All right, let's get some things straight before you start reading:

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE! (Because I don't want people complaining to me about things I warned them in the very beginning about.)

This fic is LONG. It should be chaptered, but it's not. Because I intended it as a one-shot. So it's a monstrously huge one-shot. But that also means it's complete so you won't have to wait for installments. If you're not mature enough to handle that, leave now. I don't want to hear stupid complaints. I write what I write however I want to write it. It's a free world, so you can like it and take it, or dislike it or leave it. Your call entirely.

This fic is rated M. It is rated so for a reason. It has explicit mature situations. If you can't handle those, don't start reading and complaining afterwards. I've warned you. I play nice so you play nice as well, ok?

And last but not least, kudos to my amazing beta, Maiden-chan (or shinebunny at LJ). She has been the most amazing beta ever. Any leftover spelling/grammar/any other type of mistake or idiocy you encounter in this fic will be my entire fault and mine only. She fixed it all perfectly but I tweaked it a bit further afterwards, did not heed a few of her warnings, so yeah, it's possible there are still some mistakes. Still, thank you, my dear, for helping me make this story a reality. You're the best ever. :3

And with that, I take my leave – I hope you enjoy your read. :3

Bar at the End of the Universe

It was a part of town that she'd never been in before and on any other day the unfamiliarity of the place would've had her reconsidering her decision to proceed.

But not today. No. Today was a day worthy of doing out-of-character things because for all she knew the world might already be ending.

So it was only fitting that the bar in this remote, suspicious part of town that she'd found was called "Bar at the End of the Universe". She thought she liked it already, before having even set foot in it. Why? Because it felt like the only place where things would make sense was the very end of the universe, after her own world had ceased to exist.

It's important to note that this was Amu Hinamori's first time in a bar. Not to mention, first time going to a bar alone. This was probably not her best of ideas—going there alone—especially since she fully intended to get so drunk she wouldn't be able to think straight.

And before you think her insane, to realize the stupidity of these things that she planned to do, and still resolving to do them, it's also important to point out something about Amu. Under usual circumstances, Amu stood out as one of the most prudent and exemplary girls there were. She had never been to such a shady place before, she had never made rude hand gestures in her life, she rarely ever cursed, and she most certainly had never been so drunk she'd forget her name.

But today she felt like doing everything she could think of to spite the person she'd been. She felt like destroying something, and the only thing that made sense anymore was destroying her self-restraint.

It was that same self-restraint that had kept her from having the love of her life. And now it was too late. So it was only fitting that she'd do something to ruin it in turn.

She did realize how dangerous it could be for her to be here, drinking alone. She knew that perfectly well. She knew that if someone wanted to, they would probably be perfectly capable of picking her up and kidnapping her, taking her somewhere and then doing whatever they pleased with her. Yes, she knew all those things, and still she wanted, no, needed to do this.

When she opened the large wooden door and her eyes fell on the patrons, Amu knew the story probably wouldn't end well.

Men of various sizes, of various states of inebriation, filled the bar. . This fact made her self-preservation instinct conjure a thought of her turning on her heel and marching right out that door again.

She mustered some will and resisted the urge to flee. If she'd decided that she'd get wasted as hell here, then she definitely would get wasted as hell in this very bar!

Fuelled by her own stubbornness, the young woman made her way confidently to the bar, her head lifted high and her back straightened. She took a seat at the bar and wondered what one was supposed to do next in this sort of situation in order not to betray one's ignorance of the trade.

The bartender appeared, cutting her thinking short. He had a complacent, amused little smirk on his face—she could only guess it was because of her presence and her gender that he was as intrigued by her. Further incentive not to give away the fact this was her first trip to such a place.

She might be in a destructive mood today, but it would be a cold day in Hell before Amu's pride allowed anyone to think themselves better than her.

"Give me something strong," she demanded sourly. She averted her eyes when the bartender's brows rose at her request. "Make it double," she added, remembering a movie she'd recently seen that featured a guy who had wanted exactly what she did right then.

To his credit, the guy behind the bar accepted her unclear order without comment, temporarily disappearing somewhere in the back. During his absence Amu looked over her shoulder at the clientele that was behind her. Disconcerted, she saw that a great number of the men gathered there eyed her back disturbingly.

She swallowed and turned her gaze back to the bar. She turned back just in time to see the bartender place a glass in front of her. The rich, golden-brown drink sloshed to and fro. She looked at it for a moment, trying her utmost best not to let the distrust betray her face as she gingerly picked it up.

She sniffed the liquid delicately. It was all she could do to keep herself from recoiling. The strength of the alcohol's odour was so strong she thought she might be able to get drunk just from breathing the vapours long enough.

Remembering the many sets of eyes—and still wanting to get wasted till she couldn't walk straight—Amu gulped the whole thing down in a breath. It turned out to be a bad idea, because whatever the guy behind the bar had given her, it had been strong. It left her coughing for a moment, tears springing to her eyes as her body revolted against the alcohol she'd forced in.

The bartender seemed to be having the time of his life watching her when she ordered a refill, much to his further amusement. The pink-haired girl thought that she already liked the guy because, once more, he didn't contend her request. He went to fetch more of whatever it was he had given her.

With her second helping of alcohol, Amu decided to take her time (instead of just guzzling it down and making a spectacle of herself again). She drank the liquid slowly, hoping she'd acquire a taste for it if she kept it up long enough.

And it was while she was on this second glass that someone sat right next to her. She knew better than to look at whoever it was, but out of the corner of her eye she could tell he was looking at her far more than at his drink - or anything else. Her heart started to race in panic, but she let nothing betray her as she continued drinking her… whatever it is that she was drinking.

When she emptied her glass again (after what seemed an eternity to her painfully throbbing heart and intermittent pulse), the guy finally spoke up.

"Hey, doll," he began in what he might've thought was a sultry voice. Keeping the disgust from her face became even more difficult. "Would you like me to buy you a drink?"

It was then that she allowed herself to take a good look at him, and when she did her brows narrowed slightly in a sardonic expression.

This guy was probably at least ten or fifteen years her senior and looked at least thrice her size. Not to mention that there was nothing in his unbecoming facial features that betrayed even a hint of intelligence underneath that ugly exterior of his.

Her next line of thought proved that alcohol had a definite, ill effect on her system. She had never been a person who ran her mouth freely, especially when it came to being offensive towards others. Sure, her sarcasm occasionally led her to realize things that, if voiced, would be insulting to many —merely because those people did stupid and senseless things—but she'd never let that inner voice of hers speak with her mouth.

Now, though, with the strength of the alcohol already coursing through her veins, Amu planned to use all of that sarcasm and creativity of hers to talk her way out of this mess.

"I have more than enough money on me to buy my own drinks, thanks." She called the bartender with a gesture and asked for another refill demonstratively.

The guy to her side seemed persistent. He didn't take the hint. He kept staring—or rather leering—at her, probably pondering what to say next. And since thinking wasn't exactly his strong point, it took him quite a while to come up with anything.

"You don't seem to be from around here, doll," he observed and keeping her comment to herself ("Not as great of an imbecile as he looks, ladies and gentlemen!") required all her concentration and willpower. "You don't look like the type that would go to a bar like this."

He reached out with his hand and would've probably laid it on her. She shifted away just in time though and threw him a withering look.

"You should know that looks are deceptive," she said softly, wondering whether he'd heard her over the din in the bar.

She wondered further, if he'd heard her, whether he had sensed the loaded meaning in her statement.

She knew her plan was working when he gave her a strange, confused look. She must've completely short-circuited his brain cells, not used to being utilized as intended.

"Does that mean you wouldn't mind leaving here with me?" the oaf asked stupidly, making the conclusion that best suited his fancy instead of taking her hints

"If you wouldn't mind dealing with my uniqueness, why would I?" she responded with a saccharine tone, taking a small sip of her drink. Her words seemed to have hit home this time, because they made the puzzled expression resurface on the guy's features.

"Uniqueness? What kind of uniqueness?"

She shouldn't have been, but Amu was really having such a grand time acting in front of this goof. He was so stupid, and so easily manipulated into things, that it made her ego inflate.

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat and made such a show of "being unable to look him in eye" that it made him believe that there was indeed something she had difficulty articulating.

"Well it's… No, I don't want to say—it would ruin things between us." Right after she said that she needed to cover up her snort as a cough from her drink having gone down the wrong pipe. She was lucky that this guy was such an imbecile that he couldn't notice the difference between the two.

"What is it, doll? You can tell me—nothing could ruin things between us tonight!" He offered her another leering smile.

Amu kept her lopsided smirk to herself, wanting more than ever to put that theory to the test.

She fidgeted around some more for effect, still avoiding eye-contact.

"It's, um… It's a really weird condition that I have and it makes men think less of me, so I… I really don't want to say…" I'd like to thank the Academy—

The guy readjusted in his seat so he was fully facing her now, with what he probably thought was his "nice" look secure on his face.

"Oh, doll, I couldn't think any less of you. Look at you—you're so pretty! Go on, you can tell me anything!" If he called her "doll" one more time she would find a way to kill him with the glass of liquor.

She looked at him with a slight pout on her lips then looked around to see if "anyone was listening in on them". When she was satisfied with what she saw, she leaned in a bit and he mirrored her, childishly curious with what she would tell him.

"My, um… My condition… It's a really rare medical case I have…" She had to try very hard to stifle her bubbling laughter at the way his face began to fall as she continued her 'confession'. "It's not contagious or anything! It's just that, uh… Well, I um… I might have a…"

His eyes were probably about the same size as saucers by then, waiting impatiently for what she had to say.

"A what?" he prompted.

She bit her lip and fidgeted in her seat again, before uttering the word that would either save her or condemn her that night.

"A… penis."

She clapped a hand to her mouth because she felt that willpower was not going to be enough to stifle her laughter this time. She had a half-mind to use that to her advantage, acting out the part of the girl broken by her own crushing confession. She must've been a better actress than she thought because the guy's eyes had widened even further—something she didn't think physically possible a moment ago.

He nodded slowly while she tried to recollect her bearings. He stared vacantly for a while and then made some excuse and quickly made his way out of the bar in a hurry. He was probably under the delusion that if he wasn't quick enough she'd follow him and he'd have to do all the things he'd thought he would with her when he'd first approached her.

Or was it him? Or the him that was a her? He had no idea anymore…

Once he was out of earshot and view, Amu removed her hand from her face and snorted in distaste, a confident smirk taking over her face. Men could be so easy to see through and manipulate. At least now she wouldn't have to deal with some strung out moron while trying to reach blissful oblivion on her own.

However, her triumph was short-lived. Only a couple of minutes after the seat to her right had been vacated, another guy sat on the stool to her left. What was she, a drunkard magnet?

Amu sighed deeply and sipped her drink while her new companion ordered a refill from the bartender for his drink. They sat in silence for a while. She hoped that this guy would at least have the decency to leave her to her own devices and give her the space she needed to get hopelessly drunk on her own.

Then he spoke and shattered all of her illusions.

"That was a rather creative way to get rid of a drunk who's being a nuisance. I was impressed."

Her train of thought had gone linear, thanks to all the alcohol in her bloodstream. She was so caught up being annoyed over her solitude having been taken away from her that it took her a considerable amount of time to assimilate exactly what he had said.

When she did, she turned to him with an outright baffled expression.

"What?" she spat out incredulously.

"If I were a lone woman in a bar full of men who eyed me like a piece of meat, I'm not sure I would've come up with such a brilliant lie—not to mention impeccable acting—to get rid of them," the guy said smoothly. He smirked and took a sip out of his newly filled glass without looking at her.

She glared at him for a while before turning away as well. She wiped the contemptuous look from her face as best as she could—was the alcohol perhaps making her grouchy as well?—as she turned back to her task at hand: getting herself even more intoxicated.

"What makes you so sure it was a lie?" She didn't know what he thought he heard or how smart he thought he was, but whatever the case, she believed herself crafty enough to be able to get rid of him as well.

Her new companion only smirked into his glass at her query.

"That's the kind of feeling I get, especially standing next to you now." He looked at her out of the corner of his eye to see her doing the same before she snorted and averted her gaze.

"Well, you shouldn't always be so sure, because looks and gut feelings can be very deceiving." She got a strong feeling of déjà vu as she said that, taking a large swig of her glass then slamming it back on the bar top.

She could practically feel her interlocutor's eyes on her the entire time and for some reason she wasn't at all as panicked as she had been just a few minutes ago, when she had been in the same situation with the other guy.

This thought made her wonder why things suddenly stood differently—was it because she had drunk more since then? Was it because her sense of self-preservation and her logical thought had evaporated even more in the time between then and now? She couldn't explain it to herself, and being unable to explain something about herself to herself had always vexed her endlessly.

"Tell you what," he began, and she turned her head to look at him with an apathetic expression in place on her features. "If you're not lying and you really do have a cock, I'll let you top me," he said with a wink.

She sat there for a moment or two with her lips just slightly parted. What he said didn't register quickly in her blurry mind. But when it did she burst out in a laugh, a twisted smile on her face.

"What? You're out of your mind!" she told him, the last of her giggles having yet to subside.

"Ah, so she can smile and genuinely emote," he said, with a smile that made her feel uncomfortable. He looked at her as if he could see straight through all the protective layers she'd put up when she'd entered this bar.

Feeling unnerved by his eyes, she looked away. She returned to staring and playing with her half-empty third glass of whatever it was the bartender was giving her.

They sat in silence for a while but instead of calming her like it did earlier, it made her feel even more like a caged animal. She knew that while he stayed silent he was measuring her, seeing right through her with that penetrating, intelligent gaze of his. He was nothing like that other guy—he was the one who had the leverage in this situation, not her.

He was the smarter one.

And she didn't like the feeling of inferiority he gave her with his calculating presence one bit.

"If you're just trying to get drunk, that is a bad idea," he said, motioning towards her glass of liquor.

The sudden change of topic settled her a bit. She gave him a puzzled look out of the corner of her eye.

"Why?" she asked, loading the word with every ounce of her lack of understanding.

"What you're drinking there is really strong whiskey, something someone who's never drunk a sip of alcohol in their life shouldn't be drinking. You'll poison yourself before you know it." He had that matter-of-fact look on his face—like he knew everything there was to know in the world—that she couldn't help the spark of annoyance that ignited her short temper's fuse.

"And how the hell are you so sure I've never drunk before in my life?" She glared at him with such heated venom that if looks could kill, he'd be a writhing, twitching mess on the floor. "You don't know a thing about me."

He smirked at her again in that holier-than-thou way that she'd already learned to hate. He made her want to slug him as hard as she could.

"Maybe I don't know you but I can tell from what I've seen so far that you want to drown something in alcohol. At the same time you're scared of doing so because you realize how bad an idea it is for a woman alone to get piss-drunk in the company of a couple dozen wasted and horny men."

She eyed him distrustfully as he sipped from his glass again, trying to decipher what he meant by that.

"Aren't you the insightful one?" she drawled out, still sizing him up in an attempt to understand his motives. "What's it to you?"

"I'm a gentleman, and that prohibits me from leaving a woman to be alone and unchecked in a bar like this."

Their gazes met then, and she finally saw him for the first time since he'd taken the seat next to her. She was beginning to see what it was that had probably kept her from thinking of him as a threat. It wasn't alcohol, though that definitely did play a part. And it wasn't because her sense of self-preservation had been dulled any further.

It was because he looked and acted nothing like the previous guy. He was young—probably about her age or no more than a few years older than her—and lean; well-built and pleasing to the eye. His face was sharp-featured but in a way that gave him an air of aristocracy instead of an unsightly feel. He had a really charming smile that, upon closer inspection, made her heart leap, and he looked a bit more sober than she was.

She realized with a strange mixture of feelings that she wasn't feeling threatened by him, because if he wanted something from her she would probably not hesitate to give it to him.

And that, in and of itself, was quite scary because Amu wasn't that kind of girl.

"Something on your mind?" he said, leaning into her line of vision and successfully breaking her out of her drunken reverie.

She shook her head slightly before turning her gaze back on him. She then quickly looked away before he could see the blush that must've risen to her face when she'd realized how close he had been.

"It's nothing that a stranger should be worried about," she muttered to herself. She finished the last of her third helping of whiskey.

"Let's get acquainted then," he suggested merrily, putting his glass down so as to free his right hand. He then offered it to her with the words, "I'm Ikuto. Pleased to meet you, …?"

She eyed him drily for while before sighing and taking his hand in hers.

"Amu. My name's Amu."

"Pleased to meet you, Amu," he said with a smile that made something in her stomach coil in a teasing way.

Ikuto shook her hand. She was hyper-aware of all the points where her skin touched his. Amu knew that her night had just undergone a drastic change and that the story would have a much different ending than she had initially thought.

After some talking and a lot of solid reasoning on his part, her new acquaintance had succeeded in cajoling her out of her whiskey-drinking binge and gotten her a gin and tonic. She'd taken a sip of it and wondered why she hadn't listened to him earlier—she'd always liked the taste of tonic (unlike most of her friends) and the alcohol mixed so well with it that it was hardly tangible.

From their conversation, she'd gathered that he was five years her senior and a musician. And she'd also noticed that he'd taken a liking to teasing her whenever he could.

His teasing made her fear that he hadn't noticed her peculiar disposition to him. But even if he did make cracks about it, she had found the perfect way to parry his claims and make it seem like a joke so she wasn't left to her discomfort for long.

"So what's an exemplary university student like you doing in "The End of the Universe"? It doesn't seem like your usual place to hang out." Ikuto took a swig of his rum and chocolate liqueur cocktail.

Amu shrugged as she traced the edge of her glass with her fingertip. She was so absorbed in her activity that she didn't notice that she had drawn her companion's gaze as well.

"It's…" she began but thought better of how to continue that sentence. "It's not important, really—there must be better things to talk about than the stupid reasons for me being here tonight."

"If you don't want to, you don't have to talk about it. But I assure you, there's hardly anything as liberating as talking about the things that are wrong in your day to a person that you'll likely never meet again." He gave her a meaningful look before turning back to his drink.

The pink-haired woman considered that for a while before giving him a searching glance. He met it with a patient expression of his own and a small smile that tugged on one of the corners of his mouth.

"It's just that my whole world seems to have collapsed on itself today," she all but wailed, putting her head in her hands. "One after another - things have been coming apart lately and I can't seem to keep up anymore. My favourite singer disappeared out of the blue, right when I was finally about to see her live. Then I didn't get that scholarship that I spent a whole year working to get. My father's health deteriorated, and he still stubbornly refuses to see a doctor. And as if that wasn't enough, I learned today that my little sister is going steady with the guy I've had a crush on for a couple of years now. When I confronted her about it, she threw a tantrum and left our apartment like I'd assaulted her or something."

Amu moaned pitifully in her hands, burying her face in her arms.

"Everything I thought I knew and stood for is coming apart at the seams and I can't find my place in it all anymore," she said quietly, feeling more dejected with her life than ever.

"So you decided to drown your sorrows somewhere where none of your friends and relatives would be able to find you and stop you?" he ventured.

"That's right," she replied, setting herself straight again with a stony expression. "I needed to escape, from everyone and everything, and most of all from the thoughts about it all, so I came here." She looked at him with a wry smirk tugging on the corner of her lips. "Looking for trouble."

He smirked at her as well and continued to sip his drink.

"I was sure a girl like you would have some kind of profound reason to be in a place like this," he imparted with a serious expression. "You don't seem like the binge drinking type."

Amu peered at him curiously.

"Neither do you. Which makes me wonder—what's your profound reason for being here tonight then?" she asked with a challenging smile.

He turned his dark violet gaze towards her and she could swear she saw something else flit through them before the mischievous spark returned to his orbs.

"What makes you so sure I'm not a regular here?"

"It's probably the same thing that made you sure I don't have a penis."

They shared a laugh over the thought before Amu resumed her prodding.

"You're not getting out of this one without a coherent answer. Come on, Ikuto—you made me whine about my life. It's only fair that you get to whine about yours as well!" He chuckled at her reasoning before shaking his head at her.

"I'm not exactly the whining type," he explained before resting his chin on his hand, propped up by the elbow on the bar top. "And even if I was, there's nothing to whine about."

"Ah, now that's not true at all," his companion told him, adopting a very serious look on her face. "There's taxes, low income, the public transport, the lack of justice in the world—plenty of things to whine about!"

She seemed puzzled when he laughed at the things she listed. He could see that she was truly getting drunk and he knew that soon they'd have to leave. But he really didn't want to part with her just yet—he was having too much fun sharing a chat with this odd girl.

"Seriously though—what's your reason for being here tonight?" she reiterated her question from earlier and when he met her gaze he found a spark of genuine interest in her amber eyes that made an ambiguous smile play on his lips.

"Maybe I'm here now so I can have a fateful encounter with someone at the end of the universe?"

She blinked a few times in adorable drunken nonplus before she muttered something and went back to her gin. His answer seemed to satisfy her curiosity, because she didn't pursue the matter any further.

So it was in this way that they continued drinking and chatting until Amu achieved her goal.

It was around three o'clock when the pink-haired woman realized her words no longer made any sense and that she laughed hysterically at things that she'd probably never even be amused by under normal circumstances.

About the same time that she made that observation, Ikuto told her:

"I think that's enough alcohol for you for one night, Amu." Ikuto fished for something in his pants pocket while calling the bartender.

By the absent-mindedness of her stare he could tell that he was right: she'd passed the point of no return.

He smirked charmingly at her as he took out his wallet and paid both their bills. It was only after he'd pulled her off her stool and halfway to the door that she realized what had transpired and argued that she could've paid her booze herself. Hhe just shook his head.

"I insist. Take it as my gratitude for keeping me company tonight," he beguiled her, making her scowl deeply in response.

"I would've kept you company even without you paying for it—I'm not that kind of materiastilic girl." She visibly paused for a moment and he could practically hear the wheels of her head turning. "That didn't sound quite right." She paused some more. "I meant materialistic. What did I say?" She looked curiously at him while he shrugged on his jacket and chuckled at her.

"Come on, let's get you home, Amu," he said as he ushered her out of the "Bar at the End of the Universe" and into the downpour outside.

The young woman closed her eyes and turned her face up, enjoying the sensation the cold rain left on her burning cheeks and tired eyes.

Ikuto busied himself with looking for a cab to get her into when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her swaying. He was just in time to see her tumble back and rush in to catch her before she could hit her head on the pavement.

"Are you all right?" he asked her while he pulled her upright. He was surprised to find how light she felt in his arms.

She blinked a few times in confusion, her clothes and hair already soaked through. She turned to him then, and an impossibly wide smile stretched her features.

"You're all wet," she informed him and he laughed.

"You'll find that you are as well. It's what rain does to people without umbrellas." He succeeded in pushing her to her feet, but he made sure to stay close in case she fell again. "Now I'll need you to tell me where you live so I can tell the cab where to take you," he told her while dialing the taxi company's number, his eyes searching the rainy scenery in front of the bar in vain.

Amu grinned again in that way that was completely void of reason.

"You want to come to my place?" she asked in a childish, playful tone while she rocked dangerously back and forth on her feet.

"Don't worry—I'll just tell the driver the address. I'm not going to come along, if that's what you mean." He thought he was dispelling her worries but instead of the relieved expression he had expected to see, she looked disappointed.

"I'm not worried," she said, blinking slowly before closing her eyes and turning her face up towards the sky again. "I'm just… feeling a little light on my feet, that's all."

Before he could ask her again for her address he saw her legs give out from under her and he had to break her fall again before she could seriously injure herself.

This time, when he tried to shake her awake, he didn't have much success.

He slung her arm around his shoulders in his hunched position—since he was more than a head taller than her—and took a minute to try to think what to do. The pouring rain chilled him to the bone. It was probably because of the downpour that he could think so clearly, having sobered up quickly once he had an unconscious girl and a horrid storm on his hands.

He could rummage through her stuff, find her ID so he'd know where she lived and get in the cab with her so he could take her to her home.

But he really didn't think that was the best course of action in this case. He wasn't sure what his completely non-intoxicated mind would think about it, but he really did believe that the alternative was much better.

The alternative being taking her back to his place, of course.

It would be a lie if he said he hadn't been attracted to her all along and that he hadn't thought of some ways the night could've ended which featured the two of them entangled together. But his intentions at this point were strictly noble. He planned on drying her off as much as possible with a towel or two and letting her have his bed while he slept on the couch. That and nothing else.

He nodded decisively to himself, concluding with his still somewhat impaired deduction powers that it was a good plan. He then picked up his phone again and called for a cab that took him and his unconscious acquaintance to his flat on the other side of town.

It was during their trek up the stairs to his apartment that Amu came to again.

Though "coming to" was probably a bit of a stretch of the term since all she was capable of doing at that time was to look blankly at her surroundings while her eyes got used to the darkness. Not even a single coherent thought flitted through her mind as she was dragged up some stairs toward an unknown destination.

When the stairs ended, she found herself looking at an unfamiliar door. She heard the sound of metal hitting metal and she guessed that her companion had retrieved his keys from his pocket. The door key entered the lock and there was a soft click in the complete darkness of the living building hallway until the door swung open to allow them in.

It was about that time that Amu decided to make an effort to move her legs herself instead of just being dragged along like a rag doll. However, suddenly commanding her legs had become an incredibly difficult task. She groaned in her petulant ire, making Ikuto aware of her newly reacquired state of consciousness.

He let her sit on top a chair somewhere in the middle of the room they entered. Everything was so completely plunged in darkness she couldn't see a thing.

"Hey, look who decided to come around, huh?" She didn't need to see him to know he was smiling—she could hear the smile in his voice. Yet he couldn't see the dreamy smile his words begot in her. "I'm going to switch the lights on, okay?"

"Okay," she rasped out and immediately cringed at the way her voice sounded. While he shuffled to close the door and switch the light on, she cleared her throat a few times until the annoying scratchiness was gone.

A night lamp by the wall behind her came on and bathed the room in its soft light, just enough to make everything visible to Amu's eyes. It took her brain a moment to realize that it wasn't her room at all. It took her even longer to logically arrive at the fact that if it was Ikuto that had brought her here, and Ikuto who had the key, this was probably Ikuto's flat.

Once she did conclude this she looked around with more curiosity. She found with a little surprise that it was tidier than she would've expected of a bachelor's place to be. Heck, it was probably cleaner than her and her sister's abode.

Just when she was about to wonder where he was Ikuto came back to join her in the room, a towel draped over his shoulders and another in his hands' hold as he approached her. He then put the second towel over her head and started rubbing her hair dry with it.

Only then did she notice that she was quite drenched.

She giggled slightly at the funny way her top clung to her frame. She then pinned her gaze to his, a smile playing across her lips. He mirrored the expression and when she giggled again, he joined her with a chuckle of his own.

"I guess nothing can rain on your parade, eh?" he asked rhetorically, using the other side of the terry cloth to gently swab her face with.

When he was done making sure her head was as dry as could get with just a towel—seeing as how he didn't have a blow-drier since he didn't need one—he decided to help himself do the same.

His midnight blue tresses had all but become black with the water that had soaked in them. He rubbed the towel with much more fervor and much rougher against his head than he had done with Amu's, she noticed with a barely-conscious look on her face as she observed him.

He then made to dry off his neck and went to lock the door, during which time the pink-haired woman placed her head that suddenly felt unbearably heavy on her arms that were crossed on top of the table in front of her. She only intended to rest her eyes for a tiny, miniscule moment but before she knew it her consciousness was slipping from her hold.

It was almost amusing how difficult it was for her to stay awake when she was dead tired and drunk.

"Amu!" she heard a sweet, pleasant voice pull her from sleep. "Don't fall asleep there, Amu—you'll get some nasty cramps on top of a cold tomorrow if you do that."

She felt herself being pulled to her feet and it was with half a mind that she aided her benefactor by making a conscious effort to stay upright when he did. Her head was still heavy as lead though, so she rested her forehead against his shoulder with a small sigh through her nose. She found that position oddly satisfying, deciding to stay like that until further notice.

When he could see that she wasn't going to help him with this, Ikuto heaved a sigh before getting on with his task. He started unbuttoning her shirt from the bottom to top and it was by the time he reached her midriff that she actually took note of his actions. By the time her left and right part of the shirt were no longer held together (but still clung to place because of the moisture of the cloth and her skin underneath) and he set out to taking off her bottoms, Amu pulled her head away from him so she could give him an unreadable look.

"What are you doing?" she asked in a very serious, sober tone.

If he had been a lesser man or any less convinced that what he was doing was righteous and correct, his pulse might have skipped at having been caught doing something he wasn't supposed to. But seeing as that was not the case, he stopped his ministrations only so he could look at her in the face as well.

"I'm getting you out of the wet clothes and dried up so you don't catch a cold," he informed her monotonously while he peeled her top off of her.


The noncommittal sound was all she said in response to his only half-convincing reasoning. So he turned his gaze back to her, puzzled. His nonplus doubled when he saw the blatantly disappointed look on her face.

"Why the long face?" he urged gently, bending to get in her field of vision. "Would you rather I was doing something else instead?"

He'd chuckled as he'd asked that, believing what he was saying to be laughably improbable. He had only brought her to his place because he couldn't very well leave her alone and soaked to the bone in the middle of nowhere. She had had no conscious say in the matter so he could only assume she was going along with things because she hadn't been given any other choice by the circumstances.

But when she just continued scowling without uttering a word for what felt like a prolonged moment in eternity, his mirth melted and gave way to something that he had shoved away the entire night.

She was so close he could practically feel her warm breath fan against his skin. They were so near they were almost touching.

And yet not quite near enough for the feeling that stirred violently in his chest.

He kept staring down at her, suddenly motionless. He found himself transfixed with the vision of her standing in front of him and he couldn't will his eyes away from her smaller frame before him.

When he didn't make a move anymore or say anything at all, Amu chanced a glance up at him. She found him staring at her with a look that made her pulse leap and her cheeks heat up.

The intensity of his gaze left her breathless and made her fidgety. But at the same time she couldn't muster the strength to look away. It was as if there had suddenly come into existence another type of gravity—one generated between the two of them that kept them close and drew them even nearer with an inescapable force. It was the only way she could reason how she was so suddenly robbed of all willpower and leaning in when she should've been inching away.

Their first kiss was merely an innocent brush of lips against lips, a barely-there evanescent touch. Yet it was the spark that set alight the bonfire between them that had been lurking just behind their pretenses all along.

Their first kiss had been tentative, cautious, a simple, quick test of the ground; it had been there to make certain some thoughts and motivations. When it sent a jolt down both their spines and ignited their dormant passions, all masks and pretenses were dropped, their lips locking in a much more open and fervent manner.

For her part, Amu had never felt so exhilarated and alive like she felt at that moment. All her senses felt heightened and it was as if the blur that had been marring her mental vision had suddenly completely vanished without a trace. In its place there was a hypersensitivity that sent electrifying sensations from every point that her skin touched his while he kissed her in that mind-numbing way that took the breath from her lungs and left her feeling light-headed.

She responded urgently to his searing kiss, her fingers nimbly finding their way and weaving in his still damp locks. He wasted no time in letting one hand snake around her waist and pull her flush against him, the other cupping her face as he let his tongue plunge hungrily into her mouth.

Amu let out a small breath she hadn't realized she had been holding when she felt him invade her mouth forcefully, the outright forwardness of his action making a singeing heat coil in the pit of her stomach. Never the one to stay idle and be led for long, the young woman engaged the invader in a war for dominance. Her reaction was immediate when he gently sucked on her tongue which made the invigorating tug in her belly spike in intensity with a mind-blowing speed—she moaned loudly and held onto him even tighter.

She felt him smirk slightly against her lips before he changed the angle of his head, his pliant mouth moving ever so ardently against hers as the heat continued to consume her body and reason. She massaged his tongue with hers as it ardently explored every inch of her oral cavity, eliciting a soft groan or sigh from her every now and again. She'd become so consumed with the passion of their kisses that when the need for oxygen made itself painfully evident, she pulled away to get a hefty gulp of air which she then punctured with a few quick kisses in-between.

When she pulled him in to continue where they'd left off Ikuto didn't resist one bit, in a hurry to lock his lips with hers once more. As he plunged her mouth again he idly wondered how she'd taste when she hadn't been on a drinking binge for hours on end but any trace of any thought train was quickly obliterated by the blaze of ardour that engulfed his whole body in its flames once he engaged her in another kiss.

He pulled her closer to his body, an urge to be nearer her, an all-encompassing desire to devour her and make her a part of him so he would feel whole grabbed hold of him, making him all but crush her petite frame against his. She seemed to be experiencing something along the same lines though because she was holding onto him for dear life as she responded needily to his kiss.

She felt a burning heat sear her senses where her skin was on his. It was a delicious sensation that left her greedy for more, made her thirst for it like she'd never wanted anything before. She needed more friction to fuel the fire inside her, so she hiked her leg up around his hip.

He welcomed that shift of hers, letting his hand that had been around her waist drop down to her butt cheek to support her weight in her changed position. He kneaded her flesh beneath his fingers there, which made her emit another deep moan.

She'd become so responsive and vocal about how much she was appreciating the attention he was lavishing her with that his erection was starting to strain his jeans. He disentangled himself from her mouth to gasp for breath and look at her with his gaze filled with lust to find a perfectly matching expression on her face. He grinded his pelvis against hers while pulling her lower half closer to his with the hand that was keeping her balance steady and she gave a sultry groan before mirroring his action.

He made sure she could feel the affect she was having on her when he pushed against her again, a hiss making its way past his lips when she rubbed herself against his bulge, teasing his need for her. She looked at him then, her pupils dilated with lust and he returned the look breathlessly, his chest rising and falling quickly in his need for air.

Her movements were incredibly deft as she peeled his still drenched blouse over his head, discarding it quickly before diving in for another searing kiss. He let go of her leg and had her slowly taking step after step backward until she felt the coldness of a wall hit her back. He made quick work of taking off her bra and then shifted his attention to relieving her of her pants.

Only when she was left completely nude in the cold air of the room did Amu feel how wet she was with her desire for him. She didn't dally in starting on removing the last of his clothing garments as well which he gladly aided her with in between kisses. One of his hands found its way to her breasts, cupping and squeezing the soft mound of flesh in its hold and making the woman moan against him.

His pink-haired lover barely had time to mourn the absence of his other hand before it started tracing the luscious curves of her body, leaving a burning trace on the flesh beneath it as it did. Amu pulled her leg up around his hip again. He groaned when his erect shaft brushed against her soft and moist entrance. He rubbed his tip against her, teasing her and making her gasp sharply as he did. She arched her back against the wall and pushed against him, heralding the tip of him in her.

Consumed by blinding zest once he'd been given a feel of her, Ikuto thrust his engorged shaft all the way inside her, robbing both of them of their breaths. Amu's legs seemed to have a mind of their own as their wrapped themselves around his waist as she clung to him for dear life while her inner muscles started trying to accommodate to his intrusion. His size and width was just right to have her toes curling just from his presence inside of her.

He gave her some time to get used to him, grabbing hold of her by the ass when she wound her legs around him. When he pulled slightly out then pushed back in again he let out a pleasured little hiss of air as he appreciated the firmness of her muscles that clamped on him.

He shifted slightly, securing his hold on her and angling his lower body in a way that would allow easier movement. Once he found a comfortable position pinning her against the wall, he set up a pace of plunging in and out of her warmth, her delicious tightness blowing his mind away with every thrust.

Amu's voice rose in pitch and her moans in volume as he continued moving against her in that rhythm that had her forgetting how exactly it was that one breathed. She draped one arm over his shoulders while the other stayed in his hair. Her fingers dug into the flesh of his shoulder and scalp as he buried himself hilt-deep in her, a throaty groan rocking her being every time he drove into her folds.

She rested her forehead against the crook of his neck, her rasped out warm breaths fanning against his skin as she held on to him. She felt rather than heard his groans and grunts as they rumbled in his chest while he picked up the pace of his thrusts.

The heat that had been coiling in her navel all evening had taken on a blinding white colour as it set ablaze every inch of her being. It sent jolts of ecstatic pleasure to every part of her body in perfect synchrony with the rhythm of his thrusts against her and she could feel them building up for a climax that had all her muscles strain in anticipation. Her voice was reduced to needy whimpers and breathless gasps as she felt herself treading closer to the precipice.

Ikuto's ears were ringing and all he could hear was the echoing of her enticing responses in his head as he pushed harder against her, driven by his mounting arousal. He sped up his movements when he realized he was close as well, not about to let himself be the only one to come. She was making it very difficult for him to last much longer though, with the way she so deliciously clung tightly to the entire length of his shaft.

Amu all but screamed his name as her orgasm hit her powerfully, making the muscles of her legs clench convulsively tighter around his waist. A prolonged groan tore from him just as the stars behind his eyes exploded into his vision, marring his view with blotches of blinding white. He pushed into her one last time before his climax claimed him as well, granting his stifling passions a release at last.

When a slowly resurfacing coherent thought process and awareness alerted him that his orgasm had milked most of the strength from his limbs, he slowly lowered himself to his knees to put his lover down as gently as he could before they both toppled over. Once they were safely on solid ground he allowed the tension the leave his shoulders, basking in the sweetness of the aftermath of his release.

His partner's legs unwound from around his waist, resting limply on the floor as the young woman took in large, generous gulps of air in an attempt to catch her breath. Her eyes were clenched shut and she could still see the remnants of the white spots that had attacked her behind her eyelids when she came.

As she relaxed her back against the wall after freeing him, Ikuto pulled out from her and sat to her side, in need to straighten his spine as well. They stood like that, naked and spent, sitting side by side for a while, just trying to settle their breathing and pulses.

It had been a mind-blowing experience that she had never felt before. It wasn't her first time having sex by any means but it was definitely the first time she had felt something as powerful in conclusion to such activities.

When her heart had calmed down a bit she turned her head to look at her lover sitting to her side, his face flushed and his breathing still erratic from the strain their intercourse had put on him. She smiled at his profile and leaned in to playfully nibble on his ear.

What she thought a perfectly innocent action elicited a quite rich and seductive moan from him. She pulled away for a bit, somewhat amused by his reaction and feeling mischievous enough to repeat the cause for it. She nipped and traced the outline of his lobe, feeling empowered by the vociferousness of his responses to her ministrations. By the minute her coherent thinking was starting to return to her but what she'd started as a game she no longer perceived as one.

She leaned in closer to him, resting her weight on the thigh of his leg that was stretched out and closer to her. When she pulled back for a moment to look at him he took the chance to turn his head and capture her lips in a slow, deliberate kiss during which he leisurely explored the folds of her mouth. Her breath tickled his cheek and he cupped a hand to the back of her head, holding her secure in place as he angled himself in a more comfortable position against her.

By the time he realized how fervent their kiss had become and that the deliciously sharp taste of urgency was back in it, the pink-haired minx had already seated herself in his lap. She straddled his hips and broke away from their kiss to rain dozens of them along the column of his neck and the line of his jaw while her hands rubbed the smooth skin of his chest.

She buried her face in the crook of his neck, breathing heavily against his skin in mounting excitement while her hands deftly traced lines all over his torso and arms. He rubbed languidly the outer side of her thighs, his chest rumbling with a groan of appreciation as she continued to lavish him with her attentions.

His mind was still cloudy from their recent activities together (and the quantities of alcohol consumed earlier and yet to be disintegrated) but thankfully for Amu his body wasn't nearly as slow on the uptake as his head was. The stirrings of renewed arousal were beginning to wash upon him, the frequency of the waves intensifying under the tantalizing spell of her willful touches and kisses.

She'd discovered his ultimate weakness and one of his greatest fetishes—his ears and their almost ridiculous sensitivity to touch—and she was exploiting it quite well, if the stiffening of his cock was any indication.

Ikuto admitted that he had to give her credit for efficiency—no sooner had she felt him harden again than she'd guided him to her entrance and lowered herself onto him.

She bit her lower lip as he easily slid inside of her thanks to the plentiful lubrication provided by her previous climax.

His amusement was short-lived though, as his mind was wiped clean like a slate of any intelligible thought when Amu set up a pace for her thrusts on top of him.

Even before her eyes blearily opened Amu could feel a dull throb of discomfort in the head right between her brows. As she drifted closer to a more coherent state of consciousness, it only settled more steadfastly, making her regret the decision to drink her sorrows away the previous night.

She blinked awake, her eyes slowly coming into focus and starting to take in the view of an unfamiliar ceiling above her.

Panic was her initial reaction at finding herself in an unknown room upon waking but then her mind decided to helpfully remind her of the happenings of last night, making the unfamiliar ceiling the least of her worries. She checked on her state of dress under the covers and sure enough her memory's version proved right—she was completely naked and felt sticky all over so it probably hadn't just been a dream, the things she remembered doing with a stranger the night before.

Speaking of said stranger, she let her eyes scan the room for him when she didn't find him in the bed next to her but she came up empty-handed. Her head was gradually becoming more and more aware of reality and the imbecility of her behaviour the previous night was hitting her like a ton of bricks. She could barely believe that she, of all people, would allow herself to get so drunk she'd pass out.

But rather than that, she couldn't even begin to comprehend what had possessed her to sleep with someone she'd barely met! She wasn't that kind of girl, honestly! Even though he probably wouldn't believe her if she told him that now, after how many times they'd managed to do it in one night.

She'd had so much to drink the previous night that it was almost amazing how clearly she remembered it all: the bar, how charismatic he had been when he smiled at her over his glass, the pouring rain that had soaked them within seconds after they left, passing out and then waking up with one arm draped over his shoulder as he hauled her up towards his apartment.

But clearer still were the memories of being pushed up and taken against a wall, then pretty much seducing him into another round, straddling his hips as she rode him, being carried off to bed while kissing him senseless; her final memory was of her last—was it the fifth for the night? Or the sixth? She'd lost count somewhere after the third—mind-boggling climax that had drained the last of her already greatly stretched mental strength and how she'd pretty much blacked out the moment her head relaxed against the pillow.

She remembered it all in vivid clarity and she would never want to forget a moment of it for the world. After all, it's not every day that one experienced such an extraordinary night. For the first time in her life she fully appreciated being a woman and therefore capable of multiple orgasms.

Still, regardless of how great a time they'd had in the wee hours of the day it didn't change the fact that she felt incredibly flustered when having to deal with matters the morning after.

Deciding that stalling wasn't going to get her anywhere—the floor was very unlikely to open up beneath her and swallow her whole so she might as well give up her hopes on that happening right away—Amu got up from the bed and started looking for her clothes. She didn't find them but she did see the empty wrappings of two condoms.

A blush crept to her cheeks when flashes of bodies slick with sweat grinding together flew through her mind's eye. She shook her head to rid it of the visions of things she was now embarrassed of having done the morning afterwards and she wrapped the sheet around her body as she made her way out of the room.

And, yes, she perfectly well realized that after he'd had her in pretty much every corner of his abode he probably wouldn't be very impressed seeing her nude but the sheet was for her comfort. It was there to insure that she wouldn't accidentally drop dead from the embarrassment when she looked him in the eye after coming out of the room.

She all but crept as noiselessly as possible out of the bedroom, her eyes slowly scanning her surroundings while she took a step out of the premise and into the cozy living room.

She found him—at last!—crouched down in front of the couch, an iron in his hand. When she came close enough for him to notice her presence, he turned his head to her and gave her a blindingly brilliant smile as if she was his favourite person in the world first thing in the morning after a rather spectacular one night stand.

"Ah, you're up—didn't wake you, did I?" She was almost sure her eyes were a bit wider than usual as she was completely out of the loop there; she couldn't understand at all why he was being so perky so early in the morning. She shook her head at his question and her response seemed to put him in even better spirits. "Good. I washed your clothes while you were sleeping because there was no way you could wear them the state they were in."

You'd think that after having sex with a guy in at least three different positions, she wouldn't be embarrassed at the thought of him laundering her panties but her mind had always worked in mysterious ways. So she did indeed blush in embarrassment at that notion. She was grateful that if he'd noticed, he hadn't commented on that fact.

"If you want to take a shower, the bathroom's over there. There's a clean towel under the sink that you can use."

He directed her with a kind expression that she still found very odd and thus somewhat disconcerting but she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. God knew how much she physically needed a shower right then to wash off the layers upon layers of sweat and other bodily fluids that encompassed her at current.

She muttered a raspy, almost soundless thanks while she went off toward the bathroom.

The skin on the back of her neck prickled with the feel of his eyes following her out the room.

Amu emerged fifteen minutes later from the bathroom feeling much more refreshed from the shower she'd taken but not any less uncomfortable in the situation her drunken escapades had put her in.

When she drifted into the living room—dragging her feet in her lack of desire of getting there too soon—she found him at the stove, boiling himself some water for a coffee. He heard her enter and lifted his head from what he was doing to look at her. And by the Lord that was in Heaven, she knew it was totally idiotic of her, especially considering what they'd been doing the night before, but she blushed earnestly when her mind helpfully supplied that she only had a towel that barely covered the essentials when his eyes lay on her frame.

"Would you like a cup of coffee?" he asked her, his expression never changing as he looked at her for a response.

She shook her head and willed her feet to work quickly as she scooped up her newly washed and ironed clothes and made her way towards the bedroom where she'd dress.

He hadn't said or done anything while she'd held his gaze but she could almost swear she'd seen him smirk in amusement when he thought she'd taken her eyes off his profile.

The next time she joined him she was fully clothed and at least a bit more at ease in his presence. She sat awkwardly on the chair across from him while he sipped from his mug of hot coffee and barely audibly hummed some kind of melody beneath his breath. She made a conscious attempt not to stare at him too much so as not to send the wrong kind of message to him, but not looking at him at all would've probably sent a wrong message as well. Thus she was stuck pondering what exactly she had to do not to give any kind of message at all and if that was even achievable by human means.

"Hungry?" His voice suddenly filled the room and thereby her head, making her look up from her fidgeting fingers in her lap to his expectant gaze. "The only thing I can make you that I'd have the confidence to say is any good is sunny side up eggs though," he said jokingly, melodic laughter bubbling in his tone.

Amu gave an awkward little smile and shook her head, a quiet "no, thanks" tumbling over her lips after some considerable effort into getting her vocal chords to work.

As she gazed at him while he kept peacefully sipping his coffee and staring out the window with a far-off look in his eyes, her honey coloured orbs drifted to his arms. They were left to her view by the black muscle shirt that flattered his build nicely and which did nothing to hinder her lingering gaze. When she focused on them she realized what it was that had drawn her attention from the corner of her eye and a blush crept on her cheeks for the umpteenth time in the last half hour that she was awake.

"I, er…" she began uncertainly, but convincingly enough to draw his attention back to herself and the present time. "I'm, er… sorry… about, uh…" Looking at him in the eye at that moment had become more than simply impossible of a task for her all of a sudden. "…that…" she finished, motioning for his shoulders.

His skin there bore deep scratch marks etched into it—something she remembered quite clearly unconsciously leaving on him while riding the throes of ecstasy.

He followed her shy gaze to see what she meant and after he did, understanding finally seemed to dawn in his eyes.

"Oh," he started noncommittally, the hints of a smirk starting to surface on his handsome features. "Well, I'm not so I don't think you should be sorry either."

He smiled mischievously and gave her a playful little wink that served to aggravate her blush just perfectly.

Her reactions were so sincere and pure that he could barely believe this was the same girl that he'd brought home the night before. This only made her even more interesting to him though, and the fact she amused him endlessly fed his fancy.

Amu remembered her friends telling her about how usually the mornings after one night stands were the most nightmarish time in the world. People that had looked attractive the evening before had none of their supposed charm that had initially drawn one to them when morning came. It was as if all their most repulsive of characteristics were brought to the forefront by the light of day with no redeeming features to make up for them. And last but not least all those complex conditions set one up thinking "what the hell was I doing, hooking up with this guy yesterday?"

That was the kind of situation she heard her friends bemoan getting themselves into after pulling off the exact same stunt she had the night before.

Yes, well, this wasn't one of them at all.

If there was one thing Amu couldn't believe about this whole predicament she'd gotten herself into, it was her luck in getting to jump in the bed of the most gorgeous man she'd ever seen who already had the power of whisking her breath away with a single smile or smirk.

She waved to a passing cab, successfully drawing the attention of the man behind the wheel. Ikuto stood with his hands in his jeans' pockets behind her, and she was acutely aware of the fact his eyes were on her, following her every move. The thought made her feel fidgety and slightly uncomfortable once again but she did her best in concealing that from him.

When the car stopped in front of her, she turned around to look back at him with an awkward, lopsided little smile on her face. His was much more convincing though, as he was probably still endlessly amused by her inability to stop fretting under his scrutiny.

"Well, uh…" she started, her gaze averting to the ground at her feet in her search for the right words to say in this kind situation.

"Take care," he supplied helpfully. And for some reason the smile on his lovely face made her heart throb in a distinctly painful way that she couldn't explain to herself in that exact moment.

She nodded slowly and a more genuine emotion made the corners of her lips lift up in turn.

"Yeah. You too," she said much more easily as well, proceeding to climb into the cab after that.

She gave him an awkward wave while the car drove off in the direction she'd told to the driver. And as she watched his frame grow smaller in the distance while he languidly waved goodbye to her, she finally recognized the reason for her heart's painful constriction in her chest earlier.

It had been a pang of inexplicable sadness that had shot through her at the realization that this would probably be the last time she'd ever see him in her life.

After all, they weren't called "one night stands" without a reason.

The door to her apartment swung open unceremoniously and she dragged herself inside her abode with a heavy mood wearing her down. Her ill disposition served only to amplify the dull ache behind her eyelids that made her feel uncomfortable in her own skin. She felt as if the contents of her stomach were starting a riot in her belly and the sun was shining too bright on her rotten mood.

She was in luck that it was a Saturday and she had no lectures on Saturdays. So she dropped the blinds everywhere in the flat, locked the door and went to do exactly what she did every time she didn't feel like dealing with the shit the world had to dish out for her.

She threw herself on her comfy bed, hoping that sleep wouldn't be long in claiming her.

And as she buried her head in her fluffy pillow she tried not to think of another one she'd used just recently, a pillow that had been permeated with the intoxicating smell of musk and male cologne that had lulled her to the most blissful slumber she'd had in years.

The next time Amu opened her eyes it was already eight in the evening and her stomach was revolting really strongly against its state of complete emptiness.

She groaned as she pushed herself up—her muscles were stiff and she could only guess it was from the merciless way she'd exerted them just a night ago. A sigh tore from her lungs and she shook her head clear of the sense of melancholy that had seized her—just what was she doing anyway? Getting hung up over her one night stand partner? Who the hell ever did that? What kind of moron was she anyway?

Her extremities were beginning to shake with her lack of nutrition—she should've taken him up on that sunny side up eggs offer—so she knew it was time to get off her lazy ass and fix herself something to nourish her tired body.

If she'd thought that her mood was heavy and stifling before she'd entered the living room, she didn't know how to label the way she felt after entering and seeing her little sister—the original cause of her distress that had driven her into doing out of character things—eating at the dining table. Only a moment passed as they looked into one another's eyes and they didn't exchange even a word as both simultaneously looked away stubbornly, not to let their gazes lock anymore that evening.

Ami didn't ask her where she'd been and why she looked like a truck had run her over. And she was glad for that because she didn't know if she could measure her words if the younger girl had struck a conversation with her.

So Amu was left to freely prepare herself some sandwiches with products she found raiding the fridge.

The silence that hung in the air between them and the things left unsaid made both their dinners taste quite foul.

Amu had barely managed to get through to Tuesday before she started feeling like she couldn't even breathe at ease in her own home.

Never before had she been in such a huge fight with her little sister. Never had she felt nearly as oppressed coming home as she did those last few days. And the stalemate their pigheaded prides had gotten them into was choking the very spark of her life right out of her.

By Wednesday morning, the pink-haired woman knew that enough was enough. If Ami wasn't going to say something about the 'sensitive matter' and thought that she was going to apologize, she had another thing coming. Amu wasn't going to stand for this complete trampling of all she was and believed in.

And she would be damned before having another sand-like tasting meal in the presence of this shrew of a sister she had.

So she called her best friend—and colleague in the university—Rima to ask if she could stay over.

The pink-haired woman could perfectly well hear the unbridled excitement her request begot in her friend.

"Of course! You can come over any time, Amu—you know you're always welcome here!" Rima said with a bright smile tugging on her usually expressionless features. Her buddy couldn't keep a grin from her face at the genuineness of Rima's contagious glee. "I'll be waiting for you tonight!"

"Thanks, Rima—you're the best!" Amu enthused, a laugh bubbling at her lips with the relief at the notion of being freed from this prison her flat had become.

Whatever happened to "My home is my castle"? What about "Home sweet home"? She used to believe that to be the case until just recently. Then again, she did know perfectly well what had happened—her backstabbing rattlesnake of a sister had happened.

Even despite their occasional little spats the two of them had lived together quite well all through Ami's hardest years of puberty, but she guessed all good things must come to an end at some point. Amu would let the matter rest for a while and see if it would resolve itself. If it didn't, she'd be forced to take steps to do it herself.

The amber-eyed Hinamori daughter had packed some things of hers in a rucksack and taken off on foot towards Rima's place since it wasn't too far from where she lived. On her way there, she thought to call her parents—she hadn't heard of them in a while and she could use a soothing, kind word in the dreary state her mood was recently in.

Her mother picked up the phone after a few rings and she seemed surprised to hear her voice. For her part, Amu felt quite refreshed making small talk with her mom, chatting about how university was going and the things she planned on doing the weekend and all sorts of other non-emotionally laden things that put her mind and heart at ease.

But, as she'd just recently concluded, all good things must come to an end and her mother just had to ask her why it was that she sounded so glum and if it had anything to do with her sudden decision to sleep over at a friend's place in the middle of the week.

Amu bit her lip in discomfort.

"It's nothing, mom—it's just been a while since I've last been to Rima's and I thought now would be a nice time to correct that."

She'd never been able to lie to her mother before so she didn't think she'd be able to fool the older woman now either. She hoped against all hope that the elder Hinamori wouldn't decide to dig into the matter and pour any more salt into an open wound. When she stayed silent for a while, Amu thought she was in the clear, but then her parent's words had to go ahead and shatter pretty much any illusion she'd made about how the exchange would continue.

"I heard that you got in a fight with Ami last weekend. And that you didn't come back the night after it. Did you guys work out your issues?"

Try as she might, she couldn't stop herself from rolling her eyes in annoyance. She then wondered which one of her friends who was acquainted with her mother as well had gone all tattletale on her about matters that did not concern them or her mother.

"We're working on it," she grumbled in displeasure. Suddenly even if she hung up right there and then she wouldn't be able to end this discussion soon enough.

"I don't know what this is about but please try to be reasonable, Amu. If this is just some silly misunderstanding you shouldn't let your stubbornness blow things out of proportion. You're the older one so you should know what the right thing to do is, even if you don't like the thought of doing it." Her mother's voice was pleading and she could tell in her heart that the woman only wanted the best for her two daughters but her intrusion was unwelcome and not helping things at all.

Amu swore her vision became painted in bright red in that moment.

"I'm the oldest so I should always give in whenever Ami feels like taking something of mine, is that it? Oh, that's some brilliant logic, I love it!"

It was official—she had finally snapped. After days upon days of gathering pent up frustration, this was the thing that had finally crossed the line.

"And you know what, you're right—you don't know why we're fighting so you don't get to lecture me what I should be doing! You don't know a thing about what's going on so don't assume otherwise. I just wanted to hear how you were doing and distract myself from the shit that's been pouring on me for a while now but I guess I was wrong thinking you'd let me have that temporary peace of mind. Goodbye, mother—I'll call you again when I feel like getting another annoying sermon."

"What happened to you?" Rima asked suspiciously when she opened the door to her house and was met with a visibly very distraught Amu. The latter had hung up angrily on her mother not a minute ago and the fact her mood hadn't been very good to begin with didn't exactly help matters.

The pink-haired adolescent just shook her head and made her way in.

"Don't ask," she muttered in a crestfallen manner as she passed by the curly-haired girl who looked bemused at her hunched back.

Her host then shrugged her shoulders and did exactly as told—she didn't ask any more questions and opted instead for starting a mission of cheering up her friend.

If anyone could ever tell with impeccable precision when their friends could use a good dose of quality comedy, Rima could.

It had been a week since Amu had up and left her family issues behind in that apartment she used to share with her sister which now felt like it had never been a home to her. A utopian week spent in complete bliss, silly conversations and lots of pillow and tickling fights. Sure, her mother did try to get a hold of her on the phone a few times but Amu had always been the master of evasive maneuvers when need be so all was well with her world.

She would've started feeling uncomfortable about the amount of time she was staying over at Rima's if not for the girl's assurances that she could stay as long as she wanted and that her visit only made the place cozier to be in.

So to calm her conscience Amu took it upon herself to buy all the ingredients for dinner and cook, wash the dishes and do any sort of chores that needed to be done while she was staying at her best friend's house. It was the least she could do to repay her hospitality, after all.

However, there was only so long she could stay over at anyone's (best friend of not) place without them starting to be curious what was wrong with her own to have her so adamant about not going back.

They were preparing dinner together in the small kitchen of the Mashiro residence when she saw Rima start taking those frequent, torn glimpses at her from the side. Her hostess positively looked like there was something she wanted to ask but was too conflicted about whether she should or should not articulate her query.

"Amu?" She all but squeaked out her name in her uncertainty. Never the one to further a friend's discomfort, the addressed only hummed lightly to show that she was listening.

The curly-haired shorter girl shifted her weight to her other foot nervously before continuing.

"I don't want you to take this the wrong way—because this has been the best week ever!—but…" She swallowed thickly; "Can I ask what's keeping you from going back to your apartment? I've never heard of you staying over anywhere for as long so I'm starting to get worried."

When her honey coloured orbs met golden ones, Amu knew that her friend meant what she'd said. And she didn't blame her—if their positions were reversed, she would've felt worried about Rima, too. So instead of dodging and evading the subject immaturely like she'd done for the past week she sighed and put down the knife she was cutting carrots with, shedding some light on the matter that had her friend fretting over her.

"Nothing's wrong with my apartment, if that's what you're trying to get at." She smiled lopsidedly in slight humour and the brunette visibly breathed a sigh of relief, believing the worst thing she could have possibly heard being over. "My sister and I are just having a little… difference of opinion that's pitting us against each other. She believes herself to be slighted one and I think that she's anything but that and neither of us is willing to back down, which makes the atmosphere back in the flat quite oppressive to live in."

Profound understanding dawned on Rima's features after her best friend's careful elaboration of the facts.

"It must be a very delicate matter then, to have you so bent on your position," the girl surmised smartly in conclusion.

Amu nodded slowly at her observation, pausing for a moment longer before shifting her attention back to dinner preparations. When her hostess didn't follow in her example she looked up from her carrot cutting to see the conflicted look on Rima's pretty face.

Her brows rose in nonplus over her eyes as she waited for the girl to say what was troubling her all of a sudden now that they had finally discussed the most tentative matter of Amu's reasons for staying over.

"I'm sorry; it's just hard to wrap my mind around. There's something that you and your little sister who's pretty much idolized you her entire life can't talk out? I just can't understand…"

The pink-haired female's eyes averted guiltily to the side at her friend's words.

"Well, uh… There hasn't exactly been much talking about it," she said, trailing off at the end of her sentence.

She exerted so much effort in not facing her buddy that when she was finally forced to after the brunette failed to react in any way to her confession the blatantly shocked expression on Rima's face had been enough to guilt trip her into realizing how immature her behaviour probably looked to a bystander.

"You two never actually talked about it?" The incredulity that was creeping into her voice made Amu feel very uncomfortable standing where she did. "But… how are you supposed to come to an understanding if you never talk about your differences?"

"It's not really something that we can just "figure out" if we talk about…" the Hinamori girl muttered in a barely audible tone that had Rima's ears straining to hear what she'd said.

"Why not?"

"She started dating the guy she knows I've been in love with since forever the same day that I was going to tell him how I felt about him."

Amu's sentence hung heavy and dark in the space between them, emphasized by the silence that stretched endlessly after it had been said. She could tell that her friend would probably understand where she was coming from if she elaborated just a bit further but she didn't bother. Because even if Rima would probably "take her side" in this battle of wills, Amu could see with a bit more clarity something else as well.

You see, there was this about her best friend that the pink-haired girl had been well aware of all along—Rima had always felt sorry for being an only child. She longed for having a brother or a sister with a passion unrivaled, so she had always envied Amu in a perfectly harmless way the fact she had a little sister who thought of the elder Hinamori daughter as her role model.

Amu also knew her best friend to be the covertly persistent type, the sort of person that wouldn't tell you outright what they thought you should do but would somehow manage to insinuate the gist of it through the other words that she did say. And once she'd set her mind on making something happen, she made it happen, regardless how much time and effort it took her to make it possible.

And now that Rima, the most zealous champion of family harmony that you could probably ever meet, knew it was a sibling spat that was keeping Amu from her home, she wouldn't let the matter rest until she made sure the two Hinamori daughters had at least talked face to face about their issues.

And it was that exact moment that Amu knew she had overstayed her welcome.

If she had been in a less indisposed mood she might have been able to appreciate the look that greeted her from beyond the door after it swung open. But as it was, Amu was in no mood to appreciate irony or satire or whatever it was that her actions brought about.

Her fist had shaken just a bit when she'd raised it to the door. She'd chided herself for that and given herself a moment to recollect her bearings. The next time she really knocked on the door, with a resolution so steadfast she had no idea where she'd found it within herself.

It took only a quick moment—during which her heart attempted to break her ribcage from inside out in her mounting uncertainty with what she was doing—for the door to click unlocked and for the inhabitant of the premise beyond to open. He didn't even make an attempt to disguise the look of complete surprise on his face when he initially lay eyes on her.

She couldn't blame him. She'd be very surprised if she were in his shoes in this situation as well.

"Amu!" Ikuto acknowledged with that same wonderfully melodic baritone of his that was like balm for her soul. "What—" he began but suddenly thought better of what he'd been about to say. "Is everything alright?"

She swallowed thickly, her gaze shying away from his form and pinning to the ground at her feet.

She knew she was breaking some unwritten law by being there at that moment. She knew that she should've acted as if she had forever forgotten his address upon leaving his apartment—that was the unwritten rule that the whole world followed religiously.

But she had nowhere else to go. She had no one else to turn to. And that in and of itself was quite depressing.

"C-can I talk to you? It will only take a minute…" It might have been the shakiness of her tone that had alarmed him or it might have been the expression on her face. But whatever it had been, it must've compelled him in some way to step aside and allow her in his apartment.

Allow her in after she had been supposed to never see him again.

She wondered briefly why the painful racing of her heart had taken on a different rhythm for a moment before she focused on the task at hand.

When she just stood upright in the very middle of the room with no intention of changing her position, Ikuto prompted her kindly,

"Take a seat."

He barely held back a frown at how only when he'd said it did it occur to her that she could. She wasn't there at all, her mind somewhere else. She was once again that fidgety, uncomfortable woman who couldn't find a place for herself in his presence.

He didn't like that.

She looked a bit lost as to how to start whatever she wanted to say at first so he didn't pressure her; he let her take her time in arranging her disarrayed thoughts.

"I know you're probably wondering what I'm doing here. I know I shouldn't be here and that this is stupid but…" The momentum her confession had gained with her last rushed sentence came to a halt as she stared vacantly at him, leaning against the table across from her. "But I didn't know where else to go. It's all in a complete jumble in my head and all of my friends and relatives are making the situation worse and I just don't know what to do anymore."

His brows furrowed over his sapphire eyes.

"Did something happen?"

She slowly shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself as though cold.

"It's… nothing." His expression turned sour. He knew that "nothing"—it meant pretty much everything except 'nothing'. "It's not important. The reason I came here is…" She seemed to struggle for words as to how to continue, getting more and more frustrated when they continued eluding her. "This is stupid. I'm stupid. I shouldn't have come to bother you—I'm sorry for the intrusion."

"All I hear are excuses and not even one genuine word. Where's the straightforward Amu that I met a week ago? Whatever happened to her? She, at least, seemed to know what she was doing and why, at all times, even if it was against her character." He might have only made matters worse with his words but he wasn't going to stand for her just marching out his door as if it didn't matter what kind of extreme situation had brought her to him again.

It wasn't like he was doing everything he could to keep her around longer or anything like that.

Her face flushed red as her anger seized her, reanimating all her facial features.

"I know very well what I want, thank you very much!" she spat, her face turning into a vicious scowl. "I want my friends to stop telling me what to do when they don't even know what they're talking about. I want my mom to stop lecturing me what I should do. I want my sister to stop playing victim and to take responsibility for once in her life without me having to tell her to do so. And I want you to stop messing with my head! I shouldn't have talked to you back in that bar!"

If she had been a cartoon character, steam would've probably started rising from her ears. She was positively fuming.

But her words sent a jolt of white-hot anger through her companion as well. He wasn't usually easily offended but her insinuations hurt his ego. He didn't appreciate being regarded as a mistake, even though admittedly their meeting in the bar might have been just that.

"Well, if you hated it as much you should've just thought better before starting anything with me, huh?" He rarely ever felt angry but when he did, he had the unique ability to make the temperature of a room feel like it dropped a few degrees with his words—so strong was his emotion.

"But I didn't and that's exactly what the problem is!" Her all but wailing sentence left him in complete nonplus. He wasn't following the meaning of her tantrum anymore. "I did like it and that's exactly what's wrong! I liked it too much and now my head is all muddled and nothing makes sense because when I don't know what to do with myself all I can think of is coming back here to you where things turned better for a while, where the world had more colour when everything was starting to fall apart, where time stood still for me when everything was coming apart."

She seemed to have run out of steam because all her fury had siphoned out of her system after her outburst, and she was once again left to wallow in self-pity. What she had said had left him speechless and gaping closed-mouthed at her once she had calmed down.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to take it out on you—I've just been really stressed lately. But that's just another excuse, isn't it? I meant to ask if I could keep you company a while if you had nothing else planned but I've been way out of line, so I'll leave you be now."

She'd been on her way towards the door, pushing down the handle and making her exit when his palm pushed flat against the wooden surface, blocking her exit. She looked up at him, genuinely puzzled. What met her confusion was an easy slight smile that made her pulse quicken in that same bizarre manner from a few minutes ago.

"I claim to be a gentleman and it would be very ungentlemanly of me to let a distraught woman just roam the streets in such a state of mind as yours." His smile morphed into a mischievous smirk then, her heart leaping treacherously at the sudden change. "Besides, I couldn't let a woman who just said she likes me enough to think only of me all day around just up and leave, could I now?"

Amu flushed bright red then started sputtering in her attempt to regain conscious control of her vocal chords so she could deny heatedly what he'd just said but it wasn't working out well for her. So instead she only served to amuse him further, making a laugh ripple from him and echo into the room.

"So," he began whilst languidly making his way across the room towards the couch, plopping down on it. "Since you're going to be my guest today, is there anything in particular you had in mind to do with me before getting here?"

His smirk was very suggestive but it didn't seem to incur the reaction he'd wanted because she just shrugged her shoulders and went to reseat herself on a chair by the table.

"Not really," she mumbled, eyeing her fingers twisted together in her lap. "Anything as long as it takes my mind off things…"

Ikuto thought she really ought to think more of the way she phrased things when all alone in a single man's apartment without any of her friends knowing where she was. If he had had any ill intentions towards her, there would've been nothing that could've stopped him from realizing them.

Then again, it's not as if anything "impure" and not tainted in criminal colours they hadn't already done so maybe she did have a point. Plus he did assert being a gentleman in front of her. Still, there was no way she knew she could trust him.

He'd have to talk to her about those things but at another time. Right then he busied himself thinking of ways to distract her from the things that troubled her.

Amu watched him out of the corner of her eye as he adopted a deeply thoughtful expression, considering her words carefully. The thought that he was cute even with his brows furrowed in thought manage to fly through her mind before she chastised herself for such idiotic train of thought. She'd been so swept up with chiding herself that she didn't notice the grin that dawned on his features.

"I think I know just the place for cases like this."

He didn't respond to her seeking glance and just ushered her out the apartment, taking light hold of her wrist as he led her the way towards whatever had sprung to mind.

The pink-haired young woman was so busy trying not to focus on the searing feeling the large masculine hand on her wrist left on her skin that she completely forgot about guessing where they were going.

They ended up going to an arcade downtown. And since Amu had never been to an arcade before, she wasn't sure what to expect upon entering one.

However, whatever she could've expected definitely wouldn't have come even close to the blast she had there with her timely saviour.

They played on pretty much every machine there was—the racing cars, the shooting one, the one-on-one fighting one, and then even a round of darts and pool—before their wallets—well, actually, Ikuto's, because he wouldn't hear of her paying for anything; but when they started going really overboard, it seemed like it was her conscience that got them out of the place—started getting too light. That's when they decided it was time to leave.

"That was so not a draw!" Amu argued with a wide grin as they stepped out into the warm air outside the arcade.

Ikuto chuckled.

"You just don't want to admit it because you already lost five out of ten times," he said complacently, making her throw him a skeptic look.

"I think that you're either delirious or sleeping awake, because you're dreaming up numbers that have nothing to do with the reality here." She flicked her pink hair over her shoulder with an air of superiority. Ikuto just raised an amused eyebrow. "There was one of the pool games when I won, the darts, the truck driving thing, the Mortal Kombat-like one and one of the foosball games. And that was before you lost the DDR game."

"Ah, and thus the deluded one calls me deluded." He grinned toothily and she gave him that skeptic look again. "The DDR machine counts results quite efficiently so you can't claim to have had equal score with me. And, in case you hadn't noticed, it goes red when the neighbouring player has more points than you, not the other way around."

He seemed pleased by the look of understanding that took over her features.

"Good to know we're on the same page. I think that you'll agree now that you're the one who'll have to get a penalty game." She adopted the most amicable and innocent expression she could manage—something he laughed at. "And don't believe that going all puppy-eyed on me will save you from your fate."

"Darn it!" she cussed quietly under her breath as if on cue.

And her reaction made him laugh some more, which in turn made her smile as she turned to him.

Amu didn't have a clue whether he'd done it purposefully or not but he'd managed to pull her out of the ditch she'd fallen into. She hadn't had such great, unadulterated fun in years. They'd just gone ballistic, decided to allow themselves to be childish, just for a little while, so they could rid themselves of their problems. It was like they'd gone back some years ago, back to the time they were in their pre-teens and the world had been much smaller, much easier to live in.

It had been her salvation.

But now that the time to go home—wherever home was anymore—drew nearer, she started regressing to her previous state of distress. She didn't want to go yet but there wasn't much else to do at this time of night. Especially since she wasn't going to stand for him treating her to anything else—she had money to pay for herself, thank you very much.

"I'm starved—how about we get something to eat?" His voice tore down the wall of silence between them, unwittingly relighting the spark in Amu's eyes.

"Brilliant idea! I was just about to say the same thing!" She was so enthusiastic that containing the chuckle her behaviour begot in him proved rather trying.

"I'd invite you back for a homemade meal, but I'm not the best cook out there, so…"

"If that's the only problem, I don't mind cooking tonight's dinner." She had been so quick to offer it that it had taken him a while to assimilate it. There was a hopeful glint in her eyes as she awaited his response. "You can tell me what you like, we'll drop by a convenience store, buy the stuff we need for dinner and then I'd cook it. My friends often tell me I could become a professional chef if I wanted to, so I'd be happy to."

She really wanted to go back with him, didn't she—he observed this astutely. It was a good thing, too, he decided with a smirk, because he did as well.

"Good!" His affirmation seemed to refuel her enthusiasm further. "I think we've pretty much settled on the penalty game, then."

"No penalty quite like one that doesn't feel like a penalty at all," Amu chirped, all but skipping in direction of his apartment.

He couldn't help it—this time he did laugh at her skipping form, making her take a slightly puzzled glance backwards as she briefly waited for him to catch up with her.

"You shouldn't push your luck—I just might go back on my word and come up with something that will feel penalizing." His grin was so ambiguous she had to shift her gaze from him before she burst out in laughter.

"My lips are sealed then," she said, skipping ahead of him.

They bought the ingredients for the simplest fish dish that Amu knew how to do—her host's only pretension had been for dinner to be some sort of fish. She chose the quickest recipe because neither of them could wait for hours until it was done. If they got any hungrier, she was afraid they might start trying to take bites out of each other.

She hummed a merry tune to herself while she got the fish fillet ready to grill in the stove. Her back was turned to him so she couldn't see what he was doing until she got the opportunity to sit still for a while.

He was seated on the table, his violin in front of him as he pored over it. Her eyes widened in curiosity and she leaned against the edge of the kitchen's sink while watching him work with his instrument.

He carefully loosened the worn, out-of-tune string, supporting the opposite side of the peg while he slowly unwound the tension in the string that needed to be removed. Once it was no longer wound tightly around the tuning peg, he managed to swiftly remove the string. He coiled the wire around itself before procuring a new one from the set of strings in front of him.

He was so concentrated in his work that he didn't seem aware of her eyes on him. Oblivious, he hooked the ball end of the new string in its respective fine tuner. He then carefully stretched the string up, winding it around the peg with practiced precision that she soundlessly marveled at. When the wire was wound tight around the wooden peg, he started testing the sound of it.

Each time his finger tip lightly pulled the string, his eyes rolled up towards the left part of the ceiling above him. He searched his memory for the way the string should sound and compared it to what he heard. He did this several times while turning the tuning peg. When the pizzicato sounded right to him, he nodded to himself and started gently pushing against the newly changed string from the side, stretching it.

Amu watched him open-mouthed while he continued his ministrations over his instrument. She remembered him saying something about being a violinist, but this was the first time that she saw him with an actual violin in hand.

"Doing maintenance?" she asked, when she could no longer contain her curiosity.

Her voice seemed to pull him out of some trance because he appeared slightly disoriented when his gaze locked with hers.

"Yeah—had to change the G string because it was starting to really get on my nerves. It was getting old and worn out and the sound it produced was dull," he explained smoothly while continuing to lightly press his fingers against the length of the newly replaced string.

"So what are you doing now?" she asked. While she waited for his reply, she checked on the fish.

He pulled the string lightly and seemed displeased with the sound it made, turning the peg again until it reached the right pitch.

"I'm stretching the string," he informed her easily while repeating the process. "You see, a freshly wound string takes about twenty-four hours to stretch completely by itself—an amount of time that I do not have. So to speed up the process, I stretch it additionally." He tuned the stretched string again. "But it's important to be very careful and gentle with when stretching a new string. You probably think they're very strong, but, actually, a newly wound one is very susceptible to sideways pressure. You wouldn't believe how easy they are to break."

"Have you broken any strings?" she asked, making a sideways smile quirk up the corners of his mouth.

"I've lost count." He shot her a mischievous glance before returning his gaze to the task at hand. "I must've been doing something very wrong, because it took my father some serious explanation to tell me how to do it right. I was a menace."

"Your dad is also a violinist then?" Amu prodded, as she took the fish out of the oven and marveled at her handiwork.

"Yeah, he's the one that got me into music—he's played professionally since I can remember and I've always admired him for the way his music just seems to reach into a person's heart." He nodded to himself as he set the G in its rightful place in pitch again. "I fell in love with music and the violin and I've played it, perfecting my technique ever since I was old enough to read the sheet music." He put the violin down with a confident smile. "There, all done."

It took Amu a bit to wipe the awed look from her face and focus on setting the table. During that time, Ikuto put his newly tuned, freshly stringed violin back in its case, which he then closed and put back in his bedroom.

She welcomed him back in the living room with a suave "Dinner is served!"

She couldn't help a laugh at the way he rubbed his hands together as he sat down on the table.

"So I take it your dad is pretty famous with the violin then?" Amu asked when they were nearly done with their servings and her mind was starting to drift off in unwanted directions.

Ikuto glanced up at her from his meal before turning his attention back to his dish.

"Yeah, I guess you could say that. Maybe you've even heard of him." She waited for him to swallow so he could continue. But when he finished his fish and failed to go on, she gave him a half-frown.

"If you're under the impression that I'm a mind-reader, I must tell you now that you're mistaken," she said pointedly, sending him a meaningful look when he locked his gaze with hers.

"Oh, you want to know his name?" At her enthusiastic nod, he could hardly keep his eyes from rolling. Why it was so important to her, he'd never know, but he was supposed to play the mood improver today, so he guessed that it wouldn't hurt. It wasn't important, anyway. "He's Tsukiyomi Aruto, if that rings any bells."

From the sparkle in her eyes, he could already tell that it did. And, for some reason, that sent chills down his spine. He'd always disliked the fact that his father was shamelessly, universally famous. He equally disliked the way that everyone compared the two of them, especially because Ikuto was his splitting image.

"Wow, you're Tsukiyomi Aruto's son? That's amazing!" she enthused.

Ikuto snorted, placing his head on his hand and glaring at the opposite wall.

"Why? Because it puts sleeping with me in a whole different perspective?" he all but growled, clearly annoyed.

Amu sent him a confused look, puzzled by his sudden mood swing. She decided not to take offence at his tone though, since she of all people knew that everyone had a complex or two that made them edgy.

"No," she said firmly, looking at him as if he was insane to assume so. This seemed to quickly disperse the storm clouds that had gathered over his mood.

That's when it sunk in, what he'd said, and then the memories started resurfacing, bringing a fresh blush to her sides with them.

"Because you seem very down-to-earth and… not at all like I would've imagined the son of a world-renowned violinist to be like," she confessed quietly, scrubbing the dishes with more vigour than they necessarily needed.

Ikuto sighed slowly through his nose. He watched her back, hunched over the sink, and shook his head at himself. He'd said way too much when he was miffed and had been too quick to judge when no judgment had been called for.

"What about your family?" he asked, sitting comfortably back in his chair while he observed her. "What do they do?"

"Oh, my dad's pretty famous too—he's a widely sought-after bird photographer." She dried off the newly scrubbed clean dish with the towel meant for the job. "And my mom does a column for the city magazine. So we're pretty well off, too, I guess." Another dry clean plate joined the last one. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" she asked him over her shoulder. The gleam of curiosity was shining in her honey eyes again.

He shook his head at her antics, but found himself smiling.

"Yeah, a little sister."

"And she's probably a famous musician too?" Amu joked.

"I'd rather not talk about her," he muttered cryptically, getting up from his seat and venturing towards the window.

Amu wondered whether she hadn't gone too far with the questioning. She'd just wanted to know a bit more about him; that was all.

Instead of digging into a topic that she knew was forbidden, she took off in a different direction, one that was equally interesting for her as the previous.

"So you're the older sibling too, huh?"

He gave her a noncommittal grunt as an affirmation. He didn't seem to think much of being the older one, as opposed to Amu, who abhorred the status most of the time. "I bet that you're a great big brother."

He threw her an incredulous glance.

"What makes you think that?"

"Well, for one, you seem really caring. Look how long you've humoured me and my whims." He laughed at that. She smiled. "And you don't complain, even if something doesn't exactly sit right with you. That's really amazing. I wish I could be a big sister like that."

Upon saying that, her mind transported her back to the time when she wasn't in a huge fight with Ami over boys, when the little girl had been too young to even think of love. They had such great memories together and Amu, ever with her tendency to focus on the bad, had locked them away. She wished that they could be all right again; she wished she had her little sister back. She missed having that peace of mind.

Thinking about her sister reminded her that, now that the dishes were done and her hands were clean and dry, there was nothing to keep her from leaving. She had run out of excuses, and she didn't think that she had any right to ask Ikuto if she could stay over.

The mere notion made her mind recoil—who was she to him anyway? She was just a pest that had taken up a whole day of his with her vagaries and whims, and he'd just gone along with it without a complaint for no reason. The fact that he had slept with her once, when she'd been on her way to getting hopelessly drunk, didn't make him responsible for her for a lifetime. He would've probably led a fine life if she'd just left him be instead of remaining to burden him.

She could be so selfish sometimes that she could hardly believe herself.

And yet, even more selfishly, she wanted more than anything to stay with him. Because his mere presence seemed to soothe her. His smiles whisked away her worries and put her heart at ease, letting it take flight. She shouldn't be there, but there was nothing she wanted so much as to stay.

The conflict raging inside her tore her soul apart. It was just another in an endless string of spirit-rending dilemmas she had had to deal with lately. It made her wonder when exactly she would be at peace again…

"I'm sure you're a great big sister too—you're just a little too stubborn at times, that's all." His voice was calm and easy and effective in pulling her out of her reverie.

She tried to smile but managed it with dubious success. He must've noticed, because he eyed her curiously, trying to figure out what was wrong. She bit her lip, her amber eyes rolling from the door to her hands and then to the view outside the window before settling on his reflection in the glass.

"You know, you don't have to leave if you're that averse to the idea," he told her matter-of-factly.

She visibly gawked at him. She started to shake her head and insist that she was intruding and that she had gone on long enough with her wayward behaviour, but this only made him roll his eyes toward the ceiling and then look at her skeptically.

"If you had been a nuisance, I would've made sure you felt it rather than let you speculate about it. I also happen to have a couch that stretches into a bed. And besides, it's not like we haven't both managed to fit in my bed together once, so I really don't see what the problem is." He seemed pleased with himself when she blushed at the mention of their previous escapades. This would never get old, he thought—amused—as he observed her flushed appearance.

"But… isn't it weird?" she asked, her brows high over her eyes. When he didn't understand, she elaborated. "I mean… staying over at your place after we hooked up in a bar overnight? Isn't that… really weird?"

He shrugged disinterestedly.

"So what—we don't comply with the social stereotype for situations like this. Who cares? If you want to stay over here tonight, then just say so." He said it grumpily as if her assuming otherwise was stupid or silly. It made something big and pleasant swell in her chest.

"Then… Um… Can I stay over tonight?" she inquired quietly, burying her bare toes in the plush carpet beneath her feet.

His smile lifted all the weight that the thought of leaving had dropped on her shoulders.

"Sure you can." She all but jumped up in glee at his reply. "We'll fix the beds after I go take a shower."

When he came out of the bathroom, only a single towel wrapped around his waist, she'd blushed and looked away, much to his amusement. Sometimes her reactions really made no sense, though he'd never get tired of them.

He got dressed—which made her visibly more comfortable—and fixed the couch so it could be slept in. Then she took him up on the offer of getting a shower herself—since she felt sticky and tired from all the gaming they'd done during the day.

She didn't have OCD about personal hygiene, but it went against everything she stood for to put on the same pair of panties she'd worn before taking a bath. So she took them in with her and hand-washed them.

Now, there was another problem that presented itself with her doing so—the matter of them being too wet to wear to bed. Coupled with the fact that she didn't have any pajamas with her at all, things were starting to get really disconcerting again. Especially because she couldn't even begin to envision herself asking him for spare underwear.

When she got out of the bathroom but not much further from it, he eyed her curiously from the stretched couch.

"What are you doing?" She had been so deeply immersed in her thoughts that when he suddenly spoke, she almost jumped a whole foot in the air. His brows furrowed at her reaction.

"Nothing," she responded automatically, not giving his query much consideration.

Then she realized what her eyes were registering and she scowled.

"What are you doing?" she asked him, her tone sharp and her eyes shooting sparks. He raised an eyebrow at her and settled more comfortably in the couch.

"I'm getting ready to go to sleep. What did it look like?" Humour was once again bubbling in his words but Amu failed to see anything funny.

"If you think that I'm going to agree to hog your bed after you babied me so much today, you have another thing coming." She had such a serious look on her face that you'd think he was making her torture children instead of letting her sleep on his bed. She was such an enigmatic individual!

"Consider it—" he began but she cut across him before he could finish his sentence.

"And if you even think of saying that it's payment for keeping me company, I'm going to hurt you."

He laughed heartily at her hissed out threat.

"I thought you'd already forgotten," he confided, propping up his head against the couch's arm to look at her more comfortably.

"I remember everything quite clearly," she answered in turn. And at the meaningful look he threw her, she averted her gaze to keep uninvited thoughts from pouring into her mind, especially considering her state of undress.

"Weren't you going to bed?" he prompted helpfully, making her shift her weight to her other foot.

"About that…" she began uneasily, making his stare return to her half-naked frame. "Would you… happen to have any clothes you didn't pressingly need that could fit me?"

He barely stifled a merry chortle while picking himself off the bed and going to the bedroom to rummage in his wardrobe to find what she required. The things that made her disconcerted never ceased to amaze him.

A couple of minutes later, Amu had a t-shirt that was a few sizes too big for her hanging around her unbecomingly. She also sported a pair of shorts that were, much like the top, too loose, leaving certain important parts of her anatomy too aerated for comfort. But she wasn't going to complain—it was her own fault that she refused to wear the same underwear as the day before.

In the meantime, she still had an argument to settle.

"And now that you're in the room, you can go back to your bed and I'll go sleep on the couch, like it should be," she told him in a matter-of-fact way that made him cock a brow in her direction.

"Right," he drawled out, giving her a lopsided smirk. "While you keep telling yourself that, I'll take my leave."

He'd been about to sidestep her and go out into the living room when she blocked his path. He looked down at her, curious as to what she might do next, only to find her defiantly staring up at him, fervor burning bright in her amber orbs.

"You will learn that there are some quarrels with me that you can win. And then there are some that you can't." She said it deliberately, as though he wouldn't be able to follow if she spoke too quickly. "This is one of the latter."

"Why are you making such a big deal out of this?" he asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his fingers.

"Because, Ikuto, I already feel like you've done so much for me that I'm forever indebted to you. So help assuage my raging conscience and sleep in your bed tonight, like you would any other night that I'm not around." Her voice and facial expression were so pleading that he almost caved in.

Almost, as you can probably tell, being a keyword in the sentence.

"You know, you're way too bound to that so-called conscience of yours. For once, doing as someone else tells you to might help you put some reins on it."

While he was talking to her she was covertly—or, at least, she must've thought she'd been covert about it—trying to sneak out the door. Before things could get any more infantile—the girl was a one woman circus at times, he could almost swear to the truth of that—he did what she had earlier and pushed the door closed by leaning on it hand-first.

But that brought an unexpected result. He had initiated a position that pinned her between his frame and the door behind her.

He wouldn't have noticed if it hadn't been for the look that instantly glazed her eyes. If he tried to pinpoint exactly what emotion she was expressing, he'd have a hard time putting his finger on it. It was a fine, conflicting mix between desire and panic, and it reminded him of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

She looked so delectable it had to be criminal, with her teeth slightly sunken in her lower lip. His gaze was pinned to her mouth. . He didn't even realize he had leant in until he felt her warm breath against his cheek and noticed he had all but pressed himself up flush against her.

He cleared his throat and looked away in an attempt to rid his head of the inappropriate thoughts that had made their way to the forefront of his mind—this was neither the situation nor time for this, he chastised himself—but just as he was taking a step back, his movement was restricted. He was stopped by the small hand that had seized the front of his shirt. When he sought her face for an explanation, he found that familiar, hopeful look, painted with a tinge of desperation.

Ikuto stared into her eyes for a moment. The moment stretched into an eternity, during which she pulled him ever closer. When he was just a hair's breadth away from her he heaved a great sigh and put some distance between them by straightening his arms at the elbows. He tried to overlook her disappointed expression as he hung his head and shook it lightly. His midnight blue hair ruffled slightly with the movement.

"God, Amu, stop playing mind games with me," he said, just barely above a whisper, the despondency shining through from his silent plea. "You have no idea how strenuous it is always trying to figure out what it is exactly that you mean and want…"

He was so close to her that she could almost feel his exhaustion with the situation emanating off him in waves. It was her cue to start feeling guilty for burdening him.

She cradled his face in her palms and lifted his head up so she could lock her gaze with his.

"I'm sorry, Ikuto, I'm so sorry…" she whispered in the same tone as he had and hoped that he would be able to see in her eyes the sincerity of her words.

She gently placed her forehead against his and closed her lids, still holding onto him.

"I didn't mean to confuse you. I didn't want to strain you. It's just that… maybe you're right and I don't know what I want anymore. Or maybe I do but I just can't figure it out consciously. My head's so muddled I can't make sense of anything anymore. And all that I can think of was how wonderful it felt being with you. All I can remember is your kisses, your touches…"

Her fingers were weaving in his hair while she spoke, stroking and petting him tenderly with all the care she had.

"I just… I felt so good staying here with you and I wanted that again. I knew I shouldn't have come, but I couldn't help it—before I knew where I was going, I was in front of the building and I…" She sighed deeply and he let his eyes open to look at her expression while she sought for what exactly it was she wanted to say. "Please don't let me sleep alone tonight. I came here because I needed you in my life. I need you, Ikuto, so please don't push me away…"

Her plea was so heart-rending and honest that he wouldn't have been able to reject her even if he had been insane enough to think of it.

And he could see in her eyes that she believed it; she thought that it was him she wanted.

But he knew better.

She was there, that night, in his apartment, with him, because at hers her sister was with the man she truly wanted and her heart and mind couldn't take that. He knew perfectly well that even if she tried to delude herself into thinking he'd be a good substitute for what's-his-face, she'd find out sooner or later that it wasn't working, that she couldn't lie to herself forever, and that she'd have to face—eventually—the truth of those facts. He had the whole situation figured out—he wasn't stupid. He wasn't an idiot so he knew better than to get ahead of himself and think that she meant more with those words than she really did.

But he wasn't about to tell her that. He thought he had it all figured out and believed that she was misinterpreting the things that she felt but he wasn't about to tell her that. He could clearly see in her eyes that she genuinely believed him to be the cure for her heartache so he'd accept the role she was giving him without lamentations. He'd always had something about helping out needy girls in dire straits so there was no way he could refuse.

Even though the thought of being regarded as the substitute of some guy he'd never see in his life made unpleasant prickles spear his chest for some reason he couldn't name.

He knew he'd made up his mind, despite the quiet voice that told him in a whisper that he was probably just setting himself up for hurt.

Amu watched him restlessly as he stared at her, feeling more vulnerable by the second. She felt stupider and stupider as she considered her overly direct confessions and his lack of reaction to them.

Just as she was about to say something, he leaned in and planted the softest and briefest of kisses on her lips. She found it truly amazing how, with just one simple action, he could make everything better; how he had, once more, infallibly managed to dispel her panic and instilled her with a different sort of thrill.

The next time he kissed her it was a deep and sensual kiss, his lips pliant against hers and his hands exerting only the slightest of pressure on her as he pulled her closer.

The air came out of her lungs in a quiet swoosh, and she let herself be immersed completely in his embrace, responding passionately to his ministrations.

If their last heated encounter had been fueled by nearly destructive passion, then this one was more of a quiet, smouldering flame that filled Amu with warmth and security.

She all but clung to him for dear life as the need to get closer rose, but he didn't seem to mind because he clung to her just as tightly. If she had half a mind to do so, she would've noticed how well she fit in his embrace, how perfectly her form moulded against his, how snugly she fit in his arms as he slowly and deliberately maneuvered her towards the bed.

Amu felt the softness of the covers beneath her before she realized that they had moved to his bed. Her mind had been too far gone in the clouds; her pulse raced much too fast for her to register anything that was going on. She was probably going insane, but she didn't mind leaving herself in his care even if that was indeed the case; his touch was magic, his kisses and the feel of his body pressed up against hers her heaven on earth.

His hands roamed her form, ghosting over her curves while he engaged her tongue in a sensual battle. She noted that his touch was much tenderer than she remembered it; his movements were slower and more deliberate. If she had been in a different state of mind this foreplay might have frustrated her and would have had her egging him on to change tack, but instead he made her feel at ease, more cared-for than she had ever felt.

As he lavished her with tender kisses, and lightly traced her curves with his fingers, she couldn't help but think of the way he'd been just as attentive with the musical instrument earlier and how he was treating just as he would his beloved violin—like a fragile beauty which required calculated pressure: just enough to give in, not too much so as to break under his touch.

When his kisses traveled even farther south, all her ability for abstract thinking vanished, as did the odd parallels between completely unrelated matters. Her focus was entirely drawn to much more gratifying experiences.

It was at an ungodly hour that he left to get a glass of water, and to switch off the light in the living room that they'd forgotten on. He'd been gone for such a short time that it surprised him to find her in the middle of a rather vigorous fight against a nightmare.

He was barely awake and not at all coherent himself, but as he climbed back in bed he had enough of his wits about him to pull her into his arms and softly stroke her hair.

"Shh, it's okay, it's just a bad dream." He kissed her temple and kept petting her head until she began calming down. "It will pass; everything's going to be alright. I won't let you have any nightmares, so go back to sleep." His promises came out drowsy. The wisps of slumber were tightening around him already.

Only when she settled down completely and pressed herself more firmly against him did he allow sleep to claim him once more.

There was no way for him to know it, but he did keep that promise he made to her—she slept peacefully, not even a hint of a nightmare to soil her rest after he'd come back to her side again.

His eyes cracked open the next day with more than a bit of effort (mornings weren't his element by a long shot). When he turned, his eyes confirmed what he already knew: an empty bed.

Judging by the fact that the sheets had lost the warmth of their previous occupant, the bed had been vacated for a while, too.

Ikuto's brows furrowed and he exerted an even greater effort to haul himself out of the covers. He wasn't sure what he'd expected to wake up to, but he knew for certain that this definitely hadn't been it.

He heaved a great sigh as he slung a towel over his shoulder, deciding that there was virtually no reason for him not to start his day like he ordinarily would—even though the previous one had ended strangely enough.

Unimaginable was the surprise he had when he ventured out of his bedroom and into the living room where a now very familiar pink-headed woman was by the stove, humming a tune to herself whilst cooking.

In his half-asleep and not quite conscious state, his brain failed to process what was going on —hadn't she left altogether? So what was she doing there, in his kitchen? It made no sense —so instead of responding he just stood there, rooted to the spot, just staring vacantly at her.

She must've heard the crack of the bedroom door when it opened because she turned her head to look in his direction. When she saw him on the threshold of his bedroom, she smiled with a brightness rivaling the sun's. For a moment he forgot his confusion and focused instead on how it was humanly possible for her to be so cheery so early in the day.

"Good morning!" she greeted good-naturedly, flipping over what she was frying in the pan at the stove.

He managed only a grunt as a reply to her and crossed his arms as he observed her—she was all straightened up again, prim and proper. He couldn't help but wonder whether this was really the same person that had clung to him so desperately last night.

"When I didn't see you around when I woke up, I thought you'd up and left while I was asleep."

"I really don't like staying idle in the morning, so I decided to get up and make myself a bit useful around here," Amu said, poking the contents of the pan with a big wooden spoon.

She said that because it was better than confessing her fascination with his vulnerable, innocent face as he slept, and that she'd had an impossibly hard time resisting the urge of kissing him awake.

She chanced a glance at him from the corner of her eye to find him once again doing that. Staring at her with those haunting azure eyes of his, as though she were a ticking bomb, or about to crumble to pieces.

Amu looked at her watch and was surprised by how much time had passed since she'd gotten out of bed.

"I should be going, I have lectures across town in an hour," she informed him coolly while garnishing the dish she was preparing.

She paused, her eyes pinned to the bowl of rice and the pieces of fish fillet she'd flavoured it with.

"I'll… try to talk to my sister tonight. The situation is really starting to get ridiculous—it's almost like we're a pair of stubborn kids against instead of the couple of responsible adults we should be. So I'll talk things out with her." She said it with a forced smile that strained her face.

It was a painful expression to look at, Ikuto decided.

He sighed deeply while she went to the door to put on her shoes. He leaned against the wall to her side while watching her, the strict gleam never once leaving his gaze.

"I feel the beginnings of a tradition forming here. You have sex with me then leave first thing the following morning." If it did come true, it wouldn't be a tradition he cared much for.

If there was one way to make a guy feel insecure and unwanted, she had found it with impressive precision over such a short amount of time. The way she infallibly disappeared right after sleeping with him made it look like she'd been displeased with something about him or his performance to make such a hasty escape.

The apologetic look she threw him with those large honey orbs of hers almost made him wish his words had been less biting and purposefully guilt-instilling. Almost.

"It's not like that at all!" she protested weakly. He wasn't convinced. "It's that…" Once again, she was struggling for words.

He wished he could have more compassion for her wordlessness, but the early hour paired with his usually void mood right after waking up kept him from emoting in any favourable way.

"I have run away from this confrontation for long enough and I think it's about time I pluck up my courage and face this mess I've helped create."

If that were true, it would be a splendid decision on her part. So what was the problem in this picture? Her resolve felt half-assed at best. Didn't make for a convincing start.

Not to mention that he doubted that her reasons for wanting to avoid said confrontation with her little sister had just disappeared in thin air over a day.

"It's not like we won't see each other again anyway, so this isn't good-bye." She smiled but it didn't feel like it reached her eyes.

He scowled.

"Alright, I should be going now then," she said cheerfully when she started feeling uncomfortable in the silence that had stretched between them. "I'll see you around then, okay?"

"See you around," he muttered darkly as she disappeared down the stairs that led from his flat to the street below.

But he knew she was unlikely to ever come to him again after she resolved this issue with her sister. She hadn't left him any means of seeking her out, either. He briefly pondered whether it had been deliberate (in which case she was craftier than she looked), or if she was just that air-headed and had completely forgotten that teensy little detail.

He mulled over the dilemma for just a moment before he decided there was no way to find out nor anything for him to gain by knowing such a thing (she was, after all, already gone), so he continued on his way toward the bathroom.

While trudging on his way to the bathroom, he couldn't help thinking that if she had been so keen on waltzing out of his life, she might as least have allowed him the luxury of waking up next to her.

Ikuto came out of the shower ten minutes later, finally wide-awake, alert, and just about ready for a new day, despite its rather sour start.

When he ventured over to his small kitchen, he was reminded of what she'd placed in front of his usual seat. He found a fresh bowl of rice with a fish side dish from the remainder of last night's dinner ingredients.

He couldn't hold back the smile that quirked up the corners of his face even if he had wanted to.

He was making his way to sit down and eat, resigning himself to being late for his father's appointed lesson (the man could be downright scary when he blew a fuse) when his foot brushed up against something that was cold and smooth and so obviously out of place under his dining table.

He picked it up and examined it. It was Amu's student ID card, along with the instruction that "should it be lost, please return to owner".

Ikuto smirked while he dug into his breakfast, which had suddenly become even tastier.

Maybe this really wasn't good-bye yet.

Her heart was hammering madly in her chest as she stood before the door. She swallowed thickly, mentally chiding herself for being such a coward and doing her best to steel her resolve.

Nodding to herself once she felt sure enough of her mental state, she turned the key in the lock and entered.

Amu wondered if it was fortunate or not that Ami didn't seem to be around for the time being. It gave her some more time to rehearse what she was going to say to her younger sister when the girl came home. It was almost dinner-time, so the younger Hinamori shouldn't have to be long.

It was nearly an hour later that the door opened. Upon hearing the sound, Amu's heart leapt in her throat again, rendering breathing difficult, but she pushed on, convinced that their issues had to end then and there. Before the limits of her sanity were pushed any further.

"Ami!" she began, hoping to capture the girl's attention.

She was surprised when her sibling walked past her without even sparing her as much as a glance. Not the most encouraging start but she hadn't expected it to be easy.

"Do you have a minute? I need to talk to you." She was using her business tone now, hoping it would convey the urgency of what she had to say.

She watched from the threshold of her sister's room as the younger girl took a trunk from her wardrobe and opened it in the middle of her room. Before she could ask what was going on and if she was going somewhere, Ami finally turned to face her.

"Actually, I do, too." The somberness of her tone seemed fitting to Amu for the topic of their oncoming conversation. "And after you hear what it is about, I think you'll agree that I should go ahead first."

Pink brows furrowed over amber eyes but the older Hinamori nodded regardless.

"I don't think there's an easy way to say this so I'll just go ahead and say it."

She took a breath and Amu cocked a fine brow at her dramatics. What was it she had so urgent to say that required as much theatrics?

"I'm moving out of the apartment," Ami said evenly, virtually dropping a bombshell on her sister's head.

Amu all but gaped openly at the declaration of her sibling, about to contend the point with what she had had to say all along.

That was when Ami added, in much the same monotonous voice, a very important clause to her previous claim.

"I'm moving in with Tadase-kun."

As the air rushed out of Amu's lungs, she forgot completely what it was that she had been about to talk about to her sister.

The only thing left in her head was a deafening, roaring noise that blocked out anything else.

Ikuto waited in a park outside her university the day after finding her ID card. He remembered her telling him something about feeling like she had been put on display the first few weeks after entering university thanks to this same, crowded park. He'd guessed that this was where she came in and out of the building.

He realized that his chances of succeeding in this were slim, but at least it was better to try this before going around, asking her peers if they knew the Amu Hinamori to whom this ID belonged.

He had been waiting quite a while when Amu finally came out, her gaze drifting into space and her mind obviously not in what she was doing.

His brows furrowed as he picked himself up from his bench and approached her.

"I think you're taking the phrase 'head in the clouds' a bit too literally," he said smoothly with a smirk when he was right in front of her.

Her gaze had indeed been pinned on the fluffy clouds above, though at the same time he was certain she had been seeing right through them, if her disoriented look when she tried to focus on him was any clue.

"Oh, Ikuto!" she trilled, a smile automatically surfacing on her face. It felt empty, for the sake of appearances. He didn't like it one bit. "What brings you here today? Are you applying for the university?"

His eyes narrowed slightly at her generic choices of topics of conversation. But he indulged her anyway, since this was the reason he had come to her in the first place.

"Actually, I came today to return you this." He handed her the student ID card and she studied so closely that he wondered if she was seeing it for the first time in her life. "I believe it says it's yours."

She didn't say anything for a while, just staring at the smooth, laminated surface of the card before the gears in her head virtually started turning again and she locked their gazes once more.

"You came all this way just to return this to me?" she asked him with those wide innocent eyes of hers, as if her phrasing wasn't the least bit insulting.

"When you put it like that, it makes me want to wish I hadn't…" He sighed and was about to turn and leave—he was obviously not someone she'd wanted to talk to today, so he might as well spare himself a few more underhanded insults before they ever had the chance to come—but then she amended herself.

"No, I think that's really sweet of you." Was it just him or was there something wrong with her speech pattern as well? "Where did you find it? I never even had a chance to realize it was missing."

Things were starting to get creepy. It was like the very essence of her being had been hollowed out and only her outer shell remained. Her aura was dimmed, nothing like the usual brilliance she possessed. Not to mention that it felt like she was straining herself very hard to act and talk like she usually did… the problem being that she had completely forgotten how to be like she'd been before.

That's the feeling the Amu in front of him gave Ikuto. And for some reason, it scared him.

What could've possibly happened to have broken her so completely from inside out?

"Amu, are you alright?" he asked cautiously, completely disregarding her previous question.

Stranger yet was the fact that she didn't seem to mind that he had so utterly ignored her last query.

"Oh, I'm great! Full of spunk and energy, like any other day!" she enthused, but it felt hollow and rung false on so many levels.

She was staring at the picture of herself on her student ID. She looked so normal there. She figured she would—she'd been so young and full of energy and dreams back then, thinking that she'd find what she needed in that university, which was full of the brightest and keenest adolescents in the region.

Sure, she was still young, but if she still had any dreams now, she couldn't see them.

Worse, the face staring back at her through the laminated card reminded her so much of her sister's face—the same person that had stolen her dreams and hopes from her, taken them all and trampled them under her dainty little feet.

"I'm moving out of the apartment because I'm moving in with Tadase-kun," Ami had said, shattering all of her older sibling's ideas of how her life would continue from that moment on.

It had felt as if the ground had opened up beneath her and swallowed Amu whole.

"I just…" she started saying, her voice trembling treacherously. Her lower lip quivered and her eyes welled with tears. "Things just… don't seem to want to go my way anymore, do they?"

Two drops splattered over the laminated surface of the card, slowly sliding down as her fingers started trembling.

And this was yet another thing that she hadn't wanted to happen. She had to be strong and act like it if she didn't want to be disliked by everyone and anyone who knew her. Just breaking down like this wasn't something that Amu did.

But she couldn't seem to keep herself together anymore. The dry sobs started to rack her whole being; the tears cascaded down the sides of her face even while she exerted every ounce of effort she had in her to keep them from doing so.

This was not how she'd imagined she'd act like in front of him the next time she saw him.

She'd been nothing short of a natural disaster since meeting him, and he'd probably think she was bipolar or something. Having a nervous breakdown in front of him was going to do nothing to help her case.

"I'm so sorry!" she hiccupped out while she brushed furiously at her cheeks, as though thinking that would stop the tears overflowing from her eyes. "I know people get awkward when these things happen, so I'll stop!"

She wiped them away again and again, but the tears didn't seem to stop, the sobs didn't stop choking her and her hands just wouldn't stop shaking, dammit! She didn't even seem to care that people around them were starting to stare, but rather that he was looking at her and this was not how she wanted to appear before him.

But before she could enter deeper hysteria over her inability to control herself, a pair of strong, masculine arms enveloped her and she smelled a very familiar mixture of a musk and male cologne. She realized belatedly that she'd been pulled into a hug, her face against his chest as he towered above her.

"You and your pointless rationalizations," she heard him say with a forlorn sigh against her. "Stop struggling against it and just let go."

So she did, because, really, she didn't have any other choice. She cried and cried against him, burying her face in his shirt and muffling her sobs.

Whether she was crying for her lost love, for the fact she'd once more failed at amending her bond with her sister, or for the fact that her life was turning out to be nothing like she'd imagined it would be—or maybe for all those at once—she didn't know, but she allowed herself to cry until her tears ran dry.

Once Amu had calmed from her breakdown, she demanded that they went to drink at the "Bar at the End of the Universe"—to commemorate the way they'd gotten to know each other and because she needed something really strong so she'd be able to live through what had just transpired.

Ikuto hadn't contended her desires, but he'd tagged along with a role more similar to a guardian of hers rather than a drinking buddy, seeing as he would have his hands full making sure no one eyed her predatorily in the bar and that she didn't drink more than she could handle.

At her fourth tequila shot—after she'd claimed that it had no taste to be and was therefore the worst alcoholic drink anyone had ever come up with, completely disregarding the paradox her words and actions created to a more sober mind like, say, Ikuto's—she told him what had happened after she'd gone home. To her credit, though she had looked completely wasted, her speech hadn't suffered the slightest from that fact… if he didn't count the occasional misplacement of syllables in difficult words.

She'd bemoaned her fate in a very demonstrative, sarcastic manner before sending "them all" to hell and beyond "for all she cared". Then she started taking shot after shot and not long after he informed her that they were leaving. Hauling her out of the bar proved difficult because she refused to leave, claiming that she had come to empty her pocket of all the money she had on booze.

The bartender seemed more than pleased to take the money she gave him and sent the struggling pair off. "Come again!" he said, in an almost sing-song tone.

"You really should stop drinking yourself into a stupor," he told her while he dragged her towards his bed. "It's really strenuous on the body."

"Do I look like someone who gives a damn?" she asked him in a slur while trying to focus on his expression.

In all honesty, she looked to him like someone who'd had a few more shots than they absolutely should've had, courtesy of that accursed smug bartender.

"Besides, getting wasted and having you haul me off to your abode would be a much more pleasant tradition than up and leaving the next day." She smiled in her reverie and missed the way he paused while he took off her shoes from her feet before helping her legs on the bed as well. "It's like I'm in some miraculous sanctuary here, where troubles and misfortunes can't reach." She was positively getting delirious, judging by the sound of her voice and the look on her face. "I wish I never had to leave here."

He had her all set, divested of her shoes and tucked safely under the covers, when he looked down at her from the side of his bed.

"Then don't…" he whispered breathlessly, suddenly winded, his heart constricting painfully in his chest.

He had been sure she was already asleep when he'd said it but then she lazily opened her amber eyes and gave him a languid smile that had a tinge of sadness and hopefulness in it.

"Yeah…" she murmured, her lids closing on their own accord over her sleepy eyes.

Ikuto had been about to turn and leave when a hand latched onto his shirt sleeve and held him in place.

"Don't go," Amu all but begged him thickly. "You said it before, right? It's not like we haven't…" She made such a large pause that he thought she might've fallen asleep mid-sentence. But the tight hold of her hand on his sleeve proved otherwise. "… Both fit in the bed before…" She finished the sentence and pinned her unfocused eyes on him once more, making him snort a laugh.

"You're one whimsical girl, aren't you?" he muttered to her as he climbed in behind her, the arm in the sleeve that was still in her hold snaking around her waist while he made himself comfortable.

She grinned lackadaisically as she allowed herself to drift off.

"As if you don't enjoy it…" she murmured fragmentarily, losing her last holds on consciousness just as Ikuto smirked against her back, proving her theory correct.

The next morning found the two of them leaving together, walking together until their paths split up. Amu headed towards her university and Ikuto made his way toward his father's studio.

When they parted, she could clearly see in his eyes the desire to say something which he deliberately held back. He just gave her another one of his heart-warming smiles as he waved her good-bye. She bit on her lip as she watched his back, the violin case swung over his shoulder. Her heart clenched tightly in her chest at the memory of the look in his eyes when he'd turned around.

He didn't seem to mind having her stay in his apartment, but it would be an imprudent decision on too many levels to count. What would she say to her mom, with whom she was on strained enough terms as it was? Not only had Ami moved out, but now Amu as well? And with a man her mother had never heard of before? This would definitely make her still-sickly father's health deteriorate even further. And she couldn't afford that.

Besides, if she stuck around his place, whatever she did she'd feel out of place. Because she would be exactly that. She had already invaded the privacy of his home twice—if she stuck around any further, she'd barely be able to look herself in the mirror.

This was the reason why, after lectures that day, she went straight to her own apartment. It was the right thing to do and it was what she should've done a long time ago instead of running all over town. .

And when she did, she found that most of Ami's daily things were gone. The fact that the girl had truly moved out of the abode finally sunk in her head.

For some reason, the thought paralyzed her. Not because Ami had moved out so she could move in with Tadase—Amu had already drunk enough alcohol to assure that that fact had hit home. Rather, that Ami was just gone—she had taken her things and moved in with a man, left Amu all to herself in that spacious apartment that made her feel unwelcome in its vastness now that she was all by herself.

She had lived with her baby sister since the latter had turned thirteen and started going to her current school. Having her suddenly stop being a part of her life altogether left a huge, gaping hole in Amu's chest, bleeding into her very soul.

When she finally looked up from the spot on the floor her eyes had pinned themselves to, she realized she'd been sitting on her knees, in a very uncomfortable position that had given her a rather painful cramp in the calf. She rustled around the place and went to take a shower—she could still smell the stench of alcohol and cigarettes on her skin and hair—before fixing herself a half-decent afternoon snack.

The silence and the apartment's perpetual feeling of emptiness left her feeling antsy and out of place, like a caged animal yearning to be freed.

But where could she go? This was where she really belonged. This was where she lived. She needed to get herself together and do something about this ditch she'd fallen into before things got out of hand.

So before she even consciously realized what she was doing, she had already dialed a number that she'd recently added in her cell address book.

"Hello?" came a very cautious reply from the familiar, pleasant and endlessly melodic male baritone on the other end of the line.

"Hey, … Ikuto. It's Amu." And suddenly, she realized she had no idea what to say. "Oh, you're probably wondering why I have your number."

"That would be a good place to start this conversation going, yes," he told her, laughter bubbling in his voice.

"Well, you pointed out that I'd forgotten to leave any sort of contact and I realized you were right and that this was very one-sided of me, so I added my number to your cell's archive and then rung myself so I'd have yours and … yeah," she finished lamely when she was rambling about idiocies.

The laugh of his that it earned her was well worth acting like a complete moron though.

"I was wondering how exactly my phone seemed to know it was you calling when I didn't remember exchanging numbers with you." She could hear fabric ruffling and the sound of traffic suddenly filtering through the receiver—he must've gone out on a street. "So, anything interesting happen or did you just miss me so much you had a craving to just hear my voice?"

Even though she realized he couldn't see it, she made a grimace into the speaker of her phone.

"Why isn't there an option "neither"?" she asked jokingly, making him chuckle and in turn making herself crack a smile. But it quickly melted off her face when her eyes fell on the empty spaces where some of Ami's things had been left around. "I came back to my apartment and I found that she'd pretty much cleared out with all of her most necessary things."

A silence stretched between them for a while but it was a much less discomforting one than when she had been all by herself. She wondered how it was even physically possible for silence to feel different in such short amount of time.

"I'm seriously no good in situations like these—I don't know what to tell you to make you feel any better, sorry."

She couldn't help but laugh at his social clumsiness. She guessed the two of them were more alike than they would've been able to know back when they first met—she was exactly the same as him, only she didn't admit it as honestly as he did when she felt awkward in some situation.

"You just did, so it's really okay."

The sound of traffic lessened but she could still hear the wind blowing into the speaker so she guessed he must've gone through a less lively area.

"So the place is kind of depressing when there's only you in that condo, huh?" he said half-jokingly while he maneuvered himself around a back alley.

"Yeah, that pretty much sums it up…" she agreed in a lackluster voice as her eyes roamed the living room. It was much less homely without all of Ami's books sprawled all over. "She was a pain in the ass as a flat mate, but over the years I guess she grew on me and now suddenly having her gone makes me feel like I failed her—which is weird, because in reality she's the one who failed me!"

She heard him sigh over the receiver and she stopped rambling.

"Again, no idea what I'm supposed to say in this situation. Is there anything in particular you want to hear?"

Amu's good-natured laugh rung in his mind like dozens of bells.

"No, it's alright—I was just wondering what you were up to, decided to call to let you know I could, and um… Yeah, that's it, I guess."

She was a bit disappointed that she had to but she guessed it was about time to hang up. She didn't even know what to say to him so it was amazing they'd managed to keep up a conversation for even as long as they had.

"I'm on my way home from having had my ass whipped by my father—again—after he kept criticizing me for things I couldn't possibly have known I was doing wrong. But I think he does it purposefully—he doesn't tell me what he wants from me beforehand so he can lash out every chance he gets to do it afterwards."

"I think that you might be a bit paranoid," Amu told him through fits of giggles while she waited for her personal computer to boot.

"Ah, but the fact I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't following me, now does it?" She was certain by then that he was purposefully trying to amuse her and who was she to deny him. "That's the spirit—keep at it like this and you'll feel better in no time. I have to go now, but since you already have my phone, feel free to call anytime."

"Even if it's in the wee hours of the morning?" she tried, humoured, and he played along by pretending to be hesitant. "Thanks, Ikuto—you're the best."

"Yeah, so I've been told," he said through a smile. "Bye, Amu."

"Bye," she muttered and hung up.

Once the smile faded from her face and reality rushed her, she realized once more that she was all alone in her apartment and that her sister wasn't coming back.

Not unless she did something about it.

She had never felt so lonely in her entire life.

By the next day Amu had exchanged more texts with Ikuto than she would've believed he would return.

After her call he'd taken to sending her cryptic picture messages that he later in the day explained. He'd even taken a picture of his father practicing and sent it to her so she'd know what kind of environment he spent most of his day in.

This helped ease some of her loneliness but the fact that she had alienated herself from pretty much all her friends weighed heavily on her in the evenings, when it was only her and her thoughts. Her doubts made her run around in circles in her own head, ponder whether she hadn't made the wrong decision here or there.

Just when she'd been about to call it a day and go to bed early, there was a knock at the door. She cocked a curious eyebrow and went to see who it was.

Endless was her surprise when she found there the last person she expected to see.

Ikuto stood leaning against the threshold of her door, a plastic bag in one of his hands, the other stuffed into his pants' pocket. Amu eyed the object somewhat warily while he regarded her silently. After a moment, a smirk curled the corners of his lips.

"You mentioned something about your favourite movie being aired on TV tonight so would you care for some take-out, junk food and company while watching it?"

"How did you know where I live?" she asked him through a laugh, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Should I take that as a yes or a no?"

She shook her head and laughed again, moving out of his way so he could let himself in and closing the door after him when he did.

"I know I haven't mentioned it, but I have superhuman powers of knowing where someone is if I only focus hard enough on their presence," he explained, and with such a straight face as he did so that she almost believed him. "I'm serious—it's an out-of-this-world amazing power."

"Yeah, sure, tell Superman 'hi' from me the next time you see him," she told him. She relieved him of the bag he had been carrying as he made himself comfortable in her living room.

"I could maybe even arrange you an audience if you'd like," he said through a grin over his shoulder aimed at her and she just gave him a sardonic smile. "Okay, okay, I followed you to the building and from there it was a guessing game. I think you ought to have a friendlier connection with your neighbours – you never know when you might need their help should your apartment accidentally burst in flames or floods. None of them seemed to know your name."

"And that coming from the social expert," she said jokingly while she rounded around the couch, plopping herself down on it next to him.

She handed him his food and made herself comfortable in her seat before digging into her own. She gave a satisfied moan when she took her first bite.

"You must be my guardian angel or something. I've been about to go to bed without having anything for dinner because university was just exhausting today and the last thing on my mind was what I'd eat out of my empty fridge."

He fixed her with his haunting, midnight blue gaze and she found herself staring back at him, halting her chewing.

"What?" she questioned and her voice seemed to break him out of his trance, because he just shrugged with one shoulder and dug into his portion as well.

"Nothing—I'm just really going to enjoy mocking this film for you."

His comment earned him a playful smack to the arm—one of many to come for the evening, because he would spend a lot of creative energy mocking the movie during their viewing—and they shared a laugh before the last commercial ended and the film started.

Amu believed they were making some really great progress. For the first time they slept together in the same room, without her jumping him and without her having been horribly drunk, but most importantly without her clinging onto him like a lifeline. Some semblance of normality did her good.

And their visits - to her place one night, and his another - didn't stop, either. She told him that he was pretty much the only person she still had to talk to about these things, and that she felt bad for relying on him, but he waved her apologies off, claiming that she wasn't burdening him at all and that if he didn't enjoy her company, he wouldn't agree to have her stick around.

She'd smiled and had the overwhelming urge to kiss him but got so caught up wondering whether she should that she missed the moment.

And thus he cued her ponderings of what exactly she was to him.

She would've said in a breath she thought of him as a friend, but then she'd be lying—she hadn't slept with any of her friends, and even assuming she had, she didn't have the overbearing desire to repeat the experience every time they smiled, either. She fancied thinking of herself as his lover, but she was much too broken and needy to be thought his equal in that way, wasn't she?

So that left her as… nothing she could slap a label on, in the end. She wasn't just his friend but she definitely wasn't his girlfriend, either. And the fact that she started feeling skittish and self-conscious around him definitely did nothing to help her case.

Worse still was that he seemed to have picked up on her episodic unease whenever she came too close to him, and he exploited it to the maximum for his own amusement. He draped an arm around her shoulders whenever he sat next to her, teased her and hugged her whenever his fancy struck. And he was having a grand time while at it.

Even though she acted normal while he was around (and seemed to have fun despite her occasional bouts of stubbornness and disagreeableness), Ikuto always felt that distinct hollowness following her like a storm cloud. He didn't know whether she herself realized it, but it was eating away at her, slowly but surely.

He knew because he felt the same thing whenever he let his thoughts take flight.

He didn't care whether his mood turned foul once in a while, but he couldn't bear to see her suffer.

So one night after they had eaten at her apartment, he knew something had to be done. And he knew just what he should do as well.

"Let's go out for a bit," he suggested, getting up from his seat at the table.

He had been looking at her back hunched over the dishes in the sink and had been able to swear on his life he could feel her thoughts descending towards unpleasant paths when it had come to him—where he needed to take her to get her to feel better.

Amu looked up from her chores, confusion written clearly over her pretty face.

"What—now?" She stole a glance at the clock on her wall, cocking an eyebrow at him when she saw the time.

"Yes, right now," Ikuto confirmed, snatching both his and her coat from the hangers she'd put them on upon their coming in the flat. "Come on, leave that for now—you can finish later," he urged her. He took an almost-washed plate from her and put it down in the sink.

She opened her mouth to say something to him but his persistence made her shut it, instead washing off the rest of the dishwashing soap and wiping her clean hands with a towel.

"Where are we going in such a hurry?" she asked, half-curiously, half-suspiciously, while he ushered her towards her shoes.

"We're not in a hurry," he informed her, but at the look she gave him, Ikuto rolled his eyes and smiled. "I just can't wait to show this to you, that's all—I'm sure you'll love it. I can't believe I'd forgotten until today."

Amu wasn't convinced, but she did as she was told regardless. Anything he had done with her lately had resulted in nothing short of excitement, adventure and/or lots of laughs, so she saw no reason not to follow his lead.

"Well, okay, if you say so," she caved in, tying the laces of her sneakers and taking her jacket from him. Once they were out the door and she had locked up, she could practically feel him beaming beside her.

"Come on, this way," he said with barely-contained glee.

His excitement was contagious, so for a while she was too intrigued by what it was that he had had the urge to show her at ten in the evening to bother really looking around, but when they had to climb a wall and walk the length of it once on top, she started feeling weird.

"Is this the only way there? Where we are going?" she asked guardedly, simultaneously evading a rather nasty-looking shrub's branches.

"It's the only way I know there," Ikuto told her smoothly, making walking steep paths and climbing walls look like a walk in the park.

"This is a stray cat alley," Amu observed astutely. "Can't we get from point A to point B like normal people do? You know, by using streets and the like? I think that's why they were made in the first place."

Ikuto chuckled and rolled his eyes.

"Yes, but this way we save time because we're going a straight line from point A to point B, unlike what we'll be able to do if we use the streets." He stopped in front of a rather tall brick fence that had vines snaking up its length. "Besides, isn't this more fun?"

He grinned at her as he asked his question and her heart fluttered in her chest, making denying—or even articulating any halfway intelligent answer—impossible for the young woman.

That's when he started hopping up (how did he do that, seriously? She was sure she wouldn't ever be able to just hop up a vertical brick wall no matter how much practice she got doing it) the wall as if it was second nature to him. Once he was on top, he crouched and looking down at her expectantly. She could feel herself breaking out in cold sweat. That was at least three meters tall!

"Y-you want me to climb that?" she asked, fearing she already knew the answer.

"Considering where we're going is just beyond this wall, I'd say it would be desirable, yes." He smiled at her in that cheeky way that made her want to slug him but he was too far out of reach to be able to do that at all.

She swallowed thickly as she let her eyes fall to the vines and the steep, tall brick wall. When she didn't move for a while, his smile dimmed.

"Are you afraid of heights? Do you want to go around the wall?" he asked her when she made no move to climb.

She shook her head, and when she looked forward again, a determined look had settled in her eyes. She started ascending—as carefully as she could—until her hands reached the top of the wall and Ikuto helped her up.

"That's my girl," he said with a chuckle once she was stable on top.

She was sure that a tomato couldn't hold a candle to the redness of her cheeks at that moment.

Then he hopped down from the three meter high wall as if it was no big deal and the colour drained from her face altogether.

"What goes up has to come down—they taught you that in Physics, right?" he said with a wide, Cheshire Cat-like grin, but she failed to see how this was amusing.

Her face must've reflected her panic, because the mischievous glint was gone from his eyes the next moment, a placating expression in its place.

"Don't worry, Amu—it's not that high. Besides, I'll break your fall, so just come down from there."

And when he opened his arms to show her she could count on him, she knew it was too late for her—she already had fallen and there was nothing anyone could've done to stop it. Her heart raced in her chest—whether it was from the adrenaline of knowing she was about to jump off a really high place or because of her admission to herself—and she worked up the courage to push herself off the wall from her sitting position.

She thought she'd feel like she was falling for an eternity but between the moment on the top of the wall and the moment she was enveloped in familiar warmth, she could hardly remember anything else.

"There we go," he said quietly as he set her down gently. "Wasn't so hard, was it?" he asked her, with a warm smile that made her heart melt in her chest.

When he took a step back and away from her she barely managed to stifle her noise of protest in her throat. But then the darkness that had been in front of her burst in light, temporarily blinding her and making her forget her previous train of thought altogether.

As her eyes finally adjusted to the change and she slid them open, her breath caught in her throat.

An amusement had just come to life before her very eyes. She looked at Ikuto, then at the merry-go-round, the bumper cars, the Ferris wheel and all the other attractions that were bathed in light.

She threw him a seeking glance and her already intermittent heartbeat became even more erratic when he smiled brilliantly at her.

"My sister and a friend of ours used to come here frequently when we were kids and the park was still functional. They closed it down some years ago and they're probably going to tear it down soon but I found that it could function for an hour or two if I throw down one of the breakers," he explained, completely dispelling her previous confusion.

"It's…" she began but halfway through her thought fled her. She was left staring wide-eyed at the dazzling beauty of the amusement park, working just for her in the quiet of the night.

Ikuto savoured her reaction for a while, with that same smile that made her knees weak.

"I hope you don't think I brought you here just so you could look at it," he said, stifling a laugh.

The look she gave him was such an amusing mixture between veneration and nonplus that he couldn't help a merry chortle from exiting his throat. He took her by the wrist again—much more tenderly this time, since there was no hurry anymore—and led her into the brilliant, colourful depths of the amusement park.

He stopped in front of the merry-go-round horses, the saccharinely sweet music that played from the attraction filling the silence.

"Here's something that never gets old," he said approvingly, then turning to look at her. "Go on, don't be shy."

Amu's brows rose high above her eyes.

"What? Are we actually going to ride on it?" She almost didn't believe him. What would that accomplish?

He didn't move a muscle, obviously waiting for her to do something.

"Are you serious?" she asked.

"Quite serious," he affirmed, with that same suave expression firmly set on his features. Slight horror started filtering through Amu's face. "What? You're scared of merry-go-rounds?"

"I'm not getting on—amusement parks are childish!"

He gave her a skeptic look.

"You didn't seem to think that way a moment ago."

"A moment ago I didn't think you were going to make me ride on anything!" she protested again and he threw her a weird glance.

"So… you like to look at them but you don't like to ride them? Yeah, that makes perfect sense," he joked sarcastically, making her glare at him.

"You know you can't make me get on, right?"

Well, this argument was getting tiresome…

"What are you holding back for? There's no one here to see you," he pointed out reasonably, making her halt in her tracks. "Nobody's going to judge you for enjoying yourself, you know."

She stood there, staring at him, with an unreadable look in her eyes. He was starting to think that maybe his choice of therapy wasn't as good as he'd thought initially.

But then she all but floated over to one of the horses and climbed on, giving him an excited and expectant look while waiting for it to start. He chuckled and shook his head as he made the ride go into motion. The way her eyes sparkled once the horse started moving almost reduced him to fits of laughter but he held back in favour of climbing on behind her.

"What are you doing?" she asked him, looking at him over her shoulder. He thought her blush at that moment very endearing.

"It is customary for the prince and the princess to ride together, isn't it?" he all but whispered into her ear, making her shift slightly while one of his arms snaked around her waist.

He could practically feel the heat emanating from her cheeks as his face was pressed up against her neck, his chin resting on the crook of it.

"Some crafty prince you are," she muttered disapprovingly.

And yet he still felt her relax her back against his chest, proving yet again that she was full of paradoxes.

The following hour found them going from ride to ride, even though it took her a while to convince him to accompany her on all of them. He had tried to play the "tired" card but she was having none of it—he had brought her there and he wasn't getting off the hook. He wouldn't get to play the adult while she was revisiting her childhood—not on her watch, at least.

Plus, it was no fun riding alone. That had been the argument he hadn't been able to refute.

The only thing he couldn't understand was why she made him ride in the cups, which were several sizes too small for his tall frame. He felt distinctly stupid and cramped on that particular attraction. But at least his quiet misery seemed to put her in an even better mood, so he toned down on the whining.

"This is great, I'm glad you brought me here. It's like going back in time and getting to be a carefree kid again." Amu grinned widely at him.

"You looked like you could use some cheering up, so I thought this might be a good place to come and unwind." He explained, even as his kneecaps ached —he guessed that they never thought a grown man would be riding the tea cups.

Amu's smile rivaled the light of a thousand suns, even when she shifted her gaze away from his to her lap.

"Yeah. Thanks. It's working."

Just as she was looking up at him from under her pretty eyelashes, the ride stopped rotating, the electricity died, and the whole amusement park was plunged in darkness.

They both chuckled in their seats. And they knew that the private party was over.

For the first time in days, she felt revived. Rejuvenated. Like life had been breathed into her.

It was a wonderful feeling—it made her soar.

She wasn't yet sure what to do to get rid of the constantly nagging, painful thoughts in the back of her mind. They still attacked her on lonely evenings, but at least she had established that she needed to do something. And that in itself was progress.

Amu knew that it was thanks to her "prince's" help that she had managed to get her bearings and realize that it was time to take action instead of just waiting on things to get better on their own.

So, as a token of her gratitude, she had decided to buy him something—a "thank you" gift. But it had been so difficult to choose anything even remotely useful or pragmatic in any way—what do you get someone who has everything he needs and wants nothing he doesn't have?—that she'd found herself out of options and starting to roam the souvenir shops, too.

She had just been rounding out of a store when she saw them—sparkling on their shelf while the light refracted from their almost clover-shaped designs. She had no idea whether he would like a silly little key, but it made a pair with the little locket she bought… so there was a tiny off-chance that he might appreciate it?

She'd find out eventually, anyway, when she gave it to him. After university the next day, she was on her way towards his abode, her heart fluttering in her chest and anticipation pumping in her veins. This would be the first of her steps toward improving her current situation, and it felt important that all went smoothly.

When she got to his place she didn't bother knocking, letting herself in, instead. She quickly came to regret it.

Amu had been about to open her mouth to greet him when she registered an all-too-feminine set of arms wrapped around his neck: an unfamiliar blonde girl pulling Ikuto into an embrace.

Amu's blood ran cold in her veins as she realized several things all at once. First, the girl had incredibly pretty features that Amu felt her own didn't even hold a candle to. Second, the girl must be her rival, from the way she clung to him, as if she had a right to do so or something.

And third—this one was the one that floored her—the girl had her lips locked with Ikuto's.

They hadn't even heard her come in—because they're so wrapped up in their passion, she thought bitterly—until her bag slid off her slack shoulder and her books thudded onto the floor.

Only then did the pair disentangle from one another. The violet eyes of the other girl pinned to Amu, her gaze hitting the pink-haired adolescent with an aura of intense dislike.

The blonde's stare made her feel like she was the intruder, as though she were completely unwanted there.

And the thought stung horribly.

To think that she'd believed she already knew what betrayal tasted like, when she hadn't the faintest clue…

"Wait, Amu!" Ikuto started to say and she could hear the panic lacing his voice.

But she didn't feel like sticking around to listen to excuses or hurtful truths.

So she spun on her heel and took off, just in time to catch a glimpse of the other girl grabbing Ikuto's wrist before he could give pursuit.

She closed her honey-coloured eyes, cursing herself for being so stupid and gullible, for thinking that she was the only girl in his life. He had met her in a bar, for fuck's sake, and he'd had a one night stand with her—he had thought he'd never see her again. He had probably counted on it, if he and his mind-numbingly pretty girlfriend were having problems—he'd have some purely harmless fun with some no-name girl in a bar, and then she'd leave and he'd go back to his woman with no questions asked.

Bet she had thrown some spanners into the works of his genius plot, much to his chagrin.

She had been racing down the steps in a flurry of welling eyes and whipping pink tresses when she heard another set of footsteps echo in the stairwell. Before she could identify how close they were, someone had caught her arms from behind. She turned around to look at Ikuto, whose face was starting to be adorned with a slight flush from the exertion of chasing after her.

"Wait, Amu, you're making… the wrong conclusion…," he rasped out and (wisely) refused to let go of her, even as he hung his head to catch his breath.

A spear pierced Amu's heart as she tried to wrench free of his hold.

"Oh, so you were not actually kissing her?" she all but screamed incredulously, more bent than ever on getting his hands off her.

"She kissed me and I was trying to disentangle from her when you came in—" he protested—in a very unconvincing manner, too, she might add—before she cut him off.

"That's certainly not how it looked from where I stood." He opened his mouth to say something but she cut across him before he could. "No, I don't want to listen to you justify it. I don't even have a right to demand such a thing, do I?"

She was livid and he didn't blame her—he should've told her she was coming today, but he never got the chance to the day before.

"Amu, she is not my girlfriend—"

"Oh, isn't she? What is she then? Do you let all your friends kiss you like that?"

"If you'd just let me finish, —" he tried, exasperated with not being allowed to say what he meant to but once again she didn't let him continue.

"Or maybe she's just your fuck buddy, huh? Kind of like what I am, right? I really can't understand why you'd keep an uninteresting nobody like me around when you have a girl like her with you—"

"She's my sister," he finally managed to force in between her intakes of breath during her rant.

It took her a moment to register what he'd said, but when she did, she only managed a deeply suspicious expression.

"Your sister?" Amu reiterated. She scrutinized him as if he had just said that he had proof the world is as flat as a pancake. "Your sister was all over you like that?"

He shrugged, the tension obviously having left his shoulders once she'd stopped to listen. Her brows narrowed over her keen amber eyes—he wasn't feeding her whopping lies, was he?

"She takes 'brother complex' to new heights—you'll get used to her." His explanation did nothing to dispel her suspicions. He heaved a deep sigh. "Amu, I don't know what you want me to say—I'm sorry I didn't tell you she was dropping by. That's my bad—I forgot yesterday. But don't try to reason running away on me too just because of a stupid argument like this."

She bristled and sputtered, "Stupid argu—! 'Running away'? 'Too'? I think you have something you want to say to me."

He regarded her critically with a cocked brow.

"What? It's not like you haven't realized that it's what you always do and that you're really proficient at it." She had opened her mouth to protest but he wouldn't have it—not to mention that he had to pay her back for doing the same earlier. "You see a difficult problem in front of you and you run away from it. You should stop doing that. Stop escaping from everything and anything that doesn't go as you please—the world is a cruel place and it rarely ever lets your plans go along smoothly."

If he didn't sound like he was talking from experience, she would've refused to take another word from him.

"Face the things you dislike head on and you might find that situations could actually improve before you realize it."

"I do not run away from anything and everything I dislike…" she muttered petulantly under her breath, but his sharp sense of hearing caught every word of it.

"Oh, you don't? Why were you staying over at a friend's house for a week, then? Why did you avoid your mother like the plague from the moment she found out you were in a fight with your sister? Why did you spend a week procrastinating, waiting until things got worse, instead of just talking things out with your sister? Why did you come to me when everyone else you knew kept pressuring you about the same thing?"

She glared at the floor at her feet, unable to believe that she had to take this from him of all people. Who did he think he was…?

"I'm not saying this to annoy you, Amu," he said, tipping her chin up so she'd look at him.

Her spiteful glare told him he was doing a very bad job of it if he meant what he'd just said.

"I think that it's just time you noticed this escapist streak of yours, before you let your problems get out of hand."

Now she was really curious what solution he – the all-knowing and wise one – would give to her problems.

"Instead of running out the room when you see something like you did a moment ago, demand an explanation, throw a tantrum, stand your ground like you'd otherwise do. Instead of letting your sister get away with snatching your 'dream boy', tell her how low it was of her never to say anything to you when you told her everything. Don't be a stranger to your own issues; problems with other people don't solve themselves over time—they just get more complicated and more hurtful."

Her mouth was still set in a petulant pout, but she didn't try to rebut what he'd just said. Because she knew he was right. She knew it and she didn't like it, but it was true, so there was no running away from it.

"I…" she began, her gaze once again pinning to the ground. "I didn't want to talk to Ami about it because I can't bear hurting her because of things I say. I'm horrible at serious confrontations with people, so I avoid them, hoping that things will go away if I ignore them long enough."

"You don't want to hurt your sister's feelings so you let yours suffer for weeks on end?" The incredulousness was tangible in his voice even when she wasn't looking at him. "That's completely insane."

"I know it's stupid," Amu agreed, almost in a whine, "but sometimes I feel like there's nothing else I can do besides shut up and take things as they come. 'So someone else won't get hurt', or 'so I don't ruin things as they are', or just because I'm afraid of getting into fights because if I say the truth about what annoys me about someone, they'll do the same and then they'll come to hate me and I wouldn't know what to do…"

He cradled her chin and looked deeply into her eyes.

"Amu, no one would come to hate you just because of a simple fight," he assured her, but she didn't seem convinced.

"How can you be so sure? How do you know when you're about to cross the line of no return? How do you know when you're about to say too much? How do you take back something you've already said? How do you undo the pain you've caused to someone's heart once the damage is done? I, for one, don't know how to do that; and I can't do it."

He patted her head and rested his forehead against hers.

"You idiot. Your kindness is so selfish." Sensing her puzzlement, he elaborated, "What if your sister has her reasons, too? What if she can't say anything because you won't? What if she has the same twisted, insane logic you do?"

She shrugged helplessly, feeling like a child that had been proved wrong by an adult.

He sighed and pulled back from her so he could softly shake his head. This girl truly was an enigma.

"You should talk to her," he told her in a finalizing matter-of-fact way, and she nodded. "You're not going to resist my saying this anymore?"

"It was what I planned to do after coming here, so why would I?" she murmured, suddenly reminded of what she still carried in her jacket's pocket.

She chanced a glance up at him to find him smiling in that absolutely endearing way that made her heart melt.

"That's great to hear. I hope it goes well then." She shifted her weight from foot to foot while he spoke until he noticed her fidgeting. "Is something else going on?"

"I figured out what I should do thanks to you, so…" She took out the small gift-wrapped package from her pocket and shyly extended it to him. "I wanted to give you something, but since you don't need anything and you never mentioned wanting to buy something, I didn't have many options…"

"You don't need to justify your choice—I love getting presents." His claim almost made her breathe a sigh of relief, but she would allow herself to do so only once he'd seen the actual present.

He noticed that her shoulders were still rigid, but he gave up on trying to soothe her worries. Not to mention that he was a very curious individual by nature and really wanted to see what she'd gotten him.

When all the wrappings were gone, he was left with a small key that was clover-shaped and sparkled slightly in the stairwell window's light.

"It's just a trinket, and it's completely useless, but it's shaped like a clover so I hope it brings you luck," she hurried to explain as he stared at it. "Oh, and it's a pair with the lock I got for myself, so…" She ranted on as she fished for the chain around her neck, revealing a small lock that indeed bore the same sparkle and clover detailing.

Amu was biting her lower lip as she waited for his verdict that just refused to come. He was just staring and staring at the object in his hand, his face unreadable.

"So, um…" she began uncomfortably, shifting her weight to her other foot again. "Do you like it?" she asked tentatively, about ready to launch into another tirade of how useless it probably was but how difficult he'd made this for her.

That's when he looked up at her with a smirk.

"Is this the key to your heart?" he asked easily. "I'll happily accept it if it is." His claim made the pink-haired girl blush and look away from him.

"Idiot," she murmured. Her reaction made him laugh, and he tossed the trinket into the air, only to catch it before it could fall.

"I could definitely use a bit more luck judging by what just happened, so I humbly accept," he said ceremoniously, making her playfully punch his arm. He paused thoughtfully after he pocketed his gift. "I know you didn't start off on the right foot but do you want to come back and meet her? My sister? For all you know, you two might actually get along well."

She considered the offer for a moment before nodding and shyly following him up the steps.

"I feel like an idiot, coming back after making such a spectacle of myself…" she murmured as they ascended the stairwell.

Ikuto laughed at her claim.

"Really, though, what were you thinking, getting so jealous over my sister?" He eyed her coyly while she sputtered.

"I was not jealous!" Amu insisted heatedly, her cheeks flaring with colour.

"No? Then why did you react like that?"

He didn't think she'd respond to him baiting her because she stayed silent for a few sets of steps but just when he'd been about to change the subject, she relented.

"So what if I was? There isn't a normal girl who wouldn't feel jealous of anyone who looked like that!" She huffed and turned her head to hide her flushed sides but thus missing the large grin that seized his features as she did so.

He'd just been about to say that her argument had nothing to do with what he'd said but then they arrived to the apartment and his sibling's penetrating gaze pinned to both of them.

The girl scowled at the friendly way they talked between themselves, and crossed her arms under her ample chest in demonstrative displeasure.

But now that she had the time to actually look at her—and her alone—Amu finally had the chance to see who the girl was and why she had seemed so familiar.

"Why did you come back? Just when I was thinking we were well rid of you already…" the blonde complained ill-temperedly, glaring at the other female.

"Utau, I'd rather you didn't talk that way to my guests while in my apartment," Ikuto interjected. There was a strict look in his eyes as he regarded his sister, who pouted at his words.

Before an all-out sibling fight could break out, Amu's excited exclamation stopped them both in their tracks.

"Hoshina Utau?" She all but gaped comically at the other girl, barely believing her eyes. "Your sister is Hoshina Utau?" She turned to look at her host who just shrugged as if it wasn't a big deal. She couldn't believe him.

"Whether I like it or not, those are the facts," Ikuto affirmed, much to Utau's annoyance.

"You haven't seen or talked to me in ages and this is the first thing you say to me?" She sounded and looked hurt but she wasn't fooling him—acting had been recognized as one of her many talents years after he had established she had it in her.

"She's right, Ikuto—that's no way to talk to Utau-chan!" Amu agreed, making both siblings gawk at her.

"Weren't you just pissed at her for thinking I was cheating on you with her?" the young man asked through fits of chuckles, once more amused by Amu's unfathomable thought pattern.

"Excuse me, but who are you exactly?" the blonde asked irritably, not amused with being the only one out of the loop.

"I'm Hinamori Amu and I'm a big fan of yours!" Amu enthused, while she extended her hand for a shake. Ikuto could swear that there were stars in her eyes as she did. It was a look that Ikuto wouldn't be able to say 'no' to, were it directed at him, but his sibling seemed immune.

When he processed what she'd said, Ikuto was reminded of a conversation they'd had long ago—almost in another life, it seemed—about how a disillusioned girl's life was falling apart thanks to her 'favourite singer having just disappeared out of the blue', on top of her sister betraying the trust she'd put in her.

Loose ends met, and the situation made sense at last.

Ikuto realized that Amu's respect for Utau was unique, because he knew she wasn't normally impressed by celebrities and the like.

Utau didn't seem to be impressed with the pink-haired girl's response, though.

"Is that so? Then, if I give you an autograph, will you leave?"

"Utau!" her big brother reprimanded her in a serious tone and she pouted like a willful child again.

The pink-haired woman almost surprised herself with the fact that the idol's way of speaking to her didn't affront her. Yet. Amu was, after all, one of the people quickest to jump to conclusions. The fact that, this time, she wasn't, caught even her off-guard.

"Did I already do something to make you hate me?" she asked, eager to find out the answer, but before the blonde could respond, Ikuto interjected with a different question.

"Why are you here, Utau?" He sounded tired and sick of the conversation before it had even started.

The singer frowned at her brother's implications.

"What? Can't I even drop by to visit anymore?"

"You never just come by to visit. So say what you have to and then leave, if you intend to continue behaving in such a juvenile way."

Amu wasn't exactly sure what this argument was about anymore, but she got the sneaking suspicion that she was somehow a part of it. At least, she guessed so, from the way Utau shot her a venomous look. In that moment, the pink-headed girl thanked all the deities above that looks couldn't, in fact, kill, because if they could, she would've been writhing in hellish agony on the floor right then.

"Why are you defending her?" Utau all but screeched. While her words seemed to piss her brother off, his face betrayed another emotion that Amu couldn't pin a name to.

Whatever had flitted across his expression seemed to have alarmed his sibling as well, because she cleared her throat and continued in a much calmer tone.

"She's just a nameless stray you happened to pick up somewhere, right?"

"Why are you attacking her? She never did anything to you and what happens between us is none of your business." Ikuto said, his tone exasperated. This wasn't a discussion he had been eager to have. "If you came here in another one of your attempts to chase off my 'latest romantic mishap', you can save yourself the effort, and save all of us the wasted time by leaving right now."

They continued bickering, but Amu stopped paying attention to what they were saying. Instead, she tried to absorb what had just been said.

"Wait, wait, wait," she interjected after a bit, effectively turning their furious gazes to her. "You," she turned the Utau with her forehead scrunched up in her attempt to wrap her mind around what she was trying to say, "chase off all your brother's girlfriends? As in, you purposefully sabotage his relationships?" She looked incredulously at the girl she had so blindly adored all this time, unable to believe that she was even capable of such idiocy. "Why? Aren't you his sister? Don't you want him to be happy?"

The blonde huffed and crossed her arms under her bosom.

"Please—they didn't even have the guts to get through what I dished out to them. There's no way those tramps could've made Ikuto happy." Her beautiful features were set in a frighteningly stubborn expression. "The only one who can make him happy is me, because I know him best."

"Yes, because he's practically prancing with joy right now…" Amu muttered, rolling her eyes away from the idol.

Ikuto could see that Utau was about to lash out—and, knowing his baby sister, she was about to lash out hard.

"Enough!" he said, with an air of finality that made both women stop in their tracks and turn their heads to him.

He sighed deeply, his exasperation mounting, and took a seat on the couch. He pinched the bridge of his nose in hopes of fighting off the encroaching headache. It didn't work.

To both their credit, even if they—or rather, just his sister—were glaring at each other, the two of them said nothing any more while they waited for him to compose himself.

"If this… petty fight is your attempt to achieve some… insane sense of normality, it's not working." He surveyed his sibling with a critical eye and felt her visibly shrink back. He must've gotten close to the truth, then. "I am not fighting with you because I want to, Utau."

"Then why are you?" the blonde insisted, her violet eyes blazing with desperation.

And even though everything she'd shown so far to Amu should've made her unpleasant, the pink-headed girl felt a stab of sympathy for her.

"Because you left me no other choice," he explained calmly, though his tone had suddenly gone icy. His guest didn't understand, but his sister seemed to, because she visibly stiffened at his words. "I told you when I left the house a month ago—I have nothing left to say to you if you keep refusing to do what the doctors tell you to."

She'd had the sneaking suspicion that this had been the case all along, but now Amu had solid proof that there was history behind their fight. The sudden mention of a medical problem made her feel uncomfortable.

"You said it was my life and, therefore, up to me to decide what I wanted to do with it," Utau insisted heatedly, her fervor in the argument making her brother roll his eyes.

"Yes, I did and it is but it's also up to me to do whatever I want with my life as well."

"Why are you doing this?" his sister pleaded with him, her gaze desperate and her expression frantic. "You know how I feel about you, and you know that I need you, so why did you leave when I needed you most?"

Amu didn't know how Ikuto felt about this, but she was definitely starting to feel weird, especially if he'd told the truth about them being siblings.

"You made up your mind, I made up mine—I fail to see what you have to complain about."

"I chose to take a chance and you chose to abandon me for it, even though you said it was up to me to decide what I wanted to do!" Utau's voice was starting to raise in pitch, but this time that same emotion—panic, Amu had figured out afterwards—didn't flit across Ikuto's face. He seemed much too absorbed in the argument to notice.

"No, you chose to die over the choice to live, and I left home because obviously I won't be needed much longer." This was the first time she'd heard him blatantly angry. He was furious, if his blazing gaze was any clue.

She would've been more fascinated with the fact if what he'd said hadn't struck a chord very deep in her own mind.

"Wait, wait, wait, what? You're dying?" She fixed her honey coloured eyes at her favourite singer, who only glared back at her.

"Was I talking to you?" Utau replied scathingly, but Amu wasn't fazed.

"What are you dying from?"

"How is this any of your business?" the blonde insisted just as relentlessly.

"Is it incurable?"

"Who are you again?"

"She has a growth in her throat." Ikuto's calm voice rent their argument, making both girls' heads whip in his direction, one wide-eyed with shock, the other with betrayal. "She was diagnosed with it three months ago. They can surgically remove it, but there's a fifty percent chance she'll never be able to sing again."

He paused, reciprocating Utau's accusative glare with a heated one of his own.

"She doesn't want to take the surgery, so she tried to carry on with her career as if nothing happened. But then her manager found out and she spoke to Utau's producer. They forbade her to strain her voice until she had an operation and cancelled all her arrangements. Then she came to me and father and asked for our help to find places to perform. For a while I helped her, but I'm not doing that anymore. I'm done enabling you, Utau."

Suddenly his sermon earlier made a lot more sense to Amu. So this was why he had been so adamant and blunt with her just a few minutes ago at the stairwell—she reminded him of his sister.

"Just take the damn surgery…" he said with a heavy sigh, shaking his head.

"Take it and then what? What if my voice never comes back again? I can't take that chance—"

"But you can take the chance when you gamble your life, not your voice?" Ikuto cut across her, his gaze disbelieving. At the stubborn way she regarded him, his look turned incredulous. "You have gone from making little sense to making none at all."

"You said it was my life, Ikuto, so I get to decide to do with it. And I've already made my decision—" The blonde had been about to launch into a tirade but she was stopped by Amu's interjection.

"And you chose to die?" Her voice was so greatly loaded with horror and disbelief that both siblings turned to her.

"I really fail to see how this is any of your business, but I won't necessarily die," Utau informed her coolly, which made the other female gawk even more.

"But you won't necessarily live either? As opposed to taking a life-saving surgery that would definitely insure you'll get to live to get to live another forty-odd years instead of just a couple at best?"

"Live and do what?" Utau snapped, exasperated. "Surely you have noticed that I am a singer. What good is a singer who can't sing?"

"What are you talking about?" Amu roared, causing both siblings to blink at her outburst. "If it's a matter of your life or your voice, there's not even room for debate which you should choose! As long as you live, there's always a chance to regain your voice or to find another talent you didn't notice before! But if you die, it's all over. You don't get any second chances once you're dead. If you don't care what I say, think of everyone who supports you and wishes only the best for you—your family—your brother!—your friends, your devoted fans!"

"My fans only care for me as long as I continue producing—once I can no longer sing, they'll forget all about me, move on to the next best thing—"

"Is that how much you think of people?" Amu interjected before Utau could continue her row. The pink-haired youth surprised even her host, who tilted his head as he regarded her. "They'll forget you as soon as you get off the stage? Is that how little you think of your songs?"

"No, I—"

"Your work has touched people's hearts, let their souls take flight at a time in their life—they might not be as vehement if you were to get off the stage so early in your career but they would never forget you. It's what music does for people—it liberates them. And those who have been given that by your songs would never forget you, never abandon you. And they would want you to live, even if you were to never sing another song in your life."

By Utau's silence, Amu could tell that her words were finally starting to make an impact on the willful diva.

"As long as you—the one who has given their imaginations and souls freedom—continue to exist in this world, they would be content, their minds would be at ease, and they would remember the songs you used to sing when you could. If you die, only then would it cast a stain on what you lived for, on all that you sang for—because you'd rather let your life end in vain instead of taking a chance to live."

And in that exact moment, Amu knew that Utau's expression mirrored her own when all her friends had been telling her to talk things out with her sister. The pink-haired girl felt like the biggest idiot in existence, knowing that she had been so childish and pointlessly stubborn while running away from reality. What had she—what had both of them, her and Utau—accomplished by running away from reality? Trying to escape from it didn't change the facts, didn't achieve anything.

It just made the wounds in the hearts of all parties involved deeper and harder to heal.

"Don't be a fool, Utau—make a choice that you won't regret when you're about to take your final breath. Choose wisely while you still have alternatives. If you keep being stubborn, you'll be out of options and then it would be too late to reconsider your decisions."

Amu's words hung in the air like a death sentence. The room lapsed into silence as the words sunk in.

"Are you done lecturing me?" Utau said finally, but her question lacked venom.

After a brief pause to consider, Amu nodded slowly.

"Yeah, I am."

And with that, she turned her back towards her idol and marched out of the door of Ikuto's apartment without a backwards glance.

The dark-haired man eyed his sister, who was glaring at her feet, speechless and motionless. After a while of nothing changing, he silently shifted his gaze to the floor as well, and he mulled over what had just transpired.

"Good-bye, Utau," he said to her, and left in exactly the same way Amu had before him.

In doing so he didn't see the angry tears that were cascading down the diva's face.

He caught up to his lover, falling in stride with her and quietly following her lead. They let the silence stretch, each engulfed in their own thoughts.

Amu came to a stop in front of a swing, sitting down on the seat. Ikuto took the one neighbouring hers just as wordlessly, perfectly mimicking her actions.

"I was really out of line with what I said back there, wasn't I?" she asked suddenly, tearing the silence to shreds.

He regarded her question for a bit before answering.

"Pretty much, yes."

Amu groaned, pushing her forehead into the hand that was holding onto the swing chain.

"I should apologize to her when I get the chance—I shouldn't have pushed my nose into her business—"

"There's nothing to apologize for," Ikuto told her, interrupting the tirade she'd been about to launch into. She turned to stare at him.

"But you just said I was out of line," she reasoned, failing to see his point—if he even had one.

"It may have been none of your business, but everything you said is true. You shouldn't have to apologize for telling the truth." He let himself swing slightly back and forth, lazily dragging his feet against the dusty ground under Amu's still puzzled gaze. "It's about time that someone made her face what she's been running away from and lets her realize the gravity of the situation. You did it perfectly, and if you say you're sorry now, it would only give her the chance to continue running."

Silence settled between them once more, the only sound between them the quiet dangling of the chains of the swings.

"Why didn't you tell her that? She would've listened to you," Amu observed. She stared straight ahead, unseeing. .

"Because it was her choice to make and my duty as her brother to respect it when she did."

"Even though you didn't think it was the right one?"

"Even though I didn't think it was the right one," he reiterated, making Amu spy a glance at him out of the corner of her eye.

"You really love her a lot, don't you?" she queried suddenly, looking at him from under her eyelashes when she did so.

He smiled sadly at his feet before turning his head to look at her.

"However stupid her choices are and no matter how much I wish she would change them, she's still my sister. Don't you feel the same way about yours?" And the moment he'd said it, she realized just how loaded his question really was.

She smiled coyly as well, resting her head against her hand again.

"Yeah, I think I do," she murmured into the night that was starting to settle upon them. "So this is the reason why you said you were getting into fights with complete strangers and looking for trouble? Because you were worried sick with your sister's health?" she questioned, finally making sense of something he'd told her in one of their many conversations.

He shrugged in defeat.

"Everyone finds their way to cope. Pretending nothing's wrong didn't help, burying myself in work didn't help, venting frustrations didn't either, so when I was starting to run out of options, I decided to turn to drowning my thoughts in alcohol." He gave her a very meaningful look that made her stomach flip-flop. "And there I met the woman who said to my sister all the things I wish I could but would never allow myself to."

Amu chuckled humourlessly.

"I knew you had an ulterior motive for sleeping with me," she joked and made him chuckle as well. "You talked sense into me, so I talked sense into your sister. I consider it we're even."

He nodded, a small grin tugging on the corners of his mouth. The tension she hadn't even noticed about him before was nowhere to be found in his countenance any longer.

When she turned to him, she found him fingering the outlines of the key she'd given him as a gift, a serene expression on his handsome face.

A smile stretched on her lips. She was glad she had helped in getting him to finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Upon their return to Ikuto's apartment, they found something rather unexpected waiting for them there. Or rather, someone unexpected would be the more correct term.

Utau was still there, waiting for them, a firm look set on her lovely face. She eyed them critically before getting up and crossing her arms over her ample chest.

"I told Sanjou-san I was staying over tonight so I'm not going anywhere," the blonde informed them coolly, as if they had no say in the matter whatsoever. And for all Amu knew, they really didn't.

Her brother took a bit time to process the information she had just given him. When he did, he nodded at his sibling.

"Okay," he said easily. While he sidestepped her, he told to the room in general, "In that case, I'll let you take care of dinner."

Utau nodded to herself and turned on her heel, going straight for the door. Amu cocked a brow at Ikuto's back while he washed an apple at the sink, then whipped her head in direction of the door her idol had just left through. Amu took off after her.

"I can tell you haven't been around for long enough to be able to decipher it, but that was code for 'Utau, go get supper'. I don't need you following me like a lost puppy to do that." Amu shrugged, uninterested.

"I'm the one who cooks around here so I'll take care of the grocery shopping," the pink-haired adolescent answered smoothly. Her statement made Utau stop on the spot, and it took Amu a few steps to stop and turn back to look questioningly at her.

"I'm not going to eat anything you make, so you can save your effort," the diva informed her coldly. She wasn't fazed at all.

"Well, that's not really my problem, is it?" the Hinamori daughter responded with a smirk, quickening her step.

Utau's brows furrowed. She hurried to catch up with the other woman.

"If Ikuto told you something about trying to bond with me, you're doing a really sucky job." Her know-it-all tone almost made Amu burst into laughter. Utau really thought that she was smart, that she had it all figured out, when in truth she was so far off that it was just hilarious.

"He didn't, and that's not what I'm trying to do. Even if he had, I don't think I could possibly bond with someone who delights in ruining her brother's romantic relationships just because she's jealous and can't let go of her childish notions." Utau opened her mouth to say something, but her companion didn't give her the chance to speak before continuing. "And you can forget about chasing me away, too, because it will take more than a petulant pop star's pointless arguments to make me give up on something I want."

"So that's what he is to you? An object, just something you happen to want?" The blonde huffed. "You have to be by far the worst choice ever."

The pink-headed female shrugged again.

"Think whatever you want. Fact still remains that you were making out with the guy I have dibs on." They shot each other challenging looks. "You owe me."

Utau scoffed.

"In your dreams, you nuisance," she muttered ill-temperedly, rolling her eyes in annoyance. "I'm never going to approve of you going out with Ikuto."

Amu figured it was better not to tell the singer that she and the man in question weren't exactly dating, or at least not how normal people did it. She really didn't need to give the willful sister any more ammo against her than she already had.

Dinner was an incredible farce. Aside from the fact that there were two separate meals (one for Ikuto and Amu and one for Utau), there were insults behind every off-hand remark, and lots of furious eye contact. Amu noticed that, though quiet, Ikuto enjoyed watching their bickering, so she let it go on longer than she ordinarily would.

Besides, she'd lie if she claimed that she herself wasn't enjoying squabbling with her longtime favourite singer over silly things like whose comments made less sense and whether take-out was better than her cooking.

It was now time for sleep and Amu was busy getting the couch and the bed ready to be slept in. But while she was engaged in that activity, Ikuto came into his bedroom and threw himself on the bed, blocking her from doing her chores. She stared at him expectantly, waiting for him to get off so she could finish what she was doing.

When he failed to appreciate her patience, she cleared her throat pointedly.

"What are you doing?" she finally asked when he refused to take the hint.

"Giving Utau ideas." The ease with which he said it made her eye him oddly.

"Suddenly you're comfortable with teasing her?"

"And she has you to thank for that," he replied with a wide smirk, making Amu give him a sardonic look.

"As if she doesn't hate me enough already…" she muttered while she tried to make the bed even with Ikuto's refusal to cooperate.

"She doesn't hate you. She just has problems expressing her emotions," he explained as he watched her go about her business. When she bent over him in an attempt to fix the covers under him, he hugged her to himself, burying her face in his chest.

She struggled not to topple over, but it was a futile fight. When she lost it, he gathered her up even more snugly against his chest and it took her all the strength—mental and otherwise—not to be too affected by her closeness to him.

"I suppose this is part of the game then?" she guessed out loud when she managed to pull her head up from his shirt.

The fact that she hadn't been physically close to him the entire day was starting to show—merely being hit with his intoxicating scent from that proximity made her limbs turn to jell-o. Again, she was fighting a losing battle, but she felt it a matter of pride whether she gave up in this one or not.

When she was pulled flush against his frame, he took a deep, satisfying breath that filled his lungs with the scent of victory… along with the lime and ginger scent of the shampoo she used.

"Not really," he murmured as he let his eyes slide closed in contentment. His arms didn't loosen their hold for as much as a moment.

The proximity at which he held her made her fear that he would actually be able to feel just how quick her pulse was. That would put her in a vulnerable situation and she did not like situations like that.

"Then would you let me finish what I was doing?" she asked slowly, as though her voice might betray her should she try to speak in any different way.

She could feel the heat that emanated off of him, even through the layers of clothing and it made images flash through her mind—images that she did not at all welcome at the present time and position she was in.

For all she knew, she might actually try to act them out, and then Utau would really come to hate her.

"I don't want to. I just got comfortable," he told her petulantly, nuzzling his nose against her forehead. His soft, warm breath left traces of forest fire on her skin wherever it passed.

Before Amu could get sucked any farther into his games, the blond idol once again exercised her impeccable timing by entering the bedroom in that very moment.

The bedroom door slammed against the wall behind it, breaking them out of their reveries. Utau fixed them with a level glare, switching from one of them to the other. It definitely didn't help Amu's case that she hadn't managed to jump out far enough and hadn't fixed her hair from Ikuto's mussing it.

Which had been an incredibly difficult feat in and of itself, however much it appalled her.

"You do know that I'm not going to allow you to sleep in Ikuto's bed tonight, right?" she said levelly, training her gaze on the other woman.

"Err…" Amu responded intelligently, her wit not yet completely recovered.

"You'll sleep on the couch and I am going to share the bed with him," Utau informed them matter-of-factly, making her brother throw her a very amused glance from said bed. "You two are not going to get down and dirty while I'm here."

"Is that a challenge?" came a languid response from bed, a response which made the blonde bristle visibly. Amu hurried to salvage the situation before the damage became irreversible.

"I don't know what you're imagining we've done but—" The pink-haired woman had just begun trying to placate her favourite idol's temper when she was pulled into a hug from behind, a very familiar pair of arms enveloping her by the upper body.

"But whatever you came up, with we've already done, so you're too late in preventing anything." She knew his aim was to tease his sister—and he was probably very much enjoying the way she flushed in indignation at what he'd just said—but she really didn't think this was the right time.

"Wha—Wait just a moment here!" the Hinamori daughter exclaimed, her own cheeks adopting a slight red colour at their sudden proximity. She prayed she wouldn't faint from overheating because that would definitely not help her case with Utau.

"Oh, don't be so cold, Amu! We're no strangers to passion, especially since you let me do this and that," he winked at her and she struggled even harder to wiggle out of his hold. Especially since her mind helpfully supplied images from doing this and doing that, and she felt like the thoughts might somehow pour into his head if it was too close to hers.

Silly of her, perhaps, but the fact that she was so close to him didn't seem to make Utau any happier with her, so there was her coherent reason for struggling to free herself.

Speaking of the idol, she was positively seething.

"Why, you shameless little—" The singer began, shaking uncontrollably before managing to compose herself, much to her sibling's amusement. "Get your hands off of him."

"Or you'll what?" Ikuto prodded her, making Amu elbow him in the ribs.

The strike caught him completely off-guard and forced him to let go of his captive.

"Look, Utau, I think you have this whole thing wrong—"

"Don't talk to me so familiarly." Amu was cut across before she could even finish her thought. So much for trying to get on the girl's good side. "You did sleep with him, didn't you?"

"Which time interests you the most?" Ikuto supplied again, and this time his lover threw him the most dangerous warning look she could manage.

"You're really not helping," she ground out.

"I'm really not trying to," he responded, just as quietly as she had spoken, so only the two of them would hear.

"You're not going to share his bed while I'm here and that's final."

Ikuto aimed his Cheshire cat-like grin at his sister, this time.

"I'm actually the only one who can make final statements here. My house, my rules." He looked so smug that Amu wondered whether she was the only one who felt the urge to smack him upside the head when he adopted that expression.

For a moment, both of them foolishly believed that Utau would actually back down from the argument, but she took the time to rethink instead of giving up altogether.

"Fine then—you sleep on the couch," she motioned at him with her head crowned with golden mane, "and I'll share the bed with her." The pair of them looked positively comical in their shared, unadulterated surprise. "What, she gets special treatment because she's the 'guest' you're screwing and I get the couch because I'm just your annoying sister? Talk about double standards."

And much to Amu's amazement, it was that argument that had Ikuto yield to his sibling's logic, leaving the two females alone in the room. She virtually gawked when she saw the ghost of a grin flit across his features while he made himself scarce.

Once he was gone, the pink-haired woman was left feeling like a rat that had been dropped in the company of a starving, vicious cat.

Much to the Hinamori daughter's amazement, once Ikuto was gone, Utau stopped trying to pick a fight with her. In fact, she stopped talking to her altogether, pretending she didn't exist or something, while she fixed the bed Amu had been obstructed from fixing earlier.

As disconcerting as their quarrelling had been, the sudden silence was worse. It put Amu on edge. She wondered whether she hadn't gone over the line with something she'd said, but however many times she replayed what had happened, she couldn't figure what it was.

"I don't get it," Utau's melodic voice suddenly broke the silence, also breaking Amu from her reverie.

"Get what?" she prompted, genuinely interested.

"I don't get why he keeps you." Amu's honey coloured eyes rolled. "He can do way better than you."

"Yes, well, I guess he thought I'd be a more economical choice for a pet than a dog or a cat would be. You know, with the whole 'being able to take care of myself' thing and earning my own money," Amu said sarcastically as she undressed for bed.

"Everything about you is so average—your face is average, your body is average, your mind is average."

"Oh, stop, you're making me blush," the offended one muttered while she put on her pajama bottoms.

"So what makes you special, other than your eyesore of a hair colour?" Utau continued as though she hadn't heard the other female's interruption.

Her tongue was so merciless Amu could barely believe this girl was capable of singing all those heart-warming songs that had won over so many people all over the world.

"Must be my amazing people skills—I can alienate others without having done a thing to offend them." She tried to be covert about it but she was in a hurry to dress herself and hide her "average body" with her "average curves" from the idol's eyes.

Sorry if not everyone has the privilege of developing well enough to fill out a D-cup, the pink-haired youth thought spitefully.

"Your very presence here is offensive," Utau ground out, blocking Amu on her way toward her half of the bed. "Who the hell are you anyway?"

"I told you, I'm Hinamori—"

"I heard what your name was the first time, but who the hell are you? You're not fit to be Ikuto's girlfriend, and he can get a live-in maid to do all the chores for him if he's so adamant about having a woman around." Amu rolled her eyes and sidestepped the blonde, getting herself under the covers. "I will never approve of you, you know," the performer told her matter-of-factly. Amu huffed.

"I heard you the first time," she reiterated Utau's answer mockingly, and resisted when the other woman tried to hog a larger part of the sheets than she was allowed. "And I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I don't need your approval to be around here. I'm going to stay as long as he'll have me."

"Won't be very long then," the blonde muttered while turning testily to her side, her back now facing Amu who rolled her eyes and mimicked her actions.

"We'll see about that," the pink-haired woman murmured, before drifting off to sleep.

She couldn't help but wonder whether this petty bickering hadn't been her host's intention when he'd left the two of them alone. Although she couldn't shake the feeling that he had an ulterior motive in there somewhere…

The following day found Amu babysitting a picky Utau during a shopping trip downtown.

The entertainer had claimed that she needed to buy some clothes, since she had pretty much shrunk out of her old ones. And since there was no better way for two women to get to know each other better than a shopping spree in the mall, she had insisted that Amu come with her.

She should've known better than to agree to come along when Ikuto had given her that highly amused look. She'd ended up being Utau's personal bag carrier.

And when the world's most popular star bought, she bought in bulk.

As if that hadn't been enough of a torture of itself, she'd had to undergo the diva's version of "twenty questions".

Only they weren't just twenty and they weren't as much questions as cross-interrogation.

Thanks to that, they ('they' being Utau) had established that Amu was a tramp for having drunk till she passed out in a bar she'd had never been to before, a slut for sleeping with a man she had just met, a shameless free-loader for mooching off of Ikuto's kindness for a week, and a moron for being unable to take care of her own problems but lecturing others on how to deal with theirs.

All in all, it had been a humiliating exercise but it did allow Amu to establish that Ikuto was probably right: his sister didn't hate her.

No, it was more like Utau was only venting her frustrations on her—kind of like a punching bag in a gym, than an actual grudge.

And while being a punching bag wasn't the best feeling in the world, it was definitely better than being hated by your only celebrity role model.

Utau stared at supper with the evilest look Amu had seen yet, and that was saying something. Because, in the short time she'd known the girl, Utau had thrown a lot of variations of her evil eyes at her.

"It's, um…" Amu looked towards Ikuto who just shrugged, that same infuriating smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I asked and Ikuto said this was… your, um… favourite…?"

Judging by the further contortion of Utau's facial features, Amu could tell she was digging herself a deeper grave with each word.

The university student swallowed thickly and tried to force a forkful of the meal down her suddenly clenched-shut throat.

"Is it not how you like it? I, um, could do it over, it's no problem."

Even before she had finished her sentence, Utau had stood from her place on the table and thrown down her fork in the plate. A horribly loud rattle echoed in the room, hurting the male occupant's sensitive ears.

The bedroom door slammed shut without a word from the pop diva who had slammed it.

"You're doing great," Ikuto told her with a slight smile when his sister was out of earshot. It earned him a withering glare from his lover. "No, I'm serious about this—you're doing really great," he insisted, even though he failed to convince her.

She only understood what he meant later, when she retreated to the bedroom to join Utau for another night in the bed they shared.

"Why did you make that for dinner?"

Utau's suddenly speaking up was so unexpected that it made Amu jump about a foot in the air from fright. When she failed to answer, the other girl scrutinized her with a searing, violet gaze.

"Is it a habit of yours to do unnecessary things? Is that the quality of yours which appeals to him? So you figure, if he likes it and we're family, it would work on me, too?" However flawless her deduction process was, Amu really didn't see how the singer could be so shallow as to believe that she was shallow as well.

"I just wanted you to eat normal food—is it a crime?" She was getting tired of this argument already. There really was no right answer with this girl, was there? If you're on her bad side, you stay on her bad side for life, no matter what you try to do to redeem yourself, Amu thought grudgingly.

"You were willing to cook my favourite meal even though I give you nothing but grief whenever we speak to each other?" Her tone sounded so disbelieving that it made the pink-headed girl roll her eyes.

"Yes, imagine that—I'm that nice."

"Why would you do that?" And, to Amu's total bewilderment, there didn't seem to be any underhanded insult in Utau's question. Only genuine wonder.

It made her throw the other girl a puzzled look. That, in turn, made her see that there was nothing but sincere wonder in her gaze as well.

"Because I like you."

At this, Utau gave her a disbelieving grimace.

"You don't like me. You can't like me." Amu raised both her eyebrows.

"So now you even know how I feel better than I do?"

"What I mean," Utau explained, "is that I've been giving you nothing short of hell since I got here. There's no reason for you to like me."

"I don't have a reason so I can't like you? That's a stupid assumption."

The idol glared at her. Amu rolled her eyes.

"I said it because it's true. People don't like or dislike others just because of what they do, and especially not because of what they say. If I say I like you, so I tolerate all the crap you give me, why can't you take it at face value?"

When she stayed quiet, Amu had an epiphany.

It wasn't just an epiphany, too—it was a rather shocking one. Because she had never expected Utau to be a person with self-esteem issues. From all Amu had seen of her for the last couple of days, the singer was the epitome of self-assuredness.

"Why were you so vehement about getting me to take the surgery?" What was this? Twenty Questions with Hoshina Utau? Seriously?

"I think we just went over this—"

"You didn't even know a thing about me then. How could you like me without even knowing me?"

"I told you, I am a fan of yours."

"You don't give sermons just because you like someone at first sight," the blonde insisted, unrelenting in her position.

Amu sighed in defeat and sat down next to Utau on the bed. Just how many things were wrong with this girl?

"I don't know what you want me to say. All I can tell you is that I've loved your singing since stuff of yours first came out. Then I got to meet the person in the flesh and she was talking about ending her life, not just her career, and I just couldn't believe my ears. I said a lot of things and I was over the line and I'm sorry for that, but I stand by what I said—as long as you live, you get to take more chances, you get to do all the insane things you want and be as stupid as you want. If you die, it's all over. I don't want to see you die. It's simple as that."

When she was done talking, they stood together in the silence for a while, both staring into space, both engrossed in their personal thoughts.

"You probably think I'm a coward, for hiding behind the excuse about the risk the surgery could pose instead of taking the chance with it," the singer surmised, drawing the other woman's attention to herself again. "And maybe you're right. But am I really stupid and insane for being afraid that no one would care for me if I did undergo the operation and I never get my voice back?"

Amu's brows furrowed, and she pondered how to phrase her thoughts. Before she had the chance to do so, Utau elaborated:

"First it will be the fans that see no point in supporting a singer who can no longer speak, not to mention sing. Then it will be the friends who get tired of holding my hand and telling me everything will be fine, because eventually they'll see that it won't be. And finally, my family will distance themselves from me. They won't be able to recognize me because I'll have lost everything I am."

She said it with such profound calm that Amu realized how long and hard Utau had actually thought about this. It horrified the pink-haired girl, how sure Utau was that things would unfurl as she claimed.

"And in the end, I will be alive, yes, but I will be left with no one to lean on, no one who cares. What will I have to be grateful for? A long, healthy life of complete solitude? It's going to be great fun, I can tell even now."

Amu could have taken this chance to ridicule the diva for her shallowness and her lack in belief in the people who surrounded her. But the pink-haired youth just couldn't bring herself to kick the girl when she was down. Especially since not too long ago she had been that same girl, groveling on the floor in that same position.

And being on the other side of the fence made her see things in a whole new way, opened her eyes wider than she'd dreamt they could be opened.

"I know that you're scared and insecure—I was in your position not too long ago."

For the first time since they'd known each other, the pop star's violet eyes fixed on her without any sign of contempt, without any walls to guard herself from Amu's gaze.

"I know how horrifying it is to think that you'll end up being alone. But I also know that your fears won't necessarily come true. I don't think you really have any reason to doubt those around you. Your family won't leave you just because you can no longer sing, and people can see beyond appearances and façades. So take a chance. Trust them. Ensure your future and see what happens afterwards. You could be surprised by what awaits you on the other side."

She still didn't look convinced, so Amu pushed on.

"Utau, your brother has been worried sick about you since you were diagnosed with this cancer. He loves you more than he can show you, and he'll always be there for you. No other girl will ever take your place in his heart. You're his one and only sister, and he doesn't want to lose you. He just didn't know how to tell you that, and now that someone said it instead of him, he feels a little better, but he'll only truly be happy if he knows that you're going to be all right. He wouldn't abandon you, and neither would I."

She allowed herself a small lopsided smile after saying that.

"Though I really doubt that matters to you at all, right?"

Utau gave her a ghost of a smirk at that.

"I told you I didn't approve of you, not that I hated you." Amu blinked a few times in hopes of helping herself process what the pop star had just said. "If I did, I would never agree to share a bed with you."

And with that enigmatic response, the blonde turned to her side, giving the other girl her back.

The pink-haired young woman wasn't sure what had transpired when she finally got herself into bed.

However, she did realize that something had changed between them when Utau made no attempt to hog the sheets.

First thing the next morning, before Ikuto was ready to leave for work and before Amu got to leave for university, Utau announced that she was leaving.

Despite their vehement resistance to her staying over, both were equally puzzled by the fact she had so suddenly decided to leave.

"Did something happen last night that I'm not aware of?" Ikuto asked when his sister came out with her abrupt decision. When Amu appeared just as puzzled, he turned his gaze to his sibling in expectation.

Utau simply shrugged.

"I decided I'm fed up with playing the bad guy. It's not a role that suits me, so I'm going to leave you alone." It would've been nice if it didn't feel like there was a catch in her words.

"You're leaving? Just like that?" Amu prodded, not really buying Utau's act.

Then the other female turned around, and Amu, despite her suspicions, couldn't detect any sign that the singer was pulling her leg.

"It's how I came, so it's only fitting that it would be how I go, isn't it? 'Just like that'."

"So why did you come here in the first place? An attempt to sabotage yet another potential relationship of mine? Just for kicks?" Ikuto asked, trying to piece together the situation.

"I came here because I had something to ask you, although I didn't have the courage." Utau turned on her heel to face her brother fully, a serious look on her pretty features. "But now I do, so there's be no point in staying much longer."

She took a deep breath, her gaze never once letting go of his. He met her eyes with intensity perfectly on par with hers. Amu could practically feel the air crackling with tension.

"Do you hate me?"

Ikuto's brows knitted over his eyes at her query. His expression conveyed his disbelief at the fact this was what had been plaguing her all along, enough to prompt her to come visit out of the blue.

"Why would you think I hated you?" he asked, incredulous.

"You ran out of the house as if the devil was chasing you the moment you heard about what would happen to me. You knew it wasn't contagious. So did you do it because you've come to hate me? Because I was sick? Because I chose to run away over facing it head-on?" She searched his eyes with her round violet ones. "Do you hate me for who I am today?"

The silence seemed to stretch for eternity. For his part, Ikuto only managed to stare at her, unmoving.

"I don't hate you. I couldn't possibly hate you even if I wanted to—you're my little sister," he responded at last and Amu breathed a sigh of relief. She was surprised to see that Utau didn't.

"Do you wish you could come to hate me then?" she asked in a tiny voice. It broke something inside Amu to see her so vulnerable, weighted down by fear and insecurity.

The tension that filled the room was so thick that Amu breathed it in with the air.

That was until Ikuto smiled in a way that was seeped with melancholy and shook his head.

"No, I don't." He took in a deep breath and sat down in a chair next to Amu, who looked curiously down at him. "I left the house because I promised to respect whatever you chose to do, because it is your life and it's up to you what to do with it. Everything was fine for a while, but then you started losing weight, your complexion changed, and you started looking so sickly… I couldn't bear to see it eat away at you."

He paused for a bit, shifting his gaze to his sock-clad feet, the toes of which were curling under his scrutiny.

"You're the only sister I have, Utau, and I couldn't just stand there and watch impassively while you withered away and died before my very eyes."

When she blinked, tears overflowed from her brimming eyes. She nodded slowly, biting her trembling lower lip in an attempt to compose herself.

"I have something else to ask as well." She took in a shuddering breath before giving them a watery smile. "Would you… please come to the hospital when they admit me for the surgery? I don't think I can do this alone."

If anyone had been around to see, they would've been impressed with the hope that lit up the couple's faces. The diva's brother stood up and took the few strides to get closer to his sibling, his gaze quizzical. When she nodded, he barely managed to keep himself upright instead of giving in to the urge of collapsing under the force of the relief that washed over him.

"Of course! Of course, I'll be there," he promised, enveloping his crying sister in a hug. As she returned it, closing her eyes with her chin placed on his shoulder, Amu felt herself choking on her own tears. She was so relieved and moved that they'd finally worked out things between them that she just couldn't stop her eyes from welling up.

"I'll tell you the date when we schedule it with the doctors," Utau told him once she pulled away from him, brushing the wet streaks from her cheeks. "I'll be counting on you to bring him there on time," she told Amu, much to the latter's surprise.

The pink-haired young woman blinked several times, completely flabbergasted with the sudden development. But when Ikuto gave her his most blindingly brilliant and reassuring smile, she pulled herself together enough to respond to the idol.

"S-sure—I'm your girl for the job."

Once everyone had composed themselves and made themselves presentable, Utau gathered the rest of her things and threw a last lingering look at her brother, and then at the girl on his side, who was holding his hand as covertly as possible.

The blonde smiled coyly at them before schooling her features into a strict expression.

"You should know that I still refuse to approve of you," she said imperatively, making Amu sigh slightly through her nose in something similar to disappointment, "but I'm willing to allow you to take care of him during my absence."

"I'm not going to let you down," the pink-haired girl promised while Utau put on her shoes.

"I know you won't," the blonde murmured to herself.

She then turned to them and bowed deeply once more before she left.

"Thank you for having me."

Utau was gone, but both of them were still staring into space, engrossed in their personal thoughts. Neither of them moved or made a sound for a few minutes; not until Amu turned to Ikuto and thus successfully broke him out of his trance, as well.

He had the chance to briefly wonder whether it was a bad thing that she had such a serious expression on her face.

"Are you doing anything tonight?" she asked him calmly. He gave her a one-shouldered shrug.

"I don't have any plans in particular. Why?"

She took a deep breath to fill her lungs with air for strength—she'd need it for what she was planning on doing later.

"I want to ask you a favour."

Ikuto cocked a curious brow at her sudden formality, eagerly expecting her to elaborate.

Only instants after knocking, the door opened to reveal the handsome frame of a young, blond man.

He tensed slightly when he focused on the person beyond the door frame, but he schooled his features into a welcoming smile so quickly that one had to wonder whether the emotion had been there in the first place.

"Amu-chan, hello!" he greeted good-naturedly. His enthusiasm—regardless of how genuine—caused a small smile to ghost over Amu's strained expression as well. "What brings you here?"

"Hi, Tadase-kun." The pink-headed female greeted him in a tight voice before swallowing thickly and looking away. "I, um… Is Ami here? I need to have a word with her."

One had to be either completely retarded or utterly insensitive not to feel the tension that crackled just beneath the surface. And all parties involved knew well that it would only get worse when the two sisters met face to face.

And yet, once he had mulled the thought over, Tadase nodded.

"Yeah, she's here. Come on in." He stepped aside to allow her in.

She gave him a tiny smile as she passed him, cautiously stepping into the apartment.

Tadase watched her back, almost transfixed, as she ventured in. Something in the corner of his vision caught his attention. Upon turning his head, he noticed the tall frame of a lanky man leaning against the wall furthest from the apartment, apparently waiting for something. Shrugging to himself, the blonde closed the door and thus never getting to see the heavy, loaded stare the idle man had thrown him right before the door swung shut.

Tadase found the two sisters seated in the middle of the room, with neither looking at the other. He shook his head, but didn't breathe a word as he made his way to the bedroom. He knew that sometimes people needed a little time and no outside interferences to talk things out, and if he knew anything about them, these two sisters were prime example of that fact.

"So, what is it?" Ami asked after a while spent in staring into space. "If this is about the rest of my things, I can send someone to bring them over first thing Monday morning—"

Her thought was interrupted by Amu's vigorous head-shaking.

"No, that's not it." The younger woman fixed her with a guarded but nonplussed look at her words. The elder sister took a deep, shaky breath. "I'm here because there are things I want to say to you about…" She swallowed thickly but when she looked up to lock her honey eyes with the darker ones of her sister, there was no uncertainty left in them. "About what happened with Tadase-kun and about everything that caused our relationship to fall apart."

Amu was amazed at the way her sibling's expression seemed to fall. It could have just been her imagination, but she could almost swear she could see dread fill her sister's eyes.

The elder Hinamori daughter sighed and clasped her hands together in her lap.

"The last couple of weeks have been… a really strange and not entirely pleasant experience for me, for various reasons. And in light of them, I acted childishly, pretending that if I stuck my head in the ground and ignored everything that went on around me, it would be okay, that all the problems would go away on their own. I ran away from the things I couldn't face, hoping against hope that they would change on their own if left for a long enough time."

Amu spoke with so much calm, firm conviction that the vice that around Ami's heart tightened its hold.

"But I'm done with that. I've had enough of waiting and silently hurting. So I'm going to make sure that something changes."

It almost sounded like she was voicing a verdict, the way she stared so seriously into Ami's eyes.

"You knew how I felt about Tadase-kun because I told you everything. I was incredibly hurt to find out that you were going out with him when I walked in on you two in our apartment. I was hurt because I expected that, at least, you would tell me if you had any feelings for him. We could've talked, we could've come up with something reasonable so that we wouldn't have had this huge fight."

The younger Hinamori's eyes were pinned to her feet as she listened to her sister. She didn't make a sound; she couldn't even keep eye contact.

"At first I thought I was hurt because you had gone behind my back and hooked up with the guy I'd been telling you for years I had a crush on. But when I got the chance to think about it… and with a little help from a couple of friends…" Amu smiled to herself, remembering the conversations she'd had with Utau not even two days ago, "…I came to realize that the reason it hurt so much was because this relationship—this fight over it—had ruined my bond with you."

At this, Ami did look up. Her eyes were filled with tears which cascaded down her face when she blinked.

"I was angry and bitter and so very lonely, because the one person I had relied on for years wasn't there anymore. I couldn't talk to my little sister about my love troubles anymore, because suddenly she had become my rival, and I hadn't even known, wouldn't have even come to know if I hadn't returned home at that exact time that day. I was so disappointed that you felt you had to hide your feelings from me, that you felt you had to conceal your relationship from me."

Amu swallowed dryly, but refused to be derailed from what she had to say until she had come out with all of it. If she was doing this, she was doing this right and only once.

"And then all those twisted feelings tangled together in a huge knot where the anger and stubbornness were predominant, silencing me and tying my hands behind my back. And before I knew it, you had moved out of the apartment without us having the chance to straighten things out, to talk about the things that matter most."

The pink-headed young woman bit her lip when she remembered Utau's insecurity and her reasons for being wary about the operation that would save her life.

"I was reminded recently that we live only once, and that life is short and unpredictable. You never know what could happen tomorrow, whether today won't be your last day. And despite everything that you say or do, you're family—you're my beloved baby sister!—and I care for you. I care whether we're talking to each other or not, I care about what you think of me and what goes on in your life. So I wanted to tell you that I don't resent you—I never could, even if I wanted to—and that I hope you don't either."

Amu stood, unsure whether she could trust her legs to support her. . She was grateful when her knees stayed steady.

"That's all I really wanted to say. I'm sorry if I was overbearing and I hope that someday we will be able to be friends again, like we used to be before all of this happened." Amu smiled and wondered whether her sister had even seen it because she seemed to be actually looking through her rather than at her. "I'll leave you be for now. See you around then… I guess…?"

As she lumbered towards the door, she pondered just how fucked up this was, and whether this story would be able to get a happy ending. She had practically poured out her guts to her sister, who hadn't spoken a word to her throughout it all. Ami had let her leave without doing a thing. .

But at least her confession took a load off her chest, Amu decided, lifting her head and locking her gaze with Ikuto's. She pushed herself away from the door she had closed behind her and made for the stairs while he joined up with her in descending them.

She could swear she'd seen him wearing a pained expression before he'd looked up to see her standing in the doorway. But when he showed no signs of it afterwards, she decided it might've just been her imagination.

"Everything go okay?" he asked cautiously. His lover smiled fondly at him as they walked down the street from the apartment complex.

"Yeah," she mumbled, turning her unfocused gaze to the ground she walked on.

"Feel better?" he queried, a bit more certain, a smirk beginning to stretch the corners of his lips.

"Like you wouldn't believe," she told him, a large grin of her own spreading across her face. Her expression made him mirror her.

"Then tonight we celebrate!" She giggled at his brimming enthusiasm. He looked a bit more calmly at her, dropping the theatrics. His smile took on that quality that made her weak in the knees, and it was all she could do to pray they didn't collapse right there from under her. "Wasn't so scary at all, was it?"

"It was horrifying, actually," she joked, lacing her fingers between his and aiming a tender smile at him. His digits fastened around hers to hold her hand as well. "But that's why I have you here with me, right?"

"When you said you wanted me to come with you when you talked to your sister, I didn't think I would literally have to hold your hand," he said and laughed good-naturedly. Amu rolled her eyes but couldn't fight down the blush that dusted her cheeks.

Before she had the chance to come up with a witty retort, someone yelled out her name and it made both of them turn around to see what was going on.

There were no words to describe Amu's surprise when she turned to find none other than her little sister, gasping and wheezing as she stood doubled over in front of them. She was struggling to catch her breath from having run after them.

"Wait!" Ami rasped out while taking in large gulps of air. "You—" she tried starting but her need for air dominated her desire to speak. Only when she was sure she had calmed herself down did she look up from the pavement of the street and into her sister's wide, honey orbs. "You forgave me? Just like that?" The younger girl stared incredulously at her elder sibling, disbelief swimming in her eyes. "How could you forgive me?"

Amu regarded her sister for a while before shrugging.

"I guess our bond means more to me than an unrequited love," she explained easily, the ghost of a smile tugging at her lips again.

It caught her off-guard when horror only further clouded Ami's expression became even more clouded in horror at her reaction.

"But it wasn't unrequited!" she all but wailed, tears springing in her eyes again. Amu's face twisted slightly in confusion. "He came to me because he wanted my help finding out what you like, what he should do to make him like you, because he was in love with you, too!"

By then, the elder Hinamori's expression had turned completely unreadable. Not a single emotion showed on her face as Ami confessed to everything that she had kept bottled up inside and tortured her for so long.

"At first I thought that this was great, that I could get to be the one that makes your dream come true—that I could be the one to get you two together. So I started spending time with him, explaining how I thought things would work best to his benefit, where he should take you and all the things that made you happy. I wanted you two to get together because I thought he'd be able to understand you and support you in all the ways I can't."

Tears were now streaming down the younger female's face like a waterfall and she didn't seem to care enough to get them in check. Neither of the Hinamori sisters, nor the virtuosi violinist with them, seemed to notice that people were starting to stare at the scene they were causing in the middle of the street.

"But then he thought we should try out the places together, to make sure that everything would go fine and we spent more and more time in one another's company. And I…" She stopped abruptly then, looking up from the pavement and staring deep into her sister's eyes with a haunted look of her own. "I fell in love with him." She whispered it, as if saying it any louder would make the words even more hurtful. "I fell for him but I was determined that I would ignore it, that I'd pretend I wasn't because I wanted you to be happy and I knew you wouldn't be without him, that you'd never forgive me if I acted on my feelings."

Ami shifted her gaze back to the ground again, eyes wide and barely blinking.

"I had it all figured out. It was the perfect plan—I'd keep my mouth shut and drive you two closer together, you'd hook up and you'd be happy and no one would ever need to know that I had ever had a thing for him, too. And in time, I'd forget and then it would be like it never happened. And that way everyone would get their happy ending."

She swallowed difficultly, her hands clenching into fists by her side.

"The plan was flawless, but it hadn't accounted for him doubting his feelings for you. It never included him wanting to be with me, as well."

That was the soft-spoken sentence that finally broke Amu out of her inability to show any emotion. Her eyes filled with sympathy and sad endearment.

"When he told me, I screamed at him. I screamed until my throat was hoarse, until I ran out of names to call him, until I could no longer say anything at all. I cried a lot and cursed even more, because this hadn't been something I wanted to happen when I agreed to help him. I only meant to help, and I ended up making a mess I couldn't clean up by myself." She paused for a heartbeat. "I was going to drive him away but I… I just couldn't…"

Her voice broke then, in a way that made Amu's heart clench in her chest.

"He talked me into giving this a shot, regardless how wrong I thought it was, because he was convinced we would regret it for the rest of our lives if we didn't at least try. I agreed, but only under the condition that no one was to find out about us before I had figured out if what I felt was real or not." She stopped again, staring into space for a while. Her sister knew she was reminiscing then. "The more time I spent with him, the more I came to love him and the harder it became to tell you because…" The two Hinamori girls' gazes locked again when Ami lifted her head in that moment. "Because I didn't want to hurt you. I couldn't betray your trust."

The amber orbs of the younger female dropped to the ground, overcome by shame.

"It was only when you found out and you made that face that I knew I had been wrong all along—I had already betrayed you. And then it was too late to take anything back." She was choking on her own words, flattened under their weight. "I didn't want to hurt you anymore so I acted aloof, as if I didn't care, as if none of it affected me. You said you were the one running away, but you weren't the only one. You weren't the one who took it to the next level and actually fled."

Ami didn't see the way her sister's eyebrows rose, but she still elaborated helpfully:

"I didn't want to cause you any more grief, which I knew would happen every time you came home and Tadase was there. When he was at our place because he had come with me, to see me and not you. So I did what I thought was best—I moved in with him, so I would minimize the chances of us running into each other. So you wouldn't get hurt because of us anymore."

Ikuto was in awe of how screwed up both these sisters were. Their logic was so completely irrational that it was a miracle they could be considered human. You know, since humans are supposed to be rational creatures?

"But not being able to talk to you was horrible. I started getting irritable and broke down over the tiniest and stupidest of things, because I couldn't stop running away. When you came here today, I was scared of what you would tell me. I was scared that you hated me so deeply you wouldn't want to see my face anymore and I didn't know how I could be able to live with that."

Ami was hysterical, talking frantically, tears running down her cheeks.

"And instead I found out that you had forgiven me. I'm the younger one, so you were always forced to give in whenever we fought over things. This was the one time you had full right to never want to breathe the same air as me again, but you still chose to forgive me. In spite of how horribly I had acted, despite how selfish I had been, against all reason."

Her eyes were searching her sister's lighter coloured ones, desperate to find answers for the things that were tormenting her.

"You shouldn't have forgiven me. Not so quickly. Not so easily. I don't deserve it."

When she didn't say anything more, Amu heaved a great sigh and fingered the hem of her shirt thoughtfully.

"Maybe," the pink-haired girl conceded, her expression still pensive and neutral. "But we're family and if we don't forgive one another's vices and mistakes, who would?" Her smile then was so brilliant and heart-warming that it made Ami's ever-flowing tears stop. "I value the relationship I've had for seventeen years with you more than a relationship that never even came to be - with a man who, by the way, clearly wants you more than he does me."

For the first time in the entire exchange, Ikuto could no longer look at the two sisters before him.

He had agreed to come here today with Amu because she had insisted she wanted him—needed him, even—so she would be able to pull through. He knew that she needed to resolve this, but he also knew that when she did, she would no longer need his assistance or company anymore.

He was her safe harbour during the toughest times because it was convenient, because it was necessary for her. He was a little more than an acquaintance, a little less than a friend. That made him as safe as she could get.

She came to him because she needed him as a way to run away from her problems—and that had been okay with him as long as he believed she could be content with it. But when she became more and more miserable, he couldn't stay idle. He'd talked to her, tried to make her see some sense, to have her confront what was withering her from the inside.

And now that she had worked things out with her sister, she'd no longer need his help. Because she would no longer need to run away from anything.

He wasn't an idiot—he knew how these things worked. He might've been her crutch when she'd most needed it but when she was healthy she would discard him without a second thought. Of course she would, it was only natural—she wouldn't want to be reminded of the bad times she'd had to go through.

Bad times that he was the epitome of.

He knew that when she confronted the younger Hinamori, she would waltz out of his life. He knew it perfectly well and he had still encouraged it, even knowing that her leaving would pain him.

He wanted her to be happy more than he wanted to avoid getting hurt.

She was putting her life in order before his very eyes, and he knew that when she was done, there wouldn't be any room for him in it anymore.

But he pretended it didn't matter, that it didn't bother him. After all, it had only been a couple of weeks—it wasn't possible to get deeply involved with anyone in just two weeks.

Then again, he had never been very good at lying to himself.

He was happy she had finally worked things out with her sister. He was glad there wouldn't be any shadows hanging over her brilliant smile, even though he would never have the pleasure of seeing it first-hand again.

Ikuto had looked away from the two of them because he knew that what she said must've been difficult for her to come out with. He knew that she had been very much smitten with that boy, and admitting who he really wanted to her rival had probably been heart-wrenching for her.

He knew she wasn't over her crush, but he also saw that she was ready to step away from blocking her little sister's happiness.

"You were wrong though," Amu said, her voice rending the silence that had stretched between them. "I don't need Tadase to be happy. I don't think I ever did."

Ikuto felt something pulling on his arm then and upon focusing on his surroundings found it to be his once-lover, tugging on his arm as she tried to lead him off.

He didn't resist her—when had he ever?—as she held his wrist and walked away from her sister, who was left staring vacantly into space behind them. He noticed that Amu was shaking—her hand that held his was in tremors—but he didn't question her. Not there, not then, not yet.

"Big sis!" Ami shouted then, making the elder Hinamori stop dead in her tracks. "Can I come home tomorrow?"

A smirk lifted up the corners of Ikuto's lips when he saw Amu smile at the other girl's question.

"It's your home, too, isn't it? Do you need to ask?"

On their way home, they made a stop at the park they'd been to after Utau's visit to Ikuto's apartment. Amu's legs felt faint, and she didn't trust herself to continue before taking a short breather. Things were finally starting to sink in, and she was beginning to realize fully that she no longer had any reason to feel burdened or scared or lonely, because she'd won her sister back.

Everything would be fine, and her whole being could finally, truly unclench and relax.

When she'd said she needed to rest for a bit because she didn't trust her legs to carry her weight anymore, Ikuto had joked about carrying her piggy-back the rest of the way. He'd also been extremely amused by the bright-red blush that covered her face at his offer, and he didn't miss the chance to tease her over it.

"Hey, Ikuto…" Amu began with a little difficulty, her index finger poking the holes of the swing's chain as she fidgeted.

"Hmm?" he hummed back to show her he was listening. He rocked gently on the swing next to hers, his eyes blissfully closed and his mind relaxingly blank.

"I need to talk to you."

He didn't know if she noticed, but her words made him stop swinging at once, his body wiring with tension. He could already feel in the back of his mouth the bitter taste of what was coming. It was unstoppable, like a coming train that he couldn't outrun.

"I'm listening," he told her, his voice guarded.

Thankfully, she was too engrossed in her own thoughts to notice. For now.

"I, uh…" She paused and thought better of what she'd been planning to say. "When I talked to Utau, I never said you were my boyfriend. She never asked either and I was very grateful for that."

A sharp, searing pain stabbed his heart at her words. Nevertheless, he remained silent.

"I was grateful because if she had, I wouldn't have known how to answer her." She looked into his eyes then and what he saw in hers he couldn't decipher. "I have no idea what I am to you and it disturbs me. Things don't need labels to work, but having them gives people a sense of security, a way of knowing things that they wouldn't if there was no label."

She bit her lip as she tore her gaze away from his, her hands hastening their hold on the swing's chains.

"It's been on my mind a while but I didn't want to talk about it because I was afraid of what you could say. But I don't want to be in the dark anymore. I can't stand not knowing anymore. I have to know whether it's just been me getting ahead of myself all this time or if…" Her words fled her and her mouth clamped shut. Her breathing was erratic and her heart was beating hard in her chest. She wondered how to best phrase what she meant.

If only she knew how perfectly her companion was mimicking her reactions to her topic and words of choice.

She struggled against herself for a while more, insecure and panicked.

"God, this is going to be embarrassing," she muttered, rubbing the bridge of her nose with her fingers.

Ikuto noticed that she was exerting quite a bit of effort in looking at everything else around her but him and that made his pulse skip with hope. Maybe, just maybe

She cleared her throat and straightened her back but still refused to make eye contact with him. He didn't even realize he was leaning in closer in anticipation.

"If it hadn't been for you back in the bar a week ago, I'm not even sure if I'd be in one piece today. You humoured me when I was at my worst, you tolerated me when I was whimsical and you were there for me when I most needed it. I am more grateful for everything you've done for me than I could ever convey. You were more than I could ever imagine when you chatted me up in that bar."

When her throat closed, she cleared it and pushed on. To her side, Ikuto was experiencing difficulty hearing anything she said over the sound of his thundering pulse.

"What I want to say is that I like being with you. I…" Another unwanted pause punctured her speech. Her face was now redder than a tomato. "I like you. I don't have an excuse anymore—I've straightened things out with my sister and I have no more reason not to sleep in my own apartment or evade my friends—but I want to stay with you. I don't know if it would work out, but—"

He never got to hear the end of her rant, because right then he blurted it out:

"Will you go out with me?"

She slowly turned her head to look at him, her face red and her eyes wide and blinking profusely. He had no idea what his countenance was like, but he did know that all he could feel was the adrenaline pumping in his veins, alerting every nerve in his body.

"I like you, too, and I have from the moment I first met you. I want you to be my girlfriend because I want all of you—mind, body and soul—to be mine and only mine."

For all Ikuto knew, the world may have stopped spinning in that moment. He stared into her eyes, searching them for an answer to his question.

"Go out with me, Amu," he reiterated, his breath bated with expectation.

It felt to him like a whole eternity passed before she grinned so widely the expression stretched her features to their limit and leaned in to lock her lips with his.

He knew he had his answer then; it was the most unambiguous one he had received in his entire life.

When she came out of his bathroom after taking a shower that evening, she caught the last few notes of a beautiful melody he was playing on his violin.

She sat herself on the couch, using a second towel to dry her hair.

"I've never heard you play this one before. Is it a new?" she asked curiously. He smirked cryptically at her.

"Yeah, I guess you can say it is."

"It sounded like a nice piece. Why haven't you played it before?"

"I didn't know how it ended," he replied eloquently, making her raise her brows in interest.

"Did someone I've heard of write it?" she queried while hastening the towel that was wrapped around her as she stood up from her seat.

He shrugged with that same smile on his face. It was a look that told her he was withholding information that could be potentially interesting to her.

"I guess you can say that," he responded cheekily. She cocked an amused brow at him then, the smirk she'd been trying to suppress breaking free on her face.

"You guess? You've been doing a lot of guessing, haven't you?" He shrugged again while putting his violin back in the case.

Her grin widened when she noticed that he had tied the key she'd given him around the case's handhold. She couldn't help feeling a jab of satisfaction, because she knew for a fact that the violin case was the one thing that he carried with him for the largest part of his day.

"Whose is it then?" she prompted again, feeling pleasant enough to play this silly game of his.

"Mine, actually," he finally confessed. Her eyes widened.

"Really?" she thrilled, amazement sparkling in her eyes. "You composed a song?" He nodded. "Will you play it for me?"

She looked so excited that she was just about ready to start bouncing on the balls of her feet. The sight she made almost made it impossible for him to stick to his plan.

"I'm sorry—not yet. I need to work on it a little bit more."

Her excited smile dropped into a pout with such speed that he couldn't help chuckling at her. As she continued to sulk, he took a few steps until he was in front of her, but she stubbornly turned her back to him with a huff. Her bare arms crossed over her chest. He smirked as he bent down slightly, allowing his lips to ghost over her earlobe and then down the length of the column of her neck.

"Come on, Amu, don't pout," he whispered against the soft flesh of her neck.

A shiver ran down her spine from the feel of his warm breath against her skin. His nimble fingers traced the curves of her sides, trailing up her arms until they settled in the hollows of her shoulders, gently kneading the stress knots out of there.

"I will play it especially for you once it's really done," he promised breathily before placing an open-mouthed kiss on the base of her neck.

While his tongue flicked over her skin, his hands continued massaging her shoulders. She couldn't contain the throaty moan that escaped her. It was becoming increasingly harder to remember what she was supposed to be mad at him for while he continued to rain passionate kisses on her neck and shoulders. His hands had at some point snaked down from her arms to her chest, cupping her breasts over the towel before getting rid of the meddling fabric altogether.

As she was blindly backing away towards the bedroom, hands buried in his navy spikes of hair, body pressed up against his taller frame as closely as possible, Amu forgot all about having been angry with him just a moment ago.

The last few notes of the piece rang in the air of the spacious room. The young violinist looked at the men and women around him expectantly, excitement twinkling in his eyes.

"Well?" he prompted them when they didn't seem to get the idea, "What do you think?"

The cellist shrugged.

"Yeah, I think we could arrange it as a concert piece if we wanted to," he conceded, turning to look at the oboist.

"It will need an adjustment here and there, but it's a good, interesting piece, so I approve of it going into our programme," the oboist agreed.

Ikuto looked at the dark haired man with sharp features who hadn't spoken a word since the violinist had started playing.

After half a minute of staring into space, Tsukiyomi Aruto looked up at his son, his decision already made.

"We will include it in next month's concert," he adjudged, standing from his seat among the musicians in the room. "I'll go talk to the producer and when I come back, we'll start arranging it for a violin concerto."

While he watched his father's disappearing back, Ikuto thought that being the son of the concert master definitely had its perks.

She was so nervous her heart could've slammed right out of her chest. But the moment she saw the familiar face approaching her, she schooled her features into a look of aloof indifference.

"I see you're right on time," the female said coolly. "Too bad—I was looking forward to punishing you."

Amu chuckled good-naturedly.

"You'll get plenty of chances to punish me for things later. Now you should focus on getting better," the pink-headed woman said, prompting the blonde to roll her eyes from her bed.

"Yes, mother," she muttered sarcastically but it was easy to see that her heart wasn't in it. What she'd said made her turn to look at her brother. "Are mom and dad here?" she asked breathlessly.

Ikuto smiled and nodded.

"They're on their way."

Utau exhaled slowly, letting her eyes slide shut.

"I can't wait to get out of here and get me some ramen. You wouldn't believe the horrid food they serve here," she said grouchily.

The idol was surprised to hear an unfamiliar laugh fill the room. Her eyes snapped opened, and she noticed a tall brunette right behind Amu. He had stayed quiet the entire time, but was now looking at her with an amused grin. She glared at him but his grin remained unfazed.

"A pop idol who likes ramen? That's quite a first," he said, and her glare intensified.

"What? Is it wrong?"

The guy shrugged his shoulders, that grin still on his face.

"Not at all—it's just a bit unexpected."

"Take a photo—it lasts longer and you can tell all your friends about the weird pop diva who can eat more bowls of ramen than you can."

Amu hadn't intended to irritate Utau; she'd just met Kuukai in the hospital while she and Ikuto were coming in to see the blonde and he'd tagged along because he had nothing to do while waiting for his oldest brother to be discharged after recovering from a broken leg. She opened her mouth to interject, but before she could interrupt, Kuukai laughed good-naturedly again.

"Yeah, right—a lightweight little girl like you couldn't even dream of defeating me in an eating match," he said with a cocky smirk, making Utau aim a challenging look at him as well.

"You willing to test that theory?" she asked cheekily. The auburn-haired boy grinned confidently back at her.

"Tell you what—when you get out of that bed and safely out of this place, we'll have a ramen eating contest. Loser pays the bill and gets to have their illusions dashed."

"Sounds good to me," Utau conceded, a grin tugging at the corners of her lips.

Ikuto had watched the entire exchange with great interest, his indigo blue eyes shifting from Amu's university friend to his sister and back again. He detected that something was more than what it seemed, but he wasn't entirely sure yet what it was.

But he was more than pleased he had allowed the guy to tag along. He had given his sister something to look forward to after this operation, an operation which could be lethal. This way she had something to keep her will strong through it.

Before anyone could say anything more, the glass door to the room slid open, letting Utau and Ikuto's parents in. When they made their entrance, Kuukai saw his brother limping on two crutches in the hallway, looking around, and he knew this was his cue to leave.

"Get better," he said brightly, before disappearing out the door.

Utau smiled after him and then turned to look at her doting parents.

She wasn't nervous anymore.

It was a month since Utau had successfully undergone her operation. She was recovering from the surgery fast and she was even showing signs of getting her voice back. If that wasn't joyous enough news, she'd started seeing Kuukai more and more often, and everyone except the two of them was sure it was just a matter of time before they hooked up.

Ami was back in the apartment, and she and Amu were getting along better than ever, their bond stronger than it had been before, thanks to everything they'd been through. They exchanged stories about their boys till the wee hours of the morning rolled around, laughing and quarreling together over silly things like they usually did.

Their dad's health had finally improved as well, and the pink-headed girl had made sure to patch things up with her mom after their fight (in which her mother had been completely right). After that, she worked at apologizing to her friends for being such a bitch, and was surprised when they forgave her right away.

Her relationship with Ikuto was better than ever, and she could finally safely say that her life was getting in order.

She was currently seated on the front row of a large, open, amphitheatric stage. She was a special guest of Ikuto's—or so her extremely formal and extremely official invite said—for his first concert. For the first time, Ikuto would perform as the solo violinist.

Amu had been so captivated by her lover's playing looked that she hadn't noticed most of the concert passing. The whole time, she hadn't torn her gaze away from him. He stood tall and proud and serene in front of the crowd of strangers, pouring out his soul in his music to them. The brilliant, heart-warming smile on his face as he played his violin, drawing the most beautiful and touching sounds from it, made her pulse race and set free the flock of butterflies in her tummy.

She had always liked classical music, though she could recognize only the most famous of pieces. She wasn't sure what almost half of the things they'd played had been—but she was sure she'd learn. She planned to stay around Ikuto for a while, so she'd get the chance to learn all the things he played.

It was only thanks to her neighbours whispering about it and looking into their concert program fliers that she realized the last piece wasn't a classical one.

"Quite the mouthful," the gaudily dressed woman in her mid-fifties whispered to the man next to her.

Amu raised a curious brow and looked into her own concert program that had been left, forgotten, by her side.

Her breath hitched in her throat when she read what the little piece of paper said about this next piece.

Fateful Encounter at the End of the Universe, with music by Tsukiyomi Ikuto.

When she looked up from the program and back to him, she found him looking straight at her, with that smile she knew he reserved especially for her. He placed the violin on his shoulder and poised his hand with the bow. When his father gave him a nod and the conductor did too, he began playing the piece that he had composed for her.

As the music carried over the huge crowd of people in the premise, Amu's eyes welled with tears. She had always wondered how it was possible for people to tear up during musical performances, or how they could claim they could hear what a composer had intended to say via his music, but she now knew.

The melody jumped from quiet and morose to flamboyant and chaotic, from playful and stringent to slow and passionate. It drew in musical colours the picture of how they'd met, how their paths had crossed and how their fates had intertwined after a chance meeting in a bar at the end of the universe.

If it hadn't been for him, she would still be in a fight with her sister, the dispute slowly but surely poisoning her with grief and anger and bitterness, her stubbornness assuring she never breathed a word to the younger girl about it.

If it hadn't been for her, he would've been just as miserable and alone as he'd always been, and his sister wouldn't have lived to see him there on that stage that day.

They had met and their presence in each other's lives had changed them for the better. It had been a chance meeting, but it was a moment in time that had altered their fates forever.

Tears streamed down Amu's face while she listened raptly, her soul rising and falling with his music, touched by its sincerity and openness.

The last chords, optimistic and serene, sang out from his violin to the audience. At that moment, his mesmerizing, midnight-blue eyes locked with hers from across the stage, and he gave her the most breathtaking smiles she'd ever seen.

A/N: I really loved writing this. Like you wouldn't believe I did. AndI love these characters so much, and this premise I created that I might make a sequel to this story. I even have plans for what could happen in said sequel. But, anyway, as it is, this fic is complete and it fills me with glee. This is the story I am most proud of having written in my entire life thus far, so reviews are greatly appreciated, even though I know it probably won't get many. :3

I had a lot of thoughts that I could share in the footnote while I was writing this monster but I won't bore you. :3 If anything makes an impression on you and you review with a signed account, I'd be able to respond to your review with an explanation/answer/elaboration/anything you might want or need. :3 The thing that I insist on saying is that I think I achieved what I was trying for with this story – a serious, but fluffy and cute Shugo Chara fanfic that has depth and development. I wanted to get if a little bit closer to professional-like feel in my writing, to tear away a bit from the strictly amateur-writing. I wonder if I did achieve that. :3

Which is why anyone who has intelligent, constructive criticism to offer would be very welcome to give it. I aim to improve and I can't do that without being shown what I'm not doing right.

I hope you enjoyed this story and if you've read all 84 MSWord pages of it up to this point, you're one of my favourite people in the world. :)

Thank you for reading!

Yours sincerely, Dark Hope Assassin.

19th August, 2010.