He was five when his mother died. Actually, she was killed by a Nibel dragon, but either way she was dead, and he was alone. As the bastard child of an outsider, Cloud Strife was quickly booted out of his mother's house and Nibelheim in general. He was granted only one set of clothes, a small but sharp knife, and a loaf of stale bread.
He'd been living in a cave on his own for a week when the wolves found him. The wild life of the Nibel Mountain Range was dangerous in ways that it wasn't in other places. Oh certainly there were dangerous creatures everywhere – anything from a malboro to a behemoth could be found most anywhere if one cared to look, but wolves in places other than the Nibel Mountains were generally only a very little bit bigger than an adult husky and more likely to avoid people than anything else. Wolves from the Nibel Range, however, were easily as large or larger than a large bull mastiff and really had no problem at all with going after humans for an easy meal.
Cloud didn't expect to see the next dawn once he saw the female Nibel wolf walk calmly into the cave. When the male followed behind her, Cloud started doubting he'd even see the sunset that evening – even if the male was dragging the carcass of a behemoth calf in between his legs as well. Nibel wolves weren't the kind to be satisfied with one meal when they could have two after all, and even as large as the behemoth calf was, it still wouldn't fill the stomachs of two adult Nibel wolves – one maybe, but not two.
So Cloud was understandably surprised when the female looked him up and down critically but did not attack. Understandably stunned when the male did the same. Understandably shocked and relieved when the female ripped off a chunk of meat from the behemoth calf's front leg and dropped it in front of him, then gave him a look that said he'd better eat it. His mother had given him that look when it came to vegetables, he remembered. The exact same look.
Not caring that the meat was raw, Cloud tore into the meat with the voraciousness of one who was very hungry after a week with little food. The stale bread had not lasted him long after all.
The female wolf nodded as if in approval, then turned her back on the child and joined the male in devouring the rest of the calf.
This is how Cloud's life with the Nibel wolves began.
Cloud was six when he made his first kill, all by himself and with nothing but his claws and the small knife he still held from when he had been evicted from Nibelhiem. The female – who he now called Mother Wolf – had brought him back injured creatures before so that he could learn to kill prey that could not escape him so easily nor challenge him so greatly. The male – who was simply Father, for Cloud had known no other father, and felt no need to distinguish between a human parent that he had lost and a wolf parent that he had gained – had taken him hunting some times and allowed Cloud to finish a kill that he had begun.
This was the first time he had killed a creature that was not brought to him injured or already half-hunted. It was only a lost goat, but it was still an animal that was determined to live and not be killed – and it had horns that it was not afraid to use against the child. Cloud had prevailed though, and brought his kill back to the cave in triumph. As soon as he entered with his kill, Mother Wolf had licked his face once and left the cave to do her own hunting. The new cubs, their eyes only just open and their teeth only just new, fell upon the bounty that Cloud had brought back for them.
The cubs had been born only a few weeks ago, and were too small to be left completely alone. It was usually Mother Wolf of Cloud who stayed with them. Mother Wolf because the cubs still suckled some; Cloud because he was enough defence while Mother Wolf and Father hunted as they needed to.
Cloud ate his goat with the cubs, sometimes batting them away from a piece that he wanted for himself. By this time he had forgotten that he ever ate his meat cooked, and knew only that the very best parts of a goat were its liver and the marrow of the bones once he cracked them open. He did not begrudge the cubs the marrow. It was good for them to chew on bones and the marrow was very good for growing little ones. The liver, however, was his when Mother Wolf and Father were not there to claim it for themselves.
The goat was soon stripped of its meat and the bones were being gnawed upon by the cubs who weren't interested in sleeping or playing – and Cloud was letting the cubs sleep or play over and around him while he lay on his stomach and sucked marrow out of a bone – when Father returned with Mother Wolf, dragging a juvenile behemoth between them.
Cloud was up in a flash with his knife, dragging it through the animal's hide, separating fur from flesh. This was something else that he had learned quickly. He could take the hide from killed animals and their fur would keep him warm through a Nibel winter. Of course, since Mother Wolf and Father had come into his life, the cold had been less of a problem than before.
Many things had been less of a problem once they'd found him. His thirst had been quenched when they led him to a river and themselves started to drink. He'd not minded any more that the water glowed some, and had even dived in a few times when he discovered that the water was actually properly warm where the glow was brightest. Some places steam rose from the water even, which was absolutely wonderful in winter.
Cloud was seven when the cubs left the den. Nibel wolves were only very loosely pack animals. Then again, a Nibel wolf didn't need nearly so much help to bring down its quarry. Still, all the Nibel wolves were aware of the others, and if there was a true danger to them all – if a Nibel dragon went mad for instance – then they would band together. In general though, Nibel wolves lived only with their parents until large enough to fend for themselves, and only with their siblings until a mate was found – if they even stayed together that long.
Actually, he was tempted to go with the cubs, to strike out on his own and carve out a territory for himself. But then Mother Wolf had looked at him with such a soulful expression on her furry face, and Father had stood between him and the exit of the cave... Cloud couldn't leave them yet. Would not leave them yet.
Cloud buried his face in Mother Wolf's furry neck and breathed deeply, curling himself around her and letting both of them know that he wasn't going anywhere.
Cloud was eight when he killed his first behemoth calf, alone, and by the time he was nine it was something he did fairly easily. Hunting together with Mother Wolf and Father, bringing down an adult behemoth actually happened once or twice when he reached ten years. He'd even killed a Nibel wolf by then. Not Mother Wolf or Father, or any of the cubs from any of the litters that Mother Wolf had borne and that had left, but an intruder on their territory. A young, lone Nibel wolf that had blood on its fangs and madness in its eyes.
Father had fought it, but he was beginning to get old, and the young, mad wolf was in its prime, despite its madness. The stranger killed Father. Mother Wolf took over the fight where Father had faltered, but she was older than Father had been, and the stranger was filled with the power of madness and the adrenaline of a fresh kill. The stranger killed Mother Wolf. Cloud grasped his knife tightly in his fist and dived between the stranger's legs, knife up and ripping through its stomach. Cloud was small and agile, faster than the mad wolf that had been losing blood since the fight against Father, and only with the slightest difficulty was it that he ducked between the large beast's legs. Tendons were cut, and then finally the animal's throat was ripped out.
His family was gone from him again, but he had killed a Nibel wolf at only ten years of age. Cloud Strife would be just fine.
At fifteen, Cloud Strife was lean, lithe, willowy and unavoidably short – five foot nothing to be precise, upstanding hair not included - hair that had been hacked off in odd ways by his own hand. Long hair was something for people with grooming options he'd long decided - ever since he'd stolen into Nibelheim again when he was twelve. It had been a very lean time and he'd been reduced to hunting livestock in their pens. At least the cold never bothered him any more – the warmth from the glowing water that he drank and bathed in seemed to have settled in his bones.
At present, he was following his nose deep into a tunnel. It was the only hole in the ground within what was generally considered his territory that he hadn't investigated yet. That the tunnel smelled of people other than him, even if the smell was quite old by now, was not particularly encouraging. It didn't help that the smell was getting stronger – and less old – the further in he went. There was at least one person at the other end of this tunnel.
Correction: behind the door that was at the other end of the tunnel.
Further correction: inside one of the coffins that was behind the door at the other end of the tunnel.
Only... when he pried off the coffin lid and found the person, they didn't smell of just person. Without the wood in the way, all the subtle other scents could be detected, even if they were covered well by the powerful tang of metal and the more heady smell of leather, as well as the basic and blatant scent of the human himself.
Cloud pulled the lid back onto the coffin. The man was sleeping and, despite the underlying scents he could pick up if he breathed deeply, was currently no threat. Cloud scented the stale air again. More people further up. He moved to investigate.
Two men walked into the hallway he'd just entered. One with silver hair of such a length that Cloud knew instantly that he had grooming time. He wore leather and metal and his chest was bare. The other was wearing cloth with his metal, and his black hair was much shorter.
"Who're you?" demanded the silver-haired male.
"Yeah, and what are you doing here with nearly no clothes on? In winter?" added the black-haired one.
Cloud hadn't spoken to humans in a long time, could barely remember his human mother and the words she had spoken to him. The only thing he really still had from when he'd lived with people was the small knife he still carried. It was currently strapped to his hip by a bit of animal hide that was also wrapped around his groin. Playing with the cubs had taught him long ago that he didn't want that stuff exposed.
"Hoooo-errrrrrrr yooooo?" Cloud returned, a defensive snarl on his lips. "Win-trrrrr?"
The black-haired man blinked. "Dear Gaia Seph," he said quietly, barely even breathing the words out. "I think we might have a genuine wild child on our hands."
"I somehow doubt this is the monster we were sent to exterminate," the silver-haired one answered with a slight huff. "We're not reporting him to Hojo either."
"Agreed," said the black-haired one firmly.
"Arrrr-grrreeeeeed?" Cloud repeated, his eyes darting from one man to the other.
"I'm Zack," the black-haired one said, touching his chest. "Zack Fair. This guy is Seph," he continued, waving his hand at the silver-haired man. "Sephiroth. Zack, Seph, and you?"
Cloud tilted his head to one side, analysing their postures, the tones they were using and their scents. "Za-ck," he repeated, eyes on the black-haired male. Then shifted to look at the silver-haired one. "Se-ff."
The two males both nodded, the black-haired one more enthusiastically.
Cloud stood straighter, let his hand move away from his knife, and the snarl eased from his face. "Cloud Strife," he said clearly, firmly, and with certainty.
"Well at least he doesn't seem to be too stupid," the silver-haired man, Sephiroth, said.
"The... man... yours?" Cloud asked slowly, taking his time to remember the words before he said them.
The two before him blinked in surprise.
"What man?" Zack asked.
Cloud turned to the side, not giving these strangers his back, and pointed to the door he'd just come through. "In dead man's wood box," Cloud answered, more smoothly. Talking and hearing other people talk bringing old memories of when he had been surrounded by people, people who talked.
"A dead man?" Zack yelped.
Cloud shook his head. "Not dead," he said.
"Let's just investigate the matter Zack," Sephiroth said. "It will be easier to see for ourselves than get answers from him."
"I still want to know why this kid is wearing nearly nothing at this time of year at this altitude. If he's living in the mansion you'd think he'd at least wrap a blanket around himself," Zack said, even as he followed Sephiroth to where the wild boy had gestured. "Kid's got to be freezing."
"Not cold," Cloud said firmly as he also followed, "and not live here."
"Where then?" Zack asked, stunned. "And how the hell are you not cold?"
Cloud shrugged in silence and walked passed the two men to the coffin he had investigated earlier, removing the lid once more. "Not dead," he said flatly.
"I wish I were," rumbled the man lying in the coffin. "Then perhaps I could atone for my sins at last."
Cloud looked at Zack and Sephiroth. "Yours?" he suggested.
"Probably kid," Zack said with a sigh and a smile, while Sephiroth studied the man's face.
"Vincent Valentine, ex of the Turks," rumbled the man in the coffin, not opening his eyes.
Sephiroth's went wide however.
"Okay, nearly ours," Zack corrected, not noticing his superior's reaction. "Since we're Soldier, not Turk."
Cloud shrugged. He didn't know what that meant, and he didn't care. There was no other human scent in the place, none that was current enough to bear investigation anyway. A few months old, then a few years old. No one else in the building. He turned and headed for the way he'd first entered the room – the tunnel from his territory.
"Hey, where are you going?" Zack asked.
"To drink," Cloud answered. "Hunt."
"Hunt what?" Sephiroth asked.
Cloud grinned. "Dinner."
"But the only things living up in these mountains are supposed to be monsters..." Zack said weakly.
Cloud just licked his lips and disappeared down the tunnel.
"Real wild child that one," Zack observed, stunned.
Sephiroth narrowed his eyes. "I want to see what it is that he hunts," he said. "You can come with or stay, but I'm following him."
"And what about Mr Valentine here, General Sephiroth?" Zack asked. "You're just gonna leave him in his coffin in the basement?"
"Sephiroth?" Vincent asked, his deep voice soft and stunned at the name, his eyes opened at last.
Cloud looked up from his meal at the sound of footsteps approaching. It was the men from earlier, and they were staring at his kill. Determined not to share the liver of the juvenile behemoth, Cloud dug in quickly and ripped it out, biting down and quickly chewing before swallowing.
The black-haired one wearing cloth, Zack, halted suddenly and his skin took on a green hue while one hand went to his stomach and the other to his mouth.
Cloud finished off the liver fast enough, then pulled his knife out once more and carved off some of the beast's foreleg.
"Too much for me before it rots," he said, throwing the meat towards them. The old litters knew this too, and though it was, more or less, his territory, he had no issue with them joining him for a meal. He could only eat so much after all. Not like the wolves.
Which reminded him... Cloud threw back his head and howled his kill into the mountains. The old litters knew his cry, and any that had poor hunting knew that they were welcome enough to join him once he'd voiced invitation. One Nibel wolf had clearly not been far off, as it stepped out of the trees just as Cloud finished calling. It headed straight for the bone that Cloud had exposed, ignoring the cut off meat that had been thrown to Sephiroth. Ignoring the other humans altogether, in fact.
Sephiroth stared in awe as Cloud sank his teeth straight into the exposed flesh of the dead animal, ripping out chunks of raw meat and chewing, then swallowing it down. He was aware of Zack throwing up in the bushes a little way off, and of the discovered Vincent Valentine watching the Nibel wolf, but it was the blond who had his attention.
Cloud slowly but surely ate his way through the flesh to the monster's ribs, then proceeded to break one off and dig out the marrow. Quite impressive considering the bone was both extremely sturdy due to the nature of the monster itself, and easily an inch in diameter.
Conscious of the wolf, Sephiroth picked up the chunk of meat that Cloud had thrown at him, and quickly cooked it with one of his materia. Improper use perhaps, but he was a little hungry and had no intention of eating raw behemoth. Of course, prior to that very moment he would never have conceived of eating behemoth at all. Raw or cooked or served as steak in a restaurant with potatoes and mustard. Never once occurred to him.
As he chewed on the flesh now though, Sephiroth made a mental note for next time he was in charge of a unit in the field and they were running short of rations. Monster meat, it turned out, was perfectly edible even when crudely cooked. Or even raw, if the boy's eating habits were anything to go by. Judging by Zack's reaction though, Sephiroth doubted that he'd be getting the men to eat raw behemoth meat – and in all honesty, he wasn't exactly keen on the idea himself.
Another three Nibel wolves showed up before the carcass was completely stripped of its meat, and the bones were all cracked open and had the marrow gnawed out of them by another late comer. More astonishing than the apparent peace between the animals though, was the way they all brushed up against Cloud in such a friendly, familiar way, licked his face a couple of times, and then peacefully left again. Not a snarl between them or towards the three men watching the scene.
When Cloud rose and walked off, Sephiroth followed, as did Vincent, and Zack was hot on his commander's heals having finished emptying his stomach at last.
The teenager led them to a river that glowed green with mako, raw and unprocessed, and the boy proceeded to drink from it. He even climbed in to wash off the extra blood from his skin and hair, which he shook out like a dog would – no, like a wolf would when they got their fur wet.
Sephiroth finally noticed that those impossibly blue eyes were actually glowing as the sun began to set. Just in a calm, tranquil sort of way. The kid was so full of mako that not glowing was more suspicious – and yet Sephiroth had only just noticed the glow now, when the teen was surrounded by mako.
Two thoughts immediately sprang to Sephiroth's mind as he watched the blonde stretch himself out comfortably on a large rock. The first was that Hojo must never get his greasy hands on Cloud Strife. The second was that he wanted Cloud Strife. The only problem with that second was that he wasn't sure if he meant he wanted Strife in Soldier and under his command... or in his bed.
Cloud's hair had only just dried when a snarl sounded from just across the river. He was up in a flash, blue eyes narrowed at the Nibel wolf that was now approaching him. It had the same look about it as the one that had killed Mother Wolf and Father those years ago, the same look as the first Nibel wolf that he'd ever killed.
It was the madness.
The madness had driven a total of seven wolves before Cloud, including the first one and this most recent wolf. Cloud drew his knife and leapt over the water, landing easily on the same bank the wolf occupied. It did not take long to kill, not like the first, and the second wolves had been. Cloud was a much better killer now, and a mad Nibel wolf didn't pose the same threat to him now as it would have done when he was younger.
There was still a danger though.
Cloud cleaned his knife on the animal's pelt, stuck it into the ground, and went to wash again, but this time collected water in his hands and splashed it over him away from the river's flow. He didn't want to risk contaminating the river with the madness that had been in the wolf's blood. One handful of the glowing water was splashed over the wolf, and some the beast dissolved into the Life Stream. It took five more splashing handfuls of water to banish the corpse entirely.
Cloud didn't want the madness to spread to another wolf. Bad enough that the madness was touching cubs from the litters he had helped raise now, he did not want to see it take hold in more of them.
"Why did you fight that wolf, but not the others?" Sephiroth asked once the body of the monster was completely gone.
"It had madness," Cloud answered simply. Even though it had once been a cub to Mother Wolf and Father, Cloud was not sad to have killed the animal. It was the order of things. He was glad it was him, actually. If it had been another wolf then the madness would have spread, because wolves fought with teeth and claws, and the victor would have swallowed the blood of the fallen. The madness would have continued whichever wolf won – but Cloud was careful about the blood of the mad ones.
"Madness?" Zack queried. "I just thought all Nibel wolves thought of people as food."
"That wolf did not look like it needed a meal," Vincent commented solemnly.
"You killed a mad Nibel wolf with just that knife," Sephiroth observed quietly. "May I see the knife?" he asked, holding out his hand.
Cloud pulled the knife from the soft earth and held it out to the silver-haired man. It was still the same knife he had taken with him when he'd been kicked out of Nibelheim. The edge was dull and chipped, but when Cloud had used it to carve meat from the behemoth or to kill the wolf it had passed through their flesh like the sharpest of blades would have if it were hot and the enemy were mere butter.
Sephiroth's inner dilemma of whether he wanted Cloud Strife in the Soldier program or in his bed was solved in that moment: due to there being a possibility of Hojo getting hold of the boy if he were in Soldier – but the absolute certainty that if Cloud wasn't in either Soldier or the Turks then no one would make any move if Hojo did take the boy off to some lab never to be seen again – Sephiroth wanted the boy in Soldier and his bed.