"What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine."
"Sounds like a guerrilla operation."[...]
"Guerrillas have something to hope for." Suddenly she switches on a jolly smile. "Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City."
"The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr.
The sun was just rising on our third day at Ohtori as Juri and I descended from the arena. How did an entire night pass? Did a night pass? Time was moving strangely, as it always did here, and I... I couldn't be sure whether I was awake or dreaming, or, perhaps, dreaming while I was awake. I felt oddly weightless coming down that immense, ridiculously long stair.
Anthy met us at the bottom. Kozue and Shiori were, of course, long gone, but Anthy was there. She and Juri just looked at each other for an eternity of a pause before Juri stormed ahead, sword in hand still, and Anthy fell into step next to me. Just behind Juri, we walked along the path lined with broken urns of roses. The roses were starting to impinge upon the path, reaching thorny arms toward us, plucking at our clothing and scratching my legs in those damned short pants. The path narrowed as we got closer to the entrance.
We passed through the gate, and at the top of the stairs, Juri hesitated, silent rage rolling off her in waves. She stared across one of the pools of water there, a pool that seemed as wide as the ocean at that moment. Suddenly, she cocked back her arm and flung the sword out into the pool, a fierce snarl on her face.
I could have sworn that Anthy was beside me, but there she was, ankle-deep in the center of the pool. She put out her hand and caught the sword neatly by the hilt before it ever touched the water. A ray of sunlight gleamed off the blade as she held it aloft, and her voice carried perfectly to our ears:
"That is not yours to throw away, Juri."
Anthy waded out of the water like a mere mortal, and Juri fumed for just a moment, watching her, before turning and running down the steps and up the path.
Miki and I made pancakes for breakfast. Juri made Saionji set the table, and found a jug of orange juice somewhere ("If he wants to poison us, let him.") Nanami hung around and made snide comments about the lack of bacon until Juri exploded and offered to fry /her/ instead. Everyone suddenly realized that Juri was, possibly with reason, short on temper, and became very polite to one another.
Anthy and Chu-Chu greeted us all cheerfully at the table, and when we finally settled down, Anthy asked, "So, what did everyone dream about?"
"What, during our three-hour naps?" Nanami snapped.
"Yes," Anthy said, scraping butter over her pancakes.
"I dreamed about flying," Saionji said. "It was just a patrol mission, no exercises, so it was... very pleasant."
"Huh," said Juri. "I dreamed about riding a horse over the country we crossed to get here."
I shrugged. "I was swimming in the pool at school. The pool was empty, except for me and something I kept glimpsing underwater. It wasn't particularly scary, just sort of nerve-wracking."
Nanami sighed in exasperation. "Honestly. Don't you all know that all those dreams are about sex?"
Juri raised her eyebrow. "Then we're all subconsciously thinking along similar lines, though I'm certainly not aware of it."
"What did you dream about, Miki?" I asked hurriedly, trying to head off another Juri versus Nanami moment.
"I dreamed I died," he said in a faint voice, staring at his forkful of pancake.
We all stared at him. Not even Nanami had a comment for that.
The door to the observatory slammed open and a very pale Kozue stormed through, headed directly for the white couch where Akio reclined, holding a saucer and teacup. Touga was nowhere to be seen.
Kozue rounded the end of the sofa and stood directly in front of Akio, holding a crumpled piece of paper and an envelope with a familiar red seal in her hand.
"What the hell does this mean?" she shouted, shoving the letter toward his face.
He ignored the paper that trembled inches from him and sipped from the teacup. "Have you forgotten how to read now?" he asked genially.
She stepped back, the muscles in her jaw and throat showing like piano wires under her nearly transparent skin. "I won that duel," she said, a little subdued, voice vibrating.
"Did you?" he inquired, inspecting the contents of his cup. "I seem to recall your rose falling."
Kozue started to reply, but stopped and clenched her fist. I could hear the paper crunch and the sealing wax snap. "I need help to do what you ask," she said after a very long moment of staring at him.
"You have your assignment," he said, taking another sip of tea.
"This," she said, shaking the paper, "isn't possible, and you know it." She stepped forward and leaned over him with great deliberation, setting her hands on the back of the sofa and bringing herself face-to-face with Akio. Very softly, she said, "The only way it will happen is with. Your. Help."
His gaze finally flicked up to meet hers. The tableau held for an electric minute.
"Very well," he said.
She pushed herself upright, brushed her white hair back, and opened her mouth to say something.
Akio, sitting like a statue carved from ice, cut her off. "Get out."
Then he was on his feet, looming over her. I'd forgotten just how tall he was -- how tall he could be. "You'll find what you need in your room," he said, the usual silk in his voice turned smooth and featureless.
Kozue's cheeks flushed slightly, and she staggered back a couple of steps from him, one arm raised as if to ward off an expected blow. But Akio never moved, just fixed her in his frigid gaze until she retreated hurriedly to the door. She turned back once, then dashed out the door. Behind her, the door creaked slowly and stiffly shut, not quite latching.
When I looked back at Akio, he was sitting again, holding his teacup and saucer, watching the mirror-smooth surface of the tea.
"That was a... good breakfast," Saionji reluctantly admitted, sitting back from the table after his third helping.
"I could've made crepes," Nanami muttered.
"Then you can cook tomorrow morning," Juri said.
"Hopefully, we won't be here tomorrow," Miki said earnestly.
"Yes." Saionji leaned forward onto the table. "I don't think we're accomplishing anything here. I don't think we can. I think we should just... leave."
"Me too," Miki said, looking away toward the French doors. "I... don't want to be here any more."
I frowned and opened my mouth, only to surprise a similar expression on Nanami's face. I gestured with my chin for her to say her piece.
Nanami nodded shortly to me. "Don't tell me you've given up on the people you came here for?" she asked, looking from Saionji to Miki. "Because I haven't."
"Did you actually think you could convince anyone to leave this place?" Saionji asked bitterly. "We only left because of her." He gestured at me.
"That's not true," I protested. "You each left for your own reasons. The only thing I ever learned here was that each person has to rescue him- or herself."
"There!" Saionji said. "We can't do anything. They have to get themselves out of this."
"But they need our help to do it," Nanami said heatedly. "Even... even Anthy couldn't do it alone." She glanced at Anthy, who continued to look, like Miki, out into the bright sunshine.
"We didn't come here to get back our golden days," Juri snarled. Everyone, even Miki, looked at her. "We didn't come here to be given a miracle. Or a shining thing. Or eternity. We came here to give these things to other people, and that's a thankless, dirty, miserable job."
Miki looked chastened. Saionji looked stubborn. "Oh, really?" he said.
"Yes," she said, standing. "I know a lot about jobs like that. Being a police officer." She turned away and laid a hand on the glass of the door, then tossed over her shoulder, "A female police officer."
Saionji looked away and grunted acceptance.
Miki shrugged helplessly. "If we're not leaving, then what do we do?"
Anthy stood and leaned against the wall next to Juri. "We go do the thankless, dirty, miserable jobs." She smiled wanly. "It will be nice to have help, really."
"Well, maybe the girls ought to do it," Nanami said, examining her nails. "You boys are making a hash of things."
"Oh, really?" Saionji bristled. "I don't see you walking out of here with Touga on your arm."
"You think you can do better?" she exclaimed.
"Of course," he replied with a smug smile. "You never did know how to talk to him."
"Well, you must've been just a wonderful husband," she replied sharply, "since Keiko has so completely thrown herself at you."
"You talk to her then," he snapped.
"I think I will!" Nanami sprang to her feet and marched out.
Saionji folded his arms and sat in a red-faced sulk for a moment, then leaped up and followed her.
Juri and Miki exchanged looks. Miki said, "Maybe that's a good idea. You want to swap?"
Juri gave a grim, lopsided smile. "Hell, yes." They left together.
I looked around, then at Anthy. "Where'd Chu-Chu go?"
Anthy waved airily. "Oh, he's taking care of a few things. Shall we?"
Hoshiko was standing alone in the ballet dressing room, facing away from the mirror. There was a towel around her neck, and she was staring fixedly at a piece of paper. In her other hand dangled, forgotten, her outdoor shoes.
Stirring herself from her perfect stillness, she carefully replaced the shoes in her cubicle. Then she pulled a plain black cell phone out of her gym bag and pressed a few buttons, crumpling the paper slightly in the process.
After a moment, she said into the phone, "This is Fujiwara Hoshiko. Did you get a letter today, Student Council President?"
In the background, I could hear a teacher's voice echoing in the ballet classroom. "First position."
Hoshiko said, in a carefully formal voice, "My letter contains instructions that are simply not possible."
In the background, the teacher's voice said, "Second position."
"I don't wish to discuss that. I want to know whether you think the letters are genuine."
The teacher's voice said something in a lower tone, clearly correcting someone.
"I don't care about your perception of 'my place.' I have considerable reason to doubt the letter. The instructions are... obscene."
In the background, the class went on. "Third position."
Hoshiko gave the phone a dubious look. A faint sound that may have been laughter came from it. She replaced the phone to her ear and said, "These directives are completely antithetical to our goal."
"Fourth position," echoed from the classroom.
"Of course I am capable," Hoshiko declared angrily. "But I don't wish to waste my time and energy on irrelevant distractions."
There was a brief silence, then, "Fifth position."
Hoshiko dropped her voice. "That's impossible." She stared at the cracks running through the tarnished silver backing of the mirror.
Distantly, the teacher said again, "First position."
"How can you believe that?" Hoshiko hissed.
The teacher said, imperturbably, "Second position."
Hoshiko said disbelievingly, "Do you really think the End of the World would instruct us to do.... this?"
"Third position," drifted dimly in from the classroom.
"This can't be the way to achieve revolution," Hoshiko insisted.
"Fourth position," announced the teacher.
"We have to focus on our own goals," Hoshiko went on.
Another silence. Hoshiko drew her breath in angrily, paused, then pulled the phone away from her ear and viciously snapped it shut.
In the background, the teacher said implacably, "Repeat."
"I can't believe I got stuck with you," grumbled Saionji.
I wondered for a moment what he was talking about. He appeared to be alone.
Then: "It was only because she asked me, I'll have you know," he snarled, apparently in the direction of his shoe.
"Chu!" said Chu-Chu.
"Like the bloody thing even exists." Saionji drew his foot back a little as though to kick, but then seemed to think better of it, running a hand through his hair and striding through one of the archways. I-meant-to-do-that radiated off of him like it did off the kitten when she leapt for the arm of the chair and missed.
Chu-Chu, with a very large crowbar over his shoulder, trotted amiably after him.
Just beyond the archway was a parking lot. Black asphalt seemed to stretch for miles-- I had never seen anything like it, except perhaps at Disneyland. Chu-Chu pushed his way through the weeds at the corner of the archway like an explorer pushing his way through the jungle. Somewhere, he had acquired a pith helmet. Upon seeing the parking lot, however, he seemed to wilt a little.
The parking lot was full.
"Did this used to be so big?" asked Saionji uncertainly. He shoved back his own pith helmet and rubbed his forehead.
I was sitting on a stool in the dim backstage of the school theatre, holding my head in my hands. "Chu-Chu?" I muttered, bewildered by the moving pictures in my head.
Anthy, meanwhile, had her head and shoulders down in a large cardboard box clearly marked PROPS.
"I don't remember a parking lot," I said.
She came up from hunting, holding a bent black witch's hat. After a moment of trying to straighten the point, she tossed it to the side with a shrug and went back into the box. The hat hit the floor in a mighty cloud of dust and skidded into a corner.
"Anthy, what are you looking for?" I asked. I thought about going to look over her shoulder, but wasn't entirely certain of my feet. I was still woozy from whatever was going on.
A shiny golden crown popped onto the floor and rolled to my feet. As I picked it up, one of the paste rubies dropped out of its tinfoil setting and skittered under a low table.
Moments later, a broken sword pitched onto the floor, followed by an old sheepskin that had been combed through with gold glitter, the head of a horse costume that might have been white once upon a time, and a dusty bunch of artificial flowers. A basket followed, and when it toppled over, a rubber snake fell out. There was a dagger whose metal had peeled off, revealing dull grey plastic underneath.
"Huh," she said, somewhat muffled. "Haven't seen this in a while." And a brass-looking cup with glass gems all around it clanked out and rolled so I could see the label affixed to the underside of the base, though all I could make out was "GRA."
Anthy stood up from the box, and I could see it was empty (mostly -- I think there were still some bright yellow feathers in there). Then she bent and picked up the cup, turning it over in her hands thoughtfully.
"What's that?" I asked.
Anthy glanced at me, then back down at the cup. She flicked its rim delicately with a forefinger, and to my astonishment, it rang like crystal. Then she grinned and tipped it so I could see the interior.
"Empty," she said, still smiling to herself. She turned and tossed it lightly to the back of the stage where, among a welter of three-legged stools, pasteboard armor, and overstuffed chairs with stuffing hanging to the floor, there was a cardboard fireplace lined with orange tinfoil. It rattled into the fireplace with the sad chinking sound of pot metal. Then it exploded.
"Bloody hell!" I exclaimed, resorting to my favorite English phrase. "What was that?"
"Sorry," Anthy said unrepentantly.
Nanami was striding angrily down a hallway, fists clenched, pausing to peer out every window and in every door that was the least bit ajar.
"Aaaiiii, Nanami-samaaaa!" three girls squealed as they burst out one of those doors.
Nanami recoiled, spinning on her heel to put her back against the wall and raising one hand protectively.
"We're soooo happy you're here, Nanami-sama!" one girl exclaimed, clasping her hands at her bosom.
"Sooo happy!" the second girl emphasized. "We neeeeed you!"
"Need you very much!" the third girl said.
"Need... me?" Nanami said.
"Oh, YES!" the first girl said. "We need your experienced eye!"
"Your traveled eye!" the second girl said.
"Your experienced and traveled eye for our SHOW!" the third girl said.
"Ah," Nanami said faintly.
"Say you'll do it?" the first one pleaded.
"Say you'll help us?" the second one said.
"Say you'll come?" the third one said, leaning in close.
"Of course," Nanami said hurriedly. "Of course! Now, if you'll excuse me..." She slid away down the wall a few steps before turning and running off.
"That was easier than I thought," the first girl said.
"Yeah!" the second girl said. "Thanks for the help," she added to the third girl.
"No problem," the third girl said, buffing her nails on her shirt.
Touga was crossing the main hall of the school, which was strangely empty. His footsteps echoed on the marble floor. Beyond him, I noticed a number of school notices pinned to a bulletin board. Someone had written over these in heavy black marker, but some of the notices had been taken down so I could only read a few of the characters: "Repent," "Rapture," "Revolution," and, "Ruin."
Hoshiko appeared from one of the side halls and came up short at the sight of him. Her gaze followed him for several moments, and her face was completely unreadable. Abruptly, she burst into motion, jogging after him. "Mr. Deputy Chairman," she said.
Touga paused, turned, and smiled at her. "Fujiwara-kun," he said warmly.
With a flick of her wrist, Hoshiko sent the envelope -- its red wax seal showing it to be the one she'd been regarding earlier -- flying into his face. He stepped back with a look of alarm.
The letter fluttered to the floor like a dying bird. There was a long silence as they both stared at it.
Finally, Touga looked up at her and said, "Hoshiko..."
She looked furious when she met his gaze. "Do it yourself, World's End." Then she spun and ran out the main doors.
He watched her go, standing very still. Eventually, he dabbed at a spot on his chin and laughed a little. "Paper cut," he said to himself, smiling wryly, before turning his back and walking on. The envelope remained where it fell.
I was surprised when Anthy took us back to the Birdcage. "Anthy," I said weakly, looking at the little greenhouse with revulsion, "are you sure...?"
She gave me an impatient look, then smiled. "I won't be but a moment," she said.
I sat on the bench outside and watched as she went in and came out carrying the familiar watering can. It made me feel dizzy, or maybe sick to my stomach. She flashed me a wide smile as she went to the tap, which was sufficiently unlike the old Anthy to make me unclench my fingers. But then I was looking at her back as she filled the watering can. She hummed a little tune -- slightly off-key -- and tapped one foot absently behind the other. For a moment, gone were her tattered leggings, the oversized t-shirt, the little skirt she was so fond of. For just a moment, I saw her back in the uniform.
Then she turned around, and the illusion was gone. She held up the watering can as though to show it to me, smiled directly into my eyes, and spat into the water.
Anthy's eyes narrowed with mirth. She went into the greenhouse, leaving the door open, and I could hear her singing as she watered the roses. "Aupres de ma blonde/qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon/Aupres de ma blonde/qu'il fait bon dormi'!"
Anthy exited the Birdcage wearing the look of suppressed, sly laughter that I have come to associate with the oddest things. She propped the door open with the watering can with great precision, as if arranging a vase of flowers on an elaborately set table. Then she came over and kissed the top of my head; I noticed, as she walked, a few fallen rose petals detach themselves from her shoes.
The confusion of seeing Anthy so very happy while watering the flowers -- she had smiled when we were in school, but I had never heard her sing, or laugh -- was enough to shock me out of the illusion of the past. I looked up at her with, I suspect, a goofy expression on my face.
She was wearing a sprig of frothy white Queen Anne's Lace behind her ear. In the very center of the blossom, there was a cluster of tiny red flowers, as if the bloom had been pricked with a needle. She must have gotten it in the greenhouse, but only roses grew in the Birdcage.
"You're very... happy," I said uncertainly.
She kissed the tip of my nose. "I had an amusing idea," she said. "Besides, I have you."
Tsuwabuki sat, cross-legged, on his bed, a dark grey stone in his hand, sword across his lap.
A familiar envelope was on the bed next to him, a folded piece of paper beside it.
He slid the whetstone carefully along the blade, following the curve of it precisely.
A breeze blew in through the open window, gently ruffling his forelock.
Another stroke of the whetstone along the blade.
The paper shifted slightly, caught by the breeze.
A gust of wind picked up the paper in a twirling dance.
I didn't even see Tsuwabuki move. One second he was sharpening his sword, the next he was on his feet, sword slicing through the air.
The wind died. The letter fell to the floor in two pieces.
Yukio was standing in an elevator -- no, the elevator -- leaning his forehead against the wall. His face was hidden by his hair. In one hand was the crumpled letter from the End of the World.
The elevator chime sounded and he straightened up immediately, assuming his usual expression of sardonic boredom at once. However, it took a few seconds for the doors of the elevator to open, and he stood there, staring at them. At last, they creaked apart, and he stepped out into the deputy chairman's office. He hesitated for a moment, scanning the vaulted room in a manner that almost seemed nervous.
"Ah, Fujiwara-kun." Touga's deep voice preceded him as he emerged from the far side of the planetarium projector. "You're the last person I would expect to come to my office."
Yukio gazed at him past a shock of dark hair. "I like to be unpredictable."
"I see." Touga regarded the Student Council Vice President thoughtfully. "So, what brings you here, then?"
Wordlessly, Yukio held up the letter to display the seal. When Touga raised his eyebrows inquiringly, Yukio burst out, "Take me instead."
Touga blinked in apparent surprise. "What?"
"You said it yourself," Yukio replied, his normally cool voice warming quickly. "I should have caught it then, but I was too angry. I needed this--" he shook the paper "--to tell me what I already knew. Take me instead." He strode closer to Touga. "You need someone who knows at least some of what's going on. I know far more than she does. You need someone strong. I'm stronger than she is. You need someone who can take whatever happens, because you don't really know what will happen. I can do that. She can't." He stopped, almost but not quite touching Touga, and, after a pause, looked up at him through his hair. "You need someone willing," he said hoarsely. "She'll never be as willing as I can be."
Touga stared down at him for a long moment, then burst out laughing. "Aren't you the very flower of chivalry, then?"
Yukio seized Touga by the lapels. "Don't laugh at me!" he snarled, shaking him. "You certainly seemed to want me enough a few months ago!"
Touga did stop laughing, and gently removed Yukio's hands from his coat. "But, as you told me, you've moved on and up. There's no turning back down the familiar road, and your attempt to save her will win you no glory in her eyes." In an oddly tender gesture, Touga pushed Yukio's forelock back and looked down into his face. "You're so predictable, Yukio-kun," he said softly.
Yukio stared up at him, wide-eyed, and his lips trembled, just barely, before he bared his teeth in a wordless, feral snarl. He slapped Touga's hand away and turned his back, walking slowly, with immense self-control, back to the elevator.
Juri knocked on a door. The small plate beside the door read "Kaoru Kozue".
She waited. After a moment of waiting, she cocked her head toward the door and appeared to be listening. She looked thoughtful, then shrugged and turned to pass back down the hallway.
"Arisugawa-san!" two girls called after her.
Juri paused, brow knit in a perplexed look. This gave the two girls time to catch up to her.
"Arisugawa-san!" one said. "We really need your help!"
"My help?" Juri said, both eyebrows rising.
"Yes, with our play!" the second girl said.
"Your play." Juri's voice went a bit flat.
"It will be such a lovely play," the first one said, "but we can't decide about the costumes."
"Such a shame," Juri said, and I picked up the thread of sarcasm this time.
"Would you help us, Arisugawa-san?" the second girl asked.
"How?" Juri inquired.
"We need you to model some costumes!" the first girl said.
"I don't... do modeling these days," Juri said.
"It would just be a few!" the second girl said.
"So very quick!" the first girl assured.
"And we wouldn't tell anyone!" the second girl added.
Juri sighed. "Oh, all right. I suppose, if I must."
The two girls squealed with delight. "Thank you! Thank you! We'll let you know when we need you!"
Juri watched them run away, high-fiving and giggling, down the hall. She shook her head.
The sun beat down on the endless rows of parked cars.
"I don't understand it," said Saionji. "Even if every student owned a car-- even if they owned two cars-- how could there be so many?"
"Chu," said Chu-Chu, leaning against a convenient dandelion growing out of a crack in the asphalt. He sounded tired.
"We're never going to find it," Saionji muttered.
"Looking for something?" Touga locked the door of a silver Mercedes and walked around to the bumper, smiling.
Saionji eyed him unkindly. "You, maybe."
"I'm flattered. Care to go for a drive?"
"No," said Saionji. "We can talk here."
"In the blazing sun?" He started to stroll past them, glanced down at Chu-Chu. "Odd company you're keeping, Kyouichi. Surely there must be some shade on campus. Let's find a place to sit down."
Saionji, visibly seething, followed him.
"It will be magical!" the first girl said.
"It will be wondrous!" the second girl said.
Yukio glanced over at them as they giggled madly.
"She'll be so beautiful!" the first girl said rapturously.
"Just think of it! Fujiwara-san, auditioning for our play!" the second girl said.
Yukio gave them a second look, one that fixed on them. "What play would that be?" he inquired.
"Oh, the very best and most wonderful play of them all!" the first girl said.
"A play to end all plays!" the second girl said.
"Everyone is auditioning, Student Council Vice President," the first girl added, almost flirtatiously.
"Absolutely everyone," the second girl said, and this time I was sure it was flirtatious.
"Everyone, including my sister?" Yukio said.
"Of course!" the first girl said. "How could the Drama Club put on a production without the most lovely of us all?"
"We're writing in a swan role just for her," the second girl said. "Or something like that."
The room was very neat. It was so neat, in fact, that one might be forgiven for thinking that no one lived there; that it was a display model, artificially perfect from the smooth, taut blanket on the bunk to the schoolbooks ranged on the shelf with military precision. Only two things spoiled this illusion: the stand on a low table that held matched daisho and the student himself, sitting in the desk chair in front of the supernaturally tidy desk.
Toshiro was sitting with his hands folded in his lap, staring at a white letter placed in the exact center of the desk. The letter was still in its envelope, the familiar envelope with the everlastingly familiar red seal. He sat there, gazing at it as if it were a piece of art.
A fly buzzed in the window. Outside, cicadas shrilled.
Cicadas were still shrilling. Miki shaded the sun from his eyes with his hand as he stared at the sculpture in the center of the fountain. It looked like a lump of rock to me, but clearly he could see some kind of shape in it. It was odd; I didn't recall paying much attention to the sculpture in the fountain, and yet I was absolutely certain it hadn't looked like that. Clearly, Miki shared my sentiments.
He walked slowly around the basin of the fountain. I saw drapery, something that might have been a hand, something that might have been the hilt of a sword.
He flinched slightly, then turned a disbelieving stare over his shoulder. Two girls in the fluttery, ugly uniforms descended upon him in a flurry. "Kaoru Miki!"
"Yes?" he said blankly with his typical deer-in-headlights expression.
"You've kept up on your piano, haven't you?"
"Oh, of course he has, how could you ask him that?"
"You're right, of course! I'm sorry, Mickey-san!"
"Uhm," he said. "No, that's all right. I... do still play, yes."
"Ohhhhh!" they both exclaimed dreamily.
"Would you play for our play?" one asked, her hands clasped together pleadingly.
"Pleaaaase?" they chorused, bowing.
"Ah. Um." Miki rubbed the back of his head. I thought disgustedly that he was going to be too polite to refuse.
"Oh, THANK you!" they chorused, bowing like jacknives and dashing off in a scatter of delighted giggles.
"I didn't even say yes," Miki said bemusedly to the empty air. He turned back to his contemplation of the sculpture with a distracted expression.
Kozue stood before a mirror in what I supposed was her room. She glowered at herself, muttering silently, moving her head angrily as if making a sharp remark to someone. She raised thin, skeletal hands and began to twist her long, pale hair together in hard, fast motions.
When her hair was wrung together tightly, she viciously stabbed a slender, very plain silver pin through the bun to hold it in place. She glared at her hair, bound and pinioned. It made her icy eyes look enormous.
She shed her student council uniform reluctantly, hovering over each piece to hang or fold it properly -- lovingly, for Kozue. In its place, she donned the hideous Ohtori girl's uniform, the one with ridiculous starched puffball sleeves bigger than her head. She pulled the blouse on with movements so savage I thought she would tear it.
Lip curled into an ugly sneer as she regarded her transformation in the glass, she lifted something from a nearby table. She hesitated, and then she slowly slid on a pair of glasses -- large, round, familiar.
The sneer vanished and the lines of her face smoothed and went blank. The corners of her mouth curled up briefly.
"Anthy?" I said weakly. "Anthy, I'm feeling a little sick again." I opened my eyes.
I did not immediately recognize where I was and Anthy was nowhere to be seen. The room was dark, filled with half understood shapes, and for one nightmare moment I wondered if I was asleep and dreaming. Then my eyes resolved the shapes of the hard backs of folding chairs scattered haphazardly across the half-dark floor of an unlit auditorium. I wasn't sure which auditorium. I stood up, gripping the back of a chair for support.
"Can that really be Utena-sama?"
A pair of double doors not far from me flapped open and three girls stepped in, sunlight so dazzling behind them that I could only see their outlines. Their voices were not immediately familiar, although they sounded familiar enough or, at least, like the voices of girls I'd known in school though at the moment I couldn't remember any names.
"Fancy running into you here!"
"It must be fate!" That girl had a particularly shrill voice.
"Our play is sure to be a success if Utena-sama is in it!"
"Please say you'll come!" all three of them chorused.
"Come to what?" I said, still trying to make out features.
A slip of paper was thrust into my hand. "You have to come! Now that you're here, we can't possibly make it a success without you!"
"Oh, thank you, Utena-sama!" the shrill one gushed.
And with that, they skipped out, the double doors thumping shut behind them. I groped my way out after them, but they were long gone by the time I got outdoors. Once I managed to make my eyes adjust, I looked down at the paper. It read, "Gathering Shadows Kashira Theatre Auditions."
Chu-Chu sat in the shade of Saionji's pith helmet, which had been propped up with a stick as a makeshift tent, fanning himself with a small palm leaf. He had exchanged his own pith helmet for a small brown fedora for reasons I could not quite fathom. He looked exceedingly dusty and tired.
Eventually, he got to his feet, took a swig out of a tiny canteen, and trudged off among the tall weeds and the enormous rubber tires. It was quite a jungle down there.
A ladybug, preoccupied as beetles often are, trundled its way into his path. With a startled, "Chuuu!" Chu-Chu leapt back, manifesting a tiny whip out of nowhere. While the ladybug peacefully continued on its path, he attempted to disentangle the whip from his tail. By the time he had accomplished that, it had vanished out of sight in a clump of grass.
"Chu!" he said righteously, and strutted onward boldly, yet cautiously.
The next foe he met was a cicada, sitting quite still on the sunblasted asphalt. This time, Chu-Chu had the whip at ready. With a brave, "Chu! Chu-chuuu!" he lashed out at it.
Unfortunately, it was only the empty shell of a cicada, and the blow of the whip launched it high into the air in a wild parabola that ended on Chu-Chu's head. He lost his dignity and entangled the whip again while wrestling it.
After winning that battle, he got to his feet, looking the worse for wear, righted his hat, and trudged on.
On and on he marched, sometimes peering upwards at the mysterious, sundrenched monoliths of the parked cars. Rounding a large tire, he was startled to come face to face with a small grass snake, no more than six inches in length. This was considerably longer than Chu-Chu was tall.
Chu-Chu stared at the snake. The snake gazed back at him and flicked out its tongue serenely.
Chu-Chu turned tail and basely fled, screaming.
The snake flicked its tiny tongue out again, looking as puzzled as it is possible for a reptile to do.
People seemed to be ignoring me. That was all right with me, I was ignoring most of them. At present, I was only interested in where Anthy was, considering what had happened the last time I lost track of her. I decided to go check the tree where we'd eaten lunch so often in school.
As if I had conjured her from my wishful thinking -- Anthy didn't work quite like that -- she was sitting comfortably under the tree. I hurried towards her and saw that she was sitting with someone else. A student, I supposed, recognizing the uniform. The girl's hair was pulled out into two peculiar pigtails, each banded neatly into three segments.
Neither of them was particularly clear as they were both sitting in shadow and Ohtori's cloudless, brilliant blue sky, hard as enamel, reflected behind them. But I would know Anthy anywhere, and I hastened over the lawn.
Anthy turned her head toward me and I thought she smiled. She plucked a dandelion from the lawn as I approached and blew it, tiny seeds traveling on fine white parachutes. The seeds rose up in a faint cloud and pirouetted on the wind.
Anthy's companion picked a dandelion as well and breathed on it with a puff of laughter. She needed two breaths before the little lion's head was bare.
Anthy picked another and blew one, two, three times. The seeds drifted in an ethereal scarf over the face of her companion and they both giggled. I broke into a run. I wanted to play with the dandelions too.
The other girl picked one and held it over her face, blowing on it with great theatrical puffs. It must not have been fully ripe because it took her four tries. "How long?" she asked Anthy. "How long should we sit here?"
Anthy picked a dandelion and blew on it twice. Seeds rose up in great clouds. "Until the eleventh hour, of course." She blew three times more.
The other girl picked a dandelion and looked at it reflectively. "That won't be long now," she said.
I finally reached the tree and looked down at Anthy in confusion. "Dandelions?" I said.
Anthy smiled, reached up, and pulled me down to sit beside her on the grass. "I think they make a lawn look more decorative, don't you?"
There was no sign of her companion.
As Anthy and I walked into the quad, I felt her hesitate and stop before I saw anything. Robert was standing in the center of the quad, where several paths came together. In his hand was a letter, thicker than the ones I had seen before, but still bearing the familiar red seal. Students hurried past him; he ignored them, but I had a sense that he was very aware of his surroundings. There was just something about the set of his head.
He broke the seal on the letter and shook it out with an actor's grace. The movement around him started to slow. He looked at the letter, glanced up at the tower atop the building directly in front of him, and began to read.
As he read, the students around him drifted to a stop, listening.
"I will praise the sovereign, supreme king of the land,
Who hath extended his dominion over the shore of the world."
His voice rang from building to building without benefit of a microphone. Beside me, Anthy gave a tiny snort. We walked on.
Despite the large arched window that took up most of one wall, the bathroom was dark. Perhaps that was because this window, unlike the others, was made of stained glass. It looked like something that had been lifted from a cathedral. At the top of the arch, naturally, was the distinctive rose pattern.
Most of the bathroom was occupied by a large, white, claw-footed tub. A translucent shower curtain printed with lively black and orange koi was pulled around most of it. The tub was seemingly occupied, but all I could see was a white, glimmering outline, like bones.
Toshiro entered, solemnly carrying a large bath sponge. He knelt on a little stool next to the bath, dipped the sponge in the water, and reached behind the shower curtain to wash the hidden figure. Water dripped.
Toshiro dipped the sponge in the water and reapplied it with the patient grace of a nurse or a geisha. He said nothing. His face was as closed and expressionless as it had been when he was doing sword exercises.
"That is enough. The robe now." Akio's voice was taut.
Toshiro wrung the sponge out and set it on the floor, got to his feet, and lifted a long white robe down from a hook on the door. He passed this behind the shower curtain as the indistinct figure rose to its feet with the noise of water.
On the floor, the abandoned sponge leaked red.
Still standing in the classic pose of an English actor (he lacked the vividness I associated with traditional Japanese theatre), Robert continued to declaim. There was something in the rise and fall of his voice -- something to do with church? with court? -- that suggested the measured cadence of ritual.
"Complete was the prison of Gweir in Caer Sidi,
Through the spite of Pwyll and Pryderi
No one before him went into it.
The heavy blue chain held the faithful youth,
And before the spoils of Annwn woefully he sings,
And till doom shall continue a bard of prayer.
Thrice enough to fill Prydwen, we went into it;
Except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi."
I didn't recognize any of these names. I didn't recognize any of the places. The hair on my arms still stood up.
Miki followed Shiori down the broad hallway that led toward the music rooms. He seemed to be hurrying as she paced solemnly around a turn. She kept ahead of him effortlessly.
At the door of a music room -- I had no way of knowing if it was The Music Room, but I would've bet money on it -- she paused and looked over her shoulder until he had nearly rounded the corner before she opened the door and vanished inside. Miki saw the door closing and broke into a run to catch it. He flung the door wide and gasped.
Instead of the music room, he had just taken a few precipitous steps into a very business-like lobby. The door swung slowly shut behind him as he stared at the automated check-in desk with the touch screens in front of him. Above the touch screens was an elegantly printed notice, giving room rates for "rest" and "stay." Then he turned and glanced to his left, where one glass wall apparently portioned off an enormous aquarium. There were no fish, no plants, nothing in the dark water except one dimly-glimpsed red spike-heeled shoe, sitting sadly on the bottom.
When he spun and looked back at the exit door, there was a discreet advertisement poster, describing an "image club," with images of silhouetted figures in both female and male Ohtori school uniforms. Miki made a small choking noise, and turned wildly for the only other doorway.
He practically ran across the floor (which, I noticed in passing, was tiled alternately in mirror and black). He wrenched the door open and catapulted through it.
At first glance, I wondered if Miki had somehow managed to get into an eccentric teacher's sitting room. An elaborate paper figured in dull gold and rose covered the walls, along with a number of oil paintings in curlicued gilt frames. There were several heavy, patterned carpets on the floor that appeared to be very expensive. The overstuffed furniture was mostly in white velvet and the same dull gold as the walls, with silk cushions of many colors.
Miki looked startled and stood quite still, as if trying to figure out where he was.
On the elaborate marble mantelpiece, an immense vase of roses was reflected in an ornate mirror. It was a candy box of a room, precise, patterned, perfumed -- I imagined that I could even smell the roses.
Miki seemed at a loss for what to do. First, he went to a window and pulled aside a heavy silk curtain to look out. Apparently dissatisfied with the view, he strode over and peered at one of the vast, dark paintings. In my convenient position over his shoulder, I peered as well. The painting depicted a naked woman (as most classical European art seemed to do). She lay on a couch, gazing openly out at the viewer. One hand rested lightly between her legs, the other rested on the pile of white pillows she was propped on. Behind her, someone stood, offering her a bunch of flowers that she coolly ignored. At the foot of the couch, a little black cat arched.
Miki regarded this painting with a puzzled frown, and moved on to inspect the enormous painting above the scroll-backed loveseat. This depicted a curious marble indoor pavilion in blue and white, with two very pale-skinned naked women lounging on the steps in front of it, one swathed in white draperies, the other entirely bare. A figure heavily cloaked in black was offering them brass implements that might have been musical instruments. In the background were numerous more naked and white-draped women.
If anything, this painting seemed to puzzle Miki even more. He moved to the painting to the right of it, slightly smaller but with an even more ornate frame. This painting depicted a woman in a red garment that curiously left her very white breasts bare. She wore gold hoop earrings, a necklace of gold coins, and a number of bangles; one hand was loosely propped on her waist in a pose of careless confidence. Her long dark hair trailed down her back, and she carried a golden platter supporting a sheathed knife tucked against her hip.
The title to this one was engraved on a small oval at the bottom of the frame: Salomé.
Miki turned from the painting with a shudder. As he turned, his sleeve caught something that had been half-hidden beneath the pillow on the loveseat, and it fell to the floor. He turned and looked. The thing was a small corset in dainty pink satin with little rosebuds along the top. He stared at it, his mouth open in an expression of horror. Then he turned, wrestled open the carved sliding door, and flung himself through. I noticed a fourth painting beside the door: a full-length portrait of a woman in red silk that looked as if it had been soaked with water, her elbows up as if she were stretching, staring thoughtfully and eerily past the viewer. I don't think Miki noticed it, though.
He ran down a hallway, along which I glimpsed murals in a style that looked very ancient, with content that was frankly pornographic. At the end of the hall was an archway, blocked only by filmy violet draperies. He shoved through these and was in --
It was a round room, arcaded around the edges with pointed arches, plastered in white and tiled with beautiful and intricate scrollwork in blue and green and red. Overhead, there was a dome, painted in similar elaborate designs. Hanging from the center was an enormous lamp made of pierced brass which threw, instead of light, a pattern of tiny stars everywhere. Low divans, huge silken pillows, and silver lamps on stands were scattered everywhere, interspersed with little carved tables which held chess sets, boxes of candy, and an apple cut into rabbits.
Miki, inelegantly, sneezed. I could see a faint haze of smoke in the air. I hoped it was incense.
A little eight-sided fountain, covered with colorful tiles, plashed gently in the center of the room. Looking bewildered, wary, and helplessly awkward, Miki began to pick his way through the litter of bargain-basement orientalist furniture. He tripped over a set of nesting brass tables and had to catch them before they toppled and made a clatter on the marble floor.
"Hello?" Miki said uncertainly. Only the fountain answered him.
He peered into a couple of alcoves. Finally, kicking a cushion out of his way, he folded back a carved wooden screen to find a low couch behind it.
On the couch, Shiori reclined, but not in the pose of a seductive courtesan. She lay stiffly on her back with her hands folded on her chest. Her eyes, however, were open, her gaze fixed on Miki's face. He stood there and stared at her.
Finally, he said, "You can't... you can't possibly..."
She only stared at him.
Miki tried again. "You can't possibly be serious," he said.
He said, "Takatsuki-san, you couldn't have imagined that this would work on me."
He burst out, "It isn't like this, you know! It's nothing like this!"
Shiori moved without warning from a carven figure on the couch to a hissing, snarling creature inches from his face, like a cat whose tail has been stepped on. "You know nothing about it!" she shrieked. "Nothing!"
"Forgive me, Takatsuki-san," he said, his voice audibly bewildered and still polite, though he took an involuntary step back. "But I do know about it. I've grown up, you see."
She bristled, the skirts of the Rose Bride dress seeming to fluff out in her anger. "Grown up?" she screamed. "Grown up? You fool. You know nothing about this place, nothing about him, nothing about me, and nothing at all about your sister!"
Miki reeled back as if she'd slapped him, although her hands hadn't moved. Shiori ruthlessly pressed the advantage. "You think what I'm doing is shocking? You should go and see her."
Miki looked away. Shiori laughed unkindly.
"I can't see her doing..." he began, but was cut off by Shiori laughing again.
"Go and see," she mocked him. "She's in that house you two used to live in, just down the street. Go and see." She reached behind her onto the couch, produced a set of keys, and flung them at him contemptuously. Miki caught them by reflex.
Shiori's laughter cut off as though someone had thrown a switch. She turned and left the room, vanishing behind some of the blowing draperies. As if in a trance, Miki turned and went back the way he came.
Robert was still reading. A circle of students stood around him, a silent, puzzled audience.
"Am I not a candidate for fame, if a song is heard?
In Caer Pedryvan, four its revolutions;
In the first word from the cauldron when spoken,
From the breath of nine maidens it was gently warmed.
Is it not the cauldron of the chief of Annwn?"
Keiko leaned back in her chair with a groan, her belly stretching the material of her uniform. She arched her back and I heard it crackle. She sighed, staring at her desktop, which was strewn with papers. "These resumes are all dreadful," she said.
One of the matching pair, I guessed Yuuko, set a cup of tea in front of Keiko. "Kanae-san really didn't have a very impressive resume," she said.
The one I guessed was Aiko had her feet up on her relatively tiny desk, which also had a stack of papers. She gnawed expertly on her Pocky and regarded another sheet of paper. "What can you expect? She was the old Chairman's daughter. The way to get a good job is nepotism all the way." She tossed the paper over her shoulder, missing the dented and battered trashcan.
"It's amazing that all these girls imagine that they're qualified for the job," Keiko said, picking up a resume and peering at it as she sipped her tea.
Aiko picked up her stack and dumped them on top of Yuuko's. She collected the paper on Yuuko's desk, neatened the stack, and then placed it precisely in front of Keiko. "There you go," she said brightly.
"How many made the cut?" asked Yuuko.
"Almost ten," replied Aiko.
Yuuko collapsed into her chair and clenched a piece of Pocky between her teeth. "They say Kanae-san died of overwork."
"I expect that's so," Aiko said, crumpling up a stray resume and aiming for another trashcan. The ball of paper danced around the rim and popped out. "We should find someone with stamina."
"And a high tolerance," Keiko said, sweeping her desk clear with a grandiose swing of her arm and sitting back to take a sip of tea.
"Tolerance for what?" Aiko asked, her brow wrinkling.
Yuuko picked up her folder of rejections and dropped it into the trashcan next to her desk. "Everything," she intoned.
"What is its intention?" Robert read.
"A ridge about its edge and pearls.
It will not boil the food of a coward,
That has not been sworn,
Sword bright gleaming to him was raised,
And in the hand of Lleminawg it was left
And before the door of the gate of Uffern the lamp was burning.
And when we went with Arthur, a splendid labor,
Except seven, none returned from Caer Vedwyd."
Several of the greenhouse windows were broken. Thorny, muscular branches of roses reached out, groping for the sunlight. Rust streaked the upper levels of glass.
Juri, clearly on her way someplace else, glanced over at the Birdcage and paused in mid-stride, gaping. After a moment, she approached cautiously, as though the greenhouse might be haunted. With some effort, she pulled open the murky glass door, which shrieked in protest, and ducked inside among the verdant rose branches and the fading flowers.
Shiori was sitting on the bench in the center of the greenhouse. She held the watering can in both hands, staring down at it. She didn't look up when Juri came in. After a moment, she said, "I can't get the lid off."
Juri replied dryly, "I don't think they need watering."
Shiori's head snapped up, half alert, half flinching. Her eyes dilated behind the oversized glasses. "Juri-san," she whispered.
Juri huffed an impatient sigh and flicked a rose, sending shriveled petals scattering across the floor. "What you need are pruning shears," she said.
"All I have," faltered Shiori, "is this." Her eyes never left Juri's face.
"One hell of an inheritance," Juri said, not completely without sympathy.
"Juri-san," Shiori breathed again, and suddenly she was on her feet, reaching for Juri's face.
Juri caught Shiori's wrist and held it between two fingers. "No," she said, calmly.
Shiori flung her weight forward in a flurry of slender limbs and suddenly loosed brown curls. Juri side-stepped, without releasing her grip, and Shiori narrowly avoided an undignified rush out the door.
"The time for that is long past," said Juri, and her voice was very patient and only a little sad. She let go Shiori's wrist.
Shiori stood there, frozen, for a moment, and I saw her face contort with fury. She whipped around and spat venomously at Juri, "I don't want your pity."
"I'm sorry," said Juri. "It's too late for that too." And she stepped past Shiori and out of the greenhouse.
A breeze followed her, scattering withered petals. Shiori stood in the midst of the overblown blossoms, her face twisted with impotent rage. She spun away from Juri, the glasses suddenly rendering her expression blank.
Robert tilted his head back and addressed the tower directly.
"Am I not a candidate for fame with the listened song
In Caer Pedryvan, in the isle of the strong door?
The twilight and pitchy darkness were mixed together.
Bright wine their liquor before their retinue.
Thrice enough to fill Prydwen we went on the sea,
Except seven, none returned from Caer Rigor."
He got no answer, unless you counted the empty candy wrapper that a breeze tossed at his feet.
Saionji leaned over the edge of the Student Council balcony, peering out at the school, his jacket open at the collar. "It hasn't changed," he said tightly.
"No, it doesn't," said Touga from behind him. Touga's footsteps sounded crisply on the marble as he approached the railing. "It's a perfect garden. It never changes."
"Bullshit. I do some gardening, back home," Saionji said. "The point of a garden is that it grows."
"Is that really the point of a garden?" asked Touga. "Or is not that growth rather a yearning after the perfect blossom?"
"I have a vegetable garden," Saionji said drily. "The blossom isn't the point."
Touga turned to lean his elbows on the rail and smiled into Saionji's eyes. His tie was loose and the neck of his shirt open. "How unutterably pragmatic you are. Presented with a garden of perfect moments, you think only of marketability."
"I'm not thinking of marketability," Saionji said. "But the product."
"And the consumption of the product?" Touga asked, tilting his head back to expose his throat to the sky.
Saionji turned away angrily, his jacket swinging open. With a sharp motion of his hand, he shoved a black checker onto a square at the edge of the board. "King me," he said.
Touga slowly placed one of his captured checkers on top of Saionji's king. He lounged across the nearest chair, leaning chin on fist. "Did we run out of metaphors?" he asked innocently.
Saionji turned his chair around and sat down, folding his arms along the back. "You never run out of anything, much less slick lines."
"Why, thank you, Kyouichi," said Touga, reaching out to move his bishop all the way across the board. The movement bared his chest completely as his shirt fluttered open. "Check," he said.
Saionji spared a glance for the board. "Huh," he said, shoving his king to hide behind a pawn. "What are you doing here anyway, Touga?"
Touga shrugged lightly, letting his shirt slide off his shoulders. "It's a job," he said.
"Do you actually do anything?" Saionji asked. "You have assistants, after all."
"I have many duties," said Touga, stretching back over his chair like a cat.
"Besides screwing the students?" asked Saionji. "And my wife?" He fiddled absently with the unbuttoned edge of his jacket.
"I'm a very busy man," said Touga, and I wondered how his trousers were staying up, since they weren't buttoned any more. "But I always have time for old friends."
Saionji surged to his feet, jacket quite gone, and slammed his hands on the table. Little black and white stones leapt off the board. "Thanks," he said harshly, "but no thanks." With a small, hard smile, he added, "But I'll remember where to go if I want to get screwed." He spun around and marched toward the doors.
Touga reached out indolently and clicked a black stone onto the board. "Atari," he noted.
I could not imagine why so many students had stopped to listen to Robert. English was confusing enough without all of these ridiculous and jaw-cracking names.
"I shall not deserve much from the ruler of words,
Beyond Caer Wydyr they saw not the prowess of Arthur.
Three score Canhwr stood on the wall,
Difficult was a conversation with its sentinel.
Thrice enough to fill Prydwen there went with Arthur,
Except seven, none returned from Caer Golud."
There was a knock on the door of the office where Keiko, Aiko, and Yuuko sat, an old-fashioned iron-caged fan blowing papers around the room. Aiko, or perhaps Yuuko, shouted, "Come in!"
The door opened, and Nanami stepped into the room, ducking a resume as it sailed over her head into the corridor. "Hello," she said, attempting to square her shoulders.
Three voices shrieked in unison, "INTERVIEWS ARE NOT UNTIL NEXT WEDNESDAY BETWEEN 2:30 AND 3:00!"
Nanami blinked. "I'm not applying for... whatever it is."
"Oh, of course you are," Keiko said wearily. "You all are."
One of the others -- Aiko? -- said, without looking at Nanami, "Put your resume in the basket."
Yuuko added, in a well-oiled tone, "Don't call us. We'll call you."
I admired Nanami -- I could see her gathering her wits about her, and the deep breath she took. "Why, Keiko-chan, I had no idea you were expecting!" Nanami squeaked in a practiced, breathless, feminine outburst, as she crossed the room in three long, quick strides. Her hands hovered around Keiko, as if they might descend, raptor-like, on the swollen belly.
Keiko's eyes grew large as she focused at last. "Nanami-sama!" she exclaimed, heaving to her feet. "I didn't know you had come!"
"Of course I've come," Nanami said soothingly. "But you mustn't get up! Here, sit back, put your feet up! How I've missed you all!"
"Really," Yuuko said in a flat sort of tone.
"Of course," Aiko said in the same sort of voice.
Keiko docilely allowed Nanami to fuss around her, leaning back in the vast wooden chair with her feet up on an inverted trashcan. "Nanami-sama," she said again. In a lower tone, she said, "You know, you're going to be an aunt."
If this surprised Nanami at all, she didn't show it. "I know," she said. "Have you picked out names yet?"
"I did, before," Keiko admitted. "But that was before I knew who the father was."
"Ah, I see," Nanami said, crouching beside Keiko and taking her hand. "And where will you live once the baby comes?"
"Why, here, of course," Keiko said, a little baffled.
"She can't leave," Yuuko said. "Touga-sama needs her."
"He needs us," Aiko said defiantly.
Nanami beamed at them. "Of course he does! He'd be lost without all of you! I quite see that."
Aiko and Yuuko looked startled behind their pink lenses. "You do?" Yuuko asked suspiciously.
Nanami nodded. "But what if he got a job somewhere else? Would you follow him?" she asked innocently.
"He won't,"said Keiko, an expression of blank bafflement passing over her features.
"He can't," said Aiko.
"What an impossible idea," said Yuuko, severely, redlining a resume with large, irritated strokes.
Nanami drew her breath in to ask another question, leaning confidentially over the desk, but Keiko beat her to it. "I know everything's going to be perfect," she said with a kind of absolute diction that ought to be dreamy, but wasn't. "I think we're going to have a little stranger very soon."
"Soon?" echoed Nanami blankly.
"Oh, yes. He's stopped kicking." Keiko leaned back in her seat and sipped something from a mug that had a little family of black cats on it.
"That happened a while ago, didn't it?" put in Aiko while she riffled through a folder and pulled every other application to toss into the trash.
"Yes," said Keiko serenely. "Right after I came here. That's a good sign, isn't it? Akio-san said it was a very good sign."
Nanami stared at her, her mouth open. She managed to shut it and say, "Er..."
Keiko leaned forward, making the desk chair creak, favoring Nanami with a brilliant smile. "Do you want to feel him not kick?"
Nanami scrambled backwards, stumbling over one of the many overflowing trashcans that littered the floor of the office. "Oh! Ah, not right now! Thank you! I, um, have something I need to do right now!"
The door of the office banged shut behind her and she fled down the corridor, breaking into a run as soon as it became clear that the hall was empty. She turned to a door, seemingly at random, and pulled it open, shutting herself inside.
Nanami walked into a small, dark auditorium and was brought up short by the sight of a reel of film playing: a series of screen kisses spliced together and looping over and over. There was no sound, just the flickering, burnt, blurry motion.
She looked like she recognized it, but couldn't remember from where, her mouth working silently as she tried to figure it out. A trace of realization crossed her face, and she said, aloud, "Tsuwabuki."
A hand from the darkness seized her. She had just enough time to get half a startled shriek out before she was pulled hard against Tsuwabuki's chest and he was kissing her.
Her eyes went wide. She struggled briefly, pushing him away. When he didn't let go, the struggle escalated. In the darkness, I couldn't see most of what was happening. I could hear them, though.
"I thought," Nanami said, breathing a little hard, "that you wanted to be my brother, Mitsuru."
Tsuwabuki grunted in pain and, tensely, said, "I was a child then. What else could I think?"
She exhaled between her teeth. "You think you're not a child now?" Then she exclaimed sharply. It looked like he had her by the hair.
"I'm not a man yet," he hissed, "and I'm not a child either. Make me a man if you dare, Nanami-sama."
"You're... mad," she said after a moment's more panting struggle.
"Does desire make one so?" he asked, pinning her against a wall with his body.
"No. I think you're just mad," she said, and then he made a pained "woof!" sound and crumpled to the floor. She stepped around him delicately and looked down at him, her face desperately sad in the flickering light from the screen. "Oh, Tsuwabuki," she breathed. "I liked you just as you were."
Robert was not getting hoarse yet.
"I shall not deserve much from those with long shields.
They know not what day, who the causer,
What hour in the serene day Cwy was born.
Who caused that he should not go to the dales of Devwy.
They know not the brindled ox, thick his headband.
Seven score knobs in his collar.
And when we went with Arthur of anxious memory,
Except seven, none returned from Caer Vandwy."
I woke slowly. Behind my back, the rough bark of the tree (with the uncomfortable lump that always appears between one's shoulders) reminded me of where I was. Something cool-- and damp?-- brushed across my forehead.
"Anthy?" I asked, then opened my eyes to the face of a stranger. "Augh!"
Toshiro-- I recognized him after a couple of seconds-- calmly placed the sponge back into the little basin of water. "He makes that mistake, too, sometimes," he said.
"Augh," I said again, and tried unsuccessfully to press myself through the wood of the tree. Where the hell was Anthy?
Toshiro was, inexplicably, not dressed in his Student Council uniform. Instead he wore full traditional court formal dress, as far as I (not in any way a student of history) could determine. He knelt in the grass in front of me as if I were royalty, making me uncomfortably aware that I was still wearing my dueling outfit. I noted in passing that the silk was double-patterned-- white roses woven into the black silk, and golden phoenixes embroidered over.
He placed his hands together and gave a deep obeisance when he saw that he had my full attention. "Tenjou-sama, it is the ambition of my heart to ask you to be my patron."
"What?" I managed to squeak.
He went on as though he hadn't heard, his eyes modestly fixed on his knees. "My name is Akimoto Toshiro. I come of a good samurai family, and although my father cannot speak for me, Ohtori Akio-sama is willing to sponsor me in his place. I have been waiting and learning all my life for the opportunity to become your trainee."
I tried to speak, but all that came out was a strangled sound.
"I am well-trained in the sword arts, and I engage in a course of reading chosen for me by Akio-sama every day. I can play the ryuteki flute, both for performance and for dancing. I read three languages besides Japanese: Chinese, English, and French, all of them well enough to translate into Japanese. I speak English, French, and German. I paint in the traditional style with ink and can compose court poetry, although Akio-sama tells me that I do not have the delicate imagery to be considered proficient in this yet."
I tried to stop him several times during this dreadful litany, but I only managed a few weak "Ums" and he went serenely on.
"I am well-read in classical literature," he continued, and then, raising his gaze, "and also in samurai history. You will find me more than willing to perform all of the traditional duties of a samurai's companion."
There was a horrible significance to his gaze. I felt very strongly that there was something I was not quite understanding.
"Akio-sama has, in the absence of a family set of daisho, presented me with an ancient and honorable pair of swords. It would be an honor and a delight to carry them in your service."
I couldn't figure out whether I was being cast as a teacher or as a prince. I didn't want to be either. On the other hand, how could I refuse that burning, sincere gaze?
I glanced surreptitiously from side to side while Toshiro looked back down at his hands resting on his knees. No one else in sight. I hoped that Anthy had a really good excuse for leaving me to deal with this all on my own.
The silence stretched out uncomfortably.
Finally, I had to speak. "I, um, I'll certainly consider your, um, offer," I said.
He said nothing.
"It is, ah, really unexpected. An unexpected honor," I amended, trying to sound more formal. "I need time to consider your, uh, qualifications."
He looked up at that, a single searing glance I simply couldn't read. "Thank you. You honor me with your thought." He bowed again, his forehead touching the ground, then rose and walked away.
I shuddered, and waited until he was well out of sight before going in search of Anthy.
I walked onto the quad, only to discover that Robert was still there, still reading, still with his silent and attentive ring of students. I sat down on a cracked stone bench. I could hear him from where I sat, although I was on the far side of the courtyard.
"I shall not deserve much from those of loose thought," Robert read, a strange little smile playing around his mouth.
"They know not what day the chief was caused.
What animal they keep, silver its head.
What hour in the serene day the owner was born.
When we went with Arthur of anxious contention,
Except seven, none returned from Caer Ochren."
Miki was standing in the darkened room I took to be his old bedroom at the Kaoru mansion. There were two small beds, side by side, one with a large M on the footboard, the other with a large K in the same place. He stood between them, at the feet, staring with unseeing eyes at the nightstand.
Kozue stepped into the doorway. She was smiling that terrifying, long-toothed smile of hers, but she stood there silently waiting to be acknowledged.
After a long time, Miki noticed that he was being watched. Unexpectedly, he smiled, a soft, sad sort of smile. "Hello," he said.
The expression on Kozue's face changed, annihilating that self-satisfied grin and leaving her looking... wistful? "Hi," she said, the simple greeting as unexpected as Miki's response to her.
"I was just thinking," he said, watching her. "Thinking about the sunlit garden, and my 'shining thing,' and the duels, and everything else. It seemed like the right sort of place to think."
"It's hard to think here sometimes," she said, looking a little surprised at herself for saying it. "At the school, I mean."
"Yes." He nodded. "Everything there is always so... intense. Brooding, swarming around you, clinging and baying at one's heels. I know this isn't really away from it but..." He shrugged and looked around the room. "But it is."
Kozue stepped into the room, slowly walking around her own bed, running one hand absently over the footboard. "It's designed to be that way. To keep you off-balance all the time. To keep you from thinking too much."
"I always did," he said. "Think too much. That was what the stopwatch was all about." He grinned at her. "I think."
She smiled back at him. One hand reached out, hesitantly, and rested on his arm. "It's a hard place to come back to, isn't it?"
He looked around the room again, then nodded. "So many memories. So much of a feeling of... of being caught in a spiral, or a loop, or something. Feelings kept /happening/, you know? And, in my memory, it seems like the same sort of feelings, all the time. Some kind of emotional monkeytrap." He sighed, laid a hand over hers. "It can't be easy for you either."
"Me?" she said, a little startled. Then, thoughtfully, "No, I suppose it isn't."
She looked up at him again, and the madness, for once, was not in her eyes. There was, instead, something intense and magnetic. His gaze met hers, and they stared at each other for a long, long moment.
A single tear coursed down her cheek. He caught it at her chin with one of his fingers, and tilted her chin up, leaning closer.
No. I desperately tried to wrench myself out of the vision. I couldn't believe this was happening.
"Anthy," he breathed.
I jolted upright. I had been leaning against a wall, eyes too full of the latest vision for me to keep walking, but now I had to move. I pointed myself at the quad, in the right direction, and ran for all I was worth.
"Miki," she said into his mouth.
No. No. No. Oh, god, no. I was across the lawn, onto the sidewalk, I could see the gate. I dodged around someone, clipping them with my elbow. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them spin and catch themselves on a tree. I cast a breathless apology over my shoulder.
Hands at fastenings, the slithering of clothing.
I felt my knee, the one I had nearly destroyed in basketball, beginning to balk at this pace. I was on the road to the mansions, to Miki's house, it wasn't that far...
"No," I panted. The creak of a bed. "No!" I said again, turning a corner. The fever vision darkened my eyes, and I knew I would never make it in time. "No!" I sobbed. "Don't make me see. I don't want to see!"
Somehow, I was on my knees and someone's arms were around me, and I was just repeating over and over, "I don't want to see!" to blot out the sounds my ears weren't hearing.
Just before I would have had to see it, the vision was gone, like blood that someone had dabbed away with a handkerchief. Anthy was whispering, "Utena! Utena, come back!" in my ear and holding me tightly. I could only nod and cling to her.
"No more," she said. "You won't see any more. I'm sorry I left it so long, but I'm here now."
"But Miki..." I said into her shoulder.
"It's done," she said simply, "and there's no helping it. Something else I should have stopped, but I was finishing something important and couldn't leave that. I would have had to start over."
"Do you think she'll... tell him?" I asked.
Anthy turned her head to look toward the mansion. "Yes," she said.
"Monks congregate like dogs in a kennel," Robert read, his voice dropping from his previous theatrical declamation. His hands shook.
"From contact with their superiors they acquire knowledge.
Is one the course of the wind, is one the water of the sea?
Is one the spark of the fire, of unrestrainable tumult?
Monks congregate like wolves,
From contact with their superiors they acquire knowledge.
They know not when the deep night and dawn divide.
Nor what is the course of the wind, or who agitates it,
In what place it dies away, on what land it roars.
The grave of the saint is vanishing from the altar-tomb.
I will pray to the Lord, the great supreme,
That I be not wretched.
Christ be my portion."
Robert's voice had sunk to a whisper. Slowly, he opened his hand, balancing the letter on his palm. The wind picked up the many sheets and scattered them, whipping them high over his head and carrying them away over the roofs.
He stood for a long moment, alone on the overgrown grass of the quad, then turned and walked slowly into the main building.
@---Go on to the conclusion of Part Thirteen---@