The door bell rang and Hina ran towards the door with a pressure on her feet that seemed to come from her heart.
It had been a year since she had held him last in her arms but only minutes since she’d remembered him in every way possible. She whipped open the door begging with every fiber in her body that he was - “Kisuke-san?”
“Hina-chan?” This was not the man she had been expecting. “Hina-chan, why are- oh god- you’re- oh god.” A hysteria rose on his face. His eyes fell to the ground as Hina felt her blood run cold in her veins. “Hina-chan,” He kept repeating her name familiarly even if it had been years since she had seen him and even then she had barely seen him for an afternoon.
In another life, this man could have been the man she was waiting for.
If destiny had been different she could have been happy seeing Kisuke alive after being sent to a war where he would surely have died. She could jump in his arms and hold on so tightly that he would almost surely be choked to death. Then she could release her pain and tears on his shoulders and thank the heavens that he was alive.
But Kisuke was not who she longed to see alive.
She had waited a year and now the cold that was settling on her heart let her know that - “Hiro wa-“
His eyes shot up to hers and she saw that there were tears covering the glassy film of his irises. Suddenly her own limbs failed to support her as she slowly melted into a pile of flesh at his feet.
Only a fool wouldn’t understand what this meant. Her lungs collapsed inwards as she opened her mouth to scream but yet she could hear nothing. As if her own body would not let her have the relief of unleashing her pain.
“Hiro-kanchou,” His voice crumbled and a tear rolled its way down her face as she realized the words that would undoubtedly leave his lips. Her hand flew to cover her mouth, but whether it was to help her breathe or muzzle her breaths she wasn’t quite sure. “You were Hiro-kanchou’s wife…”
A silence blanketed the room as Erika’s whimpers echoed against the fake bustle of the studio town and Shota stood above her, his fists clenched at either of his sides.
“CUT.” Ken’ichi called out confidently and Erika felt her heart constrict for a second as she looked up to see her director. He was smiling at her as if she had given him the world and more. “Erika that was flawless.” Why was it everyone sounded so astonished when she did well? Did they expect her to mess up?
A hand came right in front of her eyes blocking her vision and she looked up to see Shota smiling down at her. “Need a hand?” She felt her heart lighten as she nodded grabbing his hand and lifting herself from the ground where Hina had fallen.
She fiddled with the bun her hair was in until she felt it come lose and saw Shota tilt his head sideways. “See something interesting?”
She was only teasing him but she felt herself grow alarmed when Shota responded. “You.” She immediately ducked her head away from him and placed a hand on her throat as she giggled nervously bumbling to find words to say back to him that would make her appear less of a mess. Seeing how frantic she looked at the fact he had tried to flirt with her he sighed. Despite his better intentions he cleared his throat and spoke. “Now I’m teasing you.”
Immediately, Erika felt her heart ease it's battle against her rib cage and she grinned shaking her head. “That isn’t very nice. I almost had a mini heart attack.” Shota didn’t respond other than to smile at her and it was just as well as Ken’ichi came over interrupting their private conversation.
“You guys- there’s something the two of you have brought to the scene that is just taking it above and beyond what I expected. Every take is better than the last.” Ken’ichi paused here to look at Shota who simply looked back at him with a blank expression. “Kisuke’s acting here has really improved since he’s been with you Erika-chan.” Shota’s eyebrows rose dramatically and Erika knew that expression on his face even if she had never seen it before.
He looked shot down and hurt at Ken'ichi's callous words.
Erika suddenly grew flustered and tried to salvage the situation. She hadn’t come here to start acting to make Shota feel inferior. “It’s more the other way around. He has brought a life into me." Shota almost burst into laughter but then he saw how serious Erika was. She obviously didn't realize what she had just said. Ken'ichi tilted his head sideways trying to stop himself from laughing at her as well.
Bring a life into her. Shota couldn't help it as he turned away for a second trying to laugh. Erika looked at him worried, believing she had caused more harm than good.
"Ano- Erika- what you said-" But Erika didn't want to say anything else lest she hurt Shota more.
"I have to be leaving anyways Ken’ichi. Thanks for today.” She bowed and made a move to step away from the stage but Ken’ichi grabbed her hand.
“I seriously mean it Erika...thank you for all of this. For doing this. For us.” Erika felt an eerie calm come over her as she pulled her hand away from his as slowly as she could. She folded her body over in a low bow. Though they were thanking her all she could think of was her own gratitude for this distraction. Without Hina, Erika wouldn’t really have anything other than Mao to live for.
And though Mao was a great cause to live for, Erika did not want to become that mother. She did not want to be that mother whose only focus in life was her daughter.
Her own mother’s face flashed before her eyes but she quickly blinked the image away. “That’s sweet of you to say so Ken’ichi…but no. I have to thank you guys for helping me not lose my mind.” She raised her head her new bouncy curls hopping all over the place as she turned on her foot and flounced away.
Shota couldn’t help but smile as he slyly observed her backside in the yukata they had made her wear to portray Hina. How delicate and feminine it really was. If she turned around and caught him staring at him no doubt it would probably ruin the small semblance of a friendship they had but he didn’t even care.
“She’s perfect isn’t she?” Ken’ichi’s voice broke through his thoughts and he turned to look at his director realizing that Ken’ichi was looking at indeed the same thing he was. “I hated her father, and I hated her for a while too. I’m still not sure whether I’ve forgiven myself, or her or the world for what happened.”
“What?” Shota couldn’t help but murmur softly looking at the man who was technically his boss even if Shota could easily choose to disrespect him.
“Nothing Shota.” Ken’ichi clapped a hand on his back. “Nothing.” Ken’ichi walked off the set to go talk to a camera man and left Shota looking back and forth between where Erika was and Ken’ichi stood.
If it was nothing why was his stomach twisting over itself at the prospect of their nothing?
“Look I promise it’s just one class we have to sit through…I have to talk to my dad and we have time to kill and it won’t take that long Jin.” Jin stretched his arms over his head yawning.
“Do we have to? I’m kind of tired.” It was true, he had been up studying all night to get his mind off the fact that his wife was currently in the company of two men who could snatch her away anytime they wanted.
Bitterly he frowned as he thought that she likely didn't even consider herself married to him any longer. After all, she had already sent the papers right? What was left to stop her from going after whichever of the two she fancied?
“Please Jin. I promise you can sleep in his class.” Aya interrupted his thoughts.
He was almost thankful, if he had thought about it any longer he might have cursed himself into oblivion for coming here. He still didn't regret his choice. “I seriously doubt your father would let a student sleep in his class.”
“Well you’re in business and not the special diplomacy program or political science. I think you’ll be fine.” Aya laughed as she looked at the mysterious man she had managed to befriend.
Originally, Jin hadn’t wanted to talk to her. On the first day he’d said little more than a few words in response to her quest to find out more about him. What a tiresome bore he’d been, but he’d been cute enough that she’d insisted on continuing to sit with him in all their classes together.
And thank god she had because the man she had got to know in this year was a man she definitely wanted around. Even if she knew nothing about him there were things about Jin that made him a particularly good friend.
He was always around to help with last minute assignments, always supported you in whichever way possible, never let someone offer you more drink than he knew a respectable girl would want and yes even saved you from the villains in your life.
Or at least she thought that was him.
She had yet to prove the last one, but with the way this Prince of hers that she'd stumbled upon but she knew it was only a matter of time before he proved her right. “Come on, you know you’ll end up coming with me anyways...admit it you’re too soft to say no to me.” She was half-testing him, she didn’t actually know that he was too soft to say no to her but felt a strange happiness blanket her as he relented moaning and marched head first into her father’s lecture hall.
She followed soon after holding her books to her chest unable to wipe the arrogantly happy grin from her face.
Jin hissed as he looked around. The entire class was already full save for two spots in the very front right beside each other. “Is your dad’s class this popular?”
“Well he was very good at what he did.”
“And what was that?”
“International relations. My dad was a diplomat to China from Japan before he retired and decided to settle down here and teach about international relations instead.” She put her books down taking a look at Jin who’d quietly taken out a pen and paper. “You’re going to start making notes?”
“You never know what you need after all. Why do you need to talk to your dad again?”
Aya sighed. “I need to get him to take me out of a summer job. He told me to start working under the current diplomat from Japan this summer but I can’t do it. It’s too boring. I did it last summer.”
Jin’s eyes bugged out of his head as he looked at the girl beside him as if she was crazy, which could have been quite likely. “You were one of the assistants at the office of the Japanese diplomat to China and you found it boring?”
“Well if you keep placing orders for the same coffee over and over again I promise you’ll find it boring too Jin.” She started laughing at his incredulous expression. Then her face blanched out as she saw her father walk in through the door and Jin immediately grew magnetized by the powerful presence of the man before him.
His stride had an air of supremacy, he was wearing a western-styled suit that made him look as if he was the owner of a huge conglomerate and Jin couldn’t help but feel floored by the aura of kindness etched into the man’s face.
It was a kindness that he recognized in his own father's face.
Aya was still hiding underneath her hand at the appearance of her father though. Apparently his presence was only that awe-inspiring to one man in the room.
Ueto-san looked at his daughter and gave her a smile. Jin saw in shock that the man’s attention had turned on him and his smile grew even wider. A small subtle nod was thrown in his direction and Jin grabbed Aya’s hand and brought it down from her face.
Aya’s father’s friendly demeanor cracked for just a second as he saw the strange boy take his daughter’s hand in his and whisper into her hair. “Aya…your dad’s here you can’t just hide behind your hand.”
“Jin!” She exclaimed looking down at their intertwined fingers, she’d been waiting months for him to do this and he chose to do it now! “Not in front of my dad! Let go!” Immediately her hand was dropped like a hot potato. Jin hadn’t thought of it that way but he supposed now that was why her father had given a small measure of special attention to him when he’d walked into the room.
Aya bringing a non-student to his class must have looked like he held some sort of special regard with Erik-Aya! He corrected automatically. How could he have switched their names even in his mind?
They were nothing alike whatsoever. Erika was what might have been described as an classically beautiful and completely insane girl. Aya was a delectably intelligent and desirable modern woman.
He noticed it…of course he noticed it. Jin was in love with Erika but that didn’t mean he was a saint. Aya however made it easy for him to forget what she looked like entirely, she spoke with the pride of a man, went into ridiculously dangerous situations like a headstrong stubborn idiot and was still the best friend he had ever had in his life.
He hadn’t even revealed anything about himself and yet strangely they never ran out of things to talk about.
The rest of the three hour class flew by and Jin found himself honestly interested in the material that Ueto-sensei presented before the class. He even asked questions which caused Aya to laugh and call him an over-achiever under her breath. He was going to kick her under the table until he realized that any movement could be seen as their legs weren’t hidden beneath the table and it could be perceived the wrong way by Ueto-sensei.
It was wrong that he should be spending so much time alone with a girl…but he was keeping his distance from Aya in that way and so he didn’t consider it against his commitment to Erika to spend time with her. Aya was after all just a friend, and indeed probably the only one he would miss if he were to leave for Japan right now at this very instant.
She reminded him often why he was here. Even if she was unaware she was doing it. If he had had half her strength when he had been in Toda Takuya's household maybe he would have never come here. “Come on fanboy- class is over. Let me go introduce you to my dad.”
“Shut up Aya.” He hit her lightly on her shoulder as she laughed and grabbed his hand pulling him to the front of the class where her father was with his other students. When he saw her father smile at him in approving manner, his fingers clenched tightly onto hers and Aya turned to look at him with a bemused expression but kept walking forward.
Aya had never been one for girlish fantasies but she couldn’t help but feel her stomach flutter at the thought that one day she was going to hold the hand of the man beside her and walk out of a church, dressed entirely in white.
“Your serve!” Shota shot back as he hit the tennis ball back at his brother who grinned as he dashed across the court and hit it back to Shota. Like that they continued to dance around the flat green expanse of a palace court as Maki, Chiaki and Erika sat off to the side with Toma residing over their shoulders.
“I’m getting tired just looking at them.” Chiaki laughed as she looked between her husband and her brother-in-law fanning herself lightly. She raised her hand and called for a maid who came immediately. “Could you set aside a jar of lemon and mint juice for us? Or maybe two.” She looked at Erika as if asking her for something but Erika couldn’t seem to understand what it was possibly until she saw Toma just behind Chiaki-sama nod and she quickly nodded as well. He seemed to be her only human counterpart amongst these gods. “Yes two it is then.” Chiaki smiled serenely at Erika. “So Toda-san, I heard you’re taking part in the play with my little brother?”
“She is.” Maki answered back quickly for her and Chiaki turned to look at Maki as she shook her head just the slightest bit so Maki huffed and leaned back into her chair.
Sensing Chiaki seemed to want to start a conversation with her, Erika cleared her throat and smiled up at the crown princess of Japan. “Yes, thank you for having me over. I didn’t expect to have the honour of meeting you and Ryuhei-sama.”
“It’s no bother really…Shota insisted that he needed to practice his lines and didn’t have the time for a game. We promised that you would be here and then Ryuhei got his tennis partner back.” Maki’s tone was bashful and Chiaki laughed lightly as if she was sharing some sort of private joke with herself.
Beyond that though, Erika didn’t know where to take the conversation.
What did one ask the future queen of the country?
Thankfully she needn’t have worried long as Ryuhei and Shota returned to the patio table just in time for the two maids walking back with the lemon and mint juice pitchers. Erika observed Chiaki’s posture change as she served the drink for Ryuhei and somehow she found that odd.
She would have imagined that the maid would serve him directly but Chiaki doing it herself threw her off guard. “Thanks Chiaki.” Ryuhei bent down to kiss his bride on the temple before walking to the empty seat beside Maki.
The affectionate gesture made her heart squeeze painfully but she kept her smile firmly on her face refusing to show any emotion on her face now that the Crown Prince was on the table.
The only other empty seat was beside her and that she gulped nervously feeling Shota sit down beside her. Though she knew it was nothing to be worried about she felt herself shift her chair a little bit closer to Chiaki. She knew Shota was only joking around with her when he- well when he flirted but regardless it felt strange to be seated this close to him when Maki was right there.
“So this is the Erika you’ve told me so much about Shota.” She felt her attention turn towards Ryuhei again.
There was something so distinctly foreign about the man's face that for a second the rumors surrounding his birth flitted back to her mind but just as quickly she forced them back out. His features may not have matched what would have been traditionally Japanese but there was a distinct gentleness in his face that immediately put her at ease. It might have been his warm smile, or just the way he looked at her as if right now she was the priority.
It was a wonderful quality to have in the future emperor of their country.
She immediately bowed her head back down to hear the laughs of those around her, even Toma who had been somewhat of a help to her at this awkward gathering. “Hai…ou-“ She raised her head suddenly as she realized she’d forgotten how it was you addressed the crown prince.
“Just call him Ryuhei…no one’s here so it really doesn’t matter.” Shota patted her back lightly as he looked at Maki expectantly.
“Yes?” She replied lazily, never turning to look at him as she automatically sensed his gaze on her.
“Aren’t you going to lovingly pour a cup of lemon and mint-“ Immediately Maki grabbed the cup and poured the juice. Then just as she was about to hand it off to Shota whose hands were outstretched she pulled it back and sipped on it herself.
Shota frowned at his wife who stuck her tongue out. “Iie. Pour it yourself ouji-sama.” Erika started laughing pulling a hand over her mouth as she saw how adorably childish the man beside her looked as he poured himself his glass.
“So Erika-san,” Ryuhei lit up a cigarette and placed it in his mouth. Erika was tempted to frown but quickly remembering where she was seated she decided to simply gaze back at his inquisitive words. “You were married once before?”
That was not something she had expected from the man with the kind face.
Her shock must have been apparent because even Chiaki who seemed to look at her husband with nothing but adoration gave him a look that said she didn’t approve of his question. “Ryuhei-sama…you are mistaken.” Erika was shocked to find her voice hard and sweet. Shota wasn't done with the pitcher but she roughly grabbed it from his palms and felt it almost slip out of her grasp save for Shota's hands saving the jar from falling. “I am still married.” She finished pouring her glass and held it up in a fake cheers as she took her first sip.
“But he’s not around? And here you are…working without his permission and coming over to strange men’s houses.” Shota looked at his brother with a careful gaze warning him not to push Erika…he knew what his brother was trying to do. He was trying to put Erika to ease by forcing her to reveal so much about herself that she would no longer care what these ‘royals’ thought of her.
He remembered so well only because he knew that was exactly what he had done to Chiaki at their first arranged meeting.
The girl had hardly batted an eyelash much less run out crying like the many other girls he had been forced to meet. That was how Ryuhei had known she would be the only woman who could be Queen to his King.
“I’d hardly call the royal family strange. Is there something to be worried about here? Indeed it’s so nice here it feels like it’s my own house.” Shota snickered to himself as he saw Ryuhei’s expression fall for a second into awe. “As for permission…I promised myself a long time ago that I would never follow the orders of a man. I would be his equal.”
That was Erika, beautifully unexpected.
Erika on the other hand was cursing herself inside. How on earth could she say that to the Crown Prince?! She was being lippy and she was scared that at any moment Ryuhei would take offense to her words and stalk off the table but he didn’t. His awe-filled expression simply changed to an uncomplicated understanding and he folded his hands before him looking at Shota. “I like her.”
“Get in line.” Shota replied back immediately. He was laughing but the tinge of possession didn't go unnoticed as everyone around the table looked hesitantly at the two of them.
Becoming of everyone's gazes on her, and only imagining what they were thinking, Erika felt heart sped up under her chest.She gulped a more than healthy portion of the mint lime concoction down to avoid looking back at them.
Pitying her Chiaki tutted the two brothers. “Both of you stop it. You’re making Erika blush beyond belief…you’re incorrigible when it comes to teasing women.” She placed a hand on Erika’s shoulder comfortingly.
Shota opened his mouth to correct Chiaki but before he could say another word they saw Jun and Mao run towards them from the play area near the court where Yui had been trying to occupy them.
He laughed to himself shaking his head.
Who was he kidding? He couldn't say what he wanted to say.
Not here, and definitely not now.
Maki would probably give him hell for admitting openly how he really felt towards Erika.
Erika wouldn't be the first person who had found her way between their marriage...but she would be the first one he had ever felt something for.
It wasn't even Maki that he really stopped himself for though he realized as he looked at Erika who was now nervously conversing with Chiaki as the future queen held Mao in her arms.
If he let her know now though…he knew without a doubt Erika would never trust him again.
When the girl in front of him was finally ready to hear the truth he would tell her.
He saw her turn to look at him and then realizing he was looking at her she quickly turned away and grabbed Mao back to herself like a blanket she was using to shield herself from his eyes. Or perhaps to push him away.
He snickered to himself as he got up and told Ryuhei to get out of his seat, hoping to make Erika more comfortable. Maki sure as hell seemed happy with his move.
He saw Erika's chest fall slightly as she smiled back at him from between the Imperial Couple.
When he did decide to tell her how he felt about her...she wouldn't run away from him.
“He didn’t force her into loving him?” Mao asked dumbly. In her mind, Emperor Shota had always been painted in the picture of being a forceful righteous almost dictator like figure. She had never imagined him to be the type of man that Meisa was painting in her mind now.
He sounded positively- perfect, quietly observing the abandoned wife of another man, waiting for her to come to him rather than forcing her to his side.
It didn’t make their relationship any more acceptable but- Mao hated that she could no longer hate him for seducing her mother. She may have very well fallen for him too if she had been in that vulnerable state with such a gentleman encouraging her to become independent again.
Hikari had long been put to bed so Meisa could now openly act as mean as she wanted to towards her goddaughter. She hit Mao over the head and as her goddaughter expressed her pain in a series of ows, Meisa continued. “Absolutely not…Shota was better than all of the men I’ve known in my life…including your father. He was caring, generous and beyond all of that he knew how to listen. He was callous and obsessed with justice to a point where it could drive someone he was speaking with insane but- despite all of that he had a good heart beneath his chest. There is a reason the country has never gotten over the loss of him. There is a reason that no one believes in the royal family now. I almost pity his poor successor.”
The image of the slyly gorgeous man appeared in her mind and she felt butterflies rise in her stomach. A feeling that felt almost nostalgic now that she had heard so much about Jun. “I’ve met him you know…Jun.”
“That boy has his work cut out for him. Making the country believe they need an imperial family that’s utterly useless in this day and age- but if anyone can do it...he can.” Meisa smiled despite the fact her words were anything but positive. “Did he recognize you?”
“Not quite.” She laughed despite herself now oddly fond of the fact they had met when before the thought that this man had spent most of his childhood with her mother had just annoyed her.
“You know…” Meisa started but then at Mao’s expectant expression she suddenly became silent. “Actually- let’s not ruin the story.” At Mao’s aggravated sigh Meisa snickered.
They were just getting to the good part.