Forever and a Day

Disclaimer: The author rightfully respects the genius of Tachibana Higuchi, creator of Gakuen Alice.

Dedication: To the readers of Of Fortunes and Ferrets. This is small recompense for the wait you've had to—and will need to— endure before I continue that story.

Author's Note: To uphold that often overlooked FFN rule, there are no explicit scenes in this story. However, because it's at the borderline, the M-rating stands. It's been a while since I've written unabashed romance so I'm laying on the fluff and drama nice and thick.

Set after Yearbook Day and before Confections of a Chocoholic. This is neither a prequel nor a sequel but if you're wondering what's happening to the rest of the gang, you can refer to those fics.

Also, for some reason, FFN keeps deleting the spaces in between some words no matter how many times I edit. I hope it doesn't make reading this story too difficult.


He was in the room. It was difficult to ignore when he entered because the sighs of polished and simpering women around her had been audible. They expected him to attend because this was a Charity Ball for animal welfare and he was one of the most influential animal crusaders as of late. A couple of months ago his picture had even been on the cover of the National Geographic, thereby introducing the world to the very handsome and very eligible Ruka Nogi.

She had also caused a stir when she entered but for far less glamorous reasons. While her old classmate (and unbeknownst to all, old flame) had entered a virtual celebrity, Hotaru Imai had caused heads to turn because of the many patrons present in the room that longed to invest with her. Her reputation always preceded her and her reclusive, workaholic habits added mystery to her identity. Hotaru chose few but chose well, and where she put her endeavors, money was certain to follow. People had only hoped to see her there because the young inventor seemed to have an advocacy for animal rights. They often wondered when that began.

"I'll make you a deal. For every million I make, I'll donate to something important to you."

"Then you might as well keep the money for yourself."

"Not funny, Ruka. I might do exactly that."

Two Alices in one room wasn't a rare occurrence, especially in such a high profile event. But two Alices from the same year with so much shared history that haven't seen each other in well over two years was a landmark occasion. Fortunately, no one seemed to realize it and so they spent the evening separately. Hotaru was "working" that night. Ruka was charming the crowd. Despite the fact that they weren't even talking, a silent flirtation began.

His eyes followed her around the room but not once did Ruka show any inclination to approach. He must know that she would dance with whomever social graces required and would have little time for him. It was mercenary but he never judged her for the way she went about her business. Still, Hotaru wondered if Ruka also knew that she would much rather dance with him.

"Do what you need to do, but don't forget who you'll be going home with tonight."

In truth, Hotaru felt tired. She had been in Italy for three months and the current project had run its course with her stamina. Every night she went home to this same hotel, in a luxurious suite that could fit two families. The place was her sanctuary but it was much too opulent for a hermit. During the day she'd be at the lab or the industrial plant and she would have no time for herself until the evening when the exhaustion finally reminded her that she didn't run on a motor. Mikan Sakura would bemoan her losing so much weight and her best friend's idiot fiancé would say she'd aged ten years. Thus, that perennial question would often surface.

"How long will you keep this up?"

And she'd provide her equally perennial reply.

"Forever and a day."

And she would mean it.

The work just kept on coming. A new invention always followed the last. It was never over. Hotaru was never done. She enjoyed what she did immensely but sometimes she did wish her hands would stop craving for tools and craftsmanship, that her mind would stop drafting and designing. She knew it was possible because when she was younger she was somehow able to turn it off.

And in those snatches of rest she got, in the moments of repose she allowed herself, Ruka would be there. Hotaru had been afraid that one day he wouldn't be so she broke away first. While she was strong enough, she acted selfish and decided for both of them. She didn't consult him. She didn't allow him to negotiate. She simply walked away. So really, she had no right to watch him watch her tonight and expect him to be the first to approach.

"Imai, are you listening?"

She glanced at her dance partner, the second son of the Chief Operating Officer of her current client. He would be about a year older than her and not bad to look at either. However, the fact that she couldn't quite recall his first name and his eyes held a certain leer made her wonder how could she have been distracted enough to agree to be his partner.

"What were you saying?"

He grinned and leaned closer. Hotaru recoiled but even though she didn't bother to hide her disgust, the young man pressed on. "I asked if you'd like to join me and a couple of friends for a night cap. A little business mixed with pleasure."

As he spoke the hand on her back drifted lower and Hotaru's eyes narrowed. These dances were typically harmless but now and then she would find herself paired up with a trust fund stooge who thought she was just another pretty face. She relished putting him in his place but just then she didn't have a beer bottle on hand nor was she dressed for Krav Maga.

Her eyes grew cool then she smoothly reached back to pull his hand higher. "I'll have to decline, given I've already forgotten who you are."

His smile widened. Oh crap, he was turned on by spunk. "Raffaello Bianchi. Let's help you remember that." Hotaru's vision turned red when his hand strayed again. Before she could react, he suddenly yelped, "Aia!"

Hotaru looked up and found deep cerulean eyes staring daggers at Raffaello Bianchi. Ruka Nogi had her partner's wrist and was twisting it slightly. "The music has ended Raffa and I believe the next dance is mine."

Bianchi let Hotaru go then took a disgruntled step back. The two men exchanged a look then the Italian heir probably decided an uninterested woman wasn't worth his time. "As you wish then."

"As the lady pleases," Ruka corrected quietly. Bianchi rolled his eyes, apparently thinking little of Ruka's gallantry then walked off. A waltz started up, a beat too easy for a couple that moved to many other songs before. Ruka turned to her and held out his hand. "Hotaru."

"Ruka," she nodded then let her hand be engulfed in his. The first touch was electric, like her skin recognized him at once and was stimulated. He swept her into his arms then began to whirl her around the room. When they got their rhythm down she looked up at him and was put off by the way his eyes scrutinized her. "Don't be such a perv, Nogi. I just escaped one tonight."

He laughed. He spun with more enthusiasm then watched in amusement as her white chiffon skirt fanned out prettily at her feet. "I was just wondering where you were hiding your baka gun. That's a lovely dress."

"My assistant chose it."

"You have people doing that for you now?"

"I don't really make time to shop."

Ruka smiled crookedly. "Well, you look beautiful. I was thinking it the moment I laid eyes on you tonight."

"Is that why you haven't stopped staring?" she snickered.

He blushed but was unabashed. "Yes."

Damn him and his pretty blue eyes.

Hotaru got courted all the time. Men seemed to gravitate towards her because she was mysterious and aloof, and her strong personality was apparently a very potent aphrodisiac. Influential men tried to win her over and she dealt with the boastful, the suave and the intellectual with mild boredom. No one would ever guess that the immovable Imai had a weakness for the incurable nice guy. Hotaru decided it was probably safer to stay silent but that only increased her awareness of Ruka— sweet, reliable, unfairly endearing Ruka.

"What are you doing here?" She didn't normally ask obvious questions and he smiled slightly at her misstep. "I thought you were in Kenya."

"For the safari? That was last Christmas."

"Oh, I meant Australia."

"My stint there ended six months ago," he said patiently.

She bristled in annoyance. "Who can keep track of these things? You're traveling all the time." Ruka didn't answer at once. He turned her in time with the music then pulled her back with enough force to send her colliding against his chest.

"Last Christmas you were in France," he said softly. "For two months after that you were in America for a Robotics convention. Then you went home to Japan, stayed with Sumire for three weeks before arriving here for a government project on fiber optics."

Hotaru wasn't pleased by his accurate rundown of her activities. "Where do I go next?" she mocked. Ruka looked cheerless.

"I only know where you've been Hotaru. I don't know where you're headed." He sighed. "Nobody does."

"Why are you keeping tabs on me?"

"I'm not. Mikan likes to send emails. I just read them." His movements grew stiff as the tension mounted between them. "You seem to like keeping her informed."

Hotaru shrugged. "I stay in contact with Yuu too. I don't intend to be too distant from my friends." She was startled when the arm around her waist tightened and drew her closer. She could feel his whole body spike, as though what she just said upset him.

"But you lost contact with me. Two years is a long time to worry about someone. What was that about?"

All at once, Hotaru remembered why she broke things off. Ruka held on to her like she was dependable, as though he thought his heart was safe with her. When they started going out he seemed to know the risk he was taking but as their relationship grew, his resolve strengthened with it. She couldn't pretend it hadn't been the same for her but the difference was that she hadn't been as ready to change her plans. They'd do better in the world if they were apart. She still believed that.

"Obviously, I didn't think of you, did I?"

Ruka's eyebrows drew together. "Ever the Ice Queen, aren't you Hotaru?" He squared his shoulders then abruptly distanced himself. After that, he grew silent. They continued to dance but her partner slowly led them to the edge of the floor. Once there, he let her go.

"Why are you—?" She cut herself off when Ruka suddenly bowed low— a gesture reminiscent of both Japanese courtesy and the well-bred manners of a European gentleman— then walked off. He left her in the middle of the song.

Ruka left her in the middle of the song.

"When did you learn to do that?" she muttered, slightly irked at the dismissal she hadn't seen coming. Hotaru walked off too, immune to the stares of the other people in the room and the whispers she knew would begin.


It wasn't common knowledge that Ruka Nogi's affection was already reserved for one woman— one woman who wouldn't have him. How could anyone know when he was frequently spotted with a lady whose character was as impeccable as his own? They were more likely to assume that he was looking for a suitable wife because he didn't seem the type to engage in flings. However, everyone would be mistaken and they would be further thrown off if they discovered how his heart had been won by an uninterested victor years ago.

It irked Hotaru. It irked her to see him be amiable to a number of women when he had given her the cut direct just moments before. But perhaps what irked her even more was that she could easily reclaim his attention if she wanted to but she couldn't quite decide if she did.

Everyone had finally settled down for the evening's main event, the auction. The lights were dimmed and valuable items were brought out onstage one after the other. Ruka was seated comfortably on the other side of the room and he was talking to smart and willowy Adriana Conti throughout the program. Hotaru refused to let that matter but some time ago she had abandoned her seat to get a hard drink at the bar.

"I like it when you're jealous."

"Because you enjoy getting hit by my baka gun?"

A long kiss. "Because I like it when you tell them I'm yours."

She didn't say it often enough and now she couldn't say it at all. By the end of the night, she was almost sure she would never say it again but not because he'd be so smitten by someone else. Hardly. It would be because of a scheme she'd planned for that night, one that would certainly hurt him but one that she could no longer abort.

Hotaru's gaze drifted to Rosamond Holcombe, a seasoned entrepreneur she'd been eyeing for years. The crafty old woman had never tried to contact her, not even when she increased her work in iron and steel manufacturing. She wanted to work with the woman. She wanted to learn from her. But she was as fastidious as Hotaru and seemed to favor networks over talented newcomers. Hotaru needed a way in so she did her research and discovered Holcombe's fondness for precious stones. Her collection was admirable and there was only one item in Hotaru's possession that would rouse her interest. Hotaru told herself it hadn't been a hard decision to make.

"What's this?"

"A gift I thought would suit you. It took me a while to find it and to earn it." He looked at her expectantly. "Do you like it?

"Yes."

He smiled then raised his goblet in a toast. "To us, may we last another five years."

Hotaru took a long drink of her martini.

"Gathering your nerves?"

Damn him and his timing.

Hotaru glanced at Ruka without saying a word. He gestured to the bartender then placed his order while she continued to stare. When the bartender finished and left them alone, Ruka spoke wryly. "Don't look at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like you'd want nothing more than to murder me." Ruka lifted his glass for a sip. "I've been braced for retaliation all night."

"Don't you think we're way past the age for petty games and payback?" she asked coolly.

"I hope so." He stepped closer. "Truce?"

"Truces are for countries."

She meant to leave before they reached an accord because her scheme would come off worse if they did, but Ruka calmly laid a hand upon hers before she'd even moved.

"Come on, I never liked fighting with you."

She shouldn't allow herself to be reeled in but, dear god, how easily could he do it. Ruka was a touch of home. He was everything familiar. He was the only hitch to her plan. Still, their truces and touches never lasted long.

"If you're bored, why not just spend more time with Adriana?" she said almost scornfully. "Or I hear Bianchi has a sister, I'm sure he could set you up—"

"Stop giving me away, Hotaru," Ruka said stiffly. His hand lifted. "I don't appreciate it."

Properly chastised in less than ten words, Hotaru fell silent. She faced the bar again and focused on the colorful bottles lining the shelf. Ruka leaned lightly on the wood, his frame turned slightly towards her.

"Why are you here?" It was his turn to ask. "You don't normally make time for these things."

"Holcombe." He looked surprised that she bothered to answer. "I'm trying to get an introduction to Rosamond Holcombe."

"The Academy could've taken care of that for you."

She shook her head. "Rosamond Holcombe is only interested in her fellow Somatic students. I'm not very high on the list of alumni she'd want to meet."

"She'd have made an exception for you," Ruka said with certainty. He looked over at the old woman. "I'm a Somatic student. I could introduce you."

"No."

"Why not?"

"I've already got this covered," Hotaru said curtly. It was so typical for Ruka to offer her help when she was about to run over him. "And you've done your part."

"I have?" He looked at her quizzically. "Well, if you had needed anything, you should've asked."

"You're right. I should have."

Ruka caught her tone and waited for her to say more, but apologies just went too slow past her lips. Behind them the auctioneer's voice boomed, arresting their conversation.

"Our next item is an extremely rare, purple star sapphire and diamond cluster necklace."

It was as she had expected. Ruka whipped around when he heard the announcement then just as quickly his head snapped back to her. The intensity of his gaze startled her.

What have you done?

"This lovely piece was donated by Ms. Hotaru Imai and we thank her for her generosity," the auctioneer continued. The crowd erupted into polite applause and some guests actually turned to look at her. She was glad a spotlight wasn't trained on them because it would have also highlighted Ruka whose entire countenance had changed.

The look he wore wasn't as sufferable as she thought it would be. In a word, it was heartbreaking and something in her chest actually flinched when he diverted his gaze. He detached himself from the bar and stalked forward as though he couldn't wait to get away.

"Ruka, stop," she said without thinking. He turned abruptly and they started hissing at each other, trying not to lose face in the room.

"I never thought you'd give it away."

"You know me better than that."

"I thought I meant more to you than this."

She steeled herself. "I do what's needed to get what I want. You should know how it feels to have something you want within your grasp—"

"How could I? All I've ever wanted is you," Ruka fired back. There was raw emotion in his eyes. He was too easy to read and that honesty always provoked her as much as it made her quiver.

Hotaru squared her shoulders. "I don't regret it."

"I know. You never do anything you'd regret."

"I didn't know you'd be here."

"Really? Everybody else did. I guess you were telling the truth. You didn't think about me."

He turned to leave and even though she wanted to stop him, she didn't try again. If she did, it would call everyone's attention so instead she formed a fist and stood fast. But Ruka stopped anyway as though he sensed her entreaty and was frustrated that she wouldn't voice it. When he faced her again, a heavy weight settled in her rib cage.

"Everything you want is within your grasp. You don't even have to choose and I'm tired of always getting the short end of the stick when I shouldn't have to."

"What are you saying?"

"You could have it all Hotaru— the wealth, the ambition, me. You're just afraid to reach for it… so maybe you're not so greedy after all."

The altercation that seemed to stretch had only lasted a minute. The host finished reciting the merits and value of her sapphire necklace and the bidding began. Ruka and Hotaru looked out into the crowd as Holcombe's first bid was locked in at twenty-five thousand dollars. Ruka's jaw clenched then he moved nearer to the auction floor.

"Do I hear thirty?" the auctioneer called out and two or three paddles shot up. "Going at thirty to the lady in row two— thirty-two to the gentleman— thirty-seven to Lady Holcombe—forty from one of our callers—"

Ruka's hand hit the air. "Fifty!"

There was a rush and an excited murmur when the price escalated. Ruka's bid could only fuel the fire that started when he left Hotaru on the dance floor. It was her turn to stare at him.

Holcombe was whispering to her nephew. "Fifty-five!"

"Sixty-five," Ruka immediately countered.

"Seventy!" exclaimed Lady Holcombe herself. She sent Ruka a look, though it was far more amused than rattled.

Ruka didn't even hesitate. He was standing on the aisle now, hands resting on his waist, receiving attention as a handsome, wealthy bachelor determinedly bidding for a quixotic necklace. Both the jewelry and his market value just broke the scale.

"Seventy-five."

"Seventy-seven."

"Eighty-five."

Nobody knew how deep Ruka's coffers were. Nobody could possibly know how badly he wanted that necklace. Still, it was understood that he would not relent even if this was an abnormally extravagant acquisition for a man with such simple tastes. The old woman leaned back in her chair and a curious eyebrow quirked. She didn't seem all that upset when she nodded slightly to her nephew to tell him to back down too.

"Eighty-five thousand going once… going twice…" The gavel pounded and Hotaru's blood ran cold. "Sold for eighty-five thousand dollars to Mr. Ruka Nogi! We thank you, Sir, for such a generous donation!"

There was wild applause. Hotaru didn't know how he managed it but somehow Ruka just stood there smiling boyishly at the other guests.

"And of course, we once again thank Ms. Hotaru Imai for making this possible!"

This was the scene Hotaru had been waiting for, the moment when Holcombe would have finally turned her attention to her and thanked her for the lovely piece that was just added to her collection. It would have set everything else in motion. Instead the elderly woman was applauding with the crowd and she was watching inquisitively as Ruka walked back to her in a show of goodwill.

"Well-played," Hotaru muttered as she received his formal handshake.

Ruka was still smiling. It belied his cool gaze and the stiff hand that held hers. He'd also learned to keep up appearances, she noted, but those eyes could never lie to her. He was wounded and he was letting her know it.

"You put my heart on the auction block," he spoke softly. "Of course, I had to bid."


Hotaru would have borne it better if Ruka had started hating her after they broke up but that hadn't been the case. His feelings never wavered and he never let her forget. She knew he must hate other things about her like her ambitiousness, her insensitivity or even her absolute refusal to be looked after. Still, above all, he must loathe her for adamantly denying him.

Two years have passed but Ruka still kept throwing his heart in her way as though asking her to trample on it. Still, in his own way, he had also learned to fight her. The auction that night was proof. Ruka could win a battle of wills without once being cruel and sometimes she envied him for that skill. They could move around the same high-class, wealthy circle but, unlike her, he wouldn't have to be cold-hearted to survive.

At the end of the night, she'd suffered one last blow though she doubted he had planned it. Rosamond Holcombe did seek her out. After shaking hands with the elderly lady in a decidedly distracted manner, she had mustered a smile. "I noticed Madam that you had taken an interest in the necklace I donated tonight."

"Yes, but I'm not one to take it away from a boy who seemed ready to bet life and limb for it." She had chuckled. "When I heard your name tonight though, I couldn't help but request an introduction. I've heard a lot about your work."

"You have?"

"Ruka Nogi spoke very highly of you."

Hotaru didn't usually twitch. "You're well-acquainted with him?"

"Yes. He led one of my safaris in Kenya. I requested a private group and he obliged. His Alice is quite remarkable. As is yours, I'm told."

"What did Ruka say?"

The woman's smile broadened and she looked at Hotaru as though she just confirmed everything she was thinking. "He said a great deal, but most importantly, he said I would regret ignoring you all these years…"

Hotaru had spent the rest of the evening drinking in the business knowledge Rosamond Holcombe offered her. She was as brilliant as Hotaru had expected but she didn't enjoy the meeting as much as she thought she would. The wine didn't taste as rich. She hadn't been fully engrossed in the stories. By then, her thoughts were with a man who had the necklace she had lost for apparently no reason at all.

Her somber reflections were interrupted when the elevator finally opened to her floor. Hotaru turned to her room then stopped cold. Ruka Nogi was standing next to her door, hands in his pockets and eyes shut as though in deep contemplation. When he heard her, he straightened then watched her approach without speaking.

He was incorrigible, she thought. The heavy emotions that had been at play all night hummed at the surface, ready to leap up at the first sign of conflict.

"Aren't you tired yet?" Hotaru asked. "This is the third time you've approached me tonight."

"The first two were for you," Ruka said with a shrug. "This last time is for me."

"How did you find me?"

"It wasn't hard to get it out of the concierge. I'm staying one floor down."

"I thought you were angry."

"I am."

"It didn't seem like you wanted to talk."

"I don't. Don't misunderstand me, Hotaru." He stepped closer and finally pulled his hands out of his pockets. "I'm only here to give this back to you."

If she was capable of a wider range of emotions, Hotaru knew the shock would register on her face. The much debated necklace was reposing on his palm with its sapphire gem catching the light. It was out of its box for the first time in years and was once again being offered to her.

"I'm sure you think it's funny. I kind of think it's crazy," Ruka muttered. "But when I opened the box, I saw your note inside and I couldn't stop thinking about you. I had to see you one more time."

She knew what note he was referring to. She'd slipped it inside the box for whoever would win the auction. She never thought it would be him.

Have a care for this necklace because it is precious and may break easily. If you would touch it, be mindful. If you must polish it, do so. Have a care for this necklace because it is priceless, and kept whole, priceless it will remain to be. — H. Imai

"Just take it back Hotaru."

"Why?"

"It's the way to make you sorry," Ruka said quietly. "And for me to maybe hurt less."

Hotaru didn't move. He was making her sorry and taking her down a peg in the way he knew how. Ruka was humbling her by giving her exactly what she wanted. How could she misunderstand when she couldn't even begin to grasp how he could be this way all these years?

"Go on then."

"Thank you," he whispered, as though it was for him to say.

Ruka leaned forward then reached behind her to clasp the sapphire necklace around her neck. Her eyes shut instinctively when she breathed in his cologne. He lingered for a moment as he fastened the chain then he turned his head slightly to whisper in her ear.

"Stop giving me away."

It was the second time that night that he said it. His words, his scent and his warm breath made her weak. When Ruka drew back, he traced the chain with his fingers, lightly brushing against her skin, before running a thumb down the heavy pendant that lay close to her heart. She glanced up, intuitively knowing that he had once again forgiven her for reasons he alone understood. Her whole body quaked at the way he stared. Her nerves were violin strings wound too tight. She was going to snap if he stroked her.

He knew. She was sure of it now. Ruka must know how much he affected her and that she saw no one else the same way. That's why he never let go. While it must frustrate him to no end, this romantic fool was holding on because of that flicker of hope she gave him every time she stood arrested before him. Like now.

One. One thousand. Two. One thousand. Three.

He moved first.

"What are you doing?"

"Don't shoot me. I'm just saying good night."

Even under heat, he wouldn't take more than a few liberties with her. Ruka leaned down and brushed his lips against hers in the softest, most provocative kiss. Still, it carried the force of lightning and it made her heart whimper and sigh even if it was about as innocent as their first kiss. At length, Ruka moved away and for a moment he looked like he'd dug his own grave.

"Why do you do this to yourself?"

"Because I love you."

Ruka turned to leave but her hand shot out and grabbed his arm. There was drumming in her ears as unnamed emotions soared inside her and forced her to feel the weight of the sapphire gem around her neck.

"I don't think that was worth eighty-five thousand."

Hotaru shouldn't have done it because it was stupid and Ruka deserved more. She was better than this and he wasn't one to be used. But how magnificent it would be to be stupid and reckless and inappropriate just this once. And because she was certain he wouldn't like it if she was hasty and foolish with anyone else, it had to be him.

So that kiss was rational, she told herself. It was every bit as warranted as sliding a hand up his chest and clutching his shoulder for balance. It was perfectly all right to want him and to revel when he didn't resist at all. Hotaru leaned against him, letting the pressure mount as every bit of her became conscious of him. Ruka taught her how to do this. He was her first and only serious relationship and he taught her how to have her way with him to gratify them both. But when his gentle response called up a far too sensual memory, Hotaru abruptly pulled away and took two steps back.

"Good night."

He stared at her sharply. It seemed to be the last thing he wanted to say. "Good night." Too cold, Hotaru. Too cruel.

Ruka pushed the elevator button with enough force to dislodge it. He didn't look back. When the cart arrived Hotaru turned for her door too. The little light clicked green but something gave her pause and she pulled the door close instead.

Two years had filled her with much discontent. She didn't want to be alone that night. She convinced herself she was drawn to Ruka because he was familiar, but from the very beginning that had been a lie. He was everything she had ever wanted to repress and she wanted more to regret in the morning. If he would only let her.

"I'm going to want you every time, you know that, right?"

She had laughed. "So you're saying I should just ask?"

"I'm saying you don't even have to."

Hotaru turned around at the same time Ruka slammed a hand against the side to stop the elevator doors from closing. They stared at each other for a heartbeat or two. Neither of them moved until the elevator buzzed loudly to signal that Ruka had overstayed. That was all it took for him to cross the threshold and let the cart leave without him. In three purposeful strides he was reaching for her again.

She started it so Ruka had every right to blame her. Regardless of what his presence had implied, he didn't come up here for this and they both knew it. But that was irrelevant now. Right now they were eighteen again. They were lovers. And there was no reason to hold back.

"One night," Hotaru murmured against his lips.

"I'll be gone in the morning," Ruka promised then his arm wrapped around her waist and lifted her partially off the floor to maneuver both of them against the door. He took her key card then slipped a hand behind her to slide it against the niche. They staggered through then slammed the door closed. All the while they never broke the kiss that went past gentle and controlled far too quickly.

They had experience so they weren't fumbling. They knew exactly what they were doing and neither could use intoxication as an excuse. But damn it, they were going as fast and urgent as drunken teenagers. In seconds her dress was at her feet, leaving Hotaru in a cream-colored slip. She had his coat off and was working on the buttons of his shirt. She tugged at his tie and Ruka went with the action to lean down for another kiss. He traced her jaw, nipped her ear then trailed open-mouthed kisses down her throat. Ruka shoved her against the wall then laughed softly when he found the small baka gun strapped to her thigh. He was hard. She was hot. This was going to happen and they had barely cleared the doorway.

"Get out now if you can't stand it."

"That's not happening any time soon."

"In too deep?"

He chuckled. "In over my head."

His hands streaked over her, greedy for the curves and swells of the woman he pined for night after night. She pulled off his shirt and her hands raced as roughly as his. Her blood beat frantically and she tilted her head back while he feasted on her. Their breaths grew laborious but they were both ready to suffocate if it meant breathing the same air.

But then suddenly Ruka surfaced. His vision was in a haze but he sought to clear his head and find some subtlety in what they were doing.

"I know how I feel about you. Hell, I even know how you feel about me. Hotaru, the question is, do you?"

His movements gradually slowed. Touches became strokes. His kisses grew soothing. The restraint he somehow found pulled Hotaru out of her trance and she started shaking her head at him. Hard and fast she could handle but Ruka romancing her and touching her as though she was his was unacceptable. She tried to push him off but he rose over her and kissed her again. This time he was thorough and he didn't stop until he drew a deep and fervent response. He caught her wrists and pressed closer, forcing her to remember exactly who he was.

"Of course, I do."

Ruka pulled back when she stopped resisting then touched his forehead to hers. He whispered hoarsely, "I'm sorry. I can't do it that way. For all my life, Hotaru, I could only make love to you."

A fissure formed at the center of her cold heart. She tried to use him and to take him for granted. He realized it too but even then he wouldn't let her hurt them. Hotaru should've stopped it then but Ruka didn't give her time to think. He kissed her one more time then moved again.

His lips ghosted over the satin slip, sending sparks shooting through the fabric. At first she held back, not wanting to participate any further in her own seduction, but Ruka's hands and movements were compelling. He knelt to her. Adored her. Loved her. The last of which broke her resolve and she found herself holding on to what she could grasp. Her hands, ever competent in the mechanical, reached out now for flesh. His hands, always caring for many a creature, ached only for her.

Warm skin. Cool fingertips. Equally skillful hands.

Before long they stripped each other bare and stumbled to the bedroom. They moved perfectly in sync while Ruka took his time to explore her. Her hands strayed too as she sought to return the heat while mapping out the changes since she'd last seen all of him. A faded scar from an animal ran down his abdomen. His skin tone was lighter in places hidden away from the African sun. The hard chest and strong limbs belonged to a hardworking man. How could she have let herself miss this?

Hotaru shut her eyes when they became one, remembering how wonderful he felt, how full her heart was and how utterly complete he made her feel. He rocked against her and she recollected countless other nights that seemed to happen a lifetime ago. Then she suddenly peaked and ceased to think at all. Ruka drove her up, sending her to the edge then joined her for the fall. It was a long fall, full of promise and bliss, even if they crashed and hurt when they woke.

"Did you feel it?"

She had smiled. "Every time."

There was silence in the room afterwards. The air hung thick, inappropriate after loving. Ruka lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. His hand rested upon his forehead and partially obstructed his vision. Hotaru lay on her side, turned away from him. The purple sapphire was still latched around her neck. Her knees were drawn up slightly, as though she was cold but would never confess to it.

Why?

Hotaru's thoughts were cluttered. Her fist came to lie upon her heart to stop its mad beating. She was angry at everything she was feeling. She was angry because even then she was yearning for more. What was stopping her? If she wanted to hold him, to touch him or to feel him inside her again, she only needed to ask. Less than self-possession separated them now. But she knew she couldn't take this further— not with him— because it could never be just casual between them.

Why must you love me so deeply?

Before the despair could take over, the emotion in her chest heightened and pushed the word past her lips. "Ruka."

He knew at once what she wanted because she'd asked him so many times before. Ruka turned on his side and drew an arm around her waist. His full length pressed against her back, bringing comforting warmth to her flesh. Then his lips buried in her neck to hide a kiss there. Her hand sought his and their fingers clasped together as if by instinct.

He didn't speak and neither did she. It was the simplest gesture and yet the moment was far more intimate than the deed they'd just done. Tomorrow, there would be repercussions and she'd deal with them on her own. She had no doubt that he would be gone before she woke because that's what he had promised. She didn't want to think about that now because just then she was warm and contented and happy. And dawn was still far away.

Hotaru knew she would sleep soundly that night, as safe and as sated as any creature that had ever reposed in Ruka Nogi's arms.


When the sun finally rose, Hotaru woke up feeling raw and vulnerable with a ghost of a kiss in her hair. She clutched the blanket to her chest then sat up. The space next to her was empty and cool, telling her that Ruka had been gone for a while now.

Her heart smarted, exactly as it did the night before when her flesh had yearned for heat and passion. It smarted now with the same longing and a vehemence that made her feverish with remorse. To be touched again. To feel alive again. To be loved again with the same intensity and depth. Did it make her any more loathsome that she wanted all these from her childhood friend?

No, love. From her childhood love.

Hotaru slid to her feet and put on the padded slippers someone had thoughtfully set on her side of the bed. She wrapped the blanket around herself then caught her reflection in the mirror. The tired lines were still there. The thin cheeks and the sharp gaze had not left. Yet the girl that stared back was different. A hand lifted to her cheek. She was a lovely woman, every bit as beautiful as Ruka made her feel last night; every bit as wanted.

A pattering on her window distracted Hotaru from her study. She walked over and spied a lone pigeon sitting quietly on the outside sill. It had an unmistakable note between its beak. It edged out of the way when she lifted the latch to push the window open. Hotaru crooned softly before taking the small card from her messenger. The moment she did, the pigeon took flight to join its friends that were no longer nesting outside her window. Hotaru smiled, but too soon her satisfaction faded when she opened the card.

Dear Hotaru,

I was never confused about us. Every day that we were apart, each night I spent on my own, I knew I would somehow find my way back to you. It doesn't matter if you're halfway across the world. I've long understood that my life and my future are tied with yours.

You and me— we're it. And I hold this in my heart as a more steadfast truth than anything that I'd ever known. Until you know it as well as I do, and as certain of it as much I am, I'll wait.

Forever and a day.

Ruka

That morning, Hotaru lingered under the shower, drowning herself beneath the jet spray. She would swear to anyone that the water had been salty that day. She packed her things as efficiently as she did each time a business trip was done. She would say she was only distracted twice: the first by room service that delivered her breakfast and the second when she could no longer resist reading her note one more time.

When her ritual was done, she stood at the door with all her bags ready to be picked up by hotel porters. The necklace was placed safely back in its case. She laid a hand on the knob then took one last inspective glance around the room. She wrote her memoirs along with it: a passionate kiss at the doorway then a rush of searching hands and heated caresses that culminated in her complete undoing on the bed. Her heart flinched again. This time the throbbing dwelled.

My girl doesn't cry.

And because she knew his words too well, Hotaru wiped away the lone tear that escaped down her cheek. A flick of her hand did the trick. When she pulled the door open, she was completely composed. The woman who was loved last night, the Ice Queen with her heart afire, the obstinate creature only one man had ever tamed, was nowhere to be found. Hotaru didn't mourn her in the least because she knew that one day when she was ready her heart would wake again, stirred by a single kiss from her childhood.

From a love never forgotten.

THE END