Chapter 2: Bullies and Rivals
When Sakura and Iris arrived at dinner, they were pleased to see that the Flower Division had not completely alienated their guests. Granted, Maria and Sumire were sitting by themselves in silence, but that was relatively predictable. At the table next to them, Kohran entertained Haruka and Otoya. She waved at Sakura.
"Sakura! Iris!" she called. "Come sit with us!"
The two went and sat at the table, grins on their faces.
"Nice to see you again, Ittoki-senpai, Nanami-senpai," Sakura said.
"Please, call me Otoya," he said smiling back at them. These two seemed like the kind of sweet and cheerful people Otoya just knew would be excellent friends with him.
"Well then you can just call me Sakura!" Sakura replied. "And Iris always goes by her first name." Iris nodded.
"I'm so glad we can all be friends," Sakura added. "How are you liking the theater so far?"
"This place is great!" Otoya said, practically jumping out of his chair in excitement. He had spent the afternoon exploring and had found not only the stage, but also the combat training rooms and Koubu hangar. "Kohran-chan was just explaining about your spirit armor. Yours is the pink one, right?"
Sakura nodded. "Yes, she said. "Mine is pink, and Kohran's is green. Iris has one that is yellow, right Iris?"
Haruka's eyes widened.
"You- you take this little girl into combat?" she said breathlessly. Otoya, too, looked concerned. Kohran just burst out laughing.
"Don't you worry about Iris," Sakura said kindly. "She has enough spirit energy to send the rest of us reeling." Haruka and Otoya exchanged doubtful glances, but they did not argue. After all, you couldn't judge a book by its cover. Perhaps Iris had a hidden side to her personality, as Natsuki did (although hopefully less violent).
Suddenly Otoya stood up.
"Syo-chan! Na-chan! Over here!" Next thing they knew, Syo and Natsuki were sliding into chairs next to them. Their conversation extended even more when Captain Ohgami and Cecil arrived.
"They really are as ridiculous an act as I've ever seen," Sumire commented over her rice as the laughter at the next table echoed through the hall. Maria raised her brows.
"I would think you would be interested to work with them," she said calmly. "Did you not say that those two- Hijirikawa and Jinguji –did you not say they were famous?"
"Just because they're famous doesn't mean they're worthy of my stage," Sumire snapped. "I-"
"Ah. My lady, deputy captain."
That smooth, deep voice was unmistakable. Jinguji Ren slid into a seat across from Sumire, next to Maria.
"It is always such a pleasure to be working with such lovely ladies," he said with a smile.
Maria reminded herself not to glare at him. He was frivolous, but he wasn't worth her concern, really.
Across from Ren, Hijirikawa Masato practically materialized. He was a quiet walker.
"Miss Kanzaki?" he asked politely. "May I join you?" The difference between him and Ren was obvious from the start. Sumire looked up and met his quiet eyes, the nodded.
"I suppose," she said. He smiled and took the seat next to her.
As Maria and Masato intently focused on their food, it became clear that Ren's only option for conversation was Sumire. Fortunately, that was fine with him.
"Miss Kanzaki, how have you enjoyed your tenure with the Flower Division?" he aked casually. She met his eyes squarely.
"It is obvious that they would be nothing without me," she said, never one to soften her words. "If being useful and talented is considered enjoyment, then I have enjoyed it greatly." Her tone was chilly, but not actively hostile, which for Sumire meant that she was not at the top of her game.
Ren laughed. "I see you're perfectly well aware of your worth as a performer," he said light-heartedly. "I truly cannot wait to see your work."
In response, Sumire merely sniffed and tossed her head. Masato quickly took a bite of rice to stifle his urge to laugh. Ren had certainly met his match with this one.
"Hijirikawa-san, I hear you have worked onstage before," said Maria suddenly, changing the topic. She heard enough about Sumire on a daily basis, and frankly, had no desire to continue hearing about her. Masato nodded and carefully cleared his throat.
"Yes, I have been in a few stage shows in recent months," he answered. "Though none for as prestigious a company as the Flower Division." He and Maria steered the conversation in the direction of Japan's live theater scene, which eventually piqued Sumire's interest.
Ren sat in silence, peering at Sumire from beneath lowered lashes. In her hair and her figure, she reminded him of Haruka. But her eyes...and that personality was no joke. He saw exactly why she was so at home in a crew of essentially eight women. The problem was, he didn't know what to make of her. On the surface she was appealing, and very clearly he could get plenty of entertainment from her. He couldn't help but wonder what lay bubbling under that fiery personality. He couldn't read her to save his life.
At that moment, Maria asked a particularly challenging question pertaining to Masato's family's business, which rendered the dark-haired man momentarily speechless as he gathered his thoughts. Ren chuckled.
"Masato-san, can't find an answer?" He turned to Maria, grinning. "You'll have to forgive him, he often loses his focus when speaking to beautiful women. Alas, the gift of conversing easily with others is more my forte than his."
Maria maintained her carefully controlled expression, and Masato did the same...though she noticed that he had lowered his head sufficiently that his hair hid his eyes from view. One glance showed that the chopsticks in his hand were in serious danger of being splintered.
"Your cross to bear, I imagine," he said coolly. It was a credit to him as an actor, Maria thought, that he could answer such an insult with no change in his tone of voice. However, she could deduce that the next interaction Ren and Masato had alone would not be a pleasant one.
Calmly- almost too calmly –Masato stood.
"If you will excuse me, I am not feeling well," he said. He nodded to the ladies, who returned his regard, and swiftly exited the main hall.
"Hey!" called Syo, catching the motion from the corner of his eye. Masato did not answer as he disappeared out the door. The entire table turned to stare at primarily Ren.
"Where's he going?" Syo asked. "We're supposed to stay for a production meeting, right?"
Most of the others looked confused when Ren did not answer. Maria and Tokiya, however, let their gazes burn into his skull. Maria had heard it, and Tokiya knew Ren well enough to guess what had happened. Very little would send Masato to his breaking point in such a public manner, and the only thing that had consistently managed to do so was the strawberry blonde currently finger-combing his hair in faux boredom.
"Apparently Masa is feeling ill," Ren said simply. "Perhaps the long trip was too much for him."
He yawned dramatically.
"We'll just have to tell him about it later."
Across the room, Tokiya let his annoyance become anger welling up in his heart. Generally, he liked Ren. The man was direct when it mattered, and he was one of the few who rarely acted in the childish manner that so irked Tokiya in the other members. However, he seemed completely blind to the fact that if it weren't for STARISH, he would have one friend alone...and that friend was slowly falling away from him. At this rate, Ren was going to ruin everything by his own hand.
He was torn from his reverie by Sakura's soft voice.
"Are you worried for Hijirikawa-san?" she asked.
He paused for a moment, then nodded. There was no need to get everyone involved in Masato's matters, especially when Tokiya could tell immediately that Masa would not appreciate it. He hated being pitied, and was nearly as prideful as Ren sometimes. He was simply quieter about it.
"Don't worry!" chirped Iris. "Jean-Paul will take care of him."
Sakura leaned over and squeezed Iris into a one-armed hug.
"That's right," she said, smiling at the teddy bear. "We'll take him some of Kasumi's feel-better tea after the meeting."
Tokiya nodded, aware that it probably wouldn't be too helpful. But Masa might appreciate the gesture.
The doors to the mess hall opened once more, admitting Lieutenant Fujieda and another woman, whom only the Flower Division recognized. She was a sturdily built, no-nonsense looking woman in a loose sweatshirt and yoga pants. Everyone put down their utensils, ready to hear whatever the lieutenant had to say.
"Good evening, everyone," she said, her firm voice echoing through the hall. "Let us begin. Now, the Flower Division already knows our director, but for you members of STARISH, this is Mitsuki Roh. She will be directing your production of The Sky Princess."
The other woman- Mitsuki-san –bowed, and the rest of the room inclined their heads in greeting.
"Shinguji Sakura and Ittoki Otoya will be playing the leads in this play."
Sakura's jaw dropped, but not as fast as Otoya's.
"A-are you sure, Fujieda-san?" Otoya asked, his voice shaking. "I have- never acted on stage before..."
Stunned by the fact that someone could sound as nervous as she usually did, Sakura felt obligated to reach out. She placed her hand on his arm, and he tried to smile at her.
Ayame smiled as well.
"Yes. I am confident that you will do well, Otoya-san," she said kindly.
Otoya took a deep breath, and nodded. He was not as confident as the lieutenant, but if she believed in him, then he had to perform.
Mitsuki-san read out the rest of the roles and gave them a brief synopsis of the show. It was based on an old Japanese legend about a kingdom condemned by the gods of Ice and Fire.
Maria and Kanna would play the gods, and Ren, the prince, would have to save his kingdom from divine wrath by winning the heart of the gods' daughter, the Princess of the Sky. That was Sakura. Then there was Sumire, who was the Princess' handmaiden, and the nymphs, played by Natsuki, Iris, and Cecil. Syo and Otoya would play the prince's friends, the Masters of Swords and Fists.
In the end of the show, it was the Master of Swords who really won the Princess, which made him the lead. Masato would be the singing narrator. Tokiya elected not to participate, due to his injured leg, and had come to act as the Shining Agency representative in Ringo-san's absence. He, Saotome, and Hyuga-san had better places to be, and Tokiya would be there anyway, so it was a perfect situation for them.
As the actors exchanged smiles and congratulations, Ayame resumed her place as discussion leader.
"We do have one small setback," she said, causing everyone to go silent. "As there are so many performers for this production, and we are hosting two visiting performance groups, there will be too much work for the Wind Division alone. We are searching for additional support, but the other divisions are all under enough pressure as it is."
Almost immediately, Tokiya was struck with a brilliant, evil, genius idea. He stood, an unusual sparkle in his eye.
"Lieutenant Fujieda, Madam Director- please allow us to help you in this matter," he said, his tone surprisingly smooth and debonair for the moody Tokiya. You have provided such wonderful hospitality, it is the least we can do to assist you. In fact, we have the perfect support crew..."
Otoya and Syo looked at each other, then at the rest of their group. They were all completely confused. What on earth was Tokiya talking about?
"...who happen to owe us a favor."
Syo's eyes widened, and he and Otoya nearly burst out laughing. Now they knew exactly what Tokiya meant, and boy was it perfect. Tokiya was a complete and utter genius. Though he kept his composure, it showed a bit on his face that he was really getting some joy out of this.
Ayame nodded sharply.
"If you will, Ichinose-san, come with me to the Commander's office after the meeting and we can discuss it further."
Tokiya resumed his seat, practically glowing with pride in his own brilliance.
The matter settled, the actors looked expectantly at the lieutenant.
"Your first script reading will begin tomorrow morning on the stage at nine o'clock," Ayame said.
"Don't get used to it," added the director, Mistuki-san. "It won't be every day you get to sleep that late."
The members of STARISH graced each other with matching looks of dread. Few of them were accustomed to rising so early. Iris and Kohran joined them. Maria, Sumire, Kanna, and Sakura kept impassive faces, each of them used to rising at dawn for combat practice.
Smiling her evil smile, Ayame addressed them one last time.
"Get plenty of sleep tonight."
With that, and no real word of farewell, she gestured to Mitsuki, and the two of them exited the hall. With that, all hell broke loose.
"Congratulations, Otoya-san!" said Syo, laughing as he gave the larger young man a playful push on the shoulder. "Who knew you had a leading actor in you, eh?"
Otoya, in stark contrast to Syo's upbeat excitement, looked like he was about to throw up. Natsuki reached over and put a hand on his arm. Otoya was forcibly reminded of the last hand on his arm. Sakura's hand. Her warm, soft, kind hand...
"Don't worry, Otoya-chan, you will be great!" Natsuki chirped. "You do so well on those comedy shows, right?"
"That comedy, though," Otoya said, shaking his head dejectedly. "I'm good at comedy. I've never done a serious drama before. And aren't theater crowds supposed to be much more critical than our usual sort? I can't perform like me in front of the real deal!"
He was sweating profusely at the thought, which was strange. Normally Otoya was such a lively, energetic person, it was hard to believe that even he got nervous sometimes.
He leaned forward and reached desperately down the table toward Tokiya.
"Tokyia. Help me," he begged. "You play the lead."
The entire table blanched in shock. Tokiya, however, answered with the cool confidence he always displayed.
"No," he said simply. "Do it yourself. You've got the skills, what do you need me for?"
Without waiting for an answer, he stood.
"If you'll excuse me, I believe I have business with the Vice Commander." He escaped out the door before they could manage anything crazy, like putting him in a dress again.
"It's alright, Otoya-san," came a timid voice from the next seat over. Sakura was trying her hardest to give him a confident smile, but it wasn't really working.
"If it helps, I'm not that sure about my role either," she confessed. "They should have made Sumire the princess." She sighed, in what Otoya immediately labeled as 'the most tragically beautiful sigh in history'.
"I suppose we'll just have to both do our best!" she added. He cheeriness reminded him of Haruka, who was at the moment busy talking to Iris and her teddy bear.
The rest of the table's occupants objected immediately to Sakura's assessment of herself, assuming (correctly) that someone of such fame as she certainly deserved to be the leading lady now and then. Otoya just kept his smiles to himself. If she was willing to try, he would be too. That was only fair.
"Hello?...Eiichi, it's late...Have you never heard of beauty sleep?..."
"Absolutely not. We're not doing it."
"I will resign right now. I really will."
"You...are the worst person in existence. Real blight on humanity."
"I will tell the President exactly where he can stick his- NO, this does not count as vengeance!"
"Deal. If you can get Kira in. But he'll never agree."
"What do you MEAN, WE OWE THEM A FAVOR?!"
When the limo pulled up in front of the Imperial Theater, the Sakura and Kohran found themselves with their faces pressed to the window. STARISH was already here, and the musical ensemble wouldn't arrive fro two more days, so who on earth could this be?
"Must be that help they were talking about," Kohran guessed. "Though I don't know what kind of backstage help shows up in their own limo."
Excited, Sakura squeaked and tore off down the hallway, leaving Kohran to hurriedly catch up as best she could.
"It looks like a museum. What kind of performance space is this?"
Not only was Nagi not a fan of his rivals, he was also just an unpleasant little shit. Therefore, having not even set foot inside the doors, he had already decided that his time at the Imperial Theater was going to be the worst of his life. It was an indisputable fact.
"It's a theater," grumbled Kira, stepping up behind the smaller young man. "Not an arena."
It was one of the longer sentences Kira had managed that day. He wasn't especially talkative. This made it twice as hard to discern why exactly he had agreed to this job in the first place. Nagi felt it to be an absolute outrage, but Eiichi had his suspicions. Kira was easily the smartest of them, due to his acute powers of observation. It was likely he had something up his sleeve.
"Well don't just stand there like idiots," came a scathing voice from the steps. "Get in here. We've got work to do."
Leaning against one of the stone pillars at the top of the steps was Syo, with the world's most obnoxious smirk on his face. This was his dream, to see his rivals prostrate before him, helpless to do anything but his bidding. Or at least, that's how he saw it in his head.
"Kurusu," said Eiichi coolly, ascending the steps. "I'd say it's good to see you again, but I'm not in the habit of telling falsehoods."
"Otori," Syo responded in kind. Without another word, he turned on his heel, shoved his hands in his pockets, and disappeared through the front door. The members of HEAVENS exchanged disgruntled looks, then followed.
Inside the lobby were only the Wind Division and Syo. The Flower Division and the rest of STARISH were busy in rehearsal, but Syo had been dispatched to greet their 'guests' because he would not be needed until after lunch. Actually, it had come down to either himself or Natsuki, and Syo had lost the coin toss.
"So how much did Raging tell you about all this?" Syo asked, his tone bored and uninterested.
Eiichi looked like he couldn't decide whether or not he wanted to punch Syo in the face himself or just wind up Nagi and let him go to save effort.
"There was something about working backstage, which is honestly a ridiculous idea," he groused. "But according to the studio..."
He grit his teeth and shut his eyes, wishing he didn't have to say it.
"We owe you one."
"That's about right." He indicated the ladies of the Wind Division.
"This is Fujii-san, Sakakibara-san, and Takamura-san. They will be supervising." Syo made an effort to make the girls seem as superior as possible, though that was somewhat harder to do with Tsubaki's arms wrapped almost protectively around herself. She seemed like she could be as nervous as Sakura sometimes. Yuri was more interested in her nails at that moment. Only Kasumi met Eiichi's eyes squarely. She was the most well-equipped to deal with these egomaniacs.
"Welcome to the Imperial Theater," she said smoothly, making Syo wonder if by any chance she was related to the Vice Commander. "You'll be working closely with us to ensure that STARISH and the Flower Division have everything they need for the production. You will also be prepared to handle any requests from our visiting musical ensemble. Our sets and costumes are created by professionals, but we handle all of the props and lobby work. We sell and take tickets, usher, and work in any customer relations in addition to our work for the Flower Division. I have been assured that as professionals in the industry, these tasks will not be a problem for you."
She said it with such certainty that it rendered even the ever-talkative Nagi speechless. He hadn't been expecting a lecture from a girl.
Syo sauntered forward, coming face-to-face with Eiichi.
"Oh, they'll be fine," he said over his shoulder. Not worrying about whether or not the girls were watching (which they were), Syo reached out and grasped Eiichi's shoulder. With strength that one wouldn't have anticipated from someone his size, he forced the taller man down to his eye level. Syo's normally bright blue eyes were now deadly serious.
"None of your tricks, Otori," he muttered softly, his adversary's face an inch from his. He didn't want the ladies to hear what he said. It was better that they not know what to expect from these idiots. While it was nice to have the opportunity to embarrass his enemies, he had no interest in watching Tsubaki shudder at the sight of them the way Haruka did.
"Tricks?" Eiichi's tone was light, almost amused at the current situation. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."
That was so typical of him, Syo had really expected it. But that didn't stop him from saying what needed to be said. He let the egotistical popstar go, casually adjusting his wrist band.
"Oh good. I thought not. Let's keep it that way. After all, these ladies are much different than the sort I'm sure you're used to." His eyes glinted maliciously. He raised his voice back to normal volume. "I leave you in the capable hands of the Wind Division."
He turned and disappeared through the doors that led to the auditorium, intent on rejoining the rehearsal.
Eiichi chuckled and tossed his hair out of his face.
"He's as charming as ever," he said, crossing to speak to Kasumi. She eyed him, torn between professional calm and suspicion.
"Well then," he said. "Where do we start?"