Title: Vocaloid Love
Pairing: Sakumoto (main)/ Sakurai Sho x Ikuta Toma (one-sided)/ Ohba (friendship)
Summary: Johnny & Associates created a new service for their fans: an 24-hour call service of highly advanced vocaloids that sounds identical to their idols. Business begins booming. Fans are estatic with the new fan service (not to mention the extra cash for the company). One day, Sho got a little curious and gave a call to a vocaloid Jun. But he's slowly becoming too attached.
Notes: For astrangerenters in the arashi_exchange 2015 event. First, let me say it is an honor to write for someone so well-known in the fanfic fandom as you! I definitely try to keep the genres you wanted while not making it too angsty, and I also tried writing a hurt/comfort story more on the emotional rather than the physical. I also add in a side-story of Ohno and Aiba's Mets Cola mystery adventure! Just a little haha! I hope you like this fic!
Also, many thanks to my beta avya7x :D
"It's been three weeks since the launch of Johnny & Associates new call line: Friendly Johnny," TV announcer Hatori Shinichi reported. "The service features the latest vocaloid technology to imitate human voice with 95% accuracy. The new vocaloid technology will respond with realistic pauses, mumbles, and other vocal interactions that makes phone conversations more natural. The company has received a staggering amount of positive feedback but has yet to reveal their statistic reports. Telephone companies, as well as other talent agencies, are looking into the new vocaloid system to create similar products for their customers to compete with Johnny & Associates."
In the dressing room, Sho watched the morning program while eating his breakfast. His newspaper laid across the table with the headline "AKB Challenges New Vocaloid Phone Service". Aiba and Jun were also watching the news report while Ohno and Nino gazed down at their smartphones.
"What do you think about the booming call service, Hatori-san?" A female announcer asked with her usual morning TV smile.
"It's truly amazing, isn't it?" Shinichi quickly replied back. "I'm wondering if my manager will have my voice in the system too."
Sho snorted in amusement before talking to the television. "There's a lot of surveys you have to fill out, Hatori-san."
"Those surveys took forever!" Aiba commented back with a tired smile. "I've never stared at a computer for so long until that time. It must have been, like, two hundred questions!"
"'How would you respond to a person crying?' 'How would you react if someone said they love you?' 'What advice would you give if someone lost their job?'" Jun said, counting with his fingers. "They just kept coming, right?"
"Hmm!" Sho mumbled with his mouth full, initiating his turn to talk next. Aiba and Jun waited until Sho swallowed the last of his soup and rice before pitching in his two cents. "I still don't think it'll last very long. Fans will know they're not talking to their real idols. Wouldn't that hurt their feelings in the end?"
"It's good money," Nino joined in from across the room. Nino lifted his head, revealing the dark bags under his eyes. "And it's showing positive results. The fans do know they're talking to vocaloids, but it's also helping the fans who feel lonely. Not to mention their conversations are private and won't have any consequences out in the real world. It's like an online chat with an AI but more...human."
Sho silently disagreed with Nino. From an economic standpoint, Sho understood how they're benefiting from the call service. Fans all over Japan are going nuts knowing they can chat with their favorite idols whenever they want. But from a humanistic approach, Sho worried about the long-term damage it could bring. It's one thing to have long distance relationships or talk to strangers online for social interaction, but to have complete robotic simulations impersonating humans seemed ridiculous to Sho. Maybe even beneath him. For Sho, real human relations are more important.
In some ways, Sho pitied his fans even more. Who is calling his vocaloid impersonator right now, chit-chatting over topics that the real Sho would never want to talk about? How many of those callers think that Sho has fallen in love with them because of a programmed response? How many of those individuals have completely shut themselves away from the real world with real humans? Pitiful...
"Wouldn't it be crazy if we called ourselves?" Jun brought up a new topic.
"I'll be honest with you guys," Aiba spoke up, "but I actually tried calling myself."
Sho gawked at him while Jun laughed. "You did?! How did it go?"
"It was the weirdest phone call I ever had," Aiba grinned, amused with himself. "They are surprisingly accurate! I'd ask the vocaloid a question, and he replied back almost exactly what I would have said."
"I tried it too," Ohno joined at last. He had a smug look on his face. "Though I asked a lot of naughty questions."
"What did it say back?" Jun asked immediately.
"Mmm...I couldn't stand hearing myself talk dirty to me, so I hung up."
Nino smirked and Sho passed a quiet chuckle. Aiba and Jun laughed the hardest.
"Good to know the system is working," Nino said. "Especially with Aiba's vocaloid. I'm surprised they even got more than 50% accuracy with his random responses."
Finally, Sho laughed louder with Jun as Aiba dangerously approached Nino on the couch. While the two best friends circled around each other, Sho heard a soft knock on their door. He glanced up and saw Ikuta Toma peeking through, waving at Sho to come closer.
He stood up and followed Toma out into the hallway. "Hey, what's up?"
"I was wondering if you got my text message last night," Toma asked. "About dinner tonight? You didn't respond back, and I kinda want to know now before I head off to work today."
Sho's heart flipped once, but it was enough to make his voice croak. "U-uuhh-"
"Tonight is okay for you, right?" Toma asked again.
Sho did read the text message last night. But he was so overjoyed, his nervousness kicked in afterward and he couldn't reply back. He ended up saving fifteen draft messages because he couldn't think of a decent reply that didn't sound too eager, too aloft, or too casual. Of course, Toma doesn't know about the crush that Sho has had on him for three solid months. They've known each other for years, but Sho couldn't pinpoint when he started feeling his heart racing whenever Toma was near. Perhaps it's the way Toma has grown over the years. Or perhaps it's the way he carries himself nowadays as a renowned actor. Or maybe he just looked so good in those dark jeans, white shirt, and wavy hair...
"Sure! Yeah, definitely! Of course! I'll make it for dinner," Sho blurted out at last. Though he mentally kicked himself for not saying it more smoothly.
But Toma smiled sweetly until his eyes became mere slits and wrinkles formed. "Great! I'll see you then."
Toma placed his warm hand on Sho's shoulder before letting it slide off as he walked away. Sho was glad Toma didn't look back, otherwise he'll see Sho's dorky grin and subtle fist pump of victory. A night with Toma alone! Sho initiated the invite first, but their schedule never matched for weeks. Finally, Toma said he had an open slot and texted "I thought of you and maybe we should get something to eat at last". Sho couldn't remember how many times he read that text last night, but he was sure it was sign from heaven.
"You seem giddy," Jun whispered behind his ear.
"Aah!" Sho yelped and whirled around before sighing heavily. "Don't...don't do that!"
But Jun had his devilish gleam in his eyes. "If I didn’t know any better, I'd say your reaction means you're..." Their staring contest lasted for a good ten seconds until Jun nodded. "You're craving for soba noodles!"
Sho's shoulders drooped—as if they couldn't droop any lower.
The work day was over without a hitch; it was a rather smooth shooting with good puns and reactions. Ohno relaxed on the couch and waited for his personal manager to bring dinner. Sho left early (something about having to go home and "get ready"). Jun also left after changing out of his stylish work clothes to even more stylish private clothes. Aiba and Nino remained, however Nino sat quietly by himself on the corner of the make-up counter.
"Hey, Nino," Ohno called lazily. "Can you reach in and get me a Kirin Mets Cola from the fridge? Since you're closer to it."
But Nino didn't react. His head was down, and his thumbs twiddled away at his smartphone before scratching his head.
"Uhh, Nino?" Ohno called again. "Nino? Hello?"
Aiba glanced up from his phone just in time to see Nino grumbling to himself. His phone rang, and Nino immediately answered it before walking out the door in a brisk pace. Both Aiba and Ohno fell silent in the aftermath.
"He normally isn't like that," Ohno mumbled and got up from the couch to get two drinks.
"Have you noticed Nino's weird behavior lately?" Aiba asked.
"You mean not just today?" Ohno handed a bottle to Aiba. "Yeah. These past couple of weeks, Nino's been looking more tired than usual."
"Our group manager told me there's a hot audition happening for a new drama next season," Aiba gossiped. "And I'm talking Monday 9PM drama slot with a big name director and producer. He told me if it's a hit, it's already green-lighted for a special. A movie if the ratings stay high!"
Ohno's eyebrows went high then low. "I'm wondering if Nino is antsy for that."
Aiba shook his head. "It's not like Nino to get worked up over an audition." Aiba twisted the bottle cap, paused in thought, and gasped out loud. "We should investigate!"
Ohno nearly spilled his drink when Aiba slapped his back. Ohno coughed. "U-us?! Can't we just ask Nino what's up?"
"If there's anything I learned while filming my drama is that stalking is wrong," Aiba nodded firmly with a serious expression. But it quickly vanished into a wicked smile. "Unless it's Nino!" Aiba wrapped his arm tight around Ohno's shoulders. "It shall be our secret mission. Come, Ohno! Our destiny awaits us!"
"...w-why are you pointing at the ceiling?"
Sho waited inside the restaurant in his newly changed clothes. He carefully selected them last night after he received Toma's text message. Something that wouldn't attract any attention to him as an idol, but at the same time subtly cool. Inside the private room, Sho took off his bucket hat and styled glasses. Then, he put the glasses back on, thinking it'll make him look scholarly. Sho grunted and took them off again.
"Natural is best," Sho reassured himself.
He was just about to call Toma when the door slid open. "Hey! Sorry I'm late."
Sho turned around with a smile, but it quickly went dull.
Toma grinned back not noticing Sho's fallen face. "I was waiting for this guy to come." Behind Toma, Kazama Shunsuke appeared with an honest and eager expression.
"Hi, Sho-kun!" Kazama greeted. "It's been a while, huh?"
Sho kept his smile on even though his heart was sinking. "Yeah, man! Long time no see!"
He didn't want to ruin this night for Toma. He didn't want to appear bummed out that they wouldn't spend time alone. Sho never mentioned they couldn't invite others just that it seemed like they only talked about themselves hanging out together. But dinner ended up feeling like work. Keep smiling. Laugh at appropriate moments. Make fast remarks to get a joke rolling. Throughout the entire time, Sho couldn't...relax.
He glanced at Toma, hoping he could read Sho's pained expression behind his smile. But Toma just nodded back at him and grinned as if bringing Kazama along was a great idea. If Toma was having a fun time, maybe it wasn't so bad. Seeing Toma looking happy and laughing was blissful enough.
When dinner was over, they walked outside for a while until they returned to the parking lot. Kazama drove off first, insisting they do this again next time.
At last Toma turned to face Sho. "I'm glad we finally went out today. Thanks for coming."
Sho forced his smile again. "Anytime..."
And then Toma just stood there. His eyes bore into Sho's as if waiting for something to be said, but Sho couldn't speak. They both remained silent, exchanging awkward glances and rubbing their necks as if embarrassed to be the first one to leave. Sensing the atmosphere, they both chuckled.
"Well," Toma spoke at last, "I'll see you later."
"...y-yeah. See you."
Toma took a step back, making more shy grins, and finally headed for his car. Sho's grin faded as he too turned around to his car. That moment would have been the perfect chance. It should have been the perfect chance! Inside the privacy of his car, Sho scrunched his eyes and thumped his palm against the steering wheel.
"I'm such an idiot..."
Sho slumped down on his couch and switched on his television. He normally would change out of his clothes, maybe take a bath and sleep, but the disappointing night drained any motivation left in him to do anything. He ran his hand over his face, hoping he could forget the night, but Kazama's annoying presence blocked out Toma's smiling face.
"Why did he have to come?" Sho mumbled irritably. Not that he hated Kazama; Sho wished the night was more personal.
The TV channel returned to its original drama, and Sho watched half-heartedly a high-school romance drama. The pit of his stomach churned with all the lovey-dovey lines, and Sho was seconds away from changing the channel. But one of his juniors starred as the supporting lead. He figured he'll watch a few scenes, for future comments to make on variety shows, until he starts getting absolutely sick.
The main female lead chatted with her boyfriend after a fiery confrontation against her rival. Sho pouted with droopy eyes as he watched the phone scene played out.
"I'm...I'm glad I can talk to you like this," the female lead sobbed dramatically. "To hear someone's voice like yours...you're the best!"
At that moment, Sho remembered the conversation he had in the morning...
"...the fans do know they're talking to vocaloids, but it's also helping the fans who feel lonely. Not to mention their conversations are private and won't have any consequences out in the real world..."
It's true. Sho did wanted to talk to someone about his troubles, but he didn't want to reveal his crush to any of his co-workers. Even talking to his own band members was out of the question. A small amount of privacy away from Arashi was a rarity nowadays. It's been his secret struggle for the past three months. And he doesn't really like talking to strangers online either. Sho has been utterly lonely with no one to consult to.
Sho glanced over at his smartphone laying on the table across the room. His manager jokingly gave him a pamphlet with the hotline number to Friendly Johnny weeks ago. Sho proclaimed he'll have no need to call the service line, and yet he never threw away the pamphlet. He stood up and looked through the Friendly Johnny menu. They listed all the hotlines for different regions in Japan. From there, fans listen to the instructions for their specific idol to chat with.
The TV drama ended and went into commercials. Sho watched a Kirin Mets Cola commercial with Ohno and Aiba grinning at the camera and promoting the product. The real Sho stood in his living room and analyzed their idol smiles.
"Ohno would listen to me earnestly," Sho talked to himself, "but I want someone who answers back. Aiba would try to cheer me up...but I don't feel like laughing all the time..."
Sho watched Nino appear onscreen for a Hitachi commercial.
"Nino will just smack talk to me if I ramble on too much," Sho sighed.
Then, Jun appeared next to Nino as a duel pair commercial promotion. Sho watched in silence as the commercial played out. Jun's kind eyes smiled at the camera, and his soothing voice enticed the viewers to listen closely. Even as the commercial ended, Sho still remained silent.
It'll just be...one call. Just to see how it is. It's private. No one will bug him about it in the real world. No one will know. What harm could it bring?
Sho picked up his smartphone and dialed the hotline number from Tokyo.
"Thank you for calling Friendly Johnny! Your idol chatting service. Please know you will be talking to a vocaloid system and not the real idols. All conversations are time recorded and added to your phone bill. For more billing information, please press pound."
Sho sat down on his couch and waited for the prompter to resume.
"For Kondo Masahiko, press one. For Shonentai, press two. For SMAP, press three. For TOKIO, press four. For V6, press five. For Kinki Kids, press six. For Arashi, press seven-"
Sho pushed seven. The phone went silent for a few seconds. For a while, Sho thought he hit the wrong button until...
"We're Arashi!" He heard his group voice cheered through the phone. "Thanks for calling!"
"Thanks for calling us," Ohno's voice came through. "If you wanna chat with me, Ohno Satoshi, press one."
Sho sat up in his couch. "My gosh...they really do sound like us."
"I'm Sakurai Sho from Arashi!" He heard his own voice through the phone. "If you want to talk with me, press two. Yeah, yeah!"
"Oh god," Sho groaned and rested his face in his palm.
"Hello! Aiba Masaki here! Press three if you want to talk with me! You'll never get bored!"
"Hi, I'm Ninomiya Kazunari. I am number four, so please come chat with me because I am the better choice."
"Thank you for calling. I'm Matsumoto Jun. Press five to chat with me. Thank you!"
Sho held his breath as he pressed five. The phone started dialing again. It took three rings until the phone answered.
"Hello?" Jun's voice came through.
Sho gulped. "Um, hey. I...umm-"
Jun's vocaloid voice chuckled at the other end. "No need to be nervous. I won't hang up on you. What's your name?"
Sho frowned slightly. It's weird hearing Jun's voice asking for his name. As if Jun couldn't recognize Sho's voice after all these years. But Sho reminded himself it was just a robot he was talking to. The instant he thought of that, he was about to hang up. He almost pitied himself for stooping so slow as to talk with an AI.
"Hello? Are you still there?" Vocaloid Jun asked.
"Ah! Yeah...yeah. Sorry," Sho said, rubbing his neck. "I'm just...having my doubts with this Friendly Johnny service."
Jun's voice hummed at the other end. "I don't mind. It's your first time, right? It's natural to feel that way. We're just a simulated program to talk to fans, but we're capable of comprehending conversations. We can detect the severity in someone's voice or pick up on a topic quickly. So don't feel too bad. I'm here for you."
Sho leaned back in his couch, his brow slightly furrowed. "You know...you don't really sound like Jun. When I listen closely, you kinda have a higher voice."
Vocaloid Jun laughed. "Said like a true fan! I'll try to do better next time."
A miniscule chuckled escaped Sho's lips. "My name is Sho."
"Sho? That's a nice name." Sho could practically hear a real life Jun smiling at the other end. "I like it."
"Yeah...you're programmed to say that," Sho sighed, resting his head back.
"No, I'm honest. It's a really nice name," Vocaloid Jun insisted. "And your voice sounds really humble."
"Again. Programmed response."
There was short pause on the other end. For a moment, Sho thought he might have offended a robot. "Yeah, you're right. I am a program. But I can't help but feel like...something else is bothering you."
At that moment, Sho's heart jolted. Not with fear but with anticipation. Sho lifted his head up and rested his elbows on his knees. "What makes you say that?"
"A hunch?" Jun replied. "I don't know. I get this feeling that you're irritated about something, and it's not because of me." Sho let out a long heavy sigh. "Is everything alright?"
Sho didn't want to spend his night arguing with Vocaloid Jun anymore. His mind flooded back to his night with Toma and Kazama. His harbored feelings came surfacing back thinking about Toma's smile as well as his dreaded feelings of a disappointing night.
And Sho told him, Vocaloid Jun, about his night. How he waited for Toma to have an open schedule. How he so wanted to spend time with Toma alone. How it all felt watered-down when Toma invited Kazama over. How Sho had to keep up with their energy just so he wouldn't displeased Toma. Everything.
"And so I just felt like I wanted to talk to someone about it," Sho wrapped up. "I don't have anyone to talk to about these things. I can't say them to my college friends either. It'll be too weird. But if I talk to someone with a familiar voice...and...well, that's why I called you."
Vocaloid Jun took a while to answer back, but Sho could hear its simulated voice humming and mumbling to himself as if he really was a live person. Somehow, it was conforming to hear that someone was thinking deeply about Sho's words and his pent-up feelings, even if that person was a robot. Sho even forgot when he told his story that he was talking to a vocaloid and not the real Jun. It was as if a small burden slid off from Sho's back; it was nice to talk to someone...
"I'm sorry to hear that," Vocaloid Jun said, honestly. "Maybe next time it'll turn out better."
"I wouldn't know what to do next time," Sho rolled to his side on the couch. "Toma has been so busy. It could be months until he's free again. I just wish there was a way for him to know that I'm there for him, you know? I want him to know that he can count on me."
"You are very reliable, Sho!" Vocaloid Jun said, with a rather out of place enthusiastic volume. "Anything you can put your mind to, I'm sure you'll pull through!"
Sho grunted from the awkward response. The vocaloid Jun has its limits. Rather than suggesting back ideas with Sho, it only encourages Sho blindly. Maybe calling Aiba would have been the better option.
Sho glanced at his clock and gasped. "Oh gosh! I've been talking for more than two hours! I better hang up."
"Okay then. Just so you know, you can speed dial to this number saved on your phone if you want to continue talking with me," Vocaloid Jun recited. "Our next session will be more natural as I'll have this conversation saved into my data memory. It's a way for us to pick up where we left off."
"Oh," Sho said as he sat up. "Okay, cool. Umm, see ya."
When Sho hung up, he weighed his phone in his hand, sensing its heat from his ear. "That wasn't...so bad."
It was awkward seeing Jun in the dressing room, flicking through his phone, as if they didn't have a conversation last night. Sho tried to act as normal as possible, but his eyes kept drifting back to Jun, wondering if he'll bring up the night chat again.
Instead, Jun brought up a different topic. "Hey, did Toma invited someone else last night to dinner?"
Sho's heart plunged. "H-how did y-you-"
"Toma called me last night and asked me if I could come," Jun explained. "I knew you planned to hang out with Toma, so I told him no. But I was just wondering...maybe he brought someone else along and..."
Sho let out a quiet sigh of relief. "Yeah, he invited Kazama over. It wasn't...so bad. We had great time. I mean, you should have come too."
But Jun gave him a sorry, sympathetic look that Sho immediately looked away. The real Jun doesn't know about Sho's feelings for Toma, but his penetrating eyes made Sho think otherwise. Jun was always good at reading atmospheres and finding ways to cheer people up.
"Why don't we ever hang out?" Jun suddenly brought up. Sho glanced at him with a questionable look. "I mean, you can have dinner with whomever you want. I just thought that it'll be nice if you and I catch up too."
Sho snorted. "We see each other almost every other day."
Jun gave back a bashful grin. "Right. Just a thought. But, I mean, if you ever wanna talk..."
Jun returned back to his phone while Sho chuckled at Jun's shyness. Sho lowered his gaze as he recalled his conversation with Vocaloid Jun last night. Funny how he can open up to a robot more so than with a real human. Let alone someone he's known more than half his life. Yet somehow, Sho found the secrecy of his vocaloid chat comforting. Perhaps there really is no difference between artificial and real interactions.
But Sho shook his head and mumbled to himself. "The real Jun has a deeper voice."
"Ah, nothing!" Sho quickly answered. He set his bag and smartphone down on the make-up counter when he felt someone pulling his elbow.
"Sho, I need to talk to you," Nino said. Without waiting for an answer, Nino pulled Sho out into the hallway. He clasped his palms together and slightly bowed his head. "I have a favor to ask, please."
"Uhh, sure. What is it?"
Nino reached behind his back pocket and pulled out a wedding invitation. "My friend wanted me to give a speech at his reception, but I can't make it. You remember him, right? He used to be an AD back when we filming Yamada Taro Monogatari."
Sho took the card and read the names of the dearly beloved. Sho didn't recall the name, but he recognized the man's face. "Ah, yeah! I know him. He's getting married, huh?"
"Can you please go in my stead and give the speech?" Nino begged, holding out a folded piece of paper with his speech. "I'm completely caught up with work. It's been...it's just been crazy. He's a good guy, and I don't want to disappoint him."
Sho moaned uncomfortably. "There will be other people I know, right? Like, people we know from work?"
"Oh yeah, definitely." Nino nodded, waving his hand to reassure Sho. "Other celebrities will be there too. Kazama-kun, Aya-chan, Ryu-kun, Toma-kun, Sato-"
But Sho only heard that one name...
"I'll go!" Sho grinned, taking the slip of paper.
Nino blinked, slightly startled at Sho's quick answer. "Really?"
"Yes, for sure," Sho nodded, clutching the invitation tighter. "You can count on me."
Nino slapped Sho's arm. "Thanks!" And he dashed off down the hall as if he was late for work at another studio.
Immediately when Nino disappeared around the corner, Sho nearly bumped into Ohno and Aiba, both chasing after Nino. But Sho didn't bother asking. Here was another chance to be closer to Toma! He was so excited that he could hardly wait to tell someone about it.
He had one particular vocaloid in mind...
Ohno and Aiba peered around the corner and watched Nino thunder down the stairs and across the lobby. They followed in pursuit but stayed well away to not draw attention.
However, Aiba made it impossible.
"Day two. Mission: stalk Nino and find where he's heading," Aiba mumbled to himself while pretending to hold a magnify eyeglass when really he's holding his phone with the camera zooming in.
"Can't we just ask his personal manager what he's doing?" Ohno insisted.
Aiba grabbed Ohno's chin and turned it to face him. "Elementary, dear Leader! You think I didn't try that?! Even our group manager is being hush-hush about Nino. Doesn't that already seem strange to you?"
Ohno pouted, his cheeks squished between Aiba's fingers. "Maybe he's planning a surprise anniversary party for us."
Aiba release Ohno's jaw—he massaged his sore cheeks—and continued creeping down the hall. "Nino hates parties unless there's free food! No, he is hiding something from us, and I'm going to find out."
"What makes you think he's hiding something?" Ohno complained while following Aiba anyway. "He's probably just really busy."
Aiba came to a full stop, causing Ohno to lightly bump into him. Aiba pointed. "He's heading for the parking garage! He might be driving off somewhere. This could be our chance to know more. Come on, Ohno!"
The zealous "detective" grabbed Ohno's wrist and raced down towards the garage. The "sidekick" grumbled along the way.
Sho returned home earlier than usual. His thumb hovered over the saved contact for Vocaloid Jun, but he hesitated. He had the real Jun's number saved right above; he could easily call him instead. But the idea of calling the real Jun made Sho nervous. That phone number connects with someone with genuine thoughts, opinions, and personal disgust. If Sho called the real Jun, confessed he has a crush on Jun's best friend, what would Jun really think?
"I can't risk it," Sho caved in, and called the Vocaloid Jun again.
He waited for the prompter to speak again, but after three rings he heard the vocaloid speak instead. "Hello?"
Sho paused for a brief moment. "J-jun? I thought I'd be given the Friendly Johnny prompter like last night. Call one for Arashi or something like that."
There was an unbelievable silence at the other end until finally Sho heard Vocaloid Jun laughing. "No need. You saved this number from last time, didn't you? Our conversation will carry on from last time so you don't have to go through the prompter. It makes the phone calls feel more personal, I suppose."
Sho hummed to himself before he sat down on his bed. "Oh, is that how it works? I didn't know the agency really thinks about these things."
"I guess so."
Sho's brow raised slightly. "You certainly sound more...natural."
"Ah! That's because our service performance increases with each phone call. The more we talk, the more natural I'll begin to sound for you. It'll almost be like talking to a real person."
Sho laid on his back and relaxed. "You know, I almost called the real Jun. I was going to tell him my biggest secret, but I couldn't take it. I feel more comfortable talking to a vocaloid than face reality."
"Hmm, you can tell me anything," Vocaloid Jun said humbly. "Your secret is safe with me. What's on your mind?"
"Well, you know how I told you how disappointed I was about Toma inviting Kazama last night?" Sho heard the vocaloid 'mmhmm' back in reply. "The reason why I'm was so upset, aside from wanting to spend time with him, was because I wanted to use the opportunity to tell him how I feel."
"How you feel about Toma? As in you like him?"
Sho's eyebrows shot up. Vocaloids can sense the tone of a conversation! "Yes! I've had a crush on Toma for months now, and just today I found out he's going to a friend's wedding reception and I'll be going. It should be the perfect setting to finally come out to him, right? Or would it be too heavy?"
As before, Vocaloid Jun hummed to himself to sound considerate. But at this point, Sho found it pleasing to know even a robot was analyzing the situation with him.
"It would be a nice chance. I've had friends who started dating after meeting up at a friend's wedding." Sho closed his eyes knowing the vocaloid used survey data to reply. "Can I ask something, Sho?"
Sho opened his eyes. "Shoot."
"What do you find attractive about Toma?"
Sho grinned ear to ear as he rolled on his side. "I didn't notice at first. I mean, we've been friends for years, but lately I've noticed that's he's...grown so much." Sho pictured the said man in his head. His smile turning goofy thinking about Toma's wide smile. "I know he's a reliable person. He's very busy with work, but I can see he knows how to balance his schedule. Isn't that appealing! It's easy to fall for him when he's so popular, and he's very humble about it. Oh! Also, I've begun to notice the slightest changes in his appearance. Like when he changes hair style or if he bought a new shirt."
"...you really like him, don't you?"
Sho fiddled with the tag end of his pillow. "Jun, do you think...do you think I might have a chance with him?"
There was a long pause on the other end. "You'll never know if you try. I think you should try talking with him. The sooner, the better. If you wait until the wedding, the atmosphere might be too heavy if you get nervous. But Toma is not the type to be blind when it comes to confessions. I know he'll face you honestly."
Sho's heart throbbed at those words. It was the first time Vocaloid Jun gave a good response than the clichéd robotic answer. Vocaloid Jun was becoming a more natural speaker.
"Is it alright if I keep calling you every night?" Sho asked.
For the second time, Sho could have sworn he heard the robot simulate a smile. "Of course! You know I'm always here for you, Sho."
Ohno and Aiba followed Nino's car all evening. From following Nino to a convenience store, to the bank, until the hour grew late in the middle of Ni-chome. They watched Nino pull up in a parking lot with racing heartbeats. Aiba parked on the curb side, and they waited for Nino to make his next move.
However, Ohno got antsy. "Maybe we're getting too much into his personal life. It's fine if he doesn't want to talk about it. We should just leave him alone. I mean, maybe he's only here to do a favor for a friend."
Just then, they both watched Nino step out dressed in drag. He wore a long, wavy, brown wig. His make-up was thick on mascara and red lipstick, and his dress was salmon pink with ruffles. There was no mistaking, that was Nino. Aiba and Ohno's jaw dropped as they watched the somewhat-irritated somewhat-pleased Nino walk in high heels into a nearby bar. The sign outside read "Pink 30s".
The two men remaining in the car stayed silent for long seconds. Finally, Aiba burst. "Nino likes crossdressing!"
"W-wait a minute, Aiba!"
"No," Aiba cut Ohno off. "It's not that..."
They watched a balding old man, between fifty or sixty years of age, enter the bar already slightly drunk. A few drag queens greeted the man with subtle touches, giggling, and ushering the customer inside.
Utter silence, until....
"Nino has an old man kink!" Aiba shouted inside the car.
"I want to go home now, Aiba!" Ohno whined.
Sho walked briskly inside the studio building the next day, pumped and ready. Today, he was going to do it. He was going to confess to Toma before the wedding reception. Vocaloid Jun was right in many ways. Confessing at a wedding might be too heavy. But Toma wouldn't disregard someone confessing to him. Sho should stop beating around the bush and come out to him already! All he has to do was find where Toma was in the building.
He quickly popped his head into Jun's dressing room. The real Jun ate grapes while quietly reading the day's script. Sho could almost stride across the room to Jun and reveal his dastardly plan, but he chose not to. The real Jun will never know...
"Hey, Jun," Sho greeted. "Have you seen Toma?"
Jun looked up, chewing his grape slowly before nodding his head. "I think he's auditioning for the new drama on the sixth floor. The big audition room? He should be there....why?"
"Nothing! Thanks!" Sho said hastily and hurried down the hall to the elevators. His stomach flipped around with nervousness as he rehearsed his words to say to Toma. In all of Sho's years in being teased with lousy confession lines, he cannot mess this up!
When the elevator door open, Sho approached the auditioning room. Other actors and actresses waited outside in the long hallway. A few gasped when they saw Arashi's Sakurai Sho approaching them while others were too focused on their script. Sho did a quick glance at everyone, trying to find Toma's handsome face, but no one looked familiar.
Then, the door opened, and Toma himself walked out with an air of confidence.
"He looks so cool," Sho thought and waved to him.
Toma spotted him and gave a half-hearted wave with a feeble smile, but Sho walked up to him with a big grin. "How did it go?"
Toma gave him a slightly puzzled look. "You knew I was auditioning?"
"U-uh, Jun told me," Sho said, his heart beating fast. The tired look in Toma's eyes started to make Sho nervous again. Was he being annoying? Should he have not come to greet Toma? There was too many young actresses watching them gleefully, maybe they're making Toma nervous. "Let's go."
Sho led them to a secluded part of the floor: the vending machine lobby. No one was around, and Sho paused just before he turned around to face Toma. There it was again. That tired, sorry, unimpressed look in Toma's eyes. Sho's tongue felt stuck in his throat; he couldn't speak a word. Maybe this was the wrong time. Maybe Toma is too stressed out with work to deal with a personal confession right now. Perhaps Sho should have strategize with Vocaloid Jun more before facing this day. Maybe...
"I know..." Toma finally uttered, slowly lowering his gaze and looking sorrier. "I know about...how you feel."
It was as if Sho's entire body came to a stop. "H-how..."
"I just knew," Toma shrugged. He avoided making eye contact. "No one else tries to plan to have dinner with for three months straight. It just started to seem...kinda awkward."
Sho, too, lowered his gaze, hoping he can hide his embarrassment. "And does it...does it bother you?"
"Well, I mean...there was a reason why I brought Kazama along last time..." Toma answered softly. "Because I wanted to avoid whatever it was you wanted to bring up for dinner. I wasn't ready yet...I didn't want to hurt your feelings so soon."
Sho's mouth gaped partially open in shock, his mind scrambling for words, and his feet rooted to the floor with nowhere else to escape. Yet his eyes were as dry as a desert. Sho expected rejections to be a crushing blow, but this moment felt more like a decline for being added to a friend's page. It was painful...but not painful enough...
"Strange," Sho finally spoke once his tongue started working properly. "I thought I'd be a lot more devastated than this."
Toma finally made a small smile. "Maybe because you still associate me as a friend." He grabbed Sho's shoulder, their eyes gazed into each other at last. "I really hope our friendship doesn't change because of this."
"Of...of course not!" Sho forced a smile. "We're better off as friends anyway!"
The wrinkles tripled when Toma grinned even wider, the same expression Sho admired so much. But it was still there, Toma's "I'm sorry" look, and a sharp sense of humiliation filled Sho's stomach. They ended up laughing the awkwardness away and talked about Toma's audition. But deep down, Sho couldn't figure out why his heart wasn't crumbling like how poets always describe heart breaks. Rather, there was only an empty void.
All that pent-up excitement for months seemed artificial. Was his emotions for Toma fake as well?
"I'm no different from Vocaloid Jun," Sho thought sadly while smiling in the forefront.
Sho went into autopilot throughout the day until he found himself in his living room. He rubbed his face, hoping he didn't cause any trouble to his co-workers without even realizing. He checked his phone for any messages, but there was nothing out of the ordinary—his manager sent him a reminders for tomorrow's schedule.
He flopped down on his couch, his smartphone in hand, and scrolled through his list of contacts. Jun's name, the real Jun, was above the Vocaloid's hotline. Sho's thumb hovered over the call button, but his thumb quivered. In the back of his mind, Sho contemplated whether he should apologize for his behavior for the day. Sho must have looked like someone who didn't want to be at work—a big no-no in the entertainment industry. But what else was he going to say to the real Jun? Sorry, I wasn't myself? Don't forget we have a magazine interview tomorrow? Bye?!
Sho rather talk to someone else, or a robot, about his real troubles.
He pushed to call the Vocaloid Jun.
Sho swallowed for a long time. "Hey, Jun..."
"Sho? You sound very tired. What's up?"
His voice was stuck in his throat again but not because of nervousness like this morning. The sheer gentleness and warmth in Vocaloid Jun's voice was enough to wrap Sho like a comforting blanket. Sho closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. Perhaps the reason his mind went into autopilot all day was to wait until he was alone...
Sensing the long pause, Vocaloid Jun spoke first. "Hey, hey, it's okay." His voice came through so soft and gentle, Sho couldn't believe it wasn't the real Jun. "Talk to me, Sho. What happened? Was it Toma? Did you talked to him today?"
Sho took a moment to gather his thoughts. "I didn't even get to say it...he knew. And well...it was a no go."
"Oh...oh, Sho. I'm...I'm so sorry," Vocaloid Jun said, sensing Sho's depressing tone. Sho could hear him sighing on the other end. "I wish there was something I could do."
"If you were a real person," Sho said, trying to sound more light-hearted, "I'd cry on your shoulder." Sho let out a small chuckle before rubbing his itchy nose.
"And I'd probably hold you close," Vocaloid Jun replied. "I'd let you cry as long as you want, as loud as you want, and continue to hold you tight until you let it all out. I'd want to make you feel safe." Sho reached for his throw pillow and gave it a squeeze. "If you can't take it anymore, I want to be there for you...you can rely on me."
Sho let out a small laugh. "You don't have to be that romantic with me."
"Ah! See! You're feeling better!" Vocaloid Jun exclaimed, sounding satisfied. "Aren't I helpful?"
Indeed, the empty void feeling faded away. Now, he focused his energy not to smile too hard because of Vocaloid Jun's smugness. "If you were real, you'd be the type who keeps pouring drinks at three in the morning and saying how helpful you are."
"I'd be the type to carry your drunk ass at three in the morning, let you sleep at my place, and then fix you up in a few hours for work because of your terrible hangover before your meeting, reception, or whateve-"
But they both gasped after that one word. "The wedding!" They both exclaimed.
"The wedding reception!" Sho cried out loud, his eyes wide open and his mouth open. "Oh god, I completely forgot it's tomorrow night!"
"Right! What are you going to do?" Vocaloid Jun asked, sounding fairly worried.
Sho covered his eyes and leaned his head back. "Nino asked me to give a speech for his friend's wedding reception. And I said yes because I knew Toma would be there. But now..." Sho rolled over on his couch, whacking his throw pillow around to try relief his embarrassment feelings. "He's gonna be there, and it'll be so awkward!"
"I could go with you," Vocaloid Jun quickly answered.
Sho's face went blank. "You're a vocaloid, Jun. You can't go."
"I let you cry on my shoulder!" He whined playfully, and Sho hung up.
But he did had a wider smile now than he did before he called...
Sho arrived at work early and found himself alone in the dressing room. He took the chance to read through Nino's speech before the make-up artist came. Sho scratched out a few lines he couldn't say, mostly personal stories that didn't apply to him, but he added lines he thought were best.
"Morning," someone spoke in a deep soothing voice.
Sho glanced up and watched Jun casually set his things down and took his hat off. Sho gulped.
"I could go with you..."
"Hey, Jun," Sho spoke up. "Are you free this evening?"
Jun lifted his head up, surprised. "U-uh, yeah? Why?"
"Nino's friend is having a wedding reception," Sho briefed. "He couldn't come so he asked me to go and give his speech. People we know will be there and-"
"A wedding?!" Jun grinned, looking happy to be invited. "Sure! I love weddings. What time will it be? Ah, I should probably buy a present."
Sho felt slightly relieved. With a friend, he wouldn't feel so awkward in front of his old crush. But he felt a small pang of guilt for using Jun without him realizing. And yet at the same time, Sho felt like he wasn't! Didn't he called Jun last night about the plan? His calls with Vocaloid Jun were messing with his thought process...
"We should bring Ohno and Aiba along too," Jun suggested.
Sho glanced at the clock. "They should be here by now. Though I think they're booked for tonight...where are they anyway?"
"Day four," Aiba whispered, sounding tired. "Current location: Studio A's garage parking lot, third level. Mission: waiting for Nino's car to pull up."
"Aiba, I'm hungry," Ohno moaned. "Can I got upstairs already and get some breakfast?"
But Aiba pressed his finger to his lips. "Shush! I see his car coming!"
The two play detectives hurried behind a thick concrete pillar as Nino's car pulled into his usual parking spot. His manager stepped out, already in mid-sentence.
"...just one more week! They want to push this for another year!"
"Well, tell them it's not gonna happen!" Nino answered back sounding agitated so early in the morning. Their voices echoed loud in the garage space. "I've worked long enough already. I can't take it anymore."
"I know you're frustrated," his manager said, "but what we have here is good! The team needs you, Nino! You can't leave us. Leave them!"
"No!" Nino said firmly. "I've thought long and hard about this for weeks already, and my mind is made up. I'm quitting this job. Go ahead and schedule an interview. I'll make the announcement live on the morning news."
Ohno and Aiba heard Nino's footsteps echo away while the manager followed after him. The two hiding slowly stepped out; a gut-wrenching fear lingered inside both of them. Their minds ran wild with possible explanations to Nino's words, but there was only one that seemed the inevitable.
"Did...did Nino just said...he'll quit?!" Aiba gawked. "He's going to quit Arashi?!"
Ohno couldn't utter a word...
The wedding reception had a small audience, but it was dazzling. The amount of celebrities coming for one AD's wedding surprised Sho. Apparently, everyone had worked with him and admired his attentiveness. Even Sho finally recalled the AD's face back in the day when they worked together. Other attendees took turns giving their congrats to the couple until dinner was served. Sho's speech wouldn't come until the cake arrived.
But luck wasn't on Sho's side all night. His seat was assigned next to Ikuta Toma at his table.
"It's too bad Nino, Aiba, or Ohno couldn't come," Kazama piped in while cutting his chicken dinner. "I especially haven't seen Ohno in a long time."
"Ohno and Aiba seemed a bit out of it today, right Sho?" Jun asked, who sat on his other side. "Like doom's day was upon them."
"I think they're caught up with work," Toma said. "Ah, but you know something? I hear we're making a lot of money because of the Friendly Johnny phone service."
Sho's ears perked up.
"I think it's pretty amazing," Jun nodded. "Have you ever tried calling yourself?"
"Actually, I have," Toma confessed, looking embarrassed and pleased. Sho's eyes widen at this piece of information. "It was kinda creepy. The vocaloid sounded just like...well, me! It's like talking to a twin."
"I heard that the management for that system is crazy!" Kazama added. "Do you know how much data is being processed because of that service? We're talking hundreds of thousands of calls every day. Their hottest line is for Arashi."
"As expected," Jun flicked his hair before the four of them laughed.
Sho had already finished his plate, but he sat there not sure what to do or say. He picked at his fingernails to relief his nervousness, but Toma's presence sitting next to him felt so intense like a furnace.
"What about you, Sho?" Kazama asked.
Everyone's eyes turned to him, and Sho did his best not to gaze back at Toma's. "I-I never tried it yet...heh, I don't think I will!"
"Right!" Kazama nodded in agreement, his voice being a bit too loud. "It's really weird calling yourself. Toma, you're weird!"
"Shut up!" Toma reached out to smack Kazama's head.
Sho only sighed before resuming back to his stress-relieving habit. When he did a quick glance around the table, only Jun was watching him before he revert back to his meal. Finally, the cake arrived, and that was Sho's cue. He stood up with his wine glass and headed towards the front stage. Everyone clapped when they saw him approaching the mic. Sho had his speech memorized, and he smiled to the crowd.
"Good evening, everyone! I'm Sakurai Sho from Arashi," he always started. "Ninomiya Kazunari couldn't come today because of work, so he asked me to fill in for him. Though, he sends his wishes." He turned to the couple. "Nino and I had fond memories when filming Yamada Taro Monogatari, and Higashi-san was always there when we needed him. He is truly a hard worker we all adore, and today you two deserve this happiness."
The audience applauded to the couple.
Sho lowered his eyes before he continued. "Happiness...that...that is something we all wish for. It can come from anywhere. Whether it's from being with your friends, our families..." Sho's eyes met with Toma in the middle of the room. Sho gulped. "...our loved ones. In the end, we all want to strive for it. Who's to say we're not allowed to reach out for it?"
There is was again. That "I'm sorry" look. This isn't good. If Sho stared too long, he'll crack under the pressure. Sho's eyes darted to the next face he saw: Jun's.
"Here's to the future, where happiness awaits us," Sho raised his glass. "Cheers!"
When Sho got back home, he didn't hesitate to call his Vocaloid Jun.
"Jun? I think I'll be okay," Sho immediately started.
"Oh really? About Toma? That's good to hear," Vocaloid Jun said, smiling at the other end. "If you don't mind me saying, that's surprisingly fast."
Sho smirked. "I tend to let go pretty easily."
"Well, I wouldn't want to lose you," Vocaloid Jun said, smoothly. "I enjoy our conversations."
Sho paused, undoing his necktie, before he carefully thought his next words. "Strangely enough...I do too. I feel so much at ease hearing your voice. Today at the reception, I almost got stage-fright when Toma was watching me. But then...I was thinking of you. And just the thought of you helped me make it through the night. What I'm trying to say is...even if you are a vocaloid, I'm glad I can talk to you like this. To hear someone's voice like yours...you're the best."
There was a long pause until Sho heard muffling on the other end as if Vocaloid Jun was having a giddy spazzing moment. Sho smiled, listening to Vocaloid Jun's little joy.
"You have no idea how happy that makes me!" Vocaloid Jun said.
Sho sat down on his couch and curled his legs up. "You sound so cute when you're giggling at the other end. Is that some kind of simulated program to make it sound like you're in an ambient space?"
"...ah! Its part of the experience for our fans," Vocaloid Jun recited. "If you ask, I can make it sound like I am busy cooking or even eating to enhance our natural conversation."
"That's fine. I don't really like talking to someone with their mouth full."
"I'll make a note of that."
"Although," Sho mumbled, "if we keep talking like this...I think...I might, well, I might....umm, I mean-"
"You'll what, Sho?"
"...nothing. Good night," and Sho hung up. He gently tapped the rounded corner of his smartphone against his forehead. "I might fall for you, Jun."
To Part 2 >> http://arashiforyou.livejournal.com/67786.html