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Chapter 17 Assault

The three SeeDs were discussing lots of things over a quick breakfast - everything from the possibility of getting Soares Detmer's address from the local police to good names for Zell's upcoming child - when the polite knock on their door had them scrambling as one to answer it. Neither Squall nor Noddy had a room key, after all - Irvine's was with Irvine himself, and who knew exactly where that was.

Noddy gave a rather startled yelp when Zell unceremoniously hauled him into the room, and his first comment was, "What'd ya hafta go an' do that for?"

"Cause you and your - and Squall gave us one helluva scare, kiddo," he said unapologetically, ignoring Bella's 'don't swear' glance. "And people are prob'ly gonna be lookin' for you real soon - and here, too. Where's Squall? He okay?"

Noddy looked at their anxious faces as though that were the stupidest question he'd ever heard. "O' course he's okay. We were gonna see if we could get the others out, but there's these red lines all over the place that weren't there before, and Squall said I should come get you guys while he tried to get in." He sounded quite proud to have been entrusted with such an important job - but Selphie looked ready to kill, and Bella was only slightly less furious.

"He sends his own kid all the way across town alone," said Selphie. "I am gonna beat him so black and blue when we catch up to him." She gave her nunchaku a twirl. "You up to running all the way back there, Noddy?"

"Oh, yeah. It's not all that far, really. I've gone all the way across Deling and back sometimes."

"Well, hopefully this will be all you need to do today," said Bella, hoping to calm the boy down before his pride got the better of him. "Zell - I think you're probably going to be the official escort; Selphie's still a little tired from Garden, and I've...well, we've covered that."

"Sounds good to me," said Selphie. "While Irvy's gone I'm in charge, so I'll just say it's official and we can get going, right?" She made a little shooing motion with her hands. "So get going, already!"

Noddy gave a devilish grin and immediately set off at an incredibly fast pace down the corridor, the SeeDs doing their best to catch up.

* * * * * * * * *

Squall listened intently from his position near the mansion's southwest corner, hanging fiercely onto his Griever junction so as to catch every word, separate out the speakers.

Children, arguing. It was pushing coincidence to believe they were other than the ones he'd come for. He couldn't go to them - not without setting off a horde of alarms. But he could listen, learn what he could of who they were, and what was going on.

"What'd he mean, Noddy won't be coming back? Why wouldn't he be coming back?" a girl's voice, thin and reedy and petulant.

"Because they found the guys he went with last night and they're dead," said a boy's voice, clear but a little higher than Noddy's.

"That doesn't mean Noddy is dead though," said a second boy, thoughtfully. "Just the people he was with. He's strong - he wouldn't die."

"Huh. Like it matters," said a second girl's voice, low and snide. "He was always the one daddy picked for the fun things. Serves him right if somebody shot him."

That could only be Daear, mused Squall. Noddy had said she liked hurting people. If he managed to get her out of that house alive, there would need to be changes. He surprised himself somewhat that he could remember the name. He wondered which of the boys' voices was Gwynt, and which Taran.

"I don't want Noddy to be dead," said a girl's voice - almost identical to the first girl's but not quite; something was different about the way the words were said. "He promised we could go picking flowers next weekend if I was good."

"Noddy couldn't have taken you anyway, Cariad," said the thoughtful boy authoritatively - causing Squall to peg him as Taran, whom Noddy had said was the leader. "He would've had to get daddy's okay to do that."

"But why isn't he coming back?" asked the first girl again.

"I don't know," said Taran, "and you can just shut up about people shooting him, Daear. Nobody'd shoot him, so quit scaring Chwaer."

What a mouthful to name a girl. Squall shook his head against the multiple-voiced chuckling of Griever.

"So if he's not dead then why isn't he coming back?" said the boy who had to be Gwynt, argumentatively. "And why've we gotta be hiding in here? Why aren't we allowed to help?"

"I don't know," repeated Taran. "But I want everybody ready to get us out of trouble. Somethin's not right, and I don't like it."

Smart kid, said Griever. It's sad that we'll have to prove him right.

I know their voices now, said Squall, and about where they are. The girls don't sound like they'll be much help - and Daear sounds like trouble. But the two boys we can probably both save without too many problems.

Here's something you forgot to ask, said Griever. You don't know what they can do.

There was a smile in Squall's thoughts if not on his face, as he said, Actually, I already know.

It had been a very long time since he'd managed to so completely frustrate Rinoa, and it lightened his mood somewhat as he made his way back to the alley where the others would meet him.

* * * * * * * * *

His friends were indeed waiting in the alley when he arrived, the two women shooting murderous glares at him that plainly said you idiot. Zell didn't seem to be much worried - but then, Zell had long ago developed absolute faith in his friend. In a way, it hurt. It was hard to be the recipient of such faith, when he knew it was probably undeserved. Noddy was still running on the adrenaline high of getting to play in adult games of intrigue.

"There's no way to surprise them," said Squall by way of an opener. "There are motion sensors in a blanket field all around the property, rigged to alarms. We're going to have to do a blitz - break in, do what we have to, and get out before whatever security they've got rigged to those alarms goes off."

"You know where the kids are?" asked Zell. "Don't wanna chuck a grenade in the front door to find out they were sittin' in the living room."

"Southwest corner," said Squall. He turned to Noddy. "He's got them all locked in one room, and he's told them you're not coming back."

"Squall!" said Selphie, aghast. "You don't tell kids things like that!"

Squall glared at her, but his voice was level as he said, "Selphie, if being told his siblings think he's dead is the worst thing that happens to him or the others today, I will personally apologize. Now shut up."

Get used to it, Squall, came Irvine's chuckling voice. It's called back-seat parenting and just about everybody does it.

Then I may just have to reintroduce them to the concept of talking to a wall, shot back Squall. They are my responsibility at the end of the day - no one else's.

Does this mean you will let them live? asked Griever.

Squall gave the mental equivalent of a sigh. I don't know, he said at last. I want to save them if I possibly can...but this place is locked up tight and I don't know if we can do it. Detmer has had years to prepare for this very eventuality.

"So what's the plan?" asked Bella, interrupting his thoughts.

"I'll blow you an entrance," said Squall, and pointed at the front door. "That'll give you a few seconds to get in and take down any survivors. Head for the southwest corner as fast as you can, take out every adult along the way. There's a room in that corner with five kids in it - probably locked, and probably heavily guarded. Take out the guards but don't open the door. Leave that for Noddy."

"You can't mean to take him in there with us," said Bella indignantly.

Squall was beginning to get tired of this. "Bella, if he goes he might get killed -true. But if he doesn't go, those five kids have no way of knowing we're not here to kill them, and every last one has power equivalent to a person with a junctioned GF. I heard them, not long ago. They're scared, and they're angry. The first person who opens that door that they don't know is going to die. I have to try to save as many as I can."

He nodded to Selphie. "Irvine said that there are no solve-everything solutions. Don't question me on this again." He turned to Zell. "Take Noddy with you - you're the best in close quarters. Protect him if you can." He knew that Zell would hear the unspoken order, that even Selphie wouldn't hear. And if you can't protect him, kill him quickly. There must be no chance that his children - and even thinking that phrase twisted like a knife in the gut - would be raised as weapons of war. Zell's expression grew serious, even grim, but he gave one short nod - acknowledging both the spoken and unspoken command.

It was the same choice he had made long ago regarding Rinoa; better to hate himself for killing his children, than to forbear and hate himself for killing the world. He would have preferred that - if it must be done - he do it himself. But he wouldn't be fast enough, and Zell would at least be quick. The martial artist could snap the boy's neck before he even knew the danger.

It felt like he was signing away a piece of his own soul, condemning a part of himself to death. Yet there were no better options available.

"So how are you going to get us in?" asked Selphie.

Squall didn't answer her directly, instead looking down into the entranced face of his son - his son who plainly didn't care one jot for the danger, but was delighted at the idea of excitement. It felt like someone had stabbed him, knowing that he had just set Zell to be this trusting boy's possible executioner. But he kept it from his face and his voice as he said, "You wanted to see my power. This is one of my powers."

He turned back to the others. "As soon as the doors are opened, make tracks." Then he walked out into the open area before the mansion's gate, lining himself up with the front door. He drew Lionheart, its moonglow blade only faintly visible in the midmorning light, and held it tip-down with both hands on the grip. The price of Renzokuken was pain; he had pain enough to call it at will, this day.

He took all the pain of his children's existence, all the pain of having missed their lives, of having to leave them, and of possibly having to kill them - and he forced it through his hands into his gunblade. White tendrils of energy smoked up from the blade's tip and swirled around him. Raising LionHeart above his head, he called Blasting Zone - and when he lowered the gunblade it blew the mansion's gate and front door into nothingness, and probably any people in a straight line from the front door to the back door as well.

The SeeDs ran for the opening as soon as it became available, Zell practically dragging Noddy who was staring with rapt admiration at Blasting Zone's effects. Squall didn't join them for a second; it always took a few moments for him to recover after a non-combat-related Renzokuken. Emotional pain was harder to put back in its box, perhaps. That was why he had ordered them to be ready, and why he'd waited for them in the first place - so that they could take advantage of the surprise and chaos Blasting Zone would cause.

He caught his breath and gripped his gunblade firmly, and ran full-tilt for the mansion's entrance.

* * * * * * * * *

Noddy seemed to know where to go, so Zell just kept track of the turns and the general direction and kept up. Squall had been right to set him this job; both Selphie and Bella would have been left in the dust by now but Zell knew how to run. He didn't strike to kill unless his attacker was armed; there were hordes of servants around and most were just trying desperately to get out of the way.

Why me? he wanted to ask - but he already knew the answer. He was better than any of the others at reading the Manual of Squall; the slight changes in expression and barely heard traces of emotion in his voice went unnoticed by almost everyone else. Zell had known Squall before the walls were as high as they were now; he knew where the metaphorical chinks were.

Squall wanted these children alive - he knew that. But rather than let them live under someone else's care, he wanted them dead. That was the real order - he was trusting Zell to kill these six children rather than let them remain here. An order that Selphie or Bella would have automatically refused.

The trouble was, Zell didn't know if he could do it. They were only kids, after all, and seemed to be pretty good ones. Oh, he understood the reasoning - that needle attack of Noddy's had given him a pretty good startle - but still. He didn't know for certain why Squall had chosen him - whether it was because Zell might be the best at doing the job, or because he trusted Zell more than he did the others on the team, even with a job like this.

Kadowaki hadn't been stretching the truth in the slightest, when she'd told him it wouldn't be easy to be Squall's friend.

"Whoa," said Noddy. "Lookit all the people!"

Zell skidded to a halt and ducked into a side corridor, pulling Noddy with him. Yes, there were lots of people - lots of guards. This had to be the place. Even jewels generally didn't merit two dozen armed guards within a house. He clenched his fists - they had guns, no way could he take them out with his fists - and he didn't trust the structure of the house to be able to withstand the amount of magic required. Thundaga and Firaga would set the whole place on fire, and Blizzaga would cause the floorboards to snap like dried twigs. That left the more subtle stuff.

"Sleep", he whispered, aiming it in a mass cloud. It was too simple to work - and failed spectacularly. The guards had been enhanced. Detmer had the secret of the power of Guardian Force power - it was too much to hope that he wouldn't use it. Tonberry would be worse than useless against so many, too.

He looked down at Noddy, kicking himself for having to do this. " think you could shoot the guards?" Damn, Squall is gonna fuckin' kill me. And I'll sit still while he does it, too. But we gotta do what we can.

Noddy eyed the collection of men critically. "Yeah. This is a small space. I can get 'em all. Stand back."

Zell didn't have to be told twice, but he made sure he could see the guards, reflected in a hall mirror. If he was going to make Squall's boy kill, he wanted to make sure he didn't forget it, didn't hide from it. There wasn't any other choice, but that didn't make the one he was left with any better.

Noddy's green eyes darkened into a solid field of glittering black. It made the boy look vaguely sinister, and the fierce frown of concentration - so much like Squall's - didn't help either. Zell had to fight not to look away as the little boy raised his fists to his chests, then darted out into the hall and aimed them at the guards.

The light was good here, unlike the streets of Deling last night. Zell saw a horde of tiny needles fly forth from Nodwydd's little fists, filling the hall, turning everything in their path into shrapnel.

The guards didn't just die...they disintegrated, stuck so full of needles that they were effectively minced just standing there. The hall was filled with gore, and Zell - who had seen much bloodier sights in his time - had to keep his lips shut against the need to throw up. A little kid...Hyne, no wonder Squall's afraid to let them live. What'll he be like when he grows up, when he can do this now and not mind?

And indeed, Noddy didn't seem to mind what he'd done at all. He trotted unconcernedly amid the bloody corpses, and fished out a key from what must once have been a pocket but was now just a bloody patch of tattered cloth. Zell moved to protect him; if last night was any indication, Noddy was now defenseless for a while.

Noddy called in, "Guys, it's me! We've got some new friends, just trust me, okay?"

"Unlock the door, chatterbox," said a boy's voice inside, with a note of authority that - despite the circumstances - almost made Zell grin. Especially when Noddy moved automatically to do as he'd been told.

The room wasn't large, and the five children were all wary - to judge by their Guardian Force eyes. One boy was almost a clone of Squall, and he was standing by the doorway with eyes that glowed yellow white with an electric sparkle. But there was no suspicion in his face; just caution, just wariness. It was the other boy - whose eyes swirled purple and yellow - who had all the suspicion.

It was so easy to pretend these were the children of Squall and Rinoa; all he could see in their features he could trace back to Squall, and it was easy to think that if the child had dark hair it must have come from Rinoa. How was it possible?

"This is Zell - he's okay," said Noddy. "He's with some others that are our friends." The boy looked practically ready to burst with all the things he knew. "There's gonna be some ugly stuff going on, and they want us to go outside for now, okay?"

"We don't get to use our powers?" said a girl with Squall's hair and face, but a sour expression and yellow-gold eyes. "What can this guy do that we can't?"

"Kick your ass six ways from Sunday if you don't get moving," said Zell - who was beginning to worry about reinforcements arriving. "And if you give me any grief, you're gonna find out just how short a fuse your dad has." He used the word deliberately - knowing that Noddy would know who he meant, and the others wouldn't.

"He can do it, too," said Noddy. "He's like us, Daear. So come on already!"

As the children filed out, Noddy told Zell their names. Taran was the one with the yellow-white sparkling eyes, the boy with the purple-yellow swirls and the suspicious face was Gwynt, Daear was the surly girl...and the last two girls were twins. Identical twins; one was called Chwaer and one Cariad, but Zell didn't have time to work out which one was which. He hoped he could keep them all straight. He set Noddy to watching the rear as he took point, leading the way out of the house.

Selphie and Bella found them shortly thereafter, and immediately took up positions on either side of the little group, as Noddy performed another round of reassurances and introductions. It seemed Squall had been right; the five other children would probably have attacked with everything they'd had if the SeeDs had not brought Noddy with them. It didn't make the two women any happier, and their faces were set in grim lines as they tried to herd the group out of the house, fighting everyone who got in their way.

"No!" came a voice they recognized, down one of the halls. Zell diverted course without even thinking, the group coming along. Squall - angry?

"And here they are," said a man about Zell's age. "Will you do it then? In front of them? Can you?"

* * * * * * * *

Squall ran down the corridors, LionHeart's moonglow blade casting ghostly flickers of light down the indoor corridors as he fought. He didn't much care whether the people in his way were servants or soldiers. There was only one thing driving him; find his way into the back of the house, and get those kids out.

What he'd do after that was a problem for later. The only way he could deal with any of the many problems associated with those children was to just take one at a time. Right now, the problem was their captivity - solve that, then move on to the next...

A gunshot to the side sent him into a ducking roll; he came up facing the source of the sound, LionHeart held defensively in front of him - enough to prevent a lethal shot. Some guy was standing there grinning, and holding...Exeter?

This is Soares Detmer, came Griever's thought. Irvine remembers.

Wonderful. Irvine was beginning to lose his identity in Griever; there wouldn't be a whole lot more time.

The man called Detmer, for his part, stared at Squall for a moment and then smiled. "You...I remember you."

"More than I can say for you," said Squall. "Where are they?" Don't move too quickly, don't startle someone when there's a gun aimed at you...

The man's genial expression faded. "As if I would tell a mercenary like yourself that, Squall Leonhart. The years have been good to beautiful as ever."

Squall ignored the commentary. He'd already heard every variation the human mind could think up. "Don't play games with me, Detmer. You told them that Nodwydd wasn't coming back; you'd have killed him if you could."

The man's expression turned sly. "As if you haven't entertained that possibility yourself, even though they are the children of your body." His grin widened; a purely malicious smile. "You have, haven't you, mercenary? They're so sweet...and so deadly. And soon they'll be teenagers, with all the rage and pain a teenager feels. With their powers, who could control them?"

Squall tried not to let it bother him, that the man could evidently read his thoughts. "Tell me where they are," he repeated, nothing but grim determination in his voice.

"You really don't remember me, do you?" said Detmer. "Well, I suppose I shouldn't feel too hurt. I was only there for a day, after all, and you were...otherwise occupied."

Squall refused to rise to the bait. "If you were there you would be dead now," he snapped. "You're looking good for a corpse." Darkness at the edge of thought, the hint of a scream...

"As I said, I was only there for a day." shrugged Detmer. "I was just visiting a friend, catching up on old honestly didn't think she made that wonderful complex just for you, did you? Centra's outside Galbadian law - she used to throw such wonderful parties there." He glared at Squall for a moment. "Until you killed her, that is."

"Don't expect me to shed any tears," said Squall. Darkness growing closer, screams at the edge of hearing...

"A mercenary, cry?" Detmer laughed. "You're incapable of it. She gave you the best time to be had anywhere in the world, and you killed her for it. And if your friends have found the children, I'll have to kill them, too. I don't need them anymore, anyway. I've learned what I needed from them."

"Touch them and I'll kill you," said Squall. It sounded like a promise. The pit is there, endless darkness emitting howls of pain...

"They call me 'daddy', did you know that?" Detmer laughed. "Isn't that rich? You, their father...but I am their daddy. You can't kill me if there's any chance they'll hear about it. They'd never forgive you." He leaned forward - Exeter still squarely aimed at Squall - and said, "You want to be near them, don't you? Perhaps it can be arranged. You were quite a good lay, after all."

The ground crumbling underfoot, arms windmilling as balance wavers at the edge of madness...

"No!" yelled Squall, raising LionHeart, ready to charge forward and take Detmer's head off his shoulders even if Exeter blew him full of holes first. He didn't register the sound of footsteps behind him, but Detmer did.

"And here they are," he said. "Will you do it then? In front of them? Can you?"

Chapter 18

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