Even before he opened his eyes, Cloud knew that something was wrong.
Consciousness came to him slowly, like a desperate swim upwards through layers of dark water. When he reached the surface, he didn't recognise the feelings in his own body as he attempted to open his eyes. They felt like they'd been taped shut, and when he tried to twitch his fingers it felt like they were wrapped in cotton padding. He made some gasping noises that were loud to his own ears and finally forced his heavy lids apart. He was confused to find that everything was still dark when he did so.
Dark. Not like in his bedroom in the middle of the night when the moonlight shone through the curtains. Not like when he stayed too long in the mountains and the stars shone brighter than he'd ever seen them before. This was a blackness that was pure and absolute; completely undiluted by anything outside it. He felt his heart immediately begin to gallop in his chest as he moved his eyes back and forth in an attempt to figure out if there was something wrong with them.
He couldn't tell, and this sent him into an instant panic. He almost choked on the lump in his throat as he slowly scrambled to get himself up onto his elbows. That's when he took notice of the unfamiliar feeling of whatever he was lying on. It was soft and, as he moved his hand slowly over it, he could feel the rise and fall of quilted panels. It felt sort of like a mattress but he could tell it wasn't one, or at least a normal one. It was too firm and didn't shift with his movements as he pulled himself up into an almost-sitting position, with his upper body resting back on his arms.
The amount of effort the simple action seemed to take was unbelievable and left him with a layer of sweat all over his skin. He felt hot and sluggish. He had to gulp in air for several minutes just to get his breathing under control before he attempted to move again.
He slowly sat fully upright and moved his arms to rest on his knees. He could feel that he was wearing his cargo pants and sweater, but no shoes. His body felt strange, his skin sort of tingling as if it was recovering from a lidocaine injection, and his stomach felt extremely queasy and unsettled. The worst discomfort was in his neck though; the whole left side was aching. That side of his throat felt swollen and it twinged when he swallowed.
Grimacing, he looked around himself again, trying not to let anxiety overcome him as he stared into the nothingness and wracked his brain for what had happened or how he had woken up like this. But he couldn't remember… his mind felt like it was working too slowly. He couldn't remember what happened before he'd... fallen asleep? Passed out? Had he been in an accident? Had something happened to his eyes?
Anxiety did rear its ugly head then and without thinking he reached up and pressed his hands hard to his face. His vision exploded in fireworks of red and white as he pressed his fingertips right into his eyeballs. He let out a small choking sound of relief as he assumed this meant that he did still have his sight... he wouldn't see anything if he didn't, right?
Dropping his hands, he blinked until the sparks and patterns dissipated again, leaving him once more in the dark, both literally and metaphorically.
He slowly moved his legs so that he could get himself into a kneeling position. Then with his hands fisted at his sides, digging into the padding under him, he painstakingly began to rise to his feet. It was too soon. His head swam severely the minute he was fully upright, and he surged on the brink of passing out again as awareness slipped away.
He came back, seconds later, to find himself hunched forward with both hands reflexively pressed to a wall that he hadn't realized was in front of him. To his surprise it had the same soft, padded feeling as the ground did. He ran his hands all over it. The whole thing felt the same way.
Something clicked in his mind, but he tried to deny it straight away, the idea too chilling to comprehend. Unfortunately, when he carefully started exploring around him further, he knew that he was right. There was another wall to the left, the same as the one in front of him. And less than a foot on either side, there were two more.
He was in some sort of padded room, a cell, like in films about insane asylums. It felt tiny; so small that he could touch the opposite walls on either side by extending his arms out. It was no bigger than a store dressing room, and his breathing immediately became strained as claustrophobia worse than what he'd already been feeling overcame him. He searched desperately for a door or window or even a seam in the material, but there was nothing. He felt like a mako fly that had been captured by kids and put in a box with no air holes.
A memory flashed through his mind. Of a light at the top of a door, his own hands pounding on it from so far below.
He didn't like small spaces.
"H-hello?" His voice came out hoarse and pitched and barely louder than a whisper. His mouth tasted disgusting and his tongue had the same cotton feeling as his fingers. He cleared his throat and moved up against the wall, pressing his face close to it in hopes that his voice would carry through to the other side.
"Hello! Please, somebody? I don't know where I am... I can't get out!"
Unexpectedly, he felt his eyes begin to sting and choked back the tears that wanted to fall as he kept going, "please, my name is Cloud Strife. I'm locked in here. I don't know where I am. If there's someone out there, please let me out."
Silence answered him. He pressed his forehead into the padding and closed his eyes. He didn't understand. What was happening? How had he gotten here?
He could only... he could only remember being at school, the last day of school before summer. He'd said goodbye to Tifa... he couldn't remember anything else. He couldn't remember getting home.
"Hey!" He found himself calling again, reaching up to pound his fists into the soft wall at either side of his head. He pushed himself back and turned the other way, "is somebody there? My mom will be looking for me so if this is a joke, it has to end now. This isn't funny."
He gave a defeated cry and ran his fingers back through his hair.
"This isn't funny..."
He bent double, his hands practically tearing his hair back from his scalp as his body shook through several breaths mingled with sobs. His emotions felt raw and barely contained, and he was starting to understand that the way he was feeling was really, really not right. It was more than tiredness. Something had happened to him. If this was the other kids in his village, they'd really gone too far. He knew they hated him, thought he was a loser, but would they really do this?
With neither the energy nor the will to stay standing any more, he let himself drop to his knees again. His hands fell limply at either side of him as he stared ahead. He didn't know what to do.
He crawled forward and spent some more minutes trying to find a way out, but there was still nothing he could detect. In the end he wound up sitting in the corner furthest left, leaned back against the wall with his legs pulled up close to his chest. Feeling completely exhausted, he tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
All he could do was hope someone would find him. He didn't know how long he'd been in there and what happened before. It had to have happened sometime after he left school. That meant his mom would have been home not long after that and would have noticed he was missing.
Yes, his mom would find him. This was the only thought that could comfort Cloud as he sat there, waiting for whatever was to come and praying he wouldn't end his life locked in this box.
In his waiting he somehow fell asleep again; a distressed, nightmare-ridden bout of unconsciousness that came to an instant and alarming end when the padded cell was suddenly filled with light.
He gasped and pressed his hands over his face, startled and disorientated from just waking up. He then watched through his fingers as a section of the wall in front of him suddenly broke away, revealing the doorway he hadn't been able to find. He barely had time to take this in before the empty space was blocked by a body.
As his vision finally adjusted, he could only look up with dread as one of the most intimidating men he'd ever seen in his life stared down at him. The stranger was tall and fiercely muscular, with pale skin and long silver hair. The hair reached almost to the end of his back and the colour didn't look like something someone should naturally have. He was dressed strangely too, in a long leather coat, all black and with straps and buckles that criss-crossed his mostly bare chest.
Cloud felt his vision waiver as he slowly lowered his hands and sat himself straighter against the wall. He couldn't make himself move otherwise. Weakness and uncertainty kept him in place. He knew straight away that the stranger wasn't there to help him. The green eyes were set on him in a way that made his flesh rise in goose bumps. He felt sick.
They stayed like that for what felt like hours in the horrible little cell, one standing tall and calm by the only exit, the other hunched small in his shadow. Eventually though, the man shifted himself so his long, jagged hair brushed over his jawbone, and motioned at him.
"Who are you?" Cloud said just as fast. His voice was even more hoarse than before. He watched the man close his mouth and stare down at him, waited for an answer that he didn't get.
"Please... Can you tell me where I am?" He tried again, grinding his back teeth against each-other in an effort to keep his voice level, "my… my mom will be looking for me. She… I should be home by now," he added.
The reaction he got was immediate and violent. Instead of answering, the stranger stepped forward and lunged down in what seemed like one blurred movement, then viciously grabbed a handful of his hair before Cloud had the time to react. He didn't pause before he used the tight grip to roughly jerk him away from the wall and towards the still open doorway.
Cloud screeched in pain and lifted his hands to his head, trying to ease the searing tension at the same time as he tried to get his still sleeping legs to work under him. He bounced and tripped against the padded floor, unable to steady himself.
"Sst- stop! What are you d-oing? Let go," he gasped out, his heart pounding uncontrollably in his chest, making his breathing erratic and almost impossible. He tried to get the grip off his hair, but the man's fingers were entwined deeply into the mass of blond spikes. He'd left it grow long over the past few months and now it gave the man the handhold he needed to drag him out of the tiny padded cell and into an outer hall. It wasn't as bright out there as it was in the cell, but it was equally as unsettling and clinical, with ugly duck egg blue walls and a hard-tiled floor.
His socked feet slipped on those tiles as the man pulled him up higher and forced him to finally get to his feet. The grip in his hair eased so it was more at the back of his head than the top, but it was just as unrelenting as he was pushed forward, towards a white doorway he could see across from him.
His blood ran cold at the sight of it.
"Please... why are you doing this? What do you want?" He breathed out, sickness rising and rising in his chest, "p-please, I don't know who you are, but I shouldn't be here. I'm not..."
He looked around himself frantically. The wall to the right was plain and solid; a dead end, but on the left he saw another dark-wood doorway, larger than the white one, and he wondered if it was a way out of there.
He didn't have time to wonder. He didn't want to find out where the stranger was trying to bring him. If he wanted him there, it couldn't be for anything good. Without a second thought he roughly jerked himself to a stop on his heels, catching the man by surprise as he'd hoped, and used the momentary slack in his attacker's grip on his hair to try to get himself out from under his hold.
Unfortunately it was indeed only a momentary lapse on the other man's part, and Cloud hadn't even managed to get the fingers untangled from his hair before the tension returned and he was again shoved forward. To make things worse, a second arm came up and clasped around his neck. Iron and solid, it clamped down until it restricted almost eighty percent of his breathing. In seconds, his vision began to swim.
"Nngh, pl..." he coughed and struggled back against the restraining arms, but the man was built like a bahamut, much taller and twice as broad. It was like trying to fight solid steel, and despite his most desperate struggles, in the end Cloud was forced over to the other side.
They stopped just outside the door. For a moment the place was filled with the sound of his strained breathing. Everything else was quiet. His attacker's own breaths came calmly and mostly silent, as if he hadn't exerted any effort at all. Then the hold around his neck disappeared and he gasped in lungfuls of air as that same arm reached over his shoulder and pushed the door open.
"Please–" he groaned in the seconds before the thing swung back, but stopped short when the room was revealed to him. Not a shed with knives and tools to cut his skin and break his bones, not a room wrapped in plastic that would hide any evidence of his death, not one of the million other things it could have been.
It was a bathroom.
Though it was dark inside, he could see that the walls and floor were covered in tiles. There was a toilet bowl and sink on one side, and what looked like a bathtub on the other.
He jumped when the man switched on the light inside using the socket beside the door. The off-white porcelain of everything in the room gleamed under it. He continued to stare at it until he suddenly grunted when he was pushed forward roughly. He turned the second his hair was let go of, only to find the man effectively blocking the doorway with his hand already on the door handle and his other leaned along the edge of the frame.
He looked inhuman against all the white around him. The paleness of his skin and hair was emphasised in what would normally be unflattering lighting and it made his eyes look like something from another world, like a monster from the stories his mother told him. When his lips moved, they were sharp and bowed, the teeth white and straight.
"You have five minutes."
And with that he closed the door in his face and there was the obvious sound of a lock engaging from the other side.
Cloud stared at it for almost a full minute, shocked. But he soon realised it wasn't going to open again, so he slowly turned around to look at the rest of the room. There wasn't much in there. There was a small mirror above the sink, and a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste under it. He looked over at the bathtub. It was big and old-fashioned looking. Different to the one they had at home.
The room looked new otherwise though, the tiles were gleaming and perfect looking and the porcelain fixtures were completely clean and unstained. There was a familiar smell in there, like the plaster glue his mom sometimes used when doing DIY jobs in the house. It made him think that the room had been newly renovated. He wasn't sure what that meant.
He realised he did need to use the bathroom pretty badly, so did that first, unsure of how much of the 'five minutes' he had left. He washed his hands afterwards, out of habit he supposed, and couldn't avoid looking into the mirror when it was right in front of him. His reflection caught him off guard. He looked… pale. But it was more than that. His eyes looked strange. They were wide and red, and black bags were beginning to form under them.
The sight made everything suddenly seem alarmingly real and snapped him out of the daze he'd been stuck in since waking up the second time. He pushed himself back from the sink quickly, reaching up to press one wet hand against his mouth as nausea surged up to his throat. He looked around the room, but there was nothing... nothing to help him. The toilet bowl was a plain structure with no loose pieces, everything welded into place. Some toilet paper rested on the ground beside it but there was no other toiletries such as bleach or cleaner, and there were no shampoo or shower cream bottles around the bath. The sink was bare as well, but the mirror above it…
He reached up to feel its edges. It seemed to be completely glued to the wall. However, if he could break it and…
And what? Attack the man with one of the broken pieces? A man that was twice his size and who's body wasn't moving like it was half asleep?
He moved back, shaking his head to clear it. Gaia, was this actually happening to him? Was he actually seriously contemplating fighting for his life with a shard of broken glass? How did he get to be in a situation like this?
The moment he asked himself the question, his vision began to shutter. He pressed his eyes closed, and was suddenly assaulted with a series of flashing images.
Walking home from the village school. He was using the path beside the mountains because it was faster and he was less likely to run into jerks from his class.
Then a feeling of suffocating. Something closing over his face. Something pulling him. A sharp sting all along the left side of his neck.
Nothing else after that, only waking up in darkness.
He snapped his eyes open and stared in disbelief at the floor, water gathering in his vision as he lifted a hand to his neck, where it had been aching since he woke up. He moved over to the mirror and leaned forward. Pushing his hair out of the way, he examined the patch of skin and sure enough there it was; a small puncture an inch or so beneath his earlobe. It was such a small wound for the pain it was causing. But it's presence alone was what chilled him. Someone – Sephiroth – had knocked him out with drugs and taken him here. He'd been purposely taken on his way home from school.
At that moment, the door to the room opened and he looked over as the man appeared outside it again. His blood was rushing in his ears; everything felt like it was swimming around him. His own voice sounded far away and unfamiliar when he spoke.
"You took me here?" He watched the man for a reaction but got nothing aside from the same calm stare he'd gotten earlier. "Why?"
Slowly, his captor raised a hand and beckoned him over to him. Cloud shook his head.
"M-my mom knows the mayor of our village. People will be looking for me as soon as they notice something is wrong. It's– you'll get in trouble for this," he wondered how much time had passed, if his mom was looking yet, if she had told anyone. There were no windows in there, or in the hall beyond. He was completely isolated from outside and had no way to gauge what time of the day or night it was. He hoped it wasn't night. He didn't want to spend the night there.
"If you just let me out, I won't say anything," he finished. He watched his captor and felt his stomach sink when he saw not even a hint of uneasiness in response to his threats. They flowed off the man like water against a bluff; weak and powerless. That's exactly what he was, wasn't it? Completely powerless.
That's why when the man did speak again, he found himself hesitantly complying with what he said.
"If you don't come over here now, I'll come over there to get you. It's your choice."
He slowly turned, his hipbone brushing against the sink and pressing into it as he faced the door again. The other watched him, his expression neutral but the muscles of his arms flexing in a way that told Cloud he was seconds away from moving, probably to make good on his threat. His scalp stinging at the memory of the earlier assault, he slowly forced himself to take a step forward.
It felt like a mile-long journey to get across the bathroom, like how he imagined a prisoner's walk to the execution chamber would feel. By the time he reached the door and stopped inches from it, his heart was pounding almost painfully in his chest and his body had broken out in a cold sweat. He felt close to passing out again.
Breathing deeply, he brought his gaze slowly up to his kidnapper's face and thought he saw a flicker of something there when their eyes met, before it went cold again and his arm was suddenly and roughly grabbed around the bicep.
He pulled back reflexively, but was unable to prevent himself from being forced out of the bathroom and back into the ugly hall.
"What do you want?" He asked again, squirming in the almost bruising hold. "Please, just tell me... do you want money? My mom can..."
He saw then that he was being dragged back to the padded cell, and his stomach sunk in dread and despair.
"No, no please, please don't put me back in there. Please, just tell me what you want. What do you want?" He fought harder now, bringing his other hand forward to claw at the fingers around his arm. He dug his nails into the other's skin, pressing down in an attempt to dislodge the grip. It did nothing.
"Stop!" He screeched, clamping down hard enough to feel the firm skin give in some places, "I'm not going back in there. I'm not fucking going back in there!"
In the end it wasn't his choice. His kidnapper was successful in pulling him back over to the cell, and used his brute advantage to shove him roughly back through the opening so he ended up falling forward onto his hands and knees on the padding. He scrambled to turn himself around and was surprised to find that instead of staying out in the hall, the other man had followed in after him.
Cloud felt like a caged animal as he eased himself backwards until he hit the wall behind him. He brought his knees close to his chest and kept his eyes on the man, wary of his next move.
Sephiroth lowered himself down until he was crouched directly in front of him. Cloud stared into his face, beautiful but vicious looking with its structured bones and aristocratic features. His kidnapper looked like someone who had dominated others all his life, who made a game out of intimidating people.
"You're new to things, so I'll be kind this one time," the stranger started, his voice smooth and deep. It had an almost careless quality to it. He gave what was close to a smile, just a quirk of his lips, before his expression fell flat, "but the next time I come in here, if you speak out of turn, or hesitate to do anything I tell you, there will be consequences."
Cloud stared back, feeling angry and humiliated at being spoken to like some sort of child. He kept his mouth shut though, there was nothing to say and he was at too much of a disadvantage to start anything. His kidnapper watched him for almost a full minute, the tension building between them with each passing second, before he nodded and got to his feet again. Cloud followed him with his eyes, but otherwise didn't move from his position against the wall.
"But to answer your first question, Cloud, my name is Sephiroth and from this point on, I am your everything."
"No," he shook his head, swallowing back the bile that surged up his throat as the man departed the cell without another word and closed off the door behind him. He continued to whisper the word under his breath, over and over again at the realization that he was once again confined alone in the tiny space, with only those parting words for company.
No, this was not what his life was now. This was not everything. He had another year of school left. He had his plans to leave Nibelheim after that and earn enough Gil so his mom didn't have to struggle so much. All of that was waiting for him beyond these padded walls, that was his future. Not this, not Sephiroth.
He slowly lowered himself onto his side, pressing his cheek against the cool floor of the cell. There was a blotch of colour in the corner of his eye and he looked over to see a plastic bottle of some sort of luminously yellow liquid resting on the floor across from him. It hadn't been there before; his kidnapper left it for him.
He moved his eyes away from it, ignoring how dry his mouth and throat felt. He would not acknowledge anything from this nightmare any more than he had to.
He wrapped his arms around his stomach and let himself sink fully into the cushioning under him, eyes on the section in the wall where the doorway had been. It had disappeared like a secret passageway. All he could do was lie there and wait for it to open again, praying that someone other than his captor would be the one on the other side, someone that would free him from this prison and take him back to a future he had some control over.
Unfortunately, he feared that like so many secret passages, only a creature of evil and darkness had the power to control things in this new world.