Written to fulfill a romance prompt.

Free Hugs.

"I feel ridiculous," Hannah moaned, hiding behind her shaking hands. She took a deep breath and removed them, scraping her fingers through the roots of her dirty blonde hair and pushing the strands back out of her face. "I can't do this. Don't make me do this."

"Stop pleading, it doesn't suit you," Ruby said, rolling her eyes. "Come on, you're a brave girl. Now get out there." She grinned, a dark sense of humour lighting up the chestnut brown of her irises. Ruby always had found her humiliation entertaining. It wasn't a malicious amusement; she was one of those people who believed if you laugh everything off, and find enjoyment and contentment in everything that happens to you, you can live life happy and carefree.

Hannah was not one of those people. Quite the opposite actually; she thought that if you worried and fretted over everything, and if the world would leave you out of its twisted, cruel sense of humour you'd be okay . . . maybe.

Hannah sighed and stood up from her somewhat precarious perch on the thin wall outside the female toilets. "I don't know where you find the self-confidence for this. We're English for God's sake! People are gunna look at us like we're mental."

She glanced down at the sign by her feet. The cartoony printed words, painted in bright, happy hues, drummed an almost overwhelming ominous dread into her soul. Her voice was lower, barely a murmur to her own ears as she continued, "I can hardly even hug my mum and dad."

Ruby's grin diminished a little, sadness tugging at the corners of her full lips. "Oh. I know your parents weren't very . . . cuddly people when you were growing up, but you'll be fine. A hug is just a hug. There's nothing to be scared of, silly." She bent down to pick up the signs, the tips of her long black hair swinging down to brush the peeling plastic tiled floor. "Now, let's get out there. Mrs Greene is waiting for us."

"But," Hannah said, hurrying after Ruby, "what if I smell bad? Going around hugging strangers all day, I'm bound to sweat, even just from the nerves." And boy did she feel nervous. Her stomach was a writhing swarm of butterflies, each and every one of their metaphorical wings stirring up her breakfast and threatening to make her retch.

The low heels of her new court shoes clicked loudly against the hard floor, and she winced at the additional attention from the shoppers passing by them.

Her best friend laughed; it was an almost melodic, lilting sound. She turned to look at her and said, "You're wearing antiperspirant, aren't you? You'll be fine. Besides, you're short; your armpits will be well away from most people's noses."

Hannah sighed. That was true. Where Ruby was tall and slender with a thin face, Hannah was short, thin, and generally petite all over. Her small stature, accompanied by a slightly chubby, round face, made her look about fourteen instead of her nineteen.

Ruby pushed open the shopping centre's glass panelled doors, and they stepped out into the humid heat of summer choking the town centre. Heat radiated off the clay bricks of the wide, pedestrian only road. Shrieks from excited children and yells from angry mothers filled the air, loud and un-muted by the non-existent wind.

"Mrs Greene set the stall up this way." Ruby said, motioning off to their right.

Hannah squinted against the sun, gazing down the street. Right, of course. It would have to be the busiest and, more importantly, sunniest portion of the high street. She followed after Ruby, feeling her irritation rising every second.

It was a beautiful day, she should have been enjoying it, but the bright sunshine, just like the baby blues and bright pinks of the sign, did nothing to lift her mood. If anything, she was now worrying over the extra heat beating down on them from the sun. That fear of smelling of stale sweat was beginning to look like a more realistic concern. Or it did to Hannah at least.

The stall, it turned out, comprised of a long metal table with a faux wood top, complete with folding metal legs. It was the sort of table Hannah had sat at a billion times... when she was four and eating lunch at primary school. An easel whiteboard stood by one end of the table, two donation buckets and a stack of leaflets sat on the plastic top, the paper held down by a black brick weight no larger than the average 90s mobile phone. . . despite the lack of a breeze.

Behind the table were two folding chairs and a small, square tent. Green and mouldy, the canvas looked like it had seen better days, and Hannah doubted it was any relief from the heat. She thought it might be a bit like walking into a sauna and wasn't much up to trying it. Two small picnic coolers of ice sat just inside the door, filled with an assortment of bottled water and fizzy pop cans.

Mrs Greene stepped out from the tent. Her brown, short, and curly hair matted to her forehead with sweat. She carried a large stack of leaflets in both arms. "There you two are! I was wondering where you had gotten to."

"Sorry, Mrs G," Ruby said, "someone had a case of extreme nerves." She elbowed Hannah in the ribs. "But we're here now. Where do you want us?"

"Pin those posters up, put one on the whiteboard and the other can be taped to the front of the table, or on the top, whichever. Once you've done that, start handing out leaflets and approaching people on the street." Mrs Greene stepped around the table. "I have to go help the girls set up the stall over at Prospect place. Good luck girls." She offered them a smile, warm and genuine as always.

Once she had left they set to work. Ruby pinned the sign onto the easel and Hannah taped the other sign to the front of the table before stepping back to see if it was level. Instead, she found herself staring at the words with dread, they glared back at her. She wondered if the words: Free hugs for charity would forever be emblazoned on her eyes; even when she blinked she could still see them.

"Come now, Han. Charity workers are supposed to be happy. Now let's get hugging."

Hannah groaned and extricated herself from Ruby's one-armed hug. "Alright, alright." She grabbed a handful of leaflets out from under the weight and took several steps away from the table, the further she walked the more unconfident she felt. She shook her head, it wasn't like she needed to stand near the posters for people to see why she was doing what she was doing, it was plastered all over the fabric squares pinned onto the front and back of her white skater dress; written in thick, black permanent marker no less.

"Hey, would you like –" she attempted to ask one woman, and then a man, and another woman. Each of them shaking their heads and walking on faster than they had previously before she'd even finished. Hannah groaned, once again hiding behind her hands until the stifling heat had her coming out again. It didn't help that every time she glanced over at Ruby she had yet another person adding money to her donation box. It seemed there really was something to this 'be happy and bubbly' thing Ruby had been telling her to do all week.

Taking a deep breath and plastering on a smile, she flicked her blonde hair over her shoulders to more clearly display the sign on her chest, and once again began approaching people. They still continued to move on and ignore her, but a few people stopped.

The first had been an old lady. She'd smiled and asked what the charity was for. When Hannah had replied, she'd dug deeper into her purse and doubled her original donation. It appeared she had a soft spot for children. She'd hugged her easily enough, and then began to wonder what she had thought was so difficult.

The second had been a tall, stocky young man with a group of his friends. He'd dropped five pence into the bucket and asked for his hug. That one hadn't been so easy, especially with the guys behind him smirking and laughing like it was the funniest thing in the world.

As they wandered off down the street, Hannah rolled her eyes. She couldn't think too badly of him, she supposed, considering the hugs were actually free of charge, donating before or after was a choice.

She could still hear the boys laughing as Ruby came up behind her. "How's it going?"

"Not too bad."

"See. Hugs are okay."

"Yeah, I guess. I just don't feel comfortable with –-" She cut short as a young guy, possibly three or four years older than her, dropped a note into the bucket and walked off.

"Er, what are you doing just standing there?" Ruby asked, smiling. "He paid, he needs a hug. Go, go!"

Hannah gaped at her. "What? Can't you go?"

"Nah uh." Ruby shook her head, her smile growing wider. "It wasn't my bucket he donated to."

She groaned and, thrusting her stack of leaflets into Ruby's hand, ran after the guy. The change rattled in time with her footsteps, the bucket handle was slippery and slick in her fist. "Hey! Man. Guy. Dude, stop!" she shouted, too thoroughly aware of how clumsy and funny her run must appear.

The guy stopped and turned, looking at her wide-eyed. Curiously, he looked a little like a deer caught in the headlights."Yeah?"

Hannah walked the last few steps up to him, her breathing only a little laboured, taking in his appearance. His hair was brown and spiked with gel, his arms strong and toned beneath the hem of his t-shirt. He had a clean shaven jaw and a more than generous nose. Her heart thumped, painful and loud. She could taste the nervousness in her mouth. "You can't donate and not have your free hug."

"Oh." He shifts, glancing down at his feet and back up. "That's okay, really." He laughs, short and awkward.

"No, really. See that girl over there, black hair, stupid sign pinned to her chest? Yeah, well she will have my head if I don't." Hannah held out her arms, willing them not to shake. "I insist." She didn't let herself think about it, she just leaned in and hugged him. It was loose and uncomfortable, and not all made easier by her clamping her upper arms to her sides so he wouldn't catch a stray whiff of her underarms.

Questions raced through her head, each fighting for precedence. Was she supposed to hug tighter? Did she put her head over his shoulder? Was she supposed to have her cheek against his warm chest? Oh, crap. She released him and stepped back hurriedly. She definitely was not supposed to hug him that long.

Feeling her face burst with heat and knowing she probably resembled a ripe strawberry, she said, "Thanks for helping the children's charity. I'm sure there will be at least one happy kid in the future due to your contribution. Have a nice day." She turned to leave, closing her eyes against her humiliation.

"Er, actually," the guy began, his voice low and hesitant, "I didn't put any money in."

She spun back to face him, uncomprehending. "What? But I saw you. . ." Didn't she? Was she seeing things now? Oh, God, the heat had gone to her head.

His own cheeks infused with colour; a light, attractive pink not unlike that of the poster's writing. He brushed a hand through his hair, a somewhat sheepish look on his face. "I er... it wasn't money I put in, I-I gave you my number."

She stared at him blankly. She heard his words and her mind processed them fine, but her head filled with static noise. She froze.

He reached into his back pocket and withdrew a note. He held it out to her with fingers whose nails were cut short, some with odd groves and kinks. "Here, I kind of feel I owe it to you now, since you give such a good hug and all."

She took the note robotically, her mind having put her in autopilot. "Call me sometime." He smiled then, and turned to continue on his way up the street.

Hannah blinked once, twice, looked about her, and then sprang back into full control. She took too harried steps after him, shouting, "Hey, er, guy! Wait."

He turned back to her, almost as though he was expecting it, or hoping it. "Yeah?"

"Er." She licked her dry lips, closing the short distance between them with several slow, minuscule steps. She held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Hannah."

He grinned, a dimple showing on his left cheek. "Hey. Luke. It's nice to meet you, Hannah," he said, gripping her hand.