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Of Mistletoe and Kisses

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Two months.

That’s how long she’s been waiting for him to kiss her.

Well, truth be told, she had wanted him to kiss her long before that, but now she had a better excuse.

Minako blamed life for most of it. They were busy fighting in Tartarus, saving people who got sucked into the demented tower while trying to reach the new levels by the next full moon. If they weren’t killing shadows, they were in school, and Mitsuru would crack the whip if any of them started to slack off.

Shinjiro died in October, which put a damper in her energy. It also opened her eyes to how quickly any one of them could leave her, life was not absolute, and it was frightening. Up until then, she was under the impression that they would all come out of each fight alive because they were the good guys and in what story does a good guy die?

It sparked something different in Akihiko. Minako was floored when they had their rooftop conversation about why he had been so distant and how he couldn’t understand the difference between familial love and romantic love. She tried not to squeal or cry in delight as he stumbled and stuttered through his explanation, but as soon as she noticed the click in his head, everything became lighter. Clearer. Beautiful.

She wanted to kiss him then, but she was too nervous and afraid she would miss, so she didn’t. She settled for an awkward hug that Akihiko never really returned to her liking. But, she told herself as she pulled away that all of this was new to him and she needed to be patient with him. One step at a time. He made one giant step by officially asking her to be his girlfriend. That was enough for now.

Minako also didn’t want to come across as the annoying girl. To her disbelief, there was no article online or in the girly magazine she swiped from Yukari that clued her in on when the appropriate time for a first kiss was. Should she be the one to initiate it, or should she wait for him? Was a week too soon? Was a week too late? Why was she losing sleep over something that she should just go out and get for herself? She never waited for anyone to start something before when she wanted it. Why start now?

Her first attempt had been when they were walking back from another trip to the beef bowl shop after school. Akihiko had been spotted by a few of his fan girls and Minako was immediately yelled at and called several different names just for holding his hand. Despite her boiling anger to get even with the two girls, Akihiko remained very calm, squeezed her hand, and told them, “I can hold her hand when I want.”

It was hard not to melt to the ground as he led her back to the dorm. He remained quiet for too long in her opinion, so she stopped in her tracks and lifted her eyes to his face. Akihiko was surprised by her actions, but he gave her a warm smile that made her cheeks burn. Everything was hot, and had it not been for her determination to kiss him, the words would have evaporated on her tongue.

“S-So…m-maybe next time that happens…you can, um…you can…k-k-kiss me?”

It was hard keeping her eyes on him to catch his reaction, especially since her own heart and brain and lungs and muscles all decided to stop working.

They were shocked back to functionality as she watched him reel back like she was a ghost and desperate to get away from her. He dropped her hand as if she had burned him. “Y-You want me to…to kiss you?”

“Oh,” she replied, trying not to sound so hurt and upset. Was it still too early? Was he nervous too? Or did he not think her worthy or something? “N-Never mind.”

Sadly, she didn’t say another word to him that day, but he was quick to apologize to her the next morning. The damage had already been done, and his apology, as sincere as it had been, couldn’t bring back her desire to ask him again for another week.

Right before November started, Minako thought she had another chance. She had a big match for her volleyball club, and Yukari tried to tell her that a lot of people performed better with a “good luck” kiss from their partner. She wasn’t thrilled at the idea of having to ask him for the kiss, but she thought it would help ease any tension Akihiko might have felt about the issue. That and if she did manage to break the ice, it would be worth it.

Akihiko didn’t even show up for her match, which angered her to the point she felt that she brought the team down and they lost. Not that she had gone to any of Akihiko’s matches or anything, but…

She found him sitting on the couch on the men’s floor at the dorm, finishing up some homework. She hesitated walking up to him and slapping him on the back of the head because he looked so frustrated and tired. She did, however, speak to him with a slight bitterness in her tone.

“You missed my game.”

His eyes shot up to meet hers, but then he narrowed them in confusion. “Your game?”

Her hand found its way to her hip to further annunciate how upset she was. “My volleyball match. If we would have won, we would have gone to regionals!”

The color drained from his face, but then he released a breath and groaned as his head dropped to his chest. “Hell, I’m sorry, Minako.” Both of his hands ran through his hair in frustration. “I completely forgot about it. I’ve been trying to study up for the entrance exams next week and I know that’s a terrible excuse…I’m sorry.”

A part of her felt bad for being so harsh on him over one missed match when she hadn’t been to any of his. He seemed so angry with himself, too. And her match wasn’t going to do much for her future; him passing his entrance exams could make or break his. She carefully sat down next to him and tried to smile at him when he looked over at her.

“I can forgive you. I’m glad you weren’t there to see me play, actually. I was terrible.”

He was quiet for a few seconds, then he chuckled at her. “I doubt that.”

Minako rested against him as she eyed the paperwork on the table in front of her. He strangely had good handwriting for a guy, but even so, she could barely comprehend what the material had been about. She needed to give him more credit for being intelligent.

She just wished he wasn’t so dense when it came to their relationship.

“Well,” she finally said quietly, pushing off of him gently. “You should study some more. Can I at least get a good night kiss?”

Akihiko reacted the exact same way as the last time; tense shoulders, wide eyes, pale complexion. It made Minako’s heart hurt at his rejection, again, so she stood on her feet to save him the horror of having to actually go through with it.

“Good night.”

He was at least smart enough not to say anything back to her as she marched up the stairs and to her room.

The tension started to get to her. Akihiko tried to tell her he was sorry, but she didn’t want to hear it. “Why do you not want to kiss me?” she asked him when they both walked back to the dorm after school a few days later.

“W-Well…” His eyes darted from the ground, to the foliage of the background, but he never made eye contact with her. It greatly offended her. “I-It…It’s…I-I don’t know…”

Minako almost grabbed him by his collar and forced him to kiss her, but it wouldn’t make him want it any more. That was where her hesitation was coming from. “Do you not like me enough to kiss me?”

His expression made her feel some amount of pity. “W-What? No! I-I really like you, Minako. I promise.”

Maybe it was too soon to be demanding a kiss. Maybe she needed more patience. So from then on, she tried to focus on other acts he would do that warmed her. He liked being around her. He told her once that her being by his side was very calming and he was always in a better mood. He wanted to be the one who paid for their weekly dinner dates, but she didn’t have to fight too hard for the tab when she wanted to.

But his only physical show of affection was holding her hand. That was it. He didn’t do well with hugs. He didn’t seem comfortable when she leaned on him when they were sitting next to each other. He even tensed up and panicked when she wrapped herself around his arm either walking back from school or sitting in the lounge.

It was like he wanted to be with her, but at a distance. And it hurt more than she could admit.

Something changed during their school trip.

A part of her was disgusted at the boys for hiding out and spying on her girl friends at the hot springs. She was glad Mitsuru was the one that cornered them, with help from Aigis, but Minako watched each of their reactions carefully as Yukari screamed behind her.

Junpei was scared, but he definitely kept his eyes on all the girls (their bodies, not their eyes) with a blush that was not from the steam.

Ryoji stood with a smile like he thought everything was funny. Deep down, it made Minako laugh as well.

Akihiko was the one who was trying to reason with Mitsuru, that they didn’t know it was the time allotted for the girls, that he tried telling the other two that they needed to head back to their rooms, but Mitsuru was having none of it.

But when he made eye contact with her, his reaction took her by surprise. Sure, he was scared, likely thinking she was very upset with him, but he didn’t keep his eyes on hers for too long. It was subtle, but she knew he took that five seconds to look at her; from the exposed skin of her shoulders, the swell of her breasts and the curve of her hips (that were sadly hidden by a towel), to her thighs and her calves. He soaked her in again as he lifted his eyes, but the second he landed on hers, he jerked his head away with a blush so red that it burned her.

Minako told herself that night that Akihiko was just nervous. He had been told by several people that he was weird and awkward when it came to girls, so of course he would be hesitant about doing anything. But the way he looked at her, clad only in a towel, standing in front of a seething Mitsuru, helped her remember that he was a boy, he had feelings, and that he didn’t know what to do with them.

Sadly for her, she may have been slightly intimidated about starting anything, even as simple as a kiss, in fear that he wouldn’t stop and then have him freak out and disappear out of her life forever.

Was that what he was thinking?

She worried for the following week after their return that Akihiko was going to try and hide from her. And he tried, but she wouldn’t let him.

“I-I’m so sorry,” was always his first words when she cornered him. He was unable to look at her either. “I-It wasn’t my fault. I swear! Junpei and Ryoji were-,”

“Oh, stop it,” she cut him off with a light laugh, which made him turn to her. She could tell he was bracing himself for an attack, so when she grabbed his hand, he jumped at the contact.

She wouldn’t let him pull away. “I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?”

Akihiko sighed in defeat. “For…f-for spying…I guess?”

She giggled some more. “And you think that’s bad?”

“Well, yeah.” Minako noticed that his nervousness had faded away and he appeared more disgusted with himself than embarrassed. “Just because you’re my girlfriend doesn’t mean I should treat you like that. I sure as hell don’t want Junpei or Ryoji to look at you like that. Why does that give me a right?”

Her heart hurt, but she didn’t know how to tell him it was okay. In her silence, Akihiko groaned and pulled himself from her hold, then dropped his head. “I’m sorry, Minako. I promise it won’t happen again.”

A few days passed, but Minako started to realize that Akihiko was more likely to act in the moment than if she tossed out a scenario. The hot springs event proved as much. She could have asked him a million times what he would have done, but never once would he have told her he would study her. Mitsuru executing them hadn’t done Minako any favors, so she knew she would have to ease Akihiko into being more physical with her. In turn, she would have to be more patient.

Her patience met its match when Ryoji revealed his true self, when he gave them all an ultimatum, and then walked out of the dorm.

And just like with Shinjiro’s death, Akihiko proved his strength rather than wallowing in fear, personal insecurities, and doubt.

It made her, in turn, grow stronger. They both spoke to each other on his bed a week after Ryoji had left. He told her she wasn’t alone, they would fight, he would protect her, even if she was strong enough all her own. She thanked him, but when she returned to her room, she felt her words were not enough. He had no idea what he had just done to her, the way he literally picked up every single shattered piece of her heart and painstakingly put her back together to perfection. The realization was so powerful that she cried herself to sleep, hugging her pillow tightly against her chest, wishing it could have been him.

She set out to remedy that the next day.

Yukari was the one who pointed it out to her. A simple decoration at the mall. “Ugh, I don’t understand why everyone wants to kiss someone under an ugly plant.”

Ugly or not, Minako spent her mid-afternoon searching for said plant. She was ashamed of herself for not thinking about it earlier. It was December. While it was a Western tradition, Minako had spent enough time in the States to incorporate the tradition into her life. The plant was hard as hell to find, but she felt something stir in her stomach when she carried it back to the dorm.

Yukari gave her a look once she realized what was in her hands. “Don’t you dare hang that up. Junpei will go crazy!”

Minako realized she had no idea where she would hang it for a “natural” effect. Hell, no one had even put up any decorations at all. Everyone would notice the mistletoe dangling from the ceiling or a door frame. She couldn’t simply hang it on her door because then Akihiko could grow suspicious…

Did he even know what mistletoe was?

The next evening, Minako took it upon herself to go out and get some decorations. She figured it would be nice to see the dorm in bright and sparkly lights that signified inner happiness and life instead of the dull and suffocating blandness she saw every other day. She didn’t buy too much, trying not to go overboard, but she bought lights, a small tree, and a few things she saw she could decorate railings and frames with.

Fuuka and Mitsuru were in the lobby when her things arrived. It was hard to pass it off as her “personal affects” when Fuuka clearly saw the Christmas tree. The girl clapped her hands together and bolted towards the door with a smile so large it made Minako smile too.

“Are we going to decorate?”

Mitsuru walked up to her as well as Minako tried to hide the blush coming to her face. “Well, I thought it would be kind of nice to do something. Everyone has been so down lately. Maybe this would cheer them up?”

“That’s quite thoughtful of you, Minako,” Mitsuru said with a smile. “I will gladly reimburse you for your troubles.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “That’s not necessary. I wanted to do this.”

Fuuka began eyeing the other boxes. “I can’t wait to set all of this up!” She turned to face Minako with that same smile. “I’m so happy you thought of this. You’re such a wonderful spirit.”

She left out the small detail that if there was decorations, the mistletoe wouldn’t be as obvious.

But that was quickly forgotten about as the night carried on. Yukari threatened to strangle Junpei with the lights if he kept calling her the Grinch. Fuuka worked on putting together the Christmas tree, which Minako had to help supervise since Mitsuru seemed to take the decorating a little too seriously and didn’t like the symmetry of Fuuka’s ornament placements. Ken and Akihiko were organizing the lights and hanging them up around frames and windows and railings. Koromaru simply barked happily.

She missed Aigis and Shinjiro immensely. She missed them so much that as she stood back and admired their work, she felt a few tears slide down her cheeks. She wasn’t sad, because she knew Aigis would come back to them soon and Shinjiro would have rolled his eyes a thousand times by now. Once the initial sadness left her heart, the thought of Shinjiro rejuvenated her. She would fight for him. For the future he had been denied, for the future he gave to her and to Ken. Her tears faded away, hopefully before anyone noticed, and she smiled brightly as the lights made each one of her friends glow with life.

Minako felt an arm over her shoulder and a ringing of a bell over her head. “Gotcha, Mina-tan! Now you gotta kiss me!”

Yukari, naturally, ran up to Junpei and smacked him over the head. When her eyes found Akihiko, she tried not to laugh. He was angry, yes, but clearly confused as to why holding a piece of a plant over her head gave Junpei the right to ask for a kiss.

Good. She could use that to her advantage.

While Junpei and Yukari continued their little squabble, Minako walked up to Akihiko with a smile. “Jealous?”

No one besides Yukari, and maybe Mitsuru, had known about their relationship, but she bet if Junpei knew, he would have asked her to kiss him anyway. And Akihiko had always been a little envious of the younger boy since she hung out with him often and had more in common with him than with Akihiko. It was still cute though, the way he glared at Junpei when he would wrap his arm around her shoulder or ask for a kiss because heaven forbid Akihiko do that…

“It’s inappropriate for him to ask you that.”

She tried not to roll her eyes. “It’s actually very rude of me to turn him down, because now I’ve likely cursed him with bad luck, or I’ve cursed myself.”

Akihiko snorted at her. “Please. That superstition stuff is ridiculous.”

Maybe she wasn’t going to be as lucky as she had hoped. Not after he just admitted that it was stupid.

She chose to stay downstairs once everyone had gone up to bed. There was something about being enveloped by the colors of the lights that lifted her spirits. It calmed her. It helped to drown out all of her worries and frustrations. It was so calming that she felt herself drifting off to sleep on the couch.

“Minako?”

She sat up in a panic and took a second to remember where she was. She turned to the stairs to find Akihiko making his way across the room to where she sat. She threw on a smile to put him at ease since he looked very on edge, but then she started to wonder why he was up and why he came downstairs and why he was glaring at her.

“Something wrong?”

She could sense the argument the second he sat down on the chair across from her rather than in the space beside her. “Did you want to kiss him?”

Minako laughed because she was surprised by his question, but then realized what he had asked. “Are you serious?”

“If I wouldn’t have been there, what would you have done?”

She forced in a breath and let it sit in her lungs for a few seconds before she released it slowly. “It’s all in good fun. You shouldn’t be this angry over it.”

His eyes narrowed. “So you would have kissed him.”

“It’s not like you would have kissed me and I’m your girlfriend!”       

Her hands clenched at her side. Her head was pounding now, thanks to the lights. They were too bright. She threw herself to her feet, suddenly eager to escape the silence that fell around them, and walked off to the stairs.

He didn’t stop her, nor did he say anything to her before her door slammed shut behind her.

Minako couldn’t sleep for the life of her. She was so angry that Akihiko could get so jealous over a playful jest when he couldn’t even do it himself. Whatever his reasons were, she needed to know. She was tired of him denying her. She was tired of thinking it was her. She had waited long enough. She didn’t care if it was forced or not, but she was going to break down that damn wall and go from there.

If she made him kiss her and he pulled away in a panic, she would tell him it was over. She couldn’t keep acting like she was happy with holding hands. It wasn’t like she was death or anything…

If she made him kiss her and he didn’t pull away, well, then she could forgive him.

Minako knew Akihiko would be up and about at the ungodly hour of five to start his morning training, so she carefully snuck back down the stairs after checking to see if the coast was clear. She gave herself thirty minutes to accomplish her task. She was tired, but her adrenaline kept her going. She pulled a chair from the table and into the kitchen to hang her piece of mistletoe on the door frame. No one else would be up so early, so this was her chance to catch him, alone.

Now, she just had to wait. And hope that he didn’t decide to cancel his routine because she had upset him last night.

She felt really creepy hiding out in the bathroom waiting for him to stumble down the stairs. But, at five on the dot, she heard him come down. She hurt a little bit when she caught him rubbing his eyes, but once he was in the kitchen out of sight, she came out from her hiding place and followed behind him.

She forced a small smile as she leaned up against the doorframe. “Good morning.”

Akihiko jumped in his place and whipped around. Once he realized who she was, he exhaled deeply and leaned back into the counter. “You scared me.”

“I usually come with you on your morning runs.” Something about his expression stirred up her anger again. “It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.”

“Right…” He turned back around and it was difficult having to keep herself in her spot so she didn’t lose her chance. He sounded as tired as he looked, but she would not leave her spot. She couldn’t ask him if he was still angry in case that backfired in her face, but the silence was crushing her.

Until she realized that he wasn’t even dressed properly to go outside in the winter and the question flew out of her mouth. “Are you not going out today?”

Silence. Her heart started to hammer against her chest and it hurt. He only moved to place the glass he had taken out of the cupboard on the cleaning rack to his side. Did he seriously only come down the stairs for a drink of water? Was he seriously that upset with her that he wasn’t going to go run?

Minako didn’t know which was worse: the silence or the realization that Akihiko didn’t want to train.

She tried to reach out to him with words. “I’m sorry I made light of your feelings last night.”

It was a half-hearted apology, something she figured Akihiko picked up on, but he at least turned around to look at her. “I’m really tired, so I’m going to go back up to bed.”

And he ran right into her. He must have thought she wasn’t going to let him go until she got in the last word. Instead, she stepped into him, ignored the way his body went rigid against hers, and lightly touched her lips to his.

In good news, he didn’t panic and pull away. In maybe bad news, he didn’t really do much other than stand there, frozen. Minako leaned back once she realized he wasn’t responding at all, released a small laugh to cover up her insecurities, then glanced up at the plant above their heads.

“According to legend, a man was killed by an arrow made of that stuff,” she whispered, adding a jerk of her head to show him what she was referring to. “His mother was a goddess, and she cried over his death, and her tears became the berries on the plant, which brought him back to life. She was so happy by it that she wanted to bless anyone who stood underneath it with a kiss, because she figured it would make someone else happy.”

She leaned her head against his chest and tried to find comfort in his quickening heartbeat. “But you’re not happy, are you?”

If she wouldn’t have been focused on keeping her tears behind her closed eyes, maybe she would have noticed the slight shift in his posture and the light weight from his hands as they hovered nervously over her hips.

She did manage to hear his voice at least. “I was scared…”

Well, it was a start, but it wasn’t enough at this point. She grit her teeth in anger while her hands grabbed fistfuls of his shirt. “Why? What have I ever done to you that would make you this worried?”

“The first time I ever kissed you, you slapped me so hard across the face that I sliced my lip open.”

That made her pause. When the hell had he ever kissed her? And when the hell had she ever been that pissed at him that she had slapped him across the…

Her heart dropped into her stomach and she felt sick. It was all a blur to her, but now that he mentioned it again, she remembered very clearly that damn night in that damn hotel. He had walked up to her with only a towel wrapped around his waist and in her horrified silence, he had leaned down and kissed her. She remembered holding her hand after she had hit him because her hand hurt. A part of her slapped him because he needed to wake up, but another part of her did it because she was terrified. She barely knew him then. She had also been getting sick thinking about what else they had done…

“I thought if I tried again, you would hit me…so…so I didn’t…” She suddenly felt his hands on her hips, grabbing hold of her like he was drowning and she was the only thing in the ocean he could cling to so he wouldn’t go under. “I’m so sorry, Minako. I wanted to tell you, but then I was worried that you would get mad at me for being afraid to start with.”

She wouldn’t admit to him that she was a little bitter he didn’t tell her this a long time ago, when she first asked him to kiss her, but to her surprise, he kept on rambling. “Every time I thought about kissing you, all I could think about was that night and some of the images in my head and it made me sick. N-Not you!” She chuckled against him. “I-I meant…I-I was…disgusted with myself.”

“And then you saw me in the hot springs?”

She felt him swallow hard. His heartbeat picked up. “Um…y-yeah…B-But I didn’t mean to!”

His terror was enough for her to push off of him. “Aki, why do you feel like what your feeling is wrong?

He stared at her blankly for a moment, then looked away. “Mitsuru was furious.”

“I’m not Mitsuru.”

“I-I know…but…” He released another breath. “I thought you were angry with me, too.”

She should have told him then that she wasn’t mad. She was surprised, but not mad. If anything, she was flattered that he had eyed her like he had, standing in front of Mitsuru, with other people around him. And all of this was new to him, he had to keep it a secret, so really…she couldn’t hold anything over his head.

“I know this is all new to you, and I’m sorry I’ve made you feel this way,” she finally said to break the silence. “You should never be afraid to feel the way you do. You can talk to me about it. Because I probably feel the same way. Actually, I know I feel the same.” She wrapped her arms around his middle and hugged him tightly. “We don’t know how much time we have left, so we shouldn’t ever hesitate because we’re scared. If you want something, tell me, and we can go from there, okay?”

He nodded, but he chose not to say anything more. She let him walk back up the stairs to his room because she knew he was tired and had a lot to soak in, and she had a lot to think about as well. She was a little sad that he didn’t give her a quick kiss while he was with her, but again, she told herself she needed to show some patience.

But they were running out of time. She didn’t like to think about the future because she didn’t even know if the future was there. She wanted to live now, but she couldn’t force Akihiko to do the same. She just hoped he would kiss her once so she could die happily.

Hell, if he kissed her once, she would probably want it again, and again, until kissing wasn’t enough anymore…

Akihiko caught her off guard when he approached her after school and asked with an adorable blush on his face if she would be willing to talk in his room. Her mind raced with a variety of scenarios and reasons why he would ask her over, but she tried to contain them so her blush didn’t make him stop and ask her what she was thinking about.

He was a boy, yes, but she doubted he would be very comfortable with her on top of him on his bed while she traced the muscles of his chest and stomach while he did the same to her…

She blinked and she was in his room, reminding herself that if she moved too fast, it could shatter the delicate line of their relationship and she didn’t want that. One step at a time…

“Um…” He was nervous. It was cute. “D-Do you want to…maybe, sit on the bed?”

Her eyes widened, hopefully not an obvious amount, but it was suddenly very hot in his room. “Oh. S-Sure…”

He followed behind her and to her utter shock, he sat down right next to her. The small space between them disappeared as the bed caved under their weight and her thighs bumped into his. She was hot, she was suffocating, she was fighting back those images in her head with all her might…

“Am I making you nervous?”

Oh. Hell. She wasn’t as good at masking her anxious excitement as much as she thought. “N-No…Sorry.” Change the subject! “You have a lot of stuff in your room.”

Brilliant…

He thought it was funny. “Gyms tend to cost money and it’s cold during the winter. It’s nice to have some of this equipment to train on those days.”

Keep him talking. “Where did you get them at?”

“Mitsuru offered to front most of the money since I joined the team. She figured it would benefit her to keep me strong and healthy.”

Minako chuckled at the tone of his voice. It had been a while since she heard him so happy. And maybe a little at ease…Was he not nervous sitting next to her? “That was nice of her.”

He fell quiet after that and her brain worked in overdrive to find a way to break the silence. He started to get more anxious, unable to sit still, his hands curling and relaxing on the edge of the bed.

She couldn’t contain it any longer. “You want to ask me something?”

She also noticed he was breathing faster. Just a little. “Um, I…I guess I should…But…I-I kinda don’t want to…” He groaned and it stilled her thoughts completely. “I’m not any good at this.”

That caused her to laugh softly. One of her hands found one of his. “Aki, you don’t need to be so nervous. It’s okay.”

The second his eyes locked with hers, she knew exactly what he wanted to ask her. He situated himself on the bed to turn to her and the hand not in her hold came to rest against the side of her face. He bit his bottom lip as he hesitated, to which she laughed again, then held his face between both of her hands.

“It’s okay, Aki. I want you to kiss me.”

He frowned. “That’s not fair. I wanted to do it before you asked me.”

Her smile stretched across her face. “Maybe you shouldn’t hesitate next time.”

The hand resting on her cheek moved around to the back of her neck and the small amount of pressure pulled her into him. He leaned in the rest of the way and their lips met with more force than the last time. She didn’t push her luck and kept the kiss mild, but it still warmed her from the tip of her nose to the tip of her toes. She smiled against him when he pulled away. One step at a time.

“I love you, Minako.”

That brought her functionality to a halt. But he didn’t give her time to come to terms with what he had said and his hand pulled her back into him for another kiss. It didn’t take too long for her body to jumpstart back to life and she returned his kiss with more vigor than before. She started slowly, trying to read him to know when she was pushing him too far or if she could increase her momentum.

The pressure on the back of her neck, however, told her that he was hungry, and she would be a fool to deny him.

He titled his head to be more comfortable and pushed against her lips with more power and it made her head spin. She reached out to grab his shirt so she had some sort of outlet for her excitement, which only fueled his desire to taste more of her. She was the first one to reach out and touch her tongue to his lips, but the second she did, he took advantage of the opening she had given him.

She was in haze, fighting off the need for air while trying to outmatch him in their tongue battle. The thought made her laugh into his mouth, and the next thing she knew, she was on her back, breathing heavily, and wanting more of him.

She caught the slight fear in his eyes when they parted, but her innocent laughter put him more at ease. “Will you say it again?”

Akihiko frowned at her, not understanding what she had been asking, so she sat up and kissed him lightly before falling back onto the bed. “Tell me you love me again.”

The blush on his face was instantaneous, but she was pretty sure she was bright red, too. “O-Oh!” He leaned back a bit and she worried he was going to sit up completely and leave her wanting more. But he smiled at her, his eyes shining with admiration, and he gave her a light kiss, hovering over her lips. “I love you.”

She breathed out a laugh as she pushed him back down to her and resumed where they had left off. She let her hands wander this time, to an extent, as she appreciated the way he felt under her hands. She moved from his shoulders, his arms, down over the plane of his chest to his stomach. An inner voice screamed at her to not seize the opportunity to reach under his shirt and touch his skin, but it was toned out by the more boisterous part of her, reminding her that she may never have a chance in the future, and she had one now. If he stopped her, she would stop. But until then, she would keep going.

She regretted it, in an odd way, because as her fingers outlined each and every muscle, she wanted more of him. She wanted to rip his shirt off and rip her shirt off and have that skin-on-skin contact. She wanted to be as close to him as possible, but she worried that was a stretch right now. Even if Akihiko wasn’t stopping her, or easing up on his kiss…if anything, he was fighting her with more strength and more desire than she ever thought he could possess…

But then he stopped and sat up. She grew cold, but watched with her breath catching in her throat as he stretched out his back and positioned himself over her in a way she really didn’t want him to because now she didn’t think she could walk away without going all the way. It was too fast. Too much. Even if she was burning for him, she was nervous.

Until he looked at her seconds later with a glint in his eyes and an innocent smile on his face that took her breath away. “Do you want me to take my shirt off?”

The way he said it told her he had no idea what he was really asking. But her shock showed on her face because that smile and glint was gone in a flash. “Oh. Sorry. I…I thought that was what you were trying to do…”

And she laughed. She laughed so hard she felt tears in her eyes. Akihiko’s face grew more and more red the longer she laughed. As hard as it was to do, she sat up herself and pulled her legs out from under him. Then, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and held on to him with all the strength she had.

“I’m sorry. That was just super cute of you to say.”

She felt him nervously lift his arms to hold her against him. He would get better at this, she knew it. “O-Oh…”

“But I don’t want to move too fast, you know?” She rested her head against the crook of his neck. “I know I said before that we shouldn’t wait to do something, but we have the rest of our lives. Not just next month. Or next year. But many more years. Because we’re going to beat Nyx and nothing can keep me away from you ever again.”

His grip on her tightened and he rested his head against hers. “I don’t ever want to lose you.”

“You never will, Aki. I promise.”

“Stay here…tonight…”

Akihiko had spoken so quietly into her hair that she barely heard what he had said. But her heart did. She heard that desperation from someone who had lost too many in his life. And even if she was just going to go back to her room to sleep, she could never walk away from him when he sounded like this. Plus, she didn’t want to.

She planted a chaste kiss above his eye and nodded her head. “I love you, Aki.”

And she slept in his arms, her head buried under his chin, relishing in the warmth and comfort that for the first time in her life, someone truly loved her.