Final Fantasy VII
True SOLDIERs' Honor
Notes: The characters are not mine,
and this ficlit is! It was directly inspired by the prompt Honour
is purchas'd by the deeds we do at 31 Days. Thanks to Kaze
for plot help and the title!
It was a dark night in Midgar. Most anyone with sense was sound asleep, save for those who had to be awake by necessity.
And those who were awake without having a say in the matter.
Sephiroth sighed to himself as he continued to walk across the base. Insomnia had hit him hard tonight. And he was restless from doing paperwork all day, so he had determined to stretch his aching legs. Maybe after patrolling the length of the base, he would be tired enough to sleep.
He was not expecting to see a shock of spiky blond hair near the back gates. Cadet Strife was on guard. And judging from the way he had come to attention, he had heard the other's footsteps. The way he gripped his gun a bit tighter was not lost on the General.
"At ease, Cadet." Sephiroth began to walk over, holding up his hands to show he did not bear a weapon.
The boy gawked for a moment. Apparently he was surprised to see Sephiroth still awake. "Y-yes, sir!" he said at last, and gave himself a mental kick for stammering. The General probably thought he was an idiot.
"All is quiet tonight," Sephiroth commented. "Keep doing your job."
Cloud gave a shaky nod. "Yes, sir," he said again. This time he managed to keep the tremor out of his voice.
He shifted, running his tongue over his lips. "I . . . I heard about the problems in Wutai, sir," he said. "And that you and Zack were able to get a lot of them stopped."
Sephiroth paused, then gave a slow nod. "That's right," he said. "But it doesn't mean the trouble is over." Maybe he would stay here for a few minutes. Cadet Strife seemed to have something to say. And the thought occurred to the General that he wondered whether the boy knew the full extent of the problems. It was something every SOLDIER and SOLDIER-hopeful should be aware of.
"No, sir." Cloud hesitated as well. ". . . I even heard that some of the SOLDIERs turned traitor." He frowned.
"Yes." Sephiroth crossed his arms. "Those still alive are being held prisoner, awaiting their trials."
Again Cloud shifted. "How could that have happened, sir?" he asked. "There were a lot of them. Why would they all turn against SOLDIER?"
Sephiroth sighed. "The reason would be different for each of them," he said. "But in a lot of cases it boils down to the fact that they didn't know what they wanted, or that they grew tired of SOLDIER and wanted something different. Some of them even left because they believed the opposing side was correct."
"But a lot of those people were just terrorists!" Cloud protested, stunned. "How could siding with them ever be right?"
"I can't explain their logic." Sephiroth looked Cloud in the eyes. "I hear you're still trying to get into SOLDIER."
Cloud blinked, then nodded. "Yes, sir. . . ." The gaze was piercing. It was uncomfortable, really---how it felt like Sephiroth was staring into his soul, sorting out all of his deepest thoughts, dreams, even fears. He had never had that feeling before from someone. He wanted to look away, and yet something kept him fixed on Sephiroth's stare.
"A lot of young boys want to join SOLDIER because they're looking for adventure," Sephiroth said, "or an escape from an unhappy situation at home."
"I know, sir." Inside, Cloud's stomach was twisting. Did he know? Could the General know the reason why he had joined SOLDIER? What would he think?
". . . And others want to impress their girlfriends," Sephiroth continued.
"Then that's it?" Sephiroth said, leaning back.
Now Cloud did look away, down at the ground. "Not exactly, sir."
"Then maybe you would like to tell me what it is, exactly," Sephiroth remarked, his tone calm and at ease. "I like to know what the recruits' reasoning is, especially after incidents such as the one in Wutai."
Even though Sephiroth sounded nonjudgmental, Cloud flamed red again. This was embarrassing. He did not want to talk about it with anyone. Not even Zack really knew. Though when he thought of it, Zack probably suspected.
". . . I want her to notice me, sir," Cloud mumbled. "She isn't my girlfriend. . . . Well, she's a friend who's a girl, but . . ." He glowered at the ground. Now he just sounded stupid.
"If she only notices you because of your uniform and your position in SOLDIER, is she even worth it to begin with?" Sephiroth asked.
Cloud's head shot up. "That's not what I mean!" he exclaimed, forgetting to say "sir." "I mean . . . I want to make something of myself. Then maybe I'll be worthy enough for her, and she'll realize how I feel about her, and . . ." He trailed off, his shoulders slumping. Sephiroth probably thought he was an idiot. Everyone around the base knew of his disinterest in romantic relationships. How could he understand Cloud's feelings on this matter?
". . . SOLDIERs are always thought of as having all this honor and glory," he muttered, "and . . . I don't know . . . I thought if I could have some of that. . . . I mean, you're always respected wherever you go, sir. . . ."
"Not everyone respects me." Sephiroth crossed his arms. "The terrorists certainly don't."
A smirk passed across Cloud's features for a moment, then vanished. "But people look up to you," he said. He shifted. "You're a big part of why I wanted to try to get into SOLDIER, sir."
That was not really a surprise. Sephiroth mulled over the cadet's words. There had to be some way to teach him the point Sephiroth was attempting to make.
"Honor isn't determined by what your station is in life. It's determined by what you do with it."
Slowly Cloud looked up. Sephiroth's expression and tone were compassionate. He was not angry or disgusted.
"When people look up to me, are they only interested in my high position?" the General asked.
"Sometimes," Cloud said.
Sephiroth nodded. "But if they're honest people wanting to do good, my actions will come into focus too. I've tried to be a fair man, even to the enemy. I listen when the men here have problems, and offer advice when possible. Zack, of course, is the same way. Do our positions make us be those kinds of people?"
Cloud shook his head. "No, sir."
"Those who are out for themselves will be the same way if they are in positions of power." He paused. "Sometimes they change," he amended, "but not very often. Will they be looked up to even though they haven't done anything to merit it?"
"Probably." Cloud shrugged. "Because people look up to anyone who's done something that makes them really stand out. Even if it's just getting a big promotion."
Sephiroth smirked. "Such is the world we live in." He sobered. "Is this girl like that?"
"No!" Cloud exclaimed. "She's not. Not at all."
"Then, if you've been a good person, she should recognize that," Sephiroth said. "And that should be enough."
Cloud frowned. He understood what the General was saying, but he still had his concerns. For him, it was not as simple as the General was making it sound. "I've never been liked back there," he said. "Her father hates me. Even if . . . if she did feel the same way, we wouldn't be able to get past him."
"Then maybe this is more about impressing him than her?" Sephiroth wondered, his tone mild.
"Maybe. . . ." Cloud shook his head. "I don't know!" he cried in frustration. "I . . ."
His eyes widened in horror. What was he doing? He was raising his voice to the General! Well, it was not as if he was actually yelling at the General, but still. This was not something he should be doing! His cheeks colored as he averted his gaze to his gun. Suddenly it was very fascinating to look over all the intricacies of the design.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said, his voice sobered.
Sephiroth nodded. "Maybe you should think more about what your reasons are," he said, "and whether it's really what you want to do. Once you make a life-altering decision, it can't be easily reversed."
Cloud blinked. "You sound like you regret something, sir," he commented, looking up once more.
Sephiroth hesitated. "Everyone regrets something, Cadet." He turned. "I'm going back to bed. Keep your guard up."
Cloud came back to attention. "Yes, sir!" he said, keeping hold of his gun.
Sephiroth began to walk in the direction of his quarters. That had been one of the strangest conversations of his career, even though he often did speak to the lower-ranked SOLDIERs and give them advice. And he somewhat doubted that Cadet Strife would change his mind. He seemed altogether determined to become a SOLDIER.
Sephiroth honestly did not know that that was the life he should have, or that he was even ready for it. There was a reason why he had been continually rejected. Recently he had looked over the boy's performance reports. He had been listed as "willing, but unable." He was not strong enough for SOLDIER.
Sephiroth had seen quite a few recruits with Cadet Strife's ideals. Some of them never made it home. Others were seriously wounded and would never recover. And yet others became jaded and embittered, with nothing remaining of their zest for life. He did not want to see any of those things happen to Zack's friend.
It would be good if, when Cadet Strife's term was up, he would go back home and see if he could make things work with that girl. But it seemed unlikely. Sephiroth sighed to himself, opening the door and going inside.
Ten Years Later
It was really frustrating when Sephiroth got into his moods. He would get even more closed-off than usual, not saying much and staying by himself. Sometimes he would be found staring out windows, his arms crossed, his expression unreadable. Except for his eyes. They were usually filled with pain. He could not hide that.
Most of the time Zack was around to comfort him. Zack shared a bond with him that even now, Cloud did not fully understand. They were so different, and yet they understood each other almost perfect.
But Zack was not here tonight. He had gone home early, worried about Aerith. She had seemed to have come down with a bad cold, or possibly even the flu, though she insisted that it was nothing. She had been resting most of the day, and Zack had determined that he wanted to do something for her---especially when she always took care of him and the others when they were sick. The fact that Aerith rarely ever was sick only made Zack all the more concerned.
And that left Cloud to deal with Sephiroth as he became increasingly brooding. Right now he was looking over documents, signing them when needed and looking so tired. It was not just because of the work. When he had signed the last sheet of paper, he closed the folder, set the pen on top of it, and turned his chair so that he could stare out at the nighttime skyline.
Cloud ran a hand through his hair. "Okay," he grumbled at last, "what's the problem?" It had not been that long ago since they had at last acknowledged their mutual feelings of friendship, and it was still strange to get used to sometimes. Cloud was not really frustrated at Sephiroth, but at the whole situation of his apparent sadness, and not knowing what to do about it.
Just as had been the case so many years before, when Sephiroth had paused to speak with him at the gate. Cloud's exasperation often led to him speaking in a less than congenial tone.
Sephiroth did not seem to notice or care. He glanced over at the blond. "Problem?" he repeated, his voice vague.
"I know you were trying to hide it from Zack," Cloud said, "and he was so worried about Aerith that he overlooked it. But I didn't."
Sephiroth shrugged, looking back out at the twinkling lights of the city. ". . . Have you seen today's date, Cloud?"
"Sure, a million times. It's at the bottom of my word processor." Cloud frowned. He had not consciously looked at the date, when he thought of it. And now, as he glanced at the bottom of the computer screen, his eyes widened. Suddenly it all made sense.
"Nibelheim's destruction took place on this date." Sephiroth's voice was detached, indifferent, but there was a definite tautness to it.
Cloud swallowed hard. How he hated to remember that. After everything that had happened since, and especially on Earth, the intensity of the pain had finally faded. He still dreamed of it every now and then. And he would start awake, gasping, gripping the quilt in the darkness, until finally he was awake enough to know where he was and what was going on, and that the orange glow was a nightlight, not a fire.
He still bore the scars, too. He always would. Though after so many years he had gotten used to them. There were even times when he did not consciously think of Nibelheim when he saw the discolored skin. Other times he could still feel the Masamune plunging into his stomach and out his lower back, and Sephiroth's ghastly, crazed expression as he had delivered the strike. It made him sick just thinking about it. Subconsciously he brought his hand over his abdomen.
". . . That was years ago now," he said, his voice quiet.
"Those people are still dead." Sephiroth gazed out into the sky now. So vast and infinite, stretching its velvet darkness over this part of the world. He had felt the same about his own insanity---that it was completely enveloping him, that he would never break free . . . that his soul would always be as black as the night sky.
"I'm still tainted. Their blood will always be on my hands, Cloud." Now the tired sorrow could be clearly heard. "And not only the fatalities, either. Tifa, and Zack, and you. . . ."
Cloud frowned. "But you were crazy," he protested. "You can't be held responsible for it, like if you'd really known what you were doing."
"Does that matter? Or is it an excuse?" Sephiroth frowned, looking down at his careworn hands, callused from years of battle and gripping the sword's hilt. Once they had been the hands of a fierce and proud General---protecting others, treating injuries, and killing only when necessary. Then they had belonged to an insane murderer---stained with invisible blood, handling the Black Materia, preparing to unleash Meteor. Now they were the hands of a business tycoon. They typed on a keyboard, handled documents, and signed his name.
And they were also the hands of a sobered and saddened man, completing day-to-day tasks---lifting glasses of water or slowly brushing his hair. He had held Marlene when she had come to him the other day, aching and needing comfort. It had been so awkward. He rarely had anything to do with children, and yet that young girl adored him. He did not fully understand why. He did not see that he had really done anything to deserve her love and attention.
Sephiroth spoke again. "Somewhere in my mind, I knew. I was furious, I was filled with hate."
"And Jenova used your feelings to manipulate you all around when you were already cracking up." Cloud hesitated. A few months ago, he never would have believed he would be saying this. "I know you, Sephiroth. You wouldn't have done what you did if you hadn't flipped out."
At last he stood, walking over to where the other was still staring out the window. Again he hesitated. But then he extended his hand, laying it on Sephiroth's shoulder. The big man stiffened under his grasp.
". . . You told me something, a long time ago," Cloud said at last. "Maybe you don't still remember. But . . . you said that honor's determined by what we do in life. And if that's true, then you've always tried to be honorable when you're sane---both before Nibelheim happened and now, too. I mean . . ." He made a face. Things still did not come out the way he wanted them to. Sephiroth was giving him a weird look.
"You're a good person," he tried again. "Yeah, you hurt people. You . . . you killed people. But you've been trying to put your life in order again ever since you got your mind back. You want to do good, like you did before." He gripped a bit tighter. "And . . . well, I can't think that you're tainted. I . . . I think you've regained your honor."
Sephiroth was silent for a long moment. At last a smirk began to play on his lips. "I expected you to say quite a few things," he said, "but that was not one of them."
Cloud shifted his weight, embarrassed again. "Yeah, well . . ." He shrugged. "People change."
Sephiroth nodded. "Obviously." He paused. "I never even knew if you paid much attention to what I'd said," he remarked.
"I did!" Cloud said, grateful to have Sephiroth's attention diverted to another subject. "I thought about it a lot." He shifted. "In the end, I guess, I figured I'd just keep on with my plan. I don't know . . . it was easier to hang around a bunch of strangers than to think of going back somewhere where almost everyone hated me." He blinked in surprise. Something had just occurred to him.
"That's why you left after that first battle against Jenova, isn't it?" he realized.
"You didn't want to be hanging around where everyone hated you and didn't trust you," Cloud clarified.
Sephiroth gave a slow nod. "That's true."
Cloud sat down across from him. "So . . . why did you come back, anyway? You never did really answer."
Sephiroth shrugged. "Jenova was becoming a threat again. I was needed."
Cloud rolled his eyes. "That's all I get out of you."
"It would be hard to tell you anything else," Sephiroth said dryly, "when what I have said is the truth."
"Yeah, yeah." Cloud crossed his arms, leaning back.
It had been so long ago that he had been that awestruck teenager, and Sephiroth the famed General. They had been worlds apart then, and yet something had united them. He never would have dreamed that they would ever end up like this---two weary but unbroken men, sitting on the top floor of an office building that belonged to them.
And what was even weirder was that he liked it.