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When the kiss happened, it was completely different from what either of them had imagined.

Ram had always thought it would happen after a whispered confession, careful and soft.

King, on the other hand, had always imagined it to be in the heat of the moment, either of them pulling the other close because they couldn’t take it anymore. And to be honest, in his dreams, it had always been King himself who had done the pulling. Because he knew one day he wouldn’t be able to stop himself. Or at least, he imagined.

When it finally happened, right in the middle of a pandemic and a damn lockdown, it had been neither. No confession and no heat, but an almost daily moment. A situation no one of them had expected. And which was still no surprise.

They had been learning in the living room, King’s head leaned against Ram’s shoulder as he had tried to blink through his blurry vision and know what the heck he was reading.

“I can’t do this anymore”, he had sighed while wiggling closer to Ram, as if he’d magically turn into a pillow.

“Go to bed”, Ram didn’t even bother to turn but kept focusing on his own book.

For a moment it was quiet, King either sleeping already or thinking about it.

“Okay”, he finally straightened himself up a bit, “I take the lead.”

Ram had huffed and nodded, knowing King would be fast asleep in a few minutes. Asleep and sprawled over most of the bed as if he wanted Ram to either move him or sleep in the last spot available. Which was fine with Ram, it really was. He’d gotten used to the yearning.

“Good night”, wanting the last sight of an awake King, Ram looked up to him.

At the words, King stopped and turned, still in the process of sitting up, his hazy eyes trying to focus on Ram.
“Good night”, he replied before both of them leaned forward and met for a short peck to the lips. With a yawn, King pulled back and turned away once more.

Only when he was standing again and Ram was back to reading his book, did something in their minds catch up.

Uh ... Oh ...

Ram blinked, the letters in front of him no longer resembling anything he knew, his lips tingling with the echo of the kiss.

What ...

King whirled around, his eyes wide and full of panic. Ram didn’t know what to make of it.

“Oh, shit, I am sorry, I ...”

Helplessly, they stared at each other, as if someone else might pop up and explain the situation.

“I didn’t mean to do that”, King averted his gaze and rubbed his neck, making Ram wonder how it would feel to kiss the exact spot which was now turning dark.

He raised his eyebrows, every word stuck in his throat.

“Really, it was just ... the moment? I don’t know ... dude.”

Oh, how Ram wished he could say something, tell King to stop rambling and maybe confess his feelings, but the anxiety was gripping his throat like a madman, reducing him to watch only how the panic made King rant on, the complete opposite of him.

“I am definitely sorry and it won’t happen again, I promise. Must be all the missing hugs right now. Seems I am a bit needier than I thought I was and I am so sorry you had to experience that and I will never do it again.”

Oh ...

Now, his words kept stuck in his throat for a totally different reason. So, King regretted it that much? Or was he only panicking?

For a short moment, King dared to lock eyes again, before he averted his gaze once more, fumbling with his fingers nervously. He let out a huff though, making Ram wonder what the next devastating words might be. He, on the other hand, was still trying to utter even a single one.

“I mean you’ve been enduring my cuddles already, I really shouldn’t want more, but I guess this lockdown is really catching up to me, isn’t it? Did you know in some countries people are officially allowed one person to cuddle and kiss now? Maybe I should search for someone like that. Just to get it out of my system.”

The next second, Ram was standing, his hands curled into fists, his heart and mind racing.

“No.”

Only now did he realise that King had probably been joking to lighten the situation, but the image had been like lighting. Fast and full of destruction.

“No?”

Ram stared, his mouth vomiting words he hadn’t intended to say: “Use me.”

“What?!”

... what?!

His tongue felt heavy and difficult to move, but his brain was even slower, too stunned by his own words.

“Not ... someone else.”

If a blush could be felt over several metres, it would be the case right now, Ram was sure. For him and King both.

“I ... uhm ... why?”

Why? Really? Hadn’t he said too much already? Hadn’t that been a confession already? Should he spell it out now?

He could, Ram realised. He could lay all his feelings out now, no more hiding, no more ambiguous confessions. But, something held him back. Maybe it was King’s panic, maybe it was the fear of being rejected after all. Of their living arrangement turning sour. Of ... anything, really. Was he even ready himself?

“Covid?”

The word stumbled out of his mouth like a dead rat and Ram knew he had fucked up somehow, had chosen the wrong path. Even though King’s face relaxed slightly.

“Oh, you are afraid I could catch the virus?”

Well, that too!
So, Ram nodded.

“You’re right”, King let out something akin to a tight laugh, “It would be stupid to catch the virus because of something like this. And I don’t want to give it to you then. So, you would be the best person for that, hypothetically.”

By now, Ram had no idea what they were actually talking about any longer. Were they actually discussing friends with benefits right now? Or what was the goal of this?

“Hypothetically”, he repeated as if it would be helpful in any way.

“Hypothetically”, King repeated as well and they stared at each other once more.

Ram lifted his eyebrows as if that would send any message to King, even though he had no idea which message to send at all. What to say to this.

“But”, King started again, “I mean, if you want, though ... but, no, really ... just forget it.”

Inside, Ram was screaming, his heart on a race, impossible to win.
The beating made it impossible to hear reason, to think carefully and all he could do, really, was to nod.

King froze.

Ram kept nodding, not knowing how to stop any longer.

“You”, King gulped and Ram’s eyes followed the movement of his throat as if it was a magnet, “You want this?”

“The ... the lockdown”, Ram managed to say with gritted teeth.

He had started it and he wouldn’t back down now. Not if there was a slight chance, something, anything, really. He couldn’t even stop thinking about it any longer. No matter how stupid it was. But maybe, just maybe, it would be a start. For something else. To go further. Move. Change.

“Ah. Yes. I understand.”

Did he? Did he really? Not even Ram understood, so how could King?

King stepped closer and if the ground would have swallowed Ram now, he wouldn’t have struggled, really. His brain had been frozen and fried at the same time minutes ago and if there was one coherent thought in him, it was “I love him” alone.

“So”, King stopped right in front of him, the nervousness almost palpable, “You are really, seriously, definitely ready to be my lockdown-kiss-partner?”

Lockdown-kiss-partner?

“Sure.”

It was only one step further from Lockdown-cuddle-partner, wasn’t it?

And maybe, just maybe, lifetime-partner was another step of the way.

~~~

Two weeks. It had been two weeks since their weird new agreement and Ram was going crazy.

At first, they had barely followed up on it, glancing shyly at each other each time they got close. King even stopped cuddling for a bit, as if he could ignore everything. But it didn’t take much - a few days and some casual touching by Ram - to have him back on board and from then on, the pits of hell opened up.

It started with careful pecks right before bed or in the middle of a cuddling session, just before they both turned away, too nervous to look at each other.

But slowly, it became more. They became more.

More daring, more comfortable, more of anything, really.

Now it was a good morning kiss, a goodbye kiss, a middle-of-studying-kiss, a welcome-back-kiss or a hell-why-not-kiss. It could be a short peck or a more determined one, although they always broke off before it could get too heated.

Or so, Ram had thought.

He was lying in bed, half asleep, when King entered, smelling fresh after the shower he had taken. The mattress dipped in this familiar way Ram had gotten used to as King crawled under the blanket and almost directly on top of Ram.

Nothing new here.

It wasn’t even something special when Ram put his arm around the man and welcomed the lips against his, a sigh escaping him. How he should survive without those kisses after the pandemic was something he didn’t even want to think about.

After some soft, heartwrenching movement against his lips, Ram leaned back, as he was used to, but sudden fingers at his neck pulled him right back into a new kiss.

This one wasn’t as soft anymore, the touch less careful, the breathing more haggard.

Ram wished he had the self-control to stop this, to wait for a moment until they were both sure of this. Instead, he couldn’t even wait for a second, the explosive want surging through his body in a second, making him hold on to King more.

It was by no means a steamy make-out kiss yet, but it was more than any kiss they had shared before. And it was close. It was so close to cross the line. The line which involved more than a cuddle and a peck. The line which Ram was as much afraid of as he yearned for, his body aching from all the control he was exercising. Control, not to let his hands wander. Control, not to push King against the mattress. Control, ...

Suddenly King was on top of him, pushing him down with his whole body, the fire raging between them from head to toe. Automatically, Ram opened his legs, invited King between them and felt him with an electrifying jolt.

Now it was a steamy make-out kiss.
Now it involved wandering hands and breathless moans.
Now, it involved heat, Ram hadn’t known before, running through his veins as if this was some kind of competition. As if he needed to take it all in, before King vanished. Before this dream vanished.

And the worst about it, Ram could feel King being affected by their encounter the same way he was. He could feel King pressing against him in a desperate but unmoving way. As if any movement would break whatever they had. As if this was the last line they shouldn’t cross.

With a big gasp, King pulled away, his left hand still holding Ram’s neck, while his right one was gripping Ram’s hip, clutching him and his shirt as if he couldn’t dare to let go.

Ram’s fingers stilled on King’s back, touching but no longer roaming, as if someone had put up a sign, forbidding him to move at all.

They didn’t even look at each other, but King’s whole body slowly lost the tension he had been holding and his head dropped onto Ram’s chest, successfully putting a stop to the whole adventure and also Ram’s downward spiralling desire.

“Sorry.”

There was nothing to be sorry about, Ram wanted to say. He would gladly lose all self-control over King kissing him. He wanted this.

“It’s okay.”

There was actual humour in King’s eyes as he glanced up at Ram, a snarky smile at his lips.

“You’re okay with me jumping you like that?”

Ram nodded, his grip on King tensing, the overwhelming sensation of King being there intensifying.

Hesitation and guilt crossed King’s face, but he lifted his hand to brush a strand of hair out of Ram’s face.

“Sorry for not asking beforehand. I didn’t really plan it, believe me.”

Shaking his head, Ram pulled King even closer this time, revelling in the fact of King being there with him. Being so comfortable lying on top of him in his bed. No matter their status.

“I really trust you to tell me if you don’t want something. It’s going to be very embarrassing for me, but I will survive and it’s definitely better than knowing I forced you.”

Well, Ram felt his cheeks heat up once more, they probably should have put a stop to this. Especially since they were still in the lockdown-kissing-partner-mode and hadn’t agreed on a lockdown-making-out-partner-mode, but Ram didn’t really want to protest. Not now.

Oh god, he suddenly wondered, was there even a Lockdown-sex-partner-mode? The thought alone made his blood boil as much as it made him fear what would happen then.

Could they? Would they?

For once the daring one, King continued to stroke Ram’s face calmly as if he knew Ram needed a moment to compose himself.

“I will tell you”, Ram finally managed to say and was rewarded by a bright smile, squeezing his heart into a small ball, filled with nothing but love.

“I am glad”, King murmured before planting a kiss to Ram’s nose and rolling off of him.

As if nothing had happened, Ram thought. As if this had been a moment of imagination. Something that didn’t matter. Instead of turning Ram’s world upside down. Instead of ...

A leg was thrown over his and an arm laid across his chest as King cuddled against him once more.

“Good night.”

Despite his heart beating like crazy, Ram put an arm around King, a soft, satisfied smile on his lips. He didn’t know what would be and he definitely would have to start talking soon, but for now, he was happy.

“Thank you for indulging me.”

And with this, his heart was once more bleeding.

~~~

How could one stay so close to the person they loved and not go crazy, was beyond Ram. He was barely able to stop himself from shouting out his love, all his control slipping away with King so close, with King in his arms.

Because of course, this one, heated kiss didn’t stay the only one.
Of course, they’d start crossing the line more often, would hold on to each other just a tiny bit more, a second or a breath.

There was still this invisible line though, making them break apart before they went too far, before they got in too deep. Or maybe it was just Ram who thought like that. Maybe for King, it wasn’t so difficult? Maybe King didn’t have to control himself as much? Despite the obvious desire, which made his breathing more haggard, his voice rough and urgent, his fingers trembling.

Ram truly shouldn’t think too much about it, but sitting at home with nothing but his studies and King and King again, didn’t provide a lot of distraction, did it?

Cold fingers encircled Ram’s arm, as King cuddled closer, his eyes closed already.

Was he enjoying this? Was it something he desired to do with Ram or didn’t it matter who it was?

Against his better judgment, Ram held on to every little touch, helped the man warm up from his last walk through a rather cool night.

Their movements grew frantic, their breathing laboured as they closed their eyes, trying to ignore the rest around them.

“Ram ...”

Ram froze just right there, on top of King, his lips still hovering above the soft skin of King’s throat, his hands still buried deeply in King’s hair, his hips angled away in a desperate attempt to hide the extent of his desire.

‘I love him.’
‘I love him so much.’
‘I love you!’

Panic, paired with love, squeezed his heart as he slowly lifted his head and eyes, finding himself being stared at by a very confused King. His eyes were still hazy and it tightened the grip on Ram’s heart.
Tender fingers, which were cradling his face in silent worry, didn’t make it any better.

Slowly, Ram’s feelings wandered upwards, from his stomach to his throat, burning everything on the way.

“I ...”, Ram started, his mouth as dry and sticky as if he’d eaten a handful of cocoa powder.

He had to say it now, had to tell King of his feelings and wishes and dreams. He licked his lips ...

“I...”, he started once more and stopped dead in his tracks, his voice dying.

Panic.
There was pure panic in King’s eyes.
Blank, pure panic, accompanied by so much tension in his body, it was a wonder he could move at all.

Every bit of hope vanished in the darkness as Ram’s heart sank and cruel acceptance washed over him. Trembling, he lifted himself up, until King’s hand fell away from his face and until they weren’t touching any longer, the distance between them unbearable.

It hurt Ram to move away but still not as much as the look in King’s eyes had. The horror he’d shown, guessing what was about to happen.

“I have to go to the toilet”, he climbed off of King and off the bed in such a hurry, he stumbled over his own feet, barely catching his balance, “Stomach ache!”

And with this he left and locked himself in the bathroom, dismissing King’s worried questions and staring at the wall in self-pity until he was sure King must be fast asleep.

Silently, he climbed into the bed, keeping a safe distance with a shredded heart and constant, painful tension in his belly.

After a few seconds of him watching the darkness above them, King turned towards him.

“Are you alright?”

King’s voice was soft and guarded and quiet, Ram wasn’t sure if it was real at all.

“Yeah”, he mumbled but didn’t move.

“I’m glad then.”

Those words were accompanied by a deep sigh as if he believed Ram. As if anything he had said hadn’t been a big lie.

King shuffled closer but stopped, right before they touched. Ram’s pulse picked up speed. Did King know Ram couldn’t take anything closer tonight, or what was going on in this mind of his? Did he still want to cuddle? Because he missed it? Or because he wanted to hug Ram?

“Good night.”

“Night.”

When Ram felt King’s radiating heat, constantly reminding him of his presence, he knew he couldn’t go on like this. Cuddling-partners had been hard enough. Kissing-partners had been impossible without a spark of hope. But making out with King under the pretence of the quarantine was impossible without his heart breaking. No, he had to put a stop to this.

And the knowledge was more painful than anything else.

~~~

The change in Ram’s behaviour after that night was instant.
Instant and proof enough.

Proof enough for King and his theories at least. About that night and about Ram realising this wasn’t what he wanted. That it was more than he was willing to give.

And really, King had no right to protest. He’d been selfish way too long and Ram had been indulging him far more than he deserved.

So now, he could only wait quietly when Ram stayed up studying for so long, King was fast asleep by the time he came to bed. Or when he didn’t take the chance to cuddle King but turned away, his whole body one giant stop sign.

And King got it, he really did.

He had demanded too much, had hoped for too much, the thought of them maybe becoming more always in the back of his mind.

And yes, maybe he should talk to Ram about his feelings, as Bohn had suggested, but King wasn’t Bohn and the danger of everything going to shit was too big and scary to dismiss. If they could go back to being platonic friends by ignoring King’s burst of feelings, instead of Ram moving out, he could do it. And he would gladly do it for the rest of their time.

He’d really been an idiot that night, hadn’t he? Calling out Ram’s name while the very man in question had been kissing his throat with his hands in his hair. The perfect opportunity usually, but with their current handling of the situation definitely one of the worst choices he had ever made. Even though it hadn’t even been a conscious one.

One thing was for sure, King would never forget the worry in Ram’s eyes, the hesitation and the way he pulled himself back. And for one split second, King had heard his words already. The rejection. The amount of “sorrys” because he couldn’t do this anymore. Because Ram was cute and thoughtful like that.

But still, he had hoped this wouldn’t be it. That something else was on Ram’s mind. But the longer the man had stayed in the bathroom, the clearer it had gotten. And when, lastly, he had chosen to lie apart from King, the distance like a canyon between them, King had been sure.

While he had been glad Ram hadn’t left the apartment right then and there, his heart had also been bleeding out as he had yearned to close the gap between them with one tiny touch. But he didn’t and it was better this way.

At least, that’s what King had thought.

Go back to being roommates and friends and stop everything else. Be platonic and supportive and have a good senior-junior-relationship. Instead of whatever they had been doing.

Till now, King had always thought he could do it. Be supportive and a friend.

But when Ram was suddenly constantly on his phone, staring at the screen so intensely, King wouldn’t have wondered if it started burning, he realised he couldn’t. He had tried to ignore it and stop to overthink, but seeing Ram with soft smiles and his focus on his phone alone, talking to whoever was on the other side, a new restlessness took hold of King.

One which made him overshare more than usual. One which made him switch between jumping up and sitting down in mere seconds, his laughter too loud and fake, his hands trembling whenever he felt Ram’s eyes on him.

And the rage, oh my gosh, the rage. Against whatever innocent person Ram was talking to. Against himself for having those negative feelings, so completely different from what he wanted to feel.

Why couldn’t he be happy for him? Happy they were friends? Happy Ram still stayed with him and trusted him enough?
Why couldn’t he simply change back to the beginning?

“Good night.”

Only a short glance and a nod were sent his way, before Ram looked back at his phone, his fingers moving on in high speed. As if this someone couldn’t wait. Not even for a proper good night call.

Something snapped inside of King. Something hard and unbearable.

This?
He couldn’t do this anymore.
He just couldn’t.
And he had to get away.
Had to be by himself instead of in Ram’s constant presence, wondering when he’d come to bed.

His hands curled into fists, King turned and walked out of the apartment, the door falling shut with a loud bang behind him.

For once, he couldn’t care.

~~~

Only when he was several blocks away, his speed slowing down and the embarrassment taking hold of his mind, did he realise he had forgotten his phone at home. Plus his key. Because he was an idiot like that.

And he had probably made Ram worried and uncomfortable and there was no way to get in contact and say he was alright. If Ram was worried at all.

Berating himself internally, King swore and kicked against a can on the ground.

Ram would always worry about him, there was no question. Because Ram hadn’t changed, but King had and it was his own problem, not Ram’s. It was all in his head, not in Ram’s. So, him storming out, would definitely confuse the man and he’d start wondering and maybe call him or come looking for him or ...

“P’King!”

He’d gotten a bit more used to Ram’s voice, but hearing his own name with the slight accent and heavy tongue, was always a reason for shivers and goosebumps and some serious serotonin. No matter how inappropriate it was right now.

King turned automatically towards the voice. As if he had a chance not to. As if he could actually go against every fibre of his being, every cell, which was filled with love and care for Ram.

And there he was, standing in front of him, breathing hard and with a wild mix of emotions in his eyes, burning into King’s like fire.

All the rage, all the frustration left King’s body in a heartbeat, leaving him frozen to the spot, helpless and raw.

He was burning, his walls were down and Ram could have asked anything from him. Almost anything ...

But Ram didn’t ask. Instead, he took a moment to calm down before he moved forward, determined and blinding until he was right in front of King. He didn’t say anything when he grabbed King’s wrist, their eyes still locked, and pulled him away, back home.

All, King could do, was watch him from behind, memorise his back and hair and neck and the familiar feeling of the comforting grip on King’s wrist, as if it was the first time.

As if it was the last time.

~~~

When King had stormed out of the apartment, two feelings had battled each other inside of Ram.

Worry about King and what was going on, fearing he had done something wrong.

And hope, that maybe him pulling back wasn’t what King had wanted all along. That there was a chance he missed Ram as much as Ram missed him. That he hated them being apart like this.

It was only a spark, but it was a spark and it didn’t die so easily. It was, in fact, the reason, why he was out here, dragging King back into their flat again, his fingers tight around King’s wrist as if he would run away any second. Again.

But Ram wouldn’t let him. Couldn’t, to be honest.

They had to clear this up, no matter the circumstances. No matter the possible pain. No matter what future would await them.

When they entered the flat, he was reluctant to let go of King’s hand and it felt empty and twitchy, once he did. But he had to, didn’t he? Give King a chance to say no and pull back?

They locked eyes.

“Why?”

He could feel the reluctance of King coming from him in waves. The fear to tell Ram honestly. To dare another step.

“Tell me”, he stepped closer but didn’t touch.

King’s voice was rough and quiet: “I hate this.”

What?

“You being so far away. Us not touching any longer. You not sleeping next to me. Us no longer kissing.”

Ram’s breath caught in his throat as the spark evolved into flames, raging through his body, overtaking his every thought. Almost every thought. He had to stop himself. He had to ask ...

“Sorry”, King continued, their eyes still locked, “I have no right to be jealous and I should let you be. Instead, I am making it weird.”

Jealous?

“Well, you must be on the phone with someone. The way you’re looking at it ...”

King looked away and Ram had to control himself not to pull him back.

“There is no one.”

Hesitant, King turned back.

“I’s a distraction.”

“From what?”

“You.”

When King’s face fell, Ram realised it may now actually be time to say more, no matter how much he stumbled through those words.

“I like you.”

Okay, he had thought about a better explanation regarding the distraction bit, but his mouth had been faster than his brain this time. Let’s skip those steps then. Whatever.

“What?”

Ram stepped closer once. It was all in or nothing this time and he couldn’t refuse the pull any longer. The desire to touch King once more. Maybe the last time even.

Lifting his right hand, he cupped King’s cheek, his ring finger stroking the soft hairline at King’s neck.

“I like you.”

And this time he said it clearly, no room for interpretation, no room for doubts.

Lips on his own.
Hands on his neck.
A body so close, he could feel another heartbeat.

King was trembling.
King was pure heat.
King was in his arms.

Ram kissed back without even thinking twice, his body moving on his own once more as he felt the familiar movement against his lips, so much more powerful this time. So different.

He was no longer holding King gently, but had buried his hand in the softness of his hair, pulling him closer with every breath, a desperate attempt to crawl under King’s skin and stay forever with no chance to be separated again.

But as soon as King pulled away softly, Ram let him, no matter how reluctant he felt about it. Surprisingly, he didn’t go far, his body still mostly connected to Ram’s, his hands drawing signs on Ram’s heart.

“You want all of this?”

Yes.

“I want more”, King stated after a searching look, his gaze diving deep into Ram’s soul, “I want to have you with me after the pandemic as well. I want to have you with me in the future as well. I want to call you my boyfriend and not be afraid I might be cast aside for someone else.”

Pressed together, they breathed in unison as they stared and processed.

When Ram didn’t push King away but tightened his grip, lost in the burning feeling in his chest, King leaned closer with a hesitant but daring smile, combining two contradicting pieces to one.

“I don’t want to sleep alone anymore.”

It was as if Ram had been hit by lightning, the first jolt from those words, the second from the hot breath at his ear and the third from the lips on his tattoo behind the ear. Something King hadn’t done till now.

Was King adamant on killing Ram tonight?

He released a haggard breath he had been holding as King slowly backed away from his face, if only by millimetres, a satisfied smile on his face.

“You can do it.”

“What?”

Ram swallowed and felt the heat rise in his cheeks as if they had any right to show any more nervousness: “Call me boyfriend.”

For seconds it was as if someone had sucked the air out of the room, Ram’s chest painfully pressed together by the tension, the last bit of doubt.

Then, King’s face softened until the happiness stretched from his dark eyes to his broad smile.

“You”, he started and leaned their foreheads against each other, going cross-eyed as he continued to lock eyes with Ram, “You are my boyfriend.”

Ram’s heart did something complicated, squeezing tight and expanding at the same time, making him feel weightless, as his cheeks hurt from all the smiling he was doing.

They smiled and stayed and stared and Ram slowly counted down from ten before he breathed “mine” and pulled King against his lips once more, devouring the way he had always wanted, the way he could do now. Without restrictions.

And as they kissed each other with a new fire, without doubt, pushing closer to the bedroom step by step, King working on the sensitive skin on Ram’s throat whenever he could, Ram decided that he rather liked the order of friends to lockdown-cuddling-partners to lockdown-make-out-partners to boyfriends.

Yes, he truly, really liked it.

Almost as much as he loved his boyfriend.

His boyfriend.
King.
The one he’d now kiss senseless and breathless.
The one who’d drive him to insanity tonight.

Falling on the bed with King on top of him, Ram enjoyed knowing it was him, King wanted. The whole package, not only his kisses and cuddles but him, from head to toe.

This time, neither of them hid anymore.
And Ram couldn’t stop smiling.

 

the End