A young boy and girl ran up an earthy slope in the outskirts of one small, country town of Gongaga. The girl found it a smidgen difficult to stay in step, trailing behind. Her dusty periwinkle eyes watched the boy's back as she huffed, "Zack! . . . W-wait up!"
The boy looked over his shoulder and smiled, continuing to run until he reached the top of the hill. A few seconds subsequent to him, the girl came up from behind, breathing heavily; she hunched over, hands on her knees.
Zack looked outward, over the Mako reactor that had been installed in Gongaga years ago; he wore a confident smile. "Someday, Ri," he began whilst bending to pick up a stick; his eyes continued looking forward until it was in his right hand and he took a moment to study it. Then, he swept it in front of him like a sword and protectively stood in front of Ri. "Someday . . . I'm gonna be a hero. I can keep everyone safe; Mom, Dad, you." He smirked at the sky. "I'll do it, in SOLDIER."
Ri straightened and looked at him; looked at his back, again. She closed her mouth, pouted, and put her hands on her hips. "Nuh-uh. No way. I don't want you to keep me safe."
He looked at her over his shoulder. "Huh?"
"If it means I gotta look at your back all the time, I don't wanna be kept safe." The young girl bent down to pick up a stick with her left hand and came up to his side. Zack still met her with a questioning stare and was blushing when she took his hand. She held the stick in front of her and gazed forward. "I wanna be by you. Me an' you'll both be in SOLDIER."
For a moment he stared at her with his mouth open; her face was unsullied and full of childish naiveté. Her periwinkle eyes were those of a dreamer, sparkling with resolve and reverie. A lovely suffusion had manifested in her light dust of freckles, and a breeze picked up her long, loose chocolate locks.
Grinning himself, his own bright blues mirrored hers; his hand tightened its grip on her hand and he looked forward. "Yeah! Me and you, by each other. The Mighty Zack and Ri!"
Their giggles could be heard down the hillside.
As Ri grew with age, she could never fully understand why the image bothered her, but facing Zack's back had irked her ever since she was a young girl in Gongaga; this was true even when she had come to the age when she could appreciate how aesthetically pleasing it was. Despite that factor, one feeling of incompetence remained.
Even during instances when he was not protecting her, she was irritated. Like he would not solely be shielding her, but shielding from her—despite whether or not that was the actual case. It was even harder seeing his back when it was dressed in the SOLDIER uniform; it was a reminder of how he was Second-Class whereas she was still Third.
Typically, the Second-Class uniform for SOLDIER was colored a deep violet. Somehow, Zack had gotten his hands on one colored more of a blue-violet. The color suited him well, certainly more than the purple would have.
Ri's Third-Class uniform was a light turquoise, exactly like those of others at her level. Unlike a majority of them, however, she did not wear the helm. Instead, she allowed her slackly braided locks to freely fall to her waist.
Although he acted like an over-eager puppy, and was often viewed as one, when standing next to one another it appeared to be no contest as to who was stronger.
However, Ri was a woman of pride; she was not defeated without a fight.
Her brown brows were arced solemnly above mako-infused, periwinkle eyes as she followed his movements as closely as a lioness. Both she and Zack had their blades raised as they circled one another, poised to defend against the other's strike.
Rain fell in heavy sheets, dampening them after they were already sodden and creating puddles on the structure that continually splashed and rippled from precipitation and footfall. Because her bangs were long and loose, they nearly obscured her vision as they fell around and between. Zack's parted in the center of his forehead and fell on either side of his face; they threatened to cross into his eyesight as well.
Despite his expression, the bangs still made him look like a puppy.
Ri's lips curled at the thought as she charged, feigning his right and then attempting to strike his left. He had fallen for the feint, but was able to twist away from her blade. He blocked her next successive attack.
She went on without relent, exploiting any weakness she knew of or trying to create a new one. Due to superior speed, Zack was able to parry each attempted blow.
Eventually Ri hopped back and raised her arm to her chest, distancing herself. A chartreuse aura emanated from her as she charged materia and threw her arm in front of her.
Above Zack's head, raindrops converged and froze into a block of ice and proceeded to fall. He rolled out of the way, allowing the Blizzard spell to fall on the structure and crack open. The rain helped carry it down the slope and off the edge.
Offense and defense switched quickly for them as he ran toward her and cut across her; she leaped to avoid it. Her boots landed on the blunt edge of his sword. Before he could lower it and unbalance her, she grabbed the top of his head, held it steady, and jumped from the sword.
"Hey, whoa, what the heck are you—!" The action clearly caught him off-guard as she straightened her arm and pressed her weight down on him, bringing his knees to bend into a squat.
Simultaneous with her descent down his backside, they both twisted; thus, they were facing each other when she landed on her feet. Her hand still held his head as she raised her sword and their blades clashed. Momentum raised their swords above their heads and abruptly closed most of the distance between them.
Ri's heart skipped a beat. With every breath she took in and released, her breasts brushed against his chest. A little twisted, the inside of one thigh pressed below his hip. For moments, she stared at his open mouth—so close to her own, exhaling breaths mingling with hers—and could not help but think that they were perfectly positioned for a kiss.
As her pupils dilated with desire, she summoned the nerve to meet his mako-infused gaze. Despite the cold shower continually pouring on them, there was warmth flushing their faces. Ri pressed her lips together and swallowed, feeling her mouth run dry. Her heartbeat rang in her ears as her lips parted once more.
Zack appeared to lean in a little, loosely guided by the hold Ri had on the back of his head. Their lips were about to brush. . . .
He blinked and retracted minutely, breaking from his spellbound state. Curling his lips to a smile, he leaned in once more, raising his free hand. Before their mouths would have meshed, he touched her waist and moved his fingers in a tickling motion, drawing an immediate, involuntary giggle.
She drew back sharply and covered that side.
He also took a step back and quickly raised his sword at her neck, just above her jugular. His smirk was smug. "I win."
Ri gaped, both breathless and speechless as her sword dangled from her hand at her side and she held the spot where she had been tickled. The warmth that had abruptly left returned as an intense heat to her face, arms, temples, and ears, completely reddening her complexion. Her hands curled to fists that shook with rage and her stare turned into a glower.
The scenery began to fall apart in blue, digitized pixels as their simulation ended. The structure on which they had been standing gave way to a simple platform in the center of a circular room. Zack lowered his sword and stepped away from her, removing the simulation band from around his eyes after sheathing his sword behind his back.
There was a paroxysmal tremble in Ri's lip as she dropped her sword, removed her simulation headgear, and threw it to the wall with so great of force it broke. She was glaring flaming daggers at him. "Dammit, Zack! What the hell was that!"
His smug expression immediately gave way to wonder and surprise. "Huh? Hey, Ri, don't be like that—no one likes a sore loser."
"Hah! 'Sore loser'? Can you even call it a win, using tactics like that?" Blood pulsed through her veins quickly as her voice rose. "What, just because I'm Third-Class, and you're Second-Class, you can't take me seriously!"
Confused, Zack quirked a brow and took a step forward. "What are you talking about? It's not like that—!"
Her eyes were just as intense, but she spoke evenly. "So then . . . it's because I'm a woman."
His eyes widened. That was a landmine. "W-woman? No—!"
"You know what? Shove it. Just—!" She growled and bent down to pick up her sword, swinging it into its sheathe on her back. Thunderclouds raged above her head during her departure, though due to rain being a simulation, she truly was dry. As if it could sense her distress, the exit for the simulation hangar slid open for her quickly.
Zack could only watch as she left. The wall facing the hall was made of glass, so he could see her exit onto the SOLDIER floor as well. Her foreboding aura drew even some higher class SOLDIERs to clear from her path.
Behind the Puppy, SOLDIER First-Class Angeal Hewley approached. Despite no family relation, the two bore similar characteristics; there was a great resemblance in the color of their eyes and hair. Angeal was notably senior, not solely by rank but in terms of age as well. His facial structure was squarer with thin hair on his chin. His hair was parted, but had less volume and remained closer to his head. A large broadsword was on the back of his black SOLDIER uniform.
Shaking his head in an empathetic sort of understanding, Angeal patted Zack's shoulder. At the same time, there was a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Marinate on your tactics a little. Then you'll understand." With that said, he left the simulation hangar.
Zack broke from his stupor and followed. "Wait! Angeal! What did I do wrong?"
Director Lazard was a calm, cool, and collected man who was the executive leader of SOLDIER—with no actual SOLDIER training. He was blonde with blue eyes and sophisticated, rectangular eyeglasses. His white-gloved hands were folded in front of him. His other attire included a plum jacket and white slacks.
Ri stood in front of him with her hands at her sides, "at ease" yet appearing rigid. Her eyes appeared to stare in Lazard's general direction, but she tried not to directly regard him per shame; the pink beneath her freckles almost appeared to be a sunburn.
"I'm rather disappointed, Ri," the director started. "It's not often you have outbursts. You're one of the more coolheaded Third-Class SOLDIERS." Under his breath, he added, "Given any time of the month."
The woman SOLDIER contemplated momentarily if the last line had been meant to insult her and knew it was sexist. Although the comment irked her, she dismissed it, provided the amount of trouble she was already in. "It won't happen again, Director. I swear on my honor as a SOLDIER."
"It better not. That's expensive equipment you broke—and it will come out of your salary."
Ri's eyes widened; a SOLDIER's salary, particularly for a Second- and Third-Class recruit, was somewhat meager.
"A percentage will be taken out each month; you won't pay it all off right away. I'm aware even one year of your salary wouldn't cover it. It may take closer to five or even ten years."
Five to ten years? Ri hung her head. I guess I deserve it. I shouldn't have lost my cool like that. It was just. . . . Something about that simulation had abruptly turned . . . romantic. It was like I felt—robbed when he used it against me, and ruined it.
He's still ahead with his back to me.
She was broken from her thoughts when Lazard spoke once more. "You will be suspended, as well. The uncharacteristic nature of this outburst suggests to us you require some time off. Think of it as a forced vacation, if that soothes your ego."
She raised her gaze and nodded evenly, though her heart was heavy. "Is that so . . . ? Perhaps you are right. . . . I will take this time to reflect on my actions. I will sustain better temperament in the future, and refrain from allowing myself to be put in this situation again."
"We look forward to it. Before you leave, you will return your materia also. You're dismissed indefinitely, and will be notified of when you may return."
"Yes, of course." Ri saluted. "Thank you, director."
"Stupid Zack . . . ," grumbled Ri as she stormed through the Shinra Building. This is so humiliating. First, he wins that fight by tickling and making fun of me, and now because of that I'm on leave! Ugh! Still storming, she had little regard for those in her way, despite rank. What did she care? For now, she was not a SOLDIER!
In front of the door of the materia room, Ri paused, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes as she tried to collect herself. She felt the tension in her shoulders and released it with her breath—or tried to. She also uncurled her hands.
Calm down, Ri. It's always best, and professional, to keep a cool head. I needed to stop by here, anyway, sometime. I've found a lot of mako on my missions lately.
After visiting the materia room, Ri went home. While she had to return the materia provided by Shinra, she had been allowed to keep the materia refined from her mako. The scientists explained to her that although she found it during a mission, it had not been a part of the mission objective, and thus was hers to keep.
"Enemy Skill materia. . . . Useless, until I'm reinstated and will be fighting monsters worth drawing skills from," she sighed. Tossing the materia in the air, she leaned her head back, laid down on the couch, used the arm as a pillow, and caught the materia again. She covered her left eye with her wrist as she rested her hand on her brow and stared at the ceiling.
In her right hand, she held her open cellphone. The screen read two things: "1 Missed Call: Zack" and "You have 1 Voice Message." There was an icon of an envelope containing a tape for the voicemail and of a phone with a red X through it for the missed call.
Ri's thumb pressed a few buttons on the phone, highlighted "You have 1 Voice Message," and pressed "Enter." While the screen read "Voicemail: Dialing…" she brought the listening end to her ear. Soon, a robotic female voice began, "You have one new message. First message. . . ."
Zack's voice began speaking. "Ouch, Ri. Voicemail? Are you still mad? I heard you're on leave. Guess that headgear's really expensive, huh? You're temper's pretty scary."
"Well . . . anyway, let me know what's up. Whatever I did, I'm sorry. You're my best friend, Ri. I don't like seeing you upset. Especially at me. Call me back. Bye."
Robot Lady returned. "End of message. To delete this message, press—" Ri pressed one of the buttons. "Message deleted."
She let her arm fall to the side. Staring at the ceiling, she sighed heavily. Am I wrong to be so angry with him? she wondered. Lately it seems like almost everything he does irks me somehow, even if we are joking around. Especially since he made Second-Class. . . . Everything he says at my expense, or does. . . . Maybe I'm being too childish and taking everything too personally—I shouldn't be taking my jealousy out on him. Sticks and stones, right?
She flipped herself over to lie on her stomach and rested her chin on the pillow. Except this time, they weren't words! There were no words. . . . Nothing. . . . Just him and me, close together, our lips almost touching, our speechless breaths mingling. . . . Ri's cheeks turned pink as she remembered the sounds of the pouring rain, her beating heart, and Zack's breathing.
Once more, she turned but this time onto her side. Her bangs tossed in front of her face while she took hold of her braid, which had lain on her hip. Her fingers ruffled the end. Of all people. . . . Why does the person I want to stand by so desperately, be equal to, have to . . . be my weakness?
A few nights later saw Ri doing some "light" drinking at a bar in the slums beneath the Plate. Dressed casually in forest green cargo pants, work boots, black T-shirt, and thin jacket tied around her waist, she was by herself. Drunken blooms were already manifesting in her dust of freckles, but she was not quite "intoxicated" . . . yet.
Having stopped counting after the first two, she asked the bartender for another bottle. She took one sip and set it down with both hands, staring at the bottleneck. The bartender, as he wiped out a glass, said, "You sure you don't want to eat anything with that? You've had a few, might want to dilute some of that alcohol?"
"Hehehe, I didn't come here on an empty stomach, relax," she responded with a dry smile. "May not've been doing it long, but I know how to drink responsibly." So I should be counting these, and maybe not going through them so quickly. . . . Ah, well. Don't feel responsible today. . . . "Hmmmm . . . how about some fries anyway?"
"You got it."
She took another swig of the beer, followed by a few small gulps, and set it down. Alcohol was not doing too much to soothe her mood.
She did not turn to address the speaker. After knowing him since childhood, it was unnecessary to turn and see his face in order to discern his identity; she simply glanced to the side. "Zack . . . ," she mumbled; she took another deep swig when he sat down next to her. "Whataya doin' here?"
"I was in the neighborhood." He signaled to the bartender for one beer and turned toward her. "I had a feeling you'd be here, too. How've you been?"
Her smile was sarcastic. "Peachy. Can't you tell? Aren't I just exuding contentment at my leave?" The bartender came by with Ri's fries and Zack's beer. Zack helped himself to the former and Ri did not contest. Anger was exhausting—and her buzzed state was not helping the matter. She brought the bottle to her mouth again and drank more than half the bottle in three large gulps.
"More like contempt," he said with an amused smile.
She placed the bottle back down with a sigh, the new surge of alcohol going straight to her head. "Mm-mm," she said, shaking her head. "I am slipping into the de-depression, now, my friend. Searching for answers in the bottom of a bottle. . . ." She raised her bottle lazily and nearly dropped it. "Oops. Here's to . . . being pathetic!" She tried to take a sip, but a lot of it dribbled down her chin.
Zack put down her beverage and gently took hers. It could be rather amusing, seeing a friend embarrass themselves, but it was hardly fair. She should have been cut off a while ago, she was on suspension, and while she was not acting belligerently toward him, it was anger at something he did that put her in this situation. He felt guilt at her pitiful state.
"Okay, that's enough for you. Good thing I came—no way you could get home like this by yourself in the slums." He procured his wallet and placed some Gil on the bar. "Let's go."
Ri, looking like she may very well fall asleep on the bar stool if she did not move soon, hiccupped and smiled. "Pshhhh, I'm not as think you drunk I am!" she chortled. "I'm not holding onto the grass, trying not to fall off the bottom of Gaia!"
He stood up from the stool and turned hers around so he would have an easier time helping her out. "No, not yet. . . . But your face is getting real red." He hooked her arm over his shoulders.
"That's because I'm a cherry! But not like, the virgin cherry, a-hahaha! I lost that a couple years ago." Her forehead hit his cheek as she laughed, each chuckle almost as slurred as her words. "And you're a puppy! Arf arf!"
"Woof woof," he corrected. "You sound like a Chihuahua. Those aren't very heroic dogs . . . and they're tiny. I'm more of a German Shepard, or a Dalmatian." He started leading her toward the door, finding it a bit easier than he had anticipated. While she was drunk, her motor function was not completely useless; she was not dragging her feet and could remain more or less stable, maybe even without his help.
He was not about to find out though; the hand he had placed on her waist pulled her in a little more.
Her last words before they left the bar were coupled with the action of brushing the long bangs on either side of his face. "Bloodhound. Mm."
The shock from the cold night air did some good for Ri and sobered her a little, enough that she could walk calmly behind Zack with little more than a simple fog in her mind to provide testament to her drinking. Her footing was a little weird, but she was intent on walking herself and would not use him as a crutch. However, by his insistence they held hands as he gently tugged her along.
It was a silent walk. Zack left Ri to her thoughts and Ri focused on walking properly. How shameful it would be, she thought, to fall in front of him so pitifully after he had found her in such a mortifying position. This guy had enough embarrassing moments of her in memory as it was. After that incident he did not need more.
Some cat-like monsters rounded the corner of a Shinra building toward them, interrupting the reticence of the trek. Neither Zack nor Ri carried a blade, and since the latter was on leave, she had only the useless Enemy Skill materia. The Puppy, however, was prepared.
As the monsters—which could have been released accidentally from Shinra Labs—approached, he let go of Ri's hand and stood in front of her. She had her back against the wall and used imperfections in the structure to hold herself up as she watched Zack's back.
He faced the three monsters confidently, holding their complete attention. As Ri was motionless and practically dead in appearance, she was less interesting. It did not matter, for the disinterest was mutual; her scowl remained fixated on the Puppy's posterior.
The materia he had equipped was mid-level, therefore it did not take long for him to dispose of the monsters. Mid-level spells such as Fira, Blizzara, or Thundara cast two projectiles (or bolts) of magic each time used, and the monsters did not have a high threshold for defeat. The only move they managed to land on Zack was to drench him with a single Water spell.
When he defeated them, he only smiled and laughed. "Mission accomplished!" Water had been like a slap initially, but all he felt was the damp of his clothes and hair. Removing his sodden, dripping shirt, he began to wring it out in an attempt to lessen the discomfort it would bring when he replaced it. It gushed onto the sidewalk.
Ri's eyes were becoming hazy as she stepped away from the wall. Gazing at it in a nigh trance-like state, she approached his back and held her hand out in front of her. She was somewhat stable, but stumbled a little. Her hand touched his left shoulder blade, and she continued to him until she was very close. Her lips touched the middle of his shoulders.
Zack tensed and twisted his head. "Huh?"
Her voice came out in a mumble, barely carrying to Zack's ears. It seemed she was thinking to herself, and probably did not realize her words were voiced. "I'm always looking at your back. . . . Why? Why'm I always left behind? I try, so hard, to be just as good as you, if not better, but . . . I'm never good enough to be at your side.
"I'm . . . defeated by you. You affect me so . . . harshly. My cheeks burn, my pulse rushes, my knees feel weak when you say my name. . . . I love you. I want to be good enough for you. I wanted you to kiss me, not tickle me . . . 'tard." She lifted her head and regarded him with tearful eyes. "Zack. . . ."
The moment was over, however, when she doubled over and vomited to the side of him.
Zack's wide smile turned to disgust. He shook his head and reached into his pocket. "Ri . . . you're hopeless." He retrieved a napkin and turned and helped straighten Ri so he could wipe her mouth. With a note of humor, he added, "This isn't the kind of state you should be in when you confess your feelings."
Her face was still flushed, either from her current status or embarrassment—it was too soon to tell, particularly since she was not very responsive to him. She closed her eyes and started to become limp, apparently falling asleep and using Zack as a crutch.
He lifted her bridal style, knowing it would be quicker than dragging her unconscious body. She was out cold, sleeping like a child. For someone who had just vomited, she somehow still looked cute.
Zack snorted and started walking.
The next morning, Ri woke up lying face down on a couch, hugging a pillow and kissing the arm rest. Through the veil of her hair, which had liberated a part of itself from her braid, she lazily scanned the room. The furniture was familiar, but it was not what belonged in her home.
Ow, my head. . . . Slowly she raised her torso off the couch, using her arm and the armrest for support. Her free hand held her temple as she squinted from the pain; it was not her worst hangover, but it still was not welcome.
She took to her feet and shuffled across the room. Near the beginning of the hall, Zack's bedroom door was open; he was sprawled over the covers, fast asleep.
Ri blushed. That's right. . . . Zack found me at the bar. He's seen worse of me, but . . . still. . . . How embarrassing. She leaned against the door frame and watched him sleep. But I realized it last night. All of this jealousy, this frustration . . . all of these ugly emotions started because I truly wanted to be with him.
For a few more minutes, she stayed and stared. Then, she quietly left his home.
Sound from his phone woke Zack a few hours after Ri's departure. He reached blindly for the bedside table, where the device lied in front of a digital alarm clock. When he found it, he grabbed for it, flipped it open, and brought it to his ear.
"Hello?" he yawned.
There was no answer.
Rubbing his eyes, he took the phone and brought it in front of his face to read the screen. He had not received a phone call; he had mail, which is subsequently opened.
I don't think we should see each other for a while. I need some space.
Please done call, send me mail, or come by my house. I won't be there.
I'm sorry, Zack.
The "Puppy" quickly sat up and composed a reply. His thumb hit the keypad swiftly and with purpose. When he tried to send the message, a notice popped up: "Message Sending Failed. Your number has been blocked."
He stared at the screen with an open mouth as well as shocked and questioning eyes. "Ri. . . ."
Two weeks passed since Ri sent that message. Although he disobeyed her request by visiting her house a few times, she was never home, as promised; he stopped trying after three times, partly because missions from Shinra kept him busy.
Among those missions was an operation in Wutai, where Zack took out an entire force singlehandedly. Unfortunately, by the end of the mission, his mentor, Angeal, was missing. Zack was promoted to SOLDIER First-Class.
Only then did Ri send a message:
Hey, Kunsel told me about Wutai. I'm sorry about Angeal. I don't think he'd just disappear like that on his own, he's not a traitor. Why else would he shove "honor" down your throat?
And congratulations on First-Class. It might feel bittersweet because of Angeal, but it's a great achievement, and I'm sure he'd be proud. . . . I am too. When I come back, we should celebrate. I got a call from Director Lazard, and I should have my job back soon.
Aside from that, and Zack's reply, there was no contact between them, until Ri was allowed back into Shinra.
Through the halls of Shinra Headquarters, Zack dashed through the building to the locker room, dodging Second- and Third-Class SOLDIERs all the way. When he opened the door, a woman stood on the opposite side of the room, her back facing him. He closed the door behind him. "Ri."
Her eyes widened and she blushed; she turned. "Z-zack, hey. . . ."
He smiled and approached her. "Wow, you look great! Purple's a good color on you."
She had cut her long, chocolate brown hair so it ended just before her shoulders and made her look more of a woman than ever before; instead of the loose braid which allowed a lot of hair in her face, her bangs stopped before her eyes. Her uniform, as Zack had pointed out, had also changed.
She blushed deeper, averted her eyes, and smiled a little, reaching up to touch her hair. Cutting it felt sort of like I was cutting away those unsightly feelings. It's simple, though a little theatrical, but . . . new haircut, new start. "Thanks."
She looked at his black uniform. "Second-Class doesn't feel so impressive now, though. Look at you! You've never looked so handsome, fourth-ever First-Class SOLDIER." Her eyes saddened when she looked at the ground. Just when we were almost side-by-side. . . .
He crossed his arms and flashed his teeth in a cocky grin. "I've always been handsome."
Ri lifted her head. Her smile was not without pall, though she tried to hide it. "I unblocked you. And, I'll be at home again. I want us to go back to the way things were, before the simulation. Being really great friends . . . with me always watching your back."
She started for the door and walked passed him, but did not make it far when Zack reached behind him and grabbed her hand.
"You told me you loved me, that night I found you at the bar, and now this is all you have to say?" he asked.
"Th-that night?" Her eyes were wide and she covered her mouth. "I . . . said that . . . to you? Out loud?"
He turned and pulled her into his arms, hugging her from behind. His mouth was near her ear; so close, they nearly brushed.
Ri's heart fluttered in her chest, and her enkindled visage warmed even more when feeling his hot breath on her ear. Heat transferred from his body to hers, filling her entire being. She started to feel as fuzzy as Zack's nickname the "Puppy."
"I've always said I wanted to protect you because I care about you, not because I thought you were weak and needed it. What makes you think you have to be as strong as me to be 'good enough' for me? You talk a lot about my back, but you've been by my side all this time.
"I love you, too."
Ri's eyes glistened as she swallowed her pride and lowered her hands from her mouth. "I didn't realize my feelings until that night. I thought you didn't respect me—or wouldn't respect me—until I was on equal ground with you as a SOLDIER, especially when you treated me that way during the simulation.
"I hated it. Being in a force full of men, always having to prove myself. They already don't take me seriously, and it doesn't help when you don't either. You've seen me at my worst . . . but you've also seen me at my best. It hurt twice as much because . . . I do love you."
"I forgive you." She leaned her head forward to wipe her eyes and smiled. "Don't call me soft, but I can't stay mad at the Puppy." More seriously, she added, "Just . . . please, don't do it again."
He smiled against her ear. "Then it looks like I owe you. On top of tickling you, I also didn't kiss you when I should've. You really looked like you wanted it."
His words sent shivers down her spine. She turned in his hold to face him, rested her hands on his chest, and lifted her chin. Coyly, she looked away. "Well . . . a little. Don't pretend you didn't."
He leaned down, and pressed his lips to her.
End of Love in Hindsight
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