So Zack and Aeris came to live at the bar, and all three businesses actually started to pick up quite well. The summer months passed, and soon the day of the wedding was at hand. It would be a quiet little ceremony, with just the residents of the bar attending. Vincent had come down with a cold and couldn't come, and everyone was still wary of drawing too much attention.
Zack practically leapt out of bed that morning. "This is gonna be the greatest day of my life!" he cried, spinning out of the room and nearly crashing into Cloud on the way by.
"Watch it, lover boy," Cloud grumbled sleepily. They made their way down the stairs to where Tifa was already up, finishing cleaning up from the night before.
"Coffee?" she offered.
"For me, yes please, for him, no," answered Cloud.
"Huh?" said Zack.
"You're bouncing off the walls already. You've got a grin wider than the bar plastered on your face. No caffeine for you."
"And no work either," said Tifa with a smile, sliding a mug of coffee towards Cloud. "Cloud and I decided last night that we'd give the bride and groom the day off."
"Cool," said Zack as he and Cloud sat down. "Thanks, Teef."
"Say, where is my bride, anyway?" Zack asked, looking around the otherwise empty barroom .
"She's at the church with Marlene getting flowers for the wedding," Tifa replied. "She's going to look real nice. I've already helped her put her white dress on—she said she wanted to wear it all day."
Zack smiled at the thought. "Well I suppose I should get ready too, then," he said.
Cloud looked up from his mug. "Zack, it's 9AM. The wedding's not till noon."
"So?" said Zack, grinning with excitement.
Cloud sighed, rolling his eyes and taking another swig of coffee.
* * *
A little later, Zack had just finished dressing when Cloud came into the room. "Here's that hair gel you wanted to borrow," Cloud said.
"Thanks pal," said Zack as he finished tying his tie in front of the mirror. Cloud sized up his friend's attire as he handed over the jar.
"A tux! Where the hell'd you get a tux?"
"I rented it," Zack replied casually.
"In other words you stole it," muttered Cloud with a bit of a smirk.
"If you want to get technical," said Zack casually, applying the gel to his raven hair generously. "There. How do I look?" he said, whirling around to face Cloud, his hands stretched out at his sides.
Cloud raised an eyebrow, not too impressed. "You're asking me?" he said.
"Hmm, good point."
"Cloud!" Marlene suddenly burst through the open door. "They've got Aeris!"
"What?" said Zack in alarm, the color instantly draining from his face.
"Who's 'they'?" said Cloud.
"These two guys—big guys," she said in a small panicked voice. "They grabbed her from the church and took her away in a car. They tried to get me too but I got away."
Zack opened his mouth but before he could speak, Tifa came rushing in after Marlene, with a wild look in her eyes. "Cloud! It's Denzel—he's gone."
"What?" cried Cloud.
"I was on my way up to see if he was awake, then I heard a crash, and I found somebody had busted through the window and grabbed him," she said, talking fast. "I tried to stop the guy but he knocked me clear across the room. Then before I could do anything he went back through the window, threw Denzel in a car, jumped in the passenger seat and sped off!"
Cloud just stared down, wide-eyed. Zack turned and flopped into a chair. "They've found me," he muttered, hanging his head. "Damn it."
"What do you mean?" said Tifa.
Zack put his hand to his forehead and rubbed his temples. "Shinra, the Turks, punks they hired off the street—somebody," he said. "You were right Cloud, I am a marked man. Aeris and Denzel are my family now, and somebody knows it. They're going to use them as bait. That's the only explanation I can think of as to why they would both disappear at the same time. Maybe I should have laid low a little longer. I knew it was just a matter of time before I'd be discovered…I guess I just hoped it wouldn't come so soon. And who knows what they'll do to them now." He drew a deep shuddering breath, shaking his head and grimacing.
Tifa walked over and put a hand on Zack's shoulder sympathetically. "We're going to get them back," she said to him. He looked up at her almost gratefully.
"I hope so," he said with a sigh. "But where do we start?" Suddenly as if on cue, the phone rang. Zack bolted for it; he had a feeling the caller wouldn't be looking for the Strife Delivery Service. He lunged for the phone and picked it up. "Hello?" he said fiercely.
"Good morning, Lieutenant," said a deep voice on the other end. "I believe I have a couple of packages you might like to pick up."
"Who is this?" Zack demanded.
"There's a little warehouse in Sector 6. Be there in half an hour or we'll have to destroy the packages. Top-secret stuff, you know. And you'd better come alone, or else the girl is dead before you can say 'traitor'. Are we clear?"
"You put one hand on her and I swear—!" Zack shouted into the phone.
"Tick-tock," the man said simply.
"Hey! You—" but the man had hung up. "Damn it!" cried Zack, slamming the phone back on its hook.
"What did he say?" asked Tifa.
Zack told them the conversation. "They don't want money, they just want me to turn myself in," he finished. "They're probably going to kill Denzel and Aeris either way." A look of anger and helplessness crossed his face. Marlene looked up at Tifa, a tear trickling down her cheek.
"Well we're sure as hell not going down without a fight," said Cloud.
"Of course not," said Zack. "I'll go; it's the only way."
"By yourself?" said Tifa.
"What choice do I have?" Zack replied with a shrug. "Though maybe you guys could tell me where this warehouse is—you know this town better than I do."
"You might need backup—we're still not sure how many guys they've got," she said. "Marlene, you'd better stay here, and keep out of sight."
Zack protested. "But the man said—"
"We'll keep our distance," said Cloud. "We'll come after you in a few minutes, then hang back until you get inside the warehouse, and we'll go from there. We'll get them out—and you too," he finished, almost trying to convince himself as much as Zack that it would work.
Zack shook his head. "I just hope you're right," he said.
* * *
Zack reached the warehouse with plenty of time to spare. The door was locked so he banged on it. "Open up! I'm the one you want!" he shouted. There was no answer. "Let them go! This has nothing to do with them, damn it!" More banging, still nothing. Finally he gave up and broke down the door. He found Aeris and Denzel tied up in chairs, back-to-back, all alone.
"Dad!" exclaimed Denzel, as he now called Zack.
"Aeris! Denzel!" cried Zack, rushing towards them. The kidnappers had obviously hurt them badly, perhaps demanding to know Zack's whereabouts. "What happened? Who's done this to you?"
"Zack, it's too late, don't come any closer!" said Aeris.
"There's only thirty seconds…" Aeris's eyes wandered downward to where the chairs met. Zack gasped—there was a time bomb tied to them. It hadn't been set to go off anywhere near half an hour after he had received the phone call; the kidnappers had never had any intention of waiting for Zack at that warehouse. "You have to run, Zack!"
"No, I'm not leaving you!" Twenty seconds. "Hold still." He drew his sword and began to hack at the ropes and the legs of the chairs. Twelve seconds. Finally he freed them and the bomb. Five seconds. "Get down!" he shouted. Aeris and Denzel dove to the floor. He grabbed the bomb and hurled it towards the empty doorframe, but it exploded before it got there. Aeris let out a scream and Zack threw himself over her and Denzel as the building rapidly crashed down around them.
As the debris settled Cloud and Tifa bolted towards what was left of the warehouse. They had backed up Zack as planned, but everything had happened too fast for them to do anything. "Zack! Aeris! Denzel!" they called out desperately. They started shoving things aside. Cloud pulled a crate off of Zack, who slowly started to pull himself up out of the rubble.
"Ugh…" he groaned, stretching his back and getting up on his knees. He rubbed his head, eyes shut. "Everybody alive?"
"Yo," said Aeris groggily, opening her eyes and lifting her head slightly. Tifa pulled away a board to reveal Denzel. Zack looked down at him and shook his shoulder. "Denz! Hey Denz, you okay buddy?" he asked, with the genuine concern for his little comrade that Cloud remembered so well.
"Hm?" Denzel opened his eyes too, to the relief of all. "Oh…yeah. I knew you'd come…," he said, looking up at Zack as he sat up.
The ex-SOLDIER was touched. He grinned and shook his head. "Heh. Brave kid!" he said, ruffling Denzel's hair. Aeris slowly got up on her knees as well.
"Sorry we couldn't be of much help," said Cloud.
"Hey, there really wasn't much you could have done," said Zack. "There was nobody there for you to fight. They probably knew I'd come as soon as possible, so they just rigged a bomb to take out all three of us in one shot and bailed—they didn't wait around."
"Still, something seems fishy," said Cloud.
"Whatever you say, Detective Delivery Boy," Zack replied. "Meanwhile," he said, putting his arms over Aeris's and Denzel's shoulders, "what say we deliver these nice people home?"
* * *
"I think after all this I could use a drink," said Zack as the bedraggled group neared the bar.
"At 10:30 in the morning?" said Tifa.
"Whatever." Zack opened the door to the bar but was quickly met with a blade pointed at his throat.
"Welcome home," said the man wielding it.
"Who the hell are y—aah!" Two more men jumped Zack from out of nowhere, ambush style. They knocked off his sword and grabbed him. The others ran in to help.
"No!" cried Aeris, jumping up and hanging on one of the men's arms. He threw her off of him with such force that she flew over the bar, crashed into the back wall lined with glass bottles and fell behind it.
"Aeris!" Cloud cried, running towards the bar. The man with the sword took a swing at him before he could get to her, and they started dueling. Meanwhile the two other men had wrestled Zack to the other side of the room and handcuffed his hands to the leg of a table up against the wall. They started pummeling him mercilessly.
"Denzel, run!" shouted Zack between punches.
The boy started to take off but one of the men broke away from Zack, yelling, "Where you going you little brat?" He whipped out a gun and fired a couple of shots at Denzel, missing. Tifa leapt at the man and kicked the gun out of this hand, sending it flying through the air, skittering across the bar and falling behind it.
"Denzel, go find Marlene!" called Tifa as she and the man began fighting. The boy ran from the room.
The man still standing with Zack grabbed him by the collar.
"Exactly how long did you think you could hide, Lieutenant Fair?"
"Don't you dare call me that," Zack said stonily. "I'm not a SOLDIER anymore."
"Well you're right on that one. You are nothing but a worthless traitor, a disgrace to Shinra."
"Screw Shinra!" screamed Zack. The man gave him a swift smack in the face, but he went on. "Killing hundreds of people whenever you need to cover up a mistake, that's not a disgrace? Ruining people's lives for the sake of sick experiments, that's not a disgrace? Shinra never did a thing that wasn't for their own personal gain!"
"So you wanted to take them on all by yourself?"
"I wanted a normal life!" Another punch.
"You fool. What is 'normal' these days anyway?"
"Cut the crap. Did Shinra send you?"
The man shook his head. "Shinra knows nothing. You're still a corpse to them. I'm here because of my brother. He was one of the men who killed you the first time. He was eventually killed in battle himself. When you were in a coma at the hospital I was the assistant to the head doctor there. All those years I thought you looked familiar but I could never place you. After the fire I came here and worked at the local clinic. I heard some things, and finally put the pieces together. I was going to report you," the man said, "but then I thought it would be more satisfying to finish my brother's job—" he drew a gun and pointed it straight at Zack "—face to face."
Zack's eyes widened, then he glanced down towards his cuffed hands. He sighed. He got an all-too-familiar sinking feeling, the feeling that there was nothing left that he could do except keep his cool. He closed his eyes and set his jaw firm. He kept his head up and braced himself as he felt the cold metal circle of the gun barrel pressing against his forehead. He heard the click of the gun being cocked. The man's finger slipped in beside the trigger.
"Goodbye, Zack Fair." A shot was fired. Cloud and Tifa, just finishing off their opponents, whirled around in horror, fully expecting to look up and see their friend dead as a doornail with a hole in his head. Denzel and Marlene ran into the room, thinking the same. But this was not the case. Instead the man with the gun was falling backwards, his gun going off harmlessly into the ceiling. No one was stunned by this more than Zack, as he opened eyes that he never thought he would again, watching in amazement as his would-be assassin fell dead to the floor. Everyone stared down at the man. Then Zack looked up.
"Aeris!" he cried in shock. For who did he see on the other side of the room but his bride, perched on top of the bar on her knees, staring straight ahead and gripping a gun with both hands. She was breathing heavily; her dress was torn and bloodied, her hands were shaking, and her face was very pale. Everybody was stunned. Cloud came over to Zack with his sword and hacked him free of his chains. Tifa went to Aeris and took her arm gently.
"You can put down the gun, Aeris." The dazed girl let go, the gun slipping from her hands and hitting the floor. Tifa kicked it away. Aeris swung her legs over the side of the bar, sliding off and landing on her feet.
"I just killed somebody," she said, staring almost in disbelief. Zack stepped over the body and moved towards her. "I never thought I'd ever kill somebody. But I—I couldn't—" she shook her head and oozed into Zack's arms. "I couldn't let them…" she pressed the side of her head against his chest, listening to a heart that had almost been stopped a second time right before her eyes. She was gasping for breath as quiet tears poured down her cheeks. She closed her eyes. "I just couldn't let them take you away from me again," she finished softly.
Zack held her tight. "You did the right thing," he assured her.
"I was just…so scared today."
"I know," he said soothingly, dusting the bits of broken glass from her hair. "It's all right now. Everything's all right."
"Wow…" said Cloud, looking around and rubbing the back of his neck.
"That was a very brave thing you did, Aeris," said Tifa, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"I'll say," said Zack with a smile, pulling away slightly and tilting Aeris's chin up to look her in the eye. He cupped her cheek in his hand and wiped away a tear. "Thanks," he said. She smiled back up at him shyly. Then he looked away and lightened his tone slightly. "Man, what a crazy day," he marveled, shaking his head. "And I had something I was planning on going to today, too." Cloud rolled his eyes and Tifa grinned, realizing that Zack was teasing. "Now what was it?" He looked around, eyes raised to the ceiling, rubbing his chin and pretending as if he was trying to think. Then he snapped his fingers. "Oh yeah! I was gonna go to a wedding today!" Aeris giggled. Zack tilted his head and gave her his best puppy-eyed smile. "Want to come?" he asked her.
"Yeah…" she said, returning his gaze, unable to resist. "I do."