It was a little more jarring to have a housemate than he'd expected it to be, but he blamed most of that on the particular detail of who it was sharing his house. It had been three months since he'd last shared an apartment with anyone. Out of necessity, he'd gradually gotten used to being alone, but he'd never particularly liked it. Telepaths were social creatures, impulsive and reckless and curious. They weren't meant to be loners, no matter that their gifts didn't exactly work well in crowded places. There was a fine balance there and Schwarz had been exactly that. They'd spent years together, only to start breaking apart, and in the end he'd been left alone here.

      Now there was someone else, but Fujimiya Aya was such a far cry from Farfarello's mind that he found it hard to sleep the first night she was in the apartment. His shields relaxed when he was deep asleep, which just made it easier for her mind to press up against his. Her thoughts and her inane little dreams startled him awake as things distinctly unfamiliar to him. Farfarello had certainly never had nightmares about running late to class on the very first day. Her nightmares regarding her brother were much easier to stomach, so he tended to grouchily prod her mind that way whenever she woke him up. He slept better when she was hurting. That was a tune he recognized.

      He knew he had to be very, very careful in those first couple days. He planned on having a lot of fun with Aya as soon as he figured out exactly what sort of game he wanted to play with her. In any case, he needed her in his apartment and somewhat on his side, which meant he couldn't alienate her. For that, he let her have her ridiculous (useless) bells and her privacy. He made no move to seek her out and didn't even call out to her from the kitchen. As amusing as it would be to hear her mental jump, he didn't want to scare her.


      On the second day, he was so pleased with himself that he placed a call to Crawford. For a while he just held the phone and stared at it, wondering if it was worth it. Crawford was on the Council now, after all. He wasn't Schwarz. Hell, none of them were Schwarz at the minute. It had been four months since either of them had spoken, four months of silence and separation after six years together. Crawford had made it clear that it was up to Schuldig to keep himself busy until Rosenkreuz had need of him again, and now Schuldig was interrupting that leave time.

      In the end he dialed, because six years together meant more than four years apart. The man answered on the first ring. "Tell me whether or not I'm wasting my time here," Schuldig said in greeting, mindful to start off in German when Aya was in the next room still. The walls were so thin that there was no hiding anything said in here, and he heard her thoughts stutter to a halt at the sudden foreign words. He could imagine her straining her ear in curious fascination. "If you saw this call coming, it takes all the fun out of it."

      "I saw you would call today," Crawford answered. "I was too preoccupied to discern why."

      "You won't believe who showed up on my doorstep looking depressed and in need of a new best friend."

      "The mental image that stirs up is so disturbing I won't even try to guess."

      Schuldig moved up alongside his window and offered his view a vicious smirk. It had been itching to curve his mouth ever since he'd first seen Aya a couple days ago, but only now, with these walls between them, was it safe to come out of hiding. "A kitten's neglected little sister," he said. "Apparently she's going to school down here now to get away from her brother's rabid mourners. Mourners, I said. Can you believe it? Everyone told her he's dead. All that work and sacrifice, and he's hiding from her. She almost cried herself to sleep her first night here."

      There was a long pause, and then Crawford echoed, "Her first night here."

      "That's the best part," Schuldig said. "Girl needed a place to stay while she goes to school. I was generous enough to rent out half my apartment. Can you imagine the look on his face when he realizes we've got just a wall and a curtain between my bed and hers?"

      "I imagine it will look a lot like yours will when he runs you through."

      "Ha, ha." Schuldig paused and considered that. "Is that a joke or precognition?"

      "Schuldig," Crawford said, in that tone of voice that said he was rubbing at his temple in a try for patience. "What about this makes you think it's a good idea?"

      "You're the one that said to keep myself entertained."

      "Sometimes you're more headache than you're actually worth."

      "Not likely," Schuldig challenged him easily, and Crawford didn't argue with that. "Either way, I'm so impressed by my own cleverness that I needed to share the good news." He heard Crawford give a quiet snort at such words and his smirk relaxed into more of a grin. "Apparently you're not doing so well on that end, though, since I've heard jack-all from you."

      "Things have been busy," Crawford said. It sounded like an understatement, but that was all he said about himself. The Council didn't share their business with their subordinates, no matter what past personal relationships they had. What Crawford did now was none of Schuldig's business. He knew and understood that. "Nagi is about halfway through his course and should be finished this winter. He'll graduate back to field status then, though there is still a question of who he will be assigned to."

      "Hello," Schuldig said pointedly.

      "He has already expressed his interest in reviving Schwarz," Crawford said. "The decision lies with you."

      "It'll be a nice change of pace from bartending," Schuldig said.

      The silence that followed that said Crawford wasn't sure he wanted to ask Schuldig to elaborate. Schuldig scrubbed at his hair, realizing abruptly that Crawford was completely removed from the life he had now. It sent an odd twist through his stomach, like he'd been isolated from everything that he was. Suddenly it seemed completely ridiculous for him to be here, a hundred million miles away from everything he was and was supposed to be doing. He didn't belong in a world like this. He was Schwarz's Mastermind. He was a Rosenkreuz telepath. He was supposed to be changing the world, not mixing drinks and playing token foreigner for some bored university professors.

      He yanked a little harder at his hair and tried to pull himself back together. "Just send him my way when he graduates. I'll be past ready for him by then. Whatever happened to Farfarello, anyway?"

      "He's still on sabbatical in Europe. We're not going to approach him until Nagi's ready."

      Schuldig considered that. "Suppose he'll come back?"

      "Where else would he go?" Crawford asked, and Schuldig accepted that without argument.

      The line went quiet between them as each man tended to his own thoughts. Schuldig was the first to break the quiet with a thoughtful, "Winter, huh?"

      "Be patient for a little longer," Crawford said, as if he could sense his former teammate's fresh burst of frustration. So many miles in between them, but connected by just a phone call, Crawford could read anything he wanted in Schuldig's voice. They'd been together for too long for him to miss the subtle nuances and strains. "We will need your gift again, but I do not have a place for you on the current teams. I would rather have you wait until we are ready to put Schwarz back together again into an unstoppable force."

      "Winter, then," Schuldig said again, as if granting Crawford a huge favor by waiting. "This stray cat will be enough to keep me busy for that long, at least." He heard a door bang closed downstairs and glanced around for the clock. "Time to go, gotta stock the bar for tonight. My cook just arrived and I hate it when he gets there first."

      "Bartending," Crawford said, giving in to his curious disbelief.

      "It's worse than just that: I actually own the place. I'll make you something the next time I see you. Feel free to fear for your life starting now." He hung up before Crawford could say anything else and stared down at his phone. That brush with the precognitive and what his life should be left him feeling restless. He ruthlessly squished the edges of a useless anger and buried his phone in his pocket. Fingers beat out an agitated rhythm on the windowsill.

      "Winter winter winter." Just a few more months and Schwarz would start coming back together again. Just a few more months and the world would be his. He fought to pull his thoughts back from that, knowing he'd drive himself mad. He fueled his energy into anticipation instead and started for the door. Fujimiya Aya was promising enough to distract him until then. The game with her would be fun. The death and destruction following Nagi's graduation would be even more fun. The upcoming year was finally starting to look good, a vast improvement from the merely content monotony of the recent few months.

      Masa was already in the bar when Schuldig arrived. The older man offered him a slight smile in greeting. "You look happy," he commented.

      "We'll be busy tonight," Schuldig said, stamping his time card and hanging it up beside Masa's. Yesterday's storm and his shielding had kept the crowd away, but they were bound to show up in force tonight. The professors would want to talk about the rain and they were bound to get nosey about Schuldig's evening with the three young ladies. They were predictable, at least. He gave them one week before they realized she was here, and that was a very generous estimate.

      Between the two of them, they got the bar up and ready in just half an hour. In true 'hurry up and wait' fashion, it took almost another thirty minutes before the first customers showed up. The next few hours went by slowly but steadily as Schuldig and Masa alternated between the bar and kitchen. Schuldig, as a rule, hated cooking, but today he wanted a reprieve from the role of host so he could think blood and murder. There was an open slot between the kitchen and the bar for him to slip plates through, but it was low enough that the patrons couldn't see the hungry smile on his lips.

      He was feeling pretty good by the time his regulars showed up and was finally up to being somewhat sociable. He had a bet with himself as to which subject they'd approach first and won when they started off with the weather. For as many weeks as they'd been coming here, they'd need a bit of alcohol before starting on talk of young girls and Schuldig's relationships. The gleam in their eyes said they were just barely holding back as it was. He quirked an eyebrow at them, openly amused by their self-censure, but they weren't bold enough yet to take him up on that okay.

      It took just three or four drinks apiece before they started hammering him with questions that grew more personal at a lightning rate. No, he'd never seen the girls before; no, he hadn't gotten their numbers; no, he wasn't sorry; yes, he had slept with Japanese women before; no, he hadn't kept count; no, there wasn't that much difference between them and foreign women except some of the Japanese girls seemed to just lie there like dead things during the act; no, that wasn't normal; no, he wasn't going to hook them up with foreign women, they needed to research on their own.

      Alcohol did wonders to loosen their tongues and it was obvious they'd been wanting to ask a lot of these questions for some time. Now they finally had an excuse and they weren't afraid when their curiosity was shared. Schuldig didn't really care except for the fact that the liquor also seemed to dull their hearing. 'No' apparently meant 'yes' to a tipsy salaryman, because after five times of denying that anything had occurred with those three women in particular, they were positive he had engaged in lurid foreigner-style sex with at least one of them. At first he found it amusing. After the fifth time, though, he was offended by their assumptions. It sounded a bit like splitting hairs on morality, but Schuldig had come to terms with his own hypocrisy years ago. The girl was bossy bitch Fujimiya's kid sister, for Christ's sake. She'd been comatose for years and was currently somewhat disabled from that long sleep. She wasn't even all that cute.

      Not to mention that if they kept this up and got any louder, she was going to hear. If she even suspected that he was aiding in spreading this kind of racy gossip, she'd be gone before he even got off his shift tonight and he'd never get a hold of her again.

      "Hey," he said as they burst into raucous laughter over one off-color joke. None of them heard it, so he enforced it mentally the second time: "Hey."

      The pulse against their minds quieted them down and they all looked his way. They were starting to clue in to the fact that they might have crossed a line, not that they'd apologize. The rule of inebriation in Japan was that it was the only time they could ever cut loose and ignore hierarchy. Whatever happened while one was drunk was expected to be tolerated and forgiven, whether it was yelling at a boss for a stupid decision or feeling up a tipsy secretary. Schuldig had never been one to appreciate that mentality, as he was hardwired to hold grudges. Exhibit A: Fujimiya Ran.

      "Be careful," he said now that he had their undivided attention. "Two of those girls are your students. One is going to be starting three weeks from now, picking up from second semester."

      "That doesn't make them any harder to look at," one quipped.

      "And," Schuldig said, cutting through their laughter, "she lives right upstairs, so she can hear you."

      That shut them up faster than his telepathy had. They stared at him, mouths agape, expressions frozen in shock. Masa dropped something in the kitchen and Schuldig mentally deducted it from his next paycheck when he heard glass shatter. One teacher moved to speak, but Schuldig snapped his fingers to cut him off at the pass.

      "I know what you're thinking. I've answered you five times already so far tonight. One last time I'll advise you to stop insulting my integrity." Jesus, if Schwarz could hear the words coming out of his mouth… "She's brand new down here and she's having a rough time adjusting to being out on her own for the first time. There are two apartments upstairs and I can't pay for this entire building by myself," he said, flicking a glance across the counter and taking in their glasses. A couple interpreted that stare correctly and were quick to slide the cups towards him, silent requests for refills. Not enough volunteered, so he mentally prodded the rest into it. "We both needed a hand. We were just in the right place at the right time. What was I supposed to do, nod along to her story and send her out into the rain?"

      They thought about that for a minute, a little shamed by his mini-speech, and exchanged glances. At last one said, "Shuu is a good man."

      "Very noble," another agreed, taking his empty glass back to toast Schuldig with it.

      "It sounds like a love drama," a third said, and they all started laughing again.

      Schuldig mimed blowing his brains open. He went to collect new beers, doing his best to ignore the cheers that followed him.

      Really need to get out of here and back to the blowing-shit-up scene.


      With three weeks to go before the start of her semester and her apartment nightmare taken care of, Aya resolved to spend her time exploring her new city and finding any possible shortcuts to school. She spent her second morning at the apartment sprawled out in bed with a Nagoya city guide. Maya and Asako had taken her around the city a little, but most of that had been aimed towards finding places to live. They'd had to have some fun around the rest of that fruitless searching, but she'd barely scratched the surface of what Nagoya had to offer.

      She could finally feel excited by the prospect of a fresh start. She flipped through the guide, staring wide-eyed at the colored pictures and recommended tourist spots. She might as well be as touristy as she could afford to be. Once she made friends at school, they'd never want to go to such places, not when they'd grown up here. She kept a notebook at her side and tapped its hamburger-shaped eraser against her cheek, trying to figure out exactly where to start. Since Master needed to sleep through the morning, it sounded best that she do her sightseeing then, so that she wouldn't be around the apartment and making noise that would wake him up. She could return back here for lunch most days, and stop at a convenience store on others, and then the afternoons could be spent recovering from walking so much.

      She started making a list of various places, separating them by which train lines and stations they were close to, and ended up just planning a week in advance when she realized how many spots there were. Tucking her guide off to one side, she rearranged her list based on which ones she thought likely to be the most fun. Osu Kannon seemed fun, except it sounded like it would take hours to fully explore and she wasn't sure her legs were up to that just yet.

      Then again, she mused, tapping her pencil against the paper, I really should go offer some prayers for my good luck.

      That decided, she eased off of the bed and collected her things. She was as quiet as she could be leaving the apartment and started her mental thanks the second she saw how clear the sky was. It took her forever to get down the stairs, since she didn't want them to rattle and wake Master up, but eventually she was on ground level and heading for Yagoto Station. Her thoughts were light and bouncing even if her steps had to be slow. In two days Sakura would be down here and Aya could go collect her at Nagoya Station. That'd give her a chance to explore that area, and she was sure Sakura would want to stop by Nagoya Castle as long as she was in town, which also scratched that off her list.

      She fingered her train pass as she finally reached the station, mentally readjusting her finances for the month to include her sightseeing. She was getting her next stipend in two weeks, just in time for the semester start. Her instant noodle diet helped cut corners, but she really needed to look into getting a job.

      Only happy thoughts today, she thought stubbornly, so she crushed her financial headache and used her pass to get down to the platform. It took a bit of searching to make sure she was in the right half of the station for the Tsurumai line and there were only a few minutes to wait until the train came. This was one of her easiest day trips, with no transfer points, and it took just under sixteen minutes to get there. She wondered how long it would take her to learn the routes as well as she knew Tokyo's. There were infinitely fewer train lines here, with only four major lines, an extended network out to the port, and a new line under construction. That didn't make it any easier when she had no clue how it all worked together.

      She double-checked the maps on the inside of the Osu station, trying to discern which exit she wanted, and then followed the crowd up onto the sidewalk. The temple was just a short walk down the sidewalk and she stood back a minute to stare at the brilliant red building. Flags decorated the courtyard and the area was filled with both people and obligatory pigeons. She dug her phone out of her purse and flipped it open to take a couple pictures, and then moved closer to the temple to get better shots.

      Aya was careful going up the stairs to head inside and joined the small crowd that was already offering prayers. She fished a couple coins out of her purse and tossed them in, gazing through mesh and the faint smoke from incense. She offered well-wishes for her family's souls, gave a bit of thanks for stumbling across Master the other night, and hoped for the best in the upcoming months in Nagoya. It sounded a bit long-winded to her and she was dimly aware of the crowd shifting around her while she remained still, but even after she was finished and sealed her prayer with claps, she stayed still. She closed her eyes and breathed the incense in deep, letting it calm all the nervous tension from her until she was finally feeling good again.

      Look at me, Mom, Dad, Ran. I'm going to make it, I promise. I won't disappoint you. So wait on me a bit longer?

      She was finally ready to start away from there and slipped through the crowd to head back down to the court yard. The labyrinthine Osu shopping streets started on the far side of the courtyard, so she headed that way and let herself get lost for a few hours. She had to stop from time to time and get off her feet, but there weren't many places to sit. She sneaked a seat outside a crepe stand and tried not to catch the eyes of any workers when she wasn't going to buy anything. It smelled so good that her stomach grumbled eagerly and she checked the time on her phone. It was already after noon, which explained why she was hungry. She needed to get back to her apartment and eat or she'd give into temptation and buy a crepe.

      As soon as she was sure her legs would hold her again, she started back to the station and caught a train back to Yagoto. There were escalators that carried her up to street level again and she hesitated there, trying not to grimace at the thought of having to walk another ten minutes. Now that she'd had a chance to sit, both at the shop and on the train, it felt hard to be upright. She wanted to duck inside the nearby café and sit some more, but she forced herself to start down the street to her apartment.

      The longer she walked, the slower her steps became, until she started to honestly fear her ability to make it back to the apartment. She'd been on her feet for months, but she'd never tried pushing it like today. The myriad of stores in Osu had just been too distracting; she'd completely lost track of how much time she'd been moving around and had ignored the warning signs.

      She kept her thoughts on Ran for strength, fighting to stay moving. She made it home on sheer willpower alone and then collapsed there against the railing, gasping for breath. She clung desperately to the railing, leaving over it in an attempt to take her weight off her legs and keep from falling down. She tried to plant her feet better, but she had no control over them and felt nothing but burning from her thighs down. Helpless, agonized tears pricked at her eyes and she blinked them back.

      Get it together, crybaby! she chastised herself. Ran would be embarrassed by you getting weepy over this!

      Frustration sharpened to mortification just a second later, when Master's door opened and the foreigner stepped out. He shuffled over to the balcony railing and propped himself against it, looking fresh from bed in a pair of sleeping pants and nothing else. She fought to straighten, not wanting him to see her like this, but her legs didn't care about pride. She pasted as calm an expression as she could on her face and offered up a level, "Good afternoon."

      He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Sick?"

      "No, just… resting. Did I wake you?"

      "Sounded like something fell out here," he answered, neither a yes nor no. "Funny place to rest when your room's up here, hm?" She cast about for an excuse, but he was already speaking. "I have something to tell you. Should I talk at you from up here or wait until you make it up the stairs?"

      "I'll be up in just a minute," she promised. It was best for both of them if he went inside as quickly as possible. On top of this humiliation, he was just a bit distracting without a shirt on. The last man she'd seen shirtless had been Ran, and Master looked far different. He had definition and muscles where Ran had been smooth and it was hard not to stare in fascinated curiosity. The fact that he was a stranger just made it feel indecent.

      Either she really was staring, or she just looked ridiculous slumped there, but an amused smirk twitched at Master's wide mouth. "I'll wait, then," he said, and he disappeared back inside.

      Aya sagged a bit further against the railing, mentally berating herself for her stupidity. Annoyance didn't get her to her feet any faster, but he didn't come out to check on her again when she took more than just a minute to start moving. She ended up half-crawling up the stairs and slumped down right inside her door to rub at her legs.

      The shower was going in Master's room, which meant it was safe to crawl into the kitchen and finally take care of her gurgling stomach. She couldn't reach the cabinets that had her instant lunches, so she ended up taking a package of cold udon out of the fridge and digging mismatched chopsticks out of the door Master had cleared out from her. She crawled back into her room and propped herself against her bed, heaving a sigh of relief that she could finally stop moving. Lunch was a bit miserable between the pain and such plain noodles, but she picked at it just the same.

      She set her garbage and chopsticks off to one side when she was finished and listened to the sounds of Master getting ready. It was alarmingly easy to hear everything he did, down to the rustling of his clothes. It made her think about yesterday afternoon's phone call, and that funny language that hadn't been Japanese. She'd heard Italian in movies, and that definitely wasn't it, so at least that scratched that off the list of possible nationalities.

      Just the thought had her frowning in confusion and she raked her fingers through her short locks. She distinctly remembered telling Sakura that Master had dark hair and dark eyes, but… Why had she said that, when he was, in fact, so bright? It wasn't like she could have forgotten what he'd looked like!

      Ah, but she wasn't happy about me rooming with a foreigner in the first place, she told herself. If I'd told her he was a foreigner who looked so… rebellious? It would have only made things worse. She's too conservative sometimes.

      Even still-


      Her hand froze in her hair and she stared at her kitchen curtain, disbelieving that he'd already resorted to calling her by her first name. He spoke it casually, as if there were nothing at all wrong with it. Belatedly she realized that he simply didn't know better; it was a foreigner's typical misstep. Irk her or not, she couldn't call him out on it without risking embarrassing him. At length she lowered her hand to her lap and raised her voice to call back, "Yes?"

      "Just thought you should hear this from me," he said, poking at the curtain from his side to make the bells jingle. It made her wonder if he was mocking her fragile security system, but she hushed that thought. "The professors found out last night that you live up here. One of them saw you the day you were moving in. I thought it a lesser evil to clear things up than to let them assume you and your friend were coming to my apartment."

      Aya flushed and covered her mouth in horror. She'd known she wouldn't have been able to hide her living arrangements forever, but to be found out in the first couple days-! And what the professors had automatically assumed-

      The full weight of that hit her. "Professors," she choked out.

      "We bleed schools along the Tsurumai line," he said. "A lot of my customers tend to be teachers. Most are from MeiDai, but they bring their colleagues from Chukyo pretty often."

      Aya wondered if it was at all possible to sink into the floorboards.

      He laughed at her silent response. "No worries," he promised her, and tugged the curtain open a bit to peer in at her. She was too numb to tell him off for that intrusion. His smile was amused and she didn't appreciate it. Of course he wouldn't care what they thought; he was a man. He probably lapped those rumors right up. "I explained the situation. I won't lie and say they were thinking innocent things; I know you know better. But I did set them straight. I do have a reputation to uphold, you know, and a stereotype to avoid."

      She felt ashamed then for assuming the worst of him, but that was fleeting among the rest of the emotional mess. No matter what he might have told them, they'd still assume she was easy. "Thank you."

      Such thoughts must have shown on her face, because Master pushed the curtains open a little further. "I won't let them think badly of you."

      She eyed him, suspicious all over again. "Why?"

      "I'm a foreigner in Japan," he said, as if that made all the difference. "I know what assumptions and first impressions can do to a person. I know some prejudices can be impossible to overcome. If they bother you, just let me know."

      "Thank you," she said again, quietly, though she doubted she could ever confide such a thing in him. It would be embarrassing and she hardly knew him. Her smile must have looked convincing enough, though, because he disappeared. The bells jingled softly in his wake, and Aya was left alone to her unhappy thoughts. When she could stand up again, she just moved up into her bed, and she buried herself under her blankets.

      I brought this on myself, she thought sadly, staring at interwoven red and purple threads. She sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes, holding onto her embarrassment for a few seconds longer, feeling out just how deep it ran, and then slowly, forcibly, tried to let it go. Ran had always told her that wishing things were different would never change things. If something went wrong, it was up to her to make it better, no matter what it took. If it was her reputation at stake here, then she'd just have to find a proactive way to make it better. She had to fix it, because she wasn't giving up this apartment. It was everything she needed it to be.

      That meant starting with the professors, then, and any patrons that might give her or Master trouble for her living here. Master had said he'd want her to stop by for drinks now and then, anyway, so it looked like she'd be getting to know the teachers. The thought made her stomach quiver, but the sound of pots and pans clattering in the kitchen reminded her that Sakura would be down here in just a couple days.

      Right, she told herself, feeling a bit better. I'll bring Sakura with me. Power in numbers.

      After all, Ran had never said that she had to set things to rights on her own.


      Apparently, Ran hadn't said it, but fate certainly believed in such things. Aya was picking out her Saturday clothes that Friday night when her phone rang. Aya saw Sakura's name on her screen and thought the girl was calling her to finalize details about their meeting tomorrow. The second she answered and heard Sakura's voice, she knew something was wrong. The other girl wasn't good at hiding her emotions and there was a definite strained edge in her cheerful greeting.

      Aya skipped her greeting to go straight to a worried, "What's wrong, Sakura?" The other girl hesitated, startled a bit by her own transparency. In the second it took her to collect herself, Aya clued in. "You're not coming, are you?"

      Sakura lost her false perkiness immediately. "Oh, Aya," she said, and she choked a little on Aya's name. "I'm so sorry. I meant to come. I want to come. It's just, I just got the news that- my cousin was in an accident. He's in the hospital, and I just, I don't think I can leave him. I'm so, so sorry. Please, forgive me? I wanted to see you, and I know you want your suitcase, but I-"

      "It's fine, it's fine," Aya reassured her, interrupting the other girl's babbling. Sakura sounded so miserable that she couldn't be upset by the abrupt change in plans. The next words out of her mouth still stung, but for entirely different reasons. "You need to be with your family. Visitors are as vital as medicine to a patient, you know?"

      "I'm sorry," Sakura wailed.

      "It's fine," Aya insisted. "I'm more worried about your cousin! What happened? Is he going to be okay?"

      "There was an accident at his construction site," Sakura said, and Aya wondered if she'd ever heard of this cousin of Sakura's before. She couldn't remember and it made her feel a bit guilty. "The doctors say he'll recover fully. It'll just take a little time."

      "Stay with him as long as you need to," Aya said. "Your family's more important than my clothes. You can always come later; I've got more than enough to last me until the start of the school year."

      It took several more minutes of Sakura apologizing before Aya could convince her she wasn't angry. She hung up her phone and set it off to one side to stare at her closet. At length she hung her blouse back up. She knew the next free time Sakura had wasn't until after her semester had started; they'd picked this weekend just because they were Sakura's earliest days off. She eyed her closet and decided she hadn't been lying; she did have enough to last her if she made sure to wash her laundry a couple times before then.

      It was just a little disappointing, though, that she wasn't going to see the girl. She and Sakura weren't exactly best friends, but Sakura was the closest friend she had. She'd made all sorts of plans for their weekend. Now it all had to be set aside.

      Don't be selfish, she warned herself. Her cousin needs her.

      A burst of particularly loud laughter startled her out of her thoughts and she flicked a look towards the window. She thought about Master and his patrons and worried her lower lip between her teeth. Waiting until Sakura got here was out of the question, now. That was three weeks for the customers to start thinking strange ideas. She rubbed at her arm, trying to screw up the courage she needed, and at last went to consider herself in the bathroom window.

      She thought about changing, then thought she didn't want to dress up, and then realized she didn't want to look too dressed down, either. It'd imply something much more casual than things were. Vaguely annoyed by her indecision, she headed back to the closet and pulled out tomorrow's clothes. It didn't take long to get dressed, and just a little more time to touch up her make-up, and then she gathered up her purse and headed downstairs before she could chicken out.

      She'd thought it sounded busy, but she forgot to take into account the fact that it was Friday night. The bar was packed, with every table full and every seat at the counter taken. Even the small tables at the patio had people at them, leaving just one or two chairs free. Master was making rounds, handing out drinks to customers. He was the first to turn when he heard the bell, but his coworker was the first to call out a greeting.

      Master didn't look at all surprised to see her; he just lifted his little finger from one of his glasses and waggled it in hello. She knew they were neighbors, but idly she wondered if that affected the way he treated her here. Was there still the deference of customer and host, or was it more relaxed when they lived right next door? She was very friendly with Sakura whenever the girl stopped by the Koneko no Sumu Ie, but they were friends. She and Master weren't exactly friends. Or were they? Didn't foreigners have much looser ideas of what friendship meant? Oh, she didn't know, and she wasn't sure how to bring that up with him.

      "Oh, oh!" came the shouts from the bar, and she recognized some of the faces that turned her way as customers from her first trip here. They raised their glasses in toasts and she forced a thin smile on her lips in return. Stepping further into the bar was harder than she thought it would be when faced with such familiarity. Somehow she made it from the bar to the counter, though. "Come sit with us, come sit with us."

      One was already getting to his feet, ignoring her reassurances that she was fine standing. It would be awkward to decline now that he'd already gotten up, so she took a seat on the stool.

      "Fujimiya, yes?" one of the teachers asked, bowing low over the counter, and the rest followed suit. Aya returned it, bowing as low as she could in such a crowded space. "Shuu says you are his neighbor now. How lucky, to have such easy access to a bar! My wife would leave me if I were so lucky, but it would be a fair trade!"

      'Shuu'; she realized with a start that that was his name. All she'd had this week was his 'Master' moniker. That was how he'd introduced himself, after all, though she decided then that he'd skipped his name when he'd thought she would just be passing through. Or was Master his last name? Maybe it was best to keep calling him that.

      "Let us buy you a drink, in pity that you have to live near him," another professor said. "Anything you like!"

      "Oh, I couldn't accept that," she protested, but the rest of the crowd egged her on. A flash of orange at the edge of her eye warned her that Master had just returned. He slipped behind the bar and offered her a lazy smile, all amusement at her expense. She glanced at the teachers again, who kept motioning towards Master. She ended up just getting a beer, out of a lack of any real inspiration, and that spurred an argument among the teachers as to which of them would pay.

      "They're a mess," Master told her as he slid the bottle her way.

      Loud protests followed that, and then there was a chorus of introductions. Six of the men were indeed teachers, four from Nagoya University right up the road, and the other two from Chukyo. They asked her a million questions about the upcoming semester and her planned studies, and then wanted to know what she thought of Nagoya so far. The conversation never again strayed towards her living situation, nor did they make any inappropriate remarks, and slowly she started to relax. Master must have talked to them like he'd promised he would, and her faith in him was guiltily and hastily restored. She let them buy her another drink or two, and then wondered just how many she'd let them buy her, because she was giggling like mad at whatever they said. They were pleased by such an easy audience and started talking over each other, wanting to be heard.

      Master said something at some point that got a yell from one of the men, but she didn't understand the language it was in. "Oh," she said without thinking. "I can't remember any of my English."

      "What, what? It isn't English," Morita told her. "It's German. He's German! I speak German. Sometimes we speak German. Here!" He jabbed a finger at the counter and swayed a bit unsteadily. His companion caught hold of his shoulder to keep him upright. "Do you speak German?"

      "I've never studied," she admitted.

      "You should study it!" Morita insisted, thumping his fist on the counter next. "I teach German at Chukyo. You can be my student. We will teach you everything Schuldig thinks a young girl shouldn't know how to say."

      "Shuru… Shu… ru-de…" she tried, tripping over it.

      They roared in laughter at her mangled attempts. "Shuu!" Takeda told her. "Shuu is easier! No one wants to learn how to say that Shurujurudehiki nonsense!"

      "Schuldig! It means guilty!" Morita said, and Aya had the distinct impression that he'd just crossed a line. She wasn't sure where the thought came from, especially when she was past tipsy and spinning quickly towards drunk, but she glanced Master's way just as Morita spouted off that little lesson. There was something sharp in the corners of his smile and his smirk just twisted wider as the teachers started demanding reasons for such a name.

      "You morons get nosier every day," Master said, raising his voice to be heard. Aya gaped at such a blunt assessment, but the teachers just laughed it off. They let it drop, though, realizing it wasn't open to discussion.

      Curious, Aya thought, intrigued despite herself. Why would someone be named—


      The name was already gone; it was simply too difficult for her mind to hold onto. She frowned a little at her failing, then let it slip away. He'd said to call him Master, after all. She might as well just stick with that.

      "He's rude sometimes," Takeda confided in her, "but he is a good man. Don't be afraid of him!"

      "Your delusions amuse the shit out of me sometimes," Master informed him, and Takeda just grinned and clapped Aya's shoulder encouragingly. Master set another glass down in front of Aya, though she didn't remember ordering one. She didn't really think to question it and instead started sipping from it. "They'll make me out to be a good guy. Don't let them fool you."

      Aya just nodded, giggling a little when the rest of the teachers started laughing, and the conversation resumed. It wasn't until the crowd started filtering out to catch the last train that she started realizing just how much she'd had to drink. She had to hold on to the counter when she bowed farewell to the teachers, and then she let her dizzy head rest on the surface after they were gone. Local customers made no signs of moving, but the place had thinned out to just five people to serve.

      "Holding up all right?" Master asked her, and she hummed in response. "We'll make a lush of you yet."

      "Is that a good thing?"

      "Figure it out for yourself," he said, and she nodded, or tried to.

      "I might get sick," she volunteered.

      "There's a bathroom stall," he answered, and she nodded again. It took her another minute to realize she was supposed to be getting to her feet. "Maybe you should go to bed."

      "Maybe I should," she agreed. "Do we have an elevator?"

      He snorted at that. "Not likely, princess."

      She thought about that. "Am I? A princess, I mean."

      "Why not?" he returned breezily.

      "Then what does that make you?"

      "Isn't it obvious?" he asked. "I'm the dragon."

      She smiled dopily at that. "I don't think so," she disagreed. "You've been the greatest thing in Nagoya so far. You made things possible for me here. Dragons are big and fire-breathing and scary and terrible things."

      "Everyone's got to have a few flaws."

      "They kidnap and eat princesses."

      "Maybe the princesses like being kidnapped. Maybe they even ask for it sometimes."

      She thought about that, interested in the possibilities despite how ridiculous such a conversation really was. "You think so?"

      "Why not? You think the knights ever ask before they run the dragons through?"

      "No, I guess not. Are you really so terrible?"

      "The worst sort you'll meet."

      "I don't believe that."

      "Your prerogative." He rinsed her empty glass out. "I'm doubting your ability to make it up the stairs."

      "I am, too. Can I just wait here?"

      "Not if you're going to get sick all over my counter."

      She thought about that, then tried to push herself upright. Just sitting up made her dizzy. She started to get to her feet, but she couldn't really feel them. "What if I cleaned it up afterwards?" she wanted to know.

      He just looked at her and she offered him a weak smile. At last he sighed and came around the counter, holding his hands out to her. She started to reach out to take them, but he moved them out of the way. "Arms up," he said. Confused, she obeyed. He reached forward again and caught her under her arms to lift her. It was a bit too fast and she latched onto him as he held her up against her chest, blinking rapidly against the darkness that swirled across her vision.

      "This is embarrassing!" she protested when she realized he intended to carry her upstairs.

      "This is me not wanting girl-puke all over my counter," he said. "Get your purse."

      They were being stared at, but she couldn't make it upstairs on her own, so she grabbed at her purse and buried her bright-red face against his shoulder. He smelled like alcohol and smoke and cologne and it sent a funny shiver down her spine to her stomach. Later she'd be completely mortified by her actions, but she was too drunk to think twice about turning her face further into his neck. She hadn't been held by anyone since… She couldn't even remember. It was embarrassing being toted about like a child, but it felt a little comforting, too, like she wasn't quite alone.

      She didn't remember leaving the bar, and she had no clue how Master got them upstairs. One second she was relaxing into his grip, and the next, he was carrying them through the kitchen from his apartment. He set her down in the bathroom and she folded her arms across the toilet seat, blinking a little as she tried to figure out where she was.

      "Now you can puke," he said.

      She peered up at him. "Are we friends?" she asked unthinkingly.

      He gazed back at her as if caught off-guard by that. For a moment she thought she'd offended him by such a blunt question, except the look in his eye was almost calculating. At length he offered her a smirk that was all teeth. "Sure, Aya," he answered. "We're anything you want."

      "Oh, good," she answered drowsily, and she was asleep against the toilet before he'd even left her room.

Part 4
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