Chapter 3

"So what did Barret have to say?"

Zack turned with Wedge as Elmyra joined them from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishrag. The power had gone out for the night a short while ago, leaving her to finish cooking with the residual heat of the stove.

"Looks like Shinra's finally on the move," Zack told her.

Elmyra looked between the two of them. "Are you going somewhere then?"

"Not quite yet," Wedge assured her. "We've gotta wait for the Highwind to get back from Wutai. So we're not skipping out on dinner, I promise."

"Speaking of which, Cloud should've been back by now," said Zack, looking to the door. The yard outside was dark even to his Mako eyes, but not impenetrable. Not a Cloud in sight. "I'm gonna go track 'im down. Be back soon, Mrs. G, but don't worry about waiting for us."

"All right."

Trusting that Wedge would fill Elmyra in on the details, Zack put the mission out of mind and stepped out onto the garden path. Aeris's garden, though between her absence and the coming winter, only a handful of plants still had blooms. Elmyra and some of the other people in Sector 5 knew how to care for them, but Zack wasn't sure how long they'd really last in the diminished light, and without Aeris.

It was weird, living here with her mom, but not her. Zack didn't think he'd ever quite get over how weird. The times he'd been here before, he'd always been some kind of intruder--either facing Elmyra's critical gaze across the dinner table, or letting Aeris sneak him up to her room so they could make out.

Now he was sleeping in that room. With his boyfriend. Not the ideal arrangement, but there really weren't any ideal arrangements to be had in Midgar these days.

These daily brownouts were a part of it. What had once been a world of perpetual night was now a world of night and deeper night. Instead of a jumble of street lamps and spotlights illuminating his way through the sector, now there was only the dim glow of candlelight out of windows and the gaps in corrugated metal.

And a lot of darkness between. The slums were emptier than they used to be.

Cloud was supposed to have been helping out at the church, organizing things for the next group of refugees headed to Wutai. That was a path Zack knew pretty well. Apart from the lighting, the landscape of Sector 5 hadn't changed much in the past five years.

Stuff like that still threw him--how some things had changed so much, while other things were almost like he remembered. He'd spent five years imagining coming back here for Aeris, but she'd moved on. And when he'd found his freedom, she wasn't the one he'd gone looking for.

There he was. That familiar mess of blond hair squatting to peer into a gap between shanties.

"Hey, buddy," Zack greeted. "What's up?"

"Lost cat," said Cloud, with the kind of brevity that said he was getting frustrated. He stayed put a moment longer, frowned, and then pushed himself to his feet. He nodded down the street. "This kid's out in the dark and won't tell me where he lives until we find it."

"Hmm. You kinda feel like that's a job for Wedge, if only he could see in the dark."

"Are you gonna help me look for the damn cat or not?"

Zack fought back a laugh. "Yeah, 'course I will. What's it look like?"

"Tabby. White paws."

"Her name is Mittens!" the little boy called out helpfully from somewhere just out of sight. Cloud had probably told him to stay put there, so he wouldn't get lost, too.

"Got it," Zack called back. He gave Cloud's hair a quick ruffle, unable to resist, and then turned away to search the other side of the street. He could feel Cloud's disgruntled look against his back. "So Barret called," Zack went on.

"I take it he wasn't inviting us to a birthday party this time," said Cloud.

"Sadly, no. Sounds like Fort Condor's headed for a showdown. We're gonna be headed there with some of Reeve's men as soon as the Highwind can pick us up. Tomorrow night, maybe."

"It's been a while," Cloud remarked, "since we did any real fighting."

"I don't figure we'll be too rusty," Zack reasoned. They'd gone nearly five years without doing a damn thing, after all, and everything had still come pretty natural. Things shouldn't have been any different after a couple months.

"I'm not really worried about that," said Cloud.

"Then what? You just been enjoying the quiet life? Finding lost kitty-cats?"

"If we could find it," Cloud muttered under his breath. "But... maybe. In a way. It's just been... nice, not having to worry about anyone."

Zack glanced over at him, but Cloud wasn't looking in his direction. "You're sweet," he said, "but I'll remind you I came out of our fight with Sephiroth in better shape than any of you."

"And I got fresh burn scars, I know," said Cloud. It wasn't the first time it had come up; Zack had made such a poor account of himself back in Nibelheim that he really felt he had to brag about the rematch sometimes, for the sake of his ego. "I can still worry a little. You're always trying to be the hero."

"Trying? I think we could both come out of this one looking pretty heroic. Fighting off the Shinra to save some nice townsfolk, not to mention the local wildlife... Hey, maybe there will be a party."

Cloud threw him a skeptical look. "In your honor?"

"In our honor," Zack corrected, and then he spotted the glint of eyes staring back at him from beneath the front steps of a shop. "That you, Mittens? Here, kitty kitty..."

He reached for her, but she hissed and took a swipe at him, her claws catching his wrist.

"Ow!" he exclaimed, yanking his arm back.

"Yeah, you're real tough," said Cloud. "I'm gonna get the kid."

The little boy managed to coax Mittens out from under the steps without further violence, and scooped her up into his arms. His beloved pet recovered, he let them escort him back to his house a few blocks away, where his father thanked them profusely. They bid him good night and turned back towards Elmyra's house.

"I'm definitely more of a dog person," Zack decided, inspecting the scratches. They weren't deep, but he anticipated itching.

"Want me to kiss it better?" said Cloud.

"I know you're being sarcastic, but I'm not turning down the offer."

Zack didn't have to look to know Cloud was rolling his eyes, but he still took Zack's wrist when it was offered and pressed a kiss to it.

"Thanks. I feel better already."

He dropped his arm and reached instead for Cloud's hand, twining their fingers together. Cloud wasn't big on the public displays of affection, but there was no one around to see, and they literally couldn't have seen had they been there. It was one little upside to the otherwise depressing darkness.

"So," Cloud said, "Shinra's attacked Fort Condor before, right? What makes this time different?"

So Zack told him the rest of it, what Barret had told him about the Huge Materia, and their speculations on what Shinra meant to do with it. Not the most romantic conversation.

Cloud was quiet at first, and then he said, "I can't believe we used to work for them."

"You and me both, man. Kinda makes you wonder about the guys in Junon. Are they still clueless or are they really that committed to the job?"

"Probably a mix of both," Cloud reasoned. "I mean... Some of them must see Junon as home, and they wanna defend it, right?"

"Too bad we can't explain to them that we're the good guys."

"We thought we were the good guys, before."

"Ah, yes. When we were young and stupid, and Sephiroth was..." Zack trailed off. "Well, he was a halfway decent guy, once."

"Only halfway," said Cloud, unsurprisingly. It was easier for him to unequivocally condemn the man, when he hadn't known him very well. Zack just made a hard distinction between the Sephiroth Before, and the Sephiroth After. As far as he was concerned, they were two completely different people.

He didn't have any regrets about his part in killing the Sephiroth After, but every now and then... Every now and then, he felt a little sad about the Sephiroth Before. The first real casualty of that day in Nibelheim. But Cloud, and frankly most of AVALANCHE, were not the right audience for that.

Maybe Vincent, if he ever saw the guy again.

Wedge and Elmyra were talking over the dinner table as Zack and Cloud stepped inside, but they broke off their conversation to look up.

"Everything all right?" Elmyra asked.

"Yeah," Zack answered, taking the seat across from her. "Just had to track down a lost pet."

"Mittens again?" asked Wedge, and it shouldn't have surprised him; Wedge knew all the neighborhood cats.

"That's the one," Zack confirmed.

"She's always wandering off. Not like our Miss Evie here." Wedge reached down to pet the black cat who, predictably, was hanging around under the table in expectation of dinner scraps. It had required some persuasion, but Elmyra had at last agreed to the adoption of exactly one (1) cat.

Zack didn't mind Evie. She was a lot friendlier than Mittens. The only problem was she effectively disappeared when her eyes were closed, and they'd all tripped over her more than once.

"So Zack got you up to speed, right?" Wedge asked Cloud.

"Yeah," said Cloud. "Guess that means this next group isn't headed for Wutai just yet."

"I guess not," said Wedge. "I'm sure they can be patient, but with everything going on, I hate to put getting them someplace safer on hold."

"They'll be fine," said Zack. "Shinra's not getting that Huge Materia. Simple as that."

Cloud glanced at him. They both knew things were never as simple as that, but Zack preferred to give voice to optimism. Someone had to try to balance out all the pessimists.

It was Zack's turn to do the dishes that night, which he managed to remember without anyone reminding him. This time he hoped he'd gotten them clean enough for Elmyra's standards; by candlelight, it was hard to tell.

At the table behind him, Elmyra switched on the radio, adjusting it to pick up the one available station. The usual news broadcast was on. Reeve continued to be worlds more transparent about his activities than Shinra, and passed along updates on relocation and reconstruction efforts. They hoped to have Sector 8 completely evacuated within the week, which would let Reeve reroute more power to the other sectors, and maybe their 'daytime' would last a little longer.

Technically, Zack guessed he might take the opportunity to lower the power output even further, but he doubted it. Plenty of people were already angry with him over the state of Midgar, and they weren't entirely wrong to blame him. Midgar wasn't just down four reactors; Reeve had made a compromise with AVALANCHE to keep the reactors running at the minimal output necessary to keep the city going. They had their night cycles, the trains ran infrequently, and about the only places with steady power were the hospitals.

At Jessie's suggestion, Reeve lived with it like anyone else, which helped some. Anyone who visited the new headquarters in Sector 3 would find Reeve's people working by candlelight late into the evenings. In theory it was all temporary, and what pissed Zack off when he'd learned about it was that Shinra had already done research into alternative power sources. Mako had just turned out to be easier and cheaper to produce, and therefore more profitable.

Now, while Shinra was working on new weapons, Reeve's faction was building prototypes based on abandoned research. One day, he hoped to return Midgar to its former glory. Or, a new glory, as the case may be, under something that wasn't Shinra anymore.

They desperately needed a new name, but no one could convince Reeve to make it a priority. And as much as Zack had come to respect the guy over the past month, 'Tuesti' just didn't have the same ring to it as Shinra.

When he'd finished in the kitchen, Zack left Wedge and Elmyra to go on listening, and stepped outside. Cloud was waiting for him in the garden, sitting among the trimmed stems of a bed of lilies, listening to the stillness of the deep night.

Zack joined him, sitting down close enough so their shoulders brushed, and glanced up in the direction of the plate overhead. He couldn't really see it, except as a stretch of black overhead, but he could make out its distant edges silhouetted above the faint green haze at the horizon.

"Y'know," he said, "I think it'll be nice to get outta here for a few days. Get an actual view at night."

"We're not leaving to go stargazing," said Cloud.

"I know, I know. But once we win, I'm gonna spend the rest of the day just drinking in the sky."

"What if it rains?"

Zack shot him a look. "I swear, sometimes you just enjoy being contrary."

He just barely caught Cloud's smirk in the dim. "Maybe."

"If it rains, I'm going out anyway. Even if it is almost December."

"You'll catch a cold."

Zack slung an arm around him, pulling him closer. It was plenty chilly out here, too. "Not if you come along to keep me warm," he said.

"That's basically my job, I guess."

"My very own portable heater."

"And here I thought you liked me for my personality."

"Hmm... Guess not. You do make the most adorable heater though."

Cloud elbowed him in the side, but Zack leaned in undeterred and kissed him on the forehead.

"You know I like every part of you," he said softly.

He couldn't see Cloud's face well enough to be sure, but Zack had watched it turn red plenty of times before, and he knew the embarrassed silence that followed. Cloud leaned into him, and Zack waited patiently for him to speak up.

"Maybe we get a room to ourselves on the Highwind," he proposed at last.

Zack just couldn't help himself. "Looking to join the mile high club?" he asked.

"Uhh... I've never heard of that, but I think I can guess, and... probably not."

"I'll take a maybe," said Zack.

Making out in his ex-girlfriend's bedroom was... awkward, to say the least. He knew Cloud wasn't wild about it. Plus they shared the room with Wedge, seeing as none of them dared even propose intruding on Elmyra's privacy, and while Wedge was very good about knocking... Cloud was always too embarrassed to continue after they'd been interrupted.

Zack longed for someplace private enough to put him at ease, but Cloud was right, it probably wouldn't be the Highwind.


Probably wasn't definitely.

"You're still thinking about it, aren't you?" said Cloud.

"Don't put this all on me. You're the one who brought it up."

"Well, I-- ... I just..."

"You want me. I get it. I'm super hot."

Cloud gave him a shove, and Zack happily let it push him over, tugging Cloud with him.

Thankfully, Cloud took the invitation, done with being contrary. Zack was glad, because the last thing he wanted to do tonight was have the time to think about the mission.

Something about it definitely wasn't simple, but he didn't want to think it through just yet.

The Highwind didn't return to Midgar the following day, but early the day after. Zack, Cloud, and Wedge took the morning train up to Sector 3 topside and made their way to the new headquarters. The airship waited overhead, propellers spinning. Most of Reeve's men must have already boarded, but a familiar shock of red hair waited for them on the ground.

"All right," said Reno. "Let's get a move on."

If anyone had asked him, Zack would have bet money he didn't have on Reno and Rude making a beeline back to Rufus along with Elena, but he doubted anyone would have taken him up on it. Those two staying had surprised everyone.

The story from Reeve was that Rufus had ordered them to arrest him, but they'd used that to bargain for a higher salary instead. Zack was skeptical. Midgar was enough of a mess that most people had reverted to the barter system, and there were no guarantees they'd ever get back to a point where gil was worth anything.

If Reno and Rude really were loyal to their side, it was more likely they'd seen Shinra for a sinking ship and decided to step off. But Zack wasn't convinced they'd even come that far.

"You're coming along?" he asked Reno quizzically.

"Your boss had a chat with my boss," Reno explained. "She wants that 'Fort Condor' reactor shut down, and you need somebody along who knows how to do that safely."

"I know my way around a reactor," said Zack.

Reno spread his hands. "The fact that you blew up the last one you were in doesn't inspire confidence. Besides, I know how to get to the Huge Materia. That's a company secret we never shared with SOLDIER."

Zack shrugged. "Fine. Welcome aboard."

"After you," said Reno, gesturing to the ladder up to the Highwind.

Zack exchanged glances with Cloud, but he went on ahead without protest. They'd have to keep an eye on him. That was all.

Once they were all on board, the four of them went ahead to the bridge to let Cid know they were ready to take off. Barret and Jessie were there, too, and Jessie called out a greeting.

"Hey, guys!" She gave Wedge a hug and then pulled back to add, "Long time no see."

Zack laughed. "Yeah, it's been what, a week? But I'm not complaining."

"Just here to share the ride, though," said Barret.

"I know. You sure you're okay to take on Corel with just the three of you?"

Barret exchanged glances with Jessie and Wedge. "Sure," he said. "Be just like old times."

The moment he said it, a shadow flitted across all three of their faces, and Zack remembered their missing number, Biggs, who'd lost his life in Sector 7 before Zack had met any of them.

"So I guess Tifa and Aeris are holding down the fort?" Wedge said quickly.

"That's right," Barret confirmed. "Tifa's tryin' to hold onto that job o' hers, and Aeris's lookin' after Marlene for us."

"You do wonder if that's all they're gonna get up to," Jessie put in.

"Some of us prefer not to wonder," said Barret, throwing her a look.

"Hmm..." Zack wasn't sure he was in Barret's camp there. Tifa had always been off-limits, sure, but there was no denying she was hot, and Aeris...

Cloud's elbow rudely interrupted his train of thought, and Zack had to fight hard not to bring up a certain someone's past fantasies involving Tifa. That old crush was not common knowledge.

"I'm sure it'll be very wholesome," Zack offered instead.

Jessie mouthed a 'sorry' to him that didn't look especially sincere with that look of amusement on her face, and Wedge cleared his throat.

"So have you talked to Shera yet?" he asked Barret. "Did she have any update on how our volunteers are settling in Wutai?"

"Ahh, yeah, we talked about it last night..."

As Barret went on to relate what he'd learned from Shera, Zack shifted his gaze to watch the view out the huge front window. The ship had turned south, putting Midgar behind them, and the mountains separating them from Junon approached.

It sounded like things were going well in Wutai. Yuffie would've hated anyone but her saying so, but the people of Wutai had grown used to accommodating the Shinra, and so far, they accommodated the refugees just as easily. For their part, the refugees were people who'd been eager to leave the chaos of Midgar behind. Hell, some of them had even had a grandparent or two from Wutai, so they'd started telling themselves it would be like a homecoming. Even if it was a place they'd never been before.

Wedge went on asking questions, and Zack turned his attention to Cloud beside him. He was listening intently enough, but he seemed a little on edge.

"You doin' okay?" Zack asked him softly. "Wanna walk around some?"

"I'm okay," said Cloud. He glanced around at the people on the bridge--Barret and Jessie and Wedge, Cid and his crew, Reno--and added, "But I wouldn't mind a walk."

Zack knew that look. It was going to be a little tougher over the next few days for Cloud to get in his daily quota of introvert time, and he was already looking for ways to grab it when he could. Zack turned for the exit, but flashed Cloud a playful wink.

"I gotcha," he said, and leaned in conspiratorially. "Gotta see if we can find that room."

Cloud's ears turned red, and he walked on out of the bridge without mustering a reply. Zack followed, grinning to himself.

He let up on the teasing the rest of the trip, knowing Cloud's motion sickness could make him touchier than usual. Instead he chatted about anything that came to mind, anything but the mission. Would Aeris's flowers come back in the spring? How long before Tifa owned that bar she was working at? Wasn't Barret's new arm cool, and why did Cloud have to veto every tattoo idea Zack came up with?

Zack rubbed absently at his hand, thinking of the tattoo beneath the glove. Between the number and his scars, there were a lot of marks on his body he hadn't exactly signed up for. He thought it would feel good to choose one for himself, but Cloud was such a critic, and he really wanted his boyfriend to think it was cool.

"All right, then you come up with something," he decided at last.


"I'm gonna tattoo something on my body, and I'm giving you a month to think of something cool or I'm going with whatever I feel like that day."

"So... you're letting me pick?"

"It has to be good," Zack insisted. "I'm not gonna tattoo a literal cloud on my butt just because you think it's funny."

"That sounds more like something you'd come up with," said Cloud, though he was definitely smirking, "and I already told you you can't get a tattoo of me."

"I was joking with that one."

"Right, and that's why you were doodling my name in different fonts."

"That's because I was thinking about our names. You know, if we got married? I mean, would you be Cloud Fair or would I be Zack Strife?"

"...they both sound weird."

"You think so?"

"Also we're not engaged," Cloud added.

"Fair point. Nothing wrong with thinking ahead, though."

"You could probably stand to do that more often."

Zack shot him a look. "You know, I told myself I was gonna go easy on you while we were in the air, and I feel like you're really taking advantage."

"Who told you to go easy?"

"Ahh, c'mere."

They came in sight of Fort Condor in the afternoon, and rejoined the others on the bridge. Ahead, the lone reactor perched atop a rocky hillside, with its own small ring of barren earth stretching out around it. It wasn't anywhere near as bad as the Midgar wasteland, but no trees grew for miles, and the grass was brown, as if it hadn't seen any season but winter in years.

At least it made it easy to tell that the Shinra hadn't arrived yet. For now, the plains were clear of any sign of them.

Zack shifted his attention back to the reactor, and to the enormous birds nesting atop it that were frankly bigger than most dragons. A mother condor and her fledgling baby--a fledgling that was still a lot bigger than any human.

"Are those things friendly?" Zack wondered as the ship set down at the base of the hill. "Because I would not want to fight one."

"Wouldn't recommend gettin' too close," said Barret, "but the villagers didn't mention havin' any trouble with 'em."

"Well, let's go say hi," said Jessie.

They instructed Reeve's men to stay put for the time being so as not to cause alarm, and one by one they climbed down from the Highwind's outer deck. Several men stood waiting for them at the entrance to a cave in the base of the hill.

One of them, a man with a shaved head who was almost as big as Barret, stepped forward. "AVALANCHE?" he asked warily.

"That's right," said Barret. He stepped close enough to hold out his prosthetic right hand. "I'm Barret. Had a talk the other night with your leader, Tobin."

The man nodded, accepting Barret's hand. "That's my father," he said. "I'm Graham."

"Good to meetcha."

"Likewise. And I'm glad you mentioned you'd be coming by airship. That's Shinra's, isn't it?"

"Used to be," Barret confirmed. "Some friends of ours liberated it for us."

Graham nodded. "Well, you all had better come on inside. My father will be wanting to speak with you."

The other men remained on guard at the entrance, and they followed Graham inside. The caves within were lit by a combination of bare bulbs and portable lamps, and Jessie voiced the question first:

"Are you using power from the reactor?"

"We are," Graham confirmed, "but we've got a back-up generator. So if you're really going to shut down the reactor, we'll be all right."

"Good to know," said Barret.

Graham brought them to his father, who sat at a table looking pensive. He was a much slighter man than his son, which made him look frail by comparison.

"Father, these are the people from AVALANCHE," said Graham.

Barret introduced himself again, and went on to introduce the rest of them, too. Tobin nodded thoughtfully.

"It's good to make your acquaintance in person," he said. "For a while there, it felt like we were the only ones fighting the Shinra... But then we heard about AVALANCHE. It bolstered our spirits. And now you're here."

"I know exactly how you feel," said Barret. "Felt like we were operatin' solo for a while, too. It's good to have allies."

"You guys can go on with your heart-to-heart," Reno cut in, "but I've got a job to do here. You got a way into that reactor that doesn't involve me getting pecked to death?"

Tobin nodded, his expression clouding a little with distrust. "Graham will show you."

"And I'll keep you two company," said Zack. Barret caught his eye and nodded appreciatively. He didn't trust Reno either.

Graham led them up through the caves and back outside through a little shack that sat at the base of the reactor proper. Above them loomed the shadow of the mother condor, her wings extending over the sides. Zack wondered how long just one of those primary feathers was.

"So what made you decide that thing needed your protection, huh?" Reno asked, craning his neck.

Graham glanced back at him. "You were with Shinra, weren't you? Are you going to tell me they don't have weapons that could kill the condors?"

"Well, no," Reno admitted, "but compared to them, you kinda feel like us humans are just cannon fodder."

"I guess we'll find out," said Graham. From behind Reno, Zack gave him an apologetic shrug.

They rounded the hillside and came upon the entrance to the reactor.

"You two can go on ahead," said Graham. "I don't really like to go in there."

"I feel ya," said Zack. "Thanks for showing us the way."

Reno opened the door to go inside, and warm air wafted out into the dry autumn chill. Zack braced himself, and followed.

The smell brought him back to the Nibel reactor. Not the reactor of five years ago, but of three weeks ago, when he and Cloud and Tifa had returned there to wipe the thing off the face of the Planet. They'd planted one of Jessie's bombs above the Mako pit, just outside the room where Sephiroth had nearly killed each of them, and backed off to a safe distance to watch the explosion rip the reactor apart.

The layout of this reactor was different, but it felt the same. The hum of machinery vibrating in his bones, the Mako so thick in the air he could taste it. Reno walked through it without hesitation, as though he didn't even register it. He'd probably been in more reactors than Zack, with fewer nasty memories.

There was a control room just outside of Mako storage, but instead of accessing the controls that would have powered down the reactor, Reno went to a keypad on the wall. He entered a code, and a door Zack had mistaken for a wall panel opened with a hiss.

Beyond was a small room, where Mako was being piped into a glass cylinder in the center.

"It's empty," said Reno.

"Yep. I see it, too."

Reno went inside, as if a closer look might reveal something different. "Those country bumpkins," he muttered. "How were they even able to get to it?"

"Speaking as a country bumpkin myself," said Zack, "my guess is they're smarter than you give 'em credit for. Shinra hires local crews to help build the reactors, right? They probably figured out this little chamber was important somehow."

Reno sighed, and came back out into the control room. "Y'know, I was always against that policy. Doesn't work too well for keeping secrets."

"Wasn't that your job anyway?"

"Wouldn't've had to disappear as many people if they never found out this stuff in the first place."

Zack couldn't figure out quite what to say to that. Reno glanced up at him from the control panel.

"What? Were you expecting a huge shift in my moral fiber, now that I'm working with you guys? Reeve was just offering better benefits."

"So, you don't regret any of the stuff you did, working for Shinra?"

"Hmm." Reno keyed in a few commands, and he actually seemed to be giving it some thought. "Don't think I'd do Sector 7 again, if I could. That one sits a little too heavy, even for me. Plus, Tifa broke some bones that I don't think ever healed quite right."

"Guess that's something," said Zack.

Reno shrugged. "You don't need me on some big guilt spiral. You just need me to do my job." He pressed another few keys, and the mechanical hum surrounding them changed in pitch, dropping lower. "Like that," he said.

"Sounds like it's still on," Zack said skeptically.

"Look, it's not a damn light switch. It's gotta go through a whole cooldown process, unless you really do want this place to explode. Don't think that'd work out so well for the wildlife or our new friends."

"Okay, okay. As long as it's happening."

Reno pushed past him out of the control room. "And you thought you could handle this on your own. They should never let you muscleheads anywhere near this kind of equipment."

"Would it kill you to be a little nicer, now that we are working together?"

"No, but do I get anything out of it?"

"...friendship?" Zack offered.

Reno laughed. "I'll pass."

"Man, what kinda guy turns his nose up at friendship?"

"Got enough of it is all."

"You mean Rude?" Zack wondered doubtfully. The guy never talked.

Reno turned enough to jab a finger towards him. "Don't go dissing my partner."

"Wouldn't dream of it." Zack followed Reno across the Mako pit, and they started up towards the exit. "So when you say 'partner'..."

"I mean partner," Reno finished decisively.

"That clarifies nothing."


Zack let it drop. He wasn't interested in Reno's love life so much as he wanted to understand what made the guy tick. If he knew that, he'd have clearer odds on whether Reno was going to betray them. At least he thought he had one thing figured out: Reno and Rude were a package deal. Reno wouldn't turn on them unless Rude was down for it, too.

And maybe that was why he was here. Maybe Rude was the one who gave a damn.

Hard to tell with the no talking thing.

Back outside the reactor, the scene had changed. The sun was moving into the west, and along its path came a line of Shinra military trucks. On the hill below them, Reeve's men were already getting into position.

"Got here just in time, huh," said Reno.

"Looks like," Zack agreed. "Come on."

They passed more soldiers and mercenaries on their way back inside, where Graham was in the midst of speaking with his father. Zack found Barret and the others.

"Reactor's started its shutdown sequence," he said. "We get all our people off the Highwind?"

Barret nodded. "Kinda feel like we oughtta stay and lend a hand here, too, 'stead of up an' leavin' the second they show."

Zack shook his head. "No. We gotta make sure they don't get the materia from Corel either. We've got this. You three get going."


"Good luck," said Wedge, flashing him a thumbs up.

Jessie followed with a quick salute. "Give 'em hell for us."

"Thanks. Will do." Zack nodded to Cloud. "We oughtta get into position ourselves."

"The Huge Materia?" Reno prompted.

"We'll ask Tobin about it later. If they've got it, they've got it. We still gotta defend this place."

But the Shinra didn't attack that evening. They made camp a short distance away, and waited. Once Zack realized they were waiting for morning, he assigned a watch rotation, and the rest of them set up a camp of their own at the base of the hill.

Meanwhile, he sent a few people to scout the enemy camp.

"They've got as many men as we do," they reported back, "and there's a contingent of SOLDIERs. I counted five of them."

"Five? What class?"

But the men shook their heads. "Couldn't make out the uniform color in the dark."

Zack folded his arms, thinking. The number of troops made sense; Fort Condor had the advantage of a fortified position on a steep slope. But five SOLDIERs? For the mercenary force Shinra should have been expecting, that was overkill. So, had they anticipated running into AVALANCHE, or were they just being thorough?

"You can't take them all on yourself," said Cloud.

"Wasn't planning on it!" He slung an arm around Cloud. "Maybe we've only got one ex-SOLDIER here, but we've also got one of you."


"Yeah. They're just a bunch of Sephiroth wannabes, and you're one of the guys who took him out. Trust me, SOLDIER passed up a perfectly qualified candidate. One day you might even be better than me--you know, maybe. I'm pretty good."

Cloud smiled. Mission accomplished.

"Hate to interrupt your moment," said Reno, "but that's still five against two."

"Well, I'm betting they're mostly Second or Third Class," Zack reasoned. "Plus... We've got an ex-Turk, too. You might not be a musclehead like us, but that's gotta count for something."

Reno sighed. "All right. Fine."

Zack nodded in satisfaction... but he couldn't help wondering if Reno had tipped off Rufus about their coming here.

Cloud woke him when morning came, and they joined the troops on the hillside. Zack felt the weight of his new sword on his back. Since Holy had cleansed him of the Jenova, he wasn't as strong as he'd been, and this one was lighter than what he'd been used to in SOLDIER. It had been part of a small arsenal of weapons Yuffie had brought back with her from Wutai.

A Wutain blade, to fight Shinra soldiers.

Zack remembered his disappointment at seventeen, when the war had come to an end just months before he'd made First Class. He'd never gone to the front. Almost seven years later, he was grateful for that.

He wondered how Sash was coping with the inevitable wrath of Yuffie. He'd tried to warn her, but she'd shrugged it off. He guessed they couldn't be getting along too terribly, considering the intel they'd retrieved just days after hooking up.

Pausing at the top of the slope, Zack looked out over the gathered soldiers. The sight of them brought his misgivings about this mission into sharp relief. Some of them had traded their blue uniforms for sturdy plainclothes, but most of them had held onto their armor, painting or taping over the Shinra logos. It was such a recent separation for them, and it was one thing to keep order in a Midgar no longer controlled by Rufus Shinra, but he wondered how they felt about heading into a battle against soldiers who wore nearly the same uniform. Soldiers who'd been their comrades.

And for Zack, was it so much different? Five years had passed, but five years that he'd been too drugged up to remember the better part of. He'd joined AVALANCHE at a time when their primary goal had been taking out Sephiroth, and their few skirmishes with Shinra had been brief. You couldn't call them battles, and Zack hadn't killed anyone.

Not exactly, anyway. His hands had killed plenty, when Sephiroth had had control of his body. And unfortunately, he remembered it more and more clearly with time.

Soldiers just like the ones on both sides now, killed for no reason. Hell, some of these guys had probably known the men he'd cut down that night in the Shinra building. Zack fought back the sudden urge to apologize.

Cloud was looking at him, checking on him.

Zack scratched his head. "Should probably say a few words to the troops, huh?"


Zack nodded to himself, cleared his throat, and raised his voice. "All right, everyone. I know this's gonna be rough for some of us. We're fighting people we used to think were on our side. But let's remember what we're fighting for. Shinra's here looking for a weapon they can use against us. This isn't just about defending this place, or the condors. It's about defending Midgar--the homes, and the families we've built there. Let's do 'em proud."

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