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Jaquemart XII - In A Gallery of Shadows (i. penumbra)

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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.

 

XII. In a Gallery of Shadows

i. penumbra

* * *

At least it was a lovely night, for such an event. The snow had
begun to melt as soon the sun rose that day, and now lay in only
scattered patches. But dead grass and bare earth and leafless
trees gave testament to the fact that winter's grip had only
recently relaxed, and the crisp bite of the air warned that it
could tighten again at any time; the sky overhead was clear and
cloudless and full of stars as the four of them made their way
across Ohtori's grounds.

"It seems really different," Utena murmured as she walked
beside Nanami, with Juri and Shiori a few steps behind.

Nanami, looking a little unsteady in her high heels,
glanced over. "Well, it has been seven years for you. Of course
it would seem different."

"I mean, from yesterday," Utena explained. "When I was here
last night, everything felt really dead. Cold. Like a tomb."
She shivered a bit at the memory. "Now... it's not so bad."

"It's probably only that the snow has begun to melt,"
Nanami said. She paused for a moment and craned her head back.
"Though I must admit, the stars are nice."

Utena shivered at that as well. Nanami obviously noticed,
because she asked, "What's wrong?"

"Akio said that once. Or something like it." She stuffed
her hands into the pocket of her coat and stared at the ground
passing beneath her feet; the odd, fragmentary conviction that
the ground moved beneath her, rather than that she moved over the
ground, occured to her, and was almost instantly and logically
discarded. "He was big on stars. Or pretended to be. I know
you saw his projector."

"Yes. Ugly thing." Nanami scowled faintly and said nothing
more, perhaps in an attempt to stop the line of conversation.

Utena, heeding her, changed the subject. "How do you walk
in those heels, anyway?"

"Practice," Nanami said. The scowl dissolved into a faintly
rueful frown. "You're still taller than me, though."

Utena chuckled. "Well, that's why I get to be the prince,
and you get to be the princess, I guess."

Nanami stopped dead. "What?" she asked, pure glacial ice.

Utena, confused, indicated Nanami with one sweep of her
hand, and herself with another. "I just mean, you're in a dress,
and I'm in..." She gestured at the long, glossy black of her
slacks (very fashionable, according to Juri, and hideously
expensive, in Utena's estimation). "So, you see... prince...
princess..."

Nanami's expression made it perfectly clear that she found
nothing at all funny in the comparison. "Juri was the one who
said you should wear that," she said.

"Well, yeah, but you paid for it, so..."

"That's only because I had the credit card," Nanami snapped.
Spinning on her heel (quite a feat, in those shoes), she stalked
away towards the distant, well-lit Kanae Memorial Hall.

Utena watched her go, mystified, as Juri and Shiori caught
up.

"What happened?"

She shrugged at Juri. "I don't know. I made a joke about
me being the prince and her being the princess, because, you
know, she said that I was taller than her even when she had heels
on, and because, umm..." She trailed off. "I guess it wasn't a
very good joke, huh?"

"Nanami's just oversensitive," Shiori said. Beneath her
winter jacket, she wore a dark red dress, high-necked. It looked
good on her. Juri, whose chosen outfit was not dissimilar to the
one she'd picked out for Utena during their afternoon shopping
trip, just smiled faintly.

Embarassed, Utena muttered something about catching up, and
hurried off after Nanami. Nanami being in high heels and Utena
being in flats, it didn't take long.

"Hey, umm..."

"What?" Nanami's voice was stiff and pointedly unconcerned.

"Look, it was just a joke. It didn't mean anything."

"Some jokes shouldn't be made," Nanami huffed. Up ahead lay
Kanae Memorial Hall, tall and full of light. Even rows of rising
pillars flanked the front steps, and more pillars walled in the
enclosed cloister that shielded the broad front door.

"Sorry," Utena said lamely. "I didn't realize you'd take it
like that."

"I'm nobody's princess. Particularly not yours," Nanami
said briskly. "Come on, let's get inside; my legs are freezing."

Utena glanced briefly at Nanami's white-hosed legs as they
walked. "Maybe you should have worn a longer jacket."

"My longer jacket has a big hole in the side from your
adventure last night."

Utena winced. They climbed up the steps (swept so clean
that not even a grain of snow was visible on the pristine white
stone), and Utena pulled the front door open by its ornate iron
handle; side by side, they stepped into the light and the warmth
of the front hallway, and were greeted by the girl within.

"Good evening. You're here for the gallery opening?"

Suddenly, Utena found Nanami clinging to her arm. The
speaker was a tall girl in black pants and a black-trimmed
Council jacket. Utena suppressed the urge to scowl.

"Yes," she replied coolly; she could feel Nanami trembling
through the tight grip on her arm. "Tenjou Utena and Kiryuu
Nanami."

"Welcome. I'm Akino Akami, the Student Council President."
Utena had known who she was from the moment she'd spotted her.
She probably wouldn't have liked her even if she'd never heard of
her before; her eyes were predatory and cold. "Your names,
indeed, are on the guest list," she said, consulting the
clipboard in her pale hands. "Please follow the signs to the
gallery. Thank you so much for coming."

"Glad to be here," Utena said. Nanami squeaked something
that might have been an echoing of that. They moved by Akino
Akami without another word, Utena urging Nanami along and trying
to be unobtrusive about doing so. As they passed by, Utena shot
a quick glance at the case, and winced; full of photos of Ohtori
Kanae, and objects that had presumably belonged to her.

"Gonna let go of my arm any time soon?" she asked, after
they were some distance away.

Nanami veritably yanked herself away. "Be careful," she
said. "I don't like the way she was looking at you."

"I just assumed she looked at everyone like that."

Nanami shook her head. "Not like she was looking at you.
It was like she wanted to swallow you up. Consume you. Be
careful."

"Huh? Weird." Utena scratched her head; at the direction
of a sign with a pointing finger on it, they made a left turn.
"Anyway, don't worry about her; if she tries anything, I'll kick
her ass. Half-inclined to already."

"Oh?"

"She hurt you," Utena said simply, at Nanami's apparent
confusion. "I won't put up with people hurting my friends."

Nanami laughed softly, faintly bitter. "Don't think I need
you to stick up for me, Utena."

"Well, you didn't do too good a job of it back there," Utena
said bluntly. "Look, whatever else she may be, she's a bully,
and bullies love to see people afraid of them. So don't show her
you're afraid of her." She smiled gently, trying to soften any
harsh edge to her words. "That means you don't cling to my arm
next time you run into her, for one."

Nanami humphed and didn't say anything. At the end of the
long bright hallway they were currently following, high double
doors were thrown open, and beyond them they could see people
milling about, talking to one another, indulging in food and
drink from long tables, and examining paintings that were too
distant to make out any details of.

"That's Tsuwabuki's friend. Hozumi Mari," Nanami murmured
to Utena as they approached the doors. The girl wore the Council
jacket and and a purple skirt slashed with a jagged white
pattern, and stood before the doors with a stack of folded
programs in her hand.

"Kiryuu," she said, "didn't know you were invited to this."

"Hello, Mari," Nanami said, smiling pleasantly at the other
girl. "This is Tenjou Utena."

"Hozumi Mari. Nice to meet you," Mari said.

"Nice to meet you."

Mari handed them each a program. "The first half of the
reception will go on until about nine, and then..." She
shrugged. "Well, it's all on the program. Enjoy."

Nanami looked into the gallery and put on a very poorly
feigned expression of surprise. "Oh! There's somebody I know--
Utena, pardon me. Why don't you introduce yourself to Mari-san?
I bet you two would get along really well if you got to know each
other."

She breezed through the doors, leaving Utena and Mari alone.

"Hey," said Utena.

"Yes?" Mari asked.

"What happened to your eye?" Utena asked, then wished she
hadn't. The makeup had been carefully applied, but it couldn't
fully disguise the fresh bruise.

"Fell down," Mari replied. "You're kind of nosy, aren't
you?"

"Yeah. Failing of mine." Utena rubbed the back of her head
nervously. "Sorry. So, how do you know Nanami?"

"She used to have my friend as her personal slave about
seven years back."

"Tsuwabuki Mitsuru." Utena smiled faintly. "He was a nice
kid."

"Yeah," Mari said, a bit wistfully. "He was." She
straightened suddenly, and her eyes went guardedly blank. "You
should get in there and leave your coat off at the coat check.
You're probably hot."

Behind her, Utena heard footsteps; she glanced back, and, as
she'd thought, saw Juri and Shiori approaching, their coats off
and over their arms. "Juri, Shiori, have you met Hozumi Mari?"

"I don't believe I've had the pleasure," Juri said. "So,
you're on the Council as well? I was just talking to the
current President."

"Yes; I'm this year's treasurer."

"Really? That was my position..."

Utena headed inside, leaving Juri and Shiori to talk to
Mari. The girl was scared, obviously, and with good reason; but
maybe now that she saw Nanami had friends and allies, she'd let
herself be helped.

Inside, the gallery was high--three stories, taking up one
entire wing of the building--and full of people. Most of them
looked like students and faculty of Ohtori, dressed to the nines
for what was obviously considered a major social event. Had any
of them, she wondered, known Kozue? Known about her? Did they
have any knowledge of all about the dead girl whom this gallery
was being opened in memory of? She didn't see Nanami anywhere.
Or Miki. Or Akio.

Mari was right. She was hot with her coat on. She pulled
it off and carried it loosely in one hand; immediately, she felt
quite a few eyes, male and female both, fall upon her. She
couldn't resist a smile; the vaguely military outfit Juri had
picked out for her certainly was striking, with its black slacks
and white jacket trimmed in red. And it did feel nice, despite
everything, to dress up and go out like this. The last time
she'd been to something even vaguely like this would have been
the Christmas party with all of Anthy's co-workers; Anthy had
looked really nice, in that blouse she had, the one with...

"You know, you do look better in that than in the dress I
gave you all those years ago."

She looked up, stirred from her thoughts, and stifled a
frown. "Hi, Touga. Nice tux."

He preened slightly. "I need to look my best for something
like this." He leaned in close to speak softly to her. "Are you
sure your being here is a good idea?"

"No," she answered. "But if Akio expected me to frighten me
off by sending me an invitation to it, guess again."

"Why would he try to frighten you off by sending you an
invitation?" Touga murmured quizzically.

Utena moved a step away from him, feeling his presence a bit
too closely. "I dunno. You probably know how his mind works a
lot better than I do."

"Utena, please," Touga said, sounding pained.

"Please what?"

"You know what I'm talking about," he murmured.

"Where's the coat check?" she asked, glancing around as
though in search of it.

He pointed to one corner of the room, where a door stood
half-open, and she began to walk towards it. He followed.

"Don't hang around me," she said. "I mean, we shouldn't be
seen together at this. It could be dangerous for you, and for
me. People will get suspicious."

"I am what I am," he said, smiling faintly. "It would be
more suspicious if I didn't pay attention to the most beautiful
woman in the room."

"Stop it." Despite herself, she couldn't hold back a faint
blush. "Go bother someone else. Maybe your sister." Utena
paused and looked at him gravely. "You really do need to talk to
her, you know."

"I tried," he said defensively. "She didn't really want to
listen."

"Are you surprised by that?"

"No," he replied after a moment, "I suppose I shouldn't be.
Take care of yourself." He drifted away and was soon lost to the
crowd.

Utena, troubled by the conversation, walked into the coat
check room.

"Tenjou Utena?!?"

"You!"

For a moment, she and her former nemesis from the guidance
department stared at each other in shock, blue eyes into
rhinestone glasses. Utena tried to remember the woman's name,
and failed; in fact, she couldn't remember if she'd ever even
known what it was.

"I see you're still wearing those weird outfits," the
teacher said finally.

"Hey, this is the latest fashion," Utena protested. "You're
the coat check?"

The teacher gestured at the racks of hangars behind the
counter. "Obviously," she said.

"Here." Utena handed her coat over; the teacher hung it on
the rack, attached a tag to it, and handed a tag to Utena.

"Make sure you keep that; you _won't_ get your coat back
without it."

"Are you trying to make that sound like a threat?"

Before the teacher could make a reply, something yapped
faintly from behind the counter. She blanched, knelt down
behind the counter, and began a hurried, whispered
conversation.

"Pr�cieux, darling, you know that mommy said she could only
bring you if you would be quiet..."

Utena peeked over the counter. "Hey, cute dog," she said.

Pr�cieux, who looked rather like a large rat with several
artfully-arranged tufts of white fur, yapped shrilly up at her.
The teacher looked horribly embarassed.

Utena leaned her elbows on the counter and smirked. "You
know, I remember how you once almost chewed my head off for
bringing a pet to school..."

"He gets lonely without his mommy," the teacher said,
looking embarassed. "Look at his little eyes; I can't bear to
see him sad. And he wanted to come so badly..."

"Hey, don't worry about it. I won't tell anyone." Nice, in
a way, to see that the woman had a human side after all. "How'd
you end up on coat check, anyway?"

The teacher gave Pr�cieux a pat on the head and straightened
up again. "The Chairman asked for a volunteer. I was so very
eager to help him out..."

"Uhh, yeah." Suddenly uncomfortable, Utena turned to go.
"See you."

"Au revoir, Tenjou."

Heading out the door, intent on securing the claim tag in
her breast pocket (fashionable though it might be, the pocket was
so shallow as to be almost useless), Utena collided with someone
and nearly fell. A slim hand on her elbow steadied her as she
looked up in order to begin profusely apologizing.

"Quite all right," Akino Tokiko said, not unkindly, as the
words sank back into Utena's throat at the sight of her face.
"No need to apologize." She pushed Utena's elbow up slightly to
straighten her, and moved by into the coat check room, doffing
her long trenchcoat and broad hat to hand them across.

When she came back out, Utena was waiting. "Didn't expect
to see you here," she said conversationally, arms folded over her
chest.

Tokiko fixed a penetrating gaze on her. "Are you going to
make me regret I spared your life?"

"I doubt it," Utena replied. "Somehow, you don't strike me
as the type to kill someone just because they might be an
inconvenience to you."

Tokiko, who looked quite fetching in a cream-coloured blouse
and skirt, headed over towards the nearest bar table with Utena
trailing in her wake. "You speak as though you've known me for
years," she said, frowning as she accepted a glass of wine from
the waiter.

"Well, I know who you are," Utena said. "Akino Tokiko,
formerly Chida Tokiko. You're the aunt of Akino Hasuichi and
Akino Akami." She pursed her lips and wracked her brain for
more. "And you knew Mikage and Akio a long time ago. Except
Mikage's name was Nemuro back then. I'm not too clear on why."

"You've obviously done your homework," Tokiko said, sipping
her wine. She took another glass from the table and offered it
to Utena.

Utena accepted it, tasted; it was white, tart, and very
good. A thought occured to her. "Hey, did you know Anthy, too?
I kind of wondered why she wasn't in the photo with you and Akio
and Mikage..."

"I don't remember any such photo ever being taken," Tokiko
said quietly. She began to walk away from the bar table; Utena
followed. "As for Anthy... I met her, yes."

"You're a lot more forthcoming than last time."

"The setting is more conducive to conversation."

"Gonna try to rape anyone's mind this time?"

Tokiko almost imperceptibly winced. "It's not like that."

"Oh? Then what is it?"

"Just a way of getting to know someone quickly."

"That's how you like to think of it, huh? And how about
where you rearrange their memories; what's that, from your
perspective?"

The older woman sipped her wine and appeared lost in thought
for a moment before she responded. "Look, I don't need to
justify myself to you."

"You know, I get that a lot," Utena muttered. "And I'm kind
of sick of hearing it."

"Sorry," Tokiko said, clearly not sorry at all. "You and
your friends would do best to just stay out of my way."

"Yeah, and you'd do best to keep the hell away from my
friends," Utena said, taking a step towards the other woman in
order to make a minute intrusion into her personal space. "I'm
not going to tolerate the kind of thing you did to Shiori-san,
you got that?" She took another brief taste of her wine and
glared at Tokiko.

Tokiko smiled, with amusement or condescension--probably
both. "I understand. Though I don't think I really need to
worry about it."

Utena scowled. "Pretty confident, aren't you?"

"Yes. You see, I slipped a very deadly poison into that
wine before I gave it to you."

Utena paled slightly. She hadn't _seen_ anything that
looked like that, but the woman had powers like Anthy, and--

"Just kidding."

With the crowd parting before her and closing behind her
like the sea in the wake of a ship, Tokiko moved swiftly away,
leaving Utena staring after her.

"I've got a bad feeling about tonight," she muttered, and
finally took a look at the program she'd been handed by Mari
coming in the door. "Huh? 'Music by the Ohtori Quartet?'"

In a coincidence that seemed entirely contrived, strings
struck up a tragic melody from the raised stage at the far end of
the gallery from her. Utena threw a glance across the crowded
room to see three young men in identical black suits and a woman
in a long blue dress seated on stools near the front of the
stage, bows working skillfully.

The melody was familiar; she knew she'd heard it before, but
she couldn't remember the piece or the composer. She frowned and
browsed over the program again to see if they had a list of what
was being played.

"Schubert."

She started at the familiar voice and turned. Akino Akami,
she noted, moved very quietly.

"You were wondering what the piece was," the black-haired
girl said, almost apologetically. "It's Schubert. The 'Death
and the Maiden' quartet. I asked if they could play it; it's my
favourite, you see."

"Thanks for the information," Utena said, and started to
move away.

Long fingers touched her arm with an intimacy too daring for
recent acquaintances, particularly in light of one of the
acquaintances recently beating up the other's friend. "Wait,
please. I'd like to talk to you."

Utena was sorely tempted to simply turn her back on the girl
and walk off. Yes, she definitely would have disliked her even
if she hadn't heard about her in advance from Nanami; there was
something wrong about her, something in her eyes, so dark that
pupil and iris seemed almost to have no division between them.
The predatory look was gone, perhaps consciously forced down, but
she still didn't like those eyes at all.

"What do you want?" she asked, ceasing to move away. Akami
still hadn't removed her fingers; had she been male, Utena would
have slapped them away by now.

"Looks like you've already heard about me from your friend
Kiryuu," Akami said, smiling sardonically. At last, she took her
hand away; reaching back with a motion so absent as too seem
almost unconscious, she pulled her long braid over her shoulder
and began to tuck stray hairs back into the tight coil of it.
"Is my reputation so very poor among my predecessors on the
Council?"

"I wasn't on the Council," Utena said shortly. She examined
the younger woman, trying not to be obvious: beautiful, in a
cold, hard way. A black-ice statue. She had never seen hair or
eyes so dark. What do you know about her? she asked herself.
Nanami says she's crazy; Tsuwabuki accidentally killed her
brother...

"But you were involved with them," Akami said, interrupting
her thoughts. "I've done a lot of research into the Council of
seven years back, you see: Kiryuu Touga, Saionji Kyouichi,
Arisugawa Juri, Kaoru Miki; respectively, President, Vice-
President, Treasurer and Secretary. Kiryuu Nanami had some sort
of adjunct role; the details aren't very clear about that. But
your name never came up at all." She let her braid go so that it
fell serpentine between the valley of her breasts, and her smile
grew. "Not once. But I knew you existed." Something flashed
deep in the dark depths of her eyes. "I _knew_."

Utena narrowed her eyes and tightened slightly the grip of
her fingers on the narrow stem of her wine glass. "What are you
talking about?"

Akami put the little finger of her left hand just below her
thin red lips and tilted her head to the side, half-hooding her
eyes, mockingly demure. "We could go somewhere more..." She
looked about at the milling, chattering crowd as though at a
horde of annoying rowdy animals. "...private to talk about it."

"I don't think so," Utena said flatly. The clear, sombre
tones of the Schubert quartet sang out over the wash of voices
like the gentle drift of clouds over the sullen earth.

Akami sighed theatrically. "You don't like me very much, do
you, Tenjou Utena-san?"

"Nope."

"I'm disappointed. I was hoping you would like me, prince."

Utena, in the midst of raising her wine to her lips, froze.
"What did you call me?"

"You heard me well enough," Akami said coolly. "Perhaps you
don't remember. But I'll always remember. The smoke, the
fire..." Her voice had become distant, and suddenly all artifice
was gone from it; she sounded years younger, almost childlike.
"And you..."

"What are you talking about?" The wine which had lain warm
and pleasant in her belly moments before seemed suddenly to have
fermented. "Why did you call me that?"

Before Akami could answer, they were interrupted by the
arrival of Shiori, moving with flitting grace through the crowd
to reach them. "There you are, Utena... I was looking all over
for you." She curled her hand around Utena's forearm. "Juri was
sure you'd want to see--" Suddenly, she noticed who Utena was
with; very slightly, her eyes narrowed. "Or are you occupied?"

"We were just about to part, I believe," Akami said
smoothly, regarding Shiori with thinly-veiled contempt. "Hello
there; you're Arisugawa Juri's friend. I was told your name
again when you came in and I was on the front doors, but I seem
to have forgotten it. Do forgive me."

"No problem," Shiori said cheerfully. "I didn't bother
remembering yours either." She steered Utena off into a thicker
part of the crowd, leaving Akami behind. "You can't be left on
your own for a minute, can you?" she tisked, keeping a gentle but
firm grip on the surprised Utena's arm.

"I wasn't in any trouble," Utena murmured.

"You probably were; you just didn't realize it."

Utena laughed softly. "Could be. Thanks for the save, if I
needed it."

Shiori's grip tightened almost imperceptibly. "You're
welcome."

Utena looked at her, frowning slightly. "You feel okay,
Shiori? Your face looks a little red."

"I'm fine," Shiori replied quickly. "They're just over this
way..." The crowd thinned out a little towards one edge, near
one of the flights of spiral stairs leading up to overhanging
second-floor gallery. "Or, at least, they were..."

"Who?"

"Juri and Miki. Juri was sure you'd want to see him."

Utena nodded. "Yeah, I do."

"But they're not here any more..."

"Have you seen Nanami? She kinda took off on me."

For some reason, Shiori looked amused at that. "Yes; I
spotted her talking to her brother when I was looking for you."

"Oh? That's good." Utena, slightly cheered by the
information, smiled. "I know they're going to work things out."

Shiori pursed her lips in a pert frown. "I wouldn't be too
sure about that. Last I saw, she was pointing her finger at him,
and saying something that from the expression on his face looked
quite rude, and then she stalked off in the direction of the
wine."

"The wine's good," Utena said lamely, sipping the last of
hers and casting her gaze about, hoping for a sight of Juri's
distinctive curls through the crowd.

"Excellent hors-d'oeuvres, too," Shiori said. "There's
these little rice crackers with a salmon paste, and..." She
trailed away, frown deepening. "Now, where did they go? They
said they'd wait right here while I went to find you."

"The smoke and the fire..." Utena murmured, feeling suddenly
detached from the voices of the crowd, from the warm light cast
by the two great chandeliers high above their heads, from the
bitter sweetness of the Schubert and Shiori's hand on her
arm... smoke and fire...

"Utena? What's that you said?"

"Nothing." She started and shook her head. "Hey, I
haven't even had a look at any of the paintings yet."

"They're interesting. Take a look at this one..." Shiori
brought her over to one large canvas already being appreciated by
a half-dozen guests. The angles were jagged, the colours flowing
into one another like melting wax; somewhat reminiscent of
Picasso, Utena thought.

A figure in white, before a burning house. Around the house
was a garden, and the garden burned as well. And the flames
thrust like spears towards a sky empty of stars. Suddenly, she
felt chilled to the bone. "Who's the artist?" she asked.

Shiori took a moment to answer, and her voice had lost some
exuberance when she did. "Ohtori Kanae."

Utena blinked. "Really? Wow... she had talent."

Shiori nodded. "Yeah. Juri and I had seen some of her work
before, in the display case in the hall, but it wasn't like this.
They were conventional. This is..."

"Yeah. I know what you mean." Utena grimaced, winced.
"Actually, no, I don't, really."

Shiori shrugged. "I don't really know either. It's like
there's a big story in there, but you're only seeing a fragment
of it."

Utena became suddenly conscious of someone standing beside
them; she glanced over to see Ohtori Hoshimi looking at the
canvas, face utterly blank.

"Kanae kept these particular paintings very private; the
ones she did in this style, I mean," she said after a moment,
glancing at Utena. "This one was from shortly before she died.
'The Dream of the Burning Boy', she called it. Good evening,
Tenjou-san."

Utena smiled at Kanae's mother, then wondered if she
shouldn't have when it was too late to change the fact; the other
woman wasn't smiling, after all. "Good evening, Ohtori-san."
She glanced at Shiori. "Shiori, this is Ohtori Hoshimi-san;
Ohtori-san, this is Takatsuki Shiori."

Shiori took her hand off Utena's arm and extended it. "Nice
to meet you."

Hoshimi didn't offer hers in return. "Forgive me," she
said, raising it slightly from her side so that Utena and Shiori
could see the white bandages wrapped around it so that only the
tips of her fingers showed, "I injured my hand recently."

Shiori dropped her hand without a word. "Sorry. I should
have noticed."

"Not at all. The fault lies with me, for being so clumsy as
to do myself an injury before such an event." Hoshimi smiled
dryly and sipped red wine from a half-full glass held in her
uninjured hand. "It's nice to see you here, Tenjou-san. Did
Touga bring you as his date?"

Utena managed not to wince. "No. I got invited on my own
merits."

"Quite so, quite so," Hoshimi said, tasting her wine again.
"I do wish Tsukiichi could have been here tonight, but his
illness keeps him generally confined to the house."

"That's too bad," Utena said, cursing herself for sounding
stupid even as she spoke. It was hard even to be in Ohtori
Hoshimi's presence; it brought to mind Kanae, poor dead Kanae,
who never really had any idea of what kind of monster she'd been
engaged to, who probably never had any idea of what he got up to
behind her back with, oh, say, her future sister-in-law's so-
called best friend--

Shiori had asked Hoshimi something that Utena, lost again in
her thoughts, had entirely missed, and now Hoshimi was answering:
"...I do wish he was here now, he's been a pillar of strength for
Tsukiichi and I ever since Kanae died, but he's a very busy
man... he'll be here for the speech, however." She looked over
her shoulder. "Oh, there's the mayor; pardon me. Nice to meet
you, Takatsuki-san." She moved languidly away.

"I'm guessing from the context you asked her where Akio
was?"

Shiori nodded, and nervously licked her lips. "Yes. I
hadn't seen him. I was wondering."

A voice--Juri's--quietly called their name from above their
heads. "Shiori! Utena!" They looked up to see Juri and Miki
leaning over the railings of the gallery above them, both smiling
broadly. "Up here."

Utena's gaze travelled up through the empty space between
her and Kaoru Miki as though through turgid air. The last of the
five, she realized, faintly startled by the fact that she hadn't
thought of it before; completing the set. We meet again for the
first time, Miki-kun, Mickey; out of all of them, you were the
only one in those days that I would really call a friend.

Shiori had a hand on her arm again, and was gently coaxing
her up the stairs. She followed like a sleepwalker, with too
many thoughts winging about her like a flock of dark birds: black
swords and smoke and fire and the burning gardens, and over it
all Akio's smiling face.

But it was Miki, Miki who was smiling, and clasping her hand
so warmly, as though he hadn't forgotten her at all, even though
he had to be reminded of her name, of who she'd been, and maybe
that was a little suspicious, but this was _Miki_, after all...

* * *

Once, he had been Mikage Souji, and before that he had been
Professor Nemuro; these days, he tended not to think of himself
as having any name at all. Names held no meaning; names were
only words. Professor Nemuro Mikage Chirikazu Souji. Nothing of
him in any of those.

He watched the people move through the gallery as an
entomologist might watch the milling of ants or the solitary
dartings of a dragonfly. He gave them names on a whim, whether
he recognized them or not: these two shall be the Lovers, and
this shall be the Fiery Angel, and this one the Poison-Bird...

Time had passed for him like a river since his graduation:
slow and smooth in one moment, jagged and roaring and broken into
scattered spray by rocky rapids in the next. He lived time like
a dream, skipping to the important parts, the parts that
interested him, without having to bother with such things as
movement, boredom. He wondered if one day he would discover how
to rewind, or to fast forward; how to pause. How to stop it
altogether. How to eject the tape of this universe and stick in
a new one and watch that instead. Would he have someone to make
commentary to there, as well? Here he had the Black Rose, and
though she was poor company (he realized this from a purely
intellectual standpoint, emotions being one of the things left
behind in the silt of his previous life along with a sense of
time or a physical body or touch, taste, scent, sweat, hunger,
thirst, urination, defecation etc), he thought that she was
better than none.

As he had told her, he was very interested to see how things
would turn out. He felt no emotional attachment to the
characters--it was a philosophical dialogue, not a soap opera.
One side or another would destroy the rest and justify it by
resort to its own particular ideology. All the same in the end,
really.

He remembered a time when he had been much like this,
knowing the equations that told the mass/density/weight of stars,
but without any appreciation for their supposed beauty. Then he
had changed, and now he had changed back. Easier this way.
Better this way. Where had feeling got him before? A puppet
puppetmaster, hiding in the shadows, ultimately fading away into
them. My memorial is finished; it shall outlast nothing. Better
from a standpoint of self-interest not to feel at all.

Even she didn't make him feel anything. She, whom he had
sinned for to grasp eternity. She'd had no gratitude. He'd done
it for her. All for her. And she had thrown his efforts back in
his face like they were meaningless filth. He had grasped
eternity now, after stumbling about in the shadows, confused and
manipulated by inconvenient emotion; cold, pure, icily beautiful
eternity. And she, no matter how youthful she might look now, no
matter how beautiful she still might be, would eventually grow
old. Her flesh would sag, her strength would fade, her eyes
would grow dim with cataracts; she would grow old, and die.
Better for her if she had stayed with him--she should not have
fled from him into the flames. They could have had eternity
together, could have saved her brother; he could have given her
that. Would have given her that, if only, if only...

He watched her find her niece and speak to her. So
wasteful, such feelings of attachment; were she not blinded by
them, she, who was so clever, would have known what the girl was.

He watched the niece (whom she undoubtedly thought as of the
daughter she had never had) introduce her lover as her friend, as
the girlfriend of her dead brother. He watched them exchange
words of meaningless condolence with one another.

Oh, God, how much he wanted to touch, speak to, her.

* * *

She woke up, with her eyes still closed, to Kyouichi reciting
Henry Vaughn in the voice of the shell-shocked.

"I saw Eternity the other night, like a great ring of pure
and endless light. All calm, as it was bright..." His words
dissolved away into choked expurgations halfway between sobs and
coughs. "And round... and round... beneath it..."

Anthy opened her eyes. She was lying under a tree, and she
could see the night sky, hung with strange stars, through the
interstices between branches. The season felt like the close of
summer, or the beginning of autumn; beneath her was cool grass,
ticklish against her bare arms.

"A ring of pure and endless light..." He laughed bitterly,
and audibly swallowed. "No. Eternity is a _giant snake_..."

"No," she said, softly. He was sitting beside her, back
against the trunk of the tree, knees hugged to his chest.

He looked down at her with the wide, frightened eyes of a
child. "You're awake." Accusingly, happily.

"It's not." She sat up, feeling weary to her very bones,
and looked around for the car. Nowhere in sight. "It's just a
symbol."

"An usually verbose and living symbol, then," he replied
stonily. He stood and offered her his hand. "Now that you're
awake, I suppose we should journey on."

She accepted, allowing him to help her to her feet.
"Where's the car?"

"I don't know. I woke up lying beside you under the tree."
He coloured a little, and looked away from her, shoving his hands
into his pockets. "Do you have any idea where we are?"

She tilted her head back and stared at the stars; unfamiliar
constellations. They were on the edge of a thick forest; behind
them were grasslands liberally spotted by pale wildflowers, and
she could sense, distantly, flowing water. The air was
unnaturally still, empty of nocturnal animal cries or the sound
of insects; the stillness of the unformed, of something waiting
to be born.

"Come," she said, and began to walk into the woods.

"I asked you if you knew where we were," he said as he
followed, aggrieved at her lack of response, and, she admitted,
justifiably so.

"We are going to Utena," she said firmly. "The serpent is
wise, and the serpent is cunning, but not as the ways of a man or
woman may be wise and cunning. Had I recollected better, I would
have phrased my request more carefully."

"I don't understand any of this at all, you know."

"I know." And she looked at him with some affection,
smiling, hoping it would put him at ease. She was a little out
of her depth in this, which made him very far out indeed.

"So all I can do at this point is trust in you to bring me
back safely, I suppose."

"It is a burden I accept willingly."

He shrugged, and finally, faintly, returned her smile.
"Just so you understand how things stand."

They walked between the trees, and, as in a dream, then they
walked beside a turgid river, and there were no trees. Overhead,
the stars changed places, and familiar constellations emerged:
the Great Bear, the Cauldron, the Double-Headed Axe, and others.

The rushes along the riverside were straight as the blades
of swords, and stood arrayed like soldiers at an inspection. The
entire world seemed hard and brittle, ungently fragile, like a
crystal decanter that could explode into slivering fragments at
the slightest impact. The night sky was a slab of black ice with
diamonds embedded in it.

"Just what are we going to find if we get to Ohtori? When
we get to Ohtori. I apologize."

She glanced over at him, recollecting the primal hatred and
power of the red eyes, and said, "I am uncertain. My small
friend attends Utena, but I receive only vague impressions from
him, none at all at such a distance as this."

He raised an eyebrow at that. "And you have no other way?"

"None of efficacy."

She hoped for reasons not entirely known to her that he
would not press the issue further; her casual defeat by the red-
eyed malice waiting in Ohtori ("Mama doesn't like you") seemed
somehow a vastly private thing. She held no memories of being so
easily overcome upon the weft of the dreaming lands, but then, as
recent events had shown, her memory was hardly a reliable thing.

To her relief, he said nothing more of it, but merely
chuckled ruefully, a certain weary acceptance of the state of
things between them inherent in it. "This has, I can at least
say, been a new experience." He brought out a hand from his
pocket, to the sound of white pills rattling in their plastic
vial. He frowned, stared at them for a moment, then glanced to
his wrist. "My watch is still stopped."

"You'd probably do well to take one now," she said, gently.
"It's been a while."

He nodded and looked towards the slow, narrowing flow of
the river. "Is it safe to drink the water?"

"I would advise against it."

He turned his back to her. The cap of the pill bottle
scraped softly as he opened it. He dry-swallowed a pill, closed
the bottle, and put it back in his pocket. Then he bent forward
slightly, coughing; she worriedly moved forward to hit him on the
back, but he held up a hand and she stopped. He gulped audibly,
then straightened and turned to her, grinning sardonically.

"It's a hard pill to swallow, sometimes," he said.

She winced and refused to laugh. They walked on through the
stillness, the only sound beyond grass beneath their feet that of
the river's languid quest for the sea. It continued to narrow as
they followed it, until it was only a small trickle of water
struggling through a hardened bed of mud. Then, past the point
where it would have been of necessity or use, a bridge came into
view, low and wooden, with red paper lanterns burning--a cold
light, neither comfort nor warmth in it--atop the high pillars
flanking either side.

They crossed, and at the other side found themselves on a
pleasant, tree-lined street, in what for all appearances and
purposes seemed a prosperous residential neighbourhood in modern-
day Japan. The bridge was gone, the river was gone, the hard
night sky remained, starless now, overcast by smoke from the
burning house. Tongues of flame leapt from the shattered
windows, a bed of fire burned upon the sagging roof; around it,
trees and gardens burned, sending up ash and glowing cinders into
the air upon the burning currents. Smells in the air were
scorched roses and roasted lilies, mingling with burning wood
into a heady kind of incense. The burning of the house was like
an independent thing; neither of the neighbouring houses seemed
in danger of partaking of the blaze, nor were there any signs--
lit windows, sirens, neighbours coming forth--that anyone was
taking notice beyond the two children, a boy and a girl,
standing in the street and watching the house burn.

Anthy slowly approached them, not looking back to see
whether or not Kyouichi followed. Their quiet, childish voices
reached her. They were holding hands.

"W-what about Mother and Father?" Shaky; he was crying.

The girl, voice firm almost to callousness, replied, "I
expect they're still in there."

"Hello," said Anthy.

The girl, a slim little figure in a white night-gown, with
black hair plaited into two long braids, turned and looked back.
"Hello. Are you a princess? You look like one."

"I'm not a princess."

The girl, whom Anthy guessed to be about ten, scratched the
side of her nose with her free hand. "If you're looking for the
prince, she's gone away."

The boy, alike enough in looks to be a twin, said, "Who are
you talking to?"

"To a lady. She says she isn't a princess. Can't you see
her?"

"No."

"That's strange. You couldn't see the prince, either."

Anthy swallowed the lump in her throat, and asked, "What
prince?"

The girl looked thoughtful. "She wore white, and had long
hair. Her hair was the colour of Mother's roses. She was very
beautiful, and very strong. I held my brother's hand, and she
held my hand and led us out of the fire. I wish I had known that
girls could become princes." She paused for a moment, and
regarded Anthy with dark, hungry eyes, far too old for such a
young girl. "Princes have power, you see."

The boy began to sob loudly, calling out for his mother and
father. The girl put her arm around him, more like a gesture of
ownership than one of affection or comfort.

"Why do you want power, little girl?" Anthy asked, barely
able to murmur the words, almost overcome with a grief
unbearable. That a child so young should have such eyes...

"I do not like being called a little girl," the girl said,
scowling. "I have a name. And power... no one can touch you, if
you have power. No one can touch you if you don't want them to."

The house shivered, and, slowly, ponderously, began to
collapse in upon itself as fire devoured its support beams.

Anthy stretched out a hand, palm flat, towards the girl.
"It's hard being a child," she said softly. "Children can't help
but be weak, having to rely on others as they do. Nevertheless,
once lost, the treasures of childhood cannot be regained."

Calmly, the girl laid her little cold hand in Anthy's, and
looked back towards the fire, her other arm still holding her
sobbing brother. "There are no treasures in this place."

Closing her hand like a gentle trap over the hand of the
girl, Anthy asked, with fire dancing in her eyes, "What is your
name?"

The girl opened her mouth to answer, but then there was a
sensation not unlike a great rushing breath of wind, and she and
her brother had been wiped from existence as though they had been
only colourful figures drawn in chalk upon a slate. The house
and its surrounding gardens continued merrily to burn.

Kyouichi was behind her. "Anthy, who were you talking to?"

"To the children. The boy and the girl. Didn't you see
them?" Her voice seemed distant, not entirely her own;
practised, as though she had rehearsed the words she spoke a
hundred times over, drilled them into her head until they were
second nature, and then they had waited for years, decades,
centuries to come forth from her lips.

"No."

"That's odd."

Bowing as a dying animal bows upon its front legs briefly
before falling upon its side, the front of the house crashed
down.

"Children?" As seemed usual to her now, his voice was lost
and confused.

"Two of them. A boy and a girl. They were watching the
house burn. I think their parents were inside."

She raised the hand that had recently gripped the hand of
the little girl, vanished like a dream or phantasm, and touched
her lips. Roses, burning roses.

"None of this is real, is it?" Kyouichi asked softly. He
kicked at the pavement, and seemed surprised when it did not
crack beneath his heel, or reveal itself to be so soft that his
foot could sink right through. "Perhaps you and I are just in a
coffin together."

"A hearse."

"What?"

"A hearse," she repeated. "Together." She looked about,
then began to walk along the street, away from the burning house.
"Let's go this way."

"Why?"

"It's as good as any other way."

"Tell me... is this real, or not?"

"What's real, really? Real is real and false is false.
It's just not always easy to tell."

"Should I take that to mean you don't know yourself?"

"You could."

"Anthy..."

She stopped walking, and glanced apologetically at him.
"Forgive me. I'm being needlessly oblique. It's a habit I must
break myself of. No, I don't know. I am more or less responding
to these things as they come, quite unprepared for what may
happen next." She scowled and bunched her fists at her sides,
tight enough that they ached. "It is not a manner in which I
like to approach things."

Now they were walking up a hillside, mostly bare earth with
a few scrubby patches of grass. The neighbourhood of the burning
house was nowhere to be seen, had dissolved away behind them like
an image in broken water. Overhead, the constellation of the
Dioscuri burned. The pregnant deadness continued here; no wind,
no scent now that the burning was gone.

Beside her, Kyouichi breathed heavily, as though weary from
exertions. He paused and took off his green sweater, the right
shoulder torn from the Knight of Pentacles' blade, and looped it
over his arm.

"I'm hot," he said by way of explanation. They continued up
the hill, consciously making sure not to tread upon the grass
that struggled up from the rocky soil. At the top of the hill
stood a circle of stones of no particular resemblance to one
another, slender and rough or squat and smooth by turn. Anthy
approached it as she might a holy place, and, once closer, with
Kyouichi a few steps behind, she saw the woman who stood, who had
always been standing, in the centre of the stones.

She wore white, and she bore a sword at her side, and her
cape flowed as her long hair flowed, in a wind that Anthy could
not feel. Her eyes were blue and fiercely gentle, like the sea;
she was beautiful beyond telling, and light shone from her breast
and her brow.

She turned, as Anthy knew, had always known, she would, and
spoke. Time and the world stood still upon her words; in the sky
above the stones, the Twins shone with a hard and merciless
light.

"Who are you?" was what she had said then.

end of penumbra