Actions

Work Header

Jaquemart V - The Same River (ii. le midi)

Work Text:

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.

 

V. The Same River

ii. le midi

* * *

Noon--half past it. The wall-clock ticked precisely. In one
desk drawer (left-hand, second from the bottom), his stopwatch
lay with dust upon the face.

The faint echo of the closing door faded, disappeared
entirely, and Miki sat alone in his office. He and Shiori had
had nothing to say to each other while Juri was gone. The casual
conversation had wavered upon the cusp of awkward quite a few
times, stared down into the gulfs below, then pulled back at the
last moment.

When Juri had returned ("Got lost trying to find the
washroom; it's like a maze in here."), her agitation had been
almost palpable. She'd sat and made conversation for about
another five minutes, until he graciously allowed her and Shiori
an opening to leave by mentioning that he still had some
preparations to do before his next class. Oh, no, it wouldn't
take him long... well, if they insisted... but they'd have to
meet up again soon. Dinner. Lunch. Anything. He wanted to see
them again at least once more before they went back to Tokyo, and
the more the better. An earnest (almost lonely) little smile to
Juri that she shakily returned in kind.

She gave him the hotel and room number, and he noted it on
his electronic datebook. Then they were gone.

Nice to see the two of them together like that. He wondered
how much of a part his actions had played, and if Juri knew about
them. Had Shiori told her? Probably not, if he'd judged
Shiori's character correctly.

It had rained when Kozue went away. Indelible impressions
remained: watching the water sheet down the window of their
bedroom (he hadn't been asleep; back then, he never went to sleep
until she came home, on the nights she stayed out late), the
wall-clock ticking, tangled equations and geometric figures spread
before him on the desk as he distractedly attempted to do some
work to keep his mind off her absence. Ninth grade. A hot
night, his uniform jacket (a regular school jacket--he wasn't on
the Council any more) draped over the back of his chair.

A phone call intruding, long past midnight, nearing the
dawn. She'd never been out this late before, so he probably knew
even before he answered. Car accident. Went into the sea. No
body found yet; don't give up hope. We'll send a car to collect
you. Please wait outside for it.

He went outside, with a tattered blue raincoat and faded
blue umbrella, and turned his head to see the lights of Ohtori
burning even in the dead darkness before the dawn. Not knowing
why, he walked the short distance up the hillside, passed through
the gates, and used his keys (he was trusted with them, as the
head of the music society, and this was an abuse of that trust)
to let himself into the music room.

Inside, he sat at the piano bench, raincoat dripping water
on the floor in the corner with the umbrella resting point-down
atop it. He couldn't say why he was here.

Then he began to play, and it stopped mattering. He played
Bach and Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms,
Debussy and Scriabin and Bartok. The music buoyed him, as it
always did, and he thought of a stanza from a Browning poem:

What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths
diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those
solutions--"Must we die?"
Those commiserating sevenths--"Life might last! we can
but try!"

After nearly three hours of playing the masters, he played
their own composition, the one they had written together in their
childhood, and had thought of a later stanza in the same poem:

Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due
time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds
as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never
see the sun.

And he began to cry then, the first time he'd cried since
getting the phone call. The newly-risen sun was flirting with
the floor below the broad, rain-streaked windows, merry as though
it had never rained at all.

Through his tears, he kept on playing, and then he heard
small rattling impacts against the window. Pebbles. He went
and opened it up to look down.

"I thought it might be you. You're Juri's friend. Kaoru
Miki, right?"

"And you're Juri's roommate, Takatsuki Shiori."

"I heard you playing. What are you doing here so early?"

"The same could be asked of you."

"You firs--are you crying? What's wrong?"

"Hold on. I'll lock up and come down."

Back then, he'd known Shiori as Juri's roommate, an old
friend, and that was all. They walked together along one of
Ohtori's winding paths, with the rising sun scattering its
colours below their feet and above their heads into the raindrops
beading the leaves of trees and the blades of grass.

"So why are you here so early, Miki?"

He told her. Looking back, he was fairly sure he was in
some state akin to shock. He waited for her perfunctory
commiserations of sympathy (he got a lot of those in the days to
come, from a lot of people who hadn't known him or Kozue at all),
thanked her perfunctorily, and asked her why she was on the
campus so early. In answer, she took out a golden locket with
the pattern of a rose upon it and dangled it upon its chain
before him.

"That's Juri-sempai's locket, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"So why do you have it?"

"I took it, obviously."

And then--

The sound of whispering, as of the stirring of many
butterfly-wings, broke him from his reverie. His office had been
plunged into near-darkness without his even realizing it, as
though someone had drawn thick curtains over the window and
turned off the lights. There were shadows, moving amorphously on
the walls, stirring like a dark ship's dark sails--

"So," he said softly. "It's you. I've been told of you."

extra! extra!

do you wonder, do you know,

extra!

do you wonder what I know?

"Not especially," he murmured, as they swayed about the
flat surfaces of the room, doffed excess shadows like seven
diaphanous veils and stood revealed as vaguely female shapes,
"but I imagine you're going to tell me all the same."

big sister!

a little girl in pigtails and a little girl with a ribbon
sitting at a tabl
e. Kni ves and f
orks i n hand.

yes, yes... one egg
whiskwhiskwhisk

harried their big sister with a ponytail, with whisk
and bowl in hand.

we're hungry, big sister! POUNDING their knives and forks
on the table.

yes, yes... two eggs
whiskwhiskwhisk

we're hungry! POUNDING

yes, yes... three eggs
whiskwhiskwhisk

we're hungry! POUNDING

yes, yes... four eggs
whiskwhiskwhisk

...big sister, just how many eggs do you need to make
an omelette, anyway?

it's o
bvious,
little si
sters! as
many eggs as
are needed to
make my Ultra-
Super-Deluxe E
xtra-Delicio
us Omelet!

...big sister, i think your egg is lopsided.

Miki laughed softly. "I can see why he lets you stay around
here," he said, with the tiniest of smiles. "You're rather
amusing."

extra! extra!

do you wonder, do you know,

extra!

do you wonder what I know?

Then they were gone, and he was alone again.

* * *

Miki walked out the front doors whistling a soft Schubert melody
under his breath, satchel swinging in one hand, papers under the
other arm. He was almost immediately met by a crowd of high-
school girls and left, talking to them with a smile on his face,
down the path towards the south-eastern hall. The glasses, she
decided, looked cute on him.

Nanami ducked her head back behind her hiding place, one of
the more distantly-placed pillars at the front facade of Kanae
Memorial Hall, and sighed gently. "They must have his schedule
memorized," she murmured. Not that this surprised her; she'd
done the exact same thing for her brother for years. She leaned
back against the cool marble, sighed again, and folded her arms.
You'll have to talk to him again at some point, she told herself.
Get it over with now. Catch up to him. Hello, Miki-kun... what
are you doing here? A teacher--my, how impressive. I'm back to
visit my big brother, of course.

"Yes," she murmured, "that wouldn't be suspicious at all."

She slipped inside Kanae Memorial Hall, paused for a moment
to glance a little sadly at the display case remembering Ohtori
Kanae, and passed it by. No destination in mind, either within
or without, she wandered the brightly-lit passages of Kanae
Memorial Hall. There were a few scattered students hurrying to
to get to classes within it, others waiting on padded benches
outside closed office doors for meetings with teachers. Like the
rest of Ohtori, the architecture was dominated by fine woods and
marble pillars and stained-glass windows, all with the ubiquitous
rose crest worked somehow into their design. There were
paintings and sculptures at the intersection of passages, potted
plants, vases of flowers in niches, thin golden chandeliers...

She thought she was going to be ill. Poor Miki, trapped in
this again, without the knowledge she had. Ohtori--a gold mask
covering the face of a skull.

Around the next corner was the women's washroom, and she
walked inside to the marble sinks and marble stalls. The place
really was excessively opulent, even for a private school. God
only knows how much it had cost for her and Touga to go here--it
wasn't as though she'd ever asked, or cared.

A small blemish seemed to be threatening to develop on her
left cheek. She frowned, and took out her makeup kit from her
purse to cover it up. Placing her purse on the sink's edge, she
leaned forward and studied her face in the long bank of mirrors
whose frames were surmounted at each corner by stylized roses.
She didn't look any older than she had a few days ago, of course,
but she certainly felt it.

As she finished the touch-up, her purse fell off the sink,
hit the floor, and turned over on its side. Since she'd left it
open, the result was a scattering of her cosmetics, pens,
notepad, chequebook, wallet and car keys (both for her own car
and the rental) across the bathroom tiles.

"Damn it," she muttered, kneeling down to pick it all up.
Had she inadvertently nudged it with her elbow? It had been
quite squarely placed, not precarious at all.

Low to the floor like this seemed somehow colder than when
she was standing, and she shivered as though within a draft.
Out of sight, one of the open stall doors creaked softly.

She stood up again, reordering the contents of her purse and
frowning. Little accidents like this always bothered her more
than they should have. The stall door creaked again, and she
looked quickly back. Nothing.

Beneath her yellow skirt and white stockings, the flesh of
her calves and thighs prickled uncomfortably. Now it really was
too cold in here; some problems with the building's heating
system, perhaps?

She washed her hands at the sink and quickly left. Out in
the hallway, it was noticeably warmer. She frowned. Odder
things happened at Ohtori than disparities of temperature, she
told herself.

Suddenly, she spun on her heel and hurried back into the
bathroom. "Hah! Thought you could fool me!" she cried, looking
back and forth with her hands on her hips. "Who's there? What
is this, some sort of prank? I'll have you know I'm a _very_
prestigious graduate of this school, and..."

Nothing.

The stall door creaked again, and she jumped. It must have
a loose bolt or something. She looked at herself in the mirror
again, and shook a chiding finger at her reflection, which,
needless to say, returned it. "Nanami-chan, don't be so
paranoid."

The skin of one shoulder suddenly prickled as though a cold
hand had been laid upon it, and she saw the surface of the
mirror... shimmer, as though with the reflection of some nearly
translucent figure _right behind her_. She suddenly remembered
all the stories about a hundred boys being buried alive beneath
Nemuro Hall, which was now the site of Kanae Memorial Hall, and
they must have died _really_ angry, and people who died angry
always came back as ghosts in the movies...

She shrieked and ran. Behind her, she thought she might
possibly have heard something titter faintly.

* * *

Outside and some distance from Kanae Memorial Hall, Nanami gulped
deep breaths of cold winter air, and waited for her heart to stop
pounding.

What the hell had that been?

"Well," she told herself, walking a slow circle around one
of the bare trees with her hands clasped behind her back, "it
isn't any weirder than some of the things that you've gone
through." She _still_ wasn't sure whether or not a lot of it had
actually happened... the cowbell, the egg... the surfing
elephants... maybe they were just dreams (nightmares) that she'd
had that somehow got mixed in as real memories because of
whatever had been done to her after Utena's final duel. They
seemed just too damn weird to be anything else, even for Ohtori.

"Maybe this is all a dream," she murmured. "Maybe I'm going
to wake up soon, and I won't remember Tenjou Utena again, and
I'll be able to think that Touga's my real brother again, and I
won't remember riding to the ends of the world and..." She
covered her hand with her mouth as though to stifle whatever more
might escape, and shuddered at how pleasant a little part of her
found the thought of forgetting all over again.

Where to now? It wasn't as though she really had any old
haunts on campus she could go back and visit fondly, and the only
person she really knew who'd still be a student was currently in
jail. Tsuwabuki... she'd tried to avoid thinking about him ever
since Touga had told her on the phone, but she had to visit him,
somehow. Maybe Touga could arrange it, if she could manage to
talk to him again without giving away that things between them
had changed so much...

She walked off in a random direction, lost in thought.
Everyone else was suspicious of her brother, unfairly so; Shiori
hated him because he'd dumped her so publicly, which had been
_her_ fault anyway, clinging to his arm and turning it into a
scene instead of just taking it with grace, and Juri hated him
because of that too... so of course they wanted to believe that
he was still working with Akio, but...

Didn't they have good enough reason?

But... he was...

Her brother.

"Sick," she murmured, legs scissoring as she picked up the
pace, "sick, sick, sick. You're still just a little girl who
wants big brother to give you a goodnight kiss and tuck you into
bed. Remember what he did. He isn't even really your brother.
He was only ever kind to you because Mother and Father told him
to be."

Did she really believe that?

Oh, she didn't know what she believed.

She stopped walking. She was just beneath one of the big
windows of the south-western hall; its shadow lay upon her,
blocking the warmth of the sun. She shivered. Faintly, from
inside, even through the glass, she heard the now-familiar sound
of foils slapping together, the sharp cries of fencing practice.

It wasn't as though she had anything better to do, and it
might take her mind off things she'd rather not think about.
She went in through a side door, ascended a stairway, and walked
out onto one of the long, brightly-lit galleries that overlooked
the main practice area. Below her, a half-dozen white-clad
fencers sparred with foils, while others waited their turn in the
wings. The galleries had quite a few spectators arrayed at their
railings--predominantly male ones, Nanami noted.

She found an uncrowded spot near the side she'd entered
from, and leaned her arms on the railing to watch the practice.
It was fairly easy to pick out the captain of the team: a tall
girl, face hidden by a mesh mask, with a long glossy black
braid. She moved from one pair of combatants to the next,
making adjustments to their posture with firm touches of her
hands on their arms, or her feet against theirs. If she spoke,
it was too quiet for Nanami to hear it up in the gallery.

Long skirts rustled. Someone had come to stand beside her,
slightly too close for comfort--a tiny intrusion into her
personal space. Nanami looked up slowly.

"You're Kiryuu Nanami, aren't you?"

"Who's asking?" she replied coolly, studying the speaker.
Shoulder-length brown hair with faintly purple highlights,
average height, average build. Somewhat pretty, in a rather
conventional way. The uniform was far more interesting, and
marked the girl (whomever she was--Nanami couldn't place her or
remember her name, but she was vaguely familiar) as a member of
the Council: a high-necked white jacket with the red piping that
had been common to all the other Council members in Nanami's day
other than herself, flat golden epaulettes with a scalloped
pattern etched in dark purple, and a flowing, ankle-length skirt
of the same dark purple, slashed diagonally from top left to
bottom right with a jagged white pattern halfway between a
lightning bolt and a sword. Each Council uniform, as Nanami
recalled, was tailored specifically for its owner.

"Hozumi Mari," was the answer.

The name stirred a vague seed of memory, which bloomed
quickly to full flower. "Tsuwabuki's friend," Nanami murmured
softly. "I remember seeing you with him a few times, when he
used to hang around me."

"I remember it a little differently," Mari said coolly.

"Oh?"

"Yeah, just a little." She tapped her long, purple-painted
nails against the railing of the gallery, causing a ringing sound
Nanami found slightly annoying. "You know, he had a little
grade-school crush on you, and you exploited it to the hilt.
Had yourself a nice little servant for a few months, if I
recall correctly."

"Tsuwabuki-kun wasn't too unhappy then." Despite the
current state of things, Nanami was unable to stop herself
smiling at the memories the conversation brought back. Earnest
young Tsuwabuki, who wanted to grow up before his time--

And now he had, and he was in jail and charged with
murdering another student in a duel. The smile vanished as
quickly as it came.

"Wasn't too unhappy?" Mari looked up at the vaulted ceiling
and arched her eyebrows a little. "Slaves have been known to
sing in their chains before, I suppose."

Nanami winced. "It was a long time ago, wasn't it? Then
Kaoru Miki-kun took Tsuwabuki under his wing, and--"

"It might have been better if he hadn't," Mari said softly,
almost a snarl.

"What?"

"I've really got to go now," Mari said quickly. She turned
and began to walk towards the closer exit from the gallery.

Nanami reached out and caught her by the arm. "Wait," she
said softly, almost pleadingly. "How... how is Tsuwabuki? Do
you still see him?" Just a little probe, find out what she
knows, she's on the Council...

"Tsuwabuki's taking some time off school," Mari replied.
She pulled her arm free. "I've got to go."

"I know why he's gone from the school," Nanami hurriedly
said. "I assume you do, too--you're on the Council, after all.
The Council knows everything that goes on at Ohtori."

A touch of fear came into Mari's eyes, then hid quickly.
"Perhaps we should talk a little, then," she said softly. "Not
here, though. Not now. Can you meet me in the cafeteria just
off the high school building's quad in an hour?"

Nanami nodded.

"I'll see you there." Mari left quickly, glancing down once
at the main floor of the fencing hall before she did with a
nervous expression on her face.

Nanami turned slowly back and looked over the railing, upon
the wooden floor where the shoes of the fencers squeaked as they
lunged, parried and riposted. The one she'd guessed was the
captain appeared to be looking up at her, although the fencing
mask made it hard to tell. She stared back with narrowed eyes.

The captain saluted with her foil and turned away. Nanami
somehow got the distinct impression that, behind the mask, she
wore a smirk.

As she left the fencing hall by the same route she'd come
in, Nanami couldn't help but feel a little pleased with herself.
She didn't know how Juri and Shiori were doing in the
information-gathering area, but she'd already discovered that
there were angry ghosts in Kanae Memorial Hall, and she'd
probably know very soon just what had happened with Tsuwabuki,
and it was only a little past lunchtime.

Which reminded her that she'd skipped eating lunch while
hanging around outside Kanae Memorial Hall to see if she could
spot Miki. She had an hour, and there was a nice sushi place a
little east of campus... or there had been two years ago, the
last time she'd visited it...

She knew a shortcut, of course--no need to take the long
way. She'd known all the shortcuts in and out of the school in
her day; that sort of knowledge had been essential to running her
operations. Outside, she paused in thought and began to button
up her jacket against the cold. The quickest way would be...
down the steps to the eastern parking lot, then follow one of the
side paths leading down the eastern hillside... she seemed to
remember they kept those clear of snow in the winter.

Breath whitening the air before her with puffs of fog, she
strode briskly across to the eastern edge of the campus, walked
out the small gate, and started down the tall, wide, slightly
curving stairs, which had been completely cleared of snow. As
she descended, she felt an abrupt temperature drop similar to
the one she'd experienced in Kanae Memorial Hall's bathroom, and
she noted now that there was no one else in sight, just like in
the bathroom...

She began to run down the stairs, which was her mistake.
She felt something... _gather_ itself, as though all around her a
deep intake of breath was being drawn. She panicked and ran
faster. Almost at the bottom of the steps now, but it was right
behind her, whatever it was, probably some sort of invisible wild
animal bent upon her demise--

Something shoved her from behind, her left foot hooked
behind her right ankle, and she fell with a scream. The hard
stone edges of the steps leapt viciously up towards her--

Running feet, a flurry of black coat-tails...

Someone caught her beneath her flailing arms, so that her
head came to rest against a soft, wool-clad shoulder rather than
against the far less comfortable steps.

For mere moments, she lay in the awkward embrace, tired and
frightened, glad to be safe, glad to be held. Then she moved her
eyes a fractional distance sideways, and saw the face of her
saviour.

"Kiryuu Nanami-kun. You are not hurt, are you? I saw you
falling--thank goodness I managed to get here in time."

"I'm unhurt, Chairman Ohtori," she said, detaching herself
as tactfully and unsuspiciously and quickly as possible from his
arms. "Thanks to you." She fluttered her eyelashes at him,
stared at his perfect, smiling face, and wondered whether or not
he'd die if she quickly drew the sheathed tanto (when she moved
out, Touga got the family sword, and she got the family knife)
from the long pocket of her skirt and put it through his eye.
She wondered if she'd have the time.

Probably. A good chance. He was still kneeling from
catching her, kneeling at her feet like a man about to be
knighted by his queen... if he didn't suspect... she probably
could do it. She was fast. Her strong point. And no one else
was in sight.

*"When we make a plan, we _stick_ to it."*

And this was just a scouting mission.

Too late now anyway. He had straightened up. She couldn't
risk it.

"It's been almost a year, hasn't it, Nanami-kun?"

"Just about, Chairm--"

"Please. Akio. Your brother is a good friend of mine, and
you're not a student here any more."

"Akio-san," she corrected, hoping her smile didn't come out
as a grimace. "Yes, it's been just about a year."

"Yes, it would have been the reception for the director of
our sister school in Amsterdam..." He pursed his lips and
touched them with a long finger. "You wore a sleeveless black
dress with a lemon bow in the back and yellow gloves. You
looked very beautiful, as I recall."

She blushed, and felt sickened for doing so. He was so
handsome... the only man she'd ever thought was equal to her
brother in terms of sheer beauty...

And he was a monster and a murderer, and she hated him.

"Flattery will get you nowhere," she murmured.

"Flattery is excessive praise." One of Akio's lip curled,
giving his smile a sardonic edge and somehow making him even more
gorgeous. "Praising you for your beauty is hardly excessive,
Nanami-kun."

Try and kill him, something whispered from a dark place in
her. Try, and if you can, this will all be over, and, if you
can't, it will at least be over for you. Wouldn't it? If he
could make her forget, couldn't he do... other things, if she
gave him reason? Worse things than just destroying her outright?

"Nanami-kun, are you cold? You're shivering." His hand
touched her shoulder, and she shied back from him as though his
fingers burned. "Do you feel unwell? I could call your brother
on my cell phone--"

"No!" she said quickly, too quickly, so she tried to laugh
it off. "I mean, I'm a little chilled, yes, but no reason to
bother big brother about that. I'll just get inside and warm up.
Thanks again for the rescue, Akio-san. I'm sure I'll see you
around again. Goodbye." She bowed and turned away to hurry back
up the stairs.

"Wait."

She looked back, trying to keep her fear from her face.
"Yes?"

"I was about to go for lunch," he said casually. "Care to
join me?"

"Oh, I'd love to," she began. His face brightened a little;
what an actor he was. "But, you see," she continued, "I already
had lunch, and you know how it is for a girl like me, I've got to
watch my weight. Goodbye, Akio-san." She bowed again, and ran
away before he could say anything else.

Back on the campus, she leaned against the wall near the
gates, panting as though she'd just run a marathon. Had she come
across as... not herself? Juri had said they had to behave as
though they didn't know what he was--wouldn't the old Nanami, who
hadn't known, have accepted the invitation even if she had
already eaten? She'd flirted with him at the reception for the
director of the Amsterdam school, and not only in an attempt to
make her brother jealous...

She should have tried to kill him, whatever Juri had said
about sticking to the plan. He'd hurt so many people, and she
hated him so much... it might have worked.

Oh, God, she was so scared.

* * *

By the time her meeting with Mari came round, Nanami almost felt
back to normal. She'd walked all over the campus for almost the
full hour, brooding and no longer hungry, then hurried to the
meeting-place. Mari sat at a table in the corner, looking alone
and isolated even though a few dozen other students were grabbing
a late lunch in the cafeteria. Not surprising, given the fact
that a two-table wide circle empty of any other students
surrounded her. Nanami remembered the phenomenon well enough
herself--Ohtori students developed the ability to sense the moods
of the Council members over time, and if one wanted privacy in a
public place, they got it.

Student chatter, the sound of forks scraping plates, and
teeth masticating food swirled around Nanami as she walked towards
the corner table. Not being in uniform in this sea of uniforms
made her feel conspicuous. Maybe they'd think she was a new
teacher, like Miki-kun--no, on second thought, probably not. She
didn't look the part like he did.

The cafeteria sounds seemed to fade almost unnaturally as
she entered the empty circle of tables around Mari. As she slid
into the opposite seat at the table, Mari greeted her with a nod.
High above their heads on the curve of the ceiling, a stained-
glass window (a green-stemmed red rose against a white background)
cast tricoloured light upon the white marble top of the table
between them and painted a diffuse reflection itself there.

"I ordered tea for you," Mari said softly, and, indeed,
there was a cup on the table before Nanami. "I can't talk long."

"Who are you afraid of?" Nanami asked, leaving her tea
untouched for the moment. "The fencing-team captain? Is that
it?"

"I'm not afraid of anyone," Mari snapped in reply, then
lowered her voice when a few other students glanced in their
direction, and just as quickly glanced away when they realized
they'd been noticed. "Damn it," she murmured. "This Council
uniform is like a giant 'eavesdrop on me' sign."

"We can go somewhere else," Nanami suggested. "Take a walk
around the campus."

Mari shook her head. "Too conspicuous. This way, I can
just explain it away as tea with an old friend who came back to
visit me." She smiled thinly. "Not that you're actually my
friend, Kiryuu, but it's good cover."

"You're awfully hostile, aren't you?"

The thin smile faded, and Mari simply looked tired and a
little sad. "I don't have good memories of you," she finally
said, half-apologetically. "But, like you said, it was a long
time ago. I'll put it behind me."

"How gracious," Nanami drawled.

"It's not that I blame Mitsuru-kun for what happened."
Mari folded her hands on the table and looked up towards the
stained-glass window. "It was an accident," she said firmly,
apparently trying to convince herself. "An accident..."

"What are you talking about?" Nanami cocked her head
confusedly to one side.

Mari sighed deeply, and Nanami noticed for the first time
how dark-circled were her eyes. There was pain deep within them,
fragility--she was, Nanami realized, close to the point of
breaking down.

"Akino Hasuichi," she whispered, leaning across the table.
"The boy Mitsuru accidentally... in the duel. My boyfriend.
Hasuichi-kun. Mitsuru just didn't understand. It had to have
been an accident." She let her forehead drop against an upraised
palm. "I... don't think I can talk about this any more without
breaking down. And I can't do that. There's so many rumours
going around already..."

No real answers, and just more questions, now. But Nanami
wasn't going to press. That would just be too cruel, given
Mari's current state.

"Don't worry," she said, as kindly as she could. Empathy
wasn't always her strong point. What would she want, were the
positions reversed? Probably not to be here at all... but that
wasn't possible. She reached out and hesitantly patted Mari's
free hand where it lay upon the table. "Listen, if we could talk
again more privately..."

Mari drew her hand back and put in her lap, below the table.
"It'd be better if we don't talk again at all," she muttered.
"You were on the Council, Kiryuu. If it was in your day what it
is in mine, then you know that what's on the surface at Ohtori
doesn't give any hint of what's in the depths. The best thing
for you to do would be to get away from here right now. You're
not a student any longer, so you don't have to be involved in
this."

"Mari-san, whatever or whomever it is you're afraid of, let
me help--"

"Help?" Mari hissed. She chuckled, softly and bitterly.
"You can't help me, Kiryuu."

"How do you know that?" Nanami shot back, cool and confident
(she hoped).

"Because there's only one of you," Mari replied, raising her
head and grinning sickly, "and there's one hundred of them."
Suddenly, she jerked her head in the direction of the far
entrance to the cafeteria, eyes wide and fearful. "Don't look,"
she murmured, seeing Nanami start. "Talk about something else.
You go to university? Tell me about your classes. Like we're
old friends."

Out of the corner of her eye, Nanami saw three tall boys
advancing purposefully across the cafeteria floor. Any students
on their feet who were in their way quickly got out of it.

"So, anyway," Nanami said quickly, laughing, shoving down
her confusion and apprehension into the pit of her stomach, where
they sulked like two lumps of lead, "I put up my hand and asked
just why it was that the youngest brother was always the hero,
because it really didn't seem fair to me, you know--"

"Mari-sama."

The two of them looked up. The three boys wore the standard
male Ohtori high school uniform under unbuttoned winter jackets,
and were all vaguely handsome in an utterly unremarkable way.
Nanami couldn't even begin to guess which one had spoken.

"Shinichi, Shoichi, Shuichi," Mari greeted, looking up at
them with a vaguely bored, cynical expression on her face, one
that reminded Nanami of Juri at her most quietly abrasive.
"What do you want? I'm in the middle of something." She paused.
"Oh, this is an old friend of mine, Kiryuu Nanami-kun, an Ohtori
graduate."

"Hello," Nanami said, smiling a little too sweetly in an
attempt to disguise what she was really feeling. "It's so nice
to meet you."

"Watanabe Shinichi." Bowed; long brown hair, ponytail.

"Watanabe Shoichi." Bowed; long brown hair, loose.

"Watanabe Shuichi." Bowed; long brown hair, braid.

"Triplets?" Nanami asked, unable to stop herself.

"Distant--" Shinichi began.

"--cousins," Shoichi finished.

Shuichi smiled vaguely. He was apparently the quiet one.

"Mari-sama," Shinichi said stiffly. "Akami-sama wants to
see you--"

"--in the offices of the Council," Shoichi concluded.

"Well, you can tell her I'll be there as soon as I finish
my visit with Nanami," Mari replied--firmly, on the surface, but
Nanami could detect the fearful undercurrents beneath. Akami,
she guessed, was the fencing team captain--and a Council member
as well, so it seemed.

"Urgent," Shuichi murmured, still smiling.

Mari frowned. "Well," she said, apparently grudgingly, "if
Akami-san says it's urgent... I'm sorry to have to cut this
short, Nanami, but--"

"Oh, no." Nanami laughed with false gaiety and waved her
hand flippantly. "I remember what it was like for me on the
Council. Busy, busy, busy."

"I'll be outside in a moment. Wait for me out there," Mari
said imperiously. The three boys bowed again and left without
another word. After they were gone, Mari shoved her chair back
and stood. Nanami did the same.

"Thanks for talking to me, Mari-san," Nanami said. Even
though you didn't tell me anything particularly useful, she added
silently. Just more questions now.

Mari twisted her hands before her and avoided looking Nanami
in the eye. "I thought it might help if I talked to someone,"
she said almost despairingly. "But it didn't help at all. It
only made me feel worse."

Nanami winced. "I'm sorry." If Utena had been the one
talking to you instead, she thought, we'd probably know
everything we needed to by now. But I am not Utena, nor was
meant to be.

"It's not your fault," Mari said after a moment. "It's
mine." She looked again towards the window, at the shafts of
coloured light emanating from it as the sun passed through.
"Why are you here, Kiryuu? You graduated. You didn't have to
come back here."

"I'm here to visit my brother," Nanami lied. She paused.
"And to see Tsuwabuki-kun, if I can..."

"Listen," Mari said softly, "if you do manage to see him--I
don't know how easy it is to visit him--tell him something from
me, would you?"

"What?"

"It wasn't him."

"I don't--"

"Just tell him that from me. 'It wasn't him.' He'll
understand." She turned away. "Goodbye, Kiryuu."

"Goodbye, Mari-san." Nanami watched the younger woman walk
away, a straight-backed and confident stride that made it look as
though she had no dark burdens to bear. I'll try to help you,
she vowed, because you're Tsuwabuki's friend, and you obviously
need help. What with, I don't know, but...

The day just kept on getting more and more complicated.
Clouds, off-white and dense, had begun to besiege to the blue
purity of the winter sky.

fin du midi