Cloud had normally been in command of Genesis' forces, something that had sat uneasily upon him at first, but after the first weird meeting where he'd looked around for an ex-SOLDIER First in a tattered red coat and recently cut but still sort of wild-looking hair, he'd needed a minute to recognise that the scrawny redhead in Second's reds with an attitude problem was Genesis. It was easy to fall into habits, but just as easy to forget, and treat the kid more like Denzel or any of the other kids he'd started to get to know after Geostigma had been healed by Aerith's rain.
He'd only had one mission of sorts with Angeal under his command so far, and he'd reminded Cloud of Zack - enough that sometimes, only seeing the sword attached to his back, Cloud had almost called out Zack's name, before remembering that Zack wasn't there, and this kid was someone else. Other than that, Angeal was probably the easiest to deal with. Mostly because he was new, and Cloud didn't know a damn thing about him. The fact that he actually listened was helpful too, though.
He's sat on the edge of base camp, wondering yet again who the hell thought any of this was a good idea - the war, the SOLDIERs, finding this damned Promised Land that the President wouldn't admit didn't exist - at least, not the way he wanted it to - or the time travel business, all of it, really - when a trooper came up to him, nervously, with a piece of paper in their hands.
"New orders, sir," and he absently noted the female voice as he nodded. "You're to take SOLDIER First Class Sephiroth's squad down the river."
Cloud's eyes narrowed, and although for a moment he tenses, wanting to snap as he feels the tension in the entire world hung on a thin thread, he breathes it all out in a sigh.
He hates it. He hates himself, for going along with it. But if he didn't, then... that would be just as bad as letting it all happen, and at least by being involved, he can make sure that casualties stay at a minimum. Both for Shinra, where most of these people didn't have a damn clue what they were even fighting for, and for Wutai.
He winces every time he remembers just who it is this war is against.
Sorry, Yuffie, he thinks to her, almost wishing she could hear him and understand. But if there's any way I can help this come out better than before... that doesn't make it better, though. It doesn't make it right. You'd probably hate me, and I can't say I'd blame you.
There's a trap laid in wait not far from the other side of the river, because of course Wutai had known that they were coming, because some of their people had been left behind, and even if nothing else Cloud was known for not leaving anyone behind. It was the least he could do, but sometimes, it really did come back to bite him - and he was never the only one affected by his decisions, now. As if there'd ever been a time when he was.
He'd been able to manage everyone into surviving, at least. Mostly helped by the fact that with Sephiroth under his command - and wasn't that something that he'd never thought would come up - most of the people they went up against who tried to kill them, ended up dead.
It was hard to watch. Both because he knew that the people who were dying were just trying to protect their homeland, and because every time Sephiroth fought, Cloud could see glimpses of the nightmare that he would one day become.
The only consolations were that at fifteen years old, Sephiroth was, like Genesis, shorter, although it was was more long, gangling limbs that anyone else would barely know what to do with, slightly shorter hair, and the fact that not only was the trademark coat gone, but he was wearing the exact same First uniform that he'd remembered Zack wearing.
The same one they'd tried to get him to wear, once they'd worn him down to the idea of working for Shinra, or thought they had.
The other thing that separated past and future, was the fact that Masamune was nowhere in sight yet, and although up until now that had been a relief, because it was hard enough watching the boy who'd grow into someone he still had nightmares about-
He only just caught a trace of panic that wasn't his own echoing in his mind, filtering past all of the blocks and barriers he'd put up, a mental link that given his body was still the same one from the future he'd come from, still existed, or existed once more. The details didn't exactly matter when he noticed what the situation was at a glance, a ninja having gotten close enough, Sephiroth having misjudged his strike, and Cloud could see what would happen next almost like a vision.
Instead of letting the opening be taken advantage of however, he found himself having moved fast enough that there was still dust flying in the air between where he was and where he had been, his sword blocking the strike that would have found its way into Sephiroth's side.
The Wutai ninja took a little more to fall, unconscious more due to the mastered Sleep materia Cloud had taken to carrying with him than the blows to his body or head, and then Cloud had turned to Sephiroth.
Not the Nightmare. Not the Calamity. Not even a Remnant.
He was just... a kid.
"Next time you run into trouble, don't just deal with it on your own." Tifa, you'd probably smile at that. And then call me a hypocrite. He almost wished she were there right here and now, but she'd probably have found it harder to get over the fact that this was Sephiroth. Not that Cloud had found it easy himself. "Maybe when you're with other units you're a big deal, but when you're with me, you're under my command, and you're my responsibility."
The look Sephiroth gave him was cool, cold, and if he hadn't felt that swell of panic earlier, then it would have shown perfectly how disdainful the boy found being spoken to like this was.
"I didn't need to be saved," Sephiroth said, standing up without accepting the hand Cloud had held out. "And if I had been injured, then it hardly would have been a serious incident. I would have prevailed, and your concern is well-meaning, but misplaced."
Cloud sighed as the teenaged future silver general walked off, leaving him to wonder what to do with an unconscious Wutai ninja.
The next time he sees Sephiroth is actually later that day, because he'd done something he'd have assumed he'd gone crazy for if he'd told himself just a few days ago that he would - he'd actually called for Sephiroth to come to him.
And, of course, now that the silver-haired demon of Wutai was here, he didn't even know the words for what he wanted to say.
Cloud sighed, and shook his head.
"Do you... even know why I was worried back there?"
"Honestly, no." Cloud closed his eyes. Perhaps this would be easier if he pretended it was any one of the other SOLDIERs that he'd had under him at any time. Any of them. "We've never truly met before this mission, and you seemed to be avoiding my presence for some reason, even though Genesis and Angeal both said that you were a decent military strategist and leader. I had assumed that you held some grudge against me."
Some grudge, he thought, if that isn't ironic, I don't know what is. Tifa would be right - I am a hypocrite. I can't just help someone half-heartedly, after all.
"I said back there," Cloud said slowly, picking his worlds carefully, "while you're under my command, you're my responsibility. I didn't just mean you, either. I meant everyone. All those troopers, all those Seconds and Thirds. I'm the leader, at least, I am here... so that means I look after everyone, and make sure we all get back to base. And if I see something going wrong, I step in. That's what the leader's supposed to do."
Sephiroth didn't say anything for a minute, the frown on his face not lessening one bit.
"We are of equal rank within the SOLDIER program, despite you, as far as I know, having only appeared some months ago. I'm going to be promoted soon, as well. At which point, you will no longer have any command over me."
Teenage Sephiroth-speak for 'I'm not a kid, don't treat me like one', huh? The thought almost made him laugh, and he shoved it down and out of the way to poke at later. He recognised it all too well from Denzel, and several of the other kids, too.
"If I hadn't stepped in, you'd have been stabbed in your side the moment your balance was off, because you'd misjudged your reach," he said bluntly. Sephiroth's eyes widened a fraction - just enough to know that the message had got through. "You're used to wielding weapons bigger than you are, aren't you?"
The question had come out softly, because this was, if he'd admit it, the first time he'd ever thought of this. All of the different parts of Sephiroth's childhood, and everything that had contributed to what made him who he was, and he hadn't thought of this one thing in particular before.
He hardly needed to see the slight, almost imperceptible nod, in order to know that it was there. The emotions burned through him in an instant of rage and shame born of frustration and who does this man think he is, seeing right through me like that? before the heady feelings died down.
"There was no reason to train me in smaller, weaker weapons when I would simply have to unlearn how they handled as soon as I moved on to the real thing."
Cloud nodded, seeing how that could have happened. And also in understanding, since moving from the Buster Sword to something smaller and shorter had always created issues; that was why he'd had the Fusion Sword made.
"You need something with longer reach, or you need to train yourself out of those habits," he said with a vague feeling of detached horror at the words. What was he even saying. As if he needed this younger Sephiroth becoming even more like the one he remembered. "And you need to stop underestimating people."
The slight change in expression told Cloud that what he was getting for that remark was nothing more than just sheer stubbornness.
"I do not."
He didn't even bother to stop himself from rolling his eyes.
"You think you're the best they've ever made, and that makes you untouchable. It doesn't. No one's that powerful. All it takes is a moment when you're off your guard. That's all."
Sephiroth, with Jenova's head cradled under his arm, not even looking at the trooper or paying him any attention even though Cloud had picked up Zack's Buster Sword, adrenaline helping him carry it and then to stab the man he'd once thought of as a hero. Sephiroth, turning around in shock.
Sephiroth, so certain of victory that he couldn't even be bothered to go full out, only to end up dead once again, fading back into the lifestream.
Sephiroth, the kid-
"And that's when they strike."
Cloud shrugged, trying to dispel the uncomfortable memories.
"That's... when you let someone else help. And not always in a fight, either."
"I'll try to keep that in mind, then."
Maybe this'll make a difference. Maybe it won't. But I can't just not do anything, even if he is... Sephiroth.
Who'd now decided that the discussion was over, and was walking back to the door of the tent. Stopped, and half turned around, his silver hair mostly hiding his face in an all too familiar way.
"Hojo - and the others - still want to know how you defeated me when we first... met."
"Hojo," Cloud said, not bothering to hide how much even the name of the man disgusted him, "can come out here and fight me himself, if he wants to know that badly."
And they can take him home in body bags when I've done, just to make sure he doesn't come back like the cockroach he is.
He almost missed Sephiroth's head nodding again, and an odd noise that might have been a laugh.