Chapter One

The Day After

At a pair of soft knocks on my door, I typed the rest of the sentence into my computer, pressed ctrl-s to save it, and then stood to make my way to the door to open it--


I took a startled step backward as my brown gaze focused on Zell's twinkling one. I blinked and then flushed, lowering my eyes away from his wide and gorgeous smile. It had happened. I had told Zell Dincht I - the Balamb Librarian - liked him, he had said he liked me, and now this was the day after the confession. Needless to say, I was still in shock... So I mindlessly giggled as I picked at my Balamb-blue sweatpants and said "Hi, Zell."

Zell straightened from where he leaned against the door frame. He wore black denim shorts and a dark blue T-shirt that had fuzzy, pale blue letters. He looked great. He always did. And he likes me! I giggled again.

Zell sent me a grin. "Hiya, Meg." Then he caught hold of my hand and tugged me closer. "How are ya?" he asked, wrapping his arms around me.

I flushed molten, not even wanting to look up as my stomach and my heart flittered to some place very far away as my brain tried to figure out how this could possibly have happened in a week... "Fine," I whispered. I stared at the pale blue letters on his dark blue T-shirt in a desperate attempt to gather my wits back again. "Starting on my f-final paper." I cleared my throat. Zell felt very warm...

"Good for you." Zell adjusted his arms around me and reached up behind to tug on the bottom of my braid. "Ready for a break?"

With you?... Really?.... "O-Okay."

Zell didn't move, so I very slowly raised my gaze to meet his. He grinned. "Hi."

I giggled, relaxing a little bit into his warmth as I stammered. "Sorry. I... Um..." I cleared my throat.

"Don't sweat it. Shy's kinda hot."

I peeked up at him. "Really?" Zell continued to grin down at me. "What?" I asked, lava reaching my hairline.

"I don't s'pose I could get a kiss?"

My gaze retreated as I cleared my throat, and my hands reached out to pick at the raised letters on his T-shirt. "Zell... I... I don't want... I mean, not until later..." sigh "W-We're not even really... going out. I mean..."


I blinked before looking up. "Yes?"

Zell still smiled. "It's okay. I figured it never hurts to ask." He tugged my braid again. "And yes we are."

"We are what?"

"Going out."

I flushed darker, if the level had gone down at all from the previous bout of molten rock, and lowered my eyes again. "I didn't mean the break."

"I know what you meant." Zell released his hold. "Come on, shy girl. Let's scoot before the hot dogs get cold."

Zell embraced my hand with his as he tugged me from the room, barely giving me a chance to lock it behind me. "Zell, not so fast."

He sent me a wide smile and slowed his pace, releasing my hand to pull me close with an arm around my shoulders. "Sorry. Been like that all day."

I noticed the bright look on his face. "How come?"

Zell chuckled as he gave my shoulders a squeeze. "You, duh. And I like it."


Zell grinned. "Come on, Sally. Don't sweat tomorrow. Just give it a shot."

I lowered my gaze to my feet. "I just..."

"I know. You want to give me a way out. Well don't. I like you. You like me. We have fun. We like the same things... A day at a time. Deal?"

I blinked up at him. Is this what it's going to be like to have Zell as a boyfriend? I timidly smiled. "Deal."

"Atta girl."

I noticed several of the candidates and SeeD's looks as we headed to the cafeteria, which made me clear my throat and send Zell a sidelong glance. "Zell," I whispered. He looked down at me, his handsome face and bright blue eyes sending the thoughts skittering this way and that. I wrestled them back again. "Could you not... could you not do... that when we're around everyone else? Please."

"What? The arm?" His expression showed confusion. "How come?"

I cleared my throat again, looking around at the continued glances sent our way. "It makes me... It's embarrassing."

Zell stopped, lowering his arm to his side as he stared down at me. "I'm embarrassing?"

My eyes widened as my gaze zoomed to his face. "No!" I said while vigorously shaking my head. "I didn't mean that!"

Zell released a quick breath as his shoulders slightly stooped forward. "Whew. Don't scare me like that."


Zell straightened and crossed his arms. "Okay. What's the problem?" he asked, face showing expectancy and concentration.

I smiled, heart melting to a puddle. "You're so cute when you listen."

Zell grinned. "That's the problem? Would you rather me listen like this?" He frowned and stuck his head out like a turtle.

I giggled and shoved at him. "Stop."

Zell's hands caught my wrists, and the frown disappeared to be replaced by a mischievous grin. "Heh heh heh," he chuckled. "I've got you now. How's about a kiss?" And he leaned dangerously forward, wiggling his eyebrows.

My mouth dropped open as my eyes widened. "Zell, don't you dare." He wiggled his eyebrows again. "Zell. Please. Not in front of everyone." I tried to free my hands. "That's the problem."

Zell's grin vanished. "Huh?"

I took in a deep breath and released it slowly as my gaze met his. "You're not the problem, Zell. I like you just the way you are, but..." I cleared my throat. "In public I'd rather not... well... you know."

"But I'm just kidding around, Meg. Honest." Zell released my wrists with a wide-eyed expression. "I wasn't going to do anything. Swear."

Desperation flared and I quickly reached out to place my hands on his chest. "Zell, I know that. I just--" A couple candidates approached so I quickly straightened, lowering my hands to my sides as I took a step back. We exchanged 'hello's as they moved on. I released a deep breath.

"Ohhh," Zell said once they passed. "I get it. No touchy-feelie stuff. We can kid around, teasing and crap, but no... Okay. Got it." Zell grinned as he cuffed me gently on the chin. "No prob, Meg."

I released another deep breath, bringing an arm up across my chest as I rested the other's elbow in the hand. I rubbed my forehead. "It's so stupid."

"Nah. Can you imagine the rumors that'd fly if everyone knew we'd hooked up--"

I lifted my eyes with a fast "No, Zell. I don't care if anyone finds out about that. I'd tell them myself on a network bulletin board."

"Really?" Zell's eyes twinkled. "Ohh yeaaah," he said with several nods and a 'pimp' tone of voice. "I've got me a girlfriend."

I reluctantly smiled. "You big goof," I said as I pushed at him.

He pushed back, immediately grabbing me to give me yet another knuckle-noogie.

"Zell! Stop that!" I warned as I poked him in the ribs.

Zell released his hold, taking my hand instead. "Come on. By the time we get to the cafeteria, grub's going to be gone."


"Don't sweat it." Zell looked over at me as we once again started for the cafeteria. "So why the freak-out about the touchy stuff, Sally?"

"It's not a freak-out," I said slowly. "I just... I get really uncomfortable."

"Really? How come?"

I sent a candidate trio a sidelong glance when I noticed them look our direction. My face flamed. "I-I don't know. I... I'm even embarrassed when my mom and dad do it, or even my brother with me... or... or anyone in my family."

"Seriously?" Zell's tone was adorably attentive. "But people do that stuff all the time."

I nodded. "I know, but..." I looked over at him. "Maybe it'll just take a little bit? Mom says I've gotten better."

"Well sure!" Zell gave my hand a tight squeeze. "So we'll set some rules is all. I'm kinda outgoing, so you'll have to remind me sometimes."

I smiled. "I'll probably be okay if you keep it the way it was when we went to Balamb and Timber."

He winked at me. "No groping, I take it."

I laughed and pulled my hand from his to give him a firm shove straight into a potted plant. Then I took off toward the cafeteria at a run, Zell sounding a maniacal laugh behind me...

We were the picture of calm and innocence once we stepped past the doors and into the cafeteria, though.

The two of us found a place in line for the hot dogs, Zell standing behind me, and I felt him touch my back with a knuckle every once in a while. Actually, it was more of a rub. I didn't care what the technical term was. I liked it. Three years of watching and studying Zell had given me the heads-up on the type of person he was: hands-on. It stood to reason that was how he showed affection, too.

I crossed my arms in such a way as to make it possible for him to touch my fingers, smiling when he did just that. Warm fuzzies were going to rule my planet. I waved to Francine with the hand that Zell wasn't occasionally touching. She smiled and waved back.

"Yo, Francine," Zell called, using it as an excuse to take a step closer while hiding the full-blown hand contact with my back.

I relaxed into it without even meaning to. Wouldn't you know I flushed the moment I did?

"Save me a couple hot dogs. Please?" he asked as his hand gently rubbed my back.

"There'll be no special treatment for you, Mr. Dincht," she retorted.

Zell actually snapped my bra strap. My eyes widened, and I elbowed him. He gave a slight "oof" but recovered quickly enough for no one to notice.

"Aw come on, Fran," he whined. "I said please."

She chuckled and turned away. Zell chuckled, too. Then he stepped back, his hand retreating from my back to only occasionally touch my fingers. Why give him boundaries? He'll waltz over them just to get a reaction. But I guess it was what I needed; the occasional push outside my shell. It would be good for me... right?

I got my tray, Zell got his, and then we headed toward one of the tables near the windows of the cafeteria. Zell sat beside me, not too close, and tucked his right shin behind my left calf so that he could give it the occasional nudge. I shook my head with a slight smile as I spread my napkin on my lap. Constant contact. No exaggeration there.

"You really picked up on 'Quick Silver' yesterday," Zell said between swallows of soda pop. "Keep going that way and you'll be able to use it on your Field Exam. Say, you heard from Selphie about that yet?"

I shook my head. "No, but I'm sure she'll let me know when she's got it set up."

Zell actually frowned. "Well, damn, she shouldn't wait so close to the wire."

I smiled, tucking a hand under the table to give his knee a squeeze and several rubs. "Zell, there aren't exactly a lot of wars and things nowadays." Thank goodness. I didn't want to think about Zell being sent off again.

Zell grinned. "I know," he admitted as his hand enveloped mine. He gave it a squeeze. "But she could at least tell you what's going on."

"She will," I said, giggling. "I'm not the only candidate she has, you know."

One of the chairs at the table suddenly turned, and a tall man with a 'ponytail' of long auburn hair and twinkling eyes straddled it as he tipped the hat back on his head. Zell and I looked over at him.

"Yo, Irvine. 'Sup?" Zell's hand gave mine one last squeeze before escaping to the duty of gripping Irvine's in welcome.

"Nothing," Irvine said in his lazy drawl. "Just passing the time. Ma'am," he greeted with a nod my direction.


Zell rested a warm hand on my shoulder. "This is my girlfriend Sally."

My insides twittered and my brain melted at the words... girlfriend...

"Sally," Zell focused on me, grinning, "this is Irvine Kinneas. Sharpshooter that botched the Sorceress assassination."

"Nice to meet you," I said quietly.

"Likewise." Irvine chuckled as he moved his focus back to Zell. "I would've hit her, Zell. Just ask Squall."

Zell slowly nodded as he gave my shoulder a squeeze and focused again on his food. "Suuuuure."

Irvine chuckled again. "Whatever."

Zell motioned to Irvine with a tip of his head. "So what do you need?"

"You seen Sephy?"

Zell shook his head. "Nope. You check her class schedule?" Irvine nodded. Zell thought a moment. "You talk to Squall or Quis?" Irvine nodded again. Zell shrugged. "Not a clue."


"Did you try at the Quad?" I asked. "She sometimes goes there to play the guitar."

Irvine raised an eyebrow before standing and tipping his hat toward me. Man, he's tall. "Thank you kindly, ma'am. Zell."

Then he sauntered off. Zell watched him with a thoughtful expression.

"What are you thinking?" I asked softly.

Zell looked back over at me and gestured over his shoulder toward where Irvine pushed through the cafeteria doors. "Him and Selphie. She say anything?"

"Say anything? Um... I... uh... Like what?"

"Like if she likes him or not. You know? Like you and me or Squall and Rinoa."

"Um..." I wrinkled my nose and absently tapped my fork against my plate. "I don't think so."

"Huh." Zell looked again toward the cafeteria doors. "Selphie and him were always chumming around together at the orphanage... and later..." He focused again on me with that same adorable expression of thoughtfulness. I rested my chin in my hand as I watched him. "Well, it seemed like it was back to normal but..." Zell shrugged. "I don't know. He just seems too friendly with all the girls. He's going to hurt Selphie's feelings if she's wanting him to be her boyfriend, don't you think?"

I nodded, and my eyes crinkled. "Uh-huh."

Zell laughed and gave my calf a nudge as he picked up his next hot dog. I smiled and sent him another twinkling glance. His eyes grinned, but his mouth worked busily on his current bite. He nudged me again, and I nearly choked on my giggle. I sent him a 'Stop' look, but his response clearly said 'Make me'. Yep. He definitely likes pushing boundaries. But it was kinda fun, too. I did my best to recreate his 'I'll take steps' expression, to which his responded 'Ooo. I'm so scared.' Sternness fled and I found myself smiling at him. Then I reached out to push him gently on the side of the head.

Zell's eyes twinkled.

We finished lunch and dumped our garbage, setting the trays on top of the bins before sauntering from the cafeteria to the empty hallway outside. There Zell clasped my hand. That simple act meant more to me than any kisses or hugs would have. I don't know why. It just did.

"You've got class soon," I said softly.

"Yup. Wanna come and be my punching bag?"

I giggled. "Sorry. Can't. I've got to finish the rough draft of my paper today. I don't want it looming over my head the rest of the week."

"Your loss."

A couple pairs of candidates passed us. I felt them eyeing us very closely, as I'm sure Zell did.

"You want to go to the movie they're setting up in the Quad for tomorrow night? It'll be our first date."

I smiled. I liked how that sounded. "Okay."

"I'll stop by the library about six and walk you over to your room, to help you with the carrying of blankets and stuff."

I nodded as I stepped a little closer to him. "Alright."

We walked a few more steps toward the dormitory before Zell spoke again. "Sally?"

I really liked it when he said my name. "Hmmm?"

"Can I put my arm around ya?"

There were a couple SeeDs coming but... I cleared my throat. "Okay." I had to come out of my shell sometime.

Zell's hand released mine, his arm drawing me closer as it enveloped my shoulders. I smiled at the floor as the SeeDs passed by.

Zell gave my upper arm several gentle rubs. "That wasn't so bad," he said, chuckling.

"Nope," I said quietly. "Just no groping."

Zell laughed.

There sounded a knock.

I finished the last line of the last paragraph of the paper. "Come in." I hit ctrl-s to save before sending it to the printer.

The door opened. "Done?"

I nodded, turning slightly in my swivel chair to face the printer as I waited for it to finish. "Just."

"Ohh yeaaah," Zell exclaimed as he came to stand behind me. He put his hands on my shoulders and started to give me a soft back-rub. "Perfect timing."

The print job was forgotten as tension and stress and tightness vanished. I closed my eyes. "Omigosh. That feels wonderful."

"Man. You been stressing today or something, Meg? You're a knot."

"No," I said absently. "No one ever offers me... wow. Keep doing that."

Zell chuckled. "Sounds like some major back-rub time is in order. I reserved the spa in the Infirmary. Good thing, too. It'll be a blast."

"...sure..." Brain power nil... Thinking cap destroyed... Fingers only source of focus... I released a slow and deep breath followed immediately by a full-body shudder.

"Sweet. I've never had a release that big before."

"...release?" I mumbled, not really caring as long as he kept... "Ahhh."

"Yeah. Your body letting go the stress and stuff that's set up house in your muscles." Zell slowly worked his hands free from my back. "Come on. Grab your suit and lets go."

"Awww..." I rotated my shoulders before grabbing the print job, setting it neatly on my desk, and then standing with a long, luxurious stretch. I turned and nearly stepped into Zell. I gasped and then giggled. "You silly."

Zell grinned his boyish grin that made everything okay-- He placed two quick kisses on my lips.

I blinked at him. Then I flushed and lowered my eyes.

"Oops. I pushed that one too far, huh?"

"N-No... I mean... I-I..." I took in a deep breath and released it slowly before looking up at him. "I don't know, Zell. I'm just... I'm not used to the whole idea yet. That's a big draw-back to being shy. I..." I sighed.

Zell gently chucked me on the chin. "It's not a problem, Meg. It's just... It's just 'you'. Don't worry about it. I don't."

I reluctantly smiled. "You poor thing. You're going to be a wreck by the end of this relationship."

"End? What end?" Zell smiled. "No end here."

I looked up into Zell's smiling face... and then I gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for saying that," I whispered against his soft skin.

"Sure, Sally."

I stepped back, meeting Zell's gaze to give him another smile. Then I noticed he had a towel draped over his right shoulder and that he wore swimming trunks and a lightweight white T-shirt. "Swimming?" I asked as I met his gaze again.

Zell chuckled. "Man, you did need that back-rub, didn't you? I told you, I reserved the spa at the Infirmary. Grab your suit and come on."

My eyes widened as my cheeks flushed. "B-But..." I didn't look so great in a swimsuit. My legs were on the short side. I also had a birthmark on the back of my right leg that looked like a... well, I didn't know what it looked like. "Um... Zell, couldn't we... do something else?"

Zell kept smiling. "Come on, Meg. I'm not gonna laugh at you if you're a little knockneed." He pointed down at his legs. "I've got chicken legs. See?"

I reluctantly laughed. "No, you don't." He was buff.

"Sure I do. Now grab your suit, shy girl. I don't want Seifer or Raijin stealing my time in the spa."

I gnawed my lower lip as I turned for the dresser to retrieve my swimsuit. It was a cute pale lavender one-piece that my mom had made for me. I also grabbed the long t-shirt that I always wore over it. Zell chuckled, cuing my flush. I wrapped the swimsuit up in the T-shirt before facing him. Like usual, he smiled. "Okay."

Zell crossed his arms. "You're not really going to wear the t-shirt, are ya?"

I cleared my throat as I lowered my gaze to the accursed thing, picking at it with self-conscious tugs. "Y-Yes. Why n-not?"

Zell chuckled again as he shook his head. "Rinoa'd be leaping at the chance to wear a skimpy thing for Squall."

Words and defenses by the millions melted under the red of my cheeks. I could only clear my throat again.

"It's kinda cool," Zell said. He grabbed hold of my hand and tugged me toward the door. "I get to keep guessing what you look like under those creepy uniforms."

My eyes widened. "Zell!"

"What?" He laughed. "Hey, you've got to admit that Xu and Quis are the only ones that look any good in them... Wait."

Zell stopped in the hall outside my room and faced me, holding my arms out to each side. He intensely scrutinized my frame and build while I began to wish I could melt into the floor. I wasn't wearing the SeeD candidate uniform, but that didn't stop him from using his imagination.

"I take it back," Zell finally said. "You look damn good in them too. I forgot."

I playfully frowned as I pulled my arms out of his grasp. "For heaven sake," I complained. "Stop teasing me."

Zell grinned, putting fists on hips as he leaned slightly forward. "And how are you gonna make me?"

Several ideas popped into my head. I flushed and turned away, moving toward the Infirmary with a clearing of my throat.

Zell jogged up to walk beside me. "I think I like the second one," he confessed between laughs.

I sunk my head lower. "Second one what?"

"The second idea."

"Uhhh no."

Zell laughed and nudged my arm. "Please? I'll be your slave for a week."

"Tempting, but no."


I couldn't help but smile over at him, and then I reluctantly laughed. "You big goof. You don't even know what it was and you're willing to do it?" I shook my head and looked away.

"What was it?"

"Can't remember."

Zell laughed harder. "Wuss."

But I really didn't think Zell would have been able to handle the not-so-shy Sally Regal. "No, I'm not," I said softly.

Zell's laughter faded, and he wrapped an arm around me. "I know, Sally. Don't sweat it. I just like teasing you because you're pretty when you're red."

So I flushed. "Thanks."

Zell chuckled. "No prob."

"Well isn't this cute."

Zell looked over his shoulder moments before we stopped and faced the voice. Seifer Almasy leaned against a garbage bin tossing a gold coin into the air. He had dressed in his usual grayish white trenchcoat, military pants, and navy shirt with the pale cross on the front. Commander Squall had pushed Seifer through the entire SeeD training and then made him Chief of Security upon Graduation, giving him a starting rank of 15! Then Commander Squall had given Seifer a promotion when he suggested linking the Gardens via a secure Network, which included all inter/intra-Garden communications on a scrambled frequency and a secure firewall to the external Internet. That promotion had raised Seifer to rank 18 with the title of Sub-Lt. Commander and Head of Garden Network Security. Since then, he'd been promoted to rank 20, though I didn't know all the details why. I'd started wondering if it bothered him that Zell out-ranked him. After all, he was level 22... I think.

"Hey, Seifer. How's it going?" Seifer didn't say anything. He just kept tossing the coin into the air while smirking at us. "Have you met Sally?" Zell asked with a slight motion toward me.

And I could tell Zell really tried to be civil.

Seifer moved those smirking green eyes to me.

"Hi," I said in a pinched voice. Zell's arm still surrounded my shoulders. Thank Hyne.

Seifer looked back over at Zell. "Quis told me, but I didn't believe her." Then he shook his head and straightened, moving away as he chuckled. "Chicken-wuss with a librarian." He barked out a laugh.

Zell frowned after him.

I watched his profile. "Zell?" I asked timidly.

Zell looked back over at me and grinned. "We better hurry up."

I blinked up at him. "How do you do that?"

Zell urged me toward the Infirmary again. "Do what?"

"Let it all go like that? It's like... it's like water off a turtle shell."

Zell shrugged. "I don't know. I just don't worry about it. Seifer's always been that way. Why should I let him get to me like I used to? Not worth it."

I adjusted my hold on my t-shirt and swimsuit as I stared down at them. "That's kind of what it's like for me... The opposite, I mean."


"I..." I took in a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "I let what everyone else thinks get to me. I worry about it all the time."

"How come?"

I looked over at him. Zell watched me very closely. "I want to... I don't know. I guess I want everyone to like me. I don't like having enemies, or making people mad, or hurting people's feelings, or making them uncomfortable..."

"Sally, that's not your job. You've got to be yourself. If you stress about how everyone else is going to take what you do or say, you'll be 100 by the time you're 20."

I sighed and looked away. "I know, but... like I said, I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings."

"So don't," Zell told me as he gave my shoulders a gentle squeeze. "They'll let you know if you do. Then you can apologize. But you shouldn't stuff everything just so someone you don't even know can have an easy life. They wouldn't do it for you, and they probably don't care you're doing it for them."

"I'll try, but shouldn't I think about people's feelings some of the time?"

Zell gave my ponytail a gentle tug. "Well sure, but you've got to stand up for yourself, too, Sally. There's nothing wrong with doing that. And I'm going to keep pushing boundaries until you do."

"Okay," I whispered, still not raising my gaze from the floor.

"Come on, Sally. Stop stressing and just relax. Remember in Timber and Balamb? You had a blast."

I smiled as I nodded, glancing over at him. "I did."

Zell grinned. "See? You were being yourself and having a lot of fun, too. You didn't hurt my feelings and you weren't stressing, either. Just do that."

I nodded again. "You'll have to keep reminding me, Zell. I always forget."

"Sure I'll remind ya," he said with another squeeze to my shoulders. "What are friends for?"

I rested my head against him. "You and Selphie are my best friends," I whispered.

"But I get the fringe benefits."

I pushed away with a laugh and a gentle slug to his side. "Zell," I scolded.

Zell grabbed at me. I shrieked and dodged as I headed toward the Infirmary at a run. "No running in the halls, candidate Regal," he called after me.

I smiled and slowed to a dutiful walk.

Zell fell into step beside me and took hold of my hand. "You better watch it, candidate, or I'll keep you after class."

My smile widened. "You're not my Instructor."

Zell snapped his fingers. "Damn. Forgot." He glanced down at me. "Well don't make me take steps."

I looked up at him with an innocent expression. "Me?"

Zell laughed. "You like pushing buttons as much as I do."

I lowered my gaze to the floor and gave his hand a squeeze. "Only yours. It's kind of fun to see what you'll do," I confessed softly.

"Hey. That sounds like me."

I giggled and sent him a sidelong glance. "Peas of a pod."

Zell grinned and reached out to hold the door of the Infirmary open for me. I passed by, reluctantly releasing his hand. "Why don't you go get changed. I'll make sure the doc knows we're here and check the temp of the water."

I nodded and stepped behind a curtain. The t-shirt and swimsuit were tossed onto the bed and then I set to stripping and changing, all the while debating with myself whether or not to wear the t-shirt. The swimsuit was a modest one, my mom saw to that, but it was flattering in all the right places. She'd seen to that, too. It wasn't frilly, but it wasn't boring either. It was simple. It covered everything while showing only what needed to be shown.

I flushed as I adjusted the straps, staring at the t-shirt.

"Did you fall in?" Zell asked, sniggering.

I giggled. "No."

Then the smile vanished, and I bit my lower lip and put my hands on my hips. I knew it wouldn't be a big deal if I wore it. Besides, the minute it got wet it would be as if I wasn't. I sighed. You know you'd even wear it at home, Sally. You're modest. You always have been. Don't sweat it. I started sounding like Zell more and more. I smiled, gave a shrug, and then slipped into it. It was a simple t-shirt that covered my butt and said 'beach bunny' across the front. It was cute. I liked it. It was 'me'.

I slipped past the curtain to the sound of a whistle, which made me smile and flush as I moved toward the far end of the Infirmary. Zell sat comfortably within the bubbling water of the spa, arms draped along the fiberglass walls. Shirtless... I gulped and lowered my gaze.

"Model it, Meg. Come on. You know you want to."

My lips twitched in a smile before I stuck my tongue out at him. Then I climbed the steps on the side, noticed how quickly Zell moved over to make sure I didn't fall in, and carefully submerged my feet into the steaming water.

My eyes widened. "Yow. That's hot."

"Seriously? Let me check again." Zell leaned over and checked the thermostat. "103. That's about normal." He looked back over at me with a reassuring smile. "Give it a second or two. We're supposed to wet ourselves down first, but I always skip that part." Zell motioned for me to come a step further in.

I did with a cringe and an "ow ow ow ow."

"Stay right there. Let me get a bowl..." Zell reached over behind the spa and picked up a metal bowl. He submersed it under the water. "We'll wet you down a little first. Maybe that'll take off the shock." Zell brought up the bowl full of water and then stood and moved closer. "Here. Lean over the tub a little more. I'm gonna dump this over ya."

I did as I was told, closing my eyes and holding my breath.

"Here it comes," Zell warned.

Then the water cascaded over my head and down my body. I sucked in a breath, but it wasn't as hot as I thought it would be. My feet, on the other hand, were stinging and felt pink, if that was possible.

"You okay?"

I nodded, wiping the wetness from my face as I smiled over at him. "That was kinda weird."

Zell grinned as he set the bowl aside. "Come on. Give it another shot. Maybe that helped."

"Okay." I stood and stepped the rest of the way in. The water was still hot, but not as burning as before. "It did."

Zell sat back down, still smiling. He gestured at me. "Come sit over here."

I sat down on the bottom step instead, the water bubbling up to my chin. "I think I'll stay here for a bit."

Zell laughed. "Figures you'd stay close to the exit. You think I'm gonna dunk ya."

I sat on my hands. "That's not it," I said. I watched my legs float up until my toes peeked out of the water. "I'm just..." I'm just trying to get used to the idea that I'm really here with you. In a swimsuit. In a spa. Hanging out. Laughing. Teasing. Just relaxing and being... me. It hadn't happened before.

There sounded a slosh as Zell moved to sit beside me. His legs and toes floated up beside mine. "Just what?"

I blew at some foam and gave a slight shrug. I still wasn't sure how to 'just say' some things. It wasn't that I didn't want to. I didn't know what I wanted to say or how to say it. I stared at his cute toes, kept feeling his gaze go to my face, and released a slow sigh. "To tell the truth, I don't want to think about it. I don't want to think about anything."

Zell chuckled. "Quis says I do that all the time."

I giggled and moved my gaze to him. Zell's face glistened with perspiration and spa water, and his normally spiked hair was slicked back away from his face. Zell looked so different while still being Zell. Still smiling. Still taking things as they came. Still as accepting as ever. Still teaching me more things than I thought he could teach.

Zell grinned. I smiled back at him. "Can I have that back-rub now?"

Zell's grin melted to another chuckle and a smile. "Sure. Let's move over here." He moved to where he had sat before. I followed. "Turn around and sit yourself right here in front. There ya go. Now just relax and breath easy. There ya go."

I closed my eyes with a deep exhalation of breath, listening to his anecdotes of classes as a candidate with a smile and a very vivid imagination.

Next .:. Chapter Two