I stood in front of the window and pressed my hand up against the cool glass. Raindrops splattered against the window. Even though it was only April, the heat and humidity of the rainy season could already be felt. From my vantage point, I could see the lines of people waiting on the sidewalks for the taidansha on shonichi. I wished I could be with the rest of my troupe right now instead of being lent out like an old umbrella to Tsukigumi. Koike-sensei might have known what he was doing in casting a junior otokoyaku from another troupe in one of the prime musumeyaku roles, but it didn't make it any easier to miss the last show for Tani-san and Ume-san. I wasn't sure if I should be angry at him for making me miss the graduations of my top stars and my friends or happy that his apparently random casting choice was going to propel me into the ranks of the star-tracked otokoyaku. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the casting decision (goodness knows I've heard enough questions about when I'm going to live up to the reputation of graduating at the top of my class when I haven't even had a shinko lead), but I hadn't realized how lonely it was going to be. I resisted the urge to slam my hand against the window in frustration at having shigoto this late.
The door opened then, and top star Sena Jun walked in to the rehearsal room with the self-assurance and grace that only a top star had. I wondered sometimes if I would ever manage to look quite that kakkoi. Maybe in another ten years, I thought, but certainly not anytime soon. She looked at me standing near the window and cocked her head. I couldn't quite read the emotions in her dark eyes, but unconsciously took half a step back from the window, feeling for all the world like a yokasei caught by an upperclassman.
"Good evening, Sena-san," I tried not to stammer.
"Evening, Kacha," she replied as she walked over to stand beside me, resting her elbows on the windowsill. "Is it Soragumi shonichi already?"
I nodded silently.
"Kacha, are you OK?" she asked in a kind voice.
"I'm fine, thank you, Sena-san," I answered almost automatically. That was, in fact, the response I'd been giving everyone who asked me how I was doing lately.
"Liar," her dark eyes twinkled with repressed amusement. "You want to be with your troupe right now, not here with me working late on the pair dance."
"I..." I started to respond, but then realized whatever I said was going to be the wrong answer. That must have shown on my face, because I saw Sena-san holding back a laugh.
"You know, Kacha, you remind me of Elisabeth," she said, looking out the window at nothing in particular, "what with being tossed in to a completely different world and expected to shine."
I didn't say anything. She was right, of course. Tsukigumi was still Takarazuka, but it wasn't my troupe...and would never really be 'my' troupe. I was only here for one show while everyone else here had worked together for years. The only people I knew were my classmates from TMS. Mirio tried to include me as much as she could, but the cliques were too well established, and she was far too busy. I was still the outsider, and one who had taken the rightful role of a Tsukigumi musumeyaku at that. It was never very overt, but I felt the lingering resentment among both the other girls and the fans. With that, I felt like I somewhat understood the conflict between Elisabeth and the Dowager Empress.
"I remember what that felt like at first, to be in a completely different troupe," Sena-san continued. "I thought I'd be going back to Hanagumi after the special 90th anniversary performances, but then the sensei told me that I would be playing Elisabeth with Tsukigumi."
"Was it a surprise, Sena-san?"
"Completely," she gave me a wry grin. "To the point where I didn't hear the sensei say I would be the next Tsukigumi top, actually."
"Oh." To miss an announcement like that...she must really have been surprised.
"I was never a big fan of this show, actually," she admitted. "I've always had bad luck with it. Usually I just refer to it as 'Elisabeth hell'."
I could see how the plot would have worn thin by the third time she had to perform the show but... "Even the first Hanagumi performance, Sena-san?"
"That's where all the bad luck began, actually," the grin grew wider. "I think I hold the particular distinction of missing the shonichi cast party because I had to go to the hospital for an MRI that night."
"An accident. A map case fell on my head backstage before the show started. I ended up missing so many lines that the kumichou stuffed me in a cab afterwards and sent me to the hospital. Masa-chan...I mean Haruno-san...was quite...vocal in her displeasure with me afterwards. Then again, she did duck out of the cast party early to find me so..."
"I see..." I had to hold back a grin of my own. I'd only ever heard rumors of what happened backstage in other troupes, but I remembered certain rumors about the Hanagumi top and nibante were quite prevalent a few years ago.
"And then of course Koike-sensei, bless his heart, decided to cast me as Elisabeth the next time." Given the look on Sena-san's face, 'blessings' were probably not what she had in mind for Koike-sensei. I couldn't really fault her, having had similar thoughts about the man. Her face softened as she looked at me. "So I understand how you must feel being thrown into Tsukigumi like this. Kiriyan and Yuuhi tried to help but..."
"Were you still lonely, Sena-san?"
"...not nearly as I am now..." her voice came out in a bitter whisper that cut my heart as she turned away. I bit my lip silently, not sure if she meant me to hear that. Under the harsh fluorescent lights, her face looked weary and drawn, with tension lines around her eyes. For a moment, she looked much older than her years. She clenched her hands tightly on the windowsill, so tight that her knuckles turned white. I winced inwardly at the pain she must have been feeling and realized how selfish I had been. Rumors spread like wildfire in a theatre company of 400 women, so I had heard plenty about how Sena-san hadn't had a combi partner since Ayano-san retired last year. I had also seen her in the group rehearsals, always sitting alone during breaks while I chatted with Mirio and her friends. It felt as if there was a gulf between Sena-san and the rest of her troupe.
I'd been so wrapped up in my own feelings that I hadn't thought to consider my partner. True, I was an otokoyaku, and we were partners only for this one show. But we were still partners. I should be supporting her as much as she was trying to support me. Slowly, I shifted next to her until we were almost touching. She stared out the window, lost in her own world that she didn't notice me. I thought I saw a hint of tears in her eyes. We stood there silently for several minutes before I dared speak.
"Huh?" she looked startled for an instant before running one hand through her hair. "I'm sorry, Kacha, I was just thinking..." A tiny forlorn smile hovered about her lips. I wondered if perhaps she wasn't imagining a certain other girl in my place. Maybe I should have felt jealous, but I didn't. I couldn't compete with a star musumeyaku and knew it. The shadows falling on her face made her look pale and ethereal. Somewhere, deep in my heart, I realized she was ready to leave this world of dreams because her own dreams were gone.
"Sena-san, I know I'm not Ayano-san...but...but I'll do my best to support you," the words came out in a rush before I could lose my courage at being so forward with a top star.
"You already are, Kacha," the smile she gave me was genuine despite the bittersweet undertones. She turned to me and held out her hand, paraphrasing a line from the first song I ever sang with her, "Take my hand, will you dance with me?" In her eyes I saw a promise. She had always known my feelings, but now I knew hers as well. We were only partners for this one show before I would go back to being an otokoyaku in Soragumi and she would follow her own dreams. But for this short time we have together, we would support each other through whatever storms might come our way. I rested my hand in hers and nodded. She gave me a short sharp bow like the gentleman she was before leading me in a dance I would never forget.
Weeks later, at the end of the Takarazuka show run, she announced her retirement. I don't think anyone was surprised. Least of all me.