Chapter 2 In My Room

A heavy pounding on his door jerked Zell bolt upright, scattering combat magazines and nearly tumbling him off his bunk. The sudden movement sparked blue-white pain behind his eyes; that gunman hadn't been using little bullets. He had a nasty suspicion who his visitor was before he opened the door - only one jackass in the known universe would pound on a convalescent's door like that - and so he tried to heed Squall's advice and not let it rattle him, no matter how badly he wanted to knock Seifer into next week.

So when he greeted Seifer at his door, it was gracefully and with a smile on his face. "Heya Seifer," he said carefully. "What brings you here?"

Seifer leaned back against the hall walls, evidently not expecting civility. "Life's been good to you, Chicken-Wuss," he said casually, but there was an unnerving clarity to his cat-green gaze. "Didn't expect the Infirmary to let you go for another week at least."

"I heal fast - at least, fast enough for them to put me on bed rest, which if you're just visiting I'd like to get back to. No visitors until I'm cleared, you know."

Damn, he must have let his temper show - Seifer's characteristic smirk was back in place. "You're an idiot, if you think I'll buy that line of tripe," Seifer said in a dangerously calm tone, "But I'll understand if you don't want to talk about it in the hall." He walked past Zell, into his room. "So I'll just pick a pile of dusty wreckage, and you can tell me all the things you didn't put in your official report."

Holy shit, Zell thought frantically. All right guys, help!

He knows already, came Griever's voice in his mind. But he does not know how different we are.

Big honkin' pile of help you are, snapped Zell mentally, as he plunked himself back down on his bed - sitting up, as he didn't trust Seifer to be in any way civil or polite when there were no witnesses. Seifer simply picked a random pile and sat on it, still watching Zell with that too-knowing gaze.

"So what do you think I know, Seifer?" Zell asked, never very good at subterfuge.

Seifer's blond eyebrows went into his hairline at the direct question. "And here I thought you might have picked up a few tricks working for a political leader," said Seifer. "Once again I overestimate you."

Zell fought to keep his expression neutral, but there was something about Seifer that just pushed his buttons. "Just get to the point, Seifer," he snapped. "I was having a good nap before you decided to hand me a migraine."

To his surprise, Seifer backed off. "Oh yeah, forgot you volunteered for target practice," he said. "All right - where's the Guardian Force?"

"Haven't had one assigned to me since before Esthar," Zell answered honestly. "And if one's gone missing you can believe it wasn't me."

"Don't make me regret being nice to you," Seifer said, dangerously calm. "Squall knew what Knights could do - and I heard reports about Odine's lab. And then he and Rinoa just suddenly die in a monster attack? Neither one was so lousy at fighting to become monster bait. You could at least have come up with a better death story. I'm not the only one that didn't buy that. So, I ask again - where is the Guardian Force?"

Zell eyed Seifer. There wasn't a chance in hell he could take Seifer on, not this soon after being shot. On the other hand, he wasn't going to hand over Griever - and Seifer wouldn't risk killing him if he didn't know where the ring was...would he? Does he know about the ring guys?

There was a pause that was just long enough to make Seifer shift impatiently. We don't think he knows about the ring, came the response.

Great, thought Zell. Oh well. "I have it," he said at last, and Seifer nodded slowly.

"Don't worry, Chicken-Wuss," he said, "I'm not here to take it from you. At least not while you're bright enough not to lie to me." He stood up, white trench coat swirling as he moved to loom over Zell, cat-green eyes boring into sky-blue. "But I don't do favors for free. That bastard's got the answer to a question I want, and you are going to convince him to talk to me, or I am going to put you back in the Infirmary with one hell of a relapse."

Zell sighed. Back in Garden and mobile for less than twenty-four hours, and already he was in the middle of a Seifer/Squall quarrel. Squall being dead didn't seem to make any difference.

"What makes you think Griever will talk to you?" he asked at last. "Had any chats with Cerberus lately?"

Seifer gave Zell one punch, right in the stomach - where half his bandages were. Even pulled, it was enough to leave Zell gasping and trying to clear the spots from his vision. "Listen - Zell," he said. "I am not an idiot, and I've spent the last ten years learning a lot about Guardian Forces. Completely legally, too. Seems Xu's afraid of them these days. Add to that the stuff I picked up as a Sorceress' Knight, and you can guess that I'm not making any requests that your convalescing self can't handle. Now - either he talks to me, or you don't talk to anybody."

Zell felt a surge of emotion coming from the back of his mind, but couldn't really focus on it while he was trying to force himself to breathe. Given the current situation, he could only think that Griever was going to come to his defense - which would mean Seifer's permanent disappearance if he was lucky, or lots of Seifer-bits added to the chaos of his room if he wasn't. Not that he'd regret that, as such - but he didn't feel like finding out if Xu had adopted the court-martial. Seifer was SeeD now, after all.

So he gasped out, "Ask your damn questions, Seifer," and hoped Griever would stay put.

Seifer re-settled himself on his pile, and said, "You want to play medium? All right - but I want to hear from Squall. I hear any Dincht commentary and you are in deep shit, you got me?"

"Just ask the damn questions, Seifer," growled Zell, still trying to breathe. "I know better than to get between the two of you when you want to wrestle." And you are going to answer him, Squall, Zell thought angrily. I'll hand you over to him rather than get in the middle of one of your fights, friend or no friend. He felt another surge of emotion, that felt like indignation through the pain of the punch. Trust Seifer to know exactly where to land a punch on a convalescent.

Nobody dies for me, came Squall's voice in his thoughts, annoyed. Amazing, that. This was the most he'd heard from Squall by himself in years. Perhaps Seifer knew Squall's buttons, too...

Seifer smirked and waited until Zell could unbend from the punch without gasping, and was lying down on his bed again. "All right, Squall," he said. "What's your game, pulling this shit? Reports said you were fine after the lab. And Chicken-wuss here just called you Griever, and that was Ultimecia's GF. I've held my end up here, now you're going to tell me what I gave up. All of it."

"You wouldn't like it, Seifer," came Squall's voice - rather to Zell's surprise, out of Zell's own mouth. "You never planned on loving your Sorceress."

Seifer's eyes widened. "So, you can talk. And by the look on Dincht's face, you haven't bothered to before now. What the hell difference does love make to it, anyway? It's a merging of minds, so the stronger mind wins control."

"No, Seifer," came the voice again, this time sounding a little amused, a little sad. "Joining is two becoming one. Not two halves together, one."

"Then tell me why you can talk to me, and why you're Griever and not some pretty dove or something."

"Who said I was?" came Squall's voice, now clearly amused. "And our shape is what our two minds together decided on. Rinoa happened to like it as much as I did, that's all."

This was not the answer Seifer had evidently expected; his eyes narrowed. "When both of you knew about Griever and it serving Ultimecia, you just happened to decide on that shape together. Bullshit - neither one of you is that stupid."

"Seifer," said Squall slowly, "The benefits outweighed the risks if we can grow strong enough to save the SeeD of Ultimecia's time." An echo entered his voice as he spoke, as though he and Rinoa were speaking in unison. "And the benefits are not something you would understand."

"Being just a mere mortal, I take it," said Seifer, but he'd noted the growing echo. "Thought you liked being alone."

"Apart is not being alone," came the echoed voice, and a feline voice entered on the last word, a feline voice that echoed with power. "And it does depend on the company you keep."

Seifer considered this - the fact that Squall was not truly in charge of the Guardian Force being evident in the exchange. Eventually, he nodded. "I think I might have the better end of the deal after all," he said at last. "All right, I'll keep your secret. But I get to choose your successor."

"So long as your choice is SeeD and active outside of Garden," came Griever's voice, feline-male-female completely inscrutable.

"Done," said Seifer. "Shit, hundreds of years with Rinoa in your head..." Seifer scowled. "Heh, I probably owe you for the rescue." He got up and leaned over Zell. "All right, Zell, enjoy your nap. I'll introduce you to your partner when you're officially cleared."

"Sure," mumbled Zell in his own voice again, as he slowly drifted back into sleep. He thought he could hear echoes of an odd chuckle as he slowly passed out.

* * * * * *

By the time Zell was officially cleared for visitors - about a week later - his dorm room was absolutely spotless. He knew he was supposed to be resting quietly, maybe reading a magazine or two between naps, but he just couldn't stand it. The medics knew it too, as the chaos gradually organized itself between their daily visits, but said nothing. They knew that Zell had to be able to move; hence his confinement to quarters rather than a more prudent stay in Garden's Infirmary.

His only chatting partner was Griever, who wasn't feeling all that talkative apparently. Zell felt keenly the loss of Laguna; the two of them had more than once had talks that lasted until dawn - or until Kiros or Ward pointedly reminded Laguna of an early meeting. Laguna had been a very comfortable person to be around; he'd made his friends feel like they could talk about anything at all. The only person who had ever been uncomfortable around the President of Esthar was Squall. It was amazing to Zell that the two were related, though they did have one thing in common. They both inspired a fanatical loyalty. Even though his last letter had gently teased Zell not to mourn or worry, Zell was still tempted to put Griever on to tell Laguna he was sorry he hadn't been able to save him.

So Zell kept up a running monologue as he cleaned, the invitation open for Griever to put in a comment here or there if it so desired. Generally, it didn't - and when it did, Zell thought he could detect Rinoa's sympathetic influence in the purred words.

He was just finishing organizing his combat magazines when there was a gentle knock at his door. Checking the wall clock, he realized he'd been free to go for a few hours now - so this was probably one of his friends. Cautiously he opened the door enough to peek out; if it was Seifer being subtle, he wanted to be able to shut the door fast. He was very relieved to find out his visitor was Irvine.

"Hey man," he said, tipping his hat with a grin. "We'd'a bugged you sooner, only Kadowaki said she'd have our ears." He peeked around the room. "And by the look of it, she'll probably have yours. When did you become a neat freak?"

Zell laughed. "Since Laguna's servants kept screwing with my mess, Irvine. Give me time, I'll get out of the habit eventually. C'mon in."

Irvine hadn't changed his style much, still in his habitual western-style gear and ponytail. He swished into the room and took a seat on the chair, eyeing Zell critically. "You look pretty good, given the shape you were in when you got here. I thought the medics were nuts to let you loose in your room so soon, but it looks like they were right."

Zell shrugged. "I kept busy in Esthar, and I don't remember the condition I was in when I got here. How did I get back, anyway? Last thing I remember, the gunman'd perforated me, and I heard Laguna yelp..." He'd probably hear that startled yelp in his dreams for a while, too. Irvine gripped his shoulder in sympathy.

"S'okay, man. You probably would've won a whole string of medals if you'd been military for the hits you took. The guy in question had a fully automatic repeater, and he emptied his clip into you two. You were actually in IC in Esthar for a day or so, until they were sure they could move you. By that time, o'course, everybody knew Laguna was dead, and that meant your contract was up. So I came and got ya in the Ragnarok. Man, you looked like wax-papered hamburger, you were so beat up. You were in the Infirmary for oh, about four more days before they let you loose in here." He leaned his chair back and stared up at his friend.

" weren't issued a GF for bodyguard duty, and you're up and about from near death in a week-and-five. S'posin' you tell me just how you pulled that off? Nobody's complaining you're alive, you know. It's just that's a good trick to have, in SeeD."

Zell jumped onto his bed and assumed his favorite thinking position - which was on his back, with his legs flatly vertical against the wall. From this upside-down position, his hair looked like it was merely obeying gravity as he regarded Irvine.

"Irv, you here in any sort of official capacity?" he asked. "I mean, like Garden Master's eyes-and-ears, or anything like that?"

Irvine crossed his arms over his chest, his face almost obscured by his hat as he bowed his head. "I don't keep secrets from Sefie, if that's what ya mean," he said. "But we're all friends, right? You come across something in Esthar you wouldn't share with us?"

Zell caught a whiff of surprise from Griever as Irvine mentioned Selphie, but nothing more substantive. Since he'd already been proven a lousy liar, he opted for honesty. "I don't know, Irv," he said slowly. "After all the stuff that went down here, I'm not sure I should hang around any longer than I have to."

"Hyne, you're grim today," said Irvine lightly. "I'd never have thought being shot would take you down so far. Look - you're going to have to spill the beans sooner or later. We're your friends - we're just too damn nosy to leave off, you know? And you've been gone a helluva long time. What say I just fill you in on the local scene, and you can keep your secrets until you can tell everyone at once, ok? Fewer repetitions that way."

Zell stretched, catlike, up the wall - until he was almost in a handstand. "Sure," he said. "Fire away - oh, wait. Selphie left me a message about a standing order for a party?"

Irvine laughed at the picture Zell made, upside down against the wall. "Yeah, she's been itching for an excuse to throw one. Managing Garden's finances is not what you'd call Sef's idea of excitement. I'm just supposed to keep you busy until tonight. Even brought lunch with me." And he produced a small basket, hidden under his long coat.

"Nah, I'm good to go for now," demurred Zell. "Come on - tell me about Garden, and why the hell you're still here when King Pain-in-the-Ass is wandering the dorms."

"By the Brother's beards, you're just never going to leave Seifer alone, are you?" asked Irvine wonderingly. "He's been pretty well behaved, considering it's him. Hasn't caused any trouble at all."

Zell scowled, which looked rather odd considering his upside-down posture. "Use your head. He hasn't caused any trouble where you can see it. Bastard already said hello a few days ago, nearly put me back in the Infirmary. Don't ask me to play nice around him, it ain't gonna happen."

Irvine leaned back. "That so? I do know the security cameras for the dorms went out for a while a few days ago, but we thought it was just another cadet trying to sneak a date into his room. All right, I'll use your phrase; as far as we can tell, he's been okay. And he hasn't given any of the gang any grief, apart from you apparently. Seems odd he'd ruin his good record just to rough you up though. What'd he want?"

Damn. "Same thing you just asked me," Zell admitted. "Wanted to know how I got out of the Infirmary so fast." You could have healed me a little slower, you know, he thought at Griever. Now everybody's curious. I'm gonna have to tell 'em, there's no real way around it.

Then do so, came the calm reply. But as to healing you - would you rather have died? I'm sure it can be arranged if that's what you'd honestly prefer. Laguna would love to have your company. Around the teasing words Zell could detect a genuine concern; Griever had healed him because it cared about him, and hadn't bothered much with worrying about the consequences.

Smart-ass, Zell shot back, though without real rancor, then returned his attention to Irvine, who was watching him intently.

"Yeah, I can see Seifer wanting to know that," said Irvine. "Everybody does. Oh, yeah - he's gotten real buddy-buddy with Xu since he made SeeD. She's had him researching GFs, to make sure they're not a danger to SeeDs. Nobody's been allowed to junction since the execution."

Zell's eyebrows went up, which meant they were almost lost in the blankets of his bed. "Researching GFs? You mean like Alicia and Odine? I saw the way those two ended up, man, same as you. Not a field I'd go into, myself."

"No, not like Alicia and Odine. Nobody's summoned a GF or done anything to 'em. They're all...wherever they go. No, she's had Seifer reading books and asking questions. He's asked enough questions by now that if he had answers to half of them he'd be an expert on the things."

"They're not things," Zell replied automatically, then grimaced. This keeping secrets thing was harder than it looked. His slip was confirmed when Irvine tipped his hat, grinning.

"All right," said Irvine. "You're awfully touchy about GFs. Where'd you find the one you have? We thought we had them all."

Zell sighed. No way out now. "Can that wait till tonight, since you won't keep a secret and I apparently can't? If I have to spill the story, I'd rather just do it once. But...if you can....could you keep Xu and Seifer away? Just...just friends, all right?"

Irvine nodded. "All right. Just friends," he agreed.

Why not Seifer? asked Griever. He already knows, after all, and excluding him will just make him come back here. Unless you're planning on having us tear him to shreds?

Not Seifer, cause I can't stand the bastard, said Zell. He could be the fount and source of all knowledge and I'd still want him on the other side of Garden.

Have it your way, replied Griever. You seem to be as talented at annoying him as he is at annoying you.

I learned from the best, replied Zell, and was rewarded with a mental sound that was half growl, half purr. Griever was laughing.

"Come on, get yourself vertical - properly vertical," Irvine corrected himself. "It's time to go say hi."

Zell kicked his legs down and flipped himself upright, standing still for a moment as his blood flow readjusted, then nodded. Irvine held the door for him as they headed for the Cafeteria.

Chapter 3