Adamo: to fall in love with; to find pleasure in

Even with the Ragnarok's high speeds, the flight from Esthar to Deling was estimated to be just under six hours. That meant six hours on the ship with Seifer, spent in silence.

Quistis was not excited.

For once in her life—and likely the only time in her life—she found herself wishing that Selphie was the one piloting the Ragnarok, instead of Squall. Somehow, the upbeat brunette always managed to shave off an hour or so of travel time. Most of the time, Quistis didn't want to think about how she managed to do that, or exactly what speeds they had to travel at in order to make that happen, but it was something she would've appreciated today.

For the third time since they'd taken off, she glanced out of the corner of her eye at Seifer, who was reading on the other side of the passenger cabin. He'd said no more than ten words to her since they'd met up that morning for breakfast, and chose to sit across the aisle from her rather than beside her. Silence from Seifer made her more uncomfortable than when he was shouting in her face, and the tension in the air was far more unsettling than when she'd found herself standing across from him during the war with her whip in hand, ready to strike him down.

Out of her peripheral vision, she saw Seifer shift in his seat, switching which leg was crossed over the other. He cleared his throat and that was when she twisted in her seat so that she could finally face him head-on.

Deciding that it was now or never, Quistis broke the silence in the room. "Seifer?"

He placed his finger on the page and looked up, meeting her gaze. "What?"

"Are you going to ignore me the entire way to Deling?"

"I'm reading," he replied, looking back down at his book. It was a clear dismissal and Quistis narrowed her eyes at him, irritated.

"I've never once seen you read," she commented.

An irritated sigh escaped him and he glared up at her. "What's with people thinkin' I can't read? I'm not fuckin' illiterate, you know."

"I didn't say you were illiterate. I was just saying that I've never seen you read for pleasure before."

"Yeah, well...six hours is a long ass time." He went back to reading his book, even making it a point to angle his body away from her.

Quistis looked down at her hands and picked at her nail for a minute or so, before she asked, "Is this how it's going to be the whole time?"

"Is this how what's gonna be?" he asked without looking at her.

"Never mind. Read your damn book," she spat, facing forward again as she crossed her arms and legs. She was fed up with his attitude and if he wanted to ignore her, then fine. She'd gladly acquiesce.

"Wow, someone's feeling feisty today. Look at you, swearin' like an adult and all," he said.

Instead of responding, Quistis clenched her jaw and stared at the headrest of the seat in front of her. Silence settled in again and she tapped her fingers against the backside of her bicep, suddenly feeling impatient and holed up. With a sharp exhale, she rose from her seat and stalked towards the door.

As she was about to step over the threshold into the hallway, Seifer called out to her, "Where you goin'?"

"Wherever you're not," she sniped, and the doors slid shut behind her.

She placed her hands on her hips and sighed, trying to collect herself before she saw anyone else and snapped at them, too. There was just something about Seifer that had always set her off and now that they were...whatever they were, it was almost as if he irritated her more than he had before.

After she took a few deep breaths, she glanced to her left and stared at the elevator. Maybe I'll go find Rinoa or Zell.

She knew Rinoa would be anywhere Squall was, especially since she was just shy of six months pregnant. But Zell? He could be anywhere on the ship.

With a new goal in mind, she stepped up onto the elevator, her arms hanging loosely at her sides as she rode up to the cockpit. Zell hadn't been in the passenger cabin with them—likely because he hadn't wanted to be in a room with Seifer for too long, even if Quistis was also there—so she figured she'd see if the martial artist was with Squall and Rinoa. If he wasn't, it would probably take her nearly an hour to search the entire ship and at least that would leave her with only four hours left until they reached Deling, instead of five.

Once the elevator reached the top, the reflective red doors ahead of her slid open, revealing the oval cockpit. The wide, clear windshield of the ship offered an unobstructed view of the landscape as it flew below them. Quistis had to admit that she could see why Selphie loved flying so much. It was freeing and calming; there was nothing, and no one else up there but them.

In front of her, she could see the top of Squall's head over the pilot seat's headrest—well, it was more so the feathered ends of his chestnut-colored hair. Beside him stood Rinoa, who had her arm resting on the back of the seat as she stared out at the incredible view. To her right, in one of the two co-pilot seats, was Zell. He had his eyes closed, hands resting behind his head.

"There you are," Quistis greeted.

His bright blue eyes popped open and the edge of his tattoo wrinkled up when he grinned. "Heya Quisty! I thought you were downstairs with Seifer?"

She crossed her arms and replied, "I was. He started driving me insane so I thought I'd come up and see how things were going up here."

At that, Rinoa turned around and Quistis glanced up at her. When their eyes met, the sorceress smiled and quipped, "Well, we haven't crashed yet, so I guess things are going well."

Something akin to a snort came from Squall, and without turning, he said, "I'm mildly offended that you thought we'd have the slightest chance of crashing. Considering we trust Selphie—of all people—to pilot this thing, I'd like to think I could at least keep us in the air."

Rinoa rolled her eyes and lightly smacked Squall on the arm. "Yeah, yeah, concentrate on flying, mister!"

"You shouldn't hit the pilot," Squall deadpanned.

Rinoa waved her hand in the air dismissively and wandered over to stand in front of Quistis. "So Seifer's driving you crazy, huh? What's he doing?"

Quistis sighed and placed her hands on her hips. "He's just...being Seifer. Nothing new."

Rinoa patted Quistis' arm and drew her lips into a thin line, which Quistis figured her friend meant as a consoling grimace. How a grimace could be consoling, Quistis didn't exactly know, but leave it to Rinoa to somehow make it work.

The younger woman offered, "You could stay up here with us for a little while, then? There's an extra seat!"

At the suggestion, Quistis made her way over to the chair opposite Zell and plopped down into it, her knees rocking upwards with the sudden motion. "Sounds good to me. If I had to spend another second with him, I might've gone crazy."

Rinoa strode over to the chair beside Squall and, after sinking down into it, spun it around so she could face Quistis. "Yikes, that bad, huh?"

Before Quistis could answer, Zell interrupted the girls' conversation and pleaded, "Come on, you two. No 'girl talk' while we're around! It's seriously a bore. Right, Squall?"

A noncommittal grunt came from the other side of the pilot's seat and Zell frowned before muttering, "Thanks for the support, man."

Rinoa threw up her hands. "What else are we supposed to do for four hours, you guys? Besides, it was important, right Quistis?"

Quistis shrugged and responded, "Not particularly. I'm not sure if I really want to talk about it right now, either."

Zell straightened in his chair and suggested, "I brought my Triple Triad deck! We could play that for a bit!"

Quistis opened her mouth to shoot down the idea, but instead of saying no, closed it. Why not play? When was the last time she let herself go and spend some time with her friends? Goofing off and having fun?

"Sure. Why not?" she told Zell with a smile.

Two and a half hours later.

"Aw come on, Quisty! You've won almost every single game!" Zell shouted.

"No need to yell, Zell. You just need to work on your strategy," Quistis advised as she collected the cards off of the playing mat.

"You're pretty much impossible to beat! I've tried everything," the martial artist protested.

"Everything other than strategy," Squall ragged.

"You come beat her then, Squall!" Zell goaded.

"Fine," the commander stated, pressing the autopilot button on the ship's dash.

Fifteen minutes later, Squall tossed down his final card, flipping over Quistis' two remaining cards. The former instructor let out a surprised gasp and glanced up at her usually stoic friend, who had a wide grin on his face. "Rin did tell you that no one's been able to beat me."

"Unbelievable. You're the first person who's managed to defeat me in six months," Quistis confessed, her mouth hanging slightly open in shock.

Squall let out a quiet, satisfied chuckle. Quistis started shuffling her cards again and stated, "One more time."

"You sure you want to go through that again?" Squall asked.

With fire in her eyes, Quistis glared up at him. "I'm positive."

This time, almost twenty minutes later, it was Quistis who threw down her last card with a triumphant grin on her face. "Take that, Commander."

He sat there in silence with his arms crossed, until the frown on his face curled upwards into a small smile. "Well, if anyone was going to beat me at this, it was going to be you, Quistis. Good game."

"Thank you, Squall." With a smile on her face, Quistis gathered the cards and placed them in a neat stack before handing them over to Zell.

"Way to go, Quisty!" Zell cheered.

Quistis laughed and shook her head at his antics. "Thanks, Zell. I'm going to head back down, now. Hyne knows what Seifer's been doing to stay entertained this whole time. I'll see you guys when we land."

She headed out of the cockpit and rode the elevator back down to the Ragnarok's main level. Before she entered the passenger cabin, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly, mentally preparing herself for what was likely to be a rather heated confrontation. When the doors slid open and she stepped inside, she stopped in her tracks in surprise.

Over the edge of one of the seats, hung Seifer's long legs. He'd kicked his boots off and they were resting in a heap at the base of the chair. It would have been silent in the cabin, if it weren't for his soft snores. An affectionate smile teased at the corners of her lips and she tried to suppress it as she ambled over to the row he'd been sitting in earlier. When she stood over him, the smile took over her face, and she covered her mouth to hide a giggle at the sight.

Seifer had lifted the armrest and laid down, draping his arm over his eyes. The book he'd been reading earlier was propped open on his chest, rising and falling with every breath he took.

He rarely ever let his guard down enough to fall asleep in public places, and though they were on a ship with people he knew and were familiar with, she wouldn't have thought that he'd consider it a "safe environment" to let himself go. It was surprising, yes, but in a good way. Somehow, the knowledge that that's how he viewed her friends made her irritation and anger dissipate. Perhaps he was slowly beginning to consider them his friends, or at the very least, trust them—even if it was only a little.

She sat down on the other side of the aisle, watching him sleep with a wistful expression on her face. In some ways, he was still very much the Seifer she'd known before the war. He was still quick to anger, still incredibly sarcastic, and still prone to throwing in at least three curse words per sentence. However, there was so much more to him than she'd originally thought. When they were at Garden, she hadn't cared to find out the hows or whys of his behavior, and simply took him at face value. The war, as well as the past few months, had shown her otherwise.

He was quick to anger because he was often shunned for simply being who he was. He was defensive because life had constantly thrown things at him, and he was often blamed for others' mistakes. He was sarcastic because in truth, he was more vulnerable than many people thought he was. That was a side of him that he didn't want others to see, but had shown it to her.

However, as people were wont to do, he'd changed. Yes, he still angered quickly, but he was more capable of calming himself down and working through his anger. Yes, he still used sarcasm as a buffer, but as she'd seen firsthand, he was more willing to open up and share his thoughts and feelings with her. She did still have a hard time reconciling the Seifer from the past with the Seifer she knew now. But in this moment in time, she decided to just take him as he was. Like she'd told Rinoa earlier: Seifer was simply Seifer.

As she pondered over his unexpectedly multi-faceted persona, her eyes began to drift shut and before she knew it, she'd fallen asleep, too.

A rough jolt shuddered through the Ragnarok and Quistis shot upright in her seat as her eyes darted around the cabin. Her abrupt awakening left her slightly disoriented, and it took her a few seconds to realize that a black sweater had been draped over her. It slid down her body as she stood up, glancing around for the cause of the disruption. She glanced out the window and saw the Great Plains of Galbadia that surrounded Deling City. It was closer to early evening than it was to noon, and she realized that she'd slept through the last hour and a half of their flight.

Seifer wasn't in the cabin and neither were their bags; Quistis surmised that he must've carried them out to the boarding ramp in preparation for their trek into the city. She tucked her bangs behind her ears and, with the sweater in hand, headed for the main hallway. A sudden shiver wracked her body and she realized that since the ship had been shut off, a cold draft was seeping into the cabin from outside. Quickly, she shrugged the sweater on and realized that it must be Seifer's, since it hung to about mid-thigh on her, and the sleeves nearly dwarfed her hands.

A surreptitious sniff confirmed that deduction: it smelled like spices and musk—the same scent that she'd noticed on him from before on the Ragnarok, when he'd leaned down as if to kiss her. She'd also smelled it on him in her bathroom that night, and like a young schoolgirl, a blush crept across her cheeks.

Oh for Hyne's sake, I turned twenty-two today and here I am, acting like a teenager, she reprimanded herself.

The doors slid open and she hastily stepped out of the cabin. Squall, Rinoa, Zell, and Seifer were standing out in the hall, chatting with each other, but fell silent when they spotted her.

Seifer grinned and announced, "Looks like someone's decided to grace us with her presence."

"Oh please. You were sleeping earlier, too," she mumbled, pulling the sweater tighter around her frame.

His eyes flickered over her body and the grin on his face widened, making her blush again. From the expression on his face, he was obviously very pleased to see her wearing his clothing. Why the visual in question gave men such satisfaction was beyond her. However, he was obviously in a much better mood than he'd been when they'd first taken off, and for that, she couldn't complain. With a not-so-serious huff, she strode past them all, and the doors leading into the bay slid open for her. The rest of the group trailed after her and she pressed the button for the boarding ramp to lower, crossing her arms as she waited.

Seifer hoisted their bags up onto his shoulders and once the ramp was fully lowered, they all stomped down to the grass below the ship. When they were on stationary ground once more, Quistis faced Squall and Rinoa. "Are you two accompanying us into the city?"

Squall shook his head in denial and replied, "As much as I want to be there when you catch this guy, Cid's called me back to Garden. I have to return tonight."

Rinoa bounced back onto her heels and added, "Which, naturally, means I'm going too. But I'll see you guys when you get back. Promise me that you'll be safe, okay? All of you?" She stepped forward and embraced Quistis before finishing. "I know you're more than capable of finding this guy, because you're all SeeDs and stuff, but...just be careful."

Quistis pulled back from the hug and rested her hands on Rinoa's elbows. "We promise, Rin. You just need to focus on taking care of yourself. We'll be fine. We'll see you guys in a few days, hopefully."

Squall nodded and saluted the trio. Zell and Quistis returned the gesture, while Seifer just waved his hand in the air. As if he'd expected that response, Squall just shook his head and walked back up the ramp. Rinoa quickly hugged both Zell and Seifer, before waving and rushing after the commander. A few seconds later, the ramp began to close and the three of them turned, heading for the city.

Even from far away, Deling City was difficult to miss. It was a center hub for nightlife and had earned its reputation as the city that never slept. No matter the hour, there was always something going on in Deling. Right now, at the beginning of the evening rush, the entire city was lit up. The sky above them was a mid-tone blue, which faded into a deep navy on their left, and a pale periwinkle along the horizon, out past the cliffs beyond the city. A halo of illumination rose up above the Deling skyline, and as they walked closer, the glow only intensified. Since the Ragnarok wasn't too far from the city's main entrance, in just under ten minutes, they were walking past the car rental office and into the depths of the metropolis.

Once they stood on the sidewalk, Seifer dropped their bags onto the ground and rolled his shoulders. "The hell you got in your bag, Trepe?"

"Clothes. Mission materials. Hopefully nothing overly fragile, considering the way you just put it down," she remarked.

"You're welcome for carrying it for you," he retorted.

"Yes, thank you, Seifer."

Zell groaned and said, "I can never tell if you two are legit fighting, or what."

At the same time, they both said, "We're not fighting."

The martial artist rolled his eyes and mumbled, "Yeah, okay."

With perfect timing, the bus marked '08' pulled up to the curb and the accordion doors popped open for them, revealing the driver who tipped up his cap in greeting. The trio piled onto the vehicle and the doors snapped shut behind them. Thankfully, the ride into the heart of the city was shorter than anticipated, and before she knew it, they were parked in front of the hotel.

After they clambered off and thanked the driver, Zell stretched his arms over his head and let out a long groan. "Man, I'm beat. Are you guys just heading straight to bed?"

As if on reflex, Quistis rushed to clarify Zell's insinuation. "Yes, I imagine we are. Heading to bed separately, I mean."

Zell raised an eyebrow at her reaction and said, "Yeah, okay...I just meant like, are you two calling it a night? Because if you wanted to go search for the guy now, that's cool. But sleep sounds pretty great, too."

Embarrassed, Quistis felt a wave of heat rush up her neck and she muttered, "Right. No, we're probably heading straight to bed."

Seifer didn't say anything and just propped his hand up on the duffel bag over his shoulder. When Quistis didn't add onto her statement, Zell shrugged and shoved his hands into his back pockets. "All righty, then. Should we go check in?"

Without waiting for a response, he turned and strolled over to the front desk, leaning over to speak to the receptionist. Quistis and Seifer followed after him in silence and caught the tail end of his request.

"...check in?"

The receptionist nodded and asked, "Names?"

Zell cleared his throat and replied, "It should just be under SeeD - Balamb Garden."

"Ah yes, I see the reservation. Three of you, correct? Would you like two or three rooms?"

Quickly, Quistis stated, "Three." At the same time, Seifer said, "Two is good."

Zell glanced over his shoulder at them with a confused expression and Seifer explained, "You and I can share a room, dumbass."

"Oh, right," he agreed, and turned back to the receptionist. "Two is fine, please."

The woman nodded and they could hear her nails clicking against the keyboard while she entered their information. A few seconds later, she rose from her chair and walked to the back section of the space, grabbing some key cards from the printer. With an assured snap, she placed them down on the counter and said, "You will be in rooms 405 and 406. They're adjoining, so if you need to, feel free to open the door that connects your rooms. Check out time is eleven a.m. We do offer free breakfast downstairs in the lounge, and every evening, there is live piano music served with dinner. Let us know if there is anything else we can do for you."

Zell grabbed the cards and thanked the receptionist, before leading them over to the elevators. Once they were on their way up to the fourth floor, he let out a long sigh and glanced sidelong at Seifer and Quistis. "You sure you guys don't wanna share a room?"

"Zell, whyever would you think that?" Quistis asked in a nearly monotone voice. How does he keep picking up on things?

"Just asking. I'm fine with a room to myself and I'm pretty sure each room has two beds," he replied, which caused Seifer to snicker.

"Yeah, they better. Sorry chicken-wuss. I'm not sharing a bed with you."

"Whatever, man," Zell threw back, though he sounded almost bored, which was a stark contrast to how feisty he usually was in his responses.

Once the doors opened, they trudged down the hall towards their rooms, which weren't very far from the elevator. Zell sped up slightly and reached their rooms first, pushing open the door once he'd swiped the key card. He turned and handed Quistis her key, before saying, "See you inside, Seifer!"

Seifer rolled his eyes as he faced Quistis. "That kid has way too much energy, I'm tellin' ya."

"He's just enthusiastic about life," Quistis said in defense of her friend.

"Sure, if that's what you wanna call it," he replied as he glanced back over his shoulder. He turned back and asked, "Hey, meet me down in the lobby in fifteen minutes?"


"Just 'cause. Did you bring a dress of any kind?"

"A dress? This is a mission, Seifer, not a vacation," she reprimanded.

"Yeah, I know, thanks for that. I'm just asking, shit. Did you or did you not?" he retorted.

"...I might've brought a light sundress," Quistis begrudgingly admitted.

"Called it. From how heavy your bag was, I figured you'd brought some extra stuff," he stated as he handed her bag over. "Wear it. I'll see you in the lobby in a bit." He turned and walked over to his door, pounding on it for Zell to let him in. Apparently, the martial artist had forgotten that each room only had one key.

Quistis rolled her eyes at the boys' antics, before letting herself into her own room. She had to admit that it was rather nice to have a bit of privacy. Things between her and Seifer had gotten significantly more confusing as of late, and some space between them would help, not hurt. On that note, she questioned why Seifer wanted her to meet him in the lobby, let alone in a dress. After all, hadn't she told Zell that she assumed they'd all turn in for the night?

She briefly considered not going, but knew that the 'what-if' would only bother her for the rest of the night. If she didn't go, she wasn't likely to get any sleep and she knew that was why Seifer hadn't explained the reason why he wanted her to head back downstairs. He knew that the lack of explanation and resolution would only drive her crazy, until she gave in and tried to find answers.

Damn you, Seifer. He apparently knows me better than I thought he did…

She tossed her bag onto the bed and rifled through it for the dress she'd mentioned. It wasn't anything overly fancy; she'd brought it just in case she had some down time to herself. It was slightly on the shorter side, hitting her only mid-thigh, but was nowhere near as racy as the red dress she'd worn to the bar in Balamb, all those nights ago.

When her fingers brushed against the somewhat scratchy chiffon, she grasped the material and yanked her dress out of the bag. She shook it to try to smooth out the wrinkles, and ended up pulling at the ruffle on the upper section in an attempt to straighten the edges. After feeling around the contents of her bag again, she pulled out the peach fashion belt that was meant to go with the dress, and quickly shrugged out of Seifer's sweater. She laid it down on the bed and after she'd kicked her battle outfit aside, she stepped into the dress and zipped up the back, threading the belt through the small, flimsy hoops on the sides afterwards.

She hurried into the bathroom and undid her trademark clip, opting instead for a casual bun on top of her head. Purposefully leaving small wisps free, she tried to work it into an artful disarray, before giving up with a huff. She ran back to her bag and grabbed her makeup, quickly transforming her daytime look into something more appropriate for a night out.

Figuring that was good enough, she walked back into the room and tossed her makeup back into her duffel, reaching in for her flat, comfortable shoes. After all, this wasn't a date...right? He hadn't explicitly stated that it was, and she'd never dressed up for him before-not really, anyway. That time at the bar had been at Xu's insistence, not for Seifer's sake.

With a quick glance at her phone, she realized she only had three minutes to spare. She tossed her credit card and room key in her clutch and headed out the door, hurrying back to the elevator. As she rode down to the lobby, she was surprised to find that she felt...rather nervous. Again, he hadn't stated that it was a date, but she couldn't help but feel like it was. After all, this was the first time that they'd officially gone out together, alone, in a city. They'd had lunch in Esthar, yes, but that was technically during a mission and her mindset had been very much in the work-zone. Now, in what felt like a break from the stress and danger of the mission, she had a chance to actually have fun.

When the elevator doors slid open, her eyes immediately landed on Seifer's broad back, standing over by the hotel's rotating glass doors. He was staring out at the street, seemingly lost in his thoughts. He'd changed into something more casual as well, and it looked like he was wearing a gray knit sweater over simple dark jeans. The thing about Seifer that had always irritated Quistis, was that he could wear the world's most ragged clothing and still look like a runway model—and he knew it, too. She also realized that they'd inadvertently matched outfits and cringed inwardly. They weren't exactly the matchy-matchy type of couple—not that they were even a "couple".

She walked towards him and since her shoes were flat, her steps were rather quiet. He didn't hear her approach and when she stood just behind him, she reached out and lightly tapped his arm. "Seifer?"

At the sound of her voice, he whirled around and she saw his eyes travel from her shoes back up to her face. A slow, seductive grin spread out across his face and he greeted her with, "You look great."

Trying not to blush like a teenager on her first date, Quistis smiled and replied, "Thank you. Uh, you do, too."

She would've never thought it'd be possible, but his grin turned more suggestive at her compliment. "Let's go?" he asked, lifting his arm up for her.

Quistis paused, hesitating before she looped her arm through his. Though she'd been excited while she was getting ready upstairs, now that she was faced with the decision of 'to go' or 'not to go', the knowledge that just that morning, things had still been awkward between them gave her pause. "I don't is kind of late, and we probably should get some rest."

"You're thinking too much again, Quis. Just go with it," Seifer tried to convince her.

She glanced up into his bright, clear eyes, and after gazing into their depths for a few seconds, she let out a resigned sigh. He took that as a yes, and she allowed him to lead her out onto the street. Once they were out the revolving doors, the sounds of cars driving by and people honking assaulted her senses. The mindless chatter of other people walking around them drifted past, and she instinctively inched closer to Seifer.

"Where exactly are we going?" she asked.

"You know that the definition of 'surprise' is that you don't know in advance, right?"

Quistis scoffed and shook her head at his teasing, though it was with a slight smile on her face. Seifer turned and headed left, pulling her along behind him. They walked in companionable silence and a wave of relief washed over her at the lack of awkwardness between them. Ever since yesterday, the tension in the air whenever they were in the same room was nearly palpable, and it was starting to drive her crazy. In this stolen, peaceful moment in time, she was relieved that it was nowhere to be found. It was also the first time she felt so at ease in his presence.

They were nearly at the end of the street when Seifer came to a stop in front of a restaurant, and Quistis glanced up so she could read the sign. When she realized they were standing in front of The Renault, she gasped in surprise. "Are we...Are we eating here?"

Seifer looked down at her and smiled; the sight nearly took her breath away because for the first time in all the years she'd known him, it was the most carefree smile she'd ever seen on his face. There was no malice, no sarcasm, no inherent anger at the world and anyone around them. He was just...happy.

They stood there on the sidewalk, staring into each other's eyes, surrounded by the crowd. Eventually, Seifer realized he hadn't replied and he looked back up at the restaurant. "It was a bitch to get a reservation, so you're welcome."

"Isn't The Renault booked months in advance? I heard it's nearly impossible to get a table on such short notice."

"I know a guy," he said as he shrugged nonchalantly.

They headed for the door, and the attendant posted nearby held it open for them. Deling was well-known for having one of the best culinary scenes, and The Renault was at the very top of that list. It was a five-star restaurant that served government officials, celebrities, and other persons of interest. Because of its popularity, reservations were made months in advance; cancellations were unheard of, and Quistis wondered who exactly it was that Seifer knew that had connections to the restaurant.

The view inside was breathtaking. Red velvet curtains draped the walls, and romantic candlelight illuminated the space. Curved staircases stood on either side of the room, flanking a small fountain that sat in the center of the rotunda. The soft gurgle of water was relaxing and Quistis practically melted into Seifer's arm. Quiet piano music drifted through the room and a hostess stood directly in front of them, with a polite smile on her face.

"Welcome to The Renault. May I have the name your reservation is under?"

"Leonhart," Seifer replied, which earned him a disdainful look from Quistis.

"Ah, yes. We always have a table ready for the Commander. Please, follow me this way," the hostess instructed, before grabbing two menus and leading them up the plush carpeted staircase.

As they followed after the hostess, Quistis hissed, "Leonhart? Really, Seifer? Does Squall know that you used his connections to get us a table?"

Under his breath, he replied, "Technically I didn't. I just gave them his name when I called. I mean seriously, do you like spit in your food? 'Cuz I sure as hell don't, and that's what would've happened if I gave them my name."

A laugh escaped from her lips and she shook her head at him. "You're an ass sometimes, you know that?"

"Yeah, you love it."

Once they reached the upper landing, the hostess weaved in between occupied tables, leading them across the restaurant's floor. The atmosphere of the restaurant was obviously meant to be intimate, because though the restaurant was at near max capacity, its guests never raised their voices above soft murmurs.

When they reached a set of tall, wrought-iron and glass doors, the attendant there pushed the door open for them and they were led out onto an open balcony. A single table sat in front of them, draped in a deep, maroon tablecloth. Atop the table sat a miniature candelabra, which lit up the table with a soft, diffused glow. The attendant pulled out a chair for Quistis, and she sat down, while Seifer was seated across from her.

"Enjoy your meal," the hostess said, before she walked away. The attendant poured them both a glass of water and set the carafe on a side table before he too stepped back, shutting the door behind him.

Now that they were alone, Quistis looked over at Seifer across the table, her mouth hanging open slightly in disbelief. "This is incredible!"

"I thought you'd like it. I mean, it's fancy as fuck, so pretty much anyone with an appetite would like it, right?"

"The Renault is one of the best restaurants worldwide. I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy it," she replied with a smile. "What exactly is the occasion, though?"

"Seriously? Don't tell me you forgot your own birthday?"

My...birthday? She closed her mouth with a snap before she asked, "I...You remember my birthday?"

"I've known when your birthday is since we were like fourteen, Quistis. Not that hard to remember," he responded as he opened the menu.

The fact that Seifer had gone out of his way to surprise her with a birthday dinner to one of the most coveted restaurants in the city, especially knowing that they'd argued just the day before, made Quistis' chest tighten up. It was such an uncharacteristically romantic gesture-one that she'd never expected him to make-that she wasn't sure how to process it all.

"Thank you," she whispered, unsure of what else to say.

Another shrug was his response. "I'm not really good at all of this 'date' stuff, But I figured I'd be a dick if I didn't try so, here we are."

She reached across the table and laid her hand on his, as she smiled again. "I...This means a lot, Seifer. So thank you—really."

He grinned again, pleased at her praise, and said, "Tch. Yeah. It's expensive as fuck here so, you know. Enjoy it."

There was the Seifer she knew. She chuckled under her breath at him and finally opened up her own menu. However, after a few seconds of reading the exact same word over and over again, she realized that she was having a hard time focusing on the words in front of her. As if she weren't able to control her own actions, her eyes kept jumping to Seifer above the brim of the menu.

Considering how much thought he'd put into organizing the entire night, she felt like she should at least apologize for their argument the night before. She knew that he'd wanted her to say something yesterday, but as much as she hated to admit it...she'd been afraid to.

She, Quistis Trepe, youngest SeeD in all of history and a former instructor, master of blue magic and trained mercenary, was afraid to admit her own feelings.

It wasn't that she was scared of being rejected—well okay, there was a small fear of that, and probably always would be. But Seifer had never once given her any indication that he wasn't serious about whatever it was that was between them. Didn't that mean that he at least deserved an honest answer from her? Trouble was, how could she answer his unspoken question when she herself wasn't even sure of where they stood.

She knew that she enjoyed his company, which frankly, was a surprise. When he wasn't being a jerk, he was remarkably fun to be around. He had this sort of dry humor that was interlaced with vulgarity, and had it been coming from anyone else, Quistis would've immediately left the room. But with Seifer, somehow he made her laugh—really laugh.

And by Hyne, did she love that about him.

Why had she run away that morning in Balamb? What had she been so afraid of? No, she knew the answer to that. She'd been afraid of someone—anyone—finding out that they'd spent the night together. They hadn't slept together, but the insinuation was there and for whatever reason, that had felt like something she'd needed to keep a secret. But why? Was she embarrassed of Seifer?

Sadly, that day, the answer had been yes. She hadn't wanted her friends, or even the townsfolk of Balamb, to see that she'd spent the night with Seifer Almasy. Now, though? Sitting across from him at one of Deling's most expensive restaurants, as the candlelight cast a warm glow across his undeniably masculine features, she felt proud to be the one who was there with him.

As her eyes were trained on his face, she realized that his lips were moving and the world came back into focus. She hadn't realized that she'd been shutting out the sounds around them.

"Sorry, what did you say?" Quistis asked.

He shook his head with a knowing smile on his face. "I asked what you were getting."

"Oh, I...I have no idea, to be honest," she admitted as her eyes fell to the menu again.

"I'm getting steak and lobster."

"Of course you are. That sounds horrendously packed with calories."

"Hell yeah it does."

She glanced up and met his eyes again, noticing how the corners of his eyes wrinkled up slightly when he grinned. Have they always done that?

Trying not to grin like a fool, she said, "I think I'm just going to get a salad."

"Quistis, don't be one of those girls," Seifer reprimanded.

"What girls?"

"The ones who get a damn salad when a guy takes them to a nice restaurant. Order something hefty, for Hyne's sake. Curves are good."

"I'm not trying to watch my figure, Seifer. Hyne knows I burn more calories in battle than I take in per day," she said defensively. "I just...there are too many options on the menu."

He opened his mouth to speak but the doors to the balcony opened, interrupting him. With impeccable timing, the waiter stepped out to their table. "What can I get you tonight?" His words were tinged with a slight accent and Quistis found herself wondering where he might be from.

They quickly ordered: Seifer got his steak and lobster as planned, and at the last minute, Quistis decided on seafood alfredo. The waiter disappeared again and once the doors were shut once more, she interlaced her fingers and placed her hands on the table.

With slight grins on their faces, they stared across the table at each other. This went on for a few minutes until Seifer leaned back in his seat and crossed his leg over his knee. He tapped his fingers on the table, ending the moment. "So."

Quistis raised an eyebrow at him. "So?"

"Shit, I dunno. We should talk about something," he shrugged.

She let out a small laugh and looked down at her hands. "What, staring at each other doesn't count for conversation?"

"Not really. But I'm down to keep doin' it, if you want to."

Her eyes shot up to meet his again and she tilted her head to the side. "Why?"

He held her gaze for a few seconds before he quietly said, "Because you look beautiful. You do all the time but…"

As if he was suddenly embarrassed, he trailed off and shrugged, dropping his hands into his lap. The sudden desire to touch him, to reassure him so that he didn't feel awkward, made Quistis reach across the table with her palm up. He looked down at her hand and back up at her, before threading his fingers through hers.

"Thank you," she said with a smile.

Again, he shrugged, though the corners of his lips curled upwards slightly. Deciding to spare him, Quistis started chatting nonsensically about her life since the war. He'd opened up to her about what he'd gone through when they were at the bar, but she'd never reciprocated. It was useless, mundane knowledge; she talked about how she'd considered applying to be an instructor again but hadn't, about how she'd floated aimlessly from day to day, just going through the motions of her life.

Getting everything off her chest felt...therapeutic. She'd never really told anyone about how pointless her life seemed since they'd returned to Garden. Best of all, she knew that Seifer would understand better than anyone else could.

Their waiter brought out their food in the middle of the conversation, and it was then that Seifer chimed in and spoke a little bit about how he'd come to work for Garden again—though not as a SeeD. He'd run into Cid in Balamb one day, and surprisingly, the old man had sat him down at the hotel restaurant, wanting to know about his life. From there, things snowballed and suddenly, he was a "third-party consultant". They both laughed about the fact that they'd never thought he'd carry the title of "consultant", but here he was.

Their hands were still entwined and as the conversation hit a lull, she turned his over, tracing the faint vein lines that ran under his skin. Even as a teenager, Seifer had always been muscular, with body mass that veered into bulky territory, as opposed to lean. Now, as an adult, the wiry ropes in his forearm were more prominent and every time she ghosted her fingertip along his skin, he tensed, causing the muscles to flex.

In a rough, gravelly voice, Seifer said, "You might wanna not do that…"

Her eyes shot up to his. "Why?"

With the slow burn of desire lighting up his eyes, he stared at her. "You know why."

Quistis blushed and reluctantly, she let go of his hand. Seifer cleared his throat and looked away, his eyes trained on the buildings below. They sat in silence, and the air was thick with sexual tension. With a single look, a single touch, he was able to set her body on fire, and she had no idea how he did it.

This time, it was his turn to fill the silence with mindless chatter. Surprisingly, he started talking about Zell. He hurriedly recounted their mission together, and gave Quistis a play-by-play of their entire conversation inside Marcus' condo. Though he was talking about work-related things, his focus was more on Zell's "ridiculous attitude" and "how that idiot ever became a SeeD and I didn't, I'll never fuckin' know".

Within seconds, Quistis was doubled over in laughter again, and the moment had passed. She was surprised to realize that, for once in her life, she didn't think about her own work a single time that night.

When their empty plates had been cleared and Seifer had paid the bill, they rose from their chairs and left the restaurant, taking their time as they strolled back to the hotel. The entire dinner had been absolutely perfect, and that scared Quistis. She found herself wary of what the future held. With the way their relationship had been since she'd seen him at the bar that first time, Quistis found herself wondering if they'd just be at each other's throats again tomorrow. After all, that was just the way Seifer was. He was generally abrasive, rough at the edges, and put up with no one's nonsense, let alone hers.

He'd never been the roses and wine type of guy, and it made her really think about why he'd pull out all the stops and plan a night like tonight. He had to have done most of it last night, after they'd been told they were being sent to Deling. If not last night, then while they were in the air and she'd been up in the cockpit with the rest of the group.

She glanced up at his profile; her eyes traced along the sharp edge of his straight nose, followed the curve of his fuller-than-average lips, and the lines of his strong, masculine jaw. In this moment in time, he was a paradox to her, and she found herself asking herself whether she could handle his back and forth, his push and pull, on a constant basis.

They made their way through the hotel's revolving door and once they were in the elevator, Seifer pressed the button for their floor. The ride up was silent, but filled with heated glances. That shared moment at the restaurant had fueled the fire between them, and spoke volumes about where the night would likely lead. When they were standing in front of their room doors, Seifer's eyes flickered over to her door, before landing on her face again.

"Still trying to avoid tellin' the rest of them about us?" he questioned. She knew that was his way of giving her an out, if that was what she needed.

She wanted him—Hyne how she wanted him—but wasn't sure if she could handle everything that came with that. Their first time had been driven by unbridled passion, and desperation at the fact that they could both have easily lost one another. At the time, they hadn't questioned why they cared so much about that—they'd simply acted on it. Now, they both had time to think about the whys and hows, and though he seemed willing to take the plunge, she wasn't so sure how she felt.

Without a word, she closed her eyes and nodded. When she opened them again, she saw him tense.

"So, I take it you don't want me to come in."

"Seifer...I don't want to fight about this. Not again, not tonight," she said quietly.

The muscle in his jaw flexed and he nodded, "Okay. I guess I got my answer."

He started to head for his door and at the last second, when his fingers were wrapped around the handle, she reached out for him. "Wait."

With a shuttered expression, he faced her again and didn't say anything as he waited for her to make the next move. Inside her mind, Quistis fought with herself on whether Zell would notice that Seifer hadn't returned. If he did, would he put two and two together or simply assume that Seifer had been with someone else, not Quistis? Earlier, when he'd asked if they wanted to share a room, she'd taken that as indication that he knew what was going on between her and Seifer, but with Zell, it was often impossible to guess how much he really did know.

Was it worth the risk? Was it worth Zell knowing and telling the rest of her friends? And if he did know, what did it really matter? What would change, other than the way her friends saw her?

In the end, was keeping their relationship a secret, worth hurting Seifer and never seeing that smile on his face again?

Seifer started to turn away from her and reach into his pocket for his key, and it was then that she knew her decision was made. She rushed forward and placed her hand on his forearm, and he stilled, glancing back up at her with that same closed-off expression on his face.

"I want you to stay with me tonight," she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

With those four words, his face transformed from tense and disconnected, to hopeful and vulnerable. The knowledge that she was able to do that to him, nearly broke her heart in two. He was never one to beat around the bush, and for once, she was thankful for that. With no further preamble, he reached for her and wrapped his arms around her waist, pushing her back up against her closed door. His lips crashed down onto hers and within seconds, his tongue snaked along the edge of hers, sending a rippling wave of desire through her body.

After a few mind-numbing seconds, he broke the kiss and placed his lips against the curve of her jaw. Slowly, he made his way down her neck, leaving a trail of kisses along her vein. The ticklish sensation made her want to giggle, but at the same time, sent bolts of pleasure shooting through her lower abdomen.

"Seifer...Seifer, wait," she whispered, her voice hoarse with arousal.

He straightened and looked down at her with heavy lids. "Give me a good reason to wait."

"Let me open my door."

She placed her hands against his firm chest and lightly pushed him back, so that she could reach into her pocket and pull out her key card. When she turned and tried to concentrate on letting them into her room, he reached down and slid her dress up, lightly dragging his fingertips along the creamy skin of her legs. He kept inching them higher, closer to the apex of her thighs, and as the light on her lock flashed green, she let out a gasp. Her eyelids fluttered in pleasure and she gripped the door handle tightly, unable to process anything other than what he was doing to her body—and they weren't even inside, yet.

"Here," Seifer whispered, his lips tracing along the edge of her outer ear. He wrapped his fingers around hers and turned the handle for her, pushing her inside with his massive body.

He kicked the door shut with the heel of his boot and since her room was pitch black now, she heard rather than saw him shrug off his sweater. The darkness amplified every sensation, every sound, and when his hands found hers again, the feeling of his skin against hers caused her abdomen to tighten in anticipation.

Silently, he led her towards the bed and she jumped in surprise when she felt his lips on hers once more. The corners of his lips turned upwards in a smile, and his fingers trailed along her arms briefly, before disappearing. She frowned at the sudden lack of contact, until she felt him making his way down her body. He toyed with the hemline of her dress for a few seconds, and inch by inch, pushed it upwards until he reached her waist. When he paused, she sensed that he wanted her help, so she took over and held her dress as he moved his hands over to her belt, quickly undoing it and tossing it aside.

In a single, rough motion, he placed his hands on her waist and spun her around, causing her to fall forward onto her hands. A surprised gasp escaped her again and she cursed herself inwardly for sounding like such a damsel in distress. She felt his fingers at her zipper and at an excruciatingly slow pace, he pulled it down, causing her to shiver as the cold air hit her exposed back.

Once it was undone all the way, he leaned down and pressed his lips against her skin, sucking ever so slightly before moving lower. It was more than a kiss, but less than a lick, and the unfamiliar sensation caused her to shiver again-though this time, it was more in anticipation of what was to come than the temperature in the room.

With deft fingers, he unclasped her bra and pushed the straps down her arms, leaving her completely undressed from the waist up. When he pulled away and straightened, she crawled up the bed and out of her dress, flipping over so that she was on her back. The sound of clothing rustling told her that he was likely getting undressed as well, and when she felt the end of the bed dip under his weight, she opened her arms for him. In what felt like the most natural action in the world, he climbed over her and she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him down for another kiss.

As his tongue slid along the length of hers again in practiced, familiar fashion, she trailed her hands down his back, ghosting her fingertips along his skin. Once she reached the waistband of his boxers, she pushed her fingers inside and tugged them down. He leaned up and hastily climbed out of them, tossing them aside before lowering his weight onto her again. This time, she could feel his desire for her against her inner thigh; the velvety soft, but rigid and demanding length caused a spike of arousal to shoot straight to her core, and she automatically opened her legs, wrapping them around his waist.

He broke the kiss again and she felt him smile against her neck, before he headed lower down her body. Suddenly feeling impatient, she threaded her fingers through his hair and broke the silence. "Seifer, I appreciate you taking the time to make sure that I'm thoroughly satisfied, but at this point? I just need you inside of me. Please."

She heard him chuckle-the sound was throaty, rough, and had her rolling her hips in anticipation. "Whatever you want, Quis."

In one sure, purposeful thrust, they were one, and Quistis arched her back as she cried out, her fingers tightening in his hair. Seifer propped himself up on his elbows and cradled her head in his hands as he continued to drive into her.

Somehow, this time was different. This time, in the dark, with their bodies connected in the most primal way, Quistis felt him.

She felt his fears, his vulnerability; she felt how they shared the same hesitations about life, about relationships, about trusting people. She felt how he pushed her higher, made her fight harder to be who she was meant to be, to be true to herself. She felt the strength in his arms as they wrapped around her, as he held her in his embrace.

The emotions swirling within her amplified every time his hips pushed against hers, and she felt tears prickling at her eyes. Unable to stop them, she turned her head to the side and let the moisture fall towards the pillow. Seifer must've heard the hitch in her breathing and he paused, rearing up above her as he lifted his hand to her face. Softly, he trailed his thumb along her cheekbone, wiping the dampness from her skin.

"Quis, what's wrong?" Though his voice was hoarse and his breaths came quickly, she could hear the concern hidden underneath his desire and that, in and of itself, made her cry even more.

"Seifer...I…" Unable to form words that would adequately describe how she was feeling, she trailed off and simply shook her head.

With surprising gentleness, he planted a kiss on her lips before slowly pulling all the way out until only the tip of his member was inside of her. His hips remained poised there as he kissed along her cheek until he reached her ear. Up above her head, he laced their fingers together and squeezed, before he whispered, "Trust me. I know," and drove into her completely.

She cried out again, both at the overwhelming pleasure and the emotional epiphany she'd just had, but was unable to vocalize. Within minutes, she felt her release creeping up on her and after one more thrust from him, the tension within her snapped and her inner walls pulsed around him. She tensed and gripped the bedsheets as she gasped aloud, riding the wave of sensations. Seconds after her release, she knew he'd reached his because he let out a husky groan and tightened his fingers around hers.

They laid there, basking in the afterglow, and she reveled in the feel of his substantial weight on hers. It was comforting, and she was suddenly afraid for when it would no longer be there. Seifer pulled out of her and rolled over, tugging her back so that her back was flush against his chest.

As he nuzzled her hair, she felt tears trailing down her face again and turned into the pillow. By inviting him into her room, she'd all but said she didn't care if their friends knew about them. With this shared moment, they'd officially made up from yesterday, and he currently had his arm around her waist, holding her close. In stark contrast to the first time they'd slept together, this time had been much more emotional and closer to making love than a 'wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am'. Granted, Seifer hadn't ever indicated that's what it had been for him, even the first time.

So if all of that was true, why did she feel so upset? She knew that he'd gone through all of that trouble to make sure that her birthday ended in the most perfect way—which was the closest Seifer Almasy would ever come to an apology. Despite the way her day had begun, his efforts had ensured that she'd had a good birthday to remember. Shouldn't that have left her feeling blissfully happy?

Trying to ignore the unease that was rolling through her stomach, she turned over, tucking her head underneath Seifer's chin. He accommodated to her shift in position, lifting his arm from her waist to drape it over her shoulders, and shoving the other one underneath her head. All of his movements felt natural—almost second nature—and she mused at the fact that they were already so familiar with each other.

Within seconds, Seifer was snoring away, but Quistis remained awake. She listened to the sound of his deep, even breaths, and reveled in the feel of his firm chest pressing against her cheek. Though she was still unsettled, she knew she wouldn't be able to pinpoint the reason why—at least not right now—and so, comforted by the knowledge that they were as close to one another as two human beings could possibly be, she finally drifted off to sleep.


Lord in heaven, I actually updated?! & it's ridiculously long?! What is happening in this world? :P

First bit of business: Quistis and I share a birthday (Happy birthday to our favorite blue mage!), so I really wanted to post this on our actual birthday, considering what happened in the chapter ;) Yes, that was planned specifically for this day! Fun stuff.

Many, many thanks to Strings805, Arenoptara, and Layla Evercrest for beta-reading this chapter for me. I normally only have two people read through this, but considering how long it is and how much is in between the lines, I really wanted it to be the best it could be. So thanks to you guys for working with me on this beast of a chapter.

I know it's been awhile since I updated last, but credit is due where it's deserved. Thank you to every single one of you for reading and/or leaving a review. I never would've thought that one of my first stories would break a hundred reviews and I am absolutely floored at the support and love that I receive for this story. To SabersDragon, Layla Evercrest, Ally Todd, Summoner Luna, KingRamses, SilentStarlightSky, Yadda Wadda BaddaBoom, enigmalace, AJ Maxima, and my wonderful guest reviewers, thank you so much for leaving reviews. As always, it means the world to me.

Thank you to everyone who has recently favorited and followed. It warms my heart to see that people care about this story as much as I do; it really has become my baby, my favorite project, and I'm so happy that you're all still invested in this story.

Last bits of business: some of you may have noticed that Black Swan now has a shiny, beautiful cover! My friend Brielle Porter (brielle porter dot com) is an insanely talented lady, and she has exceeded all of my expectations as far as cover art goes. It's magnificent and you should all send some love her way!

Second, we are almost at the finish line, my friends. There are maybe two chapters left, and a possible epilogue, before we see the figurative credits roll. It's very bittersweet, but at the same time, I am so excited to see everyone's reactions to the final chapters. Hooray!

Again, thank you so much to everyone for reading this story. You guys make it all worth it.