.-: Chapter Six :-.

Firsts of Fancy

(Jaxon Crest and the description of Deling Garden are property of JSeay, cowriter of 'In Theory'. They are not to be used without her permission.)

***

I had no idea how to tell Zell about my early morning adventure with Ahndra and Janine and Seifer when we met in the parking lot, me very embarrassed when I still had Janine's mug in my hand. But how could I tell him? I mean, I barely understood or believed that it had happened myself. I was just extremely overwhelmed that both Seifer and Ahndra had done their best to make me feel better. It made me see stars and feel very, very good about my job and myself. Sure, they both still scared me because I wasn't ever sure if they were joking or serious when they asked me to do things, but still. Anything different than the norm was better.

"Hey, Meg. You've been awfully quiet this whole time," Zell commented while giving my hand a squeeze. "What's going on in that head of yours? Solving the world's problems, or just your own?"

"Hmm?" I asked absently, pulling my mind away from an un-numbered reliving of the scene between me and Janine and me and Seifer to focus on Zell's amused blue eyes. I flushed. "Oh. Sorry. What?"

Zell smirked. "You're frowning and then smiling and then looking very confused and wrinkling your nose so much that I want to do this." He reached over to softly pinch the bridge of my nose.

I giggled and leaned back, the clicka-clicka-clicka of the train finally settling in as more than a passing noise. "I've had a very... different few days."

"And months. Remember, you're planning our wedding."

"How could I forget?" I confessed, "I'm back to my old habit of pinching."

Zell laughed. "Uh-oh. Bruises are coming." He drew me close with an arm around my shoulders. "You let me do the pinching. I'm better at grading pressure."

I sniggered and snuggled into his side. "Okay." I released a deep breath as I adjusted my head against him. "Hey, Zell?"

"Hm?"

"Will you help me not blame myself for not being perfect?"

Zell looked down at me, but I didn't meet his gaze. I only continued to stare at the white Balamb emblem on the right leg of his dark-blue sweats.

After a while he gave my shoulders a squeeze and said "Of course, kitten. You shouldn't have to be perfect when no one else is."

"But you'll let me still try, right?"

And Zell didn't laugh. He knew I was serious. I didn't like messing up and making mistakes because I knew a lot of people counted on me and my job for their protection and safety. Not only that, Seifer depended on me to do the best that I could. For the same reason. Sure it was a lot of stress and responsibility, but at the same time that was the reason I liked the job. I liked knowing that I was depended upon. It made me feel important and... needed.

"Sure, Sally," he said, "I'll just make sure you don't give yourself such a hard time if you screw up a bit now and then. Hyne knows I screw up enough."

My face relaxed into a soft smile as I patted his stomach. "You're not that bad."

"Neither are you. You've got a hard job and you're awesome at it. Everyone knows it. Just remember what Rinoa said about you being Seifer's favorite. I think she's hit the nail on the head."

And thinking back to the conversation that morning... "Okay."

"Just cut yourself some slack if you think you mess up." This time he chuckled. "You probably didn't. And if you did? No one would know the difference."

I giggled. "Probably not. I remember thinking I'd flunked my entry exam into the security office, and instead I passed with, like, 120% because I solved answers that were supposedly impossible to answer." Zell chuckled and I giggled again. "I know. And then Seifer made me write another one."

"Hey. You didn't tell me that. How did that go?"

"Seifer says the new SeeDs hate it."

Zell laughed. "I don't doubt it. You'll make them look bad. Say. You should ask Seifer to have the mucky-mucks take it. You know. Ahndra, Marshal, and Toby and them. That'd be a riot to know how much they suck at their job."

I sniggered. "Zell..." I scolded.

"What? It's a legitimate thing to ask. People get sloppy when they've had their job for a long time. It'd be a great refresher course."

And talk about a boost to my self-esteem to have something like that even suggested. "I'll write a little suggestion and put it in his Inbox. Okay?"

"Okay." He chuckled. "Marshal'll kick my butt if Seifer goes through with it. Heheheheh."

My face softened with a silly smile as I again patted his stomach and snuggled a little closer. Fantasies, when they came true, were dangerously potent bits of happiness.


Zell exclaimed "Oh man!" the same time I said "Oh no!" The printshop had made an error on the invitations.

"...the hell?!" Zell waved the invitation in the face of the clerk, who flinched and leaned back, his hands lifted to his face. "How in the hell can you screw up off a perfect print? Huh?! Your printing department have their heads up their ass or something!? Damn!"

"Zell," I soothed, my hands on his arm to try and pull it back from the clerk. "It's an honest mistake, and I'm sure they'll reprint them with no cost to us, since it was their mistake."

"O-Of course," the clerk said hurriedly. He pulled the box of invitations off the counter and backed off. "I'll put a rush on these and then have them delivered to you at no extra cost."

"Damn straight!" And Zell punctuated the remark by slamming the invitation down onto the counter.

The clerk jumped, nearly out of his skin, and turned to hurry into the back to set the plans into motion.

"Damn!"

"Zell, it's alright."

"'Alright'? Sally, they screwed up, and now we have to wait another 2 or 3 weeks for new invitations! What if they don't get to the people in time?"

I smiled and patted his cheek. "We've got e-mail, silly. We can let everyone on the list know that the invitations are late but that they're invited. For those few people who don't have e-mail, I'll write them a letter explaining what happened and letting them know to expect the invitation in the mail later than we thought. Like I said, it'll be alright."

Zell actually groused, frowning as he crossed his arms and glowered after the clerk. I giggled and shook my head before standing on tiptoes and giving him a kiss on the cheek. His lips twitched upward, I already knew he was faking just to get a reaction from me, but he continued to frown.

I gave his arm a gentle tug. "Come on, grumpy bear. Let's go to the train station and catch the next one to Deling City. I promised Rinoa that we'd stop in and say 'hi'."

Zell perked up at that, intention of the pouting/grousing forgotten as another thought grabbed his attention. "Say, can we stop in at Deling Garden? I promised a friend that I'd stop by and pick up a transfer request and deliver it personally. He doesn't think the other ones have been making it through the chain-of-command."

I voiced a soft gasp as we made our way out of the print shop and headed for the train shop. Then I smiled. "Could we see Zone? I feel sorry for him, being there when I know he didn't deserve it."

"Didn't deserve it? Sally, he tapped Garde--"

"I don't believe he did it. I think he was framed," I said matter-of-fact.

Zell blinked and halted, leaning slightly back as he voiced his usual "Wha?"

"Did you see his face when she walked away that day in Timber? He was heart-broken, not ashamed. And when you confronted him about it? He didn't really say that he'd done it. He admitted they were found on his computer, but that doesn't mean he put them there." I looked away, tilting my chin upward as I crossed my arms. "I think he was framed."

Zell regarded me another moment before laughing and gathering me into a hug. "Meg, one of these days..."

I squealed and pushed and shoved. "Lemme go."

"If we get world peace on this crazy planet, it's going to be because you solved all the problems without breaking a sweat." He kissed my neck and then wrestled me forward toward the train. "Come on, shy girl. Let's go to Deling and get those rings."

I manipulated myself free and charged forward. "Last one to the train's a bad kisser!"

"Ack!"

And Zell and I laughed and squealed and maniacly - is that a word? - chuckled all the way into the SeeD car.

It was a tie.

We plopped down into the couch of the SeeD car at the same time, laughing and giggled and shoving each other as we each tried to tickle the other - or some such fool thing love-birds do that looks ridiculous to everyone else. Then we just settled into 'snuggles' and listened to the click-clicka-clicka of the train as it took us to Deling City.

If my arms hadn't been around Zell's middle, I would have pinched myself.



When we got off the train at the Deling Station, Zell took hold of my hand and gave me a tug toward the exit. "Come on. Let's go to Deling Garden first. If we stop in and say 'hi' to Rinoa, we won't get out of there until midnight."

I laughed and let him pull me along. "I don't mind. I've only seen pictures of Deling Garden. I haven't ever been there."

"It's nothing like Balamb Garden. Not even close. It's more... I don't know. Cold or something."

"Oh. That's too bad." I watched Zell's profile. "So, who's this 'friend'? Have I met him before?"

"I don't think so. His name's Jaxon. Jaxon Crest. He's a Lieutenant there at Deling. In security."

"Security again." I smiled. "Is that where you'd really like to work, Zell? You seem to know more security people than anyone else."

He grinned. "Just luck, I guess."

I wrinkled my nose at him. "'Luck', my eye."

We made our way beyond the city limits and then headed for the large structure positioned between the Tomb of the Forgotton King - or was it Unknown King? - and Deling City. Deling Garden, true to Zell's word, was completely different from all the others. The walkway into the building was concrete, a pool with a fountain on either side made it look nice enough, but then the building itself... Deling Garden was definitely out of place in the middle of the green field. A metallic upside-down trapezoid was the best way to describe it, with the levitator rings encircling the center of the building, between the third and fourth floors. Zack would probably have called it an 'architectural monstrosity'. The stainless steel exterior gleamed so bright in the mid-day sunlight that I thought I was going to go blind. I couldn't examine the building for any longer than a few seconds before my eyes started watering and I began to get a headache.

I hated to say it, but the Garden was ugliness given form.

"See? Nothing much to look at, huh? I certainly wouldn't want to be stationed here. No wonder Jax wants out."

I grimaced at the huge thing, all the time very thankful that I lived at the lovely Balamb Garden.

When we stepped past the initial entry, pinning our assigned 'Visitor' badges on the waistbands of our sweats, I could see that the inside was going to be just as non-artistic as the outside. Strictly business, which was heightened by the long line of new registrants picking up their information and whatnot. I couldn't believe how many new transfers there were. There had to be at least a dozen.

"Fresh meat," Zell mumbled.

I sent him a glance before looking again to the line of men and women waiting their turn. Most ignored me, but a few sent me glares and then a very rude gesture. I flushed and looked away, missing Zell's return and the offender's reddening face and rage-filled eyes.

The atrium was reminiscent of Balamb, but not as bright nor as welcoming. My other hand came over to grip Zell's as my eyes took in the new sights and colors of the Garden. For some reason, I didn't like this place at all.

Zell reached around and gave my hand a squeeze. "It's okay, kitten," he said quietly.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

Zell and I both turned, my eyes wide as they focused on a tall man dressed in a SeeD uniform. He was good-looking, with vivid blue eyes that had me wondering if they were natural. According to the bars on his SeeD jacket, he was a Lieutenant First Class.

Zell released my hand and stepped forward and in front of me. "What the hell's that to you?"

The Lieutenant came up to Zell toe-to-toe, towering over him much like Seifer did upon occasion. And, like with Seifer, Zell didn't back off or look away, even though it looked as if this guy could handle himself in a fight. In fact, I was about ready to step in when they smiled and laughed and wrapped each other in a tight hug with firm claps on the back and greetings of "Damn it's good to see your ugly mug!"

I didn't know whether to be confused, annoyed, or overjoyed that they weren't going to beat the stuffing out of each other.

"Jax, this is Sally. Sally, this is Lt. Jaxon Crest."

The man named 'Jaxon' focused those intense and lovely blue eyes on me with a genuine smile as he presented a hand. "So this is the famous Sally Regal?" He gently gripped my hand and firmly shook it. "Nice to meet you."

I flushed and pulled my hand away before he finished. "'Famous'? Why 'famous'?"

Jaxon blinked, the smile replaced by a look of disbelief. "You're kidding, right?" Jaxon looked to Zell and gestured toward me. "Tell me she's kidding."

Zell smirked and shook his head. "Nope. She's clueless."

"About what?" I asked, curiosity becoming less easy to control.

Jaxon moved his gaze back to me and sent me a very cute boyish smile. "Easy prey. Wow, Zell. You shouldn't have."

"Hey now, Jax. She's my easy prey," Zell warned as he came to stand beside me. "You get your own."

Jaxon chuckled - it was a very genuine and... relaxing sound - and then motioned deeper into the Garden. "Come on. Let me give you the basic, allowed tour on the way to my office. Then I can give you those transfer papers and you can get out of this hellhole, hopefully taking me with you."

Zell laughed. "What, Jax? You don't love your job?"

Jaxon scoffed. "Please. I'm a man of many talents. Here? I use one."

I watched Jaxon's profile as he and Zell joshed back and forth, a smile slowly softening my expression. There was something about Jaxon Crest that had me trusting him. He was a lot different than Zell, although I couldn't tell you how, but he still welcomed that same feeling of safety. A little bit like my brother, but less rugged.

Selphie would've gone wild for him. Of course, anyone could have. He was very handsome with his dark chocolate brown hair, vivid blue eyes, and ready smile that seemed to hint at... mischief.

"How long have you known Sweetie?"

Jaxon focused on me and raised an eyebrow moments before breaking out into a fit of laughter and giving Zell a shove. "'Sweetie'?" He howled louder, even having to stop our progress forward to bend at the waist and suck air.

Zell frowned and crossed his arms. "The hell's wrong with you?"

Jaxon pointed at Zell and tried to speak, but he could only shake his head and laugh louder and harder, tears actually pouring down his cheeks. I hadn't expected a reaction like that to a simple word like 'sweetie'.

Zell rolled his eyes and gave Jaxon a hard shove, pushing him onto his backside in the middle of the corridor of the Garden. "Shut your hole, Jax. Geez."

I looked at Zell. "Hasn't he ever been called anything like that before?" I asked, completely serious.

Zell crossed his arms again. "And him acting like that? Hell no."

I moved my focus to Jaxon and gave a sad shake to my head. "Poor guy."

Zell laughed at that, which made Jaxon stop laughing and straighten. "Hey. I don't need your sympathy. I've had lots of women."

"Tch! Yeah right. That's why Janine calls you the 'One Date Wonder'?"

Jaxon smirked. "Like I said, 'I've had lots of women.'"

Zell scoffed and shook his head. "Come on, come on. Give us the tour already so we can get out of this place. It's giving me the willies."

Jaxon motioned us forward. "My office is this way. I'll get you the papers and then we'll head to the cafeteria for lunch."

Zell and I fell into step beside him. "Good idea. I'm getting hungry."

"You're always hungry," Jaxon and I said at the same time.

We exchanged surprised blinks and then laughed.


Zell positioned his tray of lunch beside mine and sat down at the table in the Deling Garden cafeteria. Then he nudged his chair closer and sat, pressing his knee against my leg as Jaxon sat across from us. Our table was in the back corner of the cafeteria, safely away from the candidates and students that continuously looked over at us with glares and occasional rude gestures. I kept my gaze away from everyone, which was hard to do when I was so curious to see everything.

"I've been on everyone's shit list since you and Marshal came," Jaxon told Zell and me. Then he motioned behind him to the several men and ladies that sent us glares. "They didn't like me before, but since you and your fellow SeeD buddy came over and pushed them around?" Jaxon scoffed. "They hate being held responsible for their life choices, you know."

"Tough shit." Zell looked beyond Jaxon to the few that continued to glare and held their expression gaze for gaze. "If they're going to choose to be screw ups instead of pulling their head out of their ass, they get put on a shit list of their own. No skin off my ass one way or the other."

I cleared my throat and lowered my gaze to my plate of food that suddenly didn't look very appetizing.

Zell sent me a glance and then gave my leg a nudge with his. "Sorry, kitten."

The softness of his tone drew my eyes, and I smiled and nudged him back. "It's alright. I'll just have to work a little harder at the 'censor' part."

Zell smirked and Jaxon sounded a slight chuckle. Zell focused again on Jaxon and carefully picked up his sandwich. "You're in a better mood than usual, Jax. You get to beat the crap out of someone?"

Jaxon's smirk became more wry and... tortured, which made me change how I watched him. The way he stared down at his food reminded me a lot how Zack had looked after his first marriage had ended. It had been a messy divorce, with Zack losing custody of his little girl, too. And all because Trenda had thought Zack was having an affair, which he hadn't been. He just loved his job at the TV station.

"Nah," Jaxon finally admitted. "Just doing what I can to get by."

"I've heard that before. Usually means doing something stupid."

I kicked Zell under the table. He nearly choked on his bite of sandwich as he sent me a 'What?' look.

Jaxon waved a hand at me. "Don't worry about it, Sally. Zell and I have an understanding. A 'no shit' understanding."

"Yeah," Zell said with his mouth full. "He doesn't take my shit and I don't take his. It works better that way."

I reluctantly smiled. "I guess you and Zell have known each other a while?" I probed carefully.

"Not really. I've known Janine and Selphie longer, being from Trabia you understand. Zell and I just hit it off." Jaxon leaned back in his chair while pushing his tray of lunch away. He crossed his arms. "Bored at the same time with the same twisted sense of humor. Drove the Instructor mad."

"Instructor?" I asked, sending Zell's snickering form an arched eyebrow. "What Instructor? When?" I smiled. "What happened? Tell me, tell me."

Zell motioned to Jaxon with his sandwich. "You tell it better," he said, mouth full yet again.

Jaxon smirked and then focused his unusual blue eyes on me. "Have you heard of those series of weaponforging seminars that have become so popular lately?"

I nodded. "I wanted to go to the last one, but they're for SeeDs only and I hadn't graduated yet."

Zell nodded in agreement and swallowed his bite of sandwich. "Yeah. We won't even be able to go to the one coming up because we'll be on our honeymoon."

Jaxon's smirk widened a bit. "I'm sure you'll be otherwise engaged to miss it."

I flushed and motioned toward him. "So you went to one of those together?"

"Not necessarily together," he said, eyes showing amusement and making my blush grow darker. Zell continued to chuckle beside me. "We met there, had seats together, and had the same idea at the same instant to cause a general commotion throughout the seminar. All five days."

My jaw dropped. "What did you do?" I asked, voice hushed. I couldn't imagine the possibility. It was so... not me.

Jaxon looked to Zell. "What was it? A sledgehammer?"

Zell choked on his bite of sandwich, nodding as I reached over to pat his back and help him breathe.

"What was a sledgehammer?" I queried, completely lost.

"The star of the videos we had to watch throughout most of the seminar. I swear these videos were aimed at junior classmen. Anyway," Jaxon actually grinned, his blue eyes twinkling, "Zell and I started doing voice-overs that were usually completely opposite to what the lesson plan was. Had the entire lecture hall in an uproar. What was that one that had them falling out of their chairs? The sledgehammer wanting to have the anvil's baby?"

Zell howled while nodding, my hand pausing mid-pound on his back as I stared at Jaxon Crest in dumbfounded silence.

"And that other one." Jaxon snapped his fingers several times as he looked up at the ceiling in concentration. "What was it. It's on the tip of my tongue... Oh! The anvil having the affair with the water bucket and the sledgehammer finding out about it and... and... what did he do? Get his sword from the forge fire? And it broke?"

I blinked, giving a twitch and looking beside me when Zell actually fell out of his chair, still howling with laughter.

Jaxon smirked as he focused on me. "I think the video was talking about improper forging or something." Jaxon regarded me a moment. "I guess you had to be there," he said.

I'm sure it was as hilarious as Zell made it look. And I felt bad for not laughing. So, I smiled. "I'm sure it was very funny."

Jaxon shrugged and adjusted his crossed arms. "Eh. More to some than others." He briefly pointed to me. "Funny was that story you did of the Fire Cavern exam."

"Fi-- Huh? What story?"

Zell struggled back up into his chair. "Oh come on, Meg. You know. The story you told me in the cafeteria after you beat Squall's score."

I flushed as I faced him. "Zell, you didn't!"

He grinned. "I didn't what?"

"You--" But with him grinning at me in his usual adorable fashion and the memory of how much he'd liked the story... I giggled and gave him a soft shove. "You big goof." Then I focused on Jaxon. "I'm glad you liked it."

Jaxon looked at his watch. "Well, I better get back to work." He stood and motioned to us. "Feel free to look around. Zell, you know where it's best not to go, so show her the place and then get the hell out of here. Wouldn't want you to get addicted to the place and take my job."

Zell scoffed. "Keep your job."

Jaxon smirked. "No. That's the whole point of the transfer papers." He presented me his hand and gave mine a firm but gentle grip. "Nice to meet you, Sally. Hope to get to work with you one of these days. I'm sure it will be fun."

I smiled up at him. "Nice to meet you, Jaxon, and I'll do my best to get Sub-Lt. Cmdr. Seifer to take a serious look at your application."

"Really?" Jaxon said, eyebrow lifting in surprise. "Wow. I appreciate it. I've heard you're his favorite."

I flushed. "I'm not his favorite."

His lopsided and boyish smile returned. "Right. He just lets everyone actually have a weekend off every week. And three weeks vacation for a honeymoon," he continued as he moved away from our table. "And their choice of assignments. And special equipment for their desk..."

I giggled and shook my head as I watched Jaxon exit the cafeteria. Then I focused on Zell, who watched me while munching on the rest of his sandwich. "What a nice guy. He reminds me of Marshal and Zack."

"Yeah. He's a cool guy; had shit for a history, though. SeeD gets a lot of those."

I moved my focus back to the cafeteria doors that still swung a little from Jaxon's exit. "What happened?" I looked back to Zell. "Is it okay to ask?"

Zell shrugged. "I guess, but he doesn't talk about it, so I'm not really sure. I don't ask, either. He'd tell me if it was something I needed to know." He set aside the corner crust of his sandwich and dusted the crumbs off his hands. "I figure it has something to do with the missile attack. Everything seems to figure into that damn day. Actaully has me feeling sorry for Seifer. He gets a lot of shit from people because of it."

Zell stood and lifted me to my feet. "Come on. I want you to see the elevated track. It's in the training center and is about the only cool thing in this place. Then we can go and say 'hi' to Rinoa on the way back from the jeweler's."

"Okay." I fell into step beside Zell as we headed for the exit, his fingers and mine interlaced, and tried to ignore all the glares and grumblings of the candidates and 'disciplinary-delinquants', as Seifer called them. "They don't seem to like us very much," I whispered.

Zell frowned and looked back behind us at the multitudes of eyes that watched us go. "Screw 'em all. Like I said, they put themselves on this shit list."

We pushed out from the cafeteria into the corridor beyond. "Do we have time to look for Zone? I don't think he put himself on that list."

Zell's face relaxed into a smile as he looked down at me. "Okay, okay. We'll look for Zone as I'm giving you the tour. But if we don't find him, I'm not looking anywhere special for him. His loss. You can send him an e-mail or something."

"Okay."

And as we headed toward whereever Zell took me, I was struck again by the extreme differences between Balamb Garden and Deling... and made myself a mental note to send Zone pictures of home.


The moment Zell and I left the elevated track and the training center, I had a bad feeling something wasn't right. I didn't want to listen to the instinct screaming in my ear though because it meant that the completely awesome day that Zell and I had shared that far was going to very quickly go away. I didn't want that to happen, so I ignored my instinct and just giggled and laughed as Zell told me something funny about his last trip to Deling Garden, not really hearing what he was saying while spending all my concentration just listening to his awesome voice.

But then my instinct wouldn't be shushed any longer. Of course, when I saw and felt the tension in Zell's body, my own caution and awareness shot through the roof. Zell's eyes darted from my face to a group of about six men leaning against the corridor wall or standing somewhere near. They were half-way down the corridor talking amongst themselves in low voices.

"Heads up," Zell said in a voice only I could hear.

And the last thing I wanted to do on my day off was what I was afraid was about to happen. My lips drooped, and Zell's fingers tightened slightly on my hand. I found myself hoping against hope as we drew closer to them that they would see our Visitor's badges and just let us pass. But Zell was a very recognizable guy; that and he never did back down from a fight. So, when the eyes of the guys looked our direction, Zell of course didn't look away.

That in itself was a dare for them to do something.

One of the guys - a taller one with red hair and dark eyes - stepped away from the cluster sporting a dangerous smirk. A Seifer-like smirk before he had become Head of Garden Network Security. A smirk that made me know without a shadow of a doubt that this guy was a bully. Plain and simple.

He moved to stand in our way. Zell didn't let me stop until our toes were touching his.

Zell looked up at him and didn't say a word. He only scowled.

"We've got a ballsy one here, guys." He snorted. "Or else he's just stupid."

My hand tightened on Zell's as my brows lowered. I really hate it when they call him stupid!

Zell didn't even blink. He only continued to hold the guy's gaze. Not a word. Not a twitch. Not even a slight intake of breath.

One of the other guys chuckled. "I guess he's stupid."

I stepped toward the guy with a sharp retort of "He's not stupid", which was cut short with a somewhat sharp jerk of Zell's hold on my hand. I halted and clenched my jaw, my eyes flashing as I held the other guy's gaze until he shook his head and chuckled while looking away.

"So what are you trying to prove with this?" Zell asked. "Because you sure as hell ain't scaring anyone."

The man's smirk twitched. "You're right. He's stupid."

"Stupid?" Zell scoffed. "Like hell. I went to school with Seifer Almasy, the Disciplinarian himself. You think I'm going to be scared by a collection of shitheads like you? Hell no." Zell shoved the guy back with one hand. "If you're going to try and copy Seifer, try pulling yourself out of this hole you're digging."

The man brought his hands from where they had clenched behind his back and slowly straightened his black trenchcoat as he regarded Zell with darkening eyes. "Boys, I think Mr. High-and-Mighty needs a lesson in respect."

"From you?" Zell actually snorted. "Sally could take you on herself."

My eyes swept the cluster, gauging and processing possible skills and threats-- Then I focused on the leader again.

"All six of us?" the man pressed with a menacing grin. "Maybe. But sure as hell not in the way you think."

Zell scoffed and shoved the guy aside yet again as he moved past, pulling me along behind him--

The guy reached out for my arm, but I reacted with my training and grabbed his wrist instead, twisting it until I heard a snap. The other men straightened and took a step forward, stopping only when Zell lifted his arm and pointed at them.

I held the leader's shocked gaze. "Don't touch me." And, believe it or not, if I'd heard me say that to me, I would have been very scared. Then I released him, giving him a hefty shove backward in the same motion. He tripped on his own feet and stumbled into the arms of his buddies.

"Give her a reason," Zell said when another guy made a menacing step forward. He halted. "Just give her a reason to send you to the Infirmary."

The man didn't move. He only gritted his teeth and glared at me as I calmly stared at the leader while aware of every single guy in the cluster.

Zell focused on the leader again. "You want to be an angry bastard your entire life that beats on the little guy for kicks? Keep it up. Deling will eat you up and spit you out. You want to make something of yourself? Like Seifer and Fujin? Then you pull your head out of your ass." He gave my hand a tug. "Come on, Sally. Let's blow this place."

I continued to stare at the cluster of men as Zell dragged me along behind him, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for them. Their lives could have been so different.

"Don't look back, Sally," Zell instructed in a voice I hadn't heard him use since our first days of training. I turned my head to focus on him. "You can't fix their lives for them. They've got to do it themselves. SeeD has always been about that. You make your choices and then live by it."

I wordlessly nodded as I moved my focus to the floor. How many times had I already seen the changes that simple philosophy could have?


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