Chapter 14 Gain
Irvine woke feeling like his bones had been ground to powder. He still felt heavier than he knew he should - the aftereffects of that girl's 'message', no doubt.
"Ah, I see you're back with us," said a young man with a smile. "I wouldn't recommend moving - the alloy those chains are made of doesn't break easily even if you have magic to call on."
Irvine took a few deep breaths; this guy was seriously overestimating Irvine's capabilities at this point, but he wasn't about to let him know that. "So you want me alive," he said instead. "Mind if I ask what for?"
"You're cute," the man said with a quirked eyebrow. "Not as cute as some I've seen in chains, but there is a roughness to you that's quite attractive. Has anyone ever told you that?"
"Lots of people," said Irvine. "But most of 'em had much better chests than you do."
The man's grin widened, his lips pressed together as if holding back a laugh. "Witty, too, I see. I'm almost sorry I've already promised you - but you're worth ever so much more than a bedroom playmate, and I, regrettably, need the cash."
Irvine sighed. Rich people and their games. Just once, meeting one that didn't like to snicker would be nice. "I guess that makes you Soares Detmer," he said. "I'd ask what you got for arranging Laguna's murder, but after I met your little girl I think I can guess."
"Oh, she's not mine," said Detmer. "She's the daughter of one of my special friends, I adopted her when her mother died. I have several children like her around - legally my own now. It's one of the reasons I'm short of cash; even a wealthy family can only support so many."
Irvine didn't say anything - he was too busy keeping his lips pressed together against the desire to throw up. This guy had a houseful of kids? Maybe powered-up just like the Diablos girl? He changed his mind right then - if he had any chance of getting away with it, Detmer was not going to see trial. Those kids would be better off with just about anyone than this creep. Using kids as experimental animals was just beyond disgusting.
"And I'm sure you do it out of the loving kindness of your heart," he spat. "Do you make them cry when you feel them up?"
To his surprise, Detmer backhanded him - hard - across the cheek, clearly angry. "Only a depraved mercenary would think such a thing," he growled. "I've changed my mind about you. Pretty you are, but I wouldn't want you around my kids."
But Irvine wouldn't stop. "So you just shoot 'em up full of chemicals? You think that makes you a good parent?"
Detmer's eyes narrowed in rage as he stared at his captive, fist clenched. "I did nothing to any one of those children, SeeD. I did not make them the way they are. But they've helped me unlock the secret of unfathomable power. They've endured no more pain than was required to take a single blood sample from each one. Which is a great deal more than I can say for you." He swung his fist then, punching Irvine hard on the jaw - knocking him flat.
Irvine chose to stay down, and feign unconsciousness. Something wasn't right here, and he needed to work out what. And fast.
Nothing had been done to the children - Irvine had to believe that. Galbadian nobles lied almost more easily than they breathed, but there had been honest outrage in Detmer's voice at the accusation of experimentation and abuse. So that little girl had always had her power.
They'd shut down Alicia's complex and Odine's lab ten years ago; no powered-up people had shown up since. So he'd misjudged Diablos-girl's age; she couldn't be older than ten or so. That fit in with what Detmer had said about her mother dying; there'd been lots of infused people right about that time, but all of them had died from the substance in their veins.
She was the 'stabilizing agent' that Squall was afraid of - she was ten years old and abundantly healthy, and had Diablos' gravitational attack to boot. Detmer had found out how to stabilize the GF infusion from her and the other children.
Something else was nagging at the edge of his thoughts - more puzzle pieces he needed to put together - but at that point he heard people entering the room. Big people.
"All right - you two pick him up and hold him tight. I don't want his friends finding my house, the bastards'll try to take the kids. Get him to the pickup point and do whatever you have to to keep him quiet."
"Boss - they're SeeDs. SeeDs use magic. Can't we get one of the kids to come along, just in case?"
Silence for a moment. Send one of the kids, Irvine willed him. The others didn't know the danger yet, and getting even one away from this guy would be something. Once away from the house, Irvine could summon Tonberry on his captor and leg it with the kid back to the others.
"All right," said Detmer grudgingly. "But if this mercenary so much as twitches, you shoot him. I don't want him hurting Noddy." Someone left the room; presumably Detmer, to get the child.
Noddy? thought Irvine. What sorta name is that to give a kid?
'Noddy' turned out to be a boy, by the sound of it. His voice was very clear, and high-pitched in the way only little boys' voices are. It was striking familiar chords in the back of Irvine's head, very distracting. "What d'yoo need me to do, daddy?" he asked, sounding happy and curious.
"Nodwydd, this man here is a bad man," said Detmer. "He came here to try to take you and the others away from me. We're going to put him in a safe place, but some of his friends might try to stop us. They have magic, Noddy. My servants, they can't fight magic. But you can. If anybody tries to stop us getting this man where he needs to go, you use your power on them, okay?"
"Okay, daddy," said the boy, sounding quite confident in himself. "He won't hurt me."
Nodwydd, thought Irvine. Shit, and I thought 'Noddy' was bad. Detmer, you should never use a dictionary to name a kid. Or toss up letters and make a name out of what lands face-up, either. Whatever it was in his head that was trying to get his attention was really jumping up and down now.
Irvine felt himself being picked up, and made sure to stay completely limp. As long as they thought him unconscious, he was safe from whatever power the kid had, and he might learn something useful while he was at it. Once they were out of the house, he listened to try and place where his captors were in relation to himself. One was carrying him, of course, and the shoulder in his gut was incredibly uncomfortable. One was...in front, leading the way. And the soft patter behind could only be Noddy.
Good. So no one would see if he took a peek at the kid. Cautiously, he opened one eye just enough to get a hazy picture through the lashes. Yep, just the kid. Straight black hair in a ponytail, not very tall for his age. He was looking all around, not at Irvine at all. The thing in the back of his mind was really screaming now, jumping and waving and everything.
They stopped under a street lamp, and Irvine closed his eyes again. No telling what they'd do if they knew he was awake, and he didn't want the kid to be caught in the crossfire any more than Detmer did. He wasn't thrilled about the Diablos-girl zapping him, but it was plain that all the kids doted on Detmer. He'd have taken on all of Galbadia for his own adopted parents, so he could sympathize.
It kinda sucked that their precious 'daddy' was responsible for the murder of Laguna, and the attempted murder of Zell. Hell of a thing to have to tell a kid.
Footsteps were approaching. "Ah, your master works as swiftly and skillfully as ever," said the newcomer. "Yes, the master of the house will be very pleased with this catch."
"He said to tell you there should be more soon," rumbled the man holding Irvine. "Could be as soon as tomorrow."
Oh shit, they know about us - they're counting on a rescue attempt!
"We will have the funds whenever your master is ready to deliver," said the other. "Here is your payment. My companion will take the captive."
They aren't counting on me rescuing myself, though.
Irvine felt himself change hands, held back a grunt as he was hauled unceremoniously over another shoulder. He heard the soft patter of Noddy's feet moving away, and could only assume that the two Detmer goons were with him.
"Master Felian will be very pleased with this report," said the one who'd spoken before to the one that now held him. "He's waited many years to get his hands on the thugs who murdered his daughter."
That's all I needed to know, you creep, thought Irvine. "Chef's Knife," he whispered. Come on, Tonberry...take out the chatty one!
He heard more than saw the Tonberry King's cleaver slicing through the servant of Felian. The minute the GF showed, Irvine forced his captor to overbalance and punched him repeatedly until he didn't get up again.
Damn bastards took Exeter!
Now, where had he heard the footsteps going to? Quickly, he headed in that direction, grateful that the chains had been removed when he'd changed hands. Must be valuable, not to want to lose them.
Just as the three people from Detmer's were coming into view, Irvine saw a complication. Selphie, Bella, and Zell were around - probably looking for him! He looked at Detmer's party - oh, great, Just great. No shot at surprise now - everyone was aware of everyone else. But one thing those three just had to know, and Irvine wasn't going to lose his only chance to warn them.
"Watch out for the kid!" he yelled, and charged - hoping to distract the goons into attacking him, hoping it would let the others know the danger.
And danger there was. Noddy immediately turned to face Irvine, a ferocious scowl on his face as he concentrated. Irvine was so shocked he almost forgot to duck - the kid had looked quite a bit like Squall when he did that. He only just got out of the way of a whole swarm of flying needles.
Cactaur. This kid had Cactaur's attack. Shit - that could've made mincemeat out of him. Right now he was wishing he didn't have such a good memory; he kept thinking of Squall at around that age and it was playing merry hell with his fighting instincts. Plus whatever it was in his head that was trying to get his attention was really screaming now.
At least there seemed to be a recharge period between attacks; when the goons saw that the boy had missed, they picked him up and started to run.
"Oh no you don't you meanies!" yelled Selphie, and cast Sleep on them. The men toppled, but the boy was unaffected. Fear clearly written on his face, he struggled to get out from under the sleeping body of the man who had been carrying him. Irvine ran to join the others.
"Don't hurt him!" he yelled. "Just a kid, all right? Don't scare him!" There was no way he was going to let his friends prove that bastard Detmer right, even if the kid had nearly killed him. The kid wasn't bad - just confused.
Now, that Diablos girl - she could probably use a good whack or two.
"He nearly killed you, Irvy!" said Selphie as she grabbed the boy by one arm. "Nobody hurts my Irvy."
"Yeah, well he missed," panted Irvine as he finally reached them. "So you can quit with the protective act, okay? Trust me."
Noddy struggled against Selphie's grip. "Let me go!" he yelled. "You're gonna hurt Daddy! You're gonna take us away! You're mean!"
Selphie's eyes went wide at the little speech, as did Bella's. Zell just looked confused. "Irv - just so I know - what's going on?"
"Soares Detmer found children who were born to people infused by Alicia with GF power," said Irvine, still catching his breath. "Their mothers all died of course, from the instability. He adopted the kids, and from what I can tell he's been pretty good to 'em. But -" and here he grimaced, "he found out how to stabilize the power from their blood samples. He can make superpowered people now that won't die."
"Oh, shit," said Zell, and promptly got elbowed by Bella.
"Not in front of a kid, Zell," she said sternly. "Irvine - how many children are there?"
"I dunno," he said. "At least two. This little fellow's name is Nodwydd, or Noddy for short. Ask him."
The boy looked up in terror at the sound of his name, and tried again to break out of Selphie's iron grip. "I'm not tellin' you nothin'!" yelled the boy. "Let me go! You're only gonna hurt 'em and I won't let you!"
Zell looked distant for a minute, then tapped Irvine on the shoulder. When Irvine turned to meet his gaze, he saw the amber-gold cat eyes of Griever. "Let me try," he said, his voice sounding a little strange.
Irvine shrugged. Couldn't hurt - the Diablos girl had had yellow-gold eyes, so maybe Noddy would think Zell was someone like him. He nodded and backed up a step.
Zell crouched down in front of Noddy, so their eyes were level. "I promise I won't hurt 'em," he said, still with that slight echo that must be a side-effect of using Griever this way. "But if we aren't supposed to hurt them, we need to know who they are. Will you tell me who they are?"
Noddy reached out with his free hand to touch Zell's blackflame tattoo. "You, you're like us," he said wonderingly, completely fearless. "Daddy said there wasn't anybody like us."
Zell's face twitched slightly at the word 'daddy', and Irvine wondered why. Then whatever it was that had been clamoring for his attention finally got it. His face paled, his jaw dropped, and he landed rather unceremoniously on his ass in the street.
"Six," said Noddy. "There's six of us. Who are you? Why are you like us?"
"He's...a friend of your daddy's," said Irvine as he got up and brushed himself off, in a tone that said he only half-believed it himself. "Not Detmer, Noddy. Your real daddy. Who I am gonna have a very long talk with, very soon. I think maybe you should stay with us tonight."
Selphie and Bella gave Irvine a puzzled look, but Zell still had Griever's eyes and right now they were telling Irvine to shut up right this minute or else. And he wasn't about to find out what the 'or else' was.
Noddy looked up at Zell, his face scrunched up in thought. "But won't daddy mind?" he asked. "I'm supposed to be home soon."
"I don't think he'll mind," said Zell. "Come on - I have three boxes of pizza getting cold." Gently he pulled Noddy out of Selphie's grip, giving a significant nod over the boy's head at his sleeping companions. She nodded back. Once Zell and the others had moved out of sight, she pulled out her SeeD combat knife and quickly cut their throats.
* * * * * * * * *
Back at the hotel, Noddy dove happily into the cold pizza while the others went into an adjoining sitting room and closed the door.
"All right, you two," said Selphie, in Garden Master mode, "That was just a little too weird for words. Zell - you first. What was going on back there?"
Zell shrugged, plainly drained from having to hold the Guardian Force's power that way for so long. "The kid didn't want to help, and he was scared. Griever suggested that if it borrowed my eyes, the boy might think I was like him. It worked. Why're you buggin' me about it?"
"Cause Griever knows a lot more about that kid than it told you, Zell," said Irvine. Earlier tonight I got hit with Diablos' power - used by a little girl about Noddy's age. Guess where I ended up?"
Selphie paled. "Irvy...you didn't... die, did you?"
"No," said Irvine, shaking his head. "I used to be able to do it more often, when I was a kid - didn't know that was what I was doing, o'course. But yeah, I ended up in eternity. Had a chat with Squall there, too, at least for a bit. He sounded a little scared, if you can believe that, of Detmer finding the stabilizing agent. He didn't say much - not much I could use." Irvine scowled. "When I woke up though...I got handed all sorts of clues. I was concentrating on other things, though, so I only just put them together. Like - Detmer knew these kids' mothers, who were all with Alicia. Like, he'd seen somebody cuter than me in chains."
Selphie chuckled, but died down when Irvine glared at her.
"Knock it off, Sef. I'm not talking from pride. I'm talking from a) Squall was known a long way off as the pretty boy, and b) he was in chains at Alicia's complex at about the right time. And c) Noddy there acts a little like he did at that age, and the Diablos girl looked a lot like him too. I'm telling you - these are Squall's kids."
Bella nodded slowly. "The pieces seem to fit," she said. "Zell - will Griever admit the possibility?"
Zell looked distant for a moment, then winced as if someone had yelled at him. "He says, and I quote, 'Yes, and leave it at that.'"
Selphie grinned. "Rinoa's been good for him," she said. "I didn't hear a 'go talk to a wall'."
Zell frowned. "Griever's...somethin's wrong with Griever," he said in a puzzled voice. "I'm hearing it, in my head, and it's wrong. The voice is wrong." He shook his head, trying to clear it. "Yeah, yeah, fine," he said, causing the others to share worried glances.
Irvine put a hand on Zell's shoulder. "What does it want?" he asked.
Zell, still plainly tired from a long day and night - the sun was just rising - said, "Griever wants to take Noddy into eternity."
Both women started upright. "No!" said Bella. "Wouldn't that kill him?"
Zell shook his head, not in negation but as if he were shaking something loose. "It doesn't think so. It thinks it can take the kids to its own world - that purple silver place we saw when we fought Ultimecia. Just for a while - they wouldn't ever grow up if they stayed there."
"We need him here for the time being," said Irvine. "We've gotta get back to Detmer, free up the other kids, and smash up this guy's lab and notes before we blow him away. Besides, Detmer still has my gun and I want it back." When Zell looked inclined to protest, he continued, "You don't have to be the guy in the middle for this, Zell. Now I know what I'm doing, I can probably make the request in person. You go keep an eye on Noddy, you three. I'm going to...take a little nap."
When Zell still looked unhappy, he finished, "It's an order, Zell. You three watch Noddy - in shifts if you have to. I'm going to make sure I know what's going on before we make another move."
He waited until all three had left, then stretched out on the couch. Thank Hyne for a photographic memory; he knew just what sort of frame of mind to get into for this little jaunt.
* * * * * * * *
Irvine wandered the streets of Deling this time, seeing only the buildings and the parked cars. There was never any motion in eternity but that which was natural; a cloud passing overhead, trees moving in a breeze, waves on the sea. It made one feel very alone.
"Squall!" he yelled. "I know you know I'm here. Come out! Griever! Come out!"
"You won't find him that way," said a voice to his left. When he turned, it was the colorful boy who was part of Diablos. This time, he had a red-haired girl with him.
"Diablos," he said, carefully respectful this time. "Excuse me - I wasn't expecting you. I'm looking for Griever."
"Griever is not here," said the girl - the Sorceress. "Griever has retreated to its own world. It does not hear you here."
Irvine blinked. "Zell said Griever's voice sounded 'wrong'," he said carefully, making sure not to meet the Sorceress' eyes. There wasn't an ocean here, after all, and he didn't feel like being thrown into a building. "Would you...either of you...know what he meant?"
The boy nodded. "We know," he said. "Griever is stronger than all of us in power - but it is not so strong in the mind. We," and here the boy - the Knight - made a gesture meaning all the Guardian Forces, "have heard Griever's Knight screaming. Griever is divided."
No matter how Irvine turned that tidbit over in his mind, he couldn't find any way to interpret it as a good thing. "It came when Zell called it," he said - more or less to see what Diablos would say on the matter.
"Griever is junctioned," said Diablos' Knight. "It will always hear the voice of the one it is junctioned to."
Irvine considered that, and decided that yes, it made a sort of sense. Keeping his pose entirely respectful, just to be on the safe side, he said, "Thank you, Diablos. Is it all right if I ask why you're volunteering advice, instead of, say, Tonberry - to whom I am junctioned?"
"You do not have the advanced junction with Tonberry," said Diablos' Sorceress. "And it is not very fond of you. Whereas we owe Griever - and you - a debt, for freeing us from the lamp." Something in the way she said 'lamp' almost made it a swear word.
"I don't suppose...you could get Griever's attention for me? Or take me to its world? We sorta need to get some answers from it." Though maybe they could wait. Anything that could make Squall scream was not something Irvine felt equipped to deal with.
Diablos' Knight cocked his head to one side. "Are you sure you would want to go there?" he asked. "In our own worlds, our power is absolute. Griever is going mad - you might never make it back out, even to eternity - never mind the real world."
Irvine thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. "I'm...their friend," he said at last, and admitted to himself that it was true. "I think I have a good idea of what's going on. I might be able to help."
Both the Sorceress and the Knight shrugged. "We will knock on their door," they said. "But we cannot make them answer it. As we told you - in our own worlds, our powers are absolute. Griever cannot be compelled when on its own ground."
"That's all I'd ask," said Irvine.
The Knight nodded. "I may have misjudged you, friend of Griever," he said. "Not many people have friends willing to risk so much. If you are lost in this world, call for me. My name is Jian."
"Irvine," said that one, with a touch of his fingers to the brim of his hat. He knew better than to ask for the Sorceress' name, this time.
Diablos raised its arms and sent a black sphere spinning off into the sky. When Irvine lowered his eyes from watching it, Diablos was gone.
For a moment, nothing happened.
Then Irvine was pulled into purple-silver chaos.
* * * * * * * *
Zell enjoyed hanging out with Noddy, even as tired as he was. The boy was quick and cheerful, and now that he'd accepted Zell as being like himself, he was quite friendly.
"Why do you have that thing on your face?" he asked. "Is it part of your powers?"
"Nah," said Zell. "I got this...wow. I think I was around fifteen when I got it," he said. "Cause I'm not all that big, you know, and I wanted to look fierce." He struck a pose, making Noddy laugh. "Guess it didn't work, huh?" he grinned.
Nodwydd gave Zell the openly critical look that only kids seemed to be able to get away with, and then said, "It works if people don't know you." He frowned, reminding Zell of Squall. "You scared me pretty bad back there."
"Sorry," he said automatically. "We were looking for Irvine - he was supposed to come back home and he didn't."
"Irvine said you're a friend of my real daddy," said Noddy doubtfully. "How would he know who that is? Mommy died before I was born - everybody said so. They had to cut me out so I didn't die too."
Ick, cringed Zell. What a thing to tell a kid. "Well," he said carefully, "We know someone who reminds us of you. And he had powers too, and we think he knew your mom. We don't know for sure-sure yet, but Irvine's off asking now."
"Had powers?" said Noddy, with a child's knack for picking up more than an adult means to drop. "What happened to him? And how can Irvine be asking anything if he's asleep?"
Bella leveled a Look at Zell that clearly said he wasn't up to subterfuge on this little sleep.
"If we're right," yawned Zell, "then your daddy is probably the specialest special case that's ever existed, Noddy. I think we're right - and I also think he wants to meet you. But not just yet, yeah? How's about we get some shuteye?"
"Okay," said Noddy, and chose a bed at random. "Can I sleep here?"
"Sure," said Selphie, whose bed it was. Zell pulled the covers around him, and the others headed back into the sitting room where Irvine was stretched out on a couch.
"You like him, don't you?" asked Bella.
"Yeah," said Zell with a tired grin. "Sorta like a less-moody Squall at that age. Always wondered what he'd have been like if he'd learned to smile."
"Guys, we can't just hold him here," said Selphie seriously. "Detmer is the boy's legal guardian no matter who his father is or turns out to be. We're on shaky ground here. We've got to get Detmer and the Felians before they can nab us for kidnaping."
"We can't send him back," said Zell. "He could get killed in the crossfire."
"I'm more interested in how quickly he changed sides," said Selphie. "He was all ready to punch you more full of needles than a pincushion until he thought you were like him. Then it was a complete flip-flop!"
"I understand," said Bella. "If there's more than one child, they'd all have to be around the same age - and they may not all be physically related. The only thing they'd all have in common would be their powers. They probably think of it like they would an exclusive club; something that makes them special. Only someone like they are, or someone with an advanced junction like Zell, could do that trick. It's a pretty good identifying mark."
"Exactly," said Selphie. "Only he said there were six of them, and we can't hold down six high-powered kids and make 'em stare at Zell while he does a Griever impression. We need Noddy to convince them that we're safe people so we can get them out of there."
"No way am I doing that eye trick again," said Zell as he flopped bonelessly into a chair. "Guys, something is wrong with Griever. I don't know what, but it's big. The only thing I can say at all for sure is that it doesn't want the kids dead right now."
"You mean it might change its mind?" asked Bella, aghast. "But you said they're Squall's children!"
"Guys..." sighed Zell, "I don't think Squall is playing with a completely full deck right now. I haven't heard his voice at all today, not even within Griever. Everything I've told you has come from Rinoa's half of Griever, and she sounds like she's at the end of her rope."
"But...they're the same, aren't they?" asked Selphie anxiously. "Two making one - you said that's how it works."
Zell rested his head against the back of the chair, staring at the ceiling with eyes half closed. "Yeah, that's how it works," he said tiredly. "That's how it's been from day one, at least - them only shifting a little bit here or there to adjust how we see them sometimes but always it was both of them somewhere. Something's wrong this time. Noddy's existence - and these other kids we haven't met yet - they've thrown Squall for a big, big loop and I don't think he can handle it. Rinoa's trying to hold Griever together on her own."