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Empty Towns and Tired Lives

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Traverse Town was always a place of uncertainty. No one could know when something might disappear, or be taken away. No one could know where the heartless might invade next. People came, and people went. This is what you’d learned in your time here. 

Everyone, that is, except your family.

They were the only reason you kept going in this dark, awful place. Your pillar of support. In three years they had gone from strangers to people you trusted and loved implicitly. Aerith's steadfast determination, Squall’s levelheaded coolness, young Yuffie’s boundless energy and optimism… even Cid’s gruff and well hidden protective streak did it’s best to pull you through each day. It wasn’t perfect, but you loved them. 

You kept going for them.

So when Aerith starts flagging, nearly everyone is instantly worried. 

“I’m fine, really.” She tries to deflect as you and Leon try to confront her in the dingy, barely holding together scrap kitchen Cid had welded together. “There’s no need to worry.”

“I’m gonna worry.” You cross your arms, upset. You see the heavy tiredness under her eyes and how her posture isn’t nearly as proper as it usually is. She’s trying her best to hide it, but she’s clearly exhausted.

Leon crosses his arms too, glaring up at her. She’d sprouted early and Leon it seemed was a late bloomer, but the twelve year old wasn’t going to let a simple thing like a height difference stop him. Aerith sighs.

“I’m just a little tired, that’s all.” She admits. “It’s not so bad I’m going to make anyone pull double shifts to cover for me.”

You sigh. She had a point there, the patrols had to be done one way or another, but there had to be a balance so she could take care of herself too. There simply weren’t enough people to do any more than the bare minimum right now.

“I know.” You admit. “But don’t push yourself either. If it starts getting too bad one of us can cover, we don’t want to risk you hurting yourself.”

“Comet,” She gets that sad smile that you hate. She looks too old for someone only thirteen. “This is Traverse Town.”

And really, isn’t that all that needs to be said?

This place had stolen their childhoods from them. From you. Continued to with every shadow you jumped at, day and night.

Supper is soup, again. Cid had managed to find some salt though, so it has a little more flavour than usual, which is nice. He says there’s a place in the 3rd district that tends to end up with more supplies in it than other places, but it worries you. No where was safe, but the 3rd district especially practically writhed with monsters. It would be years before patrols could extend far enough you could start setting up lights and generators out there.

Aerith comes back from patrol looking a little bit better, which is relieving. Maybe you’d been overreacting.

It’s your turn now, and you pack your escrima sticks and lock the door behind you as you leave, refreshing your shaky, beginner level wards as you go. You don’t know that much about magic, barely enough to do this, but it’s better than nothing. Whatever would keep the heartless out for an extra second or two was a second or two won.

“Comeeeeeeet.” You look up to see Yuffie half hanging out a window on the second level. You don’t bother scolding her. She had enough energy for three people and wouldn’t listen anyway.. And this was hardly the most dangerous thing you’d seen her do.

“Yessssss baby?”

“I’m not a baby!” She pouts adorably, puffing out cheeks still pudgy with baby fat. “Find me a cool rock!”

“Okay, Yuffie.” You shake your head with a smile. “I’ll do my best.”

“You better!” She shouts as you turn away, heading out into the dimly lit streets.

It’s always a blessing when patrol is boring. The heartless hang in the shadows, always, always, but today that’s where they stay, not bothering to venture into the haphazardly hung lights you and your family had strung along the streets.

There are actual street lamps along the cobblestones, but they hang dark and useless. Cid thinks they might actually be hooked up to something, against all odds, but despite searching none of you have found it yet.

Someday, maybe.

You’re in the last third of your patrol, coming up the stairs in the second district, when you see the familiar silhouette of a young boy.

“Squall, what are you doing out here?”

He scowls like he always does, turning his head away without answering. Bad word day?

You take a moment to sit next to him, feet dangling over the precipice of the cobblestone wall, the remains of a silent fountain below.

“Still thinking about Rinoa?” You ask quietly. His glare hardens and you can see his lip wobble. Poor kid. They’d made such good friends so quickly, and like everyone else Rinoa had vanished too.

You hoped, for his sake, that she’d simply left somehow, and not been…. Well.

“I’m sure she’s okay.” You don’t like lies, but you tell yourself that you don’t know what happened to her. Maybe she is.

He glances towards you for only a second before returning his gaze to the ground. You sigh. You’re so tired, but you can’t let on about that right now. You were always tired anyway.

“Come on.” You tug on his arm as you stand. “No use dwelling on what-ifs, right? Until we know otherwise, she’s probably fine and just didn’t have time to say goodbye.”

He gets up, but sticks his hands in his pockets sullenly as he follows behind you. You walk quietly like that for a moment before you have an idea, fishing in your bag.

“Here,” You hold out an apple. “I found some in a new house in the 2nd district. You missed dinner.”

He takes it, nodding gratefully and then taking a bite. You return to walking, listening to him devour the apple. You’d been saving it for yourself, you couldn’t remember the last time you’d had a fresh fruit, but these were growing kids after all. You didn’t need it anyway.

You shove the bitter, empty part of you down, the one that cries and screams with each crunch. You’d given it to him. Too late now.

He’s just a kid, you remind yourself. They’re all just kids, except for Cid.

You were just a kid too.

You come back into the 1st district and let yourself bask in the soft glow of the lights in the square for a moment. The light is safe. The light is warm.

Squall walks past you, tossing the apple core aside, almost nothing left on it. You kick it aside as you walk past. The nice part of this place is that not even litter stays long.

It’s a weird thing to be thankful for, but you will take any small silver lining you can.

You enter the little house and are immediately beset by Yuffie from above. You laugh as she tries ineffectively to wrastle with you, and you pretend to go down, giggling all the way.

“I got you!” She crows. “Admit defeat monster!”

“I yield, I yield!” You tap out, still giggling. Leon snorts dismissively above you.

“Heartless won’t yield.” He signs. Yuffie pokes her tongue out at him.

“They will to me! The great ninja Yuffie!!” She shouts, and you try not to wince. Kid doesn’t have an indoor voice.

“They’re not smart enough to yield.” Squall’s gestures grow sharp. “You’re stupid.”

“You’re stupid!” She bites back, getting to her feet and all but ready to launch herself at the boy. You grab her by the hood of her jacket to keep the inevitable squabble from breaking out.

“Alright that’s enough. Squall, get washed up, Yuffie, time for bed.”

They pout but thankfully listen. It’s usually more of a fight, so you must not be the only one tired today.

“Where’s Cid?” You wonder aloud to yourself.

“At that supply depot he found in 3rd again.” You turn and find Aerith in the doorway. She’s got deep bags under her eyes again, and you frown.

“You should be resting.”

Aerith frowns, and it makes her look much more like the kid she is, pouting over being told to go to bed.

“I’m fine, honest.” She says. “What about you?”

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” You snort. She frowns harder. You start to shoo her upstairs. “Come on, bed.”

She gracefully allows herself to be pushed into bed, but before you can leave a hand sneaks out to snatch your wrist.

“You should let us take care of you too, sometimes.” She murmurs. You don’t think she understands how much you can’t do that. You’re seventeen now. Much too old to be putting that kind of burden on eleven and twelve year olds.

It doesn’t matter how tired you are.

“I’m fine.” Is what you tell her, and she purses her lips, getting that too-old look in her eyes again.

It passes, and she settles more comfortably into the threadbare mattress and single thin blanket. She doesn’t let go of your hand though, and suddenly she grows shy.

“Aerith?” You ask, and she blushes.

“Do you remember any of the old lullabies from home?” She asks.

“Course.” You nod, and it's only half a lie. You'd started making up bits as the details had started to leave you, but you still knew most of the tunes well enough. Sensing where she’s going with this you take a seat on the edge of the mattress. You’d sung them to the kids a lot, just after your group had arrived here, Yuffie especially, being the youngest. It had been a nightly thing for a long time, until a point where it had just become too painful to remember home like that.

“Could you…?” She asks, trailing off. She blinks sleepily, looking as tired as you feel.

“Sure.” You give in, pulling on old, painful memories, willing the words to come back to you.

Aerith is asleep in the first few lines.

-

Breakfast is whatever you can find. Supplies are low again. You hope Cid found something good in the depot.

He comes back just before lunch, a large wagon in tow, full to the brim of all sorts of things. Relief wells tumultuously in you, but you don’t have time to express it. You help him unload. Squall and Yuffie are patrolling the 2nd district- it’s as far as you want Yuffie going from the relative safety of 1st and even that makes you nervous, but you can’t protect her forever. Not here. They’re supposed to meet up with Cloud and Tifa partway through, but the other two kids had always been a bit distant. You wanted to get to know them better as fellow survivors from home, you really did, but you had your hands so full already with the siblings you had.

For a second you smell burning flesh again, and you shake it off. Those people were gone. They couldn’t hurt your sister anymore. If Cid notices your pause or the shaking in your hands he says nothing.

“Where’s Aerith?” He asks, tone as gruff as it always is, but you still sense the concern underneath, given the other two are still accounted for.

“Resting.” You reply. “She hasn’t been feeling well so I thought I’d let her sleep in.”

“‘S not like her.” Cid grunts. You shrug. Even the most resilient of people got worn down. You’d know.

You finish unloading and organizing the stock, and Cid sets about securing it while he makes deliveries. The family by the empty restaurant had been waiting on filters for some time, and the man under the eaves would be grateful for new clothing. Cid hated doing deliveries, you know, he wants to set up an actual shop at some point, but right now it’s easier to take the pieces where they need to go and barter there. There’s few enough people that it works.

Leon and Yuffie come back safe, though apparently Yuffie had wandered into a nest at some point and the heartless in 2nd were stirring now. You sigh but don’t feel much else beyond resignation. It was Traverse Town. At least you had forewarning that they might be more active than normal when you went on patrol.

You come back with a few new scratches but nothing too serious. You don’t even bother pouring a potion on it, too conscious of your meager supply of them. Better to save them for something serious and not waste them on you.

It’s a rare evening that you all get to eat dinner together, except…

“Where’s Aerith?” You ask. Cid frowns, and something anxious settles in your gut.

“Still sleeping.”

“All day?” You ask. Squall nods.

“I tried to wake her up cause Cid said she needed to eat and drink but I could barely even do that.” Yuffie says around a half eaten mouthful. “Didn’t even open her eyes.”

You look at Squall, who nods. He’s got that quiet, pensive look again that he’s been wearing ever since Rinoa vanished.

“I’m gonna go check on her.” You finish your last spoonfuls and get up, heading upstairs more slowly than you would have liked.

You creak open the door, and sure enough Aerith is still there, eyes closed and sleeping. She doesn’t react to the noise or the light.

You feel nothing, and close the door.

You head downstairs and grab your own blanket off the cot, just as thin and threadbare as everyone else's, and head back up. You drape it over her. The tiny shivers she’d been having subside just slightly. You sigh.

Cid is waiting for you in the stairwell.

“I got all the supplies I’m gonna get until the Town shuffles again.” He says. There’s something he’s trying to say, but you’re tired and it drains your willingness to parse it.

“And?”

“So I’ll be here.” He says, and gives the smallest, sharp nod toward Aerith's door. “Don’t worry about going on patrol or nothin’.”

Oh.

Well, that was nice, you supposed.

You head back to your cot, and settle in for the cold night.

-

Three days pass. Aerith doesn’t wake up.

Yuffie insists she’s getting better, all the desperate denial only a child could have. Squall stays in the house even less. You want to believe she’ll be okay, but every time you see Cid the stress lines in his face have gotten deeper, and he doesn’t need to say anything at all. Even Cloud and Tifa drop by, offering to help however they can.

You feel numb. You feel rage at the injustice of it. You feel the deep wellings of premature grief. You feel nothing at all.

Patrols continue on, a few newcomers lending their help. It lightens the load just enough that you feel lost without something to do.

You stare into the bathroom mirror, maybe if you glare enough your hair will cut itself. The dull, barely serviceable scissors sit innocently in your hand, as if taunting you.

You’re not sure how long you end up sitting there, but it must have been a while because eventually Squall peeks in, concern in his young features.

“Hey.” He’s talking today. You’re perversely glad. You don’t have the energy to turn your head toward him. “You’ve been in here all morning.”

You open your mouth to say that you’re fine, but the words stick in your throat.

Squall seems to understand though, letting himself in the rest of the way and sitting next to you. He looks at the scissors, and then back at you, still staring into the unmounted mirror.

He pulls the scissors out of your fingers and then moves to sit on his knees behind you, pulling the longest parts of your hair back and securing them with a hairtie he must have had on him.

You glance up, seeing his own hair falling across his shoulders. Oh. His own tie then.

He starts to snip the sides, where the short bits had started to grow much too long. Scissors weren’t the best way to do this, but without a razor or even a decently sharp knife it was all you had. Aerith always somehow managed to make it look nice.

Your lip wobbles, but you don’t move.

“She’ll be okay.” Squall murmurs. Unable to move, you let the tears simply run.

“What if she’s not?” You croak.

“I’m not doing this for you forever.” He continues to snip away. You huff a laugh.

“No sense dwelling on the what if’s.” You tell yourself. You repeat it. Over and over in your head. Maybe eventually it’ll stick.

What if she didn’t wake up?

What if you lost Aerith forever?

The scissors draw away, and though he’s not finished, you see Squall in the mirror, drawn inward and staring at the ground.

“I’m scared, Comet.” His voice shakes. You turn around to face him. His whole body trembles as he tries not to cry. “We can’t lose her too, not after-”

He sobs, curling in on himself. You pry the scissors from his fingers and set them aside, feeling your own sobs in your chest as you curl around him in turn. You tug him up into your lap and lean back against the bathroom wall as you both sob brokenly.

You’ve all lost so much. Family. Friends. Home. Lost in a place that did nothing but take and take and take.

For the first time in years, you pray.

Please.

Please don’t take her too.

-

It takes another two days.

But nothing compares to the sheer relief that floods every single one of you when you see Aerith walking around the house under her own power again.