Oh, my god, I found it! I thought I lost this chapter! One of the reasons why this has taken so god awfully long to come out is because I have lost this chapter several times... and I've rewritten it at least four times. (The other reasons are very personal... needless to say, I have a legitimate excuse. Yay me.) In any case, here is that fawking chapter!

Note on the fates of Aerith and Zack – While I have decided what I'm going to do with Zack (it actually came to me in a dream), I still have yet to decide what I'll do with Aerith. (If I keep her alive, though, I've already worked out a way around Holy/the lifestream.) In any case, Aerith will not be paired with Cloud. Understand?

Disclaimer applies!

"Be careful! This isn't just a reactor!"
Mysterious Voice (Of Doom), Final Fantasy VII.

- - - - -

Major Michael Pierson was only 29. He was a veteran of the Wutaian war and saw too many things to live life with a peaceful mentality, but he wasn't by any means a violent man. Survivor's guilt plagued him and he developed hemophobia a year after the war ended. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was honorably discharged from the army. He now worked as a guard at Mako Reactor One. Michael was a father of two six year old fraternal twins—a boy and a girl—and was a husband of seven years.

His parter, 20 year old Jack Loch, was a hot-shot who had an affinity for grandstanding, but took his job surprisingly seriously. A year previous, the young man caught and arrested three teenagers who had come to vandalize the reactor, oblivious to what would happen if they accidentally disrupted the refining process. His motto was "you break it, you buy it." Rather odd, but effective when he mentioned the amount of gil it took to build the reactor to the teenagers. While normally mild mannered, he had a tendency to complain that irked his parter constantly.

"I'm bored," Jack declared four hours into his relatively silent shift. He turned to Michael, his light brown bangs obscuring one eye. "Entertain me."

Mike snorted and rolled his eyes. "Right," he deadpanned. Jack smiled sheepishly. "Count sheep."

"Uh-uh. I want to stay awake, not fall asleep," he pointed out, shifting his weight and leaning against the stone wall behind him. They were at the train station where workers and guards got off, he and Mike standing on either side of a massive door. "Come on, come on! I've counted the stones and attempted to count the stars." He turned towards Mike, his expression a grimace. "I'm sick of counting!"

Shaking his head, Mike scratched the side of his head that wasn't covered by the standard uniform helmet. "Sing or something."

Jack coughed and complained loudly, "I suck at singing. You threatened to throw me onto the train tracks the last time, remember?" He emphasized the final word. He shot a glare to Mike when the older man laughed. "Hey, hey, it's better than the captain's!"

"Point taken," Mike said.

The two shared a comfortable, light-hearted silence for all of twenty seconds before Jack complained again about being bored. However, before the former major could retort, the shrill whistle of a train sounded. The two looked up in surprise, exchanging confused looks before Mike glanced down at his wrist watch. "Half an hour early," he muttered to himself.

"Hallelujah," Jack said, grinning. "Just when bordem was about to eat my soul. Thank you, Minerva!"

Mike chuckled, pushing himself from the wall and took a step forwards. "Not sure if it's Minerva's fault for this or scheduling errors, but, I'm glad. I get to spend time with my wife and kids."

Jack arched a brow. "Dude, it's two in the morning. Six year olds are asleep at this time."

"Oh... Right." Mike laughed again. He could spot the train now and waved his arm once to the train's engineer, though he knew the man would probably not see him.

After a few moments, the train pulled in and the breaks screeched to a halt. However, instead of two guards as the two expected, a man with a red headband jumped from the train's top. Mike took a confused step backwards. What? That wasn't... He's not... Who is he?

The man took one look at Jack and frowned.

Jack began to walk towards him, a fierce reprimand on his lips. However, before he could even vocalize it, the man rushed forwards and grabbed Jack's hand. He twisted his body, taking Jack's along for the ride. He flipped all 153 lbs of Jack like he was nothing. The momentum of the flip sent the twenty year old crashing to the ground harder than the man intended. Jack's head hit the ground hard with a sickening crunch and the lights of his eyes went out.

Mike watched in numb horror as blood and other fluids leaked out from the torn skin and broken bones that used to be the back of Jack Loch's skull. The liquids soaked into the young man's brown hair and red uniform. The grim scene wasn't the only thing that forced Mike's body to stiffen. The red blood spreading out onto the pavement alone was enough. Move! Mike's brain told him. He tried to obey, really he did, but it was too much. His hemophobia really was no where near being overcome!

A few moments later, a woman with the same bandanna jumped out from the opened compartment. She glanced at the man, Jack's body, then to Mike. She lifted her fists and suddenly hemophobia wasn't enough to restrain Mike's rage and his will to live.

Running towards her, Mike lifted his issued gun and took aim. However, before he could pull the trigger, the woman struck him hard in the chest with a well placed round-house kick. He fell backwards off of the platform and hit the train tracks. The woman must have received some good lessons and had fully intended to end his life. His ribs were shattered and little pieces of bone punctured his lungs. He gagged and tried to draw in air, but to no avail. One minute later, Michael Pierson drowned on his own blood and died.

- - - - -

Jesse sighed as the man finally died. It was a horrible way to go, but, if he hadn't tried to be a hero, he probably wouldn't have died. She would have simply knocked him out, but... She sighed again and turned away towards Biggs. "Okay," she said.

"Alright, Barret," Biggs called to their leader. "Guards dispatched," he said just as Wedge jumped down.

Seconds later, Barret Wallace emerged from the same compartment as Jesse did. "Good," he said gruffly. Turning, he yelled up to Zack and Cloud, currently perched on the train's roof, "Get down here now!"

Topside, Cloud shared a glance with Zack. "I really hate that guy," the look said and Zack grinned. With a huff, Cloud jumped down from the roof and hit the ground hard, feeling his knees buckle from the impact. He moved out of the way before Zack performed a grandstanding flip and landed at the same spot as Cloud. "Show off," Cloud muttered and rolled his eyes.

"Got it, flaunt it," Zack said in a sing-song tone, grinning as Cloud once again rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay, serious now."

"Yo, newbies, this way!" Barret hollered from the opposite end of the platform. He disappeared from behind the entrance to the street that led to the reactor.

Readjusting their respective weapons, the former Shinra soldiers followed after the Avalanche leader. Halfway down the platform, two guards that came to inspect the noises approached with weapons drawn. Zack and Cloud split up, effortlessly disabling the two guards before the guards could get a hit off of. Cloud pivoted to the side, slipping behind one of the guards and delivered a swift blow to the back of the skull. Zack punched the other hard in the gut, grimacing when he felt a rib snap and the man doubling over for half a second in pain before succumbing to the darkness of unconsciousness. The two had expected more of a fight and were somewhat confused and disappointed when both guards fell to single blows. They both looked at each other in surprise.

"I couldn't do that before," Cloud said, blinking in confusion. His strength was either a lot higher than before, or those guards were incredibly weak.

Zack shook his head. "We'll think on this later. Let's hurry up before that guy starts yelling at us again," he said, jogging off after Barret with Cloud in tow. They turned the corner, turned left again and ran down the street to where Jesse, Wedge and Biggs awaited, Jesse working to pick a lock on the door behind them.

Biggs gave them an impressed look. "Wow. You used to be in Soldier, all right!" He paused and his expression turned thoughtful. "Not everyday ya find a pair like you in a group like Avalanche."

"Yea, well," Zack gave a sardonic grin, "we got sick of it." Not exactly a lie.

The woman, Jesse, turned to Biggs. "Soldier? Aren't they the enemy?" She questioned. "What are they doing with us in Avalanche?"

"Hold it, Jesse," Biggs began, holding up a hand, "they were in Soldier. They quit them and are now one of us." He paused again, turning to Zack and Cloud with a friendly smile. "Didn't catch your names..."

Zack grinned. "Zack Fair. Pleased to meet ya!" He waved.

"I'm Cloud Strife," Cloud introduced.

"Zack and Cloud, huh?" Biggs laughed. Odd names. "I'm Bi—"

"What the hell are ya all doin'!?" An angry voice yelled, startling the group. Jesse and Wedge half-went for their weapons before Barret appeared. "I thought I told you never to move in a group!" Jesse flushed guiltily at that. Barret sighed loudly. "Our target's the North Mako Reactor. We'll meet on the bridge in front of it."

Finally, the door that Jesse was trying to open opened. Biggs, Wedge and her ran through the opening, glad to be out of Barret's war path. Barret moved forwards and stopped in the middle of the doorway, turning to give Zack and Cloud suspicious looks and scowled. "Ex-Soldiers, huh? Don't care if Tifa vouched for you—I don't trust ya." He ran off after the others.

Cloud looked up from his standing point. From there he could clearly see the reactor looming over the warehouses, the massive metal structure painted with the Shinra logo. He inhaled deeply, held it, then released it. "Let's just go," he said to Zack.

Snorting, Zack crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm really pissed. I'm not workin' with that guy again, even if it's for Tifa."

"Yea," Cloud breathed, starting after the others with Zack jogging by his side. "How did Tifa end up with these people to begin with?" He wondered aloud.

"Probably in retaliation against Shinra," Zack supplied. When Cloud nodded, he added, "I mean, I understand and relate—I'd probably have done the same thing considering... but..." He trailed off, leaving the sentence hanging and leaving Cloud thoughtful.

Five minutes of jogging, turning down roads and avoiding the guards later, the two spotted Biggs standing in the middle of the road, his hands at akimbo. "You two are slow," he said.

Zack grinned. "Sorry."

Shrugging, Biggs turned and ran along side them. "While I trust that you aren't spying on Avalanche for Shinra, Barret doesn't share my point of view. He's been screwed over by Shinra and is a bit paranoid in that aspect."

"Oh, really," Cloud murmured sarcastically. Zack smirked.

"Yea, well, let's just get this over with," Biggs said. They eventually met up with Wedge, but the group remained silent, wary of any other guards. A few minutes later, after turning corners, they caught sight of Jesse kneeling in front of a panel, wires spilling forth.

The brown haired woman looked up and gave Biggs a nod. "It's unlocked," she said, gesturing towards the door that led to the bridge before stuffing the wires haphazardly into the panel, shutting it and replacing the screws, tightening them with her gloved fingers. She stood, brushed dirt and cement dust from her pants, and rejoined the group.

They wasted no time in entering the door to the bridge. Wedge ran ahead, crossing the intersection to guard the west entrance to the bridge. "I'll secure our escape passage. You concentrate on the mission, guys," he called over his shoulder, then added under his breath, "Geez, we're really gonna blow this huge furnace up? This'll be somethin' to see!"

Zack and Cloud ran across the bridge and took a sharp right, running straight through the northern entrance, Jesse and Biggs already having passed them several seconds ago. They entered a small control room with a security panel to the left side of the room. Biggs had already set to work entering the code, Jesse in the right uppermost corner, keeping guard. Barret stood in the middle, his arms crossed over his chest and glaring at the former soldiers as they ascended the small staircase.

"Yo!" He greeted. "This your first time in a reactor?"

Zack shook his head. "No. After all, we did work with Shinra, ya know."

Barret nodded. "The planet's full of Mako energy. People here use it everyday," he told them.

A wave of annoyance rushed through Zack at those words. Oh, no. He could see where this conversation was heading. He inhaled deeply for a moment. He remembered hearing all of the Avalanche bull from both Tseng and Angeal. His memory may be a little fuzzy, but he could remember all of their "Shinra is going to destory the planet" bull. Well, in all honesty, he wasn't sure if it was true or not... he had been a second class Soldier when Avalanche first started, and he hadn't been assigned to any missions involving them. All he knew was it was irritating to hear the same things over and over.

Gritting his teeth slightly, he swallowed the exasperation that swelled inside of him. So, instead of snapping something rude, he just managed to shrug carelessly.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the right thing to do. Barret's face contorted in a snarl and he snapped angrily, "It's the life blood of this planet. But Shinra keeps suckin' the blood out with these weird machines!"

"We're not here for a lecture," Zack muttered, annoyance showing in his tone. "We're here for a job. Let's just do it."

Barret spat to the side in disgust and distrust. "That's it! You two come with me from now on," he said, turning about-face and waiting in front of the locked door. "Hurry the fuck up!"

Jesse grimaced when Cloud shot her a confused, irritated look. She smiled apologetically and said, "Biggs and I got the code for this door."Sorry for making you wait with Barret, went unsaid but not unheard.

"Code deciphered!" Biggs exclaimed five seconds later. There was a soft burst of air from the door as it opened. The group entered and Biggs ran to the side, keeping an eye out for any guards. "Think how many of our people risked their lives, just for this code..." he said softly, a small, thoughtful frown on his lips.

Jesse was considerably faster than Biggs. As soon as she opened the panel, her fingers danced across it, pressing numbers, letters and symbols faster than Cloud could memorize them. " Code deciphered," she said half a minute later. There was a familiar sound of the door opening.

"This way!" Barret ran ahead.

Zack hesitated. "What about Biggs?" He asked Jesse.

She shook her head. "Biggs is our lookout. Don't worry about him," she told him, giving a reassuring smile. They walked to a personal elevator and entered it, Barret having already opened the door. She stood at the doorway of the elevator and pointed over towards a series of buttons. "Press that button," she told Cloud, pointing to the red "Down" symbol.

"This one?" Cloud questioned. At her nod, he pressed it.

There was a moments delay before the elevator dropped suddenly, slowing down quickly to a slow descent. "I hope no one tries to stop the elevator for a lift," Zack murmured to himself.

Barret leaned against the wall, sighing softly. "Little by little the reactors'll drain out all the life. Then that'll be that," he mused aloud, half-hoping to convert the ex-soldiers.

Zack scoffed. "That's not my problem."

"The planet's dyin', you brat!" Barret shouted, disregarding his own rule about silence.

Pushing himself off from the wall with a shrug, Zack walked to the doorway just in time for it to open. "The only thing I care about is finishin' this job before security and the Roboguards come," he told him as he left the elevator, Cloud following behind.

Jesse ran ahead, turning right to run down a long staircase that hugged the side of the building. Cloud looked around – this reactor was older than the one from his hometown. It was large, obviously, and considerably more rusted than the one in Nibelhiem – at least outside. He and Zack followed Jesse, cutting corners when they came to the second level by running past the pillar.

After two more long stair cases, Zack nearly stumbled when they reached the landing. He huffed, catching his breath for a second. Cloud moved ahead, opening the door to the inner reactor and entering. He stopped suddenly, almost stumbling forwards.

Zack damn nearly groaned aloud when he saw what made Cloud stop. A huge gap in the walkway. He sighed. "Great," he muttered before pushing Cloud aside gently – mindful of the gap. He bent his knees and leapt forwards, clearing the gap completely. "Alright, Cloud. It's safe," he said after he kicked at the ground for a moment, making sure that the broken cement would not give way under the weight.

Cloud nodded and cleared it as effortlessly as Zack did.

Jesse was waiting in front of them besides a diagonal ladder that was supported by a pillar. She gave them a quick smile before jumping downwards, her feet catching on the rungs of the ladder, her hands automatically catching another one. She made her way down.

"Yo, wait for me!" A voice called. Zack grimaced – he almost forgot Barret. The large man jumped across the gap with a little more effort than the ex-soldiers, but nevertheless made it. He glared down at Zack. "Thanks," he said sarcastically.

Zack flashed him a smile – one he used on Angeal whenever he was about to be reprimanded – it worked often. He descended the ladder the same way Jesse did with Barret and Cloud following. "No prob!" He called over his shoulder cheerfully.

Waiting across a meshed ramp, Jesse waved. "The core's down there. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine!" She said, patting the gun that hung at her hip.

Nodding, the group walked carefully down a series of ramps, one large ladder, and a series of pipes. Barret scoffed, feeling somewhat hysterical as he tried to keep his balance on the pipes. "Pipes! Pipes! It's a wonder those Shinra bastards haven't killed themselves!" They maneuvered carefully, actually having to sit down to slip down one pipe. Continuing on, the climbed down one final ladder, breathing a sigh of relief.

"I hate this place," Zack said, pressing a hand over his anxious heart.

Cloud and Barret grunted in agreement.

Barret paused for a moment after he got his bearings. "Uh..." There was an open door to his left and a long ramp to his right. He wracked his brains for a memory of the directions.

Thankfully, Cloud cut in. "It's to the right," he said, guessing the correct question that was flickering across Barret's mind. "Reactors are built similarly, right Zack?"

"Uh-huh. Good memory, Cloud," Zack praised, already walking across the ramp. "This is the center of the reactor," he said. "The literal core." He entered a door and glanced over the side of the ramp, frowning at the mako pool. Biting his lip, he hesitated for a second before snapping his gaze back to the front. Bad memories.

Cloud, however, didn't seem to mind too much. In fact, he looked over Zack's shoulder and grinned slightly. "Hey, look!" He walked past Zack and knelt. In front of him, resting between two small holes in the ramp, was a level one materia. Cloud picked it up and held it up to the light. "It's, ah, level one... restore," he announced before standing and slipping the materia into the pockets of his pants.

The core itself wasn't remarkable, really. It looked like a large furnace with a large wheel-knob in the center. Barret pushed past both Cloud and Zack, approaching the core from the side. He held up a duffle bag that Zack hadn't noticed until just now. "When we blow this place, it ain't gonna be nothin' more than a hunka junk." He turned to the blond, handing him the duffle bag and said, "Cloud, you set the bomb."

Cloud blinked, hesitating before accepting the bag. "Shouldn't you do it?" He barely knew anything about bombs!

Barret rolled his eyes. "Jus' do it! I gotta watch to make sure you don't pull nothin'," he confessed, glaring at the blond suspiciously.

Biting back a sharp, sarcastic retort, Cloud nodded. "Fine, be my guest," he said.

Just as he began to pull back the zipper of the bag, a sharp, high pitched sound assaulted his senses. He gasped softly, digging his fingertips into his temple in an attempt to smother the pain. The edges of his vision darkened and he collapsed to his knees. A quick glance to Zack showed that the older man seemed to be having a similar problem, both hands pressed against his ears. His mouth formed the words, "shit, shit, ow," over and over. He thought he heard someone say something, but he wasn't sure.

And, as quickly as it came, the sound faded and the pain receded. Barret was looking at them in obvious suspicion. "What's wrong?" He demanded.


Barret scowled. "What's wrong, you two? Cloud, hurry it up!" He added sharply.

Nodding absently and sending Zack a quick look, Cloud straightened upright, walked forwards with the bag and knelt on the ground, unzipping it all the way and removing the bomb from the bag. It was a simple enough bomb, the explosives held securely in place with a timer on top of them.

"Set it for fifteen minutes," Barret said, glancing over Zack for guards. "Gives us enough time to get out of here."

Cloud nodded and inputed the minutes into the timer.

However, just as he set the bomb down and pressed the release off of the timer, the alarm sounded.

Felt that this was good enough of a place as any to end the chapter. I had to play the game, watch a lot of videos, and look up a good script for this chapter (both for information and a LOT of inspiration. I kind of fell out of the FFVII fandom for a while, probably another reason why this took so long. But, I'm back!) I'm probably gonna have to go back and edit this chapter... everything's still a little smudged with the whole AU!Zack's alive bit. ...He had a huge impact on Cloud's behaviour and his reaction to situations (I think) so...

Seven and a half pages. And, just so you know, the first section has a valid point! It won't, however, show up until the sector seven incident. ...You'll just have to wait for it. 8D Please read, review, and enjoy!