Disclaimer: I do not own (or claim to own) these characters. Skip Beat! belongs to Nakamura Yoshiki. This is fan-fiction for entertainment purposes only.


December

It was early December, and Christmas was in the air. As a kid in the United States, Ren had loved Christmas: the decorations, the lights, the general cheer that seemed to permeate everyone's consciousness as the year came to a close. The Christmases of Ren's childhood were full of warm, happy memories of celebrations with friends and family from all over crowding into his parents' house in the Hills.

But in Japan, Christmas meant couples, and the season felt like a feeding frenzy. The number of invitations and dates and the sheer amount of mistletoe that Ren had to dodge was astronomical. Everywhere he went, the actor was asked some variation of the same question — was there a lucky lady that he was going to celebrate with this year? Every talk show host, interviewer, gossip columnist, and celebrity news blogger wanted to know if Tsuruga Ren and Kana-san were going to make their couple status official. And many news sources were banking on an announcement coming during the holiday season — after all, it had been months since the photo of them kissing had been leaked. The pair had been spotted together a few times, but neither star or representative agency had made an official statement.

Since Tsuruga Ren wasn't officially off the market, dozens of actresses and acquaintances were apparently using the upcoming holiday to shoot their shot. December was a never-ending slew of conversations with women batting their eyelashes and heavily hinting (regardless of their current relationship status) that they could be free for Christmas, if Ren was the one to ask them.

It seemed universally agreed upon that he would not be spending the holiday alone, because no girl could possibly say no to Japan's #1 star Tsuruga Ren.

But in actuality, everyone was wrong. There was a girl who was capable of saying no to Tsuruga Ren. Quite enthusiastically. Not that Ren had gotten up the nerve to straight-out ask said girl to spend Christmas with him. But when he had casually brought up the subject of holiday plans, Kyoko had been only too delighted for the opportunity to brag about her upcoming birthday celebration (complete with a sleepover!) with her best friend, one Kotonami Kanae. Kyoko's excitement was contagious, and Ren managed to smile genuinely enough upon hearing the news. But inwardly, he slumped. Of course she had plans, on the one day Ren's busy schedule was actually open. Every other day in December was booked with interviews, commercials, promotions for his latest projects, and the increasingly large number of offers coming in. Ever since the premiere of Tragic Marker when Japan had learned the truth about Actor X aka Cain Heel aka Tsuruga Ren, demand had skyrocketed. A slew of movie offers had rolled in, and Ren was the busiest he had ever been in his career. It was gratifying, terrifying, and exhilarating all at once.

Yashiro had forfeited his role as Kyoko's manager. He was at his limit managing Ren's schedule and fielding offers for TV dramas, movies, and brand deals. Despite the increasing amount of overtime and decreasing time for socializing (not that he had much of a social life to begin with), Yashiro felt incredibly satisfied with his professional life. But personally, as 'Ren and Kyoko Happy Couple #1 Fan', Yashiro was bitterly disappointed. Ren's increasingly extreme workload and demanding professional attitude (he still maintained his perfect attendance record) did not leave Yashiro with much time to have Ren swing by the Love Me section office.

Luckily, Yashiro was not the only person concerned with Ren's romantic progress (or lack thereof). After months of hard work, Takarada Lory had — at long last — managed to capture the heart of one devious dating sim Seiichi-kun. With that out of the way, the fearsome Love Monster LME President was finally able to direct his full attention to Japan's #1 heartthrob.

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"Thank you for coming on such short notice. I know how busy you've been lately." Lory settled himself into his favorite gilded chair, flicking his velvet cape out of the way with the ease that comes from years of practice.

"What can I do for you, sir?" Yashiro managed to keep his face composed, but his voice gave him away. Earlier that day, the President's aide had delivered a note: this evening, my office. Tell no one. Come alone. -L. It had read more like a ransom note than a meeting invitation. Usually the President summoned Ren by himself, not Yashiro. Am I about to be fired?

"I trust Ren doesn't know you're here?" Lory asked, ignoring Yashiro's question, who nodded. "Good, good. And how do you think your charge is doing these days?"

Yashiro wondered if this was the President's way of letting him know that LME was instituting self-evaluations. Yashiro cleared his throat. "Ren remains on top of the industry, both in popularity polls as well as earnings. I believe he's up 7% from his gross earnings last year, and we've seen an increase in popularity among both the younger female demographics as well as working-age men. This can probably be attributed to the premiere of Tr—"

"Yashiro-san, we are both men of business," Lory interjected. "But if I wanted a yearly report, I wouldn't be asking for it out of the blue at nearly 10 o'clock on a Thursday night, in the middle of the holiday season… though I commend you for your diligence— you're clearly prepared." Lory drawled. The older man leaned back in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of his face.

The reason that Lory had hired Yashiro Yukihito to be Ren's manager was not because he had been the most qualified applicant (although Yashiro was extremely qualified). Lory had also not picked Yashiro because of his calm, measured nature (although it perfectly suited Ren's gentlemanly persona). The real reason that the President had chosen Yashiro for the job was because he had a hunch that underneath the cool, professional exterior was the ally and friend that Ren needed. Ren needed a manager, yes. But he also needed someone he could talk to and confide in, someone who had Ren's professional and personal best interests at heart. When Yashiro had started to openly tease the actor about his feelings for Kyoko, Lory knew his choice had been right. And now, he wanted to see if he would be right again. "Let me ask again — how do you think Ren is doing?"

"He's under a lot of stress. It hasn't affected his performance, he's still getting good results, great even," Yashiro corrected himself, thinking of how well the shoot had gone earlier that evening. "I don't think anyone on set with him would necessarily notice anything is wrong. Or not wrong, per se…"

Yashiro drummed his fingers against the side of his teacup, considering the question. Whenever Yashiro asked, Ren insisted that he was doing fine. But it was clear to Yashiro that his charge — and friend — was unhappy, somehow. And it wasn't hard for Yashiro to notice that this change in Ren correlated perfectly with a declining amount of time spent with Kyoko.

"He's just too busy, even for Ren. I don't think anyone on set would notice, but something's weighing him down. He's never relaxed. I don't know when the last time was that he did something besides work. And then there's the situation with Kana-san. I'm not sure he ever properly explained the whole situation to Kyoko-chan, but whenever I mention it he brushes it off and—" Yashiro paused. "He says nothing's wrong, but I know something is bothering him. But he refuses to admit it."

"Ren is a considerate fellow." Lory set his tea down on the marble coffee table. "He doesn't want to burden his manager with his personal troubles."

"I don't think friendship is a burden," Yashiro said quietly into his tea. Certainly, they hadn't always been friends. When they had first met, the actor had been polite, courteous, and distant, and Yashiro had Ren's boundaries. But then Kyoko had come along and smashed through Ren's careful guard, and Yashiro felt like he was getting to know the real Ren, for the first time. The distance between the two men had shrunk gradually until Yashiro felt completely comfortable teasing his charge about his crush on a sixteen (well, seventeen now) year old girl.

"Perhaps the best solution for Ren would be to spend a bit more time with a certain young actress?" Lory asked slyly.

"I can't even get him to admit that he wants to see Kyoko-chan!" Yashiro complained. "Let alone make free time in his schedule! It's like he refuses to be in love! When it's so clear!" Yashiro snapped on a glove and whipped out his phone to show the President his album of 'Ren and Kyoko forever' photos. "Look at them! They're meant to be together! It's FATE!"

Lory concealed his smile. Inside, the president was congratulating himself once again on both his decision to hire the man in front of him and his own excellent judgement of character. "Some people need a bit more...prodding, shall we say. You cannot leave everything to fate, Yashiro-san! It has a lot to do." The President reached behind his chair, pulling out a surprisingly normal manila folder and handing it to the manager. "Sometimes, you need to give fate a hand."

"It's not that I don't want to help, but I don't see how. It's not feasible," Yashiro meant to refuse, but somehow found the folder in his hands. He sighed, polishing his glasses while he began to read, and frowned. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered to himself "the prep-work alone… Ren's schedule is so packed, where would I even find the time…?"

"Of course you will need help," Lory agreed. His eyes twinkled. "But luckily, we have a department for that."

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Kyoko laid on her futon, staring at her phone. No new messages. She sighed. It's not like she had really been expecting anything. Just… hoping. For what, she couldn't quite say. She scrolled down through her old texts until she hit Tsuruga-san's last message. It was from almost two weeks ago — a quick 'less than one month to your birthday!' followed by asking what she wanted for a present. Kyoko had responded that he didn't need to get her anything, but would be happy if he could make it to her and Maria's party again this year.

Kyoko felt as though she'd barely seen Ren since that day in the elevator. Recalling the event still made her blush, despite the months that had passed. The first time she saw Ren in public after his confession, she had immediately turned pink and been unable to look at anything besides her shoes. It was probably for the best, Kyoko told herself, that she hadn't seen him much. Now that the Heel Siblings were done, with Ren's busy schedule and Kyoko filming Lotus in the Mire, they ran into each other much less. In the months since his confession, Kyoko doubted she'd seen him more than twenty times in person.

Tsuruga-san had told her that nothing could change yet, and Kyoko had understood. She had even been grateful — just because Kyoko could admit that she had feelings for Ren didn't mean she was ready for anything either. But the lack of any kind of progress combined with how little they saw each other sometimes made her wonder if it had actually happened. Maybe all that tumbling about for ninja training had injured her head. But then, just when Kyoko worried herself into thinking it had just been some super-realistic dream, as if by magic, Ren's number would appear on her phone. He still called her Mogami-san, but his voice was so deep and warm and full of longing that the first time she heard it, Kyoko had panicked and accidentally hung up on him. Or once at LME, she had caught his eye and his smile from across the lobby had turned her legs into jelly and Kyoko had walked into a column.

So Kyoko was pretty sure she hadn't just imagined it. Although she knew it was selfish, she desperately wished she could hear Ren's confession again. If she could just hear Ren say again that he loved her, then maybe, Kyoko thought, she would be able to banish the voice in her thoughts that continued to whisper: that she was wrong, she was conceited, she had misunderstood, it had been a mistake. After all, her own thoughts said, who would pick you, over Kana-san? To Kyoko, it seemed that every tabloid and talk show was abuzz with Japan's hottest rumored couple. She tried to ignore it, she knew it wasn't real, but it seemed impossible to avoid the photos. And worse, she couldn't deny that Tsuruga Ren and Kusunoki Kana looked good together. Like the perfect, dream couple. Why would he want you?

Whenever the voice threatened to overwhelm her, Kyoko would go to her dresser, where safely tucked away, was Ren's RMandy necklace. He wouldn't give that just anyone, would he? Not to someone who was just a kohai. Kyoko tried to reason with herself, but the cruel voice immediately pointed out that Ren had been photographed wearing an RMandy necklace since he had given it to her. Clearly he has more than one. Maybe he's given one to Kana, too. Did you think you were special? How embarrassing.

SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! Kyoko shook her head violently back and forth. Ren had said that his heart was hers. Calling Tsuruga-san up randomly and asking if he really loved her would be the same as saying she didn't believe him. And besides, Kyoko would rather die than do something so mortifying.

Kyoko rolled over on her futon, determined to go to sleep. If she couldn't win an argument with her doubts, at least she wouldn't have to listen to them in her dreams. Then Kyoko smiled. Tomorrow was December 24 — the day of the Happy Grateful Party had finally arrived. Tomorrow evening, she would get to see Ren.

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Kyoko arrived at the President's mansion promptly the next morning, ready for a full day of party preparation. She spent the first half of the day finalizing menu items, whipping up sauces, dollopping whipped cream on perfect bite-size desserts, and generally (unintentionally) terrorizing Lory's home chefs. Then there were the decorations to hang, the music selection to go over, and the guest-list to double-check. While Maria went to change into her party dress, Kyoko snuck back into the kitchen to assist with the finishing touches. Maria had to drag the older girl out of the kitchen as the guests began to arrive.

By the time Ren arrived, the party was in full swing. Yashiro branched off and was soon deeply engrossed in conversation with several other LME managers. Ren made his rounds, greeting familiar faces and feigning polite interest in whatever conversations he got dragged into, all while scanning the room for Kyoko. Meanwhile, Kyoko was busy making sure everything was running smoothly and that the guests were enjoying themselves. She told herself that she was doing her duty as a hostess and definitely not checking to see if Tsuruga-san had arrived yet. So Kyoko chatted with her landlords, and looked around for Ren. She spoke with Maria and her father, and scanned the room for Ren. Kyoko chatted with Kanae happily for twenty minutes, and when the dark-haired actress left, Kyoko's eyes swept across the crowd. Eventually, she spotted him looking obscenely handsome in a black turtleneck and camel blazer. Kyoko watched as he spoke with some producers, hoping their conversation would end so she could go over and say hello. To be polite, of course. Because, as one of the hostesses, and as his kohai, it was only proper that she greet him. But before she got her chance, one of the kitchen staff pulled her aside to ask a question, and the moment was lost.

Around midnight all the lights in the ballroom went out. A hush fell over the room as two spotlights found Kyoko and Maria in the crowd while Lory's voice came over the speaker-system, announcing it was time to celebrate the birthday ladies (and party hosts) of the evening. Giant fake snowflakes began to drift down from the ceiling, and the string quartet began to play 'Happy Birthday.' The entire room joined in, to Maria's delight and Kyoko's embarrassment. The song was immediately followed by a series of sharp cracks as streamers and confetti shot out and a swarm of balloons poured over the crowd. Kyoko was surrounded by coworkers and friends for the rest of the evening. Every so often, Kyoko thought she felt Ren's eyes on her, but when she turned to look Ren was always busy speaking with someone and she couldn't manage to catch his gaze.

Ren was jealous. But at least he could admit it to himself, and was properly ashamed. After all, he was a mature adult. And he was happy that Kyoko was surrounded by people who valued and loved her. But he couldn't help his growing resentment as he watched Kyoko laughing with her coworkers and hugging her friends. It seemed to Ren that only he, as her esteemed senpai, was kept at a distance. A respectful distance that he very much wanted to close. Ren unconsciously patted his jacket pocket and smiled as he felt the edges of a small box.

By the time Kyoko finished bidding goodbye to the very last guests and cleaning up the kitchen (she insisted), it was well past 1:30 a.m. The president refused to let her call a cab for herself and was about to ask Sebastian to drive her when Lory spotted a very obviously still lingering Ren.

"Ren! You drove, right? Can you take Mogami-kun home?" Kyoko began to protest that the actor didn't need to go out of his way, but was quickly outvoted. Ren felt a spark of hope in his chest — had she given in more quickly than normal? No. Ren had learned not to get his hopes up when it came to Mogami Kyoko. He shouldn't think that she wanted to spend time with him as much as he did with her. Most likely she was just tired. Or she was worried about keeping him up too late if she continued to argue.

The ride through the empty Tokyo streets was silent. After a very brief exchange about the party, Ren went quiet. Kyoko would open her mouth to say something, then glance at Ren and lose her nerve. She couldn't really ask what she wanted to ask, and it kept her from asking anything at all. Eventually, determined not to have the entire car ride go by in silence, Kyoko managed to get something out.

"Didn't Maria-chan look so cute in her dress? Like a princess! A beautiful snow princess!"

"If you liked her dress so much, why not ask Maria-chan where she got it?" Ren teased, smiling at her briefly.

"Oh, no!" Kyoko protested, completely missing Ren's joking tone. She frantically waved no with both hands, as if to stop Ren from suggesting such a preposterous thing. She was much too plain for such a beautiful dress. "I couldn't! It'd be silly on me. It looked good on Maria-chan because she's so cute." Kyoko smiled, picturing the little girl who called her 'big sister' dressed like a sugar plum fairy earlier that evening.

Ren pulled into the alley behind the Daruma-ya and turned off the engine. He unbuckled his seatbelt and slowly leaned over until his face was less than a foot from Kyoko, who froze.

"You're beautiful." Ren said simply. His voice was only husky, only just above a whisper. "On you, I'm sure it would be very pretty."

Kyoko turned tomato red. Ren had called her beautiful. Her. She tried to tell Ren that he was wrong, but her throat was clamped up. Her entire body was tense. Kyoko was almost positive that visible steam was coming out of her ears. Ren took pity on her and got out of the car, walking around to open the door for her. He tried to walk slowly, to give her some time to recover. Clearly Kyoko didn't believe him. But she hadn't immediately launched into a tirade, so Ren supposed he had to consider it a win.

Kyoko managed to get her muscles under control enough to stumble her way out of Ren's car, picking up her bag with both hands and ignoring his outstretched arm. The actor smiled ruefully as he walked her to the door. Kyoko fumbled for her keys, feeling that the rustling of her bag and her pounding heartbeat were extremely deafening in the midnight quiet of the alleyway. Finally she managed to extricate the door key. Still looking down, Kyoko paused, suddenly realizing that Ren was still standing behind her. At least she could look him in the eyes while she said goodnight, right? Kyoko inhaled and dared to look up.

"I wanted to give it to you earlier, but I couldn't get the timing right." Ren was holding out a small box almost completely obscured by a red bow stuck on top. Kyoko glanced down at the box, then suspiciously back up at him. He smiled nervously. "Happy birthday, Mogami-san."

"Oh! No! I mean, thank you, but — Tsuruga-san doesn't have to get me anyth—" she began. Ren ignored her protests. He opened the box to reveal a silver bracelet that sparkled with white and pink stones. Kyoko couldn't help herself, she leaned closer. The pink crystals looked like exactly the same shade of pink as Princess Rosa (because in fact, they were). It was the most beautiful bracelet she had ever seen. Maria-chan's fairy dress was entirely forgotten. Kyoko was stunned into silence. Ren took advantage of her pause to press the box gently into her hands, which closed instinctively around it before she could remember her manners. Kyoko stared down at it desperately for a moment before shaking her head.

"I can't possibly accept this!" she whisper-shrieked, conscious of the silent street and her sleeping landlords. Kyoko put the lid back on the box and shoved it into Ren's hands before she lost the will to part with it.

Ren blinked, then recovered. After all, it wasn't like he thought getting Kyoko to accept was going to be easy. But he had hoped. Oh well. There was only one course of action.

"Do you not like it?"

"OF COURSE I LIKE IT! IT'S GORGEOUS!" Kyoko barely managed to not shout. She closed her eyes, refusing to look at Ren. She could hear the dejected puppy in his voice. It was unfair of him to use Cain's look against her. Her lip trembled. "I'm very honored, but I can't accept such a precious gift! Tsuruga-san didn't need to get me anything for my birthday."

"I bought it for you because I wanted to." Ren opened the box. He gently tugged Kyoko's wrist forward and fastened on the bracelet. Kyoko found herself unable to utter a word of protest, despite the commoner part of her brain screaming that it was way too expensive. Kyoko stared at her wrist, lost in admiring how the bracelet winked and sparkled in the streetlight. Abruptly, she realized her hand was still resting in Ren's, his thumb brushing back and forth over her knuckles. For the second time that night, Kyoko was both afraid — and terribly excited — to look at Ren's face. She inched her eyes up slowly, past their hands, up his chest, to his neck, his jawline, then finally meeting his eyes. The heat in Ren's gaze made something inside of Kyoko melt while also sending a shiver up between her shoulder blades. Keeping his eyes locked on Kyoko, Ren raised her hand slowly towards his face. His long fingers splayed underneath her palm, almost brushing against the inside of her wrist where her pulse was hammering frantically. Ren's mouth was an inch from her fingertips. He hovered for a second. It felt like hours. Then, his eyes never leaving her face, Ren moved the last inch to kiss the back of her hand.

"Goodnight, Kyoko." His voice was low and strained. Kyoko could feel his warm breath across her skin.

It wasn't until Ren was almost to his car that she finally managed to find her voice, and it was barely above a whisper.

"Goodnight."