It's another game, another undisclosed location scheduled for demolition in a few days, and against a cinderblock wall, Akiyama escapes the ensuing commotion and cools his pounding head against the painted cement. To say the least, the timing of the corporation this time has been horrible. The scratchy feeling in his throat at the start of the game yesterday has developed alongside his brilliant plan like an unfortunate side effect.
He has a minute, two tops before someone comes to check up on him. An official certainly, but Akiyama's willing to put half of the vast sum of money he's about to swindle that someone else will show up first.
“Akiyama-san, maybe you should rest. You can stay here for a bit, and I’ll pass on your instructions.”
Just on schedule, Nao shows up.
“Can’t rest,” Akiyama says, though he’s not fool enough to turn down the bottle of water Nao offers him. He opens the cap and drains half of it. “This isn’t a place I can afford to show weakness. I’ll rest when it’s over.”
“If you’re sure about it,” Nao doesn’t look at all sure herself, for good reason: She’s not entirely a fool. Akiyama forgets that sometimes.
He drains the other half of the water and tries to judge how close to total shit he feels. The answer isn't encouraging. “Go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Nao nods, but she takes her sweet time returning to the group.
Akiyama closes his eyes and takes a few more moments against the stability of the wall to stuff himself back inside the exoskeleton of okay he's put up for this game, before he pushes off the wall and dives back into the fray. He can’t fail, not now. There’s too much to do, too much at stake, for something as trivial as little bug to stop him.
He hopes Nao would understand this.
They ride home together in the same cab, something of a tradition by now. She seems to enjoy it. He usually doesn’t mind making sure she gets home safely. Tonight, with his head burning, the rest of his body shivering and aching form cold, and his stomach on the verge of a full on rebellion, he just wants to curl up. Akiyama presses his head against the mercifully cold window, and makes plans to get himself away from any vestige of humanity as soon as possible, even one so comforting as Nao.
Especially, he needs to escape from her. She can't see him like this. Not when he’s such a mess that even the dimmest of bulbs can detect it, and the Nao who sits next to him definitely notices. He can’t look cool. Since her first annoying inquiry, she’s taken advantage of the slightest provocations to indirectly bring up the fact that he looks like crap and the whole world notices. In fact, Akiyama thinks, she’s just about due to bring it up just about now.
“Akiyama-san,” Nao speaks, placing her refreshing fingertips on his cheeks. “Maybe it would be better if you stayed with me tonight. I have some spare blankets, and there’s a clinic nearby you could visit in the morning.”
He’s already dispensed the more common forms of evasion. He’s reassured her not to worry. He’s politely refused. He’s even gone so far as to snap at her. And still, she persists, even as the car stops, and Nao climbs out, and then. It’s time for an evasive maneuver.
“Fine, I’ll stay with you. Go on ahead. I’m just going to drop my stuff off, and pick up some clean clothes.”
“I’m not sure if going back is a good idea…you don't seem like…”
“It’ll be fine.” He shuts the door and cuts off the argument.
Akiyama has the cab idle outside Nao’s apartment until he sees her walk in, and the lights turn on, then he instructs the driver to go.
He exits the cab a few blocks away from his apartment. No use in letting everyone know where he lives. “I’ll take it from here. Thanks.” He lingers for a little bit, leaning on a lamppost, until he’s absolutely certain that the cab has driven off.
Akiyama walks the last blocks home, stumbling over his steps and secure in the notion that he’s safely left Nao at her apartment. By the time she figures out that he’s not just stopping at home for his things, he’ll be inside, door locked, phone turned off to sleep and hate the world until morning. Then, he has to figure out how to stumble out the door and somehow function as a human.
His plan is derailed when he reaches his doorstep with hardly a gram of energy left inside him. Just enough, Akiyama thinks, to stumble his way inside and to the bed. Except, he must be delirious. Why else would he see Nao standing in front of him, arms open and her voice echoing blurrily. By all logic, it can't be her. Akiyama walked her home. He's not in his best condition right now, but he would have noticed sooner if she passed him. The voice is too harsh and angry to be her. It's a mirage of Nao he sees, not the real one, who he swears he saw go home.
Illusion or no, the mere possibility that she's stands there breaks down the crumbles the last bit of his strong facade, but Akiyama has never felt so happy to feel so weak. Stop that, he commands himself. No. He has to get inside. Just a few more steps and a key in the lock, it shouldn't be an insurmountable challenge. His hand reaches out. Something rough and soft brushes against his fingers—the wool of a coat. He tumbles forward.
Stop that. Stop that. Stop that. Akiyama struggles to pull himself together.
But he already slides down, powerless except to hope that whatever catches him on the way down is actually Nao.
The next moments pass in a daze. Someone helps him inside, he’s coherent enough to remember that, and whoever it is must be okay enough that his brain turns off and lets the worst of the pain resolve itself outside of Akiyama’s awareness.
When he wakes up, it’s daylight. He still feels like shit. His head pounds. But he’s warm, and when his eyes and brain start to focus, he sees Nao sitting next to him. It was her waiting for him after all. Or he’s worse off than he thought he was, and his hallucinations are now coming in a multisensory extravaganza.
“You’re here? How?”
Nao puts her hand on the blanket, not touching him, but close enough for his burning skin to anticipate the possibility. “I took the taxi back here, just in case you weren’t in any condition to come back once you got your stuff.” There are at least twenty details, observations, and accusations she’s kind enough to omit.
“You were harsh.” Against all rational reasoning, he reaches out for her hand and smiles when her fingers curl around his. Later he’ll kick himself for this. For now though, his carapace of nonchalance is reduced to rubble, and Nao’s hand feels so cool and right atop his. Enjoy it now, the clearest part of his brain instructs him, and rebuild his defenses later. After all, they’re nearly at the farthest possible point from another round of the Liar Game. He has time. Maybe it would even be sufficient.
Nao touches his face, the soft stroke of the back of her hand on his cheek rushes over him, and the fever aches he’s been suffering seem to retreat at the contact. He shudders.
“Oh!” Nao jumps back a little on that, but her hand never lets go. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”
If Akiyama were well, he would have let her continue to think he found her touch uncomfortable. It’s most beneficial if they keep their distance for a little while longer. But the reality is, he hasn’t felt this (physically) awful in years, and having someone there to fuss over him just a bit—well, a small taste of that luxury won’t spoil him.
“No. It’s fine.” Akiyama squeezes her hand just a little bit tighter. It’s as close as he can come to asking her to stay.
Nao just nods. The feeling of her hands through his hair tells him she understands his circumlocution. He drifts back off into sleep to the barest hint of her fingertips on his scalp.
In his fever, his sleep crosses the line between consciousness and unconsciousness way too many times. There's the merciful parts where an hour or two pass in dark oblivion, and the one or two times he wakes up fully to take a drink of water from the glass that's always full or to use the toilet. Nao's always conspicuously elsewhere in the place, not by his side on those occasions. He's grateful. It makes the indignity of showing weakness a little less.
The worst bits are the liminal stages, the ones where Akiyama crosses in and out of awareness while his body shudders off the fever. Then, he can sense her next to him—at the ready with damp cloths and wonderful cool hands—and he dreams.
The better ones are the fragmented bits and pieces of cognition that expose his worries. Men in masks infiltrate his dreams, and impossible puzzles needing solved right now crowd his fevered brain. Those, at least, are familiar. Not great, but normal. It's only when she gets involved—taking his hand, beckoning him to follow—that the dreams veer into uncharted and impossible territory. He goes with her…
…and ends up in his room. Akiyama opens his eyes, and he swears he must be lucid right now—not awake, lucid—because he sees everything in crisp detail. Nao sits against the wall right next to his futon. The loose-woven strips of a face mask cross the expanse of cheek and jawline and curls around the curved rim of her ear. She reads one of the books he left lying out. The room feels impossibly bright.
"Akiyama-san?" Nao scoots forward a little bit. Her voice rings a bit, like the fresh toll of a bell. She's radiant, and he swears he can count every individual eyelash when she blinks. It's all too clear to be real. That's his only excuse for why his guard drops so completely. Dreams are not subject to the myriad of restrictions, inhibitions, and complications that bind him to the necessary course of action. For a moment, he's free.
"You…" He props himself up, and pulls her close. Their foreheads touch—Nao's so cool and dry against his, and in this borderline state, Akiyama presses his fevered lips to hers. The paper mask serves as a barrier; it's not a real kiss, even discounting the premise that it was all a dream. "Thank you."
Just before a deeper sleep claims him, Akiyama swears his enhanced vision can see a blush through her mask.
The next time he wakes up, for real this time, not a dream, and not just to take care of necessities, he merely feels awful. Most of the fever has sweated off, and his head doesn't ache nearly as bad. Nao sits against the wall, reading a book and wearing a face mask. Time has passed, though how much he doesn't know.
"Akiyama-san," Nao smiles at him. She definitely doesn't come over. "You're awake. How are you feeling?"
"Better." It's not a lie at all, just a line that could be easily misinterpreted.
Nao's shake of her head and her sigh tells him she doesn't misinterpret. She presses the back of her hand to his forehead. "Your fever went down a bit. That's a good sign. Akiyama-san…" Her hands knit together. It's a troubling sign.
"I uh…did you want some soup?"
"That's fine." He's not quite hungry, but anything is better than facing what might have happened while he thought he was dreaming. He'll have to ask, just not now. Not unless he's sure; no reason to arouse her suspicions over a something as stupid as a dream he'll have forgotten by the time the next round starts.
Nao dishes out the miso soup quietly, without ceremony, and as Akiyama eats, she conspicuously doesn't watch him. She makes tea: a cup for each of them. She idly puts things away, rearranges things, and washes her hands. He spots the book—pop psychology, nothing too heavy; the bibliography would probably be more interesting than the actual content—on the floor splayed open where she left off. "What did you think?"
"It was interesting...I didn't really get very far…" Nao takes her place by his side, takes a deep breath and sips her tea. Her hand shakes.
Akiyama takes this moment to clear things up.
His hand touches hers and steadies the cup. "Nothing happened," he says to her very slowly.
Her eyes widen, and for a second Akiyama thinks he must have read the signals wrong, and anything worth dwelling on never actually took place. Then she shakes her head and makes an adorably solemn face. "You were very feverish, Akiyama-san. Please make sure to take care of yourself."
His hand lingers on hers, not long, just enough to give and take one last gram of comfort before he lets it fall again. "I will."
She nods and remains by his side while he drifts off again.
When Akiyama wakes up, daylight shines again, her vaguely floral scent and a note left on his table is the only remnant of Nao in his room. He unfolds the paper, a page torn out of his notebook.
I'm out paying a visit to my father. It's been a few days, and he's probably worried about me. I'll be back later. If you're still feeling feverish, we'll go visit the clinic. Please rest well and get better.
Silly girl. Akiyama folds the note up. He actually feels much better, functioning. Not wanting to deal with Nao and the myriad of dilemma's she provokes, he takes out his phone and taps out a text message.
I'm fine. Don't come and check up on me.
He actually hesitates before sending it. Is it really necessary to drive her off so soon? Maybe he could deal with a little more care. Just a bit more.
He shakes his head. Too many scenarios play in his head about what might happen if she returns: the practical ones where she straightens his place up a little more; the sweet ones where she stays by his side and they kiss once or maybe several more times; the spicy ones where she uses her full body to cool him down, and he—
The incentives to misbehave are many, but the drawbacks are overwhelming. He repeats that line until he believes it.
Akiyama feels too well for her to return. Akiyama closes his eyes and plays through the scenario he's creating. He rejects the mail he's typing up, but not for his initial reason. If he sends that exact message, Nao will invariably come by; his earlier evasion attempts guarantee that. Just another way, that was not his most shining moment. No, he needs to assure her. He erases the message and tries again.
Feeling much better. Off to the clinic right now, I probably won't be here if you come by. Please take care of your father.
There. Akiyama sends that and grabs his coat. He might as well make good on his word this time. If nothing else, there's one more stop he wants to make.
A week or so later, Nao has almost forgotten her time taking care of Akiyama. Well, not forgotten, just pushed to the back of her mind like everything else related to the Liar Game. She certainly doesn't dwell on that kiss that never was, not all the time anyway. Life is too busy for that.
But when she opens the mailbox one day, and a manila envelope addressed to her in Akiyama's precise handwriting waits inside.
It's a book she was reading during her time at Akiyama's side, and slid between the pages is a note. She pulls it out and unfolds it.
Just that one word, and Nao can visualize that smile of his, quietly reaching around to the corner of his eyes and radiating an undeniable warmth. She can't help but smile back.
And that's even before she realizes that the paper bookmarks the last page she read at Akiyama's place.