Chapter III

When he woke the next morning, he very nearly panicked. He hadn't the slightest clue where he was. And then, he sat up and saw his legs which had slipped out from under part of the quilts. At the sight of the small appendages, everything came rushing back.

The eight year old sighed and flopped back down onto the bed, glancing out the window. Sunlight was just peeking out over the mountains, spilling onto the remains of the snow on the village rooftops. Spring was coming and all of the ice and snow was melting off finally; Nibelheim was full of long winters and short springs.

Cloud pushed back the remains of the blankets, slipping down from the bed, only to jump back on when his feet hit the frigid wooden floor.

"Forgot how cold it is here in the mornings…" Cloud thought ruefully, cursing colorfully in a very Cid-like fashion as he nursed his now cold feet, tucking them back beneath the quilt and debating over the merits of trying to sleep in for once.

He quickly dismissed the idea; he was now thoroughly awake. And he didn't want to risk getting a nightmare if he went back to sleep. For once, Cloud had gotten a full night's sleep without waking up from disturbing dreams of endless green, needles, or his friends' deaths.

"I'm going to change it, make sure none of it happens," the boy thought determinedly, sliding carefully off the bed and dashing to his dresser to grab some clothes and socks.

Cloud winced at the amount of bright, child-like clothing. At least some of it was dark. He sighed and pulled out a pair of black pants, tossing them on the bed alongside a dark blue, long-sleeved shirt. He reached up, standing on tiptoe so he could get a better look at his sock drawer. He rifled through before finding the newest-looking pair and quickly pulling them on in an effort to get his feet warmed up and to protect them from the freezing floor.

Next, he pulled on his pants, which were slightly too big, but allowed for easy movement if necessary. Considering the amount of bruising and small scars he was finding from all of the bullying he'd withstood over this body's eight years of life, not too unexpected. Cloud inwardly applauded his past self's practicality. At least now he knew that being practical was all him, not some residual personality trait from Zack. Though "practical" and "Zack" didn't usually go together in the same sentence.

Cloud smiled suddenly, a sunny smile he hadn't used in years. Zack was alive, and so was Aerith. They didn't know each other yet, and Aerith and Zack weren't together, but he'd make sure it happened. They would get a happy ending this time.

Once he was ready, Cloud padded out to the kitchen, the socks muffling any sound his feet would have made. As Cloud looked around, he noticed a small foot-high stool that stood near the sink. The sight of it, even though he didn't consciously remember, made him smile. The idea that outwardly he was the average eight year old that required a stool to reach the sink, even though he was over fifty years old, struck him as deeply amusing to the point that he had to suppress giggles.

"Wait… Giggles?"

Cloud sighed. His biological age was most likely the cause. The tears of the evening before were also probably a side-effect. He was really going to have to retrain his body. And he'd need to start soon. His body was extraordinarily weak at the moment. And he needed to figure out what he needed to do. And how to go about doing it.

But first, breakfast.

Cloud dragged the stool over to the counter and stepped up, reaching for the cupboard to search for food; he had no idea where anything was placed.

The particular cupboard he just opened held dishes, plates and bowls. They were plain, and some were cracked, but they were still serviceable. Cloud pulled down a few bowls and plates. He shifted the stool again in order to get at another cupboard (he was suddenly struck with the desire to grow, and quickly; having to use a stool every time he wanted something in the kitchen was going to get very annoying, very fast).

Cloud pulled down a home baked loaf of bread and turned awkwardly, tossing it onto the counter as he rifled around on the next highest shelf for the butter and honey. Having acquired them, he jumped down from the stool, landing with a quiet thump in his sock-covered feet on the wooden floor. He placed the items on the table quickly, and then turned to root around for a frying pan.

The eight year old dragged the stool over to the stove top and turned it on, allowing it to heat up as he located the pancake mix. A few moments later and he was making pancakes, stacking them on a large plate as he finished cooking each one.

That was how Mrs. Strife found her son when she walked in a few minutes later, braiding her hair as she walked sleepily into the kitchen. She blinked at the sight of her eight year old child standing on a stool in front of the stove, a small pile of nicely golden brown pancakes on a plate and the table set.

"Cloud?" she said.

Cloud looked over at her and gave a small, slightly shy smile.

"Good morning," he said, looking slightly sheepish. "Hey mom?" he said, noticing that she was standing in the doorway with a blank look on her face.

"Yes?" said Elle Strife, still looking bemusedly at her son.

"Your braid… Aren't you going to finish tying it?"

Elle blinked, and then glanced down at the end of the braid she hadn't finished tying. Hurriedly, she tied it off and sent a raised eyebrow at her child.

"Better?" she asked teasingly.

Cloud nodded, giving her a cheeky grin before turning back to the remaining pancake mixture and pouring it into the pan in order to make one last, perfectly golden pancake.

"Since when did you learn to make pancakes? Or use the stove?" asked Elle, watching her son as he set the large plate of pancakes on the table using both hands.

Cloud's eyes widened and he very nearly panicked before thinking quickly and letting the lie flow off his tongue, feeling guilty even as he began speaking.

"Well, I've watched you make them before and I've seen you use the stove quite a bit, too," Cloud's eight year old voice explained reasonably as he sat down.

Elle Strife hummed, looking at her son skeptically, but prepared her pancakes nonetheless. Her blue eyes widened significantly when she took a bite.

Cloud looked up at her, still preparing his own with butter and Nibelheim syrup (which he hadn't had in who knows how long).

"Is it… bad?" he asked hesitantly, his voice quiet and large blue eyes worried.

"Planet! You're cooking breakfast from now on! These are the best pancakes I've ever eaten. They're better than mine!" she exclaimed, mock glaring as she said the last part.

"I just added nutmeg and cinnamon…" said Cloud, his small face bemused at his mother's theatrics.

"But you didn't even burn them! I always burn them," she said, "And you cooked them so evenly…"

Cloud just grinned at her for a moment before pouring a bit more syrup onto his pancakes and digging in. He blinked.

"These do taste good," he thought, vaguely surprised. Giving a mental shrug, he began eating again.

After Cloud and his mother finished, Cloud stood to begin picking up. His mother forestalled him, standing up herself and grabbing dishes to put in the sink.

"You go outside and play until lunch, I'll take care of all this," she said, shooing him out of the kitchen. "Make sure you come back in time for lunch," she added, smiling at his cutely confused expression and wild blonde hair.

Cloud went back to his room to see if he had a knife or weapon of some kind. A staff, or even a sling shot, would be useful. He wanted to re-familiarize himself with Nibelheim and the mountains. He had a vague notion that he'd spent most of his time there when he was a kid in the past, at least according to Tifa's memory of him when she reconstructed his memories.

He glanced around his room. The stick was in the corner, but it was pretty brittle and would most likely snap if he did anything other than wave it around. He ignored it in favour of checking out the wooden trunk at the foot of his bed.

Cloud hefted the lid open and found a wealth of odds and ends piled inside. There was a tin filled with pretty rocks and crystalized mako that he must've collected at some point when he was up wandering in the forest and caves. There was a length of rope, seemingly relatively new, coiled at the bottom. A little pouch, upon opening, was filled with jewelry that his mother had made for him out of silver chains, wire, and crystal mako pieces that still had a bit of a glow when the light hit them. He set it aside carefully; the jewelry was quite pretty. He'd forgotten that his mother made jewelry.

There were a few toys. Random wooden blocks, a few balls, an old stuffed Nibel wolf that must have been given to him when he was a baby, and had seen plenty of wear and tear since, as well as some marbles and toy soldiers. What caught his eye, however, was the small knife he found hidden in the corner of the box and underneath the stuffed wolf.

He quickly pulled it out to examine it with a critical eye. The metal was good, though not the best, and the handle and hilt were serviceable, as was the beaten up leather sheathe it came with.

Cloud strapped it to his leg, feeling slightly better now that he had a weapon.

The boy glanced inside the trunk once more and spotted a slingshot with a small pouch of pebbles perfect for shooting. Cloud had no recollection of ever having used one before, but it couldn't be worse than using a rifle; he pocketed the slingshot, reasoning that it couldn't hurt, and also grabbing the pouch and attaching it to his belt.

That done, he stood up and exited his room. He passed the kitchen, giving his mother a small wave before pulling on his boots by the door. The shoes gave him a bit of trouble when he tried to tuck his pant legs into them, but he managed, even with his small hands.

Cloud got to his feet and left, stepping outside and into a world that he had thought long gone. The eight year old nearly had a heart attack when he saw the blacksmith, alive, and walking by without giving Cloud a backward glance.

Taking a deep breath, Cloud stepped off the small stone porch and began making his way through the village, wanting to look and drink everything in, as well as not look at all to save himself the mental pain and confusion it wrought.

On his way to the outskirts of the village, Cloud felt as though he was walking among ghosts. The blacksmith, Gael Frobisher if Cloud was remembering right, could be seen at work in his shop, his hammer blows echoing through the snow-blanketed quiet. Eoin Fletcher, a young man who was just recently married and who had just had his firstborn delivered when Sephiroth razed Nibelheim, walked along hauling lumber to repair his and his wife's new-old home.

A couple of women stood in front of the little general store, one holding a child as she spoke to the woman next to her. The two women, Cloud recalled, had intensely disliked him and refused to let him near them or their children. Their bodies had been trapped inside the local store and burned alive.

Cloud flinched imperceptibly as he took in all the buildings and people that had burned and died. The boy hurried along, stretching his smaller legs in order to escape the village faster. Rounding the corner of the apothecary in order to take a short cut that he actually remembered, the blonde slammed into another body. Cloud stumbled back, barely managing to catch himself against the side of the building. He raised his head to see who he'd bumped into. And promptly froze.

Large, warm brown eyes set in a small pretty face greeted him. Long, dark brown hair held back in a low, loose ponytail and lips parted in surprise.

A seven year old Tifa Lockhart. Cloud almost choked. If he ever needed the fact that he'd gone back in time hammered into him, the sight of a child Tifa would have done it. As it was, Cloud was desperately trying to mask the look on his face.

"S-sorry," Cloud mumbled as he began edging around Tifa, deciding he really needed to get away. Now.

"Is that all you got to say, shrimp?" growled another voice from behind Tifa.

Cloud couldn't help rolling his eyes at that particular statement, his amusement distracting him slightly from Tifa.

"Shrimp?" muttered Cloud, "Never heard that before," he continued sarcastically, more to himself than the others.

"Did he just talk back?" said a different voice, "Didn't Kelle already beat that out of him?"

Cloud looked around again, noting the two boys behind Tifa. No matter how much he thought, he couldn't seem to place the two. Oh well.

The boy who'd first spoken looked about nine or ten; he was on the tall side, and though he wasn't thin, he wasn't large either. His hair was dark, almost black, and his skin was lightly tanned. His brown-black eyes were narrowed as they stared at Cloud in dislike.

The other boy was shorter than his friend, though about the same age, and only a few inches taller than Tifa. He had wavy hair that was more red than brown and a light dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose. His skin was rather tanned and wind-chapped. His green eyes were staring accusingly at Cloud.

Cloud gave a slight sigh, and then turned around, intending to simply avoid them and go the long way. He wasn't in the mood for a fight, especially one where he didn't have the strength to back him up and would likely lose, taking a pointless beating.

Before he could get far, however, a hand grabbed his upper arm and jerked him back, throwing him against the wall of the building with a thump. Cloud winced.

"Shall we teach him again, Darin?" asked the lad with green eyes, whose name was Flynn.

Darin looked at Cloud, considering, eyes still narrowed in the dislike he'd picked up on from his parents and attributed to Cloud's wild blonde hair, blue eyes, and small build, as well as the fact no one knew who Cloud's father was. He smirked slightly.

"No. Keep him here and I'll go get Kelle. We'll let him deal with it." So saying, Darin turned to Tifa, "Once we're done with that, then we can go play," he said with a cheery smile.

Tifa stared at the older Darin.

"No thanks," said the seven year old, turning away and leaving the three boys behind and sending an apologetic look at Cloud.

Cloud didn't blame Tifa for leaving him, a strategic retreat on her part; he intended to make one as well, as soon as Darin was gone. The shorter boy would be easier to escape from.

Darin stared after the pretty seven-going-on-eight year old, a scowl on his face at her abrupt departure. That did not end how he wanted. He then turned back to Cloud, who was still trapped between the wall and Flynn. Scowling, he walked over to Cloud and glared, as if to say Cloud was the reason Tifa left.

Darin had a crush on Tifa that had started recently, and he took anything that Tifa did or said to heart. Wanting to get rid of the foreign and frustrating feelings that he was experiencing for the first time, he turned and picked up a stray rock a little smaller than his palm.

"Flynn. Move outta the way."

"What are you—Oh," said Flynn, hurriedly backing away as Darin raised the arm holding the rock.

Cloud's eyes widened slightly, understanding of the situation dawning.

Darin threw the rock. Cloud could tell it was going to hit his eye. He didn't want to be blinded, but this body wasn't fast enough to dodge completely. Cloud settled for ducking his head and clenching his eyes shut at the last moment. The rock struck solidly with enough force to cause Cloud's head to snap to the side. Flynn winced.

"Darin," the boy started, looking slightly horrified by the amount of blood that was now pouring from a gash on Cloud's forehead above his eye, just below the gash from the night before.

"Shut up," said Darin, looking slightly guilty and disgruntled, "Leave him. Let's get out of here."

Darin turned, about to leave with Flynn following. Before either of them exited the little hidden spot between buildings, they were confronted by Kelle, Shan, and Mikael. Darin and Flynn stumbled back at the older boys' sudden appearance.

Meanwhile, Cloud was cursing his eight year old, mako-less body with every swearword he knew (which was an extensive amount, considering how old he really was). His small hand was pressed to his forehead, trying to staunch the stinging flow of blood that was dripping irritatingly into his eye. Luckily, Darin's hit hadn't concussed him or made him too dizzy.

"But Gaea, did it hurt."

Cloud looked up as the three older boys came toward him, trying to box him in. Cloud straightened himself up, pulling his hand away from his forehead, and glared coldly at them allowing some of his darker memories to show in his eyes.

"Oooh, look! He's glaring," mocked the fair-haired Shan, his brown eyes scornful.

"That's quite a glare, Cloud," said Mikael, looking slightly unnerved. Was he the only one who noticed that Cloud seemed… older? More dangerous? At least in his eyes… The blood running down the side of his face wasn't helping.

Cloud dropped the glare, internally sighing. How old were these boys again? Thirteen, fourteen?

"How did I never realize how sad these kids were? Or are…" wondered Cloud, thinking, "Teenagers picking on an eight year old…"

"How sad," Cloud mumbled.

The three boys didn't hear Cloud's muttered observation and continued moving forward in tandem with each other. Cloud noticed them moving forward again and shifted to his left minutely, towards the open street. One of the boys moved to accommodate the younger boy's movement. Cloud internally sighed. Looks like he'd have to run, and run fast.

Cloud slipped one hand into the pouch at his waist and the other subtly grabbed the slingshot. Before the other three realized what he was doing, he'd fitted a stone into the sling and pulled it back. Cloud released the pull and the stone shot free, slamming into Shan's foot.

Shan cried out, holding his foot and cursing colorfully in true Nibelheim fashion. Cloud dashed forward, passing the boy holding his foot who made a wild grab for his arm. The blonde slipped past, evading the elder's grasp. The other two skirted around Shan, chasing after Cloud.

The boys ran a merry chase, Cloud barely managing to stay ahead. Only his small body and ability to make sharp turns at top speed were keeping him from Kelle, Mikael, and Shan, who was positively livid at Cloud as he lagged behind the other two due to a pronounced limp.

Cloud couldn't help grumbling to himself as he ran, muttering every foul word he could think of. He was over sixty years old, a fighter who'd saved the world and fought countless battles. And yet, here he was, trapped in an eight year old body and running from three young village teenagers. They weren't even battle trained cadets! And all the same, he was running from them. Oh, irony.

The blonde skidded around another building, the path leading to the mountains in sight. He would've sighed in relief if he had any breath to spare. Cloud was rather horrified at the fact that his body couldn't run for more than ten minutes without causing him to gasp and his legs to burn.

"Planet! This body is worse than I thought."

Cloud was only yards away from his goal when he felt himself trip and crash to the ground. He immediately tried to get back onto his feet, but found his body working against him.

"This is so much harder than it should be," Cloud thought angrily, gritting his teeth as he fought his body's limitations and worked his way up to his feet. Why couldn't he have kept the damn mako?

Hearing three pairs of running feet coming towards him, Cloud spun around. The three older boys had finally caught up.

"What were you trying to do, coming way out here?" Kelle asked, looking slightly irritated and out of breath.

Cloud didn't respond, just regarded the three boys with a mixture of irritation and amusement. The two emotions were readily apparent on Cloud's young, still-expressive face.

"What are you smirking at, you little bastard?" said Shan, taking a menacing step forward.

Of course, it probably would've been more menacing had he not been sporting a rather noticeable limp. Cloud almost laughed, but managed to keep it in check. Antagonizing them wouldn't be the best idea right now. He considered taking out the slingshot again, but he didn't think he'd be able to hit all three at once. The little toy weapon was good for distractions and minor things such as hitting individual hands and feet, but not much else. The blonde looked around for inspiration.

The area the four boys were currently standing in was just a short run away from the path that led up to the mako reactor. A smaller path branched away from it further in. If Cloud remembered correctly, that little path just might be the solution to his predicament…

Mikael, noticing the look the spiky-haired blonde was giving the path, began to say, "Don't even think about—"

Too late. Cloud had already taken off, ordering his legs to not give out on the way. He made it a quarter of the way up the path before the sound of the boys scrabbling after him reached his ears. The continuous, if uneven and stumbling, sound of their passage up the path was somehow vaguely funny. Maybe the fact that he was escaping to the very place Zack had risked his life to get them out of was the reason.

As Cloud rounded a bend in the path, he finally saw what he was looking for: the slightly smaller path that lead to the ShinRa mansion. Gaea, was the Planet screwing with him…

Pushing the thought aside, the eight year old would-be SOLDIER made a sharp left and raced down the path, pushing his short legs just a little harder as his breaths came in deep, choking gasps. He could still here the older boys' heavier steps as they made their way down the dirt path after Cloud.

"They must really not like me…" Cloud thought offhandedly.

Cloud was at the far side of the mansion now, a stone wall fence that was far taller than he was stood in the way. The wall was old and grey with cracks spreading over its surface and ivy climbing up it.

Cloud looked up at it, for a moment forgetting himself and the world around him. He forcefully pushed down the memories that would never truly leave him; the pain, screams, and agony of watching the experiments take place one after the other, on both himself and Zack.

The small blonde turned, sensing that the other boys were now within sight, and began running along the wall, heading for the entrance gate that was to his right and obscured by trees. He just reached the gate when the older three caught up, one of them making a lunge at Cloud. Shan's eyes widened as he saw the eight year old jump, Cloud managing to attach himself to the top of the gate.

"Get him down! Don't let him get over the gate!" yelled Kelle, running forward himself and making a grab at Cloud's legs.

Mikael ran forward as well, trying to grab the slippery blonde who was causing them far more trouble than usual. He'd actually managed to outrun them, for once.

Shan managed to get a hold of Cloud's booted foot and started trying to tug the blonde down. Getting slightly desperate, Cloud kicked out with his other foot and managing to kick Shan in the nose. Shan released him with an enraged, pain-filled yell as blood poured from his nose and a distinctly audible -crack!- sounded through the cold air of Nibelheim.

Cloud managed to tug himself up and over the gate while Kelle and Mikael tried to get a look at Shan's face to examine his nose. Mikael stepped back in shock: the puny little blonde had broken his twin's nose! It was practically shattered!

"You little bastard!" yelled Mikael, turning towards Cloud again, expecting to still see him on the gate.

Cloud, however, knew to take an opportunity when it presented itself. He was already running for the mansion's front door. He paused once he reached it, having heard Mikael's less than friendly shout.

"What?" Cloud finally said tonelessly, looking back at the trio standing in front of the gate, Kelle standing a little in front of Shan and Mikael's hands fisted on the bars of the gate. "You've been beating me up and breaking my bones for how many years now? And you get angry that I broke your brother's nose once? If you can't take it, then don't dish it out."

Cloud's childish voice was quiet, not really angry but filled with something none of the young teens understood. Mikael felt his anger begin to wane; Cloud was right. Why were they doing something so pointless anyways? Kelle and Shan didn't seem to share in Mikael's sudden realization, sputtering in senseless anger and rage. Mikael's eyes met Cloud's. The older boy released the gate and stepped back.

"I'm leaving," he said, "And we should get Shan's nose looked at by the doctor."

So saying, he tugged his twin's arm, ignoring the pissed off and pained vibes he was getting, and headed back up the path. Kelle sent another glare that promised retribution Cloud's way before reluctantly following his friends, not wanting to brave the haunted mansion and strangely fearless and mature blonde by himself.

As Cloud watched them leave, he rather got the impression that he'd have one less person out to harm him. At least, if he read that boy (Mikael?) correctly. It seemed as though he'd woken up to the futility of picking on an eight year old child. Cloud sighed. He should probably stick around for a while, just in case. He turned back to the door.

Cloud's brilliant blue eyes surveyed the old door that wasn't quite as old as it was in his memory. The door was locked, and still looked sturdy enough to do its job. He frowned at it. If he had picks or even a hair pin, he'd be able to open the lock easily; Yuffie and Vincent had passed on a few lessons to the AVALANCHE members on the art of lock-picking.

Thinking of Yuffie, was she even born yet? Yes, though she'd be about two or three… Cloud felt a sharp pain in his chest at the thought of all his companions who in this time, he'd never met, and might never meet if things went to plan and he stopped Hojo, Hollander, and Sephiroth. And even if he did meet them, the relationships wouldn't be the same. The same experiences he was trying to stop were the very things that forged their friendships and made them closer.

Cloud shook his head sharply, trying to dislodge the errant and depressing thoughts. It would be worth it, if he could stop the pain and sadness caused by Meteor. Geostigma wouldn't happen, and Denzel's parents would be alive. Nibelheim wouldn't burn. Zack, Aerith, Jessie, Wedge, Biggs, and so many others wouldn't die… He wanted, needed, to fix everything. He didn't think he could survive living through all of that again.

Determined, Cloud stepped off the porch-like area in front of the door to look for a window he could get through. There. A window to the far right of the door. Reaching it would be a bit of a stretch for his short body, but he could manage. Cloud made his way over to stand beneath the window and looked at it consideringly.

A rather solid-looking bush was growing stubbornly in the mountain climate just underneath the window sill. It would do for a stool.

The child planted his foot onto the sturdy part of the bush and pulled himself up using the window's trim to balance himself as he inspected the window: it was locked. Cloud sighed.

"Nothing can ever be simple, can it?" he said to himself, still feeling rather odd listening to his own, no-longer-deep voice.

"Damn," he abruptly realized, "I'll have to go through all of that again! Awkward mother-son talk included."

Cloud shuddered and allowed himself an inward groan. Turning back to the window and repressing the urge to simply smash the window and be done with it, Cloud took a closer look at the frame holding in one of the panes of glass. Cloud smiled slightly. Part of the wood was rotting and it would be a simple task to wriggle the pane loose. That would be all he needed.

Being small did have its advantages, Cloud realized, rather happy as he began the onerous task of prying the pane loose from the wood, using the small dagger and his bare fingers. About ten minutes later, fingers covered in scratches and splinters, Cloud lowered the pane gently to the ground, intending to place it back when he left and sheathed his small knife.

He hoisted himself up and crawled clumsily through the small, empty rectangle left in the window and tumbled inside. He managed to land with minimal noise, only a small thud and quiet curse as his knees hit the dusty wood floor.

Cloud stood, dusting off his black pants that seemed intent on accumulating all the dirt and grime that was on the mansion's floor. Pants relatively dust-free, the eight year old turned his blue eyes to the rest of the room he'd landed in.

The spiky-haired blonde found himself in a room just off the main hall. He exited, deciding to head to the library. If he remembered correctly, Hojo left a "false trail" for Sephiroth after the mansion was abandoned and that misinformation had helped trigger the madness. He wanted to get rid of the notes. One less trigger to worry about, after all.

And Cloud would never admit to feeling a vindictive pleasure at the thought of destroying the notes. Perhaps with a firaga, though he didn't have one at the moment… Cloud gave a slight smile at the thought, and then proceeded to ignore it in favour of observing his surroundings; there were probably monsters around after all.

He made his way into the main hall and headed for the stairs, regarding them warily. They didn't look very strong. One of the stairs had broken the last time he'd gone up. But then, he'd been an adult lugging around a sword that weighed almost as much as he did. Not to mention the mansion had been older back then.

Cloud blinked at the thought, and then sighed.

"This whole time travel thing is really messing with my head," Cloud said to himself ruefully, shaking his head as he began making his way up the stairs and deciding to conveniently ignore the fact that he was talking to himself.

Some of the stairs creaked alarmingly, but still held as the small blonde made his way up. He avoided using the banister in order to leave no obvious hand prints from swiping away the dust as he went.

Once on the next floor, Cloud turned left. He smiled slightly to himself; amazingly enough, he still recalled the safe's combination. That would make things infinitely easier, though he'd have to go back through at some point to collect all the weapons and things floating around. He really missed having the comforting feeling of a sword on his back.

"Maybe I should get a sword first. I don't really remember at what point in the basement Lost Number shows up…." Cloud thought, pausing on his way to the room that held the safe.

Cloud shrugged, still thinking, and moved on, entering the room warily. He heaved a small sigh of relief when no monsters jumped out. The blonde's young face tugged into a frown; this was weird. Why weren't there any monsters taking up residence? And now that he started really thinking about it, the place wasn't nearly as run down as he'd expected it to be…And parts of the place looked like someone had been there recently.

Cloud's frown deepened. He walked quickly to the safe and dialed in the combination. He tugged it open. Inside lay a small grouping of papers, slightly stale and damp from cold and inattention. Cloud pulled it out and tossed it onto a nearby desk without a glance before returning his attention to the safe. He reached deeper into the safe until he touched a piece of cool metal. Giving a satisfied smile, Cloud pulled out the old brass key.

As Cloud turned to leave and head to the basement, he noted a chest tucked into the corner. Tilting his head, Cloud walked over to it and hefted it open, his thin arms straining. His eyes widened. A slow grin reached his lips, his eight year old face practically glowing.

He'd found an Odin materia. And, even better than that, a sword with materia slots.

Ten minutes later found Cloud with some gil, an ether, and a potion, all collected from various places in the mansion. Cloud felt a growing sense of security with each item he'd obtained, though they were no First Tsurugi. It was time to head for the basement.

Cloud had to think a bit, trying to remember the way down. He had over fifty years' worth of memory to sort through. After a few minutes, Cloud's eyes lit as he finally remembered and headed for the basement.

A short walk and a few minutes later, Cloud was walking through the passageway underground, the key resting in his pocket and sword in hand, though he could barely hold it up. It held materia at least, so he wouldn't have to use the blade itself, though he hated the thought.

He gave a brief mental touch to the materia, just to make sure he still had the ability to wield it. It glimmered with light; Cloud smiled slightly, relieved. He'd been a bit worried that he'd lost the ability when he lost the mako. Seems he needn't have worried. It was probably due to the amount of times his consciousness had traveled into and through the Lifestream; he was attuned to it now in a similar way the Cetra had been.

Cloud took another step and found himself in the ShinRa library. It was just as full of books and scattered papers as he remembered. The ones Sephiroth had read were the ones hidden obviously, tucked in certain books and in the back of shelves. Those were the ones that were altered.

The eight year old conducted a quick search of the library for monsters. Finding none, he set down the sword, the muscles in his hands and arms aching from the strain of having held it up for so long. Shaking out his arms and giving them a quick stretch, Cloud set to work finding and sorting all of the files, papers, and books that had been hidden.

Cloud found that some of it, Gast's research for instance, had been mostly accurate aside from a few things. Hojo's work was something else. As Cloud looked through the papers, he noticed where Hojo fabricated or altered results to suit his needs or beliefs. The things obviously left for Sephiroth to find, Cloud simply tossed aside into the burn pile he'd started. Most of Hojo's research went into that pile.

Once Cloud finished the first four bookcases and the desk, he moved to the last one, the fifth bookcase. It wasn't quite as full as the others and seemed more disused than the other bookcases. Cloud shifted a large pile of outdated books on mako, sneezing when the dust blew up into his face. Something fell as Cloud moved the books to the desk in order to sort through the pages to make sure nothing was hidden in them. He quickly put the books down, almost tripping over a small pile of even more books when he turned back. Catching himself, Cloud's eyes scanned the ground for whatever had fallen, which turned out to be a file, some of the papers having spilled out during the short fall. A name on several of the papers immediately caught Cloud's attention.

Project V

"Vincent…" Cloud murmured, stepping over quietly to pick up the file and papers that had spilled.

Papers picked up and a quick glance through the file showed it was indeed Vincent's file.

"Vincent never got to know what exactly Hojo had done to him," Cloud thought.

Still pensive, Cloud sat the file on the part of the desk he'd put information he deemed both pertinent and accurate. The boy sat down in the chair behind the desk with a thump, a sigh gusting from his lips. He was basically done going through the parts of the library he knew things had been hidden in. Cloud toyed with the idea of trying to wake Vincent, but decided he needed to know the time; he didn't want to be late to lunch, especially when his mother specifically told him not to.

Cloud blinked. There was no way to tell the time in the library. No windows, and any clock that might be in the library would be useless. Cloud stood up hurriedly and headed for the door, grabbing the too heavy sword as he went. He made sure to lock the door to the passage behind him.

Looking at the sword, Cloud had a quick inner debate. Leave the sword or take the sword? He decided to compromise, leaving the sword next to the fireplace in a shadowy recess with a group of fire pokers, but taking the Odin materia; after all, he didn't want to be seen walking through Nibelheim with a sword. That would raise awkward questions. He also pocketed the gil, leaving the potions and ethers he'd collected with the weapon.

Cloud looked out the window. The sun was high. Probably almost noon. He was probably going to be late. The blonde quickly hoisted himself through the window and dropped clumsily to the other side, landing on the bush and scratching his legs through his pants. He'd probably have welts. Cloud looked around quickly, trying to find the pane of glass. Finding it, Cloud picked it up gently and inserted it carefully into the frame, stepping back carefully and making sure it would stay put.

That done, Cloud made sure his gil and materia were still safely in his pockets and jogged down the drive to the gate. Cloud looked at the tall iron gate balefully; mako would've made this so much easier. But then, so would having his adult body.

Cloud gave a mental shrug and began hauling his little body up and over the gate. He dropped to the other side, stumbling a bit but adjusting quickly. Slowly but surely, he was getting used to the idea of being a little over four feet tall.

The boy began a light jog, hoping to both begin increasing his stamina and get home quickly so he wouldn't be too late.

Cloud made it, only a few minutes later than expected. He tripped slightly, exhausted from all of the running, as he made his way up the steps.

"Welcome back, Cloud," called the boy's mother from inside the kitchen. "Did you have fun?" she asked, smiling at her out of breath son.

"Yeah," Cloud managed, giving her a slight smile. Cloud abruptly remembered the gash on his forehead and said, "I need to go to the bathroom. I'll be right back."

So saying, Cloud turned away quickly, tossing the slingshot and small knife into his room as he went by, heading for the sink in the bathroom. Once inside, he shut and locked the door. Facing the mirror, he pushed his bangs aside and winced, seeing the nasty gash on his forehead.

He hadn't thought to drink either the potion or the ether that he'd found before he left the mansion.

"Well, I don't really want to waste it on something as small as this anyways," he thought, dampening a small cloth.

Cloud used the cloth and began dabbing at the gash on his forehead, trying to clean it up. At least he wouldn't have to think of an excuse for it; the damned rock had hit basically the same spot as the gash from that first night he'd woken up in the past. Cloud couldn't decide if he was lucky or unlucky.

Cloud watched the red water wash down the sink as he rinsed out the cloth. Reaching down into the cupboard underneath the sink, the small boy pulled out the rubbing alcohol. Cloud used that to finish cleaning out the wound; it would be bad if it got infected. He also took the time to work out the small splinters in his fingers as well as bandaging them up; they had been bleeding sluggishly ever since he'd torn the glass pane from the window.

That done, Cloud went back to the kitchen where his mother was waiting. When Cloud walked in, his mother immediately noticed the white wrappings around his small fingers. She debated on whether to ask or not, but decided to allow her son some privacy. If he wasn't going to talk to her about it, she wouldn't press him. And besides, knowing her son, Cloud was probably sword practicing with a wooden stick in the forest and simply been too embarrassed to admit the fact. He did have his pride. Dismissing her son's odd behavior and equally strange wounds, she began putting food on the table.

Cloud's eyes closed at the scent. His mother had made a stew, heavy with wild game meat that they had managed to barter off the shopkeeper, Walter Godhold. Living in Nibelheim was hard enough, but for the Strifes with their soft, lightly-coloured looks and odd, unknown origins it was practically impossible.

His mother gave a quick prayer of thanks to Mother Gaea, and then they both dug into the stew in comfortable silence. After they were nearly done, Cloud finally spoke:

"The stew is really good, mom."

Cloud's voice was quiet, almost shy, as he spoke to his mother.

"Thanks, though I have to say your pancakes definitely rival it. They were really yummy," she said with a teasing yet genuine smile.

Cloud felt a happy, childish grin spread across his face and his cheeks flush a light pink in pleased embarrassment.

"Really?" he said, unable to help the childish comment.

His mother laughed as she stood up with her bowl. As she passed him on her way to the sink, she bent down and kissed him on the top of his head and said, "Really."

Cloud ducked his head, his spikes bouncing slightly at the movement. His mother laughed as she continued on her way to the sink. Cloud stood up as well, having eaten a good portion of his stew.

Despite being in a younger body, his appetite still wasn't that great. However, the food was good, and it was familiar and gave him a feeling of safety which, Cloud realized, was helping him eat a bit more than when he was older.

Cloud handed his bowl up to his mom and then went back to the small roughly hewn kitchen table whose surface was polished from use. The boy began putting things away as his mother looked on, an odd expression on her face.

The blonde finished and turned back to his mother who was in the process of putting away the excess stew. He simply watched her for a few seconds, marveling that she was simply alive and he wasn't dreaming.

Sensing his gaze, Elle turned around and regarded her son for a moment.

"Is something wrong?" she asked, pinning her son with the world renowned penetrating look that only mothers can give.

Cloud started, unaware that he had been staring.

"N-no. There's nothing," he managed to say, stuttering slightly. He'd forgotten how perceptive and intelligent she was, especially where people were concerned, and himself in particular.

"Are you sure? Are you…worried about something?" she asked, her eyes gentling as she surveyed the various cuts and contusions on her small son.

Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, Cloud replied more firmly, "No, really mom. I'm fine. It's nothing."

Cloud gave her a small reassuring smile. Elle looked at her son for a moment, wondering at the calm and gentle smile her son seemed to have suddenly developed overnight. He no longer gave her bright, beaming, naïve smiles throughout the day. His smile was meant to reassure. It felt, she thought, as though he'd grown into an adult overnight.

"If you're sure then," she said, deciding not to look into it any deeper than that her son was growing up. She could sense, with a mother's intuition, that there was something larger going on and that she wouldn't like the answer if she knew.

Cloud walked over to his mom and hugged her, stretching his arms around her slim form. Vaguely surprised, Elle hugged her son back tightly with a sad smile she kept hidden in his spiky hair.

"There are a few hours till bedtime, why don't you go study?" she suggested.

Cloud pulled back from the hug and cast a discreet glance at the living room to see where the study material was. Feeling a sense of relief, Cloud looked up at his mother and gave a nod accompanied by a small smile.

"Alright," he said, hugging his mother once more before going to the small bookshelf and pulling down the school material.

Cloud flipped through the book till he found where it was he'd left off before the Planet's interference. It was basic reading and math. Cloud sighed. Looked like some acting was called for. He couldn't just suddenly be able to read scientific level books or do advanced mathematics.

Cloud settled in for a long couple hours before bedtime.

AN: Hope this long chapter makes up for the shorter previous chapters _ lol.