Midgar is huge and frightening. ShinRa even more so.
Cloud rides in the company car quietly, legs barely long enough to reach the floor, swinging with every bump on the road, blond spikes waving in the blasting, frigid air conditioning that reminds him of chilly winds whipping off Nibel's peak. The man driving is quiet – he looks like a teenager, but he wears a suit, so Cloud guesses he must be an adult, and he wonders whether he came from the country too, and whereabouts in the world it's customary to mark your forehead like that.
He doesn't dare ask.
The skyscraper grows in the windows, looming overhead like a dark monolith.
His mother doesn't want him anymore. Tifa's mother passed away, and less than twelve months later his mother is married to Mr Lockhart and Tifa won't talk to him and Cloud's shipped off to a father he's never met – didn't even know he had. All he knows about him is that his mother had some brief affair with him years ago, when he was stationed in Nibelheim for work, flush with money and short on female companionship.
The city disappears into shadow, and the car dips as it rumbles down a tunnel into the underground parking lot. Darkness is replaced by bright fluorescent lights, and the car pulls to a stop next to a string of other black cars exactly like it.
Cloud can't tell if the churn in his gut is nerves or motion sickness anymore. He gets out and follows the man-in-a-suit to an elevator, and doesn't ask any questions. If this father-he's-never-met doesn't want him either, he doesn't know what he'll do. Midgar's not like Nibelheim – chopping wood and hunting fowl and all the other skills he's learned won't do him any good here. He's just smart enough to know what little education he's scraped from his mother's books won't help.
His gut lurches again as the elevator rises. The man-in-a-suit keeps looking at him, the shadow of an expression flitting over his face. Cloud thinks it might be regret, or maybe pity.
He stares at the door, and tries to imagine a brighter future.
Maybe, he tries to tell himself, things will be better here. Midgar's supposed to be the land of opportunity. Maybe this father-he's-never-met will want him, and they'll live in an apartment together and go to movies – Nibelheim doesn't have a cinema, but they sound interesting – and play sports and he can learn his father's trade like a normal family. Maybe he has siblings, and they can fight for the television and bathroom time and share chores. Maybe Cloud will go to a proper school with other children on the Plate, and they'll have dinner together at night after his father comes home from work, and he'll pry him out of bed on the cold mornings like his mother used to when she still cared.
The elevator dings, and the doors open.
It's a laboratory. The man-in-a-suit steps off, looking back expectantly. Cloud hurries to catch up, staying a step behind, trying to take in all the scientists in their white coats and blinking lights and computer monitors without looking like he's looking.
"Wait here," the man-in-a-suit tells him, and strides off towards one of the doors ringing the workspace.
There's another boy there, sitting on one of the cold metal operating tables – a teenager with red hair and sharp blue eyes that almost seem to glow. His shirt is cast aside, revealing a finely toned chest and abdomen that fills Cloud with jealousy with his stick-like arms and sunken stomach and thin shoulders. The boy studies him for a moment, then smirks at something he finds amusing. He turns his attention away, opening a book to pass the boredom as he waits.
After a while, another scientist enters the room – with thick glasses and curly, mousy brown hair and moustache. Cloud's heart leaps into his throat – is this his father? – but the scientist just walks up to the teenager, throwing him a curious glance but nothing more. The two of them head off for a different part of the laboratory, and Cloud is left alone, still waiting.
After what seems like an eternity, the man-in-a-suit comes back. "This way, Cloud," he says, and gently guides him along, through the laboratory with its tubes and tables and vials of glowing green, to a non-descript office stuffed full of computer screens and filing cabinets and charts plastered on every spare piece of wall.
A stooped scientist, with long black hair tied back and thin glasses and cold, dead eyes, looks up at the sound of their entrance. He's sorting through syringes on a tray, their sharp silver points glinting in the artificial light.
"Professor, your son is here."
"Thank you, Tseng," he says in a way that suggests he doesn't mean it. He holds out a tapered, bony hand, and Cloud steps forward at the implied summons.
His wrists are picked up, examined, his fingers prodded and measured, his chin tilted from side to side as his father – this is his father, right? – inspects his face. "Hmph. Recessive genes. Takes after his mother, if memory serves." His fingers flick his blond hair, and the man-in-a-suit takes the opportunity to leave the room.
It's just him and his father now.
"Cloud, is it?" he asks, but by the tone of his voice it doesn't sound like he's paying attention, or even cares. He grips his arm and pushes up his sleeve, fingering the veins.
"Yes sir," he replies softly anyway.
Cloud's hopes of a brighter future begin to dim.
The Professor selects a syringe with more care and delicacy than he holds his arm. It glows faintly, like the eyes of the redheaded teenager outside. "We'd better get started. We have a lot of catching up to do."
Then they die completely.