Zack turned over rescue and relocation efforts to Reeve when he arrived late in the morning with reinforcements. With Rufus and Weapon both subdued, Junon was deemed safe for those who hadn't been crazy enough to volunteer for a suicide mission. Zack was grateful to tag out, and turn the whole mess over to someone else.
But it was mostly the exhaustion talking. He walked the street away from the air base, and even the fact that he could walk it was a sign. Gone was the panic of the predawn hours. People were still leaving the city, with word spreading that the reactor had been damaged by Weapon's attack, but the exodus had turned orderly. Zack had deputized the more level-headed civilians, and even now they spoke with evacuees, taking down names and figuring out where best to send them.
They didn't have records for the first hurried groups shuttled out of the base. During Weapon's attack, they'd prioritized speed. But that was out of Zack's hands now, too. It'd be somebody else's job to try to track everyone down so they could find each other in the aftermath.
Zack felt good about it, though. He hadn't even hung onto his sword, much less used it, but he felt like he'd saved more lives without it than he ever had as a SOLDIER. Maybe as part of AVALANCHE, too, if taking out Sephiroth hadn't tipped the scales so much. He was sure that'd mean something, once he'd gotten the sleep required to process it.
He and Cloud found an abandoned bunk in the barracks nearest the air base and collapsed into it. He made sure their phones were off; if another disaster popped up, they could sleep through it.
For the rest of the day, the world let them be. Zack checked in with Reeve once he woke up, but things were looking good. The suspected damage to the reactor was primarily to the pipelines into the city. Weapon had collapsed the underwater tunnel usually used to access it, but the pressure seals had held, keeping the reactor from flooding. With the waters safe again, crews had reached the reactor by submarine, initiated a shutdown, and evacuated the stranded staff. Most of the fires were out in the city, and they'd begun to prepare the surviving ships in the harbor for passengers.
The battle had concluded in Wutai before they'd hit the hay, but in the time since, Wutain forces had gone on to recapture the Highwind and claim the two Gelnikas that had been sent after them. The Highwind was still out of commission for a while, but Cid was utterly confident in his ability to fly a Gelnika. Everybody would be back soon enough.
The sad news came in the form of casualty reports, as the search and rescue crews began to tally the bodies. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians dead, and Zack knew the count would only climb. Cloud caught his eye before he had to say it, and they headed back out to help, because maybe there were still people who'd survive if somebody could get to them in time.
The Gelnika arrived the following morning to a busy air field. No bird stayed grounded for long, tasked with ferrying personnel, transporting wounded civilians, or clearing debris.
Barret stepped out of the hold with Jessie at his side and Nanaki at their heels, lifting his nose to scent the air. Zack clasped Barret's hand in greeting, and Barret returned him a hearty clap on the shoulder.
"Hear you guys did some good work here," he said.
"We gave it our best," Zack replied with a grin. "Where's Vincent?"
Barret nodded back over his shoulder. "Asked 'im to keep an eye on Marlene for me. She's still sleepin,' an' I know you got things under control now, but it ain't exactly stable. I don't want her out in all this."
Zack raised his eyebrows. "So Vincent's graduated to babysitting material, huh?"
"Don't want 'er pickin' up swear words from Cid. Besides, she's been curious about 'im. Hasn't seen much of 'im."
"Uh-huh. How much of his life story d'you think she'll get outta him?"
"Ain't nobody can resist my little girl."
"I think you're a little biased," Zack chuckled.
Cloud spoke up, "You forget that time she got you to eat her peas 'cause she convinced you she was allergic?"
"Hey, I never said I was a tough nut to crack. We're talking about Vincent here."
He was about to lead everyone on into the base when a fourth person stepped out of the Gelnika behind the others. Zack didn't recognize her: a middle-aged woman in traditional Wutain dress, she had an air of class and authority that contrasted starkly with AVALANCHE's more casual attitude.
"Chekhov," Nanaki greeted at her approach. "Ready to join us?"
"Yes," she said. "Let's see what's become of Shinra."
Zack looked to the others in hopes of an explanation, and it was Jessie who provided it: "Guess you could call this the early stages of diplomacy," she said. "Chekhov's here as a representative of Wutai."
"I wanted to see the defeated Shinra for myself," Chekhov went on. "As well as those who might step into the void it leaves behind."
Zack ran a hand through his hair. He wasn't prepared for diplomacy. "Well, uh, welcome to Junon. First time?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the unimpressed look Cloud gave him, and inwardly he winced. Yeah, that had sounded like a bad pick-up line.
But Chekhov just looked amused, and she gestured ahead. "Lead the way."
Inside the base, the emergency lighting remained on, but the windows overlooking the air field let in the daylight, and the halls were a far cry from the nightmare of the other morning. They passed a few of Reeve's people, walking with purpose, and the doors out onto the street stood wide open.
Nobody had time to clean floors with everything else going on, but they'd found a rug to throw across the bloodstain there. Everybody knew there'd been loss of life, but they didn't need that kind of reminder on their way to supposed safety.
From the main street towards the command center, you could still look down to see Weapon's motionless body at the base of the cannon. Most of it lay beneath the water, leaving its shape inscrutable, but the scales of its back glistened in the daylight. Despite Aeris's repeated assurances that it was dead, Zack had to fight the urge to go down to the harbor to poke it with a stick, just to be sure.
It'd be bad news if that thing suddenly woke up, but it made him a little sad, seeing it there. It had only been acting to protect the Planet, and all they could do was leave it there.
"I don't smell rot," Nanaki remarked at last.
"Oh," said Zack, glancing at him. "Yeah, it's weird, right? I thought this whole place'd start smelling like rotting fish, but I guess it's not like a normal animal. I don't know what the Planet made it out of."
"Maybe we oughtta invite some folks from Cosmo Canyon, too," Barret considered. "They can have a look at it... as respectfully as they can."
Zack caught his eye and nodded. "Yeah. Maybe so."
Tifa and the others had taken up temporary residence at the command center. It was one of the few places that had power, although they'd relocated their prisoners to the brig on the lower level to avoid relying on electronic locks. Zack took his charges by the cells first, knowing Barret for sure would want the satisfaction of seeing Rufus behind bars. It definitely put a grin on his face, and they met up with the others in high spirits.
Between the shattered window and the waterlogged equipment, the heart of the command center was a mess. Operations had moved to a smaller room previously reserved for lowly analysts, but Tifa had them meet in the media room, so they didn't interfere with everyone trying to do their jobs. It was spacious, but dim; the TV screens were off, and there weren't any windows, just a few anemic ceiling lights.
Zack stood back and watched the reunion. Most of them were enthusiastic huggers, and he caught Yuffie suppressing a grin that belied her loud protests. Nanaki similarly huffed at having his mane ruffled, but his tail was relaxed. Yuffie exclaimed over Chekhov's presence, but it was Barret who introduced her to the others. Reeve greeted her much more professionally than Zack had, although he shook her hand, which judging by her expression was not the appropriate thing to do. There'd be some kinks to work out, in terms of diplomatic relations.
"We got a lot to talk about," said Barret as they all finally settled, taking seats around a long table, "but the first thing I wanna now is: what're we doin' with Rufus Shinra?"
"Well..." Tifa began, "in the short term, I think we ought to move him to Midgar. He'll be more secure there in case any of his men get it in their heads to stage a rescue."
"You don't mean to execute him?" asked Chekhov, as if it were the most straightforward thing in the world. Zack stared at her for a second; sure, it wasn't a surprising sentiment for Wutai, but it wasn't what he expected out of a diplomat. Maybe this wasn't her usual gig either.
Tifa was shaking her head. "He might deserve that, but it's not how I want to start things. It's what Shinra would do: pin all the blame on someone and then execute them."
"And make sure to broadcast the outcome," Jessie put in, "so their supporters feel like justice has been done, and their enemies know they don't show mercy."
"So you want to be merciful," Chekhov concluded.
"...we want to be just," Tifa decided.
"That's why I want to propose a tribunal," said Reeve.
"A tribunal?" Zack repeated. "Don't we need judges for that?"
"Wait, did you guys not have judges?" Yuffie asked, jerking her head towards him incredulously.
Jessie scratched her head. "Not ones that were separate from the Shinra military. And they really only cared bout crimes against Shinra."
"Eh, they'd prosecute cases for citizens in most places," Sash amended, "just not in the slums. But I wouldn't say the investigations were thorough... They'd punish who they needed to to keep face with the taxpayers."
"Yeah," said Jessie, "I had more faith in how we did it in the slums. Most of the time you were on your own, but sometimes if you had a dispute, you'd nominate an upstanding member of the community to resolve it for you. Tifa got picked a few times."
Aeris looked amused by that. "Tifa, you were a judge?"
Tifa shrugged it off. "Come on it was just small stuff. 'Johnny stole my radio' and stuff like that."
"It isn't a bad idea," said Nanaki, "if we were to scale it up. Each neighborhood might select someone to represent them."
"One from each sector..." Reeve considered.
"You can't just do it by sector," said Aeris. "The people in the slums won't get heard."
Cloud spoke up quietly. "Won't that be giving Midgar a lot of weight, if there's two representatives from each sector?"
"What do you mean, a lot of weight?" Tifa asked him.
"Well... What about Junon? They've been under Rufus. Shouldn't they have a say?"
"You got a point," said Barret. "Shinra's had damn near the whole world under their thumb. Maybe the whole world oughtta be passin' judgment."
"That's a lot to organize," said Reeve, looking like he was already calculating the hours of work involved, "but I suppose it may be necessary. All of Shinra's territories will need to understand, there is no Shinra anymore."
They all fell silent for a moment. Zack was sure each of them had thought it privately, or even mused over it with their friends, but for Reeve himself to outright say that Shinra was done lent more finality to it. And if they, the people who'd been involved in making it happen, were just beginning to grapple with that, how would the rest of the world handle it?
"And what about Wutai?" Chekhov asked.
"We'll have to discuss it further," Reeve said, brow furrowing thoughtfully. "I can't imagine not allowing Wutai to observe, but Shinra was our own mistake, and our responsibility..."
"You know," said Wedge, "this might be that first step towards actual government, too. For Midgar, I mean, and I guess Junon now, too. Getting people to pick their own representatives... You've been doing a great job, Reeve, but people can't keep looking to you forever."
"I know," said Reeve. "I'm in agreement. My role is transitional."
Zack saw an opening. "Okay," he said, "but that transition is gonna take a while, so can we please come up with something to call your organization that's not 'ex-Shinra'? It's been driving me nuts!"
Reeve smiled wryly. "I have given it some thought. I was considering something like, 'Organization for the Restoration of Midgar.'"
"...ORM?" Tifa sounded out skeptically, and Barret snorted.
"Yeah, no, it sounds like 'worm,'" said Yuffie.
"And it shouldn't just be Midgar," Wedge added. "I mean, the goal is to help the whole world, right?"
"ORW?" Zack considered. "Or maybe we could flip it around, like... World Restoration Organization..."
There were some thoughtful hums around the table.
"I don't know that 'Restoration' is the right word," said Nanaki. "We aren't trying to restore the world to what it was."
"Yeah, you're right," Barret agreed. "It oughtta be somethin' more like 'advancement' or 'renewal.'"
"Well, what does AVALANCHE stand for?" Yuffie asked.
"You guys always write it in all caps, doesn't it stand for something?"
"Not really," said Jessie, throwing Barret an amused glance. "Barret just wanted it to look powerful."
"Well, that's no help," said Yuffie.
"Oh!" Zack snapped his fingers. "I've got one! Global Revitalization Organization. GRO."
"Aww, that's cute, Zack," said Aeris.
"Cute...?" Reeve repeated skeptically.
Tifa smiled. "I think that's a good name, actually."
Zack grinned. "Thanks, Tifa."
"Well," Wedge said decisively, "congrats on your appointment to President of the Global Revitalization Organization, Reeve."
"Ah... Thank you?"
"As part of your appointment," Zack added, "you get a mandatory one-week vacation."
Reeve regarded him flatly. "You aren't even part of the organization."
"I named it, I think that comes with a few privileges."
"You do need some rest, Reeve," Tifa said gently.
"We all do," said Jessie, "but I think we'll have to take it in shifts, and I agree, Reeve is up first."
"What about Junon...?" he wondered.
"We'll take care of Junon for you!" Wedge said brightly.
"Yeah, Wedge's been doing a great job," Zack agreed.
Wedge looked at him, startled. "What, me?"
"You've been really good at winning people over," said Cloud; apparently he'd noticed it, too. "And Reeve's guys--the GRO--they know you."
"I think you just got promoted from sidekick," Yuffie observed.
Wedge blushed, scratching his head. "Well, uh... I'll do my best!"
There were more logistics to work out, plans for the short term. Junon needed a lot of attention, but Cloud was right that this affected the whole world. And AVALANCHE, they couldn't all step back for a vacation right now, but they could return to what was a little more familiar.
Wedge and Sash would stay in Junon, working with the new GRO and what remained of Junon's personnel to stabilize the city. Zack and Cloud would head back to Midgar, because it hadn't been so long since their last disaster, and Rufus's defeat would be big news. Chekhov planned to stay for a while, before moving on to Midgar herself. Tifa and the others were headed back to their home in Kalm, as they'd originally planned to after Wutai. And Yuffie and Nanaki would, in a few days, be heading back to Wutai. They had their own road ahead of them, Zack imagined.
Sash caught him as the meeting was breaking up.
"Guess if you're heading back to Midgar," she said, reaching for the sword on her back, "then I gotta get this back to you."
Zack held up a hand to stop her. "Nah, you hang onto that," he said. "Think I'd be good, if I never picked up a sword again."
Cloud gave him a quizzical look, and he knew they'd have a talk about that later.
Sash let the sword settle back in its sheath. "How'd you ever make it farther in SOLDIER than me?" she wondered.
"It's 'cause I'm dumber than you," Zack said easily, "and dumb makes for a good soldier."
Cloud nudged him with an elbow. "You're not dumb, Zack."
"Yeah, I said dumber. Still don't think I would've lasted long, doing the stuff they had us doing."
Sash gave him a wry smile. "You kind of didn't, right?"
Zack shrugged, but he couldn't keep his eyes from falling to the tattoo on her hand, the one from the same series as his. Shinra had seen fit to dispense with both of them.
If Sephiroth had just defected like a normal person, Zack wondered if he would have gone with. He hadn't seen it then, but would he have followed Sephiroth's lead? Would he have gotten to this point sooner, or would he have ever gotten here at all?
They had some time before heading out, but Zack decided to head on over to the air base anyway. Reno was working there, still permitted to help out but not allowed near the command center unsupervised.
Zack found him sorting through their hastily scribbled records of the evacuees--tedious work that somebody had probably dumped on him. Zack wouldn't have volunteered for it.
"Hey," he said.
Reno glanced up, and his arched eyebrow said that they were not on casual 'hey' terms. "Hey," he replied anyway.
"Me an' Cloud are headed back to Midgar in a few hours, so I wanted to swing by before then."
"Why, you need something?"
"Come on, man. Are you always gonna be like this?"
Reno shook his head. "I don't wanna be your project, okay? You got me another shot with Reeve, and I'll remember that. I owe you. That doesn't mean we're friends."
Zack let out a sigh and ran his hand through his hair. Maybe that was progress, he decided. At least he felt like they were really on the same team now, right? "Well, if that's how you want it," he said. "You patch things up with Rude?"
"...yeah, more or less."
"Are you guys sticking around here, or you headed back to Midgar, too?"
Reno shrugged. "Haven't heard yet. I figure it depends on Rufus's accommodations. Your top brass don't want me anywhere near him. Just in case."
"For what it's worth, I don't think you'd turn on us now."
"It's not worth a lot, but thanks, I guess."
Zack watched him for a second. "Do you wanna go back to Midgar?"
"It's home, right?"
"Yeah," said Zack. "But I don't know, I thought Junon could be a good gig for you. Less baggage."
Reno stopped what he was doing for a second. Maybe it hadn't occurred to him before, the thought of leaving Sector 7 behind him. "Maybe," he decided at last. "I'll think about it, if I get a say."
Zack nodded. "Cool. And... I know you're just gonna brush it off, but thanks for your help in all this. Honestly."
"Yeah, you're welcome," said Reno, rolling his eyes. "Go mack on your boyfriend or something, I'll see you around sooner or later."
Zack just grinned. Definitely progress, he decided. He'd win the guy over yet.
He found a different tough nut to crack up on the air field. Vincent stood at the edge of the strip, overlooking the ocean, his cape billowing dramatically behind him and really supporting him in that whole brooding thing he liked to do. Zack walked up beside him.
"There's my favorite ex-Turk!"
Vincent glanced at him with an arched eyebrow. Was that a Turk thing?
"Yeah, not much of a competition, I know," Zack went on, undeterred. "How you doin'? Somebody relieve you from babysitting duty?"
Vincent nodded. "Barret returned. Jessie summarized your meeting for me."
"She mention nobody decided anything for you? Nobody's sure what you're planning to do now."
"Hm," said Vincent. "It is a question that requires some consideration... There are many places that might find some use for me."
"Use for you, sure," Zack agreed. "Is that what you wanna be, useful?"
Vincent glanced at him again.
"I know, I know... I can't stand sitting around not helping people. But I think it's about the way you do it, too? When I joined on with AVALANCHE, I thought, I've got all these skills from being in SOLDIER, so that's how I can help..."
"You feel differently now?" Vincent asked.
"Maybe," he said. He was pretty sure he did. "I mean, it's not like I put a lot of thought into it. I just ran off thinking I could be a hero like Sephiroth."
Vincent was silent for a moment. The wind off the ocean was cold, and Zack shoved his hands deep into his pockets.
"...do you think he ever was, really?" Vincent wondered. Coming from any of the others, that would've been a rhetorical question. Sephiroth had never been a hero to Cloud or Tifa, or Yuffie, or any of them. It was just another Shinra lie.
"...not in the way they put in the papers, or anything," Zack decided. "But I heard stories from people who served with him in the war. He didn't just throw lives away, like Heidegger. He looked after his people. I think he was a hero to them."
"Hm," said Vincent. Was it the answer he hoped for? It wasn't the first time he'd asked, about Sephiroth. But Zack found himself relieved it had come up again. He still didn't know Vincent that well, but it was nice to talk to somebody who might get that this was more complicated for him.
"Think I was a little blinded by that, back then," he went on. "But he wasn't a bad guy. I keep thinking about that: how things might've gone different, how he might've gone different. But he got dealt a bad hand, and... I don't think there's anything I could've done."
Probably, there wasn't anything he could've done. He'd never know that for sure.
"It wasn't your responsibility," said Vincent.
Zack gave him a wry smile. "It wasn't yours either, right?"
Vincent's mouth twisted, almost returning the expression, and then he grew thoughtful. "For the part I played, I believe I've atoned as best I can. Sephiroth became something in his own right that needed to be brought to an end, and I don't intend to carry that burden. But it is... difficult to know what to do, without it."
That was easily the most Zack had ever heard the guy say at one time. He made some good points.
"Hmm... Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt for now, to lend a hand wherever you're needed. There's gonna be a lot of places reinventing themselves. Maybe you'll find your niche."
"...perhaps I'll travel with the Highwind, for a time," Vincent said cautiously, "once it's repaired."
"You like flying?" Zack wondered. They must've had planes in Vincent's time, but whether he'd ever been in one, or whether the experience was anything like the Highwind, Zack didn't know. Maybe it was a novelty for him. If it caught his interest, that was good.
"Seeing the world from up above..." said Vincent, "it seems to put things in perspective."
Zack gave him an encouraging grin. "I'm sure Shera'd be glad to have you aboard."
For their part, he and Cloud wouldn't be riding the Highwind, or even the Gelnika. After the long flight back from Wutai, it needed to be checked over. Instead, they hitched another helicopter ride back with some civilian evacuees.
Together, this time, so Cloud could hold his hand, and Zack could distract him from his motion sickness with inane chatter. What was Vincent like with Marlene? Did Reeve have any idea how to vacation? What was Wutai's government like, and where did Chekhov actually fit into that?
It was late afternoon when they set down in Midgar. The sun was beginning to set beyond the ruins of Sector 7, but when they caught the train down to the slums, the lights were still on, and Elmyra's house glowed in welcome. The sounds and smells of the city already told him he was home, but the sight of that house promised him a familiar bed.
"We should pay your parents a visit," Cloud said out of nowhere.
Zack looked at him askance. "You're saying that right when we're getting home?"
"I just thought of it now," said Cloud, and Zack realized he was probably thinking of Elmyra. Aeris's mom. Other people's moms that they still had. "They're gonna be worried once they catch wind of everything that's been going on."
"Well, I'll send 'em a letter, and we'll figure out a good time."
Cloud threw him a skeptical look. "For real?"
Zack rolled his eyes. "Yes. You can watch me write it."
Elmyra greeted them warmly as they stepped inside, and asked after Aeris, who'd called but whom she didn't expect to see in the next few days. Parents, Zack thought. It made him a little guilty that he was so bad at keeping up with his own, but if they knew half the stuff he got caught up in while it was happening, they'd worry themselves to death.
Elmyra was tough, to handle all that.
They didn't have anything to unpack, but they'd been wearing the same clothes for a few days, so Zack led the way upstairs to their room. Elmyra had come in to straighten up while they'd been gone. The bed was made, clothes neatly put away in the dresser, a few scattered notes collected and placed carefully beneath an empty flower pot to hold them in place.
It was sweet of her, but at the same time, there were a few things in that dresser Zack hoped she hadn't seen.
The room was chilly; better to change quick, he thought, but Cloud didn't seem to be in any rush.
"You know," said Cloud, watching him shrug out of his coat, "I thought of your tattoo... It should be wings."
"Wings?" Zack wondered.
"You remember, when we first flew into Fort Condor? She had her wings wrapped around the nest."
"So I'm a giant bird mom," Zack concluded, bemused.
"No," said Cloud, "you protect people."
"Oh." He turned it over in his head. Since he was a kid, he'd always seen himself as saving people, leaping into danger and playing the hero. But it felt good, coming home. He felt better about himself when they were here in Midgar, helping people to build things up, making them feel safe in a rough situation.
Like a giant bird mom.
Zack pulled a clean undershirt on over his head. "Yeah, I think I like that," he decided. "I could get one going down my shoulder."
"Yeah," Cloud agreed, smiling. Zack leaned in to kiss him, stalling him from tugging off his own dirty shirt. Zack was tempted to help him out of it, and out of everything else, but he could hear Elmyra downstairs in the kitchen, so he left it at that.
"Hmm, we're about done fighting now, right?" he said. "I'm gonna be domestic as fuck. I'll bake you cookies."
"You can't even boil water," said Cloud.
"Can, too!" Zack protested. You just heated it until there were bubbles, right? "Anyway, I don't think that's part of baking."
"You're gonna get bored."
"I don't know, man. There's a lot of stuff you can make in an oven."
Zack sat down on the bedspread to tug off his boots. "Well, what do you think I should do?"
"You should run for mayor," said Cloud.
Zack snorted so loud there was no way Elmyra didn't hear it. "That's a good one," he chuckled.
"I'm serious," said Cloud. "People like you, and they trust you, and you're never too proud to listen. You're a good leader."
That was really sweet, and Zack did his best to school his expression into something that said he was taking this more seriously. "Cloud... I don't know the first thing about politics."
Cloud quirked an eyebrow at him. "You think anybody's gonna want you to be a politician?"
Zack hesitated. Maybe Cloud had a point, that Midgar had had enough of that. The way most of the Shinra execs had acted: turning on the charm under the camera and peddling whatever lies kept them in power, because that was all they'd been after. They hadn't wanted to lead anyone, or do anything for the greater good of Midgar.
Cloud sat down beside him, bumping his shoulder. "I mean, you should be something. You keep saying, you're not sure fighting's for you, but if you're not involved somehow, you're gonna go crazy."
"You're probably right about that," Zack decided. "I guess... we'll see how things shape up. Midgar's gotta figure out a whole new system. Not sure you want me in charge of the entire thing."
"When you put it that way..." said Cloud.
Zack elbowed him, and he smirked. "Anyway, what's that gonna make you?"
"...somebody's gotta take care of your dogs."
"We're gonna get a dog!?"
"You're not a cat person," Cloud stated matter-of-factly. "And... I think it's time we got our own place."
Zack had to kiss him again. "You're full of so many good ideas, maybe you should be mayor."
"I'm good," said Cloud.
"Deputy mayor then," Zack decided, slinging an arm around him to keep him close. "How long've you been thinking about this? Lay it out for me, you gotta tell me about our house full of dogs."
Cloud's ears pinked, but his smile widened. This was home, and it was good to be here.