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One Way to Love

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[December 22, 2009]

It was a quiet evening, as usual, in the SEES dormitory. Mitsuru sat in her favourite chair, legs crossed primly, a textbook open on her knees. Akihiko sat near her on the sofa with his gloves, working oil into the leather with rhythmic strokes of his hands. Yukari and Fuuka sat across from him on the other sofa, chattering in low voices and giggling. Minato didn't see Aigis, at first, then spotted her to one side, gazing out at the falling snow through the front windows.

Minato closed the door, petted Kuromaru and then crossed to Junpei, who sat at the table, rubbing his forehead and repeatedly taking his hat off and putting it back on as he sorted through a giant pile of notes that looked like they had been written in Yukari's handwriting.

Minato had been walking around and thinking for over an hour, struggling with a problem he wanted to solve before the new year, and he was pretty sure he had finally worked out how to deal with it. He put a hand on Junpei's shoulder. His fingers were cold from the chill outside - it had started snowing while he was walking, and he hadn't brought his gloves, but they were already prickling with returning warmth.

"I need to talk to you, Junpei," he said in a low voice. No one overheard him, and Junpei beamed up in response, obviously glad for a reprieve from the desperate studying.

"Oh yeah, man. I'm here for you," he said eagerly, jumping to his feet. Now a couple of their teammates looked around, but the two boys headed upstairs to the small lounge on the second floor before anyone could ask where they were going.

Minato sat down and leaned forward as Junpei sprawled into the sofa opposite him. "Akihiko likes Mitsuru," he said.

"Yeah?" Junpei's eyes lit up and he leaned forward, already eager. "You think so?"

"Don't you?"

Junpei nodded conspiratorially and replied in an exaggerated whisper. "You know what? I think Mitsuru-senpai likes Akihiko-senpai, too. But you know, neither of them will ever say anything, man. It's just impossible!"

"I know," Minato said, pleased that Junpei had so quickly grasped the problem. "That's why I'm coming to you. What should we do?"

Junpei thought for a moment, then grinned, a light igniting in his eyes. "You've come to the right guy. Just leave it all to Junpei-sama, I promise!"

Minato nodded, smiling faintly. "I knew I could count on you."

~ ~ ~

[December 26, 2009]

The last day of class before the winter holiday, and it was snowing heavily as Akihiko went to his locker to change into his outdoor shoes after class. The clubs were over until after the new year, and Christmas had passed uneventfully. Akihiko had had a lot of invitations in his box on the 24th, but he'd ignored them all, unable to figure out a fair way to choose one and unsure if he could stand to spend a whole awkward evening holding hands with a girl he didn't really know.

He knew one day he'd have to get over this shyness around girls, but today was not the day. Especially considering the world might end in a week. Why worry about his painful failure with girls when he had that hanging over his head?

To his surprise, an envelope fell out of his locker when he opened the door today, too. He bent to pick it up, the fine pink stationary soft against the pads of his fingers. Had he missed one the day before? Why call him out now, when Christmas was already over?

He hesitated, then opened the envelope and opened up the letter inside.

"Dear Sanada-kun,

I have admired you for some time, however until now I haven't had the courage to say anything. I know that you have much on your mind, but if you would grace me with your presence at the front gate of the school at 4:00 p.m. this evening, I would be grateful.

If you are punctual there should be more than enough time to get a ticket to "Three Ways to Love", which I understand is playing at the local theatre tonight.

Yours,
An Admirer
"

Akihiko read and re-read the letter a few times, then checked his watch, wondering why the handwriting looked oddly familiar. The tone of the letter reminded him of someone, too. There was a hint of perfume to the stationary, and it filled his nose with a floral scent he was sure he'd smelled in the before. Hadn't he smelled it recently in the common room of the dorm?

Could it be?

He looked at the date printed neatly in the top corner of the letter, and his heart began to race as he realized that the letter had been written today, after all. He hadn't missed it.

"I can't be considering this," he whispered, slipping his indoor shoes off and pulling on the thick snow boots he had worn to school this morning. He shrugged into his jacket and hefted his book bag, swinging it onto his shoulder as he hurried out into the snow.

His heart only beat faster when he saw the figure standing by the gate. It could be a coincidence. It had to be a coincidence.

Mitsuru's long red hair was bare, falling halfway down her back and speckled with white flecks. Her coat was knee-length, black angora wool, and her boots reached her knee, giving her two inches of additional height with a tasteful heel that was more attractive than practical in this weather. Her arms were folded across her chest, and her leather gloves matched the colour of her boots.

She was completely gorgeous, and completely out of his league.

Akihiko bit his lip, aware of his slightly ragged coat, the new bruises on his knuckles, and the knitted cap he had pulled down low over his ears, not to mention the boots he wore that were definitely purchased for their warmth, rather than their style.

But...she had left him a note, saying she admired him. There was no point in freaking out now. What did he have to prove to her?

He walked up to her, heart pounding against his ribs. She looked around at his approach and seemed to straighten a little, her eyes widening faintly. Was she really surprised he'd come? Had she been as nervous as he felt?

Somehow, knowing that, he felt some of the tension in his chest ease.

"Uh, hi," he said, giving a small wave and feeling colour rising on his cheeks. "So you really came..."

Mitsuru bit her lip and looked away, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "Honestly, Akihiko... I must apologize. I had no idea you felt that way about me. But... I'm quite flattered."

"Really?" Akihiko blurted out, then laughed softly, scratching the back of his neck with one gloved hand. "Look at us, acting all funny, like we don't talk every single day, huh?"

She looked up at him, a hesitant smile coming to her lips. Snowflakes were caught in her long eyelashes, and he realized as he watched them melt that he was just standing there. Staring at her. And she'd just said something.

"Huh?"

"Ah...I said you're quite right, there's no reason for us to be nervous. And also that if we wanted to catch that movie we should leave soon," she said, reddening under his gaze.

He blinked, snapping out of his daze, and nodded. She'd said something about a movie in her letter, hadn't she? He was grateful for that, actually, because it meant he didn't need to come up for something for them to do that wasn't just 'head back to the dorm and polish his gloves'.

And suddenly that sounded like the most awkward suggestion ever under the circumstances.

"Right, right, the movie," he said, smiling brightly. "And it's really cold. We shouldn't stand around here all night."

Minato and Junpei walked past them, not apparently noticing that the two upperclassmen were standing there. Akihiko started to turn and give them a friendly wave, then stopped as he took another look at their retreating backs. If he waved, they might ask where they were going, and if he said they were going to a movie, they might want to come, and then he'd have to say it was a date, and--

Was this a date?

Oh my god, I'm going on a date with Kirijo Mitsuru, Akihiko thought dizzily.

He glanced at her, grinning sheepishly. "Let's get going."

~ ~ ~

"Do you think they went for it?" Junpei whispered in Minato's ear as they got to the end of the corner and turned to head for the train station.

"I think so," Minato said.

"Maybe we should...keep an eye on them," Junpei said, shoving his hands deeper into his jacket pockets against the cold. He was breathing a little excitedly, his eyes bright with mischief. "Just in case they mess it up and can't figure out what to do next."

"Are you really going to try to give them advice, Junpei?"

"I could if I wanted to! Iori Junpei is a ladies man, you know!"

Minato smiled. "Let's get over to Port Island Station before they get there."

Laughing together, the two boys sprinted down the snowy sidewalk towards the train station.

~ ~ ~

Even though this was the day after Christmas, there were still quite a lot of couples at Port Island Station. It was the day before winter vacation, so a lot of students hadn't rushed home to do homework, and there was even a furious snowball fight taking place near the mouth of the alley.

Akihiko and Mitsuru stepped off the train and walked down the steps towards the movie theatre, keeping a healthy six inches of distance between them. Akihiko was in an agony of uncertainty as they walked, and it was an agony he'd been immersed in ever since they left the school yard, all the way here on the train.

To hold her hand, or not?

Mitsuru had her hands swinging slightly at her sides as she walked, instead of held up in a cross-armed pose as she often did. She didn't even have them in her pockets, though Akihiko imagined that she didn't need to, since those soft lambskin gloves looked really warm.

It would be so easy to just reach out and take her hand.

Akihiko nearly ran into a boy from his school and realized that he had been staring at Mitsuru's hand for several steps now. The boy dodged him and continued on before Akihiko could look around and peer past the heavy scarf he wore to see if he recognized him.

And Akihiko could have sworn he heard a muffled voice. "Take her hand. Jeez."

He looked around in surprise, but the boy, whoever he was, had vanished into the jostling crowd and he couldn't pick him out.

Maybe it had been his overactive imagination, maybe he was just being that obvious, but Akihiko felt the decision was now out of his hands - so to speak. She had asked him out. He was just being a pussy, and if there were one thing Akihiko hated feeling like - it was a coward.

He reached out and grasped Mitsuru's hand.

She started visibly and looked around, her cheeks glowing and a shy smile on her lips. She squeezed his hand, and he immediately relaxed. He had made the right choice, and now they were walking up towards the cashier.

He ordered the tickets, and before he could protest, Mitsuru had slid her card over to the cashier. "Y-you don't have to--" he hissed urgently as she signed the slip, but she flicked her fingers at him in a clear 'shut up' gesture, and he subsided. The truth was, he had little money to pay for a movie, anyway.

And as they stepped away from the kiosk, she took his hand again, and that made issues like who paid for whom seem a little bit petty and meaningless.

~ ~ ~

Minato braced himself as Junpei came bursting out of the crowd, dodged a thrown snowball and caught him around the shoulders, laughing like a loon.

"I can't believe that idiot!" he said, wiping his eyes. "I told him to take her hand already."

"Did it work?" Minato asked, steadying his friend. "Did he see you?"

Junpei pulled down the scarf and shook his head, grinning, pulling his hat out of his coat pocket and putting it back on. "Hey, man, this is me. Of course it worked! And I don't think he saw me. So what now, partner?"

Minato started towards the theatre. "Now we go watch the movie."

"Yessssss! Gotta keep up the surveillance!" Junpei began singing 'secret agent man' as they moved through the crowd towards the ticket agent, Mitsuru and Akihiko already disappearing into the theatre ahead of them.

~ ~ ~

Akihiko and Mitsuru found a seat in the middle of the theatre, not too close to the front, and sat down. The theatre was already half-filled with couples, but most of them seemed to be gravitating towards the rear. Akihiko spotted several of them necking already and he blushed furiously as he turned his eyes sharply towards the front.

"I can't believe they're doing that," Mitsuru complained quietly. She removed her gloves and took off her coat, smoothing down the front of her blouse with quick swipes of her fingers, fixing the ribbon at the collar. Then she dropped her hands into her lap, her fingers twisting together restlessly.

"Yeah," Akihiko said shyly, unzipping his own coat. He pulled off his gloves, but had his fingerless gloves on underneath. "It's sort of..." He couldn't come up with a good word and fell silent.

"Rude," Mitsuru said with a sniff. But she glanced sidelong at him and curled her fingers around his hand again. He squeezed back, and the lights began to lower.

A few more couples entered quickly after the lights lowered, most of them moving to seats near the doors or high towards the back, but one couple settled behind them. Akihiko had stopped looking around by now, not wanting to know what the amorous couples at the back were doing now that it was dark, so he kept his eyes trained firmly forward as the movie began.

Fifteen minutes in, he wondered why Mitsuru had chosen this particular movie. It wasn't that it was bad or anything. Actually, it was oddly compelling, as the story developed the love triangle between the girl and her love interest and his best friend.

But it was sort of sappy. And, well, romantic. It just didn't seem like the kind of thing Mitsuru would like to watch. In fact, she was shooting him doubtful looks out of the corner of her eye, which made him wonder if she were even enjoying it at all.

Then again, she was a girl. Maybe all girls really did like this sort of mushy stuff.

Halfway through, Mitsuru leaned close, almost resting her head on his shoulder. Akihiko felt his heart skip a beat, but she only murmured in his ear. "It's a rather...romantic movie. Are you enjoying it?"

He blushed. So she did like it, and her doubtful looks before had been her wondering if he were bored. "Yeah, yeah, it's really good," he said, trying to sound enthusiastic.

"Oh, well good," Mitsuru said, still sounding slightly doubtful. "It just wasn't the sort of movie I really pictured you enjoying."

"It's okay," Akihiko reassured her fervently. "It's the kind of movie that c-couples go to after all, right?"

She paused. "True enough." And she sat back once more, turning her attention to the screen. Akihiko relaxed a little, though his heart was still thumping a bit at the word 'couple' that had just come out of his mouth.

He heard a soft groan from behind him, but didn't have the courage to look back to see what was going on.

Finally the movie was coming to a climax. The girl had chosen the best friend, rather than the dickish guy she'd originally lusted after, and the two stood on the prow of a ship at sunset, staring dreamily into each other's eyes. Akihiko's palms had grown a tiny bit sweaty under his gloves, but he didn't let go of Mitsuru's hand, and her fingers were still pressed lightly against his, her weight shifted slightly towards him, so that their shoulders brushed.

He was bored, and he glanced up at Mitsuru, watching the play of colours pass over her face as the movie continued. On the screen, the hero and heroine were kissing, and Mitsuru suddenly turned to look at Akihiko in return.

Akihiko realized that their faces were literally inches apart, and they were pretty much alone, in a dark theatre.

No, no! That's a bad idea! Akihiko thought in sudden panic.

"Kiss her."

The voice came to his ears loudly and clearly, and Akihiko obeyed the command before he had even thought. After all, he had obeyed that voice without question for eight months now.

Akihiko leaned forward and pressed his lips to Mitsuru's.

She tensed slightly in surprise under the kiss, a soft gasp drawing air shivering past their lips and into their mouths. But before Akihiko could draw back, apologize for his unthinking move, she slipped her arms tentatively around his neck and pressed back, her lips softening under his.

Her lips were softer and more moist than they had the right to be, with just a hint of strawberries. Was that her lip gloss? He gave a soft moan, wrapping his arms around her neck in return as the credits began to roll, and barely even noticed when the couple right behind them got up and left.

The lights came up and they broke apart, blushing. Mitsuru tucked her hair back, fussing with her coat and purse and Akihiko couldn't quite look her in the face. His lips were tingling, and he felt clumsy and awkward, but somehow he managed to get his coat on and gloves, and to take her hand as they left the theatre.

Standing out in the softly falling snow, Mitsuru turned to him, her cheeks still faintly glowing, and her eyes slightly averted. "Ah...Akihiko, thank you for asking me to come today. It was very nice. I really...wasn't expecting to get your invitation in my locker."

Akihiko blinked, sure he hadn't heard her right. "What? But I got a letter from you."

Mitsuru looked up at him, her eyes widening with dawning understanding. As they stood, both of them were jostled by couples and singles leaving the theatre.

"Man, I didn't think it was ever gonna happen. And the movie was so lame, too," A passing boy said to his companion, and Akihiko frowned faintly with recognition. Wasn't that--

Mitsuru's head whipped around to glare at the boy who had just spoken. "Iori-kun!?"

"Oh shit!"

Akihiko looked up just in time to see the forms of Junpei and Minato fleeing for the stairs. Even as he watched, they disappeared through the turnstile and into the station, and he turned back to Mitsuru, unsure if he should laugh or get angry.

"They...they set us up..." he said helplessly.

Mitsuru shook her head, pressing her fingertips her forehead. "They did."

They stood in silence for a moment, then Akihiko reached out to take Mitsuru's hand again, his heart beginning to pound. "It's okay, though, right?" he asked shyly.

She looked up, smiling. "Yes." Then she sobered and glanced over her shoulder towards the station, scowling. "But next time, let's pick a movie that is more to our taste. I couldn't believe that you thought I would like a movie like that."

Akihiko laughed and squeezed her hand tightly. "Definitely. Next time, definitely a different movie."

~ ~ ~

As the train pulled away from the station, leaving the confused couple behind in the snow, Minato turned to Junpei, a faint smile on his lips.

"So, did you enjoy our date?"

Junpei looked at Minato, boggled, and then blushed.

"W-what!?"