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The depths of winter in Prague were warmer than Detroit, but still nipped a little painfully at any exposed natural or synthetic skin as Adam crossed the city center toward Praha Dovos. A particularly deep and unusual chill had fallen this evening, with speculation being that it had been brought on by climate change, and anyone on the streets was dressed in heavy clothes. There weren't many people to begin with, though he saw some in the shops as he passed. The cold snap had sent every living thing scurrying for any semblance of cover and warmth.

It was early in the morning, the sun just rising, turning the sky a blaze of color – mostly gold and pink, but with a deep, blue-tinted gray that told him more snow was incoming. A dry, powdery layer had already fallen over the past few days, and it was unusually deep, gathering into drifts around buildings and needing to be swept off entryways and sidewalks. Where the sun had warmed it before the chill left patches of glare ice that caused the unwary to skid whenever they found it, and he had heard more than one exclamation of surprise during his trek here.

His augs ran warmer than the average person, clocking his average body temperature at over a hundred, which meant he felt the cold more than he would normally and folded his arms tight against his chest. It was such a dry, unpleasant cold that was nothing like the humid air and deep, wet snows of Detroit’s winters.

Naked tree branches rattled when a breeze swept down the street, pouncing right through his coat to bite savagely at the skin and synthetic muscle below. Unpleasant, indeed.

Praha Dovos was dimly lit, too early in the morning to be open proper, so he went into the side corridor and forced open the window. It was warmer inside, flooding his body with much-needed heat; he closed and locked the window behind him, glanced at the gated front door, and continued to the back room. He could hear the ventilation rattling – the heater dutifully churned away, piping air from the little furnace that was just enough to warm this shop. TF29 had its own furnace, a much larger one, that kept the temperature a pleasant, if dry, seventy-two degrees.

He swiped his keycard over the reader and began the rickety descent into the underground. It was Saturday, and all he had to do was wrap up some work, then he could go back home and crawl back into bed. His body felt tired and ached for sleep, and after weeks of feeling as though he’d run at breakneck speed, it was nice to be able to slow down, relax, and sleep most of it off without fear of begin dragged in for no reason.

But as the lift continued down, he realized the air grew colder rather than warmer; it crawled into his bones, making him fold his arms again and squeeze the biceps with both hands.

When the lift finally stopped, he saw his breath faintly in the air, and most of TF29 was dark. There were only supposed to be a couple dozen people here today, either wrapping up like him or working on long projects, and he saw none of them in the central area. The televisions were off, and the ventilation system directed a lazy breath of icy-cold air directly at him, sending a shiver down his spine.

In the dead of winter, the air conditioning was on?

Bemused, Adam stepped away from the lift, the doors snapping shut behind him. Eventually, he realized that most of the agents were in the briefing room, all done up in winter clothes and looking unhappy. When he glanced in the infirmary, he saw Jennifer Phillips working in a puffed jacket and latex gloves, her breath also visible. Being the first friendly face he saw, he decided to try asking her first.

She looked up the instant the door opened. “Oh, hey, Adam,” she said, offering him a smile. “Questions ‘bout the chill?”

“Yeah, actually.” It was a little warmer here, but not by much. “What gives, doc?”

“You’ll love this.” She half-smiled. “Climate control broke.”

He blinked. “You’re kidding.”

“You had the same reaction Miller had, poor man. Took one look in here, and I sent him out because he looked colder than an ice cube in Norway. Lad’s still recoverin’, gotta give him a break, because he won’t take it himself, I tell you. But, aye, we’re all just kind of suckin’ it up until the HVAC guys with the special clearance get here.”

“And... just when is that gonna be?”

Jennifer raised both eyebrows. “Wanna take a wild guess?”

Both of his own eyebrows went down. “I’m guessing I don’t really want to know.”

“Exactly. So, my suggestion is wrap up what you can and get out before you freeze. It’s forty-five degrees near the thermostat, but we all suspect it’s colder. Nobody’s comfortable, but not many of us can leave yet.”

“Who all is here? Do you know?”

“Well...” She tilted her head. “I chased Miller out, Delara’s locked herself in her office... MacReady is here, somewhere. Probably sulking at his desk and complainin’ about the cold.” She tipped her head the other way, bobbed it a moment, and shrugged one shoulder. “I know Smiley’s here, dressed in two lab coats. Aria’s... somewhere. Said she had to wait on somethin’ and went to find someplace warm.”

At the mention of her name, he felt the corner of his mouth quirk, momentarily betraying him. “Alright. Guess I’ll get my papers done and get out before it gets too late.”

“Ah... Adam, actually, can you see if you can find Aria? She won’t leave.”

Noting the concern in her tone, he studied her a moment. “Is there something I should know, doc?”

“There’s a reason I’m askin’.” Jennifer looked him in the eye. “She’s sick.”

Sympathy touched his heart, though he kept his expression neutral. “I see. And I can’t get sick, right? So, you’re gonna make me go get her so I don’t spread it too bad?”

“Exactly that. Can you find her and send her home? I know she’s still here.”

For a moment, he let his mind wander to the now-ex-quartermaster, with her large brown eyes and pretty smile, and felt the familiar twinge of concern. Here, she had been the first person to show him real kindness, and he had developed a sort of friendship with her in turn – quiet, and a little distant still, but he liked her, and knew she liked him, and still didn’t know what to do with that information.

It figured she would come to work even when she was sick. Only if she couldn’t stand up would she stay in bed. He could tell just from her behavior on the day-to-day.

But after a moment, he looked back at the doctor, now seeing the sparkle of knowing mischief in her eyes. “Doctor,” he said, “that is the only reason you want me to go after her, right? No others?”

“No, nah, not at all, Adam.” She smiled a little too widely. “Why say that?”

He raised an eyebrow for a few beats of silence, then lowered it again. “I’ll look,” he assured her. “She probably tried to find somewhere warm.”

“Check with Smiley. I think he was the last person who saw her. She had to talk to him and all.”

“Thanks,” he said, and left the infirmary, crossing the central atrium to Forensics. Not to his surprise, he found Smiley there, piled under three lab coats and a scarf carefully tucked out of the way, still buzzing about as though everything were perfectly normal instead of near-freezing.

“Hey, Adam! Fancy you showing up today! Isn’t the weather fantastic?”

A pause, then, “Weather?”

“You know.” Smiley threw him a slightly unnerving grin. “It’s freezing outside and cold in here! It’s great!”

“Right.” He shook his head. “Have you seen Aria? Doc said you might know where she is.”

The look Smiley gave him held a tinge of suspicion; he tugged his glasses off and scrutinized Adam for a long enough time that he started to feel uncomfortable. If he hadn’t already been cold from the air conditioning, he would have been chilled to the bone by the look Smiley gave him now. He didn’t know Smiley all that well, and knew nothing about his backstory, so whatever the reason for this, it was impossible to be privy to it.

“Why do you want to know, hmm?”

Adam scowled at him. “Phillips said she’s sick and to find her. We need to try to get her to go home before she gets worse.”

“Uh-huh, and is that the whole reason you want–”


The other man closed his mouth mid-sentence and turned his back, waving a hand. “Look, I tried to get her to leave, but she wouldn’t budge, so here we are, okay? I even offered some lab coats to keep her warm, but she didn’t look happy with that and just up and left. Said she was going to start some paperwork and wait it out, and that she was going somewhere warm. The warmest place here is the server room, but she doesn’t have a keycard.”

The server room made sense – all those computers, hard drives, and solid-state drives, crammed together, cranking out heat like it could prevent an ice age. “I’ll check just in case.”

“Adam, she doesn’t–”

“Thanks, Smiley, you’ve been helpful.”

The blond gave him an exasperated glance. “Yeah, sure. Go on, then.”

Barely keeping the annoyed expression off his face, he left Forensics and went upstairs, finding it a little warmer, but not by much, as he ascended. There was more than one way into the server room, after all, and if Aria was half as intelligent as he took her for, she had found the one that used the cramped, decrepit ventilation shafts – something that was supposed to have been boarded up, the shafts replaced with smaller piping and the room-sized gaps filled, but Miller simply hadn’t gotten around to it, and it was an easy enough avenue.

With some difficulty, he navigated scaffolding, having to crawl through on his belly more than once, squeezed through one of the vents, and dropped through the ceiling of the alcove beside the main servers. The increase in temperature was obvious immediately, prickling pleasantly across his skin. It was just high enough for him to crouch-walk across to the far side of the alcove and drop to the floor. Only then did he look around.

Beneath the din of whirring fans, he spotted a shape huddled in the corner, the cart of tools and boxed parts pushed aside to make room. With her arms around her knees and face in her arms, Aria didn’t look anything like the picture of warmth and strength she usually exuded. Her hair was done up in its usual bun, perfectly smooth and without any hairs hanging loose, shining in the soft, blue-white light.

Immediately, he felt the tension in his body fade, and, cold forgotten, he crossed the room to her as lightly as he could and lowered himself to one knee beside her. “Aria? Hey, you awake?”

She lifted her face, and it was pale, her eyes reddish, the circles under them darker than ever. Though it hurt to see her like that, she was still beautiful, her eyes meeting his and that soft smile touching her lips. “Hey, Adam, did Phillips send you after me? She did, didn’t she?”

“She said you were sick and weren't leaving,” he said, keeping his voice soft. It felt blasphemous, somehow, to break the peace below the sounds of the servers.. “Can you move?”

The smile faded. “No.”

His brow knitted. “Too much pain?”

A long pause followed his words before her eyes closed, and her head bowed forward. “It hurts,” she murmured, voice slightly muffled by her arms. “Feels like needles everywhere.”

Only then did he pick up on the roughness in her voice and the hint of congested sinuses. It had been a long time since he had last been seriously ill, but he could still recall what it felt like, and sympathy flooded his heart. He reached out, slowly, his fingers brushing the back of her natural hand, only to find it icy cold to the touch. The moment he realized that, he closed that hand around hers, willing his warmth into her.

“Why didn’t you stay home?” He moved to sit beside her, back against the wall. It was a tight fit, but he knew she wouldn’t mind, though he had to pull his knees close to his chest, his shoulders alone taking up quite a lot of room.

She moved, eliciting a soft squeak of pain, and he tightened his grip. “Stuff to do.”

“Aria, no,” he murmured. “You know better. Go home.”

“Too cold. Hurts too much.” Lifting her head again, she looked at him with groggy eyes. “Besides, I just need to wait for paperwork, and then I can go home. It takes about two hours, and then I have to...” She sniffed, then took a shaky breath, closing her eyes. “I can’t just leave, Adam. I’m sorry.”

“You can,” he persisted, “you’re just being...” The sensation of her hand shaking in his silenced his chastising; he closed his other hand around it, not knowing what to do. If it were anyone else, he would encourage them to get up, or go get someone to help... but with her, he instead felt some instinct prickling in the back of his mind, one that hadn’t been at the forefront for so long that he couldn’t quite recall it. “You’re freezing,” he said, and dropped the shields off his eyes.

“And you’re warm,” she muttered.

For a long moment, he just held her hand. Another, clearer instinct told him not to open the door any further – he simply couldn’t risk letting someone in, not now, not when he was vulnerable and fighting so hard to find the people responsible for everything that had befallen this world. Letting a friend get close now could risk them being hurt, and he himself wasn’t in the right place, in any way, so what good would it do to–

She leaned into him and pressed her face into his shoulder. Immediately, his mind went silent.

Her skin was cold, a little callused, but the long-forgotten weight of a woman’s hand in his own was something he didn’t realize he had missed as much as he had. No. He hated seeing her like this, and even more, hated just sitting there when he could do something to help. If her body temperature would just rise enough for her to move, she could finish her work and be done, and he was the warmest thing around.

More than anything, in a single, insane flash of realization, he just wanted to gather her up in his arms and hold her until the pain finally went away.

And he wasn’t sure whose pain he was thinking of.

“Come here,” he murmured, and withdrew his hand to take her shoulder. He gave a gentle tug, which was enough to get her to turn toward him, but before he could do anything else, she climbed directly over his leg to settle between his thighs, back against his chest, arms and legs folded up against her body, head resting on his shoulder.

He immediately froze, thrown into a momentary state of mild panic at the alien feeling of her strong, shivering body against his. Heart beating a little too fast, he worked his tongue behind his teeth, regained control of himself, battled the instinct to bolt, and leaned slightly forward to shrug his coat off. The sudden kiss of cold air on his upper arms was very unpleasant, but he ignored it and slung the coat over her, easily covering her body and most of his, before wrapping both arms around her shoulders and holding her close against his chest.

“You’re like my own personal space heater that I can hug,” she whispered.

He realized he had begun to tense up and forced himself to relax, amused by her comment. “You can stay here until you’re warm enough to move. If that takes all of those two hours, so be it.”

She hummed softly and snuggled down into his chest, turning her body enough to rest her shoulder against his chest, apparently completely heedless of the augs or anything else that could make her at all uncomfortable. Somewhat befuddled by her utter lack of concern, he just stared at her and the dark half-circles of her long lashes on her pale cheeks. As her breathing slowed and the shivering faded, he reached up with one hand, the backs of his fingers brushing her cheek. So cold, she was, but her skin was so soft.

That hand continued to move, stroking the curve of her jaw, moving to push some of the stray hairs out of her face, then cradling her head and letting his warmth seep into her.

She stirred, enough to readjust her arm, then went still again, halfway curled into herself against his torso.

He held her for a good few minutes before slowly realizing she had fallen asleep in his arms, startling him enough that he considered shaking her awake, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Instead, he felt... mesmerized, struck by the reality of this woman being so trusting as to do this, despite knowing full well he was an Aug packed full of military-grade enhancements that made him a highly efficient warrior. Against his chest, he felt her own expand and contract, and could just make out the sound of her breath beneath the incessant whirring of the machines around him.

The arms that hid all manner of devices meant for death and destruction were instead holding her as though she were made of sugar glass, half-terrified that she would just dissipate if he moved an inch too far in any direction. He couldn’t fathom the idea of hurting her in any way.

The number of people who gave him vicious side-eyes, or savaged him with slurs that degraded him far below the level of human meant that he had come to expect that reaction. Those who didn’t behave in such a way were wary, and beyond that, the only arguably positive attention he got was that of a woman’s appreciative eye, sizing him up as though he were some product that needed purchasing. He had been hit on numerous times, both obviously and not, and he knew that Aria’s gaze was not platonic. He saw the way she searched his eyes, the sweet tinge in her smile, how she always had one to spare for him, and the warmth her worry always brought to his heart. He knew the path she had wandered down was one that could too easily converge with his, yet even he knew he had begun to wander it himself.

Reflexively, he tightened his arms around her. She was strong, too, once a Marine and always a Marine, as the saying went, but the twinge of a desire to protect her bled into him.

Predictable, he thought to himself, but the last thing he wanted to do was move.

He wasn’t sure how long he held her, mind drifting away with the sound of the servers around him. Though he wasn’t at all groggy, he still felt the pull of sleep, perhaps lured in by the sensation of a woman in his arms. The shivering had long ago ceased completely, and between himself and the coat, the cold seemed to have been banished from her body, leaving her sleeping soundly against his chest, breathing slow and steady. As he looked down again, debating whether to wake her, he decided to check the time before doing anything further.

It had been an hour since he had walked in here.

He immediately swallowed the bubble of anxiety, and instead kept gazing down at her. An hour, spent in peaceful silence, with her, exactly the way it should be. Willingly, she had crawled into his arms, clung to him, and slept peacefully, without any disturbance and no hint of the pain he knew she felt with wakefulness.

“Aria. Hey.” As gently and quietly as he could manage, he said her name into her ear, having to lean down a little to do it, but when he got that close, he breathed in the scent of something cool and fresh – citrus, if he had to guess. She was sick, yet had still taken the time to make herself smell fine enough.

After a few moments, she stirred at last, shaking him out of his pleasant haze. “That time already?”

“It’s been about an hour.”

She lifted her head, blinking, only to let it fall to his shoulder again, though she looked up at him this time. With the sleepy atmosphere, weight of his coat over both of them, and press of her body, he found the idea of leaving such an unpleasant one that the very thought made him just settle in more.

“Do we have to?” she murmured, offering a slow blink and the faint twinge of a half-smile.

His right hand rose to very slowly stroke the backs of his fingers across her cheek. “Sooner or later,” he said, gently.

Again, she blinked, then said, “I’ve never seen your eyes before. Pretty.”

Now it was his turn to blink. “Sarif’s best work.”

“Well... there’s that, but...” With the slight rustle of fabric, she lifted her left hand to his cheek, and the feeling of her now-warm skin on his sent a jolt down his spine. Every nerve there tingled under her touch – the unfamiliar brush of a hand, the slow, gentle tracing of her fingers along his jaw. “They’re amazing. Beautiful, you know? Is that why nobody gets to see them, ever? Or is there some other reason?”

The brush of her fingers tangled all his rational thoughts up in a knot. The only thing that managed to wriggle free was please don’t stop. “It’s... uh... there’s another...” Losing control of his ability to speak really wasn’t like him at all, and it terrified him, but he couldn’t pull away. Didn’t want to.

“Are you hiding?” Her brow furrowed, eyes meeting his, and he had to struggle to keep himself grounded. “Why would you hide? Are you afraid of something?”

Only of you. He felt tremors traveling down his spine, and his lips prickled as his gaze drifted around her face. “It’s... it’s kind of complicated, so we’ll... go with... that.” Again, his tongue slipped, and the entire knot of his thoughts grabbed more as they drifted by, silencing the whirlwind howling in his heart.

“Did someone hurt you?”

Not sure how to answer, he just looked at her, and knew his eyes betrayed his thoughts when her own filled with worry and looked a little shinier than usual. Her hand moved again, smoothing up his jaw, cooler than the rest of his body, but not too much so, and into his hair. When it slid down, onto the curve of his neck, he seized his knot of thoughts just in time to keep them from collapsing, but his heart was pounding, and he didn’t know why, he didn’t know, he didn’t want to know, but he couldn’t pull himself away, didn’t want to–

“You’re here, trying to save everybody, even the people who probably don’t deserve it,” she murmured, voice still slightly hoarse. “But who’s gonna save you, huh? Who takes care of you?”

Cracks appeared in the shell around the knot; he swallowed, wondering how they had gone from trying to warm her up and get her home to her prodding at parts of himself he tried to keep hidden. How did she see? How was it that she could look at him and see a thousand things he guarded behind steel walls and razor wire?

“I’m alright,” he said, but even to his own ears, he sounded pathetic.

To his relief, and a blast of disappointment, she nodded and lowered her gaze... but her hand stayed put, fingertips slowly kneading the muscle in his neck. With some effort, he regained control of his breathing, but the conflict of wanting to stay here and yet run for the nearest exit made it impossible to think.

“Adam, you’re trembling.”

He sucked in a breath. “Probably just cold, no thanks to you.”

“So, it’s my fault, huh?” A sparkle of mischief entered her eyes as they returned to his, but only for a moment. “So, don’t mind me asking, when’s the last time somebody did this with you? You know, just... sat with you?”

The words wouldn’t form right. “Aria... I just...”

“You’ve been hurt, badly, haven’t you? I’m... sorry, Adam, and I wish... I wish I could help you.” Her eyes left his, then returned, her hand moving back to his cheek. The memory of Zhao using this same technique on him came rushing back, but he knew, instinctively, this was different, and he knew from her behavior that only something warm waited behind her eyes, and that her words were exactly what they sounded like.

His gaze drifted to her lips, suddenly overcome with the desire to know what they felt like on his.

Shame burned like bile in his throat at the thought.

“You’re so beautiful, but you’re so sad,” she murmured, her voice so full of warmth and... and love that he struggled to contain the emotions rushing the fortress around his heart. “Always sad, and so far away. I wish I knew why you hurt. I wish I knew how to help you, but I can’t, can I?”

Her deciding to so casually call him beautiful almost didn’t register through the chaos in his mind. This time, her name toppled out of his mouth and broke apart in midair. There was no hiding any of this now, and no matter how much he wanted to, there was no denying the love in her voice, in her eyes, in her soft, sweet touch on his cheek, and he felt his throat constrict as something inside finally snapped.

Bending toward her, he stopped inches from her lips, letting her make the final decision, and she did, pulling him close and bringing their lips together. Heat spread over his body, flooding him with warmth and feeling, sending his thought spinning out and leaving a comfortable silence in their absence. Hugging her shoulders, not caring about her illness, heedless of his fear, he kept her close to him, kissing her lips, giving in, falling apart.

Her lips parted as she wound her fingers in his hair, still resting her shoulder against his chest, taking a deep breath through her nose before letting it out and sending it whisking over his skin. He took advantage of the change in position to deepen the kiss, tilting his head further, capturing her whole mouth with his, the pressure and heat of her lips making it impossible to form any rational thoughts, and he didn’t want to.

This wasn’t what he had come back here for. He didn’t want to let anyone in. He couldn’t. It was too dangerous. It scared him in a raw, primal way, and his body trembled, his heart hammering against his ribs, breathing ragged, but he wanted her, needed her, and it was dangerous, and he was going to get hurt, she was going to get hurt, but he liked her, quietly, simply and so very truly, and he was so unbelievably scared.

Their lips separated with a soft sound, bringing him stumbling headlong back to the real world, his lips cold in her absence and his body still trembling faintly.

But then her lips moved to his cheek, kissing the arch of the bone there, the hollow beneath it, and he clung to her, not knowing what else to do.

“I’m here, anytime you need me, okay?” She whispered close to his ear, arms around his neck, inhaling a little when she moved – pain, if he had to guess – and snuggled down into his shoulder, letting him pull the coat a little tighter around them and wrapping his arms as tight around her as was safe. “It’s not much, but... hmm. I didn’t think you’d actually kiss me, but... I’m... I’m not complaining.”

Despite himself, he managed an amused chuckle at that. “Don’t get used to it,” he said, but lowered his face into her neck.

“Yeah? What do I have to do to get another one of these days?”

He closed his eyes. “Start by going home and resting.”

“Hard to do that when you’re hugging me, Adam,” she muttered, but he could hear the amusement in her voice. As the last of the tension and confused eased out of his body, he was left feeling as though he’d made some terrible error, but he still couldn’t bring himself to untangle his body from hers.

“Not like you have to go home now,” was his muttered response, lips grazing her neck and eliciting a slight, soft intake of breath from her. “Just... promise me you will.”

Resting her head in the curve of his neck, arms still around it, she whispered, “Promise.”

For a long moment, he just let her sit there, half-ashamed and half-pleasantly anxious at what had just happened, before his rationality filtered back into his mind and snapped him back to reality. How was he going to explain sitting in here for an hour with her? How would he explain leaving the server room with her?

“Ah...” Reluctantly, he pried himself off her, but felt his skin flush with heat. “...Aria, you should... probably...”

The soft, disgusted sound made him smile. “Seriously? Now? But we’re just getting to the...” A pause, then a cough into her shoulder. “ part. Ow, that one actually hurt.”

“Get up before I drag you back to your apartment,” he told her, a little more firmly. “Just... behave.”

“Drag,” she muttered, “or carry?”

That was enough to chase away his anxiety, and he gave her a steady, if soft, glare she returned. “Aria, if I carry you out, neither of us will ever hear the end of it.” Battling the stiffness in his muscles, he unfolded himself and waited for her to stand, but when the coat slipped off her shoulders, he caught it and put it right back, eliciting a vaguely surprised, sidelong look from her. Though he was still cold, the thought of her venturing out into the even colder central atrium wasn’t one he enjoyed entertaining.

Instead of pressing the matter, though, she just pulled it tighter around herself, looking comically small with it falling past her knees and easily wrapping almost twice around her body.

“You’re gonna disappear into that,” he muttered, giving one of the lapels a light tug.

“Carrying me out is out of the question, but letting me walk out in a coat that clearly belongs to you is... not?” She raised an eyebrow, and even through congested sinuses and a scratchy throat, he could hear the accusatory tone, practically dripping off the words... and the slight twinge of hope beneath it.

“I’m not carrying you,” he told her. “Bad enough I let you kiss me.”

“I’m sorry, who kissed who?”

“That’s– we’re not getting into that discussion now.” Turning her around, he gently but firmly pushed her toward the door, which slid open at the touch of a button beside it, then slid shut with a clunk behind them. “Do I need to walk you out, or can I trust you?”

Now that both of them stood on the upper floor, overlooking the darkened central atrium, he found it hard to believe all of that had just happened, the warmth slowly bleeding away. When she bumped her forehead against his shoulder, though, it brought all of that rushing back, making him feel too warm again.

“I don’t know, I’m not feeling particularly trustworthy today.” He could hear the impish eyebrow raise in her voice, which made him glare at her again. That, however, didn’t last, sent slinking away at her bright smile. “And I don’t know if I can make it up those stairs to my apartment, either.”

Now he knew he was blushing. “Aria, let’s... is this how it’s gonna be now?”

“Honestly, Adam, I’m only half-joking. My knees...” She sniffed, then again, harder, followed by a cough and soft groan of pain. “...really, really hurt, and my apartment steps are really narrow.”

For a moment, he considered just walking away right then, but any resolve he still had quickly faded under the memory of her so easily puncturing holes in his desperate attempts to keep her at arm’s length. Maybe she had just been observing him a while, but he liked the way she made him feel, and while he wouldn’t dare call it love, not now, he tried to recall old memories to see if it was the beginning of it.

The idea of falling in love again, now, as an Aug with no real place in the world, was absolutely terrifying.

You’re so beautiful.

“I’ll...” Breathing deep, he let it out slow, then half-smiled at her. He still hadn’t put the shields back up, but after what they had just gone through, he wasn’t sure there was a point. “...walk you home, but I’m only going to stay long enough to make sure you actually go inside and rest. I’m not staying.”

“Wasn’t gonna ask you to,” she muttered, but returned his smile. “Need painkillers and sleep. Can... can you ask someone to clean up my work when it’s done? Otherwise, I have to–”

He shushed her and waved her toward the stairs. In the quiet, their steps seemed loud, but he forced himself to focus on her, steady her with both hands when she wavered. True to her word, she had trouble getting down, wobbling on her knees and grunting quietly in obvious discomfort every few steps, and by the time she reached the ground floor, she was shaking and bent over slightly, hugging the coat tight around her shoulders.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” he murmured. Taking a quick glance around, he made sure no one was nearby or could see them, then wrapped both arms around her shoulders, pulling her close again. When she turned and pressed her face into his shoulder, he immediately felt all his resolve fall away as though dropped in a void. Whatever madness had taken him to kiss her, and no matter what had been said, all that mattered was keeping her safe and comfortable.

She didn’t speak for a long while, just shivering in his arms with her face buried in his shoulder. After a time, she finally lifted her head, large brown eyes meeting his. “Let’s go, huh?”

He released her with great reluctance. “Yeah, we should.”

The only person who gave them an obvious side-eye as they left was Smiley, but Adam ignored him completely and led the way back out of the office onto the streets. He moved slow, keeping pace with Aria, who did her best to walk quickly, but it had become perfectly obvious her body didn’t obey like it was supposed to, leaving her either walking quickly and making soft, pained sounds, or more slowly and looking embarrassed. No amount of his reassurance seemed to help, so he fell silent instead, forcing himself not to focus on the cold when they got back outside.

“Oh, hey, it’s snowing.” She extended a hand from under the coat to catch a few crumbly flakes. “Pretty. Oh, and look at the sunrise. What’s left of it, anyway.”

He looked to see the sun having risen enough to chase the colors away, but it turned the sky a blaze of gold-tinged white, burning through layers of snow clouds and casting strange shadows. He had a sneaking suspicion it wouldn’t last, and from the looks of things, the snow would start falling soon. Maybe going back to the office wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Maybe hunkering down in his apartment was best.

Halfway to the plaza metro, she suddenly piped up, “Aren’t you cold?”

He looked down at one shoulder to see water beading on the hydrophobic coating. Snowflakes flash-melted when they landed on the carbon-fiber shell. “Yeah, a little, but it’s worse for you. Don’t worry about me.”

“Adam, I feel bad now.”

Again, he shushed her, and this time, she gave up.

It was in silence that they returned to the Prekazka District, heading to an apartment complex some distance from his, in a far more... worn, he thought, part of town. It looked worn, but also lived in, and there was something about the occasional shirt on a railing, or plant tucked in the corner of a patio, or warm yellow light and moving shadows through a window, that gave the place a sense of reality and warmth his own lacked. Also unlike his complex, this building didn’t have a courtyard, instead centered on a dark, cramped lobby with a pair of staircases on either side.

Adam eyed the bare bulb in the middle of the lobby, then noted the low ceiling, giving him maybe a foot of headroom at most, before quickly shaking himself free of water and watching Aria move to the base of the left staircase. It was, as she had said, quite narrow, and the steps were taller than normal ones.

As he watched, not sure what else to do, she made it up two steps in agonizingly slow fashion before stopping, pulling the coat tighter around herself, and sucking in a breath.

There was no one else around, emboldening him to approach her and gently take her arm. “You really can’t.”

Her glare had a spike of genuine hurt that pierced his heart. “Think I was lying?” After a moment, she sighed and shook her head. “Here, I can make it. Take this.” With the sort of hesitant slowness that betrayed her pain, she pulled her shoulders back and slid the coat off her arms, a few inches here and there.

He stopped her. “Not yet. Come back down.”

Her skin immediately flushed dark. “Uh... you know I was... you don’t actually have to...”

“Come back down,” he told her, and held out a hand.

Looking uncertain, and slightly mortified, she took his hand and stepped back down, but didn’t look at him, even when he slipped an arm around her shoulders and the other behind her knees. With ease, he lifted her clean off her feet, eliciting a slight squeak from her that amused him, and started carefully ascending the narrow staircase. She turned her face into his shoulder, the fingers of one hand digging into his shirt.

The pressure of her fingertips on his clavicle made his skin prickle all over again.

“If anyone sees–” Her voice cracked, and she devolved into a quiet coughing fit near his shoulder. The arm around her shoulders tightened a little as he continued the climb. Each step creaked under his weight, and he felt a little give here and there, but the staircase supported their weight to the first landing. He ascended a second set, then stepped into a hallway just wide enough to give him a half-foot on either side of his shoulders.

When they reached her apartment, he lowered her to her feet as slowly and gently as though she would shatter if he moved too fast; she clung to his arm as she regained her feet.

“Thanks,” she muttered, blushing faintly, but offering him a smile all the same. Shrugging off his coat with a few soft grunts of pain, she held it up to him.

He placed a hand on it, curled his fingers around it, hesitated, and let go. “I’ll get it back from you later,” he said, slightly amused by her incredulous expression. “It’s well-made, heavy, and warm. Just hang onto it and take good care of it until I see you again, okay? Remember, I’m just an Infolink call away.”

“I... uh... I think... um...” She held the coat in her artificial hand, blinking at it as though she had never seen it before.

Sighing, he tapped her keypad with the backs of his fingers. “Get inside and go to sleep.”

She grimaced. “I really shouldn’t,” she croaked.

Gathering his courage, he bent toward her, slipping a hand around the back of her neck and the other around her waist, and kissed the top of her head, letting it linger in the soft strands of her hair as his eyes closed. Even when the kiss ended, he rested his head there, reluctant to move away. As he lingered, she wrapped her shivering arms around his waist and lowered her face into his chest, just sitting there for a long, quiet moment.

After over two years of being so disconnected from the world, this feeling of being wanted was both scary, and exhilarating.

“It’ll guard you from the cold like it does me,” he whispered, and pulled away.

She looked up at him in silent understanding, and he turned away, feeling a little shy, heedless of the cold, and didn’t look back as he descended the stairs back to the street. He did, however, hear her keypad beep when it unlocked, and the door open and close softly, followed by her footsteps fading beyond the walls.

He would need to go home and think, then sleep all of this off. He had a feeling, though, he would sleep well.