Her mother had been waiting for him when he got off the train, down from the plate, back into the slums. She hadn't been quite frantic, but it was getting late, the street lights flicking on in the under-plate gloom, and the worry in her voice was edging toward panic.
"Have you checked that old church?"
No, no she hadn't checked anyplace so far from home. She didn't want to be out all night searching, only to have Aerith come home an hour after she'd left.
Shaking his head he'd left, agreeing to look for the missing girl. He searched systematically, out from her house, through Wall Market street, stopping in at all of the shops and ramen booths.
"Have you seen Aerith? Yes, the flower girl. No? Thank you."
Some places he didn't even ask. They simply greeted him cheerfully or slyly or with that speculative look that wondered how he'd look stretched out the sheets at home, called him by name, and told him that she wasn't there. He thanked them warmly, coldly, or with that particular narrowing of the eyes that reminded them where he'd come from and what he was training for and left.
He worked his way toward the church.
He checked the side alleys as he went, just in case she'd wandered, handing out her little bits of beauty to the flea ridden scum of the underworld. He wouldn't worry until he'd reached the old building and found it empty. Until that happened, she was safe, if foolish.
Her mother was forever telling her not to go out alone. Shiva, he was always telling her that, and she would laugh and tell him that he was too young to be so old and hand him a flower.
Really, there were days he wondered why he put up with her.
He found her, predictably, coming out of the church. She wasn't paying attention, too intent on arranging the flowers, yellow and white on their long stems, in her basket. "Aerith."
She didn't even jump or have the grace to look startled. She just looked up, eyes as green as the flowers' stems, and smiled as if she'd been waiting for him. "Tseng! Mother didn't send you, did she? I've told her to stop bothering you about me."
"You shouldn't be out on your own." He didn't frown. He didn't need to. His ever solemn expression, the one she swore he'd been born with, just stilled a little bit further, disapproval easily conveyed. "How many times do we have to tell you that?"
"How many times do I have to tell you the church is perfectly safe?" She rolled her eyes and sighed, laughing a little, exasperated.
"The church is, but the rest of the slums aren't."
"Really, Tseng! You're too young to be this old!" She stuck her tongue out at him. For some reason she always reminded him of a cat when she did that - a happy little cat without a care for the future. "I suppose working for ShinRa will only make you worse."
"I hope not." He held out his arm, smiling a little when she took it, all delicacy and manners as if she were President Shinra's wife rather than a girl found in a train station. He liked the way she laughed as they started walking.
"So, how did the interview go today?"
"I can't say for certain." He looked at the ground as they walked, watching the shadows from the corners of his eyes. He tried to keep his mind rooted on her as they walked, on them, on the places where her arm touched his. She was still a bit young for all that, but for some reason he couldn't help hoping that when she was older, maybe... "I think it went well, but the Turks are a rather elite group. Strange, in some ways. The man I talked to was about what you'd expect from ShinRa - cool, collected, serious, but I saw a few of the others and they seemed quite...different." One of them - a man - had been dangling a pair of underwear over the head of another - a woman. Presumably her underwear. She'd picked up a nearby chair and kneecapped him with it while a third - he really couldn't tell a gender - had sat by laughing. "It makes it harder to know how I did when I'm not certain what they're looking for."
"Well, if you don't make it, you can always be my bodyguard!" She laughed and squeezed his arm. He was suddenly, painfully, aware that she was beginning to develop a bust under that neat, well worn little blouse of hers, and he sincerely hoped the shadows hid his blush.
"You wouldn't need a bodyguard if you'd just..."
"Stay in at nights. Don't go anywhere on my own. Be careful." She sighed again and moved away a little. "Yes, I know, I know. Really, one of these days I'm going to have to be able to take care of myself, Tseng. You and Mom can't protect me forever." She scuffed the ground with the toe of her shoe, sending little pebbles skittering. "Who knows? Perhaps one day I'll have to protect myself from you, Mr. Turk." Her voice smiled and she bumped lightly against him.
He shuddered. The small distance between them was positively arctic after having her pressed to his side. Beyond the plate, the sun had set and the street lamps were a poor replacement even for filtered light. The slums never looked dingier. "Don't say that, Aerith." He took a long, slow breath, soothing, trying to clear the sour feeling from his stomach. "Don't ever say that, even joking. It isn't funny."
Sign up to rate and review this story