On the way to New York, Ryou clapped his hands together and lowered his head. He had one eye opened to gauge Yukari's response as he apologized. His abashed posture brought her all the way back to when they had been teenagers, when they had lived under one roof, when she had known his little mannerisms better than he knew them himself. The sight made her heart burst in fondness. She'd been afraid he had changed, and he had, but he still had room for her in his life. He was still the kind Ryou she had known. Her best friend. She'd missed him.
“I'm sorry,” he murmured with a self-deprecating smile. “I'm sorry for dragging you into this again. I know this isn't your dream.”
Yukari shook her head and reached out to grab his hands. With her hands clasped around his larger ones, she looked up to catch his troubled blue eyes. He was completely off the mark and needn't be so formal with her. Despite the years that had passed, she wanted to believe they were still best friends.
“Silly Ryou. Don't apologize. I should be thanking you for coming for me. So... thank you.”
She was thankful now, and she'd been thankful back then. Thanks to Ryou and his offer to become his manager, Yukari had managed to finish her education with no problem, and she'd landed the job of her dreams, a stable job as a civil service worker that was just as fulfilling as she had imagined it would be. It was meaningful work, and the pay was consistent. She also saw her dad much more, and on good days, he was even home for dinner.
Yukari should have felt content. She believed she was content. Everything in her life had been going just as planned, yet at the same time, she couldn't help but feel "everything" wasn't enough. The brief ambushes from Narazaki-san - they came without fail throughout the years and had long become a constant in her life - always reminded her of the world she had left behind. Each parry of his came accompanied with mesmerizing feathers that made her want to reach out, and she'd realized after the third year that this was his way of checking up on her... if only he'd leave off his proposal of marriage. She'd gotten so used to it, however, that she might think things were off if he didn't ask.
Sometimes, she'd dream of walking into the light, of the wings that had stolen her breath away, of seeing her best friend transform from a flightless penguin into a majestic peacock, a star among stars. He was again in front of her now, his wings large and blindingly beautiful, even more beautiful than she remembered. He wasn't even trying to bring out his potential at the moment.
This was Ryou, suppressing himself. The mere thought made her giddy. How much more was he going to shine?
She closed her eyes and smiled. If she stared any more, her mouth was going to start watering again. She was never able to rid herself of that reaction.
“Thank you Ryou,” she murmured, her voice getting stronger as she spoke. “Thank you for inviting me to share your dream.” She opened her eyes and stared at him directly.
He stared back in captivation. He blinked slowly, as if not wanting to miss a thing.
“Your dream is my dream,” she said resolutely. He had to understand that he wasn't stealing or destroying her dream. He was giving her the chance to dream once again.
Her message got through. His hesitant expression melted into one of relief and joy, his eyes bright and clear, his cheeks tinted pink. In that moment, the wings behind his back burst into brightness, more blinding than ever. She felt her mouth start watering. She couldn't help it. Yukari quickly dropped Ryou's hands to wipe her mouth.
“Welcome back,” Ryou whispered, his voice quiet in the cabin. “I've missed you.”
In the row next to them, Ayaori smiled softly to himself before covering his eyes with his script in an attempt to fall back to sleep. He leaned backwards to make himself comfortable, tufts of his wild black hair peeking out from above his script.
After all, their flight wasn't a short one.
Once in New York, Yukari twirled around, her eyes wide at the sights she had never seen before. In some ways, she thought New York was a lot like Japan with its towering buildings and busy streets, but the impression of familiarity was easily broken once they began meandering between the crowds. Among the similarities shared by her hometown and this new world she was stepping into were minute differences that she wouldn't have discovered without experiencing them herself.
Even with her nimble feet, she bumped into people's backs more than once, not at all used to how people walked in every which direction instead of only walking on one side of the sidewalk. She kept straying towards the left side of the sidewalk, thinking that people heading the same direction as her would only be walking on that side, but it wasn't so here. Ayaori-san would catch her whenever she strayed too far or got too lost in her wonder. When she stumbled and tried to bow to apologize to the person she bumped into, Ayaori-san caught her once again, most likely thinking he was preventing her from falling flat on her face. She flashed him a grateful smile, though she could have caught herself. Ayaori-san, just like Ryou, was as kind as she remembered too.
When they hailed a taxi, the boys fought to open the door for her. It was silly because she wasn't a star. They were! She should have been opening their doors for them. She was Ryou's manager after all, and she could take care of herself. To break them of their unnecessary thoughtfulness, she walked over and pulled open the front door.
"In you go, one of you," she said without room for argument, one hand propped on her hip. Ayaori-san and Ryou looked at each other before quickly doing rock, paper, scissors to determine who'd get the front seat. When Ryou lost, he blinked twice at the fist he had made - Ayaori-san had used an open palm - before grumbling and making his way towards the front seat.
Yukari blinked too. She had thought the winner, not the loser, would be the one to take the front seat. Didn't most people like sitting in the front?
While she pondered why they might like the back seat more, she slid in the taxi and looked back outside to where Ayaori-san was standing on the sidewalk, his black hair messy and undone, presenting an image that was not at all like the sharp image he presented to the world as Ayaori Makoto. Even with his messy hair, he was a sight to see. She almost lost herself studying his figure and how the years had changed him, or well, not changed him, since he was still very familiar. His face was more angular and he was taller, but otherwise, he was much the same.
She was about to scoot in to make room for him when he shook his head and closed the door for her, opting to walk around the back of the taxi. He entered from the other side, the side near the road. A car honked at him before speeding by, the gust of wind and the accompanying shriek of tires signifying just how close the car had been. Ayaori-san didn't comment as he pulled the door shut and began buckling up. She quickly twisted around to pull her seatbelt out, following Ayaori-san's example.
Even though he was always careful about the streets - Yukari still remembered how he had stopped her from picking up her fallen bag because she'd been near the street - he seemed to think it was better that he take the risk instead. It looked like despite the years that had passed, Ayaori-san still had the habit of overprotecting people he cared about and not nearly looking out enough for himself.
With the seatbelt snug against her chest, Yukari peered out the window as the taxi driver drove them to their destination, free to marvel as much as she wanted now that her curiosity wouldn't inconvenience anyone or cause her to bump into someone. The scenery passed by slowly because of the traffic congestions and the continuous red lights they ran into, but even with all the time she needed to study her surroundings, there was too much for her to digest. The more she looked, the more foreign and wondrous this place seemed.
This was not Japan.
It was when they reached the hotel that she realized that even the positioning of the driver's seat was different from what she was used to in Japan. The taxi driver sat on the left while Ryou sat on the right, his wings much too large to be hidden behind his seat. In fact, if she recalled correctly, the taxi driver had been driving on the right side of the road instead of the left the entire time.
Maybe that was why she'd been running into everyone on the sidewalk when she'd tried walking on the left side of the sidewalk. That wasn't how things were done here. Next time, she'd have to pay closer attention to see if people walked on the other side of the sidewalk.
The next day after a quick breakfast with more eggs than she had eaten for the entire week, Yukari left the hotel with Ryou and Ayaori-san to track down Ryou's old teacher. This was one of several tasks they had to accomplish while in New York. Many of the old PEACOCK talents and managers were already making their way to Los Angeles and would be waiting for their return, but there were a few stragglers Yukari had to personally visit. Saitou-sensei was one of them.
Saitou-sensei was easier to find than she had expected. After PEACOCK had disbanded, Saitou-sensei continued teaching dance, but he eventually moved overseas to expand his horizons. The address they had been given wasn't wrong. The young female at the counter answered in the affirmative when Ayaori-san asked for Saitou-sensei in impeccable English.
The young woman behind the counter gestured towards the left and began leading them to where Saitou-sensei was teaching, chattering away as she walked, happy to answer any questions they had about the infamous Saitou-sensei. Apparently, Saitou-sensei was still as flamboyant as Yukari remembered him and had acquired a preference for leather dresses. Their guide kept sneaking glances at Ayaori-san while she chatted and asked how they knew Saitou-sensei, and oh, so they were all from Japan? How were they enjoying New York? Much too busy maybe? Her last question was accompanied by another glance at Ayaori-san. Perhaps she liked his rugged appearance and could tell he was impressive even though he hadn't turned on his charm. He'd done nothing either to tame his wild hair.
Their chattering guide took her leave once they were inside the spacious dance hall and could see Saitou-sensei from where they stood. Yukari hurriedly bowed to their guide in her thankfulness, her hair almost coming undone from the messy bun she had it in. When she looked up, their guide had already left, doors swinging behind her. Yukari turned around. There, less than twenty meters away from them, was Saitou-sensei. He really was wearing a form-fitting black leather dress much like what their guide had been gossiping about. If she hadn't seen it for herself, she'd have found it hard to imagine since Saitou-sensei's shoulders hadn't gotten any narrower in the time that she hadn't seen him. In other words, his shoulders were wide.
Leaning against the wall to wait, Yukari watched the blond teenager Saitou-sensei was instructing. The boy turned and turned and turned, each turn sharper than the one before. Next to him, Saitou-sensei barked orders and tapped the ground with his heels. Faster! Cleaner! Not like that! Yukari was, once again, lost in memories. She smiled fondly to herself. Once, that boy had been Ryou, relentlessly practicing, hard work making up for talent he did not yet have.
She glanced to the side at Ryou, wondering if he too was reminded of his days as a penguin. He had a faraway look in his eyes and a soft smile on his face that told her he was perhaps recalling a fond memory. Yukari's gaze drifted to Ryou's beautiful wings, so much larger and more breathtaking than his wings as a penguin.
Sometimes, thinking back on the memories they shared, Yukari even missed those cute little wings of his. He'd often flapped them and mimed flying whenever she told him he was someone with wings, someone with the potential to shine. With a jolt that made her sag against the wall for support, half in realization and half in disbelief, she wondered what exactly she was missing - was it her time with Ryou, or was it the fact that she had very much been needed back then? Now however...
She took another glance at Ryou. He turned towards her and tilted his head, his long bangs falling to the side.
"Are you all right?" he asked in concern. He stepped over and reached out to steady her. She grabbed his offered hand and righted herself, almost blinded by his bright wings now that they were right in front of her face with his close proximity. She felt her eyes swim.
This Ryou, this Ryou with his amazing wings, didn't really need her, did he? He'd been fine without her for all those years. Even if he hadn't come for her, he'd have continued shining.
"I'm... fine," she murmured, trying to reassure Ryou and herself. She was fine. It had never been about her. Ryou was kind like that. Even back then, he hadn't needed to invite her, a mere high school girl, to be his manager, but he had because he was kind and thoughtful.
"You can tell me, Fujimaru," he said, his voice soft, both reassuring and commanding all at once. She glanced up to meet Ryou's clear blue eyes.
She parted her lips to speak but stopped before she could. When Ryou merely waited patiently, she breathed in and let out her worries.
"Is it really okay for me to be here?" she asked earnestly. "Is it really okay for me to share your brilliance, your dream?" With Ryou, she didn't have to hide her worries. He'd have guessed at them sooner or later. Even though it had been much too long, he knew her just as much as she knew him.
Ryou lifted his free arm up, his wings following his movement, extending and flaring out. He flapped them twice much like what he used to do with his cute little wings, and looked pointedly at Yukari.
"I want you here," he claimed. "Don't you doubt yourself. Without you, I wouldn't be here either."
Yukari squeezed Ryou's hand and smiled warmly. Ryou was right. She was worrying too much for her own good. She doubted. He doubted too. But in the end, neither of them needed to doubt. The answer wasn't a straightforward one, if there even were an answer. She missed Ryou. She missed the time they used to spend together. She missed the light. She missed the brilliance. She missed sharing the dinner table with Ryou and Ayaori-san. She missed sharing their dream. She missed one too many things.
This was her chance to grasp her new dream. She wasn't going to let it go so easily.
When the lesson ended, Yukari tucked her worries away and made her way over to Saitou-sensei. She was Ryou's manager after all, and she was soon to be the boss of PEACOCK. Ayaori-san and Ryou made their way over too.
"Oh, what have we here?" asked Saitou-sensei when he noticed them. He waved his hand to dismiss his student, who seemed curious at their presence. "Why, isn't this the famous Katsuragi Ryou and the famous Ayaori Makoto? What brings the two of you here?"
Before they could answer, Saitou-sensei noticed Yukari's presence next to them and gave her a glance over. "Well, well, surprise after surprise. You've grown into a fine, young lady. Really too bad. I had high hopes that you'd become another beautiful lad once you had your growth spurt, yet here you are, dashing all my hopes. You're obviously not a young man."
Yukari swallowed, her face tinted pink. It had been wrong of her to keep her gender hidden, but it had been necessary at the time. Now, she no longer needed to hide her gender and couldn't even if she wanted to - all those who had been involved with PEACOCK's last project already knew her true gender. It made hiding her gender now a moot point. She tucked her hair behind her ears and tried not to feel overly conscious of her business skirt. She'd come dressed in what she usually wore for her civil service job. What threw her for a loop when she had first started her job were the skirts and the pantyhose, as well as the dress shoes that often had heels that were way too dangerously thin, not at all suitable for running, defending, or attacking. She'd gotten used to the suits and the ties as Ryou's male manager. Eventually, she'd also gotten used to the short skirts and the much too tall heels she donned as a young woman. Other people probably thought the skirts weren't too short and the heels weren't too tall, but for her, they were extremely different from what she'd worn as a male. That period of time as Ryou's male manager had defined her even more than her time as a female high school student.
"We're rebuilding PEACOCK," she said, taking another step forward, her heels clicking on the dance floor without a single wobble. "We'd like you to help us train our talents once again, and to find any acquaintances you know who would like to join us. We're starting from scratch after all."
She explained some more, including their plans to establish PEACOCK as a company for helping Japanese talents find their place in America's acting industry. Saitou-sensei's eyes were twinkling. "Interesting," he said. He looked at Ryou and Ayaori-san appreciatively. "I'd love to give a hand if you're bringing together talents like these once again."
Yukari beamed. PEACOCK's talents were all ones with the ability to succeed as a star. They all had wings, no matter how small they were. She glanced at Ryou. One day, every star, even a star with the tiniest wings, would be able to realize his true potential.
She was here to help them, all of them, even Ryou though he didn't need her to shine anymore. Instead, she was the one who needed him.
"By the way," Yukari continued, finally at peace with the notion and ready to voice it out loud.
"I'm PEACOCK's new boss."
Saitou-sensei's reaction was a sight to see. For once, Ryou's confident teacher was left speechless. He quickly recovered and started guffawing. His fan wasn't nearly enough to muffle his peals of laughter. Once he managed to stop shaking, he wiped at his eyes and fanned himself at the same time.
Yukari wasn't offended - she knew she was not leader material and was certainly not on the level of Ryou's father - and it looked like Saitou-sensei wasn't trying to make fun of her.
"Oh dear, oh dear. Why haven't you told me that earlier? I'm so in. Everyone's reactions will be priceless. Hidemitsu really should have told me personally about this, that dratted man." Saitou-sensei looked at her seriously, the twinkle in his eyes replaced by solemnity. "Just make sure you sound like you know what you're doing, otherwise you won't be able to win the rest over."
Yukari nodded and shared a look with Ryou and Ayaori-san.
Ryou, thought Yukari to herself, touched by Saitou-sensei's words, we're going to make it. We're going to be able to do it.
Once they finished their tasks in New York, which had expanded to visiting several of Saitou-sensei's acquaintances along with visiting past PEACOCK talents, calling in a few favors, and paving the path for the new PEACOCK's first overseas project, they returned to their Los Angeles headquarters.
The moment Yukari stepped through the door, a bouquet of flowers flew at her face. She snatched the bouquet out of the air. A few petals shook loose from her quick movement. She didn't need to guess who the perpetrator was. She knew and could already feel her mouth widening into a grin.
"As impressive as ever," claimed Narazaki-san with an equally large grin, his long black hair trailing behind him in his movement. He followed his words with a swing of his wooden sword.
"Narazaki-san, you came too!" exclaimed Yukari in joy as she leaped out of the path of Narazaki-san's sword, bouquet held safely in her hand, her heels sounding sharply against the marble floor. She hadn't known if he'd join them again when he had such a niche of fans back in Japan. He was practically a staple in historical dramas. Here in America, he would not have the same following, though he would be well liked for his beautiful movements.
"How could I not?" he exclaimed with another swing. "Will you be my manager this time?" he asked eagerly, eyes shining with hope.
Yukari danced away from his next swing, getting into the rhythm. She hadn't been able to practice aikido in her hotel room in New York and had settled with a few simple warm-ups. It relaxed her to be able to move like this. "I'm afraid my hands are already full," she said, and it wasn't just with flowers. He'd know soon enough that she was his new boss.
Narazaki-san pondered this but didn't seem to deflate at her rejection. His eager expression hadn't changed. He'd probably expected her rejection. "No matter. It is all right if you cannot be my manager. One day, you will be my bride instead, won't you?"
"What? No!" exclaimed Yukari, face flushing slightly despite the fact that he'd asked countless times. She'd thought he'd stop asking now that he could ask her to be his manager again. Part of her had thought he'd started on the bride thing because PEACOCK hadn't been around to tie them together, but a larger part of her knew that wasn't the case. She didn't quite know what to do about Narazaki-san's advances - no matter what she said or did, he never gave up on pursuing her. She liked seeing him, and she secretly had to admit that he made her feel special, but she wasn't one for stringing people along.
He smiled affectionately and reassuringly laid one hand on the top of her head before he left, his dazzling wings flashing before her eyes, welcoming her back to this world she'd never be able to leave behind, this bright and beautiful world she didn't want to forget. The moment she'd seen the light descend from the stairs all those years ago had forever sealed her involvement with the industry.
She wiped her mouth.
Ryou walked up to her, staring at Narazaki's retreating back.
"What was that?" he asked, flabbergasted. "Don't tell me he proposed to you again?"
Slowly, Yukari touched the top of her hair where she thought she could still feel the weight of Narazaki-san's hand. His touch had been familiar and comforting. It made her think everything was possible. She wasn't alone after all. She took a deep breath, breathing in the sweet scent of the flowers. "No need to be so shocked, Ryou, he's never stopped."
Ryou stared at where Narazaki-san had disappeared off to.
"It's been years since he started doing that, hasn't it? He's persistent, I have to give him that."
Yukari very much agreed.
Saitou-sensei's reaction to the fact that Yukari was the new boss was muted compared to the rest of the disbelieving reactions she received. Ryou's father hadn't even appeared in person - he left a recording for Yukari to play for the talents and managers that had gathered in Los Angeles. If they had come because of their confidence in their former boss, they were going to be sorely disappointed.
With Torii Hidemitsu's grinning face splayed across the large screen and his almost taunting last words hanging in the air, Kaneda Satoshi, a former manager of PEACOCK, punched the wall.
"You have got to be kidding me," he groaned out. Next to him, Kohinata Kaname, who now sported bright blue hair, was glancing between Kaneda-san and Yukari before settling on looking after Kaneda-san's bleeding fists.
That was one point to the walls.
After Kaneda-san's outburst, two talents - used-to-be Crows, walked out of the meeting before even giving Yukari a chance. Ryou started at the sight and stepped forward, about to chase after them, but Ayaori-san held him back.
Ayaori-san shook his head. Ryou frowned but stayed in place.
Yukari breathed in, remembering the sweet scent of the flowers she had been holding in her hands moments before the meeting. She could do this. Mochizuki-san, who was continuing her job as Ryou's manager - Ryou was also going to have two managers now since Yukari wasn't going to be available to look after Ryou the entire time with her duties as the boss - pushed her glasses up and gave Yukari a nod. Ayaori-san and Ryou stood protectively by both of her sides, and she could easily spot Narazaki-san in the crowd before her, his unique wings making him stand out. She'd studied those wings so many times that she could easily identify his from everyone else's, just like how she could do the same with Ayaori-san and Ryou's wings.
Yukari was not alone.
"I am not Torii Hidemitsu-san," said Yukari loudly and clearly. "I apologize for that. But please, hear me out."
She could hear them whispering, wondering why the boss had designated this shorty as the new boss, why "Fujimaru", of all managers, was now the head honcho. She was young, she was female, and she hadn't even been with PEACOCK for long. There were also some who had only now connected the fact that she and the "Fujimaru-kun" that had been Ryou's manager were one and the same.
"I possess the ability to spot talent," continued Yukari. She wasn't trying to boast. She needed them to know where she stood and where she was going to take the company. "PEACOCK has always been a company that signs on talents who have the potential to become a star. All of you here are such talents and have become successful. All of you are shining more than ever. I can tell, and I'm very happy for all of you."
Kisaragi Motoi-san, the used to be number two of PEACOCK, smiled kindly, urging her to continue. He had his wings folded around himself, but she could tell he had improved greatly too since she had last seen him even though he had already been impressive back then.
Reassured, Yukari forged on.
"You are here for a reason. You are here because you believe in PEACOCK. It is not easy for Japanese actors to make a name for themselves here in America, but we are going to make it happen," declared Yukari. "I am going to help all of you shine even more than you do now, as long as you believe in me and lend me a hand to make PEACOCK thrive."
Someone clapped - she thought the sound came from Narazaki-san's direction - and that was all it took before a thunderous applause shook the room. Yukari wanted to collapse with relief, but she wasn't done yet.
She pressed the remote, the screen changing to show the concept plans of PEACOCK's first project in America titled "Into the Light."
"I have good news for you," Yukari said, her voice stilling the applause. "Our first project has already been decided. Since no one in America knows of PEACOCK or of what we're capable of…" Yukari paused, "That means we have to make our own opportunities. We're going to shock them with our talent and make them turn to look at us. We're going to film our own movie."
They looked at her in awe. Some studied the screen, their eyes widening at what she was suggesting. They were producing a PEACOCK only movie again, except this time, the setting was New York, and they had no established audience here in America to support this endeavor of theirs. This was a bold move on Yukari's part, but it was also such a very PEACOCK thing to do, and it was just what they needed to make an impact.
Out of the corner of her eye, a bright light teased her, yearning for her attention. She turned and immediately felt her mouth water at how Ryou's wings had grown in his excitement. To the left, Ayaori-san matched Ryou's exuberance, his wings adding to the brightness. She didn't know where to look. Off in the audience, Narazaki-san wasn't to be outdone. He spread those beautiful wings of his in challenge. One by one, the talents' wings extended and lit up the entire room, as if telling Yukari that they were in this together. She could even spot two pairs of wings peeking out from the doorway.
With Ryou by her side and talent after talent spreading their wings excitedly, Yukari dared to believe that they would be able to make history, that she'd be able to walk into the light that she had dreamed of and yearned for all these years. She was currently bathed in brilliant and warm light that caressed her and made her wonder why she had ever considered leaving this world. The world was so bright that Yukari almost wanted to shield her eyes, but she didn't want to miss a thing.
Their dream was now a shared one, and she wasn't going to let go.