Chapter 3: Princes and Maidens
"Wait, what's going on?"
"Why did she stop?"
"I-I'm so sorry, Madam Director!"
"That's alright, Sakura, let's just take it from the top one more time..."
It was only eleven-thirty in the morning, but most of the actors were already fading fast. They had made remarkably little progress in two and a half hours. Sure, it was an on-script rehearsal, but for seasoned actors like the Flower Division, it really should have been going more smoothly. Sumire, in particular, was extremely irritable.
"Really, Madam Director, I can't work with this," she huffed, flipping her hair in all of her diva majesty. "If she can't play her part even in an on-script rehearsal, then I have no confidence in her ability to perform when it really counts."
There was an audible intake of breath from most of the STARISH boys. They couldn't believe that the famed Sumire Kanzaki could be so...cold...to one of her own company. Even more surprising, Ren noted, was how calm and collected her costars were. Neither Maria nor Kanna made even the slightest change in expression. Even Sakura, with her head bowed in shame, didn't seem overly surprised by Sumire's commentary. Ren could only deduce that this was not an uncommon scenario. How...interesting.
Otoya couldn't help but clench his fist.
"It's alright, Madam Director, we can do it one more time," he tried, but Sakura's head shot up.
"Oh, no, I couldn't hold up the rehearsal any longer!" she insisted, eyes wide. She seemed almost terrified of Sumire's retribution. It reminded him forcibly of Haruka when faced with any criticism from Ringo-sensei or Shining Saotome. Her immediate response was to back down, or to avoid any conflict that might cause those around her distress. It was silly, in an admirable sort of way.
"One last try, and then we'll move on," conceded Mitsuki-san, and clapped her hands. The actors returned to their places, and prepared to try the scene once more.
"Your efforts have failed, mighty prince!" Maria declared as the Goddess of Ice. "You come to us without the heart of the Princess, a mere handmaiden in her place!"
"Your champion has fallen before my power," Kanna added. She played the dramatic God of Fire, who had just bested the Master of Fists (Syo) in trial by combat. "Now behold as your kingdom is destroyed before your very eyes!"
Sakura's high voice piped up. Sumire shook her head in disgust. Her voice should have rung out like a bell, confident and beautiful. Instead, Sakura sounded like a frightened little girl begging for the ice cream truck to stop.
"Wait," Sakura said again. She crossed to Otoya, flanked by her nymphs friends, and nervously took his hand. Their palms were both streaked with sweat, and Sakura's nerves kept her from speaking clearly.
"I-I apologize for the misunderstanding, mother, father," she said, trying to look at Maria and Kanna rather than Otoya. If she looked at him, she just knew she would freeze for good.
"But it is as the prince said. My heart has- has been claimed, as you asked. Please spare them from de- struction." She stammered, but she got the line out. That was an improvement over the first try, in which she had nearly fainted at having to hold Otoya's hand.
Maria met Sakura's eyes, torn between accurately portraying her cold-hearted character and giving her friend a warmer look. She settled for a neutral gaze.
"Is this true, my daughter? Has the prince earned your love?" she asked.
Sakura shook her head.
"It would be cruel and foolish of me to claim the love of the prince, when his heart so clearly belongs to another," she said, gesturing to Ren, with Sumire cradled in his arms. "But even so, this kingdom does not deserve your wrath, f-for the one I love is in it."
She braced herself. This was it. She turned to look at Otoya, but couldn't will herself to meet his eyes. Her breath caught in her throat and she couldn't make the next lines come out. She tried to speak, but her mouth was so dry...
"She obviously can't do it, director," Sumire snapped. "There's no use waiting on her."
Surprisingly, it was Masato who spoke up.
"Really, Miss Kanzaki, it is only the first day. You might show a little more patience."
He said it quietly, but everyone on the stage heard him. Sumire shot him a disgusted look, but it was the director who finally cut her rant short.
"Alright, everyone, let's just move on to the next scene," Mitsuki-san said firmly. Unfortunate though it was, she was used to this scenario. The boys seemed so surprised, but it was only because they had just met everyone. Sooner or later, they would get used to it as well. Everyone always did. That was just how things worked around Sumire.
That quiet voice made Sakura pause. She turned to see who the unrecognized voice belonged to, and found herself face to face with the last person she had expected to see.
"Oh, Hijirikawa-san! Are you feeling any better?" she asked, her voice light. It was as if the somewhat abusive rehearsal of moments before had never happened.
Masa smiled, his pale features more expressive than most would ever see them.
"Yes, thank you," he said sincerely. "Though I noticed that rehearsal really did not go very well for you."
Sakura sighed, unable to deny it.
"I am so sorry, Hijirikawa-san. I am not used to acting with...so many people," she said, her voice thick with shame. Masa couldn't help but wonder if that was really the problem. Sakura seemed the type to do whatever it took to avoid distressing others.
He smiled, which surprised her.
"You misunderstand, Miss Shinguji," he said quietly, meeting her brown eyes with his muted blue ones. "I only ask to see if may help you in any way. I have heard...many good things about your performances, it seemed odd that you would suddenly have so much trouble with a simple reading."
A sharp intake of breath from his companion told him that Sakura had not expected such kindness. It was as if she had expected him to berate her for her lack of talent, the way Sumire did. Masa had no intention of doing so. She certainly had talent, he did not believe otherwise. It seemed to him that this poor young woman simply suffered from the shadow of another prominent actress.
"I don't know what to tell you, Hijirikawa-san," Sakura confessed. "I have never been as confident in my acting as Sumire, but it has been a long time since I was this nervous. I suppose it's different, working with Ittoki-san." Masa's eyes widened. Ah, so that was the problem. Did something about Otoya make Sakura nervous?
Come to think of it...
"Miss Shinguji, have you ever acted opposite a man before?" he asked, trying to remain collected and not let her know how incredulous he found it. In the back of his mind, Masa felt that it was ironic, he of all people being surprised by the situation. He himself had trouble acting with women on stage at first, but he had always known that he was the minority. It wasn't considered a common problem. But if Sakura was simply nervous at acting with Otoya because he was male...
Sakura shook her head miserably.
"No, I haven't. We have men in our plays, of course, but they are usually played by either Maria or Kanna. Sometimes Kohran. But our company is entirely women." She wrapped her arms around herself, gripping at her elbows as though forming a protective cage in her mind.
"It is different, working with someone you don't know, and having to pretend that you love them." Sakura's voice dropped to a husky whisper. "Maria and Kanna and I, we are like more than family. We protect each other, we fight with each other. We live with each other. It isn't so hard with them. I don't want to upset Ittoki-san, but I just..."
She trailed off, not knowing what else to say. She looked like she was about to cry. Hesitantly, Masato reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. He hoped it was a comforting hand.
"If it helps, Miss Shinguji, I have confidence in you," he said sagely. His smile was serene, but sincere. The corners of Sakura's mouth twitched, and she tried to put a wavering smile on her face.
"Someone once told me," Masa said quietly, "-that an actor shares a dream with the audience. It is like a street that runs both ways." He didn't really know how else to phrase it. Masa didn't feel he had the presence to make his words resonate in the soul, but that was the important part. It was like he was giving half of a message.
He was lucky, then, that Sakura knew the other half already. Her eyes brightened immediately.
"That's like what Commander Yoneda says," she said. "That's why the Flower Division are actresses in the first place, you know. The stage gives us the spirit strength we need to stay unified and effective in combat. Our shows are really more for us than they are for the audience."
Masato's brow furrowed, contemplating her words. He understood it, to a point. It was just like how the members of STARISH each did individual work in addition to their concerts. Each member's own skills added to the group as a whole, but it was more important that each performer grow on their own. Each member needed to do something for themselves, to strengthen them alone, so they could always stand on their own two feet when necessary. Masa was a stage actor, Syo a screen actor, Ren a model, Otoya a comedian. They used these outlets to build their individual strength, which made the group all the more powerful.
What must it be like, he wondered, to have only the stage? Alone, Sakura might have been able to use the stage to grow as a person, but with no way to get away from Sumire and her condescension, it could just as easily hinder that growth. For Masa, the stage was his freedom. For Sakura, it seemed to be just one more place where she had to fight to shine.
The more he thought about it, the more Masa sympathized with the young woman in front of him. She had to have incredible strength, to put up with such odds every day of her life. What's more, she usually did so with a smile on her face.
Lost in thought, Masato did not notice that the two of them weren't alone until he felt a strong and sickeningly familiar hand on his shoulder.
"Why the serious face, Masa?" Ren drawled, his edgy smile firmly in place. "If you don't lighten up, people might think you're bullying our little cherry blossom here." He laughed darkly, causing Masa's face to contort briefly in rage. Years of practice had his mask of calm back in place in a splitsecond.
"With you and HEAVENS here, I find it hard to believe anyone would peg me as the resident bully," he said coldly. He nodded politely to Sakura, who seemed completely befuddled by Ren's appearance and Masa's sudden change of character.
"Miss Shinguji. Perhaps we can continue our conversation another time. If you'll excuse me." He extracted his shoulder from Ren's grip, and strode off down the hallway toward their room.
Left behind were Ren and Sakura, each with a confused expression. Sakura almost couldn't believe that the kindhearted young man who had offered to help her with her nerves could become so cold, so quickly. One moment they were having a lovely conversation, the next...
"Well that was unnecessary," Ren commented lightly. His shadowed eyes, however, gave away his concern. Despite his inability to use his mind before his mouth, Ren was worried for his friend. Something had been really bothering Masato lately, and it was so apparent that even complete strangers could see it. Usually the stoic bluenette kept his emotions so under control that people doubted he even had feelings. To see him with his heart on his sleeve like this was frankly disturbing.
"I hope that cold fish hasn't upset you, Miss Shinguji," Ren added. "A lovely blossom like yourself is best suited to smiles." He stepped forward, placing his fingers under her chin. Sakura froze, unsure of what to do. Her heart was beating a thousand miles per hour, and she didn't know if that was a good thing.
"Please, smile," he requested softly. Sakura gasped and stepped away from him.
"I really think- I must be going, I have to work on my lines." She gulped, bowed to Ren, and fled.
As Ren stared blankly after her, a dark shadow peeled itself away from the wall, having seen all it needed to.
As Ren tried to shake it off, he found himself under attack yet again. Her chilly voice echoed in his ears like his brother's often did.
"That went well."
He turned to see Sumire Kanzaki, leaning against the wall with a naginata in her hand. Ren knew what it was by sight, but it was a little-used weapon. For close combat, most warriors preferred the sword or katana. For distance, firearms had taken precedent. The naginata had fallen between the cracks, and was more of a relic than a practical weapon these days. Of course, the one in Sumire's hand looked not only well-used, but well-kept. It gleamed brightly, and that edge looked like it would cut even a single hair it was so sharp. Sumire held it the way she would a mop or broom, completely comfortably. As if it didn't have a deadly blade on one end at all.
Ren sighed and put a hand to his temple, wondering why he suddenly felt the beginnings of a headache.
"I don't expect a lovely person like you to understand the difficulties of having to put effort into being charming," he said dryly. "Was there something you needed, Miss Kanzaki?"
Sumire chuckled to herself, and shook her head.
"No, no," she said loftily. "Please, go on fumbling about and sending women running. It's amusing."
"Must you kick a man when he's down, lady?" he asked. The pounding in his head was getting worse by the moment. When she raised her brow at him, he sighed.
"Never mind. Go on, tell me just how deplorable I am. We both know that picking on my poor heart will bring you happiness. I could wish for nothing else."
Sumire paused...then laughed. Her eyes sparkled with mirth.
"I wouldn't do it if you didn't make it so entertaining," she commented. "Besides, how many women can truly say they've tamed a Jinguji?" She laughed again, bringing an surprised smile to Ren's face.
"Tamed? I hardly think so," he retorted. "It will take a bit more than a few scathing remarks to tame me." He approached her the same way he had Sakura, but Sumire had the disadvantage of a wall to her back. Her smiled became a scowl as he braced his hands on the wall to either side of her. He leaned in close, so that he could whisper in her ear.
"But you are welcome to try."
The Imperial Theater was huge, which meant that there were numerous things for Haruka to do while she waited for the rehearsal to end. However, as always, she chose to remain beside them and watch the rehearsal. Most of it went well, but Haruka's heart went out to the poor girl playing the lead with Otoya. Sakura was trying so very hard, Haruka could see it in her eyes, but that Sumire just kept berating her. She bit her lip, wondering what it would be like if Tomochika ever did that to her.
Imagining it, Haruka realized that if she were ever bullied about her compositions, she had the seven members of STARISH to stand up for her. They always did. They were like more than family to her, and they never stood for anyone treating Haruka ill, not even Shining Saotome. Feeling faint, Haruka realized that Sakura didn't have a family like that on the stage with her. What she had was competition. Outside of rehearsal, the women of the Flower Division seemed very close-knit, but no one had spoken up for her on stage today but Masato. Some of them, Haruka noted, had even looked bored. It made her want to cry, thinking that poor Sakura should have to endure such treatment every day.
These thoughts were still running through her head when Haruka headed to the great hall for lunch, a few minutes late. She was so lost in thought that she didn't even notice Tsubaki carrying a tea tray into her path. The two of them squeaked and collided. Haruka fell back and tried to catch herself, but her ankle twisted beneath her. Instantly her eyes filled with tears as a pair of strong arms caught her. Haruka looked around, dazed, wondering who was holding her up.
"Are you alright?" Captain Ohgami asked kindly, returning Haruka to her feet. She smiled and opened her mouth to answer, but her ankle refused to take her weight and sent her crashing into Ohgami again. He laughed, moving so that she could lean on him.
"I'll take that as a 'no'," he said, chuckling. "Did you hurt your ankle?"
Haruka's face went bright red. She looked at the ground, at the wall, anywhere but at Ohgami's face. The members of STARISH were all on their feet, watching her with concern.
"Y-yes," she sputtered, trying again to stand up. It was no use, she discovered painfully. She wasn't walking on that ankle anytime soon, and that meant she was stuck in the arms of a man she did not really know. It was so embarrassing, she thought she might well faint right there.
Yuri's voice was anxious as she questioned her friend. Haruka and Ohgami turned, remembering that Haruka was not the only one involved in the collision. Haruka gasped at what she saw. Not only was Tsubaki standing upright, but the tea tray was completely intact, supported with one hand by...
"That was close," Otori Eiichi said coolly, returning the tray to its owner.
Tsubaki stared at him, as did the whole room. How on earth had he managed to catch the tray that quickly? It was either innate skill, divine favor, or the dumbest of luck. Nagi stood next to him, one arm outstretched. Everything in their body language said that he had been the one to catch the falling Tsubaki.
Instantly glares shot around the room. Syo, Masato, and Cecil glared at Ohgami, who still stood with Haruka leaning on his shoulder, one arm around her waist. Ren, Tokiya, and Otoya directed their glares at Eiichi, whose suspicious composure they very much resented. Natsuki stared at Nagi, his head cocked to the side in what looked like confusion. While Nagi seemed disconcerted by Natsuki's gaze, Natsuki himself was oblivious as usual.
"Good catch, Eiichi," Nagi said, tearing himself away from the stare of Natsuki to congratulate his bandmate. Eiichi simply tossed his hair.
"But of course," he said, with a sickeningly smooth tone that had half the room stealing sidelong glances at Ren. Jinguji, it seemed, had a rival for the role of "smooth talking debonair gentleman".
Unable to say anything about the HEAVENS crew (they were being...nice...after all), Syo grudgingly moved on.
"Are you okay, Haruka?" he asked. "Do you want someone to help you upstairs?" Instantly all six of his fellow bandmates moved to offer their services, but Haruka shook her head.
"No, I-I'd like to eat lunch here first," she said, reminding them all why they were there at all.
"Of course you do!" came a loud voice from the kitchen before anyone could respond. Kanna appeared, smashing her way through the swinging door, fully loaded down with full plates of what looked like fried fish.
"C'mon everybody, grab a seat and let's get this party started!" She grinned as a bright pink bow peeked around her legs. Iris was smiling too, her teddy bear clutched in one hand as always.
"Oh goody!" Sakura said, clapping her hands in delight. "Kanna and Iris made lunch for us!"
Kanna shot her a thumbs-up.
"Now I don't have time to do this every day," she said, her voice booming, "-but when I do, you boys'll be eating like kings! Go on, get to it!"
Iris and Kasumi helped hand out the plates while Tsubaki and Yuri poured tea for everyone. Ohgami and Syo deposited Haruka in a chair so she could eat. Eventually, Natsuki joined them, as did Kanna and Iris.
"Kanna, this is amazing," Ohgami said through a mouthful of food. Haruka covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. Watching Ohgami stuff his face was much like watching Otoya when he found something he liked. They both acted like children in the presence of food.
Syo suspiciously tasted his food, but the way his eyes bugged out of his head told Haruka that he approved as well.
"You made this?" he exclaimed, nearly choking in his excitement. Kanna pounded him on the back (nearly sending the smaller guy's face into his food) and grinned.
"Yup! I'm a chef in my spare time," she said. "Iris and I cook together all the time, right Iris?"
The little girl smiled brightly and nodded.
"Kanna is a very good cook!" she said earnestly. "Jean-Paul loves Kanna's food."
Kanna laughed and ruffled the little girl's hair.
"You know I couldn't do it without my star assistant!" she said. Syo just stared at his plate, marveling in the taste. It had been a long time since he tasted anything this good.
"I think you broke him," Cecil called from the next table over, snickering. Syo's face went red.
"It's called savoring!" he yelled back. "Or don't they have good food where you come from? Jeez!" He huffed and sat back in his chair, stuffing another bite of fish into his mouth. His reaction sent Kanna into a fit of laughter. Syo glared at his food as he ate, and Haruka and Ohgami hid smiles.
"Well I guess I'm doin' something right, if the great Kurusu Syo likes my food," Kanna said matter-of-factly, making the hairs on the back of Syo's neck stand up.
He sat up and met her eyes, his own strikingly bright blue orbs wide with interest.
"Did you just call me 'great'?" he asked incredulously.
Kanna raised a brow, surprised.
"Uh, yeah," she said, a bit off-kilter. "You were in Prince of Fighting. It was excellent."
Ohgami noticed how calm and admiring Kanna sounded, as compared to her usual breaking-down-the-walls enthusiasm. He mentally applauded her. Toning it down a bit wasn't something Kanna had ever done well, so this calm must have taken a while to perfect.
Syo's voice was more dumbfounded than anything, but there was a twinkle in his eye that betrayed him. Haruka, remembering Syo's ambition to have his own fan club, thought that this must be a dream come true for him.
"Do you do your own stunts?" Kanna asked, leaning back in her chair. Syo nodded, and the two of them spiraled off into a conversation about fight scenes and staging combat, leaving the other four to fend for themselves.
The others tried smalltalk for all of five minutes, but Ohgami figured out pretty quickly that Haruka was only going to speak to him in short, halting sentences that were always a direct answer to a question. He decided to try a different approach.
"Are you excited for the play, Iris?" he asked. The little blonde nodded.
"I get to dance," she said in her soft, high voice. "There is a dance of the nymphs. Ballet." Iris loved to dance, ballet was her favorite kind.
Ohgami turned to Natsuki.
"You're a nymph too, right, Shinomiya-san?" he asked, and was greeted by an almost identical nod.
"I can't wait for the dance either," Natsuki said with dreamy eyes. "I'm a fantastic dancer. It will be splendid!"
A cough caught Ohgami's attention, and he followed the sound to Syo, who was violently shaking his head pointedly at Natsuki and drawing his finger across his throat. Natsuki couldn't dance ballet properly if his life depended on it. He liked gliding around and feeling pretty and graceful, but he didn't realize just now non-graceful he really was. He just didn't get that there was a lot of precision in ballet. Rules made things...complicated...for Natsuki.
Grinning, Ohgami turned back to their smallest companion, as Syo returned to answering Kanna's questions about Prince of Fighting.
"I'm sure it will be great," Ohgami said confidently. Haruka smiled and nodded as well.
"You will be lovely, Iris-chan!" she said enthusiastically.
"Will Jean-Paul dance with you?" Natsuki asked, his bespectacled eyes filled with curiosity. Haruka and Ohgami glanced at him, surprised, but Iris didn't seem fazed one bit.
"No," she answered with a smile. "Jean-Paul does not like the stage. He sits with Kasumi until the show is over. Iris dances alone."
"That must be lonely," Natsuki commented. Briefly his gaze settled on Syo, before dropping back to Iris. "To perform without your best friend."
Iris just giggled and shook her head.
"But Iris performs with Sakura! So Jean-Paul understands," she said.
Natsuki's eyes glazed over, shining in excitement. Iris was just so cute, he wanted to hug her and squeeze her and cuddle her like he did Elizabeth (his dog). His brain almost gave up working as he stared at the little girl, but the ever-cognizant Syo managed to lean over and smack him on the back of the head before he could decide to pounce on her.
"Syo-kuuuuun!" Natsuki whined. "That hurt!"
Syo just huffed and returned to his conversation, unfazed by Natsuki's crocodile tears. This was so routine in almost hurt to think about.
From there, lunch was relatively cheery. After the meal was over, the cast had to return to rehearsal, but the crew were granted some free time. Haruka didn't know what she was going to do. She very much wanted to watch the rehearsal, but Syo convinced her that it was really going to be quite boring, watching them do the exact same thing they had done that morning. Surely she had something better to do?
At the door to the great hall, Mitsuki-san called them all back to rehearsal. She had a no-nonsense voice that told them they'd best hurry up. Syo glanced at Haruka.
"Haruka, do you want to go to your room? Do you need help?" he asked anxiously.
Haruka shook her head.
"I- I don't know," she said quietly.
Syo snapped to attention.
"Yes, director, I'm coming!" he called. He looked around, a bit panicked. He was going to get in trouble if he didn't get going, but he couldn't leave the injured Haruka here all by herself- or worse, with HEAVENS.
Someone tapped his shoulder.
Syo turned, and found himself staring at Captain Ohgami.
"Go ahead, I can help with anything she needs," he offered with a smile. "With my combat team stuck in rehearsal, I don't have much to do anyway."
A quick glance at Haruka told Syo that it was okay. No matter how uneasy she felt getting to know new people, it was important that Syo be on time for the rehearsal. She nodded and smiled at him, which he returned, before dashing off to join his compatriots.
Ohgami turned to Haruka and smiled, offering her his arm as a proper gentleman should.
"So, Miss Nanami, what would you like to do?"