Disclaimer: I don't own FF8 or anything associated with it.

Saltwater

Chapter I

Nothing about Centra appealed to Seifer. It was all dry, hard ground, sparse forests and an endless sea of jagged, unforgiving rocks. It was like something that was on its way to dying, half-rotted, half blithely hanging onto its last bit of life, grasping and futile.

The only thing about the whole place that gave Centra a modicum of likeability was the beaches. They stretched on forever, an endless gasp of sand, bright seashells, and white noise. Seifer felt that he echoed the sea. It alternately roared and hissed and soothed, mirroring his soul. Sometimes he felt that if he roared back at the sea, he could drown out the waves, and win. How strange, to think he could win against a force as powerful as the sea. He never tried though. There was always the fear that someone would hear him, and then their laughter would be what drowned out the waves, not his own fury and frustration.

Once he had slashed at the furious water with his gunblade, relishing the hubris of such an action, but once he returned to his room in the old orphanage, dripping with salt water, and cold, he felt foolish. It was as if this feeling of foolishness was a punishment from the gods for his rage, for being so arrogant to believe that he could beat an element itself.

Tonight was different. Today he just sat, and stared, absorbing the sound. He'd always associated himself with fire, but lately it was as if the sea was his element. It was constantly shifting and raging, even if it was under the surface. Fire could be extinguished by water, not the other way round. Seifer did not like to think of himself as something that could be just put out and forgotten about. It grated.

It wasn't quite night-time. It was the point in the day where the sun had just about sunk over the horizon, sending the sky into a firework of colours and throwing everyone into a strange, short illumination. The hiss of feet upon sand caused Seifer's ears to prick, and he turned around to see a tall, slender woman walking towards him. Her feet were bare, and her long, sand-coloured hair moved around her face, picked up by the sharp sea air. The dull orange of the sunset cast her into an odd light, making her face all shadows.

Her low, soft voice flowed over him, like the tide, but there was an edge to it. He turned away from her.

"Seifer, Matron told me to tell you that food'll be ready soon, if you can be bothered to join us."

He responded in a monosyllabic sound, not having the energy to make a smart-ass remark or antagonise her in return.

"Seifer?" There was more than an edge to her tone now. Sharp as coral. She exhaled a sigh, muttered, "Fine, suit yourself", and turned to walk away back up the dunes to the orphanage. The soft crunch of the sand became quieter and quieter until Seifer was certain that she was gone. Then he lay back, still listening to the ocean, only now with an unsettled expression on his face. The angry feeling had been swiftly replaced by a vague feeling of nausea, but then for quite a while now she'd been leaving him with the humiliating feeling that he wanted to be sick, which was then followed by an acute sense of disgust.

It was the feeling he'd get after a rush of adrenaline after a battle, leaving him shaky, nervous and irritated. He sighed and rubbed his temples with a thumb and a forefinger, before heaving himself off the ground with what felt like a gargantuan effort. He turned and gazed up at the steps that led towards the old orphanage, to see Quistis nearing the top. Her feet made no noise against the stone, barefoot as she was, like some sort of vision or fairy. Seifer squinted against the dying light of the day, and followed her up. Unlike her, his large, boot-shod feet made a heavy sound as he walked on the stone steps. He felt ungainly and clumsy, conspicuous with his large frame and bright hair.

At well over 6ft, he was the tallest in the orphanage. Even as a child he'd been tall, he remembered. Not lanky, like Irvine, but large in general. At 21, he'd ended up with shoulders that seemed to him almost excessively wide, long, hefty, muscled legs and hands the size of dinner plates. In comparison to Squall and Zell, he felt like a giant. More so whenever any of the women were around. Far from feeling like an alpha male, all his size did was make him feel awkward and out of place.

Quistis, with her delicate gait and slim physique and fairy-feet, made him feel like a clumsy idiot. Seifer kept his head down as he slumped up the steps.

He paused in the courtyard, listening to the loud conversation inside the house. He couldn't make out what they were all talking about; it all sounded like noise to him. Selphie was typically talking in her high-pitched squeal of a voice, while Rinoa chattered away like a bird. Occasionally the conversation would be punctuated by a shrieking laugh from Zell, or a hoarse, knee-slapping guffaw from Irvine. Edea's low, throaty tones slipped round the other voices like silk, and Squall was predictably silent.

Seifer groaned inwardly and pushed himself onwards into the main building. He drew himself up, making himself appear taller than he already was and a hush descended over the group. Even several years after the war, they'd openly stare at him. It was a feeling that was at once normal and deeply unsettling. Seifer stared back, not aggressively, but he was assertive nonetheless. The awkward moment passed, and they all resumed their conversation, which seemed to revolve around something amusing Zell and Rinoa had done earlier in the day. Within moments of Seifer's arrival, the food was plated and everyone sat down to dinner around a large rectangular table. Choosing not to involve himself in the conversation, Seifer sat down the far end of the table, near Edea. Cid was absent that evening, having returned to the Garden to oversee some changes that were being made to the structure.

Edea wasn't very talkative that evening, but generally she never was. Lovely and serene, she was happy just to observe her children, listening to their conversations and jokes, occasionally chipping in a comment here or there. But mostly she just watched. Seifer turned to look at her, and she gave him a heart-warming smile. He felt like a child being bestowed a gift. Everyone knew how much Edea worried about Seifer. Despite his many faults, to her he always appeared as her boisterous, misunderstood golden child with a wicked pair of dimples. It was something the group as a whole preferred to overlook.

Seifer shovelled food into his mouth. It was stew tonight, a food that always comforted Seifer in a childish, primitive way that he didn't quite understand. After his long, lonely sit on the beach, hot, rich food made him feel better and warmed him from the inside. No one was paying any attention to him, and that was how he liked it. Several oblivious minutes passed, with the group's chatting becoming white noise to him. He knew it was rude to deliberately avoid conversing with them, but he didn't care. He knew that they only tolerated him out of pity and deference to Edea, and he didn't feel the need to delude himself into thinking that there was a chance of friendship there.

It was at moments like this that he missed Fuijin and Raijin the most. He paused, inadvertently, lost utterly in some happy memory of the pair of them. An unconscious smile raced across Seifer's taciturn features. He looked up, only to see Quistis looking at him, with an odd expression on her face. His smile disappeared as quickly as it had come, and he returned to inhaling his food, feeling unnerved.

Dinner passed without incident. Seifer and Zell had a brief squabble over who got seconds first (it turned out that neither one had seconds), Selphie almost fell off her hair, and Rinoa broke a plate by accident after clearing the table. Seifer was glad to have it over it, same as he was every day.

Edea threw him a concerned look for no apparent reason. He blinked at her, taken aback.

"What is it?" he asked, not unkindly.

"You seem a little... off today," she said. She tilted her head, looking at him through wide eyes like a concerned mother. "Is something the matter, dear?"

Seifer shook his blond head. "No, everything's fine." Edea raised an eyebrow at him. "Really," he said. "I'm good."

Edea made a disapproving sound, but nodded. "Alright," she said. "But if you need to talk..."

"...I know where you are." He finished her sentence for her, grinning. Seifer had always had a beautiful smile. As a child it had had the capacity to melt even the hardest of hearts, a fact that he'd always used to his advantage. Edea smiled back, melting at those dimples.

"You're a good boy," she said. She turned and walked away, her dress moving across the floor like an elegant serpent. Seifer watched her walk towards her own quarters, feeling at once overwhelmingly grateful and bashful. He turned and walked back out into the courtyard.

It was dark now, and the stars were incredibly bright. The night was clear and windless. This was one of the few things Seifer liked about Centra. The nights. Unlike Balamb or Galbadia, here you could see every single star and the moon was so bright on the sea that it took his breath away. He shook his head. A few years ago that kind of talk (well, inner talk) would've caused him to wonder whether he was turning a bit strange. Things were different now though. He knew that.

The sea always sounded louder at night, he'd noticed. It was as if because the night stole your sight, every other sense became magnified by ten. He loved the crashing sound of the water against the beach and the rocks. Seifer dreaded the time when he'd have to move away from here. He wasn't sure how he'd be able to sleep without the repetitive noise of the tide.

Seifer was barefoot now, despite the sharp chill of the sea air. He padded down the stone steps and down to the beach again, just to stand for a few moments before he headed to his own room near the back of the house. There was just something about the sea air at night that exhausted him and threw him into a deep, undisturbed sleep. Nothing like the sleeping patterns he'd had at the Garden, particularly after his stint as the Sorceresses' Knight ended. He didn't like to remember those nights, where he'd tossed and turned for hours, too hot and then too cold, before finally slipping into an uneasy sleep where the faces of the dead tormented him. A shadow passed over his young-old face.

He let out a heavy sigh as his feet touched the sand. He ventured closer to the water, letting the now-icy sea water rush over his toes. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but not an unpleasant one. He wiggled his toes, childishly, a stupid smile spreading across his face.

"Are you smiling at your feet?"

Seifer jumped, and spun to the side to see Quistis standing there, looking at him with an expression that was a mixture of incredulousness and sheer amusement.

"What?" he snapped, glad that the darkness was hiding the blush that was quickly appearing on his cheeks.

"I asked if you were smiling at your feet. You look bizarre."

Seifer glared at her. "Yes, genius, that's right, I was grinning at my feet. I'm just that much of a retard." The dryness of his tone couldn't quite mask the blatant embarrassment he was experiencing.

Quistis gave a short, sharp laugh. Seifer's eyes narrowed, unsure if she was merely teasing him or being spiteful. "Why're you down here anyway?" she asked, after a moment. "I thought you'd gone to your room."

"Are you aware that you're not really anyone's big sister?" said Seifer, his tone spiteful. Immediately he regretted his words. Even with the sea masking the silence, he could sense the awkwardness hanging heavily in the air like the sword of Damocles'. He waited for a torrent of words to come spewing from the slight, blonde woman, but to his surprise she didn't say a word. This only furthered his shame. He went to say something, then stopped and returned to looking at his feet, feeling stupid.

The sound of the waves and the silence was deafening. A few years ago Seifer wouldn't have cared if he'd upset anyone, particularly not that stuck-up Instructor Quistis. If anything, he would've set out to deliberately do it. Now he felt baffled by the sick feeling in his stomach, and the blood burning in his cheeks from the knowledge that he'd potentially upset her.

Seifer turned towards her, looking stiff and awkward. He mumbled something in her direction, but it was swallowed up by the surrounding noise.

"What?" she said, her tone icy.

"Said I'm sorry," he replied, the words jumbled together in the rush to get them out.

Quistis gave a harsh, biting laugh. "I'm sorry? You? Sorry? Well, that's a first."

Seifer's brows knotted together in annoyance. "Next time remind me not to bother." He folded his arms and moved to walk to the opposite end of the beach, sick and tired of having any friendly advances spurned.

"Oh, come on!" Quistis cried. "Don't start pretending like you're the victim here. Look, I don't want to argue with you. I've got better things to do with my time." She sighed, resting a hand on her hip, peering at Seifer's retreating back. For such a big man, he certainly cut a pathetic figure at this moment in time. He didn't show any intention of stopping and listening to her, content to just storm off and sulk in the way he often did.

Quistis debated going after him, in some sad attempt to keep the peace. The orphanage wasn't a large place, and arguments only caused unnecessary tension in a place not big enough to support it. She wanted to slap him for being so rude to her, even though it wasn't so different from his usual behaviour.
Admittedly, he had changed somewhat over the years. He wasn't as explosive as he used to be, or quite as obnoxious. Of course, he was still (as Zell described him) a "douche bag". Seifer was still inclined to make sarcastic comments at Squall, or deliberately antagonise Zell, or make fun of Irvine's dress-sense. However, he was fairly civil towards Selphie, who he didn't seem to hold any grudges against, and occasionally pleasant to Rinoa.
When it came to herself, Quistis didn't really know how to take Seifer. Sometimes he'd be civil, behaving almost like a gentleman – opening doors for her and pulling out chairs, almost unconsciously. There really was something of an old-fashioned knight to him. He was brash, obnoxious, arrogant... but he was also thoughtful, intelligent, loyal and brave almost to the point of lunacy. She couldn't overlook the quiet love and respect that he sent the way of Matron, or the way she reciprocated that love. Matron often gazed at Seifer as if he was an adorable toddler, rather than a 6"2 man who was partly responsible for a terrible war and who had to turn sideways to go through doors, besides.

There had to be something to that. Matron was such a gentle, dignified person. Quistis couldn't imagine her loving someone who was undeserving of that.

Against her better judgement, Quistis sighed and followed Seifer down the beach.

"Seifer, come on, don't do this. It's unnecessary."

He turned and looked her straight in the face, his features set in angry lines. "I said sorry, didn't I," he said, it coming out more like a statement than a question.

Quistis frowned back at him. "You know, I would've thought that someone who was in the wrong would've been more pleasant about this."

Seifer threw his arms up in the air in a gesture of frustration. "Fuck, alright! I was a jerk! It was a shitty thing to say and I'm fuckin' sorry." He sighed. "God, I wasn't even thinking when I said it!"

To his surprise, Quistis' usually neutral features were suffused with a smile.

"What?" he snapped.

"It's not a big deal, it's ok," she said. Without thinking, she put her hand on his arm. His head jerked towards it, surprised. He looked at her straight again. Quistis froze, suddenly amazed at how inappropriate it seemed to physically touch Seifer in any way.

She withdrew her hand, awkwardness settling over them both. "It doesn't matter," she said, softly. "We all say things we don't mean sometimes."

Seifer nodded his expression unreadable. Quistis was surprised at how hard her heart was hammering inside her chest. She was suddenly completely oblivious to the sea, the noise, the high chattering of the seagulls. All she could focus on was the tall, golden-haired man infront of her, who was peering at her with the oddest expression. She'd always been aware of Seifer's towering physical beauty. However, she'd always overlooked it because of his often detestable personality.
Suddenly, here on the beach, with neither of them speaking, she was overcome by him. Her head swam. She felt like an idiot. She wished she'd never followed him.

He looks like one of those ancient statues, like a war god or something...

There was something that was beautiful and terrifying about this man. Those piercing green eyes, visible even in the early darkness of the evening hit her like a punch in the chest, hard.

They turned away from each other. The protracted silence was too much to bear. Quistis walked slowly away from Seifer, her head swimming with thoughts of gods, green eyes and the painful awkwardness that had descended on them both. This was Seifer she was thinking about – Seifer who had almost been the death of them all, Seifer who had been a spiteful bully and a bad winner and loser. Seifer who had belittled her when she'd been an Instructor.
Seifer who was toweringly beautiful. Who was tall, strong and who had the most striking emerald eyes she'd ever witnessed. Who was brave and endlessly loyal and in love with honour and dreams.

A vague nausea snaked its way through Quistis' stomach as she walked away. This was too bizarre and too sudden to even begin to make any sense to her.

"Instructor!"

She stopped dead, before facing Seifer slowly. He was still where she'd left him, looking baffled and beautiful.

"I'm sorry."

She couldn't resist a smile. He looked so young at that moment, even though they were the same age, and so vunerable.
"Thank you," she said. She walked to the steps back towards the orphanage, pausing only for a moment to look back at the tall, prone figure staring out to sea.

Like a statue.

She shook her head, as if attempting to dispel the thought, then made her way back to the house, back to her room, and hopefully back to sanity.

The nausea still hadn't quite left her, and her heart was still dancing wildly. Stoic as ever, she pushed it down. Far, far down where she didn't need to feel it.


Seifer remained on the beach for some time after Quistis left. She'd seemed startled, and he wasn't surprised. He'd spent several months struggling with his feelings for her. Actual physical touch from her had startled him too, but he thought he'd kept his cool fairly well.
It had taken everything not to grab her and kiss her, and take her right there on the damp sand. For some reason, the fact that she'd been angry had made her all the more radiant to him. She was usually so controlled, so self-contained and dignified, that to see her scowl and snap at him was a joy. He couldn't quite explain it to himself. She was just so different from the rest of them. She didn't jump around, making noise and behaving like children like Zell or Selphie or Rinoa. She also lacked the moodiness of Squall and the terrible innuendos of Irvine. She was a lady, put simply. In a sick way, she reminded him of Matron – that cool love and dignity, that intelligence, and the fact that she could look elegant even if she was wearing a potato sack.

Seifer sighed, running a hand through his closely-cropped hair. The old Seifer internally chided him for being such a "fucking pussy" and for "being retarded for some girl". He knew that the old Seifer was right. The new Seifer was too soft by a long way. A few years ago he wouldn't have even considered looking at Trepe in any way other than an annoyed one. Yeah, he'd always been aware of her looks, but hadn't everyone? She'd been such an insufferable know-it-all, and so goddamn superior that he'd always wanted to kick her rather than kiss her.

He pursed his lips and spat into the surf. He glared at the surrounding landscape. He blamed Centra for this shit. If he'd been back in Galbadia or Balamb, there's no way he would've ended up going crazy for some jumped-up ex-instructor. He could've been living it up with no worries, sleeping with who he wanted, when he felt like it, and never worrying about a thing.
That was then, though. This was now. He wasn't that man anymore. He felt old in his soul, and tired. He hated to admit it, but he craved the feeling of being loved by someone other than Matron.

The dreaded L-word. Seifer swallowed; appalled that he'd managed to make himself break out into a sweat, even in the chilly sea air.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here, moron, Seifer told himself. It's just not cool.

But to his disgust, it was cool. It felt cool. His chest felt full of sunshine and his stomach felt full of nails.

The L-word. Seifer wouldn't mouth it or think it, but deep inside his heart of hearts, he knew what it was he was feeling. Better to just ignore it, better to just push it deep, deep down where he couldn't feel it. Better to forget.

Just for a moment he smiled.

It's ok, no one'll see.

He breathed in the salt air, and breathed out sunshine.


R&R, please. =) Hope you enjoyed it, I'll be starting on the second chapter in a week or two. Thanks!

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