Written because it's all very well for them to say things like 'our world was destroyed nine years ago', but then you go back and check the characters actual ages and you realise that Yuffie's only sixteen years old, and even Aerith's only twenty-two. These characters were only kids nine years ago. There had to be something more to the story to tell.
Contains vague spoilers for Kingdom Hearts I and II, nothing very major – dropping of some names, reference to some of the earlier Ansem Reports you pick up (particularly 5 and 9). Characters' ages were borrowed from Final Fantasies 7 and 8 (Yuffie – 7, Squall – 8, Aerith – 13, since this is set nine years before Kingdom Hearts). I've discovered since finishing this that some of these ages were changed in KH – too late to fix this without rewriting from scratch now though, so I'm going to have to beg artistic license and label this slightly AU. Identities of parents were likewise taken from the original games – and thanks to which, there are some not-quite-so-minor spoilers for those games; though it really isn't necessary to have played either of them before reading.
This fic has also surprised me by growing into my first ever real multi-parter, so expect more to come.
At exactly three and a half minutes before sunset, a star fell from the sky and landed with a fizzling splash in the duck pond in the castle gardens. A minute later a second found its way neatly down the centre of Merlin's chimney (a co-incidence he would later have to insist at considerable length was entirely deliberate and of his own doing); then a third followed, and a fourth. Whatever those early scouts reported back must have been good, because by the time the light was fading the flood-gates had opened and there were at least a dozen in the sky at any time, no matter where one looked.
When the first fragments began to fall, no-one knew what to make of the meteor shower other than as an unexpected treat, and even in a land so well lit as the aptly named Radient Garden, it was still a rare treat indeed. The heavens rained a steady hail of star-stuff over the city and all the lands around until the middle of the next morning; some pieces large enough to sit on. Squall's father Laguna, less fortunate than most, was hit on the head by a piece the size of a tennis ball and spent the rest of the shower in bed, babbling about invisible pixies from the future. Most of the rest of the residents opted to keep to the relative safety of the indoors, watching the show through living room windows; candles put out and all the lights turned down.
Aerith watched the shower with her mother on the roof under the big beach umbrella, eyes aglow in wonder. The skies treated them to the sort of spectacle that grandchildren would have heard about a generation after everyone who remembered it was long gone. Pieces did not merely glow, they fizzed through the air, twirled in unexpected directions and shot off sparks like amateur fireworks. To Aerith's delight, about an hour after the shower began a piece bounced right off the umbrella and landed on the rooftop next to them, the glow gradually cooling over the next few minutes to a smooth, mottled green. And even though Aerith had been brought up on Ifalna's stories from a young age and already knew more about celestial bodies than anyone else in the city of her age, she still had to ask, "Is this really a fallen star?" Just so she could hear those tales again – how every star in the sky was a world as great as their own, how their own was a star in a thousand foreign skies.
The morning after the meteor shower, Cid showed up at their door with a handful of brightly colour fragments. "The whole town is covered with the stuff." He told her father with a grin. "Me, I've built planes out of everything that'll stay airborne, and I've never seen anything like it."
"Nor have I." Professor Gast agreed, frowning and turning the pieces over in his hands. "But the study of materials is a fair way outside my line of research. Professor Ansem would be able to tell you far more than I." As Aerith understood it, Lord Ansem's area of research was absolutely everything.
Cid was less easily convinced. "You kidding? No-one's hardly seen that joker outside his haunts in months. Going a bit peculiar down there, if you ask me."
"His assistants assure me he's merely devoting his attention to a project of utmost importance, perhaps revolutionary nature." Said her father stiffly, the instinctive defense of the scientific community against those unappreciative jackals in engineering.
"Well, he'll be far too busy to play with stardust then. Look, all I'm asking is a little background research – find out if this really is a new substance. That's your area, right?"
Professor Gast reluctantly agreed to take a few samples. Over the following days they were weighed, stretched, crushed, frozen, melted, looked up, referenced and cross-referenced, before being finally declared an absolute mystery. Even at his least enthusiastic, Gast was still a scientist.
The following week became a mad scramble as every kid in town collected as many fallen pieces as they could find. Cid had promised a model aeroplane – that really flew and everything, his own custom work – to the one who brought him the biggest pile by Sunday. On Saturday, Aerith found Squall sulking in corner of the Bailey – a practice he had turned into an art form at a young age. He'd left his collection of meteor stuff alone for barely more than a few minutes and someone had swiped the whole lot. With only a day to go and most of the town already wiped clean by eager youngsters there was no hope of him collecting even half the same hoard again in time. Aerith got Squall to give her his hand, and took them both straight to Yuffie's house.
Godo answered the door. He thought the whole affair was funny, but then he still thought Yuffie was just 'going through a phase' in the healthy development of a young ninja; and put his daughter's fascination with all things shiny, sharp or brightly coloured down to her not yet being deemed old enough to play with the shuriken without supervision. There was no convincing him otherwise, even though it was getting to the point where Aerith was making these visits nearly once a week. The lead up was always embarrassingly predictable. Squall would tell Yuffie he got to be the leader 'cause he was the oldest, or Yuffie would make faces at him or call him names, or they'd do both in either order, and before you knew it they'd be scuffling in the dirt like the silly little kids they were. Squall, being the larger and stronger would inevitably come out on top, but by the time he got home he'd realise Yuffie had taken advantage of the confusion to steal his pocket money or his collection of brightly coloured marbles, or sometimes even his pendant. Aerith had long since learned that whenever she saw Yuffie heading home looking dirty and bruised but eminently pleased with herself, there would be a Squall to be found sulking in one of his favourite corners and in need of someone to play big sister and offer some moral support.
If Yuffie was in a particularly mischievous mood this could often mean they'd have to search half the town before she was found. Fortunately, while Godo might not have been willing to offer any longer term solution, he was at least able to assure them that both Yuffie and the stolen goods were at home today, and point them in the direction of her room.
Finding Yuffie so quickly was not really as satisfying as it could have been. There was in Radient Garden a resident by the name of Scrooge who had, up until the still mysterious events of a few Christmases ago, been the wealthiest man in the city. In those days he'd had the reputation for hoarding money with such fervour that (if rumour was to be believed) the man even slept on a giant, glistening pile of his own amassed wealth. When they discovered Yuffie, she was not similarly sprawled on a pile of pilfered meteor fragments; however she was lying on her bed and had left pieces spread all over the place, so that the end effect was at least similar enough to be irritating.
"Finders keepers!" She crowed in her best sing-song voice. "You snooze you loose!"
"…'re supposed to find them yourself." Squall complained. "Cid said."
"I did so find them myself!" Yuffie squealed back. "You weren't guarding them or anything!"
"Yuffie…" Aerith warned, silently promising herself that from here on out she was going to leave these situations to be dealt with when Raine got home from work. Squall started picking random pieces off the floor.
"Hey hey, you can't take them all, some of those I found first!" Yuffie complained.
Aerith knew it was all doomed from that point, there was no hope either of them would remember who's was who's. Either they'd be spending the rest of the afternoon sorting through the collection, or Squall would declare he didn't care anymore and go home in another sulk, and Aerith was slightly horrified to realise that the latter seemed so much the better option.
It was then that Godo stuck his head around the door, winked at Aerith and 'reminded' Yuffie that if she wasn't ready in five minutes, she wouldn't get to try out the new smoke bombs today. Yuffie's eyes went as wide as saucers and she tumbled out the door in a green-and-orange blur. Her entire stash was conveniently left behind to be sorted through in relative peace.
Aerith and Squall left shortly thereafter, with what had, under her supervision and after a few careful reminders about honesty and two wrongs not making a right, remained a convincingly modest subset of Yuffie's meteor collection. The Sunday deadline arrived the following day, and Squall's collection was dutifully transported to Cid's to be weighed against everyone else's. Cid laughed too when he heard the story, but Squall got his model aeroplane and they all got ice-cream for helping out. Then he disappeared into his workshop and wasn't seen for two weeks.
About a month after the meteor shower, one final star fell from the sky, circled the town three times and landed in a not entirely ungraceful manner on the castle postern. The single occupant who emerged was definitely not human.
"Don't worry, I come in peace." He squeaked to the startled castle staff. "I'm betting your leader lives in this here castle, right?"
By the time news reached the town, the visitor had long since disappeared into the bowels of the castle, where only cleaners and the occasional late night fast-food delivery dared to venture. No more was seen of their mysterious, extra-arbourial visitor outside the castle for several days. Meanwhile, Cid emerged from his workshop for the first time in weeks and camped out next to the ship until the owner returned. He would later categorically deny all and any allegations of drooling.
Cid's persistence would pay off, as he managed to be one of few to see the ship's owner when he finally re-emerged – albeit briefly, as he never set foot in the town during his whole stay, and both ship and its diminutive pilot disappeared back into the sky almost as soon as he re-appeared. The whole incident was the talk of the town for as long as it took people to come to terms with the fact that so little was actually known that there was very little to talk about. Even then, it raised no end of speculation, especially once 'inside sources' (chiefly a couple of maids and a cook) confirmed their visitor had been the king of another world personally come to seek the advice of Ansem the Wise. The boost to national pride lasted some time.
Cid himself had little interest in any of that. His disappointment at missing his chance to take that incredible ship apart was matched only by his enthusiasm at discovering such a thing to be possible at all.
"Dam – darn rodent wouldn't let me look at the schematics." He grumbled in Aerith's hearing later, but Cid always grumbled, even when he was also grinning from ear to ear. "Said all the plans were back at the hanger and he was in a hurry. Took off like the end of the world was on his tail. Still, 'Gummis', eh? Knew I was on to somethin'. You give me a month – two on the outside – and I'll show you a ship that'll fly circles around that mouse wheel he was piloting."
The following day, Ansem reappeared in public for the first time in weeks. He openly declared that he had lately taken to dedicating too much of this time to his research and had allowed himself to neglect his other duties. He said very little on the subject of what had occupied him so completely in the preceding months, but assured the people of his intention to take a more active role in the running of his kingdom in the future. Ansem had never been a very public man, preferring even at his best to manage his country (on those few occasions when the system he had long ago devised failed to managed itself) from the comfort of the castle, but for a while at least messages directed to him received prompt replies, and carried his very own royal seal. For a little while, life returned to normal.
This then was Radient Garden in its final days. If these events should have been recognised as omens they remained deceptively low key. There was no madness in the streets, no messengers bringing portents of doom, no misshapen animals born to mothers of the wrong species and relatively little fire raining from the sky. The end of days crept up with no more drama than a cloud passing over the sky.
What there were were the reports of people going missing. It was easy to overlook in the beginning, because the first to go were the ones who no-one would immediately miss – the ones who no-one knew very well, or who'd worked in the castle all their lives and were seldom seen outside it. People like Biggs and Wedge from the castle guard, or Lucrecia, another young scientist who sometimes worked with Ansem's assistants. Only later did the more noticeable start disappearing – Julia from the nightclub in town, or the old lady from the bakery down the road, or the girl from Squall's class at school. But it happened so slowly that by the time the population began to notice, it was already all but too late; and messages to Ansem on the subject now produced only the briefest of replies – he was aware, he was investigating, there was nothing to fear.
The one other warning-that-could-have-been was the appearance of the monsters, or talk of creeping things seen at night, or rumours of sightings of shadows of things that were little more than shadows themselves. Laguna had any number of new stories to tell on the subject, but Laguna had been a member of the castle guard until only a few years before and could still be found patrolling his old routes in largely harmless fashion most weekends, and he always had some sort of story to tell by the time he got back. Even though he went on reporting them weeks after he should have recovered, most of his audience put it all down to the after effects of the incident during the meteor shower. Seeing black spots was a standard symptom of a concussion, wasn't it?
A few reports of monsters made it as far as the ears of Ansem's assistants on the rare occasions they left the castle, and they showed enough interest to ask some questions – who had seen what and where. When it came to explanations, however, they all either downplayed the situation or repeated much the same answers the letters had contained. Ansem knew what was wrong. Ansem would find a way to solve things. Ansem was working on the problem day and night, and most of the people, having little other option, believed.
A little over a week before the end, Aerith answered the door to find one of Ansem's assistants had came to see Professor Gast. It was Braig, a man she'd met a few times in the past; he had a glass eye that never looked at you straight and was far too loud to be a proper scientist like her father. He looked that day like he hadn't been sleeping much lately, his grin was even more manic than usual. Gast did not seem especially pleased when Aerith told him about their visitor, but went to see what he wanted all the same.
"All under control." Aerith overheard Braig telling her father. "Or it will be, once our professor Ansem finishes the next stage of his research. You should rethink lending us some of your expertise, we're moving into whole new territory."
"Thank you." Gast said, not sounding very thankful. "But we've discussed this already, and I still have my doubts that it's territory I have any place in."
"Do us the honour of reconsidering, at least, will you?" Braig produced a sheaf of papers which he pushed into Gast's hands. "Have a look at what we're working on. Maybe you'll find it more interesting than you expect."
Even the way he walked away looked strangely tired to Aerith – tired like the way her father looked in the eleventh hour of some of his most important projects. She would never decide, not even years later what he'd really meant that day, whether he was even more tired than he let on - his visit in truth a veiled cry for help, whether he'd had some more sinister motive, or whether he had, ultimately, been telling little more than the simple truth.
The report he'd given her father had the name 'Ansem' in spidery handwriting on the front. It was only a few pages long, but her father locked himself in his office with it and stayed up all night. The next morning he went out and locked the office behind him.
Aerith did not steal the key to her father's office. She was a good girl who had never done anything like that before. She wasn't even entirely sure that there was a spare key, or where it would be kept if there were. However, she was entirely guilty of offering to keep an eye on Yuffie while both her father and Godo were out, and may even have pointed out the locked office and mentioned something about a big shiny key hidden somewhere in the house, right before going to the kitchen to find some cookies. She was definitely guilty of ignoring several suspicious noises from the lounge room while she was away.
Yuffie was a little surprised how little trouble she got into when her babysitter discovered the key in her possession, particularly given Aerith's usual reaction to that stuff, though Aerith did still make a very definite point of taking the offending item back and making Yuffie show her where she'd gotten it before she left.
Aerith waited until night to sneak into the office. Long after her parents were asleep, she crept quietly out of bed, lit a candle and tried out the borrowed key. The report was sitting on her father's desk. What she found was no more than a few scattered extracts from a much larger document. Pages were numbered at random, out of order, with most of the parts in between missing. A lot of what she read sounded like a fairy tale – all about people's hearts and magic keyholes and monsters born from darkness, but there was no happy ending.
Aerith would not discover exactly what happened to their world until long after it was over, nor learn why it was their world where it began for years longer still – but when she did begin to make sense of it all she would remember that report and wonder what secrets were hidden in those missing pages; just exactly what else the greatest sage of their world others might have discovered about the coming dark.
It would be easy to say when it was all over that there was no warning, but more honest to say the lead up merely skipped a few steps towards the end. The sun rose on that last day without fanfare of any kind and traveled the day along its usual path across the sky. People went about their business unaware of anything out of the ordinary.
By evening there were storm clouds gathering over the castle, dark and heavy, but not unseasonal enough to raise any comment. Hours after sunset, the shadows went on lengthening. The darkness came, rising from somewhere deep below the castle foundations like a black tide. Drawn by the lure of thousands of beating hearts, the Heartless descended on the city, an army that only grew in strength with every stifled scream.
It was been said in some chronicles that the Keyblade is the only weapon that can destroy the Heartless, even that to do so is its purpose, and to a degree that is the truth. However, there have existed worlds populated by enough of those of sufficient strength of heart and body that they have held the Heartless at bay for years on end, until hope – or the darkness – finally came. Radient Garden was not to be one of those. Although it had been a peaceful place for centuries, their world should not be imagined to have been utterly unable to defend itself – it had its fair population of magicians and ninjas and ninja magicians; of guards and soldiers both active and retired. It was simply not prepared for an attack that came from within, but even had there been time to mount a proper defense, by the time the Heartless broke on the city it could not have mattered much how hard people fought them. The battle was lost from the moment the Heartless gained access to the world-heart beyond the Keyhole, and both Keyhole and Door lay in the foundations of the castle where the invasion began, far behind.
In Aerith's household, Ifalna spent that evening unaccountably tense and uncomfortable, but couldn't or wouldn't tell her family why. It made Aerith uncomfortable too in sympathy, but there seemed to be nothing she could help with by staying up, so she put herself to bed at the usual time. Ifalna stayed awake long after, staring into the light of a single candle on the table until it had burned down almost to the base.
Shortly before midnight, Aerith woke from a horrible dream that there was something else in the room watching her – so real that even on waking she could still see two pairs of glowing yellow eyes peering hungrily at her from the gloom. Then something leapt and landed on her chest hard enough to knock the wind out of her, and there could no longer be any sort of doubt that this was no dream. The creatures attacked not with teeth or claws but some power far more sinister. It felt like someone had reached into her heart and found every horrible thing she'd ever done or seen or even thought, wrapped their fingers around it all and tugged. It hurt like nothing she'd ever imagined.
Ifalna was the room before her daughter had finished screaming; the monsters banished in a flash of holy light. Her mother hugged her and didn't let go until they were both sure she was alright.
Gast was in the doorway by the time they looked up again. "Ifalna, what…?"
"They're gone." Ifalna still didn't release her hold on Aerith. "Gone for now, but there'll be more. Gast, it's those creatures – the corrupted."
"Heartless." Gast uttered the word like a curse. "The report implied they were multiplying. Ansem must have know this was coming – we have to get to the castle. He'll know what…"
"No, no, no." Ifalna shook her head violently from side to side. "It's too late, they're everywhere. The whole planet is screaming at me, they've taken its heart and now they're coming for every living heart they can still find. You don't see, it's too late. Far too late."
"Ifalna," Gast's voice sounded horribly quiet. "You don't mean that."
"I can feel the world coming apart under my feet." It was barely more than a whisper spoken into Aerith's hair. "It's over."
Ifalna's family was reputedly the oldest in the land, had been here even before Ansem's line in the days before the worlds were scattered. She had spoken with the planet for as long as Aerith could remember, had long taught Aerith how to listen for those sounds, so loud and deep that ordinary people forgot to hear them. She could tell you where to plant flowers so they'd grow taller and brighter than anywhere else, she had told everyone that the meteor shower was no danger, and they'd believed without question. If the world was ending, she would know.
Gast knew Ifalna better than anyone. He was the scientist who married the storyteller and never saw any inherent contradiction, who would test the theories no-one else cared for, who would go on looking for hope until it had been proven no hope could be found. "How long do we have? Can we make it to Cid's workshop in time?"
Ifalna did not understand the strange request, but replied nonetheless. "I think… yes, I think so."
"Then we might still have a chance. Come on, we have to hurry."
The streets outside were swarming with Heartless, some just like the creeping things that had invaded Aerith's room, others in a dozen other different shapes. The sky outside was lit up to an intensity it hadn't boasted since the meteor shower, not with falling stars but with eerie vortexes of swirling energy, illuminating the land with an unhealthy glow. A dozen paces away stood Laguna, his old gunblade held ready to take on anything that came too close. As soon as he saw them he waved them over, unwilling to move as long as Raine and Squall watched from the relative safety of a small alcove behind him. Ifalna's light soon cleared them a path.
"You've got me all embarrassed now, I was going to offer you some help, but now it doesn't look like you need it." Laguna told them appreciatively when they joined him, visibly impressed by the ease with which Ifalna's magic forced the Heartless aside. "Ifalna, I never imagined you had it in you. Hey, I bet you could've even shown some of the soldiers back in the guard a few things."
It did not take long to discover that Laguna was making his own way to the castle. He'd had much the same idea as Professor Gast, but wasn't happy to be told the battle couldn't be won.
"Now, I've spent enough years in the army to have seen my share of monsters – didn't I tell you about that time with the dragon and…" If audience or opponents had allowed, he might well have told them the whole story right there. "…and… well, I know I did… what I'm saying is, if we get everyone together, these aren't anything we can't handle."
"Laguna, these aren't like any monsters you've ever seen before." Ifalna assured him evenly. "There isn't anything at the castle that you can help with, but making it to Cid's is our only hope. We have much better chance of making it there if you'd escort us. Please."
Laguna scratched his head. "Well, you put it like that, how can a man refuse?"
Raine took less convincing. The look in Ifalna's face alone was close to enough.
The walk from their home to Cid's workshop was usually barely more than a five minute affair. Today it took four times that long, and felt like twice as much again. By the time they arrived, Ifalna was sagging in her husband's arms, drained beyond anything her magic had ever done to her before. Godo had gotten there before them, his own daughter in tow. Yuffie's eyes had again assumed their saucer-like state, but she wasn't staring at anything except space. Godo's hands twitched restlessly over the pouches attached to his belt where he kept his shuriken and smoke bombs and all other tools of the trade. You could tell by the deflated shape of them that they were all but empty.
The ship filled most of the workshop, more brightly coloured than anything that space had ever housed before thanks to the gaudy nature of the Gummi-material to which it owed its existence. From beneath it came a litany of swearwords which Cid was making no attempt to moderate for the benefit of young ears. At the sound of the newcomer's entry he pushed himself out from underneath, looking much as he always did when he was working - covered in grime, with tools in both hands.
"Shit, is that everyone that made it? Maybe just the two extra thrusters will do after all." He muttered, apparently to no-one.
"Cid, is the ship ready?" Gast spoke up anxiously. "Will it…"
"Oh, she'll fly, don't you worry. I'll have us all out of here, just need a few last minute modifications and we'll be away." Cid assured him, with a not too obviously forced grin.
"Wait, what modifications?" Raine demanded. "What do you mean?"
"Well, I just…" Cid began, but the sight of all those hopeful faces stopped him. "Oh, to hell with it, I can't lie to you folks. The Gummi ship's barely a prototype – her maiden flight wasn't even meant to be until tomorrow. Most of the boosters are just sitting loose. In her current state she'll take one, maybe two of us, any more than that and she'll never make it off the ground."
The silence that greeted his words was desperate.
"Look, I'm not having you all give up, I can…"
"What about the children." Raine interrupted. "One or two adults, but there's room for the children, isn't there?"
Cid was even more visible taken aback by that suggestion than by the idea they'd all given up. "Miss Raine, don't go talking like that. I can have the other boosters hooked up in only…"
"Cid!" Raine stopped him again, just as Gast burst out with "Damnit, Cid!" at the same moment. Cid shut up appropriately fast.
"Cid, just take them, please." Ifalna's voice sounded even weaker than before. "You know as well as we do there's no time."
"I've put Yuffie in the back." Godo put in, appearing from the hatch behind Cid in a move that would have made everyone jump if they'd had any surprise left that day.
Cid looked from face to resolute face. "You aren't going to give me any choice, are you?"
"No, Cid. Not today." Ifalna whispered.
"I do recall you owe me a favour or two." Gast added, squeezing her hand, almost smiling.
"Just promise us… you'll take good care of them." Ifalna finished, for both of them.
"I'm too young for this. Damn it all, I'm never going to be old enough." Cid grumbled, but he'd never looked more sincere than when he said his next: "Ifalna, Gast, Raine, Laguna, Godo, I swear, I'll get them out of here if I have to leave my own skin behind to do it."
Raine was already carrying Squall over to Godo to be passed up through the hatch, hugging him tightly and whispering urgently to him until the last possible moment. With a sudden burst of panic, Aerith realised she was the only one left. So uninvolved had she been in the conversation to that point that the realisation of exactly what had been decided for them all did not hit until her father turned to her then. Had her heart not already been nearly torn out once that night it might have burst right there; she found it abruptly very hard to look either of her parents in the face, even harder to look away.
"Aerith, we aren't going to let you argue either, do you understand? You…" Gast was left temporarily at a loss for words, so he folded his arms around her and hugged her tighter than he had since she was a little girl who got lost in flowerbeds in springtime. "I know you'll be alright. You're my daughter. Ifalna's daughter. Take care of the other children, Cid will need your help."
"Aerith," Ifalna reached for her, "You need to know… This isn't – this doesn't have to be goodbye. Worlds don't disappear forever. Hearts stay connected, things lost in the darkness can always be found again. There will be a way back here, but you'll have to find it from your side. Never forget."
Aerith was too big to be carried like the others, she must have walked to the ship, climbed the ladder with her own hands – and the feel of the rungs in her hands would be familiar when she climbed down them again later, sense-memory – but the next thing she really knew then in any way that registered was that she was on board the ship and Cid was climbing up and pushing past her and the hatch was closing…
"Wait a moment," Laguna hopped on to the ladder, hefted his gunblade and slid it inside, next to Squall. "I'm not the sort to be needlessly optimistic, but if the ladies have it right, I'm not going to be needing it much more here, right?"
"Dad?" Said Squall. It was the first word he had uttered that whole night.
"So it might take you a while to grow into, but hey, you'll get the hang of it in no time." Laguna was obviously grappling for words. "And, uh, you'll need to make sure you keep it polished, take good care of it, that sort of stuff. And… the girls too, take good care of them. You understand right?" His face pleaded for Squall to understand everything he hadn't the time or the words to say.
Squall nodded mutely, sniffled and rubbed his eyes. Cid muttered something unintelligible and yanked the hatch closed, and that was the last any of them saw of their home.
Even had the ship been able to carry everyone, it was hard to see how they could have fitted. The inside of the ship was not merely cramped but blatantly barely complete; the walls a mass of open panels and loose wires. The cockpit consisted of one seat and just enough space to get into, out of and around it without edging past the walls; the back section was little more than what connected the cockpit to the hatch.
Cid began some sort of pre-flight ritual, which seemed to consist largely of banging on things and swearing at them until they stayed on. "Better find yourselves something to hang on to." He yelled back at them, and the engines roared to life on perfect cue. The ship took off as though gravity had suddenly attacked it from two extra directions at once. The vessel shook so hard the walls rattled and made far too much noise, but they were moving; already up to the few feet off the ground needed to make it out of the hanger. Scared, but still far too curious not to need to know at least a little of what was going on outside, Aerith crawled far enough towards the cockpit that she could see a little out the front window and make out the square of light that marked out the door of the hanger getting larger in front of them. As soon as they were clear the ship surged forward, though for a long time they were covering more distance than they were gaining altitude; by the time they'd traveled halfway across the city they still hadn't risen beyond the height of the tallest towers of the castle.
Just as they were clearing the city limits there was a loud bang as something crashed into the side of the ship, then another from the other side. Something that didn't show up against the sky as anything more than a black mass with those horrible yellow eyes leapt right on to the front window and landed so hard the whole ship lurched with the impact. Cid yelled something that sounded nasty enough to have been invented specially for the occasion and wrenched the control column around in a motion that made metal shriek all over the vessel. The ship went swinging in a crazy circle, and for several dizzying moments Aerith wasn't even sure which was up. She lost her balance and was tossed sharply into the side, and she must have screamed or made some sound enough to remind Cid she was still there, because the next time he had breathing room he was yelling "Damnit girl, get in the back!" and it was almost more than she could manage to obey.
The rear of the ship was scarcely any better than the front, the main distinguishing difference being that from here you couldn't see what was making the ship lurch around. Despite Cid's prior instruction there wasn't really anything to hold on to back there – except the handle for the hatch, and they could hardly risk accidentally wrenching that open with the next big lurch, so they held on to each other. It wasn't easy. Yuffie wasn't catatonic anymore, but now she wouldn't stop crying. Squall just sat and gripped the gunblade in stony silence. The weapon was nearly as tall as he was. He couldn't lift it and could barely even drag it across the floor with a horrible screeching sound, but he wouldn't let go of it and he held on so tightly his knuckles went white. Aerith could hardly have lifted it either, but she didn't know nor want to find out what would happen should another jolt sent it flying point-first into one of the panels, so she held on to it as tightly as she could too. They stayed like that for what felt like a long time.
It was hard to tell exactly when things calmed down outside over the natural motion of the ship and the loud rattle of the engines, but it did occur to Aerith eventually that things had gone quiet. She disentangled herself from the other two and went to see what was going on.
The cockpit smelt of smoke, but going by the cigarette butts littering the floor, that didn't mean any worse than that Cid had called a temporary truce in his war on 'that nasty teenage habit' of his. He stubbed out what looked like his fourth when he heard her come in. "Sorry about before. My girl here," he patted a panel, "was having some teething problems. She should be all leveled out by now."
Aerith peered out of the scratched window covering the front of the ship. The stars didn't look any closer than they ever did back home. "Where are we going?"
"Dunno yet. But that mouse didn't come out of nowhere, so what I do know is there's somewhere out there to go. How would you like to do the honours? Pick me a star – one of those nice big ones that don't look too far off."
Aerith tried to remember everything her mother ever taught her. She closed her eyes, opened them and pointed to the first bright light she saw.
Back in the rear, Yuffie was curled in a ball on the floor. It was strangely quiet.
"Shh." Squall whispered as she tiptoed over. He was holding his pendant in his hands. "She's asleep. I said she could play with this if she wanted, but she gave it back again."
"We're all tired. It's okay." Aerith whispered back.
"I don't want to be Squall anymore." He told her, turning the pendent over with his fingers. "Squall should stay back there, with Mum and Dad. I'm going to be a lion instead, like him. Lions can take care of themselves."
"Even lions need names." Aerith said.
"Then I'll make up a new one."
Aerith promised him they'd think up something good.
Less than an hour later, Aerith was falling asleep between an eight-year old lion and a seven-year old ninja, in a ship piloted by a twenty-something pilot who took navigation advice from a thirteen-year old girl. Silently, she promised them all that they were going to be alright. They'd find a safe harbour. They'd find their parents again and someday, they'd rebuild their Radiant Garden and go home together. They'd do it all by themselves if they need to.
They aren't going to be children forever.