A/N: Reminder that this fic (and my previous one) time skip forward a year almost directly from the elevator scene (chapter 287). For my purposes, this means the D*sney Land arc never happened and Kyoko never met 'Sara'. The Juliena I have written below is the one I've had floating around in my head for the decade or so that this story has been in my brain, and I'm too lazy to change it now. For those of you who like to stick to the canon, you can just as easily ignore what I just said and pretend that due to manga magic, glasses and a different hair color are truly a boggling disguise. Whatever floats your boat. Now onto the story!


The pale gray light of another winter morning was filtering in through the windows and creeping across the floor of Ren's bedroom. Eventually it was bright enough that Kyoko stirred, turning onto her back and adjusting the blanket Ren had thrown over them at some point in the night. She tensed when she realized that the strange weight across her midsection was Ren's arm draped over her waist. Kyoko's mind raced to assess the situation, her body remaining frozen like a small rodent caught out in the open. After a beat, she began to cautiously creep away from Ren towards the far edge of the bed. She hadn't moved more than an inch when the arm around her waist tense.

"It's too early to get up." Ren's voice was slightly rough with sleep as he easily pulled her back against him and nuzzled into her hair, murmuring something Kyoko couldn't catch.

"But…" Kyoko hesitated. She felt her whole body heat up. It was bad enough that she had fallen asleep in his bed last night, but at least then she had the excuse of it being late and she was tired and Ren had been acting strangely. But now that it was morning, as cozy as Kyoko was, it was impossible to silence the part of her brain that was currently berating her for the utter lack of propriety of their current position. "You're up, so… I should—"

Ren grumbled something that was distinctly a disagreement. "I'm sound asleep," he declared. "You're still here, so I must be dreaming." As an added measure, Ren gave a giant, unconvincing yawn. Kyoko could hear the grin on his face.

"That's a little heavy-handed," she muttered, aware that it was a very token level of protest. She knew she should get up. She couldn't call herself a proper Japanese maiden if they stayed like this! She could feel the warmth of Ren's fingers lazily brushing her side through the thin cotton shirt that was her pajama top. He was snuggled around her, his taller frame curled up and lightly pressed against her back. There was absolutely no space between them, and Kyoko wondered if the actor was part furnace, since she could feel the heat of his skin as it warmed her back, lulling her into a warm state of drowsiness that was impossible to resist.

Kyoko woke again an hour later, feeling much more refreshed. Her stomach was beginning to grumble lightly, and Ren conceded that it was no longer too early to get out of bed, even if he seemed somewhat reluctant to actually let her go of her so she could head to the guest bedroom to wash up and change.

When she opened the guest room door, Kyoko nearly stumbled into Ren, who was standing directly in front of the door in the hallway and holding her dress from last night with a firm look on his face.

"I can't possibly take it with me," Kyoko began, shaking her head. Ren didn't interrupt her protest, instead he gave her an amused look that didn't quite manage to conceal his smugness.

"I have no problem with you leaving your things here," Ren reminded her. "You can keep it anywhere you like in the apartment. As long as you acknowledge that it's yours," he finished.

Kyoko bit her lip. Truthfully, she didn't have space in the tiny closet in her room at the Darumaya for the dress (she barely had room for her current wardrobe). And equally practically, she recognized that it didn't make sense to give the dress back to Tsuruga-san— it wasn't like he could return it. And lastly, if she was being very honest with herself, Kyoko didn't really want to give it back. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever worn. Of course she wanted to keep it. But even though Ren had said it was fine and even if she had to admit there was merit to her keeping an emergency change of clothes at Ren's apartment, keeping something as obvious and impractical as a red-carpet dress felt like a big deal. "Are you sure you wouldn't mind?" Kyoko asked.

"What I mind is having to keep telling you that it's okay," the actor said with his fake polite smile that made Kyoko want to flinch.

"But people might think—"

"What people? Kyoko, we've been over this: I don't invite other people to my home. Ever." The finality in his voice prevented her from arguing back. "I hardly think either of us is going to mention this to the press. It's not about what other people think. I care about what you think," he pleaded softly. "Is it too much? Does it make you… uncomfortable somehow, that I keep offering?"

"It just— it makes it all feel very real," Kyoko said, looking down at the carpet between their feet.

"If by 'it' you mean our relationship, then good," the actor said cheerfully. "Otherwise I'd be worried that I hallucinated last night when you said you loved me."

Kyoko instantly went pink. She stared up at him in stunned silence for a moment. Then her face turned sour. "Tsuruga-san is a bully."

"Mm?" Ren's smile was dangerous as he leaned down to purr in her ear. "It's Ren, remember? And maybe I wouldn't have to be such a bully, as you put it, if you weren't so determined to keep me at arm's length." Before Kyoko could pass out from the heated gaze he was giving her — certainly it was much too early in the morning for the Emperor of the Night! — Ren straightened and stepped past her to hang the dress in the guest room closet with a nod of satisfaction. Kyoko let out a breathe she was unaware she had been holding as he turned around and seemed to be back to his normal self when he smiled at her. "Would you like breakfast?"

"I can make breakfast," Kyoko offered immediately, following Ren down the hallway and into the kitchen. She began to roll up her sleeves, but he shook his head and gestured for her to sit down.

"I appreciate the offer, but you're always cooking for me. I want to be able to return the favor." Ren rummaged around in a cupboard. "I know I'm not much of a cook, but even I can manage breakfast," the actor insisted, pulling out a box of instant pancake mix and laughing at Kyoko's politely dubious expression. "Do you mind Western-style? It says all I have to do is add water," he muttered, flipping the box of pancake mix over to read the back.

The problem with being so inordinately talented as Tsuruga Ren, Kyoko mused, was that it seemed to imbue a general sense of self-assurance. Ren was neither full of himself nor a show-off— he simply seemed to operate with the unconscious assumption that he would be able to do whatever task was in front of him. And in an overwhelming majority of cases, it was true. But since nobody is good at everything, it was inevitable that Ren's confidence in his abilities would eventually lead him astray. Kyoko could still recall the mystifying taste that was Maui omurice. She had eaten the whole thing, of course, because for whatever reason Ren had seemed determined to, and she was determined to support him. She had a terrible stomach ache for two days after, and it was not an experience she would choose to repeat. But since Ren was oddly insistent on making them breakfast (which was as touching as it was concerning), Kyoko busied herself making coffee and then sat down at the granite countertop. She tried to keep her face neutral as she watched the actor measure out pancake mix with a drinking glass instead of a measuring cup. He then used the same cup to add in a haphazard amount of water and began to stir with a regular spoon from the silverware drawer. After stirring for a few minutes, Ren looked up from the bowl with a puzzled frown.

"Uh, did you check the directions?" Kyoko offered, unable to help herself. "The box should tell you how much liquid to add."

"Oh?" Ren picked up the box, squinting at the back. "So it does. I missed that." He looked back at the bowl, where so far he had added only enough water to make something that looked to Kyoko like it was closer to playdough than pancake batter. "175 milliliters… how much do you think I've already put in?" Ren asked, looking at the batter with an intense concentration that Kyoko couldn't help find hopelessly adorable. He did eventually manage to get it to the right consistency with what looked like only a few lumps. But when the first few pancakes came out blackened on one side and raw on the other, Ren humbly acquiesced when Kyoko volunteered to step in. The teen was surprised Ren even had pancake mix, since it seemed like something too sweet for the actor first thing in the morning. She said as much and Ren admitted it was true, but nothing said lazy weekend morning like pancakes— a sentiment that was strangely foreign to Kyoko as someone who preferred Japanese-style breakfast and rarely had a lazy weekend morning.

"What did you want to do today?" Kyoko asked, thanking Ren as he handed her the plates.

Tell her, part of his brain urged as she sat down next to him at the counter. You have to tell her.

I know, Ren thought back at himself. And it wasn't that he didn't want to tell her— but it was also their first day together in a long time, and he didn't want to spoil it. They had barely gotten to spend any real time together, and Kyoko had just last night said that she loved him. What if she didn't love him after he told her the truth? Could he ever manage to tell her, now that she'd said it and he knew that he might lose her? Ren swallowed a bite of pancake that suddenly felt like a lump of wet clay in his throat. He deserved today, at least. Another time, he promised himself silently. The truth could wait.

After breakfast they put on hats and sunglasses and went for a walk to a nearby park which was having an ice sculpting competition, then to a local cafe for hot chocolate to warm their frozen fingers. They stopped at a grocery store (not the super expensive one in Ren's building, Kyoko insisted) to buy ingredients for hot pot before returning to his apartment for a late lunch. Ren dropped her off back at the Darumaya in the late afternoon, lingering on the back porch long enough that the Taisho came out from the kitchen to stare at the actor and Ren quickly let go of Kyoko's hand, but not before he promised to see her again soon.

They spent the early part of December making up for the past few busy months. They went on as many dates as Ren could fit into his week — which with Yashiro's help managed to be a surprising amount. It was a cold winter, and the combination of hats and scarves and high coat collars meant that it was relatively easy for the stars to blend in among the crowds of Tokyo. They went to a night festival at a shrine. They walked around downtown shopping districts looking at holiday window displays. Ren took Kyoko to dinner at a French restaurant on the top floor of a skyscraper with floor to ceiling windows that looked down on the twinkling city lights and made Kyoko feel like she was looking out across the galaxy. They went ice skating, Ren gliding along backwards as easily as a wind fairy while Kyoko felt like a newborn baby gazelle as she wobbled next to him and had to grab Ren's arms for balance.

Although they had technically been dating for the better part of a year, Kyoko had never quite settled into thinking of herself as Ren's girlfriend. They had been on set together for Bitter Sweet Heart but she had spent most of the shoot thinking of the actor as 'pinnacle of professionalism, illustrious acting god Tsuruga-senpai' and not 'just Ren', as he had asked her to call him. And then they had done those whirlwind months of press together with barely a moment that wasn't about work. Now that it was over, part of Kyoko worried if Ren would get bored of her or that they wouldn't have anything to talk about. Although she had known Ren for years and they had even spent time living together in the hotel as Cain and Setsu, it had always been centered on acting. There had always been some professional pretext for their interactions. Now that there wasn't, it was like Kyoko was discovering a whole new side of Ren that she had only glimpsed before. Japan's top star Tsuruga Ren was a devastatingly gorgeous movie star who wore custom white three-piece suits and had the aloof, dignified aura of a foreign prince. Ren-san, on the other hand, was still stupidly attractive but preferred cozy sweaters and was surprisingly direct. The actor Tsuruga Ren was 22 going on 35 — someone mature, calm, and wise beyond his years. But Ren-san was boyishly charming with his playfully half-quirked smiles and teasing comments and peculiar delight in mundane activities like going to the grocery store or wandering through Tokyo's crowds, their hats pulled low and scarves bundled up over the lower halves of their faces. Once in a particularly busy crowd, Kyoko had been afraid of getting separated and had reached out to hold onto the sleeve of Ren's coat. Automatically his hand found hers and he adjusted his steps to match her shorter stride, as easily and naturally as if they'd had years of practice walking side by side. The usual thrill of excitement ran through her as it always did whenever Ren touched her, and something else that Kyoko couldn't quite put a finger on. Underneath the electric spark was a calm, steady warmth that started where Ren's fingers absently wove between her own, a glow that worked its way up and into her chest. It felt like their hands had been made to fit together. Kyoko squeezed Ren's fingers and he squeezed back. It was still exciting (it was impossible to stand next to Ren and not feel excited, Kyoko thought), but the teen realized, with a shock, that being so close to him no longer felt strange and uncomfortable. It felt normal. It felt right.

«×»«×»«×»

As she finished saying goodbye to Maria-chan after another Happy Grateful Party planning session, Kyoko was filled with gratitude. She was grateful every year, but this year especially she felt like she had so many wonderful things in her life to be grateful for: her friendship with Moko-san, her kind and understanding landlords, her official movie debut, her new manager, and of course, Ren. She was grateful in a professional sense but also a personal one. Kyoko was amazed and so full of gratitude that such an amazing, wonderful person like Ren wanted to spend time with her, let alone that he wanted to be her boyfriend. Part of her had been superstitiously afraid to tell him her feelings, worried that saying the words aloud would be like the clock striking midnight for Cinderella. But she had at last managed to tell him and nothing bad had happened. In fact, they had only seemed to grow closer, and the weeks since were probably the happiest of her entire life. It seemed like all of Tokyo was suddenly sparkling and full of magic. Lory would have said it was the power of love and Kanae would have said it was just Kyoko getting carried away by the stupid holiday aftmosphere, but Kyoko knew it was simply the magic of Tsuruga Ren.

And then it was mid-December and Hizuri Kuu landed in Japan with his wife and the warm and happy calm that Kyoko had been carrying around her like a fuzzy blanket vanished. The actress didn't know what to do. She was babbling to Ren about it one night after dinner at his apartment. He watched her pace back and forth in the living room and used every fiber of control in his body to not do the same, managing to channel all of his growing anxiety into the tiniest twitch of his ankle.

"I don't know what you're so worried about," Ren teased, only the barest hint of strain in his voice. Kyoko was so wound up in her rant that she missed it. Nor did she look up at him to notice the thread of tension in the actor's shoulders.

"But he's such a famous star! And it was years ago! He probably doesn't remember me," she protested. "And even if he did, it would be weird! We haven't spoken since back then! I mean, Hizuri-san gave me his number, but I've never called!"

"Why not?"

Kyoko stopped pacing long enough to give Ren a look. "He lives in America. It would be wrong to use my work phone to make a private call. Especially an international one!" Her tone flipped from scandalized back to nervous as she resumed the pattern of her steps, a distinct figure eight marking in Ren's otherwise pristine carpet. "It would be too sudden to reach out! Right? Now that he's back, I'm sure he's busy. I wouldn't want to bother him…" Kyoko trailed off. She stopped pacing and slumped, so cartoonishly full of dejection that Ren wasn't sure if he wanted to tease or hug her.

"I don't think he would mind," Ren said lightly.

"But he's Hizuri Kuu! Shuuhei Hozu! The original Katsuki! I me—" Kyoko froze, her wild gesture cutting off in mid-air as she stiffened in horror. "AH! Tsuruga-san, I'm so sorry! That's not what I meant at all! I didn't mean to imply that your Katsuki is—"

"Kyoko…"

" —I mean, you really can't compare the two! It's just that he was here at that time and—"

"Kyoko."

"I swear I didn't mean anything by it! I'm so sorry, I wasn't thinking at all! I would never thi—"

"Kyoko!" Kyoko's jaw snapped shut instantly. Ren held her gaze. "I'm not mad, so you don't have to apologize. I didn't think you were trying to imply anything." He struggled for a moment. He took a deep breath, forcing himself not to stutter over his next words. "You played his son, right?"

Kyoko looked down at the carpet and nodded. She was waiting for Ren to tell her that she was being stupid. Of course it must seem silly, for her to be so attached to someone she had spent only a few days with. Hizuri-san was a foreigner and a movie star, they had nothing in common. He hadn't even liked her when they first met, he had openly tried to pick a fight. But then Kuu challenged her to create the role of Kuon and their relationship had changed. He taught her how to create a role from scratch, the excitement of building a character and the joy of living inside that existence. And the fatherly affection that he had shown to Kyoko had torn open a gaping wide hole in her heart, one that she wasn't even aware had existed before Kuu had called her 'son'. She looked up at Ren, her cheeks hot with embarrassment as she tried to explain. "I-I've never had…" she stuttered. "I mean, my own dad, he wasn't around so… even though it was just a role— I know it's stupid." Kyoko cut herself off. Ren's arms were around her before she could blink, pulling her tight against him. Kyoko tried to clear her throat. "I-I'm fine," she said, her voice slightly muffled as she spoke into his shirt. "Really, Ren-san— I'm totally fine! I mean, I'm used to it, so…" she trailed off.

Instead of letting go, Ren hugged her tighter. He wanted to confess, to assure Kyoko that she had nothing to worry about. He knew his dad would love to see her. And if she agreed to marry him, Hizuri Kuu would really be her father one day. The words threatened to burst from him and Ren had to bite down on the side of his tongue, squeezing his arms around Kyoko as if hugging her tighter would keep his thoughts from escaping. He wasn't sure who he was trying to help: her or himself. Probably both. Ren recognized a part of him was jealous. Hearing the reverence and longing in Kyoko's voice reminded Kuon of his younger self when he had looked up to his dad like a hero. He still did, Ren realized. Even though he had fled to Japan to leave his past behind, right now Kuon wanted nothing more than to proudly declare that he was his father's son. But it would be selfish to do it now. How would she feel, knowing that the son of the man she idolized was right in front of her? Having understood just how much Kuu loved him, how could Kyoko possibly forgive him? How could he possibly explain to Kyoko — whose parents had neglected and abandoned her — that he chose to leave his own wonderful parents behind, fully knowing the pain it caused them. Even if by some miracle she didn't hate him, how could she not resent him? And even if she didn't resent him, if Kyoko knew that Ren was really Kuon she would never presume to refer to Hizuri Kuu as her father. Revealing his true identity to her now meant that he would not only risk losing her but severing her relationship with his father, too.

"-n-san? Ren-san?" Kyoko's fingers were tapping at his back. "Um, can you let go? It's kind of hard to breathe…"

Ren dropped his arms immediately, stepping back. "Sorry, are you alright?"

"I'm fine!" Kyoko chirped, and it seemed to be true, although her face was still a bit flushed. She looked at Ren, nose scrunching. "Are you alright?"

Ren didn't answer. Instead he turned around abruptly and walked over to where Kyoko's phone lay on the coffee table. He hesitated for a breath, then picked it up.

"He told you to call him Otou-san," Ren said seriously, holding out her phone. "That's not something anyone says lightly. I'm sure he'd love to hear from you."

It was exactly what Kyoko had wanted to hear. Ren was acting a little strange, but Kyoko chalked it up to Ren still feeling a little awkward about her Katsuki comment. He had handed her the phone with a strange finality, and while part of Kyoko worried that Ren was just being nice by encouraging her, it still warmed her heart and she made up her mind: she would call Hizuri-san. After all, Kyoko thought, she should at least try to reach out— what did she have to lose? She would leave him a message. Hizuri Kuu was probably busy as he was in Japan promoting a movie of his own, he probably wouldn't even pick up his cell phone. She would be lucky if the number she had even went through, Kyoko thought. It was probably just his company's number. Maybe if she was lucky, his personal assistant's. She decided she would call tomorrow, and Ren slowly let out a breath, thankful he wouldn't have to witness the interaction.

The next day Kyoko nervously dialed the number she had saved. When the actor picked up after two rings, Kyoko nearly dropped her phone. It turned out the number he'd given her was in fact his cell phone number, and Kuu lovingly scolded her for not calling sooner and demanded that she meet him some time for lunch. Luckily Kyoko's schedule was relatively open that week and so they made a plan to meet on Wednesday at a restaurant.

When Wednesday came Kyoko did her best to soothe her shaking nerves as she was led through an upscale restaurant to a private back room. She knocked twice and was preparing to execute a formal bow when the door swung open and the teen was swept into a hug that lifted her off her feet, Kuu excitedly calling her son and chiding her for not coming sooner and also asking if she was ready to order all in the same breath. And as easily as that Kyoko felt her walls fall away and she laughed as Kuu set her back down on her feet and informed her that he had already ordered the whole menu (and two of every appetizer). It was as if no time had passed at all once Kyoko stuttered through her first 'Otou-san' and Kuu beamed at her. They chattered about LA, and recent films, and Kuu's new movie and his promotion in Japan, and then Kuu accused Kyoko of hiding her own recent film from him.

"Oh," Kyoko said bashfully. "Well, I wasn't sure you'd heard of it and I didn't want to—"

"Of course I've heard of it!" Kuu exclaimed. He's more than heard of it — he'd gone to see it eight times in theaters and had saved all the ticket stubs to prove it. He'd brought Julie with him too and they both thought Kyoko had done an amazing job with the role. Kuu waggled his eyebrows at her and asked what that 'second-rate Katsuki' was doing in her debut movie. Didn't they have any better male leads in Japan? Despite knowing that he was purposefully trying to rile her up, Kyoko couldn't help herself, launching into an impassioned speech about how wonderful Ren had been on set and how perfectly he had acted as Hatori in Bitter Sweet Heart, which made Kuu pretend to cry over his son choosing 'some flimsy actor' over her own father.

"He's not just any actor!" Kyoko said hotly, jumping to defend Ren and digging herself further into a hole. For all his action bravado, Hizuri Kuu was an insightful man. And he also may or may not have had some information that Lory had dropped regarding his son and a certain young auburn-haired actress. Not that Kuu had needed Lory's hinting. Seeing Kyoko and Kuon interact the last time Kuu had been in Japan had been enough for him to understand his son's feelings towards the girl in front of him. But he hadn't realized that she was aware of Kuon's feelings, let alone that she reciprocated them. Kuu watched, his eyes gleaming as the truth came out and then the American actor demanded to know why this Tsuruga Ren hadn't come and asked for permission to date his son.

"Are fathers this protective of their sons?" Kyoko had grumbled, pretending to act petulant but secretly glowing.

"When their sons are as cute and precious as mine is, yes," Kuu said immediately, his face perfectly serious.

"He was right." Kyoko said it under her breath, but Kuu caught the words and looked at her, one eyebrow lifted. "I… was a little worried that you'd forgotten and think it was strange if I called you," she explained. "But Ren-san said that you wouldn't ask me to call you Otou-san if you didn't mean it."

"He said that, did he?" This time it was the actor who muttered under his breath, a strange smile on the older man's face. Then he reached out and flicked Kyoko in the forehead. "Silly Kuon," he teased. "I always want to see my son!"

Kyoko grinned. They finished their lunch and Kuu paid for the bill, waving away Kyoko's protests. As they stood up to go, Kyoko reached into her bag and pulled out an envelope with his name carefully written on it.

"I, um… I know you're very busy while you're here," Kyoko said nervously as Kuu took the letter, "But Maria-chan and I— Takarada Maria, I think you've met her?... Anyways we um, we're throwing a party, it's not a birthday party but it's kind of an annual thing and I would be very honored, I mean we would both be very honored if you accepted this invitation," Kyoko said as she handed it to him with a small bow. "Of course, you don't have to come! I know you're busy! But I just—"

"I'll be there," Kuu promised, ruffling her hair affectionately. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

«×»«×»«×»

Kanae wasn't sure how Yashiro had managed to finagle his way into her life. He had asked her out to dinner again under the guise of trying out another restaurant for Kyoko and Ren. Which was sort of a plausible excuse since Kanae was also an actress, but it also made no sense since she was nowhere near the same level of fame and recognition as Tsuruga Ren (and also, Kanae was positive that 'scope out prospective date night spots' was not in the manager's job description). If he had asked for her help as part of the Love Me section, such dinners would obviously have counted as work. But he didn't. Although he always pulled out his personal credit card and insisted on paying for the meal, Yashiro never used the words date or go out when he asked Kanae to dinner. Which Kanae tried to tell herself was good, since she had made it clear months ago that she wasn't interested in dating anyone. It wasn't the first time Kanae had told a man that, but it was the first time a man had listened. Yashiro had been a gentleman; he didn't push the issue with her. He didn't hold it against her if she said she was busy or if she was running late, and he never pressured her or whined at her that she owed him something since he was buying her dinner. Part of Kanae's brain argued that Yashiro had moved on and he was simply asking her to dinner because he didn't want to dine alone. It was a logical enough explanation, and yet it didn't feel right. She was sure — or almost sure— there was something more. But since Kanae had told Yashiro that she didn't want to date and he hadn't asked her since, the actress didn't have the courage to bring it up. And since she refused to ask him to clarify just what was going on between them, Kanae was left at a stalemate.

They finished dinner and found themselves walking down a large street somewhere in Shibuya. All the storefronts were decorated and glowing with tiny lights, and soft cello music was floating from a string quartet that was busking on the corner. While Kanae was not the sentimental type, the analytical part of her brain realized that it was very Romantic. Kanae glanced at the man beside her. It looked like the manager was puzzling over something and Kanae felt her pulse being to pick up despite herself. They walked in silence for a few more minutes.

"Can I ask you something?" Yashiro said suddenly. The actress nodded and stepped off the main part of the sidewalk. Kanae was aware of the hint of adrenaline speeding up her own heartbeat and was surprised that the manager didn't look nervous. He wasn't fiddling with his glasses, and part of Kanae found herself a tiny bit annoyed that he wasn't. But she let it slide, since she was also slightly relieved that he had approached the subject and was trying to figure out how to phrase her reply when Yashiro surprised her. "Will you help me pick out a gift for Kyoko? I want to get her something for her birthday," He clarified, "but I'm not quite sure what she would like."

"Oh." Kanae felt her stomach drop in what she knew was disappointment and quickly covered it up. "Fine," she said sourly. She turned abruptly and began to march down the street, not bothering to wait for the manager. Kanae focused on navigating through the crowd and ignored the prickling sensation that felt uncomfortably like rejection. She felt foolish, and she hated feeling foolish.

Although they had already been walking in silence, the mood shift was palpable. Yashiro hurried to catch up to the actress, barely keeping pace with her breakneck walking speed.

"Is everything alright?" He asked, looking at her anxiously.

"It's fine," Kanae said icily in a tone that anyone would recognize as decidedly not fine.

"Do you have somewhere else to be right now?" Yashiro asked. "I didn't mean to impose, I thought if you had something to do you'd just tell me no. I shouldn't have assumed…"

"I don't have anything else," Kanae said in a clipped voice. It was a Friday evening! Why would he possibly think she had other plans after this? Where would she be going? She was tempted to ask him what he meant by such a stupid question. It would be the same as admitting that she had saved her Friday evening for him, which would be tantamount to admitting she thought he was going to ask her out.

Yashiro was aware that he'd done something wrong, but exactly what it was, he wasn't sure.

"Are you cold?" Yashiro asked. He looked at the actress. Kanae was wearing a pair of sheer black stockings and heeled suede boots that were meant for style, not warmth. Yashiro stopped walking immediately, reaching out an arm so that Kanae had to stop as well. "Why don't we stop in a cafe? Let me buy you some tea," he suggested, already snapping on a glove and pulling out his phone to google for nearby cafes. "You must be cold. Do your feet hurt? I can call us a taxi."

Kanae was a little chilly and her feet did hurt a bit from her shoes. But they were very minor issues and she was well aware they were her own fault. Still, the actress did her best to glare up at Yashiro as though it was his fault instead. Unfortunately her efforts were wasted, since Yashiro was preoccupied by his phone. As much as Kanae wanted to be angry, even the actress found it hard to be upset at the manager, who was clearly trying to be conscientious. Her last bit of her sour mood dissipated and she reached out and plucked the phone from his hand, snapping it shut.

"I'm fine," she said. This time there was no undercurrent in her voice, except a hint of amusement. Yashiro was looking at her with genuine concern and for a moment Kanae considered apologizing or explaining herself. Instead she gestured to a department store a few blocks down. "There." Kanae unceremoniously handed Yashiro back his phone and then — surprising them both — linked her arm through his. She led them forward, this time walking at much more easy pace, while Yashiro did his best not to trip over his own two feet as he slide the phone back into his coat pocket.

«×»«×»«×»

On the evening of December 24th, the Takarada estate was buzzing with the delightful and electrifying combination of good food, good drinks, good music, and good people. Despite the party's strange name (that Kanae completely despised and practically begged Kyoko to change every year), people loved the event and the guest list had grown every year since the first Happy Grateful party.

Kyoko surveyed the crowd, smiling as she spotted the puff of sparkling white tulle that was Maria-chan as her father spun the laughing young girl around the dance floor. Kyoko saw her landlords chatting with the Ishibashi trio in one corner. Many of her old coworkers had come: Momose and Oohara-san and Director Ogata from Dark Moon; Chiori and several members of the Box R cast; Hiou-kun, his grandfather, and a few of Kyoko's stunt friends from the dojo; Uo-chan and her fiance from Bitter Sweet Heart. Kijima was there too, of course, and on arrival had pulled Kyoko aside almost immediately and begged her to introduce him to the tall, gorgeous actress he'd seen her talking to. Kyoko had been about to make the introduction but one death glare from Kanae shut the teen up and Kyoko scurried away to the kitchens under the excuse of needing to check on the desserts. Then, feeling guilty, Kyoko had actually gone to try and check on how the pastry chefs were managing. Fourteen trays of cream puffs and twenty minutes later they managed to successfully shoo her out of the kitchen.

Kyoko was looking around for Kanae again when she spotted Ren walking towards her. He looked dazzlingly handsome in an R'Mandy suit and Kyoko stood rooted where she was, watching him approach with his long, graceful, unhurried strides.

"Thank you very much for coming, Tsuruga-san," Kyoko said with a polite bow. Ren quirked a half-smile of amusement.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," he replied. It was exactly the kind of smooth reply that Tsuruga Ren was known for saying, but the warmth in his voice and his smile was just for her. After spending so much time together it was strange to go back to pretending to be just colleagues, but Kyoko also found it strangely fun. It was almost like they were acting out a scene together, but in front of a crowd instead of a camera. Yashiro, Mami-chan, and Kanae eventually found the pair and joined them. Other party guests floated by, stopping briefly to introduce themselves, thank their hostess, or catch up with the stars. A number of producers and directors and other important people in Tokyo show business who stopped by to say hello to Ren. Kyoko practically reeled with shock when they turned to her, introducing themselves or at least giving a brief nod. The actress marveled at the fact that nobody seemed to find it strange that Tsuruga Ren was spending so much of his valuable time speaking with a nobody like Kyoko. Probably because Jelly-sama had arrived earlier to do hair and makeup for both of the hostesses, and even Kyoko, as plain and modest as she was, could not help but think that in such a gorgeous dress as the one she was wearing, it wouldn't be too shameful for Ren to be seen with her.

"Mo, nobody is thinking that," Kanae said. "You're not a nobody! You're in one of the most popular movies of the year, and you've already starred together before. Why would people be surprised that you're talking to each other?"

Kanae could tell from the look on Kyoko's face that she was about to launch into a long, gushing speech and the dark-haired actress decided she wasn't interested. Muttering something about sappy couples, Kanae excused herself to get another drink.

"Er, I think I need a new drink too," Yashiro said after a second, excusing himself to follow Kanae, despite the barely touched glass in his hand.

"Have they gotten closer?" Ren remarked, his eyes following his manager.

Kyoko blinked, the question catching her off-guard. Of course, Yashiro was very smart and hardworking and talented and Moko-san was Moko-san, so of course they were both very excellent people and it wouldn't surprise her to know that they got along. Except Kyoko wondered about when exactly they would run into each other, since Yashiro and Ren were usually together and Kanae had a busy schedule of her own. But before Kyoko could ask Ren further, she heard a hush fall over the room and all the heads, including her own, turned instinctively towards the entryway.

Standing in the wide double-doors was the most beautiful woman that Kyoko had ever seen. She looked like a queen from a fairy tale with her midnight blue dress and long blonde waves. Kyoko was so transfixed it took her several seconds of staring to recognize that the man standing beside the mysterious beauty was Hizuri Kuu. The actor spotted Kyoko, waving enthusiastically. The crowd seemed to part for the glamorous couple, Kuu looking tall and handsome in his suit and his wife gliding along beside him so gracefully it looked like she was floating. Time seemed to slow down as the glamorous pair walked towards them. Kyoko's whole body was tense.

"They're coming over here!" Kyoko whisper-shrieked through her clenched jaw.

"So it would seem," Ren said in a low voice from beside her.

"There you are, son!" Kuu said cheerfully. "I don't believe you've met my wife? Juli, this is Kyoko, the girl I told you about."

"Pleasure to make your acquaintance," Julienna said in slightly-accented Japanese, extending a hand for Kyoko to shake in a very American gesture. Kyoko froze, afraid to touch someone so beautiful. Then realizing how rude it was, she reached out, shaking the offered hand lightly as she bowed deeply.

"The pleasure is all mine!" Kyoko exclaimed. "Thank you both so much for coming!" Kyoko smiled nervously. Only her years of training at the Fuwa ryokan kept her from falling apart completely in front of the pair. Even Ren, whom Kyoko had never seen fail in a social situation, seemed a bit stilted. "Um, Otou-san, I believe you've met Tsuruga-san," Kyoko managed to say without stuttering, looking between the two men. They were almost the same height, Kyoko noticed as the pair shook hands and Kuu introduced his wife to Ren.

There was a slight pause after the introductions. Kyoko glanced up at Ren, hoping he would jump in, but the actor seemed to be staring past the couple in front of him. Thankfully Kuu quickly started up the conversation, congratulating both the actors on their recent film. Juliena was quiet, a serious look in her eyes as she listened to the conversation, her arm still linked through her husband's. Kyoko blushed furiously, not sure how to take such open, direct praise, especially from such beautiful and accomplished people. Judging by the polished smile on Ren's face, she wasn't the only one. Kyoko was actually thankful when some producer and old friend wandered over, interrupting Kuu's rant of praise to say hello and drag the couple off for drinks. As the teen breathed a sigh of relief, she noticed that Ren seemed to do the same, and Kyoko found herself very amused at the knowledge that even Tsuruga Ren was not above being starstruck.

Soon it was midnight, then one, then one-thirty and the crowds were rapidly dissipating. Maria's father had already taken Maria upstairs and put her to bed, and the last few stragglers were heading towards the door or for one last round at the bar. Kyoko kept her hostess' smile perfectly in place, but inwardly she was glad the night was coming to an end. She was exhausted after the long day of prep and standing around in her party shoes and was looking forward to taking off her heels and collapsing into her bed at the Darumaya. The actress grabbed her bag with a change of clothes, promising Ren she wouldn't spend more than twenty minutes cleaning up the kitchen and helping the staff.

"Ten minutes," Ren had said.

"Fifteen," Kyoko had compromised before speeding off.

Ren sighed, resigning himself to a twenty minute wait. He knew it was useless to try and persuade Kyoko that she didn't need to help and equally useless to offer to do it himself. And truthfully, he could use twenty minutes to himself. The party had been wonderful and Kyoko had looked gorgeous, but he had been unable to enjoy a minute of it once his parents had arrived. Even across the crowd with his back to them, Kuon could sense their gaze and it filled him with loneliness. And guilt. He sighed again, then decided that instead of brooding he may as well be useful and went to collect Kyoko's coat from the front hall.

Ren turned into the hallway just in time to see Kanae and Yashiro spring apart from each other. The actor raised one eyebrow at his manager, who was beginning to resemble a steamed lobster. Kanae's poker face was much better, but even her cheeks were tinged slightly pink. Looking up, Ren saw a familiar sprig of green hanging from an archway above and raised both eyebrows at the couple caught underneath the mistletoe. The actress crossed her arms defensively over her chest and stared flatly back at Ren.

"What?" She demanded.

Ren's eyes settled on Kanae and he stared at her, a serious furrow forming between his brows. "That's my best friend," he said, pointing at Yashiro. The actor's voice was completely serious, the only hint of playfulness coming from the tiniest smirk in his eyes. "I won't forgive you if you hurt him."

Yashiro gave a strangled cough and Kanae turned pink, but Ren was already sweeping down the hall past them with a chuckle. Ren grinned, and suddenly understood why Yashiro could never seem to stop teasing him about his love life. He was so amused by his thoughts and searching for Kyoko's coat that Ren didn't hear the soft click of heels approaching and the rustle of silk against the floor. Juliena cleared her throat softly and Ren froze. He turned around slowly, looking like a cornered animal as his eyes darted around the empty foyer.

"Kuon," Juliena said, barely above a whisper, the longing and pain in her voice leaking out to her eyes.

"I'm sorry, I think you misheard my introduction earlier," Ren said stiffly after a moment. "It's Ren."

Julie shook her head. She took half a step forward, her arm reaching out towards him. When Ren pulled back to avoid her touch, Juli's face crumpled.

He tried to avoid looking at her— he didn't want to know if she was crying. In a desperate attempt, he closed his eyes, but that only made it worse as the familiar, comforting smell of her perfume wafted over him. He swallowed the lump in his throat. "I'm sorry."

"Wait, Kuon, please!" Juli begged. "I just want five minutes with my son!"

"I'm sorry," Kuon said again, his voice cracking. "Please, mom, not here. I can't—"

Around the corner, Kyoko froze.