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Jaquemart V - The Same River (iii. le soir)

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JAQUEMART
by
Alan Harnum

Utena and its characters belongs to Be-PaPas, Chiho Saito,
Shogakukan, Shokaku Iinkai and TV Tokyo.

This copy of the story is from my Archive of Our Own page at http://archiveofourown.org/users/alanharnum/pseuds/alanharnum.

 

V. The Same River

iii. le soir

* * *

Evening soon to fall. The slanting sunbeams from the westward
window laid long shadows across the floor. Squeak of shoes and
flick of foils.

Clash, part, riposte; a pass brought them almost corps-
a-corps, which was, of course, illegal in foil fencing. Behind
the mask, Miki smiled. A superb fencer, but she had not yet
reached perfection. Time to end it.

An obvious feint, parried easily upon her forte. He
glissaded his blade down hers, twisted his wrist, and tagged her
directly over the heart.

Not that he had reached perfection either. That wasn't
possible, in this sadly imperfect world. He stepped back and
pulled his mask off. "Very good, Akami-kun."

Breathing hard, she removed her own mask. Her braid,
formerly twisted behind her head and confined by the mask's
strap, swayed as it spilled down her back. "Not good enough,
captain."

He laughed, shook his head. "You're the captain, Akino; I'm
just your faculty sponsor."

She dropped her foil and stretched her arms high overhead,
fingers interlaced. "As far as I'm concerned, you're the
captain until I actually manage to defeat you."

"I never wanted to be the captain," Miki said, resting the
tip of his foil against the floor with both hands on the hilt.
He stared towards the shadowy eastern end of the fencing hall,
slightly wary, as though at the possibility of eavesdroppers or
interlopers from the darkness.

"Well, I know _that_, Miki-sensei; every club on campus has
its own particular folklore, and the fencing club's no
exception." She paused and, with a flick of her head, dropped
her braid across her left shoulder so that it coiled like a
serpent about her breasts. "After Arisugawa left for university,
you remained assistant captain of the team until you left the
school yourself, letting a succession of competent captains
incomparable to you in terms of skill direct the club's destiny,"
she said, as though quoting. "Why?"

"Because I don't especially care for fighting, Akami-kun."
He shrugged. "I just happen to be very good at it."

"No; I don't buy it." She knelt and retrieved her foil,
then took a long step that brought her nearly within his zone of
intimacy. They were, Miki noted, just about the same height:
he'd grown quite a bit since his earliest days on the fencing
team, but Akami was tall. "If you don't like fighting, why did
you join the team in the first place, and why do you still spar
with me?"

"Because if you're good at something," Miki began (it was an
explanation he'd given numerous times in the past), "you have a
duty to get better at it. To come as close to perfection as you
can, in this imperfect world. I happen to be best at three
things: music, math, and fencing. So, I try to be as good as I
can in all three."

"A duty," Akami mused. "To what, exactly?"

"To yourself."

"There is but one law of the self," Akami said, "and do what
thou wilt shall be the whole of it."

Miki said nothing. Akami worried him, sometimes; she
reminded him of a stanza in a Yeats poem, the one that began, "A
girl arose--"

"Miki-sensei?"

He started. "Yes?"

"Another pass?"

He checked the wall clock. "I suppose we have the time..."

"The others in the Society are jealous of the fact I get to
duel you, even occasionally," she said as she coiled her braid
behind her head again and slipped her mask on to keep it in
place. "Hasuichi always..."

"Akami-kun--"

"What?" she said, a little too sharply for his tastes. "I
can't even mention the Society when we're all alone like this?"

"No." He hesitated, then stepped forward and put his hand
on her shoulder. Beneath his palm and the fabric of her fencing
jacket, muscle lay coiled and tight. "It's not that at all. I
just wanted to know how you're feeling right now."

Masked, her expression was unreadable, but he could easily
discern the sadness in her voice. "It's cliched, I know, but I
still find it hard to believe he's gone. I keep on expecting
that I'll walk out the front gate, and he'll be there to meet me,
like he always was... he walked me back to my dorm, every day.
He was protective like that, even though we weren't little kids
any more, and I was perfectly capable of protecting myself."

He squeezed her shoulder lightly. "I lost my sister
suddenly as well, so I know something of what it must be like."

"Oh? Was she murdered like my brother?"

The sudden, almost disinterested callousness of her voice
nearly made him draw his hand away. She's a troubled girl, he
reminded himself firmly--she just lost her brother. "It was an
accident. Like your brother."

She stepped back, breaking the contact between them. "Let's
just duel. I don't want to talk about this any more."

"Whatever you wish." He slipped his mask into place and
raised his foil into a ready position. "But my office is always
open to you, Akami-kun."

"Of course."

Blades cut the air. He fought defensively for a little
while--beat, bind, parry, riposte--lost in thought. He could
respect her desire not to talk. Sometimes, talking simply didn't
help. Some things, you had to face alone, until you found the
solution that was right for you.

He beat her with a sudden fleche, leaping off his leading
foot and tagging her as he passed at a run. He whirled to face
her and raised his mask. "That's enough for today, I think."

She nodded. "If you say so. You know I'm always ready to
duel you." She tossed her mask aside, revealing the smirk
beneath. "I'll beat you one of these days."

"You will," Miki replied.

They packed up their foils in silence, walked down the
hallway together, and parted ways where it split, left-hand path
to the boys' changeroom, right-hand to the girls'. He put his
foil and gear away in the locker reserved for him, and was
reaching to close it when it closed by itself.

And locked.

"Thank you," he said softly. He picked up his satchel, and
began the long walk home.

* * *

*"...and the milk has got to be low fat, but I want real sugar--I
can't stand that artificial sweetener, they say you're not
supposed to be able to tell, but I can--but only one packet."*

Black for Juri. One cream, two sugars for her. Low fat
milk and one packet of sugar for Nanami. As she sorted
everything out at the counter holding milk, sugar, cream and
assorted utensils, Shiori briefly considered putting cream and a
packet of artificial sweetener into Nanami's coffee. Briefly--
she decided it was excessively petty, and simply put in what
Nanami had asked for. That was what Juri would have done, after
all.

She had to stop letting little things bother her. They
built up, little things did (too many smiles that seemed to hide
something behind them, too many kind words when there should have
been scorn) and they turned into big things before she knew it,
and then...

Balancing the cardboard tray with the coffee on the edge of
her arm, she pushed the door of the coffee shop open and walked
out into the winter streets. A wind was gusting low to the
ground, chilling her calves through her pants. She wove her way
through the pedestrians to turn down the side-street where Nanami
had parked the car that morning, beneath the shadow of a row of
snow-draped pine trees.

Juri opened the rear passenger-side door for her as she
approached, and slid over to allow her room to sit. Shiori
smiled briefly, thanked her as she entered, and handed Juri her
coffee.

"Which one is mine?" demanded Nanami from her seat behind
the wheel. She had the heat turned up low, making the car
pleasantly warm. Perhaps, Shiori decided, a little too warm--
but she wasn't going to complain about that. Not now.

"Have a little patience," she replied, taking her own
coffee and handing the tray with the single remaining cup to
Nanami. "There you are."

"Thank you," Nanami said primly. She took her cup, tossed
the tray onto the front passenger seat, and sipped it. "You
didn't put enough milk in."

"Please forgive me, Nanami," Shiori replied testily, "I
haven't yet memorized the proper measurements for your coffee."

"It's all right." Nanami waved her hand dismissively.
"I'll drink it anyway. So, what did you two learn?"

"After we parted ways in the cafeteria?" Juri asked
rhetorically. "Well, begin with the big thing--Akio knows we're
here, knows we're with Utena, and it's reasonable to infer that
he knows we've got our memories back."

Shiori managed not to smile as Nanami choked on her coffee,
and, in the process, spilled some on her skirt. "Here," she
said kindly, passing her a paper napkin, "use that to clean it
up."

"Thank you," Nanami said, almost sincerely. She was pale
and jittery as she dabbed at the spreading stain. "What... how
did you find that out?"

Juri lowered her coffee from her lips, swallowed, and spoke.
"When I checked in with Utena after noon, she told me that
someone had gotten into your room while she was out and left
envelopes with Ohtori's crest on them."

Nanami groaned softly. "And why was she out of the room
long enough for someone to do that?"

"Apparently, she ran into your brother."

Nanami choked on her coffee again, but managed not to spill
any more. "What?"

"He was at the hotel, looking for you, and ran into her
instead."

Shiori stared out the window of the car and tried not to
think of Kiryuu Touga.

"Why was he..." Nanami trailed off, thought for a moment,
then sighed. "I do always stay there or at the hotel close to
his place... and I guess he expected I'd use what happened to
Tsuwabuki as an excuse to come and visit him... maybe he wanted
to surprise me..."

Touga had made her feel special (just like Ruka); dating him
had made her stand out (just like Ruka); she hadn't been ordinary
when she was with him (just like Ruka); and, in the end, he'd
meant far more to her than she'd meant to him (_just like Ruka_);
and there'd been a messy, humiliatingly public breakup (JUST LIKE
RUKA!).

"Shiori?"

She started at Juri's touch upon her shoulder, and shied
away instinctively. For a moment, she stared at Juri's smiling,
beautiful, concerned face as though at a stranger's, and then she
smiled herself. "I'm sorry; I tuned out for a bit."

"I was just saying I have to run to get to Mme Lamer's
house for tea," Juri explained. "We'll talk about things in more
detail back at the hotel, once Utena's there to hear them.
Nanami apparently found out a few things." In the front seat,
Nanami beamed pridefully. "Listen, do you want to come along to
tea?"

Everything worked out all right, in the end. "No." If
Touga hadn't broken up with her so publicly, then she never would
have ended up alone in her room, drinking the expensive sake he'd
given her as a gift a week before he dumped her. "I think it
would be better if you went by yourself." And she wouldn't have
tipsily invited Juri to join her. "She doesn't like me at all."
And what if Juri hadn't accepted? "Not surprising, after I was
the one who came up with that name for her." And what if she
hadn't drunkenly sobbed that she didn't want to sleep alone that
night? In hindsight, she could easily imagine how Juri must
have felt at hearing that. "I suppose it was cruel of me." So
they crawled into the same bed together, just like they'd done a
few times when they were very young... "She's just an old
spinster, after all." And if, in the morning, she hadn't woken
early to the rising sun on Juri's sleeping face inches from hers
(so beautiful, so much more beautiful than her), and seen that
ever-mysterious locket on the dresser? "I'll see you back at the
hotel, okay, Juri?" And if she hadn't given in to the temptation
and opened it up (even though she knew it was wrong to invade her
friend's privacy like that--how terrible she'd been back then,
even though it had worked out for the best), and if Miki hadn't
been there to give her the advice he did (and how selfish she'd
been--his sister had just died, but he'd been the one consoling
her because she'd found that it was _her_ picture in Juri's
locket, and wasn't dealing with that as well as he was dealing
with the death of his own _sister_)...

"Okay, Shiori. Goodbye." Juri patted her hand once in
farewell and exited the car. Shiori watched her walk away.
Every time you watched someone walk away, she thought, there was
a chance (no matter how small) that you'd never see them walking
back towards you.

"Right," Nanami said. "Let's get back to the hotel."

"Hey, Nanami?"

"What?" Nanami asked, as she put the car into gear.

"Can I drive this time? You drove from the airport, and you
drove in this morning, so..."

"You too? Juri was trying to convince me to let you drive
back while you were getting coffee. Is it really _that_ big a
deal to you?"

Juri had done that? Why? Didn't Juri think that she could
handle herself with Nanami? Obviously not. "If it's not a big
deal to you, why do you keep on insisting on driving?"

"Well, because the car's in my name, isn't it?" Nanami said.
But she left it in neutral and turned back to look at Shiori. "I
signed for it. I paid for it. So I get to drive it."

"Well," Shiori said icily, "I suppose it's good of you to
make some contribution to our efforts beyond your sparkling
personality."

Nanami laughed nastily. "You tagged along with Juri-sempai
all day while I went off on my own and found out several things
you two didn't. I think that's contribution enough. And what
did you do, exactly, that Juri couldn't have done on her own?"

Shiori flinched, then looked down at her boots. Melting
snow runnelled dirtily through the tracks of the rubber mat below
her soles. "Why do you hate me so much, Nanami?" she asked
quietly.

"I don't," Nanami replied after a moment. Her voice had
softened considerably. "I can't say you're my favourite person,
Shiori, but I don't hate you. And you've had it in for me ever
since I beat you in the divisional finals."

"How long had you been fencing when you beat me, Nanami?"

Nanami blinked. "Hmm. A month, maybe. Why?"

"Well," Shiori answered slowly, "I've been fencing on and
off since junior high. And you, an amateur, beat me easily.
In front of Juri. In front of the whole team. How do you think
that feels?"

"It's not my fault that I'm better than you, is it?" Nanami
said quickly. She sighed as she saw Shiori wince. "I don't mean
it that way, Shiori, I just--"

"And I saw the look on your face when you beat me," Shiori
snapped, cutting Nanami's words off. "You were happy--not just
because you'd won, but because you'd beaten _me_. Why? What
did I ever do to you?"

"You made Juri-sempai hate my brother," Nanami answered
after a long silence; quietly, almost sadly. "Not that they were
ever the best of friends before that, but after what happened
between you and him, Juri wouldn't even speak to him. And
people started to talk, because if the great Juri-sempai was in
disapproval, that had to mean that something was wrong, didn't
it? So, pretty soon, my brother's reputation had changed, and he
was just some skirt-chasing playboy; no one respected him for
the work he did for the Student Council or the kendo team any
more, as soon as you turned Juri against him. And then, with
what happened between Kyouichi and him later on--"

"So it's all my fault?" Shiori hissed. "Just because people
started to realize the truth about your brother, and because he
couldn't keep his hands off anything in a skirt, even if it was
the girl his best friend was in love with?"

"They weren't going out at the time," Nanami snapped. "They
broke up."

"And they got back together again," Shiori retorted.
"They're married now. Despite your brother's efforts."

"You're just angry because you thought you were something
special to my brother," Nanami said. "But you weren't. You were
never anything special at all."

Shiori suddenly felt as though she'd been punched in the
stomach, hard. The only thing to do was hit back. "And you hate
me because I was with your brother in a way you never could be,
no matter how much you wanted to." She smirked calculatedly.
"You do know how sick that is, don't you?"

Nanami leaned halfway into the back seat and slapped her,
hard (a fairly acrobatic feat, given the cramped conditions).
"I never wanted that," she snarled, face twisted and red as
though she were about to burst into tears. "I never, ever
wanted that, and don't you ever say I did. Not that I care what
you think of me; I don't care at all. Believe whatever you want.
So, do you and Juri talk about me behind my back a lot? Was she
the one who told you that I wanted..." She looked as if she
wanted to spit in Shiori's face. "..._that_? I guess you must
think it's funny, then, that there's someone more depraved than
you and your _partner_."

Finished her tirade, Nanami withdrew defensively into the
driver's seat; Shiori reached up and gently stroked the red mark
upon her cheek. "'Depraved'?" she said, almost wonderingly.
"It's nice to know what you actually think of Juri and me,
Nanami."

Nanami turned her head to look back, and the expression on
her face was almost sad enough to actually make Shiori believe
she regretted what she'd said. "I didn't mean that," she said,
almost stuttering. "I said that because I was mad and I wanted
to hurt you." She smiled; a tiny, sad, sorry curve of her lips.
"I'm good at that--at hurting people."

"Me too," Shiori said, very quietly. "I guess everyone has
to be good at at least one thing." She opened the door and
stepped out of the car. "I'm going to take a cab back to the
hotel."

"Shiori, wait--"

Striding down the street, feeling as though she wore a thin
mask of ice over her face (she was not going to cry, no matter
what, no matter how much it hurt), Shiori wondered what she was
going to do if Nanami got out of the car and came after her. But
Nanami didn't.

* * *

"And no one turned it in? You're sure?"

"Yes, ma'am. Sorry."

"It's all right."

Shiori left the coffee shop dejectedly. Idiot, she berated
herself silently. Idiot! She could replay the events as though
they were on film inside her head: awkwardly balancing the tray
with the coffee on one hand and forearm, handbag in the other,
she makes her way over to the counter holding milk, sugar, cream
and assorted utensils. She puts her handbag down on the edge,
pauses as she tries to sort out what goes where, and then, when
she finishes, doesn't pick her handbag back up again before
walking out the door.

Idiot!

Nanami undoubtedly had a cell phone. If she managed to beg
or borrow enough coins off someone for a phone call to the hotel
(to get the number from Utena, who would hopefully know it) and a
phone call to Nanami's cell, she could probably catch her
before...

"No," she murmured, thrusting her hands into the pockets of
her coat as she waited for the light to change. "No way in
hell."

She crossed the street rapidly, forcing some small girls in
Ohtori's elementary uniform to get out of her way or be run over.
They gave her annoyed looks as she passed, but she didn't care.

On the other side of the street, she paused to look around.
In front of her was a little park, a long narrow ribbon of land
with scattered trees and a circle of benches around a snow-
choked marble fountain at the centre. Shiori stalked through it;
a weave of footprints impressed upon the snow hinted that it was
still a popular shortcut. Even calling the hotel would have
been almost inconceivably humiliating. She could just imagine
Tenjou Utena's response: Really, Shiori, a fight? Oh, that's too
bad. And you lost your handbag? How unfortunate...

It made her feel ill just thinking about it. A fifth wheel
(even though there were only four of them), that was all she was.
She'd never been anything special at Ohtori like Utena or Nanami
or Juri... never special at all... at best, she was here to keep
Juri happy, because for some inexplicable reason, Juri loved
her...

"Come on, come on," she murmured to herself as she
passed the fountain and approached the other side of the park.
"Don't think like that, it's not true, you know it's not true..."

(but they all look down on you)

And her sight pulsed black on the next beat of her heart.

(plain and useless)

The wind blew through the park, and the branches of the
trees creaked, like the creak of an elevator descending down into
the bowels of the earth...

(and you've seen how _she_ looks at _her_)

...to where the black roses bloomed in darkness.

She gasped and hunched over suddenly, hand at her breast.
Thorns seemed to constrict her heart. Darkness threatened.
White snow, naked trees, the waterless marble fountain, the
benches with their chipped paint, the distant voices, white
snow...

"White snow," she murmured. "White snow, white snow..."
White snow all around. White, like the rose at Utena's breast,
when they dueled in the sky...

It passed. Somehow, mercifully, it passed, and she felt
herself again. Just as she'd feared, just as she'd feared...
once the black rose pierced your heart, the thorns never left...

Someone was behind her. She knew it in her gut, even before
she turned and saw him leaning against the edge of the dry
fountain, black coat stirred about his long legs by the winter
breeze.

"Takatsuki Shiori-san." Akio raised a hand in greeting and
shoved himself away from the edge of the fountain to stride
towards her. His every movement was sinuous, and she felt like a
small mouse watching the twisting approach of some great cobra.
"Juri-kun told me you were here; I was hoping I'd get a chance to
see you."

Juri-kun? Wasn't that a little too familiar? "She did?"
Don't show fear, remember that he knows, he knows you know what
he is, that you remember everything...

Akio blinked. "Oh? Didn't she tell you she ran into me?"

"No." He _lies_, she told herself, remember that, he'll
offer anything, he'll offer you the world itself, if only you'll
serve him, but in the end, all he gives is the end of your
world...

He shrugged, smiled self-deprecatingly. "It probably just
slipped her mind. I get the impression your roommate doesn't
think much of me." He took a step closer. "Where is Arisugawa-
kun, anyway?"

"We had separate engagements." Shiori smiled back at him,
but knew she showed too much teeth even as she did. Just like a
pathetic little animal, acting brave when trapped even though it
almost can't breathe from the fear. "I was just on the way to
mine. I really must--"

"Are you sure of that?" His voice had... changed, suddenly,
become smoother and deeper and full of dark, beautiful music.
The sound of it seemed to wrap her mind in a warm velvet glove.
Don't be afraid of me, you don't need to fear me, look at how
beautiful I am...

Shiori let out a tiny, trapped whimper, muffled through her
clenched teeth, and backed away. Into a tree. Tiny flakes of
snow fluttered down from the high-placed pine boughs and fell
upon her hair as it shuddered slightly at the impact. Akio
leaned forward, looming over her, hand upon the bark behind her
head, smiling, staring down at her like a god at his own little
world.

"Could I convince you to skip the engagement?" he asked
softly, and his voice was Ruka's voice, Touga's voice, Juri's
voice, the voice she heard when she imagined her father (whom
she'd never known) speaking. "I make a wonderful breakfast."

"But it's the afternoon," Shiori murmured.

"Oh?" His smile widened.

His eyes, swallowing her up (Ruka's eyes, Touga's eyes,
Juri's eyes, her imaginary father's eyes), blazing with hidden
fires that would consume her like the pitiful insect she was, oh,
fool, to challenge this...

Inside, she was screaming. Fight! Juri could fight this,
Utena could fight this, even Nanami probably could, but look at
you, you're helpless, you're so _weak_, you're nothing, less than
nothing, you're plain and useless and a hindrance...

He reached out to touch her cheek with one gloved finger.

"Chairman Ohtori."

In the fraction of a second it took for the sense of
helplessness to break, as Akio's hand paused inches from her
skin, she saw an indescribably beautiful, cleansing look of fear
on his handsome face, and then it submerged as he slowly turned
from her towards the speaker.

"Tokiko-san," he said calmly, "Takatsuki Shiori. Shiori-
san, Akino Tokiko."

Akino Tokiko, as agelessly beautiful as a Grecian marble or
a Renaissance painting, smiled gently and kindly at Shiori. "A
pleasure, Shiori-san." She paused. "I would venture to guess
that you are in some sort of predicament, are you not?"

* * *

"This is very kind of you."

"It's no inconvenience. We're staying at the same hotel,
after all."

Behind her tinted sunglasses, Akino Tokiko's eyes were
fixed firmly on the road. Her smooth fingers gripped the wheel
tightly. Shiori's impression was that she didn't drive much, and
didn't like to when she did.

The woman's age was unguessable. Forced to put a number on
it, Shiori could only have assigned a range from a few years
older than her to a well-preserved forty.

"How do you know Chairman Ohtori?"

The older woman took an almost awkward amount of time to
answer. "I know him from when I was about your age."

A well-preserved forty, then, for she spoke as if that time
had been long ago. Perhaps older, for there was something very
old about her eyes.

And Akio was afraid of her. Shiori had seen it clearly: the
terrifying, utter confidence had wavered, even if only for a
moment.

After seeing that, she hadn't hesitated to accept Tokiko's
offer of a ride back to the hotel after she explained her
situation (partially: she'd lost her handbag and had no money for
a cab back). Logically, anyone whom Akio feared had to be a
friend to them.

Who was she?

Perhaps... perhaps she could salvage something from this.
After all, if she hadn't had that fight with Nanami, she never
would have run into Tokiko, and...

"Akino-san, why are you in town?"

"I have some family matters to deal with."

By now, Nanami was probably already back at the hotel,
giving her version of the story to Utena, which meant that Utena
would be on _her_ side...

There'd probably be some sort of lecture about needing to
work together from Utena when she got back. And Nanami would be
all apologetic (even though she wouldn't mean it at all), and
Juri would hear about it, and, somehow, it would end up having
been _her_ fault.

Juri wouldn't get angry with her, of course. Juri never got
angry; she'd only be disappointed, and that was so much worse.

"Did you go to Ohtori, Akino-san?"

"Not as a student. When I was younger, I used to work for
the Board of Directors."

If only Utena had never come back. Everything had been fine
before she came... she and Juri had been so happy together. Just
the two of them, the way it was meant to be... and even though
Utena's reasons were good and high-minded and noble, they'd still
torn the life she'd had apart, right down the centre.

She remembered everything, now... the terrible, selfish
person she'd been... that she still was, she realized suddenly,
sadly, to only be able to think of how _her_ life had been
ruined, when Utena had to live for seven years with those awful
memories, while she and Juri and everyone else just went on
living their lives in the bliss of ignorance...

"And that was how you met the Chairman?"

"He wasn't the Chairman then, but, yes, that was how I met
him."

She hates him, Shiori thought. I don't know how I know
that, but I do. The rigid control in Tokiko's voice as she
spoke of Akio reminded her of a sheathed blade showing a bare
inch of gleaming steel.

She hates him, and he fears her, and maybe, just maybe, they
had an ally here... An ally that, if not for her, they never
would have found... Someone who could make the difference...

"We're here."

"Oh. Thank you so much, Akino-san."

"My pleasure, Shiori-san. It's nice to be able to help out
a friend of the Chairman's."

"Oh..." Shiori hesitated. "He's not really my friend. I
hardly even know him... he's a little... well..." Tokiko pulled
the car into the parking lot and put it into neutral. "A
little..." Shiori paused. Tokiko was _watching_ her, eyes
gleaming like burnished brass behind her sunglasses, her gaze
like a lance that pinned Shiori back against the seat like a
butterfly on display. "...creepy."

"Yes," Tokiko murmured. "He is, at that, isn't he?"

Shiori mutely nodded, unbuckled her seatbelt, opened the
door, and stepped out. She expected Tokiko to get out and walk
into the hotel beside her. Somewhat to her relief, however,
Tokiko didn't, choosing to remain behind the wheel, lost in
thought; Shiori guessed of the past, but really couldn't say why.

* * *

In the hotel lobby, green ferns reached towards the lights with
green fronds. Shiori sat down on a plush red bench near the
elevators and sighed. She rested her elbow on an arm of pale
wood, curved like a dancer's spine, and watched the front
entrance out of the corner of her eye.

What was she waiting for here?

Nothing, of course. She was just delaying meeting up with
the others again. How cowardly. Disgusted with herself, she
rose and went to the elevators.

As she rode up with only the gentle hum of hydraulics for
company, she studied her plainly pretty face in the mirrored
walls. Haggard and tired, just like the rest of her. The
elevator reached their floor. She stepped out and walked down
the hall, not towards her and Juri's room, but in the other
direction. She had to check in with Utena--owed her that, at
least.

The sound of the elevator's ascent echoed in her head as she
walked. Occasionally, over the past seven years, she'd
experienced sudden flashes of inexplicable fear while riding
elevators down; now, they were perfectly understandable.

A dark rose's seed still lurked in her heart, and could
blossom at any time, if she took even a step towards being the
mean, selfish, petty person she'd once been. So she had to be
strong; she had to put up with Nanami's nastiness and Utena's
unwitting condescension, because if she didn't... Juri might get
hurt again, and without Juri, she had nothing.

Utena opened the door on the first knock, and blinked when
she saw who it was. "Shiori? But..."

"Why are you so surprised to see me?"

Utena stepped aside to let her into the room, putting one
hand behind her head as she did. "I guess I'm not, it's just
that... you took a cab back, right?"

Shiori looked around for Nanami as she entered, but didn't
spot her. "Actually, I got a ride."

One side of Utena's mouth quirked in a half-frown. "Oh?
From who?"

"A nice woman I met," Shiori replied. The bathroom door
stood open, and it seemed the only other occupant of the room was
Utena's strange little pet, currently perched on the edge of the
dresser while sipping tea from a cup nearly as big as he was.
"She overheard my predicament while I was trying to find my
handbag--"

"You lost your handbag? You should have called the hotel
collect; Nanami could have... well, I suppose that might have
been..."

Shiori waved her hand dismissively. "It all worked out, so
don't worry about it. As it turned out, we were staying at the
same hotel, so she offered me a ride back." What had her name
been again? She knew she'd been told it at least once, but it
had slipped away... Right on the tip of her tongue, but stuck
there.

"Hmm. Convenient," Utena said, closing the room's door.
She hesitated before speaking again. "Hey, listen... I don't
really know the details, but that fight you two had... Nanami
feels really awful about it. But she's got a lot of pride, and
it's hard for her to apologize, even when she wants to."

Shiori had her back to Utena now, staring out the big window
of the room at the clouds moving across the sky. It looked as
though they might get even more snow tonight. "And how do you
know so well how Nanami feels, Utena?" she asked softly.

One of the beds squeaked, presumably as Utena sat down on
it. "I dunno," Utena replied after a moment. "I guess just from
talking to her. I could tell she was upset. And... I think I
understand Nanami a lot better than I used to. More than I
understand you or Juri." Pause. "Now that I think about it,
we're kind of similar. We both had 'princes', guys who were
everything to us, the driving force for our lives... and then
they turned out not to be so princely after all."

"I've had a few of those myself," Shiori whispered.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Anyway... I'm not trying to tell you how to deal with it.
I can tell you and Nanami don't get along. But... she told me
that she said some things to you that were 'unforgivable'."
Pause again. "And... I don't know, but I can kind of guess what
they might have been. But when you get in a fight with
someone--"

"Utena?"

"Yeah?"

"If you're not trying to tell me how to deal with it, why
are you saying all these things to me?"

"Well, uhh..." Utena's voice trailed away, dissolving into
rueful, almost sad, laughter. "I guess you're right. I'll shut
up."

She has a nice laugh, Shiori thought vaguely. "Did I say
you had to do that?"

"Well, no, but..."

Shiori turned, slowly, a slight smile on her face. Utena
was sprawled out on the bed in a rather childish pose, one leg
drawn up, the other kicked out, leaning back with her elbows
propped upon the lip of the headboard. "If you're going to be a
busybody, just be honest about it," Shiori said.

"Umm... okay."

"Did Nanami not say anything about what I said to her?"
Shiori asked, sitting down on the edge of the bed near Utena's
extended leg. "Some of that... I'd call it unforgivable as
well."

"No," Utena answered quietly. "No, she didn't say anything
about what you said."

"How interesting," Shiori murmured.

"Is anything really unforgivable, though?" Utena mused.
She stretched out her other leg and crossed them at the ankles.
Shiori studied the finely-muscled movement of her legs beneath
the dark slacks appreciatively. "I mean, I hate to think of
that... people need to be able to forgive other people." She
really was beautiful... she shouldn't blame Juri for being
attracted to her...

"So, do you think you'll be able to forgive Akio one day?"

Utena sat up abruptly, folding her legs, scowling
ferociously. "That's different!" she said. "What Akio did to
m--to Anthy was..."

"Unforgivable?" Shiori said, and almost smiled triumphantly.
She stopped herself, though.

Before Utena could answer, the sound of a key in the lock
cut off further conversation. "Utena, I couldn't find a national
daily, but I did pick up a woman's magazine with a really
interesting article on--" Nanami's voice stopped abruptly as she
spotted Shiori. The newspaper and the magazine fell from her
arms and spread out upon the floor. "Oh... Shiori. You're back
already?"

"Hello, Nanami." Be strong, she told herself. If not for
yourself, then for Juri... she couldn't bear to hurt Juri, ever
again. "Why don't you sit down? Utena and I were just talking."

* * *

"...and you wouldn't believe the dog she has. A miniature
white poodle. With a little red bow on his head. Named
'Pr�cieux'." Juri laughed and sipped her wine. The bottle on
the table before the four of them was half empty. Knives and
forks scraped softly over fine china as they ate an excellent
meal in a corner table of the restaurant. Nanami had recommended
it--a steakhouse near the hotel, somewhere she said that she and
Touga ate a lot. And she was paying, of course.

How nice it must be to be that rich, Shiori thought as she
ate. Probably just one more thing for Nanami to try and get her
way with: "I paid for dinner, didn't I?"

She winced, and her next mouthful of filet mignon tasted
ashen. A cruel, petty thought, that; hadn't Nanami been sorry?
Hadn't Nanami apologized to her, and she'd apologized as well,
and Utena had smiled like it had all been her doing...

They'd compared stories in low voices, over dinner and fine
wine. Utena had run into Touga, heard some bizarre conspiracy
theories from him, visited the real Chairman of Ohtori's Board of
Directors, heard a voice speaking inside her head while at the
Ohtori mansion, and came back to the hotel to find invitations on
her bed and Nanami's. There had been the same in her and Juri's
room, one for each of them, casually laid upon their pillows.
They'd briefly talked of moving to another hotel, or even trying
to find alternate accommodations, but had decided in the end that
it would do no great good. Akio knew.

Nanami told them that Kanae Memorial Hall was full of angry
ghosts, who'd also attempted to push her down the steps leading
to the eastern parking lot. Shiori tried not to look dubious,
and thought she saw Juri doing the same. Funny, how they
couldn't seem to buy a simple ghost story with all the things
they'd seen. Then she launched into the details of what Hozumi
Mari had told her, darkly mentioning someone called "Akami", at
which point there was a pause as they compared information.
Undoubtedly, it was the same girl whom she and Juri had met, the
new President, feared for some reason by Hozumi. Juri told
Nanami to go on, that they could compare information once
everyone had told their stories. They got the name of the dead
boy as Akino Hasuichi (Utena remembered when she heard it
that Touga had already told her that; she apologized for
forgetting, looking deeply embarrassed), and then Juri had to cut
Nanami off as she mused worriedly about what had happened to
Mari, in order that she could launch into her own tale.

Juri told about their meeting with Miki. Shiori had nothing
to add, a fact which made her feel vaguely ashamed. Juri seemed
to have assumed that she'd simply gone back to the hotel with
Nanami, and, for the moment, Shiori was content to let her keep
that belief. She tuned out a little as Juri spoke, concentrating
on the good food and better wine, and only began to pay attention
again when Juri began to talk about her tea with Mme Lamer.

"...as we guessed from the surnames, Akino Hasuichi and
Akino Akami are--were siblings. Vice-President and President of
the Student Council, respectively. Hozumi Mari was the
Treasurer, Tsuwabuki Mitsuru the Secretary. Mari was apparently
the one Akino Hasuichi and Tsuwabuki had the fight over where
Akino died. Mme Lamer didn't know a lot of details, but there
was apparently some sort of triangle between them."

"How terrible," Nanami murmured. "To lose a brother like
that..."

"Did you get anything more from her?" Utena asked.

Juri grimaced. "No, and, even with her being the gossip she
is, it took me over an hour to pry all those details out of her.
Apparently, the staff have been told to keep quiet about it. As
I said, Miki wouldn't even talk to Shiori and I. The staff are
all very concerned about what's going to happen, now that one
Council member is dead and another is in jail... apparently,
there's also concern about Hozumi Mari and Akino Akami's fitness
to continue running things, given how close the relationships
between all the Council members were."

"I didn't get the feeling that the President felt much at
all," Shiori commented. "When we met her outside Miki's office,
she was so cold..."

"People deal with things in funny ways," Utena murmured.

"Does anyone else think it's possible he's having them Duel
again?" Juri asked. "I didn't spot a Rose Signet on Akino when I
met her, but--"

"Mari wasn't wearing one; I would have noticed," Nanami
interjected firmly.

Utena frowned. "But Touga told me that Rose Signet he sent
you was one of the rings used by this Duellist's Society..."

Juri nodded. "Tsuwabuki and both Akinos knew how to use a
sword, and there's nothing to say Mari doesn't. And there is
this Society that Touga mentioned."

"Headed by the President, advised by Miki," Utena said.

Nanami frowned and moved food around on her plate without
actually eating any. "I can't believe Miki would--"

"Miki doesn't know what's really going on," Juri said
quietly. "I suspect even if Touga was telling the truth, Miki
probably just thinks it's some sort of harmless secret club,
like a college fraternity."

"Mari said I couldn't help her because there was only one of
me, and a hundred of them..." Nanami said quietly, sadly.

"She must have been talking about this Duellist's Society,"
Shiori said quickly, before any of the others could state the
obvious conclusion. It made her feel a little less useless,
hollow triumph though it might be.

"Damn it." Utena briefly held her head in her hands.
"Touga, those voices I heard at the Ohtori house, whatever Nanami
encounted in Kanae Memorial Hall, the invitations, Miki, the
Council, this 'Duellist's Society'... this is all way more
complicated then I expected."

"Did you expect it to be easy, Utena?" Juri asked quietly.

"No," Utena muttered in reply, looking up with haggard eyes.
"I just hoped it wouldn't be _this_ hard."

"Hey, listen..." Shiori looked around from one weary face
to the next. Not that she was any less tired, but she had to be
strong. "Why don't we stop talking about this for a little
while? Let's just finish our meals, finish our wine, and then go
back to the hotel, where we can spend an hour or so figuring out
what to do next before we all collapse into bed." She paused.
"Which, given how long a day we've all had, is probably a very
good idea."

And, almost miraculously, that was exactly what they did.

* * *

Hours later, she lay in Juri's arms (they shared one of the two
double beds in the room), running her fingers absently through
loose, sweat-damp curls.

"That was a good suggestion you made at dinner," Juri
murmured. A total non sequitur, rare from her at most times,
common in these moments. "It got everybody to relax. We
needed to do that. We mustn't be tense all the time. If you're
rigid all the time, you break. You've got to bend a little."
Hesitance, then, firmly repeated: "You've got to bend a little."

Shiori said nothing. The two of them knew what they were
doing tomorrow: a message from Miki had been awaiting them when
they returned to the hotel. They'd called him back, and were
meeting him for a late lunch. Nothing else to do, really.

Juri continued: "I remember, it was always like that with
you and me, all the time, when were very young... I'd get too
serious or too cynical or too angry, and you'd just say something
funny or idealistic, and I'd just... it would go away."

So complicated. What if they could just walk into Akio's
office (and something stirred at the tip of her mind at the
thought of Ohtori Akio, and died away a moment later) and run him
through a few times? Utena's reply, when she'd raised that:
"Even if you get rid of the spider, the web's still there."

"And I am beginning to think that we may have more than one
spider dancing on this web," Juri had added then.

"I think that's a big part of why I love you, Shiori. I
know that things are different now, but, a lot of the time, I
still think of you as the light to my darkness."

"Isn't that funny?" Shiori murmured. "For years, now, I've
thought that exact same thing of you."

And there was long silence.

"Goodnight, Shiori."

"Goodnight, Juri."

As long as I have you, it will be all right; as long as I
have you, I can be strong. Shiori thought both those things, and
then quietly slipped into sleep.

* * *

Midnight. Once, there had been a clock on the wall, to strike
one dozen times--soft chimes, soft like stopwatch-clicks, each
dying away before the next would come. The chimes, the tiniest
of bells, a last faint echo--as poor, sad Prufrock had done, so
once had he, he had measured out his life with coffee spoons...

Had known the voices, dying, with a dying fall...

Beyond the window, a few flakes of snow drifted through the
field of his vision, like a minor fall of angels. He pressed his
warm hand to the cold glass, and kept it there until it was no
longer warm. No more flakes came.

"And," he murmured, "how should I presume?"

"Miki?"

He looked back at the room's single large bed. Two small
beds, once, but he did not wish for those times again. "Yes?"

"Come back to bed, Miki."

"All right."

She pulled the covers aside as he approached, and he slid
beneath, putting his back to her. One of her hands slid down
the front of his silk pyjama top, and crept like a spider down
the smoothness of his chest. She shivered almost delightedly.
"You're cold."

"And you are warm," he murmured.

Her other arm came around his waist and embraced him
lightly; the hand crept upwards, and joined the other, one
beneath the light shirt and one atop, clasping each other through
the cloth. "I can share," she whispered. "I can make you warm."

"Not now," he replied. "I don't feel like it now."

The hands withdrew.

"As you wish," she said.

"Do you think it will warm up tomorrow?" he asked. "That's
what the forecasts said."

"I think the snow will melt soon," she answered.

"That's good." He shifted a little, and tried to find a
more comfortable position. "It's hard for me to get around the
campus with snow on the ground."

"Goodnight, Miki-chan."

He opened his mouth to reply, then paused--he had forgotten
to draw the curtains closed before returning to bed, and the
night beyond the window gaped like a maw. He closed his eyes
against the sight.

"Goodnight, Kozue-chan."

fin du soir

End of Jaquemart - Part V