"Fill 'er up, Fair," a man grumbled as he sat down at the end of the bar.
"The usual, Sam?" Zack asked. The customer was a regular at Seventh Heaven on Friday nights.
"Nah, gimme a scotch this time. I gotta get real drunk tonight."
The barkeeper raised an eyebrow as he got out a glass. "How come?"
"It's my wife Sarah."
"She leaving you?"
"Threatenin' to," Sam muttered as Zack poured. "She thinks I've got some kind of drinking problem. Says if I come home one more time with this stuff on my breath she's gonna get out and take Lisa with her. Probably gonna go back to being Sarah Briggs instead of Mrs. Connors and have nothing to do with me."
"What the hell are you doing here, then?" Zack said, clamping his hand over the top of the glass.
"What happened to 'the customer's always right?'" Sam gestured for him to pass the scotch. Zack sighed and did so, reluctantly. "She waved a knife at me and told me to stay away from her daughter, so that's what I'm doin'—staying away." Zack shook his head as the man took a sip. "I think she's afraid I'm gonna become a mean ol' drunk like her father was," Sam continued. "She hates him—they ain't spoken in years."
"Y'know, you have been coming in here a lot more lately," said Zack.
"Whose side are you on?"
"Nobody's. I'm just noticing." Zack put his elbows on the bar and looked at Sam quizzically. "What's eating you, man?"
Sam sighed, hanging his head and closing his eyes for a moment. "Two months ago…my brother-in-law's wife was killed in a car crash," he said. "She was borrowing my car and the brakes gave out. It was my own damn fault. My wife tried to tell me otherwise, great woman that she is. But I knew I should have gotten those things checked earlier—I just hadn't gotten around to it. Her brother certainly blamed me—he never did like me much."
"Wow…sorry about that, man," said Zack.
"Thanks. Another round, Fair?"
"You got it." Zack refilled the glass.
* * *
"Last round, folks," called Tifa a couple of hours later, somewhat tired. "'You don't have to go home, but ya can't stay here'." It was now nearing closing time, and Sam had gotten just as drunk as he had hoped. Zack walked back over to his end of the bar.
"Come on pal, time to go," he said, reaching over the bar and pulling on the man's arm as the crowd trickled out.
"C'mon Fair, just one more?"
"Nope, you've had enough." Zack could smell Sam's scotch-laced breath as he pulled him up. "More than enough, actually," he muttered.
Suddenly two cops burst through the door. Cloud was standing nearby and stepped in front of them before they could get very far. "Hey, hey, what's this about?" he demanded.
"Strife, you got a guy here name of Sam Connors? We need to talk to him."
"Yo!" called the man at the bar, turning around to face them before Cloud could answer. "I'm Connors. What do ya want?" Zack looked up confusedly. The cops pushed their way past the few remaining patrons and made their way towards the bar.
"I'm afraid you're going to have to come with us, sir," said one.
"Huh? What for? I didn't do nothin'."
"Your wife says otherwise, sir," said the other. "Your daughter's just been kidnapped and she thinks you could be behind it."
"What?!? Lisa k-kidnapped?" Sam sputtered in shock. "And they think I…? Hell, I was here all night!"
"I can vouch for that, sir," Zack said quickly. "He came in about three hours ago."
"Were you watching him the whole time?" asked the first cop. Zack looked at him like he had three heads.
"No, I work here. We've got all kinds of customers coming in and—"
"So there was plenty of time for him to go and orchestrate a kidnapping…"
"That's a load of crap!" Zack shouted.
"You're coming with us, sir," the second cop said to Sam. The customer grew furious and desperate as they pulled him away from his stool.
Sam turned to face Zack and slammed his hand down on the bar, knocking over and breaking his glass as he went. "Fair! You're the only one I can trust," he blurted out. "You find my daughter! Promise me you will."
Zack watched dumbfounded as they cuffed Sam's hands behind his back and started to drag him away. "I-I'll try," he said, shaking his head.
"Promise me!" cried Sam. The cops pulled him across the room and out the door and it slammed shut after them. Zack stood still and quietly looked down at the broken drinking glass lying on the bar.
* * *
Zack awoke in the middle of the night to a shrill sound not far from his ear. Aeris was sitting bolt upright and screaming at the top of her lungs. He grabbed his wife by both shoulders.
"Whoa, whoa, Aeris, Aeris! Wake up!" She gasped, her eyes flying open. She was quite pale, shaking and sweating as she tried to catch her breath. Zack looked at her. "You had that dream again, didn't you?" he said. She nodded, eyes squeezed shut. Suddenly the others came into the room; they had heard the screaming too.
"Mom…?" Denzel said
"Aeris…? Zack? You guys okay in here?" asked Cloud.
"Just some nightmares, guys," said Zack, rubbing Aeris's upper arm, still trying to soothe her. "Nothing to worry about."
"Well…let us know if you need anything," said Tifa awkwardly as the somewhat perplexed group left the room.
"Okay, " Zack said patiently, after they had gone. "Tell me everything."
"I guess it was the same dream, only worse this time. It wasn't just you dead—I was there. You practically fell on top of me. I was screaming at Cloud, wanting to know why he didn't do anything." Zack put an arm over Aeris's shoulders and pulled her in closer. "Then there was some other guy with this giant meat cleaver—the size of a sword. He and Cloud started fighting for some reason…and he won."
"Wait, they killed Cloud too?" said Zack. Aeris did not answer him directly.
"Then the next thing I know I'm swimming in this sea of blood…I couldn't see anything else," Aeris put her face in her hands and shook her head. "Just…blood…everywhere. Then I saw your body again and…ugh." Zack wrapped his arms around her, letting out a sigh as he raised his eyes to the ceiling. He held her tight as she broke into quiet sobs on his shoulder.
"It was just a dream, babe," he said, though he doubted it would help. "I'm here, no one's dead—you don't have to swim anywhere," he said, finishing with a smirk. "It's okay."
"No Zack, it is not okay." Aeris replied coldly, backing away from him slightly.
"What makes you say that?"
"Don't you remember? This is the third time in two weeks. I've had it more often lately. And each time the dream gets scarier."
"I'm sure it's just a coincidence," Zack said, lying back against his pillow with his hands behind his head and starting to close his eyes. He wanted to go back to sleep.
"Well, see, the thing is…oh forget it, it's not worth bringing up," said Aeris.
"What? Tell me," said Zack, opening his eyes again with curiosity.
"Well, I dreamt that you died…before you died. Three times."
"Oh," he replied, his face changing. "Well that's…sufficiently creepy."
"Mm-hm." Aeris slumped back against her pillow with a sigh. Then she turned and slid her hand up beneath Zack's shirt onto his bare chest, feeling his heartbeat.
"What're you doin'?" Zack asked her, sleepily but playfully.
"Just making sure everything's still there." Aeris was smiling but Zack could tell she was only half-joking.
"Well don't you worry about me…" he said. "I'm not a fightin' man anymore." She looked up at him sheepishly. "Now what say we try and get some sleep?"
"Okay…" Aeris replied softly, still feeling a bit shaken-up but giving in to her sleepiness. She removed her hand and settled in. Zack flopped an arm over her shoulders as she rested against his chest, her head slowly rising and falling with each precious breath.
* * *
"Okay Tifa, what do we got today?" asked Cloud, rubbing his eye as they all gathered around the bar the next morning.
Tifa picked up the notepad where she usually wrote down the delivery orders. "Just one," she said. "Briggs the butcher has some new cleavers he'd like us to pick up for him."
'Briggs'... Zack thought. Didn't I hear that name recently? And, 'cleavers'…?
"Y'know what, how 'bout I take this one, Spikey," he said. Aeris looked at him.
"Zack, I can —" Cloud began.
"Nah, you deserve a break. Besides," Zack added, giving Cloud a friendly punch in the shoulder, "you've got more tips than me this week."
"Okay, if you're sure," his friend said with a shrug.
"Really Cloud," said Zack, reading Aeris's face perfectly. "I'll be fine."
* * *
Zack certainly had a lot more on his mind on his way to the butcher's place than just delivering a package. He didn't want to think about what might have happened if Briggs was in fact Sam Connors's bitter brother-in-law. A butcher, that's just great. Why did they haul Sam off anyway? he wondered. It's not like they had any evidence. Then again Cloud did say it's basically anarchy around here. The wife probably just said the first thing that came to her mind. Zack pulled up in front of the address. Like many others in Midgar, the butcher lived where he worked—in a tumbled-down building on the opposite side of town with some dead bushes in front of it. "Nice place," he muttered to himself sarcastically as he stood there with package in hand. He sighed and entered the butcher shop. A bell jingled as he opened the door.
"Be there in a few minutes," called a man's voice from upstairs. Zack put the package down on the counter, glanced up towards the stairs and didn't say a word. He knew his hunch sounded crazy, but if he had any chance of following up on it he knew he had to act fast. He scanned the room and saw a big pair of metal double-doors with a ring of two or three keys hanging on the wall nearby: the meat locker.
"Bingo," Zack whispered. He grabbed the keys, fumbled with them, and was soon through the doors. He entered the frigid room and found hanging animal carcasses and lots of large coolers stacked against the wall—nothing out of the ordinary for a butcher shop. He started rapidly checking the coolers, not even entirely sure what he was looking for. Perhaps he didn't want to know. Still, after a few minutes all he had found was somebody's future ham sandwiches and steak dinners. He turned to go, starting to feel like an idiot. He would just gather his tip and try to get out without the butcher realizing that he had been snooping. Then he suddenly spotted something on the floor in his path; it was a small green hair ribbon. He picked it up and stared at it in his hand, then turned and flung open the nearest cooler. Inside was a curled-up little girl, unconscious and half-frozen, but fully intact. It had to be her. "Lisa!" Zack hissed, shaking her shoulder. "Lisa, wake up!" Her hands were tied and a gag was in her mouth. Her eyes opened and she saw a stranger standing over her, a muscular, dark-haired stranger like the two that had been hired to kidnap her the night before. Zack reached down and pulled her gag out.
"Who are you?" the girl asked, looking up at him fearfully. Zack could hear the steps creak and knew there was no time for names.
"I'm here to help you. We're going to get you out of here, okay?" he replied quietly. "Here, you look cold." He took his shirt off and pulled it down over Lisa's head. Indeed her skin was chalk-white and she was wearing only a thin nightgown. He got the ropes off her hands and lifted her out of the cooler. There was no other exit so he turned back towards the door, but it was too late—the butcher burst in, filling the doorframe. He was a large, brawny man, almost twice Zack's size. His face was red with rage.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he shouted at Zack.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Zack spat back.
"This is none of your business! Drop the girl!"
"Yeah right!" Zack pushed his way past him and out of the cold meat locker with Lisa in his arms. Suddenly Briggs whipped out a handgun and aimed it at Zack, slowly forcing him backwards up the stairs.
He backed him all the way to the second floor and into a bedroom. "If I can't have my girl that bum can't have his!"
"Are you insane?"
"I said drop her!"
"Tell me," said Zack, his anger mounting, "were you going to let her freeze to death or just slice 'n' dice?" Briggs tried to shoot him but he was shaking so much with anger that he only grazed his ear. With no more bullets he threw the gun at Zack's head. Zack managed to duck but Briggs was able to lunge forward, and tear the girl from his arms with one hand. She let out a cry as she was knocked to the floor.
"Get out of my house!"
"Like hell I will!"
"I said GET OUT!" The man suddenly grabbed him with both hands and hurled him through the glass of the nearest window.
"AUGH!" Zack's bare back took the brunt of the impact as he crashed through. He plummeted to the ground and landed in the dead bushes, and the girl soon came flying out after, landing practically on top of him.
"Oh take her for all I care!" they heard the butcher shout after he threw her out. "I hope you drive off a cliff!"
Somehow the both of them scrambled out of the bushes basically in one piece. "This way!" Zack urged, grabbing Lisa's hand and making a beeline for the bike. He picked her up and sat her in front of him. He put one hand on the girl's back to steady her. "Hang on!" Lisa held onto the bike for dear life as Zack, hunched over in pain, grabbed onto of the handlebars and headed for home as fast as he could.
* * *
"Hi guys," called Aeris as she came through the bar door with her empty flower wagon. She stowed it in its usual place. Cloud, Tifa, Denzel and Marlene were just sitting around as there was very little work to be done. They greeted Aeris but could see that her look of cheerfulness was a thin one.
"You seem kinda nervous, Mom," said Denzel.
"What makes you say that?" Aeris replied, talking a little too fast.
"Maybe the fact that you're white as a sheet?" said Tifa, raising an eyebrow.
"Or the fact that you finished your daily route through town in about an hour and have petals all over you?" Cloud added. Before Aeris could say anything they heard a motorcycle pull up alongside the building.
"Sounds like Dad's home too," said Denzel, perking up.
"Well go get him, tiger," Tifa said playfully. The boy hopped off his barstool and headed outside. A relieved and slightly embarrassed look crossed Aeris's face.
"There, see?" said Cloud. "Nothing to worry abo—"
"Dad!" they heard Denzel cry out, not in a good way. Cloud, Tifa and Marlene looked up at Aeris but she had already flown out the door faster than a bumblebee on crack. Outside, Zack and Lisa had tumbled off the bike to the ground on either side after stopping, out of sheer exhaustion. He was lying flat on his stomach, his back covered in blood and bits of glass. Naturally the sight struck fear into Aeris's heart. She rushed to his side, where Denzel was already standing. She knelt down, one hand on the boy's shoulder and the other touching the side of Zack's face. He saw her and lifted his head.
"Hi, I'm home," he said with a facetious smirk.
"Zack," said Aeris, shaking her head, "what happened?"
He rubbed his forehead and grimaced. "I lost a fight with a window," he replied as the other three came up behind Aeris. "And a bush…and a psycho butcher…not necessarily in that order…" She just stared at him. "It's really not as bad as it lo—OW! Ow…ow…" He felt the shards poking his back as he tried to push himself up; his elbows buckled and he slumped back down. Then he seemed to suddenly remember something. "Hey, kid," he called, "you okay?"
"Yes," said Lisa, crawling around from the other side of the bike. None of the others had noticed her yet. "Thank you…for saving me," she added, looking at him with large, still somewhat frightened eyes.
"And who are you?" Tifa asked her gently.
"She's Sam Connors's daughter," Zack explained.
"Connors? The one they arrested last night for kidnapping?" Cloud asked.
"What?" said Lisa.
"Nice going, Cloud," said Tifa.
"Don't worry, we can prove him innocent real easily now," said Zack with a grunt, this time sitting up successfully. "I'm just full of evidence." Aeris smacked her forehead.
"You're crazy," she said, starting to brush the remaining glass from his bare back.
"I guess you have to be to survive around here sometimes. Anyway," he said, "I thought we could take a breather here before I take her home."
"You aren't taking her anywhere," Tifa scoffed. "I'd say you've done enough."
"I'll take her, Zack. I know where Connors lives," said Cloud as Lisa used the large bike to pull herself to her feet.
"Thanks Spikey," said Zack.
"First you guys need that breather," said Aeris, looking from Zack to Lisa. She put her hand on the little girl's shoulder. "I bet you're starving." Lisa nodded. "You could probably use some warmer clothes, too."
"I have some stuff you could use," Marlene piped up.
"That's nice of you Marlene," said Tifa. "Come on, girls," she said, taking Lisa's hand and leading the two of them back into the bar.
Aeris took Zack's arm and they slowly got to their feet. "Welcome home," she said. He smirked weakly as they all headed in.
* * *
The next day, when Zack was patched up and Cloud had taken Lisa home, the bar's residents were gathered around talking again.
"Ugh, what a day yesterday…" Zack said, running his hands through his hair, his elbows on the bar.
"You said it," muttered Aeris, who was sitting beside him. "I have to admit, I was worried about you."
"Ha! Now that's an understatement," said Tifa from behind the bar.
"She was a wreck," said Cloud.
"I was not!"
"Don't lie," said Tifa, "you got your day's flower-selling done in record time so that you could come back here and wait for Zack."
"You have no idea how many flowers I gave away for free yesterday," Aeris grumbled. Zack laughed.
"Well I think we can give you a free pass this time." He paused and then put his arm around her shoulders. "Aw, did you really think something was going to happen to me?"
"Something did happen!" she protested.
"Were you really afraid I wasn't coming home?" he asked, tilting his head and giving her puppy eyes. She looked down and away, fiddling with her braid, not answering.
"Say," said Cloud, "what was that dream about other night, anyway?"
Zack and Aeris looked at one another. Then she looked warily at the children; she didn't want to scare anyone.
"You can tell us," said Marlene.
Aeris sighed, and told them everything.
"You poor thing," muttered Tifa, arms folded.
"A meat cleaver, huh?" Cloud said. He turned to Zack. "Is that why you didn't want me making that delivery?"
"Yeah," said Zack casually. "Plus I had a hunch about the girl." He had explained Sam Connors's situation to them earlier. "I figured you guys would think I was crazy if I told you about it—wanted to follow up on it myself."
"Man oh man…you just keep saving my life," said Cloud, looking down and shaking his head.
"Cloud," said Zack, rolling his eyes. "What have I told you about feeling guilty?"
"Yes. Now be a good little delivery boy and shut up." Zack patted the blond spikes as Tifa snorted in laughter. Suddenly a man burst through the door.
"Fair!" it was Sam Connors, joy emanating from his face. "You crazy nut! Lisa told me everything as soon as I got outta the slammer! You did it!"
"You made me promise, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but I never thought you'd really come through like you did," said Sam, sitting down at the bar. "You risked your life doin' a favor for some drunk!"
"Meh, I guess. Girl doing better?" Zack asked out of curiosity.
"Why don't you ask her yourself?" said Sam. Lisa walked through the door, holding the hand of a woman who was presumably her mother. "Sarah, this here's that fella," he said excitedly to his wife.
"We just wanted to come by and thank you again," the woman said.
"It was mostly Lisa's idea," continued Sam. "But man, I could just kiss you right now."
"Uh, please don't," said Zack. "Last I checked we were both married."
"Heh, yeah, and thanks to you it's gonna stay that way!" Sam replied, putting an arm around his wife's shoulder. "Sarah and I had a long talk last night and I promised to cut down on the booze a bit. She's been teaching me how to let things go and not blame myself so much."
"I'd like to know her secrets," grumbled Tifa from further down the bar.
"Huh?" said Cloud, who was standing near her.
Fortunately the others were oblivious. "So these are your Friday night friends, hm?" said Sarah to her husband.
"Yeah I guess you could say that," Sam replied. "I know 'em real well. That's Strife down there and that's Miss Lockhart — she runs the place. The girl's Marlene and this here's Aeris. She's Fair's wife, and this is their adopted kid Denzel."
Sarah was a little surprised at how well her husband knew them all, but she greeted them politely. "You have a nice family," she said to Zack.
"Thanks, I like it," he joked. He gave Aeris a peck on the cheek.
"Yeah, they just got hitched just a couple months ago," said Sam.
"How nice," his wife replied.
"Yeah, enjoy it man!" Sam gave Zack a friendly slap on the back, which had unfortunately had multiple glass shards stuck in it the day before.
"OW!" Zack looked at him almost in disbelief. "You did not just do that," he said, rubbing the sore spot.
"Anyway, I have to apologize for my brother," Sarah said. "He pretty much went insane after his wife died."
"That much I gathered," said Zack dryly, rubbing his forehead. "I can't believe I left that man a box of sharp objects."
"I just can't believe he'd do a thing like this," she said sadly, her eyes cast downward. "But I guess he's really gone off the edge." She stroked the hair of Lisa, who was now sitting on Sam's lap. "As for you, you've saved my daughter and maybe my marriage. You sure you don't have some kind of superpowers, Mr. Fair?" she said jokingly, folding her arms.
"Heh. I just pour drinks and deliver packages, ma'am," he said simply. "And please, call me Zack."
"Still," Lisa piped up, looking at her parents, "he's a hero." Zack's eyes lit up at the word. He exchanged glances with Cloud. They both knew there was once a time when that was all Zack had ever wanted to be.
"Guess you don't have to be some kind of fightin' man to be a hero," said Sam.
The handsome ex-SOLDIER 1st Class looked at Cloud again, then at Aeris, and could hardly keep from bursting out laughing at the irony. Instead he bit his tongue and smiled down modestly. "Yeah," he replied. "Guess you don't."