You know what? I hate html.I wish I was doing almost anything else.Like getting laid. I could be having sex right now, but noooo.I watched Utena lose her virginity again this weekend.That scene is so hot.The fine line between obsession and madness is... what was I saying?GIRL ON GIRL ACTION!!!I want that outfit. I like red and black. What a surprise.This layout took forever to get just right. But that was because I took so many breaks.I never ate glue in kindergarten. Hard to tell, huh?Gio keeps talking about food. What a bitch.LEGS.See, I'm being productive. Now if only I could do this at work, where productive is just a dream...GODDAMMIT STOP TALKING ABOUT FOODYou know, those are the only important things in life. Food, sex, and sleep.Everything else is just window dressing.I have to clean my house still. That sucks.I hate cleaning. I should buy maids.I want to go to a museum, but I don't want to get out of my jammies.I suck at being energetic.Funny, you don't look Druish.


If I Could - Chapter Thirteen


The wind rustled the leaves around Kohana’s ankles as she walked homeward. Her head was absolutely pounding.

Miki had offered her the hospitality of his house, though he and Kozue did share a room. But for the ache in her head, Kohana would have accepted; as it was, she'd settled for kissing him very sweetly and fairly blatantly right in front of his sister and then asking him if she'd see him tomorrow. She had decided to warn him that Kozue would retaliate. With a little shrug, he said that he would endure it. It didn't really matter, but the look on Kozue's face as Kohana had walked out was made all the more priceless by the knowledge that Miki would do his best to appear indifferent to her wrath.

Thus intensifying the pain of his apparent rejection...

Chuckling a little at the memory was painful. This was one of those long, slow migraines—the ones that took a while to build, but they could lay her out for a day or so. Tomorrow, she might have to endure it to initiate the new duelist. It was probably all to the better, though—no classes tomorrow, only a few moments of talk and a few stairs to climb, and then back to the bottom to wait until the duel was over in some dark place. Give him the ring, and then she would be gone. Unless, of course, there was an opportunity for some fun. Kohana could take the pain if the amusement was promising enough.

Oh, but the amusement tonight had been worth every second of the pain she was enduring now. Miki had been absolutely vanilla-sweet; inexperienced, a little shy, and utterly adoring once she'd shown him the heights she could bring him to. Thank goodness she’d warned him against the common mistake of interpreting the aftereffects of good sex as love—he’d been a little bit clingy afterward, something that she usually brushed off with a cool denial of feeling, but this time she’d been gentle. The whole situation was strange, strange enough that once she realized he was almost starting to convince himself of feelings beyond friendship, she’d carefully reminded him that they had no obligation to each other. And that only added to the strangeness. It had been awkward for her; going against her own impulses had never been a problem before, and she didn’t quite know how to react to her own unwillingness to hurt Miki.

But as for her enjoyment of it—he had more raw natural talent than most people. It must have been those amazingly dexterous fingers. He was a little bit awed by the idea that his movements could evoke such reactions. It had made for an absolutely wonderful diversion.

Speaking of diversions, she had no doubt that this had been a diversion of some sort. Kohana decided that she was going to his house rather than her own.

It's closer, anyway. I’m not sure if I can make it to my house.

Likely he also had some sort of consequence planned that would result from her sleeping with Miki. Kozue knew about it, and if even if Kohana hadn't made it absolutely clear to her, Touga would have. There was an attack coming from that direction. And as for the rest...

She couldn't think clearly. The pain was too intense.

Struggling to keep her back straight, not to hunch over and curl into a ball the way she wanted to, she glanced at the street she was on. Only one more block to go, and then she could rest. Touga knew what to do. Namely, leave her alone.

The wind rushed past her again, plucking at the jacket she wore and turning her bones to ice.

A warm bath, maybe, but not too warm or it'll only make the headache worse.

She barely made it to the door before her eyesight began to blur. Just the tiniest bit—this wasn't going to be too bad, though it felt like someone was hitting her head repeatedly with a hammer. She could picture exactly the way the bones crunched, brain matter oozing down the side of her neck. The picture made her grin.

I'm so melodramatic. But, better to laugh than cry.

The stairs up to his room were a trial. One hand on the banister in a white-knuckled grip, she dragged herself up them and into the hall. For once, she didn't snicker at the picture frames exactly like those in her own house. She couldn't see them clearly enough to laugh at them, and laughing would have been painful.

The door to the sitting room was closed, as usual, and Kohana found herself wishing that he'd left it open just this once. But there was no use wishing—she grasped the knob and slowly turned it, forcing her clenched muscles to obey her even though every little effort sent bolts of agony shooting through her limbs. She was even careful to shut it behind her, ever so softly, because the click would likely have forced her to hold her head for a few moments. The last thing she wanted was for Touga to see how much pain she was in.

For a moment she leaned against the closed door, gathering strength for the trial of walking into his room. It seemed so far away...

A soft sigh of pleasure that seemed offensively loud in her ears reached her as she was halfway across the room. So, he was with someone. No matter. They could stay or go as they pleased, but Kohana was going to the bath and drawing a tub of tepid water to restore the warmth to her freezing skin. Maybe Touga would be so occupied that he wouldn't notice her.

She had to hold the doorframe as she walked past. Her legs were starting to shake. Not bothering to glance at the bed, she turned to the bathroom, ignoring the startled gasp of whatever woman he was with.

"You look a bit dusty, Kohana. Did you have fun with Miki?" That purring voice, usually so low, was far too loud for her right now.

"Of course, darling. And I'm taking a bath now. Don't bother me." She had to force the words through gritted teeth.

He laughed; it sent a shock of pain through her head and she had to strain to keep her hands from flying to it. "There must be something wrong. Did Kozue try to kill you?"

Glancing over her shoulder at him, she noticed that the girl he was with was half-hiding behind him, as if she were embarrassed. Other than the pale color of his uniform and the red of his hair, she couldn't make out any more details. "Kozue didn't say anything. Leave me alone, please."

"Oh my god, Kohana... I'm so sorry... I didn't know you and he were still..."


The pain in her head exploded into raging agony at the sound of Sakura's voice. Likely she was only speaking in a normal tone, but it seemed like she was yelling. Kohana's hand flew to her face, the heel pressing hard into her chin and the fingers digging at her forehead. Forcing her hand away from her face, she ground out, "So that's why you were acting so strange at lunch. Amazing what goes on behind my back."

"I'm so sorry!"

This time she really had been yelling. Kohana would swear to it. Turning her face away, her hands buried themselves in her hair, trying in vain to push away the pounding ache. She closed her eyes against the infernal brightness of the usually dimly lit room and growled, "Don't be sorry. Shut up."

There was a shaky inhalation. Likely Sakura didn't realize that it wasn't her little fling that was causing this reaction. Before anyone could break the silence, Kohana strained to say, "I hope it was worth it for you to give up someone who loved you for someone who can't."

If I have to hurt, so does everyone else.

"Don't be cruel just because your head hurts," Touga said. It was soft enough that it didn't cause her much pain, even though he was walking towards her.

"The truth might hurt your prospects, Touga?" She laughed, a grating sound that forced a tear from her eye. "Don't worry about it, Sakura. I know how good he is, and I don't care that you've slept with him. I'm just surprised that you gave up Ichida for him."

Hands that were almost unbearably warm caught her before her trembling knees gave way. "You're like ice," Touga murmured, wiping away the tear that had fallen and then scooping her up into his arms. He carried her over to the bed and gently laid her down. "Be very quiet if you speak," he said, obviously to Sakura, and then Kohana heard the sound of a kiss. "She has a migraine and she's not very happy about us."

"Don't flatter yourself, Touga. Sleep with whomever you want," Kohana muttered, curling up into a ball as he drew the blankets over her. "Maybe you can comfort Kozue now that Miki's decided he's not her property."

His soft chuckle followed his footfalls out of the room, and there was the slightly echoing sound of the bathroom door closing before Kohana heard the rushing of water filling the bath.

"I thought..." Sakura's voice had dropped to an endurable level. It sounded as if she was on the edge of tears.

"He let you think that you were the only one." Kohana wished vaguely that her head didn’t hurt so much, or she would have laughed at the idea. Her mouth twitched up into a smirk. "You were swept off your feet. I know the story already—he's done this before. If you don't expect him to give up his philandering, he's actually quite pleasant to be around."

"How can you be so casual about it?" The lost and broken tone of Sakura's voice grated on Kohana's nerves.

"That's what he is. I don't love him, so I don't care." Nestling further into the sheets, Kohana tried to block out the pounding sensation and failed horribly. "I hope you at least did Ichida the favor of breaking up with him first."

"Yes," Sakura sniffed miserably. "This afternoon."

"Good girl. Enjoy your freedom, then, and don't look for more than this from Touga." This was strangely amusing. It didn't matter that Touga had left her alone with Sakura for this very reason—the pain blurred her ability to figure out any more than that, so she decided to go along with it. "If this continues the way it has been you'll just be another one of the girls who faint when he walks by. Don't let that happen, if only for your own dignity."

"You're not one of those girls to him." Sakura's voice was bitter. "Why is it different for you?"

Kohana smiled. "I knew what he was from the beginning."

"You're lying to me," she accused, thankfully keeping her voice low. "He cares about you, doesn't he."

"I would laugh if it weren't so painful."

"How can you think that? As soon as you walked in the room, all of his attention was on you. He's in there running a bath for you, probably making sure that it's just the way you like it." The bitterness hadn't left; rather it had grown. This would take some delicate handling—but Kohana couldn't organize her thoughts around the pain.

Bluntness was probably the best way to go. "That's just the way he is. If you were the one with the headache, he'd be doing whatever he could to ease it for you. He likes to rescue damsels in distress. The only reason he pays more attention to me is that I don't love him and he wants me to."

"I don't believe you." Sakura obviously didn't want to accept the reality of the situation. “You always get whatever you want, don’t you? You’ve got him, too…”

Oh, well. She’d tried. "Then don't believe me. I won't stop you from making a mess of things." In the bathroom, the water stopped.

This is going to create problems...

The bathroom door opened before either of them could say any more, and Kohana was thankful for that. Soft footfalls came over to the bed, and Kohana tried not to frown as she heard Touga speak. "I'm so sorry about this. I hope you can forgive me, especially since Kohana's a good friend of yours too."

"How can you call her that? She's been saying things—"

"It's just the pain talking. The poor girl's half out of her mind with it, and she can't even have anything to dull it." Kohana was sure that Sakura couldn't hear the smug satisfaction in Touga's voice.

"Don't bother, Touga. You’ve already done enough." Thanks to him, Kohana no longer had even the tiniest shred of a friendship with Sakura, and at any time, he could break Sakura's heart just by saying that he was bored with her.

You'll pay for this, darling. I'm going to eat you alive when I feel better.

He laughed softly, picking her up again and being most careful of her throbbing head. The door shut after they entered the bathroom, blocking their words from Sakura's ears, and Touga's voice was a soft rumble as he said, "You won't let this ruin our friendship, will you?"

So, the first part of his revenge was complete. Kohana knew better than to expect him to stop at taking away her friend. "Don't bother to call it that," she said with a ghost of a smile.

I couldn't turn this to my advantage, but next time...

"Such an impossible girl," he sighed amusedly, setting her down on the counter so that he could undress her. Kohana tried to help, but her fingers were too shaky. In moments, she was relaxing in the tub, the water the perfect temperature to keep her warm while not enraging whoever was beating her head with that hammer. "I'll get rid of Sakura in a while, since you're not up to anything tonight."

"Towels are on the floor?" She cracked an eye open, glad to find that the room was soothingly dark.

Even in darkness, she could feel him smile. "Of course."

"Then you may leave. I don't want to hear any screaming, either, or I'll do my damnedest to murder you both."

Before he left, he pressed a light kiss to her forehead and stroked her hair away from her face. As the door closed behind him, Kohana curled up into a tight little ball. It was never very hard to mingle kindness and cruelty—she would have to do the same to him somehow, when she felt better. It hurt more that way.

I have to admit, now, that I enjoyed hurting her. She didn't crumble, the way most people would have; that tiny smile on her face told me that she'd prepared herself for the pain. I don't think she really even felt it. But Sakura was to her what Kyouichi was to me, though I don't think they were ever lovers. Sakura was Kohana's only true support, the only person who knew even a little about what she really thought or felt, and losing her was a real blow. I know that, even though she never gave any evidence of it.

Beside that, I know it made her angry that I would intrude on what she considered her property. That she'd done the same didn't matter to her—all that mattered was that I had played with her toys.

Frankly, I was amazed that I'd found someone as hard to break to my will as she was. Most people didn't put up that much of a fight; they fought for a while, they gave in, and only rarely did anyone ever start to fight again. Kohana only gave in when she thought it was wise to play along, or when she couldn't think because of the headaches. I took advantage of that shamelessly.

Everything I did was shameless. Even though I knew I didn't want to be that manipulative person forever, I also knew that here was an opponent who wasn't pitifully weak or far too strong to ever consider truly fighting. She drew me back into my old ways almost completely. I felt that I had to get revenge on her for protecting me, for standing up to my mother, whom I'd wanted to care for me the way other mothers cared for their children. I was angry beyond all belief that she'd taken it upon herself to tell off my mother, amused at the sweet and maliciously innocent way she'd done it, and saddened because... well, who wouldn't be a little sad because their parents couldn't love them?

At the same time, I felt like I'd been given something precious, without ever knowing it existed in the first place. She'd protected me. There was someone who was willing to stand up for me, even if it was only that once. Kyouichi is my best friend, and has been a great deal more to me, but he couldn't have done what Kohana did. His father was a violent man; when we were younger, I used to see the marks of his father's rage on his body. Even when I was cold to everyone else, I never wanted to see Kyouichi spitting up blood the way he had when his father found out that he had been expelled from Ohtori. Of course I didn’t show that, though—I would never let anyone see that it bothered me when Saionji-san hit his son, not even Kyouichi. Nothing ever bothers us, as Kohana said. It was hard to tell when that man would explode, and a call from my mother on the wrong day might have pushed him over the edge. I think it troubles Kyouichi that Kohana got to tell her off first.

That precious gift wasn't something I could let go. I don't think she ever knew that I resolved to repay her someday. That didn't change the fact that she had seen what it was that hurt me the most, and she hadn't ignored it; the very act of defending me, even in that small way, made me realize that she was far more dangerous to me than I'd thought. The painting had given me a hint of that. I had ignored it because it was only a painting, and it was mine. I could choose to burn it if I wished and she wouldn't have cared. Or at least she would never have let me know if she did.

Don't think I didn't realize that she had her own reasons for doing what she did. I knew she was trying to make up for her inability to stand up to her own parents. But what she did for herself, she also did for me. Her hate was mine.

It was only an accident that sparked my desire to tear her down. The silence we'd shared, both of us intensely aware of the other's pain and our own, that was something that neither of us had ever meant to happen. But it had, and we had to deal with the consequences. Neither of us could do anything more than try our best to control the other. The weakness to each other was something we couldn't afford, I for my reasons, and she for hers. The only way we could ever truly be safe around each other again was if one of us could rule the other. The only thing that was truly sacred between us was the sex. It seems shallow, I know, but should we really have denied ourselves the pleasure? It was the only time we showed each other any true affection.

Perhaps not the only time. I caught her, once, brushing my hair away from my face when she thought I was sleeping. Her fingers were so gentle, the kind of affectionate tenderness that we both so desperately wanted but would have scorned if it had been openly given. For our other lovers and our admirers, that kind of warmth was only a way to reward them and keep them docile. It would have been a mark of ownership. That assertion of ownership would have to be answered with more destructive behavior. As it was, though, given when I was supposedly unaware of it, it was true fondness. I smiled in my 'sleep'.

Ours was a very twisted relationship. I suppose twisted hearts can only create twisted relationships. But after so many years of coldness, whether because I couldn’t bring myself to care about others or because I cared too much, it was good to be able to simply react to her, even if it was with anger. Her own rage was like a challenge—I couldn’t resist it any more than I could resist her seduction. It may even have been healthy for us to release our anger on each other.

But, and this I regret, we became too caught up in our depraved little game. We lost sight of the larger picture. And by the time we found it again, it was too late for us to truly reconcile. Until the end, we were inextricably twined in grief and anger and timid affection, both of us torn inside by emotions we only thought we understood.

When Kohana woke the next afternoon, she couldn't remember how she'd gotten to the bed. The headache was over; only the weak and languid feeling that followed it remained, and the oversensitivity was almost gone. Touga's voice was a soft purr from the chair near the bed. It seemed like he was talking to someone on the phone.

"No, Kyouichi, she's fine. She just had a headache last night and I decided to let her sleep. Just because she fainted in the bath doesn't mean—"

Fainted in the bath? She'd always been able to feel it coming before and pull herself out. Did she owe him her life now?

It doesn't matter, it's not like it's worth much.

"I know that. They know that. I'm taking care of her as best I can; why do you think I've stayed home with her every time she had a headache?"

Every time she'd let him know about it, that was. There were lots of times she only had a small one. To let him see every time she had a headache would mean that she'd be constantly in bed and not having fun.

"I know. She'll go whether she's strong enough or not." A short chuckle at whatever Saionji said. "You don't know her the way I do. The only way to keep her away would be to tie her up."

You do know me. I hate you for it.

"I want you here as soon as possible. Don't worry about the kendo practice tonight; you'll be there in time. I have a few things to do before the duel." He paused for a moment, and then said, "I have to go. See you later." His cell phone clicked shut, and he leaned toward Kohana. "How much of that did you hear, little deceiver?"

Letting a lazy, self-assured smile grow on her face, she murmured, "Don't be more of a fool than you can help." As if she would let him know how much of anything she knew.

"You look absolutely beautiful when you wake." His fingers traced a lazy line around her ear. "In case you were wondering, I calmed Sakura down quite nicely. Such a pretty girl."

Forcing away the urge to open her eyes and glare at him, Kohana sighed softly and said, "She is, isn't she. When are you going to break her heart?"

Bastard—she was MINE!

"She was so angry with you. It's a shame you won't be able to protect her from me." His hands moved down to Kohana's shoulder, pulling the covers up over it tenderly. "I think she might really hate you now."

Against her true desires, Kohana smiled softly. "It doesn't matter. She was just a convenience."

Never let them see you hurt.

"Little liar," Touga said, and then kissed her on the cheek. "It hurts to see her one of my pets, doesn't it?"

Pushing herself up from the bed, Kohana's tongue flickered out to taste the line of his jaw, down to the little hollow under his ear. "What do I care?" she whispered, nipping at his earlobe. "The only person that matters to me is me."

"Say what you like, but we both know you're lying." That amused purr made her want to strangle him, but his hand had slipped under the covers and was caressing her breast. "We only have an hour before Saionji shows up. Let's make the most of it, since you seem to be feeling better."

"Be gentle with me. I'm still a little tired and sensitive." The gentle pinch he gave her nipple made her gasp.

"Physically or emotionally?" The mockery in his voice was unmistakable.

"Why would you care?" Kohana chuckled softly, despite the fact that she wanted nothing better than to kill him.

It was strange, though, that it didn't feel any different this time. They had sex, there was a moment afterward when they were almost truly affectionate toward each other, and then they pulled away, each one retreating into the cold shell they'd constructed. It was still comforting to feel Touga's body next to hers. Even though he was the one who'd hurt her, he was still the one who could start her body thrumming with a single look. It felt only natural that he should be both the one who hurt her and the one who made love to her.

That's what it is, and has been from the beginning. Even if there isn't emotion involved, the amount of time and care we put in to make the other as satisfied as possible—that's not just sex.

Saionji came into the room to find them wrapped around each other in the aftermath; Touga staring up at the sheer canopy of his bed, Kohana curled up across his chest, feeling his heartbeat reverberate through her body and playing idly with a lock of his hair. Saionji glanced disgustedly at the way Touga's arm draped so easily across her shoulders and asked, "Is that all you ever do?"

“No. But it’s one of our main pastimes.” Touga’s hand smoothed down Kohana’s side, and she irritably shook it off, rolling over to the edge of the bed. There had been something possessive in the gesture.

With her best seductive smile and her most sultry sway, Kohana walked over to Saionji, her eyes fixed on him. Flowing up against him, she sneaked a finger in the waistband of his pants and whispered in his ear, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Saionji leaned away a little, staring down at her, and then glancing toward Touga. Touga wasn’t even watching them; he didn’t seem to care what went on. Kohana knew better.

It hurts to see him one of my pets, doesn’t it?

Though Kohana was sure he could feel the tension in the air, Saionji looked back to her with a small, only slightly disdainful smile. It seemed he’d caught on to the subtext of Kohana’s approach—that, in effect, she was choosing him over Touga. “And what do you expect me to do about it?” he asked.

“Whatever you want,” Kohana breathed, smiling up at him and letting her body relax against his. Men always fell for being treated as if they were dominant. His hands finally came up to take her by the shoulders, and as he leaned down to kiss her, she felt the tickle of green curls on her skin and she shivered.

She managed to keep his attention from straying much, even when she heard Touga rise from the bed and begin to dress himself. A few moments later, she felt a warm hand at her waist and lips pressed briefly against her shoulder.

“Create a prince tonight,” Touga murmured as he drew away. Saionji’s muscles tensed beneath her hands, but he soon relaxed when she made no reply.

The door closing behind Touga was a very cold sound. Kohana could barely keep herself from smiling.

Kohana was waiting when the duelist approached. She didn't look up until she heard a familiar voice say, "What are you doing here?"


"Ichida." His white face was set, his eyes tired. "I'm here to let you into the forest. You do know you're not supposed to be in there unless you're on the council, right?"

"What, and because I'm fighting a duel with Touga I'm now on the Seitokai?" His adorably innocent mouth quirked up into a grin that Kohana knew he didn't feel. "If I'd known that, I wouldn't have challenged him."

"That's not true. You would have, for Sakura's sake." For some reason, she felt a little guilty about using him this way. She decided she'd better get used to it soon.

"You know about that?" Confusion clouded his warm hazel eyes. "But I didn't—"

"I know, Ichida. You didn't tell anyone. I saw them together last night, at his house." Moving over to a column, she leaned against it, turning her face away. "I tried to tell her that she was making a mistake. She got angry with me. Touga says she hates me now."

Ichida turned away, his shoulder-length purple hair hiding most of his expression from her view. "I still love her, you know," he rasped. "I guess I just wasn't what she really wanted in a guy."


This was what she was expected to do to finish the new duelist’s creation. Princes were something she was familiar with—Touga was a prince of the school to those who didn’t know him, and Kohana herself might have seemed like a prince if she wasn’t so evidently female. And she had been a prince. And the qualities they all had in common, or pretended to? Choosing her words carefully, Kohana said, "I guess she wants something that's not humanly possible."

Ichida looked sharply at her, eyes bright with unshed tears. "What do you mean?"

Sighing, Kohana said, "Touga may act like a prince, and he truly wants to be one, but no one can really be a true prince. That kind of strength and nobility, that selflessness, isn't something that any mere mortal can aspire to. Everyone has their flaws. I suppose Sakura was fooled by Touga's portrayal of it."

"Then what can I do, if she wants a true prince? How can there be any hope for us?" A single tear spilled over, running down his cheek.


Glancing around as if she was looking for people who might overhear her, Kohana moved away from the column she was leaning on and laid a hand on Ichida's shoulder. "Can you promise me that you won't ever speak of this to anyone else?"

The confusion was back, but Ichida nodded slowly. "I'll swear it."

Leaning in as if to kiss his cheek, Kohana said softly, "There is a way. You'll see it tonight." Before he could speak, she laid a finger lightly on his lips. "You'll be late for your duel. Touga is already inside; come with me."

Still upset and confused, Ichida followed Kohana into the darkness of the forest's entrance. Before she took hold of the stone handle, she glanced over her shoulder and said, "Don't be startled; the strange things start now."

His confusion deepened, and then she grasped and pulled the handle. He could only gaze around in awe as water rushed, stones moved, mists rose, and wrought-iron gates rolled open to reveal the endless spiral of stairs that led up to the dueling arena. "How... what..."

"Come." Without a backward glance at him, Kohana started the long walk to the dueling arena. The magic of the place didn't bother her as much as it had before—it was easier to concentrate on what she was seeing as she climbed the twisted staircase. Namely, nothing much other than stairs, trees, and sky. Ichida, no doubt, was still utterly in awe; he didn't say anything as they walked.

Just before they rounded the last curve, Kohana said, "Brace yourself. You don't want to show weakness in front of Touga."

Ichida nodded, but he blinked hard once or twice when he saw the castle. Touga was standing halfway across the arena from them, Nanami by his side, both of them watching the gate assuredly. "Is it real?" Ichida murmured.

Just before the gate, Kohana stopped. She couldn’t be available to Ichida during the duel—she would distract him, or he would try to get more answers out of her instead of fighting. "I can't go any further than this. We can talk after the duel." Smiling crookedly, she turned to leave. "Good luck, Ichida."

I can't take the Rose Bride from Touga, but I can take her from Ichida. Please win!

"Thanks," he said, and passed through the gates.

Kohana made her way over to the tower, opening the door on the side and climbing the stone stairs within. At the top, Arisugawa waited, a pair of opera glasses in her hand and another held to her eyes. "I thought you might come," she said, not turning to see who it was.

"I have an interest in the duels as well, even if I don't yet have the skill to participate." Kohana took the offered opera glasses, noting absently that they were trimmed with her burgundy. Arisugawa hadn't been important so far, but she would likely have to reassure her as to her intentions toward Miki, since they’d been spending so much time together. Leaving out the part about sex, of course, because that would get her killed.

"From the way Saionji speaks of your progress, you'll be able to join them soon." Seating herself on the ledge, Arisugawa glanced briefly at her, and then turned back to the duel with a small smile. "Your reason for fighting is a particularly strong one."

Kohana raised the glasses to her eyes. Nanami was pinning a red rose to Touga's chest, her face full of that annoying serenity. After she pinned the purple one to Ichida's chest and moved to the side, the strange light began to emanate from her chest again. The Sword of Dios was withdrawn, the bells tolled deafeningly, the gates shut, and the men faced off. Once the reverberations had died from the air, Kohana said, "You taught Ichida how to fence."

"I did. He's a most promising student. I thought he might be chosen for the duels, but he didn't have the motive until now." Distaste passed over Arisugawa's face; without a change in tone, she said, "How did it feel to give him a reason to fight you? He will, you know. Any friendship you had with him is gone."

The truth was best—Arisugawa wouldn't believe her if she expressed surprise about it. "I know that." Touga attacked fiercely, almost as if he was trying to kill Ichida, but his sword was never aimed at anything other than the rose. Ichida was only blocking his strikes. "I knew that friendship was something I couldn't afford when I first came to the dueling grounds."

"Then why do you spend so much time with Miki? And what about Saionji, and the Seitokaicho?" The coldness in Arisugawa's voice deepened into frost.

Here was the tricky part. The three of them were very different relationships, but to differentiate too much between them would mean she would give away too much. "Touga and I aren't friends, exactly. We respect each other. Saionji could be a friend, I suppose, but he's too concerned with teaching me how to fight to pay attention to anything else. And I can't stand his condescending attitude."

Arisugawa thawed a little, a tiny smile playing about her lips. "I know."

Ichida was advancing on Touga now, his quick strikes driving Touga backward in an effort to protect his rose. A rapid slice nearly clipped a lock of his hair, but he recovered, using the Sword of Dios to beat back Ichida's attack.

"And Miki?" Arisugawa prompted, once the duel was relatively equal again.

"I like him. That doesn't mean I wouldn't take the Rose Bride from him if I had the chance." Using her best casually truthful voice, Kohana continued, "I hope it doesn't come to that. But I can't consider him a friend because of it."

"So focused." The sadness that had been in Arisugawa's smile when she'd finished looking Kohana over was now evident in her voice. "You really believe you can win, don't you?"

"I will win, even if there's nothing there to win. I have to know." The ferocity in Kohana's voice startled even her. "Believe me, there's nothing I'd like better than to be a normal person, living a normal life. I guess fate has decreed it otherwise. But if there's even a small chance, I'll take it."

The marveling tone in Arisugawa's voice told Kohana that she was succeeding. "I want to like you, but I know why it was that you were chosen. You're as manipulative as the Seitokaicho, and I suspect you're as cold-hearted—"

"Don't accuse either of us of that. You don't know anything about us." It took a special kind of talent to fake that kind of anger. Fortunately, it was partly real, so Kohana didn't have to work as hard. "Do you think we don't hurt? Do you think we don't care about people? We do."

"It's hard to see the evidence of that, after all the people you both have walked on." That tone told Kohana plainly that Arisugawa was wavering on the edge of belief.

"Should I explain myself to you?" Kohana laughed quietly. “I doubt you would understand my point of view. If I made you a promise instead of explaining, would you accept it?”

The duel was at a tense point. Nanami watched serenely as the silver flicker of Ichida’s sword pushed her brother back. Even up here, the ringing of the steel was clearly audible, and then Ichida feinted and his sword whipped in for a last slice that would leave him completely open to Touga's counterattack.


The risk paid off in a shower of red petals. Touga slowly stood, his face composed, and the Sword of Dios vanished from his hands.

"He won..." Kohana was inwardly jubilant, but let her voice stay calm. Now she could talk to Nanami without Touga knowing exactly what was going on, and later on, she could win Nanami from Ichida. If only she could resign herself to the thought of the uneasiness the girl evoked in her.

"You didn't expect him to?" Arisugawa folded the opera glasses and leaped lightly from the ledge. "That must be a slur on my teaching abilities."

It took Kohana a second to realize that she was making a joke. Chuckling softly, she said, "Of course not, Arisugawa-sempai. I just thought that Ichida might be thrown off by the giant castle hanging upside down over his head."

That small smile appeared on Arisugawa's face again, but it quickly lapsed into her normal expression. "The promise?"

Wording her response carefully, Kohana said, "I’m not an unfeeling person. I’ll leave you and Miki alone, though I’ll continue to visit him. I like him."

Arisugawa looked her over carefully for any sign that she wouldn't keep her promise. After a long while, she sighed and turned away. "You should meet with your friend. He's going to want to know exactly what happened."

It didn't really matter that she didn't acknowledge the promise; it was already made, and they both knew it. What annoyed Kohana was that she seemed not to value it.

As Kohana walked toward the stairs, Arisugawa's voice softly said, "You can call me Juri, if you like."

"Thank you, Juri." That moment of doubt dissolved. Arisugawa valued the promise, and expected to be able to hold her to it. Smiling, Kohana continued down the stairs.

Ichida and Nanami were walking toward the gates, Touga trailing behind them. He didn't look especially upset that he had lost; further proof that he didn't expect to win the duels. In fact, he had a slight smile that wakened suspicion in her mind. She shook it off quickly; there would be more time to ponder it later. As Ichida noticed her, he started. "You weren't there a moment ago..."

"I know. Congratulations on winning your duel, especially your first one."

Touga's eyes warmed for a moment, silent approval filling them as he walked past. Kohana knew exactly what he was thinking.

Explanations only lessen power. Better not to let Ichida know any more than you need him to.

"Er... thanks." Ichida was looking warily at Nanami. "But I don't understand—"

"Later on, when we have some privacy." Kohana turned and walked toward the stairs, admiring the lean gracefulness of Touga's stride. He would have everything arranged so that Nanami was quartered with Ichida by the time Kohana let him go. Smiling smugly as Ichida and Nanami followed behind her, she pondered her possible moves.