tap-tap-tap "Sally? You ready to go?"
I hopped toward the door as I slipped into my last tennis shoe. "Coming, Zell." I opened the door - he looked as hot as ever in black jeans and a dark blue Balamb t-shirt - and greeted him with a smile and a kiss. "Let me grab my purse." I grabbed it up from my desk and slung it over my shoulder before stepping out into the hall beside him and locking my door.
"You want to see the dorm-room Squall's reserving for us?" Zell asked, his tone sounding very much the little boy with a secret.
I looked at the time. "Okay. We've got a few minutes." I smiled at him as he led me down the hall deeper into the dormitory. "You better not be procrastinating just because you don't want to pick the invitations."
"No. Swear. I just want to show you. It's huge! It's almost as big as Ma's apartment."
"Really? Wow. That would be so great."
"Dude. Tell me about it! It's even got a little kitchen, with enough room for a table, so we'd be able to have dinner at home and not wait in line at the cafeteria!"
I stared at Zell's excited expression, slack jawed. "A... A kitchen?"
Zell nodded, eyes twinkling. "And the bedroom is huge! We'd be able to get one of those bigger beds and still have room for some kind of fancy-frilly make-up table for you. And it even has a big bathroom, with two sinks! I swear it must have been Cid and Matron's old room."
I flushed, desperately trying not to imagine the bed, and continued to smile at him.
"Here it is." Zell pulled a key-card out of his pocket and unlocked the door. "Close your eyes," he said as he opened the door and again took up my hand.
I closed my eyes, giggled, and then followed after him into the room that would be our new home. Zell went around behind me and rested both hands on my shoulders to push me further into the room.
Finally, he said, "Okay."
I opened my eyes and gasped. "Oh my goodness!"
Zell came to stand beside me and grinned. "Tell me about it."
Sure. The rooms were empty, the floors were bare, and the apartment was nowhere near as big as what I knew a house would be, but the minute I opened my eyes I could see Zell and me living as a couple in this apartment.
I saw where the couch would go on the wall to the right, a small television on a roll-out cart a few feet from the coffee table that was between. I could see the bookshelves on the opposite wall, and the flower pot that would be on the very top, requiring me to always stand on a chair or a step-stool in order to water it. I could see our computer desks on the opposite wall from the couch and beside the bookshelves, facing each other so as to minimize required space and so we could poke fun at each other while we worked.
I could see the dining room table with the flowers in the center and the placemats waiting for our dinner or lunch or breakfast. I could see the counter-top paraphernalia in the kitchen - flour, sugar, coffee beans, etc - and all the magnets and reminders that would be on the small fridge. The dishwasher filled with clean dishes that Zell always forgot to unload. The breadmaker I always meant to use...
I could see it all.
I reached out and hugged Zell's arm, tears blurring my vision as I kept seeing different possible scenes from our life there. Married. A permanent couple. "I love it," I choked out.
"Come on," he said as he pulled his arm out of my clasp and grabbed my hand. "You've got to see the bedroom. I'm telling ya, it's bigger than my whole room."
I giggled, stumbling along behind him as he hurried through the living room and the kitchen/dining room to turn left into the bedroom. I blinked several times, again seeing the placement of the bed, the vanity, the dressers, the bedside tables...
"See? Huge! And the bathroom is there on the right, and there's a walk-in closet on the left." Zell pulled me up against his chest, his arms wrapping around me as he tucked his chin onto my shoulder. "Being married is gonna rock. Big time."
I flushed and giggled as I freed myself from his grip and turned to face him, still holding his hands. "I hope you're not saying that just because you get a bigger apartment."
Zell advanced, his eyebrows wiggling as his boyish grin grew mischievous. "Heheheh. Wanna see?"
I tugged my hands from his grip and held them out. "Zell. No."
He sounded a maniacal chuckle and pulled me close, ignoring my reminders of our trip to town for the invitations. Instead, he lightly kissed my lips between each protest, which grew feebler with each kiss, and rested his hands on my hips as he continued to step forward until my back was against the wall.
I sighed and wrapped my arms around his neck, encouraging a deeper kiss that made me feel more woman than shy ex-librarian. Zell drew me closer, his arms going completely around me in that embrace and ‘circle of arms' that I never thought could feel so completely wonderful. When I was with Zell, I felt as sexy as Janine.
Zell kissed me softly along my cheek until he nuzzled his lips against my neck. I shivered and tightened my arms around him. Then Zell exhaled deep and said, "Damn," in a gruff voice I'd heard before. And if I wasn't such a prude, or so drunk with love and his kiss, I would have repeated the word. Instead, I just feebly nodded.
"Tell me again why we can't elope?" he asked, his lips caressing my neck as he spoke.
And it took a lot of brain power to get that much out. I wanted to elope, badly. My hormones were going nuts, my imagination was haywire, and I wanted to be with Zell more than I cared to admit. I mean, I think the Sally Regal in love with Zell Dincht had crammed the shy 'library girl' into a box.
Please tell me that's normal.
"Right." Zell kissed my neck once, twice, three times before putting his hands on my hips and pushing back. He cleared his throat - face, neck, and ears very red - and sent me a lopsided smile. "Ma'd toast my butt if I eloped. ‘Course, we wouldn't have to tell her."
Okay, is what my love-crazed twin wanted to say while dragging Zell by the hand to the nearest official establishment that could give us our marriage license. But the thought of my parents and my friends surprisingly overwhelmed her insistence and made me tug and drag and shove her back into the closet so that I could think of things other than Zell with his shirt off-- I flushed and looked down.
Zell nodded. "I know. Me, too. Bad."
My cheeks burned even more red as I lifted my gaze to smile up at him. "I shouldn't love you so much, Zell Dincht. It's bad for my health."
He grinned. "Tell me about it. Our work-outs got nothing on the cardiovascular work-out I just got."
I giggled a "Zell!" and pushed at his chest.
Zell cupped my face in his hands and kissed me before releasing me to take up a hand and tug me from the room. "Come on. This place feels a bit too much like home already. We better retreat."
Home... I sighed, staring behind me with a wistful smile at the images and soon-to-be-made memories as I followed after Zell. He locked the door after us and then took me by the hand as we turned to head out of the dorms and to the main corridor.
Zell sent me a sidelong glance. "So, you like it?"
I smile and nodded, squeezing his hand as my step forward nearly became a skip. "It's perfect, sweetie. I saw where everything would go and what we'd do and how much fun we'd have... It's perfect," I said again.
One side of his lips twitched upward. "Cool. So, do you mind if we sell the property in Winhill to Garden?"
I blinked and halted, the smile vanishing from my face and eyes. "Huh?"
Zell's expression grew serious as he watched my face, his hand giving mine several soft squeezes. "I know I said I bought it for us, and I know you want a house built on it and stuff, but I was talking with Squall and Seifer and they said that the council there is making it impossible for us to buy property. Something lame about permits and zoning and crap like that. I told Squall I'd ask you if we could sell ours to them, I've already got the permits to build the house, so they could build the Security Station."
I blinked again and began biting my lip. "But... my house?"
"I know. It sucks. But Squall said he'd try and get a little summer house out of the budget. You know. Build it on the back part of the property by that little forest with the chocobos. He could pass it off as a 'safe house', but he'd only give you and me the key. Well, Seifer, too. Dammit."
I lowered my gaze, still worrying my lip as I absently squeezed Zell's hand. My house. But Zell was right; Garden needed the property to build their security station. And wasn't that what SeeD was all about? Sacrifice for others? I knew that if Zell and I were supposed to have a house all to ourselves we could make it happen. It was just a matter of timing and persistence. Right now, I knew we needed to focus on the wedding and then getting settled as a married couple. We couldn't do that if we were worrying about building a house so far away. One that we would barely use anyway.
"Kitten?" Zell asked, tone uncertain.
I looked up to meet his dark blue eyes and smiled. And, you know what, it wasn't at all forced. "Okay. That's a good idea, Zell, and I'm glad we can help. We can get a real house later. Maybe President Laguna will sell us the one you stayed at before?"
The expression of relief on Zell's face brightened my smile. "Yeah. Good idea." He gave me a wink as we turned again for the main corridor of Balamb Garden. "He said that he couldn't sell it until he'd had a chance to talk to Ellone, and I guess she's been sailing around the world on that white SeeD ship helping people with stuff. I think he said something about setting up orphanages or delivering medicines or something. I wasn't paying attention. I was just bummed that he wouldn't sell."
"It's all a matter of timing," I offered. "Maybe he'll be ready to sell when we're ready to buy?"
"But I am ready to buy."
I giggled and wrapped my arms around his. "No. You only think you are. With everything that's going on with the wedding and Deling Garden, you're too busy to worry about that."
"You think?" Zell asked, tone and expression thoughtful. Then he said, "Huh. I guess you're right," and turned to scoop me up and over his shoulder before I knew what happened.
"Zell!" I squealed.
He began jogging down the corridor. "We're moving too slow," he said, matter-of-fact. "I promised Rinoa to not be late," he said, turning down the main corridor toward the parking lot.
"Rinoa?" I asked, momentarily pausing my dutiful pounding of his back to lift my head and look his direction. "She's going to be there?"
"Yep. We're going to pick out the invitations and then bum a ride with her and Squall - he actually got away from the office today - to pick out the bridesmaid dresses and cummerbunds and crap like that. I guess Rinoa said the special order came in or something."
My eyes twinkled. "The dresses came in!" I squealed and gave his back several hearty scratches. "I can hardly wait until you can see them. We can't make up our mind between two, and that's why Rinoa wanted to get together with you and Commander Squall. She said that the one I don't pick, she wants to use for her own wedding."
"The hell ya say! Did Squall finally pop the question?"
"No, but he and Rinoa talk about it more often now. Commander Squall keeps saying there's something going on that he needs to handle first before he can do anything like that."
Zell scoffed. "Yeah. I guess I can see that. The only problem is that something's always going on with Garden. If he keeps waiting, they'll be too old to get married."
I rested my chin into my hand, my elbow resting in his back as my other hand absently rubbed at the area between his shoulder blades. "Rinoa said that she's willing to wait. She's only concerned that he's afraid she'll leave when they ever do get married. I guess Commander Squall has problems with relationships because of being an orphan and losing all the people he cared about." I sighed, and my lips drooped. "Rinoa says he's getting better."
"Yeah. 'Course, it helps that when they fight about stuff, she comes back and gets him to talk about it. She was always like that. Never let him feel sorry for himself, and never let him forget about all the people that cared about him. It rocked his world the way she wouldn't let him push her away. He'd never had that before."
"Do you think... Do you think our wedding might make Commander Squall propose?" I asked thoughtfully.
"Good question, but I don't know. It might make him think more about it, but..." Zell shrugged. "He's pretty gung-ho about cleaning things up before proposing. I just hope he's not using it as an excuse. He does that sometimes."
"You think he..." My hand paused its duty of scratching Zell's back. "You think he might really be scared of marrying her?"
"Not really of Rinoa, but of the whole 'staying with you until we die' thing, sure. Who isn't? I mean, dude, that takes a lot of guts to stick with one person for the rest of your life. People change, and trying to stay in love with 'em through all the crap that can happen? That's scary stuff."
Stuff I'd never thought about that way. "Yeah," I admitted absently, "I guess it is."
Zell gave his shoulders a heartier shrug, giving me a jounce. "A little more to the right."
I giggled and shook my head as I moved my scratching/rubbing hand as requested. "You silly boy."
"Hi, Rinoa," I greeted as we hugged. She looked as lovely as ever in a sleeveless summer 'frock' of pale blue with pink ribbons stitched around the hem and the neckline. Her dark hair had been braided beginning from the crown of her head, and little wisps of hair had escaped to give her a very 'soft' and pretty look. "Thanks for helping me with this. I need all the help I can get if this is going to work."
Rinoa smiled, saying, "Sally, don't be silly. The wedding is going to be spectacular," as Zell and Squall did their infamous 'secret handshake' that Zell confessed they had worked out while fighting their way to Sorceress Ultimecia.
Rinoa linked her arm with mine as we made our way to the train that would take us from Timber and the print-shop to Deling and the wedding boutique. Squall and Zell followed behind talking about Garden related stuff; more than likely the 'go-ahead' for the selling/buying of our ex-property in Winhill.
"Selphie and I worked on coordinating the flowers and decorations for the Wedding and the Reception with the two possibilities of dresses last night," Rinoa informed, "so there won't be a lot of change from one to the other. You've only got to pick which one you want and then try on the wedding gown and you're done."
I shook my head, completely floored. "This shouldn't be this easy, Rin," I confessed. "Somethings going to go wrong."
Rinoa chuckled and gave my arm a squeeze. "Don't be such a gloom and doom. It's easy because you're having a lot of people help you rather than trying to do it for yourself. The only thing you need to worry about is whether or not Seifer says 'no' to the final Reception plans."
I gasped, pausing in the entrance of the train as I focused on Rinoa's pretty face with a wide-eyed gaze. "He wouldn't... Would he?"
Rinoa smirked. "It depends on how much of a pain he wants to be. He likes pranks, and what better prank than saying 'no' to your Reception just to see the look on your face?"
I shook my head. "Oh please. Don't say that. I don't want to think about that. Not now. Not when everything's going so smoothly."
Rinoa softly laughed and drew me into the train car and then down the hallway, pausing long enough to unlock the entry with her ticket. "I'm sorry, Sal. I'm sure everything will be fine. After all, you're his favorite."
I blinked at her as I stepped along beside toward the SeeD cabin. "Whose favorite?"
"Favorite? Me? Favorite what?" My poor mind couldn't make sense of what or how I could be a favorite of anything of Sub-Lt. Commander Seifer Almasy. He scared me to death.
"You're so silly," Rinoa laughed. "His favorite everything. You're basically his personal assistant." Rinoa looked over her right shoulder toward Squall. "I'm telling you he should give her a raise."
Squall smirked but didn't say 'yay' or 'nay' as I wordlessly blinked at Rinoa.
Rinoa focused again on me, her dark eyes twinkling with her smile. "You're the envy of the Security Office, except for Ahndra. Everyone else wishes Seifer was as easy on them as he is on you."
"Easy?" Zell scoffed. "He still ties her up in knots."
"He doesn't do it on purpose," I defended. I flushed and lowered my gaze as we made our way into the SeeD cabin. "I do that myself."
Rinoa guided Sally to sit beside her. "I know you do, Sal, and that's why--"
"Rin," Squall said, giving a slight shake of his head when Rinoa looked over at him.
I noticed her small, acknowledging smile with a blink and a wave of curiosity. She focused on me again. "And that's why I'm sure he does his best to be a little nicer. After all, he's read your file, and he's watched you here at Garden. He knows what you're like, and what he needs to do to make things a little more bearable for you. Plus, you work so hard, too. That's why you're his favorite. You pamper him with coffee and good work. No one else does."
Everyone laughed, but I could only blink at Rinoa and her twinkling eyes and pretty face while trying to figure out what was so wrong with being nice to my boss.
"Uh-oh," Zell said, chuckling, "she's gone under. She's trying to figure out what's so funny."
I flushed and sent him a playful glare. "Oh leave me alone, you big bully."
Zell smirked and leaned back, as did Squall seated beside him, crossing his arms as he watched me and Rinoa. "Bully, huh? You didn't say that earlier today."
"Zell," I hissed, my face and neck more red than ever.
Squall smirked and Rinoa laughed. She reached over and gave my hand a squeeze. "Zelly, be nice. The poor girl's embarrassed enough."
Zell grinned. "I know. I like that shade of pink."
Even I laughed this time. In fact, all of us laughed most of the way to Deling. Even Commander Squall voiced more than his usual quiet chuckle. I don't remember now what was so funny. I remember talking about some of the trips to Timber and the TV station, and Zell talked about the behind-the-scenes trips we'd taken to the Timber Wolves locker-rooms and courtside seats and things like that, but most of all I only remember being comfortable with more than just me and Zell.
I hadn't been able to 'hang out' with Commander Squall and Rinoa together. Actually, I hadn't ever been able to really 'hang out' with Commander Squall. He was always so busy with Garden. But the train ride over to Deling made me have trouble thinking of him as 'Commander Squall' anymore, which made me a little... awed. I mean, I know Rinoa and Zell were just as important on the 'Sorceress Slayer' list, and Selphie, too, but Commander Squall had always been so much more... I don't know. Unreachable? Or something. But as Zell and he talked about different things that were less Garden and more 'teen' stuff, it was as if the uniform - which he wasn't wearing - began to fade away and I saw a person.
A person who tried as hard as I did to be perfect to keep from hurting others.
That revelation was quite a blow to my previous perception of the type of person Commander Squall was. In my limited view, I guess he'd seemed super-human because of all the wonderful things he'd done. I mean, he'd saved the world, travelling different dimensions to get it done, and then he'd come back and saved the Garden Network from collapse. He'd inspired everyone to greater things because he hadn't given up. But listening to him and Zell joking and laughing... it reminded me that he was barely an adult. He was only, what?, two years older than me and he had at least three times more responsibility!
That made him more human to me.
Then the train did an emergency stop with red lights flashing and sirens blaring and the humans became SeeD all over again.
Emergency Lock-Down commencing. No unauthorized access allowed. Please remain in your seats. Repeat: Emergency Lock-Down commencing. No unauthorized access allowed. Please remain in your seats.
Squall and Zell stood up in unison, serious expressions replacing humor. Squall pointed at Rinoa. "Stay here. I'm going to lock the door and seal it. Don't open it at all. Understood?"
Rinoa wordlessly nodded.
Squall focused on me. "Stay with her. If it's forced open, you know what to do."
I gave a single nod, distancing the fear and focusing on keeping my calm the same as I kept my focus away from Zell.
Squall turned for the door with a brusque, "Come on," to Zell, who sent me a glance while following.
The door closed and both Rinoa and I heard the high-level security seal lock into place.
Rinoa gripped the cushion of the seat on each side of her before looking toward me. "What's going on?" she whispered.
It was then I remembered she hadn't been in a situation like this since returning from the battle with the evil Sorceress. Rinoa had gone back to her civilian life, not even really needed for the Timber Owls because of the pull-out of Galbadian forces. After two years of peace and only having to worry about therapy with her boyfriend, I'm sure battle techniques were easily forgotten.
"I don't know, but I'm sure it's nothing," I assured her, keeping my tone and my smile as calm and natural as possible.
I hadn't read or heard anything about radical activity in the area of Deling, but that didn't mean it wasn't a possibility. Anything was, and my life with SeeD working under Sub-Lt. Commander Seifer Almasy had taught me that better than anything--
Rinoa and I both gave a startled jump at the loud report of Squall's gunblade from outside the train, both focusing on the sealed door while wondering what in Hyne's name could be going on beyond it. An altercation involving my Commander and my fiance was the last thing I'd wanted on the day we were scheduled to pick up my wedding dress and order my bridesmaid dresses and invitations. Today was supposed to be sunny and calm. Why couldn't that be what happened?
"Squall..." Rinoa whispered.
And I was internally whispering my own sweetie's name. But I knew he could handle himself. He and I trained hard to keep in shape. And Garden had adopted a regular policy of Physical Endurance/Aptitude Tests, unjunctioned the main focus, to make sure the SeeDs were in top form. Zell and I always passed with high marks.
Another collection of blasts sounded. Rinoa's hands tightened on the cushions, more than likely to keep herself from standing and flying to his side. I knew she was still considered a 'Sorceress', but no one knew just how much power she still had. Or how much she controlled it. I bet she wants to find out.
I know that if she'd made a move to leave, I wouldn't have stopped her. I would've followed right after, more than likely leading the way to the battle-- There was a sudden vibration in the pocket of my jacket and I remembered the handheld that Sub-Lt. Commander Seifer made me take with me at all times. I pulled it out of my pocket and opened the protective cover to reveal Ahndra's stern expression.
"Yes, ma'am?" I prompted while giving a salute.
"Report of radicals in your area just received. Report."
"Emergency lock-down of Deling-bound train. Commander Squall and Head Instructor Zell have intercepted and are in the process of subduing."
Ahndra swore. "Team dispatched and enroute. Expected arrival time: five minutes. Force number?"
I swallowed hard and shook my head. "Unable to determine," I admitted, voice a little choked. "Commander Squall sealed the exit with express orders to remain."
Ahndra looked to Rinoa seated beside me, pressing her lips together as she realized the reason for the order. She swore again and spoke to someone on her right.
A few moments later, Sub-Lt. Commander Seifer shoved Ahndra out of the way. "Regal, you get your ass out there and supply back-up. Rinoa, keep your ass in that seat. If I hear you've moved, your ass is mine. You hear me?"
Rinoa wordlessly nodded.
"Regal," Seifer spoke again, "keep the handheld on so that we can track your position. Now move!"
I scrambled to my feet and toward the door, using the handheld to override the seal only long enough for me to get through. It slid closed and the seal locked in place again. Sirens and lights still flashed as I dashed for the doors on my right and had to do the same, overriding the seal on that door and the outer door only long enough to let me through. Then I was out and onto the grassy plains outside of Deling City and running all-out toward the sounds of battle at the head of the train, my hands tucking the handheld away and digging my battle gloves out of my other pocket.
The only thought that ran through my mind was the 'Now move!' order Seifer had shouted before disconnecting. Then I was quickly running up on the team of two SeeDs taking on the close-to-ten radicals in the black jumpsuits and thanking Hyne for wearing jeans and a t-shirt as well as my favorite - and very hard-soled - athletic shoes.
I used my momentum and inertia the best I could, as well as the element of surprise at my sudden appearance behind them, and used 'Hell Strike' on the nearest group of three. Two went down, the third stumbling aside and allowing me through to Zell and Commander Squall on the other side of the group.
"Here as ordered," I said, breathless and defending an attack from a nearby radical while hoping against hope my boss hadn't just gotten me fired and court-martialled.
"One guess," Zell said, performing his infamous 'Booya' on another radical before again standing beside me. "Seifer."
'Quick Silver' was next the same time I heard the ring of metal as Commander Squall made a downward slash, this one unblocked, and then the immediate report of the gunblade. Soon after that, though, the sounds of battle melded into one giant blob as I focused only on what I was there to do: offer back-up.
This battle was different than my Field Exam because not only did I get hit, but I had to watch Zell and my Commander get hit, too. That made me angry. Angrier than I had ever been in my life. I mean, these people were threatening the man I loved! And they were threatening every innocent life on the train! That made me see red.
Black and red.
"Whoa there, kitten!"
Zell's voice and firm grip on my arms brought me back from the murky black and red with a snap. I looked around, eyes wide at the fallen bodies and the other SeeDs standing around me and Zell. They looked surprised.
I looked up at Zell with a small smile. "We won?"
Zell lifted an eyebrow. "Yeah, kitten. We won, and now I think you and me and Commander Squall need to have a little chat."
"Chat?" I asked as he released one hand on my arm and kept the other, leading me away from the group. "About what?" My smile vanished. "Am I in trouble? I was only following orders. I swear I was going to stay--"
"You're not in trouble," Commander Squall soothed, coming to stand on my other side and also holding onto an arm as they led me away from the aftermath. "We just have a question for you."
I blinked at Commander Squall and then Zell. "Question?" I asked slowly. "About what?" I hadn't done anything more than what Zell and Commander Squall had ever already seen.
"Where did you get that GF summon?"
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