The mastermind behind this plot derives no material profit from it. While several people, places, and events exist in reality, everything that follows should be digested with a healthy dose of suspicion.
I cannot write bromance or erotica to save my life.
Kurokawa Erina tried to fight down the eyebrow that insisted on twitching as she took her seat across Matsumoto Jun. He had, at the least, spared her a nod when she entered the conference room, her copy of the script for Episode 1 clutched in a clammy hand. And because it was that awkward interval when everyone was present but there were still five minutes left before the official start of the read-through meeting, Erina knew she would be expected to talk to her co-star. Worse, with Matsumoto being the senior actor, she would have to kowtow to him.
“I’m very thankful for this opportunity to work with you, Matsumoto-san,” Erina said, flashing the award-winning smile that had given her this primetime drama slot in the first place. “When they told me I had the chance to work on a Getsu-9 drama, I couldn’t believe it! And when they told me I’d be acting with you, I thought for a moment that they were joking!”
Matsumoto flashed her a lazy smile – a half-grin that attested to the quiet confidence he had built over the years from being a member of all-powerful Arashi. “I was really looking forward to working with you as well. I saw Sakura Biyori when it first came out. You gave a very powerful performance.”
“Thank you very much,” Erina said, bowing slightly. Struggling to calm her nerves, she grabbed the first thing she could get her hands on – a can of coffee that one of the assistants had placed in front of her. “I’m hugely indebted to the staff and my co-actors though. That production wouldn’t have been the same if everyone in the team didn’t support each other.”
She risked a quick glance at her wristwatch. Two more minutes. Damn it.
“I remember you from Toma’s play five years ago,” Matsumoto suddenly said, unexpectedly leaning closer. “Every Heart, wasn’t it called? I remember you. You played the role of his little sister.”
Erina tried not to spit out the coffee in her mouth. It was stronger than she expected it would be. “I’m surprised you still remember, Matsumoto-san.”
“I do,” Matsumoto said, smiling. He continued looking at her, an inscrutable expression on his face. “Let’s do our best for this drama as well.”
Erina managed a shaky smile just as the producer got to his feet to start the meeting. Reaching for a wad of tissue, she tried to erase the bitter taste of coffee that clung to her lips.
The plot of Under the Honey Shine was easy enough to understand. It was one of those dramas which, Erina sometimes thought, scriptwriters came up with when they had to produce original stories that were not so original as to be unimaginable to ordinary viewers, but complex enough to merit interest. She played the part of an innocent, newbie hostess in a nightclub who is down on her luck and completely alone in the world. About fifteen pages into the script of Episode 1, Kanako – her character – meets a handsome, mysterious stranger named Hizuka. Matsumoto Jun’s character was, as usual, perfect in every way except for the fact that there was obviously something illegal about him. Because Hizuka is in need of a cover wife, however, he makes a deal to marry Kanako, promising her that she’ll be free to do whatever she wants. And because Kanako is desperate, she agrees, and becomes entangled in the problem Hizuka is obviously running away from.
Kanako and Hizuka would, of course, end up in bed for the sake of ratings, and as Erina tried to guess how awful filming that scene would be – unbearably mushy and perhaps a little torrid, it seemed, given how everything in the script screamed sexual tension – her face naturally settled into an expression of displeasure.
“What’s wrong?” Matsumoto abruptly asked from beside her. He was holding a steaming a cup of coffee just like half of the staff. It was already 2AM, but they were barely done with the last takes for Episode 2. “You look like they just told us we’d be here until daybreak.”
Erina scratched her eyebrow. She couldn’t very well tell him she didn’t want to kiss him, could she? “Kanako is a very complicated character. I’m not sure how I should portray her.”
Matsumoto stared at her with alarming intensity. Did he think she was making excuses for possible lapses in her acting? She immediately waved a hand in front of him. “Not that I’m going to do less than my best, of course. I’ll definitely do what I can-”
“I’ve been thinking,” Matsumoto interrupted, putting his mug on the makeshift table next to him. “Don’t you think that Hizuka and Kanako are very dependent on each other in terms of expression? Their dynamic is strange. As individuals, they don’t express much on account of all the walls they’ve put around themselves, but together, they have a connection that’s hard to ignore.”
“Yes,” was all Erina could say. “Yes, I agree.”
“Do you want to-” Matsumoto stared at a random point on her knee, before lifting his gaze to meet her confused eyes. “Do you think it would be helpful if we met outside the set and tried to develop some sort of rapport between us? I think the success of this drama will be highly dependent on whether or not we’ll be able to trust each other enough to create a realistic relationship between these two. And I really think we’ll have to meet outside of work to get a good shot at that.”
“Just the two of us?” Erina asked in a squeaky voice.
“Ideally – but it will be on a purely professional basis,” Matsumoto clarified. “What do you think?”
If Erina could be honest, she didn’t want to see the man any more than she already did – which was to say, every day for the past two weeks since they started filming. There was sense in what he was saying though. They definitely needed each other, and it would be utterly selfish of her – not to mention, damaging to her career – if the drama went awry because she couldn’t fight down the instantaneous burst of loathing that Matsumoto Jun constantly, obliviously inspired in her.
“All right,” Erina agreed. “I think that’s a good idea, Matsumoto-san.”
“Great.” He gestured for his manager to bring his bag over. “If I could just get your contact details so we can set something up over the weekend, you won’t have to worry about planning the rehearsal. We can meet at the restaurant of a friend of mine. They have private rooms, and the food’s really good.”
Erina tried to smile.
She bit her lip as Matsumoto lay down in front of her. Folding his hands together on top his chest, he turned a peaceful face in Erina’s direction and smiled. How he could look so comfortable lying on the tatami flooring of his friend’s restaurant when said friend could come in at any moment and find him in a compromising position, Erina couldn’t fathom. Quietly, she instead lay as close to Matsumoto as she dared, folding her hands together as he did. For fear of meeting his eyes, so close, she stared at the lamp swinging above them.
Matsumoto was reading the script for Episode 5, his infamous eyebrows furrowed in concentration. “I think you’re supposed to be closer.”
And he threw out his arm, as though inviting her in.
With a soft mutter of apology, Erina gently placed first a hand, then her cheek on her co-star’s chest. He was warm even through his thick sweater, the sheer strength of his built evident even through the fabric. Without warning, Matsumoto reached for her fingertips and clasped her hand. Their script lay abandoned near his head.
After a brief moment of utter silence, Matsumoto suddenly said, his voice rumbling through his body so that Erina could literally feel it, “Are you still breathing?”
“This is the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life,” Erina whined, burying her face in his sweater, ignoring the sweet, musky, male and possessive perfume that clung to him and invaded everything he touched. “How long are we supposed to do this to make it work during the actual take?”
He simply laughed at her and, without letting go of her hand, ruffled her hair in what was an almost affectionate manner. “I’m not sure. There isn’t a manual to these things.” He paused for a moment. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but do you have a boyfriend?”
Erina squirmed inwardly. “No, I don’t. I’ve never had one.”
“How old are you again? Twenty-three?”
“Hmm.” Matsumoto was starting to lapse into one of his pensive moods. Erina had learned to recognize them by now. “When I worked on my first drama, I didn’t have much of a background to build on either. I had to rely on my imagination. The exercise proved to be useful for future projects. Teenage novels helped.”
“I don’t think teenage novels can help me with this theme.”
She glanced up just as he looked down. He smiled. “This is your first romantic drama, you said.”
“Yes.” How would Kanako the no-longer-innocent former hostess be expected to behave in bed with her fake, runaway yakuza-heir husband? For the meantime, she tried to return the pressure he was putting on her fingers. “If this drama doesn’t work out, my agency will probably make me do independent movies and stage plays forever.”
“That isn’t so bad,” Matsumoto said. He had stopped ruffling her hair, but his hand was still buried in it. “Television isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Most of the actors I respect chose to focus on their filmography instead of their TV appearances.”
Before she could stop herself, she heard herself say, “You can say that because you’re really popular, and you can afford to look at it that way.”
Perhaps he noticed how Erina’s fingers had frozen. He glanced down at her face. “I hope I haven’t offended you.”
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’ve made you uncomfortable.”
Erina smiled. She felt she had flashed more fake smiles in the past months than she ever had in her entire life, and they were all directed towards Matsumoto Jun. “It’s nothing. Please don’t think about it too much. I’m just practicing my role as Kanako. Moody, sentimental little thing with a tendency to express random, vague one-liners.”
She sat up, trying not to look at Matsumoto. He was still lying down next to her. Reaching over his head, she picked up the script that was next to him and flipped to page thirty-two. “I think we should practice our blocking for the kitchen scene, Matsumoto-san. I didn’t find it very natural. Maybe we can work around this area instead of that table. It’s very limiting.”
Matsumoto had sat up as well, staring at her with his signature searching expression. When he seemed to find no opening into her mood, however, he simply got to his feet, dusting his back.
“Before that, let’s read through the supermarket scene again. I need to master the cues for that one.”
Ikuta Toma pleasantly surveyed the staff running around them before he turned to Matsumoto. “Which episode are you filming today again?”
“The seventh,” Matsumoto replied, barely glancing up from the script on his lap. Beside him, Erina was drinking coffee, a habit she had fallen into due to the staff’s influence. Matsumoto suddenly turned to her with an undisguised irritated expression. “Don’t drink too much or you’ll start palpitating again. Who’s that coffee from anyway? How many cups have you had?”
Over Erina’s soft protests that it was only her second, Ikuta let out a loud bark of laughter. “You two are really close, aren’t you? But I should have known you would be. That kiss was something else. They showed it what – two weeks ago? But people are still talking about it. Sho-kun was just saying the other day that you obviously enjoyed it-”
“Stop teasing us,” Matsumoto scolded. He glanced quickly at Erina. She tried to look innocuous by working her way down her coffee. It was his fault he had given her a mug in the first place. “Anyway, Toma, shouldn’t you be going back to your shoot by now?”
“They told me to be back after thirty minutes, and it’s only been twenty.” Ikuta checked his phone just to make sure. “And why are you trying to send me away? Don’t you miss me? We didn’t play futsal last week. I was hoping to invite a new friend, too.”
“Erina-san and I need to run through our lines before the take,” Matsumoto drawled. “And who is this friend of yours? Is it that German hairstylist?”
“He’s only half-German. Kid grew up in Saitama.” Ikuta turned to Erina and flashed a charming smile that she had learned to associate with everyone from Johnny’s. “Am I bothering you, Kurokawa-san? Please let me know if I’m out of line. Otherwise, I’ll just keep bullying Jun here.”
“Oi, that’s not fair!”
Ikuta shook his head as he dodged the mock punch Matsumoto threw at him. He ignored his friend’s frown as he focused his full attention on Erina. “I’ve wanted to say this for a long time though. Since I watched Sawakaze I thought you really improved a lot since we worked together. And that was only a year after Every Heart, wasn’t it?”
Erina shook her head. “I’m thankful to hear you say that, Ikuta-san. But really, I still have much to learn.”
Matsumoto suddenly pitched in, “You just won an Academy Award. Cut yourself some slack.”
“It’s funny to hear you saying that, Matsumoto-san.”
He turned to her, visibly surprised. But Erina was surprised, too. She hadn’t planned on saying that. Hoping her panic would not show, she did her best to act nonchalant. “I mean, you’re the most stoic person I know. You’re a workaholic. And now you’re telling me to rest?”
“She’s got a point, Jun,” Ikuta agreed. “This is a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black.”
“Fifteen years of working with Sakurai Sho will tell you that your best can be even better,” Matsumoto said darkly. “But really, Toma, you should go back to your own set now. I need to talk to Erina-san about something.”
With much preamble and mock whining, Ikuta left their set to go back to his own. Under the Honey Shine was being filmed in a playground right next to an elementary school where Ikuta was filming a movie. He companionably waved at staff he recognized as he crossed the busy, equipment-strewn playground.
Remembering that Matsumoto had something to tell her, Erina directed her attention to him. But he was simply staring at her. “Erina-san, do we have a problem?”
“What?” Her grip on her coffee mug tightened. “Why would you think that?”
“I’m not sure.” He sighed, so heavily she heard it even though their chairs were situated at a distance. “I have a feeling I’ve offended you somehow, and you dislike me for it.”
“No.” Erina shook her head. She couldn’t deal with this now. If possible, she never wanted him to know. “No, Matsumoto-san, I’m so sorry I made you feel that way.”
“Stop apologizing for how you think you’re making me feel,” he interrupted with a bite of impatience in his voice. In a softer tone, he added, “Please.”
Erina couldn’t hide her own sigh as her gaze dropped to his knees. All she wanted – all she really wanted – was for this drama to end uneventfully. At this point she didn’t care about ratings anymore or the awards she so wanted to deserve this season. She just wanted to make it past Episode 10 scandal-free and with prospects for future projects.
Hopefully, Matsumoto Jun would, after their drama, move on with his life as oblivious about her dislike for him as he was when they met again for that read-through.
“I’ll do my best,” Erina said softly.
They stood side-by-side companionably as the staff prepared for their last take together. There were more romantic places than Yokohama Bay, Erina was sure, but for a drama as grounded to everyday living as Under the Honey Shine, it was a suitable choice. Sure, the show had its far-out moments like that action sequence of Hizuka decimating a rival yakuza group for kidnapping Kanako, but Erina felt that at the core of it, it was just a simple story of two broken people falling in love.
She smiled into her coffee mug. When she had first been offered the project she accepted it only because it was in primetime. It was a wonderful surprise that the story itself would grow on her, too.
“Do you want to celebrate?” Matsumoto asked, breaking the comfortable silence. He was smiling contentedly, much like he smiled to her across the table during that first meeting. “You just survived your first romance drama. Surely you know you deserve to be congratulated.”
Erina cocked her head, smiling. It would be troublesome that she was in such a good mood. She would have to cry for their last take, and her current emotions simply were not conducive for tears. “Aren’t they having a staff party? It’s happening this Friday, someone said.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of me taking you out to dinner.”
Her grin faded. She turned to find him looking slightly embarrassed. “I know you don’t like me, but at least allow me to express my gratitude for your putting up with me for three months-”
“I don’t not like you,” Erina began to say, but he held a hand up to stop her.
“I’m sorry, that wasn’t very fair of me. I hope you won’t feel as though I’m trying to earn your pity so you’ll agree to have dinner with me.” Hands in his pockets, Matsumoto contented himself with staring at her, and not for the first time Erina wondered what he was thinking. “I enjoy your company, Erina-san. I still don’t what I’ve done to offend you, but I always did think that when you’re not frowning because of something I remind you of, you enjoy my company as well.”
He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Or maybe that’s just my ego talking.”
Erina snorted at his honesty, and this made him laugh as well. They shared a good chuckle for a few moments before she finally calmed down enough to say, “Okay. We’ll have this congratulatory dinner you suggested, but only if you let me pay for half of it.”
Matsumoto looked momentarily scandalized at the suggestion. But seeing the determined look in Erina’s eyes, he appeared to concede. “All right, Erina-san. We’ll do it your way.”
She had always known it would be a horrible thing to become close to Matsumoto Jun. She had a wide variety of feelings for the man. She disliked the way he strutted around and imposed on people, just as she couldn’t forget what he had said about her years ago. But the more she got to talk to him, the person who was kind and considerate when he wasn’t being a workaholic and a slave driver, the more she came to understand how his brain worked.
All things considered, it had been a bad move to kiss him back. And now the whole country knew about it, too.
Their congratulatory dinner had been, as Erina expected, at Matsumoto’s friend restaurant. With all the times they had practiced their lines there, both felt that the place and their special room had, at the very least, contributed to the completion of their drama as well. The talk over dinner had been warm but perfunctory, and they had chosen seats that were respectfully far enough from each other. They had not even spent more than two hours in each other’s company – and Erina knew because she would occasionally glance at her watch as she held on to cup after cup of coffee. It had been a habit developed in Matsumoto’s presence. She hated it when she caught him looking and his expression seemed hurt for just a moment.
But then he had driven her home, and before she could get off his car, he had pulled her close. The worst part was that she had actually loved – missed, wanted – every second of it. She had kissed him before for work, of course. She had held on to his body as the cameras rolled. But that night had been different. Least of all because they both knew it had not been for the cameras anymore.
But then the paparazzi had to be douches as always.
Erina had a bad feeling that the pictures finding their way to the tabloids had somehow been a publicity ploy on the part of their drama’s marketing team. Knowing how Johnny’s talents were heavily protected – she had once starred with a girl who had dated one of the Kanjani8’s boys for two years and no one ever heard a thing about it – she knew something this devastating to Matsumoto’s career would be filtered by the agency. That meant that since it saw the light of the day, it had gotten the green light.
The doorbell rang, startling Erina from her pointless glaring at the walls of her bedroom.
When she opened the door, the unsurprising sight of Matsumoto Jun looming outside her apartment greeted her. She knew this would have to happen, had always known he was not the type to wait things out and see how the situation would bowl over. “It would be best if you let me in.”
Erina led him into her apartment, but only as far as the living room, in the chair nearest the door. “I would offer you coffee, but I don’t think it would be wise for you to stay long. Is your manager outside?”
“No, it’s just me.” Matsumoto was openly looking at Erina’s small, uninteresting apartment, with its various pieces of furniture bought at brand sales. “I want to know why you haven’t been answering my calls. And your manager wouldn’t give me your home address until I had to bribe him. Were you perhaps hoping to lure me into your house?” he added, with a playful sparkle in his eye.
“Don’t be daft,” Erina said. “Don’t you think the situation is too complicated for the two of us to be further associated with each other?”
The grin on his face faded. “I wouldn’t phrase it that badly. We can still be friends. Or more than friends.”
They blinked at each other, trying to gauge each other’s reaction. Then, Matsumoto sighed. “I’d like us to be more than friends-”
“That’s not possible,” Erina shook her head. “You’re Arashi and I can’t deal with that level of fame right now. If you and I are found out, it might spell the end of my career-”
“We both know that’s not true. This scandal does nothing but help both of us. It makes me marketable, it associates you with me, and it makes our drama even more interesting than it already is. People will always, always think it’s a just a marketing ploy.” His eyes narrowed. “This has nothing to do with me being in Arashi, does it?”
When Erina said nothing, Matsumoto prodded, “You know why I never asked why you hate me so much? Because I wasn’t sure if it was worth it getting my hopes up and thinking I might actually be special to you-”
“When Ikuta-san and I were working on Every Heart, you came to his green room during one of our intermissions to congratulate him. I was there, in the next room – the door was unlocked and I could hear everything you said.” She glanced up briefly to find him holding his breath. “You said the casting was perfect except for one weak link. The little sister was bringing everyone down, and with the level of acting that girl was showing she was being disrespectful to the other actors who were acting with all they had.”
Erina frowned. “You asked where the casting director had found me.”
“I’m sorry,” Matsumoto instantly apologized. “I’m sorry if I said that of you, but surely you know where I was coming from? Your performance in that play was extremely weak. But as I’ve never stopped telling you since we started working together, you’ve grown to become one of the most promising actresses of your generation-”
“That’s only because I insisted on taking psychopathic roles that would push my limits,” Erina said dryly. “And I took on those roles because of you.”
Erina sighed. The clock on her wall said 18:07. “How would you feel if, for the past five years you had been working your ass off because you wanted to prove a point, using hate as your sole driving force, and then you eventually have to work with the person who made you feel that way in the first place and you realize he’s not that bad after all-”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not!” Erina shrieked. “Now I can’t hate you, and I’ve lost the one thing I’ve been holding onto to push myself through movie after movie. I’ve lost my drive to act. I’ve lost my motivation. And it’s all because you keep telling me I’m so good – it’s because I’ve already proven my point.”
Matsumoto licked his lips. “Basically, you’re telling me that things would be better if you could continue hating me, because then you’d have enough emotion to channel to your work?”
“That hate isn’t going to last you a decade. Take it from someone who’s been there,” Matsumoto said. Erina had expected – even wanted – him to be angry, but he was just taking all of her vitriol in stride, sitting across her as though he was giving every bit of thought to what she was saying. “Just a word of advice: those personal feelings that you’re relying on so deeply will eventually mellow out, and then you’ll be left with nothing but your sheer ability to step fully into your character. What you’re doing right now – that’s not acting. That’s just projecting different sides of yourself to the public, and making them believe it’s someone else.”
He stood up, and immediately his presence seemed to fill the tiny room. “I meant to apologize for what my agency did. They approved the release of those pictures. I’m sorry for any trouble it may have caused you or your agency. That’s all I came here for, really.”
Matsumoto paused and stared at her before bowing, eventually showing himself out of her apartment.
Since the fiasco with the paparazzi pictures, the two of them had begun to do their promotions separately. This meant, of course, that Erina had no idea in which shows and what exactly Matsumoto was saying to promote Under the Honey Shine. It then came as a surprise when one day, she received a dozen emails informing her that a TV spot for Oshareism had come up featuring her co-star. The advertisement, in true sensationalist fashion, had proclaimed that Matsumoto Jun would be talking about his relationship with Kurokawa Erina.
And so, on a perfectly beautiful weekend night that she would otherwise have spent with her friends, Erina stayed in and watched television with a cup of coffee.
Erina had followed enough of the man’s career over the years to know that this appearance in Oshareism was a very rare occurrence. Matsumoto’s easy rapport with the three hosts, however, was palpable – perhaps it was Ueda Tatsuya’s warm presence that made even the guest’s stoic nature, more menacing thanks to the latest role he had taken, charming. Erina tried to ignore how her insides squirmed at the sight of Matsumoto Jun laughing with abandon at a joke one of the three had instigated.
Ueda, as main host, stopped playing around quickly enough to prompt the guest with a question. “What was it like working on the set of Under the Honey Shine? It’s very heavy, isn’t it? I caught it on TV the other day, and I was impressed by the stunts you did. I hear you didn’t hire a double either.”
“Thank you very much,” Matsumoto said automatically. He paused before commenting in reply, a hand poised over his face. “It’s true the drama was physically demanding. I had to get special training on street fighting as soon as I got the offer, because I wanted to do the scenes myself. But if I had to say, it was really the human part that made it heavy for me.”
He exchanged a look with Ueda. “I worked with Kurokawa Erina, who is a very, very talented actress. Even in scenes when it was just the two of us together, I could feel the weight in the air around her, like she had a grenade and was going to throw it at me any second in her anger.”
“Hang on. Isn’t that bad?” Ueda piped up instantly. “You’re supposed to be playing a couple, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but-” Matsumoto pulled a face. “Our characters have a complicated relationship. They’re treading a very fine line between intense loathing and passion, and maybe if it had been anyone else but Kurokawa-kun, I wouldn’t have been as comfortable with my role. She responds with a very deep enthusiasm for acting, you see,” he added, seeing the blank look on the hosts’ faces. “And when you’re faced with passion that raw, you have no choice but to respond with equal enthusiasm. She demanded so much of me as an actor that in the end it helped me grow not just professionally, but privately as well.”
Fujiki Naohito, the only legitimate actor among the hosts, was nodding his head intently. When he caught Matsumoto’s eye, he added a rare comment – for he seldom talked in this show – by saying, “You got lucky then.”
To which Matsumoto merely nodded thoughtfully and said, “I suppose I did.”
“You were lucky, weren’t you?” Ueda said mildly before he turned to the cue cards on his lap. “Well, then now that-”
“We never got round to being a couple, you know,” Matsumoto interrupted. The temperature in the studio, one could swear, suddenly dropped a few degrees. “Despite what everyone thinks. I did feel very attached to her – it’s hard not to, when you work together on a show that intense. But it hasn’t led to anything, and I really wish people would stop giving Kurokawa-san grief because it overshadows her skills as an actress. It would be a loss for the Japanese entertainment industry if someone with that much talent would be allowed to waste away just because of her association with an idol.”
The smile on Ueda’s face was one of polite confusion. Fujiki was still nodding to himself. And Mori Izumi, a hand on her hair as though she was trying to make sense of what Matsumoto was saying underneath all the fluff, saved the day by saying, “But you’re not dating, are you?”
“We’re not, we’re not-” Matsumoto clarified instantly, chuckling. Taking his cue, the rest of the studio laughed as well – even the cameramen, who could be heard in the background. “I wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand. Kurokawa Erina-san and I are not dating-”
Erina suddenly had enough. She turned the television off.
Just as soon as she did, she began to notice that the mobile phone on the coffee table in front of her was vibrating with received messages. Consecutive received messages. Frowning at the assemblage of mail from everyone, from the president of her talent agency to her cousin in Akita, Erina scrolled down her inbox before finally opening an email from her best friend.
“If I had to say, you’re the lucky one,” the message said. “He’s fallen hard for you, hasn’t he?”
Erina threw her phone to the other end of the couch and buried her face in a pillow.
She tried to compose her face into a more pleasant expression as she stood outside the door to their room. His friend had confirmed that he was already inside – had been inside for a little over thirty minutes in fact, just reading. Erina pushed her bangs aside furiously, wondering why it was so difficult to deliver one stupid line. I’m sorry, she had planned on saying. Just two words and her conscience would stop haunting her for the rest of her life.
It was all or nothing. She hadn’t debated with herself for an entire week to chicken out now. Clenching her fists determinedly, she exhaled and loudly called out, “Pardon my intrustion. I’m coming in now.”
His eyes were on her as she stood in the doorway of the private room, a hand gripping a cup of coffee beside him. The situation reminded Erina forcibly of the afternoon they had first met properly after all those years of her watching him unnoticed – she also had script book in her hand then, and he had been just as respectfully polite around her, a stranger.
As she remembered how he used to banter with her in his better moods, Erina couldn’t help frowning.
“You know, we really don’t have to talk so soon,” Matsumoto said calmly, peering into her morose face as she sat next to him. “I didn’t pull that stunt at the interview because I was forcing you to see me.”
“I know.” Erina looked up from the table she had been staring at, cheeks burning. She had always known how brown his eyes were, how soft they seemed when one really had the opportunity to hold his gaze, but she never thought she would ever deserve to see the tenderness that she was seeing there in this waking dream.
Matsumoto sighed, the sound more of contentment than resignation. He slowly ran a pale hand through his hair.
“What’s this new thing you’re working on then?” He asked suddenly, returning to his snappy, no-nonsense self. “Isn’t that why we’re here? I’m supposed to be your acting buddy now?”
“You told me you were going to help me when we were filming Episode 6. That was the only reason I agree to do that gag with you for the behind the scenes footage,” she reminded him, earning her a wide grin. Shaking her head, she placed the spare copy of her script on the table between them. “My new role is for a movie called Junrenka. I play the role of this girl – Hana – who suddenly resurfaces after years of having disappeared and begins acting sweet towards her ex-boyfriend, who happens to still be in love with her. Haruma Miura’s playing the boyfriend.”
Matsumoto raised a profound eyebrow at her, looking wary. Already his fingers were playing with the pages of the script in his hand. “This girl’s going to die, isn’t she?”
“Maybe,” was all Erina said as she helped herself to some of his coffee. “Why don’t you read the thing?”
He contented himself with skimming the first few pages of the script, eyes serious behind thick frames that he often wore when they were alone together. And then he said, so softly she thought he was talking to himself as he was wont to do, “You’re not going to leave me like this girl, are you?”
Erina considered the question, tracing the edges of her cup with a finger. The coffee was not even lukewarm anymore, but to her surprise it didn’t taste any worse. “If you’d like me to stay, I’ll stay.”
He looked up to meet her gaze briefly, a small smile on his lips. But he never let her script book go as he continued to flip through page after page. “This Hana character – she’s very mild. Are you going from an image change? Years of playing the psychopath and now this weakling?”
“Don’t call her weak,” she chided, throwing a tissue in his direction, which didn’t even make it halfway through the distance between them. “She’s not the most exciting character, yeah, but I’m trying out something new because someone told me my anger won’t last me a decade.”
Erina shrugged. “I thought maybe it’s time to change genres.”
Matsumoto continued to read in silence for some time, as Erina drained the last of her coffee, wondering when she would see this room next. She was grateful for all the comfort it had provided her – it was here that she learned how to depend on someone else, to rely on a colleague who would always be there to support her.
Or maybe he had become a friend, Erina entertained the fantasy. Maybe they were friends now, truly friends.
She set her mug on the table and turned to look at his concentrating form. “I’d like to hear your thoughts on it once you’ve finished reading. I’ll just come back after you’re done-”
“Stay,” Matsumoto ordered, less forcefully than he would have on any other occasion. He didn’t take his eyes off the script, but Erina had seen how his fingers had stopped moving. “I’ll tell you my initial thoughts on it now.”
Momentarily taken aback, Erina sighed audibly and assumed a more lax sitting position. He wasn’t talking to her as he was too busy reading, and she hadn’t brought anything else to spend her time on. Decisively, she grabbed the coffee pot that was beckoning her closer. She’d be safe with one more cup, or two. She’d gotten much more used to caffeine now.
She had been making good progress on her coffee when he suddenly started. He pointed at something on the script. “You have a kissing scene here. Do you want to practice that?”
Erina pulled a face over her cup. “You can be such a pervert, Matsumoto-san.”
He smiled at her knowingly, trying to read the expression in her carefully guarded eyes. But then he saw her holding her second cup of coffee. Panicking, she preempted him with a quick, “I promise you I can handle it now. Please don’t take it away from me-”
“Of course you can.” Matsumoto nodded sagely. “You’re a coffee addict now, aren’t you?”
With another contented smile, he reached for his own cup and continued reading her script in silence.