"Princess? Mikomi? Princess Rabbit, have you listened to a word I've said?"

Jerking out of her reverie, the blonde blinked up at her bodyguard. "Oh, Em. I'm sorry. I was just…" she glanced out the window momentarily. "Just thinking, I suppose."

Shaking her head, the general remarked, "You've been 'just thinking' quite a lot lately. I'd think you'd have worn out your brain by now." When the princess didn't respond, Emerald frowned at her, holding back a sigh. "Regardless, I believe your parents were expecting you for lunch today."

"Were they?" she sighed, resting her head in the palm of her hand and staring out the window lethargically. "Do I have to go?"

"You know I can't force you to do anything, Mikomi. You're my boss," Emerald pointed out. "However, this will be the third time in a row that you've failed to show up to a meal with your parents. They're starting to get worried."

Standing up from her seat by the window, Mikomi moved over to her vanity, taking a seat and running her brush through her long blonde hair slowly, in deliberate strokes. "There's nothing to be worried about. I'm fine."

As she watched her charge carefully, Emerald just nodded. "If you say so, Princess. But you still—"

"Why do you keep calling me that?" the blonde interrupted.

"Calling you what?"


The general raised one brown eyebrow, crossing her arms over her chest. "You are the princess, are you not?"

Mikomi rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You only call me that when you're upset with me or something's wrong. So why don't you just say it already?"

Moving to the large bed in the center of the room, Emerald began to straighten the already immaculate pillows and comforter. "It's not my place to say anything, your highness. Your business is your own."

"Oh, stop it!" the princess insisted, stamping one high-heeled foot against the stone floor. "You've never held your tongue before. Don't start now. Just tell me."

The two young women faced off for a second, eyes locked in a battle of wills as the two said nothing to each other. Finally, Emerald sighed. "I'm sorry, but I happen to agree with your parents. You haven't been yourself lately."

Crossing her arms over her chest, Mikomi demanded, "Oh, so now you and my parents are ganging up on me?"

Throwing her hands up in the air in frustration, the general exclaimed, "See! I knew you were going to do that. That's why I didn't want to say anything."

"Well, what am I supposed to do when everyone's fighting against me?" the princess scowled, blue eyes glinting furiously.

"I don't want to fight with you, Mikomi. But that seems to be all you want to do lately. You even picked a fight with Konner the other day. Your little brother! If I didn't know something was wrong before, I definitely knew after that." Frowning with concern, the older woman said, "Why don't you just talk to me?"

Fussing with her hair in the mirror, Mikomi insisted, "There's nothing to talk about. And even if there is, I wouldn't want to talk about it."

Scowling at her charge, Emerald said, "Well, maybe you need to talk about it."

"Maybe that's not for you to decide!" the princess spat back, chest heaving in fury. "If I want to talk about it, I will. It's not your place to say whether or not I should do something. Your job is to keep this city safe and make sure I don't get kidnapped. Frankly, you don't seem to be doing a very good job at either."

The general froze in shock, unable to process that those words had just come out of her sweet princess's mouth. Regaining her composure, Emerald simply nodded. "Very well then. If that's the way you feel, I should get back to work. Excuse me, your highness." With that, she swept a bow no lower than was proper, then turned on the heel of her boot and walked out of the princess's suite.

Mikomi watched her go, anger still bubbling underneath the surface. Unlike her friend, she wasn't as good at hiding it. Realizing that she didn't want her parents to come hound her like Emerald did, she fixed her appearance and went down to the private dining hall where her family was already waiting for her.

Queen Julia smiled as her daughter entered the room. "Ah, there you are, Mikomi."

"Took you long enough," Konner grumbled. "I'm hungry."

"You didn't have to wait for me," the princess said coolly, slipping into her seat as one of the servants pulled out her chair.

"Nonsense," the king insisted. "But now that you're here, we can start the meal." Clapping his hands twice, King Brion signaled the servers to bring in the soup course, which they set in front of each of the royals.

Taking a sip of the lobster bisque in front of her, the queen questioned her youngest child, "How are your lessons going, Konner?"

"Very well, Mother. In fact, just the other day…" As her brother launched into a story describing his recent acquisition of knowledge, Mikomi's attention began to drift off.

The princess pushed her spoon back and forth through the soup, scooping up some of the liquid, then watching as it poured off the end or side of her spoon back into the bowl. She didn't realize that her parents were exchanging a concerned look, glancing at each other, then their daughter. "Mikomi, darling, are you feeling alright," her mother asked, frowning at her daughter.

Raising her eyes off her bowl to meet her parents, the blonde assured them, "I'm fine. Just not hungry."

"It seems as if you're never hungry recently," Queen Julia continued. "You don't seem to have a very large attention span lately. Are you sure you're alright? If you need to talk…"

"I'm fine!" Mikomi insisted, banging her fist on the table. "And I wish people would stop asking me that!" The other three occupants stared at her in shock as she took several deep breaths, trying to calm herself. Closing her eyes, she explained, "I'm sorry. I…I haven't been sleeping well lately. I shouldn't have raised my voice."

The king reached over and patted his daughter's hand. "Why don't you go take a nap, dear?" he suggested. "You look tired and the kitchen can always make something for you."

Nodding slowly, she pushed her chair back from the table. "Thank you. I think I will do that. Excuse me." Standing up, Mikomi exited the room as quickly as possible, leaving the rest of her family staring after her.

Queen Julia sighed, closing her blue eyes for a moment before looking at her husband. "Darling, I'm worried about her. She can't concentrate, won't eat, can't sleep. Do…do you think they did something to her?"

"I'm sure it's nothing," King Brion told her, chuckling lightly. "The way you say it, it sounds like she's in love. I'm sure it's just a teenage girl thing. She'll get over it soon. We'll throw her a party. Maybe that will get her back to her old self."

"Sure," the queen agreed, though she sounded anything but. "Back to her old self…"

When Mikomi reached her suite, she threw herself on her bed. Unbidden, the sobs wracked her body, tears streaming down her face. She buried her face in a pillow, letting it muffle her cries as she curled herself into the tiniest ball she could manage.

The princess was so engrossed in her emotional breakdown that she didn't notice Emerald coming in the room until she softly called out, "Mikomi?"

Looking up, she saw the general's green eyes dark with concern. "I'd like to talk about it please," the princess hiccupped.

Emerald sat on the bed, pulling the pillow on to her lap. Patting it invitingly, the princess took that as her cue to lay back down, crying into the soft surface of the pillow as her bodyguard stroked her hair, smoothing out the blonde locks. "What's wrong, sweetheart?"

"I miss Ashton," she blubbered, burying her face deeper into the pillow. "I miss them all. I've never had a chance to be around people like that. It was like I had friends. I've never had friends." Realizing what she had said, Mikomi sat up, looking at Emerald with wide blue eyes. "Oh, Emi, you know what I mean. I have you, of course, but I have to pay even you to stick around."

"You do not have to pay me to stick around," the general admonished, shaking her head. "Besides," she began with a sigh, "Ashton and Fox and all of them aren't exactly the best friends to have."

Laying her head back down, Mikomi said, "Maybe not, but they're the only ones I've ever had."

"As understandable as that is, you can't let it run your life, Mikomi." She paused for a moment, continuing to pet the princess's hair, tangling her fingers in the soft curls. "You just…you need to let it go. It happened and I won't deny that it's changed things. But you can't let it distract you from everything you've been working so hard for."

The princess didn't respond for a long time. Then, rolling on to her back, she looked up at her friend, studying Emerald's face closely. "What happened between you for you and them to take two completely different paths? To leave your sister behind?"

"It's nothing that I want to talk about." Eager to change the subject, Emerald suggested, "Why not get out of the palace for a while? Go take a walk, visit Starlight. Just do something to get your mind off of everything."

"I thought that I wasn't allowed to go anywhere unattended at all anymore?" the princess mentioned, a question in her voice.

"If you're just staying on the grounds and the immediate area, I think it'll be alright."

With a nod, Mikomi told her slowly, "I could do that. And then maybe I'll go see Lillian later, ask her if the books she was going to get for me came."

A smile came to the general's face. "That's my girl. I have to go in to town—a joy if there ever was one—but I'll let any guards know on the way out what you have planned." Giving the princess a light kiss on the forehead, she patted her back until she sat up. "Right, now go freshen up. You don't wan to scare Starlight looking like that."

"Ha ha," Mikomi said dryly, sarcasm dripping off the syllables as she wiped her eyes clear of tears. Turning to her vanity, she stared at herself in surprise. "Oh, dear, you're right! I look horrid!"

"You've never looked horrid in your life," Emerald snorted, ruffling the princesses thick, heavy curls. "You were born looking perfect, you will die looking perfect. No need to rub it in the faces of those less so."

As she sat down on her padded stool, running a brush through her hair, Mikomi turned to look at your body guard. "Thank you, Emerald."

Pausing in her walk toward the door of the suite, the general turned to look at the younger girl. "What for?"

She smiled sheepishly. "For putting up with me."

Coming back over to the princess, she rested her hands on the blonde's shoulders, then kissed the top of her head. "That's my job." Leaning down to put her lips next to the princess's ear, she whispered, "And I love my job."

Mikomi smiled as the general left, then returned back to the task of brushing out her hair, waiting before the redness and puffiness in her face lessened. Turning to one of her large wardrobes, she pulled out her favorite pair of boots, knowing that she was simply asking for trouble by going to visit the stables in her heels. After half a dozen times, even she learned.

Making her way down the halls and stairways of the palace, it was obvious that Emerald had kept her word—the guards obviously knew that she was on her way out, by the fact that they didn't jump in surprise and try to stop her at every turn.

There was a bustle of activity on the front lawn, more than was to be expected at a normal time. That had to mean that there was either someone really important coming—she hoped it was anything but a future suitor—or someone even more important leaving. Either way, this was not the best time to go to the stables; the hostlers always yelled at her for getting in the way, and without Emerald to glare menacingly at them and threaten to cut their hands off, she wasn't sure what they would do.

Glancing around, she decided that the only thing left to do was to go to the library. Then something to the side caught her eye. The thick woods that bordered the south side of the palace were startlingly inviting. Between the soft darkness of paths hidden due to the trees to the inevitable quiet, it seemed like the most comforting place in the world to be at the moment.

No one would see her, she reasoned. She doubted anyone even realized that she was here at the moment. What could hurt her in the trees? Emerald would kill her if she knew about the breech of trust, but seeing as everything would be fine, there was no way that she would ever find out. If she came out of the woods a happier, less annoying person, then Emerald would probably worship the trees.

She knew that if she were caught, she would be locked in her room until Konner was her age. But that was if she were caught…

Mind made up and determined, Mikomi headed towards the thick curtain of trees and into the forest.

"How, exactly, do you do this all day?" Fox grumbled, shifting to get comfortable.

"Do what?" Ashton mumbled, eyes closed as he leaned back in contentment.

Scooting again, his friend told him, "Do guard duty here. How can you be comfortable?"

"What's wrong with it?"

"We're in a tree!"

Glancing around at the various treetops around him, then down at the forty or so foot drop, Ashton shrugged. "What's wrong with it? I'm comfortable."

Fox shook his head, dark green eyes puzzled. "Sometimes I think that you are a monkey and not a man at all."

"Sometimes I think you're a whining child and not a man at all," Ashton shot back. Rolling over and standing, the younger man stood, stretching out his legs. Hopping to a branch nearer to his friend, the bandit smirked as Fox glared at him.

"Please stop that," Fox ordered as he scowled, running an irritated hand through his chestnut hair. "If you fall and die, I will be in charge of getting food for the party, and you know I hate things like that."

Nodding, the brown-eyed man said, "Well, I appreciate your selfless concern for my health."

"If I didn't, who would?"

The truth to that statement irked him, and Ashton sank down gracefully onto the branch in a manner that made Fox envious. While his grace with a sword was unparalleled—Emerald doesn't count, as far as he's concerned—he couldn't climb or live in a tree quite like Aston. But frankly, he'd rather know how to use a sword. It seemed a tad more useful.

"You can go, if you want," Ashton suggested. "There's really no need for both of us to sit up here."

Glancing over at his friend, Fox raised an eyebrow. "You sure?"

Shrugging in indifference, he said, "I'm pretty sure that Damon just makes us do this to get out of his way. No one threatening has been through here since…" Trailing off, he stared down at the forest floor below him.

"Since the Princess went back?" Fox suggested, watching his friend closely.

"Yeah…" he whispered, nodding. Clearing his throat, he continued, "So it's okay if you want to go. I can really handle sitting here doing nothing. I've got my lunch, I'll just eat and hang out."

Biting his bottom lip, the older bandit said, "I'm not sure if that's such a good idea." When Ashton frowned in confusion, he went on, "Listen, Ashton, I know you. You're going to sit here, and you're going to think about Mikomi, and you're going to brood."

"Brooding is at night," Ashton defended. "During the day is sulking."

"Fine, then you're going to sit here and think about her and sulk. How is that any better?" When the younger man didn't answer, Fox sighed. "I know that you two had some fun together. And she's pretty, so it's understandable."

"That's not it!" he protested loudly. "Mikomi and I…we…we connected, Fox. I felt comfortable with her, and I think she felt the same way."

Looking at him dryly, Fox murmured, "As comfortable as she can be with her kidnapper, I suppose."

Ashton glared, then sighed. "I really liked her. I mean, I know that she's the princess and I'm just a bandit—"

"The bandit who kidnapped her."

"But!" Ashton continued, "I thought that she liked me too. I miss her, Fox. I really miss her. It's just…I can't help it. She's…"

"It doesn't matter how much you like someone," Fox interjected again, whispering softly. "You two are as different as any two people. You and Mikomi are from two completely different worlds. Despite how much you may care, there's just really no way to bridge that gap. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."

For a long moment, Ashton stared off, eyes distant and thoughtful. "I just…don't want you to be right…"

Reaching over as carefully as he could without losing his balance, Fox rested his hand on Ashton's shoulder. "Listen, I'm gonna go back to HQ. Think about what I said, okay?"

He nodded as his friend precariously climbed his way down the tree. Sighing again, even louder, Ashton leaned back against the trunk of the tree. Closing his eyes, he rubbed them tiredly. Deciding to take a nap in order to avoid having to think about what Fox had said, he tuned out the world and drifted off.

Ashton wasn't sure how long he had slept when he heard footsteps throughout the woods. The angle of the sun told him that it wasn't long, and as he blinked his eyes to refocus, he tried to consider who was coming by the sound of their steps. The Shadow Dragons knew how to step lightly enough not to be detected and any of the King's men would be louder than that.

Lying down on his stomach, he pressed himself against the branch in order to blend in and get the best view of whoever was coming. Upon seeing the light blonde head approaching, his heart leapt up into his throat. He found it hard to swallow, taking deep breaths in an attempt not to get his hopes up.

The woman continued towards him, looking around in interest at her surroundings. She looked familiar enough; her body was the same size as Mikomi's and both she and the Queen were famous for their white-blonde hair. But for all he knew, she had a cousin, a cousin who looked very much the same.

Then she looked up, catching sight of a bird up in a tree and he stopped breathing altogether. He knew that face: those cheekbones, that nose, that strong jaw, those eyes… This was Mikomi. Mikomi was here and if he weren't holding on so tightly, he'd probably have fallen out of the tree in shock.

Regaining his composure, he slipped down the tree as quietly as possible, ignoring Fox's voice in his head that he was a monkey, as well as all the warnings he had just told him. As his feet touched the ground silently, he stayed in the shadow of the tree to watch her for a moment.

She didn't appear to be in any rush, just on a leisurely stroll. Frowning, he looked around, watching for Emerald. When he saw that the princess appeared to be alone, he took a deep breath and stepped out into the light. She didn't notice him right away, and he reached out, softly tapping her shoulder.

Mikomi screamed and turned around, striking out randomly. "Hold on, it's okay!" Ashton insisted, grabbing her hands before she could scratch him or do other damage. "It's me!"

Stopping at his voice, Mikomi stared at him, blue eyes wide with surprise and excitement. "Ashton?" Without waiting for him to answer, she pulled her hands out of his grasp and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. "Ashton!"

For a moment, he wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her to him and reveling in the feeling of her body against his. "Mikomi…" He inhaled her scent, trying to memorize this moment with all of his five senses, so that he could remember it even if it was a dream.

When she pulled away, her face was lit with a smile and her eyes danced with delight. "What…what are you doing here?"

"I'm on guard duty, I guess. Even though there's nothing to guard," he explained to her, internally refusing to remove his hands from their comfortably position resting on her waist. "I think that the real question is, what are you doing here?" Blushing lightly, she looked at the ground sheepishly, which was all the answer he needed. "What did you do?"

"Emerald said that I was allowed to go outside!" she protested, then smiled lightly. "I'm pretty sure that she didn't mean for me to come here though…"

"I'm glad you did though," he told her, and her smile spread into a grin. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again. I mean, not like this."

Nodding, she said, "I felt the same way." Mikomi reached for his hands at her waist, and at first he expected her to forcibly remove them, but instead she took them in her own, squeezing them comfortably. "I missed you, Ashton."

"I missed you too." He stood there, holding her hands in his, gently stroking her soft skin with his calloused thumbs. Realizing what he was doing, Ashton suddenly said, "I was just about to eat lunch. Would you like to join me?"

"I'd like that," she told him, continuing to smile widely. "I really haven't eaten much today."

Using one of the hands he was holding to guide her, he brought her over towards his tree. "Wait here," he instructed, then launched himself up towards a higher branch where there was a basket being held far enough off the ground. Grabbing it and easing it off the branch, he hopped back down. Opening the basket, he pulled out the blanket that Calandra had put in there—she was always yelling at them about sitting on the ground—and spread it out over the ground. "For you, my princess," Ashton told her, gesturing for her to take a seat.

Giggling lightly, she sank down gracefully on to the blanket. "Do you eat like this every day?"

"Hardly," he snorted. "I usually eat up in the tree. Fox doesn't have that kind of balance, so he'll eat down here. But Calandra hates when we get sick from sitting on the wet ground, or when our clothes get filthy, or anything like that, so she insists we pack a blanket. It probably hasn't been used for a few years, so it's definitely clean for you."

"I appreciate that," she said, nodding. Then, looking up at him, she asked, "Aren't you going to join me?"

"Right, of course." Sitting down, he put the basket next to him and started pulling things out.

Mikomi picked up a piece of bread from a small bundle, nibbling on it. "So you're here often?""

Shrugging, he explained, "Recently, yes. We usually switch off, but I'm the only one who really didn't mind. Since we signed that agreement with your father, there's really been no need. 'Guard duty' is pretty much synonymous with 'getting Ashton and Damon away from each other'."

Picking apart her bread in order to munch on the little pieces, she told him, "Well, there could be worse things."

"Trust me, I'm not complaining." He offered her a little thing of jam, which she declined in favor of the dry bread. "What about you? Princesses don't usually walk around alone in the woods. Especially in bandit territory."

She blinked in surprise. "Bandit territory? This is bandit territory?"

"Legally and officially? No. According to Damon? Well, according to Damon, everything is his and he's just lending it out, so he's not exactly the best source." He smiled as she laughed, her eyes lighting up. The sight of it made his heart flip over. "We do consider this our territory though."

"Am…am I in trouble then?"

Reaching over, he held her hand in his once more. "Don't worry. I'll keep you safe."

"I know you will," she assured him. "Thank you, Ashton."

Unable to help himself, he lifted her hand to his lips, kissing it softly. "My honor, princess."

A deep blush spread across her cheeks, but she didn't pull away. Reaching for one of his apples, she took a bite, asking, "So, what's going on with Dezzie and everyone?" As Ashton launched into the details, Mikomi listened intently, watching him with the eyes that made him lose his focus occasionally.

When that topic was thoroughly exhausted, they rested together on the blanket, just enjoying each other's company. It was Mikomi who first voiced the words they both dreaded. "I should probably go… I don't want anyone to worry about me."

He nodded, trying to keep the disappointment off his face. "Right. I don't need Emerald coming to find me. A sword through the chest is not on my to-do list."

"I wouldn't want that to happen either," she assured him. Ashton stood up, then offered her a hand, helping her to her feet. He not only pulled her up, but forward towards him, close enough so that they were just slightly brushing against each other.

She stared at him, unconsciously liking her lips as he whispered, "I'm really glad that you came here today." His hand moved up, gently stroking her cheek and running his hand through her blonde curls.

"I am too," she told him, shivering lightly at his touch. "Will…will you be here, tomorrow I mean?"

"I'll be here whenever you want me to be, Princess," he told her, voice low. "That's the way it works, doesn't it?"

It was obvious that her words had put her off balance, as she started breathing faster, swallowing hard. "Well, then," she whispered. "If I happen to be here tomorrow at about the same time…I'll see you then."

Ashton nodded. "I guess you will."

It was the first time a book on ancient Trillic law didn't have Mikomi's full attention. As she sat in the library, the volumes piled around her and one open in front of her, the princess was staring off into space. Her chin rested in her hand as a vague, distant look settled over her blue eyes.

When Emerald sat down at the on the other side of the table, she just managed to shake herself out of the reverie before the general got suspicious. "Will you hate me horribly if I have to abandon you again?" Emerald asked, green eyes hesitant and disappointed.

"What do you mean?" Mikomi wondered, heart thudding in her chest as the implications of the statement.

A large sigh escaped the bodyguard. "I just learned that there are about five meetings scheduled for today. I'm probably going to be busy through dinner and there's no way I can get out of it. I'm sorry."

Shaking her head, the princess assured her, "No, it's okay. I know you'd help it if you could."

"Are you sure you're okay?" Emerald frowned. "I'll make it up to you. We'll do something fun as soon as I can get everyone off my back."

"It's because I got kidnapped that they are doing all of this to you. It's hardly my place to complain about it," she said logically. "Don't worry, Emerald. I'm a big girl. I can entertain myself."

The general sighed in relief. "Thank you for being so good about this. I'd have lunch with you, but then I'd be late, and I get enough bull from these men as it is." Standing up, she looked at the princess hesitantly. "What exactly did you do yesterday? You seem…better."

"I just got outside and cleared my head," she told her, a small smile on her face. "The fresh air did me some good."

"Well, if that's all it took, maybe we should knock out a wall in your bedroom. That way you can get fresh air all the time."

Mikomi rolled her eyes. "Don't you have a meeting to go to?"

Emerald laughed as she headed out of the library. "See you later, Princess. Stay out of trouble, alright?"

"Don't I always?" Mikomi teased back, which just made the general laugh harder. After waiting a few minutes until she knew that Emerald would be completely gone, Mikomi stood up and called to the librarian. "Lilian, I have some things to do. Do you mind if I come back for these tomorrow?"

"Of course not, Princess," the shorter woman told her. "You go do what you have to do. I'll straighten up."

"Thank you!" she told her. She left the library in her normal gait, then walked as quickly as she could upstairs to her bedroom. Opening her wardrobe, she pulled out the typical pants and shirt that she used for riding gear, then tied her hair back. After throwing on her boots, she rushed downstairs as quickly as possible without looking suspicious.

Entering the stables, she instructed one of the hostlers to ready her horse. Luckily, they rarely spoke to her at all, so there was no need to fear that they would ask her what she was doing. She leaned against the door to the stable, trying to look bored and indifferent instead of as anxious as she felt, with her heart ready to leap out of her chest.

When Starlight was ready, she nodded her thanks before mounting and heading towards the normal trail. After making sure that no one was watching her or following her, she doubled back, heading down the same path as the day before. Nearing the same tree from the day before, she slowed down, then dismounted, walking with the horse slowly.

"Mikomi!" Ashton called to her, stepping out from underneath the shelter of the trees. She bit her lip in happiness, walking faster towards him. "I'm really glad you came," he told her when she got close enough. He nodded towards the horse. "Hey, Starlight."

Starlight butted against his shoulder gently, and Ashton took the hint to rub her nose while continuing to smile at the princess. She couldn't help but smile back, saying, "I'm glad that I came too."

"I hope you haven't eaten lunch yet," he told her, looking slightly nervous.

"I'm starving, actually."

A large grin spread over his face. "Great. Go ahead and have a seat. I'll tie up Starlight."

She did as she was told, heading towards the blanket, which was now set up with several pillows and a large collection of flowers in the middle. Mikomi sat down and picked up one of the flowers, inhaling the sweet aroma.

"Those are for you," Ashton told her, coming back to the blanket. "I got them from where we first met… Where I kidnapped you… That went a lot better in my head."

Laughing, Mikomi said, "Thank you. They're beautiful."

As Ashton sat down, Mikomi peaked into the basket, squealing in delight. "Strawberries!"

"Well, I know you like them," he laughed, watching as she pulled one out and stuck it in her mouth, blue eyes closing in happiness.

After finally chewing and swallowing, she groaned with bliss, "So good…" Opening her eyes, she found him staring at her intently. "Oh, um…sorry."

"Don't be," he assured her. "I'm glad you like them. It was worth taking the rest of the ones from the hideout."

"You shouldn't have done that!" she admonished. "What if you get in trouble?"

Raising a brown eyebrow at her, Ashton said simply, "You should know by now that you're worth it."

Her face almost resembled the strawberries as a blush painted her cheeks, heart thudding out of control in her chest. Not trusting herself to reply without sounding like a fool, she simply ate another strawberry, trying to ignore the piercing looks that he was giving her.

They chatted lightly as they ate, trying not to make the atmosphere tense with deep conversation. Mikomi discussed her brother, face lighting up as she talked about Konner and how much she loved him. Ashton told her about Dezzie's latest experiment and how it had blown up in Damon's face—literally.

Once they had finished eating, Ashton was leaning against the trunk of the tree, Mikomi stretching out with her head resting on his chest. "This is so nice, Ashton," she told him, eyes closing dreamily as he gently rubbed up and down her back. "I can't remember the last time I felt so happy just to be next to someone," Mikomi said honestly, sitting up to look into his brown eyes.

"I've never felt so happy to be with someone," he whispered huskily, the look in his dark eyes and the tone of his voice sending shivers down her spine. She sat up a bit straighter as he leaned forward, coming close enough to press his lips gently against hers. Mikomi's eyes shut in surprise and happiness, fluttering open to see him staring at her when he pulled back, watching her closely for a reaction.

Forgoing words, Mikomi leaned in and kissed him, harder this time, more intense. Ashton responded immediately, kissing her with passion as his hand first cupped her cheek, then became tangled in her thick blonde curls.

He kissed her again and again, until she was giddy and they were both out of breath. Yet even as he pulled away to give them both a chance to breath, his brown eyes were cautious and his hand hesitant as it stroked her cheek, as if wondering if she would come to her senses and hit him.

To ease his fears, she kissed his lips softly, then placed her head against his shoulder, laying her body against his. The smile that she gave him with her now red, puffy lips, along with the brightness and happiness in her eyes put her fear at rest as he smiled back at her. Wrapping his arms around her and placing light kisses in a trail along her forehead, Ashton held Mikomi as the afternoon sun drifted away.