the missing chapters
they'll burn your hearts away
ff7 semi-au, cloud/zack
It's to a baked dry new world he's invited. The air here is a foreign mix of freshness and the over-powering flavour of sea weed, and maybe something else, something older and a little sour. The sharp yellow glare of a knife-edge beach extends from the busy port and on still to nowhere, going out as far as the planet curves. People swarm here, clad in bathing suits, flowery shorts and shirts. Silky, not-there dresses shimmer and wave like flags, like the ocean roll. Their hands clutch drinks, cigarettes, shopping bags. They're holding hands or kissing, talking, laughing. The taste of this place is a little too much to swallow all at once. Cloud at least has the time to sit and soak it in. He's spent a full night in the inn and this is his first new lucid day. His room is set back from the entrance to the little inn, away from the streets and the immediate noise. He vies to look, leaning hard on the sill.
A strange new place. Maybe he is this fascinated or he's watching because he doesn't want to think back on more shady moments. Buzzing thoughts don't die either way, and boredom is just the same. Last night he found a new scar fanning out from his throat and going down over his collarbone. Two more followed in line, stopping just short of the mark before. No wonder he didn't notice them before, they were just out of his view. He had touched a hand on it as he lay like an invalid, bundled in rented blankets, on a rented mattress, in a rented room. The freshness, the soft pink delicacy... it irks him still. How it stretched and moved as he did, mimicking, mocking. He felt it with his fingers, just the very tips, and a black pain had pressed in on him. Wariness rested its hands on his head, the touch cold.
Another item for the subject of what not to think about. It's probably why Saur tells him as often as he can to look ahead. He missed the entire trek from Nibelheim; across a land he only knows from rumours and stories and a lengthy young imagination (the rolling hills, the sun rises, the fun runners). He must have slept longer than four days. He must have been worse than they'd let him know.
"No wonder ya like it. People come here to vacate, ya know: get away."
Saur's saying this as he comes into the room. Cloud turns to look. His hair, the longest its been in all his short years, catches and claws at his eyes. He pushes it aside and looks out the window again, not missing a beat. He'd have to get a hair cut before Shinra. A tanned woman (bronzed to a point) sashays by, her red dress spattered with the tropical flowers you would find here. The colour contrast stunning, awing. Saur comes up to look as well, whistling at the one that got away. He's on one of his daily visits. Having latched on to Cloud like a mothering hen, he found this necessary.
"It's the people, I think..." Cloud starts. The words are slow to form.
Saur grows quiet, maybe taken aback by the fact Cloud's chosen to talk at all.
"They're all so different."
"Sure, sure. Why do you think I like this caravan business? The money? Hah! Nah. I get to come here, go there, talk my talk, walk my walk. And people listen to me. Ya think I'd be just as well in Midgar? Fuck it all, no. Son, the only thing that place is good for is what you're goin' for, and that's even so—more fuel for the fire. They're up to something, I think. Shinra, I mean. Up to no good."
"I don't know..."
"'Course ya wouldn't. You're still young."
Saur steps away from the window and stuffs his hands into his pockets, deep and rooted-out from years of use and long nights on hard earth. For being such a large man, for being so commanding and strangely wise, he has a sense of childish unease about him as well. The scars on his face were proportional to his hidden scars. Cloud gets a sense of this, a tingling in the air, a heaviness, and changes his gaze from the women and the umbrellas and the laughing faces to Saur's bent figure. The ultimatum is unsettling. A frown works its way out.
"You've got to learn all you can while you've still got the chance."
Saur is stepping towards to door.
"Heading out today, kid. I'll see you some other time." He turns around, and says: "I'll see you on TV, or somethin'. SOLDIER and all that, they love showin' off their goodies."
He shakes Cloud's hand. A firm thing. A sad thing. And then he's gone.
As the door clicks (ca-chink) closed, Cloud's looking down into his hand and what's been left there. A hooked thing, bleached as Costa's sand. It takes a moment for it to register, but it finally does. It's a tooth, isn't it? That's what it is. A frown works into a grimace, works into a deep scowl. It's not out of anger, no. It feels like sorrow. A fang from the beast. He makes a fist around it. Your weakness always has a way of laughing right in your face, doesn't it? It'll have a way of choosing people you admire the most to make you feel the worst. It cuts, it stings, but he balls that fist and takes the sharp bite. He puts the thing into his pack and doesn't promise, he hopes it stays with him always. Promises are regrettable, he should know.
The next day he leaves the hotel.
It's not a cruise liner, but it'll get him to where he needs to go. About as pretty to look at as a canned ham, about as delicate in design as home surgery. Sheets of metal slapped together cover the nose and sides of this behemoth, layered over years of damage and shoddy repair. The very prow is squat and crooked, looking less tough than a tin can. On the far side, near the stern of the thing, a word is printed (red paint flaking and rusted): GLENDA, it reads. This is the unofficial ferry to Midgar.
Cloud looks on.
Men working on the docks yell to each over, back and forth, voices the bellow of honking walruses. This constant raucous stirs up the gulls swooping and wheeling near, their screams mingle with that of the men's and it carries on the wind, killing some of the beach calm (splintering all the aforementioned good spirits Cloud once had). Getting on the boat might be the hardest thing yet. Even more than Saur's monster, and leaving his mother, and leaving Tifa, and Nibelheim, and his own little tired existence as a shriveled, spineless nobody.
He stands for a long while, taking in every strange accent and the slurred speech of the ship hands (ship rats, they're called) and smelling the thicker, more solid salty sea air. He's closer to the open water here. Where he should even start, he doesn't know. Everyone has the wrinkled-up look of vacuum sealed goods, the red sunburn kissed faces, the toned arms (perfected by the lifestyle) and the mouth, you guessed it, of a sailor. Cloud's hesitation is his savour.
A man walks by, nudging him as he goes. Cloud's not startled but he does step to the side, transferring all his weight to one leg. The man is dressed plainly, badly even (ragged and dirty, hair tossed, shoes torn). He looks from side to side and then up to one of the men working on Glenda's deck.
"Oi," he yells.
A man aboard hears this and looks down.
"Oi," he yells back.
"I'm looking to get to Midgar. Who runs this dumper?" asks the man.
The boatman scoffs and rocks back on his heels, now grabbing the low steel railing and swinging his head low to see closer, eyes bulging. He's mad. Cloud shifts where he stands.
"Shit outta luck, my friend. Go look under your ma's skirt!"
The raggedy man wave's a dismissive hand and walks on, farther down the docks. Cloud waits a moment, tick, tick, tick, and then trails behind. Curious, hopeful—lost, really. Down they go, just a few feet, and there's a freighter and a civilian sailboat, but that's all she wrote. A woman sunbathes there on the sailboat's nose. The towel under her curved behind is hot pink, blinding. She cocks her head, sun glasses an oily sheen, and she smiles. Lips tight, teeth a perfect line; it's shark-like. This is what gets him, gets under Cloud's skin, so he doesn't react in time to avoid facing the man as he turns around, eyes settling dead on. They're grey and sharp and hard as stone. His face is a thin, dry thing. It cracks in a snarl as he opens his mouth to bite something out.
"The fuck you lookin' at?"
"Nothing," Cloud croaks.
The man starts forward, leading with his upper body. It's a sort of swaggering, aggressive step, as if he wants to have at Cloud, but he's stopped. The sea rat from Glenda is whistling and waving his arms towards them from up the planks. Cloud and the man perk as if on cue and let themselves be lead over. A means to an end. The man follows behind Cloud and then steps ahead, asserting his possessiveness of the information. Disdain rises in Cloud's gut. This guy is starting to reek of trouble.
The sea rat giggles, delighted by their obedience.
"You can come aboard on three conditions..."
The pause in his words he lengthens by smiling his own twisted smile, razor sharp.
"Stay outta the way, pay—up front—400 gil, and share your friend."
He points, and his exceptionally long fingers are alarming.
Cloud jerks back as if struck.
He's pointing to him.
The raggedy man tries a glance at Cloud, half-hearted, and sets his jaw.
He asks, "You got 200 gil?"
Cloud nods slowly.
"Fine," he says up to the boatman.
And the next moment they're both aboard Glenda.
The raggedy man pulls him along, hand fully buried into Cloud's forearm. The boat is crowded and damp and entirely too small inside for the hulking mass shown outside. Cloud scoots along walls and knocks shoulders with people as he's dragged along. He leads him into an open-air room—the cargo bay, he guesses—and is pushed down on a crate. The thing deflates like a loaf of bread as he does.
"You. Stay here."
"O-okay," Cloud rattles.
"Fresh as a fuckin' daisy," the raggedy man remarks.
As long as he stays where he is he'll be safe. It isn't said so much as it is implied. You can look from side to side and see the slightly distressed faces of the people around you. Some small children crying, some staring out at the world with wide, dead eyes. All (or most, it seemed) victims of a war somewhere far off. He gets a sense of this from their torn luggage and shredded clothing. He gets a sense of this from their desperate clinging to one another. They heard something, something on the wind, on a stranger's lips, and it was that Shinra pledged to rid them of terror and plight. So they came in flocks however they could—families, the few lone travelers, Cloud. They're all cargo, a pay load now. And as if to validate the fact, men of the boat poke and prod and question them. Thin fingers dig into soft flesh, faces push into your own. If you're ill or dead or crazy, they want to find you so they can deal with you. They don't want disease, they can't have something spreading, and they don't need hysteria.
They set sail without much to-do. Been on their way towards that shining glimmer ever since. It wasn't long until the raggedy man found Cloud again. He opted for his 200 gil and then was gone for good. He had fronted the money as they were being admitted on the boat. He slapped the gil into the greasy palm of the ship rat's hand, coins tinging. Those eyes, they shined with yellow-rimmed delight, like boiled eggs. Cloud had been uneasy as he waited and watched, but his face betrayed him not. It had stayed cool and calm and untouched.
Cloud never sees the likes of the man again. He never knows why he was going to Midgar or what his name was. Some sort of curious speculation, no real care involved. Parting with the gil had been reluctant work but he still had just enough afterward. Everything counted. Every little bit.
He hunches up now to stay warm. Still hours to go.
Night fall: 10:21pm.
The night goes on, rather calm as slow breathing and muted voices drift. In the cargo bay you can hear everything, there isn't much to dampen the echo off the steel walls. As Cloud keeps to himself he thinks of Tifa (brown hair, eyes, a bright smile and that damn cowboy hat), Nibelheim (small, quiet, filled with sour memories), Shinra (strength, honor, and a promise), and almost falls asleep. It's maybe eight or nine hours after embarking (intermittent with the boatman's little visits and his own nodding off) when a call comes from above. The air sterile afterward: no engine noise, no crushing ocean swells. A red-faced man, thin as a wire, comes staggering into this quasi-showroom and starts ushering the lot of them out. It's a hazy midnight blue when Cloud sees the sky. He follows the group down a wooden plank and onto the dock. It's more sturdily engineered than Costa Del Sol's, metal clanking under his shoe as he steps. He can feel his legs wanting to give out, to drop him on his ass.
Night fall: 11:18pm.
In this new caravan they enter the city after a long walk over difficult terrain. The elaborate dock they leave behind, unwilling to waist anymore time, unwilling to let one more day of worry and hunger and strife pass. Sand gives way to sparse grass, gives way to dirt, then desert and now to swirling winds. Cloud's legs woke up unwillingly, just as the darkness deepens and flattens on the land. He's eaten all his supplies and exhausted his body. It's at that time, during a short pause and with the beginnings of delirium, that he sees Midgar for the first time. And it's all worth it. Every second. Every bleak minute. It's greenish there on the horizon, just barely hidden by the elevated, swelling hills. Shinra Tower, the city's very tallest point, gleams red.