Try and Try Again
Hope's first kiss had been with a pretty girl with a heart shaped face, a lot of freckles, very green eyes, and a sweet smile who had wrung her hands together in apology when he was sixteen before leaning in and pushing her lips roughly against his before she pulled back, smiled, apologized to him in a shy demeanor, and then literally turned and ran away.
He had still been quite short at that age, so he remembered how she had to lean down a little and how her hair had tickled the sides of his face, but… other than that, it hadn't been the most memorable thing. It had made his lips tingle and his heartbeat had sped up…
If anything, Hope found that he disliked it.
Kissing, he had realized that day, wasn't anything like stories and movies made it out to be. He was lucky it hadn't been wet, especially when he realized minutes later that the girl (he never learned her name) had been dared to do so. In fact, the disillusionment grew as he realized she hadn't been the first to be dared, but apparently had been the only one out of all the girls who hadn't been terrified of his status as an ex-l'Cie. She had, according to gossip, not been scared at all.
It didn't mean he liked her any better than the others, who stopped and whispered behind hands when he came into view; across the street or in a shop. It was a violating feeling to know that his first kiss had been the result of a dare, and from a girl who felt nothing for him. She had just been braver than other girls.
He saw her again years later, just once, instantly recognizing the smattering of freckles even as he pretended he didn't. The second time she had hair cropped shorter than most boys, and a brightly colored bandana to cover the strands as she laughed and wiped a streak of grease over her nose, the crowd around her enamored with her and her words even as she showed them how to fix a turbine engine. Smart, he had realized then, to be an engineer for the Academy, and good with people.
He never went to speak with her and she never noticed he was there.
The second time had been from a weeping young mother, both hands warm against his wet cheeks and dripping hair as she pulled him down to her, a quick peck on the lips before she continued to babble her gratitude for saving her child, her hands wiping away relieved tears every few seconds until the paramedics told her it was alright to hold her baby again. She had dark skin and darker hair, tall and willowy and with extremely kind eyes even overwhelmed with tears and thanking Director Estheim over and over again for his quick actions.
This time, the people around whispered of the Director's bravery and courage to dive into the flood immediately after hearing a woman scream about how her little boy had tripped and tumbled down into floodwaters.
It took Hope a while to remember that Director Estheim was him and that people were actually praising him, smiling and nodding in approval rather than sliding their eyes away because even staring at an ex-l'Cie might infect them somehow. That time, he had been the one who smiled shyly back when the mother came back with her young boy, instructing the child sweetly to thank the man who saved him.
Maybe it had been because of her warm hands, but Hope had liked that kiss slightly better.
The third time….
"What do you mean there's no third time?" Noel demanded, sounding like he didn't believe that statement one whit. The brunet was seated haphazardly across Hope's couch, leaving very little room for Hope himself to sit. His blue eyes were wide and intensely focused as Hope reluctantly told his story. "You've got all these people here, a good portion of them very sweet on you, by the way, and you've only been kissed twice — by strangers?"
"I don't," Hope replied somewhat haughtily, feeling a burgeoning need to defend himself on this and not quite understanding why. "Want to kiss anyone just because they might like me from some stories they read in a history book. That's not what kissing is about."
"Oh," Noel breathed out, a slow grin stretching across his face, "So you are that romantic, after all."
"I don't know what you're talking about." It was a rather flat denial. Hope had no interest in matters like that, not when there were much more important things at hand. Kissing, and subsequently romance, wasn't high on his list of priorities. In fact, they might be on the list of things he didn't want anything to do with.
(Just maybe, he could still remember the hushed gasps of girls almost out of hearing range as they spoke of him in the same tone they would speak of horror movies; terrified and giddy, giggling over his ever lengthening list of faults.)
"And I don't want to hear that from someone who's only ever kissed one person." Hope retorted, knowing that he wouldn't have to elaborate more than that. Noel had, in a fit of boredom, proposed a sort of information exchange. First it had been about computers and Farseer traditions, but had eventually shifted into personal experiences from magic to beasts to, strangely enough, kissing. Hope had no idea where that topic had come from.
Noel waved that away nonchalantly, not at all embarrassed about his story of kissing Yuel when the young girl had, apparently uncharacteristically since she was just perfect the majority of the time, demanded to try.
"Yeah, but I grew up with — what? Two people?"
"Statistically, it means you've kissed half the population." Hope couldn't help but deadpan, trying hard not to smile as Noel stopped and grimaced at that.
"That—" The hunter lifted a hand to protest, but then ended up sputtering and flailing with a disgruntled look as he tried to either deny the statement or erase it completely from his head. "That's not how I'd say it! By the way, statistically, if I've kissed half the population and you've kissed twice as many people as me, what does that say about you?"
Hope shook his head, ducked slightly to try and hide the amused quirk of his lips. "Different regions."
"Doesn't matter." Noel grumbled, leaning back into the couch and eyeing Hope warily. The brunet gained a contemplative look as he studied Hope, before finally quirking his lips. "But I never thought you would be so…"
The hunter waved a hand in a circle, looking for the right word as Hope gave him a hard stare.
"…Okay, yeah, anything I say after that will probably make you angry, wouldn't it?" Noel finally relented, and grinned as Hope refused to respond to that. "Fine, fine, I'll drop it. One more question, though! I just wanted to know…" He leaned forward, and Hope had to blink before he realized he was leaning back just a bit. Not because of Noel, not really, but more because he just wasn't used to people in his personal space.
"How come you didn't like it, anyway? Those two times."
Did he really need to answer that?
"I'm sure that," Hope hesitated, choosing his words carefully. "That there is truth to stories in feeling an emotional connection via physical contact such as kissing, especially as it's seen a precursor of more intimate touches, but for me — " For Hope, that hadn't been the case at all. There hadn't been any feelings behind those brief moments of contact. At best, he had gotten gratitude. At worst, it had been such a lack of feeling that it felt almost a violation.
It wasn't that Hope had never wondered or imagined things. He had been an expressive child, if introverted, and a particularly tactile person as a teenager before and even during the l'Cie incidents, even if most of the time he had been too shy to approach anyone for comfort. Maybe it had been because he had been particularly spoiled with affection, but it was enough that after it was all gone… he could feel the absence like a gaping wound.
Physical contact without that affection, even Alyssa's attempts at cheer and hugs, felt like salt on said wound. It felt, for lack of a better description, wrong. As such, Hope had stopped going out of the way to form relationships and had decided that it would be better to devote his time and efforts into his work, and perhaps (if he could admit to his own selfishness), bring back that affection he sorely missed.
That ambition had gone on for so long that Hope found, when he grew up, that he had never learned how to express an interest. In friends, or in looking for a significant other. It was a foreign thought to him.
"…Perhaps I haven't come across the right person."
Noel pointed to the direction of the window. "You come across a lot of people every day, if you haven't noticed. Academia seems pretty big to me. It might not be just about meeting people, but actually talking to them and spending time with them — getting to know them a bit."
Hope frowned. "I don't have the time — "
"It wouldn't take long," Noel said with an easy smile. "You're easy to like."
Hope felt his face warm, but he ignored it. "You may be describing yourself, Noel; not me."
Because no matter how Hope knew he was liked well enough, actually getting to know people beyond basic information was… hard. Hope had seen Noel take over conversations easily, though, with a yielding grace that he had once thought to be years of practice and learning — and yet the hunter had grown up with very few social interactions, so it couldn't be that. Noel was friendly and charming and blunt in a manner that most people seemed to find refreshing, himself included, and it helped that the younger man had a sweet, attractive smile.
He could understand how enchanted people got with Noel.
Hope was… he was incomprehensible lexicons and stilted phrases, cool reassurances and distant awkwardness. He already knew all of that. But Noel was simple to understand; he didn't hesitate and tended to be warm and caring, as he had proven over and over again each time he visited Academia, convincing Serah to take time off and relax and wheedling at Hope to take short breaks and spend some time with him. Noel's reasoning had been honest and sincere: they were both working hard to save the future, and working in tandem, so why not get to know each other?
He wondered if that was the same blunt charm that had stolen Serah away from New Bodhum.
"And," he continued, tearing his thoughts away, "Shouldn't it be the other way around? That it would have to be someone I like, and not just someone who likes me?"
"I have a feeling you 'like' a lot of people." Noel leaned back again, still with that same charming smile, linking his fingers behind his head as he sank into the cushions once again and somehow managed to encroach upon even more Hope's space at the same time. "As in you think they're good people… but I don't know if you actually like them."
"Like?" The word felt ridiculous, like gossiping high school girls giggling in hallways behind their hands. Hope cleared the mental image quickly — he didn't like the comparison. "Noel… how did we even get on to this topic?"
Of course he knew how, as he could remember the turn of conversation, but the question was more directed at why.
"Because I wanted to know." And Noel's answer was as honest as ever. "Besides, I shared my experiences first, didn't I?"
Noel had elaborated, in artful gestures and extravagant descriptions, just how the incident had happened — and how he hadn't minded kissing Yuel at all, and the two of them had almost made it a tradition to peck on the lips as a good luck parting, except Caius had quickly caught on to it and had been furious, objecting in his own sullen and intensely disapproving manner until Yuel had finally decided that the little tradition of theirs should stop.
"I thought you wanted to know more about Academia." Hope countered, because that had been how this all started. How computers worked, how Academia was built; microchips and irrigation systems, software and architecture. Noel had asked endless questions and even made Hope elaborate and draw out examples to help him understand.
"I do!" Noel agreed. "I like hearing you talk about this place. You look — happier, when you do."
The hunter sat up again, ever in motion, all grace and fluid movement.
"And I always need to know more," Noel continued cheerfully. "Especially with all those Brain Blast machines you have around — what are they for, anyway?"
"…They're — they're to interest kids in learning about history and how things work, as well as help improve their memory in form of a game." It was an easier topic, and he grabbed on to it, previous hesitation smoothing itself out. "They're to provide information and gifts if you get all the answers correctly as an incentive for them to play, and there are numerous stores sponsoring the machines by providing small items that may incite the winners to shop at their store if they like the item.
"But we didn't want to make it too easy for them to win, so they limited rewards to only those who could answer ten questions in a row, which is further incentive to both study and not to give up if they get something wrong; to think of it as a learning experience, because that means they'll know the answer when the question comes up again. The idea is that winning a prize is inevitable if they fail enough, so don't be discouraged."
"Well, you're very good at making them hard to answer, all right," Noel grumbled before lighting up again, jabbing a finger in Hope's direction. "But see! You. You're different when you're talking about things you're interested in. You get that little smile, like you're proud of what you're talking about."
The hunter leaned in, almost squinting at Hope for a few moments while the scientist startled, folding his hands together in a conscious effort to prevent himself from fidgeting and drawing back. He wasn't used to being under intense scrutiny without knowing why.
It took a few seconds before Noel nodding, having decided. "I like it."
It prompted a deeper flush from Hope, although he wasn't sure why. He wasn't out to please anyone in specific.
"Is that why you wanted to ask me questions?" Hope asked, moving to stand up again. As kind as that thought was, to get him to smile, there was still a lot of work to be done. Especially with Serah and Noel continuously bringing back the Graviton Cores —
"Yes? Kind of? I wanted to know, too! Really do. No, wait, don't get up — there was something else. Really!"
"What is it, then?" Hope allowed himself the quietest huff of amusement tinged with exasperation, relaxing from where he had braced himself to push up from the couch.
"About those kisses — "
"Oh," Hope groaned, feeling his exasperation overtake his amusement. "Not this again — how did it get back to this?"
Noel continued as if Hope had never interrupted him. "Maybe it wasn't because you're not interested, but because of the company. You didn't know either of them, right? It could just be bad luck that you got dealt with the stranger card twice in a row."
"Stranger card?" Hope's tone was drier than he intended it to be.
Noel shrugged. "It's something Serah says. Anyway. I have a point, so you need to stop interrupting me—"
"Maybe if you got to the point—"
Noel gave an overly dramatic sigh, and then leaned in close, fast enough that Hope didn't have a chance to move away as the hunter swallowed up the protest, pressing his lips firmly, softly, against Hope's. It was shocking, mostly because that hadn't been what Hope had expected him to do (even though he should have with all that talk about kissing), but also because — it was literally a shock; felt like electricity on his lips, like warmth and a tingling up his spine as Noel scraped soft skin against him, bumping their noses against each other as he pressed his lips against Hope's, rough and slightly chapped. Like a ghost of a touch, accompanied by warm fingers, rough with calluses, against the side of his face, not so much holding him as a fleeting touch, guiding them together.
It was warm, and different, lighting up his nerves in an almost frightening manner. Hope had never given much thought to how girls tended to gossip about kisses, and why it was so important to them. He found himself… Not quite disliking it, but certainly without any attraction to the act after the first time, since it had just been a force, and he had been so disappointed by that.
The touch only lasted a moment; was nothing more than a graze before it was gone, but the tingling sensation continued even after the brunet pulled away. It was only then that Hope realized he had been frozen in spot, unable to either pull away or lean forward…. and feeling his heart pounding in his ears.
"Well," Noel said after a moment of silence when he pulled away. "I guess I know how to get you to stop interrupting me."
The words were flat, but there was an embarrassed hitch in the first word and a hint of a smile, shy and almost hidden in contrast to his normally forward personality. The hunter cleared his throat quietly, looking a bit awkward, and Hope wondered if that kiss had been the same as the ones that he had given to Yuel before, whom he had admitted to being like family.
"Was that different? From the other two? I mean, you said you didn't know either of them and, well," Noel brought up a hand to rub at the back of his neck, suddenly shy after everything. He hadn't looked so uncertain mere moments ago. "I thought you might like something to compare it to — for, uh. Science."
What ever possible irritation Hope thought he would feel, and he was surprised that he didn't feel any, was washed clean as he watched Noel nervously look away at his flat response. Instead, the response brought a smile to his face. Science? Was that what would have taken for him to agree? Treat it more like a scientific experiment?
Would he have agreed once he used that train of thought?
Hope wasn't so sure, but the idea incited a smile he couldn't suppress, lips still tingling. It was amusing that Noel would use that excuse, especially on him. Or maybe, because it was on him. Likely, it wasn't something he could have said to anyone else. Did that make him special in some way?
Somehow, he liked the thought.
"Right." Hope continued, trying to quell the smile in his voice as he kept his words as flat as possible, especially since now Noel seemed to be looking anywhere but at him. "Science. That does remind me that I'm supposed to be continuing on my work. It's… not quite for the sake of science, but I would argue equally as important. Depending on perspective."
"Work." Noel echoed. He looked like he was slowly gathering his wits about him again, if a bit disappointed by Hope's lack of response. "Yeah, guess I've kept you a while, huh?"
"If you have more questions, I'll be sure to answer them next time." Hope said as he got up, bringing up a hand reactively to his lips only to catch himself in the last second before the leather of his glove could touch his face. It was a struggle putting that arm down again, but he managed.
"However, I'm uncertain as to scientific experiments conducted outside the parameters of safety regulations. If you're interested in science, you may need to operate within the verity that not all trials are conclusive, and the proper method may be test and test again to ensure the lowest margin of error. This includes—" Hope tried to dismiss the warmth in his cheeks. "—extensive research and numerous trial and errors."
Noel was right. It was easier to say this, even if he could still feel the phantom warmth of fingers against his skin and the breath on his lips.
Hope made sure to pat Noel's shoulder encouragingly as the hunter mused over the thick jargon in attempts to make sense of the words, the touch light and fleeting. He paused right at the doorway, waiting the split second for the controlled door to open and turning his head back, finally catching Noel's attention and revealing the smile he had been struggling to hide right before he stepped out of the room.
"Try and try again. For science, right?"
A/N: Prompt requested by anonymous on my tumblr. ^^;; I completely forgot to put this up! The request was NoeHopu, first kiss.
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