There was something seriously wrong with the world when even princes were forced to struggle over their homework.
Utena squinted at the open book on her lap, and then tilted her head at a different angle and opened her eyes very wide in case the equations would become suddenly legible from a different viewpoint. After all, once upon a time, when she actually had leisure to study, she had prided herself on being good at maths. Logical. Utena had once prided herself on her sense of logic. She had even thought it had fitted her world.
The problems remained irritatingly static on the page, which was reflecting the sun with a blinding whiteness that was giving her a bad headache. Or maybe it was ChuChu's surprisingly piercing snoring. She cast a stern look at the little creature, wincing at the phlegm bubbling from one tiny nostril.
This was really not how she wanted to spend a glorious lunch break. Maybe she should ask Miki for tutoring again. It was just embarrassing to bother a younger boy for help all the time, not that he ever seemed to mind. On the contrary, he always seemed only too eager to help out Utena and Anthy in particularl with anything at all. The three of them could study together. Anthy seemed to like Miki, as far as her impersonal sweetness showed any variation for anybody, and Miki definitely liked Anthy. Anything encouraging Anthy to make outside friends was a Good Thing.
Anthy needed more friends. Utena felt the prickling worry that bothered her heart whenever she thought of her roommate's isolation. Anthy was so gentle and sweet-natured, she should have many friends. Utena could not imagine anyone not loving her if they had a chance. And more contact with others would, surely, take the edge off Anthy's ways that were still… a touch abnormal.
Yes… the Anthy Needs More Friends project definitely required a boost. She would talk to Miki soon, she decided with satisfaction.
"Utenaaaaa!" A sudden weight on her back nearly propelled her face-forwards onto her own book, and arms wrapped tightly around her neck. "Why are you studying? The sun is shining, it's time to play!" Wakaba released her grip, and snuggled down on the grass by Utena's side. "It's unnatural to be working hard in such gorgeous sunshine."
Utena closed her book, secretly not sorry to have an excuse. "I don't want to have to prepare for another makeup exam," she said guiltily. "I don't have the time." Now, that was the understatement of the year. She gestured at the third girl. "Look, Himemiya's studying." She realised as she said it how bizarre it was for Anthy to take an active interest in her studies, but she did seem absorbed in her reading.
Wakaba cast a look across at the other girl, sitting demurely with an open book on her lap, that for a moment seemed… not nice. Not friendly at all. But that was ridiculous. Wakaba adored Anthy, how could she not? And Anthy's serene half-smile had not even flickered for a second as she raised her head to meet Wakaba's gaze. Utena decided that she had imagined the tension between them.
"I am afraid I am not studying, Utena-sama. This is only a book of children's stories – see?" She lifted the book and showed them the cover.
"European folktales and fairytales?" Utena asked.
"Yes, Utena-sama. I like fairytales." Anthy must have moved her head a little as she spoke, because for a moment the light caught the spectacles on her tree-shaded face, flaring the circles to opaque gold. Sitting there in the shadows, her dusky skin even darker away from the sun, and those twin circles of light hiding her eyes, Anthy looked as if she was carved from black marble.
Utena had the disconcerting feeling that she did not know what was behind that gleaming glass, or even if there was anything there at all. Anthy was a charming doll, with no human emotions on her perfect face. But then she glanced down at her book again, and the glasses became translucent once more, her moment of beauty melting away, and she was only a ladylike schoolgirl with glasses and tightly bound hair, reading fairytales.
Utena who had limited patience for books in general or children's stories in particular, was nevertheless glad to seize on a subject that had as little as possible to do with homework. "I haven't had a fairytale read to me for… " Images arose and were ruthlessly shut down again in her mind."…such a long time. Why don't you read us one, Himemiya?"
The demure head was raised again, and the glasses were almost invisible this time, mere outlines on the delicate planes of Anthy's face. A shaft of light fell between the leaves and illuminated green eyes, liquid with pain and terror. She inclined her head obediently. "If you wish, Utena-sama."
Utena felt the sick, frustrated guilt that always bothered her when her roommate acceded too readily to something she suggested. As if she was some kind of evil demon, exploiting her Bride's submissiveness. Just once, if Anthy would only refuse, or show annoyance. Utena cursed her own insensitivity. Of course reading aloud in a crowded quadrangle would be torture for someone as retiring as Anthy. And equally as certainly, Anthy would do so without complaint, merely because she had asked.
Anxious to remedy her mistake, she snatched the book from Anthy's hands, guiltily feeling the cover bend in her too-eager grasp. She awkwardly straightened it out. "Wait – I want to read!" She flickered quickly through the pages, stopping at the first story she found. "Here – 'The Real Princess.'"
"I love this story!" Wakaba flung her arms around Utena's neck again, leaning heavily on her and laying her cheek against hers, so that she could read over her friend's shoulder.
"Chu!" agreed ChuChu, leaping up onto Utena's other shoulder.
"Is this alright, Himemiya?"
Anthy's gentle smile increased, her eyes warming. Utena was sure that Anthy knew what had just happened, and was grateful to be rescued. "It is a wonderful choice, Utena-sama."
Utena smiled back, then returned to the page and began to read. She was painfully aware that she was not very good at reading aloud. Her own personality was too strong to easily take on the voices of other people, and acting, even the rudimentary acting necessarily to read aloud effectively, came hard to her. But Anthy seemed content, which was more important than Utena wanted to admit, and Wakaba was cuddling close with her characteristic, somewhat smothering affection. The sky was hot and the exact shade of lapis lazuli. There were worse things to do on a day like this than read to your most dearly beloved friends.
"Once, there was a king and queen whose most cherished wish was that their only son should wed, and in turn produce a new heir to the throne," she began in a somewhat halting monotone. "But the question soon arose – how, among the eligible brides, was it possible to ascertain which was a real princess?"
She glanced up at Anthy, floating in her own self-contained rainbow cloud across from her. "Shouldn't they be able to tell? I mean, weren't there birth records and things? Especially if you were nobility."
"I think they were less concerned with birth than with the princess being… special." It was Wakaba who answered. Her voice was more quiet than usual, and there was something in it that Utena could not quite understand. Something quite different to the bundle of energy and sweetness she thought of as Wakaba. "I think a true princess is someone who draws attention away from other people without even knowing it. Someone who is special and always wins just because she is a princess. While the other brides were just ordinary girls."
"Maybe." Utena realised she was staring blankly at Anthy and had lost her train of thought. Flushing a little, she impulsively patted her lap. "Come here and listen to the story, Himemiya."
There was a moment's hesitation and then, to Utena's surprise, the purple-haired girl laid herself down on the grass. Her head settled into the encircling haven formed by Utena's cross-legged thighs and calves, her hair tickling the other girl's bare skin. Wakaba shifted uncomfortably, her possessive embrace tightening, and Utena's cheeks darkened further. She had not quite realised how intimate the position would seem.
And then, after few pounding heartbeats, the world settled into its proper place. Wakaba warm against her side, Chuchu balanced on her shoulder and Anthy's head pillowed on her lap felt… right. Precious and secure, as if it was a pampered kitten she was cuddling. As if everything in the world was exactly how it should be.
Utena smiled, and began reading again. The words came more easily now, her voice even beginning to inflect the story with rudimentary emotion as the fairytale took shape. The pouring rain, the bedraggled princess at the door, the suspicious mother and the incredible bed… The images from the story became real and flickered around her. All she failed to see clearly was the Prince. No male figure on a white horse… no Touga, no Akio. Only a blank shadow play face crowed with velvet and jewels.
Utena knew that it was not rational that she could see a hundred mattresses suspended in the air in her peripheral vision, vanishing whenever she looked up from the book and tried to see them directly. But then, was an upside down castle any more everyday an object to be suspended in the air? Better not think about it too much, even if the images were more real than the sunshine and the grass, although still less real than Wakaba dotingly draped over her, the dear head trustingly laid in her lap.
The hand that turned the pages touched finely textured hair in between, smoothing over tight coils, and no one objected, not even when her fingertips brushed and lingered over the soft curve of a cheek. That was reality enough.
The tensions of the last few days seemed to drift away into another place. Her confusion over Akio, all the messy incomprehensible strain of the Duels… None of it could touch her. She was surrounded by her best beloved friends, by sweet undemanding female love, and nothing could make her unhappy. Warmth washed over her, as if she had stepped into a hot spring.
She was sorry when the story drew to a close. Anthy's impossibly long lashes were brushing her cheek under her spectacles, and Utena suspected she had fallen asleep. How adorable, to be lulled to sleep by a fairytale, like a small child. There was a fierce blaze of protectiveness in her heart, the emotion that, more than any other, she associated with Anthy. The awareness that this girl was, in some sense she did not quite like to define, hers to cherish and protect.
"What did you think?" she asked Wakaba, pitching her voice low so as not to disturb the slumbering girl. Although, come to think of it, she had been reading quite animatedly a moment before, so it was probably wasted effort. If she was thinking logically, that was.
To her mild wonder, it was Anthy who responded, her eyes still closed. "I think that she was not a real princess."
"Why not?" demanded Wakaba.
Anthy's lashes lifted, and Utena wondered vaguely why emeralds were always used as a comparison for green eyes. Anthy's eyes were nothing as hard and soulless as a gem. They were a living, gentle green, like sunlight screened through leaves, touched with the shadowy depths of forests.
"She complained about the bed. A true princess would never have objected to the circumstances her prince wished to subject her to." There was a note of stern censure in her tone that made it difficult for Utena to repress a laugh. "A true princess would have endured, and remained smiling, and no one would have known about her bruises."
"I wonder what happened to the other girls? The ones they decided were not real princesses," Wakaba wondered aloud. She still sounded too sad, even bitter, for such a lively girl. Utena felt a stab of worry about her, that she had not felt since she had seen the girl wearing a black rose. But Wakaba was alright now… she was happy.
"The true princess had the pretenders thrown over a cliff." The trio looked up to see Nanami standing over them, hands on her hips and chin jutting out defiantly.
"Isn't that a little extreme?" Utena said mildly.
"Why?" the younger girl asked. She tossed her gleaming waves of hair. "They had no right to try to win the prince's affections when they were not worthy of him. They deserved to die. All of them. Only the true princess deserves the prince. I -" She bit her lip, and turned sharply on her heel, striding away. Behind her, Tsuwabuki sent them an apologetic glance, and scurried after her, his arms loaded down by her books.
Wakaba sighed, flopping back on the grass. "Do you suppose that's true? Were the false princesses really killed?" she asked, forlornly.
"It's a fairytale, Wakaba. A moral story for children," Utena pointed out, her voice sounding more irritable than she had meant. She wished Nanami had stayed away. The younger girl's poisonous anger had broken some kind of spell, and Utena's deliciously dreamlike state had sharpened into reality. "Namani's probably right. Fairytales are usually terrifyingly violent. That's part of what makes them fairytales."
"I guess Nanami would know. She's a real princess if anyone ever was," Wakaba giggled, some of her sunniness returning.
Utena snapped the book shut and put it down. What was she doing wasting time with children's stories? She had a sudden urge to stretch her muscles – go for a jog, train on the courts, anything. Books were boring. And fairytales were for children.
Anthy's head felt as cold and heavy as marble on her lap.