Chapter 3 Party

The Cafeteria was abuzz with activity when Irvine escorted Zell in. Selphie had spared no expense, it seemed, and anyone Zell could even vaguely remember from his days in Garden - right down to the students he'd taught hand-to-hand combat - were there. The jukebox had been specially packed with punk rock, his favorite musical style, and there were hot dogs aplenty for a change.

Hardly a standard welcome for a SeeD returning from a failed assignment, but then as part of the orphanage gang, Zell was not a standard SeeD. Rather than making any announcements that the guest of honor had arrived, they just let Zell say hi to everyone he could remember himself. And wherever he passed, the party got into full swing.

The best welcome was from Bella, of course. It had been more than a year since he'd seen her last, and the shy SeeD had blossomed into a confident warrior. He charged her, and swept her off her feet in a spin as he hugged her. "Missed you," he said redundantly.

She traced the blackflame tattoo on his cheek with a twinkle in her hazel eyes. "Missed you too, scamp," she whispered. "I got back just in time to get Selphie's invite."

"What were you doing in Galbadia, anyway?" he asked, curious.

"Later. Hopefully in your room?"

"Anytime," said Zell. "Though the bed's smaller than we're used to." He grinned. "You been keeping up with the yoga?"

Bella blushed. "Yeah. Look your friends are gonna mob you in a minute. Should I come back later on?"

Zell grinned more widely. "Hell no. You're one of us now, you can come too." And he took her hand firmly in his own as the 'mob' descended on him, all his friends saying hello at once and giving him hugs like he might disappear any minute. He did the best he could to keep track of who said what, but eventually had to tell everyone to calm down. Such an order, coming from Zell, sent the whole lot of them laughing. He rolled his eyes, pretending to be exasperated.

"Only got two ears, you know," he said. "And life in Esthar was pretty quiet."

"Then why stay?" asked Irvine. "You like the quiet life like I like life on a deserted island with no bikini-clad girls." and he ducked as Selphie playfully whacked him with a pillow.

"Cause Laguna asked me to," shrugged Zell. "He was a really cool guy. And I got free run of the place, and anytime I wanted I could help 'em clean up the Lunar Cry." He did not say that he'd actually spent a lot of time doing that; the price of Griever's company was constant combat.

Quistis stared at him quietly. She knew that the pleasure of Laguna's company was not why he had accepted that assignment, but she said nothing.

Selphie grinned. "You have to tell me everything about Sir Laguna, Zell," she said. "If I hadn't had so much to do as Garden Master, I'd have fought you for that assignment."

"Hey now," said Irvine, looking hurt. "Don't I get a look-in?"

Selphie put her arms around him and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. "Of course you do, sweetie. It's just a little hero-worship, okay? It's not like he's competition."

Thinking of his friend killed a little of the fun, and Zell couldn't keep it from showing. "He was...a good friend, Selphie," he said at last. "Could we kinda talk about this later, after I've had time to adjust?"

"Of course, Zell," said Quistis. "There was something else we wanted to ask you about, anyway. What really happened to Squall and Rinoa? It was ten years ago, so you should be able to talk about it now."

"You did say you'd tell us about it when we were all together," reminded Irvine, getting comfortable.

"Hyne, you guys sure know how to kill a party," grumbled Zell. Friends all around, hot dogs, and great music...all of it suddenly pointless. He blew out a long breath. "All right, but I gotta get some promises from you guys first."

"Do we get to know what we're promising?" asked Quistis slowly.

Zell gave her a hard look. "Depends. If you are their friends, you'll promise. If you're not their friends, I'm not telling." There was clear accusation in his tone; he had not forgotten that Squall had been close to being tried for treason. "You gotta promise that you aren't going to do anything about anything I tell you - you gotta promise to let me handle it the way they told me to."

Irvine tipped his hat up to get a clear look at Zell's face. "Man, it's gotta be serious," he said. "Well, I have the least at stake so I'll go first. I promise, Zell. Whatever they told you, you can handle it. Okay? But you better tell me all of it, 'cause all this promising stuff is getting me really curious."

Quistis and Selphie shared a long look, but slowly nodded their agreement. "Though we're not sure we should," said Quistis. "We'll promise as a last favor."

Zell nodded. "Okay," he said. "The first thing is, they're not dead." For a moment he felt like a rabbit surrounded by wolves, as his friends' eyes locked on to him. He had their complete attention, and at that exact moment he wasn't at all sure he wanted it. "They...damn." He took a deep breath. "They chose to become Griever again, for good. Griever's with me."

"But...why?" asked Selphie. "Squall was fine after we beat Alicia. Why would they become Griever when Ultimecia will get them?"

"I owed Squall for lots of things," said Zell. "I didn't ask. But when Seifer asked him, he said the benefits outweighed the risks if they could save the SeeD of Ultimecia's time."

Quistis was tapping her lips thoughtfully with one finger. "I think I can guess what the 'benefits' might be," she said. "But what makes them think they can change what we saw? The SeeD were dead at the base of Ultimecia's castle. And Griever was her servant."

Zell shrugged. "Squall told me after we beat Alicia that they knew things, as Griever. Said we shouldn't take what we saw at face value."

"Then why not tell us, and be done with it?" asked Irvine. "He was our friend, if he said there was more to it than met the eye, that'd be that, wouldn't it?"

Zell just crossed his arms over his chest and levelled a glare at Quistis. "He said he couldn't trust SeeD any more. Even if he hadn't gone with Rinoa into Griever, he wasn't going to come back to Garden."

Selphie and Irvine looked from Zell to Quistis, who had bowed her head and gone very still. "Yes," she said quietly. "I can see where he might think that." She sounded like she might be close to tears, and when she raised her head her eyes were too bright from holding them back. "If you have Griever, then they can hear me. Xu asked me, after we executed Mikhal, where my loyalty lay - with Garden or with Squall." She looked down at her hands again. "I admitted Seifer back into Garden because I realized that it lay with Squall. I could not have fought him, or Rinoa either."

So Seifer being in Garden is your fault alone, Zell thought to Griever. She wouldn't have done it if you hadn't asked.

That is not what she said, growled Griever. She said she admitted Seifer because she could not fight us. She was planning on having Seifer on hand in case a fight was needed. As we suspected, when we heard of her agreement.

So Quistis had obeyed Squall with the intention of training his possible executioner? To Zell, this made no sense - but it did seem that Griever might have a better handle on Quistis than he did. Both Rinoa and Squall had gotten to know Quistis pretty well, though for different reasons.

"So...what actually happened?" asked Irvine. "Squall decided he couldn't go back to Garden, so he turned into a GF and hid in your brain for ten years?" He looked completely baffled.

"They both wanted it," said Zell. "I didn't ask them why, but that morning...I mean, it wasn't like he was dancing or anything, but Squall was happy. Rinoa...Hyne, Rinoa practically glowed. They became Griever because they wanted to, because it made them happy. I didn't need any other reason out of them. They were my friends."

"You mean you watched it happen?" asked Selphie.

"Me an' Laguna," Zell nodded. "Just us. They didn't want a lot of witnesses."

"And now they're with you..." Selphie mused. "Can you call them out? Like Xu did when she wanted to talk to Eden?"

Zell shrugged. Well? he asked.

No. It is better if they just accept us as being dead. Griever's tone was flat, final.

I could summon you, I think, Zell hazarded.

You don't want to try that. Unless you want them dead, Griever growled. Zell took the hint.

"Griever doesn't want to say hi," he said to their disappointed faces. "Griever isn't exactly either one of them, see. It's more sort of...both of them. At once. Sometimes I'll hear from just one or the other, but not often. I think they didn't like Seifer forcing Squall to talk to him."

"Seifer did what?" asked Quistis, eyebrows in her hairline. "When did this happen?"

"When I wasn't supposed to have visitors," Zell grumbled, and detailed the conversation - leaving out the ring. "Seifer forced Squall to speak on his own, 'cause I couldn't fight back. He couldn't do it for long, though, and it was days before Griever said anything to me again."

"Well...there goes his exemplary record, or at least it would if we could tell Xu about this," said Quistis. "But we're promised not to. And it might be wisest; Xu is very suspicious of Guardian Forces right now. Griever's presence certainly would not help that."

"I'm wondering who Seifer has in mind to take Zell's place," mused Irvine. "Seems a helluva concession for Griever to make."

Zell shrugged. "Griever isn't exactly Squall or Rinoa. It hasn't got the same priorities. As long as the person's willing to fight and a SeeD, Griever doesn't seem to care."

"Willing to fight and a SeeD?" asked Selphie. "Kinda odd criteria."

"Griever doesn't want to have to serve Ultimecia," said Zell. "It thinks that if it can grow strong enough, it can save itself. If it's junctioned to a SeeD, it figures it can take SeeD with it. I don't know if it would be as talkative with anyone else, though."

"Well, it is at least a worthy goal," mused Quistis. "Though I have to say I would have preferred it if Squall and Rinoa could have held off longer. This assassination business...we could have used their help with that."

"That's mine," said Zell flatly, and found Bella gripping his arm. He turned to her. "Laguna was my friend," he said. "I couldn't save him. I wanna get to the bottom of this so I can pay back whoever did it."

"Then I am going with you," said Bella. "Ten years of waiting is very much long enough."

Zell grinned and gave her a kiss. "Fine by me," he said, and turned to Selphie. "Anyone approached Garden about hiring an investigative team?"

"Of course," said Selphie. "Even if this were an inside job we'd be offered the investigation, because Laguna was widely recognized and loved, and Garden is known to be impartial. But you'll have to talk to Xu to get assigned the mission."

Zell groaned, remembering. "Shit, Seifer said he'd pair me up with his idea of a successor the minute I was cleared. I bet he's got someone on this job already, 'cause he'd know I'd want to be involved. Any of you have any ideas who he'd have in mind?"

None of the group had any idea who Seifer might have in mind. Zell sighed. "All right - are you guys all filled in now? I mean, there's hot dogs and good stuff on the jukebox, and I for one could do with having a little fun."

"Go have your fun, Zell," said Quistis. "Though how you dance to that racket is beyond me."

"Just watch and learn, Quistis," grinned Zell, as he and Bella headed for the dance floor - or at least, where the dance floor was vaguely visible below the crowd.

"Energetic, isn't he," Irvine said mildly after a while, watching the flexible couple dancing to the fast-paced music.

Selphie shrugged. "Just 'cause you like listening to old stuff, doesn't mean everyone has to." The musical warfare between Selphie's taste in heavy metal, and Irvine's liking for country, had become a staple of Garden life.

"I miss the waltzes, myself," said Quistis sadly, and left the room.

* * * * * * * *

Much later, Zell lay awake on his bed, one arm protectively curled around Bella as she slept nestled against him. Griever's presence had faded as much as it could when he'd gotten back to his room with her in his arms - SeeDs being allowed to visit each other at any hour - per a request made by Zell a long time ago. Griever couldn't disappear entirely while junctioned, but it could tune out until called - the way all other GFs worked.

But now he wanted to talk to it, so he sent out a mental request. Hey, Griever?


Why didn't you want to talk to the others, earlier? I mean, you spoke to Seifer...they would've loved to hear from you. And, by the way, I did not appreciate the offer to smear them.

Zell, we are not the people they knew. You know that better than any. And we can't...separate. Not until after Ultimecia's defeat. We would lose all the power we gained from the ring, and all that we have learned in the past decade. Squall had to pull himself away from us to speak to Seifer as he did; it was an action not without cost to us, and only done to spare you further punishment at Seifer's hands, since you did not want us to kill him. We will not go through that again to ease anyone's guilt.

You mean you can separate? Be just Squall and Rinoa again? Zell frowned. Guys...I never asked before. Why did you do this? Couldn't you have waited until you were both old and grey to become Griever?

There was only silence for his answer for several minutes. When Griever spoke again, the voices of Squall and Rinoa were much clearer. Zell...when we joined in Odine's lab, we found out what it was to be complete. You love Bella, don't you? But you could be apart from her for ten years. We...couldn't do that. Separating, that first time after Alicia was felt like all the joy in the world was taken from us, like a wall had been built between us. We tell you in all honesty: once we had tasted what it was to be together, we could not have survived apart. The choices were to live together in Griever, or to die and be together in eternity.

Given what's probably going to happen to you, Zell thought carefully, why choose Griever?

Because it is not inevitable that we serve Ultimecia. And in eternity, all emotion is muted. There would still have been a wall, it would just have been a different wall.

So I'm basically forwarding the cause of great romance, here? asked Zell. You did this just out of love?

Griever made the growl-purr sound that was its laughter. Yes and no, Zell. Love set the timing, but we believed it was inevitable that we would become Griever again, knowing what it was to live this way. You know what SeeD life is like; it was only a matter of time before one of us would be wounded badly enough so that the choice was either to become Griever or be separated. Leviathan was just one trial among many; remember Adel? The space station? Time compression? The D-District prison? - We chose to become Griever as soon as possible not only out of love, but to give ourselves that much more time to grow strong. The stronger we are, the greater the chance we can keep ourselves out of Ultimecia's clutches, and possibly save a few SeeDs in the process. And in the meantime, we've saved your hide at least a dozen times. We will help to make SeeD as strong as it can be, as it does for us.

Even though you don't trust Garden or SeeD?

It is an alliance born of necessity, Zell. We can, perhaps, save each other. So it behooves us to try. You will have an early day tomorrow, and your Bella misses you. Get some rest.

Taking that as a dismissal, Zell tucked his head into Bella's shoulder and quickly fell asleep.

* * * * * * *

Zell woke when Bella stirred, unused to having anyone in his bed when he woke. Especially not when the narrowness of the bunk meant he was jammed up against the wall to make room for her. Out of its characteristic ponytail, Bella's short dark hair tumbled off the edge of the bunk as softly as it spilled around her shoulders. Fascinated, he watched her slowly rouse from sleep. In the ten years he'd been on assignment, she had only been able to wrangle a few weeks with him every few years or so, but his feelings toward her hadn't changed.

In all honesty, Zell admitted to himself, his feelings toward everyone were pretty much the same. Good people were good people, and bad people were bad people; that never changed. So he saw no reason why his feelings toward them would, either. Bella struck people as being shy and hesitant, but Zell had never seen her waver in a fight. And it was amazing how much she learned when people spoke; they often acted like she wasn't there, she was so quiet. Bella's combat specialty was with the shuriken, but her team designation had been changed to information specialist; if there was something that could be known, she was an expert at ferreting it out. It struck him that he could ask her to be assigned to the Laguna investigation in that capacity; he'd get to work with her. That would be a nice change. And he had said she could go with him this time.

Then he remembered Seifer, and wondered who else would be joining the party. He glanced up at the wall clock; it was time to get ready for another visit to Xu, and then hopefully he could get his tail out of Garden. He leaned over and gave Bella a kiss; it was one of the nicest ways he knew of to wake someone up. She seemed to agree, hazel eyes flashing open and combat-trained reflexes wrapping her arms around him in a fierce hug.

"Mrng," Zell mumbled into her lips. It was the best he could manage in the awkward position she'd pinned him into.

Bella laughed and kissed him back, then let him go. "Morning to you too," she said cheerfully. "New assignment starts today. You too?"

"Yeah," said Zell, surprised. He sat up and ran his hand through his short blond hair. "Thought you wanted to go with me? Where's your new assignment?"

Bella bounced off the bunk and headed for the shower. "Silly," she said. "I knew you were going to try for the Laguna investigation as soon as I heard it was offered, which was before you were let off bed rest. I got Seifer to get me assigned, and you too. You're just checking out today - you don't need to request assignment." She set the water going and stepped into the shower.

Zell was torn between wanting to ask about the assignment and Seifer, and thoughts of Bella naked in his shower. It had been a very long time since he'd seen her last. He settled for joining her in the shower, and asking his questions while making absolutely certain she was completely clean. And since he was there, she returned the favor. It was one of the most enjoyable showers Zell had managed to have in some years.

In between the soap suds, Zell learned that Seifer had approached Bella himself and requested her assignment, and that he'd been aware that Zell would be interested. This would have made Zell's hair stand on end if the mousse hadn't already taken care of that; it sounded suspiciously like Seifer was being nice. Seifer being nice was like bombs not exploding when you dropped them; it meant something was horribly wrong with the world.

However, since Seifer would undoubtedly take the price out of his hide, and it was something he did want, he opted to enjoy the good side while it was available. He ended up dressing in haste, grabbing a SeeD uniform since his old clothes were rather shabby or still in Esthar. He hated the uniform - the embroidery was incredibly stiff, and Zell prized flexibility over all other criteria in clothes - but it would probably please Seifer. This morning would be a good morning to please Seifer, since the man was holding way too many cards Zell needed. Bella elected to join him in formality, making sure her ponytail was neat and that her uniform had no wrinkles (it had been in an overnight bag she'd brought to his room).

The two decided to race to the Commander's office just for the hell of it, though Seifer still had control of the Disciplinary Committee. Life could get really hairy really quickly, and if Zell knew anything it was that you took your good times where you found them.

Chapter 4