The route to the defence station is more than a little crowded.
It must be the weather's doing: there is a sense that summer is just around the bend. A warm breeze passes through this street far more easily than Aerith does. What little space is unoccupied by people is filled with their laughter and indiscernible words. Two roughhousing boys nearly knock their elbows against her as she goes by. A woman bumps into her and offers an apology as quickly as she walks.
“Startin' to look like home again, don'tcha think?” Cid says from a few paces ahead of her. The toothpick between his teeth tilts downward as he grins.
“Almost,” Aerith says with something like a smile.
On the morning that the townspeople first returned to Radiant Garden, Aerith thought that she had come home again. She remembers: it had looked as though it were snowing. Stardust drifted down from the skies and scattered across the cracked stonework. Aerith watched as these particles bloomed into people and whatever else they once were. Seeing the townsfolk blink hard against the sunlight made something warm swell in her chest.
The World had seemed radiant in more than just name.
Now, a year and a bit later, Aerith is not so sure. She has lived outside of this World for longer than she ever has lived in it. A crowded boulevard and all her wishing might not be enough to make Radiant Garden home again.
Aerith glances up to the sky. The clouds are a thin veneer over the sun.
* * *
The Restoration Committee's workload has lightened in recent weeks. The near-around the clock hours they once kept dwindle to six or seven a day. Heartless hardly ever make an appearance anymore.
These days, Aerith figures she spends more time with a trowel in hand than a staff. Figures she spends more time fixing holes in walls and ceilings than she does wounds. She is not ungrateful for this change: it is an obvious sign that the Committee has made great progress. It just does nothing for whatever it is that hisses from inside her veins.
On the days where that hiss fills her veins, Aerith takes refuge on the rooftop of a west-facing turret. She tries not to look surprised when Yuffie slips into the same crenel as her and dangles her feet over the edge.
“Hehe, didn't expect to see me, now didja?” Yuffie says. Stretches her arms out above her head. A joint crackles as she does. The half-full plastic bag she clenches in one hand crackles too. “I figured you'd be up here.”
“Oh?” Aerith says. There is something about Yuffie's smile that seems a little off.
“Yeah.” Heels bouncing against the face of the turret, Yuffie digs into the bag. “This is kinda your place, y'know?”
Aerith does not mind the idea. If nothing else, it is a good place to watch the sunset from.
“Not anymore, it isn't.” Aerith attempts to hide her smile. “Now that you know about it, I've got to relocate.”
Yuffie laughs. Pops what looks like a chocolate into her mouth.
“If you wanted this to be a secret, you should've been sneakier,” she says as she chews. Points a thumb at herself, “Like me!”
“It's a good thing Cid's not here to see you talk with your mouth full,” Aerith rejoins. Yuffie flashes her a grin. The light is not yet dim enough to hide the chocolate caught on her teeth. “Where'd you get those anyway?”
“If you think I'm gonna reveal my sources, think again.”
Tossing a chocolate into the air, Yuffie leans forward to catch it with her mouth. Aerith stares. Readies a hand to latch onto Yuffie's arm. The chilling thought occurs to her that it is a long way down from where they are.
Yuffie snags the chocolate between her teeth. Frames it with a smile. Returning her hand to her lap, Aerith shakes her head at her friend.
“What?” Yuffie chews as she speaks. “What? What's that look for?”
“You scare me sometimes,” Aerith says. Chuckles nervously.
To her surprise, Yuffie does not toss another chocolate into the air. The next few pass from her fingers right to her mouth. It makes Aerith smile a little. In some ways, Yuffie really has matured.
“You know,” Yuffie says after a few more chocolates, “it's pretty nice up here. If you're leaving, maybe I'll move in for a bit.”
Aerith glances at her. Finds a knot between Yuffie's eyebrows. Something is wrong.
“Is that so?” Pulling her legs back up from over the edge, Aerith turns and sits on one hip. Yuffie crams a handful of chocolates into her mouth. Nods her head.
“I wouldn't hear stupid Scoorge McDick complain from up here.”
Yuffie unloads: she had a less-than-pleasant run-in with the duck just two hours ago. The group of children Aerith and Leon like to call The Yuffie Fanclub had encouraged her to show off how accurately she could throw her shuriken. She had flung her shuriken at a rotting plank of wall propped up two hundred or so feet down the road only for Mr. McDuck to walk into its path.
“He's too short for it to hit him,” Yuffie said. “If he'd been carrying his own stupid stuff, it probably wouldn't have hit it either.”
It turns out Cid had been accompanying Mr. McDuck right then. Her shuriken struck the boxes Cid was carrying on Mr. McDuck's behalf.
“It was just some silverware and, like, place mats and stuff. Serviettes.” Drawing a leg up, Yuffie hugs her knee with one arm. “He made a big deal out of it, just kept going on and on”— she pitches her voice to a shrill octave— “shouting 'it's ruined! It's ruined'!”
Aerith bites the inside of her lip to keep from laughing.
“I was gonna help pick it all up, but he just shouted at me not to touch anything. The kids had run off by then too. 'Fanclub' my butt.”
It is impossible not to laugh at that.
“Hey, it's not funny!” Yuffie says.
“It's just that,” she says between giggles, “I think Mr. McDuck is a bit of a boogeyman to them. Cid too, probably.”
“Argh!” Unwrapping her arm from her knee, Yuffie waves her hand past her ear. “Don't even get me started on Cid. He was so pissed! Like, I get it, bad timing, could've picked a better place to do it, but McDrama King doesn't have to be such a— argh!”
“You didn't apologize, did you?” Aerith says knowingly.
“No way,” Yuffie says. The one-fifth-full bag crinkles in her fist. “You're not going to tell me to apologize too, are you?”
“Well,” Aerith says. Makes a show of looking up into the sky. “It would be the mature thing to do. Although...”
“You could always aim just a teensy bit lower next time.”
Looking startled, it takes Yuffie a second before she bursts out into laughter. Aerith laughs into the side of her hand.
“I knew there was a reason I came to you!” It takes Yuffie a few wheezing fits before she manages to say, "Fine, fine! I'll apologize... someday."
Their laughter dies just as the light begins to. The sun is now low over the glassy water of the lake. A wind blows by them. Its touch raises goosebumps.
“Y'know,” Yuffie says, “Cid's been tinkering with some of the gummi ships. Said he's got one or two good to fly again.”
“That so?” Aerith's voice sounds far away from herself. Placing a finger to her cheek, she tilts her head. “Think they'd let me take one?”
It should sound like she is joking. Only, Yuffie probably knows her too well by now to think so.
“You're gonna ask permission?”
“It's the polite thing to do.” Dropping her hand from her face, Aerith reaches over toward the bag. Yuffie opens it up for her with a bit of a pout. She selects a chocolate and pops it into her mouth. It tastes good.
“I don't know why you didn't just go with him in the first place,” Yuffie mutters.
Aerith snatches another chocolate from the bag.
“Oh, not needed here, am I?” she says. Tries to focus on the chocolate's rich flavour.
“Could've done with a lot less sugar in my lemonade, yeah.” The retort makes Aerith swallow unexpectedly. It happened only once, but apparently no one is letting her live it down. “Really, though, why'd you stay? We would've been fine.”
“I know that,” Aerith says. Turns her eyes to the horizon. “I do, really.”
“So why then?”
“We both had things to settle.”
Below, the water reflects the darkening sky. The wind picks up again. There is something insistent about it now. Something that makes her nerve endings burn like a wick might. It feels as though it will sweep her from the stonework and into the air.
The thought occurs to her that he is a long way from where she is.
The sound of Yuffie crumpling the plastic bag into a ball jars Aerith back to reality.
“Wish he'd hurry it up, then,” she grumbles. Jams the bag into the pocket of her shorts.
Aerith hopes her laugh does not sound too hollow.
* * *
Cloud would be alright.
Aerith does not doubt his capabilities: she knows he is more competent than most. But she had not known that waiting would be so difficult. Go on, get things settled, she once said. Now she is the one who is unsettled. The one yearning to fly.
It is what drives her to ask Ienzo for help.
When Ansem's pupil and guards first reappeared, Leon had been just one shifty look away from chasing them all out of the castle. Aerith could hardly blame him for it: a part of her had wanted them to take whatever humanity they had left and leave. That Ienzo now has full access to the castle's laboratories is almost extraordinary.
Aerith has rarely met anyone so genuinely eager to make amends.
With Chip and Dale's assistance, Ienzo gets Aerith in touch with Merlin. She is happy that the wizard remembers her. Is even happier that he promises to help her. The next few days are spent between busywork in the computer laboratories and patching leaky rooftops. Summer has brought storms with it. Aerith can feel one building under her skin: the hiss in her veins was the sound of the rising wind.
A few days later, Merlin asks to meet with her in Twilight Town.
“I'll go make the necessary prep—” Ienzo falls silent when Aerith shakes her head.
“I'll talk to Cid,” she says. Puts on a smile. “Thank you, for your help.”
The way he beams at her is almost childlike.
Aerith suspects Cid will not look at her the same way. For one, she had gone to Ienzo for help over him. It had just not seemed like the smart choice to ask him to put her in contact with his age-old rival. Now she knows that was only ever an excuse. Her feet drag as she approaches his work station within the castle's docking bay. The gummi ships abandoned in the original fall of Radiant Garden watch her from their places in dereliction.
She finds Cid on a creeper underneath a ramshackle gummi ship. Setting her jaw, Aerith calls out to him.
No response. The soles of his feet shift as he twists onto one side.
“Cid! I need a gummi ship!”
“What was that?”
He rolls himself out from underneath the ship. Her palms feel oddly clammy as she clasps them behind her back.
“I need a ship,” she says. “I'm going to find Cloud.”
Pulling his goggles from his eyes to rest at his collarbones, Cid stares at her. He looks somewhat gobsmacked.
“You found him?” he asks as he gets to his feet.
“I've a lead.”
Cid peels off his gloves. For what is likely a well-practised motion, it feels far too slow. He is dragging this out: possibly to tease her. Possibly to delay her departure.
Tilting forward, Aerith tries to peer into his eyes. The movement attracts his attention. Cid gives her a half-smile.
“Well, it's about damn time, isn't it?”
* * *
“Once I find him, I promise I'll give you a call,” Aerith says from halfway up the gummi ship's loading ramp. Her friends stand in a half-circle at the bottom of it. Waving her newly acquired gummiphone at them, Aerith smiles.
Yuffie is the only one who smiles back. Even then, she looks like she might start crying at any second. Leon looks resigned more than anything else. Beside him, Cid fidgets with the toothpick poking out from the line of his mouth.
“Oh, come on!” Yuffie slams an elbow into Leon's rib. His reaction is little more than a grimace in her direction. “What's with the look?”
Uncrossing his arms, Leon turns his gaze to Aerith.
“We'll be here,” he says to her. “Don't do anything reckless.”
“Aerith? 'Reckless'?” Yuffie says. Both she and Cid begin to laugh. Aerith fights down her own laughter.
“Hey now,” she says in feigned offence, “when am I ever?”
A giggle escapes her when Leon frowns. Then her laughter dies in the next second. That is not his signature frown. The way he works his jaw and the angles of his eyebrows tell her that this is anything but easy for him.
It is as hard for him as it is for her.
Time has seen the four of them become a family. Aerith remembers the hours spent laughing far too late into the night under Cid's roof. Remembers the afternoons she, Leon, and Yuffie would use scouring the alleyways of Traverse Town for artifacts of other worlds. Together they collected strange shells and oddly-designed clothing and the wind-blown sheets of research papers. Even now, she can recall the clap of Yuffie's worn sandals across the pavement. The sound of Cid's guffaw from the top of the staircase leading to his shop. Can recall Leon's bark at them all to hurry up.
It has been a long time since she has been anywhere without them.
“I promise,” she says. Yuffie and Cid go still at the seriousness of her tone. Leon's expression softens.
They could still come with her. Each one of them did offer. Aerith had turned them down on the basis that there was no need: Merlin had said Cloud was someplace safe but far away. It made more sense for them to be here in the event that King Mickey or Sora came calling. Even though she felt it was not necessary when it came to Ienzo, it was probably a good idea to keep an eye on the newly-Somebodies too.
“You've good instincts, Aerith,” Cid says. There is a shimmer to his eyes that makes Aerith's well up. “Don't prove me wrong.”
Holding back her tears, Aerith smiles.
“I won't. See you soon.”
Aerith does not have a keyblade of her own. All she has is her heart and the well-wishes of her family.
Somehow, that seems enough.
Cid had given her a quick refresher on how to fly a gummi ship. It brought childhood memories back to the forefront of her mind: the too-long lessons Cid had led around the shop's coffee table in the after hours. The way her folded legs would go just as numb as her mind.
On the bright side, he had been a great teacher. Aerith can practically hear his voice as she adjusts the throttle levers and steadies the control wheel.
Take-off could've gone better, she imagines him saying, now I'm only half as scared for the landing. The thought makes Aerith laugh.
Before she knows it, Radiant Garden is a speck of light in a sea of them.
* * *
Twilight Town is stunning in more ways than one.
It feels like she walks through a sunset solidified. Everything has a warm undertone: the brickwork of the buildings and the tile underneath her feet. The distant hillside and the vegetation growing within the town limits. The light that suffuses the nearby windows and the ceiling of clouds overhead.
It is as easy to fall in love with this town as it is to get lost in it.
The trip to Twilight Town had been shorter than expected. The Ocean Between was strangely quiet and its currents favourable. Using directions from a friendly townie, Aerith made a beeline to Le Grand Bistrot's outdoor patio in the hopes that Merlin might have also arrived early. Unfortunately, his blue hat was nowhere to be found among the bustling patio.
With so many hours between her and her meeting with Merlin, Aerith thought she could take the opportunity to explore. It would be fine so long as she did not stray too far from the restaurant. The gummiphone's built-in camera was just begging to be used. She put it to the test by taking photographs of nearly anything and everything: the tram as it slid by. The clocktower as the evening light turned its bells to molten gold. Ivy cohered to the towering walls. The long shadows strewn across storefronts and winding alleyways.
It is just incredible what a World never lost to darkness can be like.
It took her a few awkward shots before Aerith discovered how best to angle the front-facing camera to flatter herself. It took her a few dozen more before she noticed just how late it had gotten. Just how far she had wandered off.
It is by pure luck that she manages to find her way back to Le Grand Bistrot on time.
Merlin's pointy hat makes him easy enough to spot: he is seated at a table for two with a teacup in one hand and a book in the other. His luggage rests at his feet. Aerith cannot help but think that he looks more comfortable in that chair than he ever had in Traverse Town.
Closing his book, Merlin looks up at her.
“Why, if it isn't Miss Aerith,” he says. “Just as expected! Come, come now! Rest your feet for a spell.”
“It's good to see you.” Pulling out the opposing chair, Aerith sits.
“You as well, my dear,” he says. Claps his hands lightly together. Aerith tries not to startle when a teapot hops over to her teacup. “This is a remarkable place, is it not? I hope you enjoyed your tour.”
“I—” Glancing up from the teapot, she is surprised by his nonchalant expression. His eyes are trained on his glasses as he polishes the lenses. It takes her a moment to recall what he had told her when they first met, I happen to be a wizard. A soothsayer! A prognosticator! It had been an interesting but unhelpful explanation for why she found him arguing with a candelabra and a telescope in an alleyway. “I did. This place really is wonderful.”
The teapot toddles back to the centre of the circular table.
“No, that's alright,” she says. Merlin taps two fingers to the tabletop. This time, Aerith knows what to expect. The sugar begins to bounce its way toward him. “How've you been?”
“Excellent, thank you,” he replies. The sugar scoops a spoonful into Merlin's teacup. Then another. “Most excellent. That lad restored a fair number of”— another spoonful goes in— “Worlds, and I've been revisiting old— when! When! Not this time, you!” Merlin waggles a finger at the overzealous sugar. It puts its lid back on as it scurries to join the teapot at the table's centre. It almost looks cute, in a way. Aerith sucks in her lips a little bit. “Ah, where was I?”
“Something about revisiting old, somethings,” she says. Fingers fidgeting, she threads them through the tea cup's handle and takes a sip. Pinching a teaspoon between his own fingers, Merlin stirs his tea. His eyebrows pinch together too.
“'Old somethings', was it? Hm... ah! Well, never mind that. We both know you're anxious to know where he is.”
Embarrassed, Aerith feels a smile creep to the surface. She wonders if it is his sixth sense or her body language that gives her away.
“Sorry,” she says as she sets down her teacup. “So, the Twilight Bark— it worked?”
“It most certainly did. Pongo and Perdita's network is quite reliable.” Merlin turns in his seat to pick up what looks like a cane from where it leans against the table. He turns it bottoms-up and twirls it in the air above the table. “Higitus figitus zumbabazing!”
A clatter comes from below. Bending over, Aerith leans out to one side. She watches as books and chalices and bones jump two feet into the air from Merlin's now-open luggage before dropping back inside. Plates and beakers and scraps of parchment follow.
“No, no!” Merlin yells at them. “Just you, and— yes, you too!”
Wonder and a kind of horror freeze Aerith in place. If anyone were to look over right now, there would be no excuse she could give for what they would see.
A piece of paper rockets into the air. Something resembling a bracelet leaps up onto Merlin's book. Startled by its speed, Aerith shoots upright in her seat.
“Careful now!” he snaps at the bracelet. “Don't scratch the cover!”
Setting aside his cane, Merlin picks up the bracelet. The paper floats down at its own leisurely pace.
“This”— he extends the bracelet out toward her —“is for you. It'll grant you the power to disguise yourself, so that the World Order is never threatened.”
It takes every last ounce of her willpower not to burst into laughter.
“T-thanks,” she says. Slips the bracelet on. A tingling sensation passes from her fingertips all the way to her scalp. Rotating her arm, Aerith examines the silver bangle for engravings or anything else of note. Nothing stands out on its smooth surface. She looks up from the bangle just in time to see the paper land in Merlin's tea. “Oh—!”
“Drat it all!” Gritting his teeth, Merlin plucks the paper from his cup. Gives it a good shake. “See what bravado gets you?”
For once, an inanimate object stays inanimate.
“Now, where was I? Ah, yes! The talisman will provide you with some protection as well.” Shaking out the scrap of paper, Merlin mutters under his breathe something Aerith cannot hear. The paper suddenly looks drier.
“Thanks,” she says.
“No need to thank me. It was your friends who told me not to—” Looking puzzled, Merlin fiddles with the sit of his hat. “When did they tell me?”
“They worry, you see. That is why I asked you here,” he says. Confused, Aerith frowns faintly. It must be some kind of future he foresaw.
“Thank you, Merlin,” she says to try to stir him from his perplexity. “Where did they last see him?”
“Oh, yes. Yes.” The way he strokes his beard makes her think it is a bit of a nervous habit. “Based on what the Twilight Bark uncovered, I believe he can be found at these coordinates.” With his other hand, Merlin passes the scrap of paper to Aerith. She glances at the unfamiliar numbers. “He was not seen leaving, but it is possible he might have left there by some other means. Do take care not to charge in without thinking. I sense no danger, but it is worrisome nonetheless. You see, I hardly sense anything from that World at all.”
He had not mentioned that before. Slipping the paper into the patch pocket of her jacket, Aerith puts on a smile.
“I'll be careful,” she says. “You take care too.”
She makes to stand.
“You've power, my dear.” His hand stops running through his beard. “The power to find what is true. Believe in it, and you will see the path.”
Aerith can feel herself blink. No one has ever described her hunches as a power before.
“Now, before you go, would you care for a bite?” he says cheerily. Frees his hand from his beard. “The food here is delectable, and the road ahead will be quite long, so you know.”
The cold feeling in her gut and the hiss in her veins say no.
“I could eat,” she says. Merlin might just know something she does not. “I'll ask for a menu.”
* * *
The gummiphone is a blessing. It is more than a blessing: it is a miracle.
“Bahamut,” Aerith says to Yuffie through the phone. They clap three times in unison.
“Tiamat,” Yuffie says. They clap again.
The journey to the coordinates Merlin gave her had been long. Heartless patrolled the most direct routes her gummi ship's navigational system recommended to her. Cid had told her to avoid combat at all costs as her ship was not suited to it. Its measly weapons were more likely to combust than do any damage to enemy ships. Consequently, it meant she had to take detour after detour after detour.
Merlin had been right to suggest that she eat before she go. The canned goods and assorted snacks she brought had nothing on Le Grande Bristot's dishes.
The coordinates brought her to a field of debris so thick she could hardly make out the World at its centre. After a few loops around the debris field revealed no openings, Aerith pulled out her gummiphone and rang Cid up.
Set it into neutral, and go slowly, he told her. Real slow. The shields can handle impact from that crap at low enough speeds.
So far, his advice has worked. Junk knocks into the windshield and leaves no dent. Unfortunately, she has to manoeuvre around any of the bigger pieces of debris at an agonizingly slow pace. It feels like she will arrive at the World's surface in about a month.
She is grateful that Yuffie has been willing to kill time with her over the phone.
“Na— ne—” Aerith claps once. Twice. “Uh— nu—” Three times.
“Oh, too bad,” she says with a giggle. Pouting, Yuffie leans back against the leg of an old gummi ship. She and Cid must be hanging out in the cargo bay today. “Best three out of five?”
“You know it! Your winning streak's ov—”
Cid calls out something indiscernible right then. With a sigh, Yuffie gets to her feet. Turns her head away from the phone.
“Alright, alright!” Yuffie calls back. Then— “Gotta go. I'll play with you later!”
“At this rate, I'll probably still be here when you get back.” That makes Yuffie laugh.
Her laughter seems to echo long after the screen goes dark. The cockpit feels so empty. Pulling open a bag of assorted nuts, Aerith munches on them and tries to make out what the garbage she drives through might have once been. She tries to come up with as many wild guesses as she does reasonable ones: that busted-up cylinder might have once been a component for an automatic ice cream machine. The squashed bit of blue in the distance could have been the car of a roller coaster. That broad sheet of metal on her left could be a—
“Sword.” Breathless, Aerith almost trips getting to her feet. Nuts spill sideways out of the bag and scatter across the floor. She keeps her eyes trained on that bit of metal as she reduces the ship's acceleration with a pull of a lever. It take a few heart-hammering seconds before she realizes that it is just a battered sheet of metal.
Collapsing in the pilot's seat, Aerith presses the side of her hand against her lips. She does not want to think of what it would mean if that had been his sword. Her other hand rises to cup the one at her mouth.
“Please be safe,” she whispers.
The words seem to echo in the emptiness.
* * *
The World is dead.
This place is no sunset solidified: the ground beneath her feet is as barren of life as the atmosphere had been. Dark spires loom over ruined skyscrapers. What sunlight breaks through the clouds and debris leaves her feeling cold.
Of course, that last bit might just be a side-effect of the talisman.
Aerith catches sight of her reflection in the cloudy window of an abandoned storefront: her metallic skin reflects the light. Her eyelids click together audibly. Her braid and the curls that frame her face have become cables and vinyl-coated wiring.
Underneath all the metal, her heart pounds.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy had been the last to see Cloud before he disappeared. Neither of them had any clue as to where Cloud had gone to. They could only say that he had left to fight a great battle against someone named Sephiroth.
That name is more familiar than it should be.
The sound of it brought back age-old memories: Cloud sitting slouched at a picnic table in the shadow of their elementary school's gymnasium with a book between his hands. His eyes flitting from word to word as the afternoon sun turned his eyelashes white. The evenness of his voice as he read aloud to her his favourite book series about a fearless man with a nose for trouble. At first, Cloud had been hesitant to share it with her. Now all she can remember is how he would smile whenever they settled in for their lunch hour.
Somewhere along the line, it sounds like Cloud's hero had become his greatest enemy.
Nothing that she remembers in the novels can explain why their fight might have brought Cloud and Sephiroth to this World. All she knows is that she probably will not like whatever that reason is.
Her original plan had been to ask the locals if any of them had met a man with a sharp haircut and an even sharper attitude. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any locals to ask. A rundown mall's loudspeakers gave her false hope for a short time before she caught on. The realization that it is just a recording being played through those speakers leaves Aerith feeling more alone than ever before.
Merlin had been right when he said he felt nothing from this place.
It feels like this World has been lost to a very different kind of darkness. She wonders where its people might have gone to. Maybe they had gummi ships of their own that they used to flee this World and its sepia tone sunlight.
Even though she has become a robot, the muscles in her legs still burn from wading through garbage. Aerith takes a seat on an overturned refrigerator and surveys the trash closest to her. There are detergent containers and plastic water bottles with unrecognizable labels. Old shoes and fractured pieces of what might have been a floor lamp. There is a table with only three legs and an empty bed frame across from her.
She gets the feeling that these things have been alone here for a very long time.
A shattered picture frame housing a faded photograph catches her eye. Bits of its glass snag sunlight on their edges as the wind scatters them across the ground. They almost look like sparks springing free from a fire. Her eyes follow them to the horizon. Follow them to something almost as small moving in the distance.
Her heart stutters. Leaping to her feet, Aerith squints at it. Whatever it is looks squarish and maybe-metallic. She cannot tell if it is coming towards her or moving farther away.
Snatching up her staff, she goes after it.
Aerith takes care not to let herself be seen by the thing. It is impossible to tell at this distance if it might pose a threat to her. Luckily, the mounds of garbage make for pretty decent cover. There are enough doorless wardrobes and busted washing machines along the way for her to duck behind.
From around the corner of a threadbare armchair, Aerith discovers that the thing is a little robot. It hums to itself as it tries to yank free by the neck a beat-up guitar from the surrounding rubble. One loud snap later, the robot is left with only the neck in its tiny hands. The robot makes an unintelligible noise as it pulls at the strings curling up towards the headstock.
Like the sugar bowl, Aerith thinks this robot is almost cute. It seems hard to believe that it might be dangerous.
Suddenly, the robot's stomach opens up at the front. It inserts the guitar neck into its belly with a few additional pieces of scrap metal. Fascinated, Aerith watches as its chest closes up. One loud crunch later, the robot is left with a compressed cube of junk in its tiny hands.
Maybe it is not as harmless as she thought.
Horror film-esque thoughts bubble to the surface. Aerith gives her head a small shake to pop them as she watches the robot pick through the garbage. It comes across a mostly-intact camera and carries it over to a nearby water cooler. She watches as it pulls item after item out of the cooler to make room for its new find: it pulls out a funky pair of sunglasses. Pulls out half a garden gnome.
It pulls out a shining brooch shaped like a wolf's head.
Aerith nearly lurches out from her hiding place at the sight of it. She hardly blinks as the robot repacks the brooch and all into the water cooler. Without turning its binoculars-like head to look, the robot picks up and attaches the ice cooler to its back. Then it rolls away with ease over the garbage on its tracks.
Aerith follows after it.
She tries not to think about what or who the spires of garbage might have once been. Tries hard to convince herself that her first instinct had been the right one.
Her staff becomes a walking stick as she struggles to track the robot. On more than one occasion, Aerith loses sight of it behind the mountains and towers of trash and all the ramshackle buildings in-between. Her heart pounds from more than just the effort of keeping up: this robot is her only lead right now. It might just lead her to wherever this World's people are hiding.
It might just lead her to Cloud.
The light grows thinner by the second. The hum of the robot is all she has left to guide her when she loses sight of it among the dark shapes of rusted vehicles. Nerves prickling, Aerith hunts for the little robot in the thickening darkness.
The sudden silence is chilling.
Her heartbeat sets the rhythm for her feet. Aerith makes her way between the cars and up an off-ramp to an elevated freeway. Something groans deeply from somewhere in the distance. Her heart and feet nearly trip over themselves. By the time she reaches the top of the ramp, the daylight has all but vanished.
It feels like her lungs might cave in on themselves.
Stumbling around in the dark seems like a pretty bad idea. A part of her kicks herself for having strayed so far away from her gummi ship. If she had known the length of the World's day-night cycle beforehand, she might have been able to plan things out differently. Now she is left trying some of the rusted doors on the vehicles nearest to her. A single tug sees a door comes clean off its hinges. Aerith falls backward against another car as the door crashes to the ground. Her startled yelp and its clamour echo in the darkness.
With her back against the rusted frame of a car, Aerith slides down to the pavement. Her hands finds her knees as she tilts her head up to look into the starless sky. The gummiphone weighs heavily in the pocket of her jacket. She brushes aside the temptation: calling now would only make them worry about her. It is not like they could do anything from where they are an Ocean away.
The car that was against her back is not too rusted or insect-infested to stop her from curling up in the backseat. Despite being made from metal, Aerith shivers.
She can only hope that things will take a better turn in the morning.
* * *
She wakes to music.
Launching itself at her ribcage, Aerith's heart drags her upright. Five or six bugs skitter off of her legs and stomach as she does. A voice comes dampened through the closed car door. She can just barely make out the words: “You think you've... the sun but you ain't...”
Grabbing her staff in one hand, Aerith opens the car door with her other.
The door hits something and bounces backward. Panicking, Aerith raises her staff to eye-level and smacks the butt of it against the door. It smacks into whatever it had before. Something makes an anxious kind of squeal as a woman continues to sing.
“And wait till you see that sunshine day... You ain't seen nothin' yet!”
Before Aerith can jump down to the pavement, something short rounds the door.
“Oh!” she lets out.
It is the little robot from before.
Squealing, the robot throws itself into reverse. Its voice clashes with the gentle crooning coming from its chest.
“Hey, hey now,” she says quickly. Trading her staff to one hand, she waves the other at the robot. “It's okay, it's okay!”
The robot comes to a halt.
Carefully, Aerith steps down onto the pavement.
“I'm not going to hurt you,” she says. It only sounds silly after the words leave her mouth: she is not sure if robots can feel pain. Damage might have been the better word. The robot moves its eyes up and down independently of each other. It is hard not to think it looks cute as it does.
“I'm sorry for hitting you,” she says as soothingly as she can. Her eyes snap to its hand as it brushes against its front. The music goes silent.
“Wree,” the robot says. There is something about its intonation that makes Aerith think it is just as nervous as she is. She notices then that the cooler on its back has slid ajar.
“Oh, your cooler.”
The robot turns its entire head to look at it.
“Wree.” Without turning its body, its arms reach backward to fix the lid.
“That was some bad timing on my part, but, I'm glad I found you again,” Aerith says. Facing her agaiin, the robot lifts a hand to point at itself as if to ask, Who, me? She nods. “My name's Aerith.”
Nodding again, Aerith tucks her staff into the crook of her elbow. Crouches down a little.
“Aerith,” she says slowly. It stares back at her unblinkingly.
“Close enough,” she says. Raises a hand to brush aside her bangs. The robot scoots backwards again.
It is definitely more afraid of her than she is of it. Looking at it now, Aerith is not sure how she ever imagined it might crush people up in its stomach. Her gaze catches on the bit of printed text left on its front.
“WALL-E?” she reads out loud. Letting out a tiny blip, the robot rolls an inch forward.
“WALL-E,” the robot repeats in a tone she can only understand as affirmative. Aerith giggles.
“Is that your name?”
“WALL-E.” It sounds like a yes.
“Okay. Hey, WALL-E,” Aerith says. “I'm not from around here. Are there any other people nearby?”
Shaking its head, WALL-E makes a low oh noise.
“Did something happen to them?”
“Vurh?” WALL-E tilts its head slightly. Lowers its eyes evenly.
“Never mind,” she says. “Listen, you found something yesterday. Something like”— Aerith slowly reaches into the pocket of her jacket— “this.”
Pulling out her gummiphone, Aerith navigates to its Downloads folder. She and Cid had the foresight to digitize some photographs of Cloud before she had left. The one she shows WALL-E is a cropped version of a group photo they had all taken in Radiant Garden's once-famous fountain court. Using her finger, she points to the wolf-shaped brooch near Cloud's shoulder.
“Vruh? Vruuu!” Eyes clicking, the robot leans closer to the screen.
“Where did you find this? Did this man give it to you?”
WALL-E looks up at her and beeps. Aerith blinks and discovers it already rolling away from her.
“Huh? W-wait up!” Rolling her staff down her arm to her hand, Aerith straightens herself up.
She hopes that her gut is right.