Chapter Nine

.: Seeking the Romantic :.

Smiling at myself in the mirror while applying mascara, I felt as if an entire chapter of my life was coming to a close... No. No, it felt more like a novel. I had grown up so much, learned even more, and ventured more than I thought possible. Now it almost seemed like I had arrived at the final page. It was exciting and scary, yet sad at the same time. I actually felt sorry to see it come. But then I thought of Zell and all the things that were possible. You know what? I wouldn't change a minute of it. All the tears, fears, and mistakes had been worth it.

"Are you ready yet?"

I giggled and lowered my mascara wand. "Hold on a sec, Zell. I want to look perfect."

Another tap-tap-tap sounded on the door of my room. I refused to let Zell come in until I had completed my ensemble of make-up, dress, and slippers. I had on the spaghetti-strap, pale-blue satin formal my mom and I had picked up on Wednesday, its matching gloves, and my pearl necklace. I had only to finish my mascara and slip into my shoes and the effect would be perfect.

"Not yet," I repeated, smiling a little wider.

Selphie had come by earlier and curled my hair, putting it up and only letting a few strands of ringlets down around my neck and by my temples. To be honest, I had never seen myself look so pretty, and I could hardly wait to see the look on his face. While I had noticed the stealthy return of the Thrustaevis, this time they were of nervous excitement and not of dread or fear. Definitely a welcome change, and I actually enjoyed having them there.

"Come on," Zell whined. "I wanna see."

I giggled again, nearly putting an eye out with my mascara wand. "You will, Zell!"

I finished with the mascara, reapplied my lipstick, made sure none had colored my teeth, and then turned from the mirror in a search for my shoes. They weren't anything dramatic. Only very comfortable slippers that would be perfect for a night of dancing and walking.

Since my accident, I couldn't walk on anything but special shoes, cross-trainers, or slippers with special inserts. Anything too high made my back go out of whack, or my hip pinch a nerve.

Spotting the slippers under the chair of my desk, I mumbled "There you are." Then, once I had slipped into them, I straightened with a deep breath and smoothed the front of my dress. Here I go. I walked deliberately to the door. "Ready?" I asked, my hand on the knob.

"Dude! Sally! Just open the door!"

I did as I was told, my eyes zeroing in on his face. "Ta-da-" my voice immediately trailing off when I saw him, for the first time, in a white tuxedo with a black cummerbund, black slacks, and black bow-tie. "...wow." I had thought he looked good in his SeeD uniform, but his appearance in the tux had me thinking of every film-noir, spy-flick I had ever seen with the handsome and debonnaire secret agent sweeping the lady off her feet.

"Oh my gosh, Zell," I whispered, pointing at him while not noticing his blank expression and wide eyes as his gaze traveled slowly up from my toes to my face. "Y-You look... Y-You look... wow..."

He didn't seem to hear or care, because he stepped close, eyes still taking in every inch of my ensemble, and exulted, "Booya, girl, you look hot!"

I flushed so bright I thought I would melt. Instead, I giggled and finally released my grip on the doorknob to self-consciously clasp my hands in front of me.

Zell remained quiet.

When I sheepishly looked up, his dumb-founded expression had me giggling and asking, "What?"

"I... I'm afraid you'll break if I touch ya," he confessed in a hesitant voice.

My eyes crinkled at the corners as I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around one of his. Then I smiled up at him with what I'm sure was a very silly smile. "I won't. I promise."

Zell suddenly grinned. "Come on. We better jet before I do something stupid."

" 'Stupid'?" I laughed. " 'Stupid' like what?"

Smirking, Zell said, "Yeah. Like I'll tell you."

I continued to smile up at him with that same silly smile - can you pinch me please? "I feel like I'm trapped in a happy dream," I confessed in a hushed voice.

"I'll try not to wake you," Zell laughed.

We entered the main corridor to a chorus of whistles and hoots and hollers from those SeeDs and candidates that still lingered in the halls at 6:30 in the evening. Zell saluted them with an expression of 'ohhh yeaahhh' and straightened, shoulders back. I felt like a princess, and Zell definitely looked like a prince.

When we arrived at the front gate, I found out that my prince had rented a carriage complete with a pair of white horses.

Tears brimmed as I looked over at him. "Oh my," I breathed.

Zell must have stood at least 6 inches taller than normal. "Cool, huh? Selphie said you'd love it better than a limo."

I moved my tear-filled gaze back to the open-faced carriage. "I do."

Zell helped me up and waited to get in until I'd made sure my skirts wouldn't get in his way. Then he sat close beside me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders and pulling me close as he told the driver to "Go ahead."

The carriage gently lurched to a start, the clop-clop-clop of the horse's hooves proving that I wasn't imagining things. That I sat in a carriage next to Zell in a beautiful dress, and he in a uniform, and we were going to the Balamb Hotel for a night of dinner and dancing. I stared up at the stars within a bubble of disgustingly sweet happiness.

"Dude. Check out the stars. Must be millions of 'em."

I snuggled as I gave a slight nod.

"Kind of reminds me of the night of my graduation party."

I nodded again with a little sigh.

Zell chuckled. "You sure don't talk much, do ya?"

I shook my head with a giggle, my eyes crinkling at the corners. What could I have said? Any word could have popped my bubble and made me hear my alarm clock.

"That's okay. I talk enough for the both of us. Drives Seifer crazy."

Zell tightened his arm around me, and I closed my eyes.

He released a long breath. "Man. This is what I call relaxing. Hanging out. Cruising the streets with a hot chic. Decked out to the hilt." Zell kicked out his feet and rested them on the seat opposite. "Yep yep yep. This is the life."

My lips twitched upward, and I sighed, "Sure is." Pinch or not to pinch. That is the question... I snuggled.

"It's a first, too," Zell went on, his tone adorably serious. "Never been out dancing or anything swank like that. Just graduated, did our missions, kicked butt and saved the world. It's kinda cool to know we can kick back and not get blown to hell by Galbadia Garden. It's cool to know it was all worth it."

I slowly opened my eyes to continue to stare up at the stars. "It is, isn't it," I whispered.

"Sorceresses and traitors and rebels... Man. Didn't think there'd be an end to it, but here I am. Kickin' back like nothing ever happened." Zell adjusted his arm around me. "You know my gramps was a soldier?"

I slightly nodded my head.

"I always wanted to be like him. Don't know much about my real ma and pop, but I knew gramps lived for something. I wanted that, too. That's why I always busted my hump to graduate. To be a SeeD."

"That's why you were sad it took so long to graduate?" I offered quietly.

Zell remained quiet for a bit before confessing, "You know what? I bet it is. Hm. Never thought about it. I just knew I really wanted to make a difference. As a kid it pissed me off faster than anything when Seifer picked on me or another squirt. I never liked seeing people being laughed at or bullied. So I figured I could keep that from happening. Just like gramps."

I moved to settle my back more into his side. So Zell gently draped his arm fully around my upper chest as I snuggled closer. "I bet he'd be proud of you," I said softly. "So would your real mom and dad." I am, so why wouldn't they be?

"I hope so, Sally," he confessed. "I know it's stupid to worry about it, what with him being dead and all, but... I can't help it."

I sat up and faced him as his arm fell away. "Zell, it's not stupid. It's normal. Who cares if he's dead or not? He's your grandfather. Why wouldn't you want him to be proud of you?"

Zell rubbed at the back of his neck as his eyes only occasionally glanced toward mine. "Yeah. I know."

"I always wonder if my grandfather's proud of me. After all, he was an animal doctor just like my dad. I'm not."

Zell met my gaze. "But you're damn good at what you do, Sally! Of course he'd be proud of you!"

I smiled. "And you're good at what you do, sweetie. I mean not only did you teach me how to beat the Fire Cavern and pass my field exam, you saved the world." I poked him in the chest with each word.

Zell grinned and caught the hand. "I only helped."

I giggled. "Okay. So you helped, but you still saved us. I bet that's what your grandfather wanted to do when he signed up to be a soldier. Only, you actually did it."

Zell continued to smile at me, and then he tugged me close. "Come here you," he said as he wrapped me up tightly in his arms. "All this serious talk made me wanna noogie."

"No! Not the hair!" I protested.

Laughing, Zell settled for just holding me tight. "Okay, okay. But the dress is gonna have to get a wrinkle."

"I can handle a wrinkle," I whispered, wrapping my arms around him and letting out a deep breath. When I pressed my cheek against his chest, I couldn't help but close my eyes and listen to the steady thump-thump-thump of his heart. "I like it when you give me a reason to be mushy."

Chuckling, Zell's awesome baritone/tenor voice almost rumbled through me as he said, "I gotta confess, Sally. I like it. It feels a helluva lot better than when my submission got published in Combat King."

I released another deep breath. "Can you pinch me please?"

"Sure." One of his hands rose, his two fingers giving a soft pinch to the back of my arm. "Still asleep?"

I giggled as I nodded against his chest. Zell laughed.

Too soon, the drive ended and Zell helped me down from the carriage outside the hotel. Lights were bright, the music was lovely and loud, and people chattered and laughed and talked in a dull roar that made me giddy and grinning. Zell paid the driver, asked him to wait for us near the entrance of Balamb, and then took hold of my hand to lead me into the bright lights of the hotel's lobby.

I entered with wide eyes and slightly parted lips as I released a breath of "Wow" and tightly gripped Zell's hand. The lobby and the stairway up to the rooms had all been decorated with streamers and lights, and garlands of evergreens. Even the deck facing the ocean had been decorated. Candles twinkled everywhere, just like the jewels and sequins and pearls and diamonds on the people that danced, laughed, and talked throughout the hotel.

The hostess met Zell, received his name for the reservation, and then went to the back deck to make sure the table had been prepared.

"Oh my goodness, Zell," I whispered as I gave his arm and hand a tug. He looked down at me with twinkling eyes and a wide grin. "This is gorgeous!"

"Uh-huh. Ma said they go all out when they throw parties like this. She wasn't kiddin' huh?"

I wordlessly shook my head as my gaze again traveled around the hotel lobby. Then the hostess came back to lead us through the bustling crowd to the private table in a far corner of the outside deck overlooking the ocean. Watching the ladies and the gentlemen, and the small orchestra with wide eyes as we made our way, I could hardly believe it. Then I saw the view of the moon and the stars reflecting on the water. Gasping, I hurried over, leaving Zell to speak with the hostess. I gripped the railing and leaned over, closing my eyes with a smile as I took in a deep breath of the crisp sea-salt scent of the air.

An arm went around me, and when I opened my eyes it was to look over at Zell with a bright smile. Then I moved my gaze back to the ocean and the shimmering loveliness of the moon's reflection. "It's so beautiful," I breathed.

"Yep."

Sighing deep, I leaned my arms against the railing. "Thank you so much, Zell. I'm going to have memories forever of this. It's so..." I looked over at him to see he still smiled down at me. "Isn't it romantic?"

Zell leaned one arm against the railing as he watched me, crossing his legs to rest the toe of his dress shoe on the cobble floor in his usual attitude of nonchalance. "Yep."

I flushed and moved my eyes to an intense scrutiny of my gloved hands. When he reached out to take one of them, I met his gaze again.

"Wanna dance?"

I smiled and eagerly nodded, remembering how wonderful it had felt to glide around the dance-floor at the ball.

Zell chuckled as he straightened, and then he stepped blissfully close, one arm positioning itself around my waist as the other gently held my hand.

It's so hard to explain how it feels to dance with someone you care about, especially when that someone' was Zell. There's a difference to the warmth of his hand at my back. A difference to the warmth and softness of his hand holding mine. A difference to how it made me feel inside. It was... more.

Because of that, I couldn't help but close my eyes and move closer, resting my cheek against him as one hand gripped his and the other rested safely and content on his shoulder. Each step we took together seemed to be an echo of the other, acting like a nod to how right we were together. That what we had was special.

Perfect.

Unfortunately, as to anything perfect, it had to come to an end. So, much as I wished they didn't need one, the orchestra ended their piece and then declared they would be back after their 10-minute break.

Voicing an "Awwww," the same time Zell chuckled, I stepped back, smiling up at Zell before he motioned to the table with a movement of his head.

"Come on. Let's see what they've got tonight for grub. I'm getting hungry."

Shielding a soft laugh with a gloved hand, I tightened my other on Zell's and followed beside him. Like a true gentleman, he pulled out my seat and pushed it slightly in as I sat. Then, when he sat across from me, he did his usual action of pressing his shin behind my calf and sending me that boyishly handsome smirk while leaning his elbows on the table and resting his chin in his hand.

I'd never seen him look so cute, adorable, and handsome all at the same time.

Flushing and looking down to the duty of opening my menu, I decided not to ask 'What?' for fear that he would tell me something that would make me lose my last grip on reality. Zack would already have been retching or scoffing throughout most of my short, two-week relationship with him.

It wasn't that Zack didn't believe in relationships. He did. He had just had a bad experience... or two. ahem He was a bit of a cynic now because of that. But he said he loved women too much, and all the head-games they played, to swear them off.

My poor brother.

Zell and I gave our order - I knew I wouldn't be able to eat much, and so I only ordered a salad - and then talked about light-hearted subjects that, now, I can't remember. All I know was that I was at ease, laughing, verbal, and enjoying myself more than I ever had. Through dinner we laughed about the mission to Timber because of the e-mail/tunnel/trojan fiasco, and then about the first mission there nearly four years before. I never tired of hearing about Zell's adventures, mostly because I enjoyed how he told them. His gestures and his facial expressions were so... so... Zell.

That and I loved seeing him get so serious about his Garden missions. That was almost the only time outside his classes that he was serious. Such a complete opposite to his personality was... intriguing and... I don't know. It just never ceased to have me watching him in wonder.

Once dinner was completed and the dishes had been taken away, Zell smiled and tilted his head toward the dance floor. "Wanna dance?"

I enthusiastically nodded, causing Zell to smirk as he stood and came around to pull back my chair. He immediately offered a hand to help me to my feet and then guide me to the dance floor. It was awesome, but only because it was the first time I had been to a formal party, the first time I had danced like this (not counting the ball), and the first time I was doing it all with my first boyfriend.

A man, I hoped, would be my last boyfriend.

I rested my cheek against him, my hand nestled in his as his other rested gently at the small of my back. Again, there was no way to explain or describe what it felt like to be so close with him. Mostly because I didn't have anything to compare it to. This was a huge collection of firsts to me, and my memories of my imaginings of how it would be... they just faded to the way-side as I danced with my boyfriend in one of the most romantic situations ever and enjoyed it without worrying about what happened next.

Releasing a very content and very deep breath, I simply said his name. I didn't have any other words to say to thank him for what he had done: Opening a door to life.

Zell said nothing as he performed one of the most glorious actions in romantic imagination by kissing the top of my head.

So, needless to say most of the evening was a blurry memory of dancing and feeling like the world had stopped being anything but the best place to be. There. Dancing with Zell.

But again, all good things must come to an eventual end...

...but mine wasn't done yet.

"I had a wonderful evening," I whispered as Zell and I walked hand in hand along the cobbled road that led away from the Balamb Hotel.

Zell remained quiet, his other hand in his slacks pocket. He had an almost absent expression on his face as I watched him, shifting from a slight smile to a somewhat serious look of thoughtful consideration. Yes, his 'thoughtfulness' was definitely one of his most attractive expressions, for not only did it tug at my heart, it made my smile... alter. I don't know how. It just... softened or deepened or something.

He was just so cute.

Reaching around to give his hand holding mine a two-handed squeeze, I softly inquired, "Zell?" drawing his gaze and a questioning look. "Are you alright?"

"Hm? Oh yeah. Sure. I just..." To my surprise, he stalled.

My smile slowly vanished as Zell and I slowed our step and finally halted. "Zell?" I prompted. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing, I just..." And again he stalled. But this time he was able to pull a small box from the pocket of his slacks, presenting it to me with a simple, "Here."

Staring down at the blue velveteen box, I truly believe that I forgot to breathe. My hands were trembling so violently as I released his hand and slowly reached out for the box that I thought I was going to drop it. Everyone knows what a velveteen box means... But I refused to hold that particular picture in my mind. I wasn't going to think anything until I had the lid open and could see it for myself. So, I took the box with a gentle touch and very slowly opened it.

"Oh my gosh..." It wasn't a ring, no, but it was the most beautiful pearl and gold-heart necklace I'd ever seen. My eyes clouded with tears as I looked up at him. "Why?" was all I could ask.

One side of Zell's lips tilted upward. "Because you deserve it. Because I saw it in Timber and thought you'd like it. Because... Because a lot of things." His smile wavered and disappeared as he leaned a bit forward. "You do like it, right? I can take it back if you don't."

I looked back down at the necklace. "Like it?" I whispered in a tear-filled voice. There was no way I could voice just how much I did. So, I stepped forward to embrace him, closing my eyes against the tears that swelled the same time my feelings did. They... they overwhelmed me.

Zell's arms encircled me as he released a relieved breath. "Whew. I've never bought stuff like that before, but the guy said you'd love it. Gave me a good deal, too. Just because I'm a SeeD. Course, I woulda bought it anyway, even if he didn't." Zell cleared his throat. "Sorry. Kinda rambling like an idiot. Guess I was nervous."

My arms tightened around him, loving the fact that he was nervous, and then I pulled back. "Zell, I..." All I could do was stare up into his beautiful blue eyes, feel the warmth of his smile and the protection of his arms... and slightly shake my head with a tremulous smile.

"What?" he asked, uncertain as his smile wavered.

I shook my head again, smiling this time, and then hugged him again.

"Oh," he said quietly. "Okay. Just as long as you like it."

"I love it almost as much as I love you," I confessed in a tear-filled voice.

'Love' was one of those words I didn't like throwing around, but after saying it to Zell... Something just felt right about it. I had been interested in Zell since I first saw him at the age of 14. Then, as I had seen his dedicating to being a SeeD and the duty that came with it, that had grown to what some called a crush. Later, even before he went and saved the world, I believe I had truly started caring for him.

Now, after these glorious two weeks of talking with him and being with him... I couldn't think of another word to describe how I felt.

"Love." Zell repeated the word very carefully, and then he gently pushed me back. "You've never used that word before, Sally."

I didn't raise my gaze from the necklace box I still held in my hands. I just silently shook my head.

Zell took the necklace box from my hands. "Sally."

Blinking the tears from my eyes, more came to replace them as I whispered, "Yes?"

"You've never used that word before," he said again.

I barely nodded. "I know. I just..." I peeked up at him.

Zell waited with an adorable attentiveness before pressing, "Yeah?"

"I... I just don't know what other word to use, Zell," I admitted softly, picking at my fingernail. "I can't keep saying 'I really, really like you'. I'd spend all my time saying 'really'." And I giggled without meaning to.

I could almost feel Zell's smile. "Dude. That rocks."

Pointing at his left hand, I stammered, "C-Can I have my necklace back?"

"Oh! Duh. Sorry, Meg. Here. Lemme help."

Zell retrieved the necklace from the box, which he tucked into the inner pocket of his tux jacket, and then directed me to turn around. I pulled my ringlets out of the way and closed my eyes with a smile as he fastened it, his warm fingers occasionally touching my skin and giving me tingles. Then he straightened the chain around my neck and turned me around, holding my upper arms with a gentle grip as he smiled down at me.

I lowered my gaze to the necklace that I now held between my fingers. "It's so pretty. And look. It's winking at me. In the moonlight. See?" I glanced up to see if he saw it and flushed when I saw that he still looked at me. "You're not looking," I scolded in a barely audible whisper.

"I am so." He caressed my cheek with a finger before lifting my chin. "You know, I don't get about love and stuff like that, Sally, but... I mean, geez, I've never felt like this about any girl before. Do you think that might mean I'm in love with you, too?"

Wiping the tears from my cheeks while sounding several sniffles, I smiled, barely able to see his serious expression through my tears. "Maybe," I whispered.

"Well... Well how do I find out? I can't let you be the only one to say it."

"It's okay, Zell. I don't mind. I don't want you to say it if you don't know it's true."

Zell's expression darkened to frustration. "But I really like you, Sally. A lot. Remember what I said in the Training Center? About wanting to hang out with you and your dad and do all that stuff? That hasn't gone away these two weeks, even though we've been hanging out so much every day. And... And if love means I wanna do all that cool stuff with you... Or if it means I wanna make sure you're okay and not getting hurt... If it means stuff like that, then maybe I do? Right?"

"M-Maybe."

"Can I... Well, can I just say it?"

My smile wavered and vanished as I gave a little nod. Oh my gosh... "If you want," I whispered, breathless.

Zell's frustration vanished, pushed aside by determination. "Okay. I will." Then he cleared his throat, adjusted his grip on my arms as he set his stance, and said, "Sally, I love you."

Fireworks and flowers burst across my field of vision... until I saw something change in Zell's expression. The determination and resolute set to his jaw and face softened to a smile that I hadn't ever seen before. It... It made me see everything in a glow.

His hold on my arms gentled as his stance relaxed. "You're so sweet it hurts, Sally, always giving me the benefit of the doubt and taking my teasing..." He gave a slight shake of his head and then said, "Damn straight I love you. And why didn't I say it before?"

I hiccupped on a tear as I blinked up at him, mouth covered by a trembling hand.

Zell chuckled and reached out to pull my hand away. Behind it, my mouth desperately tried to work out a proper response. What, I had no idea, but I tried to find it anyway. I mean... My boyfriend of two weeks was telling me that he loved me? I had a reason, three-years of obsession could be considered that, but him?

Composure melting into a giggling and blubbering mess, I threw myself into his arms with the expected "Oh Zell!" and held him close, eyes closed as his arms surrounded me.

This couldn't be happening.

I mean... it just couldn't.

...could it?

Releasing a deep and slow breath that tickled my skin, Zell's arms tightened around me even more and he whispered the best-sounding "Booya..." I had ever heard in my life.

A life that seemed to be finally beginning.

(The End...)


...nope. Lifes Lessons on Stress at mintfield dot net
Installment 3