The curry was wonderful. Russel was surprised how mundane it, and the restaurant were. Why? Because my table mate has a magic tree branch for one arm? Okay, he conceded, that is a pretty good reason to expect the unusual. Russel watched Amara between bites. Sure enough she ate food just like anyone else. She was left-handed, but definitely used her right just like a normal limb.
A few times he opened his mouth to break the silence. I mean, half of going out to dinner is to get to know each other yeah? Maybe not quite in this case. At any rate, every time Russel meant to make some small talk he would have to swallow a question about who Amara had been running from, or about her arm, or the fact she had a hiding spot for a car inside an overpass. Which was hardly small talk. Also, probably not something to discuss in a public restaurant.
Halfway through his dish, Russel jumped. Of course, they weren’t alone, a few other groups and couples occupying tables in the restaurant. So what made me jump? Russel tried to look around casually. All of the other patrons clearly identified the girl sitting across from him, reactions ranging from trying to covertly snap pictures to open staring. It must have been someone’s flash. As he looked, Russel saw one girl doing something on her phone after taking a photo that definitely included him in the frame. Am I being googled right now? No doubt they all wondered who this kid having dinner with Ms. Sunrise herself was. At least I won’t have to take my own photos? Russel wasn’t terribly reassured.
“Sorry about that.”
“Huh?” Russel turned his attention back to his table-mate.
“Photos and all.” Amara made a circle with her fork to encompass the room. The way she said photo stuck out. Did her accent just change?
“Eh,” I shrugged, “I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Amara lifted a playful eyebrow.
“So what did surprise you?”
At least it was easy to answer.
“The rescue. You. Asking me here. The fact I’m not one of those guys over there wishing his girlfriend wasn’t paying so much attention to you instead of the one sharing their table.”
“It would have been easier to run you over.”
“Maybe.” Why am I playing along with this? “I woulda been quite the speed bump to that car.”
Russel swallowed. Another question pressed on his thoughts.
“Can I ask something?”
“I don’t do dine-in interviews. Too awkward. Bites are never timed right.”
Russel blinked at her. Amara laughed. A familiar sounding laugh. That’s going a bit far, isn’t it? Well, Russ that is what you were about to ask. I think she’ll let me ask. Pretty sure that was a joke. He shook his head briefly to clear it. It didn’t shake out the musical sound of her laughter.
“Isn’t it a little risky, playing a look-alike for Ayame Sunrise when she is in the same city?”
“You mean I might get hit with a lawsuit, or a fine?”
She didn’t look concerned. Surprise briefly crossed her face, followed by a self-satisfied grin.
“If it’s ever been a problem, Jane hasn’t told me about it.”
“My PR lady, agent, all around baby-sitter. Sometimes friend.”
“Wait.” Russel forgot his food, raising both palms in front of him. “You said your name is-”
“I am glad you remember it.” She smiled innocently even as she cut him off. Too innocently. Is that Ayame’s real name, then? Or just one she gave to me for kicks? But then why would she care if I said it here?
“But you look like…”
“Ooh, tell me. Who?” Amara leaned forward, setting her chin on her left hand, eyes shining at him. This time he could hear the click or flash of half-a-dozen cameras.
“Ay-“ Russel couldn’t maintain the close eye contact and form words. “Ayame Sunrise.”
“I should hope so.”
Holy crap. It can’t really be her. But it must be. Why would she lie about that, after everything else? But she hasn’t actually confirmed, or denied it yet either.
“Am I,” she pulled at her bright lip with a neon fingernail, “what?”
Do I really want to know? Yes, yes I do.
“Ayame Sunrise. Is she… you?”
“Trust me Russel,” She brought up her gloved hand to pat his wrist. It was cool on his skin. “The world can only take one of me. Yes.”
“Why did you-“
“Oh Russel,” Amara -Ayame?- sat back as if bored with the conversation, “stage names are rarely real names.”
“Ayame Saito,” Russel supplied easily. He did drop his voice as he continued. “Abby would know otherwise.”
“Friend of yours?”
“And a big fan. She was at your concert.”
Russel’s mouth was running on auto-pilot while his mind whirled. I am having curry with a billionaire pop star. Who gave me a different name. Why? She also happens to have an arm made of… tree. Well that explains the glove she always wears; but how do you Hide in this day and age? And why did she- what am I doing, with her?
“Russel. Hey. Don’t you go all glass-eyed on me now. I haven’t changed since picking you up.” She paused, chuckling at herself, “okay, other than my shirt.”
Even as he flushed at the brazen statement, Russel was struck by the dichotomy of character. On the one hand, this really was Ayame Sunrise, as energetic and peppy in her appearances now as she had been when she came onto the scene more than a decade before. On the other hand, it was also Amara, the snarky stunt driver that almost ran him over, who was clearly involved in some kind of covert war. Oh, and had a living tree for one arm. This is fine. Sure.
“Sorry. I just- Have a lot of questions. That I don’t want to annoy you by asking.”
“I appreciate that. It wouldn’t bother me to answer several, given a bit more privacy.”
It finally seeped into Russel’s brain, even as Amara -that was the name she gave me. Best remember it- tucked into her curry once more that she had left her right hand on his wrist. I wonder how much feeling she has through that hand. Certainly it was a light pressure, not at all unpleasant. With a glance at Amara, getting a quick wink back, Russel tried to focus on finishing as well. He left his one hand under hers.
They had both nearly finished before the stares and phone cameras were blocked by a figure coming to stand by the table. Russel started to stop, and look up but Amara didn’t react at all, leaving him unsure. After some debate, he cleaned his plate, watching the new arrival from the corner of his eye.
Female, average height with light skin and dark hair. Conservative skirt-suit. For her part, the new-comer stood silently, hands clasped in front of her. Amara continued as if she weren’t there, unfazed. Russel found it increasingly difficult the longer she stood there. Finally, he pushed back from the table, unable to stand the attention. Amara must have noticed, as she spoke before he could.
“‘Sup Jane.” Amara’s accent dropped, “I forget something?”
“Only checking in when you were done.”
“You knew where I was. I’m still busy.”
Amara gave Russel’s wrist, still under her concealed hand, a gentle squeeze he had no idea how to interpret.
“Clearly. Hello Russel,” Jane extended a hand over the table, “as Ms. Sunrise has mis-placed her manners, I apologize that I must apparently introduce myself. Jane.”
“He-hello.” Still getting nothing he could read from Amara, Russel carefully shook her hand. Her’s was a professional, practiced handshake. Makes sense. An idol agent must have to shake a lot of hands. “Jane. My pleasure.”
That done, Jane resumed her former stance. You could cut the tension in here with a knife. Amara finished her drink with affected slowness before sitting back with a satisfied sigh. Still the glove hand remained on Russel’s wrist.
“All right Jane. I assume our bill is settled?”
Amara pouted a little, but recovered quickly without clarifying.
“If you are finished,
Amara shook her head softly.
“I’m taking Russel home first. If that’s okay?”
She fixed her gaze on me, a sudden hesitancy to her smile. How would I say no to that? Russel nodded, turning his hand that was under hers to squeeze her wrist. Only when he felt the uneven texture of the twining branches did he wonder if maybe that wouldn’t come across as well for her. But Amara’s smile brightened anyway. Jane, still standing above them, sighed and pinched her nose.
“Fine. Then straight back to the room to pack, unless you want me doing it again.”
The way Amara shuddered said the threat was an effective one.
“You ready Russ?”
Oh yeah. Only one of the world’s biggest pop stars driving me to my apartment. After treating me to dinner, after she saved me. Also has a prosthetic that defies science. She is even cuter in person though - wait, what?