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the company of wolves

Chapter Text

In the few years that pass until they meet once more, Cloud thinks often of Sephiroth.

He thinks of the man when he ventures into the woods, bow slung over his shoulders and loaded quiver at his thigh; though he hunts for hinds and boars fat on summer’s bounty, his eyes venture always beyond his quarry, hoping to catch a glimpse of that manor tucked deep within the forest. He thinks of Sephiroth when winter falls and their flocks grow lean on what small amount of feed he and his mother are able to provide them, their new hunting hounds trailing after the sheep with nail-spiked wolf collars round their necks and eyes glinting as they herd and prowl. Cloud thinks of him when he drinks his mother’s tea and bastes their kills in winter spices, he thinks of him when black-clad strangers pass through the village, he thinks of him when he sees the starved cats that skulk the streets and stare back at him with their wary, slitted eyes. Cloud thinks of black and silver and green, that monster he met once upon a time still with his mind so.

He would have thought the entire experience a dream, were it not for the sack that mysteriously shows up on his windowsill one night, brimming with enough gold to replenish the flock and buy another besides. Even when Sephiroth is not with him, the memory of him is; the newborn lambs in the herd, the empty hide coinpurse that sits at Cloud’s bedside like an empty memento, the ghost of fur against his skin – each memory a piece of that day they spent together.

Three years pass like this, and Cloud thinks himself some sort of mad for it, for his inability to rid his mind of the man that likely never was and never will be again, he tells himself – until he hunts once more within the winterbound woods and finds himself face-to-face with a familiar, green-eyed wolf.

It’s an accident, really.

He steps tentatively onto the surface of an ice-slick river, tests a boot at its edge before bringing himself wholly onto it, somewhat satisfied that the late-season freeze will hold. Cloud crouches down, fords his way through the winter storm that howls on as a similar one had a mere three years ago, and finds himself the mid-river victim of a terrible mistake.

Over the whistling wind and the gusts of snow being blown into his face, the warning sounds are inaudible, the signs nearly invisible; small cracks appear, first, spiderwebbing beneath his feet and feeding into larger fractures in the ice. Every step taken is heavy, laborious, and his weight as he fords the river into the blizzard’s heavy headwinds proves too much. A dangerously familiar sound, one Cloud knows from winter’s segue into early spring when the floes that freeze the lake near the village begin to break with rising temperatures, echoes through the air – like the snap of a longbow’s string that has been drawn taut and released, the distinctive noise of ice splitting resonates beneath him.

Cloud, always unlucky, barely has enough time to register what is happening before he’s plummeted into freezing water.

He struggles, flounders in the bitter cold that surrounds him and weighs his limbs down until they’re sluggish with chill, and attempts to swim his way to the other side. Cloud’s consciousness slowly begins to drain from his quickly-freezing body, nearly gone when teeth scrape against the back of his neck and he finds himself hauled bodily from the water and placed upon a bank of soft snow, sputtering and coughing all the while.

It takes Cloud a few moments to fully come back to his senses, jaw clenching as his teeth chatter uncontrollably and shivers wrack his body. He looks up at the wolf that stands over him, the fur on its muzzle damp with chilled river water, and flashes it a wry smile.

“We have to stop meeting like this,” Cloud mumbles, the syllables jittery as he speaks and shivers concurrently.

The water quickly freezes to a light film of ice in his hair and the edges of his cloak frost over, chafing against his quickly-paling skin. Being in the river had been cold enough, but now that Sephiroth has hauled him out, the real chill has begun to set in. The blizzard whips his cheeks and nose raw, unforgiving winds wailing in his ears; he stares mutely at their Sephiroth’s concerned face, eyelids drooping.

Sephiroth cocks his head and looks down at him, gives a little chuff of amusement, then bends to bump his nose against Cloud’s mop of hair from where it has fallen, sodden, into his eyes, nudging his bangs out of the way. Cloud is grateful for it, unable to muster the strength to do it himself with his limbs still cold, dead weights at his side. He is even more grateful for the way Sephiroth bends down and maneuvers Cloud onto his warm back; Cloud uses what little strength he has to grab two fistfuls of fur and hold on as Sephiroth pads through the forest, his cheek pressed into the welcome comfort of the wolf’s silver pelt.

Cloud leans back against Sephiroth’s back shoves his numb fingers into fur in a fruitless attempt to warm them. Air flows quickly in and out of his lungs as his breath comes in short, abrupt gasps, intensifying his feeling of lightheadedness, his fogged mind tuning everything else out and focusing solely on just how tired he is. Slowly, he lets his eyes stutter closed and splays his limbs wide on Sephiroth, the fatigue brought on from his grueling, icy trek overwhelming him. Just ten minutes, he sleepily tells himself. Then I'll wake up.

He falls asleep like that and awakens once more upon a pile of furs before a flickering fire as though he had never left.

- - -

“We do need to stop meeting in such ways; I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment,” Sephiroth says when Cloud blinks awake, rolls over onto his back and stares up at the older man where he occupies one of the sitting chairs settled beside the makeshift bed.

Cloud rolls over onto his back, blinking blearily up at the oddly keen Sephiroth sat next to him. “Mm,” he mumbles, voice still heavy with sleep. He sits up, wrapping the bearskin blanket around his body and nestling into it drowsily, staring at Sephiroth through the thick, pale lashes of his half-lidded gaze. “Odd coincidence that you’d happen to be in the exact right place at the right time.”

Sephiroth looks almost sheepish. The older man ducks his head, gloved fingers threading together contemplatively in his lap. “Yes, well,” he murmurs, “I suppose it was not entirely coincidence. I caught your scent while hunting and thought to follow you for a bit. To ensure nothing happened to you.”

“But you didn’t think to say hi?”

“I was not sure that you.. wanted me to.”

Cloud frowns, brows furrowing. “Of course I’d want to talk to you. To thank you, if anything, for helping me out all those years ago.”

“I.. see. I thought…” Sephiroth trails off, regret coloring his features.

“Thought what?”

“That you would not want to see me. You did not return to visit, as you said you might, so I thought the worst, I suppose. I understood, of course, why you would not wish to come back to such a place.”

“Are you always this dense?” Cloud asks, a tinge of warm mirth to his words. “I tried so many times to find this place again, but I never could.

“Ah.” Again, there is that same look of endearing sheepishness on Sephiroth’s face. “I was unaware.”

“Clearly,” Cloud snorts, rolling his eyes, no heat behind the gesture. He sits up, the furs pooling at his waist, leaning back on his hands and gazing across at Sephiroth. “Thank you for saving me. That time, and this. You’re a good man.”

“Of.. course.” Sephiroth stares down at him, brows drawn, as though those words have never been said to him before.

Then, he extends a hand, helps Cloud up and guides him to the plush armchair beside his; Cloud sits upon it, crosslegged, rests an elbow on one of the arms and cups his chin in his palm. “So. Since I’m here, why don’t we finish our conversation from last time? I seem to recall you telling me something about a curse?”

“Mm..” the other man murmurs, the sound trailing off into stiff silence. Sephiroth clasps his hands together in his lap, fingers laced tight together. “Right to the point, I see.”

“Don’t see any point in batting around the bush. And I don’t have to go anywhere, now, so take all the time you need.”

“Does your mother not expect you home?”

“I’m a grown man. She’s used to me coming and going for days at a time. Food doesn’t hunt itself, and trading trips down the mountain can take a while.”

“I see.”

Sephiroth stands, paces the length of the room with his arms clasped behind his back, not looking at Cloud for several moments.

“You said you’re tethered here. That you can’t leave without turning into what you are,” Cloud urges him, since Sephiroth doesn’t seem to know how he wants to broach the topic and Cloud has never been an entirely patient person. “Start there.”

Finally, Sephiroth nods, murmurs, “I was born beneath a crooked star, I suppose; cursed by the same mother that brought me into this world. She wished death upon those that had slighted her, and so I became her instrument of such.”

Cloud’s brows furrow. “Instrument.. how?”

“Village folk fear the unknown. I became that unknown - the monster that children believe hides beneath their beds. The beast that dwells within the thornwood. The Erlking that preys upon maidens in the forest.” Sephiroth scoffs, pauses in his pacing, his lip curling away from his teeth in distaste. “From their fears, she forged my curse, embodied each of their night terrors in me, so that I might haunt this place and repay past wrongs done to her. Petty vengeance, really; she lived long enough to see that wish fulfilled. To see them fear me.”

“She made you the wolf,” Cloud says; not a question, but a statement.

“Mm. Beyond the grounds of this manor, I become the monster. Within, I am just a man.”

“Is there any way to lift it?”

Sephiroth laughs - a dry, wistful sound, melancholy coloring his features. “I am afraid not. I am simply a beast, cursed to be unlovable, to dwell here until my dying day - gods know when that will be.”

A pang of sadness keens through Cloud. “You’ve.. never experienced the world through a human’s eyes?”

“Only a wolf’s, I am afraid.” Sephiroth sits back in his chair, faces Cloud with that same, lonely-eyed look upon his face. “I can only watch your kind from afar and dream of living as you do.”

“That’s.. that’s so sad, Sephiroth.”

“I suppose so. I have grown used to it, over the years. Loneliness suits me.”

“Loneliness doesn’t suit anyone. Nobody deserves to waste away alone in some shitty house deep in the woods.”

“Perhaps not, but it is the fate I am condemned to. At the very least, your visits have brightened my years. I enjoy your company - what little of it you have allowed me.”

“Well, you’d better continue to enjoy it, because I’m not leaving you here to be alone forever.”

- - -

The first gift Cloud brings is a storybook.

It’s a silly thing, really: the story of a young daughter of the mountainside who winds her way through a dark thornwood, warned by her mother to beware the beasts that prowl the forest as she walks the path to her grandmother’s house. When the wolf pounces on her from the shadows, the girl, unafraid, as mountain children are, severs a paw from its body with her knife and leaves it to limp back to its den. Arriving upon her grandmother’s doorstep, she opens the door to find the old woman sick and moaning in her bed, and discovers that where her hand had been is a foul, bloodied stump; the girl realizes that her grandmother had been the wolf all along, slays her without remorse, and lives comfortably in the old woman’s home for the rest of her days.

It’s a bit morbid, perhaps, but Nibel tales often are. Sephiroth seems to enjoy it, devouring the text and artfully-wrought illustrations that accompany each page and depict the story in intricate, gore-ridden detail.

“I have never read anything like this,” he confesses when Cloud asks him what it is that rivets him so about such a frivolous story.

Cloud’s brows furrow. “But your library..” he says, gesturing at the shelves upon shelves lined with tomes of all sorts, a veritable wealth of knowledge and lore bound within them.

“..Contains only dry, scholarly texts that do not care to entertain; only to educate. Books such as these..” Sephiroth trails off, his fingers contemplatively tracing the gilded script of the title on the storybook’s cover, “I was never allowed these. Only what monotone books line the shelves.”

“That’s so.. dull. Your mother never told you stories, growing up?”

Sephiroth snorts. “My mother hardly cared enough to teach me more than what she deemed necessary to carry out her will. Anything else I learned myself, in secrecy, when able. All I had were the tiresome books she gave me and the stories I conjured in my head to keep me company.”

Cloud frowns, feels a pang of sadness within him; he had grown up with a loving mother who spun all sorts of fanciful tales to entertain him, huddling beneath a blanket with him at night on his bed in a darkened room, the stage set for macabre stories about the goings-on in the woods after dusk’s fall. The childhood Sephiroth suffered.. it is hard for Cloud to even fathom not having had anything to amuse him, as all children deserve.

“We’ll rectify that,” Cloud resolves, mind drifting to the storybooks piled haphazardly upon his mother’s shoddy bookshelf back home. Hundreds of tales, all waiting to be experienced for the first time by Sephiroth; a childhood stolen by a cruel mother that Cloud can now give back to him. “I’ll bring more. There are so many, Sephiroth. You’ll love them.”

 

The excited glint in Sephiroth’s eyes belies his cool facade; just to see that, that childlike warmth amidst somber, slitted green - everything is worth it, Cloud thinks.

- - -

Cloud brings Sephiroth a number of different books, after that, Sephiroth’s fascination with the childlike tales growing increasingly with each new story.

He brings first the most gruesome - a tale about a wealthy nobleman who marries women that have a habit of vanishing mysteriously, until it is revealed, after a series of events involving his newest bride, that he has viciously murdered each past wife and kept their corpse in a room that his current wife, forbidden from entering, defied his word and entered. Sephiroth does not seem fazed at all by the gore described by the author and depicted by the accompanying illustrations, simply praising the plot, prose, ending, and the wife’s headstrong nature that set the events of the story in motion.

More than the previous two, Sephiroth enjoys most the tales involving beasts and monsters of all sorts, consuming every story involving such creatures with a voracious appetite. Nibel wolves that stalk the forest and prey upon young girls, too-clever foxes who talk their ways out of dangerous situations, blood-drinking men who live in vast manors and fall in love with unwilling village women, snakes and hounds and ravens and bears and all the things Cloud was taught to be wary of from a young age by his world-learned Nibelheim elders starring as the wicked villains in each tale.

When Cloud asks him what it is about such stories that grips him so, Sephiroth simply says that he enjoys learning what others think of his kind, enjoys the different portrayals of forest-dwelling beasts and all of their evil deeds. It is a sort of humorous entertainment for him, learning just how malevolent Nibel folk believe the monsters of the woods to be. Cloud feels a pang of shame, at that, because upon a time he, too, believed such things.

Until he met Sephiroth, and his perceptions were vastly changed by the man’s peculiarities and kindnesses.

- - -

The second gift Cloud brings is a sketchbook.

He figures there aren’t enough books in his own home to show Sephiroth what Nibelheim is like, so he resolutely decides, despite his lack of artistry, that he’ll do his best to show him.

They sit together on the floor of the library, both draped in rich furs by the fire’s warmth to stave off the chill of the outside, Cloud’s sketchbook splayed between them as he scrawls picture after picture of what life is like, firsthand, inside the village that Sephiroth has only seen from afar. Cloud draws his room, his house, a very crude rendition of his mother in her leather hunting jerkin with a bow in her hands and a quiver belted to her thigh, an arrow knocked and pointed at an unaware hind in the forest.

He draws each member of their flock of sheep and tells Sephiroth their names (he spares telling him the names of the ones that had been slain by the man), draws their herding dogs, draws the old chocobo his mother keeps in a slanting, ramshackle stable built onto their house that Cloud had grown up with and regales Sephiroth with stories of the thing’s cruel hair-pulling tendencies and irritable bucking. Lastly, he draws Tifa, tells Sephiroth of his closest friend and attempts to do her some sketched-out justice (though Cloud knows he utterly fails on that front, even if Sephiroth cordially insists his art looks wonderful).

It brings so much life to the stories he has told Sephiroth, being able to depict them for him. Cloud has never been the most eloquent person, has never truly been able to paint a picture with words the way others can, but he finds he is able to describe Nibelheim, his childhood, his family and friends and everything around him in this little book, the stump of charcoal a vessel through which he illustrates all that he knows. Sephiroth watches all the while, head cocked to the side like a curious hound, eyes following the movements of Cloud’s hands as life is brought to the page.

Sephiroth, in turn, draws what he knew growing up in this place. He is far more artistically inclined than Cloud, able to truly detail his illustrations in a way that makes them seem almost real. He draws the face of his cruel mother, contorted in anger. He draws for Cloud what it is like to see from the eyes of a wolf, sketching views of paws mid-bound, of rabbits spied through tangles of bramble, of Nibelheim seen from the forest’s edge, where the woods end in a clear-cut line and the mountain ascends upward. It is but a glimpse of what Sephiroth sees when he leaves the manor, but Cloud begins to understand just a fraction of what the life of a beast is like.

They pass the day that way, filling the book’s blank pages until the charcoal is but a stump and their fingers are blackened and papercut. Cloud, tired from the day’s trek over, falls asleep upon his pile of fur, stretching out beside the fire’s warmth like a contented cat.

When he awakens, he finds that the drawings of chocobos and dragons and other fanciful creatures he had made have been torn from the book and placed delicately upon the mantle of the fireplace, as one would real, frame-worthy art. Beside him, upon the last page of the book that still rests open on the floor, is a gentle sketch of Cloud’s sleeping face captured in breathtaking detail.

There’s an unmistakable warmth that blossoms within Cloud when he sees it; softly, he closes the sketchbook and sets it beside the other drawings on the mantle, a small collection that’s privately theirs.

- - -

The third gift is forgotten in the manor’s foyer, left to be discovered, some day, by Sephiroth.

A simple thing - just a taste of his mother’s cooking. Of home. It is one of the things Cloud cherishes most, and he wants to share that with Sephiroth more than anything, as silly as it is.

The door does not open, this time, when he knocks. There is no greeting, no Sephiroth, with his subdued smiles and genial bows and hand extended to invite Cloud into his home. Cloud finds the entrance unlocked and, after a few minutes’ consideration, lets himself inside, a feeling of wrong wrong wrong tensing his every muscle.

The manor is quiet, for several long moments, then - a long, painful keen sounds from the western wing. A beast’s wail.

Before he can fully register what he is doing, Cloud finds himself running through the manor’s long, winding hallways, up the main staircase to the only wing he has never ventured into – Sephiroth’s chambers. He comes to a stop before a large door wrought of dark oak, open a mere crack; beyond it, he can hear anguished whines and growls. Cloud enters.

The door quietly creaks open to reveal a room shrouded in darkness, only a single candle guttering out in a pool of wax casting any light on the room. It is just enough to allow him to see the man he seeks.

Cloud is met with a lurid sight or something that is not fully man, but not fully beast, either. Caught in some sort of halfway between the two, his limbs long like a human’s, yet covered in fur and clawed at the end as a wolf’s are; the flesh of his face is pulled taut over his skull and blanketed in thin silver pelting, snout still elongated and gums drawn back from needle-sharp teeth that are bared in Cloud’s direction as if he seeks to snap Cloud’s throat within his maw; still, there is a keen to his eyes, despite his bestial form. Green pupils, their familiar slit gone, are blown wide and glittering with tears, perhaps - of rage or sadness, Cloud cannot tell in his current state, but the emotion that wells within them is unmistakably human. Unmistakably Sephiroth.

Leave this place,” Sephiroth growls. “Do not look at me. Not like this.” The voice that wrenches itself from his throat is not the smooth, rich-liquered tone that Cloud has grown so used to, has begun to love; it is a deep, guttural snarl, a voice like unswept glass that cuts Cloud unexpectedly. Sephiroth’s chest heaves as he inhales in, out, in, out, breath sucked between his teeth and exhaled with the same growling lilt of anger.

Cloud knows he should be afraid, that he’s staring down the mouth of a monster that’s liable to slit his belly and snap up his insides as they spill out, but he can’t bring himself to be, because he knows that this is Sephiroth. Beneath the beast before him, Cloud sees the same man that sticks his tongue out when he scalds it on tea, that pores over atlases and points to islands and asks Cloud to tell him tales of the places, that hangs scrawled drawings of chocobos and Nibel dragons and wolves above his fireplace mantel as if they’re prized pieces of art. Cloud knows him, and he knows that, for all his anger, Sephiroth will not kill him. He knows no fear, in this place.

So, he simply replies, “No. I’m staying with you.”

Leave!” Sephiroth’s snarl booms across the room as he turns upon Cloud and surges up to him, his half-wolf form looming over Cloud’s slight frame; restraint unhinged, he pins Cloud’s arms to the wall, claws digging into flesh just hard enough to intimidate, but not outright harm. Cloud feels hot breath upon his face, hears the rumbling growl that simmers within Sephiroth’s throat, and stares directly down the maw of a monster. Of a man. Of something inbetween. “It is not safe for you.

“It is. You won’t do anything to me, I know you won’t. You just need to know that, too.”

I cannot,” the other man rumbles, pausing between words to draw in great, pained breaths that he exhales with deep grunts, “control myself right now. Leave me.

Cloud shakes his head, raises a hand and cups Sephiroth’s cheek in one palm, then the other, until he’s holding the other man’s face, thumbs stroking the fur beneath his eyes in gentle, calming caresses.

He cants his neck forward until his forehead rests against Sephiroth’s, unafraid. “I told you, I’m not leaving. You’re stuck with me.”

Cloud tests the boundaries of what Sephiroth will allow him in this state, tracing one finger over his gums and down a long, curved fang that glints viciously in the lowlight, slick with spit; the claws gripping Cloud’s arms tighten reflexively, digging further in and making Cloud hiss in pain.

Sephiroth’s eyes widen and flash, at that, and Cloud finds himself slumping against the hardwood pressed to his back, suddenly freed from the grip that had been holding him there as Sephiroth backs away, head dipped low, ears flat against his skull, and tail between his legs, claws clacking on the floor like a wild thing that wants distance. He bolts into a dark corner, huddles there, his frame heaving as he draws breaths in and out. “Please, Cloud,” he growls, a lilt to his voice that is almost something akin to a pleading whine, “I would not be able to bear it if I were to truly hurt you.

“I won’t let you do anything to me. I can handle myself, whatever you try; don’t send me away because you doubt my capability,” Cloud snaps. His attitude is irrational, he knows it, but he is tired of Sephiroth’s implication that he would not be able to hold his own in a fight, if it were to come to such.

It is then that he notices the blood that has soaked into the dark floorboards, fat pools of red that stain the woodgrain a macabre tint. A trail of them lead from the wall where Cloud had been pinned, moments ago, to where Sephiroth is, now; following them with his eyes, Cloud can see that they lead out one of the side doors, as well, where Sephiroth must have entered from. Cloud steps past each - one, two, three, four, on and on and on, until he’s standing beside Sephiroth once more, the toe of a boot just edging a sluggishly-growing puddle of crimson. One of Sephiroth’s hands clutches at his side, at thick fur that had obscured a gaping wound from Cloud, the snapped shaft of an arrow embedded deep within it.

Tentative, Cloud extends a hand. Places it over Sephiroth’s, as gentle as he would with any other wounded animal, his palm barely covering half of the other man’s clawed hand. Sephiroth shrinks back, teeth bared in an outward sign of pain and inner struggle.

“Let me see it,” Cloud murmurs. “Trust me to do this.”

I do,” Sephiroth grits out. “It is myself I do not trust.

He does not fully shy away from Cloud, after that; it is as much of a begrudged allowance as he is going to receive, Cloud thinks, and pries Sephiroth’s fingers away from the wound with a soft, but firm, grip.

The acrid copper-tinge scent of lifeblood overwhelms Cloud’s senses as the gash is uncovered fully. He skims his fingers around the broken arrow shaft tentatively, careful not to jostle it or further irritate the wound; he gathers the small, pilled pieces of crushed root and purple petal that are clustered around where the arrow had slid home in Sephiroth’s body, coated in this poisonous poultice that has caused him such pain.

Aconitum,” Cloud mumbles, swiping a finger around the rim of the wound to carefully remove what remains of the mixture. “They put wolfsbane on the arrow.”

How very simple of them.”

“Simple, yes, but also effective. I’ll need to remove the arrow and clean the wound. It doesn’t look like it lodged in bone, but it’s fairly deep in. Do you trust me?”

Sephiroth nods his head without a moment’s hesitation. “Yes. But, the pain.. I do not know if I will-

“Whatever happens, I’ll be fine. Your life is more important than my safety, right now. Shut up, stop acting like I’m an invalid, and let me do this.”

Successfully scolded, Sephiroth does not say another word on the matter. He straightens as much as he can, giving better access to the wound as Cloud unsheathes his hunting knife and widens the incision enough to safely pull the arrowhead from Sephiroth’s flesh.

“I’ll take it out on three. Ready?”

With a reluctant nod, Sephiroth tenses himself, claws digging into the floorboards.

“One..” Cloud wraps his fingers around the snapped arrow shaft firmly. “Two..”

Just before he can say three, Cloud pulls it out deftly, the wound expelling a small spurt of blood as he does. Sephiroth roars in pain, his eyes flashing wildly, arms pinning Cloud to the floor by his shoulders; he’s unhinged by the hurt, Cloud can tell, his gaze unfocused as he stares down at Cloud and snarls in his face, lips curled back in a grim snarl and breath hot on Cloud’s face as he growls threateningly.

Cloud doesn’t let the pain he feels creep onto his face, despite the claws digging into his shoulder, remaining utterly calm in the face of Sephiroth’s mixed pain and anger. Two hands raise to cup Sephiroth’s cheeks once more - a gentle, calming grasp that begins to bring some semblance of peace to the beast above. Slowly, carefully, Cloud keens his neck forward, touches his forehead once more to Sephiroth’s and remains like that, skin-to-fur, until he feels Sephiroth begin to relax, the anger dissipating from his body like smoke from a guttered fire.

“You’re okay,” Cloud murmurs, stroking the fur of Sephiroth’s cheeks, down his neck, coming to rest on his slow-heaving chest. He eyes the wound carefully, notes the blood still dribbling from it. “You’re okay, Sephiroth. I’ve got you.”

Sephiroth doesn’t speak, still staring at Cloud with a mixture of feral tentativity and burgeoning calm in his gaze. Gently, Cloud maneuvers him back into a sitting position and brushes silver fur away from the wound. He’s thankful, for once, that his mother had instilled in him from a young age the importance of always being prepared; he never leaves home without his rucksack, within which are enough supplies to treat Sephiroth’s wound and then some. Cloud pours a bit of distilled alcohol on it, calming Sephiroth all the while through the stinging burst of pain he no doubt feels, then softly cleans out the rest of the wolfsbane he can find and sets about stitching up the gash with a practiced hand and bandaging it with linens tied around his midsection. It isn’t his neatest work, nor is it anything more than a temporary solution, but it will have to do until he can return to the village and retrieve real supplies from the healer.

He helps haul Sephiroth into his bed, covers the man’s half-shifted body with his blanket and sits beside him, stroking gentle circles on his shoulder. “What happened?” Cloud murmurs, finally.

Your people are becoming bold,” Sephiroth mumbles, face burrowing his pillow as he heaves a heavy, tired sigh. “Some hunters came deep into the forest seeking me. One of them managed to strike me, as you can see. I had hoped.. you would not see me like this.

“And have to deal with the wound yourself? You’re gods-damned lucky I came by when I did; wolfsbane isn’t anything to fuck around with.”

I am aware. The sentiment still stands.

“Why, Sephiroth? You shouldn’t have to bear this alone. There’s no shame in having help.”

Sephiroth is quiet for several long moments. Then, he murmurs, “This form, it is.. unsightly. I wished to spare you from having to witness me in such an unhinged state.”

That’s what you’re worried about?” Cloud almost laughs, but remembers himself at the last moment, holding the sound in and coughing into the crook of an arm, instead.

I am a monster, Cloud.

“And is that such a terrible thing to be?” he retorts. “You have power others don’t. You aren’t bound to society like the rest of us. People might fear you, but you draw strength from that. There are far worse things to be than a monster, Sephiroth.”

Cloud cups Sephiroth’s cheek as he speaks, and Sephiroth brings a hand to rest over his silently. Beside him, Cloud lays upon the bed, the two facing eachother, holding eachother.

“Will you stay?” Sephiroth asks, voice a quiet rumble, now, the growling edge gone.

Cloud nods. “Of course.”

They fall asleep, hands laced together, and when Cloud awakens, Sephiroth still rests across from him, his now-human palm clasped against Cloud’s smaller one.