Chapter 10: Dancers and Protectors
Music rehearsals began that week. All of the actors had received a demo disc of the play's songs with their script, but thusfar, they had been focusing mostly on blocking and dancing. Now it was time to get to the part that would be the most important: the music.
When STARISH and the Flower Division reported to rehearsal after breakfast, they found the musical ensemble they had been told about waiting and ready to get started. Of course, that wasn't the most interesting part.
"Haruka-chan!" squealed the redheaded violinist the moment they entered. Grinning, she set down her violin and immediately raced forward, pulling Haruka into a friendly hug. Giggling at all of the stunned faces around her, Kaho whispered that maybe Haruka should explain.
Haruka turned to her fellows, a bright smile on her face.
"These are the musical accompanists for the show, from Seiso Academy," Haruka said, and the boys visibly relaxed a bit. "This is Kahoko-chan, and Tsukimori-senpai, and Yunoki-senpai, and-"
She was cut off by the sound of clapping hands. The director stood on stage, commanding everyone's attention.
"We begin with music today," she said firmly. "Our musical ensemble has agreed that the first thing to be done is a sing-through, before lunch. This means we'll be skipping through all of the dialogue, and just singing the songs the way they fall on your practice discs. I trust you have all been practicing?"
"Yes, Madam Director," chorused the actors, some more confident than others.
They trudged up to the stage and grabbed chairs, setting them up in a circle as they had for the initial read-through. Many of the STARISH boys, particularly Syo and Cecil, stole several glances at the musical group as they, too, set up. If they were so friendly with Haruka, Syo figured that explained why she hadn't been at rehearsals lately. It made sense that she would seek out other musicians like herself. Still, there was an uncomfortable knot in his stomach that he didn't much appreciate. There were an awful lot of boys in that group.
For all of Syo's doubts, the rehearsal went well. The musicians were very skilled, and it was evident that the actors really had all been practicing. The duets went very smoothly, for the most part, and even Sakura and Otoya got through their love song without any major mistakes.
When it was time to break for lunch, Mitsuki kept them an extra five minutes.
"The afternoon will be dedicated to individual music rehearsal," she declared. "The ensemble members will be available in the practice rooms, as will Miss Nanami. The group numbers we'll focus on more in group rehearsal, but this is a good chance to work on solos and duets without having everyone else waste their time."
The actors and actresses all traded looks, each of them intrigued by this approach. It seemed very efficient.
"I will assign individual rehearsal groups for the afternoon," the director continued, and went on to give everyone a place to practice and someone to do it with.
Some of the groups were very small, like Sakura and the flutist Yunoki, who were to work on Sakura's solo. Others were larger, like Ren, Syo, Otoya, with Tsuchuria on piano and Fuyuumi on clarinet. Hihara the trumpeter and Tsukimori the violinist would be working on the gods' challenge song with Maria and Kanna. The nymphs, Cecil, Iris, and Natsuki, got one of the larger practice rooms, and were assigned to work on the nymphs' ballet with Kahoko and Shimizu on violin and cello.
Haruka had volunteered to be on call if anyone needed her help, but she didn't have a specific place to go. Masato offered to sit with her, since he had no particular song to work on. As the narrator, he had lines in almost every song, but not enough to sit and practice by himself. It was part of why he had been cast in the role. He was trusted to have had enough experience in the field to keep up without extra special rehearsal time.
When the director was done, the actors and musicians all stood up and began to disperse, headed for their lunch.
As usual, Syo took a seat at the table next to Haruka.
"So I guess the ensemble's where you've been during rehearsals?" he asked, unable to keep the gruff tone from his voice. Logically, he didn't begrudge Haruka her fun, and if asked, he would willingly admit that his feelings and opinions were often unreasonable. He just wasn't as good at keeping such things to himself as the others were. Like Haruka herself, Syo wore his heart on his sleeve.
Haruka couldn't stop smiling.
"Yes," she answered. "Kaho-chan and the others have been wonderful company."
"You're not thinking of ditching us, are you?" Syo joked, forgetting who he was talking to. Haruka's face immediately went bright red.
"Of course I would never leave STARISH, not ever!" she said hurriedly, placing a hand on Syo's arm. She didn't seem overly aware of the contact, but he sure was. He could feel the warmth of that hand like he could feel the sun.
"Jeez, don't get so worked up, I was just joking," he said, nervously adjusting his hat. He tried to keep his casual face on, but feared that he looked much more worried than he wanted to let on. Fortunately Haruka was, for lack of a better term, completely clueless. Any worries Syo had about being found out vanished when she smiled at him.
"Oh," she said, blushing pink. "I must have misunderstood."
Or she understood just fine and you're in denial, nitpicked the nasty little voice in Syo's head that often sounded like his younger and more sensible twin brother. Leave it to Kaoru to be the voice of Syo's conscience.
Silencing the annoying voice, Syo applied himself to his lunch and did not say another word. However, his arm still tingled where Haruka had touched him.
He smiled to himself. It was nice to know that she still cared.
"Natsuki-kun, your feet are supposed to go like this."
"Oh, right. I'm sorry."
"You can do it, Natsuki-kun!"
"Let's do it again."
A couple of hours after lunch, the individual practices were generally going well. Natsuki and Cecil were both getting better at the ballet, but Iris was still the best among them. Fortunately for them, the choreography involved a lot more dramatic acting than graceful beauty. It was designed to show off the nymphs' impish and mischievous side.
The dance was relatively short, but very active. There was a lot of jumping around and overacting to look silly, which was tiresome after a while. Natsuki managed to keep everyone in good spirits, though. He was good at being silly.
After the first hour or so, Mitsuki left them alone to practice. She had taught them all of the moves, now it was just time for them repeat it until they knew it all by heart. They worked on precision and timing, and making sure that everyone knew their parts without question. Kaho and Shimizu played beautifully, over and over again.
Iris discovered, to her pleasure, that dancing with Natsuki and Cecil was almost as fun as dancing with her regular partners. Cecil's hands were soft, and he moved with the same delicate strength and grace that Maria did. He could pick Iris up and spin her in circles without even giving the appearance of difficulty.
Natsuki was more like Sakura. He wasn't as sure in his moves as Cecil was, but he brought joy and warmth to the dance. He made such amusing faces that Iris and Cecil couldn't help but smile. Iris had to do the leading, but Natsuki followed without hesitation. He was content to do whatever Iris asked of him. All it took was a nudge, or a step in the right direction, and he was happy as a clam.
Of course, that was before they got to the part in the choreography where Natsuki and Cecil each took hold of one of Iris' hands, and mimed playing tug-of-war with her.
First, Cecil slipped on the floor. As he swung wildly to catch himself, he let go of Iris' hand. This sent her flying into Natsuki, who hadn't anticipated having to catch her, so she crashed into him head-on. Her hand flew at his face, and before any of them knew it, Natsuki was clutching Iris to his chest and his glasses were on the floor.
Cecil's eyes went wide when he saw the glasses. He knew what that had to mean.
Satsuki was Natsuki's dark personality, the frightening alter-ego who appeared whenever Natsuki was without his glasses. He was a terrorist, picking fights with anyone he thought could threaten Natsuki. He particularly disliked Syo.
Cecil dove for the glasses, scooping them up into his hand, praying he could get them back on Natsuki's face before Iris or the musicians noticed a difference. He inched closer and closer, his heart pounding. It would only take a second. Maybe they would never know.
Natsuki's emerald eyes had become shadowed, his eyebrows narrowing in anger as Satsuki took control. His hand tightened on Iris' wrist. His attention, however, was focused on Cecil. He brought his free hand to the ground in a slam that echoed off the practice room walls. Kaho squeaked in fear.
"Go ahead. Try it," he hissed, as beads of sweat appeared on Cecil's forehead. With all of Satsuki's attention on him, and no way to get him away from Iris, there was only one thing to be done. The practice rooms were all on the same hall, thank the muses.
Cecil diverted his attention and instead lunged for the door. He was yelling before he even reached the handle.
"KURUSU!" he hollered as he yanked the door open. His voice cracked a little, unused to screaming like a child. His vocal chords were meant for beautiful melodies, not excessive volume. Cecil apologized mentally to his throat. He would deal with that later. Right now there was a little girl who needed their help, two innocent musicians in the danger zone, and a madman on the loose.
A practice room door just down the hall from them opened with a crash. Syo came racing down the hallway, Ren and Otoya in his wake. The tone of Cecil's voice had told him exactly what had happened.
Syo skidded to a halt just inside the other practice room door, braced to deal with whatever Satsuki could throw at him. He found Iris trapped in Satsuki's arms, Cecil eying him warily with the glasses in hand, and the poor musicians backed into the far corner of the room, their instruments forgotten.
"Satsuki," he growled. "Put your glasses back on."
In response, Satsuki only tightened his hold on Iris. She whimpered in his grasp, craning her to look desperately at Syo.
Cecil passed Syo the glasses.
"Let go of her," Syo demanded, inching closer, but Satsuki was having none of it. He wound one hand through Iris' hair, staring the smaller man down.
"And what do you think you're going to do about it?" he sneered.
"I'll do whatever it takes and you know that," Syo challenged, stepping closer yet.
"Whatever it takes!" Satsuki repeated mockingly. "You wouldn't hurt Natsuki."
Syo's brows knit over his aquamarine eyes. His hands clenched themselves into fists, nearly breaking the glasses. He wasn't going to admit it, but Satsuki was right. He had the advantage here. What confused Syo was why he was holding onto Iris. The only person who had ever been held so close to Satsuki in the past was Haruka.
Had Iris done something to threaten Natsuki? Surely not, she was only a little girl!
Syo shifted his weight back, preparing to throw himself at Satsuki and end this one way or another. He froze when he felt a strong, familiar hand drag him back by the shoulder.
Kanna's violet eyes were just as deadly serious as Syo's.
"Wait," she said softly. Then she raised her voice.
"Iris!" Kanna called. The little girl looked up instantly.
"The glasses!" Kanna said. She did not release her grip on Syo's shoulder. He was about to tear himself loose anyway- she had no idea how strong and dangerous Satsuki was –when Iris nodded. She stopped shaking in fear, squaring her shoulders as best she could while still being crushed by Satsuki's arms.
Iris closed her eyes. Slowly, she began to glow, a soft, yellow light.
The light made Satsuki turn his attention to her for only a splitsecond before she shrieked. The light exploded away from her, her spirit energy sending Satsuki to the floor with such force that his weight left a crack in the floorboards. Everyone visibly flinched.
Syo gaped, his jaw on the floor. Iris had forced Satsuki off of her with some ridiculous amount of strength he could never have anticipated. Of course, Sakura and Kohran had told them about Iris' power, but he hadn't expected it to be so intense. If she could fight off even Satsuki, it was no wonder she was a part of the Imperial Flower Combat Troupe.
Without giving him time to get back to his feet, Iris held out her hand toward Syo. He felt a tug against his hand, and found that the glasses were trying to wrest themselves from his closed fist. Wide-eyed, he opened his hand. The glasses responded to Iris' power, floating through the air to settle themselves carefully on Satsuki's face.
The whole room was silent. The man on the floor blinked, and sat up, rubbing his head in confusion.
"Syo-chan?" he questioned, his voice the innocent trill of the real Natsuki. "What are you doing here?"
Syo thought he was going to pass out.
Iris turned to see that nearly the whole cast had come running when Cecil called. Ren and Masato were carefully convincing everyone (sans Syo and Kanna) that it was okay to leave now, they really did need to get back to practicing. As they left, however, they each shot Syo a meaningful glance, and he knew that he was going to have to do some explaining later.
Kanna was the last to leave. She playfully punched Syo on the arm, calling him from his dazed wonderland back to reality.
"Told you she wasn't just some helpless little girl," she said matter-of-factly. "Iris pulls her own weight around here."
Laughing, the tall Okinawan left, pulling the door closed behind her.
That left Syo, with Iris, Cecil, and the musicians all staring at each other warily.
"That was some fall you took," Syo told Natsuki, taking a deep breath and trying to be casual, selling the lie. He hooked his thumbs in his pockets, briefly meeting Cecil's gaze to make sure everything was alright. Cecil inclined his head ever so slightly, indicating that the storm had passed.
"Be more careful," Syo continued, turning to leave. "I can't come running every time you hit the floor too hard." He made his escape quickly, hoping everything would return to normal.
Cecil was so on edge that he jumped when he heard a noise behind him, but it was only Kahoko.
"Shimizu-kun," she said kindly, placing a hand on the cellist's arm. He turned ever so slowly to meet her gaze, nodded, and stepped aside. Only then did Cecil realize that at no time since the incident began had Shimizu been anywhere but between Satsuki and Kahoko, silently shielding her. He found it wonderfully sweet.
The dance group took a few minutes to rest before getting back to practice, but other than that, the afternoon moved on as if nothing had happened. Each member of STARISH spent the rest of the day marveling about Iris. Conversely, the Flower Division spent their day marveling about Natsuki- or, Satsuki.
When they all came to dinner, Iris and Natsuki sat together, with Syo and Haruka. They chatted as smoothly as ever, and even the vigilant Syo was able to fully relax. From that point on, no mention was made of the incident, not by anyone. But no one forgot.
That evening, as rain began to patter against the windows of the Imperial Theater, Sumire situated herself in one of the smaller parlors with a cup of tea and a book. Though she never brought it up, Sumire had always been an avid reader. She firmly believed that education was quintessential to a woman of her caliber, and that her mind must be kept as sharp as the blade on her naginata. She read almost as much as Maria did, and a rainy night like this afforded her the perfect opportunity.
Tonight it was Thackeray's Vanity Fair. The book was well-worn, being one of Sumire's favorites. The spine was so crinkled that the title was illegible. It had been reread so many times that the posh young lady could have recited much of it from memory. However, she continued to reread it, year after year.
Sumire smiled to herself as one of her favorite passages came up.
Indeed, for my own part, though I have been repeatedly told by persons for whom I have the greatest respect, that Miss Brown is an insignificant chit, and Mrs. White has nothing but her petit minois chiffonne, and Mrs. Black has not a word to say for herself; yet I know that I have had the most delightful conversations with Mrs. Black (of course, my dear Madam, they are inviolable): I see all the men in a cluster round Mrs. White's chair: all the young fellows battling to dance with Miss Brown; and so I am tempted to think that to be despised by her sex is a very great compliment to a woman.
"The great actress reads something besides a script. I must confess, I may never get over the shock."
The sound of Ren's drawling voice startled her so much that she managed to spill her tea, wincing as the hot liquid burned her wrist.
Sumire looked up angrily, ready to berate him for sneaking up on her, but was stunned into silence as he quickly moved to make sure that she was okay. Before she could say a word, he was on one knee in front of her, carefully removing the hot teacup from her hand and thoroughly checking her lightly burned wrist. Sumire's breath hitched involuntarily in her throat.
"Then again," he muttered cynically, "Had I known it would cause you physical injury, I might not have commented on it at all."
Sumire rolled her eyes.
"I am an educated lady," she sniffed. "A proper young woman reads. Her mind must be sharp at all times."
Ren laughed. He returned her hand to her, judging it not so harmed that she needed medical attention, and settled into a chair opposite her.
"If your mind is anywhere near as sharp as your tongue, Miss Kanzaki, then I must tell you that you need no improvement," he said casually. He leaned back in his chair, studying her.
Sumire made every effort to ignore the pattern his eyes traced over her skin. She fought equally as hard not to return to the favor. He absolutely could not know that her stomach filled with butterflies when he held her hand.
While he only stared at her for a few minutes at most, it felt like hours to Sumire. She couldn't focus on her book at all, but to remove her eyes from its pages was to admit defeat. This was an impossible game he played, just sitting there like that.
"Did you know, Miss Kanzaki, that idols are forbidden to love within the entertainment industry?"
His voice was quiet, almost as if he didn't want her to hear him at all. Still, his tone was as smooth as ever. Surprised, Sumire glanced up. He wasn't looking at her, but rather, out the window at the rainy darkness that covered the capital. Carefully and quietly, Sumire closed her book and set it on her lap.
"It is believed by the higher-ups that relationships cause problems for celebrities," Ren continued softly, gazing at the falling rain. "From distractions during rehearsals to groups breaking up over a lover, there is no end to the difficulties. It is supposedly easier to simply avoid it in the first place."
Sumire dropped her eyes to her lap, folding her hands there.
"In this industry, professionalism is key," she murmured.
For a moment, all was silence. Ren looked out the window, Sumire focused very carefully on her lap. They could have cut the tension with a knife. Then the strawberry blonde spoke again, his voice dangerously quiet.
"Miss Kanzaki, is there anything on earth that could separate you from the rest of the Flower Division?" he asked.
Surprised, Sumire shook her head immediately.
"No," she answered truthfully. "This is where I belong. My destiny is here. Only death could change that."
Ren smiled to himself.
"Yes, I thought so," he said, sounding somewhat pleased. "You are a true artist. You could no more abandon your path than you could take your own life. It isn't just what you do, it's who you are. STARISH is much the same."
Sumire didn't know how to answer that. She wondered what it would be like, if the Flower Division's romantic prospects were forcibly restricted in such a manner. In some cases, it would make little difference, such as with little Iris, or Kohran, who seemed wholly incapable of relating with other humans as well as she did with machines. On the other hand, Sakura would surely protest, as would Captain Ohgami. Kanna would fight for Maria with every breath she had. Maria was a bit of a wild card, herself, but if true love were on the line, Sumire imagined that even the cold-hearted Russian would stand up for her right to choose.
That left Sumire. What would she do, if the Commander were to suddenly tell her that she was forbidden to love someone who worked in her field?
The simple answer was obvious. Kanzaki Sumire always got her way. One way or another, she would either change the rules or defy them. None could stop her. But would she have something to fight for at all?
"I suppose it must be difficult for you, being such a popular artist," Sumire said, nonchalant. "No doubt every woman you work with dreams of the day you'll sweep her off her feet."
Ren shook his head.
"Not usually," he said calmly. "Though if we are constantly assigned to work with such beauties as yourself, I may have to revise that assessment."
For once, he spoke his playboy's lines without any added flourish. He simply stated it outright, as if it were a fact from a book, and not his opinion at all. No dramatic phrases of love, no overacting whatsoever. He spoke the plain truth.
Slowly, he turned, and met Sumire's eyes. She felt the heat rising in her cheeks.
Ren got to his feet.
"Ah, well," he murmured. "The joys of fame and fortune."
He turned and headed for the door. Sumire picked up her book once more, but did not turn back to the page on which she had left off. She watched as Ren paused, his hand on the parlor doorknob.
"I just wanted to set your mind at ease," he said softly. "You seemed a bit concerned about my intentions, and I thought it best that I mention it."
Sumire was completely stunned. How dare he so openly accuse her of being in love with him! That arrogance of it made her blood boil, twice over because she knew, deep down, that he was right. It was intolerable, all of it.
"I am not afraid of you or your intentions, Jinguji Ren," she hissed at his retreating back.
Just before the door swung closed, she heard his last comment, accented with a wry chuckle.
"No, Miss Kanzaki, you certainly are not."