4

"Can I ask how long this has been going on?" Saitou said later, as he and Minako sat side by side in the Hikawa grounds. They were each laden with the remains of sizeable ice cream cones, courtesy of Rei.

Minako's gaze grew thoughtful at the question. "I guess it's been about—uh, well, um—awhile?"

Saitou spluttered with amusement. "You don't know?"

"W-well, it's kind of complicated, I-I mean, do you mean when did we get together, when did we first meet—"

"Ohh. First kiss then. I want details. I bet you kissed her, right?"

Minako turned bright pink and grinned. "A-actually, Rei kissed me."

"No! Shy little Rei-chan made the first move?"

"After I had lobbed several anvil-sized hints at her, yes."

Saitou snorted. "Hm, yes, that sounds about right."

Minako elbowed him playfully. "You be nice."

"Is she a good kisser?"

"Shacho!"

"Well?"

Minako sighed. "She's incredible. Can we move on, please?"

"To more questions? Absolutely."

Saitou laughed at the growl he received in response. He took another taste of ice cream and smirked at how much further along Minako was with her own cone.

"Shut up," she grumbled, as if reading his thoughts.

"I said nothing. I wonder though—I take it your family doesn't know yet?"

"No. They won't care, probably. I mean, they might not like it, but I don't care either way what they think of me."

"Have you talked to them lately?" Saitou had a feeling he already knew the answer.

Minako shook her head, confirming his suspicions. "They're never home when I call. I've had some good phone visits with Jin Su-unnie, though."

Saitou thought of the kindly young housekeeper who collected Minako from the hospital all those years ago when she'd been so sick. "Did I ever thank her for introducing you to karaoke?"

"No, but I have. She gets to go on holiday whenever and wherever she wants, and she could retire any day if she chose, but she doesn't know how to not work."

"She sounds like another excellent person that I know."

Minako rolled her eyes and finished the last of her ice cream. "I'm mystified as to who you might be referring to."

Saitou gave a cheeky wink. "Well, I was referring to me, of course."

"Of course."

They fell into a companionable silence for a moment, as Saitou tried valiantly to prevent his ice cream from dripping onto his fingers.

"How come you never told me?" Minako asked.

"Mff?" Saitou quickly swallowed the large mouthful of ice cream he had just taken and felt his throat go numb. "Gah! Cold!" He shivered, despite the warm afternoon and his skull began to tingle. "I never told you what?"

Minako quirked an eyebrow and gestured in Saitou's general direction. He ducked his head, feeling embarrassed. "Oh. Well, uh, to be honest, I thought you already knew."

"I did wonder, but I—I wasn't sure if it was my place to ask, and besides—" Minako leaned against his shoulder, "—it really didn't matter to me."

Saitou's eyes welled up. He was so exhausted that he would not have been a bit surprised if he completely lost his head and started weeping all over his top star. "Well," he said, trying to keep his voice level, "I feel pretty foolish about all this now. Especially since I completely missed what was going on right under my nose."

"And you call yourself a former journalist." Minako smirked.

"I guess the career change was a good idea then, hm? I should have clued in when you asked if Rei could come to Rome with us. Or maybe when you threatened my life if I booked you for anything at all the following week."

Minako giggled. "At least now Rei and I don't have to be all secretive around you anymore."

"Just promise me I won't see any more trysts in the recording booth." Saitou pretended to shudder, and squawked when Minako swatted his arm.

"Hey, you're the one who always says that the recording booth is where the magic happens."

Saitou groaned at Minako's insufferable grin, and made a note to never utter that phrase ever again.

"What were you doing there anyway?" Minako asked.

"Heh, well, actually I—I forgot my keys in the recording booth."

"Again? Are you serious?" The singer was incredulous. "This whole mess was caused by you forgetting your keys?"

Saitou shrugged. "C'est la vie. And for your information, I don't forget them every day." He ignored her scoff of disbelief and took another lick of ice cream. It was going to turn to liquid any moment. "So I guess you won't want me tagging along with you and Rei-chan around Rome, hm?"

"Oh, Shacho, don't be silly, of course we want you to join us—" The impish gleam in Minako's eyes made Saitou instantly wary. "—someone needs to take photos of me and Rei together at all the big sites!"

"Hm? What was that? You'd like to wear the rest of my ice cream? Hey!" Saitou had waved his cone in Minako's face and the idol had taken the opportunity to steal a large bite.

Minako licked her lips daintily and accepted the rest of the ice cream from the now scowling Saitou. "What I said was that I'm very much looking forward to seeing Rome, Shacho." She smiled angelically. "Speaking of which, I suppose you and I need to head back and continue with the planning meeting?"

"Actually—" Saitou rubbed at his eyes. "The day's nearly finished, Minako-chan, and to be honest, so am I. Tomorrow?"

Minako laughed. "That sounds good. I'll bring the espresso carafe."

"Hiroki-san will be relieved."

"No doubt. Oh, here, you might want these." Minako dangled Saitou's keys from her free hand.

"What the—how—"

"You should get a jacket with deeper pockets before we leave, Shacho. I hear pickpockets run rampant in Rome."

"And Tokyo too, apparently," Saitou grumbled, snatching back his keys. They had been entirely too troublesome of late. Perhaps he needed to find a way to remedy that. He spotted a flash of red and white through the dense foliage surrounding them. "Your lady approaches. I guess that's my cue to go."

Minako blushed as Saitou got to his feet. "Drive safe, Shacho."

"I will. You two behave yourselves now."

"Shacho!"

Saitou turned with a smirk, and made his way down the many Hikawa steps, very much looking forward to spending the next several hours with his pillow.

O~O~O

Despite the unprecedented situation in the doctor's office hours before, Saitou had been only a little amazed by Minako's determination to return to work.

While the singer was wildly popular across the continent, she had surprisingly few close friends. In fact—Saitou struggled to recall as he watched the girl in question singing her heart out before the recording studio microphone—did she have any friends her own age at all? It was strange to think that someone so beloved might actually be very lonely.

Saitou watched Minako as she continued to sing, her sweet voice echoing into the sound booth, a blissful smile on her face. She definitely had another hit on her hands. Saitou wondered if anyone else observing had noted the subtle changes in the singer's attitude since their return from the hospital—not that anyone else had known the purpose of their visit. As far as the rest of their coworkers knew, it had been a routine checkup and nothing more.

Suddenly Minako's expression went curiously blank before it turned confused. Her eyes widened in obvious alarm, as though she had forgotten something incredibly important. Slowly, methodically, she extracted herself from her headphones, and without a word she dashed from the recording studio.

"Minako-chan!" Saitou nearly decapitated one of his techs in his attempt to follow the girl, but of course, that split second had made all the difference. By the time he made it to the hallway, Minako was long gone.

He swore under his breath and hurried back to his office, nearly tearing it apart in search of his cell phone before he remembered that the stupid thing was in his pocket.

Well over an hour passed before he got through—it was as though something was interrupting the signal—and he would have sworn his thumb was losing feeling from hitting redial seven thousand times.

"Hi, Shacho."

"Minako-chan! There you are! I've been so worried! Where the hell did you run off to in such a hurry?"

"I know, I'm sorry. But I just remembered that I forgot, um, something."

Saitou snorted, impatience coupling with his worry. "It sounds terribly important for you to have left without even a word."

"Yes, it was very important actually."

"I don't suppose you're going to enlighten me?"

"No. You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

He ran a hand through his hair, fighting the urge to swear like a sailor. "Oh for the love of—will you please at least tell me where you are?"

"Where am I? I'm with my—my friend. Rei. You'd like her, she's idol material."

"Oh, really." He just barely noted the lack of honorific, and wondered just how long Minako had been keeping this friend of hers a secret. "Seriously, Minako-chan, I'm worried about you, even more so than all the other times you've disappeared on me—"

"What? Shacho, you're exaggerating! You talk as though I always pull stunts like this—"

"No, but the word 'constantly' comes to mind—"

"Oh come on, not constantly. Rarely?"

"Regularly, frequently, occasionally—"

"Oh fine, occasionally, we'll go with that. And speaking of going…"

"Minako-chan, don't you dare—"

A soft click told Saitou that the singer had ended the call. When he hit redial and received a message informing him that Aino Minako was not available to take his call, he was sorely tempted to simply fire off a profanity-laced diatribe, but eventually resisted. He had, after all, told the singer earlier that she should take the afternoon off. He heaved a sigh and left his message.

"Have fun with 'Rei', Minako-chan. You two behave yourselves." He closed his phone and smiled to himself. At least she wasn't alone. And she definitely sounded happy.

Since the recording session had ended prematurely, Saitou decided that he too would take an early night. It had been an exhausting day. He bid his staff farewell and entered the elevator for the long journey down to the parking garage, still wondering what on earth Minako had remembered so suddenly. Save for the occasional school assignment, the singer was usually anything but forgetful. Saitou smiled to himself for encouraging the behaviour in her. A good memory was an important quality to have in this business, he'd often told her, and it was something Saitou prided himself upon.

Except for one unfortunate constant, he realized, not for the first time, after reaching his car.

Saitou had once again left his keys in the recording booth.

O~O~O

Meanwhile, as Sugao Saitou was in the blissful throes of slumber, his top star Aino Minako and Shinto priestess Hino Rei were using their rare free time to select a special gift for him at a shop downtown.

"How about this one, Minako?" Rei asked, holding up a lanyard covered in musical notes.

The singer shook her head. "Too ostentatious."

"What? You wanted to buy him a hot pink sparkly one! How was that not too ostentatious?"

"It was practical! With that colour, he'd never lose his keys again!"

"Yeah, I guess, but it was hurting my retinas!"

"Oh, really." Minako unzipped her jacket. "Pop quiz, what colour is my shirt?"

Rei's eyes widened. The shirt was rather tight-fitting and low-cut. "W—umm…hot pink?"

Minako laughed. "And are your retinas in any pain?"

"I can definitely say no."

Minako blushed and zipped up her jacket, giggling at Rei's sudden pout. "Oh! This one is perfect!" She held up another lanyard for Rei to inspect.

"Red and orange elephants?" Rei wrinkled her nose, looking rather skeptical. "Are you sure?"

"They never forget, Reiko."

"Shacho certainly won't, with those colours."

"Just for that, you get the pink and sparkly one." Minako stuck her tongue out at Rei and turned to head for the cash register. "Gotta attach your new keys to something."

"New keys? For what?"

Minako spun back towards Rei and winked. "For my apartment," she whispered. "Which, incidentally, is where you and I are headed after this."

Rei was momentarily frozen in place as Minako sauntered towards the cashier, humming Romance under her breath.

"Reiko, come on!"

The idol's voice pulled Rei out of her daze, and she hurried to catch up, utterly failing to keep her grin under control.

O~O~O

AN: Well, I sure hope the end was a satisfactory one for everyone involved. I ain't sure about it meself, but I honestly had nooo idea what else to do with it. Maybe there's still another chapter waiting to be written? …maybe. Maybe. Just maybe. Uh, to be continued? Maybe?

Please do be so kind as to drop me a review! I also want to send shout-outs to everyone who's asked me to write stuff about Minako's past, because that's pretty much where this story came from, as well as another I'm working on. Thanks again for reading! ~ G