Coeurls were notoriously lazy monsters – the only time you'd have to deal with one was if you were unlucky enough to stumble right on top of it. And even then, the long-whiskered leopards rarely bothered getting up - they would simply hurl ridiculously powerful spells at you until you either died or ran away – whichever came first.
Yuffie, of course, somehow managed to get half a dozen on their feet and chasing them.
A mass of icy spears burst near his elbow. Cloud cast a Barrier with scarcely a thought, turning to the side to shield the girl in his grasp. Frost peppered his back. He flung a full-powered Bolt behind them, and was rewarded with angry yowls echoing off the cavern walls.
"Ha! Take that, you big stupid cat!" Yuffie crowed, as though she were the one who lobbed the spell. She wriggled out of his hold, scampering back towards the coeurls with shuriken in hand. Cloud snatched her by the back of her shirt and hauled her out of the path of a blistering fireball.
"Hey! Lemme go! You big coward! A great ninja master doesn't run away!"
His Barrier shuddered under a barrage of lightning and ice. The air shimmered as the spell renewed. Cloud caught a flash of red out the corner of his eyes. "Thanks."
Genesis waved a distracted hand in response. "The little nuisance has a point, Cloud. They do not appear to be giving up." With a look of irritation, he swept his hand in an arc, sending out a blazing wall of fire. Materia wasn't much good against a coeurl pelt, but it slowed them down. To deal any real damage, they needed to switch to swords.
Normally, it wouldn't be a problem. Except…
His eyes flicked to their two charges.
They would have to be fast. A Barrier would only hold up a few seconds under this barrage without maintenance.
A quick shared glance with Genesis showed they were thinking along the same lines. Cloud tossed the ninja girl in his grasp at his younger self. Yuffie shrieked as she sailed through the air – the blond boy didn't catch her so much as cushion her fall. As they tumbled to the ground, Cloud threw the strongest Barrier he could over them and split his sword.
The two SOLDIERs were upon the coeurls in an instant, diving through the hail of fire and ice and lighting, blades flashing.
The maelstrom of magic died amidst pained snarls and singing steel. Cloud shook the blood off First Tsurugi and reattached his weapon, slinging it back into its holster as the dust settled.
Genesis swept his hair out of his eyes and let out a huff. "So tell me, Cloud. Is it like this every time?"
"Worse, actually." That time with the tonberries had him worried for a while. Tonberries held grudges.
The kids untangled themselves, and Yuffie scrambled towards him, only to skid to a halt half a metre away, eyes round as a pair of ahrimans. "You! Thief! Invader! Monster!"
Genesis's SOLDIER reflexes were all that saved him from the first round of shuriken. "Excuse me?" He recoiled as the girl rushed him, feet and fists flailing.
"Stop it!" Cloud's younger self chastised the barely-eleven-year-old girl. "What are you doing? He just saved you!"
"Not my problem! I could have totally handled it on my own!"
The small blond gave her a dubious look. Cloud sighed, walked over, and started dragging Yuffie along by her wrist. "We have to get out of the caves. There's more than just coeurls in here."
Genesis followed after him, mumbling about troublesome brats under his breath. His younger self quietly shadowed them. Cloud hadn't really wanted to bring them along – he always experienced a weird sense of disconnect in his pretend-nephew's presence – but they'd been curious about these excursions, and it soon became easier to simply agree before he had half of SOLDIER trying to follow him out of Midgar.
"Traitor!" Yuffie hollered at him. "Let me at him! I'll kick his ass!"
"I'd like to see you try, little girl," Genesis snarled.
Although Cloud was beginning to consider bringing Genesis on all of his missions to retrieve Yuffie from now on. After all, why would Yuffie spend her time constantly trying to kick and punch and bite him when the SOLDIER accredited with the subjugation of Wutai was right there?
"You big jerk! I'm a mighty ninja warrior! You have no chance against me! Hiya!" She kicked the air, held just out of reach by Cloud's grip on her wrist.
His 'nephew' simply couldn't let the threats to his idol slide. "Are you stupid? He could fry you in an instant. What can a kid like you do against a SOLDIER First Class?"
"You're the kid," she retorted haughtily. "I took care of all of those nasty monsters, while you just sat back and were protected." She punched the air a few times in victory, then stumbled after Cloud as she ran out of slack.
The comments hit their mark – his young doppelganger turned an embarrassed red. "You didn't do anything! It was all Uncle Cloud and Commander Rhapsodos! I just know better than to get in the way."
Cloud had never been so happy to see sunlight. They left the caves to emerge onto the much safer and more hospitable grassy plains, even as the two kids continued bickering. He'd really hoped that by now his younger self would have moved past the stage of always taking the bait. It was getting embarrassing.
"Minerva help us, I need to kill something," Genesis grumbled under his breath. "Remind me again why you need to keep saving the little razor weed?"
"She was a friend," Cloud said, and didn't offer any further explanation.
"…That's the stupidest thing I ever heard!" Yuffie taunted. They were still going at it.
"It's not stupid! You just don't get it. Infinite in mystery is the gift of the goddess
We seek it thus, and take to the sky," the teen quoted authoritatively.
Cloud abruptly turned to stare at his younger self, aghast. Loveless? He'd heard the others talking about the little 'mini-Genesis' blooming in their midst, but it was entirely different to hear it for himself.
Genesis, on the other hand, looked delighted.
Yuffie, ever the opportunist, took advantage of his horrified distraction, and bit down on his hand.
Startled, he let go. The child dashed away from him quick as a needlebird. "Yuffie!"
The Wutai Princess just stuck her tongue out at them, and disappeared into the long grass.
"Shall I set her on fire for you?" Genesis offered.
"Forget it," he muttered, rubbing the teeth marks out of his gloves. "We're far enough from the caves now." He was much more concerned with getting his younger self back home, out from under Genesis's influence for a while. He'd never been that bad when it had been Sephiroth, had he?
"You're letting her go?" his young doppelganger asked. "After all that?"
"She'll be fine." For a while, anyway.
"You truly knew her in your future?" Genesis asked, in a voice low enough for only Cloud to hear. "How could she possibly have survived that long?"
"Spite," he muttered, and stalked back towards where they'd left the chocobos.
For two whole minutes, they walked in peaceful silence. Then the mandragoras sprouted from the grasses and rushed them, chittering angrily as they waved their vines in the air.
They were nothing after the coeurls. Cloud reached for his sword, and dispatched them in quick order. When he looked back, though, he was surprised to see Genesis hadn't joined him, and instead seemed to be frantically searching through his coat while indulging in an impressively creative streak of swearing.
"I don't believe it! I'm going to kill her! That damn brat stole my materia!"
His younger self might have started spouting Loveless, but Cloud took comfort in the fact that no matter the timeline, some things never changed.