Chapter 13: Under the Stars
“I should have thought of it sooner,” fretted Anthy from her position pressed against my side. It was after the dinner our bickering party had shared in the hotel’s restaurant. Now we were leaning against the low rock wall of the deserted rooftop, thirteen stories above desert sands. Oddly enough the flat roof formed a recreational garden with a pool, surrounded by rose bushes and fernery. Sunbathing lounges and umbrellas were scattered strategically. Since it was night, we were the only two in evidence. It was a relief to be alone with Anthy, away from tensions and games I didn’t understand.
I mused to myself that money seemed to be no object to our group. Was it just that Juri was rich (as her apartment had suggested), or were the others helping pay expenses? I didn’t know what any of them did for a living…even what Anthy had done to make ends meet while she hunted me down. Obviously I had no money to speak of. Hell, I hadn’t even finished high school. I’d been way too busy trying to…my thoughts creaked to a halt.
“Thought of what?” I asked Anthy instead, caught up in the sensation of her body’s warmth. A light breeze mingled our long hair backwards in pink and purple streamers. We stared out at the earthy red of wilderness stretching as far as the eye could see. Trillions of stars burned overhead. The moon was rising, unnaturally fat and orange. My usual fear of the open sky seemed distant and muted. I turned to find Anthy watching me, her face very close to mine.
“Your broken sword,” she murmured, her breath sweet against my cheek. “That it would be…hurting you. Holding you back.”
“Oh,” I said watching the way her lips framed her words. My earlier frustration with her was all but forgotten. Or maybe it was muted like my fear of the sky. Something else was overpowering it, demanding my avid attention. Anthy’s eyes flickered to my lips, hers curving into a smile. She gazed up into my eyes, turning her body toward mine.
“I should have remembered,” she husked.
“I forgot all about it,” I told her, barely aware of what I was saying. All I could see was her. Here with me. So close. To my grave disappointment she turned back to gaze out at the view.
“It’s probably how he tracked us,” she mused. “Probably.”
“I suppose,” I said, but I couldn’t care less. So close and yet so far away. I wanted something, ached for something I’d always wanted without even knowing what it was. Ever a woman of action, I wanted to spring into it now. To do…something. But what? What was it I wanted so badly? The answer eluded me. I stared at the desert unseeingly. Some of Anthy’s hair blew against my face. It was so soft. I blinked it out of my eyes and didn’t turn away.
“This reminds me of that other night,” she told me. I knew exactly the one she meant but was startled she’d bring it up. Another great height, that time a balcony and two desperately uncertain girls sobbing out tears of redemption.
“Why did you jump?” My voice came out throaty. Anthy glanced at me and the corners of our eyes brushed over each other, then rebounded away. She laughed, a strangely sad noise.
“Why did you catch me?”
“I’ll always catch you.” I’d never been more serious in my life. She sighed and looked away so I couldn’t see her profile.
“I know that…now.” Her voice was very soft. Almost uncertain. It gave me the incentive I needed to burst into mindless action. It was only when it was like this that I knew what to do, I don’t know how exactly.
I grabbed her shoulders and turned her toward me, to search her eyes anxiously with mine.
“Don’t ever do it again.” She stared at me.
“Of course not.”
“No matter how hard it gets. No matter what happens.” I was firm. She hesitated.
“What’s going to happen?”
“Nothing that we can’t make it through.” I grasped her hand and kissed the palm. She didn’t look away. “Together,” I added. Tears filled her eyes. I don’t know what mine looked like in that moment; I imagine they were burning with my sincerity.
“T…together,” she agreed. I was kissing her palm again when she leaned forward to press her lips next to mine against her own palm. With a whispery touch the corners of our lips brushed each other. I dropped her hand and stared at her. My face was burning…I wasn’t sure why. Anthy let her hand fall and just stood there, watching me closely.
“Utena,” she said. My heart filled to the bursting.
“Anthy,” I replied. Slowly, hesitantly I groped for her hands hanging between us, now folded in her characteristic pose. I held them cradled in my own and we both looked down at my thin white scars and her subtle dark fingers.
“It’s like you’re always touching me,” I whispered, trying to mold into words that which drifted nebulously in my subconscious. “Even when we’re far apart.”
“Yes,” she agreed, and she waited patiently to see what I would do.
“I was only ever truly happy when I was with you,” I admitted as I had once before, struggling toward the answer. “And now I’m happy because we’ve found each other again.”
“Yes,” she was outwardly calm but I felt her heart pounding through the pulse points of her delicate wrists.
“You’re my beloved dearest friend,” I whispered. “I don’t even know how it happened.”
“Neither do I,” she whispered back.
“I love you,” I said. She nodded. She was smiling that small and annoying smile.
“Yes,” she agreed. My eyes widened as I tasted the newness of what that really meant.
“Like this,” I faltered, and before I could second-guess myself I leaned forward and pressed my lips softly to hers, our hands clasped between us.
It was the shortest of kisses, like the brush of butterfly wings. Friendly. Sweet. And yet…with nothing chaste about it. Not with the newfound knowledge exploding inside me, filling me up and overflowing into the next logical stage between us.
“Anthy,” I gasped, terrified and utterly elated.
“Utena,” she smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you.” And she kissed me. One second. Two. Five. Her lips moved softly against mine, but they didn’t part. I gasped for breath, causing my lips to open against hers. I gasped again. But she leaned away, kissing my cheek as a parting gift. I leaned after her, and suddenly I couldn’t stop myself. My cheeks were red, my body was burning and I found my clarity.
“I want you,” I gasped, shocked at myself and causing her eyes to widen and darken. At once I moved my hands to wind through her hair as I crushed our lips together. This time her mouth opened under mine, and our eyes slid shut in tandem. I felt the tip of her tongue against mine and my mind deserted me in the hot wetness that was her. I moaned into her mouth.
Time stopped for me. I didn’t know where I was or would go, or where I had been. There was only Anthy, clutched close in my feverish embrace, and Anthy’s lips hotly moist beneath my own. The tantalizing scent of roses that I remembered from childhood whirled around me. Anthy had been there in my life’s defining moment…she was here now. She was all that had ever been. I’d vowed to become a prince for her, and now my lips were making new promises. This moment, kissing her, losing myself in her...it was the culmination of everything. We were meant to be.
Her arms had wrapped themselves around my waist and we were stumbling backward as we kissed; I don’t know who was propelling who. We crashed together onto one of the sun lounges – I took the force of our fall with my back, which I barely registered. Not when Anthy was lying on top of me, hands cupping my flushed cheeks as she kissed me fiercely. Her warm weight pinned me in place and one thigh pressed insistently between my legs. Somehow my body still ached with wanting more of her. The lounge’s wooden slats dug into my back and we bumped noses as we pulled back for air, only to immediately start kissing again. I didn’t care. It was perfect.
“Utena,” she sighed, her lips trailing fire down my neck. I arched helplessly into her kisses, my hands wrapping themselves around her biceps. Her fervent lips made me dizzy in a way I’d never been, never known I could be. I pulled her back up to press my lips to hers again.
“My prince,” she whispered against my questing lips, and opened her mouth to mine. I felt myself grow wet.
“Anthy,” I gasped back, and it was a prayer. Our tongues slid together. My hands slipped up under her top to trace the delicate lines of her back. One of her hands was at the back of my neck while the other had skimmed down my torso to brush at my breast through my thin shirt. Suddenly getting closer to Anthy was the most important thing in the world. I half sat up, heedless of the dull and distant ache of my sword wound. She rocked back onto her knees and helped me half unbutton and then pull my shirt off and toss it aside. We gazed at each other hungrily.
Her fingers slid under the bottom of my bra, running around my torso just under my breasts. I kissed beside her lips, her chin, her throat as she found the hooks at the back and deftly unclipped it. I felt my breasts spring free at last, and then her head was pushing me back down as her tongue paid homage to my chest. Teasingly it grazed the edge of one turgid nipple.
“Please,” I gasped, not knowing exactly what I meant, but meaning it with my entire being. I wove my fingers through her mane of hair and stared at a billion stars shining down on us. They weren’t more beautiful than gazing into her wide green eyes. Nothing could be, and I longed to gaze into them again. I writhed beneath her mouth as she continued to tease me, flicking her tongue all around my nipple but never touching it.
“Please,” I gasped again, dizzy with the pleasure of having my dearest friend, my Anthy touch me so intimately. A strange feeling was washing up over me, like a storm hovering on the horizon. My blood was humming in my veins, and I felt that I just needed more…if her tongue could just brush my throbbing nipples than it would be…what I needed. More.
“An-thy…” I groaned low in my throat and I felt her giggle against my wet breast. She drew back suddenly to smile down at me. My shaking hands moved of their own accord to steady themselves on her hips. I drowned in her heated gaze.
“So ready,” she purred down at me. “But it’s too soon.”
“No,” I panted back, “it’s not. It’s been so long…”
Her eyes (so rich with ancient knowledge) swam with equally sudden tears. “You’re right,” she murmured, and she gracefully dipped back down, and oh, now her tongue was swirling over my nipple. I felt like I would come out of my skin. I thought I heard someone gasp, but I couldn’t be sure who it was. Running footsteps? No, that must be the pounding of my heart. Anthy’s tongue was my world and…wait. Someone was calling me…someone wanted me to…what? What did they want?
“Anthy?” I asked, and her tongue pressed harder. No, it wasn’t her. Was it? Who was it? I didn’t know and didn’t really care. Her lips…so hot, her tongue…so softly firm. The very air hummed around me. It was thick and swarming now, like the moment before a tropical storm would break. I broke out in sweat. I pressed the apex of my legs up against Anthy’s thigh desperately, wanting the dam to break. My trembling hands were twined again in her wildly unnatural tresses (were they longer now?). Her teeth nipped at me, lightly, knowingly. My eyes closed involuntarily, and I cried out and arched up desperately, on the edge of…
“Witch!” My eyes snapped open. What the HELL?! My eyes widened in horror as I stared up into the previously peaceful night sky. The stars…the stars were moving. Those billion pinpoints of light, all rushing inward, rushing toward us. Far away, maybe even in another galaxy but falling toward us at more than the speed of light, falling inevitably. I gasped and tensed.
“Witch! Witch! Witch!” shouted the stars in low and growling voices. The humming grew louder. The words were blurring in their intensity. “Witch! Witnce! Wrince! Prince! Prince! Prince!” Anthy’s teeth scraped my nipple again, and I shot a terrified glance at her lowered head. Didn’t she hear it?
“Anthy!” I cried, meaning for her to stop and look, but she took it as a plea for more. Her thigh moved up to press harder against my core and I felt myself dangerously suspended, shaking desperately, liable to find release at any moment.
The stars fell. The stars shouted. I watched them utterly helpless to do more than arch against Anthy in every place her body touched mine. Cognizant speech deserted me; I was moaning endlessly. The stars were falling. They were coming closer…closer. A wave was building inside of me, and I was peaking…closer…closer…so close now…
The stars were swords. They had fallen close enough that I could see their true nature. My eyes were wide with horror. A million swords of hatred, shining like stars, falling forever. Falling onto us.
“NO!” I screamed, and I finally found the power to move. I exploded into action, pushing Anthy up and off me, rolling us both off the sun lounge and onto the tiled deck. Shielding her desperately with my body, I saw her shocked eyes look past me even as I saw the moment of dawning horror.
“The swords…” she whispered, and started shaking. Her eyes met mine, wide with dismay and a terrible resignation. “Let me up, Utena.”
“No,” I growled pressing my hands tightly against her shoulders. “Never.”
“Utena,” she pleaded. Then she was like a wildcat, arching against me frantically, trying to throw me off.
“Stop it,” I gritted out. Her hands curled into claws which she scraped over my naked breasts. I cried out but didn’t let go. I knew what she was doing, the sacrifice she was trying to make. And I absolutely would. not. accept it. Now or ever. She could fight me all she wanted. I was unmovable stone.
She struggled for long moments more, tugging futilely at my wrists, and even kneeing me in the groin. I yelled and squirmed but didn’t move away. Clenching my teeth I summoned up all my willpower and ignored her, although it went against every instinct I had. She was strong, stronger than I knew, but I could be stronger still. Her suddenly cruel hands reached to tear my bandage away. I screamed when she raked the wound, opening it afresh to the chilly night air. But I didn’t move. Nothing could make me. Didn’t she know that by now?
Her eyes were on the swords over my shoulder and she was screaming now, screaming piteously at what she saw coming. For me, I thought. I’d watched her meet her own hellish fate with apathy. It was because the swords were coming for me that she was like this.
“No!” she yelled pounding her fists heedlessly against my chest. “Utena, no! No! NO!” As I waited her words blurred with the words chanted from above:
“Prince! No! Prince! No! Utena! No! Prince! No prince! UTENA NO PRINCE!”
I was gazing into her eyes when they hit.
Time warped for me, turning sluggishly slow. The first sword pierced my chest. It slammed into and out of my heart, lodging itself there half in and out of me. I gasped at the shock of it, watching in disbelief as blood trickled down its length to form a pearl that dripped onto Anthy. She screamed, the swords screamed, a male screamed nearby. I had no breath to scream. Anthy opened her mouth to scream again but I could no longer hear anything over the roaring in my ears.
The second sword eagerly entered the wound Anthy had ripped back open, slipping into my back with relish. My forearms trembled where they held Anthy’s shoulders down. The third sword went through my left shoulder so hard that it slammed into the tiles beneath, skewering Anthy in the process. Yet through the spreading haze I could see that it somehow hadn’t touched her at all. She lay there, unhurt, staring up at me like a lost little girl. Silent tears ran down her cheeks, and her hands had dropped from my chest to lie uselessly at her sides.
The third and fourth swords penetrated my head and neck simultaneously, slicing into my brain and severing my spinal chord. I collapsed bonelessly onto Anthy, and stopped thinking about anything except for the rain of fiery pain. More swords slammed or slithered into me, depending on their mood, on their variety of hatred. They seemed to enter every exposed portion of my body, dotting my arms, my legs, my back, backside, neck, head, hands and feet: everywhere they could reach. Many of them entered with enough force to crack the tiles and lodge their immovably, pinning me in place. Pinning me to Anthy. There were so many of them. Impaling me. Forcing me to choke on blood and accept destiny. Accept that choice was always limited.
You could run but you couldn’t escape, not when you were the one who’d signed up in the first place.
So much pain…so much hatred…I’d never known I could hurt so much, that my mind could scream and writhe and beg for the torment to end, only nobody would come, and it wouldn’t, couldn’t end. Only, I had, I’d known this before, and then something had happened (right on the edge of my consciousness. What had it been?) and the pain had drifted away like a mist of blood. And I’d been with Anthy again, and it had been paradise, all I’d ever wanted and Anthy… Anthy. I missed Anthy. Where was she? Where was she now? Was she okay? It was getting hard to hold onto the thought of her…my whole world was pain now. There was no room for anything else; I drifted away from any thought at all.
* * *
I drifted back to muzzy awareness. How long had passed? Minutes? Hours? Days, years? How long this time? This lifetime? Where was I? Where was…where was, oh yes, Anthy? Where was Anthy? Oh…that was her soft neck under my dry lips. It was wet with salty tears. Mine? Hers? Carefully I sat up, amazed that I still could.
Anthy lay beneath me, eyes closed, narrow shoulders shaking with the force of her wrenching sobs. I stared down at her beautiful unblemished body. Fearfully I let my eyes creep down my own. I gaped. Completely and confusingly normal. Scratches over my naked breasts, a trickle of blood from the reopened stomach wound, an aching groin, but other than that no injuries to speak of. Not a sword to be seen. Lifting one quivering hand I stared at it in disbelief. I had felt the fingers be chopped off, one by agonizing one. I’d opened blood-fogged eyes to glimpse a star-cluster of swords pierce its palm. But it was unmarred now, apart from the usual tracery of scar tissue. I looked back down.
Anthy was still crying but she had opened her eyes to gaze up at me. Wordlessly I pulled her up into my embrace, and we sat there, clutching each other mindlessly. Her body was cold; mine was feverishly hot. I still ached with my unsatisfied desire for her, my nipples burning where they pressed against her, my core throbbing incessantly. So it was still the same night, that much seemed clear. But there were no swords now. Only us. Yet I wondered, even as I tried to forget within the solace of Anthy’s arms. Was that really true?
Chapter 14: Fallout
The room was huge, the bed was huge, and we were lost in it, huddled together in the middle. Anthy was still shaking with reaction. She was draped half over me and I was squeezing her tightly to my chest. Her masses of hair were spread over both the pillows and my torso, with my face buried in it for comfort. There was so much of it sometimes, enough to cover her body without clothing. This was one of those times.
I needed this right now – the scent of her, the closeness of her. She seemed to need it too. We lay in our hotel room where we had dragged ourselves after the swords. We lay in silence for the longest time, completely unmoving except for Anthy’s trembling. We lay in darkness and stared at the idea of being together, comparing it to the reality.
Finally she spoke.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not even a little?”
“No.” My voice was hesitant. “I don’t feel them at all. Now, I mean.”
Silence as we considered that. Anthy eventually broke it.
“She saw us,” she whispered into my chest.
“What?!” I gasped. “Who?”
“Nanami-san,” she murmured. “Before the swords.”
“What?” I gasped again. “W…why didn’t you say something?” I flushed so hard my toes curled. “We shouldn’t have…ah…not in front of her…”
“I didn’t want you to stop,” she said petulantly. I didn’t know what to say to her. She sounded like a little girl whose favorite toy had been taken away. I hugged her tighter instead of saying anything. Thinking about Nanami seeing us kissing and…touching each other, I felt rather faint. Not Nanami, anyone but Nanami, except for oh, maybe Tsuwabuki. Yes, that would be worse definitely. Or maybe Juri would be worse? Or, oh God, what if it had been Saionji? That would have been so humiliating. Or…
“Stop fretting, Utena,” whispered Anthy. “I was scared you would stop.”
“Really?” I asked, thrown a curve-ball yet again.
“Well, only a little,” she murmured. I flushed again. It had been hard to think up there, to do anything except touch Anthy. It was frustrating to think about because the swords had come before I could, that is before we could…oh that was right, the swords…
I shifted restlessly.
“What is it?” she asked, as her hand slid under my pajama top. I stopped breathing.
“N…nothing,” I stammered, “just wondering what we’ll say to Nanami-kun.”
Anthy lifted herself up on her elbows to lean over me and I saw her eyes were burning.
“Saionji-senpai saw the swords,” she said.
“What?!” I yelped, half sitting up. How many sudden revelations did she have? Gently she pushed me back down.
“He ran away,” she told me, moving smoothly to straddle my hips. She started unbuttoning my pajama shirt. Startled I gaped up at the mysterious ex-rose bride, this woman I had no idea how to even try and understand. Somehow (look, don’t ask me how, I had no idea as always) ChuChu was scurrying over with ointment, which Anthy was dabbing on the marks she’d made on me earlier.
“Well,” I said, feeling blood suffuse my face and other regions as she doctored the clawmarks on my breasts. “Well. If I saw the swords I suppose I’d r…run too.”
“You did no such thing,” she pointed out, as her fingers danced lightly on to swab the reopened sword wound. Her eyes flickered up to blaze into mine. “Although I begged you to.”
“You didn’t know what you were saying!” I argued, certain on that one point at least. “The swords destroyed you, Anthy! I can’t…” my voice choked to a halt. “No, don’t ask that of me. I refuse to stand by and let that happen, ever again.” It was a vow.
She stared down sorrowfully at the reopened wound, stroking beside it with absent fingers.
“But I’m already broken. You, Utena…” her hungry eyes raked my body as though they were swords themselves. “I don’t want that for you.”
“It won’t happen,” I told her solemnly. “Not with you here to help me.”
Her eyes widened a little as she took that in. I reached up and wound my fingers though hers as she watched me silently. Stroking them across her knuckles I tried to put all my belief into my gaze. All my love. She gazed back at me for an endless moment, then sighed heavily.
“Someday together,” she murmured, in a faintly wondering tone. “Is that it?”
“Yes that’s it,” I encouraged her. She gave the ointment back to ChuChu.
“Somehow,” she told me, even as with deliberate slowness she pulled her nightgown over her head to cast it aside. “I didn’t think it would happen quite like this.” In one of my moments of keen insight I murmured:
“You didn’t think it would happen at all.” I stared up at one of the most enticing sights I’d ever seen – Anthy’s breasts above me, like the dark sides of twin moons. She gasped although I hadn’t even touched her.
“Utena,” she sighed, “oh Utena. Please don’t change…”
I slid my wanting arms around her waist and pulled her naked body down on top of me. Fervently I kissed her.
“I won’t,” I promised around kisses. And then as an afterthought, “don’t let me.”
She was crying now. I kissed her softly and tangled my fingers in her hair. “You will change,” she told me quietly as I kissed a line down her neck. The scrapes on my breasts burned where they pressed against her perfect ones. The old sword wound throbbed in time with my thudding heart. “Thorns make a flower change into a rose,” Anthy whispered as though it tore her throat to frame the words.
“We’ll change together,” I whispered back. “Roses grow.”
She cried out. I smiled against her collar bone, savoring every noise she made. Realizing I needed easier access I moved to flip us over, then grunted with pain.
“Utena?” Anthy’s voice was throaty but the concern came through. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” I lied through my teeth, pressing a kiss to her breastbone as one hand traveled to the curve of her breast. I found my plans waylaid however as Anthy’s own (surprisingly strong) hand trapped my wrist.
“This hurts you,” she said regretfully, “we should stop.”
“It’s not that bad,” I groaned, desire warring with my aching body.
“Utena,” she murmured, pressing my trapped hand to her lips. “We have plenty of time.”
I sighed with disappointment (and a tiny bit of relief that I wasn’t admitting to) and rolled over. Immediately she cuddled up to me, while ChuChu importantly pulled the sheet up and over us.
“Don’t you want your nightgown?” I muttered, fighting with grumpiness. In answer she pressed her nudity more firmly to my pajamas. Since my shirt was still unbuttoned I exhaled at the pleasant sensation of smooth skin rubbing against my own.
“Go to sleep,” she whispered, pressing a consoling kiss to my cheek.
Sighing again I wrapped an arm around her and closed my eyes.
* * *
It was the next day and our group formed an impromptu gathering in the hotel’s foyer. An almost hysterical Nanami had discovered that we couldn’t leave.
“Try for yourself,” she snarled tearfully from where she had buried herself in Touga’s chest. “Go on, if you don’t believe me.”
Saionji promptly did so, exiting through the front door only to appear walking back through it a moment later.
“What the hell?” he growled, whirling around to stare at the door. “What just happened? Where’s management?! They’re going to hear about this!”
“See, I told you!” cried Nanami. “We can’t leave. The exit leads straight back in. And there’s nobody to tell…I looked and looked…we’re all alone!”
“It’s a trap!” whimpered Tsuwabuki. Wakaba grabbed his hand and patted it soothingly, her own eyes wide with apprehension.
“I can’t believe it,” I muttered, crossing to the door to see for myself. Sure enough the moment I left I found myself walking back into the hotel, facing the shocked faces of our party. I hadn’t turned around, but there it was. The exit was the entrance. Conveniently the reception desk was now unmanned. The guests we’d seen going about their business the night before were conspicuously absent.
“How did this happen?” asked Juri, staring straight at Anthy.
“I don’t know,” said Anthy slowly. “But it’s him.”
“Akio-san,” I said distantly, wandering over to one of the visitor’s chairs and sinking into it gratefully. “He has us.”
“He had us all along,” bit out Saionji. “We were fools to think otherwise.” Suddenly he whirled to point accusingly at me. “He has you, just like he once had the rose bride.”
“No,” snapped Anthy while the others stared. “It’s not like that,” she went on, actually glaring up at the man who had once slapped her around indiscriminately.
“So what’s it like?” he asked sarcastically, although he took a step back from her. “I saw the swords.” He glanced around at the others, searching for support. “Tenjou has the swords! I watched them fall out of the sky and impale her!”
“Utena!” cried Wakaba rushing to my side. “Are you alright?!” She hovered over me anxiously, probing at my body with urgent fingers. I squirmed away. The others were crowding around now, all gawking avidly.
“Does it hurt?” asked Miki, concerned and fascinated at the same time. “On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rank the pain?”
“Why can’t we see them?” asked Juri. “We should be able to see them.”
“Are you the rose bride now?” asked Touga, sounding as though he was intrigued by the idea.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” moaned Nanami from where her head was still buried in Touga’s chest. “I can’t believe it but that idiot insect was right. We should have left them to r….rot.” Her voice hitched.
“Utena-kun,” purred Touga, ignoring his sister. “Who’s your master? Who do you belong to?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I growled, feeling my palm itch to smack his face. Fortunately for him Wakaba (still poking at me) was in my way.
“She belongs to Himemiya-san!” snapped Nanami, pulling away from her brother. “I saw them, last night, doing horrible…th…things. Th…things that only the r…rose bride does.”
“Oh really?” He smirked.
“Anthy!” gasped Saionji, reverting to his old form of addressing her in his complete and utter shock. He sounded appalled.
Juri’s hand stilled on her locket, then fell away. She closed her eyes and turned her head away from me. Miki stared between Anthy and I, looking confused; Tsuwabuki looked like a mini Miki. Wakaba stopped poking me and turned very red.
“I’m nobody’s master,” said Anthy quietly, choosing to look only at me. With a deep breath I launched myself back to my feet and moved to stand beside her. Wrapping a protective arm around her shoulders, I felt her arm slip around my waist as I turned to face the others.
“Anthy and I are…we’re together,” I told everyone, my voice firm. “And I’m not the rose bride…I mean, at least, I don’t think I am. Yes, the swords came for me but I don’t feel them now.” I shrugged. “Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. But listen, it’s time we stopped attacking each other and started working together to beat World’s End.” I took another deep breath. “He’s the enemy here. He wants to take away our freedom.”
“What freedom?” hissed Saionji. He was glaring at my arm around Anthy, looking very much like he wanted to hit me.
“We’re trapped in this hotel,” agreed Touga calmly.
“But don’t you see?” I asked them, struggling to express what I knew to be true deep inside. “We’re not trapped like we were. At Ohtori we were all in our…pain, there was no way forward, no way to grow. But here, now, our choices are ours.”
“You’ve all become adults,” said Anthy, great weight behind her words.
“Sure Akio-san has us now, but we can stand up to him!” I cried. “He doesn’t really have any of us yet, not in the ways that are important. If we stick together and fight him as a team, we can break out of this shell!”
“He’s just desperate,” agreed Anthy, her arm tightening around my waist. “He wants to regain what he lost.”
“But it’s not his!” I said fiercely. I stared around at the others, trying to look each of them in the eyes. “Don’t let him steal it.”
Silence from the others and tension in the air as everyone stared at each other. Finally Juri spoke slowly.
“She doesn’t speak like she’s the rose bride.”
“She could be lying!” That was Saionji.
“She’s standing right here,” I muttered.
“It was like that for me when I was the rose bride too,” murmured Anthy sotto voice, so softly only I could hear her. I glowered at her perverse sense of humor.
“What she says is correct,” argued Miki. “About the situation at Ohtori I mean. We’re free from the chairman’s cruel games now.” He clenched his fists. “We have to stay free. And help free the others.”
“All you care about is your twin!” cried Nanami.
“You’re only here because of Touga-san,” retorted Juri, placing a supportive hand on Miki’s shoulder. Nanami flushed to the roots of her hair and looked like she was ready to spring at Juri.
“She is not!” piped up Tsuwabuki loyally.
“I’ll help you, Utena.” Wakaba bounced over to snuggle up against my free side. “Miki is right. And you need me. I don’t know what you’d do without me!”
Gratefully I slipped my free arm around her. “I do need you,” I admitted. “You’re my best friend.”
“Oh Utena!” she cried, bursting into tears and turning to throw her arms around my neck. “I love you too!”
For reply I merely wheezed for air while Anthy surveyed us with amused tolerance. Just what did she think of my relationship with Wakaba anyway? And what did Wakaba think of her? Yet more of these uncharacteristic questions pounding through my brain. Any answers I might have puzzled out were lost in the cacophony of Touga trying to soothe Nanami, and Saionji shouting at Juri. If Akio came now he would win for sure.
* * *
I was heading down the hallway toward the hotel’s gym. I figured that while we were trapped we might as well live our lives as best we could. Right now my life involved a lot of stress, and confusing feelings – adrenaline I needed to burn off as much as my injury would allow. Besides I always thought better after sport.
“Psst!” I dropped my sweat towel and whirled to face the tousled blond head popping around the corner.
“Tsuwabuki-kun! What are you doing here? Your room’s on the next level isn’t it?”
“Please Senpai, there’s something I have to tell you. I saw…”
“Are you going to tattletale?” I glared at him. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“But Utena-senpai, it’s important! I saw…”
“No!” Frustration made me sharp. “Don’t tell stories about other people. It’s not right.” Gathering my towel I strode past him briskly and into the elevator. I did my best to ignore his forlorn gaze as the doors slid shut.
The gym was already occupied. A shirtless Saionji struggled to bench-press a bar that looked like it weighed twice as much as he did. Juri was just stepping off the treadmill, mopping one-handed at her forehead. Her injured wrist was strapped tightly to her chest. I thought about telling her off, but I couldn’t really talk.
“Utena,” she said catching sight of me, “come and spot me?”
“Uh, alright sure.” We crossed to the weight bench next to Saionji’s grunting form, and I helped her lower a dumbbell one-handed to her chest. Saionji finished a set of repetitions and with a giant wheezing heave set his bar back on its supports.
“Shouldn’t you be spotted?” I asked him, forgetting for a moment that he probably hated me right now (which actually wasn’t all that different from our usual tense relationship…).
“Ha!” He swung up to a sitting position and pushed his hair back behind his ears. “By who? Touga wouldn’t dirty his dainty hands lifting weights. He likes his delicate figure.”
“And nobody else could press that weight,” noted Juri cooly, for all that she was sweating through her sixth lift. I hovered nearby, hoping she wouldn’t overdo it.
“I’m the strongest by far.” Saionji tossed his mane back proudly.
“That’s why we need you.” The words leapt onto my tongue before I could think about it. Obviously startled he glanced over at me through slitted eyes.
“How can I trust you?”
“You trusted Anthy,” I pointed out, which I immediately realized was a rather stupid thing to say.
“That was different!” he hissed. “She was my fiancée. She promised to love me and be with me and obey me forever.”
“Look how well that turned out,” muttered Juri.
“It wasn’t her fault,” he argued, getting angrier by the second. “She was stolen off me by this filthy cheat.”
“Saionji.” Juri let me take the dumbbell from her and sat up to level her calm gaze directly at him. “You should never have believed one word that dripped from the rose bride’s lips. You only did because you wanted what she promised so much.”
He opened his mouth to yell. Then closed it. To my shock he actually seemed to be thinking about what Juri had said. Hunching his shoulders, he looked down and rubbed his sweaty hands on his shorts.
“I wanted eternity.” He sighed. “An eternal friendship.” His fists clenched. “It doesn’t exist.”
“And I wanted to disprove the power of miracles.” Juri shrugged at him. “The same thing under a different name.”
The truth was burning in my throat and it had to be said. My words sprung forth.
“Maybe you just tried with the wrong kind of friends,” I told Saionji, slipping down to sit next to him. Stunned at my audacity he just gaped at me. I gazed across at Juri. “And maybe you should let yourself believe in a different miracle.”
“Oh I do,” she answered wryly, arching an eyebrow meaningfully at me. “I believe that girls can be princes. And that witches can be princesses if the prince wants them to be enough.”
“Um,” I said. “I guess that sounds right. But your heart is always so closed, Senpai.” I blushed at my own bluntness even as the strange feeling of knowing propelled me forward. “You don’t say what’s in your heart. That’s why you don’t receive a miracle.”
“You’re right.” She didn’t look perturbed by my words or even startled that I’d said them. “But sometimes one person’s miracle is not another’s.” She shrugged. “It might even ruin the perfectly good everyday that was already there.”
“Like you and uh,” I searched my memory for the name of that violet-haired girl.
“Shiori,” she filled in. “Yes like that. And like you and I.”
My jaw dropped.
“Oh don’t look so surprised, Utena,” she said evenly, sounding just a little sad. “You’re a lot like Shiori in that way. Cruelly innocent. Unaware of anything but your own feelings and your own way forward.”
“I…uh…I, I didn’t know, that is, um, ah…”
“I know you love her,” she said, uninjured hand reaching for her locket’s comfort. “Always her. Only her.”
“No, not only her,” I contradicted. “You and I, we’re friends too, Juri-senpai. That’s important to me.”
Her hand stilled on the locket. Some of the tension around her eyes eased. “Call me Juri.”
I grinned in sheer relief. “Sure.”
Saionji was watching us with narrowed eyes. He turned to me.
“And call me Kyouichi. Both of you.”
My mouth dropped open. Juri just gave him a small smile.
“If you say so, Kyouichi,” she said.
“Alright,” I gasped, almost choking as I tried to say his given name. “K…K…Kyouichi then.” We all stared at each other in surreal silence, but rather than being awkward the moment felt right. It was like a particularly steep mountain peak had been scaled and sunrise could finally be seen.
Finally Saionji got up to towel himself off. “You’re blunt, Utena,” he said, buttoning up his shirt. “I like that.”
“Uh thanks,” I said, as I lay down on the bench so Juri could spot me. “I think.”
“It’s refreshing after the lies of Ohtori,” he said. “People should speak their mind.” The pain in his eyes reminded me of the sharp way he looked whenever he was speaking with Touga.
“No more lies,” said Juri, as she helped me position my bar. “No more mindgames. That’s how we’ll beat that bastard.”
“I want to keep on loving truth,” I murmured, fingers curving around the bar. “We’ll beat him together, beat him with the truth.” I felt hope stirring within me, still a fragile stem, but one that was finally bearing buds.