It had all started when he was so young, when everything ached and the world seemed to tear at his edges.
Being the town’s pariah had always been difficult. Cloud couldn’t recall how many times he had cried in his mother’s arms, hidden in corners, in the deep silence of night. He didn’t know how many times he came home bruised, how many lies he told his mother about their origins. The children were ruthless in a way only children could be. After Tifa’s fall on Mt. Nibel, the adults compounded the situation. No one stepped in on his behalf anymore. Parents watched with folded arms as their children flung words and punches, only ever calling their children back when the damage was bordering on truly dangerous.
But he managed. He wasn’t alone, after all—his mother was always there, tirelessly supporting him. She condemned the children for their cruelty, shamed the parents for their indifference. Though Cloud always, always did his best not to worry her, her defense of him was his lifeline.
It was only natural for things to fall apart when she died.
It had come sudden as any Nibel storm. His mother had been outside for just too long, had gotten just wet enough in the snow to fall sick. They used the potions they could barely afford, and while they took away the pain, they didn’t cure a thing. Eventually they ran out of money for the potions. Cloud could do nothing but sit by, holding his mother’s hand as she withered away to nothing.
When she died, he had no idea what to do. There was no one to turn to for help. He was only ten, how would he know what the next step was? He didn’t so much as close her eyes before fleeing, his own prickling with tears. It was the dead of winter, the steady snow having turned to an icestorm in the middle of the night. He hadn’t thought to grab more than a coat, his hands slowly freezing, his cheeks burning, whipped raw from the wind and constant flecks of ice pelting his face. Looking back, Cloud wasn’t sure if he didn’t have his own death wish that night. It was beyond foolish to climb Mt. Nibel at night, not to mention in the middle of a storm. The elements, from the cold to the ice to the wildlife, were stacked high against him. But he climbed the mountain anyway—what he was aiming for, he couldn’t say. All he knew was that he had decided his next step was getting as far away from town, as far up into the mountains as he could, and that he followed that decision with every scrap of determination and stubbornness he possessed.
Years later, Cloud would call that night fate. He had no idea of how to navigate the mountains and foothills beyond his village. He simply walked and walked, turning blindly down paths, meandering without a clue as to where he was headed. When the reactor came into view, finally unveiled from the white blankness of the storm, Cloud didn’t think. The initial reason he would have given as to why he entered would be that he was simply cold and tired; he’d been hiking for hours at that point, his fingers and nose verging on frostbite. Later, he would wax poetic, insisting that he felt a pull to the reactor, that, in spite of his ignorance at the time, it had been his goal all along, that this had been his destiny from the beginning.
He had stumbled into the reactor, only barely able to get the door open in the first place, and felt immediate relief to be out of the storm. He trembled, rubbing his hands together, breathing on them to find any snatch of heat he could. He had headed toward the most inner part of the reactor in blind hope of getting as far from the drafty door as possible. Years later, that drafty door was forgotten, that pull getting all the credit again, his claim again that of fate.
The claim wasn’t all grandeur rewriting truth. There had been a humming, a whispering in the back of his mind as he grew closer and closer to the reactor, though he didn’t notice it over his emotional numbness. It wasn’t until he was halfway up the stairs that he heard the first, clear call.
“My son,” the voice whispered, finally gaining enough strength to speak.
“Mama?” Cloud had answered, freezing in place.
“My son,” the voice repeated, growing warmer, fonder.
“Mama,” Cloud breathed again before taking off again in a hurry, stumbling with his frozen feet but doing his best to run up the stairs.
“Come to me,” the voice called.
“I’m trying, Mama,” Cloud grunted, struggling with the door to the inner chamber of the reactor.
When he finally pried the door open, he rushed into the room. The vapors from the mako stung at his eyes, the sharp smell filling his nostrils. It was an almost medicinal smell, heavy in the air, enough to be nauseating, but some part of Cloud found comfort in it. It felt familiar, like one of his mother’s lullabies, the words long forgotten but the feeling it imparted lingering in his memory.
“Mama?” Cloud called, looking around the room. There was no way to go but up, so the boy mounted the stairs, climbing the steel dais, looking at the strange figure in the glass tube.
“Son,” the voice called, stronger than ever. Cloud reached out one small hand, pressing it up against the glass.
“You don’t look like Mama,” Cloud said, half-accusation, half-confusion.
“I’m not the mother you know, but you are more my son than you ever were hers,” the voice whispered, possessive, curling around the edges of his mind like a snake.
“Mother,” Cloud said, correcting himself. The figure didn’t move, but he could feel its smile.
“That’s right,” she said.
Cloud couldn’t describe the feeling, had no frame of reference for what settled in his bones. It was the purest homecoming, it was welcoming, accepting, loving, on a scale he had never felt before.
It was reunion.
Weeks passed before anyone realized something was amiss. The townsfolk knew that Ms. Strife had grown ill. They knew the way Cloud was devoted to his mother the way he was with nothing else. But as things stretched into the third week, even the neighbors couldn’t ignore things any longer. They had been lenient, but Cloud was still young, and education was mandatory even in such a small town as Nibelheim. They understood that his mother was sick, but Cloud’s truancy had gone on long enough; he would have to attend class or face consequences.
The teacher, who had come herself to deliver the warning, knocked what had seemed a dozen times before trying the doorknob.
“Ms. Strife?” she had called. “Cloud?”
She withdrew as soon as the smell hit her. Even in the chill of Nibelheim, three weeks was long enough for even the best preserved corpse to begin decomposing.
The teacher had run from the home and straight to the mayor, who hadn’t quite believed the woman’s claims. It was more likely that they had forgotten to take the trash out in their concern over Ms. Strife, though he intended to scold Cloud for not taking the garbage out—that couldn’t be good for his mother’s health.
Even the mayor had withdrawn in disgust at finding the truth of the situation.
The local gravekeeper had been summoned to deal with Ms. Strife’s body. The mayor built and set out a search party for the young blond; though the townspeople cared little for Cloud, in the face of his possible death, most felt a stab of guilt over the way they had allowed him to be treated over the years. No one thought to check the reactor, so certain that a child couldn’t have gone so far in the cold by himself. It was less than a week before the search party was called off, Cloud written off as a lost cause.
The Nibelheim reactor had been built over a decade ago and had only required maintenance once, years ago. The villagers never entered the reactor, and the machine was self-monitoring, sending alerts directly to Shinra in Midgar when parts failed. Similarly, no one regularly travelled the mountain passes. Cloud adjusted quickly to life in the reactor. His mother had taught him when he was very young what plants, berries, and mushrooms were edible. He was familiar with basic traps for rabbits and squirrels. He knew how to build a fire. The necessary acts for surviving were tiresome, but not particularly difficult.
Cloud slept in the innermost chamber of the reactor at Jenova’s feet. The two spoke frequently, Cloud answering her words aloud, or simply allowing them to wash over him, to pull him deeper and deeper into her depths. It only took weeks for him to forget the mother he had lost. All he remembered was a village full of hateful people who had mistreated him for years—if he hadn’t hated them while among them, he certainly did now. He recalled no human treating him with kindness.
He knew there were others that looked like him, but they were different. The children had pointed it out often enough, had mocked him frequently for his strange cat-slit eyes, so green they seemed to glow. It was the one of the only physical differences between them, but he clung to it as proof that he was different, that he was better. That the uncanny speed he sometimes displayed didn’t make him half wildlife-monster, as the children had claimed, but superior. That his clumsy habit of crushing things in hands that didn’t know their own strength did separate him from humans as the children had always claimed, but not in the way they had thought. His shame over his difference had always been enough to prevent him from turning that agility, that strength against them, had made him a doormat, an accomplice in his own mistreatment as he failed to stand up for himself.
As his mother spoke to him, he relearned the facts of his life. He stood proud of his abilities, defiant of the humans who had given him nothing but scorn. Having forgotten his mother, his hate grew unbridled. His disdain for humanity, his wish for violence against them built steadily as time passed. It was only Mother’s gentle insistence of, “Not yet,” that stilled his hand. He turned that anger to the wildlife, to the Nibel wolves at first, eventually to the dragons themselves. He wielded nothing but a pipe he had torn from where it had been dangling, almost entirely loose, from the reactor. But his speed, his strength was enough of an edge to make him truly deadly.
Cloud accepted Jenova as his mother without question. It simply didn’t cross his mind to wonder how the voice came to be in his head in the first place, and the only woman who could have offered him answers was dead. Ms. Strife hadn’t been prepared quite for this, but she would have understood the problem the second it surfaced, had she been there.
She had known there were risks when she volunteered for the program, but she had been desperate at the time, with no job, no prospects for a new one, no money for rent or food. When a friend she had within Shinra’s science department offered her a solution, she didn’t see much of a choice but to take it, or forfeit her dream of living in Midgar, finally independent from the backwater wasteland that was Nibelheim. It was supposed to be safe, and they were offering a monthly stipend that was far, far higher than she had ever earned in her minimum wage jobs. She had taken the opportunity as soon as it had been offered.
Ms. Strife had no intention of having children until she was far further along in life, but this was supposed to be clean cut. Artificial insemination, constant medical care, her every need paid for until she gave birth, when they would take the child off her hands. All she had to do was live within her means, save the excess money, and she would come out the other end with enough money to support herself until she found a new job. Simple.
She had accepted knowing the procedure was experimental. They were splicing cells, from what they wouldn’t explain, into the embryo she carried. It was the second branch of the SOLDIER experiments. One focused on developing superhuman soldiers from living recruits, the one she was a part of developing even more superior soldiers from children. She told herself that not only was she supporting herself, she was helping keep the world as she knew it safe.
It had gone well at first, but as time passed, things became complicated. She began to grow fond of the child she carried, began to care for it in a way she shouldn’t. She had been elated to find out it was a boy, had named it Cloud in secret after the sky she lost when she moved beneath the plate. The situation wore on her more and more as things progressed, but it was an overheard conversation that pushed her over the edge.
The scientist who had drawn her blood at a check-up had left the door open when he left the room. The scientists she overheard spoke with a lot of technical terms, making it a difficult conversation to follow. But when the phrase “spliced alien DNA” had been tossed out shortly followed by “mako infusions,” she had all but frozen. She told herself it must be another project, until her name was mentioned alongside the terms that made her stomach sink further and further every time they were used: alien, alien, alien, mako, mako, mako.
She had finished the appointment, told the scientist that she was pale from the bloodwork, she should have eaten more before coming, it was her fault, wouldn’t happen again.
She was damn sure it wouldn’t happen again. She left immediately, gathered what she could of her belongings and all the gil she had socked away, before immediately making a run for it.
She didn’t expect it to go as well as it did. She thought surely, someone would be following her. It wasn’t until she was in Junon, boarding a boat that would take her across the sea, that she realized and thanked her lucky stars that she had left her PHS behind. Shinra didn’t realize until it was too late just why the GPS in her phone hadn’t moved.
Returning to Nibelheim was a risk with the reactor and mansion in town, but she didn’t know where else to turn. She was mocked thoroughly for returning from the big city with her tail between her legs, much less with a bastard child in her belly, but she could withstand the scorn. At least her conscience was clear.
It wasn’t until her son was born, until she saw those strange, strange eyes, that she realized she hadn’t left quickly enough.