“I don’t understand.” Mao sighed quietly as she looked at Ryo as they sat outside in Meisa’s garden. Meisa had taken Hikari into prepare food for some of the other workers at the temple who had come in while Mao and Meisa were in discussion. Mao hadn’t gotten to ask where Meisa’s husband was but she assumed he was on a trip himself somewhere. Their shrine was one of the most prized and revered in Japan having a lineage almost as long as the country itself.
“What don’t you get Mao?” Ryo pushed his head back as he stared at the sun as it set. Tegoshi had called him to ask if they were going to be coming back for dinner and he had decided soon he would text him back to let him know that they were probably staying.
Mao turned towards him pulling her legs up on the bench and facing him. “Why would my mother follow Shota wordlessly after he’d kissed her? Especially if she didn’t want that kiss in the first place? Why would she let herself go out with him just with Nao’s permission? I just don’t get it. My mother was strong enough to kick my father out of her life so why would she just succumb to Shota like that?”
“What if she liked the attention?” She hated the tone of voice he addressed her with, it made her feel like she was worthless. She couldn’t help but cast her gaze downwards. He was looking at her as if he wasn’t talking about her mother but about someone else who was closer to him.
That wasn’t fair.
“Huh?” She set out quietly playing with her fingers and he couldn’t help but grow tired of the way Mao seemed to like to ignore her own issues. It wasn’t just him, he was sure everyone who met her could tell that Mao craved attention, especially from those she loved herself.
Was this a way for her to get her parents’ attention somehow? He couldn’t help but wonder…everyone knew the story of Princess Erika. It was futile. What was she chasing after? A dream? Something that had long disappeared before it could even exist?
“I said she may have liked the attention.” He grabbed her hands within his and watched her eyes grow larger as she let him continue playing with the lines on her palm. It was a relaxing game between the two of them after he’d been made to run around after Hikari the entire afternoon. This game he could play, chasing emotionally after Mao was far easier than a 12 year old girl.
“My mother wasn’t like that Ryo.”
“How do you even know what your mother was like? Haven’t you heard the stories? We were alive when it happened Mao…at best your mother was a concu-“ Mao immediately smacked his chest as the words tumbled out of his mouth and she looked at him incredulously laughing.
“Are you kidding me? Don’t even say it. Everyone may like to refer to her that way but I know better…if she was just a silly little conquest Shota took a liking to… then why on earth would she have been given the title of Princess? Gifted a million and one royal treasures? Would he have vowed to spend the rest of his life with her in front of the whole country, a ‘concubine’?” She yelled out stunned by the way Ryo had tried to get close again. Like he was lecturing her…did he even have the right?
“Don’t be foolish! Just look at the facts as they are! Stop getting emotionally involved! You’re only hurting yourself!” But she wasn’t listening to him anymore; Mao’s eyes had glassed over as she roughly pulled her hands away from him and stood up on her sneakers to move away from him. He couldn’t help but think he should have somehow kept his mouth shut.
“Why are you here?” She was soft, not accusatory but it was obvious what she meant by her words. Even if her voice was like a siren’s he understood it was meant to hurt like a sword through his heart.
He wasn’t going to let her do this. Not to herself and definitely not to him. It didn’t take long to understand Mao, it just seemed no one was able to stick around her because she liked to push them away. She had another thing coming to her if she thought she could push him away that easily. “Mao-“
“No…why are you here?” Now she was more firm, her gaze transfixed onto him like he was scum that didn’t belong beside her. He stood up in response to her question and came closer to her but she pushed him away roughly at his chest again. “Don’t come closer. Why the hell are you here?” He couldn’t help but be shocked by how much power came packed in the little piece of human that she was.
“Mao- I’m just here to make things easier for you.”
Mao let out a laugh. As usual someone else who tried to convince her that they wanted to come to her aid…when they would realize she didn’t need them or their pity. Especially someone who just wanted to make her see what the whole world had already told her.
That her mother didn’t matter, that she was a blip in history gone wrong. “Who the fuck are you to help me?” At least Shun was her ex-boyfriend, Jun had been someone she’d known vaguely of all her life and someone who was intertwined with her mother’s life in the palace. Who was this man in front of her? The one with the eyes that screamed the color of night at her, whose skin shone like gold even under the setting sun, the one who looked as if he was trying to calm her, make her understand his words when she didn’t want to.
She couldn’t understand him if he was trying to make her give up. She refused to.
At his silence she took her cheap shot at him and continued as he continued staring at her with a look that said his patience was running thin. “Sorry…let me answer that. You’re no one. You’re some guy I slept with last night…you mean nothing.” She wasn’t foolish. She saw the way his eyes hardened as he struggled to keep his mouth from saying something he would regret.
“I’ll be out on the first bus I get Ryo. The only reason I stayed was to meet Meisa…leave my bags outside I’ll come get them. You get home…you don’t deserve to be here.” She laughed sarcastically turning around. At the sound of her last sentence he grabbed her and whipped her around so that she hit against the front of his chest. He held onto her arm so tight that she had to yelp until he loosened up, the skin on it burning from his strong grasp on it.
“Deserve? What the hell does that mean Mao?”
“It means you don’t matter to me!” She couldn’t stop the screech from coming out of her mouth shrilly and as it reached his ears with the high pitch in her voice she saw him stagger backwards nodding weakly.
“If that’s what you feel like you don’t need to come home and sleep tonight.” He was getting angry but he was regretting his words as they came out of his mouth. She wouldn’t give him a chance to apologize. She knew she’d have to apologize back.
“Go home then. I have to stay with Meisa. I already told you I’d pick up my stuff before I left the city.” He made a move to leave and she decided not to stop him as she saw him walk away, even though he was probably expecting it.
After all she had been the one who had decided to think of him as nothing more than another guy right? Why should she stop someone she barely knew? Someone she didn’t care about?
Meisa came out of the side of the house to see Mao staring at a man’s back as he walked down the stairs without a look back at them. She couldn’t help but sigh as she looked on at her goddaughter and brought her arm silently around Mao’s shoulders. As Mao turned to look at the older woman flabbergasted, Meisa simply shook her head. “It never ceases to amaze me how alike Erika and you seem now.”
“We’re nothing alike Meisa.”
“If only that sentence were true we’d all be happier wouldn’t we?” Mao turned to look at the woman who was smiling at her with a look that clearly said she didn’t believe her as she turned back into the house and Mao followed her.
She had to continue right?
Even if it felt like she’d taken her own heart and ripped it into shreds for no reason.
It turned out Shota had lied to her, and of course why would he have not? Erika thought cruelly as she watched him drive. He'd dropped Jun home shortly after they'd left.
She knew now that he was the type of guy that had no qualms about using someone to get what he wanted. Probably a result of some spoiled childhood. Erika looked at the place they had ended up and gulped. Of course she recognized it, how could she not?
Matsuyama Ken’ichi after being ceremoniously kicked out of Toda studios had fled to Nishizaki studios and proceeded to put out some of the most popular films to date. Including this project which Erika still had no idea what it was called. “Shota what are we doing here?”
“I know you won’t approve-“
“What’s there to approve? Why am I here?” Erika gulped looking at the overly intimidating cement structures and felt her heart constrict. It had been so long since she’d been in this sort of atmosphere that fostered creativity and forced you to imagine a life that at least she could never live right?
“I told Ken’ichi I did a reading with you. The next thing I knew…he asked me if I could get you to come read for him.” Erika’s eyes widened at the prospect of meeting her ex-boyfriend. The first man that had been anything to her, even now when she shut her eyes she could remember the first time he taught her how to use a lighter. The smell of tobacco floated into her thoughts and she shook herself remembering the taste of it upon her tongue.
She’d been a different girl back then curious about everything, passionate and ambitious. “I don’t know about this Shota.” She was different now, no longer willing to try anything, she had responsibilities. She had a child. This was reckless of her to enter this world again by hand of a prince.
“It’s just a reading Erika. I promise I’ll take you out another time. Please. Read for him.”
“What good is that going to do?!” She couldn’t help but yell back at the insistent prince who backed off for a second looking at her as he realized he was pushing the woman to do something she didn’t want to.
He nodded smiling apologetically. “Sorry…I forget sometimes that not everyone bends that easily to my will.” She felt her heart constrict as she glared at him shaking her head. There was no way she could go in there look Ken’ichi square in the eyes and pretend that this was just another reading. “But I’m not lying. You are the best person for this role. You know Hina inside out and it’s not just because you’re a good actress but I think you relate to her Erika. That was why in the garden you were able to bring life into her in a way I didn’t see with Izumi. I want to give Ken’ichi the pleasure of seeing his characters the way he’d always hoped they would be represented.” She knew he was swaying her and she didn’t want to tell him it was working. “I want you to be her and its just an hour. Do you think you could be Hina for an hour?”
She felt her eyes cast downwards at his words. How was she supposed to ever say no with such eloquence and sugary sweetness woven into the words of a Prince? “Let’s go in.” She felt defeated so as she turned to look at him to give him a dirty look she was shocked to find that at the smile on his face, she felt more victorious than defeated.
“You won’t regret it Erika.”
Shota sat in a chair as he looked at the figure in front of him. All the things that had decidedly made her Toda Erika seemed to have disappeared from the body of this woman. She leaned forward and poured out tea in the cup in front of him.
“Why are we here?” He blurted out fumbling and Hina’s eyes widened.
“Why?” She echoed back whilst smiling foolishly at him. “It would seem to me your mother would like me to marry you. Does it not appear that way? After all, travelling five miles to meet a long lost friend from her youth? While simultaneously ensuring you and I are left without a chaperone in a room?” She let out a small giggle as she picked up her own full cup of tea and sipped it. “Please don’t be shy.” She indicated her head towards the cup and Kisuke nodded as he played around with his fingers before lifting the cup and tilting his head towards the lady in front of him.
“I apologize on behalf of her if those were indeed her intentions.” He bowed his head and looked deep into the cup avoiding the questioning gaze of his companion beside him.
“Do you know why she wants you married?” Hina blew softly onto the hot air rising from the tea and flicked her eyes up to see Kisuke let out a pathetic little smile. “After all, her son isn’t quite of marriageable age is he?”
“Aren’t we born in the same years Hina-chan?” She let him get away with the endearment. “You are quite of marriageable age even if I’d rather not marry you.” Kisuke as if catching his callously spoken words stopped himself and bowed his head low in apology. “I did not mean for that to sound the way it did. I hope you may find it in your graces to forgive my rudeness.” When he lifted his head he was shocked to see Hina laughing as she placed her cup back down on the table and continued laughing with such fervor that he was unable to look away.
“Honesty is what they say makes a good person isn’t it?” Her words came through gasps of chuckles that resounded through his ears constantly and he wasn’t sure if the cause was that of the room or simply that her giggles rang like the most delicate bells clinking together. “I am not offended. I am happy you feel this way. It makes my life much less complicated as you see I’m already engaged to be married within a fortnight. Much to your mother’s disappointment I assume but as my mother and yours are long-lost friends so I doubt that she knew of it or was invited to the wedding.”
Kisuke found himself floored. “You- you’re engaged to be married?” The slight weakness in his words shocked even himself. It wasn’t that he found her particularly appealing but Hina was but a girl of 16 like himself. His breathing sounded slightly irregular but if Hina noticed she ignored it as she crossed her legs over one another.
The idea of marriage was frightful to him, but Hina seemed to embrace it with a calm that irked him.
“I have been for a year now.” Kisuke saw the dreamy expression on her face as she ran her hands through the ends of her hair. “He’s a man that I have grown to love. Older than me by 6 years but nevertheless someone who I now understand wholly. Who comes from a respectable family, and decent income just like my parents wanted.” She brushed her hair behind her ear and Kisuke gulped as he saw a stray strand fall right back across her face.
“Your parents want you to and so you’ll just marry?” He challenged her with his tone and Erika took the challenge as she looked on the Kisuke, Shota portrayed now. They were younger in this scene than they’d been in the last scene they’d done together.
She added a hint of innocence to her words as she put her hands on her cheeks. “It isn’t that bad you know…you’ll never be alone if you marry Kisuke.”
Kisuke scoffed as he leaned back in his chair. “I have all the company a man can ask for.”
“I didn't quite know maids in the house counted as favorable company.” She teased and Kisuke’s eyes shot up at the crude subtle hint that she offered behind her words.
“Aren’t you scared marrying?”
“Not at all. Why is your mother so desperate to get you married?”
“I’m going to the army to fight for the country soon.” He looked down at his legs and arms before letting out a biting laugh. “I don’t know if I’ll come back myself…that’s if I come back at all. Perhaps I'll even come back half a man, lost an arm or a leg...then the maids certainly wouldn't want me.” He teased bitterly and Hina couldn't help but pity the young soldier in front of her.
“Aren’t you more scared of that than marriage?” Her voice was soft but his response was loud.
“No!” He insisted quickly and Hina couldn’t help but laugh harder as Kisuke brought his hands together and looked at her with a glare.
“Stop that!” She would undoubtedly think that he was telling her to stop laughing because she was hurting his feelings. It was quite the contrary…it was because it was making him blush redder in the face as he realized he liked making her laugh.
“That’s enough for now!” A voice boomed past their ears and the image they’d created came crashing as Erika turned her eyes on the man who she’d been avoiding with all her might. He was still as ruggedly handsome as he’d been when she’d first grown to have a crush on him as one of her father’s most promising young directors. “Erika…I have to ask. What does your father have to say for you reading for me?"
Shota jumped in for her. “Ken’ichi you know that was a good reading. She’s doing far better than Mayuko at least isn’t she? You can’t deny it. Erika is Hina in the truest form.”
Erika stepped up for herself and folded her arms. “I just came to do a reading. I have no real interest in this role and even so. My father does not dictate my life now.” Ken’ichi was shocked as she flat out rejected his role and he nodded.
“Fine...but Erika. You know that I'd be a fool not to offer you this role. So I'm saying it. Take it...you are her and you've always deserved to be a star.” The words froze her as she looked straight into Ken'ichi's eyes and gulped feeling her body transported back to when she'd first bumped into Ken’ichi.
Reminding her of the wolf that had caught her...that now invited her back to that place of dreams, making love and so much more that she had found herself lost in before Jin.
She ran across the studios with her balloons that she had prepared for Meisa as congratulations on the completion of her project. She found herself on the floor soon and as she rubbed her head and opened her eyes she realized she had collided with something and was now lying on top if it.
Or rather someone. She was lying on top of a man. The man was tall even as he was flat on the ground. His body was long and his black hair fell into his eyes with a grace that was purposeful. His lips were pink as they came was what Erika first noticed about him as she bit her own in apology. “Gomen nasaii,” She bowed her head in apology and he shook his head.
“It’s okay…who would mind if such a beautiful woman pushed them to the ground?” She blushed and gingerly took the hand he offered her as they stood up together. “Matsuyama Ken’ichi desu…yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
“Toda Erika desu.” She found her hands getting sweaty as she avoided his deep gaze and he lifted her hand to his mouth. Her eyes flicked towards his as she gulped fearfully looking for her father’s presence somewhere as his lips lightly pressed down on her skin.
“Forgive me if I sound rather forward…” She furrowed her eyebrows in confusion and he grinned cheekily at her and he completed his thought. “but I hope you push me down again sometime soon.”
She had never felt her heart hammer as hard as it had while she laughed while she waved him goodbye. She brought the balloons down to cover herself the rest of the way. She was sure she was so red that she could have been mistaken for a strawberry.
Matsuyama Ken'ichi, this man was her first love. She stared back at him as he stood looking at her with his arms crossed over his chest. He was older now, the constantly there beard on his face seemed darker now, his eyes deeper....did he understand? Did he care why she couldn't jump at this opportunity? "I have a child."
"I'm open to letting her in during rehearsals." He answered back and she blinked back the tears that were unknowingly finding their way to the back of her eyes. It didn't make sense that he would want her to succeed...not when they'd parted the way they had.
Shota seeing her confusion felt a pang of pity for having brought her into this situation. He walked up beside her and leaned down beside her to whisper in her ear. "I'll help you with anything you'll need."
Erika grumbled yet again. How was this prince supposed to help her? He gave her more stress than anyone else she'd known in her life and she'd met him less than 5 times in all her life.
Matsuyama Ken'ichi...could she really work with this man?