Little Rings

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Rating: PG / K+
Pairing: Aerith/Yuffie
Warnings: Shoujo-ai, mild violence. Vague angst and fluff.
Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts, or any of the places or characters mentioned in that series or this piece of fanfiction. No profit is being made, I write for free.

Notes: Written for yurichallenge over on LJ, for the prompt "caught in the rain". No spoilers for KH2 because it isn't out here yet. Warnings for slight angst and fluff, and very mild violence. 2,200 words.

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The rain is only a light haze against her cheeks, but as it settles it obscures Yuffie's view of the world; she wonders if this is what it must be like, being underwater. Her hair clings to the back of her neck, and beads of rainwater run down her spine in shivers.

"Wait! It won't take long..."

Her voice is raw and she stutters on the last sound; this feels like a failure, and she squeezes her eyes closed. Another failure to protect Aerith, whose head is in her lap, brown hair damp and clinging like a riverweed.

The rain hisses in the gutters, and Yuffie pulls her bottom lip between her teeth. They are stranded here now, her and Aerith, cold and wet and without help. She can't think.

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"It's raining."

Aerith turned her head to smile at Yuffie's words, paint smudged in a childish arc across one cheek. "Is it?" she murmured in response, face soft and open and amusement in the curve of her smile. Yuffie stared back at her. The noisy rattle of the rain on the roof was loud enough for Aerith to hear clearly, and she bristled at being condescended to.

She was always the littlest sister. While Cloud played with his swords and Leon was quiet and secret in his room, Aerith did this and that around the castle. Hollow Bastion was a big place, and required a lot of care; Aerith had always had more than enough care to give.

While they all played their roles, Yuffie sneaked food from the kitchens in the dead of night, read the oldest, most dangerous books in the library, the dust flying from their pages in swirls of grey that made her sneeze. While they all spoke to each other, talked above her head, her sticky fingers slipped idly into their pockets and returned unnoticed. She was the youngest, but by no means naïve.

Aerith seemed not to notice the bitterness in Yuffie's gaze; she turned her attention back to her current task, the paintbrush in her hand leaving strokes of fresh new green against the wall. Yuffie's legs swung and knocked against the legs of her chair as her mind worked, and she chewed absently on her thumbnail.

"Where's Cloud?" she asked, and wasn't little enough for the sudden tension of Aerith's movements to escape her notice.

"He'll be back soon."

It wasn't what Yuffie had asked, but she had heard them whispering and knew that because they pretended nothing had happened, it was undoubtedly something big. She had no real interest in politics, but it seemed necessary to understand it all; Yuffie had always been a fast learner.

Pushing off from her seat, she stepped towards Aerith and smiled when the older girl turned to watch her. "I'll help," she said, smiling, and reached for the other brush. Aerith's dress was soft against her arm. She always did this and that around the castle, and usually did it alone -- now, Yuffie felt obliged to help.

She also felt obliged to help herself, and Aerith was none the wiser later when Yuffie returned to her room and added more stolen coins to her piggybank.

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When Ansem fell to the darkness, it all went to hell. Where before things had been fun, warm and soft, knowing she would be safe because everything was familiar, they started to get desperate. When Hollow Bastion became uninhabitable, they all climbed into Cid's ship and left that life behind. It wasn't as easy as she had thought it would be, and Yuffie was surprised to find things becoming more difficult by the day.

Standing in the street, she kicked idly at a puddle, water catching on the toe of her shoe and splashing onto the bottom of Aerith's dress. At a glance from the older girl she gave a sheepish grin, awaiting reproval; but Aerith seemed to be focused on something else, and her gaze seemed almost to slide away from the world, back into her thoughts.

She had offered to sell things. This was a dangerous world, but she could stand in the open she said, and peddle what they could afford to give up while Leon hung back. If there was trouble, she told them, well, she knew magic. Leon had his blade, and he was quick. There wouldn't be trouble.

The guilt that had hit Yuffie had been completely unexpected, and she had ignored the sudden urge to crawl into the gutter and curl into herself. It wasn't her fault that they were here, of course. It wasn't her fault at all.

Now Aerith stood on the side of the street, the hem of her dress ragged and damp, stopping strangers and offering them trinkets and useless gems, whatever they had chosen to part with. Leon was out of their sight, but they were not out of his; Aerith was safe. She was safe.

They had been travelling for three weeks now, trying to find a world with a place they could stay. Most were dangerous, or unsuitable, or didn't want them. Cid was out buying parts for the ship, and they would be able to move on soon.

Yuffie watched the people pass, their angry faces, and remembered home. The last thing she remembered doing clearly was yelling at Aerith in the library before they had had to snatch up what they could and leave. I'm not a child--

And this gave her chance to prove herself. Later, Cid would return, and they would all pile back into the ship and return to looking. Yuffie would pretend to sleep in the back, and Aerith would stroke her hair with one careful hand while talking in a murmur to the others. Under her coat, Yuffie's fingers would curl around her stolen treasures. She would try to swallow her guilt, to ignore it -- they were only selling what could afford to be sold, and she could not part with these. Aerith's fingers would brush the back of her neck. Yuffie couldn't afford to give them up.

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The room was cold, the floor cluttered with boxes. Yuffie gazed around, her eyes landing on the murky window, the bookcase, the bare floorboards smudged with dirt and the marks of passing time. Her thoughts were scattered, and she couldn't quite manage to draw them all together again. Not yet. The sound of worn boots on the street outside made her turn, and the sight of Aerith smiling into the cold gloom of the doorframe, smiling at her, was the first real sign.

"We're home now, aren't we?" Yuffie asked, the strings and ropes and binds of being littlest sister tightening about her.

"Yes." The smile was in Aerith's voice and she lifted her arms into the air, raising onto the tips of her toes. "This is home now."

They worked to make it nice, their little house in Traverse Town. Aerith grew her flowers, Cid worked selling whatever he had to sell. Leon trained below the town, and Yuffie began to train with him.

Her clever hands became a little less willing to steal. She was the youngest, but by no means naïve.

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Yuffie's shoes scuffed against the street as she sprinted back to the house, right arm pinning her left to her side. Blood collected in the spaces between her fingers, hot and painful, snaking slowly along the back of her hand in rivulets as she ran.

Aerith didn't seem surprised as Yuffie burst in through the front door, speaking quickly in between heavy breaths. She looked up calmly and got to her feet, pushed Yuffie back into the chair by the door, and pried her sticky hand away from the wound. Yuffie had known Aerith for long enough now, but the pure stubbornness she sometimes showed had always been able to surprise her just a little.

"Let me look," Aerith murmured, holding Yuffie's free hand in her own, twining their fingers together to hold her still. Yuffie let out a heavy breath as pain wound through her arm, but the solid comfort of Aerith's hand in hers was enough to stifle any noise she could have made.

The green glow of Aerith's magic flared around the wound, masking the red; but Yuffie could still see the skin begin to repair itself through the haze of green, and she swallowed heavily. It was always strange, the feeling of flesh and skin knitting itself back together right there. She would never quite get used to it.

It only took a few moments, and then Aerith straightened up again, smiling. Yuffie released her grip on Aerith's hand suddenly, and tore her gaze away, inspecting her fresh new scar instead.

"What happened?" Aerith asked, hands on her hips.

Yuffie winced. "Nothing!" Well, it had been something -- Leon, to be more specific -- but the details would only cause trouble, and it hadn't been his fault anyway. "I mean, it was just me being clumsy." She grinned widely, flashing her teeth. "No need to worry."

Aerith raised an eyebrow, but let the subject drop. They knew each other well enough by now for her to know when the younger girl was lying, Yuffie thought, and she had been telling the truth.

She watched as Aerith returned to what she had been doing before Yuffie had barged in: she sat back down at the table and flicked through a heavy book, something thick Yuffie was sure she hadn't seen before. She walked over and stopped at Aerith's shoulder, attempting to read at the page the flower girl had open.

"Magic," Aerith said simply, without turning.

For a second, Yuffie wondered. Could Aerith do it? Would she? "Aerith," she began, twisting her fingers together. "Could you… teach me? Could I learn magic?"

The thought of all that ability and power was more than enough to pique her interest. This time, Aerith did turn when she spoke. "I don't know." Her eyes seemed a deeper green in the shade of the room. "But I could try."

Yuffie smiled.

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The rain is only a light haze against her cheeks, but out in the open it is loud, the heavy splash of a storm into the street. Yuffie looks up at their temporary shelter, the way the wind and the rain tangle into the tree branches and howl.

Aerith's cheek is warm against her thigh. Yuffie looks down at her, and rainwater runs from her hair down her cheeks, gathering on her chin and quivering there against the pull of gravity. When they fall, they splash into the tangle of Aerith's hair. Her back is straight and proud, even now, the line of her spine visible through her wet dress like a reed.

What should she do now? Yuffie sees the shadows twist and gather, the pale light of dusk not enough to drive them back. What should she do? The wound on Aerith's temple glistens, wet and red.

It has always been Aerith taking the role of healer, patching up scrapes and cuts with her magic, her bandages and warm words whispered and pressed against Yuffie's scalp as she winced against pain. But now, Aerith lies unconscious in the cold, and Yuffie isn't quite sure what to do. She has never known how to build things back up again; she has always been there to take them apart, piece by piece, instead.

A shadow ripples and disappears in the space before her. She reaches for her shuriken with fumbling fingers, the cold seeping through to the bone. This is her chance to protect Aerith, and she is determined to prove herself.

The shuriken hit the ground where the Heartless stood, with a wet thud; the ground where the Heartless stood, moments before melting back into the shadows. Yuffie runs the back of one hand against her eyes, brushing away the wetness of the rain, her eyelashes soft and clumping together as she blinks furiously and tries to steady her hands.

She looks down at Aerith, her hair wild around her head as though she is underwater and runs her fingers through it. She leans down, presses a kiss to her forehead. She is no longer the littlest.

Yuffie sets Aerith down carefully, taking care not to hit her head, and scrambles to her feet. The Heartless weave along the path, hanging low on the ground, their beady yellow eyes fixed on her. She launches more shuriken at them with fumbling fingers, and almost every one misses its mark.

Aerith is healer, and Yuffie has a role to fill now too. She will protect those closest to her, keep them safe.

"Fire!" She directs the spell, and this time, watches with satisfaction as they burst into dead clouds of black.

The Heartless fall, one by one.

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