Griever Chronicles: Zell by Larathia
(Thanks are owed to ArchMageMagus of FFML, and Fujin Fujiryuu of Omega Fantasy for encouragement. Square owns everything, I own nada, etc. etc...)
Chapter 1 Run Down
Laguna was dead.
So they had told him, and he had to believe. Zell didn't really remember much about the last few days himself. Apparently shock could do that. It might also be responsible for the fact that he wasn't feeling much in the way of grief at the moment. He wasn't feeling much of anything, even pain. Idly he cast his eyes around the infirmary – yep, painkillers. Lots and lots of painkillers.
The doctors said it was a miracle Zell had survived. Spaced out as he was, Zell could only chuckle helplessly. No miracle at all, guys. Just a handy GF. But he didn't say anything. If there was one thing recent events had taught him, it was when and how to hold his tongue. But he couldn't help laughing. Didja hear that, guys? A miracle, they call it.
Go to sleep, Zell, growled a deep feline threefold voice in the back of his mind, sounding slightly exasperated. You'll bleed to death if you keep laughing.
Ah, screw it, thought Zell, and laid back on the infirmary bed. With the painkillers in his system he fell asleep almost at once.
A week later, Zell was well enough to be released from the Infirmary – though on a provisional basis. He wasn't allowed to do any more than the minimum necessary to restore his health, and he wasn't to entertain any visitors until the wounds in his stomach were past the danger of reopening. It wasn't merely his injuries that slowed his step and kept the smile from his face, though, or the fact that the few people who were his friends weren't allowed to see him. He was awake enough to remember what had put him here – back within the walls of Garden. And of course, the very first thing he had to do was go and make a report to Xu about it.
So, being the good SeeD that he was, he headed for the Commander's office. It was one of the innovations of the past ten years that there was a Commander's office. Since the Headmaster had an office on the third floor, and the Garden Master's offices were in the lower level, they'd built the Commander's office in the center of the Ringway on the main floor. At least this meant that injured SeeDs who had to make reports would not need to navigate any stairs to do so.
He poked his head around the door to find Xu at her desk, working on some report. She raised her head and smiled as she saw Zell. "Come in," she said. "I've been wondering when Kadowaki would release you."
"Um, this morning, actually," said Zell. "I'm hoping to get this over with and get gone before trouble starts." He seemed unusually subdued, especially given his buoyant nature.
Xu eyed him sympathetically. "Seifer's gotten a lot better since he made SeeD," she said, knowing what was bothering him. "Quistis managed to whip him into shape pretty fast, and I've actually never had any trouble with him. He's not the man you knew, Zell. Not since..."
She didn't need to finish it; Zell knew what the official report was - he'd made that himself. Not since Squall died. Which was not exactly true, but true enough to hurt. He nodded in acceptance of that, and let Xu interpret it however she would. Zell would trust Seifer the day he not only received word of Seifer's death, but actually had poked the body with a sharp stick to be sure it was really dead.
"Well, Zell...you've been on assignment for ten years. I'm sure you have a lot to tell me about the situation in Esthar."
Zell shook his head. "The Palace was insulated from the rest of Esthar, Xu, but not that insulated. There is no unrest in Esthar - or at least, there wasn't until now. Whoever went after Laguna was out to start a war, not a revolution."
Xu raised one dark eyebrow in query. "If Laguna was as loved as you say, who shot him?"
Zell took a deep breath to steady himself. How to say it? "...I don't know," he admitted. "There was no warning, none of my contacts anywhere had a clue. He was making a speech and I saw someone moving for him. I got in the way, and I took the bullet..." he looked at the floor, miserable. "But the guy had lots more bullets. I just caught the first ten or so."
Xu tapped a document on her desk. "Official autopsy reports say Laguna was shot by roughly two dozen bullets. Estimates suggest he was dead by the fifth. This is not the action of a revolutionary, Zell. This was personal. Surely you must have some idea who would have hated President Loire so much?"
Zell's expression became deadly serious, an almost-frown giving his tattooed face a nearly demonic look. "Nobody hated Laguna, Xu," he said flatly. "Laguna was the hero of Esthar, everybody loved him. He sealed away Adel, helped to save the world...everybody loved him. You want my official report, my guess is this was an outside job - someone wanted to create unrest in Esthar. Shooting Laguna would be the easiest way."
He didn't tell Xu that the Guardian Force looking out from his eyes had not recognized the gunman, guaranteeing that the assailant had had no contact with Laguna in at least the past ten years. Zell had learned a lot about Guardian Forces in the last decade, but wasn't planning on sharing any of it. Particularly not with someone who had used Guardian Forces as executioners.
Xu made a notation on her report, then looked up. "All right, Zell. You're the one who was there, we'll exhaust your leads first. Go rest up, and I'll see what SeeD can uncover. You've still got your old room."
Zell stood up - carefully - and saluted, then turned on his heel and left. What do you think? he asked the voice in the back of his mind, as he wended his way slowly to the cafeteria. He'd missed the hot dogs something terrible.
We think you are being watched, came the reply. You healed very quickly for someone without a GF.
And just whose fault is that? Zell joked, but quickly sobered up. Damn, I hate this sneaking around. But I owe you guys my life - that gunman would've had me sure without you. Do you think Xu's theory holds water?
No. This was meant to look like a personal attack - but the intention was to make very certain that you and Laguna were dead. Me? Why me? - And aren't you the least bit upset about Laguna?
But the Guardian Force refused to answer that, as so often happened when Zell asked about Laguna. He'd gotten used to the very active presence of Griever in his mind since the day he'd taken the new Guardian Force's hand ten years ago...but sometimes Zell was forcibly reminded that half of Griever was Squall. And Squall got very close-mouthed when questioned about Laguna or any other matter he considered personal.
Zell decided to drop the subject and just grab some food. He'd kept in constant touch with Bella, and she'd come to see him whenever she could wrangle leave, so he decided to hang around the Cafeteria in hopes of seeing her. Perhaps he could get an assignment with her or near her, this time. He picked up a surge of - encouragement? - from the back of his mind. He smiled; that had to be Rinoa's influence talking.
He had turned in all his Guardian Forces on receiving assignment as Laguna's bodyguard, even Quezalcoatl. At the time it had seemed prudent; Griever was a new Guardian Force, and needed the space. Over time, Zell had come to realize he didn't actually need any other GFs. Griever did not confer any abilities, as such - he couldn't use powers like Treatment, Revive, or Card. But it did enhance Zell's physical prowess in every respect - something no other GF did. And of course, just sometimes, Griever would manifest on its own, in the manner of Odin or Gilgamesh. Zell had never tried to summon Griever. Somehow, he had never felt it to be his place to try. To Zell, Griever was still Squall and Rinoa - and you didn't treat your friends like servants. He felt this way even though the 'personal' communications - the ones he could specifically identify as being from Squall or Rinoa - had decreased over the years, with just the feline voice of Griever taking their place.
No luck at the Cafeteria, neither Bella nor hot dogs were in evidence. He grabbed some sandwiches and a soda, and headed back for the Dormitory, where he was technically under bed rest until a medic cleared him. If his friends were going to come looking for him, that's where they'd go.
His room was exactly as he'd left it - a mess. Zell at twenty-seven was a lot neater than Zell at seventeen, somewhat in self-defense. The servants in the Presidential Palace had reacted to Zell's habitual chaos by rearranging his room neatly in a completely different pattern every day, until Zell got into the habit of keeping things in order just so he could find them again. He carefully collected the combat magazines scattered over his desktop and stacked them - it had been a long time since he'd gotten to read them. But what he wanted was access to his private console, where any messages that might have accrued would be waiting for him. These messages would not have been transmitted over receivers; any messages bearing a privacy lock could only be read in a SeeD's personal quarters. Zell had been away much longer than any other SeeD; usually the longest sojourn was six months to a year.
His console reflected that. There were indeed messages waiting for him. Most were assignment requests; other SeeDs asking Zell if he would join them on a mission. These, he deleted. Anyone that would send him a message without checking to see if he was already assigned was just being an ass. He did leave the ones that had been sent this week alone; he had no intention of staying in Garden longer than he had to. But what interested him were the personal letters from his friends, left against the day of his return.
But what really stung Zell was the last one; a message bearing Squall's privacy-lock. He leaned back, not sure if it was something he'd want to see. Squall...in a very real sense, Squall was dead. It didn't matter much that he'd wanted it that way, and it didn't seem the same to only occasionally hear Squall's voice in his thoughts - even though he knew the others would probably envy him that. Zell would never fight beside Squall again; that was sometimes all that mattered. Still...there was a curiosity as to what Squall would tell him in a message that he would not say as Griever. He keyed in the authorization to open it.
Zell leaned back. The 'third option' could only be becoming Griever. How far back had Squall known that possibility? And yet, things hadn't happened quite the way Squall had foreseen. Leviathan hadn't killed him, but he'd become Griever anyway. It must have been an incredible pull, to draw Squall away from what he had seen as logical conclusions. He'd never asked why the two of them had wanted to join again, given the risk. Maybe he should, if he could just think of a polite way to phrase the question. It sounded suspiciously like one of that category that habitually got ignored.
He ate his lunch in silence, mental as well as verbal. At that moment, he really missed Laguna; the two had become good friends over the years. Kiros and Ward did not have SeeD privacy locks, and so when he'd recovered he'd been handed small envelopes from them. One of them was suspiciously heavy; he didn't want to think about that yet. Nor could he help feeling a tad bit resentful; Squall's old message had simply heightened the loss of Laguna. It was as though he were being reminded that everyone he'd gotten to be friends with was gone.
Not that you're inclined to say anything, Zell thought to the force in his mind. Damn - he was your dad, he did everything you wanted, and not a word that he's gone?
To his surprise, Squall - just Squall - answered. It's a bit hard to grieve for the man when he's been talking my ear off for the past four days, Zell, came the acerbic response. You're forgetting that Rinoa and I are in eternity - which is where he showed up, same as everyone else does when they die. Even Raine can't shut him up for long.
Zell couldn't help it; he laughed, though it threatened to pop the stitches in his stomach. Squall was right, he had forgotten that. Heartened, he opened the last of his messages, stretching out on his old bunk. Having eaten and walked a good way around Garden, he was just about ready for a nap. He hoped he could get back to normal soon; the sedentary life would drive him crazy.
A clean slate? Well, Laguna had run Esthar for somewhere near thirty years in almost complete peace. Tough act to follow. It made him wonder again who that gunman had been, and what he'd hoped to achieve. Even given Squall's testy response to Laguna's death, though, Zell felt hesitant opening the last envelope. When he did, as he expected, the heavy platinum weight of the Griever ring landed in his palm. There was a message with it, scrawled in Laguna's flowing script:
Zell held the ring in his palm. He couldn't wear it. Not here, not in Garden - not while Quistis, Selphie, and Xu ran the place. Squall had worn it under his gloves, or on a chain under his shirt, for almost all his life - so it wasn't that well known, not like his Lionheart pendant or gunblade. But the orphanage gang would know it on sight, and ask questions Zell was pretty sure he wouldn't want to answer. Like what really happened to Squall and Rinoa - which they were probably going to ask him anyway, as soon as he got a clean bill of health. He looked around the chaos that was his room, finally locating a small box that would hold the ring. Putting it inside, he stuffed the box under his mattress.
Interesting approach to 'put it in a safe place', Zell, came the feline voice of Griever in his thoughts.
"Oh, shut up, will you?" growled Zell. "It's been a long day." And with that he plunked down on the mattress and drifted off to sleep, heedless of the dust on his blankets or the magazines on his bed.