The whole thing was made so much worse by the fact that everyone – his mother included – had spent what then had felt like his whole life assuring him that it would be the best thing ever to happen to him. It was in the bedtime stories, in the gossip, it was in the whispered ghost tales shared by the children, it was in the random chitchat between teens. It was everywhere, spoken by everyone.
Meeting your soulmate would be, without any pain of doubt, the best thing to ever happen to you. So they said. Your life would become better in a heartbeat. The world would be brighter, more beautiful. Things would start making sense. Past hurts would be healed, bitterness would fade, all the evils and wrongs you'd endured would stop mattering. The future would suddenly stand before you and it would be beautiful and perfect and you'd be a new, better person from then on. Your old life would end and a new, better one would begin.
And Cloud had believed that too – the same as everyone. He'd felt breathless and giddy and hopeful when he'd heard the stories. When his mother had spoken of her first meeting with his father, he'd listened silently and almost reverently to how she'd described the feeling. Like the world had come to a standstill and suddenly there were colours she'd never noticed before, and how everything had felt warm, smelled sweet, how she'd suddenly felt lighter, happier, fuller. There's nothing quite like it, Cloudy, it was like becoming whole after a lifetime of being broken.
He'd looked forward to it. Same as every kid, he'd imagined it a thousand times, what it would be like – what his soulmate would be like. Some said that a soulmate was your perfect opposite, so for a while he'd imagined them like that. They'd be strong and brilliant and beautiful, everything Cloud wasn't. They'd be that sort of impeccable, casual perfection he was so jealous of in the likes of Tifa – but they would never dismiss him like she did, no. They'd like him, love him, and never call him bad names, even if they were so much better than he was, they'd think he was just as good as they were.
Sometimes he imagined his soulmate to be like him – because that sometimes happened, sometimes soulmates were so close to each other that they could pass for siblings. So he imagined them, blond and blue eyed and slight, small. Like him they weren't too impressive to look at, or intimidating. Together, they'd be two of a kind and neither would ever again feel like they were somehow lacking, whenever they looked at other people, taller and stronger than them. Together, they'd feel perfect and nothing else mattered.
Cloud imagined what his soulmate might be like so many times that the mental images blurred together. Tall, strong, thin, small, thick, it didn't matter – he was sure whatever his soulmate would be like, they'd be perfect for him. Like everyone's soulmate was perfect for them. That was just how it happened – sometimes you didn't even know what you needed until it was there, in your soulmate, and then… then it would be okay.
He couldn't wait for it to happen to him and the day when his string materialised on his little finger, a little shining thread of almost tangible potential, was the best of his short life. Cloud was eight, then – a little young for the string, which usually appeared when a person was about ten, eleven. But that was okay, that was brilliant, it would just mean that it would happen so much faster for him!
The string was about ten centimetres long, trailing into nothingness just a little past his fingertip when he pointed it out – but that didn't matter. At the end of his string there was his soulmate, with a matching string pointing to his direction – probably looking straight at the direction where he was looking back.
"Well, then. Let's go out and see!" his mother said at the sight of the string, and together they'd hurriedly pulled their coats on and headed out, following the direction Cloud's string was trailing in. It led them through the town and to the outskirts where it remained pointing eastward, ignoring each and every person in Nibelheim.
"Oh. Well," his mother said, crouching down beside him. "That just means they live in some other town."
Cloud said nothing. He knew what it meant when a string led to out of town. It meant that instead of meeting his soulmate that very day like he wanted to, it might take years. No one – except maybe Mayor Lockhart and his family – had the money to travel. Some people in Nibelheim had the same thing happen to them, and then they'd had to save money for years to be able to go and find their perfect partner.
And the Strife family certainly didn't have the sort of money needed.
"Don't worry, sweet heart," his mother said. "You'll meet them eventually. It'll just… take a little longer. And who knows – maybe the person will travel to you, like your father came for me!"
"Or maybe they can't, like I can't," Cloud said, sullen, and poked at his string with one finger tip. Maybe his soulmate would feel it and know that he couldn't come, that he was sorry, that maybe… but no, of course his finger just went through the string, and it didn't as much as stutter.
At least the string was still bright, vivid red. That meant his soulmate was still alive, and probably looking for him. If it went grey, like his mother's, then…
"One day, you'll meet them," his mother said, holding her hand with its grey, limp string over his. "One day."
That became the new, somewhat bittersweet nexus of Cloud's life. One day, he thought, while he became one of those poor people in Nibelheim who every day ventured to the town's edge, to desolately stare at the distance. One day he'd cross over the distance, he thought. So as long as his string remained bright red, there was hope. One day.
He started planning for that one day. He'd get a job as quick as he could – delivering newspapers probably, which was usually the first job a boy could get in Nibelheim. But he'd take others too, as quick as he could. Running errands, mowing lawns, cleaning gutters, whatever, he'd take any job he could get, and he'd save money until he could get out of Nibelheim. He'd head east, he'd follow the string.
And if his soulmate wasn't on the Western Continent at all, then he'd head over the sea and to the East Continent. And when he'd find his soulmate, he'd… stay in the east. He'd join ShinRa, probably, because ShinRa was everywhere and everyone said the pay was good. At first he imagined himself in the Army – which according to the old folk took everyone who was stupid enough to join, but eventually his plans shifted into the realm of day dreams.
He would meet his soulmate and it would be perfect. Then he'd go to Midgar – with his soulmate of course – and he'd join SOLDIER and become a hero. Just the sort of person his soulmate would deserve. Maybe his soulmate would come too, if they were a guy – and if not, then his soulmate would get her dream job, whatever it would be. And if that didn't work out for her, then Cloud would support her by being the best SOLDIER around. And it would be, of course, perfect.