After the Fact

Bookworms and Booya! Vol 2

by Nona 'mintbaby' King

Who says life after confessing an attraction gets easy? The level of difficulty and challenge only changes, along with the playing field. So, when shy librarian Sally Regal finally confesses that she likes Instructor Zell Dincht as more than friends, how exactly will that affect her life?

Zell has always been the class clown, or the compulsively-honest freshly-out-of-Garden graduate doing his best to keep up with the rest. Now he's found a girl that looks at him differently than any other person he's known. Will it change who he is?

And who will change more?


Other Books in the Bookworms and... Booya! story cycle:

B&B Vol 1 - Bookworms and... Booya!

B&B Vol 2 - After the Fact

B&B Vol 3 - Life's Lessons on Stress

B&B Vol 4 - The Workings of 'Happy Ever After'

The Reluctant Knight (Seifer)

Few Words (Fujin)

A Different Daydream (alternate reality)


Chapter One

.: The Day After :.

knock-knock

I typed the rest of the sentence into my computer, pressed ctrl-s to save it, and then stood to make my way to the door. I opened it-

"Hi."

I took a startled step backward as my wide brown gaze focused on Zell's twinkling one. He leaned against the doorjamb wearing black denim shorts and a dark blue t-shirt with fuzzy, pale-blue letters. He looked great, as he always did.

I blinked and then flushed, lowering my eyes. It... happened? I told Zell Dincht I... liked him? And he had said that he liked me.

Now I was living the day after the confession.

I nervously giggled as I picked at my Balamb-blue sweatpants and said "Hi, Zell."

Zell straightened, sending me a boyishly gorgeous grin as he said "Hiya, Meg."

Meg... I giggled again. He likes me! My brother would have rolled his eyes.

He caught up my hand and tugged me closer. "How are ya?" he asked, wrapping his arms around me.

I flushed molten, not even wanting to look up as my stomach and my heart flittered to some place very far away as my brain tried to figure out how this could possibly have happened in a week...

"Fine," I whispered. I stared at the pale blue letters on his dark blue T-shirt in a desperate attempt to gather my wits back again. "Starting on my f-final paper for Selphie's d-diplomacy class." I cleared my throat. Zell felt very warm...

"Good for you." Zell adjusted his arms around me to reach up and tug on one of my braids. "Ready for a break?"

With you?... Really?... "O-Okay."

Zell didn't move, so I very slowly raised my gaze to meet his. He grinned. "Hi."

I giggled again, relaxing a little bit into his warmth as I stammered. "Sorry. I... Um..." I cleared my throat, blushing furiously.

"Don't sweat it. Shy's kinda cute."

I peeked up at him. "Really?"

Zell continued to grin down at me.

"What?" I asked, lava reaching my hairline.

"I don't s'pose I could get a kiss?"

My gaze retreated as I cleared my throat, and my hands reached out to pick at the raised letters on his T-shirt. "Zell... I... I don't want... I mean, not until later..." sigh "W-We're not even really... going out. I mean..."

"Sally."

I blinked, loving how his baritone/tenor voice sounded when he said my name, and looked up. Zell still smiled. "Y-Yes?"

"It's okay. I figured it never hurts to ask." He tugged my braid again. "And yes we are."

"We are what?"

"Going out."

I flushed darker, if the level had gone down at all from the previous bout, and lowered my eyes once more. "I didn't mean 'going out'. I meant... you know. Going out."

"I know what you meant." Zell released his hold. "Come on, shy girl. Let's scoot before the hot dogs get cold."

Zell embraced my hand with his as he tugged me from the room, barely giving me a chance to lock it behind me. "Zell, not so fast."

He sent me a wide smile and slowed his pace, releasing my hand to pull me close with an arm around my shoulders. "Sorry. Been like that all day. Kinda wired."

I noticed the bright look on his face. "How come?"

Zell chuckled as he gave my shoulders a squeeze. "It's you. Duh. And I like it."

I blinked up at him as he continued to go on about how he'd "never been wired like this before. All jumpy inside and brain running around all over the place. Keep thinking about the kiss on the way to Balamb and then the peck in the T.C. and then trying to figure out how I could get you to come over to class, it was a boring thing with tests and stuff," and found myself wondering, Is this what it's going to be like to have Zell as a boyfriend?

I timidly smiled, still listening as I watched his face. When I noticed several of the candidates and SeeD's looks as we headed to the cafeteria, I cleared my throat and tried to figure out how to ask something like this without sounding like a... a... freak.

"Zell," I whispered.

Halting mid-sentence, he grinned down at me. "Yeah?"

"Could you not... could you not do that when we're around everyone else? Please?"

"What? The arm?" His expression showed confusion. "How come?"

I cleared my throat again, looking around at the continued glances sent our way. "It makes me... It's embarrassing."

Zell stopped, lowering his arm to his side as he stared down at me. "I'm embarrassing?"

Eyes widening, my gaze zoomed to his face. "No!" I said while vigorously shaking my head. "No, Zell, I didn't mean that!" Great going, Sally! Geez!

Zell released a quick breath as his shoulders slightly stooped forward. "Whew. Don't scare me like that."

My expression softened. He was so adorable when he was vulnerable, and he didn't show that side very often. I had only seen it once when I was 14... "I'm sorry," I whispered.

Zell straightened and crossed his arms. His face showed expectancy and concentration. "Okay. What's the problem."

My heart melted to a puddle. "You're so cute when you listen."

Zell grinned. "That's the problem? Would you rather me listen like this?" He frowned and stuck his head out like a turtle.

I giggled and shoved at him. "Stop."

Zell's hands caught my wrists, and the frown disappeared to be replaced by a mischievous grin. "Heh heh heh," he chuckled. "I've got you now."

My eyes widened. "Zell, don't," I hissed. He wiggled his eyebrows. "Zell. Please. Not in front of everyone." I tried to free my hands, panic rising as I heard another group of SeeD or candidates approach. "That's the problem," was out before I could stop it.

Zell's grin vanished, his hands releasing mine. "Huh?"

I slapped both hands over my mouth, staring up at him with wide eyes. Sal-ly! Taking in a deep breath, I released it slowly as my gaze retreated from his. "You're not the problem, Zell," I whispered. "I like you just the way you are, but..." I cleared my throat. How did someone say something like this to their boyfriend of one day? "In public I'd rather not... well..." My voice lowered even more, and I felt my head droop down between my shoulders as I tried to hide while admitting, "you know." Holding hands in public was hard enough for me. But kissing? I worried my lower lip.

"But I'm just kidding around, Meg. Honest." Zell released my wrists with a wide-eyed expression. "I wasn't going to do anything. Swear."

Desperation flared, making me quickly reach out to place my hands on his chest. "Zell, I know that. I just-"

A couple candidates approached and I quickly straightened, lowering my hands to my sides as I took a step back. We exchanged 'hello's as they moved on. I released a deep breath, cheeks flushed as I wondered what will they think all day during class tomorrow?

"Ohhh," Zell said once they passed. "I get it. No touchy-feely stuff. We can kid around, teasing and stuff, but no... Okay. Got it." Zell grinned as he cuffed me gently on the chin. "No prob, Meg."

I released another deep breath, worrying my lower lip as I picked at my pinky's fingernail. "It's so stupid." Yeah. Not doing boyfriend/girlfriend things like what I had wanted to do for three years at least? Yes, it was definitely stupid. What happened to that circle of arms you wanted so bad?

Oh shut up...

"Stupid? Tch! What rumors and stuff'd be flyin' if everyone knew we'd hooked up-"

I lifted my eyes with a fast "No, Zell! I don't care if anyone finds out about that. I'd tell them myself on a network bulletin board," with barely a breath between.

"Really?" Zell's eyes twinkled. "Ohh yeaaah. I've got me a girlfriend."

My cheeks flushed. "You silly boy," I said as I pushed at him.

He pushed back, immediately grabbing me to give me yet another knuckle-noogie.

"Zell! Stop that!" I warned as I poked him in the ribs.

Surprisingly, to my relief, Zell released his hold and took my hand instead. "Come on, shy girl. By the time we get to the cafeteria, grub's going to be gone."

"Sorry."

Zell chuckled and gave my hand a squeeze, but I just couldn't look over at him. "Geez, Meg, stop being 'sorry' for everything."

And I almost said 'sorry' again. I had always been very apologetic, over-eager to take the blame for stuff. My brother, Zack, said that if I didn't stop, I was going to have ulcers by the time I was 21.

When Zell looked over at me as we once again started for the cafeteria, the hair on the nape of my neck stood on end and I couldn't help but tighten my hold on his hand. Zell's hand... I'm holding Zell's hand... I released a sigh and felt my lips twitch upward.

"So why the freak-out about the touchy stuff, Sally?"

I twitched, both not prepared for him saying my name and for the almost gentle way he asked the question. As if he didn't want to make me mad. "It's not a freak-out," I said quietly. "I just... I get really uncomfortable." And I didn't know how else to explain it.

"Really? How come?"

I sent a passing candidate trio a sidelong glance when I noticed them look our direction. My face flamed. "I-I don't know. I... I'm even embarrassed when my mom and dad do it, or even my brother with me... or... or anyone in my family."

"Seriously?" Zell's tone was adorably attentive. "But people do that stuff all the time."

"I know, but..." Which made me feel even more... idiotic. I looked over at him. "Maybe it'll just take a little bit? Mom says I've gotten better." And with Zell Dincht as my boyfriend... I was bound to get better, aren't I?

"Well sure!" Zell gave my hand a tight squeeze. "So we'll set some rules is all. I don't think about stuff like that, so you'll have to remind me sometimes."

I smiled. "I'll probably be okay if you keep it the way it was when we went to Balamb and Timber."

He winked at me. "No groping, I guess?"

I laughed and pulled my hand from his to give him a firm shove straight into a potted plant. Then I took off toward the cafeteria at a run, Zell sounding a maniacal laugh behind me... I didn't understand why it was so easy for me to play around as if he were my friend or brother and then be uncomfortable and uncertain when he tried to act like my boyfriend.

What sense did that make?

sigh

I halted at the doors of the cafeteria, Zell 'squeaking' to a stop beside me, and timidly smiled up at him when he took my hand and sent me a wink. Once we stepped past the doors and into the cafeteria, thoughts and glances to the people around me started up again. I found myself wondering what they thought, how they felt, and if they were wondering 'How in the world did the library girl get Zell? She's been trying for years and he never paid any attention to her.'

Yet just a few seconds before I hadn't cared even a little bit what people had thought about me and him joking around with him chasing after me. It was so weird how I could do things like that. Maybe I should go talk to Matron about it? There had to be something wrong with me, especially since it was even a problem between me and my family.

"Stop it," Zell warned under his breath, giving me a nudge with his hand that still held mine.

"Stop what?"

His lips twitched. "Stressing."

I flushed and looked away.

The two of us found a place in line for the hot dogs, Zell standing behind me, and I felt him touch my back with a knuckle every once in a while. Actually, it was more of a rub. I didn't care what the technical term was, though, because I... I liked it. Three years of watching and studying Zell, five if you counted the two years from the time I had enrolled, had given me the heads-up on the type of person he was: Hands-on. It stood to reason that was how he showed affection, too.

So why can't I?

Momentarily biting my lip, I crossed my arms in such a way as to make it possible for him to touch my fingers. I smiled when he did.

Warm fuzzies were going to rule my planet.

I waved to Francine with the hand that Zell wasn't occasionally touching. She smiled and waved back.

"Yo, Francine," Zell called, using it as an excuse to take a step closer and make full-blown hand-contact with my back.

I relaxed into it without even meaning to. Wouldn't you know I flushed the moment I did?

"Save me a couple hot dogs. Please?" he asked, his hand gently rubbing my back between my shoulder blades and nearly sending me into a fit of silly giggles, shivers, and swooning spells.

I must have looked ridiculous.

"There'll be no special treatment for you, Mr. Dincht," she retorted.

Zell actually snapped my bra strap. My eyes widened and I elbowed him before even thinking about it. Trained by Zack, unfortunately (What can I say? My brother had a twisted sense of 'funny'). He gave a slight "oof" but recovered quickly enough for no one to notice.

"Aw come on, Fran," he whined. "I said please."

She chuckled and turned away.

Zell chuckled, too. Then he stepped back, his hand retreating from my back to only occasionally touch my fingers. Why give him boundaries? He'll waltz over them just to get a reaction. But I guess it was what I needed - the occasional push outside my shell. It would be good for me... right?

I got my tray, Zell got his, and then we headed toward one of the tables near the windows of the cafeteria. Zell sat beside me, not too close, and tucked his right shin behind my left calf so that he could give it the occasional nudge. I shook my head with a slight smile as I spread my napkin on my lap. Constant contact. No exaggeration there. And contact with Zell had to be good for me.

"You're really picking up on the stats of 'Quick Silver'," Zell said between swallows of soda pop. "So I think we'll get to work on the physical stuff tomorrow morning. You've been studying the prep-stuff for it, right?"

I nodded, not wanting to admit that I was so eager to work out with him again - since we'd not been able to do a single thing yesterday morning but talk about what we were going to do next as a 'couple'.

"Cool. Keep going that way and you'll be able to use it on your field exam. Say, you heard from Selphie about that yet?"

"No, but I'm sure she'll let me know when she's got it set up."

Zell actually frowned. "Well, geez, she shouldn't wait so close to the wire. I got my exam only about a day after passing the qualifier. Squall even had to do it the same day."

I smiled, covering his hand with mine to give it a squeeze and wonder how a guy's hand could feel so wonderful... "There aren't exactly a lot of wars and things nowadays." Thank goodness. I didn't want to think about Zell being sent off again. Not so soon after I finally had him to myself.

Zell grinned. "I know," he admitted. He turned his hand so that it enveloped mine. He gave it a gentle pressure. "But she could at least tell you what's going on."

"She will," I said, giggling. "I'm not the only candidate she has, you know."

One of the chairs at the table turned suddenly, and a tall man with long auburn hair straddled it. His hair had been pulled back into a ponytail, and his eyes twinkled as he tipped the cowboy hat back on his head. Zell and I looked over at him.

"Yo, Irvine. 'Sup?" Zell's hand gave mine one last squeeze before escaping to the duty of gripping Irvine's in welcome.

"Nothing," Irvine said in his lazy drawl. "Just passing the time." He nodded toward me. "Ma'am."

"Hello," I voiced, hushed and cheeks flushed.

Zell looked over at me, smiling as he once more covered my hand with his. "This is my girlfriend, Sally. Sally," Zell gestured toward the tall man with a jerk of his thumb. "This is Irvine Kinneas. Sharpshooter that botched the Sorceress assassination."

Everyone knew who Irvine Kinneas was. He was the Commander of the Elite force at Galbadia Garden. The first SeeD to retake classes and training to get even better. That was when they started the SeeD specialty courses so that someone could focus on their talents.

I thought Cmdr. Squall very smart to start it up.

"Nice to meet you," I said quietly.

"Likewise." Irvine smirked as he moved his gaze back to Zell. "I would've hit her, Zell, smack between the eyes. Just ask Squall. It was a beautiful shot."

Zell slowly nodded as he gave me a wink. "Suuuuure."

Irvine shook his head and lifted a hand in dismissal. "Whatever."

"So what do you need?" Zell asked, motioning to Irvine with a tip of his head.

"You seen Sephy?"

Zell shook his head. "Nope. You check her class schedule?" Irvine nodded. Zell thought a moment. "You talk to Squall or Quis?" Irvine nodded again. Zell shrugged. "No clue."

"Hm."

"Did you try at the Quad?" I asked. "She sometimes goes there to play the guitar."

Irvine raised an eyebrow before standing and tipping his off-white hat toward me. Man, he's tall. Well, not as tall as Sub-Lt. Commander Seifer, but still. I was short.

"Thank you kindly, ma'am," he said. "Zell." Then he sauntered off.

Zell watched him with a thoughtful expression.

Smiling, I softly asked, "What are you thinking?" 'Thoughtful' had to be his most adorable look.

Zell focused again on me as he gestured over his shoulder toward where Irvine pushed through the cafeteria doors. "Him and Selphie. She say anything?"

"Say anything? Um... I, uh, like what?"

"Like if she likes him or not. You know? Like you and me, or Squall and Rinoa."

"Um..." I wrinkled my nose and absently tapped my fork against my plate. "I don't think so. But we don't really talk about stuff like that."

"Huh." Zell looked again toward the cafeteria doors. "Selphie and him were always chumming around together at the orphanage... and later..." He focused again on me with that same adorable expression of thoughtfulness.

I rested my chin in my hand as I watched him, really enjoying the feel of his hand holding mine. And really liking how it felt to have his shin pressing into my calf with the occasional nudge.

"Well, it seemed like it was back to normal but..." Zell shrugged. "Don't know. He just seems too friendly with all the girls. He's going to hurt Selph's feelings if she's wanting him to be her boyfriend, don't you think?"

I nodded, and my eyes crinkled. "Uh-huh."

Zell laughed and gave my calf another nudge as he picked up his next hot dog. I smiled and sent him another twinkling glance. His eyes grinned, but his mouth worked busily on his current bite. He nudged me again, and I nearly choked on my giggle. I sent him a 'Stop' look, but his response clearly said 'Make me'. Yep. He definitely likes pushing boundaries. But it was kinda fun, too. I did my best to recreate his 'I'll take steps' expression, to which his responded 'Ooo. I'm so scared.' Sternness fled and I found myself smiling at him. Then I reached out to push him gently on the side of the head, loving the feel of his hair on my fingers.

Zell's eyes twinkled.

We finished lunch and dumped our garbage, setting the trays on top of the bins before sauntering from the cafeteria to the empty hallway outside. There, Zell clasped my hand. That simple act meant more to me than any kisses or hugs would have. I don't know why. It just did. I guess I'm odd.

"You've got class soon," I said softly.

"Yep. Wanna come and be my punching bag?"

I giggled. "Sorry. Can't. I've got to finish my paper today. I don't want it looming over my head the rest of the week."

"Your loss."

A couple pairs of candidates passed us. I felt them eyeing us very closely, as I'm sure Zell did. I worried my lip and cleared my throat, trying to figure out why it would matter whether they felt uncomfortable with Zell and me being... close. Why would they care? And why would I care what they thought when that didn't do anything to what I felt, or what Zell felt for me.

"You want to go to the movie they're setting up in the Quad for tomorrow night? It'll be our first date."

I smiled. I liked how that sounded. "Okay."

"I'll stop by the library about six and walk you over to your room, to help you with the carrying of blankets and stuff."

I nodded, only barely noticing when I stepped a little closer to him. "Alright." A first date. With Zell... I really had told him I liked him.

"Hey, Sally?"

I really liked it when he said my name. "Hmm?"

"Can I put my arm around ya?"

There were a couple SeeD's coming but... I cleared my throat. "Okay." I had to come out of my shell sometime.

Zell's hand released mine, his arm drawing me closer as it enveloped my shoulders. I smiled at the floor as the candidates passed by.

Zell gave my upper arm several gentle rubs. "That wasn't so bad," he said, chuckling.

"Nope," I said quietly. Then I sent him a sidelong glance, catching his gaze. "Just no groping."

Zell laughed. "Okay, okay, shy girl. No groping." He gave me a jostle, inviting a soft giggle. "But you've got to promise to come and hang out with me tonight after class? Deal?"

I eagerly nodded because, to me, hanging out with Zell was the most fun experience I had ever had in my timid little life.

There was a knock.

Finishing the last line of the last paragraph of the paper, I called "Come in!" and then hit 'ctrl-s' to save before sending it to the printer.

The door opened. "Done?" asked Zell's recognizable tone.

I nodded, turning slightly in my swivel chair to face the printer as I waited for it to finish. "Just."

"Ohh yeaaah!" Zell came to stand behind me, putting his hands on my shoulders to start giving me a massage. "Perfect timing."

The print job was forgotten as tension, stress, and tightness vanished. I closed my eyes. "Omigosh. That feels wonderful."

"Man. You been stressing today or something, Meg? You're a knot."

"No," I said absently. "No one ever offers me... wow. Keep doing that."

Zell chuckled. "Sounds like some major back-rub time is in order. I reserved the spa in the Infirmary. Good thing, too. It'll be a blast."

"...sure..." Brain power nil... Thinking cap destroyed... Fingers only source of focus... I released a slow and deep breath.

"Sweet. I've never had a release that big before."

"...release?" I mumbled, not really caring as long as he kept... "Ahhh."

"Yeah. Your body letting go the stress and stuff that's set up house in your muscles." Zell slowly worked his hands free from my back. "Come on. Grab your suit and lets go."

"Awww..." I rotated my shoulders before grabbing the print job, setting it neatly on my desk, and then standing with a long, luxurious stretch. I turned and nearly stepped into Zell. I gasped and then giggled. "You silly. Don't stand so close."

Zell grinned his boyish grin that made everything okay-- He placed two quick kisses on my lips.

I blinked at him. Then I flushed and lowered my eyes, nearly seeing stars as the warmth of his lips seemed to burn... I cleared my throat. ...oh boy...

"I pushed that one too far, huh?"

"N-No... I mean... I-I..." I released a deep breath before looking up at him. "I don't know, Zell. I'm just... I..." I sighed. "You're not the problem, Zell. Really. It's me. I'm not used to the whole idea yet."

Zell gently chucked me on the chin. "It's not a problem, Meg. It's just... It's just you. I know that. So don't sweat it. I don't."

I reluctantly smiled. "You poor thing. You're going to be a wreck by the end of this relationship."

"End? What end?" Zell smiled. "No end here."

I looked up into Zell's smiling face... and then leaned in to give him a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for saying that," I whispered against his soft skin.

"Sure, Sally."

I stepped back, meeting Zell's gaze to give him another smile. Then I noticed he had a towel draped over his right shoulder and that he wore swimming trunks and a lightweight white T-shirt. "Swimming?" I asked, meeting his gaze again.

Zell chuckled. "Man, you were out of it, weren't ya? I told you, Meg, I reserved the spa at the Infirmary. Grab your suit and come on."

My eyes widened as my cheeks flushed. "B-But..." I didn't look so great in a swimsuit. My legs were on the short side. I also had a birthmark on the back of my right leg that looked like a... well, I didn't know what it looked like. "Um... Zell, couldn't we... do something else?"

Zell kept smiling. "Meg, come on. I'm not gonna laugh at you if you're a little knockneed." He pointed down at his legs. "I've got chicken legs. See?"

I reluctantly laughed. "No, you don't." He was buff... Okay, so maybe not buff, but definitely well-defined. ...boy howdy... ahem

"Sure I do. Now grab your suit, shy girl. I don't want Seifer or Raijin stealing my time in the spa."

I bit at my lower lip as I turned for the dresser to retrieve my swimsuit. It was a cute pale lavender one-piece that my mom had made for me. I also grabbed the long t-shirt that I always wore over it. Zell chuckled, cuing my flush. I wrapped the swimsuit up in the t-shirt before facing him.

Like usual, he smiled.

Zell crossed his arms. "You're not really going to wear the t-shirt, are ya?"

I cleared my throat as I lowered my gaze to the accursed thing, picking at it with self-conscious tugs. "Y-Yes. Why n-not?"

Zell chuckled again as he shook his head. "Rinoa'd be leaping at the chance to wear a skimpy thing for Squall."

Words and defenses by the millions melted under the red of my cheeks. I could only clear my throat again.

"Geez, Meg. Relax." He grabbed hold of my hand and tugged me toward the door. "Guessin' what you look like under those creepy uniforms is kinda fun."

And the thought of him gauging me under my uniform in addition to how short the skirts were in the first place had my eyes widening as I gaped at him. "Zell!"

"What?" He laughed. "Hey, you've got to admit that Xu and Quis are the only ones that look any good in them... Wait."

Zell stopped in the hall outside my room and faced me, holding my arms out to each side. Then he intensely scrutinized my frame and build while I began to wish I could melt into the floor. I wasn't wearing the SeeD candidate uniform, but that didn't stop him from using his imagination.

"I take it back," he finally said. "You look damn good in them, too. I forgot."

I pulled my arms out of his grasp. "For heaven sake," I complained. "Stop teasing me!"

Zell grinned, putting fists on hips as he leaned slightly forward. "And how are you gonna make me?"

Several ideas popped into my head. I flushed and turned away, moving toward the infirmary with a clearing of my throat.

Zell jogged up to walk beside me. "I think I like the second one," he confessed between laughs.

I sunk my head lower. "Second one what?"

"The second idea."

"Uhhh no." I didn't even want to admit what 'the second one' was.

Zell laughed and nudged my arm. "Please? I'll be your slave for a week."

Tempting, but... "...no."

"Aww."

I couldn't help but smile over at him, and then I reluctantly laughed. "Silly boy. You don't even know what it was and you're willing to do it?" I shook my head as I looked away.

"What was it?"

I sent him a quick glance. "Can't remember."

Zell laughed harder. "Wuss."

But I really didn't think Zell would have been able to handle the not-so-shy Sally Regal. If there was such a person. "No, I'm not," I said softly.

Zell's laughter faded. Then he wrapped an arm around me. "I know, Sally. Don't sweat it. I just like teasing you because you're pretty when you're red."

So I flushed. "Thanks."

Zell chuckled. "No prob."

"Isn't this cute."

Zell looked over his shoulder a moment before we stopped and faced the voice.

Sub-Lt. Cmdr. Seifer Almasy, Head of Garden Network Security, leaned against a garbage bin tossing a large gold coin into the air while dressed in his usual grayish white trenchcoat, military pants, and navy vest with the pale cross on the front.

Commander Squall had pushed Seifer through the entire SeeD training and then made him Chief of Security upon graduation, giving him a starting rank of 15! I think it had been because of his year of bodyguard work with not one single casualty. Even I was impressed, especially considering some of the people he had been hired to protect. Politicians, celebrities, and people that it was rumored were gangsters.

Then Commander Squall had given Seifer a promotion to Head of Garden Network Security after the Gardens had been linked via a secure Network, which included all inter/intra-Garden communications, on a scrambled frequency and a secure firewall to the external Internet.

That promotion had raised Seifer to rank 18 with the title of Sub-Lt. Commander.

Since then, he'd been promoted to rank 20, though I didn't know all the details why. I'd started wondering if it bothered him that Zell out-ranked him. After all, he was level 22... Wait. No. He had just received a rank promotion to 24 after a mission to the Esthar Research Facility.

I think.

"Hey, Seif. How's it going?"

Seifer didn't say anything. He just kept tossing the coin in the air while smirking at us. "Have you met my girlfriend Sally?" Zell asked with a slight motion toward me.

I could tell Zell really tried to be civil. Seifer moved those smirking eyes to me. "Hi," I said in a pinched voice. Zell's arm still surrounded my shoulders. Thank Hyne.

Seifer looked back over at Zell. "Quis told me, but I didn't believe her." Seifer shook his head and straightened, moving away as he chuckled. "Chicken-wuss with a librarian." He barked out a laugh.

Zell frowned after him.

I watched his profile. "Zell?" I asked timidly.

Zell looked back over at me and grinned. "We better hurry up."

I blinked up at him. "How do you do that?"

Zell urged me toward the infirmary again. "Do what?"

"Let it all go like that? It's like... it's like water off a turtle shell."

Zell shrugged. "I don't know. I just don't worry about it. Seif's always been that way. Why should I let him get to me like I used to? Not worth it."

I adjusted my hold on my t-shirt and swimsuit as I stared down at them. "That's kind of what it's like for me... The opposite, I mean."

"What?"

"I..." I took in a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "I let what everyone else thinks get to me. I worry about it all the time."

"How come?"

I looked over at him. Zell watched me very closely. "I want to... I don't know. I guess I want everyone to like me. I don't like having enemies, or making people mad, or hurting people's feelings, or making them uncomfortable..."

"Sally, that's not your job. You've got to be yourself. If you stress about how everyone else is going to take what you do or say, you'll be 100 by the time you're 20."

I sighed and looked away. "I know, but... like I said, I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings."

"So don't," Zell told me as he gave my shoulders a gentle squeeze. "They'll let you know if you do. Then you can apologize. But you shouldn't stuff everything just so someone you don't even know can have an easy life. They wouldn't do it for you, and they probably don't care you're doing it for them."

"I'll try."

Zell gave my ponytail a gentle tug. "You've got to stand up for yourself, Sally. There's nothing wrong with doing that. And I'm going to keep pushing boundaries until you do."

"Okay," I whispered, still not raising my gaze from the floor.

"Come on, Sally. Stop stressing and just relax. Remember in Timber and Balamb? You had a blast."

I smiled as I nodded, glancing over at him. "I did."

Zell grinned. "See? You were being yourself and having a lot of fun, too. Just do that."

I nodded again. "You'll have to keep reminding me, Zell. I always forget."

"Sure I'll remind ya," he said with another squeeze to my shoulders. "What are friends for?"

I rested my head against him. "You and Selphie are my best friends," I whispered.

"But I get the fringe benefits."

I pushed away with a laugh and a gentle slug to his side. "Zell," I scolded.

Zell grabbed at me. I shrieked and dodged as I headed toward the Infirmary at a run. "No running in the halls, candidate Regal," he called after me.

I smiled and slowed to a dutiful walk, Zell falling into step beside me to take hold of my hand. "You better watch it, candidate, or I'll keep you after class."

My smile widened. "You're not my Instructor."

Zell snapped his fingers. "Damn. Forgot." He glanced down at me. "Well, don't make me take steps."

I giggled and sent him a sidelong glance. "Me?" Though it was fun to see what he would do.

Zell grinned and reached out to hold the door of the infirmary open for me. I passed by, reluctantly releasing his hand. "Why don't you go get changed? I'll make sure Doc knows we're here and check the temp of the water."

I nodded and stepped behind a curtain. The t-shirt and swimsuit were tossed onto the bed and then I set to stripping and changing while debating with myself whether or not to wear the t-shirt. The swimsuit was a modest one, my mom had seen to that, but it was flattering in all the right places. She'd seen to that, too. It wasn't frilly, but it wasn't boring either. It was simple. It covered everything while showing only what needed to be shown.

I flushed as I adjusted the straps, staring at the t-shirt.

"Did you fall in?" Zell asked, sniggering.

I giggled. "No."

Then the smile vanished, and I bit my lower lip and put my hands on my hips. I knew it wouldn't be a big deal if I wore it. Besides, the minute it got wet it would be as if I wasn't. I sighed. You know you'd even wear it at home, Sally. You're modest. You always have been. 'Don't sweat it.' I smiled, gave a shrug, and then slipped into the t-shirt.

It was a simple one that covered my butt and said 'beach bunny' across the front. It was cute. I liked it. It was 'me'.

I slipped past the curtain to the sound of a whistle. I smiled and flushed as I moved toward the far end of the Infirmary. Zell sat comfortably within the bubbling water of the spa, his arms draped along the fiberglass walls. Shirtless... I gulped and lowered my gaze.

"Model it, Meg. Come on. You know you want to."

My lips twitched in a smile before I stuck my tongue out at him. Then I climbed the steps on the side, noticed how quickly Zell moved over to make sure I didn't fall in, and carefully submerged my feet into the steaming water.

My eyes widened. "Yow. That's hot."

"Seriously? Let me check again." Zell leaned over and checked the thermostat. "103. That's about normal." He looked back over at me with a reassuring smile. "Give it a second or two. We're supposed to wet ourselves down first. I always skip that part." Zell motioned for me to come a step further in.

I did with a cringe and an "ow ow ow ow."

"Stay right there. Let me get a bowl..." Zell reached over behind the spa and picked up a metal bowl. He submersed it under the water. "We'll wet you down a little first. Maybe that'll take off the shock." Zell brought up the bowl full of water and then stood and moved closer. "Here. Lean over the tub a little more. I'm gonna dump this over ya."

I did as I was told, closing my eyes and holding my breath.

"Here it comes," Zell warned.

Then the water cascaded over my head and down my body. I sucked in a breath, but it wasn't as hot as I thought it would be. My feet, on the other hand, were stinging and felt pink, if that was possible.

"You okay?"

I nodded, wiping the wetness from my face as I smiled over at him. "That was kinda weird."

Zell grinned as he set the bowl aside. "Come on. Give it another shot. Maybe that helped."

"Okay." I stood and stepped the rest of the way in. The water was still hot, but not as burning as before. "It did."

Zell sat back down, still smiling. He gestured at me. "Come sit over here."

I sat down on the bottom step instead, the water bubbling up to my chin. "I think I'll stay here for a bit."

Zell laughed. "Figures you'd stay close to the exit. You think I'm gonna dunk ya."

I sat on my hands. "That's not it." I watched my legs float up until my toes peeked out of the water. "I'm just..." I'm just trying to get used to the idea that I'm really here with you. In a swimsuit. In a spa. Hanging out. Laughing. Teasing. Just relaxing and being... me. It hadn't happened before.

There sounded a slosh as Zell moved to sit beside me. His legs and toes floated up beside mine. "Just what?"

I blew at some foam and gave a slight shrug. I wasn't sure how to 'just say' some things. It wasn't that I didn't want to. I didn't know what I wanted to say or how to say it. I stared at his cute toes, kept feeling his gaze stray to my face, and released a slow sigh. "To tell the truth, I don't want to think about it. I don't want to think about anything."

Zell chuckled. "Quis says I do that all the time."

I giggled and moved my gaze to him. Zell's face glistened with perspiration and spa water, and his normally spiked hair was slicked back away from his face. Zell looked so different while still being Zell. Still smiling. Still taking things as they came. Still as accepting as ever. Still teaching me more things than I thought he could teach.

Zell grinned. I smiled back at him. "Can I have that back-rub now?"

Zell's grin melted to another chuckle and a smile. "Sure. Let's move over here." He moved to where he had sat before. I followed. "Turn around and sit yourself right here in front. There ya go. Now just relax and breath easy. There ya go."

I closed my eyes with a deep exhalation of breath, listening to his anecdotes of classes as a candidate with a smile and a very vivid imagination.


Next