.-: Chapter Eleven :-.

Rehearsals of Living

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

***

I released a deep breath as I crossed my arms. I glared at the toes of my shoes, my legs stretched out as they were while sitting on one of the couches in the SeeD train car. If it had been up to me, I would have made Jaxon go to Balamb Garden himself to check in with Security and pick up his special security passes. Seifer had made them a 'must have' for the rehearsals and the wedding/reception in two weeks. But Sally had asked, and I'd learned a long time ago that it was damn near impossible to say 'no' to her. I figured it was something about the way she asked me to do things. Sincere and... I don't know. Innocent, or something.

It was sexy.

I reluctantly smiled, and for what must have been the 1000th time that day, I started thinking about the honeymoon. Sorry, guys, but I couldn't help it. I mean, damn. I'd been playing it straight for almost 9 months, and every day I wasn't with her made the times that I was with her all the harder. You know?

And then when we'd worked together on setting up the apartment? I scrubbed at my scalp and again tightly crossed my arms. It was going to be 'home'. A home like my ma had had before my dad died. A home like Pop and Mom had. A home I hadn't ever thought about before meeting Sally. And, boy, did it feel great to think about it. I mean, two weeks from now I'd have a girl all to myself.

She'd be mine.

Not like a wristwatch or a pair of shoes or anything. That's just stupid. But... Hell. I don't know. Sally'd be a... a rock, I guess. Something that never changed. Well, not really 'changed', but was there. You know? Something I could count on. Yeah. It felt good to know that. Like it was... Like it was safe. Like how I felt when I knew Balamb Garden waited for us to lay the smack down and then get back home. Now I would have it every day. After work. On the weekends. In the mornings. At night... I smiled. Yeah. I'd be able to just roll over and have something to hold on to. To remind myself why I put up with people's shit every day.

It was for people like her, and damn if that didn't make me feel gold all over.

I shook my head, rubbing at my neck as the train pulled into Deling Station. I stood and left the SeeD car, the imaginings of nights and days with Sally following on my heels as I made my way down the short hallway and then out of the train-- Jaxon waited on the station platform, and he looked like hell. It was early, sure. After all, we all had jobs to do at our Gardens and we wanted to miss as little as possible. But it wasn't early enough for him to look like what he did. He wasn't shaved, he had dark circles under his eyes, and his hair looked as if he'd taken turns pulling at it in different places.

Shit. I was getting better at things like this, with Sally's help and all the conversations we'd had to have about the sex issue, but... Geez. It would have been nice to have Sally along on this one. I was way out of my league. But I was a SeeD. And I was his friend. And if I could help, I had to do my damndest to get it done.

I stepped down from the train to meet him on the platform. "Hey, Jax, you--"

He stepped past me with a muttered, "Don't ask," and then boarded the train.

I released a quick breath as I stared after him, debating just how much of an ass I wanted to make of myself. Then I shrugged with a 'what the hell' and stepped aboard after him. I entered the corridor just as he stepped into the SeeD cabin, the door closing behind him with a sound that almost seemed to shout 'leave me alone!' I scrubbed at my neck again before mumbling a "Sorry, Jax. Can't." and stepping in after him.

Sally would've never forgiven me if I hadn't tried to do something.

I did give him his space, though, sitting on the opposite couch and lacing my fingers behind my head as I crossed my ankle on my knee before speaking. When I focused on Jaxon, I noticed him looking down at a chain while holding something metal in his fingers. It almost looked like ID tags, but there was something more like a locket, too. And the expression on his face almost kept me from asking about it.

"Ja--"

"Dincht. Let it be."

And I'd never heard him say something like that before. Not the words. Nah. I'd heard that lots of times. But it was how he said them. Actually had me hesitate, thinking he might beat the crap out of me. Hm. Maybe if I attacked from a different side...

I crossed my arms. "Why the blow-off for the bachelor weekend?"

Jaxon slightly cringed as he tucked the chain back inside his uniform shirt. "I had some reports to finish."

I leaned back in the seat. "Try again." Sorry, dude. 'No shit' policy, you know.

Jaxon frowned at me. "I couldn't get away, Zell. Deling is like that. Last minute emergencies. Shit hitting the fan causing fights. Disciplinary actions--"

"The only shit hitting the fan, Jax, is what you're pulling right now. Hanging out with the boys and me woulda done you some good. Maybe even gotten you outta your head for a little bit."

Jaxon looked away. "I wasn't ready for that particular journey out of my head."

"Yeah, well, maybe. Maybe not. But it sure as hell doesn't help to hide from them, either."

Jaxon glowered at me again. "I told you I'd be GF free for the wedding, so back off!"

And the red flag had me lifting my hands. "Okay, Jax. Okay." But Sally'll just be asking you at the rehearsal. Maybe she'd have better luck.

Jaxon ignored me the entire trip to Balamb Garden, only acknowledging anything I said about the rehearsal with a grunt. Half way to Balamb I surrendered and dug my mobile out of my pocket to hit the speed-dial for Sally's phone number.

"Hey, handsome."

I grinned and leaned back, one hand holding the back of my head. "Hey, sexy. Who all is there? Besides the Trouble Brigade."

Sally giggled. Then she listed off, "Cmdr. Squall, Sub-Lt. Cmdr. Seifer, Ahndra, Marshal, Rinoa, Selphie, Janine..."

"Mom and Pop?"

"No. They won't be here until the final rehearsal."

"Shoot. That sucks." I cleared my throat while sending a glance to Jaxon. During my talk with Sally, his expression had begun to tinge green bit by bit. His glare had also turned to something more... painful, I guess. "Heard anything from Quis and Zack?"

Sally sighed, drawing back my focus. "No," she said morosely.

"Now, kitten. Don't mope. We can record the wedding and receptions no problem. They'll see it."

"But I wanted them to be here."

"Sure. I know. But, well, your brother's a self-centered jerk."

Sally reluctantly laughed. "Now you sound like one of his ex-wives."

I grinned. "You laughed, didn'tcha? You're hot when you laugh--"

Jaxon bolted to his feet and quickly left the cabin. My smile faded as I stared at the closed door.

"Zell? Sweetie? What's the matter?"

I lowered my stare to my shoes. "Hey, Sally, Jax isn't doing too great."

"Oh no," she breathed.

"And I can't get him to talk about it. He just bites my head off."

Sally released a deep sigh. "Zell, when he's ready to talk about it, he will. All you had to do was let him know you were ready to listen. He'll remember that."

I slightly nodded as I rubbed at my scalp. "Okay. Yeah. Sure."

She sighed again. "Consider yourself hugged, sweetie."

I softly smiled and opened my eyes. "Thanks, Meg." I adjusted my position in the chair. "So, nervous?" And the rest of the trip was her voice and laughter. You know. The good stuff.

I didn't see Jaxon until the train arrived in Balamb. When Sally and I said our "see you in a bit"s, and the gushy stuff that actually made me feel 10 feet tall, I left the SeeD cabin to find him standing nose-to-nose with the exit door as he waited for the train to come to a complete stop. I hated to admit it, but the guy looked like a caged animal. It was the hardest thing in the world to let it lie and not ask him what the hell was going on, but Sally's words kept running through my brain. Sure Jaxon and me had a 'no shit' policy, but this was different. Any idiot could see that.

The door opened and Jaxon stepped out. I paused a second before giving a shake of my head, a deep breath, and then following after him. I'd originally intended to walk to Garden, but Jaxon headed straight to the car rental and rented the SeeD car. His words were rushed and it looked like he even had acquired a body tic. Crap. The guy was about to go through the roof, and I think I knew why.

The rehearsal.

The rehearsal and the upcoming wedding were probably bringing back every memory and moment with his dead fiancee. Things he probably didn't want to remember. Things that ate him up inside the same as Squall's past had eaten at him. And just like then, I couldn't do a damn thing but be as supportive as possible. It sucked.

I stepped up and took the keys from him with a curt, "I'll drive," before passing to the car. "The way your hands are shaking, we'll die on our way there."

Jaxon didn't say anything. I hadn't expected him to. He only silently followed, climbing into the passenger side of the car to slam the door after him. Then he rested his elbow on the sill and partially covered his face with a hand to his forehead as the other fisted at his knee. I started the car and headed out, doing my best not to say something that would make the situation worse. I felt like an ass just sitting there in the quiet when I had this itch that there was something I could say. But I didn't want to send his day completely to hell, so I just shut up.

Sally met us at the parking lot looking awesome in a sleeveless dress that was all light and flowy... or something. It was a light pink that had different colors of large flowers in the background that made her look like a walking flower garden. Very hot. Very 'yowza'. Especially with her smile and her brown eyes twinkling at me as she watched me get out of the car. Sorry, Jax, I thought for a fraction of a second before drawing her close and giving her a nice long... kiss... ...dude....

I lifted my head and grinned at her. Her cheeks were flushed - my favorite color! - and her brown eyes were to die for. "Hey, sexy. How's my girl?"

"Wonderful." Her smile crinkled her eyes at the corners before she stepped back and took my hand, lacing my fingers with hers. "Thank you for calling from the train."

"Sure, kitten. I was bored anyway."

She softly laughed and shook her head, but when her focus was drawn by Jaxon stepping out of the car, her smile faded a little. "Good morning, Jaxon," she offered hesitantly. "I'm sorry it's so early. Seifer wouldn't let me have an evening rehearsal."

Jaxon didn't meet her gaze as he responded with a barely audible, "It's fine," as he passed to the sub-corridor that led to the main.

Sally watched him go before focusing on me, her lips turned downward as her eyes showed sadness and concern. "I... I hope he's going to be okay."

I drew her into a half-hug as we followed after him more slowly. "Like you said, Meg, when he's ready to talk, he will." I just hope it's before the wedding. Sally deserved the perfect one.



And the first rehearsal went less than perfect.



The soundboard for Rinoa's two songs - processional and candle-lighting section - fried a circuit, so Rinoa had to sing without any help. I think Sally called it acappella, or something. It was okay, but it sounded kinda weird to have a song with no other music but her voice.

The flowers for the aisle had been eaten some time during the night by an escaped creature from the main section of the T.C., so Sally was near tears, Selphie was mortified and had to leave the rehearsal to rush to the florist for more, and Seifer was pissed that someone hadn't locked the main doors to the T.C. after using it.

Janine was her usual smart-ass self and chose that time to focus on Jaxon, who bit her head off with a comment that had them nearly come to blows. Which, of course, set Seifer off and had him banishing both Janine and Jaxon to separate sections of the area. In fact, Janine was exiled to the main section of the T.C. with an order to "cool off" via beating the crap out of the beasties inside.

Squall, Sally, and my part of the ceremony was the only perfection and put a small smile back on Sally's face. But I noticed Jaxon looked very yellow as he stood off to one side. In fact, it looked as if he'd hurl any second. Squall noticed, too, and only had Sally and me rehearse our cues a couple times before dismissing everyone and reminding them about the final rehearsal that next Saturday.

Jaxon bolted out of the T.C. with a muttered comment about going back to Deling alone and leaving Sally, Squall, Seifer, and me staring after him.

I released a slow and deep breath, giving Sally's hand in mine a gentle squeeze while thinking to myself Don't ask, guys. I wouldn't have known how to tell them. Luckily, they didn't ask. "Come on, Sally. Let's go get some lunch."

She nodded and then followed beside me from the T.C.

I felt an ass for making Jaxon do this, but something told me it was the best thing. I don't know. Something about facing our pasts so we could move on. I don't think Jaxon had ever had the chance to do that. Now was that chance, and if he couldn't do it now... Sally stepped a little closer, so I released her hand and draped my arm around her shoulders to pull her against me. I kissed her temple. "He'll be okay, kitten."

I just hoped I wasn't telling her my first lie.


ring-ring
ring-ring

I groaned and rolled over, a blind hand reaching up at the head of my bed for my phone that Seifer made me keep near my person at all times.

ring-ring
ring-ring

"Alright, alright," I mumbled as I sat up, brushing my hair from my face as I fumbled the phone open with my other hand to hit the appropriate 'Accept' button on the keypad. "Regal," I croaked.

"How do I make it stop?" came a near frantic, gruff voice.

My eyes snapped open as my mind woke to full instinctual awareness. "Make what stop, Jaxon?" I prompted gently, remembering how horribly tortured he had looked at the rehearsal three days ago. "What's the matter?"

"I keep seeing her. They won't leave me alone. The only way I can sleep is with the GF, but I can't do that to her. I can't forget her. I loved her. She should be remembered, but how do I make it stop. I don't want to remember her dying... the blood... the blasts... oh Hyne... she's dead..."

His panic and total and complete desperation had me swallowing back tears while fighting my own version of panic. "Jaxon," I said calmly, "Jaxon, tell me what happened."

"It's the same damn dream," he rasped. "Getting ready to give her the locket. The first blasts and the pain. Seeing her body and not being able to do a damn thing to... she died right there. In my arms. ...whispering my name."

I heard a choked sob and covered my mouth with a hand as the tears ran down my face. Oh Jaxon... What can I say...?

"I wasn't there in time to save her!" he said suddenly, voice harsh and heavy with guilt and rage. "Two inches! Two damn inches and I could have shielded her body from the blast!"

"Jaxon, then she would be where you are," I reminded carefully. "Blaming herself for not saving your life."

I heard another choked sob and rough collection of breaths. I bit my lip. It wasn't what he wanted to hear, but I didn't know what else to say. I closed my eyes and rubbed at my forehead, pulling at any words...

"Jaxon," I said softly, "it's horrible that she's gone, and I can hear how much you miss her. How much it hurts to remember her, but you've got her inside."

"Inside?" he hissed. "What the hell good is inside when I want her here!"

"It's all you have," I confessed, and I could almost feel the cringe he must have done. "Jaxon, I... I can't make the pain go away. None of us can. But... But if you remember her every day, remember the happy things and the laughter and even the fights you might have had, it's better. Every day it gets better. I just know it does. It has to or else she died for nothing, and she wouldn't want that to happen. You wouldn't want that to happen."

"...I just want it to stop..."

"I know, Jaxon," I whispered, wiping more tears from cheeks. "So do I, and I know she would, too. She wouldn't ever want you to go through this, but you've got to try. It's better at the end; you just have to fight your way there."

Silence fell, and I couldn't tell if the line had gone dead or--

"Sally... I can't do this by myself," he choked out.

I shook my head. "Jaxon, you don't have to," I told him. "Zell and me... We're right here. All you have to do is talk to us. Any time. Any day. Anywhere." I moved the phone to my other ear. "Even if you just want to talk to someone about her, so that you don't forget the good times. Just call us up or send me an email or anything. We wouldn't ever expect you to do something like this by yourself."

Silence descended again, but then I heard a deep exhalation of breath that sounded so much like someone setting something aside. Or getting a second wind to move ahead on a journey that was harder than they thought it'd be. It gave me a wave of relief and hope.

"It will be okay, Jaxon," I promised, and I could hear the tears in my voice still. "It will." And I would do everything I could to make that promise come true.


"Are you sure he's coming?" I whispered to Zell as Rinoa sang her song for the processional. They were testing the soundboard equipment.

Zell focused on me with a comforting smile. "He's coming, Meg. I promise. He said he's doing better since you talked to him Wednesday. Says someone talked him into starting up a hobby, too."

"Oh. Okay." I focused ahead, sitting as we were in the chairs of the front row in the T.C. waiting for Rinoa's sound check to be completed.

He gave me a nudge and placed a kiss on my lips when I turned my head to face him. I giggled and then quickly shielded my mouth when everyone looked our direction. "Zell," I whispered in protest. And I saw my mom and dad exchange 'Isn't that cute?' smiles as they sat beside Zell in the same row of chairs.

Zell chuckled and wrapped his arms around me, drawing me back against him as Rinoa continued singing and Squall shook his head with a smirk and Seifer scoffed and looked away. I flushed and softly laughed but snuggled into the embrace and enjoyed the moment. The next week was going to be a wild ride in last minute check-ups and adjustments to plans, food, lists, and everything. There was no telling when we'd have the chance to just sit and snuggle.

Rinoa finished the song to the applause of a single person entering from the back. Everyone turned to look and I smiled and lifted a hand to wave as Jaxon sauntered in. He definitely looked better. Still a little strained, and his smile my direction was forced, but he didn't look green or yellow. That had to account for something.

"Yo, Jax! You're late," Zell chastised. "Quit picking up on all the women and get somewhere on time for once."

Chuckles sounded from everyone, with only a slight smirk Jaxon's response. I elbowed Zell gently in the stomach as I said, "Hi, Jaxon. I'm glad you could make it. We're having dinner at the Balamb Hotel afterwards."

Jaxon came to sit down beside me, offering me a very small smile that didn't lighten the strain around his lips or the expression in his eyes. "Sorry, Sally. I don't think I'll be able to make it."

And I knew why.

I nodded. "That's alright," I said softly, and I hoped my expression asked him if he needed to talk.

He looked away, so I couldn't tell one way or the other.

"Okay, Zell. You and Sally are up," Squall reminded, gesturing us forward. "We'll run through a short version of the vows and the exchange of rings and candle-lighting. Then we'll send everyone to their marks and start from the beginning. Got it?"

Everyone nodded and voiced their agreements.

Compared to the previous rehearsal, this one went as smooth as silk.

I didn't trip on my own feet for the processional or recessional, which had me smiling from ear to ear and my cheeks flushed and my expression happier than I could have imagined. And the look on Zell's face as he watched me? It looked as if he'd been clubbed with a 'happy stick' and he was left to wonder and wander. What did I do when I stood beside him? I giggled, of course.

The songs sounded wonderful and had me actually looking forward to surprising Zell with my own performance of the second one. That, of course, ushered me to a daydream of his possible reactions while I recited our vows and exchanged rings - pretend rings - and then went to light the candles that symbolized a bunch of stuff I couldn't remember.

Jaxon didn't look yellow, only a little pale, and so he and Janine weren't at each others throats. The flowers Selphie had put on rush order were still there, so Selphie was happy and Seifer was happy because nothing had gotten out of control. I was happy, so Mom was happy, and that made me happier, which filled the entire Training Center with a cloud of euphoria that I think settled on everyone in a positive way. Why do I think that? Because Ahndra, Marshal, and Seifer were all smiling as Rinoa played the recessional on the piano and Zell and I walked out.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking toward Jaxon's position behind us to notice his face a little on the yellow side. Zell noticed my look back and looked also, mumbling a "Oh crap," when he saw Jaxon's expression. Zell and I couldn't do anything about it, though, because Squall and Seifer called us back to give us the final list of do's and don'ts and to reiterate how important the security passes were for the wedding the following evening. When Seifer started talking more about the security, I whispered my intention to Zell and he nodded.

I stealthily broke away from the group to enter the Training Center, where I'd seen Jaxon slip. "Jaxon?" I whispered as I hesitated just inside. "Jaxon? Where are you?" There was no answer, so I moved farther in, looking this way and that-- I found him off the path pounding his head against a tree with a little more force than I would have liked. I rushed up to him and took hold of his arm as I protested, "Jaxon! What are you doing?"

He twitched and lifted his head - there was already a bruise forming beneath the bright red - to focus on me with blue eyes darker than normal. "Hm? Oh this?" He patted the tree and forced a weak smile. "I'm just bonding with nature." He focused on the tree and gave it's sturdy trunk another pat. "Hello, tree. Nice to meet you." And then he bonked his head against it with a clunk before sending me a wavering smile.

My expression must have said 'I don't believe you.' because his smile relaxed a little and he turned to lean back against the tree instead. "I'm doing okay, Sally. I guess I'm being a bit creative on trying to get the memories to behave..." Jaxon tucked his hands into his pockets and cleared his throat as he looked down to the ground at his feet. "I didn't mean to call you that night," he admitted, sending me sidelong glances. "I was trying for Janine."

"It was okay. Really," I assured. After all, two in the morning could make some people put you on their 'kill on sight' list.

He nodded. "I know, and I appreciate it." He released a deep breath. "I needed that 'it's going to be okay'."

I softly smiled. "We always do. About anything."

He very slightly nodded again. Then he sent me a glance. "Did you know I've been junctioning a GF off and on these two years?"

My jaw dropped as the words 'magic poisoning' and 'regulations' clashed together. "No," I whispered. And to put his job and his life on the line hinted at just how much of a horrible image her death was.

Jaxon released a deep and slow breath. "Yep." He looked up, his focus moving to the heavy steel doors to the Training Center's outer 'sanctum'. "It was very much like a drug trip. To finally float away from this horrible reality, with it just whispering in the background. I could handle that without a problem, but..." Jaxon moved his gaze to meet mine. "But Zell made me see Elle deserved more than that. She deserved a lot more. But I couldn't give that to her when I was fading in and out of reality, choosing a half-lived/half-remembered one for the one that made me who I was." He looked away again, swallowing hard before admitting, "and damn if it isn't the hardest walk of my life."

I bit the inside of my lip a moment before stepping closer and resting a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Jaxon," I whispered.

He nodded and lowered his gaze, bringing up a hand to pull a chain from where it hid, safely nestled against the skin of his chest. "Yeah. So am I."

I looked down to the ID tags and the small silver locket shaped like a tear drop and quietly asked, "Are those hers?"

Jaxon nodded again, this time taking the chain from around his neck. He stared down at them for another moment before undoing the chain's clasp and freeing the locket from it. He offered it to me.

I blinked and looked up at him. "I c-couldn't!"

A tear gathered and escaped as he slightly smiled. "It's okay, Sally. Elle would want you to have it. As a 'thank you' to you and Zell for saving what little life I had left."

I lowered glimmering eyes to the small locket resting in his palm and very hesitantly reached out to take it. "Thank you," I whispered.

"No, Sally." I looked up to meet his gaze just as he shook his head. "No, Sally. Thank you."


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