I slumped onto my bed with a deep breath and kicked off my black flats. I brought a hand to my neck to rub at it with a soft moan.
tap-tap-tap "Meg? You here?"
"Come on in, Zell." He opened the door and peeked in. I smiled. "You're the best face I've seen all day."
Zell grinned and stepped all the way around the door. "Need a massage, kitten?"
I closed my eyes and rubbed harder at the throbbing muscles of my neck. "You have no idea."
"Seifer workin' ya pretty hard?"
"And he's even out of the office in Deling City," I complained. "Zell, I think I have the worst workstation in the whole Garden."
"That sucks." He pulled my desk chair out from my computer desk and brought it closer. "Come on over here, Meg. I'll give you an extra special rub down."
I smiled with an expression of 'that would be wonderful' and moved to the chair.
Zell helped me out of my uniform jacket. "You should tell Seifer about your back problems when he gets here tomorrow. Maybe he'll get you another chair."
Zell's hands began their deep working of my muscles beneath my light blue knit tee. I closed my eyes with a deep breath. "And not get your massages? Not a chance… Ahhh."
"Geez, Sally. You're like a vise. You're going to put yourself in the infirmary if you don't watch it."
I released another slow breath as I lowered my chin to my chest. Thoughts left with the tension.
"Sally, I'm serious," Zell pressed as he gently worked on my neck. "If you don't talk to him, I will."
"Okay," I agreed absently. "Oh my gosh…" I shivered.
"Damn. Where've you been hiding that pocket of stress?" Zell mumbled.
I smiled, barely. Zell's hands and fingers pursued the stress and tension around the muscles of my shoulders and back with tenacity and gentle pressure combined. It must have been the most glorious experience after an intense day's work. What amazed me was Zell's ability to know exactly where to go and how firm to be. It felt awesome.
Zell's touch lightened, and he kissed the back of my neck. "There ya go, kitten."
I sighed deep and stretched, watching him with a tired smile and crinkled eyes as he moved to sit on my bed. "Thanks, sweetie."
"No prob, but I want you to promise you'll talk to Seifer tomorrow. If your back goes out…"
"I will, Zell. Promise." I moved to my bed and sat beside him. "Maybe I'll get a note from Dr. Kadowaki?"
"Good idea." Zell gave my arm a nudge. "You up to dinner in the cafeteria?"
I shook my head and sent him an apologetic grimace. "I'm beat, Zell. Sorry."
He brushed some hair from my face and smiled. "Don't sweat it, kitten." Then he took my hand. "So, what do you want to do?"
"Munch pizza while soaking in the hot tub?"
Zell's face brightened. "Hell yeah! That sounds awesome!"
I giggled and stood, giving his hand a squeeze before releasing it and gathering my suit, towel, and T-shirt. "You want to go get your suit and meet me there?"
"Nah. I've got an extra one at the infirmary."
I followed him out of my room and locked the door behind me. Then I stepped up to wrap my arm around his waist as we struck out for the infirmary.
Zell looked over at me. "Hey. You heard from Combat King yet about your submission?"
"Geez. What's taking them so long?"
"Maybe they've had a lot of submissions the past couple weeks?"
"They should've at least sent you an e-mail."
"Maybe I have too many filters on my account," I offered. "Since the Trojan thing with Quistis, I've been a little paranoid. A lot of the kids have."
"I guess I don't blame ya. Better safe than sorry." Zell gave my shoulders a squeeze. "Well, you should definitely check with C.K. to see if they've sent you one. If they didn't, then you can ask them why the hell not. If they did, you can ask them to resend it."
"Good idea. I'll call them tomorrow after I check my e-mail."
"Say. Maybe we could plan a trip on over there? You think?"
I smiled over at him. "Could we?"
"You think Zack could get us a tour of the place?"
"Maybe. We could always ask."
"That would be sweet." Zell held the door to the infirmary open for me. I reluctantly released my hold on him and passed through. He followed, closing it behind him. "If not, could we sit in on some of the T.V. shows?"
"I could call Zack tonight and ask if anything good's on," I said as I went behind the curtain to change. "Seems to me they've got some new shows on the line-up."
"Or I could take you out to dinner and a movie," Zell offered from the curtained room beside mine.
I stared at the T-shirt in my hands. "That would be even better." I set it slowly aside and changed into my swimsuit.
"You want to do that instead? We can watch shows any time."
"We could go to Combat King first, Zell. Instead of a movie." I set my clothes aside and took up the T-shirt again. "I'd love to see it, and I know you would too." I stared down at the shirt while biting my lip.
Zell tapped at the curtain. "I'll call the pizza place from doc's office."
I heard Zell pad away and looked again at the T-shirt. Then I slowly and deliberately set it on my stack of clothes. I smoothed non-existent wrinkles from my pale pink one-piece and cleared my throat, tipping my chin up as I stepped up to, and past, the curtain. I could hear Zell placing the pizza order, so I stepped toward the hot tub and up the short ladder and over the lip into the tub, not noticing the temperature of the water for the conversation Zell had with the pizza place. I sat on the lip of the hot tub, only my legs below the knees in the water.
Zell finished the phone call, replaced the receiver, and stepped from Dr. Kadowaki's office. "The pizza'll be--" Zell's steps stopped the same time his voice did.
I rubbed my palms on my thighs as a blush colored my cheeks. I looked over at him with a shy smile.
Zell blinked, mouth open. Then he pointed. "Where's beach bunny?"
My smile widened. "Sleeping."
Zell grinned. "Dude." He stepped up to the side of the hot tub and rubbed my stomach. "Look at your flat tummy."
I giggled and pushed at him. "It's all those crunches you make me do."
Zell pushed gently back, then he gestured with both hands for me to stand. "I want to see that cute mark on your butt… Hell. I want to see your butt."
"Zell!" I scolded, cheeks flushing crimson.
Zell's grin softened. "Please?"
I crossed my arms and looked away as I stood. "Oh all right." I bit my lip, waiting anxiously for his reaction. I felt like an idiot for doing it, too.
I looked over my shoulder at him. He examined my birthmark - or my butt. I couldn't tell - with crossed arms and a scowl. "What?"
"That's got to be the sweetest a-- butt I've ever seen."
He reached out toward it, but I turned and stepped into the tub with an "Oh no you don't."
Zell grinned, leaning forward over the lip of the tub while wiggling his eyebrows at me. "Heh heh heh."
My expression relaxed into a smile. "Zell, you goof. Will you just get in here."
Zell stood to attention and saluted. "Yes, sir."
Then he scrambled up and over the wall of the hot tub, splashing me in the process. He grabbed me around the waist and positioned himself onto the spa 'bench' with me sitting on his lap but not really.
"Zell Dincht," I protested half-heartedly.
He wrapped his arms around me, resting his chin in the nook of my neck and shoulder as he sank a little deeper into the water. "What?" he asked.
"Could you give me a little warning next time?" I rested back against him with a sigh. "Water in the eyes stings."
Zell kissed my neck. "Sorry."
I flushed and rubbed at Zell's arms. "I guess it's okay."
Zell adjusted his chin against my shoulder. "So… How's your week been goin'? Besides the workstation from hell?"
"'Fine'?" Zell repeated. "That's it?"
"Uh... I guess..." I bit my lower lip.
Zell lifted his head and adjusted his position to sit beside me. He turned me to face him.
"Sally?" he pressed
I couldn't look up from the water. Not when I felt his eyes on my face.
"Hey." Zell brushed some wet hair from my cheek. "Kitten, what's up?"
"Nothing." I glanced up from the water as I tucked a lock of wet brunette hair behind an ear. "Much." Please ask...
Zell raised an eyebrow. "And what exactly is 'nothing much'?"
"I… uh…" But I didn't want him to worry. It was me. Something I had to deal with. I knew it. I sighed and lifted my head to meet his gaze. "Zell, don--"
"Don't tell me not to worry about it, Sally," Zell told me while shaking his head. "You've been tied up in knots almost every day this week and last. What's going on? It's not just the workstation, is it?"
I turned and leaned back against the hot tub. Zell draped an arm around me. "I'm just too sensitive," I confessed softly. "Too jumpy."
He rubbed my arm. "Too sensitive? About what?"
"My assignments." I played with a spa-water bubble. "The people in the office. Who knows?"
Zell regarded me a moment before prompting, "Sally, what's wrong?"
I sighed deep, resting my head into Zell's shoulder when he adjusted his arm around me. "I've been doing a lot of internal investigations of people in the Garden Network."
"Trying to find out if any of the rebels have a mole?"
I nodded. "It's kind of stressful to be under constant supervision."
"They always want up-to-the-minute reports?"
I nodded again. "And they ask questions and give orders…"
"And want instant results and perfection..." Zell kissed my head as he drew me closer. "Poor kitten."
I released a deep breath. "I just need to get used to the attention."
"Kinda pushin' ya hard, huh?"
I slightly nodded. "Way outside my comfort zone," I whispered.
Zell smiled. "Don't sweat it, Sally. You'll do okay. Hell. You'll do better than okay. Look how good you've done already? It's been almost four weeks and you're still on security."
I smiled and looked up at Zell. "I guess Seifer's pessimism is getting to me."
Zell's smile widened. "That's where I come in."
I giggled and rested my head against him again. "Yep. Lucky me."
Zell chuckled and rubbed my arm. "Just keep at it, Sally. Seifer wouldn't have had you go on board if he didn't think you could handle it."
"I know. It's just…" I sighed. "It's just I want everything to be perfect. When I make a mistake…"
"Yeah. I know. You feel like crap."
"Especially with Seifer."
I somberly nodded.
"Well, don't kick yourself too hard, Meg. You're still learning. Seifer knows it, even if he can be an ass sometimes."
I looked up at Zell. "And people say you're dumb."
Zell chuckled. "Hey. I'd be the first one to say I can be pretty dense. It's just you've got me thinking about stuff I never had to before. Squall did the same thing to Rinoa."
"I hope you don't mind," I said quietly.
"Are you kidding?" Zell lightly stroked my hair with his hand and fingers. "It's a blast to talk about stuff and not get my head blown off with a dirty look."
"You do that a lot."
I yawned. "Yep."
"Uh-oh. Kitten's about to fall asleep."
His light stroke to my hair beckoned the nap even faster. Maybe I should purr... "Maybe," I mumbled.
"Pizza'll be here soon."
I sighed. "Oh yeah." I straightened and sent him another smile.
Zell returned it as he caught hold of my hands with a "Come here, you," and drew me close. "I've been wanting to do this all day."
My face flushed. "I like it when you say things like that. It makes me feel all fluttery."
"Fluttery's good," Zell commented, matter-of-fact.
I nodded with a soft giggle.
Zell pulled back, smiling down at me as he caressed my cheeks with the back of his hand and then his fingers, occasionally smoothing some hair from my face. Tears pricked the back of my eyes, and it had to be the most glorious attack of warm fuzzies I'd ever had.
Zell's lips twitched as he lightly stroked the skin under my chin with the side of his finger. "Man," he whispered.
I closed my eyes as his lips touched mine, and Zell kissed me like he lived; taking it as it went, only going so far as I did and then stepping a little over the line. If I didn't follow, he stayed at my line without complaint. But this time I pushed down my hesitation and followed when his lips and mouth moved gently against mine. That was the only challenge he asked of me. Once I went, he didn't push another. That blossomed my love and brought tears as my arms tightened around him.
Zell pulled slightly back, leaving two brief caresses of a kiss as he went. He smiled down at me as his arms adjusted their hold. "Booya…"
I smiled, flushed, and giggled as I lowered my eyes.
"Dude. You've made me a Mega Phoenix junkie," he said softly.
I giggled again, pushing at his chest as I met his gaze. His arms released me, so I went to sit across from him. I continued to smile just as he did, and our knees occasionally touched. "Welcome to my world."
Zell laughed and then leaned forward, resting his hands just past my knees. "I like it here."
I flushed darker but I followed his lead and leaned close, crossing my arms and holding them against my abdomen. I rubbed his nose with mine, closing my eyes as I whispered, "So do I."
"Well that's weird," I mumbled. I traced an odd connection on a fairly new VPN and did some tinkering around to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. "Oh. New guy. Okay, I'll just send you a little warning," I said absently. "Keep your nose clean, mister, and you'll be fine..."
Suddenly I felt a very foreboding and looming presence behind me. I swallowed hard and very slowly turned to look over my left shoulder. Sure enough, Seifer stood just behind holding a steaming mug of strong black coffee. He wasn't wearing the gray trenchcoat or blue vest with the white cross. Much to my surprise, he wore a long-sleeved black shirt and black slacks. No combat boots, either. He wore black dress shoes.
I blinked and then stood and saluted. "Welcome back, sir. Did everything go fine?"
Seifer smirked and shook his head as he crossed his arms. "Relax, Regal. Damn."
I stood at-ease. "Yes, sir."
I blinked in surprise. I hadn't been put in-charge of the security division while Seifer and Fujin had been away. It had been a transfer student from Trabia Garden. Kyle or something. "Y-Yes, sir. One hack attempt via Trojan, same as before, with no ill effects to the Network. SeeDs were deployed and the faction of terrorists brought in."
Seifer gestured to me with his dark blue mug with the white letters Death is answering 'no'. "Go on."
"Minor power fluctuation during a storm, but the backups and power grids recently set up kept the Network online. We didn't lose any information, sir."
"Excellent." His expression demanded a continuation.
I cleared my throat. "Um… Minor issues with disappearing drivers and such, but easily fixed. All-in-all, it was pretty quiet and boring, sir." Not that I minded all that much. Talk about a vacation.
"Good." Seifer turned away and strode toward his office.
I released a slow breath as I stared after him. The chair… Sally, you promised. I shook my head and slowly sat at my desk. Yeah. Like growing a spine is easy--
"Regal. Office. Now."
Bahamut replaced the Thrustaevis in my stomach. I slowly stood, rubbing my hands on my skirt before turning and making my way to Seifer's office. I could never tell from his tone whether he was pissed, annoyed, or just his usual abrupt self. Because of that, I could already feel the tension knotting up my back.
I halted outside Seifer's open office door, watching him scan the items in his in-boxes while I clasped my hands behind my back. Okay, Sally. You can do this. I cleared my throat and stood across from Seifer's desk. It's just a chair and you've--
Seifer closed the door. "Have a seat."
I sat down with wobbly knees and an unshakable premonition of dread. I clenched my hands.
Seifer sat in the chair behind his desk just as the door opened. Seifer changed his focus to it. "Fujin. Later." Silence. Door close. Seifer looked at me again. I gulped. "I'm recommending you for a rank promotion."
I blinked. "Sir?"
"I'm also recommending you for the special security detail that patrols the Network and investigates questionable activity. You will be directly under my supervision."
I shook my head. I suddenly felt very sick.
I slowly stood and managed to salute. Then I turned and exited the office, vaguely noticing Fujin standing outside. I made my way to my desk and slowly sat. I felt as if I'd been kicked in the stomach. Special security division? Investigations? I rubbed at my forehead. I felt honored at the recommendation, but I'd barely had time to get settled into the job I did have.
I grimaced, lowering my hand from my forehead to stare at my monitor. I pressed my lips together, fought back the nausea and migraine, and stood with a clearing of my throat. I turned to walk back to Seifer's office. I softly knocked.
I opened the door slightly and peeked in. Fujin, who sat in the chair recently vacated by me, turned and glared.
"BUSY," she said firmly.
I flushed. "I'm s-sorry--"
"Fujin," Seifer said. She faced him. "Report later. Dismissed." She didn't move, and Seifer's expression hardened. "Report later."
Fujin stood and stalked to the door, ripping it from my hand with a dangerous gleam aimed my direction before passing. I gulped and continued to stand uncertain in the doorway.
"I... I uh..." I looked over my shoulder in the direction Fujin had taken.
I blinked, snapping my head around and standing at attention. "Sir, I don't feel I'm the best qualified for the position." Good girl!
Seifer regarded me a moment. Then he motioned to the door. I closed it, immediately standing at attention again. Seifer gestured to the chair in front of his desk. I sat down, clenching my hands in my lap.
"Convince me," he said simply, and his hard and unwavering stare wouldn't look away.
I cleared my throat, convinced I wouldn't be able to keep a concrete thought in my brain. "I do my best investigative work behind a computer," I began carefully. "Even on my field exam I had my h-handheld. That was my role in the group. In the library I monitored things a-at my terminal. That's where all the i-investigations were done for l-lost books or whatever. E-Even when I had to find the cracker I did it at a computer. Th-There wasn't any footwork. No f-face-to-face."
I flushed and lowered my gaze. "I'm n-not very good with confrontations," I confessed softly.
Seifer scoffed. "Points noted. Recommendation stands."
I looked up again and briefly bit my lip. "S-Sir, wouldn't… wouldn't Fujin be better qualified? She's been on your security team for longer than I-I have."
Seifer smirked. "Regal, as head of Garden Network Security, I determine who's qualified."
"I-I know, sir, it's just…" I can't believe I'm doing this. "It's just I don't want to take her job," I told him, wide-eyed. "I just got here. I like my position, and I really believe I'll work better where I am." Seifer crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. "I appreciate the recommendation," I continued quickly, "but can I pass? Please?"
Seifer regarded me with that same arrogant smirk and slightly raised eyebrow. He adjusted his crossed arms before speaking. "You aren't the least bit ambitious, are you?"
I blinked. "Ambitious, sir? Me, sir?" I shook my head. "No, sir."
Seifer's lips twitched. "Fine. Recommendation stands, but I won't place. Fujin will get the position."
I smiled. "Thank you, sir."
Seifer pointed at me. "You're still on the investigation team, Regal. You'll just be working here. Understood?"
I nodded, smile gone. "Yes, sir."
I stood, saluted, and turned to leave his office. Only problem was, I couldn't move past the doorway. The chair, Sally. I faced Seifer's desk again.
"Regal, why aren't you at your station?" he asked without looking up.
I swallowed. "S-sir, it's about my--"
Seifer looked up with a raised eyebrow. "What."
"Chair," I said simply.
He raised an eyebrow. "And?"
"I need a different one."
Seifer's expression darkened with annoyance. "Deal with it," he said as he sat. He pulled some papers toward him. "Dismissed."
I stared at him in shock. "S-Sir--"
He looked up sharply. "Regal," he pressed in a dangerous tone, "I said 'dismissed'."
I nodded. "I know you did, sir."
"Then why are you still here?"
I lowered my gaze from his as I adjusted my hands behind my back. "Permission to speak freely, sir?" I asked in a whisper.
"Denied. Report to your station."
My mouth gaped as I met his gaze. "S-Sir--"
Seifer stood, pressing his palms against his desk as he leaned toward me. To my surprise, I didn't step back. "Go. Back. To. Your. Sta-tion."
My stomach slithered to my heels, but I clenched my hands into fists and stayed put. "I'm sorry, Sir. I can't," I whispered.
Seifer clenched his jaw and straightened, staring right through me with that look of doom that I swore could kill. I didn't look away, even though I felt like I would hurl any second… Seifer smirked and sat down, taking up his mug of coffee as he kicked his feet up onto the desk.
He motioned to me with it. "Why."
I blinked. "W-why?" I repeated, dazed.
"Your chair," Seifer pressed.
"Oh." My thoughts and wits skulked cautiously back. "I-I need a special one for my back."
I lowered my gaze and cleared my throat, knowing that he had led the "Galbadia Garden attack."
"Compressed vertebrae." Among other things.
Seifer remained quiet. I cautiously looked up and met his gaze. He stared into his coffee mug. "Why didn't you report this earlier?"
I lowered my gaze again. "Not that important."
I slightly smiled. "Zell made me promise."
Seifer scoffed and lifted his gaze. "Fine. I'll talk to Dr. Kadowaki and make the arrangements." His smirk returned. "Now will you go back to your station?"
To my surprise, I smiled. "Yes, sir."
I saluted and then did an about-face to retreat from the office. My legs felt like jelly… or water. Don't you ever stand up to Seifer Almasy again, Sally! I slumped into my chair and covered my face with my hands. The victory just wasn't worth the stress...
...but it had felt good.
"One ice cream sundae with strawberry syrup, nuts, and a cherry." Zell grinned as he set the bowl in front of me.
I smiled and drew the bowl close. "Yummy."
Zell sat close beside me, one arm resting along the back of my chair, and presented me my spoon. "Now will you tell me what happened at work?"
I giggled as I took the spoon. "What makes you think anything happened?" I scooped a portion of vanilla ice cream and strawberry syrup and presented it to Zell. "Here."
He slurped the mouthful of ice cream. "Meg, come on," he pressed, licking a bit of syrup from his lips. "With you something always happens at work."
I scooped more ice cream and syrup and nuts. "Nuh-uh," I protested. I licked the spoon clean. "Yummmm."
Zell smiled and shook his head. "Stop looking so yummy and tell me what happened!"
I sent him a sidelong glance as I cleaned yet another spoonful of ice cream. "I'm being recommended for a rank promotion," I said, nonchalant.
Zell blinked and leaned back in his chair. "Wha?" He leaned forward again, eyes wide. "Really?"
I nodded, attention focused on gathering a perfect bite. "Yep." I lifted the spoonful and offered it to Zell. "Here."
He took it, working the nuts as his eyes twinkled at me.
"Pretty cool, huh?" Zell nodded. I continued, "I'm also being put on a special investigations unit," I told him while gathering more ice cream. "Seifer tried to have me actually go traveling around doing them, but I asked him not to. I told him I work better behind a computer. So, Fujin's on the team instead. And, I got my new chair." I turned to offer Zell another spoonful of ice cream and noticed his shocked and confused expression. I lowered the spoon. "What?"
"You declined a recommendation?"
I nodded. "Yes. What's so strange about that?"
"And Seifer listened to you?"
"I had to convince him first. Why?"
Zell leaned back in his chair. "Huh. Never woulda thought."
Zell focused his attention on me again. "Huh? Oh. Nothing." He grinned and leaned forward to kiss me. "Yummm. Strawberry syrup." He kissed me again with an additional series of lip nibbles.
I giggled against his lips.
Next .:. Chapter Two