*Note: This is a 2 part article, please read the first before reading this.*
I've attempted to make this summary of Cloud and Tifa's past as simple as possible, because it is a pretty complex story.. I'll start with Cloud and Tifa's birthplace, Nibelheim, over ten years ago.
Firstly - the most important aspect of this story to note is that Cloud and Tifa were NOT good childhood friends, as they always stated. They knew each other, yes, but Cloud was a bit of an outcast to the kids in Nibelheim. Tifa, on the other hand, was very popular, and always had many friends, so didn't really notice Cloud. However, something happened, when Cloud and Tifa were around eight or nine, which would prove pivotal to this story; Tifa's mother died.
Tifa was, understandably distraught, and in her confused state, decided to climb Mount Nibel to look for her mother, as she thought that dead people might pass through the mountain range on their way to another world. So Tifa set off on this dangerous journey, followed by a few friends who soon turned back as the path became dangerous (presumably to get Tifa's father). Tifa carried on, and unbeknowst to her, Cloud followed. She began to run across the rope bridge on the Nibel mountain trail, but it couldn't take her weight, and broke.. Cloud tried to save her, but he was too late, and they both fell off the cliff. Cloud was unhurt (he says "back then I only got scraped knees"), but Tifa was in a coma for a week, and her father feared for her life. This can be compared to "Tifa's Story" - until this point, the story is in keeping with Tifa's memories.
Cloud blamed himself for this situation, and always believed that if he'd been stronger he could have saved Tifa that day; and so made a resolution to join SOLDIER - to impress Tifa, and be strong enough to save her in future should the need arise. This decided, he left Nibelheim at the age of 14, but before he left called Tifa out to the Nibelheim well to tell her about his decision. They still weren't close friends, but I think Cloud had strong feelings for Tifa even at this early stage - she was basically the entire reason he decided to join Soldier in the first place. The unfolding of this conversation was as follows ...
Cloud told Tifa of his decision to join Soldier, and the fact that he will be leaving Nibelheim the next spring. Tifa seems reluctant for him to leave, and persuades him to promise that if she is ever in danger, he'll come to her rescue - "Whenever I'm in trouble, my hero will come to rescue me. I want to experience that at least once". After this scene, Cloud is not seen in Nibelheim for two years.
Five years ago: Return to Nibelheim
During the two years Cloud is away, Tifa becomes proficient in martial arts, and also qualifies as a guide for the dangerous Mount Nibel trails. One day, two years later, she hears that members of SOLDIER are visiting Nibelheim (or more specifically, the Nibel reactor) to do something about the monsters appearing there, and she hopes that Cloud will be among the SOLDIER members dispatched.
Cloud is, in fact, among these members of SOLDIER.. but not as one of them. He failed to make his mark in SOLDIER, and is instead working as a regular Shinra Guard. Because of this, and the aspirations he'd had two years previously, he is ashamed to face Tifa, and when his party arrives in Nibelheim, he hides behind his Shinra mask and avoids letting Tifa know that he is back.
Also among these SOLDIER members are Sephiroth, and Zack, a First Class SOLDIER member - who will later play a very important role in the story. Sephiroth is in charge of the expedition, with Zack as his second-in-command.
Upon arrival in Nibelheim, the party is informed that Tifa will be their guide. Before leaving for the Mount Nibel reactor the next day, a photographer asks for a photo of the party, and Zack, Sephiroth and Tifa have their picture taken outside the Nibelheim mansion. They then continue on towards Mt. Nibel, but before they get far, the rope bridge once again breaks, and they fall to the cliffs below. No one is seriously injured this time, however, and the party (comprising Zack, Tifa, Sephiroth, Cloud (who is still hiding his identity from Tifa) and another Shinra guard) continue on their journey. En route, they find a natural Materia fountain, and Sephiroth explains some of the basic principals behind magic using to Tifa and Zack.
The party eventually arrives at the Nibel reactor, but Tifa is forbidden from going inside.. instead, Cloud remains outside to watch over her. Meanwhile, inside the reactor, Sephiroth and Zack locate the source of the increase in monsters; a malfunction in one of the many pods filling the reactor core. The malfunctioning valve is closed, but Sephiroth is not satisfied.. attempting to discover the reason for the malfunction, he looks inside one of the pods, and discovers their true purpose; an experiment conducted by Hojo involving the condensing of Mako into Materia with living organisms added; producing mutated Mako-engineered monsters. Something clicks with Sephiroth, as it dawns on him that he might have been created in this way too; as the mutated organisms in the pods were, in fact, once human. He asks himself, "Am I human.. ?" Back in Nibelheim, Sephiroth locks himself in the Shinra Mansion, reading everything he can find on the subject of Mako-engineering, and Jenova - an organism at first supposed dead, which was discovered inside a 2,000 year old geological stratum, and was named by Professor Gast. Sephiroth was always informed that his mother was named Jenova, and the discovery of the Jenova project seems unlikely to be a mere coincidence. Jenova was later confirmed to be an Ancient (although this was a mistake on the part of Professor Gast, who led the Jenova Project), and this leads Sephiroth to believe he is also an Ancient, or Cetra - the original inhabitants of the planet. The Cetra were an itinerant race who migrated across the Planet, believing that one day they would find the Promised Land and supreme happiness. Some of the Cetra settled in one place, as they were unwilling to travel any longer - and these were the ancestors of the inhabitants of Earth almost 2,000 years later - as the almost the entire remaining Cetra race was wiped out as a sacrifice to save the planet. Sephiroth believed that he was produced by Professor Gast, using Jenova's cells, and this is basically what drove him to insanity..
After sharing this revelation with Zack, Sephiroth runs out of the Shinra Mansion; his last words being "Out of my way, I'm going to see my mother!" By the time Zack exits the Shinra Mansion, the whole of Nibelheim is ablaze, and Sephiroth is nowhere to be seen. I'm not sure where Cloud was at this point, however. After helping Zangan tend to the injured, Zack turns just in time to see Sephiroth standing amidst the flames, an empty expression on his face as he turns and walks away.
Zack follows Sephiroth to the Nibel Reactor, where he is greeted with the sight of Tifa kneeling over her dead father, a long, thin sword on the ground nearby. Suddenly resolute, she snatches up the sword, screaming "Sephiroth.. SOLDIER.. Mako reactors.. Shinra.. EVERYTHING.. I HATE THEM ALL!" She runs into the pod room to find Sephiroth, who is standing in front of the door bearing the inscription "JENOVA". They wrestle briefly with the Masamune, but Sephiroth soon overpowers Tifa, slashing her in the stomach, and leaving her broken and injured at the bottom of the stairs. Zack enters the room, moments too late, and Sephiroth turns without a word to the door in front of him. Zack leaves Tifa lying where she fell, and sprints into the JENOVA room, for a confrontation with Sephiroth. His attempts are are futile as Tifa's, however, and he is soon thrown out of the room, injured, landing on one of the many pods.
There is a flash of white as Cloud, still dressed in his guard uniform, enters the room and looks upon the scene in horror. Cloud, snatching up Zack's sword, runs up the stairs and into Jenova's storage room, and Sephiroth turns just in time to be stabbed through the stomach by Cloud - who states simply "Mom.. Tifa.. my town.. give it back." With these words, Cloud wrenches his sword out of Sephiroth's body, and Sephiroth collapses to the ground, clutching his stomach. With this, Cloud removes his helmet, and runs back down the stairs, gently picking up Tifa and placing her against one of the pods - he kept their childhood promise after all.
Sephiroth is not finished off entirely, however, and soon exits the room above, Jenova's decapitated head in his hand. Walking past Cloud, he says merely "Just like you.", and exits. Cloud prepares to follow, but Zack stops him as he leaves, saying "Cloud.. kill.. Sephiroth". Cloud fully intends to fulfil this request, and exits onto the walkway across the reactor's Mako pit - above a gaping hole in the Lifestream. He rushes at Sephiroth, intending to kill him with one blow, but Sephiroth easily stabs Cloud through the chest with the Masamune, lifting the sword, and Cloud with it, above the ground, saying threateningly "don't.. push.. your.. luck". However, by sheer force of will, Cloud manages to lower himself back to the ground, and Sephiroth's arm begins to tremble as Cloud reaches up and grasps the sharp edge of the Masamune firmly. Summoning his strength, Cloud lifts Sephiroth off the ground gradually, and using his last reserves of energy, flings him into the Mako pit below; sword and all. He then slumps to the ground, and passes out.
Nibelheim's Aftermath: Tifa
After this episode, Cloud and Tifa parted ways once again, Tifa never realising that Cloud was the one to save her. She was rescued by her mentor, Zangan, who was unable to save Cloud or Zack, and was then taken back to Midgar, where Zangan cast multiple Cure spells on her. This had no effect, as Tifa's injuries were too great, so Zangan visited a doctor in Midgar, as a last resort to cure Tifa. This was successful, and once Tifa fully recovered, Zangan left Midgar, "not being one to settle in one place for long". Tifa stayed in Midgar after this - opening her bar, Tifa's 7th Heaven. She wouldn't see Cloud again for over five years. This story can be seen told from Zangan's perspective , in a letter he writes to Tifa, which can later be found in her piano in Nibelheim, five years later.
Nibelheim's Aftermath: Cloud & Zack
Cloud, on the other hand, went in a very different direction. After the Nibelheim disaster, Zack and Cloud were removed from the reactor by Hojo and a group of SOLDIERs, to be used in Hojo's new experiment, involving the injection of Jenova cells into humans already drenched in Mako. The experiments had no effect on Zack, due to the Mako treatment he had already undergone as a member of SOLDIER - but this was not the case with Cloud, and he slowly lost his mind and memories as the Jenova cells inside him took over. The two were kept in the basement of the Shinra mansion, for what must have been a fairly long time (over a year, at least, if these events are to fit in with events of the present), before their escape - at feeding time, when Zack's tube is opened, he punches the guy who brought the food, knocking him out. He then opens Cloud's pod to release him, and Cloud falls forward onto the floor, landing on his hands and knees and unable to support his head. Zack retrieves his sword from the basement and holds it skywards, then glances down to see Cloud still lying on the floor, unable to move. Zack then proceeds to drag Cloud out of Nibelheim, giving him clothes to wear (which is why his outfit is so similar to Zack's - it actually belonged to Zack originally). The next step was to get to Midgar; Zack hitches a lift on the back of a truck for him and Cloud, and on the way to Midgar he "discusses" (as Cloud is still unable to form a concious thought) his plans for the future with Cloud - deciding that the two of them will become mercenaries. However, their arrival in Midgar did not go unknown to Hojo, and he sent out SOLDIER members to wait for them.
As Zack and Cloud near Midgar, on foot by this point, and arrive at a cliff directly above the city, Zack hears gunfire behind him. He unsheathes his sword, and prepares for battle, but comes back after a short time to check on Cloud - and this is his fatal mistake. He is hit square in the chest with a bullet, which forces him backwards to the edge of the cliff. The Shinra soldiers then proceed to gather round him and shoot him in the head, point-blank. One of these soldiers prepares to shoot Cloud, but his Captain tells him not to bother, as Cloud is hardly a threat.
Cloud is left lying on the cliff above Midgar, as it begins to rain gently. He pulls himself up onto his hands, and drags himself over to Zack's body, where he picks up his sword and inspects it for several moments.. eventually he holds it to the sky, trembling under its weight, and looks out over Midgar.
He manages to find his way somehow to Sector 7, where Tifa discovers him lying by the train station, and recognises him as the boy she once knew. However, Cloud's memories merge with Tifa's and the stories that Zack has told him of his life, as a side-effect of the Jenova treatments he has been given, and he takes on the role of Zack, First Class SOLDIER, whom Tifa remembers from the Nibelheim fire. In Cloud's mind, he was the one to witness Sephiroth's developing insanity and go with Tifa and Sephiroth to the Mount Nibel reactor as Sephiroth's second in command. Tifa, unsure of how to respond to this, plays along with Cloud's story, unwilling to tell him the truth - that he was not at Nibelheim five years ago, at least not in the role he believes - and so he remains oblivious until his meeting with Sephiroth and the Nibelheim-flashback at Whirlwind Maze.
(The four official escapee reports issued by Shinra regarding Cloud and Zack read as follows.. these were left in the abandoned Shinra mansion, where Cloud and Zack were kept as experiments. Cloud is referred to as specimen B, and Zack is specimen A.
Escapee Report No. 1
X Month X Day
The two escapees were located near Midgar.
Escapee Report No. 2
Description of the time of capture.
A - Former member of SOLDIER/Number ( )
No effect could be detected from either Mako Radiation Therapy or Jenova on him.
B - Regular/Number ( )
Reaction to Jenova detected.
Escapee Report No. 3
Concerning their disposal.
A - Shot for resisting.
B - Escaped during A's resistance.
Escapee Report No. 4
B's whereabouts are currently unknown.
But, we submit there is no need to pursue him, due to his diminishing conciousness. Awaiting further instructions.
And that's the last we hear from Shinra regarding either Cloud or Zack.. Zack was dead by this point, and Cloud posed no immediate threat, so was also overlooked.)
As for Nibelheim itself, it was rebuilt exactly as it had been five years ago, before the Nibelheim fire, and Shinra staff inhabited the town, diguised as townspeople. A total of eight people (not including Cloud, etc.) visit Nibelheim during the time which the game itself spans, and none knew of the fire five years beforehand - so the secret was kept safe. However, the town was also inhabited by "clones" for a short time - who seemed to sense something, but showed no signs of activity other saying "reunion" and "Sephiroth" repeatedly. They gathered in the town for the Jenova reunion - when the cells making up Jenova were "called" to one place to join together again (this place is the Promised Land) - and this reunion also affected Cloud and other former Shinra soldiers and experiments injected with Jenova's cells.
Nibelheim's Aftermath: Sephiroth
So the only unresolved issue that remains is Sephiroth.. what exactly happened to him after Cloud threw him into a pit of Mako and proceeded to lose all memory of doing so.. ? Well, official records state that he was missing, presumed dead. What actually happened was..
Sephiroth, while being carried through the Lifestream, began to absorb the knowledge and power of the Ancients - the Jenova cells inside him allowing him to do so. In his madness, he became intent on becoming a god, and "ruling over the planet with mother". In a way, he was very much Jenova's puppet. He eventually settles at the Promised Land, near the Northern Crater - becoming frozen in Mako for the next five years. From here, he controls Sephiroth clones the world over - including Cloud himself, which explains Sephiroth's mysterious power over him - forcing him to beat and almost kill Aeris, and later, to hand over the Black Materia.
Sephiroth's plan for world domination; to summon Meteor using the Black Materia, which will cause a huge wound to form on the planet. Mako energy will be gathered at the point of impact, as the planet attempts to heal itself - and Sephiroth, at the centre of this mass of Mako, will absorb all the knowledge the Lifestream has to offer, becoming effectively a god. The only force that can combat Meteor (the "ultimate destructive magic") is Holy - and the only one that can summon Holy, Aeris. So, Sephiroth's solution? Kill Aeris. Too late, however, as she has already completed her summons.
Meteor is summoned during the Jenova Reunion - Sephiroth clones, all containing Jenova cells, flock towards the Promised Land, awaiting.. something. Cloud, all the time believing he has been chasing Sephiroth, now comes to realise that he has, in fact, been called by Sephiroth - and to hand over the Black Materia. Sephiroth then summons Meteor, Cloud is trapped in the Lifestream, and it seems as though all is lost. But once Cloud emerges, Tifa helps him regain his true memories of the past and he "finds himself" - and the final battle with Sephiroth for the future of the planet ensues.