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Chapter 15 Exchange

Irvine had to concentrate to see through the swirling purple-silver chaos all around him.

"Irvine!" came Rinoa's voice. "You must help! Follow my voice until you reach us..."

There followed wordless singing; quite beautiful if one wasn't trying to keep one's brains from bleeding out of one's ears. Irvine had already gone past regretting coming here, and was starting to regret ever having met up with the orphanage gang again by the time he found them.

Rinoa was practically pulsing with power, gray Sorceress wings unfurled and sparks leaping from them as her amber-gold Griever eyes glowed like twin suns. She looked every inch the supernatural being that she was, her hair flying back from her face as though in a gale. She stopped her singing as soon as she saw him, and closed her eyes in a pose of intense concentration.

Squall was just sitting there, oblivious to the chaos around him as he stared straight ahead. His eyes were not Griever's eyes, Irvine noted - only the gray, human orbs they ought to be. Irvine immediately came to quite a number of conclusions.

"He's doing this, isn't he," he shouted over the swirling chaos.

Rinoa nodded. "I can't hold the power of Griever alone," she said - her voice having no trouble carrying above the din with the power of a Guardian Force behind it. "It's not supposed to work like this - it's supposed to be shared between us. I'll try to calm things down, but I can't make promises."

She spread out her arms and lightning flashed from her fingertips into the silver-purple maelstrom. Again and again she sent out power, until the chaos died down. But as it did so, Squall leaped to his feet and paced like a lion in a zoo cage, fists clenched at his sides.

Rinoa shook her head. "I can't control everything alone," she said in the sudden silence. "If I stop the storm, he rages. If I hold him still, the chaos returns. I can't do both, Irvine - not and keep his madness from affecting me too."

"What madness?" said Irvine, surprised. "He's just pacing - nothing major to worry about."

Rinoa's expression twisted momentarily into one of uncharacteristic rage, and she put her face in her hands for a moment. "It is not just pacing, Irvine. He's trying to break the bond - he's trying to leave Griever. If I thought he knew what he was doing, I'd let him go. But he doesn't. I can hear his thoughts and he hasn't got the slightest clue what he's doing, to himself or to me."

"So you've taken his half of the power..." said Irvine. "How long can you do that?"

"Not long," said Rinoa. "I'm already almost at my limit. With his half of Griever's power he could destroy a good part of the world, Irvine. I'm sorry I have to drag you into this, but you are the only one I can grab."

Irvine didn't like the sound of that. "Drag me into what?" he asked suspiciously.

"I'm going to have to make you my Knight," said Rinoa seriously. "We've learned a lot about how all this works, both on our own and from the other Guardian Forces who are allied with us, such as Diablos. If you agree, I can make you my Knight and you can temporarily take Squall's place in Griever - spreading out the power and saving both of us. But it won't be easy on you."

Irvine's eyes went wide. "Hey now, I'm all for doing my best in a good cause, but I'm a spoken-for guy," he protested. "I can't be anyone's Knight, I've got Sefie to think of."

"Are you my friend, Irvine?" asked Rinoa seriously. She pointed to where Squall paced, oblivious. "Are you his friend? He doesn't think you are, you know. He still gets things like love and friendship wrong if he thinks about them, and that's part of the problem."

"I'm not his friend?" said Irvine, incredulous. "Me? I didn't go around deserting everyone and leaving behind phony tales of my death, and refuse to say one decent word of explanation when I got caught out." He snapped his mouth shut and shook his head. "No, I promised I'd try to let that go and I will. But he's got a lot of nerve, I'll say that. I'm his friend, Rinoa - and I'm yours. Hyne knows why, but if I weren't your friend I wouldn't be here in the first place."

"Then take my hand and be my Knight," said Rinoa. "There's a lot I can't explain about this - but you'll understand if you do it. Believe me when I say I wouldn't be asking this if I had anything like a choice. I can't risk letting Griever go crazy, Irvine - and I don't think you can risk it either." She held out her hand, and waited for Irvine to accept or refuse.

He stared at it for a moment, then said, "All right - but you get to be the one to explain this to Sefie, and I don't care if Zell has to transfer the junction for you to do it."

"Agreed," said Rinoa as he took her hand.

* * * * * * * *

The hotel room had been quiet, as Noddy and the SeeDs caught a few hours of rest after a very long day and night. All of them knew they couldn't wait too long before hunting Detmer out, but in some cases it had been twenty-four hours since their last sleep.

Selphie was sleeping in an overstuffed chair in the sitting room; partially because Noddy had her bed, and partly so that she could come awake if anything happened to Irvine. He'd told her once about the Dreams he'd had of his adopted parents, before coming to Garden, so she knew that he'd wake up normally if nothing went wrong.

But when he was little he had never wanted to speak to anyone but his folks - and they wouldn't hurt him. Going shouting after Guardian Forces had to be a lot riskier, even when the Guardian was your friend. Zell's warning comments worried her; she remembered all too keenly the dents Squall had made in the Ragnarok.

So Selphie was the first to know that something was really wrong, as a bright light filled the room. She blinked, bleary-eyed, and at first thought someone had just switched the light on. But as her eyes adjusted, she realized it wasn't coming from overhead - it was coming from Irvine's couch. She heard movement, and saw Zell standing groggily in the doorway, sleepy-eyed and rumpled.

When the light faded, it wasn't Irvine sleeping on the couch - it was Squall, looking exactly as he had on the day he entered Griever, exactly as Zell had seen him in eternity. His face wore an expression of pain, but it was definitely Squall sleeping there.

Selphie's first reaction was to stumble over and reach out - fully intent on waking him up and demanding to know what happened to Irvine. But Zell held out his hand. "Griever says you can't touch him. He mustn't -"

* * * * * *

"wake up," said Irvine and Rinoa together. "Zell - tell her that if he wakes right now, people will get hurt. We are fine - you can hear that we are fine. We'll explain as soon as we can."

The two minds struggled to find a balance; unlike the previous setup there was no love to smooth the way. All there was to work with was an abiding friendship - enough common ground to forge a bond, but only just.

It had happened in a split second that nevertheless seemed years long.

Rinoa had been right when she said he would understand after taking her hand. He felt her love for Squall, all-encompassing and fierce in its protectiveness. He shared her memories, and knew everything she had endured for Squall's sake - which had been a great deal more than he'd thought. He knew everything about Rinoa, her entire life, all her hopes and dreams and fears. He didn't love Rinoa, though. All that he saw deepened his friendship, but it did not inspire love. He knew, too, that she saw his whole life laid out before her, and had come to pretty much the same conclusion. She wasn't a lover, and never would be - but she was a sister. In the joining, Irvine finally adjusted his mental categories to include Rinoa as 'one of us'.

It wasn't anywhere near as powerful a bond as the one she shared with Squall - but it was strong enough to hold them together as Griever. At least for now. He wasn't sure how long he could handle constantly hearing her thoughts in the back of his mind. It was highly distracting - yet he knew from her that it was part of the price one paid to be a Guardian Force, and further that she had minimized the Joining as far as she could to spare him. It would only work while they were here, though. Better hope a summoning wasn't needed back in the waking world.

"He's still my Knight," said Rinoa as she watched Squall pace - much calmer now that she did not have to fight off his rage. "One of the things we learned was that Sorceresses can have more than one. This is one of the reasons why - now we can both reach him."

"I'm not sure I like the idea of poking around in Squall's head," said Irvine reluctantly. "And I'm almost positive that he wouldn't like the idea any better."

Rinoa frowned at him. "Do you think I like this any more than you do? I'm doing what I have to do, Irvine. For his sake, and for Griever's sake, and even for his children's sake."

Irvine's eyes went wide. "Shit, he's in the real world now! We can't let him wake up like this, not with Noddy in the room. I forgot all about the poor kid!"

"Exactly," said Rinoa. "He doesn't know what to do - that's the source of all this in a nutshell. Too many things tie in to the children's existence for him to sort them out, and he wasn't exactly stable to start with."

Irvine frowned, but picked the clarification up from Rinoa's mind: an image of Squall kneeling before Alicia in Odine's lab, so lost in a mental nightmare that even a dagger thrown into his stomach didn't register.

"I'm going to set him free," said Rinoa. "In the real world, he'll be able to do something. I hope we can hold together long enough for him to do what he needs to and return."

"But how will you get through?" asked Irvine. "He's out of the loop - and he has to be really out of it if he can be removed from you without noticing."

Rinoa chuckled, but there was little true mirth in it. "That was less of a problem than you might think," she said. "Irvine...these children are his, but they aren't mine. He's ashamed to even think of involving me - as though he would be punishing me somehow to even ask me. He had already done most of the job of separating us himself. I can't make him understand that I would love them simply because they are his - that they don't have to be the children of my body, to be the children of my heart. He's still not sure if it's acceptable for him to love them as his own, without involving me."

"Of course it is," said Irvine automatically. "Why wouldn't he?"

Rinoa just shook her head. "Words...he's right, after all. There aren't words for the important things. Come on - if you believe so strongly, you'll be a big help." She smiled impishly, genuine laughter in her voice for the first time. "You're going to have to touch, Irvine. I hope you're not as finicky about it as he is."

"I never was," said Irvine equably. "It wasn't the 'touching Squall' that got me worried. It was the 'touching Squall and getting my teeth knocked in' that always decided things."

Rinoa walked in front of Squall's route, caught his hands in her own, and wished away his gloves. She looked into his eyes and he froze.

Oh yes, much easier when he doesn't have Griever's power to draw on, came her thought in Irvine's mind. Take his other hand; he can't hurt you now even if he wanted to. Rinoa's mental voice sounded a little sad, regret perhaps for having to do things this way.

Irvine shot her a glance, just making sure that yes this was what they had to do, and gingerly took his friend's hand.

This was not the enveloping presence of Rinoa; Squall's psyche was chaos - the raging storm that had been all around when he first arrived. Now the storm wasn't just random chaos; it was a flurry of thoughts and images blending into each other over and over and over again.

...I can't kill them (gunblade flashing down on the Diablos-girl's neck) but I can't let them live (Noddy shooting needles at Irvine) I can't let them die (Selphie, Zell, and Bella fighting children with everything they had) but I never wanted them to be born (leering faces blending into each other, humiliation, pain) and now they're here I can't let them go (Noddy eating pizza with Zell) but I can't take them away from the only parent they know (Noddy talking about 'daddy', Laguna standing in a doorway saying 'I meant to come back for you') when I can't be there for them (Griever roaring, the empty lands of eternity) and I can't live alone (Rinoa) but I can't ask her to help me with children that aren't hers (bright room, leering faces, and Alicia taunting in his mind)...

Each thought and image blended into another, repeating in an endless cycle. Irvine sent Rinoa a thought; Okay, I think this is one instance where the phrase 'I had no idea' might actually have some merit. Rinoa, he is gonna hate my guts for the rest of his life for you showing me this.

Irvine, you already know that I'd rather he hate you forever, than that he not be alive to hate you forever, came Rinoa's acerbic response.

There is that, agreed Irvine. Can he hear us?

Only when we want him to. I wanted you to get an idea what's wrong first. You have Griever's power to back you now - any suggestions?

Irvine considered. He knew that the only other person in their group who even halfway shared his views on family was Zell; Squall had been a loner far too long for him to easily fold himself into his family by the time he found it again. That seemed to be the problem, as Rinoa had said; Squall didn't understand family - didn't know where to place it in his list of priorities.

He knew where to place Rinoa though, didn't he? Right at the top of the list, right where she should be. Rinoa had become his family - he just needed to be persuaded to extend the definition a little.

I'm not 'family' to him, Irvine, came Rinoa's thought. I know how he feels about me - he regards me as a part of himself. He can't do that with these children - not given the way they came into the world.

Is there any way I can see how he sees things? asked Irvine, and grimaced. I can not believe I just said that. But if you're bonded to him, and I'm bonded to you, there's got to be some leeway to work with here.

Try and see, said Rinoa with the mental equivalent of a shrug. It's not like I've got a lot of practice at having multiple Knights. I'm working on hearsay here.

Wonderful, thought Irvine sarcastically. Well, there wasn't a lot of time. Squall wasn't listening to Rinoa - pretty strange in and of itself, but given the general overall weirdness of the situation possibly understandable. He wasn't sure he'd be able to look Selphie in the eye if it were him in Squall's shoes. But that meant that if things were going to be all right, it was up to him to make it that way.

Time for some tough love, buddy, thought Irvine, and tried to force himself into Squall's mind. Payback time for that sucker punch on the Ragnarok.

* * * * * * * *

Irvine was back in the chaos this time, images and thoughts floating around randomly. Frightening as it was, Irvine recognized that it was probably worse for Squall; the guy was almost pathologically organized.

...I can't kill them (gunblade flashing down on the Diablos-girl's neck) but I can't let them live (Noddy shooting needles at Irvine) I can't let them die (Selphie, Zell, and Bella fighting children with everything they had) but I never wanted them to be born (leering faces blending into each other, humiliation, pain) and now they're here I can't let them go (Noddy eating pizza with Zell) but I can't take them away from the only parent they know (Noddy talking about 'daddy', Laguna standing in a doorway saying 'I meant to come back for you') when I can't be there for them (Griever roaring, the empty lands of eternity) and I can't live alone (Rinoa) but I can't ask her to help me with children that aren't hers (bright room, leering faces, and Alicia taunting in his mind)...

That was it. That was what he needed - to force Squall to organize himself again. He grabbed an image at random, willing it to be solid. It turned out to be the one that flashed by when he thought of taking the children away from Detmer. A double image of Noddy, and Laguna. Looking at the two faces, he could begin to see why - Noddy's looks were a lot like Laguna's. The rest of the reason was painfully clear; Squall didn't want to do as his father had done - abandoning his children - but within Griever he didn't really have a lot of choice. Nor could he leave them with Detmer, though the man had been a decent father to them - Detmer was involved in the assassination of Laguna. Laguna, who was their grandfather. Hoo boy.

"Squall, buddy, did you ever get the impression that someone Up There just hates your guts?" asked Irvine. He hadn't spoken very loudly, but it was enough that Squall was suddenly aware of his presence. The chaos swirled more angrily, more quickly, more loudly - and in the middle of it was an image of Squall himself, furious. One fist was clenched - the other was wrapped around the hilt of LionHeart, ready to draw it.

"Get out of my head," he growled. There was a pure fury in his eyes that far outweighed the offense; something had touched a nerve here.

"No can do, my friend," said Irvine. "You're pulling too many people down with you - this has got to stop. Now." For emphasis, Irvine took the image he held in his hand, and broke it over his knee. Squall winced. Then his eyes narrowed.

"How did you get here?" he demanded. "You shouldn't -" his eyes widened in shock as he stared at Irvine. "No...she's chosen... you? Rinoa!" he stared upward, shouted. "Rinoa!" There was genuine hurt in his voice, a complete lack of understanding.

Rinoa appeared, standing beside Irvine. "I had to, Squall," she said sadly. "This," and she waved a hand at the chaos all around, "this was going on outside, in the Griever-realm. The Guardian Forces heard your screams. I couldn't hold it back out there, not alone."

Squall shook his head slowly, trying to reject her words. In his own mind he lacked the shields he normally hid behind, and his misery was evident. "I'm sorry, Rinoa. I don't know what to do. I don't even know what I can do. No matter what I think of, someone gets hurt."

"Sometimes somebody just has to get hurt," said Irvine firmly. "When did you get off thinking we lived in a perfect world, Squall?"

"I got cured of that notion the minute you set foot in my head," spat Squall with sudden venom. "Why she chose you.." he snapped his lips closed, biting back what he evidently wanted to say.

"She didn't fucking 'choose' me, Squall," snapped Irvine. "You can still feel your bond to her if you'd get off your damn high horse for thirty seconds straight. She hauled me in because I was there, that's all. I'm not in love with her, and I don't plan on staying here any longer than it takes for you to get your act together. She pulled me in because it was pull me in or send the world to hell. In her place you'd have done the same, so just fuckin' shut up about it already. We're not here to discuss me - or Rinoa either."

Squall's grip on LionHeart's hilt tightened, but he knew as well as any that it was useless to fight a Guardian Force in that Guardian's home ground. "I suppose you're going to tell me you have some sort of brilliant solves-everything solution then," he growled.

"As a matter of fact, I don't," said Irvine, calm again. "If the world had neat little gift-wrapped solutions to every problem life would be dull as hell - not to mention negating any use for SeeD. But I'll tell you this - you've got time. I can hold things together here with Rinoa for a while at least. While I'm here, you're in the real world with Sefie and the others. You can meet your kids, Squall, and see if they like you. I'm breaking every regulation in the rulebook abandoning my little command like this, and Sefie's gonna be walking on eggshells until I get back, but you've got time. A few days or so at least. You go and you lead 'em, Squall. You won't be a bit player for this - not when it's your kids on the line. Kill them, save them, wrap them in chocolate - it's your call. Just don't take too long about it, all right?"

Squall relaxed a little, staring at Irvine very intently - almost as though he'd never seen him before. Then he looked at Rinoa.

"I tried to tell you," she said with a laugh, "but you wouldn't listen to me. If you'll listen to Irvine I'll settle for that. Squall - whatever you decide, I'll still be here for you. Don't base your decisions on what I think - you'll always end up second-guessing yourself if you do that." As Squall moved to protest, she raised a hand, nose crinkling as she smiled. "I already know your thoughts, love," she said gently. "Trust me - I've been dealing with nothing else but for a while now. I'll understand if you decide they have to die - and I'll understand if you can find a way to save them, too. I trust you. Now get out of here - I don't want to have mister fly-by-night's thoughts in my head any longer than I have to, all right? Get Zell to transfer the junction. That way if you need us, we'll be there."

Squall practically radiated relief as he nodded. He wasn't rejected, and he wasn't going to be forced to stand by and watch as the fate of his children was decided. He had what he had most wanted - and hadn't believed he could get - when he saw the image of his daughter in Irvine's mind; time. Thinking of that, he looked back at Irvine. He walked over to the cowboy, and slowly extended his hand, palm up. Gloved again, now that he was in control of his thoughts.

Irvine looked at the hand, then back at Squall's face. The utmost gesture of respect from Squall - an offer to shake hands. He was admitting that Irvine was his friend.

Irvine took the offered hand and gave it a squeeze - he didn't think Squall would be up to the typical bone-jarring Galbadian handshake as a first timer. "Get going," he said. "And make sure you calm Sefie down."

"I will," said Squall quietly. "And...thank you." He closed his eyes, and vanished.

Rinoa and Irvine opened theirs, to find themselves alone in the Griever world. Squall had woken himself up.

* * * * * * * *

Squall opened his eyes to find himself in a hotel room, lying on a couch. Selphie and Zell - both looking incredibly tired and bleary-eyed - were nearby, apparently watching over him. It was strange to see them like this - for they were both in their late twenties now, and he was still physically eighteen.

Zell didn't waste time; tired as he was, he grinned. "Good to see ya again," he said. "Even if you are going to make me feel really old for the next few days. Wanna switch junctions with me?"

Squall nodded; trust Zell to know the first thing on his mind. Both men pulled off their right gloves and clasped hands.

"Junction Transfer: Griever," said Zell.

"Junction Transfer: Tonberry," said Squall.

Much better; he didn't feel quite so alone now, with Rinoa in his thoughts. Irvine being there too was just something to put up with; friend or no, it was hard to adjust to having a guy in his head. He wondered how Zell had been able to stand it.

It seemed to be the time to make up for debts unpaid. Squall released Zell's hand and briefly clasped his shoulder, surprising his friend into a shocked look. "Thank you," he said. It wouldn't pay the debt - ha, not by a long shot. But if Irvine was his friend, Zell could be no less.

Zell had, after all, been trying longer. Rinoa had given him eyes to see.

"Irvy's all right, isn't he?" asked Selphie. "He's coming back, right? Tell me he's coming back."

"Yes," said Squall. "This isn't permanent. It's just..." he shrugged, and indicated the doorway. "He wanted to give me time. He and Rinoa both. If you don't mind."

Selphie's green eyes did creditable imitations of saucers. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, that's fine. Um - how much time?"

Squall frowned - it couldn't be enough, but it had to be. There was no love to make the bond easier for them - and he knew that that bond of love gave him greater power with Griever than Zell had had, too. "A few days, at most," he said. "Enough time to see this to its end - however it ends."

"A few days," said Selphie thoughtfully, then nodded. "Okay. I won't pester. He's right, anyway." Tired as she was, she grinned. "I bet with all our chatting we woke him up anyway. Noddy's through there, Squall - Bella too, but she's probably still sleeping. If he's up, don't let him wake her."

Squall nodded, and thought, Rinoa - I will need your eyes. Griever's eyes - the cat eyes that could see in the dark, so that he could find his son without waking Zell's girlfriend. Immediately his view of the room sharpened and grew more detailed. He turned to the doorway, trying to quell his nervousness as he went to see his son.

Chapter 16

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