Selphie had to admit, she was maybe slightly drunk. Not surprising considering she wasn't much of a drinker anymore, not since her cadet days when she partied in the Trabian outposts and smuggled vodka into the dorm rooms on Saturday nights, but it dulled the sting of the cold, at least.
She kind of wished she could collapse onto her bunk, though. But that was out of question, wasn't it? Seifer was right; they couldn't trek back to the cabin now.
"Let's hijack the chocobo!"
Selphie could feel Seifer rolling his eyes. "For the third time, no. That bird is probably the most valuable thing in this hick town. They will not be happy to find it gone."
"We'll give it back!" Selphie pleaded, also for the third time, even though she had no intention of giving it back. It was absolutely going to be renamed Fluffy McButt the Ferocious and it was going to be her new bestie.
Seifer stopped in his tracks and blew into his cupped hands, features shadowed beneath the harsh light of a streetlamp. "Of course there's no fucking inn here. Why am I even surprised."
Selphie smacked her fist into her palm. "Brothel it is!"
"There's no brothel, either," he told her. "It's a legally rented room above Riley and Son's Workshop. We can't just ask to stay there. Why would we even want to stay there?"
"It's weird that you know that."
He neatly sidestepped that line of questioning. "We'll have to go back to the Sun Spot."
"No more drinking."
Selphie pulled a face and made a show of dragging her feet in the snow. "Boooo, you're gettin' all DC on me again. Booorrring."
They re-entered the Sun Spot and found it slightly more subdued. A group of miners gathered around a table in the corner were singing a low, rumbling song about dragons, while another group wrapped up a poker game and a few stragglers quietly nursed their drinks, pondering whatever it was miners pondered. Rocks, probably, Selphie presumed.
She galloped over to Sorely and leaned over the bar, chanting, "We need shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!"
Seifer grabbed the back of her coat before she toppled face first over the taps. "No. We don't. We need a room. You know anywhere?"
Sorely looked up from pouring a pint and ping-ponged an unamused look between the pair. "Can't you kids keep your pants on until you get home?"
"But that's so faaaaar," Selphie bemoaned. "We need a room now."
Seifer clamped a hand over her mouth. "We can't head back to the cabin unarmed. It's too dangerous. We just need a place to crash for the night. For free."
Selphie pushed his hand away. "We'll pay."
She fixed Sorely with her most winning smile while nearby patrons drunkenly pleaded her case and even offered their own beds, albeit with company, until Sorely was eventually cajoled into agreeing.
"This ain't an inn," he said shortly, "so don't expect nothin' fancy. I got a storage room you can stay in. 100 Gil upfront."
"100 Gil!?" Seifer repeated, aghast. "The fuckin' four star Balamb Hotel charges that much. I thought you said you weren't an inn –"
Selphie tugged a 200 Gil note from her bra and slammed it onto the bar. "And that includes pancakes in the morning!"
Sorely pocketed the note without batting an eyelid. "As if I could stop you, dragonbait. Just don't make a fuckin' mess and don't keep me up all night."
Seifer muttered something under his breath and Selphie sniggered. "We'll try. Upstairs?"
Sorely stepped aside for them. "Third door on the left."
A hail of lecherous cheers accompanied their walk behind the bar and up a flight of stairs, and while Selphie waved at the onlookers and winked – who cared what they thought anyways? –Seifer's face was a mask of annoyance.
"Don't you have any fuckin' shame?" he hissed, pushing her up the stairs. "I swear to Hyne you are the most insufferable woman I've ever met, and I've met some insufferable women in my time, including but not limited a sorceress hell-bent on warping time and space to end the known universe."
Selphie ignored him and kicked open the third door on the left. Sorely wasn't joking when he said he didn't take guests. There were empty wine crates stacked to the ceiling alongside cardboard boxes crammed with musty clothes, and a thick layer of dust coated every surface including a single bed shoved against the left wall. A garish floral sheet draped over the window was Sorely's answer to a curtain and there was no bulb in the overhead fixture, but there was a lamp in the corner with a red shade. She flicked it on, bathing the room in dusky light.
Seifer emptied a box of clothes onto a threadbare rug on the floor. "I'll sleep here."
"How chivalrous of you," Selphie said, not entirely sarcastic, as she perched on the edge of the bed and bounced up and down. A cloud of dust wafted around her and the mattress' springs shrieked like an old cat. "Yikes," she said. "No wonder Sorely was worried about us keeping him up all night."
Seifer tossed her a surly look. "Why did you tell people that?"
"That we're dating."
Selphie shrugged. "Quells suspicion. Easier to overlook that than two military types shacked up in an abandoned Trabian outpost, eh? Also it stops the locals from hasslin' me too much."
Seifer seemed to consider this, then nodded.
Selphie slid off her boots. "I should've told you before, I guess. I, uh… hope you're not angry about it –"
"I'm not. Your boyfriend might be though."
There he went again, spitting that word like it left a bad taste in his mouth. Weird.
She found herself offering an explanation apropos of nothing, and when she started the words came tumbling out helplessly, like rocks skittering down a mountainside.
"He's… he's not my boyfriend. Anymore. Obviously. Maybe never was, I dunno. Everyone just presumed we'd get together without even asking – he never actually asked me, you know? And the war really – it really messed us up, so I think we just wanted company or empathy or something. And – and the memories were so confusing and he was always so confusing, flirting with everyone all the time – I couldn't really tell whether I loved him like that or like a little brother and by the time I sorted it out it was too late and had gone too far and I really didn't want to hurt Irvy but it was so…" She trailed off.
Seifer paused his task of rearranging the clothes. "I couldn't give a dog's shit about your love life."
She jerked back, stung by his callous dismissal, then leaned forward and punched his arm. "You're a real jerky-jerkerson sometimes, you know that?"
"So I've heard."
She shook her head in disbelief, then hopped over to the electric heater by the window. She hit the 'ON' switch and was disheartened to find it unresponsive. "Poopy. The heater's busted."
"Great. Can you fix it?"
The room was beginning to spin, and the drunk haze turned her thoughts to sludge. "Mmmmmm noooooo."
"Some techy you are." Seifer glanced at her. "I swear if you vomit on me in the night, Tilmitt, I will make you regret it for the rest of your days."
He shook his head, then stripped down to the grey sweats and white t-shirt under his thermals.
Selphie watched him below her lashes. He was certainly looking less bulky than before, she noted, though the exercises he did every morning and evening helped upkeep his physique. He'd grown a beard over the last few weeks and his hair had become unkempt. Only the scars that crisscrossed his arms and back betrayed his fighter roots. Otherwise, he looked like –
"A Trabian lumberjack."
"That's what you look like now. A Trabian lumberjack."
He shot her a flinty look. "Maybe I'll stay in the brothel, after all."
"Hehe, it's a good look. Lumberjacks are sexy."
"How many lumberjacks do you know?"
Selphie pretended to count the number off on her fingers and Seifer rolled his eyes. "Forget I asked."
Selphie drunkenly pulled off all her clothes bar her sweat shorts and tank shirt, flicked off the light, then wriggled under the sheets and thwacked her head on the pillow. She wrinkled her nose. "Mmmm, smells like sweaty balls."
Seifer snorted. "Go to sleep, Tilmitt."
Easier said than done. She was caught in a limbo between giddy, drunk and tired. Time became incorporeal as she watched the moonlight slide across walls that tilted and spun, and her brain buzzed with a thousand silly thoughts. She wanted to sleep, but also she wanted to find somewhere to dance and sing, and she wanted tequila and lime and pizza and a terrible movie, and also she wanted a bath, a nice waaaarm bath to stave off the cold that crept into her bones and made short work of Sorely's thin sheets. She kicked them off grumpily. Sorely could have at least found them a blanket –
She slipped out of bed and across the floor without giving it much thought, like watching someone else's actions through a fogged-up window. The old clothes beneath her palms smelled mustier than the sheets, and the floorboards were unforgiving even through the rug, but gods above it was warm – sooooo warm –
The source of the heat startled awake. "Uh – wha – I… Selph… Tilmitt, get back into bed."
Get back into the freezing bed? As if. She had a perfectly good hot water bottle right here, thank you very much.
She pressed herself against him, hooking one leg over his hips while her arm crept over his torso. He was – "So waaaaarm."
He made a half-hearted attempt to sit up, but she pushed him back down and shifted more of her weight on top of him. Her hand crept under his shirt and up his chest, seeking warm skin and – and what? Contact. Reassurance. No – yes? Her mind was foggy. A rational, scolding voice was smothered under layers of alcohol and… what?
Suddenly her heart was pounding, her breathing shallow. She inched further up him, breath feathering his collarbone and neck. His stubble tickled her lips.
There was a hand on her shoulder, pushing. A feeble attempt, at best, though he was tense under her like a coiled spring, breath hitched in his throat. "Tilmitt, don't. Don't do this. We'll both regret it. You know I'm not gonna be around for –"
She straddled him, severing that boring talk, and wriggled into his lap. He swallowed and gripped her hips, any protest instantly banished.
She wasn't stupid; she'd noticed his backhanded flirting, the way his eyes lingered on her when he thought she wasn't watching, the circumspect showers a few times a day. And she discovered that she liked the attention, even enticed him with cut off shorts and tousled hair, a cavalier brush of skin here and there. It was a new, delicious game, one she never thought she'd participate in – not with him, anyway. And now? The alcohol had sprayed fuel onto a simmering flame and it was raging out of control.
She shifted her weight again to feel the press of his growing arousal against the inside of her thigh, and listened in delight to his raspy growl. Her blood was singing in her ears, her skin tingling, every nerve ending on fire. Or maybe he was setting her on fire. Not hot enough though. Not yet.
"I'm cold," she said. "Warm me up?"
He accepted the challenge with the same fierce intensity he committed to everything that spiked his interest. In one smooth motion he sat up, grabbed a fistful of her hair, yanked her head back and kissed her hard enough to draw blood. His ferocity almost took the breath out of her and maybe it would have done if she, in that moment, hadn't realised just how pent up and miserable she'd been too. She countered him with equal parts fervour, moaning into his mouth, tearing off his clothes and then hers, hands seeking the core of his warmth that burned and burned like a sun.
He lifted her up then lowered her on top of him none too gently, then leaned back on his hands to watch her, striped in snow-stark moonlight tinged red from the floral curtain. One hand on his chest kept her balance as she easily found her rhythm, breath coming hard and sharp behind the unfurling pleasure and heat – so so much heat. Not normal. She thought she might catch on fire, might burn from the inside out, but it was too good to stop. She hadn't even begun to touch the surface and she wanted that fiery core more than anything –
He trailed one hand lazily over her chest, reached up to her throat, then with a few deft movements swapped their roles, pinning her to the floor. He hitched her legs up while his tongue trailed flames across her skin and his rough hands tracked fingertip bruises along her thighs, and he pried his name from her lips like a lyric she'd forgotten.
There was nothing gentle about him, but she didn't mind. All doubts and hesitation turned to cinder; there was only him and her and the rough boards under her back that scoured friction burns along her spine. She ran her nails down his back and hooked her legs around him as sweat rolled down her face, stinging her eyes and slicking her hair flat. The window fogged and the room became Ifrit's lair; she thought she might suffocate in the heat. Time blurred into a tangle of limbs, building into a climax that swept through her hot and fast and left her gasping. She pulled him into a deep kiss, then he pressed his forehead against her cheek and rumbled, "Sel… Sel."
She felt his end spread inside her and he went slack in her arms.
The room slowly returned to focus and time sharpened, and as she lay exhausted underneath him, a sudden pain cut through the pleasure. She gasped.
He pulled out of her with a grunt and propped himself on his hands, casting her an unreadable look in the dark. "Oh yeah?"
Selphie wriggled uncomfortably. Was it burning? Or was it just very hot? She wondered if her womb was being cauterised, but after a few moments it began to cool, leaving a curious tingle in its wake.
"There… there's no way it's always been like that," she said, a little breathlessly.
Apparently satisfied she wasn't in pain, he rolled onto his back and entwined his hands behind his head. "Probably not."
He was a potent vessel of magic, she realised. It must have been entwined in his flesh, his blood, his very cells. "You shot me full of magic."
Seifer snorted in amusement, but his reply was severed by banging on the adjacent wall.
"I thought I told you kids to keep it down!" Sorely bellowed from another room.
Seifer and Selphie grinned, and she reached for him again.
It was the cold that woke her up the next morning, as well as a profound urge to puke her guts up. She groaned, throwing a hand over her eyes as the ceiling lurched sideways. It was too bright. Why was it so bright? The sun was mean. Tequila was mean.
Her eyelids peeled begrudgingly apart. She was alone in the little dusty room and quite suddenly blurry memories slotted into place. Her stomach pitched downward.
She sat up slowly, fighting off dizziness, then punched her fist into her palm repeatedly, saying, "This. Is. Why. You. Don't. Drink."
His absence left her ill at ease. His shoes were gone and most of his clothes, but, she realised, his thermal jacket was draped over her naked torso. He couldn't have gone far, then.
She climbed to her feet on wobbly legs, groaning like a seasick sailor. A headache clung to her temple with wicked little claws and her stomach protested every movement as she pulled on her clothes very, very slowly. The cold was suddenly a blessing, sharpening her sluggish mind while blasting her with goosebumps.
She was just beginning to lament the loss of her personal hot water bottle when the door was shoved aside and said water bottle returned. Their eyes met in a startled sort of way, and she was annoyed at herself for averting her gaze perhaps a bit too quickly.
Seifer had wrapped his face in a scarf up to his eyes – one of Sorely's that they'd slept on, she noted – so his voice was muffled when he said, "Here. Stole us some coffee. Also yelled at Sorely for giving us a room without a heater."
"I'm sure he gave two plebs about that," she remarked, gratefully taking the coffee. Testing the atmosphere, she slyly added, "Not that we needed one in the end."
He didn't look her in the eye as he tugged down the scarf to drink from his own mug. He looked sickly pale and there were dark circles under his eyes. Selphie was glad she wasn't the only one nursing a hangover.
He said, "Surprised you remember."
"I wasn't that drunk!"
"Well, that's something, at least. I usually leave the drunk ones well alone but –"
"It was a long time comin'."
He blinked at her. "Me and you? Or the sex?"
"Well, don't get used to it," he said shortly. "Put your thermals on. We should get back."
"Don't change the subject! And don't be boring. You know you enjoyed it."
"That's not the point, Tilmitt, and you –"
"Selphie," she corrected.
He gave her a look. "Don't complicate things."
"You don't want to get attached to me like that. I'm dying and it will only –"
"Sssh!" she pressed a hand over his mouth but he batted her away.
"Don't interrupt me, I hate being interrupted. And stop trying to censor the facts. You're just gonna cause yourself even more pain. No amount of shushing is going to change what's happening to me. Accept it, already."
She felt her face grow hot with annoyance and she squared up to him. "I won't. I will never accept it! And you're the one avoiding the facts. You can tell yourself you just wanna have some fun before it all ends, but if that's what you really wanted you could've just slept with those other girls last night. But you didn't. Because you didn't want them, you wanted me."
"Pfft, don't be so full of yourself –"
"And I don't know what that means yet," she finished quietly. "Or if I want to know." She lifted a hand to her temple where the headache punctuated every word with a sledgehammer blow. "Look, I'm just really hungover and sore and hungry and thirsty and tired, so I'll let you off this one time. Plus we really need to get back to the egg. I hope we haven't fried him."
Seifer clenched his jaw, then downed his coffee. "Fine. But we're going to talk about this later."
It was a welcome relief when they made it to the cabin. They'd only been there a few weeks yet it already felt like more of a home than Garden had ever been. Garden, she reflected, had never really felt like home. It felt like a temporary post or a prolonged stay at a school or overtime at the office. Which. It kinda was all three. But it didn't feel… homely. She had a larger room than most as an Elite SeeD, but it was still clinical in appearance. It smelt like disinfectant at the worst of times and pressed linen at its best, cold from the constant aircon and not private enough to be exempted from random inspections from the faculty.
She looked sidelong at Seifer, who had just finished piling logs onto the fireplace and was trying to strike a match. "Hey. Did you feel like Garden was your home?"
He looked annoyed at the question, and stared at the match in his hand. "I don't know what a home is supposed to feel like."
"Somewhere that's yours. Somewhere safe. Somewhere personal."
"Not Garden, then."
"It's weird that we don't know what having a family or home feels like, but we just instinctively know it isn't Garden. Or maybe the Orphanage gave us a small idea of what it could be, but then…" She put her hands behind her back and swayed back and forth. "I was always a bit jealous of Zell, actually. He had his Ma and Grandpa and that nice little house on Main Street. And that kinda made me mad at Matron and Cid. Like, how come some of us got to have those things while others were shipped off to Garden?"
"Because we were moulded to serve Cid's greater purpose," Seifer said dryly. "He wasn't trying to build a home for SeeD – or us. Just a base, a school, a business. I guess he thought we'd fill in the emotional gap ourselves. Figure it out alone."
"And because there were no opportunities to find a home, we just filled that gap with crazy."
Seifer finally stuck the match and threw it under the kindling. "Speak for yourself."
"Cid was always nice to you, though," Selphie said tentatively, thinking of Matron's unfinished plans to adopt Seifer.
He made a dismissive sound. "Cid tolerated me."
"Because he cared about you. Still does, I bet."
"Well, he has a funny way of showing it. I don't give a shit about him, anyway. Never have, never will. I've got by just fine by myself so far."
Selphie ran a hand over the egg's smooth outer shell. "You sound like Squall."
"Can it, Tilmitt. You and your –" He cut himself off sharply, and pointed at her hand.
Selphie looked down in time to see a tiny crack appear in the egg and inhaled so sharply she almost choked. Her elated scream probably shook the nearby mountain.
The egg shifted very slightly and there was a distinctive knock from inside the shell. The crack expanded, and a small chip broke away from the surface.
Selphie dug her fingernails into her cheeks, wheezing and squealing simultaneously. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my GOSH, what do we do what do we DO?"
She glanced at Seifer and found his back turned while he retrieved a pan from the kitchen cupboard and set it on the stove.
"What are you DOING!?" she shrieked. "You're gonna miss it!"
"I'm hungry, though."
"Arrgghh you are the densest plum-brained turd I have ever met in my whole life!" She grabbed him by the back of his shirt and dragged him towards the egg, then hooked her arm through his so he couldn't escape. "It's hatching!"
"Eggs tend to do that," he said disinterestedly.
The knocking became more insistent and the chip widened until she spied something yellow and orange squirming beneath the surface. Using the hand not anchored to Seifer, she gently pried away a shard of the shell, whispering, "You can do it, baby! Smash that egg to pieces! Crush it into dust! End its pitiful existence!"
The egg began to wobble in earnest and Seifer reached out to keep it steady. There was another knock and this time the crack split the egg almost in two. Seifer carefully let go and with a final blow the chocobo chick pushed free of its shell.
Selphie raked Seifer's arm with her nails. "Oh my goooshhhhh IT'S BORRNNN!"
The chocobo chick lay on its side, exhausted from pushing apart its shell. It was the colour of a sunflower petal and soaked in slime, squinting against the daylight with large, liquid eyes. It was larger than a house cat, with a head way too large for its little body and talons the size of Selphie's hands.
"Ugly," Seifer said.
Selphie screeched at him, then crept forward and teased away the last of the shell sticking to its slimy down. It squirmed on its belly, clacking its beak, then flopped sideways and almost fell off the table. Selphie hurriedly moved its nest and all the lamps onto the floor and hemmed it with cushions.
Seifer watched them with his hands on his hips. "What the hell do we do with it now?"
"I'm gonna go to Esthar to buy some bird seed and greens," she told him.
He raised an eyebrow. "You're serious about looking after this thing?"
"What else am I supposed to do?"
"Give it to a chocobo farm so it can be reared by people who know what they're doing."
Selphie pouted at the sense of this. "Hmm. Yeah. Well, we gotta at least wait until its strong enough to walk. Then I'll definitely think about it."
Seifer seemed placated by this and returned to the stove.
Selphie absently ran her fingers through its damp feathers with one hand while she hit the speed dial on her vidphone with the other.
"Rinny? You free? I have something awesome to show you but you have to promise not to scream."