Cloud didn't even know what to start thinking when he opened his eyes, with his head throbbing with the type of headache he hadn't felt in years and his whole body inwardly burning like he'd been caught in the middle of a low level fire spell, it wasn't surprising that he didn't notice anything wrong with himself other than the immediate pain he was in. Panting lightly in an effort to cool himself down the blond tried to make sense of his surroundings, his head started whirling in dizzying circles as he tried to lift himself up from the half sprawled out position he was lying in. Wincing he quickly shut his eyes to spare himself another spike in pain.
Squinting his eyes open slightly and desperately trying not to panic the blond froze in the act of lifting his hand up and forced his body to go limp, eyes flicking around frantically as he tried to make out where he was. Grimacing as he let his head roll to the side, he could actually move! He wasn't dead! Cloud let his blue eyes take in his surroundings and tried to even out his breathing, finally giving into the urge to sit up.
He gingerly lifted a hand and brought it over to his shoulder, trying to feel out the wound Masamune had left behind on his right shoulder and blinked in when he couldn't feel the wound he knew had been there what felt like mere moments ago. He pressed his back against the hard surface he was leaning against, a barely-there wince crossing his face as he anticipated the pain this would bring from the bullet wound in his back… Cloud blinked again, his face relaxing from his anticipatory grimace and falling right back into confusion, he was pretty sure he'd been shot in the back, why wasn't it hurting?
The throbbing at his temples made him revise that statement, sure he wasn't feeling any pain from injuries he would have expected himself to feel after a fight with Sephiroth but he was feeling some pain, oddly enough he felt like he was bruising all over… when was the last time he'd felt one quite like this? The low level burn in his veins was something he was studiously ignoring, the mako would soon take care of it, he was going to ignore it until it disappeared!
Slowly, the blond sat himself up, coming to the realization that he'd been sitting with his back against rock at the same time he felt his stomach rebel. Hastily rolling over to the side Cloud heaved, emptying a stomach he didn't know he'd filled quite so much and tried to settle himself down. Breathing in and out slowly he pushed himself away from the mess he had made and tried to get to his feet, his legs wobbling as if they were made of jelly
Spitting to get the sour taste out of his mouth and swiftly wiping away the reaction-tears his retching had caused, the blond, now on his bruised and scratched knees, pressed an arm against the rock he'd woken up against and pulled himself to his feet, hissing as new found injuries announces themselves with sharp pangs that nearly had him blacking out right there! He felt like one big scrape and bruise, his head was getting worse…
If he didn't have some sort of concussion he would eat his boots!
Swaying even with his arms still braced against the rock, Cloud let his arms fold as he pressed himself to the solid surface, shuttering his eyes again and breathing slowly in and out, hoping he wouldn't just black out like his body dearly wanted to do. Feeling some clarity of thought return to him the blond took in one more careful breath and peeled his eyes open, this time taking another good look around at the area he had ended up in.
Rocks, lots of dust and broken pieces of wood littered the immediate area around him, turning himself around a little awkwardly to spare himself from further injury, Cloud pressed his back against his rock and looked further, scanning the area he'd found himself in. Had the explosion he'd been caught up in blown him completely out of Edge and as far as the Wastes? If so shouldn't Cid and the others in the Sierra have found him by now? The sun had just barely been setting when he'd been caught in the explosion in the ruins of Midgar and now it was almost completely dark, hours had gone by while he'd been unconscious!
Talk about being hard to kill though! Caught in an explosion that powerful and he was still alive if not necessarily kicking…
Chuckling to himself at the thought, the blond looked up, he was in a ravine, all dark rock and dirt, it didn't look familiar to him but then again he'd never been that eager in exploring the area, not with his history and damned if it didn't look like any of the pieces of his sword had been blown anywhere near him either.
Muttering a few of the more colourful words he'd picked up from Cid, the blond kneeled down and picked up a stray bit of wood lying nearby, giving the bit of splintered plank a dry look before hefting it experimentally, making sure to hold it from the worn edge, it would do until he found one of his blades…
Picking his way through the loose tumble of rocks and patches of dirt Cloud had just been about to pick a direction and start walking when something caught his eye. A small girl lay nearby, sprawled loosely in a way that either meant she was asleep or unconscious, given the way what visible skin he could see on her was just as scratched up and bruised as he was, he was willing to bet she was as unconscious as he had been merely minutes before. Moving to her side as quickly as he could he dropped to his knees and breathed a sigh of relief after checking her pulse, she really was unconscious.
He was just moving to pick her up when he noticed something about himself that made him sit back on his heels for a moment before sighing.
Great, one of those stupid clones had miss-cast Mini on him! He hoped he was going to be able to get to a Remedy before anyone found him because Yuffie would die laughing if she caught him like this! That was the last time he was going to leave his Materia collection where just anyone could stumble across it! Next time he was packing it all away in the storage compartment in his PHS like he'd done while on the run with ShinRa! Sure, thumbing though the menu was a pain and it couldn't be done in the middle of a fight and the risk of losing everything stored in one go was pretty big, but at least they would never be used against him like this ever again!
Gingerly hefting the girl onto his back and swearing softly at the pain the movement caused, Cloud kept her in one place with his left arm, hefted his temporary weapon in his other hand and set off towards his right, picking the direction with the most moonlight, even if it did mean climbing up a hill rather than sparing his knees.
The area he was in was starting to look vaguely familiar, scarily familiar, the black and green rock surrounding him on both sides of the path really only ever appeared in one mountain range… It could have been the dark, making the rock around him look so familiar but something about the way the rock formations spiked out to the sky was making his skin prickle and break out into goose-bumps. He limped around a corner and froze, eyes wide in surprise.
No wonder the area looked familiar, he was in Nibelheim! It was unmistakable! He knew where he was and just where he had just woken up… The path directly leading to the Mako Reactor and directly under the bridge!
Every hair on his body stood at attention and a shiver washed over his body, carefully lowering the girl on his back down so she was lying propped against the glossy black and green rock of the pathway cut into the mountain range Cloud stepped backwards until his back met the opposite wall of the path, letting his legs fold under him as awareness of his situation dawned.
The girl sitting slumped against the rock had long, straight dark brown hair and fair skin, she was wearing a turquoise dress with matching shoes and… And she looked just like Tifa had when she'd been eight years old! He slid down the rock face and stared numbly, shocked out of his wits, he was somehow, impossibly in the middle of his clearest memory.
And he had no idea how it had happened…
For the first time since he woke up his head cleared completely, what he had thought of as a concussion was really just the overwhelming exhaustion of a very young body. He lifted his hands up to examine them in the moonlight, and for Minerva's sake, he should have at least realized he hadn't been wearing gloves or his regular black outfit, these blue shorts and the thin t-shirt he was wearing really should have given him a clue!
Was he in the lifestream again? No. He was in too much discomfort for that, he'd never felt any pain in brief glimpses he had gotten when Aeris had pulled him into her own flower filled corner of the lifestream so he wasn't dead or dreaming, the pain ruled that option out as well.
A scraping noise coming from the opposite direction pulled him out of his half panicked thoughts and even though he was half convinced he'd finally lost it and gone even further beyond the bend than he'd ever been, the plank of wood that he'd scavenged from the wreckage of what he now knew had been the wood and rope bridge was now in his hands and smashing at the monster that had lunged at him even before his mind could catch up. The monster landed with a harsh thud to the floor and didn't move even when Cloud approached it cautiously, the reason revealed when its body started to dissolve, he'd killed the thing with a single hit, leaving behind a small bottle and a few Gil, items the monster had picked up from its own kills...
He'd killed the monster without even getting a good look at what the thing had been, whatever or wherever he was at least his skills were thankfully still with him! Panting with adrenaline, Cloud automatically collected the Gil the monster had left behind and pocketed the amount with robotic movements, scooping up the bottle last and holding it up to the moonlight.
He moved over to the g… Tifa and twisted the cap on the bottle, opening it and tilting the girl's head so the liquid went into her mouth, massaging her throat so she would swallow it down. He let her drink the entire thing and discarded the empty bottle, eyes alert and on the look out just in case another monster took the opportunity of his distraction to attack them.
Bruises healed right in front of his eyes and the tension Cloud hadn't known he was holding released along with a relieved sigh. With how badly she'd been hurt she wouldn't wake until the Potion was finished repairing the damage that the fall off the bridge had dealt her but at least she'd be fine, with any luck she'd be completely healed by the time they got back.
Nibelheim had been so stupidly backwater back when he'd been a kid that the General Store hadn't stocked Potions, Ethers and the like, convinced that the medicines had been just one more thing they didn't need, like technology more advanced than the small radio in the inn and the truck that the man who owned the weapon's store drove to rocket town and back for trade. The town sold local Materia but no one in the village at the time had known how to use them and so Tifa had spent more than a week in a coma the last time around and she'd also lost a good portion of that day's events.
Now at least in this dream world or wherever he was… he had redeemed himself of this particular regret…
He pushed aside the thought, leaving it for when he could get Tifa to safety, right now an eight year old girl who'd just lost her mother in his charge and she was going to need him to get her home in one piece. Crouching down in front of her with the splintered point of his 'sword' planted into the dirt, the spiky haired blond pulled her up onto his back again and pushed down at the whirlwind of chaotic thoughts and emotions he was sure he wasn't hiding nearly as thoroughly as he thought he was.
Panic later, focus now, he couldn't stay out here all night, the monster that had attacked him had been pretty weak but it was hardly the only one that would find the two of them easy prey and with Tifa an unconscious weight on his back he was going to be hard pressed to run away from any monsters let alone fight them. He'd been lucky to have gotten the one that had tried to attack him as cleanly as he had!
So help him if the girl on his back woke up before he got her to safety, he did not relish the idea of having to herd a hysterical eight year old down the path back to the village. Staggering to his feet again, trying not to feel the flare up in his own injuries Cloud sighed heavily and hoisted her further up his back when she slipped a little.
Cloud groaned inaudibly as he realized how far he was from the village and exactly what kind of distance he had to cross without disturbing any more monsters and started wishing he would wake up from this strange nightmare. He shivered from something completely different than the cold air and determinedly narrowed his eyes, starting the journey down the mountain as silently as he could.
He was going to ignore everything about his situation until he could sit down properly and figure everything out. Surrounded as he was on both sides with tall rock and wildlife that would sooner try to eat him as run away Cloud had to remind himself several times on the way down the hauntingly familiar pathway that panicking now would be a supremely bad idea.
As focused as he was on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping on the lookout for monsters the blond haired boy didn't realize he was panting, neither did he notice his ears were filled with a slowly growing roaring, he didn't even notice his heart was beating too fast, caused by the overwhelming emotions he was desperately trying to suppress.
With every step he took closer to Nibelheim he was noticing all those little things his mind had been subconsciously suppressing before.
The rock around him wasn't as weather worn as it had been the last time he'd visited Nibelheim on a delivery… Over there was a sign that looked too far too old for the one ShinRa had left in place to cover up the burning of the village, it wasn't missing the worn out look his eyes could pick out even from this distance. The gate to Nibelheim Mansion was closed neatly shut, not half broken in the way the black cloaked clones had left it in their desperation to get into the place during Sephiroth's Reunion.
The Mansion itself was shuttered against the outside world, windows closed and shuttered, the front door probably locked as well. It didn't even look all that run down… Then… as Cloud staggered down the flight of stairs that led down into the village center the blond had to stop and stare, turning to see it all completely. Weather worn buildings, packed dirt instead of the cobblestones someone would one day introduce to the village, the water tower that was exactly like the one in his memories and not like the subtly different one ShinRa had later installed.
Lastly… The people gathered in front of him, looking as surprised to see him as he was to see them. Cloud sunk to his suddenly weak knees as memories started to return to him, of the Innkeeper and his son, who were holding lamps and armed with staves they would have needed to go out into the dark to search for them. Memories of the owner of the General Store, a grey haired old man who leaped towards him to steady him, the man had always been fair with him and his mother…
The roaring in his ears had increased and he couldn't hear a thing that was being said to him, feeling someone gently ease Tifa off his back the spiky haired blond looked up dazedly at the dark haired man who was carefully gathering the limp girl up into his arms.
This man was Tifa's father!
He felt a hand tug at the splintered bit of wood in his hand and relinquished his grip on the makeshift weapon, not hearing the sympathetic hiss as the splinters of wood and blisters were revealed, turning his glazed blue eyes in that same direction. Ah! The man who was now holding the wood… he was the town's smith!
More and more memories were coming back to him, one after another and things he had thought would be lost to him forever were now falling into the blank spaces in his mind like puzzle pieces, snapping comfortably into place.
His favorite hiding spot from the village bullies had once been the very top of the water tower… he'd once loved being able to pet any visiting Chocobo's through the fence of the Inn's stables no matter how many time's he'd been chased away by the exasperated stable-hand. He'd always hated getting up early in the mornings, the cold air had been pretty discouraging to face even though once he got up out of bed he wouldn't need more than a t-shirt like the one he was currently wearing.
Hours and hours spent running around his backyard waving a simple stick around like a sword… Even longer moments spent daydreaming of the moment he would join SOLDIER, watching the other children in the village or just staring off into space thinking of nothing in particular.
Finally, as a woman pushed her way to the front of the crowd, he remembered bright lemon gold hair just like his own. Spiked fringe hanging around a delicate face framing wide, concerned blue eyes and a spiky ponytail falling over one shoulder.
Dressed in a simple peach coloured dress with a white apron tied over the top, the woman pushing at the crowd managed to shove her way to the front and dropped to her knees in front of him, heedless of the dirt she was getting all over herself. He stared up at her and the numb feeling he hadn't known he'd been feeling since the moment she'd died in his arms melted. His mouth open and closed several times before releasing a ragged sob.
Gaia bless, the woman in front of him was his mother!
Tears gathered in his eyes and fell even when the world around him darkened. It was all too much. His fell forward and was caught against her shoulder in a dead faint, one he wouldn't wake up from for a whole three days, his mind knocking him out to give himself time to assimilate with his newly recovered memories.
Back at the collapsed bridge a small, crystal clear marble sized materia glinted in the moonlight, having rolled off Cloud when he'd moved from the rock he'd been sprawled against and rolled straight underneath a wooden floorboard. It was the start of a second chance for the blond, and the only hope for a world headed for destruction.
Once he got over his shock and inevitable confusion…