We climbed a long, familiar spiral staircase, but these steps were of black marble that was dusty with something like ash. The steps were deeply worn in a narrow path down the center, as if hundreds or thousands of feet had walked exactly the same road.
As we rose, clouds obscured the strange horizon and the graveyard it enclosed below.
Water hung in the air all around us, coalescing on our faces and hands and clothing. It didn't rain so much as manifest. The winds were still, thankfully, but the last leg of our trip was still chilly and clammy.
I noticed that the sky wasn't sky at all, but a flat, grey plain that hung above us. The stairs led up to a white marble slab, laid over a large, square hole in the sky. The slab was wide and flat and without features, except for a tiny replica of the school's rose carved in the very center.
"It's sealed," Nanami whispered. "So nothing can get out?"
"No," Miki said slowly. "So he can't get in."
"Then who comes down here?" Saionji asked.
"Who buries the dead?" Juri responded with a pointed look at Anthy.
Anthy studiously ignored them and examined our latest obstacle. Finally, she turned. "He hasn't sealed it from the outside. As I said, he prefers not to remember this place. I think we can move it."
The steps were wide, and we all stepped up to get our shoulders under the marble. Once all of us were braced, Juri said, "All set? One, two, three, lift!"
We heaved. We strained. Just as I was beginning to see spots before my eyes, there was a creak of protest as the slab ground against something else made of stone -- the sky? We paused, took a breath, and tried again. This time it slid noisily backward. Daylight poured in.
After a few seconds, Miki called, "Stop!" When we obeyed, he crawled up the last remaining steps and peered out the narrow opening at the top cautiously.
"Okay, okay," Miki said. "We're in the woods behind the school. There's no one around."
"One more heave ought to do it," Nanami said. "Kyouichi has got to be able to get through."
"Hey," Saionji said, a little annoyed.
"Well, you are bigger than the rest of us, Saionji," Juri said. "What have you been doing, weightlifting?"
"Keiko liked it," he muttered.
I saw Nanami give him an uncomfortable sideways glance.
We moved it a little more, and we all stepped up into the light.
It was high summer at Ohtori, a hot afternoon thick with the scent of roses and pine trees. The blue sky soared overhead, and a distant jet left a con trail through the otherwise cloudless vault. Trees, tall and brooding, struck skyward all around us. Through the trees, I could just see the sparkling white parapet of the tower.
As one, we looked to where we remembered the stairs to be, but there was nothing but trees and grass and bushes. We stared for a few moments, searching.
"Where is it?" Miki asked, almost indignantly. "Where's the arena?"
"Maybe," Saionji began, unsure, "maybe it's only there if you open the gates from the outside?"
Nanami snorted. "Didn't either of you listen to Utena's story? It was a projection, an illusion, from that big machine the Chairman keeps in the tower. It was only there when he wanted it there."
There was a silence. Then Miki said, "I admit, that's a part I can't quite follow. If it was an illusion, how did we climb up it? Here, in the woods? If the top of the arena was really supposed to be the top room of the tower?"
"Magic?" I suggested. "I mean, come on, we just walked from Boston to Ohtori."
"She's right, you know," Nanami said. "Don't try to apply logic, Miki. It's real and unreal at the same time. We just have to live with it now and argue about it later."
Anthy asked, suddenly. "Who has their rings?"
We all looked at each other, then they all looked at me. "Um. Well, I do, you know," I said.
Nanami scowled, but she drew the necklace she was wearing out of her blouse. Her signet was strung on the gold chain with a small, gleaming diamond pendant. Saionji dug in one pocket. He came up with a handful of change, a Swiss Army knife, and his signet.
Juri said, "Mine's at the bottom of the Pacific." She ignored our stares.
Miki blinked and said, "Um. I lost mine. A long time ago. It didn't seem important, then."
Anthy nodded. "So there are three of you who can get us back in here when the time comes." She walked toward the gate to campus. "Come on. He's distracted with his current game right now. We have a chance to look around."
Yet again, we began to follow her, but Saionji exclaimed and we stopped. "It's gone!" he said, pointing back at the green lawn behind us -- lawn that showed no signs of the staircase we'd just come up, nor the heavy marble slab we'd worked so hard to move.
Nanami laughed, just a little. "Of course it is, Kyouichi."
At the gate, we were faced with a new conundrum: how to get out. Before, when we were leaving the dueling arena, the gate was already open, left that way by the second combatant to enter the forest. (How did it know to stay open the second time anyway? Why didn't other students stray inside?) But now, it was closed and lockedÍ and the mechanism to unlock it was on the outside.
"I could boost someone over," Saionji suggested. "How about you, Arisugawa? You're used to hopping over fences when you chase crooks, right?"
Juri favored him with a sour look. "Oh, and what would I do on the outside, Saionji? Tickle the gate open?" I inadvertently glanced at Anthy, then blushed. I don't know why. Juri displayed the back of her hands and wiggled her fingers. "No ring, remember?"
Saionji had the grace to look abashed, but he looked at Nanami and me. "One of you then?"
Miki stepped back from examining the gate. "Hush! There's someone coming from the other side!"
We all stared at him, and then, to tell the truth, we scampered like scared rabbits deeper into the dark woods. All except Anthy, who somehow was in the woods when we got there.
"Is it him?" Nanami wondered as we all settled behind a low shrubbery.
"Shhh," Saionji hissed, his hands tightening on his katana.
I heard the familiar noise: a click, followed by the rushing of water. I knew exactly when the grinding of the stone gate would start, how long it would take to swing open and up, becoming a massive marble rose over the portal.
"Duck!" hissed Miki.
We all did, even me, despite my burning curiosity to see who was coming through. Fear and caution made us all stay down a little too long. When Miki, Juri, and I raised our heads, we all gasped. The path lined with tall white urns overflowing with roses had appeared, and so had the dueling arena. It stretched up to the azure sky, looming overhead as if it were about to teeter over and crush the whole campus. A thousand memories flooded over me -- the feeling of mounting those endless stairs, the space of the arena, the castle hanging over us all like the Sword of Damocles...
"Damn,"muttered Saionji as a small door in the base of the arena pedestal slid shut quietly. "All I saw was red fabric and gold braid. No face. But that was the Rose Bride."
"Boy or girl?" Nanami demanded.
"Eh?" Saionji responded. "I don't know. I told you, I didn't see."
Nanami sighed in exasperation.
"How does the Bride get in anyway?" Juri wondered.
I blinked. "You're right. She doesn't have a ring."
We all looked at Anthy, who looked back at us. We sighed and shrugged.
"That's not the openwork gondola," Miki said, peering. "So they're not that far along in the duels, anyway."
A moment later, Nanami realized, "Hey! There was an elevator there all along!"
We all turned accusing looks on Anthy, who just smiled enigmatically and said, "Shall we go? At least the Bride opened the gate for us -- for a moment. If we don't hurry, we'll be stuck here until the Victor comes."
We stood and started on, but Nanami hung back. "Wait," she said. "Shouldn't we stay and find out who the Victor is now?"
"We probably won't know him -- or her," Saionji said, adding the last hurriedly with a look around at the rest of us. "Let's get out and see if we can find anyone we do know."
We ran through the gate, and it closed behind us a few seconds later, shutting down the flow of water that obscured the outer gate. We jogged down the steps, through that second gate. Then we all stopped. And stared.
It was perfect. It was unchanged. Gleaming white buildings shone in the sun. Lush, springy, green lawn stretched between the white concrete walkways. A few students in Ohtori turquoise drifted here and there in the distance, talking among themselves, not noticing us. The familiarly shaped buildings brought a cascade of memories.
We all stared up at the tower.
Finally, Juri cleared her throat. "We won't find anything by standing here gawking until he comes to find us. Let's go."
That got us into motion. We drifted along the walks and byways into the campus proper.
I wasn't sure where to go. It was so overwhelming. I glanced around at the others interrogatively. Only Miki seemed to have an idea, so we followed him toward the music rooms, along the fence dividing the campus from the woods around it, and the town beyond that.
Outside the building, we could hear the piano, and we all stopped. The music was magnificent, resounding, somehow orchestral despite being rendered by only a single instrument. At the same time it was eerie and funereal: a dirge for a god.
We found ourselves at the door, looking in. The person at the piano wore a uniform that momentarily made my heart stop: white, high-necked jacket with tails that trailed the floor behind the piano bench. But an avalanche of unkempt white hair was trapped by a tangle of leather at mid-back and waterfalls of lace poured from the cuffs and throat. It wasn't him.
The music crashed to its conclusion, and we all stood, frozen, amidst the echoes of its grand finish.
A woman's bitter laugh shook the pianist's thin shoulders, and she stood, turning to face us. Bereft of artificial colors, bereft of her own color, her heart-shaped face drawn oval with hunger, her blue eyes icy and hollow...
"Kozue?" Miki breathed.
"Welcome home, oniisan," she replied, draping herself decoratively over the piano. "To what should I owe this visit?"
Her uniform wasn't entirely white. There was a slash of pale blue across her left sleeve and a thick, silver braid looped from the left shoulder to the sapphire clasp that held the lace cravat in place. The waist was cut long to emphasize her hips and breasts.
"Kozue," he said again. "Kozue, your playing..."
"Yes." His twin reseated herself at the piano and began to play again, skeletal hands flowing lightly over the keys. Rich chords and amazing improvisations did not obscure the familiar tune of "The Sunlit Garden."
Miki drifted over, entranced. He aimlessly took up one of the many battered notebooks stacked on the piano and looked down. His eyes scanned over the notes scribbled there, and he gasped.
The music crashed in an angry discord. "Don't look at that," she snapped. "It's not done yet." She snatched the book from Miki's apparently nerveless hands.
"But, Kozue," he said, "it's brilliant."
"I know," she replied, glancing lovingly into the book, as if to make sure he had not, somehow, altered the notes there. "But it's not done. So you see, my dear brother, what Akio-san has done for me." Kozue's hand swept dramatically to encompass the room. "He has given me dominion over your kingdom." She leaned toward Miki menacingly. "Did you know that Mozart had a sister too? That they were a team, like us? And that she died in obscurity, despite the fact that even he knew she was better than him?"
"But you stopped playing... on your own." He drew back from her, puzzled and horrified.
"Miki's playing is so beautiful, Kozue, why can't you play as well as him?" she rapped out. "Miki's such a good boy, Kozue, why can't you be good like him? Miki's such a dutiful child, Kozue, why can't you learn from him?" I could see six silver hoops in her right ear as her hair shifted back. "Well, I am myself now, Miki, dear. I am brilliant. I am better than you. I've bested you at everything now." She took up the notebooks and strode past us to the door. There she turned back, striking a pose in the doorway -- hipshot, her right hand draped high on the doorframe. "At everything," she repeated, and held up her left hand.
A rose signet gleamed in the dim light.
"Did you miss it, dear brother?" she mocked. "Or did you just... forget?" And with that, she was gone, leaving behind the fading sound of her boots striking the tile and more of her bitter laughter.
We picked our way around to the cafeteria next, avoiding the main quad. As the others occupied a table, Juri and Anthy pushing Miki gently into a seat, I fetched some tea. Students glanced aside at us, but no one reacted. No one asked us who we were, or why we were there. After living in America for so many years, it struck me as odd that I shouldn't have to defend my presence anywhere I was out of place. I couldn't really pin down whether it should be odd at Ohtori or not.
When I got back to the table, Miki was saying, "Well, I mean, I guess it was mine. It could've been. But... I can't remember whether I lost it before or after the last time I saw Kozue. I think it was after. So how could she have gotten it?"
Saionji accepted tea with a nod, and said, "Like he doesn't have plenty of rings to just hand out. She's probably bluffing."
"We may have misunderstood her," Juri pointed out. "She could have simply noticed that Miki wasn't wearing his."
"She's so changed," Miki said despairingly. "So angry. At me? I don't understand." I pressed a cup of tea into his hand and he stared into it.
"Miki," Nanami said quietly, "let me tell you something. She's angry at the whole world. Not you."
"But why?" he asked.
"Because," Nanami said, laying one hand on his shoulder, "you're brilliant and she's not. Because she feels she's always lived in your shadow. And this is what the Chairman can give her: a spotlight."
I glanced at Anthy. Her eyes, fixed on Nanami, were full of old grief.
I suppose I was a little over-reactive, wound up as we all were. I spun up out of my chair at the sound of that tentative voice.
"Wakaba?" I stared at the slight figure in her skimpy little Ohtori uniform ("Nice, fluttering skirts," I thought viciously), holding a stack of books in front of her.
"Utena?" she said again, a little louder, a little more sure. "UTENA!"
The next thing I knew, I was on the floor in a heap with Wakaba. She had already gone through colliding with me and hugging me and saying my name over and over, and had now taken hold of my shirt and was shaking me furiously. "What happened to you? Why didn't you write? Why didn't you say goodbye? Are you all right? You look terrible! What school are you at now? There were such rumors! Did you really get hurt? Were you really expelled? Why are you here? Who are all these people? What's going on?"
I managed to get hold of her hands and stop her from rattling my teeth out of my head. "Wakaba? What are you doing here?" I asked, dazed. "You should have graduated two years ago!"
"What are you talking about?" Wakaba sat up on my stomach and looked down at me carefully. "Why do you look... so old?"
I stared at her. Shinohara Wakaba, exactly as I remembered her. Exactly. From the exuberant ponytail to the spitcurl over her high forehead, from the voice to the uniform. "Oh, god," I whispered. "He didn't let you graduate."
"I'm a junior, Utena, you know that," Wakaba said, puzzled. "You are too. Or... are you?" For the first time, she looked up at the group at the table.
I peered up at the table. I could see Anthy smiling down at me sadly. Juri and Nanami were still calmly drinking their tea. Miki was picking up the books that Wakaba had flung aside, and Saionji was rubbing the side of his head angrily.
"Sa-sa-sa-saionji-san!" Wakaba stuttered. "What happened to your hair?!"
Juri drained her tea and stood up. "Come on, we're attracting attention. Let's get outside. We can explain to Shinohara-san a little more freely there."
We stepped out into the quad, where hundreds of students were milling around, walking, talking... I'd forgotten the thunderous din that their voices made, echoed back by the high, white walls of the school. It was like walking into a wall of noise. Only Saionji, Miki, and Wakaba didn't wince when it hit us.
Wakaba clung to my arm, just like the old days. I felt suddenly naked without my uniform. Anthy took my free hand. I smiled at her gratefully.
Juri led the way around a corner where the noise was somewhat less and we were at least partially out of sight. We all stood around awkwardly for a moment, and then Juri said, "Shinohara-san..."
Wakaba looked up at Juri suddenly and went pale. "A-a-a-arisugawa-sempai?" She looked around more carefully. "Micky?" she asked, using the nickname the girls used to use for him. Then, in a somewhat flatter voice, "Nanami-san?" Her eyes settled on Anthy... and there was no recognition. But there was a small flare of anger when she saw that Anthy was holding my hand.
"Wakaba," I began, feeling at a loss, "about what happened..."
"Oh, Utena!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. "I forgot to tell you! I'm engaged!"
My stomach flip-flopped. My eyes flicked to Anthy, then back to Wakaba. "En... gaged?"
"Yes! Isn't it exciting?" She clasped her hands together and she looked up at the sky, her eyes wide and dreamy. "We've been engaged for a whole month now! He's so handsome! So kind! My very own prince!"
I glanced at Saionji. He refused to meet my eyes. "I'm, er, very happy for you, Wakaba. Who isÍ...?"
She looked back at me, then past me at the students in the quad. "Oh, no! I have to get to class! Utena, you find me later, okay? I want to hear everything, everything! Oooooooh, my own Utena-sama is back!" She hugged my arm tightly and ran off.
I shut my mouth firmly.
"She always did fly around like that," Saionji said vaguely.
"What do you mean?" I asked, angrily.
He looked taken aback. "Just... she was... enthusiastic." I narrowed my eyes at him. "Oh, come on, Tenjou, the girl's a ditz, stop looking at me like that."
I glowered. "She's not a ditz. I'll thank you not to speak that way about my best friend."
"Really?" he inquired, his temper rising to the occasion. "If she was your best friend, why is she still here? Why didn't you care enough to rescue her years ago?"
"Enough!" snapped Nanami and Juri at the same time. Saionji and I stared at them, but they were staring at each other in surprise.
We all spun as we heard the exclamations. I was expecting, of course, Kiryuu Touga. I think we all were. But we saw...
The crowd of students parted like the Red Sea before Kozue, who strode along the white pavement confidently, smiling and waving at her fans. I heard sighs of, "Kaoru-sama," and, "She's so beautiful," and, "I wish I could be like her," from some of the girls nearby.
We watched until she disappeared into one of the buildings.
"So," Juri said finally, "we know who the Student Council president is."
Anthy put an arm around Miki and led him back around the corner, speaking to him softly.
"Do we... know who the Rose Bride is now?" Saionji asked. "I mean, 'engaged,' it's got to be..."
"No," Nanami said. "It's not her."
We all stared. "How do you know this?" Saionji asked.
Nanami smiled smugly. "The Rose Bride never wore a half-carat diamond engagement ring."
Juri barked a laugh. "Good eye, Nanami," she complimented.
I slumped a little with relief.
We drifted around a bit after that, back away from the quad where there weren't so many people. We briefly stepped in to look at the fencing salle. It was empty, but Juri stared down blankly from the balcony to the workout floor. It took us a few moments to get her attention. Saionji wanted to stop in the dojo, nearby, but the door was locked.
I was hot and tired and thirsty and trying very hard not to look at the tower. My head hurt from the bright sunshine, and finally, I said, "Look, let's find someplace to sit down for a bit and think. We aren't accomplishing much this way."
"Really," Nanami said, mopping her forehead with a linen handkerchief. "It's so hot. I don't remember it being so hot here, do you, Miki?"
"I don't," Miki said, then turned a self-deprecating smile on her. "But, frankly, I don't remember noticing the weather much at all while I was... here."
"Look!" said Nanami suddenly, looking past him. She pointed to a slender young man who was sitting underneath a tree and reading a book. "He's wearing a Student Council uniform!"
I exchanged a look with Juri.
"Well," growled Saionji -- maybe his head was hurting too. "Let's go talk to him."
We all went over, Nanami striding ahead in eager curiosity. When I saw how Saionji was walking -- bringing his feet down heavily, fists clenched -- I fell into step beside him, hoping to moderate how much he vented his stormy temper on this (relatively) innocent student.
The student was very much absorbed in his book. His short, pale hair, dappled by the lights of the tree overhead, and the flash of his glasses were all we could see of his face. But it was a Student Council uniform, clearly enough: pale green trousers, white tunic, and braid.
Nanami walked right up to him. He turned a page of his book. She cleared her throat.
He looked up, startled eyes going wider as he took her in, then the rest of us, and scrambled to his feet. He bowed. "Um, can I help you?"
"Yes," said Saionji in a voice of thunder. I stepped on his foot, and Nanami cut in neatly in the interval thus afforded. I missed whatever she said as Saionji turned to glare at me.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Saionji hissed.
"We're not going to get much out of him if you scare him half to death," I whispered. "Sorry."
"Tenjou-san --" he began dangerously, then stopped and contented himself with another glare. We both turned back to the conversation in progress.
"I am Akimoto Toshiro, Kiryuu-san," the student said with another bow. "I am honored to meet you. If you will forgive my asking, are you the sister of Kiryuu Touga-san?"
Nanami looked considerably surprised. I felt considerably surprised.
"Yes," she said cautiously. "Do you know of him?"
"Of course," said Akimoto. "He is the kind advisor to the Student Council."
Nanami, for once, had nothing to say. I said, a little inanely, "So you're a member of the Student Council?" My eyes dropped involuntarily to his hand, which still held his book, one finger marking his place in it. He was wearing a Rose Signet.
"A minor associate only," he said politely, but his eyes dropped to his hand, following my gaze. He glanced over at me, down at my hand -- and froze for a split second. "So, you are... alumni, then?" He stared at my ring.
"Um, yes," I replied, caught off-balance by his quick deduction. "Back for a visit."
"How extremely kind of you," he said formally, using the opportunity for another bow to tear his eyes away.
Nanami gave me a brief sidelong glance, but if she meant to tell me something with it, I missed it. She said, "Akimoto-kun, who..." She let the sentence trail off, shaking her head. "I hope that we will meet again," she said formally. "Perhaps when we visit the current Student Council. Good morning."
"Um, good morning," said Akimoto, looking around at us. He picked up his bookbag and looked wistfully at his comfortable reading spot before walking off. No one else moved.
"Why didn't you ask him who else is on the Council, Nanami?" asked Saionji bitterly.
"I didn't think of it," she snapped. "Why didn't you ask him who the Rose Bride is? And you, Utena, what the hell did you mean by letting him know that we were alumni?"
"I didn't let him know," I said, trying not to sound too defensive. "He figured it out from the ring. And anyway--"
Saionji cut me off. "Great, now the Student Council will know that we're here for sure. Kozue might've kept her mouth shut, but that means he--"
Anthy cut him off. "I doubt very much that he'll find out from the Student Council. He won't be ignorant of our presence that long."
There was a little silence. Then: "He looked so young," said Miki, his voice full of surprise. I had thought the same thing.
Juri said, suddenly, "If you want to know who the current Rose Bride is, I can think of an easy way of finding out. We could go to the rose garden--" her eyes slid sideways towards Anthy, "--and see who's taking care of it."
We paused in one of the nearby buildings to get some water, cool off, and rest for a few minutes.
"I don't remember this building," I said, looking around at the high, vaulted ceilings and arched windows so common at Ohtori. It was beautifully cool, hidden away from the sun by all the grey stone here. I had a brief sense of how old this building might be, all these perfect white buildings standing like so many tombs, each with the same word written over the door... It did make me wonder. "Was this here when...?"
"Yes," said Nanami. "I used to take dance lessons here. Look, you can see the windows of the music rooms in the main building through the doors over there."
Juri raised her hand for silence and we all heard footsteps clicking toward us. She gestured sharply for us all to hide. I slid into a narrow niche with her and Anthy. I glimpsed the other three stepping quietly into a broom closet.
Click, click, click, click.
Then, from the other direction: click, click, click, click.
"President Kaoru," said a male voice, deep and ironic, but not at all familiar.
"Vice President Fujiwara," Kozue said, just coming into view and stopping there. We pressed further back in the niche, back against the wall, trying to be as thin as possible. The stone I'd been blessing moments before felt like it was freezing the sweat in a cold line down my spine, and it was all I could do to keep my teeth from chattering. Anthy's body heat pressed against my side. I could just see Juri's scowl by a thin line of light from the hall.
The other stopped walking just out of sight. "You don't normally come into this part of the building," he observed casually.
"We have visitors," she replied, equally casual.
"I know." He sounded bored.
Kozue smiled thinly. "They're old friends of Ends of the World."
"Failed duelists then?" Now he sounded vaguely interested
"You could say that," Kozue drawled, folding her arms and leaning against the wall. "Or, perhaps, not."
There was the slightest of pauses before he replied. "Does it matter? They're past it, Madame President. I spoke to Toshiro, too. They're old. They missed their chance. It's kind of pathetic that they're even here, don't you think?"
Kozue shrugged with one shoulder, tilting her head at the still-unseen Vice President. "One of them reached the duel called Revolution. Of course," she added, ironically, sweetly, "that was before your time."
A footstep sounded on the marble floor. "You can't mean that..."
Kozue shrugged again, smiling slightly. "I know what I know."
He laughed, shortly. "I wonder." He paused again, then: "You don't really think any of them have the power to take the Bride from me, do you?" he drawled.
"I don't think you should worry about them," Kozue said. "Perhaps you won't have the Bride when they get to you."
"Oh, really?" That piqued his interest and a little warmth rose in his voice. "Maybe you'd like to try?"
"Perhaps." Kozue produced a rose -- an intense, dark red, so dark it looked nearly black -- and extended it to him. "The arena, after school."
"Hmph." He took the rose and walked past her, dropping it casually to the floor at her feet. He was a tall, slender boy with broad shoulders and long, dark hair, one side of which hung forward to partially veil his face. His Student Council uniform had black trousers and his right sleeve was black to the elbow. At the edge of my vision, he stopped and turned back to face Kozue. "Oh, and Kaoru-san? Stay away from Hoshiko." His voice was perfectly level and conversational, but there was an edge to accompany the verbal warning. "I have as many eyes as you do." Then he turned and continued on his way.
Kozue remained leaning against the wall, watching after him, her smile fading with each passing moment to an ugly sneer. When we could no longer hear his steps, she pushed off from the wall. We heard her walk a little way down the hall and open a door. "Hello, Hoshiko-chan," echoed her voice with chilly clarity. "How are you today? Just stopping by to give you a little Student Council news..." The door closed, presumably behind her, and we couldn't hear her any more.
Juri stepped cautiously from the niche and peered around. Satisfied that the hall was empty, she gestured us out and opened the door to the others' hiding place. We hurried toward. The only available door for Kozue to have passed through read, "Dance Studio."
Outside, we leaned against the shaded but still warm wall at the back of the building and sighed with relief.
"That was close," Miki muttered.
"At least we know who the current Victor is now," Saionji said. "It was worth it to find that out."
"Interesting that it's the Vice President," Juri said, peering speculatively at Saionji.
"Equally interesting that Kozue is challenging him now," Nanami commented.
"We could sneak into the forest and up the stairs, I suppose," I said, a little dubiously.
"We could put a stop to the whole thing!" Saionji said, nodding furiously and shaking his fist, which happened to be holding his katana. I stared momentarily at his hands, fascinated by the realization that no one had questioned him about carrying a weapon around the campus. "End it all right there."
"It won't end that easily," Anthy said gently.
"No," Juri agreed. "I know a place we can watch the whole thing and not be seen." She smiled grimly. "We don't have any opera glasses though."
"Then we'd best be getting over to the rose garden," Nanami said. "I want to know who the Bride is once and for all, dammit. We're finding out everything but that."
"If it's not... your brother," Miki said slowly, "will you stay and help us anyway?"
Nanami turned an outraged look upon him, but her face softened almost immediately. Her mouth twisted into a wry smile. "He's here, and involved, so it doesn't matter whether he's the Bride or a Duelist or something else... he's part of it, and I want to get him out."
Miki matched Nanami's smile with his own, then sighed. Then he looked up at Juri. "Juri-san... why did you come with us? I mean, Nanami and Saionji-san and I... we all have people we need to help. But you were free."
Juri leveled her gaze at him, then looked away across the grassy field toward the woody outer verges of Ohtori. "Ending things. My job is all about ending things. It's just part of my personality, tidying up loose ends."
We all stood in silence after that, listening to the calls and voices of students in the distance.
Nanami looked around. "Let's move on. I don't really want to stay still under the many eyes of either Fujiwara or Kozue."
"Or..." I began, then trailed off, looking upward.
"Nor him either," Nanami muttered, then strode off to find the rose garden. We all followed.
I dropped back beside Anthy and took her hand. As we entered the hall that housed most of the classrooms, I looked over my shoulder automatically for the guidance counselor, but thankfully the halls were empty. We hurried past the classrooms and into the shadowed arches of the cloister walk which surrounded the greenhouse of Anthy's old rose garden. I felt Anthy's steps growing slower and more reluctant on the stone floor of the arched arcade and squeezed her hand reassuringly.
We stepped out onto the lawn and there it was, the glass gleaming in the sunshine. I looked up at the cloudless blue sky and thought of Greece, of the glass-hard reality of that clear, brilliant sky. This sky was brighter, but more distant. When I moved toward the greenhouse, following the others, the pull of Anthy's hand in mine stopped me. Anthy didn't move. She stood frozen to the spot, staring.
I looked at the Birdcage. It hadn't changed. Even the spray of red roses near the door looked exactly as I had remembered. I thought, suddenly, of watching Anthy remove dead blooms, prune branches and leaves, and pluck spoiled fruit from the plants in our garden at home. I tried to remember seeing her do that here, but I couldn't. I remembered her watering, cutting roses to put in a vase, and... not much else.
Anthy still hadn't moved. I turned to her, wanting to tell her that it was all right, that she didn't have to... She looked up and smiled at me. "I know," she said.
I squeezed her hand again and we started walking forward again, slowly. The others were already at the door. Saionji pushed it open.
Anthy and I walked slowly up to the Birdcage. She dropped my hand, and went forward, but not to the door. She laid the palm of her hand on the glass and looked inside. Then she looked at me. "I'll wait out here," she said, simply.
I nodded and went inside.
There was someone watering the roses. Or, rather, he had been watering the roses. He stood still now, the graceful watering can (the same watering can) held suspended in one surprised hand.
It was Akimoto Toshiro.
He looked from one to another of us with an expression of calm bafflement, but said nothing.
I could hear Nanami say, in an undertone, "Well, he does wear glasses..."
Saionji was not so subtle. "He's the Rose Bride?!"
Akimoto heard this -- indeed, could not help hearing it. "Oh, no," he stuttered. "I'm just... helping out. I mean, the... Rose Bride... is always so busy. Are you looking for...?" He let the sentence trail off, looking at us uncertainly. "I mean, outsiders aren't supposed to know about... but you're not really outsiders, are you?"
"Not really," said Juri. She stood looking out at the green lawn of the cloisters. After a thoughtful pause, she asked, "Akimoto-san, how long have you been on the Student Council?" Her voice was gentle, detached.
"Oh, only for a semester..."
"I see. I suppose it's a great responsibility."
"Oh, yes, Arisugawa-san. I am very honored to have been chosen."
"And have you dueled yet?"
He flushed uncomfortably and carefully set the watering can on the little bench. "No. I have not... I haven't yet."
"But you attend the meetings."
"Of course! I attend, and listen. When it is my turn, then I will duel." His voice trailed off a little.
"How many people are on the current Student Council, Akimoto-san?"
"Five," he replied uncertainly. I saw Nanami and Saionji exchange a puzzled look. "Arisugawa-san, I am not sure that I should be telling you this..."
Juri turned to look at him, catching his uncertain gaze. "I was on the Student Council, once," she said.
"Take my advice," she said, suddenly harsh. "And get out of it." Then she turned and walked out of the greenhouse. The rest of us followed in a ragged group, pulled along in the wake of her exit. There seemed to be nothing else to do.
Juri walked past Anthy, into the building and through to the quad on the other side. It must have been in the middle of the hour; the lawn was deserted although we could hear distant voices from the windows of the buildings. We had to run to catch up with her.
Saionji and Miki both spoke at once when we caught up. "Arisugawa, why didn't you ask--" "Juri-san, are you--"
Juri shook her head once, sharply. "It would have been no good, bullying him. We learned something, anyway."
"Even if we still don't know who the Rose Bride is," Nanami snapped.
Juri shook her head again.
We were sitting in a group under the tree where we found Toshiro earlier -- the same tree, I recalled, that Wakaba and I sat under for lunch many days. Saionji and Juri had gotten us all cans of iced tea. The sun had become unbearable after the rose garden, and we needed to cool off again before our already short tempers began to flare.
Students went by: chatting, running, shouting, jumping around on the masonry -- all the things one does between classes in high school. Heat waves shimmered up from the pavement, distorting everything slightly.
"Damn, it's hot," Nanami muttered. "I wish I'd dressed for this, rather than real November weather."
"Shall I throw you into the swimming pool?" Saionji inquired sweetly.
"NO!" Nanami snapped, eyes wide, starting up from her seat. When we all stared at her reaction, she settled back down and put up a huffy veneer. "What a stupid thing to say, Kyouichi! How childish!"
He eyed her sidelong. "Oh, right, you had a dip already today," he commented, taking a drink.
She glared at him. "Well, you're all ready to fight, despite the fact that you were obviously beaten not once, but twice today."
He bristled. "That's different."
"Oh, stop it," Juri said tiredly. "We've all had a very long day -- or several days, or something -- and we don't need to make it worse by poking each other's sore spots."
Into the ensuing silence, Miki said, "My fingers still hurt, Anthy. Is that supposed to happen?"
"Only when you think about it," she said, although she took the cryptic edge off with a smile.
We watched the students again. I spotted Wakaba in the crowd, chatting cheerfully with a number of other girls, but I couldn't summon the energy to call out to her. I thought I glimpsed Kozue again, moving among a mob of admirers, but I wasn't sure. There were other faces I thought I recognized, scattered here and there among the crowd. Were they just people who looked like my friends from six years ago? Or hadn't they been allowed to graduate either?
I had expected it to feel familiar. I had, I told myself. But I hadn't expected it to feel so unchanged. As though we had never left, or had never been here...
Nanami proved herself more observant -- or, perhaps, less distracted -- than the rest of us again. "Hey, look. It's Fujiwara."
Miki raised his head and peered into the late afternoon glare. "There's... someone walking with him, I think. Well, several people."
Juri's head snapped around from contemplating the ocean. "Let's get closer. The Bride may be there."
Saionji sprang to his feet and began to walk fast. We all fell into step with him. I gripped Anthy's hand tightly. When I looked over at her face, her lips were pressed tightly together and she was frowning.
Fujiwara stopped, and the gaggle of students around him stopped as well. He turned toward us slowly. We all stopped about twenty feet from him... all except Juri, who continued another several steps before halting. She wasn't looking at him.
I looked where she was staring. A girl, dressed in the standard Ohtori uniform, stood there with her hands clasped modestly before her. Her hair was captured into a traditional bun at the nape of her neck. She looked down at the ground through large, round, wire rim glasses.
Juri's voice sounded like it hurt her to use it, and her hand drifted to her throat, just under her chin, where the bruises had been earlier. Takatsuki Shiori raised her head and peered up at Juri without a single hint of recognition.
"I didn't think he'd try to put them on someone else," murmured Anthy in a shaking voice. I glanced at her involuntarily, unable to read the rising flood of emotion in her eyes. "I left them behind."
Fujiwara stood with one hand resting on his hip, watching Juri's face dispassionately. "I gather that you know my fiancee?"
Shiori smiled vaguely at Juri. "Excuse me. I am Takatsuki Shiori. And your name...?"
An expression of... horror? fear? anger?... flickered briefly over Juri's face before she mastered herself. "Pardon me," she said, bowing. "Arisugawa Juri."
Some kind of recognition made Shiori's eyes widen slightly. "Arisu...?"
Fujiwara's eyebrow rose. "Well, it's very nice to meet you, Arisugawa-san," he said perfunctorily. "Unfortunately, Shiori and I..."
"I was under the impression," Juri said, ignoring Fujiwara, "that you and I had graduated together, Shiori-san."
Shiori blinked owlishly at Juri, her mouth opening and working. "Arisugawa?"
"I have a pressing appointment," Fujiwara pressed on, sharpening his voice and taking Shiori's hand.
Juri locked eyes with Shiori.
A light went on behind Shiori's eyes. She suddenly burst out, "Juri-san!" Then she covered her mouth with her free hand and looked guiltily at Fujiwara. With visible effort, she recomposed her expression into the sweet blankness it had when we had approached.
"Didn't we, Shiori?" Juri pursued hoarsely, not even sparing a glance for the Student Council Vice President.
Shiori's eyes were large and innocent as she said, "But you left me behind, Juri-san. You always left me behind in so many things. Why should it have been different this time?" And she allowed Fujiwara to lead her off, though she kept watching Juri's face for a moment, almost greedily.
Juri's face remained blank as the Rose Bride turned away. Then she turned and stalked blindly back through us, moving inexorably through students who had, apparently, gathered round curiously.
I looked at Anthy and she shook her head, very slightly, and let go my hand. When I looked at her, confused, she just nodded after Juri. I blinked, looked at Juri's departing back, and jogged after her. Miki had started toward Juri, but had stopped, his conflict evident in his face. I passed him with a pat of reassurance (that I didn't really feel).
Once free of the students, Juri had left the path to return to the tree. She stood, one hand resting on the trunk, staring at the spectacular sunset. Ohtori always did have spectacular sunsets.
I approached cautiously, and laid a hand between her shoulder blades. Her shirt was damp with sweat -- her jacket lay at her feet, where she'd left it in her hurry to catch up to Fujiwara. We stood like that for a few moments.
Juri finally looked around at me, eyes stormy, and bitterly snarled, "Loose ends."
Have you ever really thought about the two of them? (asked Miki, while Anthy was elsewhere) What are they? Who are they? How old are they? Where do they come from? Why are they here? Why is he wasting his time in some boarding school in Japan? Why is she working a regular job, living in an apartment in Boston? What did they do before Ohtori? Did Ohtori exist before them, or did they create it? Does Ohtori exist without them? Without him?
And what is this game he plays, where we still wander the edges of the board? We are pieces, colored by the hand that touches us, set against whoever his pawns and knights and princes are now. Colored by her hand, really.
I so want to believe that we're in the right, that we're coming to the rescue, that we're really the princes this time. But can we? Can any of us really be a prince, after all? What is a prince, anyway?
@---Go on to Part Ten---@