If there is one continuous thread that runs through Shera's life, it is sitting down and drinking her goddamned tea.
The three-masted barquentine rode the cresting waves like a proud but battle-tossed swan, her full sails nearly swelled to bursting with a strong, bitterly cold nor'easter that howled around the masts and managed to find its way even into that most hallowed of ship's quarters - the Captain's cabin. Sailors quailed outside the oaken door and ship's boys were known to very nearly swoon when sent to knock, but the nasty old gale knew nothing of respectability or of rank. It threw open the hold and barged right in, nearly startling the Captain's wife and daughter out of their already fraying wits.
They stared in wonderment at the wildly-flapping door for almost a full minute before the older of the two arose and managed to slam it shut again, getting a good faceful of sea spray in the process. She gave a nervous laugh and shrugged her shoulders helplessly at the little girl seated at the bolted-down table. What else could you do, really?
The child just stared back at her with fear-widened eyes, clutching the handle of the bone-china cup in her hands so tightly the knuckles showed pale against the deep indigo of the painted porcelain. She could sense her mother's fear despite the forced levity; they had been in many storms at sea before, but never one this fierce. Her father hadn't been back to his quarters all day, needed on-deck almost constantly to keep control of the ship, and so after waiting almost an hour later than they usually did mother and daughter had taken their tea without him.
There were dark circles underneath the woman's eyes, crow's feet beginning to branch out from the corners to make her look much older than her 32 years. Life on a sailing vessel was hard and not meant for a woman to suffer, but because Lucia - for that was her name - loved her sea-captain husband and wanted to be near him as much as possible, she had followed without a moment's hesitation. The pretty young brunette had stepped aboard at Junon and shown a surprising amount of courage and grit, helping as best she could with deck duties until she became, as the old matrons of the village might have put it, 'in a family way' and was confined to quarters.
Shera was born off the coast of Wutai, and in the seven years since had never set foot once on dry land. The only world she had ever known was the one bordered by blue sky above, green waves below, and tea all around.
Yes, strange as it might sound they were surrounded by tea, boxes and bales and barrels of dried leaves with exotic names like Oolong and Darjeeling and Lapsang packing the hold with their bulk and their varied spicy scents. Shera liked to hide amongst the huge crates, sometimes falling asleep to the sound of the lapping waves and the smell of the 'green gold' that hemmed her in. And what did she usually awaken to? Why, the sound of her mother calling her home for noonday tea, of course.
She was an only child, but not a lonely one. Every day Shera helped her father on-deck, fetching him his tobacco pouch or his compass or other such important things, and every day at exactly four o' clock he picked her up squealing from the slippery boards, placed the gangly young girl onto his shoulders, and together the two went in for tea, Shera gripping at his thick blonde hair for support and comfort. Sometimes he would take her out afterwards and show her the myriad constellations that dotted the night sky and these were the girl's favourite moments of all, looking up at the cobalt dome above while green waves rushed below, the great water reflecting the stars so well that one couldn't tell where heaven ended and the ocean began.
But today Shera hadn't been allowed to go and help on-deck, and the Captain had not yet come in for tea. Something ominous was threatening, and it made her stomach churn with anxiety and fear until she could barely drink the steaming cup of golden-red liquid her mother had doled out to her from the copper kettle on the fire. Lucia settled back into her chair and smiled nervously at the child, trying to ignore the fear in the big green eyes that stared up at her searching for some sort of reassurance.
"Well," she said, voice shaking under the strain of pretended normalcy, "Drink your tea then, Shera. It'll go cold if you don't."
Once again silence fell over the cabin, the only noises the unnerving creaks of the ship and the gale screaming outside. Shera resiliently tried yet again to bring the china cup to her lips, but just then a great shuddering ran through the vessel accompanied by a loud groan of protest. Cups and saucers and everything not nailed down was thrown to the floor, including the two women, and Lucia forgot all pretenses of bravery and screamed in mortal terror. The door flew open with a bang and a gust of rain, the huge form of Shera's father outlined there black against the lowering sky.
He wasted no time in striding swiftly into the cabin and picking his daughter off the ground, holding her tight underneath one arm like a normal man would hold luggage. His voice was terse and strained when he spoke to Lucia, pulling her back onto her feet with a calloused hand.
"It's bad, m'dear. We're breaking up an' takin' on water. I always told you what we'd do if-" His voice faltered and the burly man seemed to almost choke on the words as he spoke them. "... If it come t' this. Well, it's come t'this."
A wave of terror swept across his wife's face, followed almost immediately by the twin emotions of resignation and sadness. She knew better than to argue with her husband, and if it was as bad as all that ...
He gave her a curt nod and without another word turned and walked back into the raging storm, Shera still tucked under his arm. It was the last time she ever saw her mother alive, and until her dying day the girl could not forget the look in the poor woman's eyes as they moved away from her out into the elements.
The gale was raging so badly now the Captain could barely keep his footing on the tossing deck. Debris and sea foam and rain were blowing past in great waves, the air filled with the crackling of the sails, the howling of wind, and the screams of terrified sailors. Boosting her to a better position in the crook of his elbow, Shera's father began to whisper in her ear, calmly but with a slight air of panic about him.
"Selkie," he began - for Selkie was what he called her, his dark-haired sea-girl - "If anythin' should happen to us, you just gird yourself up and keep goin', y' ken? Those are capn's orders. What do you say to capn's orders, hrm?"
Shera didn't really know what he meant and had never been so scared before in her short life, but she knew what you said to captain's orders as well as she knew how to walk.
"Y-yes sir, Captain sir."
The big bearded face hovering above her broke into a grim smile. "That's m' girl," he muttered, still making his way towards the mast inch by painful inch. When he finally arrived at the great shaft of wood he very carefully and very quickly set his daughter against it and with motions so swift they belied the eye fastened her there with great thick cords of hempen rope, tying several tight knots before he was satisfied with his work. Shera, confused and frightened almost to muteness, watched his hands loop and reloop the rough cords several times before she managed to once again find her voice.
He placed a hammer-sized digit against her lips and kissed the little girl's forehead before disappearing back into the murk of the ship's outer decks, his raised voice yelling orders to sailors and officers Shera could not see. There was a creak and groan all around and a roar of great waves washing over the surface of the vessel. A mighty crack of wood rang out, drowning Shera's frantic screams, and then all at once her world went silent and calm as the child lashed to the mast blessedly lost consciousness and fell into a dead faint.
Eight months later ...
The director of the orphanage sat straight and prim before the girl, wrinkled lips set in a firm line. In her shrivelled hands she clutched a cup, filled to the rim with milky-brown tea - Shera's father had always said it was a sin to water down perfectly good tea with the milk of cows, but Shera's father was dead and had been for some time. This was a Junon orphanage, not the deck of a three-masted schooner, and here different rules obviously applied.
So she sat in the high-backed chair and averted her eyes from the old woman's face, trying to pretend to drink the tea she could not hold down. The reedy voice rose once again, butting into Shera's memories with all the subtlety of a Zolem rampaging through a nursery playground.
"...Know you've had a hard time since washing up on that beach - what was that captain thinking taking a woman and child out on the ocean I'll never know - but that will be no excuse for shirking your duties at this establishment. We're already crowded enough as it is, anyone caught ignoring rules or trying to get out of chores can go to the orphanage in Midgar and see how they like it there. Do you understand, child?"
A fiery spirit of rebellion rose in Shera's throat and she longed to say something biting with plenty of swears (the sailors had not been idle in teaching her those particular sums), but at the last moment her father's words came back to her unbidden.
What d' ye say to capn's orders, hrm?
Dislike her as she might, the orphanage director was the captain of this place, and disrespecting a captain's orders was no better than mutiny. Shera sighed sadly.
"... Yes ma'm."
The old lady smiled benevolently. What a little mouse. She'll be no trouble at all.
Thirteen years later ...
There was a blonde-haired tiger pacing before the young engineer, and she didn't know if she was attracted to or severely frightened of him. Possibly both, but she masked all her emotions remarkably well. Shera had gotten the act of hiding her feelings down to a fine art in the past thirteen years, first in a lonely Junon orphanage where her only companions had been a second-hand set of tools and the unchanging stars, and then in engineering school where all the men laughed and poked fun at the quiet bespectacled girl simply because of her gender. She had won their respect and trust over four long years of studies, but the first six months had been a test in willpower for the shy lass.
It had all worked out in the end; at the tender age of twenty Shera had been hand-picked from amongst the myriad hordes of scientists and students to help the young and dashing Captain Cid Highwind build the world's first airship. He wore his recently-earned captain's stripes with pride as he paced around the office, as well he might. The scientist seated before him thought he might resemble one of her father's banty roosters even more than a tiger with his puffed-out chest and funny strut, and it was all she could do to suppress a rising giggle at this ridiculous notion.
Cid caught her movement out of the corner of his vision and trained his eyes on her, once again reminded of Shera's continued existence. He had the bluest eyes she thought she'd ever seen, the striking colour of the tropical sea on a rough day, and her heart did a few ungrateful flutters when they met her own in a cool, calculating gaze.
"Can you make tea?"
Shera had been expecting many strange questions; this had not been one of them. She started and blinked at the older lad unexpectedly.
He sighed as if she had asked the stupidest question in the world and repeated his query once again. "I /said/, can you make a cup of fuckin' tea? You know, that shit you drink during finals, keeps you up all night, nectar of the motherfuckin' gods, stains clothes and teeth worse than nicotine? Tea?"
She had no idea if this was a test or just what Highwind was up to - the other engineers had told her to be ready for anything with him - but she answered truthfully, as she always did. "Yes, I can make tea. I can make any kind you'd like, but just what does this have to do with the job position I'm seeking, sir?"
It was the first time Shera saw Captain Highwind smile, and from then on out her heart was no longer her own.
"/That's/ what I wanted to hear. Engineers are a fuckin' dime a dozen, but a really good engineer who's pretty and can make a cup of goddamned tea to boot ... well." He ran the edge of his steel-toed boot along a crack between the floorboards, suddenly shy with his own boldness. "You get paid every two weeks, room and board whenever we're near 'em, and meals are paid for by Shinra. We leave for the building site at 5:50 AM tomorrow, on the dot. What do you say to that?"
His grin was irresistible. She couldn't refuse.
"Yes sir ... Captain, sir."
And all at once Shera's world was set to rights more than it had been in nearly thirteen years.
I wrote this late one night ages ago, in ... oh, I believe it was three hours, for a fic contest that never panned out. If things seem a bit roughshod and rushed, well, there's your answer.