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Jaquemart X- Speak From the Shadows

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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.

 

X. Speak From the Shadows

* * *

How much more beautiful were shadows than light, she thought.
Light, being white, sum of all colours, showed stains far too
easily--everything was more beautiful in the shadows, in the
twilight. Especially her.

She sat on the railing of one gallery, looking down upon
another gallery. Homonyms; like her name. "The Black Rose"--two
obvious senses. She smiled.

As the delicate, filigreed railing was little thicker than
her hand, it should have been impossible, or at least very
unsafe, for her to perch upon it as she did. But such
inconveniences as surrounded the awkward physics of a body did
not bother her any longer--nor, as such, did the fear of falling.

Moonlight fell through the tiny individual panes of glass
making up round arch windows, braided and twined with itself upon
the polished wooden floor. From the gallery that overlooked the
gallery (she smiled again, and laughed softly, being well-fond of
duplicity and double meanings), she could observe the white-
draped shapes of the paintings awaiting their unveiling. There
were draped canvases in the overhanging gallery as well,
interspersed between the large windows. The third gallery, high
above her head, lacked paintings--lacked easy access at all, for
that matter, being as it existed only to allow easy maintenance
of the two chandeliers, and of the skylight that dominated the
ceiling.

"The Kaoru Kozue Memorial Gallery," she said, and laughed;
it echoed in the moonlit empty space.

"Does it still amuse you so, to be living while dead?"

She looked over her shoulder at the empty space from which
the soft voice, barely audible even to her, emanated. "To be
living while _thought_ dead," she corrected with prim
haughtiness.

"The novelty wears off in time, my dear--for you, probably
at the point where he stabs you in the back and leaves you by the
wayside."

"Hmph. I'm not nearly so foolish as to allow him to do
that, believe me. I know what kind of man he is. For now, he
needs me; later, he may not. But if he tries to cast me aside,
he'll find my thorns difficult to extract."

"So confident." The voice was almost sad. "Poor thing."

"Don't condescend to me," she murmured. "I'm not in your
elevator anymore. And I'm not supposed to talk to you anyway."

"He forbids it?"

"He believes he does."

"Have you been punished for speaking to me?"

"Not in some time." She closed her eyes in memory; there
were some pains she still could feel. "Since I seem to be the
only one who can hear you, I'm safe unless he happens to catch me
in the act."

"My current theory is--"

"Oh? Another one?"

The voice continued, sounding faintly insulted. "I now
exist upon a higher plane. Imagine this world, your world, as
enclosed by glass--opaque from your side, transparent from mine.
So, I can look into yours, but nobody can look out into mine."

"Doesn't explain why I'm the only one who can hear you.
Try again."

A humourless laugh. "I lack proper scientific equipment to
perform the necessary experiments to disprove any hypothesis I
come up with. So, I amuse myself by coming up with different
paradigms, any of which could explain my state. An idle way of
passing eternity."

"Eternity, huh?" She chuckled. "Eternity sure sounds
dull, locked away all by yourself, with only me to talk to."

"You're poor company, but you're all I've got. I've had a
lot of time to think; it's made me much more pragmatic than I
used to be." A brief pause. "I really have a lot of trouble
caring about anything any longer. Even though I should hate
him--I reason through what the response of someone else would be,
and reach this conclusion--I really can't find it in myself.
Perhaps, in leaving that imaginary body behind, I left behind
whatever it was that allowed me to feel strong emotions."

"How unfortunate for you," she murmured.

"I'm really very interested to see how everything turns
out. However it does."

"Oh? Perhaps I should introduce you to them, then."

"'Them'?" She had the rare pleasure of hearing the voice
sound confused.

She pointed to the lower gallery, to the raised stage at the
far end, where the shadows moved too thickly, where the moonlight
didn't seem to shine as bright. "Them. They seem to have a
similar attitude."

"I don't see anything," the voice replied suspiciously.
"What are you talking about?"

"Oh?" She raised her eyebrow and smirked. "Well, I guess
you're not so omniscient after all, are you?"

"I've never claimed that."

"No. Just acted like it."

"I expect he thought I'd just fade away into nothing without
my precious memories to cling to," the voice said, launching into
a ruminative non sequitur, as it was wont to do. "But he was
wrong. It set me free. So, that's why he doesn't want you to
talk to me--because he was wrong about me, and I'm still here."
A little bit of sad triumph crept into it. "He's afraid of me."

She rolled her eyes. "I've heard this all before. I didn't
care then. I don't care now."

"Of course you don't. As long as you have your shining
thing, nothing else matters to you. That's why I gave up trying
to warn you long ago."

"Most things in this world are so very ugly," she said
softly. "What does it matter to me what happens to them?"

"How selfish."

"Guilty. But everyone is really selfish; even people who do
'good' things do it because it makes them feel better about
themselves. So, I'm just more honest than most."

She waited for the response for a while, but none came.
Always like that; never a greeting, never a farewell. Better
that way, for both of them. Idly, she swung her legs back and
forth; then she noted that the shadows had gone back to normal.
She was all alone again.

He'd be waiting for her; curled up in bed reading a book
with his glasses on, or at the piano, glasses on the bench beside
him as he played. Or maybe in the garden, bathed in moonlight
and shadow...

Wherever he was, he would be waiting. Her beautiful one.
All that she cared for beyond herself. Lover and brother, all
she would ever need.

"Soon," she whispered, touching her breast, over her heart.
"Soon." She put her hands on the railing and shoved off; moments
later, the galleries, both above and below, were entirely empty.

* * *

"I remember everything."

All she could do for a time was stare.

Touga laughed softly and slid his legs out of bed, dumping
Barako the cat onto the floor from her former place in his lap.
She let out a protesting meow, which he seemed to ignore
completely as he struggled into his pants. "It all makes sense
to me now," he said softly. To her ears, his voice seemed very
different, lacking the vulnerability and uncertainty of before
that she'd found attractive; smoother now, more confident. "You
came back, at last, to settle the score, and began to gather
them, restoring their memories so they would aid you; but you
couldn't trust me, of course--not Kiryuu Touga." Again, he
laughed, as he did up the drawstring of his pants. "Though I
can't say that I blame you."

"Touga," she managed at last, "I didn't mean for this to
happen--"

"No," he said, looking over his shoulder at her and combing
his fingers through sweat-tangled hair, "I very much expect that
you didn't. You were just going to come here, say goodbye to me,
and then head off to face it on your own. Again." He turned and
walked slowly towards her, arms swinging gently at his sides.
"But it's never so simple as that, love," he murmured, reaching
out and tenderly stroking her cheek. His blue eyes were warm,
pained. "It's never so simple as that."

She shoved his hand away. "Stop it."

He looked at her; a thin smile appeared on his face. "You
didn't shove me away before," he said gently. "But then, I
wasn't the same man then, was I? Just a sweet, naive fool,
thinking that all this talk of 'revolution' was meant
literally... how silly of me, yes, dear Utena? The real
revolutions change the entire world, forever... the dawn of
science, mechanized industry, unlocking the atom's heart... these
are things that can't be reversed, that will always be with
mankind."

She stared at him; his expression was dreamy and nostalgic.

"Such was to be our revolution," he murmured. "Or so he
explained it to me." Suddenly, his face twisted into a scowl.
"What a liar he was, eh, love?"

"Stop talking like that." She couldn't even bear to look at
him; she could still feel his lips on hers, his hands, his body
against her body, even after the shower, but it didn't feel right
anymore, it felt wrong, dirty--but it hadn't been wrong, she told
herself silently, desperate to believe that was true. It had
been right this time.

"Oh?" He raised an eyebrow; the scowl acquired a sardonic
element. "Would you prefer I try to act the fool again? I
could, you know--I expect that's what you thought I was doing all
along, wasn't it?"

"No," she said quickly, snapping her gaze to look into his
eyes for a moment, then turning away again. "I... I believed
you. That you were..." She shook her head. "And I don't mean
that. I mean, stop calling me those things."

"What things?"

"'Love'. 'Dear'. Things like that. I don't--"

"You want me to lie, then?" he snapped; for a moment, the
hurt was audible in his voice, and then he covered it with smooth
confidence again. "I do love you; you are dear to me. I loved
you in my secret heart for seven years; your image, transformed,
gave me the strength to change myself, even when I couldn't
remember all of why I needed to change. Why do you want me to
lie to you?"

"No, I just... because--"

"Do you love me?"

So blunt, so open, just like she remembered him on that
night of stars, the night of the aurora--vulnerable to her every
word. Or was he?

"Utena?"

No; she was the vulnerable one here. More vulnerable than
him, at least. "I..."

He glanced back at the tangled sheets of his bed as she
trailed off. "The evidence of the moment would seem in my
favour, don't you think?" he said drolly.

She flinched. "Touga--"

"You're not the kind to do that with someone you don't
love," he said softly. "Even if it's a love built upon lies."

Suddenly, she felt as though he'd slapped her full across
the face. "You know, don't you?" she whispered, feeling tears
sting her eyes again. Too many tears, this night, too much
weakness. "Did he gloat to you? Did he--"

Now Touga flinched. "He never said it straight out to me,"
he replied after a moment. "But I assumed, knowing him, knowing
that you... loved him. And I could tell you'd done it before.
That the memory of it was painful to you. Then, when I
remembered everything..."

She bowed her head, could not find any words at all. Words,
mere words, could not convey what was needed--even at the moments
of greatest intimacy, the most impossible distances opened up.

Once again, his hand rose to her cheek; this time, she
didn't push it away. He moved her hair away to cup the side of
her face with long fingers and a broad palm.

"Touga..." she murmured.

"Did it feel good?"

In kindly tones, even, but it didn't matter, the words were
so cruel.

The sound of the slap echoed in her ears like cannon, even
as she turned away from him and wrapped her arms around herself,
even as the tears began to flow more freely.

"How dare you ask me that?" she hissed. "You're disgusting.
I can't believe I--"

For a moment, silence.

Then, "It always felt good for me." Still kindly, tinged
with sadness, regret, other things, indefinable things. "He is
what he is, Utena. He's beautiful, like a god. I think..."
Again, silence. "I think that you and I saw in him what we
didn't see in the Rose Bride; you saw your prince, and I saw the
man I wanted to be, or thought I did. But we were all just
chaff to him in the end."

"It always felt good for you, huh?" she said, more to
herself than to him. "Then you--"

"Like him, I am what I am. Though I'm not sure what that is
now. It's like there's two of me, struggling to become one; I'm
not sure who I'll end up being, in the end. But, if you ever
believe me on anything, if you can find it in yourself to do
so... believe this. I love you. I'll always protect you."

She shuddered. His hands fell on her shoulders from behind;
she nearly pulled away, then didn't, and allowed him to take her
into an embrace from behind.

"You don't have to fight any more," he whispered, stroking
her hair with one hand, the other hand and arm banding her
shoulders and throat. "Now that I remember, now that I
understand... I'll take care of things... I'll be your prince,
like it should have been--"

"You just don't get it, do you?" she said sharply, pulling
away, turning with tearful eyes flashing to glare. "You really
don't."

He blinked at her. "Utena--"

"Damn it, Touga," she snapped, "let's get something
straight, right now. I don't mind being your friend, I don't
mind being your lover--"

He raised an eyebrow. "It seemed to be a little more than
not minding, if what you were--"

"Shut up!" she said, so fiercely that he actually did.
"Listen to me, for once. I am _not_ going to be your princess,
you got that? I'm not going to be anyone's princess, and I sure
as _hell_ don't need a prince any more."

He frowned darkly, and gestured towards the sheathed sword
discarded on the floor, a result of the wrestling match that had
taken place upon her arrival over a misunderstanding. "So,
you're just going to run off by yourself and try to end this?"

She nodded crisply. "Like I should have seven years ago,"
she said.

"You fool," he said; affectionately, condescendingly, like
she was just a child compared to him, like he knew so much _more_
than her. "You don't understand. You're playing right into his
hands. Playing by his rules, again. You'll never win like
that."

Smug bastard, she thought.

"What's my other choice?" she snarled. "To become him, in
order to beat him? To use other people, just like him?"

"You've got to stop seeing it all in black and white," Touga
said quietly. "Besides, you think I'm going to let you do
something this stupid? I bet you snuck away from the others,
because you're perfectly aware that none of _them_ would let you
do something this stupid either."

Her eyes narrowed. "And you're going to stop me?" she
asked; sweetly, dangerously.

He smiled at her; a charming, patronizing grin, with
threat behind it. "If I have to, to save you from yourself."

She scowled at him; then she forced it from her face, and
bowed her head.

"I'm sorry, Touga," she said demurely, looking up at him
through hooded eyes.

He blinked, then his smile softened. "Don't be sor--" he
began.

Then she slugged him across the jaw as hard as she could.

Touga's eyes crossed, and he dropped to the expensive
carpeting of his penthouse as though poleaxed.

"Glass jaw," she muttered, wincing and shaking her hand.
"Who would have guessed?"

Barako the cat wandered over, took a seat on her unconscious
owner's bare chest, and began to wash one paw while looking up at
his assailant with vague accusation in her green eyes.

"Sorry," Utena said to the cat, wincing again. She
hurriedly gathered up her sword and slipped on the long coat
she'd borrowed (okay, stolen) from Nanami. She crossed the
floor to the elevator and pressed the button. As she waited for
it to arrive, she shuffled her feet nervously and kept a close
eye on Touga. He didn't even stir an eyelid.

Ding; the doors opened. She stepped inside, and took one
last longing, lingering look at him.

"You're the one who doesn't understand," she said.
"Goodbye, Mister President."

* * *

She searched every pocket she had three times over, stopping
occasionally to rub her hands together for warmth. Close to
midnight, and without the sun, the winter air gnawed with even
colder teeth.

"Stupidstupidstupidstupid..." she muttered, beginning a
fourth search, and then giving up after sticking her hand once
into the left pocket of Nanami's coat. Face facts, Utena, she
berated herself; you left the car keys in Touga's place, and they
aren't just going to mysteriously turn up.

No way of getting back up there even if she'd been willing
to go back. She fumbled out her wallet--hadn't left that behind,
fortunately--and fanned out a distressingly small number of
bills. Definitely not enough to pay for cab fare to Ohtori. And
it was a long walk from here.

After opening her change purse and coming to the conclusion
that the small amount of coins she had weren't going to tip the
balance, she sighed, and slumped back against a streetlamp,
studying hands made pallid by the glaring halogen glow from
above.

"Nice job, Tenjou," she muttered. "Not only do you sleep
with someone you shouldn't have, you manage to leave your keys at
his place after you're done. Real heroic. Real princely." If
she hadn't felt so dumb and angry at herself, she could have
cried.

There weren't many cars on the downtown streets this time of
night; Houou went to bed early. She wondered if she could
hitchhike somehow. But wasn't that supposed to be dangerous?

And this wasn't? She laughed dryly. Maybe she could break
the window of the rental car and hot wire it. Tenjou Utena,
prince among car thieves.

Since her knowledge of how to hot wire a car consisted of
having seen it done occasionally in the movies (Anthy had, with
the strange tastes she sometimes displayed, taken Utena to
see--she was almost certain of this--every bad crime movie
released in the past seven years), she had just settled on trying
to hitch a ride from the next car when the cab pulled up in a
screech of tires and a glare of headlights.

The cabbie rolled down the window and leaned out. "Ya
lookin' for a ride, Miss?" he (she assumed the cabbie was male,
since the voice was gravelly and deep, though the hat brim cast
the face into impenetrable shadow and made actual features
unseeable) asked, a cigarette glowing cherry-red between his
teeth.

"Waiting for someone," she replied in a slightly strained
voice. "Thanks anyway."

A gloved hand extracted the cigarette and tapped the ash
out onto the curb. "Lemme guess. Ya gotta go somewhere, but you
don't have a lot of 'green' on hand."

She blinked. "'Green'?" She was uncertain what that
colour, said in English, was supposed to mean.

"'Moolah'. 'Dough'." The cabbie paused, and sighed.
"Money."

"Sounds like you've got me figured out," Utena murmured.

"Hop in. I'll take ya where ya need to go."

Utena looked the cab over carefully. She wasn't even sure
how it had managed to make it here; the yellow paint was peeling,
and the back fender was being held on by what looked like duct
tape. "I really don't have a lot on me," she said.

"Freebie. I can't stand seein' a pretty gal standin' in the
cold. Ain't chivalrous."

For a moment, she considered her options; then she opened
the back door and slid in--a little judiciously, as she had to
make sure to keep the sheathed sword out of sight beneath the
coat.

"Thanks," she said, as the cabbie pulled away from the curb.
Inside the cab, it was very dark--almost darker than it should
have been, she thought. The glow from the dashboard instruments
seemed the only illumination, as though light from outside were
being blocked. All she could make out of the cabbie was some
ambiguously brownish hair uncovered by the blue cap.

"Ya mind if I smoke? Some customers do."

"I don't mind," she said guardedly. "Bad habit, though. I
used to have it, but a friend made me quit."

The cabbie chuckled as they paused at a red light. "A
former member of the club, huh? Surprised you ain't more
militant."

"Just blow the smoke out the window and we'll get along
great," she replied, sniffing the air. The cab smelt a little
musty beneath the clinging odour of tobacco; for a moment, she
thought she could faintly smell seaweed, but then it passed.

"Ya mind if I put the radio on?"

"Go ahead."

The cabbie played with the dials for a moment, then:
cheerful music, full orchestra, jaunty singers--Gilbert and
Sullivan. She almost smiled.

o/` If you go in, you're sure to win;
o/` Yours will be the charming maidie;
o/` Be your law the ancient saw,
o/` "Faint heart never won fair lady!

"So, where to?"

"Ohtori Academy. You know how to get there?"

o/` Never, never, never, faint heart never won fair lady!
o/` Every journey has an end, when at the worst affairs will
mend,

Again, the chuckle; the light became green again, and they
continued. "Of course I know where it is; it's the landmark of
this city."

"It is, I suppose." She leaned back against the headrest
and stared up at the ceiling.

"Anywhere in particular ya wanna go on campus, or is the
main gate all right?"

She pondered for a moment. "Main entrance is okay."

o/` Dark the dawn when day is nigh,
o/` Hustle your horse and don't say die!

"Ya a student there? Final year, maybe? You don't look old
enough to be a teacher, pardon me if you are." They turned at an
intersection; it really is surprisingly dark in here, Utena
thought.

"Not a teacher. Not a student, either."

o/` He who shies, at such a prize, is not worth a maravedi,
o/` Be so kind, to bear in mind--faint heart never won fair
lady!

"Alumni? Awfully late to be going there... ya leave
something behind on yer last trip to your ol' alma mater?"

"I suppose that's one way of putting it," she said, not
liking the way the conversation was going. "How much longer?"

o/` Never, never, never, faint heart never won fair lady!
o/` While the sun shines make your hay
o/` Where a will is, there's a way

"Oh, I dunno, I'm terrible at estimatin' the length of a
journey. This ain't my regular job. I mean, it ain't how I want
to make my livin'."

"Oh?"

o/` Beard the lion in his lair,
o/` None but the brave deserve the fair!

"I'm an actor, ya see. Well, an aspirin' one. My roles
ain't too big yet; I had a solo show for a while, but it kinda
got stepped on by the critics. Said I was monkeyin' around too
much, stuff like that. But I've got connections, ya see, some
good friends, even though I kinda feel sometimes like I'm
witherin' in their shadows."

"Must be difficult," Utena said sympathetically. "Hey, that
was _red_!"

o/` I'll take heart and make a start
o/` Though I fear the prospect's shady
o/` Much I'd spend, to gain my end
o/` Faint heart never won fair lady!

"Yellow. Turned as I went through. Anyway, like I was
sayin', I never know how long a journey's gonna take me. Time's
kinda funny like that; ya know, how sometimes a day goes by real
fast, and then the next one seems ta go on forever?"

"Time is funny like that," Utena agreed. Great, she
thought, I get the only philosophical aspiring actor cabbie in
all of Houou--well, at least the ride is free.

o/` Never, never, never, faint heart never won fair lady!
o/` Nothing venture, nothing win
o/` Blood is thick, but water's thin

"Kinda like that ol' story about Urashima Taro. Ya know,
goes to the dragon palace on the back of a turtle, has a real
nice time there--then he goes back home and a lot more time has
passed than he thought? And everyone he knew was dead, and he
was only a legend, almost forgotten, the man who journeyed to the
dragon palace long ago?"

o/` In for a penny, in for a pound
o/` It's Love that makes the world go round!

A slight chill ran up and down Utena's spine, the kind you
supposedly got when someone walked over the future site of your
grave. "I know that story."

The radio died at another chuckle from the cabbie. "A
story. That's the only way to live forever, you know. To
become a story. And though you may change, transform, put on
different faces... you'll live forever. Wouldn't that be
wonderful, Utena-sama?"

"You seem to have lost your accent," Utena said slowly.
"And how do you know my name?"

"Oops," the cabbie said softly, despairingly.

"Who are you, really?" She crept her hand to the sword's
hilt and pulled an inch of it from the sheath; all the sparse
light of the cab seemed to gather on the exposed blade, gather
and multiply tenfold, throwing away the shadows. "Tell me!"

The cab screeched to a stop; a glance out the window showed
that they were at the foot of the path leading up the hillside
towards Ohtori's main gate.

The cabbie reached up and took off his cap; long hair pulled
up in a high, girlish ponytail spilled down, no longer confined
by "his" cap.

"I am..."

The voice, feminine, familiar...

"You are?"

"I am..."

"You are?" Fine; pull out another inch of blade; the cabbie
cringed a little.

"I am... a monkey hiding behind a girl's face!" A high,
nervous titter.

(Talking with the shadows on the walls, like a madwoman;
but, no, she isn't mad, because the _shadows_ are talking too...)

"Turn around," she said, low and threatening. "Let me see
your face."

"Umm, that's not such a good idea--"

"Turn around!"

"You really should listen to her." A second voice, from the
passenger seat; Utena turned her head wildly; the shadows had
deepened again. Mere impressions: pigtails, slender limbs, a
face hidden from sight by too-thick shadows. "Even though she's
amateurish, she does know what she's talking about this time."

"You see," said a third, from the seat beside her, "our
faces are so hideous that merely looking upon them drives mortals
mad. So, as a defence, you forget about them even as you're
looking at them." A red ribbon, nothing else distinguishable,
the shadows were so _thick_...

(Their faces are like cauls, smooth and blank...)

"Umm, you said--" the "cabbie" began.

"Quiet," snapped the second. "You broke character first.
Flubbing your lines like that, confusing in-character knowledge
with out-of-character knowledge, getting emotionally involved
with the audience again. Disgusting."

The shadows rippled, like curtains pulling back; her eyes
were drawn to the ceiling of the cab, drawn up like a fish upon a
hook, like a moth towards a flame--

do you wonder, do you know, do you wonder what I know?

once upon a time, the people of earth were unhappy,
because they were missing something essential to
happiness--dreams!

everyone needs dreams!

when I grow up, I'll be:

--a fireman!

--a policeman!

--a doctor!

--a prince!

all day and all night, the people of earth
cried and cried and cried, so unhappy were they.
they cried until it seemed that the earth would be
drowned in their tears.

they sobbed so loud that the king and
queen of the land of dreams, which floats upon the
pink clouds on the dark side of the moon, heard
them, and were _very_ moved.

"oh! my dear wife, how sad they are!"

"oh! tragic!"

so, taking pity on the unhappy people of
earth, the king and queen sent down their son and
daughter, the prince and princess of dreamland, to
help make the people happy.

the prince brought brave dreams of heroism to
the boys:

--slaying dragons!

--fighting duels with evil knights!

--rescuing princesses!

and his sister, the princess, brought dreams
of romance to the girls:

--and they got married and lived happily ever
after!

--and they had seven sons and seven
daughters, the seven sons handsome as the
sun, the seven daughters beautiful as the
moon!

however, one day...

"la la la"

*SCREEEEEEEEECH!* *THUMP!*

"i didn't even see her! she ran out right
in front of me!"

woe and perdition! for no one had thought to
inform the princess of the purpose of traffic signals,
or the danger posed by dumptrucks!

her brother's heart broke in two and fell right
out of his chest. one piece was stolen by a trained
monkey, and the other by a wicked witch, and no one
knows what happened to them after that.

"this is all the fault of traffic lights! traffic
lights and dump trucks!" cried the prince, shaking his
fist at the sky. "i'll destroy them all!"

but even after he'd destroyed all the traffic
lights and dumptrucks in the whole wide world, he still
felt unhappy. then he realized that it was because the
people of earth would only make more--for every traffic
light he destroyed, they made two more, and for every
dumptruck he destroyed, they made two more. by then,
they'd forgotten all about the prince and princess of
dreams, except in legends.

"this is all the fault of the people of earth!
once, i was the prince of dreams! i shall be that no
more! i shall become... the prince of nightmares!"

and so he did. since he didn't have a heart any
more, he couldn't hear his mother and father crying for
him and his sister, crying for them to come home--so he
could never go home again. and he became the prince of
nightmares, forever and ever, and the world was plunged
into darkness forevermore.

Utena took a single, desperate breath, clawed for the door
handle, and threw herself out of the cab, slamming the door
closed behind her. She scrambled away on her hands and knees
over the snow-dusted road, clutching the sword, gasping. So
thick, the shadows, suffocating her--

"That's so rude. Just like you."

"Just like before. Do you know what an honour it is to be
offered a place among us? A place in the Theatre of Shadows? We
even saved a name for you--a name that nobody else can ever use!"

"You could have been the magnificent D-ko, fourth member of
our troupe!"

"But instead, you decided to stay as an ordinary girl."

Utena only stared, shaking, not just from the cold. The
colour of the cab seemed to be leaching away, monochroming as she
watched. Inside, the shadows swirled and capered, becoming one
thing, and then another, then another, endlessly--

Slowly, the rear door she'd exited through creaked open
again, revealing an interior thick with darkness.

"But there's still room for one more," something said from
within; three voices, speaking as one, or one voice that spoke as
three, a voice childish, ancient, mocking, serious, foolish,
wise, cynical, idealistic... "Room for one more, room for one
more-- one more-- more-- more-- more--"

"Get the hell away from me," she gasped, throwing herself to
her feet and drawing the sword. "You... you... whatever in God's
name you are--"

The door slammed shut, and the cab screeched off into the
darkness, soon to be lost to it. Utena sheathe the sword, and
began the long walk up to Ohtori.

"You've come this far," she murmured. "Now finish it...
Come this far... now finish it..." Over and over again; it got
her up the hill and through the gates.

* * *

Ohtori, in the winter, at night, became a very different place.
Without sunshine to make the white stone glow with an inner
light, it turned cool and hard as a diamond--white as the snow
covering the grounds, the snow mangled and broken by the tramp of
hundreds of student feet that found it quicker to slog through
than use the paths that had been cleared by the groundkeepers.
Without students walking together to class, without the ever-
present hum of chatter and laughter, it felt dead and buried;
academy as necropolis, a vast tomb of white stone thickly-strewn
with roses of mourning.

By the time Utena passed through the gates leading onto the
grounds, she'd almost managed to put the cab ride out of her
mind. Like she'd always managed to put them out of her mind
before; the storytellers in the shadows, spinning their
allegorical-metaphorical-metaphysical gobbledygook. Even holding
the memory of them in mind was slippery; details threatened to
recede unless focused upon--the glow of a cigarette, the musty
seaweed cab-smell...

She shook her head, cast the thoughts away into the depths.
Focus, find the centre... boots on snow, sword-hilt in hand, cold
wind. Reality, not memory.

Get into the tower. Find Akio. And then...

Then what? Murder him in his sleep? Did he sleep? She'd
never seen him sleep. He probably didn't even _need_ to sleep.
What are you doing here, all by yourself? a little voice
whispered. You couldn't beat him last time, and it's not like
you've spent the last seven years practicing for a rematch. But
_he_, he's had all this time to plot and scheme and--

Shut up, inner voice, she thought. You're a coward. What
am I supposed to do? Oh, hey guys, yeah, I'm back, went off with
all this great conviction in mind, high ideals, realized that I
never had any right to involve you all in the first place, that
this was my battle to fight, etc etc, but then I chickened out
and came back. Oh, by the way, Touga got his memories back
because I had sex with him.

She'd almost beaten him last time. And this time--

This time, Anthy wasn't going to be there to stab her in the
back when it looked like she really might win.

Oh God; even as the thought crossed her mind, she was trying
to take it back. Oh, God, I didn't mean it like that, oh, Anthy,
I miss you so much...

She reached the end of the long, colonnaded pathway, and
stood before the central tower. Right at the top was the
Chairman's quarters; the room she'd shared with Anthy, the
projector room. The white couches, where she'd sat with Akio,
looking at the stars, or talking, where brother and sister,
handsome as the sun and beautiful as the moon, had--

There were too many memories here. They were threatening to
swallow her. So, better not to think of anything at all; don't
reminisce about all the times you spent carrying Wakaba around on
your back, or eating lunch under the trees... just over that way
would be the kendo dojo, where everything really began, with a
challenge issued over an insult to a friend... and that way was
the fencing hall, where she'd watched Juri-sempai's foil flash
like a bolt of lightning... the music room, Miki's fingers moving
across the ivory, drawing out those gorgeous tones...

Think of nothing; just look for a way in.

There wasn't one, of course. Without the proper keys, even
the lower floors of the central tower were impregnable, much less
the secluded chairman's quarters. What had she been thinking?
That if she showed up on her own, with sword in hand, Akio would
just drop into her lap?

Distantly, she heard a door creak open. She immediately
pressed her back to the nearest wall and peeked around in the
direction of it, heart pounding.

In the shadows cast by the bridge spanning the tower's
flanking buildings, a tall figure, garbed white as the snow on
the ground, was walking away from her towards the north; towards
the forest.

Too far away to make out many details, but how many people
did she know who wore that much white, and went walking around
the grounds at Ohtori when it was nearly midnight--

A bell pealed, faintly, then again and again and again as
she hurried surreptitiously after the white-clad walker.
Midnight, then; she tried to remember just where Ohtori's
bell-tower was. There definitely was a bell-tower, she just
couldn't remember where. Hard to locate by the sound of the
bells, too, which seemed to come from all around her.

He was definitely heading for the forest, moving across the
snow-covered track field now, an area lacking anything even
remotely resembling cover; not wanting to give herself away, she
stuck to the side buildings, keeping him in sight, but frowning
as he grew ever more distant.

"Could just run out and run him through from behind, you
know," she muttered. She heard the bells rings again, as he
passed through the gate and began to ascend the steps, moving out
of her sight.

After waiting a while to let him get ahead, she hurried to
the chainlink gates, which were unlocked and swung wide.
Climbing the wide white steps beyond (no sign of Akio, he must
have gone into the forest), she found that the gate to the forest
proper had already been unsealed.

She steeled herself, and moved slowly beneath the great
white rose that surmounted the gate, one hand on her
sword, ready to draw at any moment.

Beyond, she found the forest tangled and anciently vast as
ever; dusted now with snow, but entirely lacking in walkways,
flower-wreathed columns, statues on plinths, or huge, gravity-
defying spiral stairways with attendant elevator-containing
tilted columns.

It only struck her then just how very dangerous this was,
walking into Akio's lair again--the realization that the forest,
like the Duelling Arena, undoubtedly responded to his will,
altered itself to his needs--might not even exist at all, might
all just be illusion, just like the Duelling Arena... after all,
that had only been a projection--

Or so Akio had said. Then again, he was a liar--what a liar
he was.

She might very easily have just walked into a trap. Played
right into his hands, like Touga had warned. She continued to
advance into the forest, seeking her prey, but now every movement
of wind through leaves, every creak of a bough, every spill of
moonlight, became a possible threat.

Yet again, she heard bells, though there had long ago been
more than enough to sing out for midnight. But... closer?

Right in front of her, even. Looming out of the starlit
shadows, ancient and huge and twisted, was a tower, an
architectural obscenity of blackened brick and weathered
gargoyles and stained-glass windows dark with dust and age, so
obtuse in its angles and unsteady in its alignment that it seemed
to sway before her eyes, threatening to topple at any minute.
She realized then that there was no more snow upon the ground, or
on the trees, or anywhere at all--and that the air no longer felt
like that of the dead of winter, but of a crisp, cool spring
night.

The bells sang from it endlessly; tiny, huge, high, low,
soft, loud, near, distant. The trees grew thick and tall around
it, effectively hiding it from all but close observation. Such
as hers.

Slowly, she circled it, sword ready to draw at any time,
vaguely worried that it might suddenly fall over on her. There
were missing bricks, through which the wind whistled; the single
door, on the far side from her position when first encountering
the tower, had long ago rotted away, leaving only a gaping,
maw-like archway to admit any visitors into the darkness of the
bell-tower's bowels.

A flash of white amidst the darkness caught her eye, from a
rubbled pile of bricks near the entrance. She approached, and
saw, upon the broken masonry, a white rose, petals so lush and
stem so green that it appeared freshly-picked.

She took a deep breath, and picked it up. After a moment's
hesitation, she raised it to her nose, and inhaled. The smell,
utterly and indelibly distinct in her mind, brought memories
rushing back. The rose-scent of her prince, Anthy's rose-scent;
the aura of Dios.

Who had been only a lie, forged by Akio. Dios was dead;
there was no such thing as a prince any more. With a choked
sound, she cast the rose to the ground, and raised her foot to
crush its petals. Then she actually thought about what she was
doing, and simply left it there, a pale stain upon the dark
detritus of the forest floor; cautiously, she entered the tower.

Moonlight fell in thin blades through cracks in the bell-
tower's ancient brickwork, providing the only illumination within
the tall, narrow, stair-filled interior. Motes of dust danced
dryly in the shafts of moonlight, stirred to motion by minute
breezes. The stairs led upwards as far as the eye could see,
fading into shadow and darkness as they traced a path around the
square gullet of the central newel. Rickety, wooden and lacking
anything even resembling a railing, they were probably the
least safe stairs she'd ever seen.

Dust had already begun to settle on her hair, skin and
clothes as she stood staring up into the almost total darkness
above her head. She brushed it off, wincing a little as one mote
found its way into her eye; she blinked until the tears washed it
out, and then set a cautious foot on the first stair. To her
surprise, it didn't even creak--they were more solid than they
looked. Rather like the rest of the tower, she decided; after
all, if it hadn't fallen down long ago, looking the way it did,
it wasn't likely to do so now. And she got the impression that
it had been like this for a long, long time--that perhaps once,
it had been newly-built, but that had been so many years
(centuries? millennia?) ago that it wasn't even worth thinking
on.

She reached the first landing (the first of an unguessable
number), and paused to gather her thoughts. If Akio had come
here before her (and the taunting white rose seemed to make it
clear that he had, and that he was aware of her pursuit), it was
quite obviously because he wanted her to come here--this was a
trap, then, and she was walking into it.

The best thing to do would probably be to turn around and
leave. Go back, try and pretend nothing had happened--or, if
that wasn't possible, swallow her pride and admit that this whole
thing had been a big mistake. What was she going to say if she
did meet him again, face to face? Ohtori Akio, you ruined my
life, prepare to die? Touga was right, she thought, you're the
same fool you were at Ohtori.

She started up the second flight of steps.

In this forest of twisting ways, this garden of forking
paths, there was no guarantee that she could ever find her way
back here. And this place was important--desperately so. She
knew that deep in her bones, knew it as her heart knew how to
beat.

A third flight of stairs, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth--

She reached the foot of one of the stained-glass windows
she'd seen from the outside. Colours had long ago been dimmed to
almost nothing by thick layerings of dust, the picture on the
two-story window long-vanished with them. It would have taken
far more effort, time and equipment than she had to clean enough
of it to get even a hint of the story told upon it, so she passed
it by.

Seven flights, eight flights, nine, ten, eleven... then she
stopped counting, for there still seemed just as many flights
above her head as there had been at the bottom, another one
unveiled by the residual light of the moon creeping through the
tower's cracked shell with each flight she ascended. She stopped
counting, and relied upon the rational idea that she had to
eventually reach the top, despite the fact that rationality truly
did not apply here.

She passed another stained-glass window, even thicker with
dust; then another, and another. She counted them at first in
lieu of counting flights of stairs, finding no obvious
correlation immediately between the number of flights and the
appearance of the windows. Then she decided counting the
windows was futile as well.

The handle of the sword, so long in her grip, felt sticky
and slippery and vaguely oily. She switched to carrying it by
the sheathe, at her side. In Nanami's thick fur-collared coat,
she began to sweat terribly--it seemed to be growing gradually
warmer as she ascended. She paused, took the coat off, and
carried it under her arm.

She wondered if Nanami might have woken up to go to the
bathroom, or something. That was a definite possibility. She
looked at her wrist, and frowned. Ten past midnight? That
didn't seem possible--

Oh. The second hand wasn't moving. Her watch had stopped.

If Nanami had woken up, she might have have just done her
business and then went back to sleep without realizing her
roommate was gone. It would depend on just how groggy she was.
By now, though, the possibility existed that they all knew she
was gone; they might be heading here right at this moment (but
surely they weren't that stupid, to come after her?), or Touga
might have woken up from his forced nap...

She began to run up the stairs. No time to dawdle. They
creaked a little beneath her pounding feet, but held firm. The
tower was very definitely a lot taller on the inside than it was
on the outside, but a spatial oddity like that wasn't really an
oddity at all for a building at Ohtori.

Probably just an illusion anyway. She was probably walking
in place on a flight of steps somewhere in the forest, believing
she was climbing what felt like an infinitude of stairways,
believing that she passed by stained-glass windows whose stories
were lost to time and dust, believing that she was going
somewhere, accomplishing something, heading towards some goal--

She came within sight of the top. A wooden ceiling, five
flights above her head, with the final stairway disappearing
into it; presumably, to the bell-chamber of the tower.

"Almost there," she panted. Above her, Akio awaited.
Probably with the entire Duellist's Society, Akino Akami,
Nanami's angry ghosts, the Knight of Pentacles and a red-eyed
monster.

She smiled, darkly, and, to her surprise, laughed. "Ought
to be just about even odds, then," she murmured. She set foot
onto the final flight of stairs, passed the barrier of the
ceiling, and came into the top of the bell-tower.

The first impression was one of ropes. They were
everywhere, thick as vines in a jungle, swaying gently back and
forth, disappearing up into the darkness to presumably connect to
bells that she could not see. Dim up here as upon the stairs
below, but not shadowy--a perpetual twilight existence, faintly
tinged with every colour of the rainbow. For there was stained-
glass here too, but it was clean as though installed moments
before she came. Panels of it, some tiny, some vast, covered the
wall closest to her--the other walls were out of sight, lost to
the darkness, as were the further portions of the wall she was
facing. The top of the bell-tower was vast, far too large to be
supported upon the thin column below--by normal standards of
physics, she corrected herself, which don't apply here.

The closest window was a little over a story high; she
backed up a few feet to be able to get a proper perspective on
it.

At the top, a beautiful man, dark of skin and hair, raising
a sceptre with the crest of the rose upon it; behind him, two
faces in profile, staring into each other's eyes: his own, and a
twin, longer of hair, with a cruel cast to his smile. Below
them, a long-haired woman in a white dress, portrayed from the
side, face turned away, kneeling upon the ground, holding two
roses in each hand--green and blue in the left, orange and red in
the right. Below that, in the final panel, stood--

Herself, in a pink variation on her old black uniform. No
facial features, only a smooth black oval, but it was obviously
her.

She shivered.

What was this place?

Behind the stained glass, there was a faint flicker. As
though something moved beyond... she cautiously came closer, and
put her eye right to the glass, to the black oval that hid what
must be her face and saw--

saw Miki shyly lean down to kiss her while she slept

saw Juri laugh and throw herself joyfully into Ruka's arms

saw herself, bearing wings, in the white garb of the prince

saw--

Was seized, by a grip massive and iron-strong, and yanked
kicking and struggling away from the window.

"Forbidden," her captor droned; a deep bass voice, powerful
and resonant like a great bell. "You know that is forbidden."

* * *

In younger days, she'd been a deep sleeper, late riser. Still
would have been, given the choice; necessity rather than nature
had made her an early riser, disinclined to lounge about in bed
stretching lazily like a cat and waiting until the last possible
second to get up, like she had as a child. That had exasperated
her parents to no end, and mystified her older sister.

*"How can you just _lie_ there, Juri, not doing anything?
Come on, get up, it's a beautiful day."*

*"I'm not doing nothing, I'm thinking."*

Arisugawa Naoko. The good daughter. Off in her final year
of med-school, engaged to marry a nice normal boy from a nice
wealthy family as soon as she graduated. My, Juri, when are you
going to meet a nice boy like your older sister? You won't be
young forever, ha ha ha, I wasn't much older than you when I met
your father, although it took him forever to propose to me, ha ha
ha.

Holidays were excruciating. Oh, it's so nice to have you
here, Shiori-san, we're always so pleased to meet Juri's friends.
She didn't know whether her family actually was that blind, or
whether they just didn't want to see. Sometimes, she just wanted
to come right out and say it. Mom, dad, oneesan, I like girls.
What's that, Juri? I don't think I'm ever going to meet a nice
boy like you keep on hinting I should. Oh, don't be silly, dear,
you're just not looking hard enough.

I AM A LESBIAN!

"Finish your tea before it gets cold, Juri."

_This_ dream again. Afternoon tea on the beach, a frilly
pink dress, the green waves lapping the brown table-legs, inane
conversation straight out of one of the boring sections of a Jane
Austen novel. Then the sea rose up and gulped her older sister
down screaming, and the nameless, faceless boy was diving in--

One of the sleeping habits she'd never been broken of was a
brief, stunning, utter incoherency upon first waking, where
everything, self and surroundings, was unfamiliar and alien; bed
like the surface of the moon, hands shaking her... but what were
hands?

"Juri, someone's at the door."

The fog lifted. Twilit room, Shiori's face. She reached
over to the bedside table and turned on the light. From the
door, a light, rhythmic, desperate knocking. Shiori beside her,
sitting up in the bed, worried and a little fearful.

She swung out of bed, and paced to the door, Shiori at her
heels. The knocking paused for a moment, then resumed. She put
her eye to the peephole, and got a wide-angle view of Nanami's
tearful face. Immediately, she was unhooking the safety chain,
throwing back the bolt, opening the door.

Nanami practically threw herself into the room, clinging to
Juri's shoulders with trembling hands and looking as if she
wanted to start sobbing into her chest, but was too afraid.
"Juri-sempai, Utena, Utena, she's--"

Juri, mystified and with rapidly-growing worry, patted
Nanami awkwardly on the shoulder. "What? What is it?" Behind
them, Shiori frowned and flitted back and forth like a nervous
bird.

"Utena has done something extremely stupid."

Kiryuu Touga stepped into view, wearing a long coat and a
sombre expression. His long hair looked rather dishevelled and
hastily-combed, and there was an ugly yellow-black bruise on his
finely-sculpted jaw. "As is her wont, I suppose," he continued,
removing one hand from a coat pocket and wincingly fingering his
bruised jaw. "Arisugawa, Takatsuki, I--"

"What the hell is going on here?" Juri hissed, moving
Nanami behind her and stepping out to stand in the doorframe,
forcing Touga to take a step back or be nose-to-nose (neck to
nose, really, since he was taller) with her.

"I'll explain on the way," Touga said calmly. "Time is not
something we have. There's no way of knowing what kind of
trouble she's gotten herself into, what sort of trap Akio--"

Juri reached out and seized him by the lapels, pulling his
face down to her level until his blue eyes occupied almost the
entirety of her field of vision. "Tell me exactly what is going
on as concisely as possible and I may be able to restrain my
natural instinct to cut your heart out."

"I'm relieved to see the years have done little to dim your
feelings for me, Arisugawa--"

She half-dragged him inside and threw the door closed.
Shiori and Nanami backed away from them, silent and wide-eyed.
"The next words that come out of your mouth--"

"Utena has gone to attempt to put an end to this by herself.
I think she began to feel guilty for involving you all in what
she saw as a problem created by her own failure to win the Duel
Called Revolution seven years ago. I attempted to stop her, and
failed."

"She knocked him out," Nanami murmured.

"Yes," Touga said. "Arisugawa, could you see fit to release
your grip on me?"

She let him go and took a step back. "I had no idea she
would..." she murmured. "She didn't seem--"

"How exactly do you have your memories back, Touga?" Shiori
asked in a low, suspicious voice. "Did you have them back all
along?"

Touga actually flinched, the first time he'd lost his cool
since his arrival. "No."

Juri scowled. "I suppose after deciding to go solitaire,
she also decided that our group decision regarding you no longer
applied."

He flinched again. "No."

"Then what, oniisama?" Nanami asked dully. She sounded as
tired as she looked. "You wake me up, tell me Utena is gone,
drag me to Juri and Shiori's room, not explaining anything..."
She sniffled. Shiori handed her a tissue without a word.

Touga looked around, from one woman to the other, and
coughed lightly into his fist. "I neither had my memories back
until a few hours ago, nor did Utena restore them deliberately.
Now, the two of you need to get dressed quickly and--"

"What happened?" Juri asked coldly.

Touga's blue eyes went flinty and hard. "If you really
insist on knowing," he said quietly, "Utena and I were intimate
together. Apparently, the gravity of the emotions it raised in
me were enough to shatter the amnesia."

He turned on his heel, opened the door, and stepped out into
the hallway. "I'll be waiting in the parking lot. I'll wait ten
minutes; if none of you come with me, I'll go on my own. I fully
understand if you don't trust me; if you want, one of you can
drive, and another can hold a sword to my back. But I won't lose
her again." He clenched his fist. "I won't." The door closed.

Juri looked at the blank door for a moment, then back over
her shoulder. Shiori was white. Nanami was red. They
complement each other, she thought vaguely, and almost giggled.

Nanami broke the silence first. "She _slept_ with my
brother?" she whisper-shrieked. "I don't believe it! After--"

"Goodness," Shiori murmured. Juri thought she saw the
tiniest hint of a smile on her face, gone quickly. "I suppose
we'd better hurry up and get dressed, hadn't we?"

Juri thought for a moment. If he were leading them into a
trap, then he had to be aware that he wouldn't live the moment
she even suspected. Touga was what he was, but suicidal
stupidity wasn't a part of his character.

"I suppose we'd better," she said vaguely.

* * *

"Let me go!" She kicked back, and succeeded only in bruising her
heel against what felt like an iron pillar. Above her head, the
endless ropes swayed; her flailing hand grabbed a wrist-thick
one as she was pulled back from the window. She felt vast, vast
weight on the other end for a moment, as though the bell it was
attached to were the size of a planet, and then her wrist was
seized and pulled away.

"Forbidden!" her attacker said loudly. "Forbidden--you knew
before, why do you do this now? Do not force my hand. It is
forbidden for another to look through the windows, to try and
ring the bells."

"Let me go, damn it!"

She was abruptly dropped to the ground, not especially
gently. She sprang to her feet almost instantly, whirling to
face her assailant and looking for the sword, which had been
dropped during the brief struggle. Then her eyes fastened on the
foe, and she stopped looking at anything else.

A giant, broken apart like a shattered sculpture,
reassembled by an amateurish artisan. Towering, hunchbacked,
disproportionate, inhuman, bandy-legged, hideous of face, dark of
skin, deformed, with a few loose strands of white hair clinging
to a scalp as ugly with suppurations and carbuncles as the face.
Her eyes fastened upon the hands; the huge, powerful, callused
hands, which could have palmed her head like that of a kitten,
crushed her skull with ease. The inhabitant of the bell-tower
wore garb of a dark and charnel grey, and rusting chains were
wrapped in circles around his wrists, ankles, throat and waist.
The centre of the belt of chains bore a malformed, swamp-coloured
stone, cracked and misshapen and as big as a man's clenched fist.

"Where is my rose?" the giant asked, powerful voice
acquiring a choked, whining quality. "She promised me, that
when you returned, she would return... where is my rose?" The
one dark eye that could be seen (the other was sealed closed
forever by a lumpy deformation of the brow above it) welled with
tears.

"Who are you?" Utena asked slowly. "What... what are you
doing here?"

"My rose," he sobbed, burying his face in his hands and
shamblingly turning away from her. His legs, twisted and
seemingly inadequate for supporting his massive upper body,
collapsed, and he fell to his knees on the wooden floor, sobbing
pathetically. "My rose, my rose, my rose, you promised..."

Utena knelt and retrieved her sword, then walked over to
him. "I said, who are you?" She hesitated, then reached down
and touched one huge shoulder, which trembled beneath her hand
like a dove. "You seem to know me, but I've no idea who you
are..."

Suddenly, a great hand was lain over hers. The ravaged face
looked up at her with almost obsequious gratefulness. "So kind,"
the hunchback said softly, with immense gentleness. "Utena-sama,
so kind to poor old undeserving me; I remember how you wept for
me, you and my rose both, though tears are not my deserved lot."

"And what is your lot?" she whispered, staring fascinated
into the single visible eye, great, dark, deep and sad.

"To ring the bells," he replied. "To serve."

"What's your name?" she asked. With her other hand, she
reached out and wiped away the tears. It didn't matter in that
moment how hideous he was, because he was in pain, sunk deep in
sorrow he could not escape.

"Jack," he said after a moment, eye moving to watch the
motions of her hand against his face. "Jack O' the Clock, the
ringer of the bells."

"Why are you here?"

"I have always been here."

"And what is this place?"

"The Bell-Tower."

"We've met before?"

He seemed to think for a moment, or at least his one good
eye closed. "We have met before. When we met, you knew me, but
I knew you not."

She glanced at her watch. Still stopped, but at eight past
seven. "I see." She gestured towards the stained-glass window
she'd been yanked away from. "And these windows... the places
they look into?"

"Forbidden!" he said sharply, pulling away from her and
rising to his full gigantic height for a moment, before his
deformities and twisted legs forced him down so that he only
towered a head and a half over her. "I am forbidden to speak of
such things," he said, more softly.

"By who?"

"I am forbidden to say."

She looked at him with narrowed eyes; inside, her mind
reeled with the new questions arising from those few seconds of
sight through the stained-glass window. No way to tell how many
others there were, and if every one looked into another world,
a variation on the theme, and if that world actually existed,
somewhere--

"You're forbidden to do a lot of things, aren't you?"

"I ring the bells. It is enough. When it is time for the
bells of mourning, I ring those. When it is time for the bells
of joy, I ring those. When it is time for the bells of battle, I
ring those. It is my purpose." He paused for a moment. "I
watched you. I watched you rescue the rose."

"Anthy?"

He nodded. "My rose," he whispered. "My rose!" he suddenly
wailed, waving his fists in the air and advancing on her. "My
rose... mine! You took her--"

She backed away before him. "Jack," she said soothingly, "I
don't--"

He collapsed again, heaving with sobs. "Go!" he moaned. "I
don't want you here... I don't want anyone here... forbidden...
no one must see this... never see this... hurts so much..."

Cautiously, she moved towards him again, reaching out--then
leapt away as he sprang to his feet, seized one of the ropes, and
began to pull himself up it with startling speed and agility. A
deep, brazen pealing filled the air, shaking the floor beneath
her feet.

"Jack!" she called. "Wait--I don't--" Don't understand any
of this at all, she finished silently, as he fled out of sight
into the darkness high above, leaping from rope to rope, each
leap causing another pealing voice to join into the hellish
choir. The air itself seemed oppressed by the cacophonous
tintinnabulation, pressing down thick upon her.

She couldn't breathe. The air was too heavy. Her lungs
were filling up with the hammering rings of the bells as though
with iron-tainted water. She ran for the stairs through the
turgid air, set foot upon them and began to race down. Behind
her, the bricks of the tower shook; she heard stained-glass
shattering. Stairs began to collapse behind her, and she was
forced to speed up to avoid being cast down into the darkness of
the newel. Screaming bells and breaking brick and shattering
glass assailed her from every side with almost physical force.

Four more flights. Three more. Existence consisted of
running legs, fire in her lungs, the bells, the bells everywhere
around her--

Two more. One more. The tower was falling down, wooden
beams and heavy bricks and dagger-sharp shards of glass were
everywhere; it was a miracle she wasn't killed as she left the
bottom step of the last flight and dived out the doorway. Past
the white rose she'd left at the base of the tower, into the
trees, God only knows how much damage the tower was going to
cause when it came down--

Panting, she turned around and looked back. All was silent.
The tower was gone. She heard no bells.

Distantly, cicadas began to chirp. Faint sounds of movement
came from the underbrush. She turned her head, and saw that she
was only a dozen yards from the gates. But that wasn't possible,
she'd walked so long in the forest, come to the bell-tower--

"Remember where you are," she murmured. She was winded and
dazed. And very, very cold. Somehow, she hadn't left the coat
behind--she pulled it back on gratefully, and headed for the
gates.

Things had definitely got a lot weirder. And more
complicated. Hey, everyone, guess what? There are entire other
worlds out there, with people who look like us but definitely
don't act like us--I know because I looked into one, before
getting yanked away by the Hunchback of Ohtori Academy, who
talked a lot about things being "forbidden" and then went crazy.
I could prove this to you all by taking you there, except the
tower fell down and disappeared!

For a while, she wandered over the campus, thoughts reeling.
The possibilities were almost unimaginable... illusion, yes, it
all had to be an illusion... some elaborate trick of Akio's, to
further his schemes... she shouldn't be fooled... all an
illusion... there was still time to find him, to take care of
him--

But it hadn't _felt_ like an illusion. Then again, neither
had so many of the other things that had turned out to be
illusions. That Akio had said were illusions, she corrected
herself--and what a liar he was, eh, love?

She paused to see where she was. A veritable labyrinth of
pillars, all around her. Beneath the central bridge, then, near
the music room.

She leaned back against a pillar and tried to sort out her
thoughts. Plan her next move. This changed everything--somehow,
it changed everything, because it wasn't just a matter of her and
Akio, here, now, in this world, any more.

"What now?" she murmured out loud.

Nearby, a frozen patch of snow broke beneath the misplaced
movement of a stalking boot. That was her only warning, and then
the reeking cloth was pressed over her nose and mouth.

"Now, bruja, you shall come with me, and we shall have a
little talk about your mistress and your master."

* * *

"So, tell me, Nanami, did you volunteer because you didn't trust
their restraint, or because you wanted to be the one to put the
knife in my heart if it came down to it?"

"I don't know, to tell the truth."

"You might want to unsheathe it."

"Can't you just shut up?" She couldn't even bear to look at
him, stiffly seated beside her in the back seat of his van.

"Yes, Touga, listen to your sister and shut up," Juri said
from the passenger seat, sounding weary and annoyed and worried.
"You do yourself no good by annoying chatter."

"I had hoped we could work out our differences peacefully,
Arisugawa," Touga said. "After all, our objective is the same,
to protect Utena."

Juri looked back over her shoulder and the seat, glaring at
him stonily. "You claim that as your objective. It doesn't mean
we believe you."

Nanami fingered the sheathed dagger in her lap and said
nothing. All the pains below the surface seemed to be warring
with each other, blocking the routes to her heart; she felt
strangely numb and cold.

"You really do think so little of me, don't you?" Touga
said quietly, though he sounded unsurprised. "I am sorry for
that. I like to think I had your respect once, at least."

"You had the respect you deserved from me." Juri almost
hissed the words. "You were cunning and dangerous. I respect
a worthy foe."

"We were never foes," Touga said, almost sadly.

"We could have been."

He paused, then said, ruminative, "That's true enough."

"Enough," Shiori said, rather sharply, as she squinted at
the street names illuminated by the van's headlights and clenched
the wheel. "It's all in the past. Let it go." There was a
rather significant pause. "Isn't that what you've told me,
Juri?"

Juri turned her head back and stared out at the road, saying
nothing.

"Nanami," Touga whispered, quietly enough that Juri and
Shiori wouldn't hear, "I understand now. Now that I remember..."
He actually hesitated. "I see. Why you were different towards
me. Once this is over, once Utena is safe, we have to have a
talk, little sister--"

"Just shut up," she whispered in reply. "I can hardly even
stand to hear your voice. And don't call me that. I'm sick of
your lies. If you remember everything, you know I'm not fooled
any more, so why do you persist?"

"Nanami--"

And her heart fluttered a little, at the way he said her
name, tenderly, sadly, as though she actually _were_ important to
him, as though she actually _were_ his precious little sister, as
if it hadn't all just been a lie.

"Just shut up!" she snarled, unsheathing half of the blade
without thinking. It gleamed with residual light from beyond the
van's windows. "You can't even imagine what it's like,
'oniisama'... Having to face it all again, having to know it's
all a lie all over again--" She took a deep breath; she had to
keep control. She wasn't going to let him see her cry, even
though she wanted to. Being around him made everything so much
worse; just having his eyes upon her hurt.

"You fool," he murmured, and if she hadn't known better, she
would have thought the words affectionate. "Nanami, you don't--"

The knife was out and at his throat almost before she
realized it. "Shut up, I said."

"I see you're still fast," he croaked, eyes almost crossing
as he looked at the blade. The point was a hair's width from his
Adam's apple.

"They were right about you," she murmured. The
confrontation, taking place in whispers and shadows in the back
of the van, didn't even seem to be noticed by Juri and Shiori.
"I've been thinking about it, ever since I got my memories back.
You traitor. You used all of us, not even caring... I was never
anything more than an insect to you, just like everyone else."

He began to open his mouth; she glared at him, and he closed
it.

"I was such a fool," she said slowly, now feeling oddly
detached. As though she, Nanami, were a hundred thousand miles
away from this, were off in some other world, watching a sister
holding a knife to her brother's throat. "From the moment you
became a Duellist, I ceased to be anything more than a pawn to
you, didn't I?"

Or had it begun before that? she wondered silently. When
had she lost his love? She'd had it once, hadn't she? When
they'd been small, and it had been just the two of them (and
Kyouichi, she supposed, but he had never seemed to intrude on the
world she and Touga shared), that kind of thing couldn't be
faked, could it?

*"...think of her as your sister and treat her well..."*

It could. It had been.

"Nanami." Juri's voice drifted languidly back from the
front seat. "While I find your vigilance in ensuring your
brother doesn't betray us to be reassuring, I fear that a pothole
or speedbump might make you do something you don't really want.
Perhaps you could hold the knife not quite so close."

As though only realizing then just what she was doing, she
drew the knife away. Touga began to raise a hand as though to
massage his throat, then stopped and let it fall back into his
lap.

"Nanami," he said slowly. She turned her head away--looking
at him was unbearable--and watched the scenery go by. She could
see the upper floors of the old house from here.

"Nanami," he repeated after a moment. She didn't turn.
"I am your brother by blood. I do care for you." She shivered
slightly; part of her longed to believe him. How could she ever
hope to separate the truth from the lies, where one such as her
brother was involved? "When I was young and you were only a
baby, we were sent together to the Kiryuu house. Even I don't
know much of the story, but what I do know, I'll tell you..."

"You still lie so beautifully, oniisama..." she whispered
suddenly.

Touga went very quiet. "Very well, then," he said softly.

Such beautiful lies. Beautiful enough to get Utena into bed
with him, even; that was something she'd been trying very hard
not to think about. Utena, she thought, you're an idiot. You're
an even bigger fool than I ever thought.

* * *

Whatever chemical suffused the cloth (chloroform, probably, the
small part of her mind not occupied with panic and adrenaline
rush whispered) stabbed upward into her brain like numbing spikes
of fire. She swayed back against the pillar; blurred shadows
drew like a veil across her eyes. There was a terrible wiry
strength in the hand that held the cloth, or perhaps it was only
her own weakness, and she was falling...

No!

Strength surged through her at that denial, like a bright
sword cutting through the enveloping insensate layers. She
reached up and seized her attacker's wrist with both hands,
shoved off against the pillar for extra power, twisted, and
threw.

Suddenly, the cloth was gone, but the taste and smell
lingered; she gulped desperate, beautiful breaths of cold winter
air to drive the threat of collapse away. Her opponent rolled
across the snow and came up on his feet; there was a sword in
his hand, and he lunged as he rose with the speed and skill of a
master fencer. Utena dropped and the blade struck sparks off the
pillar behind her; she seized her own sword from where it had
fallen to the ground and brought it up time to catch a
descending blow upon the still-sheathed length.

She shoved her foe back and came to her feet, the grogginess
almost vanished. The man was a tall, dark Westerner with thick
white hair, old, with a narrow face that had probably been
handsome once. His long grey coat flapped with the movement as
he rushed her, silent except for the sound of his feet on the
snow. She unsheathed her own blade just as he thrust at her.

Utena parried, parried the follow-up--barely--considered a
riposte for a split second, thought better of it, fell back
before the thrusts and slashes that whipped out at her as though
from ten different foes at once. "Who are you?"

"We talked on the phone, little witch." His voice was cold
and hard and full of hate.

"Huh?"

A feint followed by a beat knocked her blade so far out of
line it might as well have been in another country for all the
good it was going to do her in defending against his next slash.

She ducked under, leapt away to the side, got her blade
back into line in time to block his. They struggled for the
advantage, her with the advantage of strength (he was very old,
she realized, at least sixty), he with the advantage of leverage.

Comprehension dawned--the silence on the other end of the
line, as she pleaded for Anthy to speak to her--followed by sick
fear. "You!" she snarled. "You were in the apartment. What did
you do to Anthy?"

"I offered her the chance at repentance," he snarled back,
trying to twist her blade away. "The murdering witch... where is
she? Tell me where your mistress is if you want to live..."

Muscles protesting with the effort, she shoved him stumbling
back and followed up, desperate to put him on the defensive. She
had the edge in speed and strength, but he was far more skilled;
he seemed to know what moves she'd make before she made them, and
had his blade in place to parry even as she began her strikes.

"I don't have any idea what you're talking about!" she cried
over the clash of blades. "Tell me what you did to her, you
bastard!"

He was panting hard, slowing down; the blade felt like a
tongue of fire in his hands, barely in her control. She burned
up with rage, a glow of anger that suffused her entire body.
He'd done something to Anthy.

He drew her blade into an outward circle with an elegant,
complex, wrist-twisting manoeuvrer, nearly threw it out out of
line again; she gritted her teeth, and overcame him by sheer
strength.

"WHAT DID YOU DO TO HER?"

She smashed her blade down on his, near the guard; they rang
together with a sound like a hammer striking an anvil, and the
shock travelled up her arms and sent stabbing pain through her
shoulders. He gasped, and staggered back, sword weaving in
defensive circles; his dark complexion couldn't disguise the
pallor beneath his skin, and sweat stood out upon his brow like
a crown.

Again and again, she shouted the question, pressing him
back. He ducked and wove throughout the pillars; she followed
him like a wolf stalking a hare, eyes narrowed, cold with fury.
If he'd hurt Anthy, if he'd touched a single hair on her head--

His blade seemed to come from nowhere, sliding around one of
her almost-wild swings and ripping a line of fire along her left
side.

"I've stopped using the flat of my blade now," he gasped as
she cried out in pain. "I will kill you, witch, don't doubt--"

Utena's free hand lashed out almost of its own volition and
caught him under the jaw with an open palm in mid-sentence. His
teeth clicked together, hard, and he crumpled to the snow in an
unconscious heap.

She staggered back, panting and feeling the long, shallow
wound on her side like the sting of a giant papercut; rapidly,
it was welling up with blood. She used her left arm to hold the
slashed side of the coat against in a makeshift tourniquet, and
walked carefully over to the old man. His sword lay several feet
away, fallen from his hand.

"Who are you?" she murmured as she knelt. She lightly
slapped his face; once, twice. He didn't move or respond. His
skin was ghost-white. She grabbed him by the collar with one
hand and shook him. "Wake up! Wake up, damn it!"

He opened his mouth and let out a single long, gasping
breath. His eyes didn't open; his pallor increased, and she
hadn't thought that possible.

She lowered him back down to the ground and pressed her
fingers to his neck. No pulse--no, wait, there was one, barely
detectable, fluttering frantically as a humming-bird.

"Hey! Hey, you can't die; I want to know what you did to
Anthy!" The words did not seem even to her especially
persuasive. "Oh, come on," she moaned, "I didn't even hit you
that hard."

Suddenly, his eyes snapped open; he let out another gasping
breath. One hand rose, clutched her shoulder with desperate
strength, and shoved her away from him; the other fumbled in his
coat pocket for a moment. He spasmed with another rattling
breath, and a pill bottle rolled out of his pocket and rattled
across the thin snow cover of the ground.

She scooped it up as he sank weakly back to the ground, eyes
closed again. Plain, unlabelled plastic, half-full of small
white pills; she knelt at his side again, fumbling with the cap.

"Look," she said forcefully, "I give you one of these, you
tell me what you did to Anthy. Deal?"

No response. The cap popped off, and she shook a pill into
her hand.

"Deal?"

His eyes fluttered momentarily, showing blank whites; his
mouth opened and closed like that of a fish dragged onto land.

"I'll take that as a yes," she muttered resentfully, forcing
the pill between his thin, dry lips and massaging his throat to
make him swallow.

She closed the cap on the pill bottle and tucked it back
into his pocket, then knelt for a few minutes beside him, hand on
his throat, feeling his pulse grow steadier and slower, watching
as his pallor diminished. Whatever kind of attack he'd had--
some weakness in his heart or his lungs, she guessed--the worst
of it seemed to have passed. But he wasn't waking up.
Unconscious, he looked even older and frailer, almost pitifully
wasted from the strong man he'd obviously once been.

Awake, though, his eyes had been hard and dark as coals, and
his sword deadly. He was dangerous, very dangerous, and he'd
done something to Anthy. More new questions; why had he called
_her_ witch, and what had he meant by "your mistress"? What had
he done to Anthy?

Anthy... she was all right. Had to be all right. Chu-Chu
would have known if something happened to her.

She slapped his face lightly again. He didn't even stir.
She frowned, and began with some trepidation to search him. He
carried no identification in either his outer coat pockets or the
pockets of his dark slacks. She shivered; the adrenaline rush of
the fight was vanishing, and the sweat from her exertions felt as
though it were freezing to her skin. The wound on her
side--little more than a scratch, really--had apparently clotted,
leaving the coat sticky with blood in the process.

If she were feeling the cold so much, he, older and frailer,
had to be feeling it even more. She frowned--this was probably
the most unsafe place she could possibly be right now. It was
going to be hard to go back and face everyone again after rushing
off by herself, but she had to know what had happened to Anthy.
That was more important than anything.

And, frankly, the more she thought about it, the whole idea
had been flawed from the start. What had she been thinking?
They were going to be furious with her, and rightly so. She
could almost hear Nanami now, incredulous and angry, or Juri,
with a cool and scathing comment that would make her feel about
four years old and two inches tall.

Maybe she'd get lucky, and they'd never know she'd been gone
at all. If she hurried...

Of course, there was the crazy unconscious old man to
explain. And Touga. She frowned darkly and began trying to
gather things together: sheathing her sword, picking up his (a
light rapier, rather similar to hers) and trying to figure out
just how she was going to manage everything. Another brief
search discovered the presence of a leather scabbard sewn into
the lining of his long coat (useful, that, she thought, as she
sheathed his blade within it). She looped the unconscious old
man's arms over her shoulders and hauled him limply to his feet,
wincing and favouring her uninjured right side, loosely
carrying her own sheathed sword in her left hand. The back of
her head was starting to hurt again, a throbbing pain running in
sharp lines across her skull and down her spine.

Probably concussed yourself when you fell after the fight
with Tokiko, she thought sourly. Gave yourself a little bit of
brain damage, which was why you decided to run off on your own
and try to play the tough hero.

No; too easy an explanation. Guilt made you do stupid
things, even when it was legitimate. She still felt bad, but
this whole night had just been one big mistake from start to
finish. Biggest mistake of all (beyond going out solo in the
first place) being sleeping with Touga.

"Dumb, Tenjou, dumb," she muttered, walking slowly towards
the gates, half-carrying and half-dragging the old man. He
hardly weighed anything at all; if it hadn't been for her
wounded side, she probably could have carried him on her back
like she'd done with Wakaba in the old days. Though it probably
would have looked undignified, and quite possibly a little
obscene.

"Dumb," she muttered again; kept on walking.

* * *

She had a secret that no one else knew, not even Juri, and she
found herself thinking of it as they climbed the hill towards
Ohtori; Touga in the lead, Nanami at his back, she and Juri
bringing up the rear with swords in hand.

Sensible to think of it, really. They were going after
Utena; Utena, the real focus of it all, at least for them.
Utena, who'd begun it all again, Utena to whom they were as
satellites; rightly so, in a way, because Utena was what she was.
She was good, and it was so _easy_ for her to be good, to be kind
and beautiful and loving and brave, that Shiori would have
resented it, if she weren't trying, trying really hard, to be a
different sort of person, to become a new person, to cast aside
the shackles of the past, emerge reborn, tried by fire, _worthy_
of the love Juri gave her so unconditionally--

She hadn't told anyone the real reason, the real cause
behind her fear (diminished, but still there, lurking like a
monster in the shadows, an ugly thing that hid its face from the
light) that Utena would take Juri away from her. There had been
enough surfaces to explain it; Juri was attracted to her, that
was enough. Oh, truth be told, she was as well, it was hard not
to be; the first woman other than Juri she _had_ felt a definite
sexual attraction to. Even after more than five years with Juri,
she didn't consider herself a lesbian, or a bisexual, or anything
like that. It was Juri she loved, Juri she wanted to be with,
Juri who was her light, her reason for being...

So, when Utena had reappeared, even before she'd gotten her
memories back, she'd been scared. Had flaunted her body in front
of Utena, flaunted the relationship she had with Juri; trying to
intimidate her, drive her off. She had no idea why she was
there, no idea why a girl she'd barely remembered had come back
into their life. Almost nothing about her had been recallable,
except for the boyish uniform, and the name, of course, the name
that burned, that had burned for three years before she even had
a face to put the name to--

It all made sense in hindsight, like the fear she'd felt
sometimes while descending in elevator cars; the memories had
always been there, but not conscious, and wasn't sleep, dreaming,
when the unconscious mind, which remembered _everything_, had
free rein? But at the time, she hadn't understood at all, and
had been too afraid of the answer to ask. To wake in the night
to your lover mumbling fearfully, to reach out and take her hand
and murmur soothing words; it's only a nightmare, Juri, only a
dream. Then to hear, clear as crystal, five syllables, each
seeming to stand separate from one another as the members of a
firing squad: Ten-jou U-ten-a.

Then silence; soft, sleeping breaths, as whatever fear it
was passed away again.

She should tell Juri about that. It would help her
understand, help her understand why she'd been so hostile to
Utena at the beginning of things. She wasn't any more; she
understood. It was very hard to know Utena and stay angry at her
over anything, because her goodness was so nonchalant, almost
instinctive--it lacked the sense of determination, of _striving_
to be the best, that she'd used to resent in Juri. It simply
was. Utena simply was. Good, unforcedly and innocently so. It
was hard not to love her, to want to be near her; to want her as
a friend, almost as a sister. As a lover, to be as close to her
as you possibly could.

She wondered if Juri or Nanami felt the same way. If
they'd understand, or if they'd simply think she was mad if she
put her reasoning forth. Nanami would say she was, definitely,
no matter how she actually felt. Badly repressed and immature,
that girl was. Probably still a virgin, terrified of the very
idea of sex, with a man or with a woman.

Perhaps that explained Touga. He certainly seemed sincere
enough. Utena changed people; that was the simple truth of it.
Shiori didn't doubt that she could even change him, the
incorrigible playboy, Akio's right-hand man. She, of all people,
had to give others a chance to change. Hadn't she changed? She
had, she had...

Juri spoke; reality intruded a little into her thoughts.
They were nearly at the gates; almost at the lair, the doorway
into the darkness.

"What was that, Juri?"

"I said, I love you. I don't think I've said that to you
recently enough." Juri coughed, blushed a little, glanced ahead
to Nanami and Touga as though wondering if they'd heard.

"Worried we're not going to come back from this?" Shiori
whispered softly. She reached over and slipped her hand into
Juri's. "Don't worry. We will. We're the good guys. The good
guys always win."

Juri laughed softly and squeezed her hand. "You shouldn't
take things so lightly."

"Someone has to." Ohtori's central tower rose into the
darkness like a challenge to the heavens, growing taller and
taller as they crested the hill... white buildings, emerging from
the cold darkness... the clouds overhead, thick and grey...
perhaps they'd get more snow tonight... "I love you too."

Ahead of them, Touga said something softly to Nanami. She
barked back a harsh reply.

"Think she's changed the most of us?" Shiori asked softly.

"When you love someone unconditionally, you build up an
image of them in your mind, an ideal. It's non-existent, of
course, but you make yourself believe it." Juri looked oddly
contemplative. "But the evidence builds up, and your perfect
image crumbles; so, the love you had gains another side, a side
that hates them for not living up to your expectations, while
still loving them."

Inside, Shiori withered a little. "And then?"

"Then," Juri said softly, "if you're lucky, you realize that
you have to love people for who they really are, not for who you
believed them to be."

"Ah."

They walked on in silence, hand in hand. The gates came
closer and closer. An anticipatory quality seemed to come upon
the chilly winter air, making the hair on the back of her neck
prickle. Shiori's hand tightened on her sword's hilt. Ten
paces to the gates.

When Utena walked out a moment later, haggardly supporting
an unconscious old man, it was, in Shiori's opinion, somewhat
anticlimactic.

* * *

"Now, don't squirm. I know it stings."

She squirmed a bit anyway, unable to stop herself.
"It tickles, too."

Juri smiled faintly up at Utena, dipped the cotton swab into
the mouth of the bottle of medicinal alcohol again, and traced a
path along the redly-puckered sides of the shallow wound gracing
Utena's ribcage. The sensations--hot and stinging along the cut,
cool and ticklish upon the unbroken flesh surrounding it--were
not entirely unpleasant. Utena winced, shivered, bit her lip to
stifle a yelp as a particularly sharp sting caused an involuntary
arching of her spine. She'd protested that she was all right;
Juri had insisted on checking her over anyway--"Even a little cut
can get infected, and this is not, despite what you may think, a
little cut."--claiming some skill at first aid gained in treating
various fencing-related injuries over the years.

"I feel the need to say it again, tedious though it may be.
This was a very stupid thing you did tonight, Utena."

Seated on the tiled lip of the bathtub, Utena looked down at
Juri kneeling on the floor and coloured a little. "Tedious though
it may be to say it again, I'm sorry."

They'd all wanted to touch her the moment she met up with
them at the gates--to put their hands on her shoulder, clasp
hands with her, as if to assure themselves that she was real,
solid, there. Not that she minded, the human contact was a
comfort, even from Touga. Nanami had called her a stupid
inconsiderate idiotic jerk (among other things), Juri had harshly
criticized her, Shiori had asked what she'd been thinking.
Touga had merely looked at her pointedly, then taken the old
man's weight off her hands without a word and headed back down
the hill, away from Ohtori.

Still faintly smiling, Juri tossed the cotton swab into the
trash bin beside the toilet, and began to cut a long swathe of
white bandage from the roll in the first aid kit. "We'll keep on
telling you that until we're certain you won't do it again."

Utena glanced at her shirt, folded and lying atop the toilet
tank, and kept her arms crossed resolutely over her chest. She
hoped Juri would finish her ministrations quickly; it was
slightly embarrassing and more than a little cold, sitting here
in her bra. The window over the bathtub was cracked open
slightly, and the occasional twist of the wind sent a chilly gust
over her naked back and shoulders. "I like your hair like that.
You should wear it like that during the day sometime."

"Oh?" Juri paused, about to begin wrapping the bandage
around Utena's waist, and ran a hand through her long, uncurled,
somewhat sleep-tousled hair. Only at her temples did some
evidence of the usual tight curls remain. "I usually only take
it down to sleep. And for the occasional modelling shoot. I
like having it curled." The smile acquired a self-deprecating
edge. "Enough that I get up a half-hour earlier every morning
than I need to to style it."

"Oh, yeah, it's cool like that too," Utena said hastily.
"It's just, sometimes variety is nice too; Anthy sometimes puts
her hair up--well, I guess you would have always seen with it up,
but she usually wears it down these days. I like to tie mine
back sometimes, helps keep it out of my eyes."

"Our mysterious stranger, you say he did something to
Himemiya?" Juri finished wrapping the bandage, cinched it
tight--but not too tight--and carefully tied it off.

There had been what seemed like a million questions from
each of them, all coming at once: Why did you do it? What were
you thinking? How could you be so inconsiderate? Didn't you
think about how we'd feel when we found you gone? Didn't you
realize how dangerous/stupid/foolish this was? Who's the old
guy? She'd waved most aside with protestations of weariness,
told them she'd answer everything later, we need to get somewhere
safe, etc.

"Nice way to turn the conversation away from distracting
small talk to unpleasant reality," Utena said softly, rising up,
slipping her shirt back on, and beginning to button it up.
"Yeah, he did, although I don't know what." She explained
briefly about the phone call, the silence on the other end of the
line that she'd believed at first to be Anthy.

"Do you think she's all right?"

Utena fumbled with the collar button, fingers losing agility
as she was distracted by a multitude of nightmarish scenarios.
"Yeah," she said eventually, "I think she is. First thing he
said to me was something about telling him where my 'mistress' or
'master' was, and I'd take bets that he was talking about Anthy
and Akio."

"Somewhere safe" had turned out to be Touga's penthouse.
Not really a place she wanted to return to, but better than the
hotel. God, she thought, what a mess. What was she going to do
about Touga?

Juri stood and began to pack the first aid kit away,
returning it to the lower shelf of the glass-fronted medicine
cabinet when finished. "Did he say anything else?"

"Called me a witch. Said something about offering Anthy a
chance at repentance." She frowned. "Said Anthy was a
'murdering witch'. I _think_ he was talking about Anthy, but...
she wouldn't hurt anyone."

"Didn't she stab you in the back during your duel with
Akio?" Juri asked, arching one eyebrow.

Utena flushed hotly and scowled, unable to keep a touch of
anger out of her voice. "That's different."

Juri nodded, but didn't look convinced. Utena wished she
had time to explain it all to her, to try and make her
understand, that it hadn't been Anthy's fault... Akio, all Akio,
keeping her enslaved...

But there wasn't time. She headed for the door. As she
reached for the handle, a nervous thought occurred to her, and she
stopped and looked back at Juri. "Umm, Juri... you're probably
wondering just why Touga remembers everything--"

"He told us," Juri said shortly, green eyes narrowing a
little. Utena felt a cold, sharp stone lodge in her gut.
For the second time that night, a few words had managed to make
her feel like she'd been slapped hard in the face.

She closed her eyes. To her shock and mortification, tears
gathered almost instantly beneath the lids. "Bastard," she
whispered. In that one moment, she hated Kiryuu Touga as much as
she'd ever hated anyone.

"I pressed him on the matter," Juri said, not sounding
particularly guilty or apologetic about doing so.

"He could have lied," Utena said fiercely. "He didn't have
to--"

"Tell the truth?" Juri asked softly. "You did sleep with
him, yes? That's what broke his amnesia?"

Utena mutely nodded, opening her eyes in time to see Juri
shrug and say, "Then that's the end of it. He told the truth;
unusual for him."

"I'm sorry," Utena murmured, grabbing a tissue from the box
on the edge of the sink and wiping at her eyes.

Juri looked at her flatly. "Why are you apologizing to me?
It's none of my business who you sleep with."

"But you don't approve."

"Do you expect me to?"

"Of course not," Utena snapped. "But... do you have to look
at me like that?"

"I didn't even realize I was," Juri said slowly. Her
expression deliberately softened; now, she did look a little
regretful. But Utena couldn't get that look, disappointed and
maybe even a little disgusted, out of her mind. She could almost
hear what Juri was thinking: I thought better of her than that;
jumping into bed with him, what was she thinking?

You just saw a bit of the real me, Juri, she answered back
silently. The weak one, who can't seem to stop falling for men
she knows are wrong for her, who acts selfish towards her friends
while excusing it by believing she's being selfless and strong.

Juri lightly touched her shoulder. "Come on," she said
quietly, "let's go see if our mysterious stranger is--"

A surprised shout from Nanami came from beyond the bathroom,
simultaneous with what sounded like one of the folding screens
crashing to the floor. Utena and Juri rushed out to find a
screen toppled near the chair to which they'd tied the old man,
Touga holding Chu-Chu by the tail, and Nanami on the floor
picking something up that glinted in the light.

"What happened?" Utena asked, as Shiori came hurrying in
from the kitchen with the same question rising on her lips.

Touga frowned and dangled the sour-faced Chu-Chu at arm's
length. "I think he must have stowed away in my coat pocket, or
something--somehow, he followed us all the way from the hotel.
He waited until we were all occupied elsewhere, then tried to
dive off the top of the screen onto our mysterious stranger."

"While holding this." Nanami rose from the floor, holding
up a small paring knife, sharply gleaming.

"I spotted him just as he was about to jump," Touga said.
He looked at the toppled screen and grimaced. "I had to act
rather hastily to stop him."

Utena, wide-eyed, strode over and took Chu-Chu from Touga.
"Chu-Chu!" she snapped. "What were you doing that for--"

"Chu," he said sharply, looking at the unconscious old man
with the closest thing she'd ever seen to hate in his beady
eyes. Touga righted the folding screen without much effort,
frowning deeply at a small tear in the silk of the leftmost panel.

"You know he did something to Anthy, don't you?" she asked
softly. "Who is he?"

Chu-Chu remained sullenly silent. It wasn't as though he
could answer in a manner she could understand anyway.

"Someone keep an eye on him at all times," Utena said,
cradling the bitter-looking monkey-mouse to her breast and
glancing at the old man; they'd tied him by his wrists and
ankles to the frame of the chair. Without his coat on, he
looked even thinner. "Watch for him to wake up. He's more
dangerous than he looks."

"You damn with faint praise," Touga drawled, eyeing the old
man's lanky frame. "Oh, take a look at this--I pulled it out of
an inner pocket of his coat." He raised something in his hand
that glinted silver. They crowded around. "It's familiar, but
subtly different."

He held a silver ring; the design was a stylized rose,
nearly identical to the too-familiar crest of Ohtori, with a
cross in the middle.

Juri cocked her head sideways and frowned. "Some kind of
religious symbol?" she guessed.

"Could be," Nanami agreed. "But--"

From the kitchen came the whistle of a kettle. Shiori
jumped slightly, made a sound of surprise, and hurried back.
"Tea should be ready soon," she called as she left them.

Utena looked down at Chu-Chu. "Look, I don't want you to do
anything like that again," she said severely. "We need to find
out what happened to Anthy, and he knows. Can I trust you on
your own, or do I have to keep an eye on you?"

"Chu," he said grudgingly, and struggled a bit in her
grip. He stopped at the sound of a throaty meow; they looked
together to see Barako, fat and furry and smiling, sitting up on
the ottoman and licking her lips as she regarded Chu-Chu with her
luminous green eyes.

"Actually, it's probably better I keep you with me," Utena
muttered. Chu-Chu appeared to agree, as he huddled against her
and shivered.

Touga, Nanami and Juri were still examining the old man's
ring. Juri had it in her hands now, and was weighing it up and
down with a speculative expression on her face.

"I suppose we'll just have to ask him about it when he wakes
up," she said finally, tossing it back to Touga, who caught it
and put it on a nearby side table. She headed towards the
kitchen. "I'm going to help Shiori with the tea."

"He also had these in his inner pocket," he said, indicating
some other objects on the table. Utena walked over to look,
trying not to show any of the emotions she was currently feeling
towards him on her face--later on, she'd have a chance to shout
at him and tell him what a jerk he was. "A wallet--no
identification, but lots of cash--and keys for a rental car."

"He's probably some kind of secret agent," Nanami said.
"Sent by a shadowy arm of the government to assassinate Akio."

"Still reading those thrillers, I see," Touga muttered,
glancing over at her with an indulgent smile. Nanami just
glared and turned her back on him, stepping away to stand beside
Utena.

"No." Utena shook her head. "He knows Anthy somehow. He
did something to her."

"Any idea what?"

Utena flinched. "Something bad," she muttered, and
explained about the phone call. "Chu-Chu and Anthy... they've
got kind of a link, I suppose. I think he tried to do what he
did because he knows something we don't."

Touga hesitantly touched her shoulder. "I'm sure she's all
right," he said.

"Yeah." Utena closed her eyes for a moment, resisting the
urge to shrink away from his hand. "Chu-Chu would know if she
weren't, right Chu-Chu?"

"Chu." It sounded like an affirmative, but she wasn't
sure; perhaps she only heard that because it was what she wanted
to hear.

"Well, you two seem to have everything well in hand," Nanami
said, a little bit of frost in her voice. "So I think I'll go
see if Juri and Shiori need another hand with the tea. Ta-ta."

She stalked off, leaving Utena alone with Touga, which was
about the last situation she wanted to be in right now.

"So," she said slowly, moving away so that his hand dropped
from her shoulder, so that she wouldn't have to look him in the
eye, "you told them."

"I had no convenient lie prepared when Arisugawa pressed me
about how I recovered my memories," he said softly, not sounding
entirely apologetic enough for her liking. "I'm sorry. I was in
something of a panic at the time."

She eyed him speculatively. Even though she didn't like
feeling like she had "I slept with Touga" branded on her forehead
every time someone looked at her, she had to look at it from his
point of view; like Juri had said, he'd merely told the truth.
"Sorry I hit you," she begrudged finally, looking back over her
shoulder at him.

He shrugged, chuckled softly, ruefully rubbed his bruised
jaw. "I deserved it, I guess."

"Yeah." She smiled, almost entirely against her will. "You
did. You're a real jerk sometimes, Kiryuu Touga."

He glanced towards the kitchen. "Nanami's very upset with
me," he murmured.

Utena's smile vanished. "Yeah," she said guardedly,
thinking back to earlier conversations with Nanami. "Well, I
can't blame her."

"How much did she tell you?"

"Just the part about what you did to her on the way to the
Ends of the World." She took another step away from him, skin
crawling a little; she hadn't even thought about what Nanami had
told her, earlier in the evening, when nothing had seemed to
exist beyond their two bodies. She wasn't inclined to think
kindly of brothers who treated their sisters like that.

Touga's face was stoic, a little sad. "I had to destroy the
false image of me she had in her mind," he said after a moment,
very softly. "Otherwise, she wouldn't ever be really free."

"Oh?" Utena said dubiously. "And that's the only reason you
did it? How very noble."

He shrugged. "Not the only reason. One of them. I lay no
claim to sainthood, but I'm not the devil some of you want to
think I am, either."

Chu-Chu sniffled and snuggled against her, closing his eyes
and apparently falling asleep. She turned her head away from
Touga and stared at the old man warily. It occurred to her that
he might simply be faking unconsciousness now, waiting for a
chance at escape.

"Yo," she said, "old guy. Hey. If you're just faking now,
it would be a good idea to stop, because you don't have even a
chance of getting out of here until you tell me what you did to
Anthy." She tried to come across as intimidating and ruthless,
the kind of person who would start cutting off fingers if she
didn't get the answers she wanted.

There was silence for a moment; then, a dry, wheezing,
chuckle escaped his wrinkled lips. "Deliver me from my enemies,
oh my God; defend me from them that rise up against me."

"So," she said flatly, "how long have you been awake?"

His eyes opened, blinked a few times. "Don't worry, witch.
I didn't eavesdrop on your conversation with your consort if I
could help it. That would have been impolite."

Utena jabbed a finger through the air at him. "Okay, first
of all, I'm not a witch. I don't really know what the hell's up
with that; I'd bet you're confused somehow. And how about a bit
of gratitude? I didn't _have_ to give you that pill, you know."

"You saved my life because I have information you want," he
said quietly. "Had I not, you would have left me to die."

"No, I wouldn't have," Utena said. "Now, who are you?"

His cold eyes flicked around the room; an animal, a
predator, kept in a too-small cage. "Don't you have a cell where
you usually keep your prisoners? When I got captured by a coven
of your kind in Prague, they kept me in a pit, thirty feet down."

"Coven?" Utena blinked, then rubbed her temples with the
hand she wasn't holding Chu-Chu with. "Look, I told you, I'm not
a witch."

Touga, who had been watching the back-and-forth with
slightly confused interest, finally spoke up. "While she is
admittedly quite enchanting, sir, I think we have our lines
crossed somewhere."

She shot a glare at him. He smiled faintly. She turned her
attention back to the captive. "Look--"

"You stand there, holding the familiar of your mistress, and
try to tell me you are not a witch?" He sounded incredulous and
vaguely insulted. "Do you think me stupid, or senile, or both?"

"I think you're confused, and I think you did something to
Anthy," Utena said slowly, coldly. She handed the sleeping Chu-
Chu to Touga, stepped forward, and leaned down, gripping the
backrest of the chair they'd tied him to and glaring into his
eyes. "And I want to know what."

"I caught your mistress," he said calmly. Hate smouldered
in his dark eyes, a slow burn; no quick to anger, quick to
forgive here. "I offered her the chance to repent of her
iniquity. She did not do so. She escaped, murdering those who
aided me in my God-given task."

Utena moved back from him, frightened a little, as though
she were the one tied and helpless. "God-given task?"

"A witch is loathsome in the sight of God," he answered
quietly. "You must not suffer a witch to live."

"Oh. I understand." Utena nodded slowly. "You're
totally insane. You go around killing people because of what
God supposedly--"

"There is no 'supposedly' about it," he interrupted sharply,
eyes flashing. He shrugged, suddenly calm again. "Do what you
will with me, devil's whore. You're damned all the same. You
can injure my body, but you cannot hurt my soul."

"Tell me what you did to Anthy!" she snapped, losing what
remained of her cool. "If you hurt her, you son of a bitch--"

"Want me to hit him?" Touga asked in a cold voice, very
unlike any she'd ever heard from him. "Just say the word. I
won't have you called such things in my presence."

"We're not to the point where we need to start hitting old
men tied to chairs," Utena muttered. She rubbed her forehead
again. "Look," she began, "let's go back to the beginning--"

Shiori poked her head out of the kitchen. "Is everything
all right out there?" she called.

"Our guest is awake," Utena called back.

"Oh. Okay. The tea's ready. There's some biscuits, too."
She ducked back into the kitchen.

"Another apprentice of your mistress?" the old man asked,
sharp eyes flicking in the direction of Shiori's voice.

"Back to the beginning," Utena said again. "I'm not a
witch. No one here is a witch. I know all this stuff you're
saying about Anthy being a murderer isn't true, because I know
Anthy a lot better than you, and--"

He laughed again, cold and high and humourless. "I knew
'Anthy' before you were born. Before your parents were born,
perhaps."

Utena found her eyes widening a little. "Who are you?" she
asked.

"She used to call me her prince," he murmured, closing his
eyes as though sinking deep into old memories.

Utena shivered. "Did you play the duelling game as well?"
she asked after a moment.

"I did," he said, sounding surprised; some of the tight
anger flowed out of his face. "It was a very long time ago."

Footsteps announced the return of the others, and the
arrival of the tea.

"You should organize your cupboards better," Juri said,
setting down the tray on the table where Touga had put the old
man's wallet and keys. "They're a mess."

"I never have any trouble finding anything," Touga replied.
He picked up the red clay teapot and began to pour, handing Chu-
Chu to Nanami to let himself use both hands. "Milk, Arisugawa?"

Utena glanced to the old man, as the others settled
themselves down in chairs around the table. "You want a cup?"

"I avoid caffeine these days," he said, opening his eyes and
sniffing the air, which had begun to fill with fragrant steam
from the teapot. "Bad for the heart. I would not say no to a
glass of water, however."

"Sugar, Takatsuki?"

"Juri, could you please pass the milk?"

"The tea biscuits are a little stale..."

"So..." She eyed the old man speculatively. "You ready to
start talking now?"

"Perhaps," he replied.

She went to the kitchen, returned with a glass of water.
So, he'd known Anthy... had been, like her, a pawn for Akio...
and it had ruined him, left him bitter and twisted and hateful...

She could understand. Understand all too well, how a thing
like that could change you completely, leave you shattered... So
you found something else to cling to. For him, it had apparently
been killing witches for God.

At his side, she raised the glass to his dry lips and let
him sip. "She called me her prince once too," she murmured as
she lowered it.

His dark eyes roamed over her face, intense and searching.
"You do not look like a prince," he said in a monotone.

"I wasn't a very good one," she said, letting him drink
again; perhaps she'd meant the words facetiously, but they hurt
her all the same. Nearby, teacups rattled on saucers.

"Pass the biscuits, please."

"I think we should have let it steep longer."

"Utena," Touga called, "is our guest prepared to talk?"

"Just about, I think," she replied. He drained the last of
the water, sighed, and slumped a little in the chair, as much as
the ropes allowed, looking very old.

"Don't untie him," Nanami advised, trying to interest the
dozy Chu-Chu in half of a tea biscuit.

Utena frowned at her. "Wasn't planning on it." She put the
empty water glass on the table, poured herself a cup of tea,
dropped in two spoonfuls of sugar.

"What's his name?" Shiori asked.

She shrugged. "Dunno. Hey, what is your name? I'd rather
not call you 'old guy' if I don't have to."

"You could simply call me 'sir'," he murmured, smiling
faintly, with an air of condescension to it. "That would be the
polite thing to do. My name is Leo Cano."

"Cano-san," she said, nodding. "I'm Tenjou Utena. That's
Kiryuu Touga, his sister Nanami, Arisugawa Juri, and Takatsuki
Shiori." She indicated them each in turn. Nanami scowled at
being lumped together with Touga; Utena winced inwardly, and put
down trying to get them to reconcile as a future project.
Surely, surely they could find some middle ground.

Utena sat down at the table, glancing at the wall clock as
she did. A little past one in the morning. "So," she said,
"talk. Tell us all about it. How you know Anthy, what you did
to her..."

"I only said 'perhaps'," he said. "I am not so foolish as
to take you at your word; you may simply be profoundly naive, but
you may also be a witch. I have a test; if you pass it, I shall
tell you my story."

"Test, huh?"

"First of all," he said, "you must unbutton my shirt."

Utena raised an eyebrow. "You've got to be joking."

* * *

The prince woke to discover, to his annoyance, that he'd spilled
his brandy on the carpet. Dark stained the pale fabric; the
glass itself lay shattered around the stain in a glinting circle
of shards.

Wearily, he leaned back on the couch and loosened his tie.
Drawing breath was an effort, standing an impossibility.

Were she here, she would be on her knees now, picking up each
shard of glass by hand...

But she was not here, she was not; he shook his head,
concentrated. This was his place, the tower in the sky, seat of
his power, pinnacle of his world. The stain faded into the rug;
the glass became dust, and then became nothing at all, as though
eons had passed for it in the blinking of an eye.

When he felt strong again, he rose, and went to the small
bathroom off from the planetarium projector's chamber. He
studied himself in the mirror there, traced the line of his cheek
with one long finger.

Suddenly, his fist lashed out. The mirror became a web of
cracks, ripping his face apart.

"What do you hope for?"

"You are no happier than I that she has left us."

"You want her back as much as I do."

"Don't pretend you don't."

"I know you like I know myself."

"Don't look at me like that."

"Don't pretend you're better than me."

"What did you show her?"

"Where did you take her?"

"I'll find out. I always do. Your means have always
furthered my ends; how could they not?"

"Do you think that she has been saved? Do you think,
perhaps, that we will be saved?"

"We no longer have any such wish or any such hope."

"We do not need to be saved."

"I'll Revolutionize the World."

"I'll make everything right again."

"Then you'll understand."

"Then you'll see."

"You stupid child."

In the cracks of the mirror were the shadows, and the
shadows watched, and listened, and knew the meaning behind all
that of which he spoke.

Knew, and understood, and cared not.

End of Jaquemart - Part X