Chapter 1: Goddess
ShinRa, he decided resolutely, could be a bunch of idiots. How else would he, Zack Fair, be able to still access the SOLDIER missions database when he was on the run from the said company? It was highly illogical.
Of course, some could say he was an even greater idiot for accessing the database in the first place. He was on the run for heaven's sake! If ShinRa ever decided to check which SOLDIER was actually doing the missions... he'd be seriously, seriously screwed. Why ShinRa never bothered to try tracking him via his PHS though, Zack didn't want to consider. He'd thank Gaia for small allowances, even if he were risking it by having contact with the company's database.
However, desperate times called for desperate measures, and through his own personal experience, Zack knew that whenever he went for such missions before, there would be a lot of useful items lying around those areas, strangely enough. Items that he needed to gain an advantage over the pursuing Turks and the ShinRa military, especially since he had a semi-comatose friend to protect at the same time. It made the journey to Midgar slow and laborious, but he’d be forever damned if he ever complained about it or left Cloud behind.
He’d done several missions already, despite being on the run all the time since breaking out of the hidden labs in the old ShinRa mansion. Each time, he’d feel more elated over finding an item or a new materia than he would've over defeating the monsters he encountered. Zack didn't know whether it was just his imagination, but despite having been stuck in mako-filled tubes and laboratories for Gaia-knew-how-long, he seemed to have not lost his fighting instincts other than when he'd still been slightly disorientated right after breaking out of the mako tube... They'd actually seemed to get better, and his reflexes seemed to have improved too. He wasn't sure if he wanted to thank Hojo for whatever experiment he’d done on him when he’d been held captive. But whenever he took a look at Cloud’s blank face and remembered how unresponsive he was no matter how hard Zack had tried to talk to him in hopes of getting a response... He would resolutely declare that the world would be better off if Hojo had never even been born.
Now, he was on a mission that was proving to be one of the most dangerous one's he'd been on. He'd left Cloud hidden safely in an area where he'd cleaned out all the monsters, no matter how weak they’d been. Then he'd cast Wall around Cloud, just to be on the safe side. He wouldn't risk having Cloud injured at all, and leaving him behind for a little while would be safer than dragging him into the unknown caverns where monsters lurked everywhere. Today, he was exceptionally glad that Cloud wasn't in the vicinity.
The missions he'd been choosing these days had been the harder ones, through no real choice of his own. It wasn't as if he had ShinRa behind him to get him to the places where the missions were. He could only choose those that were along the way when he and Cloud went running and hiding. So by sheer luck (if it could even be considered luck), he was now deep in a cavern and after killing annoying though relatively strong monsters... facing off against an armored being whose stats were definitely off the charts just going by his instincts. The sheer power that radiated from that... being (he really didn't know what to classify it as... it certainly felt holier than the monsters he'd fought against) made him feel as if it was born of Gaia itself. But regardless of what it was, he was determined to fight and win against it. He had to get Cloud to safety, and he had promised Aerith that he'd return from his mission in Nibelheim... as disastrous as that mission now was.
Holding his trusty Buster Sword steadily and tightly in his hands, he charged towards the being...
He'd done it. It had to be the longest and toughest fight he'd ever had in his life. But he'd made it through. The being had disappeared in glowing green light that reminded him of the Lifestream, well, the pictures of it that he'd seen rather. Strangely enough, he couldn't shake off the feeling that he hadn't actually killed the being, and that it’d retreated because... well, he didn’t know why the being retreated, but he fervently hoped that it wouldn’t come back for Round Two.
Barely two seconds later, Zack realized that he was actually right about the retreating bit (but not the coming back bit, unfortunately) as an orb of green light appeared before him once again, just like how the being did earlier. Before he could even utter a heartfelt curse, much less ready his exhausted self to fight again, the orb of light expanded, engulfing him and everything became white...
He awoke to the sound of a feminine voice calling his name. It was by no means Aerith, although it had the same soothing quality to it. Blinking open his eyes, he realized that he was no longer in that cavern with mako crystals. Instead, what lay before him was green... and more green. What in the world...?
The voice spoke to him again, and he was startled to realize that it didn't exactly come from one particular direction. It was omnipresent, all around him... or rather, Zack realized with growing unease, he was hearing it in his head.
"Um... who is it?" he managed to ask guardedly.
A vague sense of amusement threaded through him, but he knew it wasn't him feeling that amusement. It had to be from that being who’d taken him here. Wherever here was. The shimmering green rivers surrounding him and flowing gently around him would’ve been quite calming, but he was too keyed up to really appreciate it.
'It is not surprising that you do not know where you are. You are not one of the Cetra, and most humans only arrive here if they have returned to Gaia.'
Zack was not an easily annoyed person. But he didn't like the sensation of hearing a voice in his head, but not seeing the person, or being, doing the talking. Still, he managed to keep his cool and carefully process the words he was hearing. The Cetra? What did they have to do with his current predicament? The only Cetra he knew that was alive though, was Aerith, and he sincerely doubted Aerith actually knew of his whereabouts at the moment. But the part about returning to Gaia... it was a way of saying that someone had passed on...
"The Lifestream?" he blurted out, eyes widening. But he wasn't dead! Right?
'Indeed, but only at the very fringe of it. But Zack Fair, you are not dead. I have merely brought you here to have a talk with you.'
"...Who are you?"
'I am the Goddess of Gaia, Minerva. I have been waiting for you to come.'
At that, the form of the being that he'd fought with earlier appeared before him in full regal armor. Except it, well she, was no longer wearing the intricate helmet that covered her elegant face and long, flowing golden hair. Zack was stunned and awed by the sight and realization for a moment. He'd just fought the Goddess of Gaia? It seemed too surreal, but his gut was telling him that this was no dream.
"Oh... Hello," he said instead, feeling rather self-conscious and vaguely stupid right now. He wasn't about to try working his charm on Her, and the fact that he’d been whacking the Goddess of the Planet around earlier... Well, to say the least, it wasn't the best way of getting into someone's good books. Much less an all-powerful Goddess. He wondered if he'd landed in hotter soup before, and the answer was sadly, a resolute no.
'Do not be so tense, Zack Fair. The fight was merely my way of testing you. No harm was done.'
"That's nice... Maybe it'd be kinder of you to tell me beforehand," Zack muttered to himself, but he knew that She would hear it anyway.
He wondered absently for a second if Minerva's "no harm was done" could also be taken literally. She certainly didn't seem to be looking any worse for wear, while he could say that he could still feel his muscles aching, even after having taken an Elixir shortly after he'd thought he had defeated Her. Then he registered Her second sentence.
"Hold on a second. You said that you were testing me? For what purpose?"
He thought he saw the hint of a vague smile grace Her features before She spoke again. 'Yes, I was testing you. Not just your strength in battle; it was a test of your determination in defeating me, even if the odds were against you. You have immense willpower, Zack Fair, and a kind, righteous heart. It was not wrong of me to decide to rest my hopes on you.'
While it was flattering to hear about his good qualities from a goddess, it was still confusing the hell out of Zack. What hopes was She talking about? What could he do, if She, the Goddess, could not? But Zack need not voice his questions, for Minerva continued.
'Gaia is prescient to a certain extent. The Planet, and hence I, know of certain key events to come in the future. The future presented before me is bleak. You have experienced a great tragedy at the hands of the Calamity's Son, but it is not the end but the beginning of future tragedies stemming from him. Despite my powers, I am unable to directly influence the outcome of the future. I therefore need a mortal to help, and you are the best candidate for that, Zack Fair.'
Nibelheim was a tragedy that Zack did not want to see repeated ever again. Truth be told, he never wanted to turn his sword against a friend ever since the moment Angeal forced him to turn his sword against him. He had killed Angeal, and while he had not succeeded in killing Sephiroth, the pain of betrayal stung even more. Because he had to do something he didn't want to again. If Minerva foretold of even greater tragedies to come... He certainly did not want to know what would happen, or even live it through. But...
"Who is this 'Calamity's Son'? And why... why do you believe that I can change the future? I mean you're the Goddess of Gaia, not me."
'You would know the Calamity's Son as your former General, Sephiroth, and you would know the Calamity herself as JENOVA, an alien being that crashed onto Gaia centuries ago. It infected a Cetra and proceeded to almost entirely wipe out the Cetra race, but the some of the Cetra managed to contain JENOVA and froze the body in the Northern Crater,' Minerva said, explaining the first part of his question.
'You can change the future for you are not bound by the restrictions that I, as the Goddess of Gaia, have. I can only act when the danger directly threatens to consume Gaia instantly, and by then it can be too late to preserve what remaining life forms there are on Gaia. You can change the future because you are closely linked to the humans whose lives you will change, and thus, you will have that much more motivation to want the change. You will not do this out of personal gain even if you may eventually benefit from it. If you so choose to do it, you will because of your love for your friends and the powers of Gaia resonate strongly with such positive feelings.'
'If you agree to this, Zack Fair, you will have my powers for the duration of a week. You will have to use this time to determine what events of the past you wish to change and then implement it. What you will risk, however, is the possibility that you will never meet those people whose lives you have changed. You may never know them again like you did in your present life, even though you will have no memory of it when you next awake. Keep in mind too that your actions in changing the past may not always lead to a desirable future; an action will always have a consequence.'
Zack's mind whirred at his took in all of what Minerva was saying. This was an unprecedented opportunity being laid before him. It meant that he could prevent the Nibelheim disaster from ever happening, Sephiroth wouldn't go insane, Angeal wouldn't die the way he did... and generally, he could prevent all the shit that ShinRa had ever dealt out from happening. It was a dream come true, yet at the same time, it was a potential nightmare. If he made one mistake tinkering with the past, things could turn out ten times worse and he'd fail those that he'd sworn to protect. But even more than that, could he... could he really let go of everyone he knew in this life?
Could he do it, knowing that there was the possibility that he'd never meet Aerith, his lovely, dearest girlfriend because he would not have fallen into the Sector 5 slums?
Could he do it, even if it meant that it was possible that he'd never know Angeal the next time he regained consciousness because Angeal might not have left Banora Village?
Could he do it, and perhaps not know Cloud or Sephiroth, two important people to him, forever because SOLDIER might not exist?
Even if She had said that he would have no memory of what he'd done and whom he had once known... Zack felt that he would still feel like a part of him was missing. Like there was something, someone, many someones there, but had been mysteriously taken away. He would feel strangely incomplete for the rest of his life perhaps, and he'd never get any explanations for it. Could he do it? Could he?
He then remembered the time where Sephiroth told him the story of how he, Angeal and Genesis had spent their time together fooling around in the ShinRa Training Room. Zack was sure that Sephiroth and the other two First Classes were close friends. He contrasted that Sephiroth he knew to the one he faced down in Nibelheim, and he knew he'd give anything to bring back that Sephiroth who would tell him about his friendships when it was clear that the silver-haired man was a private person.
He remembered the patient way Angeal would mentor him and guide him along. Angeal had been his mentor since he was a Third Class, and he was really fond of his mentor. They had shared many memories, some pleasant, others not so. Regardless, Zack knew that Angeal did not deserve to die the way he had. It had pained him greatly to fight and eventually kill Angeal... and he would do anything to get back his kind but strict mentor. To let Angeal live a life that would probably be as peaceful as the time before Angeal (and Genesis, by extension) left Banora Village to join SOLDIER.
He remembered the first time he'd met Cloud, on a mission to Modeoheim. He'd become friendly with Cloud during that trek up the snowy mountain and hadn't looked back since. Now, the Cloud he was with was a pale shadow of the Cloud he knew. Zack still blamed himself for being partly the reason that Cloud fell into Hojo's sadistic hands and also for not getting him out of the mako tube sooner. He wanted to see Cloud smiling and talking again, not stuck in his mako poisoning comatose state. Most of all though, he wanted to make sure that his younger friend would never ever see his hometown burning down before his very eyes with that said burning being committed by his childhood hero.
Yes, he wanted to change all of that if he could. It was likely that he'd ever meet all of them again, but surely... Surely it was better than what the situation was now? And it'd definitely be better than the coming future, or why else would Minerva seek him out? It was a tough decision to make, but Zack had made it. He would undertake the task Minerva had for him and see it through.
"I'll do it," he declared, determination shining in his eyes.
The faint smile on Her lips that he could now clearly see did not widen, but Zack felt a sense of pleasure and satisfaction in his mind that came from Minerva. The Goddess was pleased with his decision, no doubt.
'You will have access to all my abilities; they will come to you as if you have been using them all your life. The extent of your control over them remains to be seen, though. But I have faith in you, Zack Fair.'
"Thank you. But before you... do whatever you have to do, can I..."
'Your friend will be safe. I will watch over him for the duration it takes for you to make your decisions in the Lifestream. Dangerous creatures generally do not come near when I am around.'
"Well, that’s for sure. You are the Goddess of Gaia," Zack replied cheekily, "I don't think anyone, save for myself, has actually tried fighting you!" Then in a more solemn tone, he added, "But thank you for doing that all the same."
'Have faith in yourself, Zack Fair. I wish you luck.'
Then Minerva shot an orb of pulsating green light towards him. It hit him straight in the chest, penetrating into his heart and an odd warmth started to fill him from that spot even as he felt like he was losing consciousness simultaneously. Before he blacked out entirely, he heard Her last words to him.
'When you next awake, you will be deeper inside the Lifestream and your time limit starts there. Until it ends... you will be the temporary God of Gaia.'
Zack swore She sounded amused at Her last sentence, before all thought ceased to exist.
Chapter 2: Mentor
When Zack next opened his eyes, he saw the same green of the Lifestream but Minerva was nowhere to be found. Sitting up, he took a look at himself, noting that he looked the same as before. Figures that Minerva wouldn't give him a snazzy new outfit. New powers probably didn't equate to new clothes. Too bad for him then. If he had some new suit of armor that would identify himself as the God of Gaia (for the moment at least), it'd be more impressive if he met anyone he knew while he was here in the Lifestream.
It then occurred to Zack that he could meet people he knew in the Lifestream. The Lifestream held the wills and memories of people who had lived, although the individual wills became diluted to form a mass of indecipherable voices after time. But was it possible to still find wills strong enough to largely resist dilution? Or at least resist enough of it to retain a functioning will? He had to try. There was someone he really, really wanted to see again.
"Angeal," he said aloud.
Almost unconsciously, he began gathering all the memories he had of his mentor, be they pleasant or unpleasant ones. He remembered how he’d first met Angeal, how Angeal eventually became his mentor, the times where Angeal would get exasperated with him over one thing or another, how despite that Angeal would always be there for him when he most needed it, that time in Wutai where Angeal had used his Buster Sword to protect him... and that very fateful day in Modeoheim where Angeal entrusted his prided Buster Sword to him...
Zack wasn't sure what he really was doing, but it felt like he was doing something right. It felt right. Minerva did say Her powers would come to him naturally, so he decided that this was probably one such instance. He wasn't entirely sure what would happen, but since it was related to Angeal, it wouldn't be-
That voice... was familiar. So very familiar. Zack scarcely believed that he was hearing it for real again. But...
"Zack...? Is that you?"
It had to be. He wasn't hearing things. He couldn't be. Zack immediately spun around, and sure enough, his mentor was there. Angeal was there. It really was him. Mindless of the fact that he was a good few years older than the last time he'd seen Angeal and should probably act his age (although when had he ever acted his age), Zack immediately ran (glided?) over to his mentor and gave him a big bear hug.
"Angeal! It's... it's really you!"
Angeal staggered backwards slightly at the unexpected, fierce embrace. He wasn't entirely sure how he appeared here. Gaia hadn't been as accepting of his presence due to his tainted cells, but over time, his will had begun to slowly merge with the Lifestream's collective consciousness although he still pulled himself out from time to time to keep an eye on a certain student of his, who was still alive on Gaia. However, he knew that he had been forgetting things already, and that sometimes he wasn't entirely sure if what he was thinking about really was him doing the thinking or the Planet. But then he had suddenly felt as if someone familiar was calling out to him, and some pieces of his forgotten memories started coming back to him...
The next thing he knew, he had emerged largely intact from the collective wills of the Lifestream to see Zack in the Lifestream, when the last time he'd check, Zack was still alive albeit on the run from ShinRa. He thought he had to be hallucinating... until that bear hug. That was absolutely something only Zack would do.
"Zack... Why are you here?" There was no reason Zack would be here... unless... and Angeal really didn't want to entertain that thought.
Realizing that his appearance in the Lifestream had to be confusing (not to mention worrying) the hell out of Angeal, Zack stepped back and hurriedly tried to explain. "I'm not dead, if that's what you're thinking. And I certainly didn't wake up one day and found myself becoming a Cetra... But I was suddenly made the God of Gaia."
There was a long pause as Zack looked expectantly at Angeal and Angeal stared back at Zack, wondering if the puppy had finally gone crazy.
Zack sighed mentally. See? Minerva should've totally given him some snazzy new outfit that was similar to the regal armor She wore; it would make convincing Angeal of his story much easier. A whole lot easier, he was sure of it. There was no way ShinRa could make something that looked like Minerva's battle armor even with the copious amounts of technology they had at their disposable. He was going to have to do more to convince Angeal and he really wanted Angeal to believe him.
"Angeal, I swear I am not making it up. Just now, I was... testing out my new powers. I wanted to see you, and I figured that since I was in the Lifestream, perhaps I could try calling out to you. Minerva - that's the Goddess of Gaia - didn't explain what powers She had when she transferred them to me, but it felt right doing what I did," he said honestly. "And then... well, you appeared. You can't deny that, no?"
Angeal had to admit that he had indeed felt someone calling him just now. Plus, as incredulous as it was, he could tell that Zack wasn't lying to him. Oh Zack could be a great liar if he wanted to be - he often had to lie or tell partial truths to get out of some spat of trouble his mischievous, younger self often got into. But being Zack's mentor meant that he could see through those lies. Angeal also had to admit that he much preferred the prospect of Zack being the God of Gaia, than the one of which Zack was actually dead and hence, being in the Lifestream. Although, for the life - or death - of him, he couldn't fathom who would actually make Zack a god. That said, Zack was unquestionably a far better choice than some other people he once knew, but now cared little to think of.
"I suppose," he conceded, "That you really aren't dead. For one, you are far too lively. And... I did hear someone calling me just now-"
"You did? Now that means I can probably call anyone I want to talk to in the Lifestream!"
"But," Angeal continued, ignoring Zack's interruption with practiced ease, "I want to know how exactly you became the... God of Gaia."
Zack grinned, happy that Angeal had asked. Old habits still stuck with him despite the years that had passed and he wanted to impress his mentor now as much as he had when he'd still been a Second Class and when Angeal was technically alive. Pushing those more unpleasant thoughts out from his mind, Zack started to recount all that had happened to him to lead him to his meeting with Minerva, and then the aftermath of that fight. He couldn't help but feel a warm satisfaction bloom within him as Angeal had looked suitably impressed that he had actually held his own against Minerva and had defeated her as much as the Goddess had allowed him to. Zack was quite certain - and he was sure Angeal was thinking the same too - that Minerva hadn't actually gone all out against him. Following that, he finally came to the point where he had to explain what Minerva had planned for him.
"The Goddess of Gaia would like you to change the past to prevent future disasters? That would be caused by Sephiroth?" Angeal repeated rather incredulously.
"Yeah, that's what She said, although I thought Sephiroth had already died in Nibelheim... Well, in any case, She didn't tell me what would happen except that it'd make Nibelheim look like peanuts. If the burning of an entire village can be considered a minor incident... I don't really want to know what else would happen,” Zack said. "Besides, I've... I've always regretted not being able to do more to save you from..." he added, voice trailing off into a murmur.
"Zack, I don't blame you for killing me. It was what had to be done," Angeal quickly said. He was afraid that his student would feel guilty for killing him. Okay, so he knew pretty clearly that Zack would feel guilty for it but it was for the best that he had died. It probably wouldn't soften the blow to Zack, but that was the truth to Angeal.
"No!" came the instant and fierce rebuttal, and Zack's eyes were shining with unwavering conviction of his own views. "No! I know that you don't blame me. But there should have been another way, Angeal! You didn't need to die; I still maintain that you are not a monster. In fact, none of the people who died should have died. It's ShinRa's fault for funding all those experiments, for making use of people and for... for all their lies! That's why... That's why I undertook the task Minerva had for me. I'm going to change the past and make sure all of you, you, Sephiroth, Cloud and even Genesis, will be able to live your lives without ShinRa or any mad scientist screwing around with them!"
"But there is a price, isn't there, Zack?" Changing the past to change the future. It sounded good, but wouldn't that mean certain things would never happen again and that certain people might never have a chance to meet again? Had Zack stopped to carefully consider such possibilities? Angeal didn't know.
However, Zack surprised him with a calm but firm answer. "Yes there is. But I'm willing to pay it. Minerva said that I had to forgo all the relationships I've formed in this life and that it was possible that I will not meet any of you again. But if all of you can be happy and live the lives that you deserved to live, it's really not a bad deal."
"What about your girlfriend?"
That made Zack pause, although Angeal suspected it was due to surprise rather than the fact that he hadn't actually given thought to it before. He knew that he had died before Zack had mentioned his girlfriend to him. However, seeing as he had to occupy his time during the period where the Lifestream was having trouble fully absorbing his will (and there weren't many intact wills around for him to converse with), he had used those times to check up on Zack. To tell the truth, the clone that was now still with the girl had been initially sent to secretly keep an eye on Zack for him, even though it ended up as the girl's guard dog of sorts. And so, it was through that very same clone that he had learnt about Zack's relationship with the pretty flower girl.
"...How... how do you know about Aerith?"
"Long story short, the Lifestream doesn't reabsorb me easily because of the tainted cells that I have. I had to find a way to spend my time while drifting around with an intact will, so I got a living clone to keep an eye on you when I couldn't actively look out of the Lifestream. That clone's been in her church for awhile now."
Zack gawked at Angeal, working his jaw but no sound came out. Angeal had been keeping an eye on him from the Lifestream? "You..."
"Don't look so shocked, Zack. It was partly because I was bored, but I was genuinely worried about you."
"So... you actually know what's been happening to me all this while?"
"Yes. Including Nibelheim and its aftermath."
"Then I really wasn't seeing things before I broke out of the mako tube!"
"You weren't," Angeal agreed. "Because you were immersed in so much mako, which is the Lifestream in a sense, I manage to find your consciousness from the Lifestream and get a stronger grip on it then I otherwise would've. Following that, I tried to help you. You know the rest."
Before he could even anticipate it, Zack had hugged him once again, putting all the strength one had as a SOLDIER First Class and the current temporary God of Gaia into it. If Angeal had been a lesser man - or spirit - his overzealous student would've completely suffocated him to death... which would be really strange - and not the least bit logical - since he was very clearly, already dead. "...Zack."
Zack quickly let go of his mentor, knowing that Angeal didn't like being all touchy-feely. Still, he couldn't wipe off the delighted grin he had on his face. Hey, he hadn't seen his mentor in years! It fully justified, heck, it warranted a hugging or two! Especially more so, since said mentor had helped save his and Cloud's lives! He was really touched, and he had to show his appreciation somehow! Just saying "thank you" didn't seem enough in Zack's eyes. "Aww don't be so touchy, Angeal! I was just saying thank you!"
"And trying to crush my non-existent life out of me at the same time," the other deadpanned, although there was a slight hint of a smile curling the corners of his lips. He knew Zack was like that, and didn't really blame him. In fact, it was one of those things that made Zack all the more puppy-like and adorable, even at his age. "But we were on the topic of your girlfriend before we digressed. So. What will you do about her?"
Zack sobered up immediately, as his thoughts were redirected to the serious topic of potential sacrifices. "...I've thought about it. I really don't want to give up Aerith, I'll admit that, Angeal. Who knows whether I would meet her again in the changed future? But, right now, changing the fates of all those who have suffered, is even more important than my potential future happiness. I think, as long as I explain it to Aerith, she'll understand. She's a really special girl." After a slight pause, he added, "Maybe I should call her now."
When Angeal didn't say anything to object, Zack decided to go ahead with it. Aerith was a Cetra, and he had heard her mention about hearing messages from the Planet before, although she had said they weren't always very clear and understandable. Well, he was going to make his call as clear as he possibly could. Closing his eyes like before, Zack consciously concentrated on every memory he had on Aerith, of all the times they had spent together. In addition to that, he wove in his own mental voice into the call, hoping that it would have a stronger pull for Aerith to immerse her will even deeper into the Lifestream than she usually would. He would make sure that nothing would happen to her.
"Aerith..." Please come. I really want to see you again.
He wasn't sure if he was hearing things when a gentle, but earnest voice seemed to weave into his thoughts. It was also calling out to him, or perhaps to Gaia in general, but he was quite sure he felt something that suggested that it was in relation to him too. He went to follow that voice, directing his own call towards it too. It felt like it would lead his call to Aerith, and to eventually bring her here.
"...Zack? Is it... is it really you?"
Chapter 3: Maiden
Aerith Gainsborough had been in her church, quietly tending to her flowers and adding a prayer or two, which mostly concerned a certain black-haired SOLDIER whom she had not seen for close to five years, into her daily habits. It was sometime then when she suddenly felt an inexorable and very, very insistent pull from the Lifestream on her mind. It almost reminded her of that particular SOLDIER who featured in her prayers. Gaia wasn't usually this insistent... if She were, then Aerith wouldn't even have had the chance to refuse an audience with the Planet.
Somewhat reluctantly, Aerith stopped her chores and seated herself down in the midst of all her flowers and slowly let her consciousness filter further into the Lifestream. She followed the pull of the Lifestream, which seemed like it was guiding her somewhere. It brought her deeper and deeper into the sea of never-ending green and she was suddenly afraid that her will might just be accidentally diluted if she went too far in.
But the guiding presence was also reassuring, and Aerith found that even as she went in deeper, far deeper than her self-preservation instincts told her to, she did not feel the overpowering presence of the Lifestream’s collective consciousness bearing down on her even though she knew innately that it should and would happen.
It was as if some force was keeping it away from her, so she would still retain her individuality despite the large mass of memories swirling around her. It was the first time such a thing had occurred, and it inevitably piped her curiosity and she followed on without complaint.
Then suddenly before her, she saw a black-haired figure in extremely familiar attire. Well, two figures to be exact. But one of them had drawn all of her attention immediately. His hairstyle was uncannily like Zack's. Could it be him that the pull of the Lifestream was leading her to? She scarcely believed that she was seeing Zack again, but... why he was in the Lifestream?
"...Zack?" she tentatively called out, "Is it... is it really you?"
Upon hearing her voice, the Zack-like figure turned around to face her. Then before she could even begin to react, a wide grin formed on the man's face, momentarily dazzling her with the warmth and familiarity of the smile. He then sprinted towards her, scooped her up in his arms and gave her a warm, warm hug.
A hug that she wasn't ashamed to admit that she had missed. Sorely.
She had thought that she wouldn't see Zack again. It had been so long since she had last heard from him and her initial attempts at trying to find him via Lifestream had been rebuffed. Each and every time, she was guided away - gently but nonetheless it was a rebuff - by the strong currents of the Lifestream. She sensed that Gaia was trying to protect her, and it made her wonder what had happened to Zack such that it wasn't advisable for her to search for him.
"Aerith! Oh Gaia, Aerith!"
The simple act confirmed to Aerith that the man before her was indeed Zack Fair. It was also then when she noticed that something about Zack felt different. He didn't feel dead, as she should've expected, seeing as he was in the Lifestream and certainly had never been a Cetra. Instead, he felt so much more alive than she had ever known.
Alive in the way that there was so much of Gaia's energy inside of him! All of Gaia's living beings had some of that energy within them, but Zack was so full of it now - even more than his SOLDIER-enhanced level that she had become accustomed to - that it was as if he was Gaia itself!
But before she could say anything, Zack had let her go, and gently set her down. He was studying her with bright, cheerful blue-violet eyes, and despite him being at least four years older than when they had last seen each other, Aerith thought, with a fair bit of fondness, that Zack hadn't really lost any of his boyish personality and traits at all.
Then if it were even possible, Zack's grin grew even wider as he commented happily, "You're really wearing pink, Aerith! You remembered!"
"I'm not as forgetful as you are, Zack!" she retorted playfully, in reference to her wish list written for him. Then she heard an amused chuckle from the other man who was there with them. He looked vaguely familiar somehow... like she'd seen, or rather sensed, him before.
Seeing where the maiden's gaze was going to, Zack decided to do the introductions. As far as he knew, they had never seen each other face-to-face before. The clone certainly didn't count in Zack’s book. It had Angeal's cells, sure, but it wasn't Angeal the man himself.
"Aerith, let me introduce you! This is Angeal Hewley, my mentor that I told you about. Angeal, this is Aerith Gainsborough, my girlfriend."
Angeal smiled slightly, and held out his hand to the lady. "It's a pleasure to meet the girl who's finally tamed the puppy. I must express my utter amazement at your ability to be able to stand being around him long enough to do that."
"Hey!" Zack protested indignantly, but he was ignored by both conversing parties. "You were the one who "introduced" me to her! By causing me to fall into the Sector 5 slums!"
Aerith giggled at both Angeal's and Zack's words even as she shook the proffered hand firmly. Following Angeal's lead, she deliberately ignored Zack and chose to speak only to the other man, "I must admit that he couldn't really take a hint when we first met, but I guess he's kinda grown onto me."
"Ah yes, he does that to people. Sometimes, I wonder how he and Tseng get along with each other well enough to get their missions done..."
"OI!" Zack protested once more, in a louder volume this time. "Quit talking about me like I'm not actually standing right here!"
When all it did was incite a round of laughter from Angeal and more giggling from Aerith, he sighed in defeat, his posture slouching. Fine, fine, they could laugh at his expense. What's a little "let's-talk-about-Zack-not-behind-his-back" going to do to the person in question himself, eh? Almost without knowing it, he pouted slightly and it caught Aerith's attention immediately. She was rarely able to resist Zack's kicked-puppy expression - it was just too adorable and stirred up all sorts of feminine instincts - and this was no exception.
"Awww, Zack!" she exclaimed, running over to her boyfriend to give him another hug. "Don't feel bad. Although... you do look cute pouting!" she added cheekily.
"Aerith!" Zack thought he could wave goodbye to his dignity permanently.
It was then that Angeal decided that he should come to Zack's aid, and stop the teasing for now, even though it was a form of entertainment that he had missed when he was in the Lifestream. Zack didn't actually have an unlimited amount of time to do what he would like to accomplish, and he would also need to explain things to Aerith.
"All right now kids, this isn't the time for fooling around. Zack, you wanted to meet Aerith to tell her some things, didn't you?"
Zack started slightly, as he was reminded of his original purpose of wanting to meet Aerith. Yes, Angeal was right; he didn't have the time to do catching up with Aerith even though he dearly wanted to. So he carefully shifted his arms so he was holding Aerith slightly away from him, and looked seriously into her emerald-green eyes.
"...You're probably wondering what I’m doing here, aren’t you?"
"Yes... But I can tell that you're not dead too. What happened to you in the past four years, Zack?"
Zack's mood dipped a little as he thought about what he and Cloud had gone through in the years they spent being little more than lab rats for Hojo. But he owned Aerith the truth, having promised to return to visit her after the Nibelheim mission and yet, failing to show up for close to five years. Even now, he wasn't physically in Midgar with her, in her lovely, tranquil church. That said, he wasn't going into detail about what had happened in those labs. Some things just didn't need to be talked about in great length.
"The Nibelheim mission went... badly. Very badly," he began, a little unsure on how to go about doing this. "Sephiroth, he found out that he was born out of an experiment and... that didn't go over very well with him. He set Nibelheim ablaze and killed the villagers who confronted him. I tried to stop him, but I failed. It took Cloud to finally throw Sephiroth into the mako reactor's core.
But as I was injured and so was Cloud, neither of us stayed conscious for long after Sephiroth was gone. Apart from some hazy memories, the next thing I knew, Cloud and I had spent about four years being Hojo's lab rats. I had what I thought was a dream of Angeal and it shook me out of it enough to break out of the mako tubes and rescue Cloud. We've been on the run ever since."
Zack shivered slightly as he finished his abbreviated version of his tale. The horror that was Nibelheim was still vivid despite the passage of time and he didn't even try to think about his time in Hojo's labs if he could help it.
It wasn't that Hojo took particular interest in him, but it was the fact that he had some clearer memories of those times when he'd seen Hojo experimenting on Cloud. He was sure he hadn't even seen half of whatever sick things Hojo had done to his friend in the twisted name of science and research (not to mention satisfying the freak's own morbid curiosity), but what little he'd remembered and the fact that Cloud was still in a comatose state due to mako-poisoning (and possibly just to escape the trauma of Hojo's repeated experimentation); it was enough to make him want to kill the mad scientist if they ever crossed paths again.
"Oh, Zack!" Aerith gave her boyfriend a very tight hug again, sadness welling up in her as she thought about what Zack had gone through even though she knew that he hadn't given her the majority of the horrific details.
She understood why the Planet had kept her away from finding Zack. Gaia was probably trying to protect her, like a parent would, from witnessing the horrors that had happened to Zack and Cloud. Even so, she wished she had been able to push through Gaia's resistance. If she could've been there for Zack somehow, then perhaps he and Cloud wouldn't have had to spend so many years suffering under Hojo's "loving care". Perhaps they could've escape much, much earlier.
"It's all right now, babe," Zack hurried to assure her with a tight squeeze of his own. "Well, mostly. Cloud's still comatose, but if things go right this time, all the tragedies that have happened won't occur. Ever."
That sounded... strange. Not to mention a little foreboding. "What do you mean by that Zack?"
"Well... as strange as it seems, but Minerva - the Goddess of Gaia - sort of gave me Her role for a week to change events in the past to prevent dire events in the future from happening." He paused to let his girlfriend absorb that bit of information first, before adding, "So... that kind of means that I'm now the God of Gaia, for about a week."
He watched Aerith's face closely, trying to judge her feelings towards the matter. He could read surprise in her eyes, and then, after a short while, understanding began to show in her expression. Zack was almost positive that his girl already knew why he had wanted to meet with her. He could feel a certain sense of pride in Aerith's perceptiveness, but also a budding sense of sorrow. It would be really difficult to leave behind Aerith, but it was a decision that he would not change.
"Changing the events of the past... That means that certain events of the future won’t happen again, and so we might not ever meet... Right?"
"What's going to happen? Did She say?"
Zack shook his head. "Not really. All I've been told was that there would be many more disastrous events happening, far worse than Nibelheim, and that Sephiroth would be the instigator."
Aerith knew that Zack was a very loyal friend, and she would not fault him for deciding to undertake his decision. In a way, Aerith was really proud of him. It made her wonder if she herself would have the courage to do such a thing - or something of similar magnitude - if she was presented with the choices laid down by Minerva. Undoubtedly, it pained her to have to part with Zack, possibly permanently, because it was altogether likely that they would not meet again in the new future. But she would support him wholeheartedly and, if she could, stay with him until the very, very last moment.
"Go do what you have to do, Zack. You have my fullest support."
"Thank you so much, Aerith. It really means a lot to me." He enveloped her in another hug. Gaia, he loved his girlfriend, he really did.
She hugged him back really tightly this time, wanting to indulge in Zack's warmth as much as she could. Out of the corners of her eyes, she saw Angeal turn away discreetly to give them some measure of privacy. She was thankful to Angeal for that, because despite her wholehearted resolve to support Zack, there was still a part of her that was sad to let Zack go. And that part of her made a few tears escape from her eyes.
Aerith tired to blink back her tears before letting go of Zack and smiling brightly at him. She did not want him to reconsider his actions because of her tears. "Shall we proceed to what you have to do?"
"Yeah, guess I should."
"Do you have a plan in mind, Zack?" Angeal asked, ever the meticulous one.
"Hmm... Kind of, I guess. I was thinking of travelling back into the past to see what happened then and see if there was any possible turning point that tipped things down its current path. Then I'll see what I can change about that part to prevent things from.. turning shitty."
Angeal considered Zack's words carefully before replying, "Before you go back in time, it would be better for you to know more about the JENOVA Project S beforehand... and probably Project G too."