Disclaimer: The standard applies. The rest are a figment of my imagination.
Chapter 26 – I Got It Bad And It Ain't Good
Abarai Renji was sneezing his head off, busting his lungs and the eardrums of his actor friend. He sat on the edge of the bed, one leg propped against the wall, mucus from his nose running free. He fingered the cellphone in his pocket, took it out and fingered the number pad, as if waiting for someone to contact him. Then he sneezed again.
"Can't you tune it down? You're affecting my thoughts!" Ichigo scowled.
"S-o-r-r-y." Renji reached for a tissue to blow his nose and had his hand slapped away. "Hey!" he protested.
"Use your own."
"Tch," Renji grouched, chin sinking into his large hands. "Wassup with the grumpiness on a beautiful Wednesday morning? Ain't you long past puberty?"
"Shut up, baboon. It's my business."
"Oh, so your business is a great business."
"What now?" Ichigo snapped, jerking his head sharply at the redhead. "I'm a troubled twenty-three year old, how's that?"
Renji slid off the bed and onto the floor in one clean swipe. "That makes two of us, that's what."
"What worries you? A lack of bananas? Seriously, now," Ichigo scoffed, to which his friend failed to reply. The redhead had seemingly traversed to another world of his own, shoulders slumped and head nestling against the bed frame.
Ichigo nudged him with a piece of tissue. No response.
"Fine," said he, surprised to find himself with the last word.
"We are pals, right?" Renji later asked in a tiny voice uncharacteristic even to himself.
Ichigo arched a brow. "Why?"
"How do you know a pal when you see one?"
"That's a tough one to tackle. How about an easier nut to crack?"
"You suck, man. Lemme see." Renji was clearly in deep thought, sitting up straight in a lotus position, tattooed brows furrowing into one tight knot. "How about this: when can you tell if a pal is still a pal or has a pal crossed over to the other side?"
Renji buried his face in his huge hands and sighed dramatically. "They become more than mere pals. They transcend the entire meaning of 'pals'. Get it, dumb ass?"
"Oh. Pals. What a nice generic term."
"Excuse your sarcasm. Really cute way of treating someone who needs answers solid and fast."
"Now that's cute."
"Will you just leave me alone? I'm onto something that's plaguing me like a bunch of shitty houseflies for the past few weeks!"
"As if you're the only one!" Ichigo cut a look at Renji. "Now, since you've been busying yourself with the theory of 'pals' for weeks, I'm sure you can answer one question. Nothing more, just one question."
"How do you, in the first place, even ascertain whether you are pals?"
The redhead slapped his thigh in annoyance. "Chicken feed. You watch footy together, you laugh and chat and share the same frequency, you drink together, you get drunk together, you see how shitty the other can be but never fails to bust out a move when you need it the most. Pals."
"What if your so-called pal refuses to acknowledge that you are pals?"
"Maybe that pal wants to go straight to beyond pals?"
Renji traded glances with his friend. "That's what I thought too."
There went a beautiful Wednesday morning, stifled in a bout of sighs.
Ulquiorra Schiffer looked out the window from thirty stories high in the Tokyo business district. The Shibuya 109 building streets away stood like a neon beam stretching all the way beyond the stratosphere. Gingko trees barely hanging onto their last flurry of gold, lights plastered across the tarmac distance, little dots stringing together in incoherent sets of lines. Then he looked ahead and came face to face with his own reflection dimming under the lights, its outline vanishing under the gathering dark.
"You've decided?" Aizen Sousuke clasped his fingers together on the polished oakwood table.
Ulquiorra turned away from the window and stared straight at the CEO overseeing the artiste management company he was under. "Yes," he said.
Aizen's brown eyes glimmered. "Good news. For the company, for yourself."
The desktop calendar showed Monday, 29 November 2010. One month to Christmas. Already the office was decorated from head to toe in glittery lights and lit-up miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower, the Shanghai TV Tower, the Tower of London, the Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur, and more up and coming towers than Ulquiorra could bother to dig up from his memory. All he knew was how much the man in question adored towers and he would probably buy them all and uplift them into his personal theme park if he could have his way.
"Indeed," said Ulquiorra.
"I can only say this - I'm glad. You've made the correct decision, just as I expect of you."
Aizen rose to his full height and stepped away from the chair. "Two years away from Japan." His alligator loafers clicked dully on the floor.
"A mere 730.5 days."
"Or more, if you plan to further your career there. You could end up staying there for the rest of your life. And we know Los Angeles is no bullet train ride from Hokkaido to Tokyo."
Of course, Ulquiorra thought.
"At the risk of sounding like an overrun tape, I will just have to query once more."
"Please speak your mind."
"Are you entirely sure about this? Although it's impossible to think of you this way, I wouldn't want you backing out at the last minute. It's a major production we are looking at here. You know what I'm talking about."
"You have my word, Aizen-san. Please rest assured."
"Besides, they are really looking forward to work with you next year."
"I can say the same of myself."
Aizen smiled and flicked off imaginary dust from his double-breasted blazer with his fingers positioned as if wielding a shotgun. "I can't wait to see a Japanese actor lifting the big prize on the world stage."
Ulquiorra gave a half bow. "Much obliged."
Kurosaki Ichigo's stomach was growling when the meeting ended. He entered the building when it was morning and now dusk had began to gather over the horizon. Grumbling about bickering bosses and lousy compensation payouts and the potential renewal of the contractual relationship with Orihime, he got into his silver Impreza and drove to his favorite teppanyaki restaurant nearby. As usual the place was crowded, it being Friday and marked a fresh start to the most joyous month of the year, so he pulled his cap low over his eyes and sat in a corner where he could be in peace.
"Sir, your order?" a waiter asked.
"Grilled hamburger steak with raw onion rings. Extra rice. Sprinkle some sesame seeds and seaweed on it."
The waiter repeated his order. Ichigo nodded and rubbed his hands together and watched as the waiter disappeared in a maze of tables and bent backs. The carrot top sipped some roast brown rice tea and puffed out his inner chill on the window to his left. Then he rubbed the hazy spot with the back of his palm and gazed at the world outside through that little circle of clarity. He saw the normal Tokyo night scene, bustling with activity and seeping in inactivity. Streetlights thronged the sidewalks. He can vaguely hear music thumping outside those thick glass windows, Christmas songs rendered and sometimes butchered by pop groups and singers of a better ilk. Billboards cast an otherworldly rainbow of colors on couples strolling down the streets, huddled in their puffy down jackets, huddled in each other. Fine threads of rain became visible through the prisms of streetlight. The couples walked even closer together, practically leaning on each other, pulling their hoods over their heads, sharing an umbrella large enough for them to walk alongside comfortably, sharing an umbrella so small they had to squeeze like soaked rats under it, cupping their hands over their heads.
Totally stupid and redundant, Ichigo remarked to himself. Soon it'll begin to snow and who cares about having two palms over your head or a hat with two flaps covering your ears or whatever. The snow eventually falls on you and when it melts, your clothes become damp and -
He stopped. His internal monologue sounded exactly like what someone would say. Someone...he forked a piece of his hamburger steak and chewed it when without warning, a certain green eyed man with near alabaster skin came to mind, and he was coming closer and closer, sending odd fuses of electricity up Ichigo's spine. Those images of him...those...
Seriously now, no!
Wandering down large and jam-packed shopping districts was never Ulquiorra's specialty. In a bid to avoid the crowds of Shinjuku he stepped into a three story high multimedia store and made a beeline for the DVDs section. He had surfed a premier movie site days ago and spied some highly acclaimed titles in American cinema. What was of paramount significance now was to shore up his language and decode the way American actors behave on screen. That way he could handle the set and its members once he stepped in. He liked no surprises, even the role he was in running for - a Japanese time-slipping into New York in the 1940s - lay within brief inches of his grasp. As long as he said yes, Aizen promised, he would be on his way to Hollywood.
Four months later, he would leave Japan. For good? He didn't know. There was nothing, in theory, that could hold him back. His mother was perfectly alright with him heading over since they hadn't lived under the same roof since he left school. She could visit him anytime or even move in with him if she wished to. He could visit her in Hakodate if time permitted. He could export his pet kitty over, or leave her with Grimmjow for the time being. He could sell his penthouse suite in Roppongi Hills, the furniture, the window sills, the crockery, everything. Then he recalled a particular item sitting in his living room that wasn't purchased under his account. Should he return it to him since it wasn't needed anymore? Or had he long forgotten that he had left something in Ulquiorra's home? If anything, those three weeks they spent together had somehow dissipated into spiraling columns of smoke. He would be self-deluded to think it could happen otherwise, especially given how he had ended their last interaction at the small park outside the movie studio. Did he regret it? Well, Ulquiorra Schiffer didn't do regrets. So be it.
Before he realized it, Ulquiorra had stopped before a six feet tall rack showcasing the latest bestselling DVDs. Altogether there were fifty ranks shelved in accordance to their sales for the week. Number one right at the top, number fifty at the bottom. Ulquiorra took a step back and glanced all fifty rows in one go. There were a couple he recognized and dismissed after ten minutes of viewing, there were those he respected (no more than three) and there were those he saw as absolute Shibuya trash. He saw his personal collector's box set coming in at number four. He saw the horrible vampire trilogy set headlined by Ichigo topping the sales chart. For three weeks too. What on earth was the world coming to? Then again, he wasn't surprised. It was a story anyone with a heart could empathize with and lose themselves in easily. Plus, the DVD cover looked amazing. A brooding Kurosaki Ichigo with his face tilted forty-five degrees to the right - his best angle as Ulquiorra had observed through their kissing scenes together - no wait, Ulquiorra paused mid-thought, what was he supposed to purchase again? He stared at the DVD cover again. It really didn't look too bad, his mind repeated. Deciding he could return home to refresh his memory and not wanting to make a wasted trip, he reached for the top shelf.
"Why would anyone buy trash like that?" said a passing salaryman to his girlfriend. "And a guy at that? What's he? A flaming gay?" He looked at Ulquiorra over his shoulder.
The acclaimed actor was nearly unrecognizable without his signature facial makeup on, half of his face buried under his grey felt coat and white woollen hat.
"Softer! He can hear you," his girlfriend interrupted.
"So what? People who buy that shit have no right to pick a fight with other people."
"It's not too nice. Everyone has their own preference."
"It just so happens that some preferences are better than others," he said, his voice drifting past Ulquiorra like a midnight train ghosting from station to station. "Stupid vampire shit. Half the people living here are bloody fools who can't appreciate true cinema."
The green eyed actor kept his head low and walked briskly to the cashier. Retaliation would be an unnecessary exertion of strength; he needed deep reserves of them to deal with the mandatory behind-the-scenes interview sessions next week. Thoughts are nice for sure, because they hardly come to fruition in real life. Exactly that was what crossed Ulquiorra's mind when he exchanged glances with a cashier manning the only payment counter on the DVDs floor.
An Ulquiorra Schiffer movie was screening on prime time television. The movie event of the year, said the newspaper listing for the day's programming schedule. It was the very movie which had the actor nab his major cinema honors in the region and propelled him to superstardom, a term he blatantly disregarded time and again.
"This is the sixth time I'm watching it," Kurosaki Isshin informed loudly. "Keeps gettin' better!"
Yuzu nodded vigorously, never tearing her eyes away from the screen. "Especially the part where Youtaro runs past his younger self, his eyes full of regret and unbearable pain."
"You do realize you're already fast forwarding to the ending when we are only six minutes into the movie?" Karin pointed out. "Anyway, can't believe that we have an autographed poster on our wall! Courtesy of the man himself! We can sell it when things get bad."
Isshin beamed. "I xeroxed a copy of it on A3-sized paper."
"Loser." That was Karin.
"Youtaro Kitamura!" Yuzu added. "And he was at our place too. With his sick kitty. I thought his kitty was a myth. It was so cute to see him in the flesh. He looks nothing like Youtaro."
"Why of course! Didn't he nab every single acting award there was to nab for an Asian actor for his portrayal of Youtaro? I've seen blogs where fans screen-capped every frame he was in, especially those he was seen winking at the trucks of illegal Russian immigrants passing him by!"
"Even the old fool reads blogs?" Karin again.
"That was a really beautiful wink!" Yuzu had spun off into her own universe.
"He was downright evil in that movie," Karin interjected.
"But he redeemed himself in the end!"
"He did it the complicated way."
"Who did it the complicated way?" asked Ichigo as he entered the house. Carefully he lay his black and orange sneakers on the shoe rack and frowned at his family huddling together in a circle around the television.
"Your beautiful lover, son!"
"The one and only!" Isshin pointed at the screen where Ulquiorra as Youtaro had just stabbed a random Russian man in the heart with his katana without displaying a single shred of remorse.
"What?" Ichigo nearly shrieked, his face turning funny shades of beetroot red. "What-err-l-lov-"
"Ichi-nii, come sit down and watch with us!" Yuzu smiled, her eyes still glued to the screen.
Grateful for the timely intervention, Ichigo nodded and joined the huddle of three. Soon he was intrigued by the drama and he would rather lose a limb than admit he was enthralled by his co-star's talent. One minute a kind young man in the Edo period who lived in self-denial and charming speech, the other a heartless Japanese soldier who barely spoke but inflicted cruelty as if he was born with it. Needless to say, he looked equally good. Those eyes especially - wait, Ichigo shook his head, what was up with him today?
"Ichi-nii, have you watched any of Ulquiorra-san's movies?" asked Yuzu midway through the movie during the commercial interval.
"As his co-star, shouldn't you be doing homework on him?" Yuzu pondered.
"Our son only needs to love his co-star! Simple! That's the only homework he needs to do in life!"
"No one asked you to speak, old man!" said Karin, turning up the volume to tune the elder Kurosaki out.
"Well," Ichigo replied, not forgetting to escape his father's gut churning embraces while he was raking his brains for an answer, "I did perform some background check on him before we met." He didn't enter the details and he supposed he knew more about the real Ulquiorra Schiffer than any tell-all account.
Karin shrugged. "Got to up your game. He's doing way more research on you than you are on him."
"He bought your trilogy DVD set."
Seconds passed. The only volume in the room came from the TV.
"Care to run that by me again?" Ichigo asked.
"He was dressed all casual at the store this evening and paid for it in cash. At first I thought I was seeing things, how on earth would someone like Ulquiorra Schiffer buy, sorry no offense Ichi-nii, a silly movie like a vampiric love triangle. But remember, he showed up at our house without makeup and that was what he looked like when he came to the cashier. I made a couple of second guesses too, but one little action gave him away. You know, our eyes met and stuff and for a sec there, he seemed panicky and wanted to flee at the nearest possible chance. How many times do you get to run into the man himself in a store buying things like a normal human being? I had to prove my theory, so I took my own sweet time and counted the yen notes while scrutinizing him. He kept his eyes on the floor throughout, as if he didn't want me to recognize him. He didn't even count his change. Stuffed them into the plastic carrier together with the DVDs and sped towards the exit. Guilty as charged."
All three listeners sat there, unmoving since Karin's first word. Suddenly the movie paled in comparison.
"I'm speechless," Isshin offered.
"Know what I think?" Karin grinned a rare grin. Something she only did when her confidence hit an all-time high. "I think he's keeping something from Ichi-nii. Something big."
"Like a human? He's keeping a human from my dear son and your brave brother?"
Karin ignored him. "First, he obviously didn't want to be recognized. The DVD set cost a bunch and the general shoppers pay by credit. He paid by cash - untraceable. No name divulged to the cashier too. Second, if he wanted to watch the movie and criticize you, he can either obtain the DVDs from your management company for free or catch it online. Why pay for something you don't care about, right? Third, he didn't want me to recognize him because he knows I'm your sister and I will let you on what I saw. Fourth," Karin halted abruptly and gave a meaningful look to the trio who clung onto her every word. Ichigo tried to look otherwise but his ears remained pricked in his sister's direction. Karin had developed the air of a well-known sleuth used to addressing the exact breakdown of a crime to a crowd. She might have as well been standing behind a podium.
"There are three versions of The Vampire trilogy and guess which one he picked," said she.
"The one that came with a free poster?"
"Yep, Yuzu. Right on. The most expensive version with all those stupid freebies like Ichi-nii making a fool out of himself when he wasn't shooting the movie, or NGs that are equally useless and whatnot. The one with the really nice holographic cover. He picked that."
Ichigo stared at his fingers, discerning the length of each outstretched finger. What was he supposed to say anyway? Thank you for buying my DVD? I look forward to your further patronage? He didn't say them of course. Should he text his co-star a message of thanks? Suicidal. It was stupid to think beyond the realm of possibility when it came to Ulquiorra Schiffer. He stayed as shut as a clam and pretended he heard none of it.
Not his father.
"Wow," Kurosaki Isshin commented. "I wouldn't even spend a yen on my son's movies!"
A/N: Sorry for the delay! A good portion of this chapter has been sitting idle on my desktop for a while, and then it struck me how long I've taken to update the fic. Hope you've enjoyed yourselves reading.