Chapter 1: Beauties and Playboys
"Vice Commander, I must have heard you incorrectly. I could swear you just said that we'll be doing a cooperative performance."
The dry voice that echoed around the Koubu training facility dripped with self-importance. Arms crossed over her chest and knee slightly popped, Sumire Kanzaki was the picture of egotistical rebellion. In line with her were her cohorts, the rest of the women of the Imperial Flower Combat Troupe. Behind them in a small bunch stood their captain, Ohgami, and the three members of their support team, the Wind Division.
Vice Commander Ayame Fujieda smiled, that terrifying, delicate smile that she reserved only for those moments when she truly enjoyed doing things that the Flower Troupe would not like. It was always amusing to watch their faces. Sumire, Kanna, and Sakura could never contain their feelings, and watching Maria's expression become torn between calm collection and exasperation with her companions was endlessly fun.
"You heard correctly, Sumire," she said pleasantly. "Given the recent decrease in demon activity, we thought it might be good to focus on your stage skills for a while. Commander Yoneda has made a deal with some of the big-time moguls from the entertainment industry. Your co-stars will be arriving at the Imperial Theater tomorrow. You may recognize some of their names. Ichinose Tokiya. Ittoki Otoya. Kurusu Syo. Shinomiya Natsuki. Jinguji Ren. Hijirikawa Masato. Cecil Aijima."
Sakura gasped, and Kanna's jaw hit the floor. Sumire's eyes twinkled dangerously. Maria, Kohran, and Iris seemed completely confused.
"Y-y-you mean- we're going to work- with- STARISH?" Sakura squeaked. She knew the name, and the members, by heart. Generally speaking, Sakura wasn't one to be on the cutting edge of the entertainment scene, but Captain Ohgami enjoyed keeping up with the latest music. He had shared STARISH's debut album with Sakura, and she had loved it immensely.
"STARISH?" Kohran asked, baffled. Sakura beamed.
"They're only one of the best pop groups in all of Japan," she said breathlessly. "They're all so talented! I can't wait to work with them!"
"Perhaps you can't," Sumire added dryly. "Of all of those names, I only recognize two of them, which means that they can't be worth much. Vice Commander, you can't honestly expect us to work with these idiots. Ren Jinguji is a brainless playboy, I heard he has no talent whatsoever. I'm sure the same can be said for most of them."
"Sumire!" Sakura gasped. "I didn't know you knew Jinguji Ren! How do you-"
"I don't," Sumire snapped. "He is simply the son of a prominent family. The Jinguji Financial Group does a lot of work with Kanzaki Heavy Industries. As, I should mention, does the Hijirikawa Financial Group." Her sharp tone and gaze softened a bit.
"Hijirikawa Masato...he has potential," she said carefully. "He has been involved in a few theatrical shows, all of which received positive reviews."
"STARISH is not your average pop music group," she said. "In their spare time, most of the members engage in some kind of theatrical or performance work. Hirijikawa is one. Also, Kurusu Syo-"
She was cut off by an absolute explosion of noise.
"Damn right!" Kanna practically shouted, causing Iris and Kohran to cover their ears. "Kurusu Syo is a fantastic actor! He's been in some of the best action movies of the last three years. He was in Prince of Fighting! Best guest star they ever had!" She was so excited that Maria had to place a gloved hand on her arm.
"You are inside, Kanna," she reminded her quietly. Blushing, Kanna backed down. She hadn't meant to overdo it, she just loved action movies. Prince of Fighting was one of her favorite series.
Ayame resumed her sentence.
"Yes, Kurusu Syo has also engaged in many acting opportunities, albeit mostly on screen. This will be his first stage performance. Ichinose Tokiya is an experienced actor, mostly in comedy, but some drama as well. Jinguji Ren and Shinomiya Natsuki are most famous for their singing, but they have also each done some professional modeling."
The members of the Flower Troupe paused, their reactions mixed. Maria's face, as usual, was impassive. Sakura and Kanna looked eager to get started. Kohran and Iris traded shrugs. Neither of them cared too much for outsiders, but if the Commander had set it up, then it must be alright. Sumire had adopted her usual scowl, but there was no helping that. Ayame could have gotten God himself on the Imperial Theater stage and Sumire would still have found something to complain about.
Ayame didn't wait for the Flower Troupe to catch their breath.
"Additionally," she said, "Musical accompaniment for this show will be provided by special arrangement with the Seiso Academy Music Department. They'll be sending an ensemble." Though Ayame's gaze drifted, she seemed to be making direct eye contact with each of her subordinates.
"Though we are always on call for the capital's defense, I expect each and every one of you to keep this performance your top priority," she stated firmly. "Group combat training will be put on hiatus until the end of the show's run, but you will be expected to continue any individual training you observe. The demons are being quiet, but that does not mean they are gone. Is that clear?"
Suddenly reminded that they were professionals, the Flower Division stood at attention.
"Yes, ma'am!" they responded in unison, as they had so many times before. Ayame nodded sharply, acknowledging them.
"I have one last thing to add," she said, a bit more softly than before. "The intention of this performance is to encourage and benefit from cooperation between performance groups. It is much like the five of you working together by blending your differences. We expect you to branch out and continue to blend with our visiting performers, on and off the stage. We don't want anyone saying we're inhospitable, do we?" She smiled, and waved a hand dismissively.
"Just keep it in mind. Report to the lobby at two o'clock tomorrow. You are dismissed."
After providing the customary salute to their commanding officer, the Flower Division trickled out of the room. Maria and Sumire headed off in different directions, but with equal silence. Kanna boosted the tiny Iris onto her broad shoulders, making the petite girl smile warmly. Sakura and Kohran followed the Okinawan out into the hallway, headed toward their rooms.
"I just can't believe it," Sakura gushed, half-clinging to Kohran's arm. "I can't believe we're going to get to meet STARISH! Not only that, but we get to actually work with them! It's like a dream." Kohran giggled and pried the taller woman off of her.
"I can't believe you actually know who they are," she said. "I've never heard of them at all. Are they really that special?"
"Kurusu's the only one I know," Kanna said with the shrug that made little Iris laugh. "But if all seven of them are as talented as he is, then this should be really fun."
Sakura nodded enthusiastically.
"I can't wait to meet them," she said with a smile. "I've always wondered what it would be like to perform with someone who isn't in the Flower Division." Her eyes clouded just a bit, and her voice took on a husky quality.
"But...what if they are better than I am?" When Kanna and Kohran both looked at her questioningly, Sakura lowered her head. "I have a hard enough time keeping up with Sumire. What if they are all as good as she is? Will I be able to perform well enough for them?"
The other three girls exchanged glances. Kanna let out a barking laugh and clapped a hand on Sakura's shoulder.
"Don't you worry, kid," she said with a wink. "You heard what Sumire says, they're shameless pretty boys. You'll be fine."
"That's right!" Kohran piped up. "Just keep your head up and believe in yourself. You can do it!" Iris said nothing, but when Sakura met her eyes, the little girl smiled. It was the warm, kind smile that Iris had learned from Sakura herself. Sakura was the one who always told Iris that everything would be alright, and now she quietly returned the favor.
That smile lit up Sakura's face as well.
"You're right," she said in that cheerful voice that Iris loved. "I just have to do my best!"
The afternoon sun shone brightly on the capital city. In the interest of appearing as professional as possible, Saotome had provided the members of STARISH with a limousine and hired driver for the extent of their stay at the Imperial Theater. The long drive to reach their destination, however, threatened to ruin any chance at professionalism by setting a bored stupor over the group.
"What are you staring at?"
Masato tore his gaze from the window to see who had asked. Ah. Natsuki.
"Nothing," he replied honestly. In actuality, he had been completely lost in thought. Most of the group seemed to assume that he would have an advantage in this endeavor, having done stage performances before, but Masato himself could bring himself to think that way. He still felt as nervous as he ever had. Plus, this time, there were five women, not just one.
Natsuki smiled, sensing his friend's internal distress. Sometimes it took a bit of effort to drag Masato out of his own head and get him to participate in the real world. Natsuki considered saying something, but it was no use and he knew it. The only person who could truly get through to Masato when he was like this was Haruka, and she was completely absorbed in a book. Natsuki was too nice of a person to interrupt her. Instead he just smiled at Masa and returned to his own book, allowing his friend to go back to his musings.
The limo was quiet. Haruka and Natsuki sat at either end of the bench seat, each with a book in hand, and Masa was staring out the window from his place beside the door. Next to him in the other standard seat was Ren, who had headphones in, listening to music. His eyes were closed, and he appeared to be asleep but for the absentminded tapping of his foot against the floor. At the front of the car, behind the driver, Cecil and Otoya played a distracted game of cards on the seat between them. Tokiya had opted to sit up front with the driver, lest he have to slide into one of the bench seats. He had recently managed to injure his leg yet again, and between limited mobility and his cranky attitude, he had plenty of reasons not to sit with everyone else.
Last but not least, Syo was stretched out on the bench seat, dozing with his head on Haruka's lap and his feet in Natsuki's, his eyes shielded by his hat. Oddly, Haruka did not seem the least bit disturbed by him. She simply made an effort not to wake him as she turned the pages of her book. After more time working (and living) closely with the group members, she had really mellowed out. Ren still flustered her like no tomorrow, but for the most part, she had become used to their familiarity with her. However, none of them doubted that Syo was probably the only one who could get away with having his head in her lap. In fact, Cecil and Ren had both seethed about this fact for half of the ride.
As the sun shone through the trees, flashing patterns through the windows, Cecil sighed loudly.
"Are we there yet?" he asked. When Ren and Masato both shot him glares, his clueless expression made it clear that he had no idea why asking was annoying. Haruka glanced up and saw the tension.
"W-we can't be far," she reasoned, trying to diffuse it. Cecil flopped back in his seat, every bit the child who didn't like sitting still. He also wasn't a fan of being inside, and at the moment he had to both sit still and be inside. It wasn't making him the most pleasant person to be with.
"Nah, we're pretty close," Otoya said with a grin. "I've been there before- well, outside it, I haven't seen any of their shows or anything. But it's not too far from here! Maybe ten minutes?"
"Make that two," Tokiya corrected from the very front.
Haruka and Natsuki smiled at him. Quiet and even-tempered as they both were, everyone was tired of being in the car.
Tokiya's warning did catch everyone's attention. They began gathering up the snack wrappers and drink bottles that were scattered around the limo. Tokiya in particular got very annoyed when they left a mess everywhere they went. He was surprisingly down to earth for a practiced celebrity.
Grinning evilly, Ren reached across Natsuki and Haruka and grabbed the front of the sleeping Syo's shirt, dumping him on the floor. The smaller man hit the floor with a loud thump, and shot up, eyes darting around.
"Wake up, Munchkin," Ren said coolly. "We're almost there."
Syo's eyes narrowed in on Ren.
"You bastard," he spat, shaking his fist at the confident strawberry blonde. "You can't just wake me up like a normal person?"
Ren laughed, the dark, resonating laugh that he used when he was seducing women.
"Ah, but we are hardly normal, now are we? Unusual methods for unusual people," he said, casually removing and wrapping up his headphones. Next to him, Masato rolled his eyes. He was used to Ren's antics, but that didn't mean he approved. In fact, he often told Ren how surprising it was that a person with his family and background didn't act with more class. Usually this just resulted in extra teasing for the stoic Masa.
The limo came to a stop in front of a large, imposing building that had to be the Imperial Theater. Almost instantly, the limo's inhabitants scrambled to get out in the open air. Tokiya, Masato, and Ren managed to exit with grace, but by the time it got to the remaining passengers, they were falling out of the car like puppies in a basket. Masa reached out and managed to catch Haruka's hand, keeping her on her feet as the boys fell flat on their faces. She smiled at him.
"Thank you, Masato-senpai," she said in her softspoken voice. He nodded politely and released her hand, allowing her to smooth out her rumpled clothes.
"So this is it?" Ren mused, staring up at the Imperial Theater. "Seems a bit old-fashioned." Once again, Masato rolled his eyes.
"It's a historical building, of course it looks old," he said in a tone that indicated he was trying not to grit his teeth.
Otoya let out a loud whoop, thrusting his fist into the air. "We're here!" he shouted joyfully.
"Volume, Otoya," Tokiya said icily. "Not only are we in public, we are also here to be professionals. Hence we do not act like children." Itooki laughed and threw an arm around Tokiya's shoulders.
"Aw, c'mon, Tokiya," he coaxed. "Have a little bit of fun for once?" Tokiya shook him off.
"Unlikely," he muttered darkly.
"Welcome to the Imperial Theater. You must be STARISH."
The voice came from the doors to the building. In their distraction, the members of STARISH hadn't noticed the tall woman who stood at the top of the steps. She wore a military uniform in olive green, and held herself with a regal air that almost made Ren want to whistle. However, he had a feeling that if he did, this woman would be far more than a match for him.
The woman smiled.
"I am Lieutenant Fujieda Ayame. Do come in." It was phrased as a friendly suggestion, but there was a commanding hint to her voice.
Otoya and Haruka exchanged nervous glances, but they trudged up the grand front steps with everyone else. Lieutenant Fujieda opened one of the large wooden doors and ushered them inside. It was definitely a theater lobby, but it felt deserted during the day. That wasn't the part that caught their attention, though.
There in the lobby stood the Flower Division. There were nine of them total, but Tokiya took notice of how they did not all stand together. At the forefront were five women and one man standing at military attention, of varying ages and appearances. Natsuki immediately found his gaze drawn to the absolutely adorable little girl in the ruffled dress, clutching a teddy bear close to her heart. If he hadn't felt Syo's sharp nails against his arm, he might have swept her into a hug right then.
Behind the little girl were two very tall older women, one blonde, one redhead. The bulky redhead looked like a beast, but it was the blonde next to her who really seemed like the intimidating one. Something in her eyes made nearly all of the boys shiver uncomfortably. Next to her was an elegantly dressed young woman with shoulder-length brown hair whose eyes radiated controlled disdain. She held a folded fan in one hand. Last were a pair of shorter girls, one in a pink and red kimono with long black hair, and one in a t-shirt and cargo pants sporting twin violet braids.
The tall raven-haired young man who stood next to this imperious group of women stepped forward. He raised his hand as if to salute, but caught himself halfway. He managed to play it off as a friendly wave.
"Ohgami Ichiro, at your service. I'm the captain of the Imperial Flower Division. Welcome to the Imperial Theater." He turned and made eye contact with the tall blonde woman, who nodded.
She turned to the members of STARISH and introduced herself.
"Maria Tachibana, deputy captain."
The redhead shot them all a thumbs-up.
"Kirishima Kanna," she said.
The pink kimono girl smiled brightly.
"I am Shinguji Sakura!" she said, taking the little girl's hand in hers. "And this is Iris Chateaubriand, and her friend Jean-Paul." Iris shyly hid her face in Sakura's dress.
The purple-haired girl waved energetically.
"Ri Kohran!" she said.
They all turned to look at the girl with spite in her eyes. She sighed dramatically and turned to STARISH.
"Miss Sumire Kanzaki."
Everyone's attention immediately turned to the voice that had interrupted. Ren took a few steps forward. The girl narrowed her gaze on him and opened her fan, properly veiling her face with it.
"You know me?" she asked, her voice suspicious.
Impulsively, Ren reached out and took her free hand in his. He brushed his lips gently across her hand, in true Ren fashion.
"Forgive me, but I would be a complete idiot not to recognize a daughter of house Kanzaki," he said smoothly.
Syo's, Natsuki's, and Otoya's jaws hit the floor. Tokiya and Masato struggled to keep their composure. Ren was a shameless flirt and ladies' man for sure, but this was almost a whole new level of ridiculous, even for him. Haruka covered her mouth with her hand, trying to hide her surprise.
Sumire regarded Ren with an unreadable gaze.
"So," she said, her voice soft. Those who knew her would have said deadly soft.
"The infamous Jinguji Ren. It seems that you are every bit the charmer everyone says you are." She snapped her fan closed, a razorblade smile on her face. "Pity."
As the rest of the room held their breath, Ren smirked and returned to his place.
"Infamous is in the eye of the beholder, Miss Kanzaki," he commented lightly. He finished his statement with a characteristic flip of his hair. He was suddenly much more interested in this theater gig.
Lieutenant Fujieda cleared her throat, and looked at the last three women from the Imperial Theater. They stepped forward, releasing the tension in the room.
These three were less militaristic than the others are first glance, but you couldn't tell in their voices. The tallest of them wore a purple and green kimono, and introduced herself first.
"I am Fujii Kasumi, captain of the Wind Division," she said with a polite traditional bow.
The small dirty blonde next to her waved.
"Sakakibara Yuri, Wind Division."
Last was the third girl in a short kimono, who raised a hand nervously.
"Takamura Tsubaki. Wind Division."
With the introductions on their side concluded, all of the Flower and Wind Divisions looked at the lieutenant.
Before the rest of them could do anything, Tokiya stepped forward.
"I am Ichinose Tokiya. These are the rest of my colleagues, STARISH." He indicated Otoya, who grinned and waved with all of the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old.
"Ittoki Otoya. Nice to meet you!" he said.
Syo flashed a peace sign.
Natsuki smiled and waved.
"Shinomiya Natsuki. You can call me Na-chan." He was never one for formalities.
Masato nodded politely.
Their gazes all turned to Cecil, who was more interested in a fraying thread on his shirt than the introductions. Syo got his attention with an elbow to the ribs, and Cecil shot him a quick glare before introducing himself.
"I am Cecil Aijima," he said. He opened his mouth to tell them all about being a prince from a musical kingdom, but Syo elbowed him again. No need to be overly familiar right away. Besides, who needed to know anything about him beyond his membership in STARISH?
Haruka nervously bowed.
"I-I am Nanami Haruka," she stammered, quiet as a mouse.
"I don't understand," said Sakura, her head cocked to the side in confusion. "I thought all of the members of STARISH were men?"
Otoya grinned and threw his arm around Haruka's shoulders.
"Haruka-chan is our composer," he explained. "Without her, STARISH wouldn't exist." The others all nodded serenely. Subconsciously, they each leaned in just a bit closer to her. Syo and Tokiya also shifted forward, and Syo crossed her arms loosely over his chest.
Sumire raised her eyebrows, intrigued by how quickly they had all silently proclaimed their loyalty to Haruka. There was just something in their expressions...just by looking at them, you could tell that any of these young men would throw themselves under a train for her.
"And you've already met Jinguji," Toikya said, nodding at Ren. "It will be our pleasure to work with you on this production."
Lieutenant Fujieda smiled.
"It is nice to meet all of you," she said. "We are glad to have you here. Now, I believe all of you have been briefed on what we're doing here, but allow me to make some elaborations."
She reached out a hand and indicated the three girls of the Wind Division.
"First, the Flower Division will be your co-stars, but the Wind Division is in charge of all backstage and managerial support. If you need anything, ask them first," she said. Kasumi, Yuri, and Tsubaki all smiled and nodded.
Ayame moved to point at Ohgami.
"As you know, in addition to their stage work, the Flower Division also functions as the Imperial Flower Combat Troupe. Captain Ohgami is in charge of military operations, under Commander Yoneda and myself. He will not be primarily involved with the production, but has offered to be on hand if anything is needed. If you need to reach higher command, talk to him."
Otoya blinked. He didn't know that the Flower Division were also combat trained. These women were getting more and more interesting by the minute.
"The Flower and Wind Divisions are housed here in the theater," Ayame continued, "-and arrangements have been made for STARISH and our visiting musical ensemble to reside here for the course of the production. As we have limited space, the Wind Division will be temporarily moving in with the Flower Division. Kasumi will share a room with Sakura, Yuri with Iris, and Tsubaki with Kanna. STARISH will share two to a room in the Wind Division suite, and the odd man out will share with Captain Ohgami. Can everyone work with that?"
Everyone nodded. Ayame has designed the room selection to work around some of the more difficult issues, such as Sumire's and Maria's love of privacy. However, she had not accounted for STARISH to come with another woman. Fortunately, she had one last person to work with.
"We were not expecting you, Miss Nanami, but we're more than happy to make arrangements," Ayame added kindly. "Kohran? Will you share your room with Miss Nanami?"
Kohran grinned widely.
"Of course, ma'am!" she said. "We'll be just fine."
"Good. Now that we've got that covered, I think it's time to let everyone get settled. Flower Division, go ahead and make sure your rooms are fit for company. Wind Division, if you would show the members of STARISH to the Wind Suite? Then we'll have Kasumi pass out the scripts. Dinner is served at seven o'clock, followed by a short production meeting. Are there any questions?"
When no one answered, Ayame smiled.
"Once again, welcome to the Imperial Theater." She turned and left through another door, headed for Commander Yoneda's office.
When Ayame had disappeared, Yuri stepped forward.
"If you'll follow me?" she said politely. The boys of STARISH shuffled out past her, followed by Tsubaki and Kasumi.
Kohran skipped forward and caught Haruka by the arm.
"You can come with me!" she said brightly, causing Haruka to shift her gaze nervously. She had half a smile on her face, but things were just moving so quickly that it was hard to keep up. However, she couldn't let anything stop her!
"Yes of course," she said, smiling sweetly. Together, she and Kohran led the way from the lobby toward the Flower Division's suite of rooms.