I sincerely apologize to all of the readers of Ai no Manga. I didn't mean to take so long. I want to give a big THANK YOU to all the patient reviewers. You brought me back. Hopefully you're still interested in my story and will keep on reading. In the meantime, please enjoy my little offering. Standard disclaimers apply.
Rei had made it all the way to the street before she realized that she had left her design pad and turned around to retrieve it. She opened the apartment door, and imagined she saw a blur of motion in the corner of her eye. "Hey!" she called to her brother and roommate. "I can't believe I forgot my sketchbook." She raced to her room for the pad and was on her way out again when she realized that Darien and Serena didn't tease her about her absent-mindedness, or even acknowledge her presence for that matter. She backtracked to look at them. "Is everything alright?"
"Everything's fine, Rei," Darien answered. His gaze hadn't moved once from Serena's face since his sister came in.
"Yeah," agreed Serena, and avoiding Darien's stare, "we we're just talking about this stupid movie." She gestured to the movie currently playing. "You know, the usual. I'm trying to get him to turn it off."
"Huh," Rei murmured. "Just thought I'd ask," she continued, "I thought I felt some strange vibes a minute ago. I figured you two were about to argue again, or something," she called as she opened the door. "Well, I'll see you two later!"
Serena literally felt Darien's intense eyes on her. She still hadn't been able to look at him . She turned her attention back the TV after Rei walked out, and stared intensely at the screen. Feeling uncomfortable after a few moments, she jumped up, "I'm going to get something to drink." She hurried to the kitchen. "Want anything?" she yelled.
"We need to talk, Serena," Darien called out to her.
"No, we don't!" she quickly responded.
He got up to follow her in the kitchen. "Yes, Serena, we do. I--"
"I need to get that!" Serena frantically reached to answer the phone. "Moshi moshi?"
"Serena?" a disembodied voice asked.
"Diana!" Serena squealed. She turned away from Darien. "Oh, my God! I've been trying to reach either you or the girls for days! Where have you been?"
"I'm sorry, Serena. The cafe's been unusually busy these past few days. We've been catering to a few movie sets! You'll never guess who I met!!"
"You guys are catering now? Wow! What studio?"
Darien was patiently waiting for Serena to end her phone call. He desperately needed to talk with her. On hearing Serena's end of the conversation, he guessed that she was talking to one of her friends in America.
Serena looked over at her guest. "Hold on a minute, Diana." She turned to Darien. "I'm sorry, Darien. I don't get to hear from my friends from home too often."
Although disappointed, Darien, wanting to stay on her good side, agreed. "That's fine, Serena. You talk to your friend." He reached over and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "We can continue our conversation tomorrow, after work." He walked out of the kitchen. "I'll left myself out," he called to her.
Serena waited until she heard him leave. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to try to calm her racing heart, and shook off her thoughts about what took place earlier. She returned her attention back to the phone. "Hey, Diana, I'm back. So tell me what's been going on."
"Everyone's here. Let me put you on the speaker. Say hello everyone!"
After twenty minutes of group conversation, Serena held individual conversations with all of the girls and Luna. She found out that Mina and Malachi recently started dating. They had both been dancing around each other even when Serena was still in California. Finally fed up, Mina made the first move and told Malachi that they were going on a date. He calmly told her that he'd pick her up at her place for dinner. He took her to a nice restaurant and somehow got tickets to see a 'Dancing with the Stars' taping. She loved it!
Lita started focusing on being pastry chef, and was even now designing her wedding cake and giving tasting samples to Nicholas. He was steadily gaining weight, but Lita's food was so tasty that he didn't mind. Lita was now trying to come up with a delicious low-fat recipe that would satisfy healthy eaters but please the general masses at her wedding as well.
Amy was seeing a mysterious rich guy named Zachary who she met at the doctor's clinic. Although he met the group of friends and sometimes went out with them, no one knew too much about him. He mostly talked with Amy and Malachi. He was such a reserved person. She made Amy promise to email all of the details and a picture.
Jedi was the only one in the group single and loving it. He teased the guys every chance he got about how whooped they were. The guys were too happy in their respective relationships to take him seriously.
Diana was the biggest surprise. She met Ian Adams, a famous actor and current heartthrob of the silver screen. Diana had a huge crush on him, and even liked him before he got so famous. It was at his set that Lunar Dimensions Cafe was catering. Ian liked his order so much that he promised to drop by the cafe so see what else was on the menu. Diana graciously thanked him for the compliments, and gave him her business card. She waited until the coast was clear before excitingly doing her happy dance.
Serena caught them up with what was going on with her, excluding this evening's events. She still had to sort them out in her own mind. She talked about what Rei was doing for the night. Rei had been inducted into the group, even if by phone. She couldn't wait to meet them in person. Serena concluded the long distance conversation with Luna, and promised that, yes, she was still making her weekly phone calls to her mother, Sera Carroll. Luna's maternal instincts were sharpened when it came to the group. She knew how she would feel if Diana moved so far away, and made sure everyone was considerate of their respective parents' feelings.
Serena was extremely choked up when she hung up. While being in Tokyo was great, she had been there nearly seven months already, tonight she especially missed her family and friends. She went into her room and cried herself to sleep.
The next day
Darien was irritated. And worried.
When Serena hadn't shown up on time, he assumed it was her usual tardiness. But after half an hour he was concerned. He was about to call her apartment when Motoki strolled in to inform him about Serena calling in sick.
Serena? Sick? She hadn't been sick a day since they'd met. She had to be avoiding him. What other reason could there be? Not even during their harshest fights did she skip work. She loved it too much. Was it because he--
"Hey, Darien", walked in Motoki, "did you see the memo about the meeting Ito-san's called? I wonder what she wants to talk about this time."
"It's probably about the progress of the new manga. I heard she was really pleased with what the department is doing."
"Hopefully we'll receive nothing but commendation. Anyway, anything new happened last night at Rei and Serena's?"
Darien was quiet a few moments. He had thought of nothing else after he returned home. He was really hoping to see Serena today. Maybe take her to lunch to discuss the night before. He looked up at his best friend and sighed. "It's a long story, Motoki."
Motoki took a good look at Darien. "Wow," he said, "I sure could use a break," said Motoki as he stretched and cracked his knuckles. "Let's go to the lounge for some coffee and talk."
"You haven't talked to her yet?"
"I haven't had the chance," Darien answered. "She's avoiding me, Motoki. It's been almost a week since that night, and I can't get her alone. I've been over to the girls' apartment a few times and there's no answer. Rei's harder to contact these days now that she's got her own fashion line, and I'm pretty sure that Serena is screening my phone calls. I've left messages on the machine, and you know how I feel about those things," Darien shook his head.
Motoki thought for a minute. "Maybe you should call her in here," he suggested.
"I was really hoping to avoid bringing this up at work. Besides, Serena's making sure that she's constantly surrounded by people."
"Try ambushing her after work. She has to leave the building sometime."
Darien looked through his office window at the object of their conversation. As if she felt is gaze, Serena looked up and quickly away.
Serena knew he was plotting something. So far, she had been able to avoid talking to him. She just wasn't ready. She hadn't told anyone what happened that night either. Motoki knew, though. He always knew. Any moment now he was going to confront her about the whole avoidance issue. But not today!
"I'm gonna leave a little early today." Serena was hurriedly straightening her workstation while keeping an eye out for Motoki, who had stepped out. Darien had to unexpectedly fill in for a meeting across town. Perfect timing. "Rei caught a bug and now I'm not feeling too good either." Not quite a lie.
"Are you alright? I noticed you haven't been yourself all week. You even missed Monday. Have you been to the doctor?"
"No, I'm sure it's not that serious," Serena assured her friend. "I'm just going to go home and rest." She picked up her things and walked to Yoshimi's workstation. "Will you let Motoki know? I don't see him around."
"Sure," said Yoshimi. She squeezed Serena's hand. "Call me if you need anything."
Serena smirked, "Oh, don't worry about me; I don't want to interrupt any plans you might have over the weekend."
Yoshimi blushed and looked around the studio before meeting Serena's eyes and smiling shyly. "Your health is more important," she said to her. "Seriously, let me know if you or Rei need anything."
"I will. Hopefully I'll see you Monday. Have fun, Yoshimi."
Darien got back at the studios an hour before the workday ended. He automatically turned his attention towards Serena's workstation and saw she wasn't there. He walked to Motoki's office.
"Hey, man," Motoki greeted him. "How was the meeting?"
"Fine. Have you seen Serena?"
"Yoshimi said she wasn't feeling well, so she went home early."
Darien shook his head, "I don't believe that girl," Darien laughed grimly.
"Why not?" questioned Motoki, "Sure Yoshimi stretches the truth a bit, but just as a joke."
"I'm not talking about Yoshimi!" Darien stated. "I mean Serena." He softly kicked a chair leg by the desk. "C'mon! Do you think she's really sick or was that an excuse to avoid me again?" He left Motoki's office and walked inside of his.
Motoki followed him and considered this. "I'm sorry, Dare. Maybe I should've tried talking to her or something."
"Don't worry about it, Motoki. It's my problem."
"What are you going to do?"
Darien opened his desk drawer and pulled out a folder. "I'm gonna settle this." He turned off his computer and grabbed his keys.
"You're leaving now?!"
"Serena knows when the workday ends. If I don't go now, she'll disappear again."
Motoki eyed the folder, and directed Darien's attention to it. "What's that?"
Darien considered what he had in his possession. "My future."
The loud banging on the front door disturbed her much needed soothing bubble bath. Grumbling her annoyance, she reluctantly made herself decent in a slinky bath kimono. The pounding on the door continued. "Hold your horses, would ya! I'm coming!" she shouted. The pounding continued even as she unlocked the locks and pulled the door open. "Darien?!"
Darien frantically pushed her out of his way and sped into the apartment. "I love Serena!" he exclaimed.
Rei was confused. "What?"
He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration and started pacing, but repeated "I love Serena."
His sister walked over to him and stopped him in his tracks. "Hey," she said softly, "calm down and talk to me." She walked him to the sofa, sat down and patted the seat beside her.
Darien hesitated, his thoughts focused only on the issue at hand. He glanced in Rei's direction, and did a double take. "You look awful," he stated.
"Really? Thanks, I try," she said sarcastically.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"I've been better," she answered. Darien reached out and felt her forehead. She loved these brotherly moments of affection. Too bad she was feeling too miserable to appreciate it. "Didn't Serena tell you I was sick?"
"I haven't talked to Serena much lately. Why didn't you call me? Do you need anything?"
"It's just a bug, Darien, don't worry," Rei assured him. "Besides, Serena checked in and she's picking up some things for me. Now tell me what's going on between you two." She grabbed a blanket resting nearby and snuggled in the corner of the sofa.
"Comfortable?" he asked jokingly.
"Mmm hmm," she mumbled. "Now tell me a story."
Darien stretched out across from her and unseeingly focused on an object across the room. "It started last year--"
Annoyed, he looked at Rei. "You want to hear this or not?"
"Sorry," she shrugged. "But before you continue, you should know that every good story starts with 'Once upon a time...'
Darien threw a pillow at her. "Once upon a time," he humored her, "or last year as normal people call it, there was a town called Los Angeles. The hero, that's me, went on a business trip to talk with a company about one of Ito-san's creations."
"I remember that."
"The day I came back, I was at the airport, waiting for my flight to be called. I had been there all day, and I was so bored. I remember being upset because the plane was delayed. To get my mind off of it, I started to watch the people who were coming and going. I guess a plane had just landed, because a whole flood of people came through the gate." He shook his head at the memory and smiled softly, "they all disappeared when I saw her. Serena." He sat up and faced his sister, "I've never felt anything like it before, Rei. My chest felt tight and I couldn't breathe," he put his hand on his chest. "I wanted to introduce myself to her, but I couldn't move. Our eyes met and she smiled and I...," he paused to glare at his sister, "if you tell Motoki, or anyone this-- No! Don't even bring this up, Rei," he grabbed her arm.
Rei was startled. "What? What happened?"
Darien's eyes never left his sister's. "Just promise you won't mention this. My rep can't take it."
"Fine! Okay! I promise," she rolled her eyes and shook Darien's hand off. "Just tell me what happened."
He lounged again and continued. "She was just so beautiful. The most beautiful girl in the world." He smiled. "I know that sounds cliché, but it's true. And when she smiled, I blushed. I just know it."
"You?" Rei snorted, which turned into a cough attack. "I wished I had seen that," she laughed once she recovered. "Mr. Calm and Collected." Darien looked around for another pillow to throw at her.
"Anyway, the flight attendant called my attention away and when I looked back, she was gone."
"So obviously you didn't get to meet her then."
"Well, why didn't do anything when you found out she was working for you, you fool?"
"You know me."
"I do know you, Darien, and that's why I don't understand." She sat up to confront her brother. "You say you've liked Serena all this time, but you have to admit you've treated her like crap for months. I just don't get it. That wasn't you, and now I'm really confused." She threw the pillow back at him. "My head already hurts, doofus."
Darien raised a single brow. "Did you just call me a 'doofus'?" he smirked.
"Shut up, I'm sick," she sniffed. They sat in comfortable silence as she considered her brother's unusual behavior towards her friend. "Maybe you didn't know how to act around her," Rei mused.
"That's true enough; I didn't."
She eyed Darien, "But that's still no excuse." She reached out for the box of tissues and took a couple out. She thought about her brother and her friend hooking up and was actually happy with it. If only she knew Serena's thoughts about him. She'd have to find out. "Man, something must be in the water at Ito-san's studio, first Yoshimi and Akira, now you and Serena. You almost messed up your chances with her, you know."
Darien sat up excitedly. "You think I have a shot?" he asked hopefully.
"I didn't say that," Rei denied. "Serena's a pretty forgiving person, and you guys have been becoming friends lately." Darien smiled and agreed. "I don't know how she feels towards you. She's been close-mouthed lately where you're concerned. I should've picked up on that." She groaned in frustration and balled up her tissue. "What I don't understand," she continued, "is why I didn't see this coming!"
"You've been busy, Rei," he answered.
"I know, but you're my brother and she's my friend and she lives here!" she cried out.
"There was no way you could tell, especially with the way I acted when I first met her," he sighed, thinking about those first few months. It seemed like yesterday. Something Rei just said caught his attention. "Yoshimi and Akira?"
"Yeah," Rei smirked.
"When did that happen? And how did you find out?"
"They've been seeing each other for about a month now, and I know because Yoshimi told me. She and Akira have been keeping it under wraps for some reason," she shrugged. "Turns out yours isn't the only office affair going on."
"You got that right," he muttered. He sat back and closed his eyes.
Rei watched Darien get lost in his thoughts. She studied his features and noticed very faint dark circles under his eyes. "Darien?" she questioned, "what aren't you telling me?"
He considered how much to tell her. Sure he had told Motoki about that night, but Motoki was his best friend and Rei was his sister. It was different. Not only that, but she was also his love interest's roommate and close friend. Darien considered all the alternatives and decided to risk telling her. He desperately needed a woman's point of view.
Please review this latest chapter. Am I on the right track?