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Destiny

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The woman – whose face was hidden carefully under the hood of her dark cape – stopped in her tracks and took a peek over her shoulder in concern. There was not a soldier in sight as she feared, but she still couldn't shake the feeling that she was being followed. This morning, the sun was shining brightly over her head and the village buzzing with sounds and voices. The market was monopolizing everyone's attention. And the woman was precisely taking advantage of the agitation to make her way through the village unnoticed. She had been waiting three long weeks to execute her escape plan. It couldn't fail now; not when she was so close to reaching her goal.

She took a cautious look around the main street, before raising her gaze in the direction of the distant castle. She was glad she managed to make it safely out of the vicinity of the castle without alerting a single guard, but she was aware that she was not completely safe yet. The castle she had fled still represented a serious threat, and she needed to distance herself from it as fast as possible.

Her heart was still pounding inside her chest when she tugged at the top of her hood to bury her slightly pale face underneath it. It didn't matter how many precautions she had taken on her way here: the apprehension simply refused to leave her. Her identity was cleverly hindered by her dark cape. And it was not the few strands of long, black hair escaping her hood that could have alerted any bystander. Since she had left the castle, she had crossed the path of many. But not a single person could have guessed the surprising identify of the woman who was trying to flee the lands of the clan Ashikaga.

The longer she stayed in that place, the longer she was in danger of being captured. That notion in mind she set her eyes back in front of her and moved forward in determination. There was no turning back now. It was out of the question to return to the castle. She was definitely not going to comply to her father's wishes and marry the shogun's son. Her father could dishonor her for all she knew. It was impossible for her to forget about a certain someone. Someone she had been forced to lie to.

Her eyes lit up in expectation when she noticed the gates leading outside the village. Once she would have passed them, she would be free. Free to look for the person who had stolen her heart so many years ago.

Apprehension gave way to relief when she noticed her personal maid waiting at the entrance, holding the reins of a saddled horse. Perfect. Everything was going according to her plan. A few more steps, and she would escape this place.

As she was about to send a smile of gratitude to her maid, five guards in arms appeared behind her servant. She stopped her advance at once and froze: it was the personal guard of Ashikaga-dono. Considering their serene appearance, it was evident they had been waiting for her this whole time. Her eyes flickered back to her maid in incomprehension, noticing the way she was nervously avoiding her gaze. That's when it hit her. She had been betrayed by the only person she trusted in the castle.

Without thinking twice, she turned abruptly on her heels and walked in the opposite direction, her eyes seeking desperately left and right for another escape route. She had made it all this far. She couldn't give up now. She simply refused to. Her pace quickened up, and she rushed into a narrowed alley on her right.

Think, Arisa, the fugitive repeated in her head over and over. She was trying her best not to panic at the unforeseen turn of events, but her mind was stubbornly refusing to come up with a solution for her problem. There was only one way out of the village, and her means of transport was now out of reach. How was she going to make it, now that her escape had been discovered? Where could she possibly hide?

The view of five guards waiting for her at the far end of the alley jolted her out of her thoughts. She halted immediately – ready to retrace her steps – when she discovered five other men blocking her way on the other side. She was completely trapped. A mix of anger and despair invaded her when she saw the captain of the guards walking towards her. Furious she was to have placed her faith in someone she wrongly believed trustworthy. And desperate when she realized she would be brought back to the castle. The last place on earth she wished to be.

“Onishi-san, could you please follow us back to the castle?” the dark-haired man, now standing in front of her, inquired politely.

It was nothing but an order. Arisa didn't fool herself into believing she had any choice in the matter. Only her noble rank was forbidding the man to grab her by the arm and bring her back to the castle forcibly. She could already hear the steps of the guards getting closer behind her. And she knew struggling was much useless against ten armed men. Her tanto hidden under her kimono was of no use. She was at an impasse.

“I will not try to run away,” Arisa affirmed as she addressed the captain. “So tell your men to leave.”

Arisa knew she had not chance to leave the village now, but she certainly didn't wish to be brought back to the castle surrounded by ten soldiers like a vulgar criminal. Everyone would be turning on her way and staring at her in curiosity. She had too much pride to let such a thing happen.

The captain gazed at her for a little while – as if measuring the sincerity of her words – before waving at the guards with the back of his hand. Out of the corner of her eye, Arisa saw the men obeying and moving back from the pair, though still staying close by enough. The captain stepped aside and raised his hand to indicate her to move forward. Maybe it was out of refusal to accept the harsh reality, but her feet stayed stuck on the ground at first.

Her attempt to flee had failed miserably. And there was no way the shogun's son would ever take the risk of it happening again. After today, her guard was going to be doubled. And her every move closely monitored.

Arisa looked up in distress at the castle that was going to be her prison for the rest of her life. The hope of being reunited again with her childhood friend vanished from her mind progressively. Never will her soul mate learn the truth of her actions: that she had only lied to protect him. Forgive me, Nobunaga.

 


 

 

The captain was still standing by her side when she was presented to Ashikaga-dono. The son of the shogun was immerged in a mountain of work when she entered his office and reading attentively a scroll spread in front of him on the desk. After a little while he acknowledged her presence and raised his gaze to look at her. Arisa expected to read anger in his eyes – a predictable reaction to her attempted flee – but to her surprise, she saw no such emotion. If anything, he looked a bit... saddened. That definitely took Arisa off guard, and her silent, defiant look softened slightly.

“You can leave,” the son of the shogun ordered the captain.

From her peripheral vision Arisa saw the latter bowing politely to him, until making his way out as indicated. As soon as the door slid closed behind her, the son of the shogun looked down to his desk and paid attention to his work. Arisa didn't know how to interpret his behavior but she refused to move from her spot near the door, studying him from afar.

The young dark-haired man was a hard worker: of that she was well aware. Each time she happened to be brought to him since her arrival to the castle a month ago, she found him reading or working. If anything, he was definitely not the bloodthirsty warrior she would have feared. Indeed, he rarely left the vicinity of his office. Moreover, he always had been respectful towards her, addressing her politely and calmly when they met. He wasn't a talkative man: their conversations were few and far between. But Arisa could tell it was a man of knowledge. A quality he had probably inherited from his erudite father.

Arisa was conscious she could have stumbled upon someone worse. For example, having no choice but to marry a brutal man who would have forced himself onto her the first days. No, this young man was nothing like that. He wasn't violent or rude and – if she had to admit – was good looking. Nevertheless, it didn't change the fact that she wished nothing more than to leave this place. This person might not be the atrocious monster she dreaded, she harbored no romantic feelings towards him whatsoever. Only one man would ever hold her heart. And he was far away from Ashikaga's lands.

“Do you abhor my presence so much that you felt the need to flee, Onishi-san?” The questioning voice disrupted the heavy atmosphere as the son of the shogun gazed at her again.

This sadness she had distinguished in his eyes was now perceptive in his tone. Arisa truly didn't know what to make of it, and it took her a few seconds to formulate an answer. Her voice was less harsh than initially intended when she replied. “You know why I left, Ashikaga-dono.”

"Yes," the young samurai conceded with a small sigh. “You wish to find the one your heart truly yearns for.”

Words stayed stuck in Arisa's mouth as she looked back at him in bewilderment. How could he possibly be aware of that? Her relationship with her childhood friend had always remained a secret. Not even her father had managed to discover the truth. The only person who ever knew about it was...

Realization hit her. There was in fact one girl she had confided in a few weeks ago, out of deep sorrow. That day, the separation with her loved one had become too hard to bear with, and she had let the confession leave her lips. Unfortunately, her slip of her tongue had reached the wrong ears. Because the only witness of her confession – her maid – had betrayed her not long after by divulging her decision to escape. And evidently also shared all her secrets with the son of the shogun.

Fear took hold of Arisa as she understood the possible consequences of her indiscretion. The son of the shogun was aware of the existence of her childhood friend. Which meant he could be in great danger right now. It might already be too late.

“I would never hurt him,” the son of the shogun reassured her, as if he could read her mind. “Your childhood friend has not been harmed by my soldiers.”

“How can I trust your word?” Arisa couldn't help but ask, her voice quivering for the first time. Never the son of the shogun had demonstrated any sign of violence in the past, but they did not live in peaceful times. Nuisance was taken care of without any remorse, and her dear Nobunaga could still represent a threat in the eyes of her interlocutor. Nevermind if she purposely put some distance between them – and shamefully lied to him – in order to desperately try to protect him.

“This union doesn't please me more than you,” the son of the shogun declared, leaving aside his work to focus entirely on her.

There was a small pause, until he got up from his seat and walked towards her, his hands clasped behind his back when he came to stand a few feet before her. “Believe me when I say I wish there was another way, but we need to unite our two clans.”

“I know the politics,” Arisa retorted. Yes, he was speaking nothing but the truth. They needed peace. And this wedding would assure it. But it didn't make the facts any more acceptable. That's why her tone was decisive when she continued. “But you have to understand I will never be able to love you.”

A faint smile fell on the young samurai's lips, and he nodded slightly. “I'm not naive enough to believe I will ever replace him, but I still hope you will one idea found a place in your heart to accept me.”

Arisa watched silently as he walked back towards his desk and sat down to focus on his work. She was in the presence of a good man: of this, she was now completely certain. Was it truly her fate to marry him and stay forever by his side? Or would destiny enable her – one day – to be reunited with her beloved Nobunaga? For the first time since she joined the castle of the clan Ashikaga, the answer wasn't as clear as before.

 


 

 

It was still daylight that Friday evening when Rena left the dressing room and prepared herself to leave the set. Three weeks ago – after her graduation concert in Nagoya – she had left for Kyoto for the shooting of a new drama: Destiny. A long, period drama of thirty episodes, in which she played the leading role. Arisa Onishi. A woman forced to marry Yoshiaki Ashikaga – the son of a powerful shogun – while still being in love with her childhood friend, Nobunaga.

As Rena left the large set progressively, she replied on her way politely to every staff member who thanked her for her work. The older Matsui knew she was lucky to have landed on such a big project. And chosen by the director to play the main character. It was undreamt of for a young actress such as her. That's why the thought of refusing didn't even cross her mind when her agent brought this project to her attention. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

As Rena turned around to admire the beautiful castle of Kyoto, she let her mind wander and bring her back in time three weeks ago.

 


 

 

The shooting needed to start not long after her graduation concert, obliging her to leave Nagoya swiftly. Jurina was nothing but supportive when she told her about her new drama, but Rena knew the young girl would be dreading the long separation. Two months. They had never been apart for so long. Not even when she occasionally left for Tokyo in the past for Nogizaka46 related works.

Jurina didn't try to stop her from leaving. In fact, she even accompanied her to the train station. But, as they hugged each other goodbye, the older Matsui couldn't help but notice the apprehension behind Jurina's smile. That look made her pause in her steps on the platform. Was it truly reasonable for her to accept such a big project – that would force them to be apart for two months – after everything they had gone through recently?

They had talked about it a few times, and Jurina had assured her that she was okay with the separation. But was she really telling the truth? That day, as Rena was about to step into the Shinkansen leading to Kyoto, she found herself hesitant. As she was about to open her mouth, Jurina had sent her an amused smile and squeezed her fingers. Come on, you're going to miss your train.

Ah, you're right, Rena exclaimed – her attention caught by the announcement of the prompt departure of the train by the station manager – until her eyes quickly fell on the girl standing in front of her. She took a step forward to embrace the young girl one last time and placed a kiss on her cheek. She didn't miss the way Jurina returned the embrace tightly, and only let go of her after a few long seconds. When Rena stepped back to take a look at her, a smile was still plastered on Jurina's face, as if everything was really fine. But the previous gesture was a hint that it was not the entire truth.

We'll stay in contact every day, Rena promised, raising her Smartphone in the air. I'll come on LINE at the end of each day of shooting.

Jurina simply nodded and helped her move her suitcase up the three small stairs leading inside the train. Once inside Rena turned to gaze at her, mimicking her action when Jurina waved her hand at her. Rena heard the final signal and knew the door would close at any minute. She addressed SKE's ace one last time. Take care of yourself.

There were three little – but crucial – words she wished to also add but knew she couldn't utter out loud because they were in public. However, warmth spread through her chest when – before the door closed – she saw Jurina's lips forming silently those exact same words. I love you.

 


 

 

Rena jolted out of her thoughts when she heard a masculine voice calling her name, and she tore her eyes away from the place where she had the privilege to work at almost every day. Standing by the side of a taxi were two people whom she knew well. They were both her co-stars.

Yosuke Masada – 25 years old – was 5 feet 10 inches tall with short, black hair. Polite and respectful, he always arrived in advance on set. Although shy and introvert at first, he gradually became a bit more talkative with her as the weeks went by. After all, they shared most of their screen time together, as the young actor played the role of Yoshiaki Ashikaga, the son of the shogun.

Sayuri Kaneko - 21 years old - played the role of her maid. She was the exact opposite of Yosuke. She had shoulder-length black hair, and a cheerful personality. Sometimes, she even reminded her a bit of Jurina by her playfulness between two takes. And her astonishing capacity to get immediately back into her role as soon as the cameras were rolling again.

Rena sent them a smile and walked towards them, knowing full well what they were expecting of her. Each Friday night, it was their little ritual: they would go out to a restaurant and spend a carefree evening together. The first week Sayuri suggested the idea to both Yosuke and her, Rena found herself a bit hesitant. The shooting of the drama had barely begun, and the older Matsui preferred to spend a quiet evening in her hotel room. However, the younger girl had insisted greatly and – in the end – Rena had relented. A decision she never regretted since, considering they always spent a nice time the three of them.

 


 

 

Sayuri had a low resistance to alcohol. That's a fact Rena discovered their second week of shooting in Kyoto, when they happened to go out to a restaurant. Usually, Yosuke would stop her from drinking too much as soon as he noticed the effects of the beverage on the young actress. If truth be told, Rena did wonder about the nature of their relationship. Both actors knew each other before joining the shooting of Destiny, and Sayuri always behaved in a carefree way with him.

Indeed, it wasn't unusual to hear Sayuri address him in a familiar way on set, or have a few affectionate gestures, such as holding his arm or hugging him. As for him, he didn't seem to mind any of those, even laughing a bit when she happened to crack a joke. To be honest, it wouldn't have startled Rena to learn that they were dating. All the signs would have been right in front of her eyes from the start.

But she never questioned them about it. During their conversations, their own personal lives always remained off topic. Rena didn't mind it as she was a private person. And Yosuke also happened to be discrete. Sayuri however... it was a different matter. And when she started to drink, the situation could escalate quickly. Tonight, after three weeks of shooting, alcohol was going to loosen her tongue as never before.

“I'll never be truly happy,” a now heavily drunk Sayuri stated, staring into space. “I work all day, almost 24/7. How am I supposed to meet someone? Love is not possible for people like us.”

Rena looked up from the ramen she was eating to gaze at the young actress seated opposite her, before stealing a glance at Yosuke who was eating beside Sayuri. Considering the surprise now written all over his face, he truly didn't expect such words to escape her mouth. It wasn't surprising to see Sayuri slightly getting carried away when she had too many drinks, but never had she looked so drunk.

Yosuke always stopped her before it went too far, but it seemed the actor was lost in his thoughts all evening. And, to be honest, Rena had been the same way, thinking about a certain someone waiting for her in Nagoya. That's why they had both completely missed what was going on under their nose.

Rena held her breath when Sayuri's eyes felon her. There was no way to predict what she was going to say next in her current drunken state, and it rendered the older Matsui slightly nervous. To her relief, the young actress diverted quickly her attention to Yosuke, before opening her mouth. “You're so nice,” she declared, placing her head upon his shoulder. “So why do I only see you as an older brother?”

“I think we should bring you back to the hotel,” Yosuke said gently, extracting the bottle of saké from Sayuri's fingers and pushing it away, out of reach. “You've had too much for tonight.”

Sayuri didn't oppose any resistance to the action and laced her hand around his arm, burying her nose inside the crook of his neck and closing her eyes. Rena watched them as Yosuke let her stay into that position for a little while, until disentangling himself from her and helping her getting up. Unfortunately, the steps of the drunk girl were far from steady, and he seized her arm at the last second when she was about to stumble. His eyes fell on Rena once he made sure the girl was stabilized. "Rena-san, can you please help me? I'm going to call a taxi."

“Of course.” Rena nodded immediately, joining the young Sayuri and placing her arm around her waist to make sure she would not fall again. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Yosuke making the call, while feeling the scent of the alcohol reaching her nostrils when Sayuri leaned her head on her shoulder.

Rena had no idea what prompted the usually so cheerful girl to drink so much tonight. And felt bad for not seeing what was going on until it was too late. A few customers were currently looking at them in curiosity, and the older Matsui was glad when Yosuke came back to help her lead Sayuri safely out of the restaurant.

 


 

 

Rena – standing by the front door of the hotel room – watched worriedly Sayuri who was seated on the bed, her back leaning against the headboard. Yosuke was trying to make her drink some water, and Rena couldn't help but feel moved by his kindness and gentle attention.

“I'm going to leave the glass here and a few pills for tomorrow's headache,” Yosuke declared as he placed the glass on the bedside table. He received a few incoherent words in reply. “Try to sleep.”

“I'm sorry about that,” Yosuke spoke when he approached a still concerned Rena. “I don't know what took hold of her. It's my fault, I didn't see it happening.”

“It's not your fault.” Rena shook her head lightly at him. "I didn't see it either.”

“Sayuri is a cheerful person,” Yosuke continued, his gaze falling on the girl who was falling asleep on the bed. “But sometimes, she has that distant look in her eyes, as if she wasn't really here. As if... she was thinking about someone.”

Rena looked back at him, slightly startled by the turn of their conversation. Never had the young actor spoken so freely about Sayuri. And, as he opened his mouth again, she could predict he was about to say more.

“I've known Sayuri for a year now. She's like a sister to me. She's cheerful and affectionate. You witnessed the way she sometimes sneakily kisses my cheek on set,” Yosuke said, giving an amused side-glance to Rena, to which she agreed with a smile.

However, his features darkened progressively, and his tone grew more serious. “But sometimes, I feel like she's keeping something important from me.”

Yosuke watched one last time the sleeping girl, before making his way out of the room. “I can see you two have a close bond,” Rena declared as she followed him, and he closed the door carefully behind them. “But everyone has an inner sanctum. I'm afraid there's nothing you can do about it.”

“You're right.” Yosuke nodded. “It's only human nature to want to keep certain things to yourself. But is it worth it if this secret makes you unhappy?”

Rena didn't reply, watching instead Yosuke sending her one last smile before turning on his heels. The older Matsui didn't know why, but she could feel deep down inside that his words were going to stay engraved in her memory.

Chapter Text

Jurina looked out the window, waiting for the imminent departure of the Shinkansen. This Friday morning, she was heading towards Mayu's beach house for her annual week holiday by the sea. A moment she would miss for nothing in the world: she always enjoyed herself so much in the company of her AKB best friend. But, this time, she had to admit she also really needed the respite. With everything that happened these last six months, her mind deserved a break.

She had not been sleeping well these last months, and the current light swaying of the train as it left the train station of Nagoya should have put her to sleep right away. However, her thoughts went quickly to Rena when she tilted her head right towards the empty seat by her side. The seat the older Matsui had occupied last year at the same period, when they both had joined Mayu and Yuki for a week holiday. As she gazed pensively at the desperately empty seat, she felt a tinge of melancholia.

The sound of her phone beeping distracted her, and she took a curious peek at the device placed on the tray in front of her. Her mouth tugged into a smile when she discovered it was a text by Rena. Have fun at Mayu's beach house. Considering the fact it was still early, Jurina guessed the actress must be swamped with work on her new drama. But it pleased her that she still found a little time to send her a message between two takes.

Jurina typed a reply before leaving her phone aside and closing her eyes to relax. Her recent conversation on the phone with the older Matsui soon came to the forefront of her mind. They had been messaging each other on LINE everyday as Rena promised. But Jurina couldn't help calling her one day of mid-July.

“Jurina?” Rena's startled voice greeted her when she picked up her phone. "Is everything alright?"

Jurina perceived her slight concern through the phone. It is true to say they had never called each other once since Rena joined the shooting of her new drama in Kyoto. They both agreed that they would communicate on LINE. It was indeed easier that way, considering their mutual busy schedules. That's why Rena's worry didn't come from left field. She was probably believing something important must have happened for Jurina to be calling her. Especially as she had not warned her beforehand of her intention to do so.

“Yes,” Jurina reassured her quickly. It was currently 7 p.m. and Rena was usually done for the day, but she still wanted to make sure she was not calling at a bad moment. It happened a few times that the shooting lasted a little longer than originally planned. “I hope I'm not disturbing you.”

“Not at all,” Rena's calm reply put her mind at ease straight away. “The shooting ended half an hour ago. I was heading towards the hotel. I'm currently waiting for a taxi.”

Jurina distinguished across the phone the voices of people talking in the background – although they were mostly inaudible – and the sound of cars moving in the streets. It seemed Kyoto was still animated at that time of the day. “I can call you later if you wish.”

Rena giggled, and Jurina could almost imagine her shaking her head in amusement through the phone when she spoke up. “I'm not busy. Tell me why you called.”

“I just...” Jurina started, now realizing she didn't have a real motive for calling. In fact, as soon as she got home after work, she had dialed Rena's number without thinking. Somehow, after a long day of rehearsing with the other SKE members, she felt the irrepressible need to hear her voice. The admission left her lips naturally. “I miss you.”

There was a pregnant pause on the other side and Jurina listened to Rena's soft and constant breathing. With the phone pressed against her ear, it gave the strange sensation that Rena was right beside her. When, in fact, she was 80 miles away from her in a completely different city.

“I miss you too,” Rena murmured back softly.

Warmth spread through Jurina's chest in happiness. It was not uncommon for them to manifest their affection towards each other through messages on LINE, but there was a different feeling to voicing it out loud. And to hear the words back. The desire to pull Rena into her arms and kiss her became strong. And her joy progressively gave way to melancholia when she realized she couldn't do any of that.

“How did your day go?” Jurina asked in an attempt to change the subject, and therefore lighten up her mood.

Rena didn't waste any time to start narrating her day, and her enthusiasm was showing in her voice as she spoke. The older Matsui was enjoying her new life as an actress: of this Jurina had no doubt. On one hand, she couldn't be happier for her that everything was going fine for her. It was evident that after this big project, Rena was going to be offered many more jobs opportunity.

On the other hand, Jurina was dreading the consequences of Rena's new life outside of SKE on their relationship. She was already feeling her absence each time she stepped on stage, and the older girl was not by her side as usual. Unfortunately, she had no other choice but to deal as best as she could with this new imposed situation. Rena's graduation had set so many things in motion. There was no turning back possible now.

“I'm sorry I won't be able to come with you to Mayu's beach house. I would have loved to come." Rena ended her narration by reminding the young ace of her imminent holidays. And along the way that the older Matsui wouldn't be with her during that time as she would have hoped.

“I know you do,” Jurina replied, remembering indeed all the fun they had the four of them together last year. And Rena voicing her desire to come back the next year. To be honest, she was really looking forward to renewing her annual vacations with Rena, but fate had decided otherwise. “Maybe next year.”

Jurina heard through the phone someone calling Rena, and she kept quiet to let the older girl answer. Albeit the fact she couldn't hear clearly what her interlocutor was saying, she could tell that it was a man. For a moment, she wondered if it was that actor Rena was working with. The name of Yosuke Masada did come up a few times during their previous conversations as well as Sayuri Kaneko, the other actress she worked closely with. It appeared Rena managed to get along well with her two co-stars.

“I'm sorry, but I've been invited to the restaurant.” Rena's voice became clearer as she addressed her again. “If you wish, I'll connect on LINE when I get back to the hotel. Except if it's too late, we can postop–”

“I'll wait!” Jurina exclaimed in determination. She heard the older girl laughing a bit in reaction. She knew Rena was only trying to get her to go to sleep early – as she was aware of her bad habit to go to bed late – but it was useless trying.

Their conversation had been cut short by the unexpected interruption, and she still wished to tell her a few things about her own day. Not to mention, she knew she would never be able to go to sleep if she didn't chat with Rena first. It was always their little ritual when they happened to be apart, one that she was not ready to put an end to. Even less now that they were going to be separated for two long months.

“Alright.” Rena's amusement was still perceptible through the phone, until another voice – this time feminine – called her, and her tone turned serious. “I really have to go. I'll talk to you soon. Bye.”

As soon as Jurina finished replying, the line went dead, and she pulled the phone away from her ear to watch the familiar name still present onto the screen. A few seconds later the screen turned black and she was about to put it away, when the sound of her ringtone brought her attention back to it. She frowned when she realized that it was Rena calling her back. She quickly picked up and placed the phone against her ear. “Rena?”

“I forgot to say something.” Rena's voice sounded a little erratic. There was a pause – during which Jurina could tell the older girl was now walking down the street – until Jurina heard her addressing two other people and asking them to go inside the restaurant first.

Jurina waited in anticipation for her next words, wondering what could be so important for her to call her back, until curiosity got the best of her. “Rena? What is?”

“I know this situation is hard for you.” Jurina went silent at Rena's declaration, distinguishing the worry behind it. “But never doubt my feelings for you.”

Jurina was momentarily caught off guard. Since Rena left for Kyoto, they talked about many different subjects on LINE. But Jurina didn't want to burden Rena by telling her how painful it was without her in SKE. It was a fact the older Matsui had no influence over anyway, so she didn't see the point in bringing up the obvious.

Nevertheless, she remained a complete open book to her girlfriend. Those last few words were again a clear reminder of it. Even if she tried her best to stay her usual cheerful self when they talked, Rena could see right through her.

She could have confirmed that she was right. That, indeed, this situation was more than difficult for her. And that she feared it would get worse the longer the separation would last. But somehow, she guessed Rena already knew all of this. So she settled for four little words.

“I love you too,” Jurina murmured with affection. Those were words she had uttered many times this last year and a half, but never hesitated to repeat.

Some people could say you didn't need to voice such words again and again, when the love was already obvious between two people. But Jurina strongly disagreed. She was convinced it was necessary to show your affection to your loved one on a constant basis, no matter how many months or years passed by. Lately, she had felt so much grief because of Rena's graduation, that she had almost forgot that rule. She was definitely not about to repeat her mistake again.

 


 

 

Jurina – her blue suitcase in hand – stepped off the train and swept the platform in search of a familiar face. After a well-deserved nap on the train she had arrived at destination and was glad to see the sun shining brightly over her head. It was already hot at 11 a.m., and she was thankful for her blue baseball cap protecting her from its heat. Like last year, the weather forecast was promising a beautiful sky without rain for her week holiday at Mayu's beach house. Her vacation couldn't look more promising.

All of a sudden, the young ace heard a characteristic cheerful voice calling her name on her right. An amused smile moved to her lips when she tilted her head and recognized Yuki walking towards her and waving at her energetically.

“Hi Yuki,” Jurina said when the older girl stopped in front of her and pulled her into a hug. A gesture she replied to with the same enthusiasm, admitting she really missed the older girl.

Considering the fact they both worked in different cities, they were unable to see each other as much as she wished these last months. And, to be honest, she grew fond of the always overreacting girl these last years. Mayu and her were both very different – from their personality to their hobbies – but so complementary. Moreover, their long-time relationship inspired respect. No matter what, it was a couple she would always look up to.

“Where's Mayu?” Jurina frowned when she pulled away, startled that her 22-year-old best friend was nowhere to be found.

“She's waiting in the car,” Yuki explained, while they both made their way out of the train station. "She has decided to drive."

“Really?” Jurina exclaimed, surprised by this new piece of information. The last time she spoke on the phone with Mayu, the latter did not inform her of her intention to take the driving test. What possibly could have prompted her to do so? After all, Yuki already had a driving license.

“She doesn't like my driving,” Yuki mumbled. “She states I drive too slow. Do you believe it too?”

Jurina cautiously kept quiet when she understood the tricky situation she was facing. She was conscious of Yuki's questioning eyes never leaving her, but she knew she had to tread carefully with this question before answering. Indeed, she remembered Mayu voicing a few times her displeasure about Yuki's driving. Speed limits were low in Japan, and it appeared Yuki liked to respect them scrupulously. Sometimes, going even slower than required: much to Mayu's frustration. So now that Yuki mentioned it, it did make sense that Mayu would wish to take matters in hand. Didn't a famous saying state: "If you want something done, do it yourself"?

“You're being cautious.” Jurina decided to play safe. Yuki could sometimes be sensitive when it came to certain subjects – her cooking being famously one of them – and she figured it was wiser to stay diplomatic. “There's nothing wrong with that.”

“Exactly!” Yuki exclaimed loudly, raising both her hands in the air. A few heads turned on her way, but she didn't seem to care about the attention she was getting. Obviously, she was more than relieved someone was on her side.

Jurina chuckled a little at her reaction, but her smile vanished when Yuki turned to look at her seriously. She didn't know why, but she could sense Yuki was about to ask her something. Something that may involve her AKB best friend. “You need to explain it to Mayu. Maybe she'll change her mind if it comes from her best friend.”

Jurina swallowed nervously when she discovered she hit the bull's eye. And the mistake she made by trying to preserve Yuki from the truth. Her interlocutor was still looking at her intensely, and she understood she would not let it go until she agreed. As a result, she gave her a quick nod and tentative smile, hoping it would do the trick and convince Yuki successfully.

No, she was definitely not going to have that particular conversation with Mayu. The idea of being caught in a crossfire didn't appeal to her. However, she had to make sure Yuki still believed it. Luckily, her poor attempt of a lie seemed to work, as a broad smile soon plastered Yuki's face. Jurina heaved a sigh of relief as soon as the other girl looked the other way.

 


 

 

When they all arrived at the beach later that day, Yuki and Jurina decided by common consent that Mayu would be the one buried in the sand. Mayu didn't even have time to react that both girls knelt to the ground and started digging into the sand, in the intent to make a large hole compatible with her body size. And, considering how deep it had gotten over time, it didn't take her long to figure out she would not be able to get out of it without help.

Without a word, she complied and placed herself into the hole as soon as it was finished, before feeling the sand progressively covering her skin and swimsuit. Judging by the pleased expression on both girls' faces, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. But Mayu couldn't help wondering why she had been chosen for this task. “Remind me why I'm the one being covered with sand?” Mayu grumbled.

“You were driving too fast,” Yuki stated casually. She was so focused on the task at hand, she didn't even bother to look back at her. If she had, she would have seen the shock on Mayu's face.

Too fast? Mayu wanted to blurt out. The speed was limited to 37 miles all the way leading to her beach house, and she certainly didn't recall driving like a road hog. Alright, she may have raised her speed a little a few times, but never more than 5 miles. Apparently, it was still too much for Yuki's liking. Her lips were twitching to retort that she was overreacting, but her better judgment was telling her to keep quiet. If she protested, there was a high possibility Yuki may never let her drive again. The risk was too high. Better be safe and keep her mouth shut.

Instead, she tilted her head in the direction of the younger girl on her left who was placing sand over her body and having lots of fun in doing so. “And you,” Mayu started, noticing Jurina now looking up at her in curiosity. If she could, she would have pointed a finger at her. Unfortunately, her arms were already trapped under the sand. That's why she settled for a simple – but hoped effective – intense glare. “What's your reason for agreeing to this?”

A mischievous smile immediately fell upon Jurina's lips, and a little voice inside Mayu's head told her that her explanation was probably not going to satisfy her any more than Yuki's. “You're smaller, so there's less skin to cover.”

Mayu's jaw dropped, not believing Jurina would come up with such a bad excuse. Smaller? She was only three inches smaller than her! How dared she bring up her height to justify her alliance with Yuki! It was unacceptable. Her girlfriend was slightly mad at her because her driving didn't appeal to her. Fine. But who could she count on if even her best friend sided with Yuki? And for such petty reasons? The truth was, she was outnumbered. And there was nothing she could do about it.

“And we're done!” Yuki exclaimed after a little while, getting up on her feet. The way she studied Mayu from head to toe, it almost looked like she was admiring a beautiful painting. A masterpiece even, considering how long her eyes travelled her body now entirely covered with sand. Except of course for her head that was popping out of the sand.

Mayu looked back in forth between the two girls who were standing in front of her, kind of glad that they were finished. She didn't know how much time had passed but considering she wasn't allowed to move the whole time, it certainly looked like an eternity. Thank God, the beach umbrella over her head protected her from the heat of the sun.

Without warning, Yuki turned on her heels and moved towards her beach bag. Mayu watched in confusion the older girl rummaging through it for a few seconds, before all her senses became alert when she saw Yuki's fingers retrieving her Smartphone. Mayu froze. It didn't take a genius to figure out her girlfriend's intention.

"Wait," Mayu stammered. Out of reflex, she tried to get up to stop her, until remembering she was completely trapped under the sand, and therefore couldn't move a muscle. "You're not going to take a picture of me like that, right?" Mayu realized how stupid her question was when Yuki pointed her phone at her without the slight hesitation.

"Smile, Mayuyu," Yuki quipped, the faint click of the camera being heard right after. A disappointed look plastered Yuki's face when she checked the picture, and Mayu was harboring her cyborg look. "Come on, you can do better than that."

Mayu really didn't want to relent. Especially when she saw Jurina grinning annoyingly by her girlfriend's side. However, she feared it would never end if she didn't do as instructed. After all, Yuki could prove to be stubborn when she wanted to. Mayu let out a small sigh, and a tentative smile moved to her lips when she looked in the direction of Yuki's phone.

"Perfect!" Yuki's cheerful voice sounded, obviously satisfied with the result as she checked the picture taken. "I'll post it on my Google + immediately."

Mayu's face turned white as a sheet. She could see Yuki typing frenetically on her phone, but she knew she couldn't do anything to stop her. She did – at some point – give a pleading look to Jurina, but the latter was smiling like an idiot while reading the message over Yuki's shoulder. No, there was definitely no use in expecting help from her. Mayu surely wasn't eager to read the seemingly amusing message Yuki had written to describe the picture. Even less when she heard both girls laughing together.

"This would never have happened if Rena was here," Mayu muttered quietly, looking the other way. The laughing ceased, and curiosity brought her attention back to them. She realized she said something wrong when she noticed Jurina's smile faltering, and Yuki giving her a disapproving look.

Mayu cursed herself for the slip of the tongue. It was never her intention to be heard from the two other girls in the first place, but her words had unfortunately managed to reach Jurina. Mayu knew how hard it had been for the younger Matsui to deal with the idea of Rena leaving SKE. They spent many hours on the phone talking about it these last months. Albeit the fact Mayu was not physically present to witness her best friend's reactions, her sorrow was always palpable through the phone, even when she did her best to choke back her tears.

Now, it seemed Jurina was feeling a bit better, and to have accepted her departure. But the repercussions of Rena's absence still needed to be dealt with on a daily basis, especially now as Jurina was officially sole leader of SKE. There was no WMatsui anymore. No one to share the pressure with her.

Moreover, Mayu knew how much Jurina was looking forward to this week holiday, and to renew it with Rena this year again. It will do us both some good, she even stated once over the phone to her. When the older Matsui told Jurina she unfortunately couldn't join because of her work, the latter felt more than down.

And what did Mayu do? By letting her frustration out, she unconsciously reminded her of Rena's current absence. Why didn't she pay better attention to what she was saying? Jurina seemed so happy at her arrival at the beach house. And she had erased that smile in a split second. Well done, Mayu. "I'm sorry," Mayu started, trying desperately to come back on her words. "I didn't mean–"

"I think we're going to let you buried into the sand a little while longer," Yuki deadpanned after putting her phone away. She tilted her head towards Jurina with a broad smile on her lips. "Want to go in the water?"

Mayu didn't protest when she saw Jurina nodding and the light making its way progressively back into her eyes. From her peripheral vision, she saw the two girls drawing away and moving towards the ocean until Jurina stopped in her tracks and retraced her steps to Mayu. The latter watched her in apprehension as she kneeled beside her, really hoping her best friend was not too angry at her for her unfortunate words. The last thing she expected was to see Jurina leaning forward and leaving a quick kiss on her cheek.

"Don't worry." Jurina shook her head lightly. "I'm not mad at you. It's true Rena is not here, but I'm still going to enjoy myself with you two."

A smile moved to Mayu's lips when she saw Jurina's mischievous expression. Yes, her best friend had taken advantage of her current immobility to sneakily steal a kiss from her. Another time, she would definitely have voiced her disapproval at the intimate gesture. But right now, the thought didn't even cross her mind. She knew it wasn't only the kissing monster in action. It was also Jurina's way of reassuring her that she didn't hold her words against her.

 


 

 

Mayu watched from the sofa Yuki who was finishing adjusting Jurina's yukata. There were so many steps to follow when you wore such a particular outfit. It was definitely not a matter wrapped up in a few seconds, and someone else's help was always deeply appreciated. Last year, they didn't have the opportunity to go to the Matsuri, but Yuki had insisted not to miss it this year. Mayu was not terribly fond of the idea – never liking too much crowded places – but she had quickly relented. According to Yuki's words, she swore to her last year that they would go to the festival in 2016. Strangely, she had no recollection whatsoever making such a promise. Maybe the words had involuntarily escaped her lips in an attempt to please her girlfriend at the time. Yes, that was probably the explanation for her failing memory.

And now here they were indeed in the living room a year later, getting prepared to go to the famous event. Yuki and Mayu were both already clad in their traditional clothes. The only one left was Jurina, who was now attentively checking her outfit in the mirror after Yuki had stated she was all done. Mayu's eyes swept her best friend from head to toe, acknowledging that she looked mature with her blue yukata, and her hair tied up in a neat bun.

"How do I look?" Jurina asked, turning towards the two other girls in curiosity.

"It's perfect," Yuki assured with a sincere smile. "You're beautiful."

Mayu nodded in agreement, but soon rolled her eyes when she saw her best friend checking herself in the mirror nonetheless and adjusting her bun one last time. Always wanting everything to be completely perfect. It was the core definition of Jurina Matsui. Mayu realized she had to put an end to her antics when the young girl was still standing in front of the mirror a minute later. Without further ado, she stood up from the sofa.

"Alright, let's go," Mayu affirmed, her tone leaving no room for discussion. Decisively, she walked towards the front door – hearing Yuki's steps following her closely – and almost had her hand on the handle, when Jurina's voice stopped her in her tracks.

"Wait!" Jurina exclaimed, moving towards her handbag quickly. Well, as fast as her yukata allowed her, of course. Mayu sent her a confused look when she saw her rummaging through her bag frenetically, until Jurina's fingers retrieved her Smartphone. "I want to send a picture to Rena."

Yuki and Mayu shared a glance, both astonished by the mention of the older Matsui. Apart from the little incident involuntarily provoked by Mayu at the beach the day before, Jurina had never mentioned her girlfriend once since her arrival. Mayu knew it wasn't that Jurina wasn't thinking about Rena. On the contrary, she was pretty sure she was never far from her thoughts. However, Jurina had clearly indicated her wish to take advantage of this week holiday to take her mind off things. Which – she figured meant implicitly – not delving over the older girl's absence and enjoy herself as much as possible. That's why it startled her a little to hear the name falling from her lips.

Jurina was too busy with her phone to notice the reaction her declaration had provoked. In fact, she was already getting prepared to take a selfie – a smile already moving to her lips – when Yuki intervened. "I'll do it," she said, walking towards her. "Rena won't see your outfit properly otherwise."

"You're right," Jurina conceded, lowering her phone and giving it to the approaching girl. "Thank you, Yuki."

Mayu – who was still standing by the front door – couldn't help but shake her head in light amusement when Jurina made a V sign with her fingers and tilted her head slightly to the left with a cheerful expression. It was a cute pose the younger girl sometimes liked to make, but definitely a sharp contrast with her current mature look. In the end, Mayu concluded it suited her personality to the perfection. Technically, Jurina was now an adult. But the child within her was never far.

 


 

 

Jurina had a fun time at the festival, playing many games at the stands all afternoon, and eating lots of sweets. What could she say? She loved candy floss. Albeit the fact Rena was not physically present, she could almost imagine her reaction if she had seen her in action. That's too much sugar for you. The older girl would have chastised her gently. The thought made her smile once or twice.

After that, Yuki wished to make a stop at the nearest temple. Mayu didn't seem ecstatic about the prospect, probably dreading the long queue. Jurina remembered seeing her best friend making a face when Yuki suggested the same idea during New Year Eve's of 2014. At the time, she successively managed to get out of it. But definitely not in 2015 when Yuki reiterated her demand with determination. And not this time either when Yuki gave her a pleading look. To be honest, Jurina had to restrain herself from laughing when she witnessed the amusing scene. Mayu was sometimes a stubborn girl, but she could never say no to her girlfriend very long.

Jurina clapped in her hands and closed her eyes, wondering what kind of wish she could make now that she was standing in front of the temple. She already had everything she wanted: a job she adored, trusted friends and a girl she loved with all her heart. What possibly could she want more?

Of course, her life was not perfect. If it depended on her, she would have wanted to still have Rena by her side in SKE48. But it was a carefully thought decision Rena had taken for her future. It did pain her at the time to discover Rena had been thinking about graduating – and without consulting with her first – but it was now all in the past.

The fact that Rena's new career as an actress forced them to be physically apart clearly didn't please her. And a little voice inside Jurina's head had been nagging her for a while that she would need to get used to it fast. Their current two months’ separation was definitely not a onetime thing. Jurina had a feeling it was going to be a recurrent occurrence from now on.

Jurina frowned slightly when her brain refused to come up with something. Yuki and Mayu were standing a few feet away – and patiently waiting for her to finish – but she refused to leave before making a wish. After all, it was the tradition. Some wished for good fortune, others to be healthy. But none of those appealed to her.

She almost came to the point of giving up when an idea emerged. A smile grazed her lips in satisfaction when she discovered she found her wish. Why didn't she think about it sooner? It should have been obvious from the start. Jurina took a deep breath and formulated her deepest wish inside her head. I've accepted the idea that pain is part of life. However, no matter what the future has in store for me, my ultimate wish is to be happy at the end.

Chapter Text

Arisa slid the door close behind her, sweeping the room attentively to make sure she was alone in the dojo. Satisfied to notice there wasn't a living soul in the place, her eyes fell next on the familiar stand of bokken. She had been visiting this place in secret a few times now since her arrival at the clan Ashikaga. Without further ado, her feet led her to the stand and she took one of the wooden swords into her right hand. With her left one she brushed the wooden surface in appreciation, the fond memory of a certain training session progressively invading her mind. The face of her beloved Nobunaga appeared clearly, and Arisa's features relaxed as she let herself go back in time.

“I'm not sure this is a good idea,” was Nobunaga's hesitant reply when she requested to take kenjutsu lessons that day of Fall.

“Why?” Arisa frowned, looking back in confusion at her 19-year-old childhood friend who was holding a bokken in his right hand. The boy had been training alone and diligently in the dojo for an hour now, like every afternoon for two years. "I know you are perfectly capable of teaching me."

“It's not a matter of skills,” her interlocutor replied, avoiding her questioning gaze in unease. He placed his bokken back on the stand, his back still turned to the other girl when he continued. “I'm not sure your father would approve of his daughter learning to fight.”

So that's the reason, Arisa mused in amusement. She drew closer to the boy who was deliberately turning his back to her, but who looked back at her in curiosity when she encircled his arm gently. She leaned forward – taking in his startled expression as their lips were now a few inches apart – before murmuring softly. “He doesn't need to know.”

Arisa left a lingering kiss on his cheek, Nobunaga's eyes softening at the intimate gesture. Arisa could tell she was not far from convincing him successfully. Indeed, Nobunaga was now gazing at her with a devotion that always managed to make her heart race. The 19-year-old boy wasn't good at expressing his feelings out loud, but such a deep emotion in his eyes always spoke louder than words.

When his lips still refused to produce a positive answer to her demand a few seconds later, she knew she had to put an end to his last shred of resistance. She caressed softly the small scar underneath his left eye – result of an unfortunate fight he got involved into a few years ago – before slipping her fingers inside his hand. It grew stiff at the contact, and Arisa saw Nobunaga looking over her shoulder in alert.

They were both currently alone in the dojo, but Arisa was conscious of the risk she was taking if someone happened to come in at that specific moment and witnessed such a scene. The irrepressible need to be closer to her beloved one was sometimes too strong to resist. No one in the clan knew they were romantically involved. And no one could. Especially not her father, the shogun. Her father had taken Nobunaga under his wing at a young age and made him a member of his personal guard as soon as he reached 18. A great honor. The 19-year-old boy with black, shoulder-length hair respected his shogun highly. But there was an insurmountable obstacle to Arisa's relationship with her childhood friend. Nobunaga wasn't of noble rank. As a result, their love was forbidden.

Arisa squeezed his hand lightly before letting it go reluctantly. Nevertheless, she refused to take a step back, and looked straight into his eyes when she spoke up. “Please, Nobunaga. I've always wanted to learn kenjutsu. Besides, we barely see each other lately. I want to spend time with you.”

At her desperate words, Nobunaga tore his eyes away from the door to gaze at her. The painful reality hit him. She was completely right. Indeed, they had been separated a lot lately, due to his obligations towards the head of the clan, Arisa's father. He gave her a soft nod, relenting. “Alright, I will teach you sword fighting.”

Arisa's eyes lit up in joy, and she grabbed quickly a bokken off the stand. Nobunaga let out a small chuckle at her enthusiasm. He took a wooden sword as well and walked towards a decided Arisa who was now standing in the middle of the dojo, watching his every move in expectation. He stopped a few feet away from her, slightly hesitant as he observed the feminine form in concern. “Please tell me when you wish to stop. I don't want to exhaust you.”

“Who do you take me for?” Arisa scoffed, sounding terribly offended by the assumption. “I'm not a frail girl."

Nobunaga was momentarily caught off guard by her harsh tone, before distinguishing a glint of mischief in her brown orbs and understanding he was being teased. He shook her head in agreement, amused. “Of course, you're not. You're one of the strongest persons I've ever met, Arisa.”

 


 

 

“So, that's where you've been hiding all this time?” The questioning voice pulled Arisa out of her thoughts instantly. Her fingers froze on the bokken, and she turned to stare at the son of the shogun currently standing on the doorstep of the dojo. So lost in her precious memory of her first training with Nobunaga, she had unfortunately not heard the door sliding open.

Ashikaga-dono watched her carefully for a little while – waiting patiently for any sort of reaction on her behalf – until it became obvious by her lasting silence that she was not going to grant him with a reply. Hands clasped behind his back he took a few steps towards his wife-to-be, his gaze falling in curiosity on the bokken in her right hand. “Have you practiced kenjutsu in the past, Oni–”

“How did you find me?” Arisa cut him off, much displeased by the unexpected appearance of the other man. The dojo was her little sanctum, a safe place where she let her mind drift off to fond memories. And he had caused the image of her beloved to vanish with his unwilling intrusion. “Have you asked my maid to spy on me again?”

“This could indeed have been the case,” Yoshiaki conceded, understanding full well the reason behind the other woman's suspicious look. After all, the young maid assigned to her had betrayed her no so long ago by divulging her intention to flee. “But no, I've been doing the observation myself. I noticed your recurrent disappearances right after dinner.”

Yoshiaki's mouth tugged into an amused smile at Arisa's appalled expression. Since her arrival at the clan, the latter had always done her best to keep her mask in place when they faced each other. Her words were nothing but straightforward when they spoke, but she always kept her composure each time she addressed him. Somehow, Yoshiaki guessed it couldn't possibly match what she was really feeling deep inside. That's why he found her slip surprising, but definitely not unwelcomed. He always valued honestly above all.

“I haven't trained in a while,” Yoshiaki admitted. “But I would be happy to do so with you. I know I have been confined in my quarters lately. Unfortunately, work gave me little free time.”

“You're mistaken if you believe I want to spend more time with you,” Arisa retorted, placing the wooden sword back on the stand and moving towards the exit in determination. As she was about to reach the door, the voice of the shogun's son stopped her in her tracks.

“We'll be married in three months.” Yoshiaki’ voice was carefully neutral.

Arisa's lips twitched in annoyance, not appreciating in the least being reminded of this imminent event. After all – even if it had already been two months since her arrival at the castle – she kept having a hard time accepting the truth. And her latest escape plan had miserably failed because of her maid's betrayal. Never again after that day she found the occasion to flee the castle. Her actions were always closely monitored each time she happened to leave the vicinity of the castle. In fact, she could practically feel the eyes of the guards boring into her back at each step she took.

“None of us wanted this wedding, but we have no choice in the matter,” Yoshiaki continued on the same tone. “Destiny has brought us together to unite our two clans. I solely wish to know you better, Onishi-san.”

At those words, Arisa slowly turned around to look at him. She knew his offer to be genuine. Ashikaga-dono wasn't a deceiving man; of this she was certain. Nevertheless, it didn't make the whole situation more acceptable. Her nights were continuously filled with visions of her dear Nobunaga, and her wish to be reunited with him had not faded. No matter the fact that their reunion was becoming more unlikely as the weeks went by. Somehow, she refused to completely lose hope of finding him again. Hope was the last thing that was preventing her from losing her sanity in this place.

“Did Nobunaga teach you kenjutsu?” Yoshiaki didn't let Arisa's silence deter him. On the contrary, he took two bokken from the stand and approached the woman who was cautiously keeping her distance from him, offering her without the slight hesitation a wooden sword. “Please train with me, Onishi-san.”

Arisa gave him a defiant look – stubbornly refusing to comply to his wishes – until grabbing not so gently the training weapon from his left hand. She could feel herself losing her calm gradually, and she knew it had something to do with the name he had so casually uttered. “Don't say his name.”

Yoshiaki didn't react and Arisa stared at the bokken in her hand, ill-at-ease. Until now, she had always practiced kenjutsu with only one person: Nobunaga. The idea of having another partner for the activity didn't please her at all. In fact, the sole view of a bokken reminded her of her childhood friend. But at the same time, she couldn't ignore the fact she had deeply missed practicing sword fighting these last two months.

“Will you allow me to take lessons if I agree to this?” Arisa heard herself asking. Startled by her own words, she kept her gaze on her bokken, wondering why she was relenting so fast. She shouldn't be giving in to this man's demands. What on earth was she doing?

“Yes, if it pleases you,” came the immediate reply.

Arisa looked up in incredulity. She had voiced the request without thinking, and she certainly didn't believe it would be accepted. After all, her father never wanted her to learn sword fighting, proclaiming it wasn't befitting of a girl. Even less of the daughter of the shogun. And, just now, her interlocutor had agreed in the blink of an eye, without the slight hesitation. Why?

Frustration washed over Arisa as she was witnessing again the unfailing kindness of the son of the shogun. Even after being brought to this foreign land and forced to marry this man, she couldn't bring herself to hate him. The son of the shogun wasn't a bad person. Like her, it was victim of the circumstances. The only difference was, he seemed to have put up with this new situation much faster than her.

Arisa raised her bokken, her gaze fixed firmly on her opponent who was patiently waiting for her in the middle of the dojo. Her feet led her to him, noting the pleased smile on his lips as she came to stand in front of him. Arisa breathed in and fluttered her eyes close, letting Nobunaga's teachings come back to mind as she let her body relax.

When Arisa gazed back at the son of the shogun, the latter distinguished the strong determination in her brown eyes. Without further ado, she moved her right feet forward, clear sign that she was about to give the first hit. Her head was void of any negative thought when their weapons met in a clashing sound. Nobunaga may physically not be present by her side, he was accompanying each and single one of her attacks. And – as she cleverly defended herself against Ashikaga-dono's dexterous bokken – she knew he would always stay in her heart, no matter what.

 


 

 

Rena stilled her bokken at once when the director shouted "cut". She lowered her weapon and took a step back – aware of her heart beating fast inside her chest due to the physical exercise – and exchanged a smile with Yosuke. She may have been rehearsing this scene with her fighting coach for a few days now, it nonetheless proved to be an energetic scene to shoot. Thankfully, Yosuke was an efficient sparring partner: they moved in perfect synchronization during the whole scene. Their mutual unfailing professionalism had enabled them to wrap up the scene in one take. Rena couldn't be more satisfied by the positive turn of events.

More physical scenes awaited her in the following episodes, but she was done for now. The training session between her character and Yoshiaki was the last scene she had to shoot for the day. It was not dark yet outside, but it was already 6:30 p.m. It was time for her to make her way back to her hotel.

As she progressively left the large set to join the dressing room, her thoughts went to a certain ace. Jurina was still enjoying her holidays at Mayu's beach house, and she couldn't wait to hear about her cheerful narration of her day. She had missed the enthusiast Jurina so much these last months, that she was more than glad to have that side of her back.

Rena checked her phone as soon as she stepped in the taxi. She was now back in her everyday clothes and had taken a quick shower to remove all the sweat she had accumulated during her day, mostly during her last fighting scene. Rena indicated the name of her hotel to the driver and as the car moved forward, her attention went back on the white device. To her surprise, she discovered that Jurina was still not connected on LINE. She arched an eyebrow at the strange occurrence. The 19-year-old girl always liked to connect a few minutes before the time agreed, to make sure she didn't miss a single moment of their precious time together.

Come to think of it, Jurina had not confirmed earlier that she would be present on LINE. They typically chatted as soon as the older Matsui left the set and joined her hotel, but the latter always liked to check first with Jurina that their schedules matched well. Indeed, it happened a few times in the past that they needed to postpone their conversation to a bit later, when a night event was taking up Jurina's time.

The fact that Jurina had not replied yet to her 1 p.m. text was curious. Jurina never took so long before texting back, even when she was working. An hour was the most it had ever taken her to reply. And it had already been six hours now. Rena pondered over sending her another message, when the driver distracted her by announcing they had arrived at destination.

Rena tilted her head towards the window in surprise, taking in indeed the familiar sight of the entrance of her hotel. So engrossed in her thoughts, she had not felt the time passing by. She put her phone away and thanked the driver, paying her due. As soon as she got out of the car, her fingers encountered her phone again. While moving mechanically towards the lift, her eyes stayed glued on the device as she took the decision to send another text to Jurina. As she was about to push the button to call the elevator, she heard a familiar voice calling her name.

“Rena-san!”

The older Matsui looked up instantly and turned around, startled to see Sayuri waving at her from the entrance of the restaurant room. She didn't even have time to react that the younger girl was already approaching fast and had encircled her arm before she realized it. “Where are you going, Rena-san?”

“I'm going back to my hotel room,” Rena explained, confused by the strange question.

The shooting had ended. Where else could she possibly go? Her days at Kyoto went like clockwork. As soon as she left the set of the drama, she joined her hotel room to meet Jurina on LINE. Then, she went out for a bite, and got back to the hotel for a well-deserved sleep. Was something supposed to happen today that she forgot? She didn't have the best memory in the world: it could totally be possible. However, it was Wednesday. As a result, it couldn't be her weekly dinner in town with Sayuri and Yosuke.

Rena was really wondering what was wrong with her co-star when Sayuri shook her head at her, looking unsatisfied by her answer. She barely had time to place her phone back inside her bag that the young girl pulled her arm and started dragging her towards the direction of the restaurant of the hotel. To say that Rena was a bit shocked by her action would be an understatement. As they stood in front of the closed door of the restaurant, Rena gave a puzzled look to the other actress.

“You know what day it is?” Sayuri broke the awkward silence that was starting to envelop them.

“It's July 27th.” Rena frowned, failing to see where she was getting at. “Why?”

Rena was pretty sure she never saw the other girl rolling her eyes before, but that's exactly what happened. The latter even let out a defeated sigh, before exclaiming. "Yes! It's an important day!"

“Sayuri, I don't underst–” Rena didn't have time to question her further that the young girl pushed the door of the restaurant room with one hand and pulled her in with the other. Rena widened her eyes in surprise when she faced a room full of people. But not any ordinary people. Crew members. Actors. All the people standing in the room and looking at her were working on Destiny. What was the reason behind this gathering? She had not been informed about it; of this she was certain. Rena was about to ask Sayuri for an explanation, when her eyes caught sight of a birthday cake on a table. That's when realization hit her.

“Happy birthday!” Sayuri's excited voice sounded next to her ear. The room soon joined her in her congratulations, and Rena heard the words falling from the lips of all the people present in her room. Her feet stayed stuck on the ground, at a complete loss for words.

From her peripheral vision Rena saw Sayuri letting go of her arm and joining Yosuke who was standing by the cake. Both sent her an inviting smile, but Rena was still having a hard time getting over her initial shock. Of course, she was perfectly aware that she turning twenty-five today, but she didn't expect her colleagues to throw a party for her. Despite her surprise, she couldn't help but feel moved by the thoughtful attention.

“Happy birthday, Matsui-san.” The director of the drama approached her from the left side of the room. “Sayuri organized this little gathering. I hope you don't mind.”

“She did?” Rena exclaimed, astonished by this new piece of information. She gave a quick look to Sayuri over the man's shoulder, before bowing politely to him. “I don't know what to say. Thank you very much.”

Rena thanked a few more people who came to congratulate her, before diverting her attention to a grinning and seemingly proud of what she had achieved Sayuri. The girl may be talkative during the day, she had carefully kept this gathering secret from her. And the thought that she was at the origin of it? Rena would never have imagined it. In fact, she was pretty sure she never mentioned the date of her birthday to her. How did she come to such knowledge? Rena made a mental note to ask her later.

“Come and taste the cake!” Sayuri exclaimed, waving at her near the cake.

Rena smiled at her exuberant enthusiast and approached willingly, listening attentively while Sayuri explained in great detail that she had personally chosen and bought the cake from one of her favorite bakeries in Kyoto. According to her, their cakes had never disappointed her so far, so it should beasty. Rena did look up once or twice from the cake at that, not believing the girl would go to such great lengths for her birthday.

“Thank you very much, Sayuri,” Rena spoke up, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving it a light squeeze. “I'm deeply moved you did all this for me.”

What Rena didn't expect, was to see the other girl blushing in reaction. It was actually subtle, as Sayuri's cheeks had only slightly turned pink. But it was definitely not the fruit of her imagination. And now, to top it all, the usually extrovert girl was acting unexpectedly shy, avoiding her gaze a little. Rena's mouth tugged into an amused smile at her unforeseen but cute behavior.

“Sayuri is always full of surprises,” Yosuke intervened, the same amused expression plastering his features as he observed his young friend's emotional reaction. When Sayuri shyly kept quiet he turned towards the older Matsui and offered her a plate and a kind smile. “Happy birthday, Rena-san. Please enjoy your cake.”

 


 

 

After chatting a bit with her two co-stars and tasting the – positively delicious – strawberry cake, Rena's next thought was to join her hotel room. However, she quickly realized she couldn't exactly do that. Unfortunately, etiquette was preventing her from leaving yet. It had already been half an hour since she entered the restaurant room with Sayuri, and – even if a few crew members had left – there were still a lot of people present. The birthday girl couldn't possibly be one of the first persons to leave. After all, they had kindly organized this party in her honor. Not only it would be improper, it would also be impolite.

As a result, the older Matsui took advantage of the situation to make small talk with a few other people. Even if she spent a lot of time on set with crew members and actors their conversations remained strictly professional. Moreover, the opportunity to speak with those same people outside of the working place never really presented itself before. The only exception concerned her two co-stars, Yosuke and Sayuri, with who she had unexpectedly bonded with fast.

For so many years, she had been a shy and introvert girl. But, as she engaged in a few conversations and discovered how natural it felt, she realized she truly wasn't that person anymore. Of course, she still enjoyed spending time alone the most and valued her privacy above all. But those kinds of conversations didn't make her nervous as they used to. If anything, she was completely capable of handling herself in public. Not a trace of unease could be seen on her face each time she addressed a new person with a polite smile.

It was 9 p.m. when she decided to join her hotel room. At some point during the party, she had sent a message to Jurina to warn her that she would be a bit late. And, when she left the restaurant room and checked her phone out of curiosity, she was surprised to discover she had not received any answer. Those were two messages Jurina had not replied to. Now, Rena was starting to get a bit worried by her girlfriend's unusual silence. She had not made contact with her all day.

Rena stepped inside the elevator and pushed the button of the second floor, trying to come up with a plausible explanation for Jurina's strange behavior. Another time, she would have feared something bad happened to her during rehearsal. After all, it wouldn't be the first time the young girl would injure herself, or even faint. No matter how many years went by, Jurina still deliberately ignored the physical limits of her body. Her wish to outdo herself was always her main objective: the rest didn't have the slight importance.

But the older Matsui knew it couldn't be the reason for Jurina's current lack of reply. The latter was spending a peaceful week holiday at Mayu's beach house, surrounded by close and loving friends. She was in a safe environment. Her physical activities were limited. And Rena knew she could count on Mayu to make sure the SKE member was eating properly.

When the doors opened at her floor Rena gazed pensively at the empty, dark corridor – wondering what to do about the odd situation – before deciding she had to know what was going on and calling Jurina. Rena stepped inside the corridor and dialed her number, pressing the phone against her ear the moment after.

It rang. Once, twice. And a few more times. Rena stopped counting at some point, taken aback by the lack of reply. It soon fell on voicemail. Rena lowered her phone and paused in her steps. She stared at the screen at length, desperately wishing her brain could come up with a simple explanation for the inexplicable situation she was facing.

“Why isn't she answering?” the feeble murmur left Rena's lips.

Her feet moved forward again, but her steps were more uncertain. Jurina wasn't present on LINE, and not answering her phone. Something was wrong. Rena dialed the number another time, hoping her second attempt would be more fruitful. She couldn't be more wrong. It rang a few times, and Jurina never answered. But Rena noticed a slight difference in the previous pattern. To her confusion, there was an echo in the phone. In fact, it strangely looked like her call was ringing not far from here.

Rena turned at a corner, wondering why on earth she was hearing this persistent, inexplicable echo. While still holding the phone, her eyes fell on a feminine silhouette waiting in front of a room at the far end of the corridor. Rena squinted to try and distinguish who she was, but the girl had her back turned to her. Wait, that wasn't any ordinary room. It was room 22. Her room. And, as she studied the silhouette attentively, she realized the girl seemed awfully familiar. In fact, it almost looked like...

The phone almost slipped from her grasp when the new presence turned to look at her. Yes, she could recognize that characteristic expression of hers amongst thousands. Only one person on earth could give her such a bright and loving smile. A person who had entered her life in 2008 and captured her heart a little more than a year ago. She let out a shocked gasp.

“Jurina!?”

Chapter Text

There was always a gratifying feeling at being able to render Rena Matsui so speechless. Over the years, the older girl had become more composed and eloquent, leaving behind the shy and emotional girl. Now, Rena was capable of developing her thoughts properly, and controlling her emotions better. That was why Jurina couldn't help but feel a little proud of herself at the reaction she had managed to provoke. Indeed, the other girl was currently staring at her in utter shock – her lips unable to produce a single sound – and her feet desperately stuck on the ground, refusing to move. Her phone was still attached to her ear, even though the call had long ago fell on the voicemail. Jurina's mouth tugged into a smile at the amusing scene. Yes, this was a moment she would definitely remember.

“What… are you doing here?” Jurina heard the older girl exclaiming in surprise but she chose to keep quiet, instead sweeping over Rena's form in appreciation. The older girl was wearing a nice, red summer dress with beige sandals, and had her hair tied into a neat ponytail. Jurina didn't know how long she gazed at her, but she couldn't help thinking how particularly beautiful her girlfriend looked today in those feminine clothes.

To be honest, it was unexpected to see Rena wearing such an outfit. Contrary to the image she projected, Rena had always been a real tomboy when it came to the way she dressed, preferring the practicality of her favorite pair of sneakers to uncomfortable high heels. Dresses? She wore them so rarely, that Jurina couldn't fathom the last time she saw her wearing one. And the countless skirts and dresses the girl had the wear while still in SKE48 – whether on stage or during photoshoots – didn't count. It was different, she never had a choice in the matter: it was for her job. When it concerned her daily life clothes, Rena was not too fond of wearing any of those, only doing so on rare, chosen occasions.

No, Rena wasn't the feminine type, despite her persistent image of Nagoya princess. That was why the view was slightly astonishing, but definitely not unpleasant. Far from it. Maybe her profound happiness in seeing Rena again after being separated for so long was influencing her thoughts and emotions more than usual. But Jurina guessed their reunion couldn't be the only reason for the sound of her heart hammering inside her chest.

As long as she recalled, Jurina had always considered Rena as good-looking girl. Oh yes, Rena would argue the contrary each time she would praise her looks. But it didn't stop her from believing it, nor complimenting her. And today, Rena's neat and feminine appearance was adding fuel to her deepest conviction. Even if she wanted to, she wouldn't be able to look away.

Jurina knew she couldn't stay away from her much longer. Rena had put her phone away and a pleased smile had replaced her initial shock, but she still had not moved forward. Only a few feet were currently separating them, but it was still way too much for Jurina's liking. Without thinking twice, she reduced the distance and encircled Rena's waist, pulling her into a tender embrace. Jurina didn't have to wait long before feeling the other girl replying to her affectionate gesture and wrapping her arms around her neck.

“I missed you,” Jurina admitted, uttering her first words since the awaited Rena had appeared at the end of the corridor. She nuzzled her nose inside the crook of Rena's neck. “I really did.”

To prove her words she tightened her hold, before fluttering her eyes close and taking in Rena's familiar, sweet perfume: a mix of mandarin and orange, with a hint of jasmine and rose. Jurina heaved a small sigh in content when fingers started caressing the back of her head.

“I missed you too,” Rena replied, her soft murmur a melody to her ears. “I'm happy to see you.”

Jurina took advantage of their closeness to explore the exposed skin offered to her and left a light kiss along the nape of her neck. Jurina could feel Rena relaxing in her arms, and she took it as a sign that she was not opposed in the slightest to her demonstration of affection. Jurina didn't know if it was due to the incredible softness of her skin or the pleasant scent of her perfume, but she simply couldn't find the strength in herself to separate herself from her. Rena's presence was too intoxicating to resist.

“Jurina...” Rena's gentle calling of her name distracted her. “We should go inside.”

Jurina pulled away slightly and rested her chin on her shoulder, pondering over her suggestion. Truthfully, she didn't wish to pull apart already. She was completely fine in her girlfriend's arms. However, she could easily guess Rena's thoughts, and the reason behind her words. Their embrace could pass as an act of deep friendship if anyone was to walk on them, but it would be a different matter if it escaladed any further than that. And a little voice inside her head told her that Rena was predicting she had more in mind that the simple kiss she had given her.

Jurina let out a small sigh and obliged, diminishing progressively her hold around Rena's waist. However, she didn't separate herself from her yet, instead pulling away enough to look at her. When was the last time she had been able to truly admire the girl she adored so much? Rena's drama was getting pretty popular over time, and she had seen a few pictures of her in magazines. But the papers didn't render her justice. Rena wasn't wearing any makeup at the moment, and she never needed to. Artifices served no purposed: she had a natural beauty.

Jurina cupped Rena's left cheek, brushing it with her thumb tenderly. She met Rena's gaze – noticing her eyes softening at the caress – before looking down at those pink lips before her. Their lips were so close, that the pull to remember their softness became gradually strong. For an instant, Jurina wondered if she would be able to steal a quick kiss. They were still alone in the corridor and considering how late it now was, Jurina figured it was unlikely any one would disturb them anyway.

Jurina looked deeply into Rena's eyes, and could see how torn she also was about this. Jurina was perfectly aware of the effect she was currently having on her. Even if Rena was still keeping her lips at a certain distance, she had noticed her eyes falling on her own lips a couple of times. This sign didn't lie: she wanted to kiss her as much.

Now that they were so close, Jurina could feel Rena's slightly inconstant breathing tickling her skin. And, if she placed her hand against her chest and listened carefully to her heart, wondered she would hear it beating rapidly like hers. But she was not about to break the rule established between them, no matter how strong the temptation was. Besides, now she wasn't completely sure she would be able to keep the kiss chaste very long once their lips would make contact.

However, it did not mean she couldn't tease Rena a little. Decided, she inched closer to Rena's lips, slowly enough to give her time to react. She didn't really wish to go through with it, but only to see how Rena would react to her move. As their lips were about to touch two fingers were placed against hers, preventing her from advancing any further.

Jurina retreated slightly, honestly a bit startled it took Rena so long to stop her. She strongly believed the older girl would say something as soon as she made her intent to kiss her clear. And she was anything but subtle about it the moment she leaned forward. However, it appeared Rena was really considering allowing her to kiss her until the last moment. It was so uncharacteristic of the older girl to let her emotions cloud her better judgment, that Jurina couldn't help smiling a little at her unexpected slip.

Jurina didn't say anything and put a little more distance between their lips, in order to indicate that she understood the warning well and was not about to try and kiss her again. Rena seemed to understand the message and she pulled her fingers away, failing to see that it was in fact not her lips Jurina had truly been aiming for all this time. Indeed, Jurina didn't waste time in changing direction, and she left a quick kiss on her right cheek.

When she looked back at Rena, she couldn't help shaking her head in light amusement at her confused expression. Now, there was no point in hiding her true purpose anymore, and she addressed her on a playful tone. “Rena, you truly believed I was going to kiss you on the lips in the open?”

The older Matsui didn't answer and for the second time that day, Jurina faced a speechless Rena. She could get used to that reaction of hers. Not only it was unusual, it was also adorable. And to be honest, she was happy to have been able to take her sweet revenge for the little trick Rena had also played on her a while ago, during the shooting of Majisuka Gakuen 5.

Oh yes, she still remembered that moment vividly. In the classroom, Rena had strongly made her believe she was going to kiss her on the lips, before changing direction at the last moment and opting for her cheek. After all this time, Jurina still couldn't believe the older Matsui had dared to make such move in front of others. However, as time went by, she discovered gradually that Rena could also get playful when she wanted to.

“You...” Rena stammered, seemingly still having difficulty grasping the situation entirely. “You tricked me?”

Jurina's mouth tugged into a mischievous smile, restraining herself to laugh at the look full of incredulity Rena was shooting her. Obviously, she didn't realize it was payback for that time. And she was definitely not about to tell her. Jurina savored her victory and couldn't help placing another sneaky kiss on Rena's cheek. Rena didn't say anything, obviously still processing what had happened judging by the look on her face.

After a little while she managed to regain a bit of her composure, and Jurina felt the arms around her neck loosening. The moment after, Rena's attention shifted to her bag. “I think we should really get in,” Rena said, rummaging through her bag. “Let me retrieve my keycard.”

Jurina nodded in agreement and pulled back, allowing her to have more space to maneuver. Once or twice during her search the older girl looked up in her direction, and by the unsettled look she was sending her, it was obvious she was still thinking about what had happened. And having a hard time processing the fact she had been played by the cunning ace.

Rena faced the door as soon as the keycard was secured in her hand, but that was without taking into account the presence of Jurina and her own agenda. Indeed, as soon as she had her back turned Jurina couldn't help placing her arms around her waist again, Rena stilling at the unexpected gesture as she was about to slid the keycard in the lock.

“I really missed you,” Jurina murmured, all trace of her previous playfulness now gone. She was perfectly aware she had already uttered those words a few minutes ago, but she saw no harm in repeating them. After all, she was speaking nothing but the truth. Yes, she enjoyed their daily conversations on LINE and would miss them for nothing in the world, but it was nothing compared with being reunited with Rena and to physically touch her.

Jurina felt Rena's free hand covering hers, and she immediately laced their fingers together. Jurina seized the opportunity of their renewed proximity to prove again how much she meant what she said, and she pressed her lips against her cheek in a lingering kiss. The thought to proceed further and go downwards to leave a few kisses along the nape of her neck was tantalizing, especially when Rena's ponytail was granting her so much access. But she decided to play safe, positively sure she wouldn't be able to stop once she started showering the girl with affection.

She got distracted by the sound of a strident, unpleasant noise, and she looked up in curiosity to figure out its origin. Her eyes widen in realization: Rena had passed the keycard through the lock, but the red light was informing her that she had failed in her first attempt to open the door. And Jurina understood the reason immediately: Rena had surprisingly used the wrong side of her keycard. It was such a simple mistake – one that she should never have made – that it could only mean one thing. The older Matsui was currently being distracted by her actions.

“Rena,” Jurina whispered in her ear in amusement. At the sound of her voice the keycard halted in mid-air, as Rena was about to reiterate her attempt a second time. “You're sliding it the wrong way.”

No reply left Rena's lips at first, and Jurina would have done anything to see the look on her face. Rena's hand was still frozen in mid-air – a few inches apart from the lock – as if she was pondering over her affirmation. And it took several long seconds for Jurina to see the hand moving again.

“This... this is your fault,” Rena let out in a faint protest, now realizing her stupid mistake as she quickly turned the card the other side. “You're not helping.”

The reproach lacked so much conviction, that it only prompted Jurina to giggle at the accusation. It was so unusual to be able to destabilize Rena, that she was enjoying every second of it. This was a moment she was surely going to remember, and she knew she would find occasions to tease her about it in the future.

Despite the great distraction Jurina was causing, Rena still miraculously managed to make it after the third attempt: a different and this time more pleasant noise, emitted from the door. Jurina noticed the green light indeed notifying Rena of her success. She was now granted permission to enter the room 22. With her left-hand Rena turned the handle in determination, while she used the other to tug at Jurina's. The latter complied willingly when Rena dragged her into the room.

The room was plunged into darkness, and it took Jurina a few seconds to adjust to the absence of light. Once she managed to distinguish her environment a little better – thanks to the streetlights penetrating slightly through the curtains – she watched the older girl attentively. Rena wasn't moving nor speaking, and it didn't look like she had any intention of turning the light on either. Jurina soon felt a hand tugging at the sleeve of her black jacket, and it was all the encouragement she needed when Rena pulled her towards her.

Jurina leaned forward and her eyes drifted close, knowing nothing anymore was preventing her from claiming what she desired. Their lips met without the slight hesitation, and soon moved slowly against each other. A jolt of electricity travelled the length of Jurina's spine, relishing the familiarity of Rena's soft, enticing lips.

It had been so long since they had shared such a moment of intimacy. Their one-month separation had definitely not been of any help, but the issue went back to even before that. The news of Rena's graduation had had a devastating impact on their relationship. The following weeks Jurina was such in a deep sorrow, that she could barely look at her. Letting the older girl touch her? Unthinkable. After that day, she stumbled upon Rena's graduation letter, Jurina purposely distanced herself from the girl who had now broken her heart twice.

Despite that fact, they still managed to progressively find their way back to each other. Jurina was conscious that her dear friend Churi was no stranger to their reconciliation, far from it. She had been a faithful ally during all this time: a shoulder to lean on when she needed to cry. But most of all, she had brought them back together when Jurina was stubbornly refusing to face the older Matsui. And the conversation Churi had provoked between them that evening in the restaurant had enabled her to understand how blind she had been.

Rena never intended to hurt her. She loved her. And Jurina's refusal to forgive her had caused Rena a great deal of pain. A suffering she had quietly kept to herself during all this time. That day, a rush of guilt spread through Jurina's chest when she realized what her selfishness had provoked. She never wished to make Rena unhappy, but her own distress had prevented her from seeing what was really going on around her.

After that, their relationship improved slowly, but they still had a lot of work to do to put the pieces back together. Each time Rena happened to hug her or kiss her, it was in the desperate attempt to comfort her and cure her broken heart. Rena was by her side again, but it surely didn't prevent the tears from wetting her cheeks. Despite Jurina's distraught state, Rena never lost hope. With tenacity, she swept each one of her tears, and whispered words of affection at every given opportunity. Her unwavering persistence and devotion bore its fruit. In the end, after months of suffering, Jurina's heart managed to heal.

Yes, Rena had hurt her deeply. Yes, she had cried for months, sometimes fearing she would never see the end of it. But, no matter how terrible those months had been on her emotional state, Jurina couldn't ignore one simple fact. She loved Rena, as much as she loved her. So how could she not forgive her?

Jurina had conveyed those feelings right after the graduation concert when they found themselves in the safe environment of Rena's apartment, but hadn't been able to do much more than that after. Rena had to leave promptly for the shooting of her new drama in Kyoto, and they had been separated merely a few days after Rena's concert. Now, her desire to be closer to the girl she adored was stronger than anything. Her previous kisses in the corridor had reminded her of what she had missed all these months. The emotional connection had been restored between them, but there was still another important part missing. A flame she wished to rekindle tonight.

Jurina pushed the older Matsui against the door gently, her arms making their way around her waist to press their bodies further together. As soon as she felt Rena parting her lips, she took the chance to deepen the kiss. She pressed her tongue slowly into her mouth, their tongues immediately brushing against each other.

Jurina realized that she had been right earlier on when she believed she wouldn't be satisfied with only a chaste kiss. Indeed, the kiss was gradually becoming heated, and a warmth spread through her chest at the sound of Rena humming lightly into the kiss.

Jurina stroke Rena's back slowly up and down, trying to feel as much as possible through the thin dress she was wearing. As of Rena she had cleverly found a way in underneath her blue, short-sleeved tee-shirt, and was now exploring her back with her fingertips. Jurina didn't wish to detach herself from the older girl, but her desire to touch her girlfriend more intimately grew stronger.

She pulled away to catch some air, and distinguished the desire now burning into Rena's small brown orbs. It immediately provoked a warm feeling at the pit of her stomach, a feeling that would always emerge each time she would witness such an intense expression in her girlfriend's eyes. She had definitely already seen it more than a few times during their lovemaking, but the effect she was capable of having on the usually so collected girl still amazed her after all this time.

Jurina playfully avoided the lips that were trying to capture hers, a light groan escaping Rena's mouth in frustration when Jurina refused to meet her demands for the second time. An amused smile moved to Jurina's lips at her reaction, before deciding Rena had had enough of her teasing, and relenting at the third attempt. To make it up for her cheeky behavior she let Rena take the lead of the kiss this time, following her rhythm as their tongues met in a hungry kiss.

Jurina could feel the touch growing more pressing on her back, and the older girl pulling her tee-shirt progressively up. Encouraged by her actions she pulled away her left arm from around Rena's waist and placed her palm against her leg, slowly moving upwards and underneath her dress.

Jurina suddenly felt Rena breaking the kiss abruptly, and she shot her eyes open in surprise at her action. Her hand that was now caressing Rena's thigh paused, and she opened her mouth to question her about her curious behavior. “Rena, is everything al–?”

Jurina felt the older girl pushing her away gently and she let her go at once, wondering for an instant if she had done something wrong. Despite the small distance Rena had put between them she didn't seem angry at her, quite the contrary. The same intense expression was flashing in her eyes, and Jurina soon understood what she had in mind when Rena removed her jacket and pushed her backwards, until her feet met the end of the bed. Rena claimed her lips once more, and Jurina didn't oppose any resistance when the older girl added some pressure on her shoulders and pushed her down onto the side of the bed.

Jurina understood Rena had every intention of dominating the situation when she found her lap straddled by the older girl the moment after. The young Matsui had a complete different idea in mind and was adamant on reversing their roles at some point but for now, she decided to let Rena have it her way, and followed her lead willingly.

Rena pulled her tee-shirt up and over her head, and Jurina realized how much she had truly missed her girlfriend's touch. Rena's fingers explored every inch of skin at her disposal, and the tension between them was strong as fire when she started massaging one of her breasts through her bra.

Rena's dress was still preventing her from having more access to the older girl's skin, but her hands couldn't stay idle anymore. While her left arm was carefully wrapped around Rena's waist she placed her free hand against her thigh, removing progressively her dress from her skin as she pulled upwards. Her fingertips soon met a soft fabric, and she felt the body on top of her tensing slightly.

Jurina tested the waters by grazing slowly the waistband of her underwear, making sure her intent was clear enough for Rena to react in time if she wished to stop her. Rena pulled away from the kiss but didn't try to remove her hand, instead leaving a trail of kisses down her jawline. Jurina soon felt the older girl nibbling lightly at her earlobe, before nuzzling her nose into the crook of her neck.

It was all the encouragement she needed to proceed further, and she slipped without hesitation her hand underneath her underwear. A moan was muffled against her shoulder when she slid her middle finger between Rena's thighs, and started moving slowly inside her. Once Rena's body got accustomed to the new – but familiar presence – it moved slowly in rhythm with her, Jurina feeling Rena's breathing becoming more and more erratic against her neck.

It was going to happen fast: Jurina had a good feeling about it when she paid carefully attention to the way Rena's insides were reacting to her intrusion. To be honest, she didn't expect otherwise. It had been so long since they had been intimate. Not days or weeks, but months. Months without physically touching each other. Months without fulfilling their basic, mutual needs. Their relationship was never based on sex, but it was still an intrinsic part. And, after so long, they needed to express their desire for each other. Let their bodies speak and release all the tension accumulated.

Jurina kept moving back and forth inside her, before accelerating the rhythm when she felt Rena was reaching her peak. Her moans were getting louder and harder to suppress, and she didn't miss the walls contracting, and compressing her finger. The moment after Rena stopped moving altogether and trembled; Jurina tightened her hold around her waist. She accompanied her climax and caressed her insides until the last moment, before Rena let out one last moan against her shoulder.

Jurina stilled but didn't remove her finger straight away, letting the older girl come down progressively from the experience she had gone through. She caressed gently her back for a little while, until feeling the older girl pulling away slightly, and nibbling at her earlobe. This time Jurina removed herself and hummed lightly, unable to contain the noises at the sensation of Rena's gentle ministration on one of her most sensitive spots.

Jurina could feel herself losing the battle gradually when her own lust built up between her thighs. Rena always knew which specific buttons to push to bring her over the edge. And, as Rena didn't seem willing to stop her actions on her sensitive skin, it appeared she had every intention of doing precisely that. Focused on the overwhelming sensation Jurina didn't realize that the older girl had cleverly moved her hand upwards her back to unclasp her bra, and fingers were already making their way underneath to caress her molds.

Rena had a little mercy on her and pulled away from her earlobe, Jurina noticing the desire lurking in her lover's eyes when their gazes met. The moment was only brief as the older girl leaned forward again, her breath tickling her ear when she whispered huskily. “I love you. And this is not over.”

Jurina shuddered at her words, shutting her eyes close when Rena pressed her lips against hers for a passionate kiss. Oh no, it was far from over. And they had every intention of making up for lost time.

Chapter Text

Rena had been awake for the past five minutes now but hadn't move an inch from the bed. Indeed, she was taking advantage of the morning light penetrating the room through the black curtains to observe attentively the girl sleeping by her side. A peaceful expression was plastering Jurina's features, and the older Matsui even noticed her lips curved up in a small smile. Was Jurina having a dream? If yes, it surely looked like a pleasant one.

Rena's eyes flickered briefly to the alarm-clock over Jurina's shoulder, taking in that it was 9:15 a.m. Today, she didn't have to be on set until later in the afternoon, her presence not being required for the first scenes. It was unusual for her to have such a light day, but not unwelcomed. Since she started the shooting of Destiny a month ago, her days of work always started early, and ended late in the evening. And, of course, she didn't have a single day off.

Rena was definitely used to having a busy schedule – it even seemed to her a bit lighter in comparison with her hectic daily life these past seven years in SKE48 entirely – but today, she was appreciating the short respite because of Jurina's presence. Once the young ace would be up, they would be able to spend a little more time together until Jurina would have to leave for the train station and go back to Nagoya.

However, considering Jurina's eyelids still shut, it seemed she had no intention of waking up anytime soon. Rena was aware that Jurina had been working hard since she left the group in June. These last weeks, the young girl had been engrossed in her SKE activities and helping everyone adjust to the absence of SKE's second figurehead. Jurina never shared too much about her difficulties when they spoke on LINE, but Rena knew some members were still having a hard time accepting her departure and wondering how SKE was going to move forward without her. Her absence was definitely destabilizing a lot of girls: Jurina being of course at the top of the list.

That's why Rena knew Jurina deserved some rest after the emotional rollercoaster she went through those past months. Days off were so rare in the life of an idol, that you needed to put them to good use. Considering what Jurina had told her on LINE about her week holiday at Mayu's beach house, she had definitely enjoyed herself and been able to relax. It had really relieved Rena to hear about it. So now, even though she couldn't wait for Jurina to wake up in order to make good use of their reunion, she decided to be a little more patient and let her sleep a little longer.

Judging by the intensity of the sun penetrating the hotel room, Rena could predict this Thursday was going to be another hot day. Thankfully, the air conditioning of the room was bringing them necessary fresh air against the scorching weather. It had rained a little at the beginning of the week but for the past two days the air had been humid, and barely breathable. Summer was never a season Rena favored the best.

Rena felt a little tug at her hand, and she looked up to their joined hands on the pillow. This fateful day of January 31, their morning routine had been abruptly disrupted when Jurina discovered the truth of her graduation. There were no more holding hands in the morning. No more kiss on the forehead. Jurina simply refused any affectionate gesture between them. Their daily life had been disrupted because of the sorrow her decision had caused Jurina. Rena had waited so long for Jurina to overcome her pain, and now her patience was rewarded. Everything was back to normal. Jurina had casually slipped her fingers inside hers before falling asleep and was still holding her hand as for now. It was a simple gesture of affection, but now she realized how much she had missed it these past months.

Rena felt the fingers squeezing her hand lightly, and she guessed Jurina was starting to wake up. The moment after she perceived a light groan escaping the young girl's lips, and she watched her as her eyes fluttered open progressively. Their gazes locked a few seconds later, and they exchanged a silent smile. The older Matsui gave some time for the sleepy Jurina to properly wake up, until leaning forward in the intent to renew with the tradition.

To her surprise, Jurina moved slightly backwards when her lips were about to touch her forehead. Confused by her action she paused but didn't retreat for all that. She searched in her eyes an explanation for her unexpected behavior. Jurina was still holding her hand, and even played a little with her fingers the moment before. So why was she refusing her kiss? It was their morning ritual: surely Jurina had not forgotten about it.

Even if Jurina had strangely refused her affectionate gesture, she didn't seem that bothered by it; quite the contrary. Indeed, her previous smile had not vanished since she stirred, even turning into a slightly amused one as the seconds went by. Rena was about to question her if everything was fine but she didn't have time, as she felt Jurina pushing her away gently, until her back rested entirely against the mattress.

Jurina didn't speak, but Rena could tell she was planning something. Soon, she felt fingers brushing her fringe carefully, and she understood what the younger girl had in mind when she felt her fringe being carefully adjusted to the side. A smile moved to her lips when she saw Jurina leaning over the moment after, and she closed her eyes when a soft kiss was placed on her forehead.

Rena opened her eyes again as soon as the lips detached themselves, and she looked back at her. More than anything, she was pleased by Jurina's affectionate gesture, but also slightly curious about the change in their morning routine. Until now, it had always been the other way round: what prompted Jurina to reverse the situation? The question naturally left her lips. “Why the sudden change?”

Jurina let out a small giggle, evidently amused she had successfully managed to surprise her girlfriend, until her features grew more serious, and she leaned forward for another – this time lingering – kiss on Rena's forehead. “Why not? Change is not always a bad thing.”

Rena found herself a bit speechless, and she observed the younger girl who was now brushing her cheek with her thumb tenderly. Was it her imagination or Jurina looked more... mature? Jurina had definitely changed physically these past months – after all, she was still growing – but it wasn't only about her looks. Yesterday, Jurina's self-restraint had surprised her to say the least. She really expected Jurina to embrace her immediately as soon as their eyes met in the corridor and shower her with affection. And along the way take the opportunity that they were both alone to quickly steal a kiss or two. Yes, Jurina's playful side had emerged yesterday, but it was more toned down than usual.

“You've changed.” Rena decided to voice her thoughts out loud. No, it was not the fruit of her imagination. Jurina looked more mature. Physically, and mentally.

“I have?” Jurina's eyes widened slightly.

“Yes,” Rena confirmed, casually tucking a strand of hair behind Jurina's ear. “You're more mature.”

Jurina didn't say anything for a little while – as if pondering over her declaration – until her mouth tugged into a mischievous expression, and she leaned closer to her ear. “Are you... referring to what happened last night?”

Rena let out a small laugh and gave Jurina's arm a light tap when the latter started nibbling playfully at the skin along the nape of her neck. Yes, Jurina looked more mature, but her playful side was never really far. When Jurina retreated and their gazes met Rena shook her head lightly at her in amusement, not failing to notice the mischief still dancing in Jurina's eyes. Rena took advantage of their close proximity to watch her attentively, thankful that the morning light was – contrary to last night's darkness – enabling her this time to distinguish Jurina's features properly.

When Jurina joined the group at the early age of eleven, she was a cheerful and cute kid. Around the time of Kataomoi, she turned into a charming teenager, who definitely turned a few heads when she decided to adopt a more boyish look. A few more years went by, and Jurina was now nineteen years old. If truth be told, Rena didn't believe she ever saw her so feminine. Her hair was not as long as her own, but it definitely had gotten long these past months. Added to that, her body was now well formed, making it impossible for people to see her as a child anymore. Rena had fully realized it when she explored her girlfriend's skin the night before. Right now, with a naked Jurina hovering over her, the older Matsui was convinced SKE's ace couldn't be more beautiful.

Rena placed her hand against the back of her head and pulled her down, shutting her eyes when their lips met. The kiss was slow and tender – a sharp contrast with last night's passionate love making – but Rena relished every second of it. She pulled away a little while later, her fingertips soon tracing the outline of Jurina's face. Even if she tried hard to look for a flaw, she wouldn't be able to find a single one. Those intense eyes that were not leaving hers one moment, and those soft lips that were now kissing her fingertips as she was tracing their outline.

Jurina was not perfect. After all, she was a human being, with its qualities and flaws. But she had unexpectedly managed to capture her solitary heart. She loved her unconditionally. She couldn't imagine giving her heart to another. Jurina was not perfect, but she was perfect for her. “I love you. You know that, right?”

Jurina's bright, loving smile was so infectious, that Rena couldn't help sending it back. Their lips met for another gentle, lingering kiss, until Rena progressively felt fingers slowly tracing the curves of her body from her shoulder down to her hips. She let the young girl proceed with her exploration of her skin, until Jurina pulled away from the kiss, and Rena gazed back at her in curiosity. Jurina had straightened up and was now straddling her lap, her eyes roaming over her body. Her fingers were accompanying her observation with a light caress on her chest, and as her studying seemed to reach no end, Rena couldn't help up but question her, slightly amused by her curious behavior. “What are you doing?”

Jurina looked up to gaze at her – but only briefly – until resuming what she was doing. “I'm memorizing every inch of your skin.”

Another time, Rena would have giggled at her amusing remark, but Jurina's serious declaration and focused expression caught her off guard. Where was it coming from? After all, it wasn't like Jurina was seeing her naked for the first time. And she had definitely mapped her skin with her fingers and lips more times that she could count. Rena truly didn't understand the reason behind her girlfriend's curious behavior, but she couldn't help but tease her a little. “Why? Are you planning on leaving the country anytime soon?”

Her words seemed to stir something in the younger girl as Jurina’s fingers paused abruptly on her chest. Rena's smile faltered, starting to wonder if she said something wrong when Jurina's features turned slightly melancholic. As she was about to question her about her unexpected change of mood, Jurina spoke up. “I’m not going anywhere, but I don't know when we'll be able to see each other again.”

Words stayed stuck in Rena's mouth, pained to see Jurina's face turning even darker. Now, Jurina's behavior made perfect sense. This was a subject they had not yet really tackled. They spoke to each other on LINE every day, and even if Jurina would sometimes confess that she missed her, she seemed to be taking her absence in a mature way. Indeed, she didn't perceive in her voice the deep melancholy and sadness she often heard in the past when she was still in SKE48, and they sometimes had to be apart because of her Nogizaka46 activities and external jobs.

The words that had fallen from Jurina's lips – along with the melancholic expression she was now harboring – reminded her not to be fooled by Jurina's apparent cheerful behavior on LINE. Just because Jurina was not devastated by the physical separation, it didn't mean she was taking it well. And the truth was emerging now that they were face to face, with no artifice between them to hide the truth.

“Jurina,” Rena murmured, caressing her arm. When it didn't provoke the expected reaction and the young girl was still avoiding her gaze and looking as melancholic as the moment before, she cupped her chin gently. This time, the ace complied, and she tilted her head towards her. Rena gave her a reassuring smile when she continued. “I told you I'm coming back to Nagoya as soon as the shooting is over.”

“I know,” Jurina conceded with a nod. “But for how long?”

It wasn't an accusation. Jurina wasn't blaming her anything: her tone was not harsh in the slightest. No, it was a simple, legitimate question, to which she could unfortunately not answer to. Rena wished she could find the adequate words to ease the worry flashing in Jurina's eyes, but she didn't know what to say. Jurina was entirely right. Yes, she had promised Jurina she would come back to Nagoya once the shooting of her drama would be over in Kyoto. But she was well aware she would not be able to stay long in Nagoya. Who knew in which city her work would lead her next? Or for how long?

If she could, she would love to stay in Nagoya indefinitely to stay close to Jurina. However, her jobs opportunities were limited there. If she wished to fully embrace her new career as an actress, she needed to go where her skills were required. She was perfectly aware of that fact the moment she decided to graduate. From now on, it was likely that she would spend a lot of time working in Japan's capital. There were 160 miles separating Tokyo and Nagoya: a little more than two hours by Shinkansen. Rena often made the travel back and forth between the two cities when she was still an idol, but Nagoya was the place she would always return to in the end. Would it still be the case now?

No, Rena couldn't currently say anything to ease Jurina's worries. Every word she would utter would end up being a lie. She couldn't bring herself to do that. Jurina wasn't naive, and it wasn't fair to give her false hopes. However, she had to find a way to erase this melancholia in her eyes at all costs. They were reunited after a month of separation. And Jurina had overcome the pain her decision to graduate had caused her. They needed more than ever to cherish every moment they could spend together.

Rena straightened up and decided to bring them closer by embracing Jurina. Her fingers caressed softly the back of her head when the young girl leaned her head against her shoulder, and she placed occasionally a few kisses against her temple. Jurina didn't speak during the process, but she could feel her relaxing progressively in her arms. At some point, she even felt a kiss along the nape of her neck, followed by another lingering one. Rena let her proceed for a little while – relishing the gentle ministrations from her girlfriend – before pulling away enough to look at her. Relief spread through her chest when there was no trace of melancholia in her eyes anymore.

Rena leaned forward to give her a kiss, before pushing onto her shoulder to reverse their position. Jurina understood her intention and let Rena guide her, the latter soon crawling up over her body. Their lips never parted once during the process, Rena's fingers now caressing the body underneath her. Jurina's lips were becoming more demanding as time went by, but Rena had something else in mind. Before Jurina could deepen the kiss, she pulled away, Jurina immediately protesting with a light groan. Rena opened her eyes and noticed in amusement the lips that were desperately trying to capture hers, but she didn't give in to the temptation. Instead, she kissed her way down from Jurina's mouth to her chest.

Rena still remembered vividly the first times she wasn't sure how to please Jurina. Was she doing the right thing? Was her touch having the desired effect on her? Rena was completely inexperienced when she made love to Jurina for the first time. And found herself naturally apprehensive, afraid to make mistakes. That's why she was attentive to Jurina's every single reaction at the time, ready to stop if she distinguished the slight sign of unease from the younger girl.

Those times were long gone. It didn't matter that they hadn't been intimate in months: they knew each other's bodies by heart. Yesterday, they mapped each other's skin in an unusual craving, consequences of a longing that hadn't been able to express itself in months. Their kisses had been heated, their lovemaking passionate. And Rena had enjoyed every second of it. But right now, she wished this moment to take another direction. There was no rush. She wanted to savor the moment slowly.

She placed her lips on Jurina's left breast, while massaging the other tenderly with her hand. Rena perceived a light hum coming from Jurina's mouth, which soon turned into something of a moan when her fingers squeezed lightly her mound. Rena didn't need to check with Jurina that she was doing it right: the pleased noises emitting from Jurina were enough information. Soon, she felt the nipples hardening under her touch and she pulled back, pleased she got the exact effect she was looking for.

She moved back to Jurina's lips to give her the kiss she had denied her earlier, letting the young girl lead the kiss. She let Jurina explore her mouth when she tried to deepen the kiss, relishing the sweet sensation of their tongues caressing each other. It didn't matter if they had already touched each other merely a few hours ago: the desire for the other had not disappeared. However, this time, there was a slight difference: it was more controlled. It was not pressing as before, but gentler and less hungry.

Rena was relishing every second of the kiss, and she failed to notice Jurina's hand that was sneakily making its way down her stomach. Rena broke the kiss when she felt the intrusion between her legs, and she let out a small moan. It didn't take her long to understand she had been too distracted by Jurina's kisses, and the girl had beaten her up to her own game. She fluttered her eyes open to gaze back at her, noticing a proud expression plastering Jurina's features.

Rena was about to reprimand her gently by telling her that she was the one who wished to pleasure her this morning, but the protest was long forgotten when the younger girl started moving inside her. Rena was decided on resuming what she had started earlier on but for now she let herself adjust to the new sensation, shutting her eyes in pleasure. The pace of Jurina's finger suited her perfectly: not too slow, not too fast. It appeared that, like her, Jurina wished to take her time.

Rena muffled a few moans against Jurina's shoulder, and she knew by her now slightly uncontrolled breathing that her mind was progressively losing the battle against her body. Jurina didn't seem willing to stop what she had started, and the older girl knew she had to speak up if she wished to make her intent clear until it was too late. Indeed, she could feel Jurina bringing her closer and closer to the edge. She murmured quickly into her ear. "Wait."

Rena was glad when she felt the finger inside her pausing. It happened a few times in the past that – so caught up in the moment – Jurina would simply decide to have it her way and not relent when she made such a demand. Those times, Jurina's wish to pleasure the older Matsui was stronger than anything, and she didn't stop until the girl shuddered into her arms.

Rena took advantage of the respite to recompose herself slightly, and she captured Jurina's lips into a gentle, thankful kiss. Jurina was still not moving inside her in agreement with her demand, but a little voice inside Rena's head was telling her that her compliance was not going to last long. That's why she didn't waste time to trace Jurina's body down with her hand and brushed lightly her inner thigh. She barely had time to find the entrance and tentatively slip inside that Jurina had already began thrusting inside her again.

Jurina's impatient behavior was no news to her, but she couldn't find the strength in her to be mad at her right now, not with all the pleasure she was giving her. Rena felt her own body getting warmer and warmer, and the pleasure was coming too frequently and intensely to resist. However, she was thankfully not too far gone yet, enabling her to pay attention to the way Jurina's body was reacting to the constant motions inside her.

Rena increased the speed of her finger, knowing Jurina was also getting closer to the edge. Jurina's breathing was more erratic, and she was now panting louder into her ear. Rena wasn't sure who would reach its peak first, until she felt a warm wave crash through her body, and her muscles spasming in turn as the wave hit them.

It appeared she had lost the battle first, but she knew it was a matter of seconds until Jurina would join her. Indeed, Rena soon felt the body underneath her trembling slightly, and SKE's ace's walls squeezing her finger. Rena rested her head against her shoulder the moment after, feeling Jurina wrapping her arms around her.

Once she had recovered enough from the pleasurable experience Rena laid by her side and they looked into each other's eyes lovingly, before sharing a gentle, lingering kiss. They didn't share a word but Rena placed her head against her shoulder, and covered Jurina's heart with her fingers. She listened as it was still pounding inside Jurina's chest, and a pleased smile moved to her lips at the familiar sound.

Rena knew the distance was not going to be their best ally from now on. But, no matter what the future had in store for them, she hoped Jurina's heart would never stop beating for her. 

Chapter Text

They stayed into each other's arms for a while, simply relishing the presence of the other. From time to time they would exchange a few kisses, Jurina would also trace absently random patterns on Rena's skin. The older Matsui truly didn't want to disentangle herself from the comfort of Jurina's warm embrace, but she was aware they would need to get up at some point. At least, to fulfil basic needs, such as eating. When she heard Jurina's stomach grumbling slightly, she knew it was her cue to intervene.

“We should get dressed and get something to eat,” Rena suggested. However, despite the soft invitation the younger girl didn't move an inch, not even when her stomach manifested its displeasure a second time.

Rena waited patiently, amused Jurina would stubbornly refuse to listen to her body's wishes. To be honest, when she made her offer, she suspected Jurina would declare she was not hungry. She had heard the statement falling from her lips so many times in the past – even when her body was evidently proving otherwise – that it wouldn't have surprised her in the least. However, Jurina didn't utter those words at all. On the contrary, after a little while, she expressed something that she would never have expected.

“I'm a bit hungry,” Jurina admitted, before continuing tentatively. “Room service?”

Rena looked back at her, somehow willing to check that she was not joking. Considering Jurina's head resting heavily on her shoulder and her closed eyelids, it appeared someone was feeling a bit lazy this morning. It was such an unforeseen behavior coming from the usually so energetic ace, that Rena couldn't help staring at her in awe for a few seconds.

Rena was about to retort that they would need to get out of the room eventually, but she decided to comply with Jurina's unexpected demand for now. A smile moved to her lips and she ran her fingers through Jurina's dark hair, before placing a kiss on her forehead. “Alright, sleepyhead. Room service it is.”

Rena pulled away from Jurina's arms and took a seat in bed, soon sweeping the room in search of her clothes. What she discovered left her momentarily speechless: their clothes were scattered on the floor all around the place. Last night's events immediately came to the forefront of her mind, and her heart started beating faster inside her chest at the memory. Ah, that's right. Their reunion had been... intense. When the images of their passionate lovemaking kept flashing into her head and refused to leave her despite her best efforts, she tilted her head towards the sleepy girl partly responsible for the unusual mess in her room.

The bedsheet was resting under Jurina's chest, and the older Matsui let her gaze roam over her nude form. Without thinking she extended her arm, and let her fingertips travel her skin, appreciating anew its soft touch. A pair of eyes soon fluttered open to gaze back at her but Rena didn't notice it, too engrossed into her exploration. At some point, the older Matsui did hear a little voice inside her head telling her she should stop right now if she didn't want the situation to escalate, especially when her fingers were drawing dangerously closer to Jurina's chest.

But Rena didn't listen, amazed by the sight in front of her. They had made love to each other last night – and again barely an hour ago – but the pull to revisit every inch of her body was strong to resist when those images kept taunting her. Without warning, Rena felt Jurina seizing her wandering hand and not letting go of it, pulling her closer the moment after.

Rena didn't resist and claimed Jurina's lips. The chaste kiss soon turned into a lingering one, and Rena knew exactly what was on Jurina's mind when she tried to pull her further onto the bed. Apparently, the young ace was not as tired as she pretended earlier on.

Rena figured it was wiser to stop before it went too far and she broke the kiss, taking in Jurina's cute, disappointed pout when their gazes met. Not wishing to give time for Jurina to make another move – and possibly put an end to her last shred of resistance – she pulled back and put some cautious distance from those tempting lips. They had to get out of bed. They needed to eat.

Rena diverted her attention again to the clothes spread out on the red carpet, squinting to try and distinguish which clothes were Jurina's, and which one were hers. Unfortunately, despite the morning light penetrating the room it was still too dark to see properly, and she failed to accomplish what should have been normally an easy task. She gave up in her research quickly, deciding for now to opt for fresh clothes. She would gather her clothes later, once the curtains would be opened.

Rena stood up from the bed and started walking towards her suitcase, when a knock on the door made her freeze. She looked up instantly and waited, wondering for a minute if it wasn't a mistake, and the person didn't knock on the wrong door. She certainly wasn't expecting anyone this morning. Another knock could be heard merely a few seconds later, and a feminine voice sounded tentatively behind the door.

“Rena-san... are you here?”

Sayuri? Rena frowned at the familiar voice. What was her co-star doing in front of her hotel room? Were they supposed to meet? Somehow, Rena had no memory of a planned meeting. Rena knew the best way to get an answer was to go straight to the source, and she cleared her slightly hoarse voice when she spoke up. “I'm coming.”

Before remembering in stupor that she was not wearing any clothes at the moment. It was obviously out of the question to answer the door in such an undressed state. Rena didn't wish to make her unexpected visitor wait too long, but she refused to let panic take hold of her either. She didn't look agitated in the slightest when she took some clothes from her suitcase but deep inside, it was a different matter. Her heart was now even beating a bit faster inside her chest.

A muffled chuckle sounded behind her back and, after putting on a red tee-shirt and a pair of pants, Rena took a curious peek over her shoulder. Jurina hadn't moved an inch from the bed but was now watching her every move in great interest. It appeared someone was finding the situation funny, and evidently couldn't wait to see how she was going to deal with her unexpected visitor.

Rena sent her a silent glare, hoping it would wipe this silly grin off her face. Unfortunately, it had the exact opposite effect, as Jurina's smile grew only larger. Rena took a few decided steps towards the bed and seized the sheet, throwing it the moment after over Jurina's face. Of course, she could still see her body shaking in amusement through the thin fabric, and she let out a light growl at Jurina's impossibly childish behavior.

Rena decided to let it go for now and finished getting dressed, before approaching the front door once she deemed herself much more presentable. She checked herself quickly in the large mirror beside the door – combing her messy hair with her fingers as best as she could – before turning towards the door and seizing the doorknob. Her appearance was far from perfect – of that she was well aware – but it was the best she could do in such a limited amount of time. She mastered her best polite smile when she opened the door. “Good morning, Sayuri.”

“Re... Rena-san,” the young actress stammered as soon as they came face to face.

Rena was doing everything in her power to keep her composure, but she knew her unusual – far from neat – appearance was unsettling her interlocutor. It wasn't like Sayuri was making her surprise any subtle. Her eyes hadn't stopped traveling her body up and down the second she opened the door.

“I hope I didn't wake you up,” Sayuri continued hesitantly. “Yosuke and I got worried when you didn't show up for breakfast.”

As Rena was about to reply, a loud thump inside the room distracted her. She kept her eyes firmly on Sayuri despite the sound, even though she was conscious Jurina had betrayed her presence. Indeed, the noise certainly didn't go unnoticed from Sayuri, as she immediately looked over her shoulder in surprise. Rena made sure the door stayed only partially opened, not willing to satiate Sayuri's curiosity.

“Ah... you're not alone.” Sayuri lowered her voice, looking away in discomfort. “I'm sorry, I didn't want to disturb you.”

“You're not disturbing me.” Rena reassured her with a rapid wave of her hand. She could have let it go and changed the subject cleverly, but something was telling her it was not the best move with Sayuri. She could almost hear the other girl thinking out loud. Evidently, her co-star was now convinced there was someone else in the room with her, and most probably believing it was a person from the opposite gender.

Rena feared the young girl would spread false rumors. Until now, Sayuri proved to be nice and trustworthy, but she had only known her for a month. Besides, she had witnessed with her own eyes how she acted when she had too many drinks. The young actress was anything but resistant when it came to alcohol, and the beverage was effective in loosening her tongue. Rena didn't want to take any chances. She had to right the wrong straight away.

“Do you remember Jurina?” Rena questioned her. Albeit the fact she liked to keep her private life to herself she happened to mention a few times Jurina to her two co-stars. Indeed, sometimes they would catch her into a conversation on the phone with her, and she had no choice but to give them some piece of information. She always shared as little as possible, but she was fairly certain the name would ring a bell to Sayuri. And indeed, she nodded the moment after, her eyes now back on her in interest.

“She arrived yesterday evening to spend my birthday with me,” Rena explained, noticing Sayuri's eyes widening progressively in realization. “She's leaving soon, so I wish to spend a little more time with her.”

“Oh... I see.” Sayuri nodded, a bright smile now plastering her features. “Enjoy yourselves. I'll see you later on set.”

Rena returned the smile immediately, not failing to notice the way Sayuri was trying to catch a glimpse of Jurina over her shoulder. It was pretty much useless, considering the fact the partially opened door didn't give the opportunity to see much inside. However, Rena had discovered quickly that Sayuri was tenacity personified. Unfortunately for her, she was resilient and definitely not about to give her what she wanted. Much as her previous explanation seemed to have satisfied her visitor, she had no idea what excuse she would be able to come up with if Sayuri unexpectedly happened to stumble upon a naked Jurina.

Rena waited patiently for her guest to leave and closed the door behind her once she was out of sight. She stared at the closed door for a few seconds and let out a small sigh of relief, before turning around to discover the origin of the previous sound. Jurina was still lying in bed and had a slightly embarrassed look on her face, and the older Matsui immediately understood why. It wasn't hard to guess what had happened, with Jurina's arm extended towards the floor, and the alarm-clock now laying on the carpet.

“Sorry.” Jurina made a face. “I was trying to take a look at the time, but the alarm-clock slipped from my fingers.”

“You...” Rena giggled at her girlfriend's unusual clumsiness. She took a few steps forward, bending over to retrieve the fallen object. She replaced it back on the bedside table, before glancing over at the petrified ace. “Don't worry, she didn't see you. But that's why you need to put some clothes on.”

“I would love to, but I don't know where my clothes are,” Jurina admitted her helplessness.

Rena nodded in agreement and moved towards the curtains. She opened them progressively, until the sun inundated the room completely. When she turned around she spotted immediately Jurina's blue shirt on the floor, later her underwear. Her own dress laid no far from Jurina's pair of trousers near the bathroom door. How it ended there? She had absolutely no idea.

“I didn't realize it was that bad,” Jurina spoke up, taking in as well the state of the room. “Sorry...”

“Don't apologize.” Rena shook her head at her. Yes, she always liked to keep her place neat and tidy. And Jurina, more than anyone, was well aware of that aspect of her personality. However, she could make a few exceptions. Especially when she was also half responsible for that mess. “I'm going to take a quick shower, then I'll order room service. What do you want to eat?”

“Anything is fine,” Jurina replied but her eyes lit up, and she quickly came back on her declaration. “On seconds’ thoughts, I wouldn't mind tamago kake gohan with dashi maki tamago. Do you think they serve that?”

“They do.” Rena nodded, pleased to note Jurina's appetite. When her own stomach started grumbling, she knew they both definitely deserved a nice breakfast this morning.

 


 

 

Nothing could satisfy Rena more than to see the young ace eating her breakfast with such eagerness. So many times, in the past Jurina would neglect her health – stating vehemently she was not hungry – and skip meals. Rena would lie if she said she didn't understand. Rehearsals were challenging to learn – especially the first years they joined the group – and left little free time. It was definitely not unusual to see members skip meals, when they simply could not afford to take a break.

Rena had to admit she did it herself more than a few times. Skip meals. Eat little. Those were not strange notions to her either. Despite that fact, she learned to listen to her body. She knew when she was pushing it to its limits. Jurina didn't. Or more accurately, she refused to listen. The simple notion of taking a pause was unconceivable to Jurina when she wasn't entirely satisfied with her work. And, unfortunately, she was a perfectionist.

Both Matsui often rehearsed choreographies together. When the music would end and Rena was happy with the work accomplished, Jurina would often find a flaw somewhere. We were not perfectly synchronized during the second verse! She would sometimes state in deep frustration. I think I didn't smile enough during the song, was another common, worried remark.

At first, Rena tried to reason her: Jurina was being too hard on herself. Her moves were beyond reproach, there was nothing to change. But soon, she understood her words had little to no effect, and fell on deaf ears. No one could really change Jurina's mind when she had it set on something. That was her best quality, as well as her worst flaw: she was stubborn as a mule.

Rena took a bite of her melon pan, watching attentively the young ace who was eating silently opposite her. It reassured her to realize she had regained all the weight she had lost the months following the news of her graduation. Jurina seemed fit again. Besides, Jurina had been spending time with Mayu lately, and the older Matsui knew she could count on the latter to make sure she ate properly. Jurina may be stubborn herself, Rena sometimes believed she found a serious concurrent in the person of Mayu Watanabe.

At the thought of Jurina's best friend, Rena remembered a question she had meant to ask her earlier but had completely forgotten along the way. She couldn't be happier to have Jurina by her side, but last time they spoke on the phone, she was still with Mayu and Yuki. There was a mystery she wished to solve. “Weren't you supposed to be at Mayu's beach house until the end of the week?”

Jurina looked up instantly from her bowl of rice and let out a small laugh at her confused expression. “Ah, yes. I didn't explain. Actually, this is a funny story.”

Jurina's enigmatic words couldn't render Rena more curious and she waited in expectation, Jurina soon feeding her curiosity when she started narrating a certain conversation that occurred a few days ago with her AKB best friend.

It was almost 11 p.m., but none of the girls were sleeping. They had finished watching a movie a few minutes ago in the living room and, as Mayu drew closer to the front door to close it for the night, she noticed through the window Jurina seated alone on the front porch. The latter wasn't moving and, after a quick studying of the scene, seemed to be observing the dark sky over her head.

Mayu seriously considered joining her to check if everything was fine with her. It was so unusual to see the younger Matsui isolate herself from others. It didn't bode well with her extrovert nature. As she was about to make up her mind and move forward she heard familiar steps approaching her from behind, and felt a hand squeezing her shoulder lightly.

“Jurina has been awfully quiet today.” Yuki noted as she stood next to Mayu, watching as well the young girl outside. “Do you know why?”

“I don't,” Mayu admitted. She let out a small despondent sigh.

Since her arrival at the beach house Jurina looked happy and seemed to enjoy herself very much, but Mayu did indeed notice the change in her mood today. Since this morning, Jurina had uttered only few words, and her face was void of its usual cheerfulness. In fact, it didn't take a genius to figure out something was troubling her. Mayu believed maybe it was only temporary and Jurina would be back to her normal, joyful self the next day. After all, everyone had its ups and downs. It was human nature. Still, Mayu couldn't help wondering what had been monopolizing her thoughts all day.

“Maybe she misses Rena more than she wants to admit,” Yuki offered. “I hope they'll be okay.”

Mayu distinguished the worry in her girlfriend's voice, and she immediately looked back at her in confusion. “Why wouldn't they be?”

“Long-distance relationships can be hard to maintain, and Jurina has more pressure on her shoulders now that Rena is not in SKE anymore,” Yuki reminded her with a faint smile. “You know your best friend more than I do. She says that she's fine, but is it the complete truth?”

Mayu didn't answer, but she knew at her core that Yuki was right. Rena's graduation had set so many things in motion. Jurina was now sole leader of SKE, and both Matsui would be separated like they had never before. Jurina did seem to feel better when they spoke on the phone lately, and she harbored a bright smile since her arrival for her week holiday. But Rena had barely graduated. The situation was still brand new for Jurina. For now, she seemed to handle it. But would it still be the case in a few months, when realization would hit her that it was permanent?

Mayu remembered vividly how destabilizing the separation had been for her when Yuki and her ended up in different teams a few years ago. Some days, it was definitely hard not to have the older girl by her side. She missed her friend, and a confident. In the end, they were reunited again in the same team, and Mayu couldn't have felt more relieved. But this difficult situation she had to face was nothing compared with what her best friend would have to go through now that Rena had left the group to pursue her dreams. It wasn't a temporary situation. Rena was never going to come back.

Despite the circumstances, Mayu refused to be pessimistic. And she wished that thought to come across when she replied. “I know Jurina can be stubborn, and it's true it will be more difficult without Rena by her side in the group. But it's not like Rena is leaving the country. No, they will not see each other as often as before. And I know it's going to take some time for Jurina to truly accept the idea. After all, she was privileged to have Rena by her side during all these years. It's not a small, anecdotic change. But they care about each other deeply. Isn't it enough to make their relationship work?”

As Mayu still had her eyes boring into Jurina's back while she spoke, she failed to see the effect her words provoked on Yuki. Indeed, if she looked at her right now, she would witness her speechless expression. In fact, Yuki gazed at her for a little while without saying anything – almost pensively – until her mouth tugged into a smile, and she inched closer. Mayu noticed from her peripheral vision her movement and she looked back at her in curiosity, clearly not expecting to receive a gentle kiss on the lips.

“My Mayuyu is a romantic,” Yuki whispered when she pulled away.

Mayu let the words sink in progressively, before shaking her head softly. “It's just... Jurina has invested so much in SKE. She loves both the group and Rena more than anything. I would hate to see the circumstances split them apart, or make her unhappy. Jurina deserves the best.”

“She does,” Yuki confirmed, before noting that Mayu was staring again at her best friend on the porch. Her intention to have a talk with her best friend was more than clear to her. She gave her another kiss, this time on the cheek. “I'm going to bed. Don't stay up too late you two.”

Mayu nodded and watched the older girl retreating towards the bedroom, until deciding to join SKE's ace outside. She received a startled look when she took a seat next to Jurina but the latter didn't say anything, soon gazing at the stars again. They stayed in a comfortable silence for a little while, until Jurina was the one to break the silence.

“Rena will be turning twenty-five in two days.”

The affirmation took Mayu by surprise, and she immediately turned to look at her. Ah, that's right, Rena's birthday was in July. Same as Yuki's. How come she completely forgot about it? But... wait. Jurina didn't mention going to see Rena in Kyoto for her birthday. Was it a piece of information she forgot to share with her? “When are you leaving?”

“What do you mean?” Jurina looked back at her in confusion. “On Sunday, as agreed.”

“Sunday?” Mayu frowned. “But you will miss her birthday.”

"Well yes," Jurina admitted, gazing back at the dark sky sadly. "She's in Kyoto right now. There's not much I can do about it."

Mayu simply couldn't believe what she was hearing. Was her best friend truly saying she was not going to spend Rena's birthday with her? When was the last time such a thing happened? Never. In fact, even before both Matsui started dated, Jurina would always be by her side for each and single one of her birthdays. She also always bought her gift well in advance, and made sure everything was carefully prepared when the important day arrived.

“You're serious?!” Mayu's voice pitched up in shock. Who was this impostor she was talking with? And what had she done with her best friend? “Kyoto is not that far. Go and see her!”

“But...” Jurina murmured, clearly not expecting such a suggestion by the hesitation in her voice. “She's busy working on her drama. I don't want to disturb h–”

“I can't believe we're even having this conversation!” Mayu cut her off in frustration, standing up abruptly. “I know you miss her, and it's her birthday. Trust me, you'll regret it if you don't spend this moment with her.”

 


 

 

“You should have heard her,” Jurina said, laughing softly when the image of a slightly mad Mayuyu immerged in her head. “She was decided on having me leave. She even waited until the train departed to leave the platform, as if to make sure I wouldn't change my mind at the last minute.”

It took a few, long seconds for Rena to react when the young Matsui ended her narration. Out of all the possibilities, she surely didn't expect Mayu to be the reason behind Jurina's presence in Kyoto. Unfortunately, she had absolutely no idea when she would cross path with the AKB member again, but she made a mental note to thank her for that.

There was also a preconceived idea she wished to correct without further ado. In fact, it wasn't the first time she heard such a stupid thing falling from her girlfriend's lips. And she still didn't understand why the young Matsui would ever put such an idea inside her head. It made no sense whatsoever to her. “I know I've been busy lately, but you're never bothering me.”

Rena extended her arm and squeezed Jurina's hand lightly, pleased to receive a soft nod and a sincere smile in return. Albeit the fact Jurina was clearly listening to her right now, she still wasn't entirely convinced not to hear such an incredible thing again. Jurina sometimes had those curious ideas deep anchored inside her head, and it was always hard to remove them. No matter how convincing you proved to be.

Rena decided to let this subject go for now and looked down to their plates, noticing they both had finished their breakfast. She diverted her attention to the script of Destiny laying at the corner of the table. Each morning, before going on set, she always liked to go through her lines one last time. She was adamant on not breaking her routine but decided for now to postpone it to later. Rena gazed back at Jurina, noticing immediately that she looked... pensive.

“I'm sorry, but I don't have a present with me,” Jurina announced. The young girl made a slight pause, and Rena could tell by her evasive look that she was feeling really bothered by it. “I came straight from Mayu's beach house.”

“Don't worry about it,” Rena reassured her quickly. “Your presence is far enough. Besides, I don't need anything.”

“Really?” Jurina arched an eyebrow in skepticism. “What about Nike's new pair of sneakers you've been mentioning a few times these last weeks?”

Rena felt like a deer caught in the headlights. It was no secret for anyone that she was a real fan of sneakers – even having a large collection of them at home – but she didn't realize she had spoken that much about that red and blue pair of sneakers that caught her eye. If truth be told, she even had set her mind on buying it the minute she saw the advertisement on the television. In the end, the idea fell at the back of her head, too engrossed into her work to really have time to go shopping. “You... you bought it?”

“I did,” Jurina confirmed, doing her best not to laugh when Rena's eyes widened progressively. Her enthusiasm was anything but subtle. “You'll have it when you come back to Nagoya.”

This time, Jurina couldn't hold it any longer and laughed freely when Rena got up from the table and embraced her tightly from behind. Without warning she received a kiss on the head, and she quickly lost count of the number of times the older Matsui thanked her. At some point, Rena disentangled herself from her and went back to take a seat, but Jurina surely didn't miss the joy still present in her small brown orbs. That was an expression she could never get tired of. Being able to please her girlfriend in such a way always brought her great satisfaction.

“I was thinking.” Jurina's features grew more serious. She was about to expose an idea that popped up in her head yesterday in the train, and she was curious to know Rena's opinion about it. “What if I stayed in Kyoto until Sunday? I don't need to be in Nagoya until Monday.”

“But... I'll be on set this afternoon,” Rena reminded her, in a mix of confusion and concern. “And all day tomorrow. I won't be able to spend time with you.”

“I know,” Jurina conceded, already well aware of Rena's tight schedule. “But I was thinking I could visit the city while you're busy, and we could meet for dinner. And you'll be available during the week-end, no? We can spend those two days together.”

Rena didn't say anything, but Jurina knew she had agreed to her suggestion when she sent her a warm smile. She reciprocated it without a second of hesitation, looking forward to spending more time with Rena. Sunday evening, she would need to go back to Nagoya and assume again the role of SKE's ace. But right now, in Kyoto, she was not the member of an idol group. She was a simple nineteen years old girl, enjoying the presence of the girl so dear to her heart.

Chapter Text

“I don't... I don't understand what you're saying,” Jurina managed to utter in a feeble murmur, in a mix of shock and confusion. At first, her initial thought had been to laugh at Rena's improbable declaration – simply refusing to believe a single word of it – but her interlocutor's serious expression told her she was not joking in the least. “You want us... to part?”

“My feelings for you have gradually changed,” the older girl repeated to her dismay, her calm tone and steady voice leaving no room for any shred of doubt.

A heavy silence engulfed the hotel room as none of them spoke after that, Jurina feeling her chest progressively tightening in pain. More than anything, she wanted to retort that this conversation made no sense whatsoever. They were happy together, why would she wish to put an end to their relationship? However, despite her profound incapacity to comprehend the situation, words desperately refused to come out.

Jurina couldn't believe what was happening. Rena was facing her silently, her expression completely unreadable. The person she loved so deeply wasn't such a cruel and cold person. She couldn't be breaking her heart in such a terrible way.

“Is something wrong?” Jurina questioned tentatively. “Whatever it is, you can tell m–”

“Nobunaga!” Rena cut her off abruptly before she had time to finish her sentence.

Jurina widened her eyes in surprise, taken aback. Never had her beloved raised her voice in her presence, nor used such a harsh tone with her. She gulped when Rena's usual loving expression hardened. Small brown orbs were now staring back at her, in a mix of frustration and anger. “Please listen to me, Nobunaga. I can't give you what you desire. Not anymore.”

There was such an air of finality in her words, that Jurina could tell it was a well-thought decision. This person in front of her looked similar to the girl she cared so much about, but her tone was cold as ice. What happened to them? What prompted her to change into a person she barely recognized? Did she, in any way, unconsciously provoke her unhappiness? If truth be told, the other girl had seemed elsewhere these last weeks. In fact, it happened right after her father, the shogun of the clan, asked to speak with her one afternoon.

Jurina's eyes lightened up, believing maybe she found an explanation for her odd behavior and terrible words. “Did your father tell you to say those words, Arisa?” Yes, now she recalled vividly the girl's pale face after a certain meeting with the shogun. At the time, she had questioned her about it in concern but she had brushed it off, stating there was nothing to worry about. What if he discovered their forbidden relationship? However, Rena's next words put an end to any conviction she had.

“My father has nothing to do with my decision.” Rena's tone was slightly softer when she replied, but no less decided. “I'm speaking nothing but the truth. My heart doesn't beat for you anymore, Nobunaga.”

Jurina made a small pause and looked down to the script in her hand. They were both approaching the end of the scene. She read in her head the lines she was supposed to say next and gazed back at the older Matsui. The latter still looked as focused as the moment before and was much in character. Jurina couldn't help thinking how beautiful – but also a little painful – it was to rehearse such a terrible breakup scene with her.

Beautiful because Rena's focused expression reminded her again that she truly was a born actress. But painful as well it was: breakups scenes were always hard to shoot. Especially when it looked so real, as right now. If they both had not slipped into the shoes of respectively Arisa and Nobunaga a few minutes ago, Jurina could easily have believed the older girl was really breaking up with her. The disturbing thought did indeed cross her mind a few times since the beginning of the rehearsal, direct consequences of Rena's flawless acting. Yes, the 25-year-old actress was definitely pouring everything she had into that intense and emotional scene.

Jurina brushed the thought aside and fell back into her character of Nobunaga at once, opening her mouth to continue with the text. “My heart still yearns for you despite your hurtful words, Arisa,” Jurina stated, looking straight into Rena's eyes without wavering an instant.

Jurina knew her character was hurting inside, but he was nonetheless keeping his composure despite the incredibly hard situation he was facing. What a strong personality, Jurina couldn't help thinking to herself. His controlled behavior made her admire him a little more. “However, I can't stay by your side any longer now that I know your affection for me has changed. I will have left your father's clan by tomorrow morning.”

Rena didn't say anything, nor did she show any sign of emotion at her declaration. Jurina knew she still had one line to say, before her character turned on his heels and left the dojo, marking the end of the scene. Still, she felt that something was missing. Nobunaga loved Arisa unconditionally, and it seemed unlikely to her that he would leave without expressing one last time his profound affection for his childhood friend.

As a result, Jurina took a step forward and reduced the small distance separating them. She leaned forward and closed her eyes, pressing her lips against Rena's. Jurina noted that the lips stayed still at the contact: she didn't expect any less. Why would the older girl reply to her kiss? No such affectionate moment was written in the script. However, to her surprise, she felt lips moving slowly against hers the moment after.

Jurina could sense Rena was relaxing progressively into the kiss, and she knew she had momentarily slipped out of her character of shogun's daughter. Although chaste the kiss was nothing but sweet, and Jurina even accompanied the intimate moment with a gentle caress on Rena's cheek. She let the kiss last for a few more seconds, before pulling away and distinguishing the slight confusion in Rena's brown orbs. It made her smile. Rena may not have expected her little improvisation, she was still glad she made such an addition to the scene. It was now perfect.

Jurina took a step back, and her features grew more serious as she switched back to her character, ready to utter Nobunaga's final words. “I will never forget you, Arisa.”

Jurina held Rena's gaze, and waited as the script stipulated. It was a clever way for the viewers to believe maybe Arisa would intervene and come back on her words. Stop this madness before it was too late. But it never happened. Arisa looked unfazed, and never uttered a single word.

In the intent of finishing enacting the scene properly Jurina moved towards the door. Her fingers encircled the doorknob slowly as if she was about to leave, but she didn't turn it. Instead, her fingers retracted, and her expression softened as she progressively let go of the character that was inhabiting her until now.

She took a glimpse at the script in her hand, reading the last indications written on the page. As soon as Nobunaga left the dojo, Arisa's true feelings emerged. It was all along what she wished: to have him leave the clan, in order to protect him from the truth of her imminent wedding. But, much as she should be satisfied that her terrible lies had the desired effect, it didn't prevent silent tears from flowing down her face one after another.

It was truly a heart-rending scene, and Jurina had not doubt it was going to affect viewers tremendously. She let out a small sigh and turned around to take a look at the older Matsui, startled when she witnessed the distress in Rena's shimmering eyes. It took her a few seconds to understand that she was still much in character, and only enacting her part. However, even with that notion in mind, words stayed stuck in her mouth when she noticed a few tears sliding down Rena's cheeks.

Rena... how can you bring life to a character with such talent? Jurina thought, amazed by the sight in front of her.

Of course, she had witnessed her acting skills a few times before, whether in dramas or in movies. Rena's ability to fill in so easily the shoes of a character so mad and schizophrenic as Gekikara in Majisuka Gakuen had impressed everyone on set. If truth be told, she wondered if Rena didn't purposely avoid playing respectable, normal girls on screen. She certainly didn't play an ordinary girl either in the movie Gift.

Was it a way for her to get rid of this image of perfect Nagoya princess that stuck to her skin for so many years? Or maybe she simply enjoyed portraying such complex, unconventional characters?

In Destiny, Jurina did notice that the older Matsui had reached a higher level in her acting. In fact, Rena had been taking acting classes these last months. At first, Jurina didn't understand why she felt the need to do so. However, after questioning her about her decision one evening, it appeared the older girl believed her acting still had a few flaws she wished to correct. And, to be honest, Jurina believed Arisa was probably the most mature character she had ever played until now.

She was not as crazy as Gekikara, nor as wild as Saori, but her character was not less complicated to portray. Her role as Arisa enabled her to express a wide range of emotions: frustration and anger because of the impossible situation she found herself into... but also kindness and devotion when it came to her past romantic relationship with Nobunaga. Moreover, the format of the show asked of her an impeccable constancy in her acting. To top it all, she had a few action scenes to play, much more physically challenging than those she had to execute in Majisuka Gakuen.

Yes, Rena had played many interesting roles in the past, each one of them granting her even more recognition. But this drama was more popular than anything she had ever been in. Her talent was praised by many in the industry, and her picture everywhere in magazines. Once the shooting would be over, Jurina had no doubt Rena was going to be offered many more good roles. Destiny was definitely going to boost her career.

“Thank you for rehearsing that scene with me.” Rena's voice jolted her out of her thoughts. The light was now back in her eyes as if it had never left, and she brushed away her tears casually. “It's always easier to get in character when you're playing opposite someone.”

“You're welcome,” Jurina replied with a smile, glad the previous heavy atmosphere had now completely dissipated around them. She approached the table, putting down the script. Out of interest she started turning the next pages, curious to discover what was supposed to happen after that emotional flashback scene. “Somehow, I can empathize with Nobunaga. He loved her so much and will never know she was lying to him all along.”

Jurina searched the text for the piece of information she was looking for, but there was no sign of Nobunaga in the next scene. In fact, as she turned the following pages, two names came back the most: Arisa, and Yoshiaki. No, it didn't look like Arisa was going to be reunited with her childhood friend. Or if she was, the director was cleverly keeping their reunion for the last moment.

“I know,” Rena replied, admitting the terrible consequences her character's lies had on her relationship with Nobunaga. But Arisa had her reasons for making such a terrible decision: she was only trying to protect the one she loved. Somehow, she could relate with Arisa a little. “By the way, why did you choose to add a kiss? It's not in the script, and I could tell you were still in character.”

At the sound of Rena's questioning tone an amused smile plastered Jurina's face, and she diverted her attention from the script to look back at her. When she chose to kiss her earlier on, she truly wondered if Rena would let it pass. In the end, she had accepted the kiss without saying anything. And even replied to it. But it appeared she was still curious to know why she had taken the liberty to improvise.

“I felt like something was missing. I didn't mean to take you by surprise but...” Jurina paused thoughtfully, until her eyes glinted with mischief when she recalled Rena's behavior at the time. The older girl didn't seem that bothered by the small additional, quite the contrary. “You could have pushed me away and asked me to stick to the script, but you didn't.”

“It was on the spur of the moment,” Rena defended herself, but it was much obvious by the playfulness in her tone that she was playing along. “Such a slip won't happen again.”

“Really?” Jurina arched an eyebrow. She moved forward and paused once they were standing merely a few feet apart, casting her a glance of defiance. “Are you... sure about that?”

They were so close to each other that Jurina could have easily stolen a kiss if she wanted to, but it was not what she had in mind right now. She surely didn't miss Rena's eyes falling on her lips, and found it entertaining that the older girl was trying to stick to her words, and not give in to the provocation. The young ace decided to make a first move by placing a first quick kiss on her cheek – trying to force her into error – but faced nothing but Rena's incredible resiliency. Never one to concede defeat she planted another – this time lingering – kiss near the corner of her lips and was pleased when she saw Rena's determination progressively faltering.

In order to put an end to her last shred of resistance she brushed her lips against hers lightly, and her mind screamed victory when Rena relented and captured her lips. Unfortunately, Jurina didn't have time to relish the kiss long that a familiar melody sounded in the room, ruining the intimate moment.

Jurina let out a light groan of frustration – her reaction making Rena laugh a little when she pulled away – and Jurina watched her as she moved towards the bedside table to retrieve her phone. The ringtone stopped as soon as it was secured in her hand, putting a halt to Dreams come True's joyful song Ring Ring Ring. The older Matsui gazed back at her with an apologetic smile, and Jurina could almost predict what she was about to announce. “It was my alarm–clock... I have to go on set.”

Jurina nodded silently, realizing the moment of their separation had unfortunately already arrived. Rena started gathering a few things, and Jurina watched her getting absorbed in her preparations. Not wishing to distract the older girl while she was busy preparing her backpack she decided to take a seat at the table, her eyes soon falling on the script placed in front of her.

Now she remembered a question she meant to ask the older girl earlier on. Would Arisa and Nobunaga reunite? In the hope of finding an answer to that question she went through the script again, before realizing it only covered the episode Rena was going to shoot for the next two days. However, Jurina remembered vividly Rena mentioning that the director had given them a few scripts in advance. Maybe he even divulged the end? “Will Nobunaga and Arisa see each other again? Do you know how Destiny end?”

There was a pregnant pause – during which Jurina could tell Rena had stopped what she was doing – until the older girl spoke up. “Ah, that... I have no idea.”

At the sound of the hesitation in her voice, Jurina turned to take a curious look at her. Rena was now seated on the side of the bed, motionless near her half-open black backpack. Jurina took in her pensive look, wondering if her simple questions had triggered such a reaction. The moment after Rena's thoughtful expression had entirely disappeared from her eyes and she meant to close her backpack, when she realized something was missing.

"The director hasn't told us how it ends." Rena stood up from the bed, her eyes falling briefly on Jurina, then on the script laying in front of her. "He says he doesn't want the ending to influence our acting in any way."

"Really?" Jurina exclaimed, her startled eyes following the older girl as she came to retrieve the script and placed it inside her backpack. "So... you will know how it ends at the same time as the viewers."

"Yes." Rena nodded softly. "That's the plan."

Jurina stayed quiet, wondering about the director's curious decision to keep the ending secret from his actors. For a moment, she wondered if it was not a trick to prevent any leaks. Destiny was a pretty popular drama now, with nationwide high audiences. A leak about the plot – especially the ending – would definitely be a real blow for all the staff working hard on the making of the historical drama. The love triangle was at the core of the story: it was essential to keep the suspense intact until the end.

But maybe the director was also sincere in his approach, and merely attempting to make the best show possible? And believing that, by keeping a few crucial elements secret from his actors, he was going to reach his objective? Jurina didn't know if she would have liked working in such conditions. Curiosity would have gotten the best of her at some point, and she would have felt a bit frustrated to be kept in the dark. However, it appeared the older Matsui didn't seem that bothered by the director's choice.

From her peripheral vision Jurina noticed the older girl taking a seat opposite her, and she understood by the backpack now closed and placed near the door that her preparations were complete. Jurina guessed it was a matter of time until she would need to leave the hotel to join the set.

"I hope Arisa will end up with Nobunaga," Jurina spoke up, raising her eyes to meet Rena's. She took in her slightly startled expression, and she knew she had to develop her thoughts on the matter. "Yoshiaki is a good man, and I believe he would take good care of her but Arisa still loves Nobunaga. Yoshiaki will never be able to fill the void in Arisa's heart."

"You forget that Arisa and Nobunaga haven't seen each other in months," Rena reminded her. "She has no idea where he is. Even if she was to miraculously find him, there's a high possibility he would already have moved on. Besides, she hurt him that day. Can he forgive her for her lies and for breaking his heart?"

"I don't know," Jurina conceded. "But she will never know if she doesn't try."

Rena didn't reply, but she had to admit Jurina had a point. Of course, she was completely clueless about the ending. Who could say what the director had in mind? At this stage of the drama, it was impossible to tell. Arisa and Yoshiaki had surely grown closer these past episodes, and Arisa didn't abhor the shogun's son as much as at the beginning of the show. In fact, Arisa's progressive change of heart was obvious, and also legitimate. Her host had been nothing but kind and patient with her since her arrival at the clan.

Both characters had been forced into a situation they didn't want. Somehow, this common trait was bringing them closer day by day. Besides, she couldn't ignore the fact she had incredible chemistry on screen with Yosuke. They worked perfectly well together and, from what she heard, viewers had taken a real liking in the duo she formed with Yoshiaki. However, because of the few flashbacks scenes involving Nobunaga, viewers constantly found themselves torn.

Rena diverted her attention from SKE's ace when she heard her phone vibrating on the table. She immediately stopped the second alarm she had set on her phone and reached out across the table to squeeze Jurina's hand. Much as she wanted to, she couldn't stay with her any longer. She had been already lucky not to have scenes to shoot in the morning. Now, she couldn't delay her departure any longer. She was needed on set in half an hour.

"I'm leaving you my keycard so you can come and go as you wish," Rena said, placing the designated rectangular object in front of the younger girl. "I'll take another one at the reception."

Jurina nodded. When she saw the other girl starting to turn on her heels and placing her baseball cap on her head, she understood she had every intention of leaving like that. Quickly, she grabbed her hand within reach and pulled her towards her.

"I'm going to be lat–" Rena tried to remind her, much in vain as she ended up on her lap anyway.

"What about my goodbye kiss?" Jurina claimed, removing her cap from her head at once. Rena tried to get up, but she wrapped her arms around her waist tightly.

Rena shot her an incredulous look at her uncooperative behavior but placed nonetheless a quick kiss on her cheek. Jurina's small frown told her she was still not satisfied. As to confirm her thoughts, her tight embrace was still completely preventing her from moving away.

"Not enough." Jurina shook her head, holding tight on Rena's cap when she sneakily tried to take it back from her. "I'm not letting you go until I get what you want."

Oh yes, Jurina was acting childish right now, Rena mused in amusement as she observed Jurina's decided look. In the past – when Jurina was still a young kid – she would sometimes find herself slightly frustrated when facing such a stubborn behavior. Jurina liked to have it her way, and rarely relented until she obtained what she desired.

Very often, Rena would relent. Not because she agreed with her attitude, but mostly because she didn't wish to get into a fight with her. What could she say? She didn't like conflicts and avoided them at all costs. It simply didn't bode well with her serene and poised character.

But could she really say no to her girlfriend's demand? Did she want to say no? Not really. Even less when Jurina's lips formed a small, adorable pout a few seconds later. So Jurina was using that card on her, now? Rena let out a small giggle. "Enough, you won."

Rena saw Jurina's face lightening up instantly, and she pressed her lips against hers without the slight hesitation. When she pulled away after a short-exchanged kiss, Jurina's face was glowing with happiness. A smile moved to her lips at her reaction, and she brushed her cheek with her thumb lightly. "Satisfied?"

"Very," Jurina affirmed, her mouth tugging into an even broader smile. This time, she didn't oppose any resistance when the older girl made a move to retrieve her cap, and she unloosed her hold around her waist. "You can go, now."

"Thank you," Rena laughed. She placed a kiss on her forehead and stood up, securing her cap on her head. She definitely didn't wish to leave the room without her precious red, baseball cap. This morning, the weather forecast had promised another scorching day. And the intensity of the sunrays currently penetrating the room told her that her pale skin would definitely need the protection.

Rena moved towards the door and retrieved her backpack, taking one last look around the room to make sure she didn't forget anything. In the end, her gaze fell on Jurina who was now standing next to her, and – as she started opening the door – gave her a smile and kissed her cheek one last time. "Have fun visiting the city. See you tonight."

 


 

 

It had already been a month since her arrival in Kyoto, but Rena's busy schedule had prevented her from enjoying the charms of Japan's old capital until now. That is why she immediately agreed when – after making a few wishes at the nearby temple – Jurina suggested to take a stroll in the Maruyama Park. On this Sunday afternoon, it was thankfully not as hot nor as humid as the previous days. The occasion was perfect.

Rena made a pause on the stone bridge. There were a couple of families taking a walk in the park, but the place was less crowded than what she would have expected for a week-end. Her eyes soon fell on the beautiful nature surrounding her, taking in the blue flowers on her left, and the large maple trees on her right. After that, the artificial lake at her feet monopolized all her attention and she observed it for a little while, soon getting lost in the peacefulness the sight procured her.

Without realizing it her eyes fluttered close, and she relished the pleasant sensation of the soft wind blowing against her skin. Why didn't she come here any sooner? Spending time in such a quiet and beautiful place was truly invigorating. Indeed, she could feel all the tension and stress accumulated during her week leaving her body progressively. Rena made a mental note to come back to this place as soon as she would have a little free time.

Rena felt a hand slipping inside hers, and she took a peek at the quiet girl beside her. Jurina's features seemed more relaxed, and she could tell the place was having the same positive impact on her. They shared a smile, and the older Matsui squeezed her fingers lightly.

"There are a few benches over there," Jurina spoke up, showing a quiet, isolated area a bit further away in the park. "Why don't we go and take a seat?"

Rena nodded in agreement and followed her willingly, Jurina never letting go of her hand as she led the way. She looked so happy. That fact was much obvious when she observed her quietly from aside. It was her last day in Kyoto, but Rena could tell Jurina wanted to enjoy every minute of their time together.

They took a seat on a small unoccupied bench, located ingeniously under the shade of a maple tree. Rena let her gaze wander around, agreeing with Jurina's choice of place. Indeed, apart from a solitary elderly man taking a nap on a bench a bit further away, bystanders were few and far between. It truly looked like they were not going to be much disturbed during their peaceful time alone.

Rena felt the young girl drawing closer on the bench, and a smile moved to her lips when Jurina rested her head on her shoulder. Fingers slipped into her hand the moment after, and she completed the affectionate gesture by lacing their fingers together.

Rena didn't know how long they stayed into that position. The usually so talkative ace didn't once try to break the comfortable silence they had settled in. The moment was so pleasant, that the older Matsui couldn't help leaning her head against hers and closing her eyes to relax.

 


 

 

It was the feeling of an object hitting softly her left leg that made Rena open her eyes again. She looked down in confusion and noticed a big, white ball at her feet. It didn't take her long to understand where it was coming from as she saw a small boy – who couldn't have been more than five years old – running towards her. As soon as they found themselves face to face he stopped and gave her a hesitant look. "I'm sorry, onee-chan."

Rena didn't have time to react that Jurina had already grabbed the ball and, flashing the boy one of her most beautiful smiles, handled it to him. "Here you go."

The boy stared at Jurina for a few seconds without saying anything, and Rena certainly didn't miss his pale cheeks turning slightly pink. In the distance, Rena heard the boy's parents calling his name, but he didn't bulge. Instead, his eyes stayed glued on Jurina a little longer, as if refusing to part with the girl who had evidently already stolen his heart.

"Goodbye, Keiji-kun." Jurina waved at him. "Have fun."

It took a second calling of his name for the boy to turn on his heels, and he run off towards his parents. However, it didn't prevent him from turning to look at Jurina once last time and sending her a shy smile.

"And someone else has fallen victim to your charms," Rena teased her girlfriend who was still waving at him. How many times did she witness that kind of scene? SKE's ace exuded joie de vivre, and her cheerful personality always had a positive impact on people. Children, more than others, adored her especially.

Jurina laughed a little, before tearing her eyes away from the young boy who had now entirely disappeared from her sight. "You're jealous."

Rena rolled her eyes at her playful expression, before noticing a small square red box slipping out of Jurina's pocket. The young girl noticed it as well and immediately put it back in place, avoiding her gaze. Rena frowned at her strange behavior. What was she trying to hide? And why did she look a bit... nervous? When Jurina chose not to say a word about it, she decided to let it go. They fell into a comfortable silence again, until Jurina spoke up after a little while.

"Do you want to have children?"

Rena gazed back at her in confusion, more than taken aback by the out of the blue question. At first, she believed maybe Jurina was only messing around with her, but she could tell it was not the case by her attentive look. She took her time to reply, pondering over her question seriously. "I've never really thought about it," she answered in all honesty. "Maybe later? For now, I want to focus on my career."

"I understand," Jurina murmured.

Rena really wondered what had triggered such a curious question. Was it her latest, brief encounter with the small boy that prompted her to ask such a thing? In fact, she didn't believe they ever broached such a topic before. But, as she observed her pensive expression, she could tell she was really letting her answer sink in.

"Do you?" Rena decided to return the question, now a little curious to know Jurina's opinion about it. Considering the silence that followed, it appeared the younger girl had the same trouble answering.

"I think... I would," Jurina replied after a little while. "I'm not entirely sure about that yet. But I know for sure that I want to get married."

Rena didn't blink at the statement. Why would she? She had heard the girl voicing her desire to get married a few times in the past, now. In fact, she still recalled vividly the first time she heard her saying such a thing. It was on a television show, and their future had been casually mentioned at some point during the conversation. When it was Jurina's turn to answer the host's question, the 14-year-old girl had casually declared she wasn't opposed to the concept of getting married once she would have left the group.

Rena had kept quiet at the time and her face didn't show any sign of surprise, but the declaration had definitely caught her off guard. How could she already be thinking about that? And at such a young age? Given that Jurina had uttered those exact same words a few minutes ago, it appeared she had not changed her mind on the subject.

"You still don't want to get married?" Jurina's question jolted her out of her thoughts, and she let out a small sigh, knowing perfectly well why she was asking her that.

That was a subject they talked about a few times together. Manifestly, it was a choice Jurina still didn't understand after all this time. "No... I don't want to get married."

And here it was again, the incomprehension in her eyes. Jurina was doing her best not to say anything, but it was much obvious she was not going to keep it to herself much longer. And open her mouth to speak she did, although she didn't say what she expected. "Alright. I won't try and change your mind."

Rena sent her a smile of gratitude, before seeing Jurina slipping her fingers inside the pocket of her shorts and retrieving a small square red box. The box she didn't want her to see a little while before. Rena gazed at it in curiosity.

"Thursday afternoon, I found these in a small jewellery shop," Jurina started, her eyes never leaving hers once. "You know I felt awful not having a present for your birthday, so when I saw those in the shop window... I simply knew I had to buy them."

Rena wanted to retort that she didn't need anything. Her presence was far enough: a beautiful gift she would never have expected. Besides, the young ace bought her the pair of sneakers she dreamed of, didn't she? They were waiting for her in Nagoya. Why would she feel the need to buy her something else? Jurina's generosity was no news to her. In fact, she always liked to shower her with presents at every given opportunity. Of course, Rena was moved by her caring attitude but sometimes, it could get a bit overwhelming.

Oh yes, Rena repeated her – more than a few times – that it was thoughtful of her, but she didn't need all these things. But it never stopped her girlfriend from continuing as if she had never spoken. Apparently, it was an aspect of her personality she would never be able to change. And a little voice inside her head told her incredible stubbornness definitely didn't help in the matter.

Rena didn't wear a lot of jewellery in general: Jurina was perfectly aware of it. So what made her decide to opt for that kind of present this time? She didn't have to wait long to know its content as Jurina slowly opened the box, revealing two matching silver rings.

Rena held her breath and widened her eyes in surprise, their previous conversation coming to the forefront of her mind. No, it couldn't be what she imagined. Jurina was not...

"Don't worry." Jurina giggled a little. "I'm not asking you to marry me."

Relief spread though Rena's chest, and she relaxed progressively. She let out a small laugh, realizing her previous reaction had evidently betrayed her thoughts. "You scared me for a minute," she admitted, before continuing on a light, teasing tone. "Besides, we're much too young for that."

"Yes, I'm only nineteen," Jurina conceded with a smile. "But in five years, I'll be twenty-four and will probably have left SKE."

Jurina paused, and the older Matsui tried to understand the meaning behind her cryptic statement. In fact, it looked awfully like she wanted to add something else. Rena waited in expectation, somehow having a small idea of what she was about to say. Their previous conversation. These rings. Jurina had stated it didn't mean what she thought but... somehow, she could feel she was not far from the truth. Not when Jurina was giving her such a serious look.

Jurina never developed her thoughts. Instead, she flashed her an innocent smile, and extracted one ring from the box, placing it carefully inside the palm of her hand. "You don't need to wear it. I thought it would make a nice present."

Rena truly didn't know what to say, and she gazed silently at the small rounded object in her hand. It wasn't a cheap ring; of this she was certain. Money never was a problem for Jurina, especially when it was a present for her. However, despite guessing the object was of quite important value it remained simple on the exterior, with not decoration to speak of. Somehow, she liked the simplicity of it.

From her peripheral vision, she saw Jurina extracting the other ring from the box, and she looked up in curiosity. Jurina placed it on her ring finger without a second of hesitation, and was now admiring the ring from every angle, even playing with it a little. Rena was never one to draw hasty conclusions, but she couldn't ignore the fact the young girl had chosen to put her ring on this finger in particular.

Jurina never did anything by chance.

Rena tore her eyes away from the younger girl, trying not to delve too much on the message she could read between the lines. Instead, she cast a glance at the silver ring still inside her palm. She took it carefully with her fingers and decided to take a better look at it, her eyes widening in surprise when she noticed an inscription engraved inside. She had completely missed it when Jurina placed the object inside her hand earlier on. She read it attentively.

Forever yours, J.

A broad smile spread across Rena's lips. It was cute. A little cheesy even, if she had to admit. But it was also touching and adorable. All those adjectives that characterized so well her girlfriend's personality. It was very much like Jurina to customize a present in such a loving way. Jurina's previous words came to the forefront of her mind: You don't need to wear it.

Rena knew perfectly what had motivated her to say such a thing. Jurina knew she was not that fond of jewellery: she obviously didn't want to push her to wear a ring to please her. But how could she not put it on? Especially after discovering Jurina went to great length to make sure her feelings came across? Her mind made up, she placed the ring on her left index, and planted a lingering kiss on Jurina's cheek. Jurina's face lightened up instantly when she accompanied the affectionate gesture with a soft thank you into her ear.

Rena took another look at the new object on her finger, getting accustomed to the cold sensation of the metal against her skin. There was no point denying what this gift really meant for Jurina. Nor the words the young ace had kept to herself.

Rena couldn't possibly project herself in five years. Would she have accomplished her dreams and become a successful actress? Would Jurina still love the 30-year-old girl she would have become? She was no fortune teller. She didn't have any answer to those questions. However, she had an absolute certitude. As long as their feelings for each other remained intact, she would treasure that ring.

Chapter Text

The melody of Kataomoi came to an end and Jurina prepared herself for the final steps she was all too familiar with, executing the last move faultlessly. As the music died out and silence enveloped her she relaxed and caught her breath slightly, taking a peek at her reflection through the large mirrors of the dancing room. She had been dancing non-stop for a little more than an hour, and she could now feel beads of sweat rolling down her back underneath her short-sleeved blue tee-shirt.

Jurina cleared her throat, feeling her mouth starting to get a bit dry. The inclination to quench her thirst was becoming tempting, and she glanced briefly at the bottle of water waiting by her sports bag in a corner of the room. However, she tore her eyes away quickly from the sight, knowing rehearsal was not over yet. It was not the moment to make a pause. Her dancing partner and she – currently the only occupants of the room – still had a few more songs to rehearse together before calling it a day. That's why she settled for simply adjusting her loose ponytail instead and turned on her heels to select the next song.

Jurina retraced her steps back to the stereo and caught the setlist lying by its side between her fingers, going through it to discover which song they were supposed to rehearse next. Being the face of ASBee since 2010, SKE48 had naturally been asked to do a showcase for the launch of their newest pair of sneakers. The event was supposed to happen tomorrow afternoon, in the center of Nagoya. Albeit the fact the young Matsui already knew each one of those choreographies by heart, she wished to rehearse them one last time. For once, it wasn't only her perfectionist side speaking. No, she also wished to make sure she was well synchronized with her dancing partner. The girl who had been appointed WCenter two weeks ago, when she returned from Kyoto: Akane Takayanagi.

Jurina's eyes lit up when she read the name of the next song, knowing it was going to please her dancing partner. Oki Doki. The energetic song was one of Churi's favorites. Without further ado, SKE's ace pressed the corresponding number on the stereo, and went to place herself again at the right side of Churi. As predicted, a pleased expression soon plastered Churi's face as the familiar music reverberated in the room. Their eyes met briefly through the mirror and they exchanged a smile, before getting back to the task at hand and moving along in rhythm with the joyful song.

To be honest, Jurina couldn't have been happier with management's decision to place Churi by her side. For so many years, Rena had been her eternal WCenter. The prospect of having someone else filling her shoes – after being used to the older Matsui's constant presence by her side – had not reassured her in the least. Yes, she had in the past danced on a few occasions with another WCenter. It was not common, but it happened. But each time, the change of members was more than unsettling, and required evident adjustments.

That is why she felt really relieved when Churi was given Rena's position. Not only was she going to dance alongside a dear friend, she knew she wouldn't have to worry about her dancing. Of course, Jurina was aware that Churi would need to rehearse the songs in her new position, and a little time to fully adapt to it. But she was a fast learner. Not one minute did she doubt her friend's ability to fill the position successfully.

Despite agreeing with management's decision to place Churi at the front with her, Jurina was conscious nothing was eternal when positions were concerned. She didn't want to get her hopes up and believe naively this situation was permanent. Somehow, she could tell this new combination was merely a test. Churi and her were friends and worked well together, but none of those things mattered when it came to management's decisions. Their sole and only concern was the image the WCenter was projecting. Did they choose a long-time member – an obvious safe bet – in order not to shake things up for the audience after Rena's recent departure? Or were they only buying themselves time to find the right girl who could replace the Nagoya princess permanently?

The senbatsu for SKE's new single was going to be revealed at the end of the week. Jurina guessed she would get all her answers during the important announcement. If Churi was still named WCenter, it meant management was betting on her and seriously considering making it a permanent thing. Was Churi going to be the one to fill Rena's shoes? Management had not dropped a hint about it, even when she sneakily attempted once to get the coveted piece of information from SKE's theater manager.

Yuasa Hiroshi remained as tight-mouthed as a clam.

Jurina had talked to Churi about it a few times, but the latter didn't seem to mind either outcome. I really enjoy dancing by your side, the older girl had stated with enthusiasm when the subject was once broached over dinner. But if management chooses to replace me with another girl, I'll happily accept their decision.

The declaration had caught Jurina off guard. During the following seconds, she couldn't help staring at her, studying her attentively as if to make sure she was saying the entire truth. Churi had uttered those words casually, and she could tell by her relaxed expression that she was completely sincere. Somehow, it appeared Churi has no ambition whatsoever to be WCenter. Was it because of the pressure associated with such an important position?

Much as Jurina believed it could definitely be one of the reasons, another idea had progressively invaded her mind. What if Churi's lack of ambition was motivated by a completely different reason? Until now, Jurina had kept quiet about it, and not shared her fears with her. A part of her was convinced her friend wouldn't keep her in the dark about such an important matter. Surely, Churi would have informed her if she was contemplating leaving SKE48?

 


 

 

An hour and a few more songs later, they managed to reach the end of the setlist. Today's fruitful rehearsal reinforced again Jurina's deepest conviction that Churi was completely capable of assuming the role of WCenter. Jurina turned the stereo off and walked across the room, taking a seat near her sports bag and grabbing her precious bottle of water.

While taking a few sips of her drink she quietly observed her friend who was focused on reading the setlist – obviously trying to imprint in her mind the order of the songs one last time – before leaving the sheet aside and joining her. As Jurina let her gaze wander over her body, she noted quickly that the physical effort had had exactly the same consequences on her friend. Indeed, her cheeks were now slightly tainted pink and the perspiration was showing on her exposed shoulders, her green tee-shirt even sticking to her body in a few places. Manifestly, they would both need a good shower after their intense – but effective – rehearsal.

Churi pulled on the zipper of her own sports bag and started rummaging through it, her face soon creasing into a frown. Jurina gave her a curious look at such a peculiar reaction. Now, Churi's fingers were fumbling more franticly inside the bag, and it didn't take a genius to figure out she was failing to find what she was desperately looking for. Jurina didn't have to wait long to discover what it was, as the other member soon voiced her frustration. "I can't believe it. I forgot my drink again."

Jurina's lips tugged into an amused smile. Wasn't it the second time such an occurrence happened these last two weeks? It appeared the older girl was extremely distracted lately and forgot things much more than usual. Now that she thought about it, the older girl even managed to forget her pajamas when she came to spend the night at her place three days ago. "Here, take mine. I know it's not your beloved lemon juice, but it's the best I can offer."

Churi let out a small laugh when Jurina winked mischievously at her, and she took the bottle she was handing to her with gratitude. "Thank you. You're a lifesaver."

Jurina let her enjoy the refreshment in peace and leaned her back against the wall, fluttering her eyes close as she listened distractedly to the sound of her own heart slowing down. Soon, her thoughts drifted to Churi's recent bad habit of forgetting things, admitting it didn't seem as anecdotic as it should. Churi was never one to have her head in the clouds. Didn't this change in her behavior start when she was appointed WCenter? What if the stressful position was at the origin of all this?

It could make complete sense. Much as Churi was doing her best to adjust as fast as possible, it had barely been two weeks. As WCenter, her workload had tremendously increased in this short amount of time. Longer days of work, more responsibilities, greater exposure... Being in the group for so many years, Churi was now obviously used to dealing with pressure. But being WCenter was not a small, anecdotic change, no matter how experienced you may be as an idol.

Jurina became unsettled when a certain question emerged in her head. A question she had kept at the back of her mind until now but was now burning her lips. Jurina was seriously wondering if there wasn't more to Churi's distracted behavior than her new position. Her curiosity was pushing her to ask, but her fear of the answer was stopping her. What if she didn't like what she was going to hear?

Jurina gazed at her friend, who was appreciating too much the sensation of the fresh liquid against her throat to notice her internal turmoil. When she saw Churi placing the bottle of water back on the floor, she made up her mind. She had had plenty of occasions to broach the subject but had kept quiet until now. She couldn't stay in the dark anymore. She had to know.

Jurina could feel her heart beating faster in anticipation when she opened her mouth to speak. And the apprehension was much obvious in her slightly quivering voice when she let out what had been nagging her for far too long. "Churi... you're not planning on graduating?"

Two startled eyes looked back at her at once, and Jurina could tell she had rendered her friend totally speechless. In fact, she stayed completely still, her eyes glued on her in bewilderment. It took her a few, long seconds to answer. "Why would you believe that?"

"It's this thing you said once," Jurina explained, the words coming to the forefront of her mind as she recalled each one of them vividly. "You said it didn't matter if you didn't stay WCenter. It made me think that maybe... you were considering leaving."

Jurina paused, and she saw Churi's eyes widening progressively in realization. She didn't know if it was due to her own slight impatience to know more about it, but it surely felt the older girl kept quiet for an eternity. Was she mulling over in her head what she had said? Or was she trying to find the best way to announce her imminent graduation without hurting her feelings too much?

Jurina had a hard time deciphering her expression. She didn't look embarrassed in the least, which should have comforted her in the idea that maybe she was mistaken. However, her lasting silence didn't help ease her worry. In that intent, she repeated again her initial question that still hadn't gotten a clear answer. "Are you going to–"

She didn't have time to finish her sentence that Churi extended her arm and took her hand. "You have nothing to fear," Churi affirmed, looking straight into her eyes without wavering. "I have absolutely no intention on graduating."

Jurina immediately released a breath she didn't even realize she was holding. A reassuring smile grazed Churi's lips and she responded to it, albeit a bit awkwardly. Even though her friend had assured she got it all wrong, she still wished to make sure she was not hiding something from her. Churi was not planning on graduating in the near future. But it didn't mean she wasn't thinking about the eventuality.

"If the thought ever crosses your mind, I want you to tell me," Jurina insisted, squeezing her hand lightly.

Churi was momentarily taken aback. She could tell by her tone that it was a serious matter for the young ace. But she had told her she got the wrong idea. So why was she looking at her as if she was afraid she was not completely sincere with her? Has she ever given her reason not to trust her in the past? No, Churi abhorred the idea of lying. Even more so when it came to a dear friend as Jurina. She surely felt uncomfortable when she overheard the conversation between Airin and Rena and learned that the latter hadn't told Jurina yet about her decision to graduate.

She was displeased when the older Matsui asked her to keep the revelation to herself. Oh yes, it had been hard to keep such an important piece of information secret from Jurina for the following weeks. Pretending that everything was alright when facing a cheerful Jurina – who was in her own little bubble of happiness, and evidently far from imagining what the older Matsui was in fact planning behind her back – was one of the hardest things she ever had to do.

A few times, when she had had too much, she even almost spilled the beans. Rena's graduation was going to hit Jurina hard; of this she was certain. And it was going to be way worse if she happened to be one of the last to know. Rena got lucky she was the one to overhear the news. What would have happened if it had been a staff member instead? He may not have been so considerate.

Wait. That was it. She got the missing piece of the puzzle. Now she knew why Jurina was currently acting in such a way. Rena had never mentioned to Jurina her desire to leave the group. And her will to conceal this information for so long had had terrible consequences. Manifestly, Jurina didn't want to see the past repeat itself.

Churi refused to let Jurina believe one second that she was capable of doing the same thing to her. Not only was it against her nature to lie, but she would never want her to relive such a painful experience. Especially when she witnessed with her own eyes the deep sorrow Rena's decision had caused SKE's ace. How could she consider putting her through the same? No, she had to put an end to any last shred of doubt she may still have immediately. "I understand why you would think that, but you have to believe me. I would never keep something so important secret from you."

"Alright." Jurina nodded, now looking more at ease. "I believe you."

Relief spread through Churi's chest instantly, more than glad she managed to convince her successfully. She waited patiently in case the young girl needed to get a few more things off her chest, but SKE's ace didn't say anything after that. Churi took a quick look at the clock on the wall, discovering it was already 7 p.m. A long day awaited them tomorrow, and they still needed to get rid of all the sweat they had accumulated during their almost two-hour rehearsal.

In that intent, she grabbed some fresh clothes from her bag and stood up, noticing her young friend mimicking her actions and following her closely as she headed tow   ards the  door. As she was about to turn the handle, she noted that Jurina was not behind her anymore. She turned around in confusion, noticing her standing a few feet away, and looking pensive.

"I know it's inevitable. Everyone graduates at one point or another. But it's painful to see the people you care about leave one after another. Mariko, Rena... I don't know what I would do if you left as well."

Churi distinguished the pain flashing in her eyes. Her friend was obviously having bad memories. Quite probably recalling the events that surrounded Rena's graduation. Hearing her voice so fragile – and seeing the tears springing to her eyes – was truly a painful sight. Graduation was such a delicate subject for Jurina. This last month, she had witnessed the emotion shimmering in her eyes each time a journalist mentioned Rena's recent graduation.

For now, Jurina seemed to be handling her departure fine. And she could tell being WCenter at her side was easing slightly the pressure constantly upon her shoulders. But the least reminder of Rena's departure was enough to place her into a dark place again. Churi hated when journalists reminded her of the fateful event. They were only doing their job: Churi tried to convince herself. But at the same time, she couldn't help finding the question insensitive.

The atmosphere had become heavy around them, and Churi knew she needed to put an end to it immediately. Without further ado, she reduced the distance and pulled her into her arms, embracing her tightly. "Listen to me. I'm not going anywhere."

Jurina hummed lightly in reaction, and Churi stroked her hair gently to try and soothe her. Rena's post-graduation was a tricky period. SKE's ace was feeling much better now, but a little voice inside Churi's head warned her that anything could turn the tide at any moment. No matter how strong Jurina tried to act, the truth was she had depended so long on Rena, her WCenter whom she wrongly believed eternal.

Rena wasn't by her side anymore in the group, and Churi didn't have the pretention to believe she could ever replace her. Would she still be chosen WCenter in a week when the senbatsu will be selected? Churi had not a single clue. However, one thing was for certain. No matter who management was going to choose, no one would ever be capable of really filling the void Rena had left behind.

Because Rena Matsui was unique, and irreplaceable in Jurina's heart.

Chapter Text

Tension was always palpable in the air when the senbatsu for SKE's next single was about to be announced. And this Thursday afternoon, the atmosphere was even a little heavier than usual in the dancing room. One minute ago, the SKE members were still chatting between them casually, but you could now hear a pin drop as SKE's theater manager Yuasa Hiroshi entered the place, followed by a few staff members. Now, all eyes were glued on the silent, bearded man standing in the middle of the room and facing them, not a single girl daring to make the slightest move or noise.

Of course, members were all too familiar with SKE's theater manager by now. He had been at their side for many years, and even gotten close to some girls during that amount of time. It was not uncommon to see a few members speak with him freely, or the man joke around with them. Yuasa Hiroshi had bonded with many girls, and it was obvious a lot of them were attached to him.

However, no matter how well they knew him or spoke with their manager regularly, the atmosphere was always solemn when such an important announcement was about to be made. Would girls keep their previous position or move to the back? Or, even worse, get out of the senbatsu? No one felt safe. No matter how long a member had been in the group or how experienced she was, every girl was conscious that nothing was ever set in stone.

Unfortunately, efforts were not always truly appreciated, and management's decisions were mostly subjective. What motivated management to place a girl in particular in the senbatsu instead of another? There was no way to tell. In fact, apart from Jurina's central position that no one really believed had chances of being shaken, nothing was guaranteed when it came to the composition of the senbatsu.

That's why this particular moment was highly anticipated, as well as feared. In a few seconds, the names of the girls chosen for the senbatsu would be announced. This short but crucial moment was going to shape their future for the next months to come.

"I'm now going to announce the senbatsu for SKE's next single," Yuasa declared in a composed and steady voice. "Please listen attentively."

Names came one after another. Sometimes, you could see the happiness showing a little on a girl's face when her name was called, but there was no overreaction of joy. There never was during such a solemn moment. There was no doubt that once the staff would be gone, members would express their feelings more genuinely. However, now was not the time, and everyone was cleverly keeping their emotions in check.

Jurina was caught off guard when Churi was the sixteenth name to be called. The senbatsu was composed of eighteen members, and the fact her name had already been called only meant one thing: she was not WCenter with her anymore. Jurina felt a knot in a stomach. Albeit the fact she knew all along she shouldn't get her hopes up and had to prepare herself for the eventuality, it was still a hard blow.

Loosing Rena had been so hard to accept, that Churi's presence by her side had been of not insignificant help. Jurina couldn't help feeling slightly destabilized by the news. Who did management choose to replace her? The young ace searched Yuasa's eyes for an explanation, trying to understand why Churi had been removed from the position. Until now, she assumed her role to the perfection. Of course, she didn't get any answer from Yuasa's stoic face.

"Jurina will be the center," Yuasa announced next, to no one surprise. Jurina gave him a small nod in recognition, while still hanging upon his lips. At this point, everyone in the room was curious to discover who had been deemed fit to replace Churi. And no one could have foreseen the name falling from his lips. "Ayuka Kamimura will be WCenter."

A few girls let out a shocked gasp. No one dared to speak, but surprise was manifest on all faces. The manager was already turning on his heels, but all eyes were still set on him after the incredible announcement. A 12-year-old kenkyuusei had been made WCenter? How was that possible? Yuasa never elaborated, not that anyone expected him to. In seven years, management never felt the need to justify their decisions.

The theater manager who had rendered all members completely speechless didn't add a single word and left the room with the other staff members a few seconds later. Usually, members would start relaxing as soon as he would have passed the door, but you could tell the girls were still processing the news when the door closed behind him. Some exchanged a few silent, startled looks between them, as if wondering if they had not imagined the whole thing.

 


 

 

Ayuka Kamimura.

Jurina truly had no idea who Yuasa was going to announce as WCenter earlier on. When she discovered Churi was not WCenter anymore, her mind tried to come up with a potential, believable candidate. That name never made her list. The dancing room was now mostly empty, except for a few girls who were finishing congratulating the poor girl who looked like she was still not grasping entirely the situation.

Jurina saw Churi approaching the young kenkyuusei and congratulating her, and the honesty in her voice confirmed that her friend truly didn't mind the changeover. Ayuka nodded silently, but the embarrassment was obvious in her eyes. Manifestly, the shy girl felt bad taking over her position, no matter how nice and encouraging Churi's words proved to be.

Churi left the room after that, leaving both the young Matsui and the new appointed WCenter deliberately alone. Jurina felt Ayuka's expectant eyes on her, and she reflected upon what to say. This was definitely a lot to take for such a young girl, and she needed to choose her words carefully. Somehow, she could tell the girl who – she had discovered really looked up to her – was going to pay real attention to anything she was going to say.

Ayuka was not any random kenkyuusei. These last months, Jurina had worked often with the group of kenkyuusei, helping them rehearse SKE48's choreographies. She had spent more time with Ayuka than with any other girl. In fact, the time she got angry at her for missing a move was still imprinted in her mind. She still felt awful about the way she acted with her, but the 12-year-old girl never held it against her.

After that, Ayuka's dancing had improved greatly. Jurina couldn't be prouder of her when she watched from backstage her Oki Doki performance during Rena's graduation concert. Her efforts had paid off. Not only Ayuka had filled her gaps successfully, she was now the best dancer amongst all the kenkyuusei.

Many things crossed Jurina's mind as she gazed at the quiet Ayuka. Congratulating her, was one of them. Reassuring her that everything was going to be alright, was another. But none of those ideas appealed to her. All members who had approached the young girl after the announcement had stated approximately the same thing. It was the polite thing to say: Jurina was well aware of that. However, she refused to settle for such uncreative words.

"Ayuka," Jurina started, still struggling to find the adequate words. Now that she was standing right in front of her, she could see the emotion shimmering in her eyes. The emotion her initial shock had completely overshadowed until now. Was it because it was hitting the young kenkyuusei that her future was never going to be the same after today? Or was she letting her emotions out because they were the two alone in the room right now?

Jurina didn't know what had triggered Ayuka's reaction. The shy girl who hadn't talked since the announcement, was now on the verge of tears. The young Matsui held her shoulders and gave her a warm smile she hoped would reach her. "You're not alone, Ayuka. From now on, I'm never going to leave your side."

Jurina didn't have to wait long to see the first tears rolling down her cheeks. The young girl still looked hesitant about what to say or do and Jurina pulled her into her arms gently, hearing her sobbing increasing as she rested her head against her shoulder tentatively. Jurina felt the body pressed against her trembling slightly, and she patted the back of her head to try and soothe her.

Yes, Ayuka was still young, and it was going to take her some time to adjust fully to her new position in the group. But Jurina was only a year younger than her when she became the ace of SKE48. There were definitely many moments of hardships the first years, but she thankfully didn't have to go through them alone. As she had Rena by her side all those years, it was now her turn to support her new WCenter.

 


 

 

It took a few seconds for Jurina to find the spare key inside her bag and once her fingers encountered it she entered the quiet apartment, closing the front door behind her carefully. Switching the light on, she took in the familiarity of the place. How many times had she stayed at Rena's apartment lately? It was hard to tell, but a sleepy smile moved to her lips as she let her gaze wander around the place in appreciation. She liked the older Matsui's apartment: welcoming and cozy, it was big enough for two people and the neighborhood was nothing but serene and nice. But most of all, she felt less lonely here in the absence of her girlfriend.

In fact, the idea of sleeping at Rena's place had crossed her mind during the second week of Rena's stay in Kyoto, and the latter had immediately agreed to her request. Stay as long as you want, Rena had even stated across the phone in reply. Despite the kind invitation, Jurina didn't feel comfortable enough occupying the older girl's apartment every day.

Jurina placed her shoes in the hallway, feeling her steps getting heavier as she made her way inside the apartment. Between her own solo activities, and helping her new young WCenter, she had had a long week. In fact, she had felt the lack of energy kicking for the first time today during the rehearsal with Ayuka. Did the young girl notice she was not in tip-top condition? If she did, she was too polite to say anything. The 12-year-old girl had listened carefully to her advice and followed each one of her instructions obediently all day.

Jurina felt her stomach grumbling, which was not a surprise after such a long day. In addition, she only had a quick, light lunch, not willing to take too long a pause in the middle of their rehearsal. Her feet led her to the kitchen, and she was all too aware she didn't have the strength to prepare an elaborate meal. She was so tired, she was already struggling to stand on her feet.

She opened the fridge in curiosity, surprised when she discovered there were no leftovers. It took a few seconds for realization to hit her. That's right. Yes, she had stayed at Rena's apartment the previous night too, but she didn't eat there as she went to a restaurant with Churi. At that point, Jurina knew she had to be utterly exhausted to have forgotten all about that. As she closed the door, she pondered over going to the conbini around the street corner to buy some food. She blinked to fight to stay awake, and quickly thought the better of it. Now, it was the second time a yawn escaped her lips since she entered Rena's apartment.

"Alright, let's see what's in there," Jurina murmured absent-mindedly as she opened the first cupboard without thinking. Pasta. Plenty of it. A smile grazed Jurina's lips in satisfaction as she believed to have found what she was going to eat tonight, and she extended her arm to take the first packet within reach. She quickly retracted her hand as she read the inscription: Spiciness level 5. A light groan escaped her lips in frustration. Wrong cupboard. It was the one stashed with Rena's favorite spicy pasta. She closed the door immediately.

Thankfully, she had better luck with the second cupboard. She double-checked the pasta label to be absolutely sure it was not spicy, but she knew it was highly unlikely. Rena was an organized person, and the possibility of her misplacing a packet of pasta was low. Sure enough, the label indicated it was safe for her sensitive palate. Jurina took a packet, while making a mental note to ask Rena why she believed it was a good idea to place the cupboard full of spicy food right next to the safe one. Under normal circumstances she would not have mixed up the cupboards but tonight her extreme fatigue was not her best ally. Nevertheless, there had to be a logic to Rena's way of thinking which her tired mind failed to understand.

 


 

 

It was only 8:45 p.m. when Jurina ventured into the living room in search of an occupation. Rena was not going to call until her dinner was over, so she still had roughly two hours to wait. Her attention was drawn to a familiar shelf on the left of the television, where she had a few of her own things placed. DVDs, games, magazines... She had an abundance of choices but somehow, nothing really appealed to her as she went through them.

She turned on her heels and glanced around, her eyes soon falling on Rena's collection of DVDs on the opposite side of the room. Albeit the fact she had once or twice taken a brief look at it when she happened to visit Rena, she had always cautiously avoided taking anything. After all, she was well aware her tastes didn't match those of the older Matsui. What prompted her to check it more thoroughly this time? Jurina didn't know where her unexpected rush of courage came from, yet she still went through the first shelf in curiosity.

Animated TV shows and movies, carefully aligned and ordered alphabetically. Jurina didn't count but considering how many there were and how large the shelf was, she figured there had to be at least fifty of them. Now, she knew why the older Matsui never got bored when she sometimes took a day off and decided to spend the entire day at her place. She had enough to watch for at least six months.

Jurina decided to check the second shelf, hoping she would have better luck with this one. She quickly realized she had it all wrong. Documentaries about trains. Recent trains, old ones. Japanese trains mostly, but also British, French and German. Rena was clearly a lover of tank engines: her impressive collection spoke for itself. When Jurina arrived at the end of the shelf, it was still about trains. Jurina never knew so many movies revolved around trains. How on earth did the older girl manage to find all this? Sometimes, Rena's consuming passion for trains scared her a little.

Jurina took a step back, knowing she was certainly not going to watch anything on this shelf. Her wish was to try and stay awake until Rena called, and the risk of falling asleep in front of a documentary was far too high. The young Matsui eyed the third and last shelf hesitantly, now starting to wonder if it wasn't best to choose instead something out of her personal collection. That notion in mind, she still decided to check the last shelf.

This time, there was more diversity. Concerts, movies, TV shows... Jurina could tell it was the shelf Rena used to place things that didn't belong to any of the first categories. Jurina knew she stood more chance of finding something here that suited her taste, and she soon stopped in front of a particular Blu-ray. The title definitely rang a bell, and she took it off the shelf to take a better look at it. The Sound of Music. She was positively sure she had heard about this movie before... but where? That's right! It was the present Churi had given the older Matsui for her 24th birthday. The Blu-ray was not in its blister anymore, evident sign the older girl had already watched it once. Maybe even a few times, considering Rena's undying love for old – and especially foreign – musicals.

Jurina frowned slightly when she discovered the back cover didn't say much about the content of the movie. All she could see, was a woman with short blond hair singing, surrounded by six children. And a few pictures obviously extracted from the movie completed the decoration of the bottom cover. Could she decide to watch a movie with so little information at her disposal? Now that she thought about it, didn't Churi also mention watching it? Yes, now she remembered it vividly. Apparently, it was so good, she even managed to lose track of time.

Jurina didn't have a lot of knowledge about foreign musicals, but if both girls managed to enjoy it, why couldn't she? Her mind made up, Jurina retraced her steps back to the television with the movie secured in hand and placed it in the Blu-ray player. As she made herself comfortable in Rena's black, leather sofa, she checked the time on her Smartphone. The movie lasted a little less than two hours, so she should be able to finish in time before Rena's call.

Her attention was drawn to the screen when she heard the same woman from the cover walking and singing out in the open in a European beautiful scenery: endless forests and mountains. Jurina acknowledged the qualities of the movie, from its photography to the main actress's flawless singing skills, but she quickly discovered she shouldn't have opted for the subtitled version. Indeed, she kept blinking to try and follow the text, her eyes closing a few times without her consent.

"I'm not going to fall asleep," Jurina muttered, trying to focus as best as she could on the screen despite her increasing fatigue. She seized the remote control to turn the volume up a little in the hope that it would keep her awake, but her attention got caught by a certain magazine laying on the coffee table. On the front cover was a picture of Rena standing beside her co-star from Destiny, Yosuke Masada.

The magazine was all too familiar to Jurina as she had bought it herself a week ago in the intent of reading it. Unfortunately, she had gotten far too busy since Ayuka was appointed WCenter, and the magazine had been left untouched. The movie was still playing in the background but the young Matsui decided not to pay attention to it for now, placing the remote-control back on the table to take the magazine.

She turned the first pages to reach the desired section, the face of the older Matsui soon coming into view. Why is Destiny so successful? was written in large, red bold letters on the top of the first page. There were a few pictures extracted from the drama, a quick summary of the latest episodes, and an analysis of the drama's success underneath., an interview of both actors completed the 6-page article.

Jurina skipped the summary part, not wishing to be spoiled. She had been so engrossed in her work lately, that she hadn't had time to follow Rena's drama. When she missed one episode she made herself the promise to watch it as soon as she would have a little free time, but the moment never arrived. Instead, she missed another, then a third. At that point, Jurina knew she would have a hard time catching up, especially when her schedule was not getting any lighter as the days went by. That's why she opted for leaving it aside and watch all the episodes in a row once the drama would be over.

Jurina already knew the older Matsui enjoyed working on this historical drama, and it definitely transpired during the interview. The actress only had good words to say about the plot and the director. Jurina knew she wasn't being merely polite but meant each one of them sincerely. Moreover, her good relationship with her male co-star was obvious during the cross-interview. They complimented the other easily, and Jurina could tell by the casual tone employed that they were comfortable with each other.

You look so happy, Jurina mused as she watched the pictures taken of both actors during the interview and accompanying the article. Rena had a genuine smile on her lips and was even laughing a little on the second. Her happiness was so infectious that a small, tired smile progressively moved to Jurina's lips. It broadened when she noticed a small detail she had completely missed until now.

On the first picture Rena was sitting on a chair next to her co-star, her right hand hanging in the air as she was obviously trying to explain something to the interviewer, while her left was resting casually on her thigh. The picture was not large, but Jurina certainly didn't miss this time the familiar silver ring on her left index.

Chapter Text

Towards the end of her career as an idol, Rena made a few drastic changes concerning her image. Refusing to pose in lingerie or swimsuits anymore was probably one of the best decisions she had ever made. Never once since she joined SKE48 had she felt comfortable doing such photoshoots but had nevertheless accepted obediently all those years. It was part of her job: the older Matsui kept repeating to herself. It was what was expected of her. Idols had little to say when it came to their career: their agency decided everything on their behalf. That’s why she couldn’t be more thankful when her bold request to stop posing for such embarrassing photos ended up being accepted. The photoshoot she did with Jurina for Bomb in late 2015 – and only agreed to do to please the younger girl – was the last time she had to remove her clothes for a photographer.

Rena was aware she would need to make further choices regarding her new career as an actress. What would she agree to do for a director? What would be her limits? Now that she wasn’t an idol anymore and not tied to a certain set of rules, she clearly had more room for maneuver when it came to professional decisions. Her agent was always present to advise her when she needed it but, in the end, she had the final word when it came to her career.

Rena never felt at ease showing too much skin, so it came naturally to her to refuse shooting any love scene on screen. It was written in black and white in her contract that the actress would never remove her clothes in front of a camera. But what about other intimate moments, such as kissing or holding a partner on screen tenderly?

If truth be told, the older Matsui did think about it thoroughly before making a decision. Never before had she done a kissing scene on screen, so it was an important matter not to take lightly. However, the prospect of shooting such a scene didn’t bother her as much as she would have believed. It was a scene from everyday life, but you didn’t see it often on Japanese television. When you rarely saw such a scene on screen it always remained chaste, and the intimate gestures were limited.

That’s why when she signed her contract for Destiny, she didn’t stipulate being against doing kissing scenes. When she joined the set of Destiny in Kyoto, the director always made a point of giving the scripts to his actors gradually, so they did not know much in advance about what was going to happen in the drama. Until now, the only intimate gesture she had been requested to do was a lingering kiss on the cheek. And it was only a short moment between her character Arisa and her childhood friend and lover, Nobunaga.

After that, there had been no other scenes between Nobunaga and Arisa, but the latter progressively grew closer to her host, Yoshiaki. So maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised when she received the script this morning of late August and read she would have to do a kissing scene with Yosuke. As predicted, it was going to be a chaste kiss on the lips and the male actor would be doing most of the job, from initiating the kiss to small, intimate gestures.

After spending so much time together and appreciating the presence of the other clearly more than what they would have at first anticipated, the relationship between both characters was moving to the next level. Arisa had progressively been swayed by Yoshiaki’s kindness and fallen for him, even though her heart still had not completely forgotten Nobunaga. Would this episode put an end to any hope of seeing the woman reunited with her past lover?

The director was keeping the secret ingeniously. However, Rena could sense viewers should expect a few twists and turns. From the start, the script had been anything but predictable: that’s partly why she had accepted to be the lead actress for this drama. Not only was she privileged to work on beautiful sets and with wonderful cast and crew, she simply couldn’t guess how the story was going to end. Somehow, this mystery the director was adroitly cultivating had a fascinating effect on her.

“Are you ready, Rena-san?” Rena looked up from the script in her hand at the sound of the masculine, hesitant voice. Her eyes fell on Yosuke clad in his usual black kimono and she gave him a smile, putting the sheet aside to move towards him.

They were currently standing in the middle of Yoshiaki’s study, a quiet place that suited well the erudite son of the shogun. However, they were far from being the sole occupants of the room: the crew and cameras were surrounding them, making last minute preparation to shoot the important scene of the day: the kissing scene. It was the first real moment of intimacy between both characters. There would be no trick to make the kiss look real: no clever angle from the camera or use of lights to deceive the viewer into believing it was a real kiss when in fact it was not. No, not this time. The script indicated clearly that they had to kiss for real.

It was supposed to be a nice moment between both characters: it was the first time they would express their feelings for each other overtly. However, much as Rena was feeling slightly nervous about the scene, she could tell by Yosuke’s lasting silence and the way he was now purposely avoiding her gaze that he was definitely feeling more apprehensive than her.

Just as her, Yosuke was an introvert. They got along well, and never before today she saw him acting so nervous in her presence. Somehow, seeing the other actor apprehending the scene even more than her managed to relax her slightly. Rena knew she wouldn’t have to do much during the scene: her role was merely to follow his lead. The pressure was resting on Yosuke’s shoulders, and it was obvious he was much aware of that fact.

“It’s your first kissing scene too?” the older Matsui asked gently as they were standing close to each other, waiting patiently for the crew to get ready. The tension was palpable between them, and she wished to try and alleviate it. It was decisive if they wanted the scene to be a success.

“Yes,” the actor confessed as he gazed back at her with a small, shy smile. “To be honest, I didn’t believe I would be feeling so nervous right now when I read the script earlier on. After all, it’s acting and I’ve doing this job for the past four years.”

“I understand.” Rena nodded, admitting her own nervousness had grown a notch when she arrived on set an hour ago. At first, when she received the script, she believed she would manage to go through such an intimate scene easily, but soon realized it wouldn’t be as simple as she thought when she found herself on set. Somehow, she wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier to shoot such an intimate scene with an actor only passing through, and not someone she had spent so much time with this last month and a half.

From her peripheral vision, Rena noticed Sayuri standing behind the crew and looking at them, and she smiled in amusement when the young actress raised her thumbs up as a sign of encouragement. A small giggle sounded next to her, and Rena could tell the 21-year-old girl’s gesture – along with her goofy expression – had not gone unnoticed by Yosuke, and even managed to relax him a little judging by his reaction.

Sayuri’s constant positive energy and cheerfulness on set often reminded her of Jurina, and she was grateful of it today once again. Both actors really needed the distraction right now.

The director warned them about the imminent beginning of the shooting, and Rena tore her eyes away from the younger actress to take position. The cameras started rolling and she fell into Arisa’s shoes instantly, reciting her lines. A small exchange between both characters followed, until the moment of the kiss arrived.

Yoshiaki was hesitant to kiss Arisa. It was not because he didn’t like her: it had now been established a few episodes ago that he harbored romantic feelings for his bride-to-be. The son of the shogun was finding himself torn because he was not entirely convinced Arisa still didn’t have feelings for her past lover. As a result, there was a possibility she would deny his affection, and push him away.

Nevertheless, he took his chances and leaned forward, noting the slight surprise flashing through Arisa’s small brown orbs at his action. His lips were approaching slowly, in order to give enough time to Arisa to fully proceed what was happening and let her manifest her disapproval if she desired. However, she never showed any sign of objection, her eyes even fluttering close progressively. It was all the encouragement he needed to wrap his arms around her waist gently and connect their lips in a chaste kiss.

 


 

 

“Do you think Rena-san is dating Masada-san?”

Jurina had entered the dressing room of TBS to get prepared for the recording of a television show, and she froze when she heard the question falling casually from the lips of team E member Rara Goto. She looked up in astonishment from the phone she had been playing with on her way here to stare in bewilderment at the 16-year-old girl sitting at a table with a few other members.

What?

Jurina didn’t know how long she stood there motionless, but the improbable declaration kept rolling over in her head again and again, trying to understand why on earth the young member would believe something was going on between Rena and her co-star from Destiny. Where would she get such a ridiculous idea?

Since the older Matsui had left the group, Rena’s name was rarely pronounced in her presence. Jurina knew most girls were doing it for her sake, not wishing to rub it in by reminding her of her absence. Everyone was aware SKE’s ace had had a hard time accepting Rena’s graduation, and was still adjusting to the consequences of her departure. Jurina was grateful for their sensitivity, especially the first days that followed Rena’s leaving. Much as she was now getting used to her absence it had indeed been hard at first, her eyes searching from habit the older girl in each room she entered.

Those moments were now gone, but members still were careful around her, guessing Rena was still a touchy subject. If truth be told, Jurina was now mostly fine hearing the older Matsui mentioned in conversations, but she certainly didn’t expect her name being associated with the other actor in such a way. It made no sense whatsoever to her.

“Ah, you’re talking about the kiss?” Ryoha, who was sitting next to Rara, jumped in the conversation, and Jurina now noticed a magazine placed in front of Rara that they were both looking at in interest.

Jurina frowned. What were they talking about? What kiss? The girls still hadn’t noticed her presence yet and she moved forward, more than eager to understand what they were referring to. Her phone almost slipped between her fingers when she took a look over their shoulders and saw in shock a picture of Yosuke kissing Rena. Well, to be more accurate, of Yoshiaki kissing Arisa. The clothes they were wearing were a clear indication it was a picture extracted from a scene of Rena’s drama.

Jurina had been speaking with Rena every day on LINE, and the latter never told her she shot a kissing scene with the male actor. Why did she keep such an information from her? Jurina couldn’t ignore the unease filling her chest progressively. Her eyes were glued on the picture, seeing clearly the lips of both actors touching. It looked like a chaste kiss, but how far did it really go? As she had not caught up with Rena’s drama recently, there was no way to tell.

“Yes, the kiss,” Rara continued, Jurina diverting her attention from the page to look back at her. “But not only that. Have you seen the latest pictures in Bunshun? It seemed they were on a date.”

This time, Jurina couldn’t stay quiet any longer. The kiss between Arisa and Yoshiaki was unpleasant to see – and the thought that Rena had not seen fit to warn her beforehand disturbing – but the mention of the magazine famous for revealing scandals didn’t appease her in the least. What else happened recently that she ignored? “What pictures?”

The two girls that had been engrossed in their conversation jumped at the sound of her voice, and turned in surprise to face SKE’s ace, noticing her presence. Jurina could tell all the members present at the table were now looking at her in curiosity, evidently wondering why she had interjected in such an uncharacteristic way.

Jurina ignored the unwanted attention, her eyes set firmly on Rara who wasn’t uttering a single word anymore. Willing to get an answer as soon as possible Jurina repeated her question, this time on a softer tone. “What pictures, Rara?”

The young Team E member looked hesitant but ended up complying to SKE’s ace request by showing her an article on her phone. Jurina took a peek at it – a bit apprehensive – and saw a stolen picture of Rena and Yosuke as they were leaving a restaurant. It was dark, but Jurina had no difficulty recognizing both actors of Destiny. They are doing nothing wrong, Jurina mused in confusion, wondering why the magazine would jump to such conclusions.

Indeed, the article was starting with a bold title written in large letters: “The stars of Destiny on a date!” But Jurina knew it was completely ridiculous, even more when she discovered the pictures had been taken last Friday night. Rena always went out to a restaurant with her two co-stars at the end of the week. Jurina knew it all too well as the older Matsui had warned her about it, and as a consequence connected on LINE later than usual on that particular day.

For a moment, Jurina found herself a bit confused by Sayuri’s absence on the pictures. Indeed, the young actress was not on any picture taken by the paparazzi. However, she refused to delve on it too much, figuring there had to be a good reason she was not aware of for her absence that particular evening.

Jurina didn’t say anything, but relief spread through her chest when she took a seat at the table. Why did she let Rara’s words get to her head in the first place? It should have been obvious from the start it was a big misunderstanding. However, she soon realized the other members didn’t interpret those pictures the same way she did and were believing the magazine’s ridiculous conclusions. Indeed, Ryoha spoke up in a shy, hesitant voice a few seconds later.

“What if… they knew each other before the shooting of Destiny? They always seemed close to me during interviews and press conferences.”

The question was directed at Rara, but Jurina didn’t miss Ryoha’s eyes falling on her briefly. The table had fallen abruptly silent, and the SKE’s ace could tell everyone was truly thinking about her words. Jurina was completely stunned by her supposition, understanding perfectly well what she was trying to imply. As incredible as it may seem, Ryoha was clearly suggesting Rena could have decided to graduate because she was secretly dating Yosuke Masada. And, to her surprise, no one at the table was taking Rena’s defense.

It’s not true! Jurina wanted to retort to the scandalous assumption. How can you possibly believe Rena would leave the group for such reasons? She can’t be dating that actor because… she’s already with someone else!

The words were threatening to leave her lips, but Jurina was conscious she couldn’t say any of that: even less the last part. Somehow, she feared members would not find her objective if she defended Rena so fervently. Albeit the fact no one at the table knew they were in a romantic relationship, no one ignored she had always cared a lot about the older Matsui. And it was out of the question to divulge the fact that Rena and her were a couple. Until now, only a few people knew the truth: Churi, Airi, Mayu, Yuki and Mariko. Jurina trusted them completely and knew they would keep the information to themselves. But telling other members was taking the risk of seeing the news getting out.

Jurina was terribly torn. On one hand, she refused to let the other members believe the lies this magazine was spreading but on another, she was afraid her words would only partly manage to convince them. Much as Bunshun often gave false information, the magazine had also more than once revealed real scandals. No matter what she would say, members would still have an ounce of doubt because of that précised reason. What could she do? She was back to the wall.

“I’m sure it’s not true,” Ayuka’s small murmur broke the heavy silence that had enveloped the room. “Rena-san loved SKE with all her heart, but she always wanted to be an actress. I really believe that’s the only reason why she left the group: to pursue her dreams.”

Jurina found herself speechless, not one moment believing the 12-year-old member would be the one to defend Rena. A smile moved to her lips, and her eyes met those of her WCenter’s when Ayuka tilted her head in her direction. Jurina could sense the young girl was feeling embarrassed to have spoken up in such a way in front of everyone, but she truly couldn’t be more thankful than she did.

Jurina could tell Ayuka’s words had had an impact on the members surrounding her, as she saw a few girls nodding in agreement. After that, no one broached the subject again. A staff member entered the room shortly after to warn everyone it was time to get prepared for the television show, and the girls started to get changed.

Jurina stayed mostly quiet the whole time, her mind somehow refusing to forget the conversation that had occurred and the discoveries she made. Why on earth did Bunshun decide to meddle in Rena’s private life? Until now, the older Matsui had been spared and never appeared on the pages of the infamous magazine. Jurina couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that the magazine wouldn’t let it go like that.

The false scandal left aside, something else was truly bothering her. She still couldn’t fathom why Rena had not said a word about the kissing scene she shot with the male actor. Would she be doing more of those in the future? They talked about their work on a daily basis: surely Rena couldn’t believe it was a small detail not worth mentioning to her?

Chapter Text

It didn’t matter how professional SKE members always aimed to be, mistakes during performances were always possible. A new song they were performing for the first time on stage. A familiar song, performed by a completely different selection of members. A song they hadn’t performed for a while, and barely had time to rehearse the choreography. Nervousness. Fatigue. There were so many reasons that could lead to an unfortunate incident. And today, only a few weeks after the new surprising WCenter had been officially announced to the public, an incident was going to prove again that no one was perfect.

During those circumstances, the key rule was to not give in to panic and keep on as if nothing happened with a smile on your face. Mistakes were more likely to be forgiven if you stayed professional and had a positive attitude until the last moment, than if terror could be read all over your face and you stopped dancing right in the middle of the song. Jurina – as every other member of SKE48 – was well aware of that rule and stayed unshakeable when she noticed from her peripheral vision Ayuka’s unexpected mistake.

They were currently performing their latest single on a television show in Tokyo and the young girl didn’t move fast enough at one point of the song, bumping into Nao slightly as she moved backwards to change lines. Jurina didn’t blink and kept on smiling brightly during the cheerful song but hoped deep inside her new WCenter wouldn’t get destabilized. To her relief, the performance went smoothly after that small incident.

What caused Ayuka’s clumsiness? It couldn’t be due to lack of preparation: they had worked together on the choreography of their new song over and over again during these past weeks, and Jurina made sure Ayuka would be fully operational by the time of the first performance. Jurina was proud to see how much Ayuka had progressed in dance these last months, and she didn’t detect a single flaw to correct when they rehearsed the choreography one last time today.

A few minutes later the song ended, and Jurina was asked by the host to answer a few questions about their newest single. The interview didn’t last long, and the girls soon moved backstage to join the dressing room and call it a day. As soon as they entered the room to change Jurina noticed an embarrassed Ayuka approaching Nao and apologizing to her profusely. Nao brushed it off immediately as a small mistake not to worry about, but Ayuka could barely look into her eyes the whole time despite the comforting words.

Jurina knew that was not a good sign. Thankfully, Ayuka had managed to stay in control of her emotions during the performance and had continued it flawlessly, but it was now obvious by her behavior with Nao that her mistake had affected her a great deal. While she removed her costume and changed back into her everyday clothes, Jurina observed her WCenter in concern. A part of her wanted to go and see her immediately to reassure her, but another guessed Ayuka would be less receptive to her soothing words while they were surrounded by so many people. Indeed, the last time the new senbatsu was announced, Ayuka waited until they were both alone to crack and let her tears fall freely.

That’s why Jurina decided to delay their conversation to later, knowing it was wiser to wait until they would have reached their hotel and the opportunity to find themselves alone would present itself. They still had a performance to do tomorrow in Tokyo for the recent release of their new single, and Jurina knew Ayuka would never be relaxed – and maybe even make another mistake again – if the poor girl remained transfixed by today’s incident.

 


 

 

Since Rena left SKE48 in June, Jurina always shared a room with Churi when they needed to stay at a hotel. All the members had now arrived at the hotel they were staying at for the night, and Jurina – deeply lost in thoughts – absent-mindedly watched Churi who was turning the key inside the lock of the door in front of her. Jurina had remained quiet on their way to the hotel, trying to figure out the best way to approach her WCenter about what happened today.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see a despondent Ayuka drawing away in the corridor, and she made up her mind when Churi pushed the door of the room to enter. Without further ado, she took a step forward, and leaned in to whisper in her ear. “I’m going to stay with Ayuka tonight.”

Churi paused at the announcement and tilted her head towards her in confusion, until noticing the way Jurina was giving a few worried, pointed looks in Ayuka’s direction. Churi gazed at the young girl who had almost arrived at the end of the corridor, now understanding the reason for the change of plans. Jurina wanted to spend some time alone with her WCenter.

“No problem,” Churi replied, giving her a soft nod. “Go and talk to her.”

Jurina gave her a thankful smile and turned on her heels, stepping up the pace to catch up Ayuka who was about to disappear around the corner. “Ayuka,” she called out to her once she was within reach, “can I stay with you tonight?”

The young girl stopped abruptly and turned around at once. She looked back and forth between SKE’s center and Akane in astonishment. “You… you want to share the room with me?” she repeated, as if trying to gauge if she had heard correctly.

“Yes,” Jurina confirmed. She was trying to sound as nonchalant as possible but couldn’t help giving the 12-year-old girl an expectant look. “Do you agree, or does it bother you?”

Ayuka was so taken aback by the unforeseen change of plans, that no words managed to leave her lips. She stared at SKE’s ace in utter perplexity. It wasn’t that she didn’t wish to share a room with her, but she completely failed to comprehend what was motivating her strange request. She waited, expecting the older girl to give her further explanations for her decision, but got absolutely none. “It doesn’t bother me,” Ayuka answered in all honesty, shaking her head slightly.

“Great! What’s the number of your room?” Jurina exclaimed, trying to take a peek at the key secured inside Ayuka’s right hand. The latter showed the tag, Jurina immediately nodding in recognition as she raised her gaze to check the number of the rooms around her. “44. We’re not far.”

Ayuka followed her silently as she led the way, not before casting a last curious look at Akane, and noticing the warm smile directed at her. She responded to it, albeit a little awkwardly. Apparently, she was the only one to find Jurina’s unanticipated eagerness to share a room with her completely odd.

Ayuka and Jurina entered room 44 a few seconds later and the latter kept quiet, deciding to let the younger girl settle in for now. After choosing each one a bed they both emptied their suitcase in silence, Jurina taking a discreet peek at her young WCenter now and then to check if she was alright. Ayuka’s troubled expression didn’t go unnoticed, and her wish to ease her worries became stronger as the minutes went by.

Jurina took a seat on the side of her bed once she was done, following the younger girl who was entering the bathroom with a toilet bag. Her WCenter gave off so much energy on stage with her dynamic dancing and cheerfulness, that it was almost painful to see how much this small incident had transformed her mood negatively. Jurina couldn’t wait any longer. She needed to tell her that her mistake was not as serious as she visibly believed.

“Ayuka,” Jurina spoke up when the young girl exited the bathroom, patting the mattress softly next to her. “Can you please sit next to me? I have something to tell you.”

Ayuka gave her a startled look at first but obliged, before looking at her in expectation. “About what happened today on the television show, you–”

“I’m sorry!” Ayuka blurted out. “You were kind enough to rehearse the choreography with me so many times, but I still managed to make a mistake.”

Jurina stared at her in surprise, definitely not expecting the younger girl’s outburst. She noted her embarrassed expression, until her WCenter looked away in shame. “It was nothing,” Jurina murmured, leaning forward slightly to try and take a better look at her. “You don’t have to worry about it.”

The reassuring words didn’t have the expected impact, Jurina even noticing tears forming in Ayuka’s eyes. She fell a small pang in her chest at her reaction and patted her back softly to try and soothe her. Jurina guessed the long hours of rehearsals were not easy for the 12-year-old girl, even if she never complained. Ayuka always listened attentively to everything she said and didn’t lose her nerves. This mistake was the first she had made in front of an audience since she was appointed WCenter. Visibly, it was causing her a great deal of shame, and also probably deep frustration after all the work she had accomplished.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Jurina stated. It is true to say she was a perfectionist and hated making mistakes – as small as they may be – but she couldn’t deny the fact she was not infallible herself either. “You were probably tired. It happens to everyone.”

“You never make mistakes,” Ayuka whimpered, her eyes still refusing to meet her gaze. She was doing her best to choke back her tears, to no avail as they slid down her cheeks without her consent. “Maybe I’m not fit to be your WCenter…”

“You are perfectly competent to be WCenter.” Jurina wiped off her tears gently one after another. “And it’s not true, I made mistakes in the past. No one is perfect, no matter how hard we try.”

Jurina saw the young girl calming down slightly but could tell she failed to convince her completely when Ayuka shook her head in disapproval. It appeared the matter would take a little more time to be solved.

Jurina waited patiently for her to continue, sensing she had more to say. Indeed, Ayuka kept opening her mouth a few times, but never seemed to find the courage to go through with it. Jurina took her hand and squeezed it lightly. “You are a great dancer, and you thrive to do your best. I witness your determination every day during rehearsal. Today, you kept on with the performance and didn’t give in to panic. You finished the song perfectly. It’s all that matters.”

“This kind of incident never happened with Akane-san or Rena-san,” Ayuka disagreed. “How can I be sure this won’t happen again?”

“You can’t,” Jurina conceded, reading immediately the despair in Ayuka’s eyes as she turned to look at her. “But you can stack all the odds in your favor by not giving up and keeping on working hard. Besides, you’re wrong. Rena made many mistakes, especially the first years she joined the group.”

“She did?” Ayuka exclaimed in bewilderment.

“Many,” Jurina affirmed, a small amused smile forming on her lips at her WCenter’s genuine reaction. “She was always nervous when she had to go on stage and would sometimes miss some steps.”

“I made mistakes too when I joined the group,” Jurina admitted. “Rena and I both made mistakes. But you know what helped? We talked about it together and made sure it wouldn’t happen again when we rehearsed the choreography the next time.”

“I never noticed,” Ayuka said, as she let the revelation sink in. “You always looked so natural on stage together.”

“I guess we were good at concealing our true emotions,” Jurina laughed softly. “But trust me, we were nervous when we performed a new song for the first time. I still am.”

“Jurina-san…” Ayuka murmured, moved by the vulnerability SKE’s ace was unexpectedly showing in her last words. It contrasted so much with her bright and confident personality on stage.

“That’s why I want you to forget what happened,” Jurina stated seriously. “You were recently appointed WCenter. This situation is new for you, and scary. Over time, you’ll grow to be more confident and learn to rely on your skills and control your nerves better. And never forget you’re not alone in this. I’m by your side to support you.”

“I know.” Ayuka nodded. “But sometimes, I’m afraid I’m too much of a burden for you. You spend so much time helping me and–”

“That’s not something you need to worry about.” Jurina cut her off her gently. “It’s my role to guide you, and I will keep doing it. Alright?”

Ayuka’s eyes widened when she saw SKE’s ace raising her little finger in the air, and grinning at her widely. “Now, promise me you’ll stop thinking about what happened. And I want you to come to me if something worries you.”

Ayuka smiled and nodded but could tell it was not enough by Jurina’s small pout. It was not hard to guess what she was expecting from her when she bent her pinky slightly and moved it towards her. Ayuka joined their pinkies at once, giggling a little when a satisfied expression plastered the older girl’s face. “I promise, Jurina-san.”

 


 

 

“I wonder what I’m going to eat tonight,” Churi contemplated when she and Jurina took a seat in a restaurant, and she checked the menu in front of her in curiosity.

Summer was now over, giving way to the first days of September. After promoting their new single in Nagoya and Tokyo on every show possible, the girls were granted a short respite. It had been a while since they had been able to spend a carefree evening the two of them. The restaurant Churi had chosen for tonight only recently opened in Nagoya, and she was tempted to test it after reading so many good reviews about it. The main room was crowded this Saturday evening, but the waiter was kind enough to place them in an isolated, private room upstairs.

Summer was indeed over, but it didn’t mean the temperature had dropped. In fact, they even had a sweltering weather these last days in Nagoya. That’s why, after checking the menu carefully, Churi decided it was best to opt for cold noodles. Her choice made, she placed the menu back on the table and looked up to her silent friend who was still focused on the menu in front of her.

Churi waited patiently for her to choose, taking advantage of this moment to observe the other member of the group worriedly. The bags under her eyes were the first thing she noticed, a result of SKE’s ace tight schedule. Since Rena’s graduation, Jurina clearly had been more busy than usual with SKE’s activities. However, her workload had increased when Ayuka was appointed WCenter.

These last weeks, Jurina spent a lot of time with the younger girl in rehearsal. Churi knew Jurina was doing her best to guide her new WCenter and help her adjust to her new position in the group. It was a heavy burden for a 12-year-old girl, and Jurina more than anyone could imagine what she going through. Jurina’s wish to help her as much as possible was manifest. Churi wouldn’t dare to criticize Jurina’s kindness towards Ayuka. As long as she remembered, Jurina had always enjoyed helping other members. Churi couldn’t count the number of times she saw her help other girls with their moves in the dancing room. Her kindness was an intrinsic part of her personality: nothing would ever change that.

However, Churi was starting to fear she was putting too much pressure on herself lately. The plus side when you had a WCenter, was that you were not the sole figurehead of the group. As a result, the weight wasn’t solely on your shoulders but shared between your WCenter and you. For years, Rena was by her side. It didn’t always prevent Jurina from putting too much pressure on herself, and a few memorable incidents reminded everyone of Jurina’s constant will to surpass herself, even at the cost of her health.

However, there was no denying the burden would have been too heavy to bear if Rena had not been by her side. Jurina even admitted during a few interviews that she wouldn’t have stayed in the group long if the older Matsui had not been here. The role of a WCenter was crucial, and Churi had tried to fill in Rena’s shoes as best as she could when she replaced her for two short weeks. Not only was Jurina happy to have a dear friend by her side, Churi could tell she felt less pressured when she was her WCenter.

This pattern of mutual aid got broken when Ayuka was appointed new WCenter. Jurina wanted to protect her at all costs. She didn’t want the young girl to relive the difficulties she herself had been through the first year she joined SKE. As a result, she was carrying the pressure for both of them. Churi had witnessed how it was progressively affecting her physically and mentally. Until now, nothing alarming happened, but she feared if she continued on this dangerous path, Jurina would reach a point of no return.

SKE couldn’t afford to lose their ace during this difficult period of transition. Rena had left only a few months ago: the situation of the group was still fragile. But most of all, Churi didn’t wish to see her friend neglecting her health in favor of her work again. She had already seen it happening too many times in the past for her liking and promised herself to never let the Nagoya Dome’s incident of 2014 happen ever again. If Rena had not been present that day, there was no doubt Jurina would have seriously injured herself.

The memory of the girl laying in hospital was still vivid and painful, and Churi knew it was time for her to push the thought away when it started affecting her mood. Her initial plan was to spend a nice evening with Jurina, not delving over the past and bad memories. “Having a hard time choosing?” Churi teased at the view of Jurina who still hadn’t made up her mind.

Jurina looked up from the menu, a smile moving to her lips when she noticed her friend’s amused expression. “I am hungry,” Jurina affirmed. “But there are so many choices. What did you choose?”

Hiyashi shu–,” Churi started, only to be interrupted by the sound of Jurina’s phone ringing.

Jurina frowned and gave a curious look at the device placed on the table in front of her, her features darkening in unease at the name flashing on the screen. Rena. Usually, it was a name that would place a smile on her lips instantly and she wouldn’t wait a second to answer, more than impatient to hear her girlfriend’s voice.

Not tonight. Her eyes were glued on the name that kept flashing on the screen, but her fingers stayed deliberately away from the device. She didn’t wish to speak with the older girl. In fact, she had not truly spoken to her in two whole weeks, always pretending a busy schedule or tiredness to shorten their conversations on LINE. This time, it appeared the older girl had decided to call her, something that was not planned. However, Jurina knew she had no choice but to pick up.

“Hi,” Jurina spoke up as she answered. From her peripheral vision, she noticed Churi gazing at her in interest, but she ignored the attention to focus on her undesired call. “I’m sorry, but I’m at a restaurant with Churi… Can we chat on LINE tomorrow?”

Tomorrow? Not after your dinner? Was Rena’s surprised answer, to which Jurina replied quickly. “Yes, tomorrow. I’m tired... I think I’ll go to bed as soon as I head home.”

There was a pause on the other side, and Jurina wondered if she made herself convincing enough. However, she didn’t have to wait long to hear Rena’s voice again. Alright… Tell Akane I said hi. Take care, we’ll talk tomorrow.

Jurina wasn’t surprised when her interlocutor agreed easily. Each time, she used roughly the same excuse to shorten their conversation and each time, Rena fell for it. It was not a lie: she was tired. But her true motive for cutting short their talk was different, a reason her interlocutor was still failing to grasp after all this time. At that point, Jurina didn’t know if she was madder at herself for not having the courage to admit to Rena what had been troubling her for two weeks, or at the older girl for not seeing that something was wrong with her.

They exchanged a few more platitudes before hanging up, and Jurina momentarily wondered if she wasn’t being too childish about this whole situation. It had been going on for two weeks now, and she certainly didn’t feel any better than the first day she saw that picture of the kiss. As she stared at the name still present on the screen her fingers were itching to call Rena back, and have that important conversation.

No! Jurina placed the phone back on the table decidedly, refusing to give in to the temptation. Rena should be the one to broach the subject first, not her. She was the one who had hidden something from her. Again. Why on earth did she keep doing that? Didn’t she believe she had the right to know?

“Is everything alright?” Churi’s questioning tone jolted her out of her thoughts, and she noticed her concern when she gazed back at her.

“Yes, why?” Jurina lied. However, she could tell her friend was not buying it by her immediate disapproving look. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“So, there is something,” Churi continued, ignoring completely her last request. “Did you two… fight?”

“No, not all.” Jurina threw her a puzzled look. “Why would you believe that?”

“Your voice,” Churi explained. “When you talk with Rena, you always have that special, loving tone you only use with her. Right now, you were a bit cold on the phone. And you look displeased.”

Jurina didn’t know what to reply. No, Rena and her didn’t fight, but Churi hit the bull’s eye by guessing that something was wrong between them. Usually, she shared with her friend pretty much everything that was on her mind, but this was a matter she had not broached with her at all. Why? It is true to say they had had less opportunities to spend time together these past two weeks, but their busy schedule was not the reason for Jurina’s omission. She had deliberately chosen not to talk about it.

From her peripheral vision Jurina noticed the waiter approaching and addressing them to take their order. They complied and the boy was gone a few seconds later, leaving them both alone again. Silence surrounded them progressively, and Jurina could tell by the expectant look Churi was giving her that she was refusing to let go. “Whatever it is, you know you can ta–”

“I know,” Jurina murmured, guessing easily what she was going to say. Her friend was only trying to help, and another day she would have been grateful for that. However, tonight was the first quiet evening they managed to have since the release of their new single. “I want to get my mind off things for a few hours.”

“Alright, I won’t insist,” Churi relented, somehow guessing she would get nothing more from SKE’s stubborn ace. She had absolutely no idea what the issue between both Matsui could possibly be, and the idea that Jurina could be on bad terms with Rena concerned her. Jurina was dealing with a lot of pressure lately, and she needed all the help she could get. It was already not an easy situation for Jurina to be separated physically from the girl she loved so much.

Churi didn’t want to imagine the consequences on Jurina’s mental balance if something serious happened between them.

 

Chapter Text

When Jurina woke up this morning, she was pleased to note she was feeling rested. Her schedule had been so tight this last month – with all the work surrounding her young WCenter and the release of their new single combined – that she couldn’t remember the last time she had a real, good night sleep. Yesterday evening, it was barely 9 p.m. when she went to bed, a time definitely unusual for SKE’s ace to go to sleep. She was so exhausted after her dinner with Churi, she fell asleep as soon as she reached the bedroom.

A quick glance at the alarm clock indicated her it was almost 9 a.m., and Jurina was thankful not having anything to do on this Sunday morning. It meant she could stay in bed a little longer if she wished, a luxury so rare she was not going to let this opportunity pass. Jurina blinked a few times to take in her surroundings, observing Rena’s bedroom thanks to the morning light penetrating the room.

Yesterday, she didn’t even hesitate when she was faced with the choice of going to her home, or to Rena’s apartment. It had been more than a month since she last saw Rena in Kyoto, and her cozy apartment had an undeniable appeasing effect on her. Rena may not be physically here with her, she could almost feel her presence in the air she breathed, and at each step she took.

Yes, she was still troubled by the fact the older girl had not said a word about her kissing scene – and her frustration at the idea she had kept something from her had not decreased in the slightest since she discovered the picture in the magazine – yet a part of her couldn’t ignore the fact she missed her nevertheless. Jurina was all too aware of her conflicted feelings. How could she be upset at her, yet still love her so unconditionally? It wasn’t the first time she found herself facing such a contradiction: one that only seemed to arise when it came to the person named Rena Matsui.

Jurina let out a small sigh, noticing she was still wearing her everyday clothes. Last night events came to the forefront of her mind. That’s right. Not only she ended up eating much less than originally planned after her short talk with Rena on the phone – a mistake her grumbling stomach was now reminding her – she didn’t even bother to change into her pajamas. Jurina searched her memory to recall when such an occurrence happened before but failed to identify a moment in particular. Jurina figured it had probably been many years.

Jurina pondered over going back to sleep for a little while, but soon discovered she really wasn’t feeling sleepy anymore. The view of the bedcover resting over her body brought a frown to her face, not remembering placing it here in the first place. In fact, she was pretty sure she fell asleep like that as soon as her head hit the comfy mattress of Rena’s bed. Could she have covered herself with it at some point during the night?

As she was about to brush it off, her perplexity increased when she noticed that Rena’s side of the bed was untucked. Well, that was even more odd. Not only didn’t she get under the sheets last night, she always left untouched the left side of the bed when she slept alone at Rena’s place. Her bewilderment reached a new level when she caught a smell coming from the kitchen. Now, there was no doubt possible anymore. She was not alone in the apartment. Could she have invited Churi over after their dinner?

Even if she had voiced her desire to take her mind off things for a few hours she couldn’t help reliving her short conversation with Rena on the phone most of the time and feeling a bit guilty about the way she had handled things. In the end, her bowl of noodles stayed mostly untouched, and it took her a lot of self-restrain not to come back on her decision and instead spill the beans to Churi about what concerned her.

That’s why it wouldn’t have been implausible for her to ask to spend the night with Churi, in order not to be alone when she was not in her right mind. However, Jurina realized quickly it was unlikely. Yes, she could have spent the night at Churi’s apartment, but she was at Rena’s apartment right now. And she never invited anyone over at Rena’s place. Could she have made an exception this time?

Jurina straightened up and glanced towards the left side of the mattress, observing that – not only the bedsheet was definitely untucked – Rena’s pillow also showed signs of having been recently used. She was not alone right now, and someone had definitely slept here last night. Jurina pushed the bedcover aside and took a seat on the side of the bed, trying in vain to find the missing piece of the puzzle. Yes, she was exhausted last night, but she certainly didn’t drink a single drop of alcohol. She never did! Her failing memory made no sense whatsoever to her.

Jurina stood up from the bed and moved towards the door, well decided to get an answer to her questions. The smell reaching her nostrils grew stronger when she opened the door and took a step outside. Someone was cooking rice. The sound of cracking eggs gave it away that an omelet was probably also on the menu. Now her curiosity had reached its peak, and her feet unconsciously sped up on the floor a little.

Music playing softly on the CD player reached her as she entered the living room, and it didn’t take her long to recognize the familiar tune: Osaka Lover, a song from DREAMS COME TRUE. Rena’s all times favorite band.

Nando koko e kitetatte  No matter how many times I come here,

Mata kuru nowa anata ga oru kara ya mon  I'll keep coming because you're here.

Tanoshisou ni shitetatte  No matter how much fun it is,

Sore wa anata ga koko ni oru kara ya mon  It's because you're here, you know.

Dondake kenka shitatte anata dake  No matter how much we fight, you're the only thing

Honma ni taisetsu ya mon  That's really important to me.

Jurina’s feet paused when she arrived at the doorstep of the kitchen, and her mouth dropped open at the view of the other girl busy making breakfast. She had her back turned to her and as such not noticed her presence yet, but it didn’t prevent Jurina from recognizing her silhouette immediately.

Rena Matsui, her 25-year-old girlfriend, was tossing food in a pan while humming with enthusiasm the energetic song that was playing on the CD player.

“R–Rena?!” Jurina blurted out in incredulity, not believing the sight in front of her. What was the older girl doing in Nagoya? She never mentioned her return to her over the phone!

A pair of small brown orbs looked back at her at once, and a warm smile spread across the face of the former SKE member. Rena retracted her fingers from the pan and reduced the distance between them, Jurina not opposing any resistance when she captured her lips in a kiss. The moment was short and chaste, but it didn’t prevent the young girl from relishing the contact of Rena’s soft and familiar lips against hers.

“Hi,” Rena whispered when she pulled away. “You arrived right on time. Take a seat.”

Jurina heard the invitation well but her feet stayed stuck on the ground, her eyes glued on the older girl as she went back to take care of the food. Somehow, she was still having a hard time processing what was happening. Rena was standing in the flesh right in front of her. How was that possible?

She got the answer to her previous questions, but Rena’s presence was raising a few other ones. She swept over her form, taking in the red short-sleeved anime tee-shirt and white pair of pants that composed her pajamas. Her appearance was another proof that the older girl had slept here last night, and Jurina found herself astonished by the discovery. She must really have slept like a log not to notice anything.

“I–I don’t understand,” Jurina admitted her bemusement when she found her voice back. “You never told me you would be back so soon.”

“I didn’t tell you because I wanted to make it a surprise,” Rena explained, pleased with herself at the reaction her presence provoked. “I was planning on arriving unnoticed this afternoon, but I managed to catch an early train. However, you were already sleeping soundly when I came in the bedroom.”

“Yes, I was exhausted,” Jurina conceded. “I have been busy lately… I think my body couldn’t refuse the respite any longer.”

“I can see that.” Rena grinned, scanning her from head to toe. “I don’t even remember the last time I saw you going to sleep still fully clothed.”

“Er…” Jurina cringed. No, she wasn’t feeling proud right now at the sight she was offering. As if she wasn’t feeling embarrassed enough, her stomach betrayed her hunger with an unexpected growl. It had been twice now since she woke up this morning.

Rena stifled a laugh. “I agree. You definitely need to listen to your body. Sit.”

This time Jurina obliged and took a seat at the table, her chopsticks getting in action as soon as food was placed inside her bowl. Yes, she was definitely starving, Jurina realized as she tasted the cooking of her girlfriend. It was a simple meal, but she knew she was going to enjoy every second of it. After all, she had a demanding stomach to satisfy. From her peripheral vision, she soon noticed the older girl who had taken a seat opposite her was not touching her food, and she raised her gaze in curiosity. “What is it?”

“I’m pleased to witness your appetite,” Rena replied in all honesty, before continuing on a lighter tone. “And I’m glad my modest cooking still appeals to you after two months.”

“Silly,” Jurina protested, smiling a little at the older girl’s playful expression. “If you don’t eat, I’m going to steal that melon pan of yours.” She threatened, sending a pointed look to the bread resting next to Rena’s untouched bowl.

“You wouldn’t dare,” Rena scoffed, a protective hand covering the precious food. “In eight years, no one has ever been able to take a melon pan away from me. Not even you and your sneaky hands.”

Jurina shook her head lightly at Rena’s childish behavior and resumed eating, her attention moving occasionally back to the older girl. A comfortable silence enveloped them while they ate, only the soft music of DREAMS COME TRUE accompanying them in the background. Now and then they would exchange a smile, and Jurina realized progressively how much she had missed those simple moments of daily life.

All negative thoughts fell at the back of her head in an instant, Jurina enjoying instead the unexpected presence of the girl she adored so much.

 


 

 

When she came back to her apartment the previous night, Rena had only removed a few essential elements out from her suitcase, not willing to take the risk of waking up the girl who was already sleeping in the bedroom. Now, they both had finished their breakfast, and she took advantage of the fact Jurina was busy taking a shower to empty it.

She started to place a few clothes back in the drawers, soon letting her gaze wander around the room in appreciation. After all these years, she was pretty much used to spending the night in hotel rooms, but there was nothing like being home. Her eyes caught sight of an unfamiliar rectangular box on her desk, an object she had completely missed the day before due to the darkness.

She continued emptying her suitcase but stopped halfway through, curiosity getting the best of her. She moved towards her desk, her fingers carefully unwrapping the red paper around the box that concealed its content. A familiar white wave appeared on the top, and her surprise gave way to a certain anticipation as she got a good intuition of what it could be. Her eyes lit up when she opened it and saw a brand-new pair of red and blue sneakers inside the black box. A light squeal escaped her lips in delight and she took the shoes out without further ado, admiring them from every angle.

She truly couldn’t wait to put them on, and she made a mental note to properly thank Jurina once she would be out of the bathroom.

Shoes in hand she went to open a cupboard on her left, and she kneeled to place her newest pair of shoes amongst all the other pairs of sneakers carefully aligned. Rena admired her large selection of sneakers, her eyes falling on each pair that composed her cupboard. Some were shoes she had bought herself, others were given to her by famous brands. There was no way telling how many pairs she had – considering how impressive her collection was – but she was capable of situating each pair at a certain moment of her life. For nothing in the world, she would get rid of them, even if some were definitely worn out by now, or others didn’t fit her size anymore.

Rena noted she had little space left in her cupboard and figured she would need to overcome this unfortunate problem. Her passion for sneakers was certainly not about to diminish anytime soon.

“Sometimes, I don’t know what’s the most impressive.” Jurina’s pensive voice sounded behind her back. “Your sneakers collection, or your scale model trains collection.”

Rena turned around, her gaze falling on the young girl leaning against the doorframe of the bathroom, and now dressed in fresh clothes. She followed her eyes set on the glasscase that sheltered her train collection. “I don’t know which one is the largest, but I can tell you they are both equally important to me.”

“I’m well aware of that.” Jurina smiled knowingly, noticing the Shinkansen 500 she had given her for her twenty fourth birthday. “But your train collection is now complete. How will I know what to buy for your next birthday?”

“Already thinking about that?” Rena arched an eyebrow in mild amusement. “I turned 25 less than two months ago.”

“Yes, but time goes by quicker than you expect,” Jurina murmured, moving forward to take a seat on the side of the bed. “Don’t you think? Because to me, it only seems like yesterday when we were both members of SKE singing on stage in Nagoya. And now, you’re a full-time actress shooting dramas all around the country.”

Rena gazed at her in concern. Jurina’s mood had darkened, contrasting so much with the happiness she had witnessed upon her face earlier on in the kitchen. What had triggered the melancholy she could now easily distinguish in her voice? Rena wasn’t exactly sure, but she guessed SKE’s ace was still having difficulties adjusting to her absence from the group.

She stood up from the floor and closed the cupboard – thinking carefully about what to reply – before taking a seat beside her. “I’m back in Nagoya now,” she assured as she took Jurina’s left hand inside hers. “Now that my shooting is over, I’m going to stay here for a little while.”

Yes, Rena was back, Jurina nodded as the older girl reminded her of her promise. She couldn’t be more delighted by the news: it was all she had been waiting for during their separation. She laced their fingers together and looked down to their joined hands, observing their matching rings. It was the symbol of her unfailing affection for Rena, and she couldn’t be more pleased that the older girl was also wearing it. What was she worried about? Everything was going to be fine now that Rena was by her side again.

However, her joy didn’t last as she soon remembered a subject that had been nagging her for weeks. She had been so distracted by Rena’s unexpected return – and blinded by the joy that resulted from it – that she had momentarily forgotten about it. She retracted her hand slowly and looked away, nibbling on her bottom lip as she searched the best way to broach this tricky subject. Now that Rena was physically by her side, the moment was ideal to let it out. She had envisioned this conversation in her head a few times in the past, but words surprisingly refused to come out when she opened her mouth to speak.

Jurina’s behavior went far from unnoticed from Rena who frowned a little, wondering why the young girl looked a bit uneased. “Is everything alright?”

No… You had a kissing scene in Destiny and I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me! Jurina felt like venting her frustration. However, she restrained herself, not wishing to raise her voice in front of her. Somehow, she wanted to sort this out in a mature way now that they were face to face. She ended up being much more hesitant than planned when she spoke up. “Why didn’t you tell me about your…”

Jurina didn’t manage to finish her sentence, feeling a pang in her chest when a certain unpleasant picture invaded her mind. After that day, she had almost watched the designated episode to check how far it went between Arisa and Yoshiaki. In the end, she didn’t manage to go through with it, guessing it would hurt her even more if she saw something she didn’t like.

Jurina didn’t know why Rena deliberately chose to keep this information from her, but the idea of Rena kissing someone else intimately was also disturbing. Of course, it was only work and it didn’t mean anything, Jurina tried to convince herself multiple times. But it didn’t really manage to make things any better. In her shoes, she was not sure she would have agreed to shoot such embarrassing scenes.

And the idea of her girlfriend kissing another actor on screen whenever she pleased? She herself had stopped kissing other members on the lips when she and Rena became a couple. The older Matsui never asked her to, but Jurina didn’t wish to take the risk of offending her in any way with her playful behavior. It appeared Rena didn’t think one second of the potential consequences her actions could have on her. How else could she explain otherwise the fact Rena had not mentioned that kiss to her?

Jurina glanced back to Rena tentatively, and could tell by her concerned look she had no idea what was bothering her. There was no use beating around the bush any longer. “The kiss,” she blurted out. “Your character kissed Yoshiaki, and you didn’t tell me anything about it.”

Rena blinked in confusion, processing what Jurina had announced. What? She was aware of the kiss? But how? Didn’t Jurina tell her she had been too busy lately to follow Destiny properly, and as such would wait until it was over to catch up? Yes, Rena was positively sure about that. Jurina had indicated it loud and clear over the phone more than a month ago.

“I don’t understand…” Rena confessed. “You told me you were not following my drama. I thought we could watch it together when I return.”

“I didn’t watch it,” Jurina confirmed, failing to understand why she was bringing this up. She was completely missing the point! “But I heard about the kiss from Rara!”

Rena was slightly taken aback by the reproach she could easily read in her voice. The young girl was doing her best to keep her tone even but failed miserably. She was boiling inside, that fact was much obvious. After all these years, she was capable of analyzing her body language well. And right now, she was like a ticking bomb, ready to explode at any moment.

“I was going to tell you,” Rena assured, catching her hand and encircling her fingers gently. Somehow, she hoped her appeasing tone would help the other girl calm down effectively. “As soon as we would have watched the show together, I would have warn–”

“Why wait?!” Jurina cut her off, pulling her hand away instantly. Oh yes, she was losing her temper – something she promised herself not to do – but she couldn’t help it. Rena’s arguments were making no sense to her. “Why not tell me straight away when you shot the scene?”

Rena watched her in incredulity when she stood up abruptly and walked away. For an instant, she even feared she was going to completely leave the room considering how agitated she looked. To her relief her steps stopped before that, and their eyes met again when Jurina turned to look at her, arms crossed over her chest.

She’s furious, Rena realized, trying desperately to take a grasp of the situation. She believed to have good reasons for not telling Jurina about the kiss sooner. Reasons she wished to expose to her, if only Jurina gave her the chance. However, judging by her reaction, she could tell her patience was progressively slipping.

“This is a whole misunderstanding,” she started, hoping Jurina would not interrupt her this time. It was essential if she wished to make herself completely clear. “I knew you weren’t following my show anymore, so I didn’t want to make you vainly upset over the phone by mentioning this scene. I wanted to have that conversation with you when we would see each other again. The only thing is… I didn’t predict that you would hear about it.”

“You should have guessed there was a possibility I would learn about it nevertheless,” Jurina countered. Yes, she had been careful to stay away from spoilers, but Rena’s drama was popular. The first kissing scene on screen of a former idol. Of course, it would draw attention! “A lot of magazines talk about your drama.”

“I’m sorry,” Rena whispered, realizing how reckless she had been by not telling Jurina sooner. Of course, she was aware of the success of her drama, but she had been mostly living in a bubble during her stay in Kyoto. This project was so important to her eyes – not to mention time consuming – that she wished to stay completely focused on her work. Did she end up shutting out everything around her? Maybe a little. In fact, her conversations with Jurina were the only thing that kept her connected to the outside world the whole time of the shooting.

Now, Rena connected the dots with Jurina’s recent behavior on LINE. Their conversations had considerably shortened these last weeks, and Rena never doubted the other girl’s sincerity when she stated more than a few times how exhausted she was. Why wouldn’t she believe her? She was all too aware of her busy schedule with SKE, and – even if Jurina never spoke much about the difficulties she encountered – guessed her newest WCenter was not lifting up the pressure from her shoulders, far from it.

After the conversation they had, Rena realized she had not been completely honest with her. Jurina had been acting this way not because she was tired, but because she was upset with her. And she had not seen anything. She had been completely fooled by Jurina’s explanation. An explanation she still strongly believed until this morning, after discovering a fully clothed Jurina sleeping soundly onto her bed.

“I’m really sorry…” Rena repeated, guilt washing over as she imagined easily what Jurina had been going through because of her omission. Not only Jurina was under a lot of pressure with her work, her silence about the kissing scene must have convinced her she was purposely hiding something from her. “I never meant to hurt you. You need to believe me.”

Rena’s convincing tone and pleading look got the better of Jurina. Now, there was no doubt the older girl was truly remorseful about her actions and listening to her explanation managed to alleviate her anger. However, there were still a few things she wanted to ask. “Was it the only kissing scene?”

“No…” Rena replied. She was a bit hesitant to continue, but she could tell the other girl had now thankfully considerably calmed down. Besides, she deserved to know the entire truth. “I did another kissing scene at the end of the drama. Both were chaste kisses, I assure you.”

Jurina felt a bit relieved the scenes were not as explicit as she feared, even though she couldn’t deny the idea still made her a bit uncomfortable. “So… you’re really alright with doing such scenes on screen?”

“I’m not saying I especially enjoyed shooting them,” Rena answered, sensing she needed to tread carefully with this sensitive subject. “I think those scenes were necessary for the development of the story. I wouldn’t have agreed if it was only gratuitous.”

Jurina didn’t say anything but read between the lines easily. Rena didn’t mind doing those scenes and was not opposed to shooting kissing scenes again. Never once in her life did Jurina try to influence or meddle in Rena’s career, and she was not about to start. However, it certainly didn’t mean she always understood her decisions. Agreeing to her transfer to Team E. Not protesting against her kennin in Nogizaka46. Those were choices – amongst a few other ones – she still couldn’t fathom after all this time.

Jurina already knew she was definitely going to skip Rena’s kissing scenes when she would decide to watch Destiny again and would apply the same logic if Rena chose to do more kissing scenes in other dramas. The prospect of Rena doing more kissing scenes was still disturbing to her, but she was going to respect her decisions nevertheless.

She always would.

Jurina had been quiet for a little while now, and Rena couldn’t help gazing at her in apprehension. Somehow, she could tell by her pensive look she was still processing what she had said. Wishing to put an end to the distance separating them she stood up from the bed and took a few steps forward.

“Are we… alright?” she asked, a bit hesitant to touch the other girl yet, in case the issue was still not completely solved.

“Of course…” Jurina nodded, a faint smile moving to her lips when she could literally see the relief spreading across Rena’s features. No, she was not mad at Rena anymore, but she wanted to make sure of one thing: that she never relived what she had been through. “I know you never meant to upset me, but I need you to promise me something. Next time you do a kissing scene, don’t wait to tell me. You have no idea how painful it was to learn about it from someone else.”

“I promise.” Rena cupped her cheek tenderly. “I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

Jurina didn’t oppose any resistance to the affectionate gesture and even leaned a little into her touch, before pulling her into a hug. Two arms wrapped around her neck in reaction, and a gentle kiss was placed against her temple. There was no word strong enough to say how much Jurina was relieved the matter was over, and she tightened her hold around Rena’s waist.

If there was one thing she hated above all, it was fighting with Rena. Something that thankfully rarely happened. Jurina was now conscious it had only been a terrible problem of communication, unfortunately enhanced by the distance separating them. But now, Rena was back in Nagoya. Jurina wanted to believe everything was going to be fine again. Rena had always been her rock, her anchor. As long as she had her by her side, she could overcome any obstacle.

Chapter Text

Rena looked up from her magazine when she heard the host of the TV news show warning the viewers about the hole that had formed in an avenue of Fukuoka. The man neatly dressed in a black suit was announcing the news stoically, but Rena couldn’t help widening her eyes in surprise. It was a 30 meters’ hole! How could he recite his text so calmly, and look so unfazed in front of the camera?

Rena glanced back to the kitchen when she heard the other occupant of the apartment letting out a sharp gasp. Jurina had been busy in the kitchen for the past thirty minutes, but her eyes were now glued on the television in complete shock. The news had evidently caught her off guard as much but she still diverted her attention quickly from the screen, to focus again on the frying pan in front of her.

Tonight, Jurina had decided to prepare dinner for both of them. When the young girl had manifested enthusiastically her intention to cook, Rena had offered to help but Jurina had immediately declined, stating instead that she should take a seat on the sofa and rest. Rena had followed her instructions obediently, knowing well insisting was of not much use anyway when Jurina had her mind set on something.

Much as she remembered vividly Jurina’s wish to take care of absolutely everything, it didn’t prevent her from observing her from the sofa moving around the kitchen. It was not that she didn’t trust her cooking skills – on the contrary, her girlfriend was a talented cook – but after alternating between reading magazines and watching TV for so long, she was starting to feel a bit ill-at-ease sitting idly on the sofa when the other girl was doing all the work.

Decided, Rena let her magazine aside and stood up from the sofa to approach the girl cooking. As soon as she arrived in the kitchen, she glanced down in curiosity to the content of the frying pan. The ebi and kabocha tempuras looked now almost fried, and the maitake and ninjin were cooking nicely. Rena noticed that Jurina had also surprisingly added a few green beans to the mix, vegetables unusual in Jurina’s cooking. Rena figured her girlfriend had decided to add a bit of originality to her usual recipe.

It seemed everything was going smoothly… Or not?

“There’s something wrong with the sauce…” Rena looked up to SKE’s ace when she heard her mumbling in frustration. Jurina’s frown even increased when she tasted the sauce for the second time, and still didn’t seem able to find the solution to what appeared to be troubling her so much.

Rena decided it was her cue to intervene. “Can I help you with something?” she asked tentatively, only to see the young cook shaking her head lightly at her while still staring at the spoon intently.

“No, dinner is almost ready,” Jurina replied before letting out a light groan. “I need to find what’s wrong with the sauce.”

As Rena was about to offer to take a taste, Jurina’s eyes lit up. “That’s it! There’s not enough Mirin!”

Rena suppressed a laugh when Jurina looked much like she had the biggest revelation of the day and a broad, happy smile plastered her face as she grabbed hastily the bottle of Mirin on the counter.

“I see you really don’t need me,” Rena teased, her fingers caressing her girlfriend’s back gently. She took another peek at their dinner, realizing Jurina had again really been thoughtful when it came to the choice of food, making sure there was a little bit of everything to suit both their tastes. Rena had no doubt it was going to be delicious. Rena didn’t believe to be a bad cook herself, but the younger girl definitely beat her when it came to this specific field. In another life, Rena was sure Jurina would have made a terrific chef.

“I told you, you can relax on the sofa,” Jurina repeated enthusiastically when she tilted her head towards her and gave her lips a quick kiss. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

Rena let out a small sigh at her stubbornness but chose to relent nevertheless, although not before laying the table in the living room. As she was finishing she heard the familiar ringtone of her phone, and she glanced over to the sofa where she had last left it. Her brows furrowed in confusion as she made her way towards the sofa, wondering who could be calling her on a Friday evening. She was certainly not expecting any call. She gazed down in curiosity to the screen when she retrieved the device, discovering it was her agent calling her.

“Hello Rena, I hope I’m not disturbing you,” the familiar, feminine voice announced itself as she picked up. “I know it’s a bit late, but I wanted to confirm your interview in Tokyo on Monday. It will be at 11 am on Fuji TV. Your train ticket is already booked.”

“Thank you.” Rena registered the information she had been given, and she entered the bedroom a few seconds later. “I’ll write it down in my diary.”

While she took a seat at her office and noted down the interview her agent had communicated her, Rena noticed the long silence on the other side of the line. She wondered if her agent wished to add something ese, considering she still had not hung up. As she was about to ask, her interlocutor was the one to speak up.

“Have you made a decision about the role?” came the hesitant question.

Rena let go of her pen and leaned back in the chair, now remembering she had indeed not given a clear answer yet about this subject in particular. Ah yes, the role. Upon her return from Kyoto three weeks ago, her agent had sent her a script for a role in a new TV show. Rena had read the script carefully, admitting that the role was interesting even though she was only playing a secondary character.

So why did she find herself so reluctant to accept at the end of her reading? Maybe because there was one major problem with that role, impossible for her to ignore. The shooting was supposed to start in a month and take place in Tokyo. The location didn’t pose her any problem as she was used to working in Japan’s capital by now, however the announced length was another matter altogether.

The shooting was going to last three, long months.

Rena couldn’t possibly forget that she had promised Jurina to stay in Nagoya for a little while once she returned from Kyoto. No, she didn’t regret at all playing the leading role of Arisa in Destiny: it was a complex and beautiful character. She had been privileged to work with a professional cast and crew, not to mention the drama’s great ratings had definitely put its main actors under the spotlights. However, despite the positive impact this role had on her new career, she had to admit the timing had not been ideal.

After all, the shooting had started only a few days after her graduation... An event that had definitely not been easy for Jurina to accept. Even if the latter had thankfully managed to get over her sorrow in the end, Rena now wished she could have been more present for the young ace during that difficult period of transition.

Rena took out the script from the drawer in front of her – going absently through the first pages – before setting it aside. She had told her agent she would give an answer next week, but there was no use delaying it. She had already made up her mind. “I want to stay in Nagoya,” she stated with assurance. “I don’t mind doing a few jobs in Tokyo now and then, but I don’t want to be away from Nagoya for that long.”

The older Matsui held her breath and waited expectantly for her agent’s reaction. It was so unusual for her to refuse a job, that for a minute she wondered how the older woman was going to react and take her refusal. The last time she stated she didn’t want to pose in lingerie and swimsuit anymore, she half expected her agency to try and change her mind about it. Refusing to do those kinds of photoshoots was not a small, anecdotic change. It meant less exposure in magazines.

To her surprise and relief, her agency had agreed easily. Would this new demand receive the same positive outcome?

“No more long-term jobs outside of Nagoya for now?” her agent reformulated as if to be entirely sure she had understood well.

“Yes,” Rena confirmed, relaxing slightly when it appeared her agent was not going to insist. “I thank you for sending me that script, but I don’t want to accept big shootings outside of Nagoya for the rest of the year.”

“Don’t worry, I understand,” Rena’s agent replied. “I apologize again for calling you so late. Have a nice week-end, Rena. I’ll see you on Monday.”

Rena stared at the screen once her agent hung up, until placing her phone on the side of the desk when the name of her last caller vanished entirely. Surprisingly, she didn’t feel as troubled as she would have expected to refuse that job opportunity. So many times in the past she was forced to refuse jobs because her presence in SKE unfortunately didn’t allow her to have too many activities outside the idol group. A certain frustration would sometimes result from it, but this situation was completely different.

She wasn’t refusing this role because her schedule was too busy for her to accept it. She wasn’t refusing it either because of unfortunate circumstances she had not control over. No, she was willingly letting this opportunity pass because she wanted to stick to her words and spend some time with Jurina. Albeit the fact they had constantly stayed in contact since she worked on Destiny, there was no denying she had missed Jurina’s presence by her side greatly.

Rena always believed to be an independent person, but things had clearly changed since Jurina found a place in her heart. Of course, their daily life was not the same anymore now that she had left SKE, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try and keep their relationship intact. It was too precious to her, and she refused to let Jurina go after discovering how much she truly made her happy.

It had now been almost two years since she confessed her feelings to SKE’s ace in that hotel room in Tokyo.

“Dinner is ready!” Jurina’s cheerful voice distracted her and she tilted her head to the side, noticing her girlfriend’s worried look through the opening of the bedroom door. “Is everything… alright?”

“Yes.” Rena smiled at her, guessing her pensive look must have given the wrong impression. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Jurina kept her eyes on her firmly a little longer – as if to gauge if she was really telling her the truth – before returning the smile and disappearing. Rena diverted her attention from the door once she was gone, glancing back at the script still laying in front of her. This is the right thing to do.

Standing up from her chair she seized the script, slipping it in the wastepaper basket without an ounce of regret on her way out.

 


 

 

They had finished dinner twenty minutes ago and were now settling in front of the television to watch a movie. Rena took a seat on the black sofa, having no clue what they were going to watch. Tonight, Jurina had really decided to plan the whole evening: not only had she prepared dinner, she had also chosen the movie they were going to watch. Rena glanced at her in curiosity as she was now kneeling in front of the television to place the movie inside the DVD player.

Of course, Rena had tried to discover what they were going to watch. However, her girlfriend had been awfully secretive about it, stating it was a surprise. The only thing she had agreed to share was that it was an old, French movie, and that she hoped she would enjoy it as she had read good reviews about it. As unusual as it was for Jurina to suggest watching a type of movie so afar from her own personal tastes, the older Matsui decided to stay quiet about it. Jurina was in a good mood tonight and was visibly adamant on pleasing her.

Who knows, maybe she would even enjoy the movie?

“Ah, I forgot to tell you.” Jurina turned to look at her. “I spoke on the phone with Mayu earlier on. She asked if we wanted to spend Christmas with her and Yuki this year.”

Rena processed the new information. She didn’t have anything planned for the end of the year, and she had to admit they had a great time last time they spent Christmas together the four of them. “I didn’t have anything special in mind,” Rena replied, seeing Jurina’s expectant look turning into a happy smile when she nodded back at her. “We can spend Christmas with them.”

“Great!” Jurina exclaimed, and Rena couldn’t help smiling at her girlfriend’s overflowing enthusiasm. Oh yes, Jurina was definitely looking forward to spend time with her AKB best friend. Rena was aware that Jurina had not been able to see Mayu often since their week holiday at her beach house in July. And what about herself? Since her graduation, she had not seen or even spoken to both AKB members…

Rena’s attention diverted to the screen when the menu appeared, and she frowned a little when she read the French title. “La Boum?”

The name definitely rang a bell, but she couldn’t possibly remember where and when she heard about it. The teenager with shoulder-length brown hair on the screen also seemed familiar. Rena was positively sure she had seen her picture in a magazine or somewhere…

“Yes, it’s a movie released in 1980 by…” Rena tilted her head to Jurina who had taken a seat by her side and was now trying tentatively to pronounce the foreign name. Her eyes were glued on the back of the cover in her hand, but it was obvious by her mouth opening and closing a few times that she had a hard time reading the name of the director.

“Claude Pinoteau.” Rena came to her rescue after finding the name on the back cover and taking advantage that it was within reach to read the description attentively. “I’m sure I heard about this movie before...”

“Have you seen it?” Jurina looked up in apprehension, and Rena guessed by her reaction she was going to be evidently disappointed if her nice surprise ended up being ruined. Thankfully, much as she was positively sure she had heard about this movie, she was also equally sure she had not watched it. “I haven’t, but it looks interesting.”

Jurina relaxed, and she seized the remote control after placing the DVD cover on the coffee table. “I heard this movie had a lot of success at the time, and it launched the career of the lead actress.”

The movie began and Rena followed it in interest, feeling a few minutes later Jurina snuggling against her. The atmosphere was peaceful now, and Rena couldn’t help noticing her girlfriend had fallen quiet. Usually, Jurina liked to make a few comments now and then when they watched a movie together, so her silence was a bit strange.

Unless...

“Jurina?” Rena called tentatively, now wondering if her girlfriend had not fallen asleep. It was no mystery Jurina was not a fan of animated movies, foreign movies even less. That’s why she avoided watching those kinds of movies together with her, knowing perfectly well there was a high chance the younger girl would never get to see the ending and fall asleep on her shoulder half through it. Was she reliving one of her most infamous patterns? But the movie had only begun ten minutes ago! Surely, she couldn’t have fell asleep that fast. “You’re not… sleeping?”

A light groan escaped Jurina’s lips, proving Rena’s theory wrong. “Why do you think I’m going to sleep? I’m not.”

Rena let out a small sigh of relief, an amused smile forming on her lips at her girlfriend’s slight offended tone. It appeared someone was still stubbornly refusing to acknowledge her past behavior. Indeed, Rena remembered the other girl always looked uneased – and a bit guilty – when she sometimes casually mentioned to her that she had been sleeping during a movie. But maybe Jurina really wouldn’t fall asleep, this time? Rena decided to have a little faith.

After thirty minutes, they had arrived at one of the most famous scenes of the movie. The main character – a 13-year-old girl named Vic – had been invited to a party and everyone was dancing on an energetic song, enjoying themselves. A boy had caught her attention not long after arriving at the party and – as she was serving herself a drink – she felt a pair of headphones being placed over her head. A soft and romantic music filled her ears, and she turned around in surprise. The boy who was making her heart beat so fast since the minute she laid eyes on him was now standing right in front of her.

Met you by surprise

I didn’t realize

That my life would change forever

Saw you standing there

I didn’t know I’d care

There was something

Special in the air

Without thinking twice, she wrapped her arms around his neck, joy spreading through her chest as he held her against him and they engaged in a slow dance. They were both lost in their own little world – going against the flow and ignoring the presence of all the other people in the room – because nothing else but themselves mattered at this right moment.

“This scene is really touching…” Jurina murmured, emotion tangible in her voice. She made a slight pause to try and compose herself, before continuing. “I don’t know how the story ends but one thing is for sure: you never forget your first love.”

Rena tore her eyes away from the screen to look at her, momentarily wondering by the warm smile she was now giving her if she was still talking about the movie. While listening to the romantic music playing in the background, she let Jurina’s words sink in. There was an undeniable truth to her words.

Rena would never forget the first time someone kissed her. She would never forget either the moment when she accepted to give her heart to someone else. Some might say her first kiss had not happened under ideal circumstances, as it had been purely stolen from her. However, she had long ago forgiven the person responsible for this mischief. Because this same person also ended up unexpectedly stealing her heart along the way.

As if pulled by the romantic atmosphere the scene had created Rena couldn’t help but lean towards Jurina’s inviting lips and capture them in a gentle kiss. The kiss was chaste and not invasive, but the older Matsui soon discovered she didn’t want this intimate moment to end yet.

The movie was still playing in the background – the romantic music echoing in the living room of Rena’s apartment – but both girls were not paying attention to it anymore. Rena deepened the kiss and pulled Jurina further into her arms, sensing the mood had definitely shifted when she felt Jurina pushing her against the sofa.

In an instant, Rena had all forgotten about the movie they had both been watching but was reminded of it when the lips that were kissing her pulled away, and Jurina stared into her small brown orbs a little hesitantly. “We’re… going to miss the movie.”

Rena saw her taking a peek at the screen while uttering those words, but it was only brief as her eyes were back on her only a few seconds later. Despite her declaration, she wasn’t taking her distance from her in the slightest, even now staring intensely at her close lips.

“Do you really want to keep watching it?” Rena whispered, even though she already guessed the answer. Indeed, Jurina was stealing a few kisses now and then, while her left hand was cupping her cheek and her fingers caressing her skin tenderly.

“Maybe…” Jurina started, her fingers making slowly their descent towards her chin then her neck, before pausing at the top of her red shirt. “Maybe later?”

“Yes.” Rena smiled knowingly when she felt the younger girl starting to unbutton the top of her shirt, soon revealing her matching bra. She tangled her fingers in Jurina’s long, dark hair, pulling her down for another kiss. “Later.”

The movie faded in the background as they both kissed each other fervently, their hands roaming over each other as if mapping out every inch of their skin.

Would Vic live a long love story with this boy she had recently met and so easily managed to make her heart beat so fast? Or was it a simple teenage crush, and she would move on as soon as she would cross path with another boy who would make her heart beat even faster? There was no way to tell, but both Matsui had one certitude deeply anchored inside their heart.

They both knew how they wanted their own story to end.

Chapter Text

Rena checked herself in the bathroom’s mirror, really satisfied with the newest appearance she had recently adopted. A few weeks ago, she had visited the hairdresser to get a new haircut, knowing precisely what new look she wanted. During the shooting of Destiny, she had no choice but to respect the director’s decision when it came to Arisa’s looks, but now she was free from any obligations.

Rena ran her fingers through her brown wavy hair, her fingertips inspecting the ends that had been neatly cut. Her hair still remained long – as she had asked the hairdresser to only remove a few centimeters – and her fringe was brushed nicely to the side.

Taking a look at the rest of her appearance, the older Matsui finished buttoning carefully the collar of her silky red blouse, before taking a step back and adjusting her long black skirt. It wasn’t everyday she wore such an elegant outfit, but the circumstances were special. After all, tomorrow was Christmas, and she had been invited for the occasion at Yuki and Mayu’s apartment in Tokyo.

Rena knew she needed to do one more thing to be good and ready, and her fingers encircled the golden bottle of perfume resting on top of the shelf in front of her. Conscientiously, she applied the perfume at a few strategic places. Soon, the sweet scent reached her nostrils: a mix of mandarin and orange, with a hint of jasmine and rose. Her all-time favorite perfume. Placing the bottle back in place she glanced down at her watch, taking a peek at the time. Her train for Tokyo was in less than an hour: she would need to leave soon.

Stepping out of the bathroom, her eyes searched the other girl who was going to accompany her to Tokyo, immediately noticing her in a strange position. Indeed, Jurina was on all fours in the bedroom – her eyes glued on the red carpet – while her left hand was feeling around frenetically the floor underneath her.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that she was looking for something. “Did you lose something?”

“My ring,” Jurina sighed heavily, her attention entirely monopolized by what appeared to be a frustrating search. “I can’t find my ring.”

Rena furrowed her brows at the revelation. It is true to say her girlfriend was not the most organized or neat person in the world – even though she had greatly improved on that aspect of her personality these last years – she nevertheless was always careful when it came to something that meant a great deal to her. And Rena, more than anyone, knew how precious that ring in particular was to her.

This Sunday afternoon of July in the Maruyama Park of Kyoto submerged Rena’s mind, and she looked down to the silver ring on her left index. Never did she expect Jurina to give her such a beautiful present, nor did she ignore the touching meaning behind it. In the past, when they were still two innocent teenagers, they would often wear matching clothes or items. This time, it was different. Those matching rings had a much deeper meaning: they symbolized Jurina’s infinite love for her. Out of all the gifts Jurina had given her, Rena would always treasure that ring more than anything.

Rena stole a glance at her watch, discovering they still had approximately fifteen minutes until the taxi’s arrival. Their suitcase was already waiting near the entrance, but their time was definitely limited. She contemplated her options carefully, observing the girl who was now desperately looking for the ring under the bed.

“It’s not lost anyway,” Rena said calmly, trying to sound reassuring. Somehow, she didn’t feel alarmed by the missing object. She recalled vividly seeing it on Jurina’s finger the evening before when they came back from the restaurant, which meant it had to be somewhere in the apartment. Jurina always placed it on the bedside table before going to bed, so it couldn’t have gone far. “Why don’t you look for it when we come back from Tokyo?”

Rena knew she said something terribly wrong the instant Jurina left her search aside to look back at her. Considering Jurina’s displeased expression, the older Matsui seriously doubted her offer was going to receive a positive outcome. A prediction that got confirmed a few seconds later.

“I will not leave without it,” Jurina protested. “I know it has to be somewhere in here. Just… just give me a few more minutes.”

The moment after, Jurina was in deep search of the ring again, and Rena could tell nothing she would say would manage to change her girlfriend’s mind. She was never going to get up from that floor until she obtained what she wanted. Right now, Rena was witnessing one of her girlfriend’s most famous personality traits: her incredible and relentless stubbornness.

If this kept going, Rena feared there was a high chance they would miss their train. Despite it, she couldn’t find it in her to chastise her girlfriend for her current behavior. Jurina was simply too attached to that ring. Not only she wore it every single day, Rena sometimes saw her gazing at it at length, in a mix of appreciation and admiration.

That’s why Rena was convinced she meant every single word she uttered. Jurina was never going to leave the apartment without the ring on her finger, which meant she had to find a solution to make sure they arrived on time at the train station. Of course, they could always take the next one, but it was not a solution she favored the best. Without many options left, she took a decided step forward. “Alright. I’ll help you look for it.”

Rena let her gaze wander around the room, retracing the events of the previous evening to try and identify where Jurina could possibly have forgotten her ring. Yesterday, they opted for French cuisine and left Restaurant Pérouges a little after 9 p.m., clearly not feeling tired at all when they arrived later on at Rena’s apartment. When Jurina turned the television on and flipped through the channels a movie soon caught her attention, and they both settled down in the sofa to watch it.

It was past 11 p.m. when they moved to the bedroom, and Rena knew the younger girl was in a playful mood when she started cuddling in bed with her as she was finishing a chapter of her book. Her caresses under the sheets were impossible to ignore, nor the few kisses she would occasionally steal between pages. The words started mixing in Rena’s head and she progressively discovered she was not paying attention to her book anymore, far too distracted by her girlfriend’s clever actions.

When she tilted her head towards her, Rena simply knew she wouldn’t say no to those eyes that were staring at her with such desire. Without hesitation, she put her book aside, and cupped Jurina’s cheek to deepen the kiss she had initiated. To be honest, she had missed the intimacy. Contrary to her schedule that had been light since she came back from Kyoto, Jurina had been busy with her idol activities since October.

During the week, Jurina was often far too exhausted to do anything else but sleep when she stayed at her place. As for the week-end, it appeared they unfortunately hadn’t been able to see one another a few week-ends in a row, due to the recent release of AKB new single to which Jurina was of course participating. To sum it up, Jurina’s advances were more than appreciated and welcomed, and it didn’t take long before the room plunged into darkness, and they removed their clothes to make passionately love to each other.

The moment was vividly imprinted in Rena’s mind, and she was positively sure she had noticed the ring on Jurina’s finger before she switched the bedside lamp off. This morning, she wasn’t wearing it anymore, which could only mean one thing: she had removed it in the heat of the action.

Rena glanced towards Jurina’s side of the bed and reduced the distance, taking in the absence of the ring on the small table. Of course, it wasn’t there: it was probably the first place Jurina had looked for it, but a little voice inside her head was telling her she was boiling. From her peripheral vision, she saw Jurina standing up, but it was evident by the frustrated growl escaping her lips that her research remained completely fruitless despite her best efforts.

Convinced she was onto something Rena followed her train of thoughts and kneeled next to the bedside table, slipping her hand in the narrowed space between the bedside table and the wall. Disappointment was progressively plastering her features as the seconds went by and she was failing to find what she hoped, until her eyes widened when her fingers encountered a small rounded object as she was about to pull away.

A smile moved to her lips and she retrieved the object, gazing at the silver ring inside her palm. It was completely similar to hers, or at least that’s what she always believed until now. As she turned the object between her thumb and index, she noticed to her surprise an inscription engraved inside. Wait. So Jurina had not only engraved a message in the ring she had given to her? She had also done the same with hers?

Stunned by this revelation, Rena wondered why the younger girl had never told her anything about it and kept this information secret from her. Curiosity got the best of her and she took a closer look at it, reading the short sentence engraved inside.

My heart only belongs to R

The words brought a smile to Rena’s lips, their cheesiness never overshadowing the beautiful and meaningful message behind them. Rena was all too conscious of Jurina’s indistinct love for her: she never failed to remind it to her on a constant basis with words of affection and her caring behavior. Jurina might be six years younger than her and at times still act a little childish, there was no denying she was an incredible romantic and faithful girlfriend.

Those last two years, she had loved her despite all her imperfections. God knew she was far from the perfect creature many people who truly didn’t know her wanted to believe. The princess of Nagoya? Just some illusion magazines had created for many years: a flattering title sometimes a little too heavy to bear for the young idol that she was. No, Rena Matsui was no princess, but a simple human being with its evident qualities and flaws.

Rena knew she had hurt Jurina a few times, yet the latter had each and single time forgiven her. The evening of her graduation concert, Jurina had more than implied that she had forgiven her, but it took another month – the time when Jurina joined her in Kyoto for her birthday and they were physically and emotionally reunited – for Rena to realize that Jurina’s heart was truly not hurting anymore.

That day, Rena was able to put everything behind her, and forgive herself.

Rena closed her hand around the ring, engraving the words deep inside her heart. As she tilted her head towards the young girl who had her back turned, she felt like sharing her discovery about the message, and asking why she had never said anything about it. In the end, she decided against it. There had to be a good reason why Jurina didn’t tell her: maybe she felt too shy about it?

The ring secured in her hand she raised to her feet, approaching the other girl and catching her hand. Two eyes gazed back at her, and Rena could tell by the look on her face she was not only desperate, but also getting really worried about the missing item. Her expression changed to a speechless one when the older Matsui revealed what was hidden inside her palm, and she was too stunned to react when Rena put the ring carefully on her finger.

“It had fallen behind your bedside table,” Rena informed, smiling a little when she saw the great relief spreading across Jurina’s face.

“I was so afraid I lost it,” Jurina confessed, her eyes glued on the precious silver object now encircling her ring finger. “I don’t know what I would have done if I–”

“You don’t have to worry about that anymore,” Rena cut her off softly, giving her hand a light squeeze. “Are you now ready to go?”

Rena received a silent nod in reply but got startled when she was about to turn on her heels and felt Jurina’s hand still holding hers tightly. “Thank you,” Jurina murmured. “You have no idea how much this ring means to me.”

Rena didn’t miss the emotion in her shimmering eyes, and she caressed her cheek when Jurina pulled her closer to capture her lips in a gentle kiss of gratitude.

Yes, I do.

 


 

 

Yuki eyed suspiciously the rectangular present wrapped in green paper under the Christmas tree, praying it was not what she feared. Jurina had placed it here the day before at her arrival and, when she had questioned her about it in concern, the latter had assured her it was not a new figurine of Mikasa Ackerman. For an instant, relief truly spread through her chest. There were already too many signs of Mayu’s passion for the feminine warrior around the apartment, whether under the form of posters, figurines, DVDs, or goodies.

Because yes, Mikasa Ackerman was definitely a popular character. For a little while, Mayu’s passion had diminished slightly because of the lack of new content, but Yuki didn’t fool herself one bit. She had no doubt it would come back in full force as soon as the anticipated second season of the Japanese animated TV show would come out. It had already been four years since the diffusion of the first episode, but the news she feared the most got out a few days ago. April 2017 would mark the return of Shingeki no Kyojin.

There were still four months to come, but Yuki was already mentally preparing herself. There was no denying how much she loved her adoring girlfriend, but she always found her a little frightening when she went in full otaku mode and let herself get consummated by one of her greatest passions. Yuki wanted nothing else but believe Jurina when she promised her it wasn’t what she thought: so why couldn’t she shake the feeling that this big, rectangular box was still bad news?

The four friends had now settled around the Christmas tree for the traditional exchange of presents and Yuki remained silent, a tinge of apprehension forming at the pit of her stomach as she watched her girlfriend unwrapping Jurina’s present with much eagerness. Yuki glanced nervously at Jurina, noting that the latter was – contrary to her – definitely enjoying the moment as she was observing Mayu’s frenetic actions in great delight. Not only Jurina enjoyed spending time with her AKB best friend, she always found it entertaining when Mayu acted like a little kid around Christmas time.

Well, she was definitely in for a treat this year again.

Yuki truly didn’t know what to make of it when their eyes met, and Jurina gave her a mischievous smile. Wait. Jurina wouldn’t have dared to lie to her, would she? Yuki got worried, and her heart pounded a little faster inside her chest without her consent. After all, Mayu did seem a bit too enthusiastic, and the size of the box was way too suspicious.

In the end, Jurina truly didn’t lie to her. No sign of Mikasa Ackerman inside the box Mayu was now staring at intently. It should have been a great relief, except for the fact that it was still a figurine as she feared. Indeed, inside the box was standing a 11 inches’ figurine of a female warrior. Long brown hair tied to the side into a ponytail. A blue hakama over a white kimono. Long black tights.

Yuki surely didn’t miss either all the accessories inside the box: a bow, arrows, a quiver. The signs were evident: it had to be an archer., Yuki’s eyes fell on the last accessory. It was a miniature of an aircraft carrier. Wait. What? This last accessory didn’t go at all with the rest! Who on earth was that?

“Kaga!” Mayu’s cheerful voice gave it away, and she watched her in incredulity as she started removing the figurine from the box to take a better look at it. “Thank you so much!”

Yuki observed her girlfriend kissing Jurina’s cheek the moment after, a beaming smile plastering all over the SKE member’s face at the reaction her gift managed to provoke. Yuki couldn’t hold it anymore. Too many questions were currently juggling in her head. She had to let it out.

“Who… is it?” she asked hesitantly, only to see her girlfriend turning to face her hurriedly and showing proudly the box in her hands.

“It’s Kaga, one of the characters from Kantai Collection!” Mayu explained enthusiastically. “See all those accessories?” She continued, pointing at the small objects stuck to the plastic box. “That’s what she uses to fight in battle. In the anime, the arrows transform into planes that take off from her aircraft carrier to spy the enemy’s positions. Just as Akagi, her role is essential in combat. Both are great and charismatic female warriors!”

Yuki believed to have listened to Mayu’s explanation attentively, so why on earth didn’t a single word make sense to her? “When did you start watching that show?” Yuki asked the question that was now burning her lips. Even though she didn’t share her undivided passion for 2D characters, she couldn’t have possibly missed it if May became a fan of a new anime. The latter wouldn’t have waited a minute to mention it during one of their conversations.

“Last week, when you were in Osaka for the shooting of a TV commercial,” Mayu replied casually, her eyes glued on the figurine as she was removing carefully the sticky tape that was keeping in place the figurine and the accessories. “It was on my watching list for months. It was long overdue!”

“This show is entirely composed of female characters.” Jurina chimed in, catching immediately Yuki’s attention. Wait: Jurina had watched it too? And it appeared she had not been the only one, considering Rena’s small nod by her side. “My favorite is the main character, the funny and clumsy Fubuki, but Rena has a soft spot for Nagato, the serious commander who relays orders from the admiral to the fleets.”

Yuki could progressively feel her head spinning due to the overflow of information. Too much. It was too much. Still, she mustered her best, polite smile. All three girls seemed enthusiastic about this TV animated show she had never heard about, and she felt it best to keep – for once – her true feelings to herself. Maybe Mikasa Ackerman wasn’t so bad, after all.

At least, there was only one of them.

 


 

 

Yuki, who was finishing tidying up the kitchen, stole a peek at the two Matsui who were watching the concert playing on the television. A few famous Japanese artists had been invited for the special live event, and the joyful Christmas songs were now sounding pleasantly in the living room.

As soon as the exchange of presents was over they had lunch, a meal Yuki was proud to have prepared all by herself. Of course, Mayu offered kindly to help, but she wanted to hear none of it. Six months ago, she made the decision to take cooking classes, which she had followed every week diligently. For this special occasion, she wanted to show that all her hard work had paid off.

The meal was a great success: her cooking skills were praised by every girl at the table. A year ago, she might have doubted seriously the sincerity of their words, and believed they were trying to be polite. Not this time. They meant every word, and it reassured her to know she was not a lost cause after all. She would probably never manage to reach Jurina’s incredible level – Yuki strongly believed the girl to have a natural ability when it came to cooking – but at least now she was able to make a decent meal.

It had been so long since the four friends had been reunited, that Yuki truly didn’t see time passing by. There was so much catching up to do! Of course, Yuki had been able to meet Jurina a few times lately due to the release of AKB’s recent single, but she hadn’t seen the older Matsui at all since her graduation. The moment they started exchanging a few words, Yuki was pleased to realize their conversations still felt as natural.

In fact, she was saddened when she learned the other girl wouldn’t be able to join them in July for their annual week holiday, recalling the nice time they spent the four of them together the year before. It was undeniable they had a great dynamic as a group, but Yuki also had to admit she really appreciated the company of Rena during that week, discovering aspects of her personality she would never had suspected.

At some point during lunch, one detail in particular caught Yuki’s attention. Both Matsui were wearing a silver ring on their finger: Rena on her index finger, and Jurina on her ring finger. Yuki did notice well this particular silver ring on Jurina’s finger these last past months, but she didn’t think too much about it until now, taking it as a simple accessory the younger girl was visibly fond of.

Now that she saw a ring on Rena’s finger that looked similar to hers, she couldn’t shake the feeling that those were matching rings. Yuki was more than used to seeing both girls wearing matching outfits: they did it plenty of times in the past. However, a little voice inside her head was telling her there was more to read in those similar silver rings. That’s why she couldn’t keep it to herself any longer when she saw Mayu entering the kitchen to bring her the last plates from the table.

“Mayuyu.” She waved at her discreetly, making sure her voice was low enough to prevent both Matsui from catching their conversation. Just to be cautious enough she stole a quick peek at the two girls, relieved when their attention was still entirely monopolized by the screen as they were visibly debating the current performance of Ayumi Hamasaki on the English Christmas song, Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

Mayu who was putting the plates away in the dishwasher caught Yuki’s whisper and she tilted her head at her, arching an eyebrow at her curious behavior. Still, she approached without a word, Yuki letting out the question that had been burning her lips for so long. “Did something happen between Jurina and Rena that you didn’t tell me?”

“What?” Mayu frowned at her, not missing the expectant look she was giving her. “What do you mean by that?”

“The matching rings,” Yuki stressed. “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice?”

“Of course I did,” Mayu confirmed, failing completely to see where she was getting at. “What about it?”

Yuki stared at her for a few, long seconds, trying to gauge the situation. So, Mayu had indeed noticed the matching rings as she expected, but it appeared by her clueless look that she was not drawing the same conclusions as her at all. Could it only be the fruit of her wide imagination? Consequences of her disillusioned mind? But Jurina was wearing her ring on her ring finger. It was not any random finger. When did Jurina do anything by chance anyway? Yes, Rena had opted for a different finger, but what if it was only a trick to cover the truth?

Yuki nibbled on her lower lip in hesitation. On one hand, it was getting harder and harder to keep her theory to herself. In her mind, a few elements were supporting it, and she couldn’t ignore what she had seen during lunch. On the other, she didn’t want to make a fool of herself if she happened to be completely off-track. Indeed, one element in particular was making her slightly doubt the veracity of her theory. Jurina shared pretty much everything with Mayu. As such, it was unlikely she would have kept something so important from her.

Or would she?

“Wait…” Yuki got extracted from her thoughts at the sound of Mayu’s voice, her girlfriend who was now staring back at her with a look full of incredulity. “Don’t tell me you believed they got… married?”

Yuki felt the embarrassment raising to her cheeks when Mayu started to laugh freely. “Why not?” she defended herself, trying to prove her point. “It wouldn’t be so improbable!”

“You’re right,” Mayu quipped, Yuki’s persistence only serving in increasing her mirth. “They secretly got married one week-end without anyone noticing!”

Even though Yuki now realized how stupid her theory had been when confronted with the facts, she couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated when Mayu’s laughing didn’t show any sign of stopping. So absorbed by her conversation with Mayu, she jumped a little when she heard Jurina’s curious voice sounding from the sofa. “Who secretly got married?”

Yuki winced, meeting Mayu’s amused look as she pondered what to reply. The other girl was progressively calming down and brushing her tears away, but it was obvious by her lasting silence she should not expect any help from her to extract herself from this awkward moment. Considering Jurina’s question, it was clear she had only overheard the last part of their conversation. It was a small, but undeniable consolation.

A tentative smile formed on Yuki’s lips as she glanced towards the living room, noticing immediately the way Jurina was gazing at her in great interest. “N–No one. It was a misunderstanding.”

Yuki didn’t believe her tone to be convincing but to her relief Jurina didn’t insist, instead turning to pay attention to the screen again. Yuki felt a light tap on her shoulder and she tilted her head, delight still dancing on Mayu’s lips. She let out a small sigh in resignation. “I really got it all wrong, didn’t I?”

“You got it wrong this time,” Mayu confirmed, but Yuki nevertheless started to feel a little better when her girlfriend comforted her with a kiss on the cheek. “But who can predict the future?”

Yuki widened her eyes slightly at the enigmatic words, and she followed Mayu’s gaze as she was now observing both Matsui sitting on the sofa. A smile progressively moved to Yuki’s lips as she witnessed them exchanging casually a kiss, admitting Mayu was entirely right.

She was no more fortune teller than Mayu: there was no way to tell what the future had in store for their two precious friends. However, she wanted strongly to believe the time of tears and struggle was behind them. Life was short. Too short. Didn’t they deserve to be happy?

Chapter Text

The sales of the second single following Rena’s graduation were catastrophic. In fact, it was the first time in the history of SKE that a single managed to have such low numbers. Of course, Jurina knew that Rena’s departure would have consequences on the group. Rena was not any random member, but one of the figureheads of SKE. When she left, many desperate fans lost their oshimen, and started showing less interest in the group. Despite being well aware of those facts, Jurina didn’t believe Rena’s graduation would hit them so badly.

Undeniably, fans were having a hard time accepting Ayuka as new WCenter, often calling in question her surprising and unexpected push. Why Ayuka? Why choose a 12-year-old and not popular girl? Wasn’t a long-time member more legitimate to fill in Rena’s shoes? Jurina had tried to ignore all those negative remarks for months, but it was hard when they kept coming one after another and increased tremendously at the beginning of January 2017 after the stinging failure of SKE’s latest single.

Jurina didn’t share this opinion in the least. In her eyes, Ayuka was perfectly capable of assuming Rena’s role, and the younger girl had definitely done everything in her power to meet management’s expectations. Ayuka had fought so much to prove that she deserved this great honor bestowed upon her. Whether alone or in the presence of other members, she had rehearsed songs and choreographies again and again with all her strength.

Jurina couldn’t be prouder of all the hard work her WCenter had accomplished since August. Despite her young age and the incredible pressure upon her shoulders, she never saw her slacking off a single time. She was a studious student during rehearsals and followed each one of her instructions obediently, never protesting when it sometimes meant spending long hours in the dancing room to perfect her moves.

However, it appeared not all fans shared her opinion on the matter, and SKE’s management seemed to follow the same route. Of course, the staff never said anything in public, but Jurina could tell by their troubled expression that SKE’s recent bad sales were making them progressively doubt in Ayuka’s true capacity to assume a leading role along her side.

A few times, Jurina had broached the subject with Yuasa, assuring him that the younger girl was in no way responsible for the single’s low sales. The group was going through a rough patch because of Rena’s recent departure, and fans still needed more time to adjust to the situation and accept Ayuka. However, as evasive Yuasa remained about the tricky subject of Ayuka’s future in the group, Jurina knew he didn’t completely share her faith in Ayuka.

The next single of SKE was supposed to be released in late March – three months from now – and, after the recent setbacks, it didn’t take a genius to figure out management was seriously considering the idea of replacing Ayuka. No matter how many times Jurina supported Ayuka publicly and repeated to management more privately that the girl deserved another chance, she was well conscious that she wouldn’t be the one making the final decision.

Yes, her opinion was valued and management listened to what she had to say. However, one thing was certain. If the staff decided it was best to choose another girl to ensure the durability of the group, she would have no other choice but to bend to management’s will.

Jurina knew that Ayuka had already been affected by the limited success of their summer song. At the time, the younger girl had covered her disappointment with a polite smile. However, her dismay had clearly showed when the news of the catastrophic numbers of the following single came out a few weeks ago.

Ayuka was still working hard and doing everything that was asked of her, but Jurina didn’t miss her mood darkening slightly day after day. Until now, it seemed Ayuka was holding on nevertheless but today, as they were finishing rehearsing their dance move in preparation of an upcoming showcase in Nagoya, her accumulated fatigue had visibly managed to get the best of her.

Jurina didn’t realize immediately what was going on as she was busy preparing her gym bag to take off and call it a day, but she became aware of Ayuka’s distress when she caught the small voice addressing her tiredly.

“Maybe what they are saying is true,” Ayuka whispered, in a slight trembling voice. “Maybe management should replace me on the next single.”

Jurina stopped instantly what she was doing to turn and look at her in surprise, feeling a pang in her chest when she witnessed the tears springing to her eyes. After months of keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself, it appeared she was willing to let it out. It should be a good thing that she was confiding in her. After all, Jurina had long ago stated Ayuka was free to come and talk to her whenever she seemed fit, even more when something was troubling her. However, it was always heartbreaking to watch another group member cracking in front of you. No matter how many times it happened in the past, it was impossible to stay indifferent.

“Don’t say that,” Jurina protested gently, reducing the distance to brush away the few tears now rolling down her cheeks. “You are doing great. Don’t give up.”

“Jurina-san is always so nice with me.” Ayuka smiled faintly. “But I’m not naïve. Things started to fall apart when I was appointed WCenter. How… How can I not be held responsible!?”

“Look at me,” Jurina requested, holding her cheeks when the younger girl started avoiding her gaze. “You are not to blame for all this. Do you hear me?”

Despite her statement, Jurina knew Ayuka was having difficulty agreeing with her. Her sobbing was showing no sign of stopping – even now increasing a little – and she was still refusing to meet her eyes, in a mix of shame and despair. When words unfortunately didn’t have the desired effect Jurina pulled the younger girl into her arms, realizing her WCenter was definitely in need of physical comfort when she immediately leaned her head on her shoulder.

With her left hand, she caressed Ayuka’s back gently, while listening sadly to the manifestation of her WCenter’s distress. What could she possibly add to calm her down? No, Ayuka was not naïve. She might be young, she was completely aware of her surroundings and of what people were saying behind her back. Thankfully, members were nothing but supportive and really encouraging her, but not the same could be said about all the fans and a part of the press.

Jurina couldn’t help but see some similarities with the situation she had herself been going through when she was introduced to AKB’s fans with Oogoe Diamond. Fans were viewing with a jaundiced eye her unexpected presence alongside AKB’s center Atsuko Maeda. Who was that newcomer who was daring to steal the spotlight from other girls? Jurina would never forget all the negative comments she had received at the time, nor the fans that manifested their disapproval by refusing to shake hands with her during handshakes events.

It was a difficult period of her life, Jurina would not deny it. Oh yes, the idea of quitting had crossed her mind more than a few times. Tears would also flow down her cheeks when she had had too much, hiding carefully her sorrow in a quiet room where no one could see the allegedly strong ace of SKE breaking down. However, she was convinced those moments of hardship shouldn’t only be viewed in a negative light. Not only they had helped her grow as a human being, they had also shaped her into the strong-willed and successful idol she now was.

Jurina held the other girl close for a little while, relieved when she heard the crying progressively decreasing. Despite it, Jurina guessed Ayuka still needed to get a few more things off her chest, and she invited her to take a seat with her when she appeared calmer. When she set her eyes on her again, the first thing she noticed were her puffy eyes and rosy cheeks. A part of her wished Ayuka had not kept her emotions bottled up inside all his time. But after all, wasn’t it common for them to keep their true feelings to themselves? Wasn’t it a core value implanted into every little girl and boy’s mind at a young age?

Checking briefly the time on the clock, Jurina realized Ayuka’s mom was supposed to come and pick her up in roughly thirty minutes. It wasn’t much, but Jurina was well decided to take advantage of that time to restore Ayuka’s confidence.

“SKE is entering a new era, and things will never be the same anymore,” Jurina started, noting she now had Ayuka’s full attention. “Change is always hard to accept, whether for members or fans: but what other choice do we have? I love SKE, and I know how much the group means to you too. This is a difficult period of transition, and you are hearing unpleasant things but… fans barely know you. It’s destabilizing for them to see a new face, especially after being used to Rena’s presence for so many years. They need time. Time to learn more about you and like you. After the next single, I have faith they will realize you are a perfect match for that position.”

Jurina paused and watched attentively Ayuka who seemed to be processing everything she had uttered. Somehow, she could tell by her lasting silence that she was not entirely convinced, and still doubting herself. She didn’t really expect any less. Yes, she had tried to make her words as sincere as possible, but they had no magical power. You couldn’t change someone’s opinion so easily, especially when many external factors were playing against you.

As seconds went by and Ayuka didn’t reply, Jurina ended up believing their conversation might be truly over. Nevertheless, she mulled it over in her head what else she could add to reassure her once again, until the latter broke the silence in the most unexpected way.

“Everyone misses Rena-san. Fans, members. You both were the perfect WCenters, and no one will able be able to match your level. I didn’t know Rena-san well, but I miss her too. I miss her so much.”

Jurina was momentarily caught off guard by the admission and the evident melancholy in Ayuka’s voice, trying to understand the reason behind it. It is true to say Rena and Ayuka had never been really close while in SKE, mainly because the young kenkyuusei had always been way too impressed by the charismatic aura surrounding the older Matsui to approach her. However, Jurina was starting to get an idea of why she had mentioned SKE’s former figurehead.

Jurina was conscious it was not an easy task for Ayuka to assume such important position. She would never forget the emotion submerging her when they found themselves alone after Yuasa announced the senbatsu composition of their summer single. Evidently, Ayuka would have preferred if Rena was still in SKE. Not only because she was one of the leading members who contributed to a large extent to the group’s popularity, but also because she wouldn’t have the heavy task of replacing her.

“I miss her too,” Jurina confessed, a certain nostalgia invaded her as the words left her lips naturally. “But Rena is gone, now. We need to accept it and move on. It’s essential for the survival of SKE.”

Even though she believed deep down every word she had uttered, it was still a bit painful to admit the truth. Rena had been gone for six months now, but the consequences of her graduation could still be felt after all this time. Jurina didn’t fool herself into believing SKE would get over it fine and fast. On the contrary. After all, had it not taken her months to accept the harsh reality that Rena would never be by her side in SKE anymore?

However, Jurina wanted to believe SKE would overcome this difficult moment of transition in time. She adored SKE with all her heart, and every member had worked hard to transform the small sister group of 2008 into a solid, popular group. Of course, their sales numbers couldn’t compete with those of their mother group, but they had nothing to be ashamed of when you saw how many SKE members were well ranked during the general elections.

Giving up was not an option. In a few years, when SKE would have found worthy successors to Rena and her, she would gladly pass the torch and graduate. Until then, she was going to keep representing SKE and prove to the whole country that Rena’s graduation didn’t sign the end of the group. As of Ayuka, she had indisputable potential to be the next ace, and Jurina hoped management wasn’t going to waste her talent.

 


 

 

Jurina couldn’t possibly ignore how exhausted she felt when she arrived that evening at Rena’s apartment. A little voice inside her head was telling her it wouldn’t take her long to reach the bedroom and sleep, yet she didn’t regret one bit having that important conversation with Ayuka. When they split up, she could sense by the younger girl’s sincere smile as she waved her goodbye that she felt a little more appeased.

A pleased smile crept upon Jurina’s face when she noticed Rena preparing dinner, and she entered the kitchen once she placed her coat in the hallway and removed her shoes. A small sigh left her lips when the older girl greeted her with a warm hug, taking the necessary time to relish the comfort of her girlfriend’s arms.

These last four months, they had been able to see each other practically every day, considering most of Rena’s jobs occurred in Nagoya. To be honest, Jurina had been startled about this discovery, really expecting the older girl to travel often between Nagoya and Japan’s capital, and for longer periods of time. As curious as it was, she never questioned her about it once.

First, Jurina was never one to meddle into Rena’s career and second, she had to admit she appreciated having her girlfriend by her side so much. No, Rena was not in SKE anymore, but she was still able to see her on a daily basis as if nothing happened. Somehow, that fact made all the changes occurring in her professional life easier to accept.

After that, Jurina joined the bedroom to take a quick shower, her sleepiness reaching a new level when a yawn inadvertently escaped her lips on the way. Oh yes, her head was definitely going to hit the mattress as soon as she would have finished dinner. No television for her tonight. Once her shower was over the young ace took a seat on the side of the bed to finish getting dressed, her thoughts wandering back unconsciously to Ayuka and the future of SKE.

Next month, management was going to take a decision regarding the fate of her WCenter. Were they going to listen to her advice and renew their faith in her? Or SKE was going to know their third WCenter in six months? Jurina refused to imagine the look on Ayuka’s face if they chose to replace her. The poor girl was going to be devastated, and evidently take it as a sign of failure.

Ayuka didn’t deserve such a treatment, but Jurina believed to already have done everything in her power to prove her worth. Now, Ayuka’s fate was in management’s hands, and Jurina really hoped they would make the right decision when the senbatsu for the next single would be announced.

Rena’s voice warning her dinner was now ready jolted her out of her thoughts, and she stood up to join her. On her way, out she took a brief peek at Rena’s desk, her curiosity piqued when she discovered a thick script resting on the table. The temptation was impossible to resist and she turned the first pages, understanding by Rena’s few written notes in the margin that she had been offered a new role.

Her concern for Ayuka fell at the back of her head as she rejoiced this great news, her immediate thought being to congratulate the older girl. However, she guessed something was not right when she entered the kitchen, and her girlfriend greeted her with a slight nervous look when she mentioned enthusiastically the script she had seen on her desk.

Jurina frowned at her peculiar reaction. Shouldn’t Rena be happy about the new job opportunity she had received? If she had already made notes, it was evident she was seriously considering accepting. So why was her enthusiasm met with an unusual, lasting silence?

“About that…” Rena started hesitantly, Jurina’s confusion increasing a notch when she took a seat at the table, and the older girl seemed to be searching her words as she was pouring miso soup in their bowls. “I haven’t accepted it yet, because I wanted to talk to you about it first.”

Jurina stared at her in bewilderment, processing her words as the older girl was now taking a seat opposite her. Since when did Rena need her opinion about a role? Until now, she had always managed her career alone, leaving her out of the decision process. Jurina never minded it and even less felt offended by it. Rena was an independent person, who always preferred to make her own decisions by herself.

Jurina understood it and accepted it perfectly. It was Rena’s career: she had no business butting in. That was Jurina’s core belief. So why was Rena acting as if she needed her permission? It didn’t make sense at all. Unless…

Wait. Now that she thought about it, there had been a contentious issue between them recently. A certain scene Rena had chosen to shoot without warning her beforehand, an omission that led them to have a serious conversation when Rena returned from Kyoto in September. Could it be the reason for Rena’s hesitation?

“Are you… going to do kissing scenes?” Jurina asked, not feeling hungry anymore as she gazed at her in mild apprehension. She couldn’t lie: the idea certainly didn’t appeal to her. It was unpleasant to imagine your partner kissing someone else on screen, especially when the kiss was not fake as you could expect, but real. When she had recently caught up with Destiny she had refused to see any intimate scenes involving her girlfriend and skipped them without the slight remorse.

“No, nothing like that. My character doesn’t have any intimate scenes,” Rena quickly reassured her.

Jurina relaxed instantly. Of course, she never had any intention of protesting if the actress had announced it was indeed the case. Rena was in control of her career and she accepted every one of her decisions, even if they didn’t always really appeal to her. However, it was an undeniable relief that her prediction ended up being wrong. But then… what was it all about?

“You see…” Rena’s hesitant voice brought her attention back to her. “I’m not sure to accept because the shooting will be in Osaka and is supposed to last for at least a month. I know SKE is going through a difficult time, and I’m not sure it’s wise for me to leave right now.”

So that was the reason, Jurina mused as she watched the older girl who had fallen quiet again. Jurina couldn’t help but look away, letting the news sink in. To be honest, she should have expected it. It was obvious Rena was not going to stay in Nagoya eternally. Of course, those four months they spent together were bound not to last.

Jurina nibbled on her lower lip, well aware of the other girl watching her attentively and waiting for her reaction from the other side of the table. Even though Rena had not specifically asked any question, she could read between the lines easily.

Jurina was deeply moved Rena was considering refusing a job for her sake in the light of the difficulties the group was recently going through. Her impulsive side wanted to ask her to stay in Nagoya, at least until SKE’s situation was more stable and Ayuka’s fate clearer. As long as she remembered Rena had always been her rock – a true moral support – and there was no denying that having her by her side those last months had been a great help to overcome the aftermath of her graduation.

But could she let her selfishness speak in regards of such an important decision? They weren’t teenagers anymore. At the age of twenty-five Rena had a solo career to manage, and she herself would be turning twenty in March, marking her passage to adulthood. There was no place for such childishness in their life anymore.

“Go to Osaka,” Jurina declared, refusing to listen to her selfish desires any longer and burying them deep inside her. When she noticed a flicker of doubt still present in Rena’s brown orbs she knew she had to put an end to it, and she immediately reached across the table to take her hand. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

It was sometimes curious the paradox that could exist between what your mind was telling you to do, and what your heart truly wanted. It was not the first time Jurina found herself in a situation with such conflicted feelings. As she gave Rena a smile and laced their fingers together, she was conscious she was not completely honest with her. Did the older girl see through her lies?

If that was the case, she didn’t say anything about it. After a little while, Jurina retracted her hand and tore her eyes away from her to look down to her untouched miso soup. Unconsciously, apprehension filled her chest progressively at the idea that they would be separated again, but she tried to ignore the unpleasant feeling. It was out of the question to hold Rena back. That thought in mind, she took her spoon and started to taste Rena’s soup, well decided not to come back on her words.

 


 

 

Two weeks later…

It was already dark outside that Thursday of late January when Jurina waited alongside Rena for her taxi to arrive. As she let her gaze wander around the small street of Nagoya and noted how quiet it was, Jurina really wished she didn’t find herself so nervous at the imminent departure of her girlfriend. Somehow, she strongly believed two weeks would be enough for her to accept the idea of their new separation. After all, it definitely wasn’t the first time they were going to spend some time apart, and it wasn’t the longest time Rena would be away either. Despite being aware of those facts, it didn’t make things any better. Visibly, parting with Rena was something she still wasn’t able to get used to.

No matter how many times she tried to silence her selfish desires, a small part of her still wished the older girl had changed her mind along the way and decided to stay in Nagoya. Each time she would hear that voice surfacing again she would silence it in a mix of frustration and shame. She was supposed to think as an adult: so why was the desire to keep Rena by her side remained so strong?

“I’ll call you as soon as I arrive at the hotel,” Rena said calmly as she turned to face her. “And of course, we’ll stay in contact on LINE every day.”

Jurina nodded, the current knot in her stomach preventing her from doing any more than that. She knew the taxi would arrive at any moment now, and she couldn’t help but pull the older girl into her arms. At first, the older girl didn’t reply to the embrace – visibly startled by its suddenness – until Jurina felt a pair of arms slipping around her neck progressively.

Jurina hummed lightly as she listened to the older girl whispering gentle, soothing words in her ear, trying to take the most of their last moment together. When she felt emotion starting to submerge her she closed her eyes shut firmly, refusing to let tears slide down her cheeks. Why on earth was she being so emotional? This wasn’t happening as planned. Her smile was the last thing Rena was supposed to see before entering the taxi.

When Rena pulled away to glance at her she mustered her best smile, but the older girl didn’t seem fooled by it considering her slight concerned look. Seeing the question starting to form on Rena’s lips she impulsively captured them into a kiss, but barely had time to relish the sensation of Rena’s soft lips against her that the older girl pushed her away quickly.

Saying that she was taken aback by her reaction would be an understatement, and she tried to decipher the reason behind her action when she saw Rena staring back at her in shock. When the older girl diverted her attention from her to look around her in alert, that’s when the stupidity of her impulsive action hit her. She had kissed Rena in public. Something they had promised each other to never do.

Jurina immediately scanned the dark street in concern, her heart beating a little faster inside her chest at the thought their relationship could have been discovered because of her recklessness. The air had become way heavier as they were both nervously checking that no one had witnessed such an intimate moment, but relief progressively spread through Jurina’s chest when there was not a living soul in sight.

Still, she was feeling terribly guilty at what she had dared to do in public, and the apology left her lips naturally. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to. I…”

“It’s… it’s fine,” Rena interrupted her gently when Jurina started babbling, incapable of finding the right words to justify her action. “No one saw us. It’s fine.”

Jurina realized the older girl truly didn’t hold it against her when a sincere smile plastered her face, and she placed a soft kiss against her cheek the moment after. In the distance, Jurina noticed the headlights of a taxi approaching, and she knew the moment of the separation had arrived. Taking a step back she watched carefully the older girl who was now looking in the taxi’s direction expectantly, trying to imprint every little detail of her face inside her mind.

For a month, they would have to settle for simple conversations on LINE and occasional video calls. They had been going through a similar situation already when Rena was shooting Destiny in Kyoto, but Jurina knew she was going to miss the physical contact the most. Hours of chatting could simply never replace your girlfriend’s gentle kisses or her warm embrace.

When the taxi arrived at their level Rena let the driver place her suitcase inside the trunk, and she turned to pull Jurina into a tight embrace one last time. The young ace smiled when a lingering kiss was placed against her cheek, and her heart fluttered when – before stepping inside the taxi – Rena didn’t forget to renew her affection for her in the form of three little words.

Chapter Text

Osaka.

Rena lifted the curtain to take a curious peek outside, admiring the city from the view of her hotel room. When was the last time she had been to Osaka? Ah yes, a few years ago, Rena recalled progressively. It was a distant memory, and she unfortunately didn’t have time to really visit the city, engrossed by her work as member of SKE. Would she this time be able to appreciate the city a little more? Or was she forever fated to only catch a glimpse of it through the window of a taxi?

In Kyoto, she certainly didn’t have the luxury of enjoying the wonders of Japan’s old capital, considering her time was mostly divided between her hotel room and the shooting location. Jurina’s unexpected visit during her birthday had been a real breath of fresh air. She wasn’t supposed to spend more than a month in Osaka, but she secretly hoped circumstances would allow her to have a little freer time.

The older Matsui turned on her heels, gazing back at the script waiting for her on the small table. Reducing the distance, she pulled a chair and took a seat, soon turning the first pages to review her notes carefully. In little less than an hour, she was expected in the director’s office to discuss a few matters regarding her role.

She hadn’t signed the contract yet, but it was only a formality. She wanted to be part of that project, and only a couple of things needed to be cleared before she could officially accept. After finishing going through the script one last time she diverted her attention to her phone, wondering what Jurina was up to this morning.

Grabbing the device, she texted her girlfriend to inform her of her imminent appointment with the movie director, and that she would tell her how it went afterwards. Once the message was sent she shut her phone, not wishing to take the risk of having it ring later during the important meeting.

Matsumoto-san was an enthusiastic 40-year-old director, Rena discovered when she entered his office a while later. Indeed, she was barely seated that compliments came one after another, the man having evidently enjoyed her performance on Destiny. In fact, the director wasn’t shy in admitting that he immediately had her in mind when the script fell into his hands. Rena was more than surprised to hear that, but also felt deeply touched.

After that, they went over a few matters regarding the script, and the director quickly managed to put her at ease. Her mind was already made when she left his office, and she parted with the director. Not only had he kindly replied to all her questions and successfully managed to alleviate a few doubts she still had, she found the role truly interesting. She couldn’t think of one good reason to refuse it.

To be honest, she had missed acting these last four months. Of course, she had enjoyed spending time by Jurina’s side, and she didn’t regret her decision to stay in Nagoya. However, there was no denying she was truly at her happiest when she was in front of a camera. Shooting commercials, doing photoshoots or participating to television programs were activities she didn’t mind, but nothing was more exhilarating than putting herself into a character’s shoes. With that new role, she was able to demonstrate her talents again, even though she sensed no role would ever be able to match her previous great experience on the shooting of Destiny.

It was past noon when she took the direction of her hotel, her first instinct being to switch her phone on when she found herself in the taxi. She didn’t think too much of it when her previous message hadn’t received a reply yet, figuring Jurina must have been busy all morning. She sent her a short text to inform her she would sign the contract tomorrow and would give her more information once she would know more about the exact duration of the shooting.

On her way back to the hotel she noticed a few restaurants, and briefly considered going out for lunch. She had the entire afternoon free: there was no rush. In the end, she disregarded this idea, opting instead for simple room service in her quiet hotel room.

As soon as she closed the hotel room’s door and removed her coat, the sound of her phone ringing distracted her. Believing it was Jurina calling her back she immediately grabbed her phone, before realizing her prediction was all wrong by her best friend’s name flashing on the screen. The last time she had been in touch with Airi was last week, when they went out to a restaurant in Nagoya for a casual dinner between friends.

“Hi, Rena…” Airi’s voice sounded as soon as she picked up.

“Hello Airin,” Rena replied enthusiastically, making herself comfortable on the bed. “I’ve arrived yesterday evening in Osaka. The meeting with the director went well. I’m signing the contract tomorrow.”

Rena expected her friend to congratulate her, but to her surprise her announcement was received with nothing but complete silence. The older Matsui frowned, wondering why her best friend was not saying anything. Now that she thought about it, she seemed a bit tense when she picked up a few seconds ago. “Airin? Are you alright?”

When her question didn’t receive any reply, the older Matsui immediately grew concerned, fearing her friend might have received some bad news recently. Had her contract with Weekly Shonen Jump not been renewed? For a little more than a year now, Airi had been drawing a weekly comic strip for the magazine, and it still hadn’t been confirmed whether they would renew her contract or not.

Rena could see that her friend was a little stressed about it when they met at a restaurant last week. Airi enjoyed working on that comic strip, and it had been well received by readers. However, Rena was well aware nothing was set in stone when it came to this business. A change in the editorial line. A preference for another artist. No matter how hardworking you proved to be, you were never immune to an unexpected replacement.

“I’m fine. I was calling to see how you were doing…” Airi’s hesitant voice broke the silence. “But now, I can see you still don’t know what happened.”

“I’m sorry?” Rena was more than confused by her friend’s enigmatic words. Until now, she believed the matter to be related to her friend’s work, but it appeared she had been completely off-track. Why was she asking her if she was fine? What was she supposed to know that she apparently ignored?

“Something… something happened this morning,” Airi started to explain, but couldn’t find the strength in her to continue. “I can’t believe I’m the one announcing you such a thing. It shouldn’t be me. It… It can’t be me.”

There was a pause at the end of the line, and Rena’s perplexity increased a notch. As she was about to her ask further explanations she received a double call, and noted her agent was trying to reach her. She pondered putting Airi on hold for a brief moment to discover what her agent wanted, before figuring out she probably wished to talk about the signing of the new contract, and therefore concluded their conversation could wait.

Airi, on the contrary, couldn’t. She was behaving way too oddly for her liking and was manifestly on the verge of sharing something important with her. Rena found herself torn between her wish to know more about it, and the fear it was something serious. When was the last time Airi had acted so nervous with her? Ah yes, when she confessed her feelings two years ago.

“You’re starting to scare me a little,” Rena admitted, when her friend remained desperately silent. Airi was one of the persons she trusted the most in this world, and she certainly had confided in her more than with anyone else. Whatever the issue might be, she shouldn’t be so afraid to tell her. “Tell me what happened.”

“Rena…” The older Matsui felt apprehensive when her friend uttered her name so hesitantly. She had not a clue what she was having so much difficulty to announce, but a little voice inside her head was starting to tell her it couldn’t be good for Airi to be beating about the bush in such an unusual way. “This morning, an article about Jurina and you came out. Bunshun… they took pictures.”

Rena froze instantly. For Airi’s tone to be so serious, she deduced it couldn’t be innocent pictures of them hanging out. Not only Jurina and her never held hands in public, they even less kissed out in the open. For them to be featured in the magazine famous for creating scandals, it had to be something more explicit.

Last evening’s incident came to the forefront of her mind, when she had parted ways with Jurina and the latter had kissed her out of impulse. The moment had been quickly forgotten and she had relaxed almost immediately, persuaded no one had witnessed such an intimate scene. Now, Airi’s words were making her fear a paparazzi might had taken advantage of the dark to hinder his presence and take compromising pictures.

“What… what do the pictures show?” Rena asked tentatively. Maybe it was wishful thinking on her behalf, but a part of her still somehow hoped they had only been caught embracing each other, and the pictures didn’t show more than a few kisses on the cheek.

“I wish I could tell you the pictures are blurry or that we don’t recognize you well but…” Airi’s discomfort was now palpable across the phone. “Both your faces are clear. We see you kissing… intimately.”

Rena’s heart stopped. In the distance, she could vaguely hear her friend apologizing for bringing such bad news, but she was totally incapable of formulating a single word right now. Bunshun had exposed them, and she was not naïve enough to believe they could get away with it easily. Even though it was too soon to know the extent of the damage done, there would be evident consequences.

“Jurina…” Rena whispered, widening her eyes when she realized in terror the terrible repercussions on her career as an idol. Whatever the possible consequences might be on her own career, she wasn’t an idol anymore. Yes, she was still viewed as a former idol in the eyes of many, and her fan basis was mainly composed of people who followed her when she was still a member of SKE. However, her official status had nevertheless changed when she graduated. If she wanted to date anyone, she was – technically – completely free to do so.

Jurina, on the contrary, was not.

“I’m sorry, but I have to hang up,” Rena said, now fearing that if Airi had heard about the pictures, the younger girl had been informed about it too. She needed to get in touch with her, and fast. “I need to contact Jurina.”

“I understand,” Airi replied slowly. “I’m sorry to be the one announcing you this. I thought you already knew, that’s why I was calling you. I wanted to see how you were doing.”

“I know, and please stop apologizing. You did nothing wrong.” Rena tried to reassure her, sensing her friend was still feeling embarrassed and a little guilty about it. “I’ll talk to you soon. I promise.”

As soon as they hang up, Rena tried to compose herself as best as she could to think about her next move with a clear head. She knew she needed to call Jurina, but she was still having difficulty accepting what had happened. For two years, they had been careful in public, and made sure only a few selected friends knew about the true nature of their relationship.

A few times, she had feared of losing Jurina’s affection, especially when she took the decision to graduate and the younger girl had not taken it well. But being discovered? Never did the thought really cross her mind. They were cautious, very cautious. And one small, stupid mistake had been enough to turn their lives upside down.

“Wait. I was followed…” Rena murmured, now coming to a realization. In Kyoto, Bunshun had taken pictures of Yosuke and her, using the pretext of an innocent dinner between colleagues to spread the foolish rumor that they were dating. At the time, she hadn’t been really concerned by it, and successfully put an end to the false rumor through a brief tweet.

Much as the matter was quickly forgotten, it appeared the magazine had refused to concede defeat. After Kyoto, they had kept targeting her, in search of a juicy scoop. This time, Rena had the bad feeling the issue wouldn’t be solved so easily. If pictures were really as explicit as Airi indicated, she had no idea how she was going to pass it as a simple, friendly encounter with the ace of SKE.

The last thing Rena wanted was to see the object of the scandal, but she knew she had no choice if she wished to assess the situation properly. She realized how truly severe it was when she accessed her Twitter account, and saw it flooded with hundreds of messages. Rumor. Pictures. Jurina. Those were the words that were repeated the most as she scrolled down. After reading a few of them, she discovered opinion seemed divided, between those who believed it was a false rumor, and others questioning the nature of her relationship with the younger Matsui.

After a little while she couldn’t take it anymore, refusing to read any longer people debating her private life with such ease, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Remembering her primary objective, she went in search of the infamous pictures, finding them unfortunately easily. She felt more than apprehensive when she slid down her screen to access them, completely discouraged when she realized Airi had not exaggerated. Not only you could recognize their faces despite the obscurity, they were seen kissing on one of the pictures.

Taking a better look at the pictures, she tried to figure out from where the paparazzi could possibly have taken them, before quickly giving up. Why did it matter anyway? The harm was already done. Three pictures had been taken, and one of them was definitely not innocent. Rena was conscious she would need at some point to elaborate a strategy regarding the best way to address the scandal, but she was currently incapable of clear thinking.

The pictures vanished from her screen as she exited her Twitter account and decided to call Jurina next. After dialing her number, she pressed the phone against her ear, still completely in the dark whether Jurina knew of the article or not. If not, it would be tricky to announce such a terrible thing on the phone. If she already knew, she would have to reassure her enough to make sure her girlfriend didn’t give in to panic and take any rash decision.

Rena waited, but the younger girl never picked it. For an instant, she thought about leaving a message about it on the voicemail, before quickly thinking against it. She needed to talk to her verbally. That’s why she opted instead for a simple, brief message, asking her calmly to call her back.

As she placed the phone onto her lap, she realized there was another important issue she needed to deal with. Tomorrow, she was supposed to sign the contract, and was expected on the shooting location at the end of the week. In the light of the recent events, the older Matsui knew she needed the reconsider her plans.

Whether Jurina was already aware of the article or not, one thing was certain: she couldn’t let her deal with the consequences alone. SKE was already going through a rough path, and there was no doubt those pictures were not going to improve the group’s situation in the least. It wasn’t Jurina who was targeted by the magazine in the first place, but she was now involved as much.

Staying in Osaka for a month and keep on with the shooting as originally planned was now unconceivable. Rena knew she would need to inform her agent about her change of plans but decided it could wait a few more hours. Rena stood up from the bed, walking decidedly towards her suitcase. It didn’t take long to gather the few things scattered around the room, and she closed her suitcase once she was done. Right now, she had one goal in mind, and that was catching the next Shinkansen leaving for Nagoya.

Chapter Text

When Rena arrived in Nagoya a little while later and stepped out of the Nozomi, she grew more than concerned when she checked her phone again, and Jurina still hadn’t replied to her message or even tried to call her back. While moving towards the taxi line she decided to take advantage of the fact she was not on the train anymore to call her again, startled when it didn’t even ring a single time, but fell directly on the voicemail.

Even if the younger girl had been busy all morning, she surely had time to check her messages during pauses. She always did. A little voice inside her head was telling her this unusual lack of response couldn’t be a good sign. It was the middle of the afternoon: the possibility that Jurina had not heard of the pictures by now was low. Could it be the reason why she has shut her phone? To not be bothered with unsolicited phone calls?

It only took half an hour for Rena to reach her apartment, and she leaned her back against the front door once she was safely inside. She let her gaze wander around her apartment mind-absently, its peacefulness a sharp contrast with her own restlessness. Since she left Osaka, the knot in her stomach had simply refused to leave her. After a little while, she removed her coat and her shoes, before deciding to empty her suitcase.

Rena waited patiently for Jurina to get back to her, but her name never flashed on her Smartphone once. As the hours passed, she considered finding out about the group’s current location, in order to meet Jurina after one of her jobs. However, she brushed away the thought fast, realizing it wouldn’t be wise to be seen together in public after the recent release of the controversial pictures. It would only add fuel to the fire.

At 8 p.m., and with still no news from her girlfriend, Rena knew she couldn’t stay idle anymore. Given that she systematically fell on Jurina’s voicemail each time she tried to reach her, she realized she had to find another way to get in touch with her. One name came swiftly to her mind when she searched who could possibly be aware of SKE’s ace whereabouts, and she grabbed her phone to send a short text to Akane. Somehow, she had a good feeling the latter would provide her with the information she needed.

Her instinct didn’t betray her. Only a few minutes passed before she heard her phone beeping, and she gave her undivided attention to the text she had received from Jurina’s friend. Hi, Rena. Jurina is staying at my place tonight.

Rena processed the revelation. It definitely wasn’t the first time Jurina had a sleepover at Akane’s place – she had done it plenty of times in the past – but Rena was conscious it couldn’t be a mere coincidence for Jurina to choose to sleep at her friend’s apartment that evening in particular. Now, no doubt was possible: Jurina was definitely aware of the article.

A knot rose in Rena’s throat, fearing her girlfriend was not in a good emotional state right now. More than anything, she was relieved she was not going through this difficult time alone but had her trusted friend Akane by her side right now. However, now that she had discovered Jurina’s specific location, she categorically refused to let another hour pass without seeing her.

 


 

 

“R–Rena?” Churi blurted out in surprise when she rang at Akane’s apartment a little while later, and the latter opened the door. “Jurina told me you were shooting a movie in Osaka. I had no idea you were back in Nagoya…”

Ah yes, that’s right, Rena realized when she noted Akane’s confused expression. When she sent Jurina the short message asking to call her back, she still hadn’t taken such decision yet. And after that, she unfortunately never managed to reach the other girl. “Hi Akane,” Rena inclined her head slightly, now feeling slightly guilty for not announcing her arrival beforehand. “I’m sorry for coming uninvited, but… can I see Jurina?”

“Of course.” Akane nodded and opened the door wider, taking a step aside. “Come in.”

Rena’s eyes wandered briefly around the apartment she was discovering for the first time. Even though she had never visited the other SKE member before, Jurina had one day communicated Akane’s address, and she was thankful for the fact their apartments were not far from each other. However, she didn’t take time to really study the place in detail. Unfortunately, she wasn’t here for a friendly visit, but was in search of a certain someone who didn’t appear to be present right now. Intrigued, she focused her attention back on Akane. “I’m sorry but… where is Jurina?”

“Ah…” Akane turned around slightly, motioning a door a bit further away on the left. “She’s resting in my bedroom. But before you go and see her, I have to warn you: she’s not… well.”

Akane’s statement was not that surprising considering the circumstances, but her concern nevertheless grew a notch at her words. Now, she really dreaded what she was going to discover behind that door. How badly had Jurina reacted to the news?

“Thank you for being here for her,” Rena said in all honesty, putting her fears momentarily at the back of her head to show her gratitude towards her host.

“Jurina is my friend.” The other girl shook her head lightly. “I will always be present whenever she needs me.”

A smile moved to Rena’s lips, her words only serving in reinforcing what she already knew regarding Akane’s personality. When it came to Jurina, she was truly a trusted and dedicated friend. Without her consent, her eyes soon flickered over to the shut door behind Akane’s shoulder, and she didn’t wait any longer when Akane invited her to go and see Jurina.

Tentatively, she opened the bedroom door slowly, her feet pausing on the floor when she stepped inside, and her eyes needed a few seconds to adjust to the obscurity greeting her. Apart from the light of a small bedside lamp table, the room was plunged into darkness. Once she was able to discern things better around her, her attention got drawn to a form laying on the bed. For an instant, the older Matsui wondered if the younger girl hadn’t fallen asleep, considering she was completely still underneath the blanket.

Wishing to assess it for herself she walked towards the bed carefully, her predictions ending up being all wrong when the mattress started shifting at the sound of her approach, and two eyes glanced back at her in incredulity. “R–Rena? What… what are you doing in Nagoya?”

The older Matsui took a seat on the side of the bed but didn’t reply straight away, her heart sinking at the painful view offered to her. Despite the partial darkness, she could distinguish easily her girlfriend’s puffy eyes through the dim light, evident proof that those last few hours had definitely not been easy on the member’s emotional state. How long had she been crying? Had her good friend Akane been here to comfort her or had she stubbornly tried to remain strong and hidden her tears from others?

When Jurina straightened up on the bed Rena didn’t think twice and pulled her into a hug. The embrace was returned immediately, and Rena didn’t miss the feeling of Jurina’s fingers clutching the back of her vest.

“I left Osaka as soon as I heard the news. I had to see you,” Rena explained, caressing her back gently. “Didn’t you get my message? Why did you shut your phone all day?”

“I…” Jurina’s voice was small and hesitant when it sounded against her ear. “When I listened to your message, I was still busy with work. I was going to call you back later once I would have more free time, but I heard about the article and I was completely… I couldn’t even…”

“I understand,” Rena interrupted her gently when the other girl was beginning to have difficulty formulating coherent sentences. It was not hard to guess the younger girl was probably reliving the moment as she was speaking, and Rena couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to keep doing her job with a smile on her face after the terrible news.

“I–I can’t believe this is happening,” Jurina spoke up after a little while, and the tremble in her voice taught her the younger girl was evidently still in a fragile emotional state. “W–Why us? Why now?”

Rena tightened her hold when she could sense the other girl was letting her emotions out, and now on the verge of tears. More than anything, she wanted to reassure her that everything was going to be alright, but she couldn’t bring herself to give her false hopes. Not only didn’t she have answers to those questions, she wasn’t naïve enough to believe there wouldn’t be consequences after the release of the article.

“We have no other choice but to wait…” Rena confessed painfully, not liking one bit being so powerless. Unfortunately, it was completely out of their hands, and it was still too soon to know the impact the article was going to have on both their careers.

“What if they ask me to graduate?” Jurina’s voice pitched up in despair.

Jurina’s question didn’t come from left field: she knew it was one of her deepest fears. Jurina loved SKE with all of her heart: she had given so much to the group since its creation in 2008. If their producer came to such a drastic decision, there was no doubt it would devastate her completely. Having the ace of SKE forced to graduate prematurely due to scandal reasons would also evidently tarnish the group’s image, and fragilize its situation even more. If such a thing happened, Jurina would never forgive herself.

Rena was no fortune teller: she had no idea what decision management would take in the light of the recent compromising pictures. However, even though Jurina’s fears were legitimate, her pragmatic side was telling her management wouldn’t go to such length as asking Jurina to leave. Of course, this article was not a small issue you could sweep under the carpet discreetly. However, one thing was certain: as leading figure, Jurina was essential to SKE. Losing her right now would be a real blow, and maybe even sign the end of the group’s existence.

Was management really ready to take such a huge risk?

Rena disentangled herself from her girlfriend’s embrace, reading her dismay when they looked into each other’s eyes. Reaching for her hand she laced their fingers together, trying to sound as reassuring as possible when she replied. “I don’t know what decision our producer will take, but I don’t think they will ask you to graduate. I really don’t.”

Jurina shook her head in disagreement. “How can you be so optimistic… Did you see the pictures? They won’t ignore them.”

“No, they won’t…” Rena admitted, the truth impossible to deny. “But this is business and they can’t afford to let you go.”

Rena felt Jurina’s fingers slipping away from her grasp, and she watched her in concern when the latter averted her gaze. By her desperate look, she knew she had unfortunately failed to convince her. Right now, Jurina was too scared of being expelled from the group to contemplate any other positive outcome. But could she really blame her for that?

“This… this is all my fault,” Jurina’s voice quivered. “If I hadn’t kissed you… none of this would have happened.”

“Jurina…” Rena shook her head, catching her hand and giving it a light squeeze when she noticed tears forming in Jurina’s eyes. “Don’t say that. You’re not responsible.”

“Of course I am,” came Jurina’s stubborn reply, glancing back at her at once. “I was stupid and put us both in danger. What if you’re forced to change agency because of me? What if it affects your acting career? What if–”

“Please stop,” Rena cut her off, refusing to hear any longer her girlfriend putting all the blame on herself. Extending her arm, she brushed away the tears now sliding down her cheeks, her voice full of determination when she continued. “I’m calling my agent tomorrow to refuse the role in Osaka. If Grick doesn’t want me anymore, I’m sure she won’t wait long to inform me about it. If that’s the case, I’ll have to find another agency.”

“You’re not doing the shooting?!” Jurina stared back at her in shock. “Don’t do that, Rena. If you refuse that role–”

Rena hurriedly pressed a finger against Jurina’s lips. “I know there might be consequences on my career because of the pictures, but it’s not something I have any control over. Whatever the consequences might be, I will deal with them. But there’s one thing I won’t change my mind about: I’m not letting you deal with this situation alone. We’ve been together for two years, and I love you. You are more important than a simple job.”

Jurina’s lips were not cooperative when Rena leaned forward to kiss her, and it was easy to guess the younger girl didn’t approve of her decision. To be honest, she half expected her to insist when she pulled away, but the latter had a resigned look on her face when their eyes met. “You can be so stubborn sometimes.”

The affirmation made Rena smile. “Look who’s talking: Jurina Matsui, the most stubborn person I’ve ever met in my entire life.”

A smile inadvertently fell on Jurina’s lips and she pulled the older girl towards her, capturing her lips into a tender kiss. “I love you too, Rena. I love you so much…”

Rena tangled her fingers in Jurina’s hair when the latter leaned her head against her shoulder and they remained in that position for a while, relishing quietly the presence of the other. As the minutes passed, Rena could tell the younger girl had calmed down considerably, and she came to believe maybe consequences wouldn’t be so bad after all.

A few girls had been involved in scandals these last years, and management seemed more and more lenient over the years when dealing with those tricky cases. Rena believed it strongly when she previously claimed they wouldn’t ask Jurina to graduate. Not only was she the figurehead of SKE, there was no denying she was also one of the members the producer liked the most.

Noise coming from the kitchen caught Rena’s attention, reminding her of Akane’s presence in the apartment, and of the late hour. “Have you eaten yet?”

“No…” Jurina’s admission didn’t really surprise her. “I haven’t been able to eat a single thing since…”

Rena pulled away and stood up from the bed, giving Jurina’s hand a light tug. “Let’s go and eat something.”

At first, her offer was met with resistance as the younger girl simply didn’t bulge from the bed, until a second more firm pulling of her hand managed to do the trick, and Jurina followed her a little reluctantly outside the bedroom.

 


 

 

The following day, it was almost noon when Rena decided to call her agent back. Until now, she had ignored deliberately the message the older woman had left on her voicemail, deciding it was fundamental to meet and have a talk with Jurina before anything else. After dinner, she had left Jurina behind at Akane’s apartment, both agreeing it wouldn’t be wise for the younger girl to come back with her to her place.

When Rena took a seat on the sofa and grabbed her phone, she decided to carefully review one last time in her head what she was going to announce her agent, before making the call.

“Hello, Rena.” The familiar voice sounded a few seconds later on the other side of the line. “Have you arrived well in Nagoya?”

“Yes, yesterday afternoon,” the young actress replied, noting her interlocutor’s calm and polite tone. Under other circumstances, she wouldn’t have think anything of it but today, it caught her slightly off guard. If she didn’t know any better, she could easily think her agent was still completely in the dark, and the news of the article had not reached her yet. “I was calling to inform you I’m not going to sign the contract. I’m really sorry for the inconvenience.”

There was no reply, and the older Matsui held her breath in anticipation, unsure how the older woman was going to receive the news. Until now, she had always supported her decisions, even when she unexpectedly told her she wanted to stay in Nagoya for a few months at the end of the shooting of Destiny.

But this was an unforeseen situation: never had she changed her mind at the last minute, before the signing of a contract. Rena was a decisive person: once her mind was made, she never moved backwards. Much as it certainly didn’t please her to backtrack in such an unprofessional way, she didn’t see any other option.

“I spoke on the phone with the director earlier on,” Rena’s agent said at last. “He reaffirmed his deep wish to have you as leading actress of his movie. I really think you should accept the role.”

Rena processed the piece of information, reading behind the lines easily. Indirectly, her agent was informing her that – even though the director was definitely aware of the article – he was choosing not to pay attention to the rumors. A part of her definitely felt bad for letting him down, especially when he was still relying on her so much.

However, much as mulled it over in her head, she couldn’t think of any alternative. Of course, she could always visit Jurina on the week-end, as both cities were only one hour away by train. Much as it definitely was a possibility, she swiftly brushed it away. Once she would have signed the contract, there would be no turning back. If something serious happened to Jurina while she was away, she would be bind by her contract and completely stuck in Osaka.

To be honest, it wasn’t the sole reason why she was refusing the role. Since the article got released, she had difficulty focusing on anything else. Given the fact the shooting was supposed to start at the end of the week, she seriously feared she would have a hard time doing her job properly when her mind was not at it.

The director had picked her because he had admired her work on Destiny. As a result, she owed him exactly the same: a flawless performance. No middle ground was conceivable and even less acceptable. If she was incapable to give her everything in that role, another actress had to replace her.

“I’m truly sorry…” Rena acknowledged her agent’s attempt to make her change her mind and couldn’t hold it against her. After all, she was doing exactly the job required from an agent: guide their clients, and make sure they took the best decisions when it came to their professional career. “I will call the director in person to apologize.”

“I don’t want you to regret it later. The agency is supporting you no matter what, but… as your agent, I wouldn’t advise you to stay in Nagoya right now. I know Jurina and you are close, but I think it would be best to keep some distance from her. At least, until things have settled down a little.”

Close.

Rena didn’t know what to think when her agent used that neutral word to describe her relationship with the other girl. Oh no, she definitely never told her agent they were both romantically involved. That was a piece of information she had carefully kept to herself all this time, firmly convinced her private life was no one’s business. In fact, the younger girl had rarely been a subject of topic these last years, except on a professional level when they were supposed to do a job together.

Did her agent believe the conclusions drawn by the article, and supported by the compromising pictures? Or did she, like a certain part of her fanbase, disregard them as ridiculous rumors? The older Matsui had not a clue, but she had no intention of asking. Nevertheless, one piece of information surely didn’t escape her keen hearing. Despite the article, it appeared her agency had decided to keep on supporting her.

She had been mentally prepared to change agency if needed, and the knowledge she wouldn’t have to go through such trouble relieved her. Somehow, this positive outcome made her hope the article might not have too many repercussions on her actress career after all.

“I’m really thankful for your guidance,” Rena replied in all honesty. Until now, her agent had always given her sound advice, and she was definitely grateful for that. For nothing in the world, she would want to replace her. But in that case in particular, she had no choice but to go against her wishes. “I was truly looking forward to working with Matsumoto-san, but I have to decline that role.”

After those last words, Rena didn’t hear her agent insisting again. Whether she agreed with her final decision or not the older woman kept her thoughts to herself carefully, and they hang up a few seconds later. Rena let out a small sigh in relief, glad the matter was over. It had not been an easy announcement to make, but she was convinced it was the right thing to do.

While she was resting on the sofa Rena started feeling the effects of her short night, and she had to blink a few times to try hard to stay awake. No, she had not slept a lot the previous night…

After placing her phone on the coffee table, she laid down, deciding to take a small nap. Staring mind-absently at the ceiling of her living room, it didn’t take long before her thoughts drifted to Jurina and – as her eyelids closed progressively – hoped deep down she would also soon receive reassuring news.

 


 

 

It was the sound of her phone beeping that woke her up. Given the fact she was still feeling terribly sleepy when she opened her eyes tentatively, she figured she mustn’t have slept a lot. A fact that got confirmed when she realized it was still broad daylight, and the time on the clock in her living room indicated it was the beginning of the afternoon.

Once her eyes got accustomed to the light better, she extended her arm towards the table to reach for her phone, a little frustrated by the unwilling disturbance. Why didn’t she mute the sound on her phone earlier on? She was sleeping so well. All negative thoughts vanished when she realized it was a text from Jurina, and she straightened up on the sofa to read it.

When she read the three little words written in her message, her heart stopped.

They suspended me.

Chapter Text

It had now been two weeks since Jurina was suspended, and management still hadn’t specified – whether officially or informally – how long SKE’s ace suspension was going to last. It was evident that this scandal had taken them by complete surprise, and they were still unsure on the best way to deal with those unexpected pictures revealed by the magazine. The general opinion remained divided on the subject, and it was still too soon to measure the possible consequences on the group’s image.

As of Jurina, she had been terribly affected by her suspension. The minute Rena received the text from Jurina announcing her suspension, she had called her back immediately and had spent more than an hour over the phone trying desperately to comfort her girlfriend who proved to be completely inconsolable.

The weeks following the suspension’s announcement, the 19-year-old girl was not allowed to participate in any official SKE or AKB events, including live performances and handshake events. Since that evening Rena went to see Jurina at Akane’s apartment after her return from Osaka, both Matsui did not meet again. In the light of Jurina’s suspension, Rena had thought it best that they keep their distance, at least until management had officially made a decision regarding Jurina’s future in the group.

One thing was for sure: Jurina wasn’t delighted in the slightest when she made such suggestion. In fact, her immediate reaction was to protest, and to try and change Rena’s mind on the subject. The older Matsui expected such response and – even though she didn’t like this option any more than her – believed deep down it was the wisest thing to do given the current circumstances. There were so many impending issues, and too many things at stake. They simply couldn’t afford having a paparazzi taking more pictures of them when management was currently deliberating on Jurina’s fate.

Rena exposed all those arguments to Jurina who – although she abhorred the idea of a physical separation and didn’t fail into voicing loud and clear her disapprobation – ended up agreeing reluctantly to limit their contacts to chats and phone calls. More than a few times, Rena realized how hard it was to stick to such resolution, especially when she listened with great pain to her girlfriend’s disarray over the phone and was incapable of giving her all the comfort she needed.

Everyday, they talked on LINE, and Rena was well conscious that Jurina was not in a right state of mind. As she feared, this suspension was having a real negative impact on her mental balance. Much as Jurina never liked showing her vulnerability in front of others and believed she ought to act strong, the truth was different. In reality, Jurina was a sensitive person.

Throughout her career as an idol, Jurina had definitely been through a few rough patches, especially when she saw the people she was the most attached to leaving her side and graduating. However, Rena was starting to wonder if this suspension was not affecting her to an even higher level. Jurina always felt frustrated when she wasn’t able to perform, whether because of her young age, or because of health issues. But never until that day had she been prevented from doing – and for such a long period of time – a job she adored and enjoyed so much.

Even if it was a small consolation, Rena knew Jurina was surrounded by people who cared about her, and who could give her the physical comfort she currently couldn’t. During those two weeks, Jurina lived mostly at her mom’s house, even though she frequently liked to stay and sleep at Akane’s place.

Much as Jurina was having a hard time accepting her suspension, Rena refused to be too pessimistic regarding her future. Even though management still hadn’t made a decision, she was convinced Jurina was not going to be asked to graduate or transferred to a sister group. In fact, she was even a little hopeful Jurina would simply be reintegrated in SKE48 once the storm would have passed.

During Jurina’s absence, her center position had been occupied by the 5th gen member Nao Furuhata. The 20-year-old girl was thankfully not alone to assume the heavy burden of leading the group. She also had a WCenter with her, yet not the one who had played that role along Jurina’s side those last few months. Indeed, Ayuka had unexpectedly been demoted from her position, and replaced by Rara Goto.

Rena had no idea what motivated management to make such a change and place their faith in Rara, but she was unfortunately well aware of Ayuka’s fragile position within the group, especially after the commercial failure of SKE’s latest single.

It seemed management was trying to make the best of an unfortunate situation and trying out a completely new combination. From the echoes Rena received, it appeared the pair Nao and Rara formed worked fine – which was undeniably good news for SKE – but far less reassuring when Ayuka’s fate was concerned.

Of course, when Jurina had heard about Ayuka’s replacement, she immediately put all the blame on herself, stating it was the direct consequence of her suspension. Rena knew how protective Jurina was of Ayuka, and how much she had fought to preserve her position as WCenter. If management ended up being completely satisfied with Rara, it was unlikely Ayuka would ever be offered the position again.

Considering Jurina’s current fragile state of mind – clearly aggravated by Ayuka’s recent ousting – Rena seriously feared she would go back to her old patterns and neglect her health again. Until now Akane, who was keeping a cautious eye on the younger Matsui, had – each time Rena had manifested her concern about it – always reassured her that Jurina was taking care of herself and eating properly.

Nevertheless, Rena couldn’t ignore a small voice inside her head warning her that the tide could turn at any moment. If there was one thing Rena certainly didn’t want, it was to see the past repeat itself. If Jurina started neglecting her health again, the older Matsui feared she would have a hard time stopping the infernal spiral. In the past, all her attempts had always failed miserably one after another.

And the odds of this happening were unfortunately high, especially if Jurina’s suspension didn’t soon reach an end…

Since Rena graduated, she had kept her distance with the 48 group, rarely taking pictures with active members, and even less making appearances at 48 group events. It was part of a strategy she had carefully elaborated with her agent months ago, an attempt to progressively get rid of her idol’s image.

Rena didn’t regret her passage in the idol industry, but she didn’t want to be forever known as a former member of SKE48. Of course, she wasn’t naïve: she was perfectly conscious it would take time until people would stop viewing her as SKE’s eternal Nagoya princess. However, Rena was pleased to note the strategy was starting to gradually pay off.

Very rarely, interviewers would question her about her former activities as an idol or ask her to comment on SKE related news. Moreover, her solo career as an actress was doing well: better than what she would have anticipated. However, this Thursday of February, Rena had decided to make a small infringement to her own rule.

This afternoon, she had an appointment in Tokyo with someone she had not seen nor spoken to in several months. Someone without who SKE48 would purely and simply never have existed.

As she was sitting quietly in the waiting room – and replying politely to the few people addressing her now and then to check if she needed anything – Rena’s mind was anything but at rest. It had taken her several days to make the decision to meet this person in particular and, after weighting the pros and cons, she knew she had to try to make herself heard for Jurina’s sake.

Rena didn’t know how her request was going to be received. It was a bold move: and she guessed it was going to be hard to sway her interlocutor, no matter how well she had improved on her communication skills these last years. However, Rena guessed that if there was one person who could have any influence on Jurina’s current situation – and possibly put an end to her suspension – it was the man she was about to meet in a few minutes.

Out of precaution, Rena had not said a word to Jurina about it. Not only was she conscious Jurina would probably not approve of her actions – and would dislike the idea of her pleading her case on her behalf – the outcome of this meeting was also uncertain. She didn’t wish to give the younger girl false hopes if her request ended up being unfortunately dismissed.

Rena looked up when she heard the sound of a door opening, and she locked gaze with the man in a black suit who had stepped out of the office. Immediately, she stood up from her seat, and inclined her head slightly. “Akimoto-san.”

“Rena-san.” The man in his fifties reciprocated the polite gesture and took a small step aside. “I apologize for the wait. Please come in.”

The former idol did as she was told and entered his office, taking a seat when the producer motioned the empty chair in front of his desk. “Thank you for accepting to receive me under such short notice.”

“It has been a while, Rena-san,” the producer commented, crossing his arms over his chest in a nonchalant way once he was comfortably seated in his chair. “I’ve heard your solo career is going well. Destiny received many good reviews and had great ratings.”

“It’s true,” Rena confirmed with a polite smile. “I’m lucky to have a good agency. I’ve been working on several interesting projects since last July.”

Their producer had always been a man hard to decipher, and Rena was reminded of it when she tried to analyze his body language, and his legendary composure gave nothing away of his true feelings and thoughts. The platitudes continued for a little while, Rena playing along and replying obediently to everything she was asked.

The motive of her visit still hadn’t been broached, and the older Matsui wondered if the producer suspected anything. He was an intelligent man, and it was obvious she had not come all this way to Tokyo for the sole purpose of catching up with lost time. Rena waited for the moment the producer would give her any sign their small talk was over, her patience soon rewarded. “Why did you wish to see me today, Rena-san?”

“Jurina,” Rena replied, refusing to beat about the bush any longer. “I was hoping we could talk about her current situation.”

The man readjusted his glasses on his nose and leaned back in the black leather chair, his expression remaining completely unreadable when he spoke up. “Ah yes, Jurina-san. Her suspension is really regretful.”

“Jurina is being affected by it,” Rena started. It was no news that Jurina had always been one of the members the producer favored the best, and she was hoping the information would strike a chord.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” the producer assured. “But some pictures were unfortunately too explicit to ignore. I know it must be difficult for her, but I hope she understands.”

Rena kept quiet when the pictures were mentioned, thinking carefully about her next move. She knew the man was not going to delve more on the matter: it was not like him to intrude into people’s private lives. However, even if the idea displeased her tremendously, she felt she had no choice but to address the article. Her goal was to persuade the producer to have Jurina reinstated as soon as possible, and she was ready to say anything that could possibly tilt the scale.

“Lately, Jurina has been putting a lot of pressure on herself because of SKE’s current difficult situation and Ayuka’s uncertain fate,” Rena explained. “That evening, I think emotions got the best of her. I was leaving for Osaka and as we were saying goodbye, she unfortunately went a little too far.”

“I see.” The producer nodded. “You were only trying to be a good friend and comfort her.”

“Yes,” Rena confirmed without hesitation. The older Matsui was well conscious of the lies she was telling but confessing the true nature of her relationship with Jurina was inconceivable. Did she manage to make herself convincing enough? It was hard to tell, considering no emotions transpired on the producer’s face. Nevertheless, she kept on with the little story she had studiously rehearsed inside her head. “Jurina immediately regretted the kiss and apologized afterwards, but it was too late. Pictures had been taken, and the whole scene was wrongly misinterpreted.”

“It led to many rumors,” the producer conceded. “Are you thinking of making a public statement about it? It might be helpful.”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Rena admitted. The producer’s suggestion wasn’t that surprising and to be honest, she had thought about it a few times these last two weeks. Indeed, she could declare through a short and neutral tweet that those rumors were false and deny any romantic involvement with Jurina. In fact, her agent had advised her to do exactly that but until now she had not followed such advice, ignoring instead all questions surrounding the pictures revealed by the magazine, or the status of her relationship with SKE’s ace.

Somehow, she was hoping for time to be their greatest ally and believed the best action to take was to patiently wait for the storm to pass. Over time, the issue would solve itself naturally, as people would progressively lose interest in those pictures and move on to another more interesting and juicier subject.

There was also another reason why Rena wanted to use that solution as a last resort. If she made the decision of releasing a public statement, she and Jurina would evidently need to be consistent about their declarations, which implied Jurina would also have to lie about the nature of their relationship.

Rena didn’t want to put her into that kind of situation, knowing in advance the younger girl would feel uncomfortable about it.

“I wanted to make sure you didn’t believe in those false allegations,” Rena spoke up again. “And that they were not the reason for Jurina’s suspension.”

“I’m touched you came all this way to clarify the situation in person,” the producer answered. “But my personal belief doesn’t have the slight importance. As you’re well aware, appearances are everything in this business. It’s only a temporary setback and I know Jurina will bounce back from that. This evening, I’m having a meeting with SKE’s management and I’m going to suggest her reinstatement.”

Rena widened her eyes slightly at the new piece of information. “You are?”

“Of course,” the producer replied, a small smile falling on his lips for the first time since the beginning of the meeting. “It might not be immediate, but I can’t imagine SKE48 without her.”

A knock on the door was heard, and the producer diverted his attention to his assistant who had opened the door and was announcing him the arrival of his next visitor. Once the door was closed again, the actress understood their meeting was coming to an end, although the man showed no sign of being in a hurry as he didn’t move an inch from his chair. “Is there anything else you wished to discuss?”

“No.” Rena shook her head slightly. “I’m thanking you again for receiving me.”

After that, the older Matsui followed the producer as he moved towards the door, a little startled when – as he was in the process of turning the handle – he halted midway and turned instead to face her. “Jurina-san is really lucky to have someone who would go to such length to protect her career. She made an unfortunate judgment error, but people are willing to forgive her because it was her first mistake. However, I fear they might not be so lenient if it ever should happen again.”

The producer’s tone was as even as usual and not alarming in the slightest but Rena read between the lines easily and understood perfectly well the message he was sending. The moment after, he was opening the door, and she gave him one last polite bow as she made her way out. The last words he had uttered refused to leave her as she walked away from his office, her face darkening little by little at the producer’s clear warning.

 


 

 

When Rena arrived in front of her apartment late that evening, her fingers paused midway as she was about to turn the key in the lock, startled to perceive some strange noise coming from the inside of her apartment. Only few people had access to her place, and it definitely didn’t sound like Airi to come to her place unannounced, even less to enter her apartment in her absence and without informing her beforehand.

Rena listened attentively – almost believing it might only be the fruit of her imagination when the noise had ceased – before realizing she had definitely not imagined things when she clearly heard footsteps. Saying she was confused would be the understatement of the year, and great curiosity added itself to her initial confusion as she penetrated her apartment. The key almost slipped from her fingers when she pushed the front door and saw Jurina, her 19-year-old girlfriend, standing in the living room.

Before she had time to process the incredible scene she was witnessing or even utter a single word, the latter was already reducing the distance between them, a beaming smile on her lips when she pulled her into her arms. “It’s over,” Jurina exclaimed cheerfully. “One more week, and I’m reintegrating the group.”

Rena let the piece of information sink in, understanding by her statement that the producer had succeeded in influencing positively SKE’s management during his meeting. Relief filled her chest at the undeniably good news, but she soon pulled away when she remembered Jurina’s unexpected presence in her apartment. “What are you doing here?”

Surprise flashed through Jurina’s eyes as she was visibly caught off guard by her question, but it was only brief as her initial enthusiasm swiftly resurfaced. “It was such good news,” she explained. “I wanted to tell you in person.”

“It is good news,” Rena confirmed. “But why didn’t you tell me this over the phone?”

This time, Jurina’s smile vanished. “I don’t understand what’s the problem,” she confessed. “Are you not happy to see me?”

“Of course I am.” Rena’s features softened, and she slipped her fingers inside Jurina’s, giving her hand a light squeeze. “But you’re taking some risks by coming here. We agreed not to see each other until things have settled down.”

“Didn’t you listen?” Jurina frowned in perplexity. “I told you management was lifting my suspension… We have nothing to fear anymore. It’s over.”

“No, it’s not,” Rena argued, shaking her head in a mixture of disapproval and incredulity. “It’s not over until you’re officially reinstated and got your position back. It’s not over until people keep talking about the pictures. It’s not over until there’s a risk of some paparazzi still following us and invading our privacy.”

Considering Jurina’s speechless expression, Rena could tell the younger girl was completely taken aback by her words, and it was obvious they were not on the same page right now. The older Matsui let out a small frustrated sigh and turned on her heels, feeling a certain pair of eyes watching her every move as she removed her coat and shoes in the hallway. The atmosphere of the room had shifted and became way heavier, but none of them dared to speak.

Rena was doing her best to keep her composure, but she still couldn’t believe Jurina had acted in such a reckless way. To top it all, she didn’t even seem to realize at all she had done something wrong. Had she already forgotten the pictures had been taken only a few minutes away from her apartment?

“You’re acting strangely,” Jurina murmured tentatively after a little while. “Did… something happen today? Did someone talk to you about the pictures?”

Rena had her back turned when the silence was broken, and her previous meeting with Jurina’s producer immediately submerged her mind. For an instant, she thought of disclosing the content of their conversation – believing it might help Jurina understand her point of view – but in the end, she decided to stick to her initial resolution, and not mention her meeting with him.

“No,” Rena replied, turning around to face her. Jurina’s lost expression didn’t go unnoticed and she walked towards her, bringing them closer by wrapping her arms around her neck. “I’m really happy for you,” she murmured softly and sincerely. “But as you said yourself, there is still one week left. I think we need to stay cautious. Do you understand?”

Rena’s question didn’t receive an immediate answer, until Jurina’s small voice resonated in the quiet apartment, “You’re right, I shouldn’t have come…” she uttered in realization. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… I didn’t think. Do you want me… to leave?”

Rena pulled back at Jurina’s words, astonished she would make such a suggestion. When she read the remorse inside her eyes, she knew her girlfriend had now truly realized her mistake and was obviously trying to find a way to correct it. It’s too late now, Rena thought inwardly, but she didn’t see the use of voicing such thought out loud. It would only serve to increase her girlfriend’s culpability.

“It’s fine.” Rena shook her head at her, her mouth tugging into a small reassuring smile as she cupped Jurina’s cheek gently. “Stay. Stay for the night.”

Despite the offer, the older Matsui didn’t miss SKE’s ace hesitant look, and she knew she was now truly considering leaving when Jurina’s eyes flickered a few times to the front door. Nevertheless, the thought of letting Jurina go didn’t even occur to her now that she was here, and they had not met in two weeks.

The older Matsui reached for her hand and – after a first light tug during which Jurina’s feet refused to move – managed to successfully lead her where she wanted after another more insistent one. Once the bedroom door was closed behind them Rena made her intentions clear by pushing her gently towards the bed and pressing her lips against hers. Even though Jurina didn’t show any real opposition to her actions, it took her couple of seconds to reply to the kiss, and a few other more to have her relaxing completely beneath her.

Tomorrow, Rena knew her mind was going to be filled with a few worried thoughts – the producer’s recent warning clearly among them – but she refused to think about any of that right now. Tonight, she had a completely different goal in mind. It was hard to tell when they would be able to see each other again, that’s why Rena was well decided to take advantage of Jurina’s unplanned visit to take care of her and shower her with affection.

Chapter Text

Rena had been awake for almost half an hour now, but she had fallen deep in thoughts the moment she opened her eyes. Yesterday, when she had pulled Jurina into the bedroom she had successfully managed to brush all worried thoughts aside, but they were now surfacing progressively as a new day was starting. Jurina was supposed to join back SKE in a week or so, and her deepest wish was to see her reinstatement happening smoothly and without any unplanned delay.

In a couple of hours, they would unfortunately need to part, without truly knowing exactly when they would be able to meet again. Today, Rena had a few engagements, but for now she decided to stay a little longer in bed, not wanting to leave nor to wake up her girlfriend who was sleeping beside her peacefully, and whose left arm was currently wrapped loosely around her waist.

It was way past 9 a.m. and, as the morning light was illuminating the room through the window’s black curtains, Rena’s attention fell distractedly on the familiar clothes scattered on the floor. Memories of their previous lovemaking submerged her mind, and a small sigh left her lips in content. A few years ago, she would definitely have been frustrated – and admittedly also a little upset – at such a terrible mess. After all, Rena Matsui was a neat and organized person who disliked disorder to a great extent.

This morning, the view didn’t provoke any of these usual negative feelings. Instead, it only managed to provoke amusement, and bring a small knowing smile to her lips.

Rena got distracted from her musing when she felt the hand that was until now resting casually on her stomach starting caressing her skin, the hold around her waist tightening. The subtle change in Jurina’s breathing was the last indication that the girl behind her was stirring up progressively, and she replied to the gesture when Jurina found her hand easily and laced their fingers together.

“Hi…” Jurina’s small, groggy voice sounded behind her as she pressed their naked bodies closer together.

“Morning,” Rena murmured back, humming lightly in approval when a kiss was placed against her shoulder, followed by a few lingering ones against the nape of her neck.

The older Matsui definitely didn’t mind the morning attention her girlfriend was giving her, but soon got alarmed when teeth replaced the sweetness of Jurina’s lips, the latter making her intent clear as she started nibbling softly onto the exposed skin of her neck.

“Jurina.” Rena tensed a little, clutching Jurina’s fingers in warning. “I have a photoshoot today.”

“Oh…” came Jurina’s pensive reply. “I’ll make sure your skin stays absolutely pristine.”

Rena certainly didn’t miss the slight mischievousness in Jurina’s tone but didn’t mention anything about it, instead relaxing again when the young ace resumed her ministrations, but without forgetting this time to comply to her request. This morning, it appeared the younger girl wasn’t much more in a hurry than her to get out of bed. Even though Jurina unlaced their joined hands, it wasn’t in the purpose of putting some distance from her. On the contrary, her slender fingers soon glided over her skin, moving slowly and progressively upwards to her chest.

Rena fluttered her eyes close, relishing the pleasant sensation of fingers cupping and massaging her breasts slowly. At some point, she considered turning around to face the other girl properly but Jurina was cleverly keeping her trapped, having visibly taken a certain liking in that position as she showed no plan of changing it, continuing to work on her breasts diligently from behind.

When Jurina moved to the next level and started squeezing her breasts softly, Rena couldn’t prevent a moan from escaping her lips anymore. Her breasts were getting gradually more sensitive under Jurina’s tender yet expert touch, and she tilted her head slightly to the left in Jurina’s direction, a pair of lips immediately claiming hers.

Jurina’s fingers paused temporarily on her chest to focus on the kiss exchanged, their lips moving together at a slow rhythm until Rena opened her mouth enough to grant her more access, and the kiss turned more languid. Jurina was the one to pull away and break the kiss after a little while, Rena knowing her girlfriend had every intention of finishing what she had started earlier on when she noticed the strong yearning dancing in Jurina’s alluring hazel eyes.

Rena laid her head back on the pillow, anticipation building up inside her at what was coming next. The hand resting on her chest traveled down her body with a clear objective in mind, refusing to make her wait any longer. When fingers made their way between her inner thighs and a finger found the familiar entrance, it didn’t hesitate to slip inside.

Her motions were neither too slow or too fast, Jurina was making sure she had all the necessary time to fully savor the moment. Rena could feel her body getting gradually warmer, and it became harder for her to breathe steadily as Jurina kept stroking in and out of her at a constant, pleasurable pace.

The pleasure was coming too frequently and too intensely for Rena to resist. After this long together, Jurina knew exactly how to drive her to the edge, and she succumbed to her orgasm after a few more strokes. As she felt the body of her lover beginning to writhe and shudder against her, Jurina stopped all motion, listening to the final moan escaping Rena’s lips as pleasure overtook her.

Rena let herself relax in Jurina’s embrace, listening to the sound of her own heartbeat and breathing slowing down progressively. After a little while, she turned around in Jurina’s arms to look at her, her mouth tugging into a smile when Jurina took time to brush her fringe carefully on the side, before sliding her fingers through her long brown hair and leaning forward to capture her lips in a loving kiss.

 


 

 

After taking a warm shower and putting a pair of fresh clothes on, Rena stepped out of the bathroom, her eyes falling instantly on the younger girl who was still lying in bed. The view made her pause in thoughts, and she contemplated letting her rest a little more. Unfortunately, Rena was well aware that Jurina had not been sleeping well lately. Her suspension had had a terrible impact on her emotional state, and she suspected she might have had more than a few sleepless nights these last two weeks.

Rena approached her side of the bed to check if she was indeed still sleeping, but a pair of sleepy eyes fell on her as soon as she was close enough. “You can still sleep a little longer if you want,” Rena offered gently. “There’s no rush.”

“No.” The younger girl shook her head slightly, pulling the bedsheet up with her as she rested her back against the headboard. “I need a shower… I’ll be fine.”

“Alright…” Rena relented, even though the small yawn escaping Jurina’s lips clearly indicated she could definitely afford a little more sleep. “Join me in the kitchen when you’re ready?”

After placing a kiss on Jurina’s lips, she turned on her heels and moved towards the door but didn’t have time to make her way out that Jurina was already addressing her again. “What happened to your ring?”

Rena stopped dead in her tracks. Even though she knew in advance that her ring was indeed not on her finger as it should be, she couldn’t help but look down to her hand out of reflex. Rena nibbled on her lower lip nervously, now realizing the tricky situation she was unexpectedly facing. Jurina’s innocent question was nothing but legitimate: she wore everyday Jurina’s ring since she gave it to her as a present in Kyoto.

However, the recent unfortunate events had led her to make a few changes in her daily routine: removing her ring being one of them.

“It’s… in my drawer,” Rena replied unconvincingly.

Rena squeezed her eyes shut in frustration at her poor attempt of an answer, knowing well her explanation was never going to satisfy her girlfriend’s curiosity completely. A prediction that got confirmed a few seconds later when Jurina spoke up again, her confusion manifest. “Why? Is there a problem with it?”

This time, Rena turned around to face her, feeling tense. For a while, she simply locked gaze with her without saying anything, pondering on the best way to broach this conversation. Jurina was currently looking at her in concern, and Rena knew she owed her a better explanation. However, much as she mulled it over in her head, she deeply feared the younger girl was not going to appreciate what she was about to divulge.

Rena retraced her steps back to the bed, a little ill-at-ease when she took a seat on the mattress next to her. “There’s something I forgot to tell you,” she started tentatively. “When the magazine revealed the pictures and I came back from Osaka, I thought it was best to take my ring off for a little while. You see, I didn’t want–”

“Wait,” Jurina interrupted her. “Are you telling me you haven’t been wearing it at all these last two weeks?”

“Yes…” Rena nodded cautiously, not missing the way Jurina’s face had darkened at her admission. “I didn’t want to draw more attention on us. If they noticed we were both wearing matching rings, it could have made things worse, and I didn’t–”

“So… you removed your ring,” Jurina repeated as if to make sure she had understood well, staring in bewilderment at the absent jewelry on Rena’s index. “When were you planning on informing me about this new… strategy?”

“Jurina…” Rena murmured, clearly seeing that her girlfriend was now displeased, even though she was doing her best to keep her emotions in check. “You don’t need to take it off as well, I know how much it means to you. It’s only temporary. I’ll put it back once things have settled down.”

“How much it means… to me?” Rena realized her terrible mistake when Jurina stared back at her in incredulity. “Please tell me you didn’t say that.”

“No, I didn’t…” Rena cursed herself for her bad choice of words, and she swiftly tried to backpedal. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Of course, it’s important to me. What I meant is, I was trying to be careful. For both of us.”

As Rena kept talking, she realized progressively that nothing she was saying was having any positive impact on her girlfriend. In fact, the latter was not even looking at her anymore and, even though she kept quiet the whole time, Rena could practically see her fuming inside. Now worried, Rena reached out for her hand, hoping the physical contact would help where the words were failing, but Jurina quickly retracted her hand at her approach.

“I get it,” Jurina snapped. “You don’t need to explain it.”

Rena watched in astonishment the younger girl getting out of bed and retrieving with a certain haste her clothes from the red carpet. “I’m going to take a shower.”

“Jurina.” Rena stood up in alert, following the younger girl who was now moving towards the bathroom. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to make you upset. I promise I’ll put it back soon. So please–”

“It’s alright,” Jurina replied back instantly. “I’m not mad.”

“Yes, you are…” Rena refuted, pained by Jurina’s refusal to meet her gaze. “And I understand, it’s my fault. I should have warned you about my decision, and I shouldn’t have said those words right now. I love that ring, you know that…”

The older Matsui extended her arm to try and touch her, but the other girl had already pushed the bathroom door and stepped inside, only pausing a brief moment to address her one last time. “Once I’ve finished my shower, I’ll head home. I remembered that I have a few things to do.”

“Wait…” Rena tried desperately to hold her back, much in vain as the younger girl had already shut the door close behind her, making it more than clear that she didn’t wish to pursue that conversation.

Rena stood speechless in front of the door, not believing how badly the morning had brusquely turned when it had started so nicely. She didn’t blame Jurina at all: she was the only one responsible for what had happened. For an instant, she thought of following Jurina inside the bathroom to seek forgiveness. She didn’t wish to let their conversation end in such a bad way, even less see Jurina leave her apartment much sooner than planned and while being still angry at her.

However, if there was one thing experience had taught her, is that little you could say or do could sway Jurina when she was so worked up about something. Much as she disliked that option, Rena knew she had no other choice but to leave her alone for now and resume that conversation later when she would have hopefully cooled down a little.

To her biggest surprise, the bathroom door opened slowly. Rena raised her eyes in expectation to the younger girl who had appeared and who now seemed a little more appeased, and far less upset than before. “I understand why you’re trying to be cautious, and I’m not mad at you for not wearing it,” Jurina murmured, letting out a small sigh. “I wish you stopped hiding things. I know you don’t mean to hurt me but… it does.”

Rena reduced the small distance between them and wrapped her arms around the younger girl, knowing she had already been forgiven when the embrace was returned without hesitation. Guilt washed over her at the mixture of frustration and pain in her girlfriend’s voice, knowing deep down she was perfectly right. It was one bad habit of hers: one she wished she could get rid off easily.

Patterns were sometimes so hard to break.

 


 

 

Rena let her gaze wander around the street absent-mindedly, waiting patiently for the person she was supposed to meet to arrive. Frankly, it had taken her by complete surprise when she had received that call, and her interlocutor had voiced her request to meet her. Despite having no idea why the older woman wished to see her, she had accepted quickly, and they agreed to meet this afternoon in a small café of Nagoya.

It wasn’t the first time they saw each other: they had met on many occasions when she was still a member of SKE. However, never had they been completely alone during one of those meetings. Besides, she believed the timing to be a bit… strange. It had now been almost three weeks since Bunshun released an article about she and Jurina, and the latter was supposed to reintegrate the idol group in a few days.

If there was one thing that experience taught her, is that coincidences were rare.

The older Matsui got pulled out of her thoughts when she heard a feminine voice calling her name, and she studied the elegant woman now standing in front of her. Long dark hair falling down her beige jacket. A youthful face that deceived people easily about her age and made her look in her thirties when she had in reality already reached 47.

Rena inclined her head respectfully, the woman’s smile so contagious that she couldn’t help but return it. “It’s nice to meet you, Matsui-san.”

“How long have we known each other?” The woman chuckled softly. “Please call me Yumiko.”

Rena followed the older woman inside the café, both settling down at a small table in a secluded area at the back of the room. There were never many people on a Thursday afternoon, so Rena was not really surprised by the peacefulness of the place.

In general, Jurina’s mother great kindness always put her at ease fast when she found herself around her. It was so easy to engage in a conversation with her, and the woman was nothing but friendly and charming. However today, Rena was feeling unusually stressed. Indeed, as they both looked down to the menu to order something to drink, Rena couldn’t help wondering why Jurina’s mother had requested to meet her today, and alone.

“When was the last time we met?” Jurina’s mother questioned once they both made their choice, and the waiter left with their order. “Wasn’t it a little after you announced your graduation?”

“I think so…” Rena replied thoughtfully.

“Yes, it was.” Yumiko nodded in assurance. “I remember it now… It was such a terrible period. Jurina was so affected by your graduation.”

The statement was followed by a pregnant pause, and the older Matsui’s unease increased a notch, having no idea what she was supposed to reply. Why was Jurina’s mother mentioning such a painful memory? She was already aware of all those things and eight months had already passed since her graduation. Those difficult times were behind them, now. At least, that’s what she hoped.

“I tried to tell her that you would still be able to see each other but she was completely inconsolable,” Yumiko continued after a little while, her eyes not leaving the cup of green tea that had been placed in front of her. “I had never seen her in such a devastating state: not even when Mariko-san left AKB. It was as if her whole world had crumbled down. Of course, I knew how attached she was to you, but I had never seen her crying so much for a friend before…”

Rena held her breath when Yumiko lifted her gaze, praying this conversation was not taking the direction she was beginning to fear. Her fingers clenched tightly around her own cup, the pleasant warmth emanating from the beverage failing completely to alleviate her nervousness. She was doing her best not to let her emotions transpire nor to look away, but it was getting harder to maintain eye contact.

She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so terribly uncomfortable in someone else’s presence.

“I love my daughter.” The heavy tension was broken at last when Yumiko spoke up again. “As a mother, there’s nothing more terrible than seeing your own child so sad and being incapable of truly comforting her. I’ve been through this difficult time when you graduated, and again a few weeks ago when Jurina got suspended. This suspension really impacted her hard. I can’t imagine what would happen if she was forced to graduate from SKE.”

“Jurina’s suspension got lifted.” Rena frowned, a little confused by her interlocutor’s last words. Why was Yumiko bringing up the possibility of a graduation, when her daughter was already in the clear? There was no way Jurina had not informed her by now of management’s decision to reintegrate her.

“She told me,” Yumiko replied, a faint smile grazing her lips. “Management is giving her a second chance, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. But what if she makes another unfortunate mistake in the following weeks… or months? My deepest fear is that she won’t manage to get away with it so easily next time. And if she’s forced to graduate… You and I know perfectly well the terrible consequences a graduation would have not only on her emotional state, but also on her future.”

“Rena-san.” The young actress got a little startled when the older woman extended her arm on the table and placed her hand gently around her fingers. “Jurina still hasn’t accomplished everything she wished in SKE: she’s not ready to leave the group.”

“I know…” Rena whispered back. Her gaze faltered, desperation entering her small brown orbs as she was now having a good idea of the message Yumiko was subtly trying to convey. Without realizing it, her fingers started to tremble around the cup, and she knew Yumiko had noticed it when she squeezed her hand lightly in comfort.

“You don’t know how much I wish there was another solution,” Yumiko confessed her helplessness. “The last thing I want, is to see my daughter hurting again. But she needs to take care of her future. So please... Please help me make sure she doesn’t graduate before the right time has come.”

The moment after, the fingers surrounding hers retracted, and Rena noticed the older woman getting up from her seat and putting slowly her vest back on in the obvious intent of leaving. Incapable of formulating a single word in reply, she simply listened as Jurina’s mother apologized to her, before telling her goodbye and disappearing from her sight entirely.

Rena didn’t know how long she remained motionless seated at the table. Eyes boring into her untouched and cold tea, her chest tightened in pain as Yumiko’s words rolled over in her head again and again. She had no idea what to expect when Jurina’s mother asked to meet her this afternoon. At some point during their conversation, she feared she was going to question her about the nature of her relationship with Jurina.

But it wasn’t that, because Yumiko already knew.

Chapter Text

Lately, Rena had been behaving differently.

As Jurina was waiting in front of Rena’s apartment for her to open the door, those troubling thoughts submerged her mind once again. It had started more than a month ago, a little before she was reintegrated in SKE48. At first, she didn’t get alarmed by it. After her surprise visit to Rena’s apartment and the latter’s reminder that they still needed to remain cautious, they both agreed it was wiser to limit their contacts to phone calls and chats on LINE for a little while.

During this period, Rena seemed more preoccupied than usual, but Jurina didn’t think too much of it. Jurina was conscious the older girl didn’t want her to take any risk of losing a position she had barely regained in the idol group. They talked on a daily basis and, even if she missed physical interactions greatly, Jurina never doubted this phase was temporary.

When, two weeks ago, Rena accepted that they both meet, Jurina didn’t miss how hesitant she sounded over the phone about the prospect. An observation that got confirmed when they were able to hold each other again after three weeks, and the older girl seemed… tense. Jurina had immediately questioned her about it in concern, the older Matsui confessing this whole situation was stressing her.

Jurina had done her best to reassure her that everything was going to be alright now, but nothing she said seemed to truly have any positive influence. Undoubtedly, a part of her was deeply moved that her girlfriend was caring so much about her and willing to preserve her reacquired position in SKE, but another part was confused by how badly Rena’s mood had gotten affected recently.

Where was the girl who had embraced her tightly upon her return from Osaka, and did her best to put all her fears aside by stating with conviction that she was too precious to management, therefore they were never going to ask her to graduate? Where was the girl who had slipped many soothing words inside her ear when tears were rolling down her cheeks?

In fact, the more Jurina thought about it, the more it looked like their roles had been completely reversed. When she was the one initially pessimistic about her future and Rena the one comforting her about it, things were now the other way around. Jurina was SKE’s ace again, and her suspension already a bad memory. Confident about the future, Jurina was more than ready to move forward and put this scandal behind her. However, not the same could be said about Rena.

After more than a month, Rena was still opposed to the idea of being seen together in public. As legitimate such a reaction was following the immediate release of the pictures, Jurina believed her extreme cautiousness to make little sense, now. Mentions of the scandal were rare, magazines and fans having visibly moved on. So why wasn’t Rena able to do the same?

Jurina lifted her gaze when she heard footsteps approaching the door, and the sound of a key turning inside the lock. The moment after, the door was opening, and Jurina took time to observe carefully the older Matsui who had appeared. Much as she was happy to be able to spend this Saturday evening with Rena, her heart sank when she witnessed evident signs of her extreme fatigue. Indeed, her girlfriend had a strained smile on her face and circles under her eyes. This last month, she had also gotten slightly thinner.

“Come in.”

Jurina nodded and did as instructed, noticing over Rena’s shoulder that the table dinner had already been set for two. “I’m sorry, but I haven’t had time to prepare anything yet. My agent sent me a script a few days ago, and I’m supposed to give a reply on Monday.”

Jurina’s eyes flickered briefly to the opened script and the pencil laying on the coffee table, clear indication that the actress was still working on it when she rang at the door. “Don’t worry about it,” she assured, after removing her vest and placing her shoes in the entrance. “I can make dinner.”

Rena winced, shaking her head a little. “No, you already prepared dinner last time. Just give me a few more minutes, and I’ll–”

“It’s fine,” Jurina interrupted her gently. “I love cooking and you still have work to do. You can progress on it while I’m busy in the kitchen.”

Rena appeared a little reluctant about her offer as she didn’t agree immediately. Nevertheless, a smile formed on Jurina’s lips when the older girl ended up manifesting her gratitude with a ‘thank you’, her eyes following the actress who was now walking towards the living room and taking a seat on the sofa. The moment after, she had already seized her pencil, nothing seeming truly able to distract her as she was entirely focused on the script in front of her.

 


 

“What’s the script about?” Jurina asked in curiosity, as they were now sitting at the table and enjoying the miso soup and the instant noodles she had prepared.

It was a simple meal but unfortunately, she didn’t have a lot of food at disposal to prepare something more elaborate. Visibly, Rena had not visited the Aeon Mall in a while, considering how empty her fridge proved to be. An observation that already caught her off guard when she discovered the content of her fridge two weeks ago, and she was forced to pay a quick visit to the nearby Lawson to grab a few basic ingredients.

“It’s a drama of fifteen episodes about a pair of detectives who investigate a series of murders,” Rena explained. “I got offered one of the leading roles: the part of the female detective.”

“It looks interesting.” Jurina’s eyes lightened up in interest. “Are you planning on accepting?”

“Maybe…” Rena replied absent-mindedly. “I haven’t decided, yet.”

After that, they continued to eat in silence, a despondent sigh leaving Jurina’s lips at Rena’s lack of communication. Two weeks ago, when she had visited her, she had also not been talkative. When questioned about it, the latter had justified herself by stating she had a lot on her mind lately. There was no doubt the actress was indeed busier with work: it had even saddened her when they only briefly managed to meet for her 20th birthday.

Tonight, after witnessing the same strange pattern, she was starting to wonder if there wasn’t more to it than she was willing to say. But why would she keep anything from her? No, Rena wasn’t the most expansive person in the world. In fact, she had always made it clear that she valued her privacy above all, as well as the importance of maintaining her secret garden.

However, there was no denying she had learned to open up a little more to others over the years. Since they were in a relationship, it was unusual for Rena not to share what was on her mind, or her problems with her. Yes, there were indeed a few occurrences when she had preferred to keep some information from her, but those cases were rare.

“I was thinking,” Jurina spoke up, catching Rena’s attention when she extended her arm to intertwine their fingers together. “Why don’t we go to the cinema next week? It’s been a while since we’ve been on a movie date, and I–”

“No.” Rena retracted her hand immediately. “We’ve already talked about this. We can’t be seen together in public.”

The tone her girlfriend had employed rendered her momentarily speechless, finding it a little… harsh. Nevertheless, she brushed it off fast, well decided to make herself heard, and not to give up on that subject easily. “I know you wanted us to be careful, but it’s already been more than a month. People have stopped talking about the pictures. No one cares anymore.”

“My answer is still no.” Rena stood up from her chair. “Stop insisting. I won’t change my mind about this.”

Jurina stared at her in incredulity, watching her while Rena was bringing her empty bowls to the kitchen and placing them inside the dishwasher. Once again, she was witnessing signs of Rena’s great caution, one that she believed completely unjustified after all this time. She had really tried to understand her point of view, but after such a flat refusal – another one – she couldn’t contain her frustration any longer. “You’re being… ridiculous.”

Two small brown orbs gazed back at her instantly from the kitchen. “You’re the one being incredibly naïve. Just because people don’t talk about it, it doesn’t mean they have forgotten.”

“So what?” Jurina exclaimed. “How much longer are we going to keep doing this? Weeks? Months?!”

Her question didn’t receive any reply, and Jurina looked away in guilt when she realized she had unintentionally raised her voice. Oh yes, she was starting to get really worked up by this whole frustrating situation. Taking the necessary time to compose herself, she continued once she deemed herself much calmer. “I wish we could spend more time together and were able to go out as we used to before. Do you understand?”

Rena took a deep breath, her eyes softening slightly when she read the despair in her girlfriend’s voice. “I know, but it’s not possible right now. It’s not… possible.”

When Rena exited the kitchen and moved towards the living room, Jurina hastily grabbed her hand as she walked past her. At the gesture, the older Matsui stopped at once. “I only want to be with you,” Jurina murmured. “Nothing else matters. Nothing.”

The moment after, Jurina got up on her feet and pulled Rena gently into her arms. She didn’t ignore the way the body stiffened against her but she refused to let go, willing to convey once again her feelings for the girl who meant the world to her. “I don’t understand your decision, but I will wait as long as it takes. I love you.”

“I know…” Rena returned the embrace slowly. “Let’s not talk about it anymore. Would you like to watch some TV?”

“Why not…” Jurina trailed off, understanding the matter was definitely over when a tentative smile plastered Rena’s tired features, and the latter moved towards the living room.

Following her silently, she settled down on the leather sofa by her side, her fingers encountering the remote control when the older Matsui suggested her to choose a program. Jurina flipped through the channels, and her eyes lit up as she fell on the rebroadcast of a concert. When she recognized Miwa, the lead singer of the band Dreams come True, she knew in advance her girlfriend would enjoy watching it.

Placing the remote control back on the coffee table, she scooted closer to Rena and slipped her hand inside hers, in search of the physical closeness she had deeply missed these last weeks. Somehow, she could tell the energetic music was having a relaxing effect on her, as their previous disagreement progressively fell at the back of her head, giving her the opportunity to relish Rena’s presence and those too rare but precious moments with her.

 


 

Airi’s mouth tugged into a pleased smile when she and Rena exited the Star Tours, one of the 3D motion simulator attractions of Tokyo Disneyland. Much as It’s a small world was definitely Rena’s all-time favorite – the attraction being unfortunately closed for renovations since the beginning of March – Airi always had a soft spot for the thrills the five-minute dynamic Star Wars attraction procured.

It was now nearing the end of the afternoon and, as the park had thankfully not been too crowded on this Saturday of late March, they had been able to visit most of the attractions they wished without making too much queue. Airi noted her friend adjusting slightly her red baseball cap over her head to protect herself from the sun, admitting the weather had been nice today. A clear contrast with the intermittent light rain they had had these last few days. When Airi suggested to take a small break Rena agreed, and they both settled down on a nearby, unoccupied bench.

While Airi was wondering if they had time to do one last attraction before heading back to Nagoya, she couldn’t help noticing how quiet her friend was by her side. To be honest, she could sense something was a little off with her the instant their eyes met at the train station. The smile Rena gave her as they greeted each other did little to hide her tiredness, and the illustrator grew concerned when she noticed how thinner her friend had gotten.

During the train ride, Rena hadn’t been chatty. She had questioned her a little about her drawings and her work for Weekly Shonen Jump but had mostly spent the time looking out the window pensively, while listening to music on her iPhone. When they arrived a while later in Tokyo, Rena didn’t seem as eager to visit the park as she would have expected. One thing was certain: Rena loved Tokyo Disneyland. Airi couldn’t possibly forget all the times she had visited it with her in the past, always amazed by Rena’s overflowing enthusiasm and the way her small brown eyes sparkled in delight.

Today, even though Rena never showed once any sign of boredom, it was obvious she wasn’t enjoying herself as much as usual. While the older Matsui was absent-mindedly watching people lining up in front of an attraction, Airi gave her a worried side-glance. Until now, she had not said anything – somehow predicting her friend would at some point share with her what was on her mind – but they had indulged in small-talk the whole day.

“Is everything… alright?” Airi didn’t like to pry, but she couldn’t keep it to herself any longer. Rena was one of the people she adored the most in this world: she had so much respect and affection for her. If something was making her unhappy, she wanted to do her best to help her. “You haven’t said much, and I can tell something is preoccupying you.”

“I’m sorry…” Rena looked down in unease. “I was really hoping spending the day here with you would clear my head, but I realize I haven’t been good company.”

Discovering her intuition was correct and something was truly bothering her best friend, Airi was now more than decided to uncover the truth and get to the bottom of the problem. “What is wrong? Did something happen recently?”

“It’s Jurina…” Rena started, and Airi guessed by the way she was having difficulty continuing that it had to be something really important. “These last two months, things haven’t been going so well between us.”

Airi didn’t say anything, taking time to process the revelation. Yes, she was well aware that the pictures had come as a real shock to both Matsui, and that the younger one had been affected by her suspension from the group. However, if there was one thing she observed during a phone call she had with Rena a little before Jurina’s reinstatement was announced, is that she refused to let herself get discouraged. Everything had returned back to order. So what could possibly be the issue?

“Why?” Airi frowned a little, before wondering if it couldn’t be related to the Bunshun article. “Are you still worried about the pictures?”

“How could I not?” Rena stressed. “Jurina is convinced it’s all over and we can go on with our lives as if nothing happened, but that’s not true.”

“Well…” Airi started. “From what Churi told me, SKE is doing better. Jurina regained her center position without difficulty: fans and members don’t mention the pictures anymore. The group is recovering. Isn’t it a good thing?”

“I know the group’s situation is improving,” Rena conceded willingly. “And I couldn’t be happier about it. But two months ago, a paparazzi took compromising pictures of us and it endangered both our careers. If SKE didn’t rely so much on Jurina, she probably wouldn’t be a member of the group as we speak.”

“You think they might still be targeting you?” Airi widened her eyes in realization. “Is that what you’re afraid of?”

“I think…. I think they were clever enough to find our weak spot.” Rena swallowed tightly, clutching at the blue fabric of her pants. “They would be stupid not to exploit it if the occasion presented itself again.”

“I understand your point of view. I really do, but…” Airi trailed off in hesitation. “You can’t constantly be looking over your shoulder. Otherwise, it will end up affecting your mental balance, and your relationship with Jurina.”

“It’s already happening…” Rena let out in a small strangled laugh. “Jurina wants to reduce the distance between us, when I’m only trying to protect her. She doesn’t understand that, because she was lucky to get away with it once, the risk is still real.”

“Rena…” Airi reached for her hand, giving it a comforting squeeze when she felt fingers trembling slightly inside hers. “What happened to you was horrible, but… you have no other choice but to forget about it and move on.”

“Oh, Airin…” Tears welled up in Rena’s eyes, her voice a little shaky when she turned to face her. “You have no idea how much I wish I could do that. That I would wake up one morning and realize this was in fact a terrible nightmare.”

“R–Rena…” Airi couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw silent tears rolling down her cheeks. Hastily, she replayed their conversation in her head, searching for an element that could explain the escalation in her friend’s emotions and Rena’s distress. When she desperately remained clueless, a little voice inside her head emerged. She had to be missing an important piece of the puzzle. “What is happening? What are you not telling me?”

“Jurina is attached to SKE. She isn’t planning on graduating until a few more years,” Rena stammered. “I love her. These last two years, she has been my strength and my happiness. That’s why I have to make sure her wish is granted.”

“Please stop torturing yourself,” Airi begged, wiping Rena’s tears one after another carefully. “You immediately came back from Osaka to stay by Jurina’s side. You comforted her when she needed it the most. You made sure she never lost hope when her future was uncertain. There’s nothing more you can do for her.”

Airi didn’t know what to make of it when Rena looked intently into her eyes, almost as if her statement had triggered something within her. “Yes, there is.”

Airi stared at her in bewilderment, trying to figure out what she meant by those last enigmatic words. Unfortunately, she didn’t have time to question her any further that Rena was now standing up, brushing away the last remnants of her grief. “Rena?”

“Do you mind if we go back to Nagoya?” Rena murmured, giving her a small, pleading look when she turned towards her direction.

“Of course not…” Airi slowly joined her side, following her as they quietly walked towards the exit. For a little while, she considered broaching the subject again – sensing the older Matsui had not told her everything yet – before refraining herself. It had already been painful to witness her friend’s tears: she didn’t want to take the risk of provoking new ones with her obstinacy.

If there was one thing Airi knew for certain, it was how profoundly her best friend loved SKE’s ace. For the first time in her life, Rena’s heart was beating for someone. Inexperienced in matters of love, she had inevitably made a few mistakes along the way. Their relationship hadn’t been perfect: they had experienced a few difficulties. Difficulties they always managed to overcome successfully.

That’s why, no matter the problems Rena and Jurina might encounter, Airi had no doubt they would always find a way back to each other. 

Chapter Text

This Saturday evening of early April, it was almost midnight when Rena checked carefully one last time that everything was well in order in the kitchen after her dinner with Jurina. Noticing a forgotten towel, she placed it back in the adequate drawer, before switching the light off. As she was moving towards the bedroom to join Jurina, her attention was caught by a certain vase of blue flowers.

Her steps slowed down despite herself, deciding to make a last-minute change in her plans to once again take a look at the beautiful bouquet of forget-me-not decorating her living room table. Once within reach, she extended her arm to graze carefully the flower tops with her fingertips, a smile forming gradually on her lips in appreciation.

A little before 8 p.m., Rena had been slightly caught off guard when Jurina had arrived for their dinner date with a bouquet of flowers in hand. The unexpected sight rendered her momentarily speechless, her mouth nevertheless soon tugging into a genuine smile as she accepted with pleasure the offered flowers.

Rena felt deeply touched by Jurina’s gesture. No, it wasn’t the first time the young ace gave her flowers: she actually did it often at the early stages of their relationship. At first, Rena believed it was only Jurina’s way of manifesting her love for her, before figuring out that there was probably another deeper message her girlfriend wished to convey tonight through those flowers.

If there was one thing Rena knew for certain, is that Jurina never did anything by chance. That notion in mind, she progressively came to the conclusion that Jurina had chosen this type of flowers for a particular reason. Rena didn’t ignore the meaning of those flowers: a meaning that started to have real significance in the light of the complicated situation she was currently living with Jurina.

If her intuition was correct, Jurina was subtly trying to indicate her that – despite the distance and the separation – her feelings for her had not changed, and she remained utterly faithful to her.

Rena admired the blue flowers for a little while, before retracting her hand when a small voice emerged inside her head. A voice that was telling her that there might also be another hidden meaning behind those flowers. At that thought, her smile vanished, now seriously wondering if Jurina was not also attempting to restore the emotional closeness and intimacy between them.

A connection that they were progressively losing.

More than two months ago, their little bubble of happiness had burst when their relationship – that they had cleverly managed to keep under the radar for two years – had unexpectedly made the headlines of a magazine. The fact that people’s opinion remained divided on the subject – some choosing to believe the assumptions and some others not to – didn’t change a simple truth. Since that day, their life had never been the same anymore.

Rena’s initial hope and optimism regarding the future had progressively given way to a harsher reality. Believing that they could preserve what they had and keep on with their lives as if nothing happened was pure illusion. It was a foolish wish that Jurina wanted so badly to see granted, yet Rena wasn’t naïve.

The world simply wasn’t as forgiving.

It was a constant daily battle between her mind and her heart. When the first was urging her to do what was right, the other was too driven by her feelings for a certain twenty years old ace. Her conflicted emotions were impacting her mental balance in a devastating way and gradually eating her alive. Plagued by anxiety, she was sleep-deprived and had long ago lost her appetite. During the day, her work granted her with much welcomed distraction, enabling her to push her concerns at the back of her head for a few hours.

But the respite was only temporary. As soon as she went back home and was confronted with the deafening silence of her apartment, her negative thoughts surfaced with incredible ease – as if reminding her that they had never truly disappeared – and stubbornly refused to quiet down and leave her in peace.

For two months, she had desperately searched her mind for a satisfying solution that would put an end to her misery. And indeed, one swiftly came to her mind. What if she and Jurina made a break?

One evening, she came really close to suggesting such an arrangement to her. Make herself convincing enough to have her understand that – in order not to take further risks of being caught in another scandal, one that could this time have severe consequences on their careers – they would cease all contact for a few months. However, Rena ended up dismissing this idea, realizing how little chance it had to work.

Already, Rena could see how much difficulty Jurina was having accepting their current situation. The distance she was imposing them was met with misunderstanding and causing Jurina evident frustration and non-negligible pain. Meeting only once every three weeks had already been an abrupt and drastic change in their routine. What made her naively believe Jurina would agree to a temporary separation, especially when this time there would be no form of interaction to speak of?

The clock was ticking.

The longer Rena was refusing to take action, the more she could feel herself losing her last shreds of sanity. Soon or later, one side was incontestably going to take the upper hand and win her internal battle at the benefit of the other.

 


 

Rena was now lying in bed, listening distractedly to the sound of water running in the bathroom as Jurina was finishing getting prepared. After changing into her pajama, she had attempted to pass time by reading a book, much in vain. As interesting the story proved to be, she found herself incapable to focus properly on the words written. Soon, she was left with no other choice but to place a bookmark inside the novel, leaving it aside the moment after.

Rena heaved a deep sigh, hoping she would be able to get some decent sleep tonight. Lately, she only managed to sleep for a few short hours before waking up, constantly having real trouble closing her eyes again when she was wide awake and her brain refused to shut down. Some nights, when she couldn’t take it anymore, she would seek help from those precious pink little pills on her bedside table.

Much as their help was always greatly appreciated, she refused to rely on them too many times, aware of the side effects coming with a long-term use.

At the sound of the bathroom door opening, Rena diverted her attention to the young girl who had appeared, their eyes meeting instantly across the room. When Jurina inquired if she needed to use the bathroom again Rena replied negatively, the bathroom light being immediately switched off as a result.

The bedroom soon plunged into complete darkness as Jurina walked her way around her side of the bed, Rena feeling the mattress shifting slightly as she slid under the red sheets. Once the younger girl was properly adjusted and no more sound could be heard, Rena prepared herself to go to sleep and laid on her side, taking in that it was way past midnight when she glanced one last time at the alarm-clock.

She had hardly closed her eyes that she felt the girl behind her moving and nearing closer, Rena’s small brown orbs shooting open when Jurina snaked an arm around her waist. At the contact, she tensed. Her throat felt thick, and she felt a twinge of guilt in her gut. Rena loathed so much the way her body reacted on instinct when Jurina initiated a moment of intimacy lately.

Her girlfriend wasn’t doing anything inappropriate or out of the ordinary: she was purely and simply in search of affection, and in need of the physical closeness she was missing. Those last two months, such moments had tremendously decreased, which was more than logical considering they were unable to meet as frequently as usual.

Not only did it prove to be an issue for Jurina who had always been an affectionate person, Rena didn’t feel completely at ease during those times. When Jurina kissed her, she certainly never pushed her back, but she didn’t either let the intimacy develop into something more. Even though Jurina never protested, she didn’t miss the disappointment in her eyes a few times, when it was evident she wished to prolong the moment a little more.

Tonight, it appeared Jurina wasn’t going to be satisfied with a simple cuddle. Indeed, she didn’t have to wait long to feel a palm slipping under the hem of her red tee-shirt, fingers tracing light patterns on her skin. Her motions were unusually slow and hesitant, almost as if the younger girl was testing the waters, afraid her actions were not going to be well received.

Even though Rena had her back turned, she could literally feel the apprehension emanating from her girlfriend. It transpired in every tentative move she made, in every chaste kiss she gently pressed to the nape of her neck.

When she felt fingers progressing upwards to her chest, Rena knew she would have to intervene soon. A part of her wished so much she could give Jurina what she longed for, but another couldn’t go through with it when her mind was not at it. Even if she let her proceed, she wouldn’t be able to deceive her. It wouldn’t take long before Jurina would sense she wasn’t enjoying herself.

Rena squeezed her eyes shut, dreading the way Jurina was going to react to her rejection. Until now, Jurina had never been pushy and always followed her wishes, but a little voice inside her head was telling her the tide was soon about to turn. “I’m… I’m not in the mood.”

Jurina paused her hand at once.

Rena didn’t have to wait long to feel it slowly withdrawing from underneath her tee-shirt, yet Jurina didn’t completely move away from her. For a little while, Jurina didn’t say anything, until her slender fingers caressed her bare arm in a soothing gesture. “What’s wrong?”

Rena heard the question well, but no words managed to leave her lips. Until now, Jurina had been patient with her, but Rena didn’t fool herself into believing her compliance would last forever. One day, Jurina was going to press the matter and she could sense they had reached that point.

“I know that you’re tired and worried about a few things lately…” Jurina conceded. “But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more. Since I reintegrated SKE, you haven’t been the same, and you barely let me touch you. If I did anything to upset you… I need to know what it is. I want to fix it.”

Rena’s sense of guilt increased when she distinguished the helplessness in the last words she uttered. Jurina wasn’t blind. Being anything but an attentive girlfriend, it was evident she would end up calling into question her explanations. However, if there was one thing she didn’t anticipate, is that Jurina would start convincing herself that she might in some way be responsible.

When did such an idea form inside her head? Rena was conscious she hadn’t been completely honest with her these last two months, but she refused to let her believe such a thing. “No… you did nothing wrong. Of course not.”

Her answer visibly had a positive effect as Jurina seemed a little more relaxed, even placing a lingering, loving kiss against her shoulder. “Can you turn around? I want to see you.”

It was a simple request, but Rena realized she couldn’t consent to it. Until now, she had done her best to keep her emotions in check every time Jurina was visiting but tonight, her mask was progressively slipping. Was it due to her terrible unease of hurting Jurina with another rejection? Or was it because this time, Jurina wasn’t letting it go easily as usual? Gradually, Rena could feel her eyes moistening, and it was inconceivable to let Jurina see her in such a state.

When she felt a hand on her shoulder and Jurina hovering over her to try and take a peek at her, she covered her hand with hers, making sure her voice remained neutral enough to not betray her true emotions. “Can we… Can we sleep?”

For a short moment, Rena wondered if Jurina wasn’t going to persevere as her hand didn’t move from her shoulder, but her fingers ended up slowly and progressively retracting. “Alright,” Jurina capitulated.

After that, the younger girl put some distance between them, Rena believing the matter was truly over when she didn’t add a single word. The minutes passed, Rena wondering if the younger girl had not fallen asleep when – after tossing and turning a few times – she stopped moving altogether. That was precisely the moment when a small, hesitant voice chose to break the silence. “Maybe… Maybe I should sleep on the couch.”

Rena widened her eyes and turned around in alert, her eyes falling on the girl who had gotten out of bed and was now sitting silently on the side. “W–Wait.” Rena’s heart raced. “No, don’t leave. You don’t need to leave.”

Petrified, Rena watched the younger girl who wasn’t making a single move – internally praying her words would reach her and she would change her mind – but to her dismay Jurina reached for her pillow, cleverly making sure their gazes didn’t meet in the process. “I don’t want to…” Jurina’s voice quivered as she slowly placed her blue pillow onto her lap. “But I think it’s best if we don’t sleep together tonight.”

Rena tried to protest but Jurina was already standing on her feet, walking out of the bedroom progressively. At the sound of the door closing behind her, Rena couldn’t contain herself any longer, tears springing to her eyes. Leaning her back against the headboard, she buried her face in her shaking hands, the truth now impossible to deny. Slowly but surely, they were drifting apart.

 


 

Rena couldn’t sleep at all.

For the past few hours, her brain had refused to shut down and kept her wide awake, her latest conversation with Jurina playing in her head over and over. Each time she arrived to the part she hated the most – the one when her hurt girlfriend left the room – her chest constricted in pain. Tilting her head to the left, her eyes lingered on the empty space beside her, well aware that she was the only one to blame for Jurina’s absence.

Her thoughts drifted towards the younger girl currently staying in the living room and – as she felt the irrepressible need to see her – gradually got out of bed. Not a sound could be heard in the apartment when her bare feet progressed slowly on the floor, relieved when – as she gazed down at the motionless form on the black couch – she discovered that Jurina had thankfully managed to find sleep.

Kneeling down by her side, her fingers seized the end of the blanket that had slipped below Jurina’s waist, pulling it up bit by bit to cover her body and protect her from the chilly nights of April. After that, she didn’t pull away yet, her fingers venturing upwards to caress tenderly the long dark locks of hair falling down her shoulders, until retracting when she didn’t want to take any more chance of waking her up.

After what happened last night, it was evident she couldn’t afford any more delays. For both their sakes, they couldn’t keep on like this. Her indecision had only served to make things worse, causing them both great suffering. Yes, she had been selfish. By stubbornly refusing to take the next step, she had only attempted to keep her precious girlfriend by her side a little while longer. The simple thought of not having Jurina in her life anymore had been too unbearable to consider.

Rena studied the sleeping girl before her. It might now be past 4 a.m., she didn’t feel like joining her bed yet. The temptation to run her fingers through Jurina’s long black hair and relish the feeling of her smooth skin under her fingertips was hard to resist, especially when she was so close. Nevertheless, she refused to give in to her selfish desires, instead settling for quietly observing her. Her eyes being now accustomed to the partial darkness she could distinguish Jurina’s features a little better, admiring at length the beautiful, juvenile face of the girl she adored so much.

For so many years, solitude had been one of Rena’s best companions, persuading her that she had no void to fill. As she progressively grew more confident over the years, she believed her heart to be well protected and safe from what those foolish songs called ‘love’. Against all odds, Jurina was the one to prove her how terribly blind she had been all this time.

Jurina was her sun.

Caring, affectionate and utterly faithful. From the instant the younger girl had found a place inside her heart, her life had never been more complete. Jurina had left her mark on every inch of her skin, unleashed so many unsuspected desires. These last two years, she had relied so much upon that constancy in her life, relished day by day that pleasant warmth enveloping and protecting her.

They had undoubtedly reached a point of no return. Her selfish side emerged once more, advising her to take advantage of this last moment of proximity before it was too late. This time, she surrendered to her heart’s yearning and pressed her lips gently against Jurina’s, her voice breaking a little when she whispered her last words of affection. “I love you, Jurina. I always will...”

There was no time left to dither. Now, she knew with an absolute clairvoyance what needed to be said and done.

 


 

Jurina, who was sitting at the dinner table, watched helplessly the older girl who was finishing doing the dishes. This morning, they had merely exchanged a few platitudes, the food having a bitter taste when Rena served them both breakfast. As soon as breakfast had been over, Jurina had offered to give a hand but Rena had declined, immediately busying herself in the kitchen.

At this point, she couldn’t tell what was hurting the most. The fact that Rena was persisting in keeping something from her with an uncharacteristic stubbornness, or the fact that she had absolutely no idea what was going inside her head. This morning, the atmosphere had never been heavier: almost to the point of becoming suffocating. Jurina simply couldn’t bear it any longer.

She had to do something. Anything.

Decided, she stood up from her chair, walking towards the kitchen where the older Matsui was busy washing some dishes in the sink. Once she stood by her side, her eyes fell on the white bowl previously full of rice that her girlfriend was now finishing to wash, Jurina immediately extending her arm across the sink to take it away from her grasp when Rena was about to dry it next.

Rena jumped a little, the contact of their fingers touching briefly snapping her out of her daze. Jurina didn’t miss her reaction, somehow hoping her arrival would provoke some sort of interaction between them. To her great dismay, Rena didn’t look at her nor did she address her, remaining desperately silent despite the fact she was now standing a few inches away from her.

While drying the bowl with a towel, Jurina stole a few glances at her, pondering over what to do to alleviate the evident tension. More than anything, she wanted to help her get better. Rena’s declining health concerned her a great deal, and you didn’t have to be a genius to figure out she had had more than a few sleepless nights lately. But how on earth was she supposed to come to her aid, if Rena was reluctant to share her problems with her?

Much as she searched her mind for an explanation, she couldn’t find anything to justify the gradual changes in Rena’s behavior. The only thing she knew for certain, is that it had all started around the time she joined SKE back. Yes, Rena was still worried about the pictures released by Bunshun: she had more than once mentioned it to her. However, since that day, their private life had not been exposed in any sort of magazine.

That was why Jurina was convinced it had to be something else. Something Rena was – for a completely unknown reason – deliberately choosing not to tell her.

Jurina placed the bowl back inside the cupboard above her head, a despondent sigh leaving her lips as none of her questions were getting an answer. Even though Rena was physically present in the room, she was not with her right now. In fact, the more she observed her, the more it looked like she was lost in a distant, foreign place. A dark place she badly wanted to pull her from.

In a small attempt of restoring the emotional and physical connection, she raised her arm and reached out to her, before thinking against it when she remembered the bad response her actions had provoked the last time she had tried to initiate a moment of intimacy between them. Last night’s events were still imprinted in her mind, the pain still vivid after her girlfriend’s inexplicable rejection.

Regardless, she refused to give up. Going back to her seat and ignoring the elephant in the room was not an option. Eventually, Rena would have no choice but to let it out. And when she would be ready to share whatever was burdening her, she wanted her to know that she had an attentive ear at her entire disposal. It was precisely those ideas that Jurina wished to convey when she spoke up. “I don’t know what’s happening between us, but I’m here for you. I know we can solve it.”

Because, if there was one thing Jurina refused above all, it was to be pessimistic. They had been through so much together these past eight years. Overcame successfully every single obstacle on their path – on a personal and professional level – even the most challenging ones. Why would this situation be any different?

“No, we can’t…” The words left Rena’s lips in a steady, monotone voice.

Jurina frowned – trying to comprehend why she had made such an absurd comment – but the girl who was now drying her hands remained completely unreadable.

This time, Jurina didn’t hesitate to initiate contact, caressing her back in a comforting gesture. “Don’t say that,” Jurina protested softly. “If you tell me what’s wrong, we’ll find a way to make it work. We always do.”

Rena stayed quiet for a little while and Jurina studied her attentively from aside, wishing she had the magical power to get inside her head. When she opened her mouth to speak again, Jurina held her breath in anticipation, hoping her girlfriend was at last going to reveal what was troubling her. “I don’t want to keep on doing this.”

Jurina stared at her in utter perplexity. Right now, Rena – who was for a weird reason purposely avoiding eye contact – was not making sense at all. “I don’t understand… What are you talking about?”

“Us... It needs to end.”

Jurina’s heart stopped.

The room had been pretty silent before but now it felt deafening. She couldn’t feel anything. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t even think for a few long seconds. The words made her feel like she was being constantly stabbed in the heart.

For months, she was convinced not to play any role in Rena’s transformation. Last night, Rena had even assured her she hadn’t done anything wrong. Was it a lie? Was she, after all, truly at the origin of the problem?

“I love you,” Jurina’s voice broke, her heart quivering as she slipped her arms around her waist from behind. “I will fix this. Please tell me it’s not too late. Please say that you still love me.”

“It’s over…” Rena’s emotionless voice ended up destroying her last shreds of hope. “Leave… Please leave.”

Tears formed inside Jurina’s eyes. She had wanted so badly to know what was wrong with her girlfriend, yet never could she have imagined one second the possibility of Rena falling out of love. When did Rena’s feelings start to change? How come didn’t she notice anything? Despite hearing the demand loud and clear, she refused to comply, on the contrary tightening her hold around Rena’s waist.

Her lungs constricted, making it so hard to breathe. Despite how badly her heart was currently aching, she was still willing to forgive the person responsible for her distress. If Rena apologized right now and said she didn’t truly mean it, she would gladly forget everything. It was not too late yet.

Rena was her everything.

She couldn’t possibly be losing her.

Yet Rena never came back on her words.

Slowly and gradually releasing her hold, tears were streaming down her face when she took a step back. Jurina found it now impossible to stay in Rena’s presence any longer. She couldn’t even muster up the courage to look at her. With a blurry vision and unsteady steps, she left the kitchen and moved towards the entrance, desperately trying not to break down when she put her vest on.

When her shaky hand came in contact with a small metallic object inside her pocket, she realized what it was and retrieved it, leaving her spare key near the front door. No words were spoken when her fingers circled the door handle, nor did she turn around to gaze at the girl who had shattered her heart to pieces.

If she had looked into Rena’s direction one last time, she would have witnessed the silent tears falling down Rena’s cheeks.

Chapter Text

“What do you want to do after SKE?”

The words fell from Rena’s lips in curiosity, observing Jurina who had casually laid her head on her stomach a few minutes ago. Even though the younger girl didn’t move an inch from her comfortable position inside the bed, Rena had no doubt she had been perfectly heard when she opened her eyes gradually to glance back at her. Rena lifted her palm to caress her long, dark hair affectionately, wondering what could possibly be crossing her girlfriend’s mind right now as her expression remained completely unreadable.

They had a few times mentioned this subject in the past, but never really seriously. Since Jurina had entered SKE at the early age of 11, nothing had ever been more important to her than seeing the idol group grow and thrive. During all those years, she had devoted herself body and soul to it. No one was more actively involved in the group’s activities than Jurina. However, the time would inevitably come when she would also graduate and leave the group into the caring hands of younger and talented generations.

As they were both back in Nagoya after spending Christmas at Yuki and Mayu’s apartment, Rena realized that 2016 was coming to an end and the young ace would be turning 20 in only a few, short months. Her entrance into adulthood was an important milestone, and she wondered if Jurina was starting to think about her future.

Thinking of what laid ahead of her after SKE.

Rena could now predict her answer when Jurina averted her gaze and let out a small sigh. When Rena passed the audition to enter SKE, she was already 17. Her ultimate goal was crystal clear and she never hid her intentions: she aspired to become an actress. For Jurina, the situation was totally different. She had spent her entire adolescence within the idol group. SKE had been all her life: other ambitions never had the chance to form inside her young, innocent mind.

“I don’t know…” Jurina confessed. “Should I start thinking about it?”

Rena smiled and slowly shook her head. “No, I was only curious. I’m not worried about your future. I’m convinced you can become anything you desire if you truly want it.”

“Really? Like what?” Jurina looked back at her in interest. “Tell me.”

“Acting, modeling, singing,” Rena offered. “If you want to remain in the entertainment world, you can do all of those things easily. You are truly gifted. I know you will keep on shining long after SKE.”

“Thank you…” Jurina seized the hand that was gently brushing her cheek to lace their fingers together. “But for now, I think I want to focus all my energy on SKE. I’m not planning on graduating anytime soon.”

“I know,” Rena conceded with a small nod. “When the time has come, you’ll decide what career you want to pursue.”

“But if I became an actress, we might have the opportunity to do a movie or a TV show together.” Jurina’s eyes lit up in realization. “Yes, I want to work with you again. We have to make it happen!”

Rena suppressed a laugh; Jurina’s enthusiasm was too adorable. “You should do what makes you happy. Stay in SKE as long as you wish, listen to your heart and fulfill your other dreams.”

Her last words seemed to have triggered something within her, as Jurina’s expression turned serious and thoughtful. Rena frowned a little at her change of mood but waited patiently for her to continue. “What if…” Jurina spoke up hesitantly. “What if I’ve already realized most of them? What if I was truly at my happiest in SKE?”

“You’re still young,” Rena reminded her kindly. “I know how much you’re attached to SKE and yes, it’s a significant period of your life, but Jurina Matsui can’t only be summarized as the center of SKE. You don’t realize it yet, but I’m convinced you’ll soon enough find something else you’re passionate about.”

Rena’s words didn’t receive any reply, and she could tell Jurina was truly processing her words when she looked away and played absent-mindedly with Rena’s fingers. As she watched the younger girl lost deep in her thoughts, she wondered if Jurina wasn’t also dreading the immediate void that would follow her graduation from SKE.

It is true to say that a lot of members chose a normal, simpler life and never ventured back into the entertainment business once they graduated, but she somehow doubted the active and energetic ace who had enjoyed being under the spotlights for so many years would like to return to anonymity.

“I can’t manage to project myself so far in the future,” Jurina’s small murmur broke the silence. “I only want to think about the present.”

Yes, maybe it was still too much to ask, Rena admitted to herself. Right now, Jurina’s main goal was to see SKE overcoming its difficulties and being successful again. Rena had one absolute certitude: Jurina would never leave the ship until she was positively sure it could sail without her. But when would that be?

Rena was a little disturbed when she found herself incapable to answer that question.

For so many years, the idol group had relied entirely on their faithful WCenters: the spotlight, responsibilities and pressure having fully shifted on their remaining ace since she had graduated. When would Jurina be able to pass the torch to younger generations? When would management be ready to place a new center at the head of the group?

Rena snapped out of her thoughts when a weight was lifted from her stomach and she gazed back at Jurina instantly, noting her mischievous expression as she leaned forward and inched closer to Rena’s lips. “Will you still love me… in 2017?”

“Well, it depends…” Rena wrapped her arms around Jurina’s neck, her mouth tugging into an amused smile as she decided to play along. “Will you not get bored with me? Maybe you’ll prefer a younger and more athletic girlfriend. One that can go jogging with you every week-end, and that doesn’t put great emphasis on cleanliness. One that is not an avid collector of sneakers and a weird ota–”

“Oh, shut up.” Jurina hurriedly sealed her lips with a kiss. “I’ve known you for eight years. I think I can handle eight more ones without difficulty.”

“E–Eight more?!” Rena chuckled, staring back at her in disbelief. “Where is the girl who couldn’t project herself in the future five minutes ago?”

“That’s different.” Jurina’s tone softened. “You have always been precious to me. Why would it change now?”

Rena looked straight into her girlfriend’s eyes and smiled tenderly, before planting a kiss on her lips. When she pulled away, she rested her forehead against Jurina’s, smiling inwardly as Jurina’s previous, silly question submerged her mind.

How could she stop loving her? Jurina made her so happy.

 


 

Those moments of happiness were irrevocably gone.

Jurina had left her apartment barely a few seconds ago, and tears silently rolled down Rena’s cheeks as she stared at the front door, her fingers clutching the edge of the sink for support. In the distance, she could register the sound of Jurina’s footsteps fading away in the corridor, followed by the elevator’s doors opening the moment after.

Rena held her breath. More than anything, she hoped the other girl was not going to change her mind at the last minute and retrace her steps back to her apartment, knowing deep down she would never be able to maintain her mask in place if she faced her again. The second their eyes would meet, Jurina would notice her distress, and see through her lies right away.

One single look would be enough to understand that none of the words she had uttered in that kitchen was true.

When the elevator’s doors closed to never open again, realization dawned on her that her girlfriend was truly never coming back. Now, she didn’t try to contain her tears any longer, tears streaming down her face as she detached her eyes from the door. Her knees weakened and she leaned her back against the sink, letting herself slid down to the cold, tile floor.

“I–I’m a monster…” Rena stammered, feeling sick to her stomach. “How could I… How could I do that to her?”

Burying her face in her shaking hands, deep uncontrollable sobs squeezed the breath from her lungs. After her graduation, she had promised not to hurt Jurina again. Jurina trusted her heart to be safe with her. And yet, only a few seconds had been enough to break her girlfriend’s heart in the most horrible way and put an end to their beautiful two-year relationship.

Sorrow, anger, desperation – all spun and solidified into an ache unlike anything she'd ever experienced. As the sound of her endless crying resonated throughout the quiet and small apartment, Rena already knew she would never be able to forgive herself.

 


 

When, a little after 11 a.m., Airi arrived in front of Rena’s apartment and rang at the door, she couldn’t help – while waiting patiently for her friend to come and open – to remember the strange message she had received. Having an autograph session for the latest release of her comic book, she had been busy all morning and had only been able to check her phone once freed from her obligations. When she had opened it and read the message from Churi, she had to read it a few times to make sure her sight was not deceiving her.

Her immediate reaction was complete disbelief. None of it could be true, she kept repeating to herself again and again, wondering why on earth Churi would send her such a ridiculous text and ask impossible questions. A brief instant, the crazy idea of her friend playing a bad prank on her crossed her mind, before swiftly realizing Churi would never joke about something so serious.

No matter how many times she read the message, she remained in denial. Rena couldn’t possibly have done what Churi stated. A few weeks ago, she had met Rena at Tokyo Disneyland. Even if the latter mentioned indeed encountering a few problems in her relationship with Jurina, her profound love for her was evident. She even hadn’t been shy to voice it loud and clear in front of her.

Maybe both girls had a fight, Airi tried to reason. A fight that led to a terrible misunderstanding on Jurina’s side. Yes, the young girl known to be sometimes sensitive had to be growing things out of proportion. Most probably interpreting falsely something Rena had said or done. Because it was absolute nonsense to believe Rena would have come to such a decision.

The more Airi thought about it, the more she was convinced it was the only explanation possible. Yet, she couldn’t simply disregard the serious content of the message, and decided she needed to go straight to the source. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have liked the idea of meddling in Rena’s private life in the least, but she felt an exception ought to be done. If only to alert her friend of Jurina’s current state of mind.

Airi had attempted to join Rena but had never managed to reach her, falling on her voicemail after a few seconds. Not concerned, she figured her friend might simply have left her phone in another room or muted the sound, as she had the habit to do when she was busy working from home. Having the afternoon entirely free, she put her phone away and – as the signing session was taking place not too far away from Rena’s place – decided to pay her a visit.

When a few, long seconds passed and the front door remained desperately shut, Airi wondered if Rena had not left momentarily to run an errand. Taking her phone out to assess it for herself she dialed Rena’s number, staring back at the door in confusion when she immediately recognized the familiar ringtone across the door. In fact, it sounded so close, that she was practically sure Rena had left her phone near the entrance.

Airi hung up, now having the confirmation that her friend was well present in the apartment as she initially believed. So why wasn’t she answering her phone or the door? Airi frowned a little, destabilized by the lack of response. There was no way Rena would have left her apartment without her phone: she never went anyway without it. Raising her arm, Airi decided to knock this time. “Rena? Are you here?”

Her second attempt proved to be as fruitless and Airi blinked, completely dumbfounded. As she was trying to grasp why her friend was refusing to answer when every bit of evidence indicated that she was home, Churi’s message came back to the forefront of her mind. She remembered vividly each word written in it and for the first time, considered the eventuality that there could be some truth to it.

As the idea nurtured inside her head, unease filled her chest. What if something serious had really happened between both Matsui? Something that led Rena to… No, it’s not possible, Airi’s guts were telling her not to trust Churi’s alarming message. They have a few issues, but she wouldn’t do that. She would never…

Searching her bag for her spare key, she retrieved it as soon as her fingers encountered the metallic object. When she turned the key inside the lock and entered Rena’s apartment, she chose to remain confident. In a few seconds, Rena was going to clear things up and confirm the situation wasn’t as bad as Churi described.

Closing the front door behind her, her feet paused at the entrance, taking in the silence surrounding her. It would have been logical to deduce Rena was absent, but Airi didn’t get fooled when she noticed the familiar black vest and pair of blue and red sneakers in the entrance. The white Smartphone, currently on charge, was the last proof that her friend wasn’t far.

Aligning carefully her shoes next to Rena’s, she slowly progressed in the hallway. “Rena?” she called tentatively, sweeping over the place, her attention soon drawn to a vase of blue flowers laying in the middle of the living room table. Airi guessed it had to be a gift from someone, considering forget-me-not wasn’t a type of flowers Rena usually used to decorate her apartment.

Advancing further inside the quiet place, she now asked herself if the older Matsui wasn’t resting in the bedroom. It would be a little strange for Rena to take a nap at such an early hour of the day, but it could explain her absence in the rest of the apartment and lack of response. As she was moving past the kitchen to check her theory, her feet froze on the ground at once.

From her peripheral vision, she had distinguished a small silhouette in a corner of the kitchen, and she immediately tilted her head in its direction. When she saw Rena huddled up on the white tiled kitchen floor, her heart stopped. Given her puffy eyes and dried tears, there was no doubt possible something terrible had happened this morning.

Now more than apprehensive to learn the truth, Airi walked in the kitchen and knelt down before her, looking her straight in the eye as she placed a comforting hand on her knee. “What happened?”

Rena didn’t react.

Airi expected the other girl to acknowledge her presence at any time, but she never glanced back at her or said a word. In fact, the more she watched her sitting there motionless and staring into space, the more it looked like she was completely oblivious of her surroundings. Removing her hand from her knee, Airi brushed away delicately a few strands of hair covering her face, the action snapping Rena out of her daze.

Blinking, two small brown orbs gazed back at her in astonishment. “A–Airin? What… What are you doing here?”

“I received a text from Churi…” Airi started hesitantly. “She said something happened between Jurina and you. She said you…”

Airi stopped, finding it impossible to utter the fateful words. A part of her still naively wanted to believe it wasn’t as terrible as it seemed. Maybe they only had a fight. A bad one, judging Rena’s current emotional state, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. They would find a way back to each other: they always did.

“It’s true,” Rena’s voice quivered. “I broke up with her.”

Rena’s statement made her froze, and she stared back at her in incredulity. “I don’t understand.” Despite hearing the words loud and clear, she couldn’t believe what Rena had admitted. None of it made sense. “Why?”

“I had no choice,” Rena stressed, holding back budding tears. “I needed to protect her.”

Airi was conscious this conversation was causing her friend a great deal of suffering. Maybe was she even reliving as she spoke painful memories. Memories of what she had said and done before her arrival. Despite it, Airi desperately sought answers. She needed to understand what was going on. “Protect Jurina? From what?”

That’s when it hit her. The conversation she had with Rena at Disneyland submerged her mind instantly, and she gradually put the pieces back together. That day, Rena was worried they might both still be targeted by a paparazzi. Another scandal wouldn’t fragilize again Jurina’s position in the idol group, it could purely and simply force her to graduate.

Rena was breaking up with Jurina to protect her career.

Airi took a seat back on the floor, letting the shocking information sink in. She hadn’t detected the warning signs. She had completely failed to read between the lines. But how could she one second imagine that Rena would resort to such drastic measures? She loved Jurina from the bottom of her heart. By doing this, she wasn’t only hurting Jurina. She was also hurting herself.

“I understand what you’re trying to achieve. I really do.” Airi couldn’t hold it against her for wanting to protect the one she loved. Yet, she couldn’t in good conscience let her make a decision that would ruin the beautiful relationship she had with Jurina. “There has to be another way. There has to–”

“There isn’t.” Airi was taken aback when Rena cut her off abruptly. “Trust me, I’ve already been trying to come up with a solution for months. It’s the only way. It’s the only…”

Airi’s heart sank when tears poured down Rena’s cheeks, and she didn’t wait to gather Rena into her arms and hold her tight. It wasn’t a decision taken on the spur of the moment: of this she was certain. And, as she felt the thin body trembling against her, she blamed herself for not comprehending her turmoil much sooner. Rena was only trying to do what was right, but at what cost? Airi refused to believe protecting Jurina’s position in SKE implied such a heavy sacrifice.

This business couldn’t be so cruel. It couldn’t be separating two human beings who loved one another so unconditionally.

“If you talk to Jurina and explain to her why you said that, I’m sure she’ll forgive you. Together, you’ll find something. A way to protect her career in SKE while preserving your relationship. What if you took a temporary break? I know it’s not ideal, but…” Another time, Airi wouldn’t have kept on insisting so much, but there was too much at stake right now. “I’m sure it’s not too lat–”

“Please stop.” Rena’s small, sobbing voice prevented her from continuing. “I’ve already thought about all that. What would a few more months change?”

Airi wanted to reply something: anything that could succeed in changing Rena’s mind, but she was quickly running out of arguments. Rena had visibly already thought this through, and she was having the bad impression that everything she was saying was falling on deaf ears.

“Don’t do this.” Airi refused to relent. “Jurina believes you don’t love her anymore. You need to tell her why you did this…”

“She must never know.” Airi was caught off guard when Rena broke their embrace. “You have no idea how awful I feel that you got involved into this, but I beg you. You can’t tell Jurina or Akane the truth. Otherwise, I would have done this for nothing.”

Another retort was threatening to fall from Airi’s lips at any second, but she kept her mouth shut at Rena’s pleading look. Airi was well conscious of what her friend was demanding. Not only she wanted her to accept the situation and let it go, she was also asking her to keep a secret. Every fiber of her being was telling her this wasn’t right: that Rena would later deeply regret it if she didn’t come back on her decision and tell Jurina the truth.

But what more could she add? She had already stated her point of view clearly: tried a few times desperately to reason her. And not once her words had managed to sway her interlocutor. Not even a little. Rena was determined to go all the way – no matter how much she was suffering from such a decision – and she was powerless in stopping her.

Airi nodded a little reluctantly, the small relief spreading across Rena’s features failing to alleviate her discomfort. Breaking her trust was obviously out of the question: she owed it to her to respect her wishes. Disclosing the content of their conversation would never had occurred to her anyway. Only one person could tell the truth to Jurina: and that was Rena herself.

Airi looked into her watery eyes and reached for her hand, the urge to comfort her stronger than anything. As Rena leaned forward and rested her head on her shoulder, Airi promised herself to never let her best friend down. The future was murky and uncertain, but she would faithfully remain by her side to help her go through the difficult times coming ahead.

Chapter Text

Churi opened her eyes slowly as she distinguished the light, familiar sobbing behind her back. It was the middle of the night and she was feeling awfully tired, but Churi couldn’t hold it against the other girl for unconsciously waking her up. A small, helpless sigh escaped her lips as she listened quietly to the heartwrenching manifestation of Jurina’s sorrow. It had already been two weeks, and Churi still couldn’t conceive what Rena had dared to do.

That Sunday morning of early April was still vividly imprinted inside her head, and she didn’t believe she would ever manage to erase that dreadful day from her mind. How could she? Without notice, Jurina had appeared on her doorstep, shaking like a leaf and tears streaming down her face. Deeply worried, Churi had listened intently as Jurina opened her mouth a few times to speak, but her speech was slurred and barely comprehensible.

When the revelation had left Jurina’s quivering lips, Akane had stared at her in incredulity for a few long seconds, before hugging tightly the girl who sought solace from her grief in her arms. When they entered her apartment, many questions piled up in her head. At some point that morning, she had texted Airi in search of answers, but the latter had remained strangely silent.

Was it because she didn’t know either anything about it and was discovering the facts through her message? Or was she already well aware of them but refusing to say anything in order to protect the other party involved? In the end, Churi chose to leave her interrogations aside momentarily, focusing her attention instead on consoling the devastated 20-year-old ace.

As the day went by and Jurina proved to be completely inconsolable, Churi felt it wasn’t wise for her to resume her activities on Monday as planned. She had her heart shattered into pieces: she was emotionally too fragile. Nevertheless, she thought it best to keep her thoughts to herself, knowing in advance Jurina would never accept to take a break anyway.

When they both went back to work on Monday, she kept a close eye on her. One thing was for certain: Jurina’s moral was at its lowest when the SKE members arrived at Roppongi in Tokyo and entered one of the dressing rooms belonging to TV Asahi.

The whole time they got prepared for the performance, Churi couldn’t help stealing worried glances in Jurina’s direction. Before leaving her place, Jurina had already cleverly covered her red and swollen eyes with makeup but she still made her sure her appearance gave nothing away when she checked herself in the mirror, not hesitating to apply a little more here and there when needed.

The illusion was perfect. Not only members failed completely to detect Jurina’s distress, the performance went on smoothly, a fake smile plastered on Jurina’s face while she danced in rhythm with the energetic song and assumed her leading role effectively when she answered politely after that to questions asked.

As the week went by and Jurina never showed or expressed her suffering in public, the truth always emerged once they reached Churi’s apartment and found themselves alone. That Sunday, Churi had invited her to sleep at her place as long as she wished, and Jurina had taken up upon her offer. As soon as the door was closed and she was confronted with her darkest thoughts, tears would inevitably spill from her eyes. Tears she didn’t bother to brush away or hide in front of her.

Churi was always careful not to pronounce a certain name in Jurina’s presence, aware of the great deal of pain this person was already causing her.

No matter how many times she mulled it inside her head, she still couldn’t fathom the reason why Rena had decided to put an end to their relationship. A few months ago, she had witnessed clearly in Rena’s eyes her deep concern when she had come unannounced at her apartment to see Jurina. As soon as the pictures were released, the actress hadn’t waited nor hesitated to come back from Osaka to be by her girlfriend’s side and support her.

Undeniably, Rena wasn’t the most expansive person in the world but her actions spoke louder than words. That day, when she let her come inside her apartment and saw her walking towards the bedroom, her love for Jurina made absolutely no doubt to her.

It is true to say they had had a few disagreements in the past. More than a few times, Churi had been truly bothered by certain decisions Rena had made. For reasons she still didn’t understand, the latter had a bad tendency to keep certain things secret from Jurina, involuntarily hurting her in the process. Why didn’t she straight away inform Jurina of her decision to graduate? Why did the poor girl have to discover the truth through a graduation letter placed on her desk?

Not once in her life, Churi had ever expressed the slight resentment towards anyone. Human beings had qualities and flaws: they made mistakes. You couldn’t expect them to be perfect. Moreover, she believed to have a forgiving nature. It simply wasn’t like her to hold a grudge against someone. In the light of the recent events, she could feel her opinion about the SKE’s ex-member changing. Little by little, she was losing the respect she always had for Rena Matsui.

Churi released another sigh when Jurina’s crying showed no sign of stopping, and she slowly turned around. As her eyes bored into Jurina’s back, she pondered over what to say to alleviate her pain. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time she heard the younger girl weeping during the night, even if it had diminished a little these last few days. Again, she was thinking about her. And again, Churi feared her words would only have a limited impact.

Her sole desire was to help her go through this difficult time, but there was no miracle cure. Not only had she no idea how long it would take for Jurina to recover from this, she deeply hoped it wouldn’t leave permanent scars. Rena had always been a constancy in her life, and now she was completely disoriented without her. After losing her WCenter, she had now been separated from her lover. A lover she had cherished and remained utterly devoted to for two long years.

It wasn’t an act of thoughtlessness: the unfortunate consequence of an honest mistake on Rena’s behalf. This time, Rena was fully aware of what she was doing. Aware of the consequence her terrible words would provoke. No, Rena had absolutely no excuses for causing Jurina such pain.

Refusing to hear Jurina’s painful cries any longer, Churi scooted closer to her in the bed, and slipped an arm around her waist. “I’m here... Try not to think about it.”

The body against her tensed a little in reaction, but the sobbing thankfully ceased after a little while. “I’m sorry I woke you up…” Churi wished so much she could erase the culpability she easily detected in Jurina’s trembling voice. “I should have slept on the couch. Yes, I should–”

“No, don’t worry about it.” Churi tightened her hold when the other girl tried to move away. “I don’t mind if you wake me up. I told you I would be here for you, and I meant it.”

Jurina didn’t protest and stopped resisting the strong arms that were keeping her in place. Once Churi was sure she wouldn’t attempt to leave the bed, she loosened her grip, finding Jurina’s fingers to lace them together. They stayed in that position for a little while, and Churi was relieved when she felt the other girl relaxing.

Even if she had apparently managed to calm her down, she remained cautious. Considering Jurina’s small movements inside the bed, she knew she was still awake, and experience had taught her a moment of relapse was always possible. One second, Jurina was smiling and looked perfectly fine. The next, she could be crying her heart out.

These last two weeks, she had witnessed so many times those changes of mood. When she thought she had succeeded in putting an end to Jurina’s tears, they would roll down her cheeks a few minutes later without warning. That’s why she refused to close her eyes before being sure Jurina had fallen asleep again.

Feeling Jurina breaking the embrace, Churi gazed at her in curiosity, watching Jurina as she slowly turned around to face her. “Thank you for letting me stay at your place.”

Churi lifted a hand and cupped her cheek tenderly. “You don’t need to thank me. You know you’re welcomed to stay here as long as you wish. I’m your friend. You can always count on me.”

“I know…” Jurina’s throat constricted. “Thank you. Thank you for not letting me down. I don’t know what I would do if you… if you weren’t…”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Churi wiped away a tear with her thumb.

When Jurina buried herself deep against her chest, she slowly wrapped her arms around her body, longing to bring her the necessary warmth and comfort. Jurina’s breathing was shallow and fast, and she knew she was doing her best to control her emotions and prevent new tears from falling. Churi dipped her head down to hers, kissing the hair on the top of her head. Jurina needed a friend by her side: a shoulder to lean on. And she was going to be that person, no matter how long it would take.

If only she could find a way to take her pain away, she would gladly do it.

 


 

It had taken a few days and a lot of reflection for Jurina to decide to go back home. These last two weeks, she had spent every night at Churi’s apartment, and mostly communicated with her mother through texts and short phone calls. When she had informed her mother of her desire to stay with Churi for a little while, the latter hadn’t protested, not that she expected her to. These last years, she had slept a lot at Rena’s and Churi’s apartments: her mother was obviously pretty much used to her sleepovers by now.

To be honest, she still felt a little nervous when she entered her home, not knowing how she was going to face her mother. Since she was a child, she had always been close to her, and there were few topics that they didn’t discuss together. Her mother had always been her greatest ally: encouraging her to enter SKE and supporting her unconditionally these last eight years.

However, when her relationship with Rena took an unexpected turn and they ceased being simple co-workers, she never managed to find the courage in her to admit the truth to her mother. It wasn’t because her mother disliked her WCenter: quite the contrary. Each time the girl who shared the same surname was mentioned in a conversation, her mother always had nice things to say about her.

Her mother appreciated Rena sincerely: Jurina never had an ounce a doubt about that. Nevertheless, she feared her opinion about her would change altogether if she discovered the true nature of their relationship. Maybe it was a mistake on her behalf. Maybe she should have trusted her mother more and believe in her capacity to accept and embrace their relationship. In the end, she would never get answers to those questions.

Because she didn’t have anything to admit, anymore.

As she turned the key inside the lock, she prayed her appearance was appropriate enough. These last two weeks were pretty restless, and she knew her lack of sleep was definitely showing when she didn’t wear any makeup. Obviously, her mother would immediately notice the bags under her eyes, but she hoped she wouldn’t interrogate her too much about it.

“I’m home,” Jurina announced her arrival, removing her shoes and putting on the blue slippers waiting for her at the entrance.

As she progressed slowly inside, she swept the place in search of her mother, her feet stopping on the floor when she arrived in front of the kitchen and saw the one she was looking for, wearing a black apron and about to open the fridge. At her approach, the warm smile of her mother greeted her instantly. “Welcome back. I was going to prepare your favorite for dinner.”

“You were?” Jurina’s eyes lit up in surprise. “Let me help you.”

Jurina detached the blue apron from the hanger and passed it around her neck, before tying the knot behind her back. Jurina always praised her mother for being a great cook: she had learned so many things by simply watching her in action. Much as she was pretty much used to cooking alone by now, she still enjoyed doing it with others, most especially her mother. Taking a deep breath, Jurina opened a cupboard to retrieve her favorite pasta, hoping secretly the activity and presence of her mother would enable her to take her mind off things for at least a few hours.

 


 

“How is Akane-san?”

Jurina looked up from the TV screen, watching her mother who had arrived in the living room, and recognizing instantly the familiar red rectangular box inside her mother’s left hand. Well, it appeared her mother truly had every intention of pleasing her this evening, Jurina mused as the latter placed the brand-new box of Pino on the coffee table in front of her. Those small vanilla ice creams covered with chocolate had always been her favorites.

“She’s fine,” Jurina replied, scooting a little further away on the sofa when her mother manifested her intention to sit by her side. “She’s busy with SKE and her extra activities. Her scenic pictures are now featured in a magazine once a month.”

“Really?” Jurina’s mother’s voice pitched up in surprise. “It seems like things are really going well for her. It’s true she has always been passionate about photography. Maybe she’ll want to seriously continue on that path after SKE?”

“Maybe.” Jurina leaned forward to take a red plastic pick from the box. “Photography is not her only passion. She can do so many things, but I don’t believe she’s thinking about graduating yet.”

After that, they both quietly watched the movie playing on the screen, Jurina eating a few ice creams before leaning casually her head on her mother’s shoulder. Unconsciously, her thoughts drifted to Rena a few times, and she hated the pain the mere thought always provoked deep inside her. She couldn’t help it: it was stronger than her. Much as she wished she could forget about the girl who had broken her heart, Rena refused to let her mind in peace very long.

During the day, her work for SKE and extra-activities were thankfully keeping her busy enough to not think about anything else, but it was a complete nightmare once she had a little spare time, or when she reached Churi’s apartment at the end of her day. Under normal circumstances, a small respite would enable her to physically and mentally rest. Lately, Jurina dreaded those specific moments. Not only did they serve to make her brain even more active, she could never prevent a familiar face from invading her mind.

Rena wasn’t by her side anymore, but she remained constantly in her thoughts. Her simple image provoked fresh tears with incredible ease. Each time she cried over the girl she had lost, she desperately wished she had the power to go back in time. A part of her still stubbornly refused to accept the possibility of not having the other girl in her life anymore.

Some days, when the pain became unbearable, the thought of running back to Rena’s apartment crossed her foolish mind. Maybe if she demonstrated all the love she had for her, the other girl would come back on her decision and give her another chance. When the idea grew to the point where she almost considered taking action, Rena’s words submerged her mind once again.

Rena had broken up with her because she had fallen out of love with her.

There was nothing to repair anymore.

It was already too late.

“I’ve always loved that ring on you.” Jurina came back to reality at the sound of her mother’s delicate voice, looking down to her hand when she felt her mother lightly brushing her ring finger. “It’s simple and elegant at the same time. How is Rena-san doing? You haven’t spoken about her all evening.”

Jurina tensed. For a short instant, she found it a little curious the way the conversation had switched from her ring to Rena, almost as if her mother was making a connection between both. She was only being paranoid, Jurina swiftly brushed it off as a figment of her imagination. Her mother believed this ring to be a simple gift she had one day bought for herself at Shibuya: she knew nothing about the existence of the matching rings.

“I don’t know,” Jurina replied, keeping her eyes glued on the screen as she refused to meet her mother’s inquisitive gaze. “We haven’t spoken in a while.”

“You haven’t?” Her mother sounded genuinely surprised. “Did… something happen between you two?”

“Things have changed between us.” Jurina made sure her voice stayed steady, but she could already feel her eyes moistening. “We’re not as close as we used to. I don’t think we’ll spend much time together in the future.”

“Oh…”

Jurina’s chest constricted, hoping deep down her answer would satisfy her mother, and she would drop the subject. As she pretended to be interested in the movie playing on the television, she was caught off guard when her mother slipped her hand inside hers. “I’m so sorry to hear that. I know you were close but sometimes, people drift apart. It doesn’t mean they forget about you or stop caring.”

Jurina felt tears springing to her eyes and she slowly slipped her fingers away from her mother’s grasp, mustering her best smile when she stood up from the sofa. “I’m a little tired. I think I should go to sleep.”

Jurina didn’t wait for her mother’s reaction and left the living room, relief filling her chest once she was safely inside her bedroom. Leaning her back against the door, she didn’t try to suppress her tears anymore, letting them fall down her cheeks freely. As she lifted her shaking hand and stared at the silver ring circling her ring finger, she cursed the object for inadvertently triggering this whole conversation. She had so desperately wished her mother wouldn’t mention Rena tonight.

Since that day of July she had exchanged matching rings with Rena in Kyoto, she had never removed her ring once. How could she? It was too meaningful: it symbolized her love and eternal devotion to Rena. But there was no more Rena and her. So why was she still wearing that ring? Tentatively, she tried to slid her ring off her finger, but stopped when she simply couldn’t find the strength within her to go all the way. 

 


 

When Airi arrived that evening at Rena’s apartment for dinner, she couldn’t help feeling a little apprehensive at what she was going to see on the other side of the door. These last two weeks, she had visited her friend often, willing to stand by her words and be by her side to support her. After that dreadful day, Rena had never shed tears in her presence again, but Airi knew her all too well.

In eight years, Rena’s perfect polite and graceful smile – the one she loved to show in public or for magazines – never managed to trick her in the slightest.

Even if Rena didn’t manifest her pain verbally or physically, it literally transpired on every inch of her skin. The dried tears Airi would sometimes witness on her pale face betrayed her true feelings. They indicated with absolute clarity what she had been doing behind closed doors, out of sight and away from prying eyes.

Tonight, when Rena opened the door and they faced each other for the third time this week, Airi was admittingly a little relieved not to witness the usual signs of distress. Yes, her friend still looked awfully pale and tired, not to mention thin. However, her face didn’t show any sign of crying. Maybe was she only catching her on a good day… Nevertheless, the reassuring sight still managed to be of small consolation.

The state of her apartment… That was another matter altogether. As long as she remembered, Rena had always been an organized person, who made a point of maintaining everything neat and tidied around her. Lately, she had never seen her place so messy. Dishes forgotten in the sink. Magazines and DVDs scattered all over the floor. Clothes piling up in the washing basket.

If she didn’t know any better, she could easily believe she had stepped by mistake in a complete stranger’s apartment.

Airi never dared to say a word about it, knowing perfectly well what had triggered those abnormal changes in Rena’s habits and routine. Her breakup with Jurina had devastated her and turned her life completely upside down. Yes, the person standing in front of her technically looked and spoke like her best friend, but she wasn’t the same anymore. That Sunday of early April, something had broken inside her.

And Airi didn’t know when she would finally be able to see the light returning inside Rena’s eyes again.

Dinner was nearing its end as they were both finishing eating the profiteroles Airi had brought for dessert. Since her arrival at Rena’s apartment, they had mostly engaged in small talk, talking about how their day went, and a few shows and movies they had watched lately. Now, they had both fallen quiet, and Airi couldn’t help stealing a peek now and then at her friend eating the French patisserie opposite her, wondering what could be going on inside her head right now.

Of course, Rena’s calm appearance gave nothing away of her feelings and thoughts, and Airi’s eyes fell absent-mindedly on the necklace her friend was wearing. When she had spot for the first time the silver chain around Rena’s neck, it was merely a few days after her breakup with Jurina. It was a new piece of jewellery Airi had never seen before, and that Rena wore each time she visited her. More than once, she wondered why her friend didn’t make the pendant visible, but constantly kept it carefully hidden underneath her clothes.

“I’m happy to see you.” Airi looked up from the mysterious necklace when Rena addressed her. “But you really don’t have to come and see me so often.”

“I was passing in the neighborhood,” Airi answered, but she had always been a terrible liar. A fact that got confirmed once again when Rena gave her a knowing look. “Alright, I was not. But I wanted to see how you were doing.”

“I’m fine.” A faint smile formed on Rena’s lips. “Actually, I’ll soon be leaving Nagoya for a little while. I’m shooting a drama next month in Tokyo.”

“How long will you be gone?” Airi asked, a little surprised by the revelation. Yes, she remembered Rena mentioning being offered an interesting, new role recently – something about a pair of detectives investigating a series of murders – but she had no idea she had accepted it.

“I’m not sure,” Rena replied thoughtfully. “The total number of episodes has not been established yet, but I would say for at least a month. Do you want to take a look at the script of the first episode?”

“Of course.” Airi nodded, the other girl standing up from the table and moving in the direction of the living room. Unfortunately, Rena’s search proved apparently much fruitless as – after checking the coffee table, shelves and even the sofa a few times – she ended up turning towards her with a puzzled expression, and empty-handed. “I was sure I had left it there. It has to be in the bedroom.”

Airi watched her silently until Rena disappeared around the corner and inside the bedroom, her attention soon drawn to the vase of forget-me-not placed on the table. Airi recognized them instantly: it was the exact same blue flowers she had seen on Rena’s table two weeks ago. After all this time, the water had turned yellow and cloudy, and the petals that were once a beautiful light blue had faded long ago…

Airi didn’t know why her friend still hadn’t thrown them away. Another time, Rena wouldn’t have waited to dispose of them as soon as the flowers would have lost their colors and freshness. In the end, she deduced it went along with the general bad state of her apartment. Maybe Rena had noticed but didn’t bother to take care of the problem. Or maybe she hadn’t even paid attention to the flowers at all.

When Rena appeared still busy searching her script in the bedroom and showed no sign of returning immediately, Airi decided to put her time to good use. Rising from her chair, she gathered their empty plates from the table, and carried them away with the vase of faded flowers to the kitchen.

Opening the door below the sink to access the bin, she slipped the faded flowers inside. They looked really beautiful when she first saw them, Airi had to admit as she closed the door, and emptied inside the sink the water from the red, crystal vase. Unfortunately, fresh flowers only had a limited lifetime. They couldn’t bloom eternally.

“Where are the flowers?”

Startled, Airi jumped a little at the sound of Rena’s voice. She had been so lost in her own little world that she had completely failed to hear her friend leaving the bedroom and approaching. Placing cautiously the empty, cleaned vase on the counter, she turned around, noticing the other girl standing next to the living room table, the found script in hand.

“The forget-me-nots?” she asked for clarification, receiving an immediate nod in reply. “I threw them away. They had faded.”

“You… threw them?” Rena repeated.

“Wasn’t I supposed to?” Airi had only meant well, but Rena’s upset look was a clear indication that she had made a mistake. “We can buy new ones if you like. I’m sure I saw them at the flower shop at the corner of the street.”

“I don’t want new flowers,” Rena murmured back. “I liked… I liked those.”

Airi stared at her in perplexity, not knowing what to make of Rena’s declaration. Her behavior was making absolute no sense to her, and she failed to grasp why her friend seemed so strangely attached to those forget-me-nots in particular. Even if it was a present from someone – a beautiful one indeed – they had faded long ago. Who would keep faded flowers in their home?

Unless…

That’s when realization hit her. Wait, that was it.

Those flowers were a gift from someone.

But not just anyone.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know,” Airi stammered. “I didn’t know they were from her.”

Airi swallowed uncomfortably, waiting in apprehension for Rena’s reaction. Why on earth didn’t she put two and two together when she came by Rena’s apartment two weeks ago? It would have prevented her from making a colossal blunder now. Rena hadn’t simply forgotten to throw those flowers away as she initially believed, she had left them here on purpose.

Rena didn’t say anything.

After a little while, Rena slowly took a seat at the living room table, her fingers tracing absently the space where the flowers were previously placed. “Between the two of us, Jurina has always been the romantic. She constantly liked to shower me with affection and presents. I told her more than once that she didn’t need to do all those things, but she never listened. No one could stop Jurina once she had something inside her head.”

With empty eyes and a melancholic smile, Rena fixed the blue petals that had fallen around the vase on the table.

“When she came by that evening for dinner, I almost considered cancelling at the last minute. I was feeling so terrible: I doubted being good company. But the simple view of those flowers managed to put a smile on my face. For a short instant, it brought me back to the past. To a time when we were so happy.”

Airi walked out of the kitchen and took a seat opposite her, reaching out for Rena’s hand when she distinguished tears gathering in her friend’s eyes. “Maybe leaving Nagoya for a little while will do you some good,” Airi tried to sound reassuring.

A weak smile was all she got in return, and Airi gave Rena’s fingers a comforting squeeze. She couldn’t help blaming herself a little for her unfortunate mistake, hating being the indirect reason for Rena’s tears. However, this incident also served to reinforce one of her deepest convictions. Yes, they avoided mentioning Jurina when they were together and Rena was careful never to show her tears in front of her.

Nevertheless, Rena remained indisputably completely inhabited by the memory of the love of her life.

Chapter Text

As the car was arriving at destination after a short drive from the police station, detective Inoue Kaori looked out the window from the passenger seat to observe the vast expanse of water on her left. Despite the pleasant warm and sunny weather, there were few people currently taking a stroll in this area. Another time, the view would have caught her off guard, considering it was always well frequented, even more during the week-end. However, on this Saturday morning, a brutal crime had managed to scare off the inhabitants of Tokyo.

“It’s so lively here during the week-end.” A masculine voice prompted Kaori to tilt her head right, her eyes falling on the young driver with shoulder-length, black hair. Noting his fingers gripping tightly the steering wheel, she knew her partner was feeling as similarly disturbed by this unexpected crime. “Why would anyone commit a crime in such a place?”

“I have no idea, Daisuke-san,” Kaori admitted her helplessness, diverting her attention to the group of policemen gathered around the corpse near the water. “I actually also come here often on the week-end. I can’t believe such a beautiful place turned into a crime scene.”

Kaori tied her long, black straight hair in a neat ponytail before stepping out of the car, both detectives walking towards the group of officers standing by the river bank. On her way, Kaori noted a crowd of people observing the scene from afar and pointing their phones at the group of officers in the obvious intent of taking a good, memorable picture. Well, their curiosity was legitimate, Kaori figured. After all, it wasn’t every day you saw a dead body at Shinobazuno pond.

“Detective Nishimura. Detective Inoue.” One of the policemen stepped forward and bowed in respect at their approach. “The body was found by a pedestrian. We haven’t moved or touched anything.”

Kaori looked down to the body, having a bad feeling about this when she noted the white plastic bag covering the victim’s head. At first, she believed the killer might have tried to dispose of the body by throwing him into the lake, but she knew her theory was incorrect when the victim – that she deduced had to be a young male in his late twenties – was completely dry from head to toe.

“He wasn’t killed here,” Kaori stated with assurance after studying his clothes carefully. Not only was the victim barefoot, he was wearing a white tee-shirt along with a pair of blue pajama shorts. “I think he was attacked in his sleep, then brought here by the killer.”

“Why would the killer bother to carry his body all the way here?” Detective Nishimura uttered in perplexity. “Why place it here, out in the open?”

“Maybe he wanted us to find the victim,” Kaori offered. “Everyone knows this place is crowded, especially on the week-end. He knew we would find the body swiftly and easily.”

“So this could have been… staged?” Detective Nishimura glanced down at the plastic bag closed around the victim’s neck with a string. “What do you think. Death by suffocation?”

Kaori kneeled by the victim’s side and observed attentively the region around the victim’s neck. When she had first seen the body, she had drawn the exact same conclusions as her partner, but after careful observation, she distinguished a neat cut a few millimeters wide and ten centimeters long below the plastic bag.

“Can you see this?” She pointed at the blunt cut. “The killer slit his throat with great precision. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Kaori looked up to the victim’s face again. Unfortunately, it was impossible to distinguish his features properly, considering it was completely covered in cuts and bruises. Were those marks provoked post-mortem? It was too early to say yet but one thing was for sure: the victim was in pretty bad shape. Considering there were no papers on him, Kaori hoped his DNA would give them some information about the victim’s identity.

As Kaori was about to stand up, her attention was caught by a brown mark on the inside of his left wrist. A small birthmark that resembled slightly the letter O, and strangely looked familiar. Too familiar.

“Heita-kun,” a sharp gasp escaped Kaori’s lips in horror.

“You know him?!” the male detective exclaimed in surprise. “His face is brutally marked. You could mistake him with someone else.”

“No, it’s him,” Kaori’s voice trembled. “His name is Suzuki Heita. I could recognize this particular birthmark everywhere.”

Vaguely, Kaori registered in the background her partner inquiring about the nature of her relationship with the victim, but she was frozen in place, incapable of adding another single word. Right in front of her eyes, was laying someone she knew well. Someone she had deeply cared about at one point of her life.

Suzuki Heita.

Heita wasn’t only her childhood friend: they had also both entered the police academy at the age of eighteen in the hope of fulfilling their long-time dream of becoming detectives. Unfortunately, things hadn’t gone as expected for Heita as, only four months after enrolling, a severe knee injury had forced him to leave the academy, incapable of continuing the demanding physical training.

This major setback had affected him terribly and caused irreparable damage on his emotional and mental health. Their budding romantic relationship didn’t survive. Little by little, his depression drew them apart, and Kaori never heard about him ever again during all those years.

Until today.

Kaori tore her eyes away from the gruesome sight, not having the force nor the will to resist when her partner seized her gently by the waist to help her get up on her feet. The female detective had already seen a few dead bodies in her short career, but never had she been confronted with the death of someone she had cared so much about. When her partner kindly suggested to walk back to the car, she didn’t protest, although not before taking one last peek at the large inscription on the white tee-shirt. Two red capital letters, that had been handwritten by the killer.

I K

Two letters that awfully sounded like her own initials.

 


 

Rena shivered in displeasure as the cold wind hit her face. She had finished shooting an important scene of her new drama, the crucial moment when her character – a rising, female detective – discovered in complete shock the dead body of a past lover in the crowded area of Shinobazuno pond. The first body of a long series of crimes in Tokyo, the killer following each and single time the same modus operandi, all victims being strangely connected to the female detective’s own past...

The actress still had another scene to shoot at Shinobazuno pond before moving to the next shooting location – this time, an indoor scene at the police station – but was for now waiting patiently for the staff to get their equipment prepared. In the drama, the weather was supposed to be sunny and warm, but the reality was different. Yes, the sun was currently shining over her head, yet the weather was awfully windy and admittedly a little chilly this Friday morning of early June.

Oh no, it was not the moment to get sick. Without further ado, Rena seized the large, black coat resting behind her on the folding chair, and covered her shoulders with it.

“Are you alright, Rena-san?” A male, gentle voice sounded on her left, and inquired in concern.

Rena tilted her head towards the other actor sitting on the folding chair by her side and smiled at him with gratitude. “I’m fine. Thank you, Yosuke-san.”

“I think I’m going to follow your example.” The 27-year-old actor wrapped himself up in his down, warm jacket. “At least, we’re lucky it hasn’t rained yet. The weather forecast for today didn’t sound so promising.”

Rena observed quietly her co-star who was trying to brush his hair back in place, a little amused when all these attempts proved much fruitless as the wind kept stubbornly on blowing his fringe across his eyes. “Maybe you should ask the hairdresser to help you with this.”

Yosuke laughed softly, conceding defeat when his hair refused to obey to his command and the wind didn’t prove to be his greatest ally. “I think it’s best. Maybe I shouldn’t have let my hair grow so much either.”

Both actors shared a knowing smile, Rena realizing once again how unbelievably fortunate she had been to be paired with him out of all possible choices of actors. The last time she had crossed path with Masada Yosuke was almost a year ago, when they both had worked on the critically acclaimed historical drama Destiny.

At first, she had been a little startled when her agent had informed her she would be sharing the screen alongside the actor again. There were so many young talented actors in Japan. What were the odds they would both have the chance to act together again, and moreover be offered the leading roles of this drama?

It had now been two weeks since the shooting had started in Tokyo, and more than a few times, she was reminded of why she had already enjoyed so much working with him on Destiny. Not only was he remarkably professional – always arriving in advance for his scenes and never forgetting his lines once the cameras were rolling – he was profoundly gifted and always succeeded in making each scene flow naturally. At every given opportunity, the staff and crew adored to praise their chemistry on screen. It didn’t surprise her in the least: she had already heard such compliments during the shooting of Destiny.

When the director sometimes invited them to review on the monitor a scene they had finished shooting, she was forced to admit they weren’t lying. If there was one personality trait she and Yosuke shared in common, it was their hardworking nature. Constantly, they thrived to excel and were determined to miss nothing pass. They agreed on a great many things and, if something was not completely to their liking during a scene, they never hesitated to share with one another their concerns, and to discuss on the best way to improve it.

Supported and surrounded by an undoubtedly qualified staff and crew, Rena trusted her co-star completely, and wasn’t worried one instant about the good execution of this shooting.

“Today is Friday.” Yosuke’s voice broke up the comfortable silence and startled the actress from her thoughts. “I hope you’ll come to have dinner with us tonight?”

Rena shifted in her seat and avoided his expectant gaze in unease. Last Friday too, she had also been confronted with the same question from the actor, an offer that she had politely declined. It was the cast and crew’s little ritual: each Friday evening, they would go out to a restaurant to loosen up after a long week of work. During the shooting of Destiny, she had willingly agreed to follow it, enjoying those pleasant evenings spent in the company of her two other co-stars, Masada Yosuke and Kaneko Sayuri.

So why was she so reluctant to renew with the tradition this time? Maybe because she wasn’t in the best state of mind lately for any social gathering. Enjoyment and high spirits were prominent during those times, and she refused to force herself to pretend or fake emotions when her mind was simply not at it. And, of course, it was out of the question to let her dark, melancholic mood transpire in the presence of others. Even less in front of staff members and co-workers.

“Rena-san…” her interlocutor murmured hesitantly. “Are you alright? I know it’s been almost a year since the last time we met but since the beginning of this shooting, I can’t shake the feeling that something has changed.”

“Changed?” Rena glanced back at him in puzzlement. “What do you mean? In my acting?”

“No, not your acting,” Yosuke reassured her immediately. “I sometimes have the impression that something is on your mind, especially when I watch you leaving set at the end of the day. I used to think it was work-related, but…”

Yosuke paused, and looked away in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I asked that. It’s none of my business. Please forget what I said.”

Taken aback by her interlocutor’s perspicacity, Rena didn’t know what to reply for a little while. Yosuke was entirely right. During the day, she focused all her attention on her work, but the familiar face of a girl she still deeply loved never failed to submerge her mind as soon as the cameras were off. Could her perfect mask have possibly slipped a few times without her realizing it? Could others also have noticed what he had described?

“It’s true. Many things have changed in my life since the last time we met,” Rena confessed. Her co-star was a kind and thoughtful person, and she was touched by his sincere concern for her. Nevertheless, there were certain things she wasn’t ready to share about herself. It wasn’t a problem of trust, but of boundaries she wasn’t willing to cross. “That’s why I’m afraid I wouldn’t be good company tonight.”

“I understand.” Yosuke nodded, and Rena didn’t fail to detect the small, perceptible disappointment in his voice. “If you ever change your mind, you know where to find us. Same restaurant as last week.”

“Thank you.” A faint smile moved to Rena’s lips, grateful when he didn’t insist. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll think about it.”

 


 

When the shooting ended a little after 6 p.m. and the minivan left Rena in front of her hotel, she soon remembered Yosuke’s suggestion. These last two weeks, she had on a few occasions settled down alone at a table of the hotel restaurant but had mostly spent her dinners in her comfortable hotel room, watching television or listening to music on her iPhone. Maybe she could afford to make a small change tonight, Rena figured as she entered the elevator leading upstairs to her room. Maybe the distraction would do her some good.

Letting out a despondent sigh, she leaned her back heavily against the elevator panel. Press conferences, interviews: as part of her job, she had had to attend a few of those lately to promote her new drama. However, she had carefully made sure to stay away from non-mandatory events. This evening, as the prospect of joining the cast and crew at the restaurant definitely didn’t sound appealing at all, she realized she wasn’t mentally ready yet to participate in those kinds of social gatherings.

Rena felt slightly guilty for letting her co-star down – especially when he looked so hopeful after telling him she would sincerely consider it – but she was going to have to pass for now.

 


 

 

Much as she was not disposed to spend the evening in the presence of co-workers, she nevertheless decided on the next day to make a small infringement to her daily routine and have dinner outside of the hotel. Not wishing to have to walk too far, she opted for a small place that didn’t look like much from the outside, less than ten minutes away from the hotel. She wasn’t looking for any type of food in particular: she wanted to spend a peaceful, undisturbed evening in a quiet and cozy restaurant.

The food was tasty and the staff discrete, yet her mind was anything but at rest. Now and then, her fingers would play absent-mindedly with her necklace, her thoughts drifting far too frequently towards a certain beloved 20-year-old ace. Before leaving Nagoya, Airi had mentioned the change of scenery might enable her to take her mind off things, and she had deeply hoped her best friend would be right.

Ultimately, it had only been wishful thinking.

Not only was she consumed with guilt – incapable of forgetting or even less forgiving herself for what she had said and done that fateful day of early April – she had never felt so empty inside. These last two years, she had relished Jurina’s constant presence in her life and by her side. Her voice. Her smile. Her touch. She was missing her so badly. Where was she? What was she doing? Was she alright? Many questions piled up in her head: questions that remained desperately unanswered.

Rena had been sitting at the table for almost an hour – her meal already finished – when she noticed the many emptied Sapporo beers lining in front of her. It definitely wasn’t the first time she consumed alcohol, but she always made sure to drink in moderation. Tonight, she knew she had gotten carried away when she felt even more miserable than when she first entered the restaurant. Getting drunk was never her objective in the first place: she had naively hoped the beverage would enable her to forget about her sorrow for at least one evening.

It wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

The problem was, it had done the exact opposite.

Not wishing to let the male waiter witness her current fragile emotional state, she wiped away discretely a solitary tear sliding down her cheek when he had his back turned. Staring in despair at the content of her half empty glass, pain began gnawing at her chest. Was she forever doomed to live with a heavy weight on her conscience? Would she ever be able to fill that void within her again?

“Rena-san?”

Rena came back to her senses and looked up when she caught the sound of a voice addressing her. When she noticed a familiar silhouette standing a few feet away, her eyes widened in stupefaction. “Y–Yosuke-san? What are you doing here?”

“What a surprise to see you here.” Yosuke approached her table. “I sometimes come here to take some takeaway, they make the best takoyaki.”

Rena noted the plastic bag with the restaurant’s label in his right hand, the actor’s smile vanishing when his eyes fell on the content of her table, more specifically on the empty bottles of beers. She tensed and avoided his gaze, now feeling awfully embarrassed at the terrible sight she was offering. Her first instinct was to try and justify herself and assure him it definitely wasn’t what he was thinking. But how could she manage to make herself convincing enough when, not only wasn’t she exactly feeling at her best right now, the evidence was laying in front of his eyes?

Rena knew she would never manage to erase what he had seen: it was already too late for that. However, she could still attempt to distract him from the view and try to make the situation slightly less awkward for both of them. Composing herself a little, she looked up to him with a tentative smile. “It was my first time coming here. I was about to leave… soon.”

“You were?” Yosuke diverted his attention from the remnants of her meal to glance back at her in anticipation. “Then, why don’t we walk back to the hotel together?”

“I…” Rena trailed off. Somehow, she had hoped her words would satisfy the actor’s curiosity, putting an end to their unpredictable meeting and prompting him to leave. And now, he was offering to accompany her back to the hotel? Wouldn’t he, on the contrary, want to turn on his heels and pretend he hadn’t seen anything?

“Please.” Rena was caught off guard when Yosuke placed a warm hand upon her shoulder. “Let me walk you back to the hotel.”

Rena was startled by the tenderness and concern in his eyes. The true reason behind his proposal appeared a little clearer, and she found herself torn between two conflicted emotions. A part of her was still feeling ashamed to have been caught in such a compromising situation in front of him, yet another was moved by the actor’s benevolent care and appreciative of his non-judgmental attitude.

Slowly raising herself from the chair, she realized his presence was far from unwelcomed after all when her feet proved to be a little unsteady.

 


 

What could possibly have pushed Rena Matsui, one of the most collected people he had ever met in his life, to drink so much tonight?

Those worried thoughts crossed Yosuke’s head more than once when they both left the restaurant and moved towards the direction of their hotel. Thankfully, she didn’t seem to have lost all her senses yet, as she proved to be coherent enough when they exchanged a few words on the way back. Nevertheless, he kept a cautious eye on her, worried by her sometimes slightly unbalanced steps.

When, a little while later, they arrived in front of her hotel room, he was more than reluctant to leave her alone. The actress might have thanked him politely for walking her back to her room, the way she was having difficulty sliding her keycard inside the lock didn’t go unnoticed. Yosuke reached for her hand and wrapped his fingers gently around hers. “Let me do it.”

The actress didn’t oppose any resistance, letting him take the keycard from her hand to unlock the door. “I’m sorry,” a faint whisper left her lips. “I’m sorry you had to see me like this.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Yosuke said softly. “Are you going to be alright?”

Receiving a small nod in reply, he stepped aside to let her move inside the room. As the door was closing behind him progressively, it paused halfway through, Rena’s bothered expression appearing through the partially opened door. “No, I’m not fine…”

Yosuke gave her a reassuring smile. “I’ll stay with you for a little while.”

Yosuke tried not to look around the room when he followed her inside, not feeling entirely comfortable with the idea of invading her privacy. As soon as she was seated on the corner of the bed upon his demand, he went for the mini-bar in search of something adequate for her to drink. The unease crossing her features when he presented her a small bottle of orange juice he had fetched, taught him she definitely didn’t enjoy showing such a vulnerable side in front of him.

No, Rena Matsui wasn’t as flawless as the image she always tried to project in public, whether in front of the staff and crew or in magazines. More than anything, he wanted to reassure her that she had nothing to fear from him: her secret was perfectly safe. After all, she was a human being like anyone else: she could afford to make small mistakes. His respect for her would not diminish after today because of what he had accidently witnessed.

And, right now, his only objective was to be present for her during that difficult moment she was going through.

“Why don’t we watch something on the television?” Yosuke offered. Somehow, he didn’t want to take the risk of her falling asleep yet when she remained intoxicated.

“Alright,” Rena agreed. “You can choose the program.”

Yosuke seized the remote control, caught off guard when he felt trembling fingers encircling his hand. “Thank you, Yosuke-san.”

Yosuke glanced back at her, startled when he noticed her watery eyes. Wishing to comfort her a little, he caressed her hair hesitantly but tenderly. “You don’t have to thank me. You’ll be fine. Go and lay down.”

Rena nodded and went to rest her back against the headboard while he moved a chair near the bed, close enough to keep an eye on her in case she needed assistance. When, more than an hour later, the ending titles appeared on the screen, he glanced back at her in curiosity when he didn’t detect any movement on the bed. Her closed eyelids informed him that she had unexpectedly fallen asleep, and the sound of her calm and steady breathing reassured him instantly.

His presence wasn’t required any longer.

Standing up from his chair, he pulled the blanket over her still fully-clothed form, careful to be gentle enough not to wake her up in the process. After that, he observed her for a few more seconds, startled when he distinguished a tear rolling down her cheek. Saddened by the unexpected sight, he momentarily wondered what she could currently be thinking about. But would he ever discover the origin of her sorrow? The actress was and had always been awfully secretive.

Before switching the light off and leaving the room, he paused on the doorstep and glanced in her direction one last time, hoping for her torment not to last. Tears simply didn’t suit such a beautiful and kind person as Rena Matsui.

Chapter Text

Kaori jolted awake at the sound of someone knocking on the door with insistence. Letting out a small groan in displeasure, she forced her eyes open, immediately bothered by the strong morning light inundating her small apartment of Tokyo. The female detective instantly placed her hand in front of her eyes, wondering why on earth she had forgotten to close her curtains before going to sleep.

“Kaori, are you alright?” A masculine, familiar voice sounded across the door.

Kaori massaged her temples. Not only had her partner woken her up abruptly in her sleep, she had an inexplicable painful headache. Slowly straightening up in bed, she frowned a little when she discovered she wasn’t wearing her pajamas as expected but was still in her work uniform. This morning couldn’t have felt anymore strange.

What… happened? Kaori took a seat on the side of the bed with difficulty, trying desperately to clear her foggy mind and put the pieces back together. When she looked up and noticed the empty bottles of beer laying on the coffee table, that’s when she recalled absolutely everything.

Last evening, the police had discovered another body a few minutes away from Tokyo University, at Sanshiro Pond. It was now the third victim by the serial killer familiarly known as the ‘Pond Killer’, a nickname that journalists had been swift to assign him after his first victim was discovered in stupor in the crowded area of Shinobazuno Pond.

Three victims in only two months.

Three healthy young men all connected to the female detective’s past love life.

After this third death, Kaori’s sanity was starting to hang by a frayed thread.

“I’m… I’m coming,” Kaori mumbled. Getting up on her feet, she walked towards the coffee table with slightly unbalanced steps, not wishing to let her visitor witness what kind of activity she had participated into after work. Clearing the mess on the coffee table as best as she could, she slipped the empty bottles in the bin underneath the sink, before turning towards the front door.

Kaori adjusted her hair and her clothes, even though she feared she wouldn’t be able to fool the person currently waiting behind the door. Letting out a heavy sigh, she approached the entrance, mustering her best smile when she opened. “Daisuke, hi. What are you doing here?”

“Kaori.” The male detective scanned her from head to toe. “It’s past 10 a.m. I tried to call you on your cell several times, but you didn’t reply.”

“You… You did?” Kaori blinked in confusion, having no memory whatsoever of hearing her phone ringing. “I’m sorry. I must have muted the sound before going to sleep.”

 “Have you been… drinking?” Daisuke asked in concern.

Kaori avoided his questioning gaze in unease. Sometimes, she really wished her partner wasn’t so straightforward. “Just give me ten minutes to take a quick shower, and I’ll follow you to the police station.”

Kaori opened the door wider to let him inside and, as she was about to turn on her heels to join the bathroom, felt a hand catching her forearm. “I know you’re affected by this new death, but you can’t let yourself get carried away.”

“And what am I supposed to do?!” Kaori snapped. “Three people have died in two months! Men I knew intimately!”

Daisuke stayed quiet for a little while, slightly taken aback by her uncharacteristic outburst. “I know it’s hard. I really do.” He caressed her arm softly. “But you can’t give up. Not now.”

“I’m… sorry,” Kaori stammered, feeling embarrassed for having raised her voice in such a rude way. Her partner was only trying to be nice and helpful, but the truth was, this impossible case was starting to drive her mad and making her loose her temper more easily than usual.

“Don’t worry about it.” Daisuke gave her a reassuring smile.

Kaori returned it weakly, soon wincing at the strong pain in her head. Knowing she definitely needed to do something about those headaches before going to work, she apologized briefly, and moved towards the bathroom. Opening the medicine cabinet above the sink, she spotted the necessary pills on the middle shelf and retrieved them.

Kaori slipped a green pill inside her mouth and turned the tap on, leaning forward to drink some water. God, she was feeling so thirsty. She really shouldn’t have drunk so much yesterday. Straightening up, she stole a peek at herself through the mirror, her terrible appearance discouraging her instantly: she looked like a mess. Feeling a new presence by her side, she gave a brief side glance to her right, noting her partner standing quietly on the doorstep.

Leaning on the sink, she let out a small, dejected sigh. “I know how the others are looking at me at the police station. I can feel them whispering behind my back. They think I have something to do with all those murders. Everyone does.”

“I don’t,” the male detective protested immediately. “They are all wrong, and we’re going to prove it by catching the killer.”

Kaori let out a small, bitter laugh at her partner’s obstinacy. “Catch him? And how are we going to do that? We don’t even have a single clue about his identity.”

“We need to check the last murder scene. He must have left some evidence. He can’t be infallible. Soon or later, he’ll make a mistake,” Daisuke affirmed with assurance.

Kaori tilted her head in his direction at his confident tone. Another time, she would have appreciated his utmost dedication to a case, but nothing he could say right now managed to lift her spirits. After the discovery of the first body at Shinobazuno Pond, no one had been more motivated than her to catch the killer. However, the news of the second victim had affected her tremendously. Her connection to the first victim wasn’t a mere coincidence as she initially believed. Not when she also happened to know the second and third victims perfectly.

For a completely unknown reason, she was being targeted. Targeted by a sick mind who was killing one by one all the men she had been involved with at one point in her life.

Tears gathered in Kaori’s eyes in despair. “What if he came after you? Maybe we should stop seeing each other. I would never be able to forgive myself if something… If something happened to you too.”

Daisuke moved forward and pulled her gently into his arms. “No, Kaori. I’m not going anywhere. We will go through this. Together.”

A few tears slid down Kaori’s cheeks, and she casually leaned her head on his shoulder. “I don’t know what to do… I don’t know what to do anymore.”

“Kaori, we’ll catch him,” Daisuke repeated, cupping her cheek and pressing a soft, loving kiss to her lips. “I promise you that we will.”

Kaori knew her lover’s faith to be sincere, but she simply couldn’t manage to share it. The police had already swept carefully each crime scene for evidence without success. They had both interrogated every single person who could have possibly witnessed something the days of the murders, to no avail. They had scrupulously investigated the criminals she had arrested in the past and could have held a vendetta against her.

All leads had been complete dead ends.

 


 

Rena took a seat in the dressing room to finish adjusting her appearance. Another day of shooting had ended in Tokyo, and the drama was progressively but surely nearing its end. In approximatively two weeks, she would be shooting the final episode in which the identity of the mysterious ‘Pond Killer’ would be revealed, marking her progressive return to Nagoya. Right now, the dressing room was currently empty, and the actress took time to check herself in the mirror.

She had already changed into more casual clothes and removed her makeup, but she knew she still needed to do something important before leaving the room. Slipping her hand in her backpack, she retrieved a small red square box that she placed on the small table in front of her. Opening it delicately, she gazed at the familiar piece of jewelry inside. Her fingertips encircled carefully the precious silver ring hanging from the necklace, and she couldn’t help reading once again the inscription written inside.

Forever yours, J

Rena already knew the sentence by heart, but she still felt a rush of emotions surging through her. The beautiful declaration of love never failed to touch her heart, and a smile gradually moved to her lips as her thoughts led her back unconsciously to that sunny day of July in Kyoto. That Sunday afternoon when she and Jurina had taken a refreshing stroll in the Maruyama Park, and Jurina had caught her by complete surprise by offering her that meaningful ring.

Realizing that she was getting caught in the past – something that seemed to happen far too frequently lately – Rena tore her eyes away from the cherished ring and detached the necklace to place it around her neck. It was a little ritual she had been following diligently every day since her separation with Jurina. Albeit the fact she could never make the ring apparent or wear the necklace during shootings or photoshoots, she never forgot to put it back on as soon as she had the chance.

Maybe was she being too sentimentalist, or maybe did she need to feel that, in a certain way, Jurina had not completely left her side. Regardless, that special ring reminded her of so many fond memories. Happy moments with Jurina that, unexpectedly, always managed to make her smile even during the darkest times.

 


 

When Rena opened the door and stepped outside the dressing room, she wasn’t surprised in the least to notice Yosuke standing a bit further away in the corridor. Her male co-star had his back leaned slightly against the wall behind him – his attention monopolized by the cell in his hands – but he instantly glanced up her way when he heard sounds of footsteps. As soon as their eyes met they exchanged a smile, Rena noting that the actor was playing at Fire Emblem Heroes when she approached.

“Winning?” she asked, looking down in interest at the screen of his black iPhone 7. It was a game her co-star had been pretty much engrossed into these last few weeks. His enthusiasm about the tactical RPG was a feeling familiar to her. It was the same reaction she harbored when she played one of her favorite games on her 3DS. However, she had neglected her console these past two months, somehow not feeling really in the mood for the activity.

“If only,” Yosuke sighed dejectedly, showing in frustration the GAME OVER message appearing in big red letters on the screen. “Legion is impossible to beat in Infernal mode.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Rena sympathized with him. “I wish I could help… but you know I’m not good at that game.”

“It’s fine, I’ll try again later. I won’t give up.” Yosuke quit the game and placed the device back inside his black vest pocket. “Anyway… what do you think about a Korean restaurant? I spotted one fifteen minutes away from here.”

“A Korean restaurant?” Rena pondered over his offer. If truth be told, it wasn’t a type of food she normally ate, but she figured a little change wouldn’t hurt. Besides, she could sense by the actor’s expectant look that he was looking forward to it, and she saw no good reason to object. “Hm. Why not?”

A wide smile spread across Yosuke’s features. “Follow me.”

It had already been two weeks since the scene Yosuke had accidentally witnessed that evening in the restaurant and – even if Rena still felt deeply ashamed to have been caught in such an unusual moment of weakness – they never mentioned it ever again. Nevertheless, that memorable incident had taught her that she definitely needed to be more cautious, and it could have been worse if the actor had not intervened in time.

What would have happened if she hadn’t been able to stop herself from drowning her sorrows with alcohol, and a paparazzi had caught her walking back to her hotel in a heavenly drunken state? She didn’t even want to imagine the devastating repercussions it could have had on her image and her career.

After that day, she realized her emotional state was even more fragile than she had anticipated, and it was much wiser to avoid going out alone to a restaurant for the time being. Taking the risk of repeating such a mistake was obviously out of the question. She badly needed a distraction, Rena figured, and Yosuke’s previous suggestions progressively came back to the forefront of her mind.

Not ready to participate in big social events yet, she nevertheless approached her male co-star one evening after a day of shooting and suggested him to have dinner the two of them. Even though he looked mildly surprised at first, he accepted without hesitation, and they spent the evening at a restaurant that both suited their liking.

It was now the fourth time they were going out, and Rena had to admit she appreciated highly those precious hours spent in the presence of her co-star. Their casual conversations and the pleasant company made her evenings pass by faster, enabling her to successfully and thankfully forget about her grief for a little while, her melancholic side vanishing equally when she was with Yosuke.

“It’s here.” Rena paused in her steps when – a little while later – the actor grabbed her arm and stopped them in front of a restaurant. “It’s the place I was talking about.”

Rena read the white letters above the wooden door, Tonchang Ueno, before taking a curious peek inside the restaurant through the window panes. The place was actually not big, but there were only few clients currently eating. After all, it was the middle of the week, and still a little early.

The actress was conscious of Yosuke’s fingers still surrounding her arm, yet she didn’t attempt to put some distance between them, not feeling in the slightest bothered by the gesture. Lately, Yosuke had been acting a little friendlier with her. The shy person she had met at the beginning of the shooting of Destiny was a far distant memory, and their unexpected reunion on this new drama had brought them even more close. Now, the actor didn’t hesitate to initiate simple physical contact, whether on set or during leisure times when they joined their hotel or went out to eat.

Rena felt comfortable enough around him, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to act similarly in an informal way. If truth be told, she had quickly felt a connection to Yosuke, even back then when they worked together on Destiny. Calling him a friend didn’t sound appropriate, as she didn’t believe their relationship to have developed to such a high level, yet she couldn’t deny the fact she had ceased viewing him as a mere co-worker a long time ago.

Working on such an important drama implied long days of shootings, and you could easily become bored and lonely, especially while waiting for your turn between takes. Rena couldn’t feel luckier to have someone by her side that – not only she worked incredibly well with – she sincerely managed to get along with.

“It looks nice,” Rena confirmed with a smile, after noticing that her co-star was still kindly waiting for her approval to enter the restaurant. “Let’s eat here.”

 


 

“Do you think we’ll end up together?”

Rena’s hand paused, the Kimchi she had barely placed between her chopsticks almost escaping her when she heard the strange question falling from Yosuke’s lips. Composing herself a little, she carefully made sure the food was completely secured again, before gazing confusingly at the actor eating opposite her. “I’m… sorry?”

“I’m talking about Kaori and Daisuke,” he clarified, slightly amused by her reaction. “Do you think they will stay together?”

“Oh… that.” Rena relaxed instantly. “I have no idea. The plot is so unpredictable and the director hasn’t given me the final script yet.”

“I wish they did,” Yosuke stated, placing nonchalantly two other pieces of meat on the grill between them. “I think they deserve a happy ending, especially after everything Kaori has been through.”

“We still know nothing about the identity of the killer,” Rena reminded him. “What if Daisuke was guilty? What if you were the killer?”

Yosuke’s mouth tugged into an amused smile at her challenging tone, not failing to distinguish the evident teasing behind her words. “I’m sure he’s not. I can tell he truly cares about her.” He shook his head in determination. “It has to be someone else: someone in Kaori’s background. What about her mentor, Azuma-san? She confides a lot in him, and he knew all the previous victims.”

Rena took a moment to think about his theory, recognizing that – even though she didn’t truthfully believe that character in particular to be the killer – it wasn’t completely senseless. “Maybe you’re right. We’ll have to wait the end of the drama to know for sure.”

Yosuke nodded in agreement and they continued to eat, Rena admitting to herself that her co-star had made an excellent choice by bringing them to this Korean restaurant. The food was nice and tasty, and the place quiet enough not to be disturbed. Since they had entered the place, they had engaged in casual talks, but never invaded each other’s privacy with personal questions. Amongst all his personality traits, it was one of those she appreciated the most.

Two weeks ago, when he had stumbled upon her in the restaurant and discovered the dangerous direction her evening was taking, he hadn’t tried to pry either, instead walking her back to the hotel and nicely taking care of her. Up to that day, she still felt utterly grateful for his attention and discretion.

“You know, when I think about Destiny…” Yosuke trailed off.

Rena looked up in curiosity at the mention of the drama they had previously shot together, wondering what could be crossing the actor’s mind right now as he looked pensive. In fact, he even put down his chopsticks and avoided her gaze, almost as if he was a little hesitant to continue with his train of thoughts.

“Maybe you’ll think it’s silly but…” he chuckled nervously. “I always believed Yoshiaki and Arisa made a nice couple and would end up together. I was a little disappointed when it didn’t happen.”

Rena didn’t know exactly what to say. It had now been almost a year since the shooting of the drama, and she definitely didn’t recall the actor conveying such thoughts at the time. Why did he feel the need to bring it up? But most of all, what kind of reply was he expecting from her? Once she accepted a role, she never put in question the director’s decisions and even less intervened in the writing process. Her personal opinion was irrelevant: her job was merely to follow the director’s directives and portray the character as accurately as described on the paper.

“She cared about Yoshiaki sincerely,” Rena started, trying to remember better Arisa’s motivations. Arisa had been nothing but a fascinating character to play, but so complex and occasionally even a little challenging to understand. Notably her extreme devotion to Nobunaga – her first, lost love – and persistent refusal to put the past behind. “Yoshiaki was a good person,” she conceded. “But Arisa remained haunted by the memory of her first love. She just… couldn’t forget about him.”

Rena’s eyes widened slightly, this conversation unpredictably making her aware of a certain irony. On the set of Destiny, she had been obliged to address the director and question him once in a while, not always entirely grasping her character’s choices. In hindsight, Arisa’s reasons appeared much less illogical, in particular when she found uncanny resemblances with her own personal life.

 


 

It was her last week of shooting in Tokyo. Already, Rena was feeling a little nostalgic, knowing she was going to miss filling the shoes of this strong yet so tormented female detective. Kaori had been through so many moments of hardship since the beginning of the TV show, but she was thankfully about to reach her objective. In only two episodes, the mysterious identity of the ‘Pond Killer’ was going to be revealed to the audience.

This morning, Rena was reviewing with assiduity her lines for today’s episode, walking across her hotel room as she was reciting out loud a few dialogues. Pausing in her steps, she looked up from the text and checked her watch, taking in she still had a little time ahead of her until she would need to leave and join the set. Feeling contended enough with her careful rereading, she closed the script and approached the table, her eyes soon falling on another script on the table.

The script of the final episode.

The director had handed it over to her two days ago, but she still hadn’t read it. It wasn’t that she wasn’t interested in the killer’s identity – quite the contrary – but she had voluntarily left it aside, not wishing to take the risk of having the discovery affecting her acting in any way. Somehow, she highly suspected the murderer to be someone she was familiar with. Maybe even a person from her close entourage…

As Rena placed her script back on the table, her fingers trailed across the other untouched script, knowing she could now afford to satisfy her curiosity. Pulling the chair, she took a seat at the table and turned the first page, her eyes falling in interest on the text. For the following minutes, her attention was entirely monopolized by the script, a gasp escaping her lips in shock when she got the answer she was searching on page 10.

“Wait. He was right.” Rena couldn’t believe her eyes. Out of all the potential suspects, she would never have expected this character’s betrayal. “The killer really is…”

She didn’t have time to complete her sentence that she got distracted by the sound of her cellphone beeping. Tearing her eyes away from the script, she stole a curious peek at the device placed on the table. Realizing that she had received a text from her agent, she gave her undivided attention to it, and read the few lines written in the message.

Hello, Rena-san.

Something came up this morning. Please open the following link. You can reach me at any time if you want to discuss on the best way to deal with this situation.

Rena arched an eyebrow at her agent’s enigmatic words, wondering what kind of situation she could possibly be referring to. Not waiting any longer, she opened the web link in curiosity, but froze instantly when she saw the article charging on her phone.

The stars of Destiny have been rekindling the flame on the set of their new drama

A catchy and daring title written in large letters, followed by many stolen pictures of she and Yosuke in the streets of Tokyo.

It took her all the self-restraint in the world not to scream.

This couldn’t be happening. Not again.

Anger boiled up inside her as she went through the article, appalled by the shameful and ridiculous rumors Bunshun Shunkan wasn’t afraid to spread about an allegedly romantic relationship between them. Considering the nature of the stolen pictures accompanying the article, she deduced the paparazzi must have been following her for weeks, maybe even since the beginning of the shooting.

“Why do they do that?” Rena fulminated and hurriedly closed the webpage, refusing to read another single line of this tissue of lies. “Why can’t they leave me in peace?!”

Her exasperation gave way progressively to a greater sense of powerlessness, wondering how on earth she was going to deal with this article. The last time the tabloid had spread false rumors about she and Yosuke, it was during the shooting of Destiny. A short tweet denying categorically any involvement with her male partner had been enough to solve the issue, but she was getting so tired of all this.

Exhausted to constantly have to justify herself.

Yes, she was aware that she was a public figure, and that her popularity as an actress had grown tremendously this past year. But why was she targeted, out of all people? Why was the tabloid always so interested in her private life? First, they had made twice false assumptions about the nature of her relationship with Yosuke. Then, they had taken pictures of she and Jurina near her apartment...

At the latest thought, Rena’s heart immediately started hammering inside her chest, realizing in stupor the terrible consequences this article was going to have on her. If she had discovered that article, there was no doubt Jurina was soon going to learn about it too, if it wasn’t already the case. And, this time, she wouldn’t be so inclined to brush away swiftly those rumors as she had the first time.

“She’ll believe it…” Rena’s voice quivered in despair. “She’ll think… She’ll think it’s all true.”

Rena grabbed her phone with haste and swiftly started typing a message to her agent, informing her about her decision. She couldn’t wait and let things drag on. She needed to release a public statement about the article, and fast. She refused to let those awful lies hurt Jurina. Not when she had already caused her so much pain. What if she came to falsely believe it was precisely the reason why she had broken up with her? Because she had developed feelings for someone else?

Her fingers stopped typing abruptly right in the middle of her sentence, fearing the futility of her action. Even if she denied everything, a little voice inside her head was telling her there was a high risk Jurina would disregard her official statement and deep down still believe every single word written in that article. Convince herself that she was solely attempting to preserve her image by making that kind of declaration.

Their relationship had ended two months ago: nothing was preventing her anymore from believing in those dating rumors. Regardless, Rena refused to come back on her decision or lose hope, and she resumed typing her text. If her words had even the slight chance of reaching Jurina, she needed to try.

Chapter Text

A despondent sigh escaped Jurina’s lips when she sneezed and coughed for the umptieth time this morning. The whole SKE group was currently getting prepared in the dressing room for a handshake session in Nagoya, and she was far from being in top form. One thing was for certain: she always looked forward to meeting her fans and relished those privileged moments of interactions with them. However, something was telling her she was not going to fully meet their expectations today if her health didn’t show swiftly signs of improvements.

This last month, she had felt the lack of energy kicking. Not only did she feel exhausted after a long day of work, she dreaded the possibility of having caught a cold during her last photoshoot by the sea at Yumigahama beach. Because of the high level of humidity, Summer never was a season she favored the best, affecting her medical condition each and single year. It was a tricky period, one that required of her to be incredibly cautious, even more than during the rest of the year.

A part of her was still hopeful it wasn’t as bad as it looked and it might only be an allergic reaction to the weather, as it generally occurred to be. However, she had unexpectedly woken up this morning with a bad headache, watery eyes and a sore throat. At those symptoms, she hadn’t hesitated to take medicine before leaving home, praying it would solve the issue. She had a meaningful event to attend, and the idea of cancelling even one single slot was unconceivable. 

People were expecting her. Fans who had bought tickets months in advance and waited eagerly for this moment to arrive. Letting them down was out of the question. She could rest tonight at home once it was over, after greeting properly each fan waiting in line outside. They had made the effort of coming all this way to meet her: she owed it to them to be present.

“Jurina… Are you alright?”

Jurina snapped out of her daze at the sound of a feminine voice addressing her. Across the mirror, she distinguished Churi’s silhouette approaching and she pushed her concerns at the back of her head, sending her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, it’s only the season. It’s the same thing every year. I’m used to it. It will pass.”

Her friend didn’t seem utterly convinced, as she gave her a preoccupied look when she took a seat by her side to study her. Starting to feel a little awkward under Churi’s intense scrutiny, Jurina averted her gaze to focus her attention on something else and decided instead to check her clothes. This morning, she had opted for a casual blue, short-sleeved tee-shirt, along with a light brown pair of shorts.

A perfect outfit for a scorching Summer.

“You seem a little hot…” Churi murmured, after pressing her palm against Jurina’s forehead. “Are you sure you don’t have a fever? Maybe you should see a doctor today.”

“A doctor? Today?!” Jurina exclaimed, staring back at her in incredulity. “We have a handshake event, remember? You want me to cancel it and disappoint all my fans?”

“Of course not,” Churi replied carefully. “But we both know how demanding and tiring such days can be. If you’re not feeling well–”

“Hey…” Jurina cut her off, extending her arm to give her knee a gentle patting. “Stop worrying. I’m fine.”

“You can’t ask me that,” Churi protested softly. “You’re my friend, I care about you. I’ll never stop worrying.”

Jurina’s chest warmed up, moved by Churi’s affectionate words. Her compassionate side had always been appreciated, and even more welcomed during difficult times. Frankly, she didn’t know how she would have overcome those last two months without Churi’s precious and comforting presence. After her devastating breakup with the girl who meant the world to her, she had been a total mess, desperately seeking a shoulder to lean on, and someone to cry her heart out.

She couldn’t have wished for a more loyal friend than Churi, and she would remain forever grateful for her unfailing support. The pain caused by the separation had not subsided yet, and her heart inevitably ached when Rena’s image flowed her mind, and she was reminded of what she had lost. Nevertheless, Jurina was under the strong impression that her friend was being irrationally overprotective lately – watching her every move like a hawk – and never failing to voice her disapproval if she skipped a meal or did longer days of work. 

It was already hard enough hearing her fans and the staff mentioning – way too frequently for her liking – her recent loss of weight and her drawn features…

“You don’t need to smother me each time I sneeze,” Jurina joked, choosing to play the card of humor in the hope it would distract her and ease her worries. “I turned twenty in March: I’m officially an adult now.”

“I know you are,” Churi conceded with a smile. “You’re an adult, even though you can still act quite childish some days…”

“Just admit it.” Jurina gave her a lopsided grin. “You love that side of me.”

Churi let out a laugh. “And flirty too. How could I forget that?”

Jurina was relieved when her tactic seemed to have bored its fruits and the mood had shifted positively between them, her friend now looking more appeased. Believing the matter to be over, Jurina diverted her attention to the mirror in front of her. Her features turned serious as she paid a closer look to her appearance, realizing she would need to add a little more makeup if she wished to cover better those awful bags under her eyes.

“Please,” Churi’s small, hesitant voice unexpectedly broke the silence. “Promise me you’ll go and see a doctor tomorrow if you don’t feel any better.”

Jurina tilted her head towards her, caught off guard by the request. She was confident to have successfully convinced her friend there was nothing to be concerned about, but it appeared her previous words hadn’t had the desired effect. This morning, Jurina sensed the other member would never drop the subject unless she had obtained the answer she wanted. “Alright…” Jurina relented. “I promise.”

Jurina was conscious the medication hadn’t worked as well as she anticipated when the handshake session began, and most of her previous symptoms had unfortunately not disappeared. With a heavy head and a troublesome headache that showed no intention of vanishing, she was nevertheless determined to put on a brave face and greeted as cheerfully as possible each and single one of her fans. At first, the trick seemed to work as she managed to go through the first slot without too much difficulty.

The following one, however, proved to be more challenging.

The second slot had barely started that she began sweating abnormally, making her fear the current heat in the exhibition hall of Port Messe might not be the sole explanation for her growing discomfort. A few times, when her legs demonstrated sign of weakness and refused to fully support her frail body any longer, she took a seat to rest, but never more than a few minutes to not trouble her fans unnecessarily.

Being one of the most popular members, all her slots had sold out weeks in advance, and there was a long waiting line of fans impatient to share a few words with her. Despite all the signs indicating she badly needed to take a pause, she refused to come to such a decision yet. In nine years, it was not the first time she did a handshake session while not being completely physically fit. It surely never stopped her from conducting the handshakes until the very end…

“Hi.” She wrapped her hands gently around the next approaching fan, a young man in his twenties with black, short hair and wearing proudly a blue tee-shirt at the effigy of SKE’s ace. “Thank you for coming all this way despite the hot weather!”

“Jurina-san, I’m so happy to see you.” A broad smile plastered the male fan’s face in undeniable enthusiasm, his features nevertheless soon growing a little concerned. “Jurina-san… Are you sick? You don’t look well.”

“I don’t?” Jurina exclaimed, feigning ignorance. “Don’t worry, it’s only because of the season. I’m fine!”

“Oh… okay.” The male fan was swayed easily by his oshi’s charming smile. “I wanted to ask… Is it true what the article is saying about Rena-san?”

Jurina stiffened at the unpredictable mention of the graduated member. This morning, she had discussed various topics with her fans, but the older Matsui had never been a subject of conversation. Until now. “What are you talking about?” Jurina asked, a mix of confusion and curiosity filling her voice.

“Ah, you still don’t know.” The fan’s eyes lit up in realization. “Bunshun published an article a few minutes ago. It says–”

Unfortunately, the male fan didn’t have the opportunity to explain further that the guard had moved forward and grabbed his arm, clear sign that the five seconds were over and his time was up. Having no choice but to abide to the rule, the fan opened his mouth to say goodbye, but Jurina intervened. “No, wait. Let him finish.”

The guard, who was about to drag the male fan away, stopped at once, casting Jurina a startled look at the unexpected interruption. Without a protest, he retracted his fingers and took a step back, enabling the SKE member to bring her full attention back to the fan. “Bunshun released an article about Rena?” she repeated, unease spreading through her chest. Experience had taught her the tabloid enjoyed intruding into people’s personal lives, and hearing the infamous name being associated with the young actress troubled her. “What does it say?”

“They took pictures of Rena-san with Yosuke-san in Tokyo,” the fan, who was pleased to have earned a few more seconds with his favorite member, didn’t wait to reveal. “The article says they are dating.”

Jurina widened her eyes, unconsciously loosening her grip around the fan’s hands. Processing the words that he had uttered, her instincts were screaming at her not to trust any of it. After all, it wasn’t the first time Bunshun created fake scandals. On the shooting of Destiny, they had already used the excuse of a simple dinner between colleagues to spread the false rumor that they were dating. But it was more than a year ago… Why on earth was Bunshun coming up with this same silly story again?

Back then, Rena hadn’t waited to deny any involvement with the male star, her short but unambiguous tweet thankfully putting an end to the foolish rumors. That’s why it made no sense whatsoever for the tabloid to target both actors again. Unless…

“What… What kind of pictures?” Jurina couldn’t help asking, a shred of doubt sweeping through her. She and Rena had broken up two months ago, and the latter never made a secret her good relationship with her Destiny partner. Not only the actress always had flattering words to say about him when they chatted on LINE, their chemistry transpired on every media they appeared together, whether press conferences, TV shows or magazines interviews.

“They weren’t kissing but… they seemed really close,” the fan answered, a little uncertain to continue when he noticed a flash of apprehension in the idol’s eyes. “I don’t know if it’s true, that’s why I wanted to ask your opinion about it.”

The guard, who had kept quiet until now, stepped forward again, and Jurina didn’t oppose any resistance this time when he pulled them apart. Already, the next fan in line was approaching but Jurina was far too distracted, incapable of getting out of her head the information she had received. Right now, and against her better judgment, she wanted nothing more but to get her hands on that article and see the pictures.

Attest for herself if something was indeed going on between Rena and Yosuke.

“I need to take a break,” Jurina whispered to herself when a shiver ran through her body. Burying her burning forehead in one hand, she clutched the railing before her for support with the other. Against all hope, her health was not improving in the least as the morning was going by. Worse, it was now asking her all the effort in the world to remain standing still on her feet without wobbling.

“I will make a short pause,” she repeated decidedly, loud enough for the guard to catch it, before shooting the next fan in line an embarrassed, apologetic look. “I’m so sorry… please wait for me.”

Taking an unstable step back, she turned around and began walking towards the direction of the rest area. The following seconds went by like a flash. From her left, she noticed her manager drawing close, vaguely registering the latter inquiring what was wrong. She never had the chance to reply. Feeling her strength failing her, her eyes shut without her consent as she collapsed on the floor.

 


 

Jurina blinked her eyes in an effort to wake up. Slowly and progressively, her sight adjusted better to her surroundings, heaving out a discouraged sigh when she took in the white, aseptic room surrounding her. No matter how many times she had ended at the hospital those last nine years, she still couldn’t manage to get used to the place, loathing coming here as much as the first day. Being stuck here, lying in a bed too narrow and firm, and wearing nothing more but a thin and irritating blue hospital gown, only served to remind her of the fragile nature of her health. 

A weak body that, annoyingly, seemed to take some malicious delight in constantly failing her when she needed it the most.

Jurina stared helplessly at the ceiling above her head, before distractingly casting a glance at the square window on her left. It was getting dark outside, the partial obscurity indicating her that she had slept most of the afternoon. Taking a nap never was her intention in the first place, but her fatigue had gotten the best of her, succumbing to her heavy eyelids after the nurse had entered her room to remove the lunch tray.

If truth be told, she continued to feel extremely sleepy. Keeping her eyes open proved to be a complicated task, and her numbed muscles didn’t seem ready for any kind of effort. Yet, she refused to listen to her body’s wishes, aware she would have real trouble finding sleep tonight otherwise. Reaching for the bedside table on her right, her fingers encountered a familiar rectangular device, pushing the middle button to raise the head end of the bed. Once at adequate height, her cellphone lying on the corner caught her attention and she took a curious look at it, horrified when she discovered how many new messages she had received.

Scrolling through them, she made a mental note to reply later to the work-related messages, lingering on the personal ones. Amongst the vast quantity of messages from SKE members wishing her a quick recovery, she noted a few from Mayu, Mariko and Churi, as well as her mother. Carefully placing the device back on the table, she couldn’t help feeling a tinge of disappointment at the absence of message from a certain person, until realizing it was foolish and senseless of her to expect a message from Rena. In two months, the other girl hadn’t contacted her once. Why would she come out of her silence now?

Not wishing to dwell on the painful reality as it inevitably brought out her melancholic side, she tried to focus on positive thoughts, and to rejoice at the notion that Churi would be visiting her in an hour. For two days straight, she had been glued to this bed, fighting a strenuous battle against the fever that had struck her without warning during handshake. Crammed with antibiotics, her body temperature had now thankfully dropped, her cold equally almost a bad souvenir. However, it would be presumptuous to affirm she had already fully recuperated.

Yesterday, when the doctor had paid her a visit, he had manifested his desire to keep her at the hospital for at least two more days, concerned about the results of her blood analysis and the low levels of iron in her blood. Jurina would always remember the stern look on Churi’s face when she came to hear about the doctor’s predictable diagnostic.

Anemia.

Jurina had accepted her friend’s scolding without complaining, not having the will and even less the strength to contradict her. Even though her pride prevented her from admitting it out loud, she knew deep down her friend was perfectly right: she hadn’t taken good care of herself lately. Persuading the doctor to discharge her from hospital didn’t even cross her mind: she guessed he would be reluctant to agree anyway considering her medical history. Even if she was aware of the countless problems her absence was causing, she wasn’t in position of winning this battle.

These last two months, she had buried herself in her work, not counting her hours and never refusing extra workload. It appeared she had pushed her body to its limits once again and it was requesting a necessary respite. In the past, she ignored him easily when he dared making such bold demands. As the ace of SKE, she couldn’t afford to rest or take a break. The weight of her responsibilities was too great: people had placed so much faith in her. But, more than anything, she wanted to reflect the perfect image of an idol: professional, hard-working, and not afraid of outdoing herself to deliver the best performances and satisfy the audience.

Maybe had she reached a higher level of maturity, enabling her to ultimately learn from her past mistakes. Or maybe was she solely too physically and mentally exhausted to protest this time. Nevermind the reason prevailing, she didn’t oppose any resistance to the doctor’s wishes, and agreed to stay under medical surveillance for a little while longer.

Looking up to the television hanging from the wall opposite her, Jurina grabbed the remote control from the bedside table, in the hope the activity would successfully keep her awake. As she was about to switch the television on, her attention was caught by the sound of light footsteps approaching in the corridor and stopping in front of her door. Believing she had a new visitor, Jurina revised her plans and waited in anticipation for the person to manifest herself but was perplexed when the door didn’t open as she predicted.

For an instant, she wondered if maybe the newcomer had gotten the wrong room number and was progressively realizing their mistake, leading them to shortly turn on their heels. The stranger’s odd behavior, who was neither entering or drawing away, but standing immobile on the opposite side of the door, began to unsettle her. Settling down the remote control on the bedsheet, Jurina straightened up and spoke up. “Who’s here?”

Her intervention produced the anticipated result as the door slid opened, revealing a feminine silhouette that made her heart stop.   

A beautiful slightly pale face she could recognize easily anywhere, even amongst the densest crowd. Long, black shiny hair that fell down her chest, and covered a short-sleeved red summer blouse. But, most of all, gentle small brown eyes that kept on haunting her days even after two, long months of separation. Jurina was frozen in place as her new visitor approached, asking herself if her imagination was not playing tricks on her mind, and this improbable scene was not in fact a mirage.

Because there was no way Rena Matsui could have just walked in her hospital room.

Chapter Text

“Hello, Jurina…”

Jurina stared at the new visitor in disbelief, following her every step closely as she walked inside the room and carefully slid the door closed behind her. “I heard what happened during the handshake.” Their gazes locked across the room as Rena turned around to face her. “I wanted… I wanted to see how you were doing.”

Jurina opened her mouth to reply, but words desperately refused to come out. Despite comprehending it wasn’t an illusion and Rena was indeed there in the flesh and blood a few feet away, she remained deeply entrenched in a state of denial. A silence that lasted an eternity surrounded them, until Rena’s light footsteps resonated on the floor as she approached. When she paused by the side of her bed, Jurina was struck by the range of emotions reflected in her eyes.

Rena was trying her best to appear calm, yet she was doing a poor job at concealing her true feelings, her deep concern utterly unmistakable. It was such a sharp contrast to their last interaction – Rena’s emotionless voice and unreadable expression when she broke up with her a painful memory impossible to erase – that she found herself destabilized.

“Are you… alright?” Jurina felt like an electric shock ran down her spine when Rena extended her arm, and her fingertips brushed the back of her hand gently. “They said you passed out during handshake. What… What happened?”

Extremely distracted by the feeling of Rena’s soft fingers laying on top of hers, it took Jurina a couple of seconds to process what she had uttered. “Who told you?” she asked in bewilderment when she came back to her senses, immediately cursing herself at her silly question. The incident had occurred right in the middle of a handshake session: many fans had witnessed the whole scene. Evidently, it had been reported swiftly. 

“It was all over Twitter,” Rena answered, confirming her deepest fears. “They said you were at the hospital, but I couldn’t get more details. When I heard about it, I sent a message to your manager to ask where you were staying. I thought… I was afraid it could be serious.”

“I’m fine.” Jurina looked away, embarrassed to hear the incident had caused such an unwanted commotion on social medias. “It was only a bad fever.”

“So, you are not injured?” Rena asked, Jurina witnessing the great relief spreading instantly across her face when she shook her head in reply. “That’s good news... That’s really good news. When will you get discharged, then?”

Jurina heard the question well, but too many conflicted feelings were currently being juggled inside her head to formulate a coherent answer. Rena’s unexpected appearance had provoked a multitude of questions, and she was still failing to fully grasp the situation. However, something became gradually clearer as she attempted to make sense of it: a complete misconception deeply ingrained inside her mind these last two months, that Rena’s current presence inside her room contradicted.

“You still care about me.” Jurina’s eyes lit up in realization. “All this time, I believed you didn’t want me in your life anymore. You never made contact after that day. But… you came to see me today. It means… It means you still care.”

Rena stared back at her in astonishment. “Of course I care about you.” She slipped her fingers quickly inside Jurina’s. “Jurina, I…” She gave her hand a strong squeeze. “I never stopped caring about you.”

A glimmer of hope lightened Jurina’s heart for the first time in two months. Their breakup had assuredly devastated her, and she still couldn’t erase from her mind those dreadful words Rena had uttered on that fateful day of April. However, and despite the tremendous pain and countless tears their separation had provoked, she could never bring herself to harbor feelings of resentment towards the other girl.

Day after day, Rena’s image persisted stubbornly in her head, making her seriously question her capacity to forget about her, and doubt that her heart would ever stop beating for her. Rena’s unexpected visit had caused her feelings to resurface, making her consider the possibility that those feelings might be shared, and the older girl hadn’t completely stopped loving her after all.

Maybe it was a sign: a sign that it wasn’t too late to mend things up between them.

Jurina snapped out of her daze when she felt Rena slowly removing her fingers from her grasp, noticing the older girl casting a glance in the direction of the door. All of a sudden, Jurina feared she was considering leaving. But how could she let her go when they had barely been reunited? If there was the slightest chance of repairing their relationship, then she wanted to seize it.

Hastily, she grabbed Rena’s hand again. “Wait, don’t leave… I want to talk to you.”

Two small brown orbs looked back at her, and Jurina easily read the uncertainty in them. A few times, Rena opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something, but no words ever left her lips. When the older girl still appeared undecided about her next course of action, Jurina knew she absolutely needed to find a way to tilt the scale in her favor, and she gave her hand an encouraging, light tug. “Please. Stay with me a little longer.”

When her perseverance bore its fruits and she received a small nod in reply, Jurina relaxed instantly, scooting further away on the mattress to grant Rena sufficient space on the side of the bed. Once she was seated, Jurina’s attention fell upon their joined hands and, as she relished the pleasant feeling of Rena’s warm fingers inside hers, she realized how much she had longed for the physical intimacy.

This morning, she hadn’t stopped lamenting her powerlessness, cursing her weak body and fragile health for continuously failing her. Filled with a great sense of guilt – she had missed performing her duties during handshake – she now viewed this incident from a brand-new perspective. Unknowingly, it had led to the most unpredictable positive outcome: it had caused Rena to come out of her silence.

Overwhelmed by a feeling of pure bliss, Jurina couldn’t contain herself any longer. Closing the distance between them, she pulled the older girl into her arms without hesitation. “I missed you.” The confession left her lips naturally. “I missed you so much...”

The body grew rigid against her and, for an instant, she feared the other girl would not accept the affectionate gesture and would reject it. Jurina waited in anticipation, reassured when Rena didn’t push her away and returned the embrace, albeit a bit clumsily. “I should have trusted my instincts,” Jurina berated herself, a certain article on her mind. “I should have known it was ridiculous rumors.”

“What… are you talking about?” Rena asked, in a small hesitant voice.

“The Bunshun article.” Encouraged by Rena’s compliance, Jurina decided to push her luck and nuzzled her nose against her neck, appreciating the delicate scent of her familiar, sweet perfume. “Now, I know it. Nothing in it was true.”

They stayed quietly into each other’s arms until Rena slowly broke free from the embrace, Jurina noting her troubled expression when they came face to face and the latter examined her figure attentively. “Are you sure you’re fine? You still don’t look well...” Rena murmured worriedly. “Maybe you should lie down.”

Jurina was about to proclaim that she was feeling much better and she surely didn’t wish to rest – especially not during such a crucial moment – when it occurred to her that the other girl hadn’t said anything about the article. Trying to figure out the possible reasons for Rena’s silence on the subject, she felt a tinge of insecurity.

“It’s not true, right?” Jurina stammered, swallowing a nervous lump in her throat. “You’re not dating…” She couldn’t muster the courage to utter the actor’s name. “You’re not really dating him?”

“Nothing is going on with Yosuke-san,” Rena replied in a serious tone. “I enjoy spending time with him and he’s a talented actor, but he’s never been more than a co-worker.”

Jurina released a breath she didn’t even realize she’d been holding. “You don’t need to explain.” Her mouth tugged into a small, pleased smile. “I… I believe you.”

Jurina raised her arm tentatively to caress her cheek, catching a flash of unease in Rena’s eyes the instant her fingertips came in contact with her skin. Uncertainty filled her chest and she lowered her hand, trying to grasp the meaning of Rena’s discomfort. Could she be moving too fast? Was it too soon for affectionate gestures? But how could it be wrong, when she was only following her heart’s desires to reconnect with Rena?

“You have no idea…” Rena started, getting Jurina’s whole and undivided attention. “You have no idea how incredibly relieved I am that you’re feeling better and it’s nothing serious, but…” Rena’s voice dropped to a whisper, and she averted her gaze. “I think I’d better go now…”

Jurina’s heart pounded inside her chest at her last, alarming words. Dreading that she might lose her for good and never see her again if she didn’t stop her, she knew she needed to act fast when the older girl put words into action and began moving up from the bed. Resolute, she caught her hand in a firm grip, and didn’t think twice before pressing her lips hastily against hers.

Rena’s lips grew still at the impulsive kiss, Jurina noting the stupefaction plastered all over her face when she pulled away. “I love you,” she stated without delay. “And after you came today, I’m sure you still have feelings for me too.”

Jurina waited in expectation but grew apprehensive as the seconds went by and the other girl remained desperately silent. Wishing to prove that she meant strongly every word she had uttered, she made a move to claim her lips once more but halted a few inches away from her lips when timid fingers clutched her shoulder. “D–Don’t. We can’t… We can’t do this.”

The atmosphere became tense as Jurina let the words sink in, helplessness gradually overcoming her. “Why? I don’t… I don’t understand.” Jurina gazed back at her in incomprehension. “You came to see me because you were worried about me. You just admitted caring about me.” A wave of doubt swept through her. “Was it… Was it just a lie?”

“Of course not!” Rena exclaimed. “I care about you. I really do, but you don’t understand that–”

It was all the reassurance she needed to hear. Jurina leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Rena’s neck, determined not to let go of her until she had conveyed her feelings properly, and Rena was fully hers again. “I just want to be with you.” Sensing Rena’s frail body shuddering slightly, Jurina tightened her hold around her. “So, can we just… Can we just go back to the way it was before?”

Maybe was it extremely naïve of her to believe they could go on with their lives as if nothing had happened, but those two last months without Rena by her side had been a living hell. If this separation had taught her anything, it’s that she needed Rena’s love, just as she needed air to breathe. If she couldn’t have her, then she wanted no other: that was a certitude deeply anchored in her heart.

Because no one else on earth but the beautiful and dear to her heart 25-year-old young actress would ever manage to make her heart race uncontrollably.

There was an endless silence.

Jurina placed some tender kisses on Rena’s hair, in the hope the small demonstration of affection would loosen her up and show her she wasn’t ready to give up on her. Revive Rena’s belief in them: a faith that their relationship still stood a chance. The feeling of Rena’s fingers squeezing the back of her hospital gown made her pause in her ministrations, and she held her breath in anticipation.

“This was a mistake.” Rena’s voice sounded weak and tremulous in her ear. “I shouldn’t… I shouldn’t have come.”

Jurina was too stunned to react when the older girl pulled slowly out of her arms, the mattress shifting as she left her side. At last, when it dawned on her what had been said, Jurina stared back at Rena’s standing form in alert, her instincts screaming at her not to give up and reduce the distance at once before it was too late. Removing the bedcover and taking a seat on the side of the bed, her feet had barely touched the ground that the other girl had already taken a cautious step back.

“No… stop,” Rena desperately pleaded. “I’ll always care about you, but nothing you can say or do right now will change the situation. We just can’t… We can’t be together.”

Rena’s final words crushed her hopes and broke her heart all over again. Helpless tears sprang to her eyes, understanding there was no going back when the other girl looked so decisive and the moment after slowly turned on her heels to head towards the door. As she watched her walking away, she progressively realized her heart would never be able to recover if she had to meet Rena once more under such painful circumstances.

Her decision made, her soul tore apart at what she was about to say.

“If we can’t be together…” A tear began rolling down her cheek. “Then it’s best if we don’t see each other again.”

Rena froze, her eyes glimmering with pain as her feet paused instantaneously in front of the door. For a moment, Jurina believed the older girl would turn around one last time in her direction, but their eyes never met again. The faint sound of the door sliding open was the last thing she heard, Rena’s silhouette vanishing out her sight as she stepped out of the room, and the door closed behind her.

 


 

Churi took a deep breath, trying desperately to calm her nerves. A few seconds ago, she had arrived in front of Airi’s familiar doormat, but she was facing real issues with controlling her agitation. Deciding it was wiser to wait until she was a little calmer to ring the doorbell, she chose to delay a bit more the announcement of her arrival, instead recalling the painful scene she had witnessed less than an hour ago. 

When she had entered Jurina’s room and found her in bed with tears streaming down her face, she immediately feared the doctor had visited her recently and given her bad news about her health. Unexpected news that were forcing her to stay at the hospital much longer than originally planned. Jurina never made a secret her complete distaste of hospitals, and she certainly never enjoyed being forced to stay idle because of an unfortunate injury or a troubling health problem.

Not being able to do her job for even a single day was already way too much for the full-of-life, and strongly committed idol named Jurina Matsui. 

That day, never would Churi have foreseen the true reason behind Jurina’s tears. When the words had fallen from her quivering lips, and she had revealed that Rena had visited her, Churi had stared at her in incredulity for some long, pregnant seconds. When she had finally gotten over her initial shock at the news, she couldn’t help but analyze the situation carefully, and draw her own conclusions. Not only was Jurina’s distress a clear sign that this meeting was definitely unplanned, it was also evident to her that it hadn’t gone so well.

Churi had listened worriedly as Jurina had disclosed bit by bit the content of her conversation with Rena. Churi was a little startled when, after finally calming down a little, Jurina had let out with a somewhat resigned look that there was truly no hope anymore of them getting back together. It’s over: she made it more than clear. I need to accept it now… I need to try and forget about her…  Deep down, Churi knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task to accomplish: not when she had been so deeply in love with Rena through all these years.

Nonetheless, hearing those unexpected words coming from her made her hopeful that the time of tears might finally be coming to an end. Those last two months, it had been awfully painful to observe Jurina’s daily suffering: an agony that showed no sign of stopping, not even when she cleverly attempted to disguise her true feelings behind a fake smile. Today, Jurina had visibly come to a crucial decision, and Churi wanted nothing more but to support her.

If there was absolutely no chance of repairing their relationship, then there was no point of clinging to false hopes. 

When, a little while later, she had left the hospital and Jurina’s side, her thoughts had drifted towards Airi, the urge to meet her friend impossible to resist. Remembering that she was spending the afternoon at her apartment, her steps had led her naturally in that direction. And so here she was now, staring at Airi’s doormat, and trying to figure out how she was going to broach the subject with her. Believing she’d calmed down sufficiently, she raised her arm to ring at Airi’s door.

Hearing light footsteps approaching from inside the apartment, Churi looked up towards the door in expectation. All the way here, she had barely been able to contain her frustration, a multitude of questions piling up inside her head at Rena’s baffling behavior. Much as she mulled it over in her head, none of it made sense. Why on earth would she go and visit Jurina at the hospital, if she had no intention of making things right between them?

Churi was really counting on Airi’s help to decrypt the complete mystery that Rena Matsui represented.

Churi held her breath in anticipation at the sound of the key slowly turning inside the lock, her gaze falling instantly upon Airi as she appeared. Her friend’s great surprise was an evident sign that she was definitely not expecting Churi’s visit, which was a predictable reaction considering – not only that they were not supposed to meet today – she hadn’t warned her of her arrival either.

“Rena came to see Jurina at the hospital,” Churi spoke plainly, realizing she wasn’t in full control of her emotions when she failed to keep the irritation out of her tone. “Did you know she would do that?”

Airi’s initial astonishment vanished, giving way to a manifest awkwardness. “Yes, I know she visited her.” She nodded slowly. “But, I had no idea she would. I didn’t even know she was back in Nagoya until a few hours ago.”

“Why would she go and see her?!” Churi exclaimed, her incomprehension resurfacing with great ease. “Do you know what she did? What she dared to tell her?”

The atmosphere shifted between them, growing incredibly tense as both stared deeply into each other’s eyes without uttering a single word.

Given the total absence of curiosity in Airi’s expression, Churi had no doubt anymore the older Matsui had confided in her and she knew perfectly well what she was referring to. The more she pondered over the situation, the more it occurred to her that Airi might have been keeping some information from her these last two months. Not only had she been a little distant, the fact that she had never mentioned Rena a single time during their conversations hadn’t escaped her either.

Could she have been trying to avoid broaching this tricky subject on purpose?

Up till that day, she hadn’t paid much attention to Airi’s behavior, too occupied was she with keeping an eye on Jurina and making sure she didn’t collapse out of exhaustion. Hearing that Rena had abruptly reappeared in Jurina’s life after two months of silence – only to achieve such terrible results – appalled her at the highest level. She badly needed answers, and a little voice inside her head was telling her the one who could likely provide them had been standing in front of her nose the whole time.

“When Jurina saw her, she was so hopeful that they could fix things,” Churi continued when it didn’t appear like her friend was ready to speak. “Instead of that, Rena only managed to make her feel even worse. What kind of person would do that? How insensitive can she be?”

Her last words managed to strike a chord.

“Don’t say that.” Airi shot her a disapproving look. “She went to see her because she heard what happened during handshake and was terribly worried about her. She never meant… She never meant to upset her or hurt her.”

Churi heard the retort well, but she couldn’t help thinking that it was solely Airi’s protective side speaking. It was no secret that Rena and Airi had always been very close, to the point the latter had even boldly confessed her feelings for her more than two years ago. Even if she faced Rena’s rejection, it hadn’t tarnished her attachment for her over the years. Churi always viewed Airi as a collected, hard-headed person, who always managed to keep a clear head no matter the circumstances. But, on this issue in particular, Churi was afraid Airi wasn’t being completely neutral.

That, unfortunately, she was letting her feelings affect her better judgment.

“I know she’s your friend and it’s natural for you to defend her but, you need to face reality,” Churi deplored, hoping her friend would listen to reason. “Two months ago, she broke Jurina’s heart in the most devastating way. No matter what you think, you can’t deny it was inappropriate to go and see her at the hospital.” Churi refused to back away. “She should have anticipated what her presence would do to Jurina, how badly it would affect her emotional state. So, if you can figure out what’s going on inside Rena’s head then I beg you to tell me, because I don’t have the remotest clue.”

Airi nibbled on her bottom lip nervously. “I’m sorry, but I can’t betray Rena’s confidence. She trusts that our conversations stay private, so I can’t–”

“Airin!” Churi cried out, incredulous in the face of such obstinate loyalty. “Do you know how awful it makes me feel to witness Jurina’s distress every day, not being able to do anything about it? Can you imagine how powerless I felt when I saw her lying on the floor unconscious? The last time she ended up at the hospital, I promised myself to take better care of her, and make sure it never happened again. I failed her. I failed her, Airin.”

“I know what Jurina means to you.” Airi’s features softened at the vibrant manifestation of Churi’s torment. “I know how much you care about her and that you’re only trying to protect her.” She gave Churi’s trembling fingers a brief, light squeeze, before making a short pause, searching carefully for the adequate words to continue. “But they are both adults. What happened is between them: it’s not our place to judge or to intervene.”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if it was the other way around,” Churi protested. “If it was Jurina who had broken Rena’s heart, and your friend had been crying in your arms day and night, you would have done the impossible to fix the problem and get them back together. The impossible.”

“You’re being unfair…” Airi whispered hurtfully. “I understand: you’re mad at me because I’m not giving you the answers you want. But trust me.” She looked straight into Churi’s eyes. “I want them to be both happy as much as you do.”

Guilt spread through Churi’s chest in remorse, realizing that she had inadvertently gone too far. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” she murmured apologetically. “Can you let me in so we can talk about it?” She looked up with hopeful eyes. “I promise not to get angry. I only want to try and understand things better.”

“It’s really not a good time.” Airi clutched the side of the door and avoided Churi’s gaze in unease. “I was… I was about to go out anyway.”

Churi could recognize a lie when she saw one and right now, Airi was definitely not telling the entire truth. Frowning a little at her odd behavior, she chose not to insist. Still feeling bad after what she had said to her, she didn’t want to take the risk of making things worse by being too forceful. As she was about to leave, she reconsidered, and faced her friend anew.

“When you see Rena, please try to make her understand that her actions are torturing Jurina.” Churi spoke up softly but seriously, noticing a brief flash of surprise in her friend’s eyes. “If she doesn’t want to be with her anymore, then… she must let her move on.”

Airi didn’t reply, not that Churi really expected her to say anything. Sending her a last weak, thankful smile, she turned on her heels, hearing the front door of Airi’s apartment slowly closing behind her as she walked away.

 


 

Airi listened as Churi drew away in the corridor, her last words resonating in her head as she slowly closed the door behind her. For a little while, she remained paralyzed in front of the door, rattled after her last tense exchange with Churi. Maybe she should have anticipated that her friend would come and see her one day in search of answers. These last two months, Airi had cautiously avoided bringing up the topic of their mutual friends’ breakup. Not only had she figured that they would have more than a few points of contention, she feared it wouldn’t take long for Churi to see right through her and deduce that she knew more about it than she was willing to admit.

Unfortunately, it appeared Rena’s impromptu visit to the hospital had been the last straw for Churi, triggering her strong protective side and need for answers.

Airi was never one to raise her tone or get unreasonably upset or angry at someone, yet it had been a daunting task to keep her composure while listening to Churi’s harsh criticism regarding the young actress. Of course, it was out of the question to betray her friend’s trust and divulge her real motivations behind the separation, but the urge to claim that Rena was hurting just as much as Jurina from this painful situation – if not even more – had been hard to resist on more than a few occasions.

At the sound of footsteps behind her, Airi turned around in mild apprehension, discovering a feminine silhouette standing in her living room. They looked quietly at each other, the expression of discomfort in Rena’s eyes enough indication that she had most likely overheard her whole talk with Churi. Imagining easily how affected she must be after hearing such hurtful words directed at her, Airi couldn’t help but curse Churi’s terrible timing.

Rena averted her gaze and moved towards the window, concern spreading through Airi’s chest as she slowly joined her side and pondered over the appropriate words to say in such a situation. Giving her silent friend a nervous side glance, she diverted her attention to the window, watching as rain came down in sheets and lightning flashed every few seconds in the streets of Nagoya.

“I’m so sorry you had to hear that,” Airi lamented. “She had no right to say all these things. I’m not even sure… I’m not even sure she really meant it.”

“She’s angry at me. I can’t hold it against her.” A sad smile crossed Rena’s face as her eyes remained glued on the torrential downpour outside. “I shouldn’t have gone to the hospital. I realized my mistake too late. I never meant… I never meant to hurt Jurina and give her false hopes.”

“I know you didn’t.” Airi shook her head slowly, placing a comforting hand on Rena’s shoulder. “You only wanted to make sure she was alright. It’s completely understandable: I would probably have done the same thing.”

“Akane is right.” Rena’s face darkened, her voice falling to a deadly whisper. “If I can’t make Jurina happy, then I need to stay away from her.”

Airi tensed, fearing the consequences of such an irrevocable decision. Hearing Rena wishing to protect Jurina’s wellbeing didn’t come as a surprise, yet it wasn’t the only thing to consider and at stake. What about her own happiness? Airi was aware of how remorseful she already felt for breaking Jurina’s heart, and a part of her was afraid of the damages a permanent separation would do on the actress’s mental balance. Would she ever be able to ease her guilty conscience without receiving Jurina’s forgiveness?

“Are you sure about this? Maybe things will soon quieten down with the paparazzi,” Airi offered tentatively. “When that happens, I’m sure you’ll have an opportunity to meet Jurina again and explain to her why you chose to keep your distance from her.”

“You saw what happened in Tokyo. I have no idea why Bunshun is harassing me, but it’s not safe to be with me.” Rena’s distraught eyes met Airi’s compassionate gaze. “If we were to get back together, I would only be putting Jurina in danger. And if she was forced to leave SKE and graduate because of me, I…” Her voice cracked. “I would never forgive myself.”

“I’m worried about you…” Airi confessed, pained when she heard emotions submerging her. “I don’t want you to make a decision you’ll risk regretting later.”

“I’m already regretting it.” Rena’s throat constricted, tears gathering in her eyes. “But I refuse to witness her suffering once more because of me.”

Tears spilled down Rena’s cheeks, and Airi felt a small weight on her shoulder when she leaned her head the following moment. As the drops of water beating loudly against the window covered the sound of Rena’s crying, Airi feared a grim future awaited her friend’s tortured soul. Maybe it was her optimistic side emerging, but she decided nonetheless to cling to a glimmer of hope. Because, no matter the hard struggles one person could go through in their life, she had one certitude anchored deep inside her heart.

There was always a light at the end of the tunnel.

Chapter Text

Two years later.

Jurina pulled the curtain and looked out the window, her brow creasing in worry as the rain fell in abundance in the streets of Tokyo. Yesterday again, the weather forecast was promising a beautiful and sunny day, so why had it taken such an unpredictable turn? As if she wasn’t already feeling anxious enough, the weather had to interfere in the worst possible way. Since lighting had struck a little after 7 am and woken her up with a start, she hadn’t been able to find sleep again. Somehow, she couldn’t help dreading the terrible consequences this bad weather could have on today’s event.

Why did it have to rain this Saturday out of all days?

This is not happening.

Jurina prayed internally for a miracle.

It wasn’t usually like her to be pessimistic, but the clock was ticking.

Glancing in the direction of the Ajinomoto Stadium - where the 2019 Sousenkyo was supposed to take place in only a couple of hours - she refused to imagine the idea of the event being rescheduled because of the weather. It would be a catastrophic scenario. Every girl participating in the election had been marking June 22 on their calendar and waiting in anticipation for this special day to arrive.

Tickets for the Sousenkyo and the concert following the event had been sold out a long time ago. Fans had voted for their favourite member diligently; the most devoted ones even going as far as voting more than a few times, and until the very last minute. This annual event was a big operation, that required a lot of staff and intense organization. Yet, the possibility that this detailed logistical planning had been all for nothing appeared more and more likely as the minutes went by, and the sun refused to resurface in the sky of Tokyo.

“You’re already up?”

At the sound of a hoarse, feminine voice addressing her, Jurina tore her eyes away from the window and looked over her shoulder, her gaze falling on the older girl lying in bed, and sharing her hotel room for the occasion. “It’s pouring hard, Churi.” A helpless sigh escaped Jurina’s lips. “And it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon.”

“What… time is it?”

“7:30,” Jurina replied without needing to look at the alarm-clock. She already knew the time by heart: she had been checking it almost every five minutes since she woke up. “You should go back to sleep.” Jurina couldn’t help but bring her attention back to the window in concern when she heard the rain intensifying. “It’s still early.”

“I could tell you the same thing.” Akane struggled to keep her eyes open. “You should get some sleep. It’s going to be a long day.”

“With this rain?” Slight despair entered Jurina’s voice. “Just wait; there might not even be a Sousenkyo.”

“Since 2009, there has been a Sousenkyo every single year. Please stop worrying so much, and come back to bed.” Akane patted the mattress softly. “You need to rest, or you won’t last all day.”

Jurina let out a resigned sigh, knowing deep down her friend was entirely right. More than a few times, she had felt her eyelids trying to close without her consent. Last evening, the stress caused by the imminent event had prevented her from sleeping properly - waking her up every now and then in the middle of the night – and the unforeseen bad weather had only been the icing on the cake. It was a terribly frustrating situation, but what could she do about it? If the staff chose to cancel the event, then she would have no other choice but to accept their decision.

Jurina closed the curtain and turned around.

Moving towards the bed and slipping between the sheets, she was startled to meet Akane’s closed eyelids when she laid by her side and faced her. Jurina observed Akane and listened to her soft, constant breathing, impressed by her astonishing capacity to fall back asleep so fast and easily. After a little while, Jurina laid on her back and stared at the ceiling above her head, hearing the rain beating hard against the window.

I need to stay positive. Jurina tried to cheer herself up. The weather will not ruin this important day.

 


 

Jurina had been staring at her plate of food for the past five minutes, incapable of eating or touching anything. Her cup of coffee, that she had poured herself a little while ago, had remained equally left aside. What could she say? Her appetite had been overridden by her nerves the moment she had stepped inside the restaurant room to have breakfast with Akane. At some point, it was obvious she would need to fill her stomach with a minimum of food to help her go through the day, yet her fingers still didn’t appear decided to seize those chopsticks.

Distractedly sweeping the place around her, she noted how awfully quiet the restaurant room was, despite being filled with so many group and staff members. “The tension is palpable.”

“Of course, it’s an important day. Everyone is nervous.” Akane nodded in agreement, while sipping her glass of orange juice. “Some girls’ future will change drastically after today.”

“I think you’re probably one of the most relaxed persons in the room,” Jurina said, amazed by her friend’s calm. Contrary to her, Akane hadn’t hesitated to start eating as soon as they had settled down at a table, and even to engage in small talk the moment after. “Now that I think about it, you were not stressed last year either. Before the ceremony, nor during the announcement of the results. How come?”

Akane pondered thoughtfully over her question, before replying. “You’re right, I wasn’t. There wasn’t much at stake for me that year. My only hope was not to drop in the ranking, so I was pleased when I stayed at the same position.”

“Were you already thinking of graduating back then?” Jurina asked. “When you participated in the Sousenkyo?”

“I realized I had already accomplished mostly everything I wanted in SKE,” Akane conceded willingly. “But the thought didn’t cross my mind seriously until the following month, when I came to talk to you about it.”

Jurina recalled vividly that day of July in particular.

To be perfectly honest, she had seen it coming. In 2018, Akane had been busier than ever with her extra activities and was less present on stage with them, or during SKE-related events. Even if it took Akane a while to voice out loud her desire to move on, Jurina could sense her older friend had now grander ambitions, that couldn’t be fulfilled in the idol group anymore. That’s why, when Akane had opened up to her one evening and revealed the thoughts crossing her mind, she had supported her all the way.

Yes, she was losing another one of her greatest allies in SKE, and no one would ever be able to replace Akane. But if there was one thing she wasn’t losing, it was a close friend. Even after Akane’s graduation in 2018, their precious friendship didn’t fade away. They kept on seeing each other as frequently as possible, the strong bond they had forged within the idol group never being severed.

“I wanted to thank you for coming.” Jurina played with her food nervously. “I wish I wasn’t feeling so stressed about it, but it means a lot to have you by my side today.”

“You don’t have to thank me.” Akane reached across the table to take her hand. “I would never miss an opportunity to support you.” She gave her fingers a light squeeze. “Besides, you’re finally getting that first place you fought so hard for during all these years. How could I not be present to witness such a meaningful moment of your life?”

“We’re still not sure I’m going to win,” Jurina cautiously replied. “Preliminary results were promising, but anything can happen. Each election brings its share of surprises.”

“There have been some unpredictable outcomes the previous years, but I honestly don’t see who could beat you.” Akane frowned a little. “Sasshi and Mayu have graduated, and the rising members cannot possibly match with your popularity. As for Sakura, she’s way behind you in the numbers.”

“Absolutely.” Jurina was caught off guard when she heard a familiar voice behind her, and felt a light tap on her back. “Don’t you dare let that HKT girl win, you hear me?”

Jurina turned around instantly: her mouth dropped open when she discovered Mayu and Yuki standing behind her. “W-What are you two doing here? Didn’t you say you would watch the Sousenkyo from home?”

“I never said tha-” Yuki started, before glancing back at her girlfriend in shock. “Wait. You told her that, Mayuyu?!”

An impish grin spread across Mayu’s face. “I might have lied a little… Surprise!”

Jurina’s eyes flickered between them in incredulity, grasping by Mayu’s mischievous expression that she had been totally played. “H-How could you!” Jurina protested but the reproach failed to convince anyone, as she immediately broke into a wide, open smile. “I really believed you!”

It definitely wasn’t the first time Mayu played a prank on her, so why didn’t she see it coming? Yes, it had startled her a little when the latter had informed her over the phone that she would be following the Sousenkyo on TV, but she hadn’t thought too much about it. After all, Mayu didn’t have any obligations to be here, and they had agreed to meet for dinner once the ceremony would be over.

Jurina’s face brightened and she stood up to embrace them. “Join us!” she offered enthusiastically, pleased when Yuki and Mayu accepted the invitation and took a seat at their table. However, Jurina’s expression stalled and grew serious when she recalled Mayu’s previous words. “About the Sousenkyo, it’s not as if I can do anything about the results anymore. All I need to do now is wait, and pray for the rain to stop.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Yuki intervened and brushed it off with a rapid wave of her hand. “I checked the weather forecast a few minutes ago: they promised it wouldn’t last.”

“They did?” Jurina grabbed her phone hurriedly.

“Absolutely,” Yuki confirmed confidently, before shooting Akane a confused look. “Airi isn’t here? I thought she would be present for the Sousenkyo.”

“That was the initial plan but…” Akane shifted in her seat in unease. “She couldn’t make it, she had another event to attend.”

“You don’t need to be so mysterious.” Jurina smiled faintly and left her phone aside after checking the weather. “Rena is receiving a prize for her role in her latest drama. That’s why Airi couldn’t be here today, right?”

The table fell silent and, after witnessing the embarrassment and awkwardness on her friends’ drawn and tense faces, Jurina wished she had held her tongue. She didn’t hold it against Akane for mentioning it: her friend was only being polite and replying to Yuki’s innocent question. Besides, Akane’s sensitivity as she had avoided with precaution mentioning the actress’ name in front of her had been noticed and appreciated.

However, it was a futile attempt to try and preserve her from the truth: she was already aware of this ceremony. It might have been two years since the last time she had spoken or even crossed path with Rena, it didn’t mean she didn’t follow her actuality from afar.

It might not be as prestigious as the Television Drama Academy Awards, yet it was the first major prize Rena Matsui was ever receiving in her career as an actress. Jurina could imagine how proud the older girl had to be feeling deep inside about this award. It was the kind of recognition she had been longing for. It made more than perfect sense that she would want Airi, her caring and loyal best friend, to be present by her side during such a significant turning point of her life.

Jurina diverted her attention to her untouched plate and, grabbing her chopsticks, took a tentative bite at her food. “Ah, it’s already cold...” Jurina winced in displeasure. “I’ll go take something else.”

Jurina rose to her feet and cast a glance in the direction of the breakfast buffet, before looking back at the quiet table. The tension was still palpable amongst her friends, and she wished nothing more but to alleviate it. This Saturday was supposed to be one of the most important days of her life. If she managed to finish in first position at this year’s Sousenkyo, then she would have accomplished one of her greatest ambitions.

“I’m terribly nervous about today but…” Jurina got her friends’ undivided attention when she spoke up. “You have no idea how deeply touched I am that you all came to support me. Even Mariko texted me earlier on and promised to join us later at the stadium. All my friends will be with me on that special day: I couldn’t be any happier.”

 


 

Airi caught her breath in admiration.

On the other side of the door was standing her twenty-seven years old best friend, dressed elegantly in one of the most dazzling dresses she had ever seen on her. Airi couldn’t help staring at the young actress for some long, pregnant seconds, mesmerized by the view. Her red, sleeveless lace dress, stopping just above her knees. Her long, shining brown hair falling down her back and slightly curled for the occasion. The subtle eyeliner highlighting and enhancing the shape of her beautiful small brown eyes.

Today, Rena was exuding such incredible beauty.

“Hi, Airin. What do you think?” Rena’s eyes darted nervously back and forth between her red dress and her new visitor. “Is it… Is it too much?”

“No, you look perfect…” Airi said affectionately.

Relief flooded the actress’ features. “Thank goodness… I was afraid I had gone overboard. Come on in, I’m not quite ready yet.”

Airi stepped inside Rena’s apartment and removed her shoes in the entrance, before following the other girl as she entered the bathroom and settled down at her dresser. Airi watched her attentively as Rena didn’t wait to resume what she was previously doing and she seized the makeup brush, noting how Rena’s gestures were slightly clumsier and less assured than normal as she dabbed makeup on her pale skin.

It would appear she had underestimated Rena’s level of stress.

Airi placed a comforting hand on Rena’s shoulder. “Can I help you with anything?”

“Yes, please help me choose a colour.” Rena motioned three different kinds of lipsticks laying in front of her. “I’ve been going over it for the last ten minutes and I still can’t manage to make up my mind.”

Airi giggled a little at her discouraged expression. “Of course... You know, I haven’t seen you acting so nervous in ages.”

“I don’t know why I’m behaving this way…” Rena murmured as embarrassment crept over her. “It’s ridiculous, right? It’s only an award ceremony.”

“It’s not ridiculous.” Airi shook her head negatively. “It’s what you’ve been waiting for all these years. You were wonderful in this drama: you deserve that award.”

“Thank you for saying that…” Rena’s expression softened. “It means a lot coming from you.”

All of a sudden, both girls got distracted by the sound of Rena’s phone beeping, and the latter immediately diverted her attention to the white device placed on the table. “It’s Yosuke.” Rena revealed, going through the text she had received. “He just arrived at the venue.”

At the mention of Rena’s co-star in the drama and other award winner, Airi felt a flicker of doubt. “Are you really sure it doesn’t bother you me accompanying you? I wouldn’t want to be in the way… Am I even dressed appropriately for this?”

Rena glanced at her through the mirror in confusion. “What are you talking about? You don’t need to change anything: you’re great just as you are. Besides, you’re my best friend. If there’s one person who always believed in my success and supported me from the start, it’s you. I’m proud to know you’ll be watching me from the front row.”

“And I’m proud of you.” Airi smiled warmly. “You fulfilled one of your ultimate dreams. Today, your talent is finally recognized by your peers. You have everything you ever wanted.”

Airi was taken aback when her words didn’t exactly receive the expected reaction and Rena’s expression darkened with an unreadable emotion. Airi searched her mind for an explanation - wondering what she could possibly have said wrong – but she didn’t have the opportunity to question her that the light had already returned in Rena’s eyes.

“You’re right, I couldn’t be any happier.” Rena managed a small, tentative smile. “I'd better finish getting prepared, or we’ll be late for the ceremony.”

 


 

“Matsui-san: it’s the third time you’re playing alongside Masada-san and today you’re both receiving an award. Would you call it destiny?”

“I don’t know if I would call it that,” Rena replied politely to the journalist’s question. “But I consider myself privileged to have had the chance to work with such a talented actor as Masada-san.”

“Do you think you’ll have the opportunity to work together again?” The same male journalist from TV Tokyo continued.

“That will depend on the script but if it’s an interesting role, then I see no reason why I should refuse,” Rena said, tilting her head towards her silent co-star standing by her side.

“And before someone asks me the same question...” Yosuke chimed in and addressed the group of journalists. “I’ll give the same answer: I would be honoured to work a fourth time with Matsui-san if the situation presented itself.”

Just as another journalist was about to ask a question, a member of the staff stepped forward and intervened. “I’m sorry, but there will be no more questions. I’ll ask journalists to please clear the room. Another conference will take place after the ceremony: journalists with accreditations will be communicated the time schedule.”

Rena bowed in respect and exited the room, feeling a little relieved that it was finally over. Half an hour ago, she had barely arrived at the venue with Airi that she had been informed about this conference and - after shooting her best friend an apologetic look - had obediently taken the direction of the conference room. Press conferences had always been one of the aspects of her job that she enjoyed the least, but it wasn’t as if she had any say in it.

She was a public figure: staying out of the spotlight was not an option. Besides, it was part of her obligations as an actress to promote the shows and movies she played in. Even when she was still a member of SKE, she had grasped swiftly the significant role of medias.

“I know what I said in front of the journalists…” Yosuke, who had been walking quietly by her side, spoke up hesitantly once they were finally alone. “But I don’t really think we should play in another drama together.”

Rena regarded him quizzically for a moment. “Why are you saying that? Why not?”

“Really, Rena?” Yosuke gave a strained laugh. “Do you believe those rumours have any chance of stopping if we star in another drama together?”

Rena paused in her steps and turned to look at him in concern. “Does it bother you? Because it doesn’t matter to me.”

“It-It doesn’t?” Yosuke’s eyes widened in perplexity. “Two years ago, I remember how worked up you felt about it, even if - I’ll admit - you tried to hide it well. When journalists made up that same story again two months ago, I was afraid this new TV show would be the last straw for you.”

Now, Rena understood better why the actor appeared so refractory to renew the experience. After the shooting of their detective drama, they didn’t get the opportunity to work together for two years, yet their paths often happened to cross. Since the beginning of her career as an actress, Rena had always maintained a professional distance with all her previous co-stars, whether male or females.

Yosuke was the first exception.

It was useless denying that she had always enjoyed spending time in his company and that they had grown even closer during the shooting of their detective drama. This positive outcome had only served to reinforce the idea that she didn’t view the actor as a simple co-worker anymore. They kept contact after the end of the shooting and it’s very naturally that a genuine friendship developed between them.

From time to time, paparazzi enjoyed making up false assumptions about the nature of their relationship, but Rena always did her best to ignore them. To be honest, she understood some of the reasons behind the tabloids’ persistence in matching Yosuke with her. It was not common to see an ex-idol showing herself in public in the company of another man. If proof was not given that it was merely a professional acquaintance or a member of the family, then people immediately came to the conclusion that it had to be a boyfriend.

After denying the rumour for the umpteenth time and realizing to her dismay the limited impact of her declarations, Rena stopped fighting altogether and resigned herself. “People believe what they want to believe.” Rena smiled wanly. “I understood a long time ago that I was powerless about it. Let them speculate as they wish: you and I both know the truth and that’s well enough for me.”

“You’re right.” Yosuke nodded. “I just wanted you to know that, if you wished to keep some professional distance with me, I would perfectly understand given the circumstances.”

“No, I don’t…” Rena was astonished by the actor’s suggestion. “I don’t want to do that and I will not do it. I shouldn’t have to justify my relationship with you.”

“Alright...” Yosuke relented, conscious he had no chance of changing her mind when she looked so determined. “I have a confession to make.” His voice dropped a fraction lower. “I dislike those kinds of official ceremonies. They make me feel so awkward and I’m always afraid my discomfort is showing on my face.”

“It’s only an impression you’re having.” Rena reassured him. “You look handsome and confident as usual. Except when you’re playing with your bow constantly as you’re doing right now.”

Caught red-handed, Yosuke stilled his fingers at once.

Rena did not bother to hide her amusement and she studied him - admiring the chic black tuxedo he was wearing for the occasion - her gaze lingering next on the bow around his neck. “And now it’s all crooked.”

“No, it is?!” Yosuke blanched.

“It’s alright.” Rena yanked his hand away gently when he made a poor attempt to adjust it. “I’ll do it for you.”

Yosuke let her proceed without a word, curiosity getting the best of him when Rena’s face spread into a smile. “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing, it’s just…” Rena’s mouth curved with tenderness. “You’re reminding me of someone.”

Yosuke opened his mouth to speak, but he didn’t have time to say a word that Rena had already taken a step back. “There, you’re all ready now.” Rena inspected her work one last time, before raising her eyes to him. “Do you mind if I leave you for a moment? I wish to speak with Airi before the beginning of the ceremony.”

“Of course not,” Yosuke replied. Exchanging one last smile, he followed her retreating form as she turned on her heels, wondering pensively who could be that mysterious person responsible for triggering such fondness in Rena’s voice.

 


 

It was indeed a miracle.

Jurina couldn’t believe her eyes as she stood on the main stage of the Ajinomoto stadium and looked up to the grey sky. Just as Yuki had said, rain had stopped falling merely a few minutes ago, the sun making a progressive and shy appearance behind the clouds. This positive turn of events filled her heart with undeniable relief, now positively convinced the 2019 AKB48 General Election had no risk of being cancelled anymore and would take place today as originally planned.

Her attention fell distractedly on the staff members hard at work. While some were finishing installing chairs and preparing all the necessary equipment, others were moving back and forth on the stage, cleaning the floor actively and wiping away the water. In only one hour, the stadium would be opening its doors and welcoming its first visitors. It was a short time frame, yet Jurina had no doubt everything would be ready in time.

“Looks like there will be a Sousenkyo after all.”

Jurina span on her heels at the sound of a feminine voice behind her, her face glowing with happiness when she saw the familiar thirty-three years old ex-AKB member standing a few feet away from her. Not thinking twice, she  reduced the distance quickly between them and pulled her into a hug. “Mariko, you really came!”

The short-haired girl chuckled and returned the embrace. “What are you talking about? I promise I would, didn’t I?”

“But you’re late!” Jurina glared at her with reproachful eyes. “You said you would be here an hour ago!”

“Did I?” Mariko scratched her cheek. “I guess I was waiting for the confirmation that the Sousenkyo would not be cancelled?”

Jurina grumbled at Mariko’s cheeky smile. “I was beginning to think you couldn’t come or had changed your mind.”

“Change my mind? Never.” Mariko ruffled Jurina’s hair playfully. “I wouldn’t miss a chance to see my precious Jurina finally winning the crown.”

Jurina made a face. “Don’t say that… We’re still not sure I’m going to win.”

Mariko frowned in puzzlement. “It doesn’t look like you to lack confidence. I know you were not always satisfied with your ranking in the past, but this year is finally the one.”

“But-”

“I won’t hear another word.” Mariko raised her voice dramatically. “Have I ever lied to you before? No, never. Just trust me on this: I always had wonderful instincts.”

“Fine, fine…” Jurina’s mouth twitched with amusement. “Mayu, Yuki and Churi are already backstage.” Jurina passed her arm eagerly around Mariko’s. “Let’s go and see them?”

Mariko nodded in agreement and began to follow her, until stopping mid-way. At the unexpected move, Jurina stared back at her in bewilderment, unsettled by the serious look her friend was now sending her. “I know you’ve been through some difficult times these last ten years, but I want you to know that I’m very proud of you. Today, you will finally get what you deserve: that victory you fought so much for.”

Deeply moved by her words, Jurina’s eyes shimmered with infinite gratitude. “Thank you, Mariko. Thank you for always supporting me during all these years.”

Mariko embraced her, tightening her hold when she felt the body against her shuddering. “And you’ll always have my support, Jurina.” She kissed the top of her head tenderly. “Always…”

 


 

Jurina’s heart was pounding inside her chest.

She had arrived at one of the most crucial moments in her career, and it was asking of her all the mental strength in the world to maintain an impeccable professional smile for the cameras. The ceremony had now officially begun, the long-awaited senbatsu finally being announced in front of an attentive stadium full of fans. Frankly, she had no idea how she was capable to keep such a brave face when deep inside, she was a ball of nerves. She might have already participated to ten consecutive Sousenkyo, each AKB48 General Election always made her feel terribly anxious.

Jurina never hid her competitive nature.

From the moment she had joined SKE, and witnessed with wonderment Atsuko Maeda’s quick ascent in AKB, she nurtured the ambition to one day match her outstanding popularity. Jurina might have only been an eleven years old child who didn’t know much of the world surrounding her, that first position in the Senbatsu Election represented one of her ultimate goals.

At the 2009 Senbatsu Election, Jurina had already managed to accomplish a real exploit by entering the top twenty at such an early age. The following year, she ranked even higher at the fourteenth position, almost as if the young child that she was back then was trying to prove that no challenge was ever too high for the idol named Jurina Matsui. Year after year, she kept progressing in the rankings, that so coveted crown appearing each time even more within reach.

Inevitably, she experienced moments of disappointment.

No matter how professional and hard-working she was, and all the energy she devoted to her idol career, it felt as if she had at one point reached an invisible barrier: a barrier preventing her from aiming any higher. The adult that she had then become had great difficulty in understanding and accepting this setback. She had fought so hard to obtain that desired first position, so why was it still out of reach?

Nevertheless, Jurina refused categorically to admit defeat.

If there was one truth that Jurina believed at her core, it was that no obstacle was insurmountable. It only meant one thing: she needed to redouble her efforts, and be a little more patient. Hard work always paid off: and that was precisely what she hoping to prove on that 2019 Senbatsu Election.

 


 

Rena took a seat in the white sofa and stole a peek at the clock hanging from the wall. At any minute now, she expected a staff member to look for her and bring her towards the main room in order to receive her award. Despite the imminence of the situation, Rena couldn’t control her curiosity any longer. Since she had arrived at the venue, she barely had a minute for herself, between the press conference, interviews and all the small talk her status had forced her to indulge into.

Only five minutes ago, she had finally been able to settle down in the waiting room for a short rest, and she didn’t wait anymore to seize the remote control laying on the table in front of her. The television was not even switched on yet that she could already feel anticipation building up inside her. As she searched for the adequate channel, her eyes flickered between the closed door and the screen frequently, hoping that she would not be interrupted. More than anything, she wanted to witness that special moment in time.

That’s when she saw her on the screen.

Jurina.

Rena’s chest fluttered at the view of the SKE member, a fond smile tugging her lips as she observed carefully the girl sitting on the stage of the Ajinomoto Stadium. Even if Jurina was doing her best to keep her composure as she waited for her name to be called, her behaviour didn’t fool her in the least. Rena could see right through her: she perceived with great ease the nervousness lurking behind her calm façade.

When the camera switched to another member and Jurina disappeared from her sight momentarily, Rena used that opportunity to check the number indicated at the right corner of the screen.

3

The countdown was nearing its end.

It was now only a matter of time until the final winner of the 2019 Senbatsu Election would be announced. Rena had been so focused on the event unfolding in front of her eyes, that she failed to detect the sound of the door opening. When it finally hit her that her own name had been called by a masculine voice, she tilted her head in its direction in surprise, noticing Yosuke waiting by the door.

“It’s time,” he informed her kindly. “They are waiting for us.”

“I’ll be here in a few seconds.” There was almost an imperceptible note of pleading in her face. “I only want to see who’s number two.”

Yosuke was caught off guard by her request but didn’t argue, wondering what could possibly be monopolizing the actress’s attention in such a way. When he took a peek at the screen and recognized the live broadcast, a flash of understanding passed through him. These last two years, it had been rare to hear Rena mentioning her past as an idol in front of him, yet Yosuke could sense it had been a significant period of her life.

Yosuke closed the door behind him and came to take a seat on the sofa. When he felt fingers suddenly gripping his arm without warning, he tilted his head left towards the girl sitting by his side. Rena’s eyes were glued on the screen and he was struck by the range of emotions reflected in them. When the speaker opened his mouth to announce the name of the member in second position, Yosuke noticed a flicker of apprehension passing like a shadow across Rena’s features.

He glanced back at the screen and the grip around his arm tightened.

 

95 110 votes.

HKT48.

Miyawaki Sakura.

 

A round of applause immediately followed the announcement and, despite the loud cheering emanating from the television, Yosuke didn’t fail to distinguish the words escaping the actress’s trembling lips.

“She won… Jurina won.”

Yosuke returned his attention to her, the warmth of Rena’s smile echoing in her voice as her face alight with unspeakable happiness.

 


 

Jurina’s heart was beating wildly, a constant smile plastered on her face as she made her way back to her hotel room and recalled one by one the events of this June 22. These last hours, she had been through such an emotional rollercoaster. From all her accumulated stress due to the imminence of the Sousenkyo, to her complete disarray after witnessing the rain falling in the streets of Tokyo, before her final explosion of joy after hearing her victory being announced to a full stadium of almost 50 000 fans.

Jurina could still feel the adrenaline coursing her veins when she slid with a shaky hand her keycard inside the lock, immediately collapsing onto the bed once she found herself safely inside her hotel room. Laying on her back, her eyes remained glued on the precious award by her side, her fingers tracing with appreciation the words engraved on the silver sculpture.

Jurina contemplated her price for a little while, well conscious her current excitement would probably prevent her from sleeping properly tonight. A soft sigh escaped her lips in content: it was the least of her concerns. She had finally fulfilled her ultimate dream and this Saturday of June 22 would forever be engraved in her memory as one of the happiest days of her life.

Jurina fluttered her eyes close, and – despite the undeniable joy she was feeling - her smile nevertheless unconsciously vanished. All afternoon, she had received the congratulations of her peers, and she would forever remain grateful for having her cherished friends by her side during such an important moment of her career. So why couldn’t she shake the feeling that something was missing?

Unsettled by her conflicted feelings, Jurina slowly straightened up in bed, beginning to feel slightly frustrated when she was incapable to put her finger on the problem. “What is wrong with me?” Jurina murmured to herself. “I’m happy. I’ve never been happier…”

Jurina jolted out of her thoughts when she heard her phone beeping and she diverted her attention to it. Her mouth tugged into a smile when she checked her messages, and noticed all the congratulations messages she had received. Members of the profession, people she had worked with, members… Considering the great number of texts she had received in such a short span of time, she figured it would take her at least an hour - if not more - to go through each and single one of them.

Just as she was about to close her phone and leave it aside, she paused in shock when she discovered one name in particular popping up in the mass of texts. Filled with disbelief, she forced herself to read the name again, as if to make sure she had truly read correctly and it wasn’t a figment of her imagination. However, no matter how many times she checked the name again and again, it was still the exact same four letters that appeared in front of her.

Rena.

Incapable to react, her eyes remained glued on the unread message for an endless eternity, until the name vanished from her sight as the screen faded to black. It took her some long, pregnant seconds to recollect herself and – finally snapping out of her daze – she pressed a trembling finger to the screen. The screen of her Smartphone lit up again and Rena’s name reappeared at once, her growing curiosity now too strong to ignore. Moving her index on top of the message, anticipation built up inside her as she discovered its content.

 

Hello Jurina,

You have fought so hard to get there…

I always knew that this special day would come.

Congratulations on your wonderful victory.

I hope that you feel very proud of what you accomplished.

 

Jurina realized how strongly Rena’s words were affecting her when she felt her heart throbbing and tears of joy gathering in her eyes the moment after. She made no attempt to stop them, allowing them to fall freely when they began to wet her cheeks.

Tentatively, Jurina typed a reply. 

Thank you, Rena. 

She paused a moment - a little unsure what to add - before remembering that today was also a special day for the other girl.

I heard about your award… 

Congratulations to you too.

Chapter Text

Jurina took her earphones out as she entered the rehearsal room of the SKE theater, waving at the few members already present. In less than ten minutes, the fifteen girls that composed SKE’s senbatsu were expected to work on their next important event. Indeed, the idol group was supposed to do a mini showcase in Nagoya in two days, the performance being broadcast live on TV for the occasion. Jurina dropped her sports bag in a corner of the room and nonchalantly sat on the floor, her attention caught by the two girls dancing in front of the large mirrors.

Nao Furuhata and Ayuka Kamimura.

While the other members already arrived were chilling out or chatting amongst themselves, those two girls in particular were already hard at work and practicing a few choreographies together. Jurina wasn’t astonished to see them already practicing even before the official beginning of rehearsal. After all, those two girls were anything but random members. At the end of the year 2019, Nao and Ayuka had been appointed as SKE’s current Center and WCenter.

Four months had already passed since that day.

Jurina observed more especially the younger member, noting again how much Ayuka had grown up over the years. At the age of sixteen, Ayuka didn’t have much in common with the insecure and emotive girl she had shared briefly the spotlight with after Rena’s graduation. Now, a certain air of confidence surrounded the newest WCenter, and Ayuka was capable of mastering a choreography faster and better than ever before.

Ayuka was indisputably one of Jurina’s greatest sources of pride.

Jurina couldn’t have been more satisfied with management’s latest decisions. It had assuredly taken many years and a lot of discussions to reach such a stage, but management had eventually opened their eyes and accepted the fact that their long-time strategy – that had worked so well for so many years – now needed to be revised drastically to assure the sustainability of the Nagoya-based group.

At the end of 2019, management had decided – and this for the first time in the history of the group - to rotate SKE’s Center and WCenter on a regular basis. The plan was to change both leading figures every two singles, in order to give more members the opportunity to shine and accustom the fans to less-known faces. With the constant emergence of new 48 and 46 groups, the competition had never been so tough. More than ever, it was primordial to find a way to stand out from the other idol groups.

Jurina was conscious that nothing was set in stone and, if this innovative concept proved to fail in the long run, then management wouldn’t hesitate to reverse back to a permanent Center and WCenter. This new approach was still in its early stages, yet it already showed promise. Ayuka’s tireless determination and all the progress she had accomplished through the years had thankfully been acknowledged. That’s why, when Jurina had urged management to give Ayuka another chance, they agreed to test their new strategy with her.

During the group’s December single of 2019, Ayuka Kamimura was appointed WCenter and Nao Furuhata SKE’s new Center.

Jurina couldn’t deny that a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders. During more than ten years, she had been SKE’s faithful ace. She had relished every second of it and the teenager that she was back then would have wanted for nothing in the world to switch her position with another member. She enjoyed leading the group and being in the spotlight. Nothing could have made her prouder than seeing her face displayed on posters and buildings, proclaiming her as SKE’s official representative.

A few weeks ago, she turned twenty-three.

Jurina could feel she had gained a certain maturity: a maturity that was enabling her to see the group’s situation from a brand-new perspective: so many aspects of this business that she couldn’t fully comprehend when she was still a teenager, or even a young adult. Winning the SSK in 2019 had been one of her greatest victories. Witnessing SKE’s management taking the group’s fate seriously and the right measures had been another.

Since 2008, the idol group had gone through so many rough patches. At one point, when Rena Matsui – Jurina’s eternal WCenter and other legendary member of the group – had shockingly announced her graduation, many people in the business had been prone to predict the slow and gradual death of the idol group. In spite of the forked tongues, SKE had always managed to bounce back and overcome its difficulties. It was the group’s undeniable strength: members never surrendered without a fight.

Nine generations.

Many talented members.

Plenty of other girls with hidden potential.

A potential that ought to be discovered and awaken. 

It was precisely for all those reasons that Jurina was hopeful about the future. More than ever, she was confident that the group was far from over and still had a lot of offer. For many more years, SKE would continue to shine. In December 2019, an important page had been turned, and another one was about to open up in 2020.

 


 

Tokyo, two days later…

This Friday in early April, Rena was spending the entire day outside of Nagoya, having a few jobs to do in Japan’s capital. Having just finished an interview with NHK, she was now heading towards her next destination for lunch. When Yosuke had been informed that – not only they would both be in Tokyo at the same time, their schedules also miraculously matched - he hadn’t hesitated to invite her out. The actress had immediately agreed. Given their mutual busy schedules, they hadn’t been able to see each other these last two months, and mostly kept in touch through occasional exchanged messages on LINE.

This offer of lunch arrived just at the right time: it would be the perfect occasion to do some catching up.

Rena’s eyes lit up in recognition when she spotted from afar the Korean restaurant the actor had mentioned, relaxing a little when the latter didn’t seem to have arrived yet. Her interview with NHK had lasted a little longer than expected. At some point, Rena even got afraid that she might be forced to cancel their lunch, remembering that the actor couldn’t afford any important delay as he had another engagement in the afternoon in a completely different area of Tokyo.

Thankfully, she had been able to make it in time.

As Rena was waiting at a crosswalk for the light to turn green, the strong wind of Spring blew across her face, messing up her long brown hair that had been so neatly brushed for her previous interview. Raising her hand to brush back some hair that the wind had caressed out of place, she noted in surprise a few pink petals upon her shoulder. Soon, her attention got drawn to the majestic tree standing proudly on her right by the side of the road. The cherry tree responsible for the countless pink petals spread out on the asphalt all around her.

Carefully seizing between her fingers one of the petals that had fallen upon her black vest, she studied the delicate and fragile pink petal laying into the palm of her hand. She smiled reminiscently in spite of herself as a certain fond memory began to play back in her mind, and drifted five years back in time.

Rena checked her watch in apprehension, growing a little concerned as they were expected at the SKE theater in less than ten minutes. Thankfully, they were very close from their destination now. If there was one personality trait people had always associated with Rena, it was her impeccable punctuality. That’s why the mere idea of risking arriving late – even for just a few short minutes – and make the other members of the group wait, made her feel unquestionably a little uncomfortable. Increasing her pace, she didn’t have time to go far that a hand grabbed her arm from behind without warning.

“Rena, look!”

Halting abruptly, Rena turned around at the sound of Jurina’s enthusiastic voice, discovering her girlfriend contemplating a large cherry tree that they were passing by. So engrossed in her thoughts, Rena had admittedly not paid the slightest attention to her surroundings all the way here. Lifting her gaze, she took a brief moment to observe the cherry tree that was monopolizing Jurina’s attention.

A small smile inadvertently formed on Rena’s lips at Jurina’s childish amazement, before recalling that the clock was ticking. “We’re going to be late. I don’t want to make the others wait.”

“Yes…” Jurina replied but showed no sign of moving, her eyes still glued on the cherry tree as if she had never spoken.  

Understanding that her girlfriend would need a little more convincing, Rena extended her arm to take her hand. “Juri-”

“Let’s take a picture together!”

Taken aback, it took Rena a few seconds to register what the other girl had uttered. “You want to take a picture now?” Rena repeated in bewilderment.

“Yes,” Jurina affirmed, turning around to face her. “Do you remember last week’s handshake event?”

“You mean, that morning when you sneakily took a picture of me in my sleep, and believed naively I would let you post it on social media?” Rena faked indignation.

“Yes, that day.” Jurina grinned maliciously.

“Then yes, I remember it perfectly.” An easy smile played at the corners of Rena’s mouth. “Why are you asking?”

“While you were still sleeping, I took a peek outside from our hotel room’s window and noticed a cherry tree in a park nearby. As I was watching it from afar, something occurred to me…” Jurina’s expression stalled and grew serious. “These last seven years, our life has been so hectic, that there are simple things we never find time to do. Hanami will be over in a few days: I would like to take a picture with you before it’s too late.”

It wasn’t a caprice as she initially believed: Rena was now positively sure of it after listening to her girlfriend’s arguments. Rena didn’t know what had triggered this sudden urge but, the more she analysed the situation, the more it looked like Jurina was simply trying to make memories. Memories with her. If that was the case, then how could she deny her such a legitimate wish?

“Alright…” Rena smiled with affection. “Let’s take a picture, then.”

Jurina’s face brightened and, after taking her phone out of her pocket, tugged at Rena’s hand to bring her closer. Rena obliged and came to stand by her side, waiting patiently while Jurina raised her phone in the air to take a selfie. Rena gave her best smile to the camera and got herself prepared - expecting the other girl to take a picture at any moment – but was surprised when things didn’t go exactly as planned.

Indeed, Rena followed Jurina’s moves as the latter kept rotating the phone left and right and up and down, evidently failing to find an angle to her liking. Rena suppressed with difficulty her amusement at her girlfriend’s antics. “Would you like me to take the picture?”

“Why? I know how to take a selfie.” Jurina’s lips formed an adorable pout. “I’m only trying to take the best picture possible.”

“But it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Rena shook her head softly. “What’s important is that we’re both on the picture, no?”

The younger girl ignored her statement and continued her little game, moving her phone in every direction possible again and again. Unfortunately, that kind of behaviour was inevitable when you had Jurina Matsui – self-proclaimed and proud perfectionist – as a girlfriend. Rena couldn’t keep it to herself any longer. “You’re impossible…” Rena chastised her gently, stopping her motions at once when she covered Jurina’s hand with hers. “Let me do it, alright?”

After a moment of reflection, Jurina reluctantly relented, letting Rena take the phone away from her grasp. “I think this is a good angle.” Rena positioned the phone, after making sure she had both of them on the picture, and the best view possible of the cherry tree in the background. “Are you ready?”

“Wait, wait.” Jurina drew closer and circled her arm. “Alright, I’m ready!”

Jurina’s enthusiasm was so infectious that Rena couldn’t help laughing a little, a small click being heard the moment after as she took a picture. Lowering the device, she handled it back to Jurina, knowing the latter would definitely wish to inspect the result before moving on. “Do you like the picture, or do you want to take another one?”

“No, it’s perfect…” Jurina’s face alight with happiness. “I love it.”

Rena regarded her with amusement before stepping out from under the cherry tree - expecting her girlfriend to follow her - but was startled when she didn’t hear any sound of footsteps behind her. Turning around to see what the other girl was doing, she noticed that Jurina was still focused on her phone and even staring intensely at the picture taken.

“We should get going or we’re really going to be late.” Rena reminded her of the imminence of their rehearsal.

Jurina’s eyes shot up to meet hers. “Ah, you’re right.” She put her phone away and joined her side hurriedly.

As they began walking away, Rena was caught off guard when Jurina placed all of a sudden a quick kiss on her cheek. The unexpected action made her unconsciously slow down her steps, and she regarded the other girl quizzically. “What… What was that for?”

“Just a thank you kiss.” Jurina smiled brightly. “I really wanted to take a picture of us during hanami.” 

Rena’s gaze travelled over her face, grasping by the joy shining in her girlfriend’s eyes how truly important it had been for her to capture such a moment of their relationship. Reaching for Jurina’s hand, Rena slipped casually her fingers inside hers. “Yes, it will make a nice memory…” Her eyes brimmed with tenderness. “Send me the picture later, alright?”

Rena blinked, Jurina’s image slowly dissipating from her mind as she perceived in the distance the voice of someone calling her name. Almost as if her brain was refusing to leave the comforting place this peaceful memory procured, she ignored the voice at first, but the second calling of her name - this time much closer and clearer – made her come back to her senses completely.

“I thought it was you. Admiring the view?”

“Y-Yosuke…” Rena’s eyes widened in astonishment when she discovered the male actor standing right in front of her. “Yes, I guess you could say that…” She turned to follow Yosuke’s gaze on the cherry tree.

“Spring is one of my favourite seasons.” Yosuke watched with keenly observant eyes the branches’ movements, as they suddenly wavered under the force of the wind. “When the cherry trees blossom and the petals cover the pavement like an eiderdown. It only happens two weeks a year, but I always try to find time to pause - even for a short moment - to marvel at such a beautiful, ephemeral phenomenon.”

Rena dragged her eyes away from the cherry tree, and watched the play of emotions on the actor’s face. Today, Rena was discovering for the first time an unexpected aspect of her friend’s personality: Yosuke had quite a romantic and poetic side to him. Rena looked down to her phone and went through the gallery, her index pausing on the screen when the précised picture she was searching for appeared.

As Rena observed with fondness the picture of she and Jurina smiling in front of a large cherry tree, she couldn’t help thinking that Yosuke was not the only one to share such charming personality traits. 

 


 

Ten minutes later, Rena and Yosuke entered the Korean restaurant, settling down at a table before beginning to take a look at the menu. If there was something that Rena had learned about the male actor these last years, is that Yosuke was somewhat particularly fond of Korean food. When they happened to go out for lunch or dinner and it was Yosuke’s turn to choose the place, a Korean name would each and single time escape his lips.

The recurrence was somewhat comical, yet Rena didn’t mind Yosuke’s preferences. She might not share the actor’s undivided love for this food in particular, she still found it quite tasty and enjoyable. Reciprocally, Yosuke never refused when it was her time to choose the place and she opted for slightly more uncommon food, such as an Italian or French restaurant.

“I want to go abroad during the Golden Week,” Yosuke announced once the waiter had left with their orders. “Don’t get me wrong: I love my job but I have been so swamped with work lately, that I haven’t been able to take a single day off.”

“I know the feeling…” Rena sympathized with him. “These last ten years, I haven’t taken a lot of vacations either. I would love to take a few days off once in a while, but my schedule…”

“Yes, that’s the main issue. Our work schedules.”

Both actors shared a knowing smile.

“You said you wanted to go abroad.” Rena’s curious gaze fell on him at the new piece of information. “Did you have any place in mind?”

“Yes, I was thinking of going to Korea. I’ve always wanted to visit Seoul.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Rena didn’t bother to hide her amusement. “I think it’s a great idea. I really hope you’ll enjoy yourself.”

“Why don’t you come with me? It would give us the chance to try out even more Korean restaurants.”

Yosuke’s teasing tone made her smile. “I wish I could, but I’m planning on going back to my home town for the Golden Week. I haven’t seen my parents in a while and I promised I would visit them.”

“You’re from Aichi, right?”

“Yes, from Toyohashi,” Rena specified. “To be honest, I also want to travel. There are so many countries I would like to visit: especially in Europe. But I’m not sure when I’ll ever have time for that...”

Yosuke nodded in understanding. “I hope you’ll still manage to fulfil all your dreams. Life is too short: we should make the most of it while we can.”

“Maybe next year. Actually, I would really like to go to Par-” Rena started, but didn’t have time to finish her sentence that she was interrupted by the sound of her phone beeping. “Sorry…” Rena winced, and shot her interlocutor a small apologetic look. “It must be my manager: she was supposed to get back to me to give me more details about today’s schedule.”

Rena seized the phone laying on the table and went through the text she had received, a text from her manager as she had rightly predicted. Making a mental note to remember the small time change of her afternoon photoshoot with UTB, Rena blinked in perplexity when – as she was about to mute her phone and put it away - noted the surreal number of notifications she had received from her Twitter account.

After leaving the television studio of NHK, she had already checked her Twitter account: even updating it by informing her followers of her work schedule of the afternoon. She hadn’t noted anything out of the ordinary. So what could possibly have happened during those thirty minutes? Another time, she would have waited to be alone to go through her social accounts, but this strange commotion piqued her interest.

The article that charged on her screen made her heart stop.

Jurina Matsui, 23 years old, announced her graduation today at the end of a live showcase in Nagoya.

Frozen in place, Rena stared at the screen in stupor. Almost as if to make sure of the veracity of the article and that it wasn’t just a weird, silly prank, she resumed reading and didn’t pause until she had arrived at the bottom of the article. As she studied next the white and black picture accompanying the news – showing a mature and calm Jurina answering the journalist’s questions – realization dawned on her that this important day had truly arrived.

Jurina Matsui, SKE’s last first-generation member, was sailing off to new horizons after a twelve years career in the idol group.

“Is everything alright?” Yosuke asked worriedly.

Rena jolted out of her musing and looked up to meet his eyes. They glanced at each other silently for a little while, until Rena opened her mouth when she finally found her voice back. “I just learned…” She fumbled with her words. “I just learned that Jurina announced her graduation.”

Yosuke looked faintly surprised. “She’s leaving the group and she didn’t warn you in advance? As you seemed close friends, I thought…”

“No, we…” Rena’s face clouded with uneasiness. “We haven’t spoken in three years.”

Yosuke was taken aback by the revelation. “Did something happen?”

Rena nibbled on her lower lip. “It’s… It’s complicated.”

“You know how much I hate to pry but...” Yosuke paused in hesitation. “If you need someone to talk to, I’m here. I don’t really know how you view our relationship, but I want to believe that we are friends. I’m a good listener and I would never betray your confidence. Don’t ever doubt that, Rena.”

“I think of you as a friend too.” Rena managed a small, tentative smile. “But it’s a long and complicated story. I’m not… I’m not the nice person you think I am. I’ve hurt people: people really important to me.”

“By people, you mean… Jurina?” Yosuke asked tentatively, receiving a small nod in reply. “It’s true I’ve never met her in person and I don’t know what kind of relationship you two had but I was sometimes present when you spoke on the phone with her during the shooting of Destiny. And, I saw the way you reacted when she won the SSK last year: you looked so happy for her. It’s obvious to me that you still care about her.”

“I don’t just care about her.” Rena smiled sadly and looked down to her phone, lingering on the article, and most especially on Jurina’s picture. “But none of it matters anymore. I caused her so much pain: she’ll never forgive me. I’m not even sure I want her to.”

When Yosuke reached across the table to take her hand, she stiffened in reaction when he gave her fingers a light, comforting squeeze. “I don’t agree when you’re saying you’re not a good person. You feel and express remorse, and I genuinely believe that everyone deserves a second chance.”

From her peripheral vision, Rena noticed the waiter approaching their table. Slowly retracting her fingers from Yosuke’s grasp, she fell abruptly quiet, reflecting upon Yosuke’s words as the male employee placed both their orders on the table. Was it really not too late to mends things as Yosuke surprisingly seemed to believe? Did she and Jurina still have a chance to reconnect? Rena found herself terribly torn between two conflicted emotions.

The pragmatic side of her wanted to scold Yosuke for daring giving her false hopes. Surely, Jurina had already moved on: there was no use in stirring up the past and reopening old wounds. However, another more selfish side of her – tinged with nostalgia and feelings of love she had never managed to bury – foolishly wished that he could be right.

Chapter Text

Six months later.

Churi stepped out of the elevator when the doors opened at the second floor, scanning the empty corridor in front of her. Pausing for a moment’s reflection, her feet moved forward when she was finally able to recall where the apartment in question was situated. This Saturday afternoon of September, she had been invited to Jurina’s place; the younger girl had asked for her help and advice with the preparations of a major event coming up in two short weeks. It was only the second time Churi was visiting Jurina’s new place, and she figured it would probably take her a few more visits to know the direction by heart.  

A few months ago, Jurina had made the decision to gain more independence and to leave the family nest, leading her to move into her own apartment at the end of August. Even though Jurina had chosen not to live with her mother anymore, it certainly didn’t prevent her from visiting her every single week, the separation not having in the slightest severed the strong bond uniting them.

As Churi arrived in front of the apartment 23, a smile ruffled her mouth when she noticed the unfamiliar doormat at her feet, her eyes lingering on the large ‘Aloha’ inscription welcoming the visitors. Reaching for her backpack, she retrieved her Nikkon camera from inside to take a shot. No, she had no intention of using that picture for her monthly photos exhibition in Nagoya, but this simple action was like second nature to her. Each time she caught sight of an element in her environment that piqued her interest, it was stronger than her: she had to immortalize the moment.

Her camera was like a precious and faithful companion, and she never failed to take it with her everywhere she went.

Putting her camera away once she deemed herself satisfied with the result, Churi diverted her attention towards the door in front of her, not failing to perceive the sound of music coming from inside the apartment. It might not be that loud, Churi instantly recognized the energetic and cheerful song: SKE’s 2020 summer single was currently playing on Jurina’s stereo.

Yes, it was indeed a catchy song, Churi conceded. A melody hard not to sing along to once it got inside your head. And what about the fact that the group’s last single had sold incredibly well, even better than the two previous ones? Management’s new strategy was paying off, fans – after a period of necessary adjustment - getting accustomed to the rotating position of SKE’s center and WCenter.

Churi raised her arm to ring at the doorbell, and she didn’t have to wait long before hearing footsteps approaching, then seeing the door opening.

“Hi, you arrived right on time.” Jurina, who had appeared on the doorstep, broke into an open, friendly smile. “I was working on the tracklist.”

A flash of humor crossed Churi’s face. “How are you managing? Not too difficult to select only 35 songs?”

“Why do you think I called you? It’s a complete nightmare.” Jurina’s smile vanished and she sighed heavily in defeat. “I chose about 50 songs, and I can’t make up my mind on the ones to remove.”

Churi nodded and chuckled at her. “Yes, I’ve been there too, I know it can be a challenging task. Don’t worry, I’ll help you as much as I can.”

Churi followed Jurina inside the apartment, casually letting her gaze wander around the living room while removing her coat and shoes in the entrance. Her attention was swiftly caught by the pile of papers spread over the table, undeniable proof that Jurina had been hard at work before her arrival. It had already been six months since Jurina had announced her desire to leave SKE, and it was now only a matter of weeks until her long-awaited graduation concert. To be honest, Churi still sometimes had a difficult time adjusting to the idea that Jurina would officially have left the idol group by the end of September.

An opinion shared not only by the remaining members of the group, but also a large portion of the fans. The previous singles might have sold very well, it was still hard for people to wrap their head around the possibility that SKE was soon going to say goodbye to its second figurehead.

“I was thinking we could center Kiss Datte Hidarikiki together.” Jurina, who had taken a seat back at the table, turned in her direction. “What do you think?”

Churi approached and pulled a chair next to her. “Depends.” She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Will you try to steal a kiss during the final spin?”

“Why would I do that? I don’t kiss other members anymore.” Jurina’s face became a visage of juvenile innocence. “Well…” For a shrinking moment she paused, until a grin overtook her features. “Except on the cheek from time to time, when the temptation is too hard to resist. But you can’t blame me for that.”

Churi bit off a laugh.

Jurina might be more mature than ever at the age of twenty-three, she hadn’t lost for all that her flirty side. These last years, it was indeed less frequent to witness such aspect of her personality, yet Churi always found herself greatly entertained when it happened to resurface.

“Alright.” Churi nodded in agreement. “I’ll do this song with you.”

Jurina’s eyes brightened with pleasure and she reached for her pen, scribbling a note on the sheet of paper laying in front of her. “Great, I’ll add that.”

“Do you want us to go through the rest of the tracklist?” Churi took a peek at the sheet - curious to discover which songs Jurina had chosen for the occasion – wincing when she saw that it went indeed far beyond the total number of songs required. “I know it’s not going to be easy, but we really need to reduce it to 35.”

“Yes, but before that…” Jurina’s face became drawn and tense. “There’s something else I wanted to tell you.”

Churi’s brow furrowed at her friend’s strange change of mood. “Yes? What is it?”

Jurina shifted in her seat in unease, avoiding Churi’s questioning gaze. “I was thinking inviting Rena to my graduation concert.”

Churi’s mouth dropped open. “What…” She stared back at her in incredulity. “What did you say?”

“I think Rena should be here.” Jurina repeated slowly, with slightly more assurance. “Singing on stage with us.”

“Why would you…” Churi stopped, confused. “When was the last time you talked to her? Three years ago?”

“I know…” The conflict of emotions followed one another across Jurina’s face. “But I believe it’s the right thing to do for SKE. Rena was there from the start, and my WCenter during eight, long years. I simply cannot ignore those facts. Everyone, especially the fans, will expect her to make an appearance. You know that they will.”

Churi couldn’t deny that, when it came to that last aspect and the fans’ expectations, Jurina might unfortunately be a little right.

In hindsight, it made sense that Jurina would want to include her former WCenter to the list of guests. Until the very last minute of her idol career, Jurina was thinking about the group and attempting to please the fans. Churi shouldn’t be astonished by Jurina’s endless dedication. In twelve years, the younger girl had constantly put SKE above all, even sometimes at the expense of her own health. And right now, by considering asking Rena to participate, she was letting her professionalism take the upper hand and guide her decisions.

But at what cost?

Given Rena and Jurina’s past, could the latter really afford to leave her personal feelings aside? After her friend’s last painful encounter with Rena at the hospital three years ago, Churi clearly wasn’t fond of the idea of such a reunion. Not when there was a non-negligible risk that Rena’s presence could cause bad memories to resurface, and reopen old wounds.

For all those precise reasons, Churi felt that she ought to share with her friend the profound doubt invading her. “I understand what you’re trying to achieve, I really do. But are you sure that it’s really what you want? It’s your graduation concert: I wouldn’t want anything or anyone to spoil such a memorable moment of your life.”

For the first time since their conversation had drifted to the older girl who shared the same surname, Jurina turned at last to look at her directly.

“Trust me, I’ve been thinking about it at length. These last days, no matter how many times I mulled it over in my head again and again, I simply cannot imagine her not being here on that day. The way our relationship ended…” Jurina’s voice sank to a whisper, until determination flashed in her eyes. “I shouldn’t let it cloud my judgment when it comes to SKE. Rena deserves to be on that stage, as much as everyone else.”

“I can tell you already made up your mind...” Churi couldn’t ignore how resolute her friend sounded but remained deeply uncertain about the consequences of such a decision. Yet she refused to be too insistent. If her friend truly believed that it was for the best, then what other choice did she have? After all, it was Jurina’s big day. Churi might not approve of her decision, she owed it to her to respect her wishes.

“But I’m not sure that she’ll accept,” Jurina said doubtfully. “She might have other plans, or even refuse to come. During all these years, she never stood on stage with the 48group. She put her idol past behind: there’s a chance she won’t want her image to be associated with SKE again.”

Churi nodded almost imperceptibly. “When…” She kept her voice carefully neutral when she asked. “When are you going to contact her?”

“I was going to send her a text today,” Jurina replied, and began playing nervously with her phone.

“Why don’t you do it later on?” Churi suggested tentatively, sensing Jurina would become far too distracted by her phone - in the waiting expectative of Rena’s reply - if she let her proceed and send that message immediately. “We really need to work on that tracklist.” She insisted gently when she read Jurina’s hesitation. When it didn’t seem to work, Churi changed tactic, and continued on a lighter, small teasing tone. “I know that Yuasa cannot refuse you much, but let’s be realistic: he’ll never let you sing 50 songs.”

Jurina’s eyes grew openly amused and, putting her phone aside, transferred her gaze to her. “You think? Even if I insist? A lot?”

Churi’s mouth twitched with amusement. “I’m afraid not.”

 


 

Rena went through her dresser attentively, wondering what kind of clothes she was going to put on for tonight’s dinner. Thankfully, she didn’t need to wear anything especially classy as it was a simple meal between friends, but she was conscious that she absolutely ought to choose warm clothes. A few days ago, the temperature had abruptly dropped. It wouldn’t be Autumn until another month, yet you could almost be deceived by the weather.

Cold, windy, and – if you were unlucky - maybe even a little rain. That’s what the weather forecast had promised for this Saturday evening of early September.

As Rena’s fingers halted at last on a beige, cotton sweater, her attention was next caught by a red scarf laying on an upper shelf. It had been a while since she hadn’t worn that piece of clothing in particular, but the view instantly brought back fond memories of that day in Shibuya with Airi. Her thoughts drifted to the girl currently waiting for her in the living room, a smile plastering her features as she made up her mind, and retrieved decidedly both the sweater and the scarf from her dresser.

A few minutes later, once she was fully dressed and prepared, Rena made her way out of the bedroom. She didn’t have to search long to spot her best friend seated on the sofa, silently reading a manga. Approaching, Rena inclined her head slightly to discover what kind of story could be monopolizing Airi’s attention. “The volume 11 of Black Lagoon?” Her voice pitched up in surprise. “Wait. Is that a new volume?! When did he publish the previous one? Five years ago?”

“Six, to be exact and yes, you really need to be patient when it comes to Rei Hiroe’s works.” Airi joked, raising her nose from the page she was reading. “This new volume got released yesterday. You know me, I simply couldn’t let it pass. The wait might be long, it’s always worth it.”

“The number of years doesn’t matter as long as the quality is still here, right?” Rena offered amusingly, taking a seat by her side.

“Exactly,” Airi answered with an assured nod, slowly beginning to close her manga when she noticed the other girl taking a peek at the clock on the wall. “Is it time to leave?”

“Not quite yet.” Rena shook her head softly. “We’re supposed to meet Yosuke and Tsuzumi at the restaurant at 7 PM. We still have half an hour.”

“It will be the first time we’re going out the four of us, no? Where did he meet his girlfriend?” Airi asked in curiosity. “I don’t think you ever told me.”

“Tsuzumi? He met her four months ago. She was an actress in his latest drama.” Rena caught Airi’s manga between her fingers, and flicked through the first pages in interest. “From what he told me, they quickly got along well, and started dating not long after the end of the shooting. I actually met her once: they make a really nice couple.”

“We never heard anything about their relationship in the magazines.” Airi frowned a little, bewildered. “How did they manage to avoid the paparazzi?”

“They are both public figures, and their agencies prefer if they keep a low profile. At least, for a little while,” Rena explained. “So, they are being extremely cautious when they go out in public.”

“Really?” Airi let out a soft sigh. “After all these years, I still don’t completely understand this business. They are not doing anything wrong: they shouldn’t have to hide.”

“This is how the entertainment industry works.” Rena smiled faintly and closed the manga, lowering it on her lap. “Agents don’t really appreciate it when their clients’ private life makes the headlines. They are afraid that it could affect their clients’ reputation or career in some way.”

“I know…” Airi conceded, before looking over her friend’s shoulder, and noticing the black coat and red scarf laying on the sofa’s armrest. The familiar view instantly brought a smile to her lips. “I remember that day when we went to Shibuya. It was such a headache to find a clever way to distract your attention, enough to buy that scarf without you noticing.”

“And you left me all alone in that café,” Rena added in fake indignation. “How could you abandon me in such a way?”

Airi grimaced in good humor. “Sorry, but it was for the good cause. Besides, if I recall correctly, you had a good cook book to keep you company.”

“Did I?” Rena’s eyes widened with false innocence. “Are you sure? I suddenly have a failing memory.”

Their casual, light banter got interrupted by the sound of Rena’s phone beeping and – after exchanging a knowing smile with Airi - Rena diverted her attention to the device placed in front of her on the coffee table. Unlocking her code, Rena saw that she had received a new message, and she pressed her index to the screen to open it. When she discovered the sender’s identity, her face collapsed in an expression of utter disbelief.

Hi Rena,

I’m contacting you because my graduation concert is in two weeks. If you’re available, I would really like you to come and sing on stage with us. You would be completely free to choose the number and the songs you want to perform. I’m conscious that you’ve been staying away from idol activities, but I think it would make the fans and the members very happy to have you on stage.

If you have other plans or you prefer not to come, then please don’t worry too much about it. Whatever your decision will be, I’ll respect it.

Jurina.

Rena’s breath caught in her throat, her heart beginning to beat faster as she processed with difficulty the words written. Of course, she was aware that Jurina’s graduation concert was in two weeks: there was no way she could have ignored the date of this important event. However, for not one instant, she would have anticipated to receive such invitation. The last time she had been in contact with Jurina was during last year’s SSK, when she had sent the younger girl her congratulations and had been greatly surprised – and equally quite moved - to receive in return Jurina’s kind words for her award.

Despite the cordial mutual exchange of texts, the fact that Jurina would ask her – not simply to be present and assist to her concert, but also to sing on stage - went beyond her comprehension. This concert was not any anecdotic event: it was the day Jurina would officially be closing a significant page of her life. This concert would stay imprinted in everyone’s heads, and this for many more years to come. Wouldn’t Jurina want for such occasion to be surrounded by the people who meant the most to her?

Rena jumped a little when she felt a hand gently closing over her right shoulder and, tilting her head in Airi’s direction, faced her worried look. “What is it? Did something happen?”

“It’s...” Rena struggled to keep her voice steady. “It’s Jurina. She wants me to sing during her graduation concert.”

“She does?” Airi stared at her speechlessly for some long, pregnant seconds. “What are you going to do? Are you going to accept?”

“I…” Rena paused a moment, trying to maneuver her thoughts. “I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I don’t understand why she’s inviting me. I don’t think it’s my place to be on that stage with her.”

“She visibly believes the contrary. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have sent you that text.” Airi disapproved gently. “Why don’t you take time to think about it?” Airi reached forward and laid a tentative hand upon Rena’s. “You don’t need to reply immediately.”

Rena’s attention returned to the message, feeling her own fingers slightly shaking around the phone. Are you really sure that this is what you want, Jurina? Rena couldn’t help but ask herself, finding herself terribly indecisive. The last time they met, Jurina had clearly stated that she didn’t want to see her again. And Rena had scrupulously respected Jurina’s wishes during those last three years, carefully keeping her distance with the younger girl. If there was one thing Rena absolutely didn’t wish, it was to make Jurina uncomfortable, or inadvertently cause her pain again.

Rena was indisputably deeply moved that Jurina was inviting her to her graduation concert, and she couldn’t ignore either the small voice inside her head reminding her of the great opportunity it represented: she would be able to see Jurina again. However, Rena’s cautious side - worried about the possible, negative repercussions - wondered if Jurina was truly conscious of what she was asking.   

 


 

September 19, 2020.

1 p.m.

Jurina’s feet paused at the front of the main stage of the Nagoya Dome and she drew a long breath, briefly glancing up to the geodesic dome closed over her head, before sweeping the baseball stadium and its 40 000 empty seats. Behind her back, she could hear the technical staff finishing making last-minute adjustments, but most of the work had thankfully already been done by now.

All morning, and from the very minute Jurina had arrived at the venue, she had checked even down to the last detail that everything was being well prepared accordingly to her wishes. Sets. Lights. Pyrotechnic effects. Music. Sound check. There was not one aspect that the 23-year-old girl had not meticulously monitored, her perfectionist side refusing categorically to overlook even the smallest problem.

This upcoming event – that would undoubtedly mark the history of SKE - was simply too important to afford the slightest mistake. 

In solely two hours, the first spectators would be arriving and crossing the gates to assist at her graduation concert. As was to be expected, the event had sold out months in advance, which meant the baseball stadium would soon be packed with 40 000 enthusiastic fans. No matter the experience Jurina had acquired through the years, it was impossible not to feel slightly nervous about it. It wasn’t only because she was about to perform in front of such a huge crowd: this Saturday, the pressure was higher than ever.

Today, Jurina had a clear objective in mind: and that was to offer the fans one of the best and memorable shows they had ever seen. She wanted her graduation concert to remain imprinted in the dazzled memories of every spectator.

At the sound of her alarm watch beeping, Jurina looked down to her wrist, grasping by the letters flashing on the watch dial that it was time to make her way towards her next destination. There were still some new costumes that she needed to try on, and a few songs that she wished to rehearse afterwards. Turning on her heels, Jurina crossed the main stage and disappeared backstage, going over the concert’s tracklist in her head as she walked through the corridor leading towards the dressing room.

As Jurina was approaching her objective, the sound of excited feminine voices distracted her from her thoughts and she looked up, noticing in the distance a gathering of SKE members in the corridor. Jurina slowed down her steps despite herself, wondering in curiosity what could be the possible reason behind such a strange agitation. The more she progressed in the corridor, the more Jurina could guess that someone had to be monopolizing the other girls’ attention, but the crowd was too dense and blocking her view.

When Jurina was finally close enough to discover which person in particular was standing in the middle of the circle formed by the other girls, her feet came to a final halt.

Jurina widened her eyes in surprise.

A familiar 25-year-old girl with long brown hair was chatting with the other members, her mouth curved into a graceful smile as she replied politely to the multiple questions she was being asked. Jurina tried desperately to deny the pulsing knot that had formed in her stomach and the sound of her heart thumping nervously inside her chest, but it was a lost cause.

Two weeks ago, after receiving the positive reply, Jurina strongly believed to have well mentally prepared herself for this reunion. However, considering the current sensations coursing her body and betraying her emotions so easily, Jurina came to a sudden realization that she had unfortunately greatly underestimated her emotional capacity to stay utterly calm and in control of her emotions next time she would cross path with Rena.

Jurina didn’t know which precise girl of the group noted her presence first. Soon enough, all pairs of eyes turned in her direction, silence falling around them as the conversation came to an abrupt halt. When Rena’s eyes met hers, her smile vanished for an instant - wiped away by astonishment - until the older girl quickly composed herself, and pleasure softened slightly her features. 

Chapter Text

Rena didn’t often find herself speechless, having grown into a composed and eloquent person over the years, yet Jurina’s unexpected arrival definitely managed to destabilize her. Rena’s lips immediately parted in surprise, her heart suddenly hammering wildly against her ribs, until her mouth progressively drew into a slow, steady smile of pleasure. How many times in the past had she hoped of crossing path with Jurina again? Or of simply have the chance to lay her eyes upon her, even from afar?

The warmth spreading through her chest didn’t only serve to reaffirm her unwavering feelings for Jurina: it also made her realize the great opportunity that this graduation concert represented. Could this truly be the second chance Yosuke had once mentioned to her? Much as Rena wanted with every fiber of her being to believe in this possibility, her cautious side refused to raise false hope.

Rena couldn’t foresee what laid ahead of them once this day of September would be over. Maybe fate would decide that a reconnection was impossible after all, and they would end up saying goodbye and splitting ways once and for all. No matter what the future had in store for both of them, Rena had one absolute certitude anchored deep within her: she needed to take advantage of this incredible chance she had been given and relish every precious second by Jurina’s side.

“Hello, Jurina,” Rena spoke up, trying her best to keep her voice steady when she finally summoned the composure to speak. “How are you?”

“Hi, I’m fine,” Jurina replied, offering her a small, shy smile in return. “I’m surprised to see you here. I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”

Taken aback, Rena regarded her quizzically for a moment. “You… weren’t?”

“Your text,” Jurina quickly continued. “You said you would arrive at 2 p.m. It’s barely 1 p.m… You are in advance.”

“Ah yes…” Rena understood the other girl’s confusion better, indeed legitimate when she recalled the message she had sent Jurina in the morning. “But after seconds thoughts, I wanted to give myself enough time to rehearse the choreographies. I haven’t danced certain songs in years: I lack a little practice.”

“Oh, of course,” Jurina nodded in understanding, turning to the left. “The dancing room is at the end of the corridor: last door on your right.”

“Yes, I remember...” A smile of gratitude touched Rena’s lips. When Jurina brought her attention back to her, their gazes silently lingered, until Rena became progressively self-conscious of all the other pairs of eyes on her, and that everyone was listening to their conversation. There were so many other things that Rena wished to say to her but clearly, it was nor the right time nor the best place.

“I think we’d better get inside,” Rena said, politely addressing the other SKE members surrounding her. “We are a little in the way, here.”

A few heads nodded in agreement and the group progressively scattered, the girls leaving the corridor they were occupying to push the door of the dressing room. Rena quietly followed them inside and, as her eyes fell on Jurina’s retreating form, an uneasy feeling gnawed at the back of her mind. More than anything, she hoped that her presence wouldn’t be an inconvenience, or cause Jurina’s discomfort. As Rena was falling prey to her doubts, Jurina – almost as if she was conscious of eyes peering at her – tilted her head back in her direction.

Rena easily read the nervousness playing over Jurina’s features, reminding her that the younger girl had never been incredibly brilliant at concealing her emotions. Rena tensed despite herself, until she noticed Jurina’s face brightening ever so slightly. The visual interchange was short but enough for now to relax her a little, a smile unconsciously finding its way through Rena’s mask of uncertainty.

As soon as Rena stepped inside the dressing room, she reluctantly averted her gaze from the younger girl to scan the place in search of an empty seat, easily spotting an unoccupied makeup booth further away on her left. Approaching, she removed her vest and settled down, desperately trying to empty her head and slow her pumping heart. Deep down, Rena was conscious that she absolutely ought to control her emotions better if she wished to be efficient during rehearsal and perform well on stage later.

Leaving her cellphone aside on the table, Rena unzipped her backpack and checked its content with a certain apprehension. When she noted that she had thankfully brought everything she needed – especially her sport outfit and her makeup kit – she breathed a sigh of relief. All morning, she had felt her stomach churning with anxiety at the imminence of her anticipated reunion with Jurina.

It was more than a miracle that she hadn’t forgotten anything.

“Do you need… anything?”

At the sound of a feminine voice addressing her from behind hesitantly, Rena jumped a little and tilted her head to the right, witnessing a familiar young girl now standing by her side. “Ah, Jurina…” Rena stammered. So deeply lost in her own thoughts, she had failed completely to hear or even notice anyone approaching.

Jurina, who hadn’t missed her reaction, shot her a small embarrassed look. “Sorry… I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No, it’s fine…” Recollecting herself, Rena brushed it off with a tentative, reassuring smile. “Thank you, but I don’t believe I need anything,” she replied, until her eyes lit up in realization. “Ah, yes, I need the concert setlist. But you must be very busy, so don’t worry about it. I’ll ask a staff member to–”

“No need,” Jurina interrupted her. “Just give me a second.”

Rena didn’t have time to add another word that the other girl had already turned on her heels. Rena parted her lips in surprise and observed the latter as she rummaged through a blue backpack a few makeup booths away, before coming back a few seconds later with a document secured in her hand. “Here’s the concert setlist. You can keep it.”

“Thank you...” Rena accepted the paper handled to her. “Wait. Are you sure?” she asked doubtfully after recognizing Jurina’s handwriting: she had scribbled a few notes on it. “No, this is yours. It’s best if I ask the staff for a new one.”

“No, keep it. I really don’t need it anymore.” Jurina shook her head in protest. “I read it so many times already, that I know all the songs and their order by heart.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Rena relented. “Alright…” she nodded and placed the setlist in front of her. As she began to read the document carefully, she was caught off guard when she noticed that the other girl had not left as she anticipated but was instead taking a seat next to her. Jurina’s sudden move caused Rena to lose focus, and her eyes paused abruptly on the text as they were traveling down the document.

Rena tried to ignore the new presence by her side and concentrate on the list, much in vain as she found herself far too distracted by Jurina’s proximity. At last, when she found it simply utterly impossible to focus on the task at hand, she glanced up from the paper and slowly tilted her head in Jurina’s direction, only to find the other girl watching her.

Jurina was looking at her with something very fragile in her eyes; a certain shyness quite uncharacteristic of her. But it wasn’t the only emotion that Rena distinguished as she held Jurina’s gaze, one that seemed to stare right into her soul. As she got easily lost in those brown eyes that she had always found so mesmerizing, Rena was struck by the incredible tenderness perceptible in the depth of Jurina’s eyes.

“Did you…” Rena felt herself shiver and had to regain discipline over her voice. “Did you want to tell me something else?”

“Oh, I…” Jurina tore her eyes away, embarrassment creeping into her cheeks. “I just wanted to make sure that everything was clear for you. So, if you have any questions…”

“Oh, thank you…” Rena surely didn’t believe to deserve such personal attention. Nevertheless, she felt deeply moved by Jurina’s kindness towards her. “I think I’ll be fine, but I’ll finish checking the list just in case.”

Rena brought her attention back to the sheet, but soon found herself pausing in her reading once again. In fact, there was an important question that she had meant to ask Jurina before the beginning of the concert: a sensitive topic that she didn’t want to broach earlier on in front of the other girls. Of course, they were far from being alone in the dressing room right now but the other members were speaking amongst themselves and minding their own business, and not paying attention to them in the slightest.

Rena wasn’t sure when or if she would ever have the occasion again to have a privileged moment alone with Jurina before the beginning of the concert, and it occurred to her that this was in fact the ideal moment to voice out loud her concerns.

“I wanted to thank you for inviting me. I’m really touched that you did but…” Rena cut herself off in mid-sentence, glancing back at Jurina apprehensively. “But are you sure that my presence won’t be… an issue?”

“Why would it be?” Jurina frowned in perplexity. “Did you not see the other members’ reactions? They were so happy to see you, and it’s obvious that the fans will react the same way when you’ll appear on stage. Don’t you think they all will be excited to see you?”

But that’s not what I’m asking. Rena felt a tremor of unease, now uncomfortable at the idea and growing possibility that Jurina could not be telling the complete truth, but instead hiding her true feelings for the benefit of others. What if this was a terrible mistake after all? What if she had not thought this through properly before accepting Jurina’s invitation?

“I’m not doing this for the fans or for SKE. That’s not the reason why I accepted to come,” Rena said at last.

Jurina gave her a small, puzzled look. “It’s… not?”

Rena shook her head negatively, a faint smile grazing her lips. “I came for you, because you asked me to. If you hadn’t sent me that text, I wouldn’t have accepted to participate. That’s why I need you to be completely honest with me.” Her expression clouded in concern. “If you’re having second thoughts about this, then please tell me. I will understand and won’t feel offended by it. And if it’s necessary then… Then I will leave.”

Jurina’s eyes widened in alarm. “No, don’t leave. I don’t want you to leave. No one pushed me or forced me to invite you. Don’t ever think that.”

Jurina grabbed her hand without warning, the touch of Jurina’s fingers around hers sending a shock wave through her entire body. Completely taken aback by the unexpected gesture, Rena’s breath caught in her lungs, until she slowly glanced downward to their joined hands. Jurina’s fingers were holding her hand into a tight grip, almost as if the younger girl was terrified that Rena would flee or disappear from her sight at any instant.

The physical contact didn’t last more than a fleeting moment, as Jurina – a flash of realization crossing over her features – abruptly loosened her hold on Rena’s hand and looked down sideways, as if overcome with embarrassment. “I’m just so happy that you could come. Stay… Please stay.”

Rena felt her heart tightening beneath her ribs at Jurina’s last pleading tone. All doubts and any hesitation she might have had before vanished into thin air, having obtained the answer she had hoped and longed for all along. “Then, I’ll be here for you...” Rena murmured. Pondering over her next move, Rena felt the irrepressible need to reassure the other girl and – tentatively reaching out for Jurina’s fingers – gently covered them with her own. Feeling the warmth of Jurina’s skin emanating beneath her fingertips, Rena couldn’t fight the urge, albeit timidly, to brush the back of Jurina’s hand. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Jurina finally dared to face her, Rena glad to see her eyes lighting up with nothing else but content and relief. A soft and loving curve unconsciously touched Rena’s lips at Jurina’s genuine reaction, feeling a surge of affection for her flowing through her veins. When Jurina laced Rena’s fingers with her own tentatively, Rena’s heart thudded noisily within her, reminding her once again that the number of years and the separation had not managed to alter or diminish her feelings of love for the other girl.

 


 

 

Akane remained studiously focused on the rhythm of the music as she danced in front of the large mirrors in the rehearsal room, scrupulously checking that each and every one of her steps was well synchronized with the song currently playing in the air. Never mind how many times she had performed Cross in the past, she had already graduated from the group back in 2018 and had rarely the occasion to dance on stage since then. In fact, the last time she had performed this particular song was a year ago, when she had been invited to participate in SKE’s 2019 Request Hour.  

There was no denying that, with the absence of daily training, her body was no longer as fit as it used to be. When she was still a prominent member of SKE, dance practice was her daily lot, and her body could easily take in hours of dancing and physical effort without protesting. After her departure from the idol group, she irrevocably said goodbye to this demanding aspect of her life, her new career as a photographer thankfully not asking of her more than inspiration and creativity.

That’s why she hadn’t hesitated to occupy the dancing room upon her arrival at the Nagoya Dome, and rehearsed the steps of each song she was going to perform this afternoon, not wishing to take the risk of making unfortunate mistakes once on stage. As the last notes of Cross faded in the background, Akane took a good moment to catch her breath before walking back to the CD player. Taking a peek at the setlist, she discovered with satisfaction that she had gone through all her songs.

After an hour of assiduous dancing, Akane was quite confident to have freshened up her memory enough and have all choreographies well mastered. Yet, she studied the list once again, reflecting whether she should go over a few tricky songs one last time, just in case. She didn’t have the opportunity to make up her mind as she heard the front door creaking, prompting her to look up in curiosity.

The feminine silhouette that had made her arrival made her freeze: Rena Matsui, the former SKE idol she hadn’t seen in three years, was standing on the doorstep.

The shock caused the words to wedge in her throat. 

When Akane found out from Jurina that the older Matsui had accepted Jurina’s invitation, she had been completely caught off guard by the revelation. Back then, she didn’t want to sound too pessimistic when Jurina shared her wish to invite her former WCenter, but Akane was convinced that Rena would refuse to come. After all, hadn’t Rena made a point of staying away from idol activities during all these years?

That’s why, even up to that day, Akane still couldn’t fathom the reason behind this strange and inexplicable twist.

“Ah, I didn’t know there was already someone here...” Rena murmured apologetically and took a small step back. “I’ll come back later.”

“No, it’s…” Akane’s voice trailed away uneasily. “It’s alright, you can come in. I was finished anyway. I was going to leave.”

“Are you sure?” Rena asked hesitantly. “I really don’t mind waiting if you need more time to rehearse.”

“I’m sure,” Akane replied, forcing herself to smile as she hastily removed the CD from the player. “The room is all yours.” 

Akane turned on her heels and left, moving towards the place where she had dropped her sports bag early on. As she kneeled by her bag and placed her drink and towel inside, she sensed behind her the sound of the front door closing and light footsteps slowly entering the room. Akane felt her stomach tightening and desperately fought to keep her fragile control, closing her bag once she made sure she had gathered everything up.

When Rena’s progression inside the room came to a sudden halt and the place plunged into a deep silence, the unwelcome tension stretched ever tighter between them. Akane took a moment to recollect herself and, still purposely avoiding eye contact with the other girl, shut her eyes close to try and steady the wave of discomfort sweeping through her. Of course, she was more than conscious that they would at some point cross paths today: it was inevitable since she and Rena were going to share the same stage for a couple of songs.

Nevertheless, Akane had secretly hoped that their interactions would stay limited, and under no circumstances they would find themselves entirely alone.

This undesired encounter in the rehearsal room was placing her in an incredibly difficult position. A small voice inside her head was urging her to mind her own business and leave the room without further ado. However, she couldn’t ignore another voice telling a completely different story, nor the sense of frustration growing inside her. A swift shadow of anger swept across her face when Akane shot her eyes open and glanced over her shoulder in Rena’s direction.

Manifestly, Jurina had been able to put her personal feelings aside for the sake of SKE, but not the same could be said about herself. In fact, Akane was still absolutely convinced that Jurina had made a tremendous mistake by inviting the actress to her concert. It might have already been three years since that fateful day of April, certain painful images were still vividly imprinted in Akane’s mind. It was impossible for her to forget the deep sorrow Rena had caused Jurina, nor the cruel way in which she had shattered Jurina’s heart into pieces, someone who loved her so unconditionally.

Unbeknown to Rena, who was busy preparing herself and already sliding a new CD in the player, Akane’s expression grew hard and resentful.

When Rena had visited Jurina at the hospital after the incident during handshake, Akane hadn’t been able to control herself, and vented her frustration and anger to Airi. Akane clearly didn’t feel proud of this moment and, since that day, decided to keep her thoughts to herself, and not question her friend anymore about Rena’s behavior. Instead, she preferred to focus on what she deemed the most important during this difficult period of her life Jurina was going through: to be a supportive, caring and loyal friend to her.

It had taken a while, but Jurina’s suffering had eventually ended, Akane seeing the light slowly and progressively returning in her friend’s eyes.

Today, Akane wasn’t exactly sure what kind of impact Rena’s presence was going to have on Jurina. What if it only served to rub salt in the wound? No matter the consequences, Akane was absolutely certain that having Rena by her side wouldn’t leave Jurina indifferent: it simply never did. That’s why she couldn’t find the strength within her to stay quiet. Not anymore. “I’m surprised that you accepted to come,” Akane said dryly, pulling herself to her feet. “I didn’t think that you would.”

Akane’s eyes bore sternly into Rena’s back, waiting for a reaction, but the other girl didn’t move nor did she speak, almost as if she hadn’t heard her. Eventually, Rena turned around to look at her directly. “I came because Jurina asked me.”

Akane wasn’t fooled by Rena’s good manners and cordial smile. By the momentary look of discomfort crossing her face, Akane could tell she had managed to destabilize her interlocutor. “I’m afraid that your presence here will affect her,” Akane stated, irritated. “This is her big day: she already has enough pressure on her shoulders as it is. And with you here, she…”

Akane stopped abruptly when her voice took on a new note that frightened her: it had indeed become way sharper than she initially intended. Grasping that she had unconsciously let herself get carried away by her emotions, Akane had time to witness the astonishment touching Rena’s face before Akane looked away, embarrassed by what she had uttered.

“You have every reason for being angry at me and not wanting me here,” after a pregnant pause, Rena replied lucidly. “But no matter what you think of me and of my past actions, I have no intention of going anywhere.”

Akane frowned and stared back at her in confusion, taken aback by Rena’s confident tone. “I just don’t want her to get hurt again,” Akane said in a voice faint with disbelief and incomprehension. “She has been through so much already, and she will remember this moment for the rest of her life. If anything bad happens today…”

“I’m not here to cause her pain,” Rena said somewhat guardedly, yet decisively. “Believe me, I had the same initial doubts as you. I was afraid too that my presence would do more harm than good. But when I spoke with her earlier on, I realized that she genuinely wanted me here. That’s why I can’t disappoint her, especially not today. I will not leave. I can’t.”

There was such an air of finality in Rena’s tone, that Akane suddenly became conscious than nothing she could say next would change Rena’s mind or turn the tide in her favor. Admittedly, Akane was a little startled to discover that the two girls had already interacted today, and she strongly hoped that this encounter hadn’t left Jurina too shaken by it. No matter the words they had exchanged, it had visibly managed to strengthen Rena’s plan to follow through with this.

Without adding another word, Akane grabbed her sports bag from the floor and walked towards the exit. As she reached the front door and the first notes of Ame no Pianist filled the air of the rehearsal room, Akane stole one last look at Rena and quietly observed her as the other girl began to dance. Akane wished she didn’t find herself so anxious about the outcome of this important day, but maybe she needed this time to have a little more faith in Rena.

Chapter Text

2:55 p.m.

Jurina wore a sleeveless yellow cardigan over a white long-sleeved blouse, a red bow around her neck, and a short, red and white pleated plaid skirt. She slowly walked in from the right side of the main stage, her feet only pausing once she found herself at the center of the stage. With her back turned to the audience, Jurina ignored the screams of the fans who had enthusiastically begun to call her name upon her arrival; she gazed instead at the majestic, high staircase looming in front of her.

The camera zoomed in on her intense, focused expression; Jurina taking a deep breath at the daunting task awaiting her, before beginning her ascension of the stairs decidedly. The idol’s determination never once wavered as she progressed and climbed the stairs one by one, the whole time scrupulously keeping her eyes fixed on the top. It was her ultimate goal, and under no circumstances would she let anything or anyone prevent her from reaching it.

Only a couple of stairs were left now and Jurina ignored the growing pain in her legs, acutely conscious that she could not afford to give up right now that she was so close to her objective. With renewed determination, she continued her ascension valiantly, until her feet paused abruptly on the penultimate stair. Stupefied, she saw a silhouette emerging from the shadows at the top of the staircase.

Jurina’s mouth dropped open, watching with unconcealed admiration the 29-year-old girl, her brown hair tied back in a ponytail and dressed in an elegant long black dress, slowly approaching the edge of the staircase. As her attention fell upon the younger girl below her, a gentle smile plastered the older girl’s features. This unexpected arrival had been observed and received by the audience with exclamations and gasps of surprise, yet neither of the two girls paid attention to any of it, seemingly wrapped up in their own little world as their gazes silently lingered.

“Acchan,” Jurina murmured in awe.

Atsuko Maeda raised her arm and extended her hand in invitation. Jurina forced her legs to move and climbed the last stairs separating her from the former and legendary first ace of AKB48. As they were finally standing on the same level, Jurina looked back and glanced down nostalgically to the path she had taken, before setting her eyes on the older girl before her and placing her fingers inside Acchan’s outstretched hand.

“Congratulations, Jurina,” Atsuko said solemnly. “You made it to the top.”

As soon as those significant words escaped Acchan’s lips, the music of Oogoe Diamond began to resonate, filling the packed stadium with its distinctive upbeat melody. Both girls immediately dropped the rehearsed little act to exchange a casual smile, eager and alive with delight, their hands still linked when they turned their attention towards the attentive audience.

Hashiridasu basu oikakete - Chasing after the bus as it started to leave

Boku wa kimi ni - I wanted

Tsutaetakatta - To tell you

Kokoro no moyamoya ga kiete - The fog has lifted from my heart

Taisetsu na mono ga mietan da - And I’ve seen what’s important to me

The lyrics of the song left their lips as they began to descend the staircase together, this duet marking the opening of Jurina Matsui’s 2020 graduation concert.

 


 

 

The last notes of the 2009 AKB48’s hit song faded in the air, and the two aces disappeared along with it from the main stage. The audience of the Nagoya Dome directed its attention in curiosity towards the message written in large, black letters that appeared on the main white screen. The message was accompanied by the sound of a plane taking off echoing loudly through the speakers of the Japanese stadium. 

Twelve years ago, a young girl started her journey towards her destiny.

The message remained on the screen for a few, long seconds, enabling each fan to grasp the deep meaning of the words, until disappearing gradually from the screen as the two majestic doors of the main stage slid open. A group of fifteen girls could be seen aligned behind the door, but it was only when the lights and cameras fell upon them, that the audience was at last able to discover their identity.

The reaction was instantaneous: it was impossible for the fans not to manifest their great surprise, mingled with evident joy and pleasure. Despite being very familiar with every one of those faces, most of those girls had retired from the idol industry, and as such not participated in a SKE concert since countless years.

Each girl wore a white short-sleeved blouse with a panel down the middle decorated with braid, completed with a sailor's collar. Their short pleated plaid skirt was several shades of brown; some of the girls had a short tie around the collar, whilst others had a bow tie. Finally, black knee-high stockings and simple black shoes finished the traditional costume. As the first notes of Tsuyokimono yo played in the air and the girls began singing, the audience, whilst still having a hard time believing their eyes, was becoming progressively conscious that they were extremely privileged. They were witnessing a scene they had not seen in almost a decade.

The entire first generation of the Team S: Rena Matsui, Kumi Kagami, Oya Masana, Yuka Nakanishi, Aki Deguchi and all the other girls who had shot this low budget videoclip in the small aircraft hangar of Nagoya were all present, exceptionally reunited on stage on this very special occasion.

Tsuyokimono yo - Be the strong person      

Shin no yuusha - Be the true hero

Tatakai oeta ato - After you’ve finished fighting

Dare no tame - For whom

Nagasu no - Do you shed

Sono namida - Those tears?

Emotion could be seen shimmering in a few girls’ eyes as their names were being called by a crowd of enthusiastic fans, whilst others tried not to be too destabilized by the general euphoria, attempting to remain professional and stay focused on the lyrics and the choreography of the song. As the first verse progressively came to an end, it didn’t escape the audience’s attention that all the girls were now standing at the front of the stage, except for one crucial member.

Jurina Matsui.

The doors began to progressively slide close, but not before the last missing first-generation member made her entrance, joining the other girls already dancing energetically on the emblematic, upbeat music. Jurina stopped her progression once she arrived at the front of the stage and, positioning herself at Rena Matsui’s left side, began to sing the second verse along with the other girls who had marked the beginning of SKE48’s story.

 


 

Akane, who was about to complete her Cross outfit and put the black hat on her head, was easily distracted once again as she listened to the music of Tsuyokimono yo resonating loudly in the Nagoya Dome. To be honest, she was still impressed by the prowess Jurina managed to demonstrate. A few weeks ago, when Jurina informed her of her desire to invite as many graduated members as possible on stage, Akane found herself naturally thrilled by the idea.

Jurina had certainly succeeded: not only had she brought the entire Team S first generation back, for the fans’ greatest pleasure, but also many other graduated members were scheduled to appear throughout her graduation concert. Regarding the song Akane would be performing in a couple of minutes now, the former idol was feeling quite impatient, and admittedly also a little nervous, to be reforming the original trio on stage.

Chancing a glance through the mirror of her makeup booth, Akane could see Tomoka Wakabashi and Rina Matsumoto who were finishing adjusting their black and pink satin costumes. While Tomoka was already wearing her jacket over her white blouse, Rina had just finished putting on her pink tiered skirt and was now taking a seat to complete her costume with the usual knee-high patent boots.

Akane let out a small sigh, a wave of nostalgia sweeping over her.

In a few short minutes now, a staff member would enter the dressing room and ask them to join the main stage. Akane was acutely conscious that, once on stage, time would fly by, and the performance would be over in no time. That’s why she was determined to take advantage of the incredible opportunity to savor this magical moment, conscious that she would likely never relive it in her life again.

When Akane heard her cellphone beeping, she diverted her attention from the two other girls and looked down to the device placed on the table in front of her. After checking the time, and discovering she still had a little time left before the beginning of her performance, Akane grabbed her phone in curiosity, discovering she had received a text from Airi.

“Hi Churi,

I heard that Jurina’s graduation concert has begun. I don’t know if you’ve already performed on stage yet, but I really hope you’ll enjoy yourself today!

When I arrived at Junkudo thirty minutes ago, there was already a long queue waiting outside, so I’m guessing the sign session will last a little longer than planned. By the way, a fan asked about you. He was wondering if you would make a surprise appearance during my sign session, like you did in February for my previous book. He looked a little disappointed when I told him it wasn’t going to happen, as you’re on stage today for Jurina’s graduation concert…

Say hi to the other girls for me!

Airi.”

Akane’s mouth tugged into a smile as she read the message, quickly typing a reply back to her friend. She barely had time to press the Send button, when the door of the dressing room opened and a staff member told them they were now awaited on stage. Akane immediately muted her phone and put it away in her bag, before checking her appearance in the mirror one last time.

Putting on her leather gloves, she carefully made sure her black, cross-shaped earrings were well attached, before grabbing her black hat from the table and adjusting it on her head. Over her shoulder, she heard Tomoka Wakabashi asking if she was ready and, once she was sure her outfit was complete, Akane followed the two other girls out of the dressing room in the direction of the main stage.

 


 

Rena grabbed her iPod from her backpack and placed each earphone inside her ears; her fingers slid over the screen of the device as she searched for one particular song. Once she found it amongst her tracklist, she pressed Play and adjusted the volume, closing her eyes to concentrate better and not be distracted by the agitation of the dressing room. As an upbeat piano melody began filling her ears, Rena’s lips silently moved in synchronization with the lyrics of the SKE song.

Ame no pianist ga - The pianist of the rain

Ai wo hiite iru wa - Playing with my love

Building no machi ni - From a building in the city

Kanaderu kanashii melody - There's a sad song playing            

Mado no kenban wo - The keyboard made of windows

Tataku shizuku no yubi - Struck by the fingers made of rain

Watashi dake no concerto - Plays concerto just for me

Earlier on, Rena had studiously rehearsed in the dancing room the choreography of each and single song she was going to perform today, but she also wanted to make sure her memory wouldn’t fail her accidently when it came to the lyrics. Rena couldn’t be more familiar with Ame no Pianist, a 2010 song she had performed plenty of times in the past, yet she was determined not to leave anything to chance.

Feeling a sudden, small tap on her shoulder, Rena fluttered her eyes open and removed her earphones when she saw Yui Matsushita addressing her. “Rena-san, we’re leaving ahead in the direction of the stage.”

“Alright,” Rena replied, watching as she and Moe Yamashita – the two girls with whom she was going to perform that song – left and walked out of the dressing room.

The trio wasn’t due to sing until fifteen more minutes: there were two other songs coming up after Sansei Kawaii, the song the young SKE’s kenkyuusei were currently performing on the main stage of the Nagoya Dome. That’s why Rena knew she had sufficient time to go over the song once again. Placing the earphones back inside her ears, Rena resumed the music and focused her attention on the lyrics once more.

A few minutes later, when the music came to an end, Rena was now certain she knew the lyrics by heart. She put her iPod away, before carefully studying her dark and red outfit in the mirror. If there was one important thing that her career as an idol had taught her, it’s that you were never safe from an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction.

Rena raised her hand to her hair, checking that the large, red rose pinned on the right side of her head was well attached. Once she felt confident enough that the accessory wouldn’t fall, her gaze fell down to the red sleeveless top, then to the black cumberband that she was wearing. At last, her eyes landed on her red skirt, making sure that it was properly clipped around her waist.

Alright, I think I’m all good.

Now that she was all set for her next performance, Rena wondered whether she should use the time left to rest and relax. Soon, the music of Sansei Kawaii grabbed her attention again, and she chose instead to make her way towards the stage. Somehow, she was a little curious to see how well the kenkyuusei were doing with that energetic song. Despite having left SKE a long time ago, Rena followed the group’s activities from afar. 

And if there was one certitude she had anchored deep within her – and this even when she was still a prominent member of SKE – it was that the group’s future lied with the new, young generations.

“Rena-san! Rena-san!”

Rena had barely stepped out of the dressing room when her feet paused on the floor; her eyes widened in surprise as she heard someone call her name. It must have been years since she heard that voice, she would recognize its distinctive feminine, cheerful tone anywhere. Pleasure softened Rena’s face and she turned around, facing the familiar 29-year-old, former AKB48 member who was approaching her.

“Yuki-san,” Rena threw her a smile. “How have you been? It’s been a while. Aren’t you a little early for your performance?”

“Ah yes,” Yuki conceded willingly. “But I don’t mind waiting. Mayuyu’s duet starts in less than half an hour, so I figured we could arrive together.”

Rena followed Yuki’s gaze as she inclined her head and glanced over her shoulder, noticing Mayu and Jurina chatting together a bit further down the corridor. Even though Rena was too far to catch what the two other girls were saying, Jurina’s whole body language spoke for itself. Her radiant smile grew broader at every word exchanged; a genuine, small laugh occasionally left her lips.

Jurina’s happiness was nothing but manifest.

Rena’s mouth curved with affection; she hadn’t witnessed this kind of scene in years. It was all so familiar, that it brought back many, fond memories. Despite their often, conflicting agendas, she had never seen a friendship more solid and stable than the one uniting Jurina and Mayu Watanabe. The fact that they managed to remain friends throughout the years – even after Mayu’s graduation – didn’t come as a real surprise.

When it came to the friendships she forged, no one was more loyal, reliable and constant than Jurina Matsui. Despite this acknowledgement of Jurina’s personality, it didn’t prevent the moment from being any less touching in Rena’s eyes.

“I see your solo career is going extremely well,” Rena said, bringing her attention back to Yuki. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you very much.” Yuki’s cheeks flushed at the compliment. “There are so many talented artists; I wasn’t expecting my new album to sell so well. I’m going back on tour next month; a few dates have just been added. It might be a little tiring sometimes, but there’s nothing more gratifying and motivating than to do something you love.”

“That’s true,” Rena murmured. How could she object to such a statement, when she herself had embraced an acting career, thereupon fulfilling her ultimate, childhood dream? “I’m sorry, but I think I’d better get going. I was on my way to the stage; I’m expected in less than ten minutes.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll see if those two are done chatting,” Yuki said, swinging her head around to look at Mayu and Jurina. “I guess not,” she let out a small chuckle after discovering the two friends still profoundly immerged in a passionate conversation. “When those two are in their own little world…”

“It’s hard to get them out of it?” Rena offered, a warm note of amusement in her tone. From her peripheral vision, she noticed a staff member approaching her: she knew it was her cue to leave. “It was really nice talking to you. See you later?”

“Of course! I won’t hold you up any longer, I just wanted to say that…” Yuki’s friendly, cheerful voice took on an unexpected, serious tone. “I really miss this. I know it was a long time ago, but I sometimes remember the Summer the four of us spent at Mayuyu’s beach house. We had so much fun together, didn’t we?”

Rena blinked in astonished silence, a little taken aback by the abrupt change of subject. Even though she couldn’t really fathom why Yuki was bringing it up – nor the reason behind the strange, expectant look the other girl was giving her – casting her mind back to that particular week in July 2015 inevitably brought back a sense of nostalgia.

“Yes, we did. Everything about that week…” Rena smiled reminiscently. “Everything was perfect. We really had a great time.”

“Yes, and maybe one day…” Yuki’s voice trailed away.

Rena didn’t need her to finish. She knew perfectly well what Yuki was implying and could even hear the touch of hopefulness in her tone. Rena found herself momentarily distracted when the staff member addressed her, warning her it was time to leave. Rena absently nodded back in return and, after giving Yuki a small, apologetic look, couldn’t resist one, last glance in Jurina’s direction.

Rena was startled to find out the two friends were done talking, and now looking in their direction. Despite being acutely aware of the male staff member’s presence by her side, Rena was unable to turn away when she saw Jurina staring at her across the distance, the young girl making no attempt to hide the fact that she was watching her.

For a moment, they held one another’s gaze and, as Rena let the meaning of Yuki’s previous words sink in, found herself secretly wishing she could one day relive those carefree days of happiness. 

 


 

4:20 p.m.

Jurina’s 2020 graduation concert was now halfway through. Unexpected guests, exceptional performances. On this day in late September, the lucky audience at the Nagoya Dome was definitely in for a treat. After such a memorable opening and an impeccable first part, it was hard to see how the second part would manage to surpass such a level of perfection. If the fans believed they had already seen it all, then they were definitely not at the end of their surprises.

The team KII had just cleared the stage after Kodoku no na Ballerina; Airi Mizuno rightfully owed herself the cheers of the public with her flawless technic in the title role of the graceful ballerina. A videoclip was now projected on the main screen, showing a short feminine silhouette – dressed in a black, masculine military outfit – energetically running in the woods. Her slightly inconstant breathing, heard distinctly through the speakers, was the evident proof that this little chase had been going on for a while.

“Dammit,” the complaint escaped her gritted teeth when she realized she was having a hard time keeping up the distance with the incredibly athletic, feminine silhouette she was chasing.

Suddenly diverging from her course, she hid and pressed her back to a tree, quickly pondering over her options. The camera – which had until now carefully avoided revealing her identity to the spectator – progressively moved upwards from her black boots to her combat fatigues, pausing and zooming in on her face. The image of a determined Mayu Watanabe flashed on the main screen of the Nagoya Dome.

“Mouse to Team B,” Mayu tried to keep her voice calm and steady when she opened the communication. “Nobunaga is approaching an inhabited area. Do you copy?”

“Team B to Mouse,” a feminine, slightly crackled voice replied in her earpiece. “We’re five minutes away from your location. Please don’t engage the target before our arrival.”

“It will be too late,” Mayu argued. “She will have escaped by the time you arrive. I can’t let that happen. I’m going after her.”

“No, it’s too dangerous,” her interlocutor protested in alarm. “Mouse, I repeat. Do not engage the targ–”

Mayu abruptly cut the communication with the rest of her team, her eyes fired with anger as she stared back at the agile, feminine figure quickly disappearing out of the woods. “Oh no, I’m not letting you escape,” Mayu grumbled, her fingers tightly gripping the pistol attached to her belt. “Not this time.”

The videoclip paused, the image froze and lingered on Mayu’s intense, focused expression, until her features gradually faded as the screen turned black. The audience waited in anticipation, an upbeat pop music filling the silence the moment after. Instantly, everyone’s attention flew to the main screen: large, white letters flashed on the surface, announcing the imminence of the next song.

R I V A L R Y 

From a trapdoor carefully hidden underneath the stage, two feminine silhouettes appeared, the lights shining upon them immediately. Gasps of surprise echoed in the stadium as Jurina and Mayu Watanabe, both dressed in the black military outfits taken from the videoclip, were standing back to back at the center of the stage.

Anata wa watashi no raibaruda - You’re my rival

Watashi no eien no raibaru - My eternal rival

Watashitachi wa dochira mo toppu ni tōtatsu shitai - We both want to reach the top

Watashitachi hitori no tame dake no basho ga arimasu - But there is only place for one of us

Kore wa mujihina sekaidesu - This is a merciless world

Dare ga ikinokoru nodesu ka? - Who will survive?

As the pair began singing together the first verse of the 2015 AKB song – their first and unique duet in the history of the 48group – the unexpected appearance of the graduated and emblematic member Mayu Watanabe caused waves of euphoria among the already misty-eyed spectators of the Nagoya stadium. 

 


 

Jurina tried her best to clear her head and control her agitation, somewhat frightened by the sound of her own heart beating wildly inside her chest. From the minute the concert had begun and she had stepped on stage in front of a packed stadium for her duet with Acchan on Oogoe Diamond, she had felt a shot of adrenaline course her veins. Her excitement was at its highest level and – as the first part of the concert went smoothly without a single incident to deplore – the electrifying sensation hadn’t left her since.

A few songs ago, they had officially entered the last third of the concert, and a completely different feeling monopolized her senses. Despite her best efforts, the muscles in her stomach wouldn’t stop clenching nervously at the imminence of her next duet. It was true that other SKE members sang that song occasionally in the past – mostly during theater performances – it hadn’t been her case in many years.

Yes, the possibility sometimes presented itself to her, but Jurina had a hard time imagining herself singing that particular duet with someone else than her original partner. Back in 2010, when she listened to the lyrics of Two Roses for the first time, she couldn’t break free from the feeling that song had been written specifically with both she and Rena in mind. Two Roses had always been a significant, special song; one that required detailed, careful preparation before going on stage.

When Jurina finally became fully conscious of her romantic feelings for her WCenter, this song only grew to be even more meaningful.

“Let me help you.”

Jurina came back to her senses when she heard a feminine voice softly addressing her, noticing through the mirror Rena – already elegantly dressed in a red, long dress – approaching her from behind. For a split second, Jurina wondered what the older girl could possibly want to assist her with, until feeling Rena’s fingers on her back, prudently pulling the zipper of her blue dress up to the top.

“Thank you,” Jurina voiced her gratitude, until her smile vanished when she noticed Rena’s slightly troubled expression in the mirror. It was true they hadn’t had the opportunity to exchange more than a few words since the beginning of the concert, not that she expected any less. The first twenty-five songs followed one after another at breakneck speed, even sometimes obliging her to sing a few songs in a row without a single interlude.

Even so, Jurina never missed the opportunity to steal a glance at Rena when she had the chance. When they crossed paths in the dressing room or happened to share the stage together: each and single time, Jurina was struck by Rena’s serious, intense focused expression. Despite the general restlessness and noisy environment surrounding her, Rena’s impeccable professionalism always seemed to take the upper hand: she never let herself get distracted unnecessarily.

“What is it?” Jurina asked in concern, turning around to face her once Rena was fully done adjusting her dress. “Is something wrong?”

“I just…” Rena hesitated. “I was just asking myself if it’s really a good idea to do that song together.”

Jurina frowned, bewildered. “I don’t understand. When I suggested we sing that duet together, you accepted. You don’t want to do it anymore?”

“That’s not it,” Rena nodded negatively. “I want to sing this song with you; I really do. But I also know what this song means to you: how very emotional you can get sometimes when you sing it. Believe me when I say I want nothing more but to please you and make you happy on this special day but when I accepted to come, I promised myself not to do anything to cause you pain or sadness. And this song…”

“I…” Emotion closed Jurina’s throat, trapping the rest of her words.

Unable to speak, Jurina stared back at her wordlessly, struck by the range of different emotions conveyed through Rena’s eyes. Hesitation. Apprehension. Concern. But it wasn’t everything Jurina realized as she desperately tried to maneuver her thoughts and studied Rena’s expression at length. If she wasn’t mistaken, there was also a perceptible note of genuine caring and affection in those brown eyes fixed on her. 

“See, that’s what I’m talking about,” Rena sadly murmured. “The performance hasn’t even started yet and you’re already crying.”

Jurina widened her eyes, startled when Rena delicately brushed away a tear from her cheek: she hadn’t even felt it rolling down. When Rena was about to pull her hand away again, she quickly trapped Rena’s fingers inside hers, keeping them closely pressed to her cheek. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe emotion will get the best of me and I won’t be able to hold my tears back on stage. I don’t care; it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to live with regrets.”

 


 

As Akane was pensively removing her Kiss Datte Hidarikiki black and red outfit, she couldn’t help but steal another discreet peek at Jurina who was by her side getting changed, still feeling a little disturbed by what had happened at the end of the song. She and Jurina hadn’t shared a word since they left the stage a couple of minutes ago yet, the more Akane looked back on this strange final spin and the unusual way in which Jurina behaved, the more she was convinced it hadn’t ended exactly as the younger girl originally planned.

A few weeks ago, when Jurina suggested centering this particular song with her, Akane hadn’t seen any valid reason to object and had gladly accepted her invitation. Teasing her friend about the infamous kiss, crucial part of the choreography, was way too easy. When she had confronted Jurina and the latter had proclaimed loud and clear she had nothing to worry about – advancing the fact that she didn’t kiss other members on the lips anymore – Akane had suppressed a knowing smile.

It was indeed true that the kissing monster’s ardors had considerably calmed down over the years, but Akane wasn’t naïve. Jurina’s flirtatious, mischievous behavior was an inseparable part of her personality. No matter her level of maturity, it would never entirely disappear. Moreover, Akane couldn’t ignore the great temptation this particular song always represented throughout the years for a girl as playful as Jurina.

That was why, as innocent, casual and sincere as Jurina tried to appear on the subject, Akane was practically certain her friend would never let such an opportunity pass. It was her graduation concert: the very last time she would ever be performing that song as a SKE48 member.

Kiss Datte Hidarikiki - You even kiss left-handed

Watashi me wo tojite kizuita yo - I noticed while my eyes were closed

Anata sukoshi hidari ue kara - You start a little from the left

Hora ne kuchibiru kasaneru - And there, our lips meet              

Yume wa anata no kikiude - My dream is your dominant arm

When Jurina seized Akane’s hand to make her spin, the latter clearly saw Jurina’s lips quickly approaching hers. Despite being fully conscious of the bad deed Jurina was about to commit, Akane didn’t try to avoid the imminent kiss. Somehow, she couldn’t find it in her to be upset at Jurina’s action, deciding to grant her that last little moment of pleasure.

As Akane was preparing herself to receive Jurina’s lips on hers, she was startled when the contact didn’t happen. Instead of following through with the kiss, Jurina changed direction at the last instant, pressing a chaste kiss to Akane’s cheek. Under normal circumstances, Akane wouldn’t have thought too much about it after seeing Jurina’s mischievous expression, understanding she had been played, and Jurina never had any intention of intimately kissing her.

Today, Jurina’s eyes reflected no sign of mischief, but an unusual flash of hesitation mixed with unease. It only lasted a few seconds: Jurina quickly regaining her composure when the lights went off and the music stopped. Yet, Jurina’s strange expression had spoken for itself: it was enough information to tell Akane that something had happened inside her friend’s head, making her change her mind at the last minute.

When they moved backstage, Akane absent-mindedly noticed the Team E with the graduated member Rena Matsui at their head patiently waiting at the entrance of the stage for their turn to perform. She didn’t miss either although it was quite brief the visual exchange between both Matsui, as Jurina shyly returned the gentle smile the older girl was sending her way.

Back then, Akane hadn’t thought much of the interaction between the two girls.

In retrospective, and in the light of all those elements, Akane wondered if Jurina’s unexpected change of heart during the final spin of the performance might be linked to a certain, 29-year-old, brown-haired girl. A girl who shared the same surname as Jurina’s, and who was currently performing Team E’s song Dareka no Sei ni ha Shinai on the main stage of the Nagoya Dome.

Akane couldn’t hold it any longer: she had to know if her intuition was correct. “You were planning on kissing me during the final spin, weren’t you? Why did you hesitate? How come you changed your mind?”

Jurina turned to look at her. “Are you saying you wanted me to really kiss you? I thought you would feel too embarrassed about it, so I changed my mind.”

Akane wasn’t in the least fooled by Jurina’s apparent relaxed attitude, even less by the playfulness in her tone. After more than a decade by Jurina’s side, she was capable of analyzing her reactions: the slight moment of hesitation in Jurina’s voice before she replied was the evident proof that her question managed to destabilize her.

“I don’t think it had anything to with me,” Akane said carefully. “I think you changed your mind for another reason: because you knew Rena was watching.”

“W–What? Why wouldn’t I want to kiss you because of Rena? It doesn’t… You’re not making any sense now.”

No, it doesn’t make any sense, Akane almost replied, but kept her thoughts to herself when Jurina turned her back on her and continued undressing as if nothing happened. Akane remained quiet, beginning to feel slightly concerned by her friend’s defensive tone and embarrassed answers. She was never one to jump to conclusions, yet one thing was for certain: she didn’t like at all how this whole thing was starting to look. 

 


 

Jurina hung up after her video call with Mariko, a smile of pleasure spread over her face as their conversation lingered in her memory. Of course, a part of her remained sad that her 34-year-old friend wasn’t present today for her graduation concert. Unfortunately, Mariko had work commitments requiring her to be in Madrid, and she wouldn’t be back in Tokyo until the end of the month. Despite her absence, Jurina was extremely happy they were able to get in touch and exchange a few words on this special day.

Jurina put her tablet away, a small laugh inadvertently escaping her lips when she remembered the funny way her older friend appeared on the screen earlier on, wearing a ‘I love Spain’ tee-shirt, together with a wide-brimmed black Cordobes hat. If it wasn’t for her friend’s noticeably drawn features, Mariko’s goofiness would have easily made her forget about the difference in time zones, and it was barely past 9 am in the Spanish capital.

Distractedly, Jurina listened to the cheerful, KII’s pop song Disco hokenshitsu resounding loudly in the baseball stadium, before setting her eyes on the familiar hat laying on the table in front of her. Reaching out for it, Jurina’s fingers played with the white accessory for a short while, until raising her eyes and checking her matching white outfit in the mirror. In less than ten minutes, she would be stepping on stage for her solo, CENTER.

Feeling the white hat slowly moving between her fingers made everything rush back with vivid clarity. It might have been already five years ago, she would never forget the first time she sung that song in front of a crowd. Between the release of SKE’s new single, her first solo and the shocking announcement of Airi’s graduation, that specific Handshake Day in December 2015 had definitely been emotionally charged.

That time in the dressing room when Rena had gently chastised her as she was playing with her hat nervously. That other moment too, when Rena had noticed her crooked knot and carefully adjusted it, while playfully teasing her about her supposedly legendary issue with ties. But most of all, Rena’s last-minute encouraging, reassuring words after she had confessed to her how terribly anxious she felt about the idea of missing a single step during such an important song.

Even if you make a few minor mistakes, I won’t love you any less.

If there was one person who had demonstrated her unconditional support and successfully helped her get through this stressful day, it was the girl whose angelic face still haunted her days when she cast her mind back to the past and delved into her memories. It was the girl whose soft, lovely voice was currently filling the air of the Nagoya Dome with the first verse of the melancholic ballad Kareha no Station.

 


 

As the impressive doors of the main stage closed on her gradually, Jurina let her gaze wander around the Nagoya Dome, taking time to admire the amazing view of forty thousand green light sticks beautifully illuminating the stadium in her honor. As the fans kept chanting her name vigorously, aware of the imminent departure of their favorite idol, Jurina flashed one last smile and mouthed a ‘thank you’ of eternal gratitude to the audience, emotion shimmering in her eyes. The moment after, her face vanished from the screen entirely, the doors shutting once and for all in front of the first and emblematic ace of SKE48.

Jurina remained standing in front of the closed doors, silent, her heart beating wildly inside her chest as she listened to the cheers and the fans still calling her name from the other side. It was almost as if they didn’t want the concert to end quite yet and wished she would come back, surprising them with a couple more songs. But Jurina was perfectly conscious that – even though she would have loved to step back on stage and sing for them again – it was not going to happen.

Her graduation song, the one she had performed a few minutes ago, had marked the end of her 2020 graduation concert irrevocably.

Feeling incredibly moved by this vibrant testimony of their love for her, an unlimited affection that had motivated her to dedicate twelve years of her life to the idol group and to surpass herself at every occasion, it took Jurina a few seconds to capture a male voice addressing her behind her back. When she finally tore her eyes away from the stage she had just left and turned around, she discovered two staff members patiently waiting for her.

Mustering her most polite smile, Jurina was especially cautious not to trip up on her long, satin white dress as she slowly descended the few stairs – clearly appreciating the staff members’ help in the process – and following them when they guided her backstage. After more than two hours and thirty-five songs, numerous guests’ appearances, an impressive mix of AKB and SKE big names on Majijo Teppen Blues and an emotional, final reunion of the Team S first generation on Tooku ni ite mo to complete the picture, Jurina’s 2020 graduation concert had finally come to an end.

On her way backstage, Jurina was approached on many occasions by group members wanting to congratulate her; still she remained in such a daze after such a unique experience, that her voice was locked within her, barely managing to nod and smile back in return to every one of them. As Jurina reached the dressing room, the two staff members accompanying her left her side, Jurina’s steps soon pausing on the floor as she felt her eyes watering.

Startled, she raised her hand to touch the moistening sensation on her skin, wiping away the tear that had slowly found its way down her cheek. She had done her very best not to cry too much during the concert, especially during the last songs. So why were emotions getting the best of her now of all times? When Jurina sensed someone approaching, she tried to conceal her emotional state behind a fake smile yet was immediately caught off guard when she discovered the person’s identity.

Rena was standing by the door of the dressing room, giving her a look of mingled surprise, confusion and concern. “Jurina… what’s wrong? It was such a beautiful concert; you should be so happy and proud of yourself.”

The ghost of a smile flitted across Jurina’s sad features; Rena was entirely right. Everything did indeed go mostly as planned and without any major incident to deplore. Yet, she found herself incapable to answer Rena’s question. How could she give her a semblance of an explanation, when she ignored herself the reason behind her tears? Those inexplicable tears she had quickly attempted to hide, but which had unfortunately not escaped Rena’s keen attention?

And what about this strange, unpleasant sensation of emptiness filling her?

Jurina felt the tears rising unbidden behind her lids, threatening to trickle down her face. In the past, she always felt a tinge of frustration when a SKE concert reached its end, not wanting to leave the stage quite yet and instead sing a few more songs to please the audience. But this sudden aching hollow void inside her wasn’t like anything she had ever experienced before. It was disconcerting and disturbing, even beginning to frighten her.

“Jurina…?”

At the sound of Rena’s hesitant voice calling her name, she stepped forward and reduced the short distance separating them, leaning forward to bury her face against Rena’s shoulder. Tears began falling remorselessly down her cheeks and Jurina fought hard not to weep openly, until her breath caught in her lungs, shocked by her own actions when she realized what she had done.

What on earth was she doing?

Rena was only being nice and considerate; yet she was selfishly taking advantage of it for her own benefit, without thinking about the consequences. A feeling of profound unease mixed with guilt swept through Jurina’s chest, realizing she had completely let herself guide by her emotions and overstepped her boundaries with Rena. She and Rena weren’t that close anymore; she had no right to throw herself into her arms in such a shameful, casual way.

“I…” Jurina’s voice trembled, as she began to pull back. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have–”

Jurina was taken by surprise when Rena refused to let go, instead sliding an arm around her back and keeping her close. “It’s alright, I’m here. Talk to me.”

Jurina shuddered when Rena’s soft fingers caressed her back delicately through the fabric of her dress, her eyes fluttering close as she couldn’t help despite herself but relax in Rena’s protective, warm embrace. “Is this… Is this how you felt when you graduated?” Jurina finally managed to ask, still somewhat distressed by the multitude of conflicted emotions overwhelming her. “This immense happiness when you were singing on stage, then a terrible void inside you when it all… stopped?”

“Ah, I see,” Rena quietly murmured. “This bittersweet sensation you’re having right now; I think every girl who graduated went through the same. But, it won’t last. In a few weeks, maybe months, it will have passed. I promise you that.”

Jurina didn’t say anything, relishing instead the sensation of Rena’s fingers beginning to caress her hair slowly and tenderly. To be honest, Jurina was having a really hard time understanding the reason behind Rena’s patience and incredible gentleness. By now, Jurina would have expected the older girl to release herself from her hold, and make sure she didn’t try to invade her personal space again.

Fearing that another word from her might ruin this incredibly pleasant moment between them, Jurina kept her mouth closed, while desperately attempting to make sense of the situation. Rena was only trying to bring her comfort and ease her worries: it didn’t mean anymore than that, Jurina tried to convince herself. Yet, as Jurina was careful not to jump to conclusions and falsely misinterpret Rena’s actions as more than a simple act of friendliness, she couldn’t deny how happy she had felt all day to have Rena by her side during such a crucial moment of her life.

As the seconds flew by, and Jurina was more than conscious she would at some point have no choice but to extricate herself from Rena’s arms, realization dawned on her that she didn’t want this reunion to be the last. Jurina swallowed a nervous lump in her throat, uncapable of keeping to herself any longer the question burning her lips. She needed to ask. She needed to know. 

“Will I… see you again?” the question left Jurina’s lips in a whisper. In fact, she had uttered those words in such a feeble voice, she wasn’t even sure Rena had heard her at all. A glimmer of doubt that grew and developed within her as she waited and waited for a reply but didn’t receive a single one in return. But she didn’t want to let this opportunity pass, Jurina was sure of herself when she slowly disentangled herself from Rena’s embrace to look at her.

The great surprise plastered on Rena’s face told Jurina she had definitely heard her before, contrary to her initial belief. And Rena’s reaction, coupled with her lack of answer, made her fear she might have been somewhat presumptuous by believing there was a chance Rena would accept to meet her again. Maybe for Rena, this day was a one-time thing; an exception she had agreed to make only because it was her graduation concert.

“I know it’s already been three years and maybe today didn’t mean anything to you but…” Jurina paused, her voice trailing away uncertainly. “But after seeing you today, I realized how much I missed you and I didn’t want this moment to be the last of us. So, can we… can we see each other again? It could be for anything you want: Dinner, lunch, or even a simple coffee.”

Jurina watched Rena’s lips parting, yet she didn’t have time to speak that a staff member interrupted them, informing Jurina she was expected for a short, exclusive interview with Nikkan Sports. Jurina silently nodded back to the male staff member and began to follow him obediently, before abruptly halting when she realized she had no assurance the other girl wouldn’t have already left by the time her interview ended.

Decidedly turning on her heels, Jurina asked politely for the staff member to wait a little longer, before glancing back at Rena in apprehension. She couldn’t wait: she needed to hear her reply at once. She had to know if they still had a chance to mean something to each other. If Rena refused her offer and preferred to keep her distance with her, then she wouldn’t insist and accept Rena’s decision.

But what if she said yes?

What if they had an opportunity to reconnect?

Jurina mustered the courage to speak up. “Rena, can I…” She tried to steady the shakiness in her voice. “Will I see you again?”

Rena’s mouth curved into a smile and gave her a small nod in return; it was all Jurina needed to have her hopes rekindled and feel the tension in her body dissipating. Jurina’s heart leaped inside her chest; joy warmed her from within. On this particular day of September 2020, she had unquestionably turned an important page of her life.

It was now up to her to begin a new chapter.  

Chapter Text

Tuesday, September 22 marked the very first day of Autumn. Jurina exited the taxi that had stopped in front of an apartment complex in Nagoya, her steps unconsciously slowing down as she was approaching the entrance and she noticed a maple tree by the side of the street. Under the force of the strong wind of Autumn, its old branches swayed ever so slightly and Jurina contemplated the beautiful bright, red-colored leaves so characteristic of this season of the year.

Since her childhood, this majestic hundred-year-old tree that seemed to stand guard – as if protecting the walkers and inhabitants of this peaceful neighborhood – had always been right in front of her nose, yet Jurina had never paused and taken time to truly admire its beauty until today. How many times in the past had she purely and simply ignored it and passed in front of it without second thoughts, too much in a rush to get to a television studio or a shooting location to pay real attention to her surroundings?

It wasn’t the first time Jurina came to such a realization; she slowly tore her eyes away from the imposing tree and resumed her walk towards the familiar building. These last twelve years, her demanding life as an idol hadn’t really enabled her to appreciate the simple joys of life, such as seeing flowers coming into bloom or the leaves of a tree turning a different shade of color with the passing of the seasons.

However, Jurina strongly wanted to believe that all this was soon about to change. This day of September 2020 didn’t only mark the beginning of a new season: it also represented the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

Four days ago, Jurina’s graduation concert had taken place in the Nagoya Dome in front of a fully-packed stadium of 40 000 fans. Since that moment, not a single day passed without Jurina thinking back to her final hours on stage with SKE48. More than once, she found herself replaying in her head the events of that day; from the outstanding performances to the numerous memorable guests. At last, but not least, the extraordinary love of the public for her she had received each and single time she had stepped on stage, would forever remained imprinted in her mind.

At the age of 23, Jurina was saying goodbye to a 12-year incredibly successful career as a prominent member and ace of SKE48. Within the idol group, she had fulfilled all her dreams; she had even managed to grab that so-coveted first place at the SSK.

Even though Jurina didn’t have the slightest regret in graduating, it was still hard for her to project herself in the future. Officially, she wasn’t a member of SKE48 anymore, yet her existence in the idol group still represented half of her life: it was simply impossible for her to turn the page so quickly and easily. A part of her still viewed herself as an idol and Jurina wondered how long it would take for this unpleasant feeling of melancholy to leave her once and for all.

This bittersweet sensation you’re having right now; I think every girl who graduated went through the same. But, it won’t last. In a few weeks, maybe months, it will have passed. I promise you that.

Without warning, Rena’s words came to the forefront of her mind, immediately reminding Jurina of her conversation with the older girl at the end of the concert. Against all odds, and after three years of separation, Rena had left the door to reconciliation open when she had astonishingly agreed to meeting her again. If truth be told, Jurina half-expected a rejection when she gathered her courage to ask: a part of her was still having a hard time understanding the reason for such a positive outcome.

The idea of being able to interact with Rena again undoubtedly lifted her mood; seeing the other girl at her graduation concert made her realize how deeply she missed her. Yet, the prospect also made her feel terribly nervous. Jurina didn’t know what to expect from such a reunion, nor where their relationship stood after so much time apart. On a few occasions, Jurina had grabbed her phone and almost sent Rena a text to ask when she was available to meet.

In the end, she had never been able to go through with it and changed her mind at the last minute. Only four days had passed since their last encounter; Jurina feared she was rushing things and moving too quickly. Moreover, if there was one thing she had recently discovered about herself, it was that she was far from being in control over her emotions when Rena was concerned.

She wasn’t trying to reconnect with a friend she had lost contact with because of unfortunate life circumstances; the identity of the person made the situation all the more difficult.

On one hand, Jurina didn’t want to take the risk of waiting too long before contacting the older girl, anxious Rena might reconsider and go back on her words. On the other hand, she didn’t want to make a complete fool of herself and ruin everything between them when evidently, she wasn’t mentally ready yet. One thing was for sure; she didn’t want to mess things up, which simply meant she would need to be a little more patient before taking the next step.

Jurina had barely pushed the front door of the main building when she felt her cellphone vibrating. Retrieving the device from her vest pocket, her attention fell on the message she had received. Are you still far from home, honey? Dinner is almost ready. Jurina quickly typed a reply to her mother, before moving decidedly towards the elevator. This morning, when Jurina realized she had the whole evening free, she hadn’t hesitated twice to seize that opportunity.

Since Jurina had announced her graduation back in April, she had been swamped with work, barely having a minute to herself. TV shows, interviews, photoshoots; every media wanted to have a last piece of her. Her last handshake sessions as a member of SKE had not been easy on her either. Between the devastated, crying fans questioning her about her decision to graduate and others renewing their support for her and promising they would keep on following her, it had definitely been quite an emotional rollercoaster.

Yes, these last few months had definitely been quite hectic – not to mention emotionally charged – and Jurina was well-conscious it would take a couple more weeks before things settled down and her schedule would finally become a little lighter. Even if she kept contact with her mother on a regular basis, it was mostly through texts, and only sporadically had they been able to spend time together since last April.

This available time in her program was unexpected, yet greatly welcomed and appreciated: it didn’t take her long to know with whom she wanted to spend some quality time. Just after her photoshoot for Girlpop, Jurina had called her mother to check if she was free tonight, delighted when the latter had replied by the affirmative.

“I’m home!”

The nice, easily recognizable smell that instantly reached Jurina’s nostrils when she passed the door immediately brought a smile to her lips: she knew what particular dish her mother was preparing for dinner. When her stomach began to groan, the pangs of hunger hit her. These last days, with her busy schedule, she had been forced to skip lunch more than once. The delicious food awaiting her had awoken her appetite effortlessly.

Jurina placed her vest and shoes in the entrance before slipping into a pair of slippers. When she progressed in the apartment and took in the sight of her mother cooking in the kitchen, her face lit up in pleasure.

Her mother greeted her with a gentle, welcoming smile. “Hello honey. How was your day?”

“A little tiring,” Jurina confessed. “But it went well.”

Seeing her mother wearing her all-too familiar slightly used black apron around the waist while carefully turning and mixing the chicken, carrots and potatoes in the pan brought back a great sense of nostalgia. The 23-year-old girl who had always looked up to the woman who had given birth to her suddenly felt a little child again. Leaning against the counter, Jurina quietly observed her mother preparing the curry. There was truly nothing like going back home and bathing in her mother’s warm, comforting presence.

“Do you want me to help you?” Jurina offered.

Her mother briefly diverted her attention from the pan to check the content of the rice cooker. “No need, food will soon be ready. Why don’t you go and take a shower? It should relax you.”

“Alright, a quick one then,” Jurina agreed.

As she turned on her heels and headed towards the bathroom, a small yawn managed to escape her lips inadvertently. Jurina blinked a few times to fight back sleep, having felt the lack of energy kicking in a few times on her way here. Lately, her work hadn’t only led her to skip a few meals: she had also been forced to cut down on sleep.

As Jurina passed by her old bedroom, her feet slowed down on the carpet. She didn’t know exactly why, but curiosity got the best of her and she couldn’t help but open the door. For a while, she stood on the threshold, letting her gaze wander around the room and taking in every little detail of it. For the most part, her bedroom remained the same as she had left it a month ago after moving out.

If she felt like staying here for the night, it wouldn’t be an issue: she had plenty of clothes and belongings at her disposal.

Jurina stepped forward and approached the shelves on the wall; her mouth tugged into a nostalgic smile when she faced the one stacked with her collection of plushies. Perfect testimony of her mother’s pampering during her childhood, they came in all sorts of shapes and colors. The oldest ones, more threadbare than others, showed the evident passage of time; they also happened to be her favorites.

Jurina diverted her attention to the second shelf, going through her console games. As she checked a few titles, it hit her that she had never finished a few of them. In fact, much as she searched her memory, she couldn’t even remember the last time she played a videogame. Jurina brushed off some dust from her old – yet she discovered still functional – Game Boy Advance, before noticing that the Nintendo DS laying by its side showed similar signs of neglect.

When Jurina checked the last shelf, she noticed in surprise that many of her old, childhood reading books were gone, replaced by magazines that weren’t there before. As she took a closer look, it appeared her mother had indeed taken the liberty in her absence to make a few adjustments to her room. Yes, Jurina liked to buy magazines about AKB and her other favorite groups when she was a teenager, but her mother had definitely also added a few magazines that didn’t originally belong there.

Bomb, BLT, Friday, Shonen Champion and many more; all were in fact magazines she had appeared in during her 12-year career in SKE48. Of course, she figured her mother might have purchased a few of them, but she never believed she would have kept so many. Where on earth had she put them all this time? For sure, she didn’t remember seeing any of them in the apartment before.

Jurina went to take a seat on the bed, frowning when she felt something hitting the back of her feet. Standing up, she turned around and knelt on the carpet, finding a large box hidden beneath her bed. As she pulled the box and opened it, Jurina smiled inwardly when she discovered that it was full of more magazines and articles about herself.

Yes, she definitely needed to have a little chat with her mother later.

Retrieving a couple of magazines from the box, she made herself comfortable on the bed and browsed through one of them. At first, she went through a few recent ones, admiring proudly the adult she had become. However, when her fingers encountered an old 2010 Pure Pure magazine and she stumbled upon a very young version of herself clad in a sailor uniform, she made a face and hurriedly closed the magazine.

She didn’t know why people always claimed that she looked cute and adorable at such an early age. When she looked back to those moments and this specific period of her life in the idol group, she found those pictures anything but awfully embarrassing.

As she was about to put the magazines away, she paused when her eyes fell upon a familiar 2014 Bubka magazine, more specifically on the other girl sharing the front cover with her. Admiring the image of a smiling 23-year-old Rena standing by her side and clad in a stunningly beautiful white lace wedding dress, Jurina couldn’t help thinking she clearly wasn’t the only one to have physically changed over the years.

From the shy, introvert girl who had joined SKE at the age of 17, Rena had grown into a mature, self-assured woman. Those changes transpired in every pose and smile she gave to the camera, the difference especially noticeable around the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. For some reason, Jurina remembered almost every detail of that Bubka photoshoot, before concluding it probably had to do with the special circumstances surrounding that tricky period of her life.

Back then, Jurina was desperately trying to keep her feelings for her WCenter in check, which proved to be an arduous task. For this photoshoot in particular, the newlyweds theme certainly didn’t help in the least. Since she was a little child, Jurina adored trying on new clothes and posing in front of the camera. Her classy black suit might even have prompted her to flirt with Rena a little, eager to witness and provoke adorable blushes.

That day, she had acted far from the collected, professional girl that she was, finding herself simply incapable of controlling her nerves in Rena’s presence.

Her unease during the photoshoot had certainly not escaped Rena’s keen attention. The latter had tentatively tried to calm her down on a few occasions, even helped her with her tie when Jurina was dressing up and miserably failing to do a proper knot. The whole duration of the photoshoot, Rena had been a model of perfection. She had willingly followed each and every photographer’s demands; not afraid to initiate physical contact when they were asked to get closer.

Jurina lingered especially on the third picture: Rena had her arm gently wrapped around her waist, while she had herself shyly laid her head on the older girl’s shoulder. When Jurina had opened the magazine for the first time, she found herself baffled, wondering why on earth the photographer hadn’t removed that shot. If there was one picture that showed her nervousness the most, it was definitely that one.

In retrospective, Jurina wondered if it wasn’t precisely for that reason that the picture had made it to the final list: because it captured her true feelings for her WCenter with such striking accuracy.

 


 

“How is it?”

Jurina looked up, her eyes shining with happiness. “Delicious!” She immediately took another spoonful of her curry to prove her point. “As usual, mom.”

Affection glowed in Yumiko’s eyes. “I’m glad you like it.”

“I don’t think I could ever not like your cooking,” Jurina admitted truthfully. “In fact, I always thought you could easily have opened a restaurant if you wanted to.”

“Really?” Yumiko’s lips curved up into an amused smile.

“Of course!” Jurina went on enthusiastically. “In comparison, I’m just an amateur. My modest cooking will never manage to surpass yours.”

“You’re underestimating yourself,” Yumiko answered, shaking her head in protest. “In that case, why don’t we open a restaurant together?”

Detecting the light teasing in her mother’s tone, Jurina decided to play along. “Why not? It’s not like I have any other plans at the moment.”

“But you must have a small idea already, haven’t you?” Yumiko asked in curiosity. “An idea on what you want to do next?”

Jurina averted her gaze and lapsed into silence, letting her mother’s question sink in. Since April and the announcement of her graduation, she had been too caught up with work and the preparations of her upcoming graduation concert to think about anything else. Yet, Jurina was conscious she had been delaying the inevitable for far too long and she would one day need to seriously think about her future. Now more than ever, as an important page of her life was indefinitely closing.

“You don’t have to make a decision right now,” Yumiko intervened when she noticed her daughter’s troubled expression. “I’m not worried about your future. You’ve only just graduated; you still have time to think about it. Besides, I’m convinced you can become anything you desire if you truly want it.”

Jurina’s eyebrows rose in amazement; her mother’s reassuring words immediately resonated within her. “A few years ago, Rena said exactly the same thing.”

“Did she?” Yumiko looked hardly surprised.

“Yes…” Jurina smiled reminiscently in spite of herself. “Acting, modeling, singing. She said that if I wanted to remain in the entertainment industry, I could easily do all those things.”

“Well, Rena-san is right,” Yumiko nodded in agreement. “Life is full of possibilities; you can even choose to return to a normal, simpler life far from the spotlight if that’s what you wish. My daughter is truly gifted; what matters the most is that you follow your heart and enjoy what you do.”

Warmth spread through Jurina’s chest, touched by her mother’s endless support for her life and career choices. Since her childhood, her mother had never tried to authoritatively impose her ideas or to mold her at her image, instead always encouraging her to follow her dreams. Another parent might have been completely opposed to the idea of letting their only child join the entertainment world, especially at such a young, vulnerable age.

Not her mother.

When Jurina had manifested her desire to become an idol, her mother knew by her daughter’s decided, determined look that it wasn’t just some childish, passing fad. Jurina was conscious of being extremely lucky and – in a sense – to have been blessed by life: without her mother’s full approval, she would never have been able to enter the idol group and make her dream come true.

“By the way, how is Rena-san doing? When I heard she came to your graduation concert, I felt really happy for you. Are you going to see her again?”

“I…” Jurina was taken aback by her mother’s genuine interest. “We talked together and yes, that’s the plan.”

Yumiko’s eyes brightened with pleasure. “I’m glad. I really am.”

Jurina didn’t know what to make of her mother’s strange reaction; this conversation had surely taken quite an unexpected turn. It wasn’t that she felt embarrassed or refused to talk about the other girl; she just didn’t understand where her mother’s sudden enthusiasm was coming from. Apart from one, short conversation that had occurred a few weeks after her painful breakup with Rena, Jurina had never mentioned the older girl again. As for her mother, she had never brought Rena up again either, almost as if she could sense it was a somewhat sensitive subject for her.

The sound of lightning violently striking in the sky jolted Jurina out of her thoughts, immediately prompting her to stare outside in astonishment. As she noticed drops of water beating against the living room’s window, Jurina’s face fell in disappointment. Indeed, the weather forecast had warned this morning that it might rain during the day, but Jurina believed their prediction to be wrong after all when the sky had been nothing but bright all-day long.

“Now that you’ve graduated and after discovering that you two made contact again, I think it’s the right time for me to discuss something with you.”

Jurina diverted her attention from the window and lowered her spoon, destabilized by her mother’s serious tone and enigmatic words. “What is it?”

“It’s about Rena-san. A few years ago, I know that your relationship with her evolved into something… something more profound.”

“W-What?” Jurina cleared her throat nervously. “What do you mean by that?”

“It took me a while to realize it…” Yumiko’s voice held a note of regret. “For so long, I thought what you felt for her was only admiration and natural affection for the girl you had been paired with. But when the scandal broke and I saw the explicit pictures the paparazzi had taken… everything made sense. It hit me how incredibly naïve I had been all these years; how I refused to see what was happening right under my nose.”

Yumiko paused for a moment’s reflection, before continuing with assurance. “When Rena-san graduated and I saw how devastated you were, I completely misinterpreted the reasons of your sorrow. I tried to comfort you by assuring you that you didn’t have anything to worry about as you would clearly remain friends. But it wasn’t about that at all, was it? You weren’t crying because you were afraid of losing a friend. You cried because you loved Rena-san with all your heart, and she loved you back all the same.

You cried because you were terrified of not knowing how to lead the group without her precious presence by your side anymore. Am I wrong?”

Silence enveloped the room.

Jurina stared back at her mother in stupefaction; she couldn’t believe what she had just heard. Multitudes of questions began piling up in her head yet words stayed stuck in Jurina’s mouth, having an incredibly hard time taking in the shocking revelation. All these years, she had been so afraid of admitting her mother the truth, for fear that it would be too hard for her to handle it and she wouldn’t accept her relationship with Rena.

Yet here she was, announcing almost casually that she had known for years, without showing any apparent sign of reproach or disgust as she would have expected.

For some reason, denying it didn’t even cross her mind. And, after a while, Jurina finally summoned the courage to speak and ask the question burning her lips. “If you knew it, then why didn’t you say anything?”

“I don’t know if you remember how you felt when this article got released, but you were really affected by it and terrified by the impact those pictures could have on your position in SKE. I wanted to talk to you about it, but I felt it wasn’t the appropriate time. Besides, I was hoping you would be the one to come and talk to me… But you never did, so I figured out you didn’t feel comfortable enough talking about it. And when I met Rena-san later on, our conversation put an end to my last shred of doubt.”

“You met Rena?” Jurina whispered in astonishment. “Why? When?”

“She never told you?” Yumiko asked in some befuddlement. “It happened a few weeks after you were reinstated in SKE. You were so relieved and believed the danger to have passed, but I couldn’t share the same faith. I feared your future was still compromised. That one more mistake and you could lose everything you had build and fought so hard for. That’s what I went to talk about to Rena-san. We met in a small café in Nagoya and talked about you and what could be done to protect your future.

She didn’t say much, but she evidently shared my concerns. Just like me, she knew actions needed to be taken to protect your position in the group. It was more than obvious to me how deeply she cared about you…” Yumiko shook her head thoughtfully. “Well no, not just cared. How much she loved you.”

Jurina fell silent and dragged her eyes away in unease. Somehow, it was still hard for her to wrap her head around the idea that she wasn’t imagining the whole thing but this improbable conversation was truly happening. Not only had her mother discovered the true nature of her relationship with Rena – something she would never have suspected – she had also met with the other girl behind her back.

None of it made sense.

Why would her mother do such a thing?

And how come Rena hadn’t told her anything about it at the time?

A flicker of apprehension coursed through her as one small piece of information her mother had just shared suddenly caught her attention. “You talked about taking actions. What did you mean by that?”

“We both loved you so much,” Yumiko said with unrestrained sincerity. “We were only trying to do what was best to protect your position in SKE.”

Jurina’s heart began to thump nervously. “How? What did you tell her?”

Jurina waited in expectation for her mother to reassure her that she was being paranoid and it wasn’t what she starting to fear, but her mother’s lack of reply and unreadable expression did nothing to ease her worries. As Jurina was slowly putting the pieces back together, her head began to spin. Her mother didn’t only know the truth about her relationship with Rena; she had also played a major role in the events that had unfolded the following weeks leading to that fateful day of April 2017.

“You told her to break up with me, didn’t you?” Jurina couldn’t hide the sudden tremor in her voice.

“You have to know I never forced her hand,” Yumiko assured. “If Rena-san had disagreed and chosen a different path, if she had found another way to protect you, then I would have trusted her instincts and not interfered anymore.”

Jurina’s features contorted with shock and consternation. “Maybe you didn’t force her, but you played a part in her decision. You influenced her. If you hadn’t spoken with her that day, then maybe she… Maybe she wouldn’t have…”

A suffocating sensation tightened her throat as realization dawned on her. Back then, she was so convinced to be at the origin of the problem that she had completely disregarded any other explanation. Consider the possibility that an external element might have motived Rena to come to such a drastic decision. In the light of her mother’s recent confession, something important suddenly occurred to her.

If her mother hadn’t meddled with her private life, then maybe she wouldn’t have gone through those painful months of sorrow and anguish. If her mother hadn’t intervened, then maybe Rena wouldn’t have broken up with her and they would still be happy together.

“I didn’t know what she would do.” Yumiko reached forward across the table, her fingers gently closing around Jurina’s in a light squeeze. “But when you came by one evening and I saw the way you reacted when I mentioned Rena-san… I understood what had happened.”

“If you knew that I loved her, then how could you… How could you do this?” Jurina felt sick to her stomach.

“I know how much this separation caused you pain,” Yumiko murmured regretfully. “But I hope one day you’ll understand why I did it. Why we both did this.”

“Understand?” Jurina’s every muscle tensed as anger seared through her. “I will never forgive you for doing this to me.”

“Please don’t say that…”

Jurina could see that her mother sounded genuinely shaken by her words but she ignored her and looked away, abruptly retracting her hand from her mother’s grasp. Decidedly, she rose to her feet and left the table, not wanting her mother to see the tears that threatened to come suddenly to her eyes. If there was one person she trusted more than anything in this world, it was undoubtedly her beloved mother.

And yet, three years ago, this same person had betrayed her in the worst way possible: she had taken away her greatest source of happiness.

 


 

Rena slowly looked up from the book she was immersed in when she heard the doorbell ringing, blinking in confusion when she checked the time and noted it was way past 9 p.m. An hour ago, she had seriously considered going out to the cinema – enthusiast to see the latest Ghibli movie – but the sudden downpour outside had quickly discouraged her, opting instead for a quiet evening at home.

Rena carefully placed the bookmark at the page she was reading and rose from the sofa, wondering who could be visiting at such a time. One thing was for sure: she wasn’t expecting any company for the evening. Airi was spending a few-day holiday with her family in Kyoto, while she hadn’t seen Yosuke in weeks, the actor completely absorbed with his work on his latest 15-episode police drama.

When Rena approached the front door and turned the handle to open, her lips parted in surprise at what awaited her on the other side: Jurina, eyes swollen with grief and completely soaked from head to toe, was standing on her doorstep.

Chapter Text

“Jurina? What… What happened?”

Jurina felt self-conscious when she saw Rena scanning her clothes worriedly, her burning questions momentarily falling at the back of her head as she realized the terrible sight she was offering. Thirty minutes ago, she had left her mother’s place in a rush with a heavy, broken heart and hot, exultant tears trickling down her cheeks. Not thinking twice, she had acted on impulse and taken the direction of Rena’s apartment in desperate need of answers, not paying attention in the slightest to the rain falling in abundance in the streets of Nagoya.

“Hi Rena. Can I…” Jurina swallowed, trying not to reveal her rising uneasiness. “Can I come in?”

“Oh yes, of course.” Rena opened the door wider, instantly moving aside to let her in. “I’m sorry. Come in.”

Jurina gave her a small, grateful nod in return and entered; a sense of familiarity hit her at once as she advanced in the hallway and took in her surroundings. It might have been already three years since the last time she set foot in Rena’s apartment, she remembered every aspect of the place with vivid clarity. The arrangement of the rooms, the pieces of furniture, the decoration: Jurina was slightly astonished to discover that Rena’s apartment hadn’t changed that much during all these years.

Suddenly conscious of a pair of small brown eyes peering at her, Jurina brought her attention back to her host, only to see Rena now standing by her side and watching her with a mixture of curiosity and expectancy. “I know it’s late and I’m sorry for coming uninvited,” Jurina hesitantly started. “But I need to talk to you about something. I hope I’m not… disturbing you?”

“No, not at all,” Rena quickly reassured her. “I finished dinner and had just settled in the living room to read a book.”

“Alright…” Jurina fell silent. If truth be told, she was having a hard time organizing her thoughts and knowing exactly where to start. When the quiet stretched uncomfortably long between them, Jurina tentatively spoke again. “Yes, so I wanted–”

“Wait,” Rena intervened. “You are completely drenched; you should get changed first. I will lend you some of my clothes.”

Completely caught off guard, it took Jurina a few long, pregnant seconds to fully process what the other girl had suggested. “No, I’m fine,” she brushed it off with a rapid, slightly embarrassed, wave of her hand. “You don’t need to do that. I’ll be fine.”

“I’m worried you’ll catch a cold if you stay in those clothes,” Rena said, alarmed. “I have everything you need in my room. Come with me.”

Jurina was about to open her mouth to protest but didn’t have time as Rena pulled her along behind her with gentle authority, effectively cutting short all form of retort. Jurina cursed herself for the reactions the simple physical contact of Rena’s warm hand around hers managed to provoke, finding her heart beating a little too quickly for her liking. When they arrived in front of the bedroom and Rena guided her inside, Jurina urgently pulled on Rena’s hand. “It’s really… It’s really important.”

Rena halted and turned around to face her. “I’m not going anywhere,” Rena murmured softly, giving Jurina’s fingers a light, comforting squeeze. “Once you’ve changed, we can talk as much as you want. Alright?”

Jurina nodded reluctantly; she knew there was no use insisting when the other girl looked so incredibly determined to have it her way.

“You can choose anything you want here,” Rena released her hold on Jurina’s hand and opened a first drawer, then a second, from the cupboard on her left. “Join me in the kitchen when you’re ready?”

When Rena left her side and pulled the door close behind her, Jurina let out a small, despondent sigh. Facing the opened drawers in front of her, Jurina’s eyes swept over the clothes carefully stored inside, feeling somewhat too ill-at-ease to dare to touch anything despite the previous, generous invitation. Ultimately, she raised her gaze and took a tentative peek around, soon finding herself torn between two opposite, conflicting emotions.

A part of her clearly felt that this wasn’t quite right; she was unquestionably invading Rena’s utmost privacy by standing in such a personal room and going through her belongings. Yet, as her eyes traveled around the place and landed at last on the queen size bed, a certain feeling of nostalgia swept through her chest. Nevermind how hard she tried not to think about it, it was impossible for her not to dwell on the past when this place held so many memories of her relationship with Rena.

Jurina glanced back at the opened drawers, grasping she didn’t have much choice on the matter. Not only it was more than obvious that Rena would never accept to talk to her if she reappeared without having changed first, it was also true that she was beginning to feel atrociously uncomfortable in those wet, sticky clothes.

Jurina carefully went through the first piles of Rena’s tops, not surprised in the slightest to notice that all were impeccably ironed and folded, even organized by size and color. The familiar view managed to bring a small, amused smile to her lips; it appeared Rena’s almost manic behavior when it came to organization and order hadn’t changed at all during those last three years.

Not wishing to deprive Rena of one of her favorites, Jurina cautiously passed the tee-shirts on the top as well as the most otaku’s ones – recognizing along the way a specific short-sleeved Gundam tee-shirt that Rena loved to wear all the time – until her attention drifted towards another pile of clothes situated at the back of the drawer, visibly some tops that Rena wasn’t used to wearing that much.

Jurina caught glimpse of a white tee-shirt that looked oddly familiar to her and, curiosity getting the best of her, she decided to take a better look at it. Prudently removing the front pile to retrieve it, she gasped when she read the Hawaiian greeting written in bold letters at the bottom.

ALOHA

Jurina couldn’t believe her eyes. “Wait… so it was here?!”

Happiness flowed through her as she excitedly unfolded it, her fingertips tracing the blue, large letters in appreciation. How on earth was it possible? For days, she had desperately looked for this tee-shirt everywhere at home; even called Churi to check if she hadn’t by any chance left it at her place during one of her sleepovers. The idea of losing this particular tee-shirt was inconceivable to her: it was too meaningful.

In the end, her search proved to be anything but frustratingly fruitless. Maybe she had forgotten it in the locker of a rehearsal room or left it behind in a hotel room during one of her many business trips. Hoping it would one day miraculously resurface, it had taken her weeks to finally come to reason and accept the fact that it was irrevocably lost. And a couple more to stop blaming herself for being so reckless, and not taking better care of her personal possessions.

In retrospective, Jurina felt a little stupid for never considering this other possibility.

Jurina lingered on the two, big palm trees decorating the tee-shirt, smiling reminiscently in spite of herself as this fun photoshoot for AKB48 in Hawaii and all the events that occurred in-between rushed back with vivid clarity. There were certain moments in her life she would never be able to erase from her memory: this unexpected yet so precious gift she had received from Rena in this random, small Hawaiian shop was definitely one of them.

 


 

When Jurina walked out of the bedroom, it didn’t take her long to find her host occupied in the kitchen. Jurina remained at the entrance, taking advantage of the fact that Rena had not heard her arriving to quietly observe her. The two cups Rena fetched from a cupboard above her head and the tea bags she placed inside the next moment. The way she slightly leaned against the counter and patiently waited aside the kettle, mechanically tucking a strand of hair behind her ear while the water boiled.

Jurina didn’t miss a single detail of the scene unfolding in front of her.

It was quite an ordinary scene; one she had in fact witnessed countless of times in the past when she came to visit Rena at her apartment and spent the afternoon or the evening in her company. Yet, as Jurina watched with involuntarily fascination the feminine silhouette now expertly pouring hot water inside each cup, she realized how much she had truly missed such simple moments of everyday life.

Rena had an absent look on her face; almost as if she was absorbed in her thoughts and lost in her own little world. Jurina found herself intrigued by it, wishing she could discover what was on the other girl’s mind.

Jurina didn’t know how long this moment lasted, but the spell was broken when Rena turned around and acknowledged her presence at last. “Jurina…” Her mouth tugged into a small smile of pleasure, until recognition passed over her face when she noticed the new top Jurina was wearing. “Oh, I see you found it…”

“I did…” Jurina followed Rena’s gaze on her tee-shirt. “All these years, I was convinced to have lost it somewhere. I was so mad at myself; I loved it so much. How come it was here all this time?”

Rena made no immediate reply. “I found it in the laundry basket a few days after we… I’m sorry, it’s my fault. I guess I should have told you.”

“No, it’s fine…” Jurina could feel Rena’s unease and didn’t want to add to it. Frankly, she also felt partly responsible. Her painful breakup with Rena had left her so devastated, she had never gathered her courage to meet her again, even less to return to Rena’s apartment to retrieve her personal belongings.

Now everything made sense.

“Have you eaten already? I didn’t know if I should prepare something,” Rena managed a small, tentative smile.

“No, I’ve eaten,” Jurina assured.

Rena looked somewhat skeptical. “I really don’t mind cooking something if you’re hungry.” She spun on her heels and moved towards the fridge. “I went to the Aeon Mall two days ago, so just tell me what you would like and I’ll prepare it.”

Jurina appreciated Rena’s kindness and heard the suggestion well, but she had reached her limits. Until now, she had patiently waited and successfully managed to hold her tongue, but she couldn’t keep it to herself any longer. She had too many questions; questions that desperately needed answers. “Rena, I need to know.”

Rena gazed back at her in confusion. “What do you mean, I don’t unders–”

“Is it true?” Jurina took a decided step forward. “Is it true that my mother came to talk to you after the scandal?”

Rena’s whole body tensed. “W–Who told you this?”

“An hour ago, I spoke with her. She confessed everything. She’s the reason why you broke up with me, isn’t she? She told you to do it.” Jurina was doing her very best to stay calm and control her temper, to no avail as her anger easily resurfaced when her recent conversation with her mother replayed in her head.

“You… You spoke with your mother,” Rena stammered.

“I want answers. I want to know if all this is true,” Jurina demanded insistently, yet Rena’s mortified expression and lasting silence spoke louder than words. “So it was true…” Realization crossed her features, and with it another flash of resentment. “My mother is really responsible for all this.”

At those last words, Rena snapped out of her daze. “No, your mother is not responsible for what happened between us three years ago.”

“Isn’t she?” Jurina exclaimed; incredulity surged up inside her. “Are you going to deny that you two met behind my back and she asked you to break up with me?”

“It’s not… It’s not that simple,” Rena whispered, averting her questioning gaze. She pulled a chair and sat down feebly at the kitchen table. “She asked to meet me because she had concerns about your future. She was afraid that your position in SKE had been fragilized because of the scandal. And she was right. I was terribly worried about it too. But I can’t let you blame your mother for our separation.”

“But why?!” Surprise, then disbelief, crossed Jurina’s features. “Why did you never tell me anything about this conversation? Why didn’t you tell me how you felt?”

“I did…” Rena smiled weakly. “I explained you that we needed to put some distance between us for your own protection, but… you wouldn’t understand. You were so convinced that the danger had passed. You believed we could go back to our lives as if nothing happened.”

“Because it was true!” Jurina interjected. “I had reintegrated SKE and regained my center position. No one cared or even talked about the pictures anymore. Rena, everything was fine. Everything was completely fine!”

“N-No, it wasn’t,” Rena shakily argued. “Paparazzi were after us and would never have left us in peace after the release of those pictures. What do you think would have happened if they had caught us again, a few weeks or months from then, in another compromising situation? How do you think management would have reacted this time? Do you truly believe they would have given you a second chance? Your career. Your reputation. You would have lost everything. Everything.”

A glazed look of despair began to spread over Jurina’s face. “No, I would still have you. If it had come down to choose between SKE and you, I wouldn’t have hesitated one second. I would have chosen you!”

Rena stiffened in her seat. “I was afraid you would say that.” Her eyes fluttered closed and began to water. “But how do you think it would have made me feel, to know that you were giving up… That you were losing everything because of me?”

“Not everything. I would still have the most important thing.” Jurina shook her head in frustration. “I would still have you!”

“You would have regretted it!” Glancing back in her direction, Rena’s expression turned into one of hopelessness. “In the following months, I know you would have regretted making such a decision. Every time you would have seen the group singing on TV. Every time you would have heard one of their song playing on the radio. Every time you would have seen ads for a new single in magazines or in CD stores. All these times, you would be reminded or what you had left behind and irrevocably lost.”

Rena swallowed hard and rigidly held her tears in check. “Little by little, you would have unconsciously began hating me from drawing you away from what you loved doing the most. And I couldn’t have blamed you for it.”

Jurina stared back at her speechlessly. “I would never… I could never hate you.”

“I would have hated myself for preventing you from fulfilling all your dreams,” Rena’s throat constricted with emotion. “Look at everything you’ve accomplished these last three years. You had so much success: you continued to thrive in the group and got that first rank at the Sousenkyou you coveted and deserved so much. If I had stayed in your life, I would have ruined that precious second chance you had been given.”

“I don’t agree, we would have found a solution. There had to be another way. There had…” Words hang in the air as Jurina took a few staggering steps backward, tears of frustration beginning to fill her eyes when her back hit the counter.

Jurina had listened well to Rena’s explanation, but she stubbornly refused to accept Rena’s point of view. Nevermind her good arguments and a few valid points, Jurina couldn’t resolve herself to believe that their breakup was ineluctable three years ago. There had to be a solution for her to stay in the idol group while still being with the girl she loved, Jurina kept repeating to herself. So why was her stupid brain failing to think of one? To provide her with a clever retort that would help her show Rena that she had been wrong all this time?

“You still loved me. Three years ago, when you broke up with me, you didn’t contradict me when I thought you didn’t love me anymore.” Jurina clutched the edge of the counter when she felt herself trembling. “But it wasn’t true, was it? You lied to me to make sure I would stay away from you, did you?”

“Why…” Rena looked down into her untouched cup of tea, shakily clasping her cup in her hands. “Why are you asking me that?”

“Answer me. I need to know…” Jurina desperately pleaded.

Tears slowly found their way down Rena’s cheeks. “Of course, I still loved you.”

A prolonged, heavy silence fell between them.

Pain gripped Jurina’s chest and her throat thickened with sobs; her gaze dropped when she felt her vision beginning to blur. The intense downpour falling outside enveloped them progressively as none of them dared to raise their voice anymore or even look at each other, the loud sound covering Jurina’s distress and the wet tears now falling remorselessly down her cheeks.

A chair suddenly creaked, followed by the sound of light footsteps progressing on the cold, tile kitchen floor. Jurina didn’t have time to see what was happening that Rena’s arms had encircled her, one hand in the small of her back while the other went around her shoulders protectively. “I-I’m sorry…” Jurina could feel Rena’s uneven breathing on her cheek as the older girl held her close. “I’m so sorry.”

Fresh tears welled up in Jurina’s eyes, making her realize how much she had longed to hear those three little words. Jurina was never naïve; since an early age, she always knew that hardship and pain were inevitable moments in someone’s life. Yet, as Jurina awkwardly disentangled herself from Rena’s embrace, she found herself wondering what now laid ahead for both of them after such revelations.

Jurina wiped the corner of her eyes with the back of her hand, before slowly edging away from the counter. “I think… I think I’d better go now.”

“W-What? You can’t…” Rena stood still; she stared back at her uncomprehendingly. “You can’t leave. It’s pouring hard outside.”

Jurina stopped in her tracks and looked out the window, acknowledging that the other girl was unfortunately indeed right. In fact, if she wasn’t mistaken, it awfully looked like the weather had even intensified in the past hour. “It-It will be okay…” Jurina replied, trying to sound reassuring. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be careful. I don’t live that far anyway.”

Jurina had barely stepped outside the kitchen that she felt a hand hastily closing over her wrist. “Don’t be ridiculous. It would be unconscious to go outside right now. Stay. Sleep here for the night.”

Jurina turned around, stupefied. “W-What?”

“I wouldn’t stop worrying if I knew you were outside under such a terrible weather,” Rena added anxiously. “I’ll prepare the couch for you.”

Jurina didn’t have the opportunity to utter a single word that Rena had already left her side and moved in the direction of the living room. Jurina watched from afar the other girl opening a cupboard, desperately trying to make sense of all of it. Not only she was having difficulty coping with their previous conversation and keeping control over her emotions, she certainly didn’t feel at ease invading Rena’s personal space anymore than she already had.

Her thoughts were a jumbled mess.

Jurina observed the other girl coming back shortly after with a pillow and a bedcover that she carefully placed on the sofa, having the strong impression it was going to be hard to change Rena’s mind and have the last word when she looked so determined. Yet, as Jurina’s eyes darted towards the front door indecisively, she knew she had to try. “Rena… I really can’t stay.”

Rena abruptly stopped what she was doing and turned in her direction; their eyes silently locked across the room. Little by little, Jurina could see Rena’s determination wavering. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to force you…” Rena looked down sideways as if overcome with embarrassment. Gingerly, she lowered herself on the armchair of the sofa. “I just… I only wanted you to be safe.”

“I-I know…” Jurina couldn’t hide the sudden tremor in her voice.

With an effort, Jurina tore her gaze away from the other girl and took a deep, shaky breath before forcing her legs to move and making her way towards the hallway. As she began to put her shoes on, she distinguished the sound of familiar, light footsteps gradually approaching behind her. Jurina lifted her eyes, only to see Rena retrieving an umbrella from a basket near the door and handling it to her. “At least… please take this with you.”

Jurina nodded almost imperceptibly and accepted it, trying to ignore the brief shiver rippling through her as their hands brushed together. At last, she reached out for the handle when she faced the front door.

“I’m not expecting your forgiveness…” Behind her back, Rena’s small, quivering voice was husky with despair. “But I hope one day you’ll understand that I only did this because I loved you.”

Jurina’s fingers paused on the handle instantly; she fought hard against the tears she refused to let fall again. “I understand…” Jurina whispered, tentatively looking backwards over her shoulder. “I just… I just need time to process everything.”

Jurina watched as a glimmer of hope penetrated Rena’s small, brown orbs, before she finally summoned the courage to shakily turn the handle and pull the door open. As Jurina stepped out of Rena’s apartment and walked away, she wanted to believe that her heart would at last be able to fully heal now that the whole truth had been unveiled.

Chapter Text

I’ve always been passionate about writing.

Even since I was a little girl, I loved to imagine stories in my head, and would write them down in booklets. My passion for writing never left me since and I began to write more elaborated fictions in my young adulthood, from stories set in a medieval universe, or science-fiction and spy stories, with always an important place for a great, passionate romance between the main characters.

I had for a long time been reading fanfictions, mostly in English, but I had never felt the need or the wish to write any. That’s when everything changed in September 2014, when I started my first fanfiction called Heartbeat.

What started as a simple story, almost a challenge for myself (I had never written any fiction in English before), written because of my love for SKE48 and more especially the beautiful pairing formed by Jurina and Rena Matsui, transformed into a full-blown trilogy, that’s now coming to an end with its third and final part called Destiny.

I was so surprised and touched to hear many people telling me that I should really publish my work into a real book. As this trilogy is coming to an end, and I came to reflect upon all the readers that had contacted me and had never stopped encouraging me and showing their interest in my writings during those last 4 years, I decided that I wanted to offer my readers the possibility to have something more tangible into their hands under the form of a book version of my trilogy, divided in 3 volumes.

That’s why I created the following survey, to see what real interest there is in this project. As this ambitious project would mean a lot of work and personal investment, the realization of this project will mostly depend on how many people show interest. The survey will remain online and active until my trilogy is completed. If you’re interested, please take a moment to answer. It will only take 5 seconds of your time! Each vote is meaningful, as the total number of people interested will determine whether I decide or not to concretise this project.

Thanks!

 

https://www.quicksurveys.com/s/Qy47B

 

Chapter Text

Three months later.

Rena followed attentively the weather forecast on the television while she finished packing, unsettled when the TV presenter reaffirmed the possibility of snow in Tokyo. Even though the probability remained low, Rena certainly didn’t want to give it any chance. Taking out a wool sweater from the drawer, she placed it into her suitcase, then lowered her gaze to the pair of Nike sneakers she had originally planned to wear for her weekend.

As the recent weather, snow warning replayed in her head, her better judgement ended up winning the upper hand. Kneeling down in front of the cupboard, she grabbed the pair of sneakers and put it back on the shoe rack quite reluctantly, opting instead for a pair of long, black winter boots. Once her decision was made, she straightened up and took one last glance at her opened suitcase, mentally making sure she hadn’t forgotten anything, then went over the content of her backpack.

When she discovered two important items missing, she blemished.

Wait, where are the tickets?

Rena looked around the bedroom in alert, searching the shelves for any sign of the missing tickets, before walking towards her desk and frenetically going through the pile of papers laying there, while retracing in her head the last time she had seen the tickets. When her fingers finally encountered the precious sesame trickily hidden between two magazines, relief brought a smile to her lips.

Jump Festa, 18-19 December 2020.

2 entries.

Admonishing herself for having misplaced the tickets in the first place, Rena didn’t waste any more time to retrace her steps back to her backpack and carefully secured the pair of entry tickets in the front pocket, along with her Shinkansen train ticket for Tokyo and hotel reservation for two nights. Once Rena was reassured she was fully prepared, she took a brief peek at her watch in curiosity, taking in that it was past 3 p.m. Airi should be arriving at any minute now.

As Rena closed her suitcase and reflected upon the upcoming, anticipated annual manga and anime exposition, she already found herself pretty impatient to be attending it, even more with her dear best friend. Lately, they had been both so occupied with work and life circumstances, they unfortunately hadn’t been able to meet as often as she would have wished. That’s why, when Airi had called one evening and proposed to go to the event, Rena had been more than pleased to accept, grateful that her own, busy schedule enabled her to free herself for the weekend.

When Rena heard the doorbell ringing, she snapped out of her thoughts and raised her gaze, her feet leading her outside the bedroom as she moved towards the front door. As she opened and saw her best friend standing on the other side with her suitcase, Rena’s face spread into a smile of pleasure.

“Hi Airin,” Rena said, opening the door wider and stepping aside to let her in. “You’re right on time.”

“Hi,” Airi returned the greeting and followed her inside, until unease crossed her features. “Reassure me, you have the entry tickets, right? On the way here, I realized I didn’t have them with me, and I got worried I had left them at home.”

“I do, they are in my backpack. And I have our hotel reservation too.”

“Oh good,” Airi exhaled a long sigh of relief. “For a minute, I was truly afraid I had forgotten them at home.”

“I’m the one who bought them, remember?” Rena replied, frowning in perplexity at her friend’s strange edginess. “What’s happening? You seem disturbed.”

“It’s the weather,” Airi winced in displeasure. “When they announced a few days ago that it might snow at the end of the week, I was afraid our train would get cancelled.”

“It certainly doesn’t look like it will snow today,” Rena said doubtfully, entering the bedroom and pulling her small, red suitcase towards the entrance. “And frankly, I’m not even sure it will snow at all. Let’s not forget we haven’t seen snow in Tokyo in years.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Airi agreed willingly, before arching an eyebrow when she discovered the pair of black winter boots standing by the bedroom door. “And that’s why you’re taking a pair of boots?”

“Well, you know me. I like to be prepared just in case.” They smiled at each other knowingly. “Anyway, let me just fetch my backpack, and we can leave.”

“Sure,” Airi bit her lip to stifle a grin and watched as the other girl disappeared in the bedroom, checking her phone distractedly while waiting for Rena’s return. As she was about to put her phone away in her backpack, her whole body tensed as she rummaged through it and realized her phone charger was nowhere to be found. “Rena, do you still have the charger from your previous Apple? I think I forgot mine at home.”

“I see you were indeed not yourself today,” Rena, passing her head through the bedroom door, chuckled slightly. “Check the cupboard in the living room. Second drawer. It should be there with my older phone. Remind me, why don’t you have the newest Samsung? I believe I already praised its merits more than once.”

“Thanks,” Airi ignored her friend’s teasing tone and span on her heels, moving towards the living room. When she pulled the indicated drawer and stumbled upon the familiar charger, her face relaxed into a smile, until she paused when she felt the glass of a picture frame underneath her fingertips. After retrieving the charger, curiosity got the best of her and she took it out, recognition passing over her face when she saw the four girls sitting at a restaurant and smiling at the camera.

It might have already been five years since this moment was immortalized, Airi would never forget Rena’s 24th birthday.

A wave of nostalgia swept through her as she studied the picture and observed everyone’s happy faces. From Akane carelessly laying her head upon her shoulder with a silly, goofy expression, to Jurina’s large, bright smile while discreetly holding Rena’s hand underneath the table. Not only they had spent such a wonderful evening, it reminded her of the good old days when they were all comfortable around each other and would frequently hang out and spend time together the four of them.

After so many years, it could seem that those good times were long gone and only a distant memory. Yet, as Airi reflected upon what had sadly drawn the group of friends apart, she somehow refused to believe that this picture represented their last moment of happiness. Maybe it was her never-ending optimist side speaking and she was being too naïve. Nevertheless, Airi found herself hoping life would one day give them a second chance to be reunited once again.

When Airi felt a new presence behind her, she glanced over her shoulder, feeling a prickle of apprehension when she saw Rena’s eyes glued on the picture frame. “I was looking for the charger when I found this,” Airi said, handling the picture to Rena when she extended her hand. “I didn’t remember that you had this picture framed, but I understand why you did,” Airi’s last words died away when she distinguished a tinge of melancholy in her friend’s expression. “It was such a great moment. It really was.”

“I didn’t remember putting it here. Actually, it’s Jurina who insisted on having it framed,” Rena explained, much to Airi’s surprise. “For some reason, when she saw the picture the waiter had taken of the four of us at the restaurant, she loved it instantly and wouldn’t relent until I had it framed. You know Jurina: once she has set her mind on something, it’s hard to disagree with her.”

At those last words, an unexpected fond smile touched Rena’s mouth and Airi, sensing her friend’s mood improving, decided to push her luck a little, asking a question burning her lips. “Have you… gotten any news from Jurina recently?”

“No, I haven’t. And maybe I never will again.”

Airi wasn’t fooled by Rena’s deceptively composed features, hearing distinctly the pessimism and great insecurity in her friend’s voice. “Jurina was playing in a drama, wasn’t she? You know better than I do how little free time you have once you start such an important shooting, with the long work hours and all the promotion. Even more when you have the leading role. I’m sure she’ll recontact you once it’s over.”

Airi gave Rena’s shoulder a comforting light squeeze before stepping back and progressively retreating towards her backpack. While she placed the charger inside, she stole a few preoccupied glances in her friend’s direction now and then, observing the way Rena seemed lost in her own little world, unable to drag her eyes away from the picture.

After a while, Airi broke the silence. “I’m ready to go when you are.”

At last, Rena lifted her gaze. “Go ahead, I’ll be right here.”

Airi did as instructed and approached the hallway, hearing behind her the sound of footsteps moving on the floor as Rena engulfed herself in the bedroom, returning the next moment with her own backpack. As Airi waited next to the front door while Rena put her coat and boots on, she swept around the familiar apartment one last time, caught off guard yet pleasantly surprised when she noticed the picture of Rena’s 24th birthday now standing on a shelf near the living room’s television.

 


 

“You know, you didn’t have to come with me,” Akane addressed hesitantly Jurina as they both stepped off the Shinkansen and began walking down the train platform, following the flow of passengers slowly moving towards the exit.

“Eh? What are you talking about?” Jurina glanced back at her at once, taken aback, until noticing her friend’s worry. “Okay, I might not be an otaku as you are, but I do enjoy watching animes and reading mangas from time to time. I meant it when I said I wanted to spend the weekend with you. I really did. Besides, I needed a breather.”

“And you believe a 2-day anime convention will be relaxing?” Akane’s brow furrowed in scepticism.

“Alright. Maybe not,” Jurina conceded in mild amusement. “But it doesn’t matter. These last three months, I have barely been able to talk to you or even socialise with anyone at all. I needed this,” she stated with assurance, before abruptly stopping on the train platform and shooting the other girl an apprehensive look. “Wait. You don’t mind me accompanying you, do you?”

“Of course not!” Akane retraced her steps back to her and caught Jurina’s hand, encircling her fingers with her own. “I’m also very happy to finally be able to spend time with you. I missed you too,” she gently added, glad when she saw a smile of happiness instantly falling upon Jurina’s lips. “I just wanted to warn you once again that this weekend was probably going to be the opposite of soothing and restful.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jurina affirmed with an air of confidence, not letting go of Akane’s fingers while she tugged at her hand and resumed her walk. “Besides, if it’s truly as tiring as you’re implying, then I’ll have all the following week to recover. Sorry Churi, but I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”

Akane hid a smile when she felt an unexpected, quick kiss on her cheek, easing up a little at her friend’s reassuring words. To be honest, after witnessing Jurina’s drawn features the previous evening, she feared this weekend in Tokyo would be far too exhausting for her, especially after barely finishing a strenuous, 3-month shooting. However, Jurina’s current energy, cheerfulness and enthusiasm told her that a good night sleep had already done wonders on her.

 


 

“We’ve arrived,” Jurina said when she stepped out of the elevator with Akane at the second floor and spotted the number 22 after a short walk, pausing her blue suitcase in front of the hotel door. “It’s our room.”

Just as Jurina was about to slid the keycard inside the lock, she vaguely registered in the background the sound of the second elevator opening but didn’t pay real attention to it, until she distinguished two, distinctive feminine voices chatting together and approaching. Jurina’s hand paused in mid-air as she couldn’t help thinking that they sounded oddly familiar, meeting Akane’s small, confused expression when she turned around towards the direction of the elevators.

When Jurina saw and recognized the two girls arriving at the end of the corridor, especially the beautiful long, brown-haired girl pulling a red suitcase, her heart leaped into her chest. “R-Rena?”

The conversation abruptly ceased as the 29-year-old girl immediately averted her gaze from her travelling companion, her eyes widening when she discovered the two girls standing in the corridor. “Jurina…?” Rena’s breath caught in her throat, briefly acknowledging Akane’s presence by Jurina’s side, until locking eyes with the younger girl in incredulity. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Jurina stammered, her eyes darting back and forth between Rena and a positively shocked Airi standing by her side. “I’m going to the Jump Festa with Churi,” she continued, giving Akane a quick side look, and finding her friend equally speechless by this completely unforeseen meeting. “It’s this weekend at Makuhari Messe.”

“Wait. You are? We are going too…” Rena exchanged a baffled look with Airi, before returning her attention to the younger girl in confusion. “I didn’t know you were now interested in those kinds of conventions.”

“It’s not… It’s not really the case,” Jurina admitted a little embarrassedly. “A few days ago, I finished a long shooting in Tokyo. When Churi mentioned this event she wanted to go, I figured it would be a nice change of scenery and offered to come with her.”

Rena was too surprised to do more than nod.

When a deep, prolonged silence enveloped the four girls, up to the point of becoming a little too uncomfortable for Akane’s liking, she chose to intervene. “Why don’t we get inside?” she suggested, looking back at Jurina expectantly. “It was a long travel and you still haven’t fully recuperated; I’m sure you must be feeling tired.”

“Oh, s-sure…” Jurina quickly tore her eyes away from Rena and tried her best to recollect herself.

As she vainly tried to steady the pounding of the pulse beneath her ribs, Jurina realized that the task proved more difficult than anticipated when her impossibly shaking hand couldn’t manage to slid the key card properly. Mentally cursing her omnipotence, and as she was about make a second attempt, her fingers paused at the last moment and she couldn’t help but swing around, observing the two other girls who were about to enter their room just a few doors away.

“It was really nice seeing you again,” Jurina addressed the other pair, her gaze lingering on the older Matsui when their eyes met. “I hope you’ll both have a nice weekend.”

“Thank you…” Rena replied and Jurina saw something flickering back in Rena’s small, brown eyes, an indescribable affection that sent a tremor through her. “I also hope you’ll both enjoy yourselves.”

“Why don’t we have dinner together tonight?” At once, three pairs of eyes stared back in surprise at Airi who had stayed quiet until now and suddenly spoken up. “If you’re not feeling too tired Jurina, of course.”

“A-Airin…” Rena cleared her throat nervously. “We shouldn’t impose ourselves. Maybe they already had other plans for the evening.”

“No, we didn’t,” Jurina blurted out before stopping short, realizing the words that had accidentally come out of her mouth. “I mean,” she dropped her eyes before Rena’s startled expression, tilting her head towards Akane. “We could have dinner the four of us, right?” she added almost awkwardly, searching for her friend’s approval. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“I don’t think…” Akane blinked in astonished silence, noticing Jurina’s strange, hopeful look directed at her. “If it’s fine with you then why not,” she gave a forced smile and a tense nod of consent.

“What about 7 p.m.?” Airi chimed in, before adding. “We can meet in front of the hotel then decide where to go?”

Jurina nodded in agreement to Airi’s offer and slowly returned her gaze to Rena. As her eyes clung to hers, analysing Rena’s reaction and the small, shy smile the older girl was sending her, Jurina tried to make sense of the strange excitement now filling her whole being.

 


 

“Did you know they would be here?”

Akane, who was placing her suitcase next to the twin bed close to the window, turned around in surprise at Jurina’s question. “I knew Airi was planning on going to this convention with Rena,” she confessed a little embarrassedly, before continuing. “But it’s a big event: I didn’t believe we would cross path, even less be staying at the same hotel.”

Akane grew concerned as she saw her young friend averting her gaze, more than obviously and legitimately destabilized by this unforeseen situation. “We don’t have to go to the restaurant with them if it makes you uncomfortable,” she added carefully, slowly taking a seat by Jurina’s side. “I can tell Airi that we are both feeling very tired and don’t feel like going out. Just say the word.”

“What? Why wouldn’t I want to go?” Jurina looked up, puzzled, shaking her head negatively. “I’m not uncomfortable. It just completely caught me off guard. I didn’t expect to see them here. To see…” she paused uncertainly, before letting out. “To see her.”

Akane let out a thoughtful sigh, somehow still profoundly convinced that this dinner was a terrible idea and nothing good could come out of it. It had taken so much time for Jurina to get over her painful heartbreak with Rena. So many months to heal and accept that the girl she loved so deeply would never be by her side anymore. Already, she found herself quite reluctant when Jurina had suggested to invite Rena to her graduation concert, fearing it would only serve to bring back bad memories.

If truth be told, Jurina’s meeting with Rena hadn’t had the negative consequences she dreaded as the concert had gone smoothly without any major incident to be deplored, yet Akane could never have foreseen the shocking discovery Jurina had made a few days following her graduation. One evening had been enough to turn Jurina’s world upside down and realize that everything she had believed during three years only turned out to be a lie.

“Are you sure it doesn’t bother you?” Akane couldn’t help but voice once again her deep concern and to a certain extent, her discomfort and reluctance to this completely unplanned dinner. “You really don’t have to force yourself if you don’t feel like it.”

“I’m not. I promise.”

Akane was unsettled by Jurina’s quick reply, yet she could tell by the determination flashing in her eyes that she truly meant every word. Nevermind how much she strongly believed Jurina was making a tremendous mistake and would regret it later, she chose not to insist and to respect her decision. Nevertheless, she wanted to offer a friend a way out, just in case something went wrong.

“If you ever change your mind or you don’t feel at ease at any moment during the dinner,” Akane said, regarding her seriously. “Don’t hesitate to tell me and we’ll leave.”

 


 

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

Airi, who was casually playing a game on her phone, raised her gaze at Rena’s disapproving tone. “Done what?”

“Inviting them for dinner!”

Airi, putting her phone away, let out a small despondent sigh when she noted her best friend’s exasperation. Somehow, she figured this conversation would be coming at one point or another during the evening. An hour ago, when they had entered their hotel room, Rena had been abnormally quiet, not saying a single word about their unexpected meeting with Jurina and Akane or their upcoming dinner together. As they had now been waiting a couple of minutes in front of the hotel for the other pair to arrive, it appeared her best friend was finally letting out what was on her mind.

“Don’t tell me you’re not happy to see Jurina again,” Airi retorted, shaking her head in disbelief. “I won’t believe you.”

“Of course, I’m happy to see her,” Rena’s voice dropped almost to a whisper, her expression softening. “But it’s not only about me. Jurina came to Tokyo to clear her head and spend a nice weekend in Akane’s company. I don’t want to embarrass her with my presence, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen if we pursue with this silly dinner idea.”

Airi’s eyes widened, not believing what she was hearing. “Embarrass her? What are you talking about? When I suggested the idea, Jurina was the first to agree.”

“Because you forced her hand! She was too nice and polite to refuse!”

For a long moment, Airi stared at her friend in incomprehension, trying to understand what on earth could be going on Rena’s mind for her to be so far from the truth. She couldn’t seriously have misinterpreted Jurina’s swift approval as a simple act of kindness. Surely, Rena couldn’t be that blind. Or could she? That’s when it hit her and Rena’s small desperate look made complete sense. “I know you want to avoid hurting Jurina again. But I think it’s time you finally tell her the truth about how you feel.”

“What are you sa-”

“I noticed the way Jurina was looking at you earlier on,” Airi quickly continued when Rena tried to interrupt her. “I won’t pretend that I know what’s going on inside her head, because I obviously don’t. But you would have to be incredibly blind to not see what’s happening in front of your nose, and that she still has affection for you. That’s why I believe she deserves to learn the truth from you. She deserves to know that your heart never belonged to another all this time.”

They fell into silence and Airi watched her friend in expectation, almost seeing the gears turning within Rena’s head as her mouth opened a couple of times as if she wanted to speak, yet the words seemingly refused to come out. As the minutes went by, and Airi ended up believing her best friend would not speak up on the subject, a fragile whisper escaped Rena’s lips. “What makes you think she wants me back in her life? I’m not even sure I deserve her forgiveness after the terrible suffering I caused her.”

Airi’s heart ached under her breast, wishing she would one day stopped hearing such despair and hopelessness in Rena’s voice when it came to her past relationship with Jurina and what she had lost three years ago. Without thinking twice, she reached out and clutched at Rena’s hand, only to find it painfully shaking. “You need to forgive yourself and give yourself a chance to be happy again.”

Rena gave her a watery smile. “You always see the good in everyone, don’t you?”

“You think?” Airi smiled, thinking about it. When she briefly looked backwards over her shoulder and noticed the other pair of friends approaching their direction, she gave Rena’s fingers one last light, comforting squeeze. “I mostly believe everyone deserves a second chance.”

 


 

Rena was more than grateful for her long, black coat, white woolly scarf and red gloves when the unpleasant cold of winter hit her pale skin, confirming she had indeed made the right decision by bringing warmer clothes for her weekend getaway. These last few days, the temperature had considerably dropped - easily approaching the 3°C at the end of day - but somehow the sensation of cold had never been so vibrant since her arrival in Tokyo.

Observing the blue sky turning slightly white above her head, Rena took her phone out to check the weather. At 7:15 p.m., the meteorology now announced for the evening a temperature varying between 0°C and -2°C in Tokyo. For now, the sky showed no immediate sign of snow. However, Rena realized this morning prediction had never been so close to becoming true.

Replacing her Smartphone in the pocket of her coat, Rena’s attention fell on the two girls chatting and walking in front of her, letting out of a small, thoughtful sigh when she remembered Airi’s clever, sneaky manoeuvre. As soon as Akane and Jurina had appeared and joined them in front of the hotel, her best friend hadn’t waited to carry out whatever action plan she visibly had in mind, taking Akane apart and engaging a conversation with her as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Oh yes, Rena had clearly witnessed Akane’s worried and troubled look directed at Jurina, one that spoke louder than words and told her that Akane definitely didn’t feel comfortable at the idea of leaving Jurina behind with her. Nevertheless, Airi’s unbelievable tenacity - one that Rena had admittedly not witnessed in years - managed to have the final say, as Akane ended up agreeing and following the other girl without a protest.

Rena gave another discreet sidelong glance to the 23-year-old girl quietly walking by her side, wondering why Jurina’s simple presence always managed to make her heart beat so rapidly. Three years had already passed, yet she had to concede that Airi was entirely right: no one else but Jurina would ever be able to provoke this warm, fuzzy feeling inside her. As Rena watched her expression closely, she got reminded that Jurina had never been good at concealing her emotions: her shyness and nervousness was anything but palpable.

Despite Rena’s previous conversation with Airi and her friend’s reassuring words - and to a certain extent, her own selfish desire to seize this unique opportunity – she feared this dinner to be a bad idea. In fact, just before leaving the hotel together, Rena had carefully tested the waters and offered the other pair a chance to go their separate ways, noticing that Akane was clearly feeling ill-at-ease in her presence.

Why wouldn’t we want to have dinner with you two?

To her utter surprise, Jurina had once more repeated that she saw no issue in having dinner together, leaving Rena a little speechless and with no other choice but to give in. Albeit the fact she found herself slightly taken aback by Jurina’s renewed approval, she was forced to recognize that Airi was apparently right and Jurina hadn’t accepted out of politeness after all, but genuinely wanted to spend the evening in their company.

Much as Rena wanted to stay realistic and she refused to see this dinner as anything more than a social gathering between friends, she couldn’t ignore either her conflicted thoughts and feelings. Entertaining any illusions or raising false expectations was evidently out of the question, yet she found herself unable to quiet the happiness that sparkled inside her at the mere idea of being reunited with the girl she had never ceased to love.

Chapter Text

There was so much agitation in the crowded streets of Tokyo at that specific time of the year. Whether it was groups of friends chatting enthusiastically among themselves while enjoying an afternoon of shopping, or couples holding hands and wandering in the animated streets, taking time and pleasure in admiring the beautiful illuminations lightning up the districts of Tokyo. One thing was for sure: Japan’s capital was anything but calm and peaceful around Christmas, the hustle and bustle of the big city matching the restlessness of Jurina’s own beating heart.

Since the four friends had left their hotel fifteen minutes ago in search of a nice restaurant to settle in for the evening, Jurina’s heart had stubbornly refused to quiet down, beating wildly and uncontrollably, her insides jangling with inexplicable excitement. Jurina was all the more conscious that there was solely one person responsible for triggering such strong emotional and physical reactions: Rena Matsui, the 29-year-old girl currently walking by her side.

From the moment Jurina had recognized Rena’s voice and watched her in stupefaction appearing in the hotel hallway with Airi, not one minute had passed without her rethinking about their unexpected meeting. What were the odds that they would be crossing path by accident in Tokyo and under such unbelievable circumstances - a manga and anime convention – precisely the kind of events she usually never attended?

These last three months, Jurina had been so swamped with work with the shooting of her new drama that she barely had a minute for herself. Not only it was her first serious job since her graduation from SKE, it also happened to be the leading role alongside a famous and critically-acclaimed male Japanese actor – the 54-year-old Hiroshi Abe - putting even greater pressure on her shoulders.

The circumstances required of her nothing more than hard work, great concentration and impeccable professionalism at all times.

Jurina wanted to convince herself that the sole reason why she hadn’t contacted Rena again was because of her own awfully busy agenda, yet she couldn’t ignore another truth from emerging each time their last conversation at Rena’s apartment replayed in her head. In reality, Jurina was still having difficulty coping with everything that had been shared and revealed on that rainy evening of September.

The more Jurina reflected upon the situation, the more she realized this new job offer had in fact arrived at the right time. It enabled her to clear her head and focus her mind on other things for a little while, as well as put some good, necessary distance with Nagoya. If there was one thing Jurina discovered when she had finally reached her own apartment after leaving Rena’s place, it was that all these shocking revelations had left her completely stunned.

She needed space to commune with herself; time to put her thoughts in order and fully process the implications of what had been exchanged. Only briefly, she had broached the subject with Akane, as two days after that evening she had been required to take the train to debut her shooting in Tokyo.

Far away from Nagoya, and with limited contact with Akane, Jurina had one evening taken the advantage that the shooting ended a little earlier than usual to jump into a taxi and pay a visit to a certain 26-year-old girl, her best friend Mayu Watanabe who hadn’t hesitated to invite her for dinner and welcome her inside her apartment. That evening, a quick look around the place had been enough for Jurina to tell that Yuki was absent, Mayu informing her that her girlfriend was currently away in Osaka for her 2020’ tour.

“Can you imagine it?” Jurina hadn’t waited long to pour her heart to her trusted best friend, revealing everything Rena - but also her mother – confessed to her that evening. “Three years ago, she made me think she didn’t love me anymore! Rena lied to me!” Jurina couldn’t restrain herself from venting out her frustration, the shock and incredulity resurfacing as the conversation remained fresh in her head.

At last, when Jurina managed to calm down a little and, after picking up and taking a few sips of the glass of ice tea that Mayu had placed on the table to her attention, she took a deep, steadying breath and looked up, the pain still flickering there as she stared back at her friend in waiting support. All along, Mayu had listened to her calmly and attentively, never interrupting her once.

“You’re upset and feeling betrayed,” Mayu said comprehensively. “But I don’t understand why you’re so worked up by this. Aren’t you the one who told me not so long ago that you solely invited Rena to your graduation concert for the sake of SKE, and assured me it had nothing to do with the fact that you missed her and wanted to see her again?”

“B-Because it was true,” Jurina answered, a little taken aback. “She was my WCenter for almost ten years. She deserved to be on that stage. It had nothing… It had nothing to do with my feel… I did it for SKE. I did it for the fans.”

“You know what I think?” Mayu said with a heavy sigh. “I think you need to figure out what you want and what you’re going to do with all this new information. I’m not saying what Rena did three years ago was right. Of course not. But she finally explained herself and you know what motivated her actions. Now what? Do you want her back in your life? Would you give her another chance?”

“What are you… What are you talking about?” Jurina asked, stupefied. “It’s been three years. She probably has someone else in her life by now. It’s obvious that she does. She’s moved on.”

“Because you have?” Mayu exclaimed challengingly. “Look me in the face and tell me that you don’t feel anything, anything at all for her anymore.”

“Of course, I still care about her,” Jurina agreed tremulously, feeling greatly destabilized by the unexpected direction this conversation was taking. After a slight pause to recollect herself, she added almost tentatively. “And maybe… Maybe after a little while, we could become frien-”

“Oh come on,” Mayu chuckled slightly. “We both know you don’t want Rena’s friendship. It has never been enough from the start and it will never be. Not after everything you went through together. Not after the relationship you two had.”

Mayu’s baffling assurance left Jurina so speechless, that she miserably failed to come back at her with a clever retort.

It was the very last they spoke about the subject.

That evening, when Jurina had left the set and taken the direction of Mayu’s apartment, it was not merely to spend some quality time with her precious best friend, but also in the hope that Mayu would somehow manage to make sense of this unpredictable turn of events and bring her answers to the countless questions placating her. Unfortunately, their conversation had done the exact opposite, leaving Jurina quite shaken and even more confused than when she first arrived.

During the length of the shooting, Jurina had desperately attempted to put at the back of her head the doubts and insecurities her conversation with Mayu had managed to provoke, trying to convince herself that Mayu was completely in the wrong. She didn’t see Rena in that way anymore; what she felt was simply natural and legitimate affection for the person with whom she had shared the stage and spotlights for almost half her life, before entering a more private sphere when Rena had returned her feelings.  

Meeting her former partner again on this cold evening of December had been enough to put into question her deepest convictions.

The evident surprise, but also secret joy that had blossomed within her at the thought of being reunited with Rena after three, long months apart.

The great nervousness, yet almost overwhelming anticipation at the mere idea of being able to exchange a few words with Rena and spend the evening in her presence.

And to top it all, her own heartbeat that ridiculously refused to slow down despite her best attempts to get a grip of herself, even though she and Rena were doing nothing more than simply wandering in the streets of Tokyo. At that précised moment, Jurina was admittedly feeling slightly annoyed by her own behavior, wondering why she was acting like a silly, skittish teenager on a first date.

This absolutely wasn’t a date, but an innocent gathering between friends who hadn’t met and socialized in a seriously long time.

In front of her, Airi and Akane were engaged in an impassioned talk about some new Square Enix video game that was supposed to be available for demonstration during the weekend convention but Jurina hardly paid attention to it. While trying to ignore the unpleasant sensation of the cold wind as it once again blew past her face and through her hair - now deeply regretting not bringing a warmer jacket for the occasion - she wished nothing more but to come up with a way to break the ice with Rena.

“You’re going to catch a cold.” Jurina snapped out of her daze when she felt a hand closing around her arm. “Wear this.”

Jurina abruptly paused in her steps, caught off guard when she saw Rena reducing the distance between them to come and stand in front of her. “Didn’t you check the weather before leaving?” Rena inquired worriedly, untying the thick, woolen white scarf she was wearing and wrapping it around Jurina’s neck slowly and carefully. “They warned the weekend would be chillier than usual.”

“You don’t need…” Jurina nervously swallowed a lump as she felt the blush creeping up her neck and face. “You really don’t need to do this.” She attempted a protest, before beginning to clumsily remove the scarf from around her neck. “If you do that, then you’re the one who’s going to get sick.”

Jurina was halfway through the process when Rena placed her hand atop hers and clutched her fingers determinedly. “Stop it. I’m already warmly dressed.” She motioned with her free hand the long, black winter coat she was wearing, along with her stand-up collar, woolen pullover. “I can do without it, so please. Wear it. You’re shivering.”

“I’m not…” Jurina opened her mouth to interject before realizing that Rena was indeed right, and her body had unconsciously betrayed her.

Jurina had barely the opportunity to witness a small, reassuring smile falling upon Rena’s lips, before the other girl withdrew her hand and turned away. Jurina’s eyes bored into Rena’s retreating back intently as the older girl drew away, somehow beginning to wonder if the weather was truly the unique responsible for the shudder that had passed through her.

Jurina forced her legs to move forward, catching up with the group, before falling into step beside Rena in silence. Burying her nose in the white scarf, she found herself relishing more than she wished the pleasurable feeling of Rena’s scarf caressing her skin, softly warming her up against the biting cold of December. Soon enough, a knowing smile inadvertently graced her lips as her nostrils took in Rena’s familiar scent, mingled with the smell of the older girl’s sweet perfume, a touch of orange, jasmine and rose.

 


 

She had shamefully and foolishly let herself get carried away.

There was no other way to explain what had happened, Rena couldn’t help chastising herself as she nibbled on her lower lip, embarrassed by the way she had inappropriately behaved with Jurina. What could she say? When she had noticed Jurina so lightly dressed, a switch had flipped inside her, instantly making her feel deeply concerned about her health. Before she even knew what she was doing, she had hastily removed her scarf and placed it around Jurina’s neck without hesitation, solely finding herself fully satisfied once she was positively sure the younger girl wouldn’t remove it.

Nevermind how hard Rena tried to contain herself, it appeared she was visibly incapable of controlling her impulses in Jurina’s presence very long. As they were now walking side by side again, Rena slanted a nervous glance, fearing to have gone too far. Was she in her right to act with such familiarity when Jurina was concerned? Earlier on, when Rena had left her hotel room, she promised herself not to do anything to put Jurina ill-at-ease.

And she might have just crossed a line.

Rena was completely aware that it wasn’t the first time. Already, during Jurina’s graduation concert, she had allowed herself way too many affectionate gestures. Much as she wanted to believe that those were purely altruistic actions, an innocent way of comforting and reassuring Jurina when she needed it the most during such a crucial, turning point of her life and career as an idol, she knew it was only partly the truth.

Those interactions held in fact much more significance and concealed more selfish desires: the desperate need to be close to Jurina again, even for just a fleeting moment.

“Thank you…” Rena was taken by surprise when she felt a hand holding hers without warning, taking in Jurina’s small, shy look directed at her. “You’re right, I didn’t pay attention to the weather. I mean, I know it has been cold lately, but I didn’t expect such a drop of temperature tonight. You think I’m reckless, right?”

Rena didn’t immediately respond but, as she felt Jurina’s fingers slowly withdrawing, she knew she didn’t want this unexpected contact between them to end. Not yet. “Just a little.” A smile ruffled Rena’s mouth as she held firmly on Jurina’s fingers, preventing them from escaping her grasp. “But I’m not worried anymore,” she continued as she observed attentively the white scarf now protecting Jurina’s neck, until her eyes shot up to meet hers. “I know it will keep you warm enough.”

For a long moment, they stared at each other.

“It will, thank you…” Jurina gave her fingers a gentle, light squeeze. “I will return it to you once we get back to the hotel.”

“What about this yakiniku?” Akane’s questioning voice broke the air, Rena instantly missing the loss of contact when Jurina let go of her hand to approach the two other friends, checking in curiosity the restaurant they had stopped in front.

“I’m not sure…” Jurina’s voice trailed away in hesitation as she turned the pages of the menu. “Rena needs to have something to eat too.”

At the base of her throat, a pulse beat and swelled as though her heart had risen from its usual place, Rena feeling incredibly touched by Jurina’s thoughtfulness. “Don’t worry about it,” she intervened and stepped forward. “We can go wherever you want, I don’t mind,” her attention briefly falling on Akane in agreement, before returning her gaze to Jurina. By the latter’s troubled look, Rena knew she would need a little more convincing. “Besides, there’s always plenty of vegetables. This restaurant is perfectly fine for me.”

“Are you sure?” Airi chimed in, equally voicing her concern. “We can look for another restaurant if you prefer.”

“No need,” Rena answered assuredly, nodding her head in the direction of the restaurant. “Let’s eat here.”

 


 

Akane placed a slice of harami on the grill in front of her, while listening distractedly to the conversation going on at the table. After Airi had suggested to have dinner the four of them together, Akane hadn’t been shy to confess her reserve about the prospect to Jurina in private, fearing her friend would feel uncomfortable in Rena’s presence. Much to her surprise, the younger girl sitting by her side wasn’t behaving at all as she anticipated.

Akane could literally feel the shyness emanating from Jurina every time she addressed the older Matsui eating opposite her, but their verbal exchanges weren’t as awkward as she would have believed. In fact, if Akane had to be perfectly honest, this dinner between the four of them was going far better than she predicted, the atmosphere quite light and even relaxing. Akane couldn’t recall the last time they had spent such a casual evening the four of them together.

Given the circumstances, it was extremely odd, to say the least.

“How was it shooting with Hiroshi Abe?” Airi’s innocent question brought Akane back to reality and she paid more attention to the conversation, noting the way Airi et Rena were now both gazing at Jurina in interest. “I heard he’s very impressive.”

“Oh, he is.” On her right, Jurina let out a small, amused laugh. “At first, I was a little intimidated by the idea of working with him but he was really nice and incredibly humble. I learned a lot by simply looking at him. He has also a great sense of humor, one you definitely wouldn’t suspect.”

“He does?” Airi exclaimed in amazement. “He always looks so quiet and serious.”

“I know, right? Trust me, he is nothing like the image he projects.” Jurina went on enthusiastically. “In episode 3, we shot together a very funny scene: we couldn’t stop laughing and joking about it long after the cameras stopped rolling. You should check the drama when you have a moment. I think it’s a really, really good show: plenty of unexpected twists and turns.”

“Yes, it looked like you had a great time working together,” Rena spoke up, placing some carrots and moyashi in her bowl and, as she directed her attention towards the shiitake plate, gave Jurina a grateful smile when she pushed it within her reach. “The plot is truly interesting and you both have a great chemistry and dynamic on screen. It’s not a surprise that the show is so popular and has great ratings.”

Jurina, who was now retrieving a cooked slice of butabara from the grill, immediately looked up.“Y-You watched it?”

“I’ve been quite busy lately with work, so I have only been able to watch the first five episodes,” Rena admitted truthfully. “But yes, I’m following the show. I recorded the other episodes I missed, so I’m planning on watching the rest as soon as I have a little free time.”

Rena’s statement was followed by a prolonged silence, and a quick side glance at Jurina was enough for Akane to notice her stupefaction. But it wasn’t the single thing that Akane noticed as she discreetly observed her from aside as Jurina resumed eating her food in silence. By the easy smile playing at the corner of her lips, Akane could tell that Rena’s words had somewhat affected her.

Akane’s mouth went tight and she shifted uneasily in her seat, trying not to look too much into Jurina’s peculiar reactions. However, she was beginning to feel quite unsettled by the unpredictable direction this whole evening was taking. Since they had stumbled upon Rena and Airi in the hotel hallway, Jurina hadn’t stopped acting strangely, starting with the fact that she had promptly and so easily agreed to Airi’s dinner idea.

And, what about this brief, moment of intimacy Akane had witnessed between Jurina and Rena at their arrival at the restaurant? When she had discovered them holding hands, she had to blink twice to make sure she hadn’t imagined the whole scene. The more Akane kept thinking about it, the more she was convinced none of it made sense yet as the evening progressed, she was seriously starting to wonder if she wasn’t missing something vital.  

 


 

The dinner was nearing its end when the male waiter arrived with their order and placed their desserts on the table. Akane listened in amusement as Jurina manifested her enthusiasm at the view of her tiramisu, before diverting her attention to the dessert she had chosen for herself. This fruit parfait looked positively delicious, and she was more than impatient to have a taste of it.

The table fell quiet as everyone began enjoying their dessert, Airi’s voice unexpectedly breaking the silence as Akane was about to take a spoonful of hers. “Churi, can you come with me to the bathroom for a minute?”

Akane lowered her spoon and blinked in perplexity, noting Airi’s way-too-innocent, strange little smile. “Why… Why do you…?”

She didn’t have the opportunity to finish her sentence that Airi had already raised from her seat, standing by her side of the table the next moment. “Sorry, I promise we won’t be long,” Airi said, shooting a small apologetic look in the direction of the two other, equally astonished, occupants of the table, before glancing back at Akane in expectation. “Please? It will only take a few minutes.”

Given Airi’s unusual insistence, Akane complied and left her dessert aside, wondering what on earth was happening with her friend today as she stood up and followed her. Jurina was far from being the only one behaving weirdly today; Airi had also been taking strange initiatives. The dinner suggestion that came out of nowhere. Airi’s request to hang out with her all the way to the restaurant. And now this.

In fact, Akane was starting to feel slightly worried about her: this person looked nothing like the shy and introvert Airi she had always known.

As soon as the bathroom door closed behind them, Akane didn’t wait to pepper her with questions. “Airin, are you alright? You haven’t stopped acting weird all evening. What is happening?”

“After dinner, I think we should go our separates ways,” Airi stated without further detour.

Akane gaped at Airi and regarded her uncomprehendingly. “I don’t get it,” she admitted after a slight wondering pause. “If you think this dinner was a bad idea, then why did you suggest it in the first place?”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” Airi quickly corrected. “I meant we should you and I go our separate ways and let Jurina and Rena spend the rest of the evening together.”

“What are you…” Akane stared back at her speechlessly, until her expression darkened when realization dawned on her. Now, everything made complete sense. This dinner: it was a set up. How could she have been so stupid? “What are you trying to accomplish, Airin? Please tell me you’re not thinking what I believe. I can’t let you do this. I refuse to let you do this. I’m going back to the table now.”

Akane span on her heels to leave but didn’t have the chance to pass the door that Airi had quickly grabbed her arm. “What is happening with you, Churi? Don’t you want them to reconnect? To catch up with lost time?”

Airi’s incredulous look was enough for Akane to tell that they were obviously not on the same page. “I want Jurina to be happy. That’s why I’m afraid Rena’s presence will only serve to reopen old wounds. We both know that Rena doesn’t love her anymore, at least not in that way. So what is the point of all this? Tell me. What are you hoping for? That they can become friends?”

“Wait. You think that Rena sees Jurina as a friend now? Is that it?” Airi asked flabbergasted. “Is that why you don’t want them to spend time together?”

“Are you implying that Rena doesn’t?” Akane shot back, crossing her arms over her chest in disbelief. “That after breaking Jurina’s heart in such a cruel way and three years without seeing each other, she still has what… feelings for Jurina?”

There was a long pause as they looked at each other, Airi’s eyes confronting her quietly, almost as if she was trying to read her mind.

“What if she did?” Airi’s voice was carefully neutral. “Would you accept to step aside and give them a chance? A chance to find happiness again?”

Akane looked away abruptly: nevermind how persuasive Airi was trying to sound, a part of her stubbornly refused to believe that she could be right. “N-No, you’re being partial and delusional!”

Akane was caught off guard when she heard herself trembling; she backed away from Airi uncertainly and leaned against the sink, childishly refusing to meet Airi’s gaze as she let her friend’s last words sink in. After the couple’s separation, her unique purpose had been to bring Jurina’s comfort and protect her at all costs, not wishing to see her reliving such a painful experience. The news of Rena’s unexpected visit to the hospital, when Jurina had felt unwell and fainted during a handshake session, only to crush Jurina’s hopes of reconciliation, had outraged her to no end.

Could she, like Airi was implying, have been blinded by her resentment towards the person who had caused so much suffering to Jurina that she had failed to interpret correctly Rena’s motivations and actions? If there was even a part of truth in what her friend was affirming with such conviction, then it would call into question everything she had always believed in. It would mean that she had failed to see what was truly happening right under her nose.

Airi was the first, eventually, to break the silence between them.

“I know that you were for a long time furious with Rena for what happened between them and you have no idea… you have no idea how much I wished I could have told you the truth,” Airi confessed with considerable regret, “but I couldn’t possibly betray Rena’s confidence and come back on the promise I had made to her.”

Airi’s voice was low and strained as she continued.

“As much as you were there for Jurina, to support her and be a loyal friend to her during those difficult times, I was by Rena’s side. I watched her everyday as she suffered and remained haunted by the memory of what she had done to the person she loved the most in this world. Rena was devastated, her heart shattered into pieces after losing her. Some dark days, it was almost like gazing at an empty shell; the light had left her eyes as if she was slowly fading away.”

Airi swallowed the despair in her throat and, regaining discipline over her voice, persevered as she spoke with confidence.

“But if there’s one thing I realized all this time, it’s that Rena never stopped thinking, caring and worrying about Jurina. Rena truly loves her, Churi. She loves her with all her heart. There’s nothing I’ve been more certain of in my entire life. And I think there might be a chance that Jurina still loves her too. That’s why I need you to have faith in me. Please help me, Churi. I can’t do this without you.”

So many conflicted thoughts and feelings twirled in Akane’s head as she finally dared to meet Airi’s gaze, struck by her pleading tone and the sense of urgency reflected in her eyes. Nevermind how attentively and patiently she had listened to her, not interrupting her once as Airi told her side of the story, it still remained a lot to process. Maybe a little too much for her right now, if she had to admit.

Would you accept to step aside and give them a chance? A chance to find happiness again? Airi’s words resonated within her vibrantly and she contemplated for a fleeting - maybe foolish moment - the possibility of a future reconciliation between the two former lovers. Despite her undisputable, points of disagreements with Rena in the past, Akane knew there was only one correct answer to those questions.

 


 

“It looks like they really wanted to watch that movie together…”

Rena jolted out of her musing at Jurina’s murmur and glanced in her direction, noticing her pensive expression. They were now heading back towards the hotel the two of them, having split ways with Akane and Airi right after dinner. Indeed, when the two other girls had returned from the bathroom, Rena couldn’t help but notice her best friend’s strange, small satisfied look, making her wonder what had happened between them in that bathroom during those few minutes of absence.

She didn’t have to wait long to get some answers.

Rena was halfway through her fruit parfait when Airi had spoken up, announcing that she and Akane wished to go to the movies tonight and watch the latest Production I.G animated movie. But she didn’t want to bother them with it, she had quickly added, advancing the fact that she was conscious that Jurina was never a fan of those kinds of movies in the first place, and that Rena had already watched it the previous week.

At the news, Rena couldn’t help thinking that Airi’s choice of movie was oddly convenient but kept quiet about it. As of Jurina, she had instantly protested, stating that she absolutely didn’t mind coming to the movies with them. To Rena’s greatest surprise, it was Akane who stepped in, assuring her - quite convincingly if she had to admit - that she was sure she wouldn’t enjoy it. Following that, Jurina had relented and not insisted, even though her confusion at the unexpected turn of events hadn’t escaped Rena’s attention.  

Jurina might have visibly fallen for the cinema excuse, Rena was convinced it was just another one of Airi’s ploys. The one thing she had difficulty grasping, it was the reason behind Akane’s extraordinary compliance. From their first encounter at the hotel, she had made it more than obvious to her eyes that she was troubled by her presence and clearly wasn’t fond of the idea of her getting too close to Jurina.

So where was Akane’s sudden change of heart coming from?

“I could have come with them. I really didn’t mind,” Jurina mumbled.

“It’s a really good movie, but a bit slow-paced and contemplative,” Rena admitted in all-honesty. “I think they were just afraid you would get bored and maybe fall asleep.”

Jurina grabbed her arm, making her halt in her steps. “T-That was a long time ago,” she protested vehemently. “I don’t… I don’t do that anymore!”

“Oh, you don’t?” Rena smiled amusingly, finding Jurina’s desperate attempt to defend herself too adorable not to tease her. “All those times you fell asleep on my shoulder, you’re telling me this is… over for good?”

“How many times are you going to remind me of this?” Jurina pouted and mumbled in disapproval. “It only happened once or twice.”

“Once or twice?!” Rena couldn’t take it anymore and laughed. “It’s alright, Jurina,” she smiled tolerantly, observing the younger girl as she raised her hands and joined them together, blowing onto them to warm them up. “Did I ever once get mad at you?” Rena reached forward, cupping Jurina’s hands with her gloves and gently rubbing them against the cold. “I don’t believe so.”

The gesture seemed to have taken Jurina by surprise but Rena pretended not to notice, refusing to stop until she had brought some necessary heat to Jurina’s fingers. As they quietly faced each other, Rena found herself easily falling once or twice into the depth of Jurina’s brown eyes, not caring in the least if they were now impeding the passage and standing right in the middle of the street.

The visual exchange was eventually broken when the younger girl averted her gaze, her lips parting slightly in awe as she looked over Rena’s shoulder. “Rena, it’s… it’s snowing.”

Rena blinked and let go of Jurina’s hands, looking up immediately. Her features contorted in astonishment when she realized that Jurina was right, feeling Jurina getting closer and sliding her hand inside hers as they both watched and contemplated the delicate small snowflakes slowly falling above their heads from the white sky of Tokyo.

Chapter Text

Jurina fell awfully quiet when she and Rena reached their hotel and they stepped out of the elevator at the second floor, feeling disturbed by the realization that her time alone with her was about to come to an end. A few hours ago, when Jurina had left the hotel with the three girls in search of a restaurant, she didn’t know how this unexpected reunion would turn out. Would it be awkward? Would it be tense?

If there was one thing she surely hadn’t predicted, it was that it would go so extraordinarily well. As Jurina replayed in her head every single one of her interactions with Rena, she couldn’t help but feel relieved about their gradual, regained closeness. And what about this ultimate moment of intimacy they had shared later in the evening when she had without thinking, yet so casually, slipped her hand inside Rena’s while they both contemplated the first snow of winter?

Jurina observed attentively the older Matsui while she stopped in front of her room and rummaged through her bag, strongly wishing she could come up with a good excuse to prolong the evening between them. No, she absolutely wasn’t ready to split ways with Rena yet. Not when she had felt such a strong connection with her tonight, a connection she almost feared to have lost forever.

Once Rena retrieved her keycard, she glanced back at her hesitantly. “I guess… I guess this is goodnight?”

“I-I guess…” Jurina forced herself to smile, doing her best not to show her increasing disappointment. “Maybe we’ll meet this weekend at the convention? Or we could go the four of us together?”

Jurina could tell the older girl had been slightly caught off guard by her suggestion as she didn’t respond immediately.

“Yes, of course. We can go together…” After a moment, Rena nodded, pleasure softening her features. “But to be honest, I still don’t fully understand,” she made a short thoughtful pause, then continued. “This kind of convention was never really your thing, and I fear… I honestly fear you’ll quickly feel out of place and get bored.”

“What if I’ve changed?” Jurina said challengingly, but knew she wasn’t deceiving her in the slightest when Rena’s face lit up with humor. “Fine. Maybe I didn’t think it through and was just looking for an opportunity to change my mind after such a long shooting?”

Rena let out a small laugh at Jurina’s last, brutally honest confession. “Yes, that makes more sense to me.”

They exchanged a thoroughly amused, knowing look.

Silence settled between them and Jurina played nervously with the rectangular magnetic card in her hand, knowing she couldn’t delay the separation any longer. “Alright… I guess it’s really goodnight then?”

“Sleep well, Jurina…” Rena’s mouth curved into a shy, affectionate smile. “See you tomorrow morning.”

Jurina gave Rena one last lingering look until reluctantly turning on her heels, crossing the small corridor to approach her room on the opposite side. As she raised her arm and began to slid the keycard in the lock of the room 22, she felt slightly dejected, frustrated she had miserably failed to find a way to hold her up. When she suddenly remembered the white scarf she was wearing, her hand stopped midway.

“Wait, your scarf!” She unwrapped it from around her neck and turned around hastily, relieved to discover that Rena hadn’t entered her room yet. “Thank you again,” she reduced the short distance between them and held it out with a small, nervous look of gratitude.

“Oh, right…” A flash of recognition passed over Rena’s features as her gaze temporarily fell upon the familiar scarf in Jurina’s hand, before she shook her head lightly in protest. “You don’t need to thank me again. I’m just glad it could be useful.”

Jurina’s heart skipped a beat at the warm smile Rena was sending her, more than ever conscious of the strong reactions a simple demonstration of affection from Rena always so easily unleashed within her. As Rena extended her hand to retrieve the scarf, Jurina brusquely tightened her hold on it.

“Do you want to come inside my room?” she blurted out, only to face Rena’s complete astonishment. “I mean,” she added swiftly. “Until Airi and Akane return from the movies, we could spend a little more time together. What… What do you think?”

“I-I…” Rena stuttered.

Jurina swallowed a nervous lump, grasping that her invitation could be perceived as coming out of nowhere. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but shoot her a hopeful look, having the strong sensation that she would regret it later if she didn’t seize that chance. She could almost see the gears turning within Rena’s head as she opened and closed her mouth a few times, her absence of reply making it more than clear than she felt torn about it.

Jurina slowly let go of Rena’s scarf, now fearing to have been too presumptuous. It was true that she had spent a great evening and every minute she had passed by Rena’s side had made her realize how much she had greatly missed her, but maybe she was letting herself get carried away. “F-Forget what I said, okay?” Jurina’s face clouded with uneasiness. “It’s fine… I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Without second thoughts, Jurina stepped backwards and turned around, before feeling a hand catching her arm hurriedly. “Yes! I do want to come inside.”

Jurina span round and lit up from inside. “You do?” Jurina repeated, bewildered, somehow wanting to make sure she had heard correctly, only to watch Rena nodding positively back in reply.

Jurina, feeling her heart beat with excitement, heard Rena following her closely while she approached the room 22 she shared with Akane, the next moment sliding the keycard and letting the older girl in. Jurina followed her quietly as Rena slowly made her way inside and halted in the middle of the room, briefly sweeping the place, before settling her gaze on her in expectation.

“You can leave your coat on the chair,” Jurina kindly suggested, motioning the single chair in front of the table. “Make yourself comfortable. Do you want something to drink? There are also some snacks in the minibar.”

“No, I’m fine,” Rena gave her a small thankful smile.

Jurina returned the smile shyly and removed her jacket, opening the closet to place it on a hanger. Soon, she couldn’t resist another glance at her and she tilted her head to the side, observing discreetly the older girl while she gingerly folded her black, winter coat on the back of the chair as instructed, then moved towards the direction of the window and spread apart the white curtain.

Jurina’s eyes were transfixed on the feminine silhouette, enthralled by Rena’s pensive expression as she stared out the window, seemingly absorbed in her own little world, until she noticed Rena’s delicate features softening significantly, a mixture of awe and joy lightening her small brown orbs. “I love snow. It’s so calm and beautiful.”

Jurina smiled despite herself; a wave of nostalgia instantly swept through her. Rena might have unquestionably matured over the years, she always found her incredibly cute when she let her guards down and allowed the little child inside her to express itself. Rena’s previous murmur of words had stirred something familiar within her, and the memory of a particular evening of December 2014 came rushing back to her mind.

Jurina closed the distance between them and came to stand behind Rena, quietly admiring with her the sight of the snow falling in abundance outside. After a little while, she slowly drew her attention back to the girl in front of her, bathing in her presence and relishing the comfortable, peaceful silence enveloping them. Soon, she couldn’t keep her thoughts to herself any longer and spoke up. “Do you remember that year we both got invited at Mayu’s place for Christmas?”

After a brief moment’s reflection, Rena gazed back at her. “Yes, I do,” she answered, her confusion manifest. “Why are you asking?”

“It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep,” Jurina started enthusiastically, surprising herself when she discovered how that particular moment between them was well imprinted in her head. “You joined me in the kitchen and chastised me for drinking so much water, stating that I wouldn’t stop going to the toilet for the rest of the night.”

The corners of Rena’s mouth curved upwards in amusement. “And I was right. How many times did you get up that night? Three times? Four? More?”

“T-That’s not the point,” Jurina’s cheeks burned in remembrance. “Anyway.” She ignored deliberately Rena’s teasing tone and went on. “Later on, it began to snow, and you went to stare out the window straightaway. Do you remember our conversation?”

“Ah… N-No, I don’t,” Rena avoided her gaze swiftly, turning her head back towards the window.

“Eh, really?” Jurina exclaimed doubtfully, somehow wondering if Rena was being entirely honest with her. Nevertheless, she chose not to insist and continued. “You were like a little child, so amazed and excited by the view of the snow falling outside.” A fond smile touched Jurina’s lips as the pleasant memory replayed in her head. “I knew that you always loved snow but to me… after watching you and spending so many hours, so many years by your side, no one, nothing could possibly be more fascinating than you.”

Jurina’s heart was thumping nervously as the confession left her lips, seeing Rena’s flustered expression while she kept her attention on the window, noting the fingers holding the curtain now clenching the fabric tightly. Rena didn’t need to speak: her whole body language said volumes and Jurina could tell the compliment had affected her, even though Rena appeared slightly destabilized, not knowing exactly how to react.

The moment was interrupted when Jurina heard Rena’s phone vibrating in the room and, when Rena took a step back and turned around, their eyes met instantly. Jurina detected some momentary, unusual vulnerability in Rena’s expression, until the latter shyly looked away and made her way towards her coat. Jurina began to ask herself if she hadn’t gone a little too far, until she heard her own cellphone beeping as well.

Jurina attempted to brush away the troubling thought and approached the table where she had left her phone, soon noticing that she had received a text from Akane.

The movie is about to start. Airi and I have been thinking that it might be a little late by the time we come back to the hotel and we don’t want to take the risk of waking you up. We think it might be a good idea to switch rooms and Rena and you could share the room tonight. It’s just a suggestion; take the decision you feel is best.

Eh? What is she talking about? Rena will never accept such an arrangement. Jurina gaped in disbelief, glancing up in Rena’s direction apprehensively. While she was still having difficulty processing Akane’s improbable idea, she witnessed Rena’s stupor as she was checking her messages. Concerned something serious might have happened, she immediately left her phone aside, giving the older Matsui her undivided attention. “Rena? What is it?”

“No, it’s…” Rena’s cleared her throat nervously. “It’s Airin. She sent me a text and suggested that we could tonight… It’s nothing. She’s just being silly.”

Jurina’s eyes widened in realization. “She asked if we could switch rooms?”

Stupefaction touched Rena’s face. “How do you…?”

“For some reason…” Jurina let out a small, awkward laugh. “Akane sent me a text to suggest the same thing.”

A sudden tense silence surrounded them.

“I don’t know what they were thinking about,” Rena murmured, her discomfort palpable. “Don’t worry, I’ll let Airin know that it’s not possible. I will not… I refuse to make you feel uncomfortable.”

“Uncomfortable?” Jurina blinked in perplexity, until her expression darkened when she suddenly got a good idea of what Rena was referring to. Now, she blamed herself for not having addressed the subject with Rena until now: she should had done it much sooner. “I’m sorry…” Jurina couldn’t help but look away, feeling ashamed. “I’m sorry for leaving your apartment the way I did three months ago. And I know I should have contacted you again after that day, it’s just…” she struggled to control her emotions as the words cam