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Jaquemart VIII - Solitaire

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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.

 

VIII. Solitaire

* * *

"This place has the best noodles in the whole city. You're
lucky to have me for a guide."

"Yes; it's nice to know an independently wealthy man who can
afford to take me out for noodles for lunch."

Touga smiled at her, and led the way to a relatively-
secluded table in the corner of the busy restaurant. Mild,
pleasant smells of cooking assailed Utena from every angle.
"I'll take you someplace fancy for dinner, if you like, but you
seemed like the kind of person who could appreciate this place."

They sat down across from one another. Utena cracked her
chopsticks and dug in. "You're right," she said after one
mouthful. "These are the best noodles I've ever had."

Touga poured tea for them from the small china pot on his
tray, then sampled his own noodles. "I found this place a few
years back. Took Nanami here, once, but she didn't like it."

"I don't remember her as the type who would," Utena said
carefully, sipping green tea. "She'd probably want to go to
fancy places all the time."

Touga nodded. "I managed to catch her this morning, unlike
yesterday." He paused, hesitated, then continued uncomfortably.
"There was something strange about her."

"Oh?" Utena slurped her noodles, then remembered herself,
and attempted to eat a little more demurely.

"She didn't seem as happy to see me as she usually does.
Like my presence bothered her." He shrugged suddenly,
dismissively. "Perhaps it was because I went up to her room. I
think she might have come to Houou with a boyfriend that she
doesn't want me to know about--Utena, are you all right?"

"Noodle went down wrong way," she managed to gasp, gulping
tea to clear the block. "So, Nanami's got a boyfriend?"

He shrugged again. "I don't know. But she had a double
room, and..." He trailed off. "This isn't really appropriate
conversation, forgive me. It's her business."

"Yeah," Utena said, wiping her eyes and drinking more tea.
"Her business. How's she doing otherwise?"

"She's upset about what happened with her friend. I managed
to get her an appointment to visit him, which I hope will do them
both good." His expression softened, sadness appeared. "Mitsuru
had a lot of potential. It's a terrible thing that happened."
He dropped his voice to a low whisper. "But, at the same time,
awful though it may be for me to say, perhaps advantageous. It
may be the thread that pulls away the cover for what the deputy
chairman is up to." He frowned. "Whatever that really is..."

Utena leaned forward. "Have you found out anything new
since we talked yesterday?"

"No. I've been busy with other things. I have to be so
cautious..."

"And I'm the first one you ever confided this to, after..."

"Over a year now."

"Why? Wasn't there anyone else you could trust? You said
you thought your sister was somehow involved too, in... whatever
was done to us at Ohtori. Whatever it was that made our memories
not match up, why I remember you but you don't remember me, why
you had those dreams where I was a prince..."

Lies and deception. Hadn't she used to hate them? Now they
were coming so easily. Was it okay to try and deceive a
deceiver?

"My sister?" He leaned back in the booth seat and sighed.
"There were others, too, I'm quite certain. Those who were on
the Student Council with me, on the year I served. Saionji
Kyouichi, Arisugawa Juri, Kaoru Miki. It's no coincidence that
events now seem to be revolving around the current Council."

"So, why not?"

"I told you that Saionji and I drifted apart, yesterday,"
Touga replied slowly. "Well, that wasn't the whole truth. We
used to be friends, but... he was a better friend to me than I
ever was to him. I didn't really believe in friendship near the
end of my days at Ohtori. And, finally, I did something that he
couldn't forgive, and that was the end of our friendship." He
was silent for a time, and then looked away from her as he
continued. "And Arisugawa and I never were really friends to
begin with, even when we were on the Council together. I hurt
a... friend of hers, though, and after that, she wanted nothing
to do with me."

"What about your sister, though? Couldn't you trust her?"

"I didn't want to get her involved. She was happy, living
her own life... I felt the same way about Miki, even before he
came back and became involved with the Duellist's Society, which,
of course, made it impossible for me to ever trust him with
this."

"Oh." Utena looked down at her near-empty teacup. "So, you
thought you could handle it on your own?"

"It was more that I didn't think I had the right to involve
them," he said quietly. "Not just on my own suspicions, my own
grudges... with my own attempts to atone, I guess."

"Atone?"

"Like I said," he muttered, eyes narrowing, "I wasn't a very
good person for a long time. When I began to dream of the prince
with your face, it was like an epiphany for me... the person I
used to be wouldn't have hesitated to involve other people, even
to use them, to lie to them..." He shook his head. "But that's
not the kind of person I want to be."

"Trying to make up for mistakes you don't even remember
making?" Utena murmured.

"Perhaps," he replied softly. "Or maybe just for the ones
that I do remember."

"I guess that sometimes, you've got to go it alone."

He nodded. "Sometimes." Then he reached out and placed his
hand over hers on the table. "But, maybe, not any more."

She looked down at his hand, managed a smile, then put her
other hand on top of his. "No. Not any more."

* * *

"Thanks for lunch."

"Well, thanks for giving me a call. I wasn't sure if you
would, after all I said yesterday. Thank you for believing me."

"I'm glad you trusted me enough to tell me."

Utena hoped he wouldn't ask again for the number of her
room.

"Call me later?"

Inside, she sighed with relief. "Yeah. Later. Bye."

"Goodbye."

He didn't try to kiss her this time, which somehow both
disappointed and relieved her. She stepped down from the van,
waved as it pulled away from the hotel, and then headed towards
the lobby. The winter day was cold and bright, lending a fierce
clarity to the landscape; every angle seemed sharper, almost
threateningly so.

As she reached for the door, Juri's voice stopped her.
"Utena."

She turned, startled. The other woman had been leaning
against the back of one of the decorative wooden pillars at the
front of the hotel, hidden from Utena's sight as she approached.
"Juri!"

"Who does the van belong to?" Juri asked, blunt and stinging
as the edge of a fencing foil.

"Touga," Utena answered after a moment.

Juri nodded, apparently unsurprised by the answer, and said
nothing.

"I called him up and we went out for lunch," Utena
explained, "I wanted to try and get more of a handle on him--"

"And you were bored," Juri snapped. "Like you were
yesterday, when you left the room and sat down in the lobby in
plain sight of anyone who walked in. Like you were bored when
you agreed to go with Touga, letting someone sneak into our rooms
and leave those invitations."

Utena shrank a little. "Where's Shiori?" she asked, looking
around as though she expected to see her emerge as a second
accuser at any moment.

"I sent her up to the rooms ahead of me, to tell Nanami. We
saw the van pull in as we were walking towards the lobby from the
parking lot." Juri frowned disapprovingly. "I had no idea you
were going to be the one getting out."

"I don't know if Nanami's back yet. You see, Touga showed
up, and he managed to arrange it so that she could see
Tsuwabuki..."

Juri paled a bit. "And she actually went?"

Utena blinked. "Well, yes."

"Damn it, Tenjou." Juri looked deeply angry for a moment,
and then slumped wearily back against the pillar. "He's got both
of you trusting him. I thought you'd at least be more cautious."

"I don't trust him," Utena protested. "I just--"

Juri held up her hand, and Utena stopped talking. "Let me
tell you how lunch went," she said slowly. "It was very nice,
he was extremely charming, you began to trust him a little more,
and you're starting to think we should return his memories to
him."

"No--yes, well, okay, some of that." Utena nodded
grudgingly.

"Don't you realize that's exactly what he wants?" Juri
asked softly. "Think, Utena. You think he's actually changed?"

Utena opened her mouth, then closed it again. She looked at
the ground for a moment, cold concrete swept clean of snow.
"Yes," she said finally. "I think he has. And I think whatever
it was that happened between him and Shiori-san, you don't have
the right to hate him for it forever."

Juri opened her mouth, then closed it again.

"Did he tell you about it, or something?" she said at last.
Her lip curled in a semi-sneer. "Give his side of the story?
How did that come up, I wonder... did he guide the conversation
to it?"

"He didn't even mention it," Utena said. "I can put things
together myself, you know... you don't want to trust him, Juri,
because then you'd have to stop being so angry at him for hurting
Shiori."

"I know the kind of man he is," Juri replied quietly.
"He'll hurt you and tell you it's for your own good, and he'll
have you believing it is if you're not careful."

"You think I don't know that kind of man just as well as you
do, or better?" Utena locked eyes with Juri, who stared back
just as intensely; neither moved their gaze away. "And he isn't.
Maybe he was. But not any more."

"Leopards don't change their spots that easily. Open your
eyes, Utena."

"They are open! Stop talking to me like I'm a child!"
Utena realized she was beginning to sound petulant, but didn't
really care. They weren't at Ohtori any more, and Juri didn't
have any right to be so condescending.

"If you stop acting like one, I will."

Utena finally looked away. "I'm not acting like a child.
I'm just giving him a chance."

"And are you going to give Akio a chance, too?"

Utena snapped her head up and glared. "No," she said, "I'm
going to stop him. For good. So he can't hurt anyone ever
again."

"I'm not saying Touga hasn't necessarily changed," Juri said
after a moment, quietly and almost apologetically. "Yes, I don't
like him, but that's not all because of the hurt he did to
Shiori. I didn't like him at Ohtori before that very much
either. We can't afford to trust him because there's the chance
that he is just pulling another scheme."

"But--"

Juri cut her off sharply. "Maybe he does deserve a chance."
She lowered her voice. "But we can't give him one. You
understand that, don't you?"

Utena resisted the urge to nod. Juri was wrong, or, at
least, she wasn't entirely right. But it was hard not to agree,
when Juri sounded so certain...

"Here comes Shiori," Juri said, looking over Utena's
shoulder, through the glass-fronted doors to the hotel lobby.
"That's all I really wanted to say anyway."

Shiori exited the hotel with an agitated look on her face.
"Nanami's not there." She looked at Utena and smiled hesitantly.
"I'm glad to see you showed up, though." Then, to Juri, "Where
did the van go?"

Juri said nothing. Utena cleared her throat. "Actually, I
was, uhh, in it... went for lunch with Touga... he dropped me
off... it's his van."

"Oh," said Shiori, forcibly keeping her smile on her face
and all emotion out of her voice.

"Anyway, I am a little worried that Nanami isn't back yet...
the visit couldn't have taken this long..." Utena glanced at her
watch and frowned.

"Visit?" Shiori asked Juri.

"Touga apparently got her an appointment to see Tsuwabuki,"
Juri said, her doubt in that fact quite evident.

"With Akio's help, Nanami said..." Utena was growing more
and more worried with each second. "Oh, damn, I was so stupid...
even if Touga's on the level, Akio..."

"Akio won't hurt her," Juri said after a moment. "He
doesn't want that... he wants something else."

"You sound awfully sure of that, Juri," Shiori said in a
dull voice. As Utena watched, she saw something stir in
Shiori's eyes, then submerge again. She blinked, confused and
uncertain that it had been anything other than the angle of the
light.

"Three of us walked into his clutches yesterday," Juri
muttered, looking at her feet. Utena got the impression there
was something she wasn't saying. "If he wanted something so
simple as our deaths, he could have done it yesterday,
somehow..."

"Maybe I should call Touga," Utena said. "I've got his
cell-phone number..."

"And ask him what, that his sister, whom you're not supposed
to know too well, is missing?" Juri replied.

"You could do that," Shiori said softly, as though a little
afraid of saying anything at all. "Didn't you say he came here
yesterday looking for Nanami? So he knows she's in town. Just
say it would be nice if the three of you got together. Then ask
him for her room number. Call him back a few minutes later, and
say you can't reach her... maybe he'll..." She trailed off.
"Never mind."

"No, go on," Utena said, blinking. "That's a good idea."

"Well, then..." Shiori began. Then the cab pulled up, and
Nanami stepped out. She handed a fistful of bills to the driver,
shook her head at his apparent offer of change, and turned to
look at them. The left side of her face bore a faint red tinge
that looked as though it had come from a hard slap.

"Hey, Nanami," Utena said slowly, as the cab left the four
of them standing alone outside the hotel.

"Hey, Utena," Nanami said. She looked as though she wanted
to cry.

Shiori waved. "Good to see you're okay, Nanami."

"What happened to you?" Juri asked.

"Kind as always, Juri-sempai," Nanami murmured. "Let's go
inside. It's cold out here."

* * *

"That's really messed up," Utena said when Nanami finished her
story.

"Ohtori's Student Councils seem to have that habit," Juri
drawled from her place near the window.

"No, no." Utena waved her hands. "I mean, the guy thinks
his friend is being abused by her boyfriend, so he challenges him
to a duel and kills him by accident, but it turns out it was
actually the boyfriend's sister? That makes the Council that you
two were on seem pretty normal by comparison."

"Not that we weren't messed up as well," said Juri with a
vaguely bitter smile.

"Yeah, I don't mean--umm, sorry, I don't mean to say..."
Utena hung her head and slumped back against the headboard of her
bed, crossing her ankles and trailing off into an apologetic
mutter.

"It's not funny," Nanami said fiercely, dabbing at her eyes
with a tissue. Halfway through her story, when she'd begun to
get choked up, Chu-Chu had crawled into her lap; she'd begun to
almost unconsciously stroke him, and was still at it, an empty,
mechanical motion that seemed to give her comfort all the same.
"It's awful."

"Yeah," Utena agreed. "I didn't mean it was funny. It's
really sad. For Tsuwabuki, for everyone." She sighed as she
realized she was trying to discount her own guilt by treating the
situation too lightly. If _you_ hadn't stayed in that coffin for
seven years, she thought, this wouldn't have happened. Now Akio
had a new generation of wounded hearts to bleed for his pleasure.

Shiori shifted in the desk chair to look at the others, a
pen in one hand and a pad of hotel stationery in the other. "I
made up a list," she said shyly. "While Nanami was telling her
story." Three pairs of eyes turned to look at her, and she
seemed to wilt a little; then, she began to speak in earnest
again, newly confident. "Anyway, I titled it 'Things to Deal
With'..."

Juri chuckled, standing within a pool of sunlight before the
window with her arms crossed. "You and your lists."

The words were clearly affectionate; Shiori took them as
such, and smiled. "Just because I like to have things
organized..."

"Hey, hey," Juri said with mock panic. "Don't tell them my
terrible secret."

"She's a slob," Shiori commented sotto voce to Nanami and
Utena. "She reads the newspaper in bed, and then she just
_leaves_ it there for me to pick up. And she leaves her socks in
these weird little rolls on the floor."

"The secret is out," Juri murmured sadly.

Utena laughed softly. "Juri, I'm shocked."

"I'm so disillusioned," muttered Nanami, smiling a little.

"And she never even bothers to write out a master copy of
her class schedule, so I have to do it for her..." Shiori
shrugged. "Anyway, 'Things to Deal With'. Number one is Akio,
of course; number two is this Duellist's Society and the
President, I put them as one item on the list because they're
connected; number three is Tsuwabuki's friend, Mari, though I'm
really not sure what we can do to help her..."

"Utena should talk to her," Nanami muttered, bitterness and
hope both present in her voice. "Maybe she'll do a better job of
getting her to open up than I did."

Utena glanced over at Nanami. "I could try, I guess," she
said slowly, "but I don't know who she is, and it's probably not
a good idea for me to go to Ohtori..."

"Akio knows where you are anyway," Juri pointed out. "Those
invitations make that clear."

"Yeah, I suppose you're right..."

Shiori coughed pointedly. "Anyway, number four is those
invitations, we have to decide what we're going to do about
those, because the gallery opening is tomorrow night--"

Utena pondered for a moment, hand on her chin, then said,
"Well, Akio obviously wants us to go, so maybe we shouldn't go...
on the other hand, maybe he expects us to stay the hell away,
which might be what he actually wants, so maybe we should go..."

"The list isn't finished," Shiori said, slightly annoyed.
"We can discuss what to do about the items on it when I'm done
reading it, okay?"

Juri caught Utena's gaze and rolled her eyes. Shiori
spotted the exchange, frowned, and snatched up a wadded ball of
hotel stationery (Utena guessed it was a discarded earlier draft
of the list) to fling at Juri. Juri caught it casually and
tossed it into the wastebasket.

Shiori shook her head and sighed. "Number five is Touga,"
she said shortly, "number six is whatever that strange voice
Utena heard at the Ohtori family mansion is... I can see you want
to speak, Utena, so just let me say that other than Akio being
the most important thing we need to deal with, this list is not
arranged in order of importance... number seven is these 'ghosts'
that Nanami encountered at Ohtori... number eight is Miki...
number nine is... number nine is..."

"Number nine?" Juri prompted.

Shiori bit the end of her pen and frowned. "I wrote a nine
down at the end here, but never filled it in... I don't think I
forgot anything..." She looked around at the others. "Did I
leave anything out?"

"What about Tsuwabuki?" Nanami said, a touch of ice in it.

Shiori shook her head. "Nope. I thought about putting him
on, but... what can we do about him? He's in jail, and unless
you're thinking of breaking him out--you're not actually thinking
that, are you, Nanami?"

After a moment, Nanami shook her head.

"When two different worlds collide, people slip through the
cracks and get hurt," Juri said softly. "Tsuwabuki's being
punished in the 'normal' world for something that happened in the
world Akio's created at Ohtori... that's one of the reasons we
have to be so careful, because the same thing could happen to
us."

Shiori was still gnawing on the end of her pen. "I'm sure
I didn't forget anything..." she said uncertainly.

"Don't worry about it for now," Utena said. "Even if you
did, we all forgot it too, so it can't be that important."

Shiori nodded, but still looked unhappy. "So, in order...
number one, Akio..."

"Pass on him for now," Juri suggested. "Since he's
undoubtedly the first cause of all this, dealing with the other
things on the list will eventually lead back to him."

Utena and Nanami voiced their agreement. Shiori went on.
"Number two, Duellist's Society and President Akino Akami..."

"I don't know what to do about them," Utena said. "We've
got so little information. Touga might know more--"

"He's number five," Shiori interrupted. "We'll get to him
in order."

"We could kidnap the President and interrogate her," Nanami
said. "Or the four of us could go after her together... she
wouldn't be so tough then, even with those three goons of hers."

Juri put her hand on her forehead. "We can't just go
around kidnapping people, Nanami."

"She's evil!" Nanami snapped. "I know you met her, but you
didn't see her like I did... I think she might have really hurt
me, if Mari hadn't shown up. She's dangerous."

"I don't see why we can't talk about something else on the
list in relation to something higher than it in order," Utena
argued.

"Like Mari," Nanami agreed. "She's only number three on the
list, but if we're talking about Akino--"

"Well, why don't I just tear the list up and we can talk
about things at random?" Shiori said, frustration evident.

"Shiori, it's just a list," Juri said quietly, "it's not a
holy testament."

Shiori sighed. "You're right. I'm sorry. I was just
trying to help, but..."

"No, it's a big help," Utena said. "It's just we need to be
flexible. So... any ideas about what to do about the President?"

"Not with the information we have to go on," Juri said
dejectedly.

"And Mari?"

"I don't think she wants to be helped," Nanami muttered.

Utena rubbed her temples. "What was number four again?"

"The invitations," Shiori prompted.

"It's a trap," Nanami said instantly.

"Or it's something he absolutely doesn't want us to be
present at, and he wants us to think it's a trap so we'll stay
away," Juri countered.

"Argh," said Utena, holding her head in her hands. "Why
don't we just flip a damn coin?"

"I think we should go," Shiori said. "If it's a trap, we
can probably escape from it--I mean, it's in public, there'll be
lots of people there, and we can rely on each other. And if it's
something he wants us to stay away from, we've got to be there."

Nanami frowned. "Risky." She was still petting Chu-Chu,
who looked to have fallen asleep.

"Risky," Juri concurred.

"Yes," Shiori said quietly, "and leaving our normal lives
behind to come running back into a nightmare we'd forgotten we
ever lived was just so safe to begin with."

The laughter began with Juri; low, cold, tinged with bitter
humour. Infectiously, it spread to Nanami, whose tones were
higher and sharper. Finally, Shiori herself chuckled softly.
Only Utena didn't laugh.

*"So now we all have to suffer along with you?"*

*Nanami's voice is full of pain. Her clothes are
dishevelled from their scuffle.*

*"What gives you the right, Utena? What gives you the
right?" She's still trying to get her shoe back on properly,
and the tracks of tears mar her smooth cheeks.*

*"Nothing. I gave myself the right, Nanami."*

What kind of thing had that been to say, to someone whose
life she'd just torn apart?

"So, what do you say, Utena?" Juri, Shiori, Nanami--she
couldn't say who had asked the question, for her mind was far
from here.

"I think Shiori's right. Looking at our options... we have
to go," she replied in a dull voice.

Juri nodded. "I agree. But it doesn't mean we go in
unprepared. Miki's undoubtedly involved in the gallery opening,
since it's being dedicated in Kozue's name--I'll call him and see
what information I can get from him. Maybe Nanami or Shiori can
go out and see if they can see the gallery before the official
opening."

Hadn't there been something better to say? But what could
she say, that Nanami would have understood? She hadn't been
forced to live seven years with the agony of failure... she
wouldn't have been able to appreciate why--

"I'm not going back there alone! Those angry ghosts had it
in for me!"

"The ghosts are number seven on the list..."

"The really important thing if we're going to a social
function of this nature is to find Utena something proper to
wear."

"Nanami, be serious."

"I am serious, Juri-sempai--you haven't been her roommate
for two nights like I have. I've seen her wardrobe! She's got
nothing appropriate. And she can't borrow from me or Shiori,
because she's too tall, and you--well, the two of you have
different builds--"

"I'm aware of that, Nanami, but I really do think that's
there's more important concerns than whether Utena has anything
stylish to wear."

"Look in her drawer--you're a model, Juri-sempai, you know
how important appearances are at a function like this. And we've
got until tomorrow evening to take her shopping."

*"A child like you can't appreciate my ideals."*

There were drawers opening, clothes rustling.

"...you may have a point, Nanami. If there's time, we
probably should get her something appropriate to wear."

"I'm not going to wear a stupid frilly dress," Utena
suddenly snapped, bolting upright on the bed. "And don't go
through my drawers without asking, okay?"

Juri slid the drawer closed and turned around. "Sorry," she
said unapologetically. "Shiori, what's next?"

"Touga," Shiori said. "What do we do about him?"

"Too risky to treat him with anything more than suspicion,"
Juri said, and looked to the rest for confirmation. Nanami and
Shiori slowly nodded.

Utena didn't, but said merely, "Fine."

"Number six, this voice in her head Utena heard--"

"I need a drink," Utena said, swinging her legs off the bed
and heading for the door. "I'm going to the vending machines.
Anyone else want anything?" She opened the door, stepped into
the hall, and was gone before anyone had a chance to say
anything.

* * *

"One, two, three, four... oh, come on, I know I had another one
in here... damn it..."

A hand reached over her shoulder, as she sorted through the
change in her palm, and dropped a coin into the slot. The
vending machine let out a mechanical clunk and a can of iced tea
dropped down from its innards into the tray at the bottom.

"Thanks," Utena said, reaching down to pick it up and
glancing back at her rescuer.

Shiori nodded, and moved to feed more change into the
machine as Utena stepped aside. "You left in such a hurry that
no one had a chance to say they wanted anything."

"Yeah." Utena pressed the cold can to her forehead and
sighed. "Sorry."

Two more cans dropped, and Shiori took up one in each hand.
"Wanted some time alone to think?" she asked, popping open one
and taking a small sip.

Grudgingly, Utena nodded.

"You don't agree with the rest of us about Touga, do you?"

"No," Utena said after a moment.

Shiori leaned back against the vending machine. "Did Juri
tell you about him and me?"

"A little," Utena replied guardedly.

"It's funny," Shiori said quietly. "Juri likes to think of
me as being an innocent she has to protect." A tiny smile came
onto her face as she drank again. "But she's much more naive
than I am in matters like these. She wants to think that it was
only Touga's fault, that I was just his victim... but it wasn't
like that. I knew his reputation, and I knew what I was getting
into from the start."

"Oh." Discussing matters of the heart with Shiori wasn't
really what she'd wanted to do when she left the room, but there
was no polite way to brush her off and be alone again.

"But it hurt all the same, when it ended." Shiori pushed
off and began to walk back towards the hallway, out of the nook
where the vending and ice machines were located. "Isn't that
strange?"

Utena lowered the can to rest against her throat and looked
down at the floor. "No. It always hurts when things like that
end, even if you knew from the start that it was the only the way
they could end."

Shiori paused and looked back. "I think you really do know
what you're talking about," she said after a moment. One corner
of her smile curved slightly, recasting it sardonically. Then
she shrugged and turned away. "I'll let you be alone like you
wanted to be... make up some story for Juri and Nanami, to
explain why you're gone. Don't worry."

"Shiori--"

"Hmm?"

Utena shuffled her feet and dropped the can to her side; the
memory of its chill remained against her throat. "Do you regret
that you met me again?"

Shiori flinched. Her back was to Utena, hiding her face.
"I don't really know how to answer that. Actions speak louder
than words, though; I'm here, aren't I?"

"Yeah. I guess so." But what choice would there be, after
the return of memories? Utena thought; I suppose you had no
choice but to follow me.

"I'm not angry at you like I used to be, Utena-kun; even if
it hurt me at first, I'm not really important next to putting an
end to Akio."

"Yes you are," Utena said instantly. "You all are--I didn't
get you all into this with the intent that you'd get sacrificed
to stop him. Please don't think that," she urged desperately.

Shiori finally looked back. "I don't think that," she said,
apparently bewildered by the thought. "You're a good person; you
wouldn't do that kind of thing."

Before Utena could say anything else, Shiori left her alone,
passed out of sight around the corner.

"I'm not so good as you think I am," Utena whispered. "I'm
not nearly that good."

Faintly, from down the hallway, she heard Shiori say, "Oh my
God, you're number nine."

Then a too-silent silence fell; the hum of the motors of the
vending machines faded from her ears, the fluorescent lights
overhead dimmed subtly, and she felt a stirring in the air;
attar, blood, iron, rain, fire, smoke...

Impressions assailed her like a thousand blunted swords, she
stood near the centre of a storm, smelt the ozone tang of the
lightning, heard the thunder's drums...

Turned the corner (she hadn't even been conscious of her
motion), and saw Shiori pressed against the hallway's floral
wallpaper like a pinned butterfly. A woman stood before her;
tall, lovely, of unguessable age, a broad white hat shading
her face. Their gazes were locked, and Utena swore she could
see... something like translucent--almost, but not quite,
transparent--black electricity crackling between them.

"Hold it!"

The woman turned, and Shiori slumped down like a marionette
with cut strings. As her cool gaze swept over Utena, she felt
something like a mild static shock across her entire body, and
then the woman recoiled as though in physical pain.

Then her eyes widened fearfully, an expression Utena felt
certain was almost totally alien to her (somehow, she was vaguely
familiar), and she turned and ran.

Utena cocked the arm holding the iced tea can back over her
shoulder (just like in softball, she thought vaguely) and
_threw_. The can left her fingers like a bullet fired from a
gun, and clipped the woman's left shoulder just as she rounded
the corner heading towards the stairs.

It did more than she'd expected or wanted. The woman cried
out, trying but failing to muffle the sound, and was spun almost
completely around by the impact; Utena was almost certain she
heard bone crack. The woman staggered, face paling as she
clutched her right hand to her injured shoulder. For a moment,
Utena thought she might fall to the ground. Then she bolted out
of sight towards the stairs.

Utena sprang forward to pursue her, then skidded to a halt
with a muffled curse and knelt down by Shiori. To her relief,
she saw that Shiori's eyes were open, though they were cloudy as
though she'd just awoken from a long sleep. Even as Utena
reached out to touch her shoulder, Shiori let out a soft groan
and waved the hand away.

"I'm fine," she croaked, shaking her head. "Go after her.
Tokiko. That was her name. She's important. Number nine."

"Are you sure?"

"Go!"

Utena went. Down the hall, past the crumpled, leaking iced
tea can staining the blue carpet, out of the stairway door,
footsteps ringing on the stairs as she took them three at a time,
jumping as much as running, hearing Tokiko's footfalls faintly
below her (something about that name, that face...), a flash of
green dress through the narrow open newel of the winding stairs,
bottom floor now, bursting through the door (EMERGENCY EXIT
ONLY--ALARM WILL SOUND, but no alarm was sounding at all) just
before it closed, to find herself in a narrow open-ended alley
running between one side of the hotel and the building beside it.

Indoor slippers crunched on snow, and her breath fogged the
air. No jacket, but she didn't feel the cold at all. Painfully
blue sky overhead, everything--snow, walls, sky, body--clear and
sharp and hard as a diamond.

No Tokiko, though.

"Fast," Utena murmured, and cast her head from side to side,
seeking.

There, distantly, across the street, a shape in green, left
arm dangling limply, heading into the densely-wooded park that
faced the hotel...

Utena burst into a run again, alley walls blurring around
her, leaped a chest-high decorative hedge (losing one slipper in
the process), dodged around a startled bellboy struggling to lead
an elderly couple into the hotel while weighed down with their
bags ("Pardon me!"), rushed across the street accompanied by the
screeching of brakes and the honking of horns, (losing the second
slipper), running over cold concrete in her socks as though it
were summer grass. Into the park, passing beneath the prickly
shadows of pine trees, darting around benches, closing in on the
prey...

She felt wonderfully, vitally, powerfully alive, like she
could climb a mountain or fight an army by herself. Or catch up
to a panting, injured older woman near a dry fountain ringed by
a dozen identical stone benches.

Tokiko didn't seem to realize she was still being followed.
She was half-bent over by the fountain, right hand clutching the
rim as though to support herself, left arm hugged tight against
her side. As Utena passed the circle of benches, a patch of
unbroken, half-frozen snow cracked heavily beneath her foot, and
Tokiko started and turned.

"Yo," Utena said, not winded at all. "If you're done
running, how about answering some questions? Like who you are
and what you're up to and what the hell you were doing to Shiori-
san." She felt fiercely angry, coldly so, the kind of calm rage
that could be shaped and honed and used like a blade if she had
to.

Tokiko straightened, and glared imperiously at Utena from
behind her tinted sunglasses. With her uninjured arm, she
reached up and adjusted the tilt of her hat. "I don't know who
or what you are," she said calmly, "but I don't intend to let a
bunch of silly girls playing at being heroes interfere with me."

"Playing?" Utena almost sputtered. "You--you don't have any
idea what you're talking about!"

"Don't I?" Obviously pained to do so, Tokiko raised her
left hand and cupped it over her right fist. "You four think you
can face this? You've no idea of what you're up against."

Utena's eyes narrowed. "How long have you been spying on
us?" Perhaps six paces separated them, if she moved with long
strides... if only she could figure out why this woman was so
familiar...

"What, I'm supposed to give you convenient exposition just
because you caught up to me?" Tokiko laughed, a sound that under
another context Utena judged would have been quite pleasant.
"Sorry, that's not the way it works."

Smoothly, painlessly, she drew a black-bladed sword from her
left palm and flourished it skilfully in her right hand. "You'd
do well to turn away right now," she said softly, even a little
sadly. "I didn't run because I was afraid of you--although
you're a pretty deadly hand with a drink can, I'll admit--I ran
because I didn't want this to come to bloodshed." The sword rose
and pointed at Utena like an accusing finger. "But I won't hold
back if you give me no other choice!"

"What are you?" Utena asked, eyes wide. Drawing a sword
from within your own body, without another to assist you... she'd
never seen that before...

"Uh-uh," Tokiko said, smiling faintly as though at a
remembered joke from long ago, "I said no exposition."

"Well, then..." Utena knelt down, picked up a wrist-thick
pine tree branch almost as tall as her from ground, and smacked
it twice against the earth to rid it of excess snow. "...I guess
we'll just have to duel, then."

"Don't be foolish," Tokiko said, raising her voice. "You're
going to fight me with a tree branch? You don't have a chance."

Utena shrugged, finding a grip that wouldn't get her hands
poked full of needles. "I've done okay before."

"Stupid--I hate people who won't look after themselves!"
Tokiko snarled. Then her expression softened, and she smiled,
condescendingly, but also with a little respect. "But I admire
your courage. You remind me of someone I once knew."

She charged. Utena charged. Their weapons clashed. Tokiko
lopped a clean foot off the end of Utena's branch with no
resistance at all.

"Whoah!"

Tokiko reversed the motion and swept her sword upwards,
taking off another foot as Utena backpedalled.

"This black sword burns with the power of a hundred murdered
souls," Tokiko said, advancing smoothly as a sailing-ship on calm
seas and taking off one more foot. The branch was rapidly
becoming useless as anything more than kindling. "And you
challenged it with a tree branch? Brave..."

Utena ducked as the black sword whistled overhead. Its
blade, lustreless and dark, appeared as though burnt by fire or
rubbed in ashes.

"But stupid."

Utena, half-crouched, hurled what remained of the branch at
Tokiko's face; the woman cut it from the air with ease, but it
gave her the moment of distraction she needed. She launched
herself from the crouch with a loud cry, one arm and shoulder
driving against Tokiko's waist, the other hand grappling for her
sword wrist. They went down on the snow, Utena on top scrabbling
for better purchase and trying to pin Tokiko's sword arm to the
ground.

Tokiko got a knee up and shoved, almost throwing Utena off
her; stronger than she looked. Utena clung desperately and
dragged Tokiko with her by the sword arm. Tokiko cried out as
her injured arm hit the ground; they rolled twice, and Utena
ended up back on top again, getting in a good punch into Tokiko's
short ribs in the process with her free hand. She banged Tokiko's
sword hand against the frozen ground twice, trying futilely to
get her to loose her grip on the sword.

"Let it go!" she cried, hitting Tokiko in the ribs again.
The other woman gasped, eyes clouding with pain; her sunglasses
had been knocked off in the scuffle, and were some distance away,
lenses glittering on the snow. "I don't want to hurt you!"

(Get off!)

Attar, blood, iron, rain, fire, smoke--

She threw herself off just in time to avoid being pierced
through the throat by the second sword that flumed point-first
from between Tokiko's breasts. One ankle tangled with Tokiko's
legs, though, or perhaps Tokiko tripped her, and she went down
hard on her back, the thin layer of snow doing little to lessen
the pain. Bright, amorphous shapes flashed before her eyes as
her head bounced off the ground.

She was really feeling the cold now. What had she been
thinking, running around in her bare feet and no jacket in the
middle of winter? Okay, so she'd been trying to catch Tokiko,
but that still wasn't any excuse... she could catch a chill, and
then Anthy would insist on staying home from work to take care of
her... she'd probably make that chicken soup of hers... damn,
she'd hit her head really hard...

There was a shadow looming over her, a sword in one hand,
another sword orbiting it like an attendant satellite.

"Poor girl," said the shadow. "Even though your soul is
barred to me, I can tell you've been through a lot of pain."

A face swam into a focus; a beautiful, sculptured, ageless
face, enhanced rather than marred by the tiny beauty mark at the
left-hand side of her mouth. Not unused to kindness, but with a
hardness to it that almost hid that.

Realization hit Utena like a bolt of thunder. "You're her,"
she said blearily. "The woman from the photograph."

"What?" Tokiko blinked, looking surprisingly girlish for a
moment. Then she laughed softly. "I suppose it doesn't matter."

"Wait--"

A black sword hilt, graven in equal quantities with roses
and thorns, slammed against her jaw like a hammer. The amorphous
shapes rose again, bright and countless as stars. Then they
faded, and there was only darkness.

* * *

Should have brought more arrows, the prince thought, as she
vaulted nimbly over a jagged rock. Behind her, the serpent
pursued down the mountainside in a cascade of scree. His hot
breath washed over her ankles, and his jaws hissed and snapped
continuously.

"Please, prince," he pleaded, in a voice cultured as any
courtier of her father's kingdom, "wait. I wish only to clear up
this misunderstanding that has brought us sadly into conflict."

As it lunged, she ducked behind a thick pine tree, which
shattered to flinders as the serpent's great scaled head smashed
against it like a battering ram.

"Then why don't you stop trying to _eat_ me?" she growled,
futilely swiping with her bow at the beast's nose as she
retreated. At least she wasn't up in the mountains any more; the
valley, overhung with trees and littered with boulders long-ago
fallen from the slope, offered more places to hide.

"I really can't," the serpent said, sounding genuinely
regretful. "It's in my nature to devour princes. Can't help
it." He lunged again--but she saw it for a feint, and leapt
aside from the true attack. Poisoned teeth scraped on stone with
a bony screech. "Ouch!"

This time, she managed to give him a solid smack on the head
with one end of her bow, which made tears of pain come into his
beautiful, long-lashed dark eyes. He withdrew automatically,
piling up his red-and-purple diamond-scaled coils into a tall
tower and looking at her with a strangely betrayed expression.

"Really, can't we just talk this over like a rational prince
and a rational talking serpent?" he asked, and lunged again, the
impact digging a shallow trench in the rocky earth the prince had
occupied a moment earlier.

Should have brought my sword, too, the prince thought.
Stupid father, stupid tradition, only allowed to hunt the talking
serpents with a bow, blah blah blah. She grabbed a jagged chunk
of rock from the ground and bounced it off the serpent's armoured
snout, drawing a thin line of whitish-green blood that smelt
faintly like mint toothpaste.

"Again, I say, ouch!"

"Look," she argued, "this is ridiculous. It can't go on
like this!"

"I quite agree," said the talking serpent, eyes glittering.
"Which is why, during a moment of distraction, I have wound my
tail around your legs."

The prince looked down. "Shit," she said. "Whoah!" Then
she was on her back, head spinning, and there were three--no,
wait, four--talking serpents looking down at her, all identical.
Triplets were three, quintuplets were five, but she couldn't
remember what four identical siblings were called.

What a stupid thing to think about right before dying.

The four heads plunged, opening wide to reveal maws lined
with red velvet. She heard thunderous hoofbeats, battle cries;
silver flashed through the air.

"Woe! I am slain!" said the quadruplet serpents.
Quadruplets! That was it. They fell back simultaneously out of
her view, and the grip of the tail upon her ankles relaxed.

The prince lay on the ground, eyes closed, breathing slowly.
She had no idea who her rescuers might be; they could be foe as
easily as friend. As the hoofbeats approached closer, she
cracked one eye open a slit.

They were three ladies, clad in white, mounted upon horses,
each bearing silver javelins at her golden belt. They circled
slowly, hooves ringing like bells.

"Is that a handsome prince I see?" said the first, who rode
a horse the colour of fire.

"A handsome prince I think it be," confirmed the second,
whose horse was all of purple, like the raiment of a king.

"He's not so handsome, so says me," the last said
spurnfully, daintily mounted upon a buttercup-yellow horse.

Purple-horsed said, "You two should bear these tidings
away."

"I think as leader _I_ should stay," fire-horsed said.

"He looks like a weirdo, this I say," sniffed yellow-
horsed.

Fire-horsed sighed. "Then I suppose we all must go."

"To our queen to bear this tale of woe." Purple-horsed
nodded.

"Away, I say, then we shall go!" Yellow-horsed reared her
steed dramatically, nearly falling off in the process.

"We already used 'go'," purple-horsed protested.

"I couldn't think of another rhyme!" yellow-horsed said,
struggling to keep upright in the saddle.

"Oh, forget it, I hated doing that stupid rhyming anyway,"
muttered fire-horsed.

The three rode off, disappearing from the prince's sight
behind a conveniently-placed boulder.

"Well," the prince said, slowly sitting up, "that was just
completely bizarre." She untangled the limp coils of the
serpent from her ankles and stood up. It lay quite dead,
pierced by three silver javelins. The prince brushed dust off
her hunting clothes and tried to decide what to do. During her
flight from the serpent, she'd gotten quite lost, and was only
now realizing that she had no idea where she was.

"Are you all right?"

She started and looked up. A handsome man in a cape of
crimson feathers was perched on a nearby boulder, walking staff
clutched in both hands. "Who are you?"

"I'm a birdcatcher." He smiled and hopped off the boulder.
"But you're the fairest bird I've yet caught. Good thing I was
here to rescue you from that serpent." Before she could stop
him, he'd taken her hand and planted a chaste kiss upon it.

"Are you usually in the habit of claiming credit for heroic
deeds you had nothing to do with, birdcatcher?" the prince asked,
angrily snatching her hand away.

He winked at her, still kneeling at her feet. "All the
time," he said, cheerfully guiltless. "Terrible habit, really,
but it's my nature."

"Any other bad habits I should be aware of?"

"I tend to lie by omission a lot. And I'm rather
manipulative." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I think that's
it. But my heart's generally in the right place." His eyes
misted a little. "It's just that no one's ever taught me how to
be good."

Despite herself, she laughed. "You're silly."

"It's part of my charm."

The hoofbeats approached again, signalling the return of the
three ladies. The birdcatcher looked up, startled, panic in his
eyes.

"Birdcatcher! Just what are you up to now?" cried the
leader of the ladies, mounted on her fire-coloured steed. She
shook a silver javelin threateningly at the birdcatcher.

"Catching birds, like I always do," said the birdcatcher
with a smile.

"Well, the queen will be coming soon, so you'd best make
yourself scarce," said the one on the purple horse. She smiled
unpleasantly. "Unless you'd like to deal with _her_, that is."

"Oh, no, that will be fine, pleasure meeting you, prince,
hope we'll see each other again soon, goodbye!" The birdcatcher
dived behind a boulder and disappeared from sight.

The prince walked slowly around the boulder. "Okay," she
said. "He just vanished! What's going on?"

"Honestly, you don't know?" The one on the yellow horse
looked disdainfully down her pert nose at the prince. "You're
having a dream, silly."

The earth rumbled suddenly.

"Earthquake!" cried the prince.

"No, no, it's just the queen," corrected the lady on the
fire-coloured horse.

"She likes to make an entrance," the one on the purple horse
whispered conspiratorially.

The nearest mountain split down the middle like an eggshell
being cracked, revealing a magnificent vaulted chamber within,
lit by flickering braziers of gold and hanging chandeliers of
diamond. A magnificent queen reclined upon a black marble
throne, with one hundred attendants bowing at her feet and
hiding their faces from sight.

"Look, can't I wake up now?" said the prince. "This is just
getting dumber by the second."

"Not _every_ dream can be filled with profundity and
foreshadowing, all right?" protested the queen in the prince's
own voice. "Besides, I'm just a symbol, it's your subconscious."

(You want to wake up?)

"I just want to know what's really going on!"

(You want to wake up?)

"Fine, yes, I want to wake up!"

(Ascende huc, et ostendam tibi, quae oportet fieri post
haec...)

"No Latin, damn it!"

And the sky turned black, and the earth shattered like the
shell of an egg, and a red-eyed shadow rose from within the
ruins like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its own cremation,
one hand hurling down the stars, one hand ripping the sun and
moon from their places.

She screamed, and woke.

"Utena! Utena!"

"Nanami," she tried to call, but it came out as a whisper.
"Nanami, I'm over here..." Her whole body felt stiff as a
board; she lay on something cold and hard. A stone bench. Harsh
blue sky overhead. So cold...

"Utena!"

"I'm right here..."

"Oh my God, you don't even have _shoes_ on? What were you
thinking, you lunatic? Running off by yourself like that,
without proper winter attire... Utena, you idiot!" Nanami loomed
over her, relief and anger mixing on her face. "You could have
frozen to death! Don't you have any sense?" She blinked. "And
why are you lying on a bench?"

"I guess Tokiko put me here after she knocked me out," Utena
said. She tried to sit up, but it was just too cold, too cold to
do anything but lie here...

Nanami doffed her long, fur-collared jacket, immediately
beginning to shiver as she did, and worriedly forced Utena to sit
up on the bench. "Come on, we have to get you inside and get you
warmed up." Teeth chattering, she struggled to get the docile
Utena into the coat, which was slightly too small in the
shoulders. Finished that, she sat down on the bench and slipped
off one of her boots. "I can't carry you, so I'll give you one
of my boots; we'll have to support each other on the way back."
She groaned. "Oh, God, we're going to cause a ridiculous scene."

"How's Shiori?" Utena managed to ask.

"She's fine," Nanami said briskly. "Now stand up and let's
get back to the hotel before _I_ freeze to death."

"I had the weirdest damn dream," Utena murmured, as they
began to hobble out of the park, arm in arm. "Wow, this is a
really warm coat."

"Rub it in, why don't you?" Nanami muttered.

"Sorry."

"Just be quiet. Honestly, the things I have to go
through..."

"Sorry."

"I should be back in Tokyo right now, working on that essay
on cyclical themes in modern Japanese literature..."

"Yeah, you should."

"Damn it! I hate when the light changes to red just as you
reach the crossing!"

"Sorry."

"That's not actually your fault, Utena."

"Oh yeah."

"C-Cold..."

"We could probably get this coat over both of us..."

"We look weird enough already. Besides, you need it more
than I do."

"Sorry."

"Stop apologizing. It's becoming tedious."

"Sor... okay."

* * *

"...where was she?"

"In the park across the street! Lying on a bench without
even a coat or boots, can you imagine?"

"I don't think she really had time to dress properly when
she set out in pursuit of our mystery woman."

"Not entirely a mystery... I've made another list..."

The waking moment faded like mist, and she fell again.

A pleasant little dream, a sleeping recollection, collation
of imageries. The recent, the distant, the almost forgotten.
Nanami, fussy as a mother hen, fluffing pillows and piling up
bedcovers until she fell into a cocoonish sleep; Anthy, summer
flu, chicken soup, playing cards while sitting up in bed, music
on the radio--something by Brahms, she thought; her mother, and
she was very small, a fever, Mother worriedly taking her
temperature and wiping her forehead with a cool cloth.

Safety, warmth; those were the feelings. No one relying
upon her to do anything, in those moments. No responsibility at
all. Safe, like the chick in its shell.

"...there's no one registered here of that name, no."

"She's almost certainly their aunt."

"Huh?"

"Akami told Miki she had to go meet her aunt. And Tokiko
told me she was in town to deal with 'family matters' before
she... wiped out my memory. Again! Damn her..."

"Who do these people think they are, that they can just play
with people's memories like they're pieces of a jigsaw puzzle?
Akio, Himemiya, and now _this_ woman... I hate them!"

No, don't hate her, it wasn't her fault, it wasn't... she
didn't choose to walk the path she did... it was chosen for
her... she was no more free than the rest of us... a prisoner,
like all of us...

Please don't hate her.

More coherencies. Nanami forcing her to sit up on the park
bench; Anthy throwing herself in the path of Saionji's sword
during the final duel with him, to push her out of the way; Dios,
coming to her in the darkest moment, like a light that would burn
forever...

_She_ was the one who was supposed to be strong. She had to
be strong, to not rely on other people... she had no right to
drag anyone into this, using truth like a weapon against them,
giving them no other choice but to follow her into the lair of
the dragon...

"Is she awake?"

"No--and don't disturb her, she needs her rest."

"Don't act like such a mother. She's tough. A little cold
won't have done her any damage. Wake up, Utena."

She slowly opened her eyes. Shiori was on one side of the
bed, Nanami on the other. Chu-Chu was perched on her pillow,
wide-eyed and concerned. She looked from one to the other, not
knowing what to say, uncertain of what she'd dreamed and what
she'd truthfully heard while drifting between dreaming and
waking.

"How long have I been asleep?" she asked finally.

"About four hours," Nanami said. "It's just past six."

"You should have woken me sooner," she muttered.

"We had things under control," Shiori said soothingly.

That doesn't matter, Utena thought, but she nodded
grudgingly.

Shiori handed her a piece of paper. "This is what we've
figured out about her."

Utena browsed over in a little numbly. Shiori's handwriting
was precise and elegant:

AKINO TOKIKO

--Hates Akio.

--Aunt of Akino Akami and Akino Hasuichi (very probable).

--Witch? Magical powers (wiping memories).

"Pen," Utena said. Shiori gave her one, and she added:

--Original name: Chida Tokiko.

--Older than she looks.

--Knew Mikage (Nemuro?).

--Has been spying on us. Knows what we're up to?

--Draws swords out of herself.

"Sorry my handwriting is so messy," she said, returning it.
"So, fill me in."

"I met her yesterday," Shiori said shortly. "She was the
one who drove me home after I, umm..." She glanced at Nanami.
Nanami glanced away. "Anyway, I had a run-in with Akio. She
showed up midway through. He's scared of her, Utena--I saw that,
even if just for a moment."

"Yeah, well, she's not someone to take lightly." Utena
rubbed her tender jaw and winced. "She's not against us, though;
she could have killed me if she wanted to."

"Instead, she just left you to freeze to death," Nanami
said, frowning.

Utena waved her hand dismissively. "I don't really know
much about who she is. I saw her in an old photo Touga showed
me, with Mikage and Akio. I'm almost certain it was her;
there's no way she should look as young as she does."

"So, is she like Himemiya?"

Utena scratched her head uncomfortably. "I don't know.
See, I really don't know what Anthy is, exactly, but... yeah,
some of the stuff she did reminded me of stuff Anthy's done.
Pretty safe to say she's a witch like Anthy. Whatever that is."
She shrugged.

Shiori looked the list up and down, frowning heavily. "If
she's against Akio too, and she knows what we're up to, why did
she do all that. Wiping my memory, running away... doesn't she
see we'd be better off combining forces?"

"Her goals might be different from ours," Utena said.
"And... well, I don't think she thinks we're up to the job," she
finally muttered. "She said stuff about us 'playing at being
heroes'. That we didn't know what we were up against."

"We don't," Nanami pointed out.

"Yeah." Utena sighed. "Maybe she just wants to handle it
on her own. Whatever it is." She blinked. "Hey, where's
Juri?"

"Getting dinner," Shiori replied.

"Take-out," Nanami added.

"It'd probably be a good idea if none of you went off on
your own," Utena said. "Hey, stop looking at me like that."

"It's my fault," Shiori muttered. "I was the one who told
you to go after her."

"Well, she ran." Utena shrugged. "Neither of us had any
way of knowing she'd get vicious when cornered."

Shiori sighed. "Number nine." She sat down at the desk and
rested her head on her arms. "I can't believe how easy it was
for her... if Utena hadn't been there, I wouldn't have been able
to do _anything_."

"She said my soul was barred to her," Utena murmured. "I
think that might have been why she ran. She tried to do
something to me, but couldn't. But why?"

This was the second time she'd felt that surging power; when
she'd fought the Knight of Pentacles, it had let her throw him
out the window like he weighed nothing at all. A much heavier
and taller man, from a position of totally inadequate leverage.

"Don't feel bad about it." Strange, how things
transformed... Nanami, trying now to give comfort to Shiori.
"I don't think any one us by ourselves could have done anything."
There was a significant pause. "You know... it's frightening, to
think about it. I could have run into her yesterday, and she
could have altered my memories, and I wouldn't even know."

She'd thrown a can hard enough to break a woman's shoulder,
had run without jacket or boots through the cold without feeling
it at all...

What was wrong with her?

"I don't think she's very good at it." Shiori raised her
head from the pillow of her arms, and laughed softly. "As far as
being able to play with people's memories goes... I _knew_ there
was something that should go at number nine, it was like a word
right at the tip of my tongue... I couldn't stop thinking about
it, and then, when I saw her again, it hit me all at once."

"But what was she doing here in the first place?"

"Came back to finish the job, maybe. Or perhaps to deal
with all of us. I don't know." Shiori ran a nervous hand
through her hair.

Utena kicked off the covers, swung her legs out of bed, and
headed for the bathroom. "I'm going to shower," she said,
wrinkling her nose. "Sleeping in my clothes after a chase and a
fight has given me a distinctly funky odour."

In the shower, she thought very deliberately of nothing at
all, and let the hot water soothe her aches and pains. Bruise on
her cheek. Welt on her wrist. Sore jaw. White, white scar on
her belly and back, marking the passage of Anthy's sword through
her body.

Where were the other wounds? The swords had come upon her
like birds of prey, and she remembered a moment of awesome pain.
Then turmoil, shadows and conflicts of memories that might never
have been. Then Anthy, and life had definition again.

When she got out of the shower, Juri was back; the others
were unpacking cardboard cartons and paper plates, doling out
napkins and chopsticks and canned drinks. They sat on the floor,
cross-legged, and ate takoyaki and yakisoba and rice crackers,
indulgently feeding Chu-Chu while Utena told the brief tale of
her pursuit and battle with Tokiko.

"It seems we've got a number of opposing interests
concentrated here," Juri said at the end. She steepled her
fingers and tried to look thoughtful, which probably would have
been more effective if she hadn't been slurping the last few
inches of a noodle into her mouth. "Since our objective is
actually fairly simple, we may be able to come in up the middle
of whatever conflict is brewing and accomplish our goal."

"Deadman trigger," Nanami said worriedly.

"In the long run, is the world better off with or without
Akio in it, whatever the short-term consequences may be?" Juri
asked softly.

Utena almost told them about the dream, but didn't. The
ending was undoubtedly meaningless as the rest of it. Dreams
were only dreams.

No one had anything to say after what Juri said, so the
topic of conversation switched to the lunch she and Shiori had
had with Miki earlier in the day.

"It was very nice, and we learned absolutely nothing."
Juri hesitated, then sighed deeply. "He's definitely hiding
something. He's far too concerned with convincing me that he's
leading a happy, normal, uneventful life."

"Maybe he thinks he is?" Nanami said with a shrug.

"No. There's something going on. I know him well enough to
tell that. At least, I used to." Juri sighed again. "Maybe, if
I'd..." Suddenly, she shook her head, flinging her curls from
side to side. "Nanami, you knew him better than I did, after
Kozue died... did he ever say anything to you, anything at all
that might be important?"

"No," replied Nanami. Perhaps too quickly, Utena thought,
but she said nothing. "After graduation, you know, he moved away
to go to university, and I went to Tokyo... I didn't even know he
was teaching at Ohtori until yesterday." She frowned. "Touga
had to have known. Why didn't he tell me?"

"He said he didn't want to get you involved." Everyone
looked at Utena, who cleared her throat nervously. "At lunch
today. We talked about what he's been doing, trying to find out
what's going on--"

"What he says he's been doing," Juri said pointedly.

"Yeah. Whatever. And he didn't want to get you involved.
That was probably why he didn't tell you about Miki."

Nanami frowned, and said nothing.

Pen scratched on paper as Shiori worked on a revision of her
earlier list. "So much to deal with..." she muttered unhappily.

"We need to stop trying to see the whole tapestry," Juri
said sagely. "Because we can't, you know. We don't have the
necessary perspective. What we need to do is grab a thread and
pull, and hope it unravels the whole thing."

"The gallery opening?" Nanami asked.

Juri nodded. "Exactly. Even if it's a trap, we'll at least
know a little more. And, like Shiori said, it's a public event.
What's the worst that can happen?"

Nanami grinned. "You really want that answered? I've got
some ideas..."

Juri chuckled humourlessly. "Save them. I've got enough
of my own."

Utena drained the last of her drink, and found herself
thinking about Miki. Sweet, idealistic, innocent Miki, who'd
been her friend. Now, he was caught in Akio's web, caught up
tight enough that they couldn't trust him. Juri was blaming
herself, she could see that, and maybe Nanami was too, because
there was definitely _something_ she wasn't telling.

Then again, who was she to judge people for that? Hey
everyone, big revelation time, I didn't just live in Akio's
tower, I let myself fall in love with him, though I knew he had a
fiancee, and I let him kiss me, and touch me, and I even let him
_fuck_ me--

"Utena? Something wrong?"

"Huh?"

Nanami pointed. "You just snapped your chopsticks."

"Oh." She grimaced, and let the broken utensils drop to the
carpet. "We've got extras, right?"

Never lose that strength and nobility, even when you grow
up. Fine job she'd done of that. No wonder her sword hadn't
been worthy enough, hadn't been good enough...

Kaoru Kozue, whom she'd hardly known at all. Dead. Ohtori
Kanae, a sweet girl, engaged to the devil like something out of a
bad horror movie. Dead. Tsuwabuki Mitsuru, earnest and brave,
hating childhood, wanting to be an adult. Imprisoned. How many
others in these seven years, lives torn apart by Akio's mad
games, because _she_ hadn't been strong enough, because _she_ had
let it fester for seven years...

"Here."

She took the chopsticks from Nanami, ate without tasting,
talked without speaking. Conversation became inconsequential,
like they were just a group of friends at a sleepover. Someone
turned the television on, and they watched a game show where
people performed inconsequential tasks for useless glittering
prizes. Juri and Nanami got into a heated argument over
something in one of Nanami's fashion magazines. Then they began
to argue about where to go shopping tomorrow. Shiori rolled her
eyes and found a deck of cards, and they played poker for pocket
change.

A few hours passed, through which Utena moved robotically.
She laughed when it was expected (Shiori, suggesting deadpan that
they change the game to strip poker, which had sent Nanami into
a scandalized, red-faced rage and Juri into almost convulsive
laughter), but fragments of the day ran through her head like a
litany of her sins. How different was what she'd done from Akio,
using people's memories against them? Using "truth" as her
excuse for changing their lives permanently, just like he'd
justified all the pain and ruination he'd caused by claiming the
existence of ideals she couldn't comprehend.

Eventually, shortly after ten, when everyone else was
yawning and tired and giggly (and she, to fit in, was pretending
to be the same), Juri and Shiori left for their room. Chu-Chu
had already climbed into his box and was fast asleep.

"Goodnight, Utena."

"Goodnight, Nanami."

"I'm glad we all got along so well tonight. It was nice.
Better than yesterday." Nanami laughed softly in the darkness,
punctuating it with a yawn. "Then again, it wouldn't have been
hard for Shiori and I to get along better than yesterday..."

"Uh-huh."

"It's kind of like a war, I guess. When you have a common
enemy, you learn to get along, to work together... because that's
the only way to win."

"Uh-huh."

"Anyway, goodnight."

"G'night."

It took perhaps half-an-hour for her to become confident
enough that Nanami was asleep to get out of bed. She stood in
the middle, between their two beds. In the residual light
coming through the window, she could see Nanami curled up
beneath the covers, knees almost at her chest, hands tucked
under her chin. Sleeping like a little kid. With all the
imperious hardness common to her expression gone, she looked
heartbreakingly young. Utena had to resist the urge to tuck in
her blankets, which were a little dishevelled.

She dressed quickly; black shirt, dark jeans. She took the
sheathed sword from the bottom of the drawer. At the closet near
the door, she put on her boots; then, rather guiltily, she took
Nanami's jacket down from the hanger and slipped into it. It
wasn't that small on her, and, unlike her coat, it was long
enough to conceal the sword from casual sight. To her relief,
Nanami had left the keys to the rental car beside her purse, not
in it.

"Oniisama..."

She froze. Bedsprings squeaked, soft like mice, as Nanami
stirred a little.

"Oniisama, no..."

Just talking in her sleep. Anthy had done that a few times,
always in languages she didn't speak. German, once, and another
time something she thought was Chinese, and one more time in a
language that was totally unfamiliar. She'd never asked about
it.

She went to the door, put her hand upon the handle, quietly
began to turn. Soft movement across the carpet behind her, and a
gentle, "Chu."

She turned and knelt down. His eyes glittered in the
darkness, seeming to hold their own light.

"I've got to go," she whispered.

He held out his stubby arms to her. The message was clear,
but she shook her head. "No. You can't come."

His eyes flashed. He turned his head, and looked pointedly
towards the sleeping Nanami.

"Yeah. You could wake her up. Then it would all be
ruined. But I don't think you will." She paused. "Because you
know; you know that this is what I should have done from the
start."

He did, said, nothing.

"Tell Anthy I'm sorry, if I don't..." She sucked in a
breath. "One way or another, I'm ending this tonight."

"Chu," he said. "Chu. Chu chu chu."

"Yeah."

He held out his arms again.

"No." With one finger, she stroked his head. "Go back to
sleep." She rose, opened the door as softly as possible. Chu-
Chu was still standing there as she closed it, but he made no
sound at all.

* * *

Raise; the blade must not waver. Cut down, turn and raise, cut
to the side, twist the wrists, cut to the other side. Turn, and
repeat.

The sweat poured down his bare chest, which heaved as he did
movement after movement. Swordplay as a dance; not balletic
excess, but a modern thing, spare and graceful and without a
single wasted motion. Maximum power with minimum effort.

Barefoot and wearing only loose, dark pants, he did this
nightly, moving the folding screens that divided the penthouse
into sections aside so at to give himself clear space. It was
not ideal; one of the only things he missed about the old house
was the yard to practice in. But there were so many other things
that he didn't miss; the trade-off had been more than worth it.

Barako watched him intently from her usual place on the
ottoman, tail lashing from side to side like a whip. She had
always been a good companion to him; the only one, it seemed,
that he'd ever managed to treat as a friend should be treated.

Cut, and, with each cut, perhaps he cut away a little more
of what he'd once been. What he remembered being, at least; the
epicurean playboy, selfish and insincere, without real belief in
friendship or love. A man of gleaming surfaces, rusting below
them. He hadn't always been like that; in childhood, he
remembered being exasperated with love for his sweet, silly,
devoted little sister. And Kyouichi, closer than any brother
ever could have been.

He hadn't always been like that, and he didn't know what had
changed him. Adolescence, the passage from boy to man, he
remembered only with vague, placid, uncertain images. Somewhere,
the image he'd had for himself as a grown man, forged in equal
parts from "A Book of Five Rings" and "Acts of King Arthur and His
Noble Knights", had become twisted. He'd wanted to be chivalrous
and stoic; a knight, a warrior. But he'd ended up as a cad
wearing chivalry's mask.

Cut again, and pause; the phone was ringing. Bokuto still
held loosely in one hand, he went to answer it. He was nearly
certain of who it was even before he picked it up; no one else
would be calling this late.

"Hello... yes, of course you can come up."

He entered the code to give her access to the building and
the penthouse, and hurried to prepare himself. He grabbed a
light silken robe, white with red trim, from off the back of a
chair and belted it tightly around his waist. His bokuto was
replaced on the rack in the corner, beneath the sheathed katana.
The folding screens were quickly moved back into their normal
positions; he finished the last of the manoeuvring just as the
elevator dinged, and she stepped off.

"My sister has a coat just like that," he said lightly,
watching carefully how she kept one hand beneath the long coat,
obviously concealing something. He took a step towards her.
"You know, perhaps the three of us should get together... how
well did you know my sister? The two of you only would have
been a year apart. Were you friends?"

"Touga..." She couldn't seem to look him in the eye; a
powerful ache began in his chest, because she carried such sorrow
in her. And her face was that of the prince of his dreams, his
saviour.

But she carried something else as well, under her coat, and
it might mean his death.

"Yes, Utena-kun?"

"I just came... I came to say..."

"What?" He tensed his body in preparation, while appearing
completely relaxed on the surface.

On the ottoman, Barako stirred and flicked her tail,
observing the two of them with her green eyes.

"Goodbye."

He was moving even as she said it, swiftly and smoothly; her
eyes widened and her hand came out from under the coat, but she
didn't have time to draw. He caught her wrists and shoved her
back against the closed doors of the elevator, using his greater
mass to his advantage, twisting so that the sheathed sword fell
to the floor. His foot lashed out and kicked it aside.

"Sorry," he said sadly. "I'm not ready to go yet. I really
did trust you, at first." She struggled, tried to bring a knee
up; he blocked with his hip and pressed his body against hers,
pinning her between him and the elevator doors. "But maybe that
was foolish--how'd he get you all in on it? You, my sister,
Arisugawa... Takatsuki." The last name came out tinged with
regret; one of the few hearts he'd wounded to which he could
still put a name and a face. "What did he promise you all?"

"You were spying on me?" Her face, only inches from his,
actually looked shocked and betrayed. Still beautiful, though;
he remembered the taste of her lips. He felt much more regret
than anger.

"Don't act so surprised," he said softly. Beneath him, she
was all tension-tightened muscle and slender curves; strong for
her size, but he was stronger, and he had leverage. "You tried
to play me for a fool, I guess--maybe it's all been a lie all
along, the prince that I dreamed of, or maybe he found you, or
made you somehow, I don't know what he's capable of, he doesn't
seem to age..." Suddenly, he found his voice half-choked by
grief and pain and frustration. "But it can't all have been a
lie," he whispered. "There has to be such a thing as a prince.
Because what have I been living for otherwise, if not to become
that thing?"

She'd stopped struggling some time ago, gone almost limp.
His chest was heaving with each breath, whereas she was almost
motionless. Her eyes filled full of tears; they began to fall
down her face in shining streams.

He stepped back, keeping his grip on her wrists, loosening
it a little but ready to tighten it again at any time.
"Utena-kun..."

"It's all my fault," she said, softest whisper, purest pain.
"All of it. I wasn't strong enough. So Kozue-chan died, and
Kanae-san died, and..." She sobbed once, a sound that ripped
itself raggedly from her trembling throat. "I should have stayed
in that coffin. I should have stayed in there and never come out
into the sun again."

It's a trick, some part of him thought. But he knew it
wasn't. There was a very tangled skein here, a history that he
didn't know. Something had been torn from him, and she was a
part of it.

He released her wrists, and drew her weeping body gently
against his, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. "Won't you let
me in?" he pleaded softly. "Won't you trust me? I don't know
what I did to you, to make you not trust me... I know I don't
deserve it. I can't ask for it, or require it... but won't you
let me in? Won't you let me help you?"

She said nothing, but sobbed against his shoulder. He
raised her head with a thumb beneath her chin, lowered his lips
to her forehead. He kissed there, along her hairline, her brows,
the bridge of her nose, the corners of her eyes. He kissed the
streams of tears upon her cheeks, hot and salty, sweet and
intoxicating as wine.

His body stirred to the pressure of her, the hardness and
the softness, and something abyssal stirred with it, like a wave
building far out to sea, approaching inexorably towards the
shore...

His lips found hers, or hers found his; they found one
another, after so long a seeking, after time that seemed
infinite. He had sought this so often, come close, but never
close enough...

Her hands were beneath his robe, running over his skin;
caressing his shoulders, moulding his hard pectorals, nails
scoring lightly down his breastbone. Lips were the world, the
world consisted of soft lips and roaming hands and gentle cries
from her, halfway between sobs and moans.

And the meowing of a cat, rubbing against their legs.

He paused, disentangled himself from her. She stared up at
him; uncertain, disappointed, expectant. "Touga..."

"She's a jealous lady," he said softly, kneeling down and
gathering his cat into his arms. He turned his back on Utena,
crossed the floor to the bathroom, dropped Barako to the floor
within, and closed the door. He'd apologize to her later.

"Now... where were we?"

"Right here, I think," she whispered, and they resumed. One
of her legs wrapped around one of his like a limber ivy vine; her
hands unbelted his robe and slipped it from his shoulders. It
fell to the floor, pooling in silken folds at their feet. He
kissed her chin, her jawline, her left ear, her right ear, the
hollow of her throat, the side of her neck; he removed her coat
(his sister's coat, he knew, not knowing why, not caring in that
moment, for the world beyond her body did not exist) and tossed
it aside. Her fingers roamed freely through his hair, found the
ribbon tied near the base to keep it out of his eyes while he
practiced, undid it.

"I prefer it loose," she whispered, and then her lips were
on his again. He undid the buttons of her shirt one by one,
giving his hands access to her slim shoulders, her small breasts,
her flat stomach. Her lips moved down, tracing a path along his
throat to his collarbone. He ran his hands down her back, from
shoulderblades to small, and she sighed and bent inward towards
him like a hunter's bow. Her fingers fumbled with the drawstring
of his pants. He murmured something wordless to her and lifted
her up, one arm behind her knees, the other cradling her back.
She wrapped her arms around his neck as he carried her towards
the bed, covering his face with kisses fierce as falling hail.

His life had been building to this moment, even if he had
never realized it. They reached the bed, and he laid her gently
down, his body over hers, his shadow across her, and they kissed
again and again. She pressed her hands against his chest and
brought him down onto his side, came against him, their bodies
locked tight like two matched pieces of a puzzle.

"Have we done this before?" he whispered; he spoke like a
child, like a man adrift at sea.

"You and I?" she whispered back, between kisses and
caresses. "No... no, we never did."

"How strange..." he replied. "I feel as though we've done
this so often before..."

The wave crested, approached the shore, dark-bodied,
white-crowned; the gulls soared above it, filling the air with
harsh cries. He played her body like a musician, tongue and lips
and fingers all in concert; he was well-versed with how to give a
woman pleasure, although it had been years since he'd done so.
He learned the story of her body as things progressed, her
responses--inhalations and exhalations of breath, movements of
body, inadvertent words--telling the tale to him... She hadn't
done this often; probably only a few times; the memory of those
times were unhappy. This one would not be, he swore. The wave
of his soul towered to the stars, as he tried to show her that
it was not all about taking, not all about dominance, that a man
could give as well as take... show her, and show himself, for
once, let him treat a woman right...

He made her believe. He thought he did. She said his name
like it was precious to her, like it was a treasured shining
thing, and the wave swelled...

They moved together, and it was like the movement of wind
upon the waves, sea upon the shore, it was white birds circling,
it was everything he had ever wanted, everything he had ever
needed... she was fire beneath him, ice above him, thunder in his
bones, lightning in his sinews, she was his secret heart, she was
the axis of his world, she was the world, the world, the world
ended and began with her...

The wave came on, apocalyptic, annihilating, black as the
night, and the foam upon it shone like lightning. It roared
like a lion, it howled like a wolf, and he cried out her name,
again and again and again as the wave crashed down upon him, and
she called his own name back to him, once, just once, only once.

It ended. They lay in each other's arms, sweaty and spent
and exhausted, staring at each other as though at strangers,
blue eyes into blue eyes.

"I didn't mean for this to happen," she whispered. "I just
came to say goodbye." She rose from bed, gathered up her strewn
clothing with quick, precise, mechanical movements. "I need to
take a shower. I need to..." She trailed away, heading towards
the bathroom. He watched her go; she opened the door, and Barako
scampered out past her legs and came dashing towards the bed. He
lay beneath a single sheet, kneading the cat's ears and thinking
as he listened to the shower running.

When she came out again, towelling her hair, he spoke
slowly, softly.

"Utena," he said, "I remember. I remember everything."

End of Jaquemart - Part VIII