Thanks again to everyone who's reviewed, particularly the huge number who had something to say about that last chapter. You make my day... New chapter, in which Things Start to Happen.
WARNING: Some light shounen-ai in here, and one paragraph of disturbing content. Not much bad language due to the presence of a cute two-year-old on set. Even Seifer has some concept of 'appropriate' sometimes.
DISCLAIMER: The characters depicted below, with the exception of Kasha Meiroth, belong to Squaresoft. I'm doing this for the fun of it (twisted, aren't I?).
Chapter Seven - Of the Adder's Bite
Seifer half-turned in his chair, looking fed up. "This doesn't make sense," he complained.
"What doesn't?" Squall asked, stepping over Selphie and going to his side.
"I ran the search right, I'm certain, but nobody fits the criteria." He'd spent the afternoon trying to work out who in the whole of the EIC had the chance to mess up all the missions that had gone wrong. "No-one was briefed on all of these assignments. We've got to be looking at the top brass." Squall didn't look happy. Selphie knew why. He was thinking too hard about Estharian politics. He didn't want to accuse anyone important of treason because everybody would think Laguna had put him up to it to get that person out of the way.
Of course, there was another answer. "How about a plot? Don't play with that, love," she told Storm. She was sitting with the little boy on Elle and Laguna's living room floor making towers out of building blocks; he kept trying to grab her nunchaku from her belt. He liked the pretty colours.
"What?" Seifer asked blankly.
"More than one - ooh, poor Stormy," she cooed, as the tower of blocks fell over and some of the bricks landed on the builder. She scooped him up before he started to cry. He cuddled her tightly, his big brown eyes full of tears. She kissed the bruise on his forehead. "That's better, isn't it? Smile for Auntie Selphie, there's a darling brave boy."
"Do you mean there might be more than one person involved?" Seifer demanded.
"That's what I said."
Squall sighed. "Can you check it out, Seifer? See if it's possible?"
"It's got to be. That, or Meiroth's the leak."
"Hyne forbid." They leant over the computer together, idly holding hands.
Selphie rocked Storm in her arms till he cheered up a little. He really was the dearest thing, as good as gold. If only his brother was as nice. Squall wasn't happy or playful or snuggly. He could learn a lot from you, Selphie thought, dropping a kiss onto the little boy's hair. Like how to have fun. Squall's so scared of being happy.
Selphie shifted round so she could watch Squall and Seifer run through the list of names they had on their laptop again. She'd thought Squall would stop being so depressed the whole time when he'd escaped Garden and command, but if anything he'd got worse than ever. He'd been acting up all day except when Seifer was talking to him. Selphie had just about worked out that he was upset about the Intelligence side of the problem. He'd worked for the EIC in the past. He couldn't like suspecting people he'd worked with.
But he hadn't trusted Irvine.
Selphie put Storm down and went over to Seifer and Squall. "Getting anything?" she asked.
"Yeah," Seifer answered. "There's a few possible combinations. You know more about this than we do; how many people do you think could be in on this before what they were doing got noticed?"
"'Cause it hasn't really been noticed yet, you mean? No more than five. Two or three's more likely."
"OK. We make out lists of a maximum of five people and check out the suspects. See if anything else goes wrong round any of them." He started running the search.
"We'll never catch them in the act," Squall said, shoulders hunched like he was feeling more down than ever. "Even if they think we're not after them they won't be fool enough to do anything while we're here watching."
"Don't be so moody!" Selphie ordered him. "We've got a chance! Hyne, Squall. If you wander round being all depressed you'll look suspicious. You've been acting up ever since you got this assignment. What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing." Seifer looked up at him; Squall didn't meet his eyes but said, "There's a few names here that are common to several possible combinations. They're the people we check out first."
After a moment Selphie gave up hoping Squall would say something else and added, "I asked Kiros to find a list of who's supposed to have listening devices stuck up round here. I can set up a machine to find transmitters, and we can clear out the ones the enemy spies have set up. I might be able to trace the signals too."
"Laguna said they already tried that," Squall volunteered. "The signals went nowhere."
"What did he mean?"
"I don't know."
"You're no help." She looked down as she felt a light tug on the hem of her dress. "Hello, Storm. Do you want to come with me and go find Daddy?"
He nodded, sucking one finger, peering up at her like he didn't understand how she worked and wanted to know more. "Can Lion come?"
She smiled and nodded, picking him up and looking round for the toy. "Doesn't Lion have a name?"
Storm frowned. "He's called Lion." He spoke with the matter-of-factness that came with being two. It was so nice to be a child. Things were simpler. The world looked bright and fresh, and it was easy to see when one person tried to cheat another. Selphie wished they could all go back.
"Most lions have another name too," Seifer told him. Storm looked at him round Selphie's shoulder. He seemed to be a bit scared of the big blond man, with his sharp blade and his brash laughter. Seifer smiled gently, and Storm relaxed a bit. "Squall's got a lion, on his necklace," and he lifted the pendant from Squall's chest and held it out towards the little boy. Storm stared at it, fascinated. "This lion's got a name."
"What's he called?"
Storm considered it, his head on one side. "He's not as big as my lion," he said in the end.
"He's bigger sometimes," Squall muttered.
"He grows?" Now Storm looked excited. "I wanna real big lion!"
"Maybe your lion'll grow," Selphie suggested.
"I'll call my lion Griever too," Storm announced. "Then he'll get bigger." He wriggled out of Selphie's arms and ran over to the sofa where the newly named Griever was sitting on guard. "Griever and Storm and Sefie are going to see Daddy," he told the lion. Seifer was grinning. Squall looked like he was suffering. Selphie ignored him - he was such a wet blanket - and took Storm's hand to lead him out of the room.
Earlier on Laguna had been hanging around with the SeeDs, helping them by telling them details they didn't know about the way the EIC worked, until he and Squall started driving each other mental. After that he'd found errands to run until his elder son calmed down a bit. Personally, Selphie thought Squall was jealous of the way Laguna played with Storm and held him when he cried and generally acted like a dad to him. It wasn't like Squall would ever let Laguna anywhere near him to give him support. He was such a tight-arsed hypocrite sometimes. And he'd had to go and make his father run off to search through some more files, hadn't he? It drove Selphie mad sometimes.
She realised Storm was lagging a little and shortened her stride so he didn't need to run to keep up anymore. "Almost there," she told him.
"I know. That's Daddy's room." He pointed to the office ahead. Two cyborg guards blocked the door; they moved aside when Selphie and Storm approached. What was the point of Laguna sneaking around to make it look like he wasn't working through the weekend, when his bodyguards wouldn't ever leave him alone? It was just silly.
Selphie pushed the door open and stuck her head round. Laguna was at his desk running through a computer database. With him was a thin-faced red-haired woman Selphie recognised as Kasha Meiroth, the head of the Intelligence corps. The President looked up when he heard Selphie enter. He beckoned her in. "Come on in, you aren't interrupting. Do you two know each other?"
"By reputation," Meiroth answered, giving Selphie a cool smile that brightened when she saw Storm peeking out from behind her skirts. "We've found something you might be interested in." She waved Selphie towards the desk. Selphie picked up Storm and went to Laguna's side.
At first she didn't know what she was looking at, especially because everything was so distorted by the code. Then she realised what Laguna and Meiroth meant. The screen showed a calendar, a timeline. All the messed-up missions the SeeDs knew about were marked down. So were the most recent 'armed conflicts' Esthar had been in, especially the struggles with Galbadia over the Protectorates. It was all stuff that had been known about and thought about before, but now it was tabulated a couple of things got obvious. Such as the regular period between known mishaps. And the number of times the word 'rebellion' came up. And the way each leak correlated with a setback for the Esthar Army, whether or not the leak in question looked like it had anything to do with a war. And the way a lot of them correlated with setbacks for Galbadia.
Selphie opened her mouth to ask about the agents whose names were already on the 'suspicious' list upstairs, then remembered the room was bugged and shut it again. "Can we take this to show Seifer and Squall?" she said instead.
"Already made you a copy," Laguna answered, passing her a floppy disk.
Selphie gave Storm to Meiroth and reached past Laguna to the keyboard. I'VE GOT A QUESTION, she typed. SQUALL SAID YOU FOUND TRANSMITTERS IN THE PALACE THAT WERE BROADCASTING TO NOWHERE. THAT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE. WHAT DID HE MEAN?
HE MEANS THE TRANSMISSIONS WERE DIRECTED AT SOMEWHERE WHERE THERE WASN'T A RECEIVER, Laguna answered. NO BUILDINGS. WHEN WE DIRECTED FLYBYS OF SOME OF THE AREAS, THERE WEREN'T EVEN VEHICLES OR TEMPORARY CONSTRUCTIONS THERE TO PICK THEM UP. NOBODY WAS RECEIVING THE TRANSMISSIONS.
That, Selphie couldn't understand at all. Unless... THE BUGS MUST BE SENDING OUT TWO SIGNALS EACH; A DECOY GOING TO WHERE YOU THOUGHT THEY WERE GOING, AND A REAL ONE GOING TO SOMEWHERE VERY NEAR HERE. WITHIN THE PALACE, ALONG THE TRAJECTORY OF THE DECOY SIGNAL.
Meiroth gasped. "You're right. If the target was that close we wouldn't have been able to see it with the equipment we were using. The - well - regulars didn't scan at all."
"Have you got some other equipment?" Laguna asked her.
"Yes. I'll start a search."
"Just a second." She turned back to Laguna, who pointed to the computer and typed, THEY ALREADY HAVE LISTS OF WHO WAS ON MISSIONS THAT IT'S OBVIOUS GAVE RISE TO LEAKS. GET A LIST OF WHO WAS ON MISSIONS THAT WERE BETRAYED. PARTICULARLY WHERE THE AGENTS SURVIVED, BUT GET A KILLED-IN-ACTION LIST TOO.
Meiroth nodded. "Go to Daddy, sweetheart," she addressed Storm, passing him to Laguna.
"Don't call me that," Laguna muttered, his arms full of son and lion. Meiroth smiled and went out.
"You think that that's suspicious?" Selphie said, pointing to the place in the conversation where Laguna had talked about agents surviving betrayal.
"Not always. Exchanges," he said cryptically. Huh? Oh, prisoner exchanges. "But it might be useful."
"What about rivalry? For the ones who didn't," and she tapped the word BETRAY, "themselves on purpose."
"I don't think so. This is about more than that. But it's worth looking to see if they would support us or someone else if it came down to it." Storm was trying to get his attention. Laguna let him chatter about how big and brave Griever was nowadays; "But he's not growing as big and strong as you are, is he?" Eventually Storm climbed down to play at house under the desk, taking Griever with him. Laguna closed his eyes for a second and asked, "Is Squall still p - annoyed?"
Selphie snorted. "That's nothing new. Be glad you haven't had to live with him for the past few months. He's been awful, except when Seifer calms him down."
"That explains that, then."
He was talking about Seifer and Squall being together, Selphie realised. "It kind of surprised us too," she told him. "Specially because Squall - well, he doesn't seem to like anything anymore. Or anyone. It's like we've all done something wrong and we don't know what it was."
"He's a - " Laguna stopped saying the rude word he'd been about to say when Storm started talking to Griever. "Elle's worried about him."
"There's nothing wrong with him," Selphie scoffed. "It's how he's always been."
"She thinks he's getting worse. I don't -"
The door banged open. Selphie and Laguna started, and turned round. Kasha Meiroth was standing in the doorway, her face white. "President Loire," she said with difficulty, "there's - been some trouble. An agent has been found dead - murdered - in the Intelligence offices. I was due to debrief him -" She stopped very suddenly, pressing a hand to her face.
Selphie jumped into action. "Show me where," she said, pulling her nunchaku from her belt. "Was there a camera in the room? Or a bug?"
"No." Too much to hope for, she knew.
"You go down," Laguna told Meiroth and Selphie, pulling Storm out from under his desk. "I'll be along in a minute or two."
"You'll be OK alone?" Selphie checked, remembering why she was officially in Esthar. "With a killer about?"
"Nobody can get into the Intelligence offices without authorisation. I've been in the same building with the killer before now." He waved her away. Selphie caught Meiroth's arm when it looked like she wasn't going anywhere, encouraging her to hurry on down to the EIC's wing.
"Where was the dead guy working?" Selphie asked as they half-ran down the corridors.
"Galbadia." Meiroth didn't seem inclined to talk. Selphie stopped pushing her and fell silent. Had the murder happened because the late agent had uncovered the treachery? If so, that definitely narrowed down the Galbadian connection. But to what, exactly?
The news had spread. The number of guards running about the place had tripled. The soldiers were clearing everyone away from the Intelligence offices, but when they saw Meiroth they immediately let her and her SeeD escort through. Some enterprising soldier had rounded up all the staff in the wing; another was already downloading the data from the only door's swipe card system. For what it was worth they would know exactly who the hundred or so people who could have done it were. Not that the answer would be anything they couldn't have guessed.
Inside the offices Meiroth led Selphie through a couple of rooms before pointing at the door to the men's room. Several investigating officers were moving around inside. Selphie stuck her head in the door and gagged.
On the floor of one of the stalls lay a very dead man. Somebody had strangled him with a piece of wire, making sure they didn't stop until the victim was too far gone for magical revival. Selphie had seen her share of corpses but this was something else. From the neck down the guy looked fine. But his face was black. A ribbon of blood crossed his neck, coating the garotte that had choked the life from him. He'd bitten through his tongue and his eyes were wide open, staring at nothing; the look of terror on his face made Selphie shiver all over. Dying that sort of death...
Familiar footsteps caught Selphie's attention. She turned away from the men's room just as Seifer and Squall came running in. "What in Hyne's name - " Seifer began, before seeing exactly what had happened and falling silent.
Squall took one look, closed his eyes and turned away. "Kasha -"
She put a hand on his arm and said something in a low voice that Selphie didn't catch. It didn't cheer Squall at all. Words couldn't erase a death. "We'll handle this," she added audibly. "I'll speak to your father later."
"Thank you," Squall said in a tone as dead as the man behind him. "I'll keep you informed of his whereabouts. Accept - my sympathy." Some note of sorrow crept into his voice. Almost like he could feel something after all.
Meiroth squeezed his arm again and Squall stepped aside. Seifer followed him, taking his turn to touch Squall. But he wasn't someone who could be reassured by human contact; even Seifer's hand on his arm seemed to disturb him. Selphie moved her attention off Squall and Seifer when Meiroth spoke to her. "Before this was - discovered - I already put together the list for you. We kept records anyway; it was just a matter of compiling them. I hope it helps - especially now."
Selphie looked at the other woman, at the distress in her eyes, and nodded. What had the dead agent meant to her? "We'll do what we can, I promise."
Before someone else dies.
Meiroth's voice lowered. "I'll get you his records as well." With that she left Selphie standing in the middle of the room with a floppy disk in her hand.
Seifer was leading Squall out of the room. Selphie hurried after them, clutching the disk. Neither man said a word all the way to the lift, though Seifer looked curiously at the disk once in a while. Squall looked like he didn't even know where he was. Selphie didn't know what frightened her more; the emptiness in his face most of the time or the hints of anger and sadness that touched him for brief moments occasionally. She started wondering if Squall had known the dead man, if they'd worked together. If this had started to get personal for the first time.
The lift carried them up to the floor Laguna's rooms were on. Seifer started to say something as they walked out, but Squall reached up without looking and pointed to the security camera. Seifer nodded and didn't try to speak again.
But when they'd closed the door of Laguna and Elle's apartment behind them he immediately asked Selphie, "What're you waving around now?"
"Meiroth was with Laguna when I went to see him. She thought of another line we could try." She turned Squall's laptop back on and plugged in the disk once the machine had warmed up.
"Hmm. Guess you'll actually tell us when you've got the file open." Squall closed his eyes; Selphie braced herself. They were all upset. Seifer had no right to be an asshole just because he was upset. Maybe he felt the shadow of what was going to hit him if he went on like that. He visibly controlled himself and turned to Squall. "Did you know the guy?"
"He was field control for one of my missions." So Squall had hardly known him at all, in other words, but had just enough connection to the guy to feel more than a professional sadness. He didn't volunteer any more information, but turned to watch the file come up on screen. The program opened, but before Selphie could look at much more than the title Squall said, "Where's Storm?"
The front door opened. "With me," Ellone said, coming in with her son toddling beside her still holding Griever. Selphie caught the shadow of a soldier behind her and realised Laguna hadn't left them to wander the Palace alone after all. "Laguna left him with me before he ran downstairs. Didn't you see him?"
"No. I need to." Selphie bit back the temptation to mention that she'd never heard Squall say he wanted to be in his father's presence for any reason before. Instead she scrolled past the list of agents killed by the traitors to the set of people who had survived betrayal by them. She recognised a couple of names from the suspect list, and bit back a cheer. She was sure they were on a good track with this.
"Why?" Seifer was asking Squall.
"I need to ask him about the EIC's standard vetting procedures, so we don't repeat checks they've already made." He stood up. "I should do that now. You two can sort through that." With a nod to Elle he left the apartment.
"What's eating him?" Seifer wondered.
"Laguna'll be busy," Ellone added as she helped Storm out of his shoes. "Could it have waited?"
"Yeah." Seifer groaned as Elle and Storm wandered off. "Hyne, what's he think he's doing?"
"He thinks he's being Squall," Selphie sighed. She turned back to the screen - and froze.
"He's - Selphie?"
"Come here for a second. You know, I don't think we're going to put everyone on this list into the 'suspect' bracket."
"Agents who were betrayed by whoever's leaking information. Come see."
Seifer came up to her shoulder and read in silence for a second. "This might change a few things," he said finally.
"Including what you're going to do to Squall when he comes back?"
(to be continued...)
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