Selphie sidled along the curved second floor walkway, back hugging the smooth wall. She'd seen the quiet commander making his way to the Training Center, and was using the opportunity to break into his rooms.
Determined not to be caught, she peered cautiously around the massive lintel dividing the student's hall from the suites. She saw nothing untoward, and darted into the shadow of the doorway. Breaking the password code provided little challenge, but she bit her lip in relief nevertheless when the tiny, lighted lock indicator flicked to green.
The short girl took a deep breath, then, and pressed open the door. Her quarry sat on the long couch, feet propped on the coffee table. Paperwork was strewn in front of him, and his hair blazed coppery red in the bright light spilling in from the windows at the rear of the room. He held a thick sheaf of papers and was reading listlessly when Selphie walked in.
He'd tossed the paperwork to the table and had a greeting half-out before he turned and saw that it was Selphie, not Squall. Selphie marched in, ignoring for a moment the shocked expression on his face.
"Irvine!" she exclaimed, coming closer and planting her hands on her hips. "We've been really worried about you!"
He blinked at her a few times. His long ponytail curved auburn over the shoulder of a white t-shirt that she knew belonged to Squall. "I – how did you –?" he started. "What are you –?"
While he stared at her, she took the chance to give him a looking-over. Though she knew the previous night must have been very difficult, he seemed fine, if a little tired. The stark lines of fear and anxiety that had marked his face were absent, though he was clearly bewildered by her presence.
She grimaced. "Sorry if I surprised you, Irvy. I had to sneak in while Squall was gone. He wouldn't have let me in." Exhaling sharply, she tried to calm down a little, and altered her combative stance to one more passive.
"How are you feeling?" she asked. She moved toward a large leather armchair and perched on it, cautious.
Irvine shifted in his seat, not looking at her. "I'm okay."
Selphie frowned. "Are you?"
She was being blunt, she knew, but her frank tactics had served her well in the past. And, sure enough, Irvine raised his eyes from his feet and looked her in the eye. "I… am."
She smiled at him, spirits perked for the first time in a week, and his mouth pulled into a reluctant smile in return.
"We have been worried about you," she repeated, leaning forward earnestly. "We're worried that you're still staying here."
He sighed, pulling back into the couch. "I know, Sefie," he replied. "But it's hard."
"I know," she echoed. She cocked her head, considering him for a few moments. "You have to come out sometime," she said at length.
"I know that, too." Irvine ran his fingers down the length of his hair, fiddling with the ends. She put on her most open, comforting face, knowing that she could pry out whatever was troubling him given enough time.
He sighed again, dropping his ponytail and looking at her wearily. "It's just – everyone's being… too nice." She raised her eyebrows. "And I know, I should be grateful, but if I go out there and Quistis and Zell won't even talk to me, treating me like I'll break – I don't think I could stand it."
She twisted her mouth, feeling a pang of remorse. "Well, we screwed up last night," she said. Irvine shrugged. He unconsciously rubbed his palms together, and a glance showed Selphie new, faint scar lines. She frowned, and made an abrupt decision.
Putting on her most cheerful smile, she said, "Irvy, let me take you out of here."
He stared, looking flummoxed at the quick change. "What?"
"It'll be all right. We'll go camping!" she said blithely, pouring all her Selphie brightness into the words. "Remember how much you liked camping when we were little?"
Irvine shook his head, but Selphie could see a faint smile about to form around his mouth. She pressed her advantage.
"Oh, please come." She mock-pouted, fluttering her eyelashes. "It'll do you good."
He laughed, and she thrilled at it, not having heard much mirth from Irvine in months. "All right," he acquiesced. A passing thought dimmed his smile. "What do I tell Squall?"
She bit her lip, thinking. She had to move quickly, or the whole plan would go down the drain. "Write him a note," she said. "Explain what's happening. I mean, it's not like he's keeping you captive or anything, right?"
He looked at her strangely. "Yeah."
She jumped to her feet, absently tugging down her tiny yellow jumper. "This will be so fun," she declared. She glanced at a clock on the wall, gauging the time before Squall would come back.
The petite SeeD gathered the scattered paperwork into a stack while Irvine wrote Squall a short note. She was done long before he was, though, and she watched while he seemed to agonize over the wording. The look on his face when she'd asked if he was a prisoner and this odd reluctance sparked the smallest of suspicions in her mind.
"Ready?" she prompted. He glanced up at her, unfocused.
"Um – yeah, I guess." He looked down at the note, shook his head, and folded it in half. In his loopy handwriting, he scrawled 'Squall' across the front and propped it on the coffee table, in plain sight.
"Do you think I need my shotgun?" he asked, nervously tugging on his hair.
Selphie didn't answer for a minute, watching her best friend. He seemed truly apprehensive of going into public, more so than she'd counted on. He darted a tense glance at the closed door, and Selphie felt herself flood with sympathy.
Her voice was very soft as she replied, "It'll be fine, Irvy." She reached out and disengaged his fingers from his rapidly tangling ponytail. His eyes widened minutely, and when she felt him suppress a flinch her own pricked with tears.
She slid her hand to his shoulder and squeezed, blinking away the excess emotion she knew would be too much. "It'll be fine," she repeated and, releasing him, opened the door.
At five o'clock, Squall stood in the middle of his very empty living room, feeling a bit lost. He held a single sheet of paper in one hand, staring down at it.
Squall, I'm all right. I'm with Selphie. I'll come home soon. – Irvine.
The commander frowned at the curly writing, puzzled at the message. He wouldn't have expected that Irvine would just… leave. The wording, too, was perplexing. He didn't know what to make of it.
He closed his eyes, then, and tried to concentrate. Settling his emotions, he examined the situation clinically. Clearly, Selphie must have come by sometime during his expedition to the Training Center. She would have been worried about Irvine after last night's fiasco, but didn't want to risk being told off by Squall. He thought dispassionately that the two of them were top-level SeeDs, perfectly able to take care of themselves.
The vision that rose in his mind immediately fractured his confidence: last night, of Irvine terrified, tears leaking sticky down his cheeks.
He began to pace, striding around the large living area. He was experiencing the same unease he'd had when Rinoa had left. He didn't know what would happen and it made him nervous. It was a feeling he was unaccustomed to, and he hated it.
'I have to know where he is,' Squall thought distractedly. 'Selphie obviously can't handle everything. Last night is proof enough of that.' He took a detour around an armchair. 'If he needs my help, I'll know right where they are.'
Coming to a decision, he tucked the little message into his sword belt, swinging out the door into the corridor. A class was just getting out and it was swamped with students. In his preoccupied state he was able to ignore the rigid salutes and whispers that rose from the group of cadets and took advantage of the lane they cleared for his progress.
He'd made it to the elevator corridor before he paused. He didn't know where to look. Classrooms were an unlikely hideout, and a check of the balcony at the end of the hall proved fruitless. He rode down to the first floor. When the doors opened he nearly knocked over an unsuspecting SeeD.
When he entered the library, the timid girl at the front desk squeaked and backed against the wall at the sight of him. It gave him pause, and he wondered what he must look like, tearing through the Garden like a bat out of hell. He apologized to the girl and backed out of the building.
Squall leaned against the glass wall of the hallway connecting the main Garden and the library, trying to get himself under control. 'I can't just stomp around the halls anymore,' he admonished himself. 'I have to look normal, or the students will be alarmed.'
After several calming breaths, he continued his circuit of the massive first floor. Skipping over the Training Center, he peered into the garage. A few vehicles were missing, but that was nothing unusual. He asked the girls loitering outside the dorms if they'd seen the two SeeDs.
The tall dark-skinned girl replied. "Miss Tilmitt came out about three hours ago."
"Mister Dincht followed an hour after that," the tiny brunette added.
The blonde smiled coyly at him. "But why are you looking for her? Don't you want to talk to us?"
Once he'd extricated himself from their clutches, he strode around the vast central fountain, briefly checking the cafeteria and exploring the mostly-empty quad. 'Is Zell in on this, too?' he speculated as he walked. He also thought of the short note riding against his waist. I'll come home soon.
Only the infirmary remained. When he entered its bright hall, his steps quickened at the sound of voices raised in laughter. He was disappointed when the door hissed open and only the two doctors were revealed. Dr. Kadowaki raised her eyebrows and stood at his forbidding expression. "Is there something wrong, Squall?" she asked, black eyes fixed on him.
Dr. Lee perched on the edge of her chair, clad all in grey wool. Her eyes searched his entire body, studying the lines of it in a quick, blue glance. "I think there is, Aiko," she murmured.
Squall's attention focused on Anna. He barely noted Dr. Kadowaki making quiet excuses and leaving the room, and dropped into the chair she'd just vacated.
"Do you know where they went?" he asked bluntly.
Anna blinked. "Where who went?" Squall stared at her for a moment. His personal sense of urgency made it seem unreal that others would be unaware of the situation.
"Irvine and Selphie. And Zell, maybe." He shoved his hands through his hair, shaking it out of his eyes. "Selphie came by my rooms and took him somewhere. I need to know where they are."
Anna considered him with a calculating look. "They didn't tell you where they were going?"
"Of course not! Would I be standing here if –?"
The taken aback expression on Anna's face silenced him. He closed his eyes, breathing harshly through his nose. He could feel his pulse hammering through his veins, perspiration gathering at his hairline; he was being far too emotional for his own peace of mind.
Making a conscious effort to calm down, he tugged out the little piece of paper, handing it to the older woman. She read it, lips moving slightly. "Well," she said when she'd finished. "He doesn't sound worried."
"I am," Squall said flatly. "Selphie can't –" he cut himself off.
"She can't what, Squall?" Anna inquired.
"She can't… protect him." Squall felt himself go pink, thinking of how it must sound.
Anna shifted back in her seat, settling into the chair. She assumed what Squall thought of as her 'psychiatrist pose': elbows resting on the chair's arms, fingers laced together, calm blue gaze fixed unerringly on his face.
Much as he hated to admit it, Squall needed help. He was wandering into uncomfortably emotional territory, and didn't know what to make of it. "I need counsel," he said, breaking the silence.
She nodded, looking unsurprised. "Tell me why you're so agitated. Is it because Ms. Tilmitt defied your orders, or because Irvine left your shelter?"
He grimaced. "A week ago I wouldn't have had to think about it." He paused, putting his thoughts in order. In the hectic five days or so that Irvine had been under his wing he hadn't had time to think things through. Closing his eyes, he pondered the doctor's question. The myriad images that flooded his mind when he thought of Irvine now made the answer easy enough.
"That night in the cave Irvine seemed so…" He searched for the right word. "Vulnerable," he decided. He slouched back in his chair. "I promised to take care of him." It was the first time he'd talked about it with anyone.
Anna raised her eyebrows. "If the rumors are true, you made a similar vow to Rinoa during the war."
He started. "How did you know that?" he said.
A small smile curved her lips at his surprise. "A trauma specialist sees a lot of soldiers after a war. Such a romantic rumor is bound to spread like fire." She tilted her head. "It is true, then."
He shook his head. He wasn't sure why Rinoa, vow or not, was relevant. "In a sense, I guess. I'm – well, I guess I still am – her Knight." Anna was blank. Squall explained. "A Sorceress' Knight is charged with protecting and supporting his mistress. It's a kind of… love bond," he finished weakly.
She frowned. "But you and Rinoa are no longer together." Squall nodded. "Is your bond still intact?"
Squall shrugged. He thought of the few times he'd been able to sense Rinoa recently. "It might be," he said slowly. "If it is, it's much weaker than before."
Anna nodded, thoughtful. Squall crossed his arms, waiting for her to speak.
"You seem to be very good at protecting people," she said at last, in a seeming non sequitor. "Irvine feels safe with you, I know."
"He left," Squall retorted.
Anna shook her head, a smile easing back onto her face. It was a gentle expression, and her voice matched it. "People are fickle things. A person may crave comfort, protection, but in the next moment feel they no longer need it." She was still holding Irvine's note. Her thumb stroked over the messy cursive. "Yet Irvine tells you he's going to come home. Is that not significant?"
Squall shrugged again. "It's just a note," he said, ignoring his feelings for a moment. He hesitated. "When Rin left, she told me she had to go home. It's a word. That's all."
"Squall," she said, gently remonstrative. "Believe me when I say it's more than that." She searched his stony expression. "Think about how Irvine must have been feeling. You saw some of what happened yourself. You could see how scared he was, couldn't you? How uncomfortable he was with anyone knowing?"
The commander nodded. "But I saw how he was with you," Anna continued. "He let you touch him, comfort him. That's what home is: a sense of security, of safety. He feels at home in those apartments up there, with you."
Squall frowned. "What are you saying?"
"Only this: you are a great protector. You're very well suited to it. You may be called upon to shield others many times; you already have been, in fact." She studied him. "And you will lose those who once needed that protection, again and again.
"But not, I think, this time."
Squall stood, arms still crossed defensively over his chest. "How can you be sure?"
"I'm not a mind-reader," the doctor replied. The same gentle expression was fixed on her face, and Squall felt a small flicker of what he could only characterize as hope. "I can only tell you what I think and have seen to be true. I can't be entirely sure."
To his astonishment, she winked. "But I can be pretty damn close."
The sun was sinking rapidly in the sky when Irvine made his way to the edge of the lake. Behind him, Selphie and Zell chattered on amiably while setting up one of their old tents. Irvine gazed upward at a bank of gathering clouds, one hand shielding his eyes. Rain would be coming soon.
He sighed, and scuffed one boot through the soft dirt and gravel near the water's edge. Obel Lake was a silvery grey-blue this time of year. If he strained, he'd be able to hear trains moving from around the continent toward Timber; but he wouldn't. The depleted Great Timber Forest still seemed very large around this area. It helped to block the outer world, at least for a time.
A loud cawing to his right made Irvine jump. It was only a bird, startled by Zell dropping a metal pot. He shook his head at himself. 'You're too nervous, Kinneas. It's just a little camping trip.' He'd been cooped up in the Garden for too long, he decided. He took the opportunity to look around at the idyllic setting, trying to push aside any upsetting thoughts. Huge firs crowded close on the opposite shores. Their chosen campsite, on the very edge of the peninsula jutting into the calm waters, was on an entirely flat piece of land. Hills rose up all around the lake, and the tall grass fluttered greenly in soft breezes blowing in from the west.
As he shifted idly, looking in all directions, he accidentally caught a glimpse of the Garden. Its highest point was visible over the crest of one of the hills, though several miles away. He shuddered unexpectedly, and wrapped his arms around himself. When his fingers brushed the soft t-shirt he wore he sighed again. All of the clothing he wore was Squall's: the commander's uniform of white shirt and black pants, though they were slightly too tight. He only wore his own shoes through Selphie's intervention; she'd quietly broken into his room and filched a pair of old motorcycle boots that he'd worn while still training for the Galbadian Army.
Irvine looked at the far-off Garden turret, thinking of what he must be seeing. The winking metal he could barely make out must have been part of the navigation deck, the highest point in the structure. Studying what he could see led him to the conclusion that the second floor was invisible from here, and he had a fleeting moment of gratitude. He didn't want Squall to notice their tiny campsite and come stalking out on a thundercloud of retribution. He was certain that Selphie was in for a telling-off at any rate; no need to hasten that along.
"Irvine!" the tiny girl called, as though the thought had caught her attention. He turned, smiling a little at the sight of petite Selphie, yellow mini-dress barely covering her modesty, supporting one end of a very heavy, very large grill. Zell had disappeared behind the car the female SeeD had neatly hijacked from the Garden garage.
"What do you need, Sefie?" he asked, not concealing his grin.
She rolled her eyes. "Help, you jerk!"
He laughed, jogging over to grab the fallen end. "Why did you even pack this thing?" he said, heaving it level. Their distinct height difference ensured that Selphie was once again holding the thing on a sharp slant, and she took a staggering step backwards.
"It wasn't –" She shook her bouncy brown hair from her face and shifted the edge to one shoulder, grimacing. "– My idea," she finished grimly.
Zell trotted back from where he'd been digging in the trunk of the grey, army-issue jeep. "Got the hot dogs!" he said brightly, brandishing a small cooler.
He was oblivious to the glare Selphie sent his way. Irvine caught the gleam in her eye, though, and struggled to keep his expression mild. He tightened his hold on his end of the grill while Selphie smiled sweetly at the martial artist. "That's great, babe!" she exclaimed.
The other SeeD wasn't expecting the vicious kick Selphie aimed at his leg. He cursed loudly and hopped away, awkwardly clutching his shin, while Selphie grinned unrepentantly at Irvine. "He did deserve it, making me lug this thing all the way out here for some hot dogs."
Irvine helped her settle the "fucking grill" over the fire pit Zell had cleared. The short blond and the even shorter brunette bickered amiably while starting dinner. Irvine backed away once more, leaving them to it. Zell's zeal for cafeteria cuisine had skyrocketed during the war, when he'd been rarely able to return for his favorite hot dogs, and hadn't tapered off since.
He turned toward the now-setting sun. Selphie had been right: he really was feeling a bit better, though when not actively communicating with one of his companions his nerves began to stretch tight. He couldn't accurately pinpoint the source of his unease. He figured it was a step in the right direction that at least he wasn't completely focused on what happened all that time ago.
This time, the distraction from his thoughts was a casual inquiry. He glanced to his right at Selphie, who plopped down onto the thick grass with a sigh. "Zell's started cooking," she announced wearily. She dropped to her back on the ground, seeming not to notice the small rocks and stickers. "He'll be taking his time. These are hot dogs, after all." The tone was sarcastic, but it was impossible to miss the affection behind it.
Irvine smiled at her, easing down onto a miniature hillock. "I'm glad you two are…" He faltered, trying to think of the appropriate word. Not 'dating', he decided, resting his elbows on his knees. "…together," he finished.
Selphie flung her arms out, rolling her head to the side to regard him. "Thanks," she said.
He nodded. They rested together, looking out on the serene lake. The sunset behind them painted the large cloudbanks orange and gold. Irvine was admiring the shadowy forest topped with color when Selphie rolled onto her side.
"Damn," she muttered. Irvine glanced down at her, startled. Eyes fixed on the patch of grass she picked at with one hand, she seemed unusually hesitant.
"Not you, too," Irvine said quietly. "I thought we were coming out here to avoid awkward conversations."
She sighed, and propped her head on her unoccupied hand. "That was the plan," she allowed, with a wry twist to her mouth. She peered up at him in the steadily dimming light. "But you left me such a great opening."
He looked away from her frank, green gaze, resting his chin on his knee. The waters of the lake barely ruffled under a gentle breeze that came up from their rear. He wasn't so fond of his sessions with Anna that he wanted to carry that tense, half-anxious feeling out into the world with him. However, the breeze brought with it faint scents of rain and pine, and he found it difficult to be stressed.
"Did I?" he mumbled, chin moving against his leg. It was enough of an invitation for Selphie.
"What you said about Zell and me made me think." She turned onto her stomach, now facing both the cowboy and the martial artist. She cradled her chin in both hands, watching the blond boy tend the fire, her ankles swinging up to cross mid-air.
"From the very first time we teamed up – on that stupid mission to kill Matron, remember? – you kept flirting with me. I didn't take it seriously, really, because you flirted with the other girls, too. But then… I dunno." She glanced at him sidelong. "You reminded me about growing up in the orphanage, and how we were super-best friends when we were small."
Irvine frowned, wondering precisely what point she was trying to make. The sun, which had been hovering resolutely in the open, sank away, and the only light came from Zell's campfire.
Selphie continued, firelight washing over her face. "I sort of thought that you and I were going to be together." She didn't sound wistful, at least, Irvine thought through his surprise. She was matter-of-fact more than anything.
She didn't continue for a moment, and Irvine took the opportunity to settle himself, looking out over the darkened landscape. The light from the fire reflected orange off the lake, rippling almost too-bright back into his eyes. The sight reminded him of Trabia: there, constant bonfires were always needed to hold back the winter.
During the long months he and Selphie had spent in the frozen landscape of the Northern Garden, he'd attempted to continue the sweetly flirtatious relationship he'd started. Selphie was game, more than willing, and when he looked at her he saw something comfortable, something he wanted.
His companion, it seemed, had been following his line of thought. "You wouldn't do anything about it," she said softly, eyes still fixed resolutely on Zell. Irvine would have smiled at the faint complaining note in her voice, any other time. "I kept waiting and waiting, but you just…"
A rumble of thunder sounded, and Irvine glanced up at the gathered cloudbanks. "Very appropriate," he muttered.
Selphie smiled, and pushed off the ground to kneel beside him. "So what was it, Irvine? Why just give up, after all that effort?" She wasn't angling for an apology, Irvine could see. Her whole attitude was pure Selphie: sincere, trying to understand, unassuming and candid.
Irvine took a deep breath.
It was fucking freezing.
That was the only thing Irvine could think, say, or comprehend during his first week of a Trabian winter. He wore thick woolens under his long, leather duster, wrapping his lower face and throat in a silk muffler. They didn't help much – at least, not enough for real comfort. He grew so cold some nights he couldn't bear to remove the leather gloves Selphie had given him, not even in bed, not even next to the fire.
His Galbadian blood was the problem. Wherever he had actually been born, he'd grown up entirely Galbadian: and that continent was a place of long, hot summers and a cool, rainy autumn; the countries were blessed with mild winters and bountiful, pleasant springs. He had never faced such paralyzing frostiness before. He'd been practically useless to Selphie for almost a month.
She didn't mind, of course. Petite Selphie flitted across the frozen soil like some sort of ice fairy on a charitable mission: legs entirely bare to the cold, leather boots gathering frost around her knees, just a brown leather bomber jacket providing any concession to the negative temperatures. Selphie's body had clearly forgotten its early Centra past. When she came back to the tent she and Irvine shared, she'd strip down to her tiny yellow dress and sit by the fire, talking merrily of the day's accomplishments, while Irvine huddled into his coat and envied her acclimation.
Selphie could acclimate herself to anything, it seemed. Months before, when Irvine had been nearly stalking her in hopes of forming a not-so-meaningful relationship, she'd accepted his dogged presence with naught more than a smile. Later, when he'd intimated real hope of becoming friends, and maybe more, she'd taken him a bit more seriously – but still treated him as honestly and cheerfully as she always had.
Now, Irvine stared across the tent at her. She stood at the worktable, her back to him, making assignments for the coming week. As usual, he'd crawled into his cot as soon as the day was over, hunched under the blanket to conserve heat. Propped on one elbow, still shivering, he watched Selphie's right foot bounce restlessly against the cool dirt floor. Her unshod feet were small and white against the black Trabian soil, and Irvine spied twin earthy streaks encircling her knees, from when she'd been digging in the canal that morning and her boots hadn't quite managed to protect her from mud.
The sniper quietly studied Selphie's form. Her legs were lovely, rising golden and strong to disappear into the short skirt. The lean muscles in each thigh clenched when she rose on tiptoe to reach a thick folder. Her waist was slender. While she sorted papers and wrote short notes to contractors and student leads, Irvine watched the way her hair, turned a rich chestnut by the firelight, brushed against her tanned, bare shoulders each time she turned her head. A greening bruise marred the soft skin of her upper arm: a joist had fallen, she'd said, or someone had needed an extra shove.
Irvine folded his arm back underneath the scratchy blanket, lowering his head to the lumpy pillow. Selphie's head turned at the slight sound, but she wasn't distracted. Irvine admired the sweet upturn of her nose and wished he could figure out what was wrong.
A fierce gust of icy wind buffeted the tent. He shuddered and burrowed further under the blankets, leaving just his eyes in the open to peer out at his companion. He wanted her. He was almost entirely certain of it. She'd gifted him with a special smile when he volunteered to second her on the Trabia rebuild mission. Seeing as he'd only taken it to get away from the Garden for a while, he felt rather guilty about how happy she'd been.
He knew that asking to be stationed with someone for nearly a year was tantamount to a declaration of love amongst SeeDs. He didn't think it would be so bad to be in love with someone like Selphie. To be in love with someone as capable, as good, as clever and understanding as she was would be marvelous – wonderful beyond measure, really.
But he just… couldn't. He'd watch as she gave commands, charming and cute and stubborn. As she trotted across the hard-packed snow on yet another errand, she always had a greeting or joke to share with those laboring. He could see the way they looked at her, the half-awed and admiring expressions bringing light to their frequently grubby faces, and he'd search for that feeling within himself. When she stumbled – which admittedly was often – he'd always be there to give her a hand up, and she'd bounce upright with a muffled curse and a sweet, self-deprecating grin. He knew with stunning clarity in those moments that he would have been so happy to stay with her, as long as she'd have him.
Then night came. Once Selphie finally put a temporary halt to her labors and fell into her own cot, Irvine waited until he was sure she slept before allowing himself to drift off. Each night he hoped his slumber would be truly restful. He'd curl under his blanket, shivering despite his coat and wool, staring into the fire. Fire made it more difficult. It was fire that had been used during their fights with Seifer, before the end. It was fire that Seifer called when he was truly furious – and so Irvine's sleep would inevitably end with nightmares. He'd wake with a gasp, glaring helplessly at the focus of his troubles. What made it worse was the unavoidable fact that the fire was necessary; the need of it echoed in every trembling line of his body. He couldn't stifle it for fear of death by exposure, but sometimes, after waking from memories he'd hoped were long buried, he wondered if freezing would be easier.
Those were the times he'd swivel in his cot and stare at the small woman snoozing peacefully, so close to him. He had imagined waking her, many times. He'd imagined pulling his cot right next to hers and partaking of her warmth – had wished for it, night after night, when shivering and fire seemed fit to drive him mad. He knew Selphie would welcome him. He'd even gone as far as to sit up in the rickety little bed, about to stand and claim his long-desired comfort. But every time he'd tried to stand, to walk those few steps, something deep within him would ice over.
By the time a few months had passed in their stay, Irvine concluded that something was wrong with him. He had made an early foray out into the snow, heading for the newly erected medical wing. Selphie had determined that the infirmary should be the first building constructed, so as to be available to the workers in case any accidents should happen. As he walked into the showers, conveniently located within the medical annex, the warm fog from the hot water enveloped his frigid skin and he was consumed by gratitude. He had already half-stripped behind one of the dressing partitions before he noticed just who else was in the shower room. He'd looked up absently and seen her. Selphie. He froze, gripping his discarded jacket too tightly. With her hands buried in her hair, eyes closed, mouth half-open under the steaming water, she was the very picture of loveliness. He could only admire the way the water slicked in sheets across her flushed skin, sliding down her long legs to pool around perfect feet.
He stood and stared. He didn't know what she'd do if she caught him looking. Somehow, he suspected that she wouldn't mind; that she might invite him over, even. But despite knowing how lovely she was, faced here with the undisputable fact of it, even knowing that she harbored, if not love, then great affection for him, he just couldn't.