Chapter 21: Mousetrap
I don’t know how long I exchanged desperate kisses with Anthy before I heard an aggrieved grunt. Looking dazedly past her I saw that the elevator had stopped before the roof (and I hadn’t even noticed). Saionji was stepping inside, a familiar-looking letter clenched in his fist.
“I’m guessing you got one of these?” he asked, waving it around while avoiding looking directly at us. He stepped all the way in and the doors slid shut. Once again the elevator began crawling upwards. Was it broken or something? Was is a ploy so we would feel more fear?
Anthy rose and gently took his letter. She examined the broken seal, then read the contents aloud.
My dear Kyouichi,
It’s been too long since we really talked, old friend. It seems the carefree days of our youth are long past, and we are both busy with important concerns. But I can’t help remembering those lazy afternoon bike rides, and our fencing practices with nostalgia. There is much I have to tell you, much I have to reveal if you will only open yourself. Please Kyouichi, for friendship’s sake, let me show you something I know you are dying to see.
Meet me on the roof at sunset.
Anthy looked up. Her voice came out slightly strained.
“It’s the seal of the rose.”
“Yes,” said Saionji grimly. “You know what this means?”
“Yes,” said Anthy.
“That bastard,” ground out Saionji. “That complete and utter traitor. How dare he?! How can he just go and…”
Mid-rant he stopped and stared down at me.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” I said, reaching for Anthy’s nearby hand and allowing her to help me struggle into a standing position. Even with Saionji’s eyes drilling into me I couldn’t help slumping into the corner of the lift.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked Anthy instead, turning to peer at her. “Did she get into a fight? And where’s Juri and Miki-kun? I haven’t seen them since they went looking for you…”
“They’ll be on the roof with Kiryuu-san,” she said calmly, “and Akio-san.”
Saionji made a choking noise.
“We hope,” I muttered, wiping aggrievedly at my nose with my sleeve cuff. It seemed to be bleeding again.
With a ding the lift came to another unexpected stop. This time the doors slid open to reveal Nanami with Tsuwabuki in tow.
“What’s this supposed to be?” snapped Nanami. “Some kind of secret meeting?” She stalked inside with Tsuwabuki hurrying after, hefting her giant handbag against his chest.
“And what’s this, going shopping?” snarled Saionji, waving at the bag.
“No,” said Nanami, directing the full force of her glare at him. “Onii-sama asked me to bring him some things.”
“What?” I muttered, unable to believe my ears. “Like what?”
“None of your business,” she snapped back. Her eyebrows arched as she got a good look at me. “Look at how dirty you are. You’re such a tomboy.” She gestured derisively in Anthy’s general direction. “Can’t you do something about your girlfriend? She’s an embarrassment.”
“Nanami-sama!” gasped Tsuwabuki.
“Be quiet when I’m talking!” she told him. He turned red and subsided.
Anthy chose to ignore Nanami, turning back to me as the lift door slid shut again. As though we were still alone she smoothed the tassels on my jacket, and re-arranged my collar. Removing the dress handkerchief in the top pocket she dabbed delicately at my nose. Silently I watched her face, her eyes that had always said more than words, her gestures. It occurred to me that I didn’t want to miss anything of her, any of the time we had together. The time that might be ending…
Saionji started bickering with Nanami but I didn’t listen. I was caught up in Anthy’s hands stroking my cheeks, playing with my buttons, creeping under my shirt to slide over my stomach. Burying her face in my jacket she wrapped her arms around my waist. Nervously her fingers smoothed over the exit wound scarring my back, over and over again. I don’t think she even knew she was doing it.
I placed my palms between her breasts, where she would customarily touch me. Her skin felt a little warmer there, even through her dress material. I wondered if it was the sword of Dios, if it was helping her. Gasping I felt something, a tingle, like a tiny spasm of electricity arcing from her to me. It was the sword I was sure. Somehow I was connected to it; I could sense its power even inside Anthy.
Her eyes moved to mine and I knew she’d felt it too.
“You should take it,” she said softly.
“Not yet,” I murmured back. “I want the element of surprise.”
I didn’t add that I wanted her to access its charging properties as long as possible. Besides, it might be able to protect her in some way…even if I couldn’t… Probably she knew all this anyway without me saying it.
“Can you two stop groping each other in public places?” Nanami’s strident voice interrupted us. Before I could speak the lift halted again, door sliding open.
“Utena!” cried Wakaba, rushing in to cozy up beside me. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere! There’s a party on the roof, did you hear?” She noticed Anthy, looked nervous, noticed Nanami, grimaced, didn’t notice Tsuwabuki and started blushing the moment she realized Saionji was in residence.
“Are you coming to the party?” she asked him, forgetting me and sidling towards him shyly.
“Everybody’s coming to the roof,” I mumbled, vaguely sickened by the notion. So this was to be a public showdown was it?
“You said he has plans for all the duelists,” Anthy reminded me gently. I blinked at her. Yes, I had said that, back at the meeting that had ended in the ruins of Juri’s apartment. More than saying it, I’d known it to be true.
“I wonder where Keiko-san is now,” I said with a shiver.
“That coward,” sniped Nanami, but her eyes had widened as she shamelessly eavesdropped on our conversation. “What do you mean about the roof? What showdown? What’s going on?!”
“Nanami-sama,” muttered Tsuwabuki miserably, tugging on her sleeve. “There’s something I should tell you.”
“Later,” she snapped, now glaring pointedly at Anthy’s hands under my shirt.
“Now,” he insisted, forcefully enough to draw silence from all the lift’s occupants. “I er heard…that is I…uh…”
“Spit it out,” ordered Nanami impatiently.
“Sorry, I heard your br…brother on the phone y…yesterday. To uh…to the assistant ch…chairman.”
All the blood drained from Nanami’s face. She believed him, I could see that from her reaction. She stood frozen, staring off into space, looking all adrift. Tsuwabuki dared to clutch at her hand and nervously pat it. She didn’t seem to see him, staring instead at a spot somewhere over Saionji’s head.
Saionji looked both enraged and resigned. Wakaba looked scared.
“W…what’s happening?” she asked me. “Th…there’s no party then? This is a…a…”
“Trap,” finished Saionji, grinding his teeth together.
“A duel?” asked Wakaba, twisting her hands. “Here? But we’re not at Ohtori Academy…”
“We don’t know it’s a duel,” I said, playing with Anthy’s hair. I couldn’t seem to stop myself, it was comforting, and besides I couldn’t waste the time we still had. It was so soft…I was glad she had it out.
“It is a duel,” said Anthy, closing her eyes under my touch. “Akio-san will like the symmetry.”
“Do you have a sword?” Saionji asked me, straight to the point.
“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”
“Thank goodness,” said Wakaba, moving closer to clutch at one of my arms. “Can we help?”
“I don’t know.” I glanced over Anthy’s head at the silent Nanami and brooding Saionji. Tsuwabuki was still patting Nanami’s hand, practically in guilty tears. I didn’t know how this would all go down. But I didn’t feel good about it.
“This lift is broken!” accused Nanami, suddenly snapping out of her stupor. I could see she needed to do something, to be angry. “It’s moving so slowly we may as well be going backwards.”
“It’s deliberate,” said Anthy.
“It’s annoying,” snapped Nanami.
“Settle down,” I told her, which probably just made her more angry, but then I’d never been good at dealing with Nanami. “We need to get ready.”
“What? Bleed on the wall some more?” She looked me up and down dismissively. “You look awful. Like you’re about to be sick. And where’s this sword you’re supposed to have, huh?”
Her angry eyes moved to Saionji.
“You haven’t beaten my brother for the last ten years! What good will you be?”
She looked at Wakaba with derision.
“What about you, Nanami-sama?” asked her right-hand man worshipfully. “Will you duel?”
That stopped her tirade. Her eyes got very wide and she stared down at Tsuwabuki as though he’d grown two heads.
“I…I don’t have a sword,” she said at last.
“Then why are you here?” I asked her. “If you’re just gonna tell everyone off, and you’re not gonna help, you may as well be up on the roof with Touga-san already.” I glared at her, suddenly angry too. We didn’t have time for this. I didn’t have time for this…distraction.
To my surprise Nanami had the decency to flush and look at her feet. I looked back to Anthy.
“Anthy, I want you to know that…”
“Stop it.” She cut me off, then kissed my lips when I tried to speak again. “We’ll talk about that afterwards,” she murmured. I looked at her with my heart in my eyes; what if there wasn’t any after? Her own eyes flickered, and she buried her face back in the hollow of my neck, winding her arms so tightly around me that I struggled to breathe. I wrapped my arms around her narrow shoulders, using all my failing strength to cling to her.
The others were staring at us, to a man, but I hid my face in Anthy’s hair and thought only of the moment. This was what I’d fought for (what she’d fought for), and gone through (literal) hell for…this was all I would have to hold onto when I faced him alone. Anthy and I, together.
The lift lurched and came to its final stop. We had reached the roof.
* * *
The sun was setting as we stepped outside, a huge orange disc half-buried by the desert sands. The twilit sky was a shade somewhere between blue and violet, and a chilly breeze was sweeping through the air: night was on its way. Somehow the roof seemed much larger than it ever had before, and no wonder. As I looked from side to side I realized it now formed a massive dueling arena, complete with the scarlet markings that had mapped out the old one. Disturbingly the low stone wall had been replaced by a castle-esque one matching Ohtori Academy’s – complete with gaps. The arena was ominously empty.
“Where are they?” asked Wakaba with a shiver.
“Oh he’ll be here,” muttered Saionji, peering around suspiciously. “This is a giant mousetrap.”
Slowly I walked out into the centre of the arena, one arm wrapped around Anthy’s shoulder. Her hand on my waist crept under my shirt again, absently fiddling with my scar. I tightened my hold on her, and tried my best not to shiver. Wakaba trotted after Saionji, while Nanami and Tsuwabuki lingered uncertainly near the lift.
The roar of a motor sounded in the distance, and we turned as one to look toward it. A figure appeared just as suddenly in an unearthly mist that swirled into being at the far end of the arena. The mist hadn’t been there seconds ago, I was almost certain. The figure was tall and swaggering, regal in bearing. As he strode toward us elements stuck out. A scarlet mane of hair that any girl would love to run her fingers through. Poignantly blue eyes, that seemed to laugh mockingly at you. The uniform of a prince: white with red piping, complete with golden tassels. Kiryuu Touga.
“Can you hear it?” he asked us with his trademark smirk. “Because if you can, it means that you haven’t given up hope.”
“You’re so full of it,” snarled Saionji, who was the closest.
“Am I?” asked Touga, not put out in the least. “I’m surprised that you of all people are still hungering after eternity, Kyouichi. You can hear it calling, I see it in your eyes.”
A charged moment between them where Touga stopped only paces away and they stared at each other. I’d never understood their relationship: long ago Saionji had told me they were childhood friends, as we gazed into the birdcage at Anthy and all she represented. Yet they’d never seemed like friends. Sure they had dueled me together, but I also remembered Saionji’s sword slicing Touga, and seething exchanges between them bordering on out and out fights.
That familiar engine rumbled again and everyone but Touga peered nervously into the mist.
“Onii-sama, what are you wearing?” asked Nanami, rushing forward to throw herself into his arms. Looking surprised (and a tad irritated) Touga pushed her back, and offered her a courtly bow instead. She blushed in confusion. His smile grew more pronounced.
“Nanami,” he said smoothly, “don’t you recognize your prince?”
She gasped. Then she slapped him. We all goggled, except for Touga who winked at her.
“How dare you!” she shouted, turning even redder. “When they told me you were tricking us into coming up here I didn’t really believe it. But here you are and you’re still working for that awful man. Don’t you know the things he does?! He’s a monster! You think he won’t hurt you too but he will. Oh Onii-sama, how could you do this to me? Don’t you love me?!”
She started to cry in earnest, but Touga placed his hands on her arms and drew her into his chest.
“Oh Nanami,” he said, his voice deep and rich and filled with hidden meaning. “Of course I love you. And of course I know all about what Akio-san does…what I do. If I didn’t, do you think we could be together like this?”
She stiffened and tried to pull back, but he didn’t let her go. Instead he held her there, struggling feverishly while he smirked derisively.
“Don’t go,” he purred. “You wouldn’t be able to hear it if you didn’t want it…”
“No!” she cried out, “I don’t! I don’t want this! No!” She froze as Touga ignored her protests to lower his head to hers, pressing his lips deliberately to her own.
One second I was standing with Anthy, well back from the action, the next I was sprinting toward Touga as fast as I could force myself to move. My heart was thudding with exertion; my eyes blurred with rage. I couldn’t believe what I saw, what he had the audacity to do. More than that I couldn’t let it happen. Not even to Nanami.
I gathered myself, and leapt into the air, aiming my shoulder for his. It was a tackle adapted from my favored final charge in the duels. Usually Dios would have possessed me before it, but I didn’t wait for him this time. Nobody else would save Nanami, or the innocent girls she represented.
Mid-leap I let out an instinctive yell. Touga looked up in surprise, then gasped with pain as I thudded into him, sending us both flying. I finished up sprawled half on top of him, scrabbling to get into position to give him a good right-hook.
“Why Utena-kun,” he purred. “You’re beautiful when you’re jealous.”
I hit him. My fist crunched satisfyingly against his jawbone, and I let out another yell from the impact.
Then I was gasping for breath as hot little hands grabbed me around the neck, hauling me up and off him.
“Get away from him, you pervert!” yelled Nanami. “Onii-sama is mine!”
Choking for air I grabbed at her hands, and pulled them away, whirling around to stare at her in disbelief.
“You want that?!” I yelled back at her. “To be violated by a man who calls himself your brother?”
She flushed and tried to slap me, but I easily caught her hand mid-motion. Then I grunted with pain and folded to the ground, as Touga caught me with a nasty sucker-punch from behind, straight in the kidney.
“That wasn’t very chivalrous,” mocked Saionji, as he leapt forward to join the fray. His punch caught Touga in the nose, and sent him whirling back sputtering, blood staining his princely shirt.
Nanami leapt onto Saionji’s back, while Touga managed to get back up and deliver a powerful uppercut to his distracted friend. It was enough to knock Saionji flying backwards across the arena, sending him sprawling in one direction and Nanami in the other. I cringed at the impact, as I crawled to my feet. Neither of them got up.
“My nose,” moaned Touga, probing at it anxiously.
“Worried about your looks?” I snarled, balancing on my hands to swirl my legs around in a kick aimed to take his ankles out from under him. Glaring at me he leapt over it, then reached down to yank me up by my hair. Hissing with pain I punched his stomach with bruised knuckles, and he cursed and let go. We both staggered back, staring at each other with the same intensity we’d shared under that tree. My hand itched for a sword right now, but Touga didn’t have one. I couldn’t attack an unarmed man with a weapon.
It wouldn’t be fair.
“What are you fighting for?” he had the nerve to ask me, regaining his breath enough to strike a pose, flicking at his mane of hair. “You heard it too, didn’t you Utena-kun?”
“How could you treat your sister that way?” I demanded, risking a quick glance back. Saionji and Nanami lay where they had landed. Tsuwabuki had predictably rushed to Nanami’s side, and Wakaba was trying to rouse Saionji. Anthy was drifting toward the swirling mist, her back to us.
“Anthy!” I shouted, temporarily distracted. What the hell was she doing?!
Touga regained my attention with a fist to the solar plexus. Coughing I doubled over, gasping for air. With a chuckle he grabbed my shoulders and kneed me in the stomach. I choked. I tried to break his hold but I couldn’t seem to breathe. His knee connected again, once, twice more. Thinking of Anthy moving away from us, I reached up desperately and blindly grabbed for his hair. There, I had it in my fist. Grimly I pulled as hard as I could, managing a smile for his girl-like scream. He pulled away from me, hands to his scalp and I stumbled back away from him.
Then I turned, and sprinted toward Anthy.
In the interim she had reached and entered the mist: all I could see was her silhouette as she glided through it.
“Anthy!” I screamed, ignoring the way I couldn’t breathe properly, and how my body didn’t seem to be running as fast as I knew I could. The engine rumbled again, closer now. Anthy didn’t turn around. She was disappearing into the mist; I almost couldn’t see her anymore. I reached the mist myself and dived in without hesitation.
Inside I couldn’t see anything. Fog swirled more thickly than I had ever seen, except perhaps at the gates of Ohtori’s dueling arena and on its endless staircase. I waved my hand in front of my face, trying to clear a visual path. The mist was icy against my skin.
“Anthy!” I called again, a little more uncertainly. How would I find her in this? I stopped and listened, clutching at my bruised stomach. Nothing. No, there. Something. Footsteps? Maybe…it was hard to tell. Sound was deadened by this fog.
Out of the maybe-silence came the dreaded roar again: Akio’s red convertible. I couldn’t see it, but what else could it be? Shuddering I did my best to follow the sound. Once again I got the feeling of being toyed with.
“Anthy!” I called, forging ahead anyway. The mist parted just enough for me to make out her silhouette. I rushed towards her.
“Anthy,” I gasped, close enough to put a hand on her shoulder. She whirled, giggling up at me. I recoiled, yanking back my hand. Not Anthy. Takatsuki Shiori. She was dressed in the traditional outfit of the rosebride, albeit in violet. Her hair was pinned back but she was missing the glasses. The expression on her face wasn’t very nice for all that she was smiling. I was beginning to wonder if it ever had been. In a sudden rage I gripped her shoulders and shook her so that her teeth rattled.
“How dare you!” I hissed. “You shot Anthy, but she did nothing to you. Where is she?!” I didn’t understand how she could keep laughing when I was shaking her so hard. Looking over her shoulder I realized the car was behind her, idling in place with Kaoru Kozue leering at me from behind the wheel. She also was dressed in a replica bridal gown, hers in blue. More disturbing were the bodies in the car’s back seat, slumped over the doors. Miki was behind his sister and Juri was on the passenger side. They were dressed in their old dueling uniforms, and appeared to be unconscious. I bit my lip. This was bad.
“Akio-san asked me to,” said Shiori innocently if a little breathlessly, and I realized that I’d stopped shaking her. “Utena-sama,” she went on, glancing meaningfully at my hands on her shoulders, “I’m sorry, but I’m just not that way inclined. It’s…dirty.”
I couldn’t help it. I flushed and pushed her away from me. She stumbled back against the car’s passenger door and giggled again. It made my skin crawl to hear her use Anthy’s old form of address for the victors.
“Don’t worry, Utena-sama,” called out Kozue seductively. “I am.” She smirked across at me, no doubt enjoying the way I turned an even brighter shade of red.
“My brides have something for everyone,” purred Akio, and suddenly he was there, stepping out of the mist and into the car’s headlights. They served as spotlights to catch the glint of his golden epaulets and the chain dangling across his broad chest. He was tall and handsome, dressed as the prince he wasn’t. One arm was wrapped possessively around Anthy’s shoulders, binding her to his side. I stared at her in horror but she didn’t meet my gaze, just looked at the ground. Somehow the lime green of her sundress had turned blood-red.
“Anthy!” I called, ignoring Akio in favor of trying to get her to look up at me. “Anthy, look at me!”
Nothing. Just the familiar curve of her neck as she bent her head, and Akio’s mocking laughter. Shiori had slipped into the car beside Kozue and they were giggling too, like they’d just been told the world’s funniest joke.
“What have you done to her?” I growled at Akio, my heart sinking. The stakes had just risen unbelievably high.
“What do you mean?” he asked innocently. “My little sister has come home where she belongs. By my side, just like it’s always been. Is that so strange, so hard to understand?”
“She doesn’t want it,” I bit out between clenched teeth. Something flickered in Akio’s eyes and he dropped his charming façade for a second to almost snarl at me:
“She wants whatever I tell her to want, and you’d do well to learn a lesson from her.” He recovered his glib smile. “She’s a good girl, a proper girl.” His emphasis on the word ‘proper’ was clearly directed my way. “She always has been.”
“What do you want?” I asked, desperately trying to buy some time. Maybe Saionji would wake up and manage to find me. Maybe Wakaba would come too; at this point I’d use all the help I could get. Maybe Anthy would look at me. Damn her…damn this mist and this nightmarish car. What the hell was going on?!
“I want you, Utena-kun,” purred Akio in his most seductive tones. I hated him but when he spoke like that, his voice low and vibrant and his free hand pressed against his heart in a gallant gesture…it was impossible not to blush. He saw it, of course he did, with his wickedly watching eyes. He smirked, and even that was beautiful. “Come and live with Anthy and I,” he continued, “and see what lies at the Ends of the World. You can have anything your heart desires. You can be the princess to my prince, and Anthy can take care of both of us. Now…wouldn’t that be nice? All three of us, together forever as one happy family?”
“W…what?” I gasped out. Where was he going with this?!
“The prince was your first love, my dear, you cannot deny it.” Akio’s voice was smooth and certain but I caught the slightest flicker in his eyes as they went to my uniform then back to my face.
“I’m the prince,” I said, despite everything I’d said to Anthy. Akio jerked as though I slapped him.
“No…no you’re really not,” he said, voice still calm but shoulders twitching. Kozue sniggered in the background. I ignored her.
“You want to be like the prince,” Akio admitted, “and you’ve done a fine job all told…but there can only be one prince.”
“Well it’s not you,” I growled, but his smirk grew wider.
“Isn’t it?” He waved at Shiori and Kozue, who were watching him with evident admiration. “They think I am.” Shiori smiled and blushed prettily. Kozue blew him a kiss.
I rolled my eyes. From what little I knew about these new rose brides they were hardly character references. And what the hell was going on here?! They couldn’t be rose brides when I had the swords. They didn’t even have the power that Anthy still had…Anthy…my eyes anxiously searched her body. I couldn’t see any injuries, but I hated the way her head was bent submissively, and why oh why wouldn’t she look up at me?
I drew myself up, unconsciously brushing at my uniform jacket so that it fell smoothly. Akio grimaced a little as I put my hands on my hips.
“Imposter,” I said, as calmly as I could. For a moment his eyes went wide. Then he hid his shock, and opened his mouth to begin a new diatribe. I cut him off, stepping forward and pointing at him.
Another pace bought me within handsreach. He glowered down at me, not scared exactly but…apprehensive.
“I have the power of Dios,” I said, looking at Anthy’s bowed head. Akio made a strangled sound in the back of his throat. I glanced up. His eyes burned with barely controlled rage and I watched as he reigned himself in. He wanted something from me, I finally realized. This was all because he wanted something and he couldn’t just come in and take it. The knowledge made me cold. And simultaneously gave me hope.
Grimly I stripped off a glove and did something I’d seen in old movies about knights, and chivalry, and fairytales. I reached up and slapped him with it. Of course it didn’t hurt him, but he was surprised all over again. Shiori and Kozue oohed and aahed.
“I challenge you to a duel,” I said forcing myself to meet and hold his mocking gaze.
“Do you?” he asked thoughtfully.
“Yeah,” I said, “and I don’t think you can say no. Being that you’re the true prince and all.”
His eyes narrowed. Even now I couldn’t help noticing how beautiful they were. Exactly the same shade as Anthy’s…
“What is this duel called?” he asked idly, beginning to pet his sister’s hair with his free hand. She didn’t move.
“Couronnement*,” I said on a whim. He had an ego didn’t he? It was time to appeal to that. I gestured at our matching uniforms. “Let’s prove who the prince is.”
“Aha.” The corner of his lips lifted in a slight sneer. “And what spoils pray tell, will the victor receive?”
“The rose brides,” I said grimly, while Shiori and Kozue stopped laughing and gaped at me. “Isn’t that what the prize has always been?”
Akio was silent. I could almost see him thinking. He cared nothing for his new brides, other than whatever use they served him. He wanted Anthy, but for all intents and purposes she seemed to be firmly in his grasp.
“What about the power to revolutionize the world?” he suggested finally.
So that was what he really wanted. Nothing had changed after all.
I gave him my best innocent look.
“You mean the power that the true prince holds?”
His eyes narrowed again. He didn’t want to admit that I had his longed-for power. Hell, I didn’t even know if he knew I had it. Or if I actually did have it with Anthy apparently out of commission.
“What about Anthy?” he asked, eyeing me like a hawk does a mouse.
“She’s not the rose bride,” I said insistently. “She can do whatever she wants.”
He scowled but I saw Anthy’s chin raise just a fraction.
“Have you forgotten that, Himemiya?” I asked her, speaking directly to her, hoping to shock her into reaction. Sure enough I saw her twitch a little at the address switch. I dared to reach out and place my hand on her shoulder.
With a snarl Akio pulled her away, backing several steps while she followed him limply.
“Damn you,” I told him with all my heart behind it. “What kind of prince are you anyway?!” I remembered the way I’d felt after the hotel room we’d shared: enflamed, confused, and lacking. “What kind of prince stops being a prince?” I cried and I dived at them.
*French for Coronation
Chapter 22: Something Shining
Akio yelled out and tried to back up more but my hands had made contact with Anthy’s shoulders and I wasn’t about to let her go.
“Anthy!” I yelled again for good measure, throwing our bodies to the side as Akio grasped wildly for us. Then we were flying clear of him and the car, rolling toward the ground as I turned my body to cushion her fall. Our landing drove the air from my lungs but all my attention was on Anthy lying on top of me. She was looking at me at last, and her eyes were dead.
I closed my eyes and steeled myself. “The sword,” I begged her, forcing my eyes back open, hating to look into eyes that stared at me like I was a stranger all over again. (Only an unwitting stranger that was played tricks on. Only the latest in a long string of victors who didn’t know quite what they were getting themselves into).
“Please Anthy,” I gasped, knowing I didn’t have time to reach her in whatever inner coffin she’d crawled into. Not if I was to save us, to stop this travesty of a prince she called brother once and for all. To tear his kingdom down with my own two hands.
“Please,” I whispered again, sliding one hand from the hollow of her neck to between her breasts while she watched me apathetically. Light bloomed between us, a golden ball of hope. Anthy’s head arched back involuntarily, her long hair swirling all around. I felt the sword stir beneath my touch. I felt the tingle of energy building between us and I looked to see if she felt it too. But her eyes were closed now; her body flowed easily beneath my hands. It was automatic for her, this being the sheath for the prince’s sword. I hated how automatic it was.
I could hear running footsteps behind me, signaling that Akio was charging with murderous intent. There was no time for hesitation. Quickly, smoothly, I drew forth the sword.
Rolling over I used one arm to lay Anthy down on her back, and then the hand clutching my sword pushed me up and into a standing position over her.
Akio wielded dual swords, which I instantly recognized as the heart-swords of my friends. (But that would mean Juri and Miki were still bound in some way to Shiori and Kozue…)
That was all I had time to realize. With a clash his weapons connected with mine in a cross formation. I went flying back, just grateful to have caught the blows on steel. I thudded against the castle-esque wall surrounding this new arena (we were so close to the edge?), and gasped as stone thumped the breath back out of me. Meanwhile Akio bent to pull Anthy up by her hair. She made no sound but her face was tight with pain.
With an inarticulate growl I gathered myself and pushed off the wall, flinging myself toward them. Akio caught my blade with the sword-hand that wasn’t holding Anthy, and then managed to deflect several more strikes, before he dropped her with a snarl. My flurry of thrusts was such that he needed both hands to defend himself.
I spared a glance for Anthy. She was on her back, sitting up on her elbows and staring at us in a daze. Her eyes slid over mine but there was no real recognition. It reminded me of how she’d looked during the Duel called Revolution, which she’d watched most of from the wide white couch. Actually if I was fully honest with myself it reminded me of how she’d looked during every duel I’d ever fought. Disinterested. Almost as though she wasn’t a part of the proceedings for all that she supposedly oversaw the rules of the rose seal. And if I looked hard enough (which I never had back then) in pain. In so much pain that it had ceased to be pain, so that she’d ceased to care, or function, or do more than let herself be a doll without a heart.
Was that what was happening now?
Akio used Juri’s sword to cut through my distraction, carving a narrow gouge along my right side. I hissed and jumped back. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Anthy’s watching eyes widen just a little.
“Red looks good on you,” Akio purred, eyeing the blood now staining my uniform. “It looks like it belongs.”
“Shut up,” I told him somewhat less than intelligently, and shifted to meet his next attack. He was faster than I remembered, and fighting full force from the word go, unlike in the Duel called Revolution. I didn’t have time to catch my breath, to assess my injury, to do more than avoid being skewered and hit him back as hard as I could. And my attention was divided, split between these captivating siblings just as it had always been.
“Give me the power,” Ends of the World ordered, slicing down with both swords simultaneously as I ducked and rolled to the side. “Give it to me and I’ll give you Anthy.”
“She’s not yours to give,” I shouted, forcing myself to flip up onto my feet, ignoring how clammy my forehead was and the way his figure was blurring. I thought that Anthy blinked, but with sweat rolling into my own eyes I couldn’t be sure.
“It’s mine!” Akio all but howled, and I didn’t know if he was talking about the power, or Anthy, or something else entirely. His silvery mane flowed back as he sprinted at me, sweeping his swords in matching deadly side-arcs. I ran toward him, blinking the sweat out of my eyes. Staring at the swords I tried to guess where the arcs would be when I met him. I bought the sword of Dios up to meet them…in our periphery Anthy levered herself up into a sitting position. My attention wavered…and I missed the block by a fraction. I caught Juri’s sword but Miki’s sword caught me.
It slid up my blade and took a bite out of my hand. It was deep: enough to decorate my hilt in red. Gasping I ducked back and away, trying to put enough distance between us for a proper charge. My hand stung something fierce. I threw an appealing glance at Anthy while switching my sword to my left hand. My right hand I clutched to my jacket. For all the reaction Anthy showed I could have just taken a sip of tea; she looked calm. If I looked harder, she looked distant. Her eyes were reflecting the stars that were starting to pierce the sky, even through this unnatural fog. If I looked even harder, she looked tired, tired to death. The fact that I could notice all these things in the heat of a duel was astonishing. And probably why I felt like I was losing.
“You used to be better at this,” grinned Akio, apparently noticing the reason for my distraction. Accordingly he strode over to face me, kicking Anthy out of his way. She went with the blow to the ribs, falling to the side like a puppet with its strings cut. Then accommodatingly she crawled to his car, propping herself up against a tire. My vision turned red.
With my own howl I leapt at Akio. It was my trademark move: the final move I always made when Dios possessed me. I could feel him now, entering out of nowhere…certainly not out of the non-existent castle. Dios flowed into me, filling me with ire that Anthy should be treated so. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t RIGHT.
Akio saw it. I could see it in his handsome face, in the way he froze and stared at the mirage of his former self. His old face. My new face. Surely Anthy’s eyes were widening too (it was so hard to tell), surely she noticed too…
“Dios,” Akio gasped, and I realized he’d never faced Dios, not even in that final duel. Dios had been on the side of World’s End as far as I could make out, offering me words of comfort (instead of physical possession) that were barely more than poorly concealed barbs. But Dios wasn’t a ghost anymore. Or if he was, he was a ghost with a permanent place of residence.
I flipped through the air, the rush of it cool against my overheated skin. The sword of Dios followed me, fluidly, willingly. It was an extension of my body even in my offhand. Automatically I aimed for where Akio’s rose would be if he had a rose. It came to me in that split second that I’d have to impale him instead. This was not a duel by the rules of the Order of the Rose: there were no roses. This was a duel to the death. My hand faltered mid-air. Could I…kill anyone? Even Akio? After all he was Anthy’s kin. He was my…first. (But first what exactly?)
I still remembered meeting him for the first time with his fiancé Kanae, sipping tea with Anthy at my side. Admiringly I had gazed across the room at the handsome and humble assistant chairman. This was Anthy’s big brother? She was so lucky! I’d always wanted a brother…
I remembered how he’d shown me the stars, and talked with electrifying passion about Lucifer’s fate. I remembered how he’d complimented my close friendship with Anthy, and called me his family. I definitely remembered the field of poppies, and kissing him beside his princely steed, and whispers in my ear as he examined my ring and talked about the prince.
I swiped desperately at him as I landed slightly off-balance. But I’d lost my focus: the move was off, and Akio caught my sword against Juri’s hilt and held me there, straining against him. My free hand was still bleeding against my jacket, forming a macabre hand-print; his was leisurely twirling Miki’s sword.
He smiled triumphantly, his teeth gritted virtually in my face. I stared at him, stared into his beautiful evil eyes. Eyes that had inspired something deep and sleeping inside my younger self. Eyes that had haunted my dreams for over half my life.
“Dios,” I whispered, and I closed my eyes and hoped against hope.
I reached inside myself to where the power to revolutionize the world coalesced. Outside I could hear Akio cursing. The world whirled around us but it wasn’t important.
Blood and sweat and ringing metal and the overpowering scent of roses crushed under Akio’s booted heal. Castles swirling in the sky, and swords raining down like a storm that heralded the apocalypse. Being young and innocent, and feeling so old, so alone, and wanting to die, wanting it all to be over. Roses. Roses. The scent of roses. I coughed and opened my eyes.
We were alone together. It was just the two of us, like it had been for the greater part of the Duel called Revolution. We stood in the church again (or was it the planetarium?), while lightning flashed outside and made silhouettes of the stained-glass windows on the floor. My parents had lain dead in their coffins here, while I curled up beside them and wanted to die.
“What the fuck?!” Akio’s calm veneer shattered. His swords clattered onto the ground. He strode over to me and gripped me by the neck, dangling me off the floor. My hands spasmed and the sword of Dios fell away. I started to choke, too weak from our mysterious passage to resist. Our eyes met as intensely as those of lovers, as intensely as they had in the hotel room while the ferris-wheel whirled outside. He tightened his hand. The metal of his ring bit into the side of my neck. I felt my eyes widen in reaction, and then start to close.
A rustling sound.
Feebly I realized it wasn’t either of us: it came from the coffin to the side. Not letting go of me Akio turned his head to look. With a strangled exclamation his fist opened. I fell to the ground, sucking air into my lungs. Frantically I groped for the sword of Dios.
“Hey. Are you the Grim Reaper?” asked a boyish voice, a strangely familiar voice. Grasping my sword I sat up. When I saw who was sitting in the coffin of rose petals, I gasped too.
It was Dios, as the young man I met when I first sat up in my coffin. Earnest green eyes gazed into Akio’s flabbergasted face.
“No,” said World’s End automatically. “No…I do not bring death.”
“You’re pretty,” said Dios, and he smiled innocently, joyfully.
Akio’s jaw dropped.
Dios ran his fingers through his thick mauve hair. It was somewhere between the color of Akio’s and Anthy’s.
“Who’s she?” he asked.
“A witch,” hissed Akio, glaring murderously at me, before his eyes turned as though pulled by strings back to his younger self.
“Is that all women can be to you?” I asked Akio, and I was surprised to realize I felt something besides hatred for him. I felt…pity.
“Like Anthy then,” said Dios thoughtfully. “The witch. The rose bride.”
“She’s not the rose bride!” I shouted, struggling to my feet.
“She should be,” snarled Akio. “It’s her rightful punishment.” His voice fairly dripped with bitterness. “She stole the prince from all the women of the world.”
“She sacrificed herself to save her beloved prince,” murmured Dios, eyes bright with tears. He looked up at Akio appealingly. “I remember now…she was the only one who truly loved him.”
“Love?” said Akio. “What’s that?” His laugh was filled with gall.
And suddenly I knew what to do.
“The prince who loved her knew,” I said, greatly daring as I placed a hand on Akio’s nearby arm. He stared down at me like I was a bug he wanted to shake off. Something, some instinct drove me on, forced me to utter words that I knew to be the long-buried truth.
“He forsook love,” I said, running my hand down Akio’s forearm to cup his hand in mine. We both stared at the ring of the rose seal. “He was no longer the prince she knew,” I reminded Dios in his/my coffin. “Instead…”
“…he became Ends of the World,” finished Dios gently. “Yes…I remember.”
Akio stared disbelievingly at us, trapped by his shock and by my hand clasping his. Dios stood in one graceful motion.
“Do you remember?” he asked Akio, stepping over the side of the coffin. Akio’s hand twitched in mine. His eyes were no longer mocking. They were panicked.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “you betrayed me. You helped this wretched…girl…”
“You helped this wretched girl,” insisted Dios, stepping so close that their bodies brushed.
I lifted Akio’s limp hand to my lips, and pressed a kiss to the ring that had led me where I needed to go. He gasped beside me, beginning to tremble.
“Goodbye, Dios,” I told my prince of long ago, smiling across at the bravest boy in the world. “Thank you for your nobility.”
“It’s yours now,” said Dios with a rakish smile that had something of World’s End in it. “I was just the inspiration.”
“W…what are you doing?” Akio asked us desperately.
“Who are you?” I asked him as I let his hand go, let my prince go at last. It was more a reminder than a real question. I stepped back.
Dios’ arms entwined around Akio’s waist while his older self sweated and shook and looked like a lost child.
“What are you doing?” he cried again. His voice broke.
“We’ll become a prince,” vowed Dios, and he pulled Akio to him. As I watched half-amazed, half-knowing, light began to pulse around them. Slowly Dios was sinking into Akio, then twirling and rising so that their faces were juxtaposed over each other. Akio’s eyes closed. Dios’ opened. The unearthly light flared one last time, as bright as Venus the morning star.
Breathing heavily, I shielded my eyes with my forearm. When I looked again Dios had vanished, and we were back on the roof, lit by the car’s headlights. Akio was crying, silent shining tears.
Shiori screamed at our sudden arrival. Kozue swore. Anthy stood up slowly, blinking owlishly and pushing herself away from the car. She stood there swaying, looking as uncertain as I had ever seen her. She was staring at Akio like she didn’t recognize him.
“What did you do to me?!” snarled Aki through his tears. “How dare you presume! You…you charlatan!” His face was flushed, and his eyes were oddly young and frightened. He was utterly unlike everything I’d come to expect from him, self-possession stripped away.
I folded my arms and stared him down, even though I felt more like falling down.
“You need to face up to who you are,” I told him firmly. “Break the shell, Akio-san.” I glanced around us meaningfully. “We’re in the real world now.”
“BITCH!” he screamed, and flung himself at me tears and all, swords leading the way. The charge was crazy, lacking all his former technique. I easily parried both swords and stepped to the side so he tripped past me and fell on his face.
“Stop it!” he pleaded, seemingly talking to himself.
For a moment there was stunned silence as everyone stared at Akio. Then…
“What have you done to him?” yelled Shiori, shaking a delicate fist at me. Kozue revved the engine and suddenly the car was roaring straight toward me, trying to run me down. I yelled and leaped out of the way, hitting the ground clumsily and bruising a shoulder. The car turned on a hairpin in an impressive display of driving.
Then it was on me again, Kozue flooring the accelerator, laughing wildly. There was no time to get out of the way: my thighs collapsed under me at the contact, even as my body flipped up to slam bone-crunchingly on the bonnet, then bounce off the windshield, shattering it over the now-shrieking driver. The car spun out of control and I was thrown to one side, rolling helplessly until I finally came to a stop face-down.
I lay there groaning, my mouth filled with blood. It hurt. I couldn’t think straight. There were swords again, swords everywhere, flying past my focus. They hurt more than the crash injuries, they hurt like the five long years when there’d been nothing but swords. They filled the world with their screaming. Then nothing, nothing at all. I didn’t feel pain, I didn’t feel anything. Gradually I became aware that gentle hands were turning my body, familiar eyes were staring down at me in terrified consternation.
It was Anthy.
She blinked at me, looking like she was just waking up, and waking to a nightmare besides. Her hands fluttered over me like frightened birds, stroking my cheek, then my chest, then my stomach. They were like tiny pinpricks of heat and light, the only thing I could feel. Maybe it was because of our connection…I couldn’t feel anything else…but me and Anthy, Anthy and me, no Himemiya and I, wasn’t that the correct grammar? We’d always had a connection. Even that batty old teacher who gave me detentions and criticized my grammar and dress sense and oh, everything, even she had noticed. She’d told me it wasn’t natural. No, she’d said that about the boy’s uniform. Hadn’t she? What was her name? Gosh, I’d hated her.
“Utena,” whispered Anthy drawing my flagging attention. I realized she was crying.
“Don’t cry,” I whispered, trying hard to focus. I wanted to lift a hand, to wipe away her tears. It was my job to wipe away her tears, but right now my hand wasn’t listening. I was trying, trying so hard, I was always trying when it came to Anthy. But my damn hand…it just wasn’t working…stupid hand…
“Utena-kun,” came another whisper, an oddly throaty masculine voice. I felt my eyes widen as Akio knelt across from Anthy and took up one of my useless hands. I stared at the shocking sight as Anthy too looked up to stare at her brother in disbelief.
“D…D…Dios,” she whispered, her hands clutching convulsively in my jacket material, what was left of it.
“Sister,” he said, and he hung his head in shame.
“What did you do?” she asked me, eyes huge as they moved to mine. “Who are you?!”
I laughed, albeit weakly. “Haven’t you heard?” I slurred. “I’m your prince.”
She started to cry, tears tracking down her face. Akio was crying too. I thought they looked so much alike in this moment. I’d never thought we’d come to this. It was surreal.
“Oh Utena-sama,” Anthy whispered brokenly.
“Don’t call me that,” I begged.
“But it’s who you are, Utena-sama,” said Akio, and I’d never heard him sound so sincere. He looked across my broken bleeding body at his sister, and stretched out a hand, almost shyly.
“Sister. Help me.”
She looked at me. Then looked back at him. Tentatively, with muted fear on her face she reached across and took his hand.
“She has the power?” asked Akio/Dios.
“Y…yes,” admitted Anthy through her tears.
“Where is the sword?” he asked. After a moment’s hesitation she lifted the hand I rested nearest her. They both stared down at the way I clutched the sword of Dios, even now. Tenderly Anthy placed my hand on my stomach, the sword turned out to the side toward her brother.
The car rumbled behind us.
“No,” growled Akio/Dios. The engine cut out.
“Utena-sama,” he said, staring down with burning eyes. “Within you is that which is eternal, something shining, the power of miracles.”
I coughed. I knew where he was going with this speech. But I didn’t see how it was going to help. I felt weak and confused, and kind of sleepy. Why were we having this pointless conversation?
“With that power,” he intoned, “anything is possible.” Grasping his sister’s hand he placed their entwined hands over my heart. I gasped at the sudden heat. My body bucked involuntarily.
“Help me help her,” Akio begged Anthy, “to help herself.” Anthy’s eyes were brimming with tears, and I suddenly realized she didn’t trust him anymore, and didn’t want to be holding his hand. There were shadows on her face, shadows that she normally kept completely concealed.
“Anthy,” I managed to gasp out, “I’m sorry, Anthy.” I didn’t want to make her do something she didn’t want to do. I wanted her to be free. It was so important to me that she was free, and safe, and her own person…
She sighed then, sighed with apparent frustration, and leaned down to kiss my forehead. As she rose back up she put a finger to my lips.
“Be quiet, Utena,” she requested in her best no-nonsense tone. “I’ve had enough self-sacrifice to last me for eternity.”
“Self-sacrifice is eternal,” intoned Akio/Dios.
“Be quiet,” Anthy snapped at him, and then together they closed their eyes and pressed down against my heart. My chest arched. My vision darkened.
At first I felt nothing.
Then it was like watching the dawn with Anthy by my side. And Akio at my other side. Yes, Akio was there too, strangely enough.
It was right. It had been like this before.
It was wrong. This had never been.
We three were in a garden, holding hands beneath a tree. No, not inside a garden, not any longer. On the outside of a walled garden, standing off against a shining being that wielded a fiery sword. A terrible being, a beautiful being. Its sword turned two ways, turning us away. Turning us out into a world that was all thorny briars, and drought-cracked earth that had to be tilled with sweat. Tilled with pain, toil and pain, and watered with blood.
This was the real world, the way it had been. The way it was. The way it wasn’t meant to be.
No garden, no roses, never any roses again. Or if there could be roses, they would have thorns. I didn’t care, I liked roses (did I?). The forbidden garden was filled with roses. Forbidden fruit and roses. It was beautiful there, filled with meant-to-bes; it was everything I had ever wanted. I wanted to go back…
But we could never go back. The way was barred for all eternity, barred by the flaming sword. Barred by a series of pointless duels and a game so cruel it could make you cry, make you mourn for the death of the bride held up as its prize.
I was never much for rules.
“Let’s go back,” I told Anthy and Akio, and I gripped their hands tightly in mine.
“Yes,” said Anthy, and she bent her neck in acquiescence, and there was something about her, something that made you want to put your foot on her neck and bruise it. To crush her in place beneath your heel. Beautifully submissive, that’s what Himemiya Anthy was. Like a rose that you wanted to pick, even though it would never grow again. Like a temptation that it would take all your self-denial to resist, and a good dose of self-blindness besides.
“Yes,” said Akio, and his voice was marvelous, like an angel singing, like the voice of god calling out to man in the cool of the day. And oh so smooth, like a serpent slithering through the leaves. It made you want to believe every word he ever said, that if you believed in miracles you could have your wish. Even at the expense of others. Especially at the expense of others.
I closed my eyes, and steeled myself against Anthy’s tragic beauty and Akio’s charm, and tugged at their hands insistently.
“Now,” I said, and strode forward, because it was my nature to be impulsive, to not think things through. To act for the ones I loved, instead of talking endlessly. To accept the fruit that was offered without a second thought. To tell only the truth and so expect others to be truthful. To be deceived.
I walked through the wall and the angel with the sword swung its flaming arc right through me, but it didn’t matter. I’d been cut by worse. I already burned.
“Come on!” I called, and Anthy and Akio followed. We stood beneath the tree (again/for the first time) and we were naked, and they weren’t ashamed, although I blushed because I couldn’t not. I drank them in with my eyes, this blessed and cursed pair who put the gods to shame. And I was frightened, and peaceful, and wondering, and incurious, and the garden was everything I’d ever wanted, and the only place I’d belonged. It was like the castle of eternity. It was the castle.
“Here,” said Akio, mane of hair like a moonbeam, eyes slanting wickedly as he plucked a piece of fruit and offered it to his sister. “You know you want this. You always wanted it.”
“Yes,” said Anthy with a small pained smile, “because you wanted me to.” Her glorious hair flowed to her feet, and her gaze flowed from her brother to me. She took the fruit and held it out to me with a steady hand and ancient stars whirling in her eyes. “Tenjou Utena. Named for heaven above, and a husk or covering. This is yours now.” Her smile reached her eyes. “If you want it.”
They smiled at me together then, and I wanted to cry at their loveliness. But I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I swallowed the urge, took a deep breath and reached for the fruit. Akio laughed. Anthy’s fingers caressed mine as we both held the fruit for one eternal moment. A shining moment.
Then I took the fruit from her and bit into it.
Their matching sets of eyes moved to my lips. And lingered. I blushed and tried not to chew too noisily.
The fruit was divine. More so because it was bruised by their fingers first. I smiled around my mouthful, and relished the crisp breeze across my bared breasts. I threw my head back.
The air was cool and fresh in the dawn. The first few rays of sunlight were warm and inviting. They eased through me, slid into every vein and atom, lighting up the cold parts.
Wait… I was cold?
Suddenly my shoulder burned where it was bruised, and the slice on my hand lit on fire. All the scrapes and cuts were flickering flames, and broken bones ached unbearably with heat. The blaze that streaked along my torso was the worst, causing me to gasp and curl onto my side. The swords of hatred were melting in this onslaught, withdrawing, pulling out and flying away for another time and place. Anthy was calling me, and I couldn’t ignore the need in her tear-blurred voice. The sun was coming up. It was time to enjoy our day. It was time…
My eyes blinked open. I was curled up in Anthy’s lap, her head bent over me, eyes in shadow. Her shoulders were shaking.
Dazedly I noticed the mist was gone. Touga, Nanami, Tsuwabuki, Saionji and Wakaba…they were all there, standing around us and gaping. Shiori and Kozue were gawking from the car, while Juri and Miki had woken and were staggering over to us, supporting each other. Somebody’s familiar hand cradled mine in theirs. With a shock I realized it was Akio, still kneeling by my side.
“Uh…what happened?” I asked not too intelligently.
“That was fucked up,” muttered Saionji. When Nanami shot him an aggrieved glare he shrugged. “What? It was.”
“Wh…what have I done?” Akio’s voice came out strangled and his hand clenched painfully on mine.
“Let go.” Anthy’s voice was like flint. Her brother stared at her and I saw that angry tears were rolling down his cheeks. Suddenly he lifted his free hand, drawing it back as if to slap her…
And Anthy caught his hand in both of hers, stopping it inches from her own tearstained cheek.
“Let go,” she urged, this time softly, in the little-girl voice she would use when she particularly wanted something. He stared at her, crying pitifully, eyes welling rage…then let go of my hand. I used it to push myself into a sitting position, then a kneeling one.
“You’ve ruined me,” Akio accused me, beautiful voice cracking. “You and your goddamn noble heart, coming all this way without losing it. Even now.”
I shrugged at him, still confused, but rejoicing in a body that seemed miraculously whole.
“I came because of Anthy,” I declared, reaching over to gently pry her fingers away from his upraised wrist, taking her hands into mine instead. “You know that.”
“So did I,” he whispered, and he stared at her in apparent anguish. “So did I.”
“It’s over,” she whispered back, and she looked up then, and I saw chaos whirling in her eyes. “It’s the end of us, brother. The ends of our world.”
“N…no,” he protested, voice cracking again, taking on a childish quality. “It will never be. We’re what’s real, Anthy. You and I, together. We’re the only ones who are real.”
“Stop talking,” I told him, suddenly tired of all his words, of all his games going around and round in endless circles, like a castle spinning in the sky. He was so clever with words. He always sounded right. But it didn’t make him right.
Sometimes it took a fool to be right.
Only a fool would believe in eternal friendship.
Only a fool would believe that there really was such a thing as a prince, somewhere in the world, sometime long ago. Even when the prince didn’t believe it himself.
“We’re going now,” I told Akio, rising to stand tall and straight, pulling Anthy up with me. She clung to my arm and stared at her brother with the strangest expression on her face. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking.
“You should go too,” she murmured to him. There was an awkward and anti-climactic silence. Everyone stared uncomfortably at Akio, so different from any Akio we’d ever known. He still knelt, knuckling back angry tears at our feet.
“Where?” he finally snarled, no moaned.
“You’re free to choose,” I told him. “But stay away from us.”
I turned and started walking away. Anthy followed but peered back over her shoulder.
Behind me I heard the car engine roar into life. It was my turn to glance back, understandably nervous about being run down. Akio was behind the wheel with Touga in the passenger’s seat. Shiori and Kozue huddled in the back.
Akio glared through the ruins of the windshield at us.
“You don’t know what will happen!” he shouted, his voice gaining a little of its old power. “You don’t know how the world works! You’ll see, give it time, and you’ll see…”
“Lame,” I muttered. Anthy gave a start next to me.
As though he heard, Akio sneered. Then he floored the accelerator, yanked the gearshift, and spun the wheel.
We watched aghast as the red convertible (looking rather the worse for wear) roared across the arena, before flying over the edge and into the dawn-lit sky.
“Shiori!” screamed Juri sprinting to the roof’s edge.
“No!” cried Miki, running after her.
I was hot on their heels. Together we hung over the turret-esque wall, gawking as the red convertible landed safely (how?!) and sped off into the desert, disappearing inside a cloud of dust.
“Crazy…” muttered Saionji.
“No kidding,” I said, eyes goggling. “I thought this was the real world.”
“Kozue…” whimpered Miki. Juri said nothing, placing her hand on Miki’s shoulder instead. Tsuwabuki took Nanami’s hand and surprisingly she let him, as they stared mournfully after her brother. Wakaba burst into tears and flung herself at Saionji. He stood unresponsive, glaring into the sun, but he didn’t push her away. Finally, awkwardly, he patted her on the head.
I felt Anthy’s arms slip around my waist from behind, her soft lips brush my neck. I placed my arms over hers, and shivered, and stared at the dust-obscured road leading away from this god-forsaken tower. It creeped me out that we would have to drive down it to get back to our homes and lives.
The same path my erstwhile prince had taken.
* * *
Two days later I was back in Anthy’s apartment, alone with her at last, kneeling at the low table sipping tea. What with the furor, and drive home, and general chaos following the Duel called Couronnement, it was our first chance to really talk.
We were silent.
I had so many questions for Anthy, questions I didn’t even know if she could or would answer. Questions that I didn’t want to ask her, just as much as I did. So I licked my dry lips and drank more tea.
She smiled at me sympathetically and passed me a cookie. I nibbled on it, watching her pick one herself and hold it aloft in deft fingers. Her tongue darted out and licked the sugar from its surface. A surge of heat rushed through me and I looked away, then darted a glance at her through my eyelashes. She offered me a tiny amused smile, but the heat in her lidded gaze made me blush.
I swallowed my cookie with some difficulty.
“W…what happened to you up there?” I managed finally. “When you walked into the fog…and wouldn’t answer…”
Now it was Anthy’s turn to look down. There was a long moment of silence, so long that I almost retracted the question.
“I…forgot,” she said finally, so quietly I almost couldn’t hear her. Her hands knotted together on the table. Her shoulders hunched inward. “It was like it was…the past, like it was how it has always been.”
I stared at her and bit my lip. Everything about her posture suggested pain: it was horrifying for me to stop and think what Anthy’s life (lifetimes?) must have been like. I wasn’t really able to dwell properly on it. If I did my vision went hazy and fury twisted my guts.
“The wheel of fate,” I murmured, not knowing why I said it. Her eyes snapped to mine and we stared at each other for a timeless instant.
“The once and future prince,” she said, and there was something in her voice.
“Is that a quote?” I asked.
She shrugged and smiled obliquely. We sipped our tea. I wondered whether to ask about the past that she wouldn’t talk about and that I couldn’t think about. I wondered so long that she beat me to the next question.
“Is Dios…with you?” she asked, framing the words carefully.
It was my turn to shrug.
“I think he’s with Akio-san now. Mostly anyway. I think he woke up.”
“You woke him up,” she accused gently.
“Yeah,” I said apologetically, and placed my hand over her tensed ones. “I’m sorry, Anthy. I couldn’t kill him.”
“No,” she murmured. “I understand. It would be like…” She paused and looked at me intently. “…Killing yourself.”
I didn’t understand. So I did the next best thing – lifted her hand and placed a kiss on it. Then I turned it over to press a kiss to her palm.
“Is this what we’re going to do in ten years?” she asked playfully. I grinned at her.
“For sure,” I promised. “We’re safe now. We’re free. We can live out our lives together, between tea and cookies.” I licked a stray cookie crumb from her finger and then paused uncertainly.
“I wonder what a normal life will be like.”
Anthy had the audacity to giggle.
“I doubt it will be normal,” she purred, leaning forward to press a kiss to my forehead. “With Tenjou Utena as the hero of the story.”
“I’m not the hero,” I protested, pressing her hand to my cheek and holding it there. “I’m just a normal girl really.”
“Like me?” she asked innocently, her thumb sliding over my cheekbone.
“Hey!” I protested. “I was kinda confused when I said that. Maybe even a little blind.”
She arched an eyebrow at me.
“But now I see,” I whispered, leaning forward over the table, over the distance between us…just a little more…a little closer…
“What do you see?” she whispered back, leaning to meet me halfway.
“You,” I said, savoring her answering smile.
And we kissed.