I really haven't updated in a while, seeing as I got the prologue and first two chapters up in just over a week. This chapter's longer though, and is the final instalment of the 'Midgar-arc', so to speak. Now I can really get the plot kicking in- I think I have quite a solid idea of where I want to go with this. All I can say is there'll be a lot of a certain silver-haired warrior, a lot of blood and tears, angsty pasts and obscure romance. All the characters seen in FFVII will make some sort of cameo, and the party will always be Zack, Cloud and Aerith, but I hope to give Vincent and Lucrecia big roles too.

Well anyway, I hope you were all safe this holiday season, and please enjoy this.

Reviews are (as ever) loved.

---

Cloud is woken by a sudden flash light as if someone has drawn the curtains far too quickly, and he groans as he buries his head into his pillow. For a moment he is reminded of his mother and Nibelheim- in particular the gruelling task of getting up at six am every morning to hike to the village's only school – and he wants nothing more than to sleep in peace.

"Come on!" Zack's voice seems unusually loud to Cloud this morning. Glancing over his bed cover for a second the clock tells him it's seven am exactly, and the boy decides he is awake at least five hours too early.

"Go away," he murmurs as he tosses his bed cover over his head. Aerith and Zack both laugh at the childish action and sit themselves down on the edge of his bed, making sure to not squash his feet. They are both well prepared for this, and Aerith pulls the cover back.

"Cloud!"

Cloud reluctantly looks towards her, finally admitting defeat as he waves sleep good-bye with a closing yawn. Looking at them both with hazy eyes he mutters something that could either be "huh?" or "wha?", and pulls himself into a sitting position.

"Happy Birthday!" Aerith beams as she manages to catch him off-guard in a hug.

Birthday? Despite being woken up so early Cloud manages to smile; he hadn't expected to hear the words from anyone this year, and a wave of happiness washes his fatigue away. Zack too moves towards him, but settles to further mess up his hair (something that Cloud didn't think was possible) rather than hug him like Aerith.

In the corner of a room is an unwrapped leather box, about four foot in length and sleek looking. The ex-Soldier smirks as he sees Cloud's eyes fall on it, and moves to pick it up. It's obviously heavier than it looks as he uses two hands to lift it and carefully places it on the bed beside Cloud.

By now Aerith has let go of him, and she motions for him to open it. The concept is somewhat bizarre to Cloud- although his mother always had a gift for him every year he had never received anything from a friend, mostly because he didn't have any.

"'sfrom me and Aerith. We got it imported all the way from Rocket Town," Zack explains before Cloud has the chance to ask.

He isn't exactly sure where Rocket Town is, but it sounds far off and important. Whatever it is, it must be good… and therefore, expensive. Unfastening the two buckles on the hard case he pulls the zip to and opens it apprehensively.

Inside is a slick looking blade which reflects the morning sunlight into Cloud's already glowing eyes. Eagerly he pulls out the sword and discovers that it was in fact quite light- most of the weight had been in the case it arrived in. He studies the perfect blue hilt and finds the word "YOSHIYUKI" engraved into it.

"Than- thanks!" he grins as he looks to Aerith and Zack in turn, holding the sword proudly.

"I had enough of you eying up my Buster Sword! Plus, it'll probably come in useful later."

"Later?" Cloud asks somewhat confused.

Zack nods and looks to Aerith. She pulls a small envelope out of her breast pocket and hands it to Cloud. Carefully he puts down his sword and looks inside.

"This is…?"

"Train tickets!" the flower girl confirms.

"Three of them?"

Zack laughs a little. "Well, we can't have you running off alone, can we now?"

Cloud smiles softly, not sure he wants to trust in what's happening. "So… we're all leaving Midgar?" He asks after a moment's contemplation.

"All of us," Aerith says.

---

A few hours later, once Zack has left for work, Aerith and Cloud take one last trip to the Church. Cloud has only in been two or three times as he's usually still sleeping by the time she gets there, and so he often meets up with her outside.

A Church, or so Cloud's studying has told him, is a Holy building of an ancient and dead religion. Apparently, back in the days when Midgar was only a small village the Church had been the most important building, and if Cloud had so much as paid attention in school he would have known that Nibelheim once had one, too.

It is easy to tell that the building was old. One of the towering double doors at the entrance hangs off of its hinges and as a result the door was always ajar, yet still difficult to open from the years of rust that had built up around the remaining hinges. Some of the pews – the seats where people sat to worship, Cloud had read – have sunk through the wooden floor under their own weight and they are all riddled with cracks, if not broken. Cloud also notices that none of the religious artefacts he learnt about remained the first time he visits.

Yet what stands out most of all in the Church is the hole in the very centre where the floor boards have been made weak by time and easily broken away. Earth comes through here, and as the Church was built a long time before Shinra could poison the land it is extremely fertile, and it is here Aerith grows her flowers.

The first time he enters the Church Cloud has the strangest sensation of falling. Now it has subsided somewhat, and he enjoys sitting peacefully among the pews as he watches Aerith tend to her flowers. It's almost as if she does everything subconsciously, as her face is never crossed with looks of concentration, and most of the time she talks to Cloud about Holy-knows-what as she works. She doesn't seem to mind always ending up with mud splattered over her clean dresses, and she always has a flower to give to Cloud at the end of it.

Every so often Cloud gets up and practices with his new sword, as their apartment is far too small- not to mention too messy. He looks down to Aerith who is now watching him with a smile, and for an instant a terrible surge of dread makes him shudder as he looks into her clear eyes. The girl suddenly looks all too familiar.

He tries not to think anymore of it.

"Come on," Aerith says eventually. "I told Zack we'd meet him for a drink."

"A drink?" Cloud asks a little bemused, but puts his sword back into its case none the less.

"Yes. Haven't you ever been to a bar before?" Aerith teases him.

"I… well, no. I'm not old enough, am I?"

The two begin to make their way out of the Church into the night covered streets, and Cloud feels more embarrassed than he rightly should.

"Hmm?" Aerith asks as she glances at him, pushing her face towards his. Cloud moves back a little and raises an eyebrow. "You're seventeen now, right?"

Cloud nods. "The same as you."

"Well then! That's old enough for Midgar."

"Oh… in my village you had to be nineteen to drink. I… suppose it's different everywhere."

The flower girls nods understandingly, and slips her warm hand into his as they leave the brightly light Church and sink into the murky slum. Although Cloud is far to awkward for a real hug– well, except for special occasions, like this morning – he never really objects to this, and always seems quite comfortable to walk hand in hand.

"You know, in Kalm the drinking age is fifteen. No wonder they're all so odd!"

---

"Where are we going?" Aerith curiously asks Zack as soon as he arrives.

"Hmm… some place my employer told me about. It's called Heaven Seven, or something like that." Zack, as usual as taken lead and Cloud and Aerith follow him through the slums.

"You mean Seventh Heaven," she corrects him.

"Ahh, so you've been there before?"

"Nope. But most people have heard of it," she explains, and then is careful to add "most people can get the name right too."

Zack shoots a glare at the flower girl and Cloud rolls his eyes- Zack and Aerith always act like this around each other. She laughs it off and Zack can't hold the glare for long, and the three are soon back to normal.

In the distant there is a well lit building displaying the words "Seventh Heaven", as Aerith said, and people are constantly going in and out. More than half of them can't walk properly and stumble onto each other. What they're serving inside obviously gets the job done- no wonder it's so famous.

Zack opens the door and a buzz of conversation and music escapes into the night. It makes him smile and warms him up- tonight should be good. He holds the door for his two friends who cautiously walk in, still hand in hand.

Being a Wednesday the bar isn't quite as full as it usually is; there are still seats available, and only a few people hover around the bar. Still, there are a lot of people in such a small place, and Cloud feels uncomfortable. Aerith seems to sense this and squeezes his hand reassuringly, and Zack pushes past them to order.

"Zack…?" Cloud hears a familiar voice ask, and when he looks over to bar he almost jumps in disbelief.

"Yo!" Zack exclaims happily as he rushes over to the young girl, and Cloud quickly follows.

"Cloud!" she sounds even more shocked than when she saw Zack.

"Hello Tifa…" he says gently, his head all of a sudden full of so many things he wants to say. "I thought you were… you were…" Cloud trips over his words for a while, but Tifa sees to understand what he means. "I'm glad you're okay," he finally settles for.

Zack nods. "We didn't think anyone got out alive."

Aerith feels somewhat awkward between the three. She isn't exactly sure of what they're talking about, and so says nothing and keeps to herself.

"After… it happened, Shinra said you both died fighting him," Tifa explains as she hurries to make the boys drinks.

There is a sudden silence and Cloud and Zack look to each other. The mood of this 'happy reunion' is quickly killed. "Yes…" the black-haired boy murmurs. "I thought they might do that."

"What happened?" Tifa asks.

"… they betrayed us," Cloud simply states.

Tifa looks confused and the answer doesn't satisfy her, but she knows that she shouldn't pursue it any further. Desperate to change the subject she pours shots of Wutaian vodka into two glasses of Cactuar Cola and pushes them across the bar to Cloud and Zack.

"Here, on the house," she says happily, and then for the first time Tifa notices that Aerith's been there the whole time. "Sorry! Would you like something to drink too, miss…"

"Aerith. And yes, please!" The flower girl politely introduces herself.

"Miss Aerith then," Tifa says as she picks up another glass. "Nice to meet you. I'm Tifa."

After a few minutes of talking Cloud, Zack and Aerith find their way to a table with a second drink in their hands. Cloud enjoys the evening, despite always being at least a drink behind Zack and Aerith. He's never drank before, and he finds the strong and burning taste of the vodka too much at first, but he soon finds it's worth it for the warm, buzzing sensation he feels. All of a sudden he has a lot more to say and finds it easier to speak, but he's not aware that his words are slightly slurred.

They talk about a lot of things, most of which Cloud doesn't remember the next day. They decide that they'll use their tickets to first take a trip to Rocket Town- something Cloud suggests as he wants to know the origins of his sword. Aerith is excited to learn that there's an actual Airship docked in the town, and so both Aerith and Zack agree to Cloud's plan.

After a while when the bar has emptied a bit – Cloud thinks that midnight comes around surprisingly quickly – Tifa joins them at their tables. It turns out that bar has recently came into her possession; she was hired as a barmaid as soon as she arrived in Midgar, and the elderly owner passed away only a few months ago.

"Where are you living then?" Tifa asks Cloud.

"In sector two… with Zack and Aerith," he points to the other two with an unsteady finger, just in case Tifa isn't sure who he's talking about.

Tifa looks over to Aerith and Zack who now appear to be emerged in a deadly game of rock-paper-scissors. "Sector two?" she asks. "Aren't those places pretty small?"

"Oh, yeah! We only have two rooms an' two rooms, and two beds, and one is a living room," Cloud cheerfully informs her, not aware that his run on sentence makes little sense.

"I see," Tifa blinks, not completely sure what to make of the situations.

"Actually," Zack chimes in, "we're leaving Midgar tomorrow. Get away from this filthy place."

This upsets Tifa a little. She's only just found Cloud again, and yet he's already leaving with his apparent room-mates- or maybe bed-mates would be more fitting. She can't blame them, though. She knows Midgar really is a horrible city, and it does no one any good.

"I think we should be going now," Aerith says smugly as she beats Zack for the twelfth time.

Cloud and Zack nod in agreement and pull themselves off the wooden stalls. Tifa heads back to the bar to get their coats and Cloud's sword for them, and she hastily pulls a scrap of paper from under the bar and scribbles something on it as she does so. Aerith watches her but says nothing, not even when she slips it into Cloud's pocket.

When all the goodbyes have been said Cloud, Aerith and Zack head back out onto the streets for the long hike back to sector two. The trains by now have all stopped running, and so they walk side-by-side along the dimly light pavement. Spirits are high, and Cloud doesn't even notice when Aerith dips her fingers into his coat pocket and fishes out the slip of paper Tifa put in. It turns out to be a folded newspaper article.

Aerith drops behind as Cloud and Zack walk in front of her with their arms around each other's shoulders, talking excitedly, and probably far too loud for one-thirty in the morning. Unfolding the paper causes the ink to smudge against her pale fingers, and the flower girl flips over the page to read what Tifa's written.

Cloud, it says, I didn't want to bring this up and ruin your birthday celebration, but I wanted you to know. He's still alive, Cloud. It might just be a rumour, but I know it! Just make sure that Zack and Ares –Aerith grimaces at the misspelling of her name- look after you, and don't hesitate to pop back.

This "he", she assumes, is the same person they were talking about in hushed whispers when they first met at the bar. Turning over the page all the colour drains from her face, and she feels the earth slip from under her feet as her heart rises into her throat.

In bold, black letters the title reads: ex-General Sephiroth Still Alive- Exclusive Report.