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Jaquemart III - New Skins and Old Skins

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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.

 

III. New Skins and Old Skins

Well, I'll be damned
Here comes your ghost again
But that's not unusual
It's just that the moon is full
And you happened to call
And here I sit
Hand on a telephone
Hearing a voice I'd known
A couple of light years ago
Heading straight for a fall
--Joan Baez, "Diamonds and Rust"

* * *

The room was large, but sparsely appointed: a small hard bed
with a table beside it, and, opposite them, against the wall and
beneath the window, a little writing desk and chair. Two doors,
one leading to the hall, another to a closet. A chest of
drawers, standing on four small legs upon the carpetless
floorboards.

Leo Cano sat at the desk reading a letter. On the wall
before him to his left and right, on either side of the window,
hung the only two non-utilitarian items in the room: a heavy
wooden crucifix in the increasingly unfashionable style wherein
all the sufferings of the Passion were visible in almost sadistic
detail, and a framed reproduction of Jusepe de Ribera's painting
of Saint Christopher.

He was not a young man, had not been for some time, and
even in his youth had never felt especially young. These days,
he felt deep kinship to the bearded giant in de Ribera's
painting, who, despite his great size and corded muscles, bent
down beneath the most lovely, most precious and most heavy burden
upon his shoulder.

My dear friend, (so began the letter)

My confidence in your skill and that of those you have
trained is such that I have absolute faith that by now the
witch lies within your hands.

Remember as always the exhortation of Exodus 22:18; if
her soul is already lost, then the will of God is clear.
But remember also Luke 17:3; it applies as much to our
sisters as it does to our brothers. If she repents of the
iniquity of her witchcraft and asks sincerely that her soul
be saved, forgive her and do her no more harm.

Woman is yet a perfidious and weak-willed creature,
however; be on your guard, for her tricks are many, and a
true witch is a woman sunk to her very basest nature.

I hope that this letter finds you strong in faith and
health, ready for whatever further tasks Our Lord may ask of
us in these times which so greatly try the souls of men.

I hope also that you and your men are pleased with the
gifts I included with my last letter. These rings,
emblazoned with the Mystical Rose that is but one sign of
that most gracious and virtuous of ladies, serpent's
destroyer and terror of hell, eternal symbol and guardian
of the Church Most Holy and Catholic, shall serve to remind
us of the personal bond we share. In days such as these,
when the True Church of God is in the hands of weak and
foolish men, and the hand of friendship rather than rebuke
is extended to both pagans and heretics alike, the burden
borne by men such as you and I is very great. Be strong,
and know that you do God's work.

Yours in Christ and the True Church,
--Majo no Kanazuchi

Aside from the signature, the letter was in English, the
common language of their correspondence. Leo was grateful for
that fact; he had heard the Japanese language described once as
being invented by demons, and could well believe it. He could
speak it quite well, albeit with a heavy accent, but remembering
the meanings of the kanji well enough to read it had so far
escaped him.

Leo put the letter down on the desk and leaned back in his
chair. He clasped his hands before him and examined the ring
upon his finger, the gift of Majo no Kanazuchi; a tiny cross,
within the heart of a styilized rose. Was the symbolism
deliberate? He often wondered just how much Majo no Kanazuchi,
whomever his correspondent was, knew about his past.

Such suspicions are unbecoming and ill-hearted, he chided
himself. Majo no Kanazuchi was as true of servant of God and the
Church as he was, and had never lead him wrong in the seven or so
years they'd been in contact with one another.

Still, it bothered him. Did Majo no Kanazuchi know of his
past history with this one? If so, why had he not specified her
identity within earlier letters? Tact, perhaps? A man as
secretive as Majo no Kanazuchi would undoubtedly have respect for
the secrets of others.

He picked up a pen from the desk and a pad of stationery
from the drawer to compose his reply.

My dear friend, (so he began, as he always did)

The witch is in my hands. This situation is more
complex than any other I have become involved with during
our association, however, and the obligation lies upon me to
explain some things. Bear with me if you know them already,
and know that I do not resent you if you have pried into my
past; you are a cautious man, and undoubtedly with good
reason.

You know from our previous correspondence that I have
been engaged in my most holy and necessary task for over
thirty years now, but I have never told you in detail--

Someone knocked loudly on the hall door; Leo's pen paused.

"Enter."

Mathias, small and swarthy and perpetually nervous, looked
in from the hallway without entering the room. "The witch is
awake."

"So soon?"

The young man fidgeted. "Yes. Salvadore got the
preparations ready before she woke up, though."

"Good." Leo put down his pen and rose from the desk.
"Thank you, Mathias." He paused to put Majo no Kanazuchi's
letter and his incomplete reply away in the drawer and lock it
securely. When he got a chance later, he would finish it.
Dealing with the witch was the priority.

* * *

Utena knocked, waited, knocked again. Waited. Knocked again.

Waited.

"Maybe they went out?" Nanami suggested.

"No." Utena shook her head. "Juri wouldn't do that. She
would have waited for me." She tried the knob. Locked.

"Well, Utena, this little quest of yours is working out just
wonderfully so far. Did you ever actually make sure Juri would
wait for you?"

"Well, no," Utena admitted with a sigh. "I just assumed..."

Nanami shook her head, and appeared to be on the verge of
laughing. "Well, of course; that's just like you. You would
have waited, so, of course, Juri would wait too. That's why you
never caught on until too late about what Akio was."

Utena forcibly suppressed a scowl. "What do you mean?"

"You project yourself onto others too much," Nanami said
pedantically. "Everyone does it, of course, but it's good-
hearted people who suffer the most from it."

"Backhanded compliment, Nanami?"

Nanami sniffed. "Statement of fact."

"Can we talk about this later?" Utena turned back to the
door and knocked a fifth time. Tried the knob again. "Damn it!"

"Utena, they went out. Either that, or something happened
to them to make them unable to answer the door; but I don't
suppose that's likely."

Utena froze, hand still on the metal doorknob, which
suddenly felt cold as ice under her grip. "The Knight," she
whispered.

"What?" Nanami asked, perplexed.

The Knight had followed her to Saionji and Wakaba's
apartment, after all. If he'd... but he couldn't have lived, it
was a ten story fall...

She began to pound on the door. "Juri! Juri-sempai!"

"Utena, keep your voice down," Nanami hissed. "Do you want
to cause a scene?"

"Juri-sempai!"

Nanami seized her shoulder tightly and tried to pull her
away from the door; Utena resisted. "What's wrong with you?"

"I think they may be in trouble," Utena replied. "Help me
break down the door!"

"Break it down? Even if they are in trouble, they're not
answering the door, so time can't matter that greatly. I'll go
get the superintendent."

Utena snarled, and was about to begin ramming her shoulder
against the door when it opened. Juri was on the other side,
looking slightly frazzled. The tight curls of her hair were
slicked with sweat, and she'd changed out of the turtleneck she'd
been wearing earlier to--or perhaps had taken it off to reveal--a
sleeveless, scoop-necked blue tank-top. The golden locket with
its rose design dangled prominently between her breasts.

"Hi, Utena. Hi, Nanami. Listen, I'm really busy right now.
Can you come back in about an hour? Oh, and take him with you."
She handed Utena a bloated, snoring Chu-Chu. "Thanks."

"How's Shiori? Her memories..."

"Still working on it," Juri said. She seemed to be
breathing rather heavily. "Listen, it's a delicate situation
right now, so, really..."

Over Juri's shoulder, Utena could see that the bedroom door
was open; the lights inside appeared to be off. "Well... okay.
In an hour."

"An hour." Juri nodded, and closed the door.

Utena and Nanami (with Chu-Chu asleep in Utena's arms) left
the apartment building in silence and stood on the sidewalk
outside, watching traffic and pedestrians pass.

"Well," Nanami said quietly. "I guess it's taking her a lot
longer to restore Shiori's memories than it took you to restore
mine."

Utena nodded, slowly. "Yeah."

They looked at each other. Both of them managed to keep
sober expressions; any observer would have noticed no subtext or
tension or hidden meaning to the exchange at all, which was,
Utena guessed, what both of them wanted.

"Want to go and get coffee?" Nanami asked after a moment.

"I had coffee an hour ago," Utena said. "I had a coffee
before I got on the plane this morning, I had one on the plane,
and I had one when I got into Tokyo at the airport. I think I've
had enough coffee for today." She paused; the winter sun seemed
very bright, and her legs were a little wobbly. "You know, I've
eaten a yakitori skewer and a biscotti since breakfast. And
breakfast was five rice crackers. Oh, and they gave me some
peanuts on the plane. I'm _starving_."

"Well," Nanami said thoughtfully, "I usually skip lunch on
even days, but today has--thanks to you--been very stressful, and
I think I could use some calories."

"You know someplace around here?"

"This isn't my neighbourhood; I'm sure we can find
something, though."

They began to walk. After a moment, Nanami put her arm
through Utena's again. Utena paused and looked over at her,
causing a man walking behind them to be forced to divert around
them; he muttered something untelligible under his breath as he
passed.

"What?" Nanami asked, wide-eyed.

"Why do you keep on doing that?"

"Doing what?"

"The arm thing."

"Why? Is there something wrong with it?"

Utena sighed. "Just tell me why."

"I'm just trying to be friendly," Nanami said after a
moment. She looked oddly hurt.

"It's a little weird," Utena said hesitantly. She was
starting to feel guilty now. "Umm... you know. Since you were
screaming at me and trying to strangle me less than an hour ago."

"Oh, Utena, don't be silly." Nanami tossed her free hand
vaguely. "That was so long ago."

Utena's stomach rumbled. "Erg. I'm _really_ hungry,
Nanami," she said. "Let's go."

"That's what I was trying to do. You were the one who
stopped us."

"...you have a point there."

With a sleeping Chu-Chu on one arm and a strangely friendly
Nanami on the other, Utena went in search of lunch. They ended
up finding a small noodle house several blocks from Juri and
Shiori's apartment building. Utena concentrated almost entirely
on eating her miso soup and yakisoba while Nanami talked
cheerfully of completely inconsequential things: her classes,
books she'd been reading, her exercise program, and much else
related to herself.

To Utena's surprise, Chu-Chu (who was hidden in her purse;
from past experience, she knew that restaurateurs tended to take
his presence badly) didn't even wake up the whole time.

Nanami was cheerful and bubbly to the point of becoming
suspicious. Utena remembered this well from Ohtori; it meant
that she was hiding or planning something. Probably both.

But what? Utena thought for a minute, and then interrupted
Nanami in the midst of her description of a new diet she'd read
about in a magazine. "So, what did Touga tell you when you
called him?"

The change was pronounced as day to night; Utena could
almost see Nanami's exuberance retreat, like a turtle into its
shell, as a dark look fell over her face.

"Later," she replied shortly.

"That's what you said last time," Utena pointed out.

"When all four of us are together. Then I won't have to
repeat it."

Utena sighed. "You do realize you're going to have to say
eventually, don't you?"

Nanami nodded grudgingly. "I suppose."

"Nanami, look... I know this can't be easy for you, but--"

"What's done is done," Nanami snapped. "Let's not dwell on
it, all right? It's easier for me if you don't try to apologize
every five minutes. What do you want me to say? That I forgive
you? Fine! I forgive you. Happy now?"

Utena opened her mouth, then closed it and turned her
attention completely to her food. They finished the meal in
uncomfortable silence, paid, and left.

Outside the restaurant, Nanami glanced at her watch. "Still
half an hour to go. I'm going for a walk. See you back at
Juri's place."

"Nanami..."

"What?"

Utena shook her head. "Never mind. Just be careful."

"Of what?"

"Later."

Nanami scowled. "Hey--" Then, slowly, she smiled; not a
nice smile, either. "You're learning." She walked off, waving
a hand absently in farewell. "Later, Utena."

Utena went in the opposite direction, deep in thought. She
couldn't get a handle on Nanami. She'd changed so much, and yet,
at the same time, changed so little. Had she been right to give
Nanami her memories back, despite the suspicions?

Only time, she supposed, would really tell.

* * *

Nanami was late again, a fact for which Utena was this time
grateful, as it gave her a chance to quickly talk things over
with Juri and Shiori out of Nanami's presence.

"So... let me see if I understand this properly. You had
your suspicions about her, she was wearing a Rose Signet given to
her by Touga--who, incidentally, sounds from his job title like
he might very well be our Knight... I mean, really, Utena,
Director of Off-Campus Operations?--and yet you decided to
restore her memories all the same."

Utena looked down at the floor, hands resting nervously on
her knees. "Well, yes. It just seemed like the right thing to
do at the time."

Juri shook her head, curls flouncing as she did, and sighed.
She leaned back against the wall where the fencing gear was
displayed, hair almost brushing the blade of one of the foils,
and said no more.

"You know, Utena," Shiori said, curled up at one end of the
couch, "what seems to be the right thing to do at the time is
neither necessarily the right thing nor, more importantly, the
smart thing."

Utena regarded her flatly. "Words of wisdom if ever there
were, Shiori-chan."

Shiori smiled saccharinely back.

"Smart or right or not, it's been done." Juri pushed off
from the wall and came to lean against the arm of the couch next
to Shiori. "We'll just have to see what happens."

"Do the two of you have real swords?" Utena asked.
"Something you can actually get into a serious duel with?"

Juri nodded. "Foils are too light. And, frankly, not
dangerous enough. We've got some reproductions of duelling
blades from various countries and eras that we've picked up over
the years on the bedroom walls. Light and strong; the edges
aren't sharpened at the moment, but that's easily remedied."

"Why don't we just shoot him?" Shiori suggested.

Utena and Juri both looked at her pointedly. "What?" she
asked, blinking. "Wouldn't it be easier?"

"Sure. We'll run down to the local yakuza, pick up a sniper
rifle, and then I'll pick him off from a thousand feet away; not
that I've ever fired a gun before, but, how hard can it be?" Juri
said.

"Swords are appropriate," Utena added.

Shiori snorted. "Screw appropriate. Wasn't playing along
with our little fairy-tale roles what got us all in trouble in
the first place? Stab him, shoot him, run him over with a car
and burn the damn body... who cares, as long as he ends up dead?"

Utena smiled grimly. "I like your enthusiasm." Yet the
words conjured terrible images for her: her prince--no, no, he
had never really been her prince. Akio, dark soul and beautiful
body, broken and bleeding...

"Utena?"

"Sorry. Thinking about something." She shook her head to
clear it. "What I mean to say is that Shiori's got a point. As
long as Akio is.... dead, then we shouldn't worry about how we do
it." But she didn't really believe that, did she... the ends
didn't necessarily justify the means.

She straightened her back in the chair and bent forward,
resting her chin in her hands and looking slowly from Shiori to
Juri. "Nanami had a good point too, earlier," she said, thinking
back. "We don't even have any real assurance that we _can_ kill
Akio. I mean, I know that his power has some limits, but I don't
know if he dies that easily." She thought of a dark shape from
out of childhood's shadows: a woman suspended, pierced by swords,
suffering undying. "Thinking about it, I doubt he will."

"Call Himemiya," Juri suggested. Utena winced, and Juri's
expression softened slightly. "At least try it, Utena."

Utena nodded. "Later; after we get a chance to talk things
over with Nanami."

"Speaking of her," Shiori said, "is there anything else we
should get out of the way before she arrives?"

"Yeah." Utena cleared her throat and bowed her head
slightly, twisting her hands together just as the knot in her
stomach twisted. "Akio killed Kozue."

Juri looked as though she'd just been struck across the
face. "W-what?"

"I think," Utena corrected. "Nanami told me. The car
accident... Akio was driving. It was his car. They went into
the ocean together after breaking through a guardrail; Kozue's
body was never found."

Juri began to pace the room, an agonized expression on her
face; Shiori's worried gaze followed her. "I should have known
that," Juri murmured sadly; then fiercely, as though trying to
flay herself with the words: "I should have known! Should have
talked to Miki more! How did I ever..."

"Juri, sit down," Shiori said gently, almost commandingly.
Juri slumped down on the couch beside her; Shiori put her arm
around the other woman in a casual, comforting embrace. The
sight made Utena both vaguely uncomfortable and slightly lonely.

As Juri leaned her head against Shiori's shoulder, red-gold
curls spilling curtain-like over Shiori's chest, the phone rang.
Utena almost leapt out of the chair. "Don't get up--I'll get it.
It's probably Nanami." She hurried into the kitchen, which--from
the sound of things--was where the closest phone was. "Hello?"

//"Utena? Buzz me in, please."//

She had to call back to Juri and Shiori for instructions on
how to do so. Nanami hung up, and Utena walked back into the
main room of the apartment. "She's coming up now," she reported.

Juri raised her head and nodded, then moved away from
Shiori to the other end of the couch; Shiori, Utena noted, looked
less than pleased by that.

Nanami arrived shortly thereafter, and took a seat in the
chair opposite the one Utena sat in. "Hello again, Juri; I'm
glad to have come at a more convenient time, this time. And
hello, Shiori; I don't think I've seen you since that fencing
match we had a few months ago."

"Why, I don't think you have," Shiori said with frosty,
sharp-edged sweetness.

Nanami smiled, pleasantly and completely superficially. "I
do hope we have another one sometime in the future."

"That would be nice," Shiori replied, smiling right back.

"Stop it, you two," Juri said. "We've got bigger and older
feuds to settle."

Nanami and Shiori exchanged pretty, poisonous smiles for a
moment longer, and then looked away from one another towards
Utena. Juri did the same.

"Well?" Shiori asked after a moment.

Utena blinked. "Oh, yes." She was, she supposed, the de
facto leader. "Well... we have to kill Akio, and, umm--"

"Utena," Juri interrupted quietly but forcefully. "You
faced him in battle. I don't know how much more you know about
him--what he is--than we do, but you must know something. So
tell us, you must know... what was the Revolution? We all sought
the Power of Dios for our own reasons, but... what was its
nature?"

"The power to revolutionize the world," Utena murmured
distantly. "The power of Dios."

"Yes," Juri said, after a long silence. "That's what we
want to know about. Go on."

"It's hard to know where to begin." Utena looked from one
face to the next. "I suppose at the beginning, at least as I
understand it. Once, long ago, there was a noble prince--Dios,
the Rose Prince--who worked to save all the girls in the entire
world, by making them into princesses. Thus, darkness was kept
from covering all the land."

"When was this?" Shiori arched an eyebrow suspiciously.
"What land? What country?"

"I don't know," Utena answered. "Any of that. It's only
the story I was told."

Nanami crossed her arms. "Hmph. By who?"

Akio. Dios. Shadows. Scattered seeds that Anthy had let
drop in the last seven years--disturbingly few, in hindsight. "A
few sources. Anyway," she said, brushing off further questions,
"the one girl the prince couldn't save was his sister--"

"Why not?" Shiori asked.

"Shiori..." Juri began, half-chidingly.

Utena glanced to Juri and shook her head. "No, it's a good
question. I don't really... I don't really know why..."

"They were brother and sister," Nanami said head bowed,
hugging her arms tightly to herself. "Your brother can't become
your prince--it just doesn't work that way."

"That makes so much sense," Shiori said, giving Nanami a
false smile. "Thank you, Nanami. You really sound as though--"

Juri looked at her pointedly, and Shiori shut her mouth,
even having the grace to look a little embarrassed. Nanami merely
turned her nose up and humphed again.

"Anyway," Utena continued. "One day, the prince became ill.
No," she said quickly, seeing the now-familiar look rising on
Shiori's face, "I don't know why. Maybe saving all the girls in
the land was too much work, even for the Rose Prince. His sister
tended to his illness as best she could, but the people came to
their door demanding the prince's help. They were desperate;
their daughters were imperilled by dragons and wizards and
monsters." She realized she was embellishing a little, but it
seemed somehow correct; stories transformed, after all. "Dios's
sister went out to speak to them; she said that Dios could not
come out, that he was too weak to fight and would die if he did.
In their rage and desperation, they cursed her as a witch who had
stolen the prince from them, and pierced her body with swords."

Their faces were rapt now, even Shiori's. Utena felt an odd
thrill of power. "That day, Dios ceased to be a prince,
and became Ends of the World; his sister became the Rose Bride.
Akio and Anthy." She fell silent, awaiting response; the first
part of the tale was finished. Had she told it right? Or if not
right, had she at least told it well? After seven years, the
details were so hard to hold in her mind...

"Go on, Utena," Juri said finally. "That's not all of it.
Tell us about the last duel. The one called Revolution."

"Yes, sempai." Utena shifted in her chair and cracked her
knuckles as she tried to figure out what to say next. "Give me a
minute... it was seven years ago, and Anthy and I... we never
really even talked about it."

"If they pierced her body with swords, how did she live?"
Shiori asked dubiously. "That would take a miracle."

"So would a lot of the things we saw, in your eyes," Juri
said slowly, obviously hesitant. "It doesn't necessarily make it
a miracle just because we don't understand it."

Utena looked appraisingly at Juri. "You always said there
were no miracles, sempai."

"I did used to say that, didn't I?" Juri murmured.

Nanami cupped her chin thoughtfully. "It all may just be
metaphorical or allegorical in nature. Like a parable. Most
fairy tales have a hidden meaning--" She stopped and looked
around at the expressions of the others. "What? It's _true_.
In class this year... Oh, never mind!"

Utena cleared her throat and raised her voice slightly to
cut off further discussion. "After I chose to face the final
duel, I did the usual ascent thing... the arena was dark, and
then Akio stepped out..." She hung her head. "It was then that
I put it all together... when I finally knew for sure that he was
Ends of the World." Akio had said she'd always known, but she
hadn't, she really hadn't...

Once again, she looked from face to face. Did any of them
know... did any of them suspect just what kind of relations she'd
had with Akio? Probably not... perhaps Nanami, but she wasn't
saying anything... in fact, Nanami almost looked sad as she
stared back, as though she had some hidden, painful knowledge
that Utena didn't.

"So when did you put it together?" she asked. "After I
restored your memories?"

"I knew right before I faced you for the last time," Juri
said quietly. "In fact, the only reason I... but it's not really
important." She glanced at Shiori, then glanced away. Shiori
did the same. Ruka's tied up in there somewhere, Utena thought
vaguely, but said nothing out loud. Not her business.

"I knew as well," Nanami admitted, tangling her hands in her
lap and looking somewhat shamefacedly away from Utena. "I..."

Utena stared at them both. "And you couldn't have told me?"
she asked softly, in wounded tones. "It would have just taken a
few words, you know. 'Hey Utena, you know Ohtori Akio? The guy
whose tower you live in? The one who you... who you...'" She
had to stop to swallow, and glared at Juri with hurt eyes. "I
thought you were my friend, sempai. You knew _that_ early, and
you didn't say anything?"

"I was your friend, Utena," Juri replied, firmly but not
unkindly. "As much as I could be your opponent as well, at the
same time, and a Duellist, and a member of the Student Council.
The Code of the Rose Signet forbade us from telling you. To tell
you would have been to undermine your chances of bringing the
Revolution."

"Yes, and, I mean, that just worked out _so_ well," Utena
snapped. "So how did you find out? Huh?" She shot her gaze
accusingly at Juri, Nanami, even Shiori, who had been silent for
a while now. "What did he do?"

"He showed us," Shiori muttered darkly. "Showed us the ends
of the world."

"Oh, that's really descriptive," Utena shouted, half-rising
from her chair with her fingers tightly clenched on the arms.
"So I'm just supposed to tell you all everything, and you'll all
just keep on speaking in cryptic little epigrams, which, let me
tell you, went on just a _little_ too damn much at Ohtori."

"We," Nanami said, icily pointed, "did not rip your life
apart by forcing you to remember things you might have been
better off forgetting. I think there's a certain
responsibility--"

"Fuck you, Nanami," Utena snarled. You've never had to
work a day in your life, she thought resentfully, but wouldn't
say it out loud... too petty. You've never had to go without
anything for lack of money, you've never had to work at a job
you hated if you wanted to eat... "Don't you lecture me about
responsibility."

Nanami gasped, and actually went pale. "I... I... I..." she
stuttered, flustered. "Don't speak to me like that," she finally
managed, utterly ineffectual.

"Stop it, both of you!" Juri's voice rang out like a bell,
calm and cold and angry. "This accomplishes nothing. Nothing at
all. What's past is past." She took a deep breath. "Utena, I'm
sorry I couldn't tell you. I truly am."

"Couldn't tell me, or wouldn't?"

"Couldn't," Juri repeated firmly. "It was a matter of
honour. I gave my word to obey the Rose Code when I became a
Duellist. Would you have wanted me to go back on it?"

"No," Utena murmured. "No, I wouldn't. You're right." But
the hurt was still there; no way it couldn't be. They'd all
known, even before she'd... if only she'd known what he was
before... She felt as though she were going to be ill. Beads of
sweat stood out on her forehead like a brand. She wiped them
away on her sleeve, and looked hesitantly towards Nanami.
"Nanami, I'm sorry I spoke to you like that."

"Forgiven," Nanami said primly, making it clear that it
wasn't. "And I'm sorry I couldn't tell you either. I tried to
give you hints, but..." Utena almost believed her.

"I hardly knew you. I didn't really have any reason to
tell you," Shiori muttered. Juri looked at her. "But I guess
I'm sorry too."

"So we're all sorry." Juri nodded to Utena. "Can you tell
us, now?"

Utena nodded and licked her dry lips. "I'm sorry too. That
I got so mad. It's just very hard for me to talk about this..."
And you all have things to tell me too, she thought. Akio had
shown them the ends of the world... what did that mean? Later,
though.

"Don't worry about it." Juri waved her hand dismissively.
"Just tell us what happened." She smiled slightly. "I'm curious
to know."

"Well, after we entered the arena, Akio showed me the truth
of it. I think. I still don't really understand it--one moment,
we were in the arena, the next, we were in the Planetarium in his
tower. As though the arena had never existed at all, like it had
just been some sort of projection..."

Juri frowned. "That doesn't seem possible... I mean, we
walked those stairs, rode that elevator... I sat on the ramparts
and watched you duel through my lorgnette... how could something
like that just be a projection?"

"He said that his projector created illusionary fairy-tales
for those with naive wishes," Utena murmured. "But... this was
Akio. He might have been lying. Actually, I'm sure he was
lying, or at least not telling all of the truth. And after we
began to duel, the arena started to come back."

Not telling all of the truth... wasn't that what she was
doing? She hadn't told them at all about how she'd hesitated to
fight him, about how she'd worn her own pale variation on the
Rose Bride's garb... Had his offer to her, to live in the castle
as prince and princess, been a true one? If she'd said yes...

No. It had been a lie. Lies all along, from him. She had
never been anything more than a tool to him, a heart made noble
by his manipulations to open the doors to the power he craved
with such desperate hunger...

"We dueled, and then..." She paused, trying to think of how
best to phrase it. Not that there was any really subtle way.
"Anthy stabbed me from behind, after Akio shoved her at me to
distract me."

Juri blinked. "Himemiya... _stabbed_ you?"

"Yeah," Utena answered. Her scar gave a tiny throb.

"Never would have expected that from her," Juri commented
thoughtfully. "She always seemed so gentle."

"Passive." Nanami shook her head. "Passive is the word.
You push someone down long enough, eventually they either break
beneath the weight, or they finally shove back." She frowned.
"But I don't understand... why stab you? You were her friend.
If she was going to stab anyone, she should have..." She trailed
away. "Oh, never mind."

"Well, I always thought Himemiya--not that I knew her all
that well, admittedly--seemed more like..." Shiori began, then
went quiet at Utena's expression.

"Guys, please," Utena said edgily. "I spent enough time
during the past seven years wondering about Anthy. I don't need
to listen to you all psychoanalyzing her in front of me."

"But why did she do it?" Nanami asked in a small voice.

Utena sighed. "As near as I understand it, after Dios
became Ends of the World something--maybe Anthy or maybe his own
nature or maybe some higher power--sealed away his power behind
the Rose Doors. Only a noble heart could open the Rose Doors;
all the duels we fought were meant to find someone with a heart
noble enough to open them, and allow Akio to regain the Power of
Dios."

Juri frowned. "Why?"

She sighed again, troubled by her lack of definite
knowledge. "I don't know, to be honest. Revenge, maybe, or
perhaps he's beyond that now. If I had to guess, he wanted to
use the power to remake the world into a place like Ohtori--full
of illusion and lies, under his control. But I don't know that
for sure."

"A noble heart..." Nanami looked at Utena, almost
fearfully. "Yours."

"Not noble enough, in the end," Utena whispered. "Himemiya
stabbed me because I wouldn't give up my sword--the one drawn
from my heart--to Akio. He took it from me, and... well, this is
where things began to get weird."

"Began?" Juri murmured incredulously.

You could ask to stop, Utena told herself. You've been
talking for a while now. Have something to drink. Take a break.
It's a lot to tell all at once. But now that she'd started to
tell (the first time she'd talked about it in such detail, ever),
the words didn't seem to want to stop, as though they were blood
pouring from a new-torn wound.

"Akio began to walk towards the Rose Doors, and then the
swords came. A million swords, shining with human hatred--Akio
said they came because of the sword drawn from me. I didn't
really understand them; they had some connection to the people
who stabbed Anthy in the past, because they kept on saying
'witch'..." God, she remembered their voices vividly now, their
horrible iron tongues, the gleam of their despite, Anthy pinioned
high above... such awful memories. "But I don't really know. I
think they wanted to kill Akio, but Anthy took his place... she
was... hanging in the air above the arena, and it was like all of
them, every single one of the million, was trying to pierce her
body... there wasn't enough of her, of course..." She swallowed
the lump in her throat. "Wasn't enough of her to go around. But
they kept on circling and darting at her, building up into a wall
around her, a prison..." A coffin. "Akio was trying to break
open the Rose Doors with my sword, but it wasn't working. I
guess, in the end, my heart just wasn't noble enough."

"And what were you doing at the time?" Shiori asked, almost
snidely.

"Bleeding, mostly," Utena said half-flippantly, and looked at
Shiori until the other woman looked away. Had she bled much?
She should have, with a wound like that. "Things are kind of
hazy for me. I was hurt pretty bad. The sword Akio was using--
my sword--snapped." After the pain she'd felt each time Akio
thrust or slashed at the Rose Doors, she'd expected to die when
she heard the sound of the sword breaking, but it had seemed to
give her strength. "Anthy was still in the air, although I
couldn't see her any more... there were so many swords. I didn't
really know what I was doing. Sometimes, I felt as though
someone were talking to me, or telling me what to do... I got up
and pushed past Akio, and was trying to open the Rose Doors with
my bare hands. He just watched. I think it amused him, because
he didn't believe I could do it. I thought... I thought if I
could get to that power, I could free Himemiya from him."

They were all silent again. Waiting. She found herself
unable to go on, though. There were no more words left.

"And you did it," Nanami unexpectedly said, wonderingly.
"You opened the doors... you got the Power of Dios... and you
freed her. That's why she left, right? That's why she could
leave her brother."

"No," Utena said sharply. The words were back. "I mean,"
she corrected, more gently, "that I don't know. One moment,
there were the Rose Doors, and then there was a coffin, and the
wall of swords that had surrounded Anthy began to shake... they
moved away from where she'd been, but she wasn't there any more,
and I knew she was in the coffin."

She drew a deep, shuddering breath, and let the rest of it
come out in one long tide, like a shrieking wave of swords. "And
I was trying to get her to take my hand, but she wouldn't or
couldn't, and then finally she did, but it was too late, and the
world broke apart, everything broke apart, and she was falling,
and the swords were coming for me, and then--"

"What?" Nanami asked urgently. "What?"

"I don't remember after that," Utena admitted fearfully. "I
don't know what happened to me. I just remember hearing the
swords coming, and then there was..." Agony. Unbearable pain.
"...darkness. I don't remember if I woke up in the hospital, or
at another school, or maybe I was on a dark road in a dark
forest, or in a rose-scented coffin... I don't know where I was
or what I was or how long that went on. Maybe I was in Sapporo
already, although I don't know why, or maybe Anthy and I went
there... Anthy's the first thing I remember." A shining thing,
like the light at the end of a long dark tunnel. "It's like the
time right after my parents died. As though my memories are a
few scattered jewels, bright upon black velvet... but the jewels
don't all go together." She took another deep breath. "I don't
really know. But that's how it happened for me. I think."

Everyone was very quiet. The room lay frozen as though
below ice. Finally, someone spoke. Nanami.

"Did that all really happen?" she asked. A small voice.
Child-like.

Utena remembered her father reading a story to her. Did it
all really happen like that, Daddy? Like what, Princess? The
prince rescued the princess, and they both lived happily ever
after; did that really happen? Well, maybe it didn't happen just
like that, but it's true in a different way. What kind of way,
Daddy? I'll tell you when you're older, Princess.

He never had, of course. Sometimes, she wondered if her
parents would be proud of her; but only sometimes, and even then
rarely.

"Utena, did it happen like that?" Nanami asked again.

"It happened like that for me," Utena replied softly. "I
don't know about Anthy; never asked her. Or Akio. But that's
how it was for me. I think."

"How interesting," Shiori commented. "As you explain it, it
sounds both deeply symbolic and incredibly nonsensical at the
same time."

"Well, yeah." Utena took a deep breath; she felt slightly
embarrassed, and in danger of blushing. "I've never really tried
to explain it to anyone before. So... do you understand now,
more or less?"

"Akio used to be good, but then he fell into evil and his
true power was sealed away." Nanami recited as though she'd
learned it by rote. "He's trying to regain it, and if he does,
that would be really, really bad."

Utena nodded, and resisted the urge to clap softly.

"So... you knew about this for seven years, and yet you let
it lie there and fester?" Shiori asked incredulously.

"Yeah. Bad idea, I know," Utena admitted. "But... well, I
just kind of assumed because Anthy never raised it, and she was
the one who would have known..."

"That was foolish," Shiori said flatly.

"Really, Shiori, do you think she doesn't know that?"
Nanami glanced dismissively at Shiori. "The last thing we need
right now is pettiness, don't you think?"

"I agree completely." Shiori looked at the floor with
false demureness. "That's advice we should _all_ take to heart,
Nanami-san."

"Bigger and older feuds," Juri muttered, looking from Shiori
to Nanami. "Bigger and older feuds."

"No, she's right," Utena said suddenly. "It was foolish;
really foolish. I hardly even thought about things again until I
read about that boy who was murdered--"

"We don't know it happened like that," Nanami snapped
suddenly, fiercely. "That's just what the newspapers say!"

"The boy who was killed," Utena corrected casually. Not
entirely true, what she'd said about hardly even thinking about
about things; there were the dreams of her prince, after all,
the ones that could so quickly become nightmares. Too private,
too personal. "And didn't you have something to tell us about
that, Nanami? We're all here, now."

Nanami nodded slowly, unwillingly, and began.

* * *

She got the phone call on a sultry sunny summer day that was
unfortunately obscured by heavy rain. "Come for a picnic at the
ends of the world," invited a voice neither male nor female.
"You must bring one hot dish, and one cold dish, or you will not
be allowed to sit at the blanket."

She finished her gardening and put her tools away in their
rose-scented box, then rode her carousel horse into the landscape
painting upon the bedroom wall. Within the painted world, she
was a giant, and rode roughshod over foothills become molehills
and pine trees the size of toothpicks. As she climbed the
mountain, though, she and her horse grew smaller and smaller,
until everything was the size it should have been. Her horse
lay down and died at the base of the great cliffs, and she was
forced to scale them by herself. At the top, she pulled herself
up by clinging to the jagged rocks, and found the pleasant little
cottage where the picnic would be held.

When she tried the door, though, it was locked, and she had
to knock many times, until quite suddenly the door opened,
although no one was on the other side.

"You're just in time," her brother said. "Just in time for
the picnic." He was stripped to the waist, dark chest slashed
with sweat; he held his torn wrists over the mouth of the naked
boy upon the blue blanket laid over the straw, who drank
thirstily of the blood that trickled forth. "Come now; sit at
the blanket. There's plenty of food for everyone."

She threw her arms up in fright, and screamed; the world
broke apart like shattered stained-glass, but then she found she
could not lower her arms again.

"I thought you said she was awake."

"She was."

"Look, she's coming around again."

*"Witch, witch, accursed witch..."*

Anthy opened her eyes, passing almost instantly from dream
to waking. A dream? That was not right; she had power enough to
choose always whether or not she wished to remember her dreams,
and had chosen for years not to--

She shivered suddenly. Wherever she was, it was cold. A
blurry darkness suffused her vision, her ears were full of a
rushing howl like many winds, and her mouth felt packed with
sticky-sweet cotton balls. The most immediate and vivid
sensations were physical ones: hard wood against her back and
buttocks, metal bands encircling her wrists and ankles to hold
them fast to the arms and legs of the chair she was in. Her
shoes had been removed--she could feel cold concrete beneath her
bare feet--but the rest of her clothing was still in place.

Dim human shapes flitted around her, but it was impossible
to put finer detail upon them than that. Three, four, perhaps
more--again, it wasn't possible to tell. She seemed to be
looking at everything through dark-beclouded waters.

A voice, half-remembered, difficult to hear through the
rushing in her ears: "Leave us." Door opening, dim shapes
departing, door closing.

"Leo?" The voice speaking did not seem to be her own; too
childish, too weak.

"Then you remember me, bruja." He almost sounded pleased.
"I wasn't sure you did. You looked at me with such confusion
when we met again."

"I was remembering," she murmured. Vision and hearing were
beginning to clear, but not completely. Fog seemed to have
descended over all senses but touch: in contrast to sight and
sound, the feel of the bands trapping her wrists and ankles was
clear and almost painful, like a fine-bladed knife.

"Then you forgot me? Understandable; it was so long ago.
It must be hard to keep track of all your victims, all those
you've led astray for... how many years now, bruja? You don't
look a day older, so I can't even begin to guess. I doubt I was
the first or the last, though."

"No; I remembered you. I remember them all. It was just
that I remembered what you meant... you meant more than most,
Leo. To me, that is; nearly as much as..." She had to forcibly
think about silencing herself before she gave away too much; her
tongue felt like a loose, flopping thing; a dying fish upon bleak
shores. Some effect of whatever drug they had--whoever they
were--used to knock her out?

Leo said nothing, merely stood and continued to stare at
her. She remembered his eyes vividly; so dark and intense,
almost completely black. Youth's fire was long gone out, though,
leaving only an icy pall of ashes; but, still, a cold burning
hunched in that gaze like a sheathed weapon.

The silence seemed to rain blows upon her; again, it took a
genuine effort of will to stop herself from babbling something,
anything, in order to alleviate it. To distract herself, she
looked around at the room. It wasn't much of a sight, really.
Small, square, smooth cold bare concrete for walls and floor, a
ceiling made of thick planks of unpainted wood. A single naked
bulb for illumination, a little table in one corner. The chair
she was in. And Leo Cano--the one that got away.

He'd aged well, but no one ever really aged well; he would
be nearing seventy by now. In youth, he'd been a tall, slim,
darkly handsome man; time had hammered that beauty away, leaving
him still striking, but somehow unappealing. Perhaps it was
merely that no invitation lay any longer for her in that
handsomeness.

His old body looked to be in the best shape it could be;
he'd undoubtedly lost mass with age, but what she could see of
his arms were still powerful and slenderly muscled. Undoubtedly
still capable of wielding a sword, of holding--

The atavistic fog seemed suddenly to lift; that was then,
this was now. He had ambushed her, kidnapped her and strapped
her into an uncomfortable chair in a bare concrete room. None of
those acts exactly implied benign intentions.

She gave a motionless push that should have let her wrists
and ankles slip through their manacles as though through cold
water, and then real fear began to set in for the first time,
because nothing happened.

Horrific pain suddenly erupted at her wrists and ankles,
flowed through her entire body, and snapped her spine rigid as a
rod against the chair's hard back. She screamed, and the sound
died as soon as it was born against the concrete walls.

"Interesting; it took you much longer than most to try it,"
Leo said, empirically detached. "Most do it as soon as they wake
up."

"Cold-forged iron," Anthy half-sobbed, not meaning to. Now
that she knew what it was, it seemed to burn hatefully against
her skin, even though the pain was gone.

Leo looked surprised. "Is that all it takes?"

No; but she wasn't going to tell him that. Something
unconscious seemed to urge her to, though; it was a continual
effort to resist it.

Leo clasped his hands behind his back and walked a slow
circle around the chair, gazing down at the floor; Anthy gazed
too, and saw a rough circle of dampness upon the concrete, with
scattered golden flakes within it. At one point, he stuck his
foot out as though to mar some part of the circle, then drew it
back. "No; experiments later. Questions now."

"Why have you done this, Leo?"

He laughed softly. "I had meant that I would be the one
asking them, but I suppose it does no harm to answer you that; I
am a hunter of witches, in the service of God and the Holy
Church."

Anthy looked sadly at him. "Oh, Leo... what have you
become?"

"What I should have been from the start." The ashes of his
eyes seemed to smoulder. "A true servant of God and the Church.
What I would have been, had not you and El Diablo led me astray."

"Leo--"

"You bewitched me," he snapped, cutting her off. "You and
that hell-born thing you called your brother. I fought for you;
I would have killed for you. And all that time, I was only your
toy; what you took from me can never be restored." The pain and
hate in his voice was almost unbearable. "Never."

"I am sorry for what pain I caused you," Anthy murmured.
"For what pleasure, too, if that also has become pain for you."

"Pleasure? Sin is sin, no matter what lying words you
clothe it in." He ran agitated hands through his shoulder-
length white hair. "Enough of this; I know what you are doing.
Trying to draw me into your web again like the unholy spider you
are."

Anthy could find no words. Garbed though it was in the
language of his faith--which seemed to have consumed entirely the
man he had once been--there was truth enough in what he said.

Leo; yet another one whom she should have mourned, but could
not. There had been too many brought low by her in her service
to Akio to do that. Face to face with one of them was so very
far from detached contemplation, however; Leo had been strong and
noble and brave in his youth... Akio and her had both had so much
hope for him...

In the end, though, not brave enough. Or perhaps too
bounden to the master narrative offered him by the Church, which
forced him to shape all experiences to pre-forged moulds. A
fallen angel and his sorcerous servant... it was not so very far
from the truth.

Confronted by that, he had fled, and before they could
decide what to do next, the revolution came--though not the one
Akio wanted. Things had become far too unstable, and Akio hated
that; for his webs to work properly, the day after had to be very
much like the day before.

She had never even thought of Leo Cano again. A way of
survival, really; cut the losses, leave the bodies behind, and
move on. No memory, no pain; every experience, pain and pleasure
alike, going only skin-deep, leaving no trace behind.

"Look at me, bruja." Anthy shook her head and opened her
eyes; she hadn't even realized that she'd closed them. Leo was
standing almost right in front of her, just beyond the damp
circle upon the floor; he appeared to have been speaking to her
for some time without her realizing it.

"Listen to me now, for I will say this only once." His
voice seemed to have softened a little; his eyes no longer
smouldered as they had moments earlier. "You are human despite
what you are, and thus your soul, while sinful as the souls of
all mankind are sinful, is not by nature condemned to eternal
damnation like that of the one you called brother."

He opened the top button of his shirt, and brought forth the
small gold crucifix that hung from the chain around his neck.
The precious metal gleamed in the harsh light of the room's
single bulb; she remembered another crucifix of gold, shining in
the light of a single candle beside the bed, in a small room;
breeze blowing through an open window, fluttering curtains,
bearing the sounds--voices speaking in Spanish, men and women
laughing, strains of half a hundred musics--of the Havana night;
he hung it round her neck, and it was cold against her naked
breast; his lips brushed hers, once. "Querido."

None of it had meant anything to her. She had been the Rose
Bride, then; merely a mirror for his own desires, except when her
will was seized by Akio to work towards darker ends.

That was then; this was now. She shook herself free. Leo
had loosely draped the golden chain over his fingers, letting the
crucifix sway back and forth. "Your soul can still be saved," he
said quietly, hopefully; perhaps even with a little kindness?
Or... was that a rehearsed quality she detected, as though it
were a speech long-practiced, made many times before? "If you
sincerely repent of your sins and renounce the iniquity of your
witchcraft and its offense to God--"

"Then what?" Anthy asked icily. "You'll imprison me for
life instead of killing me?"

Leo closed his mouth; his eyes narrowed until it was almost
impossible to see any details beyond dark pupils and irises. "So
be it; if your concern for your flesh is greater than your
concern for your soul, then so be it."

He whirled, stalked to the single thick wooden door of the
room, put his hand upon the knob to open it, and then looked back
at her. "You have information I need, and I will extract it by
whatever means I must. I want to know where El Diablo is, where
your familiar is, and where your apprentice is." He opened the
door; Anthy could see a wood-panelled hallway beyond it. "I will
return in an hour for your answers; it would be in your best
interests to give them to me then, because you will assuredly
give them to me eventually."

"Apprentice?" Anthy asked--but he was already gone out,
slamming the door hard behind him.

* * *

"Tsuwabuki."

"What?"

Nanami huddled in the chair, gripping the arms as though she
feared being hurled off it without some purchase. "Tsuwabuki's
the one charged with the murder."

Utena blinked, tried to find words. "W-what?" she finally
managed in a stunned voice. Juri looked equally shocked; Shiori
less so, but she probably hadn't known Tsuwabuki very well, if at
all.

"Touga didn't tell me much," Nanami continued, strain
evident in her voice. "Just that... Tsuwabuki... Mitsuru... had
been arrested for killing another boy in a duel. He said he
wasn't really allowed to talk about it."

"Over a girl," Utena added. "The newspaper said it was a
duel over a girl."

"He's trying to do it all over again," Juri said with a
shudder. "The duels... he's trying to find another Duellist to
bring the Revolution."

"Mitsuru," Nanami murmured. Her face was ashen.

"But... the duels were never supposed to be to the death,"
Shiori said. She touched a finger to her mouth and bent her head
down thoughtfully. "Has he raised the stakes, or something?"

Utena nodded. "Maybe. Or maybe without Anthy, without the
Rose Bride, he can't do it properly."

"But if it was over a girl," Juri said, "couldn't there be a
new Rose Bride? I mean, what are the qualifications--" She
paused to laugh softly, humourlessly. "--for the job?"

"I don't know," Utena admitted. "Anthy... Anthy never
wanted to talk about it. Ever. Akio could have acquired a new
Rose Bride, maybe... or it might be that someone has to choose to
become one. I really don't know."

"Call Anthy now, Utena."

Utena nodded uncomfortably, then stood and went into the
kitchen. She dialed, and waited. The phone rang and rang and
rang. Eventually, she hung up and walked back to rejoin the
others. "Not home. I'll try later."

"So... what now?" Shiori asked. "We've got things out into
the open."

Nanami put her hand up. "If we're going to go to Ohtori, I
need to go home and pack."

"We're all decided, then?" Juri looked around at the other
three women. "Utena, I know you are... Shiori? Nanami? Back to
Ohtori?"

"Back to Ohtori," Nanami murmured. Shiori merely nodded.

"Touga," Utena said. "We need to decide what to do about
him."

Everyone turned their gazes on Nanami, who almost squirmed
beneath them. "I know you probably won't believe me," she
half-whispered, hugging her arms around herself. "I bet you were
all talking about it before I came. 'Can we trust Nanami?'"

Utena couldn't stop herself from flinching; Nanami noticed,
and laughed softly. "What can I say that will make a difference,
really? You'll believe me, or you won't. I remember now...
everything. My brother was Akio's right-hand man; not a pawn,
not an unwitting puppet... he probably knew better than anyone
before Utena duelled for the last time what Akio was, and he
didn't even care."

"No," Utena said suddenly. "No... I don't think it was like
that... near the end, he..."

The other three turned their attention to her, and she
trailed off, embarrassed, before picking up again in a calmer
voice. "I don't think Touga knew what Akio really was. Akio
used him just like he used everyone else... maybe Touga was more
willing than most, but..."

Juri arched an eyebrow speculatively. "And you think this
because?"

"I just do," Utena mumbled. "I have a feeling."

Nanami was glaring concealed daggers at her, while Shiori
just looked confused. "Anyway," Utena hurriedly said, "we'll
have to be careful about Touga, but he isn't the focus. To kill
a snake, you cut off its head, and Akio's the head."

"It's a lot easier to cut the head off if the snake's
missing half its body," Juri said, with an almost frightening
coldness; even Shiori looked a little uncomfortable.

"Juri!" Nanami snapped. "Don't ever talk like that again!
If you're suggesting--"

"And if Touga's still Akio's right hand?" Juri said calmly,
turning her head to look Nanami square in the eye. "What then?"

"We'll cross that bridge as we come to it," Utena said
quickly. "We don't know anything definite yet."

Nanami took out something from her blouse pocket and
weighed it up and down in her hands, silent and sad.

"Is that the Rose Signet Touga gave you, Nanami?" Utena
asked.

Nanami nodded. "Do you... could you keep it, Utena? I
think we might need it, but... I don't want it. I don't even
want it near me."

Utena blinked, surprised. "Sure, if you want me to."

The blond walked over and handed the ring to Utena; their
fingers brushed fleetingly, a contact broken by Nanami as soon as
possible. Even touching the Rose Signet made Utena's scar throb,
an ache echoed by the bruise Nanami's punch had left on her
cheek earlier in the day. She tucked the ring away in her
side pocket, where it lay like a cold, hard stone against her
thigh.

Juri got up and walked halfway towards the kitchen before
pausing and looking back. "When are we going to want to leave?"

"Do you think there's time to get an evening flight?" Utena
asked.

Juri nodded. "I can try."

"Don't forget to call and cancel your photo shoot on
Tuesday, Juri," Shiori said quietly.

"Photo shoot?" Utena, momentarily confused, suddenly
remembered an obscure detail. "Oh; you're still modelling."

Juri shrugged. "It pays the bills," she said with mock
humility.

"Plus, she gets to keep the clothes," Shiori said. "Now if
only she'd wear them more."

"They're too fancy for everyday wear," Juri retorted,
shrugging again. She tugged at the loose collar of her
turtleneck. "Besides, I prefer being comfortable most of the
time."

"Juri-san is quite well-known in the fashion circles,"
Nanami commented to Utena. "She's been in all the magazines."

"I don't read fashion magazines," Utena said. She knew
Anthy did sometimes, and wondered if she'd ever seen any photos
of Juri. Probably; but she wouldn't have pointed them out, of
course. What a shell the two of them had lived in for those
seven years. Hardly better than those who couldn't remember
anything at all.

Juri went into the kitchen, presumably to arrange flights,
possibly to cancel photo shoots. Nanami stood up and stretched,
catlike, then headed for the door. "I'll be back once I get my
things in order. Ta-ta until then."

"Bye, Nanami." The front door closed, and Utena was alone
in the living room with Shiori.

Only for a moment, though, as it turned out. "I'm going to
go get the swords ready." Shiori rose and went to the bedroom,
closing the door behind her.

Utena shifted in the chair to get more comfortable, and
leaned down to look at Chu-Chu--who was still asleep. "Hey, are
you going to nap all day or what?" She picked up the snoring
animal and held him on her lap. "This has been going pretty well
so far, hasn't it?" she said, nominally to Chu-Chu, but really to
herself. "Better be careful; can't get too confident just
because things have been going my way so far."

She got up, placing Chu-Chu on the chair she'd formerly
occupied, and went to where she'd left her gym bag beside the
couch. She unzipped the bag and pulled out the rapier she'd
taken from Saionji's shop the night before. When she unsheathed
it, the blade gleamed like a mirror, reflecting a haggard but
determined face with a circular bruise on one cheek.

Utena took a deep breath, tossed the sheath onto the couch,
and stepped into a duelling stance. She made a few tentative
thrusts and parries, feeling much more self-conscious and
uncertain than she had when she'd last tried to handle a sword in
the darkened showroom of the antique shop.

As it turned out, with good reason.

"Your grip is all wrong; the blade's far too high. And
placing your feet like that won't let respond quickly enough to
an attack from the side."

"This is the way I always did it at Ohtori," Utena murmured,
flushing a little and turning to look at where Juri leaned
against the archway separating kitchen and living room.

Juri nodded, frowning a little. "I know, and it was always
a miracle that you won at all, given that. You only beat Miki
the first time because Himemiya distracted him, and you would
have lost to me the first time we fought except for being
incredibly lucky." She grimaced a bit at the memory. "If I
hadn't been stupid and spent all that time playing with you at
the start, things might have turned out differently than they
did."

"And if you'd taken one more step forward after you disarmed
me," Utena replied uncomfortably, "you might have taken the Sword
of Dios right through the back."

"I might have, at that." Juri looked pensively at Utena,
then shrugged. "Well, things happened as they happened."

"Am I... really that bad?" Utena asked hesitantly.

"You're an amateurish fencer, that's for certain," Juri said
bluntly. "Plus, you've undoubtedly got all kinds of bad habits
ingrained in you from fighting all those duels without proper
training. Looking at it in hindsight, I have no idea how you
were able to win for so long."

Utena hung her head, suddenly feeling extremely unprincely.

"On the other hand," Juri continued in a warmer tone of
voice, "you're in superb shape, and you're a natural athlete.
Getting rid of the bad habits is the first part." She nodded.
"I think one of my older suits will fit you, though it may be a
bit baggy around the chest."

"What?"

"Shiori," Juri called, "Utena and I are going up on the
roof for a little while."

"...the roof?"

* * *

"It's c-cold up here."

"Well, of course it is; we're twenty stories above the
streets, so the altitude's a factor, and we don't have smaller
buildings for windbreaks."

Utena looked around the concrete roof of Juri's highrise
apprehensively. "Juri-sempai, there's _snow_ up here."

Juri nodded. "The thaws usually don't catch it all this
high up."

In addition to the scattered patches of snow, numerous large
outtake pipes belched steaming fog, a product of the building's
heating system, from their vents. Excepting them, the low-lipped
rooftop was almost featureless.

"Are we actually allowed up here?" Utena asked, puffing and
stamping her feet to warm herself. "How did you get the key to
get up here, anyway?" She glanced back at the door leading back
to the stairwell they'd had to climb from the top floor to reach
the roof.

"I've got an arrangement with the owners to use the roof for
practice," Juri explained. "That's why I have an access key."

Utena stamped her feet some more, and shivered all the same.
Juri's older fencing suit had indeed fitted well enough--they
were about the same height--although it was indeed loose in
certain places. Unfortunately, it wasn't very warm. "Are you
sure I couldn't have worn a jacket over this?"

Juri, who did not look at all discomfited in her own suit
despite the cold, shook her head. "Too cumbersome."

"Fights don't always take place under ideal conditions,"
Utena argued.

"But practice should," Juri said shortly. "How did you
survive living in Sapporo for seven years if you can't take a
little cold?"

"I was allowed to wear a jacket when I went out," Utena
muttered.

Juri put the bag with the two foils down on a bare patch
of concrete, and began to do stretching exercises. "Come on,
start warming up. Get your blood moving; you won't feel so cold,
then."

Utena started on alternating toe-touches in imitation of
Juri, breath frosting the air before her as she bobbed up and
down. "Did you manage to get us a flight, Juri?"

"I called my travel agent," Juri replied. "She'll look into
it and call back."

"You have a travel agent?"

"I sometimes have to fly out to other places to do photo
shoots."

They stretched in silence for a few moments longer, and then
changed to arm exercises. "Does modelling pay well?" Utena asked
while stretching her left arm behind her back with her right hand
on the elbow.

Juri, with left hand on right elbow, nodded. "Quite well.
Why? You want to get into it?" She said the last bit rather
teasingly, and continued on that note. "You could, you know;
you've got the looks and the body."

"I think I'd be too embarrassed," Utena said uncomfortably.
"All those cameras and lights."

"After we kill Akio," Juri said lightly, "I'll put you in
contact with my agent."

Utena paused in her stretching and stared at the ground.

"Sorry," Juri said after a moment. "Not the kind of thing
to joke about. I do that sometimes, when I'm uncomfortable with
something; make it into a joke, try to make myself believe it
doesn't matter as much as it really does... sorry."

"It's all right," Utena said quietly. "I... I don't really
like the idea of doing it either. But..."

"Some things have to be done," Juri murmured as Utena's
voice trailed away. She began to do lunge stretches, pushing her
unbent leg out far behind her as she did each one. "It's not a
matter of liking it."

"I don't think you should have said what you did about Touga
in front of Nanami." Utena hesitated to the point where she
almost didn't say it, but finally did, not really knowing why.
"About cutting the snake's body."

To her surprise, Juri nodded. "Yes; that was too far.
Touga and I... well, after what happened between him and Shiori
in his last year, the two of us didn't exactly part on good
terms. And if he is working for Akio still, in the same way he
did before..." She clenched her fist. "As far as I'm concerned,
that makes him almost as bad as Akio."

Juri had been right about the stretching; Utena hardly even
noticed the cold now, and even her mind seemed to be working
quicker. "If Touga is the Knight of Pentacles, he moves fast; he
was back in Houou in time to get Nanami's phone call this
afternoon."

"You were here a few hours before that, and you only left
Sapporo this morning," Juri pointed out, and began to do jumping
jacks.

Utena, following Juri's lead, had to alternate speech with
deep breaths as her arms and legs scissored open and closed.
"That's true... he could have... left yesterday... evening."

Juri nodded in mid-jump, causing her curls to bounce even
more wildly. "What makes me... dubious is... that if it... was
Touga... then he's capable... of surviving... a ten-story fall."

Utena stopped jumping and pushed her bangs out of her eyes.
"Any other suspects you can think of?"

"None more likely than Touga," Juri said, stopping as well.
"I think that's enough warming up. Do you feel ready?"

Utena nodded. "Yeah."

Juri opened the bag and handed her a foil. Utena took it
and stepped back, testingly flourishing the flexible, button-
tipped fencing blade. "Hey, do you think we should try and get
in touch with Miki?"

As before, the mention of Miki caused a sad expression to
fall upon Juri's face. "We should. I don't know what he's
doing, though, or where he is..."

"Nanami might," Utena suggested. "I'll ask her when she
comes back."

Juri nodded, apparently glad to close the subject.
"Anyway," she said, brandishing her own foil, "let's get
started." She reached into the bag, tossed Utena a wire-mesh
mask to protect her face, and then put on her own mask.

"Show me what to do, sempai," Utena said, only half-
playfully.

"First of all, stance... your feet are a little too close
together... no, not that far apart. Grip the hilt a little
looser... too loose; that's better. Tilt your blade down a
little... and remember, watch my hand, not my sword. En garde!"

Utena lunged forward with a sharp battle cry; Juri batted
the attack away with a quick twist of her wrist, and Utena was
forced to backstep to avoid Juri's short, rapid counter-thrust.

"Too aggressive," Juri commented. She thrust again,
snapping back from it as Utena awkwardly parried and was driven
back another step. "You leave yourself too open when you
attack."

They circled each other, Utena warily, Juri poised and
assured. Foils clashed once, twice; Utena pressed forward, and
Juri casually drove her back.

"This isn't even hard for you, is it?" Utena asked morosely.

Juri shook her head. "Not really." Utena sighed, and half-
wished that the mesh face-mask didn't make seeing Juri's
expression impossible. She couldn't bear the possibility of
contempt or condescension there.

At Utena's next thrust, Juri slapped the foil down hard,
until its tip nearly touched the ground, and poked Utena in the
chest before she could recover or backstep.

"Again," Juri said, stepping back and saluting with her
foil before pulling her mask off. "Don't get discouraged. I've
been fencing since I could hold a sword, and I doubt you've had
any swordplay at all in the past seven years."

"I don't understand it," Utena muttered, slumping back
against the warm surface of one big outtake pipe and dropping her
foil to the ground. She removed her mask and used it to fan her
hot, sweaty face. "I mean, I'm out of practice, but... in the
Duelling Arena, I always felt like I knew what I was doing, at
least. I don't feel like that now. At all."

"Oh?"

"When I duelled at Ohtori, I felt like I was filled up with
power." Utena struggled to explain in words what was, to her,
still quite inexplicable. "And the harder things got, the more I
had that power..." She gestured helplessly with one hand towards
the bright winter sky. "I'd get pushed to the wall, and then I'd
suddenly feel this incredible strength... and I'd win."

"True character does only emerge in the most desperate of
times," Juri said thoughtfully. "And you've never felt like that
since?"

"Not until recently. When I fought the Knight, right near
the end... right before I tossed him out the window. I got my
hands on his wrist... I don't know how much you know about judo,
but it's almost all about leverage. I didn't have any; I was
practically lying on the floor. But when I put my hands on him,
I knew that I could have torn his arm off. That was how strong I
felt."

"You do judo?"

"Karate, too. I took them at the rec centre."

Juri chuckled, then walked over and put her hand on Utena's
shoulder. "Listen, Utena... remember what Shiori said. Swords
may have been the requisite back in the old days, but we're not
playing by Akio's rules any longer. If you have to fight, fight
with what you know best."

"Am I that unteachable, then?" Utena sighed glumly.

Juri squeezed her shoulder warmly. "Did I say that? Pick
your foil up, and let's try it again."

Their eyes met for a moment; Juri smiled at her, lips
parting slightly to reveal small white teeth. Utena, suddenly
flustered and a little embarrassed, stepped away, letting Juri's
hand slip from her shoulder.

She knelt and retrieved her foil. "Thank you, Juri-sempai."

"You don't need to call me Juri-sempai, you know," Juri
said softly, a little wistfully. "That's past, now."

"All right. Juri. Let's try it again." Utena slipped her
mask back on and stepped back into a ready position.

As Juri raised her hand to her mask to do the same, a voice
interrupted:

"Let me fight her." Shiori stood in the doorway leading
back down to the building proper, suited up for fencing with
foil and mask in hand. The eagerness in her voice made Utena
slightly nervous.

* * *

A half-hour had already gone by, or so Anthy estimated. Her head
still felt foggy from whatever they'd drugged her with; on two
occasions, she'd drifted off into warm, dreamy sleep for a few
short seconds, only to snap awake moments later to the cold
concrete reality of her tiny prison.

She did a little thinking, at those times when her mind felt
clear enough. Soon enough, Leo would come back, and the
questioning would begin. She had no illusions about what his
methods would be. Whatever answers she gave, she would not leave
his hands alive if he had his way.

A hunter of witches... How had she ever thought she could
leave her past behind merely by breaking free from Akio?

El Diablo; that would be his name for Akio. Appropriate.
The cloistered silence of the room kissed her lips, and she
floated briefly into the safe entombment of sleep. Cold iron
chafing her wrists snapped her awake. Her familiar; Chu-Chu,
of course. She tried to see if friction would let her slip her
wrists free, but the bands were far too tight.

Apprentice? Utena, undoubtedly. How long had he been
watching them? He did not do this alone; had they followed
Utena, and somehow lost track of her? Good. Utena was going
back into the dragon's lair, and she didn't need a wolf pack on
her heels.

Had it been merely a matter of Akio, she would have given
Leo his location in an instant. Let Akio destroy him; the world
would be better off for it. But Utena complicated things too
much...

Torture could be endured; admittedly, without her power, she
had no channel through which to funnel the pain, but she could
endure. And dying did not frighten her; for what reason had she
left the coffin of the Rose Bride behind other than to become
mortal, to leave behind that deathless pain?

Utena, of course; it all came back to Utena. Leo would have
to torture her to death without getting any information because
she had to keep Utena out of his hands. Utena had been willing
to die for her; she could do no less.

So many more questions, but the haze lay over everything
except the sharp physical pain of the chair's hard back and the
icy hate of the cold-forged iron bands that lay in wait for her
to use her power again. How long had Leo been doing this? Her
impression was a long time; why had it taken him so long to find
her? And how was it that he had come to find her now? Mere
coincidence, or...

So cold; she hated being cold. She wished she were warm,
instead; in the summer, she and Utena sometimes went camping.
They'd toast marshmallows around the fire, and then crawl into
their sleeping bags inside their small tent. Never cold there.

"I'm sorry, Utena," she sobbed, beginning to cry. All her
feelings felt loose and out of control, like newborn foals trying
to find their footing. Anger, sorrow, despair, so
overwhelming... "I should have come with you, but I was scared.
I l--"

Slip down again into comforting half-oblivion, so that when
the shadows began to move upon the walls in ways disallowed by
the light she did not know whether she was waking or dreaming.
Sharp-defined human shadows without human bodies to cast them,
slipping and sliding across the walls and over one another like
whispering leaves.

do you wonder, do you know... do you wonder what i know?
asked one. Vague laughter, diffuse as sunlight on water.
what do you know? They laughed again, an ageless laughter of
eternal children.

once there
was a prince
ss who lay in bondage
to a terrible dragon,
who kept her prisoner
in a high tower. (An
d one shadow formed a
tower with what might
have been hands, and
another formed a prin
cess weeping atop it,
and the high vague la
ughter echoed in a pl
ace where echoes coul
d not exist)

"That tower is crooked," Anthy chided them. "There's no way
it can stand up."

one day a prince came riding out of the east
upon a horse bedecked with roses

(wood blocks striking together to sound the sound of
hooves, a shadowy rider upon a shadowy horse)

'i shall rescue you' the prince cried, and raised his bright
sword. the prince and the dragon

(a dragon appeared now, made also of shadows, vast
beyond imagining, too vast to fit within the tiny
room, so, of course, she had to be dreaming)

fought a terribly l o n g battle. at last, the prince
raised his sword to deliver the killing blow. suddenly, the
princess appeared behind him, and embraced him with arms like
lilies.

(the prince, the princess, the dragon, all before the tower)

'rest, my prince' she said, and stabbed him with her knife.

'why... why?' the prince cried out, sin
king
down
to
die

(shadowy blood on a shadowy knife, laughter that grates like
rusty iron)

'i like living with the dragon,' the princess replied. 'he
keeps away annoying princes like you. Your kisses are all
sloppy, and they ruin my lipstick.'

the dragon and the princess walked off into the sunset
together to live happily ever after.

'come back!' the prince cried. 'this wound will not kill
me! i shall lie never dying, unless you shall wound me again,
and give me the peace of death.'

the princess laughed (a high sharp laugh like a long blade)
and left him there.

what happens to princes that lie wounded but undying? one
shadow asked.

vell, replied a second (a doctor's bag of shadow, a truly
hideous attempt at an accent somewhere between Austrian and
Russian), two situations there are. the vound vill either heal
klean, or it vill fester.

oh my! cried a third. and if it festers?

no tellink. every vound festers in itz own partikular vay.

but will the wound fester or heal, doctor do you know?

do you wonder? do you know? do you wonder what I know?

Anthy started as though snapping awake, and, suddenly, the
shadows were gone. There was only her, the chilly cement of the
room, the hard chair, the cold iron bands, and the opening door.

* * *

"Begin!" Juri slashed her foil down through the air.

Shiori took a defensive stance and waited. Utena feinted at
Shiori's chest, then thrust at the sword-arm shoulder with her
true attack. The older woman, intimidatingly anonymous in suit
and mask, stepped aside to avoid, and Utena was nearly tagged in
the ribs as she pulled back against the momentum of her thrust to
avoid becoming off balance.

The foils slapped hard against each other at their next
pass. Beneath her mask, Utena's breath came hot and heavy; her
adrenaline was racing. Shiori jabbed at her, and she parried
easily upon the forte of her blade. She smiled.

As the fight went on, Utena began to see that Shiori, while
a technically skilled fencer, simply didn't have the same kind of
drive that Juri did. Her style was almost mechanistic; perfectly
assured, but utterly predictable.

When Shiori attacked again, Utena duplicated the move Juri
had used to defeat her in their match, slapping down Shiori's
foil and scoring a quick hit on her side.

"Point to Utena." Juri's foil cut upwards. "Again!" Cut
down.

This time, Shiori came on aggressively from the start,
pressing Utena hard, not allowing any chance for counterattack.
Utena calmly waited until Shiori minutely overextended herself on
one thrust, then aimed a blow at her opponent's stomach.

Shiori abruptly turned her foil in her hands and caught
Utena a whipping blow across her sword-hand wrist with the
foible of her blade. Even through the thick gloves, it stung
painfully; Utena cried out, and her fingers loosed involuntarily.
The foil dropped from her hands; Shiori moved slightly sideways
and tagged Utena in the chest, right over her heart.

"Point to Shiori," she said. Utena could almost hear the
smirk in her voice.

"That wasn't a legal move, Shiori," Juri chided. "You know
that."

"Are we trying to teach her how to duel effectively, Juri,
or to fence by the books?" Shiori asked softly, almost
condescendingly.

"Shiori--" Juri began.

"Shiori-san is right," Utena said, pulling off her sword-
hand glove and wincing as she looked at the already-risen red
welt. "We don't have time for this. Just show me how to be as
effective as possible, given the limitations you've got for
training me."

Juri looked uncomfortable for a moment, then slowly nodded.
"All right. I suppose Shiori does have a point. Just be
careful."

"We will," Shiori assured. "Ready to go again, Utena?"

Utena slipped her glove back on and picked up her foil.
"Ready."

They faced off again. The still-stinging welt upon Utena's
hand threatened to make her lose her calm; why was Shiori so
hostile? They'd barely even spoken to each other at Ohtori after
Shiori had transferred back, and the conversations they had had
been pleasant, to her memory.

"Begin!"

A deep bass rumble that seemed to shake the ground beneath
their feet echoed across the roof; Utena almost stumbled, and
glanced about warily. "What was that?"

"It just means they've turned the heat up in the building,"
Shiori explained, raising her foil. "You can really hear it up
here because we're so close to the outtake vents. En garde!"

Their foils slashed and beat at the air between them,
wove intricate patterns as they circled back and forth and
sought holes in each other's defense through which to slip a
hit. Utena's heart beat loud and hard in her chest, a painful
pleasure; all the formality was gone now, and Shiori was
revealing herself to be a much more enthusiastic duellist than a
fencer.

Turning up the heat had the effect of increasing the size
and density of the clouds of warm fog emanating from the dozen
or so big vents thrusting up from the ground around them. The
area they'd been fighting in had been clear before, but now the
vapours began to drift all around them, obscuring eyesight and
turning Shiori into a vague dancer in the mist. Juri had
disappeared from Utena's sight altogether.

Shiori's blade seemed to come from nowhere, tearing through
the fog towards Utena in a thrust aimed seemingly straight at her
face. She leapt to the side, and her back collided heavily with
the metal surface of an outtake pipe, which had become hot enough
that it was painful even through the thick cloth of the fencing
suit.

"I've got you now!" Shiori cried jubilantly; her foil
slashed down at Utena's neck, whistling with speed of its
whipping motion. Utena ducked and rolled aside, heard the blunt
blade ring on the pipe as she came back to her feet and thrust
hard in Shiori's direction.

No hit; the fog was everywhere this close to the pipe,
making it hard to see even beyond her own body. She tried to
listen for footsteps, but the deafening grinding of the vents
emitting murdered all other sounds. Her hair clung damply to her
face and neck, soaked with sweat and vapour.

A flash of movement to her right; she spun, slashing with
her blade. She knew enough of foil fencing to know that only
thrusts were allowed normally, but they weren't playing by those
rules now. That had been Shiori's decision.

The foil made contact, and a high scream of pain rewarded
Utena. That's for my wrist, she thought perversely, and then
realized it wasn't Shiori who had screamed.

"J-Juri-sempai?"

A gust of wind swirled the fog around her away, and she saw
Juri, grimacing with pain and clutching her right bicep. Her
hair looked half again as long due to uncurling from contact with
the steam. "It's too dangerous to fight in this much fog," she
hissed, tears of pain in her eyes. "I've never seen it get this
thick before. I'm worried one of you is going to go over the lip
of the roof. Didn't you hear me calling you?"

"N-no. Juri-san, I'm sorry--"

"Shiori!" Juri yelled; the fog banks circled and spun with
the cold wind blowing all around them, growing only thicker as
the rumbling of the powerful machines heating the entire highrise
increased in volume. "Shiori, where are you?" Utena was almost
certain she could feel the ground shaking. "SHIORI!"

Shadow in the mist, leaping forward, weapon raised high--

Utena shoved Juri aside and caught Shiori's descending blow
against the basket hilt of the foil. Out of the corner of her
eye, she saw Juri stumble, slip on a patch of half-melted snow,
and go down hard.

"Shiori, stop it!" Utena cried, retreating and desperately
parrying Shiori's flurrying blows. "That's enough! It's too
dangerous." Juri was on her knees, clutching her left ankle and
wincing. "Juri is--"

"Juri is _mine_," Shiori whisperingly snarled, almost
inaudible to Utena, which meant that Juri certainly couldn't hear
it. She pressed Utena further back, attacks coming so vicious
and so fast that Utena could do nothing but defend. "You hear
me? She's mine." They vanished into a bank of fog together,
putting Juri again out of sight. "You're not going to take her
away from me!"

"What are you talking about? Shiori, stop!"

"You think you can just come along..." With the mask on, it
was impossible to tell for sure, but Utena thought Shiori might
be crying. "...after seven years..." A hard sideways slash
nearly tore the foil from Utena's hands. "...and... and..."

Utena's back hit the waist-high lip of the roof.

For a moment, she teetered; Shiori's blade fell like a
hammer. Utena parried it just below the foible; their blades
slid together, locked at the hilts. Both hands on the handle
of her foil, Utena's muscles ached with strain as she tried to
prevent Shiori from overbalancing her any further, and quite
possibly toppling her off the roof.

"Shiori, STOP!" Juri's voice rang out harsh as a gunshot as
she hobbled out of the mists. "My God, what are you doing?"

All the strength and ferocity left Shiori in an instant;
Utena shoved her aside as though she were a child. The older
woman stumbled, then fell to her knees and tossed her foil aside.
She tore her mask off and hurled it to the ground; her face was
streaked with tears and sweat.

Utena dropped her foil and sank, gasping, to her hands and
knees. She removed her mask, and pantingly sucked breaths of
cool winter air. The grinding had stopped being audible, and the
fog had started to disperse. "Shiori--"

Juri was already at Shiori's side, face bleak and angry.
"What was that all about, Shiori? Do you still think you've got
something to prove? We _talked_ about this. Don't you have any
sense of..." Juri trailed off as Shiori raised her head and
glared bitterly at Utena.

"Why did you have to come back?" she snarled, half-choked
with crying. "Everything was perfect until you came."

"Shiori... Juri..." Utena looked from one woman to the
other, mouth open and eyes wide. "I don't under--" Then, quite
suddenly, she did. Tenjou Utena, she told herself silently, you
are still about the most naive person I know.

Juri had taken off her gloves, and was gently wiping the
tears from Shiori's face with one hand. Shiori gazed at the
ground now, resolutely avoiding any sight of Utena.

"Shiori-san," Utena said gently. "I didn't come to take
anyone away from anyone; don't--"

"That's enough, Utena," Juri said icily. "You don't have to
try and justify yourself to her." She dug into her pocket, and
tossed Utena a keyring. "Go back to the apartment, Utena. We'll
be back as soon as we sort things out."

"Juri--"

"Please." Juri closed her eyes, looking very much as though
she were going to start crying herself. "Have a shower; get
yourself cleaned up. We'll be back soon."

Utena got weakly to her feet, picking up her foil and mask
as she did. She walked through the last vestiges of the vapour
clouds, knees almost quaking. At the doorway leading back to the
stairwell, she could not stop herself from looking back. Juri
and Shiori sat in exactly the same positions as before, unmoving
as two statues.

* * *

Few things, Utena decided, were so pleasurable as a hot shower
after a stressful day. Steaming water ran in rivulets down her
naked body, carrying the dirt and detritus of the day down the
drain. She sighed happily, soaped herself up from head to toe,
and then washed herself down beneath the spray.

"Heaven," she murmured, almost managing to forget everything
that had happened in the last day or so. But not quite.

Eyes closed, she examined the wounds of the day with her
hands: a tender bruise on one cheek from Nanami's fist, tiny
lacerations on her neck from Nanami's nails, the red welt from
Shiori's foil on her right wrist. Lower down, she found the
raised tissue of the scar--but that was an old wound, not really
requiring any attention right now.

Juri and Shiori seemed to have about a dozen different kinds
of shampoo between them, all lined up in a row on the lintel
shelf of the fogged-glass doors of the shower. Herbal or floral?
If herbal, what kind of herbal? The same question if floral.

She closed her eyes again and pointed randomly.

"All-Organic Tea Rose Scent," she muttered sourly as she
looked at her choice. "Of course." But she took the bottle down
anyway, poured a measure of it into her palm, and thoroughly
worked it into her hair and scalp. She noticed absently the
bothersome presence of a good deal of split ends, one of the
hazards of having hair as long as hers. It was really time to
get it shortened a little... Anthy had always cut her hair back
in Sapporo... had been pretty good at it too... saved money...
she'd never needed to do the same for Anthy, whose hair was
always unbelievably perfect...

God, did she ever miss Anthy.

She washed the shampoo from her hair, then gave herself a
final total-body rinse to rid herself of any last traces of soap
or shampoo. Made melancholy by the thought of Anthy, she stepped
out of the shower feeling relaxed in body, if not in mind, and
dried herself off with a fluffy white bathtowel. She changed
into the fresh clothes--long black slacks tapered towards the
ankles and a long-sleeved red button-up shirt--she'd left on the
rack on the door, and bundled up the old clothes discarded on the
floor beneath one arm.

Back in the living room, she sat down on the couch, tilted
her head to the side so that her hair fell over one shoulder, and
began to brush it.

Juri and Shiori still weren't back yet. They were starting
to become almost as worrisome to her plans as Nanami; things
obviously weren't going to be as easy as they'd seemed upon the
surface. Well, Shiori had nothing to worry about--she had no
interest in Juri at all, in... that way. None at all; Shiori was
just insanely jealous and possessive.

She winced a bit as the hairbrush bristles caught a tangle,
and looked over at the chair where Chu-Chu still slept. "Hey,
Chu-Chu, are you ever going to wake up?" Snores were her only
answer. "I guess maybe being away from your mistress like this
makes you sleepy, huh?" She'd long ago realized that Chu-Chu
wasn't a normal animal; too intelligent, too ageless, and just
too strange, to be one. Anthy had never told her anything of
significance about him, though, and she'd never had the courage
to ask. Some connection undoubtedly existed between them beyond
a mere pet-owner relationship, but Utena wasn't sure what.

Another tangle; she winced again. Wasn't Anthy supposed to
be some sort of witch? Or she had been. But witches were
supposed to have cats or frogs or ravens or something similiar
for pets; not strange little monkey-things.

You were supposed to know these kinds of things about
someone you lived with for seven years. Hey Anthy, just what
exactly _is_ Chu-Chu, anyway? How hard would that have been,
really?

Then again... how much had she ever talked to Anthy about
her past? Did they ever talk about her parents, the life she led
before Ohtori? Not really. Some sort of unspoken agreement not
to dwell upon the past, to live in the present and for the
future?

Except sometimes, the past came back, and threatened to eat
the future alive.

"Nothing buries itself," she murmured. Her hair was shining
and smooth now; she gathered it in one hand and flipped it so
that it hung straight down her back, then put her hairbrush away
in her bag. "Hey, Chu-Chu, think your mistress is home yet?" No
answer. She leaned over him and poked him lightly. "Chu-Chu?"
Without opening his eyes or making a sound, the animal rolled
over onto his side to face away from her. "Geez. Are you sick,
or something?"

Maybe being away from Anthy was somehow bad for Chu-Chu...
She should have sent or even taken him straight back to Anthy,
whatever his wishes were. At the very least, she should have
called Anthy and told her that Chu-Chu had stowed along in her
bag; Anthy would probably be worried sick by now, especially if
Chu-Chu's well-being was somehow dependent on his being in close
proximity to her.

Now with doubly the reason to talk to Anthy, she walked
rapidly into the kitchen to use the phone. Once again, there was
no answer at the apartment. Frowning, Utena glanced at her
watch; half past five. Anthy could be out shopping, or any
number of things. Or she just might not be answering the phone;
no, that wasn't likely. She'd try again after dinner, if there
was time.

She let the phone ring a half-dozen more times, just in
case. Her hanging up coincided almost exactly with the sound of
the front door opening. She poked her head out of the kitchen to
see who it was. "...Shiori-san."

Shiori couldn't even look at her. She dropped her foil and
mask on the floor, and was taking off her boots as Juri entered
behind her. Utena caught her eye questioningly; Juri looked
pained, and almost imperceptibly shook her head, silently
mouthing "not now". Repressing a sigh, Utena withdrew into the
kitchen again. Light footsteps, the sound of the bedroom door
opening, then quiet again.

"Utena-san?" Juri stood just outside the kitchen.

"Is Shiori-san..."

Juri stepped fully into the kitchen, head half-bowed. "I
hope so. Then again, I thought that we'd already worked things
out before... Utena, she remembers everything. Even about when
she fought you as part of the Black Roses. She..." Juri
trailed off, and stared intently at the floor in silence for a
few long seconds. "Utena, she hates herself for what she did
then... and she can't seem to understand that I don't hate her
for what she did."

"Err... Juri-san, what did she do to you..."

Juri blanched, as though she'd given away more than she
wanted to. "That doesn't really matter," she said hastily. "I
just can't seem to convince her that things are still the same,
that I still love her... maybe because they aren't. Because they
won't ever be again."

"Do you regret that you met me again, Juri?"

Utena crumpled a little inside as Juri visibly hesitated.
Finally, though, the other woman shook her head. "It's not a
matter of regret, Utena. Was I happier yesterday, when I didn't
know what had really happened to me at Ohtori? Yes, I was; I had
Shiori, I loved my classes, I was making a lot of money
modelling... But... happiness built on a lie is a false
happiness."

"Only in hindsight," Utena murmured softly.

Juri leaned over and gently touched Utena's cheek. "I'm not
sorry I met you again, Utena."

Utena uncomfortably stepped to the side, away from Juri's
touch. "The Black Roses brought out the worst in people," she
said quickly. "In the arena, they all said 'This is my true
self!', but that wasn't true. Everybody's got dark places in
them; Mikage just exploited that."

"Whatever happened to him, anyway?"

Utena paused, then shook her head. "You know, that's one of
the things I don't know."

"Did you try calling Himemiya again?"

"Yeah. She still isn't home. Just one more thing to ask
her about."

"'Just one more'?"

"I think Chu-Chu might be sick or something. He doesn't
usually sleep this much."

"Oh."

Utena leaned back, bracing her palms against the sink
counter, and looked Juri in the eye. "Anyway," she said, "you
should tell Shiori-san what I said about Mikage. The Black Roses
brought forth the dark heart--not the true heart."

Juri sighed. "I already figured that out," she explained
quietly. "I already told her basically the same thing. You
believe it, and I believe it... but I don't know if she does."

"So... why is she fixated on... me. You didn't tell her
about... umm..." Utena trailed off, blushing hotly.

"That I kissed you after I got my memories back?" Juri said
ruefully. "No; she just remembers watching me ask you for a
photo for a new locket. That's all. I didn't tell her about...
that. It would only make things worse."

"Hey, listen..." Utena turned away from Juri and opened the
cupboard over the sink. "Geez, are these the only spices you
guys have?"

"Why are you going through our cupboards?"

"Nanami should be back pretty soon; I'll cook dinner for
everyone. At least, I thought I would... geez, do you two eat
instant ramen _every_ night?"

"We're students, Utena. Of course we do."

Utena chuckled. "That's a joke, right?"

"Only half of one. Shiori cooks some nights; as for me,
believe it or not, cooking is one of the few things that I'm only
adequate at."

"I'm disappointed," Utena said lightly, looking through more
cupboards and making a mental list of what she'd need. "You've
destroyed my perfect image of the incomparable Juri-sempai."

"Good. The truth is, I'm only almost perfect."

"Hey... Shiori-san... she won't mind if I cook, will she? I
mean, she might..."

"If she does, she shouldn't."

"Okay. Hey, where do you guys usually buy your groceries
around here, anyway?"

* * *

"Has it been an hour already?" Anthy croaked as the door opened.
"I really don't think it has." She laughed, woozy and unsure if
she was awake or still dreaming. But the shadows and their
spritely laughter were gone now...

"No. Agua."

"What?"

"Agua, bruja. Si? No?"

It took a moment to remember her Spanish, enough time to
realize how parched her throat was. "Si. Por favor." She
blinked her eyes a few times to clear them of the darkness and
shadows that still seemed to cling to her vision. The man
stepped fully into the little room, closing the door behind him.
Not Leo, then; not even really old enough to be called a man. He
couldn't be older than eighteen; a small, dark, big-eyed boy with
glossy black hair curling well past his shoulders, who looked
terrified to even be in her presence. The glass of water in his
hand trembled, and there were spots of moisture on his fingers
from where it had already slopped over.

Spanish--just one language of many to her--came back easily
enough, like donning an old costume. "What's your name?"

He looked at her like a mouse at a cat, and then mumbled,
"Mathias." He slowly moved closer to her, and lifted the glass
to her lips to let her drink. She gulped water eagerly; it was
flat and metallic, but tasted sweet as though from a mountain
spring to her dry throat. He lowered the glass to let her
swallow, and backed away.

"More," she gasped, then added, "Please?"

He let her drink again. This time, she drained the glass.
Mathias walked to the door with the empty glass and prepared to
leave.

"Please, wait."

She half expected him to leave without acknowledging her,
but he turned his head back, eyes wide and frightened. "Did Leo
tell you to bring that to me?"

The boy shook his head. "Grandfather would not want me to
be here."

Anthy's eyes widened. "Grandfather?"

"I must go." Mathias opened the door and hurried out; a
moment later, he stumbled back into the room; the empty water
glass dropped from his fingers and smashed into glistening shards
upon the concrete floor.

Leo stepped in, looking from Mathias to Anthy, and shaking
his head with seeming sadness. "Mathias, I did not say you could
come here," he said in Spanish. Mathias was on his knees,
murmuring apologies and gathered up glass shards into his cupped
palm. "We'll talk about this later. Go now."

Anthy watched as the boy got hurriedly to his feet; suddenly
he cried out. A bright drop of blood blossomed upon his finger,
and a single blade of glass fell redly to the floor.

Leo reached out and gently passed his fingers over the boy's
head, almost brushing his hair. He smiled affectionately. "It
is only a little cut. Go and get Salvadore to give you a
bandage."

"I only thought she might be thirsty," Mathias mumbled, not
looking at Leo.

"She undoubtedly was," Leo said gently. "Go now."

Mathias left, still cradling the glass he'd picked up. Leo
closed the door behind him and turned his eyes to Anthy without
saying anything.

"Your grandson?" Anthy asked softly.

"No," Leo said. "I have neither sons nor daughters to give
true grandchildren to me."

"Then why--"

"Mathias's mother was a witch like yourself," Leo explained
softly. "She and her consort--his father, perhaps, although I do
not assume--lived in the Carpathians. They would move from small
village to small village, draining the life from everything--
men, women, children, animals, plants, the soil itself, the very
bedrock--to fuel their rituals. Her consort gave me this before
I killed them both." He untucked his shirt and raised it to show
her a thick white scar almost bisecting his wiry stomach. "I
found Mathias still in swaddling clothes, in the back of the cave
in which they laired."

"A witch like myself," Anthy murmured. "There are many
different kinds of witches, you know."

"There are many different ways to murder, as well, but each
one is no less a crime," Leo said softly.

"Unless the murder is done in the name of your Holy Church,
of course."

"God's work, although it may require killing, is not
murder."

"And the boy has no idea?"

"He knows. I have not hidden his past from him. Knowing
the sin of his birth and his parents have, indeed, made him a
better servant of God than he might have been otherwise." Leo
turned away from her, and knelt down to pick up a long sliver of
glass. "But he is not suited for my task. His nature is too
gentle, his heart too soft."

"Blessed are the meek," Anthy said softly.

"God needs his lions as much as he needs his lambs," Leo
replied quietly. "It has been an hour, Anthy. Will you tell me
where El Diablo is?"

"Looking over your shoulder, I believe."

He stepped forward and placed the glass sliver against her
left cheek, right below the lower ridge of her eye. She saw the
ring--the cross within the so-familiar stylized rose--upon his
finger, and suddenly, terribly, realized how true her answer had
been. The sharp glass point dimpled her flesh. "Will you tell
me where your familiar is?"

"With my apprentice." She almost smiled; now, there was no
room left for fear. Only regret, which she would never let him
see in her.

He looked pleased; the pressure of the glass spike against
her skin lessened minutely. "And where is your apprentice?"

"With my familiar."

Slowly, viciously, he drew the point down. She never made
a sound. Sticky warmth began to trickle across her cheek. Leo
turned away and hurled the bloody sliver of glass against the
wall, shattering it.

"Look at your ring, Leo," she said to his back, very
quietly. "Don't you recognize it? Don't you understand? I
don't serve my brother any longer. Don't you see whose will you
are truly serving--?"

He whirled suddenly, slapping her hard enough to rattle her
teeth and tear the wound upon her cheek open again just as it had
begun to clot. "Lies! Lying _bruja_! Silence your false
tongue! Do you think you will deceive me again? All the words
you have ever spoken to me have been lies! I am no longer a
young fool to be led aside by your perfumed body and your fine
jewels."

She looked at him sadly. "I grieve for what you have
become, Leo," she said gently. "And for what role I played in
it."

"Lying witch." He leaned against the door, breathing
heavily, one hand clutching his shirt over his heart. A bead of
sweat ran quickly down his face and fell to the floor; his Adam's
apple bulged prominently against the papery, wrinkled flesh of
his throat. "God curse your lying tongue. You grieve for
nothing; it is not in you." His free hand scrabbled for the
knob, found it, twisted it so that the door opened. Still
breathing hard, he staggered out into the hallway, half-closed
the door, then looked back at her.

"You have another hour," he gasped. "If you would save your
soul from the eternal fire, repent of your sins; if you would
save your body from the ordeals that I will inflict upon you if I
must, then answer my questions." He closed the door, cutting off
the sight of his strained, pale old face.

Slowly, Anthy began to laugh, bitterly and without hope or
joy. "Ahh, my dear brother," she whispered. "My brother, my
killer. Is this how it will really end? Perhaps you've finally
ceased to live in your fairy-tale coffin... this tale you're
weaving now seems too dark by far to be a fairy-tale."

* * *

Utena raised the wooden spoon to her mouth, inhaled the scent of
the fragrant broth, then tasted a little of it. She smacked her
lips, gauging the flavour. "Hmm. A little more salt..."

It felt good to be doing something domestic, even in
someone else's kitchen. At times, she almost managed to forget
everything else, and felt almost normal.

She could hear Juri and Nanami talking in the living room,
not loud enough for her to make out anything more than scattered
words. When she'd got back from shopping with two paper bags
full of groceries, Nanami had arrived, Chu-Chu was still asleep,
and Shiori was still in the bedroom with the door closed.

The travel agent had called back while she was out as well.
They'd managed to get seats on the last evening flight to Houou.
Hotel reservations, as well. Other than the friction between the
four of them threatening their alliance, things were going very
smoothly. All that would undoubtedly change once they returned
to Akio's domain, but, for now, she could let herself relax a
little.

After adding a little salt and deciding she was satisfied
with the taste, she turned away from the simmering noodle pot and
went to chop some more vegetables. She entered the relaxing
rhythm of the knife easily enough, only to have it interrupted a
minute later by footsteps.

"Utena-san?"

She looked back. "Oh; Shiori-san."

Shiori walked slowly into the kitchen, hands clasped before
her. "Juri told me you were cooking dinner. May I help?"
"Sure."

Shiori went and took the apron with her name on it--Utena
had decided to cook without one, as Shiori's had been the only
one available--off the rack by the sink. "Thank you, Utena-san."

They exchanged no words more significant than those during
the time they cooked. Utena didn't think they really needed to.
Peace offerings often came in strange guises.

* * *

extra! extra!

do you wonder, do you know,

extra!

do you wonder what I know?

when i was a little girl, my favourite television show was
"robot battler akira".

"i swear by akira, the galaxy's mightiest robot, that
i shall utterly destroy mechanical emperor zackfeild and his
armies, and thereby make the galaxy safe for peace!"

i had all the official "robot battler akira"
merchandise!

--"robot battler akira" action figures!

--"robot battler akira" lunchboxes!

--"robot battler akira" pencil boards!

--"robot battler akira" sticker albums!

--"robot battler akira" underpants!

but, alas! on the day that handsome pilot lance
"bravo" guy sacrificed his life to destroy mechanical
emperor zackfeild's "sun smasher" battleship, my childhood
ended!

i swore that i would never watch "robot battler
akira" again. i threw out all my official "robot
battler akira" merchandise.

but then, one day, my friends told me of a new
television show: "robot battler akira ne" (the ne stood for
"new era").

they said it was a daring reinterpretation of the
beloved classic series of my youth!

so i broke my vow. the new character designs
were gorgeous. the villains were three-
dimensional, and even sympathetic now. lance and
his friends were less idealistic. more human.

but in the end, lance still died.

so what was it all for, then?

thank goodness that "robot battler akira hyper-x" is
beginning next week! i'm sure things will turn out
differently this time!

action!

drama!

romance!

all on the premiere episode of "robot battler akira
hyper-x"!

don't miss it!

"What childish things you are," the prince murmured. He
examined the solitaire spread before him, turned a card, frowned.
"Knowing everything, telling nothing. Even power is meaningless
without will to back it... without the desire and knowledge to
use power for the proper ends, even power is useless."

He perused the cards again, then shrugged and swept them
all from the desktop into his hands. He leaned back in his chair
and began to shuffle the deck distractedly, watching the shadows
move as he did.

"The hands are dealt," he said softly, eyes glittering.
"The time has come, I think, to play more aggressively."

The cards blurred in his hands, buzzing like a swarm of bees
as their laminated surfaces slid over one another. Suddenly, he
slapped one down before him, covering its face with his hand.

Slowly, he drew his fingers away to reveal the card.

"So be it."

He smiled and reached for the phone.

End of Jaquemart - Part III