butterfly in nine laps : saionji

Author's Note: As much as I normally avoid it, this fic does have some cross-lingual wordplay. It's been adjusted to be as minor as possible.

Utena movie spoilers. Butterfly in Nine Laps was originally a nine-part Utena movie fic with non-sequential sections meant to be read in any order. Enjoy.

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When he had the time--which was more often than he'd like to admit--Kyouichi would make words out of his weapons. It was a short game. One so childish that the kendo player only resorted to it when the practice hall was quiet, light growing long over the wooden floorboards and Kyouichi hearing the bells toll out the hours through sunset to night.

The syllable game was incidental. Pointless language amusement with characters reversed and substituted in various orders, rules of grammar completely dismissed. It only entertained Kyouichi for a few minutes, usually while he was distracted sweeping up grit from the tatami mats. Katana rephrased became a question about shelves. If he was really bored, he could make the name for his rattan practice swords turn into a pun on no death, but it usually took extreme boredom to get that far.

No death.

Then Kyouichi would toss out the contents of the dustpan, and remember to lock up.

Anthy was the same way. Kyouichi played the word game on her as well. Under his control, the definition of Himemiya transformed into a princess of arrows and berries, and then into a royal souvenir. Once his thoughts had turned her into a phrase describing the peace of mind caused from a scream in darkness; at that point, Kyouichi had decided he was going to close up early and go for a coffee.

There were worse entertainments. Kyouichi's hobby wasn't nearly as obsessive as the other duelists.

He, at least, didn't have a pocketwatch fetish.

By that token, Kyouichi assumed that Anthy's fascination with the campus radio shows filled a similar internal niche. The crew who performed on the local frequencies also put on the occasional theater performances. Anthy made few requests directly; Kyouichi would usually only notice she was errant at all when she was not waiting obediently outside after kendo practice.

This evening, Kyouichi knew in advance to expect Anthy's delay. He'd seen a flyer about an experimental puppet technique that was going to be demonstrated in Soundroom B. Something about surround speakers. Maybe it was more of that trick with extra lighting that they'd used last month, variances of gel-spots to create atmosphere.

Kyouichi did not fully understand why the Rose Bride retained such needs. Even though she acted like one, right down to the flaws, Anthy was not actually a person. She was a possession. An object, whose obedience was given to any who owned her. Her temperament was only a reflection of this. Depending on the duelist who retained her at any given moment, Anthy would say yes or no, readjust her balance to match.

That made her like a sword, so Kyouichi found he could understand the idea of her better.

A weapon was a perfect love, particularly one that you won as a prize. You could count on keeping it so long as you could rely on the strength of your arm. That kind of achievement was measureable. Understandable. You could refine it on the practice floor. You could read it printed out in scorecards while the judges conferred on your form, and then wait for the final results to be blared over the intercom static.

Friendships weren't even close. They melted away without warning. Disappeared like trash on the tide, crumpled litter of café muffin wrappers discarded after lunch; Kyouichi couldn't predict the departures of people any more than he could count on a thirty-percent chance of rain.

Sometimes it poured. Sometimes it didn't. Not even the forecasters were sure.

In comparison, Anthy was as constant as the sun rising each morning. She was a stability far beyond anything so nebulous as normal relationships. Her devotion was superior.

So long as you won her, which really was dependent all upon your own skill rather than the fickleness of summer winds.

Anthy was an embodiment of a power. Eternity itself bundled into a frame slight and slender; not quite a rapier, she was too short for that. Closer to a tanto.

In Kyouichi's head, syllables reshuffled automatically. Take charge, for the moment.

He closed up the dojo and began the walk to the Soundroom. The weight of the katana was a heavy reassurance against his shoulderblades. As long as he had it, Kyouichi knew he would always be prepared.

He heard the calls for the Prince long before he ever saw her on the swings. You couldn't get away from them, really--the cheers of the fencing fanclub, rather, not the playset. Kyouichi never could figure out what a playground was doing in the middle of an academy, but there it was, tucked between two corners of interlocking stairways that were infamous for cycling out of synch on the hour, every hour. Ohtori's shifting architecture was awkward for new arrivals to get the hang of, but eventually students learned to ignore the way the ground kept moving beneath their feet.

Sailor-skirted girls flocked down the steps. Kyouichi ignored them as they parted in an aqua wave to wash around him; a few of them looked his way in passing, familiar with the kendo player from reviews of the Prince's rivals, but eventually they returned to their hunt.

Using the playground shortcut had originally been a way to get him to the Soundroom faster, but Kyouichi stopped when he saw whose body was leaning on the black rubber slab of a swingset seat. Automatically readjusted his katana on his shoulders, felt the dull ache of his inner wrist where it was bent back to hang the weapon from his fingers; as much as he knew of the Prince's habits, he never was comfortable with the reality.


Characters marched into a new formation, automatic. Gun squirrel.

Sun painted the girl's hair a harvest orange, like a pumpkin with a candle set inside to force it to glow. Her fingers rested in her lap. Kyouichi had no honest appreciation of Juri, but so long as the fencer-girl held no overt interest for Anthy, Kyouichi couldn't care less. Juri's talent with foil and epee both was a matter he could respect. On an analytical level.

Which was all they needed between them, anyway.

He spoke a greeting as he approached, as if the crunching of his feet on the sands wasn't good enough. "Arisugawa."

"Saionji." Juri's voice was dry. Unamused, but she didn't have to be, any more than he had to be friendly with her. She turned her head up from its silent contemplation of the ground, regarded him with all the drowsy indifference of a large cat.

The weight of Kyouichi's sword strained his knuckles.

"Your fanclub's looking for you. They're cluttering the stairs," the kendo player added. Pointedly. Hoping that Juri would take the hint and get out of his way so that Kyouichi would not have to walk away with her eyes on his back.

Juri showed no interest in fixing the problem caused by her absence. "So I heard." Her feet flexed. Pressed against the track of dirt worn out beneath the swing, propelling her to rock in place.

The empty seats hung suspended and watched them both.

"Well?" The first volleys had been made; now Juri was pressing, looking for an opening. "Was that all? It's not like you to fraternize with another duelist, Saionji."

He reacted. Predictable, but the defense was automatic. "Who says that's what I'm doing? As far as I'm concerned, this is on my way to pick up the Rose Bride. Nothing more."

First blood awarded to Juri was a point against Kyouichi's pride. The kendo player threw himself back into motion regardless, trying to ignore the jibe. He had longer legs than Juri. Easier to cover ground for advance or retreat; convenient when you decided a conversation was over, and the only procedure left was to physically depart the mats.

Juri's next words stopped him before he was more than two steps past. "Tell me something." Now her voice was primed sharper. Awake. "Why do you fight so hard to keep the Rose Bride?"

That kind of question represented a flanking maneuver. Kyouichi turned back, exposing only his hip and profile in three-quarters to the other duelist. "Do you even need to ask such a thing?" A forceful reply. One that relied on sheer strength to deflect the blow. "Because she can give me everything I desire."

"And what is that anyway, Saionji?"

Kendo stances were winning this verbal spar. Kyouichi could feel it. "Eternity, of course." Strange. The standard response was not usually so tiresome to say. "Something that I know I can count on to be there. Isn't that why you do it?"

Point struck. Match, with luck. Juri lapsed into silence while he watched, her eyes wandering back to the sand-scuffle of footprints. When her mouth opened next, all that came out was a soft, "I wonder what Miki would say."

"Are you here to prattle to me about other duelists, or did you have a matter of actual import to express?" Kyouichi's words were strict; he always enjoyed the way formality could be twisted to a harsh grace, one that could cause others to become cowed. It worked in the practice hall. It worked out of it equally well. Now, when Kyouichi could taste his victory in the air, rough words were the herald of his triumph over the fencer.

Juri was normally not so easy to intimidate. She was captain of her own division; the kendo squad and the fencing team had held enough rivalries in the past over style alone that the lion-haired teen was used to Kyouichi's bile.

Empty plastic seats swayed in the air, silent spectators waiting for the final blows to land.

At the noise of swing hooks whispering, Juri left her feint. "Something to count on? The Rose Bride?" Parrying with open scorn, a blatant attack. "If that's why you fight, I'm amazed you want her at all. I don't count on anything anymore. Not even eternity, and certainly not on Himemiya."

This was a new angle. Kyouichi tracked it, deflecting only as much as was needed to keep the blow from landing on himself. His eyes narrowed regardless; Kyouichi did not like insults no matter how oblique the thrust. "Are you saying the Rose Bride is lying?"

The Prince's throat was a swatch of cream as Juri turned her face up to the sky. "This academy is full of deceit. I came to Ohtori because I was told I could finally find what I wanted, but there aren't any answers in this place. The adults here are still liars. It's no different at Ohtori than anywhere else."

Only when Kyouichi felt the thud of his katana by his leg did he realize that his arm had unwound the canvas sack from where it dangled on his shoulder; exhausted at last, his fingers had twisted and set the weapon down.

Good. It felt like he was getting a cramp.

"Like one of my friends from when I was little." Juri's mouth twisted in a pale imitation of a smirk as she continued, one without even the interest to fully blossom. "He was brought to the hospital, that's what I was told. And then they forgot about him. I asked, and they said ... something, I don't remember."

Juri's weight squeaked the plastic seat. Kyouichi watched, silent, turned her name back and forth while her feet rocked the swing, creaked the chains in the metal of children's groans. It was unsettling to see a teenager on a children's play-set, but the kendo player shuffled syllables in his head, remained detached.

Form of an ant. A flooded disaster area, with team spirit.

The depersonalization of the fencer into so many homonyms made it easier for Kyouichi to listen to what she was saying.

"They said he was dead. But I didn't believe that," Juri was adding then, fiercely. "I still don't. So I don't trust them now, any of them, even though it's been long enough that it's hard to remember what my friend even looked like. If he had red hair or blue--can you believe that?" The fencer pointed her feet together and braced her heels conjoined against the ground. "All this time, and it still bothers me. The Rose Bride can't give me the power to break away from anything, past or present. This school is the same trap as I've ever been in. And Anthy's just a part of that game."

Memory stirred dimly in Kyouichi, and he sat down on the other swing.

The katana propped itself against his knee.

"I had something like that happen to me once." The statement was volunteered before Kyouichi could stop himself. "When I was young... before I came to the academy. I was coming back from practice, and there was this kid... he'd fallen in the river near school."

Screams. There had been screaming, that much he could remember. A girl's voice from the far bank. A sodden figure in the bottom of the boat, limp, while a parasol pinwheeled on the waters.

"And this man was there with his--no, two of them," Kyouichi corrected himself suddenly, brow knitting as the memory refused to come fully into focus. "Two kids. I always thought that the man must have taken out his children for a boat ride. It looked like they'd both fallen in and he was pulling them up."

Two children.

Memory belched forth a figment in the kendo player's mind. Not just two children, but also two boats.

Kyouichi's foot dug into the packed sand of the playlot, tracing out characters for assembly.

Where had the second come from?

In the void of confusion, Kyouichi continued to speak. "It's strange. But for some reason, I could never figure out if the man was helping the boy out, or if he was forcing his son to let go."

Fabric had clung to the child in the boat like wet moth-wings. The color of the dress was a sodden orange. Or was that the girl's hair, so long that it melded with the yellow of a waterlogged skirt?

Mortar groaning interrupted them both. Mechanical observations of the hour were almost as consistent as the Bride; the stairwells surrounding the play-yard were rotating back out of alignment, cutting off the way Kyouichi had entered from and opening up paths at right angles from before.

Exits vanished. The spell was broken. Kyouichi was up on his feet and squinting at the dimming sky, trying to judge the sliver revealed between the lacework crossings of the higher towers. "Dammit!" There would be no shortcut to the theater show now. He'd have to circle back around the music halls and take the landings down from there.

"My. It seems that I've kept you late," Juri observed dryly. She lifted her hand, delivered a wave as impassive as a queen. "So sorry."

It was the nonchalance in the other duelist's voice that gave Kyouichi the most alarm. Was there a reason to delay him? The only other competitor for the Bride would be Miki; was the pianist trying some plan to subvert Anthy's sympathies, some ruse that Juri had joined in on?

No. Impossible. Anthy was perfect, as reliable as Kyouichi's training routine and his club ranking. Miki should know that by now.

He snarled anyway. Slung the katana back over his shoulder, checked to make sure all the lacings were in place. "Don't think you can be half so smug the next time we meet," was his warning snap; the surprise delay left an ugly feeling in his stomach, one that Kyouichi was only too happy to vent.

Juri only leaned her cheek against the swing chain. The metal pressed into her skin. "When I have a need for the kind of power Anthy gives, I'll be sure to let you know."

Her smile was a word that Kyouichi wanted to rearrange, destroy its mockery by controlled disassembly, but the kendo player found better sounds to bark. "Not unless you really want to know that your friend's dead, Juri. I bet your adults killed him, just like they did the kid in the river."

New doorways settled into place with a dull thunk.

Kyouichi took the nearest one without looking back. Somewhere in the school, Anthy would be waiting. She always was.