"Did you hear? There's a new English teacher."
"Yes, I heard he's from England!"
"Do you think he'll be handsome? Do you think he drinks black tea and wears a hat? Do you think he says 'Pip pip, cheerio'?"
Gossiping girls, Utena thinks as she heads into the building, bookbag held casually over her shoulder. What's the point in speculation? They'll all see him for themselves before the day is out, and then what will have been the use?
He's short. He's old, too. Well, not terribly old. Not ancient like Mrs. Sakai the history teacher. But his hair is a little bit grey, and there are lines on his face. He's wearing boring trousers and a beige jumper. Utena stays facing forward because she wants to be polite, but she can already tell that she's going to spend most of these classes staring out the window whilst the teacher scrawls untidy English words on the board and urges them to repeat after him. She's already forgotten his name.
"Hello," he says. "I don't speak any Japanese, I'm afraid, so you may have to be patient with me. But at least you'll get a really good English class out of it, eh?"
The class titters politely. He gives them all a broad, amicable smile. At least he seems nice.
"So, do you have any questions for me?" he asks. "Or shall I just jump on in?"
One of the girls shoots up her hand. "Are you from England?" she asks in careful English.
He grins. "Yes, I am. I'm from London, actually."
The class erupts into exited buzzing.
The girl raises her hand again. "Have you met the Queen?"
The man laughs. "No," he says. "But I've an ashtray from Buckingham Palace."
"Miss," he frowns down at his roster, "Tenjou? Is that how you pronounce it? Yes, could you stay after class, please?"
She ducks her head. "Yes."
She waits until the rest of the class files out before approaching his desk. He smiles at her like a kindly uncle. "You're not in trouble."
She doesn't know how to respond to that, so she doesn't. She just stands next to his desk while he looks at her. He pokes the inside of his cheek with his tongue, and for a moment his gaze unfocuses into the middle distance. There's something sad in his eyes; she sees that a lot, lately. It seems like everyone she meets in the Dueling Arena has dark, angry pain in their hearts. She shifts her weight from foot to foot.
He says, "Your previous instructor left a note that you were the worst student in her class."
Utena laughs and scrubs the back of her head with her hand. "Yeah, uh, English my worst class."
He smiles. It warms his eyes a little and makes them look less black. "Well, if you ever need any extra help, you can ask me. We'll work it out together."
"Hai. Um. Yes. Thank you." She bows.
"All right," he says. "Thank you for your time, Miss Tenjou. You may go."
"Over there," says Anthy. "That's the new English teacher, isn't it?"
"Hmmm?" Utena looks up, her mouth full of tomato sandwich. It's unusual for any of the teachers to be seen in the cafeteria. He's sitting by himself at one of the little tables with a plate of curry and a glass of water on his tray.
"He's alone," says Anthy.
"Well, yes," says Utena, confused. It's not like Anthy to just state the obvious like this. And why wouldn't the new teacher be alone? He's new. He doesn't know anything yet, apparently not even that the teachers usually eat in the lounge. "What, you don't think we should sit with him? That's weird, students sitting with teachers."
"No," says Anthy, "but he seems lonely, don't you think?"
Utena looks at the teacher again. He's just a man, sitting by himself, eating and staring into space. He doesn't seem very lonely at all. She watches him pull a mobile phone out of his pocket. She shrugs.
She arrives early to the next class to find the teacher sitting at the desk, looking down at a mobile phone. It's very small and sleek and has a lot of buttons on the front. Even Nanami doesn't have a phone that nice. She tries to catch a glimpse without being obvious.
He looks up and catches her. She pulls back, embarrassed, but he just grins. "It's all right," he says. "You can look, if you want."
She creeps a little closer, practically on tip-toe, and he picks it up and hands it to her. She inspects it from all angles. It's very heavy, for its size. She tries the different buttons until she manages to turn on the screen, which swirls with colour. When she glances back at the teacher, he seems to be hiding his smile behind his hand.
"Was it...expensive?" she asks.
"I don't know," he replies. "Probably. It belonged to my friend. All of his things were very expensive."
"Oh." She hands the phone back to him. "He...good friend. Give phone to you."
"Yes," he says. "I suppose you could say that."
"Anthy!" Utena stops short. "Oh."
Anthy and the Englishman are standing together by the roses, their heads bent close together. They are talking, laughing. Utena can't remember the last time she saw such an expression of open gaiety on Anthy's face, and it makes something troubled twist low in her stomach. They look up at the interruption, and the smile fades from the Englishman's face to leave something softer and sadder behind.
"Hello," he says.
"Anthy, do you speak English?" Utena blurts out in Japanese.
"Yes. My brother and I were educated at Oxford," Anthy says in flawless English. "Before we came to Ohtori."
Utena remembers that gaping is unseemly and closes her mouth. "Oh."
The teacher glances at his watch. "Well, I'd better get going. I have to get ready for my next class. It was a pleasure chatting with you, Miss Himemiya."
"Yes," she says. "Come visit anytime."
He departs with a wave. Utena watches him go. She turns to Anthy, who's gone back to watering her roses. "What did you talk about?"
"Nothing much," she says. "We talked about England. He's very far from home, you know."
"Why is he here, then?" Utena wonders. "If he misses England so much."
"He was a soldier," says Anthy. "I think he must be used to it."
She supposes she should have taken that as a hint, and not be so surprised to be facing him across the dueling arena now. He's wearing a dark green uniform with a brown belt that goes around the waist and across the shoulder, and matching dark green trousers and a hat with a black brim. It makes him look very dapper and serious. Presently, he takes off his hat and sets it on one of the desks. Each desk has, today, a small black mobile phone placed precisely in the centre.
"Why?" she asks.
"It doesn't matter," he says, very quietly. "I need the Rose Bride." He extends the sword towards her. "I don't suppose you'll just give her up quietly."
Utena's hand tightens around the hilt of her sword. "Of course not."
"Then we'll have to do this the hard way." He slides into a fencing position. "En garde."
The fight is brief and furious. She lets him charge--if he wants Anthy so badly, then let him run for it--and dodges to the left, slashing him across the shoulder. It opens up a hole in his sleeve but doesn't graze the skin. He doesn't flinch or hesitate at all, but swings around to slash at the rose on the front of her chest. She darts back, and he lunges forwards again. Sometimes she deflects his blows, other times she parries or dodges. He fights with a grim, dogged determination that unnerves her more than the hateful, passionate fury of her other opponents. It's the patient, weary battle of the animal that's got nothing to lose, and so it must win.
But he does lose, because they always lose, because Utena does not envision a future in which she loses. His rose flutters to the ground in a shower of black petals, and the desks crash together as he drops to his knees, panting and disheveled. She looks down at him with pity, and he looks up at her with resignation.
"Sorry," she says.
"No," he says. "You're not."The screen has cracked, on each and every mobile phone.
"Did you hear? The new English teacher just resigned."
"I wonder why? He was a good teacher, don't you think?"
"I heard that he has to go back to England for some reason. Maybe a family emergency."
Utena waits until the rest of the class has filed out before approaching his desk. He's written in giant block letters on the board, GOODBYE. The lines on his hair look deeper today, his hair greyer. He gives her a wan smile as he shovels papers into his briefcase. "What can I do for you, Miss Tenjou?"
"I just want to say...good luck," she says, awkwardly.
A little bit of warmth creeps up into his eyes. "Thank you." He slams his briefcase shut and just pauses there a moment, his fingertips just resting on the brown leather. "Do you ever wonder, why anyone wants the Rose Bride?"
"No," she says.
"Ah." He looks down at his hands, his lips twitching. He looks like he's trying not to smile, and Utena wonders if the Englishman isn't just a little bit crazy. "You're a very good friend to Anthy," he says, finally. "You protect her."
"Yes," says Utena.
"That's good," he says, and he picks up the suitcase. "That's very good."