Chapters: [1] [2] [3]     [Illustrations]

Chapter 2 — Unfinished Stories

The first few days of classes passed relatively smoothly. Utena felt only slightly in shock at the amount of expected work, and only slightly frazzled from juggling all the tasks she had to manage on her own. Given that most of her professors expected the bulk of the work later in the semester, Utena figured the real panic would settle in then. Perhaps some of the older students in the dorm could advise her on how to deal with it. She and her aunt had worked hard to prepare her for college; Utena was determined to succeed for both their sakes.

"What's on your docket for tonight?" asked Yuki on Wednesday.

"Chemistry," said Utena, as she poured their first cups of tea. Yuki had come to Utena's room to share the study time, even though the two had no common classes yet. They sat at the low table with books piled on the floor around them. The table itself was reserved for what had been deemed proper study snacks.

Yuki nodded. "Yeah, that wasn't my best subject in high school. But the labs were fun."

"Not my best either," said Utena, "but not my worst. From skimming the book, the first third of the term will be review. You?"

"Advanced calculus. I'm okay on math, but I think I'll hit my limit soon."

"Yeah, me too."

"You didn't catch it," said Yuki.

"Huh?"

"'Limit'. In calculus. It was a joke."

"Oh. Funny, I'm sure," said Utena with a sigh. "I haven't had calculus yet. But I'll probably have to figure it out before I graduate." Yuki giggled, and returned her attention to her text book.

The two young women read quietly for a while, the only sounds being the scratching of pencils in notebooks and the crunching of crackers.

Almost an hour had passed when Utena slapped her text book shut and fell back prone on the floor. She draped her arms over her eyes and sighed loudly.

"Problems?" asked Yuki, not pausing in scribbling down an equation.

"This ... isn't working," Utena said haltingly from under cover of her arms.

"You said the first third of the book was review," Yuki reminded her, eyes still moving only between textbook and notebook.

"I said I only skimmed the text." Utena still didn't move, and Yuki finally looked up from her books.

"Are you worried?" asked Yuki. "Seriously?"

Utena felt a chill of nervousness, and willed it into suppression. "It doesn't matter!" she declared. "I will make it in college. I'm not allowing myself any other option."

"Ah! Such resolve. That's so admirable."

Utena sat up and fixed Yuki with an intense stare. "Aren't you concerned?"

"Nah ..."

"Why not?"

Yuki shrugged, pouring herself more tea. "Haven't thought about it, I guess," Yuki said.

"Maybe you have easier classes to start with," suggested Utena.

Yuki quickly pulled pages from folders and tossed them at Utena. "These are my class syllabi for the term. Think it's easier than what you've got?"

Utena scanned the papers. She covered her eyes with a hand and when she removed it, she looked even more grim. "This is worse! Well, the history course doesn't look too bad, but the rest of it—sheesh!"

"You're kidding! That history class is gonna be horrible."

"No it won't. Look, it's mostly pre-Edo period ..."

"So?"

Utena finally looked up to see the smirk that Yuki wore, and realized she was being led. She blushed slightly. "Well, I like history. I love reading historical fiction."

Yuki leaned across the low table, tapping Utena's forehead with a finger before the long-haired woman could react. "My point!" declared Yuki. "We are a whole three days into our first term. Where's this sudden doom and gloom coming from?"

Utena considered her answer, recalling her gaffe from the train trip when she'd let slip how odd Ohtori Academy had been. But it hadn't been the oddness that was the real problem. "Have you ever failed at something, something important?" she finally asked.

"You mean like blowing your college entrance exams multiple times? Which, I'll point out, you obviously didn't do."

Utena shook her head. "No, no. I mean attempting something big and vital, important to somebody else, not just you. And that other person ends up paying for it because you just ... weren't ... good enough to get the job done."

Yuki's eyes were wide, staring, and she swallowed audibly before responding. "No, can't say that I have." Her words were flip but her serious eyes assured Utena that Yuki was not making light of her.

"It was difficult, when I realized what had happened at Ohtori. The physical recovery was surprisingly quick. The classic 'it's not as bad as it looks', I guess. And even back then I kept myself in real good shape.

"But mentally, I couldn't accept at first what I'd done. Or hadn't done."

Both girls munched on rice crackers for some moments. After careful consideration, Yuki asked in a quiet voice, "Was there any hope that things could be fixed?"

Utena shook her head. "No, that door was closed to me. I wouldn't get a chance to try to correct things.

"At first, I did want to go back. But the trauma of my injuries had caused some temporary amnesia. When everything finally came back to me, I realized why that door was closed. My help wasn't wanted, I wasn't wanted, especially by the person I had been trying to help. Everyone—Aunt Yurika, the doctors—told me it wasn't my fault, but I wasn't in a state that I could accept that."

"Oh."

"Things got real bad for my aunt, then. I'd fly through these incredible mood swings, wild, raging. Then I'd be absolutely despondent for days at a time."

"Kind of manic-depressive?"

"Yeah, but not permanent. The therapy really did work, at least it got me out of the worst of it. But there's still been something missing. A ... will to act, I guess. I can kind of remember what it was like, before. If I saw a problem I'd just dive in and try to fix it. Now, I don't. I've lost my nerve."

Yuki had pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them, just nodding to acknowledge Utena's story. A frown formed at the last statement about nerve. "Or maybe you've just grown up a bit," she asserted.

Utena bit down on the flare of outrage that suggestion generated, and forced herself to inquire calmly, "Mind explaining that?"

"Okay, here's my completely uneducated, uninformed psychological diagnosis. You don't fail to act. You still practice your sports, even took up some new ones in high school, you said. Heck, you studied hard and passed your college entrance exams on the first try. Ever since I met you, you've been busy getting ready, hardly resting a moment."

"There's been so much to do," said Utena, a little plaintively.

"And you haven't hesitated to jump in and get it done. That's not the approach of someone who's lost her nerve."

"But, with other people ..." Utena began to protest.

"Let's look at that," continued Yuki. "Back when you'd just 'dive in', as you put it ... did you solve the problems?"

"Um, not always."

"How often, then? Most of the time? Half the time?"

"Once in a while, I guess." Utena felt the now-familiar sadness welling up in her, like a chilling fog around her heart, but Yuki didn't stop to let her dwell on it.

"Why do you think that was? That you had such a poor success rate?"

"I don't know ... I never stopped to think about it."

"Exactly!"

"What?"

"Utena, why is it up to you to solve everybody's problems?"

"Because I want to help! I can't stand to see people in pain. Someone has to fix it!"

Yuki smiled. "I think people sense that. You project this sort of expansive kindness, a strength, a trustworthiness." Utena blushed at the description. Yuki continued, "But how did you know how to solve the problems?"

"I'd make my best guess," replied Utena.

"Which wasn't always very good, was it?"

"No."

"Why?"

"Usually because there was something about the situation I didn't know. So I'd say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing, or encourage someone else to do the wrong thing. I mean 'wrong' as in 'massively stupid'."

"See? You haven't lost your nerve," concluded Yuki with a sagely nod. "You've just figured out that it's better to learn what the situation is first, before you dive in."

"...And hit the sandbar. Or iceberg, or whatever it is that's lurking under the surface," said Utena. Then she snickered and added, "Or the great sea serpent that was taking a snooze."

Yuki laughed and rolled away from the table, arms wrapped tight about herself. "The ones with big snaky bodies that'll squeeeeze the life out of you. Then snap you up in their jaws in one gulp."

"I think they're big enough to swallow you whole without having to squeeze first."

"Details!" cried Yuki.

"But why did I change after Ohtori?" asked Utena, serious again.

Yuki shrugged. "A traumatic event kick-started a process you would've grown into gradually anyway? I don't know. But does it make a little more sense now?"

Utena nodded. "Thanks. Hopefully you won't have to do that too often." She flipped open her chemistry book to find the page she'd left off at, then paused. "You said your brother did pretty well in college. How did he manage it?"

"He told me, 'don't put things off'. Specifically, the day-to-day studying and the research papers. His first semester was a real bear because he'd let things slide to the weekend. I decided I'd learn from his experience."

"Good idea. I think I'll follow suit."

Utena found herself feeling better as she got up to start a fresh pot of tea. Yuki had already buried her attention in derivatives and integrals again. As she set a timer for the tea to steep, Utena considered that she herself had not unwarily awakened the sea serpent. Rather, the serpent of Ohtori had drawn her in with a haunting siren call. What she still couldn't put a finger on, after all the years, was exactly who the serpent had truly been.

 

The next day was continual running around for Utena. Once she rolled out of bed, she swore that her classes were the only time she actually got to sit down. It was Thursday, when all four of her classes met, and she had to make a midday trip back to her dorm room to exchange books.

Backpack slung over her shoulders, Utena set out for her last class of the day at a jog. She breathed a sigh of relief as she reached the building well before the start of class. She wouldn't need to rush next time.

As she neared her classroom, a nagging thought pushed to the surface of Utena's mind. In her haste, she actually had put the correct literature text in her pack, hadn't she? Utena crouched next to the corridor wall, out of the way, and unzipped her backpack. She wouldn't have time to return to the dorm before class began; she'd have to ask someone if she could share a book for the period. But her worry was for nothing as she spied the bright blue cover of the needed text.

As Utena stood up, she saw him. Saionji was standing a little ways away, watching her.

"What are you doing here?" burst out Utena. Even as his eyes widened in surprise, she realized how foolish that sounded.

His face transformed into the scowl she remembered so well, and she felt the heat of her own embarrassed blush. "I was intending to go to class," he said, indicating the books he carried. As he moved past her, his voice dropped so only she could hear, "Surely you didn't think I've been skipping all my classes here, like when I was on the Student Council."

"Of course not," she muttered.

Saionji didn't bother to respond or even look at her again. Near the door to his classroom, he greeted another man and the two were solidly engaged in some discussion by the time they disappeared into the room.

Utena glumly turned back to her own classroom, thoroughly unsettled. For once, she was quite happy for the distraction of the challenging debate that her literature professor demanded.

 

"I finished proofing your last chapter," Kyosuke Matsui said to Saionji as the two found seats. He fished a floppy disk out of his satchel and gave it to Saionji.

"I really appreciate it," Saionji said. "I know I was kind of late getting it to you, but that last scene just did not want to come together."

"Don't worry about it. For what it's worth, I think it works." Kyosuke pulled another folder from his satchel, which he also passed to Saionji. Saionji opened it to find pages of figure and costume sketches. "Akiko made those copies for you. She's started the color work, but you'll have to swing by her studio if you want to see them right away."

Saionji smiled appreciatively as he flipped through the drawings. "These are just right. Well, this one's a little off. Too wild for the character, I think. Her note scribbled here says she wasn't sure about it either. Hey, would Akiko be around after class?"

Kyosuke nodded. "She figured you'd want to discuss that one. Said she could meet us at The Corner," he said, citing a favored coffee and tea house.

Talk was put off then as the professor arrived, and called for volunteers to begin the reading aloud of the pages he'd assigned them to write.

 

As Saionji and Kyosuke strolled towards The Corner coffee house, Saionji said, "I don't remember the scene you read in class from when we were working out character backgrounds."

"It was a bit that came to me later," said Kyosuke. "The assignment just gave me an excuse to get it written down. I don't know that we actually have to include it in the story. Can you believe we've been working on this thing for almost a whole semester?"

"We'd probably be done by now if we didn't keep adding in subplots," mused Saionji.

"We've taken out just as much," Kyosuke reminded him.

"Is it just because we're collaborating? I've only written solo before, and this doesn't happen."

"No, I don't think it's the collaboration per se," said Kyosuke. "It's more likely specifically you and me, and then add Akiko's illustrations into the mix. Didn't you say that you've been writing since high school?"

"Started with just correspondence and poetry," confirmed Saionji. "Then I tried prose, but didn't tell people about that. Didn't feel, I don't know, at liberty to do so back at Ohtori."

"Strict expectations?"

"Very. It would have looked ... silly. Then again, the correspondence and the fiction ended up looking a lot alike."

"I can relate. I've been writing since junior high."

"I did tell one teacher, late in my second year, only because she swore secrecy," said Saionji. "She encouraged me, and helped a lot with the technical aspects."

"So who was the cute girl you were talking to?" asked Kyosuke.

It took Saionji almost half a minute to realize that Kyosuke had delivered another one of his right-angle conversational swerves. "Excuse me," he finally said. "Who are you talking about?"

"That girl with the braid, before class."

"Oh, her." Saionji pondered that for a moment. "I suppose you could say she's pretty."

Kyosuke stared at him. "Do you need a new prescription already? You just got those contacts a few months ago."

Saionji sniffed in disdain. "Very well, I'll be clearer. If I didn't know the girl, I'd likely consider her quite pretty."

The two men were very close to The Corner. A woman in a long skirt, carrying a portfolio, was approaching from the other direction. She waved when she spied them.

As the two men neared her, Saionji said, very clearly, "I could mention to Akiko that you're making inquiries about pretty women."

Akiko's eyebrows slid up under her bangs. "Are you, indeed? Dear?"

Kyosuke laughed nervously and quickly interposed Saionji between himself and his glaring girlfriend. Ducking, he peered around Saionji's shoulder. "Didn't we agree that observational abilities were just as important for the writer as for the artist?"

"As long as it's limited to observation," Akiko said frostily.

Reassured, Kyosuke emerged from behind Saionji and took Akiko's free arm. "Not to worry, love of my life," he said as he turned Akiko towards the door of the coffee shop, "we were talking about Saionji's girl."

Saionji tried to cry out a protest at that, but realized he was just standing there with his mouth open. Kyosuke and Akiko disappeared as the door closed behind them. Feeling his own blood pressure resembling the state of the brewing coffee, Saionji followed his two friends inside.

 

July 2002

Chapters: [1] [2] [3]     [Illustrations]

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