*standard I don't own FFVIII, Squaresoft, characters, etc. applies from now until whenever I decide I'm done*
By Yuri Nigasa
If human beings were truly cursed when we fell from grace I don't believe we were cursed with the knowledge of good and evil. Since good and evil are value judgments they depend entirely on who's judging. In a war both sides are seen as good to their homeland and evil to their enemy. It's just that history tends to favor the victors as being on the side of good. After all… there's probably nobody left to protest the issue. Today's hero is tomorrow's criminal. It just depends on who's holding court.
Unfortunately for me, it was being held by one Squall Leonhart.
He had traded his standard wardrobe for something a bit more on the vanilla side. He was wearing a pair of baggy black wool pants and a long-sleeved white silk shirt. He looked about a meter of lace away from being a dandy. Not his fault I suppose. It wasn’t as if he’d been able to determine his genetics. Squall's face had that look, the one right before he puts his fingers on the bridge of his nose and shakes his head. Can't say I'd blame him if I were on the other side of the desk. Then again, nobody would ever want me there.
"I've got Balamb, Galbadia, Esthar, Fisherman's Horizon... actually I think it's less time consuming to name the places that don't want your head on a pike."
Squall had to be absolutely livid. It took a lot to get him to string that many words together in a sentence voluntarily. I folded my hands behind my head and leaned back. Deliberate movement of nonchalance on my part, designed to push a button of Squall's I'd been prodding for years. "And that's my problem how exactly?" I said. Score! One sigh of pure frustration from the Commander.
Squall pushed a com button and the door opened. I really was flattered, in a way. Half a dozen armed guards just to get me back to a room and keep me there... not that I would have fought to escape. I wasn't exactly the type who could blend in well. And besides, it was so much more amusing to have these daily rounds with Squall.
I stood up, placed my hand to my chest, and bowed low. Tilting my head up I smirked at him, winked, righted myself and turned sharply on my heel.
"Same time tomorrow then, or do you have plans?" I called in parting.
I would give him credit for keeping his composure but… this was Squall. I wouldn't feel like a success until the day he threw something at the back of my head. As we departed, my footsteps were lost in the sounds of twelve other feet. It was one of those random, comforting sounds like rain thrown against a window on a spring evening. Down the hall and across the foyer to the elevator we went, then down the elevator from the second floor to the basement. Home sweet home. I could still smell the scent of fresh paint when I stepped in. The rooms I occupied had been constructed after it was determined that it probably wouldn't be wise to keep me with the general student body of Garden. Wonder why they would think something ridiculous like that?
The only door out of my general living quarters led to a room guarded by six random SeeDs who were unlucky enough to draw Seifer duty that day. I didn't have any windows, not that they would have done me any good in a basement. I had two rooms to prowl through - a bedroom and living room. Three if I counted the bathroom, but really… who wants to prowl through a bathroom? Originally they had given me a computer terminal but my privileges had been revoked once it was discovered I was using the Bulletin Board system to amuse myself during the day. Apparently my musings generated too much of a response for the system to handle and it crashed everything for six hours. So, they swapped my terminal for a television. I hated television but as I sat down I turned it on anyway.
I resisted the urge to hurl my paperweight at Seifer. If I had, it would have only convinced him of what he already knew. He was the only person who could ever get to me like that and he delighted in the fact that he did it well. I hadn't been in the mood to deal with it today. He wasn't stupid. He had to realize that the walls of Garden were the only things keeping him alive right now. Not even President Loire, who had the sickening capacity to seek out the positive in everyone, was actively protesting calls for the execution of Seifer Almasy, ex-Sorceress' Knight. The only person I knew that had voiced a protest was the sole remaining Sorceress – the disgustingly spoiled and naive Rinoa Heartilly. Once she had figured out that I had no intention of becoming the Knight she was convinced I should become, she decided she had better try to save the only Knight around. I knew Seifer well enough to know that he wouldn't be flattered.
I didn't want to hand him over to anyone. Ironic conflict for a mercenary. It wasn't loyalty or friendship or dominance keeping me from doing it… there was just something in my subconscious that rebelled against it. I suppose the original motivation was probably eaten by Guardian use. It was probably for the better. Memory was the single greatest curse on humanity.
Maybe if I was a bit better at relating to people, I could get him to listen to me. Then again, this is Seifer. I don't think he's ever listened to anyone who wasn't saying what he wanted to hear. It was probably always like that, even when we were young. I've never bothered to ask Matron. The one person who can fill in the missing gaps of my memory and I really have no desire to know what she'd say.
I bring up the independent terminal to find what other miscellaneous tasks remain before I can call it a day and retreat to my quarters. Many of the files are time-sensitive, coming up only when they require review. I scroll through the list, many of which are routine monthly files: inventory, field reports, student evaluations, active deployment rosters... independent operative initiative? We didn't have any independent operatives in the field. Other than the Esthar deployment we didn't have any active deployments at present. I accessed the file and was greeted with a request for security clearance. Not a problem. Error. Re-enter authorization for clearance. Okay. Error. Re-enter authorization for clearance. I was getting frustrated. Third time's the charm. Error. Warning: Maximum Retry Limit Reached. File has been encrypted in accordance with Security Protocol 421-c9. I didn't need this today. I hit the button that called to the outside office.
"Selphie?" I asked.
"Yeah Boss?" she giggled. She had started calling me Boss soon after taking over the front office. I would have preferred anyone else, but how do you fire someone who won't leave?
"I need our CCI cadet. You know, the girl."
"Yes. Tell her to bring her remote terminal."
"I'm on it."
Computer Counter-Intelligence wasn't a normal cadet specialty. In fact, if this girl ever had to set foot on a battlefield to fight, I'd worry more for our side than the enemy. So, we kept weapons out of her hands and let her conduct her own private missions in data espionage. This would be the first time she had ever cracked Garden security with permission. I can't even begin to count the times she's done it out of boredom alone. As far as I knew she'd never accessed this terminal, but if she had, I wouldn't be surprised.
A chirp at the door announced her arrival. I opened the door and she bounded in, a sure rival for Zell's hyperactivity if there ever was one. At her side was a battered remote terminal that looked as if it had seen better days... twenty years ago. She had gotten creative with her uniform, removing the sleeves from the jacket and wearing it over a white shirt with shorts. For some reason she was barefoot. I filed that in the 'questions not to ask' section.
"You beckoned, Commander sir?" she hugged the terminal to her chest.
"I need you to access a file for me, cadet."
Her eyes grew wide and she grinned like a Cheshire cat. This girl lived for technology. I had no doubts that if she graduated, she'd find herself in the employ of Esthar.
"Which file, sir?"
"The independent operative initiative file."
"Sir, don't you have the password for that?"
I did not need to be lectured or made to feel stupid by a thirteen-year-old cadet. She must have sensed something because the next thing I knew she was cabling in the remote terminal to mine. She sat down on the floor by the desk and slipped a pair of goggles over her eyes.
"Come to Ed!" she called. I was really hoping she was talking to the terminal. "Ooh-la-la. Security Protocol Encryption is my friend! Hmm, friends don't do that. Play nice! Here, have a cookie. I'll trade you for the file."
What scared me most was the fact that I knew she had a completely normal psychological profile.
"Mwahahaha! Eat the worm little fishy! Got you, reel you in, caught you!"
The file opened on my terminal and she lifted the goggles from her eyes. "That was fun. We should do it again some time. Sir." she added hastily. She grabbed a pen and notepad from her satchel and scribbled something on the paper before handing it to me. "Use that code if you want to access the file."
"Thank you cadet. That will be all."
She unplugged her terminal and packing it up with unbelievable speed, then turned and ran out the door and down the hallway. I didn't even bother to tell her to slow down. She never would have heard me anyway.
I turned my attention to the mystery file and began to read.
Independent Operative Initiative
Exempted Action Deployment/ Counter-Intelligence/ Undercover
Timber/Galbadian operative SID 92-837 report overdue.
Assume mission compromise unless green code confirmation received.
Last operative report dated four weeks prior to current date.
Last known whereabouts place operative in Esthar.
Expected rendezvous with Main Operative Deployment unconfirmed.
Update Operative Status? Y/N
The operative identification number was unfamiliar to me. Four weeks ago would put it just prior to the appearance of Lunatic Pandora. If there been an independent operative in Esthar at that time why hadn't they met with us? Why hadn't Cid said anything about this? Opening the active deployment files, I searched for the operative number listed in the report.
Operative Identification 92-837
Status: Exempted Action
Current Deployment: CLASSIFIED
Current Location: CLASSIFIED
Independent Operative Initiative has been instituted.
Authorized within parameters specified in Articles of Deployment, section 72-f.
Operative: S. Almasy
To say that the file in front of me confused me would have been a gross misstatement. I cleared the terminal and shoved the scrap of paper with the new security password in my pocket. Walking out to the front office I told Selphie that I would be back later.
I stepped off the elevator and was greeted by two guards who looked ready to send me back upstairs until they saw who I was. I shrugged off their salutes and unlocked the main door, shocking the four SeeDs inside into scrambling to complete attention.
"Sir!" they chorused.
"At ease." I really wasn't in the mood to deal with security measures that I had put in place. I opened the lock and walked in. Seifer was stretched out on the couch, eyes closed. He didn't bother to look up.
"Just put it on the table. I'll eat it later," he said.
"Do I look like your waiter?" I snapped.
His eyes opened and for a moment I felt that he was distinctly considering the possibility that I might make a good dinner. He sat up, swinging his long legs to the floor.
"You could be. With that outfit all you'd need is the apron."
"So, to what do I owe the honor? Or are you here on a social call? If I had known you were coming I would have cleaned up."
"I don't do 'social.'"
"Yeah, we'd all be surprised if you 'did' anything." The tone of Seifer's voice left little doubt as to the innuendo he was making. Since when had my sex life become his business?
"Would the term 'green code' mean anything to you Seifer?"
The change in his demeanor was startling. For once, I felt like I had the upper hand. I had his attention. His jaw was clenched; mouth a hard line, eyes narrowed. Seifer held my gaze unwaveringly.
"I wasn't aware you had been given clearance to ask me anything."
The feeling of having the upper hand had been short lived.
How had Squall found out about green code, or any of the codes, for that matter? Not even Cid Kramer had access to those files.
I can see it now... 'Hey Squall mind if I put in a quick call to Esthar? I'll let them clear up the entire thing for you. No, really. Ask for Laguna. You know the guy - atrocious ponytail, prone to cramping, really hot for his age though.'
I settled for just giving Squall the eye. It wouldn't intimidate him, but at the very least it'd start him on one of those internal monologues and I could get a few spare moments to decide just what the hell I'm supposed to do now. Squall and I, to say we didn't get along doesn't quite do our unique relationship justice. It's not that we hate each other, far from it. We just have an unspoken agreement as far as how we relate to each other. We don't demand what can't be given. So far neither of us has ever capitulated to the other. I know this much though - there is nobody I'd rather have go into battle with me. I wanted to trust him. I knew I could, and it wasn't fair that he was getting his strings pulled like this. I respected him enough to want to give him the advantage of truth.
"Have a seat, Squall." It took him a minute to register that. I had called the internal monologue right. Then again, with Squall, I could call a lot of things right. He was doing the furrowed brow again as he sat down on the couch beside me.
"So how much do you know?" Better to find out just what he knows before I go opening my big mouth.
"What is green code, Seifer?"
Damn but he's got a one-track mind. "A mission code."
"And?" Trust Squall not to use two words when one will do.
"My safe code."
"What are you a parrot? Come on, Leonhart. You obviously have something you want to ask me. It's not like I'm in a position to tell anyone anything while I'm a guest in the basement of Balamb Garden now is it?"
"Do you have an operative number, Seifer?"
"I'm not SeeD."
"I didn't ask you if you were SeeD."
I don't know why I just can't come out and tell him what I want to. Maybe I feel that if I just give him what he wants to know it will be like I've violated one of those unspoken rules. I know beyond doubt that it will compromise the mission security protocol. Not that it matters much now anyway. I knew the risk I was in for.
"Nine two dash eight three seven."
"Mind telling me why you're listed as an Independent Operative?"
I wish I had looked at the clock when we'd started this. I'd never heard him talk this much since he was all of about four or five. Right before Ellone left. Now, a dozen years or so later, Elle is a disarming woman. One of those genuine types you don't find too often. We used to talk a lot before things got hectic, when she was still here in Balamb.
"Why don't you tell me anyway?"
"Like you're going to believe me. I would have told you this three weeks ago if I had thought it would do any good." Not entirely true. I was forbidden to divulge even as much as Squall already knew. "I want to know how you came to know about green code, and my operative number. Come on… I've answered your questions now at least answer one of mine."
He sighed. Normally I loved doing this to him, but somehow it seemed different now. "There was a coded file that came up for review."
How had he gotten access? Even if it had come up he shouldn't have been able to open it. Three invalid entries should have enabled Security Protocol encryption. My files were coded so that only two people could access them. Yours truly was stuck in the Garden Basement with no hope of accessing the independent terminal network. The other was sitting in the Esthar Presidential Palace and should have never let that file come up.
I got real serious real fast. "How much do you know, Squall?"
With Squall, there's silence - and then there's silence. He was definitely in the latter form at that moment. Squall has almost as many forms of silence as the Shumi have words for snow.
"Squall?" I prompted. "I need to know. You can trust me. You know me."
I could tell by the look on his face he had passed into monologue silence. What happened next made me re-evaluate my methods.
Trust? Like Seifer knew anything about a word like that. Sorry Seifer, but there was never trust there. At least not the type he was talking about. There was a knowledge that Seifer was what he was and consistent in being that, but I don't call that trust. I used to think I knew him. I didn't like him, but I never hated him. I just wished he'd go away. Then he went away and everything changed. From the moment he rushed in and destroyed our mission and then disappeared and we thought he was dead... to the time he reappeared in Deling City I didn't know him any more. We used to fight, Seifer and I, but not like it was in Deling City. Even then I wouldn't kill him. Not couldn't. Wouldn't.
I stood up and made my way to the door. "Seifer I don't know you. I won't trust you. Don't demand what I can't give."
The lock chimed and opened as I began to press the open switch. I hadn't seen Seifer move that fast since we used to train together. One moment he was on the couch and the next there was a hand digging painfully into my arm.
"Let go of me, Almasy."
"I say one word and there are six guards in here to make you let go."
"You wouldn't do that. You hate having other people fight your battles."
I cursed the fact that he apparently knew me better than I thought he did. Bluffs are only useful when they succeed, and this one had failed miserably.
"Then maybe they'll just be coming in here to pick you up off the floor."
"That may be, but at least listen to me first." I glanced over at him. Big mistake. His eyes were this impenetrable emerald green and I could tell just by looking at him that he was serious. If I had one single weakness when it came to people, it was him. Nobody else made me react that way. He was the one person I had never been able to ignore.
"I'm listening." Seifer let go of my arm, but I made no move to sit down. I wasn't about to go trot back over to that couch like an obedient puppy and hang off every word out of his mouth.
"I don't know how, but I know you either got incredibly lucky on a first guess, or somehow you managed to break a Security Protocol encryption designed by the top minds in Esthar."
Esthar's top minds? Cadet Francois was more talented than I thought.
Seifer continued. "I'm assuming you intercepted an Independent Operative Initiative Report?"
I nodded. I was seriously rethinking my decision not to sit down. This was not going to be quick. I headed to the couch and sat down, never taking my eyes off Seifer. He followed me and sat on the opposite end. For a moment I felt as if I was staring at someone I had never even truly known.
"I should start at the beginning."
I was damned into the entire thing now and all because I didn't want to lie to Squall. He was a great one to talk about not demanding anything. I would consider this a violation of the agreement, had there actually been one.
"My reasons for failing my SeeD mission had nothing to do with an inability to follow orders. By the time we hit the shores of Dollet, I was already in the employ of Esthar. Ellone was my contact in Balamb. Cid knew very little of my actual purposes, only that I had been hired and my orders went straight from Esthar to Ellone to me. Esthar, or rather Dr. Odine, had been tracking Matron since she had inherited her powers. Esthar's President Loire only took interest once she began to use them. It was out of character given what they knew about her, so they began to investigate."
"From what I understand they didn't quite know what Galbadia was hoping to accomplish in Dollet, but once it became apparent that Edea had become the primary source of influence upon Vinzer Deling, they suspected that the making of another Sorceress Conflict was at hand."
"After you were promoted to SeeD, the Timber contingent was sent under the guise of assisting a rebel group in the fight to regain the region's independence. In reality it was to set the stage for the mission I was already on. The three of you, plus the Forest Owls, never knew the degree to which Garden was manipulating you. Cid never really knew the degree to which Esthar was manipulating Garden. Had Garden not sided with Dollet and the Timber resistance, it would have been in no place to contest action by Galbadia on behalf of its clients. Had I not had a valid reason for contact with Galbadia, and specifically with Edea, my mission would have been forfeit."
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