A/N: I've gone and done it. I swore that I wouldn't write an uber angsty Cloud, and here I am. I blame it on the song.
Another thing is, I really don't like the way this one turned out. I meant for it to be 800, 1000 words, tops. And how many words does it turn out to be:cries: Ah well. I had some people read it beforehand and they said it was great, so... here it is. Feel free to give criticism - I know when my work is crap, and I really can't say about this one.
Disclaimer: Yea, don't own anybody. Song is Empire in my Mind by the Wallflowers.

He had never been best friends with her.

Growing up the small, awkward boy in Nibelheim, he had felt out of place with the other children. He watched her often from afar, and wanted to say something to her that would… mean something. Something more than what all the other boys promised.

He never found it.

He never found anything. He wanted to protect her, this petite, delicate girl with long black hair and gentle eyes, and he didn't know how.

The others thought he was odd; a strange kid who always hung around by himself staring at the floor, and his frayed confidence had been worn bit by bit to pieces, long lost behind faded dreams.

Well, there is trouble in my mind
There is dark
There's dark, and there is light.

All he had ever wanted was to be like Sephiroth. If he were only a stronger, braver, more confident hero, he would do wonders. He often saw some of the neighborhood boys play SOLDIER, marching around and brandishing their toy guns and swords at each other.

Once, he was outside washing the windows for his mother, and the group of young boys happened to be acting noisily by his house. They were probably doing it to show off to her, and he decidedly kept his eyes to the scratched glass panes until one of them came and threw him a sword, offering to let him join in the festivities. He was surprised, and after staring at them for a bit, hesitantly shuffled out to the street, awkwardly wielding his plastic sword.

Before long, they were all circling around him, lashing out like angry animals as they hit him again and again until he fell. Laughing, they prodded him with the blunt ends of their weapons and feet, harder and harder, telling him to get up and play. He didn't want to, not really, he just wanted to go back to washing the windows again… he bit his lip, hard, squeezed his eyes shut, felt the blood unconsciously trickling down his chin as the ringing of their voices bounced off the pavement and hit him just as hard as their swords.

Then she came out, the white ashram door that he spent so much time in front of, afraid to knock, swinging back and forth like an old rocking chair. She elbowed in front of one boy, screamed at the whole lot to stop, and stop they did, silently dragging their playmates behind them, their game over.

I lay our hands over my eyes
As I look deep
Through valleys deep and wide

He had pulled himself up whilst she was still glaring at their retreating backs, and felt bruises all over his body. She looked back, offered her hand, but he wiped his mouth and limped back to his house.

He cleaned his wounds by himself in the bathroom and went to bed early, dreaming of what he would do if he were a hero.

Across the border line
For the empire in my mind

Mornings, he always woke up with his jaw clenched so tightly that he had a headache. He went about his duties like every day after a brief glance out his window to hers. It was better that he didn't see her that often; every time he did, he wished he were someone else, anyone but him.

He'd rather be one of the taunting boys than the taunted one.

You are the reason I don't sleep
You are the light
That's breaking through the leaves

The one time that he mustered up enough courage to follow her into the Nibel Mountains, she didn't want to talk to him; she only wanted to look for her mother. He couldn't think of anything to say, either—he just followed her over rock hills and under sloping trees, his feet going numb as he stumbled determinedly after her, his mind making up reasons as to why he was following her. It was to protect her, he told himself. He would finally protect her if anything were to…

The bridge wasn't steady; the rafters broke, and he vaguely remembered tumbling down into the abyss below. He skinned his knees, the blood seeping through the cloth on his pants. She wouldn't wake up. He dragged her out—tried to revive her—watched her chest rise up and down, her breathing ragged—the blood on her forehead seeping through his fingers—kneeling beside her, ignoring the stabbing pains in his knees—until the others found them.

Her father wouldn't let him near her again. Said if he ever told her to go anywhere with him again, he would make sure he was punished. Everyone in the vicinity knew; this boy with the pale hair and the pale face had disturbing qualities. He had tried to kill the prettiest girl in town. They all blamed him.

He didn't bother to bandage his knees; he sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched them scab over, and scratched the scabs off again, watching the fresh blood dripping into the tub, drip, drip, drip… the unshed tears stinging his mind. He couldn't save her. if he had been a little stronger, like Sephiroth… if only…

He was weak. So weak, that after that, when he saw the little scar on her forehead, he felt she blamed him, too. She surely must… he was the stupid, scrawny little boy after all, who couldn't save her. He was the one who emerged with only scabbed knees, whilst she was unconscious for weeks.

He wanted desperately to believe that which nobody else did: that he wasn't evil; he was trying his best… and didn't know how to wake her up. But he didn't believe that, either. Guilt ate away at his mind… his eyes always seemed to be glazed over now.

You know how hard I try
To believe
I have something good inside
Over barricades I climb
For the empire in my mind.

He grew up with scars on his knees.

After that, he didn't try very hard to play with the other kids anymore; the faded bruises on his torso and face taught him that it was better to be the scapegoat, the lone wolf. After that, he went about his work as always, every day a new struggle to stay alive in hopes that someday, he might not hate himself as much tomorrow.

Then, suddenly, one morning he decided he was going to leave. He didn't know what prompted him—perhaps he had finally lost his threadbare sanity. With some reserve of energy, he stepped out the front door and breathed in the fresh air that he had always denied himself before; dared to look up at the sun.

She was on her front lawn planting Nibelheim wildflowers along the edge of the front garden, and, losing feeling in the tips of his toes and fingers, his feet walked by themselves to her house, and he asked her to follow him.

Perhaps it was there by the water tower that he finally said something worth her time. He felt her eyes on him, weighing heavily, and hesitantly stuttered out that he was leaving for Midgar.

"And if I make it," He promised, as much as for her as for himself, "I'll come back for you."

She smiled, but he had already turned away and didn't see.

And he left.

There he worked at Shinra, worked so hard, telling himself that he needed to do this. Throughout all his training, through the backbreaking, the cold sweat, the gritting his jaw, ignoring the stabbing pain, and doing it, he hoped that in the end, he would be like Sephiroth, a SOLDIER, and he could almost see their faces when he chanced a trip back to Nibelheim. Their eyes would drop in respect, and he would feel the burden he'd been carrying on his shoulders all these years finally lift to leave him ten pounds lighter.

I have no love somewhere in time
I've been lifted up
I've looked honor in the eyes

When he failed again, when they told him he failed… it wasn't as bad as he thought it would be.

He was so used to disappointment that the sinking feeling in his stomach was just a welcome home for a bittersweet friend. The sharp, stinging agony he had once felt had turned into a tame, dull ache.

His dreams flew beyond reach as he accepted that this was now his life. He took the ordinary role in Shinra, and every time he saw the SOLDIER, he turned his eyes to the ground like he did as a child, and was able to feel nothing.

Meeting Sephiroth was all right, as well. He had already taught himself to want nothing and to need nothing. He almost completely forgot about Nibelheim, and when he was assigned to guard Sephiroth and Zack back there, he complacently agreed.

There, they met her as a guide. Her. She was no longer the fragile child he'd once watched; now a confident, steadfast young woman, the only resemblance was her burgundy eyes.

That was the first time in years he felt ashamed, and before he knew what he was doing, a mask was on his face. He hadn't come back the hero he'd promised her, and the surge of guilt weighed down heavily upon him again, pinning him to the ground, hurting his shoulders upon which he had to bear the strife.

I have no reason; I have no rhyme
I cannot deny
There's a darkness that's inside
I am guilty by design

And then Sephiroth went mad, and he felt his hero disappear to this madman as he took a stick of flame and set fire to his childhood home, and Zack attempting to stop him, her trying to stop him, Zack failing, her failing. A fresh memory of her as a child, breathing raggedly, forehead streaming red, came back to him as if it were yesterday, and without knowing what he was doing, he was trying to kill his hero, trying to hurt him like he hurt her. And he felt a stab in his abdomen, and knew he had failed yet again, yet again, and all the hurt and anger that he had unknowingly bottled tightly inside him all these years exploded as he wrapped his fingers around the blade that had impaled him—flung Sephiroth over the side and the blade cutting into his fingers—a gush of warm blood—falling down and his vision hazing red around the edges—trying to crawl over to her—he had failed—seeing her harsh breathing again…

And now I realize
The temptation's made me blind
To the empire in my mind

When he woke, she was gone, and his memories were suddenly happy. He had been her best friend since childhood. He had always been her best friend. He had succeeded in becoming a SOLDIER, of course.

These memories felt strangely out of place with his heart, and he felt an empty space somewhere at the back of his mind, like he had forgotten something crucial… but he let it be, and felt the numbing ignorance wash over him like bliss.

There is no order
There is chaos
And there is crime
There is no one home tonight
In the empire in my mind

There is no distance that I don't see
I do have a will
No limit to my reach…

He could finally impress her.

I wish I would; I wish I might
See a line tonight
Separating wrong from right

It was years later.

Geostigma had finally been cured… things were finally returning to semi-normal in Midgar.

Some were attempting to grow flowers again in the crumbling church he visited often, and children were playing in the streets again. After he had spent all these years fighting for peace, not only in Midgar, but also in his own mind, he had finally attained it.

It was painful to register in the Lifestream, where he had blindly crawled towards the light for his real self, that he had not been the popular boy in Nibelheim that everyone liked. He was the strange, quiet boy who everyone forgot about minutes after seeing him… the one that was too pale, too skinny, and too weak to protect Tifa Lockhart.

He had given his life trying—had promised them all that he would do something worth remembering in the world. The temporarily forgotten feeling of disappointment came back as a harsh slap in the face.

Some are only born to try
And maybe that's the reason why

He had been an elite first-class SOLDIER for a shortened time whilst he forgot about Zack, forgot about his past, forgot about all the horrid details that built him up to who he was.

And then he had known that this past wasn't his, and resolved to get his memories back… but after wrenching them back from the unknown to place them back into his soul, he was afraid of what he would find. Maybe he would find a worthless failure that didn't succeed at anything.

I am afraid someday I'll find
There is no empire in my mind

He was at Seventh Heaven now, and people were talking about this Cloud, this Cloud Strife who had saved everyone from Sephiroth again. He was a hero, they said. A real man who shielded them all from Sephiroth's terrible clutches yet another time.

He had conquered his goal, and Tifa, when she saw the familiar tortured blue eyes looking down at the ground, took his hand to gently say that he had made her proud.

On delivery calls, he would often glance at the throngs of children in the street to look for the one who lagged behind the rest, perhaps with blank, suffering eyes and skinned knees.

He never found that child.

After searching these years for his lost dreams and finally clawing his way through the dark, tormented tunnels to find peace at the other side… he didn't know how to react or what to say.

It didn't seem right.

It would take some time to heal.

There is trouble in my life…
There is trouble in my life