"What the hell was that for?" the startled Shinra cadet asked his partner, looking at the small unconscious boy on the ground in front of them. "We were supposed to knock 'em out with the drugs, not just deck 'em from behind like that."
"And what were you planning on doing, asking them to stand still?" the other man said sarcastically. "Those scientists are imbeciles. They don't know kids—they only know test tubes. I think you've gone soft, Jonas. You're not gonna get into SOLDIER if you're soft."
"I'm not soft," the younger man retorted, "I just—"
"Sh, here comes the other one," his partner broke him off. They crouched down behind some large empty barrels at the back of the alley near Seventh Heaven where they stood, as an unsuspecting little girl came around the corner.
"Denzel!" she gasped upon seeing the boy. She glanced around frightened as she ran over to him. She turned her back to the barrels as she came around and bent down to examine him. At that moment the young cadet suddenly reached around and stabbed a needle into her arm. She let out a little cry, more out of surprise than pain, and within moments she had passed out as well.
"There, you did it your way, you happy now?" his partner grumbled. "C'mon, let's get 'em in the truck." At that moment Zack pulled up in front of the bar on his motorcyle, back from his morning deliveries. He looked up in alarm to see two men grabbing Marlene and Denzel and dumping them in the bed of a pickup truck with a not-so-subtle Shinra logo pasted on the back and sides.
"Hey!" he shouted "Where you think you're goin'?" The older man quickly got into the driver's seat while the cadet looked back nervously, realizing that they had been spotted.
"Just get in!" the driver ordered. They sped off and Zack went after them as fast as he could, laying rubber as the bike and the truck screeched away from the bar.
"He's gaining on us," Jonas said a few moments later, looking in the rearview mirror.
"Then lose him, you idiot! What do you think that rifle is for?" cried the driver. The cadet ducked out the window, raised his gun and started shooting at the man following them. Zack whipped out his sword and skillfully dodged the bullets as he tried to keep up his pace, weaving left and right down the road as they neared an onramp.
"This guy's good," the cadet marveled, his red curls poking out from beneath his helmet and getting in his eyes as he continued to fire. "You'd think he was in SOLDIER himself!"
"Aim for his tires, dammit!" Jonas did so and finally hit the front wheel.
"Shit!" Zack grumbled as he started to lose control of the bike. Suddenly another bullet pierced his back tire, and another nicked his forehead, throwing him completely off-balance. He spun off the road and careened into a ditch just short of the highway. He looked up in time to see the truck reach the highway, the driver flooring it towards their destination. Zack hung his head in frustration. He shoved the bike out of the way and got up slowly, continuing to curse loudly to himself. Fortunately within a few moments Cloud showed up, on his way home from another direction.
"Zack?" he said, stopping in surprise at the sight of his friend on the side of the road. "What the hell happened to you?"
"Bastards got away," Zack muttered, looking off into the distance.
"Full sentences, Zack," Cloud said calmly. Zack told him what had happened. Cloud sighed in frustration. "What would they want with them?" he wondered, shaking his head.
"Only one way to find out," Zack said, picking up his sword, climbing out of the ditch and brushing himself off.
"On that?" Cloud said, jerking his head towards the slightly mangled bike.
"You're right, she's toast." Zack kicked it. "That little punk made Swiss cheese out of my wheels. This thing's not goin' anywhere."
"Toast and cheese, are you hungry or something?"
"What about Fenrir?"
"No, I've barely got enough juice to get home," Cloud replied, eyeing the needle hovering dangerously close to the 'E' on his fuel indicator. "Hop on. When we get back I'll just pay somebody to retrieve and fix yours." Zack looked back in the direction of where the Shinra truck had gone, his teeth clenched. "We'll get them back," Cloud added, reading his friend's face. Zack reluctantly climbed on the bike behind Cloud and they quickly headed back to Seventh Heaven.
"I let them get away—I'll be the one to go after them," Zack said after he and Cloud had filled the women in on the situation.
"Not by yourself you won't," said Tifa. "You're dead to Shinra, remember? If you went back there and were recognized they'd kill you before you knew what hit you."
"Besides, we're not completely sure what we're up against," Cloud added before Zack could protest. "Maybe we should all go in case we have to fight them."
"You mean do it by committee?" Zack said. "Wouldn't sending one person be more inconspicuous?" Before anyone could answer, the door to the bar swung open. A young man wearing a helmet entered, looking tired. He removed the helmet, revealing a mop of sweaty, curly red hair.
"Are you open, ma'am?" he asked Tifa. Everyone turned to look at him. His collar hid the lower half of his face, but he was fooling no one, for his clothing was unmistakable; it was the uniform of a Shinra cadet. Upon seeing Zack's face his eyes grew to the size of saucers and he took a few steps backwards towards the door, dropping the helmet and suddenly wanting to run, or perhaps sink through the floor, whichever came first. But before the would-be customer could go any further, Zack crossed the room with lightning speed and practically tackled him, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and pinning him against the wall.
"Where'd they take the kids?" he demanded as the others came over. Zack was never one to beat around the bush.
"W-what kids?" the cadet stammered stupidly.
Zack turned and grabbed him in a chokehold. "You know full well, I saw you in that truck! Where are they?" No reply. Cloud gave the guy a hard punch in the stomach and Zack tightened his grip until his hostage could hardly breathe.
"Okay," he squeaked, "the Shinra labs!" Zack let go and dropped him to the floor.
"The Shinra WHAT?" Cloud said in alarm.
"They still run those experiments?" Aeris exclaimed.
"What were they going to do to them?" Zack asked.
"I don't know what you're talking abo—ack!" Zack drew his sword again and pressed it against the young man's throat.
"WHAT WERE THEY GOING TO DO?"
The redhead's face changed from defiance to genuine terror. "I-I can't!" he blurted out. "You don't know what Shinra does to traitors!" Zack and Cloud looked at each other. Any other day, they might have laughed out loud at the irony of it all.
"You have no idea what I know," Zack said coldly. But he withdrew the blade; it was becoming increasingly clear that behind this façade of fierce loyalty was just a scared little cadet with good intentions.
"You mean you were…?"
"Get up," Zack interrupted him. "What's your name?"
"Cadet Jonas Cyprus sir," the young man replied, standing up straight. "Though I doubt that title's accurate anymore. Me and the other guy got into a fight on the way back and he threw me out of the truck, saying he no longer had any use for me."
"Jonas, you might not realize it now but that may have been the best thing that ever happened to you," Zack said calmly, sheathing the sword and folding his arms. "You don't want to be associated with Shinra."
"But what about restoring order to the planet?" the confused cadet said, obviously regurgitating some sort of brainwashing sales pitch he had received.
"Don't you get it? They're not trying to heal the world—they're trying to take it over. People like you are starving for heroics but all they feed you is lies." Jonas could see the possibility that this man might be speaking from experience. "Tell you what," said Zack. "Join us and we'll have your back. But if you don't cooperate, well quite frankly we won't have any use for you either." Jonas looked up at him and Cloud and gulped, eyeing their rather large weapons.
"Okay, I can get you guys in," he said uneasily. "I'm sure you're in a hurry so I can brief you on the way. All I was supposed to do was help pick up the two packages and give 'em something to knock 'em out. It was nothing personal, I swear!"
"Sure it wasn't," muttered Cloud.
" 'Packages'? Marlene and Denzel are packages now?" said Zack, raising an eyebrow. "We run a delivery service pal, I know a friggin' package when I see one, and they ain't it."
"They didn't tell us names! We only saw pictures!" Jonas protested.
"Figures. You guys are probably too dumb to read. Get your ass outside," said Zack, giving him a small shove forward. Everyone exited the bar. Zack and Cloud mounted their bikes; Aeris and Tifa climbed on behind them, out of habit.
"Uh, looks like somebody's going to have to stay behind if this guy is coming," said Cloud, sizing up their limited transportation. They all looked at each other for a moment.
"I'll do it," Aeris volunteered somewhat reluctantly, sliding off of Zack's bike.
"Thanks babe, you're a good sport," said Zack, turning to her.
"I'll just hold down the fort till you guys get back," Aeris added as she moved back towards the building. She said it with a smile, but her eyes betrayed her as they silently implored Zack to come back with a pulse this time. He continued to watch her as she turned away and went inside. Jonas climbed onto Zack's bike in Aeris's place. Then Cloud broke the awkward silence with a rev of his engine, and they were off.
* * *
"Shinra's been rebuilding," Jonas explained as the bikes shot down the highway side by side. "Ever since Sephiroth and his remnants were eradicated, there's been nothing standing in their way. They're trying to get everything back to the way it was, including their labs. Doctor Hojo is gone, but he had an understudy named Senji. He's got all of Hojo's dark secrets."
"Great, he cloned himself," Zack muttered.
"Security's real tight," the cadet continued. "One of my jobs is to guard the labs to make sure the experiments don't get jeopardized, but half the time they don't even tell us what's going on in there."
This came as no surprise to Zack. "Why the hell did you want to be in SOLDIER anyway?" he asked Jonas.
"Well, my older brother was in SOLDIER…" Jonas began. "He died in battle two years ago. I think it was called the Battle of Yutara or something. Anyway I thought taking his place would be…sort of an honorable thing to do. And I thought I might impress my family, a little."
"I think they'll be even more impressed if you come back in one piece," Zack replied.
* * *
As they neared the building they ditched the bikes in some bushes. Fortunately dusk was approaching. "This way," whispered Jonas. "The security camera on the south side is broken." Cloud, Zack and Tifa followed Jonas, dodging strobe lights. There was a watchtower with a guard stationed in it, but he had clearly dozed off from boredom. They soon reached the tall chain-link fence that circled the facility, complete with barbed wire at the top.
"You weren't kidding about the security," said Zack.
"But you guys are in luck," Jonas replied, "the alarm system's been down for maintenance all week." Cloud drew his sword and cut through the fence, just enough for them to fit through one by one. "Now head for that grate," Jonas instructed quickly, pointing towards a vent in the ground next to the building. "It's part of a new ventilation system they installed after the failure of Project 43B a couple of years ago."
"What was Project 43B?" asked Cloud.
"No one would tell us. Shinra gets pretty tight-lipped when things go wrong."
"Yeah, we noticed," muttered Zack.
"Anyway you should be able to see right in," said Jonas. The four of them moved towards the grate as quickly as possible. They gathered closely around it and peered down into the laboratory. They saw a wall of giant mako tubes, surrounded by various other machinery and storage units. There were little tables with surgical tools and test tubes containing unknown chemicals, each standing next to what appeared to be some sort of operating table, one of which Marlene was laid out on. She was still half asleep, her face dusty and her clothes torn.
"Holy Gaia!" Cloud whispered. "Barret's gonna kill me."
"So it's about you, is it?" Tifa scolded him.
"You know that's not what I meant!" Cloud argued.
"Shut up you two. Who are the children here?" Zack said in frustration. "Does anybody see Den—shit!" Mid-sentence Zack spotted his adopted son floating up and down in one of the mako tubes, most likely unconscious. It was all too familiar. Considering the amount of poisoning that the mako had once inflicted upon Cloud, Zack could only imagine the toll it had already taken on Denzel's little body—not that he wanted to imagine it.
"Jonas, what are they doing to them?" Tifa pressed anxiously.
"They were going to inject them with Jenova cells," the young man answered. "They want to create small weapons that can get in tight places and appear inconspicuous until they are needed," he explained.
"So basically mini Sephiroths?" said Zack.
"Pretty much," Jonas replied.
Marlene was beginning to stir, which caught the attention of a tall man in a lab coat standing nearby. They could not quite see his face, but they knew it must be Senji. "A little antsy, are we?" they heard him say. "Looks like you're going to need a little more tranquilizer before we get to work, m'lady…" He walked over and looked in some cabinets. "Oh, where did I put those blasted syringes?" he muttered to himself as he left the room.
"Bastard…" Zack and Cloud both said under their breath.
"Okay, see that other grate over there?" Jonas said quickly, pointing again. "Once it's opened there should be enough space for a person to fit through. Then there's a ladder that the maintenance guys use that goes just about to the floor."
"Alright Jonas, you've been real helpful," said Zack, speaking quickly as well and keeping his voice low. "Now we need you to do what you do best—guard your post. You still have your access card, right?" The cadet nodded. "Just go in like normal. Don't let anyone into that lab. And whatever you do, don't panic or even look nervous. Nothing out of the ordinary is happening. You've never seen us and you don't know anything about this. Understand?" Zack fixed the young man with a steady, piercing gaze.
"Yes sir," replied the cadet, who by now was basically afraid of everyone involved. He was already on bad terms with Shinra, and the only way to get them off his back would have been to turn in the ex-SOLDIER and his friends right now. But he couldn't help but sympathize with their cause just a little bit, and he knew that betraying them would have equally severe consequences for him personally as betraying Shinra would; he'd seen it in Zack's eyes. Besides, if what Zack had said was true, if this was a corrupt organization with which Jonas did not want to be associated, then joining these three might be his only way out. Jonas made his decision—these people had put their trust in him, and he would not fail them.
* * *
Cloud, Tifa and Zack came crashing through the grate and landed on their feet on the floor of the lab. Suddenly two large men whirled around to face them—they hadn't realized that there were guards stationed on the inside as well. Zack and Cloud drew their swords instantly as the men drew rifles. "Nobody move!" one of them shouted. But Cloud hacked the guns out of their hands before they could get a shot off, and Tifa immediately took a step towards Marlene's table. Just then Senji reentered the room, loaded tranquilizer syringes in hand.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded of the intruders. "What are you doing in my lab?"
"Oh surely you've heard of us," said Zack. "We were Project KISS MY EX-SOLDIER ASS!" He swung his sword at Senji with all his strength as he spoke, knocking him across the room against the far wall and sending the syringes flying.
"How dare you!" Senji shouted as he got to his feet. "Peters, Davidson, get them!"
Zack made a move towards Marlene but one of the large men immediately grabbed him in a chokehold from behind and picked him up off his feet. The other tried to take a shot at Tifa but she dodged him and he sent a round of bullets cutting through a steel beam in the ceiling instead. "Heads up Spiky!" cried Zack. Cloud looked up in time to see the beam start to fall towards him. He launched himself at the operating table, snatching Marlene and tumbling off the other side just before the beam sliced the table in half, sparks flying. Cloud sprang back up, leaving the girl in a corner and running back around to the mako tubes where Denzel was still trapped inside. Zack jerked forward and threw his attacker off. The second guard fired at Cloud but Cloud dodged him as well, and the bullets collided with Denzel's tube. The glass shattered and the boy hit the floor face-first.
"Denzel!" cried Marlene, jumping up and rushing to her friend's side.
Senji grabbed one of his tranquilizer needles and ran towards them. "Little brats!" he shouted. Zack quickly stepped in front of the kids and gave Senji a hard punch to the face. The needle went flying as Senji stumbled back, and Tifa reached up and snagged it in midair. Then Cloud elbowed the guard behind him in the stomach, causing him to double over long enough for Tifa to stab the needle into his arm. He went down, Senji grabbed his gun off of him, and the fighting continued.
* * *
"I'm afraid you can't go in there, sir," Jonas was saying, as authoritatively as possible.
"And why not?" the man at the door demanded.
"A highly classified experiment is being performed. There must be no interruptions. Anything could cause contamination," the young man replied, trying to sound scientific.
"Do you even know who I am? I'm one of the in-lab security officers. You have to let me in. It's time for my shift!"
"I am under strict orders, sir. Any disturbance could put the entire thing in jeopardy. I am to let no one in."
"Who gave you those orders?" the man asked.
"That's classified too."
"'Classified' huh? I won't have a little cadet tell me what's classified and what's not!" the man shouted. "You sound like a troublemaker. No wonder you're genetically connected to Project 43B," he muttered, mostly to himself.
"Wait, what? Project 43B?"
"Tell me!" Jonas demanded.
"Just some SOLDIER who came back from battle half-dead a couple of years ago. We didn't figure he was gonna make it so we tried this new experiment that would allow a human body to release toxic chemicals into the air once the person infiltrated the enemy," the man replied casually. "Heh, let's just say the idea blew up in our faces. The whole lab filled with the chemicals, killing the sample and nearly killing Senji and I. That's why we needed the new vents."
"What battle was it?" Jonas asked, his face pale and his eyes wide as a wild thought crossed his mind.
"The Battle of Yutara, I think. So what?"
"Yutara? You mean my brother…?" Jonas trailed off, stunned. "Y-you lied to me! You told me my brother died as a hero, not as a lab rat for another one of your twisted experiments!"
"What difference does it make?" protested the man lazily.
"All the difference! You sick bastards!" screamed Jonas, his face red with rage. Clearly he had seen the light. He aimed his rifle straight at the man's head.
"Please," the man said, raising his hands slightly, "you wouldn't do this, would you?" Jonas paused; he wasn't even sure how many bullets he had left after the chase that morning. He swung his gun and struck the man upside the head, knocking him unconscious.
"Not worth my time," Jonas growled as he looked down at him. Jonas then turned and burst through the laboratory door. He found the three men caught up in a struggle, with Senji having lost the guard's gun, caught in a chokehold by Cloud while gripping Zack by the hair.
"Cyprus!" cried Senji upon seeing Jonas. "Shoot! Now!"
"Yes sir," he replied. He raised his gun and fired—right into Senji's forehead. He fell down dead, and everyone looked up at Jonas in surprise.
"Way to go, kid!" cried Zack.
"Whoa," the ex-cadet said, "I just killed my boss."
"Former boss, remember?" said Zack, walking over and putting his hand on the young man's rifle to lower it.
"Sh, listen!" said Tifa. Everybody stopped in their tracks. They could hear men shouting and the sound of running footsteps in the corridors.
"Crap, they must have heard the shots!" said Zack.
"Oh no, did I just…?"
"You did fine, Jonas," Zack snapped. "Quick, lock that door." Jonas did so. "Let's get outta here, kids out first, let's move!" The shouting and footsteps were getting closer. Jonas scooped up the barely-conscious Denzel and slung him over his shoulder while Marlene hung on to Tifa, and everyone ran for the ladder. "Go, go!" Zack cried as he ushered everyone up. Cloud came up second to last. With one hand on the rung above him, just shy of the vent, he stopped and looked back down at his friend. The Shinra troops were just about at the door. "Spiky, go!" Zack urged from mid-ladder. Cloud froze; a storm of bad memories raged in his head and he glazed over. Zack could see it plainly, and changed his tone as he looked Cloud in the eye, saying, "Just keep moving. No matter what. Understand?" Cloud looked at him once more, then turned and disappeared before he changed his mind, as behind him he heard the door of the lab break down.
* * *
The phone rang and Aeris grabbed it.
"Hi babe it's me, we're on our way ho—AH!" A gunshot-like sound rang out. Aeris awoke with a gasp. She had dozed off again, standing behind the bar with her head resting in her arms. In reality the sound had only been a car backfiring, as she glanced out the window and saw a man across the street under a lamppost, kicking his tires and cursing.
Aeris put her head in her hands. Come on, she thought to herself, he's a big boy, he can take care of himself. Cloud and Tifa are the best and that Jonas kid seemed alright. Still…we all know what happened the last time Zack tried to bust somebody out of…she sighed and looked up again, wishing she could have been there fighting alongside her friends. It was getting quite late; the bar was empty except for one guy at the other end who was too drunk to notice anything, and Aeris had been waiting to close up. All things considered she had 'held down the fort' pretty well that evening, despite being so uptight that she had broken at least three glasses, snapped at a few customers who probably didn't deserve it, and had downed a bottle or two herself.
She had almost nodded off again when the door opened for real. Cloud walked in with Denzel in his arms, followed closely by Tifa who was holding Marlene's hand. Then Jonas came in, and the door closed behind him. "We got 'em," Cloud reported as Aeris looked up. Her concerned eyes fell on Denzel. "He got a little mako poisoning," Cloud explained. "He should be okay in a couple of days." Aeris nodded slightly, running her hand over Denzel's pale forehead.
"Well I'm glad you all at least made it out of th…" she trailed off, staring at the three of them standing there with the kids. Three, not four. She kept looking back and forth from one to the next, her face growing increasingly white. Cloud, Tifa, Jonas. Jonas, Tifa, and Cloud. Still three.
"Something wrong?" the door opened again and in poked a head with black spikes of hair dancing above a mile-wide grin.
Aeris whipped her head in the direction of the voice. Her eyes lit up but quickly narrowed again. She spoke through clenched teeth. "Not. Funny. Zack."
But Zack was practically rolling on the floor with laughter. "It would be, if you could've seen your face! Ha ha ha!" Back in the lab he had killed off the troops and managed to get out and reach his friends before they had gotten very far.
"You scared the hell out of me!" Aeris shouted. Which of course was precisely Zack's intent.
"You're so cute when you get mad," Zack said, leaning on the bar and smiling at her as puppy-like as possible.
"Arrg…." Aeris's head hit the bar in frustration.
"I'm going to put Denzel to bed," said Cloud, trying to ignore his friend's antics. Cloud and Tifa left with the kids, and Zack and Jonas flopped down on a pair of barstools.
"So babe, did you raid the whole stash of booze yet?" Zack asked Aeris teasingly.
"No…" she replied awkwardly. "Why? Did you think I'd be worried while you guys were gone?"
"Nah, I didn't think you'd be worried," said Zack. He leaned in and looked her in the eye again. "I knew you'd be worried." Aeris blushed, hanging her head with a tired smile. "Think you could serve up one more round of drinks tonight?" he asked, as Cloud and Tifa reentered the room.
"Sure," she replied, standing up straight. "What'll you have?"
"Anything strong," Zack muttered exhaustedly, running his hand through his hair.
"You got it..." She quickly placed a drink in front of each of them. "And don't worry about the tab," she added with a smirk. "It's on the house." The tired comrades all took a swig.
"Whew!" exclaimed Jonas, whose experience with alcohol was quite limited. "That is strong."
"There's a first time for everything, kid," Zack said to him. "You've got a new life now." Suddenly Zack had an idea. He noticed a pack of cigarettes next to that last remaining drunk customer, and carefully pulled one out when the man wasn't looking. Then he said, "Hey buddy, you got a light?"
"Sure, man…" slurred the customer as he slid a lighter down to him. Zack picked it up and lit the cigarette.
"Since when did you smoke?" Tifa asked Zack, raising an eyebrow.
"Since never. These things'll kill ya," he replied jokingly, garnering puzzled looks from his friends. Zack then plucked the Shinra ID card from Jonas's pocket. "They'll just kill ya..." he repeated, looking thoughtfully at the cigarette in one hand and the card in the other. Then he cleared his throat and held the card aloft, and with a flourish he jammed the smoldering tip of the cigarette directly into the center of its Shinra logo. Then a triumphant grin blossomed across his face as the entire card went up in flames, sending the aroma of melting plastic into the air. Everyone started to laugh as they watched it burn—including Jonas.