I don't own Final Fantasy Tactics or any of its characters. I'm doing this for fun, not profit.

Chapter Nine: A Warm Morning

Ramza rode back to the farm in a slight daze; snow and trees floated past without much definition, and Boco provided most of the navigation. Or perhaps Ovelia did and Boco simply followed. He barely had the attention to notice.

She kissed me, he recalled for perhaps the hundredth time in the last hour. Ovelia kissed me. The thought was curiously free of emotional character, save for a mild wonder that remained constant no matter how many times he thought it. And even the wonder hadn't been there until shortly after they'd started their journey back to the ranch; he'd been riding along, smiling, when suddenly it struck him like a kick to the forehead, and he'd been that way ever since.

Shaking his head helplessly, he chanced a sideways glance at his companion but she was simply gazing absently off through the trees of the wood near Hystet. Amazing. She's not affected at all. Not visibly, at least. He'd never kissed anyone before, not like that; she'd cloven his world in half, split his life into very clear pre-kiss and post-kiss portions, but for her it hadn't been of such monumental interest, something get a little nervous over, but no more.

But this isn't new to her like it is to me, he reminded himself, frowning fiercely at the snow-blanketed forest floor. She's been married before; she's probably done all sort of... whatever. This sort of... imbalance between them was not something he'd considered before. Does this all mean the same to her as it does to me?

Something tickled his notice, drawing his attention again to the side. Ovelia was watching him, he saw; as their eyes met she smiled, a shy expression, and glanced away with faint color touching her cheeks.

Of course it does, he answered himself wearily, rubbing a gloved hand down his face. Of course it does. She just... there's no changing what's already happened, I guess.

Lips thinned, he shifted his grip on the reins and stared through the trees. Home wasn't far away.

Alma finished the meal before the others returned to the house. Letting the soup simmer, she covered the bread to keep it warm and sprawled at the kitchen table, idly knuckling her back before retrieving her book and flipping it open.

I wonder why they're late, she wondered distantly as another chapter in Ordalia's dramatic history unfolded in crisp black ink under her eyes. I almost hope they just stopped to make out somewhere. At least they'd be doing it away from me.

Perhaps a half-hour later the front door slammed open. Ovelia's murmuring voice carried through into the kitchen, her words indistinct, followed by a low laugh from Ramza as the pair stomped snow from their boots.

Blinking, Alma set the book down, then rose and shuffled to the kitchen doorway; Ramza and Ovelia each spared her a smile of greeting before returning to the task of escaping from their winter gear. For a moment she simply stood there, chewing a lip, glancing cautiously between the two of them, but the tension that had flooded the room whenever they were together had largely disappeared. At the moment Ovelia radiated a content glow despite the lack of a smile, while Ramza merely seemed preoccupied.

Eventually Alma folded arms over her chest and eyed them with a put-upon frown. "I hope you're hungry," she declared. "It would serve you right if the soup's simmered its way to blandness by now."

Though Ovelia smiled, Ramza turned a concerned expression her way. "I'm sorry," he answered worriedly. "I always forget how early it gets dark out now, and I don't want to push the chocobos at night if I don't have to."

Alma was shaking her head at the ceiling before he even finished speaking. "Don't worry about it. Just come in and eat." Turning her back on the pair, she took her own advice, scooping up a bowl and resuming her seat at the table.

In moments the others appeared as well, faces still flushed from the return to warmth after a day in the cold. Alma continued to watch the two out of the corners of her eyes; if they had paired up, she expected Ramza would have gone out of his way to, say, serve up Ovelia's food to her, but this proved not to be the case. Instead they proceeded as they always did, tending to their own affairs, eating without fanfare. Interesting, she mused. So maybe nothing happened. Maybe they're not an item.

Dismissing her curiosity, she plucked a chunk of bread from the basket in the middle of the table. "How was your ride?" she wondered, tearing off a bite-sized chunk.

Both of them blushed at the question, Ovelia trying not to smile whereas Ramza seemed almost frustrated. "It was... good," he managed after a moment, meeting her gaze. "The falls are pretty in the winter. You should try to see them sometime."

"You," repeated Alma silently. Not "we." Smiling wryly, she shrugged. "They'll probably be just as pretty when it's warm out, too." Damn it, I can't figure this out. I suppose I could just... ask.

Ramza snorted, shaking his head faintly, and continued eating. Ovelia eyed him fondly then did likewise, choosing not to speak.

The meal proceeded in silence, as they usually did. Afterwards, as Alma sat slouched in her chair, trying to decide whether she wanted the last bit of bread remaining, Ovelia directed a meaningful look at Ramza, who stared mutely back at her.

After a moment he cleared his throat, glancing about the kitchen. "I think I'm going to set up a fire outside," he announced, planting palms on the table to push himself to his feet. "It wasn't all that cold out today, really; it seemed like a good night for it." Beside him, Ovelia toyed with the spoon in her empty bowl, unsurprised.

"You do that," nodded Alma, concealing her suspicion. "I'll be out when I'm done cleaning up."

"I'll help too," volunteered Ovelia softly, as was her custom. "This doesn't look like it should take long," she added.

Smiling, Ramza tugged his shirt straight and disappeared through the doorway. Soon came the sound of him dressing back up for the cold outside.

Lips pursed, Alma gathered the dirty bowls from the table and made for the wash basin, keeping her ears alert. Behind her, rustling cloth and scraping wood spoke to Ovelia pushing the chairs back in.

Once the thump of the front door closing sounded from the other room, Alma paused for a moment, then tilted back the jug of water she'd used to fill the basin. Dusting hands clean, she turned around to face the other woman. "So," she began with a frown, "how did the...?"

"Alma, we need..." started Ovelia at the same time. Hesitating, she relaxed into a giggle which Alma shared. After a moment the former queen composed herself, though she remained smiling. "You first," she nodded.

Clearing her throat, Alma waited for the smile to fade from her own face. "How did the ride really go?" she asked quietly, meeting her friend's gaze. "I know why you two went out."

"It was... nice," allowed Ovelia delicately, eyes sliding to one side as pinkness touched her cheeks again. "The falls were pretty, like he said, but... we talked. And I kissed him."

Finally. "I see," acknowledged Alma, though after a moment she shook her head. "I kept wondering when you two would pair up."

"Well, we... we haven't," explained Ovelia; her hands wrung together briefly until she stilled them with visible effort. Brown eyes darted back to meet Alma's. "I wanted to talk to you about that, first."

Oh, great. Lifting an eyebrow, Alma waited. "About what? Why?"

Ovelia sighed, turning away, wrapping arms around her middle as though cold. "We both really like each other," she elaborated, speaking softly, almost absently. "If it were just us, we would be together now, I think, but... I wanted to talk to you about it first."

"To me?" echoed Alma. "Why?"

Ovelia shifted again, eyeing her sideways. "I just wanted to tell you about it," she answered. "See what you thought of it. Ramza said the two of you talked about this before, but I wanted to as well. I wanted to make sure we have your approval."

"My approval?" Battling a smoldering irritation, Alma clenched fists at her sides and growled helplessly at the ceiling. "Of course you can have it," she continued, forcing calm into her voice. "For heaven's sake, Ovelia, this... this... everyone tiptoeing around each other is driving me mad. I'd much rather walk in on you two engaged in the act of love on the floor in front of the hearth twice a week than have to go through this all time time. My God." Clamping her mouth shut, Alma made a sour face, annoyed at having let her tongue run away from her, then met the other woman's gaze with a semblance of dignity.

Freezing, Ovelia gazed back at her, mouth open; a few strands of wavy golden hair hung aside her face, having escaped her tail. "Umm," she managed vaguely, "that's... not what I..." Abruptly her brow furrowed prettily, a baffled frown. "Really?"

"Really," assured Alma, sighing heavily. "Although, if you could avoid the... on-the-floor thing, I'd... appreciate that."

"Alma, we're..." Ovelia trailed off, one thumb twitching to point vaguely off towards Ramza. "We just..." Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again. "Look, I just didn't want you to think we were sneaking behind your back or anything. You two are my only friends."

"Well, thank you," replied Alma in a murmur, dipping her head. "I do appreciate that. I admit I was a little... jealous before, maybe, but you already have his heart, and it's not like he's suddenly going to forget about me. I'm not made of porcelain, Ovelia. Do what you want."

Her roommate studied for a time, then broke into a smile. "You mean that?"

Alma returned the smile. "I mean everything I say."

"Okay." Ovelia darted a glance towards the doorway. "Then as soon as we're done here, I'm going to..."

"Oh, just go now," interrupted Alma, turning to soak a rag in the tub. "I'll finish cleaning up. Like you said, there's not much."

"Okay," repeated Ovelia, laughing. "Thank you."

After cleaning most of the snow off the rocks near the firepit and getting a flickering flame going within, Ramza sat on his heels with little to do but watch it grow. A finger-thin tendril of smoke arose from it, fluffing out and disappearing well before it reached the star-studden heavens above.

I wonder what's taking them so long, he mused absently, shifting sticks around so the fire would spread faster. They should have started talking as soon as I got out here. Assuming Alma told Ovelia what she told me, then kicked Ovelia out so she could finish cleaning, that should be... well, she should be here by now. He sighed, shaking his head; a twig popped, sending a few sparks swirling briefly. Unless they're arguing, he realized with a sudden frown. Though why would...?

The door opening interrupted his worries. Glancing back, he spotted a smiling Ovelia making her way towards him, bundled up in the heavy garments she'd worn earlier, a lumpy shadow in the starlight.

"Hey," she called softly, ducking her head briefly. "Nice fire."

He chuckled, shifting his attention back to the orange tongues licking at the wood he'd arranged. "The talk must have gone well."

Snow crunched under boots as she approached and seated herself on one of the rocks he'd cleared earlier. "It was... interesting," she reflected in a low voice, "but I think good."

"I told you it would be," he smiled. She smiled back, reaching out to touch his shoulder, but he returned his attention to the growing fire. The flames were big enough now to allow for larger logs atop them, so he shifted them about, sending another storm of sparks skyward. There.

"What is it?" she murmured after a moment. "Something's wrong."

His eyes widened despite himself. We're together less than a day, and she already knows me that well? Sighing, he shifted about to eye her warily. "It's... silly," he warned. "You don't want to hear it."

Her lips curved in the warm firelight. "You know you can tell me anything."

"I know," he nodded. "It's just a problem that I have, and it'll probably annoy you to hear about it."

Ovelia raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You can't say that and then not tell me what it is," she countered.

He grimaced. "Well, it's..." Turning, he gazed into the growing fire. "I've never had anyone before, you know?" he muttered. "But you have. This is all new to me, but it doesn't faze you. I'd always just... kind of assumed that... if I ever really met anyone, I'd be their first too."

A long silence prompted him to glance up again; Ovelia was staring into the fire as well now, her face clouded, almost angry. "That's what's bothering you?" she wondered in a whisper.

"Yeah," he sighed. "I told you it was silly."

Another bout of silence erupted. Trying not to sigh again, Ramza poked idly at the fire, lips twisted. It's not her fault, he reminded himself, not for the first time today, to no avail. Unbidden, memories arose in the depths of his mind, a recollection of roaming the underworld, three arrows and a pair of bullets in him, left arm charred nearly to uselessness, searching for Alma but certain he was going to die; around that same time, however, perhaps at that very same moment, Ovelia would have been in some plush castle bedchamber with Delita, doing... things. Perhaps doing... things... came easily for her, too easily.

No! She didn't know! he scolded himself angrily. They ended up stabbing each other. It's not fair at all to hold that against her; she was doing what she was supposed to, married and everything. I didn't even want her back then. I had enough to worry about, and even so, Agrias was waiting for me. Rubbing his temples, he tossed his poking stick carelessly atop the blaze now; it was going well enough anyway. Though maybe... I wonder how I'd feel now if she and I had...

"How was I supposed to know?" whispered Ovelia, hugging knees to her chest. "I didn't know much then, Ramza. I thought he was the right one." She was glaring now, at the fire, not looking at him.

"I know," he snapped, then took a deep breath, calming himself. "I know," he repeated in a more reasonable voice. "Like I said, it's just a problem for me to work through. You did ask, though." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he flinched.

Before he could muster an apology, however, the house door opened again and Alma strolled out, wrapped in a heavy grey cloak. "Hey," she greeted, grinning, "the fire looks pretty... wait, what's wrong?"

At the question Ovelia stood abruptly, turning her head fractionally in Ramza's direction. "We'll talk later," she declared curtly. Spinning, she stalked past Alma and strode into the house.

After a moment Ramza let fall the hand he'd reached after her. Well, damn.

Pulling the cloak closer around herself, Alma shuffled closer, head down as though deep in thought. As she approached, however, she wound back and delivered a fierce punch to his shoulder.

"Ow! Alma, what the hell was that for?" Gripping the shoulder with his other hand, he glared at her.

She glared right back at him, eyes narrow with disgust, then spun and followed Ovelia back into the house. The door thumped shut behind her with a mocking finality.

Ramza stared mutely at the house, then at the fire. Well, at least it's warm out here.

"I can't believe he said that to you," mused Alma in wonder, shifting her gaze to the front door; her brother had been outside for perhaps a quarter hour, and only now had Ovelia managed to recite their brief conversation. "What a jerk."

On the next chair, her friend shifted vaguely, still folded into a pensive ball, arms around her legs. "I don't know," she admitted quietly, staring at nothing. "Maybe he brings up a valid point. I've never even thought that that could be a problem."

"Because it shouldn't be a problem," added Alma firmly. "I thought he was a bigger man than that."

Ovelia shifted a subdued gaze to her. "Have you ever had to deal with it?"

"Well..." She sighed, examining her fingernails discreetly. "Not really."

The other woman nodded silently. Moments slipped past into silence.

"But still," pressed Alma, "even if you suppose he is right, what can you do then? Not a whole lot."

"I could apologize for getting so upset," suggested Ovelia thoughtfully. "He wasn't even going to say anything until I asked him about it."

"Apologize?" echoed Alma, baffled. "Ovelia, he doesn't own your past. You need to make him understand that."

"I think he does understand, though," reflected the former queen. "He even said he knew it was just something he'd have to figure out by himself."

"But you shouldn't be apologizing," continued Alma firmly. "He's the one who messed up."

Mild brown eyes slid to meet her own seriously. "Alma, I'm not certain you're the best person to give me advice about this."

"Are you joking?" she snickered. "Nobody knows him better than I do."

"As a lover?"

Alma felt her smile sour. "Why do you...? No, obviously not. It's just... it's just that if you go out there now, he might not think before he talks next time either. He's not very good at that, so you should probably... what are you laughing at?"

Ovelia shook her head; slowly the smile faded from her lips. "Nothing. This does sound a little vengeful, though. I don't want to hurt him."

Eyeing the other woman suspiciously, Alma nodded once. "Don't worry about him so much; you didn't hurt him as much as he hurt you." She paused, frowning. "I assume... he's right, isn't he? I mean, if he's not, you can just go out there and tell him so, but I'm guessing you and Delita..."

"Yes," murmured the other woman; brown eyes focused inward in absent melancholy. "We... were trying to have a child." Fingers curled briefly into the wool of her breeches.

Alma's breath caught and she studied her friend for a moment. "Are you...? I'm sorry about that, Ovelia. That must have made it even worse."

Slim shoulders shrugged faintly, though Ovelia's veil of introspection remained in place. "It was bad," she confirmed in a whisper, "and it still hurts, you know? But having it rise up again and bite me now in a totally different way... that hurts too."

Nodding helpfully, Alma searched for words. What am I doing? she wondered vaguely. She should just be telling this to Ramza herself. "Look," she sighed, "you're right. I... have no experience in this, I guess, and I'm can't make you do anything. What do I know? Maybe you two really should just talk it out; you seem good at that."

Though Ovelia's lips curved it took some time for her to reply. "Maybe. I don't know." She paused, and the absent look vanished from her eyes as she blinked at Alma. "I think I just want to... think about it, for now. I'll probably just go to bed, but if I do... can you tell him I'm not angry?"

"Of course," she assured. "Don't worry."

"Thank you." Unfolding to her feet, Ovelia smiled again. "I'll see you in the morning."

As the woman disappeared, Alma chewed a lip, finally pushing herself to her feet. A few moments let her slip back into her boots and cloak, and soon she was back outside.

Ramza, she saw, was seated glumly in front of the fire, staring into it. He whipped around as soon as the door opened, a hopeful expression on his face, though on seeing it wasn't Ovelia he slumped again. "Hi, Alma," he greeted quietly.

"Nice to see you too," she replied dryly, trotting to claim the seat next to him. A comfortable fiery warmth gripped her so close to the blaze, bringing a smile to her lips.

For a time the crackling of the fire provided the only sound, but eventually Ramza shifted. "I goofed up, didn't I?" he mused softly. "I hurt her. Our first day together and we fought."

"True," agreed Alma, keeping her voice just as quiet. "Then again, when you first found her, you two fought once or twice a day."

He chuckled without humor. "You did too, though."

She shook her head faintly. "I'm supposed to tell you she's not angry. She's gone to bed, though; I guess she just wanted some time alone. You know," she added with a grin, "she wanted to come out here and apologize to you until I talked her out of it."

He nodded once without saying anything. Warm firelight danced on his repentant features.

Alma studied him for a time, smile fading, then shifted her gaze back to the fire. This was new territory, she realized; normally when something had upset him, she could manage to cheer him up somehow, but his concerns had now assumed a different character. No longer was he worried just for himself, or for her.

Eventually she cleared her throat. "It's... getting late," she pointed out gently. "Come to bed. Get an early start tomorrow and talk to her then."

His lips twisted in a mirthless smile. "The fire will be burning for another hour, probably," he countered, nodding at the thing. "I think I'll stay out here until it's smoldering out."

She compressed her lips. "Do you want me to stay out here with you?"

Serious dark eyes flickered to meet hers. "I'd never say no to having you here."

Standing, Alma kicked her rock across icy ground until it lay next to his, then sat on the thing, letting herself slump into him. Ramza threw an arm around her shoulders and together they stared at the fire in companionable silence.

It's going to be different now, she reminded herself as his body warmed hers up. His arm will be around someone else at the fire from now on. As it should be, really. She paused, letting her eyes slide shut. Whether they work out together or not, I don't think things can go back to how they were before. Sighing heavily, she shifted her seat on the cold rock and settled in to enjoy this closeness while she still could.

Some time later he moved; she stirred, confused until she realized she'd fallen asleep. The fire was just embers now, she saw, menacing webs of crimson glowing among the ashes in the icy night. "Is it time to go in?" she wondered, her voice sounding husky to her own ears.

"We should," he answered, rising to his feet and offering a hand down to her, which she took. "I actually got cold a little while ago but I didn't want to disturb you."

Alma chuckled, pausing to rub some feeling into her cold backside. Moonlight left the snow all around a ghostly silver punctuated only by the black blurs of trees. "Thank you," she offered with a dip of her head, "but I'd be warmer inside. Let's go."

Ovelia lay motionless in her bed, staring vaguely along her pillow at the line of moonlight that slipped between the closed shutters; right now it angled across her legs, but in an hour, perhaps, it would be in her eyes. She was undecided on whether she would move when that happened.

What a strange day, she mused distantly. So much happened. The ride. The kiss. Her first fight with Ramza, hopefully not the last.

Her anger at his comment from earlier had long since vanished, replaced now, if anything, by worry; it was something that troubled him, and what troubled him now troubled her. As Alma had claimed, there wasn't much to be done about it now except to stay with him and show him that a little spat wasn't going to scare her off. I just hope it doesn't scare him off either, she sighed. It shouldn't. He's strong.

Perhaps it would help, she reflected, if she simply explained things to him. Talking seemed to help, to a surprising degree; he listened well and her inadequacies seemed to be, in his eyes, endearing. She could tell him anything. Maybe he'd understand more if we talked. Yes, she decided idly. I'll do that. At least it would be a little better than talking to Alma; the younger Beoulve was too sharp, asked more piercing questions. Ovelia was still proud she'd kept her face smooth and voice level when explaining about Delita earlier, about how they'd been trying for an heir. Maybe I really am healing now. But Alma's a friend, anyway; if I'd started crying, she'd have understood.

As if in response to her thoughts, subdued voices drifted through the walls, followed by the thump of the front door being pulled shut. The occasional voice or creak of floorboards kept her company in the solitude of her room for the next few moments, but when the expected pair of footsteps approached her room, on their way to their own, Ovelia closed her eyes.

As she had supposed would happen, somebody tapped lightly on her door. "Ovelia?" came Ramza's whispering voice. "Are you awake?"

She shifted on the bed, letting her eyes slide back open. Though the thought of disturbing her privacy likely unnerved him, she'd guessed that his concern for her would outweigh his anxiety. "I'm awake," she confirmed softly.

"I... just want to apologize," he explained quietly. "I won't bring it up again, if you want. I'm a... jealous person, I guess. It must run in the family." The walls muffled some sidelong comment of Alma's, concealing the words but preserving her withering tone intact.

When Ovelia didn't respond right away, the floorboards creaked some more outside the door before he apparently began moving off towards his own room. "Ramza," she called, her voice coming out more breathy than she'd intended.

The faint wooden protest outside stopped, then returned to her door. "Ovelia?"

Now's my chance... but what to say to him? Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and let it out again. "Come in here. Please."

To his credit, he hesitated only briefly before complying. A swirl of chill air made a few odd hairs dance away from her head as he opened and closed the door, and soon a weight depressed the mattress behind her. "What is it?" he asked after a moment.

Fumbling back near him, Ovelia found one of his hands and gripped it without turning around. "I want to be honest with you, Ramza," she began, swallowing. "Delita and I were... trying to have a child when you found me." The words came out even easier this time; someday, she decided, when things had settled more between them, she'd have to tell him about exactly what prompted the stabbing. But this first, I guess. "I thought it was the right thing to do," she continued. "I thought I loved him... or, rather, I did love him. But..." She trailed off, frowning, then rolled over onto her other side to face Ramza, keeping the blankets tucked around herself, all without letting go of his hand. "If I knew then what I know now, though, I would have done things differently. I'd have run the other way in Lionel, run off with you and Agrias and everyone. I never would have looked back." Chewing a lip, she stared up at his shadowed figure, trying to read his face in the dimness.

"I believe you," he murmured after a moment; his hand squeezed hers in reassurance. "It all must have been very painful for you. I don't want you to spend time worrying about me when the pain is yours."

"But you feel hurt too," she countered softly. "Or at least uncomfortable. I don't want you to feel that way."

He smiled, serious lines shifting into affectionate curves. "Don't worry about me. I'm just sorry this concerned me at all, sorry it even come up."

She shook her head slightly on the pillow. "You don't have to apologize for your emotions," she scolded gently. "They're why I like you."

For a time he simply stared down at her, but eventually he chuckled. "Well, good."

"We're together now, right?" she continued. "You're the one I want." Ignoring a flash of humor at the similarity of their situation to the only other time he'd been in the room, she summoned a reassuring smile, hoping he could see it.

"That's... that's good to hear," he acknowledged faintly.

Ovelia blinked at his apparent nervousness until it occurred to her how her words must have sounded to him. But it's true, she reminded herself, smothering a light fluttering somewhere inside. Lifting his hand, she planted a tender kiss on its back, then another, slower one, letting her breath warm his flesh, letting her lower lip peel away with a silent whisper as she lifted her head to gaze meaningfully up at him.

The effect was immediately apparent; his breath caught, and warm fingers tightened almost imperceptibly around her own. His pulse leapt to an excited racing.

She met his gaze without looking away; she could read him like a book now. The feel of her lips had thrilled him, but he was too uncertain yet to act on his own. Instead he would freeze, hoping that by not disturbing the situation the kisses would continue or perhaps even escalate into something else. He wasn't certain how far he wanted to go, and though he hungered for more he lacked the confidence to take it. For now, his initiative was mere permission.

It would be easy, she knew. Easy to seduce him. Another few kisses, maybe one or two on his palm or fingers, followed by a gentle tug, and he'd be lying on his side next to her; after that would come more kissing, followed by roaming hands -- he would follow suit if she started it -- and eventually clothes would start to disappear. She wore only a shift, preferring extra blankets over extra clothes, and once it was gone, though he'd be nervous, he wouldn't be able to make himself leave. He'd be at her mercy.

She knew exactly how he felt. She'd been on the other end of this game, before.

It would be easy, if she wanted him. It was strange; he was older than her, much more competent, far more worldly, but in this area he might as well have been a child for all his ability to resist her taking what she wanted. This sensation was a new one, oddly addictive, for never before had she had such power over anyone. It ached to be used, to warm something cold, to turn something lonely into something beautiful and loving. It would be easy. As the moments slipped past he stared back down at her, frozen, captive.

He's... not ready, is he? she realized, her mood disappearing like a pricked bubble. God, what am I doing? He's barely comfortable holding my hand. How easy it is for me... that's part of what hurts him. Shivering, squeezing her eyes shut, she rolled back to her other side, clutching Ramza's hand over her thundering heart. "You should go," she whispered. "We'll talk more tomorrow."

"Are you...?" He paused, swallowing audibly. "Are you okay?"

She nodded once, feeling her hair whisper across the pillow. I won't hurt you, Ramza. "I'll explain later. Sometime."

"Okay," he acknowledged. For a time he fell silent, hand warm and strong in hers but strangely not sweaty; she had expected him to show more nerves. "Thank you," he continued quietly, "for... explaining things. I... I think I feel better now. I'm sorry such a silly thing turned into such a big problem."

Ovelia smiled into the darkness. "It wasn't a big problem. I was angry at you for... less than half an hour. Think of how long I was angry at Delita," she added.

He snorted, fingers tightening over her own. After a moment his weight shifted on the mattress, and warm lips pressed a soft kiss against the exposed skin on the side of her neck. "Like I said," he murmured, "thank you. Sleep well." Squeezing her hand one last time, he extracted his own and departed, closing the door quietly behind him.

Once he was gone, she let out the breath she'd been holding since he'd kissed her. That was... nice, she reflected. Maybe he's... maybe he's less nervous than I thought. Giggling under her breath, she tugged the blankets over her head and tried to calm down enough to sleep.

As dawn broke over the eastern hills, Ramza lay on his back in calf-deep snow, tongue caught between his teeth as he fumbled with a joint in the wooden fence forming the chocobo pen. Some strong wind a few nights past had torn a loose beam free and now the weathered end wouldn't stay in its hole in the post. He'd tried his hand at wedging the thing in with a few spare pieces of wood, with little success, and now hoped to affix it in place with a few nails. With luck it would hold until summer, when he could replace the whole post with a new one. Or maybe the whole fence with a new one.

Summer, he grunted, flinching as his gloved fingers dropped a nail past his cheek. Why couldn't this have broken in a warmer season? It's not too bad out now, though, he reflected. The sunlight's nice. It'll be warm today. Already the snow around him gleamed wetly in the orange dawn light.

With the errant nail back in place, he held it there while groping for his hammer. Quickly he found the thing and delivered a series of rapid taps. Sharp iron bit easily into rotten wood, but at least it worked; removing the support of his right knee left the beam properly suspended. Nodding to himself, he found his other nail and repeated the process at a different angle. As he hammered, the house's front door opened, probably one of the women come to fetch more water or some such.

There, he nodded once finished. That should stay. A few backhanded slaps shivered the beam but the nails held. Tossing the hammer aside, he prepared to scoot out from under the fence, but something cold and wet struck the side of his face before he could move.

What the...? A snowball? Icy water began trickling down his temple, confirming his guess. Hesitating only briefly, he rolled aside and sat up, quickly enough to bat aside another incoming snowball; slushy debris peppered his face as the thing disintegrated.

"Oh," groaned a giggling Ovelia fifteen paces away. "You're too fast." A slim coat-clad figured, she bent to scoop up another handful of wet snow.

Pushing himself to his feet, Ramza jogged in her direction, diving away from the new snowball as she threw it. Landing easily on his back, he twisted and gripped one of her booted ankles; a quick tug produced a yelp of surprise, and then she was on her backside in the snow next to him.

Ovelia, grinning, reached for more snow, then paused, eyeing him. "I'm going to lose if I keep this up, aren't I?" she laughed. Dark eyes glittered in the low sunlight.

He smiled back pleasantly. "Yeah."

Shaking her head, she climbed to her feet, idly slapping melting snow from the back of her dress. "It's not nice to manhandle a woman so, you know," she murmured absently.

Shrugging, Ramza rose as well, making no effort to dry himself; lying in the snow had already made him wet enough to dismiss a snowball as trifling. "You ambushed me," he countered. "Even I wouldn't attack a man working on a fence."

She giggled again, straightening her overcoat. "I figured it would be the only way I'd actually hit you."

Laughing despite himself, he watched as the woman finished tidying herself. He'd been worried that her mood from last night would have carried over into today, but she seemed happy enough, just standing there in the snow and smiling at him. "You must be feeling well," he observed somewhat unnecessarily.

Her smile broadened briefly before disappearing and she nodded once, golden tail swaying. "I was better last night, really," she admitted, rolling her shoulders, squinting against the sunlight. "I just had... other worries on my mind."

He nodded as well, slowly. He had two guesses as to what might have been worrying her; first, their argument had undoubtedly reminded her of Delita, and second, there'd been... the look. He swallowed just remembering her expression, hungry and smoldering, as determined as that of a leopard with her eyes on prey. There was, in his judgement, no way to misinterpret such a look, and her troubled way of shutting him out afterwards had served only to confirm his suspicion. She wanted him, or had wanted him at that moment, but was as wary of her desire as he was. And that makes us safe, Ovelia. You're not going to hurt me.

As the silence grew awkward, he summoned a faint smile. "You can share your worries with me, you know," he replied carefully.

Liquid brown eyes shifted minutely as she read his face, but shortly she offered an answering smile. "That's good." After a moment she snickered, cutting her gaze towards the house. "But what's more good is that breakfast is ready. Alma's probably already eating it."

"Ah," he blinked. "Good. I suppose I'll need to change first, though." His sister would not be pleased if he dripped snow melt all over the kitchen. Neither, for that matter, would Ovelia.

"And then after I clean up," she murmured, "you can teach me about archery. I really do want to learn things, you know."

"I believe you," he nodded, setting off towards the house. "Consider it done."

Rather than walk by his side to the door, Ovelia slipped behind him, smiling at the snow; before he could think to ask what she was about, a pair of arms appeared around his chest, clinging tightly, and an accompanying weight tugged him stumbling backwards a few steps. Stocking-clad knees hugged his hips as a cold nose playfully rubbed the back of his neck.

Laughing, Ramza gripped under her knees, hefting her to comfort, then angled towards the house once more. "Mind the legs, now," he warned over his shoulder. "I'm not sure the door is really wide enough for the both of us like this."

Ovelia giggled in answer. Smiling to himself, he stomped through glittering wet snow towards food, warm shelter and comfort.

Author's Note: 'Kay, done. I'm not totally happy with how this last chapter goes, but what can you do? Seems like I'm never happy with the endgame. Guess I know where I need my practice.

Endless thanks go out to all who read and reviewed. I know, people say that a lot, but I'm serious. I owe each and every one of you a leaping full-body hug. Or a gentlemanly handshake, if you prefer. But in any case, thank you.