& & &

Ren paced the carpet that covered the floor of his fourth story live-in apartment in the city glancing at his cell phone lying innocuously on the table.

He wanted to call her.

The cell phone seemed to stare mockingly back at him saying "you have no reason to call her, and wouldn't know what to say even if you could think of a weak pretext." But he knew that she was off somewhere with that idiot, for whatever reason. For someone who hated the guy with all of her being, she sure spent a lot of time around him. It really irked Ren. First the newspaper article the other morning and now this, it seemed like the thread of fate that tied those two together was conspiring to reel them in. They could even be making up by now.

Ren hated it, but he also couldn't see a way to interfere with it either. When they had been on the set in Karuizawa together he'd at least been able to walk in on their little tete a tete and break it up.

Arrogant punk, picking a fight with me, Ren thought in irritation. That little snot was just enjoying rubbing it in that he would always have a bigger place in Kyoko's heart than Ren. And there was proof of it, the instant that something went wrong at "home" Kyoko went immediately to fetch the guy she hates. She was even traveling with him of her own free will! Even if she was doing so out of a sense of familial duty, she was still at Sho Fuwa's side rather than here in Tokyo with Ren where he could keep an eye on her. Sho Fuwa was a known womanizer, rumor had it that he went through fan girls like popcorn; it wouldn't take much for him to turn his meager charms on Kyoko and fool her into doing what he wanted.

Then Ren came to his senses and realized that his fears were groundless. Kyoko already knew what he was really like, and her eyes were no longer blind to Sho's faults by seeing him through rose-tinted glasses. She'd be far more likely to scold him disdainfully for acting like an idiot than she would be to fall for any of his tricks. Ren himself had seen what had happened when anyone showed the least sign of romantic interest in her or attempted to seduce her in any way: she froze right up and her brain went off line while she tried to readjust her world-view. If Sho tried anything with Kyoko, she'd erase him from her existence.

Put like that, I almost wish he would try something, Ren thought idly. But no, Ren didn't want Sho laying a finger on her, not the least of which was because he was a spoiled self-centered little snot that had no appreciation for the finer things in life. A good woman was hard to find, after all; and sweet, loyal, hard-working, kind and noble Kyoko was a real gem. It was a pity that idiot had gotten to her first. There was a pro and a con to that however; it was a shame that Kyoko had learned further suffering and it had made her wary of men (once bitten was twice shy after all) but if Sho hadn't been the selfish jerk that he was, Ren wouldn't now have even the slightest chance with her.

Which only begs the question of do I have a real chance with her? She was Love Me Number One, first ranking member of the Love Me section (which consisted of two people), which by definition meant that she didn't go about wearing her heart on her sleeve. No, Kyoko's walls were high and thick. Was Ren really the one who might make a tunnel through them? Did he have the right to do so?

I have more of a right than that boy, Ren thought. At least I have good intentions.

And the road to hell was paved with them. Her heart was so fragile right now that if he awoke her emotions but somehow managed to bungle it up, he'd probably destroy any ability she might have to love another person completely.

Perhaps it would be best to let it lie. Kyoko had her own inner demons to fight, and Ren was the last person to tell her how to do so... after all, he had his own darkness inside. What if that somehow hurt her?

Come to think of it, family-duty won out over her raging feelings of hatred and grudge; that's already a step in the right direction. It could be that this situation will be resolved through her own efforts. Kyoko was amazingly strong, perhaps she could thread the labyrinth in her own heart without his intercession.

But he really wanted to interfere.

In that case, maybe it's best that I don't, he told himself sternly.

Kyko had had more than enough of people imposing thier selfish wishes on her, he certainly wouldn't do so. Ren vowed that he wouldn't put any pressure on her to love him or even like him, he'd remain polite and neutral. Oh, if she sought him out he'd certainly encourage her, that would be right and healthy, reciprocation was always good; but he wasn't going to pressure her or make her feel like she had to be his. The reflex reaction of always living to please others was too well ingrained in her, and Ren didn't want her responses to him to come from reflex and training.

Which was exactly why he couldn't call her then, at least not right away and not without a reason. She'd pick up on it as being a mere pretext if he called her without a good reason. Besides, that idiot was with her, and having Ren's "presence" about would only be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

Ren sighed, but reluctantly concluded that there was nothing he was able to do about the situation that he definitely didn't like right that moment. Perhaps in a few days... In a few days he could make a call as a sempai checking on his kohai to see how she was doing, but calling on the same night she left was too soon.

& & &

It was late and it was dark out. Kyoko was getting roundly tired of listening to Shotaro complain about having to carry his bags on the long walk down the country road across the private property of his parents' Inn. Kyoko violently stuffed down another pang of nostalgia for the memory of the two of them taking this walk home from school on long sunny spring days when the weather was fine enough that they didn't want to bother being driven to class by the family vehicle.

Heh, it's all your own fault for bring so much crap on a simple trip to the country she thought irritatedly. He had three separate bags stuffed full of who knew what that he was lugging along while Kyoko practically skipped, arms swinging free, down the lane to where the inn was.

"Hey! You could help me you know!" he snapped irritately at her.

Kyoko looked back at him and said

"No way. They're your things, you carry them. It's your own fault you know, we only came on this trip for a week, two at the outside, and you brought enough stuff to send an expedition down the Congo in Africa."

Sho rolled his eyes at that, but couldn't really argue back in the face of her overwhelming logic.

"I have nicer clothes than you," he grumbled. "Just because you dress like a peasant doesn't mean that I should have to."

Kyoko stiffened at that 'dress like a peasant' remark, but decided to take the moral high-road and say nothing. It wasn't her fault that she was always so poor, she was just a struggling actress and Love Me Section member, working at the Darumaya to make ends meet! She couldn't afford to have nice things... for her, dime store lip balm was a luxury. Unlike Sho, who had always had it easy. Kyoko had worked two jobs to support him in the style he was accustomed to, had worked from early int he morning until late at night to put him in an expensive apartment on the other side of town. She'd forgone secondary school just so he could get scouted by the best agency...

Kyoko's Grudge!Demons slithered up at this recollection of the things she had to complain about versus the things he had to complain about. Her irritation rose all over again.

Maybe he'll slip and fall into a puddle she thought. And ruin all of those nice clothes he's wearing. The outfit probably cost more than the income she'd made keeping him up in that apartment in Tokyo. It really ticked her off.

"You could carry one of these," he added, his tone still indicating that it was more of a command that he expected to be obeyed than it was a request that she could say no to. Kyoko got irritated with him all over again.

"I could, but I won't," she replied, hmph!-ing. "What's the matter? Is the precious little celebrity having to lower his exquisite personage to doing real work for once?"

"I do real work!" Sho replied, stung.

"Name once," Kyoko said, smug. "Name one time you've had a job involving any kind of manual labor where you haven't lazed about when no-one was looking and begged off on me to do the work for you."

"I'm a musician," he replied loftily. "Manual labor is not in the job description."

"That's part of it's appeal to you, I'm sure," Kyoko noted dryly. "Aside of the fact you have ravening, salivating fangirls to worship you and stroke your already enormous ego."

"Definitely a fringe benefit," he said smugly. "Besides that, I'm not a kind of person suited to manual labor. Why should I have to do things I'm not suited for?"

"Don't give me that crap about suited and unsuited," Kyoko snapped. "You're just lazy! Your mamma should have made you work at the inn to instill some discipline in you. Maybe then you wouldn't be such a self-centered little prat!"

"Did you just call me a prat?" Sho said, sounding offended. "Where do you get off all of a sudden out of no-where calling me a prat?"

"Well, if the shoe fits..." Kyoko said, leaving the 'wear it' bit to be implied by context. They'd stopped right in the middle of the walkway to have their little argument, and were standing there facing off against each other in the moonlight, identical expressions of irritation with one another as they argued.

"The only shoe you have to worry about is the one that says you're a plain girl with no sex appeal!" Sho riposted, going as he always did for the jugular. Kyoko's temper seethed.

"I may be plain, but at least I'm not a prat!" she shot back. "And people actually like me as a person when they get to know me."

"No they don't," he scoffed. "Everyone who meets you thinks you're weird!"

"This coming from a guy who dresses like he expects himself to be coronated as the King of the Dark Realm or whatever at any minute," Kyoko scoffed in return, gesturing to his outfit.

"You're just jealous of my clothes, and the fact that I have way better taste than you."

"Hah! The only better thing you have is a budget," Kyoko riposted. "And if you didn't rely on that stupid image of yours so much those stupid Beagles would never have been able to catch up to you."

"That and this are two different things! Plain girl!"

"Prima donna!"

"Uncute, no sex appeal, Ren-worshipper!"

"Lazy, egotistical peacock!"

"You clearly don't know show-biz at all then, for them it's not how hard you work or how good your stuff is but how well you network and who you can get to notice you," Sho replied with an aura of smug condescension about him, like he was some great guru-teacher lecturing his humble disciple in the ways of the world. "If I'm a peacock it's because my image gets me noticed and that sells records. And a guy who can at any time call down and order a champagne breakfast in bed with all the works is allowed to be self-centered, in fact people expect it."

He's saying this like he's proud of it Kyoko thought, unable to stop giving him a weird look for his attitude.

"They might expect it, but I'll bet you don't have any real friends," kyoko said smugly. "I have real friends, and people who care about me. So who's the winner in the end, you or me?"

Sho looked brought up short by that for a moment, his mouth worked silently but then he recovered his usual arrogance.

"A celebrity doesn't need 'friends,' he needs connections. That's why you'll never catch up to me."

"Oh gee, I'll never be a strangely dressed dork who drinks alcohol for breakfast and has only shallow meaningless relationships in his life. Feh! What's to catch up to I wonder," Kyoko said scornfully, crossing her arms and pivoting on her heel, signaling that she'd gotten the last word. If she'd stayed to look at his face, she'd have seen a strange look flicker by.

The journey down the long, scenic gravel driveway continued in silence for a while, both of them caught up in their own thoughts. It was some tie before the silence was broken, but it was Sho who spoke first.

"I remember when we were kids, you used to skip down this road in the spring and pick as many wildflowers as you could before you got home," Sho said quietly. "My room always used to smell like wildflowers because you'd arrange them and put them in a vase for me on my dresser."

Kyoko's anger died at the strange note of fondness in his tone. She didn't know what the hell she was supposed to make of it, and tried desperately to ignore the pang of sadness. It was so much easier when she was angry with him, as she so often was. She hated it when he brought up what they had meant to each other, it always brought back the memory of a feeling so intense and so wonderful that it consumed her world and gave her the strength to face anything. Kyoko felt her throat closing up and willed her eyes not to tear up.

How dare he! a grudge!demon whispered at her.

Yeah, that's right! she told herself. How dare he bring up what they were, how dare he speak to her with any level of fondness! He had no right to feel fond over it, he was the one who had thrown it all away!

Relieved, she allowed her thoughts of grudge to well back up in her and replace the pain that recalling their childhood raised in her. Anger was simple, and easy. She didn't want to feel anything other than that for him. Anger meant that she didn't have to forgive him.

Kyoko quickened her pace in order to outdistance him. She could see the yellow-lit windows of the inn only a little ways off, they were almost to their destination.

"Kyoko... wait," Sho said, his voice halfway between a command and something that might actually be approaching a request.

"What?" she demanded. "It's getting chilly out here."

"I wanted to ask you... just for the duration of the visit, could you just pretend to get along with me?"

Kyoko looked at him with an expression of utter shock. She was flabbergasted! Pretend to get along with him? When she couldn't even stand the sight of him? When it was taking all of her willpower not to reach out and smack him like the offending little cockroach he was?! Impossible!

"You don't have to pretend everything is the way it was, just... try not to make your hatred of me plain," he hurriedly added.

"Why the hell not?!" she demanded, using harsher language than she usually did because Sho just brought out the devil in her.

"It's not for my sake," he snapped back. "We don't know what kind of situation we're walking into in there. My father and mother always did favor a match between me and you, and they're probably already upset and on edge, I think they'd be reassured to see that we're getting along fine. So, just for the time being, in order to soothe things with them, could you pretend you don't want to kill me?"

"For their sake, certainly not yours," Kyoko said grudgingly after a long pause to really think about it.

"That all I ask," Sho said somehow managing to sound smug and something like humble. Kyoko sighed and shook her head, whether at him or at herself she wasn't sure.

They walked the last little way up the driveway and stood looking at the imposing front door of the Inn. Kyoko could feel Sho's nervousness from where she stood beside him, and couldn't deny that she had a little clench in her own stomach as well. She had left there three years ago, without giving notice, without a proper goodbye to the people who had spent so much of their time and devotion raising and caring for her. It was a guilt she'd never really gotten rid of. What would their reaction be when she suddenly showed up on their doorstep? Would they scold her? Toss her out and denounce her? Never want to see her again?

Kyoko reached forward and pushed on the doorbell.

:Here goes,: she thought with trepidation.

* * *

Geeze! I haven't updated this one in a long time! The days just kept getting away from me... I picked up Skip Beat 15 in the store the other day and thought, I should really post the next chapter of that story... it's been written since the first two or three chapters but I'm a lazy poster. I fully admit it. Remember, reveiws are love... share the love?