I don't know quite why, but inspiration's running ridiculously high for this fandom right now.

Other news: the next chapter of The Bonding is begun, haltingly. I'm working on it.

Chapter 4

Waking was a struggle, though not the same dragging haze that it had been coming out of mako poisoning the first two times. No, more like he hadn't rested enough in weeks and now that he was sleeping, his body protested the raising from unconsciousness.

Cloud stared at the ceiling for several seconds before turning his head, unable to place where he was. It was familiar, in a vague way, familiar like… like Nibelhiem, only the pain that tugged at his heart at the reminder was deeper, sharper.

The realization struck like the dragon's tail, knocking the breath out of him. He was home.

He dragged his focus to what he needed to do. What did he remember of his mother?

Eyes like a summer sky, warm and loving. Aside from that, not much. He closed his eyes again, taking a moment to breathe through a sense of mingled grief and hope. He had to stay calm. His mother didn't know… It would break her heart.

Damn, he hoped Zack and Vincent hadn't mentioned the 'experiment' part. That would poke some very obvious holes in his story, true though that story was.

Cloud let out a breath. Well. Nothing for it—he couldn't change what they had or hadn't talked about. He didn't even know how long he'd been out of it.

He flipped back the covers and rolled to his feet, noting absently he was dressed in light pajamas instead of the mako-soaked cadet clothing. Not surprising.

He scanned the room, spotted his pack lying in the corner, and changed into a clean uniform, as nothing else he had fit properly. He wanted to settle Ultima at his back, but had neither the harness nor the explanation for it.

With a silent sigh, he made his way to the door and slipped silently out of his room, making his way towards the place he could hear the others making harmless conversation in.

Harmless, and somewhat stilted.

His lips quirked fondly; Zack never could stand to let a silence hang, while both Vincent and his mother—from what little he could remember of her—were more than willing to sit in companionable quiet for hours.

"Oh, Cloud!" his mother's voice was familiar despite the fact that he was unable to quite remember it.

He offered a wavering smile, not quite sure what to say, and his unease must have showed.

"Spike? You ok?" Zack's concern was touching.

"I…" he hesitated, glancing at his mother again, "I can't…" A breath, "Ma, can I talk to you?"

She looked at him for a heartbeat before turning a calm glare on the other two in the room, "If you two would just wait here…"

Zack saluted, "Yes, ma'am!"

Vincent settled for a nod.

Mrs. Strife immediately grabbed a light jacket from the coat rack and a gun from the closet before gesturing to her son, "Come on, then, Cloud. Let's walk."

Once they were safely on the mountain trail, Cloud couldn't stop the entire story from tumbling out.

xxxx

Rayne Strife considered herself a fairly down-to-earth woman, practical and able to handle just about anything thrown her way. Cloud's story… it was insane. But she believed him—her son had never lied to her and the pain in his tone…

She stopped, turned, and hugged him to her, noticing for the first time he was a little taller than her, now. "Oh, Cloud…"

Cloud stiffened and took several seconds to relax, then tentatively returned the hug, "Ma?" he asked.

She gave him a watery smile, fighting to hold back tears for everything he'd gone through. "How much do those two know?"

"Not much," Cloud admitted. "They know Hojo had me—it's kind of hard to hide the mako—but not for how long. They don't know… anything that happened but that, really. They…I can't. Not yet."

Rayne nodded, releasing her son, "Well. We'll just have to make sure it stays that way, then."

xxxx

Cloud felt… lighter. He hadn't expected the complete acceptance, the willingness to help.

He hadn't known what to expect, really, he only knew that he was slowly loosing his mind, unable to tell anyone the full truth without seeming completely insane and probably dangerous.

He hadn't meant to tell his mother everything. He had needed to tell her some—but he had planned more half-truths that would satisfy her questions without letting her know the true horrors of his past. Something hadn't let him, though, and he'd found the whole truth spilling from him in an unstoppable torrent.

And she had believed him. Not only that, she understood the need for silence as well as his need for someone uninvolved to talk to.

It meant the world.

xxxx

Zack was pacing as Vincent watched, apparently not quite sure what to do when confronted by boundless nervous energy.

"They've been gone a long time," Zack half-complained, worried. "What if something happened?"

Vincent's glowing red gaze examined him for several seconds before the man shrugged slightly, "They did not leave unarmed."

"But Chocobo doesn't even have a sword anymore, since his broke on that whatever-it-was in the room with the safe!"

"I doubt they will need more than a gun to handle the few monsters that come in close to town."

"But what if—" Zack cut himself off, tilting his head as mako-hearing caught footsteps on the trail leading to the house. He immediately bounded to the door and threw it open, causing Rayne Strife to blink and look up sharply while Cloud huffed a quiet laugh.

"We're fine, Zack."

Zack brightened. Cloud seemed much happier than when he had first awoken. "Hey, Chocobo! Feeling better?"

Cloud offered a small smile, "Yeah, sorry. Waking up like that was just…"

Zack winced, guessing his meaning. Mako poisoning—which that thankfully hadn't been—had some very bad connections in Cloud's mind. And mako burned in a remarkably distinctive way, so…

"Anyway, Chocobo," Zack fell onto his temporary default—subject change. "I know you probably want to spend some more time with your mom, but Sephiroth's already arranged a pickup that will be here in less than two hours. Is there anything else that you need to get done before we leave?"

Cloud frowned, "Well, Seph said I could burn down the mansion, but now there's no time for that. I don't want to accidently cause more damage than just the mansion."

Vincent tilted his head slightly, "… So you will wait?"

Cloud nodded, "I'll have to. I can probably pull off a family visit in a few more months—I can do it then. There'll be more time to plan it, too, so there isn't any… fallout. But I do need to get up to the reactor. There's something there that has to be taken care of."

There was a pause as Zack processed that. "Isn't that, like, five miles from here?"

"Can't take the bridge," Cloud corrected, "So more like nine. But I can get there if I run it."

Zack shook his head slightly, "Can you get back?"

Cloud snorted, "There's a helipad at the reactor. You could just pick me up there."

"You're not going alone, Cloud."

"Indeed not," Vincent murmured.

Cloud smirked, "Think you can keep up?"

Rayne cut in, "Be careful, all of you. Cloud… good luck."

Zack was hesitant to ask why that last was directed at Cloud alone, especially taking in Cloud's reaction.

"Yeah," the blond bowed his head, "Let's hope I don't need it."

xxxx