Written 10 September 2007
Title taken from a song by Dead Can Dance. Unbetaed.
It was late enough in the evening that the few unlucky troopers on guard duty were beginning to doze off over their rifles. Cloud was well-experienced in keeping himself in the shadows, unseen, forced to learn at the fists of children that didn’t understand the strange little boy with yellow hair and wide eyes. It was a simple thing to slide past the troopers at the door and into the SOLDIER garage.
This wasn’t the first time he had done this. Sometimes General Sephiroth kept Zack at the office late, usually when ShinRa incompetence stretched towards the SOLDIERs under his command, and with no one else to care where he went or what he did Cloud was free on those nights to do as he wished. Tonight was different than all the rest—but don’t think about why, don’t think it, that will make it more real.
The SOLDIER garage was an enormous room that had been a hangar in a previous life, but now its concrete floor was marked out with white lines and numbers to keep the mechanical chaos to some minimum of order. Bikes and cars were parked side-by-side in long rows, and the security system was designed in such a way that the trooper-guards at the door were little more than a novelty.
But Cloud had known Zack for a very time, and although two years didn’t seem particularly lengthy to most people, Cloud would have to point out that having a friendship for longer than two minutes that didn’t end with his face in the mud was rather new. New and shiny and scary, sometimes, because it was unnatural to allow someone such ease in getting under his skin where the smallest betrayal would feel like a spear in the side. But because Cloud had known Zack for at least a fair length of time, he knew exactly where to look, which passcodes to enter into the security system so that the computer thought he was Zack, so that when he pushed the key into the motorcycle’s engine and turned it over there were no alarms.
(No one in ShinRa had ever considered the possibility of a trooper impersonating a SOLDIER to beat the system. It was impossible and inconceivable, because those who were too weak for glory knew their place.)
The bike was almost too heavy for Cloud’s small body, but his wiry limbs had fought the Nibel mountains for fourteen years and now managed to keep the heavy machine upright. It purred between his thighs and for a moment he felt the machine’s power as his own, felt that freedom just before movement when everything in front of him was still a possibility and he could go anywhere. Outrun everything, even bitterness and pieces of a broken dream.
Then Cloud was guiding the bike out of the garage, bewildering the guards with the sudden roar of an expensive engine. Cloud was well-experienced with this too, knew how the bike responded to his fingers, knew how to fill the tank to just the right level afterwards that Zack never noticed a few extra miles on the gauge. (This wasn’t the first time he had done this, but tonight was different than all the rest.)
Out of the compound, out of Midgar—and it was just long lonely roads stretching out in front of him towards the horizon, or at least to the sea. Cloud’s helmet covered only the top part of his face and head, leaving his lips and part of his cheeks bared to the wind. There was something exhilarating in being on his own, with no one to impress or to remind him what a worthless bastard he was or any responsibility to anyone but himself. He couldn’t feel the harsh, cold wind drying the wet trails on either side of his face or the stiffness seeping into his limbs; he couldn’t feel the weight that had been pressing down on his shoulders until he thought his spine would break, the same weight that had been curling its claws around his heart and don’t think about it, don’t think, just don’t.
It was a trick he had taught himself, when the fists wouldn’t stop and his mother couldn’t (wouldn’t) bring herself to look at him because he reminded her of Things Before. Stop thinking, just focus on the wind in the your hair and the ground under your feet, holding you up, just watch the world pass you by but not be part of it. Everyone makes their own reality and if you don’t, if you just watch then it can’t hurt, can’t leave bruises.
If you move fast enough, no one can catch you. Fast enough and even time slows down to a muddy pathetic crawl.
Cloud rode and rode, until his legs ached and eventually went numb and he had to stop or they might fall off. The sound of the engine had supported the wind, blinding his senses, but now it was silent save for the crickets in the grass. He couldn’t see any monsters, so Cloud let himself fall on the side of the road and stared up at the stars. There were so many, much more than in the sky over Midgar and more brilliant besides, like the ones over Nibelheim.
So, so many, and if Cloud stilled his breathing long enough and relaxed every muscle in his body, he could swear he felt the Planet turning slowly with him. He felt tiny, and in comparison this made the weight dragging his shoulders and twisting his heart feel a little smaller too, a little more bearable. When you realized that you didn’t mean very much in the grand scheme of things, the worries that can break your soul or your dream didn’t seem so Planet-shattering either.
(But what meaning did that have when humans had the power to slay stars?)
At least for now, though, there were no walls or regulations or what-ifs, and it was so easy to forget that when he was just trying to find a reality with a Cloud-shaped hole he could fill.
There was someone waiting for him when he returned. This made Cloud conflicted, torn between happiness that someone cared and guilt for angering said person. There may have been resentment, too, because what fucking right did this person have to think they had some kind of hold over him, what right to bring him back down from the stars and the numbing wind.
Zack was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, waiting. The guards were nowhere to be seen. Cloud parked the bike in its original place, outwardly calm even though on the inside were claws were crushing his ribcage, and he silently followed Zack back to the SOLDIER First barracks.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve done this,” were the first words out of Zack’s mouth once the door was closed and locked.
“No,” said Cloud. Tonight was different than all the rest, but he didn’t say that part aloud.
Cloud stood in the middle of the room and watched as Zack sat wearily on the edge of his own bed. He fully expected to bear the storm of Zack’s anger at having stolen the man’s vehicle, to feel an echo of those childhood fists in the powerful limbs of the SOLDIER. Useless, worthless, and this was why it was unnatural to let people under your skin. A spear in your side.
But Zack just asked, “Why?”
Cloud looked away from Zack, Zack with eyes like Nibelheim stars. Where was the infamously tempestuous anger, strong enough to stand against the General himself…what was this patience, this partially understanding but mostly just tired expression?
“Because…” Cloud started, absently wetting wind-chapped lips, and there were a million ways to finish that sentence like the million possibilities of an open road. But there wasn’t any freedom in these possibilities; they just caught in his throat and choked off his words.
“I saw the results of the exam today.”
His ribcage was crushed a little further and his spine cracked a bit more under the weight. But Zack didn’t say anything else, just watched with grey star eyes that made Cloud feel so small. Then he stood, and wrapped his arms around Cloud’s shoulders, pulling him close as though he were trying to take some of that weight.
“Next time,” he said, slightly muffled by Cloud’s hair, “take me with you.”