Zack felt a lot better about the state of the world after a decent night's sleep. Waking up in their bed in Elmyra's house, with Cloud in his arms... or, well, an arm and a leg sprawled across Cloud, the last corner of the blanket clinging to the bed by their feet. He'd never been a neat sleeper.
But they were back in Midgar, back home. Even after all he'd been through, and all the city had been through, it was still the place he thought of as home. He planned on keeping it that way.
The house was quiet. Elmyra had gone, and Wedge and the others had still been en route back to Midgar when they'd turned in. He must have crashed someplace else once he'd gotten in.
Zack shifted, settling himself more comfortably around Cloud, pushing his face into the nape of his neck. He'd never get tired of this closeness. All those years they'd spent, right next to each other but kept apart by the glass of those damn tanks. Just Cloud's presence had been his anchor, in his more lucid moments, but it had been hell going so long without touching anyone.
He drew Cloud snug against him. There were still things he wasn't sure about, after missing all that time, but this wasn't one of them.
"You okay?" Cloud murmured quietly.
"What, how long've you been awake?"
Zack smiled and pressed a kiss to his neck. "Just enjoying my company, huh?"
"I'm okay," Zack assured him. "This is a good way to wake up. And... I notice we've still got the house to ourselves."
"...Wedge could still come back," said Cloud, but Zack felt his pulse quicken.
"I'll put a sock on the front door."
"Doesn't it go on the bedroom?"
"Figured we'd leave our options open."
Cloud shifted and rolled over to face him. Only a faint light shone in through the window from the street lamps outside, and Cloud's Mako eyes were bright in the dim. His gaze was steady. "...I'm okay with the bedroom," he said.
"Y-yeah. Just... never done this before."
"Relax," Zack said, and he leaned in to kiss him gently. "I'll walk you through it. Nothing to worry about."
Not that Zack himself had done this a lot, or at all, in the past... what, almost seven years? Damn. That was a hell of a dry spell.
They completely forgot about the sock on the door, and for a while, Zack forgot anyone else even existed. He would've gone on waiting, but he'd wanted this for longer even than he'd realized. Just... nothing separating them, at all.
They lay back together in companionable silence as they allowed their breathing to settle. The cool air against his sweaty skin felt good, at first, but after some minutes passed, Zack decided to rescue the blanket from the floor. He drew it over the both of them, and Cloud settled against him.
"So, what's the verdict?" Zack asked him. Though with some of the sounds Cloud had made, he thought he knew the answer.
"...thought I'd feel different," said Cloud. Not quite the praise he was hoping for.
"Have I not made a man of you?" Zack teased.
"Not like that. Just... different."
Zack thought about it for a minute. He'd had his first time pretty young, and while it had just been okay, the memory was all wrapped up in his excitement at the time of making it into SOLDIER, and all the other new experiences that had come with. Everything in his world had been changing, but had the sex changed him? Not really.
"I don't know that it makes you feel any different as a person," he said. "I just feel closer to you."
"You weren't a virgin."
"I still have feelings!" Zack protested.
Cloud laughed against his chest, like he was being ridiculous, but then he said, "Yeah. Sorry. Just... trying to process."
Zack gave him a nudge. "You had fun though, right?"
"Y-yeah... Um... I'm glad I don't have to be nervous about it, anymore."
Zack smiled, but before he could say anything, there was a buzzing sound from somewhere, and they both froze in confusion. It sounded again, and Zack realized it was Cloud's phone, vibrating against the floor.
Cloud pulled away from him enough to reach over the side of the bed and grab it. "It's Tifa," he said.
"Tell her she's cockblocking me."
Cloud threw him a look as he settled back against the mattress. "How's that, exactly?"
"I was gonna propose round two."
Cloud's ears pinked, but he nodded seriously, his attention focused on his phone as he started typing a reply. "'Zack says'..."
"Hey, don't actually send that!" He snatched the phone away, but when he looked at the screen, all that Cloud had written was 'got it.' He skimmed the messages above. Yuffie and the others had gotten back early that morning, and Tifa wanted everyone to meet topside.
"The next train's not 'til noon," said Cloud, failing to hide a smirk at Zack's reaction, "so we've got some time, but... I think they'll be worried if you're still worn out."
Zack rolled up onto an elbow. "Oh, you think you can wear me out, do you?"
Zack stared him down, then leaned in to kiss him, hard. "Another time," he insisted, "we are gonna put that to the test. But you're right, we should probably be some kinda responsible today."
Cloud smiled wryly. "Kind of weird, feeling this good right now. But, I'm glad you're back to normal."
Zack left the phone on the bed as he sat up, resting his arms across his knees. "Yeah. Sorry I worried you. I think this's just the way I've gotta be, right now."
"What do you mean?"
"I wasn't really..." Zack hesitated. He knew what the others had assumed, with the way he'd acted after the battle, and it had taken him some reflection of his own to realize they had it wrong. "I don't think I could've done anything differently at Fort Condor. That's how battles are. People get hurt, even if you don't feel like you messed up."
"I know," said Zack. "I didn't know how to say it. It's just, uh... I used to look up to him, too, y'know? The way he commanded, always calm and collected..." He didn't say the name, but he could tell from the shadow that fell across Cloud's face that he understood who he meant. "He didn't just expect to be followed, he knew it. But, he kept his distance. Like he was already resigned to any or all of us dying. I don't know, maybe war'll do that to you, but I don't wanna be like that."
"You're nothing like him," Cloud said adamantly.
"...yeah. I've gotta care hard, about everybody. Even if it means going a little overboard sometimes."
"Well... You definitely did that," said Cloud. He sat up and put an arm around him, leaning into his shoulder. "But, maybe you won't have to much longer."
"Right. We'll make Midgar safe again in short order, and then about the most dangerous thing we'll have on our plates is pet rescue."
They managed to pull themselves out of bed, get cleaned up, and locate some clothes. Their late breakfast was a lackluster affair, and in his head, Zack amended that list of mundane dangers to include the early days of either of them learning how to cook. He wondered if Elmyra would be willing to teach him, or if she'd already pegged him for a lost cause, like most people did after witnessing him in a kitchen.
The train up to the plate was crowded, as they tended to be these days on the limited schedule, but no one else got off in Sector 3. Reeve had put the word out, and the evacuation was underway, but it was good to see that life went on otherwise. The other passengers were quieter than usual--uneasy, but not panicking. They'd weathered their share of crises over the past year.
They walked the few blocks to the new headquarters. Reeve intended to be the last one out, like his conscience wouldn't let him do otherwise, after Sector 7. If the deserted streets were any indication, it wouldn't be long before he could pack up and retreat to some other sector.
The sky overhead was lightly overcast, the sun struggling to break clear. Whenever he came up to the plate, Zack thought the air was a little cleaner than it used to be, but it was hard to say. Maybe it was just cleaner than the slums, like it always had been. But, maybe some of the Mako haze was clearing, too, and they'd get real sunlight here one of these days.
They met up with the others in Reeve's most favored conference room--almost the entire team back together again, sans Nanaki. But, sadly, sans birthday tidings this time around. Yuffie eyed him warily, keeping the table between them to dodge a hug, but Zack succeeded in giving Vincent a clap on the shoulder. He didn't think their relationship could survive a hug, but it had been a while, and he didn't want the guy to feel overlooked.
"Marlene and Elmyra all safe and sound?" Zack asked Barret.
"Yeah," he confirmed. "Hopin' it's a short vacation this time around though."
"We'll all be back in our cramped little house in no time," Jessie said, patting his arm in a way that definitely didn't seem casual, and yet Barret didn't seem to make anything of it. Zack had a budding theory, but this wasn't the time to ask.
Tifa got them all settled down and let Reeve start them off with a status report on the evacuation of Sector 3. It was going smoothly topside, where the citizens were on good terms with the former Shinra militia, and the majority of them had been relocated to neighboring sectors. But in the slums, that trust just wasn't there, and their opinion of AVALANCHE wasn't much different, informed more by rumors than personal experience. They needed more time.
Jessie went on to update them on Shinra's latest movements--or lack thereof. Wedge and Shera had passed through the checkpoints out of Junon just last night with no noticeable changes. Sash reported no preparations underway to transport anything out of the underwater reactor's research lab. Whatever Scarlet was creating down there, it wasn't ready yet. So maybe they'd have that time.
"And that brings us to the last thing..." Tifa said, and she looked aside to Aeris.
"Thanks to Yuffie," Aeris continued, "we might have a way to get rid of the Huge Materia, permanently."
"You pick that up on board the Gelnika?" Zack wondered.
Yuffie shook her head. "Um... It was actually..." She chewed on her lip, for once not her usual picture of confidence.
"Message from a god?" Barret was the one to venture.
Yuffie nodded. "Leviathan told me."
"What?" said Zack. "That big snake you summoned at the Northern Crater?"
Cloud kicked his foot beneath the table, and Yuffie looked none too pleased either.
"It's a serpent, Zack," Wedge corrected.
Zack ran a hand through his hair. "I'm not really clear on the difference..."
"Anyway," said Aeris, not bothering to hide her amusement, "the Huge Materia can be unmade by magic, it's just that... there's no materia that would hold that kind of spell. The magic has to be channelled from the Planet itself."
"So that means you, right?" Zack reasoned.
Aeris shook her head. "It'll take more than one person."
There were some uncertain glances passed around the conference table. It wasn't their first time dealing with magic like that, though Zack had only learned about their efforts at the City of the Ancients after the fact. Still, he wasn't sure Aeris was talking about dead people this time.
"But you do have some way to achieve it, don't you?" asked Reeve.
Yuffie raised her hand. "I'm number two. The magic of the gods still comes from the Planet. And, I learned the old ways, you know? It's not stuff anybody teaches, since the war, but... There's still some old fogeys who know it. There's the guardians of the pagoda, and... Godo's one, too."
"Oh," said Jessie.
"Gorkii's one o' those guardians though, ain't he?" said Barret. "I bet he'd help."
"Yeah. But I think we'll need to persuade some of the others, and that's not gonna be so easy."
"We'll make 'em understand," Barret said confidently. "'sides, it's been some time since we last talked to Godo... Don't know that he's changed his thinkin' any, but anyone else can see what you been up to. They'll know you ain't kiddin' around."
"Yeah, and shouldn't it mean something to them that you learned this from Leviathan?" Jessie put in. "I'm sure they'll listen."
Yuffie nodded slowly, rocking back and then forward in her chair. "Yeah. Yeah, maybe they will."
"...does that mean we're headed to Wutai once things are settled here?" Cloud wondered.
"That's the idea," Tifa confirmed. "With any luck... we'll get the other Huge Materia back from Shinra, and we'll be able to keep them from ever using any of it again."
"That's the kinda thing I like to hear," said Barret.
"Not to ruin that thought," said Reeve, "but there's still the one powering the Junon cannon. Rufus will be reluctant to disarm it, but you won't be finished until that one's gone, too."
"And the Black Materia, too, maybe," Yuffie added.
"Hey, hey," Zack cut in. "Let's not get in our heads about this. Yesterday we didn't even know we could get rid of this stuff, right? It's good news no matter how many we can take care of."
"Right," Aeris agreed, meeting his gaze across the table with a smile.
"The danger should be passed by the time we're trying it anyway," said Tifa, "so we'll have plenty of time."
"Damn it, Tifa," said Yuffie, "you're gonna jinx it."
With the meeting winding down, Barret spoke up to ask for help evacuating the slums, and Zack cheerfully volunteered his (and by extension Cloud's) assistance. Everyone from the Kalm branch of AVALANCHE were former slum-dwellers themselves, but they hadn't spent much time in Midgar lately, and Zack figured they could use his expertise.
Yuffie and Wedge were still wiped from their overnight drive back from Junon, so they hung back at Headquarters. Vincent, too; he didn't seem tired, but his wasn't the friendliest vibe if they wanted to convince these people AVALANCHE weren't villains.
Not that the others couldn't have used a break, too. Tifa especially. But he knew how driven she could be, and that if anyone could convince her to slow down, it'd be Aeris. Still, he could check in, and when they were all settled on the train down, he leaned forward on his knees.
"So, how you holding up, boss? You look tired."
"I'm... worried," Tifa admitted with a rueful shake of her head. "But I'm sure it'll be all right."
Zack knew what 'sure' looked like on Tifa, and this wasn't it. But he couldn't blame her for trying to put on a brave face. She was the leader, after all.
Aeris caught his eye. "I was thinking we should have a little fun in the city after all this. Zack, you've been to Wall Market a few times by now, right?"
Barret and Tifa exchanged dubious looks at the suggestion, and given the place's reputation Zack understood why, but he nodded.
"Yeah! Yeah, I never went when that Corneo guy was running things, but it doesn't seem half so sleazy as I'd heard about."
"It's a little sleazy," Cloud put in.
Zack leaned back and slung an arm around him. "He just says that 'cause he's pretty popular with a certain crowd, but I think he secretly likes the attention."
"A certain crowd, huh...?" Jessie wondered.
"Don't hurt to keep your options open, Cloud," said Barret.
"Hey!" Zack protested. "I'm sitting right here."
"Oh, they're just trying to keep your ego in check," Aeris told him, which wasn't remotely supportive. "Someone has to."
"I don't see anybody picking on you."
"My ego's just fine," she said, smiling pleasantly.
Cloud spoke up again, finally. "I can keep him in check myself, though."
"This is how you stand up for me?" Zack said, feigning offense. Well, mostly. He would've hoped for a more solid defense, especially after that morning.
"You want me to say you're humble?" Cloud wondered.
"I want you to say I'm a great boyfriend and you don't need to keep your options open."
"...guess I can delete Jules' number."
"The Beautiful Bro?" Aeris interjected, and she reached across to snatch Cloud's phone. "No way, give it here!"
"You're the worst," Zack concluded, withdrawing his arm in retaliation.
But then Cloud leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, a public display of affection so unprecedented that it completely threw him, leaving him speechless.
"...you know," said Tifa, "who needs Wall Market? I'm having fun already."
Zack could have complained... but there was no reason to bring down the mood. If it had lightened a little bit at his expense, that was all right. Cloud had kissed him, in public. It really was a milestone kind of day.
Once they hit the Sector 3 slums, they met up with Tifa's friend Kyle, who'd become a contact for AVALANCHE in recent months. He'd since moved, but he'd lived in Sector 3 for years--and Nibelheim, before that. There was some lingering awkwardness between him and Cloud, because they had not been friends growing up, but any actual ill will had faded a long time ago. Kyle introduced them to a few reasonably influential residents, helping them get a foot in the door.
It was still slow-going. For all that had befallen the city, the people who remained in Sector 3 were stubborn. For most of them, the ruins of Sector 7 were just something they'd seen on TV, a safely distant disaster. Holy had knocked out their power temporarily, but both reactors bordering their sector still functioned. It was Reeve who'd limited their power, at the behest of AVALANCHE. They were responsible for the shit quality of their lives lately.
Now they were asking these people to leave their homes completely, and for what? Because Shinra might attack their sector? They understood Shinra hadn't treated them well, but it had been better than this.
Zack did his best to stay positive, even in the face of people who wanted to pick a fight, and when he needed to, he just looked at Cloud. He could ride that high for days.
Wedge and Yuffie joined them for day two of their evacuation efforts, but Vincent joined Reeve's team monitoring activity out of Junon. Zack didn't think he was the only one disappointed not to be able to catch up with the guy, but he pestered Yuffie about him instead. She answered some of his questions, but, predictably, she got fed up and declared, 'Enough about boring old Vinny!' and very deliberately grabbed Tifa by the arm and marched off in the opposite direction.
Zack wondered if she'd always be so easy to rile. Cloud told him he should be more careful about it or one of these days she was just going to slug him, but she was so little, it was hard to imagine it hurting that much.
Then again, she did have god magic. He didn't want to get smote or something.
It was in the early morning of the third day that Sash alerted them Shinra was on the move. Sector 3 topside was all but deserted, with Reeve about to pack up, and only the most stubborn of holdouts remained in the slums... But Elena sent a text to Reno's phone which Rude confirmed was a message to stay away from the reactors. She just wasn't specific as to which.
Shinra clearly didn't want them identifying their route either. Sash reported four separate cargo containers brought up out of the research lab. Two went to the harbor, another departed the base in a truck with military escort, and the last was transported up to the airstrip and loaded onto a Gelnika.
The truck was the easiest to intercept, forced to come through the mountain pass, and they figured that made it most likely to be a decoy, but they couldn't leave it alone either. Reeve had an advance team waiting to engage them, and meanwhile, his helicopters were in the air, trying to watch all other avenues of approach. Those ships would have to make landfall somewhere to the west, but the Gelnika could take any route it wanted.
But however Shinra was coming, even if they made it into the city, there were only four very specific places they'd be headed, and each reactor only had one entrance. Reeve and Jessie were in (somewhat awkward) agreement that a bomb detonated outside a reactor would have a significantly lower impact. Shinra would try to get inside of them.
Zack would've wanted to be involved in intercepting them sooner, but logistically it made sense for AVALANCHE to serve as the last line of defense. Reeve had cleared the roboguards out of the reactors months ago, fearing Scarlet had built in remote activation codes he didn't know about, so they were relying on good old-fashioned humans, and the members of AVALANCHE were stronger than any of Reeve's men. Strong enough, Zack figured, to hold off any attempt at breaching a reactor long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Like back at the City of the Ancients.
Tifa split them up in teams, borrowing Rude to fill out their number. The three-person teams took the reactors bordering Sector 3, while Zack wound up assigned to the No. 5 reactor, with Aeris.
He could mostly reason through it. He understood why she'd split up their usual Midgar team; he and Cloud and Wedge had worked the most with Reeve's men, so seeing them might ease some lingering anxieties about allowing AVALANCHE anywhere near the reactors. Tifa had taken Rude with her for the same reason, but probably also to keep an eye on him, since he wasn't one of them.
Aeris would protest anyone trying to keep her out of harm's way, but there were other reasons Tifa could give her. The No. 5 reactor was the one directly above her church, so it was the most personal. And maybe she thought Vincent could help keep Rude in line, as a former Turk.
What he couldn't quite figure out was...
"So I gotta say," he remarked to Aeris as they approached the reactor compound, "I'm a little surprised Tifa paired us up."
Aeris laughed. "I told her you'd ask either way."
"If she'd put you with Jessie instead, you'd be all worried she didn't trust you with me, right? I told her this was better."
"So this was your idea?" he wondered.
"I had some input. Anyway, Jessie thinks Cloud is cuter than you."
"What? I thought she liked 'em tall, dark, and handsome." He would never argue that Cloud wasn't cute, but he was a little more blond and pint-sized than Vincent, or Barret, or even that guy at Icicle Inn.
"She likes them deep and introspective," Aeris corrected.
"I can be introspective..."
She laughed again. "You're really going to be upset about that, and not about her ogling your boyfriend?"
Zack shrugged easily. "I mean, I get it. I like looking at 'im, too. Just a little disappointed I'll miss out on the teasing... Guess that would've happened either way."
"Hmm... I guess it's a good thing we split you up. I'm not sure you would've been able to focus on the mission otherwise."
"Hey. Cloud and I are professionals."
Aeris fixed him with a knowing look. "Mm-hmm..."
"Come on, you're going to make me ask? Cloud's not usually so showy. Did you propose or something?"
"Uh-" Zack faltered. He'd gotten comfortable enough talking about most aspects of his relationship with her, but stuff like this still felt awkward. Especially given the particular circumstances. "Well, y'know. We had our first time, the other day."
"Ohhh," said Aeris, but then her step slowed as she made the connection. "Back at the house?" she asked. "...in my bed?"
Well, this was where he'd gotten himself. He was pretty sure she wouldn't kill him. Zack braced himself and turned back to face her. "...yes?"
"Gosh!" Aeris exclaimed. "I guess Tifa and I will just have to go to your parents' house and defile your childhood bedroom."
Her offended expression held for a second longer before it dissolved into a grin. "Just kidding," she said. "It really doesn't bother me. I'm glad someone's getting some good use out of it."
Zack scratched his head, and decided it was still for the best if he didn't bring up the subsequent rounds. "Glad you're not really upset about it..."
They resumed their approach to the reactor, and Aeris went on, "Oh, I made my peace with it back when you decided to live with Mom. I figured it'd happen eventually."
"You were that sure already, huh?"
"You're not sure?" she asked him.
He thought he'd been sure with Aeris. But he couldn't say that. "Things are good, but uh, I don't wanna get ahead of myself. He still won't let me tattoo his name on my butt, after all."
"I'm not sure that speaks to a lack of commitment."
Aeris didn't need to answer. Just a little joke to avoid getting into it seriously. Things were good with Cloud, really good, but at the same time, Zack knew he could be overeager. He knew he could jump the gun in friendships and relationships both, so he tried to slow himself down when he recognized it. Cloud was cautious by contrast, but he was still the one who'd known his feelings first. Maybe it was an appropriate meeting in the middle.
They reached the last of the coded doors before the reactor itself, and Zack punched in the code. How weird was it for Reeve, to be granting AVALANCHE such easy access to all these reactors? Especially this one--Barret had remarked that after the success of the No. 1 reactor bombing, they'd planned to hit the No. 5 next.
Although, Zack wondered now how well Shinra had really bothered to defend the No. 1 reactor. Midgar had already become expendable to them. An obsolete project not worth the effort of maintaining.
The door slid open to reveal the gap between the plates, and Aeris walked through ahead of him onto the suspended walkway. How weird for her, he wondered, to be here to defend it?
She strode across the bridge, her steps slowing as she reached the fork, and she stopped to peer over the railing. "Wow... We really are right above it, aren't we? My church. It looks so small from here..."
Zack walked up beside her, and even for him, it was strange to see it from this perspective. He'd been in that church dozens of times, and down below in the slums, it dominated the area around it. From here, it was just the most identifiable structure amidst a mess of scrap roofs.
"Don't go falling," he said to Aeris.
"You and Tifa, always so worried about that." Aeris straightened up and turned around. "So, this is our position?"
"Yep. From this point, that's the only way into the reactor."
He pointed across the walkway at the huge entry door. A knot of soldiers was stationed in front of it, and he lifted a hand to them. A few of them saluted. It was tough to tell at this distance, past the masks, but he knew the guys who'd fought at Fort Condor were back on duty now. He wondered if any of them were here.
Aeris's gaze had lifted from the door to the top of the reactor, still spewing smog into the air.
"...you okay, being here?" he asked her.
"I'll manage. Midgar's not quite so bad as it used to be, you know."
He thought she was downplaying it, but he didn't fight her on it. "Heh. I guess it wouldn't be, from your perspective."
"It's not just the reactors. I know things are rough right now, for a lot of reasons, but... I think people have more faith, that things are going to turn around."
"And what about you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Just an observation, but I think you're trying to stay positive for Tifa, because of Sector 7. But you're worried, too."
Aeris was quiet for a moment, her expression serious. "It's not really Midgar I'm worried about," she said. "I have faith in us."
"Then what? Something else going on?"
She turned from the reactor, leaning on the railing but looking ahead this time. It was sunny today--a clear sky, for Midgar. The gap between the plates stretched out ahead of them towards the abandoned Shinra building, which maybe didn't fade so far into the haze as it used to. If Aeris said things had gotten better, maybe the cleaner air wasn't just his imagination.
"I've only talked to Tifa and Yuffie about this," Aeris confessed, "but... The Planet's not doing as well as we'd hoped, since Holy. It's sick, and it's struggling. So the Huge Materia... It's actually become really important, the way Holy was important."
"...you mean, destroying it will help the Planet?" Zack ventured.
Aeris nodded. "We'll be returning all that power to the Planet. But, it's something that's never been done, and I don't... have the kind of guidance that I did, before."
"You'll pull it off. Holy'd never been done before either, right? Plus Yuffie's talking to a god now-- you'll be fine."
"I know I should be more sure of it," Aeris said. "I want to be. Especially for Yuffie, so she doesn't have to feel alone in it. That's... a lot of pressure."
Zack hadn't known about Holy until after she'd summoned it. She'd carried the burden of that destiny from the day he'd met her, and he'd only seen it afterwards, in retrospect. Something he'd never really had the chance to help her with.
"...I'm glad I know about it this time," he said. "I know you probably don't trust me with your delicate spellwork, but I can be pretty persuasive, if you need some help convincing those old geezers Yuffie was talking about."
"I hope you're not going to call them geezers to their faces."
"'course not! Only behind their backs, to my most trusted confidants."
Aeris smiled at him, soft and genuine. "...thanks, Zack. For checking in."
"What're friends for, right?" he said, because boy was this one of those moments when he remembered why they hadn't been just friends, to start. "Speaking of, you wanna go say hi to our back-up? It's your first time working with 'em direct."
"Hmm..." Aeris glanced over her shoulder at the soldiers near the door. "You promise they won't bite?"
"Promise. A lot o' these guys have the same concerns about the dreaded AVALANCHE, y'know."
"Well, I guess we'd better go pretend we're harmless people to reassure them."
"You planning on biting somebody today, 'ris?"
"Not today... Probably. You never know!"
Zack shook his head at her, but as they crossed the walkway to meet up with Reeve's men, he acknowledged most of AVALANCHE was definitely scrappy enough to turn to biting quicker than regular people. He'd rank Aeris about fourth on that list, after Yuffie, and they were only beat out by Nanaki and Vincent because those two literally had fangs (at least part-time).
Luckily for Reeve's men, they'd probably never know Aeris well enough to come to that conclusion. She was her perfectly charming self when he introduced her to them, so that he could tell some of them were confused that she was even a part of AVALANCHE. Zack had never questioned that she had the disposition for it, but before he'd seen her in action, he'd had no idea what a powerhouse she was. Her magic was something else.
The first update on the situation came to them about half an hour in, relayed by one of Reeve's aides. The truck convoy had been intercepted and neutralized; moderate casualties, and no bomb, as expected.
News came more frequently after that, and every time Zack itched to be where the action was. The first of the ships made landfall out west, and Reeve's people found it worryingly empty of crew by the time they reached it. The second landed farther north, and there were soldiers there to engage, no word yet on cargo. The Gelnika was spotted somewhere out to the east.
The others talked about how at least they'd had more time to prepare than with Sector 7, but Zack wondered if the dread of waiting was almost worse. By the time they'd learned about the pillar, there'd been nothing to do but leap into action, with the certainty of what they had to do if not of their chances of success.
Zack had always been bad at waiting.
A hurried text from Tifa at last let all of AVALANCHE know that Shinra roboguards had arrived at the No. 3 reactor. Zack was about to respond that they'd be there as soon as they could to back her up when a call pushed through.
From Reno, it said.
Rude on the wrong phone? Zack wondered. He answered it promptly. "Yeah?"
"Listen, you've gotta stay put," came Reno's voice.
"Rude gave you back your phone?"
"I snagged it after we got the message from Elena," Reno said dismissively. "Been talking with her since-- the No. 5 is the target. The No. 3's just a decoy."
"Convenient timing to find out now. Why should I believe either of you?" Zack asked skeptically, even as he kept his eyes trained for any sign of Shinra. Any good liar told the truth sometimes, but was this one of those times?
"Because--" Reno broke off with a frustrated noise before he went on, "Because I want Rude at the wrong one. We both do."
The one person Zack was sure he gave a damn about. Even if Reno had known the target all through their planning... telling them earlier would've ensured Rude was stationed there, too, right in harm's way if everything went sideways.
He'd waited until Rude was engaged with Shinra's decoy team, to make sure he stayed there.
"...you could've just kept your mouth shut," Zack pointed out. Rude was safe either way, right?
"Look," Reno said, "there aren't any do-overs, but... I don't want it to happen again, all right? Do not leave the No. 5 unguarded."
He sounded dead serious, for once. Zack wanted to believe him.
A whirring sound reached his ears, a helicopter coming into view transporting an armored roboguard.
"If you're messing with me this time, I will let them kill you," Zack said, and hung up before Reno could respond.
"...I think he meant it," Aeris said quietly, readying her staff.
"Yeah. Me, too." He sent a hurried text to the others and then pocketed his phone. He drew his sword, motioning Aeris back towards the reactor's entrance.
"You guys keep your distance and follow my lead," he called back to the soldiers behind them. "I think I know this model."
Or at least, he'd seen one of its predecessors in action. If Reno was right, then it was probably here to clear the path before Shinra brought in the Huge Materia bomb. The roboguards at the No. 3 reactor meant Tifa wouldn't be coming to back them up any time soon, but Reeve's people had kept some of the fight from ever reaching Midgar. If things were quiet at the other two reactors, then help would be on the way.
And Zack definitely wanted to look cool and in control of the situation by the time Cloud showed up. He had an image to maintain, and a boyfriend who was not easily impressed.