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Connecting...connecting...

The most nerve wreaking part of calling Akiyama--after feeling just plain bad for relying on him so much--is waiting for his answer. Nao's hands tremble just trying to keep her phone to her ear.

"Hello!"

Thank goodness. Nao feels a tiny spark of relief, just hearing his voice at the other end of the line. "A-Akiyama-san."

"Oh, it's you. Didn't think I'd be hearing from you so soon. The next Round isn't for another two weeks."

"Ah..well..." Nao bites her lip, as she tries to think of the right way to frame her request. Would Akiyama really go along with it? "It's not about the Liar Game."

"So then, why are you calling?"

She takes a deep breath, and tries to calm herself down. "It's my father. He seems to be getting worse lately, and...well, he wants to know that I'm going to be okay when he's gone. So...I thought if I could bring someone in to show that there's someone I can rely on, that would help ease his mind and let him spend his last days in peace."

Tears run down her cheeks now. This isn't pleasant for her, but she's been at her wit's end trying to find a way to ease this latest worry of her father's.

Akiyama's end of the line goes silent for a few moments. Maybe he's ready to hang up. "So, what would you need me to do?"

"I guess if I introduced you to my father, and you told him that you've been looking out for me, that would be enough. You wouldn't have to explain about the Liar Game at all." She pauses and adds, "And you wouldn't have to actually spend any more time with me outside the game either! It's just to reassure him."

"Have you thought about this?" Nao can't tell by the tone of his voice exactly what he's thinking.

"Eh?"

His voice has a smirk in when he speaks again. "Well, usually when a girl introduces a boy to her father, it has implications. For one thing, it implies a serious romance between them, with the intention of getting married. What if he asks about that?"

Nao's eyes widen. While it would be a lie to say that she's never thought about Akiyama in that way, she certainly doesn't want her father to get the wrong intentions. "Oh...if that comes up, we can clear up the misunderstanding. I'm not asking you to lie to him. Just--don't mention the Liar Game."

The time it takes for Akiyama to make up his mind seems like eternity, even though the time on digital clock by her bed doesn't even change before he speaks again. "Is two days from now good for you?"

"Yes." Even as she feels bad for enlisting his help like this, a sense of calm washes over her. Everything will be all right.

"Then I'll meet you outside the gates of your college at 2:00."

"Thank you."

"And Nao, crying isn't going to help anything."

She stares at the phone, shocked. "How did you know I was--"

But Akiyama has already hung up.

*

Two days pass slowly, but they do pass, and Nao is waving good-bye to her classmates. As promised, Akiyama waits outside the school gates, the only man in a crowd full of women.

"Akiyama-san!" Nao runs over, "thank you so much for doing this!" She notices for the first time how dressed-up Akiyama looks--button-down shirt tucked-in, slacks, hair-combed, bangs mostly out of his face. It's a different look--not bad, he's actually quite handsome--but he's not the Akiyama Nao is used to seeing.

He catches her staring. "It's better if I look like a typical graduate student. If I look shady, it's not going to reassure your father at all. He's going to start to think, 'What's my daughter getting into that she needs this type of shady person looking out for her?' "

Thinking about it now, she realizes that Akiyama is right. "Yeah. I didn't see it that way. We should go."

The hospice is only a short walk away. Having Akiyama by her in the street feels good somehow, like she can pretend that they're actually friends in the outside world instead of allies in a horrible game.

"I've been thinking about focusing in psychology." The words come out so suddenly that Nao doesn't know where they come from. "I guess being in the Liar Game so much, it's making me really want to start understanding people's hearts. I want to get to know them."

"That's idealistic of you." Akiyama shakes his head, but there's a faint smile on his face that makes Nao's heart leap just a little bit. "You're never going to lose that, are you?"

She looks down. "I hope not. Ahh! We're here."

The hospice that takes care of her father is actually quite beautiful, especially in the fall, when the maples that line the path change colors and become a flame-colored display. A few patients and their caretakers are outside enjoying the brisk weather, and bathing in the last bits of sun.

She walks into the main office. Akiyama follows just a few steps behind her.

"Watanabe-san." Nao bows to the lady at the front desk.

"Ahh, Kanzaki-san, here to see your father."

Nao nods, and then she brings Akiyama to the front. "This is Akiyama-san, a friend of mine."

Watanabe's eyes grow wide. "You're-- I mean, nice to meet you Akiyama-san."
"Nice to meet you too." Akiyama bows.

Something about the exchange bothers Nao, but she places out of her mind. Well, Akiyama is just a little bit infamous. Maybe Watanabe just remembers his name from the news.

"Your father's in his room right now. He should be well-enough to go outside for a little bit."

Nao smiles. "That's good to hear."

"Father?" Nao walks into his room, a wheelchair unfolded and ready to go. "Are you awake."

"Nao-chan! Of course I am. My instinct told me that you'd be visiting me about this time today."

Nao smiles. Her father always seems to have a good humor about him, even when going through such tough moments. "Your instincts are pretty sharp, father."

"Oh, and who's that? Did you bring a friend?" Her father attempts to sit up. Akiyama stands behind Nao, ready to be introduced.

"Father, this is Akiyama-san. He's been looking out for me. Akiyama-san, this is my father."

"Nice to meet you, Kanzaki-san." Akiyama bows, and to all appearances, he's no different than a typical graduate student.

Her father smiles. "Likewise, Akiyama-san. I hear you've been looking after my Nao, since she's been living on her own?"

"You could say something like that." Akiyama's face has gone into disguise mode--the expression he wears when he's trying to get someone to believe something.

Nao can only watch from Akiyama's side, as he converses with her father. Please don't say anything about the liar game, she prays. Almost unconsciously, her hand seeks his. Akiyama takes her hand, as he continues the conversation.

"So, how did you meet Nao-chan anyway?"

"We literally bumped into each other. I guess there was something special about your daughter. I just felt like I had to look after her."

Nao blushes and begins to consider the wisdom of her plan. Well, Akiyama had warned her over the phone about how easily everything could be misunderstood, but if she didn't know better, she would swear that Akiyama was trying to mislead her father.

"She's a very trusting girl. Very noble," Akiyama continues, "and the world can be a rough place for someone like that."

"It can indeed." Her father looks worried, "But I'm proud of her. I've always wanted my daughter to grow into an honest young woman."

Oh...Nao wants to retreat and hide from the shame. She never should have brought Akiyama-san here, never should have considered it for a moment. Why couldn't she have just smiled off his worries as she always had.

Because she really does want Akiyama to look out for her.

Because she doesn't want Akiyama to disappear from her life once the Liar Game finally ends.

"How long do you intend to continue watching out for my daughter."

Akiyama releases his hand from hers and puts it behind his head. "For as long as she will allow me to."

Nao knows that Akiyama is good at getting people to believe him, but this time his delivery almost fools her. If not for the smirk on his face, the one he always wears when he's tricking people, she would have sworn he was telling the truth.

"That's good to hear. It's nice knowing that there will be someone to take care of her when I'm gone."

Nao steps in. This is more than she can take. "Father, I brought your wheelchair. We should go outside and enjoy the autumn weather." She sends a look to Akiyama, who just barely smiles. Well, he did do what she asked him to after all.

*

"Akiyama-san seems like a good guy. You should marry him after you graduate."

"Father!"

Akiyama has excused himself, and so it's just Nao and her father talking, as they walk down the tree lined pathways of the hospice grounds.

"It's true." Her father confirms. "He reminds me of myself. You could do a lot worse than that one."

"But Akiyama and I aren't..."

Her father lifts one frail hand and waves it. "Call it a father's instinct."

At least her father seems reassured, Nao thinks as they walk together in the afternoon sun. Her own feelings though, are mixed.

"It would be nice." She admits at last.

*

When Nao exits the hospice, Akiyama waits outside for her.

"You're still here?"

Akiyama shrugs. "I thought you should get an explanation. Plus, it's getting dark outside. You shouldn't walk home by yourself."

"An explanation?" Nao stares up at him, puzzled. This is the real world, not the Liar Game. She might have been a little embarrassed by this afternoon, but Akiyama would not have tried to play a trick on her father. Would he? "I admit what you said was a little strange, but I didn't think you would try and pull something on my father."

"It's a little different from that." Akiyama shakes his head and smiles. "I wasn't trying to pull anything on your father."

Nao waits for the bomb to drop.

"The trick was for you."

She steps back a few feet and bumps into someone on the sidewalk. "Sorry about that," she apologizes as the man walks off in a huff. "What? Why would you--"

Akiyama doesn't look triumphant, as he usually does after a successful gambit. "And furthermore, I must admit--this isn't the first time I've met your father."

That catches her attention. She stares at him. "What?"

"Actually, I visited him last week. I just walked in, said I was there to see Kanzaki-san, and they led me right to him."

A light bulb went on. "Oh! That's why Watanabe-san looked shocked when you showed up because she had seen you before! I thought it was just that she remembered your face from the newspaper."

"Exactly."

"So, why did you meet with my father in the first place?"

"To get you to set up this meeting. Actually, that's not the whole reason. You know, this upcoming round is going to be difficult. We'll get through, of course. But you can't keep this from your father...even if he is sick."

"Akiyama-san."

He shook his head. "I understand your feelings. I know that you don't want to worry your father, but you know, he worries anyway. And no matter how good a team we make, what we're doing is incredibly risky. What happens in the unlikely chance that we fail?"

Nao shakes. "I--I didn't think of that before. But...it wouldn't be good would it?" She understates her anxiety. The only way she can make it through the game is to stop worrying about the debt she and Akiyama slowly accumulate and concentrate on saving the other players, but when she pauses and thinks, the height of the wall truly becomes scary.

"I think," Akiyama says, his voice much tighter than Nao has ever heard it, "that if I were in your father's position, I'd would rather know right now instead of after something happened to you."

His mother. Nao recognizes that emotion behind the words. She knows Akiyama, better than just about everyone. He must have imagined his own mother's situation, and thought that he would have preferred to know if it was him.

"Yes. It was easy to keep up the act when I thought the Liar Game would just be so short, but now I'm only hurting him by hiding it." She works to keep herself from crying. There's no more time for tears. "But if you'd already met him, then why would you try and get me to set up another meeting--unless..."

She might suspect that Akiyama would do something like this. How many times had he pulled of similar schemes. But her father? The man who had raised her to be so honest?

"Your father wanted to see us together. I think he might have been impressed by my dedication to you, and my honesty in seeking him out, to forgive my shadowy past."

"I see. But one of you could have asked. I would have willingly brought you to meet him." She pauses, thinking of circumstance, "obviously. I practically begged you over the phone."

Akiyama shakes his head. "No, neither of us could have asked. If your father had said, 'I would like to meet Akiyama' you would have known that he at least knew of my existence, and possibly your involvement in the Liar Game. And if I had asked to meet your father, you would have known something was up."

"So the only solution was to get me to ask you on my father's behalf?"

"Exactly. I thought, if he asked if there was anyone for you to rely upon, that there was a chance you'd bring me over as an example."

They arrive at Nao's apartment, but the last thing she wants right now is for Akiyama to leave her last question unanswered.

"I guess...I guess I should thank you for coming with me, but I didn't think you would exaggerate so much. When you talked to my father...it really sounded like we were ... you know..." The door is not even six-inches away from her. She could run and hide right now. "He thought we were boyfriend and girlfriend."

She turns toward the door and concentrates too hard on figuring out how to open the lock. Keys can be complicated when used to avoid eye-contact with a certain someone.

"I didn't exaggerate."

Nao snaps back around to look at him. The Akiyama who looks back at her isn't the suave Akiyama who can out-think anything in his path. She only sees him like this at the end of the rounds, when the stress of battle strips away his careful face.

"Akiyama-san."

"I'll protect you for as long as you allow it."

It takes Nao a few seconds, in which Akiyama just stares at her, before she hears what he's really saying.

"For as long as I allow it? Even after all this is over?"

Akiyama shrugs. "If you needed it."

That's not quite the answer Nao is looking for, but then, that's not quite what she heard from Akiyama either. "What if I didn't need the protection? What if I just wanted you around?"

"Nao, I meant what I said."

"What if..." Nao chokes up, because she hasn't been completely straightforward. "I mean...I like you, Akiyama-san. Don't think I'll let you go that easily."

"Hmmph." A small smile plays across his face, and Nao wonders if that hadn't been the actual trap he set for her.

She turns to unlocks the door, for real this time, but doesn't actually try and open it just yet. "You're horrible." She can't believe she fell for that, even after all that's happened. A fierce blush rises in her face. "I guess, I'll see you when the next round comes out." A hand touches her shoulder, a momentary brush, but unmistakable in the way it makes her stomach flutter.

"Or," Akiyama says when she turns around to face him, "I can take you somewhere this Sunday, if you're not doing anything."

"Sunday sounds good." Nao opens the door. "Do you want tea or anything before you head out?"

Akiyama shakes his head. "I need to be in early tomorrow. I'll call you later and we can talk about plans then."

Nao keeps watching him as he descends the stairs, his back retreating into the autumn evening. The air is cool, but she hardly notices with the warm glow she feels inside. When she thinks about what happens, a huge grin spreads across her face.