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

Chapter 3 — Reflections

Utena floated along a path worn in tall grass. Her way led up a hill, stars and a waning crescent moon providing more visibility than was logical. Yet the silver-etched landscape was familiar and such inconsistencies didn't trouble her. Nor did the fact that she was never quite aware of her feet, or the feel of the earth beneath her, whenever she followed this path.

She wondered what she was wearing on this occasion, and looked down at her body. Utena noted with curiosity that for once she wore traditional kimono, the violet silk decorated with azure and emerald flowers. Irises, she thought, limned in crystalline light like the grass and trees about her. And the kimono was perfectly comfortable; she had no sense of restricted movement as was often the case when she donned traditional wear. A breeze lifted her hair and she knew she wore it loose, not braided as had become her habit.

"Are you well, Utena?"

Utena glanced at the tall, dark-skinned man striding along next to her. "I am," she said. "It's been months, I think, since I saw you last."

"It hasn't been necessary," he said. The tone of his voice was as warm and rich as his smile, and comforted Utena just as much. "Unfortunately my attention has been drawn elsewhere."

"So I can only see you when it's required?" Utena asked. "Who defines that necessity?"

"Not I," he said with a sigh. Although he stared far into the distance, she could see the resignation in his green eyes. "That has always been my fate, to place need above desire."

Utena dropped her gaze to the tall grass that brushed past her feet. "Ah. So only necessity brings us together."

He laughed, gently. "My dear, brave girl, why do you insist on turning every issue on its head? Need keeps me away from you. Events demand my ... attention."

"Is it always that way?" asked Utena. They had reached the crest of the hill, and stood together as the stars wheeled across the sky.

"I don't think we need to talk of when it wasn't so," he said. "Do we?"

"No," she agreed sadly. "We don't." Memories of the repercussions remained clear for her, but distance from that time had begun to make them bearable. "And as always, you can't stay."

"Indeed."

"Why have you appeared now?" she asked. Fingers of one hand slid lightly over the silk of her other sleeve. "Despite the confusion, the activity, I've been ... calm. Almost comfortable."

"So I see," he said with a smile. "And that is your answer. As I am assured of your safety, I am free to deal with more critical matters."

Her gaze did not waver from his as Utena said, "And still, if I stumble into trouble ..." Her statement hung between them, a challenge.

"Then I will be at your side." Old grief clouded his eyes, a fathomless depth which she thought could swallow him if he let it.

She relented, and stepped close to him. She slipped her arms about his waist, and laid her head on his shoulder. He drew his cloak about her, and pressed his cheek against her hair.

"Why do you protect me?" Utena's voice was a bare whisper. "How?"

"Why? When you answered my call to service, you claimed my protection, and my heart. I cannot forswear that."

"But I didn't—" Utena looked up at him, her vision blurring from tears.

"Shh." He kissed her forehead and drew her head back to cradle on his shoulder. "You did what I asked. For the fact that my request was ill-made, the blame is mine, not yours. Never yours."

"You've said that before. But how can I believe it?"

"Perhaps I will just have to continue to say it."

She nodded and reluctantly disengaged from their embrace. "Then let me ask this again: what do you protect me from?"

"Again, I cannot say. To tell you now would draw the danger to you. I will not allow that."

"Can you ever tell me?"

He nodded. "You grow stronger every day. The time will come when I need not stand between you and the threat." He stepped back from her.

"You're leaving," she said.

"It is time. You know I will return." He turned and strode away down the hill, pale hair and white, cloaked, uniform transforming him into a figure carved of moonlight. Always he went off in some direction other than that which Utena had approached from. She turned back to her own path and made her way down the hill.

 

Normally, when the alarm rousted her out of bed, Utena would forget her dreams in the rush to prepare for the day. But when he, her lost prince, walked in the night with her, his words still echoed in her ears as she woke. As if they'd actually strolled together the day before, the image of Dios filled her mind.

It's so silly, Utena thought as she stared at the ceiling in the dim dawn light, as the alarm clock continued chiming. He doesn't exist. He never existed.

Who gave you the ring?

He was never real, her mind shouted. You foolish girl. He was never more than a conjuration of your trauma-stricken brain. He's a shape your psyche wears to help you work through problems.

What problems? Who gave you the ring?

All right! So starting college really hasn't been that bad yet. I've met some cool people. Classes are pretty interesting so far. So what if I have to see Saionji twice a week--we've been ignoring each other since that first day. I can live with that.

The ring. The rose seal signet.

Utena leapt out of bed, covers spilling to the floor in her wake. She yanked open the top drawer of her desk and felt around at the very rear of it. Her fingers found the small flocked box and pulled it out. Utena hated the way her hands trembled whenever she did this. Nevertheless, she carefully opened the tiny box and looked at the silver ring resting within.

Utena padded over to the window with the ring in its velvet setting. A thin bar of morning sunlight slid in between the drawn curtains. She let the light lay across the ring, sparkling off the enameled rose crest that adorned it.

She had worn that ring for seven years, holding it as a reminder of the dream she was given to follow. That dream had shattered in the last battle she'd fought at Ohtori, and she always wondered why the ring hadn't faded like mist from her finger at that moment. Now the bit of silver seemed ephemeral with the light playing over it. She traced the decorative seal with a fingertip, proving its solidity, its reality.

Thus completing what had become a ritual heralded by her dreams of Dios, Utena snapped the box shut and replaced it in the desk drawer. Finally the alarm chimes broke through her memory- induced preoccupation. She switched it off and began preparing for the day.

For the five years since leaving Ohtori Academy, she'd kept the signet ring, but never wore it. She couldn't imagine what could induce her to slip it on again. But whenever she dreamed of Dios, the prince who haunted her imagination, she would bring out the ring.

What did that mean, she wondered, what was she telling herself all this time? If the ring was solid, cool and hard under her touch, then was Dios also somehow real? Could he be more than a wishful memory?

This rumination was ... pointless. In five years she hadn't found an answer to the contradictions, and had begun to wonder if there was value in even trying. She'd followed the promise of the ring once, and found only ruin and sorrow.

It was a Saturday on which she had no classes, but Utena had set the alarm anyway, hoping to keep herself on a regular schedule. She knew she couldn't do anything about studying with her mind roiling the way it was, so she threw on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts and went out for a run before breakfast.

 

Three hours later, Utena felt she'd finally recovered sufficient peace of mind that would allow her to have a productive day. Seated next to the washing machine that contained her clothes, she was able to easily hear as the machine spun to a stop. She quickly took three more stitches to finish the repeat, then slid the work to the center of the needle cable before depositing it carefully on her chair. Utena transferred the wet clothes to an open dryer and piled her second load into the washer. After setting both machines to run, she settled back in her chair, checked her pattern and resumed the round.

Clicking needles mirroring her contentment, Utena didn't really take note of the person who'd entered the laundry room until the woman came over to her.

"What'cha making?" asked Yuki.

Utena dug one-handed into the canvas bag next to her chair and pulled out a book. "The top on page 65. The mid-sleeved version."

Yuki flipped the book open to the named page. "Ooh, pretty. For summer?"

"Yeah. I need something kind of dressy." Utena didn't stop knitting as she talked, glancing back and forth between the work on her needles and the copied page of her pattern.

"I never expected to see you do something so ... so quiet," observed Yuki.

"Ah, had disturbing dreams last night. Had to do something to settle my mind or it'd be bugging me all day."

"Running? Kata?"

"Tried running, didn't help this time. There's not enough room in here for practicing kata, and I did need to do laundry. And I'm going to the dojo for karate this afternoon. But knitting calms me down nicely. Sure need it after one of those dreams."

"Recurring?"

"Yeah. Repercussions from Ohtori."

"Not that guy. Sa ... Sai ...?"

"Saionji. Good grief, no." Utena shuddered. "That would be a nightmare. No, someone else. They aren't nightmares per se, but they always throw me off-kilter. Don't worry, I really am fine now." She smiled peacefully at Yuki, even though it had just occurred to her that she never did dream of Saionji, or Touga, or anyone else from Ohtori other than her prince. Not even Anthy, which was strange given all that she'd left undone with the friend she'd known so briefly.

"Okay." Yuki was paging through the rest of the pattern book. "There's a lot of cute stuff in here."

"I'll tell her you said so."

"Huh?" Yuki quickly looked to the cover of the book, locating the author's name. "Yurika Morisato ... Yurika. Your aunt?"

"That's her second book. She's a clothing designer, and has been concentrating on knitwear for some years now. Her first book was a collaboration with another designer but this one is all her own designs. She's working on another book now."

"So she taught you to knit?" asked Yuki.

"I finally asked her to. She's knit and sewn and stuff for as long as I can remember, but I never really had an interest in it myself," explained Utena. Yuki finished looking through the book and offered it back to Utena, but Utena indicated she should put it back in the bag.

"Then when I was hurt at Ohtori, I was apparently unconscious for a number of days. I woke up in the hospital in Tokyo, and the first thing I remember seeing is Aunt Yurika, sitting there by my bed, with her 'travel project'. She always has some knitting she can carry with her. She knew I was awake when I asked her what she was working on.

"I think I told you that my physical recovery was pretty quick. They had me up in physical therapy the very next day. But the mental side, ouch. I knew there was this huge gap in my memory, from just after the start of my second term at Ohtori, to when I'd woken up in the hospital. It made me so angry, that my mind was playing this trick on me. I knew it was keeping me from doing something important.

"Aunt Yurika came to visit me every day, always with her knitting. I asked her why she had it and she said it calmed her nerves when she was stressed."

Yuki nodded, saying, "My grandmother would do things like that."

"So I asked her why she was stressed."

"That sounds kind of mean."

"No kidding. Have I mentioned I wasn't quite in my right mind after waking up? I'd always sort of wondered if she resented having to take me in after my parents were killed in the accident. But she reminded me that I was the only close family she had left.

"You see, she was my dad's only sibling, his younger sister. She married Hisao Morisato, but he was killed in a plane crash only a few years later. I wasn't even a year old, so I don't remember him. They hadn't started a family yet and she'd never remarried, my grandparents on that side were gone by then, and then she'd lost her only sibling. She was very glad she hadn't lost me too.

"That cleared a lot of air between us. I wanted to hold on to the connection we'd just started, so I asked her to teach me to knit. She was quite surprised, but pleased. The next day she brought extra yarn and needles, and I've been at it ever since."

"And you get nice clothes out of it," said Yuki.

"That, too," Utena agreed with a laugh. "So, were you looking for me?" she asked, pausing to pull more yarn loose from the skein.

"Yeah, Nobu said she saw you down here. Um, you're not going to be done with that thing today, are you?"

"No way! I'm only about halfway through."

"Then we'll have to find you something else to wear."

"Wear? Am I going somewhere?"

"I heard about a dance club downtown. Should be an easy trip by train. Thought we could hit it tonight, if you're not doing anything else."

"No, not this evening," said Utena. She suddenly felt nervous. "I haven't really done the club thing before."

Yuki crossed her arms and fixed Utena with a school teacher- ish glare. "Then it's high time you tried it. This place sounds like a lot of fun. Have a few drinks, meet some new people..."

"Okay, I'll try it. You'll help me figure out what to wear?"

"Of course! Leave it to Yuki Hanazawa, Fashion Consultant To The Stars. Or, at least, fashion consultant to her next door neighbor."

 

True to her word, Yuki had both of them decked out in suitable style for their evening excursion. Even though a surprising image faced Utena in the mirror after Yuki convinced her to wear her electric blue silk shirt open over a black leotard and black jeans, Utena still felt quite conservative next to Yuki's leather miniskirt and high-heeled shoes.

"We are walking and taking the train to this place, right?" asked Utena, as she combed out her hair. At Yuki's suggestion, she'd decided to wear her hair loose for the evening.

"Yeah, I got directions," confirmed Yuki.

"And you're going to walk in those things? They must be four inches high."

"I have practiced in them."

"You're a gymnast."

"I am also a dancer, and I've had to wear heels like these in lots of shows."

"All right, all right. Just so you're not falling off 'em so I have to carry you back."

 

Utena and Yuki had no difficulty in finding the club. Flashing neon starbursts and curlicues in blue and green highlighted the club's facade. Lettering curved into wave-like forms announced the club's name: "Deep Submerge". Utena was pleased to see a trickle of people entering and leaving the club as she and Yuki approached from across the street. She had no interest in wasting time just waiting to get in to such a place, nor in hanging about a spot that was already dead at that early hour.

Inside, a short foyer held a reception desk. The young woman who sat behind it asked to see legal ID, which Utena and Yuki quickly produced. A chalk board filled the wall behind the desk, covered in day-glo writing that outlined who was performing for the current week and the next.

"Acid Algae?" asked Utena doubtfully, identifying the band for the night.

"Isn't that just the worst name?" said the hostess. "But they're great to dance to. We wouldn't have them here if they weren't." She cocked her head towards the stairs that led downwards at the far end of the foyer. "But it sounds like they're on break right now."

"Great! We can grab a table before the next set starts," said Yuki. She and Utena moved to the stairs as the hostess turned her attention to two more incoming patrons. The stairwell darkened as it descended so that their eyes adjusted by the time they reached the basement club floor.

The club proper extended out to the left as they emerged from the stairwell. Ahead, a bar stretched along half the wall. The opposite corner held a bandstand that stood unoccupied, the instruments waiting for their players. The bandstand was surrounded by a sizeable dance floor, also currently empty. Tables scattered the remaining floor space, and booths lined the walls.

Although there were many customers about, the place was not jam-packed, and here and there could be seen an empty table or booth. Utena spied a nearby table which a waitress was just finishing wiping down. She gestured Yuki towards it.

The waitress noticed them and smiled, pulling out her order pad. "Can I get you two anything?"

"Manhattan," said Yuki, perching on one of the tall chairs next to the table.

The waitress turned to Utena expectantly. "Er, ... white wine," said Utena, verbally stumbling over the choice. The waitress just nodded and headed for the bar.

"You can sit down now," said Yuki.

Utena blinked, realized she was staring about her. Frowning a bit, she took the other chair. "I did say I hadn't done this before."

"Don't worry about it," said Yuki with a giggle.

Utena continued examining the club. The aquatic theme of blue and green was continued here in abstract illuminated shapes that filled the ceiling between strips of track lighting, and in the serpentine designs of the floor tiles. Turquoise-tinted mirrors covered the support pillars and much of the walls. She liked the odd cast the colored mirrors gave to their reflections.

Shortly after their drinks arrived, the lights above the tables dimmed further. The members of Acid Algae returned to the bandstand and took up their instruments. Green spotlights illuminated them, a white one shining down on the young man at the front microphone. Rather, Utena assumed it was a man. He had a man's lean build, despite the heavily made-up eyes peering out under wildly spiked and streaked hair. He called to the crowd, and the lights over the dance floor began swinging about, sparking off mirrors, flashing liquidly across the room. The band rolled into their new set, and the dance floor began to fill.

Yuki began nodding in time to the music and tapping her glass with a fingernail. Utena had to admit that Acid Algae produced a good sound. She wondered if she'd dare go out on that floor with just Yuki, and suspected that Yuki might drag her out there anyway if she demurred.

"Hey!" Yuki waved to a pair of young men who then approached the table. She introduced them to Utena as Hikaru and Tetsuo from her Calculus class. They smiled and mentioned dancing. Before Utena hardly knew it, the three had swept her out onto the dance floor. Discomfort quickly faded as Utena found herself caught up in the music and motion and sheer energy of the band and dancers.

Three numbers passed and the four agreed to split off for other activities.

"I'd like more of my drink," said Utena. She had to speak right at Yuki's ear to make herself heard over the pounding bass beat.

"Dancing makes me thirsty too," agreed Yuki, in turn also speaking directly into Utena's ear.

Utena hadn't realized how far they had drifted from their table. It took care to get through the dancing crowd without colliding with anyone, but they finally achieved it. Utena gratefully grabbed her drink and sipped, easing her dry throat. Then she heard Yuki, apparently speaking to someone else, and looked up.

"Excuse me, please," Yuki was saying.

Yuki was unable to pull her chair out from the table because a man was standing there with his back to them, who hadn't seemed to have noticed their presence. It was a tall man, with long, dark, wavy hair, and Utena felt her stomach twist in sudden anxiety. No, no, not tonight, it's been so fun.

"Excuse me," Yuki said again, louder to be heard over the music.

Saionji turned then to face Yuki. Seeing her attempts to move her chair, he stepped aside. "Pardon me." As he turned further away from Yuki, his gaze came up to meet Utena's. "Tenjou," he said, nodding in her direction.

"What are you doing here?" Utena ground out.

Saionji glanced at Yuki and back to Utena. "Getting out of your friend's way," he said calmly. For once, he didn't exhibit the scowl which she seemed to see every time they encountered each other.

"You're still here," she observed flatly.

"It would be polite to introduce us," he said.

She bit down on the initial wild reaction to yell at him to go away, then suddenly wondered why she was blurting out stupid things whenever they met. Surely he couldn't be putting her that much off-balance, not after all this time. And she saw that Yuki was confusedly watching the whole exchange.

Resigned, Utena gestured to Yuki, "This is Yuki Hanazawa." Indicating Saionji, she said, "Yuki, this is Kyouichi Saionji." Yuki and Saionji bowed politely to each other. Turning back to Saionji, Utena struggled to keep her voice even. "Satisfied?"

"Yup," said Saionji. Utena thought there might be a hint of a grin on his lips as he turned away.

In a clear voice that easily carried over the music, Yuki said, "Damn, girl, you were right. He's gorgeous!"

Utena stood frozen in horror as Saionji stopped and slowly turned back to them. His wickedly amused glance only briefly met Utena's appalled one, brushing past to focus on Yuki. Utena wondered if a good hard stomp would create a hole in the floor to allow her to crawl away into a sub-basement. No, with her luck a small retail building like this wouldn't have a sub-basement.

Yuki seemed to be blithely unaware of Utena's discomfort. "Utena and I live in the same dorm," she explained.

Saionji nodded. "Tenjou attended my school for a while."

"Yes, I know," said Yuki with a mischievous grin.

"Do you, now? Might I ask how?"

"You may ask, I believe the saying goes."

"Ah, a secret." Saionji raised one eyebrow towards Utena, and said to Yuki, "Then I think I should ask you to dance before your dorm mate strangles you into an early grave."

Utena indeed found that her hands had clenched into tight fists, and it took embarrassed conscious effort to make them open and relax. I didn't say "gorgeous", Utena thought testily, the most I said was "handsome".

Yuki, still making a show of not noticing Utena's agitation, cheerily accompanied Saionji out onto the still-crowded dance floor.

Utena angrily shook her head, perched on her tall chair, and let her long legs swing loosely. She was being silly again. There was no need to worry about Yuki, not here. What harm could Saionji do in a crowded public place like this? Even before, at Ohtori, he hadn't been given to physically lashing out while under this kind of scrutiny. And Yuki certainly was not going to run off and leave Utena at the club without telling her.

Utena sipped more of her wine and observed the dance floor. Saionji and Yuki had moved off to the center of the floor, but the crowd parted often enough that Utena could observe them regularly. Why shouldn't Yuki take the opportunity, and dance with a guy that even Utena agreed would appear attractive to someone who'd just met him? It wasn't like they could actually converse under that loud music, after all.

Willing herself to put her irritation aside—Utena was not going to let Saionji's presence spoil her evening—she sat back in her chair and let herself absorb the club atmosphere.

As she let her gaze drift lazily about the club, she became aware of a feeling of deja vu. Intrigued despite herself, she tried to identify what she was sensing. She put her gaze out of focus to see what she could absorb.

In a moment, she had it. She remembered when, a year after she left Ohtori, her aunt took her on a vacation to the seashore. They were able to go diving, and Utena had been delighted with the underwater panorama. Here in the club, the arrangement of lights and mirrors evoked that shimmering underwater light. She focused on the closest mirrored pillar, studying how the effect of filtered light intensified in the aqua glass.

There was a subtle distortion to the glass, which caused her reflection to warp slightly, and added to the brilliant bouncing refractions of light. She shifted her chair around the table so she could watch the dancers in the pillar's reflection. The more distant reflected figures warped even more, truly casting the illusion of an underwater party.

Utena wondered if she'd be able to spot Yuki and Saionji in the altered view, and tried to identify reference points for where she'd last seen them. Saionji would be easier to find, with his height, and she resigned herself to looking for him. She ruefully considered that that was yet another task which she'd never expected to find herself doing.

It was difficult, given the overall low light level, and with how the pillar mirror altered colors, but Utena finally caught a glimpse of Saionji. As he moved to the side, she could just see the top of Yuki's head. The crowd closed in again, and even her line of sight to Saionji was blocked.

Resting her chin in one hand, elbow propped on the table, Utena continued to sip her wine, and lazily observe. Maybe she could locate one of those acquaintances of Yuki's that they'd danced with earlier. Or maybe she'd order another drink, as she noted that her glass was almost empty. She began scanning about to find a waitress, then remembered that she could just go to the bar herself.

As Utena slipped off her chair, she spied a pale image out of the corner of her eye and stopped to determine what had caught her attention.

The man whose gaze met Utena's in the reflection of the pillar was not dressed as she normally saw him. He was still clad head to toe in white, but instead of the cloaked uniform that she was used to, he wore shirt, trousers and loosened tie that was in no way at odds with the apparel of the dancers surrounding him. It seemed that he was some distance out onto the dance floor, yet as she watched, none of the moving figures interrupted her line of sight.

Utena squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head to clear it of what had to be a hallucination. It was impossible that her prince, her Dios, could be standing right there in that same room so that he would appear in the mirror. It was impossible because he didn't exist, he had never existed.

Hesitant, afraid both that she would still see him and that she wouldn't, Utena opened her eyes and focused on the mirrored pillar. Dios' image remained, now smiling sadly at her. He kept his eyes on her as he slowly turned into the crowd, then broke their gaze and walked away. Dancers began to fill the space, but the pale shades of his hair and clothing were still visible between the dark moving figures.

Utena ran to the pillar, slapping her hands futilely against it. She forced down rising panic and tried to analyze where Dios would have to be if she could see his reflection from this point. It would be there—again she caught pale flashes which had to be him.

He was there, he was real! She ran onto the dance floor, heedlessly pushing people aside, hardly hearing the angry calls over the pounding music. The crowd shifted, yet she still caught glimpses of phantom white and she growled in frustration as she shoved her way through.

The tide of people shoved her to the side, and she lost the will o' the wisp figure she trailed. Another gap opened as she desperately searched and she stumbled through, stopping only as she fetched up hard against Saionji. He quickly regained his balance and grabbed her arm as she tried to dash past him.

"Hey, no cutting in," called Yuki with a smile. "You didn't want to dance with him."

Utena ignored her. She grabbed Saionji's shoulders to make him face her. "Where did he go?" she cried. "He came this way, you must've seen him!"

"Seen who? Who are you talking about?" asked Saionji.

"Dios!"

"That's not funny!" yelled Saionji, suddenly radiating fury. "I don't know what you think you're trying to pull, but I'm not—"

"I'm not trying anything! He was here, I saw him. I can't be dreaming again. I can't be..." Utena's voice trailed off as she released Saionji. She was vaguely aware of him watching her confusedly, but her attention was only for the crowd. She moved away from Yuki and Saionji, in the direction she thought Dios must have gone. How could she find him now? Why didn't he wait for her? She was sure he had seen her, he looked like he had been waiting for her to spy him.

She took one hesitant step, and another. On the third step, the room seemed to warp and turn like its watery namesake, causing her to stumble. The flashing blue lights inverted into black splotches before her eyes. I'm falling, she thought as she instinctively twisted and extended her arms to protect her head as she went down.

Utena rolled onto her back. The smooth hard dance floor was cold against her shoulders through the thin silk of her shirt. Two silhouetted figures moved close to partially block the brilliant ceiling lights.

"Utena! Are you all right?" A female voice, distant and echoing, came from her left. There was other sound, loud and vibrating, and the voice only seemed to reach her through turgid liquid.

"Are you hurt? Sick?" That was a deeper voice, male, from her right. "Come on, Tenjou, talk to us!"

"N-no, not hurt," she managed to stammer. Would they hear her, so far away? No, they were right next to her, weren't they?

"We've got to get you off the dance floor." That was the female voice, sounding closer but the figure hadn't moved. "Can you walk?"

"Dunno."

"We'll have to find out," said the male voice. The figure on her right moved above her head, and strong arms slid beneath her shoulders and lifted her into a sitting position. "How's this?" With the voice right in her ear, the odd distance effect vanished. "Do you feel dizzy?"

"Not now," Utena was able to say, more certainly.

Yuki crouched on her knees in front of her. Of course it was Yuki, Utena could see now that the angle of the lights didn't cast her into shadow. "Can you get up?" Her voice sounded normal now too, and the indefinable loudness had resolved back into amplified music.

"I'll try," said Utena. She rolled over onto her hands and knees, out of the supporting embrace. It was Saionji at her other side, who had been bracing her, but she didn't have much attention to spare for that, as all thought was focused on determining if she could indeed stand.

Yes, she could stand. Yuki and Saionji both watched her closely as she regained her feet. Actually, she felt pretty normal. That was, until she tried to take a step and her legs trembled dangerously.

Then Saionji's arm was around her waist, pulling her against his side. "You are not going to fall on your face again," he said.

"Hey! I don't need—" Utena protested, and tried to sidestep out of his grasp, but her feet weren't paying attention.

"And I don't need you fussing," he growled. "Fuss after you're sitting down." Saionji turned to Yuki. "My table is closer, I think, over under the dolphin." He gestured with his free hand towards the near wall, where hung a leaping dolphin formed of glowing green neon.

Yuki took the hint and forged a way through the crowd. Saionji guided Utena closely behind. Utena's legs were still weak, and she found herself glad for the support, even if it was Saionji.

There were two people, a man and a woman, seated at the U-shaped booth beneath the dolphin. They looked up from their conversation at Yuki's approach and then Saionji was telling them to make room. The two slid to the inside of the booth, so Utena was next to the woman as Saionji deposited her on the seat. Utena leaned her head against the back of the booth seat and closed her eyes, breathing slowly.

"She collapsed," explained Saionji. Utena felt a warm hand pressed to her forehead beneath her bangs. "Doesn't feel like any fever," said Saionji.

There was a gentle touch on Utena's arm and Utena opened her eyes to look at the woman. "Do you think you could take some water?" the woman asked.

Utena nodded weakly. The woman gave her a glass of ice water, and steadied her hand while Utena drank. The cold liquid did feel good, soothing her jangled nerves.

Yuki had sat across the table from Utena at the other end of the booth. Saionji pulled up a chair so he could sit next to Utena.

Saionji let Utena sip some more water before asking, "Were you drinking a lot?"

She looked at him, bewildered, then at the glass in her hands. She was drinking right now, why was he asking that?

"Utena," Saionji said gently, and she struggled to focus on his face. "I meant liquor. Did you have much liquor to drink?"

Utena shook her head. "I hadn't even finished my glass of wine. And I've never reacted like this to alcohol before."

"You haven't seemed sick," observed Yuki.

"No, I've been feeling fine," agreed Utena. "Until tonight, that is."

Saionji seemed about to speak again, but his eyes flickered across the others seated around the table. He turned to the man and woman and said, "This is Utena Tenjou and Yuki Hanazawa." To Utena and Yuki he said, "These are my friends Kyosuke Matsui and Akiko Fujiwara."

Utena noticed Kyosuke studying her. "Didn't I see you speaking with Saionji a few weeks ago?" The question reminded Utena that this was the man she'd seen Saionji talking with after their brief altercation before class.

"I think so," she agreed. "We went to school together, briefly, some years ago." She hoped that would put off any innocent questions that she didn't care to be discussing at the moment.

"Utena, shouldn't we go back to the dorm?" asked Yuki. "If you're not feeling well..."

Utena waved a negligent hand. "Don't worry about me. You shouldn't have to cut your evening short."

Saionji sighed and shook his head. "Still stubborn to the point of idiocy."

"What?" cried Utena, rounding on Saionji. "I seem to recall you being—"

"Utena, please!" Yuki cried earnestly. "We can always come back another night."

Utena was about to continue protesting when Saionji cut in, "Why are you arguing with your friend when she's completely right? And lest you think I'm just trying to get you to leave, I'll even walk you to the train station."

"Why?" Utena asked, suspicious.

"Don't argue, I couldn't carry you if you collapsed again," pleaded Yuki. Then she added sheepishly, "Not in these shoes."

Despite herself, Utena found herself laughing, and agreed to the arrangements. Surely she'd prove quickly that she was fine, and could get Saionji to leave them alone.

Therefore it irked her greatly when she stood up from the table and again found her legs trembling so that she immediately leaned on the back of the booth. She cursed under her breath. What could be wrong with her?

Utena shook her head angrily and looked up. Saionji stood there next to her, an arm extended in invitation. She studied him closely, but could detect no sign of the anger, or even irritation, that she expected in response to him being in a position where he was required to help her. Instead, his expression was concerned, even warm. It seemed odd and alien to her. Resigned, she moved next to him and let him support her as before.

Saionji looked to his friends. "I'm not sure how long this is going to take. If I'm not back here by the time you two want to leave, go ahead."

"But we've got no way to let you know, you said you didn't bring your cell," said Akiko.

"I'll call your place from Utena's dorm, if I end up going that far," said Saionji. Utena wanted to protest, but bit it back. He was going out of his way to help her, and he had never been one to put on an act of this kind. It didn't seem likely to her that this would just be some ploy of his. Saionji continued, "I might still miss you that way, but that's no big deal. I'll find you tomorrow if that happens."

Akiko shrugged. "Okay, I'll be at my studio." She looked to Kyosuke. "You?"

"Library, probably. But not until late morning," Kyosuke said, laying his hand over Akiko's where it rested on the table, and she smiled at him in return.

"Good enough," said Saionji with a sigh. He turned to Yuki, "Lead on."

Yuki set out for the stairs, again finding a path through the crowd for Saionji and Utena. Utena climbed carefully and held firmly to the railing as they went up, with Yuki anxiously glancing back at her and Saionji following close behind.

Once they emerged onto the street, and escaped the noise of the club, Yuki described for Saionji the route back to their dorm. Saionji confirmed that he was familiar with the locales she mentioned. In fact, he'd lived in the dormitory next door to theirs for his own freshman year.

The three walked in silence after that, which eventually began to unnerve Utena. She'd expected the normally-talkative Yuki to be distracting her with conversation. Instead, Yuki kept peering nervously at Utena, as if expecting her to fall flat again despite Saionji's aid. This was the most shaken she'd seen Yuki yet, and experienced another pang of guilt for troubling her dorm mate this way.

It seemed to Utena that she'd have to break the silence, and then maybe Yuki would see that she was okay.

"Saionji?"

"Yeah?"

"What's the class you've got on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when we see each other?"

He looked down at Utena, eyebrows raised slightly, like he was surprised that she was actually speaking to him about something so innocuous. Then he looked forward again to their path, and said, "Advanced fiction writing."

"You write?" she asked. That didn't fit with her image of him, which was composed of bluster, and conflict, and the duels she and he had waged. Then she remembered a very different incident and added, "Oh yes, I remember. That exchange diary."

"I suppose Anthy would have mentioned it to you," he said. Then with another sardonic grin he added, "But I did say fiction writing."

She'd done it again! She'd said something stupid, and she wasn't even angry at him. Utena hoped the sudden heat in her cheeks wasn't visible under the street lights. Having him see how flustered she felt was not something she needed at the moment.

But Saionji wasn't looking at her as he continued softly, "Then again, maybe that was fiction." Utena wasn't quite sure if he'd meant her to hear that, so didn't comment. "Which class do you have then?" he asked.

"Twentieth Century Lit."

"Is Kawamura teaching it this term?"

"No, I've got Harada."

Saionji nodded. "She's pretty good. I had her for 'From Scroll To Stage', her class about dramatic productions based on fiction works."

This is so strange, thought Utena. We're just talking, like nothing odd ever happened between us. She was certain they'd never had reason to simply talk at Ohtori, not when her very first meeting with him ended in her challenging him to a duel over the way he'd insulted her friend. She realized he'd asked what works had been assigned to her class, and she rattled off what she could remember from the syllabus.

They turned a corner and the train station became visible at the middle of the block. Utena felt relieved—surely she could end this uncomfortable situation now.

As they approached the station, Utena drew away from Saionji and both he and Yuki stopped to face her.

"I'm feeling much better now," Utena said to Saionji. "You don't have to bother with me any further. And, um, thanks."

He looked at her skeptically. "Are you certain? I don't want to leave Yuki stuck with dragging you the rest of the way home."

"Yes, I'm sure." To prove it to them, and to herself, she had to admit, Utena jauntily walked up the street a ways. She was delighted that there was no hint of shakiness in her limbs. Knowing she'd be regretting it if the infirmity returned after she'd sent Saionji off, she launched into a series of simple karate kicks. One foot lashed out forwards, back, and even before it touched ground again she'd thrust out the other and spun herself about in perfect balance. As she came back to rest, she called back to Yuki and Saionji, "See? If I can keep my feet through that, I can walk home."

"I can take a hint," said Saionji. He bowed to Yuki, "It was nice to meet you, and dance with you."

"Thank you for all your help," Yuki returned, also bowing. Saionji turned back the way they'd come from Deep Submerge, and Yuki hurried forward to join Utena. "You could go to the campus clinic tomorrow," she said.

"I could," agreed Utena.

"But you're not going to, are you?" finished Yuki, frowning.

Utena sighed. "I'll see how I'm feeling in the morning. If I feel at all weird, I'll go. Okay?"

"I'll be checking on you," Yuki warned.

"You live next door," Utena said dryly, "I doubt I could stop you."

"Hey, Utena!" Both women looked up abruptly, to see Saionji not yet far away. "If I don't see you at class on Tuesday, I will be coming around to find out what's happened!" He waved, and sauntered off.

"He better not!" growled Utena, and she spun on her heel and stalked into the station.

"Then I guess you'd best be as good as your word and not faint again," Yuki said primly, skipping next to her.

Utena marveled that Yuki actually was skipping in those shoes. Utena lengthened her stride, her long legs letting her keep pace with Yuki while still walking. Yuki cast a sidelong glance at Utena and skipped faster. Utena grinned and quickened her step as much as she could without actually running. With a quick cut in front, Yuki was first through the turn-styles, with Utena right on her heels as they dashed to the platform.

 

January 2004

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

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