Hi everyone! Thanks so much for taking the time to check this story out - I really hope you like it! I've been working on it for a while now, so I'm excited to finally be able to start sharing it.
Warnings: Language, violence, and death (the warnings are predominantly for this chapter alone - parts are a bit heavy, so proceed with caution).
A Moment of Truth
A disposable ShinRa grunt. That was what the general public and his fellow infantrymen called him…but he'd never truly believed that was what he was. Not until now.
"Are you aware of the severity of the charges you're facing today, Private Strife?"
He tried not to grimace—of course he was aware. Too aware. "Yes, sir."
"Yet you decline to have any counsel to represent you during this hearing?"
It wasn't an actual trial. Technically he wasn't required to have anyone speak on his behalf despite the fact he was authorized to requisition someone who specialized in military policy and protocol—a military lawyer, essentially. And while he desperately wanted someone to speak on his behalf…this was something he needed to do for himself.
"That's correct, sir," Cloud responded after a moment, unable to hold back the quiver in his voice as he tried his best to stand tall.
More than anything, he wanted to sink down into the chair behind him…he wanted to hide his face in his hands and let the tears he was fighting fall freely. Further grieving would have to wait though. For now…for his fallen comrades, he would get through this.
"Let the record indicate that you declined counsel," the man on the far right side of the panel spoke, his crooked smile almost malicious as he eyed Cloud.
He stood at attention, hands behind his back and head held high despite the weight he felt on his shoulders and the ache in his gut. This wasn't the time to buckle under the pressure of his own weaknesses. His squad mates had been slaughtered, and yet he was alive—standing in his dress blues as he prepared to relive a night he was sure he would never forget in front of the eyes and ears of a panel of his commanding officers.
Not his direct supervisors. These were the top brass—men he'd never met or even gazed upon until now. The kind of Army officials who kissed ass or bribed their way into their rank, and likely never risked any actual field experience. The kind of men who only emerged from their cozy offices to oversee publicity parades, or at times like these…when an enlisted serviceman was court-martialed.
It was almost ironic that his fate was in their hands—the very men who perpetuated the failures of the army. His failures were their failures, at least in part—not that they would ever see it that way. To them, he was nothing. All that mattered was washing their hands clean of this incident. Four dead infantrymen and two collapsed buildings…a fire that spread through the rubble to the nearby apartments, and an unknown civilian death toll. That definitely reflected poorly on the company…ShinRa ran the city, and so keeping the city safe was one of the functions of the ShinRa Army.
Someone had to be held accountable for the army's blatant failure that night, and judging by the looks he was receiving from the five men on the panel…that someone would be him.
"Take us through what happened, step by step—the investigation mentioned a patrol?" another man inquired, hands folded on the table and eyes piercing Cloud where he stood.
"That's correct, sir," the blond agreed, allowing himself a deep breath before continuing. It was nerve-wracking…standing before these men, knowing all eyes in the room were on him. He couldn't falter though…he had to do this himself. "It was a standard patrol on the outskirts of Sector Eight. My squad had taken the same route every night for the past two weeks."
"Were you aware of any unique circumstances prior to this particular patrol?"
"No, sir. Intel hadn't reported any unrest in the area, so we treated it like any other night."
"When did you realize it wasn't like any other night?"
"We were roughly two clicks away from the residential area…just outside the fallen furniture factory building. That was when Sargent Timmons triggered a landmine," Cloud answered, finally lowering his head.
Sargent Timmons was an asshole. He was pompous and condescending during even the best of times…The man didn't deserve to die for it though. Speaking his name after seeing what happened to him was nearly enough to unravel Cloud, and he was sure he would feel just as torn up inside when it was time to speak about the rest of his squad too. He'd been assigned to Sargent Timmons' unit over a year ago, and had worked with those same men every day since. Each of their deaths haunted him, no matter what his personal feelings were toward any of them.
It was for those same men that he had to keep speaking though—their story needed to be heard. How could a group of grunts on a standard patrol have ever anticipated a terrorist attack? After two years of service, the most action he'd seen was from a domestic dispute in the slums. Their duties were more akin to the neighborhood watch back in Nibelheim than anything he expected when he joined the Army, and their training…it definitely hadn't prepared him for a situation like that.
These officers needed to know that there were some serious training issues the Army needed to address to prevent unnecessary deaths like this. Even if they didn't give a damn about him or his squad mates…surely it was in ShinRa's best interest to take preventative action, if nothing else.
Another deep breath steeled his resolve, and he continued, "We were patrolling in a standard arrow formation, with Sargent Timmons on point. He…didn't die right away. Private Edmunds had our group's medical kit, but nothing…we tried, but there was nothing we could do for him at that point."
"Sargent Timmons was the ranking NCO on your squad—who assumed command when he was down?"
"We looked to Sargent Higgins for orders," Cloud explained vaguely, his heart racing anxiously.
They didn't need to know more…it was the entire reason he had opted to speak for himself instead of taking on any counsel. It would have been preferable to let someone speak on his defense, but every single Army-appointed attorney he'd attempted to speak with all said the same thing.
"If you tell them what happened with Sargent Higgins, no one will blame you. Under Policy M718 it was his responsibility."
That just wasn't going to happen. No one needed to hear about how Sargent Higgins froze up—about the nauseated look on his face at the sight of Sargent Timmons mangled body. No one needed to know he was so distraught that he failed to offer a single order even though he was next in line to do so…and that he had no choice but to assume control of the group at that point.
Sure, Cloud could try to explain. He could tell them that maybe if Sargent Higgins had done what he was supposed to do…that maybe things would have gone differently. He could tell them that he was just a private—the youngest, quietest member on the squad who spent most his time as the butt of his squad mates' jokes…that he had no business being the one issuing orders to anyone.
What good would it do to say those things though? Maybe they'd let him off the hook, but he'd never be able to let himself off the hook if he did that. There was no need to ruin the reputation of a dead man, especially when he wasn't the one at fault. As far as any of these bastards needed to know, his entire unit had acted admirably—it just hadn't been enough.
"Private, I'll ask again," the man to the far left said, his stern voice snapping Cloud out of his trance. "What were Sargent Higgins' orders?"
His heart sank as he made the same assessment he had that night. "A landmine meant one of two things…and there was enough commotion nearby to narrow it down to an ambush. Under the circumstances, there was only one thing to do…"
"And what was that?"
"Take cover," he replied softly, closing his eyes as the words echoed through his mind—words that Sargent Higgins had never uttered.
They were the words he had spoken that night.
Higgins had been the closest to Timmons—literally. They'd been walking in standard five man patrol formation, maintaining a staggered distance between one another for what they had all assumed would be a typical evening…uneventful and tedious. An ambush was unheard of within the city's limits, and definitely hadn't been a part of any of their mock-training.
Three men were looking to Higgins, helplessly awaiting orders or something—anything to tear their eyes away from the remains of their group's leader. The blast had been relatively contained, but even still, blood was splattered across Higgins' face and the impact had shaken him in more way than one…there were no hostiles in sight, but the commotion nearby…They needed to be prepared, not standing out in the open waiting for Higgins to snap out of it.
Wide eyes fell to Cloud, filled with shock and panic—sadness and disbelief.
He never wanted this…but there would be time to think about that later. "Take cover!" he ordered, doubting anyone could even hear over the sound of a second blast—a bit further off this time, not set off by any of his squad mates.
Whatever triggered that blast, its impact didn't sound good. Most of the buildings in the area were poorly built already…a powerful enough explosion nearby any of them could easily do irreparable damage, if not cause an outright collapse. The area was already known for its buildings not being built up to code, and there were plenty of fallen buildings around to attest to that. ShinRa was 'handling' those issues, but apparently not in this sector yet.
There wasn't time to assess any new damages to the local infrastructure though. The sound of gunfire was in the air, along with yelling and screaming…surely a mix of hostiles and civilians. It was definitely getting closer, too. He pulled out his PHS to try calling for back up, but was quickly dismayed to see the signal was jammed. Any thoughts of scouting, retreating, or sending someone to physically request backup wouldn't be possible with the commotion advancing upon them so rapidly. All they could do was be prepared.
There were a few options for cover in the area, and Cloud quickly took one of those—debris left from a collapsed factory building. He gestured instinctively, racking his brain to make sure the hand signals were the right ones to let his squad mates know they should get down as well.
Luckily they snapped out of their dazes, momentarily at least. Whether it was in response to his signals or not, he wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. Higgins and Sully were soon huddled behind a second pile of rubble nearby, and Edmunds was at the corner of a building to their rear. For a moment they were safe…granted, safety was a matter of perspective in their current predicament.
He needed to calm down, he realized. Somehow he was out of breath despite the fact nothing had happened to him. His heart was racing faster than he could ever recall, sweat was prickling his forehead…and his rifle. It caught his complete attention, his eyes transfixed on it. Why was it shaking in his hands?
There were plenty of times in his life when he was sure he was afraid. When his mother caught him smuggling fresh baked cookies into his bedroom as a child…the day he'd confessed his plan to leave home for Midgar—the day he'd actually followed through with that plan. The moment he'd met his drill instructor in boot camp and gotten his ass handed to him for forgetting to salute…countless hours spent awake in the barracks, unable to sleep because the last time he'd dozed off for too long, some jerks from another training platoon had stolen his only pair of regulation socks…again.
Now he knew he'd never truly been afraid. It took a solid minute for him to recognize the fact that it wasn't his rifle that was shaking—he was shaking, from head to toe.
"Focus," he berated himself, knowing there was no more time to waste.
He peered over his cover, his gun at the ready—the safety was switched off, and he didn't hesitate. Four hostiles were in sight now, approaching with weapons drawn—they saw nothing but the remains of Sargent Timmons, and Cloud intended to keep it that way. Years of joking about target practice being good for nothing but impressing civilians were quickly proven wrong as he rattled off his first shot.
A headshot, to the man on the left side of the group. He had actually been aiming for the man's chest, but…he would have to worry about his shitty aim later.
Cloud ducked back under cover, not daring to think about what he'd just done—that he'd just killed someone. This was a combat situation now. Maybe that man had a family...and maybe he and his companions had some twisted reasons for whatever it was they were hoping to accomplish. Those concerns didn't matter yet. What mattered now was that the men who were approaching had weapons drawn, and a clear intent to kill.
Three hostiles remained, and his squad still had four members. They could handle this.
He gave the return fire signal to his comrades, knowing it was now or never—they were screwed if the hostiles got too close. Before he could poke back up for his next shot, he was relieved to see Sully reacting to his signal, mimicking his actions—Higgins was still slumped where he sat, hands clamped over his ears as Sully fired his rifle.
It wasn't right.
Of all his squad mates, Higgins was the one who was supposed to stay cool under fire...Sargent Higgins had always been, Cloud thought, the ideal example of what a leader should be. A genuinely good guy who went of his way to keep the peace when Timmons was on another tangent about everyone's boots needing to be polished.
And Private Sully...he was the last member of the squad Cloud would have expected to step up like this. Sully was a notorious brown-noser, always doing whatever it took to stay in Timmons' good graces...How long had it been since Cloud decided it was best to just ignore Sully entirely because listening to him was tiresome?
Never again—he would never ignore Sully again, he decided. A newfound respect and appreciation for his fellow private filled him, and he'd never forget it. Sully was doing a damn good job.
Cloud peered out of his cover, eyes sweeping the field to assess the situation once more. One of the remaining hostiles had taken a hit to the arm, it seemed, and now the man was aggravated—he was firing back with a nonstop barrage.
There were definitely more than three now. Edmunds was looking to him after firing off his own shot, quickly resuming his cover behind the building to the rear—the incoming fire was too much for four infantrymen to handle alone, and they all knew it.
Fall back…Cloud signaled Edmunds, knowing at least one of them needed to get away and call for help. Now that they knew which direction the hostiles were approaching from, it was only one logical option. Edmunds was the furthest back, and that left him in the best position to get away in the circumstances. If he and Sully could just hold off the hostiles in the meantime, it would be fine. Maybe Higgins would get his act together and help too. Then Edmunds would return with back up, and—oh, no…
That damn materia. "Leave it!" Cloud exclaimed, watching in horror as Edmunds' prized possession fell from his pocket.
How many nights had Edmunds spent raving about his indulgent purchase…the item he was determined to master one day, even if it killed him. Just an hour ago he had tossed it up and down in the air as they walked, swearing up and down with it that he was getting close to figuring out how to use it.
"Edmunds, no!" he shouted as loudly as he could, cover be damned—they already knew exactly where he was anyway. What mattered was Edmunds, and telling him to stop.
Maybe his squad mate heard the shout, and maybe he didn't—Cloud would never know. The small green orb rolled along the dirt, the ground shaking from gun fire doing nothing to stop it…and the fool ducked out to retrieve it. He seemed to realize the error of his decision immediately, but it was too late—he kicked the materia toward Cloud, and judging by the number of shots that hit him…he was probably dead before he hit the ground.
"Nothing in the report or your testimony explain the fire," the eldest man—a colonel, Cloud noted from the stripes on his collar—said, his tone filled with accusation. He looked to his left and right, meeting the eyes of the other ranking officials at the table before his gaze fell back to Cloud. It was sharp, silently demanding further explanation…Cloud just shifted uncomfortably where he stood though, having nothing to add on that subject.
The colonel persisted, "Even a landmine blast wouldn't account for all the damage to the local infrastructure. It looked more like the result of—"
That was not the voice of anyone on his panel of judges. All five men had spoken at some point during the hearing…this new voice was smooth and distinct, sending a jolt down his spine. There was no way he would have forgotten it so easily. It had come from behind him, where a mix of civilians and other infantrymen were seated to watch the hearing. He was sorely tempted to spin around and see who had spoken so boldly, but falling out of attention would only get him into further trouble with the officers at this point.
Still, whoever it was…only an idiot would cut off a colonel, especially during an official hearing.
Well, an idiot or someone of an even higher rank. But the highest ranked members of the Army were sitting at the panel already, to the colonel's right and left—sure, there were others of equal or higher status, but they were scattered among the other ShinRa bases rather than lumped together in the same location. That only left one other possibility…whoever had spoken was either an idiot or a—
"SOLDIER has no business at an Army sanctioned court-martial," the colonel stated, eyes narrow as the man who had spoken began to approach.
Cloud's eyes went wide, but somehow he held in his awe and curiosity as the familiar sound of combat boots hitting the wooden floor grew closer.
"I have a letter with the president's seal that states otherwise," the man with the smooth voice countered, a smugness in his tone as he finally stepped into Cloud's peripheral. "Trust me, Tibbs, I have no interest in being at your silly little hearing."
It took every ounce of self-control he had not to turn to the right and gawk at this man, but somehow he managed. To say something like that to a colonel…yeah, SOLDIER and the Army were technically separate organizations and didn't answer to one another, but still. He was a bit envious, actually. If only he could speak so freely to these officers…there were a few things he'd like to say.
"Colonel Tibbs," the old man corrected indignantly, rising to his feet and holding out his hand expectantly.
The SOLDIER at Cloud's side let out an exasperated sigh before approaching the colonel, handing over a paper with several official seals stamped onto it. Even from where he was standing Cloud could see the triumphant smirk on the SOLDIER's face. He appeared even more delighted as the colonel grew more frustrated, chuckling softly as he put his hands on his hips. Nothing else came out of his mouth though—he just kept watching the colonel, like he was waiting for something.
Whoever told him SOLDIERs were flashy bastards and show offs...they may have been under-exaggerating, Cloud decided. His eyes swept the man up and down now that he was within his direct line of sight, wondering vaguely how such a long, leather jacket was practical for combat…especially a red one. It suited the man well, but surely that jacket made it difficult in situations where he needed to blend in with the scenery or crowd.
Then again, he didn't know much about what SOLDIERs actually did. He had only ever met one, and that SOLDIER…well, it seemed likely he may have been exaggerating about his duties a bit. The only bit of truth was what everyone knew—SOLDIERs were ShinRa's elite. They were the reason the regular Army could be assigned to do such menial work. Aside from war times, there really was no need to have a fully functional army—certain divisions still trained accordingly, and the rest were just part of the show.
Who would defy an army so vast? It wasn't like the general public knew half the Army were poorly trained grunts like Cloud, kept on payroll and sent to do mindless work to keep their numbers up. So long as SOLDIER handled the monsters, terrorists, and whatever else they did, it all worked out. Except when it didn't, but that was what court-martials were for, apparently.
"Conscription?" Colonel Tibbs scoffed, slamming the paper down on the table in front of him. His anger only prompted more laughter from the man in red, causing Cloud to bite his lower lip to refrain from laughing as well. The private had never heard the word before, but he liked the effect it was having on the colonel. "I refuse to allow this."
"You were planning to discharge him anyway—dishonorably, I assume. I'm doing you a favor by taking him off your hands."
"He's been charged with desertion! The rescue team found him curled up in a ball, hiding more than thirty meters away from the scene! If he hadn't fled, his squad may have lasted until—"
Every word made Cloud's heart sink, and suddenly he felt weak in the knees. All the curiosity and entertainment the SOLDIER had stirred inside him was forgotten as he let himself fall into the chair behind him. He was supposed to remain at attention until the officers directed him otherwise, but he no longer cared. It seemed his assumptions about the likely outcome of the hearing were correct anyway—if he were about to get discharged, what was one more violation? They hadn't even gotten to that part of his testimony, but it was clear by the way the colonel had spoken so adamantly that the SOLDIER was correct in his assertion.
It didn't matter what he had to say about that night. In his gut, he'd already known that…but somewhere in his heart, he'd still dared to hope otherwise. The harsh reality made it impossible to pay attention to anything else that was happening, though it seemed to be growing more heated. Well, the colonel was more heated—whoever that SOLDIER was, nothing the colonel said was affecting him. The power struggle and the colonel's irrationally hot temper were eerily familiar...it almost reminded him of Sargent Timmons, always throwing his rank around and wanting people to bow down to him.
It was just another reason to block out their conversation...he couldn't handle any more reminders of his fallen comrades right now.
"You're speaking as if he's already been found guilty. I was under the impression your hearing hadn't reached its conclusion yet."
"That's not the point!" Tibbs exclaimed, his face red with anger. "You're rewarding him for—"
"For putting up with listening to you, yes. I'm impressed he's lasted this long—if it were up to me, I'd give him a medal for that alone. These hearings are so mundane."
"You have no right to barge in here and interrupt this hearing. Conscription or not, this hearing will proceed, and you can do as you see fit afterward."
The redhead let out a thoughtful hmm before shaking his head. "No."
Tibbs leaned across the table, his voice hushed but furious as he spoke, "He's not leaving until this matter is resolved. I don't give a damn what this letter says, Rhapsodos—"
"Ah, I think it's only fair you refer to me by rank if you plan on insisting I do the same for you."
"…General Rhapsodos. With due respect, your rank is irrelevant here. This court-martial will adjourn when I say it does, and I'm not through with Private Strife yet."
"You were questioning him about a fire in the outskirts of Sector Eight earlier this week, and I'm afraid that information is classified. Any further investigation into this matter has been suspended—it's stated very clearly on the form I handed you."
The colonel glanced at the sheet squashed below his palm once more, scowling. "Since when do you fill out paperwork?"
"I don't. One of my men filled it out and made sure to get the appropriate signatures. I was tempted to send someone else to deliver the form today, but I must say, it was well worth the trouble—the look on your face right now is priceless," General Rhapsodos revealed, apparently not caring about the gasps his remarks were eliciting from around the room. He put a hand of his own down on the panel's table, somehow matching the colonel's gesture with much more finesse. "He's mine, and I'll be taking him now."
"The entire point of this hearing is that he doesn't know about the fire—he turned and fled before he saw what happened," Colonel Tibbs insisted, too focused on the SOLDIER to notice Cloud tense up—too caught up in the debate to see how the private clenched his fists and narrowed his eyes defiantly. The blond had zoned out most of their bickering, lost in a downward spiral of thoughts…but the colonel's assumptions drew him back, at least momentarily. "So if it's classified, he wouldn't know enough to speak of it anyway."
"You're wrong, as usual," the general said, sounding entirely too pleased with his own statement.
"The evidence from the investigation is overwhelming…Not that you'd have read the reports—I suppose that'd be beneath you."
"I didn't need to read the report, my men were there. Who do you think called in for a rescue team before clearing the area?"
"You…why weren't we notified of SOLDIER's involvement? We send patrols out to that sector on a daily basis! Classified or not, if you know something that affects—"
"It was a one-time incident, and it's been resolved. Your men will be fine to continue mindlessly patrolling the city."
"I'll be filing a complaint with Director Lazard over this."
"I sincerely hope you do. I look forward to my next opportunity to embarrass you in front of your peers, Colonel—until then, I bid you farewell." The man in red spun around gracefully, eyes falling to Cloud immediately—the amusement was lost almost instantly, replaced by something fierce and overbearing. "Let's go, Blondie."
Cloud blinked, unsure exactly what was going on now. Blondie? He looked around slowly, though doubted the man had been referring to anyone else. It just didn't make sense…He'd spent most of their conversation seething in his seat, too frustrated with the colonel, the panel, the Army—with everything—to really pay attention to their exchange. As the SOLDIER eyed him though, he suddenly wished he'd had the sense to listen into the entire conversation. The bits and pieces he heard definitely did not add up to him going anywhere with this man.
"Yes, I'm talking to you," the redhead added, raising his brows impatiently as Cloud stared back openmouthed.
As the SOLDIER stepped in closer, suddenly his dramatic flair was replaced by something intensely intimidating. Cloud tried to rise to his feet, but failed miserably as the man's stare turned into a fierce glare. How was he supposed to go anywhere while someone was looking at him like that? Instead of facing it head on, he attempted to look around the man, seeking permission from the panel to leave…or something. The meeting hadn't been adjourned—there hadn't been a decision or punishment yet. Wasn't he supposed to be discharged before going anywhere?
The SOLDIER stepped in front of him before he found his answer, blocking his sight and capturing his lost stare with ease. It was like there was no one else in the room—his wide eyes were locked onto an electric blue pair, and he knew he couldn't look away again until the other man allowed it.
"I'm your commanding officer now, and you'll do well to remember that fact. You no longer answer to those men."
Cloud straightened where he sat, not quite knowing what to make of that statement. Something in this man's presence demanded respect, and it wasn't just the fact that he was a SOLDIER or that he had just declared himself Cloud's commanding officer.
It was an automatic response, and one he wasn't certain was appropriate—that was how to address someone of superior rank in the Army, but he hadn't the faintest idea how to address a SOLDIER or what this man was expecting. Thankfully the redhead gave a quick nod of approval, moving suddenly with long, quick steps as he headed toward the room's exit.
The SOLDIER had left him in a daze, but he was able to recollect himself more easily without those eyes boring into him. He jumped to his feet, following with haste—his short legs took twice as many steps to match the man's brisk pace, but somehow he managed to close most of the distance between them. He was only a few paces behind as the redhead opened the door to the room, and the action caused Cloud to tense up one last time.
This was it. Surely the panel of officers would scold him…they would call him back to his position and add this to his list of offenses.
No one spoke though. The man in red stepped out, and Cloud barely snapped out of it in time to exit as well before the door shut once more. A tremendous amount of stress drained from his body as he cleared the doorway, and while he still had no idea what was happening…he welcomed it as a relief.
"Um, sir—" he tried, hoping to get a few answers at least.
"Save the pleasantries. I only agreed to fetch you myself because Tibbs and I have a long history and I couldn't resist seeing his face twist with irritation—someone else will deal with you once we're back at headquarters."
Cloud looked up at the man, brows furrowed with confusion. "Headquarters?"
"Yes. Enough questions—I don't like to repeat myself. Someone else will brief you."
"Yes, sir," Cloud responded, again automatically. He was hesitant to speak after that, but as the man slowed his pace just barely—just enough for him to catch up—well, he couldn't refrain. He wasn't sure why, but he felt an overwhelming desire to let this man know he appreciated whatever it was he had just done. "Thank you for—"
"Ah, you don't want to finish that sentence," General Rhapsodos warned, his ominous tone stilling Cloud's heart. "Trust me, Blondie…if you thank me now, you'll regret it later."