Chapter 11: Weapons
At first I was frozen.
Beside me Touga leapt up, while Wakaba clutched my arm. Juri was on her feet, backing away slowly, dragging Miki with her. Nanami, Tsuwabuki and Keiko were clinging to each other seemingly unaware of the fact. A horrified Saionji had fallen off his chair and was staring up at Akio from the floor.
Meanwhile Anthy hadn’t even turned her head to look at her brother. Rather her eyes were glued on me. I didn’t understand her expression which was a strange mix of panic and appeal. Slowly I pushed myself to my feet, my own eyes flitting from Akio to Anthy and back again. A sense of dread hung thickly in the air. Was that buzzing only in my imagination?
“Do you like it, Utena-kun?” Akio’s voice was richly amused, like he was about to burst into laughter at any moment. “Do you like the pain of the million swords of hatred?”
“W…What?” I stammered, and having managed speech I was suddenly able to rush to stand beside Anthy’s kneeling form. It was hard to think past the cloying fear that dampened my back with sudden sweat. Vaguely I felt one of Anthy’s damp hands brush my leg. She was sweating too.
“You’ve had a little taste.” Akio’s knowing eyes brushed my abdomen. “Did you like it?”
“Stop it, you bastard!” Juri’s voice was cold and clipped. Out of the corner of my eye I saw she was shaking, although she held herself stiffly erect. Miki was with her, both of them having moved to stand supportively at my shoulders. If they’d had swords they would have been holding them in defensive postures. But Akio just laughed, placing one hand on his slim hip in an arrogant pose.
“Do you think you deserve it?” he asked me, ignoring Juri. “Or have you had enough? Perhaps…Anthy deserves it more?” He smiled in apparent kindness down at his sister, but I knew it was a lie, just like everything about him. His smile snapped my temper, helping me gather up my fragmented courage.
“She never deserved it!” I hissed. “You did! You do!” I took a step toward him, but was immediately pulled back by Juri and Miki grabbing my shoulders, while Anthy wound an arm around my legs. Akio threw back his head and laughed.
“You seem a little confused,” he purred, running one hand through his long hair, which he wore out to match his prince’s uniform. “The prince doesn’t bear the swords. That is the duty of the rose bride.” His eyes narrowed as he glanced down at her again, obviously trying to get her attention. “After all it’s Anthy’s fault that the prince became World’s End. Isn’t it, Anthy?”
Somebody gasped. Someone else cried out.
“Is that true?” asked Saionji almost wonderingly.
“I believe it!” said Nanami, glaring at Anthy with tangible hatred and fear.
“Don’t be an idiot, you can’t believe a word this dog says,” bit out Juri.
“Oh I don’t know,” murmured Touga. “Some of what he says makes sense.”
“Traitor!” hissed Saionji.
“Let’s get out of here,” Keiko begged nobody in particular.
“It’s not Himemiya’s fault,” I shouted, holding up one hand to stop them all. “She tried to save Akio-san a long time ago.” I glowered across the room at him.
“You don’t have a very good understanding of, well, anything really,” said Akio mildly, as though he was talking to an idiot toddler. “I don’t think you should be the one telling this story. Not when you’re missing one…key…piece.” His tone was dark with destructive promise. I wanted to yell questions at him even while I wanted to pick Anthy up and flee.
While I teetered on indecision the tableau unexpectedly shifted. Unbelievably Miki stepped forward and snapped out the question that was foremost on his mind.
“Where’s Kozue?” He glanced back appealingly to Juri and with a sigh she stepped forward to join him.
“And Shiori?” she added wearily.
Akio regarded them both as though they were his own errant children.
“There there,” he said placatingly. “They’re in the hospital of course. Surely Anthy’s told you all about the little accident she was responsible for. Or maybe she didn’t tell you? Witches do like to have their secrets.” He sneered down at his sister and her arm tightened reflexively around my legs. Without looking away from the danger I reached one hand down to touch her hair.
“How badly is Kozue hurt?” asked Miki in a shaking voice. He sagged where he stood and I suddenly understood that he would be no help now. It was as though Akio had disarmed him with some particularly clever swordplay.
“She asked for you,” purred Akio, “right before she fell into a coma.”
Miki made a noise that sounded like a strangled sob. Somehow I was reminded of the long-ago duel when Touga beat me, when I thought he was my prince. His words had been like a sword then. And hadn’t Anthy said the swords were words in this world? Or had they always been words?
Juri growled and stepped protectively past Miki, putting her within arm’s reach of Akio.
“You’re so full of it,” she told him. “How can we believe you when you’re the prince of lies?” Akio merely laughed into her accusing face.
“I take it you’re not so concerned about Shiori-kun. And you’d accuse me of having no heart.” He smiled wolfishly. Juri took a step back. I couldn’t see her face but the set of her shoulders was uneven. Slowly her head slumped forward. Akio laughed again. Without knowing what I did I strode forward to rest my hand on her back.
Something shattered. There was an unexpected flash of heat and light. I was doing something to Juri, something that caused her shoulders to straighten and her head to rise. The locket around her neck had started glowing with intense golden light. My hand felt like it was glued between her shoulder blades, pressing a little to the left over where her heart must be. An energy was surging between us, born of will and fire.
“Utena!” cried Anthy from behind me as the others gasped and murmured. Over Juri’s shoulder I saw Akio’s eyes widen, than narrow in consideration. Whatever it was, it lasted only seconds before my hand fell away to hang limply by my side. I swayed there, feeling drained and more than a little confused. In stark contrast, Juri exploded into action.
“Bastard!” she hissed, and she punched him. Technically it was a beautiful punch; my world slowed down to a snail’s pace and I could see that she excelled in punching like she did in fencing. Had she taken lessons? Her fist arced toward Akio’s jaw in what would surely be the right hook of the century…
Time snapped back into motion. Akio caught Juri’s wrist in one hand and twisted. There was a snapping sound. With a strangled cry she fell to the side. I stared. He had done that negligently like she was nothing to him, less than nothing. His eyes met mine and he smiled like the predator he was. Before I could move he was on me, backhanding me with tremendous force. My lip split under the jagged edge of his rose seal. Crumpled next to Juri, I lay dazed as Akio laughed above us.
“Pathetic,” he crowed. “Did you think you’d save her, Utena-kun? How can you? You can’t even save yourself.” He reached inside the breast pocket of his jeweled shirt. “Remember this?” I pushed myself up into a half-sitting position, staring dazedly at the white silk handkerchief he’d revealed. It was wrapped around something, some mystery object that sent my teeth humming and crimson flashing in front of my eyes. Desperately I struggled to my feet, standing in a half-crouch over the moaning Juri.
“The first victor to wield her own sword,” purred Akio, sweeping the room with languid eyes. He had a captive audience, each duelist simply watching him in stationary shock. Slowly, surely he allowed the handkerchief to flutter open. My eyes were riveted to the two long shards of broken metal within. So familiar…I felt like I was going to be sick. With a flourish Akio let the pieces fall. My knees gave out the instant the metal hit. I hit the floor hard, knees than face.
“So much for the sword of nobility,” he smirked, as I writhed helplessly at his feet. “It turned out to be…defective.” Negligently he bought one white boot down hard on the remains of my heart-sword, grinding it against the floor by my head. Anthy screamed my name. I think maybe some of the others did too, but hers was the only voice I could make out. Everything went black.
But only for one merciful second.
The world rushed back. Somehow I managed to raise my head, seeing everything tainted with bloody streaks. My head whirled as Akio sauntered past me toward his still-kneeling sister.
“So much for your girl prince,” he sneered to her. She finally looked up at him and her eyes were blank with what I now knew was hatred. Why had I never seen it? Had it been hidden behind something else?
“What is a prince without a sword?” Akio asked as though it was the most reasonable question in the world. He reached a hand down toward her. “The sword of Dios disappeared, sister. The sword of nobility is broken. There is no power left to revolutionize the world, now is there?”
Anthy’s eyes were blank, horrifically blank. I moaned.
“There is no world but that which we know,” Akio’s voice was terribly gentle. “I’ve come to take you back to our home, Anthy.” He smiled, looking like the prince who could save all the girls in the world. “We’ve always been together,” he murmured to her, as though they were alone in the room. “We always will be.”
It sounded so reasonable when he put it like that. I felt the magic moving beneath his words, so smoothly certain. He was the prince, the original and the only. He had come to claim his family, and to dethrone imposters. The lie slid against my mind (warm and comforting) for a moment…then I thrust it away. It was a lie! He was the liar!
“Anthy!” I screamed. I pounded my fist into the floor, pushing my trembling body to its feet. I didn’t need some stupid sword. I had my will for a sword. And my will was Anthy! Her shocked eyes snapped up to mine. There was nothing in them for one hellish moment, then the blankness became awareness. Desperately I stumbled forward, half falling every second.
“Leave,” she told her brother. Her voice was small and quiet, but oh so definite. It brooked no arguments. It wasn’t submissive. Gasping, he drew his hand back, as though she’d burned him.
“Don’t do this,” he told her, and while his voice was calm his raging eyes were anything but. “You don’t have much power left, do you Anthy? That little stunt at the tea house…the car accident…” He folded his arms. “What is a rose bride without her beloved Dios? Without the castle of eternity?” His tone took on an edge of resentment. “What is a witch without the million swords of hatred?”
“Are you afraid?” asked Anthy and it wasn’t a question. Her eyes were so cold it hurt me just to see them, even directed elsewhere. Slowly she raised both her hands to Akio, palms facing forward.
“This will be the last time you interfere!” Akio warned her, enraged and petulant all at once. I stumbled closer. “You won’t be able to protect her much longer,” he railed at Anthy. But he was backing away all the same. “Why are you wasting your time?!”
“Why are you blind to the truth?” she replied and her eyes were like ice as a lone tear slid down her cheek. She murmured something, something I couldn’t hear properly, or else didn’t have a frame of reference for and just…pushed out. She pushed her palms out toward Akio, but didn’t touch him…
The world exploded into white. I tripped over myself and fell just short of Akio, or rather of where he had been. Akio’s form rushed backwards past me, past everyone, out the door and into the night. The door slammed. I struggled back to my feet as the aftershock slammed through the air. I could have sworn I heard the echo of Akio’s laughter in the roaring around me. Helplessly I fell back to the floor. So close to where Anthy knelt now, she was only inches away…I wrapped my fingers in her skirt. I blinked up at her as the white shimmer faded.
“Anthy,” I croaked.
“You called me Anthy,” she said, as though that was the most fascinating thing to come out of the meeting. Her eyes were wide and soft, softer even than her hands brushing away the blood from my split lip.
“Uh,” I said foolishly, “I guess I did.”
“We have to get out of here!” Nanami was on her feet, wild-eyed and terrified, hair looking like a bomb had gone off. (Which maybe it had. I was rather unclear on the nature of the proceedings.) “He could be back at any moment!” she shrieked. “Run!” Several people started to do just that.
“Stop,” Anthy’s quiet voice was like an iron reed. Nanami stopped. Everybody stopped. We all looked at Anthy, still on her knees in the most unthreatening position imaginable. I couldn’t help noticing the fear on most faces. It bothered me, even while I understood it to be a fair reaction. “I’ve bought us some time,” she said, with such certainty that it was impossible to doubt her. “We have at least a day to escape him. Probably two.”
“What do we do?” fretted Wakaba, flittering over to crouch down next to us. “He said,” she flashed a petrified glance at Anthy, “your ah, p…power is gone?” Anthy didn’t confirm or deny it. She merely looked over to where Miki was helping Juri struggle into a sitting position.
“You have resources for us to try and outrun him?” she asked Juri.
For a long level moment Juri stared across the room at Anthy, clutching her obviously broken wrist with her good hand. Then her eyes flickered to me, and she sighed.
“Yes. Yes I do. Miki-kun…what we talked about. Can you arrange it now?” He rushed to obey her.
“I’m outta here!” Keiko stumbled to the door and started pulling fruitlessly at the handle. “You people are crazy! You should all leave now, and let the chairman have her.” She glared in Anthy’s general direction without daring to look right at her. “You heard what he said,” she gasped, her fingers scrambling madly. The door seemed to be stuck. “It’s her fault anyway, so leave her and let’s get out of here. He doesn’t want us, he wants her!”
“He wants us all,” I said, and I knew it to be the unpalatable truth, even as I still didn’t know how I knew it. “He needs Himemiya first, but he’ll come for us all in the end.” I looked at Keiko, and suddenly her knobbly elbows clawing at the door seemed rather insect-like to me. “Don’t go, Sonoda-kun,” I pleaded. “You won’t be safe.”
“Shut up!” she gasped, tugging at the door. “You’re an idiot and you don’t know anything.”
“We’re all his pawns,” said Saionji miserably from the ruins of his chair. “Game pieces for him to use and destroy. I think I always knew it, felt it deep inside.”
“Don’t be a fool,” retorted Touga, reaching down to haul his friend off the floor. “Snap out of it.”
“No, you snap out of it!” hissed Saionji, clutching Touga’s shirt in angry fingers. “You think you’re so smart! But really you’re being set up for a bigger fall than the rest of us poor scum.”
Touga stared at Saionji silently, and he didn’t push him away. I wondered what he was thinking beneath his cool exterior.
“Let me go!” cried Keiko again, “I have to go!” Beside me I heard Anthy murmur almost under her breath in the affirmative. The door came open at last, and Keiko stumbled outside and was gone. I stared over Anthy’s shoulder after her, wondering how it had come to be that Anthy was buried in my arms, which were under her arms and over her shoulders. I clutched her convulsively to my chest. Although she couldn’t see my face she answered my questioning look, whispering against my neck:
“It was her choice.” Slowly I found myself nodding. But I didn’t like it. We shouldn’t leave anyone behind, even Keiko. Even if she didn’t want to be saved. Yet we didn’t have time to go after her…
“If we have to trust one of them, and we have no other choice, I say we trust the rose bride,” snapped Nanami. Tsuwabuki was dusting her off. She glowered over at us and I could see in every tense line of her body that she was scared stiff and trying to hide it.
“I’m not the rose bride,” said Anthy, even as I said:
“She’s not the rose bride.”
“Whatever,” sniffed Nanami. “At least we have you,” she glared at me, “as some kind of guarantee.”
“Huh?” I said.
But Nanami ignored me as I helped Anthy to her feet, wrapping one arm over her slim shoulders. I swayed a little, feeling an ache deep inside my chest. Anthy swayed too, clearly exhausted. Mournfully I surveyed the rubble all around us that had minutes before been Juri’s tastefully decorated lounge.
“A van is on its way,” announced Miki, rushing back into the room. “We need to pack. Hurry.”
“Oh goody,” said Saionji, “I suppose I get to wear clothes that belong to a midget.” He sneered at Miki who manfully ignored him.
“Poor Keiko-sempai,” said Tsuwabuki mournfully.
“Don’t be silly,” snapped Nanami, but she sounded worried.
Juri picked her way over to where Anthy and I stood, stepping over the remains of her couch as she nursed her arm against her chest.
“I just want to say,” she said through gritted teeth, “you two are officially uninvited for dinner.”
“Uh sorry,” I mumbled. I knew that this was just Juri’s way of keeping it together. She wasn’t one to show weakness of any kind.
“Your furniture was very nice,” said Anthy, sounding quite unrepentant.
“Yes,” growled Juri, “yes it was.”
I flushed. You really couldn’t take Anthy anywhere.
Chapter 12: Beneath the Surface
It was a nightmare, it had to be. Nine of us crammed into one camper van on a murderously hot day. We were racing down a road in the middle of nowhere. The van was painted red (Miki had mumbled his apologies, ironically the rental shop had no other colors available), which magnified the unbearable heat. Naturally the sky was cloudlessly blue. I was reminded of the gaping maw of some mythical beast, hovering over its next meal. All around us stretched what appeared to be a desert landscape. I didn’t remember there ever having been wilderness nearby. And wasn’t it winter?
Saionji was driving, with Wakaba as his self-appointed company in the passenger seat. I could hear the high-pitched buzz of her constant conversation through the partition. Obviously she was excited to have her highschool crush all to herself. I couldn’t hear anything from him aside from the occasional grunt.
Everyone else was crowded miserably in the camping section; Juri and Miki were seated on the bottom bunk, Miki expertly wrapping a bandage around her wrist. Nanami was having her hair brushed by Tsuwabuki on the top bunk (which was rather disturbing to watch). Touga was stretched out laconically on a tiger-skin, filling the floor space with his sinuous frame. He looked remarkably comfortable. Finally there was an old armchair in the very back (as out of place as the rug) which I was sharing with Anthy half-seated on top of me. I was hot and sweaty with my hair sticking unpleasantly to my neck. Yet I wouldn’t have moved for anything.
Anthy had been quiet and almost…washed-out since the confrontation at Juri’s, and I wanted to keep an eye on her. For my own part I was conscious of my wound throbbing lightly where her spine pressed against me (but who cared about something like that), and of a general ache in the vicinity of my heart. Frankly I was more attentive to the threatening blue sky, just outside those ridiculously frilly curtains. No, Anthy wasn’t going anywhere if I had anything to do about it. Wrapping my arms loosely around her waist I breathed in her comforting scent.
“Where are we going anyway?” asked Nanami. “Ow. Have a care, Tsuwabuki-kun. Be gentle!”
“Yes, Nanami-sama, sorry.” He sounded more excited than repentant. I guessed it wasn’t everyday a just-turned teenager got to be so intimate with his adult mistress.
“We need to put distance between us and Ohtori-san.” Juri’s voice was thoughtful. “We need time to decide what to do.”
“Yes,” said Miki, “although…it bothers me that we’re going away from Kozue.”
“We have no choice,” Juri reminded him. “She’s with the chairman. You can be sure he’ll be aware of everything that happens to her.”
“Yes,” he said dejectedly. “I hope she’s not hurt too badly.”
“He’s a liar,” Juri told him. “I doubt she’s in a coma…” She paused uncertainly, obviously realizing she had no way of proving that statement. Miki was hanging his head.
“What’s so interesting outside?” asked Touga. With a start I realized he’d propped himself up on his elbows and was watching me intently.
“Er nothing,” I said, face burning.
“Oh really?” he purred back.
“It’s so hot,” I moaned, trying to change the subject. Anthy was wearing a midriff top in palest green and I watched in fascination as a line of sweat dripped down her stomach. It ended up sliding past the waistband of her schoolgirl-style skirt, which remained as short as in our school days. Her legs slid smoothly along my own mostly bared ones. This was clearly the advantage of wearing my mini-shorts…I blushed at my odd thoughts without knowing why.
“I’m tired,” Anthy murmured. Half-turning she pushed her head against my chest. I moved to wrap my arm accommodatingly around her shoulders.
“Sleep,” I told her. “We don’t have to do anything right now.” She husked something I didn’t quite catch and relaxed against me. Her forehead was digging into my collarbone but I didn’t want to move her. Something told me she needed all the rest she could get. My arms tightened a little. I just…didn’t want to lose her. The craziness of current events made me fear I might. But that couldn’t happen, right? Since the last duel, I didn’t have to worry about things like that. Right? I fretted and studiously avoided looking in Touga’s direction.
A little while later when Anthy was soundly asleep (and snoring into my ear, worst luck) Juri picked her way over to perch on the arm of our chair. Her injured wrist was swathed in bandages now, strapped against her chest in a sling.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly in her rather abrupt fashion. Covertly she glanced toward the others, checking that they couldn’t overhear. “I understand now why you er…” She paused uncertainly.
“Lost my spine?” I filled in for her. She had the good grace to blush. I dredged up a grin. “Oh well, good, because I’m not so sure how it happened myself.” Juri looked like she didn’t know whether to believe me.
“Your heart sword is broken,” she told me. “Right? That’s what those shards of metal were?” I only shivered in response and she touched my arm lightly. “How anyone could survive that I don’t know. It’s no wonder you’re…different. But somehow you’re still the same.” One graceful hand moved to start fiddling with her locket, and I felt oddly uncomfortable without knowing why.
“Thank you for…whatever it is you did to help me back there.” Oddly enough she sounded uncomfortable too.
“No problem,” I muttered, “you would have done the same for me.” She looked up again and for one heartstopping moment I felt like I was drowning in pools of green…that weren’t the pools I wanted to be drowning in. I wrenched my eyes away and looked down at the top of Anthy’s head instead. There, that was safe. When had Anthy stopped snoring?
Juri cleared her throat. “How did it get broken?” she asked me, gently for her, and after all that had happened I thought I should try to tell her that much.
“Akio used it to try and beat down the rose gate,” I said. “He thought it was the key. But it wasn’t.”
“The door to eternity,” murmured Juri, something very like awe in her voice. She studied me intently. “Did it…open then? Did you…”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I don’t know how but I got it open.” Reflexively I glanced at the tracery of scars on my hands. Juri’s eyes followed mine.
“What was there?” she asked slowly.
“Anthy,” I said, testing the unfamiliar-familiar name on my tongue. It was strange not to call her Himemiya, for I always had. But in this time and place with so much between us, it was also right.
Juri gasped again. “What?!”
“It was her coffin,” I revealed, as I started to stroke Anthy’s hair. “She didn’t even know me at first.” We fell silent as we both thought about the ramifications of that. Juri didn’t speak for a long time, just watched me watching Anthy. I was too tired to ask what she was thinking, and she didn’t volunteer it.
Eventually she got up and went back to Miki. They conversed in whispers, conspicuously not looking at me. I sighed. No doubt they were back to their plotting and planning. Well. Maybe somebody should be. Anthy kept her own counsel. And I didn’t have any head for games, either five years previous or now when I needed to even more.
* * *
An hour later we saw the first sign of pursuit. Touga was standing at the window gazing out when he shouted in alarm.
Juri and Miki were at his sides in a moment, straining to see.
“What is it?!” I asked from where I was trapped cradling Anthy.
“I don’t know yet,” said Touga grimly. “But it looks like Akio-san.”
I swore under my breath.
“It’s a red convertible,” Miki told me. “It’s gaining.”
I swore again. Nanami whimpered from the bunk.
“Wait a minute,” said Juri, “is it really a convertible?”
The three of them stared some more.
“Nooo,” said Touga at last, “I don’t think it is. It’s some other model I haven’t seen before. Close though.”
“Very close,” murmured Miki. “They’re going to pass us.”
“Who’s in it?” I asked. What the hell was going on?!
“Um, three girls,” revealed Miki. “I can’t see them properly, the sun’s in my eyes…they’re just silhouettes.”
“They look familiar,” said a grim Juri.
“Not to me.” That was Touga. He shrugged at Juri’s annoyed look.
“There’s another car coming already,” pointed out Miki. “See that dust cloud on the horizon?”
“There’s been no traffic at all until now,” noted Touga, before continuing in a surprised voice: “it’s red.”
I gasped and Tsuwabuki climbed down the bunk to run to where the others stood at the window.
“It would be red,” muttered Juri.
“It’s a convertible!” announced Miki.
I couldn’t stand it. I slipped out from beneath Anthy, trying my best not to wake her. She slumped to one side and didn’t stir, confirming to my mind her newfound vulnerability. Not that she wasn’t always oddly vulnerable…
I rushed to press myself between Juri and Touga. The convertible was rapidly gaining, despite the fact we were fairly flying down the road. As it drew even we all gasped. It was…was it…Akio-san? No it couldn’t be…
But the long-haired man in the business suit bore more than a passing resemblance. He titled his sunglasses and glanced over to smile at us. We gaped like idiots. His car roared on ahead and then out of sight.
“Weird,” muttered Tsuwabuki. “Come and see, Nanami-sama.”
“No thanks,” she growled from the top bunk.
“This is ridiculous,” hissed Juri. Another red car had already appeared on the horizon. “He’s playing with us. He has to be.”
“Maybe it’s a coincidence,” said Touga. We all watched this red car (rather beat up as though it had been in an accident) struggle to pass us. Two young women were in evidence: the violet-haired one with her arm in a sling, and the blue-haired one apparently asleep in the passenger seat. Or at least she was slumped back and her eyes were closed… Miki froze. Juri looked outraged.
“It’s not them,” she told him stiffly. “Just relax.” And she was right, it wasn’t anyone we knew. It was just a red car, and they were just strangers. Slowly but surely they passed us, leaving us shivering in their wake and watching the horizon.
Long minutes passed. No more cars came. We waited some more. Eventually we drifted back to our places, one by silent one.
The cars had been coincidence. Just like the desert. Just like the way Akio kept turning up at the worst possible time. I gritted my teeth as I slid back into the armchair and gently repositioned Anthy’s sleeping form. Sure. Coincidence.
* * *
The sun was sinking into the horizon when we pulled up at a convenient hotel. Actually the hotel was a tad too convenient…it was a five star tower, obviously belonging in a bustling city. Yet here it was just when we needed it, standing on the edge of the unnatural wilderness. It was wrong.
Juri and Miki discussed this while Saionji and Touga bickered. Eventually the group headed into the hotel to book anyway (where else could we go?), leaving me alone in the van with my still sleeping companion. In the gathering shadows of twilight I bent my head toward her ear.
“Anthy,” I whispered enjoying the taste of her name on my lips, and the accompanying sensation of her own lips brushing the hollow of my neck where she lay.
“Utena-sama,” she murmured, which made me frown, and then there was an instant where I felt minute tension in her body as she froze. No doubt she was wondering where (and when?) she was. Then she relaxed and leaned back to look up at me. My arms were loosely around her now. Her eyes were so innocent, so vulnerable, as I had always noticed. Yet suddenly I saw they were also ancient…knowing…cold. Beneath the warmth was something…sly. Was this what some of the others had seen? Why they didn’t like her? I gasped just a little.
She stayed still and gazed back at me. For a moment I wondered if she knew what I was thinking…if she always knew.
“Your eyes…” I stumbled to a stop.
“Yes?” she husked.
“Th…they’re beautiful.” I meant it. Beneath that ancient slyness was something else, something new. Something I could only just glimpse – something being born.
She laughed. It was a joyous sound, and in that moment she looked wild and fey. Helplessly I ran one hand through the glorious mane of her hair. She smiled up at me, looking so much better than she had, and only a little tired. Her head leaned into my hand as her hand rose to rest lightly on my chest, directly over where my heart-sword was. I sighed at the strange sensation. Slowly the low-level throbbing intensified, almost like her questing fingers were a brand.
“It hurts,” she said, not a question.
“Yes,” I gasped, and I was not surprised to see the globe of light she always conjured begin to illuminate her hand.
“Let me…just try this,” she murmured and her eyes slanted half-shut in concentration. They always did when she drew my sword. I saw they were secretive, even seductive. Had I truly never noticed that before?
“Okay,” I husked back, biting my lip at the familiar sensation. As always I felt pleasure course through me, building and building until it hovered right on the point of pain. My eyes dropped closed and my head went limp against the chair-back. If I’d been standing surely my body would have flowed backwards, caught up in the magic of this ritual. But it was different this time. Pain was flaring too, in ever-higher arcs, making me gasp and writhe beneath Anthy’s hand. My stinging eyes blinked back open to see Anthy’s were wide as she studied the burst of light.
“It’s okay, shhh. Just try and keep still,” she murmured to me, trying to lift her hand to call the sword forth. I glimpsed the very tip of the jeweled foil begin to emerge and then it stopped with a grating sound. I ground my teeth. Agonizing. Something was going wrong.
“Hold on,” she whispered again, creases of concentration lining her forehead. About an inch of the handle appeared, excruciatingly slowly. It stalled again, catching jarringly on something deep inside, forcing me to cry out in anguish. Anthy flashed me a frantic look.
“Just a few more seconds…” My eyes closed against my will as she kept pulling; I bit my lip to stop from crying out again. I tasted blood. Fires burned on the back of my eyelids.
“I’m sorry,” Anthy sounded frustrated now. “Utena, I’m going to have to force it.”
“Do it,” I somehow gasped, desperate for the ordeal to be over. Anthy grunted with effort and pulled. I moaned, then yelled. A sunburst of light flared so brightly I saw it through my eyelids. With a horrible rasping sound like bone scraping bone, what was left of my heart-sword flew free.
I knew it was gone because the pain subsided immediately. Hesitantly my eyes blinked open. Raising one shaking hand to wipe my sweaty brow I looked at the heart-sword Anthy held. It was broken beyond repair, just one inch of jagged metal attached to the hilt. Useless.
“It’s beautiful,” whispered Anthy, raising it to eye level. I dragged my eyes away from the sword to meet hers in shock.
Anthy smiled into my eyes and pressed her lips to the hilt.
“It’s even more beautiful than it was,” she told me.
“Um,” I said, feeling my usual flood of confusion at her strange sayings. “Can it be fixed?” Anthy didn’t meet my eyes as she beckoned to ChuChu and handed him the blade (where on earth had he been all this time?! I didn’t remember seeing him since before the meeting…) Self-importantly he received it and scurried off.
“No,” she told me, and I heard regret (and guilt?) in her subdued voice. But then she smiled and stroked the valley between my breasts, in what was probably meant to be a soothing gesture. “But maybe there’s another way.”
“Another way?” I echoed shuddering against her touch. Her fingers were surprisingly distracting now the aching had stopped. Or maybe they were like that because of the aching.
“Come on,” she told me, rising gracefully and pulling me up to join her. “The others are waiting for us.”
I scowled as I followed her. Why couldn’t she just answer me like a normal person? If she sensed my irritation she ignored it. We stepped from the van to meet two sets of quizzical eyes.
“We heard screaming,” burst out Tsuwabuki.
“It was nothing,” murmured Anthy, still holding my hand. I thought about pulling away then sighed in resignation. I didn’t want to lose contact with her, even now.
“Oh yes,” snarked Nanami, “I’m so sure.” She glared at Anthy who didn’t seem to notice.
“Let’s go,” she told me instead, pulling me lightly toward the looming hotel tower. I followed, wondering what Nanami and her minion had been doing loitering outside.
“I’m sick of never knowing anything,” I mumbled.
“It’s the price you pay,” Anthy told me, as we entered the revolving glass doors. “For knowing everything.”
“Right,” I muttered. “Uhuh.” But I followed her meekly.