The alarm went off at noon. A hand snaked out from underneath the covers, fingers searching blindly for it, and managed to find the clock on the fourth swing. The noise cut off abruptly and the hand fell limp off the side of the bed. For a few minutes, silence reigned in the apartment. Finally the covers shifted as the sleeper pushed himself upright, and the blankets fell to pool around his sides when he was sitting. He yawned loudly, reaching up to rake long fingers through his hair, and eyed the clock as if he wasn't convinced it was really twelve o'clock. At length he shoved the covers away and slid from the bed, bare feet moving silently over the short, tough carpet of his bedroom. The coffee maker had already brewed his coffee for him and he poured a mug, yawning again as he carried his hot drink back into the bedroom. One hand found the edge of the curtain and he peeled it back, only to wince back from the harsh sunlight. He let the curtains fall quickly back into place and wandered over to sit on his bed. Light blue eyes traveled around his apartment as he sipped at his drink, studying the furniture and the random trinkets that decorated the place.

      Three months, two days.

      A pack of cigarettes was kept in the night stand. He'd disabled the smoke alarms that had been in the apartments when he moved in so he could smoke in the room without having to worry about setting them off. He managed to get a cigarette between his lips and lit without having to set his mug down, and he took a long drag off it before switching back to his coffee. He finished his drink first and the cigarette not long after, and he ground out the rest of the butt in the ash tray on his night stand. His mug was set off to one side of the glass dish and he lowered himself to his back on the mattress, fingers tangling in his long hair as he contemplated the ceiling.

      Three months and two days since they had all parted ways. Crawford and Nagi had left seven months ago, off to Austria. Their last job as Schwarz had been a bitch, when Rosenkreuz decided Estet was starting to be too power-greedy. They'd decided to cut ties with their long time ally and had used Schwarz to bring the organization down. It had been one headache of a job, and the reward for success was that Crawford had been inducted into the Council of Rosenkreuz. Nagi had opted to go with him back to the school so he could take a year or two of training there. He had never been officially taught how to use his gift, and he had wanted to see what they could offer him. Schuldig had not heard from him since, though Crawford had called once to tell him that the teachers were quite impressed with how far he had come on his own.

      Farfarello had stayed with Schuldig, and the two had remained in Japan. They had left Tokyo, traveling around the country to find fresh hunting grounds. Crawford had relabeled Schwarz as a two-man unit, and their jobs had come directly from him. The pair had seen a great bit of Japan in those four months, and the work had been steady and good. At length Farfarello grew bored of Japan, however, bored of the work and of Schwarz. The pair had broken in half and Farfarello had left, off to Europe, though if he was still there was anyone's guess. Crawford had named them both solitary agents, still working under him, so that they would not be pressed by Rosenkreuz to find new teams. It had taken Schuldig a month to get used to being on his own, and he had not heard from Crawford since Farfarello had walked out. The precognitive's last words to him were "Find something to occupy yourself with."

      Schuldig had eventually decided that meant Crawford wasn't going to provide the entertainment for him by giving him jobs, and after a month of sightseeing, he had ended up in Nagoya. He was bored of wandering, bored of having nothing to do. He had left the underworld until Crawford gave him a reason to duck back in simply because it was too strange to consider doing the work on his own. He had always had a team before. Crawford had always been there, and then the others. It had been weird enough when Crawford and Nagi had left, and now Farfarello was gone too. Readjusting to being alone had been strange, and he'd had to go traveling, had to keep moving, so he wouldn't think too much about it. In the end he'd retreated here and found himself a place to stay, and had even found something to do with himself until Crawford decided to make him useful again.

      There was nothing saying he had to stay here. If he chose, he could relocate himself to another country. He would have to talk to Crawford about it, but he knew the American would let him leave if he wished. Japan was an overpopulated country and a strain on his mental shields. He had had migraines for months when they had first arrived in the land of the rising sun. After his gift had gotten used to the weight of the country on his mind, the headaches had faded to the background, spiking up only now and then. He had detested the country when Schwarz had first been assigned to it, and now he was the only one left here. He wasn't entirely sure why he hadn't left yet. He could go anywhere in the world and he hadn't yet. Farfarello had questioned his reasons before he left, and Schuldig had had nothing other than a shrug to answer him with.

      He pushed himself up from his bed, snagging his mug from the night stand, and headed to the kitchen to put the cup on the counter. A glance to his right showed him the second apartment, still empty after he had been here for so long. The man he had bought the place from had lived here with his son, and the two had fixed the second-story apartments so that they were connected. Schuldig wasn't entirely sure what he was supposed to do with two apartments, but the entire building was his as of two months ago.

      The building was two stories tall, a small place cramped between two huge apartment complexes. The upstairs held these two apartments, connected at the kitchen but with separate front doors. A shared balcony and stairwell went down the back of the building, and a door there could let him inside the ground floor. The first floor was a bar, and it had a small menu of dinner items as well. Schuldig had inherited the business when he bought the place, and it had come with a second bartender. He had snatched the procedures out of the owner's mind in order to take over the place, as he had thought running a bar could keep him amused for a while. It had been a whim decision but he'd been at it for two months and he thought he might be content with it. It wasn't a wildly popular place, just busy enough to afford two salaries and the supplies it needed. Most of the customers were regulars, and while they had been surprised when the establishment switched hands, they hadn't been scared off by Schuldig's unusual looks. The second bartender was a twenty-four year old named Masa who had graduated from college a year ago and was still searching for a real job. He reminded Schuldig a little of Nagi, and he knew how to cook the dishes the bar served, so Schuldig had kept him.

      Schuldig wandered into the bathroom, offering the mirror a glance before turning on the water at the sink. One hand stayed under the rush of water to check the temperature while the other played with the knobs, and he idly wondered what his team would think of him now. The Mastermind of Schwarz had put aside assassinations and mind games to run a bar. On the one hand, he thought he should consider it degrading and a serious drop in status. On the other, it kept him amused, and that was what was important. Nagoya was full of schools, and his bar was fifteen minutes from two universities, one in each direction down the street his shop sat on. College students stopped by now and then, and a decent part of his crowd were professors. One or two drinks and the professors weren't as likely to guard their tongues around him, and it made for some lively debates and arguments. Sometimes they dissolved into yelling matches that would amuse the rest of the customers, and Schuldig had ended up teaching them valuable English words and phrases like "ignoramus" and "batty old fart." Despite the fact that his dry sarcasm and carefree attitude towards his Schwarz work had made his teammates question not just his sanity but his intelligence, he knew he was one smart cookie. He couldn't help it, not when he had the gift he did. He read a lot, even when he had been with Schwarz. He'd started reading because if he focused enough on the words, it was harder to hear the voices in his head. After that, half-formed thoughts in the minds around him made him curious about other subjects, and his reading had branched out. Add on top of that the fact that he could steal knowledge from others' minds, and he was the most learned in Schwarz. It kept the arguments intelligent, which was more than he could say for the easy exchange of insults that had littered his talks with Nagi and Farfarello.

      He supposed the job also appealed to him because the commute to work consisted of a walk down a flight of stairs. The thought brought a wry grin to his face and he pulled the knob that switched the water from the sink to the shower faucet, stepping out of his sleeping pants before moving under the spray. The bar opened at five in the evening and closed at three in the morning, so it threw off his sleeping schedule, but he had nothing better to do with his time. Sometimes he would come straight back when the bar closed. Other times the last customers would want him to go find something to eat with them at one of the twenty-four hour food shops down the street so they could finish their conversation. Seeing as how they always paid, Schuldig never turned them down. Food was good and free was better, and he decided not to tell them that the money he'd saved from his time with Schwarz was much higher than any of them would make in two years' time.

      Last night had been one of the nights he had gone out, and he hadn't gotten back to the apartment until it was almost seven. Today was Saturday, so a large crowd of them had gotten together and they'd all stopped by the local Yoshinoya to be rowdy and run the night shift ragged. It was something that happened every Friday night, so by now Schuldig knew every one of the night shift workers at the food shop by name and knew everything about them. It had been strange, his first few weeks in the business, to meet so many new people. He was used to being assigned to a client and given an objective, whether it was the man's failure, success, or death. Either way, Schwarz didn't deal with long-term clients. Estet had been the longest, with their Takatori peon second. These people weren't clients. They weren't targets. They were just… people. Sometimes Schuldig forgot that. Sometimes he had to sit back and think about it and wonder at the differences. Now and then he felt an irrational surge of resentment towards them that he couldn't explain, for their frequent appearances in his life. The relationships he had now were different from what he had always known, and it was still taking time to get used to that. There was nothing that said he had to get used to anything. The moment he grew bored of the bar idea, he would abandon it and move on to the next thing that caught his eye. He wasn't sure yet how long the interest would remain, but despite his issues with the changes, he wasn't ready yet to leave.

      He cut the water off and stood in the tub a few moments, wringing his hair out several times before stepping out and pulling his towel from its rack. He poured himself a second mug of coffee before heading into the bedroom, and he stood in the middle of his apartment to sip at it, his towel wrapped tightly around his waist. The AC was on and he let the soft breeze it created chill the water on his skin. It was nearing the end of August now, and he was grateful for every day that passed. The August heat was going to be the death of him. He hated the muggy Japanese summers, and spent most of his time indoors pretending the outside world didn't exist. Shopping was a pain because he wasn't located next to a train station. Shiogamaguchi Station was twelve minutes down the street one way, and Yagoto was up the street twelve minutes another way. The department store was located practically on top of the Yagoto station, so it meant he only had to walk twelve minutes to buy what he needed, but in August the twelve minutes felt like forever. The hours his bar operated during meant that he had to walk through the hottest part of the day to get there, and it was the only thing he didn't like about the bar's schedule. He'd taken to wearing his hair up in ponytails, sometimes folding the orange locks over through the bands to cut the length in half. He still sweated his ass off, and summer made him grumpy. His customers found it very amusing, the bastards. At least he'd taken care of that miserable task yesterday, which mean he had the afternoon free.

      He didn't bother to get dressed until four, spending his time stretched out in bed with a book. He reset his alarm clock to let him know when it was time to get going. He was a bit disoriented when it went off, drawing his blue eyes up from the history book he'd chosen. It took him a moment to remember where he was and a moment longer to figure out that the noise was coming from his clock, and he reached out to shut it off. He was long dry by then but his towel was still damp, and he tugged it from around his waist as he slid from the bed. The towel went back on the rack in the bathroom and he set about getting ready for the night. As long as he didn't stray outside for long, he could wear what he liked because he was willing to pay to keep the bar very nicely air-conditioned. He picked whatever was clean from his dresser and ended up in tight black pants and a charcoal-gray long sleeved shirt. He spared a few moments to check himself out in the mirror, eyeing the way the outfit looked on him. Satisfied, he grabbed his wallet and keys and left the room.

      Masa wasn't there yet but he would be here soon, so Schuldig unlocked the back door and let himself in. He found the button for the air conditioner before he bothered with the light switch and stood in the kitchen to make sure things were where they'd been put last night. Schuldig was the major bartender while Masa's jobs were primarily food-based, so the telepath moved from the kitchen to the bar itself to eye his liquor stash. Masa showed up just five minutes later, offering a greeting before checking on the kitchen. Schuldig washed down the bar and moved dishes from the kitchen to the counter while his coworker- employee, partner, something- set up the tables that were off to one side. Blue eyes lingered on the older man for a minute before moving across the room.

      It was strange to be someone else's boss. The relationships and hierarchy within Schwarz had been strange and twisted. Crawford was at the very top while the other three jockeyed for rank that shifted by the hour. The way they viewed each other and treated each other had been something far different than anything Schuldig had now. That he was now someone's employer and the manager of a small business was something new, and while Schuldig had had some time to get used to things, now and then it still seemed strange. He had no problems with having his word as law- that part was nice- but the thought that this place was his was still a curious little fact.

      The bar itself wasn't huge, but it was a nice size. From the front door facing in, there were five tables off to the right where people could eat. A half-wall on the left separated them from the tables in the bar area, and going straight would take the customer to the near edge of the counter. There were seven stools at the counter and two tables in the bar area, and a dart machine set up in the corner that had just recently gotten fixed. Schuldig hadn't seen the point in spending the money on fixing it, but the professors had rallied the other regulars and gathered the money it took. When it wasn't busy Schuldig would play with them, but he was horrible at it. Idly he wondered how Farfarello would do at it.

      Across from the counter, past the tables and the darts, the wall opened up to a small patio area out front. A four foot stone wall kept the tables separated from the sidewalk, and there were five tables out there with umbrellas to block the evening sun. It was rare that anyone was actually out there; most of the time they crowded around the bar for rowdy discussions. Having telepathy was handy in keeping things from getting out of hand. There had been some truly obnoxious people a month or so back who had been too drunk to be bothered by his cold words, and he'd finally gotten rid of them with a little telepathic tweaking. It also helped keep the bar running, because if business was slow he'd sometimes poke his customers into buying more than they originally intended to drink. Maybe it was cheating, but Schuldig didn't care.

      They finished straightening things up and the bar opened at five. Masa flipped the sign on the door and turned on the outside lights- though it was still very bright out- and the two leaned against the counter to smoke until some people showed up. It only took half an hour, and the people that came wanted dinner, not drinks. Masa took care of them and Schuldig mixed himself a drink while their food was cooking. At about a quarter after six the first drinkers showed up, and after that, it was a steady flow in and out. Schuldig had a lot of regular crowds, and the groups often didn't mix, so he was starting to find other ways to label them. If there were professors in the bunch, the group was called by the department that was either the noisiest or the most present. If they were businessmen, then he found a physical feature in the group that was memorable and applied it to the rest of the lot. There was the twitchy eyebrow group, the fatties, and the fresh meat. Schuldig had nine regular groups that cycled in and out between hours and days, and then the miscellaneous people that filled in the corners. He didn't bother keeping track of who came just for food, leaving them to Masa.

      The bell at the door jangled. He didn't hear it; he heard Masa's called welcome. He was busy listening to the professors debate on how to translate the nuances of a certain phrase. He had the Bilinguals tonight, a group of eight foreign language teachers. Two were German speaking; one was half-German himself. When Schuldig was drunk he could admit to himself that he liked having them come to his bar, because they always wanted to practice their German. They weren't perfect but they knew the language, so sometimes they let everyone else talk to each other and just chatted away with him. The other teachers thought it was the coolest thing in the world to watch; Schuldig thought them easily impressed. Without Schwarz around, though, there wasn't much of a chance to speak his own language. He was at least making progress with them when it came to pronunciation, and that was good. Tonight the group was arguing Spanish, and while Schuldig only had a conversational grasp of the language, he paid attention to what was being said with the ear of someone who was used to having to play interpreter. He was about to cut in and offer his 'professional' opinion when three new faces appeared at the bar. They were standing at the corner because there wasn't room at the counter, and Schuldig glanced towards them when he caught sight of the bright pink shirt one was wearing out of the corner of his eye.

      He almost dropped the cup he was drying when his mind registered what he was seeing. He took one look at the face that was hovering behind her friends and sent out a mental query, pushing his way through the bar and out into the street, scanning half the city before he could tell himself that she was honestly alone.

      What the fuck was Fujimiya Aya doing in his bar? And where was her keeper?

      She was standing on two feet. Schuldig had known the girl was awake; Schwarz had been in Tokyo for a short time before it broke apart and he'd heard she woke up. Weiss had been planning on putting her through physical therapy and Schuldig had contemplated having her die in her sleep one night. It would have crushed her brother and his unit. He'd decided against it for reasons he couldn't remember. Oh yeah. Nagi. Maybe Schuldig shouldn't have listened to him, but he had. And now she was on her feet, walking on her own, and she was not in Tokyo where she belonged. She was in Nagoya, with two girls standing in front of her, standing in his bar.

      One of his regulars flicked a bean at him; the conversation had petered off when he'd stopped to stare, and now the teachers were giving him knowing grins. If only they really knew.

      She didn't know, either. She had no clue who he was. There wasn't a scrap of recognition in her blue eyes and she was here, far from home, far from Weiss. In HIS bar. Schuldig ignored the teachers' leering faces, ignored the appreciative eyes they let wander over the three girls, and started towards that end of the bar. He let his gift move past the two girls, sliding into Aya's mind. She was well enough to go to college now and determined to get away from her home. She wanted to prove that she was fine and she had spent the last several months arguing about school. In the end, Kritiker had capitulated and agreed to let her go to Nagoya. They figured it was safest to let her move away considering everything that had happened. Out of the fire and into the frying pan; they'd let her come here. She was going to attend Chukyo, starting halfway through the school year. It was born both from her need to prove she was healthy and alive and the fact that things were heating up in Tokyo again. So she was going to start classes here in just three and a half weeks, and she was going to be living in his city and going to school just fifteen minutes down the street from his apartment.

      Fujimiya Ran, if only you knew.

      But that was curious, because Ran wasn't anywhere in her recent memories. He managed to keep the predatory edge off of his smirk, tilting the expression into more of a grin as he came to a stop in front of them. "Drinks?" he asked.

      Aya looked like she'd always looked. She had been important to Estet because the accident that put her in a coma triggered something and she had stopped aging. She still looked like a girl who was barely sixteen. Japanese girls as a whole tended to look young, but Aya took the cake. By looking like a sixteen year old, she really looked twelve. She certainly didn't look like she was a college student. The dark hair that had been in braids every time Schuldig had ever seen her was loose and cut around her shoulders in one of the recent popular styles. She'd attempted to use her hair to make herself look older. It didn't help much; her face was still too young.

      Her eyes? They were ancient.

      The two girls in front smiled at him; Aya managed a twitch of her lips before she looked away. She wasn't having a good time in Nagoya, apparently. Schuldig took their orders, and sent them to one of the tables, saying he would bring them the drinks there. The professors were nudging each other as he set about mixing the cocktails.

      "Wouldn't it be nice to be young again?" one of the Spanish teachers asked. "Makes ogling girls not such a crime!"

      "Shuu is just lucky," the English teacher said with a mournful sigh. The only ones who came to his bar who could say his name right were the two German teachers, so the rest either called him Master or Shuu. Schuldig, who had never had a nickname in his life, had been uncertain as to how to react to the shortening of his name. He had lingered between taking offense and being amused by it and had finally just shrugged and accepted it. It was much better than hearing the fourteen different versions of 'Schuldig' they managed to get out, after all. "Shuu" was better than "Judehi" any day.

      Schuldig feigned not to hear them. And he didn't, really; he was still poking around in Aya's mind. She had been here for two days already looking for apartments. The two girls here were friends of one of the customers at the Koneko in Tokyo, and they were helping her look for a place to stay. Apparently none of the places they looked at were right. The one Aya had wanted had been taken, and the rest were overpriced or too far from campus. She didn't want to take the subway. She wanted to walk, to show that she was healthy again. And in choosing to walk, she needed an apartment close by in case she really wasn't fine. But she was giving up; there wasn't anything around. She was starting to think she should settle for something further out, probably in Kawana or Gokiso. And there was that apartment in Akaike. Her companions were trying to talk her into it, claiming that she was lucky there were openings there. A lot of students commuted over an hour to get to classes. One of the girls at the table had a three hour trip every day from her home, and Aya was complaining about a twenty minute train ride? And wasn't she lucky? Yagoto station was finally opening up a fifth exit that would be right in front of the main building. It was a short ride and she could take the stairs up right to the front glass doors. They were so excited about the new exit, because the sidewalks were extremely crowded all day. Nagoya had several universities and there were always students everywhere. There were three in this area alone. Meijo was ten minutes to one side of the bar, Chukyo was fifteen minutes to the other, and Nanzan was twenty minutes past Chukyo. School days meant a clusterfuck on the sidewalks, and Schuldig was glad he at least slept through the morning rush of it.

      He gathered up the three drinks and stepped out from behind the bar, slipping through the swinging half-door to head towards their table. The professors twisted on their stools to watch him, the nosey lot. As Schuldig handed out the first drink, the girl lifted it in a toast to her companion. "Happy birthday," she said.

      "Birthday girl, hm?" Schuldig asked. He didn't really give a shit, but it gave him a chance to look at Aya again. Her eyes were strange. He'd never seen them open before, and there was something old and weary about them. "How old?" He gave the girl her drink.

      She smiled coyly up at him. "How old do you think I am?" she asked.

      "Freshly twenty-three," he said. "Drink up."

      She laughed, delighted. "Right!"

      "And me?" her friend asked.

      "Twenty-four." They were around his age and looked no older than Nagi.

      Aya looked up at him, meeting his gaze dead on the second time since her arrival. "And me?" she asked, but she didn't really want to hear the answer. There was almost an amused lilt to her voice, but her thoughts were weary and bitter. Apparently Aya had a grudge over her aging problem. If she passed within Schuldig's mental range again, he'd do a more thorough search to see just how much Kritiker had told her about Estet and her problems. "How old am I?"

      "You're not twenty," he told her, giving her glass a lazy swirl. "But you're not far off and I run this bar by German drinking standards. Nineteen. Have a drink." And he set her cup down in front of her.

      Something almost violent flickered across her mind and her eyes, an intense, desperate need. Not a little girl, her thoughts said, and they were pained words. Not a kid. A woman. I'm a woman. I'm an adult. Look at me and see me when you look at me, not my face.

      Her companions were squealing and clapping, "Wonderful, wonderful!" They were typical Japanese girls, the kind that had made him want to commit genocide when he'd first shown up in the country. He hated young Japanese females, girls that were trained to have the mentality of a twelve year old no matter how old they got. And then there was Fujimiya Aya, who looked twelve years old and had the mentality of someone a decade older.

      "How did you know?" the birthday girl asked eagerly. "You're right on all of us."

      He offered her a thin little smirk, flicking his light blue eyes to Aya's darker gaze. "It's in your eyes," he said, listening to the way she reacted to that. It was a fierce mental pulse, curling around his words, desperate and hungry for someone to look past her youthful face. Oh yes, this could be fun.

      "What else can you see?" the girl asked, staring up at him with a delighted little smile on her lips.

      "That you've had a very long day," he said, and he gave a jerk of his thumb to indicate the crowd behind him. "If I can get rid of those noisy losers, you three can move up to the counter and tell me all about it."

      "We're going, we're going," one of the German teachers said, pushing at the professor next to him. "We'll leave you to flirt in peace."

      "Go blow yourself, Yuuki," Schuldig sent back. The girls tittered, save for Aya, who had fixed her gaze on her glass. But the teachers were getting up and Masa went to the register to take their money. Schuldig beckoned to the girls and headed back to the counter, ignoring the parting shots from the teachers as they paid and left. With the patio doors open he could hear them laughing and talking as they spilled out onto the sidewalk and he made himself comfortable behind his counter. He watched through hooded blue eyes as the girls gathered up their cups and purses and started towards the abandoned stools. They waited for him to clear the counter of empty cups before sitting and he set about washing the dishes as the girls regaled him with the story of their day. Schuldig already knew it from Aya's mind but he listened anyway. One of the girls ordered an appetizer for the three to share and they chewed on it, taking turns talking. Aya stayed quiet, blue eyes moving between her cup and Schuldig's face. He kept his gaze on whoever was talking and his mind on hers as his hands worked.

      And he'd thought Nagoya would get boring after just a few months.

      They were interrupted towards the end of their rambling when one of their cell phones rang, and the girl turned aside to take the call. Her companions watched her when her chatting turned excited and she hung up, laughing, and whirled back on them with a wide smile on her face. "Ohashi set up karaoke for us, for my birthday!" she said, reaching out to tug on Aya's hand. "Let's go, let's go. You can finally meet the whole group. It'll be fun!"

      Schuldig went with them to the register, taking their money for their second and third rounds of drinks. As he handed Aya back her change, he forced the corners of his lips up into the ghost of an amused grin. Being amused by her sudden reentrance into his life was easy. It was keeping the hungry anticipation for another game out of his expression that was hard. "Better luck tomorrow," he told her. "Come back again."

      He'd guessed her age dead on. She would be back, even though she was certain he had just guessed correctly by chance. He watched them leave, returned Masa's arched eyebrow with a grin, and stepped back into the kitchen to smoke and smirk at his reflection in the mirror above the sink.


      Fujimiya Aya was back the next day.

      When Schuldig opened the front door for business, she was standing there on the sidewalk. He wasn't surprised to see her and didn't bother to fake it, instead stepping to one side to let her through. She offered him a small smile in greeting and made herself comfortable at the empty counter. Schuldig eyed the gray clouds. A typhoon was on the way. It meant the bar could probably close early tonight. He'd told Masa not to bother coming in. He knew they wouldn't get a lot of customers with this sort of weather and if people did want food, well, he'd stolen the procedures for the menu items from the owner. He could manage on his own.

      With Aya as his first customer, however, he wouldn't have anyone else tonight. He spared a few moments to wind a mental shield around the bar. Anyone who wanted to grab a meal or catch a drink before the storm started could get within ten feet of his place and then would decide they felt like something else. He hadn't used his gift much in the past several months and it was eager to be used again, tying itself tight around them. He closed the door and returned to the counter, offering Aya a vague smirk in greeting. It was just him and her now, in his bar in Nagoya, and her overprotective brother was hours away.

      Just wait until Crawford hears about this.

      "No companions tonight?" he asked.

      She gave him the slightest smile, unable to work up a stronger expression. Three days of unsuccessful searches. Classes started soon and she was still intruding on someone else, staying at their house until she found a place of her own. And her friends… She had nothing but failure to report to them and then they would think that she really wasn't ready to be on her own. "Maya is out with her boyfriend," she said. "I told her I wanted to see the city for myself."

      He mixed her a drink and set it before her. She quirked an eyebrow at him because she hadn't yet ordered anything, and he just flicked his fingers at her. "I'm not going to get a lot of customers tonight," he told her. "I can afford to keep one bedraggled girl from being thirsty as she moans about her day."

      That almost got a real smile and she sipped at her drink. "I really shouldn't be drinking," she mused.

      "Because you're underage?" he asked, though he knew the answer. He lit a cigarette, knowing she wouldn't mind, not when she'd had Kudou Yohji around for so long. He did remember to not blow the smoke in her direction, though. It wouldn't do to offend her. He wanted her to keep coming back so he would have something to play with. Aya was perfect. He'd string her to him some way or the other and then destroy her to destroy Weiss.

      "Sakura wouldn't approve." She considered this for a long moment and then looked up at him, dark eyes searching his face. There it was again. Sakura. Kritiker. Manx. Weiss was in her thoughts, but her brother was surrounded by sadness. He considered digging the story out of her mind and wondered if she would save him the work and just tell him what was going on. "Do I look nineteen?" she wanted to know.

      "You look two," he answered.

      Her smile was self-deprecating, there and gone again, and she took a large swallow of her drink. "I suppose so. So why did you guess higher than that?"

      "Because I knew I was right," he said, pouring himself a drink. "So we'll both drink and you can talk, because it seems like there's a lot going on in that head."

      "I don't even know your name," she said.

      "Master," he answered, because he didn't want a Fujimiya calling him Shuu. Then again, when this finally made it back to Weiss, he wondered what they would think of Ran's precious little sister calling the Mastermind of Schwarz by a pet name. "That's what they call me around here."

      The name amused her. "Aya," she said. "Fujimiya Aya. Where are you from, Master?"

      On the other hand, there were definite good points to having Ran's precious little sister calling the Mastermind of Schwarz "Master". "Europe," he answered, deciding not to narrow it down any further than that. "And you're from Tokyo, your friends said yesterday. I guess Nagoya's schools are just better than what Tokyo had to offer?"

      She considered that, playing with the condensation on her cup. "No… I just wanted to get out on my own. Away from Tokyo."

      "Family annoy you that much?"

      Her expression fractured and she looked down to hide it from him. "I have no family," was her soft answer. "My parents died years ago, and my brother…"

      Holy shit. There it was, clear in her mind. As far as she knew, Ran was dead. Schuldig knew Weiss had survived; he'd poked around at their minds briefly after the tower had fallen. But Weiss had left Tokyo- and Aya- behind, trusting Kritiker to look after her. Kritiker and Sakura had severely edited what they'd told Aya about her brother, shaving away all of the unpleasant truths about what he'd done. They'd told her what every other girl in Tokyo had known him as: a hard-working florist who had doted endlessly on his sister, who'd met an unfair and untimely end in a hit-and-run. His florist job wasn't enough to explain Kritiker's continuing interest in her, however, so they'd edited his job with Weiss into something more little-girl friendly. They'd passed Weiss off as private investigators.

      After all that trouble, all those sacrifices… You walked out on her. Fan-fucking-tastic. He swallowed a laugh, not wanting to chase her off so soon. Ran may be hiding from his sister, but he was still keeping an eye on her through Manx. If word filtered back to him that she had met Schuldig in Nagoya, things could get really fun.

      Aya pulled herself back together, running her finger along the rim of her cup. "I had my own apartment back in Tokyo, and I worked at a flower shop my brother and his friends used to own. I share the job with an old lady, and now and then my friend will stop by and help out. My brother's previous employer stops by now and then to check on me, and they all worry about me so much. I just had to get away from it all, you know?" She looked to him for a response and he figured it appropriate to nod.

      She finished her drink. He made her another. And another. By the time she finished her third she'd finally spilled out her story. She told him about the car accident and her coma and her physical therapy. She told him about her parents and waking up to find out her brother was dead, and her life at the Koneko. She hadn't had time to grieve for her parents before she had been hit, and then she'd woken up to find the rest of her family was gone. On top of that, she worked where her brother used to, so everything around there had a memory of him lingering behind. The girls who came by the shop, Sakura, Kritiker, Momoe… They all had memories of him that she didn't. Apparently she'd been keeping her mouth shut on a lot of things, but as the third drink turned into a fourth she got it all off of her chest. There was safety in talking to a stranger, someone who couldn't judge her for what she thought or where she'd come from. He was a little amused by how much she said but he kept her talking and kept her drinks coming, listening to what was said and what was left unspoken.

      "I'm sorry," she said when she finally realized she'd been rambling for over an hour. "I didn't mean to talk so much. I'm usually not such an annoyance…"

      He considered telling her that she had a history of being an annoyance and that she had been a pain in the ass even when she was in her coma. Instead he shrugged and said, "You've been having a rough few days. Few months, it sounds like."

      "Yes, it's just… If I could only find an apartment, it would make things so much better. I just… I need something to go right."

      Schuldig considered her, listening to the rain falling outside. It had started raining sometime while she was talking and now the windows rattled under the force of the wind. He left the counter to close the patio doors, and Aya watched him, wondering how she was going to get to the station. She'd forgotten her umbrella even though they'd reminded her twice to take it out with her. Schuldig turned around to face her and leaned against the closed grating, eyeing her for a long moment in silence.

      And something in his mind went click.

      "There's an apartment upstairs," he said, and she tilted her head to one side in incomprehension. "When I bought the place from the last owner, it came with two apartments on the second floor. I have one of them. The second has been sitting empty for a few months now and I'm just a breath away from converting it into storage." He lit a cigarette and took a long drag off of it. "It's walking distance to Chukyo, isn't it?"

      She just stared at him. "W-what?"

      "You can go look at it," he said, giving a wave of his hand, and he went to the front door to lock it and flip the sign around. The wind was getting worse and he knew he wouldn't have anyone else drop by. "Just a quick peek before you head home, if you want. Look at it now and think on it tonight, unless you like the apartments your friends found for you."

      She emptied the rest of her cup in one swallow and pushed herself off of her stool, grabbing her purse. "If that's all right-!" she said, and he could almost taste her hope that the apartment wouldn't be some grungy place, the hope that he wouldn't charge her a fortune to live there.

      They got soaked when they stepped outside into the storm and were careful as they made their way up the slick metal steps. There was an overhang on the balcony and he dug his keys out of his pocket. The key to the second room was sitting unused on the ring and he unlocked the door, pushing it open and letting her step through first. He followed her inside, toeing his shoes off at the door beside hers before trailing behind her. One hand found the light switch and he flicked it on, waiting as she went to check out the bedroom. He knew the apartment was better than what she'd been hoping for. The previous owner had paid a fortune for this place, but owning a bar had been his dream so it had been worth it. The bar downstairs wasn't that large, but when that area was converted into just two apartments on the second floor… It was a nice size. That was one of the reasons Schuldig had bought the place.

      Aya stood in the middle of the bedroom, looking around with wide eyes, biting her lower lip because she was so eager for this to work out. Dark blue eyes swept over the neatly made bed, the table in the corner, and the large dresser. There were even shelves- the previous tenants had left most of their furniture behind when they moved. She went over to the windows, pulling back the curtains to stare out at the view, and then ducked into the bathroom. She was practically bursting with excitement by the time she made her way to the kitchen, and he knew that's where she was going to have a problem. The place seemed too good to be true- and it was. She stepped into the kitchen and stopped, realizing then that it opened up into the other room.

      "Ah…" she said, unsure of how to react to that.

      "The people who lived here were related," he told her, giving a vague wave of his hand. "They designed it this way. As long as you stay on your side of the building, it shouldn't be a problem." She glanced at him, obviously not convinced, and then did a slow circuit of the kitchen. She wanted this place. It was perfect. She just didn't know what to make of being connected to a man's room. "Keep in mind that I run the bar downstairs," he told her. "I'm asleep until noon, so I will be passed out while you're getting up and ready for classes. By the time you come home from your classes, I'm at work. The bar runs from five to three, so the chances of you ever actually being up here when I am is slim to none."

      She thought about that, turning that over in his head. He was right; they could live right next door to each other and never see each other if they worked the schedules right. And Schuldig would give her that if that made her comfortable. He would stay away from her for the first few weeks to make sure she wouldn't leave. And then he'd find some way to have fun with her. Besides, he didn't have to see her to be able to reach her mind, and he could poke around all over the place in her head while he was at work.

      She thought long and hard, weighing this place against the options still open to her. "How much?" she finally asked.

      "You pay your own water and electricity," he told her.

      "And the room itself?" she asked.

      "It was empty," he answered. "I have nothing better to do with it."

      She whirled around to stare at him, dark blue eyes wide. "Is that really all right?" she wanted to know, bewildered by his supposed generosity. Generosity had nothing to do with it, but she didn't know that yet.

      "Bring some classmates by the bar now and then," he said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. "Have some people buy drinks once in a while and we'll be square in the end."

      He could have given her a rent. He had been debating numbers in his head. Instead he charged her nothing, and she just stared at him as that tried to work its way through her brain, that he was serious. He gave her a vague smirk, trying to keep the triumphant gleam out of his eyes. Schuldig of Schwarz was now Fujimiya's little hero. He had guessed her age right and he'd listened to her woes tonight. She was down on luck and hope and he'd revealed this place to her, and now he was giving it to her for free. He was everything she needed right now, and there was no way she was going to leave now. She was his to do with as he liked, because now she had an obligation to him. Japanese were silly that way, but it was a useful trait of their upbringing that Schwarz had twisted many times in the past. Fujimiya Aya was his.

      She smiled, the first real smile since she'd gotten here- the first real smile he'd ever seen curve her lips. It was a brilliant expression that lit up her entire face, the kind of look that could charm the birds from the trees. But it didn't warm Schuldig's cold heart and it was all he could do to keep from laughing at her for the situation she'd just unknowingly put herself in.

      "When can I move in?" she wanted to know.

Part 2
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