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Jaquemart XI - And We Are Only Fragments

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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.

 

XI. And We Are Only Fragments

* * *

The boy slept, curled up like a child beneath a thin blanket.

The woman stood over him in the darkness and considered him:
his fine, delicate features; his long, dark blond hair; his
incongruously powerful and callused hands.

She had come here by way of ways she knew of old. Neither
guard nor lock had impeded her, for she had not wished them to.

"You killed him," she said softly.

Perhaps at her words, the boy moaned in his sleep and turned
over, away from her, clutching and twisting his blankets as he
did.

"You killed him," she repeated.

The boy let out something that might have been at sob, as
though at sorrow in a dream. The woman regarded him coldly.
Then she held out her left palm before her and willed the sword
to come forth. It did; she grasped it and drew it fully from her
flesh, shuddering faintly as she did. In the darkness of the
room, with only a mesh of moonlight through the barred window to
see by, the black blade's faint red glow, like a fading fire,
could be seen. It streaked the boy's face with bloody shadows,
and glinted in the woman's glasses.

As though from some uncanny magnetism, the point of the
blade dipped towards the boy's naked throat, dragging the woman's
hand with it for a moment before she pulled it back.

"No."

She considered the boy objectively, as though he were a
scientific specimen, for some time.

When the boy murmured something, she extended a probing
tendril of consciousness and brushed the sleeping surface of his
mind; images of pain and regret and confusion came back to her.
She dared risk no deeper. Any hooks would be subtle, and well-
hidden.

The sword dipped again; again, she pulled it back.

"No, I said." She gritted her teeth against the pain and
the need. "It's a meaningless action. He's only a child."

With some effort, she placed the point of the sword against
her breast, and forced it back into her body.

"Only a child."

She reached down and almost touched his cheek.

"So sleep," she murmured. "Just sleep."

The boy slept on, without dreams.

* * *

Light. Every atom of his body, every fibre of his being, felt
stretched to its utmost capacity; he was a body the size of a
galaxy, with pupils big as suns and fingers made up of nebulae...

Shrinking, returning to himself--

Darkness, the pendulous processional of lights to either
side, black asphalt that ran to infinity before and behind. The
world consisted of starless night, a four-lane highway, endless
street-lights, and the two of them, in a white car that glided
smooth as a cloud over the dark road.

Kyouichi leaned back against the headrest of the passenger
seat, the memory of his own cosmic vastness still present like
the last silvered edge of orgasm. He turned his head to regard
Anthy.

"I remember this place," he said quietly.

"The road to the ends of the worlds," Anthy said after a
moment, slender hands gripping the car's silvery steering wheel.
"And to the beginnings of them."

"Your brother and Touga took me upon them. But where?" He
wracked his brain, struggling to come to recollection... there
had been the car, and Touga beside him... Akio, astride the
hood... the car moving by itself... dissolution.

"He would have showed you the world you desired," she
replied. "The world you might have created with the Power of
Dios. But you can't remember what that world was, can you?"

He sorted through the memories of that time like a scholar
visiting a museum, but finally had to admit to her that he did
not.

"Why is that?" he asked.

"You saw the innermost desire of your heart, the totality
of yourself--not merely your conscious longings, but everything.
To look upon such a thing is not easy; it challenges the sanity,
for there are shadows in all of us that we do not wish to
confront, and thus the worlds we desire are full also of shadows.
So, the mind buries it, leaving only a longing to make that
world; my brother had no hand in your forgetting of the world of
your desire."

"I remember that it was beautiful," he murmured, closing his
eyes. Wind from their passage caressed his face; the car smelt
of new leather, just-forged metal, and roses. Suddenly, he
started from his reverie, as if he'd just been given an electric
shock. "You said we could go to Wakaba."

She nodded; her hair was moving slowly and continually as
she drove, stirred by the wind, rippling like a dark tapestry,
like a wave of the sea. "We can go anywhere. You must help me,
though."

"How?"

"Picture her in your mind. Your Wakaba, the one you know;
your wife."

He closed his eyes again. Start with the face: the warmth
of brown eyes and the curvature of nose, the single curl of hair
upon her brow, a soft cheek beneath his searching fingers, the
mingled heat and coolness of her lips, the small white teeth, the
delicate lobes of her ears (they were, he had discovered, one of
the more responsive, sensitive parts of her body), the little
pink tip of her tongue...

Move down, the graceful curve of her neck, the pale bare
shoulders (a little mole, no bigger than a pin-head, crested the
left one), the line of the collarbone, the wings of the
shoulder-blades--

"That will be enough."

"Good," he said, relieved. "Let's go to her." The tumult
of recent emotions had simply been too great, and he was starting
to feel a bit numb. First he thought Wakaba was gone, and then
Anthy had assured him she wasn't, but he hadn't seen her yet...
yes, numb was the word, like an arm worn out from swinging a
sword that could not fight again even if it wanted to.

The purr of the engine acquired a slightly throaty quality;
he heard the click of a switch, and opened his eyes to see that
Anthy had turned on the high beams. They swept before the car
like searchlights, showing straight black highway (lacking
completely in exits, curves or other cars) as far as the eye
could see. Somehow he knew that if there were enough light, he
would be able to see that no horizon existed in this place.

They had been travelling at a fairly languid pace; now the
car's tires suddenly seemed to seize the road as though about to
wrestle it, and they shot forward in a screech of rubber and a
rush of wind that nearly stole the breath away. The speedometer
crept upwards--but those numbers could not be true, could they?
Going that fast, the wind would feel like a knife across his
face. He found his eyes drawn to the other instruments on the
dashboard: the odometer, which bore only a stylized figure-eight
turned on its side, with an alpha in one loop and an omega in the
other, and the fuel gauge, which--

"Anthy?"

"Yes?"

"Is it right that it should be blinking like that?"

She glanced away from the road for a moment, slowing the car
as she did. Her eyes widened in a way that did not exactly
reassure him.

"No," she said after a moment. He saw the tip of her
tongue dart out, and nervously moisten her lips. "No, it
definitely shouldn't be doing that."

The fuel gauge consisted of a small white emblem of a gas
pump beside another figure-eight turned upon its side; beneath
them were five small lights, which were currently flashing in an
insane array of colours. Coloured light stabbed out in pinpoint
rays, playing across their faces and the upholstery of the car.

"Perhaps you ought to stop the car," he suggested.

"Stopping when travelling these roads is a very bad idea,
Kyouichi," she said, deadly serious.

"Perhaps you should at least slow down then?" he called; the
wind, which now howled around them like an unchained beast,
seized his words and sent them spinning away into the darkness.
"We're really going awfully fast!"

"What?" Anthy called back to him, voice nearly inaudible.

"I said, we're going awfully fast!"

Anthy took her left hand off the wheel and cupped it to her
ear. "What?" The car began to coast into the lane to their
left; beyond that lane, there was only the endless night. She
seized the wheel in both hands again and twisted it to the right;
the car continued its drift, unheeding.

"Anthy? What's going on?"

She didn't even seem to hear him; the wind was everywhere,
now, like the voice of a god, rendering his words, a mere
mortal's, into inaudible mouse-like squeaks. He saw her jaw
tighten as she gritted her teeth; against the back of her white
dress, her shoulder-blades stood out like stunted wings, as she
turned the wheel continuously to the right. It spun uselessly as
a child's top, and the car kept on moving to the left. They
were in the furthest left-hand lane now; in a few more moments,
if things continued as they did, they would plunge off the edge
of the road, into--

"What lies beyond the road, Anthy?" he screamed, as he
reached over and grabbed the steering wheel along with her,
placing his hands over hers.

"I don't think we want to find out!" she screamed back.
They moved the wheel together, slowly; for a moment, he thought
that he actually felt the car's drift adjust itself a little,
level out, begin to turn towards the right--

Then the entire vehicle gave an almost spasmodic jerk, like
a willful horse bucking beneath its rider, and its wheels seemed
to leave the road entirely as it practically leapt to the left.

Whoever built this highway ought to have put in guard rails,
Kyouichi thought, and they plunged into the darkness.

* * *

"I do not joke in these matters," Leo Cano said, rather stonily,
as though Utena had offered him a particularly grave insult.

"What kind of test requires that I unbutton your shirt?"

He sighed, slumped a little in the chair, as much as the
ropes would allow him. "Only the top two buttons, and it's
merely a necessary step to the real test. Rest assured, I shall
take no perverse amount of pleasure from it."

"Only the regular amount of pleasure, then?" Touga said,
sipping his tea.

Cano glowered darkly at him. "I do not like you, sir. You
have a bad air to you, and your tongue is too smart for your
head. Mind someone doesn't remove it for you."

Touga smiled faintly and put his teacup down on the saucer
with a light rattle. Turning to Nanami, he said, "You did tie
him down tightly, yes?"

"Shut up, Touga," Nanami muttered. Girded by the circle of
her arms on the table, Chu-Chu slowly and steadily ate a tea
biscuit, and never took his eyes from the old man in the chair.

"Yes, do shut up," Juri said. "Show off how witty you can
be later."

Touga shrugged, put on a mock-wounded air, and occupied
himself with his tea.

Utena carefully undid the top two buttons of Cano's high-
collared shirt. Around his neck, he wore two necklaces, one of
small gold links, another merely a cord of dark leather. Their
lower halves--perhaps holding ornaments of some sort--disappeared
down into the depths of his shirt. What she could see of his
chest was smooth, hairless and muscled, albeit a bit sunken.

"Bring the leathern one forth," he said. Rather
commandingly, even, as though he were the one in control; he was,
she guessed, very much used to being the one in control.

What hung from the lower half of the cord could not really
be called an ornament. It was too ugly: a spike or long nail,
the length of her palm and little finger together, hammered flat.
It was dark with age and rust.

She weighed it up and down in her hand experimentally. "So
what is it? And what's it got to do with this test?"

"It is reputedly one of the nails with which Saint Andrew
was crucified," he replied, with the utmost seriousness. "And
you've passed the test. Now have your friends take it."

"Huh? What? Why'd I pass?"

"Your skin did not begin to burn."

She dropped the cold, ancient iron spike with a grimace.
"Witch-burning relics of crucified saints are actually close to
normal after everything else I've seen tonight, believe it or
not."

He didn't even look as though he was tempted to smile.
Juri was already out of her chair; Utena stepped aside to let her
in. She grasped the spike briefly, frowned a bit suspiciously,
and let it go. Cano watched her with a slightly puzzled,
inquisitive expression.

"Is something the matter?" Juri asked as she straightened
up. She folded her arms and watched Cano with a similarly
inquiring cast to her eyes.

Cano's face changed quite suddenly, as though a smooth blank
mask had been drawn over his features. "Nothing," he said. "You
merely remind me strongly of someone I knew once. It happens,
when one grows old. You see the dead in the eyes of the living."

Juri looked briefly nonplussed, then gave out a little shrug
and turned away. "Next," she said, with false lightness. Shiori
approached; Juri moved some distance aside, and beckoned to
Utena.

"Any idea what his story is?" she asked in a low voice,
inaudible except to Utena.

"From what he said to me while you guys were making tea, I'm
guessing he used to be the Engaged One," Utena whispered in
reply.

Juri quirked a slight smile. "Hail, hail, the gang's all
here," she murmured. "Akio and Anthy were very busy for a very
long time, weren't they?"

"I guess so," Utena begrudged. "Like I've said, Anthy
didn't like to talk about the past, and I wasn't going to push
her."

"Maybe you should have," Juri said flatly.

Before Utena could reply, Nanami's voice rose up, the faint,
grating hint of a whine in it. "This is stupid. Why are we
taking tests, doing what he says, when he's _our_ prisoner?"

"It's a disadvantage of trying to be on the side of the
angels," Touga said, as Juri and Utena turned their attention
back to the others. "You're not allowed to use whatever means
necessary." He glanced to Utena, smiling faintly. "Wouldn't you
agree, Utena?"

"Yeah," she said after a moment. She looked to Leo Cano: a
thin old man, tied to a chair and quite helpless. A part of her
just wanted to grab him and shake him until he told her what he'd
done to Anthy; she resisted because it was a small part, and
because she was quite certain he wouldn't tell her anything
unless he wanted to. "I think we really just want the same
thing--to stop Akio. That's why you're here, right, Cano-san?"

"I came tracking the witch," Cano answered. "But if this
Akio is the one I knew as Lucian, then I would see him stopped.
He is a true devil, whereas the witch has only sold her soul to
devils." He paused, and when next he spoke, there was a dark,
controlled, slow-burning rage in his voice. "But I would see the
murdering witch dead as well. For she is an abomination upon
this earth and before God--"

"Shut up," Utena said quietly.

He glared at her; from the posture of his body, she guessed
he would have leapt from the chair if not for the ropes. "Do not
speak to me in such a way, girl."

"Didn't I tell you to shut up?" Utena snapped, anger flaring
like a spark touched to tinder. "Don't talk about Anthy like
that. I don't care what she did to you, I don't care what you
believe she is. You don't understand her at all, what she went
through. Don't talk about God to me; I bet you're just using
that as an excuse. You just hate her because she hurt you a long
time ago."

"Utena--" Juri began; quietly, almost warningly.

Utena spun on her. "Don't you start," she half-whispered.
"I can imagine how you all feel about Anthy as well. But it
wasn't her fault." She looked around at them; Juri, Shiori,
Nanami, Touga, then back to Leo. "It wasn't her fault."

"Are you trying to convince us, or yourself?" Touga said.
Devastatingly softly, almost with compassion in it.

She winced, opened her mouth to reply. Cano's sharp voice,
quiet as a knife in the dark, cut her off. "Your compassion is
touching in its naivety," he said. "And profound in its
stupidity. We are all of us free to choose our path, and whether
we walk with God or the Devil is our choice. I pity the witch
her choice, and I pray for her soul, but for her crimes, I shall
see her punished, for such is God's will."

"She left him," Utena said dully. "She walked away from her
brother. Every day of her life before that, she suffered. Akio
raped her and used her as nothing more than a tool, even though
she was his sister." She saw Nanami wince, look pained; good,
she thought perversely. Maybe you're starting to understand.
"Why should she have to suffer any more?"

Leo appeared deeply unmoved. "Because she is still a
witch," he said, flat and hard; his voice seemed to say, In this
there is no compromise, no argument that shall sway me. "And her
power still comes from the same place as that of all witches,
from pacts sworn to the enemy of all that is good and holy. I
have already told you that she killed my men. Except for one,
who lies comatose and near death even as I speak, I am the only
one left. And I will not fail, either to do God's will, or to
avenge the dead."

"You're wrong," Utena said. "I know Anthy. She wouldn't do
that."

"Then who did it?" he asked quietly. "When I came upon her,
she stood amidst the slaughter. To escape me, she lit the house
afire. I could have died in those flames. Mathias, who lay
terribly wounded already, would have died if I had not dragged
him from the house."

She opened her mouth, closed it, said finally, "You
kidnapped her, didn't you? Threatened her. Hurt her."

"No more than I had to," Leo admitted, softly. She saw a
flicker in his eyes, just briefly; something, perhaps, like
shame, or regret.

Chu-Chu, held now in Nanami's arm, let out a squeaky growl.
Everyone else was silent, watching the confrontation.

"Would she have had to kill them to escape?"

Cano was silent for a long time, then said grudgingly, "No.
I had used holy rituals to bind her and bind her power. If she
escaped those, she would have had no difficulty escaping. The
powers of a witch as ancient as her are manifold; she could have
walked out without any man among them seeing her." He paused.
"So, the fact that she did kill them is indicative of the depth
of her evil."

"You're just seeing what you want to see," Utena said.

"You are the one guilty of that," he replied calmly.

"I'm not!" Utena snapped.

"If I may interrupt this exchange of 'I know you are, but
what am I?', there is a matter unconsidered that may have
relevance," Juri said, sounding very tired. She stood up from
the table and walked over to stand between the two of them,
something held in her closed fist. She opened it, and the
cross-surmounted rose signet gleamed upon her palm. "Who gave
you this ring?"

"A friend sent it to me," Cano said guardedly. He looked
uncomfortable with the topic, though; Utena felt profoundly
grateful to Juri. The ring had completely slipped her mind.

"Along with a letter?" Touga asked, rising also from the
table and coming to stand beside Juri--not too closely, but
enough that the two of them seemed almost to present a united
front.

Cano only nodded.

"Utena tells me you were the Engaged One once," Juri said
softly. "Did you wear a ring similar to this before?"

"I did. But--"

Touga interrupted. "You have never met your letter-writing
friend face to face, have you?"

"I have not. But his information has led me to several
covens over the last seven years." He went on, sounding a little
desperate to get his words out before Juri and Touga could
continue. "And the Mystical Rose, sign of that Most Holy Queen,
Mary the Virgin, has long been a symbol of the Church. It is
Majo no Kanazuchi's way of reclaiming--"

"Anthy left Akio seven years ago," Utena said quietly. "Did
you ever stop and think about why this friend's information was
so very accurate?"

"Who'd know where all the witches are better than a devil?"
That was Shiori; Utena glanced at her, nodded, then looked back
to Cano.

"Damn you," the old man said softly, sadly, bowing his head.
"It is difficult to hear doubts never spoken, or much thought
upon, voiced by others."

Yes, Utena agreed silently, it is.

"I have long wondered why his information was so good, or
why he would never meet me face to face," he continued in a
whisper. "But I hardly ever thought upon it. As long as he kept
on leading me to them, I could keep on killing them for God--no,
for myself, as well. God commanded that the faithful not suffer
a witch to live, but I enjoyed it. Then he led me to her, and I
was overjoyed; I am an old man, and it seemed my life had come
full circle, back to the first witch I ever knew, the one I had
loved in my foolish youth. 'In my beginning is my end'; either I
would convince her to repent, or I would slay her, and that would
be the end of it. It is a terrible thing, you know, to grow old
with one's work unfinished; to know that the greatest terror you
have ever known still walks upon the earth somewhere."

He looked up at Utena, dark eyes pained and terribly weary;
Juri and Touga moved aside, and Utena moved in closer to him.
"She left him, you say? Left Lucian--Akio--the name the devil
gives himself is not important. The one she called her brother?"

"Yeah. She did."

"Did you know she was a witch?"

"I did. I just... well, I don't believe the same things you
do. And she never..." Suddenly, she laughed; laugh or cry, that
seemed to be the choice. "Geez. Couldn't she have used her
mighty magical powers to fix up the apartment, or get us better
jobs, or something? That woulda been nice."

Leo visibly winced. "She had stopped using her powers,
then?"

Utena remembered Anthy ripping up the kitchen without
touching it at the climax of their fight, right before she'd
left. The last time she'd seen Anthy, she realized; terrible as
a goddess in her rage, ablaze with power. She decided to keep
that out of the conversation. "Yeah," she said. "She had."

"But they returned to her easily enough," he murmured, more
to himself than to anyone else. "She had not repented of them.
But... Oh, I have done a terrible thing," he said suddenly,
despairingly. "I came bearing a sword, when better I had borne
an olive branch."

"You understand, then?" Utena asked. "You see? She
couldn't have done those things you think she did. You've been
used again."

"I think she did do those things still," Leo said dully. "I
think only now that I may have driven her to them. Her soul was
balanced so very finely; she had not repented before God, but she
had given up the use of her powers, though she kept her familiar
with her. I have never heard of such a thing." He paused, then
sighed deeply. "Whether you are right or not, I have been a
fool and a pawn. Again. Again!" he shouted, overwrought by
emotion. "A damned fool. God help me. God help us all. What
have I done?"

Everyone was silent for a time, and then Leo said, "Could I
have another glass of water? My throat is quite dry."

Utena nodded and headed for the kitchen. Juri and Touga
both moved as though to follow; then Touga stepped back, demurring
to Juri with a wave of his hand.

"What do you think?" she asked, as Utena filled a glass at
the sink.

"I think he's wrong about Anthy," Utena replied quietly.
"But I think this is probably the best we're going to get out of
him."

Juri nodded. "I agree."

"To which part?"

"Does it really matter right now?"

"It does to me."

"I don't know enough to say whether he's wrong about Anthy
or not," Juri said. "You need to ask him for more details.
Something led him to Ohtori. Maybe he has some idea of where
Anthy might have gone."

Utena walked back out, water glass in hand. Touga was on
his knees on the floor, untying the ropes on Cano's ankles. He
glanced up as she returned; the ropes that had bound his wrists
to the chair were already lying beside the chair.

"I thought there was no more need for them," he said, half-
apologetically.

"There isn't," Utena said after a moment, still unable to
keep a note of annoyance out of her voice. Half-apologetic or
not, he shouldn't have assumed. "I think." She held out the
water. "Here."

Cano took it, drank it down in two quick gulps. "Thank you,
Tenjou-san," he said, handing it back to her. He stood up from
the chair, looking a little shaky; Utena moved as though to
support him, but he waved her assistance aside. "Am I free to
leave now?"

"Nope," Utena said. "How'd you know to come here?"

"I had been watching both of you for a time, waiting for
the proper opportunity. One of my men was following you the
night you left your apartment and did not return; when last he
reported in, you were entering the building where your friends
lived. Saionji Kyouichi and his wife, Wakaba. He did not
report in as scheduled the next time, and we assumed you had
caught him. The next day, after we had captured the witch, a
package was found on the doorstep of the house we were using as
our headquarters. His head was in it, with a red rose in his
mouth."

Everyone except Cano looked to Touga.

"Please," he said, sounding deeply insulted. "Red roses are
not exactly uncommon."

"Well, I sure didn't send you anyone's head in a box," Utena
said. Suddenly, two puzzle pieces slid together in her mind with
an almost audible click. "Betcha the Knight got him."

"Who?" Leo asked.

"Knight of Pentacles. Big guy, wears black and white. Uses
a sword. Had a gun, too. Shot Wakaba."

Touga started, going slightly pale. "What? Is she all
right?"

Utena glanced to him. "Yeah. We really need to fill you in
on stuff, don't we?"

"Please do," Touga said drolly.

"I was wondering how that happened," Leo said softly.
"She's a nice girl."

Utena blinked. "Huh?"

"Your friend Wakaba. She was the one who led me here. From
what I was able to guess after from our conversation--I put on
something of an act for her, I'm ashamed to say, hoping she could
give me a trail to follow--her husband left Sapporo with the
witch, shortly after she escaped me."

"Umm... yeah, I guess that coulda happened," Utena said
after a moment, scratching her head. "If Anthy gave Saionji his
memories back, and..."

"My guesses were tenuous, and apparently wrong, since they
do not seem to be here," Cano continued. "But, they led me to
Ohtori. I did some digging before I went to the school itself.
Ohtori Akio, the acting chairman... I suppose a school would be
another excellent staging-ground for his games, though God only
knows why that devil plays them."

Utena decided to keep silent on that matter as well; he'd
probably misinterpret anything she said anyway. "Where'd he do
it in your day?"

"A bar," Cano said softly. "A den of smoke and sin, in
Havana. It was a very long time ago."

Utena almost itched to get the whole story from him; how
he'd gotten away with his memories intact, for one. It might
offer her some insight into that tumultuous, contradictory,
fragmented expanse of memories after the fall of the swords and
before Anthy; a time that, like her early childhood, consisted of
impressions rather than events.

But there wasn't time for that.

"But if Kyouichi and Himemiya didn't come here," Nanami
asked, "then where did they go?"

Cano shrugged. "Simple, really. The witch seduced the poor
girl's husband away from her, took him as a consort, and went off
to set up a new coven. I've seen it happen before." He
grimaced. "If I had not--but no. The blame is not entirely
mine. She is responsible for her choices."

Utena narrowed her eyes at him. "You know, considering how
wrong you've been about everything else where Anthy's concerned
recently, maybe you ought to give her the benefit of the doubt
about this as well."

He shrugged again. "Even if she had given up her powers
before, she is using them again. And there is still _that_." He
pointed to Chu-Chu, still held in Nanami's arms. "The basest
sort of demon, little more intelligent than an animal, bound into
the form of a beast. A spy and companion."

Chu-Chu glared balefully as was possible for him, and looked
as though he'd much prefer to be diving at Cano with a paring
knife again then being held in Nanami's arms.

"Am I now free to leave?" Cano asked, glancing around at
them. "Or am I to be your prisoner for a time longer?"

"Look, we're both here for the same reason," Utena said
diplomatically, deciding to put aside the arguments about Anthy
for a while. She knew he was wrong, but she also knew that
Anthy was at least all right, so the matter could rest for now.
"We want to stop Akio. You want to stop Akio. We should work
together."

"No," he said quietly. "I think not. We differ widely on
specifics, and God is in the details, as they say. It would
probably just be best if we stayed out of each other's way."

He crossed to the table, and picked up his wallet and keys.

"My coat?" he asked.

Touga pointed to the rack near the door.

"Is my sword still with it?"

"Yes." Touga smiled, a little nastily. "So are your
pills."

Leo glowered, and moved past them to pull on his coat. None
of them moved to impede his progress, or even spoke.

"You should rid yourself of that beast," he said
conversationally as he stepped over to the elevator doors and
pushed the button. "It can bring only evil to your efforts."

Nanami grinned toothily. "But Chu-Chu's so cute. Maybe
you'd like to hold him?"

"There are none so blind as those who will not see," Leo
said resignedly. The elevator dinged; the doors slid open,
revealing the empty car. "I'll pray that you will all realize
the truth."

As he stepped into the car, Juri tossed him something, which
he caught automatically.

"Don't forget your ring," she said.

He smiled sardonically, and slipped it into his coat pocket.
"I'll keep it to remind me of my mistakes, so I don't make any in
the future."

The doors began to close.

Utena strode forward and stuck her arm between them just
before they finished, stopping them dead and causing them to open
fully again.

"Listen up, Cano-san," she said, softly enough that only he
would hear her, "whatever comes of this, you leave Anthy the hell
alone. However she needs to be dealt with, I'll be the one to do
it. You touch her, and I'll make you pay."

"I shall pray for you especially, Tenjou-san," he replied
calmly. "I can tell you are the best among them, but you are
also the one least willing to see the truth of what your 'friend'
truly is, was, and shall ever be, unless she repent of her sins
before God."

"Yeah, well, I'll pray for you too," she said, not so
calmly.

His eyes narrowed a little. "Then let us pray for each
other, and see whom God answers."

She removed her arm. Leo pressed the button to close the
doors. As he disappeared from sight behind them, Utena turned
back to the others.

"Can we go back to the hotel and go to bed now? Please?"
Nanami asked, yawning.

"That sounds lovely," Shiori said, a bit dreamily.

"I probably ought to tell you guys about the cab and the
bell-tower first," Utena said apologetically, putting her hand
behind her head and grinning nervously. "And about the other
worlds."

"Other worlds?" Juri asked, raising one eyebrow.

Utena grimaced. "Maybe somebody oughta make more tea."

* * *

There stood upon the dark seas a blackling road run damply to the
shoals of night, and a ship whose sails were white-winged gulls
flew upon it...

...and thunderous titanic engine of pale pearls and bleached
bones, snow-white brutality raping the asphalt before it...

Lightning in the distance, ghostly cracks shattering the
sky...

They flit through the raggedness of space, the holes bored by
the hungry worms of time, flitterwings call, echo, echo, an empty
voice returning...

Start again.

Orderly, this time.

There stood a road that ran between the shattered chassis-
skeletons of cars innumerable as swarming locusts. Overhead,
grey clouds, so thick as to seem mountains in the sky, drifted
slowly. Sunlight was scarce and fleeting; the air smelt of
burnt rubber and scorched metal and roses lit afire.

Dark it stood, the road. White ran the car down the road,
pale like a tear upon a dusky cheek. The sunlight clung to it
like a child to his mother's teat.

"Where are we?"

"I don't know."

In the distance, veiled by the clouds, a vast architectural
Salome about to begin her dance, an edifice of endless stairways
and narrow catwalks and elevators running everywhere but to
freedom floated, or stood upon supports hidden by the mountainous
clouds.

"How did we come here?"

"It was as though I slept, and I awoke behind the wheel."

"The same, for me. Except that I'm not driving."

She eased the wheel slightly to the left; the car obligingly
drifted in that direction. "Everything seems fine again," she
said, frowning, appearing slightly mystified by the earlier
disobedience of the vehicle.

"Then perhaps we should turn around and go the other way,"
he suggested slowly. He warily watched the construct in the
distance. "I don't like the look of that place."

"I don't like it either," she agreed. She eased her foot up
from the accelerator; the car, perhaps reluctantly, began to
slow.

From the direction of the edifice, they heard the growl of a
small but vastly powerful engine.

"I think I hear--" he began, as Anthy slammed on the brakes.

Then it was before them, and by them, and it was in the
distance behind them, heading the way from which they had come--a
way that led, perhaps, to whatever world lay beyond the walls of
the murdered automobiles. There was time enough only for
momentary impressions: pale flesh and dark flesh intertwined
close enough to seem one being, long hair streaming like banners
upon the lances of triumphant knights, the crimson chariot
beneath them a fragility of thin spans of metal and narrow
screeching wheels.

As the car finally came to a full halt, he looked over at
her.

"Anthy," he asked, "just what the hell do you think that
was?"

She turned her head and looked back. Whatever it was was
already long-vanished. "I think," she said, ponderously slow,
"that it would be best not to think about it."

The car sat in the right-hand lane of the road, in the
shadows cast by the towering walls of wreckage; engine idling, it
seemed to give off an aura like that of a animal caged.

She turned the key in the ignition, and removed it. The
engine's growl became a purr, then a soft whine, then faded
altogether.

"This wasn't part of the plan," he said sourly, slumping in
the passenger seat and resting his left arm atop the door; he ran
his right hand through his hair, and grimaced. "Was it?"

"No, Kyouichi," she replied, slightly exasperated and a
little weary. "It wasn't."

"Is it safe to get out of the car?"

"Yes. Don't go far."

He opened the door, stepped out, closed it behind him a
little harder than he needed to. As she studied the steering
wheel with the intent concentration another might give to a half-
completed jigsaw puzzle, he walked slowly around the body of the
car, frowning and examining it. Once, he kicked at the tires,
and she raised her head.

"Don't do that," she said.

"Why not? It's just a car."

"It's _not_ just a car."

He shrugged. "You're right. When a car goes out of
control, you sometimes get into an accident--you don't get thrown
into another world."

"It's not certain that's where we are," she said, even
though she thought he was probably right.

He gestured aggressively at the ever-shifting fusion of
baroque excess with science-fiction technology in the distance;
increasingly, the clouds seemed to be in flight from it,
revealing more of its abnormal architecture to their sight. "You
think _that_ exists in our world?"

She sighed. "I apologize that things didn't work out
exactly as I expected."

"To say the least," he muttered. "Any idea what happened?"

"Well, I've never actually driven one of these before," she
admitted. "One of my brother's Chariots, I mean. I thought I
understood the principle behind them, but--"

He groaned and clapped a hand to his forehead, and said
nothing.

"Were you _really_ thinking hard about your wife? To the
exclusion of all else?"

"Yes I was," he snapped, angrily pacing another circle about
the car.

"I'm merely asking," she said, almost apologetically. "I
can't figure out what the problem is unless I eliminate possible
factors."

He visibly forced some of the annoyance from his face.
"Perhaps they are attuned to your brother somehow, so that no one
but him can use them."

"They are," she said. "But I invoked my will upon it, and
attuned it to me."

"Are you sure it worked?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because I am."

He threw up his hands and shook his head. "Of course. All-
powerful witch. I forgot."

"Don't be so angry. I said I was sorry, didn't I?"

He jabbed his finger at her. "When I said I'd come with
you, I wasn't expecting to end up tossed into another world, all
right? I still haven't seen Wakaba, and even though you say
she's all right..." He swallowed, stricken for a moment with the
resurgence of fears and doubts he was trying to keep buried.
"Even though you say she's all right, I want to see her. To talk
to her. Then, only then... then I'll feel that things are okay."

"Really, Kyouichi, what were you expecting?" she asked
quietly, almost smiling. "For things to be entirely normal?"

He managed to keep up his frown for a few seconds longer,
and then he laughed, softly; a little bitterly, too, as though
the laughter left a bad taste in his mouth. "No, I suppose not.
Do you think things are under control now?"

She tossed the white silver key into the air and caught it.
"As much as they ever will be. I think the best action would
simply be to try driving again." She looked at the cloud-
wreathed shape in the distance: a monstrous, surreal evocation of
Ohtori's twisted heart that seemed to be growing slowly closer to
them, plowing through the clouds with a slow and brutal violence.
"We should not stay--"

Kyouichi, who had been looking in the direction from which
they had come, turned at her sudden plummet into silence.
"Anthy?"

Someone was approaching. Perhaps they'd emerged from the
wreckage of the cars, or from within some hidden dip of the road.
Naked and female and limping, it was obvious even from a dozen
yards away that her face was bloodied. One arm hung at her side,
clearly broken.

Kyouichi sucked in a breath, because he knew her. He began
to run toward her. "Takatsuki-san! Takatsuki! How--"

He caught her beneath the arms as she fell and lowered her
gingerly to the ground. Half her face was covered in blood; her
hair was matted thick and sticky with it. She smelt of oil and
rust. He wondered if she'd somehow been buried in the wreckage.

"How did you get here?" he murmured, feeling sick. "Where's
Arisugawa? Is she here as well?" He pulled off his sweater and
carefully draped it over her where she lay on the road, covering
her nudity; then, he called back to Anthy for help, and was
relieved to see she was already stepping out of the car and
approaching, albeit slowly.

"Did I make it?"

He barely heard her; she didn't seem to have the strength to
do more than whisper softly. "What happened to you? Are there
others?"

She smiled. It was horrific; half the teeth in her jaw were
shattered stumps. "I made it!" she crowed. "I made it! Ahaha!
I knew I could do it!"

He could only stare. He heard Anthy call something to him,
but it was like a distant shush of waves on shale. "Takatsuki-
san?"

"I made it, I made it, I made it," she incanted in a
childish sing-song. "I showed them all!" Suddenly, shockingly,
as though she weren't injured at all, she sprang up and began a
macabre and apparently triumphal dance, stomping her feet and
clapping her hands. Thunder rumbled in the distance as though in
sympathetic response. "Nobody's better or cuter or smarter or
braver than me! _They_ thought they could get away from me, but
I'll show them! I'll follow them to the ends of the earth, and
I'll _rip their fucking hearts out_! I'll make everyone pay for
taking my prince away from me!"

Anthy called something again. Her words might as well have
been spoken in Latin or Greek.

Takatsuki reached out and put her hands on either side of
his face. She grinned at him. "Hey handsome," she said. "Gimme
a kiss."

Her mouth opened wide, and he saw then that she had the
tongue of a serpent. Wings, white like the sails of a ship,
began to unfurl from her back.

Something fast and burning hot flashed by him, and
Takatsuki shrieked and spun away. Her nails scored down his
cheeks as she stumbled back and began to beat at her chest;
futilely, as it turned out, for the fire that burned there ate at
her as though she were a dry leaf. She turned to ash where she
stood and crumbled away, leaving not the scent of scorched flesh,
but of motor oil and burnt leather.

He turned, slowly, raising one hand to his face. It came
away bloody, for her nails had been long and sharp. Anthy stood
a few steps back, arm still raised from her casting.

"You killed her," he said. He felt numb.

"Yes," Anthy said shortly. "Some things need killing, and
she was one of them."

As he stood there in shock and confusion, she stepped by
him, and prodded with her foot the pile of ashes that were all
that remained. "Look at this," she said with scientific
detachment, kneeling and picking up a finger-long sliver of what
looked like frosted glass.

"What?" he asked slowly. His hold on reality felt extremely
tenuous at the moment; part of him wanted to start running
towards the city (castle? school? prison?) in the sky, and keep
on going. Just get the hell away from Anthy, who had just
_killed_ Takatsuki Shiori in front of him--

"Think," Anthy said forcefully. "Think of where we are.
You're right. This isn't our world. That wasn't the Takatsuki
Shiori we knew." She gestured emphatically with the glass
sliver. "This was her heart."

"What is it?"

She frowned. "I don't know. Only that it's evil." She
hurled it suddenly to the ground, where it shattered. Kyouichi
was somewhat surprised it was destroyed so easily. "We've got to
get out of here."

Again, as though to punctuate, thunder sounded; the road
seemed to shiver beneath his feet at the sound, or as though at
titanic footsteps.

"What about... that?" he asked, indicating the distant,
ghostly shape that both was and was not Ohtori.

"Leave it," she said. She looked as though she wanted to
spit. "It isn't... it can't be our concern. This isn't our
world."

He looked down at the ashes, which were already being
scattered by the wind. "If she's here, perhaps others are, as
well."

"They'd probably all be like her," Anthy said shortly. Her
eyes were alight with something like fear. Yes, it was not mere
illusion; it was coming closer.

"But what if they aren't?" he asked softly. "What if they
need rescuing?"

"We can't concern ourselves with shadows," she replied. Her
voice softened a little. "You and I can't rescue the entire
universe between us, Kyouichi. We need to get back to _our_
world, to the people that _we_ know, and help _them_."

He nodded, somewhat grudgingly, but seeing her point.

"This is another story, isn't it?" he asked, after they had
turned and began to walk back towards the car.

"Yes," she answered, looking surprised at the insight. "And
you and I, we're not meant to be characters in it."

As they approached the car, the engine kicked into life,
almost eagerly.

"Did you leave the key in the ignition?" he asked, frowning.

She dangled it from her fingers, and matched his frown.
"No."

"A car isn't supposed to run without a key," he muttered.

"This isn't a normal car."

"I'm aware. Is it safe?"

Her frown changed, subtly, into a smile. "Probably not.
But it's better than staying here."

They opened the doors, got in. Anthy put the key in the
ignition and turned it; the purring of the engine became a
throaty growl.

"Anthy?"

"Yes?" She put her foot down on the ignition, and pulled
the car into a tight U-turn that left them facing the way they'd
come from.

"You're doing all the driving, right?"

"You don't want a turn at the wheel?"

He shuddered. "No."

They began to speed down the road.

"Think of your wife again," she said.

He closed his eyes. "All right."

After a moment, he said, "Anthy?"

"Concentrate," she muttered, watching the road ahead and
occasionally glancing behind. This world's version of Ohtori was
almost completely veiled behind clouds again.

"I can't. It's bothering me too much."

"What?"

"What _was_ that thing that passed us? I didn't get a very
good look, but--"

"As I said before, it's probably better not to think about
it."

* * *

"Other worlds, huh? Are you sure about that?"

Utena turned her head slightly, looking through the darkness
towards Nanami. "Yeah. I dunno. It was just a glimpse; it
wasn't like I stepped through and went walking around in one.
But I've got a feeling, you know--one of those gut feelings,
where you know that something's just _right_, even if you don't
have any real evidence for it."

"Good. You've got a feeling. That's so reassuring."

"It's enough for me." She rolled onto her back and stared
at the ceiling through the dim light, folded hands between her
head and her pillow. "It was a really weird night."

"It was cruel of you to leave like that." Nanami's voice
had suddenly gone soft, too soft almost to hear.

"Yeah. I know. Sorry."

"Did you see... me?"

"Hmm?"

"Another me, I mean; another me, in another world."

"Uh, no. Like I said, it was just a glimpse. You weren't
there."

"Hmph. Clearly an inferior world, then?"

"Huh?"

Nanami's tone of voice made it impossible to tell just how
serious she was. "Any world without a prominent role for me must
be inferior to this one."

Deciding it was at least partially a joke, Utena laughed;
Nanami didn't join her, so she stopped.

"Anything you want to talk about tonight?"

"It's technically morning. No."

"Okay."

"Juri and I need to take you shopping anyway, before we go
to the opening."

"You still stuck on that?" Utena asked incredulously.

"If we're walking into a trap, we ought to at least walk in
stylishly."

"I won't wear some frilly dress."

"You'd look lousy in one anyway."

Utena wasn't certain whether she was supposed to be insulted
by that or not. She waited for Nanami to expand upon the topic
or add a disclaimer or something, but nothing was forthcoming but
silence.

She turned over to face away from Nanami and curled her legs
in slightly. She couldn't seem to get comfortable. The pillow
was too hard, the blankets too cloying. Cloying sheets evoked
suffocating shadows evoked the dark descent of swords...

She hoped she didn't have nightmares tonight. Her mind
certainly seemed fertile breeding ground for them at the moment.

Her eyelids felt lead-heavy; she didn't think she could have
opened them if she'd wanted to. Despite discomfort, she realized
that sleep was oncoming, quickly, rising blackly from whatever
depths it waited in during the waking hours...

Sleep, sweet sleep; if there were dreams, let them be
unremembered. No dreams of princes or falling towers or talking
serpents or red, red eyes.

How odd a feeling, this, the palpable descent of slumber
upon her exhausted body; a body covered in fading bruises and
healing cuts and old scars; a good body, a body that had always
served her well... better than her mind, her naive and foolish
mind, the mind which dreamt of princes and heroism when such
things could no longer be in this world, perhaps had never been
at all...

Oh, she prayed, to whoever, whatever listened, let me not
remember my dreams. Be still and let sleep come upon me, and
I swear I can face this all again when the sun rises...

She wondered if it would end tomorrow--no, tonight,
tomorrow had already come, tomorrow was today. Part of her hoped
it would; she was so terribly weary.

Then thoughts of Anthy came, and threatened to consume all
others. Oh, Anthy, my dear friend, closer to me than a sister,
what has become of you? What is to become of us, of you, I, of
all of us?

Like phantoms they rose, faces, and faces upon bodies, and
voices; friend and foe, foe's face upon friend's body, friend's
face upon foe's head...

Lucid, lucid, how very lucid, clear and crystal-bright, like
the waters of the sea, and they were full of sunlight... she had
slipped somewhere from waking to dreaming, but was aware, all too
aware... the mind was a black well of abyssal waters, and they
moiled for eternity... memories were cast up and dragged back
down like an endless rising and falling of angels from hell to
heaven to hell again...

(Don't be afraid.)

And there was a voice that glowed like a fire, a voice that
pierced like a spear, and how could one be unafraid of such a
voice?

(Please, prince; I just want to ask--)

"Utena? Utena?"

Hands; hands upon shoulders; shaking. The voice, fading,
dragged into a spiral, gone...

Nanami in the darkness.

"You were screaming. Well, no, not screaming; more like
whimpering. Like you were being hurt." No more shaking, but the
hands were still there; small, soft hands, pale in the darkness.
"Your wound... it didn't open, did it?"

"No." Moving more by instinct than anything else, she put
her hands over Nanami's. "I'm fine. Bad dream, I guess." Oh,
these transformations, these coherencies; Nanami, now her
companion in the darkness, and Anthy, distant Anthy, the
unattainable who seemed almost to exist now only in memory...

Nanami's hands tensed a little beneath hers at the touch;
Utena lifted hers, realizing even the mild intimacy was perhaps
too much, and Nanami pulled her hands away.

"I was just checking." A body moving in the darkness, a
creak of bedsprings; alone again. "I couldn't get to sleep with
you making those noises."

"I'll try not to make them any more," Utena muttered.

A thought occurred after a time of silence.

"Nanami, about your brot--about Touga..."

The answer that rose in response was weary and annoyed.
"Utena, I really don't care that you slept with him. Are you
happy now?"

Utena flushed shamefully. "That wasn't what I was going to
ask."

"Then what?"

"Give him a chance. If not because you want to, then as a
favour to me. I mean, I think he really has changed; I know
it must be hard to have to deal with all these things about Touga
again after forgetting it, because I remember how upset you were
the first time, but--"

"Since when did I owe you any favours, Tenjou Utena?"

The tone, icy and bitterly sharp, made it clear that any
further discussion would be discouraged just as harshly. Try
again later, she told herself; no one could stay angry, stay
bitter, forever. Not even Nanami.

"Night."

"Good night."

No dreams; thank goodness, there were no dreams.

* * *

After a few seconds of contemplative silence, she said, "Well,
honey, that's quite a story."

Shinohara Wakaba regarded her mother flatly. "Mom, you
promised you wouldn't give me that look."

Shinohara Wazuka feigned innocence. "What look?"

"The My-Daughter-Is-Crazy look."

Wazuka, who still bore a strong resemblance to her daughter
in her middle age, despite a few grey hairs and a little added
poundage, took a deep breath. "Honey, you swear to me that this
whole story isn't just some bizarre coping mechanism to help you
deal with the fact that Kyouichi ran off and left you for another
woman shortly after you got shot?"

"I swear, Mom."

Wazuka sighed. "And Ohtori had such a good reputation,
too. I should write a letter to the newspapers about this."

"That would probably be a bad idea," Wakaba cautioned.
"And it _was_ a really good place to go to school, except for the
whole part about false memories and black roses in my heart and
all the other stuff I told you about."

"Uh-huh." Wazuka nodded a little mechanically. "So the
reason Kyouichi isn't here with you even though you're in the
hospital after being shot is because he had to go help this
friend of yours--"

"Friend of a friend," Wakaba interrupted. "I dunno if she's
my friend. I'm still kind of undecided about that."

"--help this friend of a friend of yours stop her evil
brother from starting some kind of revolution?"

"You got it. Freaky, huh? Anthy's a witch or something,
but I think she's a good witch, not a bad witch."

"Have you thrown water on her to check?"

Wakaba blushed faintly. "Umm... actually, yeah."

"Oh."

"I mean, I didn't mean to. And I didn't do it because I
even knew she was a witch then. But she didn't melt or
anything."

"That's good."

"You're not believing any of this, are you, Mom?"

"I believe that you believe it, honey," Wazuka said kindly.

Wakaba snorted and narrowed her eyes. "That's so cliched,
Mom. That's what people always say when they're trying to tell
people they're crazy in a nice way. I'm telling the truth,
okay?"

"Okay."

"Stop _looking_ at me like that."

"Please don't get upset. You're an invalid right now."

"Pooh. I could get up and walk around just fine if I wanted
to."

"Have the police talked to you about this? About getting
shot, I mean."

"Oh, yeah. Kyouichi and I made up a good story."

"And you think they'll catch the guy who did it?"

"I told you, Utena threw him out the window."

"Okay, honey."

"You remember Utena, right?"

"Some friend of yours, right?"

"She was my best friend for years." Wakaba's voice had
suddenly dropped low, accompanied by half-closed eyes. "Years
and years and years. She spent some holidays with us because she
didn't have any parents, and it's no fun just boarding at the
school when no one's there. Don't you remember?"

Wazuka frowned. "I do remember her now. She was such a
nice girl..."

"He made everyone forget her," Wakaba murmured. "I mean,
not really forget, because she was still there... it was like she
faded. Like a candle going out in your head, but all it takes is
a little spark, and then, whoosh!" She clapped her hands. "It's
bright again."

"I took you two to that amusement park, and you ate all that
cotton candy before going on the roller coasters, even though
Utena and I told you not to, and then you..."

Wakaba squirmed slightly. "Do you have to remind me of that
story, Mom?"

Wazuka laughed softly. "I can't believe I forgot that. And
there was this other time--" Suddenly, she stopped. Her mouth
clamped closed.

Wakaba smirked triumphantly. "See what I mean now, Mom?"
she asked softly.

Her mother didn't say anything. Her eyes were wide.

"Mom? You okay?"

"The wall," Wazuka said, and pointed with one trembling
hand.

Wakaba turned her head and looked at the wall of the
hospital room with the window that overlooked the white-clad
winter city of Sapporo. It was definitely not supposed to be
rippling like a canvas sail in a strong wind, or glowing with a
sheen halfway between moonlight and the surface of a perfect pearl.

"Wakaba--" her mother began fearfully, rising from her
chair.

A white, low-bodied convertible leapt out of the wall in a
flash of light. For a brief time, less than a second, the small
hospital room was filled with the glare of headlights, the stink
of exhaust, and a faint odour of roses. Then the car hit the
opposite wall, light flashed again, and it was gone, along with
the scents it had carried with it.

Mother and daughter stared in mute, shocked silence.

"That was Kyouichi, wasn't it?" Wazuka asked finally.

"Uh-huh."

"Then the woman would have been--"

"That's Anthy."

"Very... exotic-looking, isn't she?"

"I guess."

The wall the car had vanished into began to shine and
undulate. Again, the light flashed, in an effect similar to the
blinking of a great luminous eye, and the car rushed across the
room in a screech of translucent tires. It seemed insubstantial
as mist, barely held together into a coherent form, and Anthy and
Kyouichi seemed little more solid.

Kyouichi had his hands cupped over his mouth and was
yelling. His voice was audible as a faint susurration, like that
of a pile of leaves shifting or parchment sheets being shuffled,
and was perhaps a half-second out of synch with the movements of
his lips.

"Wakaba--"

Flash, and gone, and then almost instantly a patch of the
ceiling shifted from photorealism to impressionism, and the car
shot downwards, tires riding on nothing as though in some
perpendicular field of gravity.

"--car troubles--"

Flash, then floor to ceiling, a ghost car ridden by
phantoms--

"--love you--"

And then nothing but stillness, a sickly-sweet final whiff
of gasoline and roses, soon to fade, and last words so faint as
to perhaps only be imaginary:

"--sorry..."

"_Now_ do you believe me?" Wakaba said after a long, long
silence, trying to keep the shakiness out of her voice and not
entirely succeeding.

Wazuka very slowly and very calmly opened her purse, removed
a folded handkerchief, unfolded it, wiped her forehead, folded
it, returned it to her purse, and closed her purse.

"I have a confession to make, honey," she said finally, with
utmost solemnity.

Wakaba blinked. "What?"

"Do you remember how I used to tell you that you were a
princess from the Onion Kingdom?"

"Of course. You don't mean to say... do you?" Wakaba
chewed nervously on her lip.

"Yes. There was a reason behind them... a reason I've never
told you up until now." Wazuka bowed her head and closed her
eyes. "But... given what I've just seen, I think you're ready to
hear the truth."

Wakaba leaned forward slightly. "Mom... tell me..."

Her mother suddenly looked up, staring deep into Wakaba's
eyes. "Honey... none of it was true at all."

And she started laughing.

"You're _weird_, Mom."

* * *

What a fall it was, what a very long fall, and dark dark dark
the rushing dark, a skirling tumble through the cold cold
symmetries of interstice and intersection, highway and lowway,
the lanes...

The lanes! The lanes that ran between and through the
worlds! No solid thing, existence, but riddled like a
desiccated honeycomb with tunnels invisible to, pathways glimpsed
out of the corner of, the eye.

For a time, they rode as ghosts, and then they were solid
again, and Kyouichi was banging his fists on the dashboard in
frustration.

"We were almost there," he half-moaned. He clasped a hand
to his forehead and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. "Or were we?
It seems almost like a dream already..."

"We were there," Anthy assured him, hands locked around the
wheel in a veritable death grip. "They saw us."

"I know they saw us," Kyouichi snapped. "But... was that
_my_ wife? Was that _my_ mother-in-law? What if it was just
another world..."

"It was ours," Anthy said, trying to soothe him.

He whipped his head around and glared at her. "How can you
know that?" he hissed.

"I am not without some knowledge in these matters," she
replied, faintly annoyed.

"But you obviously don't have as much as you think you do,"
he muttered, slumping in the seat and gazing wearily at the
endless black of the road. "This alone proves that."

Anthy sighed. "This was not how I envisioned things when we
took to the roads, no."

"You don't say?" Kyouichi said, with utterly undisguised
sarcasm.

The world consisted of the black road, and the car, and
them. Even the lights were gone, and they saw only by the high
beams of the car, which swept the oddly reflective road ahead
like twin eyes and harshly backlit their faces. Behind and
ahead, nothing but the road, and darkness to either side. They
drove in silence for a little while, and then Anthy spoke.

"Let's try not to fight," she said. "Don't we only have
each other to rely upon now?"

After a moment, he looked over at her, grinning ruefully.
"I suppose. I am your knight, after all."

She glanced away, faintly embarrassed at the underlying
implications in his tone. In hindsight, she could have chosen
better wording. She knew very well what came of the subtle,
courtly games of knights and their ladies.

"How long has it been since we began travelling? My watch
appears to have stopped."

"I'm not sure. Time is a funny thing, in these ways."

He frowned, and said no more.

"Don't worry. I don't think you need to take your pill any
time soon."

"That's not why I was asking," he muttered, the lie obvious,
and probably deliberately so. In some ways, he was much as he
had always been--bitter and proud and vulnerable. A lost child;
they had all been lost children, in their way, each and every
one, drawn and gathered and wielded by what had been stolen from
them, innocence or love or friendship...

But do not think of them as children, she cautioned herself;
you come dangerously close to thinking as you once did if you do
that.

"Anthy?"

"Yes?"

"Does this road seem... odd, to you?"

"All these roads are odd."

"Odder than the others, I mean... there's no lines, and
sometimes when the light hits it..."

Anthy frowned. They were moving very fast, and the road was
little more than a blur, but at times...

She slowed the car, and looked at the road ahead, pinioned
by the glare of the high beams. At a reduced speed, it became
obvious that the road was made of _something_ odd... it glittered
too much, like metal, or--

Again, she eased up on the accelerator, until the car moved
only at a walking pace. Next to her, Kyouichi's face betrayed
his nervousness, and he clutched his hands before him as though
around the hilt of an invisible sword.

Like metal, or--

Like scales.

She braked hard, even as the road ahead began to rise, and
rise, and rise, as though thrust up from beneath by some
unimaginable force. Not like the slow precise raising of a
bridge to allow the passage of a tall ship beneath, but sinuously,
ponderously graceful. The entire road--the entire body of the
impossibly vast beast they had been driving along--shuddered in
sympathy. Like a storm-tossed leaf, the car pitched to one side;
for a moment, it seemed they would fall into the darkness again,
and then the tires found a hold upon the steeply-angled surface
that was almost human in its tenacity, and they hung there as the
black body went up, and up, and _UP_...

A head came into view high above them, so high that the
lights of the car should not have been able to illumine it, and
yet they saw it all the same. So vast that an estimate of size
was meaningless, serpentine and black as pitch. Suns and stars
and nebulae whirled in the great, wise, emotionless eyes.

Kyouichi had gone almost white. His hands gripped the
dashboard spasmodically, as he stared up, eyes wide and
terrified. Anthy hoped she looked better, and feared that she
didn't; she had seen many things in her time, but nothing like
this that she could remember.

It spoke, and its voice was like a lash of thunder in her
head, and it said, THAT TICKLES.

The incongruity made her smile despite herself.

I REMEMBER YOU OF OLD, LITTLE LILIM. WHY DO YOU NOT GREET
ME AS BEFITS ME?

The voice held neither amusement nor scorn, nor any kind of
feeling at all. She tried to remember. Associations rose to
mind: a green snake, bright as jewel, moving through long grass,
spitted upon a sword as it lunged to bite the naked flesh of her
ankle; torches casting their light into the ruby eyes of a golden
cobra statue, and in hands to which she could not attach a body a
double-headed axe was raised high; a pit full of snakes, all the
colours of the rainbow, writing atop each other, fighting not to
be driven to the darkness at the bottom of the shaft...

But nothing of this. Lilim? Think upon that later; it
would not do to offend such a one as this. She fell back upon
instinct. "I beg your pardon, old one, but I fear that the
details of our last meeting have slipped my mind. It was so very
long ago, as I measure things."

HA.

Beside her, Kyouichi let out a strangled whimper. She
reached over without thinking and took his clammy hand in hers.

HA. HA. HA.

"Is it good or bad that it's laughing?" Kyouichi asked in a
fearful whisper.

"I don't remember," Anthy replied, a shaky note breaking the
surface calm of her voice.

HA!

She squeezed his hand gently, a faint hint of a caress in
it, and felt him startle at that. She wondered vaguely if
perhaps she should not have done so--but too late, too late,
there was no undoing even the smallest action.

VERY WELL. I WILL NAME MYSELF, THEN--I AM CALLED OROBOUROS.

"I have knowledge of the name," she murmured, knowing that
even that was unnecessary, speaking out loud only for Kyouichi's
benefit. "I greet you and give you honour, Orobouros, whose head
and tail mark the beginning and the end. I am called Himemiya
Anthy."

To her surprise, she heard Kyouichi name himself as well,
but his voice was very distant beside the cold oceanic echo of
Orobouros's presence in her head.

YOU DID NOT HAVE THAT NAME WHEN LAST WE MET.

"I do not imagine that I did," she agreed. "Much has
changed since then." The statement was not founded merely upon
inference; she knew, deeply, that so much had changed, but could
not begin to say how she knew.

There were limits to what could be remembered, especially
for one fallen so far as she.

WHERE IS YOUR BROTHER, HIMEMIYA ANTHY? IN THE GARDEN I
TOOK MUCH DELIGHT IN YOUR BEAUTY AND HIS, AND WELL I LOVED YOU
BOTH.

The garden; again came the flashes of association, the
greenhouse-cage of Ohtori only the very first. "My brother is
far from here, and much changed as well."

THE ONE BESIDE YOU?

"A friend."

LET HIM SPEAK FOR HIMSELF. HE HAS TONGUE TO DO SO.

"Her friend," Kyouichi murmured, so smitten with terror that
his voice came out as though calm and measured. "Her knight."

A QUEST. I HAVE SEEN SUCH BEFORE. YOU ARE FAR FROM HOME.

"Our carriage has not proven so reliable as I had hoped,"
she said dryly.

A profound understanding of the reasons behind "snake-quick"
as a adverb came to her then, because in one moment the head of
Orobouros was impossibly high above them, and the next it was
before them, perhaps thrice the size of the car now. It had
shrunk, or they had grown. It did not matter. Black loops of
serpentine body, barely distinguishable for being nearly dark as
the darkness all around them, surrounded them in coils and loops
them like a tangle of Moebius strips.

The ancient reptilian eyes, up close, looked like portals
into other universes. Perhaps they were. Orobouros's tongue,
the colour of fresh-spilt blood, flicked out and ran in a
shockingly intimate gesture across the pearly hood of the car.
Anthy, as though by some contagion, felt a glimmer of that
caress upon the entirety of her body, and bit her lip to keep
from crying out. Beside her, Kyouichi did cry out, and then
flushed scarlet for doing so.

YES. YES. I SEE. YOUR BROTHER. I SEE.

Each resonating word was accompanied by a flicker of the
tongue, as though it were tasting of the car, tasting of them by
association, learning their secrets, _knowing_ them--

"Great Orobouros..." Anthy began, with effort.

SILENCE.

The command was unnecessary. She could no longer speak. The
high beams, still shining brightly, were swallowed utterly by the
black background of the cosmic scenes played out within the eyes
of Orobouros. Kyouichi's hand was locked tight in hers; their
fingers were intertwined like the roots of two close-grown trees.
Companions in terror and awe.

The Worm Orobouros, whose body was the perfect circle and
the figure-eight upon its side, who lay slumbering in the deepest
chasms of the oceans waiting for the world's shell to crack;
Orobouros, who swallowed his own tail and shed his skin
eternally, who had always existed and always would exist,
regarded them for a time as a mortal snake might regard mice or
insects, and galaxies rose and collapsed in its eyes. Then it
spoke again, in what for it was a soft voice.

I HAVE DECIDED THAT I LOVE YOU STILL. YOU MAY ASK A BOON OF
ME.

Anthy sagged with relief and gently slipped her hand from
Kyouichi's to replace it on the steering wheel. "As you can see,
great one, we have lost our way."

YOU HAVE A TENDENCY TO DO THAT.

"I am not unaware."

Beside her, Kyouichi huddled in his seat, looking shrunken
and scared. He might have been a child about to be punished.
Head bowed, he rested his arms on his knees and shook slightly.
Anthy glanced at him and tried to summon quiet words of comfort,
but could find none.

ASK.

"I am looking for one that I love, great one. Her name is
Tenjou Utena; I would see her again. Can you help me?"

YES.

Something in the tone, a shift so subtle and deep it was
almost geologic in nature, warned her. "Wait--"

But it was too late, for the jaws of Orobouros had opened
wide, and its crimson tongue had flicked forth and caught them
up, and Kyouichi was screaming, and she realized she was
screaming along with him, and then they and the car were sliding
down the long black gullet of the Worm Orobouros, and, yet again,
there was only darkness.

* * *

The girls slept in one another's arms, limbs enmeshed beneath
the sheets.

One woke with a start, and strangled a scream in her mouth
as she became aware of her own consciousness. Her movement woke
the other, and then there were voices in the dark.

"Akami?"

"I dreamt about it again."

"Oh... shh... shh, it's all right."

"I hate dreaming."

Fingers ran through unbound dark hair, gently, softly.

"It's not so bad sometimes. Sometimes, you have nice
dreams, and--"

"I've never had a nice dream."

"Sure you have. You just don't remember--"

"If I had, I would remember it."

"Don't be angry. Let's just go back to sleep. Okay?"

"You don't believe me?"

"I believe you. Please... I'm tired. We've got a long day
ahead of us. So let's sleep."

"Don't patronize me, damn it."

"Please... your hand... that hurts..."

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"No, it's _not_ okay. Don't say it's okay..."

"Shh. Just sleep."

Silence and darkness, darkness and silence...

"Mari?"

"Yes."

"I'm hungry."

"But--"

"I know. I'm sorry. But I am."

"How hungry?"

"Not very. Just a little... I don't think I'll be able to
sleep otherwise..."

The bedside lamp clicked on.

"All right. I'll get the knife."

End of Jaquemart - Part XI