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Dance of Death

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Clef weighed the blade in his hand, and sighed, staring out of the window at the weak sun, still barely past the horizon though it was almost time for the bell to ring for breakfast. The sky was overcast by white cloud, a light rain beginning to mizzle down again, and the land he could see was stained almost black by the amount of water it had endured this past week. The day ahead promised to be just as grey, as blah, just as nothing as the world outside. Like yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that – with one exception, as the cool metal against his palm reminded him.

He wasn't really sure how Umi had talked him into doing this. It had taken her more than a week, but she hadn't nagged him, or talked at him, or dropped many hints; that she knew him well enough to know that would shatter any chance she had of getting her way was vaguely worrying. But then, it was four years, almost five, since they'd first met, and the knights now lived in Cephiro, in the castle, and visited Earth instead of the other way round. It made sense that the people Emeraude had summoned would fall in love with the land she adored, in a way; but this was being sidetracked again. No more procrastination. He'd run out of excuses – this morning would be it.

Just why Umi wanted to spar with him, he didn't know, but she'd talked him into matching blades and there was no way he was going to break his word on the matter. More than that, it was important to Umi. He had no idea why… but there was something different in her expression when she talked about it, a light he'd not seen too often in her face, only when she'd finally worked out something which had been bothering her. Still, pondering on the 'whys' of it all still wasn't going downstairs, and the bell was beginning to ring out now, booming through the corridors. He sheathed the blade, and fastened the scabbard across his back, the sword handle resting behind his right shoulder where it could be drawn quickly and not whack into his head. It wasn't all that long since he'd let himself take an adult form again, but the sword was still familiar from the last time he'd looked like this. Some things couldn't be forgotten, for him, the weight and comfort of the blade resting there was one.

He walked quickly, now, still enjoying the longer stride of his legs. It had been at least two months since he'd grown, but he'd not had much time to stop and adjust properly to being in this form, and it showed occasionally.

The dining room was warm and light, with the crystals still lit as the sun's rays were being so pitiful. The long, wooden table stretching down the middle of the room was lined on both sides with chairs, and had room for over a hundred people to sit down at the same time. It had been filled, once, maybe twice, in its entire life – normally there were far fewer of them, all grouped down one end of the table, as now. Ferio was at the head today. They didn't normally worry who sat where, but he was using the place to hold forth about something to half the table at once. Not that most people were listening to him, the food in bowls arranged down the centre of the table being more important at the moment than chatting.

Umi sat between Hikaru and Caldina, eating a piece of fruit and talking avidly about something. Clef's eye caught a glint from her hand as she raised it, then blinked, and recognised her gem glove. How had she guessed… ? Ah, never mind. She might be wearing it for something else today, anyway…

He took the seat opposite her, and tried to ignore the slight hush in noise as he sat. Umi, for her part, just looked across at him steadily.

"Well?" She asked, quietly. Clef drew the blade smoothly and lay it on the table, light dancing along the metal. She grinned. "Thank you." A flash, and her sword lay alongside it, point to hilt.

Today was it.

The fencing hall was a large room at the centre of the castle, a training room lined with mirrors and weapon stands, with a sprung wooden floor that was meticulously cared for itself, then covered with securely fastened padded mats to reduce injuries. While the room itself was empty when the two walked in, there was a low buzz of chatter coming from further up – a gallery running round the walls two floors up providing a good view for what seemed like half the castle.

Clef looked up at them as he walked in, and sighed deeply, shaking his head as he walked across the mats and turned to face Umi. She, on the other hand, just smiled slightly as Hikaru waved energetically.

"Don't worry about the audience, Clef – this fight's between you and me." She stood opposite him, smiling across the matting, and raised her gloved hand as the gem began to glow.

Clef was half expecting her to summon her armour, as well as her sword – what he didn't expect was the form it appeared in. Instead of any of the outfits he'd seen before, a new version appeared, one he had to admit looked better suited to duelling. (Especially in comparison to the one with the cloak. Cloaks are all well and fine for creating an intimidating presence, but tend to just get in the way when the actual fighting starts.) The pleated skirt was there, though it went only half way down her thighs, a pair of shorts in the same dark blue visible underneath. The long white boots were there, too, though his time with an inch or so heel and laced on with pale blue ribbon of some sort.

The top half of the outfit was a flowing white shirt, gathered and tied at the wrists with more of the pale blue ribbon, and over that a sleeveless tabard of dark blue with Selece's symbol emblazoned on the front. Apart from the ribbons and symbol there really wasn't any decoration – Umi looked downright business like as she drew her escudo blade from the air and readied herself. Not that Clef needed anymore incentive to be regretting his agreement, but he did wonder again just what Umi thought she would get out of this.

Never mind that now, Umi was waiting for him to prepare – Clef reached up and drew his own sword from its scabbard, holding it steady in front of him and closing his eyes as the gem embedded into the hilt began to glow a pale silver. It took a bit of concentration to find the outfit he wanted – he hadn't done this for a while, after all, but the duelling set had to be in here somewhere… ah, there.

He looked down at himself, and blinked: Umi really must have been looking in the history books for inspiration, and she wasn't far off. He wore slate grey loose trousers and boots which fit snugly to just below the knee. A silver shirt, held at the wrists by black leather bands which matched the fingerless gloves, and a mid-grey tunic, with a black sash holding it at the waist. There was no symbol across his chest, but if it weren't for that…

"Hey!" She grinned at him, raising her rapier into a starting hold. "We match!"

Clef blinked, then smirked back at her. "Maybe, but mine's original." Umi's eyes lit as she forced a glare onto her face, and Clef heard her mutter something to the effect of 'oh, you're going down now!' before she launched herself across the room, blade aimed at his chest.

He reacted. His sword came up and sliced across her path, forcing her point away from him and driving her to circle round him – then his mind caught up to his hands, and he jumped back, out of her reach.

"I… uh, Umi, are you absolutely sure…" He looked at her then, and the words froze in his throat as he caught the tail end of a calculating, smirking expression instead of the surprise he'd half expected.

"Don't worry, Clef – I know you're a little rusty at this." Her words were more for their audience than him, but reassured him none the less: it wasn't his reflexes that were rusty, but his control. Clever, to have known that…

But, if she knew so much… why did she want to fight him?

The crash of metal on metal echoed through the room, and he went low and sideways, twisting his blade under the force of the blow, and standing back again. Umi sighed and faced him, then raised her foil again – but slowly, the motion in almost half time, as if – as if they were choreographing a fight, not actually duelling at all…

Clef matched her speed, and met the stroke, stepping with it to place the next blow himself, high to her right. She caught it, turned the (slight) force, and struck back: they turned and walked over the floor, building up speed slowly with each motion, always matching each other, following their lead. It was like dancing, more than anything else, to a strange rhythm that only they heard, stepping in time, striking in time, breathing in time… Clef hardly noticed his tension flowing away as he fell further and further into the hypnotic rhythm.

They were parrying fast now, raising sparks as their blades crossed and scraped along each other, sparks that lit the wide blue eyes fixed firmly on the face of the other, never watching their hands, their body: just their face. They even wore matching smiles when not trying to catch some oxygen.

The audience above stared at what, to them, seemed to have become a whirling blur of blue and grey. They could hardly see the individual strikes anymore, but they could follow the whole; they could appreciate the flowing lines, the ease with which the two faced each other, challenged each other, and met that challenge.

The harsh sounds which floated up seemed out of place. The rasp of metal on metal, a leather boot squeaking as they fought their way onto the wooden floor and off it again… Even the occasional gasping for breath. They'd been going for so long…

To Clef, the time seemed like noting, like a concept that had nothing to do with him, with this moment, with the girl meeting him head on and grinning almost wickedly back at him. This was the now, this was the forever he knew… unnoticed by him, the last of the tension slipped from his shoulders as he lost himself to the movement, to the flashing eyes facing him. Almost, he thought he heard her voice above the sound of their duel, laughing and bright.

"Are you ready to end the warm-up yet?" hung in the air, heard and unheard, and Clef felt his eyes narrow in answer, a grin… no, a smirk – growing unbidden on his lips, and he broke the smooth rhythm of the dance to twist under her blade, slide it away, and jab towards her.

Umi followed the motion of her sword and dipped almost to the floor on one brief moment as she passed him, and made to strike at his unprotected back, moving to her own time now, unpredictable as he was. She was barely in position before Clef reacted to her slide past him, gathering his muscles and leaping up, flipping in one smooth movement, metal reaching for the place she'd been when he jumped – but she had twisted away again, and his blade only just countered hers before they were springing apart. A growl rose low in his throat as the clash rang out, and he caught a glimpse of her laughing eyes before she was moving again, darting in.

The watchers above were just silent now, in respect of the skill on display. They'd seen the shift in the pattern of motion, and, more than that, had seen the tiny sparks of silver light begin to gather around Clef in a spinning, swirling aura as he let go and trusted himself. Umi had seen, and a corresponding swirl of pale blue slid around her as she bounced right, dipped left, focused entirely on the mage.

If the pace they'd been going at before had been tiring, this was a gruelling, exhausting burst of beautiful madness, one neither could keep up very long. But neither would back down from the challenge of the other; they didn't seem to realise they might need to, either of them, determination and the exhilaration of the fight blocking out the heaviness of weary arms, of aching legs pushed far beyond their usual tolerance.

When the end came, it was fast. A blur of motion sent Umi up under Clef's defence, grasping at one of his wrists with her free hand, the other bringing her sword round in a circle that ripped his blade from his fingers and sent it clattering across the floor. He reacted, changing tactic even as his sword left his palms, reaching for her shoulders and sweeping a leg around to send her to the floor – she took him down too, and there was a brief flurry of whirling limbs before the room, finally, was still.

The audience blinked and blew out a collective breath none of them had realised they were holding.

Clef lay on his back, pinned down by Umi's weight across his chest, one of her hands holding his arms above his head and out of the way of her sword, which the other hand held resting gently against his neck. Both were smiling openly, eyes dancing in the fading light of the auras each had drawn to themselves.

"I win." She whispered, between gasps for air, staring down at him proudly.

"I yield." He replied, breathing deeply, beginning to feel the deep ache in his muscles, but the smile on his face only growing. "You win."

They were still for a few more long moments, before Umi's blade shimmered and swirled away into the glove gem again, and she flopped forwards onto Clef's chest bonelessly, with a soft groan. "Good. Because I'm never moving again." She moaned, finally recognising the leaden weight of her limbs. Clef lowered his arms with a wince, letting one flop across her back, agreeing totally with the sentiment. He'd never felt this drained – or, to be honest, this relaxed, open. She'd drawn him out, until he… trusted himself, enough to release his control, and he realised now she'd done it absolutely deliberately. Long strands of silken hair were tangled around his hand as it lay on her back, and he belatedly realised they still had an audience… and it was applauding them.

He couldn't find the energy to even be embarrassed, just proud of the girl that lay warm against him, as well as somehow content with the moment, with the world. "I'm going to sleep for ten years, then I'm going to challenge you, and beat you." He murmured, eyes sliding shut. He felt more than heard her soft laugh.

"Maybe I'll get up for that, then." She snuggled her head into the crook of his neck, too shattered to move further. "Is that clapping?"

"Hmmm. Maybe they'll carry us out of here." Buzzed Clef's voice against her ear, and she half giggled, wincing as it pulled at the muscles of her shoulders.


In the end, though, the others didn't have to. They came down into the hall and pulled the two back to sit against the wall, where Umi's head slumped against Clef's shoulder again, and Caldina fed them each the Cephiran equivalent of an energy drink – almost pure sugar giving them enough of a boost that they made it to Clef's study just down the hall under their own steam, though they were each leaning pretty hard on the other as they went. Once there they collapsed onto the large, comfortable sofa in a tangled unit, and were asleep almost instantly.

Everyone else grinned, before Caldina turned and ushered them all out of the room, drawing the curtains on the late afternoon sunshine and waiting only for Ferio to pull a warm throw from one of the armchairs over the sleeping figures before waving him out too and shutting the doors behind herself, leaving the two in peace, to sleep themselves out. She took one last glance as the doors closed and smiled at the sight of Clef moving slightly in his sleep, turning his head to rest on top of Umi's.

"Sleep well." Caldina murmured, before walking away herself and leaving them to the quiet of the shadowed room.