"So, are you actually going to stay for more than ten minutes this year, Umi?" Hikaru asked with a grin, sitting with a bounce on the end of the bed that Umi hadn't spent much time in, the last year. "Or are you and Clef going to ignore everyone else and vanish without talking to us again?"
"We were there more than ten minutes! We danced a whole set. Nearly, anyway." Umi stuck her tongue out at her friend, trying to stand still while Caldina went 'hmm' at the way the back of her dress was falling, and went for the pins again.
"You'd best be there more than ten minutes," Caldina muttered. "I'm not going to all this effort just so you can take it off straight away again."
"I didn't take it off straight away last time!" Umi's face was flushing hot, and only the threat of a misplaced pin kept her standing still. "Anyway, wasn't that the whole point of last year's dress anyway? What was left of it after all the 'alterations'. Can I have a little more back on this year's one?"
"Why would you want that? You've got a sexy back." Caldina poked the bare skin between Umi's shoulder blades in emphasis.
Umi sighed. "Well, I'm glad someone thinks so."
She caught the look Hikaru sent Caldina around her, but pretended she hadn't. Neither of them said anything - they didn't have to. Umi had complained enough in the last month that she barely saw Clef anymore, she didn't need to start again. It wasn't like they'd even argued, which would be a half-decent reason to be apart. No, he was just busy, out and about on Guild business and so run off his feet that she'd taken to sleeping back up here again just so she didn't disturb his sleep too much - she knew she tossed and turned a lot, she'd spent the half year since she moved to Cephiro waking up with Clef pinning her down in his sleep so she would stop kicking him, his arm wrapped about her.
His work was important, she knew that. Everyone involved in the business of running the Guilds was busy right now, in the run up to the financial new year. (Cephiro had three new years. All were an excuse for a party.) She just…
Which was ridiculous when she still saw him most days, however briefly, crossing in the corridor or managing to eat at the same time.
"Have you got him something for the holiday?" Hikaru asked, tone light.
Umi closed her eyes, grimacing. "It's so much harder than when I was in Tokyo! What do I get him from Cephiro? He could make anything he wants!"
"Not everything," Caldina told her, voice firm, finally letting go of Umi's dress and standing up. "And maybe what you need is to wear something that'll have that old man taking you back to his rooms and out of it five minutes after you get to the ball, anyway. So I'll make sure you've got the outfit - as long as you promise you'll take it off carefully then come back for the fireworks at midnight."
Umi sighed. "I doubt I'll need to promise. He's been so exhausted lately…"
Caldina took her by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes, absolutely serious. "Trust me."
Snorting, Umi closed her eyes. "Fine, fine. I promise. If we leave, we'll come back for midnight. Are we done now?"
"You're done - now it's Hikaru's turn," Caldina said, with a grin. "But we'd best get you out of this carefully, I used a whole box of pins to hold the drape in the back…"
Laughing, Umi let them help her out of her dress. At least she was more comfortable in herself than she had been this time last year, nervous about feelings that she didn't expect returned and couldn't get rid of. No, this year? This year she missed Clef, but at least she knew he liked her.
"So," Ferio asked, his voice bright as he came into Clef's office carrying a whole stack of papers. "What are you getting Umi this year? Also, where can I put this?"
Clef looked at the pile of paper, looked at the sheafs of it which already covered his desk, most of the chairs, and half the floor, and had to quash the urge to bash his head on the table. The only reason he refrained was because he had no table free to do it on, and he and Ferio would likely both perish in the flood of work falling from it if he actually tried. He'd had to attach a folding writing surface to the arm of his chair so he could still actually get stuff done. Then the first part of Ferio's sentence sank in, and he dropped his head into his hands anyway.
"I have no idea what to get her, and if I knew, I wouldn't have time to get it," he whimpered. "What even are you bringing me? Why are you bringing me anything, it's two days before festival! What kind of an evil person looks at this room and then adds to it right before festival?"
Ferio pulled a face, looking halfway between guilty and amused. "The kind of person who needs you to review and sign off these postings so I can get all our newly qualified magic-using guards out to their new positions without the mage's guild cursing me for moving mages around without authorisation?"
Rubbing a hand over his face, Clef took a deep breath. "Right. Have all the individuals agreed to these positions?"
"Is there anyone with an advanced qualification or a mastery involved?"
"No? Not that I'm aware of, anyway, it's almost all newly qualified kids who've come off the joint apprenticeship. The last page is the only one with anyone else."
Clef beckoned, and Ferio made his way carefully around the desk, sidling through piles of paper until he was close enough Clef could grab the new one and drop it on top of the new apprenticeship framework for pairu status he was checking over, not caring that it was going to smear damp ink on the bottom of Ferio's request. He flipped to the last page, skimmed the names, and the scrawled a signature on the bottom. "There you go," he said, thrusting it back at Ferio. "All done."
"But- wait, aren't you going to look at any of the rest of it at all?"
"Nope." Clef pushed it against Ferio's hands until Ferio took it. "Newly-qualified mages won't have a current position they're leaving empty, and none of the other names are in the Guild's governing structure. Aside from that, I don't have time to care."
Ferio did wince then, looking about. "How much of this is related to the changes you're putting in place in the Guild? Council hasn't met for a fortnight now so we have a chance to clear our desks before the holiday, so this isn't Council stuff, is it? I could help with that."
Clef turned back to the framework document with a wince. "About half. The other is things I haven't got to because of the restructuring work, so there's a bunch of Council stuff in there, but I've no idea where. It's not meeting for a couple of weeks, so it's not a priority. Just…" he looked around at the towering piles of paper, feeling somewhat ill, and took a shaky breath. "It looks like I'll have to work through the holiday, no matter what I do this just keeps piling up, and I did want to actually spend some time with Umi for once. I feel like I haven't seen her for an age."
Head snapping around, Ferio looked at Clef so sharply that Clef actually winced. "…And the ship from Autozam is due back in a few hours, so Ascot's not about yet. Has anyone else been helping out?"
"The entire top third of the Guild hierarchy is helping with the reorganisation."
"Yes, and giving you more and more to review as they get through their work, from the looks of it," Ferio said, and Clef winced.
"It will be worth it," he protested, though it was getting harder to believe the more impossible it seemed. "Once it's in place-"
Ferio shook his head, cutting Clef off. "But we need to get you to that point without you drowning in paper. Or stress. Right. Okay. When did you last stop to eat?"
"…How important is the 'stopping' part of that question?"
"I ate with Umi the day before yesterday?"
Ferio eyed him. "Does she know about the restructure?"
Clef pulled a face. "It's confidential to the governing levels of Guild hierarchy and the Council. You only know about it as a Council member. So I can't just grab an apprentice to help sort my paper, they're not allowed to read the paper- that includes the Knights, none of them have taken the Iru tests yet, so in Guild terms they're not even qualified."
"Brilliant." Ferio shook his head and then closed his eyes, frowning. Clef watched him, feeling dully hopeful - he desperately didn't want to be sat here with the piles getting higher and higher, but he hadn't managed to think of a way around it - then again, he had very little energy and brainspace left around all this work to sit back and work out how to get through it. Maybe Ferio, who wasn't so lost in the trees he couldn't see the forest they made, could come up with something that might ease it a little?
If he could just have one night off, so he could get to the Ball, that was all he really wanted. One evening off.
"Okay," Ferio said, slowly opening his eyes again. "Can you finish looking through that document in half an hour?"
Clef glanced at it. "…Perhaps?"
"You do that. In half an hour I will be back, with lunch, and a plan. It might even be one that will work." Ferio grinned at him. "We'll haul you out of this, don't worry. Umi'll make us pay if we don't."
Umi sneezed, and blinked, looking about the dining hall. There were a lot of flower arrangements in place already, but nothing that normally made her nose itch.
Setting a tray down next to her, Hikaru patted Umi's shoulder as she dropped into the next seat. "Someone must be talking about you," she said.
"Guess so." She pulled a face at her plate. "It'd better not be Caldina cackling about the dress."
On her other side, Fuu set down a tray, sliding into her seat with a sigh. "I am sorry I missed the fitting," she said. "The course the judiciary are running is very interesting, but very intense."
"Interesting enough you're still considering it as a career?" Umi asked, and Hikaru leaned around her to see Fuu's reply, mouth full already.
Fuu nodded, slowly. "I think it would be a lot of work, to learn the legal system here without a lifetime of cultural background, but… I'm interested, yes. How are your classes going?"
Hikaru and Umi had both signed themselves up with the guild of mages and the Guard for the joint apprenticeship they were running. Right now, they were in the middle of an intensive course run by the Guard. Umi looked at Hikaru, and shrugged. "I don't know. The training's cool, but exhausting, and I miss doing magic more often. We've only got two sessions a week with the mages at the moment, and they're both just theory stuff."
Nodding, Hikaru swallowed. "It's not just us, though. I heard that most of the apprentice classes are focusing on theory at the moment - everyone qualified to teach practical work seems to be caught up in some big Guild project, but no one knows what it is. Lantis won't even confirm there's a project going on, and Ascot's still not back from Autozam so I can't ask him."
Fuu frowned, and then looked at Umi. "Has Clef said anything to you?" she asked, and then glanced behind her to where Umi was pretty certain Hikaru had just shaken her head at Fuu, too late to stop the question.
"Nothing." Umi poked at her food, and sighed. "But I've still barely seen him this week. It's been two months since we've spent even an hour together! Something's definitely up, but… he's not talking about it."
"Ah." Fuu reached over, and rested her hand on Umi's a moment. "Perhaps he can't? But you'll see him at the ball, at least."
"I hope so." Umi poked her food again, head hanging. "I mean, everyone's off for Festival, right? But he hasn't even promised he'll be at the ball, let alone dance with me. So." She jabbed her fork at one piece of vegetable so hard it broke and half of it shot off her plate, skidding across the table. "He's going to make himself ill again, at this rate. And I don't know how to help."
Hikaru bumped her shoulder against Umi's. "You could try Caldina's plan to get him to relax?" she suggested, grinning.
Umi flushed, and snickered. "Wear a sexy dress isn't much of a plan!"
"Perhaps not, but a good distraction is a good start," Fuu mused, staring into space with her lips twitching up. "I'm sure you can find some way to work with it…"
Lunch appeared, as promised, in half an hour - along with both Ferio and 'reinforcements'; he'd brought Presea and Lantis with him, and held up a hand before Clef could protest. "We're all on the Council so know about what's going on, and we've already got everything urgent dealt with before the holiday starts. Plus those two understand magic. So we're dividing up the room, sorting all this paper until it's in groups to be reviewed together, and then we'll work out what we can review and just hand over for a signature."
"You…" Clef began, and stalled, uncertain what he even could say as he looked between the three expectant faces. "…You don't mind-"
"Don't ask foolish questions, of course we don't mind helping out," Presea insisted - and then she nodded at the back of the room. "If you take your shields down a moment, I can throw an extension on for the next couple of days so there's space to work. And have lunch."
"We need permission to mess with the structure of the castle?" Clef replied, weakly, as he watched Lantis set his tray of food aside for the moment and start picking up stacks from the floor to shift them all to one side of the room. Ferio huffed at him.
"Yes, permission from the castellan - that would be me - and two council members. Your castellan says go for it. Any council members in here want to agree?"
"I do," Lantis said, as Presea lifted a hand in agreement, then looked at Clef expectantly.
He took a breath, then reached out with his hand towards the wall, hooking his fingers into the shielding spell and pulling until it snapped. It was a very strange feeling, letting someone else adjust his space, but he made no protest when Presea stepped forward and reached for the back wall. In fact, it was almost a relief, for someone else to step in and take over even one thing, and - as the wall and the windows pressed outwards, Presea doubled the size of the room but nearly trebled the amount of light in it, wrapping windows all around the new balcony-extension and giving it a roof which was glass held by swirling struts that bloomed out from the main tower like petals.
Stepping across into that new space made him feel like he could breathe again - like he wasn't actually going to die a terrible paper-work related death, trapped in the growing stacks of it like he was living one of his worst nightmares. Ferio carried one hefty tray of food around while Lantis brought another, and Presea spun about with a smile to call a table and chairs into being in the centre of that new clean space so they could sit.
"Right," Ferio declared, setting the tray down and then grabbing Clef's shoulder to push him down into the seat facing away from the rest of the study, where all he could see was the table, his friends, and the view of Cephiro about them. "Absolutely no work talk is allowed for the next half an hour while we eat."
"Nope. We are going to enjoy our lunch in a relaxed manner and speak of other things. Pleasant ones. Like this - Lantis, are you planning on dancing with Eagle and Hikaru both at the same time at the ball?"
Lantis raised an eyebrow, sitting down to Clef's left and distributing teacups. "That seems unwise," he said - but, to Clef's growing amusement, there was a faint blush on his cheeks. "Hikaru would be fine, but Eagle doesn't know any of the steps to the Cephiran dances. The NSX hasn't even arrived, so it is doubtful there will be time to teach him much." He waited until Ferio had a mouthful of tea to say, "So we will have to save that for later, in private."
Ferio spluttered, nearly choking on his tea as he tried to inhale it and laugh at the same time. Presea flushed slightly, but shook her head, a grin curling the corner of her lips. "Do you need your rooms expanding? I don't think a dancefloor will fit in the current space," she murmured.
"Ah, no, thank you. I'm sure we will manage." Lantis was flushing. Clef sipped at the tea Ferio had poured him before coming to disaster with his own, and had to smile. But he was the next one Presea turned to.
"Have you a gift for Umi, or would you like a hand with that? Ferio has been to the workshops nearly every day for a month, trying to find the 'perfect thing' for Fuu, so I'm sure he has any number of suggestions."
Waving a hand, Ferio took another - far smaller - sip of his drink before responding to that himself, in a somewhat croaky voice. "It just needs to be absolutely the best thing I can find, okay? This year she's decided to move here and grace my life with her presence, I have to acknowledge it!"
"Or you could do what anyone sensible would, find something nice and then tell her you love her beyond all price and presents," Presea retorted. "Instead of continually returning things for something 'just a bit better'! You've returned five bracelets in three days and now you're onto necklaces, or is it rings yet?"
Ferio touched the ring in his ear self-consciously, more than a hint of a flush on his face. "I already gave her the only really important ring," he muttered, looking down at his plate.
"That's very sweet, I'm sure, but she might like something pretty to go with it sometimes. Just a suggestion."
Swallowing a mouthful of bread and stewed vegetables (and then looking down at his plate in confusion, because he didn't remember taking almost any of the things which now appeared to be on it from the trays in the middle of the table,) Clef cleared his throat and they looked at him. "How about a book on historical wind mages, and how they used their powers?" he suggested. "She's learning to read exceptionally fast, from the apprenticeship reports I see. Something that acknowledges she's moved here and wants to learn more about the culture and history of Cephiro?"
Blinking at him, Ferio nodded slowly. "A book? I - guess, she does love books more than… well, more than shiny jewellery actually. Uh. You wouldn't happen to know of any particular books that would fit that category, I don't suppose?"
"I can give you several titles to look for," Clef promised. Then Presea sighed, and he flinched. "Sorry, Presea. I didn't mean to do you out of a sale…"
"It's fine, we've been waiting for him to realise he was trying to scale the wrong mountain for a week - give it here, Ferio, I can drop it back and cancel the invoice later."
"If all of you knew I was going about it wrong then I'm not sure I'm sorry!" Ferio declared, pulling a face even as he got a small box out of his tunic and handed it over to her. "Why didn't you say anything?"
Presea eyed him. "There was a betting pool on how many things you'd have brought back before you realised."
"…Of course there was." Ferio rolled his eyes. "So, Clef, are you going to get Umi something? We can help, if you need someone to run out somewhere."
"Right now, I'd like to gift her my resignation as Guru," Clef said, poking at his food. His remark was greeted with a silence that went on rather too long; he looked up to find all three of them staring at him. "What? I'm not going to. Probably. It's just- I don't know." He rubbed his hands over his face. "The restructure will help. Some. But I've been thinking that for months now, and it's still not done, and I have to get everything finished and in place by tomorrow evening and-"
"Ah! Stop!" Ferio snapped, reaching across to poke Clef on the shoulder. "That's work talk. No work talk at mealtimes."
"Considering my resignation is more anti-work talk, surely," Clef muttered. But he took a breath, and Lantis refilled his cup silently while Ferio's hand stayed on his shoulder.
Presea drank from her own cup, then set it down. "We will get it done, together," she said, firmly. "It will help, and if it does not help enough, you can resign in a few months and hand a more manageable position to your successor with a clear conscience."
Taking a breath, and then another, Clef had to close his eyes. The way she put it, it even sounded reasonable, not the horribly selfish act he was afraid it would be. "What would I even do with myself?" He asked, voice cracking.
Lantis reached out and gripped his arm. "I am sure Umi would have some suggestions," he said, voice perfectly level, face perfectly serious as the rest of them stared at him - then the corner of his mouth twitched, the tiniest give-away, and the room filled with laughter.
"I would like to find her something," Clef admitted, when they were almost sober again. "…Not a book. She keeps telling me it's going to take her a thousand years to read half my library. What I would like more than that is to actually get to the ball and spend some time with her, but the way things are going-"
"Stop right there. I have a plan, remember?" Ferio said. "We're getting through everything that has to be worked through, and we're getting you to that ball with a clear conscience - and you're going to take the day after it off, as well."
"What? No, Ferio, even if we did manage to work flat-out and get the reorganisation finalised, there's so much else - I couldn't take a whole day, not without being so worried about it that I waste the whole thing-"
"The whole day, and it will be fine, because we are a team of highly efficient paperwork defeaters," Ferio declared. "So stop worrying and eat your lunch before it gets cold."
Umi didn't see Clef once before the day of the ball. In fact, not only did she not see him, but several other people had become distinctly illusive. Ferio, for one, though Fuu reported he had come to bed late - twice - and vanished before she even woke up in the mornings. Presea too had suddenly vanished, and though she was seeing a fair amount of Caldina and knew that Ascot had been on the NSX when it eventually arrived, she'd seen Eagle a couple of times, Lantis once, and not a hint of Ascot anywhere.
At least, not until he came charging up to the Knight's suite two hours before the ball was due to start, just as Umi was opening the door to go find Clef and demand to know whether he was planning on turning up tonight or not, her nerves getting the better of her. Ascot skidding to a halt in front of her paused Umi in her tracks, and then he was shoving a note at her, one with her name inked across the outside in a familiar scrawl.
"Hey Umi," Ascot said between gasps for air, grinning at her.
Umi stared at him, bewildered. "What are you - where have you been? What's this? If Clef's cancelling on me with a note I'm going to- I don't even know."
"I've been helping. You should read it." He reached and tapped the note. "Sorry, I have to get going, we're going to make it in time I promise - I'll see you later!" And he was off again, headed back down the tower at breakneck speed.
Staring after him, Umi shook her head. "What's got into everyone this week?" she demanded, but the empty air didn't reply. She looked at the note a moment, then headed back inside and shut the door behind her with a sigh, flopping on one of the sofas before opening it to see what Clef had to say for himself.
Which wasn't much, as it turned out.
'Umi, I'm sorry for the last few months, I promise I will be at the ball tonight but I probably won't be able to find you beforehand and I might be a little late. I'll meet you inside, by the drinks fountains, I promise. -Clef'
She stared at it, not sure whether she was relieved or upset. She'd looked forward to deliberately arriving together, and to seeing his reaction to her dress without onlookers, but at least he was going to come. Hopefully before the last dances were played. He hadn't exactly promised when he was going to show up…
Either way, that meant she should get ready, and this year she was going to do things as thoroughly as she could.
She showered, soaked in the bath until she'd lost some of the jitters, dried herself off and used magic to carefully pull the water from her hair - better than blow-drying it any day. She wrapped herself in a ridiculously soft robe Tarta had sent her when she moved to Cephiro, and headed back to her room to do something rather more intricate with her hair than she'd bothered with last year, a fishtail plait looped into a complicated knot at the base of her neck, so it wouldn't look like she was trying to cover up her bare back.
That took a while, but she was happy with the result. Underwear next - which was lacy and cute and matched the dress, and she'd blushed through the entire process of acquiring it - and then she turned to the dress itself, hung up over the wardrobe door. It was brilliant, summer-sky blue at the base, shading up to a deep evening at the top, hugging her chest and her hips and flaring out from there, a slit coming to mid-thigh on one side which was invisible until she moved. The neckline snaked down her chest to the middle of her ribs, and the sides fell away to a back that was nearly indecently low. The whole of it - and her arms, and chest - was covered over with a sheer layer so fine it was barely visible as more than a shimmer even over her skin, but embroidered with glittering silver stars. It was caught at the wrists with heavy cuffs in solid silver.
Her back stayed bare.
She added shoes and a pair of earrings which matched the blue at the bottom of the dress, then sat down at her dresser a final time, and picked up one last thing - the bottle of perfume her mother had given her, when she moved.
Umi didn't wear any scent most of the time, but this was a special occasion, and it seemed to be calling for all the weapons she could bring to it. The perfume was nothing her mother had ever worn; it was sharp and clear and deep at the same time, a tang of ozone and a peppery bite running through something like resin, or incense, or both. In the bottle, it barely worked, a harsh metallic note fighting all the others. On her skin, it warmed to something that smelt like her magic on a rainy day.
A dab went on each wrist, another touch behind each ear, and one at her throat.
She took a breath, the scent rising subtly about her as it warmed, and looked at herself one last time in the mirror.
"You'll do," she said, and stuck her tongue out at herself before heading through to see if Hikaru and Fuu were ready, and wanted to go down together.
"We aren't going to finish in time," Clef said, with half an hour left until the ball opened, staring at the pile of paper they had to get through before then. "We can't."
"We can, and we will," Ferio insisted, thrusting another organisational chart in front of him. "That one makes sense. Sign it."
Clef obeyed, his fingers stained with ink beyond all fixing by now. "But-"
He was cut off by the door bursting open, Ascot charging through with his chest heaving, face bright red. "Umi's got the note," he said, "and the last set of documents are lodged with the Clerks. What next?"
"These to building control," Ferio said, shoving a handful of paper at Ascot. "Shove them in my in-tray. I've already signed them off, so they'll register as soon as they hit my desk."
"Got it." Ascot vanished again, and Clef sat there, watching the door close, feeling horrendously guilty.
"You should all be getting ready by now. I can't ruin your own evenings along with mine," he protested, even as Lantis dropped a set of files in front of him, each marked with a ribbon where he needed to sign. "There's just too much-"
"There is not," Presea said, firmly. "We're almost there. You just need to believe in us."
Lantis patted him on the shoulder. "More than you believe in paperwork," he added.
Clef rubbed his face hard, rolled his shoulders, and picked up his pen again. "Okay. What's next?"
The dancing started, and Clef wasn't there.
Admittedly, the ballroom wasn't full yet - people would keep trickling in over the next few hours. Even Ferio and Lantis hadn't shown up yet, so Hikaru and Fuu were keeping her company, chatting to people they knew. There were a lot more of them this year than last.
Umi couldn't stop watching the door. He'd promised. He was going to come.
He had to. She was beyond worrying about him, after this last month.
And when he did, she was going to drag the truth of whatever was going on out of him if it was the last thing she did.
"Done," Presea declared, flopping tiredly back in her chair.
Clef looked up from where he'd just signed his name yet again, to find the table clear in front of him. It was such a confusing sight he just stared at it for a moment, frowning slightly. If he could just find what he needed to get through now - how was he ever going to finish if he couldn't find the next paper? And what did she mean, done?
"Done?" Ferio echoed, dropping down beside Clef. "Really and truly?"
"Done," Lantis agreed, tying off the knot which bound the final record of all the Guild changes they'd just changed. He handed the package over to Clef. "Congratulations. The Guild of Mages has officially been restructured. Come midnight, it will be enacted."
They sat there staring at each other for a long minute. The record was heavy on Clef's hands, light on his heart, and holding it he felt… dizzy. "Thank you," he said, softly. "I can't- there aren't words for this. Thank you."
Ascot was the first of them to stir, looking up from where he'd flopped down on the floor after charging around the castle for hours. "Clothes," he said. Everyone stared at him, and he flushed. "If we made it in time, then - clothes. For the ball."
Ferio blinked, then turned to Clef, frowning. "He's right. Do you have anything reasonable to wear?"
"I have clothes?" Clef said, wincing when he sounded uncertain about it. "I mean, of course I do, I, um." He realised, slowly, that he'd never actually got anything new made up in the last year, so of clothes he could wear suitable for the evening he had the same choice he'd had last time; the blue he'd worn, or the soft silver-grey he'd decided against.
Well, at least he didn't have a decision to make.
"I have clothes," he said, with more force behind it.
"Get them on, then," Ferio said, standing up and reaching a hand out to pull Clef to his feet.
"Don't you need to go get your own things on now?"
"Not until I've seen you all the way to the doors of the Ballroom," Ferio told him, cheerfully. "As that was the entire goal of this exercise. Well, that and getting the reform in before you have to wait sadly a whole year and all of us have to deal with it. Come on, get changed."
Clef shook his head. "I don't think I'm even capable of standing up long enough to dance," he muttered, but everyone in the room either shook their head or waved their hands for him to get on with it. So he reached for his power and the outfit he knew was safe in his wardrobe, making himself concentrate until soft silver-shot grey wrapped about him.
"That'll do," Ferio declared, grinning. He pulled Clef towards the door, only to pause half-way there. "Wait. Present. Did we ever go sort something for you to give Umi? I mean, you've been ignoring her for a month, failing to get her a gift isn't the right foot to start off on. Especially if you're going to fall asleep on the girl in about ten minutes flat."
"About that," Clef said, slowly. "I had an idea, actually."
The first intermission was being called, and Umi was starting to lose hope when she caught Clef's name being announced, and spun around to see the doors as he came in.
Clef looked - bewildered, almost, too pale and with terrible bruises about his eyes from lack of sleep, but he wasn't wearing his work clothes. And he was here.
Then he spotted her through the crowd, and his expression went through relieved, to happy, then to staring at her dress with wide eyes as she walked closer. By the time she reached him, he seemed entirely lost for words. "Umi," he started, and stalled out, staring at her. "Um."
Umi grinned at him, took his hand, and pulled him straight out of the ballroom into the gardens.
(The soft noise he made when he saw the back of the dress was decidedly gratifying.)
The music faded back as she led them between the hedges, to a small secluded spot where there was a bench under a vine-laden trellis, and she pulled him to the bench with her, sat him down. He still looked slightly dazed as she turned to him, and all she had to do was tilt her head slightly to make him lean in and press a greeting to her lips, so gentle.
"Hi," she said, as he pulled back. "Glad to see you remember who I am, then."
A flicker of amusement ran across his face. "I hope I've got the right person, yes," he murmured. "Umi, I'm sorry, Recently it's just been-"
She kissed him again to cut him off. "Just tell me what's going on," she said, breathless, when she pulled back. He swayed into her instead of away, pressing his nose to the side of her face, inhaling deeply, his nose pressed to her skin. "You vanished, and then, what, the monster in your study ate Presea and Lantis and-"
"Ferio. And Ascot. Yes."
Another kiss, sweet and deep. His hand was on her knee - and she wriggled closer to him so the slit in her skirts slid open, left his hand on bare skin. "What's happening, Clef? If something's wrong-"
"I got you something. For the festival," Clef blurted, pulling back slightly. "Well, I have something to give you for the festival, anyway." And he twisted his hand, and in it appeared… his ring?"
"Clef?" Umi stared at it. "What are you - why are you giving me your ring? Why aren't you wearing it?"
"Well, it's not mine, not really, not anymore." He grinned, the sight startling. "This ring is meant to be worn by the person who is the head of the Guild of Mages. It's a sign of their sole authority over the Guild."
Umi looked between him and the ring. "You can't mean to give it to me, then. It's yours, Clef. You're the head of the Guild-"
"Not precisely," he said, beaming tiredly at her. "Not anymore."
"It was too much." He looked down at the ring as it lay on the palm of his hand. "Running the whole Guild that way, making all the decisions? It was too much for anyone, but especially if they wanted to have a life outside of their work. As it turns out… I would like to have a life outside of my work." He glanced at her, almost shyly. "I would like very much to have time to actually spend with someone I love. So, we've restructured the Guild."
Taking a deep breath, Umi stared at him. "What?"
"There's a Council, now, a bit like the one overseeing Cephiro. The Guru chairs it, but the decisions - the work - is split among twelve people." He pressed the ring into her hand, and wrapped her fingers about it. "We had to get all the legal work through and submitted before this evening - some laws can only be brought into being in the gap between one year and the next, or other things. And tonight is the financial and legal new year. So… that's what I want to give you. My ring. And me. If you're not so fed up by now that you'd rather end things-"
Umi slid it onto her hand and wrapped her arms about his shoulders, clambered into his lap, and held him tight as she kissed him as hard as she could.
After so many nights of a few snatched hours of fitful sleep, the relief of getting everything he'd needed to done on time, Clef had rather thought he might manage to stay awake long enough to give Umi a ring and a promise and then he would have to excuse himself to bed. He didn't want to drag her away from the festivities to watch him collapse into blessed unconsciousness.
He hadn't factored in that dress, which had startled him awake in more ways than one. Nor Umi holding him like this, mouth pressed hot and sweet to his, the muscles in her back flexing slightly under his hands as she pulled him even closer.
"I take it you approve?" He asked, when she pulled her mouth from his to press it to his neck instead. "I'm sorry I couldn't - ah! Uh- tell you, what I was- Umi-"
"You're tired, right?" Umi pulled back far enough to look at him, eyes dark and intent on his face. "I think we should go to bed. Now."
"Will still be here in an hour. Or two." She wriggled in closer, sliding her hands up his chest. "But Caldina will probably murder me if I get anything on this dress."
Clef's breath caught in his chest at that thought, at her just pressing him down on the bench and sweeping her skirts aside, and- "It would be a pity," he said, voice slightly strangled. "It's a very inspiring dress." He blinked. "Uh. Impressive. It's very impressive."
"Inspiring's good, too," she told him with a laugh, and kissed him again.
His hands slid up her legs as she sat astride him, the silken cloth of her skirts whispering over the back of his arms. She was getting to work on the fastenings of his top, pulling the cloth aside so she could get her lips on his throat. He let his head fall back, eyes closing, breath coming faster. "I should point out," he managed, as she headed further down, "I'm too tired to transport us anywhere. We'll have to walk. So the clothes probably need to stay on, at least mostly?"
Umi made a disappointed noise. "Too far. You'll remember you're more exhausted than excited if we walk all that way."
That was… probably true.
Then Umi stilled under his hands, and he opened his eyes to look at her, suddenly suspicious. "You just had a thought."
"Well," Umi said, slowly. "I can't transport us - not without accidentally dumping us in Tokyo, and not through the shields on our bedroom. But I do know how to cast a shield to keep people away for a while… and the ground isn't that hard…"
Clef stared at her, his throat suddenly dry. "Yes it is?" he tried, and sounded monumentally unconvinced by his own statement.
Umi's smile was more of a smirk than a grin, the corners of her mouth turning up in a decidedly smug fashion. "And the old Guild laws are still in place until, what, midnight tonight? Technically? So if I'm wearing this ring right now, that means I'm in charge." She held up her hand, the light glinting off the stone in his ring.
He couldn't describe the noise he made as anything other than wanting at that image - Umi in his ring and nothing else, dress discarded, pressing him to the soft grass with the stars above them and-
"Yes," Umi breathed against his mouth. "I think that'll work. Don't you?"
Much later, Umi stirred where she lay curled about Clef, the two of them wrapped in a cloak he'd managed to summon for them when the breeze on overheated skin got a bit much. He made a quiet, protesting sound and pressed his head more firmly against her shoulder, eyes firmly closed.
Umi reached down to brush the mess of his fringe back from his face, the ring - his ring - gleaming on her finger in the starlight, and pressed a soft kiss to his cheekbone. "Hey. We can't stay here all night, you know."
"Why not?" Clef slurred, his arm shifting higher on her side.
She dropped another light kiss on his ear, happiness spilling warmth through her chest. She'd missed him so much. Missed this - not just the sex, but the hour afterwards where he was so relaxed. "Well, I can hold a shield when I'm drowsing, but I can't do it in my sleep yet. If we're here all night we'll probably scandalise the gardeners horribly in the morning."
"I'm not sure I care," he murmured, but his eyes did open far enough he could look up at her. "Hi."
"Hi yourself," she laughed, and leaned in to kiss him just because she could. His hand slid up her back and into the tangled spill of her hair, out of its knot and the braid almost entirely undone, and the kiss shuddered into something deeper as he woke below her touch.
By the time she pulled back, his eyes were open properly, though he still looked like he could fall back to sleep any moment.
"Come on," she said, untangling herself before she gave in to temptation and didn't. "It must be getting close to midnight, and I did tell Caldina I'd be there to see the fireworks this year - if we head back now, we can watch them, then head on to sleep. In a real bed. With pillows, and sheets, and all that nice stuff."
They helped each other back into their clothes, and Clef ran his fingers through her hair until it was hanging free enough he could put it into a simple braid for her, and if they both looked decidedly dishevelled when the got back to the ballroom - well, so did the dancers. A few people raised eyebrows at them, (Caldina firmly included,) but no one said anything. And when midnight came and the fireworks burst in the sky above the gardens, Clef took a deep breath as he leaned against her back, arms about her waist.
"And now it's law," he murmured, softly.
Umi turned in his arms and kissed him, not caring about the crowd - they were all looking up at the sky, anyway, and then pulled him away, off to their rooms, and a good night's sleep - and, in the morning, a new start.