As black dust clouds settled over the blown-out reactor, FEMA swarmed it with caution tape. Firefighting teams extinguished the blaze after a full 24 hours, and all that remained of the Shinra Army could fit in a basketball stadium. Shinra lost trillions of gil by the second, and that was fine by the oft-neglected Department of Urban Planning. No civilians had been harmed.

The Turks locked down the zone tight, air tight. Despite reports that no bodies had been found, they hadn't even started looking. But someone slipped through their perimeter, swift and soundless as a stray cat, like a street ninja in the dark.

The little Wutai thief skittered through the rubble, crying as she shoved debris aside. She dug through piping ash that burned her hands to pull out two things at last—a white Materia orb and a burned neckpurse protecting a little black box. Choking tears back, she ran into the night, down into the Slums to disappear forever.

Cissnei stood in shock while the press conference convened. She had been briefed on what to say, but how to say it? How to bring herself to recite the fabricated events pressed on folded paper in her hands? She wiped away her own tears, fought back a knot of nausea, and approached the podium.

Flash photography flickered in her face. Ravenous hoards of journalists roared up at her for answers.

What happened? Why was the Army here? Who were they looking for? Why?

Cissnei opened her mouth to speak, and her face contorted in pain.

"No comment."

She strode from the podium through the uproar of reporters, sealing her resignation. But not before one slipped a card for The Spider into her pocket.

Tseng stood before the wreckage of the B1 Alpha watching Reno and Rude being carted away on life-support. He pinched the brim of his nose, contemplating the event that set this whole crisis in motion—when they'd rescued the Shinra Prince from Genesis' apartment.

No one could lay hands on royalty and expect to live, but Genesis had been cocky. The boy wouldn't dare speak a word against his mentor, stunned into cold silence. Nevertheless, a report landed straight on President Shinra's desk, and instantaneously people started dying.

A hit was put out on Genesis, but he'd already fled with the battalion of SOLDIER's he'd sweet talked Commander Lazarus into putting under his command. Triggered by the stress of impending annihilation, his degradation had advanced, and he'd pulled his desperate brother Angeal down with him.

Sephiroth was spared the sickness, but Shinra knew how to break him. They took the access codes off the data room. Now, even his son was dead.

Tseng whirled in his mind, flashing back to events after Modeoheim.

Zack had flown with the Turks in the Chinook Airbus, rocking back and forth on the floor. As the bay doors opened to receive a fallen operator, he'd helped lift the body bag onto the stretcher, and clutched its black edges as it wheeled off.

The Turks stepped in to grab him, to lead him away, and he fought them. Vicious and enraged he shoved their arms off as they all wrapped him up to restrain him. That's when they knew he was one of them. Rude respected a man who could match his own strength. Cissnei loved him from the moment she met him. Even Reno liked him. You don't share preferences with a guy and not bond somehow. Tseng had resolved to hide him, like he hid his own family if he had to. They held him fast as he thrashed feral in their grip, protecting their own.

"He's gone, Zack!" Tseng leapt in front of him, hands on his chest to calm him. Tseng broke his cold composure for a moment, a flash of rare emotion that stalled Zack's brining storm. "He's gone."

But Tseng saw the truth staring him down like the barrel of a Colt pistol, that it was Zack in that bodybag, and what they held back was his shell.

The post-mortem report after the crisis at the core was finalized and closed. Zack's mother received a check for $5 gil. This is how she found out her son was dead. The rest of his savings had been drained prior with a stolen bank card. It all went in cash to a girl in the Sector 5 Slums, courtesy of someone named Black Suit.

Midgar fell into a state of decay. What did anyone expect? All their heroes were dead. Loveless no longer brought in the economy-supporting revenue it once did, slipping from smash hit to cult status in part due to the atrocious ending. The Play House refused to rewrite it, despite lauding demand. A CGI movie was released that bombed, and finally a remake was announced, but fans held out little hope for anything more than a patched-together camp-fest with voice-acting.

The populace drifted, alive but not quite living in a broken Promised Land. What could give the people hope in an age of crisis? Time is the answer. Time fogs over blurry photographs, leaving snapshots of those who were left behind…

She stood upon the Valkyrie statue at midnight, shard lilac hair sweeping her Mako eyes. When the op code had come in over the loudspeaker at Shinra, she ran. Her mentor had taught her what Code: Zero Dark meant.

It means I am dead, and that you're next.

Pursued by one hundred Shinra Guards, she managed to fight them off on the train. Desperate, she fled straight to Sector 0 Slums, into Triad territory where Shinra wouldn't dare follow.

Now, her directives were fixed on one thing, B-Unit. All she knew was that they were being held captive in a bunker somewhere, tortured and barely alive if not dead already. She had to find them. As lightning flashed behind her, a red shoulder cape flared like blood proclaiming her promise to the sky. Through hell and highwater, she was coming…

The White Mage of Sector 5 stood outside a church in the Slums, ash rainfall dusting from a riot by the Wall Market. A snowsable hood draped over fiery auburn hair and wise iris eyes that had seen too much death to believe in honor. Her hand bore two items of virtue, a twisted staff carved from the wood of a young plum sapling, and a demantoid-garnet engagement ring from a man who would never return…

Far out, beyond the rolling Wastelands of Midgar, a young man with a Buster Sword rode atop a train.

My name is Cloud, SOLDIER 1st Class.

[Received Silver Star]

THE END