Disclaimer: Not my story, not my characters. This is a fanwork for fan purposes only. All Skip Beat belongs to Nakamura-sensei.
Also, please forgive the typos. At this point, I don't have a beta reader.
Also also, I know from the comments some of you are struggling to read this in English. If anybody wants to have a go at translating this, feel free to PM.
She thought about seeing him off. Taking a car to the airport, using up every last precious minute they had together to its full benefit… uncharacteristic and expensive as it would be, she still wanted it. And - though she would have never admitted it out loud - she held onto hope that she might be able to get on the plane herself. That Kato-san would find her father and she would obtain a passport quickly. It only seemed fair - all her life, she'd had doors closed in her face because she was too poor, too tired, too busy to enjoy herself. Did she not deserve this one good thing?
And Kyoko was the pragmatic one. Ren entertained notions that she could easily get in the States on a tourist visa and then work out the rest. As if borders were a mere inconvenience that could be navigated at will!
But, it quickly transpired that it would not happen. Even a modest sendoff - which she had thought the trip to the airport might be - was too complicated with her new filming schedule (the thriller director called an affirmative) and the need to keep a low profile. Further, Ren had to undergo some sort of dramatic transformation right before the flight - which had something to do with the low profile, but moreso that he looked like his passport picture.
She did not ask the specificities of that.
In fact, she asked very few questions in the days leading up to his departure. Later, much later, she would look back on this period and wonder if maybe she should have spoken up sooner - about the way he packed up his place, the casual mention that the flat might become subrented in his absence, about his nervousness every time the phone rang. Hell, she should have asked him why he had to change his appearance when his biometrics could not have altered since he arrived in Japan.
But Kyoko argued it all away. She pinned it on time constraints, and nerves, and family drama. She assumed that, given his poor attention to detail, Ren had simply not read his renting contract and had just been informed that his home would be sublet if he left abruptly.
It didn't concern her. After all, she had her own place.
Even if she didn't spend a minute more in Daruma-ya than she absolutely had to. She'd told Okami-san that she would be working around the clock and, since it was not unusual, her landlady had seemed to accept it. Kyoko felt a pang of shame at the lie, but justified it, telling herself the same thing, over and over again. He's leaving soon. Who knows when we'll see each other again.
And in the end, she didn't even get to see him off.
When Tsuruga Ren left Japan (not even as Tsuruga Ren), she was across town, in her pink jumpsuit, tending to another spoiled movie star, her serene mask firmly on even as her eyes tracked the clock. His departure time came and went. When she got back to LME, there was a message waiting for her in her phone, letting her know his plane was up in the air and flying over the Pacific.
She cried herself to sleep that night.
Unbeknown to her, Lori was also mourning Ren's departure - by catching Yashiro up on everything his client hadn't been able to say in the past few years.
To his credit, the younger man took it in stride. Mostly.
When Lori told him about Ren's misadventures on his last set, saved only by Kyoko's interference, Yashiro had stood up from his chair (where he'd been contemplating the fact that he'd been chauffeured around by the son of Hizuri Kuu himself) and started pacing the room.
"So, in summary," he said, "my client was in very real danger of going to prison - under an alias that wasn't even his true alias - and he was rescued in the nick of time by a seventeen year-old girl who put herself in harm's way on his behalf."
"That is not what happened, Yashiro."
"With all due respect, President, it is exactly what happened." He walked back to the table, and braced his hands against the desktop - it was the most aggressive that Lori had seen him in a while. "Three years. Three years, I did everything I could to help him. I didn't ask questions out of respect for his wishes. I went along with all your schemes because I believed you had their best interests in heart, and would not let them be put into danger."
Lori wanted to agree with him.
Not just to put an end to the argument, but because Yashiro was right - Kyoko's involvement with Murasame had been dangerous, and the gamble she'd taken with the private investigator could have ended really badly. He could have pointed out that the two had gone behind his back - ignoring an express order to lay low and wait. And there was no doubt that they'd been wrong. If they hadn't been, Yashiro would have been brought up to speed from the beginning. Instead, Ren had fed him half-truths and incomplete information.
And for all his frustration, Lori had to admit, the boy had learned from the best.
"They took a calculated risk," he said, at length. "One that paid off."
"This time." Yashiro started pacing again.
Lori let him work out some of his energy, before asking, "What's truly bothering you? It's clear that there is more than just being kept in the dark."
"Being kept in the dark can be bad enough. Do you know if Ren told Kyoko everything? If she knows who he is?"
Lori pursed his lips. "No," he admitted. "He was evasive about it until the end."
"How willing are you to bet he hasn't told her everything?" Yashiro asked. "The two of them have been inseparable lately, President. He took her out to dinner when the Black Jack shooting ended, and she's been over at his place every free minute since."
"Kyoko is seventeen." He felt old and tired just saying the words. "As far as I'm concerned, if you're old enough to be married, you're old enough to make decisions about your life."
"I'm not naive," Yashiro said. "And heaven knows, I'm not trying to imply that what they're doing is shameful. For crying out loud, we were encouraging them every step of the way. But the two of them just underwent an extremely stressful ordeal. They've been living in their own little world, saving each other, and now the fishbowl has been overturned and they're out on their own."
Lori took his time answering - mostly because he wanted to make sure he understood what the younger man was getting at.
"You're saying that they may not be prepared for the reality of a relationship?"
"I'm saying… I don't know what I'm saying anymore. Just that I'm scared for them." Yashiro started pacing again. "Kyoko-chan needs a manager. She's needed one for a long time now, but now… she can't rely on Sawara-san, when he's got the whole junior department to look after."
"Nobody knows for certain that the two of them are together," Lori said. "They've been very discreet."
"Disguises only go so far. And how long do you expect them to have to put up these pretenses? Until they're married? Until they have children? Until they retire?" He was hamming it up, of course. Nobody could be expected to keep a relationship on the down-low for so long, and have it last. But still, his words hit the target.
"I've already got some names in mind," Lori said. "We shall have to find the best fit, of course…"
"But I would be remiss if I didn't make you the offer first."
Yashiro went very, very still. "You… want me to be Kyoko's manager."
Lori leaned back in his chair. "Tell me something. Why do you love this job?"
"Not everyone would have made a career in wrangling talents and soothing egos. For many people," the President went on, "for many people, your job would be inconceivable. Distasteful, even. And yet you persevere. I'm wondering why that is?"
Yashiro let out a long sigh. For a second, the President thought he would not respond. Then the younger man started talking.
"When I was younger, I thought my life was over." He held up one of his hands, looking at it like it was a foreign object. "My colleagues, they think it's hilarious how phones and computers stop working around me, but try to get a decent job these days without any IT skills. I would have to wear gloves all the time, even if all the work I could get was managing the till at a restaurant. And then I was given an opportunity in this business." He tucked his hands in his pockets, and smiled. "There's still a lot of tech, but at least here, nobody raises an eyebrow at eccentricities. And there is so much more to the job than just setting up meetings. I may be hopeless with technology, but I'm good at people. Actors like Ren and Kyoko, they have a hard enough time doing their job without all the interpersonal drama off set. I can handle reporters, and I can handle directors; I can smooth egos and make sure there is enough room on the parking at the end of the day for my client to leave peacefully. I do this job because I'm good at it, and it allows others to do well. If that's inconceivable or distasteful, then so be it."
"Right," Lori said. "So why are you surprised I'm making you this offer then?"
"I just wonder whether managing both of them would be the best idea." Yashiro narrowed his eyes. "Unless Ren is thinking of making his stay abroad more permanent."
The President didn't answer immediately, but the look on his face was grim. "At this point, there is no telling what he will do," he said.
Which was already bad enough.
She could not remember the last time she had wanted to sleep in.
Even as a child, it seemed like she was up and running as soon as she opened her eyes - hurrying to get ready for school, for work, for school again.
That morning was no exception - life did not grind to a halt because Ren was out of the country - but Kyoko felt low on energy, heart and head heavy, as though she hadn't gotten any sleep. The only highlight was a text from Ren, telling her his plane had landed safely and that he was on his way to see his mother. She wished he would call… but it would have been too early, and it was hard enough to keep track of things with the sleep she did get.
She wasn't the only one who noticed.
"You look like a space cadet," Kanae said, as the two got ready in the Love Me! room.
"Don't I always?" Kyoko asked, hoping to divert the conversation.
"Not like this." Her friend narrowed her eyes. "You run into doors all the time, sure, but something's missing today. There's no… sparkle."
Great. Just what I need. "I'm just tired," she said. "I'm sure in a few days, I'll be better."
"You shouldn't be skipping on your sleep," Kanae said. "Please tell me you're at least hydrating properly."
"I am, I promise." They were standing, back to back, so that they could each change in private. She expected some rebuttal, but when her friend didn't say anything, Kyoko turned. "Moko-san?"
Kanae was looking at her legs, and frowning. "Did you cycle in today?"
Kyoko looked down and this time she couldn't help it. She winced.
"That's just…" she started, then stopped. What could she say? I fell out of a bed… a very tall bed. "Yeah, I cycled in."
But her friend was already giving her that look… that same look Kyoko couldn't stand. Sometimes, she swore, Kanae could read her mind, and she didn't want to know what she thought of the contents.
"Kyoko…" she started. Then, seemingly changing her mind, she said, "You're being safe, right?"
"I… yes, of course."
"And the… other person. They're treating you well, right?"
What happened to not doing things unless you can talk about them? But she didn't want to make this any more uncomfortable, so she just said, "Yes. He's treating me very well." Then, unable to stop herself. "But he had to leave for a bit. His family needs him."
If Kanae had any thoughts on the matter, she kept them to herself. Mercifully. "Well," she said, at length. "So long as you know, you can say no. And if you ever want to talk about it… I'm here."
"Talk about what?" Chiori asked, breezing into the locker room. "Kyoko! Did you cycle in?"
But before Kyoko could make up any more poor lies, her phone rang, saving her any further embarrassment. "Kato-san," she said, buttoning up her jumpsuit with one hand before going into the bathroom. "How are you?"
"Very well, Mogami-san." Kato-san coughed. "Are you able to talk?"
"Yes, yes." She tried to calm herself down, failed. "Are there news?"
"In a manner of speaking." His tone was neutral - there was nothing there to indicate something was wrong. Yet, she tensed up.
"Were you… not able to get a response to your query?" she asked.
"No, we did find your father," he said. "My office reached out to his, and he responded yesterday."
Yesterday. For a split second, she forgot it took months to get a passport and felt her anger rise up. She could have been on the plane with Ren! She could have been with him now. Then the grudges subsided, because Kato-san hadn't answered the most important question of all. "Did he not accept… what you told him?"
"We had a long talk," Kato-san said. "He had some questions. We arranged for him to come to the office this morning to view the documentation and verify it for himself. It was all to be expected," he added in a gentler tone. As if he could sense how much those words were hurting her. "The meeting's just finished. I thought I would wait until he was gone to give you any news."
"That's very kind of you." Her stomach sank… and kept on sinking. She had a very good idea what the man's response had been. I don't believe it. I can't have a daughter. This actress must be trying to extort me. Else this is a prank. "What did he say?"
"He wants to meet you."
Kyoko swallowed… but her throat was suddenly dry. "He… he what?"
"He would like to arrange a meeting," Kato-san said. "He agreed that the birth certificate was genuine, and he seemed startled when I showed him pictures from your dramas." She winced again. She wondered which pictures he was referring to - Mio? Natsu? Bo? "Mogami-san? You don't have to agree to a meeting if you don't want to."
"Did he say he wouldn't sign?" It was cruel and selfish, but that was all she could think about. The idea of meeting a stranger, even if he was her father, made her sick to her stomach.
But she would do it. For Ren, she would do it.
"He didn't say much. To be honest, he was a bit difficult to read." Kato-san coughed. "But you don't have to meet him if you don't want to, Mogami-san. And if you do, we can make sure it's on neutral ground."
Neutral ground sounded nice. Neutral ground would be fantastic.
"Great. Yes. Please do that, if it's not too much trouble," she said.
"Of course." There was a long pause. When he didn't speak, she had to check if he was still there. "Yes, Mogami-san. I was just wondering… but it doesn't matter."
"What is it?" she asked.
"I was just looking through the morning papers. But it doesn't really matter, I suppose. It's just a very strange coincidence."
Dread built up in her, as she left the bathroom. "What coincidence?" she asked. Kanae and Chiori both looked up, twin expressions of confusion on their faces. "Kato-san, I haven't read any papers this morning. What news are you talking about?"
Immediately, Chiori got her phone out and started tapping away, logging into the Internet. Kyoko waited with baited breath.
"It's just, someone's translated an American article in the Tokyo daily. You're familiar with Hizuri Kuu, of course. His son's just returned home, and his mother gave an exclusive interview about the time he's been away. It wouldn't have caught my eye, usually, but Hizuri Julie also talked about his most recent project."
Chiori gasped, then, hand trembling, turned her phone for Kyoko to see. She skimmed the introduction and the bombastic title (Prodigal Son Returns) to the part of the interview where Julie listed her son's recent project, where he starred in not one, but two of the main roles.
"Black Jack," Kyoko whispered.
"The same movie you worked on," Kato-san said, seemingly unaware - or was he - of the bombshell he'd just dropped. He said some more things, but they were lost in the roaring in her ears.
Her brain scrambled for foothold. It could have been a coincidence - a huge coincidence - that she had been on the same set as the legendary Kuon, and not known it. But even as she thought about the faces of the cast members, she dismissed them. Handsome, charming, talented, great at sports, there was only one man on that set who ticked all those boxes. One man who had played two (or three, or several) roles at the same time. And only 48 hours ago, she'd left his apartment, wishing him a safe journey.
And even if her brain rejected those arguments, it wouldn't matter. Because there was a picture of Kuon in the article - a picture from a test screening years ago, but even the time couldn't hide those features. Or the bodily proportions she knew by heart.
From Chiori's screen, unmistakable and clear as day, stared Tsuruga Ren.
A/N PhD is still kicking my behind. Reviews are a balm to my soul. Also, I'm doing Inktober, so if you wanna check that out, you can find me on Instagram as katya_bozukova_art