The role of B.J. is taxing Ren's strength, although he will not admit it. B.J. is unlike any character he's ever played before, a cold-blooded hit man who doesn't care for anyone or anything. The darkness of B.J. is nearly overwhelming, like a noxious scent that permeates Ren's clothing and refuses to leave.
Trying to become "Tsuruga Ren" again is a challenge, because Ren is everything B.J. is not, and visa versa. He knows that both characters are very different from the "real" Kuon, and trying to sort out the characteristics of all his roles is confusing and tiring. Each time he plays B.J., it is harder and harder to return to himself.
After snapping at Yashiro once too often, his manager decides an intervention is needed.
They sit in Ren's dressing room, the small space different from the places he's usually assigned while on set. But the studio is keeping tight wrap on the identity of "Mysterious Actor X," so he's relegated to a small corner instead of his typical, luxurious trailer.
Yashiro has once again gotten hold of Ren's cellphone, holding it inches out of Ren's reach. Ren is trying not to scowl or act threatening, since Ren is a gentleman. But seeing his phone – which he knows contains a voice mail from Kyoko he hasn't had a chance to listen to – in jeopardy makes it hard to keep from reacting.
"This is for your own good," Yashiro tells him. "We can't have you damaging your image by threatening a reporter or scaring a fan."
"Yashiro, I need to keep working." He really wants to get back to the set to film his next scene. Right now the character of B.J. is so loud in his skull that he can't hear anything else. He finds himself uncharacteristically impatient, and holds out his hand. "Give me my cell back," he demands, rather than persuades.
Yashiro makes clucking noises, much like a mother-hen. "I've spoken to the director, and we're going to put the project on hold for three days... hopefully enough time for you to calm down."
Ren's jaw draws tight, and he feels uncharacteristic anger threatening to surface. "Yashiro, you're interfering in my work. You're supposed to help me, not be a pain in my ass."
As soon as the words leave his mouth, he winces. He's just proven Yashiro's point; an actor has to be able to divorce himself from his roles, and differentiate his core identity. His mask is slipping, and Yashiro is (annoyingly) correct in pointing the problem out.
"Fine," he agrees, turning to strip off the black jeans and slightly-frayed sweatshirt wardrobe provided him. As a professional actor and model, he's learned that body modesty is a luxury that he can't afford. He's changed so many times in front of Yashiro that he doesn't even think about it anymore.
Yashiro, thankfully, puts the cellphone down before removing his gloves. "Good. Kyoko's agreed to make you dinner, and you don't have any anything scheduled until the interview tomorrow evening, so I expect you to get a good night's sleep."
Ren freezes in the process of sliding his belt around his waist. "You've invited Kyoko to my place?"
"You haven't spent much time together lately," Yashiro said smoothly. "I'm sure you'll enjoy the chance to catch-up. And her presence will ensure you eat something."
Ren always pretends to be oblivious to his manager's heavy-handed efforts at matchmaking, but this afternoon he's tempted to give into impulse and just strangle Yashiro. He's not sure he wants Kyoko to see him so off-balanced and not-himself.
He already has enough trouble keeping his hands off her as "Tsuruga Ren." Adding B.J.'s selfishness to the mix might make it an impossible task.
But as soon as Yashiro plants the idea of having a quiet evening – alone – with Kyoko, Ren knows he's lost the battle. Although he's afraid how he will react to her presence, he also desperately longs to see her.
He drops Yashiro off for the evening after a very silent car ride. His manager seems to be on edge, and Ren knows Yashiro is reconsidering whether or not it's a good idea to let Ren go. Yashiro likes Kyoko, and wouldn't want to put her in any danger.
He forces himself to smile gently at Yashiro. "I'll pick you up tomorrow at three," he says. "Thank you for your hard work."
Yashiro still looks distrustful as Ren glances at his shrinking face in the rear view mirror, but Ren is too keyed up to care. Every foot he drives is closer to Kyoko; the ball's been put into play, and Ren would be lying if he wasn't glad.
He turns the radio on, hoping to find something to soothe him. He is seeing Kyoko shortly, which is usually enough to make him happy. Ren should have known better; his horrible karma displays its impeccable bad timing.
Fuwa Shou's Prisoner rings through the car speakers and he winces, unable to get the image of Angel!Kyoko and Demon!Fuwa out of his head. The way they had looked at each other spoke of a bond not easily severed. He knows Fuwa is still the most important person to Kyoko, and that gnaws at him daily.
Normally he'd be able to hide his discontent, but B.J. is in the back of his mind, and that stirs anger instead of his usual pain. B.J. is not the type to let anyone get in his way, and Ren is tempted to go "settle" things with Fuwa himself.
But that wouldn't be doing right by Kyoko. She treasures the idea of revenge like a bitch guarding her pups, and getting involved would belittle her. Besides, if he robs her of her prey, she may never speak to him again.
It's only out of stubbornness that Ren doesn't change the radio station, instead masochistically listening until the end of the song. Despite his dislike for the younger man, Ren has to admit Fuwa has plenty of musical talent. As Fuwa's voice wails the last note, he remembers Kyoko's tear-stained face.
He grips the steering wheel harder than usual, and his knuckles crack. It's lucky he has ten more minutes before he will reach his home, because that offers him an opportunity to try to find his Tsuruga Ren personality.
By the time he navigates into the parking garage beneath his building, he feels in control of himself, the dark desires of B.J. ruthlessly suppressed. He pulls into his assigned parking spot, and isn't surprised to hear a tap on the glass as soon as the engine is shut down. Glancing out the window, he offers a slight smile for Kyoko.
She looks absolutely adorable, wrapped up in her warm winter jacket and her cheeks flushed from the cold. He does worry about her tendency to stand outside waiting, but the fleeting thought of giving her a key to his apartment is quickly dismissed. He could just imagine what Yashiro would say about that, and heaven help him if the media ever got hold of such a choice tidbit of information. It might result in the end of both their careers.
Kyoko steps back to let him exit the car. Her smile is warm and bright, and she's holding a bag full of groceries. "Good evening, Tsuruga-senpai!"
"Hello, Mogami-san," he answers. "Yashiro told me he sent you over to look after me. Please don't feel obligated..."
"It's no problem! I'm glad I get to see you – I was hoping we could talk." She shifts uncomfortably on her feet, and he can't help but note she's still standing like a model instead of using her usual perfect Japanese lady posture. "If that's not an imposition."
"You're never an imposition," he tells her. He takes the bag from her and gestures for her to follow. Knowing that she needs something from him makes him feel a bit less selfish for derailing her evening plans.
Kyoko waits patiently for him to unlock the door to his space, stepping into his apartment right after him, not even thinking about how it might look to outsiders. A pretty teenager blithely following a man into his apartment... Thank heaven that Ren's neighbors know enough to leave him alone. He's not the only famous personality inhabiting this building, and it's an unspoken rule that discretion is the byword. No one ever sees or hears anything.
She slides on the guest slippers (in a shade of pink just a little less bright than her Love Me coveralls) he'd bought after her first visit with him. He pulls on his own green slippers without thinking about it.
She's visited his apartment enough times to no longer be surprised by the luxury. Ren, American by birth, prefers more space than most places in Tokyo provide; as soon as he'd started earning enough salary, he'd gone to lease the largest apartment he could.
He wants to help her cook dinner, but knows she would likely object. She's a better cook than he is, anyway.
"You can start dinner while I get changed," he tells her. "If you need a pot or something in a higher cabinet, wait for me, okay?"
"Okay," she agrees, though he knows he should change fast to keep her from getting tempted to try, anyway. He still remembers how she ended up hanging from his cabinet, leading to their first embrace. The memory of the warmth of her body in his arms is another temptation he doesn't need, not while there's the slight murmur of B.J. still in his skull.
He watches as Kyoko heads to the kitchen, unaware of his eyes on her. He can't help but notice how she walks, no longer using the posture of the perfect Japanese lady, instead walking like a model. He'd been horrified that he'd actually bent his masculine pride enough to show her how to walk, but it had been a pure Kyoko incident. She didn't have a clue what she was asking of him, and he couldn't let down her unshakable faith in him.
He finds his bedroom is as he left it that morning, with the bed still unmade. He'd spent a restless night previously, tossing and turning as he dreamed uneasy memories of his past. B.J. was bringing all that to the surface, and Ren still wasn't ready to deal with it.
He digs a lightweight blue shirt out of his closet before unearthing a pair of jeans from his dresser. He strips quickly, for the second time in less than an hour, sliding into his casual wear with a sigh of relief. Ren usually dresses aware that he'll likely be photographed at some point during the day, since most encounters with his fans involve cell-phone cameras, and the media always has an eye on his comings and goings. But dressing nicely isn't as comfortable as dressing in clothes that have been broken in.
Ren pauses by the doorway, wondering why he feels comfortable enough with Kyoko to not worry about offending her by dressing comfortably. Knowing she is in his apartment preparing dinner for them, makes a slow-burning need to touch her start in his belly. He wonders what she would do if he were to walk out and pull her into an embrace. In fact, he's half-tempted to go out there without his shirt, and see what she does, if she'll be embarrassed or perhaps-
He needs to stop thinking like that. That is not the behavior of a gentleman, not the acceptable behavior of Tsuruga Ren.
Taking a deep breath, he reminds himself that Kyoko has something she wants to talk to him about. Maybe he can overcome his disquiet by falling into the role of her adored senpai. If he helps Kyoko, he could help remember himself.
She's wrapped an apron around her waist, the one he's never bothered using and can't remember acquiring, and is humming faintly as she scraps the vegetables clean. Her movements are economical and practiced, and he pauses for a moment to watch the inherent beauty of her skill.
But it's only a brief moment before he remembers that watching her like this could be seen as creepy, and she's expecting him anyway. He waits until she finishes with the carrot in her hands before announcing his presence with a question. "Is there anything I can do?"
She lifts her head and smiles, and for a second he is surprised by the sudden blaze of beauty in her face. Kyoko is not a classically beautiful woman, not like her friend Kotonami, but there is something startling attractive about her when he sees her in the right light. It's like looking at an unrefined diamond, the beauty of its potential outweighing its current circumstances.
"Don't worry about anything! You can go lie down if you're tired, and I'll take care of everything!" Kyoko assures him.
"Are you doing this as a Love Me activity?" he asks suspiciously. He remembers how it stung to find out her care while he'd been ill was something she'd offer anyone.
She gives him a surprised look, her eyebrows raising toward her bleached hairline. "I'm doing this as your kohai," she replies. "You've done so much for me that I want to offer you my help in return, and Yashiro-san said you..."
He holds up a hand to forestall further babbling, even though it's adorable. "That's fine. Mind if I keep you company?"
Kyoko offers a shy smile, one that he thinks is more genuine than the usual gamine grin she chooses to show the world. "That would be nice."
A part of him feels smug that she's taking this extra effort just for him. Ren would fill her Love Me book up with thousands of stamps, just to keep anyone else from noticing what a treasure she is. He wants her to be his and no one else's.
And he understands how impossible that is. As long as she's an actress, a part of her will belong to her fans, just as a part of Ren belongs to his. Neither can afford selfishness.
He watches as she deals with the potatoes and onions just as efficiently as the carrots before washing her hands in the sink. Ren thinks she looks comfortable in his kitchen, like it's somewhere she belongs. She has all the skill of a seasoned housewife, the thoughtless efficiency bred through practice and devotion.
They keep up a steady patter of conversation, about work and who they know. Kotoname (Kyoko's beloved Moko-chan) has landed another role in a drama, a larger piece that shows she's verging on making a break-through, though not one as important as Mio to Dark Moon. Ogata is considering what he wants to do after Dark Moon finishes filming, and both hope they'll be able to work with the gentle director again. Maria is going to take a trip to America next month, and Ren has been helping her practice her English.
It's all comfortable talk, and Ren feels more of the darkness B.J. has imparted in him start to ebb away. Kyoko is vibrant and fascinated by everyone she knows, and he can see she's wishing them all the best. It's very hard for him to reconcile this bubbly girl with the one who uses voodoo dolls to wish ill on her enemies.
Ren knows the darkness in Kyoko, the part of her soul which was wounded by Fuwa's betrayal. He wishes he had a magic salve to fix her heart, but knows better than to try.
Finally she throws the last of the ingredients into the pot and sets it onto the front burner to simmer. She's already started the rice cooker, so now there's nothing to do but wait.
Kyoko takes a seat at the breakfast nook across from him, smiling as she dries her face with a dishtowel.
"Would you like a glass of water?" he offers.
"I'll wait for the tea to finish brewing," she tells him agreeably. "Don't worry about taking care of me, that's not why I'm here."
"I'm your senpai. Taking care of you is part of my job," he chides her gently. It's the only special role he can claim in her life, and he's not going to have her ignore that. Despite her polite denial, he goes to the cabinet to grab two glasses. After putting a couple of cubes of ice in each, he fills them nearly to the brim with cool water.
She looks embarrassed as he sets one in front of her. "I could have done that, Tsuruga-senpai."
"You've done all the work making dinner. Getting glasses of water is nothing."
She uses the glass to hide her face behind as she takes a drink. He can tell she's feeling shy, and can't decide if it's more cute or irritating. "I hope the dinner lives up to expectations," she demurs.
She's an excellent cook, and he knows that dinner is going to be wonderful. He's tempted to roll his eyes at her modesty, but remembers in time that Tsuruga Ren wouldn't indulge himself at the expense of another. "I'm sure it's more than worth the effort I expended filling two glasses," he replies dryly instead.
There's silence for a long moment, and he can tell there's something she wants to say. So he graciously makes an opening for her, "You said you had a question for me?"
Kyoko fidgets again, and Ren waits for her. She's not the kind to back down, no matter how frustrating she finds a situation, but she does still have a streak of inherent shyness that occasionally rears its head. He knows that she trusts him, though, so he can afford to be patient.
"You and Kuu-sensei have taught me how to create a character, but... how do you get out of character when the job is done?"
He blinks as her words register, and his first thought is amusement at the irony of the situation. Somewhere along the way, she's somehow managed to make her life mirror his own without trying. Then he takes a deep breath, not wanting to do anything to shake her faith in him.
"Have you been having problems?" he asks gently.
Her hands twist in her lap, and she's avoiding meeting his eyes. "It's like I'm not really myself sometimes," she says softly, her lowered eyes focused on the table instead of his face. "I find myself doing something that Natsu would, even when I'm not filming. It's like I'm more her than me sometimes."
Considering this is the exact same issue he's currently battling (and losing, if he's to be honest), Ren thinks he's the worst person to give advice on the topic.
But he also knows he's all Kyoko has to guide her. He's her senpai, and it's his responsibility to help any way he can.
He thinks what he wants to say over carefully before speaking. "An actor sometimes take a bit of the character they're portraying into their personal life. It's not always a bad thing – as long as we take time to remember who we are."
Her head tilts curiously, and he's caught by the neediness in her light brown eyes. "So you're saying it's okay that I behave like Natsu?"
"Only if it's because you're choosing to do so," he said. "Sometimes playing a character may help us reshape ourselves into a more desired personality. Every character you create should have both good and bad points, and using that to help ourselves is an acceptable idea. People aren't stagnant. We're always evolving... so why not use a bit of the characters we play to guide that process?"
As he speaks, he realizes he's telling the truth.
He does not like B.J. as a person, but a part of him loves the character. B.J. is indomitable, and the kind of man to get what he wants through sheer strength of will. There is no reason why Ren can't pick the parts of B.J. to adapt into his own psyche. He had known playing B.J. would change him, but Ren is a strong enough person to control what happens to him.
The realization is like taking a deep breath after holding it for over a minute; the sudden rush of relief fills his body like much-needed oxygen. He's been fighting to be "Tsuruga Ren" for so long that he's forgotten the main point of accepting the role of B.J.: to expand beyond his limits as he seeks the pinnacle as an actor.
Kyoko is unaware of the epiphany she has inadvertently led Ren to. Her expression has turned inward, and he doubts she's even aware of her surroundings as she thinks over what he had said. He doesn't doubt that she'll draw her own conclusions, and make the right decision for herself.
It's only the sound of the oven timer that stirs her from her introspection. Her eyes widen and she bounces over to check the curry and rice.
The mood of intimacy is broken, but Ren is resigned to the mixed blessing of dinner. He still doesn't like to eat – too much trauma in his childhood was associated around his parents' well-meaning intentions of "feeding him" – but preparing his dinner is the excuse Yashiro used to get Kyoko to Ren's house to spend the evening.
They eat in the dining room at the kotatsu, and Ren can admit to himself that the meal tastes better than anything else he's eaten recently, because it was made by Kyoko's hands.
Kyoko is quiet for several moments as they start to eat, but Ren knows better than to expect that to last. One of the things that attracts him to her is her ceaseless curiosity, and they are close enough that she doesn't feel the need to restrain herself.
"So are you working on something special? Yashiro-san didn't want to tell me what your schedule was, so...." she trailed off, an impish smile curving her lips.
He trusts Kyoko more than anyone (with the possibly exception of Lory), but his role as B.J. is supposed to be a close-guarded secret. The more people who know of it, the more likely it is to get out. Kyoko can be discreet, but her temper leads her to occasional irrational action.
"It's a secret," he says playfully, giving her a winning smile.
"Ah?" she perks up, and he can see her fantasy-inclined mind start to race through elaborate possibilities. "Are you playing a prince, or a lord?"
"Secret," he repeats, chuckling. "It's a challenging role, though."
"Is it why you're so tired lately?" Kyoko meets his eyes squarely. "You need to take better care of yourself, everyone's worried about you."
He's tempted to point out that he's been living on his own since he was sixteen and he's survived so far. But that would be nasty, and he needs to take Kyoko's concern with the care it was meant, rather than deriving offense from her innocent comment.
"I always work hard," he says. "I don't think I would be happy if I wasn't."
"There's no reason not to take care of yourself, though. If you eat and sleep better, you'll be able to work harder."
It's really hard to argue with that. "Maybe I'm just taking the wrong bit of my role with me," he says, conceding. "I'll try to keep from worrying Yashiro so much."
"We're all worried about you! I don't know what I'd do without Tsuruga-senpai!" she interjects, and he wonders if she realizes how much that statement reveals. Once, he hadn't noticed how giving her heart was since he'd been distracted by her desire for revenge. Now, he can't help but want for her to finish with her vendetta against Shou so she can move on with her life... move on, unhindered, to where Ren can meet her as a lover, not just a senpai.
And in that instant, he mentally reaffirms that he will not let her go without a fight. He will face Shou's challenge, and win her heart. He will show her love isn't something that only takes, that it's something worth cherishing and celebrating.
Kyoko is not ready for love; that's just as well, because Ren isn't ready, either.
He's been quiet for too long, and Kyoko starts to shift uncomfortably, wondering if she's said something wrong. He sets his spoon aside and reaches across the table to take her hand in his own.
"I'll always be here for you, Mogami-san," he promises.
Her neck and cheeks color with embarrassed pleasure, and there's another hint of B.J.'s thinking in his mind, wondering exactly how far down the blush goes. He's going to have to take some time to sort of what is B.J. and what are his own, very real, desires. But he doesn't need to fear them anymore, not when they are so very natural.
A man is not one-sided, but rather multifaceted, forming the jewel of his personality. That is the actor's best trick for "creating" a realistic character, seeking the depths of what their role's motivations are. "Tsuruga Ren" is too perfect a man to be real, and it's ridiculous to pretend he has no desire, or any dark side. It's amazing that no one has called him out as false before.
"If there's anything I can ever do for you..." she finally replies, as she works through her embarrassment. The atmosphere between them is tense with unfilled potential, and for a second Ren is almost overwhelmed with the need to tell her exactly how he feels, and what he wants from her. Everything.
But that day isn't now. Kyoko is not ready.
But he almost is.
He struggles to keep his face from revealing everything he's thinking. He opens his mouth to tell her that she doesn't need to do anything special, just be herself, when an imp of selfishness speaks up in the back of his mind.
Half an hour later, they're seated on his couch, watching television together. He should probably feel ashamed of himself for asking for it in the first place, but he's once again resting his head in her soft lap, listening to the sound of her breathing instead of the variety show that's currently on the screen.
Ren knows (and hopes Kyoko doesn't know that he knows) that she's only pretending to pay attention to the television. Right now, the only thing she's thinking about is him, and that's what makes this a truly delightful experience. Besides, this is relatively innocent, compared to what he would really like to do with her.
But he will keep her safe from that side of himself, the side that not only understands B.J. but is tempted by the dark allure of selfishness. For now, he will be Tsuruga Ren, the gentleman star that all of Japan adores.
He lets his eyes drift close, focusing on the feel of her fingers running through his hair gently. It's soothing, this soft stroking, and he imagines, for a second, that she does so because he is her beloved.
He's just about to drift to sleep when she makes a startled sound. "Kyoko-san?" he murmurs, thinking his drowsy state will serve as an excuse for using her first name, should she inquire.
"It's... well," she stammers a bit, and his lips twitch with a smile before she finally spits her question out. "Tsuruga-senpai, why do you have blond roots?"