Actions

Work Header

Jaquemart XII - In A Gallery of Shadows (iii. chiaroscuro)

Work Text:

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

iii. chiaroscuro

* * *

Two glasses of wine. Both red. One for him, and one for her.
He obviously wanted her to take one. But which one?

He had one held slightly more prominently then the other.
Take the other one, then. Or perhaps he would have expected
that. Yes, he would have. She reached for the one held more
prominently, avoiding with some difficulty any touch of his skin
against hers as she took it.

"They're both the same," he said, arching his eyebrows.
"Was that truly such a hard decision?"

"Your audacity obviously hasn't changed any," she said
quietly. She held the wine, but did not drink it. Would not,
she decided, under any circumstances. She considered dashing it
in his face. A dramatic gesture, surely, but he would
undoubtedly only smile and say something about high spirits and
misunderstandings to placate the shocked watchers. They would
think her some silly infatuated little girl having a tantrum; all
their sympathy would lie with him.

"Since when is it audacious to offer a glass of wine to an
old friend you haven't seen in years?"

She sighed, very softly, unable to keep it in, hoping that
he wouldn't hear it, knowing he would. "Akio-san, let's not do
this."

"Do what?" He raised the rim of his glass to his full lips
and drank a little of the red.

"The verbal by-play. The pretensions. I don't feel up to
it." It was true; she felt very tired. She wanted to go back to
the hotel and sleep, even if it was beneath that crack in the
ceiling that she couldn't forget.

Akio's green eyes flashed with amusement. He drank again
and regarded her. Raked her with his eyes, a gaze that gently
flayed clothing and skin alike from her body.

"You've grown into a lovely woman," he said softly. To her
shame, she coloured a little at the words. Such power, in that
voice of his. "You would look better in more feminine outfits
than that, but--"

"I don't care any more about what you think of me," she
said, cutting him off. "So why are you bothering? Why are you
_pretending_?"

"Perhaps it's my nature," he said drolly. "Aren't you going
to drink your wine?"

"No."

He shrugged. "As you will. I admit the game is wearisome
to me as well. Shall we simply adjourn to the Duelling Arena and
hack at each other with swords until one of us lies dead?"

She could not suppress a wince, and had no answer.

"As I thought. You should not have come back here. You
should have continued to live the life of a normal person. But
now you have come back into my world, and dragged others with
you. And you are not capable of handling that responsibility."

"We're going to stop you," she said.

"Stop me?" He arched an eyebrow and looked as though he
were barely containing his laughter. "You don't even have the
slightest idea of where to begin. You haven't even realized the
depths of your own self yet. How could you possibly realize the
depths of any of this, without that?"

She watched him, unspeaking. He swished the wine in his
glass and brought it to his lips. The waltzing continued behind
their backs. She wanted to look and see if she could spot Miki
and Nanami dancing together, but that would have meant taking her
eyes off of Akio.

"Just as before, however, you flee anything with a hint of
darkness to it, even though only in the darkness will you ever
find answers. Your refuge is full of light, and of ignorance."

"As usual," she said coolly, "you say things that seem very
impressive and wise, but you actually don't know what you're
talking about."

He drained the last of his wine. A convenient waiter,
passing with a tray filled with likewise empty glasses, accepted
it from him. "You're still very good at lying to yourself. But,
in the end, you will be forced to confront the truth. Of what
you were. Of what she did. Just as she did before. Without
Revolution, there can be no true change."

"You are so full of it." She scowled. "I can't believe I
ever..."

"That you ever?"

"I don't even know why I'm talking to you," she muttered.
"Here. Take your wine back. I don't want it."

He accepted the glass from her calmly. Their fingers,
again, did not touch.

"Perhaps you ought to reconsider your intent and the intent
with which you have directed your friends," he said, smiling.
"See how you have been in my presence for several minutes now,
making perfectly polite and peaceful conversation? There is no
need for drastic measures. Leave this place. Return to your
normal lives. You left my world not by your own will, but
because I allowed it. You should remember that." His eyes
narrowed slightly, and his smile acquired an edge. "You should
be grateful."

"Grateful?" She couldn't manage to keep a hissing rage out
of her voice. "Tsuwabuki's in jail because of you. And that's
only the beginning of things. You sent that Leo Cano nut after
Anthy, and I still don't know what's happened to her..." Good
that she had given him back the wine glass, because her fists
were suddenly balled so tightly, so involuntarily, that were she
still holding it she likely would have shattered it.

His expression darkened. "The boy's murder of his friend
was no doing of mine. You may believe I have absolute control
over all that goes on here, but you would be sorely mistaken. As
for my sister..." He shook his head. "I will not speak of her
to you."

"You're exactly the same," she said. "Exactly. You won't
take responsibility for anything. It's never your fault. I
don't know why I don't just--"

"Had you the blade, could you do it?" he hissed, low and
cutting. "Were I to bare my throat to you at this moment..." He
raised a dark hand to his collar, smiling sardonically, and
fiddled with the knot of his tie. "...could you? In front of
all these people?"

She looked at the floor. Damn him.

"Then you are either a coward, willing to risk the sacrifice
of others but not yourself in this act of petty vengeance, or you
know in your heart that you have no right to judge me, that you
have not earned and never can earn such a right. You can no more
hope to understand me than you could ever hope to understand my
sister. If you do not understand a thing, you have no right to
judge it."

"I'd hate to have to understand you," she said quietly. "To
do that, I'd have to be as sick as you are."

"You weary me," he said after a moment. He sounded
genuinely sad. Tired, even. "You were once so exceptional. But
you've willed yourself to forget. You've lost your noble heart."
He paused. "No; you've had it taken from you. But you refuse to
let yourself remember that. I should rather be almost anything
than a self-deceiver. I am what I am, but at least I know what
it is that I am."

"And who am I, then, if not who I believe myself to be?"
she asked him, low and almost threatening, knowing he would not
answer truthfully, uncaring that he would not.

"I have no interest in telling you that. You can answer it
yourself if you think back to the root of matters. You were
offered a glimpse earlier, but turned your eyes away in fear."

"Akino Akami," she said quietly. "'I was hoping you would
like me, prince.'"

He nodded, and made as if to turn away.

"Wait." He paused. "Who is she?"

He shrugged. "She is what she is. Ask her yourself." Then
he did turn away, walk away, sipping the wine he had originally
offered to her.

Utena let out a deep breath and turned to regard the
dancers. She couldn't see Miki and Nanami amidst the dozens of
couples, but, then again, neither of them was tall. One couple
was, however, and she recognized both of them to her shock.

Then she laughed, darkly. "That," she said softly, only to
herself, as she watched Leo Cano and Akino Tokiko waltzing
elegantly together, "can only end badly."

"Difficult conversation?" asked a voice at her elbow.

She looked over at Touga. "Not as much as I'd thought," she
said after a moment. She thought upon it. "Much less
difficult than I thought it might be. The actual conversation, I
mean."

"I saw you heading down there during his speech. You were
the only one moving. I tried to catch up to you, but the crowd
got in the way; I was glad to see Nanami got you. What were you
doing?"

"Doing? I don't really know. I was angry. Listening to
him say all those things. But... I don't know what I was doing."

Touga looked as though that were the answer he had expected.
He watched the dancers in silence for a little while.

"Your sister's dancing with Miki," Utena said finally.

He smiled faintly, but his eyes were unhappy. "I know.
They look good together."

"You don't trust Miki, do you?"

He hesitated, then shook his head. "No."

"I agree with you. Pretty convenient how he showed up just
before Akio did and asked Nanami to dance, which meant Akio got
to talk to me and me alone."

He nodded, smile fading, eyes turning even more unhappy.
A certain tightness to his features betrayed a deep turmoil
within. He was good at hiding his feelings, but not perfect.

"What do you know about Akino Akami?" she asked.

He pursed his lips. "Other than that she's the current
President of the Student Council and what you told me last
night--"

"This morning, actually. Real early." She smiled, hoping
he would smile with her.

He did not. "--among which was that she assaulted my
sister, not much. She came here as a student the year before
this one. She's the captain of the fencing team. Involved with
the Duellist's Society."

"What is that, anyway?"

He shrugged. "Combining the knowledge I acquired while..."
He grimaced, apparently in distaste. "While lacking in memories
with what I know now, I believe it's a cover for something else.
One of those not-so-secret secret societies that have a tendency
to pop up in exclusive private schools. Fencing and kendo are
formalized sports, quite different from actual swordplay. The
Duellist's Society practices to fight with real swords in an
authentic manner. But they wear the Rose Signet, so they must
have some purpose in his plans."

"You don't really like the person you were when you couldn't
remember, do you?"

"I dislike naivety and foolishness, no matter how noble-
seeming. They lead inevitably to bad ends." He glanced over at
her, eyes softening a little; dropping the mask, allowing himself
to be momentarily vulnerable. "Did you like me?"

"Yeah," she said after a moment. "Yeah, I did. I wasn't
sure if you were genuine or not, but if you were genuine... it
was sweet." She made herself smile a little more. "I liked your
sketches, too."

He looked away; the mask slid back into place like a
closing door. "Would you like to dance, Utena? I remember... I
never got to dance with you."

"Maybe later," she said, softly. "We've got company."

Juri and Shiori were approaching, threading their way
through the crowd who lingered around the outskirts of the dance
floor.

"Did you see our witch-hunting acquaintance and his dance
partner?" Juri asked dryly. She had a nearly-empty wine glass
held loosely between two fingers.

Utena nodded. "Interesting couple."

"It's so cute when old people are romantic," Shiori
murmured. Touga laughed softly at that, and she glanced at him.
"I see your sister grabbed Miki at first opportunity."

"The other way round, from what Utena tells me."

Juri finished off her wine. "It's been an interesting
evening so far, hasn't it?"

"I talked to Akio," Utena said. "He's the same as ever.
Spouting the usual rhetoric about Revolution and not taking
responsibility for his own actions. Hey, Touga, does he
actually believe any of that stuff?"

"Why are you asking me?" Touga said stiffly.

Juri cut at him with a sharp glance of her green eyes.
"Because you chose to serve him willingly and manipulated the
rest of us so very skillfully?" she said.

Touga looked back at her blankly for a moment, and then a
sardonic, almost cruel cast came upon his face. "In your
particular case, Arisugawa, I had little to do with anything;
Ends of the World, in fact, ordered that I step back and let a
ringer step in. Or am I expected to quietly take the place of
the one you would really like to vent your fury at?"

Juri's face twisted, and for a moment it looked as though
she would strike him. Then Shiori touched her elbow, and she
calmed. "You are right, of course," she said, with ice in it.
"I apologize, and acknowledge the fact that you confined your
manipulations to your best friend, to Miki, and to your own
sister."

Shiori sighed. "I feel like dancing." She stepped forward,
away from Juri, and held out her hand. "Touga? For old time's
sake?"

Touga looked slightly stunned, though he hid it quickly
behind a charming, nostalgic, faintly sad smile. "For old time's
sake." He took Shiori's hand and led her towards the dancing
throng.

The look on Juri's face could have cut glass as she
watched Touga put his hand on Shiori's small waist and lead her
into the waltz. The other dancers soon obscured them, although
Touga was tall enough that his crimson-haired head could still
be seen, moving in perfect time to the music.

"I think she's subtly hinting that you should stop trying to
pick fights with him, sempai," Utena said cautiously.

"She does this sometimes," Juri said flatly, distantly, not
seeming to to hear her at all.

"Huh? What?"

"We go out once in a while. To parties. People from the
fencing team invite us, or from our classes. She'll pick a man
and pay attention to him. Dance with him, if there's dancing.
She only does it to bother me."

Utena grinned nervously, hesitated, then said, "Maybe she
just likes to dance?"

Juri appeared unamused, and her expression softened not a
whit. "She doesn't do it often."

Utena shrugged, and, still hoping to lighten the tension,
made a suggestion. "So cut in after this dance. I doubt Touga
will protest."

Juri didn't say anything.

"Sempai, did...?"

"Shiori and I try not to give any hints of what our true
relationship is in public," Juri said softly, still very distant.

Utena blinked. "So what's wrong with dancing? I mean, I
was dancing with Anthy at the Spring Ball right after I met her,
and..." She trailed away, colouring faintly, wishing desperately
she hadn't even begun this line of conversation.

Juri finally smiled, though it seemed more perfunctory than
anything else. "I remember that. Miki and I were watching from
the sidelines; it was one of the things that impressed me about
you, right from the start."

To her despair, the words somehow made her embarassment
increase. "Oh. Didn't see you two there."

"We didn't want you to."

"I see."

A little warmth had crept into Juri's smile, like a crack in
the ice covering a deep blue lake. "You told me once that you
loved Himemiya, but that it was different from how I loved
Shiori. What did you mean by that?"

Utena coughed. "Just that--"

"Good evening again, Arisugawa-san, Tenjou-san," someone
said from close behind them; soft, polite and feminine.

The two of them turned in almost a twin movement. "Good
evening, Mari-san," Utena greeted.

Mari smiled charmingly at them. "Are you enjoying
yourselves?"

"Yes, we're both having a very good time," Utena said
quickly.

Mari appeared pleased. "It was a lot of work, putting this
all together. A lot of cooperation between the Student
Council..."

What's left of it, Utena thought, and then felt horrible for
thinking it.

"...and Kaoru-sensei and the Office of the Chairman. But it
all came together nicely."

"Indeed," Juri said, giving Utena brief, significant glance.

"Cooperation, huh?" Utena asked.

Mari nodded. "Traditionally, there hasn't been a lot of
contact between the Council and the faculty and the Chairman's
office." She looked at Juri. "You probably remember that the
Council's pretty independent."

"Quite," Juri agreed crisply.

"Well, we've all been working to change that. More
cooperation, working together for the common good of the
Academy." She hesitated, clasping her hands before her and
looking suddenly shy and sad after her earlier friendliness.
"You're Kiryuu Nanami's friends, so I guess you know about
Mitsuru. About what happened."

Utena nodded. There were questions unspoken in Mari's
words. "We know." Answers to them, hopefully, in her own. Let
us help you, she urged silently.

Mari took a while before speaking again, and her eyes were
downcast. "I think things are pretty different from when you two
were here."

"Not entirely different," Juri said assuredly, folding her
arms and looking, suddenly, vastly competent. It struck Utena
then just how glad she was to have Juri at her side, both at this
single moment and in general; Juri, who was so strong.

Mari looked trapped and a little scared, as though caught
between their two gazes. Somehow, though, glad to be that way.
In a cage, Utena thought, you are not only kept in; other things
are kept out.

She smiled at Mari, trying to come across as friendly and
concerned, not merely as a condescending busybody. "It sounds
like it's something you'd like to talk about. I remember Mitsuru
really well; I was so sorry to hear about what happened."

"You couldn't understand," Mari said softly, something close
to anger in it. "People like to pretend as though they could
somehow ever know how other people feel; a lot of the time, I
like to do it. But you can't, really."

"Perfect understanding isn't possible." Juri's voice was
quiet, compassionate in a way that surprised Utena. So many
bright facets to Juri, like a jewel. "But that doesn't mean it's
not worth trying for."

"I should go," Mari said after a moment. "I'm sorry to
bother the two of you."

Moving towards them, tall enough and striking enough to be
visible amidst the milling, mingling crowd, Akino Akami. A
purposeful walk; slipping through the gaps between groups like a
knife in the dark. Mari's eyes latched onto the President of the
Student Council; they were wide, frightened, guilty.

Utena steeled herself. "Hey Juri, I bet you can find lots
of treasurer-type things to talk about with Mari-san, can't you?"

"I suppose," Juri said neutrally. She took Mari by the
elbow and steered her gaze away from Akami's approach. "Tell me,
is the budget still..."

Juri's question and Mari's answer faded behind her into the
ebb and flow of the crowd's chatter, as she moved to intercept.
The waltz reached a crescendo, or as much as a crescendo as could
be reached by the quartet. Akami was before her, dark-haired and
dark-eyed, as tall as she was.

Before she could speak, Utena said, "We got interrupted last
time. You wanted to talk to me somewhere more private?"

A slow smile, with something almost like warmth in it, broke
across Akami's pale face. "I'd thought you unwilling."

"Changed my mind."

"I'm so pleased." She gave a small yet somehow sweeping
bow, extending one arm away from her body and holding the other
tight with the hand upon her breast. Like the invitation to a
dance, Utena thought, and shivered faintly. This was stupidly
dangerous. But it would keep Akami away from Mari for a little
while, and Juri could probably do a lot with that time. "If you
are willing, we shall fetch our coats, and walk; the winter night
is mild, and the stars are out."

"Sounds nice."

"Yes." Her smile showed no teeth, but the hunger of it
showed in the set of her thin red lips and the dark of her eyes.
"It will be nice to finally talk to you again, after all these
years."

* * *

They had one more dance together after their first, and then Miki
asked her if she wanted to get something to drink. She said yes,
and they drifted away from the dance floor towards the closest
bar table, with her holding onto his arm.

"That was nice," Nanami said vaguely, as he handed her a
wine glass and took one for himself. "Thank you."

Miki smiled at her. Such a nice smile. "Thank you. You
dance just as well as I remember, from the graduation ball."

"I felt a little out of practice."

He shrugged, managing a charmingly casual gesture even in
formal wear. "I haven't danced since then either, so we were on
the same footing."

"Good wine."

"Yes, isn't it?"

"Miki--" She couldn't finish. If she'd had words in mind,
they fled her.

He looked away from her. Blue eyes behind thin lenses in
delicate silver frames; glasses suited him. His eyes were a
darker shade of blue than Utena's or Touga's. There were hidden
things in them; corals with bright fish, at the bottom of the
sea. The sea, the sea that had taken Kozue and refused to yield
her up again. The merciless apathy of the sea.

What did he know? What was he hiding from them? If he was
here, it was because Akio wanted him here. But how, why? This
was _Miki_; he was too smart to become a pawn again, to be
selfishly manipulated by Akio, even if he couldn't remember the
Duels and the Revolution.

"Nanami?"

"We shouldn't have lost touch after graduation, Miki." That
was not what she'd intended to say, but now it was said. No
taking it back. And it was perfectly true; the truth of it, in
his presence, hit her hard, in a way it never had before.

"It happens," he said softly. "And I--"

She stopped him with a raised palm. "Please. Don't."

He still wasn't looking at her. The light moved like a
swimmer in his glasses, veiling his eyes. "I'm sorry."

Damn fool, she cursed herself. You've always got plenty of
words to hurt people with, but never enough for anything else.
Never enough words to say the right thing. She looked around: at
the faces of the crowd, which seemed ill-defined and flat next to
the familiar contours of Miki's features; Touga, still dancing
with Shiori (Juri wasn't going to like that); that nut Leo Cano,
his dance partner a fashionably-dressed older woman (if he were
here, he was undoubtedly intending to make some move against
Akio, but Akio wasn't anywhere in sight now); Juri, talking to
Hozumi Mari and occasionally looking towards Shiori and Touga
with calculated casual glances (that was good; perhaps nearly as
good as Utena talking to her). She didn't see Utena anywhere,
which worried her.

"Don't be," she said finally. "Maybe... maybe we should
talk later. Somewhere better than this, without so many people
around."

He nodded. His fingers toyed with the slender neck of his
wine glass. "I'd like that, Nanami-kun."

"So would I." Simple words, but they seemed to be working,
wish for more eloquence though she might. If only she could
speak like Akio could--or perhaps it was better that she could
not. No one should be able to speak like that, with such a voice
and such beautiful lying words.

Behind them, the current waltz was finishing up. Touga and
Shiori parted ways when the music stopped, Shiori heading back
towards Juri and Mari, and Touga going the opposite direction.
At the edge of the dance floor, he stopped to speak to an older
woman in a grey dress who was vaguely familiar to Nanami; after a
moment, they took to the dance floor together.

"Miki, who's that woman dancing with my brother?" The word
"brother" passed sourly from her lips, with a bad taste to it,
but appearances had to be kept up. Did it have the proper note
of faint jealousy to it?

Miki looked. "Ohtori Hoshimi, the wife of Ohtori Academy's
real chairman."

"Oh, yes." She remembered now. "I was introduced to her
at the reception for the Amsterdam school's director last year."

"I've only met her a few times. I'll have to see if I can
catch her when Touga-sempai is done with her; the whole building
is named after her daughter, after all."

"It's a wonderful gallery." She hesitated, then said,
"Kozue would like it." One of those statements that was probably
quite untrue--Kozue had never struck her as the type to
appreciate something like this--but was meant kindly. The sort
of thing she imagined Utena might say. Perhaps, even, had
already said to him.

Miki's expression softened a little, tender and sad in equal
measure. "Yes. She'd like it very much."

One memorial contained within another. Yolk within the egg.
Egg within the nest. Two dead girls, and Akio's hands were
certainly bloody. Poor Miki. It was frightening how much she
hated Akio, if she really started thinking about it. She'd had
the opportunity to put a knife into him only shortly before this
night. Maybe she should have taken it. There hadn't been anyone
else around, after all. But she'd been too scared, of the
consequences if she failed; maybe of the consequences if she
succeeded. Maybe she should have just let Utena do whatever it
was she'd been intending to do.

She remembered what Juri had said earlier. About the two
worlds, and people slipping through the cracks between them when
they came together. Tsuwabuki was in jail for something that had
happened in another world, one with different rules. It wasn't
fair. There had been too many people around; she couldn't have
let the same thing happen to Utena, whatever Utena had seemed to
want at the time.

"Nanami-kun? I've got to speak to the caterers about
something." He had suddenly come closer, and his hand was on her
elbow, a light, warm touch. "I'll make sure to find you again
before the evening's over."

"All right."

He slipped away from her, a lithe dark-suited figure soon
lost to the mob who danced, ate, drank, talked, observed, without
any true idea of what price their celebrations came at. Like
blind--

Something touched her left ankle through the thin white
hose, and she jumped, startled out of the dark thoughts,
remembering suddenly all the terrors of the angry ghosts and
looking instinctively for the nearest exit through which to flee.

"Chu!"

She breathed a sigh of relief and quickly bent down as
unobtrusively as possible. "What are you doing here?" she
hissed, as the animal hopped up into her free hand. "Utena
left you at the hotel room. How did you come all this way?"

Chu-Chu looked inordinately, even arrogantly proud of
himself. "Chu."

"Stowed away in the car somehow, did you? Maybe in one of
our bags?"

He nodded, and then his expression became as sober as he
could possibly make it, which wasn't very. "Chu." He gestured
towards the nearest stairway leading up to the second floor of
the gallery.

Nanami frowned and looked around at the other guests. If
anyone noticed the odd sight of her talking to a... whatever Chu-
Chu was, then they were politely not staring. And probably
talking about it behind her back. Some of the guests probably
remembered her from when she'd been in her final years at Ohtori.
Yes, there was undoubtedly going to be gossip about this.
Rumours. Remember Kiryuu Nanami? Well, at the reception for the
gallery opening, she...

She had the sudden and mildly profound realization that she
honestly didn't care at all what those people thought of her.
"What is it?" She headed towards the stairs, talking softly.
"Is something--" She cut herself off and looked around for the
others. Touga was still dancing with the real chairman's wife.
Juri and Shiori both seemed to be engaging Mari in conversation.
No Leo any more. Still no Utena or Akio. No Akami (thank
goodness).

The missing were tallied together and fear came swiftly upon
her. She paused in her steps, torn between heading for the
stairs and hurrying back for the others. There might not be
time to--

Chu-Chu made a low, guttural sound in his throat, and
pointed towards the stairs again. That decided her, and she
hastily ascended to the second floor, throwing what she hoped was
a significant gaze back towards Juri and Shiori. But she
couldn't see them any more; they were lost somewhere in the
ebbing movement of the crowd.

"Which way?"

He indicated, and she hurried. He growled again to stop her
at one end of the upper gallery, a corner bare of art and empty
of guests thereby. The only really distinguishing thing were the
latticework white doors with their diamond-shaped panes, leading
out onto a large balcony that presumably would be made use of in
warmer weather. Through the glass, she could see patches of snow
clinging tenaciously to the tiled floor and the raised marble
lip.

Chu-Chu waved a stubby paw towards the door.

"You're joking. There's nobody out there. And it's
_cold_. Did you bring me up here for nothing? Where's Utena?"

He looked at her flatly. Pleadingly. Dark eyes in which
light did not glint; eyes with a sense of incompletion to them,
a half-finished sketch. Strange eyes.

"_Fine_," she sighed. "But this better be important."

The doors weren't locked. As soon as she opened them, cold
air stole in and grabbed at her with chill, insubstantial
fingers. The night was warm, for winter, but it was a winter
night still. She hugged herself against the biting chill,
gritted her teeth, and staggered out into the frigid night with
Chu-Chu clutched tightly to her breast, pushing the doors closed
behind her with her heel.

She drank half her nearly-full wine glass in one gulp,
hoping the alcohol would warm her, and then put it and Chu-Chu
down on the wide, high lip of the balcony. "Well?" Her teeth
were chattering; there was no way she could stay outside like
this for more than a few minutes. She'd freeze to death. The
dress was certainly fashionable and showed off her figure to good
effect, but it was hardly warmer than being naked.

"Well?" she repeated, when no answer was forthcoming.

Chu-Chu threw a glance back at her from his intense scrutiny
of the ground over the edge of the balcony, and raised a finger
to his lips. She frowned, shivered some more, and leaned over
the edge to get a look. The balcony faced the Duelling Forest.
In the night and the shadows, the individual trees were lost, and
the entirety of it hulked like a dark malign mountain. Her
shiver at the sight lost amidst all her others, she turned her
gaze downwards. A tree-lined path curved away from Kanae
Memorial Hall, following the western wall of the Academy. After
a moment, she heard a door opening directly below the balcony,
and voices. Chu-Chu spared her a meaningful glance; she hunkered
down behind the lip of the balcony so as to be less visible and
tried to will her teeth to stop chattering, with limited success.

"...this private enough for you?"

"Quite. Shall we walk?"

"Whatever."

Her eyes widened. What was Utena doing with _her_? The
fool. The damn fool! Didn't she _listen_?

"Perhaps you'd rather simply talk here? There's no one
around to listen."

"I don't really care."

Akami's laughter was surprisingly high and sweet, without
any hint of poison in it. "Are you usually so hostile when
you're trying to distract someone?"

Utena didn't reply. Nanami huddled in a shivering ball on
the balcony, hands clutching the freezing edge of the lip and
straining not to reveal her presence. They were right below her.
Chu-Chu, she noted, with both envy and disconcertion, did not
seem at all bothered by the cold.

"Look." Utena sounded dreadfully tired. Nanami felt sorry
for her. This all meant so much more for her than this did for
any of them. "I'm really lousy at being subtle. So I'm not even
going to try any more. I know the kind of things that go on at
this school, and I know you're involved in them. I'm going to
put a stop to this. To all of this. And if you're going to be
my enemy..."

"I don't want to."

"...then there isn't really--huh?"

"You're only telling me these things because you think that
he already knows them. You think that I serve him. That I'm his
lap-dog or errand-girl." Akami laughed again, and this time it
was bitter. "I am not Kiryuu Touga; more precisely, I am at
least not what he was when he was President."

Nanami heard Utena suck in a breath, and nearly did the same
herself. She was now so numb from the cold that she was hardly
even feeling it any more. Vaguely, she realized that was
probably dangerous. She should stand up. Go back inside. But
she wanted to hear this. It was very cold. Too cold. Her
jacket had been light. More fashionable than functional. And
it hadn't been nearly so cold coming in. Maybe it was the
altitude of the balcony. But it wasn't that high up.

"You know a lot, obviously," Utena murmured; Nanami barely
heard her. "But... what I really want to know..."

"I know what you want to know," Akami said gently. "Come
now. We shall walk; I will tell you a story. About two
children. Brother and sister. A fire. A prince."

"All right."

Don't go with her, Nanami thought. Tried to say it, as
though saying it, even softly, would make it happen. But her
tongue was a slab of ice, frozen to her palate. Cold had fallen
upon her like a thick grey shawl. Suffocating. Enervating. But
oddly comfortable. Intimate. On the edge of her hearing were
footsteps moving away beneath her. They vanished abruptly. Two
figures vanishing into a snowstorm. So cold. Something pulling
on her finger. Left ring finger. She couldn't see anything.
Had she closed her eyes? She hadn't mean to.

Don't move. Just stay here. It's warm here. Safe here.

Small, sharp teeth sank into her finger. Hard. She
shrieked and pulled away from the lip of the balcony, pain
breaking through the velvety layers of cold that had come upon
her so subtly and slowly that she hadn't even noticed them until
it was too late. Now, suddenly alert again, she realized how
_wrong_ everything felt. The cold was unnatural; not merely too
deep, but somehow aberrant. There was a presence. A third
beyond herself and Chu-Chu. Who was clinging to her hand, having
bit her to awake her and probably saved her life. His short fur
was bristling, and he was making a sound halfway between a
whimper and a growl.

She ran for the doors and seized the handles. They were
ice beneath her hands, and would not turn. Not even a rattle, as
there would have been were they locked. They simply would not
turn.

"W-w-w-w--" What are you? She couldn't manage to say the
words out loud. Her teeth were clicking together in an almost
musical rhythm. There was no one beyond the doors to see her.
To save her.

She snarled in order to keep from weeping with frustration
and fear, and exerted all her strength upon the handles, putting
the full weight of her body behind them. Did they budge a
little, or was it just stupid hope making her think they did?
She kept up the pressure, gritting her teeth. They wouldn't
chatter if she gritted them. Chu-Chu was on her shoulder; she
could feel him shivering as he clung to the shoulder strap of her
dress.

Just at the point where she was ready to give up, the
handles turned. The doors swung wide and she stumbled back into
the light, warmth, _safety_ of the gallery, almost slamming them
behind her in her eagerness to hopefully hold back whatever had
manifested out there. Angry ghosts, angry ghosts... but why were
they angry at _her_? She hadn't burned down Nemuro Memorial
Hall...

Turning away from the doors, she stumbled against someone
and nearly fell.

"Watch it!" she snapped, even as he grabbed her by the upper
arms to steady her; moments later, she saw his face, and
blanched. "Miki..."

"Nanami, what were you doing out there?" His expression was
tense and concerned.

"Fresh air," she said quickly. "I--"

"You could have frozen." He let her arms go and took a step
back. "I know it's a warm night, for winter, but that dress..."

"What's wrong with my dress?"

"Nothing. It's a nice dress. But it's not very warm,
that's all--what's that?" His eyes had fixed on Chu-Chu.

"Oh, him? Tenjou Utena's pet. I found him wandering
around in here."

"He used to belong to Tenjou-sempai's roommate, didn't he?"
Miki asked softly.

Nanami nodded. "Yes."

"I remember her. We used to play piano together. She was
very nice. But then she left the school." He paused. "Around
the time Tenjou-sempai did, now that I think about it."

"She's not here," Nanami blurted.

Miki blinked. "Who's not here?"

"Himemiya Anthy. Tenjou's roommate. She isn't. Just in
case you were wondering."

He looked at her. "You're shaking, Nanami-kun. Put this
on."

She gratefully accepted the offer of his tuxedo jacket, and
draped it over her shoulders. Chu-Chu scampered down from her as
she did, ran between Miki's legs, and was soon lost to the crowd
near a less isolated area of the second floor.

Miki pursed his lips and looked after him. "Should we try
and catch him?"

"He can take care of himself," Nanami said, drawing the
jacket a little tighter around herself. The fabric was soft, and
smelt faintly of a light cologne. She was still cold.

"Yes. I remember; he always seemed unusually clever."

She frowned and slipped her arms into the too-large sleeves of
the jacket, then shivered involuntarily with the last traces of
the cold.

Miki took off his glasses and held them loosely in one hand,
leaning forward to study her concernedly. "How long were you out
there?"

"Not long. I left my wine glass behind."

"We'll go get it after you warm up a little. If you wanted
fresh air, you should have got your coat first."

"Probably." She looked away from him. "Pretty foolish of
me."

"Yes." Then he flushed faintly, and used replacing his
glasses as an excuse to break eye contact. "I mean--"

She laughed. "So, you like my dress?"

"It looks good on you."

"Thank you. Let's go get the wine glass back." Somehow,
she felt sure that whatever was out to get her wouldn't come for
her with Miki around. She felt safe now. Comfortable.

He opened the doors, still looking a little flushed. They
stepped out slowly onto the balcony together. The air was crisp,
but not unnaturally cold, and Miki's tuxedo jacket helped a lot.
The wine glass stood where she'd left it, solitary and lonely,
the fine crystal glinting faintly with captured starlight.

To her surprise, but not to her displeasure, she found his
arm around her nearly as soon as they were outdoors. She leaned
into him with a quiet, tired sigh. It felt good. Someone to
rest against, even if just for a little while. Particularly him.
To forget, for a little while, about everything else... that was
all right, wasn't it? Utena could surely take care of herself.

"I missed you," he said softly. Almost whispered it, into
her ear. His breath warm against her cheek and neck. "I... when
I saw you with Tenjou-sempai, I wasn't sure what to do. How to
begin."

"Asking me to dance was a good start." She smiled and
rested her head on his shoulder. "A proper lady can't resist a
man who knows how to dance well."

Don't be stupid or complacent, she thought. Remember the
situation. Remember all the suspicions you all have about him.
Be _careful_.

"The last time we saw each other... you were so angry at
me. Not that I blame you. What I said--"

"Even I can't stay angry forever," she said after a moment.
"And... you know me, Miki. A lot of the time, I'm not really
angry, I just make myself angry to avoid being something else.
Hurt or scared or unsure." She paused, sighed, looked for a
moment at the stars above them. "You said that to me. It was
true."

"I hurt you, with what I said."

"Did you expect you wouldn't?" she asked softly, surprised
at the pain in her voice, the pain she felt thinking back. "It
wasn't a mistake, Miki."

"I didn't mean it like you took it. I just meant, we
weren't ready. It just kind of..." He gestured helplessly with
his free hand. "It happened. Neither of us was ready. I should
have..."

She laughed. "Are you laying all the responsibility on
yourself? Please. I was a bit naive when I was younger, but
when a boy invites a girl back to his house after taking her to
the graduation ball, the girl knows perfectly well what's going
to happen."

"I didn't _mean_ it to happen!" he said, almost shouting,
turning bright red. He still looked as cute when he was
embarassed as he had when he was younger. "I just thought... you
know. We'd talk for a while. Have some tea. I'd had a really
good time. I wanted to spend some more time with you, and then
I'd walk you home."

"I was ready. I was pretty certain it was going to happen."
She shrugged. "So, if it's anyone's fault, then, I guess it was
mine. I'm not sorry it happened, and I'm glad it did. It was
good, for the first time. At least for me. It's always going to
be painful for a girl, the first time. You were so gentle. So
sweet." And a little clumsy, she added silently. And scared,
and uncertain. We both were.

"It was good for me as well." His hand lifted her hair,
then came to rest gently on the back of her neck. "I always
liked you, Nanami. When we first met, I didn't really understand
you. But I could see you were..."

"I was...?" she asked, after he trailed away into silence
and didn't seem inclined to continue.

"You were a better person than you were letting yourself be.
If that makes sense. I don't know if it does." He coughed
nervously. "I hope that doesn't offend you..."

"I know the kind of person I used to be," she said softly.
"These days, I like to think... maybe I'm a little better."

He kissed her on the cheek, lightly, then drew his lips away
as she stood, slightly stunned, blushing furiously and willing
herself not to. "You are. Everyone is, in their way."

Something about the way he said the last sentence, wistfully
and faintly bitter, made her start a little. "Everyone? What's
that mean?"

He blinked. "I suppose I was just thinking about Juri-
sempai and Shiori-sempai. We're all adults now. We don't have
the same problems we did when we were younger."

"Not all of them," she murmured.

"What's that mean?"

"Nothing. Never mind."

"All right. Aren't the stars nice tonight?"

They stood in silence for a little while, beneath the stars,
in the crisp winter air. She felt warm in his jacket, safe in
his arms. Reassured. They had to be wrong. He was merely
caught up in this like a leaf in a whirlwind, ignorant of the
truth. They could give him his memories back. _She_ could give
him his memories back. Right now. She remembered how Utena had
done it for her. It would hurt him, undoubtedly. To recall all
those painful things at once. But she'd be here to comfort him.
Then he'd be safe. Out of Akio's clutches.

She realized, so unexpectedly that it was almost epiphanic,
that she probably loved him. Could love him. Maybe had loved
him, for a few years now. But because he'd hurt her, she let
herself repress that, bury it beneath stupid casual dating with
men who didn't interest her at all, and beneath the stupid
childish (and not anything _more_ than that, no matter what
anyone might ever have thought or said) attachment to her
"brother". Now it all came to her like a sudden beautiful wound.

A faint crystalline tinkle broke the stillness. They both
started, and she drew away from him. Her wine glass, forgotten
completely even though it had been the nominal reason for
returning, was vibrating like a tuning fork. A moment it later,
it began to hum, as though someone were drawning their wetted
finger in quick circles around the delicate rim.

Miki dragged her to the ground and shielded her with his
body just as the hum became a high-pitched, grating wail. The
glass detonated, and over Miki's shoulder she saw the glinting
shards fly through the air like swarming insects. They soon lost
momentum and pattered to the balcony floor all around the two of
them. Not a one touched her, and if any touched Miki, he made no
sound.

She lay on her back, taking deep breaths and trying to will
her heart to slow. Miki was above her, supporting himself on his
hands and knees.

"Were you cut?" he asked softly.

"No. Were you?"

He shook his head.

"What happened?"

"I don't know. I've heard of things like this before.
Delicate crystal exploding under certain conditions. Maybe
because you left it outside in the cold?"

"You don't know?" she murmured, looking up into his eyes.
In this light, the blue was so dark as to be almost black. "I
thought you were supposed to be a genius."

He smiled down at her. She thought he might lean down and
kiss her soon. She wondered if anyone was watching. This
balcony wasn't _that_ isolated.

"I do physics and mathematics," he said. He shifted his
weight to one arm, and, with the hand of the other, brushed some
clinging hair away from her cheek. "I was never very good at
material sciences. Breaking points. Fracturing. That sort of
thing."

"My back's cold," she said after a moment.

He coloured a little and stood up, offering her his hand.
Around them, the broken glass lay like fallen stars. He helped
her to her feet. They walked back inside, crunching shards under
their shoes.

She gave him his jacket back. The music had stopped. A
look over the railing let her spot Suzuki, Yamada and Tanaka at
one of the food tables, eating hors-d'oeuvres with the precision
of a trio of synchronized swimmers.

"I guess the quartet's taking a break," Miki said, pulling
his jacket back on and trying to smooth it into shape with very
limited success. "Aiko-san was a friend of yours, wasn't she?
You should look for her and say hi."

"I lost touch with her after graduation." And with Keiko
and Yuuko, too. Not that they'd ever really been friends. She
understood that now.

"Well, it's never too late to get back into touch, is it?"
he asked quietly.

She looked away from him, nervously clasping her hands
before her. "No."

He clasped her shoulder briefly. "I'd love to spend some
more time with you, Nanami, but I've got more things to look
after. I'll find you again later."

"Later."

She watched him move away, feeling so happy she almost
couldn't bear it. He was... hers? Was he? Could he be?

She decided she did love him. He was certainly not
undeserving of it. She would talk to Utena and Juri, and they
would understand. Miki would have his memories back soon, and
he'd be on their side against Akio.

Like an unwanted visitor, a finger of ice suddenly traced
her spine. The pleasant warmth vanished. A guilty little voice
began to whisper to her. Very good, Nanami; while _you_ were
having such a nice time getting reacquainted with Miki, Utena
(who, let me remind you, is supposed to be your _friend_ now) was
going for a walk with the psychotic bitch who heads the Council
now. Probably being led into a trap. And when Chu-Chu figured
out that you were more interested in Miki than in helping Utena,
he ran off to find someone who would help. Probably Touga or
Juri, one of whom was already rescuing Utena from terrible peril,
earning her gratitude and respect.

She swore and headed for the stairs. Perhaps she wouldn't
be too late to help out. With whatever it was. If she could
find it. Stupid hormones. Stupid Miki, distracting her by being
so sweet.

At the bottom of the stairs, someone called her name, half-
familiar. "Nanami!"

She turned. Aiko broke away from what looked like an
admiring knot of guests and caught up to her, a broad smile
gracing her face and a glass of wine in one hand.

"Aiko," Nanami said, conflicted by the need to help Utena
and the desire not to talk to Aiko and the thought that maybe she
could help make up for things from before, and... "Your playing
is wonderful."

"Hey, thanks." Nanami couldn't tell if she was actually in
any way glad to see her, or if she was just keeping up the mask.
"I've got those three goofs to thank, frankly. They're the core
of the group." She shook her head. "Nobody at the college had
ever seen anyone who could keep better time together."

"Are they still...?"

"Idiots? Yeah. Well, idiot savants now." She chuckled
softly. "I'm not really being fair. They're okay guys. Matured
a little."

"How are Yuuko and Keiko? Do you keep in touch?"

She nodded. "Yuuko's pre-med at a private university in
Osaka. Pretty near where I go, so we see each other a lot.
Keiko got engaged a month back."

Nanami found herself smiling. "Tatsuya?"

"Yeah. Not the most exciting guy in the world, I always
thought, but nice. Cute enough, too." She leaned in and lowered
her voice. "Have you seen the Chairman? He looks _exactly_ the
same. Gorgeous, isn't he?"

Nanami kept on smiling, although it now felt painfully
forced. "I don't know. Looks aren't all in a man."

"Oh, yeah. Personality. Sense of humour. Etcetera." She
giggled. "Looks help, though. I saw you dancing with Kaoru
Miki. Just like high school again, huh?"

"Somewhat."

Aiko smiled. "Hey, you're welcome to him. Yuuko and I used
to be jealous as all hell at the time you got to spend with him.
But... this'll make you turn green. Guess who's been invited to
dinner by the Chairman tomorrow?"

Nanami paled. The words rode out of her mouth before she
even had time to think. "Aiko, you can't!"

All Aiko's geniality vanished instantly. Like a slate being
wiped clean. "Excuse me?"

"I mean, you mustn't--you see--the Chairman--he isn't--"

"You're exactly the same," Aiko said icily. "Isn't what?
Isn't meant for a 'normal' girl like me? Am I not _good_ enough
for him?"

"No--but--"

"Then what the hell did you mean?"

"Aiko, you musn't go," Nanai said helplessly. "If you do--"

Aiko shook her head. "I don't even know why I bothered."
Then she turned and stalked back towards the group she'd been
with before. Nanami stood there, hands clenched at her sides,
hating herself, hating Akio more. Wishing she could go back and
talk to herself, back when she hadn't been herself. The self she
was now. Grab herself by the shoulders, the mean, selfish little
bitch she'd been, and straighten herself out. Before she made
the mistakes she had. But there wasn't any doing that. No
undoing anything.

She thought suddenly of a box. A cardboard box. Closed.
Sliding down concrete banks. A crow circling overhead. The
thunder of the waters. She hadn't thought about any of those
things in years.

Taking a deep breath, she hurried away from the now-painful
sight of Aiko, hoping to find Juri (or even Shiori) first;
knowing, with her (justly earned) karma, that she'd probably run
straight into Touga before anyone else.

* * *

Like a comet it came, blazing, searing the grass beneath its
wheels, and they who drove it were faceless and had skin the
colour of the gloaming. They wore blue: peaked caps, and
overalls.

Anthy watched, with Kyouichi beside her, as it screeched to
a halt and swerved so as to present its passenger side to them.
The drivers (she was not certain how there could be two drivers,
but somehow, both of them were the drivers) sprang out of the
car and flung their arms wide.

ta-da!

"Who are you?" she whispered.

x-ko and y-ko, theatre of shadows technical crew. we
declare this prop A-OK! it looks like someone did some
deliberate tampering, though, so be on guard.

"You fixed it?" she asked numbly. Kyouichi was simply
staring. He had the expression she imagined the camel bore when
the final straw was laid on his back.

of course we fixed it!

that's our job!

most of the time, we work behind the scenes, to
make sure everything runs smoothly. sunsets properly
sunny. roses properly rosey. swords properly swordey.
hey, remember how much time it took us to get that old
carousel running properly?

don't even _mention_ that #@!$^@&$#*
carousel to me! one of those
horses had an entire _family_ of
mice living in it! i _told_ you if
we kept it in storage that long
that...

yeah, yeah. anyway, listen, we reallllllly
shouldn't be doing this. but he's playing around with
the rules of the story too. he's _not doing things the
way they're supposed to be done_.

we think he may be trying to change the
rules.

naturally, we're very upset by this. stories,
like everything else, have _rules_. breaking them,
like breaking any other rule, undermines _all_ the
other rules.

people can't just go about breaking
rules whenever it suits them, you
know.

exactly! look at them--they clearly understand.
they are obviously people of exceptional intelligence
and refinement.

 

anyway, we did what we could. a bit of
a gum-and-baling-wire job, we fear, but
the best possible under the
circumstances.

what you've got to understand about a car like
this is that it goes where it wants to go, and if you
try to make it go somewhere else, it will rebel.

Somehow, Anthy found it within herself to speak. "Where
does it want to go?"

*chuckle*

*guffaw*

it's simple, really. you just need to think about
it. you named the car, after all.

*DIOS*

*DIOS*

dios is was has been will ever be is becoming
shall cease to be The Prince.

naturally, then, he wants to go and save the
princesses.

all the princesses ever, everywhere.

even he can't do that, though.

the heartless knight didn't help things any
by messing about with the guts. you're
just fortunate we had a spare synecdoche
lying around in the workshop.

the point is just to keep your hands off the wheel
and let him choose his own road. that way, you'll
always show up just in time to save the princesses.

(until you run out of fuel, of course)

it will be very dramatic.

shocking, hopefully.

the sudden rescue!

the mysterious saviour!

They danced, jerky and spasmodic. Ballet for wooden
princesses. Pavane for marionettes.

"Anthy?"

"Kyouichi?"

His voice was calm and flat. Like a thin crust of ice atop
a deep black lake. "This world seems to be growing somewhat...
impressionistic, for want of a better word."

She looked down at the green grass, and saw broad brush-
strokes rather than individual blades. Overhead, the sky seeped
into the sun. Or the sun bled golden blood upon the skin of the
sky. It was hard to say.

"We had best get into the car," she said quietly. They did,
her behind the wheel, he in the passenger seat. The Theatre of
Shadows Technical Crew watched them do so, if faceless, eyeless,
things could be said to watch.

"Now, listen," one of them said, as the world began to blur
before Anthy's eyes; it seemed that she was rising from the
floor of the ocean, towards a shimmer of land and sky and sun
high above through the veil of the waters, and the world passing
away was bright fish and waving fronds. "The _most important
thing to understand_ is this. The ending of every story is
utterly fixed. The ending of every story can always be changed."

Anthy didn't say anything.

"That doesn't make any logical sense," Kyouichi said
quietly.

"I _know_!" chirped the other one. "Isn't it _wonderful_?"

end of chiaroscuro