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Chapter 4 Assignment

Zell found the Commander's office rather crowded when he and Bella arrived - a bit out of breath - at its door. Constructed as it was in the center of the Ringway, the office was shaped in a more or less circular fashion, with a smaller circle-chunk taken out where the elevator passed through. The curving walls were beautifully wood-panelled, with the primary decor being polished high-quality weapons of all shapes and sizes. SeeD's image as presented to the rest of the world was always that of a naked weapon held in a velvet glove; the Commander's office reflected that.

Xu sat behind a rather large mahogany desk, keying notes into a built-in terminal. On one side was an electronic notepad. Zell didn't bother wondering about that; he knew what it was for. What was bothering him were the other people.

Seifer was lounging in one large chair, looking like a prince on a coffee break and eyeing him with the sort of amusement that - it being Seifer - meant he was contemplating whether or not to call Zell on his obvious rule-breaking. Seated on his right was Fujin, who had long ago perfected the art of revealing nothing at all in her expression or posture. And on his left was Raijin, who just grinned for no apparent reason.

That wasn't too big of a surprise; he'd already guessed Seifer would be here, and having his posse with him was more or less standard procedure. But Irvine was also in the room, leaning casually back against the wall with his arms folded across his chest, Exeter's barrel just visible over his shoulder and his face hidden under his hat. He looked up at the sound of the door's opening, and gave Zell a smile and a casual wave hello.

That was a surprise. Not that Irvine would say hi, but that he was there at all. It was practically impossible to pry him away from Selphie, no matter how much of a flirt he might seem.

Xu looked up and noted Zell's arrival. "Glad to see you could make it," she said dryly. "This is your mission briefing."

Xu stood up, picked up her electronic notepad and moved to stand in front of her desk. "We are commissioned by Esthar to determine who the killer or killers of former President Laguna Loire are, and to turn them over for justice to the Estharian authorities if possible. If we can get whoever's responsible alive and with a substantial burden of proof concerning their guilt, a fair-sized bonus will be made available to you; we are commissioned as bounty hunters rather than vigilantes. However, if there is no option available, we are granted permission to kill within the boundaries of our assignment."

She moved to stand in front of Seifer. "As highest-ranking SeeD assigned to the mission, Seifer Almasy will be your team leader. All official reports will be made through him, and his orders take priority over those of any officials you may interact with. If you have a problem with this," and she avoided looking at Zell, "you may refuse the assignment. Seifer Almasy: SeeD rank 30, team designation combat specialist. Will you accept the mission?" And she presented the notepad. Looking vaguely bored with the whole rigmarole, Seifer scrawled his name and leaned back in his chair.

Xu moved next to Fujin. "Fujin, you are requested for this assignment in the role of Information Specialist. You will be working with Seifer within the boundaries of Esthar and this assignment. If you have a problem with this, you may refuse the assignment. Fujin: SeeD rank 20, team designation information specialist. Will you accept the mission?" Fujin revealed nothing as she quickly printed her name.

Xu stood in front of Raijin. "Raijin, you are requested for this assignment in the role of Combat Specialist. You will be working with Seifer within the boundaries of Esthar and this assignment. If you have a problem with this, you may refuse the assignment. Raijin: SeeD rank 20, team designation combat specialist. Will you accept the mission?"

Raijin shrugged and said, "Sure," and scribbled his name. Xu ignored the comment and moved to stand in front of Irvine.

"Irvine Kinneas, you are requested for this assignment in the roles of Sharpshooter and Secondary Team Leader. You will head the investigation outside the borders of Esthar, reporting all findings back to Seifer. All official reports will be made through him, and his orders take priority over those of any officials you may interact with. If you have a problem with this you may refuse the assignment. Irvine Kinneas: SeeD rank 26, team designation sharpshooter. Will you accept the mission?"

"Hell yeah," said Irvine. "Ye didn't have to go through all that, you know. A simple 'wouldja' would have done fine." And he penned his signature. Xu looked mildly annoyed, and Seifer's glare could have melted ice, but she chose to move on. Zell was next.

"Zell Dincht, you are requested for this assignment in the role of Combat Specialist. You will follow the orders of Irvine Kinneas and Seifer Almasy in conducting your investigation outside the borders of Esthar. If you have a problem with this, you may refuse the assignment. Zell Dincht: SeeD rank 25, team designation combat specialist. Will you accept the mission?"

Damn, he hated this formal stuff. It took way too long. To move it faster he just scribbled his name as fast as he could and held off on saying his views of the practice. He heard Xu address Bella last.

"Bella, you are requested for this assignment in the role of Information Specialist. You will follow the orders of Irvine Kinneas and Seifer Almasy in conducting your investigation outside the borders of Esthar. If you have a problem with this, you may refuse the assignment. Bella: SeeD rank 23, team designation information specialist. Will you accept the mission?"

Bella also forbore comment, but grinned as she signed her name. Satisfied, Xu took the notepad and fed the signatures into the Garden's computer. "The teams are assembled," she said, "so here's your briefing - to keep you here as short a time as possible," shooting a sharp glance at Zell. She tapped a few keys, and a pretty hologram of the world appeared above her desk. As she named locations, they were highlighted. The current position of the ever-moving Garden was a glowing white dot; it seemed they were over the sea at the moment. Not unusual.

"We've decided that due to the unusual nature of Laguna's death, two teams were needed to conduct a proper investigation. Since Zell reported no unusual activity in Esthar prior to the attack, and no contacts warned of trouble, we have two options. Either his contacts were double agents, or it was an outside job. To determine this, Seifer will head the investigation in Esthar itself. If it was a coup we need to know quickly. Irvine will head the investigation outside of Esthar; he has the second highest rank and numerous contacts in Galbadia; Garden recommends you begin your search there. Any information from Seifer regarding the possible location of the assailants should be regarded as an order of the highest priority. Time is of the essence."

"You have one hour; I expect both teams to be on the Ragnarok as quickly as possible. Seifer and his team will disembark first; drop them off outside of Esthar. Irvine's team will have need of the most mobility and are assigned use of the Ragnarok for the duration."

Xu hesitated a moment, then said, "One last thing. At the terminals in your quarters, you are authorized use of one GF each. I haven't assigned GFs to my SeeDs since the execution, but at Seifer's insistence of its necessity and safety I am making an exception for you six. GF assignments run as follows: Seifer, you'll have Bahamut. Fujin, you'll have Pandemona, and Raijin, you'll have Quezalcoatl. Irvine, you'll take Tonberry. Zell, you'll have Leviathan, and Bella will take Cactuar. I want any unusual behavior on the part of the GFs to be reported directly to Seifer and to myself. Any disobedience of this order will get you taken off the mission and confined to quarters pending a conduct investigation. Now, get out of here."

Zell didn't waste any time; he got out of there before sheer nerves gave him away. Guys? he asked. This doesn't sound good....I mean....Leviathan? Will you be okay?

Griever took a while to answer; Zell was almost back at his quarters when it replied. We believe this is probably Seifer's doing, it said. But it should not be a problem, unless there are personality conflicts. We have never met the true Leviathan, though we know it to be one of the oldest Guardian Forces. You can probably guess why we haven't made ourselves known to it.

Zell certainly could; it had been the power of Leviathan, created artificially, that had almost killed Squall and precipitated their first Joining into Griever. Leviathan bore the might of the ocean wave - and the ocean, overall, wasn't the warmest place to be. Although the power had given Squall many advantages in combat, the sheer cold of the deep waters had nearly frozen him to death. He was not at all happy about the idea of any part of Squall meeting up with Leviathan again - particularly not when the meeting place was going to be inside his own skull.

"Hey, Dincht." Zell spun around, a sheer bundle of nerves. The fact that it was Seifer wasn't helping. He smiled a small, tightly smug smile and waited for Zell to calm down. "You left before I could fill you in on your successor; I don't appreciate having to chase you halfway across Garden. Your successor is Bella; plan on it." And with that little bombshell, Seifer spun on his heel and strode off, white trench coat flaring.

Bella? This was so unexpected, and from so far in left field, that Zell had no idea how he should react. He entered his quarters functioning mostly on automatic.

He left the junctioning of his assigned GF until last. He threw his street clothes into a carrysack; investigations tended to be low on uniform requirements and he could get them cleaned in the Ragnarok. He took some time to create a few privacy-locked messages; one for Xu that had a whole string of contingencies attached to its delivery, and one for Bella that had somewhat fewer. Contingency messages were the closest a SeeD ever got to writing a will, since they never knew which mission would be their last. It stung a bit that he was writing such a message to Bella.

Guys, help, he said to Griever. Is this some kind of a trick? Why would Seifer pick my girlfriend to hold your junction next? What's he getting at?

We believe he chose Bella to throw you into exactly the confusion you are now experiencing, said Griever calmly. Nothing would please him more than to make you mistrustful of your own girlfriend; Seifer regards relationships as weakening influences.

I'm not going to ask how you know that, said Zell heavily, and heard the sort of response he rarely did; Griever reacting to itself. The half that was Squall was rather indignant; the half that was Rinoa was laughing sympathetically. The lack of agreement meant that the feline voice of the Griever -overmind was completely absent for a moment as the two got back into harmony. Zell couldn't help laughing; there wasn't much that could get such a rise out of Squall - certainly not to the point where he'd completely disagree with Rinoa. It felt like scoring a point.

But he was reminded once again of the loss of Laguna; Griever was a decent enough companion, but he never felt as comfortable talking to it as he had talking with Laguna. He'd just made it seem like Zell could chatter on about anything that was on his mind. All he asked in return was the chance to chatter back. It hurt, it really stung, that he'd taken so many bullets and hadn't been able to save him. He reached under his mattress and pulled out the box with the ring. He'd have to be on the Ragnarok soon. This would be his last chance to apologize.

Hyne, the thing was heavy when he pulled it out. It was platinum, and thick to accomodate the carving. The fierce expression of the lion as it roared suited Squall's harsh exterior, but the pride and strength it represented fit both Squall and his father as far as Zell was concerned. The lion's pride...the pride that drew followers in its wake like the tail of a comet. That absolute confidence that if you just did your bit, things would turn out all right. Zell knew himself no leader; he'd risen as far in SeeD as he could without taking on that burden. People like Squall and Laguna, they were natural leaders. People like Seifer earned the right through accumulation of power. Zell...just wanted to take care of himself, and his friends. So had they. But they had some sort of pull to them that just made you want to crawl over broken glass if it would make their day better. It was not for simple reasons of expediency that Laguna had become President of Esthar, nor his son Commander of Garden.

Ah, shit, Zell thought, realizing he was going to end up crying if he didn't watch it - and that was no good. Ha. Just catch Seifer coming in here and seeing me get all worked up over a piece of jewelry. Riiiiight.

He pulled off his left Ergheiz glove and slipped the ring on his finger, and was taken completely by surprise when a surge of power flowed from the ring into his body. In his mind, Griever roared - so loudly that it knocked Zell to his knees. Hey, now, he said. Tone it down!

Sorry, came Griever's voice - quieter than the roar but noticeably stronger than it had been. It seems that the ring can be recharged. We were...a bit unprepared. Whatever else you can say about him, Laguna was not weak of will. Perhaps you should wear it all the time, if you don't mind?

Yeah. Now, how did this thing work again? Oh, yeah. Zell took a deep breath, and found himself standing at attention. "Um, Laguna?" he said, feeling a bit foolish for addressing his empty room. "I just wanted to'm sorry, man. I tried, I really did, but the guy came outta nowhere and I couldn't get to him and..." he stopped, unsure how to go on or even if he should.

At that moment he felt a surge of sympathy, as though his friend had just clasped his shoulder. There was a little amusement in there too, that made Zell think Laguna was saying, "What did I tell you? Waaay too seriously."

It made him smile. "Well, it was my job, Laguna," he said. "Look, I'll keep the ring on, if you guys don't mind. So if you change your mind you can let me know, ok?"

Sympathy, comradeship. Apparently, Laguna didn't mind. And Griever had kept silent throughout the exchange. He was pretty sure if Griever was going to object he'd know it. That reminded him; he keyed in the authorization code to receive his GF assignment. Not without trepidation, he set his hand on the plate set in his desk for the purpose.

Immediately he felt the cold slither of Leviathan climbing up his arm. Griever graciously made room in his mind for the new GF, but Zell was really fighting to keep his hand on the plate. Junctioning the water serpent made Zell feel like he'd just dipped his arm in cold, live slime. Thankfully the sensation faded as the GF settled in. Junctioning Griever had been completely different; that had felt as though a great jungle beast had taken his arm in its mouth, just hard enough for him to feel the heat of its breath and the sharpness of its teeth.

Well, best to be polite, since he couldn't refuse the junction without getting into trouble with Xu and Seifer. Hello, he said to the newcomer as he grabbed his bag and headed for the Ragnarok.

Startlement, indignation. You address us? came Leviathan's response, not quite so powerful and clear as Griever's. To Zell's complete surprise, the GF was overtly feminine; there was the watery, hissing voice of the Guardian Force, and two female voices.

At that point he felt Griever intervene. He wasn't all that sure what was said - images and emotions flashed across his mind as he tried to concentrate on reaching the Parking Garage where the Ragnarok was housed. He felt annoyed to be left out; after all, it was his head they were both sitting in.

Sorry about that, Zell, came Rinoa's clear voice. Leviathan is a very old Guardian Force, and has almost forgotten what it was to be human. It's not used to being addressed. It's more than a little bit annoyed with us for...ah....demeaning the profession as it were, by talking to you. It's managed to really annoy Squall, don't ask me how. We'll get this sorted, but in the meantime don't address Leviathan and don't, whatever you do, ask it about its voice. Okay?

Okay, Rinoa, said Zell. Hoo boy. When Seifer wanted payback he didn't mess around. The idea of two antagonistic GFs in his head was just...he'd have to find some way to pay Seifer back for this. He tried to ignore the half-heard conversation going on in the back of his skull in order to look Perfectly Fine for his teammates as he reached Ragnarok's boarding ramp.

He spent the first half of the trip - the part going to Esthar - very firmly in the laundry room, opting to hand wash his clothes just to have an excuse to stay the hell away from Seifer. He didn't trust himself not to knock the man flat on his ass, here in the Ragnarok where he couldn't use his gunblade. And although Seifer had a reputation for being meticulous, the sight of a man doing laundry was a surefire way of keeping him away.

And Bella was more than willing to keep him company, anyway. Even Irvine dropped in after a while, probably to get away from the posse as much as anything else.

"Seifer's decided he wants to pilot the Ragnarok to Esthar," he said by way of hello. "I didn't argue. Good trick this, doing laundry to keep him off. I'll have to remember it. Where'd you pick it up?"

"Dorm life," said Zell with a wicked grin. "I just worked it out one day. He'd give me hell any time he could catch me alone, anywhere I happened to be...unless I was doing laundry. I ended up becoming really nuts for hand washables, just for the peace and quiet to study."

Bella laughed. "It's hard to picture you as a fashion mogul, Zell," she said.

"Who said I was? But it's regulations that every cadet be, ah, 'neat about his person' I think was the official wording. Meant no spots, no stains, that sorta thing. And since when have you known stuff like that to hold me back?"

"So you're the guy I should talk to if I want to get gunpowder off my chaps?" drawled Irvine. "I never knew ya had it in ya."

Zell shook his head. "Nah, I never needed that much study time," he said. "Though I used to volunteer to do Squall's laundry around midterms and finals. Him and Seifer always got real....tense around test time."

"You're making me grateful I had all my cadet days at Galbadia Garden," laughed Irvine. "Let me guess; you're used to dropping stuff like that in 'cause it made Laguna happy, right?"

Zell sighed. "Yeah. He liked stories like that." He shrugged. "Him and Ellone."

"And Griever doesn't mind?" Irvine asked curiously. "Hell I'd have thought Squall would rip you a new one for stories like that."

Zell put down the shorts he was working on and stared Irvine right in the eye, hoping to get it across that he didn't want to talk too much about this. Griever didn't like being discussed, and Zell was having enough trouble with Leviathan already. "I told you," he said, "Griever isn't exactly Squall or Rinoa. It's both of them, at once. It doesn't do anything unless both of them are in agreement on it. Doesn't matter why they might agree, only that they do. Like...Alicia. Squall had different reasons for hating her than Rinoa did, but they agreed she had to go down - so Griever took her down. That's how it works."

Irvine mulled that over. "And if they don't agree?" he asked. "Like...well - did they agree not to say hi the other night, or was that something else?"

"They agreed not to say hi," said Zell. "But it's not 'cause they don't like you guys, at least I don't think so. They're not the same as they were. They don't want you guys assuming things you shouldn't, or something like that....I think it's like when I came back, and you were making a big deal out of me cleaning my room. I'm not seventeen any more, and neither are you. But you still thought I was this lousy housekeeper. Well, not only are they not seventeen any more...they're not human any more." He flipped the sopping wet but clean shorts all the way across the room, to land neatly in the dryer. "Ah, who'm I kidding. I don't know exactly why they didn't. They threatened to kill you guys if I tried to make 'em come out, and I'd never thought they would do that."

"It's okay, buddy," said Irvine, and patted Zell on the shoulder. "I think you got it right. They're not human any more. And I'd bet Guardian Forces don't take well to blackmail."

Zell finished his laundry shortly thereafter, but the three stayed in the room because it was a fairly safe place to be. Irvine left the topic of GFs alone after that, much to Zell's relief. Instead they got into a three way Triple Triad game, using a 9x9 board instead of a 3x3, winners taking the cards they turned. Bella turned out to be the best player, relieving both Irvine and Zell of more than one valuable card.

"I am the Information Specialist," she said to their stunned expressions. "Honestly, what else do you think the Library Committee does after hours? If we scoured the stacks for cadet sweethearts, we'd never get any sleep with all the grat goo they'd put in our beds."

"Suuuure," said Irvine. "Look we're probably near to Esthar by now. Where do you want to start looking, Zell? I have contacts all over Galbadia but we can't land everywhere at once. Who d'you think might have the most stake in a war with Esthar?"

Zell scooped up his - now slightly smaller - deck of cards and tried to think back to that afternoon. It had started so normally. Laguna was going to make a routine opening speech for some stupid bridge or other, cut a ribbon and go home. Just one of those stupid things he had to do to keep the press happy, though it didn't bother him much. Laguna loved being in the center of the media eye, at least as long as they didn't ask questions. Or maybe he just liked being liked. It was hard to say. He'd been up on that little makeshift wooden podium that looked ten times sturdier than it was, black hair heavily peppered with gray but his green eyes still sharp and clear. So was his voice, but Zell didn't pay attention. It was a standard enough speech. He watched the crowd instead, looking at all of it without focusing on any particular part of it, the way he'd been trained. He was looking for something that didn't fit, that would signal a threat.

So when he saw a sudden movement near the front of the crowd, he immediately moved to stand in front of Laguna; it wouldn't make for bad press since the podium was raised up and you could still see him for pictures. Made security hell though. He saw the gun raised and dove for the man, taking advantage of the strength and speed Griever gave him to launch him much farther towards his target than the man could possibly have expected.

But he had, hadn't he? That gun barrel had followed him perfectly, and still in midair the man had shot him...just squeezed that trigger and sent a spray of bullets shooting through him before redirecting the spray at Laguna. And the worst part of it was, in the chaos caused by a perforated Zell landing on a half-dozen media representatives and Laguna doubling over and falling from the podium...the man had gotten away. Media men weren't policemen, and somehow the guy - even carrying a large repeater - had slipped the suddenly tightening security noose. But Zell hadn't been able to do anything about that. He'd felt the bullets ripping through his body, heard Laguna yelp in surprise and pain...then nothing.

He tried to remember anything he could about the guy that Irvine might be able to use, but all he could remember clearly was the gun, its barrel tracking his progess as he leaped for its holder...

"Sorry, Irv," he said, shaking his head. "All I can think of was the guy's gun. I don't remember anything about him other than that."

"Then tell me about the gun," said Irvine. "Come on, Zell. I'm a sharpshooter. I know guns the way you know martial arts forms. There's lots of guns that are unique to particular places, or specifically used in certain places. I had no problem talking Xu into giving me this assignment, you can bet money on that."

"Okay," said Zell uncertainly. "It just looked like a gun to know, trigger at one end, barrel on the other..."

"Just tell me," said Irvine patiently, leaning back against a washing machine and closing his eyes. "It's all we've got to go on."

Zell shrugged. "Okay." He ran down anything he could remember - which, given that the thing had been pointed at him, was rather a lot - and tried not to leave anything out even if it sounded stupid. When he'd finished, Irvine was still in that same position...leaning back against the washing machine, eyes closed, hat down...thinking.

"Somebody planned this good," he said at last. "Zell...that gun was from Shumi Village. At least, that's where it was made, and I don't see them being big on exporting nasties like that. And I'll bet you'd have remembered if the gunman had been Shumi."

"Will the Secondary Team get their asses outta the bathwater and up to the cockpit?" came Seifer's voice over the intercom. "We're ready to open the hatch and we don't want to turn any toramas loose in here."

Irvine, Zell, and Bella immediately leaped to their feet and ran out of the laundry room, heading for the cockpit. The seats were better there, anyway.

Chapter 5

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