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Chapter 9 Smoking Barrel

The trip to Deling City was the quietest ever recorded in the Ragnarok. Bella took the pilot's seat and concentrated on her flying, because neither of the other two were up to that degree of concentration since the bluffs.

Irvine was fighting down a powerful anger, and displayed it by stalking all over the huge craft with his fists clenched. He knew it wasn't Zell's fault that Squall and Rinoa had chosen to live apart for the rest of their lives, and he knew he couldn't take it out on anyone else. But he still had an almost uncontrollable urge to throttle someone, and at the base of that urge was fear. Ellone had been crying, and he couldn't make it better. Irvine couldn't stand it when women cried. He would do anything, anything, to make them stop. He wished he could bring back Laguna, but that was impossible.

He didn't think merely catching her adoptive father's killer would bring the smile back to Ellone's face. There was no desire for vengeance in her. So he wanted to make Griever into Squall and Rinoa again. That would make Ellone smile, wouldn't it? But he couldn't. Zell held Griever's junction, and Zell was very good at obeying orders. He would regard any request from those two as being of the highest priority; Squall was, to all practical purposes, Zell's god.

Denied any useful outlet for his anger, Irvine was reduced to pacing the corridors of Ragnarok. And trying, vainly, to think ahead. On his third circuit through the cockpit, Bella said, "Could you give me a minute please?"

Irvine paused. "Anything, if it'll take my mind off Winhill," he said, and chose a seat.

"Actually, I don't know if it'll do that," said Bella hesitantly, "but I think it's important. I don't think we should stay with General Caraway when we arrive at Deling City."

Irvine blinked. "Why not? He's still on our side, isn't he?"

Bella smiled. "It's not that," she said. "It's more to do with Zell, and Griever. I don't think you understand what happened back on the bluffs."

Irvine blew out a gusty sigh. "Squall's being an ass, that's what happened," he said heavily. "Why, what else was going on?"

"Irvine, Zell didn't confront Griever because he was angry with Squall and Rinoa," Bella said. "He's already told you he thinks that was the right choice for them to have made, even if he doesn't like the side effects. He confronted Griever because Ellone was unhappy and uncertain, and he wanted to make her happier."

"Yeah, so? What does that have to do with - oh, I see." Irvine looked thoughtful. "You figure, if Caraway gets Zell alone - him being the last reported person to see them alive - that he'll do it again for Rinoa's dad. Yeah?"

Bella nodded. "Zell likes people to be happy, and he has a greater respect for family than most of you do. I think he'd probably confront Griever again to give Caraway some comfort - only Caraway is not as simple or trusting as Ellone."

Irvine thought through the implications of General Caraway working out that Rinoa wasn't as dead as she was reported to be. He didn't like what he saw; the idea of how GFs came to be becoming general knowledge didn't sit well at all. Sorceresses would end up becoming national treasures - better maybe than the objects of fear they currently were, but if both Sorceress and Knight had a strong national bond, wouldn't the GF too? And if GFs could be used as a national weapon, some bonehead out there would certainly try it..."We've got to stay at a hotel," he said quickly, "And make sure Zell isn't left alone with Caraway. Zell's too trusting, and while the general's not a bad guy he could wrap Zell around his finger if it were over Rinoa. Good thinking, Bella."

She managed to shrug while piloting. "I know my Zell," she said simply, with a hint of laughter.

Irvine nodded and leaned back, trying to deal with a world gone suddenly complex. It was so much easier to deal with people when you weren't actually involved with them... and now you're thinking like Squall, you jackass, he told himself. And we know where thinking like that leads, now don't we?

In the end he pulled his hat over his eyes and tried to sleep.

Zell spent the entire trip in one of the hullward cabins, practicing his combat moves and staying safely out of sight. He wasn't avoiding anyone - the ship was large, but not that large. It was just that he didn't really know where he stood when it came to Ellone, and he didn't want to have to pick a side until he knew which one he agreed with. He resolutely avoided speaking to the GFs in his head, knowing that they wouldn't speak to him unasked unless it was something important or related to their own special powers. He'd never been this confused in his life.

For the first time, he wondered who he'd choose to save if Bella and Ma Dincht were both in trouble and he could only help one. It was an unlikely situation, of course - which was why he'd never considered it. But now...after Winhill...he was seeing what that choice did to people. Squall had chosen Rinoa over his father, his sister, and his friends. Well - choosing Bella over any of his other friends, nobody would fault him for that, and he didn't really blame Squall for choosing that either. It was expected that love was greater than friendship, no matter how good the friendship was.

His twists, punches and strikes took on an extra dimension of ferocity when he remembered Ellone's tear-streaked face, the hint of sorrow in Laguna's voice whenever he'd mentioned his son. Zell could understand Squall choosing Rinoa over Laguna; yeah, he was his dad, but he'd never been there the way Ma Dincht had been around for Zell himself. Zell felt that parenthood wasn't a matter of genetics, it was a matter of time. Ma Dincht wasn't his real mom, he knew that, but she'd adopted him and taken care of him until he left for Garden the way any mother should do, and Zell loved her for it. Laguna hadn't done that - no real fault to the guy for not knowing, but still.

But Ellone...Ellone had been there for Squall when they were little, and she hadn't left by choice. And she'd used her power over great distances to try and give her brother back his past, and let him know his father. She hadn't been able to be a full sister to Squall and the others, what with Adel and all, but by damn she'd done her best. She'd done pretty well, given that she was never trained as a SeeD.

That was the heart of the dilemma. When it came right down to it, did Zell agree with his friend's choice? He thought about Bella - how he felt about her, and how he felt about his mom. How did you choose which love was more important?

I don't think I could choose, he decided, stopping his routine and catching his breath. And I'm glad as all hell I'll probably never have to.

He looked up as he felt the ship change direction and velocity. Course correction; they had to be near Deling City now. He sprinted down the corridors, heading for the cockpit; rules were rules, and one of them was to get briefed before disembarking.

Zell was almost completely incapable of silence in an urban environment. Put him in a jungle or other earthy terrain and he could actually sneak around incredibly well. Put him on an artificial surface - be it plastic, steel, asphalt, or whatever - and he seemed to think there was no reason for caution. So Irvine was wide awake and looking alert when Zell bounded into the cockpit.

"We about there, Bella?" he asked, and got her nod in reply.

"Give me five minutes, Zell, and we'll be landed."

"Cool-ness," he grinned. "I haven't seen Deling City in a loooong time. Hope the evening shows are still as cool."

Irvine tipped his hat up with one finger. "Zell, if you say one more thing that makes me sound like Squall when I answer it, I will personally shoot you a new part in your hair, got it?" he said, sounding tired and a little exasperated. "We're here to find that gun, and hopefully the gunman. We're not here to attend the shows, although I agree with you that the ones with the ladies wearing feather bikinis were pretty cool. Okay?"

Zell shot his friend an evil look. "Your call, O Great Leader," he said with just the slightest hint of sarcasm. "But I'm personally gonna be missing those shows - oooof!" he was interrupted by Bella's well-placed elbow, right under the ribs.

"You wouldn't be wanting to see naked women when you've got me, would you Zelly-poo?" she asked in a too-sweet voice. His eyes widened; he knew the Tone of Threat. If he answered wrongly, she'd tickle him breathless.

"Umm..." he managed. "Could I get back to you on that?" And immediately darted to the back of the cockpit, where Bella couldn't reach him since she was piloting.

Irvine just laughed quietly. The two were reminding him of Selphie, back in Garden, and how much he missed having those kinds of arguments with her. "All right, briefing," he said, as Bella took the Ragnarok in for a landing. "We're going to stay at the Galbadia Hotel while we're here - and don't argue," he said, noticing Zell's puzzled look. "First thing is we contact General Caraway and see if he can give us any leads on this guy Klev described for us, and the kids. From there...well, we'll have to see."

Ragnarok landed gently, hardly a bump at all as it settled on the ground. "Landing complete, opening hatchway," said Bella, flicking a few switches.

"Woohoo!" said Zell, and darted for the exit. "Fresh air, here I come!"

Irvine turned to Bella. "You didn't tell him all about your last mission, I take it," he said.

She shook her head. "No time, really," she said apologetically. "He'll figure it out."

Rather more sedately, the two followed Zell's lead.

* * * * * * * *

Zell lost most of his desire to go running around at top speed when he got a lungful of Deling City air. "What the hell happened here?" he asked incredulously, coughing.

Bella said, "My last mission, basically. They're trying to perfect a gas bomb to take out the anacondaurs. I got them some malboro gas-sacks, and they're experimenting with it. Don't breathe too deeply." She herself had prudently unpacked a mouth-filter, and was breathing through it.

"No fear!" hacked Zell. "Jeez, you coulda warned me."

Bella handed him a filter, and he noted that Irvine was already wearing one. Somewhat huffily, he put it on, and they continued on toward Caraway's residence in silence.

Caraway greeted them politely, although he seemed somewhat surprised. Quickly he ushered them into the vestibule, where they could remove their filters and speak freely.

"What brings you here this evening, SeeDs?" he asked in the clipped voice common to career military men.

Irvine shot a look at the others, and decided this was just one more thing he'd have to do as Leader. "I'm sure you keep abreast of important events in other nations, sir," he began.

Caraway looked puzzled for a moment. "Yes, of course I do," he said. "You mean that your being here has to do with the unfortunate events in Esthar recently?"

"Got it in one, sir," nodded Irvine. He couldn't get out of the habit of respect for the Galbadian uniform; Galbadia was his home. It did at least seem to make Caraway easier to deal with. "We've been assigned to tracing the murder weapon, and so far the trail leads here. We're hoping you can help."

Caraway nodded. "Anything I can do, of course. But we shouldn't talk here; come, there are better seats in the study." And he led the way down one of the hallways of his home. Shrugging at his team-mates, Irvine shortly followed, setting the other two in motion.

At least for a few minutes. Zell had opted to go last in the file, as it gave him the chance to sneak up on Bella. So the others weren't exactly sure what caused him to groan - they didn't hear him hit anything - but when they turned around, he was staring wide-eyed at one of the innumerable trophies and knickknacks hung on the wall. He didn't seem to notice when Bella put her hand on his arm, concerned. Irvine followed his friend's gaze to see what the problem was.

There, on the wall as though it were any other pretty trinket, was a gun. With a bright steel barrel, and ornamental etched brass side-plates, and deeply polished hardwood for the butt. And a sight made of a little brass heart at one end, and a needle-sharp animal's tooth at the other. A beautiful piece, but not one that Irvine would ever have bet could shoot straight.

At least, he wouldn't have, if he hadn't already known it shot Laguna.

There was a moment of silence as the three stared at the weapon, then Bella said, "Zell?" in a confused tone that drew Irvine's eyes away from their prize. Zell was starting to wobble, just a bit, and then his cornflower blue eyes started to change. Irvine immediately moved to stand between the approaching Caraway and Zell - no telling what would happen if word of that little freakshow got out.

But he needn't have worried. Only a few seconds after the gold cat-eyes of Griever made a demonic mockery of Zell's face, his eyes closed altogether and he slumped forward - so suddenly that Bella almost didn't catch him.

"What's wrong?" asked Caraway, concerned. "Is he all right? Did he breathe too much of the air outside?"

Irvine looked at his unconscious friend and tried not to worry. Zell in an unmoving state was just creepy. "Sir, I think it has more to do with the fact that the weapon that put him in the IC unit a few weeks ago is hanging on your wall. Care to tell us how it got there?" There was a hard edge in his voice now; Caraway could fit the description Klev gave - except for the kids - and he had the gun. That made him Suspect Number One, no matter how friendly he'd been in the past.

But Caraway seemed genuinely surprised. "That gun?" he asked. "But it's been on my wall for months now." He shook his head. "First things first - let's get your comrade to a couch. A good draught of brandy will clear his head, I'm sure."

Bella and Irvine shared a look, and both shook their heads rapidly. "Nooo," said Irvine carefully, "I really think giving him alcohol is a bad idea," he said. "Almost as bad as sugar or caffeine. Trust us. Cold water will do just fine." And without another word, he picked Zell up by the shoulders, leaving Bella to get his legs, and they unceremoniously hauled him after the puzzled Caraway, heading for the study.

* * * * * * *

Zell could think before he could see. He'd never fainted before in his life, so it was a new experience to be able to hear voices around him, but not be able to move any part of his body.

You did this, didn't you, he growled at Griever. What the hell didja have to go and knock me out for?

Griever's voice was unapologetic - though it was a tad concerned - as it said, You were not rational, for a moment there. You were on the verge of attacking Caraway. We took the only option we had.

But he's got the gun! wailed Zell. He's a general, just like Klev said, and he's got the gun hanging right there on the wall! Don't you dare tell me it's not the same one! Calm down, growled Griever, or we will be forced to give you another nap.

Leviathan, isn't this sort of interference against the rules? said Zell, trying a different tack. I've never heard of GFs knocking their holders out before.

Leviathan's watery voice was hesitant as it said, There are no rules for this. The advanced junction gives you greater power, but it also affords us a greater degree of control, if we choose to use it. Griever does not always need your permission to take over your senses, just as you do not always need to ask for the use of our powers.

We did what we did for your ultimate good, came the feline voice of Griever again. We are your friends; we would not take such a step unless we needed to. But you must realize that Caraway cannot be guilty - or that if he is, you need more proof.

You know, sometimes I really wonder about you guys, said Zell. But okay. I promise I won't flatten Caraway without orders from Irvine or Seifer. Now can I please wake up?

We weren't holding you down, came Griever's voice, then it faded away.

Something absolutely putrid was shoved under his nose, and Zell was gratified to find out that he could get the hell away from it.

"See?" said Bella. "Works every time." She slipped her malboro tentacle back into its airproof bag and sealed it, grinning. "Back with us now?"

Zell's eyes darted around the room; Caraway was here, so he couldn't talk freely. "Yeah," he said flatly. He made his hands into fists, scowling at the general. "So, buddy, what brings you into ownership of a weapon that practically made swiss cheese out of me?"

Caraway shook his head. "I really don't think it's possible," he said. "I've owned that gun for months, it's just a showpiece I was given. It can't be the one you're looking for."

Irvine tipped his hat up. "That so?" he asked, too casually. "We'll see." He stood up and left the room for a moment, returning with the gun in hand. "You're an army man," he said. "If it's been on your wall for months and never used, how come it shows signs of being fired?" He tossed the gun into Caraway's startled lap.

Caraway did as he was bid, the three SeeDs watching him carefully. Either he was genuinely surprised to find Irvine right, or he was the best actor the three of them had ever seen. "Well?" asked Irvine. "If you don't have a good story, I hope you realize you're about to take a long flight to Esthar for a very permanent visit. There's international treaties for this sort of thing."

Caraway set the gun down on a table. "I really don't understand," he said. "I was given it a few months ago, and I hung it on the wall and forgot about it. You've seen the displays; one more didn't make a lot of difference. But it has been fired recently. I can't deny that."

"Did you know the gun was stolen?" asked Bella. "There's a hunter in Winhill who's the real owner."

Caraway started to look annoyed. "No, I didn't know it was stolen property," he snapped. "I was given it as a gift. One does not turn to one's friends on receiving a present and ask if it is stolen property."

Irvine shrugged; the gesture seemed casual, but Zell noted that his hands weren't far from Exeter's holster. "So who gave it to you, then?" he asked. "Or are you going to tell us you don't remember?"

"I am a person of some power and influence around here," said Caraway. "No. I can't remember who gave it to me."

"Then, General Caraway, I must inform you that you have about twenty-four hours to settle any personal affairs you might have. You will have to come with us to stand trial in Esthar for the assassination of Laguna."

Caraway's eyes widened. "But...this is preposterous. You know I would not have done it. What would I gain?"

"Doesn't matter. You've got the weapon, and the opportunity. Unless you can kick your memory into high gear pronto, we'll have to take you in."

Bella lifted a finger. "If you can't help with who gave it to you," she said, "perhaps you can help us determine who stole it." And she recited the descriptions Klev gave them, and which she had noted down.

Caraway looked relieved to finally be able to provide a useful and non-self-incriminating answer. "Oh yes, I know them," said Caraway. "Their daughter was a friend of Rinoa's before she left. That would have been General Felian, and his two sons. Very rowdy boys; I was always careful to have chaperones around when they visited my daughter. They used to love vacationing in Winhill, they said it did them good to go out hunting once in a while away from civilization."

"What, he doesn't take his daughter on vacations?" asked Irvine, noticing the discrepancy.

"No, his daughter is dead. Has been for ten years. I heard she died in Esthar, some sort of accident."

The three SeeDs shared a suddenly uneasy look. No, it couldn't possibly be that twisted. Zell's hands unconsciously clenched and unclenched. Irvine leaned forward, elbows on knees, as he asked, "These kids of General Felian's. They have names?"

Caraway noted the sudden tension in the room, but didn't know its cause. It gave him a moment's hesitation before he answered. "Prentiss, and Eustace, I believe."

Another shared look among the SeeDs. "And the daughter?" prodded Irvine.

"If I recall correctly, her name was Alicia."

Irvine grimaced, Bella frowned, and Zell's expression turned positively demonic. "That family is history," said Zell flatly. "I am gonna personally introduce them to my gloves. They're just too twisted to live."

Caraway leaned back, aware he'd been given a reprieve but not sure why. "How would you know Alicia, and what happened to make you all so upset? The Felians are a very respected family in Deling City. They're right behind the Delings in power, actually."

Irvine shook his head. "Classified SeeD matter," he said, "But you can bet they've got so many skeletons in their closet there's hardly any room for clothes. All right, General Caraway. We'll find out what they did with the gun after they stole it, to see that you got it. But we'll have to take the gun as evidence."

"You have my utmost cooperation, of course," said Caraway. "Will you be staying here tonight? I have rooms."

"No," said Irvine quickly. "Aside from you being a suspect and all until we can clear you, we'll need to be able to come and go unobtrusively. We'll be at the Galbadia Hotel if you need to reach us."

The three SeeDs filed out, leaving Caraway wondering whether or not he should worry about them. So much power, in the hands of such young people...

Chapter 10

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