On a snug evening I shall watch her fingers,
Cleverly ringed, declining to clever pink,
Beg glory from the willing keys. Old hungers
Will break their coffins, rise to eat and thank.
And music, warily, like the golden rose
That sometimes after sunset warms the west,
Will warm that room, persuasively suffuse
That room and me, rejuvenate a past.
But suddenly, across my climbing fever
Of proud delight - a multiplying cry.
A cry of bitter dead men who will never
Attend a gentle maker of musical joy.
Then my thawed eye will go again to ice.
And stone will shove the softness from my face.
-- "Piano After War" by Gwendolyn Brooks
I stepped cautiously out of the elevator into a corridor so short it might as well be called an alcove. Then I turned and saw a room...
To be honest, it wasn't the dim, square room I saw first. The only detail I could see was the white couch facing me. It was a short couch, with an elegantly curved back and scrolled arms, the surface sheened with a velvet nap. A very incongruous object, I thought faintly, to find in a basement.
I stared at the couch for a few long moments and then focused on the figure occupying it.
He wore his white prince's uniform, which half-vanished into the white cushions. One white-booted foot was propped up on the couch, and one arm was draped over the angle of that knee. In the fingers of that hand he carelessly dangled a black rose. His other arm was draped over the back of the couch, the elegant curve of his hand thrown into stark relief.
I forced myself to look at his face. He was, of course, smiling.
"Ah, Utena," said Ohtori Akio. "You've finally arrived."
Miki leaned on the windowsill in the hallway, watching the sunset paint the clouds with colors of fire. A few students chatted or played on the quad below.
"So, I..." said Robert from behind him, in English.
Miki turned slowly, deliberately, all his movements suggesting languid boredom. At last, when he met the Englishman's gaze, his eyebrows rose in something like surprise and he said, also in English, "You again?"
Robert again wore a white uniform, but this one was somehow more formal than before -- perhaps it was made so by the tunic that reached his knees or by the tiny line of silver braid at each shoulder. "Afraid so." He fiddled with something in his hands -- a sky-blue hat, sort of derby-shaped -- and he spent at least half his time looking down at it, only glancing up occasionally to check Miki's face.
"What do you want?" Miki inquired, resting his weight against the side of the windowsill. He cast a glance out at the quad. "Have you come up with some new way to insult or offend me?" When Robert opened his mouth, Miki held up one hand. "And if I hear one word of some hackneyed quotation, this conversation will end in defenestration."
"Look, Mick," Robert said persuasively, "I don't have anything against you. Honest. You're a sweet chap, and if I'd known it at the beginning, I'd never have agreed to help them."
Miki closed his eyes and swallowed hard, but he shortly settled a blue gaze almost as cold as Kozue's upon Robert's earnest expression. "You're trying to get me to forgive you? You're even apologizing in your own, backward way, aren't you?" Miki leaned forward slightly, causing Robert to lean back in equal measure. "Screw you."
Robert ran a hand through his thick auburn hair. "Mick, I'm honestly..."
"Honest is something you aren't," Miki replied, looking back out the window, his expression oddly similar to Juri's best arrogant dismissal.
The Englishman stepped up to the window as his hands aimlessly rolled and unrolled the brim of the hat. "Look, your sister's a bloody maniac..."
"Whose fault is that?" Miki snarled, his voice almost-but-not-quite catching in the back of his throat.
"Not mine," Robert replied in a low voice. "The man in the top room is the cause; you know it as well as I do."
"What's his game?" Miki's gaze slewed around to pin Robert like an insect.
Robert wriggled uncomfortably in his uniform. "I don't really know, but I'm guessing he staged this whole damn thing to get himself more... more 'Brides' he calls them."
Miki's eyes flickered wider for just a moment, then narrowed. "You don't know why he needs more than just Takatsuki?"
The crown of the blue hat was crushed now and Robert struggled to round it out again. "Because... because they die, Mick. That's God's own truth." He looked up through a lock of hair. "That's how Kan... Mrs. Ohtori went. I think." He shuddered, a little theatrically, I thought. "The last time I saw her, a few months before it happened, I knew it wouldn't be long anyway."
"I see." Miki looked down at Robert's hands. Robert started a little and wordlessly offered the hat to Miki, who shook his head, jaw tight. Then Miki pushed himself upright and walked away from Robert without another word.
Robert watched after him a moment, then tossed the hat out the window and turned to walk down the hall the other way.
The hat landed in the quad, where Wakaba picked it up and put it on, much to the delight of five of her friends. She grinned, twirled on one foot, and posed; the other girls cartwheeled away from her in precisely matched movements, to somersault into the waiting arms of several boys.
A flashbulb lit them all briefly.
I took a single step into the room and looked around. The room was oddly decorated with strange square metal plates, each about two feet wide and embossed with a black rose sigil, fastened in a seemingly random pattern to the otherwise empty, extremely high walls. There was, as far as I could see, no other door. Pairs of plain school shoes, neatly placed with toes to the wall, lined every wall of the room. Whose shoes were they?
It was cold, but that wasn't the only reason I shuddered.
Finally I looked back at Akio. His smile hadn't changed. "Sit down," he invited.
I wrapped my arms around myself and didn't move.
He laughed. "You know, Utena, your independence is a great deal of your unique charm."
"Why did you bring me here?" I asked. "That... that elevator thing..." A memory stirred in the depths of my mind, but I was unable to hold onto it, and it vanished again.
"I told you I wanted to talk to you," he said.
"Here?" I asked, shivering.
He smiled again, tilting his head to one side. "Shouldn't you be asking why Anthy brought you here? Back to me?"
"You know why we're here," I said impatiently, pressing the back of one hand to my head.
"Yes," he replied. "I do."
He turned his head slightly to look at the black rose, then he brought it up to his face. As he inhaled the scent of it, his eyes slid back to me. "I wonder," he said, letting the rose drop into his lap, "Whether you know."
Nanami and Touga sat, each on a white couch, facing each other silently. The tall, arched windows of the observatory showed growing indigo darkness in one direction and the deepening red of sunset in the other.
"How did you find out?" Nanami asked.
Touga's eyes flicked away. "He told me."
Her eyebrows raised. "And you believe him?"
"There is other... evidence," Touga admitted, seeming both a little irritated and a little reluctant. "Back at the house."
"I don't see any family resemblance," she commented, "other than a certain similarity of modus operandi." She had reclaimed some of her edge in the wake of the shock. It heartened me to hear it.
Touga's mouth wavered halfway between a smile and a snarl. "I'm not the only one who has manipulated people, 'Nanami-sama.'"
Nanami looked over at the rose-colored glasses folded on the side table. "At least I was straightforward about it," she replied, and I thought I heard regret there. "I'm a bitch, but I'm mostly an honest bitch." Her eyes drifted back to Touga. "Unlike you, oniisama."
Silence descended on the room.
"Would you like some tea?" he asked, finally.
She looked down at the teapot, then mechanically lifted the lid. "It's empty."
Touga frowned distractedly. "I thought there was plenty there."
"No," Nanami replied. "You drank it all."
The elevator chimed and the doors opened. Tsuwabuki trotted into the room, but slowed and stopped when he came upon the familial tableau. He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Touga-san. I... thought we had an appointment."
Touga looked over at him, while Nanami continued to regard the teapot. "Mitsuru-kun. You're... early."
I shook, pressing the heels of my hands to my forehead. "What's happening?" I asked desperately. "I can't think... why am I seeing all this?"
"What do you see?" he asked in a lazy voice. I was aware of his eyes on me, and my own gaze slid away, towards the edges of room, where the shoes stood in neat little rows.
"I..." I shook my head, denying his right to ask me that question as much as anything.
"Oh, Utena," he said. I could tell that he was smiling, although I wasn't looking at his face. My eyes focused abruptly on the hand which was holding the black rose. It was perfectly still, like something carved in marble. "You weren't the only... brilliant star in the sky."
I raised my eyes to the ceiling, automatically, but there was nothing there, just shadows.
"And you left this garden. A star loses brilliance over time. You remember that, don't you?"
I shuddered, more from the memory of his arm around my shoulders than from his words, and dropped my gaze to the floor. "The others... no time..." I muttered, more to myself than to him.
"Or perhaps you could say that here there is only the... perfect time," he said, and I knew, without looking up, that he was no longer smiling.
Anthy stood, hands on her hips, looking at the large tangled rosebushes which grew just outside the gates of the Dueling Forest. She tilted her head to one side, considering, with the slight frown that I knew well; she was about to do something which she considered a little risky.
The rosebushes here were not the small, controlled, well-tended plants of the greenhouse. They were huge, sprawling hedges armed with tearing thorns, more effective deterrents to wandering students than the fence. I wondered what Anthy was doing; surely it would be easier to get inside the Forest via the Gate.
Anthy dropped to her knees and crawled inside the nearest rosebush.
Despite her loose leggings and skirt, she seemed to have little trouble sliding neatly between the jagged, toothy briars. Glancing briefly aside at the buds and blooms which drooped, heavy with scent, she moved into the dark heart of the formidible tangle of branches.
Once inside the rosebush, Anthy carefully examined all of its flowers, turning them back to inspect the stem behind the sepals. Each time she touched one, though, she shook her head and moved on to another, occasionally shifting her position further into the thorns and outflung branches.
Finally, she seemed to spot what she was looking for. She smiled and reached out, gently turning back a few leaves until it was revealed: a few dry petals still clinging to the curled green sepals, the withered stem, and the red swollen fruit of a rose hip.
Anthy sighed. "I knew you couldn't resist me," she whispered. Her fingers closed softly around the fruit and it fell from the branch into her waiting hand.
Seeing Anthy steadied me. I took a deep breath and shook my head, refocusing on where I was: the basement, the couch in front of me.
Ohtori Akio sprawled on the couch. What was I doing here again? I turned away, back toward the elevator.
"Utena," he said softly. "Don't go. We haven't really had a chance to talk yet."
"You don't talk," I replied, irritated, scowling over my shoulder at him. "You just leer and hint."
He laughed, but his eyes glinted unpleasantly, and I took an involuntary step away from him. Annoyed with myself, I stepped closer again, slowly.
"Utena," he said again, in that caressing tone I particularly hated. "Is that really all I do?"
"Stars," I said, scornfully. "And other hints. Time lets people grow up, you know. Your hints don't tell me anything I didn't already know."
"And this?" he asked, holding up the black rose. "Does this tell you nothing, as well?"
Juri turned from regarding her reflection in the pool to watch Miki approach. He was thin-lipped and grim.
"Miki," she said, an interrogative raise to her eyebrows the only indication of her curiosity.
"I just spoke to Robert," he began, then quirked one corner of his mouth at her expression, which became disdainful -- almost as if she'd smelled something bad. He shrugged, rolling his eyes heavenward, and then settled back into a serious expression. "Juri-san, he told me something that... well, I believe him, at least."
Juri remained silent, though she set her hands on her hips in a "this ought to be good" sort of attitude.
"Juri," Miki said, then paused, frowning. Finally, he said, "Robert told me that the Brides die in doing... well, doing whatever it is the Bride does. He said that he saw Kanae-san before she died, and I got the impression it was almost a kind of wasting disease. And that... that all this with us --" he gestured widely to include Juri and himself and all of us who travelled to Ohtori "-- is just a way to get more Brides. For when... when..."
Juri's face was stone and her voice, gravel. "When Shiori dies," she finished.
Miki nodded, watching her face carefully.
Juri turned away to look out over the pool for a long, silent moment. Then she sighed. "I have to try to talk to her, at least. I suppose I owe her that much."
Miki shook his head behind her back, but said nothing.
At last, she turned to him. "Could you help me find her? I'll write a note so you can just... you know... hand it to her."
"Yes, Juri-san," he said, and Juri sat down on the marble wall of the pool to write a note on Miki's clipboard with his pen.
I stared at the rose, then back up at his face, at that confident smile, at the lock of pallid hair which always fell into his face at exactly the same angle, as if painted there. "Mikage-san wouldn't..." I started, but the words died in my throat, as I remembered Mikage's ironic tone and shadowless figure. He wouldn't have a choice.
Akio's smile deepened at one corner. "Don't play the innocent any more than you have to. Utena."
I really wished he would stop repeating my name. I clenched my hands at my sides and half-turned away from the pale figure reclining on the couch, to stare into the dark corners of the room. "There has to be a way," I muttered to myself.
"Yes," he replied, twirling the black rose absently between his fingers and looking down at it. "I have provided a way."
Saionji walked into the seemingly-empty and silent dojo, which was striped with red-gold late afternoon shadows. He looked around at the shinai neatly ranged against the far wall, at the spotlessly polished floors, at the equipment racked in its place, and at the sunlight shining serenely in through the high windows. He glowered and shut the sliding door behind him with a bang.
After a moment or two, perhaps the space of a breath, Toshiro brushed aside the fabric hangings and entered from the dojo's other room. He was wearing a black hakkama and white gi, and his hair was pulled back into a ponytail with a white strip of cloth. With barely a glance at Saionji, he went over to the far wall and racked the bokken he was carrying.
"I would have taken you for a fencer," said Saionji after a long pause, with a contemptuous glance at Toshiro's short, slender stature.
"I fence as well, Saionji-sempai," replied Toshiro serenely.
"I hope that you're more useful to the fencing team than you look like you are here," said Saionji belligerently. "I wouldn't let a useless-looking little runt like you on my Kendo team."
Toshiro turned to look at Saijoni fully, eyes shining. "Perfect!" he exclaimed.
There was a pause, then Saionji took a couple of uncertain steps toward Toshiro, his footsteps ringing on the wooden floor. "What?" he asked, bewilderment uppermost in his voice.
Toshiro looked up at Saionji, his eyes wide and brilliant and dark with shadows. "You know your lines so perfectly, Saionji-sempai! It's so wonderful!"
"What?" said Saionji, if anything sounding even more confused than before. "I don't understand."
"Of course you don't," said Toshiro pityingly. He took a few steps closer and laid a comforting hand on Saionji's arm. "But don't worry. It'll all work out in the end. I've seen to it."
Saionji stared down at Toshiro, outrage battling with fear on his face. "What are you talking about?" he said, pulling his arm away from Toshiro. "Make sense or I'll pound some into you."
Toshiro laughed a little. "You are so perfect as the Kendo bully."
"'Kendo bully'?" repeated Saionji, his mouth hanging a little open with shock.
"Oh, yes," said Toshiro. "You're the older Kendo bully who is mean to me until I beat you. Then we'll become best friends and you'll protect me and watch my back. That's how it always works."
"Always... works..." repeated Saionji disbelievingly.
"Of course," said Toshiro. "After I beat you, we became friends because you had to respect someone of my determination and skill."
"Wait a minute," said Saionji.
"Anyway, I have to go because I have a lot of homework. I'll see you around, won't I, Saionji?"
"I'm sure you'd like to hang out with me some more, but I don't have time right now. I'm so glad that we can be friends now, though!" Toshiro smiled at Saionji, a bright, dazzling smile.
"But..." said Saionji helplessly, as Toshiro turned away. "We didn't even fight! We never stepped on the mats!"
"I'll see you later!" called Toshiro as he hurried out the door.
"Who are you talking to?" asked another person, invisible in the blinding sunset beyond the dojo door.
"Oh, nobody, no one at all," replied Toshiro's voice hastily.
I wrapped my arms around myself, shivering in the chill room and shaking my head. "I don't understand," I said, more about Toshiro than anything else. "I don't understand."
Akio was no longer sitting on the couch. For one dizzy moment I thought I was alone in the dim room, alone with the walls studded with metal rose plaques and the empty shoes lining the walls. Then Akio's voice murmured in my ear: "Ghosts, Utena."
The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I flinched. He laughed, low and darkly amused.
"You're not making any sense," I said, stepping away from him hastily and turning around. "Why won't you just tell me?"
"Always so blunt," he said, absently placing the black rose in the pocket of his jacket. From his other pocket he took a fruit knife and a small apple and began to peel it carefully and expertly, the peel curling away in a single continuous spiral. "What happened to the art of conversation?"
"What happened to actually saying something that means something?" I replied, a little weakly. I felt odd, and my head hurt again.
Akio sliced the apple neatly in half, dividing the top and the bottom. The peel still clung to the bottom half and had unfolded nearly to the floor. "It's so much more entertaining this way," he said, shaking a few drops of juice from his spidery fingers, and bit into the upper half.
"Oh," I said, pressing my hand to the back of my neck. I was so thirsty.
Fujiwara Yukio leaned on his elbows on the hallway windowsill, staring moodily out at the quadrangle, a shock of his dark hair falling romantically into his eyes. Below his sardonic gaze, students hurried around the shadowed courtyard, oblivious to the brooding Student Council member above them. The only exception was Mikage, who paused to aim his camera at the window. The flash lit Yukio briefly, and then Mikage was gone.
Among the sea of aqua and white uniforms, two more striking uniforms came into view: a pair of Student Council members. Tsuwabuki paced alongside Kozue, his pen racing over a page of his notebook while she spoke to him. As she spoke, she gestured casually with the peach in her hand, then bit into it.
The pair paused where the white paths crossed in the center of the green lawn, and the Rose Bride, with perfect timing, arrived at Kozue's side, though I didn't see from where she came. The Student Council President glanced aside at her, said something to Tsuwabuki, then handed him the bitten fruit before walking away with Shiori. Tsuwabuki stood transfixed, staring after them, holding the fruit in one hand and his pen and notebook dangling, forgotten, from the other. After a moment, he turned and entered the building.
A few minutes later, Tsuwabuki and Toshiro leaned against the wall on opposite sides of the window, flanking Yukio.
Yukio glanced aside and up at the Tsuwabuki, and found him staring at a peach with one neat bite taken out of it. Yukio snorted. "Her fangs aren't literally poisoned, you know."
Tsuwabuki Mitsuru didn't answer him. Toshiro said, "What's wrong, Tsuwabuki-sempai?"
In the courtyard below, the Deputy Chairman appeared, his red hair floating on the breeze as he drew admiring glances from the crowd. Hoshiko emerged from an archway at that moment and nearly collided with him. They paused apologetically, smiled brilliantly at each other, and began to chat.
Mitsuru continued to stare at the peach, the clear toothmarks in the juicy flesh. "Isn't this like... an indirect kiss?"
Yukio froze. "An indirect... kiss?" he whispered.
Toshiro said, "What do you mean, sempai?"
Mitsuru said, "I've always heard that if you bite into something, you know, after a girl has touched it with her mouth, you're kissing her indirectly."
Down in the courtyard, Touga gently brushed a hair away from Hoshiko's lips. She smiled and dropped her eyes.
Toshiro put his head to one side thoughtfully. "Or maybe she's kissing you indirectly?"
Yukio's eyes were locked on Touga and Hoshiko, and a desperate hunger washed over his face. "An indirect... kiss," he repeated again.
Mitsuru glanced down at Yukio. "Yes, that's the issue," he said, with a slightly puzzled tone to his voice.
Toshiro frowned, apparently puzzled. "So, sempai, if you were to eat something I had just been eating, would that still be..."
"... an indirect kiss?" Mitsuru finished. "I don't know."
After another lingering look, Touga and Hoshiko parted, with him walking toward the main building and her running after a group of friends going to the dorms.
Yukio gave no indication of hearing Mitsuru or Toshiro. He repeated, "An indirect kiss."
Mitsuru and Toshiro looked at him expectantly, evidently thinking that he had a contribution to the conversation. When nothing was forthcoming, Tsuwabuki shrugged at Toshiro and bit into the peach. The two of them walked away, leaving Yukio still leaning on the windowsill.
I took a step backward and sat down involuntarily, as the couch was right at the backs of my knees.
Akio, still standing in front of me, took another bite of his apple half, then another. I shook my head, blinking. "What was that about?" I muttered to myself.
"You've never heard of the indirect kiss?" Akio asked casually. He looked down at the remaining apple half, cupping it in his gaunt hand, and pulled out the fruit knife impaled neatly into the apple like a sword. Then he lifted the half-apple and took a bite from it, and the coil of peel unfurled from the cage of his fingers, trailing down in a lazy spiral from the slice of apple. It looked oddly like something I had seen before, many times, but I could not remember what.
"There," he said, then offered it to me. "Now, if you take a bite, you are kissing me indirectly. Or so some people think."
I stared at the apple in confusion. What did this have to do with anything?
"The Americans have a blunter description for the concept; perhaps you know it, since you have been living in the United States for so long," he remarked.
I shook my head mutely. Akio sighed deeply and set the apple aside on a little end table. "Still," he said, taking another step closer. "There is no need for us to be coy. After all, it is not as though our kisses have always been... indirect."
I pressed a hand to my mouth, gagging on a sudden rise of bitter bile.
Anthy moved through the dim corridors and over the pathways with the assurance of one who has done this many times before. Her feet were nearly soundless on whatever surface she walked, and none of the straggling students she passed ever turned to look after her.
She hesitated at the sight of Miki hurriedly leaving the birdcage. The rose garden was lit from within, the various roses glowing softly as they pressed outward against the walls. For several breaths, she watched it, pupils dilated in the darkness, as a cat watches a hand moving under a blanket. Then, reluctantly, she detached herself from the shadows and crossed the grassy quad.
Inside, Shiori stood very still. Her school tie dangled from one hand, the glasses from the other. Her head was bowed and her eyes were fixed on the watering can, which lay on its side on the ground, its contents spilled out long before and still spreading over the floor. A piece of paper lay in the puddle, Juri's handwriting slowly expanding into an illegible stain.
Anthy's face never changed, never moved, but she laid her hand gently on the glass of the birdcage.
Silently, the pane cracked.
"You," I said, carefully enunciating each syllable, "are a bastard." I stood up, ignoring the wave of dizziness. "And I am wasting my time."
Faster than I would have thought possible-- I didn't even see him move-- Akio caught hold of my jaw. His fingers froze to my face like metal on a bitter winter day. "Utena," he said, and the threat and affection in his voice made every muscle in my body tense with angry adrenaline. "What makes you think you can go?"
I tore myself free, raising a hand to touch my numbed cheek. "What makes you think you can stop me?"
He laughed a hollow and rattling laugh. "I don't need to stop you."
Juri stalked down the hall, fists tightly bunched, eyes fixed on a point about ten feet in front of her feet. She came up short when she found a pair of boots standing directly in her path. There was a long pause.
"Juri," a husky male voice said. I vaguely recognized it.
She didn't look up from the shoes. "Didn't you die in the hospital?"
"Juri," he said again, this time with an affectionate, admonishing tone, "didn't one hundred duelists die in Nemuro Memorial Hall?"
She frowned. "I don't remember that."
He chuckled. "You should, Juri. And you shouldn't."
There was a momentary look of realization on her face, then it went stony again. "You're dead, Ruka. Leave me alone." She turned on her heel and walked back the way she'd come.
I stared at him. "What do you mean?"
"Can't you see it yet, Utena? Are you still so innocent? And here you were boasting to me that you had... grown up."
I looked wildly around the room, as though I might see something here in this strange basement, but I saw nothing but shadows and the endlessly repeated black rose seal.
Akio laughed again, and pulled the black rose from his pocket. I stared at it, my eyes widening. "I don't want that!"
"It's not for you, Utena. You are still too brilliant for a shadow-rose. After all," he added, putting his hands on my shoulders and pressing down until I sat down on the couch again, "remember what they were for, when you saw them the first time." The chill of his hands sank through my clothes and I scrabbled backwards.
Two dim, orange lanterns lit the room where Juri and Shiori stood at a wooden table. A painting lay pinned to the table: the Rose Bride impaled on the swords, in silhouette. Neither of them seemed to notice the subject. They each held a calligraphy brush that they solemnly dipped into a glass student inkwell.
Slowly, calmly, Shiori bent over and began to write carefully at the top left corner of the painting. Juri leaned against the table with one hand, head bowed as if exhausted. A thin trickle of sweat ran from her temple down the side of her face.
After a long moment, Shiori stood back. I read her careful black characters:
Fireflies in the marsh rise
Like the soul's jewels
Juri bent to her own task, writing in the top right corner. Her hand shook slightly. She wrote:
This feeling night after night
In the dewdrops of the mountains
The lanterns reflected on the Rose Bride's glasses, making it impossible to tell what Shiori's expression was as she wrote:
Like a watch fire
I smolder by day
The short hairs on the back of Juri's neck were dark and damp, and she wiped small beads from her upper lip when she continued her work:
Night after night,
Wringing the dew from my sleeves.
Shiori stared for a long moment at Juri's trembling calligraphy, and regarded her own -- less elegant, but steadier. Then:
Aflame by night
Against the azure sky
Juri didn't even look at Shiori's side. Their characters were beginning to sprawl over the centerpiece of the painting.
Through the patches of snow,
Ice closes over the river and the sea.
There was a change to the set of Shiori's jaw, and she gripped her brush more tightly.
Like mandarin ducks
We are at ease on the water.
Shiori stepped back and pressed her body against Juri's. They stood like that for a long moment, fitted together. Finally, moving slowly, like great weights were tied to her wrists, Juri stepped to the side and forward with her brush. She wrote across the center of the painting:
The waves that never break on Matsuyama
Toss us in a storm
Shiori snatched the brush from Juri's hand, splashing ink in a spray along the bottom of the painting. She stared at it, then wrote:
In the Autumn mountains
The colored leaves fly in the storm.
Juri breathed hard like she had just run a long way, and wiped her forehead with the heel of her hand. She carefully retrieved her brush from Shiori's hand, not touching the other woman at all.
If I could hold them back,
I could still see her.
She straightened and watched Shiori's face, then reached out to the glasses. Juri tugged gently and they slipped forward...
But Shiori broke away from her and ran from the room, clutching the glasses to her face desperately. As she went, she knocked against the table, and the inkwell overturned. Juri watched the black pool of ink spread over the poem and the Rose Bride's fate.
I shook my head, slowly at first, then more violently. "No! It's wrong! It was wrong when you did it before and it's wrong now!"
Akio watched me with an interested expression, urbanely amused and faintly smiling. Shadows collected around his eyes, turning that dark face--strangely paler now?--into a hollow-eyed mask.
Nanami turned one of the black pages in the big, leatherbound volume, one of several that were stacked next to her on the bed. She bent to squint at one photo, neatly affixed in the top right corner of the page, and frowned.
The photo depicted the very recognizable lower half of Akio's face, smiling tolerantly, his shoulders and chest and one arm -- holding a young toddler with wide blue eyes and a fringe of red hair.
Photo after photo, from infancy through very early childhood, showed that child. He was well-dressed and seemed well-behaved for the camera. Scattered throughout, one could see Akio in the background, sprawled in a chair, or on the lawn, or on a white leather couch.
Nanami turned the page again and covered her mouth to stifle her gasp.
A large portrait, set in the center of the left-hand page, depicted the young boy, his red hair cut into a shoulder-length bowl. He stood stiffly upright in a white uniform with a high collar and tails and gold buttons on the front. He held a small, wooden sword in his hand, and he was smiling -- no, he was beaming, exuding enthusiastic charm. But there was a similar portrait on the right-hand page...
Akio stood behind him in precisely the same uniform, in precisely the same pose, dwarfing young Touga in both stature and beauty. At first glance, I couldn't see an iota of family resemblance. And the next moment, I could.
Nanami must have seen the same thing, because she shuddered and quickly turned the page.
A small, hairless infant began making an appearance with Touga, and she grew into someone recognizably Nanami within a few pages. Then the album ended, and Nanami closed it and laid it to one side pensively.
The sound of murmuring voices drifted through her door, and she got up and opened it. After a moment of listening, she stepped into the hall and walked through the darkened house, following the sounds. Standing in the dark hallway, she looked into the dining room.
Touga and Hoshiko sat at opposite ends of a long table hung with a white linen tablecloth. Tall, silver candelabras were the only light, and their flames were a vivid, brooding blue that made the hair rise on the back of my neck. Neither of the diners seemed to notice. They ate silently, even their silverware striking bone china with muffled, discreet rings. Touga still wore his suit and Hoshiko wore her uniform. The graceful, straight line of Hoshiko's back was unusually stiff.
At length, Hoshiko said, "I told Yukio."
Touga's eyebrows rose very slightly. "About what?"
"Ah." Touga chewed a mouthful of food thoughtfully, swallowed, then said, "He was overjoyed, I presume?"
Hoshiko choked slightly, and took a sip of her red wine to clear her throat. "Hardly," she said in a hoarse voice. "My brother is never overjoyed about anything."
"I see." Silence fell again.
Nanami stepped into the room and paused for acknowledgement, but neither of the others even twitched to show that they knew she was there.
Then, "He said some... things. About you." Hoshiko seemed to be very carefully not looking at Touga.
"Did he?" Touga set his silverware down and leaned back in his chair, swirling the wine in his glass.
Hoshiko's hand shook, and she set her fork down forcefully, which made the eerie candleflames jump, and looked down the table at Touga. "After a few typically coarse remarks," she began in a brittle voice, "he said that I should ask you which of us you liked best."
Touga met her gaze and smiled indulgently. "I suppose that I will have to wait until after our wedding to decide." When she stood up, face flushed with outrage, he added, carelessly, "Unless you'd like to find out sooner."
Nanami snapped, "Touga!" But still, neither of them looked at her.
Hoshiko strode to his end of the table, eyes wide and angry, back very straight. Once there, she paused before him and looked down into his amused eyes.
She dashed her half-full glass of wine accurately in his face.
Hoshiko carefully set the glass back on the table and then stormed out, still not seeing Nanami. Touga blinked wine out of his eyes and carefully tugged a handkerchief from his pocket.
"You're such a bastard," Nanami hissed at him, standing in the position Hoshiko had just abandoned. "No better than him."
Touga patted wine from his face and the front of his shirt, never looking up at his sister. Finally, he tossed the stained handkerchief onto the table and drained his wine glass. "Why," he mused, "are women so hard to live with?"
Nanami stared at him for a long moment, then her eyes widened with dawning horror. She covered her mouth with her hand and backed away from the table.
Her face settled into anger by the time she reached the door. "I have to find the others," she said aloud, watching Touga carefully to see if he reacted at all. When he didn't, she shook her head. "We have to do something." And she turned on her heel and bolted from the room.
Behind her, Touga continued to sprawl in his chair as the blue of the candles faded slowly to the usual orange-yellow.
"Do you really think she can make a difference any other way?" asked Akio, courteously interested.
"Any other way," I said, grimly. "Your way... is a road with no turns, and a dead end." I looked around the room, to illustrate my point.
Kozue stormed across the quad and entered the main building. She passed Robert, who was lounging along a wall, arms wrapped around one knee, chin on that same knee. He watched her go with a raised eyebrow, and murmured, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."
Mikage, sitting next to him, simply nodded.
Chu-Chu attempted to poke Mikage's apparently less-than-substantial backside with a large hairpin.
Akio laughed that rattling laugh again. "Eternity is hardly a dead end, don't you think?"
"In your game, there is only one winner," I shot back.
"Oh, Utena," he said indulgently. "This from you. And you were always meant to be one of the brilliant ones, one of the shining stars. You know where your destiny lies."
He was leaning over me now, trying to transfix me with the intensity of his gaze. "The castle..."
"That castle is illusion," I said.
"The Rose Gate is not illusion," he replied, low and intense and nearly angry.
I glared back at him, one hand going involuntarily to my chest, where a twinge of pain reminded me of just how callously he was willing to treat others to get to the Rose Gate.
Akio placed his hand over mine. On my chest. It was still inhumanly cold, but it didn't burn with frost, the way it had on my face.
"Utena," he said, while I blinked in amazement at his effrontery. "I have not forgotten the nobility of your sacrifice..."
Yukio stood on the front step of the Kiryuu house, glaring up at Touga, who leaned languidly against the doorjamb. "Leave her alone," he hissed. "Wasn't one of us good enough for your plans?"
Touga looked at him through a lock of hair. "You were most unkind when she told you about our engagement."
The boy stepped back, paling. "She told you."
"Of course," Touga said, still watching him. "She and I are very close, Fujiwara-kun. She tells me everything. I am, after all, her future husband." He leaned forward. "She will be my bride, Fujiwara-kun."
"Bastard," Yukio snarled, then turned and fled down the walk. Touga watched him out the gate, then went back into the house and softly shut the door.
Yukio pounded back onto campus and almost immediately came face-to-face with Juri, who, with admirable reflexes and economy of motion, sidestepped his unintentional charge. He managed to stop himself before he skidded into a stand of bushes, and turned on her with a growl.
"Why are you waiting?" he demanded.
Juri drew herself up straighter and narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Why are you waiting?" Yukio repeated. "Go for what you want. I can't. I never can, and I watch people take it away from me every day. But that's my sin and my punishment. What you want isn't wrong. And being honorable will just get you hamstrung and gutted by the dirty fighters you're up against." He paused for breath.
Outrage ripped through Juri's usual mask of calm. "How..." she began.
But Yukio was going again, shouting her down. "What do you think the duels are for anyway? The duels let us engage ourselves, just a little bit, to our fantasies. I know I can never have her, but there's a little part of me that will never let go, can never let go, and that's the part of me that's a duelist. That's why you're still a duelist."
"I'm not a duelist," Juri said, her facade settling back into place now. "Look, no ring. Not a duelist, not ever again."
"Don't show me your bare hand," Yukio replied scornfully. "That ring will come back to you. You can throw it away all you want, but it will always come back to you, Juri-sempai."
"Why do you think you know what I want?" she asked stiffly.
"It doesn't matter what, exactly, you want." Yukio ran a hand through his forelock carelessly. "But I could tell, that first time you walked up to her. Everyone wants something different. All that matters is that you think it's impossible." A strain of desperation entered his voice, and he gripped Juri's wrist urgently. "You're closer than I am. You're more honorable, and you want her. And you're closer to her. I can't have it, but I... I want to see it. Just a little. You have to try."
Before she could shake him off or respond, Yukio let go of her wrist and backed away. He took a step toward the heart of campus, then looked up at the tower despairingly. With a cry, he turned and ran back off campus the way he had come.
"My sacrifice?" I said, and the slight rise in my tone alerted him too much, I think. He took my hand, drew it to him, then clasped it in both of his. My fingers stung, then started to go numb.
"Only the heartsword of one truly noble can open that Gate. That you did open it-- if only for a moment!-- bespeaks such courage and sacrifice of yours that I should not speak of it. But the Gate must be truly opened so that we can pass through." His hands were shaking, I noted clinically. His hands were actually shaking, just a tiny bit.
"Anthy passed through," I said.
"That was what appeared to happen," he said. "But we must open the Gate all the way, so that we may emerge into Eternity which is on the other side." A very light film of sweat had appeared on his forehead. "Eternity, Utena. It is infinite power, and all that anyone could desire. How could you abandon it now? It is what Anthy really wants, why else would she bring you back here?"
"You wouldn't understand," I said, not unkindly. I tried to get my hand away, but he clung to it with surprising strength.
"You cannot achieve Eternity without me," he said, his bony hand closing painfully around mine. "I have seen to that."
"I don't want to," I said, randomly, finally giving up on politeness and just trying to pry my freezing fingers loose. "The idea of Eternity with you--!" My hand slipped loose, and so did the black rose, which he was also holding.
Akio reached for the rose and caught it before it hit the floor. When he looked back up at me, his eyes were narrow and dark.
Saionji walked along a path, frowning, hands shoved into uniform pockets. He was apparently so lost in thought that he didn't notice the quartet of girls -- some of them women, I suppose -- talking under a nearby tree until his name was mentioned.
"Saionji-san?" Wakaba exclaimed, sitting in the grass with her legs tucked up against her. "You're really married to Saionji-san?"
Keiko nodded, one hand resting on her swollen belly, the other toying with a frosted glass on the arm of her lawn chair. "Yes. He gave me quite a nice ring at the wedding too. I wonder what happened to it." She glanced aside at Aiko and Yuuko, who stood, a little stiffly, to either side of her.
One of them bent forward. "Don't you remember, Keiko-san?"
The other bent forward. "You threw it in the pond."
The first said, "Or perhaps you tossed it in the incinerator."
The second said, "Or maybe you just gave it to Touga-san."
Keiko nodded sagely. "Yes, I remember now."
Saionji stared for a long time, taking in this exchange, then straightened his uniform jacket and strode across the grass toward them.
Wakaba said, "I think I dated him once. Or maybe he humiliated me. I don't remember."
All three women nodded at this. "He's like that," Keiko said. "And it doesn't matter."
"Really?" Wakaba asked, rising to her knees with interest. "Why not?"
Keiko shrugged. "He's like training wheels. Once you learn about real men, you take him off and throw him away."
"Keiko!" There was a note of hurt and shock in his voice. At that point, Saionji noticed that none of the women were reacting to him in the least. Aiko and Yuuko continued to bend forward at the waist confidentially to listen to the discussion between Keiko and Wakaba.
Wakaba sat back on her heels, giggling. "I suppose I did move on to a real prince, after all."
All three women nodded again, perfectly synchronized.
Wakaba cocked her head to the side, one finger tapping her chin thoughtfully. "I guess I've been moving up all along, though. From Saionji-san to Utena to..." She gazed lovingly down at her left hand, where a large diamond ring glittered in the twilight.
Saionji's jaw tightened and his hands clenched. A second later, he lashed out in his usual fashion at Wakaba, who, just at that moment conveniently leaned to the side to move her ring into a stray beam of light from a nearby building. His hand sliced air where she had been, and its passage didn't even disturb the curl on her forehead.
Keiko sat forward, leaning to one side to prop herself on her elbow. "Wakaba-chan, do you remember how you moved from one to another?"
Wakaba looked up at the guidance counselor with wide eyes. "What do you mean?"
Aiko -- I'm just going to call her Aiko -- said, "Who took Saionji-san away from you?"
Wakaba frowned. "I don't really remember all that clearly."
Yuuko handed something to Keiko, who examined it in her cupped hands, and then held it up for Wakaba to see: a wood-carved leaf barrette.
Wakaba's face went pale.
Saionji staggered back a pace. "I... remember that..."
Aiko said, "Who took Utena-san away from you?"
Wakaba shook her head dazedly.
Yuuko said, "Remember the Rose Bride and the duels."
Tears trickled down Wakaba's cheeks. I wanted to call out, to hold her, to explain... Saionji was back on the path, holding his head in his hands.
Keiko whispered, "Who was she?"
Wakaba said hoarsely, "Himemiya Anthy."
Aiko and Yuuko both said, "And who is she?"
Wakaba looked down at her ring again. "Akio-san's sister." A tear glittered like her ring as it dropped from her chin to the grass.
Keiko reached out and laid her hand on Wakaba's head gently. "She is here."
Saionji wheeled around and stared back at Keiko. Wakaba bounded to her feet with a cry.
Then Saionji and Wakaba ran off blindly in opposite directions. Keiko leaned back and sipped her lemonade, and Aiko and Yuuko resumed their watchful stances.
"Wakaba," I breathed, then looked at the black rose Akio was twirling absently in his fingers. "You don't ever stop, do you!" I yelled.
"There's no need to shout," he replied, mildly reproving.
"Let Wakaba go. What you're doing... it's just indecent," I said, struggling to stay calm while I surreptitiously tried to rub some life back into my frostbitten fingers.
"You are the with the group of people who have, without invitation, trespassed on my campus, interefered with my students, and made doubtful use of school property. Not to mention harassing and threatening school employees. You're a fine one to talk about indecent," said Akio, sounding more amused than ever.
Near the steps of a building I recognized as the one I had entered that afternoon, Nanami encountered Saionji.
They were both running and both came to a halt as soon as they saw each other. They started to talk at once. After a jumble of words, they ground to a halt.
"You first," Saionji said grudgingly.
Nanami bit her lip and said, "We have to do something."
He scowled. "How do you mean?"
"I mean," she replied, stamping her foot, "that if we don't do anything except talk and listen, we're going to slide out of this reality."
Saionji took a few steps nearer, still frowning. "You're talking in riddles."
Nanami rolled her eyes. "You're thinking in riddles. This place is all like... like a play, you see? There's room for some improvisation, but there are fixed roles. And right now, none of us is fitting any of those roles."
He looked shaken and a little ill. "Or people are fitting us to roles."
"Exactly!" She stepped within normal conversational distance of him, eyes a little wild. "The only improvisation we're allowed is... to find roles and take them for ourselves."
"Or," he said bleakly, "we'll get the worst walk-on parts."
Nanami looked up into his pale face and stepped forward to lay a hand on his arm. "Worse," she said, "we could fade away. We're already doing it."
They looked at each other for a long moment, dread filling their eyes, and then awkwardly embraced, their long estrangement evident. Saionji sighed very slightly. "We've both been shadows before," he said quietly.
Nanami nodded against his chest. "I won't do it anymore, Kyouichi. But..." She pulled away just enough to look up at him. "But I don't know what to do."
Saionji nodded, then looked startled. "I do," he whispered. One of his hands drifted to touch the katana he carried in his belt. He stepped back from Nanami. "I know what to do. We need to find Kozue."
She considered him for a moment, then said, "You check the music room. I'll go check their house."
With a mutual nod, they headed off in their respective directions.
I took a deep breath and bit down on what I was going to say. That argument-- I knew from experience-- would only give him a weapon against me. Even if it was indecent for a school administrator to seduce a student.
Or to be engaged to one.
Akio watched me, still amused. "There's only one way to change what's going on, Utena. Why won't you accept it?"
"Because it's your way!"
"But if it works for you..."
"It won't work. It will only work for you. That's the way... the duels... work..." I trailed off, lost in thought.
Akio watched me, sardonically.
Yukio seemed to be walking aimlessly, so it was a little surprising when he ended up in front of his family's home, staring up the walk at the front door, which glowed slightly in the moonlight. After a long pause, during which the light in one downstairs window went out and another went on, he began to step hesitantly up the slate walkway. His foot brushed a small bag that lay in the center of the path , and it jingled. He stopped -- mid-step -- and looked back down at it. As the light went off in the downstairs window, he bent to examine the sack.
Nanami paused nearby at the sound of jingling. Yukio drew a handful of dark metal rings from the bag and began to count them. She drifted closer to the Student Council vice president and peered over his shoulder.
He muttered softly to himself, "... nine... ten... eleven... twelve..."
"What are you doing?" she inquired.
He startled, juggling some of the objects briefly. "Who are you?" he demanded, scrambling to his feet.
"I am Kiryuu Nanami," she replied curtly. "You are Fujiwara Yukio?"
He scowled fiercely at her name. "Yes. What do you want?"
She gestured with her chin imperiously. "This is your house?"
Yukio tossed his head so that his dark forelock fell back from his face. "Yes. What of it?"
"Does your sister live here too?" Nanami demanded.
"Yes!" he snarled and turned his back on her. A determined set to his jaw, he began to count the rings again.
Nanami watched him silently as he hunched over his find in the moth-shadowed light of the walk. "You know that she's engaged to my brother?"
"... ten... eleven... twelve... Tch! I miscounted. Yes, I know. What of it?"
"What do you think of it?"
He glowered up at her through his hair. "Of course, I'm delighted. What about you?"
Nanami crossed her arms and favored him with a withering glare. "As am I, naturally."
"Naturally," he repeated. He looked back down at his hands and began to count again.
"What's that you have there?"
"... eleven... twelve... Htch... why do you care?" he hissed.
"They look like rings."
"They are. Look." He held out his hands, which held small heap of black rose signets.
"What are you doing?"
"Counting them." He looked down, momentarily forlorn in his annoyance. "But I keep having one left over."
There was silence for a moment. Then Nanami said, "What, are you stupid? Can't you count to thirteen?"
Saionji opened the door to the music room and looked in. Kozue stood in the light of the window, fiddling with a small pyramid made of rosewood that rested on the windowsill. As he stepped into the room, the door shut behind him, and Kozue looked over her shoulder.
"Ah," she said. "Saionji."
"Kaoru," Saionji grunted, the family name the only measure of respect he seemed willing to give her.
"If you're looking for your wife," she said in deceptively light tones, her long fingers finding some hidden spring that allowed her to lift one of the faces off the pyramid, "she's up in the tower." Under the face was a flat, narrow metal arm with a trapezoidal slide, and metered lines on the backboard. She gently nudged the top of the metal arm, and the metronome started to rock back and forth, ticking slowly.
Saionji opened his mouth to respond, then bit down on the angry remark. He stood stiffly, one hand resting on the hilt of his katana, for a long moment. Then, apparently having mastered himself, he said, in a low, steady voice, "Meet me in the dueling forest."
Kozue regarded him briefly over her shoulder again, her hand sliding the weight further down the arm of the metronome, increasing the tempo. Then she laughed.
Saionji glowered. "Duel me, Kaoru," he said, his voice gravelly and intent.
Kozue ran the weight all the way to the fulcrum, and the metronome arm careened back and forth, ticking wildly. "Go back to the real world, Saionji. Go back to your job, go back to your salary, go back to your car and your house and whatever it is you do for a living." She stopped the metronome. "You missed your chance at revolution."
She whirled on him, advancing predatorily. "You can't duel me. Nanami can't duel me. Miki can't duel me." He was pinned in a corner, staring down at her. She smiled up at him, licked her lips, and ran her hands up her body from her hips, over her hollow belly, her nonexistent bosom, her skeletal shoulders, and up through her pale, fine hair. Still smiling, now at his grimace of horror, she said, "I don't have anything that any of you want to duel for. Particularly not Utena-chan. She has everything her little heart desires, doesn't she? What's she doing, slumming with the rest of you?"
Saionji whispered, "You're mad."
Kozue laughed, this time sharp and bitter, and turned away. "You'd know, wouldn't you, Saionji?"
He sagged as she walked back across the room.
Kozue slid the metronome weight all the way to the tip of the arm and set it into motion. It rocked over slowly. Tick. She watched it go, then said, "Get out, old man. Take your family sword and get the hell out of here." Tick.
With slow, painful steps that matched the metronome, Saionji crept out of the music room.
Two fencers saluted each other in the salle and then assumed their positions. One feinted, the other parried, then feinted, to be parried in turn. They continued, gently probing each other's defenses, almost casually practicing their moves. Then, abruptly, one darted forward, knocked the other's sword aside with contemptuous ease, and scored at the heart.
They paused like that for just a moment, the foil forming a bridge between them.
Then they stepped apart, pulling their masks off. Miki's hair was pulled back into a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. Tsuwabuki's long braid came free dramatically.
"You're much better than I remember, Mitsuru-kun," Miki said, checking his foil tip absently. "I'm glad you've continued to improve."
"Thank you," Tsuwabuki said. "You haven't lost your edge, Miki-sempai. That was a very smooth score. I never saw it coming."
Miki set mask and foil aside. "So have you dueled for the Bride yet?"
Tsuwabuki shook his head, taking a long drink from a water bottle. When he was done, he said, a little bitterly, "No. The End of the World hasn't seen fit to ask me to."
Miki considered him for a moment, moved closer, took the proffered bottle. "Why not, do you think? "
Tsuwabuki shrugged sullenly, watching him drink. "Maybe everyone knows I couldn't beat her."
"What is it you want, Mitsuru?" Miki asked suddenly. "Everyone, all the Duelists, want something. Something unattainable by any other means. Something they're searching for."
Tsuwabuki's face froze, clearly showing pain. "I... thought I wanted to grow up," he said hoarsely, looking away from Miki. "To be grown up, you know? If I had that, I could do anything. I could wreck the world, if I wanted."
Miki watched him as he paused, then prompted, "But?"
"Growing up comes with its own set of wants, doesn't it?" Tsuwabuki asked.
Tsuwabuki turned, seized Miki by the shirt, and pulled his face close. He stared into Miki's startled blue eyes. "You're so very like her," he hissed angrily. "You say simple things and strip layer after layer off my soul. You're just like her. And I want her so much."
The words echoed against the salle's high ceiling as they stood there, poised as if to fight or kiss.
Tsuwabuki finally mastered his anger, licked his lips, and released Miki, backing away from him hurriedly. "I want someone to beat her, take the Bride away, so she'll just be her again, be free of this game so that I could approach her as an equal. But I can't do it. And," he said, picking up his foil and mask and turning away, "you can't do it either. Because you're just like her, just as good as her, but without the drive, the reason, to win that she has."
Juri strode down the walkway that cut through the center of campus, ignoring the few students who were about at that time of the evening. Several of them turned surreptitiously to watch her after she passed by, and some of the looks were openly admiring. However, she never turned or acknowledged any of them; the campus might have been deserted.
As she approached the main building, Toshiro came into view, carrying a large bag full of fencing equipment, as well as his usual bookbag and a pile of extra books. Absorbed in managing all of this stuff, he did not observe Juri's approach until she stood in front of him, her hands on her hips.
Juri looked down at him "Would you like some help with that, Toshiro-san?"
Toshiro startled, and dropped a green notebook embossed with the Ohtori rose seal, and a red-bound library book. "Arisugawa-san!" A couple of girls passing by slowed down to watch the interaction, hiding laughter behind their fingertips.
Juri bent down, picked up what he'd dropped, and glanced at the cover of the library book. "Hana Monogatari?" she asked, with a raised eyebrow as she handed it and the notebook back to him.
Toshiro blushed slightly, and said, "It is for a project."
Juri said nothing, glancing over his shoulder at the rapier hilts protruding from the over-full duffel bag he was carrying. Toshiro added hastily, "I hope that your visit to campus has gone well, Arisugawa-san."
Juri jerked her gaze back to Toshiro's face, but Toshiro looked back at her with open, innocent politeness. Juri took a deep breath, and asked quietly, "Why did you become a Duelist, Toshiro-san?"
Toshiro glanced down at the strap of the bag he was carrying. "I have always enjoyed practicing the sword arts."
Juri continued to look straight into Toshiro's face until he reluctantly looked back up. "That is not what I meant," she said, evenly.
He took a deep breath. "Well," he said, "I had to, you know. I have always wanted to be..." He swallowed. "It is not very heroic to sit around and do nothing, you know? So I must become a Duelist." He raised his chin with sudden confidence and looked at Juri. "So I have my path, to do what I must. We are all destined to become Duelists."
Juri took a step backward, her face suddenly very pale. "Destined?" she asked.
"Of course, Arisugawa-san. Of course, only one of us is destined to reach the goal. But in our own ways, all of us who wear the ring are heroes. We change things." He looked briefly at the tower in the center of campus, then gave Juri a smile of stunning sweetness before bowing politely and continuing on his way.
Juri stood there, stunned, for a moment. I thought I heard her whisper, "Heroes?" scornfully under her breath, but I couldn't really be sure. She strode up the steps into the main building, pulled open the door, and went inside.
Touga detached himself from the angle of a nearby wall, where he had seemingly been leaning, and lounged over to Toshiro, where he reached over and relieved the boy of the pile of books he was carrying. "Beautifully done," he said. "Perfect." With his free hand, he reached out and ruffled Toshiro's hair.
"What was well-done, Kiryuu-san?" asked Toshiro, looking up at the taller man.
"Everything," replied Touga. "You have shown her what it is to be a true Duelist."
"Oh," said Toshiro, looking up at Touga with bright enthusiasm. "Thank you."
Anthy walked slowly along a familiar darkened hallway, running her fingertips lightly along each windowsill and wall as she went. She turned a corner and came abruptly face-to-face with Wakaba. Anthy seemed startled.
"Shinohara-san?" she said cautiously, watching Wakaba's face, which was tilted downward so that her features were in deep shadow.
"Himemiya-san," Wakaba said slowly, almost questioning.
"Yes," Anthy replied, resting her hand on the nearest windowsill.
"You were engaged to Saionji-san a long time ago," Wakaba continued, not questioning at all.
Anthy closed her eyes briefly, then looked out the window at the birdcage garden. "Yes."
"You live with Utena."
Anthy's shoulders tensed. "Yes."
Wakaba turned away from the window, staring into the darkness. "Once upon a time, there was a princess whom no one ever noticed because she was poor and plain and had no kingdom. Until one day, she met a prince."
Anthy closed her eyes again, and I recognized the look as one of pain.
Wakaba turned her head to look at Anthy, and all I could see was the glint of her eyes in the light from outside. "But the prince was already in love with a more beautiful princess, and when she turned her face toward him, he forgot all about the poor and plain princess."
Anthy stood very still, a breeze from the open window stirring her skirt and the hair that had escaped her braid.
"Two times the poor princess met a prince. And two times the beautiful princess took her prince away."
Anthy looked up at Wakaba from under her long lashes, her expression blank and resigned in a way that I hadn't seen in a long, long time.
"You're Akio-san's sister, aren't you?" Wakaba asked, staring at her intently.
There was a long, tense pause. Then Wakaba broke into a brilliant smile. "Then that will make us sisters!" she squealed, hugging Anthy hard.
Anthy stayed still for a moment, her eyes wide and baffled. Then she tentatively hugged Wakaba.
"It will be sooooooooo nice, Himemiya-san!" Wakaba burbled, still clinging to Anthy. "You can help me shop for clothes for the honeymoon -- you have such a wonderful sense of style! -- and we can go on long walks around campus, looking for just the right place to hold the wedding! Where do you think Akio-san and I should go for our honeymoon? I've got a lot of travel pamphlets and things in my room -- there are so many places, I just can't decide!"
"That will be... fun, Shinohara-san," Anthy replied, trying to be enthusiastic while being somewhat unable to breathe.
Wakaba turned to look out the window, eyes shining upward at the starry sky, arms still wrapped tightly around Anthy. "It will be so wonderful to be married to Akio-san, Himemiya-san. He's the kind of prince I've dreamed about all my life. I've tried so hard to be the kind of princess he wants -- and he tells me that I'm doing very well at it." She squeezed Anthy tighter. "I know that there's a type of dress he prefers for the wedding. I've worn it once now. He said it used to be yours, but it fits me perfectly."
Anthy's expression turned ineffably sad.
"And you know what, oneesama?" Wakaba said, cheerfully.
Anthy managed to shake her head.
Wakaba shoved Anthy out over the windowsill, one hand on her throat and one on her chest. Her smile was quirked up at one corner, eyes large and staring and strangely delighted as Anthy scrabbled to catch herself on the edges of the window. "You're not getting that dress back."
Anthy caught the windowframe with the fingertips of one hand and gently took hold of Wakaba's wrist, removing the hand from her throat. Then Wakaba's face turned maniacal, and she screamed with incoherent rage.
They struggled there, in the darkness.
There was a moment when I thought that Anthy had to either allow Wakaba to pitch her out the window or throw Wakaba in her place, but I heard Anthy whisper, "Hold on, and I'll save us both now," just before she did something I couldn't follow that landed them both on the floor of the hallway.
Wakaba went limp as soon as she was pinned to the tile floor, and silent tears ran from the corners of her eyes. Anthy leaning over her, holding her wrists, said, "Utena didn't let you fall, and therefore neither will I."
Then Anthy rose and passed down the hallway into the darkness, back to running her fingertips over every wall and window. Wakaba curled into a ball and hid her face.
Juri cannoned angrily down the darkened sidewalk. Crickets creaking in the rose-twined shrubbery stuttered into silence as her determined steps tracked past. Then Saionji stepped into her path and she lurched to a halt.
Before she could do more than open her mouth, Saionji snapped, "What do you think you're doing? What do you think you're doing?"
She reeled back a step from his vehemence, and he advanced, bellowing, "We're not doing anything! We don't have to, because it's all established for us -- this whole place operates on a script. If we don't do anything... take some control... we'll all just fade away into names and lines spoken on cue!"
Juri managed to recollect herself at this point. "Yes, well, it's Ohtori."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "You never take control, do you, Arisugawa? You give all the indications of doing it -- you're the captain, the detective, the one whose brain is supposedly running things... but you don't actually take control. How long did you wait, Juri?"
She blinked and took another step back, found her back set against a lamp post. "What?" she asked, seemingly confused.
The lamp flickered on above them, hissing and buzzing gently.
Saionji's voice was bitter with experience. "How long did you wait for your act to start? How long did you hide your feelings, hide your impulses -- the hand extended to touch and quickly withdrawn? How long did you wait with your heart at your throat?" He thrust out his hand and opened it; the colorless light above bleakly picked out the mended seams and dents in golden metal, on the delicate rose. The broken chain ends dangled to either side of his palm.
Juri gasped involuntarily, one hand groping at her collar.
"Days? Weeks? Months? Years?" Saionji asked ruthlessly. "Waiting for her to change, to come around, to say the things that you wouldn't." His voice changed, curiously pitying. "How long did you wait for your miracle?"
She managed to slide sideways, away from the post, back onto the path. She watched him from the corner of her eye as she said, voice ragged, "I don't believe in miracles."
The golden chain slithered from his hand, falling quietly into a heap on the sidewalk.
"You do," Saionji said, and the locket opened, revealing the portrait of Shiori as the Rose Bride. "Here is your miracle, Arisugawa. Are you going to stand around spouting your assigned lines? Or not even bothering because everyone takes your passive role as given? Or are you going to take control?"
Juri stared at the photo in horror. He turned his hand sideways, letting the battered locket fall to the pavement, where it bounced once off the heap of chain and dropped into the grass. Clenching his fists at his sides, he said, "It's your choice, Arisugawa. But you're the only one who can take control this time. Utena can't do it. I can't do it. None of us can, except you. Don't wait for the script that will never come."
With that, Saionji turned his back on Juri and strode off across the grass.
Juri stared, frozen, at the little heap of gold on the ground. Finally, she moved, bending closer to peer at it, almost reaching out... then snatching her hand back as if burnt.
I could see her visibly summon her resolve, turn her back, and walk away, doubling back in the direction from which she had just come.
A little way along this path, Miki stepped out of the darkness. "Juri-san," he said, urgently. "Juri-san, I can't do it. I can't, and someone has to."
"What?" Juri said, almost affronted, but perhaps a little afraid.
"She needs to be defeated," Miki explained. "That's the only way to get her away from here. But she's as good as I am, so I can't do it. You've always been better than me, sempai." He shoved his rapier into her hands. "You have to do it."
Juri took the sheathed sword automatically, opening her mouth to object, but Miki turned and ran away into the darkness whence he came.
Nanami was waiting at the top of the long set of stairs that led down to the path to the forest. Juri emerged from the archway and looked down at her. Nanami looked at Juri's confused face, looked at the sword in her hand, and said, "What did we come here for, Juri?"
Juri swallowed hard and blinked. "To stop... all this?"
Nanami shook her head and walked toward the archway, then paused, just past Juri, and said, "I came here to rescue someone I loved. To be the Prince for a change. But I'm not sure I can, not without someone else... a better Prince than I... to lead the way."
They stood, transfixed, posed, like that for several long moments. And then Juri began to walk slowly down the stairs, toward the forest and the dueling arena.
I turned on Akio, nearly snarling. "Make them leave her alone! Why won't they leave her alone! It's none of their business! You did this!"
Akio leaned back on the couch, brushing the black rose against one sunken cheek. "What am I supposed to have done? Have I told anyone who to love or what to say? I have not."
I clenched my fists. "You. Have. Arranged. This."
Akio laughed softly. "Be grateful. Otherwise you would all be useless, unable to play in the duels at all."
"We didn't come here to duel." I was shaking with anger now, waves of heat traveling over me from my knees to the top of my head.
"Oh. You did." He twirled the rose again, the black petals stark against the whiteness of his clothing.
"No," I said.
"Yes," he said, gently, inexorably.
"No," I panted. "No. No! I won't let you give it to her!" I leapt forward and snatched the rose from his fingers, turned, and dashed back to the elevator in two leaps.
Fortunately, the door was still open. I hit the button-the single button-with the side of my fist, bruisingly hard, and as the doors slid shut, I heard Akio laughing again.
"Utena," he murmured. "You're so easy..." But I didn't hear the rest of the sentence.
The elevator began to creep downward.
"Extra! Extra! Extra!" said the shadow on the wall of the locker room.
Anthy paused in her slow peregrination of the school to watch with polite interest.
The shadow of a girl in a police-type uniform appeared on the wall, sitting on a wheeled desk chair with her feet up, facing right. The shadows of nine large square frames -- stacked three by three -- loomed over her, and she seemed to have her feet propped up on a table or desk at the base of these frames. Within the frames, something like shadow-static eeled over their "screens."
The girl sipped from a coffee mug. "Yeah, everything's right here, rookie," she said in a rough, gravelly voice. "We just have to watch the monitors."
In the center screen, the static cleared and Juri's shadow appeared, walking and walking and walking.
The girl appeared, sitting primly upright and facing left, still in the uniform. "We watch everything?" she asked in a worried, higher-pitched voice.
In the top left screen, Toshiro's shadow appeared, practicing fencing lunges against a wall, again and again and again.
The "veteran" appeared again, sipping from her coffee mug. "Oh, yeah. It's pretty interesting."
In the center top screen, Saionji's shadow appeared, sitting at a desk adorned with shadow-ruffles. He didn't move.
The rookie said, "But it doesn't seem... right to spy on these people."
In the top right screen, Hoshiko's shadow appeared, resting one hand on a bar and performing plie after plie in a slow, measured rhythm.
The veteran replied, setting her mug down and gesturing, "It isn't spying exactly. We're protecting them."
In the left center screen, Tsuwabuki's shadow appeared, sitting on a low wall with chin in hand.
The rookie asked, "We are? How?"
In the right center screen, Kozue's shadow appeared, plucking one flower petal off a rose and tossing it aside, then moving on to another petal. And another. And another.
A small cactus-shadow passed Juri on the center screen.
The veteran wrestled with a small bag. "By watching. And learning everything about them."
In the lower left screen, Nanami's shadow appeared, pacing back and forth.
The rookie casually took the bag from the "veteran" and stuck her hand inside, rooting around. "But what do we do to protect them?"
In the bottom center screen, Yukio's shadow appeared, leaning on a windowsill.
The veteran leaned back again, arms behind her head. "We watch. We write reports about everything they do and file them over there." She pointed to a stuffed-to-bursting file cabinet.
In the lower right screen, Miki's shadow appeared beside a grand piano. He lifted his hand, pressed one finger down on the keyboard, and returned his hand to his side. Then repeated the action. Again and again.
The rookie paused to stare. "How does that protect them?"
The veteran shrugged. "We keep those reports around in case anything goes wrong. So we have everything. Everything that's ever happened, here."
The rookie extracted a small tire from the bag and said, "I can't eat this." She tossed it aside, where it bounced off the desk and up into the center screen. The tire began to turn under Juri's walking feet. "For how long?"
The veteran laughed. "Eternity."
The wheel under Juri's feet became a shadow version of the Ohtori seal, spinning slowly.
The rookie looked out of the wall and threw up her hands. "Is that eternity then?"
Anthy snorted delicately. "That's... one kind of eternity."
Where had I seen her last? Walking towards the Forest. I had to stop her. Mikage would be there; he would give her the black rose ring and then she could open the gates to the Dueling Forest--but still, there would be no Duel without the rose. I clutched it hard in one hand, and a thorn pricked.
I shot out of the elevator and stumbled through the empty, echoing, vaulted hall of the main building, found the front doors, and wrenched them open. Outside it was night, and crickets creaked gently.
I headed for the Forest at a dead run.
Robert lolled indolently on a wall near a back entrance to the main building. He watched Saionji, then Nanami pass by, and softly recited, "Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace /And rest can never dwell, hope never comes/That comes to all,/What though the field be lost? /All is not lost--the unconquerable will, /And study of revenge, immortal hate, /And courage never to submit or yield: /And what is else not to be overcome?"
Miki saw him there and began to steer a course far around him, but Robert added, "The mind is its own place, and in itself /Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." And Miki started toward him with an angry expression.
As Miki approached, Robert continued, "He, above the rest /In shape and gesture proudly eminent, /Stood like a tower. His form had yet not lost /All her original brightness, nor appeared /Less than Archangel ruined, and th' excess /Of glory obscured: as when the sun new-risen /Looks through the horizontal misty air /Shorn of his beams, or, from behind the moon, /In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds /On half the nations, and with fear of change /Perplexes monarchs."
With a sardonic expression, Miki quoted, "A sister or a brother can never, unless indeed such symptoms have been shown early, suspect the other of fraud or false dealing, when another friend, however strongly he may be attached, may, in spite of himself, be contemplated with suspicion. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone." He paused. "'Man,' I cried, 'how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say.'"
Miki stood silent, regarding Robert's serious and somewhat confused face.
At last, Robert said, "You say that as though I should recognize it. What is that from?"
Miki looked bored. "It's Shelley."
Robert looked blank, then said, "That's not Shelley."
Miki arched one eyebrow and sighed. "Mary Shelley. You know, Robert, you're not half as well-read as you pretend to be." With that, he strode away into the building.
The music room was dark except for the wan light from the streetlamps outside. Kozue sat at the grand piano, her hair and uniform glowing, pale and colorless. She was staring straight ahead, past the unlit three-armed candelabra atop her instrument, automatically working through finger exercises on the keyboard. Near her feet sprawled the Rose Bride's eyeglasses.
I could just see Shiori huddled in the far corner of the room, her face turned toward the wall and her arms wrapped around her knees. Her Ohtori uniform seemed badly disarranged, and her tie trailed from one hand. Her hair was down, and it trailed on the floor around her. There were dark places, like finger marks, on her forearm.
"Poor Shiori," Kozue sang along with the scales she played. "Poor Shiori, poor Shiori, poor Shiori." All at once, she struck a discord and stopped playing. "Despite everything I do to you, have done to you, will do to you, you can't let Juri-san touch you." Her voice tripped mockingly over Juri's name, imitating Shiori's voice. "You can't let Juri-san save you."
Shiori didn't move.
Kozue stood up and ran her hands over her body slowly in the light of the single lit candle. "For all you struggle and protest and cry, Shiori," she said in a husky voice, "you prefer what I do to you to anything that Juri-san could offer."
The door of the music room opened, and Mikage walked in, a bouquet of red roses lying along his arm and over his shoulder. Kozue turned to him with a raised eyebrow and received the bouquet from him. With one dramatic flick of her hand, she extricated the card from the mass of flowers. I could see the card, and immediately recognized it as the one I had seen so many times. "To the One Engaged..."
Kozue laughed and cast the roses to the floor near the glasses. "Get up, Shiori. Put on the dress, put on the glasses. Time to be the Rose Bride again."
Shiori's hand clenched around the school tie, but that was her only reaction.
Kozue eyed her coldly for a moment before turning impatiently to Mikage. "Can you do something about this little mess?" She gestured over her shoulder at Shiori.
Mikage smiled, thin-lipped and chilly, and picked his way fastidiously around the heap of flowers on the floor. At the piano, he struck a match that he used to light a second candle on the candelabra.
Boots clicked across the floor from the darkened doorway, and then a male voice said, "Now, now. Where's the girl who polished my sword every day when I wasn't here?"
Shiori's head snapped around to look up at Ruka, wide-eyed, pupils dilated in apparent terror.
He leaned forward from the waist, extending one hand to her. "Don't you hate her? Doesn't the idea of her wanting you all those years, all that time, looking at you that way, make you want to crawl out of your skin?"
Shiori flattened against the wall, staring at him with horror. She clutched her torn uniform blouse closed with one hand.
Ruka watched her for a long minute, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, then straightened up. "You know what all the other students say. The only reason anyone likes Shiori is because Juri talks to her. Shiori gets around. Shiori is a little slut..."
Shiori flushed and leaped to her feet angrily, opening her mouth to protest, but Ruka held up a hand to stop her. "You and I know the truth. You wanted people to notice you as anything but an extension of Juri. You are an excellent actress." He turned away from her and began to stroll back toward Mikage, who leaned lazily against the piano, and Kozue, who had seated herself at the keyboard again. "And that's really all you'll ever be."
The piano began to sound under Kozue's hands again. I recognized the music as the magnificent theme from our arrival that Miki had exclaimed over, but this time she made the tempo faster and twined minors through it.
Mikage watched Shiori for a long moment. She stood with her head bowed, hair draggled down around her. The school tie slipped from her hand onto the floor. He made a casual gesture and the roses writhed on the floor, then heaved upwards, becoming the Rose Bride dress. It hovered there, empty, reminding me chillingly of the empty Prince's uniform. The cuffs, tiara, and, finally, glasses assumed the places they would if they were being worn by someone.
The dress glided across the floor. It stopped when Shiori looked up.
She blinked at it, then turned away sullenly, pressing herself against the wall.
The dress slid closer.
Shiori's shoulders twitched and she snapped around to face it. As she did so, the dress stopped, but it was only about five feet from her. The blood drained from her face and she began to slowly back away.
The dress began to move after her.
Her eyes went wide. She backed away, backed away, stumbled, then fell, but she kept scrambling backward, mouth open in a rictus but only her frantic breathing audible over the music.
The dress followed, skirts now rustling along the floor.
Shiori crammed herself into the corner, watching the inexorable approach.
Faster and faster the music went.
The dress stooped upon her in a thundering crescendo.
Shiori was wearing the dress, the tiara, the cuffs... and the glasses. Her hair was caught fast in a bun.
Kozue lifted her hands from the keyboard.
Mikage said, "The music was lovely, if a trifle overdone. And your timing was off."
Kozue sneered at him. "Missing Mamiya much these days?"
Mikage shrugged with one shoulder and struck a match, lighting the third candle.
Akio stood behind Shiori, resting his hands on her shoulders. "Such a good little Rose Bride you have here, Madame President."
Kozue stood and faced him, the ice-blue rose at her breast glowing in the candlelight. "Yes, she is, most of the time."
Akio stroked the side of Shiori's face with one thumb, then placed two blood-red roses in her hands.
Juri reached the midpoint of the stairs by the time the sky was entirely dark and all the lights were lit along the campus sidewalks. Under one streetlight on that landing stood a thin, dark figure. She hesitated, then said, "I suppose I've been expecting you."
Mikage stepped forward, slipping out of the strange shadows as easily as if he were letting a cloak slide from his shoulders. She looked away and began her descent again, Mikage walking beside her.
"Begin at the beginning," he said.
Juri shook her head. "I don't want to duel. I'm not a duelist. But everyone needs me to. Saionji's right, I don't take charge, I wait. Miki's right, Kozue needs to be defeated. And Nanami's right, she can't save Touga without a leader."
They took the next several steps in silence.
Mikage said, "Deeper. Go deeper."
Juri's head dipped, her gaze on her feet as they steadily left one stair after another behind. "I came here not because they're my friends... they aren't. I came because I knew she would be here. And I hoped she would need me one last time."
Juri paused on the last step and looked at the dueling forest. Then, hoarsely, "I came to kill love."
At the foot of the steps, Mikage turned to her. "I understand. I suppose you have no choice but to revolutionize the world."
Juri shook her head. "Not the world."
He inclined his head in acknowledgement. "The way before you has been prepared."
Mikage held out his hand. In the center of his palm lay a black rose signet.
I rounded the edge of a building and ran, panting, under the archway. The Forest, with people in front of the gates, and that had to be...
"Juri!" I panted, sliding to a stop and catching hold of a stone railing to avoid cannoning into her. "Juri, you can't..."
Juri tuned to look at me and I stopped. It had been a long time since I had seen that utterly closed, remote look on her face, but I knew it, I remembered it. She stared through me as though I were an insignificant younger student, and for a moment, I felt like one. My gaze dropped to her hand.
She was wearing it. The black rose ring. I jerked my gaze back up to her face and something in my expression made her smile bitterly.
"No, Utena," she said. "I am still myself."
I slumped with relief against the railing. "But Juri, you have to know, you can't do this, it's exactly what he wants-"
She raised a hand and I stopped again. "I don't care what he wants," she said, each word clipped and even. "I am doing what I..." Her gaze dropped to my hand. "Oh, good," she said. "You have it." She stepped forward, plucked the rose from my hand, and turned towards the gates to the Forest.
"No," I said, suddenly breathless. I felt as though I had just fallen from a great height, as though the wind were knocked out of me. "Juri, no..."
She put her hand on the lock and the water-gates began to move.
Up on the observation deck, a long table had been laid with tablecloths and candelabras. The cloth blew in the wind of people passing close to it, and there were the sounds of a party going on around it.
The three old Duelists stood together at the rail, staring off at the dueling arena.
"You think she'll really duel?" Saionji asked. "She didn't seem convinced."
"Oh, you didn't see her at the end," Nanami said.
Miki frowned and idly stirred the ice in his glass with the stem of the black rose arching out of the drink. "I don't know if this is really a good idea."
Nanami accepted a tumbler from Mikage, who joined them. "Well, we can't just stand around doing nothing, can we?"
"That's not what we came here for," Saionji affirmed, sipping his drink absently. His eyes popped open, startled, and he exhaled loudly. "That's strong!" he squeaked.
Miki tried his, and set it aside abruptly with a distasteful expression. "That's bitter!"
Nanami eyed him and sipped her glass. "Pfaugh," she said, tipping her glass out over the edge of the balcony. "Sour!"
"Funny," Touga said, arriving at the group with his own glass. "It tastes like water to me."
"Oh, look," Mikage said. "Here's the Champion and her Bride now."
I wordlessly followed Juri up those familiar stairs. All those damned steps. It made it worse to know that there was an elevator we could have been using, if only I knew how to get to the thing.
We were both a little winded at the top. Kozue posed there, her long hair and the tails of her immaculate coat flying in the wind. At her hip, a silver filigree hanger suspended her sheathed rapier.
Shiori stood, hands clasped in front of her, the broad skirt of the Rose Bride dress flared out around her. Yet... there was something in the way she was standing that was almost a mockery of Anthy's pose. It was too still. Too demure.
There was already an ice-blue rose on Kozue's chest. Shiori looked somewhat disappointed that Juri's rose, the black rose, was already in place. I wasn't sorry to miss whatever she'd planned to say.
Juri saluted Kozue with Miki's rapier. Kozue drew her own and eschewed a salute.
The bells were more deafening than I remembered, and so was the clash of metal on metal as Juri sprang at Kozue.
"So she's fighting a duel," Hoshiko said, examining her long, narrow cards.
"Apparently," Tsuwabuki said, plucking two cards from his hand and laying them on the table, face-down. "Hit me."
Toshiro, wearing a plastic dealer's visor, immediately tossed two cards, face-down, in front of Tsuwabuki, who picked them up.
Yukio growled. "It should have been one of us to fight her for the Bride." He stared for a while at his cards, then chose four and slapped them onto the table. "Hit me."
Toshiro immediately dealt him four new cards.
There was a long silence as the three players continued to study their cards. Finally, Hoshiko said, "There's something wrong with these cards. They've been replaced with something strange."
"You think so too?" Yukio asked, then shoved his cards together and put them down on the table under his hands. "I fold."
Tsuwabuki frowned. "Well, we can still play with them." He laid his cards on the table, face-up, revealing a full house of three Fours, one of Swords, one of Towers, and one of Arenas, with two more cards depicting Jacks, one of Swords, one of Towers.
"Really?" Hoshiko asked, then she laid her cards out. They appeared to be strange Tarot cards: the High Priestess, the Emperor, the White Tower, the Empress, and Death.
All three players peered at Hoshiko's odd hand for a moment, and then Toshiro said, "Dealer wins," and laid down five aces.
Sparks flew from the blades as they crashed together again and again. They leaped apart, panting, then raced each other to one side, each trying to flank the other. Kozue danced in, danced out, leaped to the side; she spun, dodged, ducked, and raked a trace of a line across Juri's sleeve.
"Come on, old woman," she taunted Juri, who paused for a breath. "Surely I haven't worn you out yet. Let's go around a bit more."
The slender point of Kozue's sword danced just inches from Juri's face, forcing her backward several steps, but then Juri's sword snapped up and dashed the lighter rapier away like an annoying fly. Juri's teeth flashed in a wordless snarl as she charged. As graceless as she appeared next to Kozue's ballet, I suddenly remembered all the concentrated power in Juri's sword, and saw it in every step of her charge.
Kozue found herself backing up, struggling to hold her delicate sword against the fury of Juri's slashes. She attempted to retaliate once and I winced, knowing exactly what was going to happen. Kozue thrust at Juri -- who suddenly wasn't there -- and stumbled. Juri caught the current fencing captain over her arm, then heaved her away. Kozue staggered back, tripped, and ended up on the ground.
Long experience -- or simply rage -- kept Juri from the mistake she'd made with me years before. Her sword drove forward to take Kozue's rose...
There was a flash of steel at the same moment, and black petals flew with the equally impossible blue petals.
The bells pealed out their cacophony as Juri and I both turned to the origin of the rose-hilted dagger that clattered to the floor after accomplishing its task. Shiori smiled and drew her hand back. I saw a gleaming line of metal above her upraised hand.
I collided with Juri before I registered that the second dagger was flying toward us. I felt the breeze as it passed us by.
Kozue was standing next to Shiori when we sat up. We stared at her as a few cut strands of my hair drifted to the polished floor of the dueling arena.
"My Bride doesn't have the special... skills that yours had, Utena," she said as they progressed past us. "So I have to use what I have." She smiled almost gently at Juri. "And what would you have done with her anyway? Tried to set her free? Where's the revolution in that?"
They turned their backs on us and walked out the gate. Shiori glanced back once, her expression blank and unreadable, as they descended the stairs.
Juri tore the rose holder from her breast pocket and hurled it across the arena.
I had this friend in Paris (said Nanami, staring moodily into her miso soup). She was sweet and funny and very talented. I met her when she came to one of my boyfriend's parties, and she and I started meeting every morning before class for coffee. I suppose it took me a while to realize what everyone else had known forever. I started, you know, asking her about it, then being more insistent. Everyone was smiling indulgently behind their hands at the japonaise. "Oh, Nanami!" she would say. "Just like a hen with her chick!" And they'd all laugh.
Some of the girls took me aside to tell me how it was. None of them would do anything. And she wouldn't do anything. She eventually just avoided me. And then... then she turned up dead. Her body just stopped working, they said. Wasn't it romantic, they said. And I thought -- but couldn't say -- no, it's not, she's just another stupid, dead artist.
It still makes me so angry with her.
But now I think back on it and... Utena, I don't know how to save someone who doesn't want to be saved.
@---Go on to Part Thirteen---@