The year seemed to be accelerating to a close. October flew by— to Ren, it felt like he blinked and suddenly the leaves were a vibrant crimson and the air had turned crisp. His days were regularly booked solid from early in the morning until past midnight. The best days were the ones he got to spend on set together with Kyoko shooting Unlocked. They spent most of a week on set together (along with the rest of the cast) filming the season finale— a tense shoot-out that took place in a warehouse. It was the most fun Ren had had on set in a long time, and watching Kyoko flow perfectly through the action set pieces was thrilling and made Ren glow with admiration and pride.
The rest of the month they spent apart. In addition to his role as Sherlock, Ren had been cast as a supporting character in a psychological drama about two families that was sure to sweep the awards. And there was still his contract with R'Mandy, which always got busier towards the holiday season as Ren was called in for extra photoshoots for special edition winter holiday products. Meanwhile, Kyoko was busy preparing for her new television series, an adaptation from a popular manga about a volleyball team and auditioning for new parts. On top of their acting work, at least two evenings a week (and usually more) Ren and Kyoko were together promoting Bitter Sweet Heart. After the leaked photo and dating rumor the media attention was nonstop and to capitalize on the free press, the movie producers insisted the actors appear in an unending cycle of TV appearances and photoshoots for magazine covers and interviews with online news outlets.
The paparazzi caught them late one evening as they were leaving Fuji TV after recording a late night talk show. The bright flash of the camera against the darkness was disorienting and Kyoko had stumbled. Luckily Ren had been there to catch her, gently leading her by the arm towards a car. Kyoko saw the photo and accompanying article the next day (a printed copy of the magazine was left conspicuously open on the table in the Love Me room). Ren looked handsome, of course — he was so stupidly attractive that it was impossible to take a bad picture of the man. Kyoko traced the outline of his face with one finger, then sighed with envy and winced as she looked at herself in the photo. While Ren looked like a movie star, she looked more like a deer blinded by the headlights, her limbs stiff and her eyes wide with surprise.
By November Kyoko was counting down the weeks until she was finally released from her press obligations. The teen was amazed that the public wasn't sick of her yet. She had gotten better at live TV interviews, but they still were a bit nerve wracking, and everyone was always prompting the stars, asking if they had anything to admit about what was going on between them. Especially when the producers had changed the promotional clip to Mayu and Hatori's first kiss and Kyoko had been asked endlessly about what it was like to kiss Tsuruga Ren— which was of course an impossible question to answer to anyone's satisfaction.
The actress held back a sigh, reminding herself to be grateful. At least tonight was just a photoshoot and magazine interview. The photos went quickly enough, and then Kyoko and Ren sat down with a writer to chat about their upcoming movie. Or at least, that was what the article was supposed to be about. But the interviewer seemed much more interested in asking pointed questions about the relationship between the actors and how much they interacted off-set, trying several times to catch either of the actors off-guard with rapid-fire questions. Kyoko did her best to steer the conversation back to Mayu-chan and Bitter Sweet Heart, despite being able to tell after fifteen minutes that it was a lost cause. After a frustrating almost two hours, the interviewer finally gave up on getting their coveted scoop. Kyoko did her best to politely thank the writer for their time, then sighed with relief as she slipped back to the dressing room to change out of the outfit she'd been given for the photoshoot and into her normal clothes.
Mami-chan was waiting for Kyoko when she reappeared and the pair walked to where the manager had parked. Next to the borrowed LME car that Mami drove was Ren's silver porsche. The actor was leaning against the side of his car, chatting easily with Yashiro. He smiled as he saw Kyoko approach, opening the passenger side door for her as he thanked both their managers and bid them goodnight. Yashiro waved, hopping into the other car with Mami-chan and heading back to LME.
Kyoko heaved a sigh of relief as Ren pulled out of the lot. The interview had left a bitter taste in her mouth. The teen had managed to smile through her grit teeth as Ren had done his best to keep the interview on topic, but she couldn't help her frustration at how completely uninterested the woman had been in Mayu-chan's story. She muttered under her breath.
Ren shrugged beside her in the driver's seat, seemingly indifferent. "Sometimes the writer has an angle. It's part of the job."
Kyoko muttered something about ice crystals that Ren couldn't quite catch as she stared out the window. But she was clearly referring to him somehow, since Ren caught a glimpse of her expression reflected in the car window. Kyoko had that strange gleam in her eye, the one that gave Ren the feeling she was going to ask him to teach her something later. Probably something strange. She turned back forward and Ren stole a glance at her profile. Grumpy Kyoko was adorable. Her lower lip was pushed forward into a pout, and her brow was comically furrowed. He wished he wasn't driving so he could pull her into his lap and kiss her cheek, nuzzle his nose against the soft skin of her neck and watch as she turned a gratifying shade of pink in response. Maybe someday, part of his brain thought hopefully. For now, he would have to settle for another way of cheering her up.
"You'll learn how to deal with the press," he said encouragingly.
Kyoko heaved a dejected sigh. "Easy for you to say."
"I've had a lot more practice than you," Ren said easily.
"Three years isn't that much more," Kyoko grumbled. Her bottom lip was pushed out in a decided pout.
Ren could practically see the self-recrimination rolling off the teen. He opened his mouth to tell her that she shouldn't be so hard on herself: being the child of celebrities, he'd practically been in the limelight (in one way or another) since before Kyoko was born.
Then Ren's brain caught up and he snapped his jaw shut so abruptly his teeth clacked and Kyoko looked up at him. Fortunately they had arrived at their destination, sparing Ren any explanation of his action as he parked the car and walked around to open the door for Kyoko.
Somehow despite the packed schedules, between their two managers Ren and Kyoko managed to find the time to see each other once a week, although it was rarely for more than an hour. Thankfully Yashiro and Mami had worked out the schedule for the day to end early enough so that Ren and Kyoko could have dinner together (albeit on the late side). The actor didn't particularly care about going out to dinner; as a single man who couldn't cook he had eaten enough restaurant food since coming to Japan. But with their schedules as packed as they were, Ren didn't want to lose time that could be spent with Kyoko to grocery shopping or being banished from the kitchen while she made dinner. As much as he enjoyed her cooking, he would rather be able to talk to the actress. And she seemed to view the frequency with which Ren suggested takeout as a moral failing of some kind on his part. Thankfully, Yashiro had a seemingly unending list of perfect date night spots with a variety of cuisines and romantic lighting. Restaurants that catered to an exclusive clientele and had private rooms and were willing to let the stars come and go through the back. The kind of establishments that served expensive, tiny portions and never handed a lady a menu that listed prices.
"How does Yashiro find these places?" Ren wondered as he glanced over the menu.
"I never knew he was into food," Kyoko said. "But he has good taste! It's really popular, Moko-san has been here! She told me to get the squid."
Kyoko was thrilled when dinner arrived — her stomach was two minutes away from gurgling very loudly, which would have been embarrassing in such a fancy place. Their conversation paused while Kyoko turned her attention to the plate in front of her.
"What's the verdict? Is it good?" Ren asked.
The teen nodded enthusiastically, covering her mouth with one hand. "It's amazing!" She ducked her head shyly. "Would you… like to try some?" she offered. Stunned, Ren managed to nod his head. To say that he didn't care much about food would be an understatement, but even so, Ren wasn't going to refuse such an offer. Reflexively, he offered her a bite of his meal too and barely managed to conceal his shocked face as Kyoko hesitated for the briefest moment before helping herself to a dainty bite of his meal. Kyoko was chewing happily and making small, adorable noises of contentment. Ren's brain short-circuited. They were sharing food. Like a real couple. An image of Kyoko offering him a bite from her own chopsticks danced through Ren's head. A year ago, it would have been his subconscious taunting him, but now… things that in the past Kuon would never have dared to even think of were somehow becoming actually possible. He felt hope bubbling up in his chest. It was wonderful. And terrifying.
Since the actor's meeting with Lory more than a month ago, Ren had been in a more or less constant state of anxiety any time he was alone with the actress. It was like his brain expected his parents to sweep in at any moment and reveal his secrets to the media— or worse, to Kyoko— before he even had the chance to explain himself. The worry was impossible to ignore, an itch he couldn't scratch inside his skull, constantly picking at his attention. Every time he saw Kyoko, the actor swore to himself that he was going to tell her. Once when they were at his apartment, Ren had slipped. They had been watching a foreign movie about a pro surfer who was attacked by a shark and Ren made an off-hand comment about Hawaiian beaches. Kyoko had looked at him expectantly and Ren had thought that was the moment. His voice had been cautiously light as he hesitantly explained that he'd visited with his family as a child. Which was true— Kuon had been to Hawaii a handful of times for family vacation and once when his dad was filming a movie. Ren had held his breath, waiting for Kyoko to ask for an explanation. But the teen didn't need one. It made sense in her mind that Tsuruga Ren had grown up in an affluent family, the kind that took their kids on international vacation. He was Tsuruga Ren, after all. And while Kyoko noticed that it was the first time the actor had ever really mentioned his childhood, she didn't pry. Given the circumstances of her own family, she hardly thought it was unusual to not speak of the topic. So Kyoko had simply nodded and turned her attention back to the movie, and Ren had let out a silent sigh. He felt like a man awaiting execution who had managed to live another day. He was both relieved his confession had been pushed off, even as the truth hung over his head like an axe.
There had been a few other moments, but every time Ren found himself making an excuse for why it wasn't quite right: they were in the car, or it was too late in the evening for such a heavy subject, or it was their only alone time that week and he didn't want to spoil it. But then he would wake the next morning, another night having slipped away without Ren saying anything, and the guilt would press in, weighing him down like a stone hanging around his neck that got heavier with every day that slipped by and he stayed silent.
"Ren-san? Is everything alright?" Kyoko asked in a worried voice.
"Sorry," Ren said immediately, trying to cover it up with a smile. "I got distracted."
Ren leaned in like he was about to whisper some secret and Kyoko leaned in too. But instead the actor reached out and brushed his thumb against the corner of her mouth, then licked his finger. "You had some sauce," the actor lied, grinning as Kyoko flushed.
"You could have just told me!"
Ren's eyes were dancing. "What fun would that be?"
"Playboy," the teen muttered, grabbing her napkin and giving her mouth a thorough wipe.
"I didn't want to waste food," Ren said innocently.
"Liar," Kyoko muttered. She primly picked up her chopsticks, pretending to be more affronted than she really was. Her face felt warm, but Kyoko would be lying to herself if she said it was only from embarrassment. Of course, it was a little embarrassing for Ren-san to do such a thing. But what was more embarrassing was how loudly her heart was beating. She tried to quiet it down, chastising herself for such shameless behavior. But really, another part of her mind piped up, wasn't it only natural? He was the most handsome man in Japan. Probably the whole world. If her heart didn't race when he did such a thing, that would be stranger— right?
Even after months of dating, part of Kyoko's brain still had trouble with the idea that someone as attractive and talented as Tsuruga Ren could want her. Kyoko suspected part of her would always find it unbelievable. It was so completely illogical that sometimes she wondered if Ren had hit his head while filming a stunt or if their relationship was actually just one very long, incredibly elaborate acting exercise. Even though Ren had said he loved her. She knew it was stupid, but sometimes Kyoko couldn't help it. It was the same part of her that repeated Shotaro's words: plain, boring woman. But Ren's slow, patient attention was slowly wearing down that part of her psyche, whittling away at the sharp, cruel voice in her haid. There was a growing body of evidence which suggested that Ren did, in fact, like her and that they were actually dating. Like the fact that he was buying her dinner right now. And how he asked about how her work actually listened, asking questions and seeming genuinely interested in what she had to say. And how she had a key to his place. And when he dropped her off that night at the Darumaya and walked her to the door (like he almost always did), the way he reverently kissed her goodnight certainly felt like he was saying I love you as Ren pressed his warm mouth against her own.
If only she could find the courage to say it, too.
Still, as much as Kyoko was fairly certain that Ren liked her, she still marveled that somehow — despite more than six months of dating and spending time filming together— he hadn't gotten sick of her.
"Mo! You're so annoying!" Kanae groaned. "He's obviously crazy about you. Why are you even thinking about this?"
"Well— because— shouldn't he be sick of me?" Kyoko asked.
"Yes. God, I'm sick of both of you." Kanae huffed. "I can't go two days without seeing you in the tabloids— just announce that you're dating already!" Kanae wielded her plastic ice cream spoon like a strict teacher with a ruler, pointing it accusingly at her friend before taking another bite of her ice cream with a shiver. Kanae blamed her past self for not trying harder to persuade Kyoko that ice cream was not a year-round food.
Kyoko made a face. "The producers want us to keep the public intrigued." She sighed. "Just two more weeks— then I'm free! Tsuruga-san says the media attention will die down once the movie comes out."
"So what about after? You're not going public?"
"Isn't it— too soon?" Kyoko looked at her friend anxiously. "What if— what if he changes his mind?"
"Mo! Kyoko, for the last time— he's not going to change his mind!" Kanae wanted to throttle the shorter girl. She crumpled up her ice cream dish in disgust.
"I'm not wasting any more time talking about this." Kanae stood up. She glared down at her friend and swept up the half-eaten ice cream dishes, ignoring her friend's cry of protest. "Let's go, I'm freezing!"
Even though her tone was harsh as she stomped away, after a few paces Kanae paused and turned, waiting for Kyoko's shorter legs to catch up.
"Are you sure you're not too busy? You don't have to—" Kyoko began.
"It's fine. I said I'd help, so I'll help," Kanae said gruffly. "Come on— let's go find you a dress."
Kyoko had only received her official invitation to the premiere of Bitter Sweet Heart a few days ago, even though the movie release barely two weeks away. Her manager had marked the date in Kyoko's calendar and promptly suggested that the teen make an appointment with an LME stylist, barely waiting for Kyoko to agree before pulling out her phone. To Kyoko's delight, the meeting was with none other than the magical fairy godmother of transformation herself: Miss Jelly Woods. While make-up was her passion, Woods-san had a good eye for fashion and did work as a stylist as well. The pair spent the afternoon browsing through magazines and photos online, trying to nail down a signature look for Kyoko's debut red carpet. Then they wandered down to LME's sizeable costume and wardrobe department. Unlike Ren, Kyoko wasn't yet the caliber of star that designers were lining up to dress for promotions and events. The agency had a selection of clothing that newcomers and smaller stars could borrow for their professional engagements, but none of the dresses that Jelly had Kyoko try on were quite right. Jelly decidedly tossed them all, and instead gave Kyoko a list of stores and labels that might have good options for the young woman.
Apparently there was a literal price of fame— even though she was barely famous, Kyoko mused ruefully. Being in the spotlight was expensive, even with a big name company like LME that provided lots of resources for its talents. Kyoko had spent a large chunk of her salary from the movie on paying off her final semester of high school and setting aside another chunk for more acting classes at the LME training center (if she could ever find the time in her schedule). And then being the thrifty person that she was, Kyoko had intended to save the rest. But the non-stop press appearances and paparazzi meant that Kyoko always had to be picture-ready, which meant concealer and mascara and lip colors, not to mention skincare. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that the teen wandered into one of the more fashionable districts in downtown Tokyo to purchase a dress. Thankfully Moko-san had agreed to come with her. Kanae was secretly almost as thrifty as Kyoko was, but the dark-haired actress always managed to look expensively dressed and well put together. Of course, Kyoko noted with an admiring glance at her friend, it helped that Kanae was drop-dead gorgeous.
Kanae took Kyoko into the fanciest department store that Kyoko had ever set foot inside. Moko-san looked like she belonged, but Kyoko felt like any minute the security might come and drag her out for being too drab to be allowed in such a beautiful place. Kanae had rolled her eyes at this statement, grabbing her friend's hand and dragging the shorter girl towards the evening wear section.
The teen tried on dress after dress, trying not to think about the price tag. The amount of zeroes made her wince— who could afford to spend so much one just one piece of clothing? Kanae waved it off. Kyoko had wanted a big, Cinderella-style ballgown but Kanae had firmly shut the idea down, telling Kyoko she looked more like a pumpkin than a princess. Eventually they found the one— soft chiffon that fell sweetly off the shoulders and a skirt that flowed silkily down her legs to the floor and billowed behind Kyoko when she walked. When Kyoko looked in the mirror, she could hardly believe she was looking at her own reflection: the girl she saw was beautiful.
The only problem was the price. It was more than Kyoko had budgeted for (that wasn't saying much since Kanae had laughed when Kyoko had suggested an initial price range). Kyoko looked at the tag, biting her lip. It wasn't that she couldn't afford to buy it; but it was a lot. She scrunched her nose anxiously.
"You should get it," Kanae said. Kyoko frowned. She had been counting on her friend to be frugal, but apparently that wasn't happening.
"You're a star, you have to dress like one. Don't worry about the price," Kanae responded, herding her friend towards the register with more than her regular pushiness.
"Ah, I'm sorry," the cashier said with a polite smile as she handed Kyoko her card back. "This has already been paid for."
"What?" Kyoko stared dumbly. The cashier only smiled. Kyoko's head whipped around to where Kanae was looking at her with barely concealed glee. It took Kyoko a few seconds to process, then she shook her head and turned back to the counter. "I'm sorry, there's been a mistake! Please put it on my card," she insisted.
"Too late," Kanae crowed, reaching for the garment bag. She grabbed Kyoko's elbow and nodded to the cashier before dragging the teen away, the dress draped neatly over her shoulder. "He went to the trouble of coordinating with me, just let him buy it. No making a scene," Kanae added in a low voice, cutting off Kyoko's protests. "I want to be able to come back here and not be embarrassed to show my face."
Ren sat on his couch, trying to look meek and contrite as Kyoko continued with her lecture. Eventually she began to wind down, her words coming out more slowly as she devolved into just staring at him reproachfully and Ren decided it was time for his counter-attack.
He pouted, managing to look like an abandoned puppy in the rain. "But then what am I supposed to get you as a present?"
"But what about for Christmas? And your birthday?" Ren asked. "I'm allowed to get you gifts for that. Don't try to tell me I can't; it won't work."
Kyoko barely held back a frustrated groan. It was amazing he had any money at all if he spent it so easily. "Those are different," Kyoko said with deliberate patience, as if she was speaking to a five year old. "Christmas is a celebration, not just—"
"This is a celebration too," Ren pointed out with a grin.
"No it isn't."
"Well, I'm celebrating," Ren said. "It wouldn't be polite to forbid me from celebrating in the manner of my choosing."
Kyoko wanted to grind her teeth. Cain's puppy look was bad enough, but to essentially call her out for being rude? That was playing dirty. Anyone who thought Tsuruga Ren was a gentleman clearly had never met this side of him. "But—"
"Speaking of, what do you want for Christmas?" He paused. "If you don't know what you want, that's fine," Ren said helpfully. "I have plenty of ideas."
"You don't have to get me anything!" Kyoko said immediately, looking alarmed at the thought.
"I want to get you something." More than just something. Ren held that bit back— one battle at a time. "It's a big year. Lucky nineteen, right?"
The teen's eyes narrowed. "I don't think that's a thing."
"Are you sure?" Ren asked innocently. A hint of the pout returned.
"Yes," Kyoko said firmly. Then something occurred to her. "What do you want for Christmas?"
"To spend time with you," Ren said immediately. Kyoko gave him an annoyed look. He could practically hear the accusation (playboy!) just from the look on her face. Except there was a twinkle in her eye that wasn't just annoyance. It could almost be flirty. If it was anyone else, Ren would definitely have said it was flirty. But this was Kyoko, so the actor was a little worried he might be hallucinating. Ren reached out and lighty tipped Kyoko's chin up so he could look at her. "It's true," he whispered, leaning down slowly.
Ren had fully intended to keep the kiss light and sweet. Nothing more than a peck. Or maybe two. But then Kyoko had scooted closer and Ren's hands tangled in her hair and all of his resolve to pull back dissipated into the air between them. Plus, part of his brain pointed out, if she was kissing him then she couldn't yell at him for buying her presents. Eventually he did pull back enough to let Kyoko catch her breath. Ren tucked his chin to touch his forehead against hers.
Kyoko opened her eyes to look at him, but Ren was too close. Nobody should look that good from such a distance, it was positively unfair. Kyoko squeezed her eyes shut. "Um, did you want to watch a movie?" she asked hazily, just now remembering the reason she had allegedly come over to his apartment that evening.
"Hmn," Ren said noncommittally. He had listened and heard her, but was more focused on brushing the tip of his nose back and forth against hers, making Kyoko's face scrunch up.
"That tickles," she declared. Hoping to disguise the pleasant shiver that ran up her spine, she sat back and covered a yawn with the back of her hand.
"Are you tired?" Ren asked, concerned. They had been working long days, and he knew that most people needed more sleep than a schedule like theirs allowed. While he knew the proper thing to do would be to stand up and offer to drive her home, Ren found he wasn't strong enough to be able to suggest such a thing himself.
"We've barely seen each other— I spent all night yelling at you," Kyoko said in a soft, remorseful voice. Her eyelids began to flutter.
"Well, not all night," he replied playfully, tucking her under his arm so that Kyoko could rest her head on his chest. "But before you get the wrong idea, I would prefer not to be yelled at."
She murmured something that was probably a protest but too soft to hear. Kyoko didn't stir for several minutes and Ren began debating whether or not to pick her up and carry her to the guest room when Kyoko shook herself awake.
"Sorry," the teen said, sleepily rubbing her eyes. She was too tired to even be properly embarrassed about literally falling asleep on top of her senpai, though she did give him an apology bow before pushing to her feet with a sigh and headed for the door, Ren following silently behind her. The car ride back to the Darumaya was so quiet that Ren wondered if Kyoko had fallen back to sleep. But the actress straightened in the seat as he pulled into the alley behind the restaurant and put the car in park.
Ren turned towards her. "I had a nice time tonight."
"I fell asleep on you. How is that a nice time?" was her skeptical reply.
"It was nice," Ren insisted with a smile that made even Kyoko's toughest defenses melt, and she felt her feelings bubbling to the surface.
"I— I just— I wish we actually got to see each other," Kyoko admitted at last. "It… it feels like…"
"I know." Ren couldn't help the happiness and relief that washed over him at her regretful tone. But how could he not be happy when Kyoko had just admitted that she wanted to spend more time with him? "Yashiro said you have the day off, after the premiere? If you don't have other plans, I would love to spend the day with you."
"I would really like that," Kyoko admitted shyly. She didn't know how to respond to such earnesty; it was as baffling as it was flattering. "What time would be best for you?"
"Any time," the actor replied. "For however much time you'll give me." Ren smiled, then added, "after we've woken up."
Kyoko's brow was wrinkled in confusion. "Woken up? But… the premiere isn't going to go that late, right?" Ren raised his eyebrows at her with amusement. "Nine-thirty? Ten?" She guessed.
Ren shook his head. Kyoko was such a talented actress that he forgot how new she was to the industry. Bitter Sweet Heart was a romantic drama with wide appeal, coming out towards the end of the year, in time for holidays. As the stars of the film, they would of course be expected to stay for at least a few hours at the reception after the screening. And then there was the official after-party, which both Ren and Kyoko's contracts stipulated that they attend, which meant another two hours of making polite conversation with the producers and other important guests or industry people, not to mention signing autographs for any crew members who hadn't gotten one yet. And then there was the unofficial after-party that Kijima would definitely try to rope both of the stars into (though Ren hoped they could avoid that). And getting through the press that lingered and back to their vehicles and through traffic on a Friday evening in Tokyo meant that they had to add another hour for transit. They would be lucky to get back home by 1:30 in the morning. He explained all of this to Kyoko and watched her change into a mask of dismay. She cringed at the thought of disturbing her landlords by coming home so late.
Ren hesitated. "If you don't want to disturb them, you're always welcome to stay over at my place." The actor kept his face neutral as he braced for Kyoko's immediate storm of denial.
But none came. Instead, Kyoko looked torn between relief and apprehension. "I— I don't know," she said at last, not looking at the actor. "Wouldn't I be disturbing you?"
She hadn't said no! Ren managed to hold back a celebratory whoop. He immediately assured her that no, she wouldn't be disturbing him at all. Did she forget how he told her she was welcome any time? Or perhaps she had forgotten that he had given her a key? In fact, it would be quite the opposite of disturbing him, since they would already be together and he wanted to see her the next day. And, Ren added, they wouldn't have to worry about waking up to meet each other if Kyoko wanted to catch up on some much needed sleep.
All of Ren's arguments were very logical. Kyoko could see his points. Plus, she wouldn't have to worry about waking her landlords. Part of her wanted to object on the grounds of propriety, berating herself internally for being so shameful as to even consider taking Ren up on his offer. But another part of Kyoko argued back: after all, she had already stayed at Ren's place before. He had a guest room. And she had even been at his house when he wasn't there (admittedly, not for very long, but still!). Surely taking him up on a very practical offer wasn't that bad, right? And if the part of Kyoko that was in favor of staying at Ren's had any ulterior motives, it stayed wisely silent about that.
"O-okay. I mean, if you're certain that it won't be a bother, then…" Kyoko's face felt like it was on fire. She wanted to bury herself in a hole. But the soft look that Ren gave her made all the embarrassment worth it.
The night of the premiere was cold. Which made sense the first week of December, but Kyoko hadn't really thought about the temperature when she had been picking out her dress. And of course, none of the jackets that she owned were nice enough to be worn with her dress. Fortunately, after doing her makeup and hair, Jelly Woods had pulled out a voluminous cloud-colored wrap and draped it elegantly over one of Kyoko's shoulders, tucking the other end around behind Kyoko and into the crook of her arm. The stylist then gave Kyoko one last thorough visual inspection before gushing that the teen looked radiant and sending her out the door.
Ren's car arrived just in front of Kyoko's, such that the two stars ended up arriving practically (but not technically) together. Ever the gentleman, Ren offered Kyoko his arm, helping guide her through the sea of camera flashes. It was the sort of thing he did frequently at premieres, since Tsuruga Ren never brought a date. Still, the reporters instantly exploded, shouting questions and demanding to know if this was an official announcement of their relationship and their first red carpet appearance together. Kyoko did her best to smile serenity as she blinked away the spots in her vision. She posed for photos, straining to hear the interviewers shouting her name and asking questions, responding when she could. After what felt like hours but was probably only forty-five minutes, Kyoko was grateful when she felt Ren steer her away from the throng and into the theater.
They took their seats. As the lights dimmed, Kyoko felt a swirling concoction of excitement and anxiety overtake her. She spent the first half of the movie screening wanting to sink out of her seat and onto the floor in a puddle of self-consciousness. At least the actress was able to watch and enjoy the few scenes that she hadn't been in. Kijima had done a surprisingly wonderful job with some of his solo scenes, and Ren's poignant longing as Hatori made her heart ache.
When the scene that was Mayuko and Hatori's first kiss began playing, Kyoko flinched with her whole body. But that was nothing compared to the heart-stopping terror she experienced a little while later when the camera cut to Mayuko and Hatori arriving at his apartment. Kyoko had to bite down on her knuckles to keep herself from screaming. The teen wanted to leap out of her chair, sprint up to the projector room and set it on fire, so that nobody would be able to watch. Kyoko still wasn't quite sure how she had managed to survive filming that day. After Ren had dropped her off at the Darumaya the evening before, Kyoko had locked herself in her room and tried to hypnotize herself into believing that she was really Mauko. When that failed, she tried to erase the existence of 'Mogami Kyoko' from her own mind. The teen had barely slept that night, adrenaline and willpower keeping her awake until the early hours of the morning until she passed out while still mouthing her lines for the next day. She had woken up a few hours later and arrived on set in a sleep-deprived haze, praying her efforts would be enough. Kyoko remembered nothing about filming the scene— she had completely blacked it out, like she wasn't even there.
Strangely, as the scene on screen progressed, the audience did not burst out into snide laughter. Kyoko risked a glance at the screen through her fingers. On the screen, Mayu-chan and Hatori fell onto the bed. It was a tasteful scene, hardly indecent, but it made her blush— there was no mistaking the implication. Kyoko was vaguely aware of Ren shifting ever so slightly in his seat next to her. She suddenly felt like a horrible pervert. Kyoko felt her entire face go hot. She shut her eyes, but it didn't help. The image on the screen had been enough to dredge up her memories, and Kyoko felt her whole body flush as she remembered exactly what it felt like to have Ren's strong, lean body on top of hers as her back was pressed against a mattress. Kyoko shivered, and the scene in her mind morphed: Ren's bedroom, his impossibly large bed, the familiar night tables, his face above her, the luxurious feel of his sheets. She curled up in her seat, trying to get her mind to picture anything else. Understanding her discomfort, Ren tapped her on the shoulder twice to let the actress know when the scene was over and she could watch again. But although her eyes were on the screen, Kyoko's mind remained elsewhere.
She snapped back to the present as the credits rolled and the last note of Sho's song faded out. The theater was silent for a moment, then burst into thunderous applause. The lights began to come on, and suddenly Kyoko was surrounded, everyone congratulating her and shaking her hand and asking her to talk to them later. She let herself float along with the dizzying crowd into the adjoining reception. To Kyoko's relief, Shingai stood up to make a speech and she felt the weight of the crowd's gaze shift to the director. The teen wanted to collapse into a corner. Just as she was contemplating sneaking away to hide in the bathroom, Kyoko felt a familiar hand on her arm. It was barely a moment, brief enough that it could have been just an accidental graze. But the look the actor gave her when she caught his eye told her otherwise. Kyoko smiled back, then squared her shoulders and stepped once more into the overwhelming crowd.
It was many hours before they were back at Ren's apartment. The actor's prediction about the reception and after-party and after-after-party had all been true— Kijima had cornered both of them, shoving champagne flutes into both of their hands and declaring he refused to let them go until they drank with him. In a moment of silent mutual understanding Kyoko and Ren had raised their glasses, cheered Kijima, and promptly downed their drinks, Kyoko grimacing as the drink left her mouth feeling strangely dry. Then Ren had unceremoniously tucked her arm into his and led her away, leaving a stunned Kijima behind them.
She wasn't sure how much of the ride back to Ren's apartment she had managed to stay awake for. Probably not much, if any. Kyoko felt like she blinked and then Ren was standing with her overnight bag already slung over his shoulder, his hand extended to help her out of the car. Kyoko accepted gratefully. Her feet ached from hours standing in her shoes. When they got to his apartment Ren unlocked the door and Kyoko stumbled inside, yawning widely. Ren knelt down in front of Kyoko and tapped the back of her calf, encouraging her to slide her leg towards him. Kyoko did so automatically and Ren lifted the hem of her dress, moving the delicate fabric carefully out of the way before he started to unbuckle the tiny strap that went around Kyoko's ankle and gently pulled off her shoe.
Kyoko was suddenly awake again.
"You don't have to— I can—" she stuttered, nearly colliding with Ren as she bent down to unbuckle her other shoe herself.
"Suit yourself," Ren said easily, backing off. Kyoko quickly yanked off the other shoe, lining the pair up neatly by the door as she always did before sliding into her guest slippers.
They both lingered in awkward silence in the hallway for a moment, Ren desperately groping for something to say to make the atmosphere seem normal and Kyoko trying to look anywhere but the man in front of her. After a few more seconds they both gave up. Kyoko said a stilted goodnight, thanking Ren with a bow, and in response Ren bent down to give Kyoko a kiss on the cheek to wish her a goodnight before they both turned and realized they had to walk in the same direction down the hall.
"Er, goodnight then," Ren said again once they had reached the guest room. He seemed to be getting less smooth by the minute. The actor handed Kyoko her bag and stepped back, deciding it was better to retreat down the hall to his own room than continue to linger and make a fool of himself. He shed his custom suit and hopped into the shower, to scrub away the hair gel and layers of red-carpet makeup and berate himself for his stupid behavior in prviate.
When Ren emerged from his master bathroom ten minutes later, he jumped. Kyoko was standing in his bedroom doorway, fidgeting.
"Sorry!" The actress said immediately. She began to mumble, "I… um…earlier, when…"
"Is everything okay? Do you need something?" Kyoko's face was pink, she was clearly embarrassed. Ren mentally ran through the list of supplies in the guest bathroom: was he out of anything essential? Had he forgotten to give her clean towels? He was about to ask when Kyoko shyly turned around, one hand holding her hair away from the back of her neck.
"My zipper… I can't reach it," she explained, looking over her shoulder at him while Ren struggled to swallow. "Could you—?"
Ren was across the room in an instant. His hands felt clumsy and sweaty as he bent down to look at the zipper. Part of him was urging him to pull the zipper all the way down, spin Kyoko around, and pick her up in his arms, leaving the dress in a crumpled pile on the floor. But this was Kyoko— she wasn't seducing him, she just couldn't get out of the dress on her own. It took him two tries to undo the tiny metal hook and eye at the top of the zipper. Ren was unaware that he let out a long, shaking breath as he inched the zipper down, wanting to give Kyoko plenty of time to step away or tell him to stop. He pulled it down to her mid-back and realized abruptly that Kyoko wasn't wearing a bra. When Ren reached just above her waist, Kyoko took a half-step away from him and he dropped his hands instantly.
"Thank you," Kyoko said, repositioning her hands to modestly hold the dress to her skin. "I'll be right back."
Ren had no idea why she said those words. He was still standing in the same place, pondering what the teen could possibly have meant, when Kyoko reappeared in her pajamas with the dress on a familiar hanger.
"Thank you very much for lending this to me," she said with a bow. Then she held out the dress to him.
"I didn't lend it. It was a gift."
"It's much too nice for me to keep," Kyoko protested quietly.
"What am I going to do with it?" He argued. "Keep it."
"I couldn't possibly keep something so expensive!"
"Kyoko, look— I understand you don't approve of my spending habits." Ren gave her a wry smile. "I know you think I'm frivolously throwing my money away, but I can afford to buy you that dress. I would easily pay a hundred times more if there was something you wanted." Kyoko nearly choked and was about to protest, but Ren fixed her with a stare. Then he sighed and took the dress from her and laid it on top of his dresser. Ren sat down on his bed and looked at the actress firmly. "This is not me taking it back. I'm just putting it here because I'm too lazy to walk it back to the guest room," Ren said sternly.
Kyoko said nothing. She shifted back and forth, biting her lip. Ren motioned her closer and Kyoko took a hesitant step forward, her hand reaching out automatically to find his. Ren smiled, threading their fingers together. Sitting on the edge of his bed with her standing in front of him, Ren actually had to look up at her slightly. Kyoko still seemed to be deliberating something, and Ren waited silently. Eventually she spoke.
"Are you sure?" she asked, glancing back towards Ren's dresser and the dress on top.
"Yes," Ren said with finality. He flopped back onto his bed, thankful she had acquiesced so quickly and making a mental note to check all of his closets tomorrow before Kyoko left, just in case she tried to sneakily give it back to him.
Ren's eyes were closed and he thought he must really be tired, since it sounded like Kyoko's soft footsteps were getting closer instead of farther away. Then he felt the mattress dip slightly and Ren pushed up abrupt to his elbows, his eyes wide. Kyoko was perched on the edge of his bed, looking at him seriously. Ren sat all the way up. Her eyes scanned his face for a moment, and then Kyoko leaned in, her eyes beginning to close as she tugged at Ren's shirt, pulling him down to meet her.
"Thank you," Kyoko said softly as she pulled back from the kiss. She shifted as if to stand and Ren made a decision, squeezing her hand where it rested on the mattress under his. She looked at him.
"Kyoko." Ren took a breath. "I— have something to tell you." Sensing the gravity of his gaze, Kyoko shifted and took both of Ren's hands in her own, her warm fingers wrapped around his palms. Ren looked down at their hands together, steeling himself. He could do this. He took a deep breath and looked at her. "I love you."
"You've told me already that," Kyoko gave him a teasing smile, trying to lighten the mood. He was being so serious. Kyoko bit her lip, about to lose her nerve. She screwed her eyes shut, shaking her head to clear out her doubt before looking at Ren again, seriously this time. "I love you, too, R-ren," Kyoko managed to say almost without stuttering. "-san. Ren-san," she added, her face turning red. The actor was looking at her as though he had been turned into stone. "Sorry! I just — sorry! I won't do it again."
"Say it again." Ren's grip on her hands was so tight it was almost painful.
"I'm sorry!" Kyoko cried, wincing.
"No, not— you love me?" Ren asked, his voice desperate. Kyoko nodded. Her eyes were shut again, but she felt Ren's hand leave hers to brush a finger under her chin. "Please, Kyoko— say it again."
"I l-love you," Kyoko said.
"While looking at me?" Ren asked, his voice a mix of amusement and begging.
Kyoko opened her eyes. Her whole face was red, and to her surprise, Ren's cheeks were faintly pink as well. She even thought the tips of his ears were red. "I l-love you."
Ren wanted to ask for one more time, with his name. But he refrained. It was enough, for now. He pulled her to his chest, Kyoko squeaking, and Ren remembered to ease his grip so he didn't crush her.
"I love you, Kyoko. So much." Ren's voice sounded like he was almost in pain, and all Kyoko could think to do was to wrap her arms around him tightly as she tried her best to mimic the soothing motion that Ren's hands so often made as she rubbed his back.
Kyoko waited for Ren to pull away, but he made no move to let her go. After a minute, Kyoko was feeling a little smothered. The air was hot and it was hard to breathe with her face directly pressed against him. She fidgeted and Ren relaxed his grip ever so slightly, letting her get comfy. Then with his arms still wrapped around her waist, Ren leaned back, his side hitting the mattress with a soft thud. Kyoko found her cheek nestled against his chest. She breathed in the familiar scent of him and felt herself relax. The steady thump of Ren's heartbeat was the last thing she heard as she drifted off to sleep.