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Chapter 12

Xu glared at Zell, pulling off a creditable imitation of Squall on a very bad day. Zell found himself reacting the same way, too - a strong desire to go find a rock somewhere and hide under it until the storm passed. He squirmed uncomfortably in the chair he'd been ordered to sit in, and tried not to let his nerves get the better of him.

"You just decided, all on your own, to release one of the most powerful and useful Guardian Forces the Garden has ever acquired," she said flatly. "No consulting with any superiors, including the partner of the person on whose behalf you did this. Am I correct?"

Not exactly, but Zell had promised he'd take the knocks for this and he would. So, keeping his mouth very firmly shut, he nodded.

"Well. I am glad you felt you could just waltz in here and tell me you let Leviathan go, but to put it in the simplest terms, what the hell did you think you were doing?"

Zell took a deep breath. "Well, for one, I thought I was helping a Garden Administrator," he said - careful to keep any emotion out of his voice. It wasn't his best skill, not by a long shot, but one didn't get anywhere in Garden without at least a little ability to hide one's thoughts, and he had after all been taught by the best even if he wasn't the greatest student of the art.

"Kadowaki informed us that Selphie would have recovered on her own, Zell," snapped Xu, "so don't go waving the holier-than-thou flag at me. You got impatient, and wanted to play the hero. Fine. But now Garden has permanently lost the Recover ability - there is no way for us to recapture the Leviathan, not when it has the oceans of the entire world to swim in, and such protective coloration to boot. Because of that loss, other SeeDs will die when they might have lived. Did you think of that?"

Honestly, he hadn't - he'd just wanted to help Irvine and Selphie. But he didn't think it'd be a good idea to admit that. "Leviathan hasn't been free in Hyne knows how long, Commander," he said instead. "I couldn't find any records of her first capture. She used her own power to heal Selphie - I thought it was a fair trade."

"Zell, you don't have the rank to do your own thinking," stated Xu. "Garden did not authorize you to release Leviathan. As of now, you are demoted three ranks, for endangering future SeeDs who will not have Leviathan's power to draw on." She flipped a printout out of a folder and set it in front of him. "And another two ranks for the mess you made in Esthar. Seifer has uncovered evidence enough to bring two people to trial - and one of them is Estharian. He's also uncovered enough evidence to prove you were incompetent in your last assignment. You should have known about the assassination attempt."

Zell's eyes widened in shock. Five ranks? Great Hyne - that shot all of his intramural instruction to pieces; he wouldn't even have the rank to work with Bella in the Library Committee. He just barely had the rank to even be asked to join any high-profile missions, and he certainly wouldn't be given any responsibilities in one beyond saying 'Yes, Sir' a lot. He was co-equal with Fujin and Raijin now...if they wanted to get to him, they could. Just... great. He didn't have anything to say to Xu; at this point he could only dig himself in deeper.

She flipped out another file. "The Estharians hired us, and will take the arrest of General Torben in hand themselves. You are going to grab Irvine and find out where Soares Detmer is, and what he hoped to get out of the assassination; we have evidence enough to try him, but it's always easier to convict if we can prove a motive. While you're at it, notify the Galbadian authorities to undertake the arrest and extradition of whichever Felian happens to be the one behind getting that gun from Winhill, and see whether we need to arrest Caraway as well. That's all that there is left on this case - you'd better enjoy it, because once you've taken care of these two simple matters, you're going to be staying right here until I can bring myself to deal with you again. Dismissed."

Zell stood up quickly, and saluted. He marched himself out of the Commander's office as fast as he could, heading for the training center. He had a near uncontrollable urge to beat the living daylights out of something, and there might be a T-rexaur in there willing to volunteer. It was, after all, one of the main functions of the Training Center - to provide an acceptable outlet for the sort of energy a large number of trained mercenaries all in one place could engender.

Maybe he was so furious because he was fighting back the urge to cry. He'd been so sure it was an outside job...and he'd been mostly right. But mostly right hadn't saved Laguna. His friend was dead, and three more hospitalized, because he'd fucked up. Damn - couldn't he get anything right? He was tempted to put a huge dent in the doors to the Training Center as they opened, but with some effort held back the impulse. If nothing else, Squall had taught him that punching doors got you fined, while punching monsters got you a pay raise. He was in the mood for a 'pay raise' right now...

A grat came out of the jungle terrain of the Training Center; Zell punched it so hard its bulbous stomach deflated. The high-pitched death squeal it gave off summoned others - Zell punched and kicked and spun so fast his limbs were almost invisible, creating a swath of destruction, but it wasn't helping any. Grats were too easy; one or two well-placed hits and they were dead.

"Hey, bonehead!" he yelled. "You wanna piece of me? Get your lizard tail out here, ya coward!" He wanted, needed, a hard fight - something to pull his mind off being demoted, off being responsible for his friends' death and pain. He grinned fiercely, demonically, on the adrenaline rush this place always engendered. One of the advantages of the Training Center was that Griever would say nothing in here - they had a long-standing agreement that it wouldn't try to talk when there were monsters around. Right at this moment he didn't want to talk to any of his friends. He couldn't shake the feeling that if he did, something bad would happen to them, too.

He heard a roaring - that would be the target. He bounded toward it, moving much faster here than any of his friends ever could. As it had been for Squall, the Training Center was practically a second home to him - but for different reasons. Zell found the challenge of the Center endlessly fascinating, above and beyond merely fighting monsters. He'd once fought a pack of grats while hanging upside-down from a tree branch, just for variety and to see what it felt like. For him, trees and vines were opportunities; to Squall they had always been mere features of terrain, a help or a hindrance but certainly not an option for position.

He took advantage of a handy tree and shot up it - anyone observing would have sworn he used a Float spell to climb so fast. He didn't try fancy tricks against T-Rexaurs - but the fight always went better if your enemy was at eye level.

The monster crashed through branches in search of food; generally the Garden T-rexaurs lived on grats but they were always willing to eat any SeeD or cadet foolish enough to fight alone. It could sense a human presence near, but there wasn't wind enough to carry Zell's scent to it, and the tattoo tended to confuse some of its pattern recognition. As soon as it was just barely in range, Zell took a flying leap from his perch to land on its head.

The dinosaur roared, of course, and thrashed its head trying to shake the puny intruder off, but this was Zell's favorite tactic because it worked, and he wasn't going to be shaken off. He drove his fists into the T-Rexaur's skull again and again, powerful Ergheiz gauntlets beginning to crack the skull. Punch, again and again, harder and harder until the skull cracked and you were pulverizing squishy brain matter...

The lizard's short arms couldn't reach him on the top of its head, its teeth couldn't bite him here. All he had to do was hang on, and vent his frustration on it. T-rexaurs were powerful but amazingly stupid; they didn't need a lot of brain power to fight, so you pretty much had to puree the stuff to really kill them. And of course, if he fell off, it could easily kill him with its death throes. They were the primary reason cadets were cautioned against fighting in the Center alone. Punching through the skull was the easiest and safest way to kill them by physical contact alone - though 'easiest' in this case did not translate to 'easy' by any means.

A shot rang out, then another and another. The T-rexaur fell, and Zell leaped clear - catching on a handy branch and shimmying down.

"What the fuck d'you think you were doing, fighting one of those alone?" demanded Irvine, holstering his Exeter rifle. "Even Seifer doesn't fight in here alone!"

Zell hadn't finished pulverizing the lizard so he punched a hefty crack in a tree with his bloody, gore-covered gloves. "I'm doin' what we're taught to do when we're pissed off," he snapped. "I'm takin' it out on the monsters instead of the person I'm really wanting to pound right now - and if you don't mind I can damn well take care of myself. I've been huntin' toramas and iron giants in Esthar for a long time now, this place is tame."

Irvine's eyes went wide at Zell's angry retort, and he held up a hand. "Whoa, there, partner - what's going on?" His eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. "You took the knocks for Leviathan, didn't you," he said slowly. "Damnit, I knew I shoulda locked you in your room yesterday. I told you I'd take the heat for that, hell I'm the one that ordered you to do something..." He shook his head.

"You didn't know what you were sayin' Irv," said Zell shortly. "You were so messed up seein' Selphie like that - and I know I'd be just as bad in your place. I took the smack 'cause I did know what I was doin' and I figured it was worth it." He grimaced. "Didn't think Xu would smack so hard though."

Irvine took Zell by the arm and gently marched him out of the Training Center. "All right, what'd she do," he said heavily. "Man, you did this for me - well, me and Selphie. I gotta know what you're payin' for it."

Zell wanted to sit down, but couldn't - too much nervous energy, and with the interrupted fight an unsatiated need to pound something. He flowed through some kata to work it off; he'd go back to fighting when Irvine had gone. "Five ranks, and confinement to Garden indefinitely once this case is done," he admitted.

Irvine's jaw dropped. "Now, that is too much," he murmured. He pulled his hat off and ran his hand through his hair. "There is no way you deserve that - not when it was for a Garden administrator. Doesn't Xu value anybody around here? Hell I thought she was Selphie's friend."

Zell slowed down, shook his head. "It's not just because of Leviathan," he said. "It's cause I screwed up in Esthar - should've known what was coming in time to stop it. Xu says Seifer got proof."

"Yeah, well, even so - but maybe you can get a few ranks back if we pull this off smoothly. That's what I came to tell you: we're just about to reach Deling City, and it's time to get ready to go."

Zell stopped and looked down at himself; he was covered in sap, and T-Rexaur blood and brains. There was no way he'd be let out of Garden like this. "Yeah well wait for me to get cleaned up willya?" he said. "I'll meetcha out the front gate, gimme half an hour tops."

Irvine touched his fingers to his hat, habitual salute between friends. "Gotcha," he said, and moved off.

He was overtaken a bare two seconds later by a madly sprinting Zell, who had decided that maybe a good run would help matters.

* * * * * * * * *

The four SeeDs disembarked from the temporarily stationary Garden in such precision of formation as to make a drill sergeant weep. This was not because they wanted to, particularly, but because any time the Garden approached a city it tended to make that city nervous. Deling City had a very wide perimeter, being as it was the capital of Galbadia, so SeeD had to make it very clear that yes, only four people were getting off here and the rest of Garden would be moving on shortly. Admittedly one of them was a very tired-looking woman in the uniform of a Garden Administrator, but it wasn't unprecedented that the leaders of Garden take part in a mission. Selphie had absolutely refused to stay behind; she had a personal score to settle with whoever had sent that bomb, and she intended to collect. Personally. Xu hadn't argued.

The four SeeDs waited patiently until the Garden got back into motion and had clearly moved away before they broke formation. Irvine immediately offered Selphie his arm, and gently scolded her for getting out of bed so early.

"I'm fine, Irvy," she smiled. "Leviathan fixed all the stuff that was wrong, remember? I'm just tired."

"You should've stayed in Garden," he said. "It's safer there."

"Yeah, so safe that I can get nearly blown to smithereens in my own office. Thanks but no thanks, I'll take my chances out here where I can swing my nunchaku." She looked over at Zell. "I didn't get to say thanks before, Zell," she said with a smile only slightly tired around the edges. "I hope ya gave Leviathan a big sloppy kiss good-bye."

Zell shrugged. "She's free," he said. "She didn't want to hang around for chitchat." He was still feeling a bit bruised from Xu's ranting, and didn't really want to talk about it. "Hey, Irvine - where are we headed first?"

"The hotel," he said firmly. "We gotta get Sefie settled in so she can crash this afternoon. Then I want you to scout Caraway's place while I see if my old buddies around town know anything about Detmer. Bella - you're staying at the hotel with Sef, both 'cause she's gonna need catching up, and so either one of us can report in easily. You can relay info back and forth easier from there than anywhere else."

Bella nodded. "You don't have to explain, Irvine," she said. "I have my own reasons for wanting to stay at the hotel anyway. By the way - I've gotten some of the tracker phones from Garden to make things easier. They broadcast a low-power signal that will help us find you if you fail to check in."

"Hey, good idea," grinned Irvine. "Damn, I love smart women."

"Smartass," laughed Selphie.

"You got an IQ test to prove that?" retorted Irvine with a grin. He loved nothing more than the perpetual 'arguments' with Selphie, except knowing that she was around to have the arguments with.

* * * * * * * *

They got settled in at the hotel, Selphie stretched out on her stomach in the classic girl-with-a-telephone pose, idly chatting with Bella as she set up her laptop to pick up the signals from the two tracker phones. Once that was done, Bella handed one phone to each of the men and a copy of the hotel room's number, and wished them luck.

Irvine gave the girls a jaunty wave, and Zell gave Bella a bearhug and a kiss. Then they left, heading for their separate assignments.

As soon as the sound of their footsteps had faded down the corridor, Selphie said, "What were your reasons, Bella?"

Bella blushed. "I was hoping no one would catch that," she said. "The guys don't pick up on hints like that, I guess I've just gotten too used to hanging around with them."

Selphie nodded sagely, but there was avid curiosity in her eyes. "I may be tired, but I'm a lot quicker on how people say things than either of those two," she laughed. "Come on, spill the beans - you know neither one of 'em will check in for at least a few hours."

Bella's blush deepened. "You wouldn't mind letting me tell Zell first, would you Garden Master?"

Selphie looked confused for a moment, and said, "Why would Zell -" her mouth made a perfect O. "Oh! Wow, congratulations! When's it due?"

Bella sighed, still blushing furiously. "About eight months, at my best guess. I didn't know until I was late. We've been so busy lately..." she shrugged.

"Well, Xu's going to confine Zell to Garden for a while anyway," yawned Selphie with a grin. "I think you've probably hit on the one thing that'll make him not mind. When're you going to tell him?"

"After this is over," said Bella decisively. "I don't mind taking due precaution - like working from here for example - but if I told Zell now, he'd try to wrap me in packing bubbles and ship me back to Garden. That would mean Fujin would be sent to finish this leg of the case, and neither he nor Irvine can handle Fujin."

"Yeah," said Selphie. "I work with her when I have to, but she's just got 'cold fish' written all over her, you know? She gives Irvine the shivers." She giggled tiredly, starting to fall asleep. "Maybe it's just 'cause Fuuj doesn't hesitate in the kicking-inna-shins department..."

Bella chatted with her a little longer, until sleepiness took Selphie over. Kadowaki had said it would be like this for a little bit, until she'd adjusted to Leviathan's healing. When Bella noticed Selphie's even breathing, she smiled and turned back to her console. It had been pleasant enough to indulge in girl talk for a little while, but the guys would be reporting in soon and she needed to be ready.

* * * * * * * *

Irvine sauntered through the streets of Deling City like he owned the place. He didn't really, but it was impossible for him to get lost here. He was the only one of the orphanage group gifted with a photographic memory, and he'd been the last to use a GF - a practice he still avoided as much as possible. When he'd learned he was the only one to remember the early days when they'd all been together, he'd started a memory journal. It wasn't finished yet, but he had everything really important down.

He just wished the others hadn't already lost their pieces of the puzzle. His beloved Sefie knew she'd been adopted by a couple in Trabia, for example, but she couldn't remember any more what their names had been or why she'd gone to Trabia Garden. The same went for Quistis. Seifer and Squall hadn't been able to recall if they were ever adopted at all - though Squall had minded that much less than Seifer did, understandably enough. Of them all, only Zell had kept in touch with his adoptive family, and only Squall had found his birth family. Irvine envied them both about equally; it didn't matter whose blood ran in your veins, so long as someone you could call 'mom' or 'dad' cared about you.

Irvine remembered being adopted all right. And he remembered his new parents being shot just like the originals had probably been. Here in Deling City, brightly-lit town of the wild nights. No, the streets of Deling were definitely a second home; he'd survived for months on his own before the authorities had picked him up and packed him off to Galbadia Garden, just one more orphan in the litter. He'd learned about the power of a gun early on, the way even weak men could kill with it. He'd resolved to be the best there ever had been with it, and he'd succeeded. Good enough to put his bullets through the layers of protection Ultimecia had surrounded herself with - and there was no way to be better than that.

One day he'd find the pitiful excuses for soldiers who had shot his adoptive parents for political reasons. And he'd be very careful to miss every single artery and vein, so they'd have a long time to think about orphaning young children. Just thinking about it was enough to make him clench his fists as he walked; he forced himself to calm down. There was the alley; he made sure his gun was in easy reach and ducked down it. If memory served...

Yes. One manhole cover among the hundreds dotted around the city, but this one led to the Den. Irvine wasn't proud of what he'd had to do, those few months on his own, but on missions like this that time proved invaluable. He pulled out a crowbar that was hidden within a nearby fire escape, and pried up the cover. He returned the crowbar before he disappeared down the hole, pulling the lid back on behind him.

It was dark down here, of course - but it wasn't a sewer. That was what made that one cover different; it had been made to look like any other sewer entrance, but it connected to a different tunnel system entirely. There were maybe a dozen large rooms down here, each committed wholeheartedly to some vice or other. He knew his way in the dark, counted off the doorways from memory: card games, dice games, het sex, gay sex, recreational drugs, hard drugs...

He stopped by the door that led to 'drug research'. Where the few kids with wealth enough and an interest in biology and chemistry spent their days. All the doors had numerical keypads; he knew the codes he'd known back then wouldn't work now; he visited too infrequently to be informed of code changes. He knocked instead.

And was greeted by blinding light, followed by a gun barrel poking out of the door at him. He didn't need his eyes to aim, though - by the time his eyes adjusted, he saw clearly that the barrel of Exeter was aimed squarely at the opening. Probably the only thing that had saved his life, but hey - life was a gamble. This was his best shot at some useful answers.

The one behind the door withdrew his gun. "All right, I recognize you," grumbled a voice. "Now put your noisemaker away or you leave here in boxes."

Irvine grinned and re-holstered the Exeter. "Hello, Joyboy. Long time no see." The door unlatched and opened, revealing a young man about Irvine's age, pale with the sort of paleness that only comes from never seeing daylight. Behind him was an amazingly expensive laboratory, given the surroundings. Irvine tapped two fingers to his hat and stepped inside, letting Joyboy close the door behind him.

The pale man didn't look too thrilled to see him. "What have you been up to lately, Cowboy?" he rasped. "How's life in SeeD?"

Irvine shrugged. "I muddle along," he said casually. "Got me a pretty girl worth settling down with...but I told ya all that last time. Nothing really new in my life lately." At least, nothing I'd care to tell you about, but that's a different story...

"So long as you're happy, and you're not here to try and bring me in," said Joyboy. "But you're too bright for that, aren't ya?"

Irvine grinned. "Yep," he said. "I'm actually after some guy called Soares Detmer. He's done some high-profile nastiness over Esthar way, and since he had a rep there for a unique joy pill, I figure you know him."

"I ain't testifyin', Cowboy," said Joyboy firmly. "I ain't goin' anywhere they got those security cameras up. I'm only safe as long as they don't have any data on me but my name."

Irvine located a clear spot of workbench and hopped up, taking a seat. "You don't have to testify, Joy, I wouldn't do that to you. I just need whatever you can give me on this guy. He's goin' down, Joy - he helped shoot a President. You know there's no giving up on a case like that. Somebody's going down for it. Besides - the guy he offed was a good friend o' mine. And I always collect on those debts."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," grumbled Joyboy. "Damned hero, you think you are. Fine, be a damned hero. Soares is a...hobbyist. We all know about him, but he doesn't know about us yet. Rich kid - real bright. He inherited the family wealth about two years ago, and he's been one busy little beaver since then. Bright but stupid. He's been tryin' to build a network, and he's got one - just not the one he thinks he's got. I know about his joy pills, too - they're an old mix of mine, that I left alone 'cause there was no money in it. No addiction, see? No guaranteed income. He uses 'em like party favors, rewards for his friends. Shoot his ass if you want - damn wannabe just gets on my nerves. No drive."

No customers, thought Irvine. Well, at least he's not going around addicting little kids. Assassin yeah, but he leaves the kids alone. I might just let him live to see trial. Irvine had very firm views on people who preyed on children. He was all in favor of a very slow and painful death, for example.

"You know where I can find Soares these days, Joy?" he asked.

"He's got the Detmer mansion, north side of town," shrugged Joyboy. "Doesn't need a fancy hideout when he's got his own playboy mansion with a lockable basement."

"Thanks, Joy," said Irvine. "You want me to owe you one, or will you take cash?"

"I'll take the favor this time, Cowboy," said Joyboy. "One day, they might just send your skinny ass after me, and it'll be nice to have a prior claim on ya. Go on, get off with ya - I got work to do."

"Gotcha," said Irvine, hopping off the table. As soon as he was out the door he heard it shut and bolt behind him. He suppressed a chuckle. One of the great advantages of being a SeeD was that you didn't have to play cops and robbers. SeeD was very live-and-let-live, operating as it did on its own laws and loyalties. He'd had to deliver all sorts of less-than-legal packages for Joyboy when they were kids together (he really had been creating designer drugs at seven and eight years old, hence his name), and that sort of record would've kept him out of most respectable jobs. SeeD just saw a kid trying to survive, and showed him a cleaner way to go about it.

And then gave him back the friends he had lost, practically brain-wiped. Irvine grimaced as he pulled himself out of the manhole and returned the cover. Damn, that mission just bit rocks. Yeah, here's your long-lost orphanage friends, only they don't remember you and they don't remember the lady they're sent to kill is the matron who loved them...

Irvine set himself along the roads that would take him to the north side of town, where he could probably charm some girl into giving him directions to the Detmer residence. Or he could listen for the sounds of a party, if Joyboy was right. What was Detmer getting out of this? He already had his family wealth and his house of parties...

He was being followed. Someone was mimicking his footsteps, just barely out of true sync. Irvine ducked down the first alley he came to and drew Exeter, ready to blast whoever it was if they were doing more than pulling a stupid prank.

No sound of pursuit; whoever it was trailing him had just stopped. Cautiously, he poked his head around the corner, ready to send a spray of dark shot at the trailer.

It was a girl. A very pretty little girl, about thirteen years old, grinning mischievously. Irvine didn't budge. He knew from personal experience that kids weren't necessarily innocent, not in Deling City.

"Come out," said the girl. "I have a message for you." She raised her hands from her sides so that he could see she carried no weapon.

Irvine stepped out and holstered Exeter, but kept his hand within easy reach of the grip. "Yeah?" he said. "From who?"

"Death," said the girl, as her hair blew back of its own accord, blown by a wind only she felt. Something's wrong with her eyes, thought Irvine, but even his quick hands didn't get time to go for his gun. He felt like he was being compressed into a tiny ball, no breath even to scream as his body felt heavy, compressed, crushed by its own weight into the earth. He was as helpless as a kitten as he fell to the ground - having only energy enough to fall on the side away from the tracer phone. Bella's tracer was his only hope now.

He fought to breathe. He knew this attack, knew it. Stronger than Demi, stronger than any other gravity spell....but Diablos was still at Garden, wasn't it? How would a thirteen year old kid have Diablos?

His eyes closed; he couldn't keep them open, they were too heavy. Distantly he heard footsteps, felt himself being picked up...

Chapter 13

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