Chapter 5: Madmen and Pranksters
That evening, Sakura was busy rehearsing her part with Maria. Kohran was doing some minor Koubu repairs in her spare time. Kanna was playing with Syo, and Captain Ohgami was with that composer girl again, which meant that Iris had tea with Jean-Paul today. Just Jean-Paul.
"It's okay, Jean-Paul," she said quietly, pouring tea for herself and the little teddy bear. "The others are working hard. They were just busy. We can have tea alone today."
She left the door to her room open, as she usually did, because she liked to see all of the interesting people walk by. Iris was a lot more observant than people gave her credit for. Plus, with her history...well, closed or locked doors weren't exactly her favorite thing.
She hadn't thought about asking any of the STARISH members to join her. Iris didn't take to strangers very quickly, and it was rare that she spoke to anyone beyond Sakura, Kanna, or Ohgami without some kind of outside encouragement.
It was lucky for Iris, then, that Natsuki was such an outgoing person. He poked his head in her door, staring at her tea setup.
"Are you having tea alone?" he asked, his voice concerned. Iris stared at him like he had two heads, but she nodded. Natsuki's face lit up like the sun as he dived into the room without waiting for an invitation, and settled himself on the floor across from Iris, stuffed Piyo-chan in hand. Iris kept wary eyes trained on the blonde man, but she politely served him tea anyway. From what she had seen of him at mealtimes and in rehearsal, he was generally harmless. A bit daft, perhaps, but he seemed pleasant enough. He was very different from anyone Iris had ever met before.
Natsuki's thoughts were nowhere near as interesting as Iris's. His mind was filled with glitter and rainbows, and the smile on his face was so bright it might have blinded any unsuspecting passerby. He had wanted to properly say hello to Iris for quite a while, but the strict rehearsal schedule made it difficult.
"You are so nice, Iris!" Natsuki crowed, hugging his Piyo-chan close to his chest. "I just want to hug you!"
He remembered what Syo had told him about personal space with new people...and promptly threw it out the window. Smile on his face, he lunged at Iris, momentarily wrapping her in his cuddliest hug...
His back hit the wall with a crashing sound, as Iris escaped from his grip. She held Jean-Paul tightly in one hand, staring at the fallen Natsuki with calculating eyes.
Unfazed by her violent rejection of him, Natsuki just grinned his dopey grin.
"You act like Syo-kun!" he said, giggling. "He doesn't like hugs either!"
Iris stared at him, shocked. She had thrown him into a wall, and he was just sitting there giggling like a madman. Was he insane? Most people would have run screaming. Surely he must have realized that a girl her size couldn't have just thrown him off with her own strength, right? Didn't he notice there was something strange about her?
Without missing a beat, Natsuki picked himself up off the floor and returned to the table, his smile firmly in place, as if this type of response were completely normal. It made Iris wonder- was he crazy, or how many time must Syo have thrown Natsuki off for it to mean so little to him?
Very slowly, Iris returned to her seat as well.
"Jean-Paul thinks you are strange," she said carefully. Natsuki just shrugged and grinned, sipping his tea.
"Maybe," he said brightly. "Syo-chan says I'm strange all the time. But I like being this way. It's no fun if you're just like everybody else, right?"
As Natsuki entertained himself with his ridiculous talk, Iris found herself warming up to him a bit. He was an oddball, that was for sure, but he seemed like a sweetheart. He was kind, even if he didn't always get everything right. He reminded her of Ohgami.
"Iris is not like everyone else," she said quietly. "Iris is different."
Natsuki's eyes grew wide. "You are so special!" he squealed.
Iris just sipped her tea, pondering. She had never thought of it as 'special' before.
The next day's rehearsal went mildly better than the one before, if only because they never got to the end of the show. Blocking rehearsals always went slowly. Today, it was only the first few scenes. There was the opening song, where the narrator, Masato, tells the story of the kingdom doomed to destruction at the hands of the Gods of Ice and Fire, followed by the prince's decision to go on a quest to the fabled gods' mountain and beg for mercy. His friends, the Master of Swords and Master of Fists (played by Otoya and Syo) declare their loyalty to the prince, and go with him. He visits an old prophetess, played by Kohran, who tells him how to find the gods' mountain, and advises him to take whatever challenge they give him.
Tokiya watched from afar, seated in the back of the auditorium, musing.
Ren, as the prince, was the busiest actor that morning. It turned out he actually had quite a bit of acting skill, which really didn't surprise anyone. Someone as self-centered as he would do well in a stage environment. Syo, too, fit very easily into his role as the Master of Fists. Otoya did decently. Tokiya figured that with just a bit of work, he would do very well in the end. Drama didn't come as naturally to him as comedy, but it wasn't entirely out of his range. His biggest problem was his own nerves getting in the way. Iris and Cecil were perfect as nymphs, and they managed between them to keep Natsuki from making too big an idiot of himself. Maria and Kanna worked together fantastically, radiating the power of gods even in rehearsal. They played off one another seamlessly, which Tokiya suspected was a large part of their being cast in those specific roles.
Sakura and Sumire had yet to make an appearance, and stood off to the side, watching. Tokiya noticed that Sakura seemed to be enjoying the show as an audience member would, but Sumire was obviously annoyed at not being onstage. She would get her chance- the princess' handmaiden had a decent role. It would just have to wait.
"Lost in thought?"
Tokiya glanced up to see none other than Lieutenant Fujieda, smiling as she slid into a seat next to him. His impassive expression softened.
"Lieutenant Fujieda," he greeted her.
"There's no need to use my title," she said kindly. "You're not under my command, after all. You can just use my name." She was out of uniform today, and wore a simple white pencil skirt with a blue jacket.
Tokiya couldn't help but smile.
"Fujieda-san, then. I am surprised you have the time to watch rehearsals. I had imagined a woman in your position would be very busy."
Ayame nodded, but her eyes were glued to the stage.
"I am, really," she said, "But sometimes even I have to take a break. The Commander is at a board meeting today, and won't be back until after lunch. I've learned to take my time off when I can."
Truthfully, Commander Yoneda was always after Ayame to take better care of herself, but military training was hard to beat. She had been trained during the Kouma War, when to take a break was to court death.
"How is it going?" she asked Tokiya. He shrugged.
"So far, well," he said nonchalantly. "Ren in particular is very well-suited to his part. Syo, too. The casting was very well-done."
"Well, we did know a bit about all of you before we cast the show," she said with a smile. "Your mentor- Ringo, is it? He's a very insightful person. His input helped a great deal. Though we would have preferred to cast you in the role of the Master of Swords."
Taken aback, Tokiya turned to meet her eyes. Ayame laughed again at the surprise written on his face.
"Is it really so surprising?" she asked him. "You've done plenty of dramatic roles as HAYATO. I would think this would be perfect for you."
Tokiya paused, pondering her words.
"Perhaps I have the most technical skill," he said cautiously, "But I think the show might have suffered for it. The Master of Swords is a lover's role, and that suits Otoya far better than I." He hated to admit it, but passion was one of the things Tokiya had trouble with. It always had been, ever since the beginning of STARISH.
Ayame's smile softened, and she looked almost sad. "You don't really believe that, do you?"
"It's hard to explain," Tokiya admitted. "I have- I have been in this business far longer than the others, but at times it feels like I have learned so much less. They are naturals to the field."
Understanding, Ayame sat back in her chair.
"Sometimes it's difficult, seeing others excel easily where you work hard to succeed." It was a feeling she knew well. She had always held less personal spirit energy than any of the members of the Flower Division. Even back in the Anti-Kouma Squad, she had been the least of the four members. It was part of why she was now higher command, rather than a front-lines warrior. The change had been a good one for her, but even now it did leave some questions to be asked.
"What will you do?"
Ayame's question drew Tokiya out of his reverie, and he looked at her with a confused expression.
"I don't take your meaning," he said. Ayame narrowed her gaze.
"Staying in a position like this one, with six other members depending on you- they need to know all of your strengths and your weaknesses," she answered. "I'm not saying you can't be a team, but you do have to be honest with one another. If you feel that you're not on the same level as they are, then you should tell them."
"That would risk my position with STARISH," Tokiya countered, but Ayame simply stared at him.
"Would it?" she asked.
When Tokiya didn't answer her, Ayame stood.
"Consider yourself carefully, Ichinose-san," she said, her voice steady, but not harsh. "Perhaps you are simply not where you are meant to be."
With that, she left, leaving Tokiya with more to think about than just the cast list.
After that, the days began to pass more quickly. Rehearsals were a roller-coaster, some days were much better than others. Sakura still had not become comfortable with Otoya, but her private rehearsals with Maria were improving. Natsuki's dancing was still terrible, but he was lucky to work with Iris and Cecil, who both possessed kind and patient hearts. They managed to dance well enough to make Natsuki look much better by comparison.
Outside of rehearsals, the group's dynamics were a little rickety. Masa was still being a bit more cold and unfriendly than usual, and Tokiya, too, had withdrawn, and spoke only to those who made a point to speak first. Both, it was obvious, were highly preoccupied with their own thoughts.
Other members became closer and friendlier each day. Haruka had managed to make a new friend in Kohran, sharing a room with her. She had even become somewhat used to the frequent explosions in the room. Her terrified squeaks could now be heard only from next door, and not from farther down the hall. Ohgami still made every effort to be kind to Haruka, but it was clear to him that she was much more comfortable with Kohran and with Sakura than with he. It was frustrating, but he dismissed it. It had taken longer than this for some of the Flower Division to warm up to him.
Syo and Kanna had become nearly inseparable, and it wasn't uncommon to see them playfully punching and kicking one another even when just walking down the halls. The redheaded Amazon liked having someone around who shared her enthusiasm and spunkiness, and Syo liked having a friend that he didn't have to worry about constantly picking on him about his height. Despite the irony of their physiques, Kanna had never once called him 'midget' or 'munchkin', and when they sparred, she faced him as she would any opponent.
In fact, all was going rather smoothly overall...except for one little thing.
Yuri's enraged scream echoed off the walls of the scenic workshop like a battle cry. In her hand she held a pair of prop swords for Ren and Otoya, the blades of which had been painted with hot pink lacquer.
Eiichi, who was in the props loft with Kira, appeared at the top of the steps.
"You called me, Sakakibara-san? Were the floral arrangements for the nymphs unsatisfactory?" he asked innocently.
Yuri held up the swords, the look on her face demanding an explanation.
Eiichi adjusted his glasses.
"Oh dear. What on earth happened to the swords?" he asked, his blameless mask firmly in place. The smile on his face betrayed his true feelings.
"How unfortunate," Eiichi said, descending the steps from the loft down to the main workshop floor. "I suppose they'll have to be repainted."
"Why yes, I suppose they will," Yuri said through gritted teeth. "Which I think is a perfect job for-"
Yuri jumped at the sound of Kasumi's voice. The older girl came bustling into the room, her arms full of completed costumes, all of which looked in danger of falling to the ground at any moment. Yuri rushed to help her friend, but Eiichi was quicker. He caught the falling dresses and jackets, carefully rearranging them so that he could grip their hangers with ease.
"Let me help you, Fuji-san," he said, his voice soft. "These must be hung in the dressing room closet, correct?"
Kasumi nodded, her mind so frantically busy that she didn't even notice the flaming pink swords in Yuri's hand.
"Yes, that's right. Yuri, have you seen Tsubaki? She was supposed to be here ten minutes ago with the flower crowns for the nymphs, but I haven't been able to-"
A sniffle from the doorway forced all three of them to stop in their tracks. Tsubaki stood, leaning against the doorframe, a flower crown on her head and tears running down her face.
"Tsubaki! What's wrong, what happened?" Yuri rushed to her friend's side. "Why are you wearing one of the crowns?" she asked quizzically.
Tsubaki sniffed and rubbed her nose.
"It-it won't come off," she wailed miserably. "I must have set it in the wrong place on the table, but there was glue on it, and I didn't know, and now it's stuck in my hair!" She looked ready to fall apart any minute.
Yuri's eyes immediately flashed to Eiichi, who simply held up his hands in an innocent gesture.
"Don't look at me," he said calmly. "I haven't touched the flowers since yesterday."
"Takamura-san, come on!" echoed a voice from the hallway. "I promise, it will only be a moment!"
Nagi came dashing in behind Tsubaki, a pair of scissors in his hand.
"You just have to hold still for a minute," he said wickedly, which sent Tsubaki running to hide behind Kasumi. Yuri followed, her nimble fingers working to get the crown out of poor Tsubaki's hair, but the crown was not having any of it.
"It's completely stuck," Yuri muttered fiercely as she yanked at the knots. Tsubaki's crying became worse as Yuri pulled harder, and Nagi looked like he was ready to burst out laughing.
A sharp knock at the shop door made the entire lot of them freeze where they were. Lieutenant Fujieda stood there, in her off-duty clothes, one eyebrow raised as she sized up the situation.
"Is everything alright?" she asked.
"We just had a little accident, Lieutenant," said Kasumi smoothly. "Nothing we can't handle."
One look at Tsubaki's face told her otherwise.
"Well you'll never get anything done in this state, Tsubaki," Ayame said, her voice firm, but kind. "Why don't you come with me, and we'll let the others get back to work."
Tsubaki nodded quickly, and ran out the door past Ayame. Kasumi and Yuri exchanged furtive looks, but there was nothing they could really do. To tell Ayame about all of their trouble with HEAVENS was almost more likely to cause problems than fix them. Additionally, it was a matter of dignity. The Wind Division was not to be outwitted by a group of idiotic, egotistical popstars.
"Those swords will need repainting," Ayame noted as she turned to leave. "Otori-san, why don't you get to work on that."
Eiichi blanched, but there was nothing he could say.
"O-of course, Lieutenant," he said, bowing politely. "Right away." A triumphant grin spread across Yuri's face as she handed him the swords.
As the click, click of the lieutenant's heels faded off into the distance with Tsubaki's sniffling, the backstage crew dissipated to get back to their individual tasks. Only when he went to return to the upstairs props loft did Eiichi notice Kira, leaning over the rail, watching the entire discourse.
What a stalker, he thought to himself, but said nothing. Kira's idiosyncrasies were beyond understanding.
"Try that last section again, Sakura."
"And don't forget to breathe."
Sakura cleared her throat, and turned to face Maria, who knelt on the ground before her in the practice room.
"This mountain is lonely," she said, her voice soft and beautiful. "Tell me, traveler, what brings you to this place?"
"I come here to aid my master," said Maria, reciting Otoya's lines. "For he has taken a challenge from the gods. I am his loyal servant." She bowed her head, crossing her arm as if gripping the hilt of a sword. Sakura squeaked and jumped back, as the blocking required.
Maria looked up, surprised.
"Kind lady, what frightens you so?" she asked. "I mean you no harm."
Sakura stayed where she was, her stance wary.
"Few who come here bearing weapons mean no harm," she said quietly, every bit the princess whose life was filled with fear and destruction.
Smiling, Maria stood.
"My sword is merely a part of me, lady. It can no more harm you than I can. I have sworn thrice over to protect the innocent. You have nothing to fear from me."
Sakura opened her mouth to reply, but found herself cut off as the practice room door opened.
"Ren, I don't understand why you had to-"
Otoya froze mid-sentence, standing in the doorway with his mouth hanging open. His face went bright red.
"I-I'm sorry!" he stammered. "I apologize, I thought Ren was working in here, he said that I should- well obviously he's not here, why would he be here- I am so sorry." He bowed politely.
Sakura seemed stuck in place, her eyes wide, just staring at him as if he were a rainbow unicorn in the Imperial Theater. Glancing at her, Maria noted the oddness.
"It is no matter, Ittoki-san," she said easily. "We were simply practicing, in preparation for tomorrow's rehearsal."
Sakura's mouth opened and closed like a fish as she tried desperately to form words, but not a sound came out. Otoya stared at her feet, blushing intensely.
"Yes, I guess that's probably a good idea," he muttered. "I'll, uh- I'll get out of your way, then."
Testing a theory, Maria held up a hand.
"But of course you should stay and practice with us, Ittoki-san," she said, her mouth twisting into a wry smile. "As we are conveniently at your part in the script."
Both Sakura and Otoya gaped at her, completely lost for words.
Otoya recovered first.
"B-but, I, I don't know my lines yet," he said hurriedly. Without a word, Maria removed her script from her waistband and handed it to him.
"A perfect time to learn them, then," she said confidently. She steered Otoya into position in front of Sakura, and unceremoniously forced him to his knees.
"We are on page twenty-two," she said, and stepped back. "Begin with Sakura's line."
Red-faced and terribly self-conscious, Sakura repeated the lines she had spoken only moments before.
"This mountain is- is lonely," she said shakily. She sounded nothing like before, her voice now trembled as she fought not to look Otoya in the eye. "Tell me, traveler, what b-brings you to this place?"
Otoya's line was smoother, but he was so quiet you could hardly hear him.
"I come here to aid my master, for he has taken a challenge from the gods. I am his loyal servant." It came out as barely more than a whisper, and his eyes remained glued to the floor. Maria noticed that he didn't have nearly the trouble with his lines that he said he did. For all he had complained that he didn't know them, he wasn't even looking at the script in front of him.
They continued on in this fashion for several minutes, neither of them improving even the slightest bit. Sakura seemed terrified of Otoya's very existence, and it appeared to Maria like he knew it. He was not afraid of her, but he stayed quiet and distant, as if he dared not intrude on her comfort any more than he already had.
Then it happened. They came to the point in the script where Sakura had to give Otoya her hand.
Maria watched sharply as Sakura carefully extended her hand. She was shaking, and she barely moved her hand away from her body. Otoya reached forward, but she was holding back far enough that he could not reach her.
"Miss Shinguji," he said softly, glancing up. Sakura jumped at the sound of her name, and her chocolate eyes met his amber ones. To her surprise, the look on his face was soft, concerned even.
"It's alright, Sakura-chan," he said, smiling that sweet smile of his. She was like a frightened little girl, and it surprised him how much she reminded him of the children in the orphanage where he grew up. She seemed to think he was much more intimidating than he really was. If he could only get her to trust him...
"I'm not going to bite."
His tone changed, becoming lighter, and much more friendly. Get to know her. Let her see who you really are.
Otoya grinned, the big, dopey grin he used with the kids at the orphanage. He scooted forward on his knees, flailing overdramatically, trying to reach Sakura's hand.
"Lady- Allow me to-"
He lunged again, and fell flat on his face.
"...be of service to you," he finished, his voice muffled by the floor.
Sakura finally cracked a smile. Her hand went straight to her mouth, and her shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. Otoya sat up, took one look at her face, and knew he had hit his mark.
Let her see who you really are.
Otoya was a comedian. If he could make the lady laugh, he could win her over.
The bright smile that spread across his face matched the one hiding behind Sakura's hand.
"Sorry," he said, running his fingers through his messy red hair. "I'm not very good at this."
Sakura carefully lowered her hand, revealing her expression. Her eyes sparkled like stars, Otoya noticed, and she looked much more comfortable when she was smiling. All he had to do was keep her smiling, and that was something he knew he could do.
"Not at all," she said, her soft voice ringing like bells. "You were perfect, Ittoki-san!"
"Tell that to my flattened nose," he grumbled, sending Sakura into giggles.
Otoya scooted back to his original place.
"Should we start again?" he asked. Sakura nodded.
"Yes!" she said, sounding much less frightened at the prospect.
It was only halfway into the scene again that either of them noticed that Maria had disappeared.
The lights glinted dangerously off the blade of Sumire's naginata, as she spun around the practice room in a deadly dance. Her eyes held the seriousness that she always did- Sumire never did anything half-heartedly. Her practice clothes were streaked with sweat, but she did not dare stop until she had finished the drill. The Kanzaki Rising Wind Style left no room for error.
Spinning the naginata like a windmill blade, Sumire increased her speed. Harder, she pushed herself. Don't give up. Faster!
Sumire's hair flew in the wind she had created, giving her the feeling of actual combat. She took a deep breath, and brought the weapon to a halt, straight up in the air. She brought it down like a hammer, leaving a neat split in the practice mat at her feet.
Breathing hard, Sumire froze where she was, simply trying to ignore the pounding of blood in her head. Her heart was beating like a racehorse, but she had to control it. Two deep breaths, and she was comfortable enough to stand.
From the doorway, she heard slow, confident clapping. Her eyes narrowed. She knew who it had to be.
Bracing herself, Sumire turned to see, as she had predicted, that idiot Jinguji at the door.
"What, were you spying on me? Nice habit," she said harshly. "Remind me, and next time I'll aim that blade at your head." She neatly removed said blade from the floor, and swung her naginata up behind her.
Ren laughed, a full-chested, dark laugh that embodied him perfectly.
"Admiring, perhaps, but never spying," he said, a wicked glint in his eyes. "You are certainly worthy of admiration."
The brunette reached up and flipped her hair over her shoulder.
"Good for you, you've grasped the same concept as the entirety of Japan. What an accomplishment."
She made to brush past him, to leave, but his hand caught her wrist, stopping her in her tracks.
"I couldn't possibly allow you leave now, lady," he said smoothly. "After such an insult. No, I believe I really must insist that you make it up to me."
Her brown eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed in anger.
"Release me at once," Sumire hissed through gritted teeth. "Before I send your guts flying."
Ren sighed dramatically. "Such a fiery spirit," he observed. "You demand to be let go, when we're having so much fun."
Gasping, Sumire grasped his wrist and forcibly removed him from her person. She was surprisingly strong for someone her size...either that, or he hadn't been holding on too tightly.
"You call this fun?" she countered, eyes flashing dangerously. "I call it harassment."
To her surprise, Ren took a step back. He crossed his arms, staring at her contemplatively.
"You are an intriguing person, Kanzaki Sumire," he said, his low voice a rumble in his chest. Sumire hated to admit it, even in her own head, but it his voice sent shivers up her spine.
"By day, you stand upon the stage, begging for attention. By night, you threaten anyone who comes close." He spoke slowly, almost teasing her with his observations. "Which is more important to you, I wonder?"
Sumire's grip loosened on the handle of her naginata.
"I get the feeling you're not just any ordinary fan," she said. Her tone had quieted to a cynical calmness. She had decided to play, not to fight. Ren grinned at the prospect. He liked her much better this way.
Ren shook his head, his strawberry-blonde locks catching the light from the room.
"Hardly," he said quietly.
Sumire responded by leaning her nagianata against the wall, and crossing her own arms. The way she stood, with one hip stuck out- it was both warning and invitation, in Ren's eyes. The woman was intoxicating, and she knew it.
"I'm surprised you would pay so much attention to me," she said lightly, "When you brought a snack for the road." Her eyes met his, and it was Ren's turn to be surprised. If she meant Haruka, which he believed she did, then that was a low blow.
But was it entirely unfounded?
The silver bracelets on his right arm clinked as Ren clenched his fist. That, however, was his only tell. His expression remained neutral, as he closed his eyes and ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair.
"A valid point," he murmured. "But allow me to assure you, Lady Haruka is merely my composer."
Not a muscle in Sumire's face moved an inch. She didn't believe him one bit.
"Intriguing I may be," Sumire said, choosing her words carefully, "But I have nothing to lie about. Everything I do, I do in complete sincerity. Can you say the same?"
She took a step closer, effectively putting the wall at his back. It was an ironic twist of their last encounter like this. A cruel irony, one that Sumire enjoyed intensely.
"What are you, Jingujji Ren?" Sumire whispered, her voice low.
At the sound of his name, so coldly tossed about, Ren's eyes flashed open.
She had vanished, the way smoke vanishes in the daylight. In his mind, Ren thought he heard the familiar thunk of a dart hitting a dartboard.
She knew right where to hit, he thought bitterly to himself. She's good.
Slowly, Ren collected himself, and left the practice room. As he disappeared down the hall, a terrifying thought crossed his mind.