Clef was not only awake far earlier than usual for a Sunday, but he was dressed, had just finished the washing up, and was trying to get as much dust off the bookcases as he could before vacuuming the carpet. Normally, he did his household chores piecemeal through the week, but he'd been caught up with a project at work the past fortnight and things had piled up.
The grubbiness of his flat could have been ignored if he wasn't expecting a guest.
Only last week, Umi had invited him out to Tokyo for New Year, and Clef had explained to her - once again - that he needed more than two weeks notice to sort enough time off work to make it a worthwhile visit, especially when it would mean getting time off over the holidays.
During the call, he made some comment about needing to visit his family in Cambridge, but he didn't think he'd manage it for Hanukkah even though it coincided with the Christmas lull in work at the office, for the same reason he couldn't drop everything and fly half-way across the world to spend time with Umi every time she asked. Not to mention, the trains were chaos this time year. He understood why they carried out maintenance between Christmas and New Year, but it still made travel bothersome. Then one thing led to another, and Umi invited herself to stay with him for Hanukkah.
"I'm not sure which plane I'll be able to get," Umi said. The sound of her keyboard clicked away in the background of the call. "But, I'll send you an email when I board, so you'll know when to expect me."
"Aeroplanes aren't like taxis. You can't just show up and take the first one you get to."
"Oh, don't worry about it. I'll see you next Sunday sometime," she'd said, before ending the call.
Clef had been left staring at his phone, and then around at his flat. That had barely given him a week to get things sorted - doing some food shopping being the highest priority, then cleaning up. As he still had to go to work all week, the last would probably be left to the last minute.
He'd only just finished off on the dusting and was about to switch on the vacuum when the doorbell rang.
"I thought you weren't going to make the early flight," Clef said, opening the door. Only it wasn't Umi; Emeraude and Ferio were standing in the hallway - each of them carrying an overnight bag. "What are you doing here?"
"Is that any way to greet your favourite cousins?" Ferio rolled his eyes and pushed in past Clef. "We did call, you just didn't answer."
"I don't have any notifications," Clef argued, pulling his phone out of his pocket - still nothing since Umi's last message. He stepped aside to let Emeraude through and shut the door behind them.
"We called the landline," Emeraude said. She looked from Clef to the soapy clothes in the washing machine and then over at the vacuum as she made her way into the living room. "I take it you're waiting for someone else? You wouldn't normally hoover just for us."
"Landline's been out for over a week," Clef told them, crossing his arms. "Doesn't Auntie have my mobile number?"
"Not in the address book, but maybe it's on the fridge. She did have the door code for the building, which was helpful," Ferio said, dropping his bag on the floor and flopping onto the sofa. "Our journey was awful, by the way. We ended up on a bus replacement service for more than half of it."
"Well, I don't really care, seeing as I didn't invite you."
"But who did you invite?" Emeraude asked, the corner of her mouth turning up into a conspiratorial grin.
"No one, actually," Clef said primly, crossing his arms. "You didn't answer my question, why are you here?"
"Can't we just visit our dear cousin for the holiday without being questioned like criminals?" Ferio asked.
Emeraude laughed setting her bag down as she sat in the little armchair. "We came to the city to buy Christmas presents for our boyfriends."
"Ascot is not my boyfriend!" Ferio flailed a hand at her.
"And yet you're going to buy him a gift for a holiday you don't even celebrate?" Emeraude pulled a face at her brother. "Him, but none of your other friends?"
"Because he does, and I - Oh, shut up!"
Shaking his head, Clef went to put the kettle on, wondering if he'd actually gotten any sweet snacks when he'd done the shopping.
The next two hours didn't pass particularly quickly. Clef did manage to get the vacuuming done and the washing switched over to a drying cycle. Somewhere in the middle of that, he got a message saying Umi had made it through customs and was headed out to find a taxi, with an excessive number of exclamation marks on the end.
When he was asked about his 'mysterious guest' for the fifth time, Clef finally gave in enough to say, "Someone I met in Japan." It had been a few years now since he'd studied abroad, but he and Umi had kept in constant contact since then. As his cousins seemed to be settling in and he was failing to tell them to go away, they were going to meet her soon enough, but he still felt strangely reluctant to tell them about Umi. They might think- things.
They had heard about Umi. His wandering back to Japan on holiday several times made that inevitable. But he hadn't said much beyond his having a friend who he kept in touch with, who was in a similar industry, so they still had things to talk about.
"This time of year?" Ferio said, looking out the window at the grey sky. "The weather's horrible."
Clef just shrugged and drank his tea, finally sitting down, and as if on cue the clouds opened and rain started to pour down.
When the doorbell rang again a little later, Clef abandoned his mug and leapt to his feet to answer it.
Umi was standing there, looking slightly damp and holding out a brochure of some sort that she thrust into Clef's hands as she walked in, saying in Japanese, "Have you seen the new apartment building that's going up a few roads over? It looks like it's going to be really nice when they're finished with it. " She walked in a few steps and then stopped when she saw Ferio and Emeraude. "Who are they?"
"My cousins," Clef answered in Japanese. "They turned up unannounced. Sorry."
"That's okay. I'd like to meet them." Switching to English, Umi walked into the room with a smile far too bright and happy for someone who'd just been on a thirteen hour flight. "Hi. I'm Ryuuzaki Umi - or I guess Umi Ryuuzaki."
"I'm Emeraude DeCefiro, and this is my brother, Ferio."
"Uh, yeah, hi," Ferio stammered with a surprised look at Clef.
Clef flushed. It wasn't his fault if Ferio had assumed he meant a guy. Or at least someone less like Umi.
"A pleasure to finally meet you both," Umi said with a satisfied nod. She took a seat in the armchair when Emeraude offered it.
After collecting Umi's suitcase from the hallway and shutting the door, Clef put the kettle back on and flicked through the brochure Umi had given him. It was for some sort of luxury flats. She'd been pressuring him to get a better place since she'd started visiting three years ago, but these were just - too much.
Mug in one hand, Clef walked back out of the kitchen and shook the brochure at her, dropping back into Japanese automatically. "How exactly do you expect me to afford something like this on my salary?"
"I'd buy it for you, of course." Umi reached out for her drink. "You need a place with a proper bath in it, not just that little shower cubicle."
"You are not buying me a flat. I'm not your pet." He shook the paper again.
Ferio blinked at the two of them. "Um, sorry, I'm pretty sure that whatever you just said wasn't directed at us, but… I don't really know any Japanese."
"Sorry," Clef lied, in English. He wasn't sorry that Ferio hadn't understood that.
"So how did you two meet?" Emeraude asked.
"University bookstore," Umi said. "I saw this cute foreigner looking very confused with a list of required books, so I helped him."
"Then you insisted I give you my email address." Clef tugged the big cushion out from behind Ferio and dropped it on the floor to sit on. There was probably enough room on the sofa for him to fit, but he really didn't want to be squeezed in that tightly.
"I asked. Politely, even," Umi countered.
"About as well as you ask to visit." Clef rolled his eyes and picked up his tea. "You just tell me you're coming to stay with me. You never ask."
"How else am I supposed to see you? You refuse to move back to Japan."
"What would I do in Japan?"
"I don't know." Umi shrugged. "What do you do here?"
She knew exactly what his job entailed since she'd listened to him vent about it at least once a week. It was just an old, comfortable argument they'd had dozens of times in the past few years. Clef fell back into it easily, but he stopped and sat up straighter when he noticed the expression on Emeraude's face, switching the conversation to something bland. "How was your flight?"
"Not terrible, and I guess the food was decent this time," Umi said with a shrug. She glanced up at the little clock on the bookcase. "What did you have planned for lunch? I'm hungry."
"Food! Yes." Ferio perked up at that. "What are we doing for lunch, Clef?"
Before Umi could decide to pull out a phone to find the nearest delivery place that met her standards, Clef slipped into the kitchen and pulled out the rice he'd cooked earlier. It was meant for the two of them, but it could be stretched with some extra vegetables to feed his cousins.
He didn't mind Umi paying for meals from time to time, but he did like to actually be her host when she visited even if those visits were almost always last-minute affairs. While his wallet didn't stretch to cover the sort of restaurants she tended to prefer, he was perfectly capable of creating nice meals in his own kitchen within his budget.
The meal Clef had planned for this afternoon was just comfort food he knew Umi liked because after he'd been on one of those painfully long flights, all he wanted was something simple to eat and to sleep for a week. Umi, on the other hand, looked practically fresh and happy every time she arrived - sometimes he wondered if she were even human, it was so unnerving - but that was probably just because she flew first-class, not economy. She still turned up hungry every time.
Clef's flat was not exactly set up to entertain more than one guest at a time. His actual dining area consisted of the countertop of the peninsula that divided the kitchen from the rest of the main room, and it only had two chairs. He did, thankfully, own four full-sized plates, and the four of them could fit comfortably on the floor sat around the coffee table.
While lunch definitely pleased Umi, it startled Ferio. He poked at his plate with a fork and stared up at Clef. "What is it?"
"Omurice," Clef said, repeating himself.
"Yeah, you said that," Ferio poked it again. "But what's that when it's at home?"
"It's an omelet on rice, you numpty," Emeraude said, rolling her eyes at him. She turned to Clef. "It's really nice. Thank you."
"Glad someone appreciates it," Clef said."
Umi looked up, mouth full as she said, "Hey! I like it."
"Yeah, but you don't count," Ferio said. "He made it for you. We just have to accept what's offered, I guess."
"That's what comes of showing up uninvited and without warning," Clef told him with a wave of his fork.
When lunch was finished, Umi helped Clef gather the plates and offered to do the washing up. Ferio flopped back on the sofa with his phone, playing some game with sound effects that Emeraude kept telling him to turn off.
"You should have a look at those flats," Umi said quietly in Japanese as she started the water in the sink.
Clef shook his head. "We'll talk about it after they leave."
They were just drying up when Ferio groaned. "Ah, man. I ran out of credit." He sat up and called out to Clef, "Hey, what's your wifi password?"
"Clef's phone's out, remember," Emeraude said.
Umi laughed, drying off her hands before heading back to the living room. "Well, Clef doesn't have an internet connection at home even when the phone line is working."
"How can you survive like that?" Ferio asked, eyes wide with horror. "What do you do with your free time?"
"I read." Clef waved a hand at his wall of bookcases.
Umi retrieved her handbag from the chair and dug out a little white box and tossed it at Ferio. "Press the button on the top, when the light goes green, put in the password on the bottom."
"Oh! Nice!" Ferio said.
Clef sighed at Umi. "Did you really bring a portable hotspot?"
"Well, it's not like I can take off work at a moment's notice," Umi said, flicking her hair behind her as she dropped into the armchair. "I need some way to connect to the office besides my phone."
Throwing the tea towel at her - and missing by a good three feet - Clef said, "You're a brat, you know that?"
"You tell me all the time." Umi just grinned at him.
It was well past three and the sun was getting low outside when Emeraude got up and checked her bag, and then looked through it again. "Did you pick up the candles Mum told us to bring?" she asked Ferio.
Ferio wasn't paying attention, and Umi shot a confused look at Clef, who just shrugged.
"Ferio!" Emeraude snapped, and her brother finally looked up. "The candles. Did you pick them up?"
"What candles?" Ferio blinked at her.
"The Hanukkah candles Mum told us to bring."
The tips of Ferio's ears went red just moments before his face. "I thought you had them."
"I have candles," Clef admitted.
"Oh good. I guess that makes sense. If you didn't know we were coming with some, you'd have to go out and get some."
Clef sighed and stood up. He hadn't needed to go out and purchase any candles. He'd had plenty left over from the previous holidays of non-use. His hanukkiah had sat unused on the bookcase for years, as nothing more than decoration, really. The only thing that ever got regular use was the mezuzah by the door - yet another gift from his aunt when he'd bought the flat.
He walked back to the bedroom and pulled a box out from under the bed and carried it back to the sitting room.
It was embarrassing to open the box in front of his cousins, because it was admitting how many years he'd not only missed a night, but simply hadn't observed the holiday at all.
"Oh, Clef!" Emeraude said at the sight of the near half dozen boxes of barely touched candles.
Ferio shrugged. "I guess that gives you options," he said with a laugh. "Anyway, Umi's your guest, so she should get the first night."
Umi shook her head. "I don't know anything about this. I just figured if Clef wouldn't come to me for New Year, I'd come to London for Hanukkah, and he could explain when I got here."
"You wouldn't go visit your girlfriend for New Year?" Emeraude asked, the accusation in her voice far too reminiscent of his aunt.
Clef didn't even get a chance to correct Emeraude's assumption before Umi let out a melodramatic sigh, and said: "Well, I did ask a little too late for him to get a decent amount of time off apparently."
"We can't all work remotely for several weeks without notice," Clef agreed, eyeing the portable hotspot sat on the coffee table. One of those would undoubtedly make it easier if he did go abroad. Maybe he could mention getting one to his manager? It would be nice if he could spend a decent amount of time in Japan again, he missed it. Most of his work could probably be done remotely…
He still wasn't tearing off last minute to stay with Umi for the new year. And if he could work from Tokyo, they would expect him to be able to work from his flat, too.
Looking through the box, Umi pulled out a package of hand-dipped purple candles with gold veining that Auntie had sent last year. Clef had managed maybe two nights last year, but time and other things had gotten in the way. Also, they were just so nice, it almost felt wrong to burn them. Umi obviously had no problem with the idea of lighting them because she was following Emeraude's instructions for placing them in the hanukkiah.
Clef talked Umi through lighting the candles while he flipped through the slightly-battered antique prayer book. With him guiding her, Umi read out the English translation before Clef followed behind with the Hebrew. She managed to follow along with what he was saying well enough, even if the decades-old, penciled-in transliteration was a little smudged. When they were done, Umi sat back, knees folded neatly beneath her, smiling at the lights.
Ferio and Emeraude spent a good part of the next hour teaching Umi all the silly Hanukkah songs they'd learned from years of Hebrew school.
Once the candles had burnt out, Clef headed back into the kitchen. It was earlier than he usually cooked dinner, but Umi was almost always ravenous the day after travelling and Ferio was already complaining that he was hungry too.
"Are you still a vegetarian?" he called out to Emeraude.
She shot back, "Is the pope still Catholic?"
"Depends which pope and who you ask," Clef said and opened a cupboard to dig out the tin of lentils shoved in the back corner.
There was a certain kind of mindfulness in cooking a recipe he knew well, which was why he often disappeared to the kitchen to help with meal preparations when his aunt's house was too full of people over the holidays. Even here, there was a little bit of calm, even if the only thing separating him from his cousins' chatter was the little peninsula. He'd started chopping vegetables when Umi came to sit in one of the chairs like she usually did when he was cooking for her.
"What are you cooking?" she asked in quiet Japanese.
"Guess." Clef grinned as he pulled out the package of spaghetti and the tins of tomatoes.
"I knew it!" Umi said. "You do love me."
She smiled so brightly it made Clef's chest feel light and he could only smile back before beaming down at the onion he was dicing. It was one of Umi's favourite meals. Sure, his pasta sauce wasn't the simmered-for-hour perfection that you got from certain restaurants, but it was tasty and they both enjoyed it almost every time Umi came to visit.
His cousins definitely seemed to like it. Emeraude was impressed by his impromptu use of lentils instead of mince for her portion even if it was the easiest thing to just save a portion of sauce for her when he'd poured the rest over the browned meat in the second pot, but it had made him all the more glad he'd invested in the portable hot top so he could cook with three pots when his two-burner hob wasn't enough, or that wouldn't have been nearly as simple.
With garlic bread and a salad, it was a nice meal.
Clef had hoped to save some of the nice loaf of bread for tomorrow's breakfast, but Ferio was still just as much of a bottomless pit as he always had been. He sighed, foreseeing his food for the week running out in about two days.
Clef didn't think much of it when Umi said she was going to bed. With a pat on Clef's shoulder, Umi bid everyone goodnight and disappeared into the little alcove made up of the doorways to the bedroom, bathroom, and linen cupboard, and Clef sat on the floor across from his cousins while Ferio regaled them with one of his many recent misadventures.
It wasn't until they were unfolding the sofa bed later that Clef even realised what had happened. Everyone else had silently agreed sleeping arrangements without him even knowing. Not only that, but they were the sort of sleeping arrangements that went with the assumption Umi was his girlfriend, not just a friend.
"Can't I sleep with you?" Ferio complained. "Your carpet isn't that soft, and the floor's cold."
"You can't kick someone out of their own bed," Emeraude scolded him. "And you don't complain about sleeping on the floor when you stay with Ascot."
"How would you know if I sleep on the floor? You're not there."
Emeraude crossed her arms, "What, you're sharing his bed?"
"He has a trundle bed!"
Without a word, Clef walked back to the linen cupboard and pulled out the storage bag on the top shelf, presenting it to Ferio. "A present," he said. "It's not the thickest thing, and it probably reeks of lavender, but it should solve the problem."
When he'd fetched a sheet and another duvet, Ferio was almost cackling in amusement at the futon, and he laughed out loud when presented with the spaceship sheet set that went with it.
The futon had been a last-minute purchase when Clef moved into this flat and Umi immediately invited herself over to stay for two weeks, as it was the summer holiday for her. She'd slept on it one night before insisting she buy him a sofa bed - even arranging to have it delivered the same day, once she'd found one she liked. She also bought him two sets of high-quality bedding - pillows and all - to replace Clef's bargain-bin poly-cotton. He'd spent most of his money on the flat, and a respectable mattress and bed seemed the most important use of what spare funds he had left over. He hadn't expected to have to entertain a mere week after moving in.
But letting Umi help him furnish the rest of his flat had been a lot of fun.
Clef didn't mind her spending her money on him if she also benefited from the purchase. And a sofa bed and bookcases went a long way toward making the space acceptable for guests.
Leaving his cousins most of the extra blankets while they sorted out their beds - his flat got a bit cold overnight, even with the heavy curtains over the french doors to the balcony - Clef took a few with him into the bedroom, in case Umi got cold in the night.
He walked into the darkened room and just stood a moment staring at Umi in the light from the open door. She'd curled up to sleep on the right side of the bed, leaving the left, the side where his alarm clock and last night's water glass sat, free for him. Quietly as he could, Clef retrieved some pyjamas and slipped out to the bathroom to change.
The first thought Clef had when he crawled under the duvet was that it had to be better than sleeping with Ferio. Having shared a bed with him more than once on family holidays, Clef could say for sure that he definitely kicked in his sleep. When he was very little, he even would spin in circles as he slept, kicking Clef up the back until he was entirely upside down in the bed, feet on the pillow. Anything was probably better than that.
to be continued...