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A Practice, For Now

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It wasn't the proper setting, the air still thick with the chemical smell of cleaning fluid, the dying sunlight streaming in through the window in dust-mote-laden rays, and her hands wrapped around an old mop handle as she cleaned a public restroom. It wasn't the right time either, 4PM on a Friday. It wasn't even the right reason, probably.

But Nene had decided she was going to ask anyway.

"Hey, Hanako-kun?" she finally spoke up, as her hands tightened around the mop. It was a little easier to say the words when she was separated from his sight by the row of stalls.

"Hm?" was all he said in response. She was sure he was over by the window like usual, staring out at the sky he could never touch, the setting sun shining straight through his semi-transparent legs.

"I have... a favor to ask you." She gulped to force down her nervousness. It wasn't a big deal, was it? Not unless she made it one. And she didn't intend to. No, she was going to be completely calm about this.

"Oh?~" Suddenly there was his head, peering over the top of the stalls near where she stood by the sinks. She was surprised his hat didn't fall off. "A favor, you say?” His catlike eyes narrowed with interest. “What are you going to give me in return?"

"It's a favor, not a transaction," she told him, resting the mop against one of the sinks and crossing her arms. "I'm asking for help as a friend, so if you don't want to do it, just say so."

He looked intrigued. Good. That might make this easier. "Well then. Let's hear it, Yashiro," said Hanako as he settled on the ground in front of her.

"I want... to practice something," she forced out, and then grabbed the mop handle again just for something to do with her hands. She stuck it in the bucket of water and slapped it onto the floor again, spreading more water on the tiled surface and continuing to move the mop as she spoke. "Something that I can't really ask other people for help with."

He tilted his head curiously. "Go on..."

"Well..." She froze, all her carefully-picked words vanishing from her mind. How was she supposed to actually ask this? It was a stupid idea, now that she reconsidered it. Absolutely insane. "Um... on second thought, never mind," she squeaked, staring at the floor.

"Don't pull that with me," he said, speaking unexpectedly right in front of her and causing her to yelp and almost step backwards into her bucket of water. He was floating upside down and eyeing her carefully. Maybe it was often easy to see right through the ghost boy, but Nene felt sure that usually it was he who could see straight through her. "What do you want to practice?"

She sighed. If she just tried to play it off as nothing, he would probably keep pestering her until she ended up yelling at him, and she didn't really feel like yelling at him at the moment. "Okay. Promise you won't laugh."

"I can't promise that," he said honestly as he righted himself again, "but I will try."

Nene fiddled with the mop handle, turning away from him again. "I... there's still so many things I haven't gotten to do yet, but there's one thing in particular I wanted that still hasn't happened yet, so if it does happen, I want to be ready for it. B-but I can't be, really, because I don't have any experience."

"You're going to have to be more specific," said the ghost.

"I haven't had my first kiss yet!" she finally burst out, her shoulders hunched up as if to protect her ears from any laughter that may ensue. "I just, I really wanted to have a first kiss while I was in high school, and I don't know when it's going to happen."

"Okayyyy..." He sounded wary, and when Nene looked up, she saw him hovering behind her in the mirror. "So what do you want my help with?"

"Are you serious?!" She whirled on him, her hands braced back on the sink. "Do I really have to spell it out for you?" His orange eyes just blinked at her, so she huffed a sigh and dropped the bomb: "I want you to help me practice kissing!"

They stared at each other.

Hanako's face was steadily turning the color of the dying sun outside, while Nene felt hers heating to match. "What?!" he finally yelped. "Why me?!"

"I don't trust anyone else!" she shot back, having actually been prepared for that question. "You're my closest friend, and..." She ran her fingers over her brooch, her voice lowering to a murmur. "...I don't know how much more time I have to learn."

"You're playing That Card, huh?" Despite the words, his tone wasn't teasing. It was sad, wistful. Almost disappointed. There was a little bitterness in the pull at one side of his mouth.

"You're damn right I'm playing That Card!" she barked, balling her fists, and then cleared her throat, speaking again with a gentler voice. "Look, I... I know it's stupid—"

Something like alarm flashed across his face. "No, I never said—"

"—And I know how ridiculous of a request this is. But..." Clenching her fingers in the fabric of her skirt, she tried to stop their trembling. "I always had all these romantic ideals and fantasies. Being swept off my feet and running away with someone and getting married... and it's obvious nothing like that is going to happen, so I thought, If I could just have one single, stupid, obtainable thing..." She bit her lip.

"Yashiro..." She clenched her eyes shut at the gentleness in his voice.

"I thought this, at least, was something I could do," she finished. "A first kiss with... with someone who cares about me. And you do, right?" She turned her eyes up at him again. "You care about me?"

"Of course I do," he said easily, and something fluffy and soft spread in Nene's chest, like tiny wings. "But... why not ask the kid? I mean..." His mouth turned down into a frown that looked a little annoyed. "He obviously wouldn't mind..."

"I-I can't ask Kou-kun!" Her mind boggled at the very idea. It hadn't even occurred to her to ask him. Somehow he had become like the excitable little brother she'd never had (besides the fact that she was pretty sure he was taken, whether he acknowledged it or not). "He's my kouhai, and so not my type!"

"But neither am I," Hanako pointed out, his brows furrowing in confusion.

Nene wasn't going to tell him that her type had been steadily changing to be more Hanako-like. Absolutely not. She would take that secret to her grave (hopefully not literally). "Will you help me or not?" she said instead.

"Is this all just a ploy to smooch me?" A smirk had spread across his face, and his eyes glittered with humor, but there was something genuinely curious there, too. “You didn’t seem to need an elaborate reason the last time you kissed me...”

She glared at him, her cheeks heating up at the memory of that kiss on the rooftop. Had she not made it clear that she was very serious about this?! "On second thought, maybe I will ask Kou-kun," she huffed, turning with a flick of her hair to march right out of there and find someone who wouldn't make a joke of this.

"W-Wait!" His hand closed around her wrist. "I'm sorry. I just didn't know what to say. Don't… don’t ask the boy."

Nene eyed him over her shoulder. His large eyes shone with remorse. Nene had thought that Mitsuba-kun was the champion of the puppy-eye expression, but Hanako was quite a contender as well. "You'll help me?" she asked again. "As my friend?"

He nodded, suddenly serious. "As your friend, I'll help you."

Turning around to face him again, she kept her eyes trained on him. He didn't let go of her wrist. "Okay then..." Her voice had died down to a shaky whisper. "If you're sure it's okay with you..."

His forehead met hers, and Nene had to cross her eyes to keep looking into his amber ones. "It's okay with me," he breathed.

Nene's eyes fell closed.

Her first kiss was barely even that. Just a momentary press of lips together. His were so cold that she jolted and pulled back when they touched her. But it hadn't been unpleasant; merely unexpected. So she moved forward again.

It was hesitant. Awkward. Neither of them moved a muscle, holding their breath for one, two, three seconds before parting.

It had been almost nothing. A kiss in the loosest sense of the word. Completely underwhelming.

So why did she want it to happen so many more times?

Her eyes met his again, her heart hammering in her chest. The intense yellow-orange staring back at her made something wobble in her stomach. He smiled slightly, and the wobbling increased tenfold. "You don't have to stand there rigid," he told her. "A kiss is more than just lips. It's other touches, too."

"Like... like this?" She grabbed his hand, their palms pressing together and fingers intertwining as they always did.

Hanako seemed to be having difficulty tearing his eyes away from their hands, but when he did, he nodded. "Yes, like that."

"Or this?" Nene's other hand rested on his shoulder now.

Maybe it was the sunlight outside, but his cheeks looked pink to her. "Sure."

When her hand moved next, it was to cup one of those darkened cheeks. It was cool to the touch, despite the flushed color. "How about this?" she whispered.

"Good," he told her, his face going even redder. "A touch on the face is quite intimate, and it lets you control the angle a little, so... good instinct."

She couldn't help but beam at the praise. "You're a surprisingly capable teacher, Hanako-kun!"

The slightly pained expression on his face was puzzling. "Thank you," he said.

Leaning close again, Nene attempted to put this new knowledge into practice.

Just the slight change of angle made a world of difference. It was like something completely different this time. The slide of their lips together felt much more natural now, and though his mouth was still cold, Nene felt heat burst in her chest and across her cheeks. She nuzzled into the touch, and when his cool hand cradled the back of her head, she paused, her short intake of breath being swallowed up by his increasingly insistent lips. His fingers rested lightly on the back of her head before clenching in her hair, and Nene made a small noise against him, both her hands clutching at the collar of his uniform to drag him even closer.

Unfortunately, air was a necessity for one of them. Gently, she pushed him back by the chest until he took the hint and let her go, but his hands never left the back of her head as they leaned their foreheads together to catch their breath. "Better," he told her, his thumb sweeping some wayward hair away from her cheek.

"Yeah?" she said hopefully, but didn't let him confirm before leaning forward to kiss him again.

The hesitance in his touch was surprising to her. Hanako-kun had never been shy about touching her—hugging her from behind, holding her hands, squishing her cheeks together, hovering way too close in the worst situations—but the trepidation in each touch now was obvious. A whisper of contact between her shoulder blades before his hand settled there to pull her against him. A moment of total stillness before he responded to each new angle she attempted. A startled jolt when she pulled his lower lip between her own, before his hold on her tightened and he kissed her with this newly-established depth.

Nene obviously hadn't picked a good person to practice with, because she was becoming more and more certain that Hanako had never kissed anyone in his life or his death... but also she felt very much more compelled to learn when it seemed they could both benefit, and a desire to learn was the important part here, wasn't it? Wasn’t it?

There was hardly any pause between kisses now whenever she broke apart from him for a breath. Nene wasn't sure whether this counted as three kisses or thirteen, each touch bleeding over into another. She felt like she had mastered the basics by this point, however, and Hanako's reaction when she'd kissed his bottom lip had been rather interesting...

He pulled back with a small gasp when her tongue pressed against his lips, and stared at her with eyes wide as saucers as he held a hand over his mouth. "Wh...?!" He sure blushed a lot for a guy who wasn't supposed to have blood running through his veins.

Her face burned with humiliation. "Sorry... was that too much?" Shuffling her feet, her eyes dropped down to the floor she'd just mopped. "It always seemed like a strange idea, but I've heard people do that, so I thought I would try..." She really should have quit while she was ahead.

"No no, you're right, people do that," he reassured her, dropping his hand by his side. "I just wasn't expecting it at this, uh, skill level."

"Oh." She raised her head again, feeling a little more confident. Her eyes searched him, taking in his embarrassed expression and the way he was adjusting his hat even though it was on perfectly straight. He seemed even more flustered than she was.

"You talk big to hide the fact that you don't know anything about this, don't you?" she asked, certain that she was right.

He looked stricken. "No!" he defended himself, adjusting his hat one final time. "I-I'm knowledgeable! I'm just... not used to learning things hands-on. I'm a visual learner."

You always seem pretty hands-on to me, Nene couldn't help but think, as in, your hands are always on me, even when I don’t really want them to be. "What is that supposed to mean?"

He reached into his pocket and pulled out one of his magazines with the big-boobed beach bimbos on the front. "I like to learn by reading," he purred, waggling his eyebrows.

She stared at him in silence for a long moment, torn between the desire to rip the magazine out of his hands and the desire to show him that hands-on experience was vastly superior to any of that trash. "You're gross," she settled for saying.

"Yashiro!" he gasped in mock-dismay, his hand flying to his chest. "Is that anything to say to the person who's trying to help you?"

Her mouth turned downward into something that probably looked like a pout. "Well, if you like reading so much, maybe I should let you get back to it," she groused, turning on her heel and sticking her nose in the air.

The threat worked better than she had expected it to. His eyes widened, the smirk melting off his face. "No, wait!" he said for the second time. "I... you’re right, okay? This is new to me, too."

Satisfied, she faced him again. "That's what I thought," she said smugly.

He frowned at her, tucking his dumb girly mag away. "Did you honestly just get jealous of my magazine?"

It was a testament to how much he let down his guard around her that she was able to step on his foot in retaliation. "Shut up," she advised.

"You'll crush me under those heavy daikon," he quipped, and then just laughed when she ground her heel into his toes harder.

"You're the worst," she informed him, not really meaning it.

His answer was to smile at her, teasing mirth sparkling in his eyes, and pull her close with arms wrapped around her waist to kiss her again. It was hard to stay irritated with him then.

When Nene pressed her tongue against the seam of his lips this time, he let her in. Tentatively, she ran her tongue along the side of his. Even the inside of his mouth was cold, but that wasn't really why Nene shivered at the contact. Her hands fisted in the front of his school uniform again as he returned the gesture, sliding their tongues together. Her knees suddenly felt very weak, so she held onto him even tighter, and his hold tightened around her as well. Her head swam. Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest. She wondered if he could feel it, as close as they were.

She wouldn't feel his heart beating, though, she thought then sadly.

That's not important, she told herself as she threw all her attention into kissing the life (or lack thereof) out of the ghost who had become the most important person in her world. He's here now, right in front of me. I can see him and hear him and touch him. Flicking her tongue lightly over the roof of his mouth, she delighted in the muffled sound he made. Her hand wrapped around the back of his neck, his hat finally being dislodged as she pushed her fingers up through his messy dark (surprisingly soft) hair. She let herself get lost in the feeling of give and take, push and pull.

The next time he pulled away, it was only so he could kiss the corners of her mouth in quick succession. She blinked in surprise, and then gasped when he kissed beneath her ear and the side of her jaw. A slight pause, and then he buried his forehead into her shoulder and kissed her neck too, the touch tender and soft and cool as a winter breeze. "H-Hanako-kun," she breathed, her fingers tightening in the fabric covering his shoulders.

He met her mouth again then, but it seemed different now. The kiss was slower, exploratory, gentle.

Real.

Nene's heart trembled, as did the hands clutching the old school uniform. This is all wrong, she thought, even as her breath hitched when he nipped at her lower lip before kissing away the sting. She had been planning on just sharing a few brief kisses and being satisfied with that. This was supposed to be casual. Low-stakes. Just for practice. Just something she had to get out of her system.

It wasn't supposed to make her fall even more in love with him.

Still, she couldn't help the way she leaned into his cool touch on her face, how she sighed when he kissed her flushed cheeks, how her heart broke at the tenderness with which he pressed his lips against her forehead. So she pulled him back down and drowned out the emotion with pure sensation, kissing him one last time with all the searing passion she could muster, and finally let him go, taking a step back to end the contact.

"Well… I think you've more or less got it," Hanako said after a short silence, shooting her a lopsided smile that looked fond and sad. His hair was even more of a mess than it usually was, and Nene sort of liked it. "Whoever gets to kiss you now won't know what hit them."

Nene toed the ground, clasping her hands behind her back. She couldn't tell him that there was only one person she'd really wanted to practice for in the first place, and she'd already kissed him quite a lot just now. "Thank you," she murmured instead.

Tightening her hold on her own fingers, she tried to think of a way to bring things back around to what they were used to. Lighthearted. Never serious for too long. Genuine feeling hidden with layers of teasing and misunderstanding and doubt. For so long, she'd wanted nothing more than for Hanako to open up about himself and how he truly felt. But now that she'd gotten an accidental glimpse, she thought perhaps it would have been kinder to both of them if she hadn't looked so closely. If she loved him as much as she did now, and if he felt even a fraction of the same way for her...

How were they supposed to say goodbye in less than a year?

"Hey," his gentle voice interrupted her thoughts, his thumb wiping away the tear that had just fallen and started to make scales grow over her cheek. "What's this? Was it that bad? Or did my skills actually bring you to tears?"

The only thing she could do was wrap her arms around him and bury her face in his chest. He hesitated only an instant before embracing her in turn, and for a few moments they just stayed like that.

"I'm sorry," she sniffled when she retracted her head. "It wasn't bad. It was good. Really good." Wiping frantically at another escaped tear, she stepped back from him again. "I just... wish I had more time." Time to graduate high school. Time to take care of all the people (and hamsters) that were important to her. Time to spend with him, to make sure he could fulfill his role and be at peace.

Time to let herself love whoever she wanted to love.

He wrapped his arms around her head and pulled her close once more. "I know," he said softly, though Nene doubted he really knew. "But don't worry. Someone is going to come along who will make your practice worth it, and they'll find you in plenty of time, because we are going to change your fate. I promise you."

This just resulted in more tears spilling from her eyes. How was she supposed to tell him that that someone had already found her? Her arms came up to hold onto his forearm in return. "Hanako-kun," she got out, her voice broken and weak. "Even if I never get to go on a date... will you keep helping me practice?"

It was selfish to ask him this.

It was selfish of her to keep demanding his affection and his attention when it would soon be pointless. When she was only going to be a waste of his efforts. When she knew, somewhere deep down, that Hanako cared about her more than anyone else and that he couldn't refuse her requests.

But he just squeezed her tighter. "As much as you want," he murmured. "Though I expect you to work extra hard at cleaning these bathrooms to repay my goodwill."

She huffed out a brief laugh. "I love you," she muffled the words against his arm, barely a whisper.

"Hm?"

Lifting her head again, she smiled at him brightly. "I said, thank you."

He smiled back.

Maybe he'd never really understand how much he meant to her. Maybe her feelings would go unrealized for as long as she lived. But, she thought, at least they hadn't gone truly unspoken.

And, well, as far as fairy tale endings go, getting to experience True Love's Kiss was pretty good, wasn't it?

She sighed, pressing a quick kiss to Hanako's cheek and smiling again when his face still flushed.

For now, this was fine.