“I didn’t limp for half a kilometer to be told no! I can wait here until you get with the program and actually check the back to see if you have it in stock.”
Of course they’re out of her favorite chai tea. Because breaking a heel of her Jimmy Choos isn’t enough to thoroughly ruin the day according to some malevolent stars aligning with the planets of perversity. Her Gucci umbrella turning inside out when a particularly strong gust of wind blew up? Still not enough to make the gods chuckle and be done with her for the day. Here she is positively ragged, limping, soaking wet, and madder than a bull in matador fight. And those red aprons the employees were wearing? So not helping.
“I’m quite sorry, miss, but we ran out earlier this morning. I checked the backroom just an hour ago and we haven’t had another delivery since then.”
She had to hand it to the cashier for still being able to smile and sound sincerely apologetic. It’s almost enough to melt her ire. Almost.
“Their rose-flavored black tea is quite delicious,” a soft-voiced woman says behind her. “It’s less spicy, but the bouquet is magnificent.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll try that,” Nanami mumbles unwilling to take her tantrum further. There’s something familiar about that voice and she really just needs something caffeinated at this point.
The cashier gives her a complimentary spice cookie and one to the woman behind her. Nanami huffs over to the customer seating and props her book bag on the counter. They don’t have wi-fi here, but it’s still a decent place to study and recharge between lectures.
Someone slides into the chair next to her, but Nanami politely avoids eye contact and checks her mobile for new messages as she drinks the tea. On her other side are two pretty OLs who are manicured, permed, and made up to upscale firm perfection. It’s easier to ignore them because they’re engrossed in their own conversation.
“Eiko, did you hear?”
“Ooh, I wonder what gossip you have today,” the one with the curls teases.
“I just heard about these two classmates from our junior high. They ran into each other and they completely didn’t recognize each other!”
“Ehh? Did one of them dye her hair?”
“Don’t be silly!”
“Lemme guess, one of them is pregnant and totally huge!”
“Puh-lease, they’re like exactly the same but like taller.”
“That’s it? What a letdown, Bii-chan.”
“Just goes to show that some people are simply self-absorbed.”
“Hearing this nonsense makes me feel like I’m back in junior high,” Nanami rolls her eyes and edges away from the OLs. “Who even cares?”
“When it’s been a long time you naturally want to say ‘hello’ even if it’s to an enemy,” the woman with the soft voice replies to what was totally a rhetorical question. “Hello, Nanami.”
The lady with the good tea recommendation is Anthy Himemiya. Nanami’s pretty sure she can hear the universe laughing. Ten thousand memories come slamming back into her head like they brought their own battering ram and Nanami’s sanity is the castle gate. She wants to say ‘How’s the incest thing going?’ or ‘Where’s that tomboy you used to hang out with? Did she like die or something?’ or ‘You look better without that ridiculous hairdo.’
But all that comes out is, “Where’s your stupid monkey?”
Not that insulting a witch is a good idea, but Nanami’s ideas are brilliant even if no one else appreciates them. Besides there’s nothing Nanami can say that can put a dent in the fact that Himemiya grew up to be absolutely stunning. How her exotically beautiful face isn’t plastered over billboards and magazines is a mystery to Nanami, especially since she seems to have ditched those dorky curls.
“Oh! You mean my friend Chuchu. He’s at home right now,” Himemiya laughs an enchanting laugh that probably drives men (and women like Juri) wild. Life is so unfair.
“Yeah well he’s probably eating all your groceries.” That monkey-mouse thing is a glutton to the point where his picture ought to be in dictionaries under the word ‘glutton.’ Not that Nanami holds any ill will towards the various boxed lunches, snacks, and meals he’s stolen in the past. Not at all.
She sips the rose tea and the flavor bursts unto her taste buds as the oddest mix of bitter and sweet. It isn’t tea: it’s like a delicious metaphor soaked in caffeine and served in cup. “This is good, Himemiya,” Nanami grudgingly admits. “I can see why you like it since you were all about that birdcagey rose garden at school.”
Something flashes in Himemiya’s green eyes that’s wistful if such a wispy sounding emotion could deliver a sucker punch. The moment passes and Himemiya is back to soft Mona Lisa smiles and responds, “One can never stop loving a rose.”
If it’s a poem Nanami doesn’t recognize it and goes back to that too-good-to-be-true tea. Truth be told she loves the smell and the look of roses, she just hates the prickles of thorns. Maybe that’s a metaphor too but she slept through classical literature class when she didn’t skip it.
“Guess so—“ and praise the gods of higher learning her mobile phone alarm trills to let her know she’s got ten minutes to get back to campus for her next class. In broken heels it’ll take double that but the professor doesn’t lock the door so she’s not worried.
“I’ve got to go, Himemiya,” she pulls her bag off the counter, careful not to knock over her drink, and waits tapping her foot.
“Good-bye then, Nanami,” Himemiya has the grace to at least look confused at Nanami’s hovering over her.
“Oh come on! Even a weirdo like you has got to have a mobile phone! Gimme your cell email.”
The other woman blushes and takes out a metallic lilac colored phone from her coat pocket. “I didn’t think that you wanted to see me again.”
“Five minutes in a coffee house is a cheap kind of classmate reunion,” Nanami snaps readying to add a new contact to her phone book. “On TV it’s all gossip and blackmail and a way nicer place to eat than this. So I’m only after my fair share and then some.”
Another tinkling laugh and Himemiya has the gall to look bemused. “I do believe that can be arranged.”
Twenty minutes later Nanami collapses into her seat in class grinning like something actually good happened to her that morning.
Maybe it did.
To: "Himemiya" email@example.com
Did your monkey eat all your snacks?
To: “Kiryuu” firstname.lastname@example.org
Not at all ^_^ Thank you for asking! How are you Miss Nanami?
To: “Witch Princess” email@example.com
Bored in class no one makes origami animals and spaces out like you did.
To: “Kiryuu” firstname.lastname@example.org
You remembered! *_* Ah, it’s so nice to be nostalgic about school days!
To: “Witch Princess” email@example.com
You’re unforgettable b/c you’re crazy. You free Friday night?
To: “Kiryuu” firstname.lastname@example.org
Oh my! Is this a date? I shall wear my best cardigan.
To: “Witch Princess” email@example.com
WTH? NO!!! Not everyone is a lesbo like your tomboy school sweetheart. But try to look nice b/c the restaurant is actually high class.
That means they don’t serve curry rice or shaved ice, btw.
To: “Kiryuu” firstname.lastname@example.org
High class? How nice! I wonder if they serve veal…
They do serve veal. As well as escargot, imported American rattlesnake, and a very rare variety of giant octopus among other fine delicacies. If Himemiya had made the reservation Nanami would have thrown down the menu and left. Instead she just mutters, “Witch,” and orders frog legs as a starter.
Because Himemiya totally is a witch. No normal human could pull a sword out of their chest, look like they are at least two different ages depending on who’s in the room, and also she’s the chairman’s sister. He had his own freaky brand of magic going on with that overcompensating planetarium thing and magical car that could burst into a house, leave no trace of itself, and go along an endless highway to the Ends of the World. Oh and after Tsuwabuki told her about how all of Himemiya’s cute pets like her chicken and cow were conveniently named ‘Nanami’ she saw red. Nanami is many things including spoiled, but stupid isn’t one of them.
“Chuchu will be sad he’s missing such a nice meal,” Himemiya sighs prettily. Of course she lied about the cardigan but on the other hand she took Nanami’s order to dress nice very seriously. There’s no cardigan in sight, only a sleek spring green silk gown, sophisticated emerald jewelry, and a clutch embroidered with seed pearls.
“At least someone finally taught you how to dress! Now I don’t have to be worried about being seen with you in public,” Nanami titters to hide her jealousy, was this jealousy? What do they look like to the other patrons? Two young women in silk gowns having a candlelit dinner who are clearly not related. Hopefully people were thinking more along the lines of models on holiday and not call girls on the prowl. “Are those real emeralds or do they turn into clay at midnight?”
Himemiya giggles and leans forward to show off her cleavage – which is more bountiful than Nanami’s because again the universe is so biased against her. “Oh a lady never tells.”
Probably paste gems, she consoles herself.
The chamber ensemble strikes up a pretty waltz tune and Nanami thinks of all the formal balls Ohtori holds. There isn’t a dance floor here and she’s glad because it keeps her from feeling a particular queer ache that she likes to push down to like the fifty second sub-basement of her mind. What that ache is she doesn’t even know because she won’t let it see the light of mental day. Maybe it’s tangled up in her childhood idolatry of Touga. Maybe it’s a twisted mess of that respect and resentment she felt for that tomboy Tenjou. Or maybe she just needs another glass of white wine.
“Is this the part where the gossip and blackmail begins? I’ve never had a reunion with a classmate before,” Himemiya is all earnestness as she puts her napkin on her lap with the air of a princess.
“That’s what clichés are for,” Nanami answers. “They’re like how-to guides for new situations. So basically you tell me something good and then I tell you something juicy and then we go over all the good times we had at school while making veiled catty remarks.”
“That does sound like fun! I wonder why I haven’t done this before now,” her dinner companion’s eyes are glittering more than the chandeliers overhead and it takes Nanami all of thirty seconds to realize maybe she’s in over her head. Again.
“Mademoiselles, cuisses de grenouilles,” the waiter presents the platter of frog legs with a flourish while another server behind him fills their wine glasses. The dish smells divine and she could almost pretend she was having dinner with one of her normal friends. Of course all of Nanami’s normal friends aren’t nearly as pretty as herself so Himemiya is the exception once more.
There’s about two minutes of silent eating and drinking before Nanami blurts out,“So what happened to that tomboy? What’s her name, Tenjou? It’s like for a year everything revolved around her and then poof she was gone and we all got holes in our memories like Swiss cheese.”
Himemiya’s fork stops on its trajectory to her mouth. Nanami is fairly certain the universe is holding its breath or the earth paused on its axis at the very least. “Well?”
“Well what do you remember?” Brilliant soft brown on pale cream, Himemiya’s hand comes over to Nanami’s and strokes the rose signet ring reverently, pornographically.
Answering a question with another question is so lame and Nanami was about to tell her so if it isn’t for Himemiya’s slender foot rubbing against her ankle and what the hell? She keeps her hand in place and gulps some wine in a way that would make her mother faint if she could see it.
“It’s easier to remember when I’m with someone who was part of that craziness. The more people the better. When the student council and me were all together we were able to piece it all together and we wrote it down in case it ever –“ Came back to haunt us, is on the tip of her tongue. “In case it ever became important again. Magic like that doesn’t exactly leave people.” Magic isn’t supposed to exist, but it does and plays by its own rules Nanami had learned long again.
“I remember the duels, how they got more powerful and crazier the longer they went on. There were soul swords and people were becoming brides and your brother had his crazy sex car.” She shudders as her brain helpfully supplies the sound of an engine purring. That thing had to be magic because the seats should have been totally wrecked with all the creepy hanky-panky that went on in there. Like that car and her brother’s bed have probably had more deflowerings than …something that also has a lot of deflowerings because she can’t think of anything that would get that much action.
“All of that was to get the ‘power to revolutionize the world’ whatever that means. One day that tomboy Tenjou went to the final duel and we were waiting around – Juri told this terrible story about her bitchy sister.”
“And then?” As if Himemiya doesn’t know what really happened! Nanami felt her free hand itching to slap someone – preferably the pain-in-the-neck witch in front of her.
“We never saw Tenjou again and never had another duel. The forest arena wouldn’t open for anyone with a ring anymore. Then you left and your brother fell ill or something. For like a month we couldn’t remember any of the previous year until it came back to us in bits and pieces like a seal crumbling. So what the hell happened?”
Himemiya puts her other hand so that the two of them are cradling Nanami’s one hand with the ring on it and it’s as comforting as it is baffling. Her eyes are even greener in the candlelight the shadows making it seem as if there were figures reflected in her eyes that weren’t in the room at all.
“She fought my brother in the final duel. He wanted the power for himself and sought to make her his princess. He took her sword to open the castle door.”
“That’s stupid,” Nanami says flatly. “Only the winning duelist with the Rose Bride can take the power right? Taking someone else’s sword isn’t going to work. If it was like a key you could pass around you wouldn’t need all those dumb duels and waste everyone’s time and sanity.”
That gets a chuckle out of Himemiya as well as a startled look that gives Nanami a sense of well deserved satisfaction. “You’re correct. It didn’t work because the sword wasn’t really his. He thought he was exempt from that rule because the power of Dios was his originally.”
“Let me get this straight. Your big brother had that amazing power. Then he lost it and now uses your witchy powers to manipulate school children into playing with swords and reliving bad memories so he can get back his full magic.”
“That was the idea, yes.”
“And your witch powers can’t give it back to him?”
“No, we’ve tried,” Himemiya bites her lip like she’s on the verge of saying more. Like a lot more. Like game-changing more. But she doesn’t.
At long last Himemiya pulls her hands away when the servers bring over their entrees though her damnable foot doesn’t seem to be on the same page so Nanami just has to gird her loins and ignore it. Two glasses of wine later she concludes, “So basically this whole crazy messed up thing comes down to big brothers being idiots.”
Himemiya pulls a shocked but wry face. “Are you including your own brother in that?”
“Yes,” Nanami gently kicks Anthy’s foot away because it’s taking a scenic route higher up her leg and she really doesn’t want to know what its goal is. Who does that except in movies and comic books? “We were all idiots, but my big brother and yours were the crown princes of idiotdom.”
The pleasant buzz of alcohol leads her imagination down the path of the idea of Idiotdom and holy monkey-mice it looks a lot like Ohtori in her mind only with even goofier outfits and more phallic towers. So like that would make Tenjou the missing princess-prince or princess-knight of Idiotopia and all the peasants would totally have some dumb holiday to celebrate her prophesied return. Probably would dress up little dolls in her likeness and hold honorary duels and the girls would wear crowns of roses.
“Nanami? Are you alright?” Himemiya looks ready to come around to her side of the table and do mouth-to-mouth or pull out a full first aide kit from her clutch.
“Jus’ the wine,” she waves a dismissive hand. “I’m fine really. So yeah what happened to Tenjou? You left right after she disappeared. Did she win the duel or did she like die?”
“It depends on one’s definition of ‘win.’”
“So she lost.”
Blank is the only way to describe how Himemiya’s face shutters close faster than one could blink. What’s left is only a mask of a person.
“Greeeeeeat,” Nanami slurs in annoyance. “Another one of those stupid big brother induced mysteries. Lemme guess she lost or won-in-a-way-that’s-bad-as-losing. You wake up she’s gone, you and the Chairman both don’t know what happened so so you leave because yer love is the stuff of girlie comic legend.”
That gets a reaction, “Oh Nanami! I’ve forgotten how perceptive you can be underneath your veneer of shallow self-serving ambition!”
“Oh whatever, I wanted gossip not mysteries. If I wanted something I don’t understand I’d go out and buy a Murakami novel and then throw it against the wall. So get to the juicy stuff and leave out the questions-in-questions crap.”
“Oh my, I forgot all about that! Well then let’s see,” Himemiya bites her lip pensively. “Ah! Do you remember Miss Wakaba Shinohara?”
“Was that the ponytailed one that used to fight you for Tenjou?” Nanami squints as she combs through school memories. “Middle class, plain, annoying voice?”
“Yes, that’s right,” something like fondness flitters across Himemiya’s features. “She’s going to Wimbledon next year.”
“Shinohara? The plainest plain girl who pined after my brother’s best friend while he was still competing for World’s Biggest Jerk grand prize and hid him in the girls’ dormitory? That Shinohara?”
“Just so! She’s a tennis star.” Himemiya pulls out her phone and opens up a picture of her and Shinohara smiling as if they were friends once upon a totally not real time.
There are a few more pictures. All of them featuring a perky grinning Wakaba with a stylish pixie cut held in place with actually cute barrettes. Nanami would have never recognized this confident young athlete to be the hyperactive insecure classmate of yore. Utena’s classmate to be technical but still fellow Ohtori alumnus bless the alma mater and all that.
“At least she stopped with that little onion doll hairdo. Seriously did no one at our school have normal hair?” She does feel a nice sized puff of pride that her former school turned out some success. After all everyone enjoys a nice Cinderella story. “So what’s the gossip? She’s playing in the big leagues after all.”
See if there’s anything Nanami has learned from her parents, her brother, Ohtori Academy and just plain old life it’s that everyone has secrets. Everyone at every moment is locking something up in their heart, pushing back a dark side, shaming themselves for a thousand sins real or imagined. The difference is that strangers care most about the secrets of celebrities and least about normal people.
‘Always have a safe secret or two to drop,’ Mother had advised her at age sixteen. ‘It keeps others from digging any further.’
Himemiya raises an eyebrow, “Nothing terribly scandalous. She cheated on her fiancé, we used to call him Onion Prince, with her tennis coach. And another women’s single player. And her first publicist. Though with the last two I don’t believe she was engaged yet.”
“Typical sports drama,” Nanami waves her hand dismissively. “I bet he’ll never leave her and she’ll either quit tennis and be a housewife in three years or dump him and defect to the American Olympic team.”
“My my, it’s like you’re one of those fortune tellers!” her companion claps her hands in delight, but Nanami’s too buzzed to tell if it’s feigned or genuine amusement.
“How’d you find all this stuff out anyway?”
“I went to talk to her about Utena a few years ago. We’ve kept in touch even though she doesn’t seem to remember much of those days.”
Sadly Nanami can picture it all too easily in her mind. Himemiya being all hopeful that sweetly boring normal Wakaba who enjoyed having Tenjou play prince for her would have some recollection of value. Nanami could have told her that Shinohara would be useless for that. That girl had been flaky from the get-go never mind post Utena vanishing selective amnesia.
She really needs to come up with a word for that. Or an acronym. That could work. PUVSA? No, that sounded like the name of a cheese from Eastern Europe rather than a sexy term for their magically spotty memories.
“She probably flattered herself that you were a fan,” Nanami jerks herself out of her musings. “I remember when she was having jealous fits over you hanging around Tenjou.”
“Jealousy is rarely pretty on anyone,” Himemiya has the gall to be bemused at the recollection of Nanami’s past behaviors.
In Nanami’s defense, and she is always vigorous in her own defense, the worst of her jealousy was from before she knew about the duels and Rose Bride stuff. All she had known was that her playboy big brother was suddenly honing in on the biggest weirdos of Ohtori without any apparent reason. Good thing Tenjou and Himemiya had gone all love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name because the idea of either of them ending up her sister-in-law? Ick city. Touga had certainly chosen a controversial mate in most people’s eyes, but Nanami knows how easily it could have gone another way.
“Now you said you had gossip to exchange?” her dinner companion’s voice lilts musically which is weird for such a sordid request. “You’ve gotten quite a bit out of me already tonight, Miss Nanami, now it’s your turn.”
“All right I’ve got a pretty good one I just found out a few months ago so it’s fresh and juicy,” Nanami leans in close, a comfortable smirk forming on her dainty features. “So do you remember-?”
A small party is led past their table and the thick scent of roses nearly chokes Nanami. Each one of the chattering young women has a single rose pinned to their breast. There’s also a tingle in the air that’s so palpable Nanami could swear she sees flickers and crackles of rosy lightning. She tells herself the women probably came from some kind of party or wedding, but it’s more than just the flowers that make her think, duelists.
Himemiya’s green eyes go big as saucers dropping her wine glass on the floor.
Before Nanami can ask what’s the matter there’s a loud pop that seems practically in her ear. If loud is the first sensation she registers then wet is very much the second, third, and fourth. Nanami is tipsy enough so that her facilities are slow on the uptake. There’s a waiter apologizing profusely and calling for a manager while the remains of the recently uncorked champagne bottle’s contents fizzes over his hands – the rest of the wine covering Nanami. None of course got on the rose-scented people.
It’s pretty unlikely that the restaurant actually went silent at that exact moment. Conversations still flowing, dishes being washed, musicians still playing, but Nanami’s ears roar with a sick dull roar that blocks out everything but her own tattered breathing.
Her brain cycles through the emotions of rage, humiliation, despair like a washer machine on the fritz while some queer detached section of mind catalogs some thoughts very neatly. The first thought is that tonight was not the night to have been wearing her very thin silk Oscar de la Renta one piece. Secondly, what kind of waiter doesn’t know how to uncork champagne because honestly isn’t that like serving 101 or something? Third, that champagne better not have ruined her purse as well. Fourth, karma is a bitch and thy name is Anthy.
She would scream if her vocal chords would get off their lazy butts and start working again, but her mouth is just flapping uselessly. There’s a manager at her elbow and she can’t even look at them because she’s afraid she might start crying thick shameful tears. And it’s a shame because she can’t cry prettily when she’s actually upset because her nose gets all drippy and gross. Cue crying is a crocodile tears only kind of thing.
A moment or maybe ten minutes – time is relative when emotions are high – there’s a shawl put around her shoulders modestly covering most of her torso and Himemiya is leading her away from the table.
The powder room is elegant and modern. And fuck going all eco-green because there isn’t a single paper towel to be had in the whole place. Instead silver-chrome air dryers are mounted on the wall. She’s so angry she’s shaking and she wants to go outside and slap someone.
Himemiya is up in her personal space and the temptation to slap is running high, but Nanami swallows it down because the witch is embracing her like she’s the dearest thing in the world. Which is new to her because they’re like frenemy former classmates, not bosom buddies.
“Shhhh, there, there,” Himemiya has the gall to stroke her back and whisper in her ear. How much does it suck that she can’t remember the last time anyone hugged her besides her brother?
And that’s when things start taking a turn up the rose garden path or whatever the saying is because Nanami’s brain is distracted by the feeling of a soft handkerchief rubbing her breasts. Somehow, someway her sodden mess of a dress has been unzipped down the back and pushed halfway down her hips. This is not sisterly help. This was definitely intimate.
The handkerchief absorbs the champagne residue from her bra quite nicely. So nicely that a small teeny tiny almost microscopic part of Nanami is disappointed that Himemiya isn’t taking it off to make sure she’s totally dry on top. Anyone would get aroused if a gorgeous person started rubbing at their nearly naked body, right?
Nanami clings to Himemiya’s shoulders and hides her face in all that soft fragrant hair because there is no way she can look the other woman in the eye right now.
“Is this all right?” the words are more hushed than Nanami expected.
“Y-yeah, you can, yeah whatever,” Nanami bites her lip before she can say anything else.
Himemiya’s hand moves between her legs for an exercise in futility as the more she rubs the wetter Nanami gets. It shouldn’t make her so weak in the knees, she’s not a virgin after all and she’s not that attracted to women. Usually.
When she comes it’s with a mewling cry and a full body shudder. Himemiya kisses her cheek where the tears of anger had been then rearranges the shawl into passable dress with a few pins.
“I’m sorry, Nanami.”
The weird thing is Nanami gets it. Himemiya didn’t cause this, not directly, and it had something to do with those guests. So this dry and rub thing is a twisted apology. Kind of a ‘sorry your dress got ruined, would you like an orgasm?’ thing. Okay when she thinks about it the whole scenario is bizarre, but she’s buzzed from endorphins and the alcohol left in her system.
“Guess I shouldn’t have ruined your dress back then. Divine justice they say.”Ugh apologizing is like pulling teeth. “And I did get some stress relief so I’m back to owing you one,” Nanami tries to end the sentence on a perfectly snippy tone and mostly succeeds.
Himemiya looks at her, really looks at her like she’s never really seen her before. Nanami squirms because she thinks she can sense the magic that’s baring her soul and it’s over before it’s begun.
“Just, just take me home,” Nanami begs hoping to spoil the moment. But Himemiya’s eyes are distant, assessing, then startled. She’s the portrait of a princess confused, a witch at large, but most of all she’s a duelist.
Everything is a blur from that point onward. The restaurant manager makes a thousand obsequious apologies, the taxi smells like cigarettes and vinyl, and her apartment lights are way way too bright. The only constant is Himemiya, quiet and strong. She lets Nanami doze on her lap in the cab and helps her into her too large bed. A bitter tea is given to her right before she falls asleep.
She dreams of castles and coffins. In her dream they’re the same thing really. Inside them are noble princes, noble princesses. They’re not locked or closed tightly. At any time their inhabitants can walk out, but they don’t. Her palace is large and airy, a silent ethereal Versailles, yet when she tries to leave it narrows into a tight sarcophagus. And all around her she can hear others crying in their coffins.
Don't worry, she scratches and kicks at the lid. First I'm going to get out of here and then we're going to save everyone starting with Tenjou.
When Nanami wakes her rose signet ring is on the nightstand gleaming with promise.
She just might be cut out for being a hero after all.