oOo Clef oOo
The Castle of Cephiro was full of people bustling about, making final preparations for the celebratory ball tomorrow. They made it a dangerous proposition to walk through the corridors – Clef was fairly certain Lantis and LaFarga had made it an agility test for their apprentice Guards to get through without knocking into anyone. That, or the apprentices had made their own game of weaving between the people carrying flowers and cloth and lights to decorate the ballroom and the gardens outside it.
For his own part, Clef had helped by extending the ballroom to twice its normal size. It now reached out into the gardens, a glass roof and extensive windows letting in views of the flowers which had been coaxed into blooming at precisely the right time to be perfect for the high day. There were doors all about the extended room to allow people to step out onto the terraces, and he had seen Presea helping to create a bandstand among the flowerbeds to entertain those who drifted away from the dancing inside and wanted a softer music to underlie their talk.
That done, he had holed up in his study before anyone could ask him for any more favours. There he planned to stay – all night, if need be. He had shields about the room to keep out casual visitors, and had stolen back the kettle which someone (he suspected Umi) had returned to the kitchens the last time he went three days in a row on little more than occasional naps. His stash of teabags had been replenished, and there was a small bathroom hidden off one side of the study, so he was well supplied for water as well; he even had a blanket which would make the window seat a perfectly passable bed, if slightly narrow.
It wasn’t that he minded the festivities. He rather liked them, in fact; the music, and the amount of people letting themselves relax for a time. But rather too many of them were choosing to celebrate here, at the Castle. That many people in one place was… wearing.
Even that he could usually have coped with gracefully, at least for a short while, but this year…
Clef glanced across at a small wooden box sat on the edge of his desk, half hidden behind a stack of papers. He could feel his face flushing slightly, and scrubbed his hands across it. There was no need to be embarrassed! All he had done was, well. Buy a present.
…A present for a certain Knight of Water, who he might or might not have promised to dance with.
He wasn’t sure he’d promised any such thing (which was part of the embarrassment, actually). She had been asking if he even knew how to dance, three weeks ago, and with Ferio trying to talk to him about when he was planning to actually extend the ballroom at the same time he’d only managed to half pay attention to either of them. He might have promised to show her how the dances went – or he might just have promised he would actually show up, either was possible. By the time he’d gotten rid of Ferio and turned around to actually talk to her she’d been heading back to Tokyo with Fuu and Hikaru.
It would be mortifying to admit he hadn’t heard what she was asking, after that. She might rightly question why he’d said ‘yes’ without knowing what he was agreeing to. He’d asked himself that same question a dozen times since, and come to no answer he wanted to admit.
But he’d been thinking about it, since. Thinking about the festival. Even this time last year he had still been holding on to his child’s form, and disinclined to attempt the dancing – partners of the right height being fairly scarce, partners of the wrong height being an invitation to bruised toes and knees. This year, though, he had let himself grow. Not… tall, he had never been that, and felt no need to expend the effort to stretch his figure beyond natural inclination. But more mature. He stood eye to eye with Umi, these days, though she was possibly a little taller than he was. He hadn’t stood close enough to be able to tell.
He would… like to dance. With a friend.
(Whether Umi was precisely that, though, was-)
Shaking his head again, Clef shoved another pile of books between himself and the box.
High days had been an excuse to give small gifts to loved ones, when he was younger. It had been a long time since he’d done anything of the kind, but he had overheard Ferio and Lantis talking. This year, it seemed, their Ball was falling on the same day as some kind of Earth holiday which also involved the exchange of presents – they were discussing what they might give Fuu and Hikaru.
Well, mostly Ferio was trying to persuade Lantis that Hikaru probably didn’t need another sword, even one for training. Clef hadn’t stayed long enough to hear who won that argument.
A few days later, out in Bentley to see to some houses which refused to stay standing, Clef’s eye had been caught by the gleam of gems in the window of a jeweller’s shop. While waiting for the local Priest to arrive, he had wandered inside – most of his rings were getting so old that the magic which let the gems act as storage was beginning to fade, and he had no wish to lose his belongings to a breaking spell.
He had no excuse for walking out with nothing for himself, but a set of earcuffs each with a blue stone which exactly matched the hilt of her sword, set in coils of silver.
Even less excuse for the matching bracelet in the box with them.
And, of course, it wasn’t until after he’d bought them and hurried away that he actually took in the jeweller’s comments about ‘not letting anyone know’ when he said, absently, they were a festival gift. It was rather a shock to realise that ‘loved ones’ had been distilled to ‘lover’, when he wasn’t paying attention. He tried, for a whole day, to let himself believe that Tokyo’s holiday – the one Umi had barely mentioned in passing – was enough reason to give her something. At least part of it. Because he could see her wearing them – see the bracelet gleaming in the soft light while she gestured, the cuffs bared by a tilt of her head to one side, listening.
And… it would have given him something to talk about, if they did dance. A distraction from her hands in his, from being so… close.
When he finally broke down and asked Ferio about it, though, he found that even Tokyo’s celebration was one for couples. Now he didn’t know what to do; if he gave the present, he was worried what she would think he meant by it. (He didn’t exactly know what he meant himself; Spirits forbid she ask him!) But he couldn’t make himself return the items. Didn’t want to return them.
So here he was, in a stalemate with himself, hiding in his study because he was so distracted by his own thoughts that he hadn’t the wherewithal to cope with anyone asking him things which required him to think.
One day left to decide.
He needed to make up his mind, soon. Because the one thing he was certain of was that Umi would not let him hide away in his study all evening, no matter how much work he found to hide behind.
oOo Umi oOo
Privacy was not easily found this close to a ball. What with all the fussing over clothing and accessories, Umi had seen Hikaru and Fuu at least six times in the past two hours as they tried to work out the final details of what they were wearing. Their last visit had seen the three of them fitted into their new gowns by Caldina, and final alterations had been done this afternoon, just to be sure they were perfect.
It was all a bit much.
Umi stared into her mirror, toying with her hair. She had no idea what she wanted to do with it. Caldina was insistent she do something rather than just default to wearing it down, or braided into a long plait down her back as she’d been doing more recently. But what was she expecting? Probably pulling it up in some way. Umi twisted the long tresses up at the back of her head, and pulled a face. Maybe.
Her hair cascaded down her back as she dropped it and walked away from the mirror. She was trying hard not to worry about tomorrow. It wasn’t as if it were her party to be fretting over. She was merely a guest. An honoured one, being a Magic Knight, but a guest in how many hundreds? Thousands? (Hadn’t they expanded the ballroom for this celebration?)
Why were there always so many people at these things?
At least Clef was going to be there.
Or, at least he’d said he would be, when she asked. He might have even agreed to dance with her, but she couldn’t quite remember if he had or not because she couldn’t remember if she’d actually asked him, or if she’d just dreamt it. So many conversations were getting confused lately, reality blending too easily into things she’d merely imagined in her head one too many times.
Oh, the things she’d imagined.
She rubbed her flushed cheeks and sat down on the bed. They were friends. Maybe something slightly more, but— Umi shook her head hard to force the thoughts away.
Hands. His in hers. Hers in his. Hers tangled in his hair…
Friends, her rational mind insisted, shoving that image as far back in her mind as possible.
Was that what she wanted to be? The wicked voice in the back of her head asked the question, trying to pull the image back out again.
Maybe that was why she had gotten him the gift. Hadn’t someone said something about High Days being an excuse to give presents to people? Caldina, perhaps? And then it was Christmas too, and giving gifts on Christmas was rather ordinary in most parts of Earth, so it wasn’t as if it really had to mean anything, right? Just a friendly gesture. She’d found something he’d like, and bought it for him. Friends bought things for their friends all the time.
When had this gotten so complicated? After he’d grown? Before?
Clapping her hands over her face, Umi fell back onto her bed and let out a loud whimper. Perhaps it would be in her best interests to get out of her room and go talk to someone. The trouble was the only person she wanted to see or talk to at that particular moment was the very person she wanted to push out of her mind. But if she were distracted by him in the room with her, she’d be less distracted by thoughts of him, right?
Hey, maybe he’d say something which would let her know if they actually were planning on dancing together. It was hard to prepare for it when she didn’t really believe it would happen, when it felt like another of the dreams which left her restless, impatient and nervous all at once.
But if they were going to dance… She was going to need all the preparation she could get.
oOo Clef oOo
The first two knocks on Clef’s door were people wanting opinions on decorations, who he redirected to Ferio and Caldina as quickly as he could. The third time someone knocked, he was expecting much the same, and didn’t look up from the report he was writing now he was finally managing to concentrate. “Who is it?” he called, dipping his pen in the ink again.
Ferio and Umi had both laughed for nearly half an hour when they realised his standard response to a knock on the door was ‘what do you want?’ – apparently, that didn’t sound so very polite. Before, he would just have opened the door to everyone. But with so many people still living and working around the castle – and with so many inane questions being brought to him now they all knew where he worked – he had stopped that in self defence. If it made him seem less accessible, well, good! And he wasn’t going to throw Ascot in their way either, even if he was acting more and more as Clef’s assistant right now, saving Clef time he could then use to teach Ascot.
Doing research to help Clef was one thing – and was helping Ascot catch up on a magical education he’d mostly missed when he ran away to be with his friends rather than have them feared and hurt by the people of his village – but organising meetings, wading into disputes between the plant-mages and the more usual gardeners (because apparently the site of the orchards was a touchy subject?), and trying to find time in Clef’s schedule to actually attend all the things he was meant to be at – those weren’t things Ascot should have to bother with, let alone the questions like ‘could the upper levels of the towers have balconies to match the rooms in the middle sections?’ and ‘why is the water not working in the bathrooms in the south tower?’.
Umi said he needed to adopt one of the apprentice mages to be a ‘personal assistant’, whatever that was. Or one of the clerks who were responsible for recording most of the meetings anyway. He was close to giving in and seeing if he could find someone. The only problem was, it meant letting someone else have control over his schedule, have access to his life, in a way which made him fidget. Ascot, he knew and trusted.
But Ascot really deserved the chance to take time and decide what he wanted to do with himself, not accidentally end up with a job because he was so eager to please anyone who showed him the slightest hint of kindness.
When he realised that several seconds had passed with no response, he looked up, frowning – just in time for the reply.
“It’s Umi. May I come in?”
Hissing under his breath, Clef blotted the splodge of ink which bloomed across the paper where he’d dropped his pen, mostly spreading the stain across his fingers as well as the report, and stumbled to his feet. “Of course – just wait a moment, I’ll get the shield for you-“
He forgot the box on his desk until he was at the door, and then could only glance back at it – there was nowhere he could hide the dratted thing without several minutes work. With the amount of paper he’d rested against it, hiding it from himself as he sat in the chair, he certainly couldn’t pull it into his ring: better he take the chance Umi not notice it than have her in hysterics at everything cascading off his desk.
And if he did want to give it – it would be more casual if it was a day early and just happened to be on his desk, right?
Clef made up his mind. If Umi noticed it, he would hand it over, as casually as possible. If not, he would find some other occasion. It wasn’t that long until Umi’s birthday, that would be just as reasonable an excuse for giving her a gift. More, in fact.
He pulled the shield aside with one hand, magic crackling about his fingers, and opened the door with the other, stepping aside for Umi to duck in – out of the way of someone carrying what looked like half a tree’s worth of cut branches for use in the decorations. For a moment, Umi and he both turned to watch the leafy twigs swaying as the carrier walked, half blinded by her burden, people scrambling out of the way with more laughter than irritation.
“Do you think the gardeners agreed that half their work would end up inside the Ballroom?” Umi asked, leaning out the door to see how those branches got about the bend in the corridor. She grinned at the sight, then stepped back into the study, turning the grin on Clef. She’d listened to his complaining over the last round of garden disputes. “I don’t think they’re going to be pleased, otherwise.”
“I sincerely hope that they’re supervising things.” He closed the door before anyone else could get ideas about talking to him, shot the bolt, and flicked the shield back across the gap with a sigh – then realised Umi was laughing at him. “What is it?”
“I knew you were hiding – but I didn’t realise you were doing so so seriously!” She said, waving a hand at the door, and Clef didn’t know quite what his expression looked like – especially when he realised that he’d just ensured that the two of them were alone, in private, with a door secured twice over.
(And one glance at her, laughing and bright-eyed, so close, was enough to start the cascade of thoughts about precisely what people might imagine were happening behind closed doors- he bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, where she wouldn’t see him do so, trying to ground himself and get his mind away from that kind of nonsense.)
Fortunately, Umi seemed too busy laughing at him to notice when his flush turned from mildly embarrassed to suspiciously bright. And everyone else who might notice should – hopefully – be distracted by the preparations to do so. “Why did you come to see me?” He asked, stepping away to get back to his desk, where he could at least sit down and put some vertical distance between them, even when she followed him back. Though today she stopped on the other side of his desk, eying the piles of paper he’d built into shaky ramparts.
…In fact, she stopped right next to the box with the gift he really shouldn’t have bought.
“I came to ask if I could hide in here for a while, actually.” She admitted, whispering her fingers over the tallest pile of paper. “Fuu and Hikaru are so excited about this whole Ball thing that they’ve changed their minds on what they’re wearing at least three times each so far – not the dresses!” She said, with a laugh for his confused expression – he’d heard Caldina’s orders about fittings at the dinner table so many times even he was aware they had new things which they would wear, or Caldina would personally chase them about the castle until they agreed to get into them. “Jewellery, hair style, things like that.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “And you aren’t so excited?”
“It’s not that, it’s just –“ She stopped, looked down at the papers again, and Clef nearly reached out to her, to try to call her back from whatever she was thinking, which made her seem so distant. “…So many people. And I’ll know hardly any of them, but they’ll all know who I am. You know?”
Ah, indeed. “Yes. That is something I know all too well.” He said, with a wry smile and a wave of his hand towards the door. “Hence the defences, in fact.
“Yeah. It’s not that I don’t care what I’m wearing, exactly, it’s just – I care more about who’s going to be there. I want to spend the evening with my friends, not strangers, and-“
Umi’s words tumbled faster and faster until she cut them off, silencing herself before the end of the sentence, and only waved him off when he asked what she’d been about to say. Instead she poked at the papers yet again, and then raised an eyebrow at him. “Are these a part of your defences too, Clef? I don’t think a castle built out of paper is going to be much good. Not unless you glue the pages together, at least.”
He couldn’t help snickering at the thought of gluing together all the pages of dry, dusty draft legislation and financial reports, all of which he was meant to be reading before next week's Council meeting. “Tempting though that is – no. Unfortunately, making more arms of our government functional seems to have increased the amount of paperwork it produces at least ten times over – and now we have no Pillar, all the Council get to read everything so we can argue about it with each other. Most of this I don’t have to do anything with, but the one time I decide not to read it will be the time that something slips through and I realise, six months later, that no one’s been paying the mages in the north east, or something equally bizarre.”
“…Is that why you seem to have thrown your pen at it?” She pointed to the ink on his fingers, the drying blot on his work.
“You made me jump!” He protested, flushing yet again.
Umi teased, but he’d learnt before this that when she asked what he was working on – as she did now when she’d stopped giggling at him – she didn’t mind if he rambled about the latest thing which was trying his patience. She pulled one of the other chairs up to the side of the desk and listened, apparently amused by his ranting and making suggestions when she could, which sometimes helped him find some of the answers which remained just out of reach while they stayed on paper.
It startled both of them when the dinner bell went.
Umi stood, brushing her clothes back into place. “Well, I should go – are you coming?”
“I’ll fetch something from the kitchens later.” Clef said, shaking his head, reaching for his pen. “You go, get away from my rambling! This isn’t your job.”
“I don’t mind.”
“You should do.” He told her, feeling a little guilty over how much of her time he’d eaten up with his concerns – how little talking she’d done.
…And in all that time, she’d not once asked about the box on the corner of the desk.
Umi headed for the door, and Clef hesitated again. But she stopped when she got there, turning back with a raised eyebrow – and rapping her knuckles against the shield he’d entirely forgotten about.
Clef stood, and was reaching out his hands for the box before he knew quite what he was doing, shifting the pile of paper on top of it to the floor and wriggling it out so he could take it over. “Umi – here.” He shoved it at her, not quite managing to meet her eyes. “Because- you always listen to me. And we give people gifts around now – well, we used to, when I was younger, customs change sometimes and – um.” She was staring at him, wide-eyed. “…If you don’t like it, that’s fine, I just – saw it when I was out and waiting for people to arrive, and thought you might-“
He pushed the box firmer into her hands when she made no move to take it, and let go when her fingers curled reflexively about the edges. Then he turned back to the door and dismissed the shield, too discomforted to try parting it. Easier to put a new one up when Umi left.
Only when he turned back, she hadn’t moved.
oOo Umi oOo
Startled was putting it mildly, though stunned was a bit much. At the very least, Umi was very, very surprised at being presented with the box she found herself so suddenly clutching.
She attempted to get out some sort of response, but only managed to open and close her mouth a few times.
Clef turned to the door, not watching her.The removal of the shield sent a shiver up her spine. There was something about magic, the tremor in the air or something else that teased at her senses. His magic, at least. Not that she’d let on. Especially not while she was holding his gift.
Umi gently lifted the lid, and her breath caught again. A set of ear cuffs and a bracelet which matched, all delicate filigree which somehow managed to swirl like water in a pool, the surf pulling back from the beach. The silver swirls glinted in the light as the blue stones flashed. He hadn’t actually picked them to match her armour, had he? No. He couldn’t have. Or at least he shouldn’t have. She snapped the lid shut and looked back up at him.
“Clef, I couldn’t—” She stammered helplessly at him. “They’re beautiful, but—“
“If you like them, you should keep them.” There was a gentle flush of colour to his cheeks as he insisted, and she bit her lip, clutching the jewellery box closer to her. While she didn’t see why he’d be so keen to give her such a lovely gift, she didn’t want to give it up.
A glance past him showed the cascading pile of papers that had been resting on the box in her hands, as several of the piles on his desk started slowly subsiding into the gap. He noticed at the same moment and said something impolite enough it didn’t translate, shoving a hand in the way to catch the slipping papers and then staring at the mess before grabbing a heavy book from the other side of the desk and wedging it between them.
For a moment, she’d forgotten that he was so swamped. She hated the idea of him staying buried in this paperwork. He probably wouldn’t remember to fetch something up from the kitchens, either. Every time he’d told her he would, he inevitably forgot, or just didn’t get round to it. More often than not someone came round to check up on him late into the evening to be sure he’d eaten, on a kind of supper-delivery duty. They were usually sent by LaFarga or Lantis, who would have to deal with a hungry-and-grumpy mage at morning meetings otherwise, but she knew Ascot had done it himself a few times without prompt, and Ferio too on days the Guard were undertaking some large-scale operation.
Perhaps she’d stop by on her way back to her room with something for him. Maybe even try to coax him out and to his own rooms to rest at a reasonable hour for once, but that was a little far fetched.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come down to dinner?”
“And make you listen to me rambling even more?”
“I really don’t mind.”
There was no way she was going to tell him that she liked the sound of his voice, whether he was ranting or not. At least not outside one of those conversations she imagined having a lot and would probably never actually manage aloud.
He was about to protest again, give some excuse about his mountain of paperwork or any number of things he should be doing, but she suddenly resolved she was going to have none of it. No excuses. “Come on, you.” On an impulse she reached out her hand and grabbed his. “You’re coming down to dinner with me, if I have to drag you out of here kicking and screaming.”