Author's Note: The bulk of this story takes place concurrently with Volume 12; as such, there may be spoilers.
Dedication: To Golden meliades, as promised. I sincerely hope you enjoy it!
Disclaimer: I own no part of Skip Beat. "Impossible Dream" is the title of an album by Patty Griffin, which was helpful in writing this story.
She wasn't looking to fall in love. How could she? There was too much else to think about: how to put together what was left of her life, how to get revenge against the man who had destroyed it, and how to revive the self that had never existed to begin with. Then there was, of course, her newfound career, which took up an obscene amount of time and energy, not to mention her studies, which ate up whatever she had left at the end of the day.
And so, when he gradually stopped being the hopelessly perfect ideal in the hopelessly impenetrable ivory tower, she barely even noticed. Oh, of course, she recognized that it was a bit exceptional for someone in his position to be associating with someone in hers, and from the jealousy that was so often aimed at her, she inferred that she should probably be enjoying it. Still, though, at the end of the day, he was just Mr. Tsuruga. Yes, of course, she looked up to him, and she felt a need to understand him more precisely on more than one occasion, but it never seemed to go any further.
She simply didn't have time for anything more.
The key to his success was simple: he had nothing worth fighting for. Perhaps the thing which came closest to evoking some semblance of protectiveness in him was his acting career, but even that never came close to being precious to him. It was so intimately bound to the core of his being that the thought of losing it was incomprehensible, and so he came to take it for granted.
The process was gradual on his end, as well; even if his life depended upon it, he probably wouldn't be able to pinpoint the exact moment when she stopped being a vaguely entertaining diversion with distasteful motivations and started becoming something different, a mystery that might merit unravelling. If he absolutely had to hazard a guess, though, he'd probably say that his opinion of her in began to change during those hectic few days when she had been his substitute manager, and her ferocious determination had nearly earned her a Full Marks stamp. Despite the feverish haze that tainted his memory of those hours, he recalled the beauty of her seemingly-infinite strength, which she usually kept harnessed to the chariot of her vengeance, as it was turned instead to the selfless care of another person. No, not some random 'other' person… She had fought for his health, for his comfort.
Having seen her in that light, how could he help but grow fond of her?
Like so many other details of their relationship, the question of who had made the first move in the direction of something more than friendship or workplace amicability was debatable. The most obvious answer was that he had done so, when he asked for her assistance in building a Katsuki he could bring to life. However, would he have even had the chance to do so, had she not skipped her morning classes in order to bring him a homemade lunch? In doing so, she had made herself available to him; she had reminded him of her existence, and her desire to help. It's unlikely that he would have sought her out, had she not appeared before him then; most probably, he would have done exactly the opposite, and kept his distance, for fear of losing the control that, for all its devastating costs, had brought him so far.
Whoever was to blame for it, though, the fact of the matter is that she wound up at his apartment, and found herself in the skin of his lover instead of that of his nemesis. Oh, of course, it all looked very harmless: two actors, honing their craft together. It even had the sort of innocence that permeates children's games of dress-up, the defiant fun of becoming someone else for a while, someone so radically different from who you usually are.
Somehow, though, they wound up pushing each other too far. He allowed his contrary instincts to drag them into a push-pull game that nearly washed her confidence away in the current of her tears, and she, being herself, eventually managed to get into a dire situation in his seemingly-innocuous kitchen. Perhaps she was distracted, following her near-breakdown, or perhaps he should have been keeping a closer eye on her, but either way, once again, the end result was the same; she found herself on the kitchen floor, with him holding her so tightly that, even had she not been shocked out of her wits, she would likely have been unable to move.
It is safe to guess that, in that moment, thoughts of revenge did not occupy the forefront of her mind.
It all happened so fast. The clatter had drawn him into the kitchen, and then, she was falling, and he was moving to intercept her… and then, they were on the floor, and he was holding her more tightly than he could remember having held anyone else.
Not even Ren Tsuruga's iron will was a match for that.
To his credit, he did rally himself within the next few seconds, but even so, it was still too late to take back what he had allowed himself to do. His embrace was unmistakably affectionate, and from the tension that was quickly spreading through her, she had certainly noticed. No, there was no going back, and so, he did the only thing he could, what any actor worth his paycheque would have done in his place.
She inhaled quickly, almost breathlessly, when he caressed her lips; he felt the air moving against his fingertips as she drew it into her lungs, and it gave him a delicate thrill. Her hesitation placed a rather forward question into his mind, and before he had even realized its potential impact, it was hanging in the space between them, and his own voice, or some variation of it, was fading into silence.
"Have you ever… kissed anyone?"
She stared up at him, and fought to dismiss the excited apprehension that had seized control of her as Mizuki's emotion. It's just a game, she reminded herself. We're just playing Dark Moon. There's no way he could possibly be serious.
She would have believed anything, if only it could in turn make her believe that.
Because, in all honesty, Mr. Tsuruga wasn't acting very much like Katsuki anymore. The man stretched out over her wasn't entirely unlike the persona against whom she had been acting earlier that evening, but something had definitely changed. It was in his mouth, in the set of his jaw… more relaxed, definitely. Or maybe it was in his shoulders, which no longer seemed quite so straight… No, no. It was in his eyes, for sure. There was a spark there that she had never seen before, and though she tried her best, it was impossible to decode while he held her in its thrall.
"N-no…" She stammered the answer to his question, half involuntarily and half in order to buy time to think. What should she do? How should she respond to him? Neither the Mizuki persona she was fighting to hold onto nor her true self, such as it was, had ever expected to be in such a situation, and so she was at a complete loss. Pieces of Mizuki's backstory and memories of her own time with Sho spun through her mind, and as she clawed through this dust devil for any shred of useful information, any glimmer of insight, the person who had overshadowed both Mr. Tsuruga and Katsuki continued to stare down at her.
She didn't even have the presence of mind to realize her defeat.
"Shall I… teach you?"
He was well and truly carried away by this point, utterly absorbed in this new character as he had never been in any other. To be sure, the masks of his past roles had always fit well, but this one was so much more intense, so much more real… so different. He understood then that he was no longer completely acting, that some part of the self that he had kept suppressed for so long was beginning to stab through the soil of its grave, and make itself manifest.
And, as he leaned down, he could not have cared less.
She knew that her time had run out as soon as his face twisted into a smile that could only be described as devilish; to her dismay, she was proven right when, a moment later, his weight began to shift, and his mouth began its descent toward hers. Part of her wondered whether she should push him away, and by extension abandon the game, but something which could have passed for a fledgling actress' pride held her back. Game or not… I promised to help Mr. Tsuruga. I have a responsibility to see this through to the end.
Which was all well and good, except that she couldn't let him kiss her, either.
The distance between them had been halved when her resistance began to mould itself into a form that she could use as leverage to escape the situation. The solution came in brief flashes, some of which she barely registered, but she got the general idea, and was glad that she had paid at least as much attention to Mizuki's character as she had to Mio's.
"Teacher…" she muttered as she drew breath to say, much more loudly, "I'm not Misao!"
And, to her infinite surprise and relief, his descent stopped.
Her voice, laced with desperate panic, shocked him back into sanity, and the nameless persona seemed to evaporate beneath a jet of self-recrimination. Slowly, he moved away from her; she smiled hesitantly, evidently believing herself safe, and said something that he didn't hear. He tried to stand, found it impossible, and so he was forced to settle for kneeling on the floor, just a few feet from where she still lay.
What was that? What am I doing?
He felt his eyes widen, and covered his face with his hands, lest she should observe further evidence of his turmoil.
I promised myself that I would stay under control, and now… I couldn't stop myself. I should never have asked her over… should never have let myself get that close to her.
He closed his eyes, and an idea struck him with a force great enough to force them open again. Wait a minute. These feelings… this forbidden desire, and the guilt that goes with it, but never quite overrules it… Katsuki is supposed to feel this way. He noticed that he was shivering, but was too absorbed in his thoughts to do anything about it. But these aren't Katsuki's feelings; they're mine, which means that, in order to act the part of Katsuki… all I really had to do was be myself? Could so simple an answer have eluded me for so long?
He accepted the sudden sense of calm that suffused him as an affirmative answer, and before he could stop himself, he began to laugh. He could feel her staring at him, and the weight of her surprised gaze, but he couldn't help himself. The pressure of the past days of endless dead ends, the danger of that night's desperate gambit, and the absurdity of its resolution combined into an emotion so intense that it was impossible to hold back.
For the first time in years, he could not help but feel something, and he was all too aware of who he had to thank for it.
Of all the reactions that he could possibly have exhibited, hysterical laughter had seemed to her the most unlikely. And yet, there they were.
Less than half an hour later, she found herself at the stove, stirring a pot in much the same way that she imagined fairy tale witches stirred their cauldrons: hoping to find something, some fundamental truth or shard of insight, amid the usual bubbles and steam. He was at the table, staring into space, and it didn't really matter to her whether he was sincerely lost in thought. After what had passed between them, she didn't trust herself to speak with him. Not, at least, so soon afterward.
His explanation ran through her mind again, and she found it just as unsatisfactory as she had when he had offered it. Granted, it did make some sense, and perhaps an outside observer might have believed it… but she had been there, in the moment, with him. It had been her lips he had caressed, her body in his arms, and she knew that there had been something more at work than just his prodigious acting talents. If only she could define it, she'd be able to call him on it, but it was so foreign that she wouldn't even know how to begin explaining it. And so, she kept her mouth shut, and returned her focus to the task at hand.
She saw no point in starting a war with neither guns nor ammunition.
His words evidently startled her, and he quelled the urge to chuckle at the way she jumped, nearly upsetting the porridge on which she had been so concentrated. She turned to face him, a bit sheepishly, and it felt as though he were seeing her for the first time. He didn't have the words to explain it properly, but she suddenly felt less like a stranger, and more like a trusted colleague. No… she had been a trusted colleague for some time. Now, by virtue of the experience they had shared, she had become something more precious to him.
Now, she was a friend.
"Yes?" she replied. Adrenalin had rendered her voice a bit shaky, but he gave no sign that he had noticed.
"I want to thank you," he said, and paused, unsure of how to go on. Of course, he wanted to thank her for coming to his apartment, and playing his game so well, and so enthusiastically. But beyond that, he wanted to thank her for something more, something that he couldn't capture in simple words. Possible candidates came to mind, but they were all too heavy, and too complicated.
She seemed to be growing impatient, however, and so he was forced to continue speaking. "Thank you for partnering with me tonight." He felt that he should say more, but before he could articulate anything further, she smiled, and he was silenced. Even though he couldn't speak, though, he wondered if she understood everything he had meant to say, even the things that he himself hadn't realized yet.
A small part of him hoped so.
"I was glad to help." And she really was, as always; even had he not known her so well, he would have heard it in her voice. "Do you feel better now?"
His eyes met her gaze, and he felt some of his customary defiance, a portion of his strength, flowing back into them. "Infinitely."
Her smile broadened. "I'm glad," she repeated.
For the second time, he examined her, and marvelled at the idea that this girl, little more than a neophyte actress, had single-handedly managed not only to help him get in touch with his character, but also restore his confidence. He was stunned by how far they had come, just to be able to stand here, in his home, without any tension or negativity between them. Just a few months ago, he had never believed that she would be more to him than a girl who happened to work for the same agency he did, and now… Just look at us. Just look at me.
Perhaps, in the end, no dream is impossible to realize.