Disclaimer: Don't own Skip Beat!, but I do own my very own spirit-grudges and a revenge-fueled scheme to bust into show business! What are the odds, huh?

This chapter is just a touch lime-y, rated for language and suggestiveness. The rating will ramp up as the story goes on. Enjoy!

The Truth (Seeing Red)

"Ready when you are, Yashiro."

"Just a few calls to make, then we'll be off."

His manager stepped out into the LME lobby to make his calls while Ren Tsuruga kicked back in the adjacent lounge, commandeering one of the plush couches off in the corner of the well-furnished room. It had been a trying day for Ren right from the beginning. For one thing, Kyoko Mogami seemed to be acting just a bit more peculiar than usual. A fact which was vaguely terrifying given that there never seemed to be a set standard for "usual" where this particular actress was concerned anyway. For another ...

For another ... ?

No, wait, that's about it, he thought temperamentally, folding his arms across his chest as he settled deeper into the couch's cushions.

Sometimes it galled him how much she was able to dominate his thoughts with very little discernible effort on her part. His schedule had been booked with interviews, rehearsals and commercials from roughly seven that morning to (he looked down at his wristwatch) half-past eleven that night. He had a new show to prepare for with a director known for changing the blocking every five minutes. And yet the only things that truly stood out in his mind were two run-ins with his lovely kohai.

The first encounter had been in, of all places, the LME food court at about six-fifteen that morning. Her bright hair was swept off to the side, falling rather charmingly over her right eye. She was already dressed for school in her checkered skirt, cotton blouse and a pair of black leggings. A rush of warmth coursed through him at the sight of her slender limb stretching absentmindedly out from under her table, her foot rotating counterclockwise as she worked a kink out of her ankle.

I guess I don't mind that much.

Why had she been eating in the food court anyway? That in itself had been pretty unusual. She always scorned ready-made dishes and fast food in favor of making her own meals (and anyone else's, for that matter). Yet there she was, hungrily tearing into an enormous breakfast burrito like it was solidified ambrosia. The contented little noises she made in-between bites now played on a constant loop in his head.

"Finally coming over to the dark side of the food pyramid, Mogami-san?" he had joked as he approached her.

She looked up to see who had spoken, her mouth still half-full. Her eyes widened in what he could only assume was surprise as he took the seat across from her. She swallowed the load in her mouth (Ah, god, bad choice of words, don't think of her swallowing, don't think of swallowing), licked the traces of spicy sauce from her lower lip (Don't dwell on that, either!), and then beamed over at him brighter than the sun itself (Fuck it, if she's happy, I'm happy).

"Good morning, Tsuruga-san!"

I wish she'd call me Ren. I should go ahead and tell her it's okay to call me Ren ... More than okay, he thought resolutely before returning to his review of the day.

"Good mor -" He had ground to a halt when he noticed that one of the hands holding up her burrito was covered in white bandaging from knuckle to wrist.

"What happened?"

She jumped at the abrupt shift from congenial to sharp, and he silently cursed himself for a fool before deliberately calming down. "Eh, sorry. I was going for concern there, not ... whatever the hell that was. But seriously, what happened?"

With a rueful smile, she told him: "I got a little too close to the wok while I was doing a stir-fry and got burned."

He had hissed in pained sympathy, shaking his own hand and visibly cringing up at the thought of it. The simple gesture had made her giggle, making his day that much sweeter in the process. I made her laugh, he thought with far more pride than he could ever recall spending on things like winning at an award show. I made her laugh, and I didn't even have to resort to slapstick.

"I've never known you to be clumsy in the kitchen, Mogami-san," he had said teasingly. "You slipping up on me?"

She wrinkled her nose at him. "I was a bit distracted."

"With what?"

A tinge of pink crept up into her cheeks, and her eyes shifted away from his face. "Um ... you. Actually."

Steady. Steady.

Before he could ask her to clarify (or finish commanding his heart not to beat straight out of his chest for her see, or thank his lucky stars that Yashiro wasn't around to hear her say that), she rushed on to explain, her blush deepening as she did: "That is, I mean, you were on the TV I was watching when it happened. It was an interview you did promoting your next show. I got kind of caught up watching and didn't pay enough attention."

"Sorry about that," he'd said quietly, watching her intently over his folded hands.

She had looked back with a hint of a smile. "N-no problem."

Silence descended, one that neither of them tried to break. Not an especially comfortable silence, but one that was at least relatively companionable. She held his gaze, and he found himself fascinated by just how opaque that look was, how strangely unreadable her eyes were. She parted her lips, as if to speak, and he had the overwhelming impression that whatever she was going to say would be extraordinary.

"Would you ... ?" She stopped and continued to stare at him, but he got the sense that she wasn't really looking at him anymore. He had seen this look many times before, so much that he could only ever associate it with her exclusively. The look that suggested she was off on another plane of existence entirely, maybe even another galaxy, probably contemplating celestial objects like they were pretty baubles. He smiled slightly, dazzled but somehow unfazed, and just watched her, content to stare back into that beatific face regardless of whether she spoke her piece or not.

"Would you ... ?" she began again.

He had leaned in. She seemed to really be making an effort to spit whatever it was out. "Would I ... ?" he prompted.

Right about this time the oh so sweet-tempered Kotonami-san had barreled in, swooped down on her friend ("Hurry up, we've got stuff to do, how are you still eating?") and dragged her off by the elbow with barely a word of salutation thrown his way. He could have sworn she had looked daggers at him out the corner of his eye. What did I do?

"Bye, Tsuruga-san, have a good day!" Kyoko had called apologetically over her shoulder before being yanked fully out of sight, half-eaten burrito and all.

"It's Ren," he had said to her empty seat after she had cleared the room. "Call me Ren."

Like I was never going to see her again, he thought, still exasperated with the moodiness that had dogged him afterwards. He needn't have worried, as it turned out. Close to the end of his hectic but uneventful day (just under an hour ago), he and Yashiro had made their way to a coffeehouse just a few blocks from Ren's previous engagement. He had downed some tea and was working on his second pastry when Yashiro, who had gone out to the car to recharge his cell phone, came back in looking like a kid on Christmas morning.

"Ren, come look, you've got to see this! They're shooting this commercial up the block and - "

He had grumbled something about a headache he didn't really have and returned to his pastry, most of his mind (that wasn't thinking of where Kyoko was at the moment and what she might be up to) preoccupied with nothing more than going home and climbing into bed. Then Yashiro had leaned down and whispered:

"But don't you want to see Mogami-san?"

In the space of about eight seconds, Ren had dropped his half-eaten treat onto the table (missing the plate entirely), put his coat and hat back on and bolted out into the crisp autumn night, his fatigue chased away by what felt like currents of electricity sprinting through his bloodstream. He had stopped on the street just outside the coffeehouse window and looked back in to see Yashiro grinning smugly out at him, arms folded in implicit victory. When he finally walked out to join him (still grinning, damn him), Ren cleared his throat and said with all the smooth detachment he could muster, "Might as well see that she's not getting into trouble."

Yashiro nodded. "Of course."

"Minding her manners and all that."


"Because I'm her sempai."

"You are, indeed."

"And I do things like that."


He groaned. "Yashiro, stop. This is hard enough -"

"I'll bet."

His manager smacked a gloved hand over his mouth as the towering actor gave him a death-glare worthy of Lucifer himself. "I didn't mean it like that."

"I'll bet," Ren muttered tartly as they continued up the street to the shooting site. A huge banner reading "Kyurara" proclaimed the six blocks roped off, scattered with shooting equipment and crawling with extras, most of whom seemed to be leaving, or in the process of leaving, the set. They found the director chain-smoking near a giant wind machine and made idle chit-chat.

"Oh, yeah, we're just about done here. All we have are a few more close-up shots, then we pack it in."

"You decided to pair the girls together again, eh?" Yashiro observed. "Clever. Good sense of continuity."

"Isn't it? But we're going for a much different concept this time. Instead of having them play in a sunlit field, we have them terrorizing a bunch of pedestrians in the street. They wanted something edgy to go with this supposedly edgy new drink. Like those fuckers know what edgy is - "

"Supposedly?" Yashiro asked. "You haven't even tried it?"

"Pfft! That sugary piss-water? Hell no!"

A fair-skinned beauty clad entirely in black stepped out of the trailer parked along the side of the street. She wore a full-body catsuit that didn't even bare her neck, but still managed to give the impression of full-on nudity despite the thickness of the fabric; high-heeled boots that buckled from shin to knee; and a pair of futuristic-looking shades that took up roughly a third of her face. Her long hair, also black, was piled on top of her head in a regal bun encircled by what appeared to be diamonds. Hoisted up onto her shoulder was some sort of hand-held cannon that matched the rest of her outfit and seemed to come straight out of a sci-fi movie.

"Like the look? They each represent a new flavor of the drink." He gestured towards the space-dominatrix, now busily texting on her cell phone. "Kotonami there is 'Blackberry Blast'."

He did a double-take on the woman in black and promptly recognized the vaguely humorless set of her jaw, the proud tilt of her head. She saw him looking and lifted a hand in greeting that wasn't flying over the keypad of her cell. That's Kotonami?

"Chiori's flavor is 'Lemon Lightning'. And Mogami is 'Cherry Crush'." He rolled his eyes at the indignity of having to speak these names aloud.

The door to the trailer had sprang open again. Out hopped Amamiya Chiori, clad in a blindingly yellow cloak that fell to her platform heels and a platinum blonde wig of bouncing sausage curls that spiraled all the way down her back. She was currently gushing over a certain someone who hadn't yet crossed the door's threshold.

"I'm telling you, it's fine. You're like an illustration from a mythology book come to life!" she squealed happily.

"That's ... good, right? You're sure I'm wearing it right? It looks okay?"

"Freaking fantastic," Kotonami barked without looking up from her phone, "now get out here so we can wrap this up and go home. These stupid boots are killing me!"

Kyoko finally emerged in full Cherry Crush regalia, rendering all of Ren's attempts at thought entirely impossible save for one: "Okay" doesn't come close.

Befitting her title, every clothed inch of her was indeed the Technicolor red of a maraschino cherry.

Breathe. Just breathe.

Her feet were wrapped in Grecian sandals with crisscrossing straps traveling up her bare calves. Slouchy harem pants were pegged tight just below her knees and slung low across the gentle curve of her hips; they were a touch sheer, subtly hinting at the outline of her thighs without actually revealing them. A ruched bustier baring most of her taut stomach clung tight to her breasts, cradling and lifting them the way Ren himself often did in his dreams at night when she was naked and wet and unable and unwilling to escape the weight of him pressing down on her.

Breathe, goddammit.

A garnet choker circled her throat. Ropes of the fiery gem twined around her otherwise bare waist and spiraled down her arms, caught by metallic cuffs around her biceps and wrists. Her hair, temporarily dyed in the exact shade as the rest of her ensemble and lengthened by expertly applied extensions, was tightly braided up high into a whip-like tail that trailed along the side of her head and came to rest on her left shoulder like a pet snake. Her hands were fitted with leather gloves, cleverly disguising the bandages on her injury. She stood with one hip cocked and her head held high, her stance languid but alert and entirely dangerous nonetheless. Clutched in her left hand was a war hammer as tall as she was and, of course, the same saturated color. Over her arm was a wide bolt of satin which she proceeded to drape over her shoulders like a shawl, effectively covering this brief glimpse of paradise without pulling its visceral punch in the slightest.

Yashiro, aghast, vocalized Ren's initial thought: "Good lord."

"On a pogo stick," Ren added quietly, grateful that he was still capable of forming whole (albeit nonsensical) words and not just caveman grunts or drooling, slack-jawed yammering.

The director chuckled at their reaction and called out: "OI! Cherry and Lemon! You got visitors!"

They looked over at the pair of them still gawking. Kyoko smiled wide and waved at them, utterly destroying her display of intimidating aloofness. She and Amamiya strode over to where Kotonami was still obliviously fiddling with her phone, heedless of what a striking trio they made at that moment. She stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her friends and raised the prop-hammer high above her head.

"Bow down before the embodiments of flavor, puny mortals, and drink of our divinity!" she called out in a voice more suited to an MST3K-esque version of Thor than whatever ancient goddess she had been channeling a second ago. Everyone within earshot had burst into laughter at her hammy proclamation (except Kotonami, who somehow managed to give the distinct impression that she was rolling her eyes, despite the impenetrable shades). The three girls came over and bowed in greeting.

"Oookay," Yashiro said, looking from one girl to the other, "I get the 'Blast' and the 'Crush', because of the gun and the hammer. Chiori-san, where's your weapon?"

She giggled and lifted an index finger to the sky. "That would be the magic of Special Effects. I'm supposed to wave my arms and pretend to shoot yellow lightning from my fingertips."

"Oh, I see!"

"What brings you two here?" Kyoko asked brightly, her chipper attentiveness clashing perfectly with her heightened physicality.

Yashiro, wisely jumping in to answer the question (as Ren was still bowled over by this latest demonstration of Kyoko's shape-shifting power), told her they had been having dinner up the street, then wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. "We didn't expect to find you all here. Though we're happy we did! Aren't we, Ren?"

He nodded stiffly with a ghost of a smile. "Yes. Very happy." Take me. Take me now, I'm yours - FOCUS.

She leaned around them and looked up the street, scanning the various storefronts in the direction Yashiro had indicated that they had come from. Her kohl-rimmed eyes zeroed back in on Ren and narrowed accusingly, sending a familiar jolt up his spine. "You went to that coffeehouse, didn't you? The one that does those god-awful pastries?" She spat the word like an obscenity.

"How'd you know?"

She gave him a triumphant smirk. "Aha! I didn't."

"Well-played, madam," he conceded with a nod, trying (and probably failing) not to relish their banter too openly, "but are you really still allowed to lecture me on nutrition after what I witnessed this morning?"


"That poor burrito ... you didn't give it a chance. Seems like you don't mind a bit of unhealthy indulgence every now and again."

"The key words there are 'every now and again'. And you should do as I say, not as I do!" she replied sternly with a finger-wagging gesture that might have been convincingly maternal if not for her costume.

"And you," she added, turning back to Yashiro, who jumped guiltily, "should make sure he eats right. You're his manager, after all!"

"Yes, of course, you're absolutely right!" He raised his hand to his forehead in salute.

Ren rolled his eyes. "Can't really disagree with someone wielding a giant hammer, can you?"

She looked contemplative, even downright philosophical. "That's kind of a barbaric notion of power, though, isn't it? Lots of people command authority without of a giant hammer. You seem to get along just fine without one."

It's a perfectly adequate-sized ha ... WAIT, WHAT THE -

Kotonami snorted inelegantly, nearly dropping her phone. Kyoko didn't notice.

"Unless you've got one tucked away somewhere that I don't know about - "

Amamiya squeezed her mouth shut, shaking with silent chortles. Kyoko, now working up to a genuine tangent, didn't notice this either.

" - in which case I'd have to wonder where you'd be hiding it ... Uh, you guys?"

Kyoko looked from one girl to the other, baffled by their reaction and unaware of the very phallic implications of what she'd just said.

"Why, Kyoko-chan, I'm surprised at you," Amamiya said with a grin that seemed to hold all the mischief in the world. "Don't you keep up with the tabloids? They're always speculating about the size of Tsuruga-san's hammer!"


Ren twitched at the look of skepticism that came across Kyoko's face. Oh, don't. Please, don't go where I think you're going -

"Hah! How naive do I look? I'll believe it when I see it!" Then she stared up at him. Expectantly.

... Fuck my life.

Yashiro began to cough loudly and unconvincingly into the crook of his arm, trying to hide his shocked laugh. Ren simply stared down at her, eyes narrowed inquisitively, beginning to wonder if maybe, just maybe, she was torturing him on purpose, but on a purely unconscious level. How else could she say these things yet retain such a degree of innocent naivete too real to feign? She looked from Kotonami, to Yashiro, to Amamiya and back again, the very picture of artless bewilderment.

He shook his head incredulously. Bless your heart, you wayward siren.

"What? What are you guys la - ?"

He felt his lips twitch into an involuntary half-smile as he saw the horrified understanding in her widening eyes, the accidental innuendos finally dawning on her. She flushed as red as her costume from hairline to neck, and even Ren couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for her (despite the very evil part of him that gloried in that wonderfully undone look on her face).

"Oh ... oh my god, no! Th-that's not what I was - I wasn't trying to ... Shut up, you guys!" she wailed, stamping her feet petulantly as the two girls began to roar in earnest, Amamiya doubling over at the waist and Kotonami gnawing on her gloved knuckles in a desperate bid for self-control.

She looked back up at Ren and proceeded to make the awkward situation even more so in the most painfully adorable way possible: by trying to explain.

"I swear to god that's not what I meant! I wasn't referring to your ... um ... y-your ..." She seemed to be mentally scouring her vocabulary for a word that was actually appropriate, her unoccupied hand moving in a twitchy windshield wiper motion. His smile widened a tad, and his gut clenched with suppressed laughter. Oh, this ought to be good. He folded his arms, waiting. Unfortunately, she was beaten to the punch when a grinning, red-faced Chiori chimed in:

"... hardware?"

Kyoko gasped, sending the newest LoveMe member into deeper hysterics. It took all of Ren's accumulated acting experience not to crack up at the combined hilarity of Chiori's (heretofore unbeknownst) audacity and Kyoko's appalled expression.

"Mo!" Kotonami interjected. "That was entirely wrong of you, Chiori!"

Kyoko nodded vigorously. "Yes! Yes, it wa - !"

A pained but impish grin that shaved years off of her stern countenance broke through Kotonami's mask of dignified outrage. "The proper term is 'equipment'!" she said from behind her balled fist before launching into another gale of laughter.

"Moko-saaaan, how could you?"

She turned back to Ren, who by that point had decided not to speak at all (he didn't trust himself not to toss out a few inspired euphemisms of his own). Instead, he pulled his hat even lower over his eyes, wishing he could just disappear and take her with him.

"Tsuruga-san, don't listen to them, I swear, I wasn't m-making assumptions about, um ... you. I-I-I mean, I'm sure you're nice or whatever, b-but - OH, GOD DAMN IT!" She stormed off, hammer and all, leaving in her wake two thoroughly scandalized men and two howling, teary-eyed girls.

"Well, that was fun," he had said once the harpies had regained their senses and split to hunt down their embarrassed friend. "Can we leave before something else absolutely ridiculous happens?"

"You didn't seem to mind," Yashiro said with a grin. Ren chuckled, silently cursing his manager's perceptiveness. He hated to admit it, but it was true: He would have loved nothing more than to sit back and watch her squirm. Though he would have preferred that not happen in such a public setting. Had they been alone they could have discussed just how ... nice he was to her heart's content. Perhaps he would have afforded her a demonstration ...

He shook his head, trying to clear it of the improper scenario forming in his mind. You're a sick man, Kuon.

He returned to the present, to his spot on the couch. Please let this day end already, he prayed wearily, let me go home to my dreams.

The inescapable afterimage of Kyoko's Cherry Crush persona reasserted itself at the mention of dreams. He groaned inwardly. On second thought, maybe he shouldn't be so eager to abandon himself to his dreams tonight. Not with that crimson figure still fresh in his mind, or the equally searing memory of that faraway look from this morning. There was no telling what his subconscious might get up to, what with all the day's events conspiring to unravel his self-control.

"Ready, Ren?"

He eased himself off of the couch with a grunt. "Yep."

They started off down the hallway leading out to the parking lot, passing none other than the LoveMe locker room as they did. He heard the two of them talking as they passed the doorway of their locker room. He slowed down about halfway down the hall and, against his better judgement, turned back to see if maybe they wanted a ride home, leaving Yashiro close to the exit with a huge grin. As he got closer, snippets of their conversation slipped through the partially open door.

"I can't believe Chiori led me into that trap ... Tabloids, indeed!"

He bit down on his tongue instinctively to keep from laughing. Kotonami fired back: "Well, if you weren't so damn literal all the time, then maybe you wouldn't have walked right into it!"

"Ugh, I'd like to be able to talk to my sempai without blurting out stuff like ..." This statement ended on a vaguely seasick groan. "Christ, he must think I'm such a pervert now. I'll never be able to face him again."

Ren lifted his hand to knock on the door, hating the mischievous little streak in him that dearly wanted to see how he'd react to his intrusion.

"I'm surprised you faced him as well as you did today, given that crap you fed him about ... what was it again?"

"A burn in the kitchen."

His hand froze mid-knock. Hello.

"And he bought it?"

Kyoko's voice, fraught with weariness: "I can never tell with him ... but he doesn't seem suspicious, so ..."

"This is going to backfire, I just know it. Quit being such a wuss, and tell him the truth. You know he's going to find out eventually!"

Maybe sooner than she thinks, he thought.

"And he'll be mad as hell if he finds out you lied."

Right again, Kotonami.

"Stop saying that, you'll jinx it! I'll deal with him eventually, but there's no reason for him to ever know about last night!"

The older girl scoffed. "Your hand says otherwise!"

What on earth ... ?

"It'll be gone soon," Kyoko replied, "in a few days it'll be gone, it's not permanent."

"Oh, it'll go away, all right, but the truth won't. Because you know now - "

"I don't know anything," she retorted with a sharpness he wouldn't have expected, "other than that Kyoichi's never coming out with us again. This is all his fault - "

The sound of another man's name - another man's given name, no less - in connection with Kyoko's bandaged hand was a carnival mallet, smashing some internal Pandora's box of unsavory possibilities. They flooded his mind like howling wraiths, drowning out the girls' conversation as his pulse began to pound in his ears. Before he could even stop to think about it, he unceremoniously pushed open the door and stepped through it.

Both girls were dressed casually, their blinding pink jumpsuits long since folded and put out of sight. Kotonami stood leaning against the lockers, arms folded across her stomach and one foot kicked up behind her. Her casual stance didn't change, but her eyes grew wide as saucers at the sight of him. Kyoko sat across from her on one of the benches, hands folded in her lap, with a heavy beige tote by her side. Her hair was slicked back from her face, now devoid of the subtle concealer he hadn't noticed this morning, and caught with a cloth headband. A dark, oblong bruise stood out against the increasing paleness of her right temple.

"Tsu ... Tsu ... ruga-san. Hello." She gave him a smile so forced and anxiety-ridden he immediately wanted to kick himself for barging in the way he had. He realized that his stance was more threatening than protective, that he looked ready to hurt her rather than track down the man who did and tear him to pieces.

She needs your help, idiot! Stop scowling and put her at ease. So he made himself relax. He unclenched his fists and stuck his hands in his pocket.

And he smiled back.

. . . . .

The smile that suddenly blossomed on that legendarily handsome face was like liquid nitrogen, cold enough to burn and sear and tear like the depths of Hell itself. The icy blast from those curving lips set her insides roiling, whipping her spirit-grudges into a frenzy that threatened to split her flesh apart.


Kyoko was far more acquainted with this smile than she wanted to be and as such could read it with frightening clarity. It was the smile of a public manipulator, a mad magician who had the whole world thinking the trick was real and everything real was a trick. The smile that was pure, glittery surface and yet indicative of so much dark potential as to boggle the mind. The smile of a cunning sociopath who knows that a real smile, a genuine smile is supposed to reach the eyes and thus goes out of their way to compensate for the fact that theirs are devoid of any real warmth by scrunching them up until they seem almost entirely shut. A smile so fake it made plastic seem biodegradable by comparison.

To say that she feared this smile would be so much of an understatement as to miss the point entirely. The point being: To my beloved Taisho I bequeath ... Oh, christ, I have nothing to bequeath to anyone, just a few thousand yen in the bank and my Corn stone and my voodoo dolls, I'm going to die right this minute with nothing to leave behind in my will!

"Hello again, Kotonami-san," her executioner said smoothly. "I wonder if I could borrow Mogami-san from you?"

I have some these lovely new torture devices I'd like to try on her, that smile seemed to say.

Kanae didn't move to leave. She gave him a long look, her chin lifted in silent appraisal. Then she nodded slowly, more to herself than to Tsuruga-san, as if in understanding. What she understood in that moment, Kyoko wasn't even remotely sure, but she had the distinct impression that Tsuruga-san had just passed some sort of test. He seemed to be aware of this, too, because that awful smile dropped out of sight almost as soon as it had appeared and he returned Kanae's look with ... Was it some kind of ... gratitude? Could that be it? Why on earth would she thinks so?

Kyoko watched in horror as she hoisted her bag over her shoulder, clapped her on the shoulder and headed for the door. The man stepped aside to let her pass, never once taking his eyes off of Kyoko. Though the gentlemanly smile didn't return to his face, the aura around him was still too dark, the crackle between them cranked too high for her to feel entirely at ease. She looked down at her hands, frantically twisting in her lap. But Moko-san wouldn't have left if she thought I couldn't handle this, would she?

The silence between them stretched on like a piece of taffy. She bit into it like a bullet and hazarded a question without looking up: "Is there something ... I can do for you? Tsuruga-san?"

"Actually, I wanted to do something for you. A favor, really."

Oh, joy, maybe I get to PICK my method of execution? "That's ... nice of you. Wh-what favor is that?"

He walked over to where she sat stone-still on the bench, moving with sinister grace and quiet intent. She turned her head towards him as he approached. He leaned down to her. She couldn't bring herself to meet his eyes, so she stared at the bit of skin visible between the silver chain around his neck and the V-shaped collar of his blue shirt. He whispered:

"I'm going to give you a ride home." Neither a question nor a request, merely a statement of fact.

Eyes still trained on the chain around his neck, she immediately reached over and pulled her bag closer, preparing to leave. At his command, of course.

"Th-thank you, Tsuruga-san."

He leaned even closer, fully engulfing her in his shadow and the subtle spice of his cologne. She found herself breathing deep, taking in as much of that clean, heady scent as she could get without leaning in to smell him. The fact that she very much wanted to, especially at a time like this, was beyond confusing. That her mind was muddled enough at that moment to consider asking him outright what brand of fragrance he used was nothing short of alarming. The heat rolling off of him was like an aura all its own, a moving force that was strangely comforting, entirely separate from the darkness she sensed in him.

Keep it together. Keep it -

"And on the way ... You can tell me all about this ... Kyoichi ..." He spat the name like it was grime on his tongue, unfit to grace his lips.

Her eyes widened. The spell of his overwhelming physical presence broke just enough to allow the panic she'd kept at bay to reassert itself. She finally lifted her gaze to meet his and found herself staring down the dissonant tranquility of a demon lord. She quailed under the sheer weight of his charged but eerily neutral scrutiny. He was too close, entirely too close.

"... what he did to your hand ..."

Oh, no.

"... and where I can find him ..."


"... so I can beat the everliving shit out of him."

(Anyone else think I ran a bit too far with that hammer gag? I understand American and Japanese humor/ innuendo tend to differ, but I'm a silly Texan and I just couldn't resist!)

Till next time, folks! Review the hell outta me and gimme your guesses as to what's going on, I want to see how close you guys get to The Truth. (And, NO, the one with the best guest will not get a prize beyond the satisfaction of unraveling my plot, so don't ask for one!)