Part Seven: Conventicle


At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;

and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

from "Eurydice" by h.d. [1917;1925]

I was annoyed when I realized that Miki had never emailed me. I called his room, got his answering machine, and left a short message for him to call or email me, whichever he preferred. I reflected sadly upon that month's telephone bill for a moment after hanging up. Then I went to class.

My head was full of cotton all morning and afternoon. I couldn't think my way out of a paper bag, and my lab partner was particularly cynical about it. So, after class was over, I stopped by the gym, changed into sweatpants and sweatshirt, and went for a run to try to clear some of the cobwebs.

Jogging over the BU bridge, I could see the spot where we'd met Saionji and Touga the day before, and my thoughts naturally turned to considering the events of that evening. The sky turned a crystalline blue as the sunset faded, and the moon was high and fat. I turned my face toward Boston, away from the little park. With some effort, I coaxed my mind to stop spiraling around the whole incident. I took a deep breath and kept running.

The Charles River rippled strangely, something about the light and wind combining to make it look like it was flowing backwards. Or maybe the tide was coming in. The vast red triangle of the Citgo sign was growing and shrinking across the river, and near it, the Hancock building's weather tower flashed red.

Flashed... red?

I wasn't on the path along Memorial Drive. I was running through a vast hall, dimly whitewashed by moonlight from the high windows. There were archways watching me, silent spaces that gaped above and beside me. I had walked this hall before. Some part of my mind realized that my footsteps were ringing on marble floors, not thudding onto the path. My feet faltered naturally at the point the guidance counselor usually stopped me when I was coming in to class.

Echoes of feet and voices, murmuring all around me. It was cold, like a damp basement, and smelled musty. I heard a drip of water, breaking through the sounds. I shivered. I heard distant voices cry, "Utena-sama!" It was joined by others that churned in a weird distortion. I thought I heard Wakaba's voice.

Crisp footsteps clicked across the marble tiles in the darkness yawning ahead of me. I glimpsed a white boot in a stray beam of moonlight. I backed up slowly.

A flash of red satin and white.

I turned and ran for the front door, but skidded to a halt on the slippery floor when I saw that it was closed.

The footsteps stopped. Not even voices hung in the dank air.

I turned again, sharply, to look behind me.

Looming over me was the tall white uniform, high-collared and decked with gold braid. A white cloak, lined with red, flapped in a nonexistent breeze.

There was no one in it.

One of the glove-tipped sleeves reached for me.

I screamed and threw myself backward -

-- and I was on my backside and one elbow on the path by the Charles. I looked around wildly, garnering a concerned look from a fellow runner.

Sweat was pouring down my back.

The Hancock tower was a steady blue. Good weather. The heavy moon hung in a sky unmarred by the Ohtori tower.

I ran all the way home.

I lounged on the bed in the hotel, looking out the window at the sluggish, brown Mississippi and the soaring, gunmetal-gray arch. Anthy sat next to me, rifling through our maps and guidebooks.

"London, Cairo, Istanbul," she recited, sorting through our travels. "Athens, Venice, Munich, Paris, New York, Washington, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis..." She stopped, holding a stack of maps in one hand and looking at me. "Utena, what do you want to do?"

"I was just thinking about dinner..." I began.

"No. Where do you want to live? What do you want to do?" She moved to sprawl on her stomach between my legs, leaning her arms across my hips to look up at me. "You're free now. We haven't seen a sign of him since New Orleans."

"Well," I said, "I guess I'd always thought I'd go to college someday."

She nodded, chin on her hands. "Any ideas where?"

"Uhh. I never gave it much thought beyond, you know, local stuff."

She smiled. "Then where would you like to live?"

"Somewhere that's not hot all the time," I said quickly, and she laughed. Abashed, I continued, "What about you?"

She shrugged. "Everywhere is the same to me." Her eyes dropped to Chu-Chu's latest dilemma with map-folding on the floor. "As long as I'm with you, I'll be fine."

I reached down and pulled her up onto me, so I could lie with my arms around her. "Just someplace... nice, then. I really liked it when people didn't, you know, stare at us in New Orleans."

Her arms slid around me and she lay her head on my chest. "San Francisco? You liked it there, right?"

"Except for the scare." We'd spotted a tower that looked just like the Ohtori tower one day. I'd hyperventilated until Anthy pointed out that it didn't have a balcony on it, nor a school attached to the bottom.

"Or Boston, maybe. There's lots of colleges around both places."

"Y'know, there's this issue of me not graduating from high school."

"Oh, don't worry about that," she said, her smile crinkling the corners of her eyes. "I'll help."

Anthy caught me around the waist as I staggered into the apartment and nearly fell flat on my face. "What...?" she asked, a little startled, but already becoming cool and competent.

I didn't remember much of the run. But I started to gasp out what had happened beside the Charles.

Somehow, sometime later, I was sitting in a hot bathtub, hands clasped around a hot mug of tea, and I was saying, "But, Anthy, it was just like a dream, except it wasn't a dream, I was awake and running and knew exactly where I was and it wasn't like a dream at all except for the uniform -" my voice broke against my remembrance of the thing -"I mean, no one started singing or turned into a car or anything..."

She finally laid a hand over my mouth to stop me. My babbling ground to a halt reluctantly, but I suddenly discovered that I could breathe again.

"Drink that," she said, rising from her crouch.

"What is it?" I asked, drinking obediently.

She quirked a smile. "Do you really want to know?" Then she walked out to the living room.

"Tastes funny," I muttered after her, suddenly in a foul mood.

The kitten came in at that moment and distracted me by hopping up onto the edge of the tub and patting at the surface of the water. I warned her about falling in, but she didn't pay any attention to me.

Anthy came back in a few minutes later. "I called Miki. He's on his way. Just needs to get tickets." She laid a hand on my forehead, then leaned down to kiss my nose. "It will be all right, love. It just confirmed what we knew last night: Touga has told him."

"How did he find me, though?" I asked. "I thought... I thought that thing you did hid me."

She sighed and looked out the bathroom window. "I think it must be on its way back to you. And he knew where we were. It was just a lucky guess."

"It was damned creepy. Like... like walking in a haunted house. And the uniform..." I shuddered.

"I know. Things have certainly changed." She continued to stare out the window.

Nanami pushed Chu-Chu into my bath with a clumsily affectionate headbutt, and barely avoided tipping in herself.

I put the stamp on the envelope and set it in the stack of outgoing college applications. "There. Finished." I looked out the window over Seattle and the vast grey-blue stretch of Puget Sound toward the craggy, snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains. "I hope I get into Berkeley. I really liked it there."

We'd settled temporarily while I applied to colleges. I'd been fretting for weeks. Was I doing the right thing? Should I just get a job slinging coffee at Starbuck's?

Anthy's hands rapidly moved through the length of her hair, twining it together. She said, distractedly, "Of course you'll get into Berkeley. We should start looking for apartments now."

It took a few moments for her comment to sink through the daze of essay-writing that had built up over the past few days. Then I looked around at her sharply.

"Anthy, you can't! You can't just make them accept me!"

She looked at me with a startled and puzzled expression. "What do you mean?"

I sighed and unclenched my hand before I broke the pencil. "It's cheating. It's bad enough that I'm telling them I graduated from some school I've never heard of before, without any ... influence. Do you see what I mean?"

Anthy finished braiding her hair and sat on the edge of the desk, the braid trailing into my lap. She looked down at me. "No, actually, I don't."

I opened my mouth and shut it again. How to explain? She watched me patiently. "It... it wouldn't be fair," I said finally.

Her brow furrowed. "None of it is fair, though," she pointed out. "Other people use their parents' money, or a knack for those tests, or plunging cleavage. Everyone uses what influence they have. Why are you trying to be fair in a system that's not?"

I gnawed on my knuckle for a moment, feeling sad and confused and frustrated. "Anthy, I'm just... it just doesn't feel right." I looked up at her. "It's just not right."

She studied my face gravely, and I could see her trying to piece together my meaning. Then her eyes widened and she looked away quickly, staring out the window over the water and mountains. "Ah. It's one of those things, isn't it?"

I didn't understand what she meant. At least, I couldn't put it into words. I stood and turned her chin gently toward me. For just an instant, I saw an infinitely deep sadness in her eyes. She blinked and it was gone, and she stretched up to kiss me.

When she pulled back, she flashed a smile. "I should have known, Utena-sama. I'm sorry."

"Hey," I protested, sitting down again, "don't call me that."

She laughed and looked back out the window. Several large, white ferries were laboriously churning over the Sound to and from the peninsula.

"I'm still not used to living with a prince, you know." Her voice was hollow.

"Anthy," I said, reaching for her again, trying to find something to say to make her sound less... distant - no, not distant, but I couldn't think of a word for it. "I love you. Please don't -"

She slid off the desk into my lap and pressed her face into my neck. I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. We sat like that for a long time.

I got a rejection from Berkeley a few months later, but got into Boston U, so we moved to Boston.

Miki emerged from the gate looking grim and travel-weary. His gray slacks were rumpled and his white shirt - probably crisp when he put it on - had long since wilted into wrinkles. He carried a long leather case in one hand and a leather bag over his shoulder. Pausing just out of the lane of traffic, he swept rather limp bangs back from his forehead, looked behind him, then looked around the waiting area. His eyes lit on us with considerable relief.

As I stepped toward him, I stopped dead and stared. A slender blonde woman with a high forehead and pixie face - incidentally looking fresh as a daisy in her own khaki slacks and pale yellow blouse - emerged from the gate and strode up to Miki. He turned to smile nervously at her, said something, and gestured our way.

Nanami looked at me.

Her eyebrows arched, contemplating my well-faded jeans, my flannel shirt, my BU t-shirt, my ragged hair that needed cutting. The sharp (yes, definitely knife-edged) gaze swiveled to Anthy, taking in her black skirt and leggings, the peasant blouse I'd bought her at King Richard's Faire, and the length of her frowsy braid. Then she sighed heavily, shook her head, and murmured something to Miki. His smile grew more nervous by several degrees.

Finally, I managed to make my feet work. Anthy paced me exactly, and even took my hand (which act drew Nanami's eyebrows even higher than I thought possible), though for my comfort or her own, I didn't know.

We stopped about six feet from them. Miki exploded in a cloudburst of anxiety: "Tenjou-san, I thought it best... I called... I was afraid..." He paused, took a deep breath, and said, "Tenjou-san, Himemiya-san, you, of course, remember Kiryuu-san."

Anthy found her tongue before I did. "Of course we do. A pleasure to see you again, Kiryuu-san." I strained, but couldn't hear a single note of sarcasm in my lover's voice.

Nanami, for her part, scowled, then sighed again and extended her hand. "Himemiya-san, I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak to you and Tenjou-san. Miki-kun has been telling me things..."

"Yes," Miki broke in, "and we probably shouldn't stand around here and talk."

I put a companionable arm over Miki's shoulder. "It's all right, Miki-kun. You're here and we're here and it'll be all right. So why don't we go downstairs --" I glanced at Nanami. "-to pick up your baggage, and we'll get on home."

Nanami was eyeing Anthy critically. "You're older," she said. "I didn't expect you to look older."

Miki gasped, but Anthy smiled a thin Mona Lisa smile. "Everyone gets older, Kiryuu-san."

But Nanami's comment made me look at Anthy again. We'd been together continuously for years now, so I hadn't actually noticed, but of course she did look older. She looked like a 20 year old woman. Like we were the same age. I'd just taken it for granted. I noticed Miki, once he'd gotten over his horror at Nanami's apparent rudeness, studying Anthy's face too.

Nanami looked satisfied by the reply, though, and she and Anthy shook hands with a certain formality that made me suspect an unspoken truce. A little cajoling got Miki into motion - I guessed that there was more to his nerves than a trans-Atlantic trip in Nanami's company could account for. We needed to get him home and some tea into him.

"I'll apologize in advance, Kiryuu-san, for our apartment," I said as we moved to the baggage pickup. "We're students, and, well, we live like students."

Nanami's smile turned on me, and I wondered that I couldn't find any malice buried in it. "It's all right, Tenjou-san, I'm very familiar with student life. Though I'm not one myself yet, my boyfriend and his friends all are. I spend a lot of time in little flats with art posters to cover bare brick walls and such. I'm sure it will be fine."

I smiled back too broadly, inheriting a bit of Miki's nervousness. "Do you mind cats?"

There was a tiny tic at the corner of her eye, a slight rictus in her smile, but she said, "Oh, no, not at all. Do you have a cat?"

"Yes," I replied, suddenly embarrassed.

"Her name is Nanami," Anthy said innocently.

Nanami's cheeks flamed red, then just as suddenly paled. "I... see." She cleared her throat. "I'm sure it will be fine. Just don't get us mixed up." She laughed, and it was a laugh I hadn't heard in a long, long time, the formal, upper-class, Japanese laugh behind her hand. It drew attention from nearby bewildered Americans. My realization that Nanami, of all people, was just as nervous as I was did much to relieve my feelings.

It took us less than a week of hunting to find the perfect apartment. It helped that the landlord's wife was Japanese, I think, though I did have to ask her what schools she'd attended. Thankfully, Ohtori wasn't on the list. Talking to her made me homesick. I suppose I hadn't really thought about the fact that I hadn't seen my country for years, and hadn't exactly had an opportunity to say goodbye.

I stared at the old cherry tree outside, wondering what it would look like with flowers on it in the spring, as Anthy wrote the check to the landlord.

We were alone, finally, in the echoing, empty apartment. Anthy put her arms around me from behind and lay her forehead between my shoulder blades. I squeezed her hands. I heard Chu-Chu squawking in the kitchen: he'd gotten caught inside a cabinet.

The running was over. This was our home for at least the next four years. I...



"How are you paying for everything?" I turned in the circle of her arms and looked down at her. "I never thought about it... what a spoiled idiot I am! Going along, with you paying for everything..."

Anthy laughed into my chest and I stopped mid-rant. "What?" I asked finally, a little irritated.

"Utena," she said between snickers, "just don't worry about it. We have plenty of money."

"From where?" I asked. When she looked at me blankly, I said, "It has to come from somewhere! Not even you can make money out of thin air. So whose money do you end up with?"

She closed her eyes and shook her head. "You really don't understand, do you?" she asked softly, but I think it was more to herself than to me. "Money isn't real, Utena. It doesn't come from anywhere or go anywhere, not really. It's just... a polite fiction. Especially these days," she added thoughtfully.

I didn't understand - to be honest, I still don't, not really - so I frowned and looked thunderous until she patted my cheek. "If it will make you happier, I'll get a job."

That disconcerted me. "But... but I should too..."

"No," she said, and I had a sudden feeling that it would be unwise to argue this point with her. "This is your time for college. For enjoying yourself. Let me take care of you for this time. Later, when you're done, we can renegotiate."

"But what will you do?" I asked. "Take care of roses, like you said once?"

"No." She turned away to go rescue the by-now-hoarse Chu-Chu, but I caught a mix of mischief and... something else... in her face as she said, "I think I'll drive."

It was a long ride in the car back to our apartment. Our course took us around Boston rather than through it, and we were passing through ugly industrial regions bordered by strip malls and somewhat shabby blue-collar neighborhoods. Nanami was silent, but I could feel an escalating tension from the front passenger seat. I sat in back with Miki, occasionally pointing out items of interest.

I had just commented on the Mystic River when Nanami said, "Why are we here?"

I blinked, having to bring my mental train around to the correct station. "You mean, why are you and Miki here, in this city, or why are we driving through Medford?"

The younger Kiryuu favored me with her most withering glare and, apparently, she'd been working on the quality of her glares.

"I called Miki," Anthy supplied, passing another car precipitously and making us all grab for support. "I called because Utena wants to do something about stopping the duels."

"You think the duels are going on again? Without us?" Nanami asked incredulously.

Anthy proved herself no slouch in the glare department, and threw a dollop of condescension on top. "Kiryuu-san, the duels were going on for a long time before you showed up. I assure you that they've continued."

Miki winced and stared out the window. Nanami gaped for a moment, then shut her jaw with a snap. "All right. But weren't you integral to the game?"

"The Rose Bride is integral to the game," Anthy said.

"And you aren't the Rose Bride?"

"Not anymore."

"Who is?"

"That," I said, "is what we need to find out, Kiryuu-san."

Nanami lapsed into silence again, staring out her window.

Back at the house, I made some tea while Anthy got Nanami settled in the guest room. Miki was sprawled carelessly in our one comfortable chair, cheek leaned on fist, staring off into space. I set the tray down on the table and myself on the couch.

"So," I said, "what's wrong?"

He jerked his head upright and blinked startled blue eyes at me. "I... what? What makes you think something's wrong?"

I just gave him a look. He looked guilty. "Okay, so I guess I'm not very good at hiding things," he admitted.

"So," I repeated, "what's wrong?"

He shrugged with one shoulder, trying for nonchalance. "Robert and I had a fight just before I left."

"I bet you two have a lot of fights," I guessed. "What's different about this one?"

Miki blinked at me again, so I understood that my guess was shrewder than I'd expected. "Well, he never walked out on me before." He sat forward, dangling his hands between his knees and hanging his head forward. "I... he didn't want me to leave, to come to America. He pleaded and shouted." Miki rubbed one hand over his face, into his hair. "I told him I needed to go, some people were counting on me, that I'd promised. I finally said it had to do with high school, hinting that it was related to Kozue, and he just exploded. I don't understand." His shoulders shook, and I put a hand on his back. His voice was ragged with the tears he didn't dare shed on the trip over. "When I wouldn't stay, he threatened to leave me. I said it was too important not to go, that if he-" Miki swallowed hard "-loved me, he'd understand that. He said I didn't care a bit about him, that I was doing this just to test him, that I was some terrible passive-aggressive, manipulative neurotic and I'd been just teasing him along because I needed to feel superior to someone. And then... then he stormed out."

"Oh, Miki," I said, at a loss for words. I hesitated for a moment, then knelt next to his chair and hugged him. He cried almost silently into my shoulder. I could hear Anthy talking with Nanami in the guest room, and I was thankful for my lover's preternatural perceptions.

I petted his hair and stroked his back and let him cry. The kitten came over to investigate, and she gently patted his shoulder with her tiny paw. It made him laugh and reach out to scratch her under the chin. Finally, he sighed and pulled away, still keeping his head down and rubbing his eyes. He asked, in a small voice, "Utena, I'm not like that, am I?"

I pushed a tissue box over to him and sat back on the couch. "No, Miki, you're not."

He blew his nose, then sat with his head down, dangling his fingers for the kitten to play with. "I haven't heard anything from Kozue. I tried calling there for her, and I got her dorm but was told that she was out. So she's there, Utena." He looked up enough for me to see his eyes through his bangs. "I have to get her out. Away from him. Now."

I exhaled slowly and raked my fingers through my hair. "That's the plan, Miki-kun. That's the plan."

"Anthy," I began, as I wiped down the big window in the living room. The tree outside had fulfilled all my fondest dreams of furious blooming. White and pink petals covered the ground like a very late snowfall, and more drifted on the cool April breeze. Tulips and daffodils that Anthy had put in the ground the previous fall put up spikes of fiery reds and clean yellows among the petals.

"Yes?" She sat back on her heels from scrubbing the kitchen floor.

"When is your birthday?"

She stared at me, startled, for a few moments. Then she smiled. "Oh, we used to celebrate it on February twenty-ninth."

I raised an eyebrow. "So you only had to celebrate once every four years?"

"I was used to celebrating every four years, with a very big celebration." She paused, smiling, staring into space. Then she shook her head.

I gazed out at the tree for a few minutes, and I could feel Anthy watching me. Then I heard her start on the floor again.

She said, "After the big celebrations ended, I had a regular yearly celebration. On... oh, what would it be now? July... July... sixteenth? It's hard to remember now. It may have been June or May."

I frowned at her. "Why did you stop?"

A smile quirked the corner of her mouth and she said, tone dripping mischief, "Oh, you know, it gets less important as you get older, and I was getting sort of tired of it all anyway. Then the empire fell, and no one had time anymore."

"Anthy," I said dangerously.

She gave me her best blank, innocent look -- which, considering all her years of practice, was good indeed -- and said, "What?"

I grumbled into silence.

But I took her out to dinner on July sixteenth.

"So," said Nanami, drifting over to the window with her tea. "What exactly is all this about? Miki says you've got a lot to tell me." Both her voice and her back were stiff.

I looked at Nanami's back and wished heartily that Anthy hadn't decided to go out to the garden. How was I supposed to answer this?

Miki helped unexpectedly. "Nanami, decide whether you're going to believe them or not right now. Don't waste their time and mine. I remember enough of what happened to believe them."

I snagged the kitten out of mid-air as she launched herself at Miki's shoulder from one of the bookcases, and cuddled her under my chin.

Nanami turned around to look at Miki, eyes narrowed. "I remember more than you do," she asserted. Her eyes flicked to me for just a second, then went back to Miki. "Yes, the whole thing is unbelievable. But we lived through it, so we must believe it, or... Well, we have to believe it."

Miki nodded curtly, an expression which reminded me of Juri suddenly. I wished she were here. Nanami would have listened to her. Maybe.

I heard some noises from the greenhouse and knew that Anthy was singing in the garden. I thought it was a vast improvement from her days of silent contemplation of the flowers, but I know that not everyone agrees with me.

Nanami turned back to the window and put her cup of tea down on the windowsill. "That said, what are you planning, Utena?"

The challenge in her voice was unmistakable and I couldn't help sighing. Nanami - the kitten Nanami - bit my chin, and I put her down absently. "I'm not planning this all by myself--" I started to point out.

I was interrupted by Anthy's voice -- not entirely on key, but certainly clear enough -- drifting in:

"Qui chante pour les filles
qui n'ont pas des amies
Qui chante pour les filles
qui n'ont pas des amies
Pour moi, je chante guere
car j'en ais une jolie!
Aupres de ma blonde,
qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon,
Aupres de ma blonde,
qu'il fait bon dormi'!

Nanami turned around to stare at me with an expression of outrage, and I felt my face burning. Anthy sang this song to me when she was feeling mischievous, insisting that I was "her blonde" despite my protests. I didn't speak French, but she'd translated it for me, and her expression while she'd done so convinced me that she meant every scrap of innuendo.

Miki laughed suddenly. "Nanami, don't look like that. It's not as if you didn't know."

"That's not it," she said thickly, turning away so that we couldn't see her expression. I looked at Miki, wondering what was going on, and got a look of sympathy from him, which was nice but didn't tell me much.

There was an awkward pause. Anthy came around the side of the house and was visible from the window for a moment, a white rose tucked behind her ear. She found the trowel she was looking for, waved it at me (and Nanami and Miki) through the window, and went back to the greenhouse.

"Well," Nanami's voice was suddenly mocking, familiar. "But you are the winner of the Duels, the unbeatable Tenjou Utena! Surely you know what to do." I stared at the well-dressed woman standing in my living room and suddenly saw the arrogant girl, dressed in her black and yellow uniform, in her place.

"Look," I said, trying to speak to both the woman and the girl. "That's all over. We have a new situation to deal with now, and we need to work together."

I wished Anthy would come back inside. She's so much better at this sort of thing than I am.

"Together!" said Nanami sarcastically. "I wish I knew what you think you need us for."

"Look," I said again, nearly losing my temper. "Do you want to get Touga out of there or don't you? I wrote to you because I thought you cared about him."

At this point, Anthy's song rang through again from the garden:

"Que donneriez-vous, belle,
Pour avoir votre ami?
Que donneriez-vous, belle,
Pour avoir votre ami?
Je donnerais Versailles,
Paris et Saint-Denis!
Aupres de ma blonde,
qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon,
Aupres de ma blonde,
qu'il fait bon dormi'!

Nanami turned to glare at me again, but her gaze shifted to something distant. Her eyes widened and her face went nearly gray. I set my tea down hastily.

"All right," she whispered, girl and woman together. "I'm... I'll help." She sat down heavily in a chair, then looked up at me, her blue eyes narrowed again with some of the old expression of sharpness. "I think I see why you need me."

I heaved a sigh of relief and sat down myself. "Good." I could still hear Anthy's singing, but could no longer make out the words.

Miki seated himself on the couch next to me.

Anthy interrupted us at that moment, coming in from the back bedroom with an armful of chrysanthemums in fall colors, yellows and oranges and reds and browns. She passed into the kitchen, still humming, and arranged them in one of her many big vases. Then she carried them out to the living room and set the vase on the low table, where Nanami, Miki, and I all stared at the flowers as though they might bite.

"Anthy," I said, regaining the use of my voice first. "Where did those come from?"

"The greenhouse," she answered, She was still wearing the little rose behind her ear.

"But there aren't any--" I started.

"Aren't there?" she answered.

"I hate history," I snarled, throwing my book on the floor. "It's boring, it's complicated, and it's boring."

Anthy looked up from her own book, which was far slimmer than mine. "What are you reading now?"

"The American Revolution." I slammed back into my chair. "Like I care."

She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Can't help you there, I'm afraid." Her nose was back in her book. "If you ever need to know about the court of Maria Theresa, though, let me know."

I stared at her for a few moments, then said, "Who?"

"Maria Theresa, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Great family woman. Terrific wardrobe." Anthy turned a page.

"Ah," I said. "Been reading about her then?"

Anthy gave me a strange look over the top of her book, then went back to reading. "No."

"Ah," I said again, then picked up my textbook and returned meekly to reading about the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

We drank tea and chatted quietly for a while, though Nanami was unusually quiet. I was content to let everything settle for a while and let the conversation travel over lighter subjects than Ohtori. But then the doorbell rang.

Anthy rose to answer the door as if she'd expected the summons. I frowned as she stepped out the door of the apartment. Miki glanced aside at me. "Utena?" he said.

"We'll see," I said.

The door opened again and Saionji stepped into the room, wearing civilian clothing: jeans and a JASDF t-shirt. Miki shot to his feet. "Saionji-san!" Nanami rose more slowly, and didn't say anything.

Saionji glanced around the room quickly. Cool violet eyes settled on me, and he gave me the barest sketch of a nod. Then he stepped forward with a surprising smile to shake Miki's hand. "It's good to see you, Kaoru-san."

"Good to see you, Saionji-san," Miki replied. "I didn't know you were in Boston."

"I came to talk to Tenjou and Himemiya-san," the big man said. "I'm planning to leave tomorrow, but I needed to talk without Kiryuu butting in..." Then his eyes caught on Nanami.

"I assume you mean my brother, Kyouichi." Nanami was standing -- no, posing -- near the window, arms crossed in a manner both imperious and casual.

Saionji opened his mouth, then closed it. My eyes fell back on the chrysanthemums. There was an awkward silence.

Chu-Chu screeched distress as the kitten Nanami, who had evidently been stalking him as he sat peaceably on the kitchen counter eating crackers, pounced. The two of them went rolling over and over, with Nanami biting his head and thumping him with her back paws. They tottered off the back of the counter, which opened into the living room. I made a dive for the entwined pair.

Unexpectedly, Saionji snatched them up. The kitten, offended by everything and everyone, bounded off, leaving Chu-Chu in the palm of Saionji's hand. "You!" he exclaimed, staring down at Anthy's oldest friend.


I could see a wave of rage gathering behind Saionji's brow and started to move. Anthy cleared her throat.

Saionji shook himself all over and gently set Chu-Chu back on the counter.

Nanami watched all this with narrowed eyes, then relaxed minutely. "Well, you have excellent timing, Kyouichi. We were just going to talk about the Victor's plans."

Anthy and I sighed, quietly, at the same moment. Our eyes met, and hers were positively dancing with amusement. She enjoys the strangest things.

Thunder crackled in the distance. Startled, I scrambled to my feet. "Anthy, we should get down from here."

Anthy sat on the stone outcropping, watching the storm moving in from the west. The sun was in danger of being blotted out by the thick black cloud. We'd both been sitting there, watching the thunderhead boil up to the jet stream and flatten out as it hit it, marveling at the majesty of the thing at a distance and speculating about the rain and lightning and wind happening beneath it. She looked up at me. "Why?"

I blinked at her stupidly for a moment, then said, "Because we'll get wet if we don't!"

She shrugged gently. "We'll get a soaking whether we're here or running down the hill. We can't get to the car in time now."

Thunder made me jump. I glared accusingly at the great looming thing, then looked back to Anthy. "We'll get struck by lightning!"

"We won't."

"How can you be so --- um? Uh? Anthy?"

She distracted me as the storm skidded toward us over the landscape. Trees rolled away from us on both sides of the hill, and a few stood a good fifty meters away on the hilltop with us. Thunder cracked and rumbled more and more often until even Anthy couldn't distract me any more.

"Anthy, we're gonna die up here," I said faintly, my breath being sucked away by a shuddering chill wind from the storm.

"Hardly," she whispered in my ear as large, cold drops of water began to splash against my bare back. I yelped, and she laughed.

"Someone's going to see us," I said through gritted teeth, my fingers tangled in the grass on either side of her shoulders.

"During this storm?" she teased. "Nonsense."

I could hear the hissing rain moving along the hilltop toward us, and then we were inundated. It was cold, and there were tiny pieces of ice coming with the rain.

"Hail!" I complained, moving to cover her more completely.

"Here, let me help..."

I was so thoroughly distracted that I barely noticed the storm after that, and only registered its existence again when it had passed. The sky came out blue again, with the sun shining hot down on us. Wet, chilly, and grinning like a pair of children, we dressed each other and began our descent from the hill.

A half mile further, we encountered an old tree that had been split by one of the near lightning strikes. Steam still curled from its sundered center, and flinders were scattered as far as a football field away. Anthy moved to the blasted trunk and ran her hands over it gently, humming something I couldn't catch. After a moment, she reached into the broken place and pulled out a splinter of wood as long as her forearm, darker wood than the rest of the pieces and charred along one edge. I looked down near my feet at the shattered limbs -- heavy bunches of tiny green apples sprawled out from them.

We made our way along silently for a long time, until I noticed another storm cell moving toward us. "Aw, damn," I muttered.

"What?" she teased. "Didn't you enjoy the last one?"

I sighed and rolled my eyes. "Of course I did. I just... I'd rather get to the car, and it's going to be another hour at least of hiking." I paused to shift my jeans, which were sticking to my thighs in uncomfortably stubborn folds. "And these wet clothes chafe something awful."

Anthy held my gaze solemnly for a long moment before shrugging. She turned toward the stormclouds and raised the splinter of wood aloft in both hands. Her hair streamed behind her in the breeze as she stood motionless.

For a long time nothing happened. Then something disrupted the darkest part of the storm -- it twitched, rolled... then shredded like cotton candy. The bits of grey cloud scattered into small, puffy clouds on a blue sky.

I stared at Anthy. I don't think I'd ever been more terrified.

She lowered the wood and cradled it in the crook of one arm. She didn't look at me. She just said, "Even broken things have power. Sometimes, I forget."

Nanami's hands were trembling around her teacup. Miki stared at the floor. Saionji eyed the flowers. I took a long drink of my now-cold tea to wet my throat after retelling the story of my life after the Duel Called Revolution, as well as a detailed account of recent happenings in Boston and what we'd been able to discover about current affairs at Ohtori.

"So," said Miki, "what we don't know is who is now the Rose Bride."

"Or how he plans to retake you, Himemiya-san," Saionji added, turning his gaze out the window.

"The point," I said, "is to avoid finding that out by going to the source of the problem before he makes his final move, which will undoubtedly kill or maim the present Rose Bride."

"Whoever it is," Saionji said distantly.

"Whoever it is," Miki agreed.

Nanami carefully set her cup on the table. Then she raised her eyes to look around at us. "I don't care who the Rose Bride is," she said in English, with clear enunciation. Slipping back to Japanese, she added, "But it is clear that my brother is in this deep, and he is being used. I want to get him out."

Anthy looked up from her own teacup. "I don't think you realize, Kiryuu-san, that your brother is one of the people most likely to be the Rose Bride."

After a short, startled silence, Saionji began to laugh, although a slight hysterical edge crept in. "Touga... the Rose Bride! Oh, that's rich! I want to see him in the dress." He continued to laugh.

"What do you mean?" Nanami snapped. "My brother can't be the Rose Bride. The Rose Bride is a woman!"

"A man or woman can play the role," Anthy said. "All that's required is... willingness. Just because I'm female doesn't mean that the next person will be."

"Kiryuu-san is deep into the situation, no matter what," I said hurriedly. "And it sounds like Kozue is likely in a similar situation. I agree that we need to extract them both, if we can."

"I will kill him," Saionji said suddenly. "I will kill him for what he's done to my family."

Anthy rubbed her eyes. "He knows what's happening. He knows we're gathering. We need to act quickly."

Miki leaned forward in his seat, finally looking up. "The plan you were working on, Himemiya-san?"

"My plan is... hard to describe," Anthy said, turning her teacup over on the saucer and turning it counter-clockwise three twists. "Mostly, it consists of getting to Ohtori via... a route that he would not expect." She picked up the cup and gazed into it for a long moment. With a nod, she set the cup back on the saucer. "But I think we'll succeed."

"The Chairman," said Nanami, "is going to be pissed." She sounded pleased.

"Well..." I dangled the kitten in a hammock of my shirt-front to amuse and distract her (er, the kitten). "Yeah. Probably."

Miki looked worried. "Nanami is right, Utena. What can we expect him to do?" Although he was addressing me, his gaze slide over to rest on Anthy, who was letting the kitten bite her fingers through my shirt.

There was an awkward pause in which we all waited for Anthy to pick up the thread of the conversation. "Well, he's been... pissed - " I inserted the English word - "at us for a while now, and as I've said, it's been mostly threats. Intimidation. But I don't think..." I trailed off, looking helplessly at Anthy. I knew what I wanted to say, I just didn't know how to say it.

Anthy looked up as though only just now becoming aware of the subject matter (I frowned, as the mannerism -- entirely illusory -- reminded me a little too sharply of the Rose Bride). Then the illusion shattered as she said, rather gently, "We haven't been an active threat to him until now. That's changed."

"It certainly has," said Nanami. "I am NOT going to let him keep my brother," she finished, and I realized, with a sharp inward jerk, that she had not once referred to Touga as "oniisama."

"People are his... support," said Anthy (leaving me wondering what word she was originally going to use). "His strength. He's not going to let anyone go without a fight."

"That's obvious," snapped Nanami. "Tell us something we don't know."

"He'll try to do the same thing to us," I interposed suddenly.

Miki looked away. Anthy reached over and put a hand on his. Nanami sighed. There was a long pause.

"So," Nanami said a little querulously, "Is there a decent Japanese restaurant in this town?"

I was awakened one night by... something. A conviction that something wasn't right. I lay there, listening for a sound, watching for a flicker of light, trying to sense anything that might explain my sudden surge of adrenaline. All I could hear for several seconds was my heartbeat thudding in my ears. Nothing else.

Nothing else at all.


I reached over for Anthy, swallowing a sudden sick feeling in my stomach. I touched her shoulder. Her skin was like ice. I groped for the light, fumbling desperately, knocking over a glass of water on the bedside table before I could finally turn the switch. Anthy lay wide-eyed and staring. Still. Very, very still.

I caught a glimpse of something moving in the mirror.

At first I couldn't understand what I was seeing. The mirror was perfectly black, reflecting nothing -- not the lamp, not the bed, not even me staring at it. Then I saw the stars.

They were moving, ever so slowly -- or else so fast they became only curved streaks of light spinning around an unfathomably empty center. The galaxy in the mirror rotated on an invisible axis, and amidst those stars struggled something, a shape, a shape that could shine like the sun if only I were close enough...

Anthy! I tore myself out of the hypnotic revolution and shook her. Her skin was still cold and oddly resistant to the touch.

"Anthy!" I took her by both shoulders and shook her hard, screaming her name in a voice which tore my throat.

Something exploded within me, a bright light that seared my nerves and flooded my eyes, but I heard Anthy gasp. She was alive. Her arms closed around me spasmodically, as I sobbed my relief. She held me tight against her, turning her body to meet mine, and I crumpled against her shoulder. After a moment, I realized that she was crying too.

I held her and tangled myself with her and we lay together as she cried for a long time and I trembled quietly into stillness. Finally, she lay quiet and I dared to ask, "What happened?"

She was silent for a long moment and then said, "A nightmare."

"But, Anthy--" I had to stop and steady my voice. "You... you weren't breathing."

"I was suffocating."

I swallowed. She took a deep, careful breath and then spat out some of my hair. She laughed weakly, but her voice was still frightened.

"I was dying."

"What?" I half sat up, so I could see her face. "You were?" My voice broke again. "Anthy..."

"Haven't you ever heard that if you die in a dream, you die for real?"

I mulled this over. Then, cautiously, "But... can you die, Anthy?"

She sighed. "No."

Dinner was finally over. At Anthy's suggestion, we'd gone for a bit of a walk around Davis Square so Miki and Nanami could have a chance to stretch their legs and we could all digest our meal. It turned into a longer walk than I expected, I guess because everyone was fairly distracted with their own thoughts. As we stood on the island in the middle of the Powderhouse rotary, though, I wondered how we'd gotten there.

Anthy drifted around, inspecting the plantings as if this little spit of land were a botanical garden. Nanami and Miki seemed to have just come to the same realization I had and were looking at the cars rushing around and through the complicated intersection. I hated to be in the car when Anthy drove through this thing. I opened my mouth to suggest heading home, when I noticed someone coming toward us.

She was a tall, large-boned, rangy woman with skin several shades darker than Anthy's. Some of her black hair was caught into a few shoulder-length, beaded braids, though the majority of it was short and natural. She wore a flowing, tiered, blue and white skirt and a large, loose white blouse. Her stride was determined and graceful. Besides all that, there was some quality about her that drew the eye, some confidence and power in every line of her that made me want to know her, to talk to her, but which scared me a little at the same time. The clean line of her jaw was determined, her dark eyes sharp and lively. She gave me a little smile as she passed me, and I had the feeling that she knew everything there was to know about me.

She came to a stop in front of Anthy, who had turned as if she'd expected her all along. They both bowed to each other very slightly.

The woman held her closed fist out in front of her, palm up. "La Sirene gave me this for you. And so it returns to you." Her voice was deep, touched around the edges with the flavor of the West Indies.

Then she turned her hand, opening her fist, and I knew that I'd seen that motion before. Something sparkling fell.

Anthy caught it neatly, then held it up to inspect it. My Rose Signet.

I heard Nanami whisper to Miki, or maybe to herself, "The mermaid gave...? What the hell does she mean by that?"

"Thank you," Anthy said. "I appreciate your help."

The woman shrugged eloquently.

Anthy looked over at me. "Utena, give me your hand."

I took the few steps to her side, which drew me into the other woman's aura of presence. I'm afraid I stared at her for a few moments. She smiled at me kindly and gestured my attention back to Anthy.

Anthy took my left hand and gently pushed the ring onto my third finger. I shuddered once when it settled in its old, accustomed spot. The other woman watched gravely.

I swallowed hard and looked at my hand. "I... I never thought I'd be wearing his ring again."

The woman laughed suddenly, startling me. "Oh, child," she said, grinning mischievously, "it was never about him. It was her. It was always her." With that, she bowed slightly to Anthy again, turned on her heel, and sailed back the way she'd come. I could hear her laughing until she crossed the street.

"Shall we go home?" Anthy asked. "We've had a nice walk, but it looks like there's a storm coming."

The crowd, my teammates, and the other team all applauded as I was carried off the court.

"If this is as bad as it looks, Tenjou, you're out for the season," Coach said, looking up from wrapping ice around my rapidly swelling knee.

"Dammit, I'm fine!" I protested, not feeling fine at all, but not wanting to let the team down.

"Look, it's all well and good for you to pull this Japanese stoic routine with the other girls," he said kindly enough, though I wondered again how he had managed to keep his job so long making comments like that. "But you and I both know it hurts like hell... you're pale as a sheet, for pete's sake. I know you want to sit through the game, but I'm sending you to the hospital."

I could feel the blood drain out of my face at that. "No! No, Coach, please, I'll just call my roommate and have her pick me up. I'll go home and keep ice on it."

He scowled. "Look, Tenjou, don't give me trouble. Terry's gonna drive you over to MGH to get that x-rayed and checked. You look like hell." He stood up and signaled the team manager.

Terry was a tall, thin, platinum blonde who knew exactly how to hook my arm over her shoulders to help me out of the gym. She was unusually silent as she mostly carried me out to the street.

I hopped along, every motion blacking my vision with pain. The idea of going to the hospital twisted my stomach into a tight knot. Not a hospital. Not a hospital.

Little fireworks went off occasionally in the darkness of my sight. I watched my good foot hit the ground. Hop. Hop. Hop.

"Wait here while I open the door, Utena." She gave me a long, considering look and, I think, a smile. My vision was blurry, but I did my best to focus on her face. She seemed even taller once I was slumped against the car. "Then I'll carry you over. Don't worry. I'm used to carrying girls."

I nodded again, and looked up at the car.

It was a red convertible.

I screamed and tried to throw myself backward, succeeding only in lunging sideways onto the next car in line and sprawling over the trunk. There was a bright blaze of agony and everything went black.

When I woke up, I was in the emergency room and Anthy was holding my hand. "Your knee will be fine," she said. "You just need to take it easy for a few weeks. You also have a mild concussion from where you knocked yourself out on the car."

I remembered everything. "Anthy?" I said, surprised at how weak my voice was. "It was... the car... my ankle..."

Anthy smiled gently and smoothed my hair. "You really were in a lot of pain, love. It was a Volkswagen."

The day dawned bleak and cold. I know because I saw it. Anthy and I had been up much of the night, unconsciously invoking our old celebration of our last night in any place. She had finally fallen asleep. I knew I needed rest, but my mind just wouldn't settle down. Her head was pillowed on my shoulder, her body half-draped over me. I was warm and comfortable... and terrified that this was going to be the end. I couldn't bring myself to sleep through a single second of her soft breathing or warm skin or vivid scent.

It was a long morning.

At some point, the sun came out, filling the room with a wan golden light, and Anthy opened her eyes. And smiled. She always smiled when she woke up and saw me, and I always loved her just a little more for it. This time, I pulled her closer and kissed her hard.

"You've been fretting," she accused a few minutes later.

"Yes," I said. "Did you expect anything else?"

She sighed. "No, not really, though I wish you wouldn't."

"Aren't you worried?"

"Yes. But 'worried' and 'fretting' are two very different animals."

"All right. Yes, I've been fretting and I shouldn't."

"You are who you are."

"But you cleaned the grout in the bathroom over the past three days."

"I am who I am."

She rolled on top of me and we lay shrouded in her hair, which had come out of its sleeping braid four hours earlier.

"Do you think Juri will come with us?" I asked.

"We'll have to wait and see. I left a message on her machine the same time I called Miki."

"We should get up and make breakfa - oh, hey, don't do that! We have guests..."

By the time we finally got up, both our guests were up and dressed. I was grateful for Miki's tact in defusing the fuming Nanami: when we got to the living room, it was obvious that she'd been regaling him with travel tales for quite some time.

We took them up the street for brunch, where Nanami startled all of us by paying. When we got back to the apartment, Saionji was sitting on the stoop, waiting for us. Anthy, Miki, and Nanami went inside, and I was just about to run upstairs to ask our neighbors to look after the kitten for us for a few days, but Saionji caught my arm.

"Tenjou," he said. "I... want to apologize."

I paused and blinked at him. "For what?"

His eyes didn't want to meet mine and he was patently uncomfortable. "I... I'm sorry for the phone call I made to you. The one that turned into... that Keiko walked in on."

I tried being breezy about it. "That's all right, Saionji, unavoidable problems in light of..."

"No," he said. "That's... the argument was embarrassing, yes. There are things that she said... that I should tell you, or Himemiya-san. But I can't. Anyway. That's not the part I was apologizing for. It was... the first part."

I started to say something, but stopped. He was clearly trying to say something important to him, and it would be rude for me to try to deflect him again.

"I don't hate you, Tenjou." He raked his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry I said it. It's just... I couldn't understand... you and Anthy. But now I've seen... and I could never treat her as well as you do. I know that. So. Just... keep doing it. Okay? And maybe I'll learn something by watching you." He turned abruptly and entered the apartment.

I had to force my jaw shut. As I went upstairs, all I could think was, "Well, well, well."

"Anthy, are you sure you want me to come with you?" I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, trying to loosen the black tie and adjusting the matching jacket and waistcoat Anthy had chosen for me. "Are you sure you want to go?"

She came to the door. My eyes widened. She wore a floor-length, black sheath dress that shimmered iridescently as she moved. It was held up by a strap at her right shoulder, where a bouquet of miniature roses bloomed crimson. "Yes, I want to go. And I want you with me. Why else would I have gone to this trouble?"

The company she worked for as a courier was holding a holiday gala at one of the downtown hotels. Anthy told me that it was company tradition to dress to the nines.

I tweaked the tie uncomfortably. "All right," I said dubiously.

"Come on, the limousine is waiting."

"Limo --?" I said, startled, as she dragged me by the wrist out the front door.

When we got settled in the back of the big car, I half-joked, "So, does everything vanish at midnight?"

She made a face at me and stuck out her tongue.

We rode in silence for a while.

"Anthy," I began, cautiously. "Are you out to anyone at your company?"

"No," she replied serenely. "Not yet."

The limousine pulled up in front of the hotel and the driver held the door for us. I stared up the stairs at the doors.

"Do you remember the dance party at Ohtori?" Anthy asked softly.

"Of course." My voice was a little ragged. "You were terrified -- hated to be around that many people, the center of attention. It was terrible... and wonderful at the same time."

"The terrible part is behind us now," she said, and I turned to meet her eyes. She smiled up at me and the world melted away. "Just behave like a prince, my love. It comes naturally to you. We can face anything together."

I lent her my arm, and we went up into the crowd, which parted before us and let us into the grand ballroom. Light shattered on the vast crystal chandeliers and spattered the dark ceiling with spots like stars, and a sea of music swept us onto the floor. Together.

"Bring your weapons," Anthy told us. "If you have any, that is," she added with a glance aside at me.

Of course, Miki had his rapier. Saionji had a katana. Nanami had the dagger of her sword-and-dagger set. I felt a little naked. I wondered how they'd all gotten those things through customs.

"Food? Water?" asked Saionji.

Anthy nodded. "Bring water. Do not, under any circumstance, drink water or eat food of the place I am taking you."

"Then I'd like to take some food, just in case someone gets separated, or we get lost," Saionji said.

She looked at him sidelong. "If someone gets separated, they won't need the food. And we won't get lost."

We all exchanged worried glances, but followed her out the door.

I was a little surprised to find us getting off the bus at the front of Mount Auburn Cemetery. I turned a puzzled - and a little alarmed - look upon Anthy when no one else was looking. She smiled and squeezed my hand.

"It's chilly," Nanami said, looking around at the trees that had been so beautiful just weeks before, but were now bare grey sticks. Without a word, Saionji draped his denim jacket around her shoulders. She looked surprised, but smiled at him hesitantly. He looked away.

Miki glanced aside at the stone building with the Information booth. "Should we get a map?"

"No," Anthy said. "Follow me."

"Well, then, I suppose I've arrived just in time," said a familiar voice.

"Juri-sempai!" Miki exclaimed joyfully.

Juri hugged Miki, shook Saionji's hand, and exchanged nods with Nanami. Then she surprised me with a bearhug. "All right, all right," she said. "Greetings are over. Let's get on with this."

Anthy set off down the road that runs parallel to the street, and we all followed.

I said, "Thought you weren't coming?" to Juri in a low voice. She smiled, shrugged, and shook her head, which I took to mean that she didn't want to discuss it.

We passed a large monument consisting of a polished granite ball. It made memories stir, vaguely, but nothing rose to the surface. A couple of people with binoculars strolled by.

Anthy turned toward the interior of the cemetery.

Nanami, looking around, said, "What kind of place is this, anyway? This doesn't look like a usual cemetery."

"It's a botanical garden, too," I said. "It's really beautiful when things are blooming. Right now... well, it's pretty still, but..."

"They have roses twined around every signpost," Miki noted.

"And some very large trees." Saionji pointed to one vast, spreading purple beech. It was too big for two people to put their arms around, and ragged clusters of leaves still clung to its branches. We crunched through leaves piled up to our ankles.

"Looks like someone put up a piece of Greek temple there on the lake," Miki said, pointing ahead to tall, white pillars and platform, overlooking a small lake. Though it was bleak, a single white swan swam on the lake, his neck in a beautiful arch as he seemed to meditate upon the water, making the scene strangely serene.

Anthy turned to skim past that memorial. I craned my neck to spot the name on it, but couldn't find it.

"Is it getting warmer?" Juri whispered to me.

A flash caught the corner of my eye. A brilliantly orange bird streaked around in front of us and then disappeared into the woods.

The sun came out. Anthy turned again toward the interior of the park.

No more people appeared. We crested a hill and descended into a little vale with a pond. I frowned. I didn't remember that pond at all, and I'd thought that Anthy and I had visited every body of water in the garden.

Anthy turned to glare back at me. "Stop it, Utena. You're making this more difficult. Just go with it."

I obediently tried to make my mind blank.

Miki pointed. "None of these stones has anything written on them."

Nanami frowned and squinted at one. "I can almost see something written there, but it's not like it's been eroded off the stone. It's more like it's on another stone that happens to be in the same place."

"That doesn't make sense," grumbled Saionji.

The sun was hot. I squinted ahead through the glare.

Anthy pressed through the place where two yew bushes came together. I let everyone go before me - though I had a little disagreement with Juri on who would be last - and finally pushed through into full summer.

Red and orange poppies flamed around me. My eyes burned with the color of the vast field and the blazing sun overhead. It stretched to all the horizons I could see.

"How...?" Saionji was saying.

Anthy shrugged. "If you try to figure it out, you might knock us all out of here. It's an in-between place, and not very stable. I wasn't sure I could reach it."

"Where to now?" Juri asked.

Anthy turned and pointed. Just beyond her, a raw wound gaped in the earth. Clots of red clay were burst out beyond the edges, torn roots thrust out of the walls, and poppy plants were dangling and wilting sadly in the opening. The wind whispered of mourning through the flowers.

Nanami looked at it, then around at the field. "If there are chariot tracks in the dirt, I'm not going in."

Anthy turned and walked towards it. "I doubt you'll find those in this day and age. More likely tracks from Goodyear tires."

Why did I say no? (said Juri, much later) I explained as best I could, at the time. I'd been living in the real world and didn't want to go back. I guess I didn't say why I didn't want to... but there, I've never been very forthcoming. Not about things like that.

Everything... seemed so real there. More real than reality, I suppose. Even now, although by all rights it should seem foolish and dreamlike, I remember what it meant to be a Duelist, to have Revolution before me as the prize I might win. To know that anything might happen. Anything.

But... the Duelists were so young. They were all so vulnerable in so many unexpected ways. All of them dreaming of the one thing they could never possibly have. But the impossible seemed so real. (She glanced aside at me, and raised one ironic eyebrow.) And no one could work through the wanting... no one could learn how to face that hope on real ground. That hope was the flame and the Duelists were merely moths drawn into it.

Well (she laughed gently, stretching and glancing at me over her shoulder), I guess that goes for me too.

But I left. I got out. I grew up. And I learned about vulnerability, and strength, and... other things. It doesn't mean that I desire nothing in the world. All it means is that I'm not willing to be led by that desire.

And I don't like to be defenseless. Who does? (She shook her head and leaned back against the sofa, stretching her arms along the back and tilting her head back, to gaze meditatively at the ceiling.) Although in the end, we're all vulnerable somewhere. All of us.

@---Go on to Part Eight---@