Chapter 211: Daydreams

DISCLAIMER: I do not own Skip Beat, for if I did, Lory would never miss out on an opportunity to manipulate the outcome of his favorite drama.

Ren was glad he got the script readings out of the way first. If he had to do it after choreography and stunt training, there was no guarantee he would be able to stay awake through it. The scenes were more dramatic than action, which meant a lot of dialogue crucial to the plot. They were getting close to the gotcha moment with almost four episodes ready for airtime. It took two large cups of coffee for him to stay in character.

He was buzzing with caffeine by the time he got to the studio where they would be shooting tomorrow's scene. The place was teeming with people preparing the set for filming. The stunt coordinator wanted him to get a feel for the tight quarters where an action-pack scene of fighting for his life was filmed. It represented a floor of a department store that conveniently stocked outdoor camping and survival gear. He eyed the glass display housing fake utility and hunting knives, knowing he would probably have to break it and use them on his attackers.

The stunt coordinator, Shiba Isao, and his assistants greeted him and Yashiro. One assistant rolled out a cart full of props consisting of canoe paddles, very realistic rubber knives, ski poles, and other various equipment that would be easy to wield and typical in this setting.

"We're getting creative with this scene," the stunt coordinator laughed when Ren picked up a pair of ice axes and lifted his brow in question. The metal handles were real, but the blades were made of durable rubber painted to look like steel. They would still hurt if he didn't pull his hit before making contact. "It's going to get gruesome and you're going to get hurt…well Ryu is, so we'll have to time everything precisely," Shiba warned. "I don't want that lovely girlfriend of yours to come after me." Ren smiled at the thought of his little feisty Kyoko hunting this man down to give him a piece of her mind. The action scenes weren't going to be as easy as the talking parts, but it would do the trick to keep the audience from getting bored with too many words.

"Tsuruga-san," a woman he had met before joined them and bowed along with the assistant accompanying her.

"Oda-san," Ren greeted, remembering that she was in charge of his wardrobe.

"Yes," she flushed, "you remembered."

Ren didn't comment on her response and just nodded.

"I know you're only training today, but I was wondering if you could wear Ryu-san's outfit for the scene. I want to make sure it will film correctly tomorrow," she asked with a slight bow.

"Of course," he replied, glancing at his watch. If he wanted to get out of there on time, he needed to nail the stunts and choreography down. Yashiro could only buy him a few hours later. It had been so long since he was involved in something like it that he wasn't sure how long it would take him to get called back. If he ran out of time before it was his turn, Ren would have no choice but to leave. Leaving would also tarnish his reputation before he had a chance to establish one. It was important to him that he made it. Even if he wasn't chosen, he would be satisfied knowing he tried. There was just one teeny…okay, it wasn't teeny. It was a giant hurdle he needed to overcome to get him in.

"Okay, you get changed while we clear the crew to get started," Shiba instructed. Ren nodded, following Oda and her assistant to his assigned dressing room. Inside the room, he found racks full of Ryu and Akira's outfits. Oda pointed to a black suit hanging off to the side against the wall of the changing screen. Each piece of the suit was black, typical for Ryu. Once the ladies left the room, Ren stepped behind the screen and changed quickly. When he shrugged the jacket on, he realized that it was snug at the shoulders and cursed. Ryu wore custom-made suits that fit him to a tee. Until Ren saw himself in a mirror, he wasn't sure what damage to expect.

"Well, you look stiff," Yashiro commented, staring at Ren as he adjusted his cuffs. He was holding himself rigidly to keep from ruining the fabric.

"I think it's a little tight," Ren agreed with a grim smile. They didn't have time for a costume malfunction. He crossed his arms in front of him slowly, repeating the motion to get the jacket to stretch. To his surprise, the material gave way a little, making it easier to move around. "It should be okay." The cut still looked good on his frame and the fabric was stretchier than he expected.

A few moments later, a soft knock on the door brought Oda and her assistant back into the room.

"It looks like a good fit?" Oda beamed.

"It feels a little snug at the arms and shoulders," Ren confessed. He wanted Oda to be aware that they might have a problem.

Oda frowned, circling him to get a better look. "The jacket or the shirt?"

"Both," Ren replied. "What do you think?" He asked moving his arms and twisting his back to show Oda how the fabric stretched.

"Could you please remove the jacket so we could take some measurements? I want to use the time while you rehearse to start gathering replacements."

"Yes, thank you," he bowed sheepishly. " I apologize for the trouble."

"No apologies are necessary. It's our job to make sure your clothes fit correctly," Ran replied. "Do you mind?" She gestured with a measuring tape. He bit the inside of his cheek, wondering how his body could have changed in such a short time.

Oda made comments and spouted measurements to her assistant, hastily jotting everything she said on a tablet.

"Were you taking special training in America?" Oda questioned, wrapping the tape around his upper arm over his tight dress shirt.

"No, umm, why?" Ren asked, confused by her inquiry.

"It wouldn't be fair to mankind if you're growing muscles without any form of physical activity," she joked and stretched the tape across his upper back.

"Oh, umm. I went surfing almost every day while I was there."

"Like the Big Kahuna?" She teased and measured his other arm.

"Yes, just like him," Ren forced himself to laugh. "I might have overdone it." Ren hid his displeasure from them. Being too muscular could be his downfall today. He hoped Yashiro took the change into account.

"I don't think anyone would complain," Oda smiled shyly.

"I'm not," her assistant piped up and immediately blushed a shade of tomato red after her outburst.

"Thank you," Ren chuckled politely.

"Okay, I think I got what I needed," Oda informed him. "Let's see how the suit holds up under pressure."

"Okay," he obliged and headed outside to meet with the stunt team.

Shiba wasn't exaggerating when he said they were getting creative. The pair of ice axes he had seen earlier became dual-wielded weapons. He had practiced crossing the weapon over each other and clamping down on the enemy's handgun. Ren had to throw his weight to the side and pull them apart, twisting his opponent in mid-air. The stuntman was so talented, he didn't have to use any harnesses to perform the trick and landed safely on the mat each time.

The gruesome part came when one ax lodged in the side of a man's temple while the other ax was thrown across the room to bury itself into the base of another man's throat.

To perfect his "ax throwing" skills, Shiba had the foresight to set up a little section in the corner equipped with a punching dummy and real axes where Ren could practice landing the shot. It took Ren over ten attempts before the ax began to roll over and hit the target. It took ten more before he was able to successfully lodge it into the dummy. It wasn't perfect, but the movement was accurate enough for taping. A good editor would be able to piece together a clean shot.

The hours progressed similarly, with Ren executing perfectly choreographed moves of weaving and ducking between displays, using all available weapons in the process. Depending on how well Ren wielded the tools, Shiba would stop and focus on how he wanted them to move with the "deadly instruments" even if it was just a frying pan. Ren had to admit that the session was quite entertaining. It was filled with intense fighting and a sprinkle of comedic instances that the audience would love. Well, at least the crew watching them work found him funny.

The stunt coordinator used a camera and laptop he had set up to record their work. Having that visual aid helped to make things move along faster. Shiba was able to point out the flaws to the group and successfully relay where improvements needed to be made. It allowed them to finish earlier than Ren had anticipated.

Ryu's suit held up under the constant barrage of attacks until one particular move where he lifted the flap of his jacket a little too aggressively to deflect a knife had him ripping it down the side.

Note to self, don't yank so hard.

Shiba called it a wrap afterward so Oda could fuss over his clothing. Since she already took his measurements, there wasn't much left she needed from him, and left to fix his wardrobe for tomorrow. Oda focused on fixing the clothes required for tomorrow's filming. She would address the remaining outfits on the rack the following day.

Ren headed straight for the small bathroom in his dressing room before doing anything else. He carefully took off his dark wig, glad Ten's design allowed it to stay put through all that strenuous activity. It was a good thing nobody tried to yank on his hair or he would have been in deep trouble trying to explain his hair color choice. Men of honor didn't pull hair as a fighting tactic. Ryu's long hair would have been easy pickings too.

Kuon's matted blonde hair tumbled out after pulling off the cap, catching his attention in the mirror and accelerating his heart rate. Am I ready for this? He questioned his reflection. He stared at himself a moment longer, trying to calm his racing heart. It wasn't too late for him to chicken out. The only person in on his plans was Yashiro. He would have to endure some light rubbing from his best friend, but he would eventually get over it.

"Ren," Yashiro tapped lightly at the door as if knowing that he was having second thoughts.

"Yeah," he croaked nervously, then cleared his throat.

"I know you finished early, but the sooner we get you there the better. You'll have a better shot of getting called in."

"Okay," Ren agreed with a shaky breath. He turned on the hot water, stripping off the robe and clothes he put on after passing the suit to Oda. Focusing on the shower, Ren managed to wash away all the sweat from his body in the little stall. Once out, he quickly dried himself and put the robe back on. He needed to dry his hair thoroughly before putting the wig back on.

Knowing his dressing room door was locked, he took the chance and came out to get the blow dryer sitting on the vanity.

"What are you looking at so intently," Ren whispered from behind his manager. Yashiro's attention had been on his phone; he didn't hear Ren come out.

"Gah!" His startled manager gasped and threw his phone down on the coffee table.

"What's going on?" Ren asked suspiciously, narrowing his eyes at the guilty flush on his manager's face.

"Nothing, you caught me looking at porn," Yashiro confessed, schooling his features and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Now Ren knew he was lying.

"Okay," Ren chuckled at his manager's attempt to cover up whatever he was looking at on his phone. It must have been unpleasant for Yashiro to desperately hide it from him. He'd find out soon enough what was truly bothering him.

Ren moved to the vanity to find the hair dryer. He thought about retreating into the bathroom but decided against it. With the door locked, no one could barge in. Yashiro already knew his secret, so there was no need to hide from him anymore.

After so many years under Ten's guidance, Ren sprayed his hair with a bottle of thermal protectant before putting any heat on it. He would never hear the end of it if he damaged his hair. From the mirror, Ren watched Yashiro pick up his phone warily and sit back down to wait. He was so preoccupied with work; he had forgotten about his phone. He collected it from his bag to check if Kyoko had sent him another message now that she was out of school. To his delight, she had sent him a long text. His eyes scanned over the words, smiling as he read about her day from the moment she made it to her shoe locker. The way she described her friends had him laughing to himself until he reached the end.

"Yukihito," Ren turned to face his manager, excited by the news.

"Yes!" Yashiro squeaked a little more subtly this time.

"Can you free up some time for next Saturday? Kyoko's school is having a sports festival and families are allowed to attend. It's her first time participating, so I want to be able to cheer her on." He knew he sounded like an enthusiastic kid, but he didn't care about his image anymore; at least not where his love was concerned.

"Sports festival?" Yukihito smirked at Ren's excitement. "Wow, that takes me back. Are you sure you want to put that kind of heat on you? Obsessed teenage girls can be another level of scary."

Ren cringed but was determined to attend. Maybe I'll go as Cain for a few hours. His aura tended to scare people off…and technically, he was her brother.

"No matter what, I want to be there for her, even for a short time," he stated resolutely.

"Things will be tight, but I'll see what I can do. Can you find out the schedule of her events? It will be easier to plan that way."

"I'll ask," Ren nodded and tapped away to send her a reply. He stared at the screen for a moment, waiting for her reply.

"You should hurry," Yashiro pointed to his damp hair. "Unless you've changed your mind about the whole thing."

"I haven't," Ren frowned and placed his phone on the counter to pick up the blow dryer.

"Good," Yashiro sighed with relief. He mumbled something more, but Ren already had the dryer going; he didn't hear what the manager said.

While he dried his hair, Ren daydreamed of the sports festival. It was important to him that he was there to support her as her family. If her father was in Japan, he would probably have created a custom banner to wave around and be the loudest and proudest parent there. Ren doubted her mother would attend, so it was up to him.

He never did finish high school in the conventional sense. If only they were the same age. It would have been incredible to attend school together. Kyoko would be the star pupil, and he would be the bad influence sitting behind her, teasing her just to see the cute little blush burn on her cheeks. They would have been high school sweethearts because there was no way he would have let a girl like her go. She would have been his first everything.

In no time, his hair was dry, ending his silly thoughts. He got dressed and put his dark wig back in place. They were back on the road going over the plan for the next few hours as they headed to their next destination.

"I'm going to talk to Linh-san at the office regarding Kyoko's schedule. I've already reached out to the director to get a copy of the characters they want to propose. If Kyoko finds none of them acceptable, we can decline the change to the contract," Yashiro informed him. No matter how much Ren would love to have her working by his side again, the decision would be entirely up to her.

Soon, Yashiro was pulling to the side of the curb to let Ren out. "I wish I could come with you," the manager whined as Ren lifted the hood of his jacket over his head and stepped out of the car.

"Someday," Ren flashed him his heavenly smile, then shut the door.

"You can't smile at me like that. My heart can't take it," Yashiro's muffle voice jokingly scolded.

Ren chuckled at his manager's outburst and walked behind the car, rapping on the trunk with his knuckles. The hatch popped up immediately for him to remove the bag Yashiro prepared him.

Ren waved to his friend in the side mirror and took a deep breath as he gazed at the building. He adjusted the bag on his shoulder and ensured his sunglasses and hood were in place before heading to the entrance. As he walked inside, his phone buzzed with a message.

Sho got more than he bargained for when he decided to confront Kyoko unannounced. It was by chance that he caught the update on social media, confirming her return to school, and knew Kyoko would show up at LME. Shoko had casually mentioned auditions for the male lead role were taking place today. It wasn't his place to worry about Kyoko, but after the L.A. scare, he needed to see that she was okay with his own eyes. He hated that it took a random reporter to clue him in on the "accident" in the first place.

Without telling his manager where he was going, Sho had left a note and departed the studio to wait for Kyoko to arrive. He didn't know what to expect when he came to LME, but he wasn't expecting to attract so many people. The employees weren't exactly subtle after recognizing him sitting alone. He heard their giddy whispers and saw their phones out, making him preen under all the attention. Didn't anyone work around here? It was confusing that no one approached him for an autograph or a picture.

Once Kyoko arrived, Sho was easily forgotten. It was an experience he did not appreciate. The way the employees flocked to her once she was recognized annoyed him. In hindsight, it was a good thing her colleagues were present, Sho would have never recognized the pretty girl as his childhood friend. However, they made it difficult for him to get to her without causing a scene. Since she was about to disappear into an elevator, Sho didn't think about the consequences of his actions.

Even though he was scared shitless by the man, Sho had thought he was lucky when the zombie assistant showed up, requesting his presence at a meeting with the president. Sho didn't see the harm in following the man. At least it would be a good excuse to hang around his friend a little longer. After stepping into the "haunted house," he knew his luck had run out. A harrowing experience in a haunted house with poorly costumed teenagers had scarred him for life when he was a little kid. He had been trapped in one of the dark rooms. To this day, he had managed to avoid all haunted houses he ever came across, redirecting any of his "dates" that thought it would be fun to go through one during this time of year.

Sho was slowly learning that the president of this agency was seriously demented. The amount of effort he had put into the set, props, and people to scare the living hell out of him was ridiculous. If he had known he was going to be subjected to such terror, he would have run for his life and never looked back. Kyoko's presence made it bearable and allowed him to tremble his way through the maze of haunted rooms. Unlike when they were kids, she was vocal about having him not cling to her. Sho bit back his curses for fear that she would abandon him. No matter how much she grumbled, eventually, she let him stick to her. The graveyard is what did him in. The place was spooky as hell. Throw in a zombie attack, and Sho's senses were overwhelmed with so much panic he ceased to function. No matter what, he couldn't believe his traitorous body had fainted.

In his defense, the zombies were quite realistic. But like what in the actual fuck. Could his body be more embarrassing? While Sho tried to rattle his brain for a solution to keep his reputation intact, the president dropped the bomb of all bombs on Kyoko. Forgetting about his fainting spell, Sho's lips curled into a smirk at the announcement.

Kyoko's eyes darted from the president to him and back, the confusion evident in her golden eyes.

"I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you right, Takarada-san." She stuck her pinky finger in her ear and shook it around like one of the hard-of-hearing Oji-sans that frequented the ryokan. "My Japanese must be rusty after conversing in English for almost two weeks. I thought I heard you say that Fuwa-san was cast as Eito in the drama?"

Sho frowned at the way she addressed him so formally. He didn't like it.

"Your hearing and Japanese are as flawless as ever," Lory stated calmly, pulling out a pipe and puffing on it as if anticipating her reaction.

Kyoko burst out into obnoxious laughter. The kind that had her clutching her stomach and a few snorts in it as she struggled to breathe. After a full minute of laughing with tears springing out of the corners of her eyes, Sho had enough. Lory just sat there puffing on his pipe while her manager remained stoic. If her boss wasn't going to say anything to her, he would.

"You don't have to laugh so hard," Sho grumbled, irritated by her rudeness.

"I'm… so-sorry. It…seemed…like a bad joke," she gasped out between chuckles.

And she thinks I'm the unprofessional one.

It took her another minute to rein it in, taking deep breaths and swiping at her eyes. Soon her laughter ceased, and her face went blank.

"If you're finished," Lory raised a brow at her.

"Yes, you were saying," she gestured for him to continue.

That's it? The laughing was one thing, but he still expected her to get annoyed or angry at him, maybe even give him a swift kick to the shin. It would be a soothing balm to his bruised ego if she got scolded at least once. Instead, she sat there with a serene expression he often saw on his mother, giving him no idea what she was really thinking.

Could she be in shock?

While the president continued to share the details with her, Sho scrutinized her physical appearance for any signs of shock. He recalled reading about a celebrity experiencing it after a car accident in a magazine. For the life of him, Sho couldn't remember the details of the article except that the guy had really good hair.

Sho's thoughts reverted to the conversation when Kyoko spoke, "So you're saying there's a chance to replace him?"

"Yes, that is the agreement we had drawn up. If Fuwa-kun's performance causes

any delays or degrades the quality of the film, we will replace him," Lory confirmed. Sho's lips pursed in a tight line. Lory's stipulations sucked. What was the point of humiliating himself on air as BB, the friendly Bumblebee, if he was constantly being threatened that he could lose his spot in the movie? He prayed that Kyoko would never find out he played a mascot just to please her boss. It would be more ammo for her to use against him.

Sho grimaced at the Cheshire smile spreading across Kyoko's face. She wouldn't dare? The Kyoko he knew would never stoop so low when it came to a competition. Staring at her closely, he realized she had ceased to be the girl he knew a long time ago.

He gulped nervously, unsure what could be going through her mind. Sho thought he might have bitten off more than he could chew by pursuing this endeavor.

Kyoko thought the president was pranking her with his declaration. She couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. He couldn't be serious, could he? The more details Lory continued to share, only clarified that he was dead serious about casting her nemesis to play her childhood crush. A familiar feeling squeezing her heart had her using everything in her repertoire to remain calm as Yayoi had taught her. She wasn't expecting such betrayal on her first day back. To think Lory knew all about it last night, deliberately keeping it to himself.

Their boss could be so cruel sometimes. It had to be a setup. A piece of the final test that would allow her to graduate from the LoveMe department and become a full-fledged actress. She had to approach this situation as one of her school subjects. Usually, she broke down the problem into parts and, if need be, drew a picture for a better visual.

Kuon! Was the president deliberately trying to sow discord between them? She doubted her boyfriend would take the news well and wondered whom he would strangle first, Sho or their boss. It was going to be difficult telling him, but nothing good ever came from keeping secrets, even if it was to spare the feelings of a loved one.

Kyoko's grudges all shivered at the prospect of the Demon Lord's appearance and the negative energy he would shower on them. They were equal parts excited and terrified to meet him again.

As the president continued to explain, Kyoko learned that Sho's place in the cast wasn't infallible. If she played her cards right, maybe she wouldn't have to work with him at all. With those terms, Sho would most likely end up getting himself fired without Kyoko lifting a single finger.

"Now I hope you both can put your past differences behind you and work on making this next step in your careers successful," Lory leveled his gaze at Kyoko first, then pinned Sho with the same stare.

"Yes, sir," Kyoko stood and bowed. Sho followed suit with promises of attending the arranged acting lessons and doing his best. He was such a kiss-ass.

"To start, Morimoto-kun, why don't you have Fuwa-kun tag along to the auditions with you," Lory suggested. " Unless you're busy, of course," Lory addressed Sho.

"I'd love to. My schedule for the next few hours is clear," Sho replied before consulting with Shoko.

Kyoko gaped at her boss, unable to believe his offer. Sho had been an actor for all five minutes, and he was already receiving a seat at the table. Kyoko ground her teeth to keep from retorting.

"Good, that's settled then," Lory chuckled and stood. "Let's all head down there now."

"This can't be real life," Sho muttered with his hands folded behind his head as he casually walked down the corridor, following the procession of a zombie king with a horde of undead shuffling after him. Their gait took them forever to get to the auditorium.

Kyoko snorted, not gazing up from her phone as she walked and tried to type out a message that both vented her frustrations and softened the blow of the news to her boyfriend. Since she couldn't figure out something suitable to write that probably wouldn't "excite" him while at work, she settled for "I can't wait to see you" and "I have a meeting with my class to determine our events. I should have a schedule for you afterward." She was beyond ecstatic that he wanted to come to the event. Even if he couldn't make it, Kyoko was happy knowing he wanted to attend.

The idea of having him at her school made her flush with excitement. They could hold hands while walking through the corridor. She could show him her class and her shoe locker. She daydreamed about what it would have been like to have Kuon in her class.

He probably would have been the school prince and I would have had to admire him from afar…Kyoko shook those negative thoughts from her mind. That got depressing fast.

"Why are you daydreaming?" Sho scowled when she almost bumped into a person fleeing away from another one of the president's escapades. The procession never stopped, but now and again, a zombie would break away, harassing an innocent bystander that failed to take cover. Unfortunately, this was her reality.

"Your boss is cuckoo." Sho chuckled at a woman being chased down the hall by a pair of zombies. "But I can see the appeal."

He didn't know the half of it. "Yeah, I'm used to it," Kyoko found herself replying absentmindedly. She had no intention of speaking to him, but to her annoyance, he insisted on walking beside her. Linh and Shoko were up front, behind the Zombie King, urging him to keep moving. Linh was not having it today. It was funny how she stuffed them all in the elevators to get down together.

No one was paying any attention to them coming up on the rear, so Kyoko took the initiative to ask Sho the same question she asked in Lory's office.

"Why are you here, Fuwa-san?" Kyoko narrowed her eyes at him.

"Geez, Kyoko," he rolled his eyes. "Fu-wa-san, Fu-wa-san," he mocked under his breath like the immature brat she knew. It's like he no longer cared for his reputation at all. Anyone could hear or see him acting like a man-child and sell it to the press. "Why are you still so hostile anyway?"

"Answer the question, Sho," she gritted through clenched teeth. Her tiny grudge force swirled around, ready to attack him on command.

"You heard your boss. I'm part of the cast… A big part," he added smugly.

"I did! I'm not deaf," Kyoko retorted sarcastically. "Let me rephrase my question so your tiny brain can comprehend what I'm asking. Why were you in the auditions to begin with and how in the world did they choose you?" She wanted to know if he was there to sabotage her career. It was petty, even for him, but she had no idea what he was planning.

"I thought I'd try my hand at acting. I mean, if you could do it…" he shrugged, leaving the unsaid insult hanging in the air.

Kyoko groaned in frustration. Just as Kyoko's grudge force was ready to charge on the cocky bastard, the zombie horde stopped.

"Looks like we're here," Sho announced, cautiously stepping through the path Lory's entourage had made to lead them into the room. The zombies were still in character, shuffling and moaning in place. The guy that had caused Sho to faint earlier lurched toward him, causing the singer to scream and run inside.

Kyoko shook with laughter. As she walked by the zombie in question, Kyoko nodded, "thanks for that." The gesture had done the trick, evaporating her irritation toward Sho. It was her debut, and she would work hard to ensure it was a success. If Sho diminished it in any way, she would happily voice her observations without sounding like a whining diva.

Kyoko closed her eyes and inhaled and exhaled slowly. When she opened her eyes again, she was the personification of calm. She squared her shoulders and entered the room, prepared to do a good job at finding her male lead.

AN: Happy new year, everyone! Wishing you all great health and many blessings for 2023. Thank you for always sticking with me through this long journey. I appreciate it! If you missed my latest fan art for Kyoko's 18th birthday, you could find it on Deviantart under this name. ;)

Thank you for always reading and for the reviews of the last chapter. I HEART you all.

Until next time, ja ne! ^_^