Disclaimer: Do I look like a millionaire to you? I don't own shit, I just play with people's universes.

They Grow Them in Nibelheim

When the kid first walked in the door, announcing politely that his name was Cloud Strife, (seriously? Cloud? What on Gaea were his parents thinking?), the recruiter didn't think he looked like much.

Skinny little arms and legs, slight torso, those great big blue eyes that were disturbingly reminiscent of a week-old kitten's. Stupid fluffy blonde hair that stuck up at odd angles from his head. The recruiter would be shocked if the kid had gone through puberty yet.

In his slightly worn and baggy clothes, and with his soft foreign accent, he looked exactly like what he was- a mountain boy, on his first jaunt to the big city. He looked exactly like dozens of other kids that the recruiter had met that day, obviously too young to be applying, probably a runaway.

He had half a mind to send the kid straight back home to his poor mama. No doubt the poor woman was worried sick.

In fact, he had opened his mouth to do just that, when those big blue eyes caught his, and suddenly, something completely different came out of his mouth.

It wasn't only the eyes of kittens that were blue.

"Where exactly did you say you were from again kid?"

The Strife kid's eyes widened slightly (Gaea those peepers were abnormally huge), and the kid told him again, "Nibelheim."

The recruiter thought about this for a moment, looked at the kid, and his worn out and frfankly somewhat filthy clothes, and then looked up at the map that was on the wall.

"How did you get here?" Somehow he just knew the answer wasn't going to be that the kid was staying with distant relatives.

The kid shrugged. "Hitch-hiked where I could. Walked where I couldn't. Collected enough monster parts to barter my crossing from Costa Del Sol to Midgar. What?" he asked when he saw the recruiter's eyebrows go up.

"Let me get this straight," the recruiter said. "You kid, are telling me that you fucking walked and hitch-hiked your way across most of a continent, alone, and along the way fighting enough monsters that you managed to afford your passage to the Plate?"

The kid shrugged again. "Not quite. I've spent a couple weeks in the slums running errands before I could afford the pass to get up here. Some old guy offered to pay my way in one go if I did him a favour, but I didn't like the look of him, so I ended up clearing out some minor monsters on the edge of Sector 6 for a while. After the first day or so a few places around Wall Market gave me discounts and deals if I did them favours. Though I still don't know what I'm going to do with that wig..."

The recruiter interrupted his ramble. Okay, so the kid could obviously handle himself. That still didn't necessarily mean that he was appropriate for the SOLDIER programme. Though the biggest problem was: "And you're how old?"

"16." The reply was quiet, firm, and obviously complete bald-faced bullshit.

The recruiter rolled his eyes.

"Does your mama know where you're at kid?"

The Strife kid's brows lowered. "'Course she does. She would have kicked my arse if I'd gone away without telling her."

The kid sounded entirely serious. Somehow the recruiter didn't doubt that Cloud meant that quite literally.

"What does she think of her baby boy becoming a SOLDIER?"

Cloud snorted. "She's not overfond of ShinRa, but told me that it would be good practice for when I become a mercenary." He sounded like he was quoting, and rolled his eyes.

Despite himself, the recruiter was intrigued.

"She wants you to become a mercenary?" he asked, not bothering to hide his surprise. He had two kids himself and while he would be proud if his boy managed to get into the SOLDIER programme, he wouldn't be all that disappointed if he didn't make it in. The life expectancy for SOLDIERs wasn't great, and the life expectancy for a mercenary was even lower. Come to think of it, he wasn't even sure the company would let the kid go if he got that far. Ex-SOLDIERs were as rare on the ground as ex-Turks. Still, not something to tell a fresh prospective recruit. He could lose his job over dropping out that little nugget of info, or worse, become Turk bait.

The kid nodded seriously, as though "mercenary" was as standard a profession as a doctor or a plant worker. "She knows I don't have the slightest interest in farming," he said, as though that was the only other option, "and this way I can get trained up, see the world, visit interesting places, kill dangerous monsters and do it all on ShinRa's gil."

The recruiter leaned back in his chair, and ignored the ominous creak. Stupid cheap ShinRa furniture. He decided one last shot of appealing to the kid's no doubt absent sanity.

"You seem to have this all figured out. What about your Dad? He think this is a good idea?"

The kid shrugged again. "Dunno. Never met the guy. Mum says he died. Some of the people around town say really quietly that he thought Mum was the other kind of farm girl when he proposed, and couldn't handle it when he found out the truth, so he scarpered."

The recruiter felt his eyebrows raise. "Other kind of farm girl?"

The kid nodded seriously again. "Yeah, for some reason he thought that when she said she harvested meat and root vegetables, he thought she meant cows." Cloud snorted. "As if the Nibel Mountains are the kind of terrain you could raise cattle on. Goats maybe, only there are too many poisonous plants and monsters around to make them a viable livestock. Still, even if he didn't know that, you'd think that the guy would have thought to ask what was in the stew Mum cooked for him all the time."

Now this the recruiter had to know. "So what does go into your Mum's stew?"

The kid laughed. "Same thing that goes into all Nibel Stew. It's our regional dish after all."

The recruiter just looked confused. "Can't say I've ever had any, so I wouldn't know."

The kid cocked his head. "Oh, right. Guess I shouldn't be so surprised. Once I got as far as Costa del Sol people didn't seem to even know where Nibelheim is. Some idiot even asked me if I was from near Bone Town- it's not even on the same continent!" He shook his head, as though he couldn't believe such ignorance.

The recruiter did his best to hide a smile. "Nibelheim is more than a little out of the way. You still haven't told me kid, what goes into Nibel Stew?"

The kid looked him in the eye. "Nibel wolf of course."

The recruiter had been chosen for his ability to remain deadpan, but still, he knew that his eyebrows were currently somewhere around his hairline. Oh well. He'd like to see his superiors keep a straight face around this kid. He was a riot.

"So what, you people farm wolves up in Nibelheim? This is what you meant by your Mum being the other kind of farmgirl?"

Cloud rolled his eyes. "They're wild animals sir, of course we don't farm them." His tone unmistakeably labelled the recruiter an idiot if he actually meant his previous statement seriously. "Farmers in Nibelheim grow root crops and raise green chocobos. And," he said, when the recruiter opened his mouth to interrupt, "because by necessity they live on the outskirts of town, they're the first in the line of fire when we get attacked by wild monsters. Random encounters are fairly frequent, so there isn't such thing as a Nibel farmer who can't defend themselves. If there ever is, they don't tend to live all that long."

To the recruiter, Cloud seemed to be rather matter-of-fact about all of this. "Mum gets more than a little grudging respect around town because after she got disowned for having me out of wedlock, she was living on her own and still managed to survive and make sure I lived long enough to be able to protect myself. But yeah," Cloud continued, "Nibel wolves are the most common, and the most edible, so we make stew out of them." He grinned savagely. "We have a saying in Nibelheim. It goes, 'do not fuck with us, because we are cold, hungry, and you taste excellent with herbs and spices.'"

The recruiter just stared at him.

The kid looked back at him, as completely serious as he had been from the start of this little interview.

The recruiter looked down at his check list, looked up at the kid, looked down at his checklist again, and made a few notations. He looked back up at the kid again.

"Out of interest kid, if I tell you that you're too young, and you won't make it, then what are you going to do?"

Cloud Strife stood up as tall as his five foot nothing much frame allowed. "Then I'll respectfully tell you to shove it, sir, and I'll keep coming back until someone lets me in."

The recruiter just nodded. He'd been expecting that answer. "Right. So just assuming I let you in, what weapon or materia skills do you already have?"

Cloud shrugged. "None really. Sometimes I throw rocks, or pick up a branch or something. Oh, and I keep a knife in my boot, but that's mostly as a last resort if the monster gets too close. Does any of that count?"

The recruiter inhaled slowly. "Do you mean to tell me that you habitually take on monsters with whatever is lying around?" The recruiter was very proud of himself. He didn't sound sarcastic, or like he was talking to a crazy person at all. No. The years of training and experience he had as a ShinRa had not been for nothing after all. He was maintaining a calm and even tone in the face of ludicrous conditions.

"And my knife, sir," the kid said promptly, helpfully. Seriously.

The recruiter groaned internally. He knew he was going to regret this next question.

"Show me your knife."

The kid nodded, and pulled out a well-used, but also well-cared-for-looking knife. Well, more like a machete really. The recruiter decided he wasn't even going to ask how the kid managed to keep that concealed. Still, he went up against monsters with that worn out thing and no armour?

Apparently he'd said that out loud, because the kid shrugged. "I don't see what the big deal is. My friend Tifa fights monsters with her knuckles in a midriff top and mini skirt."

Of course she did.

The recruiter looked disbelievingly at the kid. Against all common sense, he didn't think the kid was lying. Now that he looked more carefully, there was barely an inch of fat on him, barring his baby-face. The kid looked as stringy as a slum stew, and his ridiculous fluffy hair flopped around making the kid resemble some kind of dandelion. He sure didn't look like much, but then again, he wasn't exactly some kind of soft Plate Kid. If even half of what he was saying was true, the recruiter was willing to bet that the kid didn't scare easily, and he was probably as tough as an old boot.

Furthermore, the kid was obviously determined. The recruiter didn't doubt his claim that if he told him to get lost, he'd just keep coming back. Those blue eyes might look kittenish at first glance, but at second, he was suddenly reminded of those weird winged things that had killed one of his comrades in the Ancient Forest when they had been on a routine mission not too far from Gongaga.

Diablos. That's what they were called. They had blue eyes too.

Okay, fine.

Look out SOLDIER programme. Here comes Cadet Cloud Strife, under-aged twig, eater of Nibel wolf meat, and wielder of his "knife".

May you both survive each other.

-Several years later-

"So Cloud, you never did tell me why you didn't make it into SOLDIER," said Tifa, as she wiped down the bar of Seventh Heaven. "Couldn't meet the physical demands?"

Cloud, who had been sitting on a barstool drinking a beer nearly spat out his drink in indignation.

He didn't though, because that would be a waste of beer, and if he wasted beer, Mama Strife would come back from the dead just to slap him upside the head. He was pretty superstitious about that kind of thing these days, considering how for Sephiroth at least the gates of the Lifestream were more like a revolving door.

"Hey! I'll have you know I aced hand to hand. You don't think a guy can spend three years being experimented on semi-comatose and then suddenly pop out magically knowing how to kick arse do you?"

Tifa shrugged. "Hey, how was I supposed to know? You always were a bit of a runt, and you tended to lose fights back in Nibelheim."

"They were like five on one! And I didn't lose, I drew. Why do you think they used to gang up on me like that? It just wasn't fair otherwise."

Tifa considered this, and then decided that maybe he had a point. "Never really gave a shit to be honest," she said, continuing to wipe down the bar. "I was too busy punching wolves and trying to give my father a heart attack with my outfits and general desire to leave Nibelheim."

"Oh thanks, Tifa," Cloud scowled, taking an annoyed swig of his drink. "Nice to know my 'childhood friend' cared."

"Oh fuck off Cloud," Tifa laughed. "We both know that you made your 'promise' to my tits."

Cloud rolled his eyes, and took another sip of his beer. He knew better than to confirm or deny that statement, and couldn't be bothered reminding Tifa that he had made the 'promise' to 'save her' more because she had been one of the few girls in town who understood the value of a decent fight. She reminded him of him, and he knew that he was going crazy with boredom in Nibelheim, and wouldn't wish that fate on anyone else.

Besides, she had been pretty flat-chested back then, being about 12 and all. Unlike the next time he had seen her... but even then, it was only really aesthetically that Cloud appreciated Tifa's rack. When it came down to it, girls just weren't really his area...

Blissfully unaware of the direction Cloud's thoughts were going in, Tifa went back to their previous topic of conversation.

"Seriously though, why didn't you make the cut? I mean, I know you originally got Sephiroth with a sneak attack, but still, it was fucking Sephiroth, who managed to take out pretty much our whole goddamn village single-handedly, not to mention him beating the shit out of me and that Zack guy."

There were a few moments of reflective silence. Oh Nibelheim. It was a shit-hole, but it had been their shit-hole. Fucking Sephiroth. Cloud was almost glad he'd had multiple opportunities to kill the fucker.

Tifa continued. "Considering you then dumped him in the fucking materia after he'd stabbed you through with Masamune, you weren't exactly soft then, and that was before Hojo got his slimy paws on you and turned you into the green-eyed wonder. So seriously, is the soldier programme just that hardcore? Were there intelligence tests you failed? What?"

"Actually, I didn't fail any of the tests," Cloud said, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment.

"What!" Tifa dropped her cloth. "But you didn't get into the programme!"

"Wellll yes and no. Technically I got in, but it was provisional on me doing a two-year stint in regular army first." Cloud wrinkled his nose. "And then that Sephiroth clusterfuck went down, so I never did get my chance. They wouldn't have even let me near that mission with the General if I was useless in a fight, as much as any 'team' with Sephiroth was generally seen as window-dressing, or worst case scenario, bait. But then Hojo happened and implanted all of those memories of Zack's, so I guess in a fucked up kinda way I am an ex-SOLDIER after all. I got the mako, and I remember half the missions and the bootcamps, and on the upside I didn't have to pretend to like President ShinRa so I guess close enough."

Tifa just stared at him incredulously. Sometimes she forgot that Cloud was more than a bit insane. She decided to go back to a nice, neutral topic. "So why did they make your entry provisional?"

Cloud smirked, mako green eyes glinting. "Funnily enough, it was the same reason the local boys back home tried to beat the shit out of me on a regular basis."

"Oh? What's that?"

"They said I had a bad attitude."

…...

A/N: Before you all go off at me for not working on Butterfly Genjutsu, you can expect an update on that by the end of the week. Surprise! I'm not dead!

The reason I wrote this little piece was because I've been reading a lot of FFVII fanfic lately. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's an entertainingly batshit insane fanbase, with a ridiculous amount of slash. Don't get me wrong, a quick trip to my favs list will show that I'm as big a slash fan as the next fanbrat, but still, wow. The fact that there is more than one Angeal/Genesis/Sephiroth/Zack/Cloud community should say all that needs to be said there.

But for some reason, people seem to have decided that pre-Hojo!Cloud (aka the Cloud that usually shacks up with Sephiroth in fanfic) is kinda pathetic. I mean, okay, sure, he didn't make it into SOLDIER first try. But give the kid a break, he was what, 14?, and even though he might be ridiculously weaker than say, Sephiroth, Demon of Wutai, who can two-shot a dragon, this doesn't mean kid!Cloud was a pathetic cry baby. It takes more than hero-worship to get a kid to a mean city that's on a different continent to sign up to fight shit. Sure kid!Cloud sounds like he was a bit idealistic and wanted to be just like his hero and save the day. Even if he ends up banging his hero as he seems to in every other fanfic in this verse, I don't see how this automatically makes him a limp-wristed uke. Not that there's anything wrong with that, if it's your thing, I just don't think it really fits with this character.

So yes, Cloud is gay, and like anyone else from Nibelheim in my brain, kicks a lot of arse. Deal with it. If anyone is about to flame me about not warning them about my one sentence of implied slash, I suggest they buy some climbing gear and get over themselves.

No, I couldn't be bothered writing a pairing in this fic because in the end it wasn't about his love life. I'm surprised it even came up honestly, but then Tifa's tits happened, and Cloud had to have a response (albeit not one he shared with Tifa). So yeah, consider this a choose your own M/M pairing, if you're a die-hard shipper. Although obviously not Sephiroth in this case, because Cloud has given him at least a semi-permanent terminal case of dead, and is a little bit sore over the whole "Sephiroth killed his entire village including Mama Strife, and then burned it to the ground" thing. Generally a bit of a stumbling block for a potential relationship.

So yeah, review if you feel like, I mostly wrote this for my own satisfaction. Maybe I'll add a few oneshots to this, maybe not. Am half thinking about writing a companion piece about Tifa being hardcore. What do you lot reckon?

-Erisah