"Mmm….Hanazono manju really are the best! And the tea is amazing, too."

"It should be—I learned from the master himself. Shiodome knows everything there is to know about tea. And green tea's great after a night on the town."

"Tell me about it," she groaned. "I'm never doing that again. Dumb thing to do in the first place. I'm lucky you found me when you did."

He reached out and rubbed her shoulder. "I'll be honest—my heart skipped a beat when I saw you lying there. If anything ever happened to you I'd never forgive myself," he murmured.

"Forgive…yourself? You're not responsible for me, Rin-chan," she chided gently.

"Yes I am. I said I'd watch over you and I meant it. I'm a station and you're my charge."

She stared into her teacup. "You know…it feels good to have someone care so much about me."

"I'm glad," he said softly. "But—your parents care about you too, don't they?"

"They do. But sometimes I wonder. Sometimes I wonder if they just love me blindly because I'm their child, or if they love the real me with all my fears and flaws. They're such optimists and they never really worry about anything—not like I do, anyway. Somehow I can't really talk to them about stuff."

"Have you tried?"

"Yeah, but it doesn't work. I've got a lot of things I think about…a lot of things I worry about, or even just wonder about. And whenever I talk to them, they always try to reassure me. But the thing is, I don't want to be reassured—what I really want is to be understood."

"I see what you mean. I was guilty of the same crime just now, wasn't I?"

"Yeah. You were talking to me like a parent, when what I really needed was a friend."

He took her hand. "I hope it's not too late for me to redeem myself. If you're ready to talk, I'm ready to listen."

She drew a deep breath. "I don't know exactly why I did what I did last night," she began. "But I think it has something to do with my general thoughts about life lately. Before I met you, I tried to plan my life down to the last detail. Looking back on it, I think it was because I was scared of life. I was scared then and I'm scared now, because I just don't understand what life is supposed to be about, and trust me, I've given it plenty of thought. I love my parents, but they live the most normal, boring lives I've ever seen. Maybe I'm the problem. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks it's boring. Nobody around me seems to question these things. And it's not even that—what really bothers me is that I don't understand why life is the way it is. I'm supposed to study hard, get a good education, get a good job, get married, have babies, get old and die. Just a few months ago, that was my plan. I was afraid of deviating from life's pattern. Now I'm equally scared to stick to it—and in the end, it's the same thing, I guess. I don't know what went through my head yesterday. All I can tell you is that for the first time in my life, I suddenly felt like I had to smash the pattern to bits, or it would strangle me."

Shinjuku watched her—could see the conflict in her as clearly as if it had been drawn with pen and ink—and words he himself had spoken not long ago flashed into his mind:

Running along a set path. Caught inside the diagram's cage, you forget to ask yourselves who you are. Haven't you realized it's time for that to end?

"You're just like me, Michi."

She looked up.

"Even though I'm a station—or maybe because I'm a station, I don't know—I've felt the same things you feel. Did you know that I can't leave the Oedo Line?"

"I never really thought about it, but I guess that's the way it would be, now that you mention it," she said. "What would happen if you tried to step over the boundary? Would you—physically disintegrate or something?"

"I don't know, but I've asked myself that same question, and I've often been tempted to find the answer. I know it would be foolish—and irresponsible, too—just like you knew that what you did last night was foolish and irresponsible. But I can understand how you must have felt." He sighed. "You said you'd rather be understood than reassured, and that's just as well, because I wouldn't even know how to begin to reassure you. I don't really have any answers myself. All I can tell you is that no matter how much it sometimes disturbs me that I'm bound to an inscrutable diagram—or life's pattern, as you call it—there are two things that never fail to comfort me. One: the bond I share with my fellow stations, and the knowledge that I'm not alone; and two: the joy I get from human contact. Not just from helping people, but from knowing them and loving them." He looked into her eyes. "I love you, Michi, and I promise you I will always be your friend."

She leaned back in her chair and smiled. "You're the best friend I've ever had," she said shyly. "I'd like to be your friend too." Suddenly she laughed. "I guess I should start by apologizing for being so much trouble—oh, no!" She smacked her forehead. "Speaking of trouble, I just realized I'll have to tell my parents what happened. Ugh…and just when I was starting to feel better, too…."

"Don't worry, it won't be so bad. I'll go with you and explain my side of things, so they'll at least know that you were safe. Besides," he added with his trademark wink, "they're sure to go easy on you when they see you in the company of such a charming and gorgeous gentleman."

"You mean Hajime's coming too?"

"WHAT? How dare you! Just for that I'm taking the last manju!"

"Oh no you don't! Hey, look, it's a beautiful woman—"


"—Over there—"

"Oh—damn, I can't believe I fell for that!"

Michi grinned. "Poor boy, you can have the last of the tea and then we'll be even. By the way, thanks for having me over. It's quite a sexy little love nest you've got here."

Shinjuku promptly choked on his tea, while Michi howled with laughter.

Author's note: Episode 3 is one of my favorites, and I think there's a very interesting dynamic between Shinjuku and Michi. She's the only human who really challenged him and forced him to drop his "koneko-chan" routine almost immediately. I think he was more open and honest with her than with anyone else, and the entire episode is peppered with reaction shots of Shinjuku that reveal his fondness for her. When Michi pushes him away in Higashi-shinjuku, there's a sad and vulnerable look that flashes across his face for a second and is quickly replaced by his usual façade. That split-second glimpse into his heart was the inspiration for this fic.