The key to survival
is the soul.
“Ma!” Cloud hollered, ducking into their small home from the snowy outdoors. He was ten now. Ten-years-old and still the shortest to be ten in all of Nibelheim. But his eyes glowed faintly whenever the world got just a bit too dark.
His mother wore an apron over her dress, cooking wolf stew in their cramped kitchen with her pale hair pulled up and out of her face, though her spiky bangs occasionally got in the way, making her huff in annoyance.
“What is it, Cloud? Don’t yell,” she said, softly serious.
“I’ve got the money for dinner this week, unless you want more wolf?”
Agatha Strife closed her eyes for a moment and wondered, not for the first time, how her ten-year-old could successfully hunt monsters when life demanded it. Cloud, she knew, rarely made much sense.
“The money," she said. "I’m so sick of wolf.”
“Can’t complain too much, in this cold,” Cloud said, kicking off his boots by the front door and closing it behind him. “But I’m sick of it, too.”
“You’re eleven tomorrow,” said his mother, absently stirring the bubbling stew.
Cloud grunted and removed his winter-coat, placing it neatly on the rack by the door. He approached his mother and pushed up the sleeves of his sweater to the elbows. He bared his forearms for her inspection.
She gave them a cursory glance.
“Blank as ever,” Cloud said, and pulled his sleeves back down. He walked away, towards the living room. “I know it worries you, but I don’t mind not having the marks. I’m not a psychopath or anything. I just don't have a soulmate. Big deal.”
Agatha stared the faded red lines scrawled across her own right arm: Dagrun. Cloud’s father and her own soulmate. A man long lost to unfortunate circumstances.
“They don’t normally show up past ten,” she said, still staring at her own arm.
“I don’t need a soulmate, Ma.”
She narrowed her eyes at the back of Cloud’s head.
“If you say so.”
“How long have you had it?” Genesis asked, staring at the name on Sephiroth’s bare arm.
“I was born with it.”
Angeal, holding Genesis’s hand, commented, “It’s an odd name.”
Sephiroth shrugged. “To Hojo, it means I am a failure. Having a second half means I am not whole on my own."
A pregnant pause.
“Probably a good thing then. Can’t imagine how things would’ve turned out if Hojo had kept you,” said Genesis.
Sephiroth, who had been discarded into Hollander’s care at the tender age of seven, couldn’t help but agree.
Angeal was thinking. “I’ve never heard of anyone getting one before birth. Not before the age of five.”
Sephiroth, who was now fifteen, pulled his shirt-sleeve back down.
“I’m going to become the highest ranking officer in Shinra. I’ll prove Hojo wrong for calling me a failure, and then I’m going to find my soulmate and flaunt him in that mad scientist’s ugly face.”
Both Genesis and Angel were grinning, but it was Genesis who prodded, “Him? I think that name could both ways.”
“No,” Sephiroth disagreed and retrieved his newly acquired sword from nearby.
Genesis eyed it and snorted.
“There’s no way you can use that thing in battle. It’s longer than you are tall. Impossible.”
Sephiroth gave Masamune a few awkward swings and smiled, shark-like, at his friends.
“I’ll prove you wrong, too.”
Cloud was fourteen and hauling another wolf carcass down a mountain trail. There was a dead dragon further up, too, but he knew better than to push his luck. He wasn’t a village favorite by any means. He didn’t need to arouse more suspicion. He was already getting tired of waiting for Gaia’s inevitable sign—a sign for him to act. The strength was already within him. He could feel it in his limbs and belly. He knew his eyes had a subtle glow that quickened with his moods. He didn’t have a sword, but he’d been training alone in the woods for years. There was an entire mountainside, now leveled, that could attest to his strength.
His left arm itched; he scratched at it absently.
He reached the village, traded the butcher a wolf carcass for a few gil, went to the store, picked up a gallon of milk to take home, and scratched his arm, again and again. It itched so fiercely that by the time he got home his arm welted up from all the scratching.
His mother was cooking supper, but when she saw him scratching, she put down the soup ladle and approached.
“Your arm, Cloud?”
“I don’t know what I must’ve stumbled into. Could be a rash, I guess,” he said, quite irritated by all the itching. When she gestured, he offered his bare arm, the left one. Agatha was smiling as she traced the welts rising on his skin.
“I’ve never heard of it happening so late,” she said with genuine warmth.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t scratch. I have a cream. It’ll be clear by morning.” Agatha strayed off to the bathroom, to the medicine cabinet, to retrieve the itching cream.
Cloud blinked several times, like an owl, and did so again when she returned and began to treat his arm.
“This is…a soulmark?”
His mother smiled sweetly.
“Someone left-handed, too. How unusual you are, my love.”
Cloud didn’t sleep that night. Instead he watched his own skin, as the swelling sunk and the letters rose, in swooping black, one-by-one, until a name was spelled out across his left arm, and didn’t that make sense? The left arm. Of course.
When the sun rose, Cloud contemplated throwing himself into the reactor, for surely this had to be some kind of nightmare.
Genesis and Angeal, shameless as ever, were curled up together on the living room floor, naked as babes and clearly having just enjoyed one another.
Sephiroth, used to their antics, but not quite these antics, merely stepped around them. It wasn’t quite so hard to hide his shock at seeing them post-coital, but this had been a first for them, hadn’t it?
“Gen is still a bit underage,” he told them, somewhat disapprovingly. They were soulmates though, so did it really matter? Genesis was a month shy of 18. Angeal was 19 now. Sephiroth was 18 himself and a Commander for Shinra, but still without a soulmate of his own. He tried to pretend it didn’t bother him to see his friends so happy.
“You could join us, you know,” Angeal was the one to offer, and Sephiroth, truly shocked, froze in his tracks.
“We’ve talked about it,” Genesis said. “It’s fine.”
Sephiroth was equally touched and offended.
“I don’t need your pity,” he said, perhaps too quickly, “but thank you for offering.”
Genesis and Angeal accepted this and returned their attentions to each other. Sephiroth retreated to his room, shut the door, and tried not to regret it.
Agatha was no longer pleased.
“That can’t be right,” she said, reading the name on her son’s arm. Cloud’s expression was bitter.
“I should’ve known,” Cloud said, cryptic as ever.
Agatha lost it. “Why? Why should you have known something like this? You make all of these odd comments and kill wolves in the woods. When that one’s name appears on your arm, you say that? Cloud, why?”
Cloud bowed her head. “It’s what I deserve.”
She slapped him, hard. Cloud rocked in place, more shocked than hurt.
“No. Not my son! You deserve better.”
Cloud, cheek stinging, eyes aglow, offered his mother a crooked grin. “Better than Sephiroth? He’s famous, wealthy, and in the military.”
“You deserve better than the death and destruction that Shinra brings.”
“But I have things to do. The Planet told me. I know how to stop a catastrophe. I have to do it…even if it means doing it this way.” He stared at his own arm and, to his mother’s shock, blushed brightly.
Agatha, suddenly disgusted with her own actions, backtracked.
“He is rather pretty,” she said, reaching out to run her fingertips over Cloud’s red cheek. “They say his voice is gorgeous, and he’s always strutting around in leather. I can’t get over that hair though. All gray. Like an old man.”
“He’s not that old, Ma,” Cloud protested halfheartedly and still red-faced. “And I…I’ve always liked it. His hair. The leather. His voice.”
She raised a brow at that last bit. “You always know more than you should.”
Cloud met her eyes and said, “I always wanted him. I've just never had the chance to...save him from Shinra and Hojo and Jenova...and himself.”
“How are you going to tell him?” his mother asked. “He’s not going to be easy to reach.”
Cloud glanced over at the phone. The landline.
“It’ll cost a fortune to make that call. Do you really think they’ll let you talk to him?”
Sephiroth was going through some paperwork on his computer when the two-way from his secretary buzzed to life.
“There’s a…well, a call for you on the line.”
“Who is it?” His mind was already compiling a list of possible candidates, but his expectations were quickly foiled.
“An assistant of Dr. Hojo, I’m afraid. From the Science Department.”
Sephiroth suppressed a shudder and picked up the phone, simultaneously cutting off the speaker to the front desk.
“Commander Sephiroth speaking.”
“Huh, it worked.”
Sephiroth frowned. The caller was obviously male. Young. A child? Why was a child calling him?
“If this is prank,” he growled.
“It’s not. I’m uh…well.”
Uncertainty. Embarrassment. Child.
“Speak or hang up. I have better things to do than argue with children.”
“I’m fourteen,” the boy growled into Sephiroth’s ear. “And I have information pertaining to you, asshole. I’m not actually from the Science Department.”
“Then why are you calling me? Who are you? Who do you work for?”
“I’m fourteen,” the young man repeated. “I work for no one. I hunt wolves in the mountains to feed my Mom, for Gaia’s sake!” After a breathy pause, he added, “And I’m from Nibelheim.”
Mountains. Cold. Reactor. Useless information.
“Why are you calling me?”
“It’s…arg! Hush, Ma! Stop rushing me! I’m trying, okay? I’ll tell him! Jeez!”
Sephiroth was glaring at the phone. In the background, he could hear a woman’s voice saying something indistinguishable through the static.
“I’m going to hang up,” Sephiroth threatened.
“No! Wait! Please?” The young man panicking now. “I just…oh hell. My name is Cloud.”
Sephiroth nearly dropped the phone. His sharply drawn breath must’ve been audible.
“Yeah…so, there,” said Cloud, sounding nervous. “Your name popped up on my arm yesterday.”
Sephiroth was shaking.
“I’ll...send a chopper?” Gaia, he sounded like an idiot, but his soulmate was real. He was real! And fourteen! Too young!
“Oh Gaia, no. I get motion sickness. Look, I’ll come to you, alright? To Midgar. I’ve been saving up for a bike anyway. Just um, make sure they let me in at the door?”
“What do you look like?” Sephiroth asked eagerly, then backtracked. “For the lobby attendants. I’ll need to know.”
“Blond spiky hair, blue eyes. Trust me. I’m hard to miss.”
There was a long, drawn out pause.
“Um, S-Sephiroth? Are you alright over there?”
“I’m in shock probably.”
Cloud, to his delight, laughed, and Sephiroth reveled in that sound.
“You sound amazing,” Sephiroth whispered, half to himself.
“Oh,” Cloud said. “Um, wow. Okay. I don’t really know what to do with that information right now, so…”
“Just get here,” Sephiroth demanded.
“As fast as I can,” Cloud promised.
6 days and 17 hours later, Sephiroth was holed up in his office, watching the clock with his two friends. He hadn’t told them about Cloud, but they knew something was up.
“You haven’t left the building in a solid week,” Genesis accused. “You’re usually so eager to get out of here. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“We’re worried, Sephiroth,” Angeal said.
Sephiroth opened his mouth to snap at them, but he was interrupted by his desk phone. He snatched it up a mere nanosecond into the first ring.
“Mr. Sephiroth? There’s a young man in the lobby to see you. Says he’s from Nibel-“
“I’m coming. Don’t let him leave!” Sephiroth practically snarled. He threw the phone down and shot around his desk to the office door. He was through it and down the hall before Genesis or Angeal could really register what had just happened. They both stared at the office door, where it now hung from the hinges in tatters.
“Did our dear friend just rip off his own door to get to the elevator?”
“Yes, Genesis. I’m frankly more surprised that he didn’t just jump out the window. What the hell do you think is going on?”
Genesis turned to leave the office. “I don’t know, but I’m sure it will be entertaining.