It always burned. There was never a time anymore when it didn’t burn, just the crackling of flames to make him want to cover his ears. The smell of materia induced flame and smoke nearly choked him, and he would have been blinded had he not had his visor pulled down from his recruit helmet.
The heat made his skin itchy because he would sweat, the thick material of his uniform clinging to his –finally!- muscular frame. The heat only added to the discomfort of the forever burning town that would haunt his dreams, his thoughts, and his memories. It made his hair stand up on end at the back of his neck, but his blonde bangs cling to his forehead uncomfortably, a distraction.
But, he could never actually be distracted as he stood silent in the middle of the place of his birth. The flames were constant, the heat unwavering, the smell overwhelming, but it would never fully burn down before him, just a constant feel that the death and flames were closing in on him.
Not even the laughter of a madman could disturb this moment, his final sin. He was trapped, inescapable feelings of failure.
He had given up running to help, always stopped, held captive to what he had missed, what he had deserved to witness. But it was worse this time, worse because *they* were outside of his mind sleeping peacefully unaware of hauntings that took him for a ride every time he allowed himself sleep.
Turning his head, he spied his burning home nearby, the infrastructure still holding for this moment. Boards of the roof had collapsed down and blocked the door and one of the windows was a collection of shattered glass. From that broken window soft sobbing cries could be heard, and he couldn’t stop himself as his body darted towards it, wanting to reach out and tear away the glass to allow escape.
But he stopped as a board from the roof slammed down in front of him, halting him from moving closer. He didn’t block his face from the flame or heat, and he stood silently gazing passed charred board and flame into the interior of his once home. He could see inside.
And there sat a woman on the floor. She was weeping into her hands, her lower half buried and pinned to the ground from falling debris. Blackness covered her simple clothing and skin, cuts and blisters from the heat causing her warm visage to seem like something of one’s nightmare. Her blonde hair was a mess, hanging about her face, having fallen from the controlled bun she normally kept it in, now spikes characteristic of his own hair showing through.
Her smaller body shuddered as her sobs and cries grew from the pain of her confinement, and she looked terribly alone pinned near the kitchen table. Her blackened and bleeding hands – hands that had once comforted him to sleep – covered her face as she cried and held in screams. She had always been such a strong woman.
He stood helpless on the other side of their burning home, the one of his birth. He found strength as he always did and shoved the burning material from his way, his gloves keeping out some of harsh heat as he pushed closer.
“Momma!” He found his voice as he stood by the window of broken glass, debating leaving to get a stick or something to allow him safe passage inside. “Mom, it’s me!”
She shivered and finally raised her head to look at him, tear-streaks causing the blackness of the smoke and charred pieces that smeared her once soft features. Her blue eyes drifted to his face at the window, beads of unshed tears standing out against her blonde lashes, and she stared at him in a manner that made him believe that he wasn’t even wearing the helmet that he could feel on his head.
“You never came,” she said, her voice dead with despair and acceptance of her fate. He had forgotten her, left her behind without even trying to rescue her. “My only son…”
Cloud moved, his hands settling on the broken glass of the window and ignoring as the shards cut into his flesh. He pulled himself in what seemed to be a shrinking hole, scrambling without the grace he carried later in his years, like a recruit that knew nothing. He fell into the building with a thump, hitting the floor even as he rolled to his knees and scrambled over to her side.
She watched him silently, tears still streaming down her cheeks. She said nothing even has he began to pull at the materials that had buried her and held her from escaping this place. Instead, she lifted cut hands and grabbed onto either side of his head, pulling the helmet from his head and letting it drop to the floor with a clatter of sound that even overrode the sound of the roaring flames.
He paused to lift his eyes and stare back at her, ignoring the sweat and nausea that was building. They stared at each other even as more debris of the collapsing roof finally blocked the window he had come in from, trapping him inside with her. He ripped his eyes away to look around their burning home, for an escape that would take them out of here.
“Momma, I’m going to lift this and then you…”
“Leave it, Cloud,” her voice cut him off, and he could see that she had already given up. He had already left her behind in exchange for rushing up the Nibel mountain path to save Tifa, to stop Sephiroth, to live like Zack. He was here now, but really, he was already gone.
“Momma...” he tried and tears built up in his eyes that he blinked back. He had forgotten his family, left her behind to be a hero. Maybe… maybe, he could have saved her if he had run faster from the mansion and gone immediately to his home. “Momma… I’ll stay.”
“But you’re already gone, my son,” she said quietly, though her lifted burned arms up and wrapped them around his neck, pulling him in. Her sweat, the liquid from her blisters, and the black char material was smeared on his face as she pulled him in.
Cloud swallowed back tears and tried again to move the material that held her captive, but it was no use. It always ended the same. “Momma…Mom please…”
She stroked his hair as he pressed himself up against her like a lost child, his own arms starting to blister even as he wrapped them around her torso and held her back. “I wish I could have made you happy, Cloud.”
Her words hurt him, and he tightened his grip on her more, begging her silently not to continue with the speech he knew was coming. He had heard it to the point where he had memorized it even if he never wanted to remember. The heat was nearly unbearable, but he didn’t make a move to leave, taking his punishment as he should for the sin he had committed. He didn’t deserve a family, not after what he had done to the woman who had birthed him, cared for him, raised him, and finally let him go.
“I wish I could have seen you in your uniform. I wish I could have held you in my arms one last time. I wish I could have seen the man that you had become from the little awkward boy I had raised so many years ago. You look like your father,” she paused because Cloud winced and buried his face deeper into her neck. She stroked his wild blonde hair that was starting to stick to his scalp. “He was a good man, Cloud, even if you never met him… a good man. I know you resent him for leaving you when you were still so small, barely old enough to hold yourself upright… such a cute baby.”
“Momma…” he tried, intending on stopping her this time. He always tried to stop this speech, to save himself the guilt and pain it brought to his mind. His father had abandoned him and his mother in Nibelheim, and he did resent the man he never knew. “Mom, please… we can get out of here…”
She ignored his plea and began to rock him instead. “I wish I could have given you that sibling you had wanted. You resent me because of it, but it’s alright, Cloud. I loved you the same, my only son. Even if you simply abandoned me to my death…” she paused again at his second wince. “Someday, Cloud… someday, you will have a wife and a family of your own. You’ll have children, and you will grow old and… die. You will know then why I could never give you that sibling you begged me day and night for…”
The heat was making his skin turn red and then black, making his armour hot and his clothing stick to his skin. His bare arms ached as they blistered, but still, he did not leave her side. And he cried against her, wanting to right the some many wrongs of his childhood, wanting to know what she meant about knowing, but undeserving to actually know because of what he had done.
And then there was a scream, and he was torn from her comforting arms, ripped free and tossed back to the streets of Nibelheim. He was separated from her again because his eyes were drawn to the running back of Tifa as she moved to the mountain path. He climbed to his feet and tried to go back for his mother, but an invisible force prevented him from making it close. “Momma!”
“You’ve chosen your path, my son… now you must follow it. Someday, you will know and when that time comes, you will forgive me and your father.” It was more a voice in his head, but he knew it.
He stood helpless as his home, the one of his childhood collapsed in on itself, and the crashing of burning wood and clay shingles couldn’t drown out the little scream of pain and then… silence. He wanted to move closer, to rescue her… but he was already running away, following Tifa up the mountain path and leaving his mother behind.
In his own mind and memories of Nibelheim, he had gone long before this time. He had gone with Zack and hadn’t looked back. He had chosen his path, and he had abandoned his mother to die trapped in his own home. And it was all his fault.
Even as he chased after Tifa, he was looking back, trying to demand that his body turn him around and take him back the direction he wanted to be. But it was already all gone from his sight, and he was still running away from Nibelheim, from the life he once knew, from his mother. It was always the same, and he was not allowed to understand because of the sin he had committed and would never be forgiven for.
Cloud’s head jerked up from where he was leaning against the wall, eyes snapping open again and his back arching at an uncomfortable pain in his neck from letting his head slip down in an uncomfortable position. He groaned and lay his head back against the wall, realizing that he must have drifted off to sleep when he least expected it. His back now ached and his shoulders were stiff.
He lifted a hand and ran it through his blonde hair, calming in breathing down again as he once again – for the thousandth time – contemplated that dream. It was recurring, coming to him on and off when he slept too deeply. She was always there, and he always abandoned her, as he had in the reality of the times. She seemed to think that he would someday understand some hidden meaning, but each time he had the dream, the worse he became because he didn’t want to know.
His chest ached and his jaw worked a little in the black silence of his room, not yet caring about the possibility that he had been seen. He took care of orphans who had lost their parents as an attempt to grasp the meaning that she kept insisting he would one day know, but he felt nothing for the deeds that he did. The children were not his own blood, but they needed him nonetheless. And he was worse than those orphans for their parents had been taken from them, but he… he was unforgivable as he had simply walked away at the age of sixteen.
Aeris’ death, while tragic, had more or less been out of his hands because he had not killed her himself. She had forgiven him, and he had forgiven himself half a year ago. And Zack, the SOLDIER he tried to be, he had forgiven himself for that as well because he knew Zack had forgiven him for forgetting. Zack had died to give him life and to become the person he was now, a hero, a savour of orphans, a delivery man.
He could find no solace from the death of his own mother. He had had a family, but he had made no effort to save it. He wondered offhandedly if he could ever embrace a real family again after the crime he had committed to his mother. Tifa was as close as it seemed to get for him, but even then… there was an invisible wall he found separating him from her.
She understood that day in Nibelheim, and she too had lost family and been as ‘orphaned’ as he had. But even then, there were differences with Tifa’s family. She had had both a mother and a father in her life for a period of time, but he had never known his father and his mother hardly ever spoke of the man. As far as he knew, Tifa had never wanted or pleaded for a sibling, but his young days were spent following his mother around asking why it wouldn’t happen and that he really wanted one.
He even looked in on the brotherhood of his new babies, and there too was something that he could never have, couldn’t allow himself to have because of what he had done. He was afraid to understand what it was his mother insisted he would know, and he shied away from affection to keep it from ever coming to pass. No, he couldn’t allow himself to understand until his mother had forgiven him.
Sighing heavily, the presence of the dream once again reaffirmed the fact that he was getting too close, to emotionally involved. Kadaj particularly desired his attention, but he doubted he could ever respond in such a way, not until he found forgiveness. What was worse was that Sephiroth needed to be evaded and Kadaj pushed aside; it was the only thing he ran from. Until then, no one could know how much it hurt to know he had left his mother behind to become a hero that now felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And until he was forgiven his final sin, he would remember. He would remember in memory, in dreams, in the colour of his hair and eyes, in the orphans he raised. He would remember the family he left behind in that burning home of his childhood, and he would know what he really lost.