A/N: This is the start of my whole series—from Understanding to The Beginning of the End to SINS, with Kadaj Grows Up and Ka-boom stuck in the middle. This is meant to establish Cloud's personality from the beginning, to better understand him as he grows up and becomes the man who kills his lover in all of his incarnations and, eventually, learns to move past it and fall in love.
The city spread out before his widening blue eyes, so vast it made his head hurt trying to see it all at once.
"Pretty, isn't it, country-boy?"
Cloud nodded vaguely at the man seated next to him on the train, staring in open-mouthed awe as they hurtled towards the bustling metropolis.
"So, what's a peasant kid like you gonna do in the city?" the man inquired. He'd just taken a seat next to Cloud, apparently having spent the rest of the trip somewhere in the train's bar. He smelled of cigarettes and breath-mints that did nothing to cover the stench of strong liquor.
"Leave that boy alone," a woman scolded, turning from her sleeping child to scowl in their direction. "He doesn't need any of your sort dealing him trouble!"
The man shrugged, but whispered, "Hey, you need a job, kiddo, go look up the Don, you got it?'
He shoved a business card at Cloud, who stared at it blankly before putting it in his pocket and shyly saying, "Thank you."
The man ruffled his wild hair and fondly said, "Pretty kid like you could make some serious cash, no problem."
Cloud patiently bore the hair ruffling, knowing by now that people almost couldn't help themselves, but he didn't turn his attention from the window. At last, Midgar! He could see the ShinRa company building even from this distance, a monument to greatness, the base of Sephiroth—Cloud's hero and the reason he'd come all this way.
He thought of Tifa, his triangular little face falling into a soft frown, his eyes shadowing a little. It had been unfair of her father to accuse him of leading her astray, he knew that even though it still stung. He'd embarrassed Cloud, and even though that had happened years ago, the bite of it still ached.
'I'm stronger now,' he thought to himself, slim fingers clutching his pack—the only belongings he had now. 'That was five years ago, I'm not a little child anymore.'
He tried to strengthen his resolve, doing his best to look in control of himself as the train rolled into the heart of Midgar. The station was vast and confusing, echoing with announcements and the noise of thousands of people and shrieking trains. Intimidated, Cloud hugged his pack to his chest and made his way to one of the many counters.
"Ex…excuse…" he kept trying to get the worker's attention, but people kept butting in front of him, prompting him to forcefully say, "Excuse me!"
"You lost?" was the rather rude reply.
"Can you tell me the way to ShinRa?" Cloud asked, appalled by his outburst and blushing furiously.
"Take a bus, pal."
One thumb hitched over a fat shoulder and Cloud hesitantly did as directed, using the last of his change to pay for a ride to ShinRa Electric Headquarters.
The building was massive, thronging with people and lit up despite the fact that it was still daytime. Cloud approached it with wary awe, trying hard not to be overwhelmed but failing miserably. He didn't even know where to go to apply for SOLDIER, and got buffeted mercilessly in the main lobby while searching for some sort of direction.
"Move along, kid, this is a place of business."
A heavy leather-gloved hand fell on his shoulder and gave him a none-too-gentle shove towards the exit.
"Excuse me," Cloud said, struggling to overcome his shyness. He looked up and up at the suited man who stared coldly down at him. "I just…I mean…I want to join SOLDIER!"
"Sheesh, you want to take it down a notch," another man told him, straightening his tie. "The Turks recruit for SOLDIER, kid—recruits don't come to us."
"Are you Turks?" Cloud asked, and blushed when the first man laughed, making the boy scowl. He didn't take well to being made a fool of, Tifa's father had imprinted that negative emotion on him early in his life. "I want to join SOLDIER!"
"Take him to Tseng, Verdot can't be bothered with this nonsense," the other sighed, and the first man grunted assent.
The man took Cloud to an elevator and punched in a floor, leaning back against the wall as more people flooded in. Cloud, who disliked being touched, crowded into the corner, grimacing. He wasn't used to so many people, so many things, so much noise. He was abjectly grateful when the elevator chimed their floor and he could shove his way out.
"This way," the man said, and led Cloud to a reception area. "Let's have your ID."
Cloud dug out his papers and his coveted, much saved-for ID, handing them over.
"Have a seat."
The man went into the office, where a very loud, very lazy voice complained, "But I always get stuck co-pilot, yo! What gives?"
"You've been here less than six months, Reno, you'll have to—"
The rest of the conversation was cut off as the door closed behind the man, only to be flung open seconds later by a thin youth in a sloppy black suit, his amazingly red hair stuck out all over his head and a shoulder-length ponytail dangling down his back. He didn't even glance at Cloud, just strode off down the hallway cursing at the top of his lungs and assaulting the secretary's behind with a well-aimed slap.
Wide-eyed, Cloud shrank back into the chair, not sure if such a place was safe or even sane compared to his mountain home. He'd never seen anyone share so much as a chaste kiss, let alone go around slapping others on their backsides.
The door opened again and the man leaned out to hand Cloud his papers, saying, "Sorry, kid—too young."
Cloud paled, all of the life going out of him—all of his reason gone in one quick, simple sentence.
"But…but," he sputtered.
"You're only fourteen," the man said. "We don't take recruits until they are fifteen, legal adults."
"But…but…" he couldn't seem to say anything else, miserable tears rising in his blue eyes. He'd left home like a thief in the night, buoyed up by his firm belief that he would reach Midgar and become a SOLDIER—this had never made an appearance in his plans, and if it had it would've shattered his resolve. "But I can't get home, I don't have any money…"
"Tseng?" the man questioned, looking at the stern, young figure behind the desk.
The man, Tseng, steepled his hands beneath his chin and looked thoughtfully out at Cloud, who did his best to look sharp but only managed to look pitifully young and helpless—which worked in his favor. Tseng didn't have a heart of stone, and Cloud was remarkably easy to find adorable.
"There's no age restriction for the grunts," he murmured, more to the man than to Cloud. "Take him to the MPs, I'll make a phone call."
"But…I…an MP?" Cloud asked, and flushed to realize how ungrateful he must sound. "I'm sorry, thank you so much, thank you!"
The man led him off, gently saying, "You can always try for SOLDIER next year, kid. The MP work ain't bad."
One step closer to his goal, Cloud smiled a little through his embarrassment and followed the man back to the elevator.