The world around him was soft, and even in dream logic Cloud knew that he was in the Lifestream. If the gentle white light that surrounded his awareness wasn't enough to make him sure, the scent of flowers and the warmth that stretched all through the area was enough to leave him without any doubt. He waited, curious about why he was here yet again, but content to stay in the warmth and life that pulsed around him.
As always, though, he didn't have to wait long. It only took a few moments before a form detached from the whiteness. Dark, spiky hair and bright blue eyes emerged and Zack stood before him. However, something was different this time. Unlike usual, Zack was missing his characteristic enormous smile.
"Zack?" His voice echoed slightly in the space between them. The fact that Zack wasn't smiling worried him.
Zack stopped, standing in front of him. He cocked his head. "Cloud." It seemed like he was about to speak...
***It was dark, frighteningly, endlessly dark.***
Cloud jerked as the world was white again. Zack was speaking now, speaking with urgency, but he couldn't make out most of the words...
***Tendrils of blackness curled around his body.***
"We need you," Zack was saying. "It's not done." His blue eyes gazed earnestly at Cloud, and they were uneasy, too, as if something was worrying him greatly...
***He was struggling, writhing against the blackness that held him, but he couldn't break free.***
"Cloud...?" Zack looked confused now, and worried for him rather than whatever it had been before. He wanted to answer, but he couldn't keep Zack's face in focus...
***Pain he didn't understand; he couldn't even tell if it was physical or mental, only that it twisted inescapably around his awareness.***
"Zack," he managed finally, trying to say that he really was trying to listen. He didn't know what was happening; why there was this other vision intruding on his thoughts...
***Anger, and buried beneath it something that was nearly as powerful and felt much like fear.***
"Cloud!" Zack's voice was dimming, as if he were drawing away. Startled, Cloud tried to hold onto the whiteness around him, but the Lifestream was suddenly slippery...
***No understanding, no explanations. Only the feeling of being crushed, mind and body, thoughts torn and scattered. Struggling with all his strength to maintain even a semblance of himself, any knowledge of who or what he was, and yet being clawed to pieces despite his attempts. And a female voice, hissing like a snake, that alternately laughed and screeched inescapably in the darkness...***
Cloud sat up with a start, his eyes wide. It took a moment before his surroundings solidified, a bed he was sitting on, a desk over in the corner, the top covered with pictures. After an instant, he realized that he was in his room. Slowly, he began to calm down, his hands ceasing to itch instinctively to hold his sword.
For a moment, he held himself still, breathing carefully until the desperate desire to move, to do something, faded away. When he no longer felt the panic, he stood and made his bed. Light was slanting in through his window; it was early in the morning, but there was no way he was going to get back to sleep after that.
A glance at the clock told him that it was nearly six in the morning. Sunrise had not been long ago. Tifa and the children were probably still asleep.
Cloud sighed softly, pacing across the room, then back to his bed. He was wide awake now, restless, and he couldn't get the dream off his mind. He hadn't dreamed so vividly of the Lifestream in a long time. Dreaming of Zack was not that odd, but actions outside his memories certainly were. The urgency in Zack's voice rang in his ears even now that he was awake. "We need you...It's not over."
After a moment, Cloud stopped and took a deep breath, forcing his thoughts to calm. If it was just a dream, so be it. Perhaps he was still too attached to the past to let it go. But if it wasn't just a dream, if "it" really wasn't over and Zack was calling to him, if Jenova or even Sephiroth had returned again, if there was some explanation of the pain and the fear and the crushing darkness he had experienced, he had to know.
He stood in front of his desk for a moment, wondering what to do. Then his blue eyes found the white and yellow flowers that sat brightly on his desk, a gift from Aerith the last time he had been at the church. Cloud grabbed a pen and a piece of paper. He would have to leave Tifa a note.
Even so early in the morning beams of light found their way through the hole in the roof of Aerith's church. The water sparkled in the sunlight, and the white and yellow flowers that peeked up through the floorboards around the water seemed to bask in it. It was a place of peace, a place of sanctuary and memories, and whenever Cloud dreamed of the Lifestream, he inevitably came here, to see her, to ask her why.
However, this time he couldn't find any answers. Even when he sat near where the flowers peeked carefully through the floorboards, even as he felt the aura of peace and calm wrap around him like a blanket, he couldn't find a meaning, a reason why he felt like there was somewhere to go, something to be done.
It puzzled him. Always in his mind the Lifestream was irreversibly linked to this place, the place where Aerith had tended her flowers, the place where the Lifestream had created a cure for Geostigma. If there were no answers here, then where else in the world would they be?
Finding no signs of anything different even here, he almost dismissed the dream. But a combination of the urgency in Zack's eyes and recalling the horribly suffocating, crushing weight of the darkness made him unable to cast it aside. Even if he couldn't find any proof, his heart told him that such powerful emotions in a dream could not have just come out of his head. The feelings had been real, somehow, almost tangible.
But that left him with the dilemma of where to go now. If the church didn't explain it, if the answers weren't here, then was there somewhere else that could hold the answer to him? If this wasn't the place he was being called to, then where was he to go?
He sighed, looking down at the flowers. He didn't know. He didn't know where to go; he didn't know what to do. But Zack had said he was needed. He had to find out where he was supposed to be.
Cloud looked up after a moment, out at Aerith's church. It was Zack who had called him, this time. If there were no answers for him here, in Aerith's church, would it make more sense to go to the place that enshrined Zack's memory, rather than hers?
Making up his mind, Cloud stood and walked between the lines of surviving pews, out towards his bike. At the door, he paused for a moment, glancing back at the sunlight dancing down across the water. "Wish me luck, Aerith," he said over his shoulder.
And he thought for a moment that the light brightened at the words. But that was more likely his imagination.
The early morning left many parts of Midgar shadowed by the upper levels, but once he got outside the city, the hills and plateaus were much brighter. Zack's sword stood on the hill over looking the city, as it always did. It was rusted and weathered, but the metal still shone despite all that. Cloud was careful approaching it, because since the Geostigma incident a bed of yellow and white flowers had spread from the sword's base, now reaching almost two feet away from it.
Cloud reached out and brushed some dirt off the blade. It wasn't really necessary, though, more of a habit. It had taken some time, but he had come to realize that he liked that the earth and the flowers were claiming the sword, making it into a natural part of the landscape. It was better that way for all involved.
After a moment, Cloud sat back with a sigh. "Zack? Are you there? I don't know where to go if not here," he said to the sky and the flowers. With a sigh, he bowed his head slightly, a little ashamed at admitting his possible defeat. "I don't know what you need me to do."
For a painful moment there was silence, and he thought that, maybe, he'd been wrong again. Then, suddenly, Zack's voice laughed in his ear, "Hey, chocobo-head, long time no see!"
Cloud whirled around, looking for him. For a moment, he didn't see anything, almost panicking. He had heard his voice; Zack had to be here, or else...he really wouldn't know what to do! But then there was a swirling of green in the air in front of him and a form materialized out of the energy of the Lifestream. Cloud stood still, watching, waiting, holding his breath.
First a purple turtle-neck, then spikes of black hair, then finally bright, smiling blue eyes came into being. Then Zack was whole again, the same as before the day he had died, the same as when he had appeared to Cloud during the Geostigma incident such a short time ago. His old friend stood looking at him, and this time there was a smile on his face, though perhaps not the grin he wore so often.
For a moment, Cloud stood stunned, unable to react. Zack was here! It was overwhelming; he was seeing his friend again, as if he had never died, as if none of it had happened. A soft smile slowly appeared on his face. "Zack," he murmured.
Zack had been regarding him with a gentle smile, his head cocked slightly to one side so that one rebellious strand of hair fell across his face rather than being swept back in impossible spikes like all the rest. Then, quite suddenly, his smile widened into a grin and then Cloud found himself being charged at by an unavoidable mass of black spikes.
"CLOUD!" Zack yelled as he slammed into his old friend, hugging him. A hand ruffled his hair. "You came, you figured it out. I knew you would, you little chocobo-head, but you gave me a scare there!"
Cloud laughed as he was nearly barreled over backwards. It was real, it had to be; not even insanity could have conjured up Zack this well. After a moment of just standing there, feeling Zack ruffle his hair and almost literally hang off his neck, Cloud finally remembered his dignity and gently shoved the other man back. "Zack, get off, and I told you not to play with my hair."
Zack chuckled as he stepped back. "Oh, sure. You're smiling, Cloud; that means you like it," he teased. He stood looking at his friend for a moment; he had seen him in the battle with Sephiroth half-a-year ago, but it still surprised him that Cloud was no longer the teenage kid he had grown so fond of in the years at Shinra. He kept having to remind himself; Cloud had actually been able to shove him off this time. That was weird. His little chocobo-head had grow much stronger.
The thought sobered him somewhat, as it reminded him why he had come, why he had called Cloud in the first place. I wasn't kidding, Spiky, he assured his friend silently. We need that strength you've got. We need you, or else I don't know what we're going to do.
Cloud saw the slight shift in Zack's expression, saw the seriousness flash there. "Zack, something's wrong?" he asked warily after a moment. "What is it? You called me, why?"
Zack nodded after a moment, all merriment leaving him for a moment. "Yeah. Something's wrong," he confirmed solemnly to Cloud. "We need your help, Cloud."
Cloud nodded quickly, still watching Zack. "Yes, of course, of course I'll help, but what happened?"
Zack hesitated before replying. "Nothing, yet..." The words were ominous, and Cloud didn't like the answer at all. Zack obviously saw his friend wanted a clearer explanation, and finally said, "We found Jenova in the Lifestream." A frown flitted across his face. "She should have been exterminated, purified and gone, after the Geostigma was cured, but she's still holding on. We have to finish her, once and for all."
Cloud blinked, surprise going through his eyes at the mention that she wasn't finished yet. Then the blue hardened into something almost dangerous and he nodded. "Yes." There was no hesitation in his voice this time, nor in his face.
Zack nodded, a slight smile of relief lighting up his face, but something uneasy still remained there. Cloud caught it and blinked, confused. Had Zack really thought he would refuse to help? Where had that happened? How could he think something like that? It almost hurt.
Zack didn't address it. Instead, he turned away, raising a hand. As he pointed, green strands began to converge, and a portal similar to the one he had entered from began to form, a flowing circle of Lifestream energy. Zack glanced back at Cloud. "Come on," he said over his shoulder, holding out a hand.
Cloud didn't hesitate. He stepped after his old friend and grasped the offered hand, allowing Zack to bring him into the Lifestream.
It seemed an eternity since he had seen light. He didn't really even have the knowledge that such a thing existed; only a vague feeling that there was more to the world than the darkness that was his world.
That wasn't an entirely true. In addition to the darkness, he had a vague sense of "himself," of his own existence, though he had trouble telling what that was and where it ended and began. He was pretty sure he could feel; at rare times he could think, but beyond that he wasn't sure. There were times when he felt as though he was a form of some sort, that he had a body, but other times he could feel nothing. And then there was the other component of his world, the overwhelming presence of her. She was all around him, a part of the darkness it seemed, stifling, choking, and inside him as well, whispered words he couldn't escape and shrieks that tore his mind. And pain, pain when he tried to separate "himself" from her.
And he was trying. Instinct told him that "he" was different than she was, and he wanted to know what he was, who he was. Something left him with the certainty that he had not been like this for all of his existence; that there had been a "before," a "past" that held that knowledge, and he tried to call it to his mind's eye. Slivers of things stirred as he searched, sensations, feelings, sensory information, and, every now and then, memories. They came like ghosts, brushing against him with shivers of pain and fear and pleasure, and he would reached out for them desperately, wanting to catch them and understand.
But then she would shriek and come down on him. She sank claws into his mind, into his thoughts and the images that flickered before him, rending them into painful, incoherent shreds. And as he tried to gather his wavering strength for another attempt, she would speak to him, whisper to him incessantly, in a voice that echoed around, through and past him. You are mine, she would say, over and over, echoes upon echoes. You are nothing beyond me. I am the most important thing in your universe. You will be a part of me forever. At times her voice would become sweet, and she would almost sound kind, whispering promises of peace to him, but he rejected it, rejected her gilded words. Something was wrong, somehow, in these brief moments of pure gut feeling, he felt that she was wrong; he knew it, it was the only thing he knew. But it was all he could do to remember that. At times she reduced him to nothing more than a few shuddering sensations of pain, a tiny ball of consciousness, locked away in the dark; everything else consumed by her.
Strangely, it was pain that always brought him back from the edge. It wasn't her pain, though, the pain of the claws in his mind, formless and placeless, yet everywhere. No, this was something different, something that he felt in a fixed existence, something he knew beyond all doubt was real. It was a part of him, meaning he was the one hurt, but it had a definite location, in the middle, wherever that was. It was white fire and red agony, and yet he also felt vaguely that it couldn't be fire, that it was necessary and always would be that it was a blade causing this.
Whenever she had bashed against him so much he nearly faltered, that concrete, physical pain was enough to jar him back. It was his, he knew that; this pain was his pain. And there was something else, some sort of value attached to this sensation that he didn't understand, but which made him cling to that pain with all the tenacity he had left. This feeling meant something; there was a memory attached to it. Of all the recollections he could almost reach, he recognized that pain and that memory most often. No matter how many times she ripped it apart, always, given enough time, it would return, with the two feelings he could pick up from it.
One was hate, bone deep and black. That one took to this world easily; it went from memory to emotion so fast he couldn't tell the difference. And when she tried to crush it, it would flare up in strength, leaving moments where he truly and deeply hated her. That is, before she smashed him to pieces and he couldn't hold onto the feeling, the understanding.
The other feeling, though, was harder to wrap his mind around. It was just as sharp, and yet softer, but painful, too. This was not the physical pain, yet it couldn't be her pain, either, because it came from another entity. When he was near this memory, he suddenly had a sense of "them," as if there was something else besides her in the world.
And that is what made her shatter him fastest and shriek the loudest. Because, once in a while, he would start to wonder tentatively if this odd inside pain really came from "them," or if it came from himself because of "them." It was odd; a tightness that he didn't understand. It was anguish and it was fear and yet there was something else as well, something he couldn't quite get a hold on, but that he knew was important. He couldn't understand why pain would come from "them" because he felt that "they" were somehow precious, important, the same as his "past." "They" and his "past" seemed even to merge at some points in his mind.
But, whatever that memory was, whatever that other feeling was, she didn't want him to have it. Just when he was closest to grasping it, she would come down on him hardest, reducing him in seconds to torn understandings and basic feelings that stung like a thousand knives. He cried out wordlessly as she crushed him, able to do nothing else. He couldn't move, couldn't speak, could do nothing but hopelessly deny the words that echoed inside and around him.
There was no way to judge the passage of time here; he didn't even have a real sense of the meaning of such a thing. But something was gradually changing, and both he and she saw it. The pain he held onto, his pain, was gradually fading. He had begun to feel its presence become harder and harder to hold onto. She knew it and he felt her glee ripple through him as she smashed him again, trying to break his hold entirely. Grimly, instinctively, he struggled to force the sense of "himself" to include that pain; to make it part of "him." It hurt, fire somewhere inside "him." It almost hurt more than she did, and she shrieked and screeched and clawed through him.
And beneath it all, not even consciously, he was afraid. Because he knew even without the capacity to think that, if he lost that pain, that thing that was his and let him reject her, if he lost that memory he couldn't see, he would lose all sense of himself. The sense that "he" was some entity separate from her would disappear, he would be unable to deny the words she forced into his mind, and everything he clung to and couldn't remember would be lost.
This wasn't really knowledge so much as instinctive understanding; and so it remained inside him even as she struck him down again, alongside the deep seated fear that he would lose and she would finally have him.
Rarely, when he slipped exhausted into a place even beyond knowledge and instinct, he only dreamed of some break in the darkness.