they'll burn your hearts away
ff7 semi-au, cloud/zack
Day to day.
His life pretty much goes like this leading up to his time at Shinra. Leading up to the rumours of war and playing the part of one of those guys in a helmet, holding a gun, looking like every other guy standing next to him. Being that guy that took the full on force of every battle, that bit every bullet and took every blow. His blood will stain the cracking ground and his cries will ring out for miles. Might as well have been the wallpaper, or a toaster. Everywhere but unnoticed. Cloud grew up in Nibelheim. A small town, no bigger than a few houses and few families and a main square. It's situated on the path leading up the mountain to the reactor, the beating heart of the region. If not for that reactor (gleaming like a black tooth against the setting Sun, rotted out) they'd still be burning candles and heating their food over open fire. Still be a farm town scraping together corn and other produce and small game, living off of traveler's trade. But with all the conveniences it brought, many more troubles had come with it. Many deaths, and many things he'll never forget. Because he wasn't allowed. The universe saw fit to haunt him.
Day to day, at seven years old, he'd wake up and sigh. Deja vu all over again. These are the times he remembers best. He would always be standing by the water tower at noon (not really a tower, so much, just a suspended tub to keep the town's drinking supply). It'll creak in the wind, he'll kick rocks and play with his wooden soldiers. The two his father brought him while he was stationed in Midgar. Just before he died. Just before Cloud could remember his face or his voice. The way he might have smiled, might have frowned. Before Cloud could remember his favourite food or something he'd always been known to say. He was gone. Would he even have liked him? He doesn't know the answer even now. Even so they'd been sacred, revered, and he had rarely played with them. They usually stayed on their shelf above his bed, gleaming in the sunlight, soaking it up and drying out. He feared they would eventually shrivel to just sticks. All his half-memories of his father dead. He took his chances despite and there'd he be, alone, him and the wind and the dust swirling.
At seven he was a very inquisitive child, however well restrained. He doubted himself more than his curiosity could drive him so he never got in trouble. His mother called him timid, kind-hearted. Even so he'd follow the other children to the Shinra Mansion, or up a mountain path, or into the old inn. Until he'd be driven away. He hadn't resorted to playing alone because he chose to, he played alone because he was never accepted.
Somehow he missed that train and was lost. Cursed, cast out. There were five other children in town and only one of them wanted anything to do with him. It happened to be the only young girl in town, too (just his luck): Tifa. She was the loveliest person in all of Nibelheim, next to his mother. She always knew when to find him, where to find him, what to say. She would come up to his door, knock softly and converse politely with his mother. And she always had this cowboy hat on, fastened under the chin. They'd sit side by side and talk about SOLDIER, about cowboys, about the Shinra mansion, about the Mount Nibel pass. Kept special things between them and promised, with a cross of the heart, never to tell any other soul. Sometimes they'd get quiet and revel, almost meditate, on the other's company. Or at least Cloud had. He'd eat up every word she said, comatose to everything else. His holy shroud.
It hadn't taken long for the other kids to find out about their connection. And then he was truly the outsider, avoiding to even go outside. Afraid of even their laughing voices coming from outside. A boy named Ian Crowley lead the pack, lead the hate. Directed all his discontent and childish malice towards him. He'd called him names and pushed him down. There was always the one, wasn't there. That's what his mother said. There's always one that won't agree with you. There's always that clash, my son. That's life. His skinned elbows and knees spoke of it. Tifa would stand aside and watch, fists clenched whenever it happened. The clash. Ian's bulky frame would cast shadows over Cloud. His fat fingers gripped in the collar of his shirt. Face inches away. Voice high and raw. Lips just two little strips of red, bitten meat. And never once had he held that against her. She was friends with everyone. What had he been worth to lose everyone else?
"God, you're so creepy. Like one of those—"
In this flashback, Ian was interrupted. His looming red face turned away. Joey, the resident nerd had spoken, glasses thick as ice blocks and perched on the tip of his nose. This boy had spent most his time with his Grandmother, reading and writing notes for her. Listening to all her stories of the old times before the Power Electric Company and before Midgar. He hadn't disagreed with Cloud but he certainly never showed kindness either. His heart was bent more toward the academic than the sociable. What he really remembers most of that boy was what he had said that day.
Cloud had flinched as the laughter started. As if they all knew what it meant and this was the best thing they'd heard all year. Ian's breath had wafted over him, and his fist shook him hard from side to side. Cloud's hair fell into his eyes and gleamed golden in the sunlight. His bane, you'd say. No other child was as blond as he was. Like rays of the Sun, strands of wheat or gold, flaxen, fairy-like. A neighbor lady had called him Sunbeam because of it. But that didn't bother him.
"Albino! Ugh. Like a ghost! You're almost see-through."
It wasn't the names. It was the indifference. He'd been tossed back, as if contagious, Ian theatrically rubbing his hands on his pants. He would flee, like he almost always did, before it turned into something worse. He'd be on the verge of tears. The want and need to sob burning his eyes and heating his face. He'd slam through his front door and climb into bed. His mother would ask, worried, but he'd never said. He'd keep it to himself. Gurgling like an upset stomach inside him. Like a cancer eating away. Everyday was the same. Day to day. You can climb only so high before you fall.
As they grew older Tifa soon talked to him less and less, and he yearned for something new other than his small town existence. His small town exile. So he decided, taking him weeks, and it tore at his insides. His mother regretted having told him about his father, and would cry when she thought he wouldn't hear. His nights filled with it. His father had been in SOLDIER. He'd fought in a war. All of Nibelheim was proud.
He managed to talk to Tifa much later, their legs hanging off the side of the water tower. Looking down only a few feet to their town. Houses and windows dark and silent. The sky had been pregnant with stars, looming so close, almost sneering at them. The moon bulging like a great eye, casting its grey veil everywhere. Cloud's hair so long at that point his mother had been tying it in the back. He remembers Tifa's face pale and distant in the night. It had been cold and rain was moving in. Signs were everywhere. So he told her. Almost disinterested in the statement. Trying to play it off. I want to be in SOLDIER. And she had said isn't that hard? Won't you be fighting people? You have to train for hours, I heard. Without sleep. They make you emotionless, too. And Sephiroth. She'd grown quiet. He's 1ST Class, you know. The last level of SOLDIER. And Cloud nodded. I'm going to be 1ST Class.
Just promise me. You'll come back. And you'll be my knight in shining armour.
So that decided it. His mother started pooling all the money she could from relatives and small jobs here and there. Baby sitting and bar tending in Kalm. And Cloud's heart sank still. What if you fail. Where will you go? What happens then? What happens if you die? He refused to think of it until the day came, and it didn't come quickly. He's seventeen now. Seven years after he'd ever mentioned his plans. He's packed and standing in his house one last time, looking at his mother. He's grown taller, lanky and a little insecure but his eyes are as blue as gems. Hair as blond as ever. Sharp with resolve, cold with intent. He doesn't say goodbye to anyone else. Not even Tifa. It's not long before he's with the caravan to Midgar. They enter the city at night. Llights frightening and many, like thousands of eyes regarding.
It's bigger than he'd imagined anything, even the ocean, would be. A giant plate city of many levels, suspended on stilts in a way. Railroad tracks winding up the largest of these stilts, disappearing as they reached the upper plate and going in and out of tunnels. The money his mother gave him will cover the entrance fees, exams and a night in a room, so all he has to do is find his way to Shinra. He's told it's the central building in the city, you couldn't miss it. They built this city around that tower, you know. I remember when it was just that and nothin' else. Could see for miles back then. He doesn't waste time. No time to waste. The train takes him to the upper plates and he stays a night in a motel called something clever and so 'big city'. People crowding around and loud. The air filled with smoke and the smell of food. The smell of everyone's breath being recycled and sucked back in. The next morning he's starting his new life. The next morning he would see if he's cut out to be a SOLDIER.