.-: Chapter Five :-.

Misplaced Blame

Zell knocked on Sub-Lt. Cmdr. Seifer's door while giving my hand a collection of tender pressures. I bit my lip and fisted my free hand, the dream still too bright in my mind to believe it was anything but real. Queen of Gods... I swallowed hard as I heard the door click, clunk, and then open to reveal Seifer, groggy and grumpy, dressed in a black robe while towering in the doorframe.

He scrubbed at his scalp of close-cropped hair. "Dincht, it's two in the mo--" When he focused on me, standing a bit behind Zell, he stepped back and motioned inside.

Zell gave me an encouraging smile and then guided me inside. Seifer moved to close the door to his bedroom. Then he motioned for us to sit at the small table in the small dining area off the small kitchen. He turned a chair and straddled it as I slowly sat beside Zell, my eyes never leaving their focus of the floor at my feet.

"So what happened that couldn't wait until morning?" he prompted.

"Remember two weeks ago and that GF summon?" Zell began.

I cringed.

Seifer glanced to me a moment before focusing back on Zell. "Go on."

"Well, I had a feeling Sally wasn't okay sleeping by herself, so I followed her and snuck in once she fell asleep. Good thing, too, because the GF paid Sally another visit."

Seifer momentarily clenched his jaw. "Report."

"I guess the radicals we've met so far are trying to get a lot of power and killing a lot of people to get it done. Asura doesn't like it, so she's decided to kill them."

Seifer focused on me. I twitched but didn't look up. I couldn't. If I'd looked up he would have seen how much I blamed myself. I mean, it was my job to patrol the Inter/Intranet for news of radicals and security breaches. It was my job to report dangers to civilians and SeeDs alike. It was my job - my throat tightened - and I hadn't done it.

"I don't know if what she told Sally was meant as a warning for us to 'stay out of the way' while the problem's dealt with," Zell continued, "but it scared the hell out of her."

"Damn straight it did."

I twitched and lifted wide eyes to watch Janine Larabie come out of Seifer's bedroom, tightening the belt of one of his robes around her.

Seifer frowned and pointed at the now open bedroom door. "Larabie, didn't I tell you-- Oh hell."

He gestured her forward, even though she was already moving to his side. In fact, she shocked me and made Zell smirk and shake his head when she moved to stand beside Seifer, leaning against him with one hip as she rested a hand on his back.

"You okay, Sal gal? I bet she scared you shitless."

I flushed and lowered my gaze, confusion at the unexpected pairing pushed aside by the terror and the guilt. "I'm okay," I whispered.

"What did she say exactly, Regal?" Seifer pressed, not nearly as harshly as I would have expected, either.

"I..." An unexpected tear escaped and I quickly wiped it away, receiving Zell's assuring squeeze with a returned one. "I don't remember exactly, sir," I whispered.

Seifer tapped his fingers along the back of the chair before saying, "Just give me what you got."

I tightened my hold on Zell's hand. "She... She said that I knew why she came that time. That..." and my mind couldn't help but remember what she'd said and how she'd said it. It was as if the message were burned into my brain. "The evil hearts of these men has begun to infect the innocent. They thirst for power and lust for my throne. My throne! Until this avarice is curbed and the blood-lust is halted, I will come and bestow judgment. And their judgment is death without mercy. So decrees Asura, Queen of Summon. Queen of Gods. So it will be done...'"

I covered my face with both hands and began to cry again.

"Dammit, Seifer," Zell complained, gently rubbing my back.

"It isn't Seifer's fault, lover-boy," Janine said firmly, "and you know it." Janine looked down at Seifer. "Babe, I'm going to take her to my place. I've a rollaway cot she can use. It'll be better than sleeping by herself." Janine stepped toward me and took my hands from my face. "Come on, kid. Let's get you to bed." She pointed at Zell. "Stay. Good boy."

Zell smirked and watched us go. Then he focused on Seifer. "So now what?"

Seifer released a quick breath and scrubbed at his scalp. "Beats the hell out of me."

"What do you think she meant by that 'My throne' crack? I doubt she meant Sally because Fujin got the goods first. You think she means her real throne? And what the hell would that get the radicals? Maybe it's some artifact that gives power?"

Seifer frowned and swore a blue streak. "I didn't need this right now, dammit!"

Zell kicked back in the chair and tightly crossed his arms, expression serious. "Tell me about it. I mean, I'm getting married in two months!"

Seifer pushed to his feet. "Come on. We better report this to the Commander."

Zell stood and gestured to Seifer's robe and bare feet. "You going like that?" he asked, smirking. "I'd hate your secret life to get out."

Seifer scoffed and said "Go to hell," but he turned and slammed into his bedroom just the same.

Zell sniggered.



Janine didn't seem to care one bit that she walked half-naked through the halls of the dormitory toward her room, the slight breeze revealing more than a little 'leg', as Janine would call it. She looked over at me, lips twitching upward. "Sorry about the shock to your virgin eyes and imagination back there, Sal gal."

I flushed and looked away. "I already wondered if he liked you," I admitted. Yet another thing I'd missed. I sniffed. Maybe I shouldn't be on the Special Security Team?

"Believe me, the feeling's mutual. He's one helluva man." She suddenly wrapped an arm around my shoulders. "And don't sweat this GF shit, Sal. If she'd wanted to mess with you, I'm of the mind she'd have done it already."

"But what if she can control me like the Sorceress did with Rinoa?" I shook my head, eyes wide as they focused on her face. "I'm getting married in two months, Janie! I don't want to have that looming in the future!"

"From what we all know of GFs, Sal, they don't control us. We just channel them, so to speak. It's a... host-like relationship, hence the loss of memory." She gave my shoulders a jostle. "It's been months since her last appearance--"

"With who? When? How? What happened?" And the questions must have sounded as desperate as I felt.

Janine regarded me a moment before saying, "If I tell you, It's my ass."

"I won't tell anyone you told me," I promised, vigorously shaking my head while disbelief that I pressed her to break security had my insides trembling.

Janine halted and turned to face me, staring down at me as she crossed her arms and pushed her full lips to one side. "Oh hell. Why not? It was Miss Thang."

I blinked. "Ahndra?"

Janine nodded. "Yeah. When the radicals had her and Marshal under their thumb. They were about to gang rape her, with Marshal chained and forced to watch, and everything went black. Next thing she knew, Marshal was kneeling over her and everyone was dead or dying."

I paled. "D-Dead?"

Janine nodded again. "Bingo. Then, on the way back to Balamb, she faded in and out of consciousness, complained of one helluva headache, and didn't remember the summon. Just like you. The only differences we've noticed, prior to this 'dream', are that Asura didn't kill the men this time and you didn't have a headache. But now it seems she can talk to you in your dreams. Hell if I know how."

I turned away, staring blankly down at the floor as the information sunk in. Finally, I faced Janine again. "What am I supposed to do, Janine?"

She rested a hand on each one of my shoulders. "Sal, Asura is as much an ass as Gilgamesh; come any time they damn well please. I figure that as long as we stay out of her way and do our best to stay on the same side, things'll be fine." Janine pulled me into a hug. "Get married, kid. That's all you have to do. Everything else will take care of itself."


knock-knock-knock

I looked over at the clock. 4:00. I hadn't slept a single minute of it. Each moment had been spent thinking back to all the reports and online surveillance to try and figure out where I'd gone wrong. What had I missed? had been the most prevelant. The knock sounded again, so I sat up and kicked my legs over the side of the cot, pushing myself to my feet and adjusting the waistband of my sweatpants as I ambled for the door of Janine's room. She grumbled and mumbled, rolling over in her bed as I opened the door to reveal Ahndra 'Fujin' Kelley in her SeeD uniform, hands tightly clasped behind her back.

I blinked. "Yes, ma'am?" I asked quietly.

She motioned inside, expression guarded. "A moment?"

I stepped back. "Oh. Of course."

Ahndra stepped inside, moving to stand in the center of the small room with her hands again clenched behind her back. I closed the door and found myself leaning slightly against it before forcing my hand to release the doorknob and turn. I forced a smile and motioned to the desk chair. She shook her head, so I sat instead. I didn't know how to ask what she wanted, too afraid that something would slip letting her know Janine had told me what happened. Too afraid, also, that I would start crying and quit the security team. So, I lowered my gaze and only remained quiet.

"I summoned her."

I looked up, unprepared for a confession/admittance of a 'need-to-know' security detail that Seifer didn't think I needed to know. "...what?" I whispered.

Ahndra held my gaze with a determination different from what I'd seen on her face before. "On the mission to Winhill," she embellished slightly. But then she pressed her lips together and frowned.

I shook my head. "You don't need to tell me, ma'am."

"Seifer gave permission."

I blinked. I hadn't expected her to get permission to tell me anything.

Ahndra pressed her lips together tighter and then adjusted her stance, crossing her arms across her chest. "Marshal Beita and I were previously involved; before I enrolled in Garden. Before his sister's murder. That involvement was severed when a beating required enrollment into the hospital. The mission to Winhill revived those memories and that previous attachment. When I was... When Marshal was detained and beaten, Asura appeared. Everyone but Marshal, myself, and one other died."

"Why... Why are you telling me this, ma'am?"

"Because her coming saved lives, so you should not blame yourself," she told me, voice calm and regulated even as her expression was intense. "I summoned her also to save lives, perhaps not consciously, but my hate and my rage.... She killed, but because rage and revenge was in my heart, feeding her own desire. You summoned her to protect. She did so."

She's trying to make me feel better? I could feel the tears come, so I quickly lowered my gaze.

Then Ahndra stepped forward and rested a hand on my shoulder. I blinked back more tears and didn't look up. "There's no blame. Asura wants justice for the innocents. Garden wants the same. As long as this is true, there is no blame and there is no fear."

I wordlessly nodded. Ahndra tightly gripped my shoulder and then moved past to exit the room, closing the door softly behind her. I stared at the closed door for a long time, letting the tears silently run down my face. It hadn't mattered to her that I had made a mistake. It had mattered to her that... that I had missed something... I lowered my gaze to my hands as they fisted my grey sweats. For the first time, ever, I felt truly accepted.


nudge

I groaned and stretched as I rubbed my eyes with the backs of my hands.

"Up and at 'em, Sal gal. You need to eat some breakfast before lover-boy gets here."

I opened my eyes to see Janine standing over me, smirking as she fastened up the front of her SeeD jacket.

"Where you off to, anyway?" she asked.

"The print shop in Timber first," I told her as I sat up. "They have our invitations ready for us to pick up."

"Then?"

"The jewelers in Deling City to pick out the rings and get them engraved."

Janine chuckled. "I swear. You two have more jewelery than... than Hyne!"

I smiled. "Nuh-uh."

She smirked and turned to retrieve her assists from her desk top. "Denial is a horrible thing."

I shook my head, still smiling as the prospect of spending another day with Zell made me forget everything else... Well, almost. It definitely made me feel better, though.

Janine affixed the assists to the area behind her ears and then faced me. "Well, I hate to be a bad hostess, but I'm kicking you out. I've got a class to get to."

My smile faded as I stood. "Oh. I'm sorry."

"It's okay, kid. No harm." She nudged me toward the door, which I opened--

--to reveal Seifer holding two coffee mugs. His usual 'Death is answering 'no'', and another one that said 'I put the 'sex' in 'sexy''. I blinked, absently moving into the hall as Janine continued to nudge. She accepted the coffee from Seifer's hold.

She took a long breath of the aroma. "Hmmm. Thanks, Babe." Janine focused on me. "Mum's the word, Sal gal. We've reputations to keep up."

I shook my head, eyes wide as I looked from Janine to Seifer and back. "I won't tell anyone."

Janine smirked. "Good girl." Then she focused on Seifer. "See, big guy? I told you we could count on sweetness and lover-boy."

Seifer said nothing. He only drank his coffee while watching me. I swallowed hard and looked away, focusing, instead, on Janine's pretty face and freshly spiked black hair.

Her brown eyes twinkled. "I won't be able to do any coordinating of the other receptions until next week some time. But I'll send my friends emails giving them the heads up. Is that okay?"

I nodded.

"Perfect."

Then Janine took a deep swig of her coffee, turned toward Seifer to hand the mug to him, and then gave him a long and deep kiss that made me flush crimson and look away. Janine and Seifer? But the thought was actually not that bad. They were so much alike it was scary, and yet different enough that they didn't drive each other crazy. They enjoyed each other, it seemed to me. Like Rinoa and Cmdr. Squall. Like me and Zell.

Janine and Seifer. I smiled.

Then the kiss ended and Janine sounded a low growl/purr. "See you later, big guy. Oh. And thanks for the raise."

Seifer chuckled and then watched Janine walk away. I couldn't help but watch him as he did. I hadn't ever seen him smirk like that before, and it made me wonder how long they'd been together. As long as she's been here? Which meant it had to have been at least three or four months-- I covered my mouth to stifle the slight gasp. That was about how long I had noticed Seifer acting... different. Nicer.

Seifer gave a small shake of his head and then focused on me. I couldn't help it. I stood at attention. He smirked. "At ease, Regal. You're off the clock."

"Oh. Uh..." I cleared my throat and hesitantly stood at ease. "Y-Yes, sir."

He offered me Janine's coffee mug. I blinked down at it and hesitantly accepted. What else could I do? Say 'no'? With his mug staring at me? Yeah, right.

"You sleep alright?" he asked before taking another drink.

I blinked - I think my eyelids are going to wear out - and very slowly focused on him and his serious expression as he watched me with those green eyes that scared me so much. "S-Sir?"

He smirked. "It's a fairly simple question, Regal."

"Y-Yes, sir." I lowered my eyes and tried to keep from kicking myself. "Yes, sir."

"Well, at least one of us did. Dammit."

I twitched and did my best to try and not think what he meant. "I'm sorry, sir," I whispered instead.

Seifer continued to watch me as he nursed more coffee, and more than anything I would have loved to have the courage to say 'I don't think I'm the best person for the job, sir.' But I couldn't. I loved my job, and Ahndra's visit last night made me hope that I fit there. Even if I did make mistakes every once in a while. And I was extremely sorry for that mistake. After all, it had nearly gotten our Commander hurt. It had nearly got Zell hurt.

My fingers tightened on the mug. "Si--"

"It wasn't your fault, Regal."

I actually looked up and met his gaze. "But I missed them," I pressed, voice choked. "I do surveillance of radical activity and I missed them!"

"You caught what was important. That's what you do."

"But--"

"Regal," he interrupted, tone firm and face hardening in a frown as he lowered his mug. "There's not a chance in hell that you could catch every rat's ass and what they're plotting against Garden, civilians, or a resistance faction like the Timber Owls. You do the best damn job that you can. If you don't stress something as being suspicious, big friggin' deal. It's not your job to know everything. It's your job to report what you do find and hope to hell that Ahndra or I catch something when we're reviewing your reports."

I cringed and lowered my gaze, blinking back the tears as my hands fisted the coffee mug. I swallowed hard and gave a nod, not willing to trust my voice.

Seifer released a quick breath and muttered "Dammit." as he scrubbed at his scalp. "Regal, don't beat yourself up about these radical assholes. The reason they're a pain in the ass is because they are so damn good at staying under the radar. Just remember that you put us on to them in the first place, even doing your own investigation so that we could send someone in under cover. Ahndra and Marshal wouldn't have found shit unless they'd had your report." He rested his hand on my shoulder and gave a tight squeeze that caused a cringe - which I fought back. "You're damn good at your job, Regal, and I'll beat your ass if you try to quit."

For some reason, that actually struck me as funny. And the slight giggle that escaped surprised me so much that I looked up to meet his gaze the same time I covered my mouth.

Seifer smirked and lowered his hand... and then he continued to regard me with an intense scrutiny that had me visualizing hundreds of horrible possibilities-- Then he looked down and pulled a small... velveteen... box...? I stared at it with wide eyes. He opened it, one-handed, to reveal one of the most gorgeous rings I'd ever seen. I swallowed hard and very timidly looked up again. Seifer stared down at the little box with a small frown.

"You think she would?" was all he asked.

The idea that Sub-Lt. Cmdr. Seifer asked me a personal question floored me and made me pinch myself. I squeaked with pain, which made Seifer meet my astonished gaze.

"W-Why wouldn't she?" was all I could think to ask in response.

Seifer's smirk returned. "Regal, you might be one helluva hacker, but you're too damned naive. Don't you know I'm a dickhead?"

"Does that mean you shouldn't be happy?" I again covered my mouth with a hand, then I flushed and lowered my gaze. "Sir."

Seifer scoffed and closed the box with a snap to stuff it back into the pocket of his black slacks. "Happy. What the hell is that but a disaster waiting to happen?"

"Then why are you still with her?" I whispered, and I glanced toward him to find him staring down the hall. "And why do you have that ring in your pocket?" I cleared my throat and added "Sir." as I shuffled my feet. Sally Regal! What are you doing?!

Seifer focused on me, his hand still holding the ring box within his pocket. "Did you know she's from Trabia?"

I nodded.

"Did you know I ordered the missile fire on Trabia Garden?"

I nodded again, remembering the day the news had been announced. Remembering the attack on our own Garden and then the one after. Remembering the time in the hospital...

"Did you know those missiles killed her friend?"

I tried not to hear the carefully controlled regret in his voice... Instead, I remembered the rage in Janine's when she had confronted Selphie on the train to Timber for our dresses to my birthday party. Remembered how angry Janine had been that we hadn't told her. But I also remembered what Selphie had said... "During that whole thing he was being controlled and manipulated and forced to do things that Seifer wouldn't do. That's why we don't talk about it. Because we know that he beats himself about it every day. Every time he looks in a SeeDs face he knows he might have killed them. He knows that one day he might find out that they lost a sister or a brother or a close friend to something that he ordered to happen... ...Do you know what that's like? To live with that every day? To remember giving the order that annihilated an entire Garden. To hear yourself giving the order to kill fellow SeeDs and not be able to do anything to stop it?..."

...and I would never forget it.

I released a long breath and lifted my gaze to meet his dark green ones. "Sir, if that mattered, would she be with you?" I shook my head and Seifer again looked away. "She cares about you, sir. A lot. That's all you need to remember."

Seifer released a long breath in a showing of surprising... weakness? Then he focused on me with that same guarded expression while giving me a smirk. "Go plan your wedding, Regal. Leave us dickheads to our fate."

I nearly said something more - though I don't know what it would've been - but then I just saluted and moved away, hearing his mumbled "Dammit," with an internal cringe. It seemed as if he and Cmdr. Squall had more in common than they wanted to admit.


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