"I still haven't gotten any real answers out of her."
Juri and I were lounging in the living room, drinking tea. It was quite late, and we were both wearing sweatpants and t-shirts in prelude to going to bed. I shrugged. "She'll answer real questions. I know she will. You just have to ask them."
She nodded, stretching back over the arm of the sofa. I heard her spine crackle, and she sighed heavily. "You know I don't know what became of Shiori, don't you?"
I caught myself staring at her shoulders, which had always fascinated me in school, and where the muscles glided down against her ribcage. "I didn't know for sure. Mostly I was worried about you, but other information would be welcome, of course."
"Shiori joined the fencing team after you left." She cut a glance at me, as if measuring the truth of Anthy's abbreviated story of my abrupt departure from Ohtori. "She was fairly decent, but no Miki. Won some matches. I never spoke to her outside team events, even though that made a buzz with the team."
"You and Miki left about the same time, right?" I asked, unsuccessfully trying to look only at my teacup as she scratched her belly, lifting the shirt somewhat to do so.
"Yes, which left the team without a likely candidate for captain, but at that point, I didn't care. I wanted out, without any little strings the Chairman might think to attach to me or my friends. I didn't want another Ruka."
Ruka was part of that tangled jumble that still hadn't sorted itself out in my head. I'd had very little to do with him, although I'd dueled him once and he'd played Bride for Juri another time. Juri had said that he died after that. I had no real emotions attached to him, so I mostly felt sorry for Juri.
"The last I saw of Shiori, she cornered me at my graduation party - of course I'd invited the whole team - and tried to apologize to me 'for everything.'" Juri's voice piped high on the last words, mocking Shiori's lighter voice. "I told her no, that I ought to thank her, because I'd learned a lesson that many people don't learn until much later. Never fall in love with your best friend."
I thought guiltily of Wakaba, who I'd not even tried to find in the years since the institution.
"She tried to say that she'd realized she loved me too, but wasn't sure it was in 'that way.' I told her not to bother figuring it out, because she was far too much of a bitch for another woman to want anyway." Juri laughed as I gaped. "Then I walked away. And that was the last I saw or heard of her."
"Ah," I said, still startled.
Juri rolled up to her feet, and I stood too. "Anyway, at this point, I don't much care if Akio chews her up and spits her out. I'll send her a locket to wear his picture in." She rubbed the back of her head and yawned. We were standing a foot or so apart. Our eyes met accidentally.
We stood for a long moment, and I was remembering the moment by the fountain, when her hand, so warm, traveled by my face and down my arm, and I could feel her breath on my face.
She stooped quickly and brushed her lips along my throat. "Now is not the time, Utena," she said, smiling. "But maybe, sometime." Juri turned at her door to look over her shoulder at me. "Good night."
As she closed the door behind her gently, I caught Chu-Chu by the tail to keep him from following her. I stared at the door for a very long moment, and then turned out the lights. When I entered our bedroom, Anthy was sitting up in bed, reading.
"That was very strange," I commented in a low voice as I dropped Chu-Chu and stripped off my shirt.
"She kissed you?" Anthy asked, turning her page.
"Yes... No... Not exactly," I stammered. "How are you so calm about it?"
Anthy closed her book and looked up at me, smiling. "Utena, you've been radiating raw lust ever since you got back from the airport. How could I miss it? I know that you love me, and that Juri would never be anything but a fling, so why should I worry?"
I climbed into bed, grinning. "I'm too predictable, is that it? Maybe I should run away with her and drive across the country, fighting crime and breaking young girls' hearts. That'd fix you."
"I don't think Juri does 'sidekick,'" Anthy grinned, "but I should remind you why you like me best, anyway." She wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me close.
I didn't want to let her go, so she let me stay in her bed that night. I needed the feeling that I wasn't alone in the world. I tried not to make any noise.
"Why did this happen, Himemiya?" I whispered after she'd turned the lights out. In the dark, I could hear the swords more clearly.
"Because I couldn't hide you forever," she replied. "Not without becoming a target myself. Again."
"Am I crazy?"
"Will it ever stop?"
There was a long pause, during which something corkscrewed through my left thigh. "If you believe that you can send them where they belong, yes."
Later that night, a particularly bad one made me cry out. Anthy gathered me close and stroked my back until it stopped. I buried my face in her neck. A few minutes later, in a brief respite, I found myself kissing her throat.
She gently deflected me, but I was hurt and worn thin by pain, and so began to cry. "Why not?" I asked.
"Because you're in no shape to make this kind of decision right now." Anthy brushed my tears off my cheeks with the back of her hand. "And you don't really remember me. Yet."
"But... but I love you," I whimpered.
"No," she said with a small quaver in her voice. "You're grateful. It's different."
I shook my head and motioned Juri back to the kitchen, where I put coffee on for us. Juri thumbed thoughtfully through Anthy's copy of The Complete Hothead Paisan for a moment before saying, "Huh."
"What?" I asked.
"That scar," she replied, nudging Chu-Chu out of the way and pulling two mugs down from the cabinet.
"Scar?" I'm never very awake in the morning.
"On her back. And chest. It went clean through. How did she survive?"
"Oh. That scar." I poured the coffee. "I don't know."
"What's it from?"
"I don't know." Teaspoon. Sugar.
Juri blinked at me. "Maybe it's just because I'm a cop, but one of the first things I do with my lovers is compare scars. How long have you been together? And you haven't asked?"
I shrugged and continued to pile sugar into my coffee. "It has something to do with her brother. That's all she'd ever tell me." I tasted the coffee, then added some milk. "Do you have many scars to compare?"
She stared at the floor for a moment, then looked up with a mischievous smirk. "Do you?"
But then, one night, I dreamed.
I was standing on a vast floor of brightly polished tile. There seemed to be no ceiling, just a starry sky above. Walls that were no more than a loose framework of tall windows or French doors stretched up to try to meet it.
People were all around me, moving in a slow, spinning waltz. The walls seemed to shift with them. Only the floor and sky remained constant. There was a humming sound in the air.
The tiles were of a curious design. I stood on a section that was a mosaic of white and red ceramic triangles. When I stepped back to the edge of the square, I could see that the red pieces were arranged to produce the outline of a stylized rose. The next section was gray with a black rose. And then another white square with a red rose.
I looked around me. A girl with burgundy curls and a matching uniform grinned viciously from the black square next to me. "Hello, Utena," she said, and stabbed at me with a broadsword.
I leaped up, back, and to one side, flipping midair to land on a black square. A girl with two pigtails and a katana stood on the nearest white square. "You can't keep it up, Prince," she snarled. "We have a million swords. You just have the one."
Indeed, I had a sword - a very familiar sword - in my hand. I was wearing a black uniform jacket and red shorts, and I felt very... comfortable suddenly. And confident. But the humming noise was becoming a buzzing, growing louder with each second. I glanced up at the sky and saw a million points of darkness coming down.
I was on the far side of the board from "my side." I could see two katana-wielding men standing back to back, fending off a small boy with sword and dagger and a girl with an elegant rapier. A woman with orange curls snarled in irritation at a lanky man who matched her sword with noticeable effort. A fine-boned boy clashed blades with a pony-tailed girl. A blonde girl in a yellow and black uniform called something from where she was chained to the wall.
Past them all, I glimpsed Anthy, wearing a shimmering, iridescent gown, reaching for me and calling my name.
A very tall man in a white uniform leaned across from two squares away. "Just because you've stolen my Bride, Prince, don't think you'll be able to get away. You're trapped here in this castle with me." He laughed, and several duelists near me laughed as well.
I snarled and started for him. "No, no, no!" cried a shadow from the wall. "The Prince is the most mobile piece, but to attack him, you'd have to move into check! That's illegal!"
"Illegal!" cried Shiori, slashing at me.
"Illegal!" hissed Keiko, lunging.
"Illegal!" roared Tsuwabuki, charging across the board toward me.
"Utena!" Anthy screamed.
I reacted on instinct to the warning in her voice. My leap took me diagonally across the board, between Touga and Saionji, to land next to Miki. Behind me, over the sound of metal striking into stone, Akio cursed.
"Wakaba!" I exclaimed, looking over at Miki's opponent.
"I'll kill her!" she replied, a desperate tone to her voice.
"No, Wakaba," I told her, ducking under her wild thrust, catching her hands, and reversing the sword, as I'd done once before. Miki snapped his sword out of the way with cool expertise. The black rose petals exploded upward and I caught her in my arms. "No, Wakaba, I've had enough of him using you against me."
"Utena, you need to go!" Miki told me fiercely, moving to block my back.
"Go?" I looked around quickly.
Juri glanced over her shoulder as she locked swords with Ruka. "Go!"
"Utena!" I could hear Anthy clearly now that I was closer.
The shadow - or maybe it was a different one - said, "Isn't it a shame that the Bride's movements are so limited?"
"Oniisama!" Nanami shrieked nearby, seeing Touga's rose go up in a flurry of red petals.
Wakaba stood on her own now, and held her own sword: a plain, durable longsword. "Go, Utena," she said. "I'll cover you."
I made a split-second decision as Kozue charged. I leaped. My sword crashed down and split Nanami's fetters in a shower of sparks. She stared at me, amazed, and then ran out onto the board. My feet touched the wall, and I sprang away again, sailing over Juri's head to land on a white square just behind her.
Mikage was silent as his sword trimmed some of my hair. I spun and blocked his second swing. "You!" I said through gritted teeth. "You were never real!"
He laughed. "You sound like someone crying, 'Don't take my precious memories away!'"
"You're wrong," I replied, and I drove my sword through him. He looked very surprised for a long moment. "I just want them back." As I pulled the blade back, he dissolved into a shower of pink rose petals.
Akio cried, "Stop her!" The buzzing was a whistling roar now. I didn't look back.
His minions abandoned their targets and moved to head me off. I had one narrow alley of movement left and took it. Up, two squares back, one square over, leaving Juri and Ruka behind, leaving Shiori, Tsuwabuki, Keiko, Kanae, and Touga to tangle up and block each other.
I landed on a black square and turned, slowly. Anthy stood there, smiling at me. "Utena."
"Anthy." I fell into her arms and held her, never intending to let her go again. The game dissolved around us.
"You are my prince," she murmured into my neck.
I pulled back for a moment to stare at her and, my eyes stinging with tears, said, "As you are mine."
Juri glanced at me from the corner of her eye and smiled. "Why? Aren't you and Himemiya getting along?"
I didn't mean to blush, but there it was. I turned my back to look at the mysteries on the wall. "Just curious," I said, over my shoulder.
"Not right now," she admitted. "Akane and I decided to call it quits when I got the exchange program offer. And I've not met anyone worth coming out of the closet for in Chicago."
"Oh," I replied, feeling very young and innocent, just as she always made me feel back at school. "Um. Do you still fence?"
"Oh, yes. Not recently, of course. All my teachers and sparring partners are back home." She pulled some book off a shelf. "Why is it that Naiad covers are so boring?"
"They publish a lot of stuff on a low budget, at a guess," I said, glancing over at the very plain cover. "That one's not bad."
"You read a lot?"
"Not really. Anthy goes through books like the wind, though, and sometimes I pick them up to read on the train."
"Ah. I see."
I had to look at Juri's face again, just to make sure I hadn't missed a joke at my expense. Didn't look like it. "What do you mean?"
She shook her head. "Nothing, really. I'm just interested in learning more about your girlfriend." Her mouth quirked an ironic smile. "There's more to her than met the eye, once upon a time."
We wandered toward the front of the store, carrying our books. Juri asked the woman at the register for one of the "I'm not a feminist..." posters. "I've got a co-worker in Chicago who says that all the time," she confided. "She probably won't get it, but what the hell, right?"
I watched Juri flirt outrageously with the woman and shook my head in amazement as we left the store. Juri caught my expression and grinned. "What?"
"I guess... I guess I don't even notice other women being attractive most of the time. I mean, I don't cruise," I amended hurriedly, trying to head off the sarcastic comment I could see on Juri's lips. "I just don't think about them. It's... being out with you seems to light up a whole different view of the world."
"And you also didn't expect Arisugawa-sempai to cruise the incredibly cute women you seem to have in this town," Juri added, flashing her teeth out the corner of her mouth at me. "You've never been with anyone but Himemiya, have you?"
My face burned crimson. Juri stopped dead at my expression. "Oh. Utena, I'm sorry."
"It's... it's all right." Damn, damn, damn, she always catches me off-guard and she always notices. "I don't actually... remember it that well."
She watched me keenly. "Uh-huh."
"It was... just the once. Or twice."
"Ohtori?" Meaning the man, not the school. I could tell by the snarl she put into it.
I nodded, not able to get any words out of my mouth.
She nodded back and put an arm around my shoulders as we walked down to the T stop.
I mean, he was nice about it and he knew what he was doing.
(At whose expense?)
I guess I felt guilty about Kanae-san, though.
(Especially when he accused me of going along with it without a protest, later, during the duel.)
It wasn't that bad.
(I was fourteen and I had no idea what he was doing. He just kept going, even when it was clear I really couldn't say "yes" or "no" because I didn't know what I would be saying it to. I mean, I had this warm, fuzzy dream of romance. Those little fourteen-year-old dreams rarely involve the sweat and smells and terror and pain of the real thing.)
I guess I must've loved him...
(Despite the fact that even as he was doing what he did, I kept wishing that it was Anthy's face I was looking into, Anthy's lips I was kissing, Anthy's hands touching me there and there and there...)
...and maybe he loved me a little.
(The same way he "loved" Anthy?)
It was kind of scary...
(I was terrified.)
But it was all right.
@---Go on to Part Five---@