Chapter 5: The Tea Garden
I was exhausted. I sat in the back seat of Saionji’s car, squeezed snugly between Anthy and Juri. I could hear the guys talking in low murmurs in the front.
“So what happened?” Juri’s thigh pressed warmly against my own.
“You’re so persistent,” I groaned, leaning my head back. I just wanted to sleep. “I don’t know…the swords were there…I don’t know why.” I led my eyes slide shut.
“Swords? What swords?” I felt Juri lean over me to confront Anthy. “What does she mean?”
“The million swords of hate,” murmured Anthy, and her tone (so regular, so everyday) made my eyes snap back open.
“Himemiya,” I said. I hated when she sounded like that...like she used to.
“It’s okay,” she told me, but I had trouble believing her. “Go to sleep, Utena-sama.”
“Don’t call me that,” I muttered, closing my eyes and leaning my head on her shoulder. “Please.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Utena.”
I sighed. If they continued talking I didn’t know it. I had escaped into sleep.
* * *
The next day when Anthy came home from work, I finally got the chance to ask her what had happened to our old classmates.
“Don’t worry,” she said, as we sipped tea on the couch (this had become our evening ritual). “I’m sure we’ll see them again soon.” I couldn’t help noticing that she didn’t sound too happy about it.
“Oh good,” I said. “It was kind of fun to catch up, don’t you think?” I was still tired, and a little nervous about what had happened: a perfect recipe for babble. “Especially Juri-senpai. Although I don’t know why she has to harp on so much about…stuff. Saionji, eh, I could of given him a miss. And Touga-san is so changeable. Don’t you find that? I mean one moment he acts the gentlemen but he can be such a player.”
“What did happen?” Anthy’s voice was calm but I had gotten used to doing Anthy-interpretation. She was holding her teacup a little too carefully. ChuChu was snuggled up on her lap as though she needed comfort. Her green eyes were just a shade too dark. On top of this, it was unusual for her to want to talk about…the past.
“The swords were there,” I told her, becoming uncomfortable too. “I was tr…trying to remember. And then, I saw them in Juri-senpai’s eyes. I couldn’t believe it. And then…” my voice broke.
“And then,” said Anthy.
“Then I heard them too,” I revealed, shivering as I remembered it. “They spoke to me, Himemiya! In Juri-senpai’s voice!”
“What did they say?”
I looked away. “I don’t remember.”
I put my tea down and closed my eyes. I didn’t want to look into her eyes and see that she knew I was lying.
A long silence hung in the air between us.
“Maybe that’s how they manifest in this world,” she finally suggested. I opened my eyes and reached for a cookie.
“Maybe,” I agreed without thinking. “Huh. That doesn’t seem so bad.”
“It seems worse,” said Anthy.
I gaped at her, mostly because it was still so strange to me for her to openly disagree. And what did she mean?
“Well then, there’s no point in hiding anymore,” she said, rising and cleaning up. “I’ve gotten you a posting at my work.”
My jaw dropped another five degrees.
“Yes.” She actually grinned at me.
My jaw dropped so far it started to ache. This was the first time I had seen this teasing grin. It looked so…nice. But not terribly reassuring.
“So, er, that means you’ll now tell me where you work, right? Where we work.”
“You’ll find out tomorrow,” said Anthy, heading towards the kitchen. I stuck my tongue out at her back. She could be so annoying.
* * *
Anthy worked at a plant nursery, naturally, tending baby plants to adulthood. It was a rather large complex (complete with various glasshouses) attached to a tea shop (located charmingly in the largest glasshouse). I wasn’t sure what to think. I gaped around myself at The Tea Garden as it was oh so creatively called. We were in the tea shop part which consisted of wrought iron tables and chairs artistically placed between exotic-looking plants, artistic statues, and even a birdbath. A cobbled path wound between them, leading to the counter and kitchen area which was attached onto the back.
How do the birds get in to use the birdbath? I wondered.
“Do you like it?” asked Anthy.
“Um, I’m not sure,” I said. “I suppose cash is cash, right?”
“There’s something to be said for atmosphere.”
I stared at Anthy. “Really?” I said doubtfully. “Doesn’t it kind of remind you of, er…”
“There were things I liked about that place,” said Anthy. “I served the roses willingly.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t quite know what she meant. Fortunately, the boss was approaching. He was a large man (both tall and fat), who happened to work as the chef.
“Anthy-san,” he cried in loud jovial tones. “This is your friend? Our new waitress?” He grinned down at me. “We need another waitress desperately. I’m sure you’ll do splendidly. Anthy-san is an amazing gardener, after all.”
“Uh thank you,” I muttered weakly, letting Anthy introduce us. Apparently the boss (unusually) liked to be called Boss, which was fine with me. It made his name easy to remember. Before I knew what had happened Anthy had disappeared into one of the nearby glasshouses to tend the plants, leaving me to receive a ten-minute training course courtesy of Boss. Soon enough I was serving customers (badly). Well, I thought later on my break, at least it’s a job, right? And better still, I’m outside. Kind of.
* * *
Surprisingly, I grew to like my job. After I realized I should carry a notebook I didn’t have trouble remembering orders anymore. The other waiters were friendly and made better conversation than ChuChu. Boss was a generous man, and better still spent most of his time furiously preparing desserts in the kitchen. Thus any mistakes I made were mostly unobserved. But generally visitors to The Tea Garden were an easy-going lot, and I found the tension inside me relaxing more and more. Slowly but surely I was regaining my old strength. I began to think that maybe Anthy knew what she was doing. Occasionally I asked Anthy about having our classmates around for dinner, and she would always agree docilely. So far this hadn’t resulted in any concrete invitations.
One afternoon I was walking through the rose glasshouse, looking for Anthy. I was on my lunch-break, which I often liked to spend with her. ChuChu rode on my shoulder (he attended work with us, as the boss thought he provided further “atmosphere”), surveying the plants with a royal air. I wasn’t able to suppress a shudder as I peered around at the many-colored roses. This was my least favorite glasshouse. Unfortunately Anthy spent the majority of her time here: roses were her specialty.
“Utena.” She appeared at my shoulder very suddenly, as was her habit. I almost jumped out of my skin (as was mine). Why did I never see her coming?
“Himemiya! Uh, are you ready for lunch?”
“Almost,” she said, bending over a white rose with her watering can.
“You look tired,” she commented.
“Yeah,” I said, scratching my neck. I absently looked down at my hands. I could only just barely see the red marks from straining at the gate of eternity. They were almost faded away. “It’s been a busy morning. How are the roses going?”
“Very well.” Anthy put down the watering can and slipped her arm into mine. “But I can’t breed some of the colors I’d like to.”
“Must be a reality thing,” I murmured and she nodded. It felt good to be pressed against her as we walked outside into the sun. I preferred being with Anthy when the sky was blue and I was out under it. It felt much safer than being alone. On her part, Anthy always seemed to find some reason to be with me if I had to go outside during work. I wondered if I was that easy to read.
“What do you feel like eating?” she asked me.
“Cake.” I grinned. There was no way she’d give into that idea. But once again (as so often of late) she surprised me. I was beginning to suspect her of being controversial deliberately. She knew I reveled in any anti-rose-bride behavior.
“Alright,” she said calmly, “let’s go to the cake shop.” So we did.
I started my afternoon shift feeling rather stuffed and slightly sick. Maybe cake wasn’t such a good idea, I thought, as I cleared the empty tables. At least not without something more substantial…
“Utena-kun!” The newcomer stood silhouetted in the doorway. The sun was shining behind him at an angle that made it hard for me to see his face.
“Who’s there?” I asked, squinting, but I already knew something was very wrong. The stranger stepped into the shop, letting the door slam shut.
“What’s the matter?” he purred. “Such a relatively short time, and you’ve already forgotten your prince?”
I dropped my tea-tray. It was Akio.
Chapter 6: Prince & Witch
Akio smiled down at me. He looked the same as ever, tall and knowing, albeit wearing a deep blue shirt instead of his trademark red. I couldn’t even pretend to be friendly. I just gaped at him, clenching my shaking fists at my sides. Around us the few afternoon customers were starting to stare and whisper, as the room filled with tension.
“Well, well,” said Akio as he glanced around the glasshouse, flirtatiously letting his green eyes rest on each and every customer. Behind me I knew that men and women alike would be blushing, and commenting on his looks. When it came to exuding sexual attraction, Akio was the master.
He had mastered me once, as a kind of game. Mixed in with helpless physical attraction, was all my newfound revulsion. I was terribly conscious of his subtle sense of menace. His eyes were filled with wicked schemes. I found myself backing up, until a nearby table hit my thighs.
“This is where you work?” asked Akio, his hungry eyes looking my waitress uniform up and down. “It’s so…Anthy. I suppose that means Anthy works here too. Doesn’t she.” It wasn’t a question. I watched as his eyes darted around looking for her. I suppressed a shiver.
“No,” I lied, finally finding my voice. “She doesn’t actually, and what are you doing here?” My voice shook a little, despite my best efforts to keep it flat and cold. I hoped that Akio would have regard for the avidly watching customers. Surely he couldn’t try anything in a public setting? Surely…
He slowly stalked toward me. One languid step. Another. Another. I was frozen to the spot, caught by his small knowing smile. Now he was standing only a foot away, well within my personal space.
Don’t let him touch me, I thought desperately. Oh please, I couldn’t bear it if he touched me. He was so tall that my head was forced to tilt back to look up at him. I felt blood heat my face under his too-knowing gaze. Oh so slowly, one of his beautiful hands lowered to rest on my shoulder. I felt a scream welling up in my throat.
“Don’t,” said Akio, bending a little so warm breath tickled my ear. “Or…” His eyes flickered to one side and breathlessly I followed his gaze to a nearby table. Two young women were seated there having tea, one with blue hair and one with violet. As though at an unspoken signal, they turned their faces toward mine. I gasped as I recognized Miki’s twin sister and Juri’s ‘friend’. I dimly remembered them from their black rose duels. Kaoru Kozue smiled at me wolfishly. Takatsuki Shiori reached subtly into her blouse to partially reveal what looked like a tiny handgun. I had run out of options.
Akio’s hand clenched on my shoulder as his other hand moved to rest firmly on the small of my back. I was shaking with fear now, completely unable to pretend unaffectedness. Obviously Akio intended this to look like a lover’s tryst, for out of the corner of my eyes I could see the customers turning away from us politely. The chatting level returned to normal.
“Where is she?” asked Akio again, his face dangerously close to mine.
“N…not here,” I managed.
“Tell me!” he commanded running his hand from my shoulder down my back. His strong fingers raked against my skin.
“I know she is here. Just like I know you will tell me.”
His fingers came to rest purposefully right over my scar. The thin cloth over his goal could not stop my strangled cry. I couldn’t bear this…
“Don’t touch her.” Somehow, and as suddenly as always Anthy had appeared beside us. She looked and sounded furious. Had I ever seen her like this? Her eyes were flashing, her cheeks were flushed, her mouth was twisted in rage. Akio seemed taken aback but he quickly recovered, and he didn’t let go of me.
“Anthy.” His voice was rich and warm. “At last we reunite.”
“We do nothing of the sort. Let go of her.”
Akio stared down at his little sister. His mouth twisted in sudden anger, and one hand pressed cruelly on my scar. Deliberately he leaned down even closer to me.
“Utena-kun,” he whispered. “Don’t you remember? You’ll never be her prince. Because you’re a girl.”
A surge of pain lanced through me, both in my heart and beneath his touch. I gasped for breath. I couldn’t bear that memory. My knees buckled. The scar was healed; this should not be happening, could not be happening. I thought I saw a flash of a sword, piercing my very center, but it was gone before I could focus on it. Akio’s powerful hands gripped my shoulders, preventing me from falling at his feet. I was semi-aware of Anthy tensing beside us, and a weird electrical charge building in the air.
“Utena!” she cried, and it seemed like the world exploded.
* * *
I came to my senses in the wreckage of the table, amidst the rubble that had been a nearby statue and the unfortunate birdbath.
“What happened?” I croaked to Anthy, who was lying half on top of me.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” she said, getting up on her knees and trying to draw me up. Dazedly I rose with her, looking around us at the devastation that used to be The Tea Garden. It looked like a bomb had gone off! Around us shell-shocked customers were picking themselves out of the wreckage. I made out the deep blue shirt lying ten feet away, under a broken table.
Was that..? No…
“Utena!” Anthy’s voice was sharp with desperation. “Now! Here, let me help you.” I watched her numbly as she pulled my arm over her shoulder. We began to stumble toward the doorway. The door was hanging open, halfway off its hinges. I was staggering badly, and couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. Looking down at my disobedient feet, I was shocked to see that my shirt was soaked red with blood. It was running from under my shirt onto the waitress skirt I hated, making it stick against my thighs. It was dripping onto my shoes.
“Come on!” ordered Anthy again, and we had reached the door and were lurching into the carpark.
“Stop!” cried a feminine voice behind us, followed by the crack of a gunshot. “Stop right now!”
We had reached Anthy’s car, and she was wrenching open the door and pushing me inside. Moments later she was beside me, shoving her keys into the ignition. Another shot was fired. The back windshield shattered. I swore. Anthy floored the accelerator. I was shoved back hard against my seat, as we pealed out onto the road and away. Anthy was driving like a maniac. I could only brush away the shards of glass on the door handle, and hold on. The wind whipping through the missing back window whirled my hair around my face, so that I could barely see. Anthy was having the same problem.
She kept glancing into the rearview mirror, no doubt looking for pursuit. I managed to turn with some difficulty to see the flash of a horridly familiar red convertible. Was it gaining? I turned back around, panting with exertion. Anthy grimaced beside me.
“Hold something to that wound,” she told me. “Utena, please.”
“What?” I stared at her in confusion. Somehow, driving one handed she groped behind her seat for a cardigan of mine I had left on the floor.
“Here,” she shoved it at me, glancing into the mirror again. “Hold this to your stomach.” I obeyed her, mostly because I didn’t like the way her voice shook. The drive was beginning to seem surreal to me, the road fading in and out ahead of us. My head felt woozy. Another bullet whizzed between us to shatter our front windshield. Anthy cried out and covered her eyes with one slim brown arm. Somehow, miraculously she kept the steering wheel straight with the other. I didn’t even react, blinking as glass rained around my face. Some of it cut me…I was beyond lucky that it missed my eyes.
“Hold on,” warned Anthy, wrenching the car abruptly down a narrow side street. We were in the city center, but I didn’t recognize our surroundings…she wasn’t heading home. A car honked at us as we roared past. We turned hard again, and shot out onto a main road between two trucks. I could hear a buzzing like static in my ears. It was getting hard to concentrate…I watched as my hand gripping the door handle unwrapped itself. I just didn’t have the energy to hold on. My other hand slipped away from my stomach, dropping a sopping red cardigan onto my lap. I stared down at it in morbid fascination. Didn’t it used to be blue? Anthy turned the car sharply again, and my body crunched into the door. I bounced off it as we turned yet again, slamming into Anthy. I felt her arm go around me and grip me tight, holding me in place at her side. It felt good, right. She was saying something, but I didn’t hear it – I only felt the vibration. She pushed me down so my head was resting in her lap, and that was nice too. Her face whirled crazily over my head as she spun determinedly at the steering wheel. I thought that she was beautiful. I thought that just being with her made me happy. I thought that if we died right now, this wasn’t such a bad way to go. I closed my eyes.