hands slid up under his shirt and Clef's breath hitched into a soft moan.
"Are we going fast or slow?" Clef asked, pulling back to look at her.
"Fast," Umi answered. "I don't think want to wait much longer."
Her previous experiences with sex had been fuelled by nothing more than a strong curiosity to know what all the fuss was about, but this aching need that radiated through her was something foreign, almost alien, but she wanted to see where it went.
"You never have been good at patience." The words were breathed across her skin before Clef pressed a gentle kiss below her ear.
Umi snorted out a laugh and fumbled with the front of Clef's shirt trying to find the catches to unfasten them.
Afterwards, when she was curled against Clef's chest, still trembling slightly, Umi found herself saying. "Okay, so the bar isn't exactly high, but that was the best sex I've had in my entire life."
Clef laughed. "Perhaps we should work on your range of experience, because that was certainly not my best performance." He stroked a hand over her head. "But I'm glad you enjoyed yourself."
Umi leaned up to look at him. "You mean it can be better than that?"
"You'll have to decide for yourself." He slowly sat up and kissed her on the forehead, before moved to get out of bed, much to Umi's disappointment. "But not tonight. I have meetings in the morning."
"Oh, do you want me to go back to my room?" Umi asked, sitting up to let him go.
"No." He looked at the door and then back at her. "I was going to have a bath before bed, and you're welcome to join me if you want to."
Umi slipped out of bed to follow him. "I like this plan."
"I can even lend you a nightshirt if you'd like to stay." He smiled.
After a nice hot bath, and two soothing cups of tea, the both of them curled up together in Clef's bed for the night.
"There's a new art exhibition arriving next month," Clef said, turning out the light. "Would you like to go with me?"
"Of course," Umi said, before kissing him goodnight.