(Clockwise from top left: Ichiro, Hana, Ishii, Tartan, Yuki.)
The first full rehearsal wasn't their first reunion.
They made no arrangements, set no date, but the night before rehearsal each of them wandered the city like a leaf in the wind, tracing meandering paths from houses, hotels and train stations to the same central point.
At ten in the evening the doors to the theatre were closed, the lobby area empty, the shopping center winding down with the soft exhalation of a woman lying back on a futon after a long day on her feet. The weather was cool enough for shawls and tall boots and hair left to fall free.
They drifted in like dark clouds over the surface of the moon.
Ishii didn't know what drew her there, straight off the train, just to see the new theatre where they would go through the old motions. She didn't see the three other shadows, each in black, each at her own window overlooking the city.
Hana , Hana was unmissable. Their Lady in White, rising out of the depths. Her heels clicked on the metal lip of the escalator, knife on glass.
They all turned around, their backs to the windows, faces towards Hana and the light. Four drawn breaths.
Silken whisper, Ichiro's shawl sliding down into waiting fingers.
"Here we all are."
The rehearsal room was the only space in the building where the lights still shone bright as day. The second week of rehearsals was always the slow one, the show put together and the frenzy of final touches yet to come. This was the time to learn words and come up with interpretations, ornaments, twists.
It wasn't the time to stay till midnight on choreography, heels knocking a complicated pattern on the floor. Even the understudies were long gone, and just the three of them were watching Ichiro go again and again through the dance.
"It's called the last dance," Ishii muttered into the knees she was hugging. "Someone should tell her that."
"Well, she's top star..." Yuki was sprawled against the wall after a day of rigid posturing.
"Top star never meant this before." Ishii uncurled enough to knock her knee against Yuki's . "Promise you won't be like that. We won't have another you to sit on you."
"Or a Tartan," Yuki agreed.
The third woman shot them a smile, then bent back over her script.
"Things will be so different..."
"Change," Ishii agreed.
The door opened. It looked like Hana managed to send Takako home at last. She took in the three of them, then drew herself up as if the music were on.
Her empress pose, Ichiro called it, and Ishii'd believe it came naturally if she hadn't heard Hana sobbing on the balcony, the first time Ichiro showed them the tape of their new show, the last show for the five of them.
Now Hana looked like an empress as she glided over the floor. She touched Ichiro's arm as the long note faded, and Ishii could read her lips. (Thank you for your hard work. Now let's sleep so that we can work hard tomorrow.)
Ichiro lowered her arm, took a step sideways, not quite from the same dance routine. Ishii was moving a moment later. The room was large, but she caught her before she hit the floor.
Hana ripped open the collar of Ichiro's shirt, checking for breath and pulse. Tartan was with them a moment later, helping Ishii carry Ichiro to the bank of chairs. By the time they settled her down, Yuki was there with water and candy and a hot coffee can.
Ichiro swatted at Tartan's hands, but the four of them managed to settle her with her head in Hana's lap, legs propped over Ishii's thighs. After half the coffee, she was conscious enough to hold the can herself.
"Fainting is part of my role, not yours," Hana said.
"I'm sorry." Ichiro smiled ruefully, looking around. "I'm sorry to worry all of you."
Ishii pinched her calf, half to draw her attention, half to make everyone else smile at the offended yelp. "That's a sign from the spirits to lay off. The show's fine, you're making the underclassmen swoon with how cool you're being, I know you have two leading-role offers and a record contract on your desk, and we finally got Hana-chan to stop jumping at every sound. She slapped me in rehearsal yesterday."
" Ishiii-san !"
"What? I'm proud of you."
Hana was laughing, small sounds muffled in her fists, but Ichiro wasn't.
"The spirits," she murmured. "A sign."
"You rehearsed for too long,"
said. "Get some sleep. I can get you some lavender oil..."
Ichiro reached up, fingers ghosting an inch from Yuki's cheek. "You don't feel it? None of you do..."
"It's a tough show." Ishii shrugged. "I know it gives me nightmares."
"Me, too." Tartan took the empty coffee can from Ichiro's hands.
Hana made a soft sound.
"That's because we're all stressed," Yuki said. "It's a natural reaction. We've been together like this for years, and now everything's changing. In six months only Hana-chan will keep her place. And the show... It's very good, I think that's why I have nightmares about it."
Ichiro caught her hand. "Tell me."
Yuki smiled ruefully. "I think it's because I'm going to be Top Star, but I'm dreaming I am Franz Joseph, except I'm me as well, and I keep trying to convince, well, you to do something about something that's dangerous..."
"A threat to the people," Tartan said. "Every night..."
Hana made another wordless sound, her hand clenching on Ichiro's shoulder.
"And you keep asking why." Yuki's smile faded, replaced by grey exhaustion. "You sit there, with Hana-chan on your side and Ishii-san at your feet, and I keep trying to find the words until Rudolf-"
"I said that it's not right for people's deaths to be taken from them." Tartan was looking at her hands. "They have fates and purposes, and it's wrong for someone to usurp the power of Death over them."
Hana hiccupped , quietly. "And I said it was true."
Ishii held her breath. Like in that dream, coiled at the feet of a greater power, waiting for a word of command. What to do. Who to kill. And that was ridiculous, she didn't really have the knife that felt so real in her hand.
Ichiro sat up. Strands of her hair were loose, shadowing her eyes.
"It's a long way from a decision to a plan," she said. "We need more than dreams to go on."
Ishii forced her hand open. "This is crazy."
"But it happens." Hana looked at each of them. "Restless spirits, mediums, exorcisms..."
"And we're the ones that know." Tartan's eyes were wide, guileless. "So we have to do what we can."
"Why us?" Each word was hard to find, Ishii's thoughts twisting in a language with different sounds.
"Someone has to," Yuki said.
Ichiro caught Ishii's wrist. "Because we've spent half our lives learning how to play heroes."
"Here we all are."
A lot of things could happen like this, in the darkness between shadows.
A good woman could give her all and be broken, tossed aside after a single stumble by a company who never knew she'd burned to save their theatre and their lives from a new Hanshin earthquake (I don't need you).
A woman full of warmth could lose her way, searching the faces of men for the eyes of a woman dead for a century, because she could not quiet the dead man inside her who let her see what she had to see (Mama).
A tender woman could let the visions close her in ice and pride that even love couldn't melt, until only harsh words got through wounds across that surface (knife on glass).
Friends could lose each other (are you crazy remember what happened five years ago why are you playing that part) and miss each other (I know you don't like roses) and start a new conversation after five years that still had them finishing each other's sentences.
And a very stupid woman could give her all to the place that didn't want her, didn't value her, but hell, someone had to take care of the ungrateful brats. They didn't know what they were playing with.
They all walked towards the centre , until there was an armspan between each of them. Power crackled, in Yuki's long hair, the buttons of Tartan's jacket, the crystal at Hana's neck.
Hana jumped, straight into Ichiro's arms, and if that was a lift, it was pathetic, but they were both laughing, so Ishii grabbed them before they stopped spinning and lifted them both. She toppled back, but Tartan and Yuki caught them, and they were home.
Here, between the shadows, where the snow fell, and the light.