Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Final Fantasies or their characters. This story was written purely for enjoyment and no profit was made from it.

Warning: Non-graphic violence, cross-dressing. No real spoilers, most of it takes place prior to Duodecim.

Author's Note: Wrote this in one sit-down session over the weekend after playing through some of the reports in Duodecim. Posting before I can think too hard about it.


Cyclic Dilemma

By Sinnatious


Seventh cycle

The seventh cycle had begun, and the summoned had gathered before their patron to meet their newly called comrades.

Kefka, Ultimecia, and the Emperor all stood front and centre. Eager as always for a pawn they might manipulate - a pawn yet to arrive. Darkness scoffed and floated a short distance away, uninterested, her yellow serpents weaving aimlessly in the air. Garland, as always, stood at Chaos's right hand. His most trusted.

Cloud stood far off the side, arms folded. He was there as a matter of ceremony only. Glowing eyes surveyed the proceedings with stale boredom.

"Our new warriors," Chaos declared, voice deep and reverberant like a dragon's growl.

Three of them, this time. An imperially large knight, clad in ornate armour of a sky blue. A blank, dull-eyed girl. Kefka, for a reason none of them could guess, immediately began cackling with mad delight.

And the third… a tall, silver haired SOLDIER, with an impossibly long sword and black leather coat.

Cloud stiffened with recognition.

"Sephiroth!"

Mako-green eyes had only a split second to widen before Sephiroth was impaled on a Buster Sword.

...

Eighth cycle

Chaos had not particularly been worried about the loss of an ally so early in the last cycle - had, in fact, let out a deep, rumbling series of chuckles that lasted an uncomfortably long time. He'd then waved them away with no further comment. As though he'd expected it.

He probably had. He was the Lord of Discord, after all. Summoning mortal enemies into his ranks sounded like exactly the sort of thing he'd do for fun.

Still, Cloud had almost an entire cycle to prepare himself for Sephiroth's inevitable return. He'd decided that the best course of action would be to ignore him.

It never worked like that.

"They tell me we are from the same world."

"So what?" Cloud asked. He didn't stop or slow his pace – maybe someone from Cosmos's side would show up and challenge him and rescue him from this conversation.

Sephiroth kept up as though he were simply going for a casual stroll. It really sucked being short some days. "Cloud, wasn't it?" He rolled the name on his tongue in a way that made his hackles rise.

But at least if he couldn't remember his name, then he couldn't remember anything else either. "Yeah."

"Have we met before?"

"No," Cloud cut him off. "This is the first time."

"Liar." He drawled the word, somehow teasing admonishment and disappointment and superiority from its vowels all at once. Cloud curled his fingers into fists, to stop him reaching for his sword.

"Listen," he said, stopping on the spot. "We might be on the same side. We might come from the same world. But that doesn't make us friends." There were no friends on Chaos's side.

"Then what does that make us?" Sephiroth asked smoothly.

Cloud glared, but bit his tongue at the last minute.

A challenge from one of Cosmos's warriors would be downright welcome right now.

Kefka pranced nearby, just out of earshot. The girl trailed him quietly. Terra - that was her name. As a distraction, they were almost as good, as Sephiroth turned to study them.

"Ah, those two are from the same home world also, are they not?"

"…Yes." No harm in telling him that. Though Sephiroth technically arrived last cycle, he was more or less brand new to this.

"Such power…" He was looking at Terra, and made a soft sound of derisive amusement. "Such a good little puppet."

Cloud's eyes flashed.

His sword followed suit.

...

Ninth cycle

"…They tell me you defeated me before."

They were a bunch of trouble-making busy-bodies. It was almost certainly Kefka. The clown couldn't stand the fact that lately Cloud had been taking a passive stance in the war.

"And?" Cloud asked.

The sheen of drawing metal rang in his ears. "And I'm here to take your life, in payment for your betrayal."

Cloud let out a dry, joyless huff of a laugh. "You can't even remember it."

"It's rather disappointing," he agreed, raising Masamune, eyes narrowed. "That I might have forgotten the rare event of a challenge."

Maybe if they'd entered the cycles at the same time, it could have been a contest. But Sephiroth was a rookie to this world, stripped of his memories of home world and past cycles both. It was a pleasant reversal of previous roles.

"Draw your sword," he goaded. "Or beg for forgiveness."

Cloud didn't need to be invited twice.

Perhaps an impression from his last two ends had lingered - this time, Sephiroth was prepared for his speed, sweeping Masamune forth, sending silver slashes of energy through the air. Cloud cut through them with practised ease, spinning into a heavy Cross-Slash.

As their blades clashed, recognition and cold respect flooded into his opponent's eyes.

"I remember-"

He swept into a Braver. "Not for long."

...

Tenth cycle

The tenth cycle probably wasn't actually Sephiroth's fault.

Their clothes had a tendency to change each cycle - for some of the luckier ones, it meant they merely found their armour sporting new colours. Terra's hair had turned green the previous cycle, though the girl seemed scarcely aware of it. In the Eighth, Darkness had turned up even more naked than usual. Gabranth's helmet was transient.

Cloud had found himself in his old trooper uniform once, and a SOLDIER uniform in another. He hadn't thought much about it. After all, no one in this world knew - or could remember, at least - what those clothes meant. No point worrying about it.

Until the cycle when Cloud woke up wearing in a purple silk dress.

He managed to avoid almost everyone. He skipped the customary gathering to meet the newly summoned and freshly revived warriors. He skirted Cosmos's territory, figuring if he ran across anyone there, he could just kill them and ensure no witnesses.

The Gods, of course, hated him. He already knew that. Chaos had told him a number of times, personally.

When he stepped into the gateway, Sephiroth didn't greet him at first. Instead, he regarded him at length, his stare slowly cataloguing the entire outfit, lingering uncomfortably long on his bare shoulders.

"Pardon me," he drawled, in a tone so polite Cloud had to stretch his memory back to pre-Nibelheim days, to press-conferences and interviews and company speeches. "I don't believe we've met. Are you with Chaos, or Cosmos?"

He didn't remember. Cloud relaxed, marginally. He was so high-strung, he'd forgotten where they were for a moment. "Chaos," he said softly. He wasn't about to try for a falsetto, but he didn't particularly want to be found out as a cross-dresser, either.

"How fortunate." He stepped closer. "Sephiroth." He held out his hand as though to shake.

Bewildered and wondering if there was any way to get out of this with his dignity intact, Cloud also held his hand out on reflex. "…I'm Cloud." Maybe, if he was really lucky, he'd get confused with Cloud of Darkness.

He didn't expect Sephiroth to cradle his hand and raise it to his face, head bowed.

"A pleasure, Cloud." His lips brushed the purple silk of his gloves. He looked up to gaze at him, eyes half-lidded through dark lashes and framed by strands of silver. It was a stare heavy with promise.

There was something very disheartening knowing that you were your worst enemy's idea of an attractive girl. He hadn't thought Sephiroth possessed any carnal interest in other human beings, much less blondes.

"Thanks," he muttered, hastily snatching his hand back.

Sephiroth stepped with it, bringing him perilously close and setting off every alarm in his long-honed sense of paranoia. "Forgive me for asking - I'm afraid I was only called into this world recently. How many cycles have you been present for?"

"A few," Cloud replied faintly. The magazines had called the General charismatic – he'd had women falling over his feet, he had fanclubs. But seeing it in action for yourself

He needed to get out of here, somehow. He moved to keep walking, his high heels clacking against the grey stone of Pandemonium's lower floor.

Not taking the brush off, Sephiroth took his elbow, and kept pace. Cloud was beginning to wonder why he hadn't yet put said elbow to his enemy's face.

Right. They were supposed to be allies. And he was supposed to be a girl right now. And by all regards, Sephiroth was being positively gentlemanly.

"I see. Perhaps," he said, the tone laden with suggestion, "You could show me how things work in this world."

It wasn't worth it.

Even wearing high heels, the fight was short.

...

Eleventh cycle

"Don't misunderstand - I find it rather amusing," the Emperor drawled. "But is it truly so impossible to last an entire cycle without raising your sword against him? The poor fool has barely had the chance to remember anything more than his name."

Cloud glowered at the golden-clad sorcerer.

He'd hoped that sooner or later, Sephiroth would not be reborn. Occasionally fallen souls would disappear, slipping free from the cycle during the Purification.

Of course, he was never so lucky.

"It's your own business if you're determined not to participate," the Emperor continued lecturing in a bored tone. "But if you could at least refrain from actively sabotaging our side..."

"This is between me and him. Nothing to do with Chaos or Cosmos," Cloud stated flatly. He couldn't care less what plots the Emperor went hatching. The more memories he reclaimed, the less interested he became in the never-ending conflict. Even fighting Sephiroth was beginning to lose its allure.

He regarded him with lavender eyes, then turned away, disdain written on his features. "Hmph. See that you keep it that way."

In his defence, Cloud had made a genuine effort to solve the problem by avoiding it.

It didn't work.

Sephiroth always gravitated towards him. Perhaps because they both operated outside the group. Maybe a ghost of a memory made him seem familiar and drove his curiosity. Maybe S-cells worked like a homing beacon.

Most likely, though, because his irritating so-called allies couldn't resist the chance to meddle and cause trouble. They'd seen Sephiroth unleashed on Cosmos's warriors. Most of them didn't want him to gain memories and strength and knowledge enough to play the game at the higher level. That field was crowded enough.

Sephiroth was unpredictable. Cloud was not.

A boot scuffed against the crystalline floor behind him. "Cloud."

Sighing, Cloud reached for his sword.

...

Twelfth cycle

By the twelfth cycle, he'd lost interest in killing Sephiroth. Five – or was it seven? – times was apparently enough. He was back to wearing something in-between his usual clothes and a SOLDIER uniform. His so-called 'allies' were so far too wrapped up in plots of their own to sow trouble for him. Apparently the manikins were changing the game.

"Cloud," Sephiroth greeted cordially. Cloud nodded in return. They'd even managed to converse a couple of times so far this cycle without coming to blows. It was an odd experience. It probably wouldn't last – eventually, Sephiroth would start remembering their shared history. From their home world, if not from the past cycles.

They stood in silence for some time, surveying the rolling landscape with its shallow waterfalls and light blue sky. Cosmos's territory.

"Hm." Sephiroth paused, turning to look across the ridge. He'd spotted a band of travellers. They were far away, but still visible enough to those with enhanced eyesight. "Those must be Cosmos's warriors."

Cloud studied them, and recognised the girl with the long sleeves and staff. The Summoner – she'd turned up quite a few cycles ago. He was fairly sure he'd seen the man clad in the dark purple armour and dragon helmet before, too. "Yes."

Sephiroth didn't move to intercept them – presumably because there weren't any swordsmen in the group, or at least, anybody who looked strong enough at first glance to catch his interest. Five-on-two odds weren't great anyway.

Cloud, too, had been about to turn away. Then he caught sight of the brunette in the white tank top.

Horror paralysed him for one long moment.

Short shorts. Fingerless gloves. A friendly smile. And though he couldn't see from here, he knew she had kind brown eyes.

Tifa?

"There's nothing of interest here," Sephiroth remarked, and began walking away. "Coming, Cloud?"

Cloud shook himself, and nodded, following in a pensive silence.

He held in a sigh, and eyed Sephiroth's back.

Five - or maybe seven, or maybe even eight - times.

Once more couldn't hurt.