63 points. 63 measly points. After weeks of reading, analysis, notes, meetings, and discussion, he had given her a 63. Kanae had never gotten such a low grade in her life. On anything. She fumed. How dare he. How dare he?! Who did that manager think he was, complimenting her memory and her insight and work on the project, and then turning around and giving her 63 points. It was insulting. No, it was beyond insulting. She would be damned if she let Yashiro give her such a crappy score after she had done all that work — for free! It wasn't like she was even paid for most Love Me Section work, despite her demanding schedule as a professional actress. Kanae's pride demanded satisfaction. That manager owed her an explanation. And a score adjustment. And a hefty apology. And Kanae was going to get them.
Except that suddenly, Yashiro was conspicuously absent. Normally Kanae ran into Tsuruga Ren's manager at LME with suspicious frequency — the actor and his manager always seemed to be lurking around the Love Me Section, despite Tsuruga Ren being Japan's most popular star. You would think the number one actor in the country would have somewhere else important to be, Kanae thought. Yet suddenly, although Tsuruga was still around, the manager was nowhere to be seen. When Kanae finally managed to catch him in the hallway one evening, she pounced.
"YOU!" Her voice and footsteps echoed down the empty corridor. Yashiro froze. He slowly turned around, finding himself face to face with the angriest glare he had seen since watching Kyoko play Mio on the set of Dark Moon.
"Kotonami-san, er… what a pleasant surprise." Yashiro swallowed nervously. "What can I do for you?"
In response, Kanae shoved her Love Me stamp book almost directly into the manager's face. The page would have made contact with his nose had he not leaned back in time.
"Er, I can't actually read when it's so close to—"
"You yourself said that my help was 'truly invaluable'," Kanae interrupted. She continued to glare as the manager stepped back enough to make eye contact over the heart-shaped notebook. "So you will explain why, if my help was so invaluable, you decided to give me an F."
"A 63 is not an F, it's a D." Yashiro replied calmly. "And technically speaking, I believe the Love Me Section does not use letter grades."
"I did everything you asked!" She said, voice rising.
"You told me you couldn't have done it without me!" Kanae was furious.
"It's true, I couldn't. You read and remembered more scripts than I could ever hope to, and your perspective as an actress during our conversations was extremely useful." His calm, professional demeanor surprised Kanae. She had expected the manager to crack under the weight of her displeasure. "However," he continued, "you also made it very clear during our meetings that you thought it was a huge imposition on your time—"
"You're in the Love Me Section," Yashiro countered. "There is an expectation that the task is never simply about completing what is asked, but about the attitude with which you approach it." Yashiro studied Kanae over his glasses for a moment, as if daring her to contradict him. She visibly seethed, but made no reply. He continued. "I am aware that it was a significant time burden. And you did an excellent job in your analysis. I have no complaints about the actual work that you did. But you made it perfectly clear that you resented the project and thought it was a waste of your time. You were late to our meetings on more than one occasion. Not to mention that time you didn't show at all."
"I forgot!" the actress cried, immediately defensive. "I have a busy schedule too, and I don't have a manager. Besides, you were always asking to meet at the last minute."
"Those are fair points, but they are also excuses." Yashiro maintained. Then he grinned at her. "And also your handwriting. Penmanship counts."
"Penmanship counts?! What am I, a grade-schooler?"
"When the task includes note-taking, then it is important that those notes be legible. And your handwriting leaves a lot to be desired."
Kanae fumed silently. The manager watched in amusement as her brow twitched angrily. He raised both eyebrows.
"Do you have any other complaints?" He asked.
"Yes." Kanae ground her teeth. "Even if I were to accept that some of your points are valid, which I do not," she emphasized, "I still deserved a better score than this."
Yashiro sighed. He looked down the hallway, then pushed his glasses up. The manager fiddled with his briefcase. "Perhaps you're right," he admitted, not quite meeting her eye. "If you hadn't spent so much of our time together making it plain that you'd rather be anywhere else, I would have probably given you a better score." He met her eyes with a firm gaze. "But still not perfect."
"But it would have been better." Kanae argued. She wanted to stamp her foot. "That's not fair!"
Yashiro once again raised his eyebrows. "This is show business. I think you're well aware of the fact that it is not, and never has been, fair." He glanced at his watch, then back at the actress in front of him. While internally Kanae admitted that he might have a point, nothing outside gave away her thoughts. She still looked indignant. But even annoyed, she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Yashiro sighed. "Let me make it up to you," he offered.
"You'll amend my score?" she asked immediately.
"No." Yashiro shook his head. "I'm sorry, my score is final. But let me buy you dinner, as a… peace offering."
Kanae's eyes narrowed. "That's not much of an offer."
"Not at LA Hearts," Yashiro amended. "A real dinner."
Kanae paused, considering. Part of her immediately wanted to refuse — she had intended to settle for nothing less than an additional 20 points and a full apology. Technically, the manager had said he was sorry. But she hadn't expected him to be so… resolved. The look in his eyes behind his glasses said that he was not going to up her score, no matter what Kanae said or did. So she may as well take a free dinner. Not that it was going to earn him forgiveness in her book. Kanae glowered. "I can't believe Kyoko thinks you're nice." She said at last.
"I am nice." Yashiro countered. "I am so nice that I'm offering to buy you dinner, knowing there's a possibility you'll use the whole time to berate me for what you think is an arbitrary and unfair scoring system."
"You just admitted that it is an arbitrary and unfair scoring system!"
Yashiro shrugged. "Take it up with the President, then." He smiled when Kanae immediately backed off. There was no way the actress was going to complain to Takarada.
"I'll order the most expensive thing on the menu," Kanae threatened. But it did not have the intended effect. Instead, the manager actually smiled.
"You can order whatever you'd like." Before Kanae could protest, Yashiro was already pulling out his phone, snapping on a glove to call a car and check for online reservations. "They have a table."
"What? Right now?" Kanae asked, taken aback. Yashiro gave her an amused smile.
"Why, do you have plans?"
"Great. Then let's go."
It seemed like before Kanae could blink, Yashiro was paying the taxi and she found herself on the sidewalk in a trendy upscale neighborhood outside a sleek, modern-looking restaurant. Yashiro held open the door for her and Kanae swept past him, pretending to be unimpressed. If he thought that a popular new restaurant with fashionable interior design and flattering lighting was going to soothe her temper, Kanae was going to show him just how wrong he was.
She sat across from Yashiro, her arms crossed over her chest. The actress was determined to keep up the marked disinterest and annoyance that Yashiro had explained as the reason for her disappointing score. Even if the logical side of her brain could acknowledge that he had some valid points, Kanae was still annoyed, and she intended to make her annoyance known for the entirety of the meal.
Except that the man across from her was making it incredibly hard to keep up her sour attitude. When the menus arrived and it was clear the restaurant was serving small plates, she was caught between four equally intriguing sounding dishes. As if sensing her indecision, Yashiro had suggested they share and ordered two of the plates Kanae had been eyeing, leaving her free to order the other two she had wanted to try. And then he had asked her about how her work was going, listening attentively and asking questions. Kanae was so caught up in the conversation she hardly noticed when the waiter came by with their food. And as they ate, the topic shifted. Yashiro asked about her hobbies, her interests, her life in general. She learned that Yashiro grown up with pets, and that he had siblings who — from his fond tone and description — were normal, functioning adults that he apparently got along well with. Kanae sighed with envy as she thought of her own useless, carefree family members.
It wasn't until the waiter cleared their plates away that Kanae realized she wasn't annoyed. Actually, she was enjoying herself. That thought did make her annoyed. She had accepted Yashiros' invitation with the intent of ordering the most expensive thing on the menu just to spite him and then eating her free dinner in stony silence. But instead, Kanae had forgotten about her sullen mood. They had spent the entire meal chatting. And not only had she not ordered the most expensive dish, they had even split plates! It was unacceptable.
As if he could read her thoughts, Yashiro smiled nervously.
"Thoughts on dessert?"
"Don't try and distract me." Kanae said.
"Distract you?" The manager offered weakly.
"I'm still upset about my score."
"Right. That." Yashiro sighed, then motioned wearily. "Alright, let me have it then. Tell me how tedious it is to spend time with me."
Kanae wanted to yell at him. Or rather, she wanted to want to yell at him. But somehow, she couldn't find it in herself to do it. The manager was just too… honest. Trying to be angry at him felt like trying to be angry at a puppy.
"It's not tedious." She said at last.
"Most of the time, you really resented having to be in my presence."
Kanae shifted uncomfortably in her chair. She started to answer, but wasn't quite sure what to say. She was an actress. Of course, she would rather be acting than doing odd jobs for the Love Me section. Wasn't that obvious? It wasn't personal. "I didn't mind working with you." Kanae said at last, halfway under her breath.
"You didn't mind." Yashiro said blankly. "Wow. Thanks."
"I'd rather be spending my time on set." Kanae said, a bit defensively.
"It's fine. I understand." The manager replied, with a small but genuine grin. "You don't have time for anything but acting."
"What else is there?" Kanae asked.
"For you, apparently nothing." Yashiro's mouth quirked in a half smile. Then he pulled a pen out of his jacket pocket. "I've changed my mind." He gestured towards Kanae's purse, where the cursed pink Love Me stamp book peeked out.
"But…" Kanae stopped. She shouldn't question it. Except… "I thought you said you weren't going to…" she trailed off.
"I know," The manager coughed. "But I've changed my mind. I stand by my comments, but maybe my grading was a bit harsh. You're really passionate about your career, and it's not fair to punish you for that." It was hard to see in the dim light of the restaurant, but Kanae thought he looked a tiny bit flushed. "And maybe it's because I like you," he added softly.
Kanae handed over the stamp book mutely, her brain trying to process. He just said.. But did he mean...? Her thoughts seemed to be playing in an endless, useless loop.
"There." Yashiro said, capping his pen. He handed the notebook back to her. "Acceptable?"
Kanae looked down. The manager had clumsily turned the 6 into a scribbly-looking 8, and added a surprisingly cute cartoon of himself doing a little thumbs up, with a speech bubble reading 'excellent work'.
"I..." Kanae trailed off. This was not what she had been expecting. She swallowed. "You didn't have to..."
"You earned it." Yashiro replied, motioning for the check and shaking his head when Kanae reached for hers. "It's fine. I told you, dinner is my treat." Yashiro took care of the bill, then reached for his jacket. When Kanae stood, he held her coat for her, his fingers brushing her bare shoulders when she slipped her arms into the sleeves. But then Yashiro stepped back, immediately at a polite distance.
"Thank you for dinner." Kanae said, feeling strangely self-conscious.
"It was my pleasure." Yashiro replied, letting her lead the way out of the restaurant. As they stood on the sidewalk, Kanae thought again that the manager's face was ever so slightly pink. "Kotonami-san, I…" Yashiro cleared his throat. "I know you're focusing on your career. But if you ever want to talk about work, or projects, or prospective parts, or auditions, or just your life, and you want to get dinner, you... have my number." The manager's cheeks were now definitely a tiny bit red.
"Oh." Was all Kanae managed to say. "Uh..."
Yashiro laughed. "Don't sound too eager."
"No, it's not—" Kanae cut herself off. She didn't have a manager of her own. And Yashiro had been in the business for years, managing Ren — the number one star in all of Japan. Yashiro knew producers, directors, studio executives. He knew the industry. It was honestly a really great offer, one that she seriously would like to take advantage of if she could. "That's a really nice offer."
"But?" Yashiro asked, sensing her hesitation.
"But…" Kanae scanned his face, watching his reaction. "I'm not… looking to date anyone right now."
Yashiro smile was warm, even as his shoulder slumped ever so slightly. "I know."
"And… I'm not going to change my mind." Kanae added, her voice low but firm. She fought the urge to fidget. It was impossible not to feel awkward. Not that she wanted him to like her, she thought to herself. Just because it would have been embarrassing, if she had misread the situation.
"I didn't think you would." He replied lightly. If his voice was ever so slightly strained, they both ignored it. He continued on. "I know you're focused on acting. I respect that. I wasn't really expecting any kind of positive reply." The smile he gave her was a bit forced, but his tone was genuine. "I hope that we can still be friendly. Someone has to make sure that you occasionally eat dinner."
Kanae met Yashiro's face. His sincere, open gaze made her feel awkward, and she looked away. "Well in that case," she said, "maybe I'll… take you up on your offer sometime."
"I hope you will." Yashiro gave her another genuine smile, but Kanae had trouble meeting his eyes. He hailed a cab for her, insisting on paying the fare back to her apartment. Kanae briefly thought about declining his offer, but then she remembered how expensive taxis were in Tokyo and politely thanked him before hopping in immediately and giving the driver her address. She spent the ride back unaware of the troubled frown on her face. She had gotten her score adjusted. The manager had apologized. And Kanae had gotten a free meal. Better yet, she had gotten an offer of help and advice from the manager of LME's most important star. By all measures, Kanae should have felt proud. Accomplished. Successful. So why did she feel so unsatisfied? And why couldn't Kanae seem to stop herself from remembering Yashiro's soft smile as he spoke about his family? Or the way his voice had sounded when he said 'maybe it's because I like you'?
Kanae was still pondering as she fell asleep.
Kyoko had easily assured her landlady that it was no problem for her to find another place to stay. And really, she wasn't worried about Moko-san refusing. Moko-san was actually incredibly kind and thoughtful beneath her prickly exterior, not to mention practical: she wouldn't want Kyoko to spend money renting a hotel room. And besides, they were best friends. And Kyoko had stayed over at Kanae's house before. But still, no matter how desperate the circumstances that had led to their previous sleepovers or how pushy Kyoko had been, there was a very big difference between being invited to someone's house and inviting yourself. And Kyoko was very polite, and did not want to impose (despite, again, her being fairly certain that Moko-san would not mind too much). Kyoko was more than ready to clean and cook and stay up late doing face masks and braiding Kanae's gorgeous dark hair.
Still, asking was nerve wracking.
"Of course you can stay at my place." Kanae said automatically. "As long as you don't mind that it's a bit crowded." She winced a little, thinking about cramming yet another person into the already-bursting Kotonami-household. And how much weight she would gain if Kyoko was her personal chef for a long weekend. "I gotta go, break is over. Text me a reminder so I know what days it is." Then Kanae snapped her phone shut without so much as a goodbye, cutting off Kyoko's profusion of gratitude mid-sentence. It was probably for the best, Kyoko decided. She could express her gratitude better in person, by making all of Moko-san's favorite dishes as a thank you.
With her living situation for Golden Week settled, Kyoko could breathe easier. She checked the time, then applied a tiny bit of lip gloss and nervously smoothed her hands over her skirt.
Ren knocked twice loudly on the open door, then popped his head into the Love Me Room. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yes!" Kyoko chirped, gathering her bag. "Where are we going?"
"It's a surprise." Ren paused. "You're not afraid of heights, are you?"
It was a short drive from LME to their destination: one of the city's many skyscrapers, where fifty-five storeys up the floor-to-ceiling windows offered a perfect panoramic view of Tokyo, and Kyoko marveled as she watched the neighboring buildings shimmer in the sunset. The sun was a glowing red smudge, faintly obscured by the city's haze, dipping towards the horizon and painting the clouds with streaks of orange and violet. They took the elevator up to an observation deck on the roof, where Kyoko felt like she was on top of the world. It was windy, and Kyoko had to keep tucking strands of hair back away from her face as she leaned over the railing, peering down the dizzying height to the street below and feeling slightly faint. Ren put a steadying hand on her shoulder, and the actress smiled up at him, then shivered abruptly. Ren draped his jacket over her shoulders and they stood side by side, watching as the last of the warm light faded and the coolness of twilight descended on Tokyo.
Ren always insisted on paying for everything, telling Kyoko that he wanted to treat her, and that her trying to guess the cost and pay him back was rude. Only Moko-san's insistence that Kyoko was being silly had made her give up. And so far, all of their dates had been relatively inexpensive. As far as Kyoko was aware. She would never have thought that the sunset observation deck was oddly empty because Tsuruga Ren had bought out almost all the tickets for their visit time.
"Are you hungry?" He asked her.
As if responding for her, Kyoko's stomach grumbled lightly. She flushed red, nodding. Ren's eyes danced, but he didn't tease her about it, instead holding out his hand. Kyoko hesitated for just a moment, turning even more red (if that was possible), before grabbing his hand. Ren gave her hand a reassuring squeeze as he led them both back to the elevator and down to his car.
They ended up back at Ren's apartment for dinner. On Yashiro's advice, they had saved dining out for lunchtime or odd hours, when the paparazzi was less likely to be looking for celebrities. Kyoko was happy to cook, but this night Ren had insisted on getting takeout.
"You shouldn't have to cook all the time." He said.
"But I don't mind!" Kyoko argued. "I like cooking! And it's healthier and less expensive than ordering out all of the time."
Ren had given her a sad pout. "You won't let me buy you dinner?"
Kyoko had immediately given in. She couldn't not give in, when he looked at her with Cain's sad puppy face. But it wasn't fair! Her grudge demons protested. He was playing dirty. The serene smile that he had given her after she gave in had obliterated several of the angry spirits on the spot. Luckily the food soon arrived, giving Kyoko some time to recover from his divine light.
"I hope you like it," Ren said, placing the dishes down on his western-style dining room table. "I've heard the restaurant is good, and I wanted to get you something special."
Kyoko tilted her head. "Why?"
Ren's eyes twinkled. "Do you know what day it is?"
"April 17th?" Kyoko said, suddenly unsure.
"It's our one-month anniversary." Ren said. "Well, almost. A few days late."
Kyoko flushed. Ren had said anniversary. Had they really already been dating, for a whole month? It seemed both too long and too short. Kyoko twisted her fingers nervously in her lap.
"It's… you didn't have to…" Kyoko began, stuttering. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do. Did couples celebrate dating anniversaries? Which ones? Every month? There was so much she didn't know. Kyoko felt her brain start to panic. As if he could see her thoughts, Ren reached out for one of her hands.
"It's fine. I wanted to celebrate, that's all. I feel like I've barely gotten to see you this last week."
"We saw each other in the President's office on Tuesday." Kyoko said meekly, not making eye contact. Ren smiled.
"That's true. But that doesn't really count." Ren replied. They finished dinner and relocated to Ren's couch, both mindful of the clock ticking away on the living room wall and the Taisho's firm warning that Ren should not bring her home too late. Ren tried to pretend he wasn't already dreading the countdown to when they would have to leave, to make sure he dropped Kyoko off by 10:30.
"How is your debut coming along? Any updates?" He asked. Ren had sat down far enough away to give her some personal space, but easily within reach so that when he readjusted and turned towards her his knee brushed her skirt.
Kyoko shook her head. "I'm still waiting while Matsushima-san and Sawara-san decide what section I'll be in once I debut. And I still have some other projects that I'm thinking of auditioning for. What about you, um, Ren-san?" Kyoko asked, her voice softening. Ren smiled. They had been going out for a month, but Kyoko still felt shy whenever she called him by his first name. He had tried getting her to call him just Ren, and the teen had turned bright red, stuttering and shaking her head so furiously that Ren had been worried for her neck. So he was Ren-san. Yashiro had rolled his eyes at Ren's happy smile when the manager first heard Kyoko, muttering something about insignificant progress. But any progress was still progress, no matter how small, and it warmed the actor's heart to hear Kyoko say Ren-san.
"Mmn, nothing in particular to report." He smiled at her. "My schedule has been a little lighter recently. Actually," Ren added, "I think I'll have almost all of Golden Week free."
"Well, not all of it. But a few days." Ren amended. "Do you have any plans?"
"I'm staying with Moko-san!" Kyoko said happily, her eyes lighting up the way they always did when Love Me Member #2 was mentioned.
"Oh? Are you having a sleepover?" Ren asked.
"No! Well, yes, kind of—" Kyoko said. It was a bit embarrassing to admit that she had basically invited herself over to Kanae's because she needed a place to stay. But she stumbled through it, explaining how her landlords were going out of town and how she would need to stay somewhere else for a few nights. As she spoke, Kyoko felt the unmistakable sharpness of Ren's fake gentlemanly aura. She trailed off. "...Ren-san? What's wrong?"
Ren internally cursed, wondering how Kyoko could always seem to sense when he was mad, yet it had taken her months to realize that he had feelings for her. In some ways, she could see right through him, and then sometimes she was impossibly dense.
"Why didn't you come to me for help?" Ren asked.
"Why didn't you tell me you needed a place to stay?" Ren clarified, trying to keep his voice even.
"Why would I do that?" Kyoko was genuinely bewildered. What was Tsuruga-san going to do, demand that the Daruma-ya owners not take a vacation? "I didn't want to trouble you."
"You wouldn't be troubling me."
"But," Kyoko hesitated, "having a houseguest is… I couldn't possibly impose on you!"
"But you're fine imposing on Kotonami-san." He stated.
"Moko-san is my best friend! I knew she would say okay since I needed a place!"
"And I wouldn't?" Ren struggled to keep the rising frustration out of his voice. Was it so hard for Kyoko to rely on him? He struggled. "Do you not… trust me?" He asked at last, hurt.
"Why didn't you tell me you needed a place to stay?"
"Because…" Kyoko "it's too much to ask!"
"It's not too much to ask." Ren reached out to take her hands in his. "You're my girlfriend. I want you to ask me for help."
"But… I rely on Tsuruga-san too much!" Kyoko said nervously, reverting back to her old manners accidentally. Ren gave her a look. "Sorry."
"You don't have to apologize." Ren said calmly. "I'm not mad."
Kyoko muttered something under her breath.
"I'm not." Ren insisted. "I just wish that you had come to me."
Kyoko looked up at him, her head tilted. "And said what?" she asked, clearly confused.
"If you needed a place to stay, you can always stay here." Ren replied.
"I can't do that!" came Kyoko's panicked reply.
"Is that because… you wouldn't feel comfortable?" Ren struggled not to feel hurt. "Kyoko, I would never —"
"It's not that!" Kyoko cut him off. Her face was steaming, and she couldn't look at him. "It's— I can't— at a man's house—" Kyoko spluttered.
At a man's house. So, she does see me as a man after all. Ren couldn't help the smile that crept onto his face.
"You know, I have a guest room," he said, amused. "Which I think you're aware of, since you've stayed in it before."
"That's different!" Kyoko exclaimed. She really couldn't believe he was smiling. This playboy!
"Is it?" Ren asked slyly. "We stayed in the same room as Cain and Setsu and you seemed perfectly fine with—"
"IT'S DIFFERENT AND YOU KNOW IT IS!" Kyoko finally looked at Ren, her face red and indignant, to see him holding back a smile. Her face instantly went dark. "You're making fun of me."
"Yes you are." She grumbled. Kyoko pulled her hands away, wrapping them around her knees and scooching away to the far side of the couch. Truthfully, she was embarrassed. Here she was, worked up over the idea that he would even suggest that she stay over at his place, and yet Ren seemed perfectly normal. As if it was a regular suggestion that made sense. As if she could just waltz into his apartment and make herself at home, and that would be fine with him!
Which it would, actually. Better than fine. Ren had never realized how little he cared about his apartment, and how large and empty it felt, until Kyoko started spending time in it. And then he wished that she would stay all the time. But he wisely kept that sentiment to himself.
"Kyoko, I'm sorry." Ren said softly. "Won't you please look at me?"
The actress turned her head, a Mio-like glare directly at him. Ren swallowed.
"I mean it when I say that I want you to come to me for help. And of course, you're always welcome here, whenever you'd like, regardless of if you need a place to stay or not." He continued. "But I would never want to make you uncomfortable, or feel like you have to do something you're not ready for. If you want to stay with Kotonami-san, then that's fine." He added, "although I hope that I can see you for at least a few days, during Golden Week."
Kyoko was silent. But at least her face was back to normal. She seemed to be looking at him nervously. Ren checked the time, and stood, offering her a hand up. Kyoko blinked twice before accepting, and letting Ren help her to her feet.
The drive back to the Daruma-ya was quiet. Both actors were lost in their own thoughts. Ren pulled into the alley, putting the car in park and hopping out open Kyoko's door. She was so lost in thought that she absently took his hand and held it all the way to the back door of the restaurant. Ren waited, but Kyoko was silent.
"It's getting late, you should go inside." He said finally, reluctance creeping into his voice even as he continued to hold her hand. Kyoko blushed down at their intertwined fingers.
She beckoned him forward with one hand, and Ren leaned down, waiting to hear what she had to say. But instead, Kyoko's eyes flashed with a strange determination, and she reached out a hand up to cup his cheek, pulling his face towards her own until their lips met softly. The tall actor was so surprised that for a second, he forgot to close his eyes. Then they slid shut, so that all Ren could focus on was the feeling of Kyoko's lips on his own, her hand on his cheek, and the sweet scent of her shampoo.
She pulled back a few seconds later, her cheeks pink.
"Happy one month anniversary" she whispered, before slipping inside the door.