I knew loving her would terrorize me with the demons of jealousy I watch them as I have watched other demons, until acceptance is possible One could not call it peace
-- from "Dare" by Chrystos, In Her I Am
Sun was streaming into the room when Yukio opened his eyes. He lay on his back for a few moments, staring fixedly at the enormous Ohtori rose seal that consumed the ceiling of the large, round room. Then he sat up, sheet slipping from his bare chest and shoulders. The room was furnished with only him, the bed, and a small bathroom alcove of glittering glass. The windows dominated all: twelve windows, twice as tall as a man, elevated two feet from the floor and arched at the top.
He slid into the red silk robe that had been cast carelessly on the floor next to the bed and rose silently to stand at one window. Beyond the curve of the planetarium dome immediately below, the observation deck was just visible, and halfway down the tower, the edge of the Student Council balcony protruded slightly into view. Green grass and shining white pavement led to the serene darkness of the forest. Straight out the window, the castle rotated in a stately manner over the empty dueling arena, neither seemingly touched by the sun.
The Vice President of the Student Council moved slowly from one window to another, gazing out each thoughtfully before moving on. He finally stopped in the alcove, where one window was slightly occluded by a nearly transparent shower stall. There was a long pause, and then he stepped up to that window and hesitantly touched the glass with his hand.
The light in that window went out. It was filled with a velvety black field studded with drifting stars for just a moment, and then another image took shape over it: a vast, barren hall, floored with richly aging hardwood and walled with mirrors. One girl, dressed in black tights, pink leg warmers, and a loose, black shirt, stretched carefully, leaning one hand, from time to time, on the barre.
Yukio smiled bitterly. Eyes fixed on the window, he cast off the robe and turned on the shower.
Hoshiko worked her toes, feet, and lower legs slowly, then moved her stretches up to the long muscles of her thighs. Her face was composed in an expression of deep, tight concentration; she was apparently wholly entranced with the feel of her body.
When she had stretched all of her leg muscles thoroughly, she worked through the rest of her body. She was somewhat cursory in these movements, as if impatient now to dance. At last, she approached the barre again, and began her morning exercises.
"You seem unperturbed," said Kozue from the doorway, "by the developments last night."
Hoshiko's movements only hitched for a moment at the sound of the voice. She didn't bother to turn toward the speaker, but addressed her comments to the mirror before her. "Should I be?" she inquired lightly.
Kozue gave a small shrug. "Your brother lost. And we have interlopers."
"So Toshiro-kun informed me," Hoshiko replied, bending serenely over her leg, which was laid along the barre. "And I'd rather duel you for the Bride than my brother, Kozue-sempai."
"Oh, really?" Kozue arched one thin, pale eyebrow as she leaned against the doorjamb and watched the dancer. "Why is that, Hoshiko-chan?"
Hoshiko paused, one hand on the barre for balance. One leg was pointing delicately toward heaven as she stood on the other. As she looked at Kozue, she rested the raised leg, trim and taut, against her cheek. "We each have a desire, a passion. It would be a fair fight."
Kozue laughed and pushed herself away from the wall to stand upright. "And you think your brother lacks passion?"
"He lacks any passion at all." She released the leg from its tense point toward the ceiling, almost flinging it down in an impatient yet controlled gesture.
Kozue snorted as she turned to depart. "You don't know him very well, do you?" She paused and looked back. "It looks like you stepped in something, Hoshiko-chan."
Hoshiko didn't even pause to examine the brown stains on her slippers. "They're my old slippers."
Kozue shrugged and passed through the doorway. Hoshiko continued her exercises. The old brown stains were soon occluded by bright crimson blossoming through the thin silk.
Mitsuru sat sullenly on the steps before the gate to the forest, idly tossing small stones into the pools of water. A set of bagpipes lay discarded next to him. A rooster strutted past, its feet clinking on the stone paving with a bright, merry sound.
"Tsuwabuki-kun," Kozue said, climbing the steps toward him. "You look depressed."
He looked up at her and a sudden sunrise smile burst across his face. "Kozue-sempai!" He scrambled to his feet and bowed slightly. "I... I'm not depressed. Just thinking."
"Good, good," she said, reaching up to touch his shoulder lightly as she walked past, seemingly to inspect the gate. "I would hate to think that you would be depressed after spending such a night."
Tsuwabuki blushed just as suddenly as he had smiled. "Oh," he said in a very small voice. "You know then?"
She looked surprised as she turned back to him. "Oh, Mitsuru, of course I know." Kozue's hand stroked his cheek gently. "It's all right. It's a good learning experience. Everyone does it. Everyone, that is, who truly wants revolution."
His eyes widened. "Even you?" he breathed.
"Oh, yes," she said carelessly. "It's just one step on our way to the Rose Gate. There are others. You'll learn more from those." There was a touch of contempt in her voice.
"Kozue-sempai, I..." he began, turning more fully toward her, then stopped.
"What is it?" she asked softly.
"Yukio-sempai... he... he's further along, isn't he?"
Kozue's hand closed around Mitsuru's chin, holding him captive as he gazed down at her with desperate eyes. "Mitsuru-kun, it means nothing. If you are meant for revolution, you will defeat him when the time comes. In the meantime, you will have to defeat me."
His eyes closed, as if against pain, and his shoulders slumped.
Kozue seemed to understand. "She's an old weakness come back to test you, my beautiful boy. But she won't interfere. She can't. She's lost her road."
"He might set her aright." His eyes opened again, a little too bright.
"He might," she admitted. "And the others... they may interfere too."
He snorted. "I don't fear them."
She smiled, then stretched up to kiss him lightly on the lips. As he reeled back, blushing and wide-eyed, she laughed, though the sound was more pity than scorn. "Oh, Mitsuru, you've not really started your lessons, I see. We aren't friends. We can't be lovers. We are, and always will be, Duelists."
Mitsuru stormed across campus, oblivious to the looks of admiration he drew from many of his fellow students, and ran down Toshiro on the quadrangle in front of the main building.
"Watch where the hell you're going!" he snapped at the younger boy.
Toshiro scrambled to his feet among the armload of carrots he'd just dropped and bowed. "Yes, Tsuwabuki-sempai. I am sorry, sempai. I was just on my way..."
"Just get away from me," Mitsuru snarled. And he sailed onward, the crowd parting before him.
Toshiro watched him go, a look of hurt passing briefly over his face and flickering, for a fraction of a second, to searing hatred, before returning to his usual myopic good nature. He turned dispiritedly to consider the mess on the floor, and a man's hand dropped gently on his shoulder from behind.
"That's all right, Toshiro-kun," a deep, familiar voice said. "I don't think we'll be needing them."
Toshiro turned to look at the speaker and smiled. "Yes, sir, Kiryuu-san."
Kiryuu Touga sipped his tea as the doors of the rose-adorned elevator opened with a chime, then closed again. Footsteps rang crisply on the smooth, shining floor as Ohtori Akio walked around the large planetarium projector toward the rug and couches which constituted the room's only furniture.
As he lounged on one of those couches, his back was to the approaching footsteps. Despite this, Touga said, "Good morning, Mr. Chairman."
"Good morning, Mr. Deputy Chairman," replied Akio, still walking toward the couch. "Did you have a pleasant evening?"
"I always do," replied Touga, ineffably smug.
Akio laughed. "I imagine so, Mr. Deputy Chairman. You have exactly the right kind of temperament to appreciate the pleasures of my lovely garden." He walked around the couch and smiled down at Touga, who had his feet up on the coffee table.
Touga squinted up at the Chairman's tall form, which was outlined against the morning splendor of one of the enormous windows which looked out from all sides of the room. "My possession of such a temperament is hardly surprising, Mr. Chairman," he remarked lazily, although his eyes watched Akio carefully for any kind of reaction.
"Not surprising in the least," agreed Akio with great equanimity. "What do you think of the new influences on the game?" he asked, walking over to the nearest window.
"Hardly new, Mr. Chairman. Rather old influences, don't you think?"
"Have our sins of the past really come back to confront us, then?" murmured Akio, looking out the great window at the white buildings of the campus far below.
"It doesn't matter if they have," replied Touga, indifferently.
"True," answered Akio, without turning around. "We are both... skilled in dealing with our own particular sins."
When I opened my eyes, sun poured in through the window, Chu-Chu was snoring on the bunk below, and the bed at my side was empty (but warm, so she hadn't been gone long). I sat up, stretching and peering around, remembering where I was and trying to repress a sense of loathing.
I slid down to the floor, noted that Chu-Chu was sleeping in a tiny grey and red dome tent in the middle of the lower bunk (and decided to just not ask how he found such a thing), and put my shorts and tank top on. I was just starting to stretch out a bit when I noticed Anthy's book lying on the edge of the top bunk: In Her I Am by Chrystos. It was very cheering to think, Ah, she's in one of those moods...
A resounding crash echoed down the corridor.
I was out the door and into the hallway before I could wonder what it was. Apparently, so was everyone else. Before I could see the cause of the noise, I stopped, staring, at the assortment of people staggering into the hallway: Saionji, hopping as he desperately tried to pull his trousers up over his (no doubt regulation) white briefs; Miki just ahead of him, somewhat more dignified in his green paisley boxer shorts; Juri in her tank top and plain cotton underwear; Nanami in things that were black and lacy that she tried very hard to cover with Saionji's jacket.
We all, in fact, stared at each other. After a moment of immobility, though, Saionji broke the tableau by finally managing to match foot to trouser leg and pull his pants up. Then we all looked down the hall.
Anthy was sitting up, looking sheepishly down at the tray which had spilled cereal, milk, tea, and orange juice along the carpet. When she looked up, she gave us a rueful little smile and said, "Tripped. Sorry."
Everyone exhaled at once, and Miki and I, at least, laughed.
Saionji turned to Nanami and, in a voice both irritated and plaintive, asked, "Can I have my jacket back now?"
"Tenjou Utena-san. Tenjou Utena-san. Please report to the Guidance Counselor's Office."
I stopped in my tracks. We had all had breakfast after our morning wake-up, found Juri's empty handcuffs lying near the radiator (Juri had philosophically pocketed them and said, "We didn't really expect him to be here, did we?"), and here we were, in uniform, wandering the halls of the school, hoping for enlightenment. Apparently, it had come.
"Tenjou Utena-san. Tenjou Utena-san. Please report to the Guidance Counselor's Office at once."
Miki turned around and stared at me. Juri, who had been walking some distance ahead of us, stopped and said, "What the hell?"
Nanami walked around me and said, waspishly, "Leave it to Utena to draw attention to us."
I closed my mouth and looked helplessly at Anthy, who smiled up at me. "Well," she said. "It's not as though they don't know you're here."
"Tenjou Utena-san," demanded the loudspeaker, tinnily.
"I suppose I ought to go," I said. "It might... tell us something. I don't know. At least it'll stop the announcements." I turned and walked back towards the Guidance Office, feeling a little lightheaded. The others straggled after.
Outside the office, I looked at Anthy, who was holding my hand reassuringly. "This is so surreal," I told her. She just smiled and shrugged. "At least," I said to her, "this is one person I feel confident I can manage." And I opened the door.
"I'm Tenjou Utena," I started, "The announcement--"
I stopped. I stared. I couldn't help it. There, at the desk of my old adversary, sat Keiko, resplendently pregnant in her white uniform (with red trim ≠ it looked so familiar). The desk was festooned with decorations: pastel frills around the edge of the desk, a trio of ceramic kittens perched on her computer, and a voluptuous glass vase overflowing with pink roses. A coffee mug sat near a small poster of a large, sad-eyed puppy, but all I could see of the English logo on the mug was, "ld's," "st," and "er." An oval looking glass with an ornate bronze frame hung on the wall behind her. Nearby, at identical but smaller desks, sat Yuuko and Aiko, wearing their grey suits with red blouses and their strange pink glasses.
"Tenjou," said Yuuko ≠ or perhaps it was Aiko.
"Utena-san," said Aiko ≠ or perhaps it was Yuuko.
"It's about your attendance," Keiko announced, bouncing a file, clearly labeled with my name, against one hand.
"My... attendance?" I asked. The others began to crowd into the tiny office behind me, but when Miki and Juri saw Keiko, they immediately forced their way back out to block Saionji. Nanami and Anthy, however, flanked me.
"It seems that you've been absent," Aiko ≠ I was just going to call her Aiko ≠ informed me.
"It seems that you've been missing," Yuuko added.
"It seems that I've been done with this place for some time," I finally managed. "Six years."
They all nodded at the same time and said, "Mmm-hmm."
Aiko looked up at me and said, "Weren't you betrayed by a friend or lover and switched schools?"
"Well, I..." I glanced aside at Anthy, who shook her head and smiled faintly.
Yuuko glanced slyly at me. "Didn't you get in trouble with the Chairman and get expelled?"
"I..." I tried. Nanami, out of the corner of my eye, was getting more and more stiff and upright, a sure sign that she was getting annoyed.
Keiko leaned forward, steepling her fingers over my file. "Weren't you hurt badly and hospitalized?" The edge to her voice made me wonder how much she knew.
"Now, look," I started again, as reasonably as I could. "I've not been a student here for some time..."
"Then what are you doing here?" Keiko asked, not moving.
"Yes," Yuuko agreed. "What are you doing here?"
"Yes," Aiko echoed. "Here?"
"She's here with us," snapped Nanami imperiously, and their eyes swiveled to look at her. After a moment's regard, they apparently dismissed her, because they looked back at me. Nanami's face went deep red.
"What do people like you, who abandon your education, want on a decent campus like this? Corrupting the students, perhaps?" Keiko mused.
"Now, see here..." I began.
"She's with me," Anthy said. Her voice was quiet and forceful, in her peculiar way, and it brought dead silence to the room. She turned her back on the trio. "It's time to go, Utena."
As Nanami and I backed out of the room, Keiko recovered enough to smile at me and drop a student handbook on the front of her desk. "We've added rules about girls wearing boys' uniforms, by the way," she said primly as she turned away to gaze in the mirror.
Outside the office, I slumped back against the wall, pressing one hand against my forehead.
Nanami peered down the hall, where Juri and Miki were engaged in a heated discussion with Saionji. Anthy drifted over to the window and looked down at the rose garden in the quad.
A student ≠ a girl, judging from the uniform ≠ ran up, calling, "Utena-sama!" Startled, I straightened up and took what was pressed into my hand. I didn't even see her face before she was gone. I looked down into a full-blown white rose.
Nanami turned back in time to see me staring stupidly into this rose. She laughed harshly. "Another day, another challenge. Just like the old days, eh, Utena?"
Anthy turned around, silhouetted in the window. "No," she replied, before I could. I looked up at her, but all I could see was her outline against the brilliant glass. "Not quite."
Hoshiko paused outside the library door and tugged nervously on her uniform, her long fingers fiddling with the braid looped from her left epaulet to the fastening at her throat. Then she shoved the door open impetuously and strode in.
Most of the scattered students in the broad, open room turned to look. As she walked purposefully towards the staircase to the upper floor, two girls leaned toward one another and whispered something about "amazing talent" that penetrated the quiet air. The talent pretended not to have heard, but straightened her back and hurried on. She took the stairs two at a time, leaping lightly from step to step.
Upstairs, there were even fewer students than below. Hoshiko ignored them as well, wending her way purposefully through the stacks until she reached a set of isolated study carrels. Leaning over one, she said, her voice low but sweetly clear, "What a momentous occasion! You're actually working!"
Yukio looked up lazily from his notes, not bothering to raise his chin from his propping hand. "And what an astonishing surprise, to have you seek me out."
She looked almost abashed for a moment, then tossed her head as if to shake off the accusation. "There's something I need to talk to you about."
"Of course," replied her brother, looking back down at his notes and scribbling something near the bottom of the page. "You certainly don't search me out for the pleasure of my company."
She chose to ignore this. "We can't talk here. Come outside."
Yukio looked up with apparent mild interest, but simply followed her and said nothing until they had both exited the library. "And what can it be that you need to speak to me about?" he asked, sarcasm edging his voice. "Surely you can't be in any situation which requires a brother's advice."
Hoshiko, who had been walking beside him, spun angrily half-away at this. "If my brother had any advice worth listening to," she replied, pressing her back to the ornate ironwork railings which closed the archways in the wall, "perhaps I would ask."
"Not advice, then," said Yukio thoughtfully. "It must be an invitation to one of your eternal performances. I'm terribly sorry, Hoshiko-chan, but I simply cannot bear the ennui of two hours of 'Excerpts from Swan Lake' merely for the sake of the appearance of family solidarity. You know I never attend those things."
His sister gripped the iron rails behind her. "Never?" she asked, looking away. "You said you wouldn't come last time, but you were seen, you know. I don't understand," she went on in a softer voice. "You know it means so much to me, why do you pretend not to care?"
Yukio looked at her, then turned his own face away. "Your friend must have been mistaken. I was busy that evening."
"I saw you!" burst out Hoshiko. She sprang away from the railings and landed, poised as a bird on a branch, on the path directly in front of Yukio. "I saw you there! After you said you didn't care, after you said that my... hobbies," she drew in her breath angrily, "were of no concern to you! I don't understand! Why would you be so cruel and indifferent and still go to the performance? And then pretend--" She choked off her own sentence, shaking her head. "And now you won't even look at me, you coward! I just don't understand!" She leapt backwards from him, a few feet down the path, and stood there, panting and stretching one foot absently.
Yukio covered his face with one hand. "That's really just as well," he muttered.
"That's all I get from you!" said Hoshiko, flinging out her arms dramatically. "Cryptic comments and angstful posing!" She looked away from him at a patch of tall nettles growing inexplicably out of the well-manicured lawn.
Her brother laughed shortly. "Be grateful, Hoshiko." He wiped the back of his hand across his face and went on, "And this little scene, dramatic and, perhaps, amusing though it is, serves no useful purpose. Tell me what it was you were going to tell me." In response to her openmouthed surprise, he added helpfully, "Was it student council news?"
Recovering from her startlement, Hoshiko laced her fingers together and stretched her back, arching her neck and tilting her head back. Yukio sighed and looked away again. "No," she said to the sky. "Not student council news."
Yukio placed one hand on his hip and waited, his school satchel dangling from his free hand.
After gazing at the sky for a long moment, Hoshiko looked back at her brother. She took a half step forward, balancing herself perfectly on her feet, took a deep breath, and smiled shyly at him. Before he had time to do more than blink at this, she said, "Oniisan, I'm engaged to be married."
"Engaged," he repeated, stony-faced.
She took another half-step closer to him and looked down at her foot, which she pointed at a dandelion growing out of a crack in the concrete path. "Yes. I..."
"Who?" he asked flatly.
She looked up at this. "Kiryuu Touga-san," she replied, smiling a little again. "You see, we--"
"Touga-san?" he repeated. "Touga-san?"
"Why, yes," she replied. "We..." she stopped, staring at him.
Yukio, who had been staring fixedly at his sister, threw his head back and gave a whoop of laughter. "Touga-san!" he repeated again. "You're engaged to..."
"I don't see what's so funny about it," she snapped.
Her brother took a step towards her, smiling down at her upturned face. "So, Hoshiko-chan, you're engaged to the famous playboy. Does this mean you've consented to give him your all?"
Staring up at him, Hoshiko flushed angrily. "How dare you..."
"Oh, I see. You're saving yourself for marriage," sneered her brother. "Well, when you do, be sure to ask him which of us he likes better."
Yukio turned, leaving the furious Hoshiko to stare after him. Still laughing bitterly, he walked away down the path, slinging his school satchel carelessly over one shoulder and taking off the heads of the nettles with a vicious sweep of his hand.
I shook my head and blinked hard. "Dammit," I muttered. When Anthy glanced over at me, I said, "It's happening again."
She lay her hand on my forehead and nodded. The halls were mercifully empty, it being the middle of a class period, as Nanami and Saionji were getting rather strident and shrill right now. Juri looked bored and annoyed, Miki had a half-embarrassed twist to his mouth. This was getting us nowhere, and the newest Ohtori weirdness was setting in on me again.
"Come on," I said finally. "She's probably not even in the office anymore, Saionji." He opened his mouth to object and I held up my hand. "We've had some downtime to recalibrate, but it's over now. We're at Ohtori, and we have to cope. The question is: what are we trying to do today?"
Juri said, seemingly grateful for a new topic, "Nanami wanted to get to the top of the tower."
Miki stared out the window blindly. "Perhaps we ought to try to approach the members of the Student Council who are... less involved? If they've reached a state of rebellion, as I recall some of us did ≠" he nodded to Saionji "čthey may be willing to tell us more about what's been going on."
Saionji sighed angrily. "Less involved? Than who?"
"Than Kozue... or Shiori," Juri replied.
"We're all involved," said Anthy into the silence. "No one is detached. All you can do is use your involvement."
Everyone looked at Anthy uncomfortably. "And what are youč" started Nanami, but she stopped, took a breath, and said instead, "I think... I need to find my brother."
"We can't do anything as a traveling mob," Saionji pointed out.
Nanami laughed, a self-deprecating tone edging the sound. "I've always favored traveling in groups."
"You aren't the leader of this pack," Saionji pointed out.
"No," Nanami admitted. "We're a group of leaders." She turned and began to walk down the hall to the head teacher's office. "Duelists. That's why we all have to go our own ways." She knocked briskly and went into the office.
Juri said flatly, "I am not a duelist." She spun on her heel and walked down the hall. Just before she turned the corner, she said, over her shoulder," I'll see what I can gather about the Student Council."
Saionji looked oddly lost for a moment, then straightened his uniform and said, "Right. I'll, er, gather information."
Miki nodded, twitching his uniform uncomfortably. "Right, then. Shall we all meet for lunch?"
"Oh!" I said, remembering the day before. "I'm having lunch with Wakaba. So I'll catch up to you."
Miki said, suddenly, "What if there's another duel this afternoon?"
Anthy looked back and replied, "I think if there's another duel, we'll hear about it. Let's meet at the same place we watched the duel from yesterday."
Juri stepped off the elevator and began to cross the cavernous and empty room that was the antechamber to the Student Council balcony. She stopped midway, in the dimness, to examine the person sitting at the table in the dazzling sunshine outside.
The arm supporting the dark head sported a white sleeve slashed with royal blue. The girl's hair was bound into a tight, wide braid that swayed gently in the breeze, the only moving part of the tableau. A plastic fashion doll sprawled on the chair across from her, clothing and stiff limbs askew.
After several long moments, Juri resumed her stride. The sound of her boots on the marble floor brought Hoshiko's head around so fast that her braid snapped the air. The younger woman rose, scraping the metal legs of her chair over the stone, drawing herself up gracefully.
They faced each other, old Duelist and new. Juri was several inches taller than Hoshiko. Hoshiko laced her fingers behind her back and stretched to make herself just a little taller, a little broader. Juri hitched one hand on her hip carelessly, her mouth twitching with the suspicion of a smile.
"Arisugawa-san, I presume," Hoshiko said at last. "Only Student Council members are permitted here."
Juri's eyebrows raised slightly. "Well, I was a member of the Student Council the last time I wore this uniform. If the ruler here wishes to see me in it, he'd best not object to my use of its privileges."
The harshness of Juri's tone propelled Hoshiko back several steps as if it carried physical force. She frowned up at Juri, perplexed. "'Ruler,' Arisugawa-san? I am not sure I understand your meaning."
Juri cocked her head to one side and gave Hoshiko an ironic, thin-lipped smile. "Surely you realize the situation you're in, Fujiwara-kun. Following the commands of someone who sends you letters signed ĆEnd of the World'? Who is that, if not your ruler?"
Hoshiko looked down at Juri's hands. "So," she said finally. "A failed duelist, then."
"I wouldn't say that," Juri replied with a snort.
"Of course you wouldn't." Hoshiko continued to stare at Juri's hands for a moment, then looked up suddenly. "Of course you wouldn't," she said louder. "We have the object of your duels. She's our Bride."
Juri cursed harshly. "Does everyone in this hellhole know about Shiori and me?"
The vulgarity apparently sent Hoshiko skip-hopping backward. She ran on tiptoe to the far side of the table and leaned back, balancing herself neatly with one hand on the back of a chair. One foot, as if of its own accord, pointed and flexed idly.
"If you know so damned much," Juri continued, "then you ought to know that she wasn't the object of my duels. Being rid of her was."
"Have you found your passion, then, Arisugawa-san?" Hoshiko said suddenly.
Juri looked away.
The doll in the chair was sitting up straight, neatly composed.
"Is that what being an adult means, then?" Hoshiko asked softly. "Losing your passions? Telling yourself that you never really wanted them at all?"
Juri's eyes narrowed as she turned her head to look at Hoshiko again.
Hoshiko rose on point, stretching her graceful arms above her head, arching her back with perfect form. "Who is your ruler, Arisugawa-san? I am ruled by one thing alone." She resumed a normal posture slowly, almost turning the motion into a dance. "All other things are merely means to an end."
Hoshiko strode into the darkness toward the elevator, and Juri watched her go, hands clenched into fists.
The doll perched on a little stand that locked into the arch of one foot and supported the other leg outstretched. The stand began to turn slowly and jerkily, playing a tinny little song.
"Not seeing your brother yet, Nanami-chan?" Kozue inquired innocently as Nanami entered the music room.
"The head teacher wasn't in his office, so I left a message," Nanami replied, voice dripping with saccharine. "Kozue-chan." She drifted across the room, where she leaned against the grand piano familiarly.
Kozue struck a series of discords, then carefully noted them on a composition sheet of her notebook. "So, Nanami," she said finally, her left hand playing over keys, and her left foot holding down the pedal to mute the sound. "Come back to join our merry troupe of Duelists?"
"You know I haven't," Nanami replied, studying the ceiling. "I like actually feeling and looking nineteen. You look like you stopped somewhere around sixteen."
Kozue laughed, harsh as a jay. "Yes, but when you're a sagging old woman of sixty, I'll still be sixteen. Because I ≠" she punctuated this with an arpeggio"č will never leave this little garden of delights."
Nanami raised an eyebrow inquiringly. "So, is that revolution for you? To sit in your hole and stagnate?" A creaking sound caught her attention at that moment, and she stared briefly and uncomprehendingly at the dusty spinning wheel sitting in the corner.
The Student Council President bounded to her feet and waved her notebook under Nanami's nose. Nanami jerked her startled gaze back to Kozue. "Stagnate? Stagnate?! I'm creating great music here, Kiryuu, in case you hadn't noticed. Better than Miki, who hasn't written a line since leaving here and going off to his beautiful shining college. Better than you, mighty world-traveler, whose biggest accomplishment is buying a new outfit in every country you visit, and whose boyfriend is screwing his roommate as... we... speak." She flashed a vulpine grin. "Have a thing for the bi boys, don't you, Kiryuu? Could it be... that they're like your dear, darling oniisama?"
The sound of the impact was like breaking glass. Kozue reeled back, one hand going to her cheek. The notebook hit the floor. Nanami remained poised in her follow-through, then drew herself together again. She growled, "Next time, Kozue-chan--" She raised her hand and tightened it into a fist. "čI'll break your nose."
Kozue glared through the silver tendrils of her hair, then grinned again, showing pointed canines. "What's the matter, Nanami-chan? Can't handle a little bonding over having brother complexes? We ought to be like sisters, Nanami. We're in the same boat; always have been. You tried leaving in a cardboard box ≠ won't you come back to the ship?"
They matched stares for a long, silent moment. Then Kozue straightened, brushed down her uniform, and smiled at Nanami -- without teeth this time. "I have a class now, Nanami. But perhaps we'll continue this conversation later?" She turned on her heel and as she left the room, she reached out carelessly with one hand and set the empty spinning wheel spinning.
Nanami glowered after her, but waited until she was out of earshot before saying, "Like hell. I'll drown first."
Saionji entered the kendo dojo wearing a gi and hakama he must have found in the locker room. He stopped short to stare at Yukio, who was similarly dressed and practicing suburi. The boy kept his eyes forward, raising the shinai high over his head, then stepping forward with each downward swing. Saionji's eyes narrowed, and he seemed to be evaluating Yukio's form.
After a few moments, Yukio paused, shinai raised over his head, and looked at Saionji. After a long scrutiny barely verging on insolence, he relaxed his stance and bowed tardily to the man in the doorway. Saionji returned the bow, removed his shoes, and stepped onto the mat.
"Are you the captain then, Student Council Vice President?" Saionji inquired, selecting a shinai from the rack and subjecting it to careful scrutiny for damage.
"I am. Sempai." Yukio let a lock of his dark hair drop into his eyes, and considered Saionji through it. "As you were. Do you still practice?"
"Of course." Saionji took an experimental one-handed swing with the shinai that had apparently passed his visual inspection. "I'm captain of the team at my air base."
"And your team was no doubt champions of the JASDF competitions last year," Yukio said, voice dripping sarcasm. "Tell me, Saionji-sempai, have you decided to do anything that you didn't excel at while you were here?"
"I fly," Saionji said briefly, moving out to the center of the mat opposite Yukio. He drew his shinai up over his head into the upper ready position.
Yukio regarded him with a one-sided little smile. "Still trying to reach the castle then?" He assumed the middle ready position, tsuka of the shinai held at his waist level, tip of the shinai pointing at Saionji's chest. "You know there's only one way in."
They stared at each other for several moments, motionless.
All at once, they both exploded into motion, their kiais filling the dojo.
Yukio's shinai quivered slightly, just short of Saionji's throat. Saionji's shinai hovered just above Yukio's skull.
They stepped apart, lowering their weapons. Saionji scowled at the floor. Yukio smiled again, sketched a bow and moved toward the door.
"You're holding back, Saionji-sempai," he commented. "Perhaps you shouldn't have given up your bouts of swordplay with Kiryuu-san. He can be a most... freeing opponent."
Yukio was gone before Saionji could whirl on him.
Anthy and I wandered into the library to get out of the sun and heat. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I spotted Tsuwabuki at one of the reference tables. I gestured toward him and raised my eyebrows to Anthy. She shrugged, and headed that way.
"Tsuwabuki-kun?" I said by way of greeting.
"Utena-san," he replied, clicking the stopwatch in his hand, peering at it, then looking up at us. "Himemiya-san," he added, sounding a little surprised. He set aside the book he had been studying.
I glanced down at the open book and saw a drawing of a hedgehog. "What are you up to?" I inquired, trying to be friendly and casual. "Zoology?"
He shrugged, tucking the stopwatch into the breast pocket of his uniform. "Studying, I suppose. What are you doing here?"
"Just, er, seeing the campus," I said.
He raised an eyebrow disbelievingly, and looked at Anthy. She smiled. "Why don't you guess why we're here?" she offered.
"I told Nanami-san yesterday," he commented, ignoring Anthy, "if you're here for revolution, you're too late. You lost your chance. It's our turn now."
Anthy shook her head absently, more to herself than to him. He noticed, however, and turned on her. "What?" he asked harshly, and a little too loudly. "You don't think we can achieve revolution without you? We have a new Bride."
Anthy looked down at him. "Nothing's new."
He scowled. "What?"
"None of this is new, Tsuwabuki-san. It's all been done before." Anthy rested one hand on the table and he recoiled as though it were something dangerous.
"You were the Bride before," he blurted out.
She sighed. "Yes," she said. "But he's used mortals before as the Bride."
This was news to me. "What?" I said, astonished.
"Mortals?" asked Tsuwabuki in the same moment. A couple of people shot irritated looks in our direction.
"It was a long time ago," she told me, then looked back at Tsuwabuki.
He stood up, tossing his hair out of his eyes. "A long time ago," he drawled. "Are we all children to you, then, Anthy?"
I stiffened at his familiar use of her name, but Anthy ignored it. "No," she said coldly.
"What is the difference between a child and an adult, then?" he asked, tossing off the question with a strangely desperate air.
"Less than you think," replied Anthy.
He stared into her eyes for a long moment. She looked back with, as far as I could see, no change whatsoever on her face, but he blushed and looked away. He snatched up his book satchel and turned toward the door.
"You forgot your candy bar," said Anthy, taking a chocolate bar away from Chu-Chu just as he picked it up from the table. I noticed that there was one bite taken out of it.
He turned and nearly snatched it from her hand. "It's not mine," he said. "Food's not allowed in the library."
Nevertheless, he took it with him as he strode out.
Anthy touched my hair as he went. "You should hurry, Utena. Wakaba is waiting for you."
I looked at her, surprised, then smiled. "Thanks. You be careful, okay?" Despite the stares all around us, I bent and kissed her before running out in Tsuwabuki's wake.
The Student Council archives looked cool and dark where Miki sat, watching Toshiro at work.
"I bet people compare you to me," Miki said, a little bitterly.
"All the time, sempai," Toshiro agreed amiably, pushing his glasses up his nose and peering at Miki. "Except they say I'm not as odd." He carefully dusted a smudge off the nose of the life-sized wooden horse that stood next to the filing cabinets.
"Odd?" Miki asked.
Toshiro held up his hand and made a series of exaggerated little motions with this thumb. Miki raised his eyebrows inquiringly, and Toshiro said,"Your stopwatch. Tsuwabuki-sempai still uses it sometimes."
"Ah." Miki leaned his chin on the back of the wooden straight chair he was straddling. "Has Tsuwabuki-kun ever said... why he uses it?"
"No, sir," Toshiro replied, returning to the file he was flipping through. "He wouldn't say anything when Fujiwara-sempai asked."
"Ah," Miki repeated. After a moment, "What are you doing?"
"Filing some archival material that someone apparently left out," Toshiro said disapprovingly. Then he frowned. "The problem is, I can't find the proper place for it."
Miki leaned back and cocked his head, considering the boy. "If it's old material, then it should already have a section to itself."
"Yes, sempai." Toshiro's voice was long-suffering. "But look here, it's your own writing. It must have a section, but I can't find it."
Miki rose and examined it. "Ye-es, that's my writing, certainly. Are you sure there's no section already numbered?"
"Positive." Toshiro removed himself respectfully and let Miki flip through the drawers himself for a few moments.
"Huh." Miki rubbed the back of his head. "What's the information about, anyway?"
Toshiro looked closely. "Nemuro Memorial Hall."
"That was a really nice lunch, Wakaba," I said, remembering when we used to sit under the tree and eat lunch together, just like we were doing now. It didn't seem so long ago.
"Thank you, Utena! I wanted to make a really, really nice lunch because it's so wonderful that you came back to visit me!" Wakaba, who was lying on her stomach in the grass, rolled over and pointed at me. "And now you have to tell me everything about your new school, and what happened when you left! People said the most awful things! I heard you were in the hospital, and some people said you'd been expelled, and..."
"I really liked the way you cut everything into little cherry blossoms," I said inanely, completely unable to cope with her questions. I was overwhelmed with the cowardly desire to not explain anything at all. I felt sure that she wasn't going to believe me.
"Cherry blossoms are easier to cut than roses," said Wakaba, distracted. "Don't you think I'm a good cook, Utena? Don't you think I'll make a perfectly wonderful wife?"
"I think you're a great cook, Wakaba," I said, steeling myself. "But about this 'wife' business..."
"Yes, Utena?" asked Wakaba, wide-eyed and thoughtfully nibbling a blade of grass. "Hey, are you engaged now?"
I blinked, a little startled by the change of subject. "Er," I said. "Not exactly..."
"Oh, I hope you find someone as wonderful as I have, Utena!" said Wakaba, staring dreamily up into the leaves of the tree overhead. "He's so romantic! He's so kind to me! He's just like a real prince..."
I closed my eyes briefly, suddenly unable to cope with the flood of images. My throat constricted with pity. I didn't know what to say. I never knew what to say. I felt even younger than Wakaba, utterly helpless.
"Ah, I see you have company."
"Akio-san! This is wonderful! I can introduce you to my very best friend Utena!"
Akio's voice froze me to the spot, my feelings of despair nearly drowning me. But what echoed in my mind was not what he was saying -- he was saying something now about already being acquainted with me -- but what Wakaba had said. "My very best friend Utena!" Her... very best... friend. I opened my eyes.
Wakaba was just standing up. "I didn't know you had met before!" she said. "Utena, you never said!"
I was, just at the moment, too wrapped up in my own thoughts to remember how things had changed. "But Wakaba, I introduced you to him. And a few days later you two went out in the car without me." I was on my feet, although I didn't recall standing up. I could feel that my face was flushed, and I drew the back of my hand across my forehead. It felt hot.
Wakaba was looking puzzled. "That's... right. I remember. How could I have forgotten that? You were friends with... with..."
"My little sister," Akio cut in. "Anthy's away at another school right now. I'm not surprised you don't remember her -- she always was shy. Ah, there's the school bell. You should get to class. Utena and I will talk over old times, and I'll see you this evening, as usual." He smiled at Wakaba, then took her hand and kissed it. She blushed.
Wakaba stepped back, looked from Akio to me, then leaped forward and hugged me impulsively, almost knocking me off my feet. "This is so nice! I'll see you later, Utena, I promise!" And she ran off to class, her ponytail flying in the wind.
"Such a... lively girl," murmured Akio. "Really, being engaged to her has been such an interesting experience."
My hands clenched. "How can you say that?"
"Really, Utena," he said, reaching out and taking me by the hand. My hand was balled up into a fist, so after a moment he had to settle for a grip on my wrist. "Should I be jealous? She seems so glad to see you."
I shook my head, not so much at what he said as at his tone of voice, and pulled my hand away.
"Well, why don't you come for a ride..."
"A walk with me, then? We have much to discuss, you know."
I looked up at him. "What? We don't have anything to discuss. I already told you."
He smiled, slowly. "My, my, aren't you defensive? I want to talk with you about why you're here. You may find that our interests are not as much at odds as you think."
"What?" I was finding it difficult to think, again. I wondered if I was running another fever, and desperately tried to clear my head. I knew that I needed to be able to think.
"You're flushed, Utena." I wanted to hit him for saying my name like that, but I didn't. I felt him touch my forehead, but he removed his hand before I could knock it away. "I don't think you're feeling quite well. Why don't you sit down inside, and have a glass of water?"
I shook my head, but that made me feel worse. I realized that we were walking, in fact, we had just passed under a doorway and were in one of the school buildings. I stopped, confused.
"Utena," said Akio. "Utena, you need to sit down."
"How did I get here?" I asked.
"The usual way," he said, amused.
I was staring at a wall covered with small framed photographs. I couldn't make out the subjects of any of them, as my eyes were still dazzled -- the room was dark and the sun outside had been very bright. I turned and looked down a corridor, which was also very dark. I could just make out the white papers on the reception desk, and a point of light reflecting off a little call-bell.
It all looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place the familiarity. I knew this wasn't one of the buildings I'd had classes in.
"Sit down," said Akio, after a moment, and I realized that he'd been watching me. Instead of sitting down in one of the chairs which lined the wall, I walked over to the reception desk and leaned on it, warily watching him out of the corner of my eye.
He strolled casually after me. His outline loomed in the light from the doorway, and seemed to take up all the available space. I closed my dazzled eyes again, trying to force them to adjust.
I opened my eyes when something clinked. Akio, now standing behind the reception desk, set a wineglass in front of me. "You need some water, Utena," he said kindly. "You don't want to get heatstroke."
I stared at the wineglass, which appeared to be filled with champagne. My hesitation seemed to irritate him, and he said impatiently, "It's just sparkling water, Utena. Drink it."
The slender stem of the glass felt cold and fragile in my fingers, and the bowl was dewed with moisture. I was terribly thirsty, and I could feel the sweat on the back of my neck, damp and hot. A drop ran down my spine, a ticklish and uncomfortable sensation, like having someone standing too close behind me.
I could feel the spray of the effervescence on my face. The water even smelled cold. My hand jerked uncontrollably and the glass slipped through my fingers and shattered across the floor. I stood there panting and staring at him, dry-mouthed. "Just how stupid do you think I am?" I demanded.
Akio sighed, shaking his head pityingly. "Utena, you're not feeling well," he said gently. He stretched his hand across the reception desk, placing it on my fingers, which were clenched around the edge of the desk.
"No," I said, looking up at him.
"You need to--"
"No," I repeated.
His eyes narrowed, and he took his hand away. I suddenly realized that the building was rather cold, after the heat outside; the sweat turned clammy on my skin. After a moment, Akio produced an affable smile, and pushed a little cut-glass bowl which had been on one side of the desk towards me. "Now, Utena, be reasonable. We have to talk. Have a caramel?"
I stared at the bowl. A little gray jewelry box was sitting on the pile of chocolates. I looked back up at Akio and he smiled a deeply knowing smile at me.
"You bastard," I spat out. I pushed myself off the desk and marched down the corridor.
I started out walking. But I could hear his footsteps behind me -- leisurely, confident, enjoying the chase -- and the sense of pursuit prickled on the back of my neck. I started to hurry. By the time I reached a door, grasped the elaborate brass knob and entered another corridor, I was almost running.
His footsteps were quiet and unhurried, but the sound of them seemed to fill the air. I panted in my fever-driven panic, and ran down another endless-seeming hall lined with chairs on either side. I went through another door, and down another hall -- or was this the first one all over again? The chairs, the carpeting, the darkness were all the same. But this corridor seemed disused -- a dead end, the furniture draped in white dust cloths.
I grabbed a handful of the dust cloth and pulled desperately. It fell away from the wall, disclosing another door. Without hesitation -- Akio's footsteps were very close now -- I darted in.
It was a very small room, seemingly containing only a chair and a... mirror? The door slid shut behind me and I heard distant machinery start. Apparently, this was an elevator.
"What the hell?" I muttered, and heard, as if in reply, Akio's distant laughter.
Nanami looked up at the front door of the imposing, Western-style house. The front garden was immaculate, the windows clean, and the brassware of the door polished to a perfect gleam. The house itself was silent; no movement or voices indicated any life.
She stared at the house's facade for a long moment before ascending the front steps, her footsteps clear and hesitant in the silence. She fumbled in her pocket and produced a ring of keys. Selecting one, she unlocked the front door and went inside.
Glancing aside at the telephone table in the front hall, she walked through to a large, nearly empty room which I recognized as the room she favored for holding parties. It looked as though nothing had changed. The gleaming parquet floor stretched down to the great French windows, which looked onto the garden, but they were heavily curtained; a bit of the golden light of afternoon trickled through bravely. A few overstuffed chairs and small tables loomed through the dimness. Nanami closed the door and walked through the room, then opened another door and went through it.
This was the dining room. The table was set with candelabra and flowers, and two place settings in silver, crystal, and china. Nanami absently ran her fingers along the polished antique buffet, as though looking for dust, and glanced into the empty kitchen.
The carpeted staircase muffled her footsteps as she ascended to the second floor. She looked left and right at the top of the stairs, hesitated, and then turned and opened a door which gave on a beruffled bedroom.
The bed was made and the room looked freshly cleaned. The French windows which led onto an ironwork balcony were slightly ajar and the curtains pulled back. Nanami walked through the room and looked into a little bathroom, reaching out to touch the fresh white towels which were piled on a small bamboo table next to the claw-footed tub. She turned and walked back to the large windows, throwing them open and standing there for a moment. A breeze blew the curtains aside and made the door to the closet drift ajar. Nanami turned at the slight noise it made and saw that a long ruffled nightgown hung on a hook on the inside of the closet door.
She walked over and lifted it off the hook, holding it up against herself as if to test for size. It reached to her ankles.
Throwing the nightgown at the bed, she strode to the door and wrenched it open, marching out.
Across the hall, she flung another door open, entering a shadowy bedroom. There was a four-poster bed, draped in mosquito netting and filmy curtains. Heavy draperies shaded all the windows. This room, unlike the one she just left, had a dusty and unused air about it.
Nanami glanced about quickly, as though the room made her uneasy. She paused for a long moment, looking around the blue-shadowed room, then strode quickly to the bed and shoved the curtains aside.
There was no one there. The bed was unmade, no sheets, coverlet, or pillows -- empty except for a black cell phone sitting incongruously in the center of the bare mattress.
Nanami reached out slowly and picked up the phone, holding it so tightly that her knuckles whitened.
The phone rang.
After a few moments, when the door didn't open again, I sat down on the dusty chair in the elevator. I felt sick and dizzy, and it was terribly hot in the tiny room.
The hum of the elevator machinery seemed eerie in the silence. I could tell that the elevator was moving downward and I wondered vaguely when it would stop. I hoped it would be cooler wherever I was going.
I leaned forward and set my elbows on the little ledge in front of the mirror (what was a mirror doing in the elevator, anyway? For that matter, what was the chair doing in here?), and rested my head in my hands. Where was Anthy? She always made me feel better when I was sick.
My forehead touched the cool glass of the mirror.
Anthy strode quickly along the long gallery next to the Birdcage. She didn't look around at all, keeping her eyes fixed on the archway and doors at the far end.
Shiori, standing apparently idle in the Rose Garden, turned her head to watch Anthy pass. One of her hands strayed to a nearby blossom. She wrapped her fingers around the bowl of the rose and squeezed absently. With every step Anthy took, her fingers tightened until she finally jerked her hand sideways and tore the rose from the stem.
The regular beats of Anthy's footsteps paused. Her shoulders sagged slightly, and she glanced back, somehow looking directly at me for just a moment. Then she turned and walked, slowly and perhaps reluctantly, back to the Rose Garden.
She stopped on the walk, about ten feet from the doorway. Shiori stood in the door, clutching the rose she had torn off the center column. They stared at each other.
Anthy finally said, in a peculiar voice, "You know, you can leave him at any time. Take the glasses off and just walk out the gate."
Shiori's eyes widened with... shock? Outrage? I couldn't tell. Her hand crushed the flower and a few bruised petals drifted to the floor.
Chu-Chu approached the discarded watering can next to the door. He peered curiously. "Chu?" he said into the echoing interior.
"It's true," said Anthy, her eyes following the fallen petals with a curiously detached look.
Shiori said nothing, but her fingers ground the rose into a shapeless mass. The scent of it drifted up and was lost in the heavy perfume of the other roses.
"Has he even told you," said Anthy after a moment, in an even and almost monotonous tone, "what you will be called upon to do after the last duel?"
"Shut up!" Shiori shrieked, flinging her arm up and trying to dash the rose to the floor. It fluttered down in a shower of broken lavender petals. "Just shut up," she wailed. "You... you're pathetic."
Chu-Chu shrieked in horror and ran into the bushes as a frog hopped out of the watering can, landing neatly where he had just been standing.
Anthy gave Shiori a pitying look and turned on her heel. She rapidly crossed the remainder of the gallery and disappeared into the building beyond.
Shiori stood perfectly still, staring after her with an expression of such jealousy and hatred that she looked quite unlike the Rose Bride. Finally, she looked down and opened her fists. Then she inhaled sharply as she saw a thorn deeply embedded in her finger.
The frog made a noise like a waterlogged tuba.
I jerked back, nearly tipping the chair I was sitting in over backwards. My breathing sounded loud in the tiny room, even over the hum of the elevator.
Trying to look anywhere but back at the mirror, I turned and looked around the elevator. I examined the tiny framed picture over the chair, but I couldn't figure out what it depicted. Something green.
What was I doing here?
Juri stood in the strangely deserted fencing salle. The afternoon light from the long windows stretched her shadow almost all the way across the floor and gilded her silhouette. She stood quite still, staring at something on the floor in front of her. Then she bent and picked it up: an abandoned foil.
She examined the guard gravely and ran her fingers along the flexible blade. After testing the button on the end, to make sure it wouldn't come off, she slid her hand into the grip. She stood there for a moment, pressing the blunt tip of the sword against her opposite palm, curving the blade into a delicate arch.
At the sound of a tiny creak, she snapped her head around toward the large double doors that opened onto the main hallway. One of them was ajar, and a girl, awkward in the Ohtori uniform, was standing cautiously in its shadow. She gasped as Juri looked toward her, and pressed one hand to her mouth, dark eyes wide.
It wasn't Shiori. The strange girl stared shyly at Juri for a bare second more before turning and bolting down the hall, her footsteps receding into stillness.
Juri flung the sword down. It hit the floor with a high metallic clatter, skittering away from her across the parquet. She turned and strode away toward another door.
It was so hot. I felt like I was in an oven. Shouldn't it be cooler underground? I'd been traveling downward; surely the elevator was underground by now.
Miki's hand idly struck the A key above middle C on the piano in the music room. He stared around the high-ceilinged, gloomy room restlessly, and struck the key again.
"Out of tune again," he muttered.
His eye fell upon a notebook lying on the floor under the piano, and he got up, walked around to it, and picked it up.
The cover was blue-green, and Ohtori roses had been doodled all over it. Miki looked around the room, as if expecting someone to step out of the shadows at any moment, then opened the notebook.
The characters for "Kaoru Kozue" were carefully etched into the inside of the cover with several hundred passes of the pen, it seemed. Miki stared at them for a moment, then turned a page.
The first several pages appeared to be a pencil draft -- or several pencil drafts -- of a composition. Miki traced the line of the music with his finger, turned the page, followed it again. I could see that it was roughly the same music, but in development. The dates started over two years earlier, and progressed, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly.
Finally, he reached what seemed a fair copy of the composition, and he seated himself at the keyboard to run through the first few phrases. It was the music Kozue had been playing when we first encountered her. The date, written carefully in the top left-hand corner, was about a year before.
He began turning pages again. Another copy, date about a month after. He paused to play it -- it sounded exactly the same, except for a note or two. He turned the page. Another copy -- he traced this one with his finger, stopped at another single-note change. Another page, another copy, this one two notes, changed back to the way they were in the first fair copy.
Page after page, copy after copy. There were several phrases that she was obviously trying to get right, but her changes would cycle back to the original composition, no matter what she tried. Miki's brow contracted into a puzzled frown.
He paused, his finger resting on the date at the top of the page. He flipped back to the page before, and the date was the same. He turned back a few more pages to see the same date yet again, and finally flipped to the end of the book, where the final page was also marked with the same date.
Poor Miki. I leaned my head against the mirror again; at least it was cool against my skin.
Saionji looked up and down the hall, then knocked lightly at the guidance counselor's door. When no answer came, he looked around again, and tried the knob. The door opened and he slipped inside. The office was empty.
He approached the center desk with a wary tread. In front of the desk, he craned his neck to get a better view, as if Keiko might be hiding under it, then finally walked around it.
The pink-and-white ruffles were somehow more profuse on this side. I suppose the pink ruffly pillow on the chair didn't help. Saionji reached out a hand cautiously and picked up a glitter-covered pen. He examined it with a perplexed expression and set it back down. The "Hello Kitty" notepad, pink art glass vase full of roses, and baby-carriage-shaped tea cosy were all treated to a similar examination. Finally, he lifted the coffee mug -- still half-full of cold cafe au lait -- to better read the front: World's Best Lover. A red lipstick stain at the rim punctuated the message.
His hand shook a little as he set the mug back down amid the kitschy clutter, and he braced himself for a long moment of contemplation on the edge of the desk.
I blinked, and my breath condensed on the mirror for a moment, obscuring my vision. Shaking my head, I leaned back. It was still stiflingly hot in the elevator.
The elevator was also still descending. I wondered dizzily what I was going to find at the bottom. The thought precipitated a sudden chill over my skin, despite the heat. I wrapped my arms around myself and shivered uncontrollably.
Saionji breathed deeply and slowly, eyes closed, for a few moments, leaning heavily on Keiko's desk. Finally, he opened his eyes and was confronted by the trio of ceramic cats on top of her computer: slender black figures, one tall, one medium, one small. The medium-sized cat had a pink bow behind its ear, and all three were linked together by slender gold chains at their collars.
He stared into their smooth, sightless faces. Then, with a roar, he lashed out one hand and swept them from their perch.
The two smallest landed unharmed on a thick carpet. The largest, at the end of its golden tether, struck the tile floor next to the carpet and, with a tiny sound, smashed into a hundred pieces.
How could the room - well, elevator - get cold so quickly? I huddled in the chair, wishing that I could think more clearly.
Miki stared at the notebook's last page. A series of chords ≠ or something ≠ was scribbled there in pencil. He played through them quickly. They were terribly discordant, with nothing like a melody to them.
His eyes dropped to the bottom of the page, where words were scrawled: "The Real Garden."
He flung the notebook across the room with enough force that it slapped into the wall near the window, and then stood up so fast that the chair fell backwards onto the floor with a bang. His head swung from one side to the other, like an angry dog, taking in the room.
With a wordless snarl, he threw himself out of the room and stormed down the corridor.
I was still shivering, my arms wrapped around myself. I had to understand what was happening, I thought. I had to try to understand.
Juri walked quietly around the edge of the mansion and peered into the twilit darkness of the garden. A few fireflies rose here and there, glinting green-yellow for a second, then vanishing. Red lanterns hung from lines run between trees and the house, revealing a small, open pavilion of white canvas. Two pale figures occupied a raised dais in this shelter.
Kozue's uniform jacket sprawled on the grass with the lace-cuffed shirt she usually wore under it, and Juri paused to look down at it ≠ a little dubiously -- before regarding the two women in the pavilion. Kozue herself, dressed in her uniform slacks and a kimono made of ice-white silk, looked up at her approach.
"Ah, Juri-san," she said, selecting a long, dark, hair-fine needle from a little cup on the low table next to her. "It's always a pleasure." The round heads of the needles suggested a vase of tiny flowers.
Juri squinted to see more clearly in the strange shadows. "Kozue-san. I wish I could say the same."
The Student Council President smiled ferally and turned to continue her task. The Rose Bride knelt there amidst the sea of her red skirts, clasping her sleeveless jacket to her bare bosom, head bowed. Her bare back curved voluptuously, presenting its soft surface to the Student Council President. Kozue carefully set the point of the needle against her Bride's back and pressed gently. The tip slid into the pale flesh easily. Shiori's body trembled very slightly. Kozue adjusted the depth of the needle with an artist's flair, then let go. The head of the needle was a tiny black rose.
"What are you doing?" Juri asked, taking an appalled step back.
"I will achieve Revolution, Juri-san," Kozue said, reaching for another needle. "I have the Bride, and there seems to be no one who wants to challenge me."
Juri said nothing, just watched as the new needle passed into Shiori's skin. The Bride twitched infinitesimally.
"Unless, of course," Kozue continued conversationally, pausing to examine the length of the latest needle, "you are here to challenge me?"
Juri failed to answer Kozue again, staring at the scattered bouquet of black roses growing from either side of the Bride's spine.
"Perhaps not, then." The needle slid in and this time, Shiori didn't tremble at all. "Ah, I've found it."
"Found what?" Juri's voice cracked.
"Where she doesn't feel pain." Kozue stopped fiddling with the needle to look up at Juri. "You do know that the proof of a witch is that there are places on her body where she doesn't feel pain, don't you?"
Juri finally tore her eyes from Shiori to look at Kozue's mad glacial eyes. "A witch?"
Kozue laughed. "The Rose Bride is a witch, Juri-san. My Bride is a witch. Do you still want her?" She picked up another needle and inserted it with great care a few centimeters below the last.
Shiori arched her back, shooting an agonized look at Juri as her mouth opened in a soundless scream. After a moment, she dragged her eyes away from Juri and back down. Juri's jaw set; her face whitened.
Kozue tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Ah," she said. "I seem to have touched a nerve."
I shook, not so much with the cold (although the elevator had gone from being an oven to being an icebox) as with shock.
I clenched my hands on the narrow sill below the mirror. Or window, or whatever it was.
Anthy stood for a moment in front of the wide rose window in the locker area, limned in the cool evening light light that filled it. Then she moved to the nearest locker and examined the name plate. Trailing her hand over the name plates, she walked along the locker bay. Near the middle, she paused and examined one more closely: Shinohara Wakaba.
After a moment's consideration, she opened the locker and stared in. She considered the locker's contents and shook her head, rather sadly.
She reached in and pulled out a small green ball. It took me a minute to recognize it as the usual hair bauble that Akio used to contain his ponytail. She examined it minutely, then drew a single silver strand of hair out of it, and replaced it in Wakaba's locker.
She sighed, looking down at the near-invisible thread in her fingers, and murmured,"Well, I guess we'll have to do things the old-fashioned way."
The room was dim in the evening light; suddenly, one last ray of the sunset struck through the large, arched window with its pattern of roses. Anthy's figure was thrown into silhouette as she stood at the bank of lockers with one hand on Wakaba's locker door.
"Extra! Extra! Extra!"
The figure of a girl in an Ohtori-style uniform and a ponytail appeared on the window in black silhouette. "Oh," said the girl's voice, "someday I will be famous! Limousines," (the silhouette of a very long car drove across the scene), "riches," (the outlines of jewelry and paper money showered around her), "and screaming fans!" (hands holding out autograph books and cameras surrounded her).
The figure changed into a girl wearing what looked like a long dress, with shoulder length hair, holding a microphone. "This singer," said the girl, "is so talented, and beautiful, and sweet that everyone loves her! Someday, I'll be famous and beautiful and everyone will love me, just like that!"
The figure changed back into the girl with the ponytail again. "I'll sing, and make myself beautiful and..."
An admonitory hand held out a piece of paper from the side of the window. The girl's voice changed, became deeper like a man's. "Your grades in Music are not satisfactory. You do not have any singing talent."
The voice became higher, and the hand shook an admonitory finger. "No, you may not dye your hair!"
Another hand rattled a newspaper irritably, and the voice became deeper again. "I am not made of money! You don't need another fancy outfit."
The girl in the middle of the window covered her face with her hands. "What am I going to do? They won't let me be like her! She has everything I want!"
"It's not fair!" the girl's silhouette cried out, throwing her arms apart. "Why should she get everything!? I hate her!"
She wept for a moment, and then said thoughtfully, "Maybe I should kill her."
"Maybe you should consider a different career," said Anthy irritably, and closed the door of Wakaba's locker with a bang.
"I suppose that it would be a stretch for a monkey to become an idol singer," replied the shadow in the window.
I smiled involuntarily at Anthy's comment, but then slumped forward again, shaking my head. I was still shivering. Where was I going?
There weren't any buttons by the door. Apparently, this elevator had one destination.
The head teacher was sweating profusely and fiddling with his collar as he walked Nanami down the hall. "Of course, Kiryuu-san, we would have notified your brother of your visit and prepared a more proper reception for you if we had been informed of your arrival..."
"My brother knows I'm here," Nanami said, her fingers going to the phone in her pocket.
There was a long, tense silence as they proceeded down the length of the hall and entered an elevator. The head teacher stared, unseeing, at the buttons for a moment, then poked one hurriedly. His hand shook. He cleared his throat and attempted to fill the quiet of the gliding elevator. "Your family has always been so very generous to Ohtori. We were very lucky that Kiryuu Touga-san agreed to join our staff."
Nanami wheeled suddenly upon him. "Has he then?" she asked, focusing narrowed eyes on the nervous official. "Joined the Ohtori staff?"
"W-w-why, yes, Kiryuu-san. I thought you knew." The head teacher's collar was clearly too tight. "Kiryuu Touga-san has been most gracious in accepting the position of Deputy Chairman."
At that moment, the elevator chimed, and the door opened upon a terribly familiar vast cavern, ringed by tall windows and dominated at the center by a dark mass of machinery. Both Nanami and the head teacher stared into the room for a moment. Then Nanami said, "I see," and stepped out of the elevator without thanks or further comment. Taking that as a dismissal, the head teacher pressed another button and the doors closed.
On the long white couch that faced the elevator, Kiryuu Touga sat, arms sprawling along the back of the sofa. He wore a wine-red blazer over an open-necked, pale grey dress shirt, with tight-fitting black slacks and black Italian loafers. His red hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, like he used to wear for kendo, that still allowed stray locks to drop romantically over his eyes.
He smiled. "Nanami," he said in that husky way he always addressed her in high school.
"Touga," she replied, her face perfectly composed. Her hands caught briefly behind her back, like a schoolgirl, and then she seemed to force them to her sides.
"I haven't seen you in that outfit for a long time," he observed, indicating her yellow and black uniform.
Her eyes narrowed and she said, sardonically, "You haven't seen me at all for a long time."
"True, oh, princess," he said, rising gracefully to meet her. He paused an arm's length from her and eyed her appreciatively. "You've grown into a beautiful woman, Nanami."
The expression on her face failed to change for the better. "You would say that, I suppose." She shrugged and strolled away a few paces. "So, you've come up in the world. The top of the tower. I guess this is where you always wanted to be."
He laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Not the top of the tower, precisely. There have been... changes."
Nanami inspected the planetarium projector minutely. "Trying to reclaim lost glory? Or just sleeping with the pretty young girls?"
"Come now, Nanami," he began.
"Engaged to a high school sophomore?" she countered. "Really, Touga, I expected better from you. Though, I suppose it's something that this one doesn't look like me."
He actually winced at that and looked away. "So, have you come for any other reason than to heap infamy upon my head, Nanami? I didn't expect this to be a cheerful family reunion, I admit, but I'd hoped to find you less..."
"Enlightened? Emancipated? Independent?" she supplied harshly.
"Bitter. I was going to say," he replied without rancor.
She turned and looked him up and down. "You look just like him," she hissed.
He inspected the lapel of his jacket. "I rather think I've got somewhat better fashion sense..."
"What did you expect me to do, meeting you here? Fall at your feet and rip off my clothes? Just like her?" Her voice was a low snarl.
His blue eyes locked on her through his romantic lock of hair. "Such things you say about your friends, Nanami." Carelessly, he glanced aside at the coffee table. "The tea will get cold. And my assistants went to such trouble for your visit."
Nanami's gaze fixed on a pair of pink glasses neatly folded and laid aside on a small table nearby. "I see. One of the... perks of the job."
Several minutes of silence passed before Nanami drifted to rest on the edge of the opposite couch.
The pair confronted each other steadily. Then Nanami cast the cell phone onto the table.
Touga smiled. "Why are you here, Nanami?" he asked gently.
"Why are you here, Touga?" she inquired huskily. "Why did you come back to him?"
"For family," he said. "For you."
She shook her head. "Me? I cut all ties to you. We aren't even siblings by blood."
"Ah." He took up his cup and saucer and sipped his tea. "You're wrong."
"I let you think that," he continued, staring down into his cup. "You are my sister, Nanami. I am your brother. We were adopted. Together."
Nanami's eyes widened. She stared at the table for a long moment. "You... let me think... all this time..."
"It was necessary." He continued to look into his tea.
She was on her feet in an instant. "Necessary? Necessary? Do you have any idea how much... how long... I can't believe you did this to me! Driving me away with your disdain... your hatred!"
Touga set down the cup hurriedly, splashing tea over the table, and rose to face her. "I did it for your own good!" he told her, voice intense. "I wanted you well away from here! Not caught in the web anymore!" More quietly, he added, "I wanted my beloved little sister to be safe."
"Oh, really?" Her voice oozed disbelief. "My noble prince, sending me off for my own good. Not even having the stones to tell me why, just manipulating me, just like he manipulates everyone else."
He gripped her shoulders and said through gritted teeth, "I had to play it his way, Nanami. It was the only way."
She executed a neat little double-strike on the meaty parts of his forearms and his fingers opened in response to the sudden pain. Eel-like, she slid from his grasp and backed away toward the elevator. "And what, dear oniisama, were you saving me from?"
Touga glowered at her, rubbing his left arm. "Ohtori Akio." He bared his teeth at her. "Our father."
The elevator reached the bottom of the shaft, and the doors slid open.
We never really had parents (said Anthy in response to my question). And we never really needed them. But one day, he just sort of... became my parent. It was all very confused and confusing. He said it would look better, you know, if I had someone older acting as my protector.
(She sighed.) We weren't originally all that far apart in age, really. But I got younger and younger. He said it was necessary.
@---Go on to Part Twelve---@