Believe it nor not, I'm not a Cloud fan. But this story idea hit me one day and I couldn't resist trying it.

Words had been exchanged earlier; now it was time to get down to business. So Cloud Strife did: in little time at all he had another boy, named Byron, pinned facedown in the muddying schoolyard. It was drizzling and the dirt beneath their feet was becoming slippery, ready to throw a firmly planted foot out of place.

He returned all the blows he had suffered earlier. Cloud pounded his little fist into Byron's head, over and over, and when he tired of that he started to kick the boy. Then he felt two much larger arms encircle his waist and forcefully pull him away from the scene. He went limp then, realizing it was all over.

Another teacher had come to Byron's aid, helping him up and wiping some of the mud off his face. Byron didn't look all that hurt. He shot Cloud a dangerous glare, but then his look softened. "Hey.... He's crying! Cloud's crying!"

In the grip of the grownup holding him Cloud wept, but not out of sadness or helplessness. He didn't cry because he was hurt---he was well known for being able to take a pounding without showing the slightest sign of pain. Cloud Strife was really crying because he hated what had happened. He regretted it. And he especially hated how it always seemed to happen to him, no matter how lucky he felt that day. Confrontations at school were becoming inevitable.

Through the warm tears that blurred his vision Cloud could make out one very familiar figure amidst all the others: nine-year-old Tifa Lockheart, brown-haired and brown-eyed, very pretty and yet always, always far away. She was staring back at him, he saw. Her expression was unreadable.

It rained that night.

Cloud awoke to the sound of drops pitter-pattering against the windowpane of his bedroom. Thunder rolled overhead, soft and distant. Impulsive flashes of lightning lit up the black sky.

He had always been a light sleeper, but this night he rose with eagerness. He left his bed and padded over to the windowsill. He reached up and touched the cold windowpane with his right hand, feeling it rattle a bit with every thunderclap. It was like touching the storm itself.

He himself was a brewing tempest. Many of the adults in town thought of him as a violent little creature who never failed to get himself into a scrape of some kind. Nothing but trouble, they would say of him, and they would shake their heads sadly as they said it.

But where Cloud was the storm, the rain was Tifa Lockheart, the only daughter of one of the grownups who ran Nibelheim---and one of the grownups who didn't like him very much. Rain was gentle like she was, and its drops were glittery like her eyes. Sad weather because Tifa was a sad girl.

Tifa had always been sad ever since her mom had died. Her tears dried up and went away after a while, but there was always something unhappy in her eyes that looked like a hidden frown whenever Cloud saw her playing outside with her friends. Having never lost a parent in such a way---his father had died not too long after he'd been born---Cloud couldn't identify with Tifa's loss. But he wanted to make her feel better, and it got him awful mad to see everyone smile and laugh around her. Wasn't it obvious that she was still hurting inside?

He closed his eyes, keeping his hand pressed against the windowpane. More thunder came and it vibrated again. His head drooped forward and his forehead touched the glass. He imagined himself being much braver, brave enough to talk to Tifa about everything. He imagined that her father wasn't there, that he hadn't gone after her on that one forsaken day, and that Tifa hadn't missed a whole week of school. He imagined being able to share with her that great peanut butter sandwich he had for lunch yesterday, before the fight with Byron---the greatest one he ever had! His mother had really outdone herself with that, and food always made people feel better. It made him feel better, at least.

Eventually Cloud grew tired and retracted his hand. He turned away from the window and crawled back into bed. He slept soundly the rest of night.

The next morning, he discovered something interesting.

It was a fact that nearly everyone on the Planet knew about Sephiroth, an army general and ShinRa's most elite member of SOLDIER, a special fighting corps. Cloud knew about him too, of course. Sometimes when he was all alone he wondered what it must be like to be so popular. Surely Sephiroth had a lot of friends.

Yet it never occurred to Cloud until that one morning on his way to school that idolizing Sephiroth would become an advantage. He was taking the usual road to the school building---it was really more of a schoolhouse, being as small as it was, but the adults called it a building---and Tifa Lockheart and some of her friends were a little ways ahead of him. Cloud watched her walk with a furtive little smile. Her hair was long and swished hypnotically as she moved. She had it curled for school pictures earlier that year and she looked beautiful. He wished he had said something to her then, but....

Those thoughts were soon pushed away. Cloud's ears picked up a fragment of conversation from the kids ahead. He missed the first part of one sentence, but the last half reached him.

"...The war with Wutai."

Oh, they were talking about the war? The one going on in a country all the way over on the other side of the world?

"Where's Wutai?" A boy's voice, a loud one. The last one had been a girl's.

"All the way on the other side of the world, stupid! Our teacher called it the Far West."

"Sephiroth's over there fighting. Wutai doesn't stand a chance!" Another boy, a tall one. He jumped ahead of Tifa and her friends and waved his arm around, like he was slaying creatures with an invisible sword. Everyone laughed at him.

The name Sephiroth stuck in Cloud's mind.

"...The great Sephiroth...."

"My dad found his picture in the paper last weekend," cooed a very admiring voice, a feminine one. "He showed it to me. Did you ever see what Sephiroth looks like? He's really handsome."

It took Cloud a full moment to realize whom the voice belonged to. It was Tifa's voice, talking about how great General Sephiroth was. The shock was poignant the moment it struck, but it faded quickly. Not that surprising, Cloud thought to himself. Most of the girls in town who knew what Sephiroth looked like thought he was handsome. It was one of the reasons why all the boys wanted to be like him, to impress those idolizing girls.

There was the issue of strength, too. It was said that no one could beat Sephiroth in a one-on-one match with a sword---a sword, an ancient weapon of combat, but an effective one in his hands.

Cloud's pace slowed, allowing the gap between him and Tifa's group of friends to widen. He grasped an imaginary sword hilt with both hands the way the one boy up ahead had done. He swung an imaginary blade swiftly, deftly, trying to picture what its weight would feel like in his small, pale hands. If only he was a student of the blade, he wished silently. That would really impress Tifa, wouldn't it? If he were just like Sephiroth....

Cloud stopped completely then. He looked far ahead. Tifa and her group had become little more than a bunch of moving specks against the grassy landscape of Nibelheim. Their forms were difficult to make out in detail, as the rain from last night had engulfed the small town in a blanket of fog.

If Cloud were just like Sephiroth, Tifa would notice him. If he had that kind of honor, then maybe Tifa's dad wouldn't mind if he hung around her with the other kids. Then maybe the other boys would leave him alone for once.

To be like Sephiroth, one had to join SOLDIER, Cloud knew. And joining SOLDIER meant that he'd have to leave Nibelheim someday. Other boys had done that; he had heard about it from his mother a couple of times. Boys older than him, aged thirteen and fourteen, some older still, had packed their belongings and headed out for the nearest big city. Cloud was only ten now, but in just three more years he would be able to do that too. He'd be able to leave to become as great a fighter as Sephiroth.

A drop on his nose brought him back to reality. It started to rain again.

Tifa should know about his plans, shouldn't she? Tifa should know if shy little Cloud was planning on leaving someday. So a decision was reached, albeit a risky one: he would reveal to Tifa what would happen in the future. One day Cloud would be a big-time SOLDIER. He would return to Nibelheim with pride.

The drops around him increased by the second. Very soon the drizzle became a downpour. Cloud resumed his walk to school. The whole way up he could feel each and every butterfly that fluttered in his stomach.

Later on, that afternoon, the peals of an old bell could be heard tolling throughout Nibelheim: the signal that school was out. Cloud found himself in no great rush to leave. He grabbed his things quietly and left the building. It wasn't until he was outside that he began searching for Tifa Lockheart again, as usual.

It was still very foggy outside and the ground was still muddy from the rain. Cloud kept his eyes peeled for the dark-haired girl, skimming over all the heads in the crowd of kids, hoping to catch a glimpse of her somewhere. It was routine by then for him to do such a thing; not a school day went by in which he'd forget about his mission. To anyone else it would be a silly thing, making such a big deal over one person, but to Cloud that one person already was a big deal.

He found her in no time, surrounded by a handful of boys and girls. Tifa was always around other people, Cloud realized with a lurch in his stomach. He could never approach her while she was with her friends. He tried that once before and they never had anything nice to say to him. Cloud often wondered what made Tifa hang around such cruel people. She seemed like such a nice girl herself.

It would be a better idea for Cloud to wait for a time when Tifa would be separated from the other kids. But when would that happen? Maybe when the road home went by her house, which was right next door to his.... There Tifa's friends would say goodbye to her and continue their walk home. Meanwhile, Tifa would turn to go into her house. Yes, that was Cloud's chance.

Decidedly he began to follow her home, as per the norm. He lingered behind Tifa and her friends the way he ordinarily did so he could watch her safely, admire the way her hair moved and admire that girlish little walk she had. Sometimes Cloud wondered if he was the only person in the world who noticed these little things about people: their movements, little habits they had like the way they chewed their gum, or tiny things about their appearances. Did noticing all that make him weird?

The walk home from school was always slower than the walk up. It took about fifteen minutes for Tifa and those with her to pass by Cloud's house. Tifa's house was very close now, as close as it could be without actually being right in front of him. Cloud inhaled the foggy air and held it inside. He was so nervous that he started shivering. He felt lightheaded, like he was going to pass out.

With wide and scrutinizing eyes he watched as Tifa waved goodbye to her friends and turned, making her way up the stone path to the porch of her house. He watched as the kids she left behind kept on walking, past Tifa's house and further down the road. He forced himself to exhale.

He only had a few seconds. Tifa would soon be knocking at her door so her father could let her inside.

Cloud could never figure out what made him move that day, but for whatever reason he suddenly took off after Tifa. He ran as fast and as hard as he could, puffing all the way, his stare fixed on the back of the little girl with the long brown hair. It was otherworldly, how he found himself suddenly running onto her father's property, his sneakers slapping against the blue stones of the walkway. Tifa's figure grew darker as Cloud drew closer, as less and less fog separated the two. It was almost as if Tifa had suddenly appeared out of a dream world, where the shade was lifted and everything appeared brighter and richer than it once had been.

Cloud's running took him up the short flight of steps to Tifa's porch where she was already at the door. She had a fist raised to knock, then turned around at the clatter. Cloud stopped next to her, out of breath. His face felt warm, but the rest of his body felt cold and clammy.

"I.... I...." Darn it, he couldn't spit out the words. If he didn't tell Tifa now, he'd never be able to tell her!

His eyes met hers then. She was staring at him questioningly. "What are you doing here, Cloud?" she asked him. Her voice was not unkind, but it wasn't as friendly as Cloud would have liked.

Cloud swallowed and tried again. If he couldn't tell Tifa everything now, then maybe he could fix things so that he could tell her later. His mind raced. He felt frighteningly dizzy. He hoped he wouldn't faint right there in front of her---that would be too embarrassing. "I.... There's something I wanted to tell you. That's all," he puffed.

Tifa turned around completely. "What is it?"

"Well.... Can I.... Can I tell you later? Would you meet me somewhere?" Mentally he rifled through different places in town: before his house, at the school building, at the town square, or at the old well, the one by the city gates. Which place should he choose?

Tifa narrowed her eyes at Cloud. She looked very confused. "I guess so, but you know, my dad doesn't want me to hang around you. He says you're trouble." She stated this matter-of-factly, like it was something she'd been told plenty of times but not something she really believed.

Tifa's words weren't comforting, but Cloud answered her quickly. He had made up his mind. "How 'bout at the well? And how 'bout at night, so your dad doesn't know?"

Tifa's brown eyes widened. "Oh, at night, like the boys do? They always sneak out then to cause trouble. Sometimes I think all boys are trouble." She smiled there, just a fraction of a grin, a slight upturning of her lips.

Automatically Cloud smiled back. His head was awhirl with the awareness of what had just happened. Tifa had smiled at him! "Yeah, well...." He looked down at his shoes momentarily. He scuffed one of the toes against the wood planks of the porch. "If you're not afraid of sneakin' out, I'll meet you there." He gave her a coy stare then, a challenging one. Yes, let her think that he was brave and cunning, one of the cool kids who slipped out after sundown.

Tifa returned his look with gusto. "Oh, I'm not afraid of sneaking out. Not if you aren't."

"'Course I'm not." Seconds after saying that Cloud bit down on his tongue to keep from laughing. It amused him, how easily he had fibbed such a thing.

"Fine then. I'll meet you at eight o'clock. By the well, you said?"


"Okay." Tifa's eyes retained that daring look. She turned and knocked on her door. Cloud took his cue to leave her porch so her father wouldn't see him.

He ran down the path and made a sharp turn for his own house. Behind him he could feel Tifa's eyes on him, watching him just as he had so often watched her. It was funny how the roles had been reversed.

He didn't turn around to look back at her. Instead he ran right up to his own door and knocked for his mother. Tonight he would meet Tifa and tell her what he planned to do someday. He hoped it would work out the way he wanted. He even wondered if he should go to bed that night with his fingers crossed just in case.

As his mother answered the door and ushered him inside with her usual questions about his day, Cloud was suddenly overtaken by a strange feeling. As he took off his wet jacket and dropped his book bag carelessly on the floor, the feeling grew stronger. In his mind he could see Tifa entering her own house to a hug from her father. Would she really meet him by the well, or was she just playing a joke on him? Maybe she thought it'd be good to make fun of the little blond boy everyone picked on, just like all her other friends. Maybe she was no different from them.

Again he felt the ache he got whenever he looked at Tifa and wondered what it would be like to be her friend. It was the ache of what could be but wasn't, the ache of wanting but not being able to have. It was painful, it was lonely, and it was hauntingly hollow.