* warnings: pre-femmeslash. Possibly a prequel to a longer story, in which the girls will actually be old enough to fall in love and know it. *

* For my own predestined love, my hope, my everything. *

~Sugar Hearts~

The lines crisscrossed her palm in long, sweeping creases. When the girl looked closer, she could see that every line was actually made up of delicately interwoven indentations. And when her sight was too blurred to really make out the lines at all, she could still follow the sweep of the lines with her other hand. Her finger tickled and tingled as she followed the creases on the sensitive skin.

If she could believe in palmistry, then she could believe that her past and future were marked here, on her left hand - or was it her right? She knew that one was what you were born with, one was what you made of your life, but Hotaru could not remember which palm she was supposed to read. In any case, she could make no sense of the lines. All she really knew about palmistry was a collection of names - life line, love line, wealth line - and nothing else. She was not even sure the names she knew were right.

She was deathly afraid, on days when she could not struggle against the weakness that overwhelmed her broken body, that if she knew which her life line was, it would be too short. But then again, sometimes, in her darkest moments, she suspected that her life line would be abnormally long. She could not articulate the fear, could not even comprehend why the thought was so unbearable. But. there it was, lurking in the back of her mind. Waiting to be awoken along with the confused visions that came to her in her sleep, or when she traced her palm like this- fire and death and silence.

She did not believe in palmistry, in any case.

Hotaru curled herself into a ball, her palms pressed against the floor, as her fragile frame shook with weeping.

The door creaked open, but she did not look up. It was probably just stupid Kaori, anyway, come to gloat. Hotaru was sure Kaori hated her even more than she hated the beautiful woman, even if she was not sure why that icy knowledge was in her brain. She would not stop crying for the witch's sake, anyway.

And maybe, just maybe, it was Papa standing in the doorway. And if she did not look up, her Papa would ask her why she was crying, pick her up in his arms and baby her, and she would be safe and loved. It was important not to look up, because looking up would make the intruder be Kaori. If Hotaru pretended she had not heard the door open, then it would be her Papa.

She had been alone and helpless so often that this kind of game came easily to her. Pretending she had some control over her life.

"Hotaru? Why are you crying? Do you feel sick again?" Not her father, definitely, nor Kaori. A high-pitched, sweet voice, higher still through anxiety.

Compunction pierced Hotaru's self-pity. She sat up and wiped her eyes. Rini should not be worried. "Rini? What are you doing here?" It troubled Hotaru that Kaori had let the child in. She hated not understanding the older woman's motives. It made her feel even less in control.

"I came to visit you!" The little girl's face lit up with the assurance that she would be welcome. Sunshine. Rini always reminded Hotaru of sunshine. That round glowing face, her hair that seemed to be spun out of the first light of dawn, her radiant health and happiness. Most of all, the ease with which Rini gave and received love.

When she was in the sunshine of her little friend's presence, Hotaru did not mind so much being made of shadows. Which was a stupid, gothically melodramatic thought she should be ashamed of. even if it felt true.

She had been silent too long. Rini's vivid little face dulled a little. "You do want me to visit you, right?" Her already huge scarlet eyes widened further, in appeal.

//No, I want you to stay away. It's not safe, I'm not safe, and you're too precious to put in danger.// "Of course I want you, Rini!" Her own voice trembled with the force of her feelings.

"Good, because I want to visit you lots and lots! You're my very best friend in the whole world, Hotaru." The black-haired girl almost fell back to the floor as a small, lively thunderbolt arrived in her arms.

Hotaru giggled, the pure happy sound strange in her ears. She wrapped her arms close around the child, loving the feeling of being hugged in return. She could swear that the warmth of Rini's personality was soaking into her chilled bones. "You feel like you fell from the sky."

Rini giggled too. "Well, maybe I did!" She squeezed Hotaru tight, then slipped out of her arms. Hotaru felt a stab of disappointment. "Look, I brought you something." She thrust something into the older child's hands.

Hotaru gazed at the squishy pink object in some bemusement. "A toy rabbit?"

Rini nodded, her fluffy pigtails bobbing. "He's called Mr. Bunny, and you have to take good care of him. So when you don't feel well, you have something to cuddle - and to remind you of me."

Hot tears stung her eyes again. "Oh Rini."

"Don't you like it?"

"I adore it." But her breath was catching again, and the tears and weakness overwhelmed her. She was collapsed on the floor again before she knew it. She clutched the toy rabbit for dear life.

Small, surprisingly strong hands stroked her hair. "Don't cry, Hotaru. Everything will be fine. I'm here with you."

"Rini... You shouldn't be here. I do bad things." she sobbed. "It's not safe to be my friend."

"I don't care! You'll never ever do anything bad to me, I know it. And I'll protect you, I promise." Rini sounded so determined - but how could a tiny, innocent girl protect Hotaru from horrors she could not even identify herself? "I love you. I love you forever, Hotaru."

No one except her Papa had ever said something like that to her, and Papa was. strange. This affection was as natural as sunshine. It was no wonder her tears dried under its influence. "I love you too, Rini. Forever," she promised, her voice shaking as she turned into her embrace. And she meant it. meant it with all her heart. After all, she had given her heart to Rini the first day, when she had risked breaking down to capture the pink- haired girl's beloved hat. It did not matter what she feared. She couldn't do without this friendship.

They stayed still for long moments, two little girls clinging protectively to each other. At last, Rini piped up again "You should be in bed, Hotaru. I'll get Kaori -"

"No. I don't want her to know I'm ill again. She - fusses." It was not really what she meant at all, but she could not explain about Kaori to her friend. Hotaru sat up, and smiled. It was not as difficult as she thought it would be, once she saw Rini's loving little face. "I just need some rest. Will you help me to bed?"

Rini was much smaller than her, but she still fussed affectionately over the older girl and tucked her into bed, Mr. Bunny beside her. Hotaru did not care for one moment that she was too old for cuddly toys.

When her friend was arranged to her satisfaction, Rini leaned over and kissed her cheek. "I'll let you sleep, but I'll come back soon, I promise. Night, Hotaru. I love you."

"Good night, Rini. Thank you for Mr. Bunny - I love him. I love you, too."

They kissed again, a childish innocent touching of mouths. Then Rini tripped out of the room - taking Hotaru's sunshine with her.

No, Hotaru realised, she was wrong. Rini had left sunshine in her wake. She cuddled the toy. //I'll protect you. I love you forever, Hotaru.//

The strange thing was, part of her heart really believed that Rini could protect her from the silence and fire.

She traced her palm in the darkness, wanting to believe she really could feel her future in it. The same horrific images came to her mind, but this time, they were melted in the light of another, sweeter vision. A princess in a white dress, with hair the colour of snow warmed by sunrise, and eyes as crimson as the red rose of true love, reflecting the soft loving curve of her mouth. The dark visions crumbled into shadows at that smile.

If Hotaru feared the other future, maybe she could believe in this one.

For the first time in too long, Hotaru fell asleep with a smile on her lips, and gentle words replaying in her mind.

//I love you forever.//