Chapter 9: The Prince Unmasked
Suffice to say, intermittent sleep, and a whole lot of pain made for a crabby Utena. After a few days of nursing by Anthy my fever abated, and then a week drifted by in which life seemed to slow down to a crawl. This was probably a side-effect of the pain medication I was practically overdosing on. I had no idea how Anthy had borne the pain. How could she possibly have endured a million swords instead of a measly one?
I knew that the others were planning something. As I alternated between the bed and the couch they would go about their business, with many whispered debates over what we should do next. I didn’t catch much, but a strained sense of purpose hovered in the air. It made me edgy, much like the bright blue sky that persisted outside Juri’s wall-sized windows. Miki seemed to be a permanent houseguest…after a couple of days I divined that he’d actually moved in. I wondered just how big Juri’s fancy complex was. It sure was nice, like living in a five star hotel, but I missed Anthy’s unit with the quirky decorating that reminded me of her even when she wasn’t there.
On this particular morning (I had lost track of which day it was) Juri and Miki were eating breakfast at the low table they’d drawn up next to my couch. I didn’t know where Anthy was. Having arrived under mysterious circumstances the previous day, ChuChu was now perched on the table, eating with furious determination. I gazed at his wiggling tail as it drew pretty patterns in the air. It was calming.
“Eat something, Utena-kun,” ordered Juri, looking pointedly at my bowl of ramen. Why were we eating this for breakfast anyway? Perhaps Anthy had prepared it: she made strange dishes at equally strange times. Half-heartedly I fiddled with my chopsticks. I knew from past experience that Juri would force feed me if necessary. It was a good incentive to eat, but I still didn’t have much appetite. Not to mention if Anthy had made this, I didn’t think I was in for a treat…
“So tomorrow then,” said Miki, between sips of tea. “Has everybody confirmed for our big meeting?”
Juri ticked names off on long fingers. “Let’s see. Touga-san, Saionji, Nanami-kun, Tsuwabuki-kun, Shinohara-kun, and even Sonoda-kun. And of course us, and Himemiya-san.” She said Anthy’s name like it tasted bad.
“Why don’t you like her?” I asked curiously.
Two pairs of semi-shocked eyes met mine. Juri didn’t dissemble.
“Because I remember her manipulating me and everyone around me constantly. Because she made you blind to the stupidity you were committing, and because I can’t bring myself to trust her.”
“Oh.” I fiddled with my chopsticks some more. There was an embarrassed silence. Chuchu’s tail was frozen in mid-wiggle. I forced myself look up into Juri’s straightforward gaze.
“But you’re wrong, y’know. You just don’t understand her. What she’s gone through.”
She simply arched a fine brow at me. “So you say. Look, Utena…”
My eyes widened at the missing honorific, and at the sight of her leaning over the table to take my hand, chopsticks and all.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree. You can’t change my mind about her. But you’ve changed my mind about your bad habit of playing prince.” She cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably. “You deserved to be the victor of the duels. I…admire your nobility.”
I looked at her hand and blushed like an idiot. To my chagrin Miki chimed in.
“Yes! I think uh, that all the duelists came to see your nobility, Utena-san. I can’t tell you how happy I was when I saw you holding onto your shining thing no matter what.” His big blue eyes were very earnest.
I turned redder. “Stop it,” I muttered. “You two are being silly.”
“And you’re an idiot who’s far too loyal for her own good, and who can’t even eat breakfast properly.” Juri glared at me, but I was starting to see the affection hidden just beneath the frost. It was like you had always thought the surface you skated over was a lake of ice, but the greater reality was the current swirling underneath. The thought surprised me. How did I know that? After all, I was the first to admit I’d never been particularly deep.
“So eat,” Juri said, releasing my hand. Meekly I lifted my chopsticks to my mouth. Fondness notwithstanding, this was why they were planning on helping Anthy and I? They felt like they…owed me something?
“I wonder why the chairman hasn’t come yet,” mused Miki, politely changing the subject. “He must know where we are, right? He seems to know everything.” He shivered.
“Yes, it’s strange.” Juri looked thoughtful. “Maybe he was hurt in that so-called accident Himemiya-san claims happened. Can he be hurt?” They looked to me expectantly. I simply shrugged. How would I know? Besides Akio was too disturbing to even think about. Juri frowned and continued her line of thought.
“Well maybe he only knows everything about Ohtori. Maybe he’s as limited here...as us.” She threw up her hands in irritation. “We don’t really know! We need more information.”
“We should ask Anthy-san,” suggested Miki. Juri glared at him.
“A lot of good that would do. Unless…” she arched an eyebrow at me. “Maybe you should ask her.”
“Me?” I choked on the first bite I’d managed to take. “Why me?”
“Because you’re the only person she’s likely to answer, that’s why. Obviously. I can just imagine the utter nonsense she’d come up with if I asked her.” She rolled her eyes. Miki grinned then flushed when I glowered at him.
“It’s a good idea, Utena-san,” he said hastily. “We can’t hope to go up against the chairman without all the help we can get. We can’t proceed on assumptions, we need the facts.” He fiddled with the notebook on his lap. “We’ve got to approach this logically. We have to win.”
“Win what?” I snapped, almost immediately feeling guilty. Rubbing the back of my neck I started again. “I mean…why are we trying to fight Akio-san?” My voice tripped a bit on his name and I saw Juri blink. “We should be running!” I added. “You’ve been wonderful to help us, to help me, but why are we planning to attack? What are we hoping to do? You should go on with your lives, and I’ll take Himemiya and…”
“Stop,” Juri held up her hand in a regal gesture. “What are you talking about? You’re a prince. Remember? A prince, Utena.”
“Yes,” agreed Miki with shining eyes.
I blinked. “Well,” I said, “hmm.” I felt a bit like Juri had slapped me. “Er that was then…and Himemiya’s saved now…I think…and there’s no need to be going overboard and…”
“So what you’re saying is that you were a prince only for Himemiya-san?” Juri sounded disbelieving. Her cool eyes pierced me. “The prince saves the princess, is that it? It was all about the damn rose bride?”
“Not the rose bride,” I corrected firmly, as my temper began to rise. “She’s Himemiya Anthy. Her own person.”
“Maybe now. Maybe.” Juri’s voice was rising too. “But back then she was the rose bride. So you saved her. So what? You did more than that. You were so stubborn about your idiotic notions of the right thing to do – you dragged others up out of self pity. Even me.” She laughed bitterly.
“Look Utena, you changed Ohtori, you made it possible for all of us to leave. We all began to wake up and realize the duels were an evil game we didn’t have to play. We started to grow, to change. You inspired us to reach past pain for something eternal. You did that. You.”
I blinked at her. Her interpretation of events was pretty shocking to me.
“Yes,” agreed Miki again. “You changed everything, broke the shell and revolutionized the world! You did it for us too.” His voice was almost pleading. “Right, Utena-san? Right? You’re the reason we woke up, aren’t you? You must be.”
Juri’s eyes drilled into me, and her fists were clenched and shaking at her sides.
“Why, Utena? Why did you do it? For her? Only for her?!”
I felt my anger die as suddenly as it had been born. Flushing I pressed myself back against the couch wanting to hide. But even now I couldn’t lie…it wouldn’t be right.
“Yes,” I admitted quietly. “I did it for Himemiya.”
They stared at me, stunned disbelief leeching the animation from their faces.
“She needed me,” I pleaded with them. “And I made a promise such a long time ago, a promise I didn’t even remember making, and being a prince was about that promise, even though I didn’t always know that.” My words were tripping over each other in my confusion and the shock on their faces wasn’t going away.
I stumbled on. “Look, Himemiya needed someone to save her from that awful place, and only a prince could do it. Don’t you see, she needed it so much.” I buried my face in my hands. Their eyes were so accusing.
“That’s not entirely true.” Shockingly it was Anthy who broke the silence, and I peeked between my fingers to see she had entered in her sudden fashion. The doorway framed her figure in a way disturbingly reminiscent of the time she’d left me to go to Touga. Her face was in shadow.
“How long have you been there?” demanded Juri in cold fury.
“Long enough.” Anthy stepped into the light. Her eyes flickered to mine but I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
“What do you mean?” Miki asked Anthy. He was still staring at me like he was a puppy and I had kicked him.
“Did you know you needed saving?” Anthy folded her hands in front of her. She smiled at us benignly. Juri crossed her arms defensively. Miki looked surprised.
“No,” he admitted slowly. “I guess we didn’t.” He looked back toward me with dawning relief. “Neither did you.”
“We didn’t know a damn thing. We still don’t.” Juri abruptly rose and left the room, her shoulders very stiff. I stared after her, scratching my neck. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all. Should I go after her? Would she hit me if I did?
“Tea?” asked Anthy, without really asking at all. She disappeared into the kitchen, an anxious ChuChu scampering after her. Miki smiled tentatively at me. I managed a sickly smile back. We sat in awkward silence, Miki tapping his pen on his knee.
“I er, should go and do that stuff I have to do.” He got up.
“You don’t have to go,” I said feeling dismayed. Somehow I’d really messed breakfast up.
“It’s a good chance,” Miki explained, even as he retreated. “A perfect time for you to ask Anthy-san about the chairman.” I opened my mouth to disagree but the door was already clicking shut behind him. Wondering if he’d gone to look for Juri, I settled for putting down my mostly full bowl in relief. It just didn’t taste like ramen. And who could eat with severed expectations filling the room like swords embedded in crumbling stone.
* * *
Anthy stood patiently beside the couch while I shuffled over to make room for her to sit, with me leaning up against her chest. Carefully she raised a cup of tea to my lips and let me sip.
“It’s good,” I said, sighing as I relaxed back against her gratefully. “I’m glad you’re back.” I felt her warm breath stir my hair. ChuChu leapt up onto my lap and I started playing with him.
“I’m glad I came in when I did,” Anthy admitted softly.
“Me too.” My voice was small. She offered me another sip of tea. Afterward I tentatively framed the question burning on my lips.
“How much did you hear?” ChuChu pulled away from me to leap to Anthy’s shoulder. She said nothing for a good thirty seconds. I wished that I could see her face. With some difficulty I made myself wait for an answer. I was slowly learning it was useless to ever try and force Anthy’s hand.
“Nothing that I didn’t already know,” she finally said. I felt something lodge in my throat. My eyes burned. Desperately I held tears back.
“So…you’re not disappointed? That I, uh, that I…”
“Did it for me?” One slim arm wrapped itself under my breasts to hold me tightly. “I’m glad.” Her voice was filled with emotion, which was so alien to what I was used to from her and so wondrous. I clung to her arm.
“So glad,” she repeated softly.
A great happiness filled my heart. We sat in cozy silence for an indeterminable period of time. I concentrated on the warmth of her body and the faint chittering as ChuChu began to play with my hair from his perch. I didn’t want to break our hard-won peace with Miki’s question. That could wait. The world could wait for us, now that we’d finally found each other in this new world of possibilities.
Chapter 10: The Meeting
The big meeting was in full swing. I was seated on the overly crowded couch squashed between Touga and Wakaba, since they had both rushed to sit beside me. It was wonderful to see Wakaba again even if she was clutching my right hand tight enough to bruise it, and bouncing excitedly in place. It was rather uncomfortable being next to Touga, who kept edging ever closer. It made me nervous…and strangely hot.
My general edginess of the past week was multiplied by a factor of ten. I was focused on the stars outside the lounge’s massive windows (although so many less than I could remember there being at Ohtori). For some reason the expansive glittering sky made me cringe. Every time I glanced toward the window I found myself looking away again. But I couldn’t help my eyes drifting back, searching for something that simply wasn’t there. A planet? A dueling arena? A sharp metallic rain, hurtling down forever? I shivered.
“Are you cold, Utena darling?” Wakaba clutched my poor hand even harder. “You’re far too skinny. And you don’t look well. Have you lost weight? You always used to eat so much; it took me forever to pack lunches big enough to satisfy you!” I flamed red and muttered something incoherent.
“Let me warm you up,” purred Touga, smoothly sliding his arm around my shoulders.
“I’m not cold,” I snapped, leaning away, directly into Wakaba’s ready embrace.
“I’ll warm you up!” insisted my friend, throwing her arms around me. She might be five years older now, and not quite as short but it was good to see some things didn’t change. Even if it was kind of restricting to lose the use of your arms…
“But you’re so small,” Touga pointed out to her, “surely I have more body heat to offer.” I flushed.
“I’m not cold,” I grumbled as Wakaba squeezed tighter, “and ow, that sorta hurts. Would you lay off?” One of her arms was now dangerously close to my stab wound. I bit my lip and tried unsuccessfully to pull away. Wakaba must have used the past five years to work out…she was seriously strong.
There was snickering from someone. I was certain that if I dared to look up several pairs of eyes would be ogling the couch’s occupants. How embarrassing. Drat, somehow my sweater had managed to creep up and Wakaba’s hand was brushing over my bandages.
“Oh no! You’re hurt!” she accused, immediately lifting my sweater even more to get a better look. Yanking it back down I glared at her, holding her hands away.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Can you two give me some space for heaven’s sake?”
“It doesn’t look like nothing,” said Touga, his eyes more steely than usual. Was that his hand brushing my side? I pushed it away without looking.
“That’s a lot of bandage,” agreed Wakaba. “What happened?” Her hand reached for mine again.
“Maybe she doesn’t want to say what happened,” put in Touga in his most snotty voice. “Maybe you should give the lady some space.”
“Maybe you should sit somewhere else, and then there’d be plenty of space,” retorted Wakaba. With a sigh I flopped back and closed my eyes, tuning out their bickering. This was normal at least - they’d never liked each other. Five years apparently hadn’t changed that. With another sigh I opened my eyes again to look around the room.
Miki was chairing the meeting from one of the two armchairs, and Juri was seated in the other with folded arms and a steely gaze. She hadn’t spoken to me since the ill-fated breakfast of the previous morning. I tried to catch her icy eyes, but they were fixed somewhere just over my head.
On the floor around the low table knelt Anthy, Keiko, and Nanami with an attendant Tsuwabuki. Saionji had dragged out a hardbacked chair from the kitchen and sat glaring at the floor. The atmosphere was buzzing with excited tension.
“Ahem,” said Miki, waiting for my couch-mates to subside. “Back to the topic at hand.” Making sure to meet everyone’s eyes one by one, he summed up his earlier speech.
“As I was saying, that is why we’ve called you all together. Anthy-san has found Utena-san but the Chairman has found her too. We all remember that it was actually he who was behind the madness of the duels, that hurt us all so much.” His lip trembled for a moment, and I knew that he was thinking of his twin. Straightening his shoulders he pushed bravely on.
“It’s because of the er, shining example of Utena-san that we all have managed to graduate in these past five years. So we have to help her now.”
“Uh, shouldn’t our first priority be our own safety?” Keiko looked nervous to be speaking up, but determined nonetheless. “The assistant chairman…he’s very dangerous. Who knows what he’s capable of? What he wants to do to all of us?”
“Really, Sonoda-kun.” Touga sounded amused. “I’m sure the chairman has better things to do with his time.” His thigh shifted closer to mine. I shifted closer to the bouncing Wakaba.
“That’s right!” snapped Nanami, glaring at her ex-minion. “Why would he have any interest in an insect like you?”
“Yeah!” agreed Tsuwabuki. He might be older, but he still seemed to be Nanami’s yes-man. I thought that was somehow sad. Hadn’t he wanted to grow up? Growing up meant changing old habits, bad habits…a metamorphosis that gave you wings and demanded you fly somewhere.
Keiko flushed and looked down. I could see her hands shaking with anger as they wrapped around her teacup. It made me feel worried to see things like that. I was sure I never used to notice the details. What did it mean that I noticed everything now? Reflexively I glanced over toward Anthy, to find her already watching me. She smiled gently and I tried a tentative smile back.
“That’s enough.” Juri’s voice was cold. “We’re not here to squabble like children. We’re adults now. Adults in the real world.”
“And isn’t it such a great place?” Saionji dripped sarcasm, surprising me with his bitterness. I saw in the others’ faces that they were startled too. He ranted on.
“I’m sure we’re all very thankful to Tenjou as the magical prince who was victorious in the last duel. Pity that the last duel remains some great mystery that nobody’s allowed to talk about in any detail.”
“That’s true,” said Nanami, turning her head to glare up at me. “We spent years looking for you, and when you finally pop up nobody gets to know where you’ve been! It’s ridiculous. Just like everything about you always was.”
I tensed. It was shocking to hear even Nanami admit she’d been searching for me. My last memory of her involved her stalking off the games field in a huff after she finished insulting me. Yet she had looked for me…
“I’d like to know too,” admitted Wakaba in a small voice. She’d stopped bouncing. “Can’t you tell us, Utena?” Her eyes went all huge and beseeching. I felt a stab of guilt. Shifting in place, I tried to avoid the question.
“I don’t really remember it all that well…”
“Really?” Juri’s strong voice cut through the room toward me. “Is that really true?” Oh so now she decided to talk to me. I shrugged, feeling myself grow red.
“If that’s true,” continued Juri, “then why do you get so upset every time we ask you?”
“Touché,” purred Touga. I felt myself begin to grow angry.
“It’s not important,” I snapped. “It’s not relevant.”
“That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said,” bit out Saionji. “Which is saying something. Whatever happens, wherever you’ve been, it changes everything. It changes what we do now.”
“Or don’t do,” added Keiko nervously.
“Tell us!” insisted Nanami, ignoring Keiko, “tell us now!”
“Tell us!” echoed Tsuwabuki, in a most annoying fashion.
“Please, Utena.” Wakaba squeezed my hand.
“It’s time you tell us,” agreed Touga, taking my other hand smoothly. I snapped.
“Stop it!” I pulled away from them both, leaping to my feet and rounding on them. “I can’t tell you, alright?! I can’t stand to think about it!”
“Why?!” Juri leapt to her feet too. “Tell us why!”
Wildly I looked to Anthy for help. But she just sat there silently, avoiding my eyes. With a shock I realized that she wouldn’t help me now…perhaps she wanted to know the answer too badly? Or did she have another motive? Feeling confused and defeated, I lowered my head.
“Stop it,” I repeated in a strained voice. My hands were clenched and shaking at my sides. Everyone except Anthy stared at me with varying expressions of determination, curiosity and pity. Their eyes burned me. I couldn’t look.
“Utena.” Juri’s voice was unexpectedly quiet as she took my arm. Somehow she’d crossed the room to stand in front of me. “Utena, you must tell us. It’s the only way we can win. And…maybe it will help.”
“It can’t help,” I said in low despairing tones. “I don’t think anything can help.” Her hand on my arm bothered me, but I didn’t have the energy to shrug it off. The anger had been an instant flame that burned me out and left me wanting. Juri gently tilted my chin up, forcing me to look at her. Her intense eyes were surprisingly kind.
“You don’t know that. Besides, you’ve always been the champion of the truth. You always spoke it even when it hurt those you spoke to, or hurt yourself. You hate lies, remember?” Her other hand moved to my shoulder. “So be true to yourself. Tell us the truth now, all that you remember of it.”
The room was silent and staring. To my horror I felt tears slide down my cheeks. I was Tenjou Utena, the girl who wanted to be a prince with strength and nobility as my sword and shield. I did not cry, especially in front of a crowd of my old schoolmates. Uncharacteristically I longed to flee. I had never run from anyone or anything in my princely career, but I had to run now. Tensing under Juri’s light touch, I prepared to pull away and race for the door. Juri’s eyes narrowed as she watched me, the same way they had during our duels.
“No!” Correctly guessing my intention she grabbed my upper arms. She actually shook me hard, just like she had so long ago. “You don’t get to run! You don’t get to run away from all the pain we’ve had to go through, wondering what happened to you. Straighten up, and tell us what you know!” I slumped in her hold and she angrily shoved me away, back down onto the couch between Wakaba and Touga. Looming over me, she crossed her arms.
“God, what’s wrong with you?! You’ve lost all your spine!”
No-one said a word. I choked on a sob as the first admission tore its way out of me.
“Akio-san was there.” Silence met this. Wasn’t anybody surprised? I stumbled on.
“Akio was my…prince, the one who drew me out of my coffin when I was a little girl. Y’know, when my parents died.” Saionji made a strange noise in the back of his throat.
“He looked so handsome in his white suit,” I remembered, as a strange longing rose in my heart. “I was happy to see him, but it was…bad too.” I stared down at my fretful hands twisting in my lap. “I felt like something was wrong.”
“Of course it was.” Nanami was scornful. “I tried to tell you!”
“Did you?” I looked up, and whatever she saw in my eyes made her own rebound away. “Did any of you?” I asked. So many guilty faces now, and nobody meeting my eyes but Anthy alone. She gazed up at me with eyes brimming with tears. She was biting her lip. Dragging my eyes from hers, I struggled miserably on.
“He was Ends of the World all along.” My voice was bitter. “I never even guessed it until then. I was such an idiot.” My hands and my heart clenched painfully. “Himemiya vanished and when I looked for her she was lying on the stairs, looking like she was broken.” My voice cracked. “I tried to ask Akio-san about it but he called me his pr…princess. He said we could live together in the castle in the sky, happily ever after.”
“Really?” Touga’s voice was faintly suspicious. “That’s what he said?”
I went on as though he hadn’t spoken. If I stopped now I’d never be able to start again. “H..he pulled the sword out of my chest…”
Gasps all around.
“And I turned into a princess. Suddenly I was dressed just like Himemiya, but in a pink bridal gown. He wanted to make me forget I was a prince.” I looked at Anthy and suddenly forgot where I was, as I found answering anguish in her eyes.
“I kept looking for you, but you wouldn’t look at me. You were sitting on that awful couch like you were d…dead. Akio-san said I should forget you, that I wasn’t a pr…prince, since I’d even betrayed Kanae-san to be with him.”
I’d never admitted that betrayal to myself before. Feeling sick I flushed with shame.
A strangled exclamation, I couldn’t tell from who. I still couldn’t tear my eyes away from Anthy’s. We were gazing at each other like we were drowning. My voice became more and more husky.
“Then you were lying there in his l…lap, and he was stroking your hair, and your eyes were…oh God, so empty. I looked for you but you wouldn’t look up at me. You weren’t even really there!” Anthy’s hands flew to her cheeks and unlike then, she was looking at me now. Peering right into me, into what was left of my heart.
My voice was hoarse. “He bent over you, and all these…s…swords just exploded out of you!” My voice shook with the horror of the moment. “He said it was because you were a w…witch, that it was your punishment which you deserved. He said that you, that you, he said y…you liked it.”
“She did,” purred that deep familiar voice. With a strangled cry I finally tore my eyes from Anthy’s. I couldn’t believe it. Akio stood framed in the doorway, looming over us all with a smug smile. Like at the teahouse, it was completely unexpected. Utter chaos erupted.