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 years 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 somewhat 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 very different. In reality, Jurina was a very 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 very 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 very 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 very 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 finally passed.
During Jurina’s absence, her center position had been occupied by the 5th gen member Nao Furuhata. The 20 years 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 quite 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, then it was very 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 she 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 very 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 very 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 go very 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 very 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 very 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 finally 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 very 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 just 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 just 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 may 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, then 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 very uncomfortable about it.
“I just 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 may not be immediate, but I can’t imagine SKE48 without her.”
A knock on the door was suddenly 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 suddenly 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 may 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 very 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 may only be the fruit of her imagination when the noise had suddenly ceased – before realizing she had definitely not imagined things when she clearly heard footsteps. Saying she was very confused would be the understatement of the year, and great curiosity added itself to her initial confusion as she finally penetrated her apartment. The key almost slipped from her fingers when she pushed the front door and saw Jurina, her 19 years 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 finally 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 very good news, but she soon pulled away when she remembered Jurina’s unexpected presence in her apartment. “Jurina… 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 quickly resurfaced. “It was such good news,” she explained, “I wanted to tell you in person.”
“It is very good news,” Rena confirmed. “But why didn’t you tell me this over the phone?”
This time, Jurina’s smile vanished completely. “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 hers, 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 just 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 suddenly 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 may 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, finally 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, Jurina,” she murmured softly and sincerely. “But as you said yourself, there is still one week left. I just think we need to stay very 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 her 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 her 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.
TO BE CONTINUED