Chapter 2: Sakura
Sunday 7:00 pm, Royal Park Hotel, Tokyo
“That will be all today. Please look forward to the release of Eva-sama’s new album coming out next month. Have a good night”, said the emcee for tonight’s press conference.
As I got up to leave, I was surrounded by the guards to make sure that I made it to my private room without any of the reporters getting too close and personal. I smiled and waved at the cameras as I left.
“Eva-san, look over here please!” CLICK – CLICK!
“Eva-sama, over here please!” FLASH – CLICK!
Returning to my dressing room, my stylist / big sister / best friend, Setsuna Kochi, helped me take off my makeup and transform me back to my regular self.
My name is Sakura ‘Eva Takahashi' Kochi. I’m 17 years old, first year university majoring in Visual Arts . . . and also a part-time model and singer. I was born into a low-middle class family in Kyoto and lived there for 6 years before my parents died in a traffic accident. Since I had no other relatives, a family friend, Kenji Kochi, offered to adopt and take care of me. I then moved in with him, his wife Kumiko, and their 14-year old daughter, Setsuna, to Tosashimizu, a small town near Nagano.
I'm happy to say that, although we are not related by blood, I feel connected to them like an actual family. I remember when I was first adopted into the Kochi family, I would cry myself to sleep and have nightmares. Setsuna happened to find me during one of those episodes. Silently she picked me up and settled down on the bed while cradling me. I knew I wasn’t alone . . . she would always be there for me. The last thing I remembered that night was her humming a little tune before I fell asleep. Afterwards, I slowly came out of my shell and opened up to my new family.
“Ooowww!” I protested as Setsuna gave a more than necessary tug on one of the pins holding the chestnut-brown wig covering up my strawberry-blonde hair (Yup, just like a real family). Setsuna smirked and continued to take out the pins.
“Why don't you take off your make-up instead of day dreaming and making me do all the work?” I giggled, stuck out my tongue at Setsuna, and started taking off my make-up.
I have always thought of Setsuna as an older sister since she's eight years older and is currently working towards a master’s degree in fashion design. We can always play and tease each other, but at the same time we support and comfort each other if we have problems. She is why I am Eva Takahashi, the rising idol in Tokyo, and on the other hand, Sakura Kochi, a normal first-year university student. Setsuna is a makeup and styling genius and because of her I am able to study and attend university without anyone recognising me.
My manager / otousan walks in asking, “Aren’t you girls ready yet? Kumiko phoned and said that dinner's in 20 minutes and she made Hime-chan’s favourite dessert.”
“Almost ready, once Sakura changes her clothes we should be able to get going.”
At the mention of my favourite dessert, I pick up the clothes and accessories that Setsuna laid out on the bed and dash into the bathroom to change quickly, leaving the other two chuckling at my antics. Kumiko Kochi is the top chef recently hired by the Royal Park Hotel and also the creator of my favourite dessert: the Chocolate-Strawberry Tiramisu. My family knows that by using food, especially The Tiramisu, as an offer, will automatically get me to hurry up and agree to almost anything.
I looked at myself in the mirror after changing and note that my curvaceous figure is hidden under the loose brown cargo pants and black T-shirt that Setsuna had chosen. On my feet are my favourite pair of blue running shoes instead of those 2-inch heels she made me wear during the press conference. I tuck my hair under a stylish forest green newsboy cap and to top off everything, a pair of black thick plastic-frame glasses for my emerald green eyes to hide behind. Then I quickly gathered everything and dumped it into a sports bag Setsuna had provided.
“Hey Sakura, did you lose some weight again? I wasn't planning for those pants to be that loose on you. You're supposed to look like my assistant who’s in university, not a hobo.” mutters Setsuna as she tightens up my pants with a safety pin. “Sometimes I envy you. You hardly exercise, eat like a pig, but you still lose weight.”
“I can thank my fast metabolism and all the dance practices I go through to prepare for my performances. If you want to, you can join me.”
“Are you kidding? From what I hear, those practices are even worse than boot camp.”
“Okay girls, that's enough for now, you can exchange health tips later in the car. Now, go, go, go!”
We finally make it to the car after dodging a couple of persistent paparazzi following Otousan to setup an interview with “Eva-san”, while not noticing I was right there next to him. We get into the car and Otousan starts to drive to the rural outskirts of Tokyo where our new home is located. We moved about a month ago from Nagano to Tokyo. This decision was based on Okaasan’s new job at the hotel and also because of the development in my career and training. As I stare out the window, I remember how I got into this business in the first place.
It was during the end of exams for my second year of high school and Setsuna was in her last year. I was at home supposedly studying for exams but was feeling a bit bored. It seemed pointless since I already remembered all the material the first time I read it through. I have a photographic memory and am able to grasp concepts easily. Due to this ability, I have already skipped several grades.
Being the food addict that I am, I followed my nose to the kitchen and parked myself on a kitchen stool by the counter and watched my mother cook.
“Hmmm ... it smells great Okaasan. Can I try some?”
“First your medicine and then I'll let you taste the éclairs that are cooling on the rack.”
I sat down at the kitchen island as she handed me two tablets and a glass of water. I have Hypoglycaemia also known as low blood sugar, so I have to take medication daily. But being a food addict I didn't mind this because I had an excuse for eating more. Also having a professional chef as a mother does have its perks too.
“Are those chocolate chip cookies I see on the cooling rack also?”
Okaasan shook her head and scooped up two éclairs and a chocolate chip cookie on a plate and placed it in front of me.
“What are you making for lunch? Can I help?” I asked as I started munching.
“I'm thinking of dumplings and of course you can help.”
She put the wrap and meat paste in the middle so that we could both reach. We gossiped and talked about what was happening at school until we heard the front door open and close. Setsuna walked in the kitchen looking frustrated. She had yet to finish her portfolio to hand in as a final project for fashion design. She wants to major in University but she’s lacking a model to show off all of her designs. I had no clue what made her think of me modelling for her when I was in my mismatched lounging clothes, making dumplings with our mother, and munching on a chocolate chip cookie.
“Oh Hime-chan, what do you say we play dress up and I’ll take a couple of pictures of you while we're at it?” Setsuna asked sweetly.
“Uh . . . Onee-chan, you do know that you are talking to a genius who’s already an outcast at school because of her intellect. Now you want to take pictures of me and show the entire school so that they'll tease me even more. No thank you.”
“I can make it so that you'll look completely different . . . no one will recognize you. Come on, I'm getting desperate here. My project is due tomorrow and my ability to get into a university depends on this. You'll be my favourite sister if you do. I'll even give you my dessert tonight. Please?”
I blame my soft heart for giving in. “FYI, I'm your ONLY sister and I'll do it on the condition that people won't recognise me.” I pause, then add, “AND I get your dessert for the next TWO days.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
It was two hours later that Otousan phoned saying that he couldn't sneak home for lunch because of the auditions. Otousan worked at a talent agency several blocks from our house and they were always planning ways on how to find new talent. That day they were holding singing auditions. I was a little disappointed that Otousan wasn't coming home to taste the dumplings that I helped make (A/N: Sakura was only 8 years old at that time). Okaasan could see the disappointment on my face so she suggested that we all go to the agency and bring his lunch a surprise. After hearing that, my frown did a 180 and turned into a full-blown smile.
We were waiting for the receptionist to find a room for us to eat in and contact Otousan. Setsuna noticed the line of people auditioning wasn't that long with only about five people left. Being the mischievous one in the family, she shared an idea with me which had popped into her head. Since I was still in her clothes and make up, I should line up for the auditions and see if Otousan would recognise me, knowing that he was one of the judges. I quickly agreed since it sounded like fun and it would also be a way to test Setsuna's skill and make sure no one at school would recognise me. We told Okaasan that I had to go to the washroom and Setsuna should go with me so I wouldn't get lost (since it’s known that I have a bad sense of direction). Then Setsuna gave me her mp3 player and told me to memorize one song while she took care of the paperwork. Since there wasn't much time, I chose the current song that Setsuna was listening to. It just so happened to be the song that she used to sing to me to calm me down after the nightmares. Ten minutes later, I had all the lyrics memorised, but was having a bit of trouble getting my voice to reach the high notes. My only other challenge was a bit of the rhythm. This amused me greatly since I usually got the hang of things pretty quickly. But with an extra bit of concentration, I got it down.
Setsuna came back 10 minutes later. “Sakura, I helped you register and you have to get in line now. Are you ready?” I nodded but kept silent. Noticing a bit of fear in my eyes she said, “Don't be nervous, it’s just a prank and not a real audition, so there's nothing to worry about.” She patted my head to calm me down.
“Ojousama, you may go in after 5 minutes.” interrupted one of the workers at the agency.
We both nodded at the worker and then I took several breaths to calm down my racing heart before entering. Even though I knew it was a prank, something in me felt like it was for real. As it looked like I was daydreaming again, Setsuna opened the door and shoved me through. I stumbled into the room and looked around. There was a microphone that the worker had pre-adjusted to fit my height, but there was no one else in the room. I was a bit hesitant as to what I needed to do, so I looked like a mannequin, not moving . . . but my heart was beating a mile a minute because I was in an unknown place all by myself.
“Please walk up to the mike and introduce the song you will be performing for us today.” a tired voice instructed. I recognised the voice as Otousan's. I didn't feel alone or afraid anymore because I knew at least one person in this strange room. I took a deep breath, introduced the song, and began to sing.
Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight
Someone's thinking of me and loving me tonight
I started a bit hesitantly, but then realised that if no one recognised me and I made a fool out of myself, it wouldn’t matter. I regained my confidence, closed my eyes, and let the music run free.
Somewhere out there someone's saying a prayer
That we'll find one another in that big somewhere out there
And even though I know how very far apart we are
It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star
And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby
It helps to think we're sleeping underneath the same big sky
Somewhere out there if love can see us through
Then we'll be together somewhere out there
Out where dreams come true
I didn't hear anything from the judges as I ended. So I opened my eyes and bowed to clue them in that I was finished. I then heard a cough and some clearing of throats. Was that a chuckle that I heard?
“Ahem . . . T-thank you Miss Takahashi. We will get in contact with you to let you know the results. You may go now,” said one of the judges after clearing his voice. I didn't think I had made it because I sounded bad and they were trying to hold back their laughter. The lack of comments did not help as well, so I left hurriedly. When Setsuna asked me how it went I told her what happened.
“Well it’s their loss, but we did achieve our main goal. I don’t think Otousan recognised you.” I nodded and we walked together to join Okaasan after asking the receptionist which room she was in. She asked us why it took us so long to find the washroom and if I was okay. I replied that I was fine and not to worry.
We were setting up our lunch, but Setsuna had a mischievous smirk on her face. Okaasan knew that she just pulled another prank and was about to grill her on what we had done, but Otousan came waltzing in, picked up Okaasan, and started to spin her around. We started laughing at him and Okassan asked him what made him so happy while fixing her clothes and hair. I hid behind Setsuna so he didn't notice me as he started talking excitedly.
“You know how tired I sounded when I called you? Well we were having a terrible time at the auditions. Who knew that there were so many people in Tosashimizu who can't sing a proper tune. We were reaching the end of the people auditioning today and the rest of the judges and I were ready to pull our hair out when there was a last minute sign-up.”
At this, Setsuna stood up straighter as I tugged onto the back of her shirt. Otousan didn't notice and continued on.
“To say that she had a voice of an angel was an understatement. She even stunned Mori to silence and you know how strict and picky Mori is. Even though the delivery of the song was a bit rough around the edges we all agreed that there is a lot of potential since she's so young. I believe that with enough training she could be the next big star. Seriously Kumiko, our village is not that big but I haven't seen her before. Trust me honey, she's a cutie now, but I think when she gets older she's going to be a heart-breaker. I think her parents are going to have a headache fighting off her suitors when she gets older.
When Setsuna and I heard this we couldn't hold it in anymore and began laughing. Otousan had a shocked / embarrassed face when he saw me there. Okaasan was a smart cookie and she figured it out the prank right away. Otousan was still a bit slow and came up and told me that he was surprised to see me here and asked if I was one of Setsuna's friends. He needed to talk to my parents before I went into the entertainment industry. We laughed even harder at that. Seeing that we were a bit rude and had no reply but laughing, he turned and asked, “Kumiko, where's Hime-chan? I hope you didn't leave her at home by herself. She's not old enough to be by herself yet. Plus you brought all the food here. She'll be starving.” he said worriedly.
I patted him on his arm, “I'm here Otousan so you don't need to worry but I do suggest that you start eating though. You need to build up your strength to fight off all those suitors for me.” This brought out another round of laughter and when my Otousan put one and one together, he gasped, and chuckled with us.
While we were eating, we came up with reasons why I should or shouldn't enter the entertainment industry. In the end, we came up with a compromise. Since I'm almost done with high school, but still plan on going to university, my parents were worried that I'll be even more of an outcast because of my age. Going through this training would help me understand the entertainment business and help decide what I wanted to choose as a career. It would also let my age group catch up with me before entering university.
Okaasan was a bit worried, though. If I did decide to enter into this business, she insisted that Otousan had to watch over me. Setsuna was all for it. She had proven her skills and ‘Eva Takahash’ would be her showcase.
I quickly finished high school and started training. The training consisted of singing, dancing, modelling, and acting lessons to cover the major areas and then each had sub lessons. Overall, it was a big difference compared to high school. Instead of memorising and grasping concepts, I actually had to work physically at something. I think I enjoyed this part the most as it was the greatest challenge to me. I may have been young when my parents died but I still remember one of the important teachings that they had taught me. ‘Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful’. So based on this teaching and also knowing that they would have wanted me to live a meaningful life, I never gave up even though it was hard work.
Sunday 9:00 pm, Kochi Residence
After dinner, I went up to my room to prepare for the next day's lectures. Since it was the summer semester, a lot of my core courses were not offered, so I chose Statistics and three electives as well: Photography, Nutrition, and Marketing. My record company had taken advantage of my situation and pushed up the release date of my debut album, so there was a caboodle of promotional events to do. I took out my books from my bag and started reading the first couple of chapters for each course to prepare for the coming week. Sometime later, I found myself a bit tired and looked up at my clock, then down at my books, and shook my head. In three hours, I’d read 3 weeks worth of lecture material for each course. Sometimes I get too focused and loose track of time until my body tells me to take a break. There was a knock on my door just as I was getting ready for bed. I looked up from my bed to see Setsuna carrying a duffle bag and a hanger with clothes.
“Hey Hime-chan, here's your clothes for tomorrow.”
“Why did you bring my workout bag here as well?” I dropped the bag in the corner and hung up my clothes in my practically bare closet. Nearly all my clothes were in a closet in Setsuna's room and every night she picked out the clothes that I would need for the next day (including work and school) so that my double identity would not be exposed. The only clothes that I had in the closet in my room were the ones that I lounged around at home and my pyjamas. Setsuna frowned at my choice of clothing whenever she saw my closet because, according to her, my closet was a fashion disaster.
“Well, I just got off the phone with one of my group members and we need to stay a bit late on campus tomorrow to plan out next week's fashion show. Then after I hung up, your dance teacher called and said that he has an emergency appointment and can't make it for Tuesday, so he booked one of the studio rooms in the university gymnasium for a make up practice. He said that usually he'd let his students take a break in these instances but you need all the practice you can get.” giggled Setsuna.
As I was not 18 yet (but I would be by the end of that year) I was not legally able to drive yet. And since I lived at home, which is located on the outposts of Tokyo, Setsuna usually drove me to and from university.
“Hey, no fair, it’s not my fault! Have you ever thought that the choreography is just too hard or he can't teach that well.” I replied with a pout.
“Sure, whatever you say Hime-chan. Anyway, I told him of my little situation and the timing just fits his schedule as he is in Tokyo tomorrow night. So tomorrow it'll be 7:00 to 10:00 in Studio B at the gymnasium. I should be finished around that time, but wait for me at the coffee shop in the student center and then we can go home. Okay?”
“I don't have a choice, do I?”
“Not really, but that's the price of stardom. Goodnight Hime-chan.”
After Setsuna closed the door, I turned off my lights and laid back down on the bed to sleep off the misery.
“It’s beautiful . . .”
I'm standing a couple of meters away from the mountain cliff and can see the sun starting to peek out from beyond the horizon. The rays of light start to bring light and warmth to everything they touch. I'm captivated, when suddenly a pair of arms come up from behind to wrap me in a gentle embrace. Glancing at the hands around me I note that they do not belong to anyone in my family. Too slender to be Otousan's and too big to be Okasan or Setsuna's. I normally struggle with the stranger to free myself but the feeling of the embrace is too overwhelming. It gives me a sense of security and comfort. I forget about all the stress and weight put on me by my work and other miserable happenings. I cuddle up closer to this stranger knowing somehow they'll keep me safe and do me no harm. I place my arms on top of the stranger's and entwine our fingers. I study the differences and search for clues to their identity.
“I love . . . ”
PAT, PAT, PAT . . .
Opening my eyes, I saw Okaasan patting me on the arm to wake me up. I slowly woke up to a light breakfast in bed: French toast, water, and, of course, my meds.
“Wakey, wakey. There's more food downstairs, so wash up before your Otousan eats it all."
“Thank you Okaasan.” I replied. After she left, I could smell a lingering scent of the food that she had cooked. French toast and a baked goody of some kind with blueberries. I looked at the clock and it said 6:00 am. I had one hour before Setsuna and I would leave for school. I gathered my stuff and headed to the bathroom to freshen up. As I entered the bathroom, I heard Setsuna snoring. Even though we had separate rooms, we shared a common bathroom. I decided that a little payback is in order for last night. After quickly washing up, I let myself into Setsuna's room. I tried to make as little noise as possible even though Setsuna was a deep sleeper. By analysing her position on the bed and figuring out the most effective points, I initiated my attack and tickled her awake.
“HA, HA, HAA – I'm a-wa-ke – HA, HA. S-stop, pul-lease stop!”
Sensing that my revenge was rightfully justified, I quickly retreated before Setsuna was fully awake and come back with a counter-attack. Just before leaving, I said to her. “You better hurry up or I'll eat all your breakfast." After changing and packing my stuff, I went downstairs to have breakfast and greet my parents.
Once again, I'm thankful for a cook as great as Okaasan. There were freshly baked blueberry-strawberry muffins, French toast, croissants, fruit, juice, and hot cocoa.
Everyone in the family is a picky-eater with the exception of me. Otousan prefers muffins with coffee in the morning. Okasan likes croissants and juice. Setsuna likes French toast and hot chocolate. I, on the other hand, will eat just about anything given to me except for exotic foods.
“Hime-chan, I've packed lunch and dinner for you two as Setsuna has already told me that you're staying late. Make sure you remember to eat. Did you pack your meds with you?”
“Yes, Okaasan.” I replied.
“If you're still hungry, use your meal-card to buy something. I don't want to hear from Setsuna that you fainted again.”
“But Okaasan, it’s only happened twice.”
“Three times if you count the first time when we didn't know about your condition,” said Setsuna as she came down into the kitchen to eat.
“Three or two, it's still more than enough for me. I like my girls to be safe and healthy, thank you very much. Okasan is getting old and can't endure that much excitement anymore.”
“Don't worry Okasan I'll remind her today. As the most responsible one in the family, you have my word.” Setsuna said. At this we all giggled since we knew Setsuna was any thing but. Otousan then interrupted this banter saying, “Girls you have one hour before class begins, so I suggest you hurry up.”
On the drive to school, I reflected upon my dream. It was not the first time I had that type of dream. They took place in different settings but always this same stranger would embrace me from behind and I would never see the their face. But I knew it was the same person because I always feel safe, peaceful, relaxed, and comforted. I questioned myself, “Will I ever get to meet this person in reality? At least, when will I see this person's face in my dream? Do I want to start searching for this person?” As I sat in the car on my way to school, I came up with more questions but no answers, except for one: take it as it comes and don't get worked up over things that may not happen. I had enough on my plate as it was with work and school.
After we parked at the university, we headed to one of our rented lockers to drop off some of our load. Since my lunchtime did not fit with Setsuna's, I told her that I’d have it in the library and catch up on my language homework from work. Today I had a statistics lecture in the morning, followed by a photography lecture. Then finally, after lunch, I had a Nutrition lab. By then, Setsuna and I would eat dinner and split up afterwards.
As usual, I was one of the first people in the lecture hall. I took my usual seat near the front and took out my things to prepare for the lecture and notes while the other students entered. The lecture was uneventful except for the announcement of a final project worth 30% of our final mark. The outline would be handed out in the following week’s lecture. I suspected that it was the professor's attempt at getting students to just attend the lecture.
Then during my photography lecture, the professor gave us an assignment that was due at the end of the month: an essay with pictures taken by ourselves as supporting evidence on nature's miracles vs. emotional interpretation. In order to prove that we had taken the photographs, we were not allowed to use digital cameras and we had to provide the role of film. I liked this as I thought that the professor was testing our skills.
While I was walking to my locker to get my lunch, I started to brainstorm the possible places where I could take pictures for the assignment and how to communicate my emotions effectively. Having a perfect memory doesn't mean perfect marks. I have problems expressing thoughts and emotions. Thus I chose this field not only because of my interest in photography, but also to work on my weak points. Hitting two birds with one stone as Otousan says. Since my dance lesson was cancelled, I planed to use the next morning as a scouting trip to get some inspiration and pictures.
So as I was walking towards the crowded student center plaza, a man in front of me suddenly stopped, turned around, and collided with me, which in turn made me nearly fall. Note the word “nearly” because he held onto me to steady the both of us. For the briefest time that I was held, it was almost déjà vu as the feeling was as familiar as the stranger in my dreams. I tried to look at the stranger’s face, but he mumbled a soft apology and ran away. It took me a second to recover from the shock and when I turned to get a glimpse of “my” stranger, he was already gone. Since the duration of this encounter only lasted about a couple of seconds, I wrote it off as wishful thinking. Maybe I had been rationalising about my dream too much this morning
I saw a large crowd and wandered ahead to see what the big fuss was about.
It appeared that there was a fund-raising concert scheduled with a guest performance by up and rising idol “Eva Takahashi” whom I had never heard of. Since Otousan and Setsuna handled my schedule, I'd let them bring it up themselves. But if they didn't mention anything by the next night, then there would be some serious grilling.
My stomach was growling by the time I settled down in the library and started working on my Korean and English homework that I got from training at work.
My Nutrition lab went overtime so I had a rushed dinner with Setsuna. Then it was off to the change room at the gym. I got to the studio room, but Sai-Sensei was not there yet, so I decided to warm up and start practising by myself. So I put in my personal CD and started stretching to the first track. Then at the second track I started the dance I was working on for my own development. Since no one was there, I let the music lead me and I got lost in the music and the beat. Gliding across the room looked effortless, but in reality I was sweating like a pig. I continued on until the end of the song.
CLAP, CLAP, CLAP!
I suddenly froze and slowly turned around. Once I saw who it was I relaxed and went to get a drink from my water bottle.
“You still need to work on the rhythm and add a bit more emotion. But how many times have I said to keep your eyes open. As a performer, you want to capture people’s attention and nothing beats eye contact. Now if you can only perform like that in front of an audience.” commented Sai-Sensei.
“Sensei, I can't even do this in front of YOU, not to mention my family. Now you expect me to dance in front of countless strangers?” I asked.
“I have plans for that. Here, I checked with your schedule.” Sai gave me a white slip of paper with nothing but an address written in his scribbles. “Come to this address on Friday. Set-chan knows of this as well so she'll prepare and accompany you there.”
“This isn’t like last time when I had to dress up as a clown and prance around?” I asked apprehensively.
“This will be different. That was a practice to build up your confidence when performing in front of an audience. Besides the clown idea was Set-chan's but don't tell her I told you.” he said with a wink.
“Sure, whatever you say. I still have nightmares about it though. So I blame the both of you.”
“Anyway, it still got the job done. Everyone enjoyed your show and now you feel less apprehensive in front of crowds, right?”
I sighed reluctantly and answered, “Well, I guess . . . ”
“So case closed. Quit stalling and let’s get back to work. What you did was passable but not yet up to my standards. So there's still a lot of work to be done. Today we're going to work on your popping and locking skills.” Sai ended the argument and started up the music.TBC
A/N & disclaimer: Lyrics are from "Somewhere Out There". I do not own the lyrics and don't have any money so don't sue me.
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