Chapter 8 Change in the Posse

Dawn in Esthar was quite possibly the most beautiful time of day, the city at its finest. Few people were up and about, the air was clear and cool, and the subtle hues of the dawn's light were reflected on the windows of every building in sight.

However, none of the posse were big on sightseeing today. They were up this early because there was a lot of work to do, and they wanted to get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It had taken them days to finish sorting through Zell's contact list, and they now had a much better idea of what had been going on - and more importantly, why Zell had not known what was going on.

Quite simply, Zell was a trusting person. Being completely inept at lying himself, he tended to assume other people wouldn't lie either - at least, if they passed the initial inspection. At that point he considered them Good People and simply didn't check to make sure they were still honest.

There were little holes in the network all over the upper echelons of the military and nobility because of this blindness. Nothing major, for the most part. But enough that Seifer's report back to Garden included the recommendation that Zell never be issued an assignment that involved creating and maintaining an information network again. Combat, Zell understood. One shot deals at information gathering, he was very good at. But long-term It wasn't stupidity, though it was naiveté of the sort that had Seifer itching to punch him. Because now, the trail was harder to follow.

At best guess, there were ten possible suspects; people who would have known which other people to bribe to keep an assassination plot quiet. The question now was, among those ten which were the guilty ones?

Profit, Seifer thought. Check the ones who have managed to gain the most first.

That translated to checking out the Presidential candidates, and the noble families who had had the most to gain by a shift in power - no matter who the shift might go to.

So, today, they were going to check the golf courses. Seifer abandoned his trench coat - with some reluctance - in the hotel room. He wasn't going to be playing the guest today; he was going to be waiting in trees with a listening device. They had already learned everything they could through open channels; the nobles of Esthar seemed able to lie in their sleep. He would still be armed, but trench coats had an annoying tendency to get caught on branches.

Esthar was highly stratified; there were people who 'looked' noble, and people who 'looked' like servants. So the other two got a much better deal than he did. He tried not to let his irritation with it show. Fujin, with her silver hair and pale eyes, looked like a member of the Estharian elite. Given the fact that she was an orphan, she might really be one. But that didn't matter - what mattered was that she looked the part. They picked up a uniform at a military surplus store, and made her look like a retired officer; it wasn't perfect, but it would pass a civilian inspection. They couldn't make her look like a stay-at-home noble wife; her eye patch and her manner of speech were out of place for that. She would wander the course as a guest of the facilities, considering a membership.

Raijin, coming as he did from the aboriginal tribes near the equator, got the raw end of the deal. He was so obviously foreign that he couldn't even pretend to be a citizen of the common class, the way Seifer could when he wanted to. Thankfully, that obvious difference made this sort of job easier; people said 'oh, a tribesman' and didn't bother to note that this particular tribesman had never been seen on the grounds before. They just assumed he was an immigrant, and therefore a servant. If they didn't recognize him...well, who said you had to know the names of all your servants? All Raijin had to do was make sure there was some blatantly obvious reason for him to be nearby - say, a window needing washing, or a carpet needing cleaning (and he had vials of various stain producing liquids hidden on his person to make sure he could be there all day) - and the nobles didn't think twice about him. Where Fujin got people to talk out of a desire to impress, Raijin got to hear what they really thought, because to the nobility, servants are invisible. Non-entities.

The two just made sure that everything they heard got back to Seifer, who recorded everything and made counter notations on a pad for later fast-checking. At the moment he was spared having to sit in a tree; the roof of the country club had plenty of crevices where he could hide the recording equipment and receivers. Without his signature white trench coat, from a distance, and his gunblade safely hidden, Seifer made a creditable imitation of a roofer. Thankfully it was incredibly hard to inspect his disguise closely without getting onto the roof, and the guests never questioned maintenance personnel who looked busy, or thought them worth a mention to management.

It was when the various golf games got fully underway that there would be sitting-in-a-tree time. At least rooftops were basically planar surfaces.

"Seifer," came Raijin's whisper over the receiver. "How'm I gonna get outside? They're gonna notice I've been cleaning the same carpet for four hours, ya know?"

"Stand with the caddies," said Seifer, just as quietly. "If they haven't noticed you don't belong there yet, they're not going to. You'll get hauled along as a caddy and get to listen to everything they say. Try to get in with a promising group." He had little sympathy to spare for Raijin's pride right now; his own was getting a severe bruising. And Fujin...ha. Fujin was discovering the joys of a multiple-word vocabulary.

She was endeavoring to make people believe she had suffered a throat wound that made speech painful. The conversations that ensued were the only thing that kept Seifer's rising impatience in check; he'd have to see about selling copies back in Garden, the results were so funny. He glanced down; finally. The nobles who were planning on lounging here all day had finished their breakfasts, and were now beginning to form into groups to start their royal strolls - pardon, golf games - around the premises. He checked the caddy line; yes, there was Raijin, endeavoring to look positively overawed by all the wealthy people and eager to bend over backwards for a two dollar tip. Seifer suspected he'd be positively insufferable tonight; there was only so much humble pie any of the posse could stand before they blew.

Seifer chose an unobtrusive section of rooftop, gathered the gear, and nimbly leaped to the ground, starting to enjoy the benefits of Bahamut's advanced junction. He'd already spotted a good stand of trees; they were meant to serve as shade more than a golfer's trap, and he'd noted the benches beneath. By midday, it would be a very good place to pick up all sorts of comments.

Of course, he had to get there. He couldn't pretend to be a club member; he didn't look the part. And he couldn't play the part of servant very well either. The solution was simple; he pulled a rifle out of his bag and pretended to be a groundskeeper hunting vermin. The only holes on a golf course are supposed to be the ones in the putting greens, right?

Fujin noticed him, of course, from her gaggle of young female proto-warriors. She envied him the chance to move around without comment. Female military officers weren't all that rare in Esthar, but noble female officers were. All the girls wanted to know how Fujin had lost her eye, and whether it would seriously impact her marriage prospects. The mindless chatter caused her good eye to blaze with repressed fury, but the idiot girls thankfully didn't notice. She encouraged them to talk about whatever was on their minds using as few words as possible, and had a hard time near the end of each hole when her strokes had to be gentle enough to not overshoot the mark. She was strongly tempted to wrap one of her clubs around the girls' necks.

Even a servant's role would have been better than this, Fujin thought.

Raijin probably would not have agreed. He got picked up by a group of generals who'd decided to golf together after seeing Fujin from a distance and laughing over how easily noblewomen could be fooled. Of course, they thought Fujin was a noble daughter who wanted to join the military but had been forbidden, so she made up her own 'uniform'. It wasn't that uncommon. The generals completely ignored Raijin as he hauled their clubs - all of them - without complaint or comment. He heard a great deal that day, and a lot of it was useful, but after a full twelve-hour day hauling clubs in full sunshine without ever once being offered a break, or a place in some shade, or any water at all...Raijin was not a happy camper.

And for all that work, they handed him five Estharian dollars. Enough, perhaps, to get one good drink at a bar. He played the grateful servant, grinning and bowing and muttering curses pleasantly in his native tongue as he memorized their faces. If they went to any of the local bars tonight, they were going to find out exactly what he thought of their 'benevolent generosity to the lower classes'.

* * * * * * *

Back at the hotel, none of the three were all that happy with what they'd had to do. However, it had gotten the job done - Fujin's 'friends' had eliminated three of the possible suspects without ever realizing it. Raijin's generals had actually added evidence against two of the suspects, and Seifer's rooftop listening and treetop eavesdropping had cleared four of the suspects.

So, of ten possible, seven were cleared and two were highlighted, with one suspect never mentioned at all. So...really...they were down to three. Seifer turned to Fujin. "Can you make anything of these three?" he asked her.

"Why not strike the quiet one off the list, ya know?" asked Raijin. "Why make more work?"

"Because if there's no news of the guy, it could mean he's innocent - or it could just mean he's very good at covering his tracks," said Seifer patiently - he knew pretty well what his posse had had to put up with today. "Raijin, you've done all you needed to do on the job today. You're no good to me until you get your head on right. Go bash some heads at the pool hall - but stay out of sight of the authorities, if you can. If I have to get your ass out of jail, you're going to think caddying for the nobles was a walk in the park."

Raijin grinned like a wolf offered a steak. "See you later," he said, and made a break for the door. Seifer stretched out on his bed, thinking. Fujin looked at him oddly. "MERCY?" she asked.

He turned his head to look at her. "Yeah, I suppose so," he replied. "You think you had it bad with the idiots, but I don't think either of us could've pulled off Raijin's job. If he hadn't had Quezalcoatl junctioned he'd probably have fainted from heatstroke. I'm no fan of hiding in corners and branches, but he had to hide in plain sight." Seifer yawned and stretched, catlike, then turned on one side to look at Fujin. He looked every inch a prince and knew it. "Why, d'you think I oughta pound him so you feel better?"

Fujin looked down at her work; she'd thought exactly that. Seifer had mellowed a great deal toward his posse in recent years, having learned the value of two people he could count on to do their utter best for him. Which wasn't to say he wasn't still capable of the sort of considered nastiness that had earned him his fearsome reputation...but at least now the posse knew they'd have to screw up before it was directed at them. But he was really no better at interpersonal relationships than Squall had been; he would never address a problem until it was brought to his attention, preferring to assume people could solve their own problems unless they admitted otherwise or it interfered with their work. "ZELL?" she asked him.

But Seifer was an old hand at interpreting her questions. "No, that's not mercy, Fuuj," he said flatly. "And you'd better believe I'm gonna get this day's fun out of his hide - we shouldn't have had to do this much work, and wouldn't have had if he could run a decent network. He got the job of Laguna's bodyguard because Laguna requested him - and I know exactly why he did - but this could give SeeD a black eye. There's no mercy for shit like that, Fuuj. I'm gonna drop the whole goddamn regulation book on him."

Fujin nodded; that sounded more like the Seifer she knew and respected. She bent her head to her laptop again, sorting through the tapes made of the day's more interesting conversations. Seifer watched her for a while, eyes narrowed.

Why do her words bother you? came Bahamut's voice in his thoughts, the dragon-roar politely quiet.

Since when did GFs get interested in human relationships? retorted Seifer.

Since the human in question drew first blood in combat against us, said Bahamut. You are correct; your companion required mercy; the holder of Griever does not. Why would her question bother you? You are the leader.

Seifer rolled onto his back, keeping his eyes closed so Fujin would think him asleep, and considered the question. Bahamut was right; the question shouldn't have bothered him. Maybe it was the look in Fujin's eye. He could see her fury earlier today, when the girls had surrounded her. She had held up as well as Raijin in a role not suited to her, but Raijin could get his anger out of his system with a few rounds of combat pool. Fujin was, by her very nature, controlled to an almost pathological degree. She'd hoped he would pound Raijin so that she could get some of that fury out of her without losing her own control. It was an odd thing for her to expect; he regarded his posse as a unit - you didn't sacrifice one part of the unit to save another.

...I suppose I'm wondering what she was expecting of me, Seifer eventually answered.

We can answer that, came Bahamut's dry reptilian chuckle. It is given to us to see the future, sometimes.

So you weren't just fooling around when you told Griever that they would die alone? Hm. That would bear thinking about at a future date.

No, we were not lying - and they know we were not. Griever chose its name wisely; one of them will take that name when the other dies. But you...of your line will rise the last SeeD to lead the fight against Ultimecia, before the world changes. It is for this reason as much as anything else that we wished to grant you the fight; we wish to know you.

A cold chill went up Seifer's spine. He'd never even considered having more than a one-night stand with anyone, never mind founding a 'line'. Yeah, well, you're starting to make me think this wasn't such a brilliant idea, he retorted. Let me guess - Fujin's the mother of this 'line' you've seen?

Again that dry reptilian chuckle. You are wiser than you admit to yourself, Seifer Almasy.

The presence in his mind faded. Bahamut had said all it was willing to say. Seifer was tempted to release his junction and tell Xu to run every GF through the recycler.

"SEIFER," came Fujin's voice, causing Seifer's green eyes to snap open. He sat up, and saw Fujin indicating her laptop's screen.

Grateful for something work related to focus on, he looked over her work. Three remaining suspects; the one who had compromised the military network, who was running for President, was one of them. One was a noble who had connections to most of that general's command, and could probably have engineered the same results. The third..."Fuuj, who's this guy and why's he on the list?"

Fujin reached around him and pressed a few keys. There were no direct connections to the rest of the list of contacts...but Zell had said none of his contacts knew each other. This fellow...wasn't even Estharian, but had indirect friend-of-a-friend connections to many people on Zell's contact list, besides being one himself. That was highly suspicious - if the man knew they were contacts. That would be tomorrow's work; sorting out which of the three were involved...

Damn Bahamut. The Guardian Force's prophecy had completely rattled Seifer; Fujin was posse. What the hell was he supposed to do, just walk around with knowledge like that in his head and wait until Fujin decided to approach him? Why tell him here? Why now? Why in the middle of a goddamned murder investigation?

Then it clicked. Of course - Bahamut had said it knew why Fujin had asked such a strange question. That was why; she had been half hoping he would choose her over Raijin.

Fujin was posse. But so was Raijin; he wouldn't choose one over the other in that sense.

But in another sense...well, Raijin just wasn't his type. Fujin was posse; she'd proven more than once she could hold her own, even against him. She would have been a rival if she hadn't opted to completely support his decisions the way she did. It had never occurred to him, before now, to wonder why she might choose to do so.

Ah, what the hell. At rock bottom worst, Fujin would kick him in the shins. The resulting wrestling match would probably settle any GF prophecies once and for all, and then he wouldn't have to worry. It surprised him briefly to realize that he was worrying; one-night-stands were one thing, but if he started something in the posse things would never be the same. He knew better than just to ask her if she wanted him; he might not be up to par on working out the laws of love, but he was a past master at the laws of pride; she'd kill herself before making an admission like that without assurance it was returned.

"SEIFER?" Fujin asked - and he realized he was still staring at the screen.

He stood up, and said, "That's tomorrow's work, Fuuj. We should be able to work out who's doing what after some shuteye."

On the other hand...when the panther hungers, it doesn't just lie around waiting for lunch to walk under its perch. Squall might choose to lock himself in an icebox until a girl was interested enough to open the door, but Seifer was made of a different stuff. He looked Fujin right in the eye for a moment, looking for any sign she might reject him. It's always the eyes that give one away...

Fujin's lips parted slightly as she returned his stare. She didn't flinch away; she looked ready for a fight - any fight.

Seifer grinned, and when Fujin's eyebrows went up he wrapped his arms around her and took her lips in a fierce, deadly kiss.

And Fujin returned ferocity for ferocity, deadliness for deadliness. Oh, indeed, an equal. At last, and right under his nose, an equal. He couldn't stand women who simpered; Rinoa had pretty much turned him off the type permanently. Ultimecia had been a positive relief after her constant 'talk about your feelings' chatter. He hadn't been kidding when he wished Squall joy of her; if she hadn't become a Sorceress he would've said good riddance a lot sooner. But Fujin...Fujin was a warrior; first, last, always. An equal.

As they tumbled onto the bed, Seifer's last coherent thought was a vague hope Raijin was out for a very late night...

* * * * * * * *

Raijin stumbled in several hours later, to find Seifer and Fujin tangled together amid what looked to be several sheets twisted together. Since neither looked injured, and he was both very tired and very drunk, he just flopped down on one of the other beds - he couldn't remember offhand which one was supposed to be his - and let sleep take him.

* * * * * * * *

The next morning, all three were much better for their various steam-blowing activities. Not a word was said about any of them, aside from Seifer's inquiry as to whether Raijin had managed to have his fun without encountering any authorities. That settled, they got down to business.

"A noble, a general, and a who knows what," said Seifer casually. "You know, I'm sick of splitting up. We can cover three people without going one one one - and one of these is the guy we want. Anyone want to pick the first guy we harass?"

"The general," said Raijin, with a wicked look in his eyes. "After yesterday, my opinion of Estharian generals has reached a new low, ya know?"

Seifer laughed. "Fine by me. General...", he checked the notes, "Torben, it says here. Presidential candidate."

"Rat bastard pain in the ass," said Raijin. When the other two looked at him in surprise, he said, "That was what they called him yesterday. What, you mean that didn't make it onto the tape? They said it often enough."

Seifer held up a hand. "Just wondering how personal you wanted to get with this guy," he said. "All right, we'll take care of him first. I want to know exactly what he has charge of, how he got so much of the military network under his thumb, and whether he had authority over security anywhere involving Laguna, or any way into or out of Esthar. I'll talk to him. You two...Raij, you're going to distract the first halfway pretty military secretary you can, so Fuuj here can play with their files a bit. Be gay if you have to."

"I can pray for a pretty girl, can't I?" pleaded Raijin. "Only the last time..."

"All complaints go back to SeeD, Raij," said Seifer flatly. "You're on duty now. Make time on your own time."

"Yes, sir," snapped Raijin. "All right, let's go before I get cold feet, ya know? I just hate it when the secretary's a guy..."

It didn't take them long to reach the general's residence, but they had no chance of getting in. There was a veritable army of reporters already camped by the door, waiting for the candidate's sound bites. The three didn't bother planting a listening device; they'd do better to head to the newsrooms and check out raw footage. Instead, verifying that the general had indeed gone to work that day, they headed for the local recruiting office, whose upper floors worked as a sort of military HQ. Laguna had never been big on a standing army, so the building was fairly nondescript and relatively unimpressive.

They got in by simply posing as possible recruits; once they got a guest pass they just 'accidentally' hit the wrong floor button. Security was lax, but not that lax; there were armed guards waiting for them when the elevator door opened. Seifer grinned.

Whenever Seifer grinned, trouble was in the making for someone. This time was no exception. The posse leaped into action, and inside fifteen seconds their 'armed' escort no longer was. Seifer shouted, "If this is the best you can do, you need more help than I can offer! But if you want to hear me, you better not send any more, 'cause if you try that stunt again I won't feel so nice."

The posse both shot him uneasy looks. Threatening the military within their own headquarters wasn't usually counted as being among the most intelligent of maneuvers, even given the current state of the Estharian military. But they had a mission to do, so with reluctance the two backed away from Seifer and got into the elevator. They needed computer access; the recruit handler on the first floor was easy to get to and would have the required access. At least, it would after Fujin got to play with it.

Seifer waited alone in front of the elevator, in a ready stance, his hand not at all far from Hyperion's molded-grip hilt. The idea was to show strength, not force it down their throats, but a wounded jackal was sometimes not amenable to reason.

After a few moments, General Torben came out of one of the many doors on the floor, easily recognizable from his press photographs. "It is not the best we can do," he said calmly, "but if we had done our best we would never learn what you were after. Come in. I can see you are not a member of the press."

Keeping his hand near Hyperion's hilt, Seifer strolled after him as though the building were a newly conquered province.

* * * * * *

Raijin persuaded the person at the desk - thankfully a woman, though not that pretty - to join him for 'just a little cup of coffee'. He was almost as good as Seifer at charming people; much better than Seifer at charming certain types of people. Fujin moved quickly, copying files left and right onto a portable drive, running a little cracker program to get her passwords to the highest ranking accounts. It was a standard of every chain of command, military or civilian, that the highest ranking people got the best security clearance, and usually had the worst imagination when it came to passwords. A mere minute netted her the accounts of several generals; she copied the contents of their accounts, mail included, and quickly covered her tracks.

By the time Raijin and his new 'friend' had finished their cup of coffee, Fujin was standing near the door and everything looked normal. Raijin flashed her a signal that indicated he'd managed to stick a magnet on the security camera's case as he'd taken the recruiter away, so there would be no visual evidence of her tampering. She nodded acknowledgment. Raijin chatted pleasantly with his 'friend' until Seifer strolled out. Both of them could see that something was bothering him, but waited until they were out of sight of the office to ask.

"You guys get what we came for?" he asked. They nodded.

"Piece of cake," said Raijin.

Seifer nodded slowly. "Yeah, that's what's bugging me," he said. "This was too easy. That guy Torben acted like I was doing this as a media stunt. He should've been spitting fire." He shook his head. "We'll work it out. Let's get the other two taken care of."

* * * * * * *

The noble was quickly eliminated; although she had the contacts, Seifer could tell the difference between true ignorance and feigned ignorance. The girl simply liked boys in uniform. She had no idea of the power in her grasp through her friends, and it seemed her various paramours liked to keep it that way. She did mention an interesting tidbit though; one of her friends had gotten another friend an illicit night off the week before the assassination. What caught the posse's attention was that the 'night off' had happened over a watch posting at the Airstation. A roster shift had occurred with no official record. On further questioning, she had a few more instances where she had done such favors for her 'friends', and was quite willing to tell them about it. To her, it was a completely harmless thing.

Seifer suspected she was being set up; this girl wasn't bright enough to see why the shifts were being requested. But she was very friendly, and had just enough influence to do this much...for someone else.

That just left the unknown. According to what they'd dug up so far, his name was Soares Detmer, and he was a Galbadian. Not much was known about him in Esthar; Seifer made a note to let Irvine know the guy needed investigating. He had been vacationing in Esthar for some six months and more now, and was well known everywhere as a partygoer of the most extreme sort. They spoke with him briefly, but could come to no definite conclusions about him. Other than Raijin; Raijin decided very quickly that he couldn't stand the guy. But he couldn't say why. It was just 'one of those things, ya know?'

Lastly, they double checked the roster assignments at the Airstation against what the noble daughter had told them. In each case, someone not under Torben's command had been replaced with someone who was, all official documents kept silent.

Back at the hotel again, they tried to compare notes. Torben had gained profit from Laguna's death; he was now in the running for the Presidency. He had had opportunity to engineer that death, by smuggling someone in at the Airstation. But then things fell apart. The noble who had taken care of the switches could also have smuggled someone in; it was well-nigh impossible to convince a jury of an accused person's stupidity, which would be the only defense the girl could make. Nothing proved that Torben actually knew or cared about the duty roster switches; it was a common enough military practice when dealing with friends from different units. It had gone on in Garden too. So while he did profit from it, there was no way to prove he'd engineered it.

And there was Detmer. Everyone knew Detmer, it seemed. He was a son of a wealthy House in Galbadia, so the nobles liked him. He was an avid partygoer, which ingratiated him with the common people. And he seemed to have garnered respect in the military, though that link was more vague.

Seifer growled. "This is it," he said. "We have to know what Detmer's link to the military is. They don't respect anything unless it earns it, and Popping The Most Pills And Living To Tell About It wouldn't count for squat. We haven't got any other avenues of proof open; we'll try this one. Fuuj, see if you can't dig something up in the files we lifted. Raijin...head back to your pool halls, and see what you can dig up on Detmer and his recent activities.

Raijin cocked his head to one side. "You want a late night, Seifer?" he asked. It was the closest he'd gotten all day to addressing the change in the posse.

Seifer stared at him. Raijin wasn't acting hurt or jealous, which was good. He was almost acting...smug. Like he'd set the whole thing up, which Seifer knew wasn't possible. The blond leader had no idea why Raijin would act that way, but...what the hell. A blessing is a blessing, and who was he to argue? "Yeah, you should be out...oh, at least till midnight, if you're doing the job right. Try to stay sober enough to remember what they tell you this time, okay?"

Raijin grinned and headed out. Seifer turned to Fujin, who was wearing an uncharacteristic smile; a small, secret smile that said she understood.

"Care to fill me in on the joke?" he asked.

"WORSHIP," said Fujin, and nodded slowly as Seifer threw back his head and laughed. Raijin had never wanted to be Seifer's equal. He worshiped Seifer as his personal mentor and god, much as Zell had done with Squall. Which wasn't to say he wasn't a great fighter - he was. He just knew he wasn't, would never be, in Seifer's class. Raijin joined the posse to be near his idol; whatever made Seifer happy - so long as it didn't screw him up mentally - was fine by Raijin. So he was fine with the change in the posse.

Fujin had joined the posse to become Seifer's equal. And she had known, always, that she was. A leader could not lead alone; they needed like minds to catch the things they missed, point out opportunities. Squall had never had an equal in that sense; his entire group put together served the role since none of them could do so individually; occasionally, he'd even had to abandon them entirely in order to bounce things off of Seifer. Seifer didn't need as many people, because in Fujin he had his equal. She could lead; she just didn't want to. But she wouldn't hesitate to step in if she thought Seifer was heading into dangerous ground. Seifer had not forgotten that it was Fujin who had persuaded him to listen to Squall's friends when Alicia had given him the power of Ifrit. He had not forgotten how tirelessly Fujin had worked with Selphie - a person Fujin could hardly stand to be around - to work up a counteragent when she'd proven that Alicia's gift was lethal. And he had not forgotten that it had been Fujin who prevented a fight breaking out when his own power had faded and Squall's had remained.

Seifer grinned at her. This time, it was Fujin who was the first to act - but Seifer responded so quickly any observer might have thought they were dancers moving to a choreographed tune.

Chapter 9