22 March 2024

This is a reaction to Chapter 223, just FYI if you aren't caught up to the manga and want absolutely nothing spoiled. That said, this one can be read fairly independently of wherever the current plot is going (mostly because…I have no idea WHERE the plot is currently going).

Just Say So

"A ghost?"

Kyoko's voice cut through the quiet hallway.

Ren froze in front of his hotel room door, hand still on the doorknob.

He wasn't even surprised to see her.

"I wish you'd say 'an illusion,' instead," he quipped, keeping his face neutral.

Kyoko Mogami was standing in the hallway, eyes wide and inexplicably dressed in her LoveMe uniform. He kept himself from reacting as he looked at her. He hadn't seen her in weeks, though they spoke far more often now than he'd ever hoped to.

It was enough. It had to be enough.

Right?

He took in her figure, savoring the small details that made Kyoko Kyoko.

Perfect posture. Her hair, still wet from the shower. Golden eyes filled with more wonder than surprise.

She'd found him. Of course she'd found him. She had a habit of finding him—in forests, on beaches, on darkened streets. Over and over again—too often for mere coincidence. Why wouldn't she find him now?

"It's just that I didn't expect to see Tsuruga-san until this evening," she said. She took a tentative step forward, and then another. This was fine, wasn't it? He trusted her to keep a reasonable distance between them. She wasn't crossing any lines.

His hand tensed on his door. It would've been easy to catch her up in his arms and spin her around, but he couldn't. He had no right.

His eyes bore into hers as he placed his finger on his lip. "Shhhh. It's a secret," he said. "Between you and me."

She stopped a few feet away from him. "Everyone's been looking forward to your arrival," she said.

"And you too, right?" He smiled at her gently as her cheeks colored.

"Of course," she said, before the blush reached her ears.

Just then they heard the ding of the elevator, followed by a sudden bark of laughter. "So Koga was like, 'WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME?' I mean, I guess I thought they were close, but he was like 'GO ASK HIS MANAGER!'"

Route Project members. Kyoko recognized the voices. They'd been having breakfast with Koga-kun and Murasame-kun when she and Moko had gone out for their run. Their rooms were further down the hallway.

"You don't think he's jealous, do you?" said a second voice. "I would be jealous too, if I were him."

"It's just so sad that Ren Tsuruga isn't single anymore."

Ren and Kyoko had turned towards the elevators—they were coming closer. Any minute now, they would come around the bend and see them. Kyoko's brow was furrowed in sudden consternation. If he wanted her to keep his arrival a secret, then he must have some reason for it. "Tsuruga-san," she whispered urgently, "they're coming—"

He was ahead of her.

Oh, he could've stayed in the hallway and let Kyoko make introductions. He could've smiled a polite smile and made small talk as strangers fawned all over him. Instead, he grabbed her by the hand, ignoring her small gasp of surprise.

He threw open his hotel room door and dragged her in beside him, turning around to slam it shut behind them just as the other actresses rounded the bend.

Kyoko found herself trapped in another kabedon as Ren stood over her, both palms flush against the door as the women walked past.

Their voices were muffled. "Oh—wait, he's dating someone?" she heard.

"I think I saw a news article from some Japanese magazine site. I can't read Japanese, but there was this picture of him kissing this woman…another actress, I think?"

"Kanae Kotonami?"

"No, I don't think so…"

"I'm glad—she seems kinda like a bitch—"

"And she's always with that weird girl."

Kyoko heard Ren's sharp intake of breath. His palms had formed fists against the door. He was glaring at it, almost as if he could see through the wood.

"Well I'm glad his girlfriend isn't here. Just because he's dating someone doesn't mean he wouldn't want to…you know…"

"Oh my god, you wouldn't."

"I would! Have you seen him?!"

"Ok, point taken, but you know Koga's single—"

"Yeah, but he's Koga, you know? He's…kinda boyish. But Ren Tsuruga…"

They stayed in place, listening as the voices traveled down the hall and finally faded.

Kyoko was staring up at him—was he angry? "Tsuruga-san?" she asked softly. Her heart was racing—had it simply been the rush into his hotel room?

"Do you have a room on this floor, too?" he asked.

"Next door," she whispered.

He slumped briefly against the door, closing his eyes before looking down at her. Having her so close and yet so far would be torture. Vaguely, he wondered if Lory had something to do with it. He figured the chances were evenly split between Fate and the LoveMon.

"Kyoko-chan," he whispered.

She felt her face twist as she blushed again. He smiled at her wistfully. "Sorry," he said. "I couldn't help it."

He took his hands away from the door but he didn't move. Instead, his eyes met hers—a hand came up to tuck a stray lock of her hair behind her ear and then froze there.

She shivered. He'd been so careful since his confession, scrupulously controlling himself. There were no more 'accidents' in the kitchen, no emergent needs for lap-pillows. There was no Nii-san needing to hold his little sister's hand. Instead, there had been small, glancing touches—little bolts of lightning when his hand glanced on her back or her arm. But nothing more than the brush of his lips on her pinky finger had transpired between them. Even when he'd threatened to princess-carry her down the stairs he…hadn't actually touched her.

It only made the physical distance between them more acute. Sometimes he felt like a child, wanting to touch something simply because he knew he shouldn't.

Her eyes had screwed shut. "It's…ok, Tsuruga-san," she said. "Even if it's you."

He laughed lightly, and then something caught his eye—just a peek of something silvery beneath the high collar of her shirt. Lightly, his fingers touched it, recognizing what it was.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I know—Yashiro-san warned you…but I didn't want to leave it in Japan." He pulled at the chain, lifting it from underneath her shirt. It was warm with the heat of her body. "No one's seen it," she said, straightforward as ever. "I've been careful."

"I know." He closed his hand around the pendant, kissed it, and then let it go. Reluctantly, he backed away from her.

She stared up at him like a rabbit in headlights. He wasn't sure whether she'd stay or bolt away.

"I'm sure you have another appointment with Kotonami-san," he said, attempting to diffuse the tension between them.

She exhaled, and their moment was over. Bittersweet, but necessary. He was glad he'd had the presence of mind to do it—if she'd kept looking at him like that, he truly would have lost it and kissed her.

"Moko-san is getting her armor today." There was something sad in her voice. "But I can't be there with her. It's cast-members only."

Ah, he thought. If she couldn't be with Kotanami then…an idea had germinated in his head.

"They're idiots. So you're free right now?"

Her resulting blush told him everything he needed to know.

"That's good," he said. "Because I haven't eaten anything."

She looked at him suspiciously.

"Nothing at all today."

Her brow furrowed.

"Not even a granola bar."

This time, she shook her head and gave him a reproachful look.

"Please don't skip breakfast, Tsuruga-san," she said.

He smiled as she regained her equilibrium and exhaled.

"I don't—usually. You really don't need to worry about me. But there wasn't anything to eat on the flight over so I figured I could eat when I got here—"

"And if you want to spend more time with me," she said, "you can just say so."

=.=.=.=

Author's Note: For Doge, who was hungry. For Snoo, who crosses the Pacific tonight.

Sorry, guys, this was all I could come up with. Lemme know what you think.