It was days before Aya saw Master again, mostly because she went out of her way to avoid him. She was too embarrassed over her night of drunkenness to want to see him again so soon. She left before he was up, came back when she knew he'd already be at the bar, and stayed in at night. On the third night, the professors serenaded her from the patio downstairs, but she feigned to be asleep so she wouldn't have to go down there. She felt like she was being more than a little rude, but she wasn't ready yet. She knew even as she sprawled in bed that she couldn't avoid any of them forever, but she could worry about making amends another day.

      In the afternoons she continued exploring the city, seeking out as many free things to do as she could. She spent a lot of time at the parks and wandering through underground shopping malls, and more time standing down the street from her university. She sat in cafés, drinking tea and people-watching, and imagined what life would be like once her lessons started. As the days wore on, she grew increasingly lonely. She was used to the bustle of the shop, no matter that the affection and attention were all obligatory. She wanted to be around people again. She wanted to talk and laugh with friends.

      She quietly told herself to hold out a little longer, at least until the semester started. Then, surely, she'd start meeting new people. She'd finally have people she could hang out with again, and these people wouldn't know anything about her brother. They'd talk to her just because they liked talking to her, and there wouldn't be any awkward pity in their eyes.

      It made her feel guilty, but she told herself it was what Ran would want.

      As the second week drew to a close, though, she couldn't stand the seclusion anymore. She pushed her window all the way open and breathed in a night breeze that was finally starting to cool off. The streets were lit with headlights and streetlamps and she watched clumps of people wander this way and that. Laughing voices and jangling ring tones filled the air, and she leaned over the sill as if it would bring her a little closer to such lives. Listening to them laugh made the breeze seem cold and she felt completely cut off from the warmth of friendship.

      Right on cue, a voice shouted: "Ahhh, Fujimiya is going to jump!"

      She started a little and looked down. It seemed the professors were taking advantage of the slowly-cooling days by bringing their party out onto the patio. They were gathered around a few tables with piles upon piles of empty glasses around them. A couple waved rather enthusiastically.

      "Long time no see!"

      "Fujimiya, don't jump!"

      "Come drink with us instead!"

      She stared blankly down at them, lost for words, and then Master shifted into view to see what was going on. She just barely managed to stop herself from ducking out of sight when she saw his orange hair. The lights pouring out of the front of the bar cast a warm yellowish glow on his face and highlighted the amused smirk he offered her. She had the distinct feeling he was laughing at her and she could feel herself flushing in both indignation and embarrassment. Hopefully she was far enough away from the light that they couldn't see the color in her cheeks.

      "It feels like a play!" Kanazawa declared, getting to his feet. The literature teacher pressed a hand against his chest and held the other out towards her, affecting a dramatic expression. "Like Romeo and Juliet! How does that song go?"

      "If you start singing again, you're all going home," Master warned them as he started collecting glasses. "You chased off half of my customers last time."

      "Then you sing!" they encouraged him. "Sing, sing!"

      Master just stared at them as if they'd sprouted second heads. "I don't sing."

      "Sing! Ahaha! Sing us something in German!"

      "No, sing us some Tokio! Kat-tun! Be a Johnny, Shuu!"

      Aya giggled at the look on Master's face and muffled the sound behind her hand. The professors couldn't hear her over their attempts to be heard over each other. Master was just staring at them with growing disbelief as they continued to throw out names of the day's more popular bands. They finally settled on one and started chanting. The German bartender resolutely went back to cleaning up and disappeared inside his bar with an armful of glasses. That didn't discourage his customers and they just grew louder.

      Master moved back into view and turned to look up at Aya. The teachers went quiet immediately and leaned forward with expectant looks on their faces. "Have some pity on a guy and just get down here," he said. "They'll never shut up if you don't."

      She hesitated, thinking she should decline, but there wasn't really a polite way to do it. Even as that thought flickered across her mind, she realized she was feeling better now than she'd felt in a week and a half. She straightened and nodded, offering him a shy little smile. "Okay," she agreed. "I'll be right down."

      Cheers followed her as she went back into her room and she stopped in her bathroom to consider her reflection. She'd dressed up to go out earlier, only to change into more comfortable clothes upon her return to her apartment. There was no way she was going downstairs looking like this, so she planted herself in front of her closet to examine her choices. It took longer than it should have to get changed, and another minute more to reapply her makeup. She ran her fingers through her short hair, then gave in and brushed it smooth, and finally plucked up a matching purse to complete her outfit.

      She paused beside the door to count her money, knowing she had to pay for her own drinks tonight. She didn't have much left on her, but she was going to get a payment from Kritiker in just a couple days. She had plenty of noodles in the cabinet to last her until then, though the thought of continuing such a diet for much longer made her stomach hurt. At least she was losing weight, not that she honestly thought she had much to lose.

      Need a job, she reminded herself. Soon.

      She toed into her shoes and let herself out, mindful to lock her door behind her. She held on to the railing on her way down to the ground floor and slipped through the alley to come around from. The professors cheered again when they saw her and she tried to ignore the stares such sounds drew from passer-bys. The cook, Mimura Masa, called out a cheery greeting as she let herself in the door. Master was behind the counter making drinks, but the teachers had already found an empty seat for her.

      "You should ask Shuu to sing for you," Takeda said as she sat.

      "How about 'no'?" Master called across the room.

      "Do you sing, Fujimiya?" another wanted to know.

      "I'm terrible at it," she admitted, "but I love going to karaoke."

      "I think maybe Shuu is terrible at it, too," Takeda confided in her.

      Master came back with a couple glasses and set them down. "I'm fantastic at everything I try," he said. "But people like me wouldn't get caught dead singing. It'd ruin my reputation."

      "Maybe he has to be drunk first?" Kanazawa wondered.

      Master gave up on them as lost causes and turned on Aya. "Something to drink?"

      "Just a fuzzy navel, please," Aya requested, and he disappeared again to mix it. As soon as he was out of sight, the professors tried playing catch-up on her life. They wanted to know what she thought of Nagoya now that she'd been here longer. She was sure she had to be boring them when she told them where she'd gone in her days since their last meeting, but they nodded along and chimed in their opinions on her various trips. Some started scribbling out places and restaurants they thought she must visit, and she didn't realize she'd gone through her drink until she was laughing into her glass and tasting coconut.

      She sent a startled look at the cup, noticing that it was full of a white drink. "Oh," she said, embarrassed. "I picked up the wrong drink."

      "That's yours," Master said from somewhere behind her, and she jumped a little at how close he was. A glance over her shoulder showed he'd sat at the next table over, turning a chair around so he could prop his arms along the back of it. "Morita ordered it for you. They've already called dibs on your next five drinks."

      "Oh," she said again, dismayed. "I can't accept that! I can buy my own drinks."

      "We want to buy them for you!" Hoshikawa called from further down the table. "It's fair trade, since we dragged you down here when you were busy."

      Master's smirk was amused and he tilted his head just enough to hide the expression behind his arm. It didn't help much when his blue eyes were laughing at her. She looked from him to her glass, then back at the professors. They were beaming at her, pleased with themselves. She was grateful for their kindness, but more than that, there was a small wash of something close to annoyed. She didn't like intruding on their wallets like this, and she certainly didn't want them to think she expected them to do this for her. If she continued coming here, they'd continue paying for her, even if it was because they wouldn't know how to stop. She wondered how quickly she could extricate herself from their company. It had been a mistake to come down here.

      "Let them, at least for tonight," Master said at her ear, low enough for just her to hear. "They have honest intentions. Free drinks are never anything to cry over."

      She turned to face him without thinking and jumped when she banged her nose into his cheek. She clapped a hand over her nose and jerked back in her chair, stumbling over apologies. Master stared at her for a second, then started laughing. Her words died in her throat as she stared at him, and the professors went quiet to watch in avid fascination. Master's shoulders were shaking with mirth and he had a hand over his face as if trying to muffle the sound.

      He had, Aya thought distantly, somewhere deep beneath her embarrassment, a really, really nice laugh.

      He got himself together in just a couple seconds and dropped his hand to where it just covered the wide smirk on his mouth. His eyes were glittering as he considered her, and she could feel her cheeks heating up all over again.

      "You really are something," he decided, getting to his feet.

      She wasn't sure what that meant, but she flushed a bit more. "I was trying to apologize," she said plaintively. "Don't laugh at me for that!"

      "Maybe I'm laughing with you."

      "But I wasn't laughing," she protested.

      "Ahh, my mistake," he said. "I'll buy you a drink to make up for it."

      "No," she said impulsively, "I'll buy you a drink instead. I'm the one that bumped into you." He hadn't expected that, judging by the way one eyebrow disappeared under his orange bangs. She took a small thrill in surprising him, though she didn't know why, and lifted her chin. "What do you want to drink?"

      The teachers looked surprised. "Can Shuu drink?" Morita asked. "We've never seen it."

      Master sent him a pitying look. "I'm German," he said, as if that explained everything. Aya guessed it did, but she had no clue. Morita was nodding, though. The foreigner glanced Aya's way again, studying her for a moment, and she got the idea he was about to turn her down. She wasn't sure where the thought came from, but she wagged her finger at him to cut him off at the pass.

      "Free drinks are never anything to cry over!"

      His mouth twitched a little into a smirk and he shrugged at her. "I suppose not," he said. "Are you picking it out or am I?"

      She considered that for a moment, then got up and followed him over to the bar. The professors all tagged along, seemingly fascinated by this new game. Aya stared up at the rows of bottles, not sure what ninety percent of them were but not wanting to admit that. She ended up not having to, since the teachers started offering suggestions and pointing out various bottles.

      "Absinthe!" one said at last, thumping his fist on the counter.

      Aya didn't know what it was, but she liked the sound of it, so she nodded. Master lifted a bottle down and set it in front of her for her consideration. She picked it up, studying the delicate picture on the label, and unscrewed the lid to sniff at it. That was a mistake, and she had to duck her head to sneeze. The professors roared with laughter and clapped, and Master set out two glasses: one a shot glass, and the other a small cup. She passed the bottle back to him and watched as he poured, fascinated by the green color.

      "One for you," he said, sliding the glass her way. "It's supposed to be drunk with sugar and water, but straight's not so bad, either."

      She picked the small drink up and turned it this way and that. "It's pretty," she said admiringly, and she didn't miss the way the teachers nudged each other. Master set the bottle aside and picked up his own serving, which had to be four or five times what she had. He said something she didn't understand and clinked his glass against hers, and they drank as one.

      Aya started coughing the second she swallowed and she clapped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes watered and her mouth burned, and she stared disbelievingly as Master drained his like it was water. The professors cheered and gave them both a round of applause.

      "You win," Aya said weakly.

      "I always do," Master assured her, clearing away their glasses and the bottle. "Five hundred yen."

      She had a feeling he'd drank more than five hundred yens' worth, but there wasn't a polite way to argue, so she handed the coin over. "What was that, that you said?"

      "Cheers," he answered, tucking the coin under the counter to be dropped in the register later.

      "We'll teach you German!" Morita insisted, bringing up the same argument from last time. "Are you going to study it? I will teach you. Say ich liebe dich." Aya stared blankly back at him, not even sure where to start in imitating those sounds. Morita nodded, expecting that confusion. "Ich," he said again, enunciating more clearly. "Ich, ich."

      "Don't teach her that useless phrase," Master said. "Start with something more sensible."

      "It's not useless!" Morita complained. "It means 'I love you'."

      "I know what it means, dimwit."

      "Don't you believe in love?" Takeda asked.

      Master gazed back at them as if he couldn't believe they'd asked him such a thing. Aya froze in the act of clipping her coin purse closed, gazing up at him. Barely anything had changed on his expression, but something about it seemed—colder. Not angry or offended, but as if he was suddenly looking at them all from a thousand kilometers away. It reminded Aya keenly of herself and she wondered desperately what had happened to put him at such a distance. The professors didn't seem to notice and just stared back, content to outwait him.

      "No," Master said at last. "I think it's one of the stupidest things man has ever dreamed up."

      "That's because you haven't met the right girl yet," Kanazawa said, giving a sage nod.

      Master offered him a vague smirk that bordered on condescending and scooped the coin up, opting to ring it up now instead of later. As soon as he turned away, Morita turned back on Aya. "One more time!" he encouraged her. "Ich! Ich!"

      By the time the group left, Aya had a dozen words and phrases swirling around her tipsy brain and she was sure she wasn't going to remember any of it in the morning. She waved the teachers off and waited until the last one had left before slowly turning to study Master. The man was clearing the tables of all the teachers' empty glasses. It wasn't until he'd set them all out on the counter to be washed and was wringing out a washcloth to use on the tables that she found the courage to speak.

      "What about your family?" she asked, clinging tight to the strap of her purse. It felt rude to ask when she barely knew him, except- except Master had said last time that they were friends. That meant she could ask, didn't it? She'd already told him almost everything about herself. "Don't you love them?"

      He offered her a look that was almost coolly amused. "What family?" he asked. "I've never met them."

      Oh, she thought miserably. He was an orphan.

      "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I shouldn't have asked."

      He just shrugged and went to wipe the table. "It's not like I care."

      She considered that. "Don't you?" she asked. "I mean, don't you ever think 'what if'?"

      "Never saw much of a reason to."

      "That's sad."

      "To you, perhaps."

      "It is."

      "I've never needed them."

      "Everyone needs family."

      "Do you need yours now?" he asked without looking up from his work. "You're standing on your own two feet, ready to start a new life as a university student, with a home of your own."

      That stung more than she wanted it to. "That doesn't make me need them any less," she said quietly. "My brother was my hero. I always talked to him when I had problems. Now I don't have him to confide in anymore. So I can stand on my own two feet; so what? I don't want him here to hold me up. I want him here to be a hand to hold on to now and then."

      He didn't answer that. She didn't want to hear his response, anyway, so she stalked out of there. Quick steps brought her around the side of the bar and down the alley, and she hurried up the stairs to her apartment. She ended up having to catch at her door for balance, as she'd moved too fast for her tipsy body to keep up with, but she didn't let herself slow in getting the lock undone. She kicked off her shoes at the step, slammed the door behind her, and hurried across the room to throw herself on her bed.

      She went to sleep feeling more than a little pitiful, but as she was slowly dragged under, she realized a large part of that pity was for the man downstairs, who'd never had a family of his own and couldn't even begin to understand what love was.


      Aya was at Nagoya Station ten minutes before Sakura's train was scheduled to arrive, nearly bouncing with excitement over seeing the girl again. She held tight to the small present she'd bought Sakura, trying not to wrinkle the wrapping paper, and watched the crowd swell around her. She pulled her phone out of her pocket, flipping through her inbox to the one Sakura had sent her earlier this morning. They'd messaged each other pictures of what they were wearing to try and make each other easier to find. Both girls had settled on the brightest clothes they owned, knowing most of the crowd around them would be in dark business attire.

      She closed the message again, checked the time on her phone, and slipped the phone into her pocket. Just a minute after the bullet train was scheduled to arrive, she spotted Sakura coming down an escalator behind the east exit. The girl slipped her ticket into the wickets and Aya started her way, a hand in the air to catch Sakura's attention. It didn't take the other girl long to spot her and her entire expression brightened with a pleased smile.


      They hurried to each other's sides and clasped hands, ignoring the way everyone had to move around them. Their friendship could be a little stilted at times, inevitable when Ran's death sat between them, but Aya realized that she'd sorely missed the girl. "How was the trip?" she asked. "Have you eaten yet?"

      "I bought a lunchbox on the train," Sakura assured her, and she gasped in delight as Aya turned over the gift. "Oh, thank you! This is for you, from everyone at the Koneko." She turned over a small gift in turn, and they tore through the wrapping eagerly. Sakura laughed at the Hello Kitty keychain and turned it this way and that, inspecting its fried shrimp outfit. "Cute!"

      "Every Kitty I find in Nagoya seems to be dressed like that," Aya explained as she peeled the last bit of wrapping free. A delicate bottle of perfume fell into her hand and she lifted it to her nose to sniff it. "Thank you!"

      "Try it," Sakura encouraged her. "It's getting really popular in Tokyo. It smells like candy."

      Aya spritzed a little on her wrist and sniffed at it. "It does," she agreed, flashing Sakura a bright smile. "Thank you," she said again as she lightly rubbed her wrists together. "It's lovely." Sakura smiled back and Aya tucked the bottle in her purse for safekeeping. Sakura shifted her grip on her overnight bag and Aya reached past her to take the handle of her missing suitcase. They weaved their way through the crowded station towards the subway. Even though they'd spoken on the phone a couple times since Aya had come down to Nagoya, they had plenty to gossip about. At least it made the ride back to Yagoto Station pass relatively quickly.

      Aya took them out of the exit right in front of Chukyo University and pointed up at it. "My new school," she announced.

      "Are you nervous yet?" Sakura asked, tilting her head back to stare up at the tall building. "Classes start on Monday, don't they?"

      "Yeah," Aya answered. "A little nervous, I guess, but it'll be so good to start. I need to feel like I'm doing something. I think it really helps that I met some of the professors already. They've been wonderful so far. They gave me advice on my classes and told me I can talk to them any time I feel I'm having difficulty keeping up."

      "That's good of them," Sakura agreed, and they started down the sidewalk towards the bar.

      "You'll meet some of them tonight," Aya told her. "Everyone knows you're coming. You'll get to meet Master, too, and you can see he's not so bad." Sakura just offered her a look that said she had no faith whatsoever in Aya's landlord. Aya decided it wasn't worth getting into a fight about and changed the topic. "Maya and Asako are going to meet us at the bar and we'll all go out together. Until then, we can do whatever we like. I thought I'd take you sightseeing. Sound good?"

      "Sounds good," Sakura agreed.

      They were as quiet as they could be going up the stairs, not that that was very quiet when they had a heavy suitcase to lug up with them. Aya winced, knowing they had to be waking Master up. She unlocked the door to let them in and pretended not to notice the fierce look Sakura sent the curtain. Sakura didn't let her get away with that.

      "A door," she insisted.

      "He's never come into my room," Aya told her. "It's fine."

      "You still need a door. You can't leave it like that forever."

      Aya turned on her and drew herself up as tall as she could. It didn't mean much when they were the same height. "It's fine," she insisted, staring Sakura down.

      "Your brother would disapprove."

      That hit hard enough that Aya couldn't breathe. She stared at Sakura, completely disbelieving that the girl would stoop to that. Sakura winced a little and looked away, but she didn't apologize or retract her words. Aya stared numbly at her, waiting, but Sakura stayed quiet. At length Aya turned away and heaved her suitcase up onto the step. She rolled it across the room to her closet and started unpacking it, refusing to look back at the other girl. Sakura stayed where she was, knowing she'd crossed a line and figuring it was best to stay back for now.

      Aya put her things away with more force than necessary. She was zipping it up and shoving it into the back of her closet for safekeeping when Sakura finally started her way. Aya pushed the closet door shut and turned on her.

      "My brother is dead," she choked out. "What does it matter anymore?"

      "Aya," Sakura said quietly.

      "He's dead," Aya shot back as Sakura's face blurred in front of her. She scrubbed desperately at her eyes as her whole body started to shake. Sakura wrapped her arms around Aya, pulling her close. Aya wanted to shove her away, but she didn't have the strength to. It was taking everything she had to stop herself from crying. Master was surely awake in the next room, and Aya didn't want him to hear her.

      "I didn't say it to hurt you," Sakura whispered regretfully. "I said it because he's not here to."

      "Just stop," Aya implored her. "Just stop."

      Sakura said nothing else and just held on, and they stood in silence until Aya didn't think she'd fall to pieces. Sakura let go of her as soon as Aya shifted in her grip, and Aya moved past her to go check her face in the bathroom mirror. Her eyes looked watery, but no tears had slipped free, so she left her makeup alone. Sakura was watching her carefully when Aya came back into the main room and Aya hated having to put a small smile back on her face.

      "Let's go," she invited her friend, and the two left the apartment together. They spent the day out, hitting the major tourist spots. All of the walking exhausted Aya, so they stopped for a long lunch and then a long coffee break later on. By the time they headed back to the bar, the cracks in their friendship had been carefully sealed up. Aya felt them strain a little bit as the bar came into view, though, knowing that Sakura was about to meet Master.

      They went upstairs first and rotated through the shower, washing the August heat away and changing into clean clothes. Aya wore one of the outfits Sakura had just brought south with her and they stood together in front of the mirror as they dolled themselves up. Aya wore her new perfume and sniffed lightly at it, delighting in the sweet scent. Sakura smiled at the gesture and Aya tried to smile back.

      She had butterflies in her stomach for some ridiculous reason as she led Sakura downstairs. The bar was crowded tonight. Over the past three weeks she'd stopped by the bar four or five times, and eventually she'd met some of Master's other regulars. Her favorite group turned out to be the professors, even if it was awkward when they kept buying her drinks. Tonight was the usual night for the businessmen, and they were a colder group. She hadn't stayed for long the night they'd been there, but she'd still stayed longer than she'd intended to. They'd only talked to each other and Master, but they'd shown her a new side to the bartender. When the rowdy teachers were there, he was rude and sarcastic and loud. With the businessmen, he'd been smart and sharp and almost intense. She hadn't understood much of what they'd talked about, but she'd been sorely jealous. It had made her look forward to her lessons and her future businesswoman self.

      The professors were there tonight as well, showing up just to meet Sakura. They called enthusiastic greetings as the girls stepped through the door, earning disapproving looks from the suited men at the counter. Aya smiled back and looked around the bar. Master's familiar orange hair was nowhere to be found, so she guessed he was in the kitchen. She did see Maya and Asako, though. Sakura went to greet them while Aya stopped by the professors' tables.

      "Where's Master?" she asked. "I wanted Sakura to meet him."

      "He's working the kitchen tonight," Morita answered, pointing at Masa. "Mimura says he's very sick. He already tried to make him go back upstairs to bed, but Shuu refused. He's staying away from the crowd, though. Doesn't want us to get sick. Sounds very bad."

      "Oh," Aya said, trying to squish her spike of disappointment. "That's not good."

      "We'll meet Sakura," Takeda offered, eyeing the girl appreciatively.

      Aya didn't trust that look. "We're just here to meet friends and then we're out to karaoke and dinner," she said. "If you see Master again, definitely make sure he goes upstairs and gets some rest, okay?"

      They offered her cheery agreements and she crossed the room to the other girls. "He's out sick," she told Sakura. "Maybe you'll meet him tomorrow."

      "I guess so," Sakura agreed, sounding completely uninterested.

      Maya looked from one to the other and thought it best to distract them both. "Let's go," she said. "The night's still young and so are we. We've got partying to do!"


      Schuldig looked up from his book when he finally heard Aya's door shut. The metal stairs clanged under their footsteps and he tossed his book aside. He got to his feet and went to his window, pushing it open to watch as the girls headed off down the sidewalk. "Finally," he muttered, raking a hand through his hair in annoyance. The weekend had been so boring with Tomoe on hand and he was past ready for her to head back to Tokyo. She had offered up only the smallest piece of amusement yesterday morning when she'd broken Aya's heart, but he'd been unable to fully appreciate it when their arrival had woken him up.

      He'd had to stay out of their way all weekend, since he wasn't ready for his game to end just yet. It irked him to hide out and he could already hear the girls making plans for Tomoe's next visit. He'd had forewarning this time only because Aya had mentioned it to him a couple days ago. Next time she might forget, or the time after that, and then? Then he'd have Weiß showing up at his doorstep to cut his head off, and he liked his head where it was.

      Well, that was an easy enough problem to solve.

      He stuffed his hair under a hat and checked himself in the mirror to make sure all of the bright locks were tucked out of sight. His shoes were waiting for him at the door and he took the stairs down to street level. Sunday nights were his night off, which meant Masa wouldn't have much of a crowd on his hands to deal with. Schuldig took the back way just he same, cutting across the parking lot behind his building and heading through the cemetery as a shortcut to Yagoto station. He and the girls caught the same train, though he made sure to be on the furthest car from them.

      The ride to MeiEki was long, but Schuldig entertained himself by snooping in their thoughts. Tomoe was starting to feel protective now that she was leaving Aya, and Aya didn't really appreciate it. Fujimiya's precious little girlfriend was not happy that she hadn't managed to meet "Master" a single time that weekend. Aya had tried avoiding the subject whenever possible, but Tomoe wasn't going to let it slide anymore. They were arguing again. It made him smile, and the commuters closest to him edged nervously away from him when they saw how malicious the expression was.

      He took a different escalator up inside Nagoya Station and let himself through the wickets. The station attendants didn't even look his way. Schuldig already knew which platform Tomoe was heading for, so he went ahead of her and waited on her to catch up.

      It didn't take long.

      The platform was so crowded that she didn't even notice him until it was too late. Her eyes went impossibly wide and she froze.

      Miss me? he asked. She turned, ready to bolt, thoughts screaming with the need to get back to Aya's side, but he wasn't going to let her go.


      Her body ground to a halt without her permission. Schuldig pushed away from the pillar he'd been propped against and headed further down the platform away from her. Kritiker was bound to investigate this later and he didn't want to be on any of the same security videos. Don't say a word, little girl, he warned her. You'll mess everything up for me and I'm having too much fun to let you screw things up. Aya belongs to me now.

      Don't you dare hurt her!
Tomoe screamed at him, furious and terrified.

      Why not? You were having so much fun with it earlier. Turn around. I said turn around, he said, harder, when she fought against his control. Slowly she turned to face the tracks. What was all that yesterday, fussing at her about her brother? Sometimes I wish you were a telepath so you could see just how deep you cut her. You know it hurts her just to look at you, knowing you're only looking after her because Fujimiya wants you to?

      Shut up.

      Oh, what would she think of you if she knew everything you said was a lie? What would she say if she found out you were hiding her brother from her? It's kind of annoying, really. I have to listen to her cry herself to sleep. Can't get any rest with all that nonsense going on next door.

Shock made it impossible for her to finish that train of thought. You're her landlord.

      About time you caught on, stupid. Take a step forward.

      He stopped at the far end of the platform and moved up, past the knobby yellow line that helped guide Japan's blind around the station. It gave him a good view of Tomoe as Tomoe edged up to the line much further down the platform. The speakers came to life overhead, announcing the imminent arrival of Tomoe's train. A bell sounded, warning everyone to back off to a safe distance. Schuldig took a neat step back and turned his head, gazing towards the distant light that was the bullet train's headlight.

      Another step, now. You can do it.

      Stop it!

      Stop yourself,
he taunted her. I told you: this game is mine. I won't let you interfere.

      STOP IT!

      Another step.

she tried desperately. Please, stop.

      Goodbye, Tomoe,
he answered. The train honked, echoing in the station, and blurred in front of him. One last step. You can do it. GO.

      Her mind abruptly winked out, her mental scream swallowed up by the screaming of the rest of the waiting passengers. Schuldig offered the train a vicious smirk as it slowed in front of him, then turned and started for the escalators closest to him. "Scream now," he murmured. "You all saw her getting too close and none of you thought to interfere."

      He took the subway home, just a train behind Aya's, feeling better tonight than he'd felt in months. He finally felt like himself again. He made it back to the apartment ten minutes after Aya and started cooking himself dinner.

      It took an hour before the news made it from Tomoe's family to Kritiker to Aya.

      Schuldig was reading in bed when Aya started screaming.

      Only self-control earned through years as one of Schwarz kept him from laughing. He cast his book aside and started for the kitchen, using the heel of his hand to scrub the smile off his face. He had a blank expression locked in place when he pulled her curtain open. Aya was crumpled on her hands and knees in the middle of her floor, nearly crushing her phone in one hand. She'd hung up on Manx, not wanting to listen to anything else the woman wanted to say, and was still screaming disbelief and pain against her hardwood floor.

      "Aya," he tried, starting towards her.

      She didn't look up at him, but eventually she ran out of the breath to scream and started beating one fist against the ground, as much to vent as to try and force air back into her lungs. Schuldig thumped her on the back and she choked on the first gasp she managed. A second later she was wailing. Schuldig crouched beside her and eased her up onto her knees, wanting to see the shattered look on her face. It did wonders to brighten his day.

      "Aya," he said again. "What's wrong?"

      She couldn't make herself say it. Instead she reached out, practically throwing herself against him. She wound her arms around his neck, clinging almost tight enough to choke him, and bawled into his shirt. This hadn't been part of the plan and Schuldig scowled at the far wall, not at all interested in holding onto a crying little teenager.

      Well, maybe "little" was an understatement, considering she was crushing her breasts against his chest. Eh, that wasn't so bad.

      "It isn't true," she sobbed. "It isn't true!"

      She held on to him until she was too exhausted to cry anymore. He had to help her into bed and she promptly buried herself under every blanket she had. Schuldig went back to his own apartment, feeling more than a little pleased with himself and the world in general. His sticky shirt was worth it. He peeled it over his head, only to pause with it still on his arms. He frowned at it for a moment, then moved it back towards his face. It smelled like candy.

      He considered that for a few seconds, then shrugged out of it the rest of the way and tossed it towards his pile of dirty clothes. He found his book on the floor where it had fallen and climbed back into bed. Aya's sniffling made it hard to read, but he had a CD player in his nightstand. He pulled the headphones on, turned his music up, and went back to reading.

      It meant lying low the next day when Manx showed up to escort Aya back to Tokyo for the cremation and burial, but that was all right. He was just annoyed that Kritiker's bitch woke him up with her arrival. She called the school to let them know why Aya would be absent for the first couple days and then they were gone. Schuldig listened to the door click shut behind them, then rolled over and went right back to sleep.

To Be Continued…
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