The Master of the Phoenix Fire

(or, How the Series Might Have Ended If Tanith Lee Had Written Utena)

by Jude

Note: This is a purposeful pastiche, an approximation of Tanith Lee's style. I don't really write like this. I never use the word pantherine with a straight face. So please do not take my violaceous prose too seriously.

Although the door shut softly, the final click echoed for a long time in his ears. He sat frozen, a statue of exquisite detail, carved in the finest-grained mahogany, as the sun traveled the blazing azure sky outside. And when the sun's rays slanted golden-rose across his office wall, he stood slowly. Leaving his laptop open, with the Ohtori rose spinning endlessly at the center of the screen, he left the silence of that place behind.

He moved easily across the verdant summer campus, raising a graceful hand in response to the many greetings made in voices tremulous with yearning. Students and teachers stared with burning eyes after his pantherine shape. The deputy chairman was like a god to them: infinitely desirable, gently uncaring, and ultimately untouchable.

The locks of the mansion doors fell open wantonly at his touch. With a last glance around in the slate-grey twilight, he passed inside, bootheels clicking on smoky-veined marble.

The hall inside was lit only by a lamp's dim glow spilling under a nearby door. A soft jazz beat accompanied by the muted cry of a saxophone was apparently sufficient to mask the sound of his footsteps; no one emerged. He made his way up the steps, hand trailing over the cool, smooth, wrought-iron bannister.

With unexpected violence, he cast open the door at the head of the stair. Thick, honey-sweet incense recoiled from him, and then rushed around him into the dark vaccum of the hall. Across the thick carpets stood a tall, four-poster bed whose curtains had been replaced by myriad silken sheers. The bed floated in this pastel mist, and its sole occupant raised her head in a measured movement. Kanae opened her eyes and said, in a husky voice, "Oh. It's you."

He let the door shut behind him and strode to the side of the bed. His boots commanded no sound from the floor here, so only the spasming of his hands into fists suggested any element of menace. He gazed down at her, at her pallid cloud of hair spread over the pale ruby satin pillow, the translucent, dead white skin of her throat, the vulnerability of her curving flesh barely concealed by her snowy silk nightgown. She looked up at him with wide, dilated eyes, then glanced at his hands, so uncharacteristically knotted with some kind of effort, straining toward her, then back to his sides. Regarding his face with interest, her voice a low monotone, she said, "You still can't do it, of course. You can never kill me."

His broad shoulders slumped, and his hands hung limply at his sides.

"Poor Akio-san." She raised herself to her elbows, letting her head fall to the side bonelessly, and looked up at him through her lashes. "The jar can help us both."

Perhaps his hands trembled just a little as he pulled open the smallest drawer in the strangely girlish white dresser whose edges were painted round with delicate flowers. He drew forth from the neatly folded scarves--all ivory, all alike--a small, plain, alabaster pot. The translucent sides betrayed the presence of something dark and misshapen within. He drew the lid off and extended the jar toward her.

She arched her neck so she could look inside, and whatever was there lit her dull eyes with greed. She pulled herself closer to it, and reached out with the tip of her tongue to pull some of the thick black tar from the hidden depths. This seemed to sap the last of her ethereal strength, and her body fell languidly back onto the bed.

Akio closed the pot and set it aside carefully before lowering himself onto Kanae and pressing his mouth to hers in a passionless kiss. They shared the bitter salve of the opium between them, sipping at the drug's ecstasy.

At last, he lifted himself away from her to sit on the edge of the bed. She cast herself to and fro dreamily, still savoring the first burst of bliss. He watched her as if watching a tiny snake drowsing in the sun, unsure when it would wake and whether it was a viper or not.

She smiled up at him at last. "Oh, Akio-san," she breathed, reaching up to stroke the sharp line of his jaw. "I do love you, you know. After all, who else could have taken such good care of me the other day when I grew careless with my jar? And who else would have remembered that I love apples so very much?"

His gaze dropped to the floor. "Anthy," he murmured.

"Yes, your sister *does* remember things like that, doesn't she?" Kanae said, almost jovially. "I will have to give her a gift again. One that she can't use to clean her glasses."

"She's gone," he said abruptly.

Kanae frowned, her brow wrinkling prettily, as she had trained it through long hours of watching herself in the glass. "What do you mean, gone?"

Akio's head sagged forward, his pale lock of hair obscuring one eye. "She's left."

The frown departed, replaced with a look of alarm, the dark, dilated eyes wider than before. "How could that be?"

He barked a harsh laugh, a choked sound that was nothing like the sensual, musical notes that usually fell from his throat. "The binding, so long ago, so mocking," he said, shaking his head.

"What?" Kanae now sat bolt upright. "What?" One hand shot out and gripped his chin hard, drawing his face around to hers. "You will tell me. Now."

One of his hands began a gesture that stopped abruptly, and then the hand fluttered down like a stricken bird. "Your ancestor," he said, not meeting her eyes, "said there was only one way we could escape."

"And?" she demanded.

"If we could but find true love--" Akio's tone was light and mocking "--we would be free."

"Your kind cannot love," Kanae said slowly, as if remembering ancient lessons.

"You appreciate the humor, of course," he replied, bitterness thicker than opium filling his voice.

"So," she said, still slowly, still thoughtful, "how could Anthy..."

"Apparently, we can *learn*," he snarled. "All it takes is someone willing to love us first. Truly."

They sat in silence as dense and impenetrable as the incense smoke that clouded the air. "The enchantment on the school?" Kanae asked at last.

"It is unbroken," Akio replied heavily.

"Then you can continue the games." She relaxed back into the pillows with more of her customary lassitude, releasing him at last. "I *require* you to continue the games."

He shot unsteadily to his feet. Two restless steps took him to the shrouded window where he could just see the glow of the lights on the campus if he leaned his forehead against the bone-smooth wood of the sash. There was a sour, ashy taste in his mouth that had been, for one meteoric instant some days earlier, searing and sweet.

Kanae laughed suddenly, her beautiful laughter rising with uncontrolled mirth. He could feel the edges of it, screeching against him like fingernails on a blackboard, and he turned sharply to face her.

"Poor Akio-san," she said, and giggled like the schoolgirl she really was. "Who will be *his* prince?"

His vision darkened with tears he would not--or perhaps could not--shed. As always, he had plucked the rose too soon, before it could bear the its shining fruit, and dashed it to the ground carelessly.

Anthy, on the other hand, had learned her lessons in the greenhouse all too well.