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Chapter 6 Bahamut

Seifer slammed his fist down on the table, so hard that Raijin and Fujin immediately backed off, watching him warily.

"I'm gonna kill him," he growled. "Do you know what that little prick's done?"

"Er, no?" hazarded Raijin, ever willing to be the target. "I mean, you were the one checking the messages and all..."

Seifer scowled. "It's not enough the bastard has to take my dream away from me. It's not enough he gets to be remembered as the savior of the future. Now he's playing Guide to the Guardian Forces. I swear, the only way to keep him dead would be to lock him up in a box in the afterlife."

Fujin was not put off by his temper or tirade. She narrowed her one good eye at him, and said, "EXPLAIN."

Seifer stood up from the hotel room table where they'd set up the SeeD laptop. "Look for yourself, Fuuj," he snapped. "You might as well look over her shoulder, Raijin. I'm gonna go cool off." And with that Seifer spun on his heel and stormed out of the room, so furious he almost - almost - slammed the door on his trenchcoat.

Fujin did as he'd asked - when had she not? - and understood. Irvine's report was very detailed as to the benefits of the advanced junction, but to have to ask Squall to watch and make sure the fight was fair - meaning Griever, she knew - would undoubtedly open old wounds. Seifer had returned to SeeD because he had had, in all honesty, nowhere else to go once he'd realized he would never get to become a Sorceress' Knight. He'd gotten a little wiser in his time away - enough that SeeD had no idea of his real feelings on most matters - but it had been at best a consolation prize and all three of them knew it.

She still wondered what they'd said to each other, that night in Esthar before the posse had returned to Garden. Seifer had been in a state of barely contained rage for days, taking it out on the monsters in the Training Center so that Xu would not be any the wiser. Raijin had just come out and asked what was bugging him, and had gotten pummeled for his efforts.

Then, a few weeks later, word had arrived - via Zell - that Squall and Rinoa had died in a monster attack. The posse had accepted that as fact, at least officially, though all three knew it was highly unlikely. But it did have the interesting effect of releasing a few contingency messages once Squall was officially 'dead'. His friends had been positively unbearable for weeks as they sorted out their grief. Seifer's reaction had been...a bit different.

For the only time in her long association with him, she'd seen Seifer get completely, utterly wasted. Just once, just the night he got the message. Neither Fujin nor Raijin knew what it had contained; he'd read it and deleted it. Nor did Seifer turn out to be a talkative drunk. So the posse had kept a careful eye on him as he drank, and made sure nobody tried to stop him.

Just once, he'd laughed, the way people do when they've finally gotten the joke. Raijin and Fujin had shared a look; if he took it on himself to attack someone, in this state, they'd never be welcome in Garden again. They weren't all that sure how they'd gotten back in this time. But they were spared having to hold him back or hold him down, because shortly after that Seifer managed to drink himself into unconsciousness.

When he'd gotten over the hangover, he'd become the perfect SeeD. Quistis and Xu had been watching them like hawks, but Seifer didn't even bend the rules, much less break any. They'd taken all the refresher courses Quistis had set down - passing with flying colors, of course. And when the field exam had rolled around and the three were assigned each to different squads, they'd still all passed with flying colors - though Raijin's was a bit close.

That had gotten Quistis off their backs; she had no authority over SeeDs. Not that Xu alone had been much better, at first. Until Seifer found out that Xu was now wary of Guardian Forces; he exploited that with every ounce of his skill and charm. The chance to do a little research and keep it all open and above board had just been too sweet to pass up. It was then that Seifer had finally told his bemused posse what was going on - which was good, because she'd seen Raijin was close to demanding when Squall had taken over Seifer's body, and a remark like that could have gotten the guy flattened.

He told them what he thought had really happened to Squall and Rinoa, and it made a lot more sense than the story Zell had told. He knew a lot more about both Sorceresses and Knights than either one of that pair; he'd spent his life studying them. What he wanted to know now - and what Xu had unknowingly handed him a blank check to find out - was if there was another way to achieve the same end, or to undo the power from the outside. When Raijin asked if this meant he was going to attack the GF that had been Squall and Rinoa, Seifer shook his head.

"I gave him my word, they're off limits for stuff like that," he'd told them. "But...if this GF they are now is a threat - and I'm betting it could be since they didn't tell Garden about it - then someone else, down the line, could use knowing that."

As to achieving the same goal by a different route, the main thrust of their research had been unexpectedly thwarted; Odine's research was under lock and key at the Presidential Palace in Esthar, and Laguna wasn't letting any of it go. Not even for SeeD. He'd had every page written on permanent media and then sealed off, all copies destroyed. He didn't say why, but the posse had been able to guess; he wanted it available in case Squall should return and possibly need it.

When Zell had returned, the chance to get a few answers had prompted Seifer to take a small risk; he had no idea how the new Guardian Force would take to him roughing up Zell, but he had to know. Had to know what it was to be a Guardian Force, what he'd wanted for so much of his life and been forced to give up.

He'd told the posse how that went, unusually moody. Something about the answers he'd gotten had bothered him, but on that point he was completely silent. When the offer to investigate Laguna's death came up, Seifer took charge of it because he knew Zell wanted it - and he thought a few more answers might get shaken loose if he kept prodding. Now Zell had to funnel all reports through him, and was under orders to reveal any GF secrets he might come across.

As Fujin scanned Irvine's report, she realized that their efforts had had the desired effect; this advanced junction could provide SeeD with incredible power. Just one GF, junctioned to a SeeD, would provide immense power. No wonder Zell had survived the gunshots. She'd seen him when he was wheeled into the Infirmary; he should have been dead but wasn't.

The price? Laughably cheap for anyone not Seifer; you had to call on Squall to referee the fight. Fujin decided right then that she would not try for this advanced junction; she was no more inclined to rely on the moody fighter than Seifer was himself. Pandemona's usual junction was power enough. No need to go hearing voices in her head.

On the other hand, Zell had taken the plunge with Leviathan, and now had two Guardian Forces at the advanced level. Zell, whom Seifer despised for an almost uncountable number of reasons, but sheer lack of ambition had to be near the top of the list. Fujin thought it over, and decided that this was what was really annoying Seifer; his choices were to allow himself to be outdone by Zell - something Zell would probably crow about for the rest of his life - or humble himself to call on his rival for aid.

She shook her head; Seifer would do it, if only to prove to himself that he could. Besides which, he'd only have to deal with Squall once. If he refused the challenge, he'd have to deal with a crowing Zell for the rest of his life.

Raijin stepped back from behind her; evidently he'd finally finished reading the report. "Why'd Zell fight Leviathan?" he asked. "He's no mage."

"IDIOT," snapped Fujin. It would take far more words than she felt like employing to explain things to him, and she wasn't in the mood.

"Look, we better go find Seifer, yeah?" he said, possibly to fend off her kicking him in the shins. "We gotta get this mission taken care of."

"WAIT," said Fujin. Seifer would return when he was ready. He'd left so he wouldn't take his temper out on them; a rare concession, and indicative of a powerful fury. Prudence dictated that they accept the gift for what it was.

* * * * * * *

Seifer, for his part, found a wandering torama and hacked it to pieces, and felt much better. If there was one good thing about Esthar, it was that anyone who wanted to could take up monster hunting as a sport; the Lunar Cry had dropped incredible numbers of powerful monsters on the place, which was much more exhilirating than the rather weak ones in the Training Center of Garden.

He unfolded the sheet of paper with Zell's scrawl all over it. By the look of it, he'd done a creditable job setting up an information network - nothing to fault with regard to its reach or capability. Zell was a good SeeD; you had to give him that. Not the brightest, no. That he considered Raijin his rival said that more clearly than anything else Seifer knew about the guy; Raijin was a great fighter, but no thinker. The other rather simple fact; that he'd gone after Zell so many times just to draw Squall into a fight, had also escaped the hyperactive punk. Zell had never worked out that being Squall's roommate hadn't protected him, it had made him a target. Seifer smirked; the day Zell worked that out, the world would be proven to be made of green gelatin.

That was why Seifer felt this was an inside job; Zell had made a good network and it hadn't warned him. Zell, having faith in his contacts, had to assume this meant the attack had come from outside. Seifer, seeing the same information, concluded that one of the contacts had double-crossed him; otherwise at least some warning would have been available. If Zell had a fault (and as far as Seifer was concerned he had many) it was that he had far too much faith in people. If money bought a guy once, it could buy him again. People's prices didn't change in kind, only degree.

Seifer knew what his price was; he wanted to have a place in history. Not the sort of price easily met by anyone, and he'd gotten a lot pickier lately about people who claimed to be able to pay it. He found a handy public phone and called back to the hotel room; better if the posse split the list so as to get as much checked as possible by tonight.

Tonight, he'd talk to Bahamut. And...Griever. He had a lot of things he planned on saying to Griever. But that could wait.

* * * * * * * * * *

They split the list up by type of contact; Seifer took the military contacts and the upper-class families, Fujin took the merchants, and Raijin took the barkeeps and bookies. Even so, there were dozens of names for each of them to check, so they'd be at this for a few days.

Fujin had the most trouble, of course. Seifer had the charm and bearing of a general, and could get information out of anything female without even trying. Raijin was a basically open and sunny guy who people naturally felt inclined to talk to after a beer or two. Fujin, who resorted to one-word sentences whenever possible, had trouble just coming up with enough words to fulfil the contact-confirmation code. Thankfully, her silver hair wasn't anything unusual in Esthar, though her eyepatch drew a few looks. Still - many people were walking around with permanent injuries of one sort or another since the Lunar Cry. She quickly decided on a pat group of sentences to serve as her contact-confirmation code, so as to not have to come up with something new every time. Talking was annoyance enough.

At the end of the day, the three regrouped in their hotel room, exhausted. All three had covered significant portions of Esthar City on foot repeatedly during the course of the day, occasionally bumping into one another just long enough to exchange notes. Fujin started entering what they had learned into the laptop, preliminary to Seifer's official report. She had a natural talent with computers, and quickly set up a small database detailing anything relevant.

And to her surprise, there was an immediate discrepancy. "SEIFER," she said, and turned the screen to face him.

"What, you got something outta that mess already? Remind me to ride Zell's ass hard when we get back. He coulda put the list in order, at least." But he looked, and frowned.

It wasn't something you'd see quickly, or during a casual contact. But all three of them had been double checking every contact they spoke with, and made sure to note any changes since they had been hired. What Fujin had found was that some of the most highly-placed military contacts had changed commanders since becoming part of the network. When Zell had inducted them, all of them had reported to different generals - as it should be.

Now, quite a few reported to the same general. Seifer fell back on his bed. "Man, I wish someone had taken that bet," he said tiredly. "By the look of it, the entire military section of the network was compromised. There aren't enough contacts outside this chain of command to be sure any information was reliable."

Raijin looked at the general's name. "Hey, that guy's running for President!" he said. "Talk all over town was about that. He's a candidate out of nowhere."

"That so?" asked Seifer, still stretched out on the bed. "Looks like we're gonna have to find out a bit more about this guy. I'd say we have an inside job on our hands for sure now - but if we want that bonus we need proof. Raij, you're going to finish going over your contacts tomorrow, and pay serious attention to anything they tell you about this general and the presidential race. come with me, and we'll finish off the military contacts. We need to know how far the network was compromised, and when - and why the hell Dincht didn't notice it."

"Cause he's dumb, that's why," said Raijin, annoyed. "He shoulda checked these people, ya know?"

Seifer sat up on his elbows and gave Raijin a cat-green stare. "He's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, Raij," he said flatly, "but he's not stupid. And he had Griever in his head - and Griever's got to be a long way from stupid. No...there's some other reason he didn't notice this. I just can't work it out right now." He laid back down on the bed. "Shit, I must've covered thirty miles of hiking today, and that's with taking the floaters wherever I could. Why can't all the rich bastards live together?"

Fujin's good eye narrowed. "GRIEVER?" she asked.

"Yeah, Griever," came Seifer's voice from the bed. "I don't make a habit of underestimating my opponents, Fuuj, or my allies either. Zell spaces out here and there, loses track of conversations sometimes. He's talking to Griever. Probably Leviathan now, too. I don't know if they volunteer stuff or if he's just such a wuss he's constantly bugging 'em, but he definitely talks to them. Now leave me alone - I want to get in at least a few hours' worth of sleep before I try fighting a GF. You two...get the rest of that list sorted and see if any other part of the network is compromised."

Seifer trying to sleep was probably the only thing that kept Raijin's voice down as he filled Fujin in on the people he'd talked to and what they'd said. Comparing what they'd done with what they had yet to do, they realized that even with all that they had done they hadn't covered more than a third of their list. Nothing unusual showed up on any of the non-military contacts, though. Once all the data was entered, Fujin laid out all the relevant information for the next day's work while Raijin opted to be the first in the showers.

Alone for a few moments, Fujin studied the information they had uncovered; this was her specialty, the official reason for her presence. Seifer might lead this team, but she was the one who had to direct its movements in order to find out what was going on.

Zell had built an impressive network; not surprising, really, given his outgoing and rather friendly nature. He'd made friends with barkeeps, waitresses, ticket-takers, wealthy sons, career military officers...just about anyone who might have a finger on part of the pulse of Esthar City. Except...Fujin's good eye narrowed, searching. Zell had not made friends with anyone who might know if someone new had come to town. Esthar was an insular place, having no official means to enter the country save by air - which perhaps made it an excusable lapse. But it did mean that if it had been an outside job, Zell would never have known.

That was what happened when you put a fighter in charge of an information network; something always got left out. She would have to make sure they checked the Airstation and any flophouses near the city limits on top of the list of contacts they already had. It would add days to the investigation, but there was no time limit. The possibility of finding useful evidence was too good to pass up.

She looked up, and realized she'd lost several hours. Raijin had emerged from his shower and gone to bed, all unnoticed and silent for a change. And Seifer...she stood up quickly, moved to check. Seifer was very very still. She held one hand under his nose, to make sure he was still breathing without actually touching him. If he were merely asleep, he wouldn't take kindly to being awakened with her fingers on his throat. Relief; he was breathing. Slowly, but breathing. He was all right.

Fujin pulled up a chair next to his bed and waited, watching carefully to make sure he stayed that way. He wouldn't be going anywhere tomorrow, if Irvine's report was accurate. Therefore, neither would she. She could afford to keep watch.

* * * * * * *

Seifer had begun things by following what Irvine's report had said; he directed a thought at the Guardian Force in his mind. Hey, Bahamut, he tried, feeling like an idiot. He'd junctioned Guardian Forces hundreds of times in training, but it had never occured to him to talk to them. They were forces not personalites. They responded to attention, and that was it. Except for the ones you couldn't control, like Odin. When he'd planned on becoming a Guardian Force, that had been what he'd had in mind.

You address us? came a voice like three voices together. The strongest had a reptilian hiss to it and was loud enough that it might give him a headache. The other two were male and female; not unlike the voice Griever had used at the end of its conversation with him. Daring of you, human. Contempt filled the voice, a certainty of superiority.

Watch your lip, snapped Seifer. Remember who won the last time you fought. He hadn't been in on that fight, unfortunately, but he firmly believed that if Squall could do it with his friends, then he could do it with ease.

Ah, yes, that was a good fight, came Bahamut's hissing response. But not enough for you, we take it? Do you want to fight again?

I want what others have, said Seifer. There is a higher level of power that I can reach; if I have to fight you to reach it, I will.

Confident, came Bahamut's amused response. And proud. We shall see, human. Come into the killing grounds.

There was a moment of disorientation, that made Seifer sit up, trying to focus. There was a chair by his bed for some reason, and the room was empty. Almost empty. A man stood near the door, with the exotic features of the old families of Deling City; he looked more than a little like General Caraway. He carried the largest sword Seifer had ever seen, long and slightly curved but narrow; an oversized katana. Seifer was just about to demand what the hell such an oddball was doing in his room when he noticed the man's eyes. Solid black, with tiny specks of light in them like stars.

He followed the man out the door and out to the nearest city square, and saw not another living thing. The silence was deafening. In the square, though, there stood a woman, radiating the unmistakable aura of a Sorceress. She had short blond hair and pale skin exactly the same color as Seifer's own. She was dressed in a casual-looking pair of pants and a loose blouse that had long, tight cuffs at the wrists. A swordsman's shirt. And her eyes matched those of the man's perfectly. "We are Bahamut," she said, "and you stand in eternity. Will you fight with us, here, to gain the power you seek?"

"Yes," said Seifer without hesitation. "But the fight has to be fair." He could feel the power rolling off these two. Bahamut was second only to Eden in strength, so far as he knew. He wondered if he could beat them without having to go hollering for Squall. Hyne, even thinking that made him want to cringe.

The woman smiled. "There is no such thing as a truly equal contest, Seifer," she said, making him jump that she knew his name. "You know this. There is only contest, a piling up of uncountable factors."

He frowned; he knew what she wanted. She wanted him to say he'd fight her anyway, and then they'd toast him. No one person could fight even a Sorceress alone. "I can count a big one right here; I'll fight a fair fight, but sunny jim here has to let go of Bahamut for the stakes to be even."

Both of them smiled. "And how did you plan on convincing us to do that?" they asked together. The Knight drew his sword in one fluid movement and swung it.

Well, he'd wanted to know how he would do by himself; his hand flashed to Hyperion's hilt and he got it drawn and up just in time to block the descending strike. He was furious with Bahamut for starting a fight it knew was unfair; for several minutes, that fury alone kept the katana away from him as they dueled. He even managed to score a graze on the Knight's arm. But the Knight was part of Bahamut, and did not grow tired. A few minutes more, and Seifer realized with a sick feeling that they could wear him down. They were planning on it.

He was running out of energy. There was no choice. Tempted though he was to just let Bahamut beat him rather than call out for help, he couldn't let the posse down. The rules only worked if Griever was there to enforce them, it seemed. Bahamut could easily kill him, and might choose to die rather than be taken. Then the Knight got through with a heavy midline cut across Seifer's chest. Shit - no more time.

"Squall," he yelled. "Get off your ass and get over here!" Sometimes, being a leader really sucked.

And they were there. The moment Squall and Rinoa appeared, the Knight retreated to stand next to his Sorceress, just as Squall stood next to Rinoa. Seifer took the opportunity to back off, catch his breath, and watch the show.

The four people were standing in a perfect tableau, Sorceress facing Sorceress, Knight facing Knight. Nobody moved for a moment.

"He challenged us," said the Bahamut-Sorceress calmly.

"He is SeeD," replied Squall in the same tone.

"You began the fight," said Rinoa. "He didn't agree to your terms."

The hell? thought Seifer. They'd been watching him the whole time?

"Are we required to ask the leave of children before we punish pride?" asked the Bahamut-Knight.

"Will you test us?" said Squall. "Or is the defeat of Leviathan not proof enough for you?"

They what? thought Seifer. Are they already that strong? But he didn't get time to consider that, as Bahamut said, "Yes, we will test you. Leviathan is old but weak."

And a half-second later a wave of power lashed out from Squall and Rinoa that knocked Bahamut off their feet. Seifer - just for a moment - found himself wishing for someplace out of the way to wait this out. But it seemed that was all the show there was going to be; Bahamut got to its collective feet, and both the Sorceress and the Knight bowed.

"You are strong, Griever," they said. "Strong enough for this. But not strong enough for what you plan to do. The laws are old, older than we are. It is not so easy to break them. For all your striving you will each die alone."

"We have time," said Rinoa. "And we grow stronger. We have no need of your prophecies. Will you duel again on fair terms, or give him the battle since he drew first blood?"

"We will give him the battle," Bahamut said sourly. "We can see his skill, and he has no more love of you than we do. We will fight for him. Perhaps we, too, can grow so strong."

The pair vanished, leaving just Squall and Rinoa waiting, watching him. Seifer was strongly tempted to just walk off, but this was his only chance to get the answers he so badly needed.

He'd gotten so much else right; he'd thought they'd keep their old shape somewhere - that there would still be a place where they were two and not one. But they were just like Bahamut - eyes identical and inhuman as they watched him. They weren't even trying to pretend to be separate; he suspected they were revealing more to him than they had to Zell, and Zell held their junction.

"Do you believe us now?" they asked together. "Is this what you wanted?"

Seifer scowled, shaking his head. "Just...why this?" he demanded. "Why this whole referee thing? Why do this for SeeD?"

"This is the price we have chosen to pay, for the risk that we force SeeD to take," they said.

"The risk you force us to take for your love," growled Seifer. "You didn't have to become Griever, and you know it. What makes your love worth risking the world for, huh? Damnit, Squall, did you lose every ounce of self-respect?"

Squall frowned. "You have no idea of the price we will pay for this, Seifer," he said flatly. "But we chose to pay it."

"And you drag the rest of us along with you," said Seifer. "What makes your love so much more valuable than our lives, huh?"

"When you learn what it is to love someone else, Seifer, you may question us then," said Rinoa. "At that time call on us if you still don't understand."

And the two faded from view, leaving Seifer alone in the square. Exasperated, he hefted Hyperion over his shoulder and set off back for his room. There was no use in yelling at Squall when he wasn't in the mood to listen. Countless instructors at Garden had tried that, only to find that he would simply tune them out, sitting perfectly still as a student should. Vanishing was just being more literal.

He reached his room and made a decision; when he made Commander, he would leave standing orders as to Griever's disposition. Here, perhaps, they could cut him down. In the real world, the Guardian Forces were ultimately subject to human control. He would do his damndest to make sure Griever did not turn on SeeD, could not be made to serve Ultimecia. Surely, serving Ultimecia was the 'price' that they had accepted.

Seifer hadn't accepted it. And he wasn't going to. He would find out how to forcibly separate Guardian Forces, and he would make sure Griever got split in two before Ultimecia got her claws on it. But in the meantime...sure, they could play referee.

He laid down on the bed in the indentation his body had made, and closed his eyes.

Chapter 7

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