.-: Chapter Nine :-.


(Jaxon Crest is the property of JSeay, cowriter of 'In Theory'. He is not to be used without her permission.)


"Sally, you are so ready."

I smiled and lowered my gaze from the monitor/webcam of the handheld, absently fingering the keys on the portable keyboard. "I don't know, Rin. The thought... The thought of singing in front of so many people..."

"I suppose I could invite some of my friends from the university over for a small recital. As a practice."

A practice. I bit my lip and checked the time. My lunch break would be over in ten minutes, and I needed the time to get back to Garden - I trekked out to the Fire Cavern for these private lessons with Rinoa, believe it or not. That way I knew exactly who was going to be here and when.

"Um... O-Okay. I-I guess that would be a good idea."

"How about this next weekend? Can you get away without making anyone suspicious?"

"Uh... Well... I guess I could say you've got something for the new apart-- no. That wouldn't work. Zell would want to come and help bring it home."

"Why not a bachelorette party? Then you could have Selphie here, too, for support. You could even spend the weekend."

I smiled and nodded. "Alright. That sounds fun. Zell can't go to one of those."

Rinoa smiled. "Alright then. I'll set it up and send out the invitations. Who do you want me to invite?"

"Just Selphie and Janine, of course. Oh. And Ahndra, too, please. Um... Then the other girls from your school. And Quistis is fine. I've actually missed her."

Rinoa's smile faded. "Don't you know?" she asked hesitantly, shaking her head.

"'Know'? 'Know' what?"

Rinoa's pretty face held reluctance. "Well, Quis and... Quis and Zack eloped."

I gasped and let the keyboard slip off my lap. "What? When?"

"Yesterday," Rinoa said softly. "They left on a boat after the ceremony at a little chapel. I... I don't know when they're coming back."

Eloped. "But... But he never said..." I lowered my gaze. I didn't know whether to be happy or sad. Maybe Zack would finally be happy? Maybe Quistis would finally feel 'good enough'? Maybe they'll miss the wedding...

"I'm sorry, Sally," Rinoa said softly.

I shook my head and stood, absently gathering up the keyboard and retrieving the handheld from where I had carefully placed it in the worn side of a natural formation of rock. "I better go," I whispered. "I don't like being late."

"Alright," she said, watching my face. "I'll see you this next weekend then. I'll send the invitations today or tomorrow."

"Thank you."

Rinoa looked as if she would say something more, but she only smiled and then logged off. I turned off the handheld and closed it while absently making my way out of the cavern. Eloped. I sighed. But at least he'd eloped with someone like Quistis. Someone who could handle herself in a relationship and not get pushed around. Someone who had more morals than a toad. I snickered and shook my head. Then the smile slowly faded. But it would have been nice for a note or something, Zack. I mean, for heaven sake, I sent you an invitation and you don't even RSVP saying 'sorry. eloping next wednesday. can't make it.' I sighed again. No wonder Zell hadn't been able to get him to agree to 'best man'.

I shrugged, clobbered a blue bite bug before it could even see me coming, and proceeded out of the forest to the clearing in front of Balamb Garden. I halted and looked up at the massive Garden with a smile. The way the sun glistened off its light blue exterior made me think of a seashell wet from the ocean. Very romantic and very lovely. Especially with the levitator rings glistening gold above the huge building. And the wind? It fairly whistled and sang through the different artistic lines. Very welcoming. Very inviting.


I gave a silly smile as I shrugged both shoulders and again stepped forward. Seifer was just driving out as I approached the road. He pulled to a stop and rolled down the window of the large Ground Transport.

"Yes, sir?" I asked after saluting.

"Get in."

I blinked. "Sir?"

"Regal, will you get in! Why the hell do I have to repeat everything?"

"Because I don't understand why," I said before I could stop myself. I clicked my mouth shut after adding a hushed "Sir."

"You need to get in because I told you to."

What kind of reason is that? I wanted to say, but I was his subordinate and 'soldiers' were supposed to follow orders. "Yes, sir." And I made my way around to the passenger side and opened the door. When I stepped up, I noticed Janine lounging in the back seat giving herself a manicure. She was dressed in her SeeD uniform the same as I was, so it meant she'd been pulled from her regular duties. "Janine?"

She smirked at me. "Hello, Sal gal. It seems we're on a little trip." She motioned to Seifer. "HOS doesn't like divulging secrets, though. He just tells me 'tough shit' and doesn't say anything else."

"Oh." I looked to Seifer and then Janine before giving a shrug and a sigh and closing the door. I buckled up and the transport moved forward.

"At first I thought maybe the big guy and I were eloping. Damned if it doesn't sound fun," Janine went on. "But then you appeared and he grumbled something about disappearances and wanting to know what the hell was going on before pulling over to pick you up."

I flushed and just stared at my hands.

"I've been figuring you and lover-boy have been spending quality time there," Janine confessed, "but he's in his office so it blew it to hell. Too bad."

I flushed darker. Don't think I haven't been tempted.

"Oh well. Gives me another secret to figure out. Damn thrill. I appreciate that."

Seifer looked over at me. "Does she talk this much to you?" he asked. I looked over at him, surprised at the question. His green eyes twinkled with a twisted version of mischief. "I can't get her to shut up."

Janine's lips twitched. "You didn't complain last night."

I focused back ahead, feeling as if my innocence was being drained the more time I spent with them. I lightly bit my lip.

"I was busy at the time."

Janine laughed and I lifted a hand to my forehead to shield part of my face from his view. It couldn't have burned any brighter. Zell... help...

"So," Janine said, adjusting her position to rest a hand on the back of Seifer's chair as well as mine. "You getting cold feet yet? Less than four weeks to the wedding," she reminded.

I lowered my hand and focused outside my window. "If it weren't for my parents, I'd elope," I admitted softly, and it felt... wonderful to confess that.

Janine laughed and gave my shoulder a squeeze. "So you are a woman after all."

I looked over at her, eyes wide. "What?"

"No offense, Sal, but I've never seen you fight very hard to keep out of the sack." She shrugged, still holding my gaze. "I've just started to wonder if you've got any passion for anything outside of work."

My jaw dropped. Then I frowned - as much as I do, anyway - and only vaguely noticed Seifer's twitch of lip and his muttered, "Now you're in for it."

"For heaven sake, just because Zell and I don't make out in the middle of the main corridor doesn't mean we don't fight with the want to do just that. We've got a bit more self-control than the average person is all. Or else we're more willing to keep from giving in so that we can have a special night after our wedding. Excuse me if we don't show enough passion for you. It's good enough for us because we know it means enough to the other person to wait." I frowned deeper and crossed my arms as I changed my focus outside my window again to grumble "Geez. It's not like its anyone's business but ours what happens in our love-life anyway. Trying to be good and it's 'why get married', 'why not shack up', 'why not wear black lace and take showers'." I scoffed and grumbled some more. "Now I see why Zack eloped. Get away from people saying 'do this', 'do that', 'don't do this', 'don't feel that'. It's enough to make a person go mad."

Silence descended for a moment before Janine observed "You know what, babe? Sexual tension gives her a spine."

I gasped and faced her, eyes wide as Seifer actually howled in laughter. Then I scowled again and muttered about wishing GFs weren't illegal as I focused ahead. But I knew she was right. Zell and I had already talked about it several times, admitting that being apart was getting harder because we wanted to be together. Those talks made me thankful for not waiting more than the three months for the wedding. I don't think either one of us would have survived. One of us would have slipped and taken a tumble, dragging the other along. Hadn't it already nearly happened in Winhill? And that had even been before the proposal.

The proposal had changed everything because it had brought up a very... desirable ending.

I adjusted my crossed arms and sighed, "Sorry."

"If it's the way you feel, Sal gal," Janine said, giving my shoulder a squeeze, "don't apologize. You're damn right, more than likely. I should butt the hell out. Only I never learned how to mind my own business."

I sighed again as I faced her. "I'm still sorry. I've been... different lately, and I haven't liked it very much."

Janine smirked and gave me a wink. "Don't sweat it, Sal gal. Babe here's been enjoying it."

Seifer's smirk twitched and he adjusted his hands on the wheel.

"Although I wasn't too thrilled with the idea of him giving you honeymoon advice," Janine continued, cuffing him upside the back of the head, causing another twitch of his lips. "If it'd been me, I would've beat the smirk off his face."

And as I watched the two together, it made me smile. Janine and Seifer. They both deserved the other, and it looked like they were happy with the arrangement. Well, how they were happy anyway. I think Ahndra and Marshal were more 'happy' than Janine and Seifer. But I figured 'to each their own portion of happiness' and was just glad that they had someone to be themselves with. That was the most important thing.

Janine suddenly grabbed Seifer's ear and gave a twist. He yelped and swerved with a holler of "Larabie, what the hell are you doing!?"

I twitched and braced myself as I watched the two with wide eyes.

"I'm going to twist until you tell me where we're going. I've been patient enough, you little prick. Now tell me!"

Seifer released the wheel and grabbed her hand, wrestling her hold as she swore and he swore and the vehicle swerved and I closed my eyes while praying we didn't die. When the tires didn't squeal and there wasn't a crash, I slowly opened one eye to see the Ground Transport still going straight down the road and-- I gasped when I looked to the driver's seat. Janine now sat across his lap, smirking up at him with her hands entwined behind his neck as he drove down the road, also smirking.

How it happened, I have no idea.

"We're going to Deling Garden," Seifer informed.

Janine's smirk vanished. "Deling? What for?"

"Security meeting regarding the Reception planned."

Janine lightly bit her lip, which surprised me, and then pointed to the side of the road. "Pull over. We need to talk."

Seifer raised an eyebrow and regarded her a moment before pulling over and taking the Transport out of gear. Janine climbed out the open window and leaped down, stepping slightly off to the side as Seifer opened the door and stepped out.

"You, too, Sal gal. Might as well tell everyone," Janine said.

"Oh." I bit my lip and then opened the door to slip down, hesitantly making my way over to her and Seifer on the other side of the Transport.

Janine ran a hand through her short black spiked hair and released a quick breath. "Hell." She finally looked up and faced Seifer. "You're gonna want to go light on this one, Babe. Jaxon, who's doing the Reception?, his fiancee died in the Trabia missile attack."

I cringed while sending Seifer a sidelong glance. His face had become a stony mask. Again I remembered Selphie's words...

"Now I don't know if he realizes... I don't know how much he knows, but cutting him some slack would--"

"Larabie, I'm not going to cut him anything," he said through clenched teeth. "He's SeeD. He'll deal with it."

"And what if 'dealing with it' is wiping that smirk off your face with the sharp end of his sword?" She crossed her arms. "You gonna take it like you did with me? Hell no."

"If he has a problem with me, then he can report it to the Commander."

Janine glowered. "Seifer, don't be a dickhead. Of course he doesn't have a problem with you. He knows you're damn good at your job. Why the hell do you think he put in for that damned transfer? Balamb's the place to be, with you and Sally and Dincht and Cmdr. Leonhart the best of the best." Janine leaned forward and jabbed Seifer in the chest. "But his fiancee's dead and he's got no one to blame." She leaned back again. "I had the same damn problem with Jennifer. No one to kill. When I found out what happened, I still didn't have revenge. I mean, how the hell do you take revenge on a Sorceress that's already dead?"

Seifer clenched his jaw and fisted his hands. I bit my lip and wanted to say something, but what could I? I couldn't fix this. I didn't even know what they could possibly be going through.

"Now I'm not saying handle him with kid gloves. Hell. That would likely piss him off faster than you kissing his ass, but just don't go in there all fired and ready to hit every single button to find out what kind of man he is. He's a damn good SeeD. But he's a SeeD that lost a damn good woman in the line of duty."

To my surprise, Seifer released a quick breath and scrubbed viciously at his scalp. Then he lowered his arms sharply to his sides. "Why the hell does this always come up to bite me in the ass?" he snapped. "Damn Sorceress bitch!" he shouted, even lifting his focus to the sky. "Leave me the hell alone!"

I took a step back, blinking in surprise the same time Janine stepped toward him. She lifted a hand to cup his jaw. "I know, Babe. I know."

Seifer glared down into her face a moment before letting out another quick breath and pulling her hand away, his glare softening to its usual sternness. "Warning noted. Now get in the goddamned Transport."

Janine smirked and saluted. "Yes, sir." Then she moved past, giving his butt a smack as she did.

I couldn't move. I could only stand there watching my boss as he tried to handle this heavy load of guilt and responsibility without cracking under the weight. I didn't know how he did it day after day. Doing his best to protect Garden while knowing that there were some out there who hated him because of a life that had been lived out of his control. How did someone live under that weight?

Seifer continued to stare out at the horizon for a moment before turning, his step pausing as he focused on me. He was quiet a moment before motioning to the Transport with a "What are you waiting for, Regal? An engraved invitation?" But it wasn't as harsh as I knew it could have been.

I nodded and whispered "Yes, sir," before moving toward the Transport, biting my lip to keep from saying 'I don't hate you, sir,' and offering him understanding he likely didn't get from a lot of people. It wouldn't have made it through his stony persona, more than likely. The mask hiding something I didn't know how he carried alone.

Of course knowing about Jaxon's painful past and Seifer's involvement in it had me worrying about the impending meeting. After meeting Jaxon that first time, I looked forward to meeting him again. I was even glad that he was involved in the planning of my wedding Reception here. But to have to face the man both responsible and not responsible for your fiancee's death? How did someone react to that?

I didn't know, but I was about to find out.

The Ground Transport rumbled into the parking lot to the side of the Garden with Seifer muttering about "damn designers" and "needing to be shot". Janine smirked and only climbed out as I did the same, still remembering the other time I'd been here. I bit my lip and hoped the men of before wouldn't be around.

Seifer snapped his fingers several times, grabbing my attention and making me hurry forward and beside him with a hushed "Sorry, sir." We stepped forward, immediatley noticing the line of new registrants as well as the one of 'enrollees' being loudly chastised by a Physical Education Instructor. Of course all eyes migrated to our approach, and I could hear the mutterings and murmurings begin as everyone likely recognized Seifer, Head of Garden Network Security and Cmdr. Leonhart's right-hand man. In fact, Seifer was likely the reason most of them were here.

Janine smirked and sent "Someone sure as hell isn't popular," as an aside to Seifer.

"Tough shit."

And I actually smiled. Hadn't Zell said the same thing?

A tall man in a SeeD uniform approached. I immediately recognized the 6' 4" good-looks as Jaxon. I smiled and waved shyly, eliciting a slight smile from Jaxon in return, and then looked up to Seifer to say, "That's Jaxon Crest, sir. In the uniform."

Seifer gave a nod and lengthened his step forward. Jaxon's smile vanished and his face seemed to harden.

"Here we go," Janine mumbled.

Jaxon saluted. "Sir. Jaxon Crest, Lieutenant First Class, Security Section."

"Lieutenant." Seifer motioned behind to me and Janine as we came to stand on each side of him. "Regal. Larabie. You know them?"

Jaxon slightly inclined his head, hands clenched behind his back as he stood at ease.

"Good. Then we can get to work." He motioned behind Jaxon, deeper into Garden. "Office?"

"Of course, sir. This way." And Jaxon began leading us toward the Security Section.

Janine and I exchanged glances and then followed after Seifer as he followed Jaxon. "I don't like this," she said in a low voice only I could hear. "Jaxon's colder than usual. Haven't seen him like this for years."

I looked ahead to Jaxon's tall frame as it almost rigidly walked down the hall toward the Security Section. Then I again focused on Janine beside me. "What do you think is wrong?"

"Besides being here, without Elle, and meeting Seifer?" Janine smirked. "Maybe he found a toadstool in his coffee."

I gave Janine a shove. "I'm serious," I complained.

"I know, I know, Sal gal. Shit." She observed Jaxon for a long time before shaking her head. "I don't know, but it sure as hell seems like he's got himself under some kind of firm control. I just hope it's not to keep from pounding Seifer to hell and back. That wouldn't exactly get him the transfer."

And I really wanted him to get that transfer. He was too nice a guy to stay here.

Jaxon showed us into his office, motioning to a pair of seats across from his desk the same time he closed his office door. As usual, Seifer stood in front of the two chairs, arms tightly crossed. So, Janine and I sat with an exchanged glance. Jaxon adjusted the blinds to his office, paused, and then went around to stand behind his desk as he regarded the three of us.

Finally, he slowly lowered himself into his chair. "I wasn't informed you were coming, sir."

"No, you weren't," Seifer responded. "Problem?"

"No, sir, I just don't like losing control of the situation."

"Good. Then don't." Seifer pulled something out of the inside of his dark trench-coat and tossed it onto Jaxon's desk. "Security plans for the Reception."

Jaxon lowered his gaze to the folded up paper as he lightly tapped the side of his thumb onto his desk top. I bit my lip as I watched his reaction, especially when Janine shook her head and scrubbed at her scalp.

The plans weren't touched as Jaxon looked up. "I was under the impression from Larabie, sir, that I was responsible for arranging plans for the Reception. That included security plans."

"I'm in charge of security," Seifer countered. "Per Regal and per job description."

Jaxon held Seifer's gaze for a long and tense moment before looking to the top left drawer of his desk and opening it. He retrieved a folder and then handed it to Seifer, gaze again meeting gaze. "With all due respect, sir, I'd rather you disapprove my plans before implementing your own." Seifer accepted the folder and opened it to begin sorting through the papers within. "Like I said, I don't like losing control of the situation," Jaxon finished.

I looked over at Janine, noticed she watched Seifer's profile, and then moved my focus to Jaxon. His thumb had begun it's rhythmic tapping again as he continued to watch Seifer with a hard expression in his blue eyes. To my surprise, he focused on me when Seifer turned back a page, and his expression softened considerably. He even looked normal. Then he sent me a slight twitch of lip - which I returned in actual smile form - and refocused on Seifer. His expression became stern again, yes, but not nearly as hard.

I actually released a sigh of relief.

Seifer closed the folder and turned to present it to me. I twitched, wide eyes focusing on him as I absently took it from his outstretched hand. "It's acceptable and only needs your final authorization."

Janine smirked and actually leaned back, crossing her legs as she crossed her arms tightly under her chest. Her expression seemed to scream 'Good for you, Babe.'

"Y-Yes, sir," I stammered, and I opened the folder and began scanning the information therein, trying to focus while Seifer turned back to Jaxon.

He pulled another folded set of papers from his inner coat pocket - this a bound sheaf folded in half - and tossed that also down onto Jaxon's desk.

Jaxon's eyebrow twitched before he looked down at the folded papers. He unfolded-- He bolted to his feet and extended the papers with a shake as he again focused on Seifer. "Like hell I scored 65%!"

Seifer slowly crossed his arms, the tension in the room making me slouch a bit deeper into the chair as I desperately tried to focus on the security plan.

"65%?" Janine repeated, shocked. Then she grumbled, "Dammit. Should've known he'd beat my score." She sat up and pointed at Jaxon. "You damn nerd! I was the highest score until you came along!"

I glanced up in time to catch Jaxon's surprised blink. "Excuse me?"

"You passed, Crest. Congratulations." Seifer smirked. "Still have a problem with your score?"

Jaxon, expression complete confusion, lowered his focus to the big '65%' scrawled along the top in red ink. "How can 65% be a passing score?"

I hunkered down lower in my seat, especially when Janine sent me a smirk.

"Because that's the Exam from Hell, Crest. I thought Dincht told you that," Seifer said.

"He did but..." Jaxon dropped the sheaf of papers onto the desk, causing a twitch from me, and ran a hand from his hair. "I passed with a 97% on the last one. Was damn proud of that, too." He released a breath. "Oh well. Pride kicks the crap out of us when we're not looking."

Sorry, Jaxon, I wanted to tell him, but then I'd have to admit I wrote it. And then he'd make a big deal about how hard it was. And then Seifer would brag at how I'd passed the other with an above-perfect score. And then Janine would say I had too many brains to be safe. And then the joke would start all over again.

"Like Larabie said," Seifer told him, "You're the current highest ranker. That automatically approves you for a promotion when Cmdr. Leonhart approves your transfer. I've already done so. You'll be second in command to Ahndra Kelley and Head of the Base Security Division."

Jaxon's answer was silence, and I glanced up from the folder - I still didn't know what the security plan was - to see Jaxon's surprised expression return. "Say again?"

Seifer frowned and looked down at Janine to his left. "What the hell is wrong with everyone? 'Say again', 'Excuse me', 'Why'... Do they think I don't have better things to do with my time than repeat myself!?"

Jaxon smirked, and that mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes made me relax and actually focus on the security plan - which was very good, by the way. "Sorry, sir. I heard what you said, but I was of the mind wishful thinking overpowered the possibilities. I wanted to make sure I hadn't drifted into a daydream."

Seifer focused on Jaxon, measuring him up as he crossed his arms and asked, "And why's that?"

"I've been submitting applications for transfer to Balamb for almost a year," he admitted.

Seifer lifted his eyebrow. "Records?"

Jaxon nodded and opened the lower right hand drawer to pull out a classification folder filled almost to overflowing with transfer requests. He presented it to Seifer, who slowly and deliberately took it.

Seifer stared down at the folder with a stern glare before turning to his right and presenting it to me. "Regal, look into this. I want a report on my desk by tomorrow morning."

I closed the security plan for my wedding reception and set it quickly aside as I took the folder. "Yes, sir."

Seifer focused again on Jaxon. "Anything else to report?"

"Not at the current time, no."

Seifer curtly nodded and then turned to me again. "Meet me at the Ground Transport in 30 minutes."

I nodded. "Yes, sir."

He left the office.

Jaxon released a quick breath, attracting my attention as he sat and rubbed at his scalp with his right hand. Janine continued to manicure her nails, smirking as usual. "Thank Hyne that's over," he mumbled. Then he focused on me, and his expression became apologetic. "How are you, Sally? I heard about the run-in with the D.C., and I'm sorry about that."

I flushed and lowered my gaze to absently straighten the folders on my lap. "It's all right. Zell was there."

Janine glanced between the two of us. "What run-in?"

I twitched and looked over at her. "Oh. N-Nothing."

Jaxon smirked. "'Nothing' she says." Jaxon shook his head and then focused on Janine, still calmly filing her nails. "She and Dincht took on our resident D.C.s - Seifer wannabes; quite pathetic really - and walked away without a scratch."

Janine arched a dark eyebrow, the nail file not missing a beat. "Do tell."

I flushed. "Don't tell," I said to him, and then moved my gaze to Janine. "It wasn't a big deal."

"Oh. I guess more than half a dozen goons isn't a big deal when you're working for a man like Seifer," Jaxon said.

I lowered my gaze again, flushing darker.

"Oh now this I've got to hear," Janine said, putting her nail file away and leaning forward. "Details, Crest. All the details."

Jaxon laughed. I sighed. So I defended myself. It wasn't as if I drew blood or anything. They weren't that big of a threat. Jaxon had even said so with his 'pathetic, really' statement. So why was it such a big deal that Zell and I had walked away? I just didn't understand.

"I don't know all the details, Larabie," Jaxon admitted. "I just know what was filed in the doctor's report when he examined the head goon." He looked over at me as I made the appearance of looking over the security plan for my reception. "That's quite a grip you've got there. I'm sure Dincht's taught you everything you know."

I flushed and actually ignored him.

Jaxon chuckled. "Has he taught you to defend and attack against bladed weapons?"

I looked up, eyes wide. "P-Pardon?" Zell had, in fact, mentioned that particular aspect of my training coming up. Right now I could only mainly defend against blunt weapons such as the Quarterstaff, nunchukus, and a very small variety of mace-type weapons. With defending consisting mostly of staying out of the way and deflection.

Janine scoffed. "Crest, leave her alone. Damn. You wave your sword at her and she's liable to faint dead away."

Jaxon smiled wider, and the boyish-mischief in the glance had me blinking and leaning slightly back. Then he stood with an easy "Okay, okay, Larabie. I'll leave her alone, but I'm still curious."

She scoffed again, drawing my gaze. "Curious. Yeah. That's one word for it. Hell. You know you only want to be the best, so you do your best to smash everyone else into the ground."

My stomach slithered through the chair to the floor below and beyond as I looked at Jaxon, my hands gripping the chair arms.

Jaxon's expression held feigned innocence. "Me? Never." He gestured to the two of us. "Come on. Since I only have you for 30 minutes, I had better show a more detailed explanation of what I have in mind for security."

Janine stood, giving me a nudge on the elbow on her way up, and then fell into step beside him as I slowly stood and followed. "Is the Cafeteria going to work at all with you on the food? Or do we have to cater this damn thing?"

"Cater?" he repeated, disgusted. "And have Seifer shit bricks on lack of security? No thank you. I'll make the food myself if I have to."

Janine laughed. "Remind me not to eat anything."

My lips twitched upward, and I adjusted my hands on the folders as we made our way out of his office.

"Hey. I can cook," Jaxon protested.

"For 100 people?" Janine scoffed. "Please. Don't flatter yourself."

My smile widened and I slightly shook my head.

"What do you mean? All I need to do is up the ratio. It's a simple matter of mathematics."

Janine patted his shoulder. "You keep telling yourself that, kid."

Jaxon smirked and gave her a firm shove. Then he held back a step to move along beside me. I looked over at him with a blink of surprise. "So it looks like I'll be working with you after all."

I smiled. "And you did it all by yourself, too. Congratulations."

He grimaced. "I would rather have had a better score than 65%, though. That's going on my permanent record."

Janine glared at him. "Will you stop bitching about your score. No one but Sally got more than what you did!"

I cringed and Jaxon halted.

Janine covered her mouth with a hand. "Oops."

I could feel Jaxon's gaze settle on me. Oh man, I whined.

Then Jaxon's focus returned to Janine. "Why would I be the highest ranked if Sally's score was better?"

"Uh..." Janine cleared her throat while sending me a glance and resting her hands on her hips. "Well, it's complicated."

It wasn't all that complicated, but Janine knew how sensitive I was to that particular 'joke'.

Jaxon crossed his arms. "Complicated. Yeah. I bet."

Janine actually smirked, and I inwardly groaned. "Only complicated because I have to figure out if I want to hack your pride at the cost of someone's peace of mind."

Jaxon lifted an eyebrow. "Intrigue isn't very nice, Larabie. You know I'll tenaciously ask questions and reason facts until I figure it out, so you might as well tell me."

I sighed. Oh for heaven sake, Sally. Just say it. It's not that bad. I looked up. "I wrote it."

His eyebrow twitched as he focused on me. "You wrote what?"

"The exam."

And the fact hit him square between the eyes, for his face went blank and then held shock and disbelief. Finally, he smirked. "Sure." He focused on Janine. "Good one. Now why is it complicated? Because Seifer gave Sally some leeway? We all know she's his favorite. He wouldn't want it on her record that she isn't as good as he says she is. It would make him look bad."

Janine's lips twitched. "You're an arrogant bastard, aren't you?"

His smirk vanished. "Excuse me?"

Janine shook her head and motioned to me. "She wrote the damn thing and you think she's pulling your leg?" She laughed, and I flushed as I lowered my gaze. "Come on, Crest. This is Sally Regal we're talking about. You can read her face like a book. Does it look like that face is joking?"

Jaxon moved his focus to me, examining my flushed face as I adjusted and readjusted my hold on the folders. I really hated being the center of attention.

"You... You wrote that monster?" he finally asked.

I barely nodded.

"Tell him why, Sal gal. It'll blow his mind," Janine prompted.

"Because..." I sighed and glanced up. His expression held shock. I focused on my shoes. "Because I got a perfect score on the other one," I whispered, "Seifer made me write a new one."


Janine laughed. "And we're not talking 100%, Crest. Try 140." Janine pointed to me, making my entire body feel as if it flushed crimson. "She answered every damn question correctly. And some of the scenarios weren't even supposed to be possible!" She slapped her thigh with a hand as she laughed again. I twitched. "Hell. I wish I could've been there to see Seifer's face when he scored the damn thing."

Jaxon continued to stare, jaw actually slightly open - when I risked a quick glance. Then he gave my arm a squeeze. In surprise, I looked up to meet his smiling expression. "Congratulations, Sally. What a fantastic way to be initiated into Security. Especially under Seifer Almasy. From what I've heard, impressing him isn't very easy."

My face relaxed into a smile as I felt the tension and embarrassment lessen. "Thank you," I said softly.

He motioned me forward, Janine falling into step behind. "How did you decide to start working for Security?"

I softly giggled as I shook my head. "I didn't. Seifer decided he wanted me on his staff."

Jaxon continued to smile. "That certainly says something about you, doesn't it?"

I blinked. "What do you mean?"

Janine chuckled. "Don't get started, Crest. You know she's clueless."

I slightly frowned. "Why does everyone say that? Clueless about what?"

Janine stepped up to my right side and wrapped an arm around my shoulders, drawing my gaze. "Don't worry about it, Sal gal. It's not a bad thing. You're just really... oblivious to how damn good you are."

"But I only do what I can," I protested. "There are a lot of good SeeDs out there." I pointed to her. "You're really good at teaching Battle Theory in a way the kids can understand." I pointed to Jaxon. "You're really good at seeing things by simply observing so you can use that information for security or making people feel at ease." I motioned toward the general direction of Balamb Garden. "Zell makes learning fun and keeps the kids involved until class is over; even making them more apt to seek him out after class to ask questions and work harder. Then there's Ahndra and Marshal and Selphie and Seifer and Cmdr. Squall..." I pointed at myself while giving a shake of my head. "I'm no better than any of them."

Jaxon and Janine regarded me for a long silent moment before exchanging smiles and then both wrapping their arms around me to give me a hug at the same time. I giggled and squealed, flushing red as I protested with a "Stop it!" But they would never understand how good it made me feel to be so accepted after a lifetime of hiding in the background.

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