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Jaquemart I - Ten Thousand Shades of Grey

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JAQUEMART
by
Alan Harnum

Utena and its characters belongs to Be-PaPas, Chiho Saito,
Shogakukan, Shokaku Iinkai and TV Tokyo.

This copy of the story is from my Archive of Our Own page at http://archiveofourown.org/users/alanharnum/pseuds/alanharnum.

 

I. Ten Thousand Shades of Grey

Ring! Ring! It's 7:00 A.M.!
Move y'self to go again
Cold water in the face
Brings you back to this awful place
Knuckle merchants and you bankers, too
Must get up an' learn those rules
Weather man and the crazy chief
One says sun and one says sleet
--The Clash, "The Magnificent Seven"

* * *

Time again for the bells to ring.

"For whom doth the bell toll?" had long ago ceased to be a
question. He no longer asked it, and was uninterested in the
answer. No greater pleasure than a simple but necessary task.
And bells must be rung, and thus must have their ringers.

What must the ringer have? That, too, was no longer a
question.

There had always been too many ropes, even in the beginning.
They had multiplied over the years, until they hung like a forest
of serpents, some alone, some in twisting clusters.

How many ropes, and what bells did they ring, and where?
Again, none were questions he had even a memory of desiring to
ask. He knew which ropes to pull as his heart knew to pump
blood.

The rope was coarse between his callused hands; he
tightened his grip, sighed gently, though not unhappily, and
pulled.

* * *

The poor alarm clock only managed to get out half a beep before
a hand slammed it into dead silence. A lithe, tightly-muscled
leg emerged from beneath the piled quilts and groped for the
floor; once that was found, it soon enjoyed the company of its
sibling.

Quilts were thrust away to fall to the floor in a careless
heap. Freed from beneath their confines, Tenjou Utena sat up,
yawned, stretched, and then immediately dived back into bed and
pulled as many quilts as she could back over herself.

"C-Cold."

A chill wind seemed to have blown through the bedroom in the
night; beyond the frosted panes of the single, small window, she
could see that snow had fallen in the night. A tiny line between
pane and sill exposed the room to the outside, and scattered
white flakes dusted the faded wood of the inner sill.

"How did that get open?" she groaned, safe and warm within
the sanctuary of the quilts, and thus disinclined to get up and
deal with the real source of the problem.

Heat was expensive, though, and it wasn't as if they could
afford to waste money. Mentally and physically steeling herself,
she leapt out from beneath the quilts and made a dash for the
window with only her thin pyjamas for protection. Halfway there,
the alarm clock's SNOOZE function finished, and it began to
plaintively beep. Surprised in mid-dash, Utena started, her
left foot became entangled in the bra she'd casually tossed on
the floor before going to bed last night, and she went down hard.

"Ow."

An errant snowflake, blown on winter winds, drifted through
the crack and settled daintily on her nose. The alarm's
morse-code peeps began to increase in rate and volume, until they
became a shrieking electronic wail that dug at her eardrums like
a rusty trowel.

One hand rubbing her bruised tailbone, Utena stood, slammed
the window fully closed, and turned to deal with the alarm clock.
The SNOOZE button sent it into quiescence again, and a flick of a
switch turned it to the FM stations.

//"...and it's a cold day in Sapporo, listeners, but, then
again, you should've expected that. Snow falls approached record
levels, more on that with Fuji the Weather Guy after the
news..."//

As she'd wanted to turn it off, that wasn't received well.
She growled, muttered something rude about the engineers who
designed an alarm clock where the furthest position for the
switch wasn't OFF, and managed at last to shut it completely off.
She hoped.

At the door, as she pulled a light terrycloth robe over her
pyjamas and shoved her bare feet into slippers, she noticed the
smell.

"Oh, no. Not again."

Robe flapping, slippers slapping, she hurried down the small
hall of the apartment and into the kitchenette. "Anthy!"

Himemiya Anthy, hair pinned up and tucked into a white
kerchief, looked away momentarily from the skillet in which she
was making eggs. "Good morning, Utena."

"Anthy, not again." Utena slumped into one of the rickety
wooden chairs at the cheap vinyl-finished table. From his place
at one corner, Chu-Chu belched a greeting, then resumed his
attempts to cram an entire piece of buttered toast down his
throat without swallowing. "We talked about this, didn't we?
Didn't we talk about it?"

"Don't be silly, Utena. I was up before you. Coffee?"

"Anthy... yes, please."

"Two sugars, no milk. Just how you like it."

"Anthy, I'm the one who's supposed to cook, at least until I
find another job. Once that happens, we can start sharing again,
but..."

"You pack my lunch and make dinner, Utena. It doesn't hurt
me to make breakfast once in a while."

Utena gulped hot coffee and shook her head. "Anthy, it's
the principle of the thing. Do I have to start waking up
earlier?"

"Really, Utena, it's all right." Anthy began to heap
scrambled eggs over toast onto two chipped plates, and pour
orange juice into mismatched glasses. "I don't mind."

"But I do!"

"Why are you trying to tell me what to do?" Anthy was
beginning to sound just a little annoyed. "If I want to cook you
breakfast some days, I'm allowed, aren't I? I can do what I
want, can't I? How does it hurt--"

"Anthy, let's talk about this later, please."

"I don't want to talk about it at all. You're the one who
brought it up."

"Anthy..."

"I'm sorry, Utena."

"Don't say you're sorry, you haven't got anything--"

"Let's just eat our breakfast."

Chu-Chu looked from one woman to the next, and let out a
plaintive "Chu?". Anthy and Utena moved almost simultaneously to
stroke his head; their hands met over him, fingers barely
brushing.

Utena blushed slightly, but couldn't tell with Anthy's dark
complexion if the other woman followed suit. Without any words
being exchanged, they gently clasped hands.

Chu-Chu smiled.

A few minutes later, with breakfast nearly finished, Utena
noticed the absence. "Anthy, where's the paper?"

Anthy paused in her clearing of the dishes. "Paper?"

"You always leave it on the counter over there when you get
up before me, just like I do when I get up before you." Utena
chuckled softly. "Not that that happens much, but still..."

"Oh, the paper. The paper didn't come today."

"Hmm? Guess it must be because of all the snow. I'll pick
one up today when I go out." As Anthy brought the dishes to the
sink and began to rinse them, Utena dug into the fridge to put
together lunches for the two of them. Cold fried rice from
yesterday's dinner, one left-over yakitori skewer (that went into
Anthy's box), a thermos of tea for each of them, rice crackers,
and the single apple remaining in the fruit box (Anthy's box
again).

"You might want to leave a little early today, Anthy;
traffic will be slow, what with all that snow."

Anthy smiled as she scrubbed the plates. "If that junker of
a car starts at all."

"Hey--don't talk like that, you'll jinx it."

"Retasu-san will understand if I'm a little late."

"Yeah, he's a nice guy. Heard anything about that assistant
supervisor position?"

"Not yet. I know Yuri-san is going on her maternity leave
soon, but no one's talked to me yet."

"You should ask Retasu about it. He'd give it to you in a
second; you know plants as well as anyone there does."

"Oh, I don't want to be pushy like that..."

"It's not pushy, Anthy."

Finished packing the lunches, Utena came over to help with
the dishes. Grabbing a ragged towel from the rack near the sink,
she put herself on drying duty. "Anyway, I have two interviews
today. Here's to hoping." She clinked the two empty juice glass
together, then put them away in the cupboard.

"Where?"

"Retail jobs. They don't pay too well, but... better than
nothing."

"You really don't need to work, I make--"

"No, I don't need to work. But I want to."

They finished the dishes. Anthy took off her kerchief and
adjusted her hair in the small mirror on the door, then put on
her jacket and boots, while Utena wiped the table and the
counters.

"Goodbye, Utena," Anthy called, as she stepped out the door.

"Anthy! Your lunch."

"Oh; silly me."

Utena brought her the bento box; their hands brushed again
as they exchanged it. Hesitantly, Utena leaned forward and
lightly kissed Anthy's dusky cheek; faint floral perfume tickled
her nose.

"Have a good day, Anthy."

"I tried to water the roses yesterday."

Utena stepped back, eyes widening. "What?"

"In the greenhouse. I thought... I thought. But I
couldn't. I filled the watering can, but I couldn't go near
them. Even after seven years."

"Anthy--"

"Goodbye, Utena; good luck with your interviews."

Anthy closed the door and hurried away.

Utena stood staring at blank wood for a few seconds. There
was a calendar pinned to the inner side of door, below the
mirror, and pinned to it was a photograph of the two of them
taken last year. Chu-Chu was on her shoulder; she wore jeans,
and Anthy wore a skirt.

"Roses," Utena murmured, and touched the scar upon her
abdomen through pyjamas and robe. Then she sat down at the
cheap, dirty kitchen table, and quietly began to cry.

* * *

Later, as she walked to the dingy corner where the bus stopped,
the scar ached. It did that whenever she thought about the
past; about the time she'd been a prince.

Around her, the fresh snow had already been churned into
dank grey slush by the passage of feet. It had taken about an
hour after Anthy's departure to prepare for the interviews:
shower, dress, do her hair, put on make-up. The skirt was
awkward to walk in and the make-up itched, but she needed a job
and had to make the best impression possible.

At the bus stop, she waited within the clear plexiglass
walls of the shelter, and watched the traffic pass. Outside, two
boys in leather jackets passed a long hand-rolled cigarette back
and forth. She flirted momentarily with the idea of asking them
for some, but killed it quickly; she'd quit for good two years
ago after long urging by Anthy. Not only that, but they might
take it the wrong way; they were already giving her enough looks.

"Punks," she muttered. They couldn't be more than sixteen,
but they had faces like sharks. One noticed her observation, and
grinned at her; his canine teeth had been filed to points. She
stared back with narrowed eyes, until he looked away and said
something to his friend; dropping the finished cigarette into the
slush, they walked away.

She worried sometimes; couldn't help it, living in this
neighbourhood. Not for herself; she was still in top shape, and
was perfectly capable of handling anything that came her way.
But Anthy... Anthy might just lie back and let it happen, if it
came down to it.

When the bus came a few minutes later, she was still the
only one there to board. She dug in her handbag for the fare,
then took a seat at the very back next to an snoozing old woman.

The bus stop retreated out the back window, and she
rehearsed interview questions. Why did you leave your last job,
Tenjou-san? Didn't like the environment. And the one before
that? Conflicts with other employees. What's the longest you've
ever held a job, Tenjou-san? Do you have a problem with
authority? Do you not enjoy working in groups? Are you easily
upset? What made you apply for this job in particular?

Somewhat uncomfortably she realized that she was the
youngest person on the bus. All the other passengers were at
least approaching middle age; none of them looked happy to be
going wherever they were. Probably to menial jobs that barely
paid for rent and food, the same kind of jobs their children
would go to once they were old enough, and their children's
children.

Utena's seatmate snored contentedly, then flopped over onto
her shoulder. She didn't have the heart to remove her or the
space to move away.

As they left the shoddy residential area of cheap flats and
low-rent apartment buildings where she and Anthy lived, snow
began to fall again. Thin flakes hit the bus windows like blind
birds, and died. Utena watched sadly.

A hand brushed her thigh. She looked over at her other
seatmate, a greying man in a suit that had seen better days.
Moving carefully so as not to wake the old woman, she leaned
over to whisper sweetly into his ear:

"Do that again, and I'll break your fingers."

The man made no response, but got up and left the bus at the
next stop. Utena wondered whether he'd actually planned to get
off there, then promptly forgot about it. The minor adrenaline
rush the incident provided carried her all the way to her
downtown stop, a few blocks from the first interview. With an
hour to kill before it began, she retreated from the cold and
slush into a small coffee shop. She splurged for a large
cappuccino, and spent nearly the whole hour reading the remains
of a newspaper she found in the booth; someone had already made
off with the front section, and half of sports.

Lonely. That was how she felt. She could have brought Chu-
Chu for company, but the last time she'd done that, he'd popped
out of her handbag during the interview and greeted the
interviewer. She did not, to her great unsurprise, get the job.

Time passed with agonizing slowness. Utena drained her mug
to the dregs, considered ordering a refill, and then didn't.
The coffee shop was only half-full; hopefully, they wouldn't ask
her to leave. Outside was cold, and hanging around the store
before her interview would only make her nervous.

Beyond the windows, snow kept on falling.

* * *

The first interview went badly. As the questions became more
probing, she'd become sullen and defensive--hadn't been able to
stop herself. And the manager had kept on trying to look down
her blouse. At the end, already quite certain she wouldn't get
the job, she gave him an especially crushing handshake, and then
hurried out.

Let the second one go better, she thought, as she hurried to
catch the bus again. Please, let it go better. She hurriedly
ate her lunch during the trip; it tasted slightly better than
styrofoam.

The bus dropped her off nearly in front of the store, which
was bigger and brighter than she expected an antique shop to be.

"Green Rose Antiques." She shuddered. "Just a
coincidence." The stylized jade-coloured rose on the sign above
the shop door reminded her of the Rose Signet, but, then again,
even the word "rose" could remind her of it.

A bell over the door rang softly as she entered; from behind
the counter, a harried clerk managed to spare her a smile, and
then resumed discussing the merits of various pieces of jewelry
on a felt-lined tray with two customers who looked like they
could be newlyweds. Utena could see immediately why they had
advertised for more staff; the three clerks she saw didn't look
like enough to handle such a big store, or so many customers.
Even on an ugly-weather weekday like this one, they were doing
a brisk business.

Not that it was hard to see why; the store was clean,
bright, and beautifully organized, hardly the stereotypical dust-
choked antique shop. Beautiful old wooden furniture competed for
space with elegant vases, and the display cases were full of
well-polished jewelry and watches. A magnificent oaken
grandfather clock ticked precisely in one corner, and behind the
counter, a few sheathed swords--two katanas, and what looked like
a French rapier--hung on the wall.

Utena took a deep breath; the air seemed weighty with all
the antiquity within. Despite the bad memories the name brought
back, she liked the store immediately.

She waited until a clerk was momentarily free, and walked up
to him. "Excuse me, I'm Tenjou Utena--"

"Here for the interview, right?" He smiled a bit wearily
while peering at her from behind thick glasses. "Office is that
way." He indicated a door labelled STAFF ONLY in the back
with a jerk of his thumb. "Good luck; we could use the help."

Utena nodded, thanked him profusely--he was the first
friendly face she'd seen since Anthy had left for work--and
quickly threaded her way through the customers to reach the door.
A short trip down a narrow hallway brought her past a bathroom
and a blank door that she guessed led to a storage room before
she reached a nearly-closed door with MANAGER on it.

She breathed deeply again, and knocked.

"Come in."

The manager's office was quite plain: a half-full
bookshelf, a desk, two file cabinets. All that seemed out of
place was the katana over the window.

Behind the desk, a man not much older than her sat in a
swivel chair, face hidden by the paperwork he was examining.
As she closed the door, he lowered it.

For a moment, all she could do was stare. The hair was
much shorter, and he wasn't as lean as he'd been back then,
but...

It took effort even to whisper. "Saionji?"

* * *

Snip, snap. Leaves and shoots fell at her feet. The concave
pruner and bud scissors moved in short, stabbing motions; twist,
cut, twist, cut. Fascinating, the fragility of bonsai trees;
like miniature worlds. Years of constant care, and even then a
slip of the hand when cutting could destroy them. So hard and
time-consuming to create; it did not seem fair that they were
so easily ruined.

Anthy finished and moved on to the next bonsai. The
government had slashed funding to the Sapporo Horticultural
Institute a few years back, and this was one of the financial
sidelines that kept them (barely) in the black: doing the
preliminary work on bonsais, which were then sold to people who
would supposedly continue the work. Privately, Anthy suspected
that most of them soon fell into disrepair. It was a rare person
whose attention could be held for long by a bonsai--much rarer
than those who could afford to buy them and the tools needed to
maintain them.

She cared for each bonsai until its first repotting. One or
two years of work upon each one... there were about twenty being
cared for at any one time, all awaiting the day when they would
go to the people who had put their names on the waiting list...

Better not to think about it.

The door to the pleasant, white, sterile room clicked open,
and Doctor Retasu looked in. "Himemiya?"

"Yes, Retasu-san?"

"How are things going?"

"Just fine."

The head of the Institute stepped fully in and closed the
door. "Nearly finished?"

"Yes, sir."

Softly whistling, as was his habit, Retasu came up behind
her and watched her work. Anthy consciously straightened her
posture, and paused momentarily to adjust the hang of the long
white apron she wore for doing this work. Then she threw herself
doggedly back into the pruning.

Retasu adjusted his rimless glasses and ran blunt fingers
through his shaggy grey hair. "I'm not making you nervous, am I?
I just like to watch you work."

"No, sir."

Snip, snap. The floor beneath the bonsai-holding tables was
covered with plastic to make clean up easier. In cold Sapporo,
the Horticultural Institute had to be kept warm for the health of
the plants; a bead of sweat threatened to fall into Anthy's eye,
and she stopped her work to wipe it away.

This was, she decided, as good a time as any to broach the
subject. "Yuri-san will be leaving to have her baby soon, won't
she?"

"Yes, she will."

"Have you found someone to fill her position yet?"

The botanist thoughtfully brought a finger to his thick
moustache. "Actually, no, I haven't."

"Oh."

"Are you interested?"

For a second, she couldn't find her words, but she recovered
quickly, hoping he hadn't noticed what might seem hesitation.
"Yes, sir."

His hand lightly touched her upper back, and lingered. "How
long have you been working here, Anthy? Four years?"

"Almost, I think."

"You're one of the best workers I've ever had."

"Thank you, Retasu-san."

He smiled; his hand moved down. "So formal. You're a
little old fashioned, aren't you, Anthy?"

"Maybe a little."

A little further down; Anthy put her tools back in the big
pocket of her apron.

"You're a good employee Anthy." He took his hand away.
"Come by my office after working hours, and we'll talk."

"Yes, sir."

As he left, he began to whistle again. When the door
clicked shut, Anthy untensed more than she meant to, and nearly
fell; without the edge of the table to grab, she might very well
have hit the floor.

The table rocked slightly; the bonsais threatened to fall.
Anthy hurriedly let go, and got up in order to steady them.

* * *

Saionji Kyouichi looked back at Utena from behind his desk,
apparently more than a little surprised. After a moment, he
shook his head, and said, embarrassed, "I'm sorry, I don't
remember you."

"Tenjou Utena. From Ohtori."

Saionji smiled and pursed his lips. "I..." He laughed.
"I'm very sorry, I'm really drawing a blank."

Utena looked at his face; he seemed completely sincere.
Surprising how much it hurt, how much it made her scar ache; this
was Saionji, whom she'd never liked at all. And Anthy had warned
her about the amnesia that would overtake everyone she'd ever
known at Ohtori. Why did she feel so sad, then, that he didn't
remember her?

"You were the captain of the kendo club," she said quietly.
"We had a few duels."

Saionji leaned forward and rested his chin on his hands, deep
in thought. "You were a member?"

"Sort of."

What good is a prince, if no one remembers her deeds?

He abruptly straightened and snapped his fingers. "Of
course. You were the one who always wore a boy's uniform."

Utena beamed. "That was me."

"Go ahead and sit down, Utena." He indicated the chair in
front of the desk. "Well, this is funny." His eyes looked up at
the sword over the window. "Little things are coming back now; I
remember my friend Touga, he had kind of a crush on you... and
you challenged me to a duel because of that love letter I posted
on the bulletin board."

She nodded as she sat down. "Yes, that's right."

"I can't remember who won, though." He frowned. "It was
only seven years ago. Strange."

"It doesn't matter any more," Utena surprised herself by
saying. "Don't worry about it."

"I should thank you." His voice was softer, kinder than the
Saionji she had known; the years had apparently weathered him for
the better. "I was a real jerk back then. You were the first
person at Ohtori who ever really put me in my place." A mild,
nostalgic chuckle escaped him. "Looking back at it... it's all a
bit unclear, but I don't think I would have married Wakaba if you
hadn't challenged me for putting her letter up."

Utena bit her lip. "Wakaba? How is she?"

"She's fine. We got married three years ago."

"Congratulations." She smiled unsteadily. "Sorry it's a
little late."

"Odd that Wakaba didn't send you an invitation... you were
good friends. I remember..."

"We drifted apart after I left Ohtori."

His face clouded a little. "I know how that goes."

"Do you... still talk to Touga?"

He shook his head. "I haven't seen Touga since graduation."
For a moment, there was a flash of the dark melancholy of his
youth, and then it disintegrated. "But I guess you aren't here
to reminisce. You want the job?"

"I have my resume in my bag..."

"Don't bother. You're hired."

"Saionji, I don't want to get a job that way..."

"Don't be silly." He looked at her kindly. "I remember how
you left Ohtori. Trouble with the Chairman, right?"

"...yes."

"I'm not going to pry. I had a bit of that myself. If you
want the job, you have it."

Pride warred with need; need won. "Thank you so much,
Saionji-san."

He leaned back in his chair. "Any questions?"

"How did you get into this business?"

A slight grimace marred his face. "After I graduated from
Ohtori, my father wanted me to follow him into banking. I went
to college for a year for that, then realized I hated it, and
dropped out. I always liked antiques, old things; things with a
sense of eternity to them."

A singular chill finger ran down Utena's spine. She hid it
with a smile and a nod. "How long have you been doing this?"

"Two years now," he answered. "I have another store in
Tokyo. We--Wakaba and I--just opened this one last month."

"Is she..." Utena paused; she had tangled her hand so
tightly in the straps of her purse that her fingers were turning
white. "Is Wakaba here now?"

Saionji answered as she worked to unwrap her hand from its
entanglement: "She's back at the apartment. We'll probably be
going back to Tokyo in a few months, once we get the store
established. I'll be sure to tell her you're in town; she'd love
to see you." He laughed, and tapped his fingers on the desk.
"What a coincidence, huh?"

"Yeah."

He tore off a piece of paper from the pad on his desk and
scribbled two numbers on it before passing it to her. "The first
one is the apartment number, and the second is my cell phone.
You've got the number here, right?"

Utena nodded.

"Anyway." He put another piece of paper in front of him.
"Let's talk about your hours. Full-time, right?"

"Full-time."

They worked the details out in perfect comfort, as if they
were old friends instead of old foes. Of course, Utena
reflected, Saionji probably thought they were old friends.

When they finished, she got up to shake his hand; his
fingers were surprisingly soft and smooth, with only the ghosts
of calluses. When, she wondered, was the last time he'd handled
a sword?

As he clasped her hand, she stared into his eyes, and the
old memories rose; Saionji slapped Anthy, Saionji cut down Touga
before her eyes... How much of that was still there? He
couldn't have changed that much, not just by leaving Ohtori and
forgetting her. Then again, Ohtori was Akio's domain, his own
monstrous fairy-tale kingdom, and...

These were the kinds of things she didn't ever think about,
for fear of too much hurt. Seeing Saionji was so unexpected, and
soon she might see Wakaba as well. Almost overwhelming... all
that, and to suddenly have a job again.

Anthy would be happy. Or would she be? No way she could
hide who she was working for forever, and Anthy's behaviour at
any mention of things related to Ohtori could be unpredictable.

Troubled, Utena bid Saionji farewell, thanked him again, and
went to leave. As she opened the door, his voice stopped her.
"Utena?"

"Yes?"

"Did you ever see Himemiya Anthy again after you left? You
and her were..."

"We're roommates," she said quickly, and left in a hurry.
In the store, the clerk who'd directed her to the office gave her
a quick look; she smiled at him, and gave a thumbs-up. His grin
followed her as she ducked out the front door, pulling on her
jacket as she did so.

Outside in the falling snow, she took deep, revitalizing
breaths of winter air, cold clinging to her throat in a delicious
chill. Flakes dotted the pale rose of her hair in an impromptu
diadem. At the corner a newspaper box stood half-wreathed by
drifting snow. Utena dug in her pockets for change.

* * *

The unfeasibility of reading a full-size newspaper on the bus
made sure Utena saved it until she arrived home. Chu-Chu was
all over her the moment she got in, squeaking for something to
eat. Utena left her winter clothes at the door and slipped off
her boots, then waltzed into the kitchen with Chu-Chu at her
heels and tossed the paper onto the table for later reading.
She made Chu-Chu a peanut butter sandwich, knowing from previous
experience that the sticky filling would keep him occupied for
some time, and put the kettle on to boil.

When she turned back to the table from the stove, Chu-Chu
was attempting to eat the front section of the paper.

"Chu-Chu! No!"

The unclassifiable simian looked at her with big, innocent
eyes, and slowly removed the corner of the page he had been
trying to swallow from his mouth.

Utena flopped down into a chair and cocked her head sideways
to stare at him. "Honestly, why would you want to chew that? Do
you want to make a nest or something?"

"Chu!"

"Real informative. You can have it after I'm done with it.
Now eat your sandwich."

"...chu."

Trying to hide a smile, she pushed the plate towards him.
"Go on; I made it for you."

Chu-Chu turned up his nose at it and sniffed.

Utena sighed. "What's with you now?"

"Chu! Chu!"

The creature stepped backwards to the edge of the table,
puffed his cheeks, pirouetted twice, and then fell to the floor
in an apparent dead faint.

"Chu-Chu? What's wrong?" Utena knelt down on the tile
floor--noting that it needed some serious mopping as she did--
and prodded the unconscious animal with her finger. No response.
"Chu-Chu?"

She gathered the unmoving body up in her arms and pressed
her ear to his chest. The small heart beat strong and steady as
a drum.

"Chu-Chu? If this is some kind of joke, it isn't funny."

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Utena pressed
her tongue hard against her palate, and tried to think of what to
do. Chu-Chu, limp as a rag-doll in the cup of her hands, was
completely unresponsive. He even seemed to be turning a little
blue.

"Chu-Chu, answer me!"

When the joke--it had to be a joke--didn't end, she put him
down on the table, and grabbed the phone off its wall mount.
"Chu-Chu, don't make me call..." Who? She wasn't sure if the
hospital or the vet would be better. "Don't make me call Anthy
at work."

She turned away and made an apparently intent study of the
number pad, then suddenly whirled and looked back.

Chu-Chu hung his head guiltily, a quarter of the front page
crammed into his mouth.

"Honestly, that's enough." A note of real anger entered her
voice. "Take that out of your mouth, eat your lunch, and leave
my paper alone."

She stalked forward; Chu-Chu retreated to the edge of the
table with his sandwich and turned his back to her. Using the
flat of her hand, she smoothed out the front page, grimacing a
little at the dampness as she did.

Before she'd read even a sentence of the headline article
(something about foreign relations that she didn't much care
about), the kettle whistled. Keeping a reproachful eye on
Chu-Chu, she poured the boiling water over the tea bags in the
small red clay tea pot, then brought it to the table along with
two cups. Sometimes, she missed her old rose-decorated teacups,
but they'd made Anthy uncomfortable.

Some days, she got in the mood to read the whole front
section from first page to last, and this was one of them. Thus,
it was a good half-hour before she found the article; had she not
been reading so carefully, she might have missed it altogether,
tucked away as it was in a small sidebar in the 'National News'
section. Short and to the point:

PRIVATE SCHOOL TRAGEDY

A sixteen year-old male student at the renowned Ohtori
Academy in the northern Honshu city of Houou is charged
with second-degree murder in the death of another male
student during an impromptu after-school duel over a girl.

Very carefully, working with the fragile precision of
someone in a slight daze, Utena tore the tiny article out and put
it into the breast pocket of her blouse.

Shaking as though a fever had come suddenly upon her, she
folded the paper, and went to deposit it in the garbage can in
the cupboard under the sink. Behind her, she heard Chu-Chu
whimper, and ignored it as she pressed the pedal to open the can.

Beneath the breakfast detritus, a fine pall of ash coated
the white plastic of the garbage bag; her old scar began to throb
as though it were a fresh, bloody wound. Moving almost
automatically, Utena pulled the bag out and dumped the entire
contents into the sink. So much ash, with little blackened
scraps of newspaper mixed in, print still visible in places...

Over to the stove, to check the burners. The odour of the
gas flame from boiling the water still hung over the aged
appliance, as she ran her finger around the metal plates beneath
the coils and it came away covered in fine paper ash...

Wouldn't it have been easier to just hide it, to throw it
out the window? She imagined Anthy feeding the pages to the
flame one by one, watching them burn... it must have taken her at
least an hour.

"Why, Anthy?" she murmured to herself. No answer presented
itself. Utena went to the phone.

* * *

"Himemiya?"

"Yes?"

"Phone call. It's your roommate."

"Oh?"

"You can take it on the phone in the lounge."

"Utena?"

//"Anthy, why didn't you tell me?"//

"About what, Utena?"

//"You know. I read the paper, Anthy. Did you think I
wouldn't?"//

"No, I didn't."

//"Then why?"//

"I don't know."

//"Did you think I wasn't able to handle it or something?"//
Utena's voice was choked and throaty; she was holding back tears.
Anthy almost wished she could be there now to be a physical
comfort, but realized that, at least in this matter, that
wouldn't help.

"No, Utena, I didn't--"

//"Then why? Just give me a straight answer."//

"I can't give you a straight answer. I don't know. I read
the article, and then it was like I wasn't entirely there, and it
wasn't _me_ doing it..."

//"I thought you were done with that. Free will, and all.
Remember?"//

Anthy closed her eyes and pressed a hand to her forehead.
"Utena, don't."

There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment
before Utena responded. //"I'm sorry, Anthy. I didn't mean
that."//

"I think I've got the job, Utena." An effort to force the
words past her constricted throat. "I'm staying late to talk
about things with Doctor Retasu, and--"

//"Anthy, no."//

"What?"

//"I got the job too. You know who my new boss is? Saionji
Kyouichi. Remember him? Remember Ohtori, Anthy, where your
brother is obviously still destroying people's lives?"//

"Utena, please--"

//"No, Anthy. Jobs? Jobs don't matter right now. You have
to come home now, we have to talk about what we're going to
do."//

"Do? We're not going to do anything. We're free from
Ohtori."

//"But--"//

Anthy hung up and left the lounge. She went to the private
employee bathroom, locked the door, sat down on the toilet seat,
and tried to cry. Tears would not come. After ten futile
minutes of trying to pour out the lump of pain in her belly, she
got up, stiffly washed her face, and went back to work.

"Himemiya, your roommate is waiting to--"

"Please tell her I'm not available."

"She sounds really--"

"I'm not available."

"Okay."

* * *

Utena replaced the phone, sat down again, and immediately began
to cry. Twice in one day. That hadn't happened in years. Then
again, she hadn't had Ohtori, both past and present, thrust into
her face like this ever since she'd left.

Akio. The dark skin and pale hair swam before her vision.
She remembered how, unbound from its tail, it floated around his
face like a lion's mane, like a veil...

How badly she'd wanted someone, _anyone_ to talk to about
Ohtori. The subject could never be raised with Anthy, of course;
the nightmare she'd undergone at her brother's hands so exceeded
any pain Utena had that pouring her heart out to Anthy would have
been utterly callous. And Anthy never showed any desire to talk
about it; only to forget it, to try and live as normal a life as
they could.

But there was no forgetting it. Ohtori and Akio lay by the
blue Pacific (she remembered the wind whipping her hair as she
sat beside Akio in the car) like cancers upon Japan, upon the
very earth. What if, somehow, he did manage to create a Duellist
capable of bringing the Revolution?

Akio's will, backed by the full power of Dios...

An involuntary whimper, like a small animal in a trap,
clawed its way out of her throat. The entire world would be as
Ohtori, the bauble of a devil, a fairy-tale nightmare that would
never end.

She couldn't stop crying. Seven years of trying to live
normally, of trying to forget, to just be happy with Anthy, and
now Ohtori came back all at once like a punch in the gut.

Even now, she still dreamed about Akio, and all the dreams
woke her hot and sweaty in the Hokkaido cold. Exciting and
sickening at the same time, how she could find someone with so
black a soul so physically beautiful.

Abruptly, she slapped herself across the face. Hard.
Chu-Chu, who had been futilely trying to comfort her by nuzzling
her hair, jumped back in surprise.

"Stop it!" she screamed to the empty kitchen. "A prince
doesn't cry!" It did no good; the tears ran down her face in an
avalanche of grief. "Stop it, you coward!" She hit herself
again. One of her rings, a plain silver band that Anthy had
bought her for her birthday three years ago, gouged her lip;
salty blood washed her tongue. "Do you want to be a prince or
not?" Her chair scraped across the tiles as she stood and
stalked to the mirror on the door; Chu-Chu hurried along behind
her, tugging at her ankle and being emphatically ignored.

A mess looked back at her from the mirror. Crying had
streaked runny mascara across her cheeks; half her hair had come
loose from the pinned-up bun she'd put it in for the interviews;
blood and lipstick were smeared in equal quantities around her
mouth.

"You don't look much like a prince," she told her
reflection, and watched it give her a macabre smile.

First things first. A prince did not wear blouses and
skirts. She stripped them off and tossed them to the floor,
where they inadvertently buried Chu-Chu. The mirror here was too
small, so she went to the full-length one on the shower door.
Clad only in her underwear, she did two quick turns, and examined
her body; still lean, small-breasted, almost boyish. Anthy had
filled out a fair bit since Ohtori, but Utena still had basically
the same build, only taller.

"Better. But not good enough."

She pulled the pins from her hair and let it fall to her
bare shoulders, splashed water on her face to wash it, and then
worked to remove any trace of makeup. Chu-Chu, head poking
through the neck of Utena's discarded blouse as he dragged it
behind him, peeked around the doorframe.

Utena looked down at him and smiled, even though it made her
cut lip throb. "I'm back." Seven years, and she didn't think
she'd felt this good in all that time. This was what all those
morning jogs and hours at the gym had been for; subconsciously,
she'd known that the need for princes was still there.

Chu-Chu whined and tried to struggle out of the encumberment
of the blouse. Utena knelt and freed him. "My first princely
deed in seven years; you are liberated."

The animal looked at her with dark, uncomprehending eyes.
She patted his head and hurried into the bedroom, put on long
slacks and a button-up shirt, then ran back to the bathroom to
check her appearance. Not as princely as the old uniform, but it
would do for now.

And no sword.

Anthy. Whatever in the world was she going to do about
Anthy?

The reborn prince drew what seemed her first breath since
casting off her old clothes, and lost some of her heart. What
was a prince without a princess to protect?

"You know, this 'prince' thing is getting a little old," she
grumbled. "It's just a symbol from a fairy-tale. And you've had
quite enough of those. Face the facts."

But what were the facts? Akio's world was one of illusion
and deception. Akio--Akio was the reality she had to focus upon.
He had to be stopped. Anthy would come round; she could convince
her.

Right now, though, she needed a nap. The crying jag and the
adrenaline rush of her return to princedom had drained her. She
stripped out of the masculine clothes as quickly as she'd put
them on only minutes before, crawled into bed, and was almost
literally asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.

* * *

The dream was almost entirely lucid, which only increased the
strangeness. She was walking next to her prince along a long
ribbon of sandy white beach, beside the blue sea that cradled the
land like its child.

They walked amidst the gentle foamings of the wave that
kissed the shore. Footprints left in the damp sand were erased
moments later. White birds and white clouds circled overhead.

"You came back." His hand in her hand was as warm as a
dove.

"I never left."

"I missed you."

"So did I."

The surf mounted amorously against their bare ankles. She
began to see cliffs in the distance, and the sight of them made
her tired. She sat down on the beach, not caring about how it
made her shorts damp. The air smelt of salt and fish.

"Why are you stopping?"

"I just want to rest a little."

"Okay."

He knelt down and picked her up; one arm under the knees,
one arm behind the back. "I'll carry you."

"On your back, or in your arms?" she asked playfully,
craning her neck up at him.

He smiled. "Whichever you prefer."

She reached up and put her arms around his neck, rested
her head against his chest, and listened to the gentle, even
beatings of his heart. Her prince smelt of the faded glory of
roses.

In the distance, bells began to ring. Each ring moved the
bright sun an hour ahead across the sky, and soon it was night.
They walked beneath stars that turned like a wheel in time to the
singing of the bells, until the sun rose again, and sank again
into the west, and the stars and moon came back into their place;
a hundred times, a thousand times, ten thousand times, and all
the while the bells sang darkly.

They came to a place where the cliffs rose high enough to
complete for place with the sun and moon. Her prince put her
down. Night had fallen, and the sand was cool beneath her feet.

"In all this time, we haven't seen any animals at all."

The prince knelt and dipped his hands into the sand,
emerging moments later with a single oyster. He cracked the
shell with his fingers, pulled out the raw, living flesh from
within, and ate half of it. Blood smeared on his mouth like
paint, he offered it to her. She took it gladly and devoured it;
it tasted coppery and sweet.

"Look at that."

Her eyes followed the direction of his pointing finger up
the ragged face of the cliffs, to the white marble tower planted
right at the precipice. Stars and moon and sun blurred overhead,
dancers to the tune of the tower's bells.

"I didn't even notice it before."

Clouds began to gather darkly over the spire of the tower.
She and the prince watched them for ten thousand settings of the
stars and moon and sun in utter silence, while the wind off the
ocean laid salt upon their hair.

At long last, a single bolt of lightning fell from the great
broach of thunderheads, and shattered the bell-tower into a
hundred thousand pieces. The sun paused in its coursing as
chunks of white marble fell slowly through treacle-thick air.

"Would you like another oyster?"

"No."

"I can't get enough of them myself."

"I'm not hungry."

"You sure?"

She reached out and touched the cool, lightning-blackened
surface of a falling parapet. "Yes."

* * *

Doctor Retasu's office only had one actual plant in it (a potted
ivy creeper that, even with careful maintenance, had still taken
over most of one wall), but it was full of pictures of them:
photographs and sketches of flowers and trees and plants, both
common and rare. The air smelt of the Swedish pipe tobacco the
Institute's director smoked, and of sap from the creeper.

Anthy kept her hands folded very carefully in her lap as she
waited for Retasu to arrive. The clock on the wall (currently
threatened with obscurement by the creeper) told her it was just
past five. Utena's phone call had been nearly four hours ago,
but she was still shaky from the emotions raised by it. She did
not much look forward to returning home tonight.

She heard footsteps outside the door. Moments later, it
opened, and Doctor Retasu entered. He smiled at her in silent
greeting, then sat down behind his big oak desk, took a pen from
the container beside the phone, and tapped it a few times on the
blotter. "This shouldn't take too long, Anthy."

"Yes, sir."

"Let me just look at your file..." He wheeled his chair
over to the file cabinet in the corner and retrieved her file,
then wheeled back. "Now, the position usually calls for at
least a college degree..."

There had never been the money nor the time for college.

"...but your experience more than compensates for that, and
I know you're smart enough to handle the job."

"Thank you, Retasu-san."

The horticulturist shuffled the papers in her file. Anthy
nervously intertwined her fingers in her lap, and tried to think
of what she was going to say to Utena once home while she waited
for Retasu to speak again.

Quite simple, really. She had no desire to think of, speak
of or remember anything about Ohtori or her brother. That was
all, and Utena would just have to accept it.

"Anthy, you're shaking. Are you cold? I can turn up the
heat..."

"No, sir, I'm not cold."

"What's wrong, Anthy?" He got up and walked around the desk
to stand at her side. "I don't want to pry, but..." Anthy could
only shake her head slightly in a completely inadequate response.
The director frowned and put his hand on her shoulder. "My God,
you're tense." He began to knead the bunched muscles with one
powerful hand. Anthy found it impossible not to let out an
immediate sigh of pleasure, and found herself thinking of how
nice one of Utena's backrubs would have been just now...

Retasu brought his other hand into play, and the tension,
although it could not be made to entirely vanish, at least began
a physical retreat. He was very good with his hands. She was
quite sure he wasn't married: no ring, and he brought a different
date to every one of the New Year's Parties.

"Hinagiku told me that you had a fight with Utena on the
phone." He began to delicately massage the ridge of her spine
through her blouse. "Is everything okay?"

"No," Anthy admitted after long silence. "Things haven't
ever really been okay."

"I really don't want to pry, but... what kind of
relationship do you have with Utena?"

"We're roommates," Anthy answered firmly. The attention
was pleasant, but she had to be adamant. "Sir, about the job..."

"Forget about the job right now, Anthy." He craned his neck
down, blind lips searching for hers; his breath smelt of pipe
tobacco, and roses.

Roses...

Anthy shrieked, and practically threw herself out of the
chair to get away from him. A strange expression of hurt came
onto his face; he looked like a little boy who'd just been
scolded by his mother.

"I'm sorry, Anthy." He sounded helpless, and strangely
lonely. "I thought you..."

"Sir, we have a professional relationship. It's not
appropriate."

He hung his head until his chin nearly touched his
breastbone. "I know, I'm sorry. I really am, Anthy." He almost
sounded like he was pleading. "I'm your employer, you're my
employee. It was completely inappropriate."

Anthy's leap from the chair had left her slumped against the
creeper-clad wall. As she listened to the director apologize to
her, she imagined herself remaining here for centuries, while the
creepers wrapped around her body like a lover's arms, covered
over her eyes, crept inside her mouth...

She watched him detachedly. And then she Watched him. Why?
No more explanation than why she'd burned the newspaper before
Utena woke up; it just seemed like the thing to do.

What she saw: A middle-aged man, nice-looking in a blunt,
stocky way. Basically good-hearted, but pulled in bad directions
by his libido. Had a son at seventeen; skipped out a year later.
Made his way north, with guilt following him like a pack of
hunting hounds, worked hard, got into university, sent money
back, never saw the boy again...

Suddenly disgusted with herself, Anthy stopped. That kind
of invasion... what was the difference between her and Akio but
one of degrees?

"Your eyes changed colour," Retasu said quietly. He slumped
down in the chair she'd recently occupied and loosened his tie;
he looked drained and tired. "I could swear they did. Maybe it
was just the light. It's hot in here, isn't it?"

Anthy went behind the desk, opened the third drawer on the
left, and retrieved his scotch bottle and a single glass. She
poured him a drink and handed it to him without a word, then
observed dispassionately as he gulped it down.

"Thank you, Anthy."

"You're welcome, Retasu-san."

He put the glass down on the table, a little too heavily;
the clink echoed throughout his office.

"The job, sir?" she prompted.

"The job? Yes, the job." He loosened his tie a little
more. "If you want it, its yours."

"Thank you, sir."

"I'll call Yuri-san over the weekend and arrange for her to
show you the ropes before she goes on her maternity leave."

"Thank you, sir."

He reached across the desk and grabbed the scotch bottle to
pour himself another. Then he held the glass between both hands,
swirling the liquor back and forth. "Again, Anthy, I'm sorry. I
didn't mean to..."

"It's all right, Retasu-san." She said it gently as she
could. "I won't tell anyone. Let's forget about it. Let's
pretend it never happened."

The director nodded disconsolately. Anthy left him in the
office--touching him lightly on the shoulder as she did in a
minor attempt at comfort--still holding the undrunk glass.

* * *

The drive home was precarious, both because of the weather and
the dilapidated state of the car. Anthy held the steering wheel
tightly and focused her mind solely upon the road; on the world
music station she liked to listen to, someone was playing Afro-
Cuban jazz on a steel-string guitar. As soon as she could, she
switched to the 24-hour news station.

//"...little details have been released by Houou's police
about the incident, in which a senior student at the famed
private school died. The duel reportedly took place over the
girlfriend of the victim..."//

Anthy turned the radio off; the lit numerals faded to
darkness. At the intersection, as she waited for the red light
to change, she found her head drooping against the cold plastic
of the steering wheel as though her neck could no longer support
its weight. Only horn-honks from the car behind her told her
when the light turned green.

The road slush seemed to grip her tires with a dark,
covetous malignity. She found it hard to concentrate on driving;
without the radio to fill the silence of the car, she was utterly
alone with her thoughts. A crimson sports car crossed her path at
the next intersection, and she shuddered.

As soon as she reached the next red light she turned on the
radio again, and fumbled with the tuner until she found the
classical music station that Utena liked to listen to when she
was in the car. A choral song by one of the Renaissance
polyphonists filled the car's small space with cathedral
ambience; the soprano's soaring vocal line scaled to towering
heights, threatening but never fully entering shrillness.

o/` Mais certeins sui qu'en vous de bien a tant
o/` Que dou peril ou je sui sans attente
o/` Me geterez se de cuer en plourant
o/` Priez a dieu qu'a moy garir s'assente

Once again, Anthy found herself wanting to cry. Undoubtedly
best that she didn't; she was having a hard enough time driving
already. Fat flakes of snow had begun to fall from the twilit
sky in increasing numbers, and she turned the windshield wipers
on; their squeaky swish became a metronome for the music on the
radio.

o/` Et pour ce je vous depri
o/` Qu'a dieu weilliez pour moy fair depri
o/` Ou paier criens le treu de nature
o/` Se dieus et vous ne me prenez en cure

The last of the voices faded away, and for a second the only
accompaniment was the whisper of the windshield wipers. Then the
voice of the host broke in:

//"One of Guillaume de Machaut's songs from 'Le Voir Dit',
and wasn't that a lovely performance? We're going to break for
the news now, but we'll be back shortly with another hour
of..."//

Anthy turned the radio off again, and drove in the awful
grip of almost total silence. The susurration of the wipers
became, along with the road, the total focus of her
consciousness--that was the only way to avoid any thought of the
past altogether.

* * *

Utena woke up from the dream with a perfect memory of it, sweaty,
scared, and slightly aroused. It was nearly six; if Anthy's
meeting with Retasu had taken half-an-hour, she'd be home in
about fifteen minutes. Dinner would have to be made quickly.

She put rice in the steamer and pulled out chicken and
vegetables from the fridge. Just a simple stir-fry tonight, she
could almost have that ready by the time Anthy got home...

Chu-Chu, who had fallen asleep on the skirt she'd left in a
pile by the door, woke up to the sound of the knife hitting the
cutting board as Utena diced ingredients. He sighed and burrowed
deeper into the folds of cloth.

Not until she began to toss chopped chicken and peppers and
onions into the wok did she realize two things: that she was
still in her underwear, and that she was behaving as though
dinner was going to be entirely normal.

A pall of heat seemed to hang over the bedroom when she
returned to put on some clothing, which reminded her of the warm
sand and hot sun of her dream; blood on her prince's lips, and
the poor, torn oysters, with all their cracked shells scattered
across the beach like husks after winnowing.

She dressed as quickly as she could, but when she blinked,
Akio's smirking face strobed into the darkness of her blindness.
She left the bedroom door open to let the room cool down, and
hurried back to the kitchen. As she turned the burner on low and
began to reach into the cupboard over the stove for soy sauce and
sesame oil, she realized that the sink was still full of ashes
and breakfast garbage.

Fine, she decided; let Anthy look at it when she came home.
Dinner would be ready as usual, but they were going to talk about
this, and there would be no phone for Anthy to hang up this time,
no co-worker to be used as a barrier between her and the words
she didn't want to hear.

Anthy was later than she expected. Dinner was served and on
the table before she arrived home, mangling Utena's discarded
skirt (and nearly crushing Chu-Chu, who escaped at the last
minute, in the process) beneath the lip of the door as she
entered.

Utena, sprawled casually in her chair at the table, looked
up and nodded a perfunctory greeting. "How'd the meeting go?"

"Good," Anthy replied. She went to the sink, ran water, and
held her hands beneath the stream. Ashes flaked away and
spiralled down the drain. Anthy shut the water off, turned away,
and sat down primly at the table.

"Dinner looks good," she said as she picked up her
chopsticks and unfolded her napkin to lay it in her lap.

"You got home just in time."

Chu-Chu trundled over, scampered up the table leg, and took
a place at the corner near Anthy. "Chu?" he asked tentatively.
They ignored him, and began to eat in silence. For a minute, the
only sound in the apartment was that of chopsticks scraping
porcelain and teeth masticating food.

Finally, Utena broke, and put down her chopsticks.
"Anthy..."

Anthy paused in her eating. "What?"

"You know, Anthy. Don't act like you don't."

Very carefully, Anthy plucked up a single grain of rice and
popped it into her mouth. "If this is about Ohtori, you already
know how I feel."

"Anthy, he has to be stopped."

"Why?"

"How can you say that?"

"You saw Saionji today, didn't you? How did he seem?"

Utena's forehead wrinkled as she thought. "Different.
Better than he was at Ohtori. He didn't remember me."

"Then what does it matter?" Anthy said quietly. "If there
are no memories, then there is no pain."

"A boy's dead, Anthy."

"People die."

Utena shoved back her chair and stood up. "How can you act
like this? You... more than anyone else, you know what Akio
_is_, and you'll just let him keep on playing his games?"

"I know what my brother is," Anthy slowly said, "and that is
why I will do nothing about this."

"A boy's dead. Somebody's son. Maybe somebody's brother;
maybe he might have been somebody's father, if Akio hadn't killed
him."

"Are you so certain that my brother is responsible?"

Anthy was steely-calm, but brittle; Utena, by contrast, was
threatening to turn red as her voice rose. Chu-Chu looked
helplessly from one woman to the other, incapable of doing
anything to head off what was inevitably coming.

Utena clenched her fist and firmly planted it upon the
table, then leaned forward until her face hovered little more
than a foot from Anthy's. "If the breeze blows a certain
direction on Ohtori's grounds," she growled, "it's because Akio
wants it to."

"Then why do the police know? The boy died at Ohtori. Do
you think Akio wants them looking into what goes on there?"

No answer was forthcoming from Utena; it wasn't something
she had thought of herself. "I don't know," she finally
admitted. "Maybe his power is weakening."

Anthy nodded. "So all we need to do is wait. Soon enough,
he'll have no power at all."

"Unless he breaks the Rose Seal."

The dark woman stiffened; her chopsticks dropped from her
hands and clattered on the table. "Akio will never break it now
that he doesn't have me to help him. He'll stay in his coffin,
playing make-believe prince until he finally turns into dust."

"Do you know that for sure, Anthy? For sure?"

Making a visible effort to remain calm, Anthy stood up and
stared into Utena's eyes. "Nothing is certain. But if I thought
there was even a chance that my brother would gain the power of
Dios, I would end my life now."

Shock slapped across Utena's face. "Anthy, don't talk like
that."

"I'm out of his hands now, Utena," Anthy whispered. "I'll
never allow them to touch me again."

"Anthy, don't you see?" Utena, agony showing clearly on her
face, reached out and took both her friend's hands in both of
hers. "This is... this is the longest conversation we've had
about Ohtori, about Akio, in seven damn years. You never want to
talk about what happened--"

"And you think that's strange? Why would I want to? What
do you want to hear, Utena? Would you rather hear about the
things Akio used to make me to do to him, or the things he used
to do to me?"

They stared at each other across the small table; Anthy
gripping the edge, Utena with her balled fists pressing hard
against the top. Chu-Chu had by now retreated from the fight,
and was hiding under Utena's discarded skirt in a lonely corner
of the kitchen.

"Don't you see, Anthy?" Utena finally said. "Can't you see
what's wrong with living like this?"

"What?" The word escaped Anthy's lips like a wounded bird
taking flight; she stepped back from the table, arms collapsing
limply at her sides.

"Look around!" Utena waved her arms in an all-encompassing
gesture. "This cheap little apartment, these shitty jobs, having
to live practically hand to mouth from one day to the next... is
this what you really want?"

"I just want to live free."

"This isn't living, Anthy." Utena closed her eyes; her
shoulders sagged as though beneath a burden she could no longer
bear. "It's surviving. There's a difference."

"I'm happy. I have you and Chu-Chu. No one makes me do
anything I don't want to."

"That's irrelevant," Utena muttered, shaking her head from
side to head so that her long hair brushed the shoulders of her
mannish shirt. "It's all irrelevant. Akio can't be allowed to
continue doing this because it's _wrong_, not because it has
anything to do with us. We know he's there, we know what he is,
and we have to stop him."

"Utena," Anthy said measuredly, "I will not go back. Not
now. Not ever. I was a slave for a long, long time, Utena-sama.
I've only been free for seven years now. I'm not going to risk
becoming a slave again. Not for some boy I never met, not for
the world." Her voice began to catch. "Not even for you."

"You called me Utena-sama." Even as emotion had begun to
enter Anthy's voice, a numb note had crept into Utena's.

Anthy shook her head. "No, I didn't."

"Anthy, you did."

"Well, if I did, I didn't mean to."

"Anthy..."

"Utena, please, I don't want to talk about this."

"You coward."

"Utena..."

"You haven't escaped your coffin; you've just built yourself
a new one."

In his hiding-place, Chu-Chu let out a long, shrill,
agonized cry; but muffled as it was by the cloth, neither Anthy
nor Utena heard it.

Anthy took one single deep drawn-out breath.

Then she stepped around the table and slapped Utena across
the face, hard enough to knock her stumbling against the kitchen
counter.

"How dare you," she snarled. "Do you pass judgement on me?
You're all the same; I won't bend to your will, so you give me
names to express your contempt for me. Witch, coward, what's the
difference? God damn you, Utena, you have no idea, you have no
idea at all; where were you when I stood in Wartburg, and the
Minnesingers sang their songs to my brother to win the chance for
one night with me?"

She stalked towards the dazed Utena, hands tensed into
veritable claws at her sides. "When my brother made me bow
before the Sun King at Versailles, and the young men killed one
another with their rapiers in the perfumed gardens to win my
favour, where were you then, my prince?"

The light and colour seemed to be draining out of the room
and flowing into Anthy; a terrible glow like a corona of fire
wrapped around her brow. Overhead, the lone bulb in the ceiling
flared like a tiny sun, and then exploded; slivers of glass
pelted the tile floor like jagged hail.

"I sang cabaret in Berlin while housewives pushed
wheelbarrows of cash to the market to buy their daily bread.
Officers shot their friends for the sake of a glance from me.
Where were you?"

Utena cowered and shielded her eyes; the kitchen was
completely dark now, except for Anthy, who stood over her half-
crouching roommate like a terrible angel, shining like a new
star.

"WHERE WERE YOU?" she suddenly screamed, and at the sound a
wind rushed through the kitchen like a thief. Cupboards nearly
tore from their hinges as they were flung open, and the cheap,
unmatched dishes of seven years came hurtling out to break upon
the floor. The fridge swung open, and food spilled out in an
avalanche. Chairs rocked and skidded across the tiles: one
crashed against the door to the outside hall, causing the mirror
to sway once, and then fall and shatter; the other nearly crushed
Utena as it slammed into the counter less than a foot from her.

Chu-Chu cried out once as though dying, and then went
absolutely silent.

Anthy took another deep breath, and then the rage seemed to
go out of her. The glow vanished, and they stood in the twilit
kitchen amidst the wreckage of their daily lives.

"Why did you take so long to come?" Anthy muttered
defeatedly. "And now, now that I'm finally happy, you want me go
running back..."

Utena stood up on legs that felt as though they were made
of melting rubber, and nodded. "You're absolutely right, Anthy,"
she said quietly. "I... I'm sorry. Most of the time, I forget
wha--who you are. I guess I must seem pretty childish, huh?"

Anthy bit her knuckle and stared around at the destroyed
kitchen. A cupboard door squeaked mournfully back-and-forth as
though moved by invisible hands. "Utena, I'm sorry."

"No. Don't be." Crunching glass beneath the heel of her
shoe, Utena walked out of the kitchen. "I said you're right.
You shouldn't have to go back."

"Utena..."

In the bedroom, Utena pulled her gym bag out of the closet,
yanked out several drawers, and began to pack. Anthy hovered
around her like an errant satellite, unable to find any words
that were adequate, and watched jeans, slacks, shirts,
undershirts, bras, panties and socks find their way into the
voluminous bag.

The packing took very little time, mostly due to the seeming
carelessness for inadvertent wrinkles that Utena displayed. As
soon as it was done, she hurried back to the kitchen, uncaring of
the amount of glass she was embedding in her shoes. Anthy
followed her to the door, picking her way carefully around the
most obvious piles of glass.

At the door, Utena put her coat on, slung the gym bag over
one shoulder and her purse over the other, and looked at the
photo of the three of them pinned to the door calendar.

"Can I take this?" she asked quietly.

Anthy, completely mute, nodded.

"Thanks."

She opened the door and stepped out into the hall, then
turned to look back into the apartment. "Bye, Anthy."

Finally, words. "Where are you going to, Utena?"

"I'm going to find the people who can help me stop Akio."

"But... but where are you going to sleep tonight?"

"You know," Utena said thoughtfully, "I haven't even thought
of that."

Then she walked away down the hall. Once it became clear
after a few minutes that she wasn't going to come back, Anthy
closed the door.

* * *

Ring.

The phone booth was narrow, cramped and cold. Her gym bag
had been too big to fit inside, so she'd left it just outside the
swinging plastic doors; before it died away, the last of the
evening snowfall had scattered a dozen flakes upon it that
shimmered, unmelting, like small jewels in the glow of the
street lights.

Ring.

//"Hello?"//

"Is Saionji Kyouichi there?"

//"This is his wife. May I ask who's calling?"//

"Wakaba." She smiled; cold enough that she didn't think
she'd be able to cry, but her eyes teared a little all the same.
"I didn't recognize your voice."

//"Who is this?"//

Seven years seemed to have dimmed Wakaba's exuberance a
little, or perhaps it was just the suspicion in her voice. Utena
struggled to find meaningful words, and finally gave up. "Tenjou
Utena."

//"Who?"//

Expected, but it hurt all the same. "From Ohtori. Remember
now?"

//"Oh, Utena!"// Suddenly, the ever-chipper Wakaba she
remembered abruptly returned. //"Wow, it's so amazing to hear
from you after--one, two, three--seven years now!"//

"It's great to hear your voice, Wakaba," she whispered,
cradling the handset against her ear and resting her head against
the cool, clear wall of the booth. "Can I talk to Saionji-san,
please?"

//"What? You think it's that easy?"// The familiar, almost
coquettish tone of Wakaba's teasing broadened Utena's smile.
//"What did you do after you left Ohtori? You did leave Ohtori,
right? I don't really remember. Isn't that funny? Well, you
know me, Utena; my brain tends to rattle around at the best of
times, and my memories fall out of my head like angels from the
sky. My mother used to say that to me."//

"Wakaba, we'll have plenty of time to talk later." The
possibility that she might be telling a lie occurred to her, but
she repressed it. "I really need to speak to your husband."

//"Oh, okay. Sorry for babbling at you, Utena, it's just so
good to hear from you."//

Utena winced at the disappointment in her old friend's
voice. "Don't be sorry, Wakaba; this is just important."

She heard a bump that sounded like a hand being put over the
handset. Faintly, she heard Wakaba call out: //"Kyouichi!
Phone!"//

Utena waited, tapping her feet against the concrete floor of
the booth impatiently. Seconds later, Wakaba's voice returned:
//"Hey; how did you know that Kyouichi-sama and I were... whoops,
here he is now, talk to you later, Ut--"//

//"Hello?"//

"Saionji-san, it's Tenjou Utena."

From the other end of the line came an almost imperceptible
pause. //"Oh yes,"// Saionji said finally, right before it
would have become awkward. //"What is it?"//

Suddenly feeling an inexplicable need to whisper, Utena
hunched over in the phone booth and half-cupped her hand over the
handset as though to block out the non-existent background noise
of the empty winter evening. "Why was Wakaba so surprised to
hear from me? I thought you were going to tell her."

Another pause. //"Completely slipped my mind. Sorry. Is
that all?"// Terse and perfunctory--he didn't sound much like
the man she'd met earlier.

"No. Listen, I know this is going to sound weird, but can I
come by? I really need to talk to you. Wakaba, too."

//"What's going on, Utena? What's this about?"//

"Anthy." Did this count as a lie? One of omission,
perhaps, but she knew that it would get Saionji's attention.

//"We'll be waiting."// He gave her the address; she said
goodbye, listened to his farewell, and smiled at the sound of
Wakaba crying out, "Bye, Utena-sama!" in the background.

The smile disappeared as soon as she hung up the phone,
though, when she thought of Anthy alone in the apartment. Well,
not entirely alone; Chu-Chu was there, after all. But still...

Hand still gripping the phone, she hung her head and scowled
fiercely. Anthy had made her choice quite firmly, and Utena
wouldn't begrudge her it.

No; screw that. She damn well could begrudge her it, but,
at the same time, she wasn't going to force Anthy to do anything
she didn't want to. There'd been quite enough of that already.

But the way she'd left the apartment, those last words to
Anthy... Did she really want those to be, possibly, the last
words they ever exchanged?

She was about to pick the phone up again and dial the
apartment when someone tapped on the booth from outside. "Just a
minute," she said loudly. "I've got one more call to make."

"Ahh, c'mon out and play, pretty lady."

Utena turned her head back slowly; the two leather-clad boys
outside the booth were practically twins to the ones from earlier
that day at the bus stop. They might even have been the same
boys; all the members of the semi-gangs that liked to roam the
neighbourhood acquired an ubiquitous look over time, a predator-
scavenger attitude and appearance, like a shark crossed with a
rat.

The one closer to the booth picked up her bag with one hand.
"If you don't come out, we're coming in." The other one grinned
around the burning length of his cigarette.

Already forced into a semi-crouch from the cramped space of
the booth, Utena spun and pushed off, legs uncoiling like loosed
springs. She burst out the swinging plastic doors of the booth
like a rocket, catching the closer punk a nose-smashing blow with
the edge of one door as she did. As he released her bag and
staggered back with hands clutched to his mangled, bloody nose,
she dropped his companion with one swift snap-kick to the
stomach. His cigarette shot from his mouth as he exhaled all his
air, and she caught it deftly between two fingers.

Six years of judo, four years of karate. The local rec
centre had a surprisingly good martial arts program. Behind her,
she heard an incoherent yell; what an idiot. She dropped low; an
amateurish roundhouse punch missed her head by a good three feet,
and threw the bloody-nosed boy so off-balance that, had she
weapon and will, she could have killed him three times over.

Instead, she gave him an elbow to the groin as she rose, and
laid him gasping on the dirty snow. A glance at the other one
confirmed he didn't have any inclination to move either.

The cigarette was still burning between her fingers; she
knelt over by the one who'd had, respectively, hands on her bag,
plastic to his nose, and her elbow to his groin, and held its lit
end scant inches from his glazed, terrified eyes.

"Smoking," she said slowly, "is really, really bad for you."
She stubbed it out on the snow beside his head. "So is harassing
innocent women. Spread the word."

He nodded. God, he was young; fifteen, maybe? "I'm sorry."
His smashed nose turned his cracked voice nasally ridiculous.
"I'm really sorry." He began to cry. Snot and blood and tears
ran down his face in copious quantities. With his shaved scalp,
he looked like nothing so much as a big, ugly, leather-clad baby.

Utena sighed gently. "Put some snow on that nose, or it'll
swell up really bad."

He nodded again, miserably. She picked up her bag and
walked away to find a cab. The prince was back.

* * *

"How's your nose?"

"Hurts, asshole, what do you think?"

"Shuddup. She got me good too."

"Got me better."

"Yeah, you're gonna be walking funny for a week."

"Shuddup."

"Psycho chick."

"Crazy bitch."

"Cute, though."

"Yeah. Nice butt."

"Nice everything. You see her move? Greased lightning,
man."

"Coulda killed us both, if she'd wanted."

"You think it's a sign?"

"Maybe."

"You got another cigarette?"

"I think I'm gonna quit."

"Huh?"

"It's bad for you. C'mon, let's cut through here."

Crunch of boots on snow. Jingle of metal chains and
zippers.

"Man, it's dark."

"You scared of the dark now? Baby."

Silence.

"Kenji?"

Turn.

"Kenj--oh my G--"

Die.

In another place, powerful hands pulled thick ropes.
Funeral bells sang dolorously over Ohtori, Sapporo, Japan, the
earth.

* * *

I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
But love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
To say it clear, to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
You feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future:
It is murder.
--Leonard Cohen, "The Future"

End of Jaquemart - Part I