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“Can I be honest with you?”

“Of course you can.”

“I think you need a break.”

“This again?”

It wasn’t a problem, per se, but Akira had been saying that for the last couple of months now. Always telling Makoto she needed a break, always telling her she needed to take a step back and relax, because overdoing it wasn’t going to do her any good. In all those weeks, her mind hadn’t changed, but every time he said it, he tended to chip away a just another piece of her resolve. Every time she heard it, she wondered, for just a little longer, whether he was actually right.

He was watching her from across the table now; she could feel his eyes burning into her. The others had long since headed home, but some combination of her needing a quiet space to gather her thoughts and notes and him wanting to see her past the usual meeting time had kept her here in the attic. Studying. Thinking. Planning. She didn’t have it in her not to do any of that, especially when elections were coming up so soon. But she could only twirl her pencil and stare at her notes for so long before he caught her wrist to stop her. Maybe it was the only way he could get her to look at him.

Akira held her hand almost at long as he held her gaze, lowered it to the table and nodded toward her notes. “Something’s bothering you,” he said, too matter-of-fact for her to really argue, though frankly she didn’t want to. “It’s kind of funny. The more stressed you are, the neater you write.”

Makoto hadn’t even noticed that. “Nothing escapes you,” she hummed, hoping the weak laugh that followed would lighten the mood. It didn’t.

He probably could have coaxed her to close her notebooks, but he didn’t. He probably could have busied himself with collecting the empty coffee cups between them, but he didn’t do that either. Instead, he asked, “Is this because of what happened last month?”

Makoto didn’t say anything, but her blood ran cold. Last month—the infiltration of Sae’s Palace, the fight with that monster who was definitely not her sister, the arrest, the interrogation, the almost-suicide, the drugs, the bruises—was too fresh of a wound to bring up often. She didn’t know whether to nod or to shake her head for his comfort. Didn’t know whether to tell him about the nightmares she’d had since that night, how even trying to give them words made them too horrible to bear. How even gunfire on TV made her jump and hold herself for a few extra seconds and how, for the first few days after the interrogation, merely looking at him made her want to cry for everything he’d endured.

So she kept still, and Akira whispered an apology. He didn’t say he’d told her so. He didn’t say that this was what he meant. He only held her hand, and dragged his thumb across her knuckles, and asked if she would help him clear the table.

He must have known it from the start: helping was therapeutic for her.

Together they set cups and saucers aside, and he gave her the task to bring them downstairs while he broke down the table. He must have known that from the start, too, that she needed some space before she could entertain anything else. At this point, and with his insight, he had to know. She came back up after a quiet exchange with Sojiro and his insistence that he’d run this shop long enough and could handle washing a couple of dishes, and when she did, Akira was sitting at his worktable. He had a lit candle in his hand, one of those aromatherapy ones from the Underground Mall, and he motioned across from him toward the bed.

“Take a seat,” he said. Soothing and perceptive, all at once. Just as she might expect.

“What for?”

“We deserve some alone time together. Especially after…” He trailed off then, shook his head, held out his hand. “Come closer. I have a couple of movies we can watch.”

Almost mechanically, Makoto crossed the room and took it, and Akira led her to the foot of the bed. Only then did he busy himself with the TV, and put on a movie he must have rented ages ago. He made no mention of whether he could return it, or whether she wanted him to in his stead; instead he took a seat beside her, kicked off his shoes and waiting for her to follow suit, and scooted back to get comfortable.

She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen this movie before—she hadn’t seen a lot of movies Akira liked, and perhaps that was why he was so enthusiastic about watching them with her—but she found it hard to focus on all the same. He was right; they hadn’t spend a lot of alone time together recently, and maybe that was the reason she felt so on edge. But she couldn’t help it. What good was it to sit here when so much was at stake? Shouldn’t they be talking, at least? Shouldn’t they be figuring out what to do next, or even filling their time with trips to Mementos? Didn’t he want to—

“You’re thinking too much again,” Akira pointed out, soft words that made her sit up even straighter than she already was. He didn’t laugh, and he didn’t sigh. He only moved to sit behind her, with one leg bent in and the other dangling over the edge of the bed. Coaxed her headband off and set it on the windowsill and threaded his fingers through her hair more than once, which was enough to make her shiver.

“What is this for?” she asked, itching to deflect and knowing that he’d stop her anyway.

“Because you need this,” he murmured against the back of her head. “Not just because you need this, but because you deserve this. You’re allowed to have this.”

“What about you?”

“You’ve taken care of me enough times.” Akira pulled her a little further back, a little closer to him. “It’s my turn now.”

There was little room for Makoto to argue then, too—mostly because before she could speak, his hands were scaling the length of her back, a growing pressure with each pass. He took his time, and paused to squeeze her shoulders every so often, and it didn’t take long for her to bow her head and for her eyes to flutter shut. He probably wasn’t trained in it, judging by his technique, but he was trying, and it was soothing, and it was the gesture itself that counted besides. Especially when his thumbs pressed slow, purposeful circles on either side of her spine, and she let out an undignified noise that made her clap her hand to her mouth, burning from the base of her neck to the tips of her ears.

“Sorry,” she stammered.

That was when Akira laughed, and it was more musical than the cheesy montage on the TV. “That good, huh?” He hugged her close for a fleeting moment. “What are you thinking about now?”

A part of her felt guilty that as much as she should have said it, Masayoshi Shido had retreated to the back of her mind, along with all their plans and the elections and the upcoming Change of Heart. Another part of her felt guilty that she was caught between thinking about Akira’s well-being, and not wanting him to stop. “Your hands,” she finally said. “They’re comforting.”

“Feels nice?”

“Mm.”

Makoto didn’t need to turn around to know Akira was beaming, and he probably wouldn’t have let her besides. “Good,” he said with a kiss to her cheek, and he returned to his work. He didn’t mind whatever sounds she made—he probably reveled in them, no matter how many times she apologized. And every pass and squeeze of his hands drew her in a little further, away from the world around them, away from the background drone of the movie and the flicker of the candle and the noises of the night outside. At least, until he tugged uncertainly at the halter strap of her vest, fingers dancing toward one of the latches, and asked, “Could I…?”

And then Makoto was all too aware that they were alone, in his bedroom, in a questionable position, with Sojiro and a few other customers downstairs, and that all of their friends must have known or suspected what was going to happen after they left. And that she didn’t care. She didn’t care. His hands were on her, and she felt boneless, and there was a movie on that she didn’t know a damn thing about, start to finish, and she didn’t care. With a thick swallow, she nodded, and Akira took all the caution in the word to unfasten the vest and place it aside. She was pretty sure it was the first time either of them had done something like this, outside of tending to one another’s wounds after battle, and it felt far more intimate than that. Like they were lovers, really lovers, instead of just partners.

She so badly wanted to turn and repay him for all he’d done, but he was still far too focused on working at her muscles, alternating between thumbs and fists and the flats of his palms, and she didn’t dare interrupt him. Not when his hands slid so smoothly over her shoulders, not when every once in a while his fingers caught accidentally on the waistband of her skirt and he apologized for it when he didn’t need to. Not when it didn’t take him very long to find every knot in her spine that begged to be undone, when she sighed in relief and he laughed and said something about needing to do this more often. “I owe you for this,” she breathed. The words dragged and caught in her throat and made her sound entirely unrefined.

“No, you don’t,” he whispered, and only allowed her enough time to say it one more time, Yes, I do, before he tipped her head back and insisted, No, you don’t, and pressed his mouth to hers, swallowing any more protest. He smiled against her lips, and caught one of them between her teeth, and that made her shiver more than any touch of his hands ever had or could. “You saved my life,” he said with his hand on the line of her jaw. “Nothing I could ever do would match that.”

It took a couple of blinks for Makoto to snap out of her own haze. “You saved my life, too,” she said. “In August.”

“That’s different,” he said. “That’s different,” and the way his fingers started to tremble told her not to push it. She settled for sinking into his lap and comforting him with a kiss to the inside of his wrist and his arms found a home around her waist.

She deserved this, she told herself as his chin rested on her shoulder. She was allowed to have this.

Somewhere just before the credits rolled, just before Akira got up to exchange one movie for another—though they had no idea what had happened in the first one, and honestly didn’t care—his hand traced the dip in her back again. Up, up, until he was toying with the zipper on the back of her turtleneck. Without any ceremony or hesitation, he gave the zipper a pull. Down, down, until it sat squarely below the base of her neck. She gasped twice: once, barely audible, at the faint draw of fabric around her throat, and once, soft but sharp, at the feeling of his mouth on her skin. She squirmed, but not to resist, and he held her tighter and brushed her hair aside, let his fingers tickle her at the hollow of her throat. He must have felt the chills and goosebumps there, must have wanted to warm them himself, because he didn’t let up for a while, and he made it a point to pull back with a pop every time. And when he decided he’d given her enough—which, by her standards, was far from it—he pulled the zipper, up, up, and tucked each kiss under her clothes again.

“There,” he said, a hum just behind her ear that she swore would be the end of her. “With you wherever you go.”