The house which I stood in front of was clearly someone's home. Not because it was clearly inhabited presently, but rather, because it felt like a place which a person would call home.
As far as homes went, this one seemed to have a considerably rustic feel to it. Hardly surprising given that it was located smack in the middle of farming land. It looked just as one would imagine a farmhouse to look like, really – squat, walls made of large, irregular stones, slate roof covered in moss, and a fence around it to keep the livestock from wandering too close.
When I was taking in the sight of the farmhouse, I felt nothing but respectful admiration for the person who was my reason for visiting it to begin with. He had clearly been a man with humble beginnings, and well, just look at the man that he made of himself.
I hadn't quite finished my musings on the matter when the front door opened, though. As expected, a burly man stepped out – definitely the farmer who ran the place and the man of the house, according to my gut instincts. And of course, those rarely led me astray.
He stepped up to the gate, and gave me a hard look. I didn't miss the shotgun he was carrying, either. "What do you want?"
"Just five minutes of your time," I replied, unruffled by his attempt at intimidation. "Five minutes would be enough."
"We don't want Shin-Ra business here," he said slowly, as he narrowed his eyes at me. "So why don't you just clear off, mister?"
I sighed, and gestured to the deserted dirt path which had led me to the farmhouse. "Really, if this was official business, don't you think I would have brought a couple of SOLDIERs along with me? Or perhaps a Turk?"
After some time, he nodded, and unlatched the gate. "Five minutes it is."
"Mind if I come in?" I asked him, as I stepped into the compound. "And you might want to get your wife, too."
"What's she got to do with this?" he asked gruffly.
"Believe me, she'll want to hear this," I replied, even as we headed towards the farmhouse.
Three sharp knocks on my door alerted me to my visitor's arrival, and I glanced at the clock as the door opened. Exactly on time, as he always was.
"Good morning, Director," he said, as he walked up to my desk and stood in front of it. "You called for me?"
"Indeed I did," I nodded, gesturing for him to take a seat. "And how are you this morning, Sergeant?"
"Getting busier," he replied, as he sat down. He then looked me in the eyes, and asked the inevitable question. "So, what's this all about, Director?"
I got up, and headed over to the table next to my filing cabinet. "Perhaps a drink, Sergeant? Just bend the rules this once, maybe?"
"No thanks," he said. "But really, if there is nothing urgent, I really need to get back to the troops."
"We go back a long way, Kenichi," I said, as I poured myself a glass of water. "And the last I recalled, you were a man who stood by his principles. Is that still true of you?"
As I headed back to my desk and sat down, he slowly followed me with his eyes, and nodded. "Provided those principles are just and good."
"Thought so," I sighed, as I took a sip of water. "So you would agree that in a war, to the victor go the spoils?"
"It sounds reasonable," he said in reply. I could practically see the gears turning in that sharp mind of his.
I put my glass down and continued, "You know, things are all in a horrible mess, what with all this nonsense involving Lazard's disappearance and that massive manhunt for Zack Fair."
His eyes narrowed as comprehension dawned on him. I might have held executive power in the company, but as far as the military went his opinion was respected more than mine. And we both knew that.
"I want the trophy they took," I said simply, as I scribbled something down on a memo pad. "The men in concern will be duly reimbursed, of course. Spoils of war and all that."
"You're asking me to do a difficult thing," he responded, sounding curious. "They aren't going to give it up that easily."
I slid the pad towards him. "Even if I offer this in exchange?"
He glanced at the pad, and his eyes went wide - I don't think I'd ever seen them that wide in the last few years. "You are serious about this, Director?"
Clasping my hands in front of me, I nodded. "He did not deserve a fate like that, and you know it. Then there's the case of Veld's punishment of Cissnei."
"She probably deserved that," he said evenly.
"She might have, but he didn't, and neither to they," I said brusquely, as I took a photograph out of my pocket and pointed out the three people in it. "What do you say, then?"
He remained silent for a while, before standing up and bowing to me. "It will be done."
As he always did, Sergeant Kenichi Aung kept his word. Within two days, I had what I wanted, and some of those asinine idiots in the military had been promoted with a letter of commendation for their heroic actions.
The mere thought of their actions made bile rise in my throat. Wars weren't worn with clean hands, but then again, there were things which should have been held sacred above the atrocities of battle.
The living room was cosy, and was filled with the pleasant scent of old timber. I suppose it was the furniture, but then again, it might have been the rafters above our heads that gave rise to that. I sat on an old armchair next to a battered-looking table in the center of the room, while the farmer and his wife sat on the sagging sofa set opposite me.
He looked angry, but there was also a hint of confusion and uncertainty in his facial expressions. His wife, on the other hand, looked a little nervous. I might have even gone so far as to call her expression one of resignation. They were both wondering why I was there, and I saw no reason to keep them waiting.
Perhaps she already knew why I was there. Women tend to be perceptive about these matters, strangely enough.
"It has come to my attention that a rather delightful young lady has been lingering about your home of late," I started, deciding on a more neutral approach rather than the direct reveal I'd planned on earlier. "Care to elaborate?"
The farmer just nodded, but his wife smiled a little as she replied, "Well, yes. She's been such a good girl, really."
I leaned back in the armchair, feeling it sag a little as I did so. Comfortable, it was. "Very well – I take it she's been passing you news about your son?"
Both of them straightened up when I said that. Not very distinctly, but it was enough for my interrogator's eyes to notice.
After a brief silence, the farmer spoke up. "Has she been lying to us, then?"
Smart, he was, but hardly genius material, nonetheless. "She might not have been entirely truthful in her reports. I am here to rectify that."
His wife looked at me wearily. "She told us that he was on a long mission, and that he was doing well for himself. She said he couldn't come home anytime soon since the mission was a secret mission or something like that."
I nodded, and thought over my next words carefully. This was a delicate matter, and I had no intentions of screwing it up.
What could I say next, really? He hadn't been an outlaw, as much as some parties made him out to be. There hadn't been any orders for him to disobey, and he had only been a hunted man for that one mistake of his. From what I knew of him, it had been his first and last mistake on the job.
I finally settled on the silent treatment. Reaching into one of my jacket's concealed pockets I fished out a small, polished wooden box – the sort that Hojo usually kept rare material orbs in. Placing it on the table, I slowly pushed it towards them.
Even before they took it from me, they seemed to know what it contained, or at least, knew its implications. With a silence that felt positively reverent, they picked up the box, and opened it.
She broke down sobbing when she saw the box's contents, and he placed a hand around her shoulders. His face was a stoic mask, but his eyes betrayed the hurt and sorrow behind it. They sat there, close together, just looking at what the little wooden box held in its velvet-lined insides.
Feeling that my work there was done, I slowly got up, and made my way to the door without saying a word. I was halfway to the main gate when they caught up with me, though.
"Wait!" he called out. "Hold it right there!"
I turned about, hands in my pockets, and saw that the two of them were not five feet away from me. Their eyes glistened with tears, and she was still holding the box, looking almost as if she was slowly curling up and shrinking in on herself around it. We just stood there for a few moments, staring at each other.
Finally, she spoke, in a voice that was barely audible. "How?"
And there it was, the question that I had dreaded since I stepped foot into their home. "I beg your pardon?"
"How did he... you know," the farmer said, sounding every bit as broken as his wife.
My mind felt sluggish, and there was a sinking feeling in my gut. "He... he made a mistake. And he paid for it with his life."
In their silence, they prompted me to continue, and so I did.
"All he did was to care too much for someone who he owed nothing at all. In the end... he died a hero."
As I watched them mourning their son's death out there in front of the farmhouse, on that silent, sunny afternoon, I felt my chest tighten a little.
Breaking the news to them had been every bit as difficult as I'd expected it to be, even if I had spoken nothing but the truth.
Just as I had unlatched the gate and was going to leave, the farmer called out to me again.
"You know... I once thought all you Shin-Ra people were heartless," he said. "But maybe there's some good in you after all."
"Why did you do it?"
I didn't look up from the documents I was signing. "As much as people would like to think that I'm incompetent, I was a soldier once. And you know how we old soldiers always stick together."
"You didn't even know him," he deadpanned.
"I was in a war, once," I looked up this time. "I lost count of the number of men who died wishing they could have gone home alive, and that someday they could forget everything. They never asked to die the way they did, and neither did that young man. Was it too much for me to do that one little thing for him?"
The only sound the Turk made as he left the room was when he shut my office's door, gently.
Cloud watched the two strangers walking up to him, and felt a sense of déjà vu coming over him. For some odd reason, he felt as if he'd met them before, but he was quite sure that he would have remembered a couple like that. Hell, the man even looked like an older version of Zack.
"Can I help you?" he asked them, as they stopped seated themselves at the bar.
"You're Cloud, aren't you?" the woman asked him, not unkindly. She looked tired, but at the same time, she managed to give him the impression that she was aware of everything going on around her.
"That's me," he replied with a nod, as he dried out a glass. "Can I get you anything?"
The man who looked like Zack placed a hand on the woman's shoulder, and shook his head. "Oh, we just wanted to meet you. It's... an honour."
"Why?" Cloud asked them, just a little confused. Random strangers sometimes approached him to thank him for saving the world, but those were rare incidents in themselves.
"You were our son's friend," the woman said softly, "and his biggest mistake."
When he finally realised who he was talking to, he very nearly dropped the glass he had been holding. With trembling hands, he placed the glass on the counter, and looked at the two of them.
"I'm so sorry-"
"Don't be!" Zack's father said fiercely, even as his wife sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with her shawl. "We came... we came to thank you."
"There's nothing to thank me for!" Cloud blurted out, his voice quavering slightly. "If I hadn't slowed him down, he would have made it! It's all my fault that he-"
Zack's mother reached out and grabbed his hand, clasping it in hers. "Our son died a hero. It's what he always wanted."
Cloud looked into her eyes, and saw no hatred or anger, just sadness.
He slowly withdrew his hand, and leaned against the bar. "How did you find out?"
"That man told us," she said. "The man from Shin-Ra."
"Tseng?" Cloud asked, feeling vaguely nauseous. "The Turk, right?"
Zack's father shook his head. "No, it wasn't a Turk. He was one of the old soldiers, the one who used to appear in the news. He brought us the news, and gave us Zack's identification tag."
"He was the one with the green coat," his wife said, even as she reached into her bag and took out a wooden box. "Maybe there was some good in him, after all."
She placed the box on the bar, and offered Cloud a weak smile. "Keep it, son."
With that, they got up and left, leaving him in stunned silence. For a long while, he just stared at the box.
When he at long last decided to open it, a folded note slid out, revealing Zack's battered dog tag underneath it, cradled in velvet. He picked up the note, and unfolded it. The note had been written in a small, careful script, with black letters that spoke volumes.
My condolences for your loss.
If you ever wish to know more about how things came to pass, my door is always open.
And his name was Cloud Strife.