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Dihydrogen Oxide, the Unicorn, and I

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The silver gleam of her signet ring on the nightstand is calming for a moment. But only a moment because Nanami starts yelping as she realizes her legs are trapped. Of course it’s a tangle of sheets and blankets holding her captive, but it’s enough to evoke the nightmare coffin. With all her strength she kicks off the covers. Something squeaks.

“Chu?”

“HIMEMIYA!”

“What is it, Miss Nana-?”

“Why are you naked?!!”

Twenty minutes later two young women and a monkey-mouse are sitting around Nanami’s breakfast table sipping tea and eating toast. Nanami and Chuchu wearing twin expressions of indignation.

“So…”

“Yes?”

One of these days Himemiya is going to give her an ulcer. She just knows it.

“You still have the monkey I see.”

“Chuchu has been a very faithful friend to me.” 

“Next time he can be faithful in someone else’s bedroom!”

 “A-hem, well, I’m sure now that Chuchu has seen that you’re doing well and given his kind regards to you it won’t be a problem, Miss Nanami.”

“Chu!” squeaks the unrepentant familiar. Nanami wants to swat him away from her stash of custard puddings that he somehow got from the fridge. She doesn’t only because anything that didn’t involve nudity and Chuchu and also nude Himemiya is a step up from what just happened in her bedroom. Besides he’s eating the cheap puddings she bought at the convenience store when she needed emotional validation via food.

 Like how hard would it have been for the other girl just to borrow a nightgown or a t-shirt from her closet? Not to look a gift-witch in the mouth or anything because she’s grateful her drunk ass got home in one piece, but still.

“Right, whatever. Moving along. There were duelists at that restaurant. Duelists. But no Rose Bride and no swords and no rings.”

“They did have the air of duelists, but…”

“So this is the part where you go running off to yell at your brother and tell him to knock it off right?” Nanami has to admit there is something liberating about being an adult and having the right to speak to your older brother as something like equals.

“But Miss Nanami, there is no Rose Bride and no Prince. There’s just…nothing.”

The only sound in the room is Chuchu stirring a spoon in his tea, soft china clinks.

“He couldn’t have replaced those somehow?”

“When Utena vanished those roles were destroyed. The castle is gone. My brother couldn’t replicate it if he tried.”

Nanami flicks some sugar at Chuchu distractedly. “Maybe they’re trying to summon Tenjou’s ghost without realizing it? Like if she’s all mixed up with the remains of the Rose Bride role magic and the Prince magic and they’re tugging on the spiritual cord that’d make them like duelists. ‘Specially if they were competing in some way for the power.”

Nibbling at her toast Himemiya nods slowly, “That would explain a great deal. Yet how do they know how to go about grasping the power? And why Utena’s spirit? If my brother is not involved someone from Ohtori must be.”

“Even thought the original duelists can barely remember what went on? The minute I’m away from you or the original group the details get blurry.”

“It’s possible my brother my have had some protégée that I don’t know about. Or someone may have found the original Nemuro files. I wouldn’t know until I’ve spoken with him.”

“Right so when do we descend upon the devil? Wednesday good for you? I’ve got this optional seminar my department head keeps whining about but I can totally skip it.” That totally gives her time to buy a fabulous new outfit to visit her old school in.

“We?” Himemiya’s puzzled tone is like a surprise gift because catching a witch unawares is mega hard. Nanami should know.

“Yeah. You, me, and the furry trash compactor here.”

Chuchu salutes with a second spoon that he seems to have stolen from his owner.

“Why would you involve yourself, Miss Nanami? I can take care of this quite on my own.”  

“No you totally can’t! It’s been ten years and you haven’t found Tenjou. With me on your side it’ll be wrapped up in a few weeks and then you’ll totally be thanking me with witchy wish rewards! I’ve got smarts, savvy, money, and sooooo much better sense of style than you. These upstart duelists don’t stand a chance!”

“Chuuuuu!”

“ ‘V’ is for ‘Victory,’ right monkey-chu? Besides, I kind of owe Tenjou. A tiny bit. Like practically not at all. But Nanami Kiryuu is going to pay in full.”

“Oh my, you’re so determined.”

“Operation Save Tenjou Because Himemiya is a Weirdo Who Can’t Do It Without Nanami Kiryuu is officially on!”

 **

 

Nanami ends up seeing Himemiya before Wednesday after all. 

Monday morning dawns chilly and bright. She wears her newest spring coat and is checking that her applied eyelashes are in place when she sees it. Across the platform on the opposite wall two workers finish putting up huge poster.

“The Shadow of the Eternal Castle”

The latest novel by Yuriko Mukogawa has arrived!!

Signing event at JR Kyoto Isetan release day!

Monstrous upside down castle in the sky? Check.

Illustration of a forlorn looking female figure with orangey-pink hair? Check.

Frightening resemblance to Ohtori’s Duel Arena and ultimate champion? Check and double check.

Nanami does what any sane person would do. That is to say she shrieks and points at the poster as if it has the power to literally bowl her over with symbolism instead of just figuratively. Then she snaps a picture of it and texts it to Himemiya, her brother, and Kyouichi. The other passengers waiting on platform eight give her a wide berth.

School? Totally could wait. Freaky-deaky coincidences could not.

“Himemiya, where are you? Get to Kyoto Station now!”

“I saw your message,” Himemiya sounds both completely tranquil and absolutely rattled simultaneously. “What should we do?”

“We’re going to that author signing at noon and we’re going to find out who Mukogawa knows to write something like this. So get over here and we’ll like eat waffles until then.” Mysteries make her hungry and it doesn’t help she skipped breakfast.

She hangs up with Himemiya and texts her professor that she won’t be in for her lab work that morning. The one great thing about being a grad student in her small department  is that she can rearrange her seminars as needed. Nanami manages to pack away one and half plates of waffles before Himemiya shows up – hair in a tousled flip ponytail, floral skirt, and a cardigan that manages not to suck.

“Strawberry brownie berry is the seasonal special, I just had the pear banana maple waffles and I got us a custard blueberry one to split,” Nanami is like so over the shock of the novel poster. Really she is. A full stomach does wonders for relieving surreal tension.

“That does sound rather delicious,” Himemiya goes along with the whole ‘let’s pretend the universe isn’t super creepy’ vibe like she got a memo or something before arriving. “Oh and they have custom blended fruit juices too! I never knew this place was here in the station.”

Small talk saves the day until Himemiya’s order comes to the table and mercifully they can both concentrate on eating. By then it’s only ten thirty.

“Okay, so we need a game plan,” Nanami pulls out a pen to scribble on one of the napkins. “Because if we do this wrong Mukogawa will totally put a restraining order on our asses and I do not need my name dragged through court or worse tabloids.” Ew, just the word feels dirty in her mouth.

There’s an origami crane made out of an extra napkin in front of her. Himemiya beams at her like she’s made some kind of meaningful contribution. “Go on!”

“Riiiiiiight, okay so the signing starts at noon. The agent and the staff will probably set up the room at least fifteen minutes prior to that, possibly a full half hour. We’ve got two options there: we either try to get there early and make a good impression on Mukogawa’s agent or Mukogawa herself to secure a later interview or we make sure we’re the last people to get our books signed and try to talk to her then.”

On the napkin are two stick figures seeming to stare down a third stick figure with a book.

”The first way is more strategic but we’re more likely to fail because of the time crunch or Mukogawa and her agent showing up late. The second could work better but we don’t know if she has another appointment straight away—are you even listening?”

On the other side of the table there’s a neat little row of five cranes.

“You’re such a talented schemer,” the witch says as she starts to fold another crane.

“Will you stop that? The girls behind the counter are staring. And by the way I’m choosing to take that remark as a compliment.”

Himemiya glances at Nanami’s napkin, then her cranes, then the inky napkin again. “I think, Miss Nanami,” her tone drops to a tone that can only be described as husky, “that you are over thinking and over planning.”

“Puh-lease! As if you never schemed in your Rose Bridey deception life. Ohtori was like one big puppet show for you and Chairman Casanova.” Schemes and plans are what Nanami is good at. It’s what makes her so damned good at genetics because she can line everything up and see the big picture and keep track of all those details.

“My brother was more the one for plans compared to myself,” the other girl chews her straw. “I prefer to set things in motion. An object won’t change its status until acted upon by some unbalanced force.”

“And each action results in an equal and opposite reaction,” a blonde lock is twirled around Nanami’s finger.  “Blah blah blah Newton’s laws. Blah blah the castle is the unmovable object and you’re the unstoppable force. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not thirteen and dumb anymore.”

“It’s not that,” Himemiya is almost impossible to hear over the chatter of other customers and the station noises outside. “What you said about the castle…”

The gears in her head are loud and she’s not certain if they’re slowing to an eventual halt or speeding up. There’s a flat clang of truth to her throwaway words, but when Nanami tries to poke at it the thread of her thoughts skitter away.

“Never mind,” Himemiya shakes her head as if to cast off some mystical cobweb. “I think we should just meet Mukogawa without any plan.”

“That’s a stupid plan.”  

“Which is precisely why it’s not a plan.”

Eight cranes are arranged in what Nanami reckons is some kind of battle configuration.

“So the plan is to have no plan? Just show up and go ‘Hi, Miss Mukogawa, you don’t know us but we think your mind has a telepathic link to some dead girl who used to go to our middle school how about we go out for coffee?’” she goes into a falsetto to show how ridiculous that is, but witch girl keeps smiling like it’s a genius plan.

“I have an idea,” Himemiya says suddenly. “Let’s go buy the book and start reading before the signing.”

That’s … actually a reasonable thing to do. So ordinary and reasonable that Nanami has trouble parsing that it came out of Himemiya’s brain and wasn’t a crossed signal from an alien broadcast.

“I was just going to say that, so let’s get over there and grab ‘em.”

Of course something so simple turned into a misadventure. The pretty perky girls setting up the tables tell them that the books can’t be sold until noon and no they couldn’t flip through them. Down several escalators, staircases, and gently sloping halls the two companions find themselves in the station’s attached shopping mall’s basement levels searching for the bookstore.

“I’m sorry ladies but we sold out this morning just before ten. We should have an afternoon shipment coming in soon,” is the answer they finally get from the proprietor of the tucked away little shop. “It’s marvelous really. I hear the author has been on talk shows for the last week promoting it and to think that she’ll be upstairs in the cultural rooms today-!”

“Yeah yeah, thanks for nothing – Himemiya! Put that down! We don’t have time to look through novelty magazines. We’re gonna have to try the department store upstairs.”

 Isetan department store’s stationery and book corner is modest, but adequate for their needs. Nanami grabs two copies and charges them on her credit card before Himemiya has time to make a remark or offer to pay.  Which wait a sec, does Himemiya even have money? Or a job? Or does she like brainwash people into letting her have stuff for free? She would have to ask Himemiya later, for now they had a bestseller to skim through for clues.

Splashing and flailing about Hanako attempts to swim towards the nearer bank. The river’s edges are no longer fenced in by large concrete blocks as before. Perhaps this isn’t the same river I fell into, Hanako thinks. Perhaps I fell into one river and came out another. But that’s a strange notion. More likely she was carried downstream far away, right?

When she reaches the shore it’s twilight and eerie twin moons are hanging in the sky. One is a delectable crescent, the other a perfect half moon. The stars are brighter and closer, more like near planets than distant suns, and are colored most queerly. Their light makes the dark forest ahead seem even mysterious. Hanako doesn’t remember seeing a forest when she as swimming before. She thought she saw mountains and hills, not tall silver barked trees.

“Do you think Hanako is supposed to be Utena?” Anthy bites her lip as if she doesn’t want to know the answer.

“It’s too soon to say, keep reading!” Nanami shifts her legs from where she’s sitting in the hallway in front of the cultural rooms.

The only sound in the forest for a long while is the sound of Hanako’s soft footfalls and labored breathing. No birds sing, no insects chirp, no animals skitter about. It’s the most unnatural natural place. A parody of nature, an idea of a forest, the illusion of what a forest might dream – that’s all it is. Still Hanako walks further and further into the darkness, wet and shivering, when the sweet tinkling of bells begins.

She picks up speed, breaking into a run. Faster and faster until the music is louder and louder. It’s unclear how far and how long she runs, suddenly there is a clearing. Little lights bob up and down – maybe they are fireflies, maybe they are fairies – all around a crystal dais. Under the light of the moons Hanako mistakes the reclining figure for a perfectly carved statue of a goddess in repose.

The sleeping young woman is perfectly still except for the very slight rise and fall of her bosom. Her dark locks are arrayed on the pillow to perfection, her dress is embroidered in metallic threads, and in her hands are three flowers. Hanako instantly understands – this is a princess, no The Princess, The First Princess.

Hanako kneels because that’s what one does before royalty. She rises and gets closer. There is a story sewn into the Princess’ dress. As she looks at it everything is clear and knowable – who the Princess is, why she is there, and all about the Forest. As she looks away she forgets it all. There are three flowers in the Princess’ folded hands, a white lily, a red rose, and a pink lotus. Hanako gets the feeling that the flowers themselves are also asleep and dreaming.

Of princes and white horses there appears to be a pronounced lack. It is difficult to know the right thing to do, Hanako thinks. Should I keep going through the forest until I find a prince? Will she be fine sleeping here? In a forest of no seen beasts, not a soul to speak of, there could be no harm in leaving her.

But what if she never sees her again?

The thought strikes Hanako with almost violent intensity. Everything around her keeps changing. If she keeps walking the Princess will vanish like she never existed and Hanako would probably forget all about her once she leaves the queer Forest.

The First Princess does not respond to Hanako’s urgent voice or gentle hands shaking her. Breathing just as slowly and deeply as ever the Princess keeps dreaming. Of course there is the traditional way to wake princesses. Everyone everywhere knows that way even if they never heard a fairytale in their life. Hanako takes a deep breath to steady her nerves and kisses the Princess with all due tenderness and respect.

Her lashes flutter revealing jewel colored eyes, the Princess looks up mournfully at Hanako, “Why did you wake me?”

The sky shifts from night to day, the twin moons replaced by big red sun. Noises erupt all around them, if the forest was empty before now it is abuzz with life and chaos and –  

Monsters.

Hanako can see their hulking shadows and figures just beyond the clearing. Already they are fighting one another, screaming and shrieking, roaring and rumbling. The dais crystal crumbles into dirt. The Princess’ dress turns patchy and bloodstained.

“Why did you wake me?”

Nanami releases a breath she didn’t even realize she was holding. It’s just a stupid book, a stupid modern fairytale that has no connection to anything. It’s totally a red herring on their journey into the Fucked Up Unknown. So why are goose bumps rising all over her arms and legs?  Why does Himemiya turn each page nearly trembling? And more importantly why is there a forest of legs around her?

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” A quick flip of her cell phone reveals that they’ve been sitting on the hall floor reading for over three hours and the signing started without them noticing. “Himemiya, get up!”

Getting up from sitting on the floor in a skirt and high heels is tricky enough. Doing that while in a crowd of women standing over you without knocking anyone over, twisting an ankle, or accidentally flipping a skirt is way harder. But Nanami isn’t here to make friends, especially not with people who wear cheap Christian Louboutin knock-offs, ugh. Wake her up when people with taste arrive. So a little grasping at skirts and shoving to get vertical isn’t beneath her.

“I was here first!”

“You’re not getting in front of me!”

“Back off, blondie!”

Neither is stepping on some toes, literally.  “Yeah, well I’ve been here all morning before you tramps showed up so shove it.” Once she’s upright Nanami can take in the scope of the event. Even in her highest stilettos she can’t see over the sea of heads. There’s less a line as there is a mass of chatting excited female fans. The author in the next room isn’t even visible from her vantage point.

“I think we’re at the wrong side of the hallway, Miss Nanami,” Himemiya is at her elbows, not nearly as bedraggled looking as Nanami is. “I do believe we’re at the end of the line, not the beginning.”

“Thank you, Captain of the SS Obvious. How did this even happen?”

“We were terribly engrossed reading Miss Mukogawa’s enthralling novel,” her companion holds up the offending paperback with far too much cheer. “It’s even more interesting that I assumed.”

“Oh my god, Himemiya, that was rhetorical!” Seriously she is going to burst a gasket if the continues to be this annoying. Suddenly she misses her lab and its solitude. On the other hand lab days are mostly inhaling coffee and could be pretty monotonous when she’s trying to duplicate the professor’s results.

“Isn’t my name Hanako?” the young woman smoothes the blankets on her lap. They’re scratchy affairs, but also the blue of a summer sky.

“Not at all,” the nurse replies as she adjusts the girl’s IV bag. “The name on your chart is Kaori. Perhaps you used to know a persona named Hanako. You were in a coma a very long time.”

“Kaori, kaori, kaori,” she turns over the words in her mouth. “From a flower to a mere fragrance. I seemed to have become invisible, an intangible fancy.”

“What a poetic turn of phrase you have. Maybe you can be a writer when you’re released.”

“Released? Am I a butterfly or a prisoner?”

“Don’t be silly, you’re a patient. Or is this one of your poems?”

The girl falls silent. She realizes she doesn’t know the name of her hometown. Or for that matter the names of her family members. Or if she has a family at all.

“Does anyone visit me nurse? I can’t seem to recall.”

“You’ve only been awake for two weeks and sleep most of that time from what the other nurses tell me.”

“Don’t you know?”

“No, I only started in this wing yesterday,” the nurse smoothes her dark hair.

It’s only after the nurse leaves that the girl realizes that the nurse’s nametag read ‘Himeko.’

Thirty minutes pass and the line barely inches forward. Nanami is about to start reading again when the crowd starts making noises of disappointment and the staff comes around to lead them out.

“Hey, what is this? I came to meet Ms. Mukogawa and get this crazy, er brilliant novel signed by her!” she gives her most imperious sneer to the staff member closest to her and Anthy.

“The signing is finished and Ms. Mukogawa has left,” the woman has the gall to smile. “We’re very sorry for any disappointed fans who were unable to get their books signed. If you check the publisher’s website there should be a schedule of Ms. Mukogawa’s other appearances.”

“Great, so I’m behind on lab work for absolutely nothing. Hello Bad Luck? It’s me, Nanami. Leave me alone I have enough troubles.” She wants to stomp down the escalator, but that would just be asking to ruin these stilettos.

“It wasn’t a total loss,” Himemiya observes once they’re on the ground floor. “After all you brought our attention to the novel and it seems to have a strong connection to Ohtori and Utena. I’m sure we’ll be able to contact the author somehow.”

“Five million ignored emails later,” Nanami huffs. “With a side of ‘never visit our office again’ warnings. Why can’t these things just once fall into place?”

In hindsight fall is a poor choice of words. She doesn’t see the dip in the cobbles, it happens so fast she’s only registering the pain in her hands and knees that she realizes what happened.  Scraped skin is a raw inelegant condition. It burns with hypersensitivity and seemingly takes an eternity to heal. So thank the gods she doesn’t have a single scratch on her face because forgoing foundation for a week is a deal-breaker.

“Oh dear, oh dear.” For once having Himemiya around is a real blessing because she helps her up and doesn’t fuss too much. “Let’s find a place with a first aid kit. Shall I go back inside and fetch the station master?”

She can see it now: a dingy cramped office with an out of date first aid kit and too many employees hovering around.  Yeah, no fucking way. It would probably also smell like bad warmed over boxed lunch and cleaning supplies. And not a hundred yards away was the entrance to the hotel attached to the station. Decisions, decisions.

“Just help me to the hotel lobby, it’s closer,” Nanami slumps against Himemiya without remorse. “I’d rather relax in four-star comfort than plastic chair discomfort. What’s the point of having a hotel attached to a station if not for situations like this?”

“For travelers and persons on business who prefer accommodations near their primary mode of transportation?”

“See we need to have a talk about rhetorical questions. Like super soon. Once there are some bandages and antibacterial wipes to be had.”

The concierge of the hotel watches them come in with a judgmental sneer that Nanami cannot wait to displace. “Is there something we can do for you…ladies?”

“King suite, if you please, and I want someone sent up with first aid supplies,” the flat ennui of the upper class feeling out of sorts colors her tone.

“We are going to need you to register and pay for the room first, miss. Did you want to look at the availability and price list first?” he’s almost daring her to back down, to behave like one of the masses. She’s not having any of it.

“Excuse me? Perhaps you don’t recognize me.”

“I do not, miss.”

Now this was the fun part of being rich. The parties are boring, the materialism monotonous, but pulling status and rank on jerks is always a joy.  She pulls out her mobile phone and dials the number she needs all while smiling a sugary smile at the jerk at the counter.

“Daddy, it’s me. I fell outside Kyoto station and the concierge at your hotel doesn’t recognize me. Uh huh. Yes, mmhmm. Yeah, no, you shouldn’t fire him. This time. I mean I’m sure he’ll put everything on your account once he sees my ID and I give him our account number. Uh huh, no I won’t be able to make it to dinner this Saturday, but I’ll come by Sunday to see you and Mommy. Bye bye!”

The concierge is still dumb enough to think Nanami is a silly girl pretending to be famous. “Anthy, darling, can you give him my card? It’s a bit hard to get up again with these banged up knees that no one sees to be attending to.”

Okay she has to admit that it’s times like these that she likes having Himemiya as her new partner in crime. Because Himemiya knows where this game is going and is grinning with anticipatory glee. Probably comes from a lifetime of men snubbing her, using her, and lording over her for their own gain. Even secondhand satisfaction can hit the spot. “Here you are, sir.”

All the color drains from his face as he checks the ID. “Mistress Kiryuu, a thousand apologies, we had no idea you would be stopping by this afternoon. Sato! Prepare a suite for Mistress Kiryuu and her friend immediately.”

Once motivated by fear for their jobs the employees have Nanami and Himemiya comfily situated in a suite and enjoying a late luncheon delivered via room service.  The complimentary champagne is also smoothing over any bad feelings Nanami had earlier. Even if it is a little hard to drink elegantly with her hands wrapped in gauze.

“On the bright side, we can finish reading Mukogawa’s novel in comfort,” Himemiya chirps once the bellhop leaves the room.

“Yeah, anything’s better than that linoleum floor and being surrounded by giggling fangirls.”

Another fortnight goes by for the girl who is not Hanako and is Kaori. The nurse named Himeko does not visit her again. She has many more doctors than before. They ask a lot of questions about her dreams. Their faces blur in her vision and her head aches. She sleeps by day to avoid them. By night she looks out the window and thinks about the First Princess.

One night she falls asleep during her quiet revelry and when she opens her eyes two moons are casting light enough for two shadows on her bed. She expects the forest to materialize around her, she expects to see the First Princess.

There is only her hospital bed and herself, the girl who is not Hanako. The door will not open. The window opens. In pours sand and bones of strange beasts. The room is filling and she cannot get out.

If this is an hourglass, she thinks, then turn me over and let’s start again. The room tilts and pitches. The sand empties with sibilant hisses and Hanako-who-is-not-Hanako falls out the window with the sand.

“Ooooooh, yes! Harder! Please, please please, ohhhhh just like that!”

Nanami jolts out of her reading and back to reality. “Oh for the love of-! Someone has to get laid in the middle of the afternoon in the room next to ours. Because waiting until night time is just too much to ask for.”

“Ahhhhhh! More, more, more! Slow down, no speed up!”

“My what indecisiveness,” Himemiya chuckles and pours them both another glass of champagne.

“Maybe she’s a princess of Mars,” says her regular nurse. “I read that Mars has two moons.”

“I saw a movie that had the world of fairies having two moons,” says the night nurse. “Maybe she’s a fairy princess.”

“She’s the First Princess,” Hanako-Kaori always answers. “And I miss her very much.”

“The whole world misses princesses like that,” says her regular nurse. “That’s why they’re in so many stories.”

“All the magic’s gone out of the world these days,” says the night nurse. “That’s why there’s no fairy princesses anymore.”

Squelch, squish, slap, thump. The undignified noises of intercourse in the next room are even louder than before.

“I think their bed is right up against this wall,” Himemiya touches the wall behind where she’s sitting on the couch.

“Ohhhhhh myyyyy god, your tongue is amaaaaziiiiiing!”

“Okay, this girl is starting to royally piss me off.” She kicks on the adjoining wall with hard, “Just finish already! God!”

There’s a sweet moment of golden silence. Then comes the high pitched wailing of pleasure starting up all over again. Nanami hates herself a little for being simultaneously turned on and pissed off.

Like the stupid part of her south of the equator says, hey let’s ask Himemiya for another great hand job and be even louder than the other girl just so fair is fair. But that’s a splendidly terrible idea. Because while orgasms are great they’re kind of in the middle of a budding friendship and Nanami cannot handle relationship drama. Any drama that doesn’t revolve around her own needs is superfluous.

“Okay, that’s it! I’m going to knock on their door and give them a piece of my mind!”

“Maybe I should knock for you since your hand is still bandaged.”

“Good idea.” It’s almost as good as having a hench girl again, but a witch is so much better Nanami decides.

Himemiya knocks with all the righteous force that Nanami would totally use if her hands weren’t in such a delicate state.

“Open up, girlie!” Wait that sounds kind of obscene given the circumstances. “I mean open up the door! We’re not gonna listen to your ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and ‘pretty please screw my brains out’ anymore!”

Shuffling and other noises can be heard from the opposite side of the door. Nanami taps her foot impatiently. “Himemiya, knock once more!”

Before her friend’s – were they friend’s? – knuckles could meet the firm surface of the door it flies open and a young woman with nothing but a crumpled sheet says, “What do you want?”

“For you to be quieter about your enjoyment of cock, duh.”

The girl laughs as if a naked girl has a right to laugh at a fashionably fully dressed Nanami Kiryuu.

“You’re just jealous,” the strange girl leers. “With that sour puss of yours you’re probably still a virgin. I mean you did grope me before.” She lets the sheet drop to display a fine collection of love bites and her wet thighs.

“Ohhh,” Nanami rolls her eyes. “You’re one of those bitches from the book signing. Yeah, don’t flatter yourself. You’re not that hot. Any groping that was done was purely accidental. I mean -” she jerks her thumb at Himemiya. “International super model who’s a succubus between the sheets –“ finger now pointing to the girl – “or a slutty OL or freeter. No competition.”

Himemiya, blessed partner in crime Himemiya, possessively puts an arm around Nanami and nips at her ear suggestively. Fake girlfriends are much more convenient than real ones, she decides.

“I took home more than a signed book,” the girl tries to salvage her pride.   

“What do you have Mukogawa in there?” Nanami cackles. “Or did you pick up a security guard?”

“The former.”

Nanami pushes past the nude girl and manages to barrel her way into the suite that’s a twin to her own. “Ms. Mukogawa, I need to ask you a question about your book-!”

The figure reclining on the bed is nude, beautiful, and calmer than anyone interrupted in coitus ought to be. Nanami could probably write poems about the woman’s figure, her air of grace, her stately features. But none of that matters because there’s one thing about the author that stands out from everything else.

It’s the fact that she’s Juri Arisugawa.

Chapter Text

Peasants might crumble with shame at the tableau. Good thing Nanami was raised in the upper echelons of society which means that her jaw is totally not hanging open unattractively like a greedy carp in a public park. Even if it is she makes it look good.

“Ju-juri?”

“Good afternoon!” Himemiya waves cheerfully at their mutual acquaintance as if walking in on some afternoon delight is etiquette. “Lovely to see you again! We were just enjoying your novel in the next room.”

“Little Nanami and Himemiya? You’re the ones causing such a fuss?” Bemused. Arisugawa is bemused at the situation. Not furious like a normal person would be. Not annoyed like mundane person would be. No because she’s Juri Arisugawa and she’s a goddamned chevalier of yore even if the time-space continuum dissolves around her.

“Miss Mukogawa, tell them to get out,” the fangirl stomps back into the room after dramatically slamming the door to the hall shut. To Nanami’s amusement she’s put the sheet around her once more. “We were in the middle of something.”

Arisugawa gets off the bed and comes over to greet her fellow alumni all the while cool as a cucumber. “It’s been a long time,” she makes a point to bow her head in Himemiya’s direction and clasp the witch’s hand warmly. “We’ve wondered about you after you left, but never could find you or Tenjou again.”

“It’s nice to be remembered,” Himemiya replies every inch a gracious princess. “You have all been in my thoughts over the years.”

“And you,” Arisugawa’s full attention turns to Nanami and it’s more overwhelming than she wants to admit. “Look at you all grown up, a real lady now.” Nanami doesn’t get a hand clasp, she gets chucked under the chin and somehow it’s not patronizing at all. “How’s that brother of yours?”

Right she can do this. Nanami can definitely make polite conversation in a room that reeks of sex with two naked women, a witch, and a brain addled by surrealist imagery. “Oh, my big brother? He’s uh good. I can give you his email if you want.” Don’t stare, don’t stare, don’t stare. “Um so yeah, we’ve been reading your book-“

“Mukogawa, you know these bitches?” fangirl pulls back on her clothes in the huffiest manner possible which who cares because no one is paying attention Nanami wants to tell her.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Yuuka. These are old classmates of mine that I missed seeing earlier.” Arisugawa goes over to kiss her paramour and whispers what Nanami assumes are platitudes and apologies.

“It turns out we got to meet Miss Mukogawa after all!” Himemiya whispers excitedly into Nanami’s ear, probably because she wants to get in on the whisper club.

“Yeah, but it’s a former duelist. That’s not that helpful. She just combined some stuff from the duels and made up the rest. Mystery solved.”

Himemiya shakes her head almost violently. “No, there are things in her book she couldn’t have known. Even if she was as close to my brother as Touga was she wouldn’t have known certain truths. There is something else at work. Or someone else.”

“If you two are done whispering,” Arisugawa pats them both on the head like kittens. “I’m going to take a shower and meet you back in your suite for this little get-together.”

So that happens. Waiting for Arisugawa was more nerve wracking than when they were waiting in line at the book signing. At least then they could be distracted by the novel instead of the distracting noises in the other suite. Fangirl apparently is making one last impression while she can.

“Hey, Himemiya.”

“Miss Nanami.” The witch busied herself with braiding her long hair.

“Did you know that Arisugawa and Mukogawa were the same person?”

One outer section crosses over the middle, then another, then once more. A whole divides in three to become a different kind of whole.

“I wasn’t completely surprised,” is what her companion sighs out at last. “Nor was I entirely expecting it.”

“You suck at giving straight answers.”

It’s been years since Nanami had a braid in her own hair. Idly she mimics Himemiya, only she opts for two braids instead of one. There is something comforting about their soft weight on each of her shoulders.

“Did you really expect that to change over the years?”

“Did you expect for that girl to still be having sex with Arisugawa even after we walked in on them? I mean you’d think she was getting paid over there.”

“A question answered with a question. Miss Nanami, you’re picking up some strange habits.”

She doesn’t bother to reply because isn’t a personality just a collection of strange habits people pick up and drop over the course of time? Or something. Whatever. The point is she’s bored and her hands sting a bit from braiding.

Sometime later Arisugawa makes her grand entrance. Just waltzes in with the room service (Himemiya having ordered ice cream sundaes) and gracefully drops onto one of the sofas. “Now then what was it you wanted to ask me about the book? Of course I’m happy to sign personalized copies if you like.”

There is no trace of shame in her and Nanami kind of admires that. “Yeah, you can autograph whatever you want. What we wanna know is how you got that intel.” Two can be ballsy.

Himemiya ties a bow at the end of her braid.

Arisugawa’s eyebrows rise until they’re about to make acquaintance with her hairline. “Intel? You make it sound like you’re spies. I just wrote a novel. My editor says it’s very ‘in’ to do a post-modern deconstructed fairy tale.” She runs one hand through damp curls. “It rather wrote itself. I completed it faster than anything else I’ve written so far.”

“Miss Nanami tells me that the former duelists have talked about Utena’s disappearance and the events leading to it,” the witch says carefully as though she’s hopping on stepping stones into Juri’s mind. “Did you intend to put those memories in your novel?”

“As I’m sure Kiryuu has told you, we remember best when we’re with another duelist. Honestly, I don’t think I saw any duelist while I wrote it. A lot of it just came to me. Some parts were from my dreams.”

The bow comes undone.

“How much of your novel is edited from the original manuscript? From your initial writings and dream recollections?” each word is swaddled in delicate magic, even Nanami can feel it.

“Not too much, but I have the original drafts if you care to see them.”

How Juri could just sit there and let that mad witchy mojo just fiddle with her is beyond Nanami’s comprehension. It’s like Arisugawa was daring Himemiya to put a spell on her or something.

“That would be most helpful,” Himemiya’s lips curl into a slow enigma of a smile.  “You see Miss Arisugawa, Miss Nanami has volunteered to assist me in my search for Utena. We have reason to believe her soul is at a crossroads.”

“We do?” Hold the phone. Did she miss the memo that said, ‘Tenjou’s reckless naïve soul is at the intersection of Oblivion and Rebirth, send emergency response duelists’? Because if so, she’s got to check her texts more often.

“The appearance of new duelists, Miss Arisugawa’s novel, our meeting,” the witch takes an unladylike large bite of her sundae. “The stars are aligning, but whether they are in our favor is questionable.”

“Let’s not talk about stars. I get sick thinking about planetariums.” Cue flashback of the Incestuous Duo, ugh. Also white leather sofas? So tacky.

“It does appear this is more than mere coincidence,” Juri states solemn as any oracle. “Let me assist in anyway I am able, for I too owe Tenjou a great debt.”

“Oh goody, now we can wear matching outfits and be a trio of weirdoes instead of just a duo,” Nanami rolls her eyes because only Juri would treat this like it’s a damn chevalier pact to save the world.

“Matching outfits are a splendid idea, Miss Nanami!” Himemiya’s eyes light up.

“I was joking. We’re not doing the matchy-matchy ‘pair look’ thing.”

She doesn’t care that Himemiya pouts. Really she doesn’t.

“Anyway before we get even more sidetracked,” she takes command of the conversation before the Ambiguous Witch and the Takarazuka hero start up again. “We’re visiting Ohtori this week to search for answers and Himemiya here is going to interrogate her brother. Feel free to join us. If not then just send us your manuscript and we’ll do lunch some other time.”

“Yes, Miss Acting Student Council President,” Arisugawa’s tone could only be described as mocking so why does Nanami’s heart skip a beat? “I meant what I said; I will help every step of the way.”

Yeah, that’s exactly what Nanami is afraid of.

All the arrangements are made and the trip is planned around Nanami’s labs and Arisugawa’s book signings.  Wednesday dawns cloudy. It’s totally not an omen because Nanami won’t let it.

“One box twin fresh cream, two boxes chocolate cream, one box white chocolate, ooooh and one box rare cheese!” Himemiya chirps at the Hirota kiosk attendant. “That’s new isn’t it?”

“Yes, those cream puffs are only available until the end of the month!”

“Hurry it up, witch, we still have to walk over to the JR side of the station and meet Arisugawa,” her stomach growls and Nanami regrets skipping breakfast. She has the horrible premonition that she’s going to be gobbling down the choux-crèmes on the train as gracelessly as Chuchu.

“And four éclairs, please! That’ll be all,” Himemiya turns to smile at her companion. “We have plenty of time before the train comes, Miss Nanami. Besides I needed to order enough for us, Chuchu, and one to take to my brother.” She holds out her hand and Nanami gives her the cash, feeling like a sugar mama not for the first time.

“You’re lucky I have a sweet tooth.”

Plenty of time turns into by the skin of their teeth as they rush into the southbound express train just as the doors close. Arisugawa and Himemiya look entirely unruffled as they arrange themselves on the seats and take out the snacks. Why is it that only Nanami is huffing out of breath unattractively?

“Coffee, Kiryuu?”

She gulps and takes the cold can all the while eyeing Himemiya’s purse in case a certain monkey-mouse came out steal their goodies. “Thanks, Arisugawa.”

Arisugawa and Himemiya then start chattering about some television drama they both like while Nanami can only think of the pit in her stomach. Returning to Ohtori Academy sounded easy a few days ago.  Maybe if she hadn’t woken up this morning in a cold sweat with the sound of deep bells ringing in her brain.

No one can hurt her there. Whatever power the chairman had is certainly crippled without his sister providing back-up. Her brother is out of that place. He’s happy and more centered than he’s ever been in his life. She’s her own person, not a pawn of older men. She’s living her own life on her own terms. All these perfectly logical statements do nothing to quell her queasiness.

From the window she can see the train approaching their destination: the steep hill where the campus sits, the ornate architecture, and the view of the sea. Over a decade of memories flood her senses, colorful against the dreary weather of the day. She thinks this must be what sleepwalking is like. From the station they take a cab up to the school gates. Nanami could swear that the metal roses are in fuller bloom than when last seen on her graduation day. At the very least they are more tarnished.

Himemiya’s face is carefully blank while Arisugawa’s is a perfect glass mask of poise. Nanami knows she must look like the village idiot in comparison, but she can’t care too much since she’s the only one keeping things on track and still the best dressed. “Alright ladies, this is it. The big return. The dramatic reunion. The prodigal daughters home to roost. So let’s get to it!”

Anthy claps her hands in what is probably delight, goofy smile returning to its rightful place on her face. “Your enthusiasm is a marvel!”

Even Juri manages to crack a smile.

She pushes on the familiar gate, a zing shooting up her spine as fingertips graze the ornate rose handles, and it creaks but holds fast. “…do not tell me we are locked out,” Nanami drops her forehead to the bars. “Because I cannot deal with that.”

The zing returns sharper and sweeter a moment later when Anthy covers Nanami’s hand with her own. “Do you really believe you could be kept from here?” The witch’s voice is sibilant bordering inhuman. “Just remember what you’ve bled.”

That brings the hot sting of tears to her eyes because every humiliation, every sorrow, every despair that had bloomed for her here wells up and is threatening to drown her sanity. She fights it, reaches down down down where there’s a sword and dagger embedded in her heart, and throws off the past because she’s done with it for now.

Click, clank, and creak the gate grudgingly opens

“Rusty old thing,” Juri shakes her head, either oblivious to the magic that was enfolding or simply ignoring it. “It never opened right even when we went here.”

Across the threshold they go and Nanami’s head is turning this way and that to take it all in. The bare bones of it are the same. The campus laid out in the same manner with few new additions. The design of the hideous green uniform is tweaked for modernity, but the students still giggle and gossip just the same as ever. Her chest gets a knot in it and Nanami isn’t sure if that’s what people call nostalgia.

“They’re so young and innocent,” Juri says as a group of middle school students scuttle by.

“I’m sure adults thought the same thing about us back then and look how accurate that was. Who knows what these kids are up to,” Nanami motions to the tower. “You don’t need magic to be messed up.”

Anthy is silent for the entire exchange and it hits Nanami like a freight train that Anthy was never a middle school student. From what she knew Anthy and Akio have existed since before middle schools were even a thing. What must it be like to be playing the role of a child when you’re older than indoor plumbing? No wonder Anthy likes playing pranks. What else is a witch to do with her endless free time?

Without much more conversation they find themselves in the lobby of the tower. Nanami doesn’t remember the tile work being so gauche.

“How may I help you ladies? Are you here for the latest news?” the ponytailed receptionist has a gleam in her eye that Nanami neither likes nor trusts. “I can give you the scoop on anyone here.”

Anthy giggles. God help them.

“We were hoping to see Chairman Ohtori,” Juri gives the receptionist, nametag reading C. Kamikage, one of her patented lady-killer smiles. “He’s available to see some alumni isn’t he?”

“Oooooh, sorry about that Miss Arisugawa!” Miss C-stands-for-Catty replies with mock sympathy. “He’s totally booked today, but I can squeeze you in another day.”

“Do I know you?”

“We went to school together here, but I was a few grades behind you,” Kamikage’s grin is practically Cheshire. “You were the prince of the fencing team and we were all half in love with you.”

Nanami would have thought that Juri would be immune to such blatant ego-stroking flattery, but behind her cool gaze there’s a hunger. Juri leans over the desk to whisper something to Kamikage which results in even more asinine giggling.

The elevator dings and an elderly gentleman steps out. His eyes seem to light up with joy when he looks at their little group and he walks over. The term ‘silver fox’ comes to mind and if Nanami were into older men he’d top the charts. Thankfully she only ever had brother issues and not daddy issues.

“Good morning, Mister Chairman,” Kamikage chirps. “These alumni were just making an appointment to see you another day.”

Chairman Ohtori. Kanae’s father. How could they have forgotten that he was reinstated after Tenjou disappeared? Nanami feels stupid and she hates things that make her feel stupid.

“Welcome back, ladies, always nice to see our students again,” Ohtori’s voice is soothing like a documentary narrator’s. “Miss Arisugawa, one of our finest fencing champions, how could I forget? And Miss Kiryuu! You and your brother had such distinguished student careers, both of you on the student council and you were head of the tea ceremony club when you were in high school, correct?”

There’s a flurry of bows and handshakes. If Juri or Anthy feel thrown by the chairman being the rightful chairman it doesn’t show on their faces. Great so Nanami is back to feeling like the gold medal winner in the Moron Olympics. Good thing she has over two decades of Kiryuu poise to fall back on.

“I’m terribly sorry, miss, I don’t seem to recall your name, but I do remember you were one of our students,” Chairman Ohtori turns to Anthy with a winning smile. “Please remind me? I’d hate to forget again.”

“I’m Anthy Himemiya, sir,” Anthy looks up from under those doll-like lashes of hers like an ingénue of the silver screen.

“Himemiya! That’s it! Did you come to see your brother today?”

Nanami imagines that the sound of a needle skipping on a record would be appropriate right then. “You know her brother, er, um, sir?”

He gives her a strange look as if she’s the only one not in on The Secret, but Nanami is confident that Anthy and Juri are equally flabbergasted even if they’re choosing to be silent for the moment.

“Why yes, of course. Associate Professor Akio Himemiya teaches astronomy, earth science, and the occasional ancient history course. I believe he’s still working on a doctorate dissertation,” Ohtori nodded to himself. “Miss Kamikage here can let you know what classes he’s teaching today if you don’t have all the details.”

Chairman Ohtori shakes their hands once more before confirming some appointment with Kamikage and leaves. In big bubbly script the receptionist scribbles down Professor Himemiya’s classes and office hours.

Nanami is still in a state of minor shock. Once the three of them are out the door and onto the campus Nanami turns to Anthy, “Professor Himemiya? Professor Himemiya! Did you know about this?”

Anthy’s chilly gaze says everything and nothing.

“If she did we wouldn’t have been trying to make an appointment with the Chairman,” Juri says evenly.

“I know that, I just mean the fact that he’s still here and in the spotlight even though he’s not the chairman chairman,” Nanami babbles and hates herself for it. “Ugh, you know what I mean! Never mind, let’s just go and see the wizard already.”

The wind nips at their faces as they hurry to the building, something something Memorial Hall. Nanami never had a class there and she only barely recalls it ever being there. Maybe it had been under construction or renovation when she was in  school.  Despite its lobby being a tad shabby and a mite dusty there are plenty of chattering young students on break between classes hanging around the hallways.

On the second floor at the far end of the hall there’s a door with a small plaque reading “Associate Professor A. Himemiya.” Anthy traces it with her fingers lightly. Much to Nanami’s disappointment nothing lights up or makes a creepy sound. Instead Anthy just takes the knob in hand, twists it, and opens the door.

The hinges do creak in a fairly menacing manner so it seems the trademark Ohtori-Himemiya siblings haven’t lost all their flair for the dramatic.

Unlike the tower penthouse which had been spacious, spare, and grandiose the office is a cramped cluttered affair covered in dark wood paneling, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and heavy curtains. The star of the tableau is clad in a dove grey suit and powder blue tie, a prince on his wedding day. He should look large in such a small dark room, but if anything the esteemed associate professor has the air of a lost little boy.

“Didn’t you used to be taller?” Nanami blurts out. Granted the man is sitting down, but still he looks like he shrank a good five inches and split the difference with Anthy. He doesn’t answer, but she doesn’t expect him to.

Akio, though Nanami isn’t sure the name fits anymore, stands up slowly with something like wonder in his eyes as he takes in their little group. Anthy steps toward him slow and certain.  

Simply watching the two siblings look into each other’s eyes is more intimate than when Nanami saw them locked in intercourse all those years ago. There’s an equality buzzing between them that had never existed before. Anthy holds her chin high while Akio’s gaze is almost demurely downcast. It couldn’t be more role reversal than if Akio was wearing a princess dress.

The damn bastard would probably make that look good, too.

“My lady sister,” just that nearly has Nanami jumping out of her skin, mostly because Akio breaking the silence is unexpected.

“Brother,” Anthy replies as coolly as Juri’s frosty tones could drop. “It’s been a while.”

Bo-ring. Not that Nanami is judging or anything, but you’d think they could manage something more interesting than that after a decade of separation. But she gets that this is one of those power things. Whoever looks away first is the weakest link or something.

In her mind’s eye Nanami can imagine she sees the magic surrounding them. Where it used to be one malignant mass is replaced by jagged edges of two wholly divided parts. Where they once fit, oh the general shape is still there, but it couldn’t be reunited without damage. But she’s totally imagining all this right so it’s not relevant.

 

They take each other’s hands as reverently as a couple exchanging wedding vows and stare some more. Nanami makes a mental note to ask Anthy later if they were doing all spells and stuff on each other. It takes forever, but finally the siblings drop the eye-speak and start to use words again.

“Thank you for coming to visit,” Akio says quietly, the words practically absorbed into the walls – a contrast from the echoes of the tower.

“We’re here on a kind of business to be perfectly honest,” Anthy takes the bag of sweets from Juri and holds them up for inspection. “We were hoping you might shed some light on the subject or at the very least share your thoughts.”

Akio looks as though he might pout, but in an instant a half-broken smile is put up in its place. “I’ll make us some tea.”

Somehow there’s enough room for the three girls to squeeze onto a sofa (not white leather, praise be to the gods above) and Akio to perch daintily on a faded ottoman around the coffee table where the tea and sweets are laid out. Chuchu scurries out of Anthy’s purse and gives Akio a cheeky salute before taking his share of the little feast.

It’s not until they all start sipping their respective cups of tea that Anthy takes charge once more. “Miss Nanami and I came across some interesting people the other day.”

“Oh really?” the former chairman is all politeness. “Interesting in what manner?”

“We think they were Duelists,” Nanami says enunciating the capital ‘d.’ If she lets them play magical mind tennis they’d be there forever. “Only no rings or any swords we could see. And all of that’s supposed to be over because of Tenjou.”

Akio freezes in place and Nanami thinks he must truly be surprised. It’s totally weird to see a former puppet master seem lost and confused, but weirdly kind of gratifying. She’s not crass enough to pull out her camera phone to capture his expression, but it’s tempting.

“I see,” he murmurs and shoots his sister an imploring look.

Anthy’s clearly enjoying her power over her brother so she lets him dangle for a moment or two while she finishes a cream puff. “Indeed they had the air of Duelists, yet fundamentally different at the same time. It was clear to me they were not from,” she waves a hand, “Not from Ohtori. However, for them to be wholly unconnected to this place is unlikely.”

“Did you think I set up players on another board?” the ex-prince actually looks sad as he asks. “It’s a bit out of my reach these days. I’d be hard-pressed to do anything even here.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean your hand wasn’t in it at one point,” Juri finally speaks. “Any star pupils come to mind that might start their own game?”

Akio turns his gaze on Nanami and ugh she forgot how soul-piercing his freaky green eyes were. It’s worse than being seen naked because it’s your heart that’s naked. “Tell me honestly, dear Nanami, do you think your brother is involved? He’s always had the knack and the cleverness to make a reach for it.”

“No,” she can say that with a clear conscience at least. “He’s on a different path now. I’d know if it was him. Like you he always had a kind of signature to his schemes.” She doesn’t say anymore because this man did enough harm to her and her brother, he doesn’t deserve to know that Touga’s made something of a happy life for himself. Nanami makes a point of staring back at Akio, fiercely but without rancor.

“Then I really couldn’t say,” Akio demurs back to his sister. “The Kaoru twins were always too wrapped up in each other to even bother otherwise I’d advise looking at Miss Kozue. As Student Council members you were all quite popular among the student body. Who knows what soul stain rubbed off on some innocent?”

Anthy stiffens next to Nanami on the sofa. Her brother’s words really must have set her off to have her physically show discomfort. “All people lose their innocence; it’s the very nature of adolescence,” the witch says curtly. “Whoever set up these new Duelists is very much in control of their actions regardless of their past. Yet something larger is being set in motion.”

“Himemiya and Nanami came to see me when my new book hit a little too close to the truth,” Juri finally speaks and leave it to Juri to get all the cool lines. “It’s a book drawn from my recent dreams, but Himemiya seems to believe they might be more visions than anything else.”

His curiosity is visibly piqued and Akio tilts his head inquisitively. “Visions and duelists? I do agree, sister, something must be at work.”

“I believe it is in no one’s best interests to ignore what is happening,” Anthy replies. “Everyone involved in the earlier attempts at restoring the power of Dios will be affected eventually. We need to move quickly before the situation gets out of control.”

“Yeah, and Tenjou’s soul might be in danger or something,” Nanami adds between bites of her éclair. “And Tenjou’s soul ripped something out of you two, right? No one’s ever really explained the whole thing to us mere mortals. Anyway, Anthy thinks this is our best chance at figuring out what happened to Tenjou and if that Dios power is still out there. You in or what?”

“If anyone is going to solve the mystery of Tenjou I won’t allow it to be upstarts,” Akio’s trademark smirk slowly blossoms across his face.

The smirk is ruined when Chuchu takes that moment to jump on a pastry and the cream squirts out with enough force to hit Akio on the chin.

Nanami can’t help it, she laughs so hard she’s afraid there may have been a few snorts in the mix. Even Juri deigns to hide a smile and a cough behind one slim hand. Best of all Anthy is grinning like her familiar discovered a new law of physics.

“Your insight will be most welcome in the course of our investigation,” says the witch primly.

“Welcome aboard Team Missing Link,” Nanami manages to speak once her laughing fit subsides. “No funny business and I swear if you’re secretly screwing around with us you’ll regret it big time.” She brandishes a finger threateningly at Akio.

Akio has the grace to appear to be contrite as he cleans his face with a handkerchief casts a wary glance at Chuchu. “Duly noted, Miss Kiryuu.”

Chapter Text

Miss Kiryuu this is your advisor Chida. You’ve missed the special seminar for graduate students for the second time. Please call me back so we can arrange for you to attend the next seminar. It is important that you attend.

 

Beep.

 

Nanami, it’s Touga. What happened with that novel author? Is it related to Ohtori Academy? Is the Chairman involved? Nanami, please be careful and call me as soon as you can.

 

Beep. Beep.

 

Hey little Nanami, it’s Kyouichi. Your brother and I are worried about that text you sent. Everything okay? You know you can call anytime if you need help. You still coming over next Sunday, right?

 

Beep. Boop. Beep.

 

Anthy’s living room is just as bizarre as Nanami imagined. An overstuffed chintz sofa dwarfs the Queen Anne chair and the cocoon style chair next to it. The coffee table has no less than three vases overflowing with roses, lilies, and ivies. There’s a set of bookcases with glass doors and elegant pewter handles and several cherry wood shelves showcasing bone china teacups and saucers. All over the furniture and floor are fuzzy throws and plump cushions. Yeah, it’s exactly what Nanami had pictured, eclectic, tasteless, and weirdly cozy.

 

She slumps into the sofa and grabs a velvety handful of blanket to put on her lap. “Hey, Anthy,” Nanami calls out to the witch in the kitchen. “What’s our next move? I mean whatever we decide we can text to Arisugawa and your brother.”

 

To: “Tokiko Chida” prof_noir@yuufu.jp.ne

Super sorry, Professor! A family emergency came up, but it’s mostly over. I’ll be in tomorrow and we can talk about the seminar and my project then.

 

To: “Big Brother” crimson_blade@yuufu.jp.ne

Arisugawa was the author, can you believe it? I’ve kind of been hanging out with Himemiya lately in between lab sessions. Don’t worry about me, big brother! Good luck with the busy season, I’ll see you next Sunday.

 

To: “Kyouichi” westtemple_rider@yuufu.jp.ne

Everything’s okay, weird-okay, but okay. Tell my brother not to worry so much, I’m fine. Himemiya might come with me next Sunday. Is that okay or is that too weird for you?

 

“I was thinking we’d comb Miss Juri’s original manuscript for any possible clues,” Anthy brings in a tray laden with sweets and tea, setting it down on the table before she joins Nanami on the sofa.

 

Free tea and sweets? This is definitely one of Nanami’s better friendships. “Is any of that stuff going to really be helpful in finding Tenjou? I mean it might give you a clue as to what her soul or whatever might be up to, but like will it really give us a solid lead?”

 

“It’s more than I had when I first started my search,” Anthy shrugs lightly. “My brother may be helpful or he may not.”

 

“Yeah, uh speaking of brothers,” says Nanami trying to gather courage between bites of petit-fours. “I’m going to see my brother and Kyouichi next Sunday. I mean you can probably come along. I don’t think they’ll be super helpful or anything, but the more former duelists the better right?”

 

Touga and Saionji were kind of a touchy subject that Nanami had been avoiding bringing up with Himemiya. She cringes remembering the worst of their behavior during the year of duels and is more than a little afraid Himemiya might go all super revenge on them. Which would totally suck because they’re the most important people in Nanami’s life right now.

 

“If I would be welcome I would like to see them,” Anthy’s quiet voice has Nanami opening her eyes that she didn’t know she had squeezed shut in fear. “You’re correct in that more duelists in one place could help. And if Arisugawa is having visions, they might as well especially considering they were a great deal closer to the situation with Utena and my brother towards the end.”

 

Oh good it seems like revenge is not foremost upon Himemiya’s mind. It still could be on the backburner though so Nanami vows to be vigilant. “So like here’s another thing that you might know ‘cause you know so much or maybe you don’t because you’ve been kind of doing your own thing these days.” Stop rambling, Kiryuu, she tells herself sternly. “My brother and Kyouichi are um together. Like together together.”

 

Anthy takes two sips of tea and quirks an eyebrow. “Yes?”

 

“Oh my god! Will you please take this seriously?” She’s totally going to die of embarrassment any moment now. “I mean together like a couple. Like a married couple. So like if that pisses you off or something then don’t even bother coming with me. I know they were total assholes in high school, but they’re both my big brothers and if anyone gets on their case they’re going to have to go through me first.”

 

Himemiya is silent and stony-faced for only a few seconds before she starts laughing so hard tears leak out of her eyes.

 

“This isn’t funny, Himemiya!” Nanami shoves the witch with sofa cushion, not hard but it’s enough to show her annoyance. “Stop laughing!”

 

“It’s not that,” Himemiya hiccups with laughter. “You’re just like a kitten when you’re angry, Nanami! It’s so cute!”

 

Oh, well then. Nanami sulks until she finishes off her slice of sachertorte. By then Anthy’s mirth has subsided into occasional giggles. “Whatever, are you coming on Sunday or not?”

 

“As I said before, I’m happy to attend if I’m welcome,” Himemiya says.

 

“And you’re not gonna be all weird about them being kind of married?”

 

“Of course not,” a smirk plays on the corners of Himemiya’s lush mouth. “Honestly, Nanami, I’d have to have been blind to miss the connection between the two of them back then. It was like a ball of red yarn turned into a knotted spider web.”

 

“So that red thread of fate stuff is real? Because if you can see that kind of thing we could totally go into business as matchmaking fortunetellers.” Yeah, they’d call it Princess Love Shrine Matchmaking, Ltd. and take on the most heartbreaking cases and solve them like a mystery solving duo on TV. “Wait do I have one, too? Can you see who I’m tied to? Wait I don’t want to know!”

 

Himemiya coughs delicately, “Perhaps we can return to that idea after we find Utena.”

 

“Fiiiiiiine,” Nanami wrinkles her nose in displeasure. “You’re no fun at all.” She leans back into a fluffy pillow and leans over onto the arm of the sofa. “Anyway what was up with Akio the Great and Powerful, today? He was practically doing an impression of you during your Rose Bride days.”

 

It feels like weeks have passed since the morning, but in actuality shortly after their chat with the professor formerly known as the Chairman Ohtori they took the next train back to Osaka without much fuss. Arisugawa had been her usual stoic self and didn’t offer any further commentary. Nanami thinks the orange-haired duelist is probably putting some pieces together in her head and won’t make a move until she’s confident she can see the whole board. Good luck, Nanami snorts mentally, because if Himemiya can’t figure it out what hope did any of them really have?

 

Shrugging Himemiya refills their empty tea cups. “Any number of reasons and a few more I haven’t thought of. He no longer has the power to do as he pleases. People relax when they perceive another as weak. Since he no longer commands illusory magic or a position of influence his best bet is to seem as nonthreatening as possible. “

 

“I can’t believe I fell for it,” groans Nanami into the sofa arm. “I was actually starting to feel sorry for him for a few minutes.”

 

“You can still feel sorry for him, in some regards he is a very tragic figure,” Himemiya drops her perfect posture and leans a bit on Nanami. “Yet a wounded animal is more dangerous than one in its perfect natural state.”

 

“Don’t worry I’ve got a track record to maintain,” Nanami says, shifting the blanket so that it covers Himemiya too. “I’m like one of the only people who finished school that year without being seduced by him and that creepy sex car. Or having had sex in that car while he watched. The car was also him, right? So like having sex in the car would also be like doing with him – ewwww I can’t think about it any longer.”

 

She’s super tempted to ask Himemiya if she ever slept with any of the Duelists when they won because the Ohtori-Himemiya siblings clearly had no compunctions about using sex as a weapon. Nanami never actually won a duel against Tenjou so she has no firsthand knowledge. Sadly she doesn’t think they’re at that point in their friendship where she can just ask – ladies room hand jobs notwithstanding.

 

Chuchu launches himself face-first onto a small sponge cake Himemiya put aside for him. He looks up at her for a reaction and she rolls her eyes theatrically, it seems to please him.

 

“Miss Nanami,” Himemiya’s voice is soothing like a lazy summer stream. “You would tell me if you were having visions, wouldn’t you?”

 

“What kind of idiot do you take me for? Of course I would. Who wants to be haunted by that kind of nonsense? I’d tell you so you could make it stop or take over for me.”

 

A chill runs from her scalp to her toes as she remembers a dream about being trapped in a coffin stuffed with roses, but that couldn’t have been a vision. Visions are misty and eerie and totally would seem like visions and not the fragments of dumb demi-nightmares. The chill is chased away by Himemiya’s slim hand gently carding through Nanami’s hair.

 

“Even if it seems unimportant, be sure to tell me,” the former Rose Bride requests. “The smallest detail could be crucial to our unraveling the mystery.”

 

“Trust me you’ll be the first to know if I get haunted by Tenjou’s princely soul. Ugh, she’d probably try to have a heartfelt conversation about feelings and friendship or something and I totally wouldn’t be able to wake up until we hug.”

 

Himemiya laughs, thank the gods, because Nanami was half worried for a moment that she had stepped over the invisible line concerning Saint Prince Tenjou the First.

 

“That’s exactly like her,” says Himemiya. “Only there might be a duel first and then stilted talk about feelings.”

 

“Yeah, sometimes she could totally be like a boy like that,” Nanami laughs a bit and tries hard to push down the sudden tightness in her throat. How weird was it to be talking and laughing about an old classmate who might be dead or trapped in Magical Castle Limbo?

 

Which is totally a great name for a theme café and Nanami makes a mental note to totally copyright that once they’re done with duelist mumbo-jumbo.

 

“Being a prince or a princess isn’t about being a boy or a girl, but she was both in her own way.”

 

“What: boy and girl, or prince and princess?” Weren’t her brother and Kyouichi totally brides for each other at one point?

 

“Mmm, both.”

 

“Guess being a witch isn’t about gender either because your brother sure as hell isn’t a prince.”

 

Himemiya doesn’t respond verbally to that so much as hum a bit in what Nanami assumes is agreement.

 

“So what’s the next big adventure Madame Rose Witch?”

 

“A little suburb not so far away…”

 

Friday Nanami decides that not-so-far-away must have a different meaning for immortal witches because they took the six o’clock train and almost four hours later they still aren’t where they need to be. Not so far away her ass!

 

“I thought you said this place was close by,” Nanami huffs over her third canned café au lait.

 

“As the crow flies it’s not that many miles away. It’s just rather a nuisance by train because you need to transfer and take only local trains. Technically we’re still in the same prefecture.”

 

At long last it seems to be their stop because Himemiya gracefully rises and exits the car before Nanami can process what’s happening. “Oh come on! You could’ve told me this was going to be our stop!”

 

As she hustles to make it out before the doors close a few errant drops of coffee stain her orchid blouse because why should she get to look presentable to strangers? After all she was just a spoiled little girl who drowned a kitten out of jealousy and --whoa where did that come from? Nanami wonders if they were getting off at Self-Loathing Station instead of Little Valley of Whatever Station.

 

Despite the greenery in its name gray is the only word that comes to mind when Nanami gazes upon the station’s surroundings. The platforms are few and exposed only a single ticket gate, everything is ugly concrete even the neighboring shopping arcade up against the station looks frankly dismal.

 

“I think I saw a town like this once on a TV show about hauntings,” Nanami says in the vain hope that the witch will get the hint and explain why they’re in a town that seems to have had the soul sucked out of it sometime in the late eighties.

 

“Mmhmm,” is the only response she gets. Himemiya’s eyes glaze over for a moment and Nanami is convinced she’s going to start doing weird hand gestures and cast a spell.

 

Instead she just takes out her mobile phone and checks her e-mail.

 

“What? You’re not going to dowse your way to the next clue? Do we need to find a hideous fountain near Town Hall and unmask an ancient symbol to help us?”

 

If looks could kill Himemiya’s stare would be a placid knife between the ribs.

 

“What? I read DaVinci Code before I went on vacation to Italy.”

 

“I was just checking the directions my brother sent me so we go to the right address.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“I could ‘dowse’ my way there if I had actually met the person in question before though,” a smirk twitches at the corners of Himemiya’s mouth. Well-played indeed.

 

“Where is your brother anyway? I thought he was going to help us.” Not that she wanted that shadow of the Chairman Past lurking about or anything, but magic is magic and more could only be helpful.

 

“He’s out with Miss Juri checking on municipal office documents to see where Utena’s family registry records are.” They’re weaving their way through the shopping arcade and down some streets so nondescript they might as well be generic backdrops in a play. The witch’s shoes clack loudly on the pavement despite the heels being rather squat and low.

 

“And we are?”

 

“Checking what’s left of her family.” Her companion stops suddenly in front of a house that nearly takes Nanami’s breath away. Sleek, modern, and yet somehow elegant it dwarfs its neighbors in beauty though not size. Past the gate Nanami catches glimpses of rose bushes not yet in bloom and the pale sprouts of bulb flowers.

 

The metal plaque next to the mailbox and buzzer doesn’t read ‘Tenjou’ like Nanami was expecting. Instead the surname listed is ‘Wakaouji,’ written with the characters ‘young’ and ‘prince,’ charming, and the given names as Aoi, Yurika, and is that Momoka?

 

“I thought Tenjou was an orphan.”

 

“She was, is,” even Himemiya doesn’t seem cetain of what tense to use. “But she was raised by her aunt.”

 

If Himemiya has any hesitation it certainly doesn’t show on her face as she presses the buzzer. Nanami envies that poker face because her own heart is pounding hard in her chest and Tenjou wasn’t her ex-prince.

 

“Yes, hello? Who is this?” a woman’s voice answers.

 

“Good afternoon, is this Yurika Wakaouji? My name is Himemiya and I used to be a classmate of your niece Miss Utena.”

 

“I’ll be right outside to let you in.”

 

The front door opens in what Nanami could swear is slow motion. Out steps a woman with short reddish hair and a face that’s so very obviously a trait of the Tenjou family. There’s a spring in her step that Nanami can’t reconcile with the dreary town the woman lives in and she opens the gate and ushers them in the house all boyish grace and smiles.

 

“Sit down, sit down, and let me make some tea for us,” Yurika leads them into a living room that’s decorated in the same modern vibe as the outside of the house.

 

Nanami sits as close as possible to Himemiya on –ick- a slick white leather sofa and wonders what you’d say to someone’s aunt when you weren’t sure if they were alive or dead. Maybe this is what it’s like for those detectives who specialized in missing persons cases?

 

“Hello,” Himemiya waves to a chair and Nanami is pretty sure she’s lost her marbles.

 

That is until the chair lisps back a little “…hello” in return.

 

When the furniture starts talking Nanami thinks that is precisely the moment to leave and never look back until she realizes there’s a small child hiding behind the chair.

 

“Are you um…Momoka?” Nanami asks.

 

The child crawls out of her hiding place and shakes her head violently. “I’m Touka!”

 

Touka has the heart-shaped Tenjou face and hair in peachy shade, but her complexion is light olive and her hair is thick and wavy like Anthy’s. She’s probably just shy of five by Nanami’s estimate. Meeting a kid that could be the love child of Tenjou and Himemiya is definitely not on the list of things Nanami ever thought she’d see.

 

“Oh yeah, you can read that name as ‘Touka’ too,” babbles Nanami with a manic smile. She turns her head to see Himemiya’s reaction and is startled by what she finds there.

 

Where Nanami expects shock or dismay there is a naked longing and it occurs to her that she’s not the only one to see the marriage of the two in little Touka’s features.

 

Without speaking Himemiya holds out a hand and Touka comes over obediently willing to be pet and cuddled by the immortal. She gets her hair ruffled and is tickled and laughs in a way that sounds like a higher, younger version of the Tenjou Nanami knew.

 

Nanami never thought of Himemiya as the kind to want to be a mother. Then again she doesn’t think of traditional roles and Himemiya ever except in the traditional role as witch. However the evidence is plain before her and the knowledge is uncomfortably intimate.

 

“I’m sorry, is Touka being a nuisance?” Yurika comes back with a tray of tea and cookies. “Touka say ‘hello’ to our guests properly.”

 

Touka shakes her head and climbs onto the witch’s lap.

 

“It’s fine Mrs. Wakaouji,” Nanami says hurriedly. “So um we lost contact with Tenjou years ago and well we’d uh like to see her again. You know, catch up, friends stuff.”

 

Yurika’s sunny visage clouds for a nanosecond, “Oh, I really don’t think I can be that helpful.”

 

“Please, Mrs. Wakaouji, anything you can tell us would be greatly appreciated,” Himemiya’s tone borders on pleading. “We were middle school classmates and we really want to know what happened when she transferred.”

 

For a few minutes Yurika’s face is stony as she pours tea for everyone. It’s silent save for the tunes Touka is humming as she plays with Himemiya’s long hair. “My niece never completed her schooling. She was hospitalized suddenly while I was working in the Netherlands. The doctors don’t know what happened she was just found mangled and nearly dead in the middle of the city.”

 

Wow.

 

Just wow.

 

Nanami can taste the bile rising up in her throat and only the Kiryuu pride is keeping her from getting sick all over this coffee table.

 

Neither of them is tacky enough to ask any questions. They simply wait until Yurika decides to continue.

 

“From then on she was always in and out of hospitals. There was no way to keep up with her studies or even consider a transfer to new school. One day she checked herself out of the hospital and never came back.

 

“I haven’t seen or heard from my niece in five years.”

 

That shouldn’t be surprising to Nanami because if Utena was just cheerfully chilling out with her aunt waiting for them well it wouldn’t have taken a decade to get this far. Still hearing it all laid bare makes her want to give up and just cry. She can’t imagine what Himemiya must be feeling.

 

“I’m so sorry to hear it,” Himemiya’s face is nearly buried in Touka’s hair. “We knew something must have happened to not hear from her in so long.”

 

“Is there um anything of Tenjou’s we can look through? Like some old school pictures or something?” Nanami hates that she has to be the strong one now, hates it because she knows she’s anything but strong. “Maybe there are some other friends we can talk to. I mean even if we can’t find her it’d be nice to you know speak with other people who knew her at school.”

 

“Y-yes, I have a small box of her things upstairs in Touka’s room,” Yurika swallows audibly and puts on a bright smile. “Let me go get it.”

 

Touka squirms out of Himemiya’s arms and follows her mother upstairs. The hollowed out expression on her friend’s face may in fact haunt Nanami’s nightmares for a while.

Yurika is only out of the room a few minutes, but an eternity could have passed with the thick silence of grief.

 

“Here we are!” Gone is the saddened aunt and in her place is the cheerful woman who had opened the gate for them. No tears or tightness around the eyes as if their conversation about Utena’s disappearance had never happened. Touka’s nowhere to be seen presumably she stayed up in her room having fulfilled her yearly quota of witch-cuddling.

 

The box is placed on their laps and it’s a lot emptier than Nanami had expected. A handful of photos of Utena, but none of them more recent than when they knew her, a faded black hair ribbon that has funerary vibes so thick Nanami can sense them, a used softball and mitt, some school essays, and a dried rose.

 

Tenjou’s whole life reduced to a few colorless mementos in a box.

 

Those aren’t tears in Nanami’s eyes just the dust from the box making them water. Really.

 

While Himemiya is picking up each item as reverently as a nun touching the relics of a saint Nanami hones in on the photos. She snaps a picture of each one with her camera phone because it seems mean to take away what little Mrs. Wakaouji has left of her niece.

 

The first few are just Utena and who Nanami assumes are her parents, but the ones with Tenjou in her flamboyant boys’ uniform seem the most helpful. In almost every one Utena is with a dark-haired boy with glasses (geez Tenjou had a type didn’t she?) often with her arm around him.

 

“Mrs. Wakaouji, do you remember the name of this boy with your niece? They seem to be pretty friendly.”

 

“Oh, it seems so terrible, but I can’t seem to recall,” Yurika shakes her head. “I remember his voice, so polite and soft-spoken such a little gentlemen. I admit me and Aoi teased her about him being her boyfriend.”

 

Likely Tenjou was more of a boyfriend to him than the other way around, but Nanami knows better than to vocalize the remark. “So uh Aoi is Mr. Wakaouji right? Were you married when you adopted Tenjou?”

 

“Goodness no, I was very young when my older brother and his wife passed away, barely twenty. Aoi and I didn’t meet until Utena was about twelve or so. We married a little after we came back from the Netherlands to take care of her.”

 

Yurika gets up to pluck a picture frame from the shelves and hands it to them to look at. “This is from our wedding, it’s not from the professional photo package we got done, but it’s my favorite.”

 

Wedding Day Yurika is laughing with her arms around her two favorite people. On one side is Aoi and it enlightens as much as it baffles because Aoi is a dead ringer for Akio. Or rather he’s Akio with soft doe-brown eyes and ebony hair. The hand that’s raised for a toast sports a rose crest ring.

 

Well that explains Touka’s looks for sure, but Nanami is wondering how Akio ever allowed a doppelganger run around Ohtori Academy. There’s no way Aoi is also Akio because even he can’t play a long con that long without his sister anymore.

 

On the other side of the photo is Tenjou, pale and scarred, but smiling. Her hair is cropped short which was probably done for her various surgeries that Nanami refuses to dwell on. Her eyes are lit up with joy and Nanami desperately wants to know what happened to that young prince broken but not beaten.

 

“C-can I take a pic of this with my phone, too? It’s such a great photo,” her tongue is thick in her mouth, but Yurika nods her assent.

 

It might not be worth anything as a clue, but it’s certainly a moment worth keeping.

 

The rest of the visit passes in a blur for Nanami. She thinks Himemiya makes small talk with Tenjou's aunt until Touka comes down bleary-eyed asking for her mother to tuck her in for her nap. They make their excuses and are at the door when Yurika suddenly says, “If you find Utena tell her we want to see her. She never got a chance to meet her cousin.”

 

No pressure, right?

 

The walk back to the station gets on her nerves because Himemiya has put on her Rose Bride Blank Face. Nanami waits until they're settled in the train car alone before saying anything.

 

She stares straight ahead and very solemnly pronounces, “Tenjou was stupid.”

 

 

A slight gasp from Himemiya lets her know she's on the right track.

 

“Tenjou was stupid because she believed the best of us even when we were being selfish and vain. She thought that everyone was worth saving and that things like princes on white horses and sweet princesses existed.”

 

Himemiya's hands are white-knuckled, fisted in her own skirt.

 

“I still believe in Tenjou. She believed in me when she shouldn't have. She believed in you and your brother and in my brother. She thought if she fought hard enough and honorably enough that the day could be saved. So this time I'll believe in her.”

 

Nanami puts one hand over Anthy's tight fist, “Maybe she's dead or she's alive, it doesn't matter because she's still worth believing in. I know you think that too because otherwise you wouldn't have kept looking for her and you wouldn't have allowed me to come along.”

 

They don't speak the entire way back to Osaka, but they don't need to.

 

 

Chapter Text

The family records turn out to be a dead end.

That’s the topic of their Team Tenjou meet up at an Italian restaurant that Juri recommends.

A fire and then a flood ruined all the records five years ago before they could be digitized according to Juri and Akio’s findings. The timing is almost supernaturally unlucky considering that five years ago was the last time Yurika Wakaouji saw her niece.

“This is more than chance,” Akio declares in a tone Nanami can’t decipher. “It’s as if someone or something is trying to erase her existence.”

“Like how we started to forget who she was after she left Ohtori,” Nanami snaps. “That was your doing wasn’t it?”

“Not entirely,” the former Chairman shrugs. “She rejected Ohtori and as a result Ohtori rejected her entirely. But that didn’t extend beyond the campus.”

“Be fair, brother,” Anthy interrupts. “You didn’t want any memory of her around to spoil your next attempt at starting the duels again.”

“True enough,” he says simply. “But she did reject Ohtori and I couldn’t go against the ambient magic of the place without your aid. It just so happens that the campus and I were of were one mind on the matter of Tenjou.”

“Is it possible Tenjou herself set the fire?” says Juri suddenly. She’d been silent for most of the meal/meeting of minds, but Nanami guesses Juri had merely been biding her time. “From what it sounds like she disappeared and didn’t want to be found. That is if we believe her aunt’s story.”

“Why shouldn’t we believe it?” Nanami counters. “You weren’t there, Arisugawa. Her aunt was devastated. She has no reason to lie about it.”

“I’m not necessarily calling her a liar,” Juri sips her wine with cool appraisal. “She could be mistaken. She could be repressing a memory. She could have helped Tenjou fake her death. She could have helped her disappear if Tenjou thought she was in danger.”

“It seems both leads have been exhausted for now,” Anthy concludes. “Unless the records surface we have only Mrs. Wakaouji’s story to go one.”

“And she was light on details,” Nanami points out. “We don’t even know the name of the hospitals Utena was in or the exact date of her disappearance.”

“And do what with that information?” Juri asks. “Track down her nurses? The doctors? Why would they have anymore idea where she is than her own aunt?”

“You’re the one who said that her aunt could be covering up her disappearance!” Nanami wants to scream because now she remembers how infuriating her former senior can be. She’s ready to continue the argument until she realizes Akio is enjoying it hugely. Nanami refuses to be part of his entertainment anymore. “…But you’re probably right. They probably wouldn’t be able to tell us anything substantial.”

“While her existence might have been covered up five years ago,” Anthy flashes both women a smile while giving her brother a cold look. “But now a road is opening up. We just need to keep our eyes open.”

As it turns out it was their ears that needed to be open. Or sharp. Or whatever. Point is Nanami is shopping a few days later at one of her favorite shopping centers when she hears a very familiar tune. For thirty seconds she’s convinced she’s hallucinating because she hasn’t heard ‘The Sunlit Garden’ since graduating from Ohtori.

Only an auditory hallucination wouldn’t also include banners proclaiming ‘The Kaoru Twins’ Revolutionary Music Therapy! Concert Tickets & CD Available In Stores Now!’ Those have to be real because Nanami’s subconscious would never use such an ugly set of fonts and couple them with canary yellow, neon pink, and electric blue. And who was in charge of the Photoshop? Because those are not where the Kaorus’ cheekbones were naturally.

Nanami follows the music because the banners abruptly stop and aren’t particularly informative anyway. For a a measures it fades into near silence and she thinks she’s lost the trail when suddenly the music swells into a triumphant crescendo. The feel of a dagger in her hand and victory a heartbeat away, Nanami remembers that so viscerally that her surroundings seem to melt away until she’s left with the music.

Thankfully that particular brand of magic doesn’t actually exist in the shopping center. It’s only a moment and when Nanami turns around she catches sight of the elevated dais where the Kaoru twins are playing the piano together. There’s a camera crew and an audience, but they’re unimportant.

“I thought a felt something, someone calling.” Anthy is suddenly by her side. “Every time I think I hear her or feel her, it vanishes before I can grasp it. It used to happen so much when she first disappeared. Then it stopped.”

Nanami doesn’t know if Tenjou or if anyone not born as a freaky witch god like Anthy and the Chairman could even do that, but she’s not going to poke holes in it right here.

“I guess it’d probably be faster if we just gathered everyone from the get-go,” Nanami sighs as the twins stand up to take their bow and start a round of encore pieces. “But it kinda felt cruel. Like dragging everyone back in would just be freaky trauma. But if Tenjou really needs us, then we owe her.”

Three songs later and the twins are finally being whisked away by what appears to be their manager when Nanami makes her move. “Oh my god, Miki! And Kozue! I haven’t seen either of you since that concert three years ago!”

The manager seems to have sense realize she’s not some crazy fan and even if she didn’t Miki picks up the slack. He grabs Nanami’s hands in giddy pleasure, “Nanami! It’s been too long! Why don’t we all go to dinner and catch up right now? I can’t believe how long it’s been! And oh-!”

There weren’t any shadows or alcoves to hide in, but somehow Himemiya had managed to be practically invisible until she wanted to be seen. “How nice to see you both. It’s been a while.”

“Miss Himemiya! It’s been at least ten years!” Miki smiles even wider and Nanami wonders if Kozue is planning to dump her and Anthy’s bodies somewhere along the river. If looks could kill Kozue’s glare is a sharped rapier through the aorta.

“What an awfully strange coincidence,” Kozue chimes in with false brightness. “I never thought you two would be hanging out together like friends or come looking for us.”

“Don’t get too excited,” Nanami rolls her eyes. Super glad she got over her brother complex. “We need your help. Mostly Miki’s I guess, but I guess you’re involved too, Kozue.”

“We were hoping to catch up and talk about old times together. Especially, that year with Miss Utena Tenjou,” Anthy picks out her words carefully as she eyes the Kaorus’ manager hovering a few feet away. “Would you be willing to give us a little of your time?”

“Of course!” Miki is still beaming like he won a prize. “It’ll be fun, won’t it Kozue?”

Kozue’s face says it will be the opposite, but she lies smoothly enough, “Really fun! You’re excused for the evening Ms Yoshida. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Manager Yoshida gives a curt bow and leaves. She’s probably not pleased that her talent got waylaid by old friends, but she’s professional enough that you wouldn’t know it from her blank face and Nanami respects that.

Miki and Anthy walk a little ahead as Anthy seems to be guiding them to some restaurant she knows that’s out of the shopping mall and down some side streets. Kozue finally drops her plastic grin and her voice drops even lower. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, Kiryuu, but if you hurt Miki you will regret it.”

Nanami wouldn’t want to hurt Miki anyway. He’s sweet and soft and in another universe or three she could imagine them as a couple. He the mild prince to her diva princess, it could have been great. But that’s not this universe. Still nothing will convince Kozue of that, she never could believe anyone could love or cherish Miki as much as her. “Puh-lease, Kozue, this is about Tenjou. There’s something weird going on and we need all duelists on deck to fix it. The more of us there are the faster it’ll get done. Trust me, we did not go looking for you.”

Kozue must see the sincerity in her face or maybe she’s just resigned to the fact that Ohtori never really leaves someone. “I’m only going along with this because Miki will want to help and I don’t trust any of you alone with him.”

“Himemiya is a total lesbo for Tenjou, you really don’t need to worry about her making moves on Miki.” Nanami is almost tempted to ask where Kozue got those earrings because they’re gorgeous and surprisingly not as tacky as what Kozue used to wear, but she can’t give Kozue the satisfaction.

“Don’t I? She’s not a lesbian,” scoffs Kozue. “She and the Chairman, they go after what they want and who they want. Gender isn’t an obstacle or an enticement for them. They’re in it for the thrills. And if she thinks seducing Miki will solve her mystery or make her less bored she’ll do it.”

That’s true, Nanami has to give her that. “Okay, fair enough. That’s exactly who she is. But I really don’t think she’s bored enough to seduce him right now, she really is just Tenjou all the time at the minute. And I don’t think sex is going to solve the mystery.” If anything Ohtori proved that it just obscured the truth. “I can promise you I won’t hit on Miki and if by some weird twist of fate he asked me out on a date I’d gently decline him. I can’t control Himemiya, but I will tell her to stay away. That’s really just the best I can do. But Kozue, we really need your help.”

The last line is just ego fluffing. They could probably solve this without Kozue, but probably not without Miki and Kozue was holding the keys to Miki kingdom. She’d never be so artless as to forbid Miki from seeing them, but she could very easily manipulate their schedule to the point where he’d find himself too busy to contribute.

They end up in some hole-in-the-wall Indian curry shop whose owners speak to Anthy in their native tongue and she acts like they’ve known each other all their lives. Anthy orders for them and there seems to be endless plates of spicy delicacies enough to satisfy even Chuchu if he was there.

“You wanted to talk about Miss Tenjou?” Miki asks after the small talk was over. “I don’t know how much help I can be. I remember more when I’m with the other former Student Council members.”

“And it was such an awful long time ago,” Kozue adds. “Who can even remember?”

“I was wondering if you’d seen her since our school days,” Anthy begins. Even the way she tore the naan was elegant and refined. Nanami has to wonder where she learned that. “Or seen someone that reminded you of her. Or perhaps saw her in your dreams. She’s gone missing and we need to find her.”

“Like I’d be dreaming of her,” Kozue rolls her eyes. “And we haven’t seen her either. Miki and I have very busy social calendars.”

“Well,” Miki hesitates. “We did think of Ohtori a little bit when we were composing our new CD. And I perhaps saw her in my dreams. Not clearly, but a shadow that made me think of her in profile But I can’t really say for certain, she never spoke or did anything that I can remember.”

“The CD from those yellow posters?” asks Nanami.

“Yeah, it’s music therapy,” Kozuke explains, bored and not bothering to hide her disdain for the company even though she’s enjoying the food. “Certain sound waves can amplify brain processes like healing. It was part of Miki’s undergrad thesis. We starting working on it years ago, but we only turned it into a CD when my manager suggested it.”

“As a CD our music can reach more people than just our playing live can.” Miki still flushes prettier than any girl and Nanami almost regrets telling Kozue she’d turn him down if he was interested.

Anthy cocks her head like she’s just heard a discordant note in a song. “You used to play live music to heal people?”

Nanami recognizes that tone, it’s borderline hypnotic and it means Anthy’s figured something out. It’s weird that they’re close enough for her to discern any of Anthy’s tones, but that’s her life now.
“Yes, it was quite the experience,” says Miki. “One of my music theory professors had mentioned the idea so we went to a care facility to play music. It seemed to help the patients with recovery. Of course we had to do many sessions to test the hypothesis. Naturally there is no replacement for medicine, but as a supplement it bore good results.”

“’Course it was hard to tell if we were doing anything in the beginning,” Kozue says with a shrug. “It was only after that creepy girl case that we knew we had to be onto something.”

“Creepy girl case?” Nanami doesn’t like where this is going. Not one bit. Her stomach is already roiling.

“The girl wasn’t creepy,” Miki hastens to add. “But her condition was…horrific.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head as if he can banish the memory.

“Have you ever heard of stigmata?” Kozue says like she’s not going to tell them in two seconds but whatever.

“Nope.” And Nanami could go the rest of her life without knowing thank you very much.

“They’re holy wounds,” Anthy murmurs. “Christians believe that a person who spontaneously is wounded in the same place as the crucified Christ has marked by their god.”

“So there was a girl with stigmata and you guys played the Sunlit Garden to please God or something?”

“It’s a little more complicated,” Miki bites his lip and looks at his sister.

“Stigmata is only a few wounds and they’re in certain places,” Kozue starts. “This girl had like a thousand. She would go to sleep and wake up bleeding like she’d been stabbed all over.”

Anthy gasps. Or maybe it was Nanami herself, she can’t even tell at this point.

“Even when she was in a hospital or facility and was restrained,” Miki’s voice drops to almost a whisper. “Even if she was transferred to a different facility or at home. And the angles were the kind that she couldn’t do to herself.”

“They thought it was a weirdo virus or bacteria, but they tested her for everything under the sun,” Kozue picks up the tale again. “They couldn’t find anything to explain it. They got so desperate they called clergy from every religion to do rituals and exorcisms on her. Sometimes those worked for a little bit, but some made it even worse because she didn’t always bleed every night.”

“That’s why they they called my professor in Tokyo,” says Miki. “They thought even music therapy was worth a try. So we came in and played for her.”

“And it worked,” Kozue says triumphantly. “You could see some of the wounds healing as we played. And those were just the ones we could see on her arms and neck. The nurse said the worst were on her abdomen, like someone was using her as a pincushion for their sword collection.”

“W-what happened to the girl?” You couldn’t tell a story like that without a proper ending!

“Well,” Kozue licks her lips. “One day she just vanishes. Gone. No trace of her. We asked the staff and they said they couldn’t tell us.”

Nanami had been so engrossed in the story she didn’t realize Anthy had gone ashen with tears down her cheeks.

“That was Utena.”

“What?!” The three of them stare at Anthy like she’s grown a second head.

“No way! Miki and Kozue would’ve totally recognized her!” Nanami half shouts without meaning too.

“Yeah, we’re not dumb,” Kozue rolls her eyes once more with even more melodramatic flourishes.

“Would we?” Miki looks doubtful. “Her head was shaved and scarred. They gave us a false name to keep her privacy at the request of her family. And we never really thought about Miss Utena when we were away from Ohtori and the other duelists.”

“It was Utena,” Anthy’s voice doesn’t quaver even as she blinks back tears. “Those wounds prove it.”

Nanami isn’t sure how, but Anthy hasn’t sounded that sure of something since they started with their quest so she’ll defer to her witchy judgment. “Great, another dead end. She just vanishes. We already knew that from her aunt.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t realize it,” Miki hands Anthy a handkerchief but stops short of wiping away her tears.

“What would we have done if we’d known?” Kozue points out. “We didn’t know people were looking for her or anything.”

“Thank you for helping her in her time of need,” Anthy tries to smile through her tears. It doesn’t entirely work, but Nanami figures it’s good enough. “That you gave her even a brief respite is more than you realize.”

The twins have one of those silent conversations with their eyes that is just annoying to everyone else who’s shut out, but Nanami’s head is too busy spinning from the new revelation to care over much.

“You said you needed to find her,” Miki says at last. “We’ll get in touch with the professor and see if they can get any more information from the hospital. And whatever else you need. I may not always remember Miss Utena, but I know she did a lot for me. And Kozue. And all of us. If I can help her in any way I want to.”

“Sure,” Kozue squeezes her brother’s shoulder. “Just try not to call us like all the time. I have a television drama I’m starring in pretty soon and then we have the tour for the CD coming up.”

“We’d never dream of disturbing your lives like that,” Anthy says and even Nanami knows that’s a bald-faced lie. She’d use whomever and whatever she could to be reunited with Tenjou. Nanami doesn’t begrudge her that. Besides this was way more noble than making schoolchildren fight to bring your brother’s mojo back.

She does not dream of Utena that night even if she does wake up with the scent of roses in her nose.

Miss Kiryuu, this is your advisor Chida. It is vital to your student success to attend the mandatory special seminar. You are scheduled to attend Friday evening’s session.

Nanami is tempted to say that her family emergency was still ongoing because it is kind of true if you substituted “family” for “wacky ex-classmates” but Chida would probably start asking for some documentation if she drags this on much longer. Which is why instead of doing something interesting on a Friday night she’s stuck in a lecture hall with a hundred or so bored other students listening to some lady in a pantsuit talk about success strategies and blah blah blah.

An hour into the presentation and the music and videos change as pantsuit lady introduces a new speaker. “Of course there are many resources available to students here at the university. But many of you will soon graduate and enter the real world. You may find yourselves adrift, unsure how to connect with new co-workers or even find yourselves starting a family. Be assured you do not have to face these challenges alone. There are entire communities that will welcome you with open arms and will come together to help you find your best success. Let me introduce you to one of those communities and one of their success stories. Please welcome Ms Kanae Ohtori, a patron of the Calyx Institute.”

Out-of-body experiences were something Nanami always thought were made-up nonsense until right then. Because she can see herself gaping unattractively as lovely Kanae, who had to totally be like almost thirty or something, practically glide onto stage with a beatific expression and a rose corsage pinned on her chest.

“My dear champions, for that’s what you are, champions,” Kanae starts and Nanami can’t process the next two minutes because Kanae. Kanae Ohtori. If she wasn’t a duelist before she certainly is now because she’s setting off all sorts of alarm bells like the duelists back at the restaurant. Too bad she’s in the first row and can’t text Anthy and others about this. “Champions wielding your hearts like weapons against the unfeeling world.”

The worst part of this is that she’s going to have to thank Chida for making her go to this.

Gross.

Chapter Text

Friday night she had talked to Kanae after the seminar. Simpered and smiled and said all the right things. Told her how much she looked up to her at Ohtori. Told her how much the seminar helped and how she was totally interested in more about the Institute. She had every intention of sending a message to Himemiya but fell dead asleep as soon as she got to her apartment. When she wakes up on Saturday she can hardly remember what it was she wanted to tell Himemiya. She does some studying and ends up texting Miki back and forth most of the afternoon. She’s not dumb, she knows Kozue is reading them over Miki’s shoulder or will probably look at his phone later, so she keeps things light.

Sunday morning finally comes and Nanami feels silly for being nervous. She visits her brother and Kyouichi almost every week so this Sunday shouldn’t be different, but how can it be normal when she literally has a specter of the past tagging along? Nanami doesn’t even know how entangled Himemiya actually was with the two of them, but everyone had agreed to the meeting so it couldn’t be undone.

“Um, so try not to be too weird,” she tells Himemiya when they meet at the train station. “I mean I guess you can’t help your regular weirdness, but I’d consider it a big favor if you didn’t pull anything extra creepy or whatever. Kyouichi always makes too much food so don’t feel you have to eat everything because he’ll just box up the leftovers for you anyway.”

Himemiya purses her lips like she’s holding in a laugh, “Indeed. He cooks?”

“And bakes and cleans and does a lot of housewifey stuff,” Nanami shrugs. To outsiders it probably sounds demeaning, but Nanami can’t really wrap her head around that. Touga and Kyouichi have been in their domestic arrangement long enough where it’s normal to her. “He likes it. Says it helps him focus when he’s not teaching kendo. The dojo he teaches at is a few blocks away. He might have a class later in the afternoon and have to leave.”

“I see,” Himemiya nods. “And your brother?”

“He’s, uh,” Nanami stops in her tracks because they’re only a few minutes away from the house. “You’ll see he’s sort of really different and sort of exactly the same. Or maybe not. Just don’t call him Kiryuu. Because he’s not anymore.”

An elegant eyebrow arches, “Oh?”

“Long long long story short he was disowned. Like fully legally disinherited and stripped of the name. So he’s Touga Saionji now because Kyouichi’s family adopted him.” Nanami blinks back the sting of tears in her eyes because if it still hurts her this much she can’t imagine what it feels like for her brother. “But he’s still my brother.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Anthy chews on her bottom way and is it just Nanami or is there a weird understanding in her eyes? “Thank you for apprising me of the situation.”

A few more turns takes them down the quiet street lined with old-fashioned Japanese houses mostly hidden behind high walls and gates. At last they come to the one with the plaque reading ‘Saionji’ in elegantly carved characters. Nanami pulls her key case from her purse and unlocks the gate for them. “They gave me a key because it’s easier. Touga likes to sleep late and Saionji is usually cooking or something. Also I water the garden when they go on vacation.”

“Do you actually water the garden?” Anthy’s smile is doe-eyed innocence.

Ouch, caught out by a witch. “Well, I water it when I remember. It doesn’t need that much watering.”

The plants around them are lush enough to testify that Nanami’s occasional neglect isn’t enough to make a dent in their overall health. There are more roses than Nanami thinks that Touga and Kyouichi would want, then again they did make out a lot in Ohtori’s gardens at school so maybe it’s a tribute to their young love or something.

“Kyouichiii!” she unlocks the front door and grabs her favorite slippers from the rack. “Did you make roll cake like I wanted?”

Nanami almost forgets Himemiya is at her heels because just stepping inside the entryway feels like coming home and she’s practically on autopilot. She hands her companion a pair of guest slippers, dainty things covered in ribbon roses.

“Of course, Nanami,” Kyouichi calls back from the kitchen. “There’s even a second one for you to take home.”

“That’s why you’re my favorite brother these days,” Nanami bounds down the hall, giddy and mysteries forgotten. “Oooh, smells like curry and rice for lunch!”

Himemiya takes her time following. When Nanami looks back she sees her studying the pictures and decor like they’re Magic Eye optical illusions that will reveal some hidden meaning. What was there to get, honestly? Just doofy picture of Touga and Kyouichi looking lovey-dovey, their kendo students, Nanami naturally, and some art prints they like. All over the shelves there are crafts Kyouichi makes when he goes to those kind of classes but Himemiya probably couldn’t tell he made them.

“Two kinds of curry and pickles,” Kyouichi corrects as Nanami enters the kitchen. His hair is up in a ponytail and he has on what Nanami has dubbed Apron #8, red with appliqued mountains and embroidered goats that she’s pretty sure is a Heidi reference, but Kyouichi refuses to admit to it. “How was school this week?”

“Project is going okay. Verifying the lab results is boring. Prof Chida made me go to a super dumb seminar,” Nanami slides into her chair at the table and beckons Anthy in from the doorway. “Mostly been busy with Himemiya. So uh, there’s that.”

“Anth-I mean, Miss Himemiya,” Kyouichi stops stirring the curry to face the former Rose Bride. His face scrunches up uncomfortably and goes blotchy red. “Welcome. It’s been a long time.”

“Yes, it has,” Himemiya agrees. Her tone is so bland that Nanami is sorta worried this was a bad idea. “You’ve grown.”

“Have I?” Kyouichi gives a rueful chuckle and shakes his head. “You look well. I hope you are.”

“Well enough,” Himemiya shrugs and takes the seat next to Nanami. “Better than how I was at Ohtori.” A hint of a genuine smile. Maybe she won’t turn Kyouichi into a frog after all?

“That’s good, really really good,” says Kyouichi with a sigh.

Awkward silence fills the kitchen threatening to push out the comfort provided by the scent of the curry spices. This was not shaping up to be one of Nanami’s better ideas. Not the worst, but definitely not the best. “Where’s my big brother?”

“I woke him up, for the third time, a half hour ago,” is the reply.

“Yeah, really wake him up or like kissy stuff? Because if it’s just kissy stuff you know he’ll just go back to sleep.”

“My husband isn’t going to dump cold water on me or anything so uncouth,” Touga swans in like he was waiting in the hall to make his grand entrance. Knowing him, he probably had been. “He’s much too chivalrous these days for that.” He gives Kyouichi a kiss on the cheek that should’ve been chaste, but somehow manages to be anything but. “Morning again, Kyouichi.”

“It’s nearly noon,” Kyouichi rolls his eyes, but there’s no heat to the words. “We have company, you know. You kept Nanami and Miss Himemiya waiting.”

“My apologies, dear ladies,” Touga pulls away from Kyouichi to give a small bow and gallantly kiss Himemiya’s hand like he’s still Ohtori’s number one playboy. Now it’s Nanami’s turn to roll her eyes. “Miss Himemiya, how are you? It’s been too long.”

“Longer than I expected and yet really not long at all,” Himemiya’s lips quirk. “I rather thought that if Utena were to bring us together again it would have been sooner or not at all.”

“I was of the same mind myself and yet here we find ourselves.”

Nanami hasn’t noticed because she’s been around for all the changes, but she suddenly realizes that for all their manners Touga and Kyouichi are so different from their Ohtori days that she has to wonder what Himemiya thinks of the results. The most eye-catching thing of course is that Touga’s hair is short and he wears glasses, though neither is unfashionable on him he totally looks like the accountant he is rather than the rich kid he used to be. He’s softer around the edges that often has Nanami’s friends asking if he’s gained weight or something, but his cheekbones and nose are as pointed as ever. If Nanami had to describe it it’d be the difference between looking at a sword and looking at a sheathed sword - both will wield damage to enemies but one will allow you to touch it without the danger of being immediately hurt.

Kyouichi doesn’t have anything so dramatic as a haircut to mark him as different. Maybe it’s hidden in his eyes or posture. The tense low-level anger that always used to simmer in him and explode is finally gone. He’s basically like how Nanami remembers him from when he first became friends with Touga in elementary school - dorky, kind of shy, and completely smitten with her brother (not that she had picked up on that back then, but it’s obvious in hindsight).

“What is it that Nanami and you are hoping to accomplish? There was something about Juri writing a book that seemed like it was about Utena Tenjou,” Touga asks and starts handing Kyouichi the plates to start serving lunch. “Nanami has been light on details, but I understand you two have been extraordinarily busy.”

“Utena’s soul has been reaching out for some reason,” Himemiya says. “I’ve been seeking her the last ten years and it was only after I ran into Miss Nanami that I’ve been close to finding her.”

Kyouichi and Touga share a Look, with a capital L, and Nanami is reminded again why married couples are so super annoying.

Touga clears his throat, “I was under the impression Miss Tenjou died in the final duel.”

Wait, what?

“Me, too,” Kyouichi adds.

“Uh, excuse me when did you decide on that?” Nanami blurts out. “You never said anything like that when we wrote down all the duel stuff years ago. And by the way she totally didn’t die! Her aunt found her and then she disappeared.”

“We were just writing down what we remembered of the dueling days,” Touga shrugs. “It didn’t seem appropriate to speculate about her fate if no one brought it up.”

“It’s good to hear she survived,” Kyouichi remarks ladling the curries into the bowls. “Was she okay?”

Nanami glances at Himemiya and bites her lip. “Not really? Uh, she was found injured and she kept having weird wounds happen to her without her doing anything. Miki and Kozue met her doing a music therapy thing, but they didn’t recognize her and she didn’t recognize them. Then five years ago she vanished from the hospital. We met her aunt this week and we saw some photos of Tenjou after Ohtori.”

“It appears her soul at the very least is reaching out to former duelists. Miss Arisugawa had visions and dreams that cannot be explained merely by her experiences at Ohtori. Miki Kaoru also admitted to having had dreams of her when he composed his recent CD. So I must ask, are either of you experiencing such things?” Himemiya’s voice goes hypnotic and Nanami is definitely not freaking out remembering all the supernatural things Himemiya could do when she put her mind to it.

Touga stiffens and sets their lunches out in front of them. “A dream of Tenjou herself? No, not at all.”

Nanami wants to scream, ‘Don’t lie to the former Rose Bride, you big idiot brother!’ The words are trapped in her throat or maybe under her tongue, either way they don’t get out in time.

“Is that so?” The words drop from Himemiya’s mouth like glass baubles, shattering one by one.

“What he means is we’ve had dreams that are something like they day we first met her. She’s not in them, not really,” Kyouichi says, saving his spouse Himemiya’s ire. “Maybe her voice? I don’t know if they’ll be as helpful to you as Arisugawa’s book.”

“Like dreams about Ohtori?” Nanami shudders. While the rest of her time at the school was fine after the duels she’d hate to dream of it.

“We didn’t meet her at Ohtori,” Touga finds his voice again, but he turns his face away from her and Himemiya. He even goes as far as to hold Kyouichi’s hand and it’s even more intimate than their kiss was earlier. “We met her when we were much younger. Naturally we didn’t recognize her at Ohtori, but the Chairman revealed her identity to us in the end.”

“Did you really?” Himemiya cocks her head, like she’s not sure if she knows the story and Nanami knows she hasn’t. That was the problem with big brothers, they were always keeping secrets even if they didn’t mean to.

“Once upon a time two idiot boys were riding their bike home from kendo practice even though it was gonna rain,” Kyouichi starts. “The idiot boys being us.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Nanami interjects with another eye roll.

“We came across a girl hiding in an empty coffin, between the coffins of her dead parents. She said there was no point to living and she only realized just then there was nothing eternal. She wanted to die and figured she’d stay in the coffin hoping they’d bury her, too.” Kyouichi runs a hand through his hair and shakes his head at the memory. “Nothing we could say could tempt her to come out.”

“But the next day we went back,” Touga continues, softly. “At the funeral her eyes were shining like she’d learned all the secrets of the world overnight. It was a mystery for the rest of our childhood.”

“I was a complete ass,” Kyouichi admits, blotchy blush returning. “I was convinced Touga had somehow shown her something eternal and I was jealous. There was always a wall between us and I hated the idea that he would show some strange little girl something he wouldn’t show me, his best friend. I was wrong. There was a wall between us, but I didn’t know why at the time and it had nothing to do with eternity or her.”

“And it was the Chairman who met with Miss Tenjou after we left. He showed her a miracle,” finishes Touga.

“What miracle did she see?” Nanami asks breathlessly. The story was weirdly compelling, like a horror movie.

“I know what he showed her,” Himemiya says. The hypnotism is gone from her voice and she’s back to her usual cadence. “But I cannot tell you what she saw.”

Ugh, that makes no sense. Just like everything with Tenjou.

“Okay, so what did he show her?” Seriously, why is Nanami surrounded by drama queens? She is a drama queen, she doesn't need others.

“The true face of the Rose Bride.”

That was it? “Just, you?”

“I believe so,” answers Himemiya. “For some reason that inspired her to go on living to become a prince. I confess I don’t understand why her heart was moved when so many others never had been. But there it is.”

Lame. Anthy Himemiya may possess otherworldly beauty and a queer charisma, but Nanami can’t see how any of that would cheer up a grieving child. “So how is this related to your dreams?”

Kyouichi finally takes his seat at the table, looking like he’d rather have any conversation but this one. “Shall I start, Touga, or you?”

Touga cocks an eyebrow, “You of course, darling husband.” Better you than me goes unsaid.

“It’s dark and I have trouble breathing, that’s how it always starts,” Kyouichi says. “When I feel around me I realize I’m in a coffin and I can’t get out.”

Which is not familiar nightmare territory at all for Nanami. No, not at all.

“A little girl’s voice, Tenjou’s I guess, tells me over and over there’s not such thing as eternity.” The blotchiness subsides from Kyouichi’s face and he’s ashy pale. “I yell at her to stop, but she won’t. So I drown out the words by repeating the Heart Sutra over and over-”

“You know it by heart?” Himemiya asks as though that’s more shocking to her than Touga’s dorky glasses or being served curry by someone she pranked with curry.

“He’s a lay priest,” Nanami explains. “Guess I forgot to tell you about that. His family is one of main branches that takes care of some famousy temples around here so all the members go through the training.”

“After a while the girl’s voice vanishes and I realize I can feel my ring,” Kyouichi continues. Lest Himemiya think he meant a dueling ring her brother-in-law of sorts holds up his hand to show off his engraved wedding band. “And I remember I can’t stay in the coffin because I made a promise to Touga.”

Naturally Touga has to kiss Kyouchi’s wedding band now because they’re so grossly in love even though it’s been years and the honeymoon phase should’ve been over by now. Nanami is happy for them, but lovey-dovey couples are super annoying and they’re no exception just because they’re her big brothers.

Himemiya nods and asks, “How do you leave the coffin?”

“When I push harder at the sides, a board wiggles free, and there’s a tunnel I can crawl into,” Kyouichi answers. “It’s dark and cold and I spend hours crawling inch by inch to escape. Finally the tunnel empties into a cave and after I go through the cave I come to a hillside with a coffin. And I know Touga is inside. So I lift the lid to let him out.”

“You forgot to add that you waken me with a kiss,” Touga teases and Nanami actually can’t tell if he’s serious or not.

“And your dream?” Himemiya turns her freaky green eyes, which seem to have changed color but Nanami is hoping is just a trick of the light, onto Touga.

“At first I believed it to be a normal dream.” All the mirth is wiped from Touga’s face and his grip tightens on Kyouichi’s hand. “Until we told each other our dreams and realized they were connected. It begins in a box with bars. I’m a child and I’m starving. People pass in front of the box and no one seems to hear me. Then the bars fall away and I’m given an apple. The apple is poisonous, I can tell just by its smell, but I’m so hungry I don’t care and eat the whole thing. A storm starts and suddenly I’m in a forest. There’s no where to hide except an open grave with a coffin so I crawl inside and close the lid.”

Nanami is super glad most of her dumb nightmares are about waking up late for an exam or being naked in a department store because these are too Grimms’ fairy tales creepy for her.

Touga continues, but his gaze is averted again, “I hear…someone looking for me, but I stay inside the coffin because I don’t want to see them. When they leave I hear Utena’s voice telling me it’s safer where I am. I fall asleep and wake up within the dream several times and I can tell I’m growing because the coffin is smaller each time. At last I hear Kyouichi, but I don’t have the strength to shout or lift the lid. I usually wake up in reality at that point, sometimes Kyouichi-in-the-dream is able to open the coffin before I wake up.”

“You only hear her voice?”

Nanami doesn’t have to be a mind reader to know that Himemiya is disappointed.

“Yes, but it’s not just her voice,” Kyouichi says. “It’s like a compulsion. When you hear her voice you feel like you have to obey it. Every time the dream reoccurs the compulsion gets stronger, the dream gets longer, and the details weirder. Sometimes when I get to the hillside it’s a full on graveyard and it gets harder and harder to find Touga’s coffin. Sometimes I lift the lid and his hands are bloodied and skin shredded to the bone from trying to get out.”

“It’s a reoccurring dream?” Now Himemiya’s interest is piqued again.

“It started around the time we moved in together, then slacked off for a few years. It’s only these past few weeks that it’s come back in full force,” says Touga. “At first we both wondered if it was the Chairman’s doing, a kind of taunt that we’d never be free of Ohtori.”

“But we decided it couldn’t be,” Kyouichi shrugs. “A taunt would fit his style but he wouldn’t use those images. He’d probably add cars or swords or something that’s more about him.”

“Very true,” Himemiya agrees. “He also wouldn’t be able to resist putting himself in the dreams.”

“But why would Tenjou send you those dreams?” Nanami has to ask. “I mean they’re kind of pointless, right? They’re just uncomfortable nightmares. How would that help her or lead you to her?”

“That is the mystery.” Touga poses like he’s the Student Council President once more. Nanami will totally scream if anyone does the egg-and-the-chick speech.

“It is something to ponder,” Himemiya smiles enigmatically. “Thank you for sharing that with me. I know dreams are intimate things and not easy to explain to outsiders.”

“We can’t,” Kyouichi scowls and shakes his head. “I can’t make up for the way I treated you in Ohtori. There was no excuse for what I did, repeatedly did. There’s no apology that would erase that and I don’t deserve forgiveness. Helping you find Tenjou is the least I can do.”

“We’ll let you know if the dream changes any further or if Utena actually appears,” Touga promises. “But it sounds like Arisugawa and Miki are better leads than us.”

“Oh! That reminds me,” Nanami grabs her purse from the floor and digs around. One of these days she’ll go back to elegant clutch purses, but while she’s in grad school she needs these Mary Poppins bottomless shapeless hobo bags for her myriad essentials. “I got you guys copies of Arisugawa’s book. Even if you don’t get any funky Tenjou visions it’s still pretty interesting.”

She hands Touga one of the slim paperbacks when a spare pamphlet and business card fall out of the book and onto the table though thankfully not into anyone’s lunch.

Everyone goes silent and Nanami isn’t sure why.

“What-?” Himemiya stares.

“How?” Kyouichi flinches.

“Nanami, what is the meaning of this?” Touga holds up the pamphlet that says Calyx Institute on it and a card that has Kanae Ohtori’s name on it.

“I d-don’t know?” She’s ready to cry because why is she the bad guy all of a sudden? “There was some weirdo seminar I had to go to and I don’t remember what happened. I guess Miss Ohtori was there? Really, it’s just a blur.”

“Calyx is a Latin translation for the word ‘utena,’” Himemiya swallows thickly. “These must be our mystery duelists.”

“And Kanae Ohtori just might be their ringleader,” Touga concludes.

Nanami is now officially sick of mysteries.

At least the curry is delicious.

And no one has switched bodies.

Yet.

Chapter Text

By Monday night Nanami thinks Sunday might have been even more of a blur than Saturday. Touga, Kyouichi, and Himemiya had been on her case about the seminar. What did she remember? What did Kanae Ohtori say? Was there anything she could recall that could lead back to Tenjou? Was anyone else from Ohtori in attendance? They gave up after two hours of trying to get her to recall details. Touga checked out the Calyx Institute official website. It was sparse and only gave the location of the headquarters with a couple of nice pictures.

From: “Nanami K” rose_dior@yuufu.jp.ne
Hey Miki, have you or your sister ever heard of the Calyx Institute?

From: “Miki K” blue_concerto@yuufu.jp.ne
I’ve never heard of them, but I’ll ask Kozue! (^o^)/

From “Miki K” blue_concerto@yuufu.jp.ne
Uh, is everything ok? Kozue says they might be a cult or something? She knows someone at the talent agency who’s a member. They do self-help seminars and meditation sessions she says are “creepy.” (-_-);;

Just her luck because of course they would be a cult. Why wouldn’t they be? After all the Student Council had turned into a kind of cult under the direction of the Chairman.

From “Kozue K” tealdreams@yuufu.jp.ne
you better not be trying to drag my brother into a cult kiryuu!!

From “Nanami K” rose_dior@yuufu.jp.ne
Not trying to get anyone to join a cult, we think we found a lead on the Tenjou mystery that’s all.

That’s all. Nanami is not freaking out about her magical amnesia or wondering why she can text the Kaoru twins about it without a problem when she could hardly focus when Himemiya or her brothers asked her.

From “Miki K” blue_concerto@yuufu.jp.ne
Let’s find a time to have everyone meet up so we can talk things over! Kozue can try to ask more about that person from the talent agency before then.

From “Nanami K” rose_dior@yuufu.jp.ne
Sounds good! I’ll message the others.

Right, just as soon as her hands stop shaking.

The steps are an endlessly ascending spiral. But instead of getting lighter, everything around her gets dimmer and darker with every step. There’s no railing so she has to feel the wall to keep going.

“When you reach the tippy-top of a tall tower where do you go?”

A girl’s voice.

“I guess you could make the tower higher.”

A different girl.

“That’s not really different from climbing the tower is it?”

“I guess not. Maybe you should go down the way you came once you’ve seen the view.”

“No way! You’ll never get to Heaven like that!”

“Oh, I know! You leap off the tower and fly!”

“Bingo! All you need to do is grow wings first!”

She chokes on feathers pressing around her from every side. It’s nearly pitch black now in the stairwell. The stairs vanish beneath her feet and she’s falling, falling, falling with the feathers smothering her still.

Nanami wakes up with a mouth full of pillow and she’s never been so relieved to have had a silly nonsensical nightmare. No coffins or princely tomboys or poisoned apples. She’d been a little worried the duelist dreams of Tenjou might be contagious. Because she really can’t handle her schoolwork, helping Himemiya, and channeling a missing classmate. There are only so many hours in the day.

Speaking of which she has to use up some of those precious hours to talk with Professor Chida to get an invite to another Calyx seminar. Theoretically Nanami could call the number Kanae Ohtori gave her, but she’s still wigged out that she doesn’t even remember their conversation on Friday.

Because the abominably stupid dream woke her up early Nanami is at Professor Chida’s morning office hours when the door opens, a first.

“Miss Kiryuu, I wasn’t expecting you today. Do come in,” the professor tells her as she unlocks the office. “Did you enjoy the seminar on Friday?”

“Actually, that’s what I’m here to talk to you about,” Nanami says, fidgeting with her purse straps. “If that’s okay with you, Professor.”

A lady teacher should in theory be less intimidating than a male one or so Nanami’s upbringing informed her. In reality Professor Chida is acutely frightening and Nanami admires her all the more for it. There’s a self-possessed air of the professor’s that’s unshakable and her keen eyes seem to see everything at once.

“Of course, let me just make us some instant coffee. I can never think in the morning until I’ve had my caffeine fix,” Professor Chida laughs low as though sharing a private joke. “Do take a seat.”

Nanami sits and tries very hard not to look as though she wants to rummage around Chida’s desk to comb for clues. It doesn’t take long for the professor to finish preparing the coffee and she even has a plate of fruit-and-nut tartlets for them to enjoy.

“Did you find the seminar interesting? The school tries to find a variety of speakers to inspire our scholars.”

“Yes, um very interesting.” So interesting it wiped her mind. “I especially liked the speaker from the Calyx Institute. She was my senior at Ohtori Academy, the Chairman’s daughter actually. I really could relate to her speech.”

Whatever it had been.

“Kanae Ohtori has been a very strong advocate of the Calyx Institute these past few years. Perhaps the most vocal one it’s ever had,” Professor Chida nods between sips of coffee.

“But what is the Institute exactly?” Nanami doesn’t mean to blurt that out because there’s only so much dancing around the topic she can do. “Miss Ohtori seemed to encourage us to become members, but I don’t really know what they do. That’s why I wanted to ask you, Professor. It would be terrible to get their hopes up and then me decide it wasn’t a good fit.”

Which is a portrait of a Nanami that doesn’t exist. She would totally bail on any group once she got sick of it. But she needs to seem genuinely interested, yet coy, if she’s going to tease any answers out of the group.

“What is the Calyx Institute?” muses the professor. “I suppose at its heart it’s a community for people to improve themselves with the support of like-minded members. There are many such groups, but it can be difficult to find one that truly uplifts its individuals instead of pushing the prestige of its reputation.”

A club for idiots. But idiots who might be connected to the mystery of Tenjou so Nanami has to pretend like it’s the greatest thing she’s ever heard of.

“You must be right, Professor, because I’ve never heard of them before now.”

Professor Chida looks away from Nanami to gaze at the pictures hanging on the wall. They’re photos of what she assumes are Chida’s colleagues, students, and family, but it won’t do to look too nosy.

“When I was young, barely older than you, gene therapy was still a dream. Something we theorized in papers and crunched numbers for. We thought if we could just get the funding and enough brilliant minds together we could cure the human race of anything and save anyone.”

Oh, for the love of-! Nanami did not come here for tragic backstory! Can’t she just skip to the part where the professor hooks her up with the weirdo club and she goes home?

“I guess there was someone you wanted to save?” Seriously Nanami does not have time to play Sherlock Holmes, but she also cannot afford to piss off her adviser.

“My little brother, he was my whole world, Mamiya.”

Mamiya was a little too close to Himemiya for Nanami’s comfort, but she’ll chalk that up to coincidence because she’ll choke on the coffee otherwise.

“Was?” Okay, she’s not dumb. She gets it. Little bro died tragically before Chida could save him so professor dedicates her life to her work in his memory. Backstory unlocked, level cleared, let’s get going.

“Was. Though I suppose my fellow Institute members would say ‘is’ as the dead never truly leave you if you remember them. I continued my work after his death, but it might as well have been in a fog. No clear goal, no beginning or end, merely the imitation of life.”

Nanami takes it all back. She really should have just called Kanae Ohtori and faked her way through the resulting conversation because this is way more than she ever wanted to know about her professor.

“After some years, I met the founders of the Institute. While I am too much of a scientist to give any credence to the spiritual aspect of the order, they truly understood my loss and helped me move on without judgment.”

“So that’s why you recommend them?”

“Yes, you don’t need to believe in their beliefs to make use of their tools. I see it in your eyes, Miss Kiryuu, you will not allow yourself to give your soul to them,” Chida turned her gaze back on Nanami. “But you’ve suffered the bone deep loss that they can help fix. Make use of them while you’re young, Miss Kiryuu.”

“Um, I don’t think I really suffered like what you’re talking about, Professor, but I’m sure I’ll find something useful.”

“You don’t have to lie to me, Miss Kiryuu. It’s a lovely forgery. No one can tell at first glance.”

What?! This was as bad as being back with the Chairman, Akio Chairman that is.

“Um?”

“Your birth certificate and family registration papers,” Professor Chida clarifies. “I know that your passion for genetics comes from never knowing your biological parents. The Kiryuus adopted you and had the paperwork altered so you appeared to be their natural child.”

Oh! Oh. The adoption thing is old news, but she didn’t know the paperwork was forged because she never looked at it carefully. Adopted children had a different legal designation and could never be uncontested heirs, so it made sense the Kiryuus forged her and Touga’s papers.

Of course in Touga’s case they undid all that when he was disinherited. Considering how awful Father was to Touga after he found out Touga and Kyouichi were together Nanami is rather glad the forgery money went to waste as Father only ever really learned lessons with his wallet.

“Thank you for not telling the university, Professor,” Nanami swallows hard. “It’s not that I’m looking for my original parents, but I do think about other children like me. Who don’t know what’s in their genes or where they came from.”

She’s one of the lucky ones. Touga is her biological sibling. Nanami knows because she ran the tests herself. She has at least one indelible connection to her roots. But ugh, some dumb cult isn’t going to make her feel better about her past because she doesn’t care!

“That’s why I think you would be an especially good fit for the Institute. You will be able to connect with others who understand your losses and your research may directly benefit the people you meet there,” Professor Chida smiles and Nanami is kind of creeped out by it. “One needs to graduate and ascend to the next stage in life. That can only be accomplished by leaving the pain behind and taking the strength with you.”

“That’s so wise, Professor.” If cliches and platitudes are wisdom, sure.

“I’ll call them so you can get a personalized tour of the headquarters.”

“Great!”

Mission accomplished. Time for a nap. Oh and text the whole gang, but that can wait until after the nap. All that philosophy and cheap coffee was giving Nanami a stomachache.

Chapter Text

“You’re not going alone,” Touga declares. The seriousness of the declaration is somewhat diminished considering it’s a video call on her laptop.

“Of course we would never let her go on her own,” Anthy says solemnly. “I would accompany her.”

Kozue barks out an unkind laugh. “You? You’re way too exotic and memorable. You and your brother absolutely cannot go.”

“I’ll go,” Miki volunteers and Nanami is tempted to take him up on it if she wasn’t absolutely certain Kozue would murder her.

“Er, you and your sister are busy with the concert and that TV drama, right?” she, magnanimous queen that she is, give them an out. “You probably can’t afford to get drawn into this.”

“But I want to help Miss Himemiya and Miss Tenjou!” Miki’s brow furrows and he pouts so beautifully Nanami has to wonder if he was ever offered a modeling contract along with Kozue. “If this is something I can do-”

“This is only one possible lead,” Himemiya interrupts him gently. “We will certainly need your help, but it does not have to be for this.”

Situation diffused, but that still leaves Nanami without a cult buddy. Anthy is the only one at her apartment right now as everyone else video conferencing like they’re the world’s lamest spy agency or a bunch of inept party planners. Akio isn’t on the call, because it was hard to know how much to trust him.

“Just because he did not set the board doesn’t mean he won’t take control of it,” Touga had warned and Nanami is so glad he did because she wants to see as little of the former Chairman as possible. Anthy agreed, hence why they were having a Student Council reunion via cheap software.

“I’m quite wounded none of you have suggested me,” Arisugawa tosses her gorgeous curls for dramatic effect.

“Your juniors are still intimidated by you,” Touga teases. “I think they’re afraid of your elegant rejection. It would quite break their hearts.”

“You flatter me, Mister Former Student Council President,” replies Arisugawa.

They would be there all damn night if not for Kozue, “Then it’s all settled! Princess Kiryuu and Chevalier Arisugawa can go pretend to be lambs for the slaughter-”

“Miss Kaoru,” Kyouichi growls low and Nanami is selfishly glad to have two brothers these days. Not that she couldn’t handle Kozue’s amateurish barbs, but it’s nice to know to know she’s not as forlorn and adrift in this world as Professor Chida implied.

“I said ‘pretend!’”

“And I would never allow anything to happen to someone I’m sworn to protect,” Arisugawa adds. “So we shall go and find out what we can about this Institute and report back.”

Arisugawa’s confidence is contagious and they end up talking strategy long into the night. They might actually be able to pull off this Solve the Mystery of Tenjou thing after all. Nanami doesn’t know how she managed to get through the week, but at last the day arrives.

The Calyx Headquarters is something of a marvel in Nanami’s eyes. It’s shocking because Nanami never thought cults were known for subtlety or taste.The soft curves of the building lend it an organic feel and the tidy gardens around it complete the picture. Neither antiquated like Ohtori, nor hyper modern as most urban projects, the headquarters has a unique aesthetic. Only a small bronze plaque embedded in the walkway showcases the logo and company name. An outsider would never know what the building is, what it houses.

Which is rather the point of a secret society, Nanami reflects leaning on Arisugawa’s shoulder. For some reason that she’d rather not think about Nanami is starting to enjoy taking little liberties with the older woman. Even in school Arisugawa had a noble, princely air yet never losing her femininity. Since no man could compete with her childhood vision of a prince (which was basically an idealized version of her brother), Arisugawa makes for a more than adequate substitute. More chivalrous than a man, more hygienic than a man, and much more beautiful than a man, yes Nanami doesn’t mind visiting the gardens of sapphic delights if it’s Arisugawa by her side.

“It’s going to be fine, Kiryuu. Just pay attention to as much as possible,” Arisugawa’s ’s tone is all business and it’s remarkably attractive. “If possible we should try to take separate tours to cover more ground.”

“I know what I’m doing,” Nanami replies. “They’re just weirdo cultists we’ll be done in like an hour if they don’t drone on and on. And Miki gave me this mini pen-recorder. The battery’s supposed to last like eight straight hours.”

“If you’re serious about helping Himemiya and Tenjou then you have to treat this of utmost importance. It’s not a day out shopping.”

“Okay first of all, I’m super serious about helping them. Those two couldn’t get it together if, if – okay they just can’t get it right. And my word as a Kiryuu is on the line. Secondly, shopping is also super serious. I mean don’t tell me you just buy anything Miss Designer Goods de Luxe.”

Of all the things she expects Arisugawa tapping her nose and laughing isn’t one of them, but it happens anyway. “I forgot how energetic you can be, Madame Cowbell.”

“Yeah, well don’t you forget it,” Nanami hopes her blush isn’t visible and wriggles closer to her companion. Frankly, this whole ‘let’s visit a cult’ plan is starting to wig her out. It seemed so easy when they were planning it. Now, now it seems like a spectacularly bad idea. Like what if the cultists tie her up in the basement and do creepy experiments and no one can hear her cries for help. And then Himemiya would totally regret dragging her into this and cry bitter tears for her lost heroine!

Yeah, that’s what would happen.

From tucked away speakers comes a tinkling of bells and the great glass doors open. A pert young thing in a boring off-the-rack suit walks towards them with a clipboard and a smile.

“Miss Kiryuu and Miss Arisugawa, welcome to our humble headquarters. It’s lovely to see you both again. I do hope you’ll stay for the seminars later.”

Again?

Nanami squints at the girl and belatedly realizes it’s one of her ex-hench girls. Whoops. Good thing this cult likes nametags, this one reading A. Wakiya. “Oh my goodness, Aiko! How good to see you! If I’d known you were a part of the Calyx Institute I would have joined much sooner!”

Arisugawa is mercifully quick on the uptake and takes the reins of small talk with their fellow alumnus. Not a moment too soon, Nanami’s teeth are starting to ache from all the grinding she does when faking politeness. While Aiko escorts them into the lobby Nanami discreetly turns on Miki’s recorder inside her purse. Then she looks up. A gaudy gilt framed atrocity is on the opposite wall.

“Ah yes, that’s the portrait of our founders and their daughter,” Aiko beckons them to come closer.

Nanami doesn’t need to get any closer for her heart to beat out of her chest from horror movie type revelation shock. Arisugawa pulls her over anyway.

Larger than life itself the portrait takes up nearly the entire height of the wall and depicts a married couple and their angelic looking young daughter. They’re dressed in old fashioned Western clothes though the date at the bottom of the frame puts it as being painted less than twenty years ago. It’s the kind of pretentious commission that nouveau riche get to look like they’re old money. Of course without the long hall gallery of several generations of predecessors it’s just tacky.

What stands out is the daughter. Who’s a dead ringer for Tenjou. Same heart shaped face, same startling wide eyes, same candid smile, only difference is this girl’s hair is coppery red instead of rose petal pink and her eyes more amber than blue.

For thirty seconds Nanami is genuinely afraid the girl in the picture might move or crawl out of the frame and it’s only Arisugawa holding her hand that keeps her from running far far away. Okay Arisugawa and also her Manolos because she really doesn’t need any more broken shoes this semester.

“Oh my, how lovely,” she forces herself to titter. “Does their daughter work here too?”

Aiko shakes her head mournfully, “No, Miss Utena died shortly after this portrait was completed.”

Nanami’s nails are now digging into Arisugawa’s arm because the creep factor is skyrocketing. “U-utena? What a pretty name.” On her tongue the syllables are suddenly thick and alien.

But Arisugawa pats Nanami’s hands like this isn’t a scene right out of a ghost story and asks, “Oh my, what happened to their little girl?”

All Nanami can think is that she’s so grateful Miki and Anthy stayed home for this. Because if she’s ready to be sick she can’t imagine how they would take it.

“It’s quite sad really. The family was in a car accident. As the couple was being taken away in the ambulances Miss Utena got lost. The poor little girl was found later drowned.” Aiko sighs heavily as though she were there. “Witnesses say she jumped into the river on her own. It’s highly likely she believed her parents were dead instead of merely injured.”

Now it’s Arisugawa’s turn to pale and for her gaze to harden. After all her sister had nearly drowned all those years ago and this red-haired little girl’s picture is totally not helping in Nanami’s opinion. “I see.”

“Thus the Calyx Institute was named after their daughter. Calyx of course is the Latin translation of ‘utena’ – it’s the part of the flower that holds up the blossom. Or as we say here at the Institute, ‘the calyx supports the flower of life.’”

There’s another river that comes to mind for Nanami or maybe it was the same river but she didn’t know it at the time. Overflowing from the summer rains and carrying away a box with a most precious cargo, a dirty muddy river that had something of Styx in its nature. Weren’t there any nice rivers in this city?

“Right after Miss Utena’s passing our founders collected their research papers and began the Calyx Institute by recruiting the best and brightest from all around Japan. Both of you are considered to be top candidates to continue the work of our founders.”

Work? She thought they were lame self-help cultists or whatever. Did Kanae Ohtori’s speech mention work or candidates? Magical amnesia really did ruin everything.

Aiko places a slim volume embossed with the Calyx logo in each of their hands. “I hope to see you at our next orientation session. Our head of operations will be with you momentarily. May the Prince bloom in your heart.”

The stairs to the heavens were murder on the calves, but Nanami suddenly misses the dueling arena because sword fighting does wonders for getting out frustration.

“And in yours as well.” Because Arisugawa is smooth like that while Nanami is trying not to hyperventilate into the pen recorder.

Breathe Kiryuu, she tells herself. You’ve seen a lot creepier. You’ve seen the Chairman naked. That was totally worse than a oil painting of a dead girl.

Just an oil painting of a little dead girl. Who looks like Tenjou. Whose eyes are totally following her around the room - no, that just has to be the lighting. Right?!

“And here I was thinking that this might have been a dead end,” Arisugawa murmurs after Aiko leaves the lobby. “They are certainly more interesting than their pamphlet let on.”

“Tell me you are an actual human being and freaked out right now,” hisses Nanami. “Because this is too much!”

“One of us at the very least has to maintain a calm facade for the Director of Operations,” says Arisugawa. “But I would prefer if both of us would do so until we can leave this nightmare and get a drink.”

“You’re buying.”

“I never presumed otherwise.”

Chapter Text

Somewhere out there in the great wide world there is probably a guide on what to do after you visit a cult and basically have a ghost encounter. But Nanami doesn’t have time for extra-curricular research so she grab cheap cup sake from the convenience store and chugs it out in the sidewalk because she needs to drown out that Tenjou portrait like yesterday.

“Slow down, kitten,” Arisugawa pets her on the head and Nanami wants to growl. “Take it slow. We actually need to remember what we learned today to tell the others. Then you can go about destroying the memories.”

“Then call or text or whatever the group,” snaps Nanami. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to sleep tonight with those creepy dead girl eyes watching me. Besides I don’ t know why you care about my impressions. You’re the prodigy who sees everything.”

Which is how Nanami, Arisugawa, Himemiya, the twins, and the Chairman ended up in Himemiya’s apartment which is magically not cramped when Nanami could’ve sworn it was much smaller last time she visited it. Touga and Kyouichi had commitments they couldn’t get out of, but Nanami is grateful as she really doesn’t want either of them to be stuck in the same room as the Chairman. She doesn’t know the full extent of what went on that year, and doesn’t want to, but it seems like it’s better to put off their reunion as long as possible for the sake of her brothers.

Arisugawa forbade Nanami from any more alcohol until she duly recounts every awful detail of their trip to the Calyx facility. Which Nanami does as fast as she can and then practically sprints to swipe a fruity chuuhai from the fridge so Arisugawa can take over. Himemiya has the good grace not to ask Nanami a million questions about the Not!Tenjou (or was it Maybe!Tenjou or Defininitely!Tenjou?) and simply nods at all the right parts of the retelling.

“From what I can gather the Calyx Institute recruits people with resources they can plumb. People who are clever, not smart enough to see through their machinations or so they would think. Most especially the wealthy and easily influenced,” Arisugawa concludes.

Miki and Kozue share a Look with a capital L. Anthy smiles to herself.

“What? Are you guys done rehashing the cult stuff? ‘Cause I don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry. So curry take-out or should we just show up at that fancy Italian place? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Akio is the only one to answer and he does so with mischievous glint in his eye, “They want you to be the sap to join the Calyx cult.”

“Excuse me, what? I am not going to prance around with the Creepster Girls’ Club. I mean I have grad school stuff and like a social life.” Not to mention she really just can’t look at that Tenjou family oil painting again because ick ick ick.

Kozue has the nerve to snort, “You don’t know the meaning of busy, Kiryuu. Besides all that school stuff can be put on hold Miki tells me.”

“Cry me a river Miss Porno Idol,” Nanami brandishes her nail file at the blue-haired girl. “My grad degree is totally important unlike your busy schedule of wearing silly costumes and lip-syncing.”

She’s got at least three more digs lined up, one of which is a great zinger on twincest, but then Arisugawa comes over and does the thing. The thing that drives Nanami a little crazy. It’s quite simple, the firm but light pressure of Arisugawa’s hands on her shoulders. Every time it happens Nanami can’t decide if she wants to be held down more or fight against it and just ends up biting her lip. Well biting her lip and ignoring the tingle of warmth in her gut.

“We all know your project is important,” the redhead’s voice is velvety soft and cultured. “But only you can do this for Tenjou and Himemiya. You have all the outward qualities the Calyx Group is looking for and they’ve offered you membership. Whatever you can learn with them will bring us closer to the mystery of Tenjou. And as you’ve pointed out we all owe her a great debt.”

“I’ll go to their stupid seminar tomorrow,” Nanami wriggles her shoulders to get Arisugaw’s hands off of them before she starts blushing. “But you guys totally owe me. Big time. Especially Witch Princess and Professor Statutory. Like I mean Gucci bag big. No, bigger. Like foreign sports car big.” Not that she can drive or anything, but that wasn’t the point.

Himemiya tilts her head smiling, “Don’t worry Miss Nanami, your efforts will be duly rewarded.”

Because that isn’t creepy at all.

Nope.

Nanami thinks she may call Touga over after all to demand he check her closets for killer octopuses tonight. And Kyoichi can like keep watch. Wait no, that’s a terrible idea. They’d totally end up doing it on her couch instead of guarding her from impatient witches who miss their tomboy girlfriends and want her to infiltrate a cult ASAP. Maybe she should call Tsuwabuki instead. He always was good with a baseball bat.

Take-out arrives in huge boxes and they eat and drink until they’re laughing instead of twitching with tension. The former chairman almost looks harmless as he eats daintily and contributes little to the conversation. At least as far as Nanami can tell. He and Himemiya keep staring at each other to the point where Nanami is left wondering if they share the power of telepathy. Himemiya never asks directly if he’s involved with Calyx, but even Nanami realizes there’s no way he can be that involved. There was too much surprise and bemused derision in his expressions when Arisugawa detailed their afternoon. No, if anything the former chairman seemed a bit annoyed that he hadn’t thought of starting a cult first.

“Won’t you stay the night?” Himemiya breathes in Nanami’s ear when she starts collecting the empty glasses and plates as everyone starts to leave.

On the one hand Nanami really doesn’t want to go back to her apartment alone. On the other hand she knows Himemiya is going to privately interrogate her about what she saw at Calyx. On a third hand, yes Nanami knows that isn’t a thing, Himemiya is going to get that information out of her eventually. Maybe not tonight, maybe not tomorrow, but soonish and it’s not wise to make witches wait. “Yeah, sure,” Nanami says totally not breathless.

“Wonderful.”

Which should have been a clue that things were going to get weird. Whatever, Nanami isn’t into detective novels so it’s completely not her fault.

Though she really shouldn’t have been shocked when Himemiya steps into the shower room just as Nanami finished scrubbing down. But she kind of was shocked though plus side Nanami wasn’t thinking about the little dead girl picture after that. Because if she thought Himemiya was stunning in clothes she’s nothing short of a goddess naked. It’s actively unfair that Nanami while good-looking is surrounded by ridiculously beautiful people. Arisugawa, the twins, Himemiya, even Tsuwabuki grew up to be stunning.

“Nanami,” Himemiya locks those emerald green eyes on her and Nanami is frozen in place under the hot spray of water. “Nanami, you haven’t left anything out about today, have you?”

“Oh my god, Himemiya! I’m not dumb enough to lie to you about Tenjou stuff!” Nanami feels like she’s rolled her eyes so much in the last two weeks they could probably enter a weightlifting competition. “Get under the water if you’re gonna be weird and shower with me, it’s freakier for you to just stand there.”

“Are you sure you don’t need help jogging your memory?” Himemiya is on her in seconds, thigh between Nanami’s legs like back at the restaurant.

“What is it with you and bathrooms, Himemiya?” Nanami whines and grabs Himemiya’s hair to pull her in for a kiss. Not a romantic kiss, there’s nothing gentle or beautiful about their teeth practically clacking. By Nanami’s estimation Himemiya has three things going for her impromptu seduction right now: one she’s gorgeous, two Nanami has been wound up all day by Arisugawa’s charms, and three Nanami really needs a distraction from Calyx especially since everyone has volunteered her to be the new Calyx chewtoy. Four, fine Nanami is adding to the list but she can do that because it’s her mental list, it was flattering.

Because Himemiya could have resorted to her freaky hypnosis voice or put a potion or something in Nanami’s drink. This personal touch, extremely personal touch, is gratifying in more ways than just the three fingers stretching Nanami so good she climaxes twice in less than five minutes. Unlike their first encounter Nanami returns the favor and is pretty pleased with herself that she’s able to render a witch speechless with pleasure.

Afterward when they’re finally in pajamas and in bed, Nanami is pleasantly surprised to find she’s not that scared of the Calyx Institute anymore.

“For the record, Himemiya,” Nanami says between huge yawns. “You don’t have to seduce me for intel. If you want to fool around fine, but I’m not out to lie to you or whatever. I want you find Tenjou and have your happily-ever-after.”

Himemiya’s gentle breathing and closed eyes make Nanami think she’s asleep for a hot ten seconds before she replies, “Old habits are hard to break.”

Adult Nanami can understand that, but she’s also enormously relieved that Junior High School Student Nanami was spared the cutthroat tactics. “Yeah that’s fine. But I don’t want us to get that involved. You know because you have your epic love and I’m-”

Was it smugness or curiosity that colored Himemiya’s, “Interested in Miss Arisugawa?”

“I’m not looking into a forever anything with anyone right now,” Nanami has no interest in letting Himemiya know how right she is. “And no offense, you’re complicated.”

“None taken.” Himemiya laughs for the first time that night and it’s actually nice to hear.

“And I’m already a complex person so that’s way too much personality concentrated right there.”

“Duly noted,” Himemiya says with mock solemnity.

She’s floating in a rosy sky, colorful clouds hovering as she descends. Birdsong in the air without a single bird in sight. The fragrance of roses hangs in the air thick enough one could take a knife to it. Everything is peaceful.

Then gravity seems to remember her and yanks hard.

She’s falling, falling, falling, hurtling towards the ground towards a hole.

Or is it a well?

The clouds are charcoal on an ash sky.

It’s not a well. It’s an open grave.

Nanami’s throat is sore, like she’s been screaming for hours on end. But she couldn’t have because Anthy is dead asleep beside her and ChuChu is snuggled up in his miniature bed complete with sleep mask still on. She consoles herself that at least she didn’t see or hear Tenjou in her nightmares when she realizes her phone is blinking with a unread message alert. An SMS from a number she doesn’t recognize, but doesn’t need to considering the picture attached: a pink haired girl laughing with a dark-haired bespectacled boy.

From: 090-xxx-0420
[attached: utena_and_kaido]
Dear Miss Kiryu,
It finally came back to me, Utena’s friend was Kaido.
My husband and I asked around and got Kaido’s new contact info and address from a relative.
I’m not sure if he’ll want to talk about my niece after all these years, but I wanted to pass on the information just in case.
Regards,
Yurika Wakaouji

There’s an address and the name of some kind of shop included, too.

“Nanami, is something wrong?” Himemiya asks drowsily.

“Himemiya, we have a new lead!” Nanami grins hard enough to hurt. “A real lead!”

“Oh my!”

And really that just said it all.