Heaven's boundless arch I see
Spread out above me
O(h) what a distance drear(y) to one
Who loves me
Chapter 8: A Distance Drear
Fittingly there was a storm gathering on the night of the ball. We were all crammed in the foyer peering out the floor-length windows at the too-dark sky, void of any stars or moon. It was roiling with tumbling clouds.
"My gown is going to get ruined," said Juri gloomily.
I understood her tone. The dress was stunning, a shimmering off-the-shoulder one-off, designed just for her. It was the same blue as Miki's hair, which made him her perfect escort. They stood arm in arm now, more striking still because they were of a similar height: Juri tall for a woman and Miki short for a man.
"The limo I ordered will pull right up to the door," said Miki. He fidgeted with his cufflinks. "It should be here already."
"At least it's not raining yet." Utena sounded cheerful but I sensed tension just beneath her smile. She was dressed as the prince, black and silver in place of the regular white with gold epaulets. Juri's eyes kept moving to her, to the way her jacket hugged her curves. I moved closer and wound my bare arm through Utena's. She smiled down at me.
"Have I told you that you look beautiful?"
I smiled back.
"Well you look like…hey, better than I have words for." She rubbed the back of her neck with her free hand. "Like a…"
"Vision," filled in Juri drily, clearly eavesdropping.
"A fever-dream of loveliness," said Miki sincerely. "Exactly like I always imagined Odette from Swan Lake would look."
I blinked. Juri and Utena goggled at him. A drop of sweat trickled down his forehead.
"Just saying," he muttered, wiping it away. I smiled at him.
"Thank you," I said, "but I've always felt more like Odile."
The door crashed open and Saionji Kyouichi charged into the room, his tuxedo a little worse for wear.
"There's going to be a storm!" he hissed, wiping his hair out of his eyes. "You can feel it in the air."
"Welcome Kyouichi," said Juri, arching an eyebrow at him. "So glad you could join us. Fifteen minutes late."
They glared at each other, then she clapped him on the shoulder and he gave a snort of laughter. Utena grinned and went over to admire his tux. I sank into a nearby chair and helped ChuChu climb into my handbag.
These people were very strange.
Miki drifted over to me and sat in the adjoining chair.
"Are you nervous?" he asked. "This is the f…first time you've seen him since the duel at the hotel, right?" He rubbed sweaty hands on his trousers. "It's the first time I've seen Kozue."
I reached over and patted his arm gently.
"It will be okay."
"Will it?" he asked me, and placed his other hand on top of mine. I was reminded again of young Dios. How did men like Miki grow up yet retain the little boy inside? And how did men like Akio…not?
I was silent for a stretching moment.
"No," I said softly. "It probably won't be. But that's not the polite thing to say."
His jaw dropped. Then he smiled weakly and his hand tightened briefly over mine.
"You're a very unusual woman."
I smiled at him, conceding his point. Our arms drifted back to our respective chairs.
We sat companionably then, saying nothing, watching the playful interaction between Juri, Utena and Saionji.
"I hope Kozue's happy to see me," said Miki suddenly, quietly. "That she's missed me too. Sometimes…sometimes I feel like it's all just a game to her. That she's playing with me. But…it's not a game to me." He bit his lip.
"People who play games," I said, "usually want something."
"Yeah," he said raggedly. "I know."
I looked at him and wondered if he really did know. He was older now, presumably wiser. That was necessary; it was the way a human life developed. But sometimes it seemed like such a pity.
Like I'd once tried to tell Utena, thorns made a flower change into a rose.
"The limo's here!" she called from across the room, breaking into my maudlin thoughts. "Let's make a break for it."
Miki and I joined the others and we ran out the door as a boisterously laughing group. Rain was now spitting and the wind was howling, whipping my hair around my face so much I couldn't really see. I should have worn it up in some exotic style. But I'd wanted to please Utena, who really, was relatively easy to please. She didn't even ask for what she wanted most of the time.
So how could I deny her?
She was pulling me into the limo now, down beside her and much closer than was strictly necessary. Juri and Miki sat across from us, and Saionji was bending his massive frame almost double to climb in next to me.
His muscled thigh (accidentally?) brushed mine. I stared straight ahead and shifted my leg away, as subtly as possible. There was plenty of room. Did he have to sit that close?
"Onwards Jeeves!" called Miki to the chauffeur, then dissolved into boyish laughter. Utena slapped her knee she was giggling so hard. Juri glared at them but it kept edging up into a smile.
"You people are crazy to want to go to this thing," said Saionji, as the limo started to pull down the driveway. "The weather is an omen."
"Oh it is, is it?" said Juri. "Pray tell what brings you to that conclusion?"
"It's his party," hissed Saionji. Miki nodded nervously but Juri rolled her eyes.
"Don't be ridiculous. Ohtori Akio is just a man. A very disturbing man to be sure, but a man all the same." She stroked the flowing material of her dress. "I should have got a corsage…"
"Here, I got you one." Miki was blushing as he pulled the white rose out of his inner pocket and removed its protective wrapping carefully.
"Miki-kun!" cried Juri happily, and I thought that her softer side suited her.
"Anthy-san helped me pick it out," he said, helping her clip it on. "It's from her greenhouse."
Juri looked across at me steadily.
"Thank you," she said, and if her voice wasn't exactly warm, well it wasn't cold either. "I'm so glad it's not orange."
I felt my skin heat, and was relieved nobody could possibly tell. But Utena was pulling my hand onto her lap, entwining our fingers and grinning at me. So maybe that wasn't really true.
"And for you Anthy-san," Miki went on, pulling out another rose, this one red. Utena helped me pin it on my gauzy white dress, thanking him profusely.
"I had to clip it from in the back," he said, "so you wouldn't see it was gone."
"Thank goodness you remembered," mumbled Utena. "I had no idea you're supposed to get these things."
"You don't have to necessarily," said Juri. "It's just a nice tradition. Besides in your case, perhaps Himemiya-san should be getting one for you."
I smiled smugly and ChuChu popped out my handbag, proudly presenting Utena with a white cultivar of a Baby Deer Lily. She gasped and took it with fingers that shook slightly.
"It's…beautiful." She examined the softly curling petals, noticing the tiny spots that gave it its name. She bent her head to smell it and I thought to myself she was prettier than any flower.
"It means she thinks you're sweet," Juri told Utena with a rather teasing grin. I arched my eyebrow at her and her grin grew wider. "What? I know my Japanese Flower Language. I am an Arisugawa."
"They're a really old and well-respected family," Saionji informed us at Utena's confused look. He folded his arms over his chest and looked sulky. "Like the Kiryuus."
"You are sweet," I told Utena and ignored the others to press a kiss to her flushed cheek.
"And I don't like roses," she murmured, ignoring them to turn to me. "Thank you, Anthy. I didn't even know you grew lilies." She bent her head and pressed her lips delicately to mine.
Saionji coughed aggrievedly and Utena pulled herself away.
I smiled at her, thinking that the difficulties involved in cultivating the bloom at this time of year had been more than worth it.
"Did you know," said Juri, no doubt wanting to distract Saionji who was glaring rudely at us, "that each different colored rose has its own meaning?"
"Really?" said Utena, interest clearly piqued. "I didn't know that…" She glanced quickly at me, a question in her eyes.
"Yes," said Juri, "it's all quite fascinating. A white rose means innocence." She fingered the petals of her corsage. "Or perhaps devotion."
"My rose was always white," said Utena, stating the obvious as she often did. "In the duels, I mean."
"Yes," said Juri drily. "And mine was orange. That likely means," her voice turned slightly acid, "hatred and revenge. And no doubt it also had something to do with…things that happened in the past."
"Oh?" said Saionji. "I thought it had to do with the color of your hair."
"My hair isn't orange!" hissed Juri. We all stared at her remarkably orange-looking hair.
"I'm a redhead!" she protested.
"Um," said Miki.
"Uh…yeah…" mumbled Utena.
"You're delusional," said Saionji. "My rose was green because of my hair."
"Actually," said Juri, glowering at him direly, "there is no official meaning for a green rose. Because they don't grow anywhere outside Ohtori, as far as I know." Her glare turned to me. "But I'm sure Himemiya-san knows."
I looked down at my lap.
"Stop it!" said Utena.
There was an awkward silence.
"I'm sorry," muttered Juri finally. "That was…uncalled for. This isn't the time for such a conversation."
"At least I'm not bored," said Saionji.
"What does a red rose mean?" asked Miki, looking at the rose he'd picked out for me. Juri cheered up considerably, smirking down at him.
"Love." He turned as red as his rose.
"It actually means that Touga is a true redhead and you're an orange-head," said Saionji. Miki grabbed Juri's arm to hold her back. If looks could kill…
"So you've got no corsage?" Utena asked Saionji, no doubt hoping to distract him.
"I've got nobody to give me one," he said rather mournfully and to my surprise his eyes slanted down at me. I looked away uncomfortably.
Green roses meant thwarted desire…
The limo was pulling up outside a mansion the size of a palace. We all stared out the windows through the rain. It was coming down lightly now, but thunder in the distance rumbled a warning that this would soon change. Seconds later and lightning flashed, illuminating the long flight of marble stairs. Each individual step hosted a set of leering dragon statuettes, facing each other off. They looked freakishly lifelike, almost like they'd leap at each other's throats at any moment.
And tear them out.
"Creepy," muttered Utena. "What is this place?"
"Probably Akio-san's idea of a cozy investment property," said Juri. "God, he must be as rich as sin."
"Those statues are cool," said Saionji.
"They're ugly and tasteless," said Juri.
"You're ugly and tasteless," retorted Saionji then howled as she slapped him. I pressed my back into the seat worried about their fighting, before I realized they were grinning at each other. They were…joking around?
I didn't understand these people.
Meanwhile the glass division between us and the driver's seat had rolled down and the chauffeur turned to look at us. We couldn't see his features in the shadow of his hat - only icy blue eyes.
"Won't you go inside?" he purred looking right at me. "He's waiting for you, Kitsune."
I gasped and flung myself away, onto the other seat.
"You!" yelled Utena, and made a dive at him. But he was gone, flinging open the driver's door and escaping into the rain. Utena made a move to spring out the car but Juri grabbed her and hauled her back, helped in part by Saionji.
"We stay together," hissed Juri. "We all agreed. That's mandatory."
"Who was that?" asked Miki nervously. "And why did he call Anthy-san a spirit fox?"
They all stared at me. I looked down. My hands were shaking in my lap.
"Just a creep who…" began Utena, but I cut her off.
"A face from the past," I said, making myself look up. "An old duelist."
Now everyone was really staring at me, and I could smell the first hints of fear.
"Oh my God," said Utena, "we have to get out of here."
"Don't be hasty," warned Juri. "He's trying to scare us. Or…" She gazed assessingly at me. "He wants to scare Himemiya-san."
Miki leaned over and took my hand in a protective gesture.
"What should we do?" He gazed anxiously at me, and then over to Juri.
"We should go inside and get very drunk," said Saionji blandly. "That solves most problems."
"Be serious," said Juri. He gave an exasperated sigh.
"Okay then, we should go inside and confront the bastard. We've come this far. The plan is to talk Kaoru-kun and that awful Takatsuki girl into coming back with us right?"
It was Juri's turn to glare.
"So let's go and talk to them," continued Saionji. "Sitting here acting like girls isn't achieving anything."
"Don't call us girls!" yelled Utena and Juri in tandem.
"You know what I mean," said Saionji. He glanced at me then, the same longing in his eyes as earlier in the night. This time I stared back, and he finally looked away.
"It's a stupid plan," he mumbled and looked at Utena. "I bet you came up with it."
"Shut up," she said. "It's better than sitting around and doing nothing, not even joining our agency."
I gathered with mild surprise that Saionji had been invited to do so at some stage. Utena hadn't told me that…
He was frowning now, staring at his feet and electing not to answer the accusation.
"We should go inside," said Juri. "And stick together." She glanced around at us all sternly. "We all agree, right? We're staying together no matter what."
"Yes," said Miki. "That's the most logical course of action."
"Okay," said Utena, stretching out a hand to help me up. "Let's do this."
"Fine," muttered Saionji.
Juri looked at me and I realized she wanted actual spoken assent.
"Yes," I said. Being alone at Akio's ball sounded like sheer stupidity to me. I was rather relieved that Utena had Juri and Miki to help her refine her plans. If it had been only us two Utena would have been out there fighting in the storm, and I would've been alone in the car, probably about to be kidnapped.
Yes, I was beginning to see the value of knights in the prince's court…
We made a run for it, sprinting through the light rain and up the many stairs. Reaching the covered porch our group hesitated en masse, smoothing out the damp patches on our clothing and hair, and peering into the massive entryway. The doors (as big as those at the Castle of Eternity) were pushed open all the way, and a butler-type figure stood ready to make introductions.
There was actually a red carpet (which even I thought was a bit over the top), leading into a ballroom that put the one at our communal home to shame. Festively attired party-goers danced (to classical music and a mini orchestra), gossiped together, drank heavily, and ate from the overflowing food tables. Strangely I didn't recognize a one of them. So far.
At Juri's signal we stepped inside.
"And who shall I say has arrived?" asked the butler snottily.
"Count Dracula," said Saionji, "and four of his minions." Then he fell over roaring with laughter at his own bad joke. Juri glared at him and glanced at Utena enquiringly.
"Uh," said Utena, "say that Tenjou Utena has arrived." She took a deep breath, and stepped closer to me, winding her arm protectively around my shoulders. "With Himemiya Anthy." She glanced over at the others, where Juri and Miki were now hauling a still chortling Saionji to his feet. "We're on the official invitation list with Arisugawa Juri and Kaoru Miki. Plus we've bought a guest, er, Saionji Kyouichi."
"Very good," said the servant with a polite bow. "I was informed of your arrival Tenjou-san, and issued with orders that you should be given anything you asked for." For some reason he looked at me then. "Within reason."
Utena and I stared at him.
"Uh sure," she said. "That's…great. Um…"
"We don't need anything," I filled in for her. "We'll just go and sit down."
"By the alcohol," put in Saionji. "I assume you have plenty of booze."
"You assume rightly, Sir," said the servant politely. "Why don't you try that table right over there, with the wines and cheeses. I personally recommend the Romanée Conti, from France."
Juri made an appreciative noise.
"I prefer sake," said Saionji.
"Of course, Sir," said the servant and I detected the slightest sneer in his perfectly correct tones. "There's sake there too. And punch."
"Oho punch!" Saionji rubbed his hands together.
"I'll announce you now," said the servant.
"No, no, that's not necessary," said Juri, "we'll just go in."
"It's highly unorthodox."
"Yes," Juri agreed, and Utena and I stared as she gracefully retrieved a note from her handbag and pressed it into the butler's waiting hand. Regally she breezed past him, and we all followed in her wake.
When we got to the wine table Saionji charged, piling cheeses up high on his plate and grabbing an entire bottle of sake.
"You bribed him," Utena accused Juri. Then: "Ooh, is that goat cheese? My favorite!"
"It was very smooth," Miki told Juri admiringly. He was examining a bottle of red wine. Juri plucked it off him, and then stole the glass of punch Utena had just poured herself.
"It will hardly serve our purposes to get drunk," she said.
We all looked at Saionji, who was actually chugging his sake.
"Tell me again," said Juri, "why we brought him?"
"Backup," said Miki. He shook his head admonishingly. "He hasn't changed much."
"He has too," said Utena loyally, drawing surprised looks from her cohorts. "I dunno why he's like this right now…he's probably upset about something."
"Someone," suggested Miki and I followed his eyes to where a tall and handsome man was swaggering over to Saionji, the crowd parting around him like he was Moses and they were the red sea.
Kiryuu Touga in all his glory.
I sighed. How unsurprising and unpleasant. Of course Touga was here. I glanced around the room but couldn't see the others yet. But of course they would be here: Shiori, Kozue, Akio himself. Awaiting their opportunities. Playing their predesigned moves. Stepping out on their cues into this horror play.
"Should we rescue him?" wondered Miki.
"I don't really wanna talk to Touga-san," muttered Utena. She moved restlessly by my side. I slid my arm around her waist, and leaned against her warmth. She sighed and relaxed against me.
"Right. Let's go and sit down then," said Juri. She gestured toward a hidden alcove, all silkily-pillowed lounges, made private by a velvet curtain. "We'll be able to keep an eye on Kyouichi from there."
Seating ourselves in the alcove we crowd-watched. Utena and I sat together on one lounge, leaning against each other. Juri and Miki sat together on another. We hadn't been there 5 minutes when the lights dimmed and the violins began to keen Tchaikovsky's famous None But The Lonely Heart.
Couples slowed on the dance floor, and wrapped their arms more tightly around each other. Brightly coloured couples drifted by our alcove on the cloud of music. I shifted uncomfortably in place.
"It's so beautiful," sighed Miki, closing his eyes. "I love this song."
"You should play it," said Juri. "I'd love to hear you play…something like this." Something that wasn't The Sunlit Garden she meant.
Utena's arm went around me and she sighed too.
"It is real pretty. But way too sad. What do you think, Anthy?"
"I hate it," I spat.
They all stared at me aghast. I hadn't meant for my tone to be quite so harsh.
"You don't…hate a lot of things," said Utena tentatively.
"You don't know her very well," rejoined Akio, slipping inside the curtain. Before the others could even react he seated himself beside me and took my free hand in his.
"Do you like the party?" he asked us jovially.
For a moment it was surreal: like he was the chairman of their school again and they were his students. Perfectly normal for him to be sitting with us, perfectly normal for a brother to companionably take the hand of his sister. That, combined with the song and the last time I'd heard it (a ball just like this one) made me nauseous.
"Net, tol'ko tot, kto znal svidan'ja, zhazhdu," Akio purred to me, and feeling even sicker I pulled my hand away. He let me, crossing his legs instead with a grace that would look good on a woman.
"What the hell?!" said Utena, voice rising as she got over her shock and rose threateningly to her feet. I tugged her back down. Juri and Miki didn't move but I could see them both tensing in place ready to spring up at a moment's notice.
"Don't be like that," Akio told them, voice rich with hidden amusement. "Surely we can make polite conversation. I asked you here to have a good time."
"Oh is that why you asked us?" said Juri. Akio smirked at her, clearly appreciating her sarcasm. That was just like him. He'd always liked to play. He liked it when the toys played back, thinking (mistakenly) they had a chance. It made the game so much more interesting. And after centuries upon centuries of playing…interesting was very welcome.
He hated to be bored.
Now he gestured to a waiter and a platter of wine was bought to our alcove. Taking a glass for himself Akio waved invitingly at us. There were no takers. Yet he had established himself as the host, the one in control.
I felt light-headed at his proximity, at the heat of his body so close to mine, and after such a long time apart. I'd seen him since leaving Ohtori of course, on three separate (terrifying) occasions with Utena. But I hadn't sat next to him. I hadn't smelled his distinctive scent, dark and crisp and tantalizing. I hadn't felt his hand holding mine, however briefly.
It was different.
"What did you say to Anthy?" growled Utena.
Akio smiled at her patronizingly, and twirled the wine in his glass. Leisurely he turned his dazzling smile on me.
"I said…" His voice deepened and mellowed. (It was amazing the things he could do with his voice.) "None but the lonely heart…" He took my hand again with his free one. "Can know my sadness."
I pulled my hand back.
"That's beautiful," said Miki, but seriously, like a student making an observation for a report. "What comes next?"
"Ask Anthy." He shrugged. "She knows it better than I do."
"Stop it," warned Utena. "You're tormenting her."
"It's what he does," said Juri. She snorted derisively. "He gets off on it."
Akio only smiled at her, smiled and sipped his wine. But when he spoke his voice was steel.
"Have a care, little girl," he told her, then licked the rim of his glass.
She looked like she might retort then reigned herself back. I saw that she was paler than usual.
"Why did you invite us?" asked Utena, clutching my hand so tightly I winced. But I didn't pull away from her; I welcomed the reminder that she was touching me.
"Because I wanted to see Anthy," said Akio sadly, and we all stared at him, not knowing what to think. There was such a marked change in his demeanor and all in the slightest shift of moments. He took my hand for the third time that night.
"I miss you," he told me. Our eyes met. His were more like Dios' then I could remember for the longest time.
I pulled my hand away yet again, feeling oddly like Judas.
"Alone and parted," Akio whispered, then sadly sipped his wine.
I stared at him, at his achingly familiar profile and didn't know what to think. What to feel. Time had stopped, gone backwards, was irrelevant, was supremely important. Utena's fingers dug into mine, grounding me. Akio's hand rested inches from my own on crushed red velvet. His fingers were long and clever. I could picture how it would look if those fingers moved ever so slightly and rested on my thigh. I could remember how it felt. I remembered him.
I'd been trying so hard to forget.
The music came to a stop. Couples disentangled themselves on the dance floor. The strange mood broke. Akio stood and gave a mocking bow.
"Do excuse me, I'll leave you now to enjoy my party. No doubt we'll meet again before the night is done." He smiled as though he relished the notion, then disappeared into the crowd.
"Well, that was weird." Juri arched an eyebrow at me. "He seems to want you."
"That's not weird," argued Miki. "They're brother and sister!"
Juri looked at him with something like pity in her eyes.
"You don't understand," he argued. "You don't even talk to your sister."
Juri's mouth set in a grim line.
"Are you okay?" Utena asked me, and I was suddenly sick of her asking that. I was sick of being the cause of her worry.
"I want to leave," I said, lifting my eyes to hers and deliberately showing her the uncertainty I'd felt at the touch of Akio's hand, the muted fear. Her eyes widened and her hands came up to clutch at my upper arms.
"We can't go!" argued Miki. "We've got to rescue Kozue."
Juri shook her head at him.
"If Himemiya-san wants to go…" She looked at him sternly. "…I don't think staying is a very good idea. Do you?"
"I'm staying," he said stubbornly, pulling away from her when she tried to put her hand on his shoulder. "I'm finding Kozue and I'm going to get her out of here." Leaping to his feet he ran out the room before any of us could stop him. Juri groaned and got up too.
"I'll go find him," she said shortly, and strode out.
"So much for staying together," muttered Utena. Her hands slid around to my back and she crushed me against her chest. "Shall we go?"
I held her as tightly as I could, thinking very hard. I could hear the strain in her breathing, and in my own. I'd been frozen before, but now my heart was pounding painfully in my chest. I tried to calm myself, to calm down and think clearly. Long moments passed in each others arms.
Finally I released Utena and let out the breath I'd been holding unconsciously.
"We have to stay," I said. I looked at her, knowing that if it was only me I'd be out the door in a second. But it was Utena. If I let her make this choice for me, to protect me at the expense of her friends…she wouldn't be the prince she really was. She'd be a corrupted version of it, my version to be sure, but not what was worthy of her.
It had been a moment of weakness to even ask.
So we had to stay, at least until we could help Juri talk Miki into leaving. And until we had retrieved Saionji from Touga's clutches. I sighed. Thinking about others was so complicated.
"Are you sure?" Utena looked like she didn't know whether to be relieved or more worried.
"Don't you dare leave my side," she warned. She gazed at me searchingly before taking my face in her hands and kissing me. It was a chaste kiss, the kind we might have shared before she understood her own heart on that hotel rooftop. It was the kind that always made me want her more.
"I won't," I whispered, and I took the arm she offered, pressing myself close enough to feel the soft material and hard epaulets of her prince's jacket.
Utena squared her shoulders.
"Let's go find the others."
We stepped out from behind the curtain.
TBC in Chapter 9