Zack and Aerith's voices had faded, but the space around him still seemed sterile and empty, and his eyelids were too heavy to lift. Where his body touched, the surface beneath him was cool and buoyant, like water or lifestream or both; but beyond that there was solid ground of some sort, for he could hear padding footsteps coming closer. Warm breath ghosted over his ear, and a furry muzzle nuzzled his neck.
It was the wolf. His wolf, the one that had been a constant companion, partially real, mostly imaginary, since Zack broke them out of Hojo's lab three years ago. A living symbol, or so he'd always thought, of his guilt and his failures: whenever he suffered another loss, and his heart howled with pain and anguish, the wolf became a little more real, a little more tangible.
Now it was waiting, trembling with excitement and anticipation. For what?
He started. That was his mother's voice, as sweet and loving as it had ever been in life, echoing in the vast nothingness in which he floated.
"Mom?" Doubt and hope mixed strangely in his half-choked question.
"Yes, I'm here. Gaia has a gift for you, and while she loves the Cetra, and trusts her with a great number of secrets, this one is mine to share."
Frowning, he struggled to sit up, to at least open his eyes, without avail. Beside him, the wolf whined and nosed closer, as if offering comfort. "Secret?" he asked, tone betraying his frustration and confusion, "Gaia?"
"Hojo took something from you during your time in his lab. Gaia wants to give it back."
Although his mother's tone was calm, even soothing, Cloud found his heart was beating at a panicked pace. What had Hojo done during those torturous four years? What he knew already was bad enough. Did he want to know more?
"It's a gift, Cloud," his mother repeated, "not a punishment." Her sigh wrapped around him, full of regret. "The planet is proud of you. Grateful to you. Although you've been ill-used and hurt and mistreated, you've also been her steadfast protector, her guardian, her knight. A better WEAPON than those created solely for the purpose. Now, she wants to return something that was taken from you, that has always been yours by right. More, she wants to restore it to what it once was, generations ago."
"A reward?" He didn't want or need anything of the sort. Returning to Tifa and the kids would be enough.
"Do you remember telling me you thought you were different from the other children?" He nodded, lips parting to speak, and felt work-worn fingers come to rest against his mouth in her familiar gesture for quiet, for him to let her finish. "You were right. We were both different. Our blood is older. Our ancestors made the mountain their home long before Shin-Ra came with his money and his mansion and his employees and built Nibelheim." She laughed, just slightly, and he heard the echo of his own wry humor. "For all that we were ostracized, the townspeople were the outsiders as far as the mountain was concerned." Her tone sobered, her hand shifting to rest on his chest. "Although Mount Nibel's gift had diminished over the years, Hojo noticed the difference in you. It's at least partly why he chose you as a specimen. Initially, he planned to extract and manipulate your gift, use it to design the next wave of Shin-Ra warriors. When it proved to be immutable, a secret in your genes he couldn't splice or trace or play with, he settled for making sure you couldn't call on it, either."
With great effort, Cloud managed to shift his arm enough to twine fingers with hers. The very air seemed viscous when it came in contact with his skin. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand." As a child, he'd told himself he was different – special – simply so it wouldn't hurt so much to feel unwanted. He had no idea what she was talking about, what 'difference' Hojo could possibly have noticed while examining a teenage recruit, passed out on the steps of the reactor, with a gaping hole in his chest.
She laughed. "I know you don't," her free hand traced the shape of his face, fingered his earring, "but you will." Another sigh drifted through the air, accompanied by an increased sense of urgency. "Jenova was the wedge, and mako the hammer he used to drive it between you and the gift in your blood, Cloud. Now the planet wants to repair the damage. Will you let her?"
To be free of at least some of Hojo's experimentation? The answer seemed obvious. Still, he hesitated. What had the madman tried so hard to take? Did he want whatever this gift was, if it was something a man like Hojo could covet?
"I think," his mother's voice was soft and reassuring, "that it will help you, Cloud. It's absence is partly what you struggle with when dealing with others. The reason you feel uncertain. Accept it."
Trusting her judgement as he always had, he nodded. At his shoulder the wolf gave a single, exuberant cry, then faded along with the echoes. As it went, memories rushed through him: comments heard as a child but not understood, and therefore forgotten.
His father, telling him stories as a baby, about fog and the mountain and wolves, of safety in numbers and the importance of instinct.
The principal in a near panic, banning him from school for a month when he was six, after he bit another boy during a playground fight.
His mother, comforting him after Tifa fell, and he not only couldn't help her, but wasn't hurt at all himself. Alpha, just like your father, desperate and over eager to protect those you claim as your own.
Mr. Lockhart shaking him by the scruff of the neck, calling him 'mutt' and 'unnatural' while ordering him to stay away from his daughter.
The town physician staring in fascination while a cut on Cloud's leg bled profusely, as if the blood were unexpected.
Every snippet of memory added another piece to the puzzle. Then, finally, he recalled collapsing in the reactor, lying on the steps in a half-conscious state, too weak and tired and drained to protect himself or Zack when Hojo arrived. He'd snarled, trying to appear menacing, mouth and jaw straining to move in a way they were not designed to do, lips curling back from teeth that suddenly didn't quite fit, growling low in his throat like a wounded animal.
A wounded wolf.
Snapping at the scientist, human rationality gone and animal instinct operating in its place, he'd failed to register anything more than fear when the bastard had laughed with delight, naming him. "What a find you are. Ulfhednar! A true Nibel native!" Panicked horror had chased him into unconsciousness, and four years of torture had erased the memory.
Now, though, Cloud remembered it all. More importantly, he understood. Something inside him shifted, realigning itself, much like a dislocated joint snapping back into place.
And he awoke, surrounded by children, floating on his back in the new pool in the church, smiling.
For a moment he lay there, trying to assess and assimilate what changes had been wrought by his acceptance of the planet's gift. Deep within, the part of him that was possessive and protective and sometimes feral, a part he'd been slightly uncomfortable with for as long as he could remember, was suddenly both perfectly appropriate and completely at ease. As his mother had said when he was just a boy, Cloud was alpha, and thanks to Gaia's tampering, he no longer felt any need to hide it.
Other perceptions had shifted as well. The wolf in him was confident and unwavering. It didn't know guilt. It knew that failure was a part of life, and while not desirable, it was bearable. Loved ones passed on, and you grieved, but you didn't take responsibility for the actions of another. Perhaps most significantly, to the wolf, what was important – who was important – was simple and clear. Family – pack – took precedence. The needs and demands of everyone else were irrelevant.
The shift in thinking was remarkably freeing.
Sensing his family anxiously waiting for him to move, to give some sign that he was alright, Cloud opened his eyes and stood. Around him, the children responded to the motion, and returned his smile. One, braver or more outspoken than the rest, cheerfully explained that Aerith had told them what to do. Nodding his thanks, he turned without hesitation to where he knew Tifa stood, worried and uncertain as she watched him. He hadn't had to look or listen: he just knew. Pushing forward through the waist-deep water, he caught and held her gaze with his own. "I'm back," he said, once he stood before her, close enough to reach for her hand.
The words were a promise, and he felt some of her tension dissipate. Beside her, practically hopping with excitement, Marlene chirped out a welcome, and he let his smile grow as he thanked her.
Denzel was quiet and withdrawn, almost hiding behind Tifa. The church was filled with children who had been sick with the stigma, and were now whole and healthy. Cloud was healthy. Yet Denzel was still ill and wracked with pain, and Cloud knew the boy was afraid he would stay that way. Sharing a brief glance with Tifa, the two moved almost as one to coax him forward, Cloud holding out his hand with assurance, while she knelt to wrap her arm around thin shoulders. "It'll be alright," they said together, and then Cloud was lifting Denzel and setting him on his feet in the water.
When his pup's geostigma faded into green sparkles and then healthy skin, Cloud discovered something else: the wolf was playful. Hoisting the laughing boy up, he tossed him to land with a splash among the other children. For a moment the room froze with surprise, and then Denzel led the charge to see who could douse Cloud the most. With a giggly little crow, Marlene leapt on his back, using her leverage to help dunk the hero. Yuffie and Barret followed shortly thereafter, and soon the once-silent church rang with gleeful noise.
Cid, Vincent, and Nanaki withdrew to a safe distance, leaving Tifa alone at the very edge of the pool, her shoes and knees gradually growing water spattered as she watched Cloud play with Denzel and Marlene, or occasionally push Yuffie under the water if the ninja got within arm's reach. She smiled, and her eyes glowed with pride and happiness, but there was uncertainty there, too. Cloud was... different. Happier. Even lighter than when he'd helped fight Bahamut. It was wonderful, but confusing, and she didn't know what to expect from him this way.
Didn't know what she dared hope would happen next.
The glances he sent her way were warm and familiar and... possessive, seeming to promise that she need never fear he would leave her or distance himself again. He'd made similar promises before, though. She wanted them to be real, wanted to trust him, but she was afraid, too.
Catching her eye, he cocked his head in an inviting gesture, encouraging her to join him in the water. She didn't dare. There were too many people here to bear witness when the dam on her emotions inevitably broke and she either cried, or kissed him, or kicked his ass for frightening her so. Maybe all three. It was far safer to keep her distance, where he couldn't touch her or coax her tears with his voice, but was forced to communicate with only his eyes and expressions.
The way he was frowning at her now. One gloved hand came up to wave her closer, and she shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest and letting her eyes slide elsewhere when displeasure darkened his.
Cloud didn't know why, beyond the certainty that it was somehow his fault, but Tifa – brave, determined Tifa – was wavering. Smiling on the outside and doubting on the inside. Retreating. Apprehensive. Human emotion and animal instinct were in accord: whatever was wrong, he had to fix it, and soon. Now.
It was time for everyone to head home, and time for them to talk.
Slowly working his way out of the knot of people in the center of the pool, he bent his knees slightly and pushed himself out of the water. When his feet – paws – hit the wooden floorboards beside her, he was a wolf.
The change was simple and natural and quick, although he knew it was something he'd never done before – something he hadn't had the ability to do back when he was sixteen. As sure footed on four feet as he was on two, he stretched languorously, addressing every kink in toes and back and tail while Tifa stared wide-eyed. Then he straightened and shook himself, scattering water everywhere. When that display was met with silence, he realized she was too stunned to react.
Maybe shifting hadn't been his best idea. The wolf had been itching to escape its confines, though, and he'd thought – vaguely – that comforting Tifa, at least initially, might be easier while he was warm and furry and prone to a new and strange desire for contact. At the moment, he very much wanted to press up against her and feel her fingers run through the fur on his head and neck.
Instead, he sat back on his haunches to give her a moment to assimilate the fact that her man could turn into a wolf.
While he waited, he took stock. His front and back paws were black, like his gloves and boots, and displayed sharp claws. The rest of his clothes seemed to still be wrapped around him, unchanged, and felt a bit odd once he paid attention to them. Tangled and confining. Tsurugi's harness was an especially awkward weight across his back. His limbs above the joint, as well as the tail curled around him, were a blond to rival his hair color, and he could only assume that his body and face were the same.
"Cloud?" the voice wasn't Tifa's, but another he held dear: Marlene, clinging to the edge of the pool, her chin resting on the wood floor as she watched him with wide, curious eyes. Beyond her, he could see the other children sporting similar expressions, while the adults watching appeared as stunned as Tifa. Giving a short huff of assent, he dropped on his belly to crawl forward and touch his nose to hers. Her giggle seemed to snap everyone out of their stupor, erupting into a tumultuous chorus of shouts and demands and questions. Beside him, Tifa stumbled back a step and sat down.
Lifting his head, Cloud let out a long, piercing howl, cutting through the noise and calling for silence. Then, very pointedly, he leaned over and closed his teeth around the back of Marlene's dress, lifting her out of the water and silencing Barret's half shout with a single, reproachful glare. Once her feet were on solid ground, he released her just as carefully, and then nudged her toward Vincent and Cid. Turning back to the pool he jerked his head at Denzel, the motion as clear as if his human self had announced it was time to get out. Grinning, the little boy obeyed, splashing through the water to receive his own wolfish greeting and helpful boost. Mako-blue eyes shifted to scan the rest of the group, and they, too, complied without complaint, slowly exiting the water and filtering out of the church.
Dismissing everyone else, certain that Barret could take care of the kids for a few hours, he turned his full attention to Tifa. He circled her once, letting his fur brush her skin and pressing his head into the small of her back to push her upright, then sat, facing her within easy reach. Slowly – far more hesitantly than Marlene, making his heart clench - she reached out to run careful fingers over his forehead. Closing his eyes he leaned into the touch, encouraging it, and felt her relax, just a fraction.
"Ulfhednar?" her voice was barely a whisper. Again, he gave the same low sound of assent he'd used with Marlene, then turned to bury his nose in her cupped palm, laving her skin with his tongue. She was warm and slightly salty and his, and he gave her a blatantly proud doggie grin when she squealed his name in protest.
A sure sign she was getting over her shock.
His grin changed abruptly to a whine of complaint when her hand tightened around his ear and tugged. "You're going to explain this to me," she told him firmly. He whined again and attempted to look pathetic, not really wanting to explain anything, especially not when it would be so easy to turn a little and press just so and have his head resting against her chest. The puppy eyes were apparently far more effective as a wolf, for she sighed and released his ear. Scooting forward, she wrapped her arms around his neck, letting him snug his chin against her shoulder.
Not quite perfect, but getting there.
Rising to all fours he leaned into her, gradually pressing her back until she had to release him to keep from falling over. Hands braced behind her, she eyed him questioningly. "Cloud?" In answer, he gently butted his head against her chest, letting it rest there until she reluctantly slipped onto her back. "You could change and just tell me what you want," she grumbled, and he growled to show his distaste for the idea. In return she froze, hands clenching in his fur, her scent spiking with anxiety. "You can change back, can't you?" A soft bark reassured her. "So why don't you?"
Because the wolf was possessive and curious, and wanted to learn her scent so he could find her anywhere. There wasn't an effective way to explain that at present, though, so he simply licked her palm again, and then settled down against her, chin on her stomach and body between her legs, blue eyes fixed on her face.
Tifa just stared, head tilted forward at an awkward angle to look down her chest at him. "Is this your way of telling me you're not moving?" Her tone tried for flippant but broke on the last word, and he knew she meant leaving rather than moving. He answered by letting her take more of his weight, and she gave a choked little laughing sob, her fingers sifting through the longish fur on his head, pressing him close.
Silence descended, her body gone soft as if relaxed in sleep, when next she spoke. "I love you, Cloud." Lifting his head, he found her watching him, a faint smile teasing her lips. "I don't... I mean, you may not feel the same. But I do. I love you." She laughed, a self-deprecating sound, fingers clenching against his ruff. "Did you know it would be easier to talk to you this way?"
Ignoring the question he stood, carefully placing his front paws on either side of her chest and leaning in to lick the tears trickling across her cheek. Their salty tang sharp on his tongue, he turned to rub his face and muzzle along her chin in a blatant display of wolfish affection. Doing his best to tell her, without words – for while he would never, ever be good with them, the wolf instinctively knew how to communicate this way, through touch and scent and tongue – that he was exactly where he wanted to be. She giggled, and that new playfulness reasserted itself, prompting him to stick his cold nose in the warm curve of her neck and shoulder, wanting her to laugh again. To be happy. When she chased him away, he shifted his explorations to the ticklish spots along her side and tummy, and then later to the inside of her knees and elbows.
But once she was breathless and smiling, it was a human impulse that caused him to take the zipper pull on her leather vest between his teeth and tug. Human desires that prompted him to nuzzle between her thighs and paint a wet stripe along the seam of her shorts. Her protest fell on human ears, her fingers tangling in human hair, and it was a human mouth and tongue that laid claim to hers.
A human body that expressed exactly what he felt and what he wanted – had always wanted – and whispered human words into her ear.
And as the first full Ulfhednar in generations claimed his mate, it was a human heart that gave thanks to Gaia, for making him whole again.
It's amazing what you can learn when trying to make sense of your own fanfic ideas. The word berserker has it's origins in Old Norse, and means "bear shirt". Similarly, ulfhednar roughly translates to "wolf coats", and refers to berserker figures in Norse mythology who wore wolf skins rather than bear pelts. Some scholars consider that the ulfhednar - if they really existed - probably contributed to the werewolf legend. One etymology for the term werewolf even proposes that it originally meant "one wearing a wolf skin". Which is important here, because Cloud is essentially a type of werewolf, and that's why his people are called Ulfhednar. I am, of course, using it to mean "wolf coat" or "one wearing a wolf skin", not to imply that he's a berserker.