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The Nature of Hearts and Homes

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The sun barely peeks in through the veranda doors when Maki wakes up feeling too hot.

He knows spring hasn’t quite given up the ghost to summer yet. He shouldn’t be feeling the slow trickle of sweat down his temples. Maki throws off his blanket. When that does little to improve things, he opens one sleepy eye to look around. It takes him a few seconds to process that he isn’t in his shoe-box of an apartment.

His groggy thoughts come together at a snail's pace as he looks around. He finds the clutter of dirty clothes on the floor and the various Zoids toys on the bedside table. This is Haruta’s room and Maki is laying in his bed. Against his back, Haruta twitches in his sleep. At some point in the night he spooned himself there.

Maki, as careful as he can, turns to look at him. Haruta’s hair is sticking up in a various directions. His bangs remain plastered to his sweat covered forehead, though. Haruta's brows are drawn together and his cheeks are flushed red. Maki doesn’t bother reaching his hand out; he is close enough to feel the fever heat rolling off his body.

As he slides gets out of the bed, Maki reflects that he has never seen Haruta sick. Drunk and hungover, yes, but not sick. If Maki had to make a guess, he’d say it’s the stress finally catching up to him. Almost marrying someone you don't love is bound to cause havoc on the mind and body. Not to mention all the panicked running around Haruta did yesterday. Stress management and Haruta Souichi are words that barely belong in the same sentence.

It was only a matter of time before it all caught up to him, Maki thinks in a mix of guilt and sympathy. If he hadn't buried his head in the sand, too concerned with his own heart break, he might have been able to do something. He could have shouldered even a little bit of the burden Haruta was carrying at the time.

Maki tries to remind himself that he's here now to help in anyway he can. First things first, getting Haruta better.

As if sensing Maki's thoughts were on him, Haruta's croaking whine sounds from the bed.

“It’s so hot, Maki.” He looks up at Maki out of one open eye and pleads, “help me!”

Maki has always felt particularly affectionate towards the just-awakened Haruta. The first time he’d seen Haruta like that had been the morning after he moved in. Haruta had stumbled through the house, mussed hair and all, bumping into things until he made it sofa. That had shaken something loose inside of Maki.

It’s no different now. The sight of Haruta, not quite awake, is just one of those things that make his hands itch to touch. To brush away the hair from his eyes. To touch his sleep-swollen, fever-red cheeks. Even his dry lips. Maki is almost tempted to lean down and kiss Haruta now. He settles for sliding his fingers under his bangs and pushing them back from off his damp forehead.

His blunt nails scrape gently against Haruta’s hot scalp and, almost cat-like, his open eye closes to a thin slit. He feels even more affectionate towards this sleepy, flushed man before him.

“You have a fever.” Maki isn’t sure why he’s whispering. Something about this moment calls for soft reverence. “Do you want to try taking a shower?”

Haruta groans and pushes his head against Maki’s hand. For a few minutes, there’s only Maki’s fingers scrubbing through his hair and silence. All the while Haruta’s one dark eye never wavers from Maki’s face. It’s difficult for Maki to tear himself away but he does.

He goes through Haruta’s disorganized closet until he picks out everything he needs. A pair of sweats. A thin t-shirt. Clean underwear. When he makes it back to Haruta’s side, his eyes have shut in sleep again. He puts his hand over Haruta’s forehead.

“Haruta-san, wake up.” His command is soft. When Maki takes his hand back, Haruta’s eyes remain shut.

Amused, Maki shakes his head. He kneels down on the bed beside Haruta and speaks in a whisper in his ear. “If you don’t want to get up, I'll sponge bathe you.”

He’s half joking when he makes the threat. He doesn't want this to seem like he's trying to cross the invisible lines drawn between them.

What Maki isn’t expecting is for Haruta to crack open his eyes and croak out, “Okay.”

Five minutes later, Maki sets the half-filled washbowl on a towel on the floor. He has two extra towels folded beside him as well as the clothes he picked out earlier. The only thing left for him to do is help undress Haruta.

He's seen Haruta naked the one time in the shower. After that, he'd often walk around the house shirtless. If Maki is totally honest, in the more primal parts of his mind, he has undressed Haruta countless times. In these fantasies, he’s always slow, taking his time with his touches. He’d ghost his fingers down over firm muscles, the knobs of Haruta’s hip bones, and ever lower.

Undressing Haruta now is nothing at all like that. He keeps his movements purposeful, his touches almost clinical. Haruta's weak attempts at helping also keep the atmosphere void of any sensuality. He has to fight against Haruta's uncoordinated, octopus like limbs. It sets Maki's teeth on edge. The final result ends with Haruta's sweats and underwear tangled around his ankles.

"This will go a lot faster if you don't move," Maki grunts, removing the offending bits of clothing at last. Irritation pricks at his skin like tiny needles. He then tucks a towel under Haruta's head and sits back on his knees, wiping his own sweaty brow.

Haruta's cheeks are even redder. It spreads to his ears, down his neck and chest. His dark nipples are hard in the cool morning air. Maybe Maki's body isn't completely turned off to the situation. A jagged throb of want burns low in his stomach. He looks away as he sets the clothes aside.

"I was trying to help," Haruta says. There's a familiar petulance in his voice that makes Maki smile; somehow it soothes his earlier annoyance.

"I know," Maki replies, his own tone sweetening a little. "Thank you." He takes the sponge from out of the cool water and wrings it out. "Ready? It might be cold."

Haruta nods.

Maki starts with his face. Haruta hisses at the first press of the sponge but doesn't fight against it. Maki keeps his touches gentle but thorough. He wipes the sweat from Haruta's forehead and temples. In careful downward motions, Maki sponges over his chin, along the column of his neck. When he finishes, Maki pats the wet areas dry and moves on.

His thoughts never stray from his task; he keeps his eyes on his work. All the while, he feels Haruta's gaze follow him until he reaches his hands. As Maki cleans between each finger, he glances up and finds that Haruta's eyes have fallen closed.

Maki smiles to himself. He dips the sponge in the water and wrings it out. Lost in the daze of bathing and wiping, Maki works his way down Haruta's chest, over his abdomen, and across his hips.

The quiet moan in the silence between them catches Maki off guard. The hand that was making perfunctory swipes with the sponge down Haruta's toned thigh freezes. Maki's eyes shoot up to Haruta's face which he has half hidden behind an arm thrown over his eyes.

"Sorry," Haruta's voice is quiet, embarrassed. The word comes out strained, like he forced out of his throat.

Before he can really think about it, Maki's eyes move down the line of Haruta's body. They settle on the thick, black hair between his legs. He's half-hard.

The sight surprises Maki. It's not like he hasn't seen his fair share of dicks over his life. There is something about the shape of Haruta’s, the not quite full thickness of it, and what it represents. Maki’s brain short circuits for a moment.

He has never attempted to hide his sexual attraction to or from Haruta. Maki does his best to live as honestly as he can. It never occurred to him that Haruta would reciprocate those feelings, though.

Maki never let himself think that Haruta could want him back. The question, if Haruta found him attractive like that, didn't cross Maki's mind. Staring at the proof takes his breath away.

He swallows down the thoughts that have him wanting to taste and touch, saving them for another time. He grabs the extra towel at his side and throws it over Haruta’s lap.

"It's fine. I have one too just, you know. Bigger," Maki's voice is thick but he tries to keep his tone light. "Should I keep going?"

Haruta nods and Maki finishes the sponge bath in silence. Once Haruta is thoroughly dry, Maki helps him into his clean underwear and sweats. The process goes a lot smoother with Haruta cowed by his own embarrassment. Maki works the t-shirt over his head and puts his arms through the appropriate holes. When everything is in place, and Maki makes to move away, but Haruta reaches out for him.

"I love you. I really love you," Haruta says, hugging Maki around the waist. He lets loose a shuddering breath when Maki's hand cards through his hair. Haruta looks up at him with eyes that aren't only fever-bright, but are wet with tears as well. "Don't leave me."

Maki is used to the childish whining and petulant pouting that often colors Haruta’s voice. It’s this desperate pleading tone that twists at Maki’s guts. It sends him reeling back to the night he broke up with Haruta and that is an awful feeling. The guilt for leaving is like an oil spill inside of him; there isn’t a part of him that isn’t blackened by it.

"I love you too,” Maki replies, surprised by how easy the words leave his mouth. It occurs to him that he never said them back after Haruta first shouted them on the bridge yesterday. They feel right, natural, and he says them again. “I love you and I won't leave you." He bends at the waist to kiss the top of Haruta’s head.

He'll say the words as much as he needs to. Maki will do whatever it takes so that the wretched voice from before never comes out of Haruta's mouth again.

Haruta lets him go long enough for them to arrange themselves in the cramped bed again. Maki lays on his side with Haruta curled against his chest. Their fingers lace together between them. It still thrills him that he gets to lay like this with Haruta.

Maki leans forward a few inches and press his mouth to Haruta's forehead. His temperature is still high but he isn't burning up the way he was earlier. "Are you feeling any better?" He keeps his mouth pressed against Haruta's skin when asks the question.

"Not really," Haruta mumbles, sounding miserable. "I'm sorry you have to take care of me like this."

"No, you aren't," Maki replies. He isn't saying it to start a fight or to point out a fault. It's a simple fact that Haruta likes being taken care of. To make him feel better though, Maki spills one of his own secrets. "I like taking care of Haruta-san. It's what you do when you love someone."

Haruta looks up at him but his eyes are glazed over. "I almost lost you, Maki."

Though the words are whisper soft, his chest begins to heave. As Haruta continues to talk, his breath catches between his words. "I nearly married him. We stood at the altar and we were almost married—he called it off, but—” Haruta’s voice breaks. “I could have lost you."

His voice cracks as tears pool in the corners of his eyes. When Haruta reaches to hug Maki, his arms tremble. Maki, stunned, can only wrap his own arms around Haruta’s shaking shoulders. It takes him a moment to process what all this is: his rushed words, the rapid breathing, and the trembling his limbs. He’s having a panic attack. Maki had an ex from high school that experienced them and he tries to recall the things that helped.

“I’m here now,” Maki says. His tone is reassuring all the while his heart breaks listening to the soft, distressed noises Haruta makes against his chest. “You have me now. It’s okay; you’re okay.”

“It's not okay," Haruta cries, "I was scared of him and I was scared of being alone, and I let that influence me. I couldn't do it in the end, but what kind of person does that make me, Maki?"

His breathing spikes erratically again. Maki bites back every polemic word he wants to say about their boss to focus on calming Haruta down. Maki kisses Haruta's forehead, knowing that sometimes physical touch helps.

"Listen to me," he says, "take a deep breath." Maki demonstrates by holding his own for about five seconds, and then releasing it in a slow and even pace. He waits patiently for Haruta to follow along before he continues speaking.

"You're a good person, Haruta-san," Maki replies with sincerity. "You have a good heart and that's why I fell in love with you, did you know that?"

He knows that in a panic attack, things are often hard to rationalize so he doesn't try to make a point with Haruta. Maki wants to divert his thoughts away from whatever is making him feel anxious and threatened. He goes with a question that could pique Haruta's interest, something that can focus him on the here and now.

When Haruta shifts against him, giving his attention to Maki, Maki elaborates.

"It was probably when you made the client booklet for me." Maki smiles as he thinks back on it. The time and effort Haruta didn't have to put into it, but did. For him. The notes and stick figure drawings still fill him with happiness. "I already liked you because of various reasons. How nice you were to everyone when we did the neighborhood tour. How hard you work. You’re sincere and kind. When you made that booklet for me... It made me really happy and I think that was when I fell in love with you. I still have it. Is that stupid?"

There's no response and Maki looks down at where Haruta's head is resting on his chest. His eyes are shut, the lines of his face smoothed out, and the white-knuckle grip he had on Maki's shirt has loosened.

Maki kisses Haruta’s forehead once more. With nothing better to do, he closes his eyes and lays in this little nest of blankets and limbs.

 

 

Waking a few hours later is like swimming out of the depths of a warm, fuzzy cocoon. He struggles to surface at first, but after a few false starts, he manages to wake himself up. Maki, when he cracks his eyes open, feels sleep drunk and groggy. Haruta still bodily clings to him and Maki is almost tempted to stay in bed with him. He’s surrounded by all things Haruta Souchi. Maki even smells like him.

Maki resists the siren as his full bladder and growling stomach urge him to get out of the bed. He wiggles out of Haruta's loose embrace and slips out from under the covers. Maki stretches, working out the kink in his shoulder from the awkward sleeping position. When he's satisfied with the dull twinge, he checks Haruta's temperature with the back of his hand.

He's still feverish.

Giving Haruta's forehead a last kiss, Maki begins picking up the detritus from the sponge bath. As he carries it all downstairs, he wonders if there are any more fever patches in the kitchen. He makes a mental note to check the basket in the dining room after he's cleaned up.

Maki puts the basin and sponge back in their proper places in the bathroom. He hangs the towel up on the rack as well before heading to the toilet to relieve himself. When he finishes, he makes a beeline for his suitcase to get a change of fresh clothes. Walking back to the bathroom, he makes another note to himself to unpack.

This isn't some hotel room; it definitely isn’t his tiny apartment—which he’ll have to cancel the contract for. No, this house is his home.

Maki lets that thought bloom in his mind, in his heart, and take root in his bones. He showers and afterwards, brushes his teeth. Seeing Haruta's toothbrush standing alone on the shelf beside the mirror, Maki puts his own beside it. These simple ceremonials make him feel even more at home.

It doesn't last long.

Walking into the kitchen from the laundry room, scrubbing at his hair with a towel, Maki stops cold when he sees the fridge. Decorating the silver doors are three heart-shaped magnetic picture frames. He wants to look away as fast as he can but his eyes are drawn to the images. Inside each of them are snapshots of Haruta. Their boss appears only in a handful of the pictures.

Maki looks at Haruta, frozen in time, in a dozen or so images. In each one there is an uneasy smile stretching across his face. There's something in his dark eyes that makes Maki ache. It also causes a lightning strike of anger to course beneath his skin. Maybe it was all those nights Maki watched Haruta stress over the crush Chief had on him. Or maybe it was the total disregard their boss had for how uncomfortable his feelings made Haruta.

The longer he looks at the photos, the tighter his skin feels. It stretches too thin over his bones in a slow and tortuous way. In his ears is the thunderous beat of his heart.

Maki reaches for the frames before he can really think about what he's doing. He snatches them off the fridge doors and chunks them in the trash bin. Like a man possessed, Maki moves around the kitchen and dining room throwing things away. Bridal and wedding magazines with bookmarked pages. The home decorating magazines. There are still wedding papier-mâché placards and garish hand-made hearts spread out on the table. Maki crushes them like petals in his fists before he bins them immediately.

Even the living room doesn't escape his purview. The frilly, hideous pillows and bears decorating the living room couch Maki packs away with malice into trash bags. He thinks about shredding them with his hands, ripping the limbs off the bears one at a time, but he manages to reign his temper in and stop himself.

Tying the bag closed is its own type of catharsis. His limbs no longer feel wire-strung and his heart is back to its regular rhythm. It's like all the heavy, black anger has been excised from inside of him. Packed away in a semi-translucent trash bag.

He puts it on a shelf in the laundry room above the washing machine. Out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind for Haruta. When Maki walks back into the kitchen, he remembers the fever patches in the basket. He grabs the last one in the box and then checks the fridge. Maki takes stock of the contents, makes a list in his head of what to grab at the store, and takes the lone Pocari sitting in the door.

With the anger out of his system, he feels like he can finally take the stairs back up to Haruta's room.

He's still sleeping when Maki enters the room. Haruta kicked the covers off the bed at some point, spreading his limbs wide across the bed. Human shaped starfish comes to mind. Maki smiles down at him, setting the drink on the bedside table. He puts it in a space not occupied by Zoids figures so it's within Haruta's reach.

Maki kneels beside the bed. Lifting Haruta's bangs off his forehead, he applies the patch in a single, smooth motion. Haruta makes single, unintelligible noise in his sleep but, otherwise, doesn't stir.

For a few moments, Maki watches him, his heart full of love and tenderness. Unable to help himself, he kisses Haruta's cheek before he gets up.

When he gets down stairs, Maki steps down into the entrance and slides his shoes on. There's a bear-shaped key holder on the table to his left and he slips the house key from its lap and into his pocket. The last thing Maki expects to see when he opens the front door is his boss standing on the other side.

Chief Kurosawa's fingers hover over the bell button. He looks as surprised as Maki feels. His expression transforms into a genial smile after a beat of tense silence but Maki doesn't buy it. The sweater-vest and pressed khaki slacks give off the impression of a well meaning grandfather. Under that placid face is an undercurrent of creep rolling off the old man that raises Maki's hackles.

"Ah, Maki-kun," Chief says, polite and fake all at once. "Good afternoon."

This isn't the office. This isn't a company get together. Maki doesn't bother with disingenuous pleasantries or politeness.

"What do you want?" His tone is biting. When the chief flinches, something dark inside of Maki smiles.

"I came to see how Haru-tan is feeling after yesterday." He tries to peer over Maki's shoulder as he speaks. "He was upset when he left the church and I thought I would stop by to see if he was doing okay today." There's a smugness in his voice, especially when the word church rolls out of his mouth, that sets Maki's teeth on edge.

It occurs to him that Chief Kurosawa hadn't expected him to be in the house, let alone to be the one to open the door. This realization amuses Maki in the same way a cat is amused by a panicked mouse. Suddenly, his day seems so much brighter. It even soothes some of the anger licking up his spine like wildfire. He feels more calm, especially compared to their heated rooftop face off last year.

"He's resting. We had a long night and morning." Maki replies. He keeps his words casual, seeing no point in adding the superficial self-satisfied tone the old man used. He lets the fact that he's the one standing in Haruta's house--their house, where Haruta is currently sleeping, speak for itself.

Chief Kurosawa crumples, something sad and bitter flashing across his face. Maki has no sympathy for him. He does have something else for him, though. This unexpected crossing of paths actually solves a few issues, the first being the trash bag with the stuffed animals and pillows in it.

"I cleaned up a bit and found some things that I think belong to you. I can go grab them for you." Maki says. He sounds like someone offering a favor.

He watches Chief Kurosawa's internal debate play out across his wrinkled face. His eyes darken, like he wants to say something, but the a definite twist of defeat on his thin lips as he only nods says volumes.

Maki shuts the door in his face. He takes his time slipping his shoes back so he can walk in his sock covered feet to the laundry room. He's almost tempted to take all the wedding magazines from out of the trash bin, but Maki thinks his point has already been made. Chief Kurosawa has no place here anymore and never will.

He goes back to the entrance, sliding his shoes back on, before opening the door. The old man is still there.

Maki holds the bag out before him. "If you don't want them back, I can put them out with the burnables." He can't help his catty tone.

Chief Kurosawa reaches for the bag but Maki keeps a firm grip on it. Catching the Chief's eyes, Maki stares him down.

"This is the last tie you have to him. You don't get to use your position as his boss to inappropriately force your way into his life anymore." Maki says.

The expression on Chief Kurosawa's face is stiff, complicated. Here is a man respected in his business life made speechless by a subordinate and former love rival. For a fleeting moment, Maki pities him. He can't help but wonder what it must be like for the man before him.

A man who divorced his wife for someone who wasn't in love with him. A man who even went so far as to stand at the altar only for everything to crumble down around him.

Maki's pity for Chief Kurosawa doesn't hold up under the memory of Haruta's haunted eyes when he found Maki on the bridge.

He continues, picking his words carefully, like daggers. Maki says, "From today, he's your subordinate and nothing more. I don't own Haruta-san, and he's an adult who can make his own decisions. If he approaches you at work, that's all him. You though, you have duty as his superior to keep his best interest in mind. He's a productive team member in the company and you have a responsibility to him.”

What goes unspoken is this: there is no place for you in his heart. There is no place for you here in this house.

Scrutinizing the Chief's face, Maki sees the precise moment each of his words hit their mark. Chief's Kurosawa's face wrinkles further. His shoulders, once proudly squared, slump. In a matter of seconds, he looks older than when he arrived.

"I understand," he finally concedes. His jaw works a few times before he continues, "I hope you two are very happy."

Maki lets go of the bag. He locks the door behind him. When he turns around, Maki gives Chief Kurosawa a polite nod. He tucks the house keys in his pants pocket and starts off in the direction of the little grocery store a few blocks away.

As he walks, a wave relief and freedom washes over him. Maki can't be sure that Chief Kurosawa will change his ways, old dogs and new tricks, but the simple fact that he made his stand and said his piece elates him. Maki will say and do anything for Haruta.

Maki takes in a deep breath of the late, afternoon spring air. The neighborhood is a little more active on Saturdays and, as he makes his way to the store, he's greeted by familiar faces. It feels good to be back in this little community. Even while he shops, he's met with genial smiles and polite bows.

On his way back home, he thinks about what it would be like to walk with Haruta, hand in hand the way other couples in the neighborhood do. They are, if Haruta’s screams about wanting to get married are to be believed, something like fiances now. To hug him or even kiss him on the bridge while people walk by would be normal. Maki doesn't wonder about the reactions from anyone else, he just ponders about Haruta. If he would shove Maki away in embarrassment or embrace him proudly.

Remembering the kiss they shared on the bridge last night is answer enough for him.

When he gets back home, Maki checks on Haruta. He's still sleeping, this time in his usual position: on his stomach with one leg drawn up. The only thing that's changed is that at some point he drank the Pocari. Maki takes the empty bottle and leaves him to rest. He heads down to the kitchen to make an early dinner with the ingredients he bought at the store.

Knowing Haruta prefers rice dishes and savory flavors, Maki makes a simple miso soup. He adds the rice to it, letting it soak in the broth. Once it's ready, he ladles out two servings—one for Haruta, and one for himself, into the bowls waiting on the counter. Maki adds a poached egg to each soup and then places them on the serving tray, covering them with their proper lids so the contents stay warm. Along with the food and necessary utensils, he adds a few more things. Two cups of hot ginger tea, a bottled supplement drink, and two over the counter tablets for Haruta take.

Carefully, Maki carries the tray up the stairs to Haruta's room. He sets it down on the little table in the middle of the room before going over to wake Haruta. It takes a few minutes of Maki shaking his shoulder and calling his name before he sits up. Haruta looks up at Maki with sleepy-eyed confusion.

"You need to eat something, Haruta-san," Maki says, nodding to the food on the table. "You've slept most of the day away. Are you feeling any better?" His fingers can't help but brush the lank hair out of Haruta's face.

A beat of silence passes between them before Haruta replies, "I think so. I guess I just needed some sleep." He yawns and stretches. Maki observes all of this and notes he does look a lot better. "I want to be sick all of the time."

Maki stares at him, wondering if maybe the fever damaged some brain cells. "Why?" He asks slowly.

"You're so much nicer to me when I'm sick," Haruta responds, like it's an obvious thing.

"What are you saying?" Maki thumps him on his forehead where the fever patch still sits. "I'm always nice to you."

"Maki," Haruta whines and Maki fights not to smile at the pout pulling at his lips. When Haruta's stomach growls, they both end up smiling at each other though.

"Come eat," Maki tells him, moving off the bed and to the table. He kneels down opposite the side with the cushion seat, leaving it for Haruta. He takes each item off the tray, putting them on the table, before setting it on the floor.

When Haruta takes his place across from him, Maki takes the lids off the bowls and puts them on the tray. He passes Haruta a spoon and a set of chopsticks toward him. Waiting for him to dig in first, Maki unconsciously holds his breath until Haruta makes his first appreciative noise.

He didn't realize how much he missed making and sharing meals with Haruta until he looks up. Haruta, lips glistening with soup, and smiles around his mouthful of egg and rice. Maki ducks his head, hiding his happiness by eating from his own bowl.

"I really missed you," Haruta says once he's swallowed.

Maki feels his eyes on him but he doesn't look up. "I think you're just hungry."

"No," Haruta replies. From under his lashes, Maki watches him jab his egg covered chopsticks in his direction. "I missed you. Welcome home."

Maki looks up then, oddly touched by the sincerity in his tone. Will there ever be a day Haruta doesn't surprise him? "I-I'm home," he replies, a little unsteady.

Satisfied with the response, Haruta smiles and goes back to eating. Maki takes a few more bites out of his bowl. He debates with himself about how to bring up their boss dropping by earlier. He waffles between waiting until tomorrow, but he doesn't want to start their just rekindled relationship off on the wrong foot.

With his heart in his throat, Maki bites the bullet.

"Chief Kurosawa came by while you were sleeping," he starts but as soon as the words leave his mouth Haruta chokes. He coughs a few times, pounding at his chest, and then he knocks back the cup of tea to help his food go down. When the dramatics are over, Maki continues. "He was surprised I was here."

Haruta wipes his mouth. He eyes Maki like someone would an ax murderer. "What happened?"

"We're eating him," Maki deadpans, slurping a spoonful of miso and rice into his mouth. He watches Haruta's face shift into a rictus of disgust and horror. It's what he deserves. Eventually, Maki answers honestly. "I told him it was in your best interest to keep his relationship with you strictly professional. It's not fair to you."

The look on Haruta's face is complicated. "Maki—"

Maki rushes to say, "I don't want you to think I'm trying to control you, because I'm not. You are your own person, Haruta-san. If you want be his friend, that's up to you. I just don't want to see you go through another a panic attack again because of him." Losing steam, Maki licks his lips and finishes, "I think you deserve better than that, Haruta-san."

They eat to fill the silence. Maki wants to shove all the words back in his mouth; they would taste better than the ash sliding down his throat now. He glances at Haruta a few times throughout the meal but never manages to catch his attention. His eyes remain hidden behind the dark curtain of his bangs.

Haruta finishes eating first. When he looks up at Maki, he wears that same serious and mature look from last night. It throws Maki off beat a little. The expression scares him because it's so new, but he also finds oddly attractive.

After a moment of silent contemplation and staring, Haruta asks, "What if he fires you? Did you consider that at all?"

Anger and a strange twist of embarrassment boils under Maki's skin. He tries to keep it in check when he replies but, when he talks, his words are like matchsticks lighting the oil in his veins. "He fires me and I find a new job. It would be worth it just to make sure you're not put through all of that damn mess again."

Maki looks at Haruta, tries to convey with a look all the love he feels for him. "What do you want me to say? Sorry? Sorry that I want to protect you because I love you? I'm not doing it."

He sounds petulant and childish by the end but Haruta says nothing. Maki glares at him across the table.

"You’re that serious about me, huh?" Haruta speaks eventually. He leans across the table until his face is inches from Maki's. "I’m not asking you to do that, I get it. I'm just worried about my kouhai, and my fiancé." His breath is warm and smells like the savory dinner, but Maki finds he doesn't mind. He's caught in the tidal pool of Haruta's dark eyes.

The low, teasing tone is an ice cold wave crashing into the forest fire of Maki's anger. It leaves him feeling a devastating sense of spite instead. Being played by Haruta like this rattles the cage of something dark and hungry inside of him.

Maki's hand settles along Haruta's jaw, holding his face. "You have no idea." He kisses Haruta, quick as a viper strike, and smirks when flails about.

He releases Haruta's face and sits back, hoping he looks as self-satisfied as he feels.