Chiaroscuro: Of Light and Shadows
Chapter Six: Teatime of Danger
By Gabi-hime (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Isagiyoku kakko yoku ikite yukou...
Tatoe futari hanarebanari ni natte mo...
The song he'd heard before, perhaps half a dozen times, whenever fate decreed he need make a visit to the Rijichou. It was the only song that ever played in the express elevator up to the chairman's top floor office that reigned as the crowning pinnacle of Ohtori Gakuen's campus -- smooth and sickeningly light and jazzy, just the sort of thing that he'd put in his elevator: power muzak.
Before today, he'd never known the words, never known that there were words to the song, had never cared to know them, but the witch was singing in precise cadence to the melody, hands folded behind her as she swayed slightly from side to side in particular rhythm.
In the sunlit garden, hand in hand, We drew close, and soothed each other with the words: "Neither of us will ever fall in love again."
It was a strange song, fierce and strong, unusual against both the slow jazz and in the witch's usually demure and subordinate voice.
"Words have power, Nemuro-san," she murmured softly, pausing in her recital to once again answer an unvoiced question, "I've spent a great portion of my life in this elevator and after a time, I made up the words to this song. By singing it, by naming every note, I am empowered, we are empowered. We take the revolution. My brother often leaves such weapons lying carelessly around. He does not think that anyone else will know enough to use them."
"Akio-san is always too over-confident," Utena commented, balling one fist on her hip, "the bastard."
Nemuro leaned back against the cool mirrored glass of the elevator before speaking, "The Rijichou thinks he has already won. In fact, he has been convinced of his assured victory since he started this game decades ago."
"Eons ago," Anthy corrected absently, but Nemuro ignored her, quite set on waking Utena to the clear and present danger they were in. They needed to be on guard. This was no social call and calling the Rijichou unpleasant names was going to do nothing to prepare them, no matter what the rose witch might claim.
"What we must remember when dealing with the Rijichou is that we are fighting the pitched battle. All he has to do is weather the storm. He will fight to maintain his kingdom. We are fighting to destroy it."
"If the chick cannot break out of its shell, then it will die without truly being born," Anthy hummed softly as the lights dimmed momentarily, outlining her in rose-hued light, "We are the chick, the world is our shell, and praise be to Abraxas for that."
Nemuro turned away, studying his own reflection in the mirror. Of course, she would sing the praises of Abraxas, but then, so had he, once upon a time. He had the key to his scriptures in his pocket as damning evidence. Revolution was just another way of spelling Eternity, after all, and hadn't that been what they had all wanted so desperately?
"I hope we did the right thing by leaving Tsuwabuki at the hall," Utena said thoughtfully, biting her lip as she did.
Ah, the good shepherd, always so careful of her errant little sheep.
"I'm sure that Cassandra-san will take care of him," he responded quietly, "The shadow players are still abroad at Ohtori, and that at least speaks well for us. Cassandra-san said that the rules are changing – perhaps they are still in transition. If the game is malleable we must make sure that the rules fall in such a way as to favor us."
"That doesn't sound very honorable, Professor," Utena reflected, chewing her lip thoughtfully.
"Onii-sama is not a very honorable person, Utena. I agree with Nemuro-san on this count," the rose witch spoke deliberately, but with a certain deference whenever she called Utena by name. They were back in the Kingdom now, Nemuro knew, and here more than ever Utena was the prince and victor and the witch was very respectful of that, "If we can influence the way this game is played to our benefit, then we should do so, but it will not be easy."
Rijichou's weakness is his overconfidence. He does not think it is
possible for someone to win against him playing a game that he
invented. We must use this to our advantage," Nemuro spoke
chillingly, smoothing his black leather gloves firm in between each
finger. He was in control now -- he knew is place now -- their
strategist -- provided Utena listened to his advice. It was
calming, and as he pushed his glasses up his nose, the world swam
into clarity and he began to build the post-revolution Kingdom for
them aloud, "But there are other powers at work in Ohtori, as
there have always been, and although these are lesser powers, they
must not be overlooked. There is a new Bride – Ohtori Kanae.
She will be utterly devoted to the Rijichou and with little will left
of her own. It is unclear if her assumption of the title Bride gives
her any powers other than her sacrifice. It is best not to press her
until such becomes clear. Do you have any insight into the subject,
They were at war council in the express elevator of their own Lucifer. It was time to hear what the witch thought. He extended her an open hand, giving her the limited floor of their war room, and she nodded, offering her own palms up in a swift gesture of truce. She opened her mouth to speak when suddenly the elevator shuddered and the cold iron railing that marked the front of the elevator shuddered apart and revealed the curtained silence of the student council's balcony. It was eerie. Nemuro had no idea that the express elevator had even been built to stop at floors other than the lobby and chairman's floor. There were no buttons on the inside control panel, just a telephone with no dial tone.
Anthy leaned forward into the yawning darkness of the open gate palms forward and eyes closed, as if questing for something, and as she did Nemuro felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle, and whipped around, but Utena was quicker than he was and already shouting for Anthy to get down because as they stared into the deep dark in front of them the mirror at their backs slid soundlessly open.
The blade sang through the air before he could react, before Utena could throw Anthy to the ground, but the witch did not seem disturbed. She gracefully sidestepped Utena's arm and caught the dagger with her open palm. Nemuro fought the urge to avert his eyes in reflexive abhorrence even as Utena watched in wide-eyed shock, slumped half against the iron gate.
Anthy calmly pulled the dagger out of the palm it had pierced like a half-remembered stigmata and dropped so that it clattered noisily at her feet. The sound seemed to hang in the air longer than was natural, and after it finally rang into stillness, she spoke clearly and with a hint of amusement in her voice.
"One dagger is a poor choice for killing a bride who has taken a million swords into herself. If you wish to play at adult games of intrigue and subterfuge, I suggest you choose your moves more carefully in the future."
The mirrored panel began to snap shut on its oiled runners, but Utena recovered herself and managed to wedge herself into the rapidly diminishing space and forcefully haul out the small figure who crouched there. She was all mulberry and black, like merlot on a burial shroud and Nemuro almost did not recognize her in the strange bastard child of of a duelist's uniform and flouncy little skirt, but then she rolled and crouched like a cat in the corner near him, eying the dagger that lay just out of her reach and just in Utena's kicking range.
The situation now under control, he folded his hands behind his back and raised an eyebrow and felt something resembling a sardonic smile creeping onto his face, "I believe I told you that you had no choice but to kill the Rose Bride at one point, Takatsuki-san, but this is really not the way to go about it. The way before you has not been prepared this time and I'm sure that the Rijichou will not be pleased to find that you made an attempt on his sister's life, no matter how ineffectual that attempt might be."
"Shiori-san!" Utena cried incredulously, finally placing a name with the pent up little creature who still glanced furtively at the dagger that lay two palm's breadths away from her hand. The impossible thing was that Utena still did not understand it, still did not understand her and persisted in asking the unfathomable, "Why?"
As if suddenly understanding her position, Shiori's eyes softened and widened in an enticing way, "But Tenjou-san, you heard him. The way before me has been prepared. I must kill the Rose Bride. I can't help it. I must do what I must."
Utena shot him a killing look and spit out her words as if she hated each one of them, "Your fault. You made her the way she is. You corrupted her! She's still confused, even now. She doesn't understand! Fix her!"
"She is the way she is because that is the who she is, Utena. I corrupted nothing. Confused? Not hardly. She knows exactly what she's doing," his retort was quick and sharp and almost as incredulous as Utena's had been. How could she not understand this? What this girl presented and who this girl actually was were two very different things. Why was this such a difficult concept for her?
stared at him hard and he refused to let her throw him down, to
debase himself as she required. He could be blamed for quite a few
of the sorrows of the Kingdom, but the character flaws of the whole
of the faceless stream of humanity was too large a burden to lay at
his feet, and he would not take it.
They were so engrossed in being coldly furious at each other over the head of this lost little lamb that neither of them reacted quickly enough when she lunged suddenly for her dagger. It was the witch who stepped forcefully on her hand before it crossed even half the space, and then pinned it surely to the ground with her weight.
Utena blinked at Anthy uncomprehendingly as the witch pointedly ignored Shiori's mewling as her heel ground efficiently into the back of her hand, leaving a stigmata of its own. Anthy smiled pleasantly and with the same empty joy that Nemuro had seen her often front her prince with and then asked politely,
"What shall we do with her, Utena?"
Utena crossed her arms and bowed her head so that her hair fully concealed her eyes. She stayed this way for several seconds before she looked again at Nemuro. She looked unsure, as if debating something, and in frustration he stripped the glove off his right hand and showed her the pale band of flesh around his ring finger. Her eyes widened as she came to a startling revelation and then they found what they sought on the Shiori's confined right hand – the white rose seal that signified a contract with the devil himself. Her signet was no longer black. Shiori had made her choice clearly. She was a duelist. Utena frowed with the barest touch of a kind of nameless sadness and then her features set emotionlessly and she nodded at Anthy.
"Let her go."
Anthy bent and retrieved the dagger that Shiori had thrown casually, and then gripped her head surely by the hair at the top of her head and forced her chin up. Nemuro thought for a moment that the witch might actually disobey a direct order from the prince and slit her would-be assassin from ear to ear, but the witch only smiled demurely and cut a pretty curl of hair from her head before easing the weight off of her hand and letting her scurry back to her corner quite without her dagger.
A twitch of a smile crossed Nemuro's face, but he spoke mirthlessly, "The game has not yet started, so Utena does not think it fair to take any pieces, no matter how open-handed they are offered. Consider yourself lucky, Takatsuki-san. When next we meet, the game will have already begun."
Anthy's eyes were glazed jade glass as she laughed easily, folding both the dagger and the lock of hair somewhere secret on her person, "Tread softly, Shiori-san, and remember that I have you."
Her gaze shifted from between them, but finally came to rest on Utena, soulful as a spaniel. Utena spared no expression and simply shook her head and Shiori was gone into the darkness of the curtained student council floor without another word. Nemuro stared after her, and wondered just who had orchestrated this move.
"For there are many lesser powers at Ohtori that should not be overlooked, and many games that go on behind the scenes," Anthy echoed his previous statement before falling into the melody of the song again, which had started softly at the moment she spoke.
I'll go my way. No turning back. Before the time comes For each of us to choose a different path I'll release the so precious, oh so precious memories.
The elevator shuddered again and the doors on either side of them slid firmly shut again and they began their second ascent. Utena shook her head and leaned up against the side mirror, which he assumed was relatively safe.
"She seemed so young."
"Ohtori is a garden where children do not grow up, Utena," the witch explained gently, and he was cursed with the familiar quality of her words. Had someone said them to him once? Perhaps in a dream. She continued, "Shiori-san is as we left her -- still sixteen years old."
He forcefully pulled the glove onto his bare hand, holding it firm with his teeth and once again was filled with a strange familiarity over the movement. He'd done this a long time ago, in another place – in another elevator – in another life. He caught Utena watching him rather openly and knew it was because she had seen him meticulously put on his gloves hundreds of times and never had he done so with the forceful jerk of his teeth. He ignored her attention and folded his hands behind his back again.
"But don't be fooled by appearances. Students at Ohtori are far older than they would seem," he was lecturing again, as if they were his new dutiful seminar, "We met ten years ago, but you were not fourteen. Perhaps you were never fourteen and I was never one and twenty. Perhaps that is why we are forever so."
"You are closer to truth than you realize, Nemuro-san," the witch smiled sweetly, and drew closer to Utena in a way that seemed instinctual. He made no comment. Utena had realized that she was staring at him and had turned away, blushing lightly and startled and changed the subject loudly and ham-handedly to try and distract herself and them from the moment.
"So! Where'd Chu Chu get off to? I haven't seen him in a while!"
It was not a statement that needed exclamations, but it got them, and he felt himself smiling at her despite himself, but the witch had caught her eye, and tossed her deep plum hair over her shoulders as she cryptically replied,
"He's seeing some old friends."
Bless that much at least. He was not expected to deal with awkward sexual tension in a crowded elevator while at the same time managing to keep the rodent off of his person. As far as he was concerned the rodent could stay busy with friends the entire time they were at Ohtori, even if that meant that Nemuro would not know what he was up to. Some comfort is worth the peace of mind that it costs.
When he actually turned back to their conversation he found Utena closely inspecting Anthy's hand. It was smooth and unmarred by any mark. The witch laughed teasingly at her prince.
"The Rose Bride has no blood. Mine all drained away a thousand years ago. I'm fine. I told you, a dagger can't kill a Bride who's taken a million swords," with those unfathomable words hanging in the air, she turned back to her song which climaxed unexpectedly.
Tatoe futari hanarebanare ni natte mo Watashi wa sekai wo kaeru
A hundred times on the drive to Ohtori and in the space of time since they'd arrived, a hundred times he'd imagined their entrance into the Rijichou's private chambers, played out all the possible scenarios, met all the grisly fates he could think of, and still nothing prepared him for the moment the elegant doors parted with a chime and his stomach seized up on itself. Utena apparently felt nothing of his unease because she did falter at all, simply balled her hands into fists and charged resolutely out of the elevator. Anthy she pulled behind her like a shadow, and he was left standing alone in the elevator. He stood stock still for two beats, watching them go, then heard the chime sound again and had to scramble awkwardly through the door as it almost closed on him. He would not let the Rijichou cut him off so easily.
The room was curiously dim. The Rijichou had shuttered all the windows and the only light came from a candelabra that stood in the middle of the room. He made it to the two winter white couches just in time to see the Rijichou stand, collar fetchingly open at the neck, arms wide almost as if to embrace them.
"I'm glad you -- "
Utena wasted no time and landed a left square under his jaw before he could even finish his first invitation. Somewhere deep inside Nemuro a dark sort of glee bubbled. This was something he had wanted to see for a long time, even if it was not necessarily the wisest way to play the game. The Rijichou reeled backwards as if Utena blow had really cost him, and he raised his arm defensively as if to ward off another blow.
"Now, there was no call for that."
"You're lucky I didn't kick you square in the groin to start out!" Utena spat, dander up and clearly ready to fight whatever war that the Rijichou required right then and there, "Here's a hint: that's what I'm going to do next."
Akio clearly did not doubt her resolve, and hopped backward over a couch, presumably to put some cover between himself and Utena's more than capable feet.
"Come now, Utena, you didn't come back here just to beat me senseless, did you?"
She advanced mercilessly, "Oh, I didn't?!"
Suddenly he stopped retreating at the edge of the flickering candlelight and smiled in a way that chilled Nemuro's soul. He spread his arms wide and the whole building seemed to shudder as the shuttered windows jolted open, drowned the room in sunlight and laid bare all there was to see.
He chuckled, "No, you did not."
And there, standing behind him were perhaps a dozen people, all staring at Utena with deep, cold eyes as if they hoped to bore through her soul. He moved to support her, but his attention was drawn to his immediate left, where a ghost in deep plum velvet skirted him to attend her king.
She was as he had said, barely herself and almost entirely the Bride, her eyes the same verdant green that seemed to stare so aimlessly. Her dress was not the red-dyed-with-her-own-blood that the witch's had been, but instead a deep violet faintly ghosted with red. Her trappings and thorny golden crown were the same, marking her as the lamb, the sacrifice that all those behind her burnt every time the ascended the stairs to heaven and dueled in a field of illusions. She tilted her head as she leaned close to Akio who put a protective arm around her. Her voice when it came was breathy and barely there, like a memory of something that has come and passed away, and he felt himself falling into her, and into the deep scent of roses.
"Welcome ho -- "
But Anthy had transposed herself between this new Bride and her prince before she could finish speaking. As she spoke, he found himself again and moved to stand behind Utena, although whether to help bear her up against the silent gaze of all of those who stood against her or seek shelter from Kanae's inviting abyss, he could not say.
"Call her down, Onii-sama. That will not work."
The Rijichou quirked an eyebrow, and his self satisfied smile made no attempt to leave his face, "As you wish, Anthy."
Kanae withdrew without a word and went to sit quietly behind them on the couch. Nemuro did not like the idea of her at their backs, but the witch seemed unconcerned with it, so he tried to follow her example. Utena had remained motionless this entire time, and Nemuro suddenly realized it was because she had frozen against the shock of a cold and vicious stare that came from the center of the group of duelists.
"Wa-ka-ba," she whispered, and a tear forced itself out of her eye. He brushed it away under the pretense of squeezing her shoulder to keep the Rijichou from seeing exactly how effective his strategy was.
Perhaps he did not need to see, because he raised his hands and one by one the duelists filed out an obscure door behind them. Where it led, he had no idea, but as they left the tension in the air thinned. The onion princess who had once been one of his purest pupils left last, thrusting her naked sword in the ground before calling Kanae sharply to her. When they had gone, Utena almost slumped against him before rocking her weight on her feet again and wheeling to face the master puppeteer.
"Have you calmed down a bit then, Utena? Your passion is charming, but inconvenient at the present time. Shall we discuss this as two adults now?" he extended his hand graciously, and as he did he just for a moment glanced at Nemuro, who still stood with his hand on Utena's shoulder and Nemuro felt the dream question ring in his head hard like monastery bells chiming out vespers.
"Have you ever wondered what it would have been like, Nemuro-san, if you had been the champion?"
And he almost lost himself in scent of roses and the sharp taste of sweat and the feel of a firm muscled body under his own, lost himself against the sea of roses, violet and palest of green and silver-spun lavender that was the same color as his own Mamiya's hair, Mamiya who had danced the waltz of death with him, Mamiya who had never deserted him, never deserted him because he'd never been there in the first place, standing alone, hot wax dripping from his own hand. Professor Nemuro in the Conservatory with the Candlestick. But Utena was still under his hand, and in the rough fabric of her old t-shirt he found purchase against the avalanche of scent and imagery and his fingers bit so hard into her shoulder that he thought they might break and the room swarm into focus again, his smoky-gray colored world, and Utena elbowed him in the gut and muttered close in his ear.
"Professor, knock it off. That hurts."
He loosened his hand as ordered, and after a moment was able to step away, free standing as the witch was, and together they formed a triangle with Utena at point.
"What do you say, Utena?" the Rijichou was silky, sweet and sinister, promising and baiting her in a way that made Nemuro's fingers bite into his hands. He knew the nails would have drawn blood by now and blessed his presence of mind to wear gloves. He kept his face as dispassionate as possible and waited for Utena to speak. In the end, it all came down to this, and Utena's voice was curiously soft and terrible as she spoke, a tremor that seemed to shake the foundations of the universe
"I challenge Ohtori. I do not challenge you. I challenge your system. I will tear it down with my own hands if I have to. I will tear you down. I will set them free."
"You will duel with me again, then?" he asked amusedly, steepling his fingers.
"I did not challenge you to a duel," she said simply, hands lose at her sides and as she stood, firm and unyielding against all the dark prince revealed to her, Nemuro would have followed her into the very mouth of hell – and perhaps he was even now, "I declared a war."
The morning-star threw his head back and laughed openly, and with much merriment.
"As you would have it, my lady. You have requested a war, so we shall have one. You shall have one night to prepare and we shall stage our first battle," he threw an open gesture at the projector that still dominated the room and backed him like a silent partner, "Provided you don't find dueling among shadows and illusions stifling."
"There is truth even in shadow," she spoke sharply, and with a cold fury that Nemuro had not heard since she had nearly killed him in his own kitchen. Perhaps this once his prince stood to defend him as well as her princess. As he stood, backing her fierce beauty as best he could, he finally found his voice in the cavernous room.
"And there is wisdom in darkness as well as in light."
From the corner of his eye he saw the witch exchange a solitary look with the Rijichou over Utena's head before opening her arms and muttering swiftly and softly under her breath. As the room swarm around him and blurred like a spilled drink over watercolor, the last thing he knew tangibly was the Rijichou's laugh.
To be continued in Chapter Seven.