Chapter 12: Plotters and Clowns
That morning, Sakura came around to everyone's door to let them know that she and Iris were going to spend the morning at the pool. She invited everyone to join them, and was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all of them agreed. She suspected that while the boys thought it would be fun, the girls were likely anticipating that the cool water would help ease their somewhat sore muscles.
"Isn't this going to be fun, Iris?" Sakura asked, as she and the young blonde changed clothes in the locker room. "I can't wait!"
As usual, Sakura wore her simple white one-piece swimsuit. Iris' swimsuit was an orange two-piece with a little skirt that flared out when she swam. It was absolutely adorable, the kind of outfit you'd expect on a porcelain doll (just like everything else Iris wore).
Iris smiled and nodded at Sakura. She was excited to go swimming too. It had been a while, and the pool was one of her favorite places in the theater. Plus, with all of the other people coming, it was sure to be exciting.
"Hey now, wait up on the rest of us!" Kohran joked as she opened the locker room door. Haruka trailed behind her, a hesitant smile on her face.
Sakura's face lit up when she saw Haruka.
"I'm so glad you could join us, Haruka-chan!" she squealed. "Oh, this going to be the best day ever."
Sakura retrieved her towel from her locker and draped it over her shoulders as Kohran and Haruka quickly changed into their own swimsuits. Kohran's one-piece was striped in two different shades of green. The blushing Haruka was dressed similarly to Iris, in a skirted two-piece with peach and white flowers on it.
The locker room door opened once again, admitting the rest of their rag-tag crew. Kanna was already dressed in her customary red top and blue board shorts. Maria, too, already wore her dark blue one-piece, a sheer white floor-length sarong around her waist.
"You girls ready for some fun?" Kanna asked, already pumped up. She clapped Sakura on the shoulder, and tousled Iris' hair.
"You bet!" Kohran replied. "I think even Haruka-chan is going to have fun today!"
At the sound of her name, Haruka ducked her head, her face blushing even more.
"I do like to swim," she admitted. "Though I'm not very good at it."
"Will you get out of my way, you barbarian?" came Sumire's angry screech from behind Kanna, where she had become trapped in the doorway.
Kanna moved aside to reveal Sumire, likewise already dressed. She looked as lovely as always, in a pale lilac one-piece with a strategic diamond shape cutout just above her chest. Like Maria, Sumire had a sheer skirt over her swimsuit, though hers reached only halfway to her knee.
Sumire tossed her hair impatiently.
"The boys are waiting on us, you know," she informed them all dryly.
Kanna let out a chuckle.
"Those poor guys are turning into little housewives, waiting on us all the time," she joked. She could almost imagine Syo, dressed in a frilly apron, his face red with anger. (Whether he was angry that he had to wear the apron or angry that the girls weren't home in time to eat before the soup got cold her fantasy didn't clarify.)
Sumire glared at the floor.
"Yes, well, don't get attached," she said with a sniff. "It's not like they'll stick around after the show or anything."
"Sumire!" Sakura gasped, appalled. Sumire was normally a harsh speaker, but to make such a comment in response to a simple joke was a bit much even for her.
The heiress propped one hand on her hip and rolled her eyes.
"It's not an insult, numbskull, it's just the truth," she snapped. "We won't see them again after this. They couldn't if they wanted to."
Her voice faded strangely, as if she had more on her mind that she wasn't saying.
Sakura ventured to place a hand on Sumire's arm, but the proud young woman slapped her hand away.
"Sumire, what...?" Sakura whispered, unsure what was the matter. Something felt wrong here. Sumire was being her usual bratty self, but her heart didn't really seem to be in it. Her eyes looked distant, distracted.
Haruka's quiet voice piping up from the shadows caught everyone's attention. She bit her lip, trembling, as she realized what was going on.
"I think," she breathed softly, "I think that Miss Kanzaki means- well, I don't know if anyone's told you, but- it's- idols like STARISH aren't allowed to- they're not allowed to have any romantic relationships within the field. None of us can. It's a rule enforced by almost all recording agencies. Shining Agency, too."
The sentence hung in the air for some time, as the members of the Flower Division processed the mental bomb that Haruka had dropped. She hadn't come right out and said it, but all of them knew to whom she referred. Only Sumire seemed unsurprised, but she seemed to have said her piece. Now she just sniffed, and waited for her companions to catch up.
Kanna, in all her grace, was the first to break the awkward silence.
"Relationships?" she repeated, completely confused. Kohran promptly elbowed her in the side, but the question had done its work. After the events of the previous night, it was painfully obvious what was happening. Everyone stared at Sakura, who stood with her hand over her mouth, her face white.
"Now you've got the idea," Sumire murmured bitterly. "If they've got any sense, they'll run for the hills when this show is over."
"That isn't fair, Sumire," Maria commented calmly.
"Sakura-chan, are you okay?" Haruka asked, looking like she might well burst into tears at any moment. She hated being the bearer of bad news, but Sumire hadn't left her much of a choice.
Slowly, Sakura nodded.
"I was- just surprised, is all," she said faintly. "I didn't think..."
She trailed off, not knowing how to say what she meant.
Before she knew it, Sakura felt Haruka's thin arms encircle her shoulders, pulling her into a hug. The smaller girl hugged her tightly, knowing that this was one of those moments that was just going to take a few minutes.
Maria cleared her throat.
"As Sumire has pointed out, we do have company waiting," she said diplomatically. She and Kanna ushered the younger ones out the door, toward the pool area, where STARISH waited for them. Haruka stayed with Sakura, whom she was honestly worried would faint if she were left alone.
She seemed more shocked than anything. For all it was completely obvious to everyone else in the company that Sakura and Otoya were head over heels for each other, it appeared that Sakura had never really considered the possibility of a relationship, either beginning or ending. Had someone asked her if she had a boyfriend, the answer was simple: No, she didn't. But if they asked if she loved Otoya...
That answer was simple too. Yes, she did. That had been apparent since the Quartet Night concert. Why those two answers had never collided, Sakura didn't know for sure. She had never been bothered by the fact that she and Otoya hadn't 'labeled' their relationship, it wasn't something that was important to her. However, now Sakura thought she understood why Otoya had not said anything.
"Are you going to cry about it?"
The disdainful voice in the doorway was Sumire's, as usual. Haruka let go of Sakura, and stepped back, away from Sumire.
"No," Sakura answered hoarsely. "No, I'm not going to cry."
Sumire met her compatriot's eyes. Surprisingly, there was a slight smile on Sakura's face.
"Thank you for warning me, Sumire," Sakura said.
"Don't be ridiculous," Sumire snapped, but her cheeks were tinged with pink. For all she didn't want to be seen as a kind person, she wasn't evil. If there was truly no hope, it would have been unbelievably cruel to remain silent. It was only right that the truth be known. Jinguji had told her, and now Sumire had done her part and passed it on. Any decent person would have done it. No muss, no fuss. Now she was done.
Sakura, however, was not done.
"That really isn't a fair rule," she said, looking sadly at Haruka. "It applies to you too, doesn't it, Haruka-chan?"
"I'm alright, though," she said earnestly. "I'm not...I'm not much of a romantic person. I just pour all of my love into STARISH."
Her expression darkened.
"It really isn't fair, though, you're right," she said, biting her lip. "What if the person you truly loved was an idol, or a composer?"
After a moment, Haruka smiled, despite herself.
"I think I may have an idea," Haruka said carefully, her smile widening. "Let's just have fun for today, and we can talk about it more later."
Though both Sumire and Sakura graced her with very confused looks, Haruka insisted that they head on to the pool and have fun.
"Don't worry," she assured them. "Everything will be fine."
Sakura returned Haruka's smile.
"I trust you," she conceded wholeheartedly.
Sumire rolled her eyes, but didn't actively protest.
Before they could be held up any longer, Sakura took Haruka's and Sumire's hands and dragged them out of the locker room and into the pool area, where the sounds of joyous splashing awaited them.
Otoya and Syo grinned immediately when the last of the girls finally showed up. They floated in the deep end with Natsuki, Kohran, and Ohgami, treading water easily. Iris was splashing about happily in the shallow end. Maria and Masato both sat on the side of the deep end with their feet in the water, watching the others swim. Ren was getting used to the water, sitting on the shallow end steps. Sumire joined him, and the two struck up a conversation that soon had both of them hiding smiles. Neither Tokiya nor Cecil intended to swim- Tokiya couldn't with his injured leg, and Syo had explained Cecil's hilariously paralyzing fear of water –but they had come to join in the fun anyway. The two of them had set up a table at the far end of the room with snacks and drinks, plus a boom box to play music with. It was currently cycling through a disc of Tomochika's most recent album.
"Haruka! Sakura!" Syo called, waving the girls over. "Come on in!"
Sakura nodded eagerly. She and Haruka both set down their towels and approached the pool's edge, smiles on their faces.
"Is it cold today?" Sakura asked.
Suddenly, Syo's eyes went wide. He threw an arm across his face to block the splash as Kanna snuck up behind Sakura and Haruka, pushing both of them into the pool with no mercy. She cackled like a madwoman.
"That was great," she chuckled as the girls resurfaced. Sakura mirrored Kanna's grin. She didn't mind being pushed into the pool. Haruka looked completely shocked, but after a moment, she smiled as well.
"Come on, Kanna," Sakura called, laughing. "Your turn!"
Kanna mimed a tip of the hat.
"With pleasure!" she replied, and the whole room braced themselves.
With a howl that echoed off the walls, Kanna got a running start and jumped, tucking her knees in. She 'cannonballed' into the deep end, sending waves in every direction. When she came up, everyone was laughing with her.
"Let's play a game!" Otoya suggested.
"What kind of game?" Haruka asked, but the redheaded man just shrugged.
"Maybe a contest?" he asked. "Like diving?"
"Or 'categories'," Syo added.
"Which version?" Ohgami asked.
"There's more than one version?" Natsuki questioned.
Kanna's loud voice drowned them all out.
"Let's play 'chicken'," she suggested, a wicked glint in her eye. The others immediately exchanged hesitant glances, but it was the excited smile on Sakura's face that ultimately decided it.
"How do you play?" Haruka asked, having never heard of it before.
"It's a battle game," Kanna explained. "You get one person up on another person's shoulders in the shallow end, and then compete in pairs. The first person to knock the other off their buddy's shoulders is the winner."
Haruka frowned, looking doubtful, but she nodded.
"It sounds interesting," she said.
"You don't have to go first," Syo quickly assured her.
"You up for a go, then, Kurusu?" Kanna challenged. Syo grinned wolfishly back at her.
"Let's do it," he said decisively. "Natsuki?"
The taller man smiled and took off for the shallow end. The others quickly followed.
The first match was Syo on Natsuki's shoulders versus Kohran on Kanna's. Syo had the advantage in upper body strength, while Kohran had the stronger support. In the end, it wasn't too difficult for Syo to send the violet-haired mechanic falling into the water. Haruka and Otoya cheered, while the victorious pair shared a high-five.
"Do you want to try it, Haruka-chan?" Otoya asked kindly. When she looked nervous, but nodded anyway, Kanna got an idea.
"Hey Iris!" she called, stopping the little blonde mid-splash. "Wanna play?"
Iris smiled brightly and nodded. She struck out swimming for Kanna, this time with less splashing. She swam all the way around Kanna and went straight from the water to the Okinawan's broad shoulders in one smooth motion. By the time she and Kanna had turned around and were ready, Haruka was carefully perched atop Otoya's shoulders. She struggled to balance, at first, but with Syo lending a hand, she managed to stay up.
"You can do it, Haruka-chan!" Sakura called, clapping happily.
Iris reached out her hands, and carefully took Haruka's, making sure she didn't accidentally knock her down before they even started.
"Ready?" Oghami asked. All four competitors nodded. "Begin!"
Iris pushed against Haruka's hands, trying to push her backward off of her perch. To her credit, Haruka hung on and pushed back, as the others in the water cheered for her. Otoya was stronger than he looked, which meant that the game was pretty evenly matched. Eventually, it was Iris who managed to knock Haruka down, but the composer rose from the water with a smile on her face.
"That was fun," she said, surprised. She hadn't really expected to like it at first, but playing games with friends was something she didn't get to do very often. Now she wished she did. It was actually very enjoyable!
Otoya laughed, offering a high five. Haruka giggled and high-fived him.
"I'm glad you liked it, Haruka-chan!" he said.
The game went on for several more rounds, each louder and more rambunctious than the one before. The pairs started to mix up more and more. Ohgami and Iris turned out to be more of a power team than the others expected, going four rounds before they were finally defeated by Natsuki and Sakura. Haruka tried a few more times, and found that she got more comfortable the more she played. Eventually, she and Kanna managed to send Syo into the water with hardly any trouble at all.
"Having trouble there, Munchkin?" Ren called mockingly from the steps as Syo came up for air after his crushing defeat.
"Why don't you get in here and try it!" Syo spat back, shaking the water from his hair.
Ren stretched his arms lazily over his head.
"Only if Miss Kanzaki will play with me," he drawled, his blue eyes dancing with mirth.
Sumire refused. The girls begged, but Sumire still refused. The boys whined, yet still, Sumire refused. Iris gave it her best crocodile tears, but not even that could shake the diva's resolve.
Finally, Iris swam over and attached herself to Sumire's arm, refusing to let go until Sumire played. Sighing overdramatically, the Kanzaki heiress had no choice but to give in.
"But one round only," she declared sternly.
Otoya and Sakura agreed to be the opposing team. To his credit, Ren didn't make a single joke as he allowed Sumire to climb onto his shoulders.
"You'd better not let me fall," she threatened him, but Ren only laughed.
"I have no intention of doing so, Miss Kanzaki," he assured her. "Fear not."
Kanna gave them to the count of three. Both men and women braced themselves, and when she got to 'three', they were ready to go. Sakura threw her entire weight at Sumire, who held her back with all of the muscle she'd built up in combat training. Ren gripped Sumire's legs, anchoring her safely in place. They pressed back, forcing Otoya to take a half-step backward to compensate. Sakura wobbled for a moment, but recovered quickly.
"Now there's an interesting development," Masato commented from the other end of the pool. He and Maria were watching the games with casual interest as they conversed.
"Very interesting," Maria agreed. "Sumire does not generally like to play games."
"One would assume, then, that there is an incentive," Masa noted. The two of them shared an amused glance, before returning to their previous topic of conversation.
Moments later, Sumire suddenly let her grip on Sakura's hands fall slack. Sakura plunged forward unexpectedly. Before she could regain her balance, Sumire locked her ankles behind Ren's shoulderblades. He took the hint. The pair of them surged forward, knocking the off-balance Sakura and Otoya into the water in one powerful move.
Their little audience cheered wildly.
"Yeah, Ren!" Natsuki called, grinning.
"Whoa, you pack some punch, Cactus Woman!" Kanna told Sumire as she slid down off of Ren's shoulders.
"My performance is always flawless," Sumire commented airily. She turned to Ren, who had reserved a special smile for her.
Ren leaned in and kissed Sumire's cheek.
"Brava, kitten," he said approvingly. "Brava, indeed."
Sumire turned away to hide her blush.
"I'm beat," Otoya declared, floating on his back in the water.
"Me too," Ohgami added. He and Sakura joined the redheaded popstar, laying back in the water and enjoying its soothing qualities. After such a vigorous game, it felt wonderful to relax in the cool water.
The rest of the group slowly dispersed, various pairs headed in different directions. Sumire and Iris swam down to the deep end to practice their diving. Natsuki went to join Masato and Maria, where the tall blonde was recounting tales of Russian winters and her time in the rebel militia there. Within moments, Natsuki was wide-eyed, eagerly lapping up the stories of the famous Kazuar, the fearsome firebird, terror of the Russian battlefield. Syo and Kanna, ever-energetic, were still wrestling like children in the shallow end.
Haruka drifted toward the snack table, smiling at Cecil and Tokiya. The latter had his nose in a book, but he set it down as soon as she approached.
"You looked like you were having fun," he commented, a half-smile on his face. Cecil nodded his agreement.
"It was definitely something new," Haruka said brightly. "I'm so glad you joined us today, Ichinose-san. I was beginning to think we would never see you again, with all of these rehearsals keeping everyone so busy."
Haruka fetched a bottle of water from the cooler and pulled up a chair next to the table.
"It's fine," Tokiya assured her. "Actually, I have enjoyed being able to use the time to my advantage. Between politicking with the lieutenant and assisting the Wind Division, I've had plenty to do."
"Lieutenant Fujieda seems like she would be a lovely person to have as a friend," Haruka mentioned. "You are lucky."
When the look on her face darkened inexplicably, Tokiya sat forward in his chair. Cecil, too, leaned toward her in concern.
"Is everything alright?" he asked.
Haruka fidgeted, her fingers twisting at the edge of her swimsuit.
"Ichinose-san," she said carefully, "I was wondering...are you...is anyone else worried? About Otoya-kun, I mean."
Cecil and Tokiya exchanged serious expressions.
"I think everyone is worried," Cecil said hesitantly.
"Otoya doesn't have much of a choice," he said heavily. "He's going to have to choose between Shinguji-san and STARISH, and his choice will affect us all. We can only hope he chooses well."
For a moment, they all sat in silence, pondering the question that had burdened their minds ever since the previous night.
"I think someone said something," Haruka admitted softly. "I think...someone told Kanzaki-san. About our rules. She mentioned it this morning, and Sakura-chan..."
Inwardly, Tokya groaned at Ren's inability to keep anything to himself. Surely he was the only one who would have said such a thing to Sumire.
"So the girls know," Cecil mumbled. His brows were knit with thought. He looked to Tokiya, his jade eyes filled with confusion.
"What do we do now?" he asked.
"It's okay," Haruka said hurriedly. "At least, I think it is. I have an idea."
Subconsciously, the three of them scooted their chairs closer together, like parents did while the children swam.
"Everyone agrees that the rule is not fair," Haruka explained. "So we have to change it. Just talking to Shining-san won't do, he'll never change it without a very good reason."
"We've changed his mind on things before," Tokiya added, calculating. He was swiftly reaching the same conclusion that Haruka did.
"Like with me," Cecil said.
"Exactly," finished Haruka. "We just have to do the same thing we did before."
"When we changed Saotome's mind about 'Maji Love 1000%'," Tokiya mused, "He didn't believe us until we forced him to listen. We had to sing it right in front of him before he understood."
"It was the same with Cecil-kun and 'Maji Love 2000%'," she said. "We had to prove how wonderful it was before he changed his mind."
"So how do we prove that the rule isn't fair?" Cecil asked.
"We can't," Tokiya muttered. "That rule can't be broken by just one group alone. We'll have to start smaller, put a chink in the glass."
Haruka nodded, her eyes gleaming.
"The rule is there to keep problems from breaking out around idols," she said softly. "If we can prove that the Flower Division does more good than harm, it should at least start the process."
"An exception is the best way to start breaking a rule," Tokiya agreed. "Were you thinking of writing a song?"
"Actually," Haruka said with a smile, "I was going to use one we already have. Ichinose-san, didn't you say that we needed to do some more advertising before the show opens?"
As he realized what she was planning, Tokiya's eyes lit up. Her idea was perfect, if they could pull it off. Cecil was nodding vigorously, excited by the plan already.
"We'll have to be careful," Tokiya said, "But there's no reason why it shouldn't work. Let me talk to the lieutenant and Mitsuki-san, and we'll see what we can do."
He reached forward and took Haruka's hand, giving it a friendly squeeze.
"As usual, Nanami-san," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "You are truly brilliant."
Cecil took Haruka's other hand, smiling like a madman.
"This plan will work," he said confidently. "Haruka-chan's plans always work."
Haruka blushed, but she couldn't help smiling as well.
"I hope you're right, Cecil-kun," she said, crossing her fingers.
With that, they turned the conversation to a new topic. Eventually, Ohgami and Sakura decided to take a break from the water, and joined the group to strike up a game of cards.
The rest of the afternoon went by smoothly. A pool day seemed to be just what everyone needed. Sakura and Haruka were both quite pleased to see that their fellows all wore smiles (though Maria's was a bit tricky to find, as usual).
Otoya, too, was feeling much better than he had the night before. The day of relaxing and having fun was perfect for calming the tension. Plus, Tokiya seemed like he was in much better spirits as well. He was humming in the shower, which only happened when he was feeling particularly upbeat. It was a secret he had made Otoya swear not to tell anyone, ever.
When Tokiya emerged from the shower, he had a broad grin on his face.
"Otoya," he said, eye glinting. "We need to talk about something."