Umi woke mid-gasp, body tense and utterly, utterly still. There was only the roaring of her own blood in her ears. She opened her eyes.
It was dark. Shadows resolved themselves into furniture in the dim sliver of light that crept under the bedroom door. She let the air out of her lungs and deliberately relaxed back into the mattress. As the pounding of her heartbeat slowed in her ears, she could hear breathing behind her. She rolled over carefully. Hikaru and Fuu were fast asleep. Even Mokona snored softly.
She closed her eyes again, then decided they were best left open.
Her nightgown was unpleasantly damp against her chest and she was at once chilled and too hot under the covers. She slid out of bed, not wanting to wake the others, and found her uniform blouse and skirt with shaking hands.
The bedroom door was blessedly silent when she opened it just wide enough to slip into the hallway, one eye on her sleeping friends to see if the light would hit them. Mokona snorted and rolled over, but didn't wake. She closed the door ever-so-gently, then set off.
Umi really didn't know her way around the Castle. She supposed she could make her way down to the kitchens, where it would probably be warm and cozy and bright.
But it might also have other people in it, people who did not know the girl in the strange clothes, and who would ask questions.
Or worse, people who did know, but not all of it.
She wandered aimlessly through one indistinguishable hallway after another, fingertips lightly tracing the walls. They were cool and smooth, and Umi tried to focus on the texture instead of letting her thoughts creep back to her dreams. She paused when she heard other footsteps, turned in the opposite direction when she saw other people. She climbed or descended stairs when they presented themselves, looked out past her reflection in the windows lining the outer halls. The view was the same from all of them: a dark night sky with threatening clouds stretched over a rocky land. She found herself in front of a door that opened for her as soon as she paused in front of it.
When she peered around the door frame, curiosity having gotten the better of her desire to not talk to anyone, Guru Clef looked up from whatever he was staring at on his desk.
“Umi? Did you need something?” She took that as an invitation. The door shut behind her of its own (or Clef's) accord.
“No,” she trailed off.
“Couldn't sleep?” Clef smiled sympathetically. Umi shook her head.
“I had a bad dream.”
He immediately looked concerned. The light in the room brightened, chasing the shadows out of the corners.
“Are you alright?”
“I'm fine,” she said, just a little shakily. “Just a little freaked out.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked gently. In the brighter light, Umi could see the fading red mark on his cheekbone where he had rested his head against his hand. It made him seem ordinary; not like someone who shot lightning out of his fingertips or summoned enormous flying beasts or conjured furniture out of thin air. An ordinary person whose eyes were too old and too sad for his face.
“No, not right now. Um...can I stay for a bit? I won't bother you. I can't go back to sleep yet, and I don't really want to be by myself.” Her hands twisted in the hem of her blouse. “I promise I'll be quiet?” she offered, trying to sweeten the deal.
“Of course, make yourself comfortable.” He gestured broadly over the top of the desk.
“Thanks.” She smiled gratefully and folded herself into an armchair, slid out of her shoes, and tucked her feet under her. Clef returned his attention to the thick pile of papers on his desk.
Unwilling to let her mind wander, Umi turned her attention to the room around her.
Cephiro had offices.
There was the desk where Clef sat, working, and a sitting area where Umi had settled herself. There was a second armchair opposite the one she had claimed, and a sofa, of all things, clustered around what would be a coffee table on Earth. She supposed it would be nicer to have informal meetings here instead of on opposite sides of the paper-strewn desk. Shelves crammed with books and scrolls took up most of the wall space. There were drawn curtains behind the desk where Clef sat working, probably hiding windows and the depressing view. One of the few bare spaces on the wall framed a large map, presumably of Cephiro, covered in annotations and concentric, irregular lines. It was hard to tell from a distance, but Umi guessed that each time a piece of the land fell away, Clef noted it on the map in his office. Or maybe it was enchanted to mark the new borders on its own.
The desk was...not all that different from her father's at home. There were no family pictures propped in frames at the corners, not much of any decoration at all. There were tightly-rolled scrolls in addition to the books, and Clef appeared to be using a quill instead of a pen, but other than that, her father could have walked in here and made himself at home. Her mother could have brought him tea; stood behind his chair and stolen a kiss when Papa brought work home.
“Umi, you're shaking. Are you unwell? Is it cold in here?”Umi jerked out of her thoughts.
“No,” she hadn't realized she was shaking again.
Clef got up from his desk and crossed the room to the sofa, one arm outstretched toward his staff propped against the desk. The largest gem glowed to life and something flew into his waiting hand. He gave it a deliberate shake and it unfurled into a knitted blanket. When he offered it to Umi, she was surprised to find it was pleasantly warm. Clef then turned his attention to the kettle on a sideboard while Umi hugged the blanket to her stomach. The silence between them was broken by the sound of clinking china and the quiet drone of water heating to a boil.
“What do you know about Eterna?” she asked once she felt she had some control over her voice, suddenly curious to know what he had held back. To his credit, Clef seemed unperturbed by this particular question.
“Less than you do, I suspect,” he said without turning around. “The Spring of Eterna is intimately tied to the Legend of the Magic Knights. The Knights are meant to find Eterna, where they must face a trial to prove they are worthy of the mineral Escudo,” he said as if he were reciting from a text. He handed a cup of tea to Umi, then sat on the sofa, an empty cushion between him and her armchair, and set his own tea on the low table. “There is no record of the nature of the trial in Cephiro.”
“I guess we don't tend to stick around,” Umi quipped.
“No,” said Clef.
Umi sipped her tea. Clef watched the steam rise from his cup.
She liked that he didn't pry.
“Have you ever seen Eterna?”
“I have.” Annoyance flashed through Umi, followed quickly by a sense of how ridiculous that was.
“You could have warned me it was weird.” There was no bite in her voice, but it fell short of the light teasing she was aiming for.
Clef smiled ruefully, but neither replied nor turned to face Umi.
He should know what happened, she thought. He needs to know. In case...
“Hikaru's the one who figured it out. She chased Mokona up some rocks and saw it from above. Mokona jumped in first and that's what convinced us it was water. We jumped in together from above. We kept sinking, and then the current swept us apart. It's not a spring all the way down. Not water, I mean. But I was alone when I opened my eyes, and I could breathe.”
Clef was looking at her now, expression carefully blank, but otherwise he hadn't moved. Umi looked away and into her tea. She had to tell him, but she didn't want to watch.
“I saw my parents.
“I thought I was dreaming.
“They...attacked me with Magic. My parents don't know magic. Obviously. But it hurt, and I was bleeding, and that's when I knew it wasn't a dream. I had to fight back with magic, but I didn't really want to hurt them, so it didn't do anything.” Umi tried to swallow the anxious lump in her throat. She took another drink of tea.
“I saw Princess Emeraude.” She heard Clef inhale sharply, but she didn't look up from the reflection in her teacup. “She said that these weren't my parents, and then disappeared. I discovered a new spell and used it on...whatever those things were. After they were gone, I saw the Escudo. I touched it, and then my armor changed and I guess the Escudo brought the three of us back to the surface.”
Umi breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly, watching the ripples disrupt her reflection in the tea. She pressed her fingers into the cup.
“So that was Eterna,” she said.
“In my dream, Princess Emeraude didn't come, and I couldn't...defeat my own parents." She swallowed around the returning lump in her throat. “I just couldn't do it.” Her voice cracked. She bit the inside of her cheek and breathed in and out deliberately to regain control of herself. “I remember reading somewhere that you wake up from a dream before you die, but I guess it doesn't always work like that.” She glanced up from her tea, finally. Clef's expression was carefully blank.
“No," he said. Umi didn't think she heard any pity in his tone, and for that she was glad. “One doesn't always.”
“So...I had that one tonight. In the other version, Princess Emeraude does come, and I...defeat my own parents and get the Escudo. Only it's...real. I...” Umi had to think quickly of how to phrase the next part. “I...become a Magic Knight, and when I get back to Tokyo,” She took a shaky breath. “They're dead.”
Clef turned back to his own untouched tea. “I'm sorry.”
Umi took a long drink of tea. She had stopped shaking finally. “I can't decide which one I hate more.”
Clef said nothing.
“Please don't tell anyone.” Umi almost winced at the pleading in her voice, but she suddenly couldn't bear the thought of anyone else knowing. Clef looked at her, puzzlement on his face. “I mean, I already told Hikaru and Fuu what my trial was. I just...haven't told them that I'm having nightmares about it.
“Of course.” He nodded, but Umi pressed on.
“Hikaru probably told Presea about Eterna, and Fuu probably told Ferio, but I haven't told anyone else. Well, you. Just now.” She could feel the heat rising in her face and was thankful for the teacup in her hands that kept her from twisting them up in her skirt like a nervous child.
“No one will hear it from me,” he said solemnly.
Umi supposed that of the relatively few things she knew about Clef, he had already proven his ability to keep secrets.
The teacup was still warm in her hands. She wondered if the spell was tuned to how she liked her tea. She took another drink. It should have tasted like nothing, or like ash, if literature was to be believed, but it was pleasantly herbal instead. Over the rim of her cup, Clef stared intently at something beyond his own tea, still untouched.
She wondered if it tasted like ash to him.
Having shared her burden, she didn't feel lighter inside. Perhaps a bit less tightly coiled, but also guilty that she had shared, that this simple, stupid nightmare was too much for her alone. She drained her cup.
“I should go,” she declared. “Thank you for the tea, and the company.”
“You're welcome,” he replied, with a small smile that did not quite reach his eyes. He stood when she did, in a way that reminded her of men in old fashioned movies, waited while she folded the blanket neatly and gestured the door open for her before he sat down again.
Umi glanced back over her shoulder. Before the door closed completely, she saw Clef lean forward and bury his face in his hands.