Kyoko was so tightly wrapped in the cold embrace of doom and despair that she nearly failed to notice Moko. The shocking, eye-searing pink of the Love Me uniform barely managed to cut through the haze of her misery. She shuffled to a stop, and twisted around in agonized slow-motion to meet Moko's glare.
Kyoko's fragile self-control broke. "Mokoooo," she wailed.
"Idiot!" Moko snapped, neatly sidestepping Kyoko's reaching arms. "What's with that dark and soggy aura? Are you a child, sulking over your miseries?"
Moko was so kind, worrying about Kyoko so generously! But even Moko's beautiful presence and heartwarming friendship weren't enough to fully dispel the dark clouds dodging Kyoko's every step. Kyoko slid to her knees, and clutched at Moko's knees in heartbroken desperation.
"Director Fujiyama--" Kyoko said into Moko's legs.
Moko stiffened. "You've heard of Director Fujiyama's new drama? So soon?"
Kyoko nodded pitifully. Director Fujiyama was well-known and respected in the world of showbiz. Stars had risen to incredible heights under the director's guiding hand. Working with him would be an honour, but he had asked the impossible of her!
"Me," Moko said brusquely. "Yes, it's true, the director asked me to costar in his new drama. Really! There's no need to make such a fuss about it."
The dark cloud above Kyoko's head shattered. The sunlight of wondrous discovery flooded Kyoko's entire being. Angels sang joyfully above her uplifted face.
"Moko is acting in Wishing Well?" Kyoko clasped her hands to her chest, her expression beatific as she all but floated back to her feet. "Mr. Tsuruga, Moko and I will be acting together! We will use all of our talent, and all of our passion to create a beautiful drama for the world to love! Oh, oh, Moko! This is so wonderful!"
"Eh?" Moko said.
Kyoko beamed at her.
Moko frowned. "You didn't know that Director Fujiyama offered me a role in his drama? Then you weren't jealous to learn that I'll be playing Mr. Tsuruga's love interest?"
"Jealous?" she gasped, reeling backwards in shock. Of Moko? "You know that I would scrub a hundred floors in a hundred buildings if it meant seeing you happy! I would play the smallest of roles in the meanest of dramas if it meant seeing you succeed! I would--"
Moko held out her hands. "Enough, already!" she said. "Then tell me--Clearly! Sensibly!--why you were so upset."
"Director Fujiyama wants me to play a boy!" Taking on the role offered to her was as good as admitting that Sho had been right: that she was so plain and sexless that she could easily and naturally play a boy.
"I wanted to wear a pretty dress," Kyoko said mournfully. "But no! I am a poor boy, dressed in a poor boy's ragged clothes!" How Sho would laugh! Not only was Kyoko to be a boy, but a poor and ill-dressed one!
Sho stepped to the center stage of Kyoko's imagination. His eyes swept Kyoko from her battered hat to her worn-out shoes, and he guffawed. "You!" the Sho of Kyoko's furious imaginings said. "You weren't much of a woman, but this! This is perfect for a boring and ordinary girl like you. A girl with no sex appeal, and no romantic prospects!"
Kyoko's demons quivered in fury. Sho--the idiot!--dared to laugh! The real Sho would laugh too, Kyoko knew. He would hide from his manager, and his fans, and all of those he maintained his cool rockstar image in front of. And he would laugh until tears streamed down his face. Laugh at Kyoko.
Moko was staring at Kyoko warily. "You realize 'Kyo' is only disguised as a boy, don't you?" Moko said.
That she could be mistaken for a boy at all--!
"Tch," Moko said. "Be sensible about things for once! Being offered this role isn't an insult. Director Fujiyama is recognizing your talent--do you think just any actress could act as a boy? No! No one else but you will do!"
Kyoko slowly unclenched her fists. Yes. Moko--brilliant, wonderful Moko--was right. Let Sho laugh! It would be the last time that Kyoko would serve as amusement for him. She was appearing in one of Director Fujiyama's dramas, and soon the entire world would know Kyoko Mogami's name!
"Impossible girl," Moko said. "I don't know why I bothered worrying about you."
Kyoko's eyes glinted. She hooked her arm through Moko's and said: "I promise to pour all of my heart and soul into this role! I will make Moko and Mr. Tsuruga--and everyone who has supported me so kindly--proud. I'll become strong. A true actress!"
Moko's smile was crooked. "You're already a true actress. You just have to remember to act like once, for once."
Mr. Tsuruga was on his knees before Moko, his head bent in remorse. Moko's face was streaked with tears. Her entire body was rigid with shock and betrayal. 'Natsumi' had just learned that 'Jun' was a con artist, and that he had planned on swindling her of her family fortune.
Could their love survive such a shocking confession?
Kyoko held her hand to her mouth to muffle her gasp as Jun lifted his face to look at Natsumi. His eyes were fiercely passionate--he wouldn't give up on Natsumi! Kyoko's heart thudded painfully as she watched Jun surge to his feet to embrace Natsumi's trembling body. She had seen Mr. Tsuruga act before--many times!--but her heart was reacting so strangely now.
"Why?" Kyoko demanded of her misbehaving heart: "what's with the thump! thump! thump! The Emperor of the Night hasn't appeared before me again, so why is my heart racing so foolishly?"
It was a bit embarrassing, Kyoko decided, to see the normally cool and collected Mr. Tsuruga so open with tender emotions. Yes. Yes, of course! It was a testament to Mr. Tsuruga's skills that seeing him act out 'love' was enough to make Kyoko's heart ache painfully.
Even a heart made of stone would react to seeing Mr. Tsuruga and Moko together. They looked so beautiful. Mr. Tsuruga, so tall and strong! Moko, a classic beauty with upswept hair and shining eyes! They looked like royalty. They looked, Kyoko thought with a pang, like a young king and queen, deeply and truly in love.
No one could doubt that Natsumi loved Jun--despite herself, and with all of her heart--when she twisted around in his arms to brush a chaste kiss against his mouth.
Kyoko flushed and looked away.
Mr. Yashiro was watching not Mr. Tsuruga and Moko, but Kyoko. "It must be hard for you to watch this, Ms. Mogami," he said.
Was he making fun of her? Mr. Yashiro's voice was very sympathetic, but there was something about the slant of his mouth and the glint in his eyes that made Kyoko think that he was laughing at her. Mr. Yashiro was nearly as difficult to understand as Mr. Tsuruga.
"Moko and Mr. Tsuruga are both excellent actors," Kyoko said. "It's an honour to see Jun and Natsumi come to life before my eyes! How could anyone doubt the sincerity of their feelings when they're portrayed with such skill and passion?"
Mr. Yashiro continued with a determination that Kyoko found mildly unsettling. "Still," he said, "it must be strange to watch two of your important people acting before you, without being there with them."
Kyoko squirmed. "I'm happy to see Mr. Tsuruga and Moko working so well together."
"Hmm," Mr. Yashiro said. "Is that so?"
Kyoko's demons twitched restlessly. What was Mr. Yashiro trying to say? That Kyoko was jealous? That she was unhappy to see Mr. Tsuruga and Moko acting so well together?
"Of course, Kyo harbours secret feelings for Jun," Mr. Yashiro said quickly. "This scene must be inspirational to you in your development of the character."
Kyoko bit her lower lip. She had never been required to portray 'love' before, and she found the prospect more than slightly unnerving. Kyoko had given up on love. Her heart was a fortress; her memories bloody spikes along the walls. How could she understand Kyo's devotion to Jun, when Kyoko's own heart was small and dark?
Kyo loved Jun with all of her heart. Circumstances forced her to keep both her true identity and feelings to herself, lest she be torn from Jun's side. Kyo's heart would ache, seeing Jun and Natsumi's embrace. She knew that she would never be able to share such a tender and loving moment with Jun. Kyoko pressed her palm to her chest. The strange ache in her heart belonged to Kyo!
Being at Jun's side would make Kyo's heart ache, even as it soared with happiness. Kyoko felt a sudden surge of protectiveness towards her character. "Her heart might crack, but it won't break," Kyoko said with determination. She wouldn't let Kyo's heart break.
"A pity," Mr. Yashiro said, "that people choose to ignore love when it's staring at them so earnestly."
"Love," Kyoko corrected, "isn't the same thing as happiness." Love was loss. Love was unending despair. Love was a brutal, unrelenting enemy to be held at bay with all of one's strength.
"My mistake," Mr. Yashiro murmured.
Kyoko's heart was racing happily. She had been invited to visit Moko at home! Their friendship was growing stronger and deeper before Kyoko's very eyes! Would they braid one another's hair? Perhaps she and Moko could give one another a makeover? Or! Or Moko might open her heart to Kyoko, and shyly share her secret thoughts!
Moko sighed and collapsed into the nearest chair. "Today," she said, "was unexpectedly difficult."
Kyoko nodded. It had been a long day for everyone. Director Fujiyama had been especially critical of Jun and Natsumi's romantic reunion after their separation by Jun's enemies. It had taken all of Kyoko's willpower not to burst forward with a defense of Mr. Tsuruga and Moko. Could Director Fujiyama not see how perfect Jun and Natsumi were together? Could he not see that they looked like a perfect fairytale prince and princess?
"Director Fujiyama was too harsh," Kyoko said.
"Director Fujiyama was telling the truth," Moko sighed. "Mr. Tsuruga and I lack the right kind of chemistry."
"Chemistry?" Kyoko said. "But Moko and Mr. Tsuruga look--"
"Don't be so naive!" Moko snapped. "It doesn't matter how nice we look together. The director wants the feelings between Jun and Natsumi to feel real."
Mr. Tsuruga and Moko were excellent actors. How could all of their skill and experience not be enough to satisfy the director? Their scenes together had made Kyoko's heart race.
"A good actor can build romantic chemistry where none existed before," Moko explained, "but it isn't the same as a spark that flows naturally between two actors. I respect Mr. Tsuruga very much, but it's difficult to think 'desire' towards him."
"All of Mr. Tsuruga's co-stars fall in love with him," Kyoko said, insulted on Mr. Tsuruga's behalf. Even Kyoko's heart had almost been touched by his love scenes in Dark Moon. Was Moko's heart so much stronger than Kyoko's?
"What kind of a friend do you think I am?" Moko said. "But you--yes, you!," she said, pointing an accusing finger at Kyoko, "could make things a bit easier! How can the audience believe that Natsumi and Jun are truly and deeply in love when Jun and Kyo always look at each other so seriously, and with such longing!"
Kyoko stared at Moko with earnest confusion.
Moko waved off Kyoko's questioning look, sighing deeply. "How can one girl be so dense?" she muttered irritably. "I refuse to be outclassed by such a girl. Even if it kills me, I'll give the director a Natsumi he can be pleased with!"
"Moko is a true professional," Kyoko said.
"And you are infuriating," Moko said. "No! Don't slump! Don't look at me with teary eyes! How can Natsumi strive to beat a pathetic rival like you?"
"But I don't want to be Moko's rival!" Kyoko wailed.
"Anyone who pits their skills against mine is a rival," Moko said. "You are a friend, too, which is why I am telling you this: grow up."
"I don't understand," Kyoko said, her lower lip trembling.
"Precisely my point!" Moko said with a snort of disgust. "I've said too much already. I refuse to be drawn into your foolish personal drama. No! Don't argue!"
Kyoko hesitated. ". . . Can I braid your hair?"
"No!" Moko said. ". . . Maybe."
The girls across from Kyoko were talking about Wishing Well. Kyoko watched them intently and stealthily from around the side of her menu. Fans! Girls who had been drawn into the gritty and romantic world of the drama Kyoko had helped create!
"Ren is so dreamy," one of the girls sighed. "The desperate lover, trying to atone for his past sins!"
Kyoko nodded happily in agreement. Mr. Tsuruga was so cool, able to touch the hearts and minds of so many! Was there anyone in showbiz more worthy of Kyoko's awe and respect? She wanted to match his skill, and meet him on stage as an equal. She was growing closer to Mr. Tsuruga every day, but there was still such a great distance between them!
The second girl giggled behind her hand. "Kyo is very handsome, too," she said.
Kyoko stopped breathing. Handsome? Kyo? She was Kyo! Why was it, Kyoko wondered with a stab of despair, that she had no sex appeal as a girl, but made a handsome boy? The Sho who lurked in the back of Kyoko's mind howled with laughter.
Her menu tore in half in Kyoko's clenched hands. The howling demons of her hatred and resentment rose to circle Sho, still doubled over with laughter. His laughter came to a sudden--and extremely satisfying--end when the full force of Kyoko's rage came rushing down on his head. Stupid Shotaro! So what if she was more popular as a boy than as a girl? She would crush him either way!
"--actually the girl from Dark Moon," the first girl was saying.
"A girl? Really!"
"I hope Kyo and Jun become a couple at the end of the series. They have such an intense aura when they're together," the girl said. "Natsumi and Jun are very sweet together, but Jun and Kyo are much sexier."
Kyoko squawked, and had to duck underneath the table to avoid being seen. Jun and Kyo were sexy together? Impossible! Moko was an incredible actress, and so beautiful! Kyoko was. . . Kyoko. A girl so plain and sexless that Sho had been able to easily and carelessly discard her. Mr. Tsuruga was far beyond Sho--a blazing sun to Sho's shining star!
She must have misunderstood what the girl had said. Of course! There was no other explanation that made any sense. How fortunate that Mr. Tsuruga hadn't come with her today. Imagine, Mr. Tsuruga learning that his fans thought that he and Kyoko were--!
No, no, she couldn't even think it! How embarrassing!
The girls she was watching were still young and full of innocent dreams. They had yet to learn that love was nothing more than the prelude to destruction and utter despair. Of course such carefree young girls were free to find romance where none existed!
Life would strip away their tender, girlish illusions soon enough.
There was no need to panic! Kyo loved Jun, deeply and above all, hopelessly. Jun had eyes only for Natsumi, beautiful and polished, the wealthy young lady of Kyoko's dreams. Kyoko's acting had not be untrue to the script. Mr. Tsuruga had certainly not betrayed Director Fujiyama's vision by looking at Kyo with 'want' or 'love.'
And! Of course! How foolish of her! Kyo was not Kyoko. Jun was not Mr. Tsuruga. Even if fans of Wishing Well insisted on seeing something that was not--could not!--be there, it had nothing to do with Kyoko.
There was no need for Kyoko to face the world with such a dark expression! Mr. Tsuruga would chide her for facing her fans with such a forbidding expression. Kyoko hastily patted the color back into her face, and smiled a welcoming smile at the two girls who had not once looked her way.
Kyoko felt like a misbehaving child, called to stand shamefaced before a stern parent. She didn't know what she had done to upset President Takarada, but he had sounded solemn as he'd summoned Kyoko to his office.
"What if the president is angry with meeeee?" Kyoko wailed, wringing her hands nervously. Had she insulted the president somehow? Had she brought shame to LME without realizing it? Had Shotaro somehow brought Kyoko's plans to ruin before she rose high enough to destroy him?
Mr. Tsuruga's serious expression could only mean that he was laughing at her. "Don't worry, Ms. Mogami. If President Takarada was angry with you, why would he have called for me as well?"
Perhaps she'd angered Mr. Tsuruga instead! Maybe Mr. Tsuruga had gone to the president, and told him that Kyoko's heart was too dark and bent for LME. Perhaps--
"What kind of person do you take me for?" Mr. Tsuruga said sternly.
Kyoko flushed guiltily. Why did Mr. Tsuruga always see into her heart when Kyoko was at her smallest and meanest? But she had been too harsh to judge him. Mr. Tsuruga had never needed accomplices to bully her--and hadn't their relationship improved greatly during the filming of Dark Moon?
It was far too bold of her to think of Mr. Tsuruga as a friend, but he was no longer an enemy. He was, perhaps, an ally.
"I'm sooooorry!" Kyoko said.
Mr. Tsuruga placed his hand on Kyoko's shoulder before she could drop to her knees in a plea for forgiveness. "Don't grovel. It's unbecoming for a professional actress to beg for forgiveness so easily," Mr. Tsuruga said.
Smoke billowed down the hallway before Kyoko could reply through her sniffles. Multi-coloured lights flashed blindingly. And President Takarada appeared before Kyoko's startled eyes, wearing a top-hat and a long cape that swirled around his legs. "The theme is Magic!" President Takarada said. "The magic of love!" He pointed his elaborate cane at Mr. Tsuruga and Kyoko, beaming.
Kyoko stared at him in earnest confusion. "I don't understand," she said.
"Don't scowl so darkly," the president told Mr. Tsuruga. "This is the moment I've been waiting for since you first entered the Japanese entertainment industry! All of my hopes and dreams for you have finally begun to pay off." He swept Kyoko up in his gaze. "And you, young lady! You've proven that I was right to believe in you."
It sounded as if the president was happy. Finding him angry at her would have been less confusing, Kyoko decided darkly. Had he made her suffer through the agony of uncertainty and fear for no reason but his own amusement? Had he laughed at her wretched sobs and despairing cries? Were all men so strange and unpredictable? It was too horrifying a thought to contemplate any further.
Good manners took over, and Kyoko bowed towards the president. "Thank you for your kind support!"
"Is this," Mr. Tsuruga said with such politeness that Kyoko shrank back in fear, "about the article that Mr. Yashiro showed me this morning?"
President Takarada's smile widened. "Intuitive as always, Ren," he said.
Article? An article that somehow involved Kyoko and Mr. Tsuruga? Yes, Kyoko recalled, she had heard people talking in hushed voices about a certain magazine article. Kyoko hadn't seen the article herself. She had no interest in magazines and TV shows, too furious at any mention of that idiot Sho to find any enjoyment in them.
"It was a very interesting and well-researched article," the president chuckled.
"Pure fabrication," Mr. Tsuruga said shortly. "Gossip about Ms. Mogami and I is nothing to be amused about, President."
"To the contrary!" President Takarada looked at Mr. Tsuruga, still smiling though his eyes were serious. "As we've discussed previously, I find your lack of emotional attachments within the industry dismaying."
"There's no need to drag Ms. Mogami into things."
Kyoko's demons twitched uneasily. It sounded as if--? No! Preposterous! Imagine! A world where she and Mr. Tsuruga were linked in any way beyond a wary and uneasy friendship was a world in which Kyoko could not bear to live.
"It's too late to argue with me, Ren." The president drew a glossy magazine from within the folds of his cape, holding it up so that Kyoko could see the cover.
"REN TSURUGA FINDS LOVE WITH CO-STAR!!!!" the headlines screamed.
Kyoko screamed in horror.
"Now, now, Ms. Mogami. Mr. Tsuruga isn't a bad catch," the president said, smiling wider than ever.
Smiling! As if there was anything amusing about a public who thought that Ren Tsuruga and Kyoko Mogami were--! Didn't they realize that Kyoko's heart was small and cold? That love was Kyoko's second greatest enemy, right behind that arrogant fool, Shotaro?
How could she ever work with Mr. Tsuruga again, knowing that people thought there was a love connection between them? How could she even look at Mr. Tsuruga again? She couldn't! Her face was hot with embarrassment, and her jaw was aching with the force of her scream. Avoiding Mr. Tsuruga would become her life's mission, right behind destroying Sho.
Mr. Tsuruga was staring across the top of Kyoko's head, his lips thinned. "She's still a child, and a newcomer to the business. I wouldn't take advantage of Ms. Mogami, or anyone else in her position."
"Of course not," the president said. "However, the author of this article has painted a very compelling picture. Carrying Ms. Mogami to the set when she injured herself! Speaking to her closely and intently outside the ladies' washroom! Days spent together when Ms. Mogami served as your substitute manager! Spending long minutes alone together on the set of Dark Moon and Wishing Well! I don't blame the public for reading certain intentions into your actions, Ren."
"Don't misunderstand!" Kyoko said. "It is only recently that Mr. Tsuruga has begun to tolerate me! Mr. Tsuruga was kindly, charmingly bullying me when he carried me to the set! He was smilingly tormenting me in front of the the washroom!"
"I don't recall bullying you," Mr. Tsuruga said mildly, smiling gently at Kyoko. "Perhaps you're misremembering?"
The president's eyes were misty when he looked at them. "Ren is younger than he usually acts. He is a young man, still new to the exciting world of romantic love. Don't judge him too harshly for any mistakes he made in his romantic fervour!"
Kyoko clapped her hands to her ears, shrieking. Her heart was being squeezed tighter with each and every one of the president's cheerful words. She couldn't bear another word. She had to stop him before she died of horror!
Dark energy crackled around Kyoko. She curled her hands into fists and glared at Mr. Tsuruga and the president. "Mr. Tsuruga. is. not. in. love. with. me!" Kyoko ground out from behind clenched teeth. Her demons howled their agreement with such force that particularly sensitive employees throughout LME collapsed in shock.
"Is the thought really so horrible?" Mr. Tsuruga asked mildly.
The lights in the hallway flickered desperately once, twice, and went out with an audible pop. Kyoko's demons rose in a screeching wave, towering tall above her head. "Yes!" she shouted furiously.
Mr. Tsuruga was the perfect man. He was tall and handsome. He was talented, and kind to everyone--even Kyoko, when he wasn't facing her with his blinding and gentlemanly smile. Mr. Tsuruga was a man any woman could be proud to fall in love with.
Kyoko wasn't--couldn't be, didn't want to be--in love with Mr. Tsuruga. She was afraid that if Mr. Tsuruga looked at her with a gentle and loving smile, even her hard and broken heart might skip a beat. That was not a risk Kyoko was willing to take. Not now.
Mr. Tsuruga's eyebrow twitched. "I didn't realize I was so off-putting, Ms. Mogami," he said.
Had she offended Mr. Tsuruga with her vehement and truthful reply? Kyoko nearly cringed back in terror--what smiling retaliation awaited her now?--but her demons looked at Mr. Tsuruga with sharp eyes: 'Good! Let him be so offended that he'll leave us be! Who will dare talk about us if we're no longer seen at Mr. Tsuruga's side?'
She couldn't, Kyoko thought. She couldn't cut Mr. Tsuruga from her life! She didn't want his rumoured love, but she didn't want his anger, either. Mr. Tsuruga had become alarmingly important to her in the time Kyoko had been with LME. He had bullied her, yes, but Mr. Tsuruga had also supported and inspired her.
"You misunderstood me!" Kyoko said. "Mr. Tsuruga is kind, and handsome, and a brilliant, shining star. However! I have moved beyond romantic love. Love is a dusty remnant of my foolish childhood, best left buried."
President Takarada drooped. "Ms. Mogami," he said mournfully, "must you say such cutting things in front of me?"
"I am working hard to regain my precious human emotions," Kyoko told him, "but I refuse to be sucked into the sandpit of despair and destruction that is romance!"
"I suddenly sympathize with Mr. Yashiro very much," the president said with a soft sigh. He shook his head and brightened a moment later, looking at Kyoko with gleaming eyes. "I'm afraid that the two of you will have no choice but to work through your issues. Director Fujiyama was so touched by your performances that he wants the both of you to star in his next romantic drama."
Kyoko's clasped her hands in excitement. A new drama?
A new romantic drama?
Kyoko's expression darkened once more. Fate and President Takarada were conspiring against her! That most cruel of ladies might have been beyond Kyoko's reach, but the president was not. "President," Kyoko growled, "I will not--"
Mr. Tsuruga cut in, with a brilliant smile. "President, Ms. Mogami is still a young actress. Don't you think it's too early for her to star in a serious romantic drama?"
"I recall saying something similiar about you, Ren," the president chided. "Ms. Mogami has proven herself to be an adaptable and talented actress. Director Fujiyama wouldn't have requested her otherwise."
Kyoko's pride warred bloodily with her feelings of horror. Bliss! A new drama! Despair! A romantic drama! Joy! A new drama! Agony! A romantic drama!
Hadn't she promised to do whatever it took to destroy Sho? And hadn't she decided to take as many new and different roles as possible in order to create a Kyoko Mogami she could be proud of? Yes, Kyoko thought, and she could not back away from this new challenge, no matter how difficult and terrible it might be.
"I'm sure Ms. Mogami will do her best. Isn't that right, Ms. Mogami?" the president said.
Kyoko nodded resolutely.
"I'm sure Ren will do his best to help you in every way possible," the president said. "Ms. Mogami will need a guiding hand. You will do your best to support her, won't you, Ren?"
Mr. Tsuruga had stopped smiling. "Of course," he said.
"The two of you will surely create a beautiful love story together!" the president said happily.
A beautiful love story?
Kyoko would take the role, but the love story would never be hers.
And if the magazine article and President Takarada weren't wrong about Mr. Tsuruga's feelings? Kyoko ducked her head to hide her wide eyes and hot face. Surely not! It was too strange and shocking to believe!
But if it were true. . .
She was still a weak and foolish girl, Kyoko decided. Even she could feel--secretly, guiltily--honoured to have touched Mr. Tsuruga's heart. Kyoko scowled, her heart twisting uncomfortably. Surely Mr. Tsuruga was the most dangerous man in showbiz!