Standard disclaimers apply.
WHEN YOU WISH UPON A MATERIA
"So... Where do you want me to start?" asked Cloud.
"How about not in front of a burning mansion?" Zack asked back, eyeing the burning mansion warily. "You know, because it just might collapse on us or something."
"Hmm..." Cloud closed his eyes and thought about it. "And we can't let the villagers see us here too, so I guess we should retreat to Mt. Nibel, then."
"What? But we just came from there!" Zack smacked his forehead in disbelief.
Cloud had already started walking down the trail leading to the mountains. "What were you doing up there?" he asked, looking back without slowing down.
"Phoenix left us on one of the peaks, then went off and set the mako reactor on fire," Zack explained, following along as everyone else began moving as well. "See?" he pointed at a merrily burning pillar of fire atop one of the mountains. "It's still on fire."
Cloud stopped for a bit and spared the burning thing a brief glance. "This is not gonna end well," he mumbled, turning away and continuing down the trail.
"Nibelheim will be crawling with Turks by tomorrow morning," Sephiroth agreed.
"Well, yes, that too," Cloud sighed. "Don't worry, there are a lot of hiding places in Mt. Nibel. And if all else fails we can always exit the other way, to the Rocket Town area."
"Where exactly are we going?" Vincent asked, as he keenly kept track of the surroundings. Even he, in his time as a Turk assigned to the Nibelheim science team, had never quite explored the mountains fully enough to know every nook and cranny. If he was going to be stuck in this era, he might as well get to know the geography of the period better.
"Somewhere safe," was Cloud's answer. He had been taking them into a series of hidden caves that were connected to new areas in the mountains. "Then we can talk."
A few more turns and hidden caves later, they arrived at a cave of brightly lit crystals, dominated by a natural mako spring in the middle. Cloud, who had been in the lead, turned around to face the others who had been following him. Vincent had taken a brief look at the cavern and quickly recognised the place as a natural materia cave. Similar to the one that Cloud had been in when he summoned Leviathan to this world. Sephiroth was staring at the spring with subtle fascination. Zack was the only one who found a reasonably flat piece of rock and immediately made himself comfortable on it.
The others didn't move to sit somewhere like Zack had. "I'm assuming you'll be taking the lead in this," Sephiroth eventually stated, addressing Cloud directly, after a long silence had ensued.
Cloud shrugged, and leaned back against the crystallised wall behind him. "If you leave it to me, I'm going to start from the very beginning," he simply said, without preamble. "Ask questions if you like, but I may not answer them."
There were apparently no objections. However, Vincent asked, "The beginning as in the future, I presume?"
"No," Cloud replied after a slight hesitation. "The beginning, right from the start, when the Ancients still prospered on the planet, and summons existed not as weapons of war, but as their companions. The whole Leviathan affair and how time collapsing in the future has not caused me to disappear has to be explained with that as the background, or it wouldn't make sense."
While the SOLDIERs looked at each other in semi-bemusement, Vincent actually frowned at Cloud. Nevertheless, he nodded at his friend to continue.
"We have to get something out of the way, first of all," said Cloud, nodding at Vincent both in acknowledgement and as a gesture of attention. "You and I, though we have some similarities in our physical makeups, are not completely the same. Therefore the merging of our present and future selves cannot be explained away in a similar manner. Your past and future selves merged with no side effects, but there would be no such benefits for me. The milleniums of memories would be too much for my current younger self to bear, so the merging would trigger a coma where the brain tried to sort out the information overload and put everything back into its proper sequence. There would be no telling when that sorting would be done."
Again, Vincent nodded. It made sense. The modifications that rendered him immortal had been in the area of expanding his psyche to accommodate the presence of multiple other entities. This strengthened his mind and also gave him helpers to unload his memory processing to when the merge began. Cloud, however, had been modified in a different manner, none of which involved the expansion of the mindscape. And even if it had, young Cloud had not yet been touched at this point, so the imbalance would have no doubt exacerbated the situation.
"That said," Cloud continued, "besides that physiological difference, there is really nothing much else that sets the merging process aside."
"Then why are you not in a coma, sorting out that information overload you speak of?" Vincent wanted to know.
"I'll get to that, but you're right. I'm on borrowed time here," Cloud smiled wistfully and nodded. "I managed to snatch most of my future self's memories before the dragon got blasted away by Phoenix. I can't hold on to them for too long though, I might slip into an irreversible coma. Or self-implode, I don't know how this whole thing works and neither does the person writing it. So let's do this chop chop." He clapped.
A rather tensed silence fell upon the group all of a sudden. None of them wanted to see Cloud fall into a coma, or self-implode, or whatever it was that happened when the human brain was fed with too much information than it could process. Before anyone could meekly ask, "How much time left are we talking about here?", however, Cloud launched into his explanation proper.
And, as he had promised, he started from the beginning.
He started with Leviathan.
Eons ago, on this very same Planet, Leviathan is sitting atop a cliff on a high hill, curled up into a regal sitting position. It beholds the territory beneath with something like regret in its eyes. How had it come to this? And at such a crucial period of time for the planet too? It is all it can do to shake its head in minor disbelief.
It hears footsteps approaching from behind, and knows who the person is instinctively without needing to turn around. Soon, a swordsman, blond, blue-eyed, and very much looking like Cloud, settles down beside the creature.
Leviathan knows that this man has a given name. But it has long since forgotten about the man's given name. As a guardian bound in service to Ancients, Leviathan only refers to his masters by their true names - the true name they use to contract with it. Whatever name this swordsman has been given by another, Leviathan will always know him as something else.
His true name. The Warrior of Blue.
Neither speaks. They simply stare at the scene beneath them. Two massive, opposing armies are camped against each other, their bonfires both roaring away into the night sky. There is silence, and barely any movement can be seen from either encampments. But the tension in the air can be inescapably felt. Once more, Leviathan finds itself drooping a little from its perch.
"I know," the swordsman speaks up finally. "Why are we even fighting each other when we should be concentrating on dealing with the prophesied Calamity from the Skies, right?" he scoffs a little.
Leviathan agrees, of course, but his master knows that without needing to ask. Eventually it, too, speaks up. "You know your side will lose," the creature states factually, without any malicious intent. "Why do you still fight against your brethren?"
The Warrior of Blue tosses his head back and lets out a sharp hoot of laughter. "It's not about winning or losing," he replies. "I just won't sit back and let the others imprison you, and your brethren into magical crystal balls, just so that they can satisfy some itch for faux dominance. Saving the Planet from being abandoned by the Ancients is just a fringe benefit."
Silence falls over them again. Leviathan tries to remember what sparked this war.
It is because of a prophecy.
The Ancients are a race of nomadic people who journey through the universe, colonising planets and establishing civilisations as they go along. Leviathan and those of its ilk are their companions. The lifestream on this planet that they have chosen to settle on is young and afraid, but with some coaxing and a lot of support, she will grow into a powerful force, capable of doing much good.
But the lifestream here is apparently also a trouble magnet.
Leviathan has lost count of how many times the Ancients have had to save the terrified Planet from total catastrophe, over the centuries they have been here. Leviathan understands, though. The Planet's lifestream is unique, even among all the other places it has been to over time (and it's been to a lot). There is just something about it. Leviathan finds it hard to describe, but in the end, it settles on this one word.
Nevertheless, the cycle of rescue-and-repeat goes on for a while, when an Ancient in tune with the voices of the cosmos suddenly utters a horrible prophecy. Leviathan does not bother to remember the exact words. It simply remembers that there is a Calamity from the Skies heading this way, and this time for sure, the Planet will be eradicated from existence, its lifeblood sucked dry.
And having put roots down in this place for so long, the Ancients are indelibly tied to the Planet and will meet their demise along with it as well.
Leviathan remembers King Arthur of the guardians being none too pleased about the prospect of demise. A council is held between the Ancients and their companion guardians, but a unanimous plan of action is never reached. Unhappy guardians begin acting against the will of the Ancients. Others choose to stick to their traditions, determined to follow the Ancients even if it is to their eventual destruction.
Civil war breaks out between the two factions of the Ancients. One supports the uprooting of the Ancients from the planet, in order to search for another suitable one to colonise. Too much time and resources have been spent on this planet, this faction argues, with nothing to show for it. It is time to move on, they say.
But the other faction favours staying on and facing the Calamity head-first. Running away is for cowards, say they. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. This planet is their home. They will not simply abandon it at the first sign of trouble.
And then there are the guardians, who have their own will and opinion on matters. Constant disagreements about how to treat these cherished companions give rise other sub-factions, foremost of which is the sub-faction that wants to imprison the guardians to the will of their masters. The insidious philosophy of this sub-faction gains traction among both warring parties. But several minor groups eventually spring up in opposition to all their efforts to enslave the guardians, sabotage and subterfuge being their main tool.
It starts to seem like the Ancients will tear each other apart from within, before the Calamity even steps foot on this planet.
Leviathan breaks away from its memories to look down again at the two encampments beneath the mound, facing each other.
This will be the final major battle. A lamentable, pointless battle between a people that should have been united against the approaching enemy, but are too caught up by their feelings to look beyond the present. Foolishness and folly have seeped into the ways of the Ancients. Sometimes Leviathan blames the fledgling human race of this planet for that.
But no, that is not true. For the Ancients were humans once too.
"What is your wish?" Leviathan suddenly asks. At the eve of this final battle, on the day before it may be finally put down for all eternity, this is the only one thing it wants to do.
This is the only one thing it is born to do.
For a long time, the Warrior of Blue does not answer. Finally, he speaks up, as Leviathan starts to surrounded by a shimmering light that is neither from the swordsman nor Leviathan itself.
"Be free, Leviathan," is what Leviathan hears before the bright light swallows it whole. "I want you to be free."
The light dissipates and Leviathan is within a tent in the encampment, in the middle of a circle of crystallized lifestream orbs, pulsating red.
Forced away from its chosen master. Forced to obey mere strangers.
"We have to find a way to reduce the number of materia necessary for the summoning," one of the men standing around the circle promptly announces. "Before sunrise, if possible!"
Murmurs of agreement resonate among the other people in the tent, but Leviathan has stopped paying attention to them a long time ago.
The Ancients, with their intimate knowledge of the Planet and its lifestream, have found a way to forcibly bind the guardians - even those that are not theirs - to these lifestream-derived orbs they are calling materia, and they have made it so that anyone in possession of these orbs can call upon the guardian within to execute a task for them; however unpleasant, however unwilling.
Most of the guardians have already been enslaved, Leviathan knows. That is why it also knows the opposing faction has little to no chance of victory in this war.
What the Ancients have done is treachery of the highest order.
But each faction of the Ancients is desperate to win at all costs.
As for Leviathan, none of it matters. It will serve the Ancients until it breathes its last, whatever they will have it do. They may have gone back on their oath, but never will Leviathan stoop to their level. Only that one memory of basking in those comfortable rays of the sun under a clear blue sky with its master is helping the guardian cling on to its senses and self-control at all.
/Be free,/ the wistful voice of its master continues to resound through its entire being.
Leviathan next meets the Warrior of Blue on the battlefield.
But he is dead.
By Leviathan's own doing.
Leviathan feels nothing but the pull of the materia, trying to force it back to the Dirac Sea where it has been imprisoned along with the other guardians to merely await a calling.
It is the will of the Ancients, coupled with the might of the Planet.
And for the first time in its long, long life, Leviathan resists their will.
It stays in the present. It falls to the ground. It forsakes its dignity to crawl to its master in what it hopes is a display of contrite dejection.
Here lies the Warrior of Blue! Slayed by his trusted brethren, and the companion he chose. If Leviathan could sing, it would howl this dirge forever, and inscribe it upon the moon, that everyone may know. That no one may forget.
But it could not.
So instead, it weeps.
It curls itself over its fallen master and silently weeps, inconsolable.
For once, the king of all waters allows the waters to be king over it.
"Which one of you idiots set Leviathan on its own master?!" Leviathan hears a muffled cry from somewhere far away. As far away as another lifetime. "It's losing control of its powers! We need to stop it before we all drown!"
There is a blur in Leviathan's memories, in which it remembers vague, fuzzy outlines of people surrounding it, shouting and screaming and then disappearing from view. But all it can think of is its master and the last words it has heard from him.
/Be free,/ the words continue to sweep over him like a storm on the sea.
/I'm sorry, my master,/ Leviathan thinks to itself as it feels the Ancients sealing it away, /but I no longer know how to be free./
It tries to catch one last glimpse of the Warrior of Blue, but the light is too bright, and its heart is too constricted.
Some of his fellow guardians still joke a little today about how half the Dirac Sea must be full of Leviathan's tears.
After Leviathan's fantastic display of uncontrolled water-letting, the Ancients shelve it for the rest of the battle, and for the majority of the later war against the Calamity as well. Leviathan hears snippets from his fellow guardians about how the Ancients, weakened from their internal strife, barely manage to defeat and seal away the Calamity in the Crater she has caused when she lands on the Planet. How the Planet is barely recovering from the invasion when the native humans - now a prosperous race of advanced technology and civilisation - begin to suck her lifeblood out themselves.
How the Ancients eventually go extinct on the very Planet they have foolishly fought each other to protect.
It sees the last Cetra girl once, when she summons it from the Sea that one time before her demise. She is inconspicuous and ordinary, but her True Name is beautiful and impressive. The nostalgia makes it wish it can stay on to speak with the girl, but even that ability has been sealed away by the Ancients. Leviathan is sad that the Ancients' pride has doomed them to eventual extinction, but it knows it cannot change a thing. It also notices the last Cetra girl's companions, especially that one who looks like the Warrior of Blue.
Time passes by in a blur after that.
Then something incredible happens.
Leviathan hears a call from the Dirac Sea that does not use a materia as medium.
It ventures to where the call is coming from out of mere curiosity at first, knowing it can head back any time since no forced bond has been enacted. Never has anyone been able to tap on the Dirac Sea without using the Planet as an in-between since the guardians were sealed into materia, and Leviathan simply must see who this person is. Then it sees who this person is, and is somehow not surprised.
It is Cloud Strife, one of the companions of the last Cetra girl, the one who looks quite a bit like the Warrior of Blue, which is why Leviathan stays on for longer than it should have. Leviathan is unable to see the True Names of people not of Cetra origin, but Leviathan does not cling on to any misgivings that his master may have survived somehow. It knows its chosen master is long gone, forever. However, Cloud Strife (who is not entirely human the way he is now at any rate) is making an interesting wish. One that resonates with Leviathan's own desires.
/Be free,/ the Warrior of Blue's voice suddenly sounds as clear as he is right beside Leviathan.
And so Leviathan answers Cloud's call of its own free will.
And the rest, as they say, is history (or Chapter 21, to be precise).
"And now all I have to do is to explain Leviathan's grand plan," Cloud finished his epic tale to the three dumbfounded people in front of him.
"I have a question," Zack raised his hand.
"What the heck did I just hear?!"
"The prologue to this chapter, if you must know."
"What?! You mean we're not even halfway through?"
"I know, right?" Cloud shrugged. "So getting back to the subject at hand," he left Zack to splutter incoherently in the background, "I'm going to link the story to the merging of my future and present now, so pay attention and don't interrupt me until I finish!"
"That's not possible," Sephiroth shook his head. When Cloud silently stabbed him with a long stare, he explained, "You're not going to be able to talk without being interrupted," He tilted his head towards the still babbling Zack.
"Point," Cloud grumbled under his breath. "Okay fine, like I said at the beginning, interrupt all you want, but I may just ignore you. Now may I continue?"
The silence (Zack's babbling didn't count) was his cue.
"Using materia is like making a wish," Cloud started again, repeating what Leviathan told him a long time ago in the future. "Leviathan says I lured it out from the Sea because of the intensity of my wish, which I have no recollection of making, and Leviathan has not deigned to explain." He paused, then continued. "Leviathan claims to have read my wish from my subconsciousness, and from what I can gather the wish has something to do with coming back here, to the past."
"To fulfill your dream of making it into SOLDIER, no doubt," Sephiroth drily remarked. It was apparent he still didn't quite buy the story Vincent was selling, but that was all right, since this was the last chapter of the story, and they could go tussle about this issue off-camera for all he cared. He simply narrowed his eyes a little at the General - former General, and continued his tale.
"Let's assume for the sake of explanation that Leviathan was right. I really did want to come back for whatever reason. The moment Professor Odine put me in the time machine, Leviathan's duty should have been done, and it should have been sent back to the Dirac Sea. However it did not. That means the wish involved something else. SOLDIER was a part of it. Preventing our 'clan' from 'dying out' was apparently the other..." he directed his baleful eyes at Vincent as he said this, and Vincent was privately chuckling behind his golden arm. "...and now I'm led to believe that there was something else to the wish. Something far more drastic...and personal."
He stopped for a little while to allow the information to sink in first.
Vincent asked, "Did you wish to change something about the past in particular?" He was choosing his words very carefully, Cloud noticed. "In relation to yourself, or somebody precious to you, perhaps?"
Cloud fidgeted slightly, as he considered what he would now say. "Something like that," he eventually said. "I did wanted to change something about the past, if Leviathan is to be believed. I wanted..." he stopped and frowned.
"I wanted to be Cloud Strife again. Not Cloud Strife, erstwhile saviour of the Planet, or Cloud Strife, full-time mediator of international peace, or Cloud Strife," he had to force himself to not roll his eyes, "ostracised heir of a strange clan of long-lived winged creatures. Just Cloud Strife."
"You wanted to be Cloud Strife again," Vincent intoned, slowly blinking - a sign that he was processing the information. "Just Cloud Strife."
"Just Cloud Strife," repeated Cloud, with a small smile on his face.
"And to do that Leviathan had to engineer this entire thing about you coming back to the past?"
"Well, Leviathan actually knew," Cloud sighed, "that the only way to give me what I foolishly wanted in my subconsciousness was to put me back in my younger self's body with my future self's memories. There is, however, one major problem: By putting me back in my younger body without my...special properties, I lose the ability to live all those thousands of years until I meet Odine, and he sends me back in time.
"What that means is that my future self ceases to exist altogether, and so my younger self has no future memories. And if he has no future memories, then it will be as if no wish has ever been made to Leviathan. That breaches the pact somehow, I'm not entirely sure how summoning oaths work, but Leviathan mentioned while it was possible to proceed anyway, I ran the risk of blinking out of existence altogether. So Leviathan chose to cover that up with something that would negate this possible risk. This is where Phoenix and the Shinryuu baby come in."
"Continue," Vincent said, fascinated.
"Leviathan knew that you would bring my younger self back sooner or later," Cloud continued as requested. "Don't ask me how, it just did. It also knew that having two of the same person in the exact same time period would trigger a paradox merge - this is what it had been aiming for all this time.
"However, again, like I mentioned at the outset, this merge will be too much for my current younger self to handle, and he will lapse into a coma that he will never awaken from. This is, of course, not acceptable. So it somehow managed to talk the Shinryuu baby into temporarily holding on to my excessive memories. This worked. When I woke up in the Shinra mansion, I had no future memories. For a brief period of time, I was just ordinary Cloud Strife again."
Vincent shook his head. "But that doesn't solve the time riddle. If you're just ordinary Cloud Strife, who lives a normal span of life, then you never make that wish to Leviathan in the future, and therefore all of this...never happens. And yet it did. And it's still happening."
"Yes, this is another thing Leviathan had to solve," he sighed. "It did this with a combination of Phoenix and itself."
"Explain," Vincent prompted his friend.
"Yes, I'm getting there," Cloud almost laughed. "It basically let me die," Cloud announced, that sentence earning him one quirked eyebrow, one sharp gasp of disbelief, and one slow blink of confusion. "...and made Phoenix bring me back immediately after. That was in front of the Shinra mansion."
"As we are well aware," Sephiroth nodded.
"But Phoenix didn't simply revive the body of ordinary Cloud Strife," the explanation went on. "What it revived was my body with Leviathan's lifeforce as its core." He fingered the two Leviathan scales that he had been holding onto since emerging from the coffin. The energy within had been expended now, but it most definitely contained Leviathan's lifeforce at some point of time. How much of Leviathan's lifeforce, however, he did not know.
Looking up from his ruminations, he saw that this time, no one had bothered to hide the look of utter shock on their faces.
"And so now I'm apparently ordinary Cloud Strife who has the lifespan of a summon creature," he finished.
"Any questions before I pass out from memory overload again?"
"How long do summons live?" Zack quickly asked, uncharacteristically meek.
"I have no idea," Cloud admitted.
"Are you somehow communicating with Leviathan at the moment?" Vincent asked.
"No, what makes you think that?"
"The way you speak of it, relaying its messages," Vincent pointed out. "It's almost as if Leviathan is right here with us, but only you can see it."
"Everything I speak of from Leviathan is from memories it gave me just before it faded away," Cloud clarified.
"Does this mean Leviathan is dead?" Vincent pressed.
"Well, according to Leviathan," Cloud said, slightly amused, "it's not dead - it's /free/, whatever that means."
"I've never seen a summon actually die before," Sephiroth remarked. "But then again, I've never seen someone being revived with a summon's lifeforce before, either."
"Are you a summon now?" Zack asked, a little too excitedly. "If I cast a Leviathan materia, are you going to be showing up?"
"We can try that after we find a Leviathan materia," Cloud commented wryly. Secretly, he was kind of curious about that too.
Before anyone could say anything else, however, a roar echoed through the cavern, and all hands went to their weapons, except Cloud. "What was that?!" Zack looked pointedly in the direction of the roar.
"My life support, if you will," Cloud joked, as the baby Shinryuu waddled into the cave from a bedarkened tunnel. It gave another small roar and went over to where Cloud was standing. Cloud turned to the others and addressed them again. "I need to offload my memories onto the dragon again before my younger mind breaks. I won't be remembering anything of this when that happens, just so you know. Oh, and," he turned to look at Vincent, "I won't remember you either..." he sounded really sad about it, "...since we've not met yet, at this particular point in time."
Vincent shook his head to tell Cloud that it didn't matter. "Then we'll just meet again," he reassured his friend with a smile.
"Yes, we will," Cloud grinned. "Don't frighten my younger self too much. When he's really determined to, he'll be able to pull memories out from the dragon, and then I'll beat you guys up for bullying him. For bullying me."
"Wouldn't dream of it, Cloud," Zack said, with a weak laugh. "Oh man, this is still too surreal for me! But I've decided that it doesn't matter, because you're the Cloud I know, and you'll always be Cloud to me."
"I appreciate that, Zack," Cloud smiled sadly. "I'll see you guys around, then. I can answer more questions the next time...but you guys are gonna have to train my younger self to be a little stronger mentally first."
A flash of shimmering light later, the dragon was now the height of the cave ceiling, and Cloud was passed out on the floor, looking small and like he was peacefully asleep.
The three rearranged Cloud into a more comfortable sleeping position and sat down around him in ponderous silence.
"Is there a tl;dr version of what Cloud just said?" Zack scratched his head.
"Cloud made a wish to come back to the past so he can live an ordinary life again, and Leviathan granted it after much intrigues and schemes that may or may not have involved giving up its life for Cloud," Vincent offered, "and here we are now."
"Now we're talking!"
And they descended into friendly chatter while waiting for their old yet new friend to awaken and join in the conversation, cleaning forgetting about how infantryman Cloud would probably be more terrified than amiable when he wakes up to see himself surrounded by two superior officers (former, but he didn't know that yet) and one very intimidating stranger.
It's like they always say.
Be careful what you wish for!
my humblest sincerest solemnest apologies for the long, long time this took. it didn't end as perfectly as i'd planned it to, but i thought i should just put it up anyway so there's at least a conclusion. as for the loose ends that didn't get tied up, well, permission to invoke creative license! i have no excuse to give except real life happened, and it happened hard. there's a slim possibility that i may write an epilogue but probably don't hold your breath for that cos if it takes three years like it did with this one there's going to be a lot of blue-faced folks around here...
thanks for reading everyone, and for sticking till the very bitter end. really, truly, thanks! :3