Disclaimer: Skip Beat belongs to Yoshiki Nakamura, and "I'm Not Dead" is the title track of an album by Pink, which inspired this story.

Spoiler warning: Up to and including Chapter 42 of the manga.

I'm Not Dead

"Do your absolute best to act."

His words echo through me, like the aftershocks of an earthquake, and I feel the foundations of the new self that I worked so hard to build begin to quiver beneath his assault. I was so sure that I was ready, that there was nothing he could do to drag me back to the girl I used to be. I had everything planned out; I would overwhelm him with my acting, and turn him into the vassal he had made of me. Finally, he would know what it felt like to be weak, to be inferior, to be helpless. And yet, when the time came… I lost control. I lost myself, and it almost cost me my chance at revenge.

And if I can't pull myself together in the next few minutes, it will cost me that as well.

Now that it's too late, I finally realize how unprepared I am, how right Mr. Tsuruga was when he told me that acting shouldn't be used as a tool for revenge. No matter how good an actress I become, I can't erase myself; I can't forget the girl who made Sho the center of her life, or her fury at being rejected and left with nothing while he walked into the future, chasing his dreams. My hatred, my own unchained impulse for revenge, the very thing that's brought me here, is useless to me now. In fact, it has become the biggest obstacle in my path. It is the last link between me and the girl who nearly killed herself striving for Sho's approval.

As long as it chains me to my old identity, the sight of his face will be enough to render me completely powerless.

Maybe there isn't any way out of this. Maybe, no matter how many times I tap the stones in the walls of this cell, looking for a secret exit, I will never find one. Maybe this fight, which has become the reason for my existence, is doomed to failure. Maybe it's too late to shift the balance of power in our relationship; maybe I will always be inferior to Sho. Maybe there's no way I can ever grow past that.

Maybe I should just give up now.

I lift a strand of my wig and let it drop back down onto the rest of my costume in a gossamer scintillation. It makes sense, now that I'm finally in a position to realize it. All of this, the acting classes and the costumes, can't hide who I am, who I've always been. They can't overwrite my past, can't blunt the impact of the relationship that defined my formative years. I was an idiot to think that they could. I was a fool to think that any weapon could defeat the spectre of Sho that, even now, keeps his brand of ownership engraved on my spirit.

I close my eyes, and when I open them, my hand is clutching the Ren doll. I stare into its scowling face with glazed eyes, and can almost hear Mr. Tsuruga's voice, not quite mocking me: I warned you. I told you that you couldn't use acting for such a venal purpose. You don't deserve any sympathy. I wave the doll's arm for emphasis, and smile, a bit sadly.

You're right, Mr. Tsuruga, I hear my own voice saying. I should have listened. All this time, in thinking that I had gotten stronger, and smarter… I was really just being the stupid one again.

A fresh wave of hopelessness crashes over me, but this time, something else washes up with it: a shard of my newfound defiance, the inner strength that gave me the means to justify my motives not only to Mr. Tsuruga, but to myself. I remember my desire to get back at Sho, and a vestige of it flickers within me, but in that brief flash, I recall as well the real reason why I decided to keep walking down this path.

Why do you want to be an actress? Mr. Tsuruga asks.

To create "Kyoko Mogami", I reply.

Of course I'm angry at Sho. Of course I want to hurt him as I've been hurt. Of course I want him to know what it feels like to lose everything, as I did. But more than that, I want to take back what's mine, what I never had the chance to learn when Sho was my life. I want to know who I am; I want a life of my own. I want to build and become my own person, and if I had the choice between that and getting back at Sho… I'm starting to think that I could walk away from him, and call it even.

I want revenge, but only as a means to free myself from him.

And, in a way, haven't I done that? Haven't I got a life of my own now? I have a home, and people who care about me. I have a job, however humiliating and draining it might be; I have the beginnings of a career, though it's only a small role in a commercial. Most importantly, though… I have a friend. I'm part of a team. I'm not alone.

I close my eyes again, and imagine having to tell Moko that I gave up, that Sho was too much for me, that I haven't really gotten away from him at all. I imagine the disappointment in her eyes; I see her resolve, that I bolstered so readily while she was struggling, chipping away as she realizes that, in the end, I was just another fraud, just another waste of time. I see her realizing that her belief in me was wasted, and I open my eyes, slowly.

I can't let that happen.

My eyes meet those of the Ren doll again, and I realize that I've forgotten to count one of my blessings. I have someone to look up to, someone from whose example I can draw strength, someone I can aspire to emulate. Of course, he's irritating in person, but now, with suitable distance between us, I can see him like a saint's idol, challenging me to get as close to his impossible, marble perfection as I can, and refusing to accept anything less.

I stare into the curse doll's eyes, and know that, no matter what, I have to keep going, to slam myself against show business until there is, in fact, nothing else I can do, until I am too dead for even such broken musings. Mr. Tsuruga… I pass my fingers over the head of the doll. For you, and Moko, and "Kyoko Mogami"… I think I can try.

In that moment, my resolve begins to return, and I begin to believe that it could overwhelm even the vengeance.