The car was waiting by the time Aya left the station at Josui. She held her purse over her head as a small umbrella and hurried across the sidewalk towards the gray vehicle as fast as she could go. Moving quickly was still something that was impossible for her; movements such as getting up too fast or scrambling to catch a dropped accessory left her dizzy and nauseous. She didn't allow herself to dwell on the inconvenience of it, instead telling herself that she was lucky to be up and moving around at all. After such a long coma, it was a miracle she was awake again and on her own two feet. And if she'd spent time in a wheelchair, countless hours at physical therapists, and a longer time using a cane to move… At least she'd figured out how to make her slow pace look graceful instead of sluggish. At a time like this, though, she wished she could move just a little bit faster, as she was getting soaked.
Maya got out of the car and met her halfway, holding her umbrella over her head. "Aya!" she chided. "Don't tell me you forgot your umbrella!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry…" Aya offered her a sheepish little grin. "I didn't mean to."
"What am I going to do with you…?" The older girl gave a shake of her head.
"Umm… Help me move in to my new apartment tomorrow?" That got her a curious look. Aya's grin widened and she lowered her purse from her head, lifting one hand to rake dark wet bangs out of her face. "I'll tell you all about it when we get into the car."
When she got into the car, however, she sneezed, and Maya moved the vents so the heater could blow onto her. "You should take a shower as soon as we get home," she said. "While you warm up, I'll make some tea, and then you can tell me all about what you managed to find today. Sound good?"
"Sounds wonderful," Aya answered, holding her wet fingers up to the hot air. "I'm sorry I'm getting your car wet."
"Don't worry about it." Maya lifted one shoulder in a delicate shrug. "I'll dry things up later."
It was a seven-minute drive to Maya's apartment and they shared the umbrella as they crossed the parking lot. Aya paused under the awning to squeeze out the hem of her shirt before following Maya inside, and she went straight to her suitcases to find her towel and some warm pajamas. She got the water running as hot as she could handle and moved the shower head down to its lower hook. She was careful climbing into the tub and she knelt on the floor of it, grimacing at the soreness in her legs. As she let the hard spray beat warmth back into her cold body, she considered her lucky evening. Who would have thought things would turn out so well? The apartment was going to be practically free and it was so close to her university. It was a little strange that the apartments were connected, but she could always find a curtain or something to hang on her end of the kitchen. Just wait until Sakura heard! The girl had become a true friend to her these last several months. She'd offered to come down and help Aya look for apartments, but Aya had wanted to search on her own first. Instead the other girl would come down this weekend with Aya's other suitcase.
When the shaking faded, Aya began the tricky process of getting out of the tub. Once she was up, she was generally all right. It was the up and down that always messed her up. Her knuckles were white on the edge of the tub as she moved one leg over and slid across the side to stand. She moved her grip to the sink for a few moments, making sure the dizziness was gone, and then set about drying off and getting dressed. She met with Maya in the main room and found her tea ready for her, and slowly lowered herself down to her knees to drink. A low table rested between them with their mugs on it, and from the sound of crackling oil, dinner was already started.
"So tell me all about this place," Maya invited. "It must be some deal if it got a smile like that out of you."
"Oh, you have no idea." Aya beamed and took a sip from her mug before explaining. "Remember the bar you took me to last night? I went back there again, and it turns out there was an open apartment on the second floor. Master's going to let me take that one. It's walking distance to campus, isn't that great? But what's better- I don't have to pay rent on it."
Maya arched her eyebrows in surprise. "No rent?" she echoed. "I'd be careful if I were you, Aya. He might expect something else in exchange for such generosity."
Aya gave a snort at that. "He can't have anything else," she said. "I asked him if he was sure and he said he was, that he had nothing better to do with the place. Apparently he was going to turn it into some sort of storage. On top of that, there's our schedules to consider. He sleeps half the day away because of the bar's hours, and I've got class. If I stayed at campus until five to study at the library, I would never see him. So even if he was expecting something, how would he collect?"
"Hmm…" Maya thought that over for a few moments. "No rent at all?"
Aya shook her head. "I'll have to split electricity and water, and if I get internet, that's mine to pay, but nothing else. I'll make sure he writes it up in one of the contracts so I have something to stand on if he tries to change his mind."
"Waaa," Maya sighed. "Lucky! But I can't really say this good luck is undeserved. If anyone needed something good to happen to them, it's you. When can you move in?"
"He gave me the key, so any time. Tomorrow afternoon I'll have to sign some contracts and look into getting an internet connection installed or something… Later I can worry about buying a TV and things like that."
"Shelves?" Maya wanted to know.
"Already there." Aya smiled. "He says the previous tenants had to leave most of their furniture behind. They offered to take it to the recycle shop if Master didn't want any of it, but he paid them to keep the stuff. It's really nice, if a bit mismatched. You can tell men picked it all out."
"'Master'," Maya echoed. "Does he have a name?"
Aya smiled. "I would think he'd have to, but he didn't tell me it. He says all of the customers call him that."
Maya quirked a brow at her friend, a small smile on her lips as she reached for her mug. "For a free apartment, I'd call him whatever he wanted," she agreed, and Aya laughed. "Well, I've only got class for second period tomorrow for my exam, so you can sleep in and then we'll look into getting you moved in and set up. How about that?"
"I'd really appreciate it," Aya returned, bowling low over her mug. "Thank you so much for all of your help."
"A friend of Sakura's is a friend of mine," was Maya's easy response. "Here now, you finish your tea and I'll go check on our dinner." Aya nodded and the older girl rose, tugging at her skirt to straighten it before heading into the tiny kitchen.
Aya considered the reflection in her mug for a long moment, wondering a little at the smile on her face. It felt like it'd been forever since she'd smiled of her own volition and not just so people wouldn't worry about her. She lifted one hand for her mug to trace the expression on her lips and at last lifted her cup in a silent toast, thanking everyone who had gotten her this far, and Master for giving her the next step up she'd so desperately needed. She finished her drink in one breath and set it aside.
"Do you need any help?" she called, raising her voice to be heard over the snapping of oil and vegetables.
"If you can get our plates?" Maya called back.
She propped her hands on the table, bracing herself for the struggle to get to her feet, and didn't let go of the smooth wood until she was sure her legs were taking her weight. She still wobbled a little on the first step and she decided resolutely that she needed to buy a high table. It would make her new apartment cramped, especially when the apartment already came with a low table, but she could justify it so long as she used it as her study desk as well. Chairs would be far easier on her legs than the floor would.
A table, then, and a chair. No, two chairs, because Sakura would need a chair when she came over. Oh, should she buy cushions for the low table, anyway? If she had guests come over, where else would she seat them? She wasn't all that interested in having people at her apartment, but she did have to plan ahead for further down her stay here in Nagoya. It was reasonable to think she'd have friends stop by later in the semester. She considered that as she lifted two plates off of their shelf, gnawing on her lip a bit in thought, then pushed that aside.
Later, she promised herself. She was living on a severely fixed income, so she had to be careful how she spent it.
Just that thought was enough to break her heart all over again, and she went still, staring numbly at the plates. Her brother had worked so desperately hard to support her when she'd been unconscious, taking on two jobs to cover the bills. He'd kept going, clinging to the hope that they'd be reunited one day, and that day had never come. All she had left of him were outdated memories, Sakura's drunken admission of love, and the life insurance Kritiker doled out to her once a month in fifty-thousand yen installments.
I love you, she thought. I love you. I miss you.
She wanted- needed- to cry, but she'd been crying for months already. Tears had never made her feel any better, and none of them had filled an ocean to breach the lands of life and death. Ran was gone and out of reach, and she was expected to keep living here. She owed it to him to keep going, as strong and bright as she could.
But I don't want to. Isn't that unfair of you to ask me to survive like this? About as fair as it had been for Ran, she supposed, living every day without his parents and never knowing if she'd ever wake up again. How did you do it, Ran? How can I be as strong as you?
She flinched at the sound of her name and looked over her shoulder. Maya was standing in the kitchen doorway, looking uncomfortable and worried. The concern in her eyes was aggravating and felt like nails across Aya's raw nerves. People had been looking after her for months, terrified that she was going to fall apart. She couldn't help but think their concern only stemmed out of their love for Ran. Sakura had made it clear to all of the Koneko's customers just how important Aya had been to Ran. She'd meant well and had done it so the girls would treat her kindly and would be careful what they said in front of her. It had worked as she'd intended, but perhaps too much. They all had an investment in her well-being, as if they needed to look after her in Ran's absence. They did it for him, not for her. She should appreciate their devotion, but it made her stomach hurt. She saw their pain and loss every time they looked at her, even if they had only smiles for her.
Their fear that she would fall apart, coupled with the secret fact that she really did want to, was draining. Somehow she managed a smile when she wanted to scream. "Yes, Maya?"
The girl's expression relaxed a little. "You got it?"
"Got it," Aya agreed, brandishing the plates. "I was just wondering if the apartment came with plates or if I'd have to buy some tomorrow. Sorry."
Maya smiled, completely reassured. "No worries."
Sometimes it was too easy to lie to people. Aya knew she should be grateful for it, but for a fleeting moment she was angry. It was a ridiculous burst of emotion, so she forcibly crushed it and carried the plates over to the table. She had to go back to the cabinet for glasses and chopsticks, and she set out napkins at their places. Maya only needed another minute at the stove before she carried the food out, and Aya kept her hands back to let her serve.
"Smells delicious," she said, but she'd lost her appetite completely.
"Really?" Maya gushed, looking straight past the falseness in her voice. "I think so, too." She toted the pan out of there and came back with her water pitcher. Aya poured both their drinks and they dug in, Maya with loud squeals of self-satisfied delight and Aya with appropriate compliments she didn't feel. Dinner felt like a chore.
She washed the dishes while Maya studied. It was a fair tradeoff, since Maya always cooked, and she wanted to feel like she did something around the place. Besides, cleaning kept her mind off her unhappy thoughts. She stared down at water and bubbles and did her hardest not to think about anything. She was afraid to even linger over thoughts of her new apartment, for fear they'd just drag her back to Ran.
She scrubbed harder, choking back on her grief, refusing to think about how unfair things had turned out for all of them. By the time she'd finished the plates and started on the pans, her mind had thankfully gone blank, and she did the rest of the cleaning with a stony heart. Maya waved farewell when Aya turned in for bed early, thinking nothing of it, and Aya curled up on her little futon in the small bedroom.
She lay awake for another hour, staring at her phone and skimming through old messages and stored pictures, knowing she should call Sakura and tell her the good news. She wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone, though, so she tucked the phone under her pillow and went to sleep at last.
She dreamed of explosions and screeching tires, and Ran's body twisted into unnatural poses on the street.
Aya chose to meet Maya at Yagoto station after the girl's summer class got out. It was only ten, which meant Master needed another couple of hours of sleep before he had to get up for the day. That gave them time to do a bit of shopping first, and Aya figured she owed Maya lunch by now. That should waste more than enough time. Besides, Jusco and Chukyo were practically across the street from each other, so they could walk back and teach her the way she'd need to walk to school.
Maya looked exhausted when Aya waved her down at the station and she started complaining about her exam the second she was close enough. Aya listened to it all in avid interest, craving news of school and classes. She couldn't wait to be a part of it all, despite how much the Koneko customers and Maya whined about their lessons. It was a distraction she desperately needed and she'd finally feel like she was doing something again.
The station had a branch underneath Jusco, so they took the escalators up through the basements and then to the house wares floor. Maya forgot about her exam grief the second they started shopping, lost in the girly thrill of it all. Aya found herself buoyed a bit as well, caught up in the fun of buying things and in Maya's enthusiasm.
Mindful of her budget, she kept a mental tally of what they were spending. That math had a hand in what she kept and what she put back, but some things had to be bought despite their cost. The little kitty-decorated plates were cute enough that their price tag could be forgiven. Maya agreed wholeheartedly, and they continued on, buying cotton napkins and chopsticks that would match. Aya even found a lunchbox for when she started the semester in three weeks.
"What about a table?" Maya asked, craning her neck to look at the signs hanging from the ceiling.
"There's one there," Aya answered, "but no cushions." She made no mention of her intentions to purchase a high table. That she could find at a recycle shop for cheap. Besides, she didn't want Maya to know her legs were still bothering her.
"The bed came with some." At the look on Maya's face, Aya nodded. "I'm definitely buying new ones." It would be too strange to sleep on someone else's sheets. Who knew what had happened on that bed? She derailed those thoughts before she could think about them, because she didn't want to start getting heebie-jeebies about the mattress. It was a bed, a real bed, and she didn't want to ruin that. She could just buy a foam mat or something for under the bottom sheet if she didn't want to sleep that close to someone else's mattress.
"Cushion and sheets, then," Maya decided, pointing in the direction they needed.
Altogether it took them just under two hours to finish the shopping, and by then Aya's legs were desperate to sit down somewhere. "Let's get something to eat," she suggested, and they took the escalators back down to the second basement, where the food court was. They ended up getting cheeseburgers and collapsing in one of the booths. They alternated eating and pawing through their purchases, mostly things for Aya but a pair of shoes and some jewelry for Maya.
"Oh, oh, this is all so good," Maya said, holding the shoes out alongside her feet as she imagined wearing them. She'd tried them on upstairs before purchasing them, but it never hurt to look again. Aya thought they were a bit too garish to be pretty, but she knew better than to say so. It meant they'd spend the evening going through outfits as Maya tried to find out which ones went best with them, except-
Except she'd be in her own apartment tonight, she remembered. She'd never had her own apartment before. Even in Tokyo, she'd been living with Sakura. It was a strange, thrilling thought, realizing that this was going to be her own apartment. She could do whatever she liked to it, as long as she didn't intrude too far into the kitchen. Sure, she'd had her own bedroom once she'd turned thirteen and her father had been promoted high enough that they could move into a real house, but this was an apartment. It made her feel like an adult when so few things did these days.
At last Maya stuffed her shoes back in her bag. "That's enough of that!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands. "Let's get you to your place and let you decorate!"
There were seven bags total. Aya tried to take four, since six of the bags were hers, but Maya shook her head and snatched it up. "Leave a free hand," she said. "You'll need to get the door for us."
Aya couldn't help but think Maya was just catering to her lingering weakness, but that wasn't logic she could argue with. She nodded and they took the escalators back up two floors to street level. The store was busy this time of day and their bags made it awkward to get through the crowd. Aya's relief at getting free of it and out onto the sidewalk died the second the first wave of August heat rolled over her.
"Ahhh, I hate summer!" Maya declared passionately.
"Sorry," Aya started to say, but Maya interrupted her.
"Don't apologize! I want to see this new place of yours. I'd have to walk it either way, right?"
Aya nodded and followed Maya over to the crosswalk. A glance to her left showed the main Chukyo University buildings. Across from them, the road curved as it followed above the Tsurumai train tracks towards Shiogamaguchi. Halfway between here and there was the bar, which meant she'd be walking along this busy road every day for school. It sounded easy enough that she couldn't get lost, even when she was miserable with directions, but she still memorized the stores they passed.
They'd come to the bar from Shiogamaguchi the last couple times, since that station was closer to Maya's stop, and with the bar on a curve and pushed back a bit for the patio, they almost walked right past it. The shutter was still pulled into place, with a handwritten sign tacked to it with the opening hours.
"Here," she said, and they slipped through the alley between it and the neighboring apartment building. Aya went up the stairs to the second floor first and had to set her bags at her feet to get the keys out. "He should be awake by now," she said, glancing at her watch before pushing the key in the knob. "He said he gets up at noon. Just in case, though…"
"We'll be quiet," Maya agreed.
They toed out of their shoes as quietly as possible, but it was impossible to be silent when carrying so many plastic bags. They both went still after one particularly loud crinkle, straining their ears to hear if they'd disturbed Master. A second later Aya realized she heard the shower running.
"He's up," Maya noted at the same time, and then she followed Aya into the apartment and saw the kitchen. "Aya, what is that?" she demanded, going still to stare. "I can see his room!"
"I know," Aya said, wincing a little and refusing to look back at the older girl. "It's the only downside to the whole place. He said the people who lived here before him were related, so there was no reason for them to have the connecting wall there. Why do you think I bought so many curtains?" She set her bags down on the floor by her bed and dug through them until she found what she needed. Maya's face was blank in a way that screamed disapproval. Aya pretended not to see it and brought the curtains over to her side. "I'm going to hang this up to block the doorway so he can't see in."
"And at night?" Maya demanded.
"He works all night," Aya pointed out.
"Not all night," Maya sent back. "What if he comes in here drunk one night? He's a man, Aya. Worse, he's a foreigner! You know what they're like!"
"From movies," Aya protested, motioning at Maya to keep her voice down. "Maya, I can't say no to this. I need this apartment. It's exactly what I was looking for."
"And he-" Maya started, but the water cut off then. She stared at the kitchen with that blank look on her face, and then she held her hand out in a demand for the curtains. "This is not a good idea," she said in a low voice. "Does Sakura know about this?"
"I couldn't get in touch with her last night," Aya lied. "I haven't told her yet."
"Let her argue with you, then," Maya said. "Let's get this up first thing. Aya, you realize if he does anything, the police aren't going to help you. They're going to side with him because you practically invited it by living like this. Only thing you have going for you is that he's a foreigner, and they despise foreigners more than they despise women."
"Maya," Aya tried, feeling a sharp flash of panic as the bathroom door opened in Master's apartment. Please, please, let him not have heard any of that.
They worked together to hang the curtains up, a little too aware of the sounds of Master moving around. Maya waited until it was tacked in place before looking at Aya and whispering, "We're going to get you bells and hang them up. Then if you ever, ever hear it jingle in the middle of the night, you call the police. Okay? Promise me."
"Maya," Aya said, but the look on Maya's face dared her to argue. "All right," she agreed. "I promise. I'll sleep with my phone at my pillow."
It wasn't enough to reassure the other girl, but it did stop her from arguing. There was something distant to her the rest of the time they unpacked, though, and the stiffness in her gestures hurt a little. Aya had known the girl wouldn't be happy, but expecting it and having to deal with it were two different things. She was gladder than she should have been when they left the apartment to go buy the bells.
"I'm sorry," she said as they reached the sidewalk. "I know it's a bad idea. I know. But it's the best I can hope for. I'm living on my brother's life insurance, Maya, and going to school on his company's scholarship. I can't afford rent and bills at the same time. Please don't think badly of me. I already promised you that he's not going to get anything from me."
"Your gratitude could blind you."
"My brother would never forgive me," Aya said softly, and that was enough that Maya finally looked at her again. "I would never do anything to embarrass or shame my brother's memory. I won't let him lay a single hand on me." Swearing on graves wasn't something that could be argued with, so Maya kept silent. "Please don't tell anyone," Aya said at last, in a very quiet voice. "No one knows me well enough that they wouldn't jump to conclusions."
Maya's mouth thinned to a hard line and she looked away. She stared at the buildings around them for inspiration and Aya watched her fearfully, heart pounding in her chest. "Fine," Maya said at last, looking back at her. "I won't tell anyone- if, if you tell Sakura. When I call her tonight to talk to her about my exam, I'm going to mention this apartment, so you'd better have told her about it before I do. If you don't, she'll hear about it from me."
"I'll tell her," Aya said evenly, "and Sakura will vouch for me. I'm going to be fine, Maya."
"We're still buying you bells."
"Of course," Aya agreed.
Maya gave up on the argument. Still, as they went back up the street to the store, Aya knew she'd seriously disappointed the girl. It stung, but there was nothing she could or would do about it. It didn't help that Maya's suspicions just put a little bit of fear in Aya's stomach as well. She hadn't really thought that seriously about it yesterday when she'd seen the connected kitchen. She'd thought then that it was improper to share with a male she wasn't related to, but she hadn't really thought that Master could be capable of such a thing. But then, she didn't know anything about him, did she?
Master was cooking in the kitchen when they returned half an hour later with the bells and some groceries. Aya considered knocking on the wall, but that felt silly. "Master?"
"It's open," he sent back, and she wondered if the curtain offended him. She caught the edge and pulled it back enough to look in. He was fully dressed and propped against the counter, hooded blue eyes on his pan. Maya pulled the curtain open further so she could see as well, and the foreigner finally lifted his gaze to them. He looked amused instead of angry, which Aya took as a good thing.
"This is Mikawa Maya," Aya introduced.
"The birthday girl," Master said, waggling an unlit cigarette at her in greeting before propping it between his lips.
Maya smiled at him, giving no sign that she'd had- still had- such fierce thoughts against him. "You remember me."
"I never forget a face," he answered.
"I came by to help Aya move in."
"And don't like the kitchen," Master said. Aya panicked internally, wondering if he'd heard her or if he was just assuming based on common sense. He answered that with the next words out of his mouth. "Safety pins are in the drawer if you need them for the bells."
It didn't make Aya feel any better to see that Maya was flushing as badly as she was. So he had heard them, after all. "We bought some," she managed to say, and she let the curtain fall back into place. Maya covered her mouth as soon as they were out of sight, turning a horrified look on Aya. Aya grimaced back at her. The damage was already done, though, so there was no sense in hiding it. Aya peeled open the packaging on the bells, and Maya started unclipping safety pins. They made a jingly border around the curtain and Aya was positive her face stayed red until they'd put the last bell in place.
"Master?" she tried again.
She cracked it open a bit and eyed his face, looking for any sign of offense or censure. There was none, just that lazy sort of amusement. "I'm no good at legalities," he told her. "That's the best I've got."
She followed the flick of his fingers to see a folder on top of the fridge. She had to step into the kitchen to reach it and Maya was quick to hold the curtain up behind her, not wanting it sliding shut between them. Aya felt terribly awkward and humiliated as she stood at Master's side. She focused on the contracts he'd written up as a way to distract her. Somehow it worked. He'd said he was no good at legalities, but it all sounded very official- official, but dumbed down enough that she didn't feel like he was hiding something in the detailed paragraphs.
They outlined what was expected of each of them as tenants and neighbors, from what space belonged to whom to the considerations they owed each other. There was a disclaimer in there regarding the bar downstairs, a warning that he couldn't guarantee quiet night study hours. She'd expected as much, but she didn't think it'd be too much of a problem. If it was, she could just stay on campus until she'd gotten her work done for the day.
"There's nothing about the customers I owe you," she said after she finished reading the last page.
"Should I have set a quota?" Master asked, dishing his lunch onto his plate. Aya glanced that way instinctively and was privately surprised by how good it looked. For starters, he was a man. On top of that, it was a Japanese dish. She had expected a foreigner to eat foreign foods. For that matter, what did Europeans eat, anyway? She wondered if it would be rude to ask and decided it was best if she looked it up on the internet at school.
"It seems only fair, I think," she said, flipping the stack of papers closed. "You're doing so much for me. It feels like I'm doing nothing in response."
She could feel Maya's stare on the back of her head, but Aya kept a level gaze on Master. She was putting this subtle challenge between them now, needing it clear that he wasn't going to get anything from her aside from whatever he put in writing.
"Then you set the quota," he returned, meeting her stare easily. For a moment there was something- intrusive- about his gaze. It burned straight through her, just as it had that first night at the bar when he'd looked at her and told her how old she was. It was a look that told her he knew exactly what she was afraid of, but there was neither reassurance nor denial in his stare. It was there and gone again in just a blink, leaving her feeling a bit disoriented and embarrassed. "Set the terms yourself if you want something solid to hold on to."
"It seems a bit too generous," Maya said at last.
"You have good friends," Master said, offering Aya a crooked little smile before sliding his gaze towards Maya. "Do you honestly think I would hurt her?"
Maya said nothing immediately. Aya looked from Master to Maya, wondering at the silent stare down and debating whether or not Maya would be honest. At length, though, Maya finally relaxed. "Probably not," she relented, surprising Aya. The girl looked a little sheepish as she switched her gaze to the kitchen counter, and she played nervously with her hair. "I'm sorry."
"Forget it," Master said breezily.
Maya nodded. "Is there anything else I can help with, Aya?"
"I think that's about it," Aya said.
"I'll bring your suitcases over tonight, okay?" Maya asked, and Aya nodded. She'd brought two suitcases down from Tokyo with her and there was no way she could have managed them on the train by herself this morning. Maya had promised last night that she could drive them into town and save Aya the trouble. It felt like too much, but at least it was the last thing she had to ask of Maya.
"Thank you so much for everything. You have been way too kind to me."
Maya smiled, looking cheerful all over again. "Glad I could help," she said. "Just remember that having your own place doesn't make you a stranger at mine. You can come over any time, and I'll be in and out of the city until the semester starts up again, so we can definitely still hang out. You have my number. Don't be afraid to call!"
"I'll call," Aya promised, walking her to the door. Maya gathered up her bag and stepped into her shoes, and Aya walked her out to the balcony. She waved until Maya was out of sight, and then it hit her that she was alone with Master and her new apartment. She felt just a trickle of nerves before ruthlessly squishing it. She wasn't going to let the man see any of those reservations in her, not after everything he was doing for her.
She squared her shoulders and went back inside, leaving her shoes at the step again and locking the door behind her. She considered the curtain for a moment, wondering if she should call out again, and then at last opened them. Master said nothing about the intrusion and instead just arched an eyebrow at her over his plate.
"You're good with chopsticks," she said. It was the first thing that came to mind.
"If I had a yen for every time someone said that," he said, and she felt foolish.
"Sorry," she apologized weakly. "And… I'm sorry about the bells."
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. It didn't make her feel any better. She gathered up the contracts again and carried them into her room, looking for a pen. It took a bit of rummaging in her purse before she could find one, and she read everything through a second time before signing any of it. Master was washing his dishes when she returned. She put the folder back where she'd found it.
"I'll make copies," was all he said.
"Thank you," she answered, and she retreated back to her room.
She sat quietly on her freshly-made bed, staring around at the room as she tried to imagine that it was all hers. It was a little difficult with the noise Master was making in the kitchen, but he wasn't there for long before disappearing back into his own room. The walls were thin and the curtain thinner, but whatever he was doing, it wasn't loud enough to intrude on her private thoughts.
"My home," she whispered to the room, trying to get used to the thought.
She was Fujimiya Aya, economics student at Chukyo University, and she finally had a home.
She looked at her phone, wondering if it was too early in the day to call Sakura, and then decided to wait until Master was gone so she didn't have to worry about being overheard. Sakura, like Maya, was bound to freak when she found out about the kitchen. That wasn't something the kind foreigner needed to hear. Instead she busied herself rearranging things however she liked and imagining where she'd put the rest of her possessions when Maya came by with her suitcases. In the end she ran out of things to do. She knew she should take a walk to familiarize herself with the area, but she was tired from a long morning, so at last she curled up in bed with a book.
She managed to doze off just a couple chapters in, only to wake up at the sound of a door closing. The stairs rattling outside told her it was Master heading down for work, and she made a mental note of how loud even that was through the flimsy walls. She'd have to be careful coming and going for school or she'd wake him up.
She waited until the noise stopped before flipping up her phone and dialing Sakura. The girl picked up on the third ring with a happy hello. "How are things going down there?" Sakura wanted to know.
"Brilliant," Aya admitted. "Really, really brilliant- finally. I met a foreigner at a bar a couple nights ago."
There was a startled pause on the other end. "That was fast," Sakura admitted.
"I don't mean like that," Aya corrected her, and she launched into her story of how she'd met Master and how Master had offered her this apartment. She described the place in detail, including the shared kitchen, and rushed through that to the bells and quick reassurances. Reassurances weren't enough; Sakura reacted twice as badly as Maya did. Aya grimaced her way through the girl's incredulous demands, telling herself that it was honest concern and not any of Sakura's lingering doubts in her strength.
"The world is full of bad people, Aya," Sakura stressed. "Just because you and Maya think he looks like a nice guy doesn't mean anything. People can look really nice and still hide something much darker underneath."
Aya frowned up at the wall. "I believe in him," she said quietly but firmly. "I can't go through life distrusting everyone, Sakura. I read his contracts twice. We have the bells up. I'll always keep my phone charged and at my side."
"I'll find the money to build you a kitchen door."
"I don't want charity," Aya said.
Sakura hesitated at that. "It's not charity," she said. "It's me wanting to look out for you."
"I know," Aya said, wondering how she could possibly make this come across right. "But I know what I'm doing, Sakura. I promise. I have to make my own decisions. I'm an adult, you know. I'm nineteen."
Sakura didn't answer that, hearing the faint accusation in that last bit. They'd become friends partially out of necessity and mostly out of Sakura's adoration for Ran. Because of that, no matter how genuine their friendship had become, Sakura would always look at her like she was Ran's little sister. She'd always look at Aya and see that childish face and the girl that Ran had protected for years. She simply couldn't see past it, and Aya didn't know if she ever would.
"I just don't think it's a good idea," Sakura said carefully.
"If he ever makes me feel uncomfortable, I'll leave," Aya promised. "Maya made it clear that I could go back to her place until I found something else if I ever have to get out of here."
"You could always go to school up here," Sakura started.
They'd had this argument a thousand times. Aya wasn't ready for round one thousand and one. "I needed to get out of Tokyo," she said quietly. "I needed to get away from being Aya-kun's Aya." Oh, how it hurt to call Ran that. Sakura had thought to warn her that that was the name Ran had gone by. It had broken her heart then, and then every other time the Koneko customers had used it. Her dear, dear brother.
"I miss him too much when I'm there," she admitted, scrubbing the heel of her palm against one eye as she willed herself not to burst into tears on the phone. "Tokyo is… was… Ran's home. I can't live there with his ghost, Sakura. I can't live there where everyone knew and loved him. They have part of him that I'll never be able to touch, and I just… I can't stand it."
"I know," Sakura whispered, sounding just as sad. "I know, Aya."
Silence stretched between them on the line, stained by their shared heartbreak and incurable sense of loss. Aya tilted the phone so Sakura couldn't hear her swallowing so hard against her grief. Her watch was ticking softly on her wrist, counting away the seconds, the years since she'd last seen her brother's face and the years until she'd see him again.
I miss you I miss you I miss you
"At least tell me your landlord is ugly," Sakura said at last, a desperate attempt to change the subject back to less painful ground. "That way you won't get tempted."
Aya tried to laugh at that and couldn't. "He's not ugly," she said. "He's…" She stopped and stared up at the ceiling, debating how to describe him. She considered the image in her head, thinking there was something she was remembering about it that was wrong. She frowned a little, wondering at that niggling feeling. "He's European," she said at length. "And dark, almost like us. Black hair and dark eyes."
"Maybe he's Italian?" Sakura guessed.
"Maybe," Aya answered, ignoring the part of her that insisted it was wrong. "All he said was 'Europe'. I can ask him later, I suppose."
"Don't get too curious," Sakura advised her. "You'll come across too friendly. Besides, Europeans are trouble."
"Are they?" Aya asked.
"Oh, yes," Sakura answered grimly. "More than you can imagine."
Aya wondered about that but didn't press. Something in that sour tone sounded more than a little personal, and she wasn't sure she had the right to ask. Instead she let Sakura turn their conversation towards school, and neither one mentioned Ran or Master again. It was an hour before they hung up again, and Aya stayed sprawled out on her bed for a little longer.
Hunger got her moving again and she finally put away her groceries. Dinner was a container of instant udon and she at it at the kitchen counter, telling herself that she needed to learn to cook at some point. She'd never had a reason to learn before; she'd been sixteen when her parents had died and she'd spent the last seven months living with the Tomoes. She'd tried to help out in the kitchen at Sakura's place, but Mrs. Tomoe had always turned her down.
She threw the little box away when she was through and went back to her room, restless but not really sure what to do. At last she climbed back into bed and pushed her window open. She could hear laughter from the bar downstairs and she folded her arms across the windowsill, staring out at a busy street and a busier city.
"Home," she said, testing the way it sounded to her ears.
She just wished Ran could see it.
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