In lowcity, people fought like animals to survive. He had no idea how he was still alive.

Cloud was 21 years old, and already he felt like an old man. He existed in a state of cognitive dissonance, the most powerful force in nature. All the speed he fenced, the turns he'd taken and corners he'd cut in lowcity, and still he couldn't figure out how the hell he'd gotten there, where it all went wrong.

He shacked up in a run-down tavern in a bad Sector 7 neighborhood, and earned his keep doing Seamless runs and anything else that needed to be ferried from point A to point B. He dealt Dancer in rival gang territory, closed shady arms-deals for the mob, about the only thing he didn't do was hits. Cloud was everyone's go-to gun-runner, no threat to anyone, just a delivery boy with a bike.

Midgar was Highrise Hell over a gutterpunk ghetto. Sector 7 tried to paint itself as a college town, but Cloud liked Wedge's interpretation of it better.

"There was more to do in Nagasaki after the bomb went off than there is in this dilapidated fuck-hole."

His hood was a hangout for AVALANCHE thugs like Barrett and the faux-revolutionaries he ripped-off. The gang got its funding from a branch of the Sierra Club topside at the University, fronting as an eco-terrorist group that blew up Mako Reactors for "Mutha Naycha." If the students knew that all their GoFundMe donations were going straight to a Dancer-ring, they'd drop their activism and head straight back to church in tears.

Cloud fell in with them for protection, even though a sick pride in him felt like he didn't need it. His only reason for staying there was probably her.

She was Latifah Marianne Lockheart, but only people who didn't like her called her that. He ran into her by chance after his last military deployment, and they'd been friends ever since. She'd somehow landed a gig waiting tables at a mob bar, and when the bartender mysteriously vanished, she got bumped up the food chain. So Cloud got free room and board in exchange for work. She wanted to leave, he wanted to leave, but she was the only one with a job, and Cloud couldn't even get work as a security guard without identification papers.

In the hazy null of falselight, Cloud leaned on the porch railing in back of the tavern and spoke to an artificial sunset.

"Hi Angeal…I haven't talked to you in a while. My bad. I guess I've been ashamed." A long sigh, he ran a hand over his face, down to touch the dogtags bearing a name that wasn't his. "I know this isn't what you pictured when you were training a SOLDIER. But I just want you to know I've been keeping up with my field training. I leveled up and everything. Last I remember I was in a chopper getting ready to deploy somewhere. Stuff went down. I had to run. But I had nowhere to go. I woke up here."

A long silence ensued. That space in between heartbeats is where Cloud fled for solitude.

"Sometimes I think the voice I hear in my head is you, but that's silly."

Ambulance sirens echoed in the distance, a serenade to a riot that was going on by the Wall Market.

"I forgot what you told me about honor. I forgot, Angeal. For the life of me I can't remember, not if you put a gun to my head. I'm sorry, Angeal. I'm so sorry."

His head sunk low in the stillness of fake dusk, crushed under a steel plate the size of his entire world.

.

[Received Ether]