butterfly in nine laps : utena

Author's Note: I think this chapter only makes sense if you approved of the format of Akio's screentime in the movie. Also, someone asked me about the variance of POV between sections, namely the inconsistent use of 'I' as a POV for Mikage, etc. There's actually a very real reason for this. See if you can figure it out.

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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"What was it like, being a prince?"

"Mmm." When the room is quiet, Akio is almost normal. "I'd say it wasn't bad."

The afternoon is stretching out, long and languid as a pale-furred cat extending. It reaches its front paws to the arched windows that tower almost to the ceiling, its rear to the back door that lurks unwanted behind us both.

It is one o'clock, and the temperatures are warm. I have iced tea.

Akio paints with lewd abandon in the middle of his studio. His legs are spread. They straddle either side of the canvas pinned at his knees, laid on the floor beneath him while he leans himself over the damp pigments. He wears his usual shirt, but with the sleeves rolled up and the lacefrill of the collar tucked in, all to keep the fabric from dripping into the paint.

The creator does not seem to notice that anything is at all odd about the angle he works from, and I do not voice it to him.

Dropcloths tent across the floorboards. Their white puckers form frozen whirls; once, long ago, Akio must have laid them all down to be perfectly flat. Foot traffic and other activity have pulled them from their rest, and now the wrinkles are a landscape, ridges and valleys all in inches high measurement.

I do not sit with Akio directly when he paints. The artist is mercurial, easily triggered to irritability. Instead I remain by the high-necked windows and touch the glass of my drink periodically, reminding myself that it is still cold.

In reality, I have no need to hurry. There will be enough ice in my cup no matter how many hours pass. The tea is permanently affixed to its current temperature.

This, after all, is eternity.

Fumes turn the air giddy. I have several of the windows open, but from where I perch on the edge of one, I can still smell the pigment chemicals stronger than I can the breeze. Dried canvas-shells are stacked nearby, a few of them left flat upon the ground; exposed, they finish airing their contents to the breeze, whereupon they will only be shuffled into the greater collection. One petal amidst thousands.

After they are all finished, Akio will trundle a cartful down the halls to hang them on display. That's a bad habit in my opinion. As much as you can disguise your own situation as a form of art, there's always the risk that someone will be able to read through the metaphors, see what exactly it is you are leaving open for a stranger's recognition.

Bad habits. Akio dares the student body in the same way that I milk the swimming pool. Even though I have had indoctrination to Ohtori's secrets, I don't think I quite get why none of the students comment on the d├ęcor.

My foot flips over the nearest canvas. The picture is of a black rose, superimposed above a circle.

How gauche.

Akio sees my investigation out of the corner of his eye. "That one's for Kanae," he offers, pausing in his sloped arch over the work-in-progress. "I'm thinking about offering it to her as part of our engagement."

"I thought you hated her." My toe prods at the corner of the canvas frame where the fabric is surgery-stapled into the wood. I lose interest quickly, reach for my glass of tea. Beads of perspiration meet my palm. "So why did you make something?"

Akio pauses, rears back up with his weight balanced on his hips, pelvic bone forward just enough to counteract the slump of his shoulders. His dark head remains bowed. Watching the painting yet-to-be, the dream that has not awoken to be birthed in 24x32" format underneath his knees.

"Maybe I like pretending." With that, Akio pulls up his wrist and rubs it across his forehead. White smears itself across his skin at the motion, smudges of paint become roadkill stains on the highwaymap of his head. "Kanae almost makes me feel like a prince again. Almost. But she isn't a witch," the man continues, shuffling the paintbrushes in his fingers. "And she can't keep me changed forever. It's wearing on me. Her need for me will drive me mad before I am done with her first."

Now that Akio is no longer hovering directly over his latest work, I can steal a glance at the subject matter. Curved lines. A female prototype again, but the proportions of this one don't look like they fit Anthy's meditations.

This girl-shape created under Akio's hands is slender, narrow-hipped. Athletic. Yes, I think, and I like that.

Akio's voice when he bends back down is muffled rhetoric. The lilac queue of his hair spills over his shoulders and into the thick blobs of paint; without much in the way of emotion, the man flicks the strands out of the way. They gum against his shirt. Messy. "It's always that way in the end, you know. For a while when it first starts, everything is wonderful. They believe in you. You start to believe in yourself." His brush strokes are thick hedgerows through the paint. "They change you into what they want they see and you don't mind, because being a prince isn't such a bad thing to be.

His thumb twists the camel brush during his resigned conclusion. "But the magic runs out. It always does, between people. You lose the power to change each other into princes and princesses, and then you're left with nothing. Just two people, tired of each other and looking for a way to remember what they used to be."

My thoughts are wrapped up in the warmth of a girl's thigh, witnessed through the clandestine shroud of gym-shorts. Athletic. "So why go through this game now?"

"Because Anthy needed me to be a prince."

Akio does not invest too much of himself in his reply. Practically so; he has no need to convince me, only to recite old arguments forever closed.

"And for a while..."

The man's voice remains indifferent as he continues to speak.

"For a time, while she was there, I could be."

The girl on Akio's canvas has hair as red as roses. Flush, thick. The perfect color to complement Anthy, who knows the true color of flowers as Shiori does not.

Akio must have realized this at the same time I have, for he pauses in his brushwork with a frown. Shifting the jumbled instruments to his other hand, the artist reaches for a trowel, plunges it deep into a puddle of ivory. Careless motions of his wrist slap the gobs of paint upon the girl's hair. Scarlet runs into white, becomes a shade closer to pink as peppermint swirls blend together into reality.

The girl in my memory bleeds away into an equally formless blur. Changing. Recognition of this brings to mind another question. "Were you ever really a prince, Akio? Or was Dios the real lie, and no one wanted to let themselves acknowledge it?"

"How should I know?" The other is becoming tired of my interrogation. This discussion is one we have repeated an endless amount of times on countless afternoons just like this, where the clock hands remain fast at the first and twelfth marks no matter how many times the seconds swing by.

Each time when I ask him, he becomes angry. Just like this. "When I was Dios, I wanted only to help other people. I did that so much that I almost killed myself. I had to rely on Anthy to support me until I drained the life out of her too, and just look at us both now." The artist straightens again, snaps his spine up in the same sharp gestures of his wrists outwards. Chunks of paint fly, spatter themselves in rainbow forensics on the floorcloths.

"In this school, I am Akio. Instead of being transformed back into a prince, people choose to turn me into a witch's familiar. That's what they seem to prefer, at least. What do you think is supposed to be the truth?"

He mutters something bitter in his throat. Bends back down again, does so roughly enough that his thumb slips when he slaps it against the ground and instead catches the canvas. A lock of the girl's hair is wrenched from straight to curved where Akio's hand smears it; instead of caring to fix the error, Akio only proceeds to slam more color down, decorate the bottom of the canvas with curls.

My tea is still cold.

"If you ask me," I state, in an afternoon that never ends and never plans to, "I think you enjoy the change of pace."

The jest does much to smooth out the painter's temper. His lips twist wry. "Being terrible is only a side benefit. Anthy and I are both tired of being sincere. We can't get too comfortable here anyway." Twisting to reach for more yellow, Akio's belly swings dangerously low to the surface of the painting. Wet paints gleam. He manages to keep from distorting them by a touch; when he has resumed his position, the man gives no sign of even being aware of the narrow escape. "Ohtori is just a means of feeding new people to my sister. This cycle of the game is no different. As soon as we can find someone to inspire her again, we'll be done. Until the next time, anyway."

I am fascinated in trying to pick out signs of color on the man's white shirt. "Do you think that pattern can ever be broken?"

"No." Flat refusal. Hope had long died in that set of teeth. "Princes save princesses. Witches save princes. No one saves witches. If someone could," Akio adds, detailing the neckbone on his canvas with delicate brush-switches, "then that would be a real revolution indeed."

I think about this. Then I find myself smiling over the rim of my glass.

"Shiori wants the power of transformation for herself."

"Shiori," Akio counters deftly, "has no idea of the real power in relationships."

"I want it for myself too," I reply. Patiently ruthless behind my tea, the cup I am holding to mask my mouth.

Akio is not fooled. He does not look up from where he has just now remembered to put clothes on the figure he is creating. "And what would you become anyway, Touga, if you had the power to change yourself and others? A prince, for some princess you could save? It won't last. People can make you feel all kinds of things, you know. But forever is only an illusion. It's just a castle in the sky."

The slimmest clock-hand makes another full rotation, and time once more refuses to acknowledge it.

I stretch out my legs. "In that case, I have a recommendation for your next duelist." The name is harder to remember than I would like, but I manage. "Utena Tenjou."

Ruffles scoop out the pauldron on a painted shoulder. "Is she someone else from your hometown?" Akio's musing hum is made almost directly into the canvas, so near is he leaning down. "The others you've suggested haven't panned out. Of all of them, only that Saionji boy seems to be doing anything. I shouldn't be surprised that my sister is such a masochist," the painter adds, scoffing his laugh into acrylic cleavage.

"Tenjou might surprise you." With a blink, I realize that my glass is empty. I set the thing down with a certain awkwardness, nudge it behind a spare canvas with my heel; never in Akio's chambers have I seen anything terminate. "I've seen her transform others. I'd be willing to bet that she could make even your sister want to change."

A series of rattled clicks is my only reply. Akio has set down his brushes.

Curiosity motivates me to examine the final painting from his angle, rather than my own slanted opinion from halfway across the room. I gather myself to my feet. By the time I have crossed the miniature roads of the dropcloths, Akio has already begun to frown at what he has wrought. Never a good sign.

I stand behind him, admire the monochrome uniform that splits itself down the middle. Half the outfit is decorated with badge and tassel. The facial structure is delicate. After a moment, I decide I like the girl with her hair down instead of braided up.

Akio makes no sign of shoving me away when I kneel beside him. "So what are you going to do with this one?"

The artist in question leans his wrists on his knees as he sits back and considers the girl spread upon his floor. Eventually, he sighs.

"It's not what I want. You can have it."